Swallow


It takes Pope John Paul II an hour to be driven the nine kilometers from La Basílica to the airport. It is the middle of July in Mexico City and the streets are boiling with people, people waving and clapping and crying and praying, people who seem to faint or fall in love with him whenever he meets their eyes. He knows this is not of his doing, not his power, but it is hard sometimes to separate the miracle worker from the Miracle Giver, the righter of wrongs from the Eliminator of Wrongs. He hopes the people see the difference, he hopes that he can, too. He prays for God to remind him that he’s only a man, a servant, a Pope but still a slave to Christ. He also prays that God doesn’t hear him, that God will not humble him just now as the people are cheering, as he furtively scans the trees to see if anyone has climbed them, desperate for a glimpse of him, heaven on Earth.

At the airport, the crowds funnel in after him. It is 2002 in the largest Catholic nation in the world. The crowds follow his path all the way to the tarmac where he is walking up a portable flight of stairs into the slim white body of a plane, not using the lift like he had before. His aides watch him and are nervous, but he is feeling confident about the herb brush. He knows he shouldn’t, but he cannot help but hope.

Just hours ago at La Basílica de Nuestra Senora Guadalupe, he beatified two indigenous men who had been martyred five centuries before. After he spoke, a traditional band performed, jumping and spinning under headdresses, singing in seven ancient languages that felt rich and earthy like baked plantains and jicama when the Pope imagined moving his tongue, his lips to say them. So different from Latin, so different from Italian and Polish. A woman, during the ceremony, brushed the Pope’s shoulders with herbs, the small green leaves rasping against the wide embroidered stitches of the indigenous stole he had been given to wear for the event. The herbs were supposed to cure illnesses, swat away evil spirits. It was purely ornamental and the Pope believed in The One True God, but the brush of herbs was the closest thing to hyssop he had ever seen, and it made him secretly wonder if it would work, would heal him. He had interceded for a woman in France once, miraculously curing her of Parkinson’s disease. He wondered if somehow, in the great cosmic mathematics of God and the universe, curing that woman hadn’t somehow meant the transference of her illness to him, some kind of substitutionary karma. The dancing in the Basílica was loud, the crowd drunk with the effervescence of the moment. They admired him. They adored him. He said, “I go, but I do not leave. Although I go, in my heart I remain,” lyrics from a song. They cheered. They sweat. They followed him to the airport where they flood the asphalt around the plane, chanting “Don’t go! Don’t go!”

The Pope’s translator for the trip meets him at the head of the white stairs at the hatch-like door of the plane. The Pope is sure the translator is impressed that he was able to climb the twenty-seven steps unaided. The translator wipes some panicked sweat from his lip and the Pope smirks, says a prayer of thanks to God for the herb brush.

He is sure God used the herbs, sure that the faithful have been praying for him. God works through mystery and science, through miracles and myths, and the Pope is sure the herb bundle is part of this, part of some divine plan to heal him so that he will be invincible, untouchable.

Just as he turns around and waves one last time, already feeling the cold air from the plane cabin cooling him through his thick white robes, a mariachi band gathers and starts playing the melancholy chords of a farewell song. The crowd simmers to a low, thoughtful heat. The translator helps the Pope turn around to see it, the Pope’s ankles suddenly numb. The trumpets cry in a mournful vibrato. The guitars sing with chords that hang heavy in the air like fruit. The crowd sings low and somber, waving scarves and tissues and paper in the air.


A donde irá veloz y fatigada

la golondrina que de aquí se va.

Por si en el viento se hallara extraviada

buscando abrigo y no lo encontrará.


Junto a mi pecho hallará su nido

en donde pueda la estación pasar.

También yo estoy en la región perdida

¡oh, cielo santo! y sin poder volar.


The Pope knows enough Italian to understand that they’re singing about leaving and losing, about a bird that flies away and maybe never comes back. He cries. He waves. He turns around in the guiding arms of the translator. Only a few cameramen will have been able to capture the dewdrops around his eyes. The crowd chants, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” but the white door of the plane closes between them.

The Pope half collapses in the translator’s arms. The translator helps him to a seat, brings a cup of water. The Pope cannot keep the cup steady with his hands. His hips feel like a brace of fire. The herb brush was just an herb brush. He takes a sip of water and the plane crawls forward, so simultaneously that, for a moment, he is convinced his sip has commanded the engines to move. He pinches his the palm of his hand, hard, as hard as he can. He orders himself in the name of God. His palm feels like nothing. There is a slight red mark in the middle. He watches the wing of the plane stretch over the crowd.

The translator is watching the Pope like he might watch someone beg outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. The airplane is released from the ground and the Pope as he jerks back and spills water down his robes says, “My God.”

The translator wonders if he should say something to the Pope about the third commandment and the fact that he’s just broken it. The Pope looks up at him, embarrassed, nervous, his face suddenly just a face, his body just a man’s body. The translator wonders at the humanity of this holiest person on Earth, this person closest to God. He brings the Pope more ice water, a few capsules of Amantadine, a long thin straw.  

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