Friday, December 21, 2012


Here's a short story for the season we think of miracles, and the day we remember the Mayans:

In movies, people die with perfect timing. As soon as the point has been made, the message delivered or the secret confessed, the dying character, like a skilled orator, punctuates the moment with the grandest kind of exit.
Life is exponentially messier.

I lost my mom when I was thirty. She’d gotten hooked on cigarettes at ten, weed at thirteen. Quitting them both when she found out she was pregnant with me didn’t save her from dying of lung cancer at fifty-four.
When she was near the end, lying there in the hospital under comfort care, she looked at me and I saw her mouth form the shape of my name. I’d been standing at the foot of her bed, close enough for her to sense my presence, far enough away to give her and my sister some space, and when she said my name, my sister and I switched places.

In the strained and breathless whisper that was all the speech should manage, she said to me, “Look for miracles, Edward. They’re more common than you think.” And then she closed her eyes and exhaled one long, peaceful breath and was gone.

No, she didn’t, because my mom wasn’t just playing a role, she was dying. It took her three more days to die, three days of slow suffocation, three days of pointless pain that even the brain-killing doses of morphine couldn’t erase, three days of futility.

I don’t look for miracles, but they seem to have a way of finding me.

I’m an archaeologist, which means I dig up tragedies for a living. Sometimes it’s a battlefield or a cannibalistic dinner scene, sometimes a Viking outpost littered with the bones of those who froze to death.

This year it’s a mysteriously empty Mayan city with projects left halfway done, and no clues at all as to where the people went. Baskets show up half-woven, tools and utensils appear laid out ready for use. Animal bones abound, in the expected places, but we haven’t found a single human bone yet. It’s a running joke around the dig that the Mayans didn’t have a civilization, they had a TV show, and now they’re on a really long commercial break. Either that, or they’ve gone on strike.

I don’t actually speak Spanish, just a handful of phrases to help me get along if there’s no one handy to translate. Anyway, where our Mayan ruins are, most of the people don’t speak Spanish any better than I do. There’s a linguist I work with who studies the ruins and studies the local language, and looks for connections. But that’s her job and not mine, and I don’t worry about it. I took enough time away from my work to learn my broken, phrase-book Spanish; I have no desire to take away any more.

Miraglo: it’s the Spanish word for ‘miracle,’ and I swear I must hear it at least once a week. Every time an accident is avoided, every time the sun shines through the banana trees just right so the shadow of the leaves forms a frame around a revered object, every time a rainbow appears, it’s a miraglo.

So I am not surprised in the slightest when I’m sitting in the makeshift field lab with the new intern, Larissa, bringing her up to speed on the project and the dangers of wildlife and weather, the local culture and where the coffee is, and a cute little raven-haired boy bursts through the door without knocking and yells, “Miraglo!”

Larissa jumps and looks at me for direction. She’s the right age to be my daughter, and for some reason, of all the interns I’ve worked with over the years, this one piques my fatherly instincts more than any of them. Maybe I’m getting old. Or maybe subconsciously, Larissa reminds me of the daughter I’ve always wished for.

But enough of this self-psycho-analysis, I tell myself. I sigh and look at the little boy. I smile because it’s not his fault. His cherubic face is adorable in its sincerity: he is too young to doubt what his parents believe. I look at him and wonder what chance detail caused this particular interruption. A little girl who forgot where she was and nearly ran off the edge of a cliff, but managed to stop herself in time? An intoxicated old woman who fell asleep and woke up with a vision story? Sticks that fell into the shape of a cross? If I had to bet, I’d put my money on the soggy jungle weather. Last Thursday somebody noticed that condensation had formed on a painting, and we all had to stop our work to stand in line for a chance to observe the weeping saint (which none of us archaeologists actually saw, as the condensation burned off when the day warmed up, and we were set free to return to the dig).

“There’s been a slight adjustment to the schedule,” I say to Larissa. “Something has happened that the people are calling a miracle, and they’d consider it an insult to them and to God if we didn’t go and look at it. Make sure you’re duly impressed, too, because, trust me on this, nobody wants to get on these people’s bad side.”

Larissa nods “It’s understandable, really,” she replies philosophically. “We’re the outsiders, after all. It’s nice of them to even let us be here.”

“That’s about it,” I agree. “We’re the guests.”

We follow the little one out of the lab and along the narrow path to the village, Larissa first and then me, trying to watch for snakes underfoot and tarantulas spinning down from the canopy, trying to breathe in the steamy heat. The boy is naked, and even the adults of his people wear almost nothing. I think, for the thousandth time, that maybe they’re onto something: this climate is murderous and something has got to give. I tug on my grey cotton tee shirt, pulling it away from me as I jog along the path. It’s soaking wet already, at seven in the morning, and I’ve even cut the sleeves off and enlarged the neck. I long for a crisp October day with the teasing scent of first-snowfall hanging in the air. Then I look at Larissa, ahead of me. She wears a sports bra under her tank top: two layers and no room at all for air. I thank the universe I was born male, and decide to stop complaining.

This time, the miracle turns out to be a water-damage stain, on the ceiling of the church, of all places. With a little imagination, you can sort of see how it resembles a person: a head turned to one side, the half-profiled shape of a brow and nose and chin on the left, the smoother, rounder form of hair or perhaps a wimple on the right, and beyond that a sort of shapeless lump that could be taken for shoulders. To the villagers, it’s a portrait of Nuestra Dama, of Santa María; to me, it’s an expensive delay.

I glance at Larissa and she’s glowing, staring up at the stain, looking as transfixed as the villagers in the presence of the unsightly brown cumulous caused by a leaky roof. I wonder if I should start watching my tongue around her, if I need to protect her from my cynical irreverence: maybe she believes, and if so, it’s not my place to challenge that. Or maybe she’s just that good at looking ‘duly impressed.’ I find myself hoping it’s the experience that brings her joy. Her major is anthropology, after all, not archaeology. I imagine it’s moments like this one, sharing the awe of a communal religious experience with the people of an indigenous village, that bring anthropologists as close to heaven as anybody on earth can get.

But then, even our interruption is interrupted. This second interruption is heralded by another boy, an older boy this time, an awkward skinny pubescent boy with ragged hair and a grubby face, and this boy doesn’t say ‘miraglo.’

This boy says, “Médico,” doctor, and judging from the look on his face, someone is in a very bad way. I turn to look at Gary, the linguist’s post-doc who can run like a cheetah, to tell him to hurry and get the pathologist, but he’s already gone. Our very bored pathologist, who came here to study Mayan bones and try to figure out how their owners died, is currently out in the jungle looking for fallen coconuts with some local children. We’re lucky to have him: he manages to turn local ingredients into gourmet deserts using only the tools available in the camp kitchen, and he considers it fun. Speaking of miracles. And more to the point, he’s also a very good doctor for the living.

Photo: (Peter Le)
We leave the weather’s artwork to stare down from the ceiling in solitude, and let the scrawny boy lead us to the patient. He runs to a hut and goes inside, motioning us to follow, and we do.

Suddenly I think I’m back at the hospital again, looking at my mom. Lying in a hammock is a middle-aged woman and she’s obviously in a lot of pain. Her face doesn’t look the right color, either: it’s that sick color people call green, that doesn’t look the least bit green to me. And her eyes have that sunken, haunted look, like she’s had a fever for a while.

The villagers are all hoping for a miracle, crossing themselves and kneeling on the floor of the hut and muttering. And I hear the word ‘miraglo,’ over and over, like a refrain. They look so earnest as they try to communicate with my colleagues and me, telling us we must have “fe,” faith, that we must expect a miracle, that we could kill her with our doubt.

The linguist gets everyone’s attention and talks to the crowd, but not in Spanish. She must be telling them that Gary has gone to find the doctor.

I look at their faces and wish I could free them from their false hopes, loose them from the strain of second-guessing themselves, the guilt of wondering if their faith is too weak, the burden of suspecting that a neighbor’s doubt has prevented deliverance. I wish I could prove to them that it’s s science that can save this woman, if anything can.
Her suffering affects me deeply and I reach out. I wish I had the drugs with me that could lessen her pain, but all we can do is wait for Dr. Frankel for that. Maybe I can lend her strength, though, make her feel she’s not alone. I reach out gently with my right hand to touch the thin, wizened skin on the left side of her face, reach out gingerly to touch her cheekbone and temple.

My delicate touch becomes a rough shove as my hand and then my arm stiffen and then my whole body convulses. I stand there feeling my heart pound, feeling a rush of adrenalin that suits no useful purpose, not knowing if the loud buzzing sound I heard rang out through the air or sounded only in my own ears. I have no idea how or with what part of my body, but in the instant I touched her, I also managed to touch an electrical current. It felt like one-hundred-twenty-volt house current, but that makes no sense at all considering the hut isn’t even wired for electricity.

I could kill her, they said, with my doubt. And now I very possibly have killed her, not with doubt but by touching her while, somehow, also touching a live electrical current. It probably won’t make any difference to her family whether it was doubt or electricity: they’re both powerful forces we can’t see and don’t really understand much. Come to think of it, it doesn’t make any difference to me, either: if I’ve killed this poor woman, my career is over.

My career? Why am I worrying about my career? Like I told Larissa, nobody wants to get on these people’s bad side. Maybe if I’m lucky, they won’t drag it out too much.

I force myself to look at her again, to see if she’s alive or dead, to face up to what I’ve done. And I see her looking back at me, the pain and fever gone from her eyes, a tired smile on her toothless mouth. Maybe I’m hallucinating.

She says something in her language, and the scrawny boy repeats it, slowly, to the linguist, and the linguist says, “She’s saying thank you, and she’s asking for food.” A sort of cheer goes up, sincere but not too spontaneous, as both the villagers and my colleagues have been keeping quiet until the translation is over.

Larissa throws her arms around me, around my arms, even, gives me a quick, tight squeeze and lets go again. “You did it, Jefe,” she says. “I didn’t think you’d do it, but you did. You let yourself be the agent of a miracle.”

I look at her eyes and try to see what she’s thinking. Does she mean what she’s saying or is she acting for the sake of the villagers? Is she trying to give me some sort of message? Of course, it’s also very possible that I’m trying to read too much into this, and she’s just a young anthropologist, joining the party, enjoying the moment. “I thought I’d killed her,” I confess.

“I thought we’d lost both of you for a second, there,” she says. “What happened?”

“You know, I really don’t even have a clue.”

“Seriously?” she asks, piercing me with her eyes. “You didn’t plan this?”

“Swear to God,” I answer.

“I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“Yeah, I didn’t believe in miraculous healings, either.”

The people are all talking at once now, some in halting Spanish, some in their own language, and I can’t isolate a single sentence from the noise. But there’s one word I hear over and over, like a refrain: “miraglo.”

The crowd parts and Dr. Frankel comes in with Gary on his heels. “Que pasó?” he asks. What happened?

“Miraglo,” a dozen voices answer at once.

“She seemed quite sick when we got here,” I say lamely.

“Who seemed sick?” Dr. Frankel asks, looking confused.

“La Señora in the hammock,” Larissa explains. “Edward healed her.”

Dr. Frankel watches the woman, toothless, wrinkled and happy, eating in her hammock. He looks even more confused than before.

“Well,” I say, “I don’t - something happened; we don’t know what yet.”

Larissa turns and gives me that piercing look again and asks, “You really don’t remember, do you?”

“Remember what?” I reply.

She answers with another question. “Do I look, at all, familiar to you?”

“Familiar?” I say, and give the word a moment to make its full impression on my mind before deciding. “Maybe not quite familiar,” I say honestly. “It’s more like…maybe you just remind me of someone.”

She nods, knowingly. “This isn’t the first time you’ve healed someone.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Miracle is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Miracle, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

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