If I run faster, the young girl will live. I understand this like I am her mother and I chase the girl, chase the trample of her small, bare feet through wildflower fields that stretch endlessly, blossoms that spark with a hundred colors. But darkness nears. Already, the sun reddens the western sky, an angle of rose light cast down from distant mountains. I’m closer, though, each step gaining on the girl in a white dress. Then she turns, and I turn, both of us headed toward the setting sun.
For a moment I take my eyes off the girl’s back, the swishing brown hair, and see before us the end of endless wildflower fields. The fields narrow, flanked and winnowed by dark forest. And I run faster. The girl, too. Our arms pump, feet pound into the earth as we run fast, free, the chaser and chased, fast across the strip of wildflower field. Just ahead, I see the end. The strip thins out to a cliff, then gone.
The girl runs toward the edge, on toward the great red sun. I follow. If I can only run faster, the girl will live. And now, I’m almost there, just another few feet to grab her. But the girl’s at the end already. She turns around and looks at me with big, glossy brown eyes, eyes that slow my pace. She’s sick, this girl, sick and fearful and quieted by pain, standing limp with her hands behind her back. But I can save her. I jump, lunge forward, arms out, but the girl jumps backward, a flare of fright in her eyes.
No! I’ve scared her. Scared her to jump! I fall down hard against the earth. Tears well as I scrabble over the raspy grass to the edge of the cliff and look down. And there she is – no! – there is the girl drifting down, arms and legs outstretched, sinking into endless black in her white dress. I see her through tears – no – smaller and smaller she’s a white spot, a fading star, and now, with the sun, she is gone.
In the morning, I turn over in bed, pick up the phone and call my sister. I leave a message on her machine, then crawl into a ball and wait.
I wake up to a frenzy of knocking on the front door. Who knows how many hours I slept? But this time I did sleep. This time I didn’t chase the girl, but gave in to my exhaustion completely.
I get up and stagger into consciousness. At the front door, I see Karen’s nose pressed against the center green-stained glass. I open the door and stand there, limp, blanched before her troubled eyes.
“I’m done,” I say. My voice trembles. “Done.”
“It can’t be that bad,” she says. “Whatever it is–”
“No.” The word, the heft of my eyes slice her sentence. I shake my head. “No.”
She reaches out to my shoulders and pulls me toward her, then drops one arm and wraps it around my back. She holds me, hard against her body.
“What is it?” she whispers. Tears warm the edges of my eyes. “What?”
I pull back, reach for her hand and hold it loosely. We walk over the hardwood floor, the length of the hallway to my office. As we enter the room, I release Karen’s hand, then sit down on the couch. She stands in the doorway and looks around. Nothing unusual to her. The computer hums on the desk, its screen saver throwing a hundred stars through darkness. Framed photographs, black and whites, rest on the walls. There’s Lawrence, my late husband, and our daughters who’ve spread across the southern states. Drooping plants. Stacks of hardcovers.
She looks at me and I point toward the window.
“Open the curtains,” I say. “Pull them back.”
I know what she thinks. She can’t imagine that anything beyond the window could bring me to this state, anything short of hell’s mouth opening in the backyard. She looks at me, raises her eyebrows, but I stare down the line of my arm toward the window.
So she walks there, holds one curtain in each hand and looks back to me. I bite my lower lip and nod. She pulls back the curtains.
In the middle of the window, attached by four long stretches of tape and glowing before the late winter light, sits an MRI scan of my brain. It’s unmistakable, even to Karen, that white shape like a jagged heart in its center.
“Inoperable,” I say. “Smack in the middle.” And for a moment, I lose my voice, just hold a hand over each ear, shake-almost-thrash my head while on the verge of screaming. “In my brain.”
She runs to me and falls down on the couch with a rash of tears, then grips my hands and pulls them from my head. She holds my tense hands hard and looks into my eyes, hers powdery blue and faded with strain.
“There must be options,” she says. “Something?”
But I can’t reply. My head falls to her shoulder and I sob, dry and doleful gulps for air, sob in her arms long beyond the time when the sun concedes to night.
The next morning, I wake up early, some hours before Karen. I know she’s tired. I am. Last night, the dream came and again I scared the girl to jump, again I lay on the edge of that cliff, tear-streaked and worn and watched the white dress fade into darkness.
Out of bed, I wrap a robe around me and walk to my office. I sit down and stare at the computer screen, those hundreds of stars shooting through darkness. I shake the mouse to stop them, then go online. As I have so many times before, I search for medical information, read about treatments, side-effects. I’ve seen it all.
So I search for something different – repetitive dreams of the terminally ill. And then I find her.
Karen finds me at the kitchen table with a newspaper spread over its surface.
“You look rested,” she says. “Slept well?”
“Yes,” I lie.
She purses her lips and pours some coffee.
Across the table from me, she turns the warm mug in her hands and remains silent. She doesn’t know what to say, what’s too trivial or too much of an acknowledgement of my condition. I understand this because I understand Karen. I slide my hand over the table into hers. “Would you take a few weeks off if I asked you?”
“Of course,” she says, squeezes my hand. “Anything.”
“Then we’re taking a vacation.”
“To see the girls?”
“No, not yet. I will call them, but not now. I just can’t tell them to drop their lives and run up here. Besides, they never liked the cold weather.”
“You know they’d come.”
“And that’s why I can’t call them. Mary has the baby and Pam’s finally in a relationship that’s not with a co-worker.”
“But you called me.”
“You live closer,” I say. “And you will help me find her.”
We drive to Boston and board a plane that follows the sun to come down before dusk in San Salvador, in the warmth and color of Central America, in pursuit of help, of Amaranta of the Sky.Carrying tote bags, Karen and I walk the length of the plane’s exit ramp into a rotunda, the walls and high ceiling all the aged color of ivory above a black-and-white checkerboard floor. Under a navy banner marked ‘Internacionales’, we join a throng of people and wait for the one attendant at a service booth to check our passports. He’s quick, though, and after a few minutes, I stand before his dark eyes and complexion after Karen’s passed through and slide my ID across the counter.
“You come for business or you come for pleasure?” he asks, opens my passport and scans over it.
I hadn’t thought about it. Certainly not business and, well, not pleasure.
“I guess the latter.” I shrug.
“You are the sister of the brown-headed?”
“Yes.” I nod.
“I did not say this to her,” The man leans toward me and whispers, “but you should not go to Torola. You are crazy to go there. Please, that is not our El Salvador.”
“Will we be safe?” I ask.
“Safe? Yes. But it is not a good place. I hear things happen.”
“I see.” I look to Karen, her taut smile and raised eyebrows. I know she wonders if I’ve stumbled into a problem. “I’m ill,” I say, my voice hushed.
“I’m very ill.”
“Just be careful.” He stamps a blue quadrant of my passport and hands it tome. “Y bienvenida a El Salvador.”
I walk up to Karen and together we continue to the lone carousel in baggage claim among thirty or so people. And then I see her. The girl in the white dress stands on the other side. I see her coffee skin, her flax dress with an embroidered hem of white ivy. She clutches her mother’s wide skirt in her small hands as her head fans to each side and searches the conveyor. Her mother’s hand drifts down, cups the girl’s head which lifts her eyes and the corners of her lips.
“Right there,” Karen says. “Quick.” I look down to where she points, reach and snap up the heft of my suitcase. I check the tag, then look for the girl – she and her mother already gone.
“And mine.” Karen bends over and removes her borrowed suitcase. “Now let’s figure out how two lost Americans get to Torola.”
Outside, in the warm, humid air, I scan the crowded street for a taxi. I rub my arms as if shedding the last of the New England chill, then look to the city, along a main street running long between two-story stucco buildings, for miles on toward the surrounding mountains. It’s beautiful despite the urban dust and heat.
“So, what’s our plan?” Karen asks.
“We need to get there.” I drop my luggage and stand akimbo. “Attention!” I holler into the crowd. Karen’s jaw drops. “We are looking for Amaranta del Cielo.”
Many faces turn toward us, then away with light chuckles. I know that I saw a few frowns. Still, no one walks toward us.
“Torola! Amaranta del Cielo! We must get to her!”
I watch a man, late twenties, possibly older, push open the door to his parked pick-up truck on the other side of the street. He steps out in faded jeans and a red t-shirt and shuffles toward us.
“One hundred American dollars,” he says. “Torola is far.”
Karen looks at me and raises her eyebrows.
“It will be night soon,” he says.
The gypsy taxi driver taps his foot as Karen and I exchange stares and silently discuss his offer – scrunch one eye, open wide, tilt head. Is it safe to accept? What is risk for me, now, anyway? But I have Karen to consider.
“I have a family,” the man says, having seen our ocular hesitation. “I drive for mis hijas, my daughters.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Bueno pues.” He extends his hand into mine. We shake. “Okay. You get there, you pay.”
“Si,” I say, using my wee bit of Spanish.
We follow him across the road to his truck. My daughters would call the blue Ford a beater – one of those old pick-ups owned solely for bombing through backwoods, one with lopsided bumpers, dents and rust holes.
“One in the back,” he says and points to the bed where a pair of passenger seats, worn down to the pale yellow foam, rests against the driver’s side. I grip the truck’s bed, stand on my tiptoes and peer down to see the rusty bolts that hold the seats to the metal bed. There’s dirt and withered roots strewn about and no seat belts. With woeful eyes, I spy two lengths of rope, tethers to hold on the road. Still, I must find her.
“This is… provincial.”
“Hazardous,” Karen says.
“You need to look at it differently.”
“Huh?” Karen stares me down. “Who are you?” she asks.
“It’s new and adventurous and open air.” I throw out my arms.
She has no response. For a moment, we’d slid into a state of forgetfulness, a short span of time when we’re simply on vacation and briefly butting heads, taunting, and everyone’s healthy.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take the back,” I say.
“Me too,” Karen says.
“No.” I reach out a hand. “I want to ride alone for a while. You take the front and wear a seatbelt.”
Once out of the city, for one hundred American dollars, Leonel drives one hundred miles per hour toward Torola. My left hand braces against the seat beside me and I grasp one of the rope tethers with my right as the truck jolts and bucks over the pitted dirt road. I watch the outskirts of San Salvador fade into the distance. The earthenware homes, roadside vendors with groups of patrons and parked bicycles fade too. Now, I see only thin, feral dogs and birds that dart across the road as flashes of color. And soon even the dogs fade out and I see that we are, indeed, on the way.
We drive on, fast along the edge of a wildflower field, blossoms that spark with a hundred colors. My eyes widen, taking in the small bursts of color. Then they widen more and I lift my head straight. Blink. In the middle of the field, the small girl in a white dress waves to me. I think to shout, to stop this truck. But what can I do? I can’t even stand. I lift up one hand and smile.
The girl watches as the truck moves on, fast, and I know, though she is far and fading, that she will watch me with big, glossy brown eyes until I am gone from her sight.
We arrive at Torola at the edge of night, some sort of small village compound from what I can see. Cabins, spaced apart, encircle three large buildings, everything white-washed with green trim and all at the base of a mountain. Already, a sand spray of stars has settled overhead. I wait in my seat until Leonel gets out and reaches his hand to help me.
I drop down to the ground and hold on to the truck for a moment. Leonel grunts as he pulls out my suitcase.
“I’m sorry,” I say to him. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”
He pulls out Karen’s suitcase, too, and I reach into my front pocket. I turn away from Leonel to count out his money, not fearful, but embarrassed. For him, I’m sure there’s a small fortune in my hands.
“Muchas gracias,” I say. “You are a good person.”
“Thank you,” Karen says.
“De nada.” He winks and jumps back into the truck. The motor starts and Leonel pulls around us, fast, speeding back to the city and his home while we wave goodbye.
“Let’s hope this is the right place.”
“It is,” I say. “I’m certain.”
We turn around and just feet before us, the little girl stands in her white dress. She holds a lighted candle and looks up at me.
“You!” I say.
“You?” Karen asks.
“The girl.” I point to her. “Standing right here.”
“Yes, I see her,” Karen says. “But you’re not telling me that you know her?”
The girl’s big eyes volley between us. She walks forward, right up to us and I see in the light of her candle that it’s her.
“You’re alive,” I say.
“Of course she is! What’s going on, Joan?”
“Welcome. Here, come with candle,” the girl says, her soft English strained and broken.
She reaches behind her back and returns the hand with an unlighted candle. She passes it to me, then reaches behind her back again and finds one for Karen. She speaks to me first.
“The candle light takes you–”
“Are we in the right place?” Karen bends down and asks.
I look to Karen and tell her, with my eyes, to shut up.
The girl stares at me.
“The candle light takes you to the place to rest and heal.” She lifts up her lighted candle to mine. It catches, flames, then she turns toward
“The candle light takes you to the place to rest and heal.”
The more that I look at her, the more I realize she’s not the girl in my dreams. Just a child. Just a small girl who memorized some lines.
She turns around and walks and Karen and I follow, holding our candles and dragging our suitcases with the carry-ons over our shoulders.
We walk around the large building on one end, darkness seeping around us, and I hear voices scattered through the woods, voices in Spanish and others too, English then something Nordic, then a quick, shrill laugh.
The girl stops at one of the cabins and opens the door. I let go of my suitcase and follow her inside.
“Your new home,” she says.
It’s small, simple. With just the light of the candles, I see bunk beds, a primitive kitchen, a desk and – Thank God – bathroom.
“Food,” she says and points toward the two kitchen cabinets. “Water.” The faucet. “Luz.” The desk.
On top of it, there are matches and candles.
Karen nods and the girl walks around her, then outside, then gone.
If I can only run faster, the girl will live. And now, I’m almost there, just another few feet to grab her. But the girl’s at the end already. She turns around and looks at me with big, glossy brown eyes, eyes that slow my pace. She’s sick, this girl, sick and fearful and quieted by pain, standing limp with her hands behind her back. But I can save her.
I think to jump, but the girl brings her hands around. In each, she holds a candle.
She joins the two wicks together and they spark to flame.
“Here, come with candle.”
I reach forward and take one.
“The light of this candle takes you to the place to rest and heal.”
She lifts her head and looks at me and I know what will happen, though my body does not move.
The girl stretches out her arms and jumps backward and now I run forward, drop to the edge of the cliff and watch her disappearing into darkness.
My mind screams – no! – but my feet push forward. I squeeze my lighted candle with one hand as the fingers of the other release hold of the cliff’s edge. My feet push forward. I’m half over the edge, a cantilever – No! – that falls.
Down into the darkness, I spread out my limbs to slow down. Down. I spiral into the depths. Wind roars on all sides. Hard to breathe. I survive on sips of air.
The candle blows out.
My mind mutinies. My mind revolts – fills up and fries with a million screams of protest. No! No! No! This is the wrong choice, the end choice, the choice of the desperate, the beggar. Who flees the truth? Who flees her doctors? Her daughters?
A woman who jumps from cliffs, that’s who!
And what to show for it? Nothing! Just death, certain and firm. Death draws nearer, closer, faster over wildflower fields, death runs for you.
Runs! You’ve made him faster! It’s death that chases you and already you sense his breath upon your neck.
I scream awake, throw out my arms and bang them against the bottom bunk bed posts.
My arms smart with pain. Karen grunts above me.
“Joan?” The top bunk squeaks. Karen bends, holds the edge of her mattress and looks down at me in the dim morning light. “Joan? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Just a dream.”
Someone knocks on the cabin door.
Karen looks at me. I look at her.
The person knocks again.
“Come in,” I shout.
The door opens and a triangle of light spreads into the room. A dark head peers in at us.
“I thought someone was here,” the head says.
Karen and I remain silent.
“You are here for Amaranta del Cielo?”
“Me.” I stick up my arm like a schoolgirl. “I am.”
“You will be late, señorita. She sees the people in five minutes.”
“I must see her.”
“Hurry with your dressing. I take you to her.”
The door closes.
I jump out of bed, Karen too, and we change into t-shirts and shorts.
“Is this… acceptable?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” Karen shrugs. “What does one wear to meet a divine healer?”
“Señoritas,” the man says from behind the door, then knocks.
“We’re coming,” I say, rush and open the door to his reserved and stern face.
“I am Juan Carlos. Now follow me, fast.”
I walk behind him, Karen behind me, both of us staring at his pressed, white shirt and black thatch of curls. We comb fingers through our hair and pull taut the wrinkles in our shirts as we walk on a worn path toward the three large buildings. I see that, indeed, we’re in a jungle, a dense overhead canopy of wide, waxy green leaves, tall trunks, bird calls, insects.
“You did not register.” He talks ahead of himself. “But I knew you were there.”
“The girl led us,” I say. “She showed us to the cabin.”
“There is no girl,” he says.
“There is,” I protest. “She led us. A girl in a white dress.”
“There is no girl.”
“I saw her.”
“I saw her, too” Karen says. “There was a girl.”
The man stops, turns around. He looks at me, calm, truthful.
“I believe that you saw a girl. Yes, I believe you. But there is no girl. There is only Amaranta.”
He turns around and walks. I follow and, somehow, understand that if I don’t know this information, I soon will, but he cannot help me to find it.
We walk to the center large building where I see two great bins marked ‘Donations’ on each side of the front door. There, the man turns around once more.
“All is free,” he says. “The cabin, food, water, fire. All is free and you may stay as long as you like, but we hope that you donate to keep the place going. It is expensive.”
He opens the door and we follow him into one big room set up like a church – rows of chairs on two sides, a center aisle, one large wooden chair at the front.
And there are people. Dozens and dozens of people. Natives and foreigners. And so much illness. These people cough, hold their heads. I see crutches and wheelchairs and bald women.
Karen grabs my arm.
“This is miserable,” she whispers.
“You,” Juan Carlos says and nods toward Karen. “Sit where you like. And you.” He nods toward me. “Get in line at the front.”
I look up to the two people who stand by the large wooden chair at the front of the room.
“Apurese. Ya vien. Hurry, she comes.”
Karen releases my arm as I walk to the front of the room, down the aisle, looking to both sides at these people, these sick people who feel the breath of death on their necks. I remember that I am one of them.
I take my place at the end of the line up against a wall. The first person is a woman in a wheelchair, anorexic-thin with bare, twisted feet. The man beside me doesn’t appear ill, but neither do I. We all face the audience, on display.
Juan Carlos stands tall on the other side of the front chair and I know that she is coming.
Amaranta del Cielo.
The crowd stirs.
I imagine her regal, young, but mature with wide eyes and coffee skin. I imagine her as a modern American queen, a demi-goddess.
Then she walks before me.
It’s her, right? I know it’s her. I see the look of the crowd. I feel it.
Amaranta del Cielo is over-the-hill, short and fat with thin, dry hair, limping forward in a dirty t-shirt and frayed jeans. She’s one of those people whose age I’d never guess out loud – could be an okay sixty or terrible forty.
My mind awakes. That’s your healer! That’s your American queen! You’re killing yourself with this, Joan. You’re killing us.
Amaranta grasps both arms of the chair, grunts and lifts herself onto it.
“Buenos dias,” she says.
“Good morning,” Juan Carlos translates.
The crowd returns her greeting with a mixture of languages.
“Esta mañana he venido aqui para pedirles algo a todos ustedes…”
As she speaks, my eyes move about the room, to Karen’s disbelieving eyes, the people, then up into the vaulted ceiling where I see nests and birds that dart in and out of open windows.
“Today, I ask you to pray for these three people,” Juan Carlos says. “As each appears before Amaranta del Cielo, pray for that person. Pray for health and happiness, understanding and acceptance. Pray that each will heal and be strong.”
“La primera, por favor.”
“The first, please.”
The woman wheels herself forward, in front of Amaranta. She straightens her head and back as Amaranta closes her eyes, then reaches out one open hand and sways it back and forth before the woman’s body. Her hand stops over the woman’s legs and it pulses and shakes. Amaranta opens her eyes.
The woman wheels away to Juan Carlos as the man in line takes her place before Amaranta.
This is it! A little shake of her hand! All this way to see some ragged woman shake her hand!
The hand reaches out again, back and forth, pulse and shake over the man’s heart. He jerks, gasps a bit. The crowd twitches.
Amaranta speaks to him, then Juan Carlos translates.
“You are not ready for the healing. You must rest. You must sleep.”
Ready? Am I ready? I certainly have not slept.
I walk before Amaranta and look into her eyes, the eyes of the girl in the white dress, big, glossy brown eyes.
My mind quiets.
She closes her eyes. Her hand reaches out and instantly I see the dream in my mind. I chase the girl – her – over wildflower fields. She jumps. I jump. But the image stops there, suspended.
Amaranta’s hand stops. It pulses, shakes over my head.
I feel nothing.
I feel calm.
I hear the birds tweet above me.
“Ahora empezamos el sanamiento.”
“We start the healing.”
I walk away and Juan Carlos flutters his fingers for me to come to him.
“You both,” he says to me and the woman in the wheelchair. “Get your companions and meet me in the prayer room in the back of this building.”
I turn around and walk toward Karen who sits in the back row as people in the audience stand up and form a line next to Amaranta.
“What was it like?” she whispers as I crouch down.
“Calm,” I say. “I need you to come with me.”
Karen stands and we walk around the perimeter of this room and find the back room, another open, plain space with rows of white chairs. No birds.
Juan Carlos walks in behind us.
“You are ready,” he says.
“I didn’t know.”
“Yo lo sabia. I knew.” He smiles. “She has called for you. You have seen her.”
“Seen who?” Karen asks.
“Now you must stay in this room and pray. No talking, no eating. There is water.” He points to two gallons jugs and a sleeve of plastic cups on a corner table by a bathroom. “Stay comfortable, but remember to pray. Both of you. Pray for health. See it in your minds, see the body healing. You must pray for three hours. I will get you when that time has finished.”
“What is happening?” Karen asks him. “In there? With all those people?” She points toward the large room that we just left.
“She is healing the sick,” he answers. “You go there tomorrow, but now you must pray and not talk.”
Juan Carlos turns around and speaks in Spanish to the woman in the wheelchair. She is alone.
Karen and I sit down. She leans toward me.
“Please,” I mouth and she nods. We sit back, close our eyes and pray.
When Juan Carlos comes to get us, finally, I am tired, hot, sticky, achy and ready
for sleep. Karen, too. Walking back to the cabin, she grabs hold of my hand with hers
and squeezes once.
I want to cry.
“Thank you,” I say.
“I tried,” she says, her voice soft. “I saw that MRI in my mind and I saw the white
tumor shrink. I saw it shrivel and disappear again and again, smaller and smaller fading
away. I saw it a hundred times. I willed it.”
“I know you did.”
“But, Joan, really,” she says, stops walking and turns to me. “This is your life. This is too important for hocus pocus.”
“I need you to trust me, Karen. I need you to trust me so I can trust myself.”
Down into the darkness, I spread out my limbs to slow down. Down. I spiral into the depths. Wind roars on all sides.
But the candle remains lighted.
I see below me a faint star, the light growing sharp, strong. It’s the girl’s candle.
Slowly, the depths take on shape The undulating darkness breaks below me to shades. I’m getting closer to the girl. Her candle glows stronger. The shades sharpen, define. I’m high over a valley, a jungle canopy. Broad leaves above bare trunks.
My mind shouts. You’re going to hit the ground! You’re going to die! Right now!
I feel my body lighten. I will my pace to slow. The roar of wind dies down and I coast below the canopy and see the girl who lies on the jungle floor. I coast down and turn in the air, slow and refined. Gingerly, my feet come to rest.
Then the girl screams, a strong, primal sting of pain. Her back arches, limbs flail, her fingers contort. I drop down on my knees and her eyes roll backward. Nothing but white. She jerks up her arms. It’s a seizure. The doctors warned me that I may have seizures.
I place my hand over her arms. I strain to restrict the spasms, to hold her here, here and safe.
“You must live!” I shout. “You must live!”
All movement stops. So quickly, she’s a sleeping child, tranquil and angelic. A thread of blood seeps out from her nose.
I lean down just inches above her to feel her breath upon my neck.
I wake up shaking, heavy.
My eyes open to Karen who leans over me and shakes my arms.
“Are you okay? Oh, Joan.”
She falls down upon me and I wrap my arms around her.
It’s dark, I realize. I’m on the jungle floor in the dark, outside of the cabin.
“Oh, God. I didn’t know where you were,” Karen sobs.
“What? What happened?”
She lifts up her body, wipes her nose.
“I don’t know. You slept most of the day. I thought you’d sleep all night and I went to bed. But then I woke up and you were gone. I’m lucky I found you out here, with just a frigging candle.”
I sit up and brace my hands against the hard ground.
“Oh, Joan, stop,” she pleads. “Stop this nonsense. Stop it now. You need doctors and nurses. You need electricity and hot water and chemotherapy. This is just some sham seeking donations, Joan, just another tourist trap. And look what’s happened. You’re passed out in the middle of a jungle and who knows, who knows what could have happened.”
I wrap my arms around Karen and she holds on to me, tight.
“I need you to trust me, Karen. I need you to will me to health and I need you to trust.”
The next morning, we sit in the audience before Amaranta of the Sky. Just one scared man up front, one new arrival who stands still as her hand shakes over his stomach. I understand what Karen thinks, that Amaranta’s just a crone with a capital idea. I wonder, too.
Amaranta opens her eyes.
“Empezamos el sanamiento,” she says.
“We start the healing.”
Juan Carlos takes the man away to pray as I stand up and walk to the front of the room and join the line of audience members who seek healing. The sick forever return with their hope.
Amaranta gets out of the chair and a man brings over a cart covered with medical instruments. I see scalpels and tongs and a collection of jagged steel tools whose names are unknown to me. I hope they are clean. I hope I’m not too scared.
Amaranta looks at the first person, a woman about my age, Salvadorian, I believe, one who appears healthy. Amaranta takes an instrument, some sort of thin, needle-nose gripper with a scissor handle and grasps a strip of cotton gauze.
She walks to the woman and cups her free hand beneath the woman’s mouth. Her jaw drops and Amaranta pushes the gauze into the woman’s mouth, moves it around in circles, a bit forceful. Then she pulls out the wet swab and drops it and the instrument in a bucket on the cart.
The woman walks away, back to join the audience.
Not so bad.
Amaranta picks up a scalpel. Standing before a man – the second person in line, I’m next – she lifts up his shirt and I see thin red lines, scars on his lower left side. Amaranta raises her arm and swoops it down. I flinch as she slices deep into his skin. The man doesn’t move. The wound swells with blood which runs into his pants. I see that they
are stained with old brown blood.
Juan Carlos is in the room now and the bleeding man walks to him. Juan Carlos has bandages.
Now what will she do to me? What will this crazy woman do?
I look at Karen who holds a hand over her mouth, eyes wide. She shakes her head. She’s telling me to leave, to run, for us to get up and out of this place.
Amaranta now stands before me, cotton gauze gripped in the needle-nose instrument. She cups my chin, but I know she’s not going for my mouth. Her eyes narrow in as she thrusts the gauze and instrument inside my nose. My head cocks backward, spins, clogged and groggy. My eyes flutter. I choke for air.
But there’s no pain.
She wrenches her wrist and twists it around.
I look to Karen who stands up in the audience in disbelief.
She twists it around, around.
But no pain. In my mind, I see the little girl in the white dress, back arched, fingers contorted. The girl has taken this pain for me.
Amaranta pulls out blood-soaked gauze. I feel blood run out of my nose. I taste it.
I can’t look at Karen. I just walk to Juan Carlos.
He hands me a ball of the gauze and I press it against my nose.
“You did well,” he says.
“I was shocked.”
“There was no pain for you, no hurt. You made no move.”
Slowly, I walk back to Karen with the ball of gauze covering my nose. Her face has fallen, blanched.
“How could she do that?” she whispers as I sit down.
“I felt nothing. It just happened and I felt nothing.”
“Nothing at all? She shoved that thing inside your head. This is quack craziness.”
“I haven’t mentioned anything, Karen. Have I? But still she chose to shove that gauze inside my head. Somehow she knows.”
“Hmmph.” She crosses her arms. “But what’s that going to do? She cleaned out your nose, made you bleed. What’s that going to do for cancer?”
“What’s anyone going to do? It’s inoperable.”
We watch Amaranta walk in front of the last person, the woman in the wheelchair. She bends down and takes the woman’s bare feet into her hands, then swoops out her elbows to each side. The woman jolts in the wheelchair.
“This is mad,” Karen says. “This is all mad.”
“I have to trust it.”
“I can’t explain.”
Karen frowns. I know what she thinks – that I’m wasting my time. I think it, too, but I’m trying to put that aside.“I just need to sleep,” I say, my head heavy and dry. “I just need to rest.”
“You must live!” I shout. “You must live!”
All movement stops. So quickly, she’s a sleeping child, tranquil and angelic on the jungle floor.
I lean down just inches above her and feel her breath upon my neck.
“I will live,” she whispers. “I will always.”
I sit up. The small girl smiles, sits herself up, too.
“You should not worry about me. Worry about yourself.”
“You are Amaranta, aren’t you?”
“Yes and no,” she says. “I am many. I am what you needed to lead you here.”
“You are Amaranta as a child?” She puffs out her lower lip, disappointed.
“Your mind is too fixed. Amaranta is a woman who bears the pain of a thousand illnesses. She is a shepherd. A name. I am and am not Amaranta.”
“I don’t understand.”
We both stand up and the girl holds out her open hand. I take her hand in mine and feel a calmness seep into my fingers, my arm, then spread across my chest, up, down. I am too calm, too completely rested to speak, every muscle and care eased.
Gravity falls away and the two of us rise. The little girl holds a lighted candle above her head and leads me up toward the canopy. I look down and see, in the distance, Karen kneeling over my still body on the jungle floor. She shakes me. She cries because I do not respond. I know that I scare her, but I cannot wake. Not yet. Out of the valley jungle we rise above the cliff edge and I see before me endless wildflower fields. I see mountains and lakes, cities and oceans. We rise together, calmly lifted above the solid world, up beyond clouds she leads me into the sky, high into sky beneath a sand spray of stars, we look upon the greatness of the earth, the vastness of a breathing planet and I feel within me the living will of billions.
And now I understand that this will is the girl.
She is and is not Amaranta.
There is no girl.
As I know this, she looks at me, then disappears and I am left here to float, to inhale, stretch out the power and resolve of my body above the turning earth because I shall live on the will of my existence. Yes! I shall overcome.
I, too, am part of this all – Yes! – because I, too, am Amaranta of the Sky.
Michael Milliken is a graduate of Yale University and is currently working on his M.F.A in Fiction Writing at the University of New Hampshire. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beginnings, Better Fiction, Cellar Door, and the anthologies 50 States, Riptide and Visiting Hours.