WHEN CALEB WAS THREE YEARS OLD, he went to his cousin’s house. At the door he was met by a little girl holding two coins in one hand while pulling down her bottom lip with the other. She lived a few houses over and was visiting to show off the money she’d been given for losing her first tooth. Caleb thought about this through dinner and all the way home. Before bed, he insisted on going to the bathroom by himself. Behind a closed door, he knelt and rammed his bottom row of teeth against one of the drawer pulls until he had a gooey prize of his own. There wasn’t nearly enough toilet paper to stop the bleeding before his mother made him open the door. His parents took him to the hospital. His father was a soft touch, but also kind of cheap, and so when Caleb woke up the next morning in a crinkly hospital bed, there was only one coin under his pillow. After some tests, the doctors informed Caleb’s parents that their quiet little boy had a rare neurological disorder which impeded the sensation of pain. This explained a lot from the first three years of his life. He wasn’t merely “a very good baby.”
In time, he was popular in school, particularly during recess and at sleepovers. He excelled at the more violent sports and received a wrestling scholarship to a good college, where he distinguished himself at post-meet parties by allowing his teammates and others to punch him in the groin repeatedly. Most nights, late on, a girl would approach him and ask if she could inspect the damage, you know, privately. He would take her back to his dorm where, after only a cursory look, she would ask if she could punch him, too. He was also a soft touch, and so he always obliged, if with a heavy soul. He married the first girl who didn’t make such requests. They had four sons. Caleb made each of them cry, cry incontrovertibly, at a very young age, and each time this was a great relief to him, and to his wife, and to Caleb’s aging parents, who could tell his wife many stories.
Then, unexpectedly, they had a fifth child, a girl named Maisie, and Caleb could not make her cry.
Once more, his soul grew heavy, heavier, in fact, than before. This wasn’t just him feeling sorry for himself anymore. This was his child, his child. That this child was also a girl seemed especially cruel to him, but times had changed: they brought her to the family doctor, and a specialist was quickly found who prescribed pills that stimulated the child’s nerve receptors to normal levels. The specialist called it better living through chemistry. Caleb and his wife decided that no one else needed to know about this: not his parents, not the South American nanny, not the girl, and certainly not her older brothers. She was a very good baby. Soon enough, the boy who had been born immediately before her and was now no longer omnipotent because of her, secretly took one of these pills. His pain receptors became overstimulated, and he had the single worst day of his life. The others took note, and no one else touched the pills or asked about them, and for a few years all was well, but with five children, two careers, various practices and work dinners and recitals: sometimes, they forgot to give the little girl her daily dose. Her parents didn’t worry too much, because she had been sufficiently conditioned to avoid pain.
In fact, she hadn’t been sufficiently conditioned.
The pills’ effectiveness had been wearing off for years, but Maisie wasn’t the type of child to speak up about such things, and sensing accurately her brothers’ resentment at the superior treatment she enjoyed from their parents, she was always looking for opportunities to improve her standing with them.
Careless meds and a child who wanted to be liked.
One of those busy mornings she didn’t take her pill, the kids also missed the bus and were sent to school in the family van. The nanny drove, which she always quietly found very funny—that her employers sent her out onto American roads in charge of their five children and five thousand pounds of steel. What was so funny: she’d been in a van exactly once in her life before taking this job, and that was riding from her village to the airport, to come north for this job. But she did fine, and that particular morning, as usual, everybody tumbled and elbowed out and the doors were slammed and re-slammed. Before jogging across the yard, one of the older boys noticed Maisie waiting at the curb for someone to do something: her fingers were caught in the door. Fortunately, the nanny liked to play games on her phone after drop-off; the van was idling. “Ow,” the little girl said, unconvincingly, when he sprinted back to save her. In fact, Maisie looked more annoyed that the others were leaving without her than pained.
The nanny hadn’t noticed, thanks to Candy Crush, so the little girl was released without incident, and the boys walked into school slowly, discussing this great matter between them, the girl straining to make sense of their findings. The brothers knew about their father from an incident involving a lawn mower blade a few summers back, and now they knew about their little sister as well. Their jealousy didn’t last long. Instead, they easily persuaded her to pretend-swallow her pill most mornings and, in exchange, accept restaurant mints their parents brought home from work dinners and left on their pillows while they slept. Maisie was happy just for their attention. The candies were an afterthought. And so, on the bus to school and in the schoolyard, she became a star attraction, and her brothers enjoyed notable rises in popularity. They were careful—no obvious bruising. They were also loyal: only the brothers could light matches on her elbows and perform weightlifting feats with her braids.
Of course, this didn’t last. It couldn’t.
The brothers’ presentations impressed and entertained their fellow students, but they also were envy-making. All five came home from school one day with bloody lips and bruises, the four boys wincing and Maisie suffering sheepishly (“Ow”). Caleb and his wife had a glaring exchange about who forgot the pill that morning, and they each assured the chattering gyroscope-handed nanny that this wasn’t her fault before sending her upstairs to her apartment for the rest of the night. Then they interrogated the children one by one in the kitchen. With after-school traffic, the ride home had been long enough for them to reach perfect accord: earlier that day, the boys had noticed a crowd of cheering kids in the schoolyard and naturally joined it, only to discover that their poor, indifferent little sister was being spun around in the middle, surrounded by an inner ring of notable bruisers who were sending Maisie back and forth with braid swings and shoulder punches.
All of the brothers made like this was the moment they discovered she had this—talent? problem? secret? (in the van they’d gone back and forth on terminology)—this issue, and right away they had broken into the bully ring to save her. The way they looked now was evidence of their love and loyalty. As planned, Maisie nodded vigorously to this story while playing with a loose tooth because she didn’t want to smile: her brothers did love her.
Caleb sensed immediately what had been happening at school, and the only question was how long his sons had known and made use of their baby sister’s condition. But he was also moved that none of them broke ranks before their parents’ hard stares. This was, to him, an only child, such evidence of love! His wife, however, was not an only child. Julie had older brothers in fact, but no impaired nerve receptor immunities to their ways and means. She was livid. She decided, however, for now, just for now, to turn her outrage elsewhere. Four of her children didn’t let this happen to her fifth. All five of her children had been bullied.
She went to the school the next day and demanded meetings with everyone; she did the same at the school board the day after; she joined multiple parents’ groups and eventually realized she’d have to start her own, and even though Caleb and Caleb’s morose parents were the only other members, within a few weeks there were local television cameras at their front door. The nanny quit and went home to her husband, who lived in a remote South American village on the garbagy, receding edge of a rainforest. Meanwhile, the family’s story became a national news blip, and cellphone videos of the brothers’ schoolyard demonstrations went viral, the family doctor and the specialist both made the talk show rounds and shopped books, and the offers started coming in for the girl herself: from university researchers, reality television producers, Robert Barnett, pharmaceutical companies, and a host of Division I gymnastics coaches.
The children, now home-schooled according to what Julie decided was a “mutual agreement” with the school, were bored and full of blame. One night Julie, who was also bored and full of blame, and also at home too much, suggested to Caleb that they at least hear out the scholarship people. But Caleb imagined his quiet little Maisie at post-meet parties, battered and smiling, her heavy soul waiting and waiting for one good guy. He believed she would find one, eventually, but there was the meanwhile to consider: this was too much, too long, for a father. Not knowing what else could be done, he decided to get them out of America for a while. He proposed the family fly south and visit the nanny, at last see the place she talked about over her chopping and folding. That way, they could leave everything behind for a while, even the pills.
And because Julie was tired of being a radical mom in the heart of Connecticut and they had lots of travel points on their credit card and of course Caleb had been banking sick days for decades, she agreed. His parents also agreed it was a good idea that they go. All five children agreed like lunatics.
A week into their South American residency, in a place that was comically humid and also hard and dirty, but otherwise a great relief for them, some men stopped Caleb and the family in the town square. The nanny and her husband tried to explain but were pushed aside and kept there. This was no tourist town, far from it, and the men wanted the visitors to know that they were in charge. Their leader, a ropy, goateed production in gold chains and a leather homburg, squared up in front of Caleb and said actually this was his town: he decided who could stay, and who had to go. Fortunately, he’d already decided Caleb and his nice-looking wife and their polite children could stay for a little while—the only question was how much they were to pay for “local protection services,” which were necessary in a rough place like this, for beautiful American people like them.
Caleb said nothing. If he disagreed, then what would happen to them? But then also, what if he agreed? He had a good sense that this man was expecting not just money from them. So he said nothing and he squeezed Julie’s wrist so she would say nothing, too. Oldest to youngest, the children began to curl into each other’s shoulders like huddled blond birds.
People gathered. The local police saw what was happening and went for another of their long fruitless drives to find the mayor’s body. The man in front of Caleb pulled out a stylish paring knife, small but still serious and suggestive of other beautiful people he’d dealt with, and told him he’d better agree, or he would be helped to agree. Caleb said nothing. The man addressed the crowd in the local pidgin. His own guys snickered but everyone else watched Caleb, a few of them imploring him to say something, give something.
When the man slashed Caleb’s arm, everyone gasped, except, of course, Caleb. The man fiddled with his goatee, then bared his teeth and lunged, shoving the knife into Caleb’s other arm. There were more gasps, but this time it was because Caleb removed the knife from his bicep and handed it back to the man like he’d just dropped his newspaper. Someone in the crowd cheered. The men surrounding the family conferred for a moment before the leader came back and said “All right, Captain America, so let’s see if the rest of your family is so brave and strong, okay? We’ll go one by one until you have accepted our kind offer. So who’s first?”
Maisie stepped forward. The boys tried to pull her back but she wrested free and walked right up to the man with the knife. The crowd’s murmurs became moans and pleadings to heaven. The rest of the toughs didn’t like this either. They snickered and elbowed each other and pulled on their noses and ears but you could see it in their darting, glassy eyes: slicing up a big golden American came with the territory, sure, but a six-year-old child in pink flip-flops and a Frozen backpack? Caleb was bleeding a great deal, which made him feel jet-lagged, but he could see this in their eyes. He held back his wife, his sons, himself, because he was sure the man with the knife would flinch, or be pulled back by his men, or at least call out Caleb as a coward and then he’d walk up and take more of it in place of Maisie. The town square turned very quiet. Birds flew off. A bus was coming down the road.
The little girl grabbed the man’s knife and shoved it in her own arm. Women began shrieking, Julie included, and even some of the toughs called on Jesus and Mary as they drew back at her impassive face. The main guy stood there, stupefied. Maisie turned to her family and mouthed the word “Help,” because she was too little to pull the knife out herself. One of her brothers ran up and clumsily twisted the knife as he unstuck it. This is not something you do every day, after all. Seeing the wound made in Maisie’s arm, he wanted to stab the goatee man for making his little sister do this, but she told him to give her the knife and go back. Nowhere else in the world, at no other time in his life, but here, now, he listened to his little sister. She handed the knife back to the man. He was still staring at it, as if willing it to explain this trick, when the crowd set upon him and the other toughs, who were never heard from again.
Caleb and Maisie were patched up and lovingly made to drink awful-smelling recuperative concoctions, and the family enjoyed their time in the grateful, amazed town. Maisie became an object of particular attention from other girls, who daily massed at the gates to the family’s residence and chanted “Corazón! Corazón!” until she came to the barred window and waved to cheers and signs of the cross. When the family walked through town, they followed behind her, pleading, “Corazón! Corazón!” the bolder trying to touch her healed arm now and then. Eventually, she told them her actual name, but they refused to accept this. When the nanny was questioned about this Corazón business, she at first dismissed it, unconvincingly, and eventually primly told them that they would have to inquire at the local convent. The town girls could take her. Caleb and Julie saw no harm in this, and so the girl was taken to meet the mother superior, who was praying in the front pew of the convent chapel. But Maisie didn’t notice the nun for the longest time. She was fixed on the altar, on a spot below the bleeding, loin-clothed Christ hanging in agony from a lacquered, splintered cross set on a rough pedestal. At Christ’s feet, there knelt a little girl at prayer. She, too, was nailed to the cross, through her small clasped hands. Her face was staring up at Jesus. It was radiant, beautiful, impassive.
“Corazón,” one of the town girls whispered to Maisie.
“Corazón,” she repeated.
The nun approached and spoke to this little American girl, whose bravery and love she’d heard about from the girls she taught, whose every composition and drawing since that day in the town square had featured this child standing fearlessly before a leathery devil and bleeding from her arm.
The nun told the story of Corazón, the patron saint of their town. She had been a girl about the same age, who lived many centuries before. With the whole town keeping vigil for three days, she had died while nailed through her pressed-together hands to the foot of a chapel cross. The chapel itself had been built by her brothers, three joyful vigilante Jesuits, with proceeds from their unlawful sale of a small silver lode that officially belonged to the Queen of Spain. The day before she died, Corazón had prayed with maddening, silent serenity during her interrogation by the governor’s man as to her brothers’ whereabouts. He had finally, loudly threatened a fitting punishment if she would not give them up, and then, having threatened so loudly, he had no choice but to have her nailed to a cross so she could pray like that for the rest of her life. And this is what she did for a day and a night, inspiring increases of faith and also a local rebellion that was put down brutally, and also this very order of nuns, whose chapel, “this chapel,” the nun reminded Maisie, was built on the site where, by pious tradition, with her mother and many girls of the town gathered around her, little Corazón at last fell asleep against the feet of her blessed Savior and, we still pray, joined her brothers, who meanwhile had been killed three towns over in another caper, AMDG.
The story finished and a brief intercessory prayer said, the nun and Maisie had tea and butter cake in the chapel garden before she was escorted back to the villa by her girls, where she told her dumbfounded parents the news. She wanted to enter the convent.
Weeping and accusations, technicalities about age restrictions, and late-night bedroom chats about where they’d gone wrong, along with many calls to the airline to see about making changes to their tickets—first to get out of town fast, and then to delay, and finally, to cancel one passenger’s return trip, a child’s fare. Keeping Maisie down here, willingly confined, until people back home forgot about her condition, wasn’t such a bad idea, Caleb reasoned, though his wife and other children resented him for making this invincibly autobiographical argument. But the nanny agreed to take a job at the convent that was made possible by a generous family donation. She would watch over the girl and report on health and signs of homesickness, and the mother superior was informed of the girl’s condition and promised that the pills would immediately be sent. Learning of this explained a lot to the nun. In turn, she assured Caleb and Julie and the boys that this kind of hot faith often subsides in a couple of months and it was best, it was safest, to let it happen here and now, especially with the nanny to watch over her. After all, she reminded them, the town was rid of the bad guys! Could they say the same, she asked, about their hometown? The old religious relished any occasion to speak like the movies, and also to stick it a little to the Yankees.
It broke her mother’s heart and her brothers’ hearts and, finally, her father’s too, that there never were any signs of homesickness, and phone calls and repeated visits only proved this with remarkable pain. Eventually Caleb wrote her all about his own early life of painlessness, the pain of painlessness, and how finding a wife and starting a family, being part of a family, not a South American religious order, made it all more bearable. In fact, family made it so much more than just bearable. But for Maisie, who listened and read with true love and terse gratitude, this was not enough, or not what was needed, or she had already found enough and what was needed because she had been found and was needed herself, here, in this town, this convent. And so despite her family’s efforts, she eventually entered the convent formally. She became Sister Maisie de Saint Corazón de Plata, and in time, which turned out to be for the rest of her earthly life, mother superior herself. The convent thrived, the town did fine, and the novices filched the famous pills for Good Fridays and whispered at night about the holy scar said to be upon Mother’s arm, a little red welt that you could say looked like a cross.
She died in her early forties, as can often be the case for people with her condition. The body was hurt more than the mind ever knew or the soul ever worried. The family requested that her remains be sent back to Connecticut, to be buried beside her father, who had also died in his early forties. Julie and the boys made the request through two lawyers, a bored-looking senior partner and an associate who struggled to look the same. They flew down, discussed matters with the mayor, conferred, called Julie and the oldest son, and finally granted that it was reasonable for the town to have a day of public mourning before they left for America with the casket. The body was placed on a bier, directly above the spot where, by tradition, the little girl Maisie had shown how much she was willing to suffer for love. In turn, the crucifix with the girl-saint original nailed below the Savior’s feet was carried out from the chapel and placed beside Maisie’s body. Nobody knew who, and nobody asked, but someone had cut a portal through her clothes to reveal the holy scar.
All day, it was kissed:
After the act of adoration, each mourner then processed to the side and was directed by two novices to write something in a notebook set up on a lectern. The young associate lawyer thought of her mother while she watched over the proceedings, sitting in the shade beside the senior partner. She tried to explain away what she was about to do but was waved off by the older lawyer, who didn’t care and anyway was still trying to get a good signal for her phone. So the associate lined up with the townspeople. Approaching the body, she touched it briefly with her hands and then made a terrible, crabbed sign of the cross. She took a picture of the scar with her phone and thumbed a brief passionary. She had all the bars she needed and sent it to her mother, because her mother was one of those types with the plug-in votives on her dresser and a moldy old Virgin in the garden beside the garage and all that. All of which had been left behind victoriously on the first day of college when the associate’s mother drove off to say another and another and another rosary for her (How else you think she got into Williams? SATs and digging wells on Alternative Spring Break?). Yes, all of this had been left behind, even if the Williams freshman still found holy medals for health and for purity taped to her bedframe the first time she washed her sheets.
The email sent, she was about to trash the image, but first she muttered something and rubbed the phone’s faceplate against her knee, soon to be replaced. Her second such operation, necessary after too much competitive soccer in high school. So she already knew how painful this was going to be. Anything could help.
The town, however, was more deliberate. A week later, following a highly distracted Mass to consecrate a shrine in the town square, the notebook came out and everyone reported to the mayor and the new mother superior evidence of miraculous cures.
The strongest cases were as follows:
A boy with a paralyzing stutter who uttered most of an in-class Shakespeare recitation after kissing the holy scar.
A young man afflicted with terrible halitosis who successfully completed a first date.
His brother, a boxer just starting out, who withstood an opening round right hook to the jaw, only to lose on points.
The mayor and the mother superior met with the priest in the moderately successful parish one town over, who, as you can imagine, had ambivalent feelings about Maisie and the convent, but he heard them out and promised to take the case for her sainthood to the bishop, in hopes that he would take it to Rome. And so in a sunny, sad-walled sitting room in the bishop’s palace, the request for a formal investigation into the possible need for a formal consideration of sainthood was offered, and then rejected before the priest could even pour a little crème and sugar into his coffee, Lent being over.
Meanwhile, Maisie’s case proceeded online.
From that one email from the associate to her mother, the image of her scarred shoulder was forwarded, eventually, thousands and thousands of times, often with variations on the accompanying story. The image was printed out and pinned to bulletin boards in children’s hospitals and burn wards and rehabilitation clinics; stuntmen taped copies to their dashboards; a high school football team in south Texas used the image of her scar for their team T-shirts for one season, which culminated in its annual clash against their crosstown rivals. Students at both schools historically called this game the Jesus freaks vs. the Mary freaks, though their parents didn’t condone this. But, if asked in the parking lot before the big game, they would say they were grateful to be living in a part of America where young people still knew the difference between Protestants and Catholics, and knew that this difference mattered but were willing to work it out under the stadium lights on a brisk Friday night without anybody’s mother taking anybody else to court, never mind the battlefields of old, old Europe.
The image also found its way to Karachi, where one Sunday morning the last Catholic priest in the city distributed copies to seventeen people gathered in a stockroom lit with tea lights. This would likely be their final Mass, as it was every Sunday, but this time, every time, he wanted to send them off with what seemed to him especially relevant courage. For his homily, as usual, he read an email forward. This time it was a version of Maisie’s story. He encouraged them to remember her example in the days ahead, and to place the picture of her blessed scar beneath their pillows; and to pray for her intercession if men came to their doors; and to pray for her intercession if those men asked for other names. He reminded them of today’s gospel, which was a longstanding parish joke that made everyone laugh because they had just heard the gospel and yes, guilty as charged, they already needed reminding that “today we heard that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, now we are the last and we shall be the first.” He concluded with the story of Maisie once more, “She is not like us. But we must be like her.”
One boy was actually listening to Father this Sunday, like his mother said he always should. He truly took Maisie’s tale to heart. Now he had a plan to save his family. As usual, that evening he went to the clerk’s stall not far from their house. The clerk checked the fax tray and told him, “Nothing from Canada today.” The boy nodded and then handed over his life’s savings and asked for two hundred copies of the paper he slipped out from his kurta, and also for a box of thumbtacks. It was none of the clerk’s business, so he just gave him his change and some hard little fruit candies for his little sisters, and while the photocopier ran they talked cricket—Pakistan had recently lost a test match against New Zealand, which, they agreed, was all but final evidence that Allah has forsaken this land. The boy was too excited to ask for the original, and the clerk retrieved it long after the boy had banged out the bell-strapped door. The clerk studied the sheet. It took a few minutes for him to understand that this was a cross on an old woman’s arm. He had known this child his whole life. He knew his parents as well. He had no idea they were as they were. Christians. He didn’t care. The boy knew his cricket, and the father had once helped him replace the paper ream on his fax machine. In vain, it seemed. The clerk slipped the original into a wastebasket and resumed watching a Hindi gangster movie. Nobody was perfectly devout.
But many try, including, eventually, the gangly boy who carried out the clerk’s rubbish for a few rupees every night. He saw the sheet and the next day tried to sell it to some younger boys, claiming it was an extreme close-up from Playboy. He was caught, mid-blasphemy, by an older boy on his way to classes, who dragged him off to see someone else, who asked where this sheet came from, and the gangly boy convincingly seethed that it came from the apostate clerk’s shop, two streets over. Men were sent. They knocked over the clerk’s old television and confiscated his videos and lashed his forearms with belts and cricket bat handles as he tried to shield his face. Of course he gave them the boy’s address.
They broke down the door, ready to give chase, to protect the faith. All four walls of the front room were covered with curling copies of Maisie’s holy welt. As the delegation came towards them, the father released his son’s ear and they both joined the rest of the family, who were already on their knees, praying. The delegation, like the boy’s father when he came home from work a few minutes before and saw all these papers up around the house, could think of nothing to say. They backed out in silence. You might even say they left fearfully, if the story ended here and the children were right to begin clapping. It worked! But there’s more. The protectors of the faith pressed the door back in place and they nailed it shut and went to get some fire. Those small, pressed-together hands.