by Lina M. Ferreira C.-V.
Every purple July, they return. In cars, in buses, and barefoot. From Peru, from Ecuador, from Venezuela. From the capital and from the towns and villages in between, and—once, at least—from Rome. From above mountains and beneath bridges, the pilgrims go back to Colombia’s holy city, Chiquinquirá. Did you see them yourself?
“Hm! Of course.”
Did you meet them?
“Hm! Imagine. Of course.”
What did they say?
“Hm, hm! So many things.”
And what did they look like?
“Head to toe, in purple.”
I know this, because María told me. “Sometimes on foot, sometimes in cars—you know the kinda car? Snouty. Like pigs.” Renaults? “Yes, yes.”
And María knows because she saw them, every year, on the ninth of July when processions swept through her hometown, sandals and candles, beer and prayer. They arrived in packs to pay their respects to both Mary and Mary, María y María—la virgen y la devota, the saint and her servant.
The Virgin Mary, the first Mary, whose miraculous portrait they carry on their shoulders from one end of the city to the other—like a victorious coach, like a casket, like a tired child at a fair. And while the palanquin poles sink into their shoulders, and wax drips on their shirts and sts, they’ll quietly pay homage to the second and less famous María, María Ramos, who four hundred years ago restored the Virgin’s holy portrait, and made the city holy in the first place.
María, my grandmother’s and mother’s former maid, won’t tell me about María Ramos. Not because, I don’t think, she doesn’t know or doesn’t want to tell me, but rather because I’ve hardly ever known her to utter more than a fistful of words at a time, and never any sentence uninterrupted by her own personal phonetic punctuation mark. A “Hm!” sound she produces from somewhere between her throat and nose, which I’ve learned, more or less translates to, but the rest goes without saying. “They come and come, the pilgrims, returning, and hm!” It is as if every spoken phrase demands an enormous effort from her, as if she were perpetually hanging from a metal bar and had to pull herself up to it in order to speak, weight and gravity and syntax constantly pulling her down toward silence. “Hm!”
I ask her about Chiquinquirá, and about her husband, and about her father and her brothers and the pilgrims, and she hangs on that bar and kicks her feet, “Hm!” As if all her stories were an exercise in redundancy. She raises her shoulder and drops them like anchors. “Well there and there, and then and then.” Every end before the end. “So, on he went. Hm!”
“He,” as in her brother. “There and there,” as in Chiquinquirá. “Then and then,” when they were still basically kids, “on he went,” somewhere else, away forever from their childhood home never to return again. With his face in his hands, I imagine, as if he were weeping, which he must have been, through shattered bones and cuts like ruts on a road where the bicycle chain his father was swinging split his face open.
María knows, because she was there—she told me. After I begged a little and I begged a lot, she told me about Chiquinquirá, and her brother, and her father, and the dead donkey, and the cliff, and the pilgrims—how they always return, every purple July.
Start at the beginning María, at home. What is Chiquinquirá like?
Chiquinquirá is an uneven mixture of processions and corner shops. Red brick streets lled with the greasy smell of mazamorra, arepa, and chorizo. Matching leftover colonial balconies above neon-sign restaurants and drugstore casinos. The clicking sound of barely audible songs through cheap transistor radios and the clinking of empty beer bottles.
This is where María was born. Not in the tourist-friendly town center with its symmetrical, brick-laid streets, but in the unpaved outskirts of moss and smoke and dust.
In the beginning of 1586, the only thing María Ramos knows is that the worn-out cotton canvas before her once held the image of the holy Virgin Mary. This is all she knows, and all she needs to know. She pulls the rather large painting from a dark room in the chapel, where it’s been for the last twenty years, between wooden slabs and rotten planks, and she brushes the dust off the way someone brushes hair from a child’s face.
She doesn’t know much about restoration, or paintings, or art in general. But she knows two things: first, that hidden in the cloth there was once the image of the mother of God, and second, that right now, she really needs to gaze upon something holy.
So she sets the painting down gently on the oor, lightly dabbing it with a white rag dipped in turpentine and alcohol. Trying to divine the lines between St. Andrew’s cape and cross, the dark brown of St. Anthony’s robes and the light brown of his bible. The contentment in the Virgin’s face as she holds a plump baby Jesus in her arms from her holy serenity as she gazes into a flat distance. But María Ramos does not know this yet. She does not know Jesus’ plumpness and how the Virgin’s eyes remain half closed, perpetually unimpressed by the ornate composition around her— the golden cherubs holding a crown above her head, the tipped crescent moon around her feet, and the grotesque homunculi posing atop bibles while men drag heavy crosses behind them like cans on a newlyweds’s car. María Ramos has never actually seen the face she is so furiously trying to recover from behind layers of dust and mold and moth-laid eggs, but faith lets the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the hopeless hope, the untrained restore.
So she mixes in prayers with the alcohol as she dabs, for good measure. “Please, please,” as she begs, kneeling besides the painting. “Please, Mary, please.” Though maybe her prayers are more specific: “Let there be paint beneath this stain. Don’t let the cloth tear. Don’t let my eyes go.” Though maybe they are less specific: “Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. Please, please, please.” Or maybe the painting is the prayer itself and not what she is praying for: “Please Mary, let me see you. Let me hear you. Let me know what to do.” Maybe she cries a little and rushes to wipe her nose with the back of her hand, leaving oily streaks of turpentine soaked dust across her face. “Please, don’t let me be alone. Show me something, show me anything.” And when her eyes begin to burn, she pulls herself away from the painting, looks away into the street—a cat on the windowsill, a bird on the wire, a sleeping dog beside a lame beggar. “Make that cat land on its back, make the birds blind, the dog howl, the man whole. Anything.” Maybe what she did know, what she could see, was nothing she wanted to know or see, or have waiting for her back home. Maybe the painting is penance and not prayer.
Either way, she cries, and she dabs, and she goes home late at night and comes back early in the morning, to cry and dab and go home again even later that night. To continue praying and begging and asking, “Mary, Mary, Mary?” Until the Holy Virgin hears, through cloud cover and quilted wings, María’s muffled cry, and she decides to answer.
She leaps down from heaven, lands softly on the rain-soaked roof of a Colombian chapel, and walks barefoot along the edge where a line of pigeons perch. Then she looks down at María Ramos washing the turpentine streaks from her face, she hears her own name being called, “María? María? María?” and she hears, also, what lies beneath the name—the things María Ramos can’t quite put into words, the anxious undercurrents of her troubled mind. And the pigeons begin cooing excitedly, and the cat misjudges a distance, and the beggar kicks the dog, as the canvas seems to burst into a blaze of heatless fire that erupts from every ghost brush stroke. The Virgin has decided to scorch the painting back from the depths of the cloth, and slowly, slowly, St. Anthony reappears, St. Andrew reappears, the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus all reappear, while the fat child atop a Bible re-emerges like a sunken city in a drought.
She will relent. Eventually. María will clap her hands and shake her head and tell me, “Once a whole bunch of them,” pilgrims in purple robes, “came up to me and my brother and they said how they liked me, and how I was pretty and white. And if I wanted something to drink or something to eat in the little shop in the corner, and...Hm!” She shrugs, shakes her head, and looks up at me as if I know exactly how the story ends because, of course, the rest goes without saying.
María is short, light-skinned, calloused, and about two sizes too small for her cheap, baby blue maid’s uniform and matching apron. The rest does not go without saying, What then? “Hm!” What then María, what then? “What then? Hm. They said they wanted to take me, and then they said they were just gonna take me and would give my brother—who was there, just right there with me—a little something for it.”
I picture the pilgrims, worn-out t-shirts and sweatpants under their robes, making their way up a dirt road when they notice a ten-year-old girl walking home with her brother. One of them shifts his weight and taps the other on the shoulder. One of them fixes the elastic on his sweatpants while yet another nods. The girl in the distance is pale and short, but she walks with purpose. She clearly knows the road, the dirt beneath and her way home, just as the men watching her know the path of their appetites, and how to satisfy them. So they approach the brother and sister. Maybe they have to jog a little to catch up and they lift their robes so they won’t trip. Maybe they are on the other end and have only to wait for the boy and girl to walk up to them so they can say, “Young man,” Jovencito, “your sister, she’s pretty.” They are tired, after all; they’ve been walking for weeks, or driving for days, or riding the bus for hours. Regardless, they are tired. Tired and bored because they are, clearly, also early. Hours if not days before processions and masses and blessings. So they ask the boy, “Is she thirsty, your sister? Maybe she wants us to buy her a little something. ¿Arepita? ¿Gaseosa? ¿Almojábana?” And the boy looks at his sister. There is a chance he doesn’t understand. What do these men want? Who are they, and why wouldn’t they offer him something to drink too? But misunderstanding is unlikely. “Give us her, and we’ll give you something for your trouble.” ¿Qué le parece?
“But, no. No, no. My brother wouldn’t have it.” María shakes her head adamantly, arms crossed, eyes closed, head to the right and then to the left like she’s trying to shake off years of dust and mold. “He said that I was a little girl, just too little, and he said no. And no, and no. Hm!” And she laughs. A reached-punchline laugh, as if there were no edge to that story at all, or else the edge had been blunt all along and how silly to ever think that it could do any harm.
It seems fitting that María Ramos would not be the first to see her own miracle. She is weeping, the turpentine burns, and she’s been at the chapel for hours and hours, so she stands up, pats the dust off her knees, and props the painting up against a wall in the corner. She can’t tell if the burning is caused by the turpentine, the strain or the trouble that makes her so desperate for a miracle, so she simply splashes water on her face when suddenly she hears the scream.
An indigenous woman named Isabel had been walking past the chapel with her three-year-old son when she saw it: a white fire burning so brightly, Isabel had to turn away and shield her son’s eyes as well as her own, as if there were razors in the splendor, and she yelled, “Fire!”
María Ramos doesn’t think the word through. The domino drop of ideas has no time to tumble. There is only adrenaline shooting out in all directions, a practiced fear taking over. “Run!” She knocks over the washbasin as she spins around. The water splashes out as the bowl turns as it falls, and María Ramos has run halfway out of the chapel before the porcelain base has burst against the tile. But then she also sees the ash behind her, off in the corner, where the painting stands, and then the dominoes begin to fall. “¡Virgen santa!” She turns around to face the light, and it’s as if one of the sun’s scales has peeled off and fallen right atop the canvas. A blinding pain pulls her away but a deeper anguish pulls her towards. She wants to look away but she also wants to see, so she keeps her eyes fixed on that spot in the corner.
The outline of a red-coal finger behind the cloth traces outlines, resurrects color and shape, and in a ash the splendor is gone. The fire puts itself out and leaves behind a painting—Anthony, Andrew, Jesus, and Mary perfectly restored.
María laughs with her whole body. She shakes her head with her whole body, waves and talks as if all her tendons and ligaments became at some point irrevocably entangled and no single string can be pulled without every marionette on the stage twitching and jolting in the same direction.
A nod becomes a bow, a word a full-bodied gesture. She is a single four-foot-nothing blur of unspoken motion constantly sweeping, and vacuuming and wiping away, and it is hard to imagine what could make a woman such as this, if a woman such as this can be made at all.
María wakes up in the bed she shares with four other siblings in their home on the outskirts of the holy city. She is five years old and it is five in the morning.
Five? How can you be so sure? It was so long ago. “Hm. Same every day.”
It is always five in the morning when María’s father closes his grip around her small arm and shakes her into the waking-working world. She stumbles out a bed and into a kitchen where she wolfs down a breakfast of boiling coffee, scrambled eggs and burnt arepas, before feeling her father’s grip around her arm once more, as he drags her into the red clay pits.
How does that work, María? The clay pit thing?
“What you do is you tear off all my clothes. I tore them all off.” And then? “And then I jumped right in with the animals. Ox, donkey, right-right there with them.”
So she’s five and naked and red. She jumps into the pit. She stomps, jumps, slaps the donkey’s rear end to make it go faster, feels the clay slipping between her toes and hopes for an even mixture to later pour into wooden molds and bake into bricks for her father’s business.
“Clothes get in the way,” she says, “so you have to take them off.” And I imagine red ribs and red toes and red knees stopping hard, falling often, mixing dust and mud while the ovens ll the air with smoke. And sometimes I think I can smell smoke too.
I see María’s face begin to turn. She purses her lips in a way that pushes out her chin like a pole through a tent, and makes her look much older. She looks off to a corner for a second and makes her sound, “Hm,” softer than I’ve ever heard it, and less certain too. She tells me that behind the ever burning oven res and the towers of uncooked brick, there was a shack. Though she calls it “the punishment room,” and tells me how one way or another, her father would always end up shuffling toward it, gripping a child’s arm in one hand and a bottle in the other. “He’d get so angry,” she says in the same tone as, “How was your day, niña Lina?” and, “Have you eaten yet, niña Lina?” Only with this little added sharpness, as if she could see it happening right then, in an ever continuous preset-past. Her brother, the same who told the pilgrims they could not take her, is himself taken into that shack behind the curtains of smoke. The hand that had held hers as they walked away from the men in purple robes turns purple now as their father ties his feet to a beam and blood reverses its flow.
An empty bottle, or a stick, or a leather strap, or a bicycle chain, or whatever is on hand. Swinging, striking, and biting an upside-down body, hung like a cut of a meat in a butcher shop, and turning like a tire swing in a yard. Rope and beam and boy creaking with each blow until a father’s arm or an upside-down child fall silent and limp.
I’ve never known María to stand still. She moves so fast, so incorrigibly, she sometimes feels dangerous to me, as if making her stand still were the same as closing your hand around a bottle rocket. If I keep asking questions I may lose my thumbs. I want to look away, but I also want to see. So wait, I watch her stand shockingly still. Or mostly still, as she shifts her weight from right to left, left to right, and back again, and tells me how her drunken father would kneel beside the swinging body of one of his sons, to pile wet sticks beneath their heads and try to light a match, try to start a fire.
María, María, María? Why, why? To burn them? To kill them?
“No mi niña Lina, no, no. The wood was wet, niña. Only smoke. Hm.” A quiet smoky fire rising up while a man takes drunken swings at the body of a child with red-clay dust still in his hair.
The story changes. Sometimes it happens in a day, María Ramos hangs the painting, not knowing what lays beneath while she whispers a prayer, “the prayer of the faithful,” and it’s like adding milk to instant pudding. A microwavable ready-in-a-minute miracle. Sometimes, however, it takes weeks, cleaning and mending and restoring. She wears holes into her knees and fingertips before the Virgin deems her worthy. Sometimes she is a wealthy pious woman generously volunteering her time, and sometimes an ignorant but kindly maid who stumbles on the painting while cleaning out the closet of a nobleman, or the forgotten shack behind the chapel.
Sometimes the indigenous woman walks alone and sometimes with a child. Sometimes she disappears altogether like silver snakes into sacred lakes, though whenever she is mentioned she is always una mujer indígena llamada, Isabel. Sometimes the fire burns red, sometimes white. Sometimes the blaze can be seen for miles and people run to the streets half-naked holding buckets of water and sand.
But always, as many times as I’ve heard it, from as many people as I’ve asked—and from a “documentary” video playing on loop in the tourist information center of Chiquinquirá—always: María Ramos, tears, prayers, and the Virgin’s return. At the end, no matter what, Mary always comes back from behind the stains and prints and cracks, from the ether of wearing and tearing, from the rubbed-out edges of brushstrokes and patina. She returns.
María, María. Tell me about the donkey again.
“We were little, like ten and nine, I remember. Ten or nine, because we had the alpargatas my mother bought us for our first communions. Me and my brother.” I lean in, cross my legs, run my finger along the rubber edge of my sneakers and picture María, in her straw and dry-fique sandals running down a hill toward the Basilica. “Yes. Of course.” I’ve worn them once or twice, in school plays and dances, and remember only brief sticky nights of blisters and straw. “Yes, nine-ten. I remember, because it was so much better after.” What was better? What before? “Hm! Than barefoot, niña Lina.”
I picture it, her and her brother walking back from town in their new alpargatas, avoiding large groups of men, anyone wearing a robe, while they count and recount their first communion money. “All those streets were dirt and pebbles. Back then all that was like that, not paved like here. And my brother and me, we walked back talking just like this, about shoes. Leather ones, wooden ones, real ones, do you see, niñaLina?” I nod and lean in closer; I like this story. “Talking about all sorts of things to buy with our money, and walking back with that donkey loaded very, very heavy with all the rewood on its back.” María bends over, mimicking the donkey. “Then my aunts, they come out to the road and they do like this.” She steps sideways and motions with her hands, “Like this, see?” I nod again, “Like, ‘come in, come in.’ So we do.”
What María doesn’t say, she acts out. She paces up and down the kitchen and plays every part. Though, sometimes, it still doesn’t make sense to me. But, María, why? Why go in and risk being late? Wouldn’t he beat you? Weren’t you afraid? I can’t let go of the punishment room, nor of María’s tone when she talks of it. How normal and casual it all sounds, and how extraordinarily pragmatic extraordinary cruelty can be. Why fire? “To choke them.” Why hang them? “Easier to hit ’em.” Why by their feet? “So they wouldn’t run.”
I think, in part, it might be the stupid notion behind the impulse to peer into locked rooms, and stare into the barrel of deep abysses with one foot off the ledge. As if seeing were knowing, and staring into the cliff were the same as coming apart against it. As if I could actually understand this moment in María’s life, if I only think long and hard enough about it.
A man swinging a bicycle chain against a child’s face while the room fills with smoke is a great and terrible mystery to me. Not because the trajectory of the chain or the sound of bursting capillaries is unimaginable, but because there seems to be no purpose in either. The speed of his swing is motivated by neither hunger nor cold, by neither the reproductive imperative nor the gratification of biological and intellectual pleasure. His motivation is something on the periphery of compulsion and panic. He happens like things have happened to him, he occurs and he survives, and he carries on in twisted pragmatism.
Wouldn’t your father be mad, with you both gone so long? She shrugs, “They had little things for us to eat, my aunts, little sugary things, you know? Alfandoques, panelitas, things like that, so we went inside.” What about the donkey? “We tied him up outside and we went in and then. And then. Hm!” María? Then what, María? “¡Ay, ay, ay! No, no. Niña Lina, no, no.” María laughs, she claps her hands together and shakes from head to toe. The story pulls a spring-loaded spine back and farther back like a catapult, until she finally bounces forward with a howl of uncontrolled glee— laughter like water from a broken pipe.
“We tied him too tight!” She shouts, “Do you see niña Lina? Just too tight. Hm!” Too tight and too close to the tie rack, so maybe a blind bird flew into the donkey, or a white light blinded it for a second, or more likely it tried to shift its weight from one side to the other and gravity won out in the exchange. Down went donkey, flat on its side, down all the wood they’d laid on its back, and further down still they both would have rolled, if only it hadn’t been for that rope. Though not a rope anymore, but a noose. “That there, where we tied it, there we found it.” She points to a spot in the kitchen floor at which I stare dutifully. “Feet all up to heaven when we came back out, all strangled and by itself.”
María stands on the spot at which she was pointing, she extends like Frankensteinian limbs, and then she tosses her head back and opens her mouth like dead cartoon frog while I picture stiff legs and a big round belly, a grey furry radish with four toothpick legs sticking out.
Chiquinquirá was built by the wife of a Spaniard bored of waiting for him to return from the old continent. She ordered, perhaps accidentally, that her new town be built atop sacred Muisca ground. Bits and pieces still remain from the lonely wife’s construction. White adobe, uneven stones, an empty fountain in the middle of a square. Though Chiquinquirá is also full of corner markets, anything-you-need drugstores and neon signs advertising big portions and cheap alcohol from small, colonial-style doorways.
The epicenter of the town, however, remains nostalgically preserved. Or at least this is what it is meant to look like to tourists and purple robed pilgrims. The municipal government paints the balconies, keeps the facades, patches up the adobe walls, and, when the original chapel burnt down years ago, they built a better basilica to house the sacred painting of the resurrected image of the mother of God. If a tourist were to travel to Chiquinquirá today, for example, she might be fooled by the reconstruction and relocation, and even knowing the story she might have a hard time finding the actual place of the actual miracle.
The much larger basilica is, on the other hand, nearly impossible to miss. It stands enormous and yellow in the middle of a new idealized version of what a colonial plaza should be. It is, as the priest in the visitor center explains, “A better home for the painting and a proper altar for the memory of María.” Though he does not clarify which María. Business followed the reconstruction, legions of believers hoping to be restored by the restored painting—to health, to happiness, to sanity, to saintliness—flocked to the fake site of the real miracle. When I last visited, people still lined the sides of the narrow alleys around the basilica with wooden carts full of prayer cards and wax gurines of square houses, rectangular cars and little, plump, faceless people to aid the faithful in their prayers. Wanting and worrying made wick and wax, made totem, made prayer prop for the devout to leave below the painting like torn shirts in a seamstress basket. And as I stood between the faithful and the ear-wax idols, I realized I was standing where the men in purple robes must have also stood. In the middle of the fake colonial square, holding fake cars and fake houses while wax and good intentions melted away.
I clenched a st and turned a wax gure in my hand. Featureless, genderless, nameless, with a tiny wheel-of-cheese belly and the ability to represent every sick son, every distressed daughter, every unemployed father and homeless mother. I looked back at the altar below the painting, it was covered three-rows-high with waxen bodies, buildings and vehicles each representing someone someone knew—someone someone wanted a car for, someone someone wanted a house for, someone someone wanted someone for. I saw a woman carrying a little yellow man between her hands as if it were the last flame left on a windswept earth, and I wondered what a boy hanging by his ankles in a smoke-filled shack might represent to the man who swings the chain.
María, are you going back? Do you miss it?
María fiddles with her apron, tries to stand still long enough to answer my questions.
“Well, there and there, niña Lina.”
Sometimes I dream of dead donkeys. I dream of the rest of the story María told me, and I see her, nine or ten with her communion money in her pocket. She grabs a dead donkey’s leg; her aunts and brother each grab another. They pull the dead thing uphill on a dirt and gravel road. They drag it on its side, on its ribs, on its face, an ear gets sort of caught and the cartilage snaps like a carrot, as they scrape parts of the grey fur off, make it smooth down once side, like a spent lottery ticket.
You dragged it? But, why María? What for? “Hm!” I hear her and see a little girl covered in dust and sweat, “Hm, what else to do? Take him up hill.” They start to wear out their new alpargatas as they push the animal to the edge of the cliff. What then, María? What then? “Hm! What else niña Lina, what else to do?” They are all very, very tired, because donkeys are animals built to carry and not to be carried, and least of all dragged uphill. Donkeys are big and heavy, and María and her brother and her aunts are all so tired, but they take a deep breath and finish dragging it up, right up to the edge. Then they push it off the side of the cliff. It slides down on the dirt, slowly at first, then faster and faster until it hits a big rock and a tangle of roots, and it snags. For a moment they worry it might get stuck, but then the roots give out and it slips silently into a free fall. Legs and broken ear and tail appearing suspended in the whirlpool of gravity until it finally hits—a wet, quiet, distant crack. Why, María, why? “So he wouldn’t beat us. Hm. To say, ‘isn’t it terrible it got stolen just like that?’ And ‘who would do that?’ Do you see niña Lina?” I do. I think I do. Did it work? “No,” Oh. “But it wasn’t so bad as other times.” How so? “He mostly just took all our communion money, and bought himself a new donkey. Didn’t beat us so bad.”
I tried to see the painting, I really did. I tried to push my way through the crowd and see what María Ramos wanted so desperately to make visible on the canvas, but a woman holding a wax baby pushed me out of the way so she could place her figurine on the altar and kneel beside it in prayer.
Perhaps the crowd was too large to fight, or else it had too much to fight for and I too little. Perhaps there needs to be a bigger selection of wax figures to encompass all our prayers. All the same, I stepped out of the basilica. I walked the length of the town until I found the site of the first chapel where María Ramos peeled back the heavens with turpentine.
Inside the white adobe replica there was silence. I stared at poorly drawn images on the walls of Franciscan monks landing on yellow shores and handing bibles and two dimensional doves to half-naked brown skinned people, and then a man jumped up from behind a desk, eager to explain miracles and the myriad miracles of God’s mercies. He leapt to his feet and slipped seamlessly into a recitation of the story of María Ramos while pointing with large exaggerated gestures toward an empty corner as if fire might have erupted at any moment and burnt portraits of St. Matthew onto my forehead.
I stood still and half listened while running my index finger through the knife-made grooves of names, hearts, initials, and swastikas carved onto a wooden railing leading to some underground room beside the pulpit. “Ah, and there,” the man pointed at the railing, “we still have, from before the fire, the well.” I didn’t know about the well, so I followed the railing down as the man told us to be careful because the steps were steep and very old.
“Pilgrims come yearly from all over the world to be cured by the holy waters of our well.” It wasn’t very far down, but the steps were steep and the well was deep and the plick-plick of a constantly falling drop echoed up sharply. “They come from Venezuela and Peru, from all over the world. Pope John Paul himself came once, from Rome.” The well was locked, and I assumed remained so until pilgrim, leper, or pope justified digging through a messy drawer for the key.
“What do you want to know, niña Lina? Hm?”
I’m not sure, it’s complicated.
“You go on then, hm! Ask and one will see if it can be answered.”
Tell me, María, what really happened.
After you pushed the donkey off the cliff, he bought a new one. And then?
“My dad, he was, hm!”
What? What was he?
María laughed and with nothing to clean she began picking up random things, turning them around and setting them back down in the exact same spot. I’m sorry. “Less so with us girls, but with the boys, hm!” I’m sorry, María. “Us girls only got hit until we bled. The boy got hung.”
María’s hands are thick with callouses, and she used to wrap them around me when I left for the airport, for the States—because I was only seventeen then, “Solo una niña,” and “Too young to go alone, just like that. No, no.” She said, “So far away.”
I imagine her hands, small and strong, and I wonder if they are anything like her father’s hands. I try to picture them wrapping rope and tying feet. Did he use a pulley system? Was he as tall as María is short? Did he hoist them up in a single motion with some sort of perverted grace? Had he passed out from drink or exhaustion the day one of his sons squirmed out of the knot, fell to the ground, and rose back up to pick up the chain laying still in his father’s grip?
María’s brother was small back then, “Only a kid.” Small enough to slip out of the rope, but big enough to pick up the chain. María doesn’t laugh when she tells me this story. Doesn’t move, doesn’t fidget, doesn’t weep either. She says only what needs to be said, pauses only when she needs a breath, and then stops. So I don’t ask any question, I just listen and picture a small boy swinging like a pendulum above a pillar of smoke. What does one do, I wonder, upside down all night while rope burns and father snores? On the night of the worst beating, while blood ran from his chin, across his face and into the dirt, did he get bored? Had he learnt to sleep like a bat, to swing like a hammock? Had he slipped out before? Taught himself how to loosen the creaking knots, to climb down gently, and simply walk out of that room as if it where any other meaningless room in the world? Or, was that night the first, and so, also, the very last? Did, perhaps, María’s father realize right away what that metal taste was, or did his son have to swing it multiple times before it was clear? Did he recognize the feeling of a burst lip and chipped teeth and blood springing like a geyser? Is it perhaps familiar because it is familiarly inherited, is this shack built on the ashes of another? Is it full of wax and simulacrum, or is this single punishment room his one creative contribution to the world?
“He didn’t kill’em.” María clarifies with a shrug while I picture a small boy swinging a chain into him like a pick ax, like he is loosening the earth and digging up the corner stone of an old cathedral. He didn’t kill him, I repeat thinking of a chain like heavenly fire and vertical scars like brushstrokes on a canvas. Didn’t. Though it’s hard to imagine he did not at least consider it. Maybe he meant to, maybe he stopped when the chain cuts the skin, or maybe only when his father begged with a gargled whimper. Maybe he had simply been upside down for too long that night and he could only manage so many swings before he began seeing red and white stars. Maybe that’s when he decided to run—with his face in his hands and the beginnings of scars that would last forever.
María? María? Why did you stay? Why didn’t you leave, María? “I did, niña Lina. Hm! I did. When I was nine I left.” Where did you go? “Bogotá, right here to Bogotá?” Where? “I first came to an aunt’s, but she said, ‘You can’t stay here, nothings free in life.’ Hm! Life isn’t free.” Then where? “To work. Life isn’t free, niña Lina. So I went as a maid and looked after the children.” But... how old were you? “Hm! Nine, ten. I did the cooking, the cleaning. The Doña, she showed me with the rice, and the laundry. You learn, there and there, then and then. In job, you learn.” María, María. Did they pay you well, María? Where you ok, María? “Hm! Imagine that! When I finally told them I was leaving, the Doña, she gave me a little clothes, a little money. Almost nothing.” María, María. . . “But. She did give me shoes.”
And then? “Then I was sixteen, then back to mi tierra. Chiquinquirá, Hm! When one has nowhere to go, one goes home.”
María Ramos is never mentioned again in the story. The holy fire makes the painting; the unholy one takes the chapel. The Vatican sends its commission of priests, briefcases, and interpreters. The quota of miracle and inexplicability is charted, quantified, and certified.
In 1919, during a procession to the capital where the painting is carried miraculous mile after miraculous mile, the then-president, Marco Fidel Suarez, crowns the painted María queen and patron saint of Colombia. The crowd cheers and roars, !María, María, María, María! María Ramos is barely footnote.
Fire, procession, crown, and crowd. María Ramos walks out of the chapel and story having, maybe, seen what she wanted to see, heard what she needed to hear, or knowing, finally, what she wanted to know. And then she never walks back again.
In my mind she wears alpargatas and walks with purpose up a hill to a small adobe home. It’s cool, as colonial constructions tend to be, and she keeps it as neat as is possible under clouds of smoke and red dust. Maybe she lies down beside her sleeping husband and runs her hand down his back. Maybe she plants a kiss between his shoulder blades and whispers, “It’ll be alright now.” Or maybe she plants a knife instead. Takes a deep breath, buries it deep into him like a seed or a secret, and whispers, “It’ll be all right now.”
Whatever she does after, wherever she goes next, she has earned a miracle and she alone knows its true meaning. Perhaps she is cured and has no reason to return, perhaps that is what it means to see the face of God. Or else, perhaps she isn’t cured, it was just a painting meaninglessly-miraculously restored before her eyes, and perhaps that’s what it means to see the face of God.
María didn’t return to Chiquinquirá after that, but when her father fell ill, he did return to her. “When you have nowhere else to go, you go home.”
It’s been years since I last saw her, and even though I have the story second hand I know María, and I don’t need to see to believe. After years and years in silence, a brick maker from Chiquinquirá called his daughter in the capital. He coughed through red-dust storm clouds gathering inside his lungs and he told her what the doctors had told him, that he was dying and should not be left alone. I do wonder, however, about what María thought then? Did she think of her brother, of falling donkeys, of purple pilgrimages and a barefooted Virgin Mary kicking sleeping pigeons off a ledge? Or else did she see, suddenly before her, great pillars of smoke rising from the ever burning fires inside red chimneys and hidden shacks? Did María feel the weight of a broken bicycle chain in her hands and the burden of a violent legacy on her shoulders? Is she her father’s daughter, her brother’s sister, her namesake’s heir? Is this what it is to see the face of God? And is it weakness, habit, or an honest miracle when she offered him a bed, cared for him for the five long years it took him to finally die? And isn’t this, at the very least, much more mysterious than the brutal swings of a drunk man in the dark?
“Hm! Niña, Lina. Hm!”
Lina M. Ferreira C.-V. graduated with a creative non fiction writing and a literary translation MFA from the University of Iowa. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing from Anomalous Press and Don’t Come Back from Mad River Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press. Her ction, non ction, poetry and translation work have been featured in journals including Bellingham Review, Chicago Review, Fourth Genre, Brevity, Poets & Writers, and The Rumpus, among others. She has won the Iron Horse Review’s Discovered Voices Award and is a Rona Jaffe fellow. She moved from Colombia to China to Columbus to Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an assistant professor for the Virginia Commonwealth University and tends to tiny plants.