September 1: Feast day of Saint Giles, abbot.
Miracles: Cured heart failure of an aged neighbor and inflated Jeremy’s bicycle tire with my heart.
Today is the feast of Saint Giles, who for years knelt in the mud near the gaping mouth of the Rhône River with no bed, not even a tar roof to shield his head (for the roof also shelters one from God’s love). Such luxuries — a bed, this roof — constantly attack me, however. My parents close their ears if I speak of tearing away a part of their home so I can better see the sky and God. So I removed my bedroom window screens. I kept the windows broadly open through the summer, letting torrents of mosquitoes enter, and rain. I took off the window dressings too, so at least Saint Giles and I can share a lack of blinds, no cover for the window or my heart. Every morning the sun smacks me awake, and then I kneel on the wood floor as my parents rustle about. My father turns the kitchen faucet on and off and puts apples in his briefcase. My mother curses her nylons. Her light tap on my door: “Leave the house today, OK? And no faux crucifixions.” I hear her stumble, as always, on her right ankle, the weak one, after the screen door bounces shut. Women, she believes, must wear stiletto heels or risk becoming too holy.
Most windows in this house face an empty backyard, just a rectangle of dying sod, crab grass, and wild mint. God pushed over our final Bartlett pear tree with a storm last July because my parents had vowed never to enter a church again. The desert fathers must have seen a similar bareness near Antioch, where they built pillars up to the sky and climbed them, and thousands lined up in the dry heat to hear the perched and bearded men speak. People left these holy men alone to pray, no talk of résumés or job searches or “You’re twenty-two and wasting your life in the room where you grew up.” I’ve considered a modest pillar, ten feet high, in our backyard. But my parents claim they’d bring me no water. Without liquids I’d dehydrate too quickly, not allowing God the time to notice how much closer I had moved toward him. And the neighbors in back would complain: “Why’d we build a damn privacy fence if your daughter planned on towering above us anyway?” They’re atheists who make certain, especially on Sundays, to open all their blinds and lounge around the house in bathrobes that barely tie shut, their backs and fronts pressed up against every window.
On the walls my mother has hung photograph after family photograph, a whole vain army of us, mostly vacation pictures taken before I was twelve: the three of us near the ocean, our scrawny, sand-bitten legs indecent and shivering. We went in the wrong season because hotel rooms were cheaper. I flip the pictures to face the walls. The next day they’re turned back around. “You weren’t always like this,” says my mother, touching my prom picture, where my date clutches my side as if trying to sink his fingers into me. My mother and I picked out my prom dress together. She was so pleased about my first formal that she drove me to a fancy boutique where customers register their dresses so no one else can buy the same one. In the dressing room, she kept grasping both my shoulders as if she couldn’t believe I had two shoulders.
“It’s not like we get to see them often, Alice,” she said when I complained. “You have lovely skin. You have my skin.”
She helped me pick out a royal purple taffeta dress with ruffles. She bought me my first pair of heels, which the store dyed to match the dress. And I gave in, tempted by an opulent purple and my mother’s painted nails, which might as well have been ten devils dancing on my skin. “We didn’t think you would ever date,” she said in the car, refusing to start the engine until I’d buckled myself in.
I drove that car to the prom, and Margaret and her date squeezed against each other in the back seat, though there was plenty of room. Margaret looked like a little ivory goddess in her silk. I didn’t dare touch her. I wanted to look at the curls that hung below her neck, and then look at her neck and the light hairs on her neck. And I wanted her to look at my neck too, and the bottoms of my ears where they curved, and I would look inside her ears, and at the knuckles on her hand, the crosses in her dried skin.
But God did not visit me through Margaret, and who am I to question that? His ways are mysterious and I don’t understand them. Was my fixing Jeremy’s flat tire this morning a divine act? Other saints must have also started slowly, clearing dust off a parent’s foot with their tears, or rearranging pebbles into a cross with a slight lift of their smallest finger. I like to think God blew the beer bottle’s green glass a thousand miles to this suburban sidewalk, where it had no right to be. And Jeremy, ten years old with dirt always around his eyes, was gently guided to ride his bike right over that glass until he heard the sudden pop and hiss of a tire torn by divinity. He didn’t even have to ring the doorbell. I could sense something was amiss by the way the air in my bedroom cooled and then filled with a scent of motor oil. I used my five-year-old patch kit, a remnant from when I rode for hours into the hills to seek something like God in the way the clouds clotted or the road twisted, foolishly forgetting that God was already in my heart. Jeremy, I hope, is a changed child. No longer will I see him smash the Taylors’ mailbox with a baseball bat. Lord, let me believe that Jeremy has been touched, his soul, like his bike, patched by my healing hands.
My second miracle this afternoon: I walked barefoot down the driveway in search of glass to bloody both my feet. Our next-door neighbor Mr. Kramer, who never opens his drapes, was sprawled out on the sidewalk, wheezing, his cane in the gutter beside the broken beer bottle. I hurried to return the cane to his hands. “Are you OK? Do you need me to call an ambulance?”
He coughed three times — that holy number — then gave his gray head a shake. “Just help me up.”
And I raised him up, lifting him with my strength and God’s. Though tottering to both sides, he waved away any talk of doctors. “Doctors, ha!” he cried as he hobbled up the concrete steps into his home and slammed the door against this disappointing world. I understood. Last month my mother suggested again that I see our physician — “Your feet look infected, Alice. You can barely walk!” — and I spit on the floor near her shoes. Let God alone heal us.
September 4: Feast day of Saint Rosalia, virgin, hermitess.
Miracles: Helped an aging woman retie her shoe near my mailbox using only my breath.
Today was someone’s birthday, and my feet were leaving faint bloody prints all over the kitchen linoleum. My mother gasped when she saw them, as if this were unusual.
“Oh, God, Alice, don’t step on the carpeting! It’s just been cleaned.”
Too late. She rushed me to the bathroom and sat me down on top of the toilet as she pulled out the hydrogen peroxide, which foamed and stung on the tiny cuts. I didn’t want to be bandaged. I didn’t think saints cared to stave off infection. Saint Francis never tried to cure his stigmata but I had no choice; my mother’s firm arms kept me seated as she cut out neat squares of gauze and taped them to my skin.
I walked back into the kitchen on my bandaged feet to look for crackers.
“Don’t eat with us,” my father said.
He kept carving the roast until nothing was left on the bloody platter except a pile of thinly sliced meat. On the counter behind him was his cake, constrained in a sheaf of plastic, his token birthday candles scattered across the top. My mother, on her knees, poured club soda over my heel prints in the carpeting. Did they think saints were only about prettiness and flowers?
“In the Catholic Church, we celebrate the day saints die,” I told my parents, “not the day they’re born.”
“I know,” my father said. “We’re Catholic, Alice.”
“She doesn’t even clean up her own blood. . . .”
I shut the door to my bedroom and tore off the bandages. The life of a saint is lonely. Saint Rosalia, forever a virgin, lived in a Sicilian cave in Bivona and later in a different cave on Monte Pellegrino. Imagine the views! Lovers are drawn there from all over the world because of the ocean, and then the flat rock, and then the mountain bursting from the ground like the wrath of God. Newlyweds sail there to become sunburned and act as if there is only one passion, between a man and a woman naked in a small bed; as if there can be no passion with God. Just once did Saint Rosalia look outside her cave at night, when it was raining. What could she see? A dark storm pelting rock. Her skin was the color of bleached flour and grew lighter the longer she knelt in the shadows. She wrote only one sentence in her life and that sentence was meant for no one. She wrote it on her cave wall. It proclaimed her love for the Lord.
My kindergarten teacher told me I could be anything. “Alice, you can be anything,” Mrs. O’Connor said, crouching down to my height, her hair springing around her head like a halo. I wanted a halo, but my hair was as thin as a grandmother’s and clung to my scalp. “What do you want to be?” she asked me, as my classmates squirted apple juice through tiny straws onto each other’s desks.
“I want to be like Saint Thérèse,” I said.
Mrs. O’Connor squeezed my hand and rose like an angel with a gentle rustle of cloth. Deftly she swept up all the spilled juice with one of the school’s brown paper towels that never before could absorb a drop. This paper towel, though, could have sucked up all the water in the world. That was my first miracle, simple and domestic, appropriate for a girl of five with weak hair.
But one day a strand of my hair encased in a jeweled reliquary will mend the hearts of a thousand overweight men and soothe the arthritic knees of senior citizens who slide markers across bingo cards. At an art museum, I once saw the cross-shaped vessel that cradled Saint John the Baptist’s thumb. I knelt down in front of his thumb and prayed until my mother ordered me to get up. When I tried not to hear her, she seized both my arms and dragged me, like a martyr, past the empty medieval armor and dull swords, toward the modern art, “where no one,” she muttered, “believes in God anymore.”
September 17: The Impression of the Stigmata of Saint Francis, confessor.
Miracles: None, though my hands are drier, suggesting cracking, and one bluebird sat chirping in a tree with many green leaves, as if trying to tell me something.
Please don’t interpret this record as an indication that I lack modesty. Rather I wish to provide documentation that my life was holy, that I deserve to be canonized, and that my grave must become a shrine where the devout will gather with wheelchairs and crutches to hold candlelight vigils, chant in fourteen different languages, and pray for a disembodied me, in full glory and shining robes, to come and heal their hearts. Because after abandoning my body, this earthly inconvenience, I will grow in reputation as the patron saint of heartache. The little saint books that teenagers will carry in their pockets to my burial site will allude to my cracked heart, my piecemeal heart, my heart a mess of dust blowing around in my hands until I lifted my hands to God, the only one who could mend me. At my shrine, girls will light lines of raspberry-colored candles and confide their struggles with love — the saccharine, lovesick girls! They will keep me company as I stitch the ever-expanding holes in their hearts with an embroidery needle entrusted to me by God.
Almost eight hundred years ago today, Saint Francis received the wounds of Christ. In a made-for-TV movie I once saw, the camera zoomed in on his face to show him wince with pain. The directors wanted to make it clear that he climbed up Mount La Verna a mortal man and stumbled down a crucified saint. The modest Saint Francis kept his hands hidden, his feet covered. The stigmata, unhealed, bled for two years until his death. This morning I held a razor to my hand and wondered, If I cut one palm open, would God make up the difference?
That time I really bled, it wasn’t divine. It just hurt. I don’t think we even had sex. Both of us were sore afterwards. “You’re so fucking bloody,” he cried, as if I could help it. He grabbed his suit coat from the back seat of the car and slammed the door so hard behind him that I trembled. It was my parents’ car. Neither of us thought to use a towel. I didn’t know how to get back home from that parking garage lit with fluorescent lights that shone until the whole world was yellowed and ugly. That was prom night, the last time I was touched by a tongue as pointed as the devil’s.
I read today in the paper, which I sometimes skim, about a woman in Skaneateles who claims that the Virgin Mary speaks to her in the town’s small grotto. Conveniently, she first heard the Virgin during July, the height of the tourist season, when a thousand well-waxed cars cruise into town, driven by adulterous women who wear sunglasses and capri pants that show off their cleanshaven ankles. Why would the Virgin Mary choose the Skaneateles woman instead of me? Does she have more sorrowful eyes? I can pray. I can build a shrine topped with my grandmother’s Virgin Mary statue who waits in our garage, her base clotted with garden dirt. It’s a pretty statue, her head wrap lightened to a faint blue from all the years in the sun next to my grandmother’s tomato plants. Saint Francis had watched over the lettuce, but in the chaos following my grandmother’s death he was sold at a garage sale for a quarter — “to a holy-looking couple,” my mother whispered with a wink.
October 3: Feast day of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
Miracles: A hundred or more miracles that someone else performed nearly suffocated me. Perhaps it would have been better had I stopped breathing.
I wanted to arrive early to the grotto, to get the best view of the Blessed Virgin, but cars were parked bumper to bumper on every side street, exhausting all the parking spots. At first my mother was happy that I’d be driving around the Finger Lakes in autumn. “Look up at all the leaves! Notice the maples, Alice. They’re lovely. And maybe —” she smiled — “maybe I should even come with you. I’ll drive. You’d have an easier time looking out the window.” She wiped the counter with a wet rag and hummed a song I didn’t know.
“I’d rather go alone.”
“Of course,” she said. “Of course.”
My parents’ car was too big to slip into the spaces left by the other cars. So I parked at a golf course on the edge of town and was out of breath by the time I finally reached the grotto. It was filled with pilgrims, several hundred of them, resting in lawn chairs and clutching sandwiches wrapped in foil, wool blankets tucked neatly around their legs.
I shoved my way into the crowd and bruised my shins on someone’s wheelchair. Practically everyone, even the children, grasped rosaries and stared toward where they hoped heaven would appear. A group of nuns began to sing Ave Maria, and the song gradually gained followers until we were all singing, even me, though I never had a church voice. Was this miracle woman a singing angel? Would she have a better voice than me? I sang out anyway until she appeared at the front of the crowd, and all those who’d been sitting in lawn chairs stood. A priest walked beside her, to shelter her from us with his expansive shoulders. She was dressed for mourning: black pants, black blouse, a man’s black leather jacket. (Her husband’s? Or some illicit lover’s?) I noted how she kept her head tilted down as if to study the grass. Humility. A nice touch. She knelt in front of the Virgin statue, which lacked color. The priest rested his arm on her shoulder. She leaned back, open palms lifted as if to catch something from the sky.
We quieted. Or at least most of us quieted. Those in back, unable to see, threw themselves into another round of Ave Maria. They couldn’t get enough of that song! Minutes passed. Her arms drooped. She twisted toward the priest. After a moment of whispering, he turned to us to explain: “The Blessed Virgin Mary thanks her believers. She wishes for peace in the world. She sends words of love to all of you.”
Such rejoicing! A woman sobbed, her face a wild smear of mascara and tears as she thrust her rosary beads up. “Look!” she cried. Her hands trembled. “These were silver. And now —”
Speechless, she shook the beads close to my face. She was right, of course — gold and gleaming, and I closed my eyes because her stunning rosary was like the eclipsed sun: a wonder that could damage. A miracle. Right beside me. I clutched my blue plastic rosary tighter.
“Roses!” someone shouted from behind me. “That scent. It’s the Virgin. Praise God.”
Do you need more help to picture this? I smelled no roses. The rosary that failed me wilted in my hands as I spun around to face the crowd, where a hundred miracles arose to suffocate me: old men weeping into their wrinkles as if they’d touched God; children’s faces flushed as if on fire; the hearts of simple strangers levitating outside their shirts. The crowd exploded into yet another round of Ave Maria, as if no other song existed in this world, and I felt ready to burst into a billion pieces that would be flattened under the soles of the chosen. The words to that song escaped me, and like some foolish girl who had never colored in the picture of Christ with crayons at Sunday school, I hummed along, a plastic rosary in my fist.
Today is Saint Thérèse’s day, meaning that a few decades ago today she died at twenty-four from tuberculosis. She possessed a halo in her crib. I have nothing else to say about her other than that she behaved well during her lifetime, she was miraculous and holy, and now she’s dead.
October 7: The day of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Miracles: Cured Mother of dehydration headache. While she napped, I placed my hands over her head and envisioned oceans of water. Eventually she’ll be grateful to have a holy daughter in her house.
Margaret called while I was in the garage searching through my father’s scrap plywood for the perfect pieces to form the base of the shrine. My mom brought the phone into the garage and made a big deal of shielding her eyes with her hands: “Don’t worry! I’m not looking! I’ll be surprised! I won’t look!”
Margaret and I met in Sunday school when her parents and mine still attended church together. She grew incredibly complicated roses that won her blue ribbons at 4-H fairs: tissue-thin petals circling around and around the flower’s center. No one understood how this girl could grow such flowers, so people flocked to her as if she were some flower herself and they were bees stupid with spring nectar. I stood at the other end of the room, clutching my white ribbon and my plate of oatmeal cookies.
I spent entire summers at Margaret’s house. Her above-ground pool contained the most pure, most chlorinated water on the planet. If we spent enough hours in that pool, the sky turned purple, a mini-miracle. Once, after floating on our backs for almost the entire day, we sat at the picnic table, watched a tiny television set flicker, and held hands. When the show ended, Margaret acted surprised to look down and see our fingers in the same place, as if they hadn’t been there for half an hour. “Oh, my God, what was that about?” she said and laughed. With a few shakes of her arm, we were untangled. Then we lay down on the concrete patio to see whose shoulders would blister first in the sun. She won.
And later Margaret’s prom date found her and God found me. She married, then divorced within a year. She sold their carpeted townhouse and moved back to her parents’ home. When I asked where her wedding ring was, she asked me the same question.
“What are you doing, Alice?” Margaret said to me now on the phone. “Your mom says you’ve moved into the garage and you’re sleeping with a hammer.”
“I’m building something for the Virgin Mary,” I explained. “You’ll have to come over when I’m done.” Margaret hadn’t visited for three months because the last time she had, I’d knelt on the floor and insisted that she kneel next to me. There was room on the floor, of course, but not in her heart. I told this to the back of her head as she shut my door behind her. I miss seeing her. Trees swoon when she walks by. Their branches bow down around her tiny, pedicured feet.
“I’m really sick,” she said. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“Do you know what day it is?” I asked.
“One month after I started chemotherapy?”
“Today’s the feast of the Most Holy Rosary. This is good; this is really good.”
“Don’t go crazy on me, Alice.”
“Great things happen on this day. The ends of wars. Huge naval battles.”
“It’s stage three already.”
“Do you have a rosary?”
I heard the dial tone in my ear, endlessly humming.
October 15: Feast day of Saint Teresa, virgin.
Miracles: No need for the insignificant. I’m preparing for my big miracle, the one that artists will illustrate in the book of saints: my head surrounded by a halo of light while Margaret waits in my shadow, though the glow that hovers around me will partially illuminate her too.
For the last week, I have built the shrine in my parents’ garage: no heat, no gloves, my hands cracking open to better let my soul through. I appreciated the hurt, including the hammer blow on my thumb that stained half my nail black. This is how God communicates best — through the slow destruction of the body.
The finished shrine sits on the front lawn next to a patch of lava rocks. As I carried the wooden table to its place of resting, I so badly wanted a procession of altar boys thrusting ornate crosses toward the sky and the sweet smell of frankincense drifting. My mother wanted the shrine in the backyard, where there’s more space — and a tall fence. I told her shrines must be public; that’s the point.
The Virgin Mary rests on a white lace doily crocheted by my deceased grandmother. Can you picture this under a blue sky? The Virgin stationed upon layers of the dead: the dead lace, the dead leaves that represent mortality. I put two dozen silk roses at her feet and around that, in large circles, thirty votive candles. If these candles start a conflagration, then I say, Amen. Imagine a house that disappeared in flames because of a shrine to the Virgin — such cleansing punishment, and then forgiveness when rosebushes burst from my home’s ashes even if the calendar claimed it was winter.
To ensure that the Virgin would not miss this shrine’s purpose, I placed underneath her base a wallet-sized photo of Margaret: her black-and-white high-school portrait where she leans against the same wooden post that every person in our class leaned against, her arms stubbornly crossed, her head tilted so that her ear nearly rests on her shoulder, as if she’s trying to overhear her heart.
Now my praying begins. The timing is good: about five hundred years ago today, Saint Teresa, twelve years old, threw herself before a statue of the Blessed Virgin somewhere in Spain and asked the Virgin to be her mother. Teresa went on to become holy and to reform many monasteries. So I did not settle gently in front of the shrine, as if on a blanket beside a picnic basket. I hurled myself at the ground and pressed my face into the leaves, which almost dissolved under my weight.
“Hey!” little Jeremy shouted from across the street. “What the hell is that?”
I had hoped for better from someone who’d been healed by my hands. I lifted my head from the ground. “This is a shrine,” I explained with the heavy patience of a saint. My prayers shimmered around me in the air.
“Freak! Freak! Freak!” he shouted and raced down the block on his bike, managing to lose control on the broken sidewalk. I got up, wiped the mottled leaves from my hands, and crossed the street to try to heal him again.
October 20: Feast day of Saint John Cantius, confessor.
Each day at dawn I pray before my shrine. My knees wear down the sod. My parents barely notice me when they open and shut their car doors. “ ’Bye,” my mom might say. My father hums nonchurch tunes loudly. They don’t realize this is only the beginning. Saint John walked four times from Poland to Rome and back in his bare feet and slept on pointed rocks until his skin wore away. Even I don’t know what God has in store for my body.
I don’t mention the shrine to Margaret. She doesn’t know about all those who have pulled over at the curb and touched my shoulder and lit a candle. (I have a quarter box, just like any church, to keep votives in good supply.) I tell my visitors how my friend’s hair once reached the middle of her back, how we once stroked each other’s hair and shared a brush, how her hair has now fallen out. I don’t care who these people pray for — I direct the candle flames to Margaret, who becomes better the more my bones ache. And once she is healed, once the tests show the cancer gone, doctors will stare down at their clipboards, heavy with charts and x-rays and whatever else they hold in their pitiful hands, and say to themselves, “This is highly unusual,” or, better yet, if they are faithful, “It’s a miracle!” Doctors and nurses will sing hallelujahs down the hospital halls. Then I will walk barefoot to Margaret’s home and bring a photograph of the shrine and let her know about my prayers. Perhaps around her sweet neck I’ll gently drape a rosary that she will never take off. When she pledges her life to God in some mountain convent, she will feel that cross with her fingertips every hour, every minute, and think of me.
November 1: All Saints’ Day.
“Alice, your statue’s gone.”
Had the Virgin suddenly gained use of her plaster legs? I rushed outside to look for the trail of footprints, as tiny as tears, that should have led away from the shrine. This would have made sense, since today is All Saints’ Day, when we make up for the shortcomings in our other 364 feast-day prayers. This miracle, this plaster Virgin Mary strolling through my neighborhood, would have meant that God had finally noticed my holiness.
But outside I found a mess of crushed wood cracked by someone’s boot — or a baseball bat. Which is how I figured out that little Jeremy, whom I’d twice saved, had taken his aluminum bat and his hard heart to this holy place that I’d carved out in the sod.
“Stop crying, Alice. We’ll get you another,” my mother said as we tossed into the trash the broken wood that gave us both splinters. She found the photograph of Margaret first. Or rather, part of the picture, the right half. Really the right upper half. Only her eye, in fact, and a bit of hand, a listening ear. The picture torn. My heart torn. And my prayers? Where are my prayers?
November 2: All Souls’ Day.
Today we pray for those who are waiting uncomfortably in purgatory. At dawn I knelt on the frost in front of no shrine and prayed for those I’ve known who’ve died — aunt, great-aunt, grandfather, two neighbors, the guinea pigs, the short-lived gerbils. I don’t know how prayers reach God, but I am certain that destroying a sacred shrine cannot be good for Jeremy’s soul. I hope God takes note of this.
November 6: Feast day of Saint Leonard, hermit.
Saint Leonard would have done a better job. Even when he lived in a forest four miles from Limoges; even when he ate only wild herbs, fruit, and dirt; even when he was silent; even when he was dead, he still granted miraculous favors to thousands of people in a small Bavarian town, curing their cows and chickens, which is more than I do here, surrounded by indoor plumbing and people who need help. Two days ago Margaret could barely speak. She kept dropping the phone. I made a joke. I told her how Jeremy’s father wanders around the neighborhood each morning in a leopard-print bathrobe, taking other people’s newspapers. She didn’t laugh.
Someone is slacking off here. Is it God? Is it me? Is it Jeremy? When he pedals down the street, he pretends not to see me clasp my hands for him in prayer, pretends there is nothing for him to do but glare at our neighbor’s station wagon, which has been parked in the same spot for five years. I bought another Virgin Mary statue from the garden-supply store and keep it in my closet on top of a step stool. Next to the statue is a plastic squeeze bottle of holy water that I sprinkle around the room, leaving teardrop shapes in the dust on the baseboards.
Still, failure: despite the step stool, despite the shrine, despite the fact that I have not cursed Jeremy but rather prayed for peace to flicker across the screen of the GameBoy that he often huddles over at the park. The Virgin, of course, misses her earlier shrine: the sunlight on her skin, and at night how the stars circled above her. Now all she has is an unwashed, unhappy me who kneels with my forehead pressed to the carpet until my body hurts as if it’s broken. Good, I hear her murmur, but how ordinary. Millions of people kneel.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” Margaret’s father said when I appeared on their front porch wearing four different rosaries. Behind him, the rooms looked like dusk: no lights except the one over their piano, a forty-watt bulb meant to illuminate sheet music, not an entire home. Then the kitchen, where the refrigerator buzzed as if nothing were wrong. And beyond the kitchen a hallway with three closed doors. And behind one door my friend, in bed, suffering. Her father’s eyes moved to the Bible in my arms and the rosaries looped around my neck, including my favorite rosary which glows in the dark; sometimes, in real blackness, the beads levitated like fireflies through my fingers. And he shut the door. I heard the click of the door handle, the slide of a deadbolt. The porch light switched off. I waited until the snow started — and not a pretty snow, not the soft kind that skiers love, but a snow made from cruelness that coated branches and windshields with ice. Hacking this ice off hurt. Cars slid, with no grace, into light poles, stop signs, each other. Trees cracked with their sudden new weight, and the snow continued to fall until the sidewalks, too, were coated, and everyone who was fragile slipped, then tumbled down.
November 21: Presentation of the Virgin Mary.
Margaret will not heal, so I returned today to the grotto in Skaneateles. With winter’s washed-out roads, few out-of-town pilgrims arrived. Thirty of us leaned against trees or crouched in the snow. Someone switched on a transistor radio that broadcast static-heavy gospel tunes. By 6 P.M. the sun had nearly deserted us. Finally the miracle woman appeared, tinier than I’d remembered — and she speaks for the Blessed Virgin! — a woman whose wrists wilt like flower stems. The priest stayed a step behind her as they walked from the church on a stone path that had been shoveled until it shone.
Her kneeling place was cleared of snow. She raised her arms. The Ave Maria was less rousing when sung by a few thin voices, even on the Blessed Virgin’s special day, when Mary’s parents pledged her to God in the cold, stone temple. That’s when the whole ball started rolling, the whole holy ball that flattened many things, almost the entire earth.
After ten minutes, the miracle woman’s palms closed.
“The Virgin Mary sends her love and grace to all of you,” the priest whispered, as if sharing a secret. “She asks that you pray for sinners through the rosary.”
“Can you smell roses?” an older man who steadied himself on his cane asked me. I smelled nothing and strode toward the miracle woman, who was thanking a group of nuns for a rosary, her hair damp and tired.
“Please, let me speak to you.” I touched her arm. Her leather jacket felt warm.
The priest stared at my hand on her coat. Snow had made his black suit a distracting mess. “Thank you for your prayers, but it’s late,” he explained, leading the miracle woman by her elbow back toward the church.
“I have a sick friend. She’s dying,” I blurted out. “This is her picture.” I freed my hand from my mitten to show them Margaret’s left ear, her listening ear, ready to hear any blessings they might fling through the air.
“Leave those requests at the rectory,” the priest said. The miracle woman looked up toward the branches, where squirrels hurled themselves from tree to tree.
“My friend is dying!”
“Show some faith, will you?”
“You’re nothing but a hoax,” I said.
“May God bless you in your pain.”
“Do you think statues speak to anyone? Why aren’t you listening to tree trunks, then? Why doesn’t the Virgin Mary speak through cement and rocks and windowpanes?”
They walked away, their heels snapping against the stones.
I knelt before the Virgin Mary. Should my eyes be open or closed? I kept them open and stared up at the statue, which was much taller than me. She seemed large enough to reach the sky on her marble legs alone. I prayed until my arms ached, until my heart ached, until I had sweated through my jacket. I prayed for the Virgin Mary to bleed one tear. She could even make a tree branch release the snow it held; that could be her tear. But her face remained white and clean and clear. My head was so empty, so without voices. I was the only one left in the grotto. I began to gather up all the snow falling from God so that this entire world wouldn’t be buried under its mad weight.
November 27: Feast day of Saint Maximus, bishop.
Yesterday Margaret’s father called. She’d died. So I called Stephen Nash, the reporter who has covered those “miracles” in Skaneateles, color photographs and everything: pretty blue sky, pretty miracle woman not grinning, the mysteriously bland Virgin statue in the background, obviously not talking.
“You know the miracles in Skaneateles?” I said. “They’re a hoax.”
“Who is this?”
“Go try to get the Virgin to talk to you. She won’t. She doesn’t talk to anyone. It’s a statue.”
“Who are you —”
“The miracle worker? She’s a drunk. That’s why she never talks. Her words would be slurred. And she’s not married. Her leather jacket is not her husband’s but her live-in Hell’s Angel boyfriend’s.”
He hung up on me.
What if I were to raise the dead like Saint Francis Xavier did all over Ceylon, India, and Japan, until the dead floated in the air like clouds and no one was lonely? Imagine, after Margaret’s obituary is written and published, if she could just come waltzing home, and the snow would stop, and tulips would push up from the ground in violent full bloom.
November 28: Feast day of Saint Catherine Laboure, virgin.
This morning my mother spoke through the door that I am never unlocking.
“Did you hear about Margaret Parson?”
The rustle of a newspaper, like whispers, like she knew Margaret wouldn’t have died if I had done what was right, such as: brought my heart full of her picture earlier to Skaneateles; stayed a virgin; prayed all night, every night; prayed under the stars; prayed to the stars. The newspaper rustled.
“I’ll cut her obituary out. The funeral’s tomorrow.”
By the time Saint Catherine was twenty-four years old, the Virgin Mary had spoken to her three times. The last two times were merely instructions on how to create the Miraculous Medal. And Saint Catherine had the Medal made exactly as the Virgin had instructed. And this was a miracle. And a whole lot of people died while the Virgin Mary was preoccupied with creating a pretty image of herself.
December 3: Feast day of Saint Francis Xavier, confessor.
Miracles: Cleared the driveway by picturing the Virgin Mary’s shadow overtaking all the snow and ice that had cemented itself to the concrete. We now have the purest driveway on the block. For this, I placed additional silk flowers at the Virgin’s plaster feet.
But Margaret wasn’t my miracle to have. I was not ready yet. I had not loved God hard enough and now my life stretches out in front of me like an empty highway. There is much work to do in memory of Margaret, whom I will think of every second along with God. I want my heart to wear a crown of thorns. I want to cry tears of blood like the Virgin Mary statues weeping in Italy. I want to shake Margaret’s soul awake and beg God to give her body back so my friend and I can walk together through the groves of heaven.
But before I can perform this greatest miracle, God must send me a sign, and he will send me a sign today, because I have made my hands bleed each night this week and I have faith. I pray for the dust behind my door to burst into flame, a burning bush that, rather than set this home on fire, will whisper, as Margaret whispered, but only to me. My quick intake of breath will bring my mother running into the room and she will see her daughter, finally God-chosen, finally radiant, like a wet stone scalded by the sun.