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The Miracle

The car sped through the silent landscape. Sugar fields on all sides, water buffaloes standing in mud, naked children splashing in a stagnant pond. Clusters of young men were working the fields, their damp T-shirts rolled over their nipples. Arturo stared at the disappearing landscape, imagining a time when all this would be his. He glanced at the blue sky, aware of Pilar's body next to his. How many more days, how many more nights of this campaign. The shabby dinners, the women in their tacky gowns, the fawning of local politicians, his mother's shrill instructions over the telephone.

The rush of daily life, his political career, the business of the hacienda, the exhilaration of a new woman—none of this could save him from a disorienting sense of his solitude.

He slumped against his seat. He hated the dead time of travel— airplanes, cars, helicopters, all the places where he was locked between where he was going and where he had come from, with nothing to divert him from his own thoughts. These were the only moments when he felt a vague unhappiness. The rush of daily life, his political career, the business of the hacienda, the exhilaration of a new woman—none of this could save him from a disorienting sense of his solitude.

He watched his sister-in-law's profile against the window. He wanted to break her silence, to make her speak to him, touch him, divert him.

"What did they do to you?" he said, more harshly than he intended.

Pilar started. "What are you talking about?"

"The lepers."

She crossed one pale leg over the other, away from him, and leaned against the window..

"Bernardo will pay for this," he said. He tried to sound angry, but he felt helpless beside her, before the vision of her bare arms and legs, her breasts curved against the windowpane.

No way of knowing what people thought, whose side they were on. Life was cheap, allegiances shifted, almost everyone driven by poverty or power.

"You think it was Bernardo?" she said.

"Who else would want to break up the rally?"

She turned back to the window. In the front seat, his bodyguard and chauffeur were talking softly in the local dialect.

"Still," she said. "You have to hand it to him. Sending lepers into the square like that."

"You think it was funny?"

"I don't think anything," she said evenly. "I want to see Lola Bea."

She leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes. He saw the driver glancing at him in the rear-view mirror. Arturo felt suddenly tense. He thought of one of his best friends, murdered by his own bodyguards up north during another election campaign. He felt for the pistol inside his vest, studying the heads of the two hired men in the front seat. No way of knowing what people thought, whose side they were on. Life was cheap, allegiances shifted, almost everyone driven by poverty or power. You can always trust your own blood, his mother said. But Arturo was threatened by everything else—his wife, her sister, this country with its irrationality, its spirituality, its savagery.

The van turned into an unpaved road and bounced along for several kilometers until it reached a small village near the sea. It halted in front of a decrepit stone church, built centuries before, when the Spaniards began to spread Christianity and their genes to the natives.

Pilar unlocked her door.

"Wait," Arturo said. "Let Dinggoy go first and see if someone's there."

The bodyguard stepped out of the car and hurried up the sandy path to the church. He disappeared into a side door. Minutes later, an old priest shuffled toward the car, his long brown robe stirring up dust clouds behind him. From a distance, the priest looked as small and frail as a young girl.

Arturo rolled down the window.

"Good morning, father!" he called out heartily. "We've come to visit Lola Bea."

"She's at the cemetery," the priest said, panting slightly as he approached the van. "The church won't allow us to keep her here."

"Christ," Arturo muttered.

"Will you take us there, father?" Pilar said, and Arturo turned to her, surprised by the urgency in her voice.

They followed the priest under the burning sun, down a sloping path to the graveyard behind the church. They walked in single file down the main alley, past broken tombstones and faded images of dead children.

They followed the priest under the burning sun, down a sloping path to the graveyard behind the church. They walked in single file down the main alley, past broken tombstones and faded images of dead children. Then into another alley, overgrown by weeds and lined with wooden crosses, further and further down the narrowing path to a nipa hut in a corner of the cemetery.

From inside, a radio was blasting pop music. The priest banged on the window frame. "Visitors for Lola Bea," he shouted.

Moments later, a scrawny young man appeared at the doorway, wearing only a pair of jeans. His chest and arms were hairless. One eye was smaller than the other, and it narrowed into a slit when he smiled. "Kumusta kayo, po," he said, shaking their hands vigorously. "Bubut, that's me." The priest held open the door, and Arturo and Pilar stepped inside.

Rod Stewart was yelling over the tiny speakers. The priest pursed his lips toward the radio, but Bubut didn't seem to notice.

Arturo glanced around the room. He had seen hundreds of living rooms like this in the provinces, and they always dismayed him. A couch covered with plastic sheets, a Formica table, a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary and, over the television, a giant poster of the deposed dictator and his wife, both looking more vigorous and more Caucasian than they ever had in their lives.

"Please have a seat," Bubut said ceremoniously.

Pilar sat obediently on the couch, the plastic crinkling beneath her.

The young man brought out bottles of Coke, paper glasses and a box of saltine crackers. Pilar picked up a cracker but did not eat it. Arturo walked to the window and stared out at the graveyard.

"I'll go tell Lola that she has visitors," Bubut said, and he disappeared behind a doorway lined with strings of sea shells.

The priest served himself a glass of Coke.

After a moment, Arturo strode across the room and switched off the radio. "Why can't you keep her in the church?" he asked the priest.

The old man chortled, the corners of his mouth breaking into fine wrinkles. "The bishop says it will take years before the Church conducts its investigation. He says this may be the work of the devil. And we have so many people coming, from all over. We can't control it."

"The bishop says it will take years before the Church conducts its investigation. He says this may be the work of the devil. And we have so many people coming, from all over. We can't control it."

Pilar returned the cracker to the plate. "Control what, father?"

"The miracles. Lola Bea is still taking care of the sick and the dying." The priest's small, bird-like face lightened. "You wait," he said. "You'll see her. She's been dead for decades, and she looks like she's sleeping. How can you explain that?"

Arturo watched Pilar's long fingers tapping against the couch.

"Bubut's a tricycle driver, but he used to be the village drunk," the priest said. He glanced nervously at the doorway, then lowered his voice. "And a thief. Maybe worse. Everyone knew that. " He spoke more rapidly, his eyes flicking rhythmically toward the doorway. "One day, it must have been in August, he decided he wanted a new table. So he visited the cemetery that night—there were marble slabs over some of the graves, and he thought it would be very bonga to have a marble table. But God works in strange ways. The last person Jesus forgave was a thief, remember." The priest laughed soundlessly for a moment, covering his mouth with his hands. "Bubut was removing the marble slab, and he accidentally broke the glass over the casket. He looked inside—and there was Lola. Her dress all in shreds, but her body and her face were perfectly preserved. And she still had the scapular of the Sacred Heart around her neck."

Pilar glanced at Arturo. He smiled dryly.

"Bubut became a different man," the priest said. "He stopped drinking. He started to spend the whole day sitting in the cemetery, by Lola's grave, talking to people who came to see her. And then something amazing began to happen. A liquid—it looked like Coca-Cola—began to form in a corner of the casket. It smells like herbal oil—you'll see. And when Bubut rubs a little of that oil on people, they get cured. The most amazing cures. Blind people can see again, infertile women have babies. It's miraculous." The priest stuffed a cracker into his mouth and chewed noisily. "But the bishop doesn't want to believe all this."

There was a rustling as Bubut stepped through the curtain of shells. "She's waiting," he whispered. "Father, will you say a prayer now?"

The priest knelt on the bamboo floor. "The bishop says I'm not supposed to do this," he said cheerfully. "But I have to follow my heart. I can't believe the devil would do so much good."

He motioned at the others to kneel with him. They held hands, and the priest led them through a lilting version of Our Father. Arturo stared at Pilar's face—her eyes were closed and her mouth was moving, but he did not believe she was praying.

They followed Bubut through the shells and into a windowless room, so dark they could see nothing at first. The smells overwhelmed Arturo—herbs, incense, rotting flowers. Bubut lit a candle. In a corner of the room, beneath garish images of Christ and the Virgin, Arturo saw the wooden casket.

The tricycle driver grinned, and his left eye snapped shut. He leaned over the casket and began whispering to it.

After a moment, he turned to Pilar and said: "Lola says she wants to talk you."

Pilar's head jerked to the side. Arturo slipped his hand over the small of her back. Pressing his hand against her, he guided her forward.

They stood over the casket, staring at the monstrous creature within it. The dead woman's face and arms were almost stripped to the bone, but a thin layer of brown, dry flesh was stretched like onion skin over her. Her eyes were closed, sunken into their sockets; matted white hair cradled the skeletal face. She seemed to have been astonished by her death: her mouth was wide open, revealing two lines of small, yellow teeth.

"Isn't she beautiful?" Bubut said tenderly. He reached for the dead woman's arm and lifted it out of the coffin, then bent it abruptly at the elbow.

The priest chuckled. "You see? Her arms and legs are still pliable. And she's been dead almost thirty years!"

Arturo felt a sharp, sudden pain in his chest.

"You can touch her," Bubut said enthusiastically, holding out the arm.

Pilar shook her head.

Gathering his strength, Arturo forced his lips into a smile. He was a politician, an expert at christenings, weddings and wakes. He knew how to deal with the dead; he had looked into a thousand caskets without seeing the corpse. His mother had taught him the trick: Fill your mind with beautiful images, she had told him, and never look a dead person in the face. Arturo's images were always the same: he walked toward caskets imagining the hundreds of women he had touched, the fair-skinned mestizas and dusky fashion models, the heavy round breasts and small pointed ones, the hips and thighs and toes and fingers, the expressions on a woman's face just before she came. Buoyed by his memories, Arturo grasped Lola Bea's arm. The skin was dry and ice-cold, yet it yielded slightly under his hand.

The dead woman seemed to leap from the casket and into his mind, entering into his lovely young lovers and transforming them into grotesque images of herself.

Suddenly he felt a violent turning in his head. The dead woman seemed to leap from the casket and into his mind, entering into his lovely young lovers and transforming them into grotesque images of herself. He saw his women like her, decades after their death, their mouths frozen into cries of horror, their bodies skeletal, their faces bled into bone.

Pilar's small fingers burrowed into his hand. The sudden, unexpected warmth of her skin unsteadied him.

"I need air," he said.

She stared gravely at him, her face softened by candlelight.

He did not want her to see him this way.

"I'll be back in a moment," he said. He ducked through the doorway, the shells swinging around him. He stood by the window and stared at the sky, trying to fill his mind with sunlight.

Breathe, he told himself.

A rustling behind him. He felt her presence even before she spoke. "Don't be afraid." The sweetness in her voice seemed to release a magic spring inside him. "We can leave, Arturo, if you want."

He shook his head.

Tentatively, she offered her hand. He reached for it. Her warm skin closed like a sea over him. "Are you sure?" she whispered.

Her eyes held his for a moment, then she led him back into the windowless room. The priest and tricycle driver were bending by the casket.

When the priest saw them, he waved his hands excitedly.

"Come quickly," he said. "Look."

He pressed a sheet of plastic directly over Lola Bea's face. Moisture began to form on the inner surface of the sheet.

"She's breathing," Bubut said reverently. "Do you see?"

Arturo felt Pilar's fingers tighten around his. He tried not to look at rest of the corpse, concentrating on the sheet that fogged up Lola Bea's face.

"The municipal health officer came here. He said the moisture's a sign of decomposition, but where's the decomposition?" The priest was grinning. "Can you see it? Can you smell it? She's been here in the heat for months. Even Marcos needs a freezer—is this a freezer?"

"Do you have something to tell her?" Bubut asked Pilar. "She's waiting for you."

Arturo closed his eyes, trying to remember the sea and the sky.

"I don't know. Maybe I need to be cleansed," Pilar said. "I was speaking to lepers today."

"Lola Bea knows," Bubut said jubilantly. "She already told me."

He dipped his fingers into the dark liquid in a corner of the casket. "There's always more, no matter how much I use." Bubut held his fingers under Arturo's nose. A nauseating mixture of herbs.

"Father, please bless this," Bubut told the priest.

The priest made the sign of the cross over the liquid, then Bubut dabbed it over Pilar's forehead, chest and shoulders.

"Get on your knees," the tricycle driver said. "Ask God to make you worthy of the blessing of Lola Bea."

Pilar's lips were pale, her hands unsteady.

Don't fall for this, Arturo thought, the words hissing inside him. Why was she doing this? Pilar never went to Church. Suddenly he was cursing the poverty, the magic, the superstition all around him. Faced with the possibility of grace, even a skeptic like Pilar would not take chances.

In the end, he thought bitterly, the most miraculous thing about Lola Bea was not that she was a saint, but that she had remained a body. Everyone in this country worshipped the body.

He watched the woman he loved fall to her knees and close her eyes, and the long curve of her neck as she lowered her head in prayer. In the end, he thought bitterly, the most miraculous thing about Lola Bea was not that she was a saint, but that she had remained a body. Everyone in this country worshipped the body. The flagellations, the fastings, the search for relics, the scapulars around the necks, the anting-antings that even dictators wore—all these, it seemed to him now, were maneuverings to reach God in a way that was directly physical.

He followed the line of Pilar's back as it sloped toward her waist. As a boy, he had watched his mother receive the Eucharist, her red mouth opening, her tongue sticking out to receive the body of Christ, a strange man slipping his fingers between her lips; he had been distressed by the sensuality of it, by his mother's compliance, as if the only way to feed the soul was through the mouth, as if the only way to reach God was to swallow him alive.

Pilar was standing beside him.

"I'm done," she said. "Do you want to go next?"

He flashed his politician's smile. "I'll come back another time."

In the living room, Bubut poured rum into warm coke.

The priest gulped down his drink. "If you want to thank Lola Bea, there's a box by the door," he said cheerfully, pointing to a wooden box with a hand-written sign over it: "Donations."

Arturo slipped a campaign leaflet inside the box as he walked out of the hut.

© Reine Arcache Melvin

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