This is a fictional account, based on the true-life experience of Saint Rita. She was born in Italy, suffered an abusive marriage and the loss of her two sons, and then joined the convent where she spent the rest of her days. Her sainthood was assured when one day she prayed to the Lord to ask if her suffering was equal to His own. "Miraculously" one of the thorns of the crucifix at the altar struck her forehead, giving her a permanent weeping wound for the rest of her life. She died in 1457.
Rita is smiling.
How can she not? God, too, is smiling, smiling down on Rita for her devotion and forbearance of all things. She is a testament to his enduring patience and sacrifice.
She is washing the blood off her face, and in her mind's eye she is transported back to that small inn near her home in Spoleto. When she had arrived knowing only her husband was not well, and seeing all of the blood-slickened sheets and the callousness with which the doctor shakes out the last of a bottle into her husband's gasping fishmouth, a bottle of the only medicine left when death comes calling.
"He has been stabbed, Signora. Many times. It was an argument over money, they said, a man in a brown coat, the guardsmen are looking everywhere. But your husband, Signora. He will not see tomorrow. I'm sorry."
Rita has already dropped to her knees, the rosary appears in her hands, and she is praying loudly, her prayer is a wail and an apology and at the same time a wish that it's all just a dream, not just the day but her whole life, that this test will be over soon and God will reward her for her injuries and her penitence. She grabs her husband's hand and he moans, and then she is leading him through his final prayers of forgiveness, and as he clutches her hand ever tighter, the blood rushes from it and in its whiteness he finds peace.
Rita is smiling, a single tear slipping down her cheek, mixing with her residue, a faint pink drop as it hits the basin. She tosses away the old bandages and begins the arduous process of placing the fresh ones on, one wrap at a time, their purpose not so much to hide the miraculous as to conceal it, for its revelation is as important as its display. When they come to see it, they must ask for permission, and though Rita always grants it, she always asks the same question to its admirers:
"Have you been washed in the blood of the Holy Spirit?"
Rita puts the finishing knot in her bandages and views her handiwork in the mirror. Already the faintest outline of a stain has begun to form at the crux of the cloth. This is not the first time Rita has seen this. Again, a flash of memory. Six months after the death of Francisco, and now Teodoro is dying of typhus. He whimpers aimlessly, lost adrift in unconscious death-before-death, in limbo. Rita is praying for him. Her left arm is bandaged, and it too oozes blood. A simple accident, carelessness while cleaning a hen at work, the third time since Francisco's death. Its pain a reminder of God's own limitless suffering and passion.
Rita looks over from her son's deathbad to the bed on the other side of the room, where Angelico sleeps. She thinks of Francisco sleeping, of Teodoro sleeping, and of the God who never sleeps. She, too, wants to sleep. She hears the church bells for midnight vespers and gets up to leave. As she does, Teodoro's nose begins to bleed once more, and so instead she sits back down and begins to clean his face. His fever is worsening. The doctor has done all he can.
Only Rita and God remain.
Rita is smiling, walking through the cloisters, out into the open air. The people there are waiting for her, and when they spy her, the rush to her, begging for advice, prayer, and of course a chance to witness the glorious miracle of her accident. They have already seen the Passion crucifix, the wine-tinged spatter on its lowest thorn, Rita's blood etched forever in the walls of Umbria. She listens to their stories one by one, unwrapping the bandage in the most deliberate manner, looking meek and humble and ever-so-kind. Finally, the bandage is removed, the blood is running down her forhead, between her eyes, past her nose. There is a gasp of recognition, her agony has become the agony of the world, an outward sign of all of the misery life can bestow, and yet in the face of it she is tranquil. She is nearing the end of her days, and already they speak of canon. She sits by the convent's cistern so that she may wash her face throughout the day. Today is particularly hot, and so she draws up the bucket to serve those who have come to see her.
The well, too, starts her journey through time. It is dusk, three weeks after Teodoro's funeral. Rita walks with young Angelico through the town, out to a small village to the east, using the fading tendrils of the sun to follow the path. There they stop at Rita's old home, where her parents had lived. The house where she had been married at 13 to Francisco, then a charmer, the son of a war hero in the battle with Trevi, who had taken her on secret trips into the armory, fordbidden desires unfolding within. Before the alcohol, and the women, and his endless rage. Before him God had been in her life, and she had abandoned him for this boy, but after she had come to her senses, never again.
Angelico grows tired, and Rita swoops him up as they walk through the old house, only a dim candle and the faint red glow of sunset providing assistance. Rita's parents had long since died. The house was abandoned - with Francisco's death it had been claimed by the state to pay off his debts, and had yet to be reapportioned. Finally, they arrive at the back of the house, to the well. Its bottom still wet, its source depleted. Rita sits down beside the well and peers in. She can barely make out the glint of a rusty stiletto, in the same place it had been for nearly seven months. The tatter of brown cloth laying next to it is hardly recognizable as the fine coat it had once been. The skeletons of two small rats sit silently, showing no signs of the typhus that had once ravaged their flesh.
Angelico is nearly sleeping now, and Rita is smiling, smiling at God's will so infinitely clear to her. She looks down at her scarred arm, and thinks of the life ahead, and what suffering awaits her, and she can only hope that when she too sleeps that her suffering will be equal to God's own. She softly wakes Angelico, takes him by the hand, and in her lightest voice, asks him what she already knows to be true:
"Have you been washed in the blood of the Holy Spirit?"