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I heard about the story from the friend of a friend of an acquaintance, and didn’t put any stock in it at first. In my profession, you hear things like this with some frequency. You’d be a fool if you went running every time you heard someone cry fire. And if you end up getting your whiskers singed once or twice, you should consider yourself lucky.
I keep asking myself why didn’t I stop them. I was there. I was the only sane one, right? Personally unaffected by the tragedy. That’s what the judge said, anyway, even though I was never prosecuted. Not by the law, anyway. People stopped asking eventually, but I never stopped asking myself, all these years. Probably never will. For a long time I hid behind professional clichés: we’re there to report, not influence, blah blah blah. All I can say now in my defense is: who would want to be the person who robbed a people of their miracle? No matter how certain your lack of faith, how level your head. You know?
And in the end, I wonder, did we kill a kid or did we kill a god, and does it possibly make a difference.
someone else’s mother
We all think we are the protagonists of every story, don’t we? If not of every story, at least the ones that feature our son dead in a casket. I keep thinking of the wake, keep going over everything, wondering why her son and not mine. Did I not pray hard enough? Did I pick the wrong clothes for his last rites? Did I not wash his body well enough? Did I hold impure thoughts? I did, didn’t I?
Did I offend someone when I said they all looked like they were sleeping, except for the bleeding in their eyes? All the bodies laid out side by side like that. And the smell of frankincense burning my throat—for a minute I wondered if it was the poison, come for the rest of us, and I almost laughed. The irreverence. Can you imagine?
But I didn’t laugh, of course, I didn’t laugh. I knelt.
“So young,” someone cried, and someone else repeated it, and I repeated it too, and I didn’t even know which one of them I was talking about anymore. Not my own son, surely. So young, so young, so young.
And they were all young, weren’t they? Being barely old enough to work at a factory does not make you a grownup. Even the older ones, the fathers and the brothers and the aunts, they were all still too young. We cried all night over how young they were.
In the morning, the dogs started barking. What were dogs even doing in the church? People chased them out, but they came back and continued barking and growling, foam dripping from the corners of their mouths. Rabies, we thought.
But then Maria’s son woke up, and don’t tell me the barking had nothing to do with that. Dogs be gifted that way, even if we had no idea what was coming. The boy simply stood up in his casket, the hair at the back of his head slightly flat from lying on the satin pillow, and he looked around with his bleary eyes, surprised to see us, as if he had merely awoken from a long sleep. Dreamless, people said, but how would they know?
I don’t remember much of what happened right after. People fell to their knees and prayed, and people fainted, and people screamed. Arms raised to heaven. His mother dropped on him and kissed him all over and cried and yelled. She might have even spoken in tongues—that’s how little of what she said I understood.
Then she took a step back and glanced at his brother in the next coffin and the other boy was still dead, like my own son.
When the fainted were revived, and the boy helped out of his coffin and hugged and kissed, and the sun was reaching its peak above the church, people started picking up the other coffins and propping them on their shoulders.
I jumped to my feet. My legs were bruised from all the kneeling next to my son. “What are you doing?” I asked them. Even I could hear the loose thing in my voice. “Why are you moving them? Where are you taking them?”
To the cemetery, they said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“But what if?” I asked. “But what if they all come back too?” I was screaming at them now. Let them think the worst of me, what did I care? “You just saw a miracle happen right in front of your eyes. That boy was as cold as stone last night and now he’s up and running about. Who’s to say he’s the only one? Who’s to say they won’t all come back? Is that all the faith you’ve got? Shame on you. Shame on you!”
That shut them up good, I’ll tell you that.
They don’t bury the rest of them. They leave them laid out in the church, their caskets still open. People come and go, glance at them, point at their own among the many bodies, the way people gawk at one among pretty much identical babies in hospital nurseries.
Maybe he wasn’t dead, people whisper later, maybe the doctors made a mistake. But no, he was dead. Dead dead, corpse stink, corpse cold, corpse stiffness to his limbs. A startle in his eyes like he’s seen the other side of a door no human should cross and then live to talk about it.
The neighbor girl that has the sweets for my little brother visits the next day and I wonder, doesn’t she notice the smell? The lingering smell in our house, the death smell. She only eyes our grandmother crying quietly in the corner like a mourning ghost and doesn’t say a thing. Grandma started crying when we got word of the accident and hasn’t stopped since, not even when her favorite grandchild came back to life.
“How’s he doing?” the girl asks my mother. My mother’s eyes are large, with a new sheen. She’s become clumsy. She spills the milk she offers the girl for her coffee, knocks over the cushion from the chair when she tries to sit, scratches herself when she buttons up her blouse. As if her limbs have forgotten how to stay put, be a person.
“He just stares out the window, he just stares,” she says, and it’s true. Won’t eat, won’t drink, won’t nothing.
But he’d always been the quiet one, I want to say. He always stared out windows. Even at the factory, the supervisors would always tell him off for spacing out and staring at nothing. At the wall, or I don’t know what. At nothing. It was our older brother who was always the joy of life personified. He was the singer, the dancer. The one who woke up before dawn and never complained. The one who brought me flowers when I had my bad days. The one who was first at everything: the work, the hunt, the swim, the drink.
I would have gone with him. I would be in a casket next to him if he hadn’t noticed my fever that day, hadn’t insisted I stay behind, hadn’t confiscated my factory ID to keep me from following them to work. Lucky, huh?
“I’m so glad he’s back,” the girl mouths quietly before she closes the door behind her.
“I am too, I am too,” my mother says in the new out-of-breath manner she speaks these days, constantly running out of air.
And yet, why do I still miss him? And why do I hate myself for it? Like he’s back, but I’m not. Like none of us are where he left us.
But someone had to stay with the rest of them. The boy’s father said so, and who could blame him? And if he did it because he thought the rest of them might come back too, or because he just wanted to be with his other son a little bit longer, who could tell? And who could blame him either way?
He looks at his other son's corpse now, still lying in the coffin two days later, his juices slowly seeping into the fine white cloth underneath. There are flowers around his head, rotting lilies that look too much like flesh. There is a blue-green color to his skin now, and he could take the bleeding eyes, he could take the thought of lungs burnt to charcoal inside his son’s body, he could take the thought of him cut open and then sewn back up, but that he cannot take. That color, it does him in. What kind of man does that make him? What kind of father?
Sophia is still there, hasn’t left her son’s side for a moment since his own boy came back to life and she didn’t let them move the bodies.
He walks over to her and squeezes her shoulder firmly, but not without tenderness. “Sophia,” he says, “it’s time.” And when she doesn’t respond, and just looks at him without understanding, he breaks down and cries. He bends down and hugs her knees. “Please,” he says, “it’s time.”
So they take the coffins out of the church in a long line of black-trousered men with white shirts, their shoulders bent under all the weight. It’s not raining, but later, when he thinks back to this moment, he will remember this day wet, pouring, and he will recall with great clarity a cold rain that soaked him all the way through.
I liked him well enough before he died, but ever since the accident I found myself unable to stop thinking about him. I spent the first night imagining what it must have been like, all those people on the factory floor, fighting to breathe, their eyes leaking blood. Did they bang on the doors, did they scratch the walls with their nails? Did they reach for each other’s hands? How long did it take? And he, what was he thinking as he died? Did he think of his mother, his father, his sister? Did he try to help his brother before he tried to help himself?
Did he think of me at all? Of our kiss under the olive tree, the way the wind brushed against my skirt and lifted it a little and I didn’t cover myself again until I was sure he had seen the brief smile of skin between the top of my socks and the bottom of the hem?
I kept thinking about all that during the wake as well, though the ashen tint of his skin made it difficult to remember him as he was when he lived. Funny how this new face that he acquired in death replaced the one I’ve known for so much longer, the one I’ve known my entire life.
When he woke up, I felt my face freeze, my blood drain away from my head and rush to my hands, my feet. I fell.
I came round thinking I had dreamed it, but they told me I hadn’t, he was still up, walking, breathing, talking in short sentences.
I visited his mother the next day, but he didn’t pay me any mind. I went round again that night and threw gravel at his window like we did when we were younger, until he opened it and I slipped inside. I thought his skin looked dull and lifeless, or maybe it was the faint moonlight coming in through the dirty glass. He sat on the bed and I sat next to him and our knees touched already so it didn’t feel weird to take his hand in mine and cradle it on my lap.
“How are you?” I asked him and he said, “I’m here,” and I thought that didn’t answer my question, but maybe it did.
I smoothed back his hair and tucked it behind his ears. It felt dry and thin. I leant closer to him and almost recoiled as the smell hit me—an earthy smell, like damp soil—but then I pushed through the revulsion and kissed him on the lips. He didn’t kiss me back, but he didn’t withdraw either. He simply looked at me, his eyes large, staring.
“What was it like?” I asked him, “Being dead?”
“I dream of roots,” he said.
Sophia comes to my house to see me, asks if she can see him. Her hair hangs loose and tangled, unwashed. My own does not look much better, I’m sure. Sophia kneels in front of him and holds his hands a bit too long, studying his face. “He’s a miracle,” she says. “Your miracle. How fortunate you are, Maria.” She doesn’t immediately let go when he tries to take his hands away.
My miracle. My second one. My first was when I fell pregnant with his brother after years of trying, years of babies leaking out of me like afterthoughts. And this one? What about this one? Does a person really ever get two miracles in a lifetime? My hands tremble when I touch him, and I’m afraid if I breathe too hard around him he might scatter like the dust from a moth’s wings.
Everyone wants a piece of him. They bring him gifts—little icons; drawings of ailing body parts, as if he’s a saint, as if he’ll cure them; rings belonging to beloved dead ones. I pile them up in his room until it’s stuffed full, and when I tell them to cut it out and turn them away at the door they gather in my backyard, hold vigil outside his room, grasping candles, praying.
Someone comes over to talk politics with my husband—a union representative I’ve never seen before, but with whom my man seems friendly enough. He does not think my son is a miracle at all. He thinks this whole resurrection business might hurt our chances of winning the case against the employer, might make it easy for the lawyers to paint us all as cons and delusional, might rob everyone of their compensation. As if money could ever bring their dead ones back.
But then again, what do I know about what it is that brings a person back?
On the fourth day, I can no longer ignore the smell. I burned the clothes I put him in for his wake and washed all of his other clothes. I washed the bedsheets and then washed them again. I mopped the floors and dusted down the walls and scoured everything with bleach, so there’s nowhere left to hide now. It’s him. He smells. I’m scared. My mother notices. “Don’t be afraid,” she says. “Go to your son, go to him, go to him,” so I do.
I see the girl pining over him and him ignoring her. She acts like a girlfriend, taking his hand and walking him in circles in the yard, arranging his limbs around herself in a mock embrace and him letting her, unresisting, like he’s a doll.
I think of my other son, cold in the ground, and I no longer understand how I could have ever felt joy. I am ashamed. I shatter.
I loved my other son better, I want to cry, the one who did not come back to life.
It’s his first time in this town, but it’s not the first armpit-of-the-world, losers-and-drunks town he’s seen in his career as a specialist advisor to the insurance company, and this is not the first miracle he’s been called on to flush down the toilet. He inspects the factory and the supposed leak, the boy’s vacated coffin, the church. He even has some of the graves dug up. He notes they got a reporter over, trying to prove the unprovable, no doubt, or at the very least generate some buzz. The boy itself he only meets for a few fleeting minutes, as his mother insists he’s too distressed and not fit to hold long conversations. He notices, admires even, to the extent that professionalism permits, the details of this mise en scène: the boy’s ratty hair, the pale makeup applied to his skin, the smell of decay rubbed onto his skin and then deftly half-masked with a more pleasant scent. Something cheap and floral—elderflower, perhaps, or lily of the valley.
He concludes that there is nothing here out of the ordinary—and that the employer’s responsibility in the accident itself has been blown out of proportion. He declares the whole town crooks and charlatans scrambling for attention. Or else for a chance to air their grievances towards their employer, who is simply trying to survive in an unforgiving time for medium-sized businesses. He writes his report and sends it to his employer without delay.
The town meets his decision with open scorn. They see him off with raised fists, and he fancies himself a learned man fleeing an angry, unwashed mob, minus the pitchforks.
“We’re gonna prove it to you,” they say to him. “You’ll see your error. You’ll see.”
The looks on their faces when they say that unsettle him. He gets back into his car feeling mildly threatened, though no threats have been made against his person.
On the way back, he tries to make himself feel better by thinking of things he likes: his silk robe de chambre; the smoothness of his dog’s fur under his fingers; the smell of toasting bread in the morning. His heart slows. He is calmer now. Breathing comes easily to him again. The town fades further into the background of his life. He goes on thinking of his favorite things. He tries to remember the taste of his mother’s roast dinner and can’t.
the trade unionist
I do believe in miracles. I do believe he came back from the dead. I do believe he might even be the key to saving our immortal souls.
But not our mortal bodies. People run to the priest asking after salvation and miracles. What good are miracles if they cannot feed and clothe the people, if they cannot help in the fight against what mangles our bodies—and yes, our spirits too—day in, day out?
I do believe in miracles. But miracles are exceptions. They are not for everyone. They cannot change the world. And if they cannot change the world, what good are they?
the priest’s wife
He hasn’t taken a single bite of bread since that boy rose from the dead. He doesn’t sleep and doesn’t speak and doesn’t look me in the eye, and I catch myself wishing that boy had stayed dead and gone. If that makes me a bad person, so be it, that’s between me and the Lord. People keep turning up at our door, asking after him, and I have to send them away with prayer ropes, which I can’t knot fast enough to last me more than an afternoon. The tips of my fingers are raw from constantly working on the rope, and I swear I’m growing cross-eyed from knotting late into the night under the yellow lamp. But I dare not complain. I see his suffering, his crisis. I know he mutters to himself when he thinks I cannot hear.
I’m planting basil in the garden when one of the factory men comes running, yelling that little rosy-cheeked Mary had up and died in the night for no good reason at all, and that they need the priest to rule out a supernatural cause of death, whether it might be the Reaper was short a young body. I almost laugh in his face, thinking he’s set his mind on a prank—now, of all times!—a re-enactment of some old wives’ tale from two centuries ago. But the crease in his forehead and the clenched muscles in his jaw set me straight. This is no prank. This is no joke.
I am telling the man to calm down, that I’ll let the good priest know and he’ll come as soon as he’s able, that he has not been feeling his best, when my husband bursts out of the house. It’s the first time he’s been outside since the resurrection. He squints at the light. He’s only wearing his long undergarments, not his cassock and not his cap. His hair looks uncombed, disheveled, like a wild, gray mane around his head. The wind blows right that moment and ruffles it even worse, on purpose almost, to lend the scene some gravity, some Biblical air.
I see the idea forming behind my husband’s eyes, his way out of his own torment, the solution to the question he has not dared utter all these days, but which I know is there.
“It’s the boy,” he says, like a man drowning. “It’s the risen boy’s fault.”
Years ago, we did that thing young people who love each other fiercely do sometimes, cut the inside of our palms and held them together, mixed our bloods, fancied ourselves brothers, thinking brotherhood trumped friendship. Silly. We may have drifted apart, not seen each other for months at a time, but our hearts grew not an inch more distant than the day we bled for each other. When I got word of the accident, his name numbered among those dead, I squeezed my fist and something in my hand cracked. I left wife and baby and took the first bus back to our hometown, knowing I’d be too late to kiss his cheeks for one last time. And yet, I arrived to something else entirely—my friend on his feet and his family in pieces, his mother terrified of her own son, his father talked out of his mind, and around them a circus, a desperate circus speaking of miracles, of Death shorted and owed, of God’s hand, of tests and faith, of salvation. A whole town gone mad.
I cannot hold my tears. Cannot. They stream from my eyes.
I’ve always loved that boy much more than I should have.
And yet, I see.
The silence falls on us slowly. The boy walks into a room and everyone hushes, we hush. We still hold candles and pray, but we avoid his eyes now, that gaze, deep and cold like the grave.
I’m boiling wheat berries for the three-day commemoration when we hear about the little girl. And when the rest come running with the priest leading them like a herd, my daughter’s husband meets them outside. He’s nothing but a shadow of himself. Such a tall man, such a cypress, reduced now, a stump.
I rush outside too, listen to the priest blame this new death on my grandchild, then blame him for everything. For the overcast skies, the gray sea, the accident itself. “But it can’t be,” I tell him, them. “He couldn’t. Not my grandson.” Could he?
Then a crash. Glass breaking. A scream.
I go back inside as quickly as I can. The house smells like sugar, masking the smell of damp soil that’s coming from the boy. My daughter on the floor, the boiling pot upturned, her hands burned by the molten sugar, plates shattered at her feet. The boy is reaching for his mother and she’s clutching a piece of broken glass to make him stay away. Terrified of her own son. She’s grasping the shard so hard it cuts her. She bleeds. The boy stares at her, his eyes unfocused.
“Mother,” he whispers. A stranger’s voice. An unkind voice.
Almost in reply, my daughter gags. And I know, now. Finally, I see it all for what it is.
This is not him. Not my boy. Not my grandson.
the boy Lazarus
Nobody touches me anymore. Not even the girl with the broken heart who says we are in love. Mother tells me I came back. Back from where, I try to ask, but my mouth is full, packed with soil, and words too large, they do not fit. Back from where?
No answers to questions not asked. Mother fades. Father fades. Grandmother turns into a river.
The others are laid in the ground, far away but not too far. I hear the songs they whisper to the soil, made up of names strung one after the other like knots on a long, long thread. And a pause where my name should be.
Why did I come back and not she, or he, or they?
My thoughts recede. A thin veil unfolds between me and the world. My sister, these people, their gifts, their candles. Their edges blur soft. Blink and morning has melted into evening, night blooms into dawn. Then people argue in the back yard. Mention the devil. Someone breaks, something bleeds into the ground and I try, I try, I do. To be. People shout, plead, reconcile. Their faces contort into masks I do not recognize. Is this Father, is this Mother? This veil over my eyes, is it a shroud? Has it always been a shroud?
Their hands reach, reach, reach. I let them touch me.
In the end, we roll him in a white sheet and take him down to the sea.
His friend tries to stop us, looks to the reporter for support, finds none. Why does he worry? He thinks we mean the boy harm, but we don’t, do we? We plunge him in the water. A baptism, we say. A washing, a trial, an anointing. Does it matter that we don’t all agree on the term or what it’s for? We hold his head under the water, the grieving mothers, the tired fathers, the heartbroken, the bitter, the believers, the hopeful still, we hold his head under, all of us. At first he doesn’t resist, but then he starts thrashing about, and there is an impossible strength in his legs beyond that of a boy who came back from the dead. For a moment, our breath catches on the what if, what if.
But then we roll our sleeves and breathe through our mouths.
“Our miracle,” we say and dunk his head again with steady hands, until the thrashing weakens and then stops. “Our very own miracle.”