in which Jillian makes a pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico,
encounters Juana of God,
and thus brings Marisol home to Bella
It is not surprising, given the state of her world, that Angie O’Malley would look to Oprah for guidance. Of course, she doesn’t actually turn to Oprah, not personally, but all the same she gives Oprah a shout out for inspiration, Oprah via her daughter Jillian. This is how it happened: Jillian was sitting on her Aunt Glenda’s hospital bed in the living room—Glenda was asleep, earphones in, Mozart playing quietly on her iPod so the sonatas could rearrange her brain cells—and on the TV, this little Mexican woman was shoving nasal probes up a man’s nostrils to rid him of a brain tumor. Jillian let out a noise, a grunt maybe, but the closest she’d ever come in her thirteen years of life to a word. And Angie—hoping for a miracle—rushed in from the kitchen and saw Jillian, dear mute Jillian, pointing at Juana of God. She took it for a sign.
Not that Angie wants anyone to shove anything up Glenda’s nose, but there are other ways of performing miracles, she’s sure, and there was a very handsome medical doctor—an American, Ivy League—on the show who showed a scar on his chest just below his ribs where he had spontaneously started bleeding after witnessing the near lobotomy. The doctor went on to tell Oprah that the experience had turned his life upside down. Upside down! Because, for one, the near lobotomy had made the guy’s tumor shrink and then disappear. And for another, he, the doctor, now had to question everything, everything. His entire worldview.
The doctor shrugged. “Sure, maybe there’s a logical, a medical, explanation. Maybe it stimulated the pituitary gland, maybe not. Maybe we will never know. But the tumor is gone. That I do know.”
Here, a short film of the doctor and the man whose nostrils had been probed walking away from the healing. The man looked dizzy, woozy, as if he couldn’t believe he’d just allowed someone to shove steel rods like knitting needles up his nose. The doctor lifted his shirt and streaming from a hole in his side, blood. He touched it. He touched it again, amazed.
“There are things we don’t understand,” the doctor went on, seated next to Oprah in front of her studio audience, “all things are mysteriously connected, this is what I learned. Empiricism is not the be-all and end-all.”
Here, a panning of the audience to whom Oprah nodded and smiled, Oprah as solemn as she always is on occasions involving transformation.
Angie sat down and watched the rest of the show. What else could they do, but seek a miracle? The doctors here in San Francisco were offering nothing, nada, no hope for Glenda. Marisol, the woman who had been taking care of Glenda, had been deported. Angie had been helping her mother, Lois, take care of Glenda, and they were both utterly exhausted. Utterly. So in spite of the 6,000 deaths in Mexico in the last year due to the warring drug cartels, in spite of the stories about American women and Mexican babies being abducted and killed by drug dealers, their corpses being hollowed out and used as containers to transport drugs, in spite of all that, Angie decided they would risk it. After all, lots of people live in Mexico and don’t get beheaded or stuffed with drugs or shot execution-style and dumped in pits of lime, and it’s only a 50-mile drive from Tucson to Magdalena along a four-lane highway, and the Angels in Green rove that stretch of road and stop to help stranded motorists. They don’t do that here in the states, she thought. ¡No ángeles verdes aquí! She popped a Xanax.
Dear Juana of God, she wrote at the top of the letter she would send ahead of them and then she described Glenda’s maladies of the mind and body and heart.
Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, Mexico: brown hills squatting in the distance, then ranches and fields of green, and at the center lies the town and the lovely Plaza Monumental with the Temple of Santa María de Magdalena and the white igloo-shaped crypt in which lie, in a glass case, the bones of the town’s founding father, Father Eusebio Kino. When Angie sets out from Tucson, with Glenda and Jillian, she doesn’t realize that it’s the Festival of San Francisco Xavier, a time when people make pilgrimages to Magdalena, walking sometimes one hundred miles or more as they have done for years, centuries, maybe, and she wonders if their devotion has thus charged the ions in the air and if maybe that’s how Juana of God is able to perform her miracles.
Do you have to believe in God or Christ, she wonders, for Juana to cure you? She thinks not. After all, that handsome doctor didn’t seem to be religious. Even though his wound was exactly where Christ’s was, he didn’t say anything about God, not God the Father, not God the Son, nor God the Holy Ghost. Neither did Oprah. She didn’t even ask the obvious Oprah questions.
Angie is a more-than-lapsed Catholic, but even she could see it: looking at that wound was like looking at the stigmata and saying nothing. Curious. Christ as the elephant in the room. Angie has heard of cathedrals in Mexico where the stone floors have grooves worn in them from people crawling on their knees to the altar. Even if you don’t believe in God, she thinks, there must be something to believe in—even if it’s only the faith of others. But for now, she just drives carefully, hoping that no pedestrian or pilgrim will decide to test God by stepping in front of her car.
They come into the café every morning for desayuno, the woman with her hair as if it is on fire, la rubia in the wheelchair, and the girl who does not talk. They did not know it was the festival and so the woman, she was very upset at the streets full of people. She had hoped, she said, for más cálmate, by which I think she was not telling me “more you calm down” but saying instead that she wished the town was more quiet, not so noisy with the bands and the dancing in the streets. So I set a table aside for them in the corner and every morning, it’s the same thing. La rubia in the wheelchair gets a quesadilla because, no matter how much her hand shakes, she can bring it to her mouth. The mother of the girl, she gets huevos rancheros, and the girl, when she points to tacos de lengua on the menu, the mother shrugs and says, a ella le gusta la carne. Every morning. Evidently the mother does not see the irony that we see—those of us busy in the kitchen—a girl who cannot speak eating lengua.
“Tell me,” the mother of the girl says to me on the third morning, “what do you know of this Juana of God? And why is it we have to wait so long for an appointment?”
Of course, it is a coincidence for right at that moment, Juana and her assistant Nardo are sitting at their table, which is set aside for them in the other corner of the restaurant. But I say nothing. Because. Who knows if Juana wants to see them?
“All I know,” I say, “is that Juana has taken away my tooth aches. With one touch of her fingers, she lifts away the pain. She has even taken away the dreams of my teeth crumbling in my mouth. Perhaps that is worth waiting for.”
The mother tilts her head as though considering this and just then the silent girl lifts her face and I know she recognizes Juana of God—who could forget her? —the thick eyebrows that meet in a line like Frida’s, the snow white hair piled high on her head, the huge hoop earrings, the heavy turquoise rings on her fingers and the hundreds of jangling bracelets. Juana is a striking woman. With her full breasts and haunches, she looks like one of those goddesses before la virgen ever showed herself to Juan Diego.
Right now, Juana is eating a breakfast of pastries that I make especially for her in the old French way, butter, crema, eggs, all the things she is not supposed to have because of her heart disease. It is like the painter whose house needs painting, the healer who needs a cure. What can I say?
When I go over to her table to tell her that she has visitors, she pats the chair next to her. “Siéntate, Jorge. Let me tell you what those American doctors did to me. They pumped my veins full of radioactivity and I could feel myself begin to glow. All through my veins, up my right arm, into my armpit, into my lungs and heart, even into my brain, I could feel it. The warmth like scorpion venom. It was moving all through me, down into my legs, up into my other arm, lighting me up like thousands of stars. There it was flowing through me. I knew they could see it even without their machines and it scared them.”
“And so what did they say?”
“Nada,” Nardo says, “nada que ya no sabemos.”
“Pfft!” Juana waves her hand as if she is swishing away a fly. “But as if that is not bad enough! They make you run on this treadmill as if you are a rat, a rat with wires all taped to you. You are full of their poison and you have wires taped to you and they watch the computer as you run. They do not watch you. You could fall off and hit your head and die and they would not notice until their computer told them to look. And then, while you are running as fast as you can, they pump still more poison into you and it burns like hell and no matter if you say it burns, they do not listen. All of this just so they can see inside you because, without their machines and their poisons, they cannot see inside.”
The mother rises and begins to push la rubia towards the door and right then Juana’s little Chihuahua begins to growl deep in his throat.
“Pay attention to the dog!” Nardo warns them. “He bites!”
But the silent girl, she comes over to our table and puts her hand on Juana’s shoulder and Junie, I swear, he stops growling. He does not bite. It’s the only time he has ever let a stranger touch Juana of God.
“Ah,” Juana belches, a deep one, from her whole body. She studies the girl’s pale face. “You have a gift, mi’ja. That was just what I needed.”
White is not in the palette of Jillian’s wardrobe. Nor is it in her mother’s or in Glenda’s, but after much grumbling about the commercialism of the Juana of God enterprise and how it supports the whole god-damned town, her mother buys peasant blouses for the three of them from a store on the Plaza Monumental. They are thin white cotton with bright embroidered flowers all along the top and the edges. On Glenda’s, even the flowers are white since she is the patient, which makes Jillian think she is like a nun or a bride or an angel. Even The Casa, which is what the people call Juana of God’s hacienda, is white. White walls, white floors, white domed roof, white ceilings, white curtains. Has color been erased? Have they died and gone to a bland heaven? These questions enter Jillian’s mind.
In the courtyard of The Casa Blanca, as Jillian now thinks of it, rows and rows of white plastic lawn chairs filled with rows and rows of supplicants dressed in white clothing. Jillian and her mother wheel Glenda in front of them, take two chairs on the aisle next to her. A red flash of the wings of a cardinal, green leaves of huge plants sway in terra cotta pots, fronds of the palms above them rustle. Junie, the Chihuahua, struts across the stage. And then Juana appears in a white pantsuit and is standing in the center of the stage where the visible healing takes place, where she gets inhabited by a saint or by an old German doctor or by Florence Nightingale, maybe, or by Oswaldo Cruz, or maybe by several entities in succession, depending on what the patients need.
There is the visible healing where people go up on to the stage and get healed because the entity enters Juana of God and she goes into a trance and the entity operates—not Juana, Juana does not operate for, as even she will tell you, she has no medical training and, besides, as her assistants will tell you, the sight of blood makes her swoon—Jillian knows this from Oprah—and then there is the invisible healing which happens when people in the audience sit and quietly focus on their own inner need for healing and then the spirit entities move among them and even inside of them and leave invisible sutures.
Jillian, of course, can’t wait to see blood spurting from people’s noses or to see the part where Juana sticks her hand inside someone’s body, right through the skin!
But, until then: all around Jillian, the rising hum of everyone’s desires for wholeness and she has to say, some of their desires are a little crass. Even her mother’s. Since she is closest to Jillian, Jillian can hear her mother’s desire for money. Her mother believes that if only she could win the lottery, she would have enough money to take care of everything else herself. She wouldn’t need Juana of God or even God, although, as a more-than-lapsed Catholic, she doesn’t dare think this for more than one nanosecond. (Of course, she needs God.) But she could. Take care of everything. The Lord helps those who help themselves, after all. If she had money, she could quit her job and take care of Glenda and take care of her mother and Jillian and even Stevie Jr., whom they’ve had to leave behind with her mother. (Poor Stevie Jr., Jillian suddenly thinks, imagining her fierce grandmother yanking the remote out of Stevie Jr.’s hand so she can watch Wheel! of! Fortune!) Meanwhile her mother is almost in a frenzy of anxiety, revising her monetary needs up and up and up, more and more and more zeroes, because she’ll need help, won’t she? For years. No, for decades. With her mother’s declining health as well as Glenda’s, she’ll need two Marisols, at least, and if she takes in two Marisols, then she’ll have to take in Marisol One’s granddaughter, Bella, and probably another Bella for the other Marisol, for she doesn’t want to exploit anyone, and she’ll need a bigger house for all of them to live together and she’ll have to put the Bellas through college as well as Stevie Jr. and Jillian. And Stevie Jr. will probably want to go to graduate school, for he is one smart cookie, and Jillian, if Jillian wants to go to art school, Angie is determined that she will. Why, oh why, had she bought the white blouses? They didn’t really need them, did they, to come here? And why did she buy that expensive face lotion and that expensive wine the other night and why had she put the airline tickets on her card instead of letting her mother pay for them? And what if she has to sell the house to take care of Glenda? The more Angie thinks about everyone who needs her and how little money she has saved and how much she wastes—one of her cards is at 19.99%!—and how little she earns from her job and how she’s run out of sick leave and vacation time—although everyone tells her she should be thankful she even had that!—and how little Jillian’s father Bobby sends and how little Steve Sr. sends for Stevie Jr., the more and more oppressed she feels and the more and more money she thinks she needs and the more she wishes she just had something simple wrong with her, even a tumor, say, so that Juana of God could just shove something up her nose and cure it once and for all. Yes, if her money woes could be over, if she could quit the nightly tossing and turning that started as soon as she heard about Glenda’s accident, she would let someone shove knitting needles up her nose. She would. She would let someone stab her in the stomach and give her the stigmata. Let the bleeding begin!
At this, Jillian takes her mother’s hand and strokes it. She presses other her hand against her mother’s cheek. Shhh, Jillian thinks to her mother, and to all the others whose needs are rising in them, whose knots of anxiety are twisting and twisting.
Does Juana of God hear them, too?
El perrito, nightmare of my existence, the way he nips at my heels. If he were a bigger dog, he would be dead already. He barks, and it is a signal that Juana is about to begin. Juana, whose Casa Blanca I have been cleaning. ¿Juana es de Dios? No sé. Anything is possible, pues, but when you clean a person’s toilet, you know things about her no one else should know. Juana is of the flesh and God is ineffable. Of this, I have no doubt. Perhaps God works through her in the way He works through all of us. An act of kindness here, you give money there, a crust of bread, a tortilla, whatever you can because the beggar at your door may be the Savior ¿quién sabe?—who knows, you never know—but does this mean Juana is any closer to God than the rest of us? Je ne sais pas! as the French would say.
She is a curandera, okay, of this I am sure—and a good one, maybe, one hopes she does no harm—it’s just that she’s found her market and a curandera, she is not supposed to have a market. She is supposed to give her gifts freely for they came to her freely—but such is the free market system and its power to corrupt. After years of living on the other side, of this I can testify. ¡Aye, Dios mío! Los americanos, they are the only ones in the world who think that God proves Himself by granting wishes.
And so Junie barks and so I see them, my americanas, Angie and Glenda and Jillian, they are sitting a few rows in front of me. At first, my heart skips a beat for I am hoping and also not hoping that they have brought my Bella, mi nieta, who got left behind in the States when I got deported. Mi vida. Oh, I wonder how she is doing without me and if she knows I am cleaning baños as fast as I can to get back to her, working my way north, for even in Mexico there are those who don’t like to clean their own bathrooms.
Angie stands up and pushes her sister forward, up the ramp, on to the stage. Jillian, pobrecita, is left by herself and so I move up and sit next to her. She is a strange one, I know, but sweet. She takes my hand without even looking at me, as if she were expecting me, Marisol, to come and sit next to her. She is looking at the dog as if she expects him to change into a much larger, a mythical creature. This is something I also expect of him and so I remind him, often, to keep him in his place, that my ancestors ate his ancestors. You exist only because your ancestors were raised for food, I tell him, and then he slinks away like the little hairless dog that he is.
On stage, Juana has gone into one of her trances and the voice that comes out of her mouth, y eso es la verdad, I swear, is the voice of a very old man who is stuck in a tunnel. It is not a voice I have heard before. It is speaking a language other than Spanish or English or French and I look down and the girl, Jillian, is drawing in a notebook and in the drawing, there is a small creature with wings and with the face of el perrito, Junie. El perrito, he is pierced with small arrows and his bug-eyes roll up in his head like the eyes of a saint. And now she is drawing, I see it, Juana holding out her hand for the knife and, around Juana, like a shadow, the larger shape of a man, a man in old-fashioned clothing. And now another shadow and now another, until all over the page there are shadows, what is left of those who have gone before us, maybe, gathered there on the stage hearing our sad prayers. And so I think, maybe these americanas are on to something. Maybe we, los pobres, are behind the times, thinking we’re supposed to serve God and not the other way around.
Entonces. ¿Quién sabe? Maybe God will grant our wishes. Can it hurt to try? And so I do, I try, and even as I try, I know, I can feel it, there is a difference between praying and wishing because with praying, your whole soul rises and expands and becomes filled with light, but with wishing, it is only half of your soul, not enough light to share with others. I can feel part of my heart holding back and this, I know, is my own lack. Me falta not faith in God but the belief that prayers are for wishing. This is a lack that is in me and not God’s fault. Still, I try to wish, like the others seated around me, and I wish not to be Mexican.
I want to be cured of being Mexican? Oh, no, that is not what I intend. Soy mexicana, siempre. By this I mean I want to go back to where is my home now, the area of the bay, San Francisco. I want a claim to my own life. I want to be free to belong where I belong. My blood will always be here in this soil, but the heart that pumps my blood is in el otro lado, with my nieta Bella, where I am needed. Here, I will come back here to die.
Just as the dog Junie barks, Marisol has come to sit next to her and has clasped Jillian’s left hand, but Jillian takes her hand back for she needs it to hold the notebook.
Jillian sees a brown cloud come out of the dog’s mouth like a puff of earthy dust or smoke and, as it materializes, it becomes a man in a brown suit, and then another cloud comes forward and it is a woman in a long black gown and then another and another and another, too many for Jillian to draw all at once, and Junie the dog sprouts wings and then arrows pierce him as if he is a small deer being hunted by invisible archers, and when his eyes roll back in his head, the head of Juana of God snaps back and snaps forward and she opens her mouth and a gravelly voice, the voice of an old man, comes out. It says Unter’s Messer kommen and because Jillian, in her few moments of omniscience when she was being born, was granted a limited vocabulary in many languages— a particularly ironic gift since she would never be able to speak any of them—understands that the voice has said something about undergoing the knife and it must be true because when Juana of God holds out her hand—although she is no longer all there and so to say she holds out her hand seems to imply a volition that she does not, in actuality, seem to have—an assistant, who is also dressed all in white, slaps a dinner knife in her palm. Slaps, as if she needs to be sure that Juana feels it.
Juana steps up to a man with a goatee, the first supplicant, and he puts both of his hands over his heart, and Juana is mumbling something, perhaps praying, Jillian thinks, although she is drawing so quickly, all of her consciousness focused on her hand moving across the page, that she isn’t really paying attention to sound. All is vision. Juana has stretched the man’s eyelids apart and she has begun to scrape his eyeball with the dinner knife. The man seems to feel no pain. He doesn’t say a word, he doesn’t lift his hands from his chest, he doesn’t even seem to resist by pulling his head back. Jillian can see a glowing red spot on the man’s left lung, it is glowing through his skin, and so she wonders why the eyeball when he has a growth on his lung? But now Juana of God is moving towards her mother and her aunt.
Later, much later, Jillian will wonder why it did not surprise her when Juana of God went directly to her mother, as if Angie were the patient and not Glenda but, of course, because Juana was in a trance, not seeing the world as it existed in front of her eyes but seeing, instead, some version of it painted inside her own mind, Juana of God moved toward Angie and she put her hand on Angie’s shoulder and Angie put her hands over her heart, as if she were, indeed, the supplicant, the person who was in need of healing. The voice that came out of Juana of God’s mouth this time was in an ancient language, so ancient that none of her assistants understood her, it was a language of trees growing or of magma from deep in the earth or of ancient water, a language without words, but Juana seemed to understand it and Jillian, as she drew, understood it in her muscles and bones for she could draw so quickly as if she were drawing a movie, as if the drawing was causing the events to happen and not merely recording them.
Juana of God lifted Angie’s shirt and there was Angie’s smooth white stomach with one dark mole right below her left breast and Juana plunged her hand into Angie’s stomach, right through the skin, no need for a knife, no need for an incision, even the assistants gasped, even the shadows on the stage gasped, and the spirits who were moving among the supplicants seated for invisible healing, they all gasped, and Juana drew out of Angie’s stomach a large black stone, like a river stone, pure black, heavy, worn smooth by millennia and millennia of water running over it, and she handed the stone to Glenda who took it in her hands and pressed it to her cheek and then Juana pulled stone after stone out of Angie’s stomach until there were seven stones and, after each stone, she handed it to Glenda and Glenda held it first to her cheek and then cradled it in her lap. No one could believe that seven such large stones had been housed in such a thin body. After the last stone, Juana of God seemed to look at her own hand, for she held it to the sky and turned it back and forth, and then she waved her hand over Angie’s stomach and the skin was smooth, healed, as if it had never been broken.
Jillian continues to draw and, in her drawing, her mother floats up above the stage, she seems very happy, and Jillian draws a large house below her and, in the house, she draws her grandmother and Stevie Jr. watching TV. She draws Bella knocking at the front door. She draws the handsome American doctor, the one from the Ivy League who was on Oprah. He comes up on the stage to help Angie with Glenda. He loves the smooth rocks, he holds them to his own cheek, one by one, and then he takes Glenda’s face in his hands and she whispers—what, Jillian cannot hear for her head is bent over her drawing—but they are the first words Glenda has uttered since her accident and, although Jillian does not believe in fairy tales, she knows what kind of woman her aunt is, a woman who is only happy when she is with a man, and so Jillian draws her floating up out of the chair and she and the doctor are flying slant-wise over the stage as if they are the bride and groom in the painting by Chagall. They have left the stones that burdened Angie below. The stones are below. Angie begins to sing, a song like a lullaby and everyone, including the spirits, including Juana of God, including Junie, the chaneling Chihuahua, feel as if someone invisible is cradling them. Sutures, visible and invisible, anywhere within fifty miles, melt and leave no marks.
Jillian draws a sunny day for their departure. When they pack up the car, they will leave the stones behind because now that the doctor and Marisol are traveling with them, there is no room for the stones and, besides, Juana of God wants to use them in her herb garden. She will swap them for payment because she is sure they will help her grow the most marvelous herbs. She is sad to see the doctor go, primarily because he was such good publicity, but c’est la vie, que será será, and all that. Even Junie, for all his growling at Marisol, wishes her the best, hopes she won’t be deposited again in the middle of the burning desert. Goodbye, he barks. Goodbye! Good Luck! Marisol, remembering when he bit her finger, gives him the evil eye, but Jillian waves. Junie, she knows, contains multitudes and so it’s not surprising that he’s a little schizophrenic.
As they approach the border, Jillian feels overwhelmed with the lines and lines of cars, their hulking bodies, their exhaust rising in gray ghost clouds. Likewise, she is overwhelmed by the little girls wilting like paper flowers, chicle for sale melting in the palms of their hands, and the grubby boys who clamor at the windows and climb on the hoods of cars, waving their spray bottles and squeegees. Not to mention: on the periphery of her vision, the shadows of teenagers who were shot for throwing rocks at the border patrol on the other side or for trying to climb the fence back into this country, or who were hit by stray bullets as they walked along the street across from the wall, head down, eyes averted, hunched shoulders. Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. Seven bullets in the back, that’s how the corrido will go. One day, there should be a song remembering, Jillian thinks.
She looks down at her drawing. She hopes the guards won’t notice Marisol—Marisol, who at this moment, is doing her best to vanish and so is becoming thinner and thinner to the point of near translucence, almost melting into the upholstery between Jillian and her mother. Jillian scoots closer as if to hide her. She hopes the guards will be too mesmerized by her mother’s singing and too busy looking at the lovebirds in the backseat and at the light that emanates from the car itself to notice Marisol. The light, which is the light of concentrated prayers, will blind them, Jillian decides. It will be a laser-beam light, a light so bright that the car can rise above all the other cars and float over the border in a bubble—this is how Jillian draws the car—in a blue bubble with tongues of light all around, just like la virgen of Guadalupe in those paintings on velvet. For it’s true, la virgen can go anywhere. Borders never stop her. Maybe, Jillian thinks, Marisol’s escape will count as the miracle they’ve been hoping for.
"Tale 6: in which Jillian makes a pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico, encounters Juana of God, and thus brings Marisol home to Bella” is from Jillian in the Borderlands, a fabulist story-cycle. Two other tales appear as: "The Astonished Dead,” in Western Humanities Review and "¿Que hora son, mi corazon?" in The Southern Review (2014). Beth Alvarado’s other recent publications appear in The Collagist, Sonora Review, Third Coast, and Nimrod. Her memoir, Anthropologies, (University of Iowa Press, 2011) and stories from her collection Not a Matter of Love, (New Rivers Press, 2006) are also set in the beautiful Sonoran desert.