"Ai, ai, mi Dios, ah, mi Dios ..."
Maria twists in her narrow virgin's bed. Sweat-soaked sheets cling to her like the greedy arms of a lover; her back arches as she is pierced by the holy rapture of God.
It is not yet light out. She has awakened the household with her cries and they hover at the doorway, loath to disturb her, anxious to hear the Word. Maria, the blessed. Maria, the blessed. Maria, the intended bride of Jesus.
She gasps, head thrown back, skin glistening cinnamon against the white of her cotton nightgown. Her dark eyes open. She sees Mama, Papa, Abuelita, Tia Rosa, Tia Juanita. She smiles at their beloved, ravaged faces, skin cracked and weathered as the desert floor, tumors and pustules like swarming anthills.
"He was inside me," she whispers. "His holy spirit. Praise Him. Praise Him."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
They sit silently around the breakfast table, the five old ones, waiting for her to speak. Maria hums as she prepares eggs and tortillas and strong black coffee. It is a little indulgence of hers to make them wait; perhaps a tiny sin. But surely God will forgive her for that. She is special, she knows, and she enjoys being special. And she is determined to enjoy this, her last mortal day on Earth.
The seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, born on the hot blue morning that the Americans opened the doors of the maquiladora, the plastics plant, Maria first saw the Holy Virgin when she was just twelve.
The young girl had found dark, clotted blood in her panties on the morning of her birthday. Innocent, terrified, she ran from the bathroom, screaming for her mother. Then the world went away in a flash of blue fire. Her namesake appeared to her in a blaze of color and beauty, whispering her name, entreating her to listen, listen.
Not a week went by before God visited her in her sleep.
Maria was wracked with fever for three days, brown cheeks flushed and burning, eyes shiny as silver. She raved about demons and angels and holy blood as her mother wept and cooled her head with damp cloths, and her father silently prepared for his baby girl to die.
But she didn't. Her fever broke with the suddenness of a cooling rainstorm over the desert. When she awoke, Maria was no longer a little girl. She was a prophet.
God came to her often. Sometimes He spoke through her in riddles and strange, singing poetry. Sometimes He warned her of flash floods or lightning strikes. Sometimes He whispered parables, touching, pointed and true. All this she passed on to the people.
Her beloved, monstrous people.
For the townsfolk of Guadalupe had begun to change on the day Maria was born. Their skin grew thick and oily, then blossomed into tumors like globs of wet pink bubblegum. Their hair and their clothes, even their breath, carried the sharp, poisonous smell of liquid plastic. Their lungs filled with fluid, and they grew old before their time. The babies were born with no eyes, or no legs, or no brains, eyes shining like luminarias when the doctor held a flashlight to the back of their tiny heads.
But not Maria. Her eyes are as bright as the candles in the Church of St. Sebastian. Her skin is the rich, creamy color of fresh caramel, her hair as glossy as the wings of a raven. It is obvious to all that she is a precious, coddled favorite of God. Perhaps there would have been jealousy, were Maria not so sweet, so affectionate and giving. She loves her family, her neighbors, her little friends with their slick raw-meat faces, kissing their lumpy cheeks as if they are beautiful as porcelain dolls.
The village whispers about her, listens to her, adores her. She is touched by the hand of God.
Maria, now eighteen, smiles at the anxious faces of her family. Her laugh is like the chiming of bells. She can stand to tease them no longer.
"He spoke to me in pictures," she says. "He showed me the face of our land. The mountains. The sky. I was like a hot wind sweeping through the desert, borne aloft by His sweet breath."
"Will it flood this year?" asks Abuelita, her voice breathy and quavering. The fat pink mass on her tongue makes her hard to understand.
Maria pats her grandmother's hand. "He did not tell me."
"Will Corazon Ruiz's baby be a boy or a girl?" asks Tia Rosa, clasping her hands.
"I do not know," says Maria, eyes sparkling.
"You -- you are still going to the convent this fall, aren't you?" asks Mama, touching her daughter's ebony hair.
Again, Maria laughs. "Yes, of course, Mama. I will go. It is what I want most in the world."
For the first time in her life, Maria is lying. It feels strange. She touches Mama's hair, looks into the single black eye that has not yet been covered by the spongy tumor on her forehead.
The old ones breathe a collective sigh of relief. It is not that they want to lose Maria, but she is too delicate, too pure, too precious to remain in the sinful outside world. They want to see her safe within the convent walls, where the love of God will nourish her, where she can grow like a rare and perfect flower.
"What else did he show you?" asks Papa.
Maria takes a deep breath. "He showed me -- He showed me the face of William."
Mama gasps. Papa scowls. William? Why?
Maria was never any trouble growing up, of course. She did not date. She had no interest in boys, although they followed her through the streets like mongrel dogs. Then she met William.
She first saw him at the mission last winter. Like her, he was a volunteer, wrapping Christmas presents for the poor children of Guadalupe. His red hair and blue eyes made him stand out; the only white boy Maria had ever seen. She found him strange and beautiful.
He was traveling for a year, he said, before entering seminary. He seemed to fall in love with Maria instantly.
Their relationship is the subject of much speculation and gossip. Maria and William read the Bible together, go for walks in the evenings, cook for the mission. Her family, especially Papa, does not approve.
But she is such a good girl. She is wise beyond her years. William is gentle and kind, and his devotion seems innocent. They respect her judgment. They would not dream of questioning it. William is her friend, that is all. And he seems to love the children, with their carts and crutches and wet little rubber-monster faces, as much as does Maria herself.
"What does it mean?" asks Mama, looking worried.
Maria looks up at the cracked ceiling and seems to look through it, at the vast, pale blue morning sky. "He is leaving tomorrow, Mama. It means I must say goodbye to him tonight. That is all."
The old ones smile and nod their approval.
Many hours later, Maria is waiting in the living room, sitting on the frayed blue couch in her white cotton dress when William comes to the door.
Her heart is suddenly filled with strong emotion. She hugs her family, one by one, telling them goodbye. They are not surprised. She is such an affectionate child. She gazes into their faces for a long time, knowing she will not see them again. William shifts from foot to foot and studies the ancient gray carpet.
"Are you ready?" he asks, in his strange, flat American accent. He smiles at her. Maria nods, and slips her arm through his. She smiles up at him, and for a brief, shameful, flickering moment, she thinks that God's will is harsh.
The night is blood-warm. The acrid, chemical breeze that strokes Maria's cheek is as soft as a sleeping baby's breath. The night is moonless, and the stars are so very bright.
Arm in arm, Maria and William stroll through the narrow dirt streets of Guadalupe. Dogs playfully dance alongside them, wagging their twisted, lumpen tails. People wave and smile from their front porches. Somewhere, someone is playing a guitar and singing a song of love lost.
They don't speak, William and Maria, but she wraps both of her arms around his wiry bicep. She rests her head on his shoulder. His eyes glow with quiet joy.
They walk past the grocery store, the botanica, the mission with its white, gleaming steeple made luminous in the starlight.
As they leave Guadalupe behind and walk out into the desert, Maria looks over her shoulder at the maquiladora, the massive, hulking factory that looms at the far end of town, breathing invisible poisons into the air both night and day. Giving families the money to feed their children. Turning their children into monsters. She sighs, and wonders at the unknowable ways of her God.
But she does not wish to think of such things now. William's gaze is like the sun on her face. Of course, she knows he loves her. Of course. And though she has never spoken it, she loves him too.
He slips his arm around her slender waist as they walk. Her hand slides along his slim, muscular back, around to his lean ribs, then down until it rests on the waistband of his bluejeans. The movement of the muscles of his hip is strangely exciting, in a way she doesn't fully understand.
They walk past green mesquite trees, granite boulders, treacherous, jumping cholla cactus, ocotillo plants like eight-foot thorny weeds. The whisper of the breeze blends with the songs of nightbirds and crickets. The hard dirt crunches beneath Maria's sandals. William glances down at her tiny bare toes anxiously from time to time. But she does not fear snakes or scorpions. They have never come near her. They would not dare.
She feels his breath quicken as they walk. They are moving purposefully now, heading for a place they will know when they see it. William's heart has begun to pound. Maria can feel it thumping against his ribs as if it would leap from his chest and into hers.
They come to the place, and they stop. A granite boulder juts up from the ground. Next to it, a smooth, shallow dip in the desert floor, as if some huge creature has been sleeping there for years.
"Would you like to rest?" William whispers in Maria's ear. She nods. His breath on her face makes her shiver pleasantly.
William takes the plaid shirt he has tied around his waist and spreads it on the ground, in the hollow. He smiles and gestures for Maria to sit, then lowers himself down next to her. He takes her hand.
Now, she thinks. It begins and ends now.
"Maria." His voice is shaking. "I -- I'm not going to seminary." He looks at her as if he has just confessed to murder, but she smiles, and nods her encouragement.
William looks up at the starfilled sky. "I love you, Maria. I want you to marry me."
"I know," she whispers. She is filled with sudden, poignant sadness.
He looks at her, half hoping, half afraid.
"I love you too," she says, taking his face in her hands. "I love you, William."
He kisses her. His lips are sweet and warm. Maria slides her hands into his soft, wavy hair, drawing him closer.
His arms are around her, one hand cupping the back of her neck, the other moving up and down her back in long, smooth strokes. He kisses her.
Maria's heart begins to beat faster. She feels William's tongue run along her upper lip, soft as a rose petal. She moves her hands over the front of his white T-shirt, feeling the slim, hard muscles of his chest.
William draws Maria close, pressing her tightly against him. He kisses her neck, then starts to nibble.
She gasps. A warmth is spreading between her legs. William licks the hollow of her throat, and his hand slides up to cup her small breast. His thumb moves gently back and forth over her tiny nipple, sending little shocks of pleasure through her, making her back arch all by itself.
The warmth becomes heat, and wetness, and then a soft, maddening throb as he begins to unbutton her dress.
Maria's breath becomes ragged. She wants something, wants it desperately, although she isn't exactly sure what it could be.
Her dress is open to the waist. William lowers his head and nuzzles between her breasts, kissing, licking the fine sheen of sweat that has formed on her body. Maria strokes his hair, kisses the crown of his head. He smells of American shampoo, and the noonday sun, and deadly, pungent toxins.
He is suckling now, tongue flicking over Maria's nipple like the wing of a moth. She throws her head back. A little moan slips from her mouth as a nighthawk glides silently overhead on midnight wings.
Maria is suddenly greedy for William's pale skin, for the taste of his flesh. She starts to lift his T-shirt over his head.
He grasps her hands. He looks away, down, as if embarrassed.
Maria smiles, turning his face to her with delicate hands. She touches her forehead to his, telling him without words that he has nothing to be ashamed of, that she will find him beautiful, no matter what. He still won't look at her as she pulls the T-shirt off.
He has only been in Guadalupe for a few months, but the town has begun to make him its own. There is a raised, sticky tumor the size of a quarter in the center of his chest, like a third nipple.
Tenderly, with infinite love, Maria kisses it. When she touches William's face, she finds he is weeping.
William slips the flannel shirt out from under Maria, spreads it on the ground behind her, where her head would rest if she were lying down. She smiles at him, nods.
"Are you sure?" he whispers. "Is this what you really want?"
"Yes, my love." But is it? She thinks briefly, wistfully, of life with William, of a home and children they will never have.
But it is God's will.
"Yes," as he eases her down to the ground.
He finishes unbuttoning her dress, and spreads its halves open, like the white wings of a butterfly. Maria feels the soft, now cool breeze on her bare skin. She shivers with pleasure as her nipples grow erect.
William runs his hand along the delicate curve of her belly, tracing the edge of her panties with his finger. "You are so beautiful," he breathes. "I've loved you since the first day I saw you."
She kisses his hand, then places it over her breast. "I am yours."
He pulls her panties down slowly, so slowly it nearly drives her mad. She wants him to see her. She wants nothing between them.
William rubs his cheek against her soft, black, curling fur. He presses his lips to her, sending a jolt of pleasure up her spine. He breathes in her scent, and lingers. His warm breath on her vulva makes her whimper with want.
He kisses her again, more deeply. She feels his tongue slip between her folds, and she cries out. Slowly, worshipfully, he begins to lick her.
Maria had never in her short life guessed that such a thing occurred between people. It is shocking. It is unbelievably delicious. Her breath comes in high-pitched sobs, chest heaving, hips writhing. I cannot bear it, she thinks, trying at once to twist away, and to open herself wider for him.
He slides his hands beneath her, gripping her slender hips. He will not let her go. His tongue is moving faster, rhythmically, as fast as the pounding of her heart.
It hits her suddenly, with the force of a lightning bolt in the midst of a summer storm. Wave upon wave of pleasure, unlike anything she has ever felt before. Maria's back bends; she rises up from the earth as if she would take flight. She cries out again and again, calling upon God, thanking him for the time she has with William, knowing even through her ecstasy that it will end soon now, very soon.
She sinks back to the ground as the feeling fades, still gasping. Her limbs are weak, her thighs trembling. William is over her, on top of her, kissing her lips. She tastes the honeymusk flavor of herself on his mouth, and finds it beautiful.
"Are you ready?" he asks.
"Yes," she replies, not knowing for what.
He unbuttons his jeans, slides them down over his narrow hips. Again, he is on top of her. She feels him pressing against her, and, just for a moment, feels a flicker of fear.
She is very wet, and he is pushing harder now. She feels resistance, momentary pain. He is breathing hard, mouth against her ear. She kisses his cheek, gasps as he enters her.
They are one. It is as if someone has switched on a light in a darkened room. Maria sees everything. She senses the ground squirrels in their holes, the coyotes with their golden, trickster eyes, the cactus wrens asleep in the tall saguaros. She feels the burn of the stars a million miles above her. She feels the cool gurgle of water in layers of rock below.
"Are you all right?" William whispers. Maria nods, unable to speak, presses her lips to his forehead. There is no turning back.
"Does it hurt?" he asks, brushing the hair from her eyes. She smiles at him, and shakes her head, for she is far beyond feeling pain.
He begins to move inside her. He rocks his hips gently, like waves on a quiet sea. It feels so very, very good. Maria rests her hands on his rounded, muscular backside, moving her hips in rhythm with his.
Maria moans as William thrusts a little deeper. She moans as the ground beneath her warms, liquefies, reaches up to meet her flesh. She cries out as the flesh of her back reaches down to join the earth.
She holds him tightly, rocking, thrusting. She does not want to leave him, although she knows she must. She digs her fingertips into the sweatslick muscles of his lower back as her feet sink into the ground.
William cries out, arching up and away from Maria. She touches the sharp angle of his jaw as he empties himself into her. She shudders all over, the mortal part of her gripped with intense pleasure. She feels his seed flow deep inside, touching her now-molten core.
"William," she cries. "William, William."
He lies on top of her for a time, whispering her name, kissing her, swearing his undying love. Tears of scarlet slip down Maria's temples as she strokes his hair.
At last, he pulls out of her. Maria feels a sorrow that is sister to grief, knowing she will never feel him again.
She sees through his eyes the crimson poppy that is spreading between her thighs, staining the white of her dress.
"You're bleeding," says William, frightened.
"Yes." She smiles at him. She would take his face in her hands, but she cannot reach him. Her back has fused with the earth.
"Maria -- you're bleeding a lot." His voice is shaking. He reaches down between her legs, touches the trickle of red that flows freely now.
Maria drops her head to the ground, unable to support it any longer. The back of her skull immediately begins to grow into the rock. Her hair spreads out around her, becoming black basalt.
"I -- you need a doctor! Oh, God, what have I done?" William is sobbing now, sobbing as the trickle becomes a gush, sobbing as Maria's parted legs begin to sink into the earth.
"You have done nothing but love me," she whispers, voice rough as her throat begins to calcify. "This is the will of God, my darling, my only, only love ..."
Maria smiles, one last time. She feels her lips harden and crack as they become glittering mica-laced granite.
William howls. He plunges his hands into the gushing, gurgling stream of blood that bursts forth from the petals of a flawless pink rose quartz. He rubs it into his face, as if he could keep Maria with him that way.
He splashes his body with her blood, covering his chest and belly. He screams her name over and over again. Maria's heart breaks as she watches him through her shiny obsidian eyes, but she can no longer speak, or even cry.
William's chin drops to his chest. He kneels between the granite formations that once were strong young legs, letting the blood wash over him. He lets out a miserable howl, then another.
Look, my love, thinks Maria. See what I have done for you.
He may have heard her. He may have, for he pauses, touches his bloodslicked chest with his fingers. He gasps as the tumor melts from his flesh like sugar.
You are the first, thinks Maria. Only the first.
William stops crying. He raises his bloodslicked head, and gazes at the facelike stone formation on the desert floor. He touches the gentle rise and curve of the glittering granite below it. He stretches himself out over the hard stone, feeling it bruise his chest, his groin. He lies down, listening to the gurgle of the spring, feeling its warmth as it gushes against his thigh. After a while, he sleeps.