Holy Lungs by Clara Aguileras
Clara died, as all the others did, at God’s hand. He sent an asteroid hurtling toward the world, and the world sent bombs to shoot it out of the sky, narrowly averting an age of ash and death. But of course God had the last word. A little fragment of alien rock dropped into the Pacific, twenty miles from Catalina Island, cracking open the ocean floor. A great wave stretched up over the coast, bathing the Port of Los Angeles in an eerie green light before it came crashing down. It swallowed up the shantytown at E street, the Bradbury Building, the fiberglass whales of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, the pink castle in Orange County, and the ancient wood of Olvera Street with equanimity. Only two things truly left Los Angeles whole, and those were Clara Aguilera’s holy body and Clara Aguilera’s holy lungs.
When Clara was alive, she was no one in particular: a freshman at San Pedro High, chubby with baby fat and oily with puberty. In death, she became a sensation.
Her body washed up on the new Oregon coast months after the disaster, only a mile from the refugee camp at Eugene. The lifeguard who waded in after her was the first to feel something wrong. The body was only five feet away when an unusually warm wave rolled into the lifeguard’s belly, heat seeping into him. The body drifted closer, and the lifeguard suddenly remembered a film he’d seen as a child, where a maiden bathes in a black lake, her gown billowing around her like wings. The girl didn’t look like a body. She was not bloated. She was not decayed. She looked like that maiden, with her face tipped up out of the foam, her eyes closed. But the lifeguard knew she was dead, all the same, and shook so badly that she slid out of his grasp twice on the journey back to shore.
Her picture swept across the nation, waiting to be claimed, and it worried everyone who saw it, little splinters of unease working under the skin. She didn’t look dead, but they were assured she was. In some deep and animal way, this was troubling. A man in Georgia who had only glanced at her image on his phone woke up gasping from a dream where Oregon’s Jane Doe lay beside him in his bed, softly breathing in and out. It wasn’t a nightmare. He trembled with an unexplained tenderness, his chest aching with it, muscles drawn tight, making it difficult to exhale.
The trouble grew as each day passed and she did not rot, the boundary between life and death growing less distinct, a border that seemed impossible when faced with the reality of her healthy skin, her unclouded eyes. She was distinguished from the living by the clean wound on her back, just under her ribs, and the empty hollows where her lungs should be. The coroner was without explanation, lost in her presence. When he touched her, a sweet smell like crushed roses filled the air, and longing throbbed in his palms. Rigor mortis had not set in. She looked like a girl about to wake from sleep. The Eugene police station received more phone calls every day, strangers from far-off towns demanding to know if they’d made any progress with the incorruptible girl’s case. Some of the strangers spoke foreign tongues, asking after La Incorruptible, hindi nasisira na batang babae, a menina incorruptível.
Two weeks after the Incorruptible Girl was rescued from the tide, Natalie Aguilera from Flagstaff identified the body as her younger sister. She had no papers to prove it, but she had some pictures of Clara on her phone, looking less than holy: Clara with over-plucked brows, Clara squeezed into a salmon-colored dress, Clara visibly uncomfortable in her teenaged body. These pictures might have soothed the fevered interest that her corpse had sparked, except that a reporter hacked into Clara’s cloud and found her final video, taken on her phone shortly before her death.
In the video, the living Clara leaned out a window, camera shaking in her hands—unless it was the earth that shook beneath her—and captured The Wave rolling in from the west. It still looked far away, but it was moving fast. Jesus, Clara said, and fumbled the phone, giving her audience a glimpse of her young face and wide eyes. Full of awe and not yet fear. Jesus Christ, Clara said again, marveling, and the video ended. It was only an instant, but every heart ached at the sight of her disbelief, her childlike certainty that she could not be touched. The video traveled around the world and grown men wept; children went to school with little flickers of uncertainty worrying at their hearts. There were rumors that the President—the Queen—the Ecumenical Patriarch—the Pope himself—had watched it, and every candle in the holy city was lit for Clara Aguilera’s soul.
When Natalie began the drive from her home in Arizona to claim her sister’s body, she was informed that a priest would meet her in Eugene, to begin an unofficial inquiry. The Aguileras had been Catholic, and incorruptibility was unquestionably the province of the Catholic church. At first Natalie was angry, righteous fury sending her cheap car rattling fifteen miles over the speed limit. Clara was not an angel. Clara had been a kid, brown and freckled, too articulate in the way of children with deep interests and few friends, more passionate about the donuts after church than the Word of God. But these were not memories of Clara at fourteen, but Clara when she was a child, before Natalie moved away. It was the memory of Clara at six that had Natalie pulling over to the shoulder and yelling into the desolate scrub of the Colorado Plateau. She kicked viciously at a rock, shifting it only a little. The pain in her foot quieted her. She got back in the car.
The truth was that Natalie had not known Clara very well, being ten years older and not on excellent terms with her parents. She had liked her sister, made sure to bring nice gifts at Christmas, had often complimented Clara’s shining hair, a sensitive teenager’s best feature—but she couldn’t guess at Clara’s interior life. With her foot throbbing on the gas pedal like an extra pulse, it occurred to Natalie that her sister could have been anyone at all, and she wouldn’t know for sure. She could not bring herself to believe her sister was a saint. But she found she had no proof to the contrary, not even to reassure herself.
When Natalie arrived at the Eugene morgue, a priest and a pathologist were waiting for her. The priest—a Father Gonzalez—had brought her a cheap coffee and a blessing, if she wanted it. The pathologist—a Mr. Contreras—offered her a thick stack of paperwork and his condolences. It was clear they were both prepared for hostility, but Natalie felt quite past that.
Mr. Contreras would not meet her eyes, keeping his gaze on her shoulders or the center of her forehead when he spoke to her. Mr. Contreras was afraid, of course. He had consulted with the coroner, with many different experts. He had seen the body many times, and the sight of her perfection made him afraid as no rotting corpse or murder victim had ever done. When he was in the room with Clara’s body, the soles of his feet and the palms of his hands and the very top of his head felt hot. Mr. Contreras was not a religious man and did not know how to explain the fear that comes over you when love wells up out of nothing; when feeling lives in the body without first passing through the mind. He told Natalie what he had assembled of the facts, and repeated again and again that he could not explain why Clara remained unchanged. She certainly died of the wound to her chest. Her lungs were missing, probably removed post-mortem. Something sharp had cut into her, clean as a knife, but bigger. She should not look the way she did. He could not think of any factors that would have affected her in this particular way. It’s like a miracle, he said more than once. I don’t know how it could have happened.
Father Gonzalez was more reserved, possessed of a deeper well of skepticism. He informed Natalie that incorruptibility alone was no longer enough to qualify for sainthood. The pope was considering waiving the five-year period for an investigation into Clara’s virtues, but very likely it would not be waived. Science worked in ways almost as mysterious as the Lord’s. He was sure Clara had been a wonderful child, and he was willing to perform a mass for her, if that was what Natalie wanted. He explained this all in a kind, paternal way. He had not yet seen the body, except in pictures.
“My sister went to church every Sunday,” Natalie said, an absurd protectiveness coming over her. “She was an altar girl. She was baptized and did first communion. She invoked Christ before she died. That’s holier than most people.”
Father Gonzalez sighed. Mr. Contreras met her gaze for the first time, and she felt as though she understood the questions she saw in his watery eyes. What if this was God’s intervention? What if Clara was a miracle? What if this one death was a good thing, and not another entry in the catalogue of terrible loss? Natalie drew back, repulsed.
She dismissed Father Gonzalez, for the moment, and followed Mr. Contreras into the morgue, so he could pull out Clara’s drawer. “You sure you don’t want anything?” he asked, his nervous voice pathetically comforting in the silence, a reminder that other people existed. “This is the hardest part.”
“Can you leave me for a while?” Natalie asked. This was not a time for comfort. Mr. Contreras left.
She drew back the plastic sheet that covered her sister up. Clara looked, as promised, as though she were sleeping. Her eyelashes were all intact, a soft brush against her full cheeks. She was naked under the plastic, which struck Natalie as obscene. Clara was fourteen, and here were all these grown men seeing her naked.
She did not feel a foreign heat come over her, or a sweet ache in her muscles, or animal unease, or even the grief she had prepared herself for. She was offended, she thought. She took off her sweater and draped it over Clara’s chest, covering up her small breasts, covering up the long wound under her rib cage. She tucked the sleeves under Clara’s back, and decided that this made sense. The reality of the body beneath her and her own reaction. Hadn’t she mourned for Clara already? She had mourned for Clara when she mourned for her parents, for her tías, for her cousins, for her abuelos. But she’d lost more than her family: the house where she grew up, her high school, the beach where she learned how to swim, the loquat tree in the park, the aquarium her grandfather helped build, the family graves in the cemetery, the curled-up dog skeletons buried in her old backyard. She’d lost every single piece of her past. It was only right that she was given this in return: just one piece, perfectly preserved, hers to keep. God owed her, she decided, and here was what he paid.
She came out of the morgue an hour later and told Father Gonzalez that she would like him to continue his investigation for the Vatican. He gave her a resigned smile and again offered her a blessing. She accepted.
One month after the investigation began, an old man in Sinaloa rose early, kissed his grieving wife on her brow, and went down to the pier in the graying light. The water was still murky with refuse, but the authorities claimed it was not bad for anyone’s health. He took the boat out alone and performed the usual ritual of checking the traps. His hands stuttered on the rope of the first trap, and a memory slid into his mind, unbidden. His son, swallowed up by The Wave, had once taken him rappelling in the canyon, and the rope had slid through his hands just so. He blinked the memory away—he tried not to think of his son, or his son’s missing body, burying his grief in the familiar movements of habit. The old man offered up a brief prayer to La Virgen, and resumed hauling up the trap. There was something strange inside the wooden frame: no lobsters at all, but something was caught inside. He opened up the trap, and saw that it was a lung. He had no doubt at all that it was human, although he had never seen an exposed lung before, and slid it out into his hands. It was very clean, pink and red-veined and somehow delicate, a piece of the trachea clinging to one side like a bit of torn lace. He felt with an abrupt bright certainty that it was something very precious, something worthy of preservation, and wept out of shock that it was before him, that he could hold it in his hands. He could not stop weeping. He left the traps and carried the organ home, still weeping. When he opened the door, his son was waiting inside.
This was not Clara’s first miracle, but it was the first to bring thousands to the beach in Sinaloa, thousands of empty hands stretching out, trying to touch a girl who wasn’t there. The lung was taken into custody by the Mexican authorities, and no attempt was made to match it to Clara. It couldn’t be her lung. It was too fresh to belong to The Flood. Another lung was found off the coast of Texas, a few months later, and a ragged pair of partially decomposed lungs in Japan a few months after that. Every time, thousands privately chose to believe the lungs belonged to Clara, the Incorruptible. Every time, thousands privately soothed their horror by imagining Clara’s holy breath still drifting somewhere into the air.
A seventeen-year-old with lung cancer in Alabama printed out Clara’s picture and hung it over her hospital bed, and within three days she went into remission. An old man in Florence dreamed of Clara floating on the waves, and when he woke he had only enough time to tell his wife about the dream before he died. Suddenly and peacefully, his wife told the papers, like he’d always wanted to go. Clara’s supporters—for she had a great many, crowding Father Gonzalez’s e-mail, choking his voice mail, some coming to touch his arm or meet his eyes in the street—said that these were the signs of Clara’s intercession with the Lord. As a young girl, of course she would protect the young. Her lungs were lost, so she protected those whose lungs were threatened. She died quite suddenly, and so could help the old and frightened walk into death. A saint, they said, Clara de la Inundación, Clara of the Flood, Clara of the Breath.
“I think they will waive the waiting period,” Father Gonzalez said to Natalie, offering her his silver lighter. They had taken to smoking together during breaks in the investigation. Clara’s body had been moved from the city morgue to the freezer of a local funeral home several miles away. The owners were not religious, but the lingering generosity of disaster propelled them to donate a shelf to Clara until the Vatican concluded its investigation. Natalie practically lived at the funeral home, leaving only to sleep and speak to the press and smoke in the tiny courtyard behind the home with Father Gonzalez.
Like Natalie, Father Gonzalez was unmoved by Clara’s body, except in the usual way that people tend to be moved by such things. He was incurious about whatever accident had preserved her so completely. He was not a scientific man, but he presumed science would provide explanation with placid inevitability. He was trained in the mysteries of the divine, in its laws, was exacting in his knowledge of the histories and theories that governed the supernatural world. Science he happily took on faith. In Clara’s presence, he appeared studious, solemn, even compassionate. But not spiritual. He never spoke of strange heat or pain or emotion seizing his muscles. He appeared to regard the entreaties Clara’s public made of him with a mingled sense of resignation and pity. This was inconvenient for Natalie, who had dedicated herself to preserving a place for Clara in the world—but she could not help liking him for it.
“What happens then?” she asked him.
“Oh, many possible things,” he assured her, and a thread of blue smoke curled away from his mouth. “They’ll bring in the bishop, and a full delegation from Rome. You’ll be under the microscope as well as her, you know. And you’re a child in the eyes of God.”
Natalie shrugged. She had been baptized, but never confirmed, and sometimes she felt frighteningly child-like. She was afraid to leave the funeral home for too long, her imagination providing her with scenes that were very much like the moments of panicked fantasy she’d experienced as a child, when her mother was late picking her up, when she lost sight of her father at the park. If she left the funeral home, Clara’s body could be stolen, used in scientific experiments, or her body could be interfered with, or else the funeral home itself could burn to the ground, Clara turned to ash and scattered on the wind. “It’s worth it,” she said.
Father Gonzalez sighed and considered, for a moment, describing all the ways in which Natalie was sure to lose her sister: Clara of the Flood was not Clara Aguilera, and a saint’s body belonged to the Church, not to her family. But Natalie’s mouth was thin and trembling, and he knew she would not listen. “Natalie,” he said instead. “Did you hear about the salvage team in Los Angeles?”
She had. The two of them were the foremost experts on Clara’s press. “They were working over Silver Lake,” she said, and it came out rote, tired. “They saw a girl on a floating island of seaweed and plastic bottles. One man said she glowed in the dark, another one just said that she was beautiful. The woman said she was glimmering. A glimmering girl, with her lungs in her hands.”
“A terrifying sight,” Father Gonzalez said, gently. “But were they terrified?”
Natalie frowned, the question slipping under her defenses. They were not frightened, or the article had not said they were frightened. “You think they were making it up?” she said, prepared to argue on Clara’s behalf.
Father Gonzalez considered this for a moment, taking another long drag from his cigarette. “I think many fisherman have seen strange hauls this year,” he said. “And it is a good thing—a holy thing, Natalie—that your sister brings them comfort.”
Natalie carried the question out of the courtyard, held the idea safe and out of touch for a night, for a day. She brought it back to the mortuary, to her familiar vigil outside the cold room where Clara lay, and finally allowed herself to consider it: Clara of the Flood, Clara the Saint.
She thought about seeing her sister again, glimmering in the dark, lungs in her hands, and the terrible fear this produced in her. She wanted to keep Clara safe. She didn’t want to revisit her sister’s last moments, the awful difference between Clara then and Clara now. A shudder crept over her, and Natalie thought for a second that something flickered at the corner of her eye. Immediately she squeezed her eyes shut.
Heat descended over her, licking at the soles of her feet, curling up through her tightening calves, warming her belly, making her shake. She was gripped, suddenly and strongly, by the feeling that someone was standing right above her, looking down. Natalie buried her face in her palms, rocking slightly, until the holy warmth slowly went away. She stayed on her knees, eyes tightly shut, and distantly it occurred to her that this was the only difference between ghosts and saints. We want the saints to return to us. We long to see them emerge from the dark, ache for their restless touch. Natalie drew in trembling breath after trembling breath and tried vainly to transmute her horror into faith.
Molly Olguín is a graduate of the Ohio State University MFA program. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West and Zymbol, among others, and is forthcoming from River Styx and Fugue. She was awarded the 2015 AWP Intro Awards prize for fiction, and was a finalist in Fugue’s 2016 prose contest. She currently teaches high school English and creative writing in the Twin Cities.