I had seen other purported miracles before, but it was hard to deny the resemblance in this one. The image stretched nearly to the top of the back wall of the cathedral, and contained all the requisite icons. The Blessed Virgin, The Child, and the halos encircling each of their heads. My first thought was that a group of students, late in the night, had painted her as a practical joke, but the visage was far too big, and painting such an enormous figure in a single night without alerting any of the nuns inside would have constituted a miracle in itself. Furthermore, there was no paint or dye of any kind on the wall. The colors seemed to have been imbued on the stone itself, and no amount of scrubbing removed or faded the holy image.
Lucia, a novice, was helpful. She was young, no more than sixteen years old, and possessed a subtle beauty in her face. She beamed when we were introduced, and emitted a joyousness at odds with the calm, cautious demeanor of the older sisters. The elder women in the convent did not strike me as fearful or apprehensive when I first met them, but in the face of Lucia's exuberance, I found myself reevaluating that position.
Lucia led me to one of the main prayer rooms in the cathedral. Light spilled in from the large entryway, but there were no windows in the room. Candles lined the walls, and adorned the pews, leading to a central podium beneath a painting of The Savior. On the podium sat a small, purple box, adorned with a single golden crucifix on the front. The top of the box sat open, hanging behind the large container on golden hinges. It was empty.
"Here it is," she said, announcing the object as if it was self-explanatory.
I picked up the box and examined it. The inside was coated with velvet, and the empty container seemed heavier than I would have expected.
"Try to close the box, Father."
I did as the girl suggested. To my surprise, the lid refused to move.
"The hinges must be stuck," I offered.
"I do not believe so, Father. I believe this box to be a miracle from God. We received this box two days ago, in the morning, at the entrance to our cathedral. I found it when I arrived to start my morning duties. It was closed when it arrived her, so I opened it. There was nothing inside, Father."
"That sounds like a donation, not a miracle, Sister Lucia."
"Yes, and that is what we thought. Sister Carilla, my mentor, agreed, as did the rest of the sisters. But when we attempted to close the box, we found it as you see it -- stuck. And then, yesterday morning, the Holy Madonna appeared on our great cathedral. Father, I believe God has blessed us, for some reason that I cannot guess."
After years of investigating miracles, I couldn't help but be skeptical. Lucia's story sounded not unlike others I had heard from small towns attempting to gain a boon by luring worshippers and tourists with a vague image of a saint. "Thank you for your words, Sister Lucia. You have helped greatly."
"Then you accept that this is message from God? It is truly a miracle?" Her eyes glowed brighter than the box's golden cross.
"I will stay here today, if your sisters have room for me. There are many rules and procedures for investigating holy occurrences, and it is impossible for me to tell what has happened here after only an hour's contemplation."
Lucia nodded, the fire from her face gone, for the time being.
My first day at the convent was informative. My second was worrying.
Lucia had woken with scratches running up and down her arms. The sisters gathered in a circle around Lucia. Some studied her wounds with the eye of a scholar. Others watched the girl herself for any giveaways about what had happened during the night. A few sobbed and wailed, fearing that the marks had been a punishment from God.
"Could it be stigmata, Father?"
The crowd of nuns parted to allow me to view the girl. "Stigmata wounds resemble the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, Lucia. Have you not learned this in your studies?"
"Of course, Father, I did not meant to imply that these are the wounds of our Savior. But I have heard of other wounds appearing, wounds that match those of saints." She presented her scoured arms to me. "Do you know of any wounds that this could resemble?"
I didn't, of course. Lucia's account of saintly wounds was purely fictional, as far as my knowledge went. But I humored the girl by examining her arms. I made special attention to view her fingernails. They held no blood, no skin. I pressed on one of Lucia's scratches, expecting the girl to cry out in pain. She did no such thing.
"They do not hurt, Father. It is a blessing, not a punishment. A mark of pride and humility."
"Father, Sister Ana Lucia will help you with any information you need. We will examine Novice Lucia and inform you of what we find."
They found nothing, other than the scratches. No blood in Lucia's room. No witnesses to anything strange during the night. No other wounds. My skepticism was being tested.
My second day was worrying. My third was horrifying.
Screams erupted now from outside the cathedral. At the wall where I had only two days before seen the Blessed Virgins, the sisters had fallen to the ground. Most of them were sobbing -- the ones who weren't had fainted. I turned my eyes to the wall, and let out my own cry. What had once been a beautiful homage to blessed Mary had been destroyed. Mary's son was no longer Jesus, but a twisted devil. The Virgin's eyes had been blotted and scratched in crimson, and started a trail of blood leading all the way down to the ground. Some of the nuns had dipped their fingers in the substance, and from the horrified looks on their faces, I could tell that it was not a trick.
We found Lucia kneeling in the prayer room, screaming of visions.Her hand grasped an ebony stiletto. Blood enveloped the blade, as well as her arm. When we entered, the girl turned to look it us. Deep, red pits resided where her eyes should have been. Dried gore lay in a stream down her face. She cried, but shed no tears.
"They will not stop, Father! They will not stop! I can see them! Please, make them stop!" She wailed, and thrust her finger out at the box. "Make it stop, Father! I beg you! Please, God, help me!"
The box was no longer empty. Lucia's excised eyes lay neatly upon the black velvet interior. I couldn't stop myself from edging my hands toward her eyes, from desperately wanting to place them back in her head. But the box would not allow it. As soon as my hand approached it, the lid snapped shut. I pried my fingernails under the lid, bending them back as I attempted in vain to reopen the box. It was too late. Lucia had fallen to the floor, and was now silent. Sister Ana Sofia, now weeping uncontrollably, shook her head as she cradled the poor girl in her arms.
The image on the wall was gone. I returned home and submitted my report. The miracle reported was a hoax perpetuated by a novice. The original eyewitness, Sister Ana Sofia, confirmed my account. I never visited the convent again. I did not tell anyone about Lucia's box, for fear that it would again, for any reason, be opened. The box stays where it is, buried. Undiscovered, undisturbed.