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“I am really only interested in a fiction of miracles.” —Flannery O’Connor



did not want to visit the Benedictine monastery in Alabama. Back in April, at the insistence of her aunt Claire, who had paid for the pilgrimage, she’d made a fatiguing round-trip journey by air to Lourdes. Aunt Claire had believed that a reverent dip in the shrine’s waters would enable Flora Marie to throw away her crutches and live again as a “normal person.”

Today, viewing herself in the rippled mirror on her bedroom door, Flora Marie still wore her crutches like jai alai baskets, their metal armlets pinching her biceps, her fingers clutching the padded grips. She wanted to pivot about and stump over to the paper-strewn desk visible in the murky glass—to settle in and work for an hour—but her unflagging encourager from Atlanta, Hetty Bestwick, had slain that option a week ago. Peeved, Flora Marie tried to resign herself to a long, dusty car ride in the bludgeoning July heat. It was plaguesome. If her mother and her aunt had had a nit’s worth of sense, they would have sent her to Cullman, Alabama, two hundred miles away, before flying her to France and the overcrowded shrine of St. Bernadette.

Flora Marie closed her eyes. She knew what she looked like. “Not a beauty,” her mama said. “Not even groundhog cute. But you have this quirk—almost a dignity—that may rescue you from spinsterhood.”

But Flora Marie did not expect or even desire rescue from spinsterhood. She hoped instead for rescue from the inherited disease—systemic lupus erythematosus—gnawing at her connective tissue and periodically adorning her face with a rash like small red butterflies basking in the sun. This morning one such butterfly had alit in the valley between her nose and her left eye socket. It did not pain or even tickle her, but it seemed a malign rather than a healthy omen. Shoo enough of these critters into the morning and they would whelm the eye of day with blood . . . .

Flora Marie opened her eyes and her bedroom door and stumped into the gloomy hallway. This damned trip to the abbey was interrupting her writing, and who knew how long she had left, for writing or anything else?Seventeen years ago, her daddy, still a young man, had died of lupus.

In the hall, Mama Craft grabbed her by the shoulders, tugged at a pleat, grimaced at her hair. Flora Marie bore the insult. After all, she did not look like a woman to whom miracles happen. Sparse henna bangs stuck to her brow, while the rest of her hair stood out in frowzy Bozo-the-Clown tufts. Pressing them down had no effect; they sprang out again, like packets of cotton batting or fiberglass insulation. A dress of blue polyester with a strand of pearls at the neck, almost a choker, rescued her—that word again—from utter risibility . . . or, going by Mama Craft’s sour grimace, maybe not. Who but a lupus patient or a hypothermia victim wore long sleeves in July?

From the parlor Bestwick shouted, “Come on, Rima! Unless you want to spend an extra night in a motel, we need to hit the road!”

“Rima?” Mama Craft said in a stage whisper.

“It’s one of Bestwick’s jokes, Mama. You call me Flit, she calls me Rima.”

“I don’t get it.”

Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson. I’m the bird-girl.”

“I still don’t get it.”

Frowning, Flora Marie kissed her mother on the forehead. “Bless you. And never, never change.”

“I don’t get that either.”

“Innocence becomes you. So does your total absence of irony.”

“Oh.” Mama Craft frowned just like her thirty-some-odd daughter, who clanked into the parlor like a tipsy Frankenstein monster.

Bestwick strode forward in a loud floral-patterned skirt and a blouse of such sheer white muslin that her bra showed through like a Mafioso’s hidden heat. She kissed Flora Marie on the forehead, as Flora Marie had kissed Mama Craft. Her lips tarried, though, as if distilling nectar from the other woman’s sweat.

“Hey, Rima, you look tiptop. I mean it. You’ll come back ready to knock out a thousand pages.”

“I look like a wounded pterodactyl. Half a page knocks me out.” She leaned back from Bestwick’s kiss. The red in the parlor thermometer, with ceramic hummingbirds on either side of the stalk-like tube, rose a quarter-inch.

“You ready? You look ready.”

“My death on the road is on your shoulders, Bestwick. Find an old Negro man to dig me a hole and dump me into it. Then tamp down enough red clay to keep the hounds from clawing me back out.”

Mama Craft took Bestwick’s arm. “Forgive her. Flora Marie’s always preferred sarcasm to sentiment, crassness to courtesy.”

“Plain talk to alliteration. What’s happened to you today, Mama? Did you drip vinegar into your egg-poaching water?”

“See? If Flit does die on the road, she’ll slide straight to hell—with no layover in purgatory.”

Flora Marie said, “With Mama around, God need never send me demons.”

“You two.” Bestwick seized the lumpy suitcase near the door, a TWA tag still on its handle, and swung it outside to her ivory, post-war Packard—in Flora Marie’s eyes the automotive equivalent of a dromedary. Three peahens scratched in the driveway dust, and a black-and-white cow with enormous eyes ogled the house, its lips scrubbing each other like suede castanets.

Refusing help, Flora Marie slapped on a wide straw hat with a green plastic window in its brim and made her way outside to the Packard. She shoved her crutches through the back window and assumed the shotgun post with a gaze of stoic martyrdom. Let’s get this over with, she thought. Once she had, no one—not even Bestwick—would impose again on either her fear or her tractability.


Driving northwest on Georgia 212, Hetty Bestwick steered as if the edges of the blacktop kept shifting, as if each dip in the road had the depth of a gulch. She sang torch songs like “Stormy Weather,” “The Man Who Got Away,” and “Some Other Spring,” not kiddy crap like “This Old Man” or “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” For this blessing, Flora Marie lifted thanks to the archangel Raphael, the Magi, St. Christopher, Saint Nick, and Anthony of Padua.

She and Hetty Bestwick had met in person only twice before this road trip to the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey—once at the Crafts’ homeplace, Blue Peacock Pastures, and once in Atlanta during a week that Flora Marie spent in Piedmont Hospital. Otherwise the two knew each other only through correspondence, which Bestwick had initiated by writing a letter, at once approving and critical, about a story of Flora Marie’s, “The Feast of Perpetua,” in an issue of The Okefinokee Quarterly. Not many people read the literary journals in which Flora Marie published under the pseudonym F. M. Throne, and fewer wrote letters to their contributors. The letters that did come sounded like either the praise of doting parents or the ravings of psychopaths.

Hetty Bestwick had written, “Did you have Wm. Faulkner’s The Town in mind when you wrote this story? Not as a model, of course, or even as an anti-model, but as a satiric riposte to its romantic satire of idiot country lust. If so, Mr. Throne, you probably should have made Perpetua a little more self-aware.”

The critique went on—intelligently—for three more single-spaced typed pages. Flora Marie replied as earnestly as Bestwick had addressed her, confessing her true identity and divulging her real name. Soon, they were avid typewriter-pals, discussing—debating, in fact—everything from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the novels of Iris Murdoch to the probability of miracles in a secular age. Flora Marie did not care to imagine the vast hole that would open in her life if Bestwick—cheerleader, kibitzer, and pest—ever withdrew from their friendship.

“Roll up your window, Rima,” Bestwick said as they bumped past a tumbledown strip mall on Atlanta’s outskirts.

“Why? You figger to get rich off your otter-graphed F. M. Throne first editions if I die of heat stroke?”

“Come on,” Bestwick said. “Roll it up.”

Flora Marie cranked the handle. Squeaking, a pane of glass hitched upward in the opening. Like the visor in her hat brim, this pane must have originated in a factory in the Emerald City of Oz. It filtered the world into her vision in kaleidoscopic shades of green, as if through the bottom of a Co’ Cola bottle, bathing her in fake forest coolness.

“Criminy,” Flora Marie said.

“I meant to have green in every window, but couldn’t afford it. So I put it there.” Bestwick shrugged.

“Thanks.” A doctor had told Mama Craft that Flora Marie’s sensitivity to light, a feature of her lupus, required special measures—a hat, stockings, and long sleeves in summer. They should also put tinted glass in their car windows. Taking these measures made every trip outdoors a complex safari. “For a two-day trip, Bestwick, you shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Sue me.”

“For what? Signed copies of my own books?”

“And of a hundred other, even better, writers’.”

Bestwick had a library, all right. She wrote reviews for the Atlanta newspapers and a Catholic publication, The Bulletin, to which “F. M. Throne” also contributed. She spent most of the money she made as a civilian office grub at Dobbins Air Force Base on novels, biographies, philosophy texts, and periodicals. According to her letters, books insulated her sitting-room apartment. They held up tabletops, spilled from her closet, smoldered on stove eyes. She slept on them. She traded them for others and used them as barter bait. The clothes she wore today she had swapped for a review copy of a new book by a notorious Southern female novelist.

“You sure made out on that deal,” Flora Marie said.

“Amen.” Bestwick guffawed, and the Packard chugged along with three of its windows open, like a blast furnace on Firestones. Soon they hit U.S. 278, which angled up to Cedartown, down to Piedmont, Alabama, up again to Gadsden, and up and across to Cullman, their destination. Despite the Andrew Marvell shade of her green window, Flora Marie’s dress stuck to the upholstery. Sweat pooled in the toes of her low-heeled pumps. Her joints burned like sulfur pits.

Still, they halted only for fuel and bathroom breaks. Motoring westward, they ate Mama Craft’s tomato-and-mayo sandwiches, guzzled ice water from cheesecloth-draped Ball jars, and wrangled like sisters. Why couldn’t they have waited for cooler weather? Lourdes hadn’t really had time to kick in yet.

Bestwick said, “Some folks have bosses and can’t pick their vacation times.”

Flora Marie said, “Anyway, St. Bernard Abbey has no reputation for healing the blind and crippled. It’s a monastery with a bunch of tiny buildings as a tourist attraction. I might as well dip in Lake Sinclair.”

Bestwick said that a “woman of faith”—this was a dig, for Bestwick seemed always about to jettison her faith like a prolapsed girdle—could turn a cathouse into a hospital. A monastery clearly offered better source material for a positive transformation than a bordello.

“But you don’t credit miracles,” Flora Marie said. “You thought my pilgrimage to Lourdes a ‘superstitious farce.’ That’s a quote, Bestwick.”

“Yes, but I have more faith in you than in God, and more love for you than for Yahweh in his Cosmic Bully guise.” When Flora Marie flinched, Bestwick said, “Easy. God won’t chunk a thunderbolt through our engine block.”

Ahead of them, an Alabama State Trooper in a fawn-colored uniform, a Smokey Bear hat, and glossy boots stood in the highway, his hand extended like a halfback stiff-arming a defender. An eight- or nine-year-old boy in blue jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt with a big zigzag across it—like Charlie Brown’s in the Atlanta Constitution funnies—squatted on the shoulder, his eyes on the ground.

Bestwick cried, “Holy Jeez!” and hit the brakes. Envisioning a collision, Flora Marie shut her eyes. The Packard screeched to a shuddering stop.

Thankfully, they had not steamrollered the trooper, who squinted at them out of a horsy face twitching madly. He reminded Flora Marie of a cowboy actor over whom she had once swooned in serials at the Pix Theater downtown.

“What did I do?” Bestwick said. Despite her skeptical adult conversion to the Catholic Church, she had an ineradicable streak of guilty Calvinism in her makeup. That streak sometimes mixed with a severe blue nihilist tendency that caused her to pale about the dewlaps, as she had now.

“Howdy, ladies,” the trooper said. “I need to borrow your car.”

“Where’s yours?” Bestwick asked.

“A fella playing possum right there,” nodding toward the boy, “tricked me into playing Good Samaritan. Then the sneaky sumbitch—pardon my Esperanto—grabbed my pistol and stole my patrol car.”

“That child grabbed your gun?”

“Nome,” said the trooper. “That’s my boy Wallace. A perpetrator unknown hoodwinked us. If you won’t give up your Packard, ma’am, I’ll have to expropriate it.”

The boy piped, “He didn’t hoodwink me! That red-checkered rag over his face told me straight off he was a sneaky sumbitch!”

“Watch your language, Wallace,” the trooper said.

Bestwick told Officer Stagger that he and Wallace could ride with them to Hokes Bluff or the nearest Alabama patrol station, but she had no intention of giving her car to anybody without legal title to it. Officer Stagger could try to make her, but lacking a gun, he would have to compel two law-abiding women—one on crutches—with his fists or his wits, and Bestwick doubted the efficacy of the latter.

“We’ll ride.” Officer Stagger beckoned the boy over, and they climbed into the backseat. The trooper’s knees rose up behind Flora Marie like stony peaks.

Wallace hugged his door and refused to look at his daddy. He mumbled, “This is fer shit.” Officer Stagger flushed like a Baptist at a beatnik poetry festival. Flora Marie feared that he would lean over and strangle his son.

“Sir,” Bestwick said, “why’d you bring Wallace out here with you?”

“For two months he begged me to. This morning, I truckled and did it.”

“I never figgered this’d happen,” Wallace said.

Flora Marie said, “Is it legal for troopers to take kids on patrol?”

“Nome. I broke the rules for the ungrateful little squeak. I may’ve lost my job.” His he-man voice had a tremolo in it.

“Why don’t I drop you at the next phone?” Bestwick said. “We’ll carry Wallace home while you get right with your bosses. No need at all to mention the boy rode with you this morning.”

“I appreciate that,” the trooper said. “I still may get canned, but I appreciate that an almighty lot.”

Wallace snorted.

They did what Bestwick had suggested, dropping Stagger at a farmhouse to use the telephone and then transporting Wallace to a wood-frame bungalow outside Gadsden. Their good deed did not divert them from their own route even so much as a mile. But as he got out, Wallace told them that because his mama worked, he would have to spend the afternoon alone, watching sunlight crawl across a pine-plank floor.

“Do something useful for your folks,” Bestwick said. “Wash some dishes. Make a bed. Get dinner ready.”

“Read a book,” Flora Marie said to his back.

On the front porch Wallace, who had an impressive dearth of charm, turned and shouted, “Think I’ll haul ass to Alaska!” He jumped off the porch and darted into a bleak copse of sycamores.

“He’s running away,” Flora Marie said mildly.

“The little heathen’s snapping your garters. Don’t worry about him. It’s time you worried about yourself.”

They drove on past pines and blackjack oaks, past cow pastures and huge tree-festooning veils of kudzu.


By the time they reached Cullman, Flora Marie could not even think about visiting its outlying monastery. The torrid backblasts of eighteen-wheelers had rocked a hot ache into her bones and scoured her of strength. Their whole on-the-road adventure had set a lupine beast loose inside her, and the beast was rampaging, tearing up the place. Aloud, she confessed only to travel fatigue.

Bestwick found a motel, Osterreider’s Slumber Shacks, a village of twelve log cabins with blinding white seams, as if someone had caulked them from giant toothpaste tubes. The Shacks sat two miles from St. Bernard Abbey, in a pine glade, with a totem pole before each cabin and a placard on the pole to name the cabin: Sequoyah, Black Elk, Pontiac. Both women chortled when Mr. Osterreider assigned them to cabin Rain-in-the-Face.

The shower in Rain-in-the-Face barely worked. Water leaked from it in echoey drips. There was a clock radio but no television set, and every station—as they searched for an accurate time report—had a gargling announcer wailing Gospel songs or a rushing avalanche of static. Silverfish infested the wallpaper. Palmetto bugs scuttled from the radiator to the shade of their spavined double bed. Without warning, Flora Marie stabbed one of the critters with a crutch tip.

“I know why your mama calls you Flit,” Bestwick said.

Flora Marie sat down on the bed. “You do, do you?”

“Because you’re lethal to insects.”

“Actually, Bestwick, she calls me Flit because I don’t. It’s her only gallop into facetiousness.”

“You don’t what?”

“Flit about. I stay the course. I have the patience of Job. Except when I get to thinking that pretty darn soon I might cease to be—here, anyway—and leave an irksome lot of work undone.”

“So why not get good and Catholic and pray?”

“I ain’t a good prayer, Bestwick. My type of spirituality is almost totally shut-mouth.”

Like ten-year-olds in a summer-camp cabin, they talked long after darkness had fallen. They traded gibes, secrets, jokes, philosophies, literary likes and dislikes, and chunks of family history. Flora Marie learned that, from the age of ten, Hetty Bestwick had stayed her own course as an orphan.

“I saw my mother hang herself,” Bestwick said. “When I came in the front door, she kicked over the stool she’d climbed and began to strangle. I grabbed her feet to pull her down, but that just made it worse.”

“Oh honey.”

“Do you suppose she went to Hell?”

“For killing herself?”

“For letting me see her do it.”

Flora Marie had no answer for that. She had no answer for a lot of things. She understood the impetus to apostasy, though. Prostrate, she had crawled to its brink once a week for the past eight years.

“I don’t think Lourdes worked,” she said. “I’m afraid this won’t either.”

“Hey, Flit, maybe you haven’t given Lourdes enough time. Put on the patience of Job. Some miracles have to gestate.”

“If you believed that, why’d you bring me here? It steps all over the miracle that Aunt Claire tried to give me.”

“Insurance,” Bestwick said.

Flora Marie stayed mute. She did not consider faith insurance but a response to love. It wavered only when you saw no clear evidence of the love that had triggered it. Disease, betrayal, and suicide could strike you with spiritual cataracts more surely, and much more quickly, than could either age or rationalism.

“What’s the matter?” Bestwick said. “Didn’t you pay your premiums?”

“Probably not. It ain’t my policy.”

Bestwick walked over to Flora Marie, lifted her pointed chin, and kissed her on the mouth. Flora Marie stared at her in frank perplexity.


On Tuesday morning, the ivory Packard cruised onto the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, past the small monastic cemetery and into the parking area near the entrance to Little Jerusalem and Ave Maria Grotto. They had come so early that they had first choice of the tourist slots, so Bestwick parked in front of the gift shop by which visitors stepped down into Brother Joseph Zoettl’s one-of-a-kind garden of miniature basilicas, churches, and statues, “The Scenic Shrine of the South.”

A man in a coarse white habit—the monks in the distance wore black robes—met them at the car. Construction noises issued from the deeper grounds, methodical work on a huge stone abbey. Wielding her crutches, Flora Marie saw them as flying buttresses—the architecture of man versus the architecture of God. Obviously, the new church would last longer.

“Pardon,” the monk in white said, “but no one may enter the garden until noon.” Brother Joseph, he added, was installing a new replica, and the abbot wanted no mishaps as the old man pursued his special calling.

Bestwick protested. She recounted all their reasons for visiting and catalogued their travel hardships. “This is F. M. Throne,” she said, nodding at Flora Marie. “For eight straight days her mother has recited novenas to heal her of her lupus. At nine a.m. today, Mrs. Throne will recite the final novena as her daughter genuflects before the Virgin in Ave Maria Grotto. Miss Throne’s cure, her mother believes, hinges on the simultaneity of these two faith events.”

The white-clad monk did not even blink.

A regular stele of salt, Flora Marie thought.

“Miss Throne writes reviews for The Bulletin,” Bestwick said. “Her story ‘The Feast of Perpetua’ appeared in last fall’s issue of The Okefinokee Quarterly.”

The monk turned to Flora Marie. “I’ve read that story.” His pupils contracted. “It was wonderful—excellent, in fact. Come.” He led them around the gift shop, so that Flora Marie would not have to negotiate the stairs, and introduced them into the garden by a gate reserved for monks and postulants. Then he vanished.

“Our first miracle,” Bestwick said.

“Yeah. A monk who reads The Okefinokee Quarterly.”

Flora Marie looked about. An asphalt path made a circuit among the garden’s trees. On each side Lilliputian structures arose, entire cityscapes alternating with isolated caves, towers, and statues. You could not help feeling like a clumsy ogre here, especially if you lurched past the displays on crutches. I’m King Kong in a Disneyland for kobolds and leprechauns, Flora Marie told herself.

Still no sign of Brother Joseph, the hunchback Benedictine who had created the miniatures and laid out the garden showcasing them. The women strained to see farther down the path, to hear some noise betraying Brother Joseph’s work at a site beyond the main grotto and the hillside Holy Land replicas. Despite the patchy shade, heat seethed from the path and from the stones of the low retaining walls.

“My God,” Bestwick said. “This place is bizarre.”

Brother Joseph had based his models of the Statue of Liberty, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Alamo, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Noah’s ark, and every other structure on postcard images. He had shaped them from marbles, seashells, cold cream jars, green-glass fishing-net floats, birdcages, broken glass, paste jewelry, sequins, and concrete. For the twin domes of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Mobile, he had used old toilet-bowl floats. Every structure had something cockeyed or askew about it because Brother Joseph had gathered his materials at random and guessed at the architectural features not visible on his postcards. This asymmetry, along with a childlike disregard for scale, blessed the whole garden with the waking irreality of a fever dream. Except for the sincerity, it all hinted at something akin to satire.

“I like it,” Flora Marie said. She approved of distortion. Abstraction, on the other hand, always got her goat.

“You would,” Bestwick said.

They hiked past a Roman aqueduct, the Coliseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and an effigy of St. Frances Cabrini. At the Ave Marie Grotto they halted so that Flora Marie could hang her head—in worship or shame?—before a standing Virgin Mary, baby Jesus in her arms, at the center of a cave at least thirty feet tall. They did this for the white-clad monk’s sake, in case he was spying on them from a gift-shop window.

Bestwick whispered, “Feeling any stronger?”

Flora Marie lifted her gaze to the Virgin’s chalky face then turned it on Bestwick. “I’m ready to go, Hetty.”

“You only call me Hetty when you’re irritated.”

“I’m ready to go, Bestwick.”

Bestwick’s upper lip glistened with sweat. “You’re the one who buys into this miracle stuff. Work with me a little.” She nodded at the Virgin Mary among the shell-encrusted stalactites. “Work with her.”

“It doesn’t want work. It wants submission.”

“Then submit, goddamn it. I didn’t drive across parts of two states just for you to tighten your jaw.”

Flora Marie looked down the path, which, just beyond the hillside of Holy Land miniatures, circled back to the gift shop. She clanked off toward those scenes.

“Work does enter into it,” Bestwick said, following her. “Ora et labora—work and prayer. That’s the Benedictine motto.”

“I work better at home.”

“You’re deliberately misconstruing me.”

Around the Holy Land diorama, clanking uphill for a change, Flora Marie spotted the creator of the miniatures. Near the end of the path, Brother Joseph Zoettl, a miniature himself, stooped over a fairy-tale structure with a central bell tower and independent flanking turrets. He wore the black Benedictine habit, which stressed rather than softened his hunchback, and probed with a putty knife at the tiny steps climbing to the model’s turret level. Beside him, a fidgety weasel of a man in overalls and ragged tennis shoes held out a palette of soupy cement.

“Hold still, Norbert,” Brother Joseph said.

“Finally,” Bestwick said. “Behold the miracle worker. He looks less than godlike to me.”

“He’s an artist, not a miracle worker,” Flora Marie said. “You only get them mixed up if you mistake talent and craft for omnipotence.”

Bestwick sucked her teeth. “Let’s cut the sniping, Marie, and see what the little bugger can do for you.”

Brother Joseph looked up, squinting out of a thin gnomish face. His putty knife sliced the air anxiously. He smiled with puzzling tentativeness. The man whom he had called Norbert scowled as if his belly hurt and stared at the approaching women with obvious distaste. Neither man had expected visitors.

Bestwick took charge. She escorted Flora Marie up to Brother Joseph and told him the same story—minus the novena business—that she had laid on the monk in white. She said that the white-robed monk had let them into the garden so that Brother Joseph could speak an intercessory prayer for Miss Throne and heal her once and for all of her potentially fatal disease. Flora Marie turned tomato red, but not from a rash of epidermal butterflies.

“I make little buildings.” Brother Joseph tapped his current project. “For healing prayers you should go to Abbot Luibel or Brother Rotkopf.” The skin on Flora Marie’s arms began to itch. Brother Joseph’s project was a model of the basilica-shrine at Lourdes. An image of the original shrine flickered in her mind’s eye atop this detailed but imperfect copy. “Oh,” Brother Joseph said, nodding at the ferret-faced fellow beside him. “Meet Norbert Grimes, postulancy candidate. Only yesterday he came—again. Already I have put him to work.”

Norbert Grimes seethed like a boiling kettle. “Hullo.” A glob of cement plopped on one of his sneakers.

“So you hope to find God here, Mr. Grimes?” Bestwick said.

“I’d planned to get lost from whole damned herds of hell-bound women.”

“Norbert,” Brother Joseph gently chided him.

“Until y’all take me in, call me Ishmael,” Grimes said. “Why? ’Cause my mama kicked me out, my grandma dumped me onto no-account strangers, and three ungrateful bitches divorced my ass.” He laid his palette of cement aside, pulled a red-checkered rag from his pocket, and wiped his angry face.

“Maybe they didn’t like the way you talked,” Bestwick said.

“So far as my blood kin goes, I doubt it,” Grimes said. “They unloaded me ’fore I’d said word one, much less pea-turkey. My exes I won’t assume to speak for.”

“Good for you,” Flora Marie said, registering the hate in his eyes and seeing his handkerchief with a tingle akin to recognition.

Bestwick turned from Grimes. “We believe in you,” she told Brother Joseph. “And in God, of course, and we’ve driven two hundred miles. You must pray for Flora Marie, you must lift the curse of her lupus.”

Brother Joseph shook his head.

“How hard is it to say an intercessory prayer? It can’t be as hard as making these buildings.”

“I am better with my hands than with words, Miss Bestwick.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighty—eighty this year.”

“Miss Throne is thirty-three and an artist like you. Do you want her life snuffed out before she can complete even half her life’s work?”

“Don’t blackmail the poor man,” Flora Marie said.

Brother Joseph shook his head again, but seized Flora Marie’s left arm and laid his other hand on his Lourdes replica. “Can you stand without your crutches, young woman?” Flora Marie nodded. “Then hand them to Norbert.”

Grimes took them as if receiving a pair of aluminized rattlesnakes.

“O Raphael,” the old man said, “lead this woman to the country of transfiguration. Heal her so that she may not be as a stranger in the province of joy. Remember her, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder.”

He neglected to say “Amen,” but Flora Marie, who intuited that Brother Joseph had never spoken so many words at one time in his life, felt a charge in her blood, a fresh elasticity in her joints. When he released her arm, she half believed that she could walk unassisted back around the Ave Maria Grotto to the garden gate and Bestwick’s car. She resolved to try.

Grimes’s arms leapt unexpectedly into the air. “What the hell!” he shouted.

Flora Marie’s crutches broke free of his hands and stepped out onto the path by themselves. They scissors-hiked in mechanical cahoots along the route that she had just contemplated. Looking at once snake-bit and spite-driven, Grimes dragged a pistol from his bib pocket and blasted away at them haphazardly. His shots reverberated like sonic booms. Even the blue jays fell silent.

“Damnation!” Grimes cried in fury.

Flora Marie’s legs failed her, and she dropped amid her skirts like a cut-loose marionette. Brother Joseph crouched beneath his lopsided hunch, leaning away from his fake Lourdes and grasping his head like a well-schooled student during a Civil Defense drill.

Bestwick said, “Holy Jeez,” and knelt beside Flora Marie. “Dear God, Marie, are you okay?” She glared at Grimes as Flora Marie imagined she would at a rowdy library patron.

“Please don’t fret. I’m fine—no different than before.”

“No thanks to Ishmael there.” Bestwick stood and faced the alleged postulant. “You crazy bastard. It’s no damned mystery why all your women cast you out.”

“Shut up,” Grimes said. He turned his pistol on the miniature Lourdes and blew away a turret. Concrete shrapnel jumped into the air, striking both Brother Joseph and Bestwick, and grazing the brim of Flora Marie’s hat. “If I want comments from a high-horse lezbo, I’ll ask for ’em.” He leveled the barrel at Bestwick. Its bore reminded Flora Marie of a ravenous open manhole.

“Take him at his word,” Flora Marie advised Bestwick.

Bestwick put her hands on her hips. “Like you’d really shoot, you two-bit make-believe gangster.” Cuts on her forearm oozed flamboyant red freckles.

Flora Marie cringed. Grimes thrust the pistol forward and squeezed the trigger, which click-click-clicked like the switch on a dead car battery. Bestwick assumed a stooped knock-kneed stance, crossed her arms over her bosoms, and screamed in terror. From everywhere around the grotto, monks came running, including the dignified monk in white, all lifting their skirts like belles at a cotillion. “You lucky bitch!” Grimes cried and threw his gun at Bestwick’s feet. Then he zigzagged up the slope on which Brother Joseph had built his Lourdes, vaulted a wrought-iron picket fence, and ran like sixty. His red-checkered rag fluttered atop the turret fragments on the shrine’s upper court.

The white-robed monk shouted, “Norbert, you can’t just keep coming and going! Eventually, you’ll have to make your profession! One day you’ll have to stick!” Grimes yelled an obscenity over his shoulder. Some young Benedictines pursued him out of sight, hearing, and bounds—whereupon Flora Marie’s crutches scissored back around the pathway, climbed the slope, leapt the fence, and, clanking almost melodically, joined the implausible chase.

Bestwick recovered her wits. She seized fistfuls of Brother Joseph’s habit and twisted them cruelly. “I didn’t want you to make the crutches walk! You were supposed to help Flora Marie! Can’t you even do a simple miracle right?”

“Stop it,” Flora Marie said.

Brother Joseph had gone as white as a bleached camisole. He put his hands on Bestwick’s and leaned away from her frenzy. “I tink everyting I try comes out a little crooked,” he said, his old Bavarian accent resurrected. “Maybe you haff come to the wrong man.”

“No,” Flora Marie said. “You did fine. You certainly knocked the props out from under me. The real miracle is, you kept us from getting killed.”

“Poppycock!” Bestwick blurted. “Poppycock!”

The white-clad monk helped Flora Marie up. Brother Joseph approached his shattered facsimile of Lourdes and knelt before it as a penitent. He sifted turret fragments through his fingers. With corrugated brow, he appeared to ponder the task of renovating what Grimes had ruined. Allowing Brother Joseph’s superior to support her, Flora Marie regarded the old man with clinical rue. It wasn’t every day you witnessed a miracle, even a splendidly bungled one.

Bestwick turned on the monk in white. “That man stole a state trooper’s pistol and car!” She flung her hand after the fleeing culprit. “He shot up that toy building. He nigh-on to murdered me, and you’re worried about him making a profession of faith?”

The white-robed monk thought a moment. “Well, even if the brothers fail to catch him, he’ll be back. He shows up here three or four times a year. When next he does, we’ll give him over to the proper authorities, the unhappy fellow.”

Bestwick raged at this offhand expression of sympathy. How many innocents would Grimes maim or kill before he returned to St. Bernard Abbey?

Flora Marie dialed this rant out. Grimes longed for commerce with humanity, solace in the company of men. His inability to stick surely had something to do with the fact that these men wore habiliments reminiscent of the raiment of women. Flora Marie felt woozy again. How long would her crutches run before they collapsed and would they ever return to buttress the rest of her problematic walk?


A month later Hetty Bestwick telephoned Flora Marie from Atlanta to announce—as a courtesy to Flora Marie, given her sisterly interest in her soul—that she had decided to leave the church. The events at the abbey had forced her to an irrefutable conclusion, that the patriarchal God who had effected the “miracle” of the crutches would rather play the fool than the physician.

Distressed, Flora Marie said, “What about the fact that Grimes’s pistol jammed when he tried to shoot you?”

“That was no miracle,” Bestwick said. “That was shoddy firearm manufacture.” Anyway, she no longer believed in a God who would pull such a pair of grotesque stunts. She would certainly never renounce her painstakingly arrived-at disavowal of an antique communal superstition.

“I ache for you,” Flora Marie said.

“Rejoice for me,” Bestwick said, and soon rang off.

Two days later Flora Marie posted a letter in which she harangued her apostate friend: “Faith is a gift but the will has a great deal to do with it . . . . Subtlety is the curse of man. It is not found in the deity.”

Their friendship endured for several years, but nothing Flora Marie ever wrote or said turned Bestwick back. And when Flora Marie died at age thirty-nine, devastating Mama Craft, Hetty Bestwick, and a vast cloud of admirers, butterflies rose from Blue Peacock Pastures and whelmed the eye of day with blood.

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