Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
BURNING MARY
b y   s o n d r a   k e l l y - g r e e n   ~   o c e a n s i d e,   o r e g o n

CLEM SAW it first, and I, for one, was floored. He’s not one to believe in anything he can’t plow, plant, or harvest. In fifty-seven years of marriage he hasn’t had so much as one dream. He says. I say maybe he forgets them and he snorts and stomps out to the old barn in his big-foot work boots to fire up the John Deere and get as much distance between him and what he calls my ‘crazy notions’ as he can. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a dreamer. But he’s a solid, practical, salt-of-the-earth kind of man, my Clem is. He keeps me grounded. Which is what struck my fancy during the war and I guess that’s what’s kept me here all these years.

So when he comes in tracking mud on my clean kitchen floor and tells me he’s seen the Virgin Mary on the west side of the old barn I figured he either had a screw loose or there was some truth in it. At first I thought he was crazy because I couldn’t see a darn thing on that barn from any angle. Just a bunch of weathered siding and the spot where Clem rowed over and marked how high the water came during the flood of ‘79. But I had to rethink things when word got around in town and folks–only a few at first–started to come out for a look-see. They’d bring their families and picnic lunches and make a day of it–the Hortons, the Sneeds, the Nordgrens. All God-fearing Lutherans who’ve had no truck with idolatry.

Then the Catholics started coming. Big families naturally, carrying papist gee-gaws. Prayer beads and such. Nuns too, all sweet-faced and slack-jawed, staring up at nothing. You’ve never seen the like. Once Clem started to charge admission he was as happy as a butcher’s dog. They came in droves, these lookie-loos and news people and tourists from Italy and Germany and Japan snapping pictures and leaving their garbage for us to clean up and trampling my prize-winning mums and daylilies into the ground.

But what really stuck in my craw was that everyone could see this virgin-vision but me. I backed up from it and got close to it and squinted every which way. I didn’t see anything and all I felt was foolish. The whole thing was impossible to ignore–folks all lined up around the house and their stories leaking through the walls. Hippie kids talking about the rapture–how the world’s fixin’ to end. And other folks looking for a sign to help them believe. (I figured if they could believe the Virgin Mary was lolling around on the side of our barn they shouldn’t have too much trouble along those lines.) Then there were the ones like Old Emmet from town, who’d already made what they called ‘the pilgrimage’, all standing in line for another look. Emmet would drive his old truck out here ‘most every day, telling anyone who’d listen about how when he touched it, he could feel a heart beating and all this heat going into him. Sounded like a bunch of baloney to me.

Clem did try; I’ll give him that at least. At dawn, before the cars started pulling in, he’d fetch his ladder from the orchard and point out this and that of what everyone was ogling at; the mouth, the veil, the hands folded in her lap. I finally quit trying. All I knew was Clem was letting the farm go to hell in a hand basket and I didn’t appreciate having our land turned into some kind of roadside attraction. And I finally said as much when he asked would I do ‘a little baking’ and sell cookies and cakes from off the front porch. Did you ever? “People can get mighty peckish waiting in line, Amelia,” he said, but I put my foot down.

By that time word got around that this vision could heal the sick and you should have seen the mob rush in then. I was a hostage in my own house, the news people pounding on the door and shouting about an interview and something about syndicated wires. People asking to use my clean bathroom like they had every right to it. Tour buses and helicopters and I don’t know what all.

It was a week or two later we noticed that pieces of the barn were disappearing overnight. Just a few at first and then gaping, jagged holes they’d taken tire irons and crowbars to. But Clem wouldn’t hear of fencing off the front or borrowing old man MacGruder’s hounds for a night or two.

If he refused to see it by golly I sure did–things had gone way too far. As I’ve said until I’m blue in the face, the good Lord knows what would’ve happened if the barn hadn’t burned to the ground the night of the harvest moon. With all that liquid fertilizer and the dry hay bales bellied-up to all those cans of gasoline I’ve been forever and a day trying to get him to move–well, you can just imagine, can’t you, how something like that could happen easy as pie.

But you should have seen the fire–especially once the gas tank on the tractor caught. Prettiest, fiercest thing you’ve ever seen, shooting up straight and high like it knew just where to go.

By the time the volunteer fire department showed up, three sheets to the wind–especially that Horton boy–Clem’s face was a changing, spooky-looking thing I didn’t know. Firelight and darkness can do that, you know. There wasn’t much could be done by then anyway, but the men did keep it from spreading to the fields.

Clem and I just stood there staring at the thing like it wasn’t ours. And at one point he turned and pointed at me and squinted his eyes all nasty-like and started to say something but then the trusses gave way and the center fell in with a moaning, groaning, birthing sound and the Horton boy–his eyes as big as saucers, crossed himself and dropped to his knees in the mud. But the flames–you should have seen them–such glorious flames shooting right past the moon and straight on up to heaven.

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