Issue 6 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Melissa Wiley

Weeping Virgin

Our first morning in Seville and for miles he trailed my shadow at a distance. My husband was walking as slowly as an old, arthritic man on purpose. So I waited outside a shop selling spices from burlap bags then turned and hit him. Stumbling over some fallen leaves, I fled, crying, past a family walking a spaniel on a leash fraying into a filament.

And this is the problem with inflicting what looks like violence while a little dog empties a runnel of urine onto the pavement, when you know the couple will later blame you for its incontinence as he stains their pale blue carpet. This is the problem with striking your beloved while the Virgen de la Macarena with glass teardrops glued below her eye sockets receives veneration ad nauseum, when no one notices those who carry her weep for the love denied them in private. They walk a straight path regardless, their shoulders gone crooked with the shame of their emotion, as the crowd diverges for a statue blessed with anguish beyond them.

Not far from the spice shop stood a cathedral topped with a copper rooster grown green from oxidation. Before I slapped my husband, I mentioned that some long-dead pope had ordered cockerels placed atop all Rome’s cupolas and from there they’d started their metastasis. They symbolized Peter’s denial of Jesus, I reminded him, three times before any rooster’s crowing started and the dawn had broken. Yet it wasn’t as if Peter had nailed him to the crucifix, I conceded. It’s not as if he ever even struck Jesus. Then take away our power to slap someone and you leave us nothing but denial of his existence.

Even now, months later, I’m still not quite forgiven; I can tell by the way my husband scours my arms with our soap’s sprigs of rosemary, abrading my skin into a terrible smoothness blind to its own beauty. He rubs the soap against me harder when I ask him to apply it more softly. I prefer to shower alone while shaving my legs; I know not to tell him, because he likes time spent with me naked when we’re not fucking. When I scrape my knee to bleeding, he shows me how to hold the razor, as delicately as the stem of a flower that’s begun wilting.

My behavior is becoming so erratic, however, you can hardly trust me to hold a razor blade so soon after waking. You have to take the blow I struck in context, not as an aberration, he reminded me later over custard pastries. I scratched at my face as he was talking, trying to detach a mole from my cheek, needing to hurt some supple part of me. I had only wanted to smell the spices in the open air across from a cockerel denying us nothing, to live with a certain sensuality despite being married, to climax simply from looking at the yellow buildings with their gleaming tile tapestries. Here in the cult of the weeping virgin, I’d grown tired of his old man’s walking.

A vagina is a tear in the skin of a female adult or baby, a fabric slit for buttons lost in the laundry, a lacuna in need of filling. What lies inside is almost too delicate to consider before ten in the evening, when the Spanish just begin eating—all those tiny eggs with shells cracking so easily yet still might become another baby. But a hole’s a hole, and there’s no use threading any needle to repair the damage. As a woman, you must learn to live with it the same as a phantom leg still strung with live nerve endings, to walk peaceably if also mostly empty. The poor Virgin Mary never let anybody explore her own sweet crevice, wet with everything but longing. All she ever did was pee out of it in times with less toilet paper, I’m guessing.

Yet if there is a rip in the fabric of the universe, as some scientists speculate, a tear through which time and space can dissolve into nothing, it is also a gateway to the body of a woman who birthed all these planets looking like heads freed from their bodies. Only the conception was immaculate because there was never a large enough phallus to fill her opening. Otherwise, all the universe would be still sticky with semen, the air we’re breathing forever dripping with humidity. The Virgin Mary wasn’t so special is what I’m saying. Had she had sex once, she’d have faded from all memory.

We say “tags” while the Spanish say “stickers,” at least when they speak English. And a woman with eyes the color of emeralds dusted with cardamom or something equally aromatic was the second to remind me my white sticker was showing from my black dress, shorter than necessary, which I knew from looks several men had given me.

The first person to tell me my sticker had fallen outside my dress and onto my neck’s nape was a man who watched me pour my coffee inside our hotel lobby. Then later that evening, I left my husband with a plate of half-eaten aubergine drizzled with honey we’d ordered after we’d quarreled the second time since morning. Only I’d forgotten to use the toilet at the restaurant while running away from him down a dark, reflective alley.

This time after we argued, I didn’t strike him but only started crying, forgetting I already had such a large tear inside of me, that I could only drain myself of so much liquid before becoming completely empty. Not long afterward, I was walking toward the ladies’ room at the far corner of a courtyard roped off from the public when a woman asked me what I was doing, here inside a private institute for gifted children, as the sign stated clearly. Looking into her face, I only wanted to ask her what spice her eyes were wearing. I wanted to ask her in English, though, because I speak no Spanish, when she told me to tuck in my sticker, please.

The toilet seat in the restroom she let me use (so long as I went quickly) was wet when I sat down without looking, suffused with an odorless liquid grown sappy and viscous, as if some girl had peed some pellucid honey. It was the spilled urine of some child supplied with intelligence beyond me.

After leaving, I saw the same woman standing against a wall flanking a playground’s entrance. The wall was painted with a tree, and she leaned against its trunk, smoking. The tree, though, had started flying. Its roots were turning into flames preparing to propel the trunk into outer space, a haze of blue and yellow spray paint. And behind the plumes of what looked like enough cigarette smoke for a small chimney, I watched her eyes dart and run away from me. Still her irises smelled of something cooking, something she refused to share with me, not even the shavings of any vegetables suffused in a marinade. For dinner, I had eaten only a few pieces of aubergine and by then was starving. More than eat, however, I wanted to ride that arboreal spaceship into another forested galaxy.

And as I walked on, I watched men and women avert their eyes from my face blotched in pale peach patches from crying. My patchworked face had begun unraveling, and its seams were showing. I’d become repulsive here in a city where even the Virgen de la Macarena is a dark and olive-skinned beauty. The Spanish like to avoid displays of suffering unless you’re a lifelong virgin whose son was flagellated in public.

Stores in Seville selling aprons flaring like flamenco dresses at their bottoms as well as five-inch matadors sculpted from porcelain keep late hours, while most bars see few customers until early morning. So I walked inside a couple shops after leaving the school for gifted children. At first, I thought I’d buy some pen and paper to explain my reasons for ending this incarnation, for killing myself via razors once I recrossed the Atlantic. Soon, though, I decided to write no goodbye letter to those who would only accuse me of being selfish.

And because I hardly wear any jewelry and didn’t see the need for more scarves for a winter I didn’t intend on passing, I bought myself a wooden box small as the bowl of a ladle that can hold only one dumpling. Two tiles form its lid looking like those you see flanking all Seville conservatories, while the box’s clasp is filigreed into a diadem better fit for some sovereign than me. I have no idea what I’ll ever put inside it now I’ve decided to keep living.

So it’s remained a space for nothing on a dresser crowded as it is already with small bottles of perfume that my mother gave me. I never spray any of them on my pulse points as she showed me, only twist off their caps and smell their fumes before I fall asleep, as if they’re laced with laudanum or an elixir with equally magical properties.

When I returned to the hotel a little after 11:30, I told my husband as I washed my face that my life would be over quickly. I planned to end it after he went to work next Monday and he could never stop me. And death solves all problems, I still wholly believe. Life, though, wants to keep living, feeding an endless greed, the same as the appetite of a woman whose hole keeps gaping. Life has no religion. It only wants to keep fucking. Yet when you’re dressed and done with your lovemaking, your tag should not be showing, allowing no one to dissect your fabric’s anatomy. Because you’re not a virgin, you should also not be weeping.

Madrid was all my mother ever saw of this country. The man she came to see—the man whose name eludes me, she so seldom spoke it—she hardly even mentioned in the story she told each Thanksgiving. Instead, it was the priests who made a deeper impression on her memory. But before they made their appearance, she’d known a certain Spaniard back in college and made plans to meet him in the medieval castle fitted with modern plumbing where he lived still with his parents. Yet once landed in Spain’s capital, she realized she’d left his address and phone number at home in another coat pocket. She also brought too little money to eat anything except day-old bread and cheese not gone moldy. Prior to this as well as after, she did very little traveling.

On what was her one trip to Europe taken in her early twenties, she went with a friend who rode the subway with her throughout a whole evening. The previous night, they’d slept in a graveyard because they’d left the hostel where someone had rummaged through their luggage and stolen some money. My mother explained that at this point, she and her friend had stopped speaking. So my mother starting talking to the priest seated across from her, praying a rosary with beads looking like opals, the same as the earrings she gave me for my eighteenth birthday and I later lost one summer while swimming.

While in Spain for less than a week, my mother was still a virgin as well as a devout Catholic, something she never stopped being. If she were going to be talking to any stranger, she naturally found herself a priest. Not long after she and the priest started chatting, she told him she had lost the telephone number of a certain boyfriend—not her lover—though of the two monikers I prefer the latter and don’t mind substituting it now for her. The priest, as it happens, knew both the boy and his father. Their orange grove, he ravished, was legendary. The oranges were all shipped to England to make marmalade, however.

A few days after the priest gave her the address and phone number, she met the Spaniard and refused his offer of marriage soon afterward. Here I always stopped her, wanting her to elaborate and even embroider. Each time she refused me, however, saying only that Spanish men make poor husbands, leaving their wives home weeping while probing other women’s tears and ripping them wider open. All she ever wanted was for him to show her the castle with plumbing.

After she met the man she came for only ostensibly, she was still short of money. She had enough, though, to keep riding the subway, where she met another priest and engaged in further causeries. She confessed to him that she had only enough to eat once a day, when he gave her a hundred dollars, which amounted to far more in the 1960s. Then he requested that she take the train to Lourdes, though she had no infirmities. No need to repay him, he insisted, just seek superfluous healing. If she didn’t humor him, he added, the Blessed Virgin would weep for her unborn children.

I told her this sounded like a threat to my sister and me, but she countered that I misread his meaning. He only wanted her to seek the Virgin Mother’s protection on our behalf, as if we were endangered several years out from conception. Protection from what? I asked her. From sin, she said, as if that were an explanation. As if even had the Virgin kept me from slapping my husband, I’d ever care much for living once she had refused my mother’s prayers for healing. I don’t expect much, however, of an old virgin who herself looks none too happy.

Our last day in Seville, I had no reason for walking closer to the altar during mass to see the famous statue of the weeping virgin whose glass tears glimmered like jewels worth stealing. When I paced up the middle aisle as the priest began his preaching, he only frowned at me and looked to see if my sticker was showing. So I walked back and stayed standing near the baptistery. I rubbed the feet of Jesus in imitation of some other women who were openly weeping. I began crying too when I touched paint that had begun flaking and scratched hard at his big toe, as if to relieve some itching from poison ivy. Itch an irritant, though, and it only grows more irritating.

I scratched at Jesus’ feet but asked neither him nor Mary for anything, because my worst wound lies beyond all healing. I was born with it as a baby, and it only widens when I stretch my legs. Every other woman I know has one just the same, and I don’t see them complaining, lying like I do on park benches almost writhing while homeless men come closer with their carts full of winter clothing smelling of feces.

So I simply issued both Jesus and Mary a warning as I kept scratching, saying I would crow loudly as any rooster from now on whenever I began hurting. When some pope places you upon a cathedral dome so high above the public, you should at least be able to wake people living lives happier than yours and less than holy. You should at least be able to end the same sex dreams you’d be having were you not there to remind them of a betrayal that meant nothing.

And as I left the church where the saddest statue in all the world resides, a line was lengthening to buy tickets for the lottery.

Although Mary remained a virgin all her days, whether Joseph ever wriggled his finger around inside her remains a possibility. Perhaps—perhaps not—at times she felt something where God tore her asunder. I wonder only because my own hole is throbbing. Because this is the real reason the people of Seville have seen me crying. Sew it shut and I promise I’ll hit no one who might still its pulsing.

My mother told the story of the two Spanish priests to me so often I eventually stopped hearing. But as much as she repeated it, she needed to work on her storytelling. I couldn’t help disliking the second priest flush with cash, to whose memory she remained devoted. She did not imbue either priest with any distinct personal qualities, while the Virgin Mary herself never seemed compelling. The fact that the trip to Lourdes became a pilgrimage also felt a needless departure, a tangent becoming the main story, because at the time my mother was perfectly healthy. She could have stilled her own pulsing and lived all her life in Spain if she’d only wanted, giving birth to me in a castle smelling of orange groves rather than a farm in Indiana. Instead, she took the train to rural France, leaving her closest chance to becoming royalty.

The Real Alcázar serves as the Seville residence of the Spanish royal family, though much is open to the public. Originally a Moorish citadel, the name means “courtyard of the maidens,” a reference to the Moors’ demand for a hundred annual virgins. The holes of virgins are tighter than those of other women and so provide more pleasure to those entering them, or so goes the logic. They tire more easily, though, and bleed from their hymen, so a man might require more for satisfaction.

The gardens of the Real Alcázar abound with the same orange trees you see all across the city, and by the time we reached them, we’d walked for hours, and I’d grown famished. So I decided to pick one, though it was an orange hanging high enough I had to jump to snag it. I had to run to build momentum and make a little show of snatching it.

My husband reminded me they were too bitter to eat and enjoy them. They were smaller than those we bought at the grocery but no sweeter, not analogous to tomatoes small as cherries. How do you know? I asked him. Well he’d read it somewhere, obviously. I had read the same passage in the same guidebook as he had, but reading is a limited way of knowing. Better to taste, I said, happy the knowing within my body could disagree with something he’d cited as an authority. And when I peeled back the rind, flung it in the bushes, and ate half the orange at once, I told him it wasn’t as bitter as he assumed it would be. He tried some and agreed, so we picked two more and put them in our pockets then ate them after our tapas later that evening.

My mother later said she dreamt of returning to Spain and seeing the Virgen de la Macarena paraded through Seville’s streets during Holy Week—she would have traveled to Andalusia if she’d only had more money from another priest. The statue, though, is not as lovely as you might think, I have tried telling her posthumously. One cheek has sustained damage from some apostate who struck the virgin’s face with a wine bottle, the wine of which was only half finished. The statue itself is wooden, and the virgin’s hair is human, meaning that which looks most natural on her decays most quickly.

In addition to practicing abstinence, the Virgin Mary’s body never perished from cancer, for instance, as did my mother, and have countless other men and women. Angels carried her body into Heaven, according to Catholic doctrine, while she still breathed, so that in a world of spirits she remains the only body, so that her urine filters into the rain, presumably. People worship her nevertheless, especially in this city, loving her more for crying in public, something that only makes me enemies.

When I was eight years old, I explained to my mother that a crustacean’s blood was the color of the ocean. I explained it to her because the fact felt so necessary. I extracted a bag of crayfish from the back of our freezer then thawed and cut one open to show her it looked nothing like that flowing through our own arteries. I watched her jaw open at the revelation and suddenly knew that she knew nothing. I realized then for certain she could never teach me anything.

You learn nothing by praying the rosary, you should know before you waste your evening. I found this out at the same age as I committed the crustacean anatomy to memory. My mother told me to pray the rosary before I fell asleep, to ask forgiveness from a woman whose body was never buried yet revered everywhere you saw a rooster’s copper body spinning. Yet I didn’t feel sorry for anything. I’d hit my sister once and bitten her leg, and a day later the teeth marks were still showing, though even that changed nothing. I had so much to learn, so many facts between the earth and moon and fluids escaping the tear inside my body, but I still knew enough not to rely on priests for money. Remorse for me has always grown too slowly.

In the tapas bar where old men kept tabs with chalk they soaked in water then wrote down on the counter, I went blind for several minutes. My dress revealed ample cleavage, so I kept my coat on when we met an older Englishman we’d spoken with earlier at a flamenco performance, because I didn’t want to remind him of the large tear inside of me, one he could fill, if only technically.

The room grew warmer with each person who walked in, and that day I had hardly eaten. So when I drank a glass of wine too quickly, I toppled backward, slicing part of my wrist open on a beer bottle I shattered when I fell against a table. The blood, I noticed when my eyes started working, ran red instead of blue, and I was startled by the crimson river that ran across the floor, widening like a river pouring itself into the ocean. If I ever shaved my wrists in the shower, I would stain the tub almost too vivid a color. I would make a mess for my husband that would only remind him each time he lathered that I was a human rather than crustacean.

And as I stared wide into a black, wool curtain dropped before my pupils all of a sudden, listening to people wonder whether I was conscious or had gotten a concussion, my husband said they were opened wider than looked natural. I never stared with such intensity as when all the world went invisible.

Historically, the Virgen de la Macarena keeps watch over all Spain’s matadors, we learned while taking a tour of a bullfighting museum the next morning. In 1912, José Ortega weighted the statue’s fingers with five emerald brooches, soliciting further intercession and acclaim in his profession. Yet eight years later, a bull gored him through the aorta. Then the wooden virgin wore black as a sign of the city’s mourning for the man she had done shielding, to anyone’s knowledge the only time in Seville’s history she changed her clothes. José Ortega, though, was more than a little sexy. He was greatly missed by the more devout women of the city.

When trying to understand why the Virgen de la Macarena is weeping, orthodox thinking points to her son’s crucifixion. Jesus, though, is long risen if you ask anyone who believes he has saved them, so her tears are specious as well as easily broken. The truth is, then, that she’s crying for other reasons. Her son was born to save the world, she was told from the beginning. Angels woke her well before dawn—before any rooster’s crowing. She soon gave birth to a living deity—any suffering she knew was fleeting—so hush there, sweetie. You’re not the only one hurting. Behind her tears, in Spain you’ll notice, she is always slightly smiling.

The Hail Mary implores her to act as our intermediary, pleading for her to beg her son to forgive us our iniquities. Her son meanwhile sits beside her, luminescing and likely sighing, bored with the monotony, tired of doing nothing for all eternity except forgiving. So there is only one cause left for her continued sorrow. The Blessed Virgin will be a virgin always. The tear between her legs was made for nothing.

Mary’s mother, Ann, was canonized solely for birthing the woman who conceived without having a penis probe her lowest opening. Ann appears nowhere in the Bible or the Qur’an, only in Apocrypha, according to which she had thought herself infertile but conceived when considered well advanced in age, in a time when people died much younger on average. Certain texts record that she had three children from husbands numbering the same, all named Mary for reasons beyond reckoning. Ecclesiastical authorities, however, later pronounced this as spurious. Ann had just the one baby—there can be only one weeping virgin, unless you’re a heretic—though the name has remained so common.

My husband’s mother’s name was Mary, though she died of cancer years before I met her son in a bookstore. The chicken pox scar above the gap between my eyebrows has the same shape and is set in the same position as was her own, and he says it frightened him from the beginning, as if she were returning in a different body. I have seen pictures of her, however, and no more resemble her than the postwoman. I also have no wish to mother my husband, while her scar is not visible in the few photos of her he’s shown me. Mine I cover with bangs falling low onto my forehead that occasionally keep me from seeing everything on my eyes’ periphery.

After I struck my husband, his face grew ugly to me, though mine is none too pretty. I suggested that he have his hair cut after I’d finished apologizing, because we needed something to distract us from the hand I’d flung and through which I’d wretched something poisonous, as if my palm were a face with its own orifices. And as I sat flipping through magazines of Spanish celebrities, and my husband looked at his own face in the mirror reflected at me from a distance, the barber stood between us.

The barber in the opera buffa whose title my husband repeated all the day’s remainder, saying he had met the barber of Seville and isn’t that funny, is no barber but only a factotum, I tried to insert into the hilarity. Figaro pretends to be a hair stylist to protect a pair of lovers, of whom one, Count Almaviva, is his employer. Rosina and Almaviva manage to fool Rosina’s guardian, who wants to marry her too, though only for her dowry. The haircut takes places halfway through the opera, and Figaro, botching the job, elates the audience while keeping the play rolling. The guardian is old and ugly, while Almaviva is young and handsome as the Spaniard my mother could have married in the 1960s.

In Seville I was menstruating, which my husband likes to claim ruins everything. Even when my hole is open and throbbing with no blood globules blocking it—the same as fat through an artery—he doesn’t always do much penetrating. He waits until I’m so angry I start to bite his penis when he wants me to suck long and languorously.

After he had his hair cut in a style we both agreed looked a lot like Morrissey’s, we rode a carousel. A street performer wearing a Spiderman costume began circling us as we spun around an axis wrapped in ceramic ribbons tied to nothing. He kept pace with us then started heckling, “Hey sexy!” We could both see his hardened penis through his spandex sheathing, his abdomen strung with spider-web veins. And when the ride ended and my husband took my hand and walked away with me, he blamed me for wearing too tight of clothing. At least I wasn’t wearing spandex, I said, which showed everything.

If my mother spoke more of Lourdes after she left Spain along with a man who could have fucked her into an outer orbit, maybe one with more forests, I cannot tell you any more of the story she never finished to my memory, many times as she told it. I also doubt there’s much worth telling. She brought back a vial of water from Bernadette’s famous stream I later emptied into the sink when I was six or seven. I filled it with two half bottles of nail polish, mixing them into a color I thought nicer than each looked separately. I saw a picture of the Virgin Mary weeping on the front of what looked like tap water to me, imprinted with gold lacquer I scraped away with an emery board while I watched TV. My mother teared up in a rage she quickly softened into instruction on the love that came from a woman living in heaven with a body whose tears were waters of healing.

Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous as an apparition, according to legend. The Virgin made a request of this poor peasant girl in person, asking her to build a chapel beside a brook whose waters could cure those who were suffering. Mary appeared to her for two consecutive weeks each evening with a yellow rose upon each foot, identifying herself only as the Immaculate Conception, telling Bernadette to drink the spring’s water and bathe there also. After which, witnesses confirmed, the mud permeating the waters evaporated, allowing pilgrims passing through airport security to bring samples home easily.

Bernadette died at the age of 35, my same age as of writing. Her body, church documents attest, has been exhumed three times. Thirty years after she stopped breathing, photographs showed her body to lie unaltered, though the rosary and crucifix she was buried with had rusted badly. As further relics were taken, the presiding physician, a Dr. Comte, recorded the following: “What struck me during this examination, of course, was the state of perfect preservation of the skeleton, the fibrous tissues of the muscles (still supple and firm), of the ligaments, and of the skin, and above all the totally unexpected state of the liver after forty-six years.”

Maybe it’s just me, but to my ears he sounds a little turned on by Bernadette’s dead body.

Perhaps the reason I never listened to the end of my mother’s story and stopped hearing once she left Madrid for the French backcountry was because I felt Bernadette was the daughter she would have preferred instead of me. But no such luck, Mommy. Were I to kill myself before my next birthday, however, we would die at the same age. Only you won’t be here to acknowledge the congruity.

Chemists who have examined the composition of Lourdes’ healing waters have noted no aberrations from that we drink everywhere else across the planet. It is potable and wet with no special mineral properties. And were you to visit there in summer, you’d have no chance to swim there either, because the crowds just keep coming. Once you reach the spring, you’d only be rushed through to make way for those with more manifest maladies. There are also few public toilets, while you’re prohibited from contaminating the stream. And all those germs from so many people coughing. A way the Virgin has, I suppose, of strengthening your immunity.

Some say Lourdes’ holy water consists of the Blessed Virgin’s tears, which can cure everything. Bernadette herself, though, never claimed this, scholars generally concede. The fact that people persist in preferring their Virgin Mary weeping is a fact regardless. And if she’s so upset—to the point she keeps appearing to young virgins mired in poverty, draping even wraiths of herself in arrant lacrimony, flooding a grotto and instating a site of pilgrimage—I wonder why she doesn’t just end it already.

A woman who could do anything could kill herself presumably without access to razor blades. But perhaps that is the only limitation of immortality, life’s sheer ceaseless, antic spree, in which you never can sleep for long enough, always waking to another morning with yet more broken people imploring you to heal their bodies. You can never end what demands to keep going. Life gives you itself endlessly yet remains the tyrant. From eternal life there is no resting.

My mother never realized I could get so tired of this living, and I’m glad I spared her the knowledge—if only because she had enough suffering. For a time, my sister shared some of my same melancholy, only more publicly. My mother drove two hours to where she went to college to make sure a team of doctors pumped her stomach clean. Whereas I only shared with her some poetry, making it easier for her to understand why I found it so hard to publish.

In Seville, you find as many gelato stands as you do in Italy, as many churches as kiosks to buy European ice cream, enough to make you almost forget France lies in between. And even in November when we visited, it melted all too quickly.

The atriums of older churches house the baptistery, a result of Christians converting Roman mansions into houses of worship, mansions whose water source inevitably stood at home’s entrance. For later worshippers, this assumed symbolic significance, allowing them to purify themselves with water hallowed by a priest, cleansing themselves spiritually, if still staying a little dirty before religious ceremonies. So when I found gelato sticking to my arms I’d bared in the autumn heat, I skipped to the nearest chapel across the street, where the water’s minerals mirror those in every other building across the city. Where there is no soap but the water is colorless at least.

My husband thought this was hilarious, and I agreed—the convenience and the serendipity. And though neither of us ever do pray to anything, leaving that to people with souls worth saving, we both looked up at the statue of the Virgin, garbed in rococo vestures overlaying a body carved from an Italian rock quarry. She smiled beneath layers of velvet while her wrists were ringed in gilded bracelets.

Were I to pray by some miraculous something, it would have not been to the Blessed Virgin but to my mother, who had sex, yes, but I’m sure not frequently and not until her thirties. And with only my father, whose penis she never saw before marriage. I would have begged her for love only, indifferent to healing anything wrong with me.

And she would have looked up, with her lower lip quivering, nervous she might say the wrong thing to a daughter she knew might slit her wrists into a scarlet effluence once she flew back across the Atlantic. And the Virgin Mary would have stepped in front her when, waving to me sheepishly, my mother would have faded into the storm clouds through which the Virgin Mary was peeing. I would be left there standing, saying nothing to the woman who ignored me. Crying into the baptistery, leaving instead of entering.

As it was, I pivoted at the door still open to the gelato stand across the street. I walked back inside the chapel, stopping beside the font of holy water no holier than that flowing from any sink. I rolled my shirt sleeves up to my elbows and rubbed each hand, with the other arm sunken in water feeling warm as urine to me. And turning my head and looking toward the altar, I saw my mother’s face receding. Quietly she was crying while the virgin’s lips thinned into a smile from which I saw her teeth blackening. Her eyes alone were weeping glass as always.



Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Atlas and Alice, PANK, Superstition Review, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Mud Season Review, Prick of the Spindle, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, East Bay Review, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Souvenir Lit Journal, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit. Selected by Elissa Washuta.

Image © Enrique Biosca via Flickr Creative Commons.