The girl believed in miracles.
In darkness when everyone else was asleep she lay facedown on her bedroom floor praying for God to give her the miracle of blood. She wanted God to drill the divine nail holes in the palms of her hands and feet. She wanted to feel the wounds of the savior.
So she prayed that way every night. Arms straight as iron in prostration before the open pages of the book about saints that she bought for fifty-cents at the Goodwill.
The book’s spine was as loose as an accordion and some of the pages had water stains like tree rings on their corners. The only reason she got the battered old thing in the first place was because she liked the glossy illustrations inside.
The girl spent hours looking at the vivid paintings of the dead saints. She had memorized the deaths of the saints by arrows, bonfires, drownings, lions, and beheadings.
What fascinated her most was how their eyes were always looking up to heaven. Like they could see God. She wanted to see God too.
It wasn’t easy to talk to God at first. She had not been born to any particular devotion or faith that exalted the saints or believed in miracles. No one in her family, for that matter, knew much about God.
In the beginning she stumbled through her prayers and often fell asleep before God could answer them. When she woke up she’d frantically check her bare feet and hands for any sign of nail-holes, turning them in the light over and over in search of even the faintest scratch.
But there were never any. Just the chill and stiffness of sleeping on floor with her head cradled on her elbow.
She believed the miracle would come someday. It had to.
Last year her mom married a man who lived in a house outside the city limits. She had just turned twelve and the man started touching her when they were alone. He told her that her mother would get angry if she found out about what they were doing.
But the girl believed that even the smallest drop from her hands and feet would stop the man from coming to her bedroom when the moon was high over the treetops.
Today was special because the town would celebrate the festival of the veiled saint. She had even fasted yesterday in preparation for the event.
Devotees of the saint believed that a mysterious holy woman in a black veil had preached among the Indians before discovery. The saint, according to lore, bore the marks of crucifixion on her hands. Rome had never recognized her, but the lady saint was still popular in the river town.
The main church where she lived held a festival to commemorate her mission to the Indians. The saint’s day ended with a ceremony where a raft covered with candles and flowers and a statue of the veiled woman was launched on the river.
The festival was important for the town. In the week leading up to the fair, craftsmen sold slender wood carvings of the holy lady at flea market stalls.
At dawn she rose from her prayers, gently closing the book and wrapping it in a piece of brown burlap. She had stolen the cloth from box of scrap materials in art class at school. She did not think God would hold it against her.
She hid the book in the space between the radiator and wall beneath the window. When she pressed her face against the cold window pane, her breath left a mist on the glass. She wrote her name in the condensation. At her closet, she pulled a sweater out of the pile of clothes on the floor. It was the nicest one she had.
She made her way on tiptoes to the kitchen. The light was off, but she jerked back startled when she saw her mother in the half-darkness. The ember from the woman’s cigarette glowed brightly with each puff.
The girl flipped on the light switch. The ashtray next to an empty bottle was piled with cigarette butts. The woman clutched a pair of soiled underwear in her hand. Bloodstains on the garment. It was the girls.
The girl stammered excuses, trying to explain what the man had been doing to her, but the mother slapped her face. The woman yelled that she knew what was happening. The girl was trying to ruin a good thing, she said, trying to tear her and the man apart with her goddamn lies. The mother called the girl a little whore with a little whore’s eyes and a little whore’s mouth and a little whore’s ways.
The girl ran from their house to the town square. By the time she reached the place a crowd had already formed there. The festival was underway.
The women of the parish had made a paper mache model of the saint and placed her on a flower-strewn platform in preparation for the river launching. An early morning wind ruffled the silk veil on the saint’s face. The girl almost caught a glimpse of her waxy visage.
She needed to get closer to the statue. She had read that the saint sometimes answered people’s prayers.
She knew she’d have to be careful. The girl didn’t want to make the holy woman jealous. She needed the saint, now in heaven, to listen to her pleas on this special day.
The girl elbowed her way between the people to where the priest was picking out the men who would bare the veiled saint to the riverbank by lottery.
He read out numbered ping pong balls as the girl asked the saint to whisper her request in Jesus or God’s ear. In all the priest called out six names. When he summoned the men, they approached the platform with the statue and bent down wordlessly, heaving the saint skyward on their shoulders with poles.
A band accompanied the saint-bearers as they moved through the crowd. Some people cried out. When the saint passed close to her, the girl’s lips uttered one last supplication for the sign of the messiah’s wounds to fall upon her like lightning bolts. But the only blood to trickle in her hands came from the quarter-moon marks in the soft flesh her hands. She had pressed her fingernails deep into the skin on her palms.
The crowd lurched onward, writhing in the wake of the statue, passing stall games, food courts and vendors with items of religious devotion for sale under billowing tents.
The girl prayed harder when they reached the station where people tossed rose petals and coins in the saint’s path. The silver money flashed in shining arcs before they hit the pavement spinning amid dings.
The girl did not know if it was a vision, but in her mind’s eye she imagined the palms of her hands and feet oozing blood and the men dropping the effigy of the saint and running back to her instead to lift her up on their shoulders.
The girl then saw the men carrying her back to her house for her mom and the man to see her with her hands jutted high to heaven in a visible sign of holiness. The town would not need to celebrate the nameless veiled woman anymore. Even the saint would understand. The girl would be a living sign to the people.
The vision came with a knee-wobbling weakness. It flooded across her. She leaned against a brick storefront but then the cramps came like clawing. She closed her eyes. After the pain she felt something damp in her pants, near her sex.
Her heart sunk as the loud cries of adoration rose around her. This was not the blood she wanted.
When she opened her eyes she had lost sight of the saint. She had blacked out. A few others from the crowd, overtaken by emotion, lay weeping on the sidewalk and road.
She rose, feeling the wetness spreading in the crouch of her pants. She pulled her sweater off and tied it around her waist like a skirt. The pain returned, but the procession to the riverside was moving too fast for her to catch up.
She looked at the crying people around her and the last of the saint followers. She could not go home now. Not with her unmarked hands. Her mother would be even more drunk by now. Then the man would come to her room. She knew he would be rougher than before.
She pulled the sweater lower. The crowd was out of sight, but she did not feel like crying anymore. She leaned against the wall and slid down slowly.
She closed her eyes. The sun was warm on her face. She felt free. Everything about her. Her slow breathing with gravity losing its hold. Like rising. She could sense herself floating with the land rolling up beneath like a scroll. Feel the wind as she glided with her arms spread and her body bending gently with the contours of the land. Moving faster beyond the town and the house and the forest to the river’s edge. A place where she could ease her body into the swirling brown waters and drift south to where the river becomes the sea. Like the saint.