Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird (A)

When I read Sirens of Titan several years ago, I likened Vonnegut's phrasing to the dropping singular bricks of prose from great height. Such were the little texticules, delivered concisely and distantly for maximum effect. Later, when I read Cat's Cradle, I remarked that he'd moved up to whole paragraphs and pages, each section mounted like an absurdist gem for optimal appreciation, and as the reader strolls though the museum, a floor plan gradually gets revealed. By the time he wrote Jailbird, he moved up to the level of entire story.

There's something about Vonnegut's structure that really grabbed me here, and more completely than before. There is a plot progression in the book but the conclusion is telegraphed early and foregone. The interest arises as the details and the backstory get revealed as the plot slowly gets along. This in itself isn't unusual--lots of authors work in the gradually-filled-in-outline mode--but Vonnegut has transcended the form. He's written a novel that is completely self-similar in form. Each of the large parts of the heirarchy has the same shape as the smaller parts below it. The absurdist style helps. The whole story is a finely crafted irony of a man who drifts from power to contempt with no special skills or culpability or qualifications. The subplots of individual characters are fine synecdoches of this larger arc, the ironies that a friendless old man manages to collect reflect it, and even on the word and sentence level, through clever repetition and juxtaposition, Vonnegut loses none of this punch. He manages to place the whole scope of the book in periodic triple claps that break unwanted into quiet meditations. On top of all this, he manages to deliver the thing in an even comfortable tone of a genial old fart unwinding a long anecdote. I'd never quite grasped Vonnegut's ability as pure storyteller, but it was relentless here. Peace.

I suppose it also helped that he's not, in Jailbird taking on life, the universe, and everything. It's both easier and more ambitious to poke at god, or at the futility of it all. Here he instead takes on the corporate world, painting the proles as sympathetic buffoons, and the managers likewise, just buffoons who've wandered into power. He drops in plenty of references that were probably hard-hitting in 1979, when Watergate was fresh enough, but as I live through the most absurd time in my memory, I can't help but wish he'd written it in 2006.


(Next is cynical blasphemy week, I'm just in that sort of mood. I've got Towing Jehovah on deck, in which the corpse of God must be disposed. I plan to follow up with Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth which I've never gotten around to finishing. Other suggestions are welcome.)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book Review: After Silence, by Jonathon Carroll (A)

So I had a busy time of it the other day. Not busy at work (that's crazy talk) but I bagged out for an hour to catch a the yearly used book sale sponsored by the local library. I buy most of my books this way, for better or worse. Better, because I'm cheap. Worse, because I'm publishing (after a fashion) my reviews now...

The book sale is big enough to fill the town gym, and stumbling into the cloverfield of tomes, with its swarms of geriatric honeybees, can be a little daunting. A lot of people wax philosophical about the smell of them, but I have to admit that when you get enough musty old books together with just the right amount of moisture, they garner a whiff of something like cat shit. Unless that was just from the old ladies I had to jostle to get a glimpse of the 407th copy of Maeve Binchy's (whoever that is) second-latest opus. And while I love lining them up on my shelves, the reckless hodgepodge of boxes and tables made me want to get the hell out of there ever so much quicker.

You can break down the typical used book selection into a handful of categories. Mostly, you find overprinted slop from contemporary successful authors. It's a measure of a writer's staying power that the gyms and holes in the wall get filled up with overruns. Grisham, Patterson, and Steele hardbacks become worthless after about eighteen months, ready to be forgotten by all except trolling screenwriters. The second-biggest category is Great Works by famous, but still overrated authors (or overrated works from admittedly great authors). Usually these get overprinted when (I assume) some overzealous publisher gets caught up in the literary flavor of the day. To be sure, Eco has written a dog or two, DeLillo's Underworld (very well represented in the gym) though good, is still an overwrought doorstop, and the place is awash in McEwans. There are also the physical dregs, battered library hardcovers, or vintage sixties paperbacks printed on crumbling acid-rich paper. And finally, in the lowest population of all, you get the gems--underrated books by authors that should be famous, but aren't.

Often, these are idiosyncratic scribes, hard to cram into one genre or another, and consequently hard to market. Usually you can pick them out by typeface. That my index runs a little old or obscure is no coincidence.

In this gem category, you can usually find a Jonathon Carroll somewhere in the mix. He writes stuff that straddles horror, science fiction, humor, and serious literature. He's a wonderfully economical plotter, and he works in a cutting, slightly ironic style that's a pleasure to read. He writes unusual, thoughtful characters (ambivalent men and decisive but complicated women), and parallels scenes to impart multiple meanings. He knows how to drop in a "fuck" for the funny, immature impact, or to convey surprising anger. He's a great writer for my generation, and for my preferred medium. After Silence begins with a big swinging hook straight out of some short story class. "How much does a life weigh?...I hold a gun to my son's head." With the reader reeling from that initial punch, Carroll sneaks in the back story of Max Fischer, a cartoonist who meets an ideal mate, Lily, and the relationship he builds with her and her son Lincoln. Then he lets the oddness unfold toward the bizarre outline he shapes in the opening paragraph.

Oddness is where Carroll really excells. He's great at building up a central nugget of weirdness in his stories, where normal people sink gradually deeper into abnormal situations. He's good at pacing it out, smart enough to expand the truth rather than obscure it, laying it on fast enough to prevent the reader from dismissing anything, but slow enough to throw loops just when things seem to start making sense. Unlike the hundred crappy serials you can name, Carroll usually has someplace in mind to take it. At that length, he has to.

(Spoilers follow.) After Silence is no exception. In response to some odd behavior, Max becomes obsessed with Lily's history, and digs through her personal effects. The boy, he finds, is a kidnap victim, stolen by Lily as she fled the shambles of her youth, reaching for something solid to anchor her existence. She excels at motherhood, however, and Max finds he also has a rapport with Lincoln as well. The center of the story pivots on this moral question: should he turn her in, or should he take the good life, founded on a lie? From the opening sentence, you can see the choice he took.

Carroll likes to dabble in a little magical silliness and play with themes where reality can be changed as you define it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It was over the top but effective in Land of Laughs, but it was just dumb when he wrote Sleeping in Flame. These elements creep into the final third of After Silence as well. Deciding on a family, Max finds his charming son Lincoln has grown into a picture of ungrateful teenage assholery. The becomes obsessed with the idea that his rebelled son is a guardian angel, but a fallen one, and it's Max's failure of conscience that brought him down. Their confrontation is chilling and violent, but following it, Lincoln leaves a trail of supernatural power behind him. Lincoln can't bear this and attempts suicide, but he can not release himself. Closing the circle, he begs Max to do it.

The ending few paragraphs strike as hard a blow as the beginning. It's one of those great books you have to rewind to understand the story from the new angle. Did Max change Lincoln's heredity? I think so. Did Max construct Lincoln as an angel? I think that he did that too. He makes a final decision at the very end, equally selfish and understandable, that changes reality a final time, letting the magic fade from the world.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Book Reviews: Vinge, Clarke, Leguin

A science fiction theme today (which isn't terribly unusual). index.

Vernor Vinge, Tatja Grimm's World (C+)
Back when it was hard to get, I made an effort (a sliding scale, as far as these things go) to get my hands on all of Vernor Vinge's backlist. Grimm's World is his first published novel from 1969, and was republished in 1987 with a new front section as Tatja Grimm's World. Evidently, however, it's been re-released this year, hoping (and succeeding) to make a buck off of people like me.

I'm a big fan of Vinge's later stuff. A Deepness in the Sky is a wonderful science fiction book, with one of the best big-picture men-in-space visions I've encountered, a hell of a neat metafictional trick to tie up the fundamental problems of "first contact" stories, and a respectable job of stringing along plots and characters. One of the things that makes the Deepness world special is that it manages to work around a constraint that is real, but too often faked badly in the genre: in the time it would take to travel in space, entire civilizations would rise and fall. Vinge built a whole world in these margins. Sf is a liberating form because it removes conventional constraints, but better authors see through the ramifications, realize human character only changes so much, and avoid using high technology as a universal kludge.

Tatja Grimm's World is, in ways, a precursor to Vinge's later body of work of honest science fiction. Tatja's world is a resource-poor backwater, half of a binary planet system. There is little metal in its chemistry, and this dearth has stalled population growth and stifled technological progress. Tatja herself is a superhuman savant, and alone has deduced the presence of alien humans. Unfortunately, the alien influence is every bit as badly presented in the novel as I make it sound right here, and it's coupled with a prose style that (trust me on this) screams literary rookie with an engineering background. It's an achingly obvious first novel, but since Tatja Grimm eventually went on to become Pham Nuwen, I forgive him for it.

I do wish to add that the first part, written almost twenty years later, does not exude the amateur feel to anywhere near the same degree. It fails, or at least annoys me, on a different level. They (or "they") say to write what you know, and in this case, what Vinge knew was the science fiction magazine publishing industry. The story is a ride with the fictional publishers, who're not only rich and influential and forward-thinking, but have also been promoted, through their fantasy magazine, to the Church-like guardians of a world's knowledge base. It's complete with precious in-jokes and comes off as bloody conceited.

Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama (B)
I read the Clarke book for a couple of reasons, partly because I thought it might make a good companion to Tatja Grimm's World, and partly because it's been sitting in the real-soon-now pile next to my bed for a metric eternity or so. I thought the paired reading would work because Rama is a first-contact story of the same sort as Tatja Grimm's in which primitive protagonists reach out (and flail) in an attempt to learn from a more technologically advanced people.

Rama has all the quality character and dialogue of your typical hack Star Trek episode, but that's not really what it's about. Clarke vaguely tacks a story around a great big description of a giant alien starship, which has drifted into solar orbit, and is waking up from its long, cold journey. In the capsule of the giant ship, it's easier to fit a grand vision together. A better plot, set in a more believable universe, with more interesting characters would have only taken away from it (but more interesting prose would have have been nice). As it is, the whole thing floats ably on the unfolding of discovery.

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Telling (A-)
[one from the archives]

Not every science fiction author is a clumsy stylist, and not every meeting of cultures, even at different technology levels, has an obviously superior party. Nor is every storytelling conceit tacky. Ursula LeGuin has enjoyed deserved recognition outside from the genre hack community for some forty years.

The Telling is set in LeGuin's Hainish series of stories, loosely associated with her classics, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. The framework of these stories is that the human race is very old, and dispersed among the stars such that communication between societies is difficult and travel to the outskirts is extremely rare. The progenitors would still like to preserve human history, however, and send out observers to watch the technologically younger societies as they develop. In this series, LeGuin plays a number of anthropological what-if games. What if Communism worked? What if we were more in touch with our gender opposites? What if we were closer to history? Instead of writing horrible polemics on how these systems should've worked, LeGuin consciously tinkers with human character and changes (with a greater or lesser degree of subtlety) what prevents us from those goals. And then she looks at how the system doesn't work, even in the ideal setting.

In order to pull that sort of thing off, you have to decent understanding of people in the first place, and LeGuin manages it fine. Having more recognizable human points of view as observers is a good frame on which to hang these sorts of stories.

In The Tellingwe're introduced to a strangely easygoing society infected by a Terran meme of fundamentalism and progress, which seeks to purge the old culture. The old timers are roughly Taoist (so much as I understand the philosophy), living the path, but also unjudgementally seeking to preserve the memory of all paths in a forever unwinding oral history, called the Telling. The Telling passes on practical knowledge and culture and it's the barbarians, we find, that embrace technology and cultural genocide. Unlike the other Hainish stories I've read, LeGuin loses points by posing this society directly against a future Earth's--an extrapolation of a mad fundamentalist society that is overblown, cheap shooting, and not entirely implausible.

The Telling is a storyteller's story about the mystical nature of storytelling. You have to be careful with that level of self-reference (Mr. Vinge), because it can seem tedious in the wrong hands. This telling, however, is mellow, nice, longlingly eloquent, and contains characters I actually care about. And that makes all the difference.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Tears of Mary

They say you're supposed to finish these things, and so, after letting this one sit around for three months, I did. It's basically unedited, and while I hit a groove in a spot or two, I apologize for how much it shows. Just the same, feel free to add constructive criticism, whether bad storytelling (oh, it's there), non-Catholicism, or awkward Spanglish.

Or maybe just enjoy the thing. It's all good.


The Tears of Mary

"Debo haber sido ingeniero," thought Father Esteban, applying pressure to the smoking bit, "o escultor." Stone dust flew in his face as he leaned his shoulder against the drill and contemplated alternate career paths. He pressed closer to the tool, cheek right up against the hammer grip, and let himself feel the hum of its electric motor resonate behind his eyes. He peered along the plane of the bit, envisioning the long and precise line it was tracing, the paths it must meet several inches back, the vectors clear in his mind. More like art right now, he decided, "mas como el arte".

It was odd how life had managed to mix old and new. Over these weeks his hands had been moving in their old degenerate habits, a corrupt intelligence in the manipulation of knuckles and palms. He was surprised that their restless descent into these base motions didn't appall him, but they were guided by this heart of his that still felt new. The rebirth of the spirit he viewed as a primarily Protestant concept, and an American one. The True Church understood Grace and spiritual salvation, but once the babtismal water dripped down your brow, you belonged, whether or not you practiced. Still, Esteban believed he understood the feeling. He had the sensation that he'd swallowed something, a seed of faith, that was now in full bloom within him.

He relaxed his grip on the trigger and let his gaze expand before him. This expansive, reborn heart was, as always, at the command of the Holy Mother. He swallowed at the honor he'd been given, and at the responsibility, and forced his mind to obey the task at hand.

If his line was true, these ducts were about to meet near the center of Mary's cranium, joining to a larger passage that already angled upward from her back, the entrance of which plugged with watertight caulk and with repair mortar. The angled tube (with the repaired end) met a final vertical duct, from which dangled a length of flexible PVC tubing into the rough cavity in the center of the figure, and further into the space of the hollow pedestal. Esteban had acquired a small battery-operated peristaltic pump which gripped the tubing around its collar, sitting ready would push the brine up through the carefully constructed plumbing from an (inelegant) plastic milk jug. Esteban had used a check valve so that the fluid would not drain back when the pump was off, and the effect, when it began, would appear random and spontaneous.

The drilling was the last step, and the riskiest because of the noise. He'd been at this stage for a week now, sleeping little as the duct ends approached one another, growing like roots at the ends of sequentially longer bits, grinding inexorably against the soft marble. Tunneling through the statue was, he thought, not unlike breaking out of prison, attended by paranoia, lack of sleep, and careful disposal of the dirt.

He removed the drill and examined his work. His hands were steady, and he was pleased to observe that the hole remained a tiny circle at the entrance. The trick here, he'd determined, was to have exactly the right bore--too narrow, and nothing would flow through it; too wide, and the modification would be visible. He raised his lips to the breach in the stone and kissed it, heedless of the white powder beard that suddenly grew in the process.

Her dusty eye was still warm, and to Esteban's trembling lips, it felt like the saint's passion. Those eyes would not be dry for much longer. He puffed gently and there was no resistance. Praise be to Mary, he was through.

He sunk to his knees and prayed:

"Dios te salve María, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo…"

"Esteban, venga…"

The first time She spoke to him marked the last day of his old life, his errant childhood that had gone on an extra decade or more. He was angry at the time that he'd been undone only with the suspicion of subterfuge (well-founded of course), and not any betrayal of his hands or his manner, unless it had been too confident, too disdainful of his mark. His fast hands and mind had a tendency to underestimate dumb force, and sometimes it came to simple flight.

And now he was flying, but unlike other times, he felt guided. Beneath the moment, beneath his rational thoughts, something like a conscience whispered to him as he ran. Come where? He banked in the direction of the morning sun, thinking the glare would be more to his advantage than his pursuer's.

Esteban sprinted over the dusty curb and pumped his legs over the sidewalk. The dark pudgy man followed him with surprising speed, and chattered loud accusations. Esteban looked around as he ran, feeling constrained by the opening space and growing crowd. Sometimes he planned an escape route, but not today. Why here? This was a bad place to be on a Sunday morning. He needed to turn back into the narrower alleys and quickly.

"Pare," the voice whispered again, and it sounded female and foreign to Esteban's mind. As he squinted ahead at the steeple, the sun breached the dome and blinded him momentarily. The purple and green singes in his retina seemed to take a form, and it mouthed the words he heard in his head. Dumbly, he did stop, and did not move again, even as his pursuant shoved him, shouting. He did not protest as the man pulled his own watch out of Esteban's pocket, and as the policia cuffed him, he did not resist, but stood blinking his eyes repeatedly, willing the apparition back. She asked him to come, and though she did not speak again that day, he felt, dragged by the wrists, that he was coming to the right place.

In the American church, he prayed: "…bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús…"


His mouth was swollen and bruised again--the big dull guards were not typically open to verbal manipulation--and he lay on his side, staring up at the hole beneath the bed, such as it was. He could still remember the grit from the concrete rasping his cheek. He was sure that to this day, he could count every grain. In his left hand he held the spoon, worn to nearly a nub, that was his prized possession. He could not see the purpose that had brought him here, and he reasoned it must be a challenge, an escape beyond the usual range of his dexterity. Thinking back, he wondered at the grace She had shown him by illuminating the path through his ignorance.

He reached up with the bit of metal--it would be a fine shiv were he inclined to violence--and scratched at the chalky concrete, more resigned than motivated. Had he heard Her voice once more? He pulled back his tired arm and looked at his work, a scant half inch of depth, maybe three inches across, but encouraging progress for three months of effort. He sighed quietly. He saw his shallow hole as an empty faith. It existed, he thought, as a cavity into which he could throw his hopes for the forgetting, and he scratched at it nightly, scrambling to make it deeper, give it more capacity to fill his troubling convictions. But for her voice,

"Esteban, pare el cavar. Hable con el sacerdote."

The raw concrete wall beneath his bed was stained with seepage and efflorescence and crazed from the freezing and thawing of decades. Whoever had once painted the place neglected the areas beneath the cots, giving the young man reason to believe it was a fine place for tunneling. Esteban stared quietly at the surface, and thought about this request. He ignored the priest as an ignorant village local, worthy in an abstract way of contempt, a stumbling second-guessing type for whom Esteban would, in other circumstances, artfully separate from a peso or two.

He looked at his blank wall and his hole, head cocked like a dog's. Where there had been random lines and scratches, he now saw a woman's face, and it was smiling with a knowing, tolerant sympathy. Esteban blinked and she was gone. He spoke his first prayer, a mumbled gracias, and he thought he heard a girlish giggle.

He recalled his visit to the priest. He'd not expected to have much to say to the man, but he found himself confessing, and speaking of his vision. He found that he admired the hidden powers of the man he'd recently reviled.

"Eres bendito," the little priest said, "con un milagro."

Esteban was at last beginning to understand this.

In the American church, he prayed: "…Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores…"


It had been a long path from the cell. His epiphany had carried him from that cold dilapidated room to another in the seminario, and now a third in the barrios of this northern city, where it was hoped he could do some good with the local young Latinos who were flooding in. He was an unlikely candidate for the priesthood, but his faith was unquestioned, and the church, of course, held currency in redemption. Padre Carlos from the prison had spoken highly of Esteban, and to the younger man's surprise, the simple man was well regarded in the Catholic community.

"Esteban, mire abajo."

She had not spoken to him in ten years, but he did not lose his faith. Of the Lord and all the saints, the mother of God held a special place in his heart. She'd interceded with Her Son for his sins, and he knew he recognized grace. He began and ended every day praying before the statue of her here. As he did so now, he heard Her cherished voice again, young for all these years, unlike Esteban himself.

Obeying her command, he looked down.


He looked at the poorly grouted tile beneath him, and curiously pressed his hands to it. It rocked slightly. He looked up to the icon before him, and though it didn't move, he thought he heard the giggle as from far away, unexpected from a saint, but lending such humanity to Her holiness that he was briefly overcome with emotion. He crossed himself quickly, and pushed his hands against the loose tile, and it slid. Gingerly, he lifted it to reveal grooved cement, and he traced a crack wide enough to accommodate his long finger. This square abutted the base of the statue, and his hands felt awakened as they pressed the marble panels of the pedestal, while his eyes carefully inspected the seams. The statue was evidently much older than the building, betraying a painstaking hand absent from the more recent icons. Vaguely, he identified it as some classical form.

He pushed one of the small panels, and was not surprised to find it was loose, capable of sliding to the side, which then was able to tilt forward. The pedestal contained a compartment about a foot on a side. A sign surely.

That night, he lay awake in his small room pondering how he might bring others to share in his miracle, and distantly, he heard a young Mother's sigh. It was not the wind.

Months later, he found himself again praying before Her, with a beard of dust, and with a drill and a pump and a jug stashed into Her pedestal: "…ahora y en la hora de nuestre muerta. Amén."



The priest started. Hastily, he wiped his face.

"Esteban, do you smell smoke?" The sun glinted at the bottoms of the high windows, highlighting perhaps more than the usual measure of dust.

"I'm sorry, Father Harris, I hear you the first time, but I was... praying." Esteban paused, considering. "I thought I smelled something before, but I did not find anything wrong when I come down here."

"It seems to be going away. Drafty old place, probably something from outside."

Esteban nodded. Harris looked at him. "Quite a girl," the older man said, reaching out to pat the statue's shoulder.

"She has the same face, padre."

Harris rolled his eyes. "How long have you been down here?"

"I couldn't sleep again. It was really a miracle, you know. Un milagro de la virgen. I was going to die, I think."

"Well, the workings of the Lord are difficult to understand, and who are we to question them, eh? I, for one, am glad she brought you here, but two miracles in a lifetime is a lot to expect." He looked expectantly at the younger man.

"It is my turn to make coffee this morning?"

Roger Harris smiled.

"I will be there very soon."

Esteban lingered on the statue's face, and as the older priest walked out, he let his gaze drift downward to the pedestal. It was not ajar. With his sleeve, he casually brushed the marble powder which had piled on the figure's chest and below, allowing it to rapidly settle back down with all the other dust. He tapped the loose panel a last time and crossed himself before following through the front door, out of the main cathedral.

He stepped over the worn threshold into a polished brown foyer lined with threadbare carpet. The entrance was much grander than the sanctuary itself, the latter Esteban considered not out of place in the remembered pueblocito of his birth. But the ingress, with its broad polished floor and dark oak panels, possessed a grandeur that spoke of forgotten money. It suited the priest's opinion of Americans--they were all posing bluster on the outside but he trusted in the humility that could be revealed within. He opened the small closet with his key and pulled out the font and its pedestal, placing it before the cathedral entrance. He walked to the votary booth and flicked the memorials on quickly to check the bulbs. He found the electric candles to be decadent and a little absurd, but it was his job. Before turning down the stairs to the kitchen and hall, he pulled the large wooden doors behind him and locked them. Deftly, he passed the key into his left hand, and fluorished his empty right, smiling at the illusion.

The stairs opened up into a low-ceilinged institutional dining room. Esteban ambled across the vinyl tile to the kitchen in back, where he already smelled the morning brew.

"You beat me, Roger."

"Beat you to it."

Esteban looked at the clock. "We have on hour until morning Mass?"

The older man nodded, white moustache sweeping the surface of his cup.

Esteban looked coyly at his superior. "I would like to see another miracle, señor. Her voice is beautiful."

"Our poverty is our blessing, and," he added, " we are triply blessed. I doubt the Lord would stoop to visit the likes of us."

"Or the madre de Dios. But I have a feeling, Roger."

Roger closed his eyes. "There is nothing I'd like more," he said quietly.


Every now and then a penitent would seek to kneel before the Lady. Usually, these were immigrants, Mexicans like Esteban, but there were certain Americans that sought Her out too. The priest thought of these latter as sports fans. There was something callous and contrarian in their devotion, as if they were showing off their faith. But still they came, and inwardly, Esteban blessed every one he saw.

Every time someone would kneel on the tile in front of the icon, a transducer beneath activated the pump, moving the liquid slightly upward. A quick penitence, crossing and kneeling, gained about a quarter inch of head by Esteban's judgment. A heartfelt Avemaría brought maybe three quarters of an inch.

"Good afternoon, señora Ruiz."

The old woman pushed past Esteban and Roger, and angled toward the statue. She was bent and wrinkled, shapeless beneath her rags, but still gave the impression of ox-like strength. He knew from conversations with father Harris--who worried about her--that she was a widow, that she'd brought up her only daughter but lost her to the streets, to fast men. There was a granddaughter involved somewhere, as well. She could have no savings, yet she gave impressively to the poor when she could.

The old woman hoarded her spirit jealously, however, and Esteban wondered how her heart could possibly be full beneath her sour face and broken frame. It was not that he didn't respect her privacy, but worried that her soul was without peace. He prayed to the Lady that she could find herself, and thought, in the distance, he heard a much younger woman's sigh. He wondered whether the abuelita was heavy enough to activate the treadle.

She was weeping quietly. Father Harris stepped toward the little woman, hoping to break through with a comforting gesture.

"Is everything okay, Mrs. Ruiz?"

She held up a trembling hand. Roger reached to grab it, but she snapped it angrily before recovering her awe. She raised it higher.

"Sus ojos," she whispered.

Roger crouched closer. "Ohoes? Oh, is there something wrong with your eyes? Esteban, can you help me?"

"¡María!" she snapped at him.

The old priest cocked his head in the direction of the statue. He knelt down next to the woman, and the red speck on the corner of the saint's eye welled to a small, perfect tear. "Oh, sweet Mary." He rose to look closer. "Esteban, she is crying! Can it be?"

The younger man laid a hand on Harris's shoulder, gently guiding him away from Mary's face. "You know as well as I do how difficult it is to find Grace. I think my hardest lesson in those years was to accept it when given. But let us see to Her children first, yes? ¿Señora Ruiz?"

The older woman wept. "Mi hija, mi pobrecita..."

Esteban knelt to her and laid an arm across her shoulder, and she accepted. "The Lord forgives you," said Harris. "We all make our sacrifices, and the Lord in His Grace, accepts them."


Elenora Ruiz picked her way through a litter-strewn street that evening, up urine-soaked stairwells, over men sleeping in peeling halls. She knocked on the door, tentatively at first, and then harder. It opened a crack and then an inch, pushed against several chains. The aroma of adobo-seasoned rice leaked through in contrast to the rank corridor.

"Mamá, what are you doing here? Shhh. You should not so much make noise this time of night."

Elenora clawed the door open as her daughter undid the chains. She tumbled into a tiny apartment, and eyed the wooden crucifix over the enamel stove before continuing.

"¿Esta el novio," she spat the word, "esta aquí?"

"I don't have no boyfriend now, Mamá. Is just us now."

"Esta bien."

"He-- he was no good, Mamá, not this one either. I know you say so. "

"¿Y donde esta el alcohol? ¿Donde esta Maricita?"

"No más, Mamá, not for months." The younger woman, Rosa, bared worn teeth. "Little Maria's asleep. She don't let me drink no more. It was real hard at first. I wanted to tell you, but-- Are you crying?"

"María. Ella la vi. Llorando."

"My little girl? You saw her crying?"

Elenora acknowledged the crucifix again. "La Virgen," she said.


Father Harris leaned down and did his best avuncular: drooping moustaches, twinkling eyes, coffee breath. "It's so nice to see your whole family here this Sunday. Is your name Maria?"

"Just like Her." She raised a jaunty arm back toward the nave. "My grandmother brought us," she added in a stage whisper. "She's waiting."

"Oh ho! Your grandmother is a wonderful woman, from what I hear." He winked at her. "I think I may have lost a quarter somewhere around here. Esteban?"


"Maria says she lost a quarter."

"I did not!"

"But I think I found one, anyway," said Esteban. "Right here."

"You used magic!"


"Did you get the magic from a statue?"

"Ah, no. I just do tricks. Her magic, that is different. The magic of the Virgin Mary, that is a miracle."

"Why is she so sad if she can do miracles?"

"Because she knows how badly people need them," Roger answered slowly. "She knows how hard it can be to take care of people, Maria. She knows how much you are helping, sweetie. Now hurry up and go to your family."

Esteban put his hands behind his back and leaned in toward the older priest. They watched the little girl, the last of the flock, scurry from the grand entrance. "That was a beautiful answer."

Roger looked up into the eyes of his junior. "She is a beautiful little girl. Maybe it is a miracle, you know. I have never really believed these sorts of appearances were for real, though I have always hoped. These days have been like a dream to me. But if the Lady can save a girl like Maria, then I find my faith renewed."

"Back in Mexico, I remember many little Marias."

Roger sighed. "Yes, we should not forget the Lord's words, we do it the least of these. If our job was easy..."

"One soul at a time, yes?"

Roger looked sheepishly at Esteban. "I do not know what to say at the hospital today. People have expectations with these things."

"We will meet them with humility and faith. We will hear their confessions and offer the Lord's forgiveness. Offer comfort where needed. We will do our jobs."

"I think I can still do that."

Roger remained at the front of the church to watch the last of the parishioners trudge to the parking lot and drive away, offering a kindly wave to anyone who looked back. It was the end of the Wednesday morning mass, and a handful of newcomers had trudged in through the drizzle to attend. Elenora Ruiz had brought her family, and there were several others he hadn't seen before in his years here. They greeted him shyly when he extended a hand. Whether they were uncomfortable with the language or their lapsed faith, he was unsure. He was glad they came though, and he hoped they would stay for more than spectacle, stay for their duty to the Lord, for the good of their souls, and for the health of the one true church.

When all had gone, he looked down at his gown, walked backwards into the foyer, and pulled the doors in behind him. He called to Esteban and together they descended to the rear side entrance. They crunched through the wet gravel driveway to where the white-haired priest had parked his Civic, in front of the small rectory. They bumped through puddles, rolled through stoplights, listened the punctuating scrutch of the wipers.

Esteban ventured small talk. "The rain is good, no?"

"Yes, I suppose so."

"It is strange how much Americans must drive."

"Yes, well, the hospital is some distance away. I sometimes think our towns would be better less spread out. More community."

"Closer, yes? The Church, it should have a bigger role in making that happen, I think."

Roger grinned. "I'm a hopeful guy, Esteban. I think we can be spread out and still be close. It's really the beauty of the Church. It is made of all God's children."

"This is the turn, yes? Our Lady of Mercy."


The two men parked and walked to the hospital entrance. Mary greeted them in painted concrete at the door. She lacked the same presence as the old but newly stained marble, but Roger nodded his head and crossed himself as he entered.


By Sunday, the church was half full. Three Sundays later, it was beyond capacity. The budget had been expanded to include velvet ropes, and Roger talked of opening a Catholic shelter, to reach out to the itinerant and the homeless, assuming the surge in contributions continued long enough to make such an investment. He also intended to contribute heavily to the greater mission of the Diocese, regardless of the shambles in which they'd left the local parish. He had written a letter to the bishop, expressing with guarded enthusiasm the change in their fortune, and its cause.

Mary had wept over a dozen more times. In each case, it had been as in response to a prayer, and all penitents had grown into the habit of looking up after their entreaty to see whether the statue had responded. Faint stains already snaked down Her cheeks, and people begged for access, showing up in hours when the church was closed. The priests discussed whether to limit entry to Catholics who attended services, with Roger taking the more ecumenical and pragmatic view that the Church would gain members from this exposure. "Think of your own reawakening," he told his partner, and Esteban accepted the compromise. They opened the statue to public viewing for two hours after mass, and people waited in lines. Esteban and Roger took turns at triage, encouraging the parishioners to allow first those with the greatest spiritual needs.

The priests also began to offer two daily masses, Roger's English version followed by Esteban's translation. The Spanish Mass was the better attended at first, but soon both sermons were overfilled. Most of the congregation was Latino, and adult, and though children were frequently dragged along, and there was a growing fraction of younger people. By the second week, the entire family of Ruiz women came to Mass daily, and both priests, sensitive to young Maria's likely boredom, tried to dissuade her mother and grandmother from bringing the little girl.

"It's wonderful to see her so enthusiastic about the Church, but still, she is a child, and no doubt has homework. It is good for her to play outside too. It's OK to bring her only once or twice a week."

"It's not our idea to bring her," Rosa said. "She insist."

Esteban interjected. "Perhaps she would like to become an altar server?"

Elenora looked suspiciously at the priests.

"It is very common to have altar girls now. Certainly our bishop permits it. What would you think of that, Maria? You would have to hold the missal during the service, and--"

The young girl was nodding rapidly.

Roger winked at her mother. "We need quite a bit of help these days, anyway," he said.

Maria, joined by several boys from a nearby neighborhood, took over the holy duties of the server during mass, and also assisted with the secular obligations that the church's popularity had acquired, including crowd and building maintenance. Though the mood of Mary's petitioners was reverent, there was still litter everywhere by mid-afternoon, and the priests called a different child in every evening to serve in a janitorial role.

And still the statue cried. Roger wondered aloud how long she would continue to grace their humble parish. Esteban wondered privately how the plumbing was holding up. He had reduced the pump drive and had also gouged the valve stem so that some water would bleed back down the line, and tears would only flow under the highest traffic. Too reliable an outburst would lead to undue suspicion, if it had not already done so.

Esteban also wondered whether Mary would speak to him again. He chastised himself for being so prideful as to expect communication from the Saint, but he also considered that she was, at the end of the day, speaking to the congregation only through him, whether or not they were aware. He carried on, wondering what more She would need.

Late in the evening, nearly two months after the miracle, Esteban sat in the chancel, facing the pews, far across from the statue that stood on the corner of the entrance wall. He had felt Her presence today, as though in a pregnant pause before speech. He was unsure whether she were addressing him, or if he had caught the general feeling from the long lines of miracle watchers. He sighed. She had spoken, to him alone, and already he doubted. He rose and walked to the back of the room to look more closely at Her face.

"Father Esteban!"

He turned to see Maria Ruiz scurrying from the other direction.

"Father Harris asked me to bring you this letter. He said it was important."

Esteban looked back at his saint, but any presence was again gone. He examined the letter. "It's from the monsignor," he said. "Very important."

"Is he coming to see Mary?"


As his name suggested, Cardinal Torres was a looming tower of a man. Though his frame was reduced from thirty years of officially humble poses, he still swung his body through the room in a way that commanded attention. He was American with Mexican heritage, and had risen from a parish priest to preside over an archdiocese of forty-eight individual churches by virtue of an outspoken faith, natural authority, and, like Esteban, a perceived need to appeal to the changing demographics of the American southwest. He could bluster to his flock or wheedle to his God eloquently in both of his native languages, as well as a passable Portuguese and a heavily accented French.

His red robes of office snapped behind him like a flag as he strode up the walk. The two parish priests were also dressed in their formal attire, and they waited for him at the building's entrance. The cardinal clasped each in turn with enormous hands as they exchanged greetings. Roger and Esteban bowed their heads.

Cardinal Torres paused and looked back across the lawn. He took a large breath before he spoke and the exhalation smelled of garlic.

"So. She cries, you say. The Lord and His saints affect the world mysteriously, but," he smirked, "this one's been done."

"Yes, well, when--"

"Not to worry, fellows, I am not questioning your faith. There are, in fact, over sixty instances of weeping statues that the church has documented in the twentieth century alone. Not that they've been all quite so dramatic as your letter suggests."

"Monsignor, we believe that--"

"It is just that we must take the proper, um, scientific precautions."


"Scientific by means of the church, you see. How often does the icon cry?"

"It was several times a day when we wrote the letter, but as more people visit, it seems to be less and less, almost a week apart. It has been over a week now." (After scaling back the flow, Esteban had removed the pump apparatus entirely in anticipation of the visit.)

"That is not uncommon, and almost for the good. Do you know, usually these investigations take place well after the fact, but you fellows have had generated some publicity, which frankly, the church needs. You have both seen it with your own eyes, I take it?"

"Yes, monsignor."

"Well, I have many questions for you two, and I will also need to interview some of your parishioners. You will need to tell me of anyone she has helped particularly. It will help determine whether this was in fact divine intervention, you see."

"Yes, I know just--"

"But first let me in, please. I'd really like to get a look at the old girl."

The three proceeded inward, the large figure rushing forward in straight lines until directed from behind by the smaller ones in black. When the cardinal saw the statue, he adjusted his line without provocation and plowed toward the standing icon, brushing aside the rope barrier.

"Beautiful stonework, absolutely lifelike. You see a lot of knockoff Renaissance style, of course, but this could almost be contemporary."

"I understand she stayed in New York for a time, monsignor, but she is from Rome originally. I don't know how--"

"And this, this is from tears." He traced the stain on the white marble with a giant finger. "Let's see..."

Flatfooted, the cardinal could look the statue, on its pedestal, in the eye. He did so briefly now, and then bent his face to Hers. Gently, he flicked his tongue on the stone cheek, and grunted assent. Like a lover, he coyly raised his eyes to look at the Holy Mother's.

Esteban watched him carefully, but maintained a practiced composure. He'd always used a concentrated brine solution to mimic tears. In addition to subtly staining the marble, it had left salt deposits which had encrusted the already obscure tear ducts. To prepare, Esteban had further carefully pipetted a suspension of stone dust into the holes. By the time the archbishop scraped them with his fingernail, the rough surfaces had melded into apparent continuity.

But Cardinal Torres did not seem satisfied with the job. He fiddled at Mary's eye with his little finger. He pushed his glasses onto his forehead, and screwed his face to examine the area of Esteban's work up close. "I think..."

Abruptly he pulled away and looked at Esteban. "¿Dija usted?" Without an answer, he turned back to the statue, and stepped backwards once, twice, and knelt.

Roger put a hand on the cardinal's shoulder, almost at the level of his own chest.

"I think," muttered the big man, "I think we may have a miracle on our hands." He stood shakily.


"She has done much good, yes? But I don't think She can stay here." He steadied himself until he'd regained his full height. "Yes, I will have to make some calls, and submit my recommendation. I will talk to you next week. But please close the church to the public until we sort this out."


Esteban sat at the edge of his bed, his rosary dangling between his fingers. It was, he considered, a matter of pride. Until he'd come to the United States, he'd gone for years expecting nothing more from Her. He had grown soft with this soft place. Like the Americans, he thought a miracle was his to receive, and give.

And yet...

And yet, he'd grown accustomed to Her voice, a voice which didn't carry through the air, which was beyond him and also within him. He'd been the blessed one. He'd been the one who suffered; the prodigal son come back from so far astray. He ministered to the poor, worked among the sick. He did his works with humility and with faith. Why had She forsaken him? What could he give Her?

He lifted the rosary to his lips and mouthed a last Avemaría before sliding his feet into slippers and rising. Hastily, he pulled his black mantle over his pajamas. What more indeed?

He trudged down the stairs from the dormitory, and out into the dry evening. Standing in the driveway, he craned his neck at the stone spire of the church. His blood, he found, was pumping behind at his temples, behind his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and swung his gaze at the ground, and took several deep breaths. Still faintly dizzy, he pushed his way to the side door of the church. He hiked up the stairs to the foyer dragging his hands on the steel railing. As he approached the sanctuary doors, he paused and leaned against the paneling. His headache was getting worse.

Several gasps later, he pushed against the great door. He'd forgotten his key, but the door was not locked. He pushed his way through and turned to the statue. He smelled stone dust, he thought, and ozone.

Mary, as always, was smiling at him. Around her, the room blurred as though in a heat haze. Esteban sank to his knees at the vision.

"¿Qué más, Madre?"

The haze moved closer, over her body and mouth, so that only the upper part of her face was visible. Esteban put his thumb to his fevered forehead, and continued to cross himself.

"¿Qué más?"

"Sabes qué más, Esteban."

The fog closed in further about Her, leaving only Her eyes, which had, as if to compensate, assumed an intense clarity, as though alive. More than alive. Stiff-legged, Esteban crawled closer, scrabbled at the panel, and was nearly surprised to find the hard stone still there in the mist. He felt his equipment beneath, but this close, Her eyes burned him. They grew larger at this distance, and as his own eyes fixed on them, they seemed to take up the whole room.

"Sabes qué más."

The enormous eyes opened further, then turned down slightly at the corners. They were, he realized, welling. Dark droplets appeared and grew at the living tear ducts, and red rivulets tumbled away beyond the vision.

Esteban found he wasn't breathing. He knew what else. What sacrifice. He scrambled again at his pump, the jug. He was not surprised to find a knife there as well.


Maria Ruiz clutched Father Harris. "I don't understand."

"I-- I think he was honest in a way." He wiped his red eyes with his sleeve.

"How could he lie like that?"

"I do not want to tell you that the ends do not justify the means, Maria. But still, I know he was a faithful man. I know he loved you too, and look at all the other people he helped."

They stood between pews, looking at the back of the sanctuary. Roger had replaced the pedestal on the panel the night before to avoid questions from the police, but had not done a good job. It had fallen over during the night, and now it lay open. It was nothing he'd wish Maria to see, but she was here. She was, crying too, and he thought that being here together helped calm the pain in some small way.

"But he lied! What about my mother? What will happen when she finds out?"

"The Lord works in--" Harris could not bring himself to finish the thought.

The girl turned and shouted at the statue. "How could you! This isn't what Esteban wanted. You are not his Virgin! Who are you?"

"Shh. We mustn't blaspheme. The Lord will guide us through, but He does not stop testing us. He never stops. We must be strong." He sighed and clutched the girl's shoulder tightly. "Will you help me make the sign?"

"I miss him."

"Me too. He was a good man. When I meet the Lord in the last days, I hope He deigns to tell me about His plan. Please, come away."

As they left, the little girl glared over her shoulder. How could she have faith in that? How could She take Esteban away?

She scowled and looked at Father Harris. "Did you hear that?"

"I didn't hear anything. Please. Let's go."

Maria looked behind her questioningly. Should she come?