Imagine if people thought you were a saint. No, seriously. If people worshipped the very ground you walked on, and all you wanted to do was be a normal teen. Because this is the EXACT predicament Marlena Oliveira has in The Healer.
She’s been mysteriously given the power to heal all kinds of ailments and people around the world. But with great power, as we’ve learned through all of YA, comes great responsibility, and Marlena can’t actually manage having friends her own age. She can’t go to school, and she definitely can’t date. But then she meets Finn, a boy who makes her want to fall in love.
For the first time, she begins to doubt whether her gift is worth all that she must give up to keep it. It’s romantic, emotional, and you can start reading this lush story below!
When you love someone, you will do anything for them. You will travel to the ends of the earth and bargain away your soul to sorcerers if it might give you just one more day together. You will crawl on your knees until they are scraped and bloodied. You will give away your money, your possessions, your dignity. You will throw yourself upon the mercy of doctors, of witches, of criminals.
You will trade your life for theirs in a heartbeat. You will if you know this is the bargain before you, if someone lays it out plainly, like the price tag on a trinket you might buy at the store.
Your life. For theirs.
I know this now. I know so many other things I didn’t back then. Helplessness and hopelessness. Desperation. Love beyond all other loves. Love so big and vast that words fail. It would have been an easy decision.
My life. For theirs.
The problem comes when you’ve no idea that in choosing your own life, you’ve given theirs away.
NOW & THEN
People say I am a saint.
They sell T-shirts with my image. They come to me with gifts and offerings. A vase full of flowers. A beautiful dress. A flat-screen TV that sits unwatched because I am not allowed the luxury of television. They mean well, but sometimes I hate them. Sometimes, when some earnest soul comes to wash my feet because this is all the person has to give, I want to lash out. I want to kick them in the jaw with my brown bony foot. I don’t, of course. But I think about it.
“Hello, Marlena,” Gertie says, reverently, from the doorway of her shop.
I am strolling by on the street, parting the seas of people like Moses. No one dares get too close.
Gertie wrings her hands, eyeing me.
I stop before her, and she takes a step back out of respect. I wish she wouldn’t. The breeze carries the briny scent of seaweed baking in the sun, of the clean cold ocean, of fish being pulled in by the boats.
The tail of a kite with my name stitched across it flutters in the open window of Gertie’s store. She has it on sale for $34.99. Gertie hesitates, then offers, “I think maybe these are the last days of summer, yeah?”
I tear my gaze from the kite, from the seven-day candle she has burning on the sill emblazoned with a photograph of me when I was seven. In it, I’m wearing a white shift, much like the one I have on now, which will be much like the one I wear tomorrow. My mother insists these cotton sheaths are simple ways of reminding others of who I am, of my purity, of the great gift bestowed upon me at birth. Lately I’m tempted to lie down in the dirt and roll around like a dog. Then I would arrive home filthy and cackling to my scandalized mother, hair wild, a devil child.
My long sleeves cling to my skin in the humidity. “Do you think so?” I say to Gertie, mostly to be polite, but her comment about the end of summer has my brain churning like a waterspout.
She nods. Stares like I am a ghost, or a wraith come to carry her away to some fearful place. “Sometimes I think this heat wave is never leaving us. But they’re saying that once it does, summer is over.”
I nod. “I’m sure you’re right. See you later, Gertie.”
I hurry down the street, past the other shops selling their framed photographs of the most famous moments of my life, little china babies that are supposedly me, tiny bottles of water I purportedly blessed but didn’t. In the window of the Almeidas’ bakery is a stone statue of me, nearly as tall as I am. It is covered in colorful slips of paper, prayers that the sick have left behind in the hope that petitioning this replica of me is as good as petitioning the real thing. As I walk, the hem of my dress gets taken up by the hot breeze, baring my knees. The tourists stare and whisper. They pull out their phones to snap pictures. I raise an arm, bury my face in the crook of my elbow. They step back when I get close, like Gertie did, as if I might be contagious. I remind myself they are only doing this out of respect.
So much respect, everywhere I turn.
I am sick of this, sick with it, sick from it.
What happens when the Healer gets sick? Who will cure her?
I reach the edge of Main Street and turn down the hill, cross the street toward the beach. A car stops to let me pass, the driver’s eyes widening when he recognizes me. His hands are gripping the steering wheel like it’s the only tether holding him to earth.
I keep on going until I get to the rickety wooden ramp that leads down to the sand, ignoring the stares of nearby families, children playing with pails and shovels, splashing happily in tide pools. I do my best to ignore the other boys and girls my age, the way they look at me, girls in bikinis showing off so much tanned skin, boys touching their arms, even their flat stomachs. I try not to be jealous. I try not to think of the boy named Finn who I wish would touch my stomach and make the skin all over my body flush. I try to not care about how strange I must look in my thin cotton dress, like some child from another time and place, a girl escaped from an asylum.
One by one, I take the slippers from my feet and toss them aside. My legs move me forward with purpose, right to the ocean’s edge. I hesitate there, wondering how long it will be before the rumors reach my mother’s ears, knowing that I don’t have much time, so I shouldn’t waste any. The waves coming into the shore sizzle as they stretch toward my bare toes, and I inhale the pungent scent of seaweed. My hair flies in the wind, its knots and tangles visible in my shadow.
I’ve longed for the heat wave to be over, I’ve wished for it, even prayed for it, but suddenly I take it all back, wanting this stretch of humidity to go on and on, willing away the icy winter cold that will surely come to our New England town within a few months and not leave us until the first warm days of spring.
A little girl stares at me from the place where she sits, building a dribble castle across her legs. “Are you an angel?” she asks.
I watch the way the castle slides down her knees. Then I shake my head.
“No,” I tell her.
I’m tired of being the angel.
This is the thought that pushes me forward again, that compels my feet until I am ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-deep in the waves, white dress and all. When the ocean swirls up around my chest, I dive under.
A too short while later, I pick my way across the sand, everything dripping, dress and hair and skin, shoes in hand. I go the back way toward home to avoid the eyes greedy for gossip, the people hoping for a photo. This is not the image of me they expect or want, my white dress turned nearly transparent by the sea and clinging to the curves of my body, curves my mother wishes she could pray away. I used to try to pray them away, too. It’s far better when a healer has the stick-straight figure of an innocent girl. When the girl starts to look like a young woman, some people fear she is a witch. I pull the soaking dress away from my skin, but it only puckers back against me. I look around but thankfully I see no one else to disappoint.
The town, the tourists, they all want the angel Marlena.
The Healer Marlena, virginal and pure and divine.
And I have behaved badly today.
The guilt cuts across me in the wind and I hang my head, wrap my arms around my middle. The town’s survival depends on my existence, my continued ability to heal the old lady who cannot walk, the young boy who seems trapped inside his mind. The broken heart of a man who has lost his wife and the deadened eyes of the woman who cannot see. The sick and the grief-stricken come to me and I lay my hands on them, my precious, God-touched, miracle-making hands. The contact between my skin and theirs, my flesh and theirs, somehow sets them free. People come from all over to be at one of my audiences. They fly, they drive, they hitchhike. Some even walk, the most devout making the last mile on their knees, arriving scraped and bloodied, pebbles embedded in their skin. Just for a glimpse. Just to be near me.
Hundreds of years ago, men and women claimed visions, special gifts that allowed them to heal, to have intimate knowledge of the divine, of God, to live suspended in ecstasy. They were called mystics. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about them. Most wrote about their experiences in poetry, in prose, reaching for anything and everything to describe what they saw, how they felt, who they were. Hildegard of Bingen is my favorite. She was a real doctor, studying the way that plants and herbs could heal the sick. Her visions led her to write, like everyone else, but also to compose music. And make art. She drew and painted her visions.
I, too, am an artist.
But I am more like Julian of Norwich. She enclosed herself in the walls of a church and lived there in a tiny stone cell. Isolated, in prayer. People would pilgrimage to speak to her through a sliver in the stone, to ask for her intercession, for her help. Being near Julian was like being near God. She was an anchorite, drawing down God from the heavens to the earthen floor and pinning him there. Her life’s purpose was to hold the world steady with her body and soul.
A car turns the corner up ahead and slows as it approaches. It’s Mrs. Jacobs. A knowing smile spreads across her lips. Mrs. Jacobs is one of my doubters. She thinks I am a fake.
I raise my arm. A cascade of water drips from my sleeve as I wave. I can’t stop trying to win over Mrs. Jacobs.
She drives off without waving back.
What will she say to others? What rumors will she spread?
My mother is always reminding me how it only takes one misstep to ruin a girl with a reputation like mine. I must be above reproach, holier-than-thou in being and word. I used to agree, used to be so obedient. Happy to shut myself away from the things of this world like Julian did. Grateful to be chosen.
My shoulders curve forward as I trudge up the hill, sand chafing my calves.
When I was a child, I used to love the stature that comes with my gift, that people brought me shiny toys to thank me, that when I got up on the stage at the United Holiest Church, the audience would hush. I could do no wrong. I could scream. I could writhe and faint. I could cry out with joy and laughter. People expect this from me. Apparently, the power to heal lies in frenzy.
Now that I am older, I am more subdued.
My mother has taken to complaining about this.
“Marlena Imaculada Oliveira,” she’ll say, using my full name so I know we are talking business. “People don’t come to our church to see you standing there, like a child afraid to enter the water.” Then she’ll sigh and look at me with those familiar black eyes, eyes identical to mine. “You could at least raise your arms and call out to God now and then. You used to be so good at this. You used to love this work.”
“Yes, Mama,” I respond. “I know.”
I still do love it. The visions, I will always love. The colors and emotions that flood my body along with them. But lately my gift feels tainted. A weight I carry, an anchor chaining me to the seafloor.
This thought nearly makes me laugh.
I really am an anchor, like Julian.
I, too, draw down miracles from the heavens. But unlike Julian I also draw tourists from all around to spend their money in the shops. Through my gift and the sacrifices that go with it, I anchor the town and everyone in it. That is my job, has always been my life’s purpose. It’s all I’ve ever known.
But I want to know more. I want to know other things.
The heat of the sun bears down on me, the salt from the sea turning the cotton of my dress stiff and rough. The house where I live with my mother appears ahead, perched on a bluff above the sparkling ocean. As I pass the sea grass and the cattails that border our yard, I stretch my arms wide and high and turn my face toward the sky. Soak up the world around me. Let the world lift me up.
I am unmoored.