We don’t know why he came. Ours is not a big city. There are no stadiums, no conference centers, no airport hotels to fill with hosannas. Instead, he has a folding chair at the farmer’s market. Behind him rests a banana crate, handpainted. Miracles $10.
He does not look like a faith healer. As we load baskets with fresh mango, kohlrabi, peas, we eye him. He is new. This is what we do. His jeans are worn around the heel; his face is rubbered from sun, with jowls that droop over his jaw. He is clean shaven. His hair wears product like a crested gray wave. He does not look like a hippie or like a Christian. He looks, maybe, like someone newly homeless, selling CBD from the back of a truck. His sandals have lost their tread. We can tell when he swings his legs in his chair. The soles flap like bird wings. We don’t yet know whether this is funny or sad. We think, perhaps, it’s both.
We are here every week in the summer. We come after choir, always the first to squeeze avocados and pick the most ripe. We eye the oatmeal soaps and smell them. We sample homemade hummus. The market is a maze of white tents that meander to the town gazebo. Today, every booth but his is busy.
Dawn strides toward him, but that is no surprise to us. She wears too-tight shorts and mandala shawls that drool with fringe. Her hair is dyed flame-red. (We suspect she even owns a bong.) We pretend to be interested in overpriced bread as Dawn extends her hand. He does not take it.
“Do you need to be healed?” he says.
We laugh behind our teeth. Does she ever.
“Just being neighborly,” says Dawn. Her hand drops to her side. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“Are you sure?” he says.
And this is where the overpriced bread loses our attention completely. This is where we lean. We stop our half-hearted conversations about that condo collapse in Deland. We steal glances, wonder if Dawn has some glistening secret life—if this is an old boyfriend come to make up for lost time. His tone is so earnest. He seems to be asking, Don’t you remember me, Dawn dear—have I really changed? We think, he’s crazy. Miracles for cash means spot-me-money-for-the-whiskey crazy. But Dawn twirls the fringe around her ringed fingers. Seconds pass. The salt air ruffles the canvas booths around us with the gentlest of breezes. The morning is white and warm as sweet cream. The faith healer stands. He is shorter than Dawn. He is soft but thin, like an underripe pear. His voice lowers so we cannot hear, and his hand grazes Dawn’s so briefly that we miss this, almost. But we don’t.
We are women past our prime. We are mothers done mothering—we never lost the baby weight, but still we wear bikinis. Our skin is wrinkled from sun, our hair graced with gray. One husband is dead, another retired, the others still work here and there. (Construction, PE coach, water operator.) Our marriages are lazy. We used to take long runs along the lake and have shower sex before work, but now we fear our fat would jiggle. We have cellulite and lines. It’s shameful to be seen.
Our children—our world—live states away and call when they remember. We tell them about new choir music, novels picked for book club, saucy recipes we find for kale. They complain about the president and the news, spout opinions on stories we’ve never heard. We nod along. We do not say how sad FaceTime makes us. How we can tell that they type while they talk. We take what we can get. When they ask (finally) how we are, we tell them. Oh, you know. Sore some days. Headaches. Tired more than usual. We tell them of the remedies we’ve tried: oils, Keto, acupuncture needles. They say “Just talk to your doctor” and give us looks which says they have higher degrees than we do: our children who’ve surpassed us. We cannot keep up with the people we created. When they visit in the summers, they want to ride bicycles and play tennis or row through the algae-crested lake. We’d rather sit and talk, serve beer in cool glasses. One day with them and we are tired for weeks. We can feel the aging in our marrow.
We hate this, the feeling small. We hate this more than anything.
On Sunday, as we sing from the choral platform Lift High the Cross, we see him in the back pew. He wears a plain black sweater and the same holey jeans. He does not take communion. He does not pass the peace.
We learn that he’s staying in the Motel 6 off Highway 27. Every morning, he breakfasts at Denny’s before a walk through town. Naomi says he comes into her bookstore at 10:00 on the dot, never to buy anything, only to browse.
“He doesn’t even touch the books,” she says. “He keeps his hands in his jeans like this.” And she slouches her shoulders, arches her back. She walks like she’s imitating James Dean. “He just sort of strolls, like he’s looking for nothing. If he carried a backpack, I’d check it.”
The next week, he is again at the market. We load baskets with tomatoes, pretend to inspect our eggs for cracks. Really, we watch Dawn approach the faith healer again. This time, after she speaks too softly for us to hear, he cups her jaw. He closes his eyes. No one else at the market seems to care that this strange man has his hands on Dawn Lozano’s face. His lips move as in a whisper. When he pulls away, she is crying. She hugs him and drops a twenty in the banana crate. One miracle, plus tip.
We did not know about Dawn’s teeth. Not until she tells us in book club at Naomi’s about the rot.
“It’s been bad since Mari was born,” Dawn says after a long sip of bad Merlot. Naomi buys the cheapest wine with the prettiest label. “We couldn’t afford the dentist—Bill had just been laid off, you remember, and we lost all our benefits—and I was eating ice cream every night, and everything started then.”
It was not bad at first, the toothache. And then it was everything: the pain locked into her jaw. She couldn’t eat, sleep, swallow. She tried new silicea and fluoride—she tried chamomile and arnica. When Bill was hired by the power plant, she went to the dentist again only to learn that the pain wasn’t what she thought.
“An impacted wisdom tooth,” she says. “Extraction was $2000 we didn’t have. I never got it pulled.”
Sandra rubs her cheek in sympathy pain.
“So this guy at the market, he just cured you?” says Lisa.
Lisa is direct. She often says what the rest of us are thinking. Before her sons were born, she went to law school and clerked for Judge Marshall. She used to compete in triathlons. She scares us a bit. “He just puts his hands on you and snap!—” she snaps her fingers. “It’s gone?”
“Believe what you want.” Dawn tips her glass to finish the wine. “But today is the first day since Mari was born, and she’s twenty-two now, that I have not needed ibuprofen just to get through a meal.”
We have met to discuss a fairy tale retelling, written by a novelist who won a big prize. It’s boring and sad, about children gone missing. About rats, a plague. None of us want to discuss it. Besides, book club is a disguise for wine and gossip, so we spend the next hour musing about the miracle man.
It happens quickly, the way he takes over our lives. First, he occupies the mental space. We talk about him on our group chat. Lisa passes him on her morning runs around the lake. She texts us sweaty selfies that show the faith healer near the water’s rim.
Lisa: Look who I found? I legit called out to say hello and he didn’t even register. Just stood there and stared at the water.
Sandra: Better watch out, this is Florida lol 😜🐊
Dawn shares what she heard through her sister-in-law’s coworker who takes a night shift at Stan’s Bar: the faith healer spends hours every night at a high-top with a small leather journal and endless rounds of club soda. This makes us smile and wonder.
But things take a turn the day Naomi texts us about the bookshop.
Naomi: He’s got gloves on tday
Lisa: Like leather gloves? Gardening gloves? We need DEETS
Naomi: idk like black gloves. But he’s actually touching the books. This is so weird. He’s thumbing through the local section right now.
Sandra: My book?!📚
(Sandra’s claim to fame was the publication of a poetry collection in 1994 from a small university press. Naomi keeps it in stock. She is a good friend.)
Naomi: can’t see the cover, maybe?
Sandra: tell him i’ll sign it 😎
Naomi: lol he doesn’t even know your name, does he?
We learn over text that he does, in fact. Sandra sends the grimace emoji, her favorite one, and says she has a confession. Last night, she drove to the Motel 6—alone—when she told Luis she was visiting us. Our phones light up with alerts. We pause mid-conversation with a customer, mid-rinse at the kitchen sink, mid-run. We read quickly, thrilled by the secret in someone else’s life.
After dinner of shepherd’s pie and Corona, shared at the coffee table while Tucker Carlson was on, Sandra drove to the motel and parked and waited and panicked, then got up the courage and climbed the two flights of stairs and knocked on his door. We do not ask how she knew which door was his. She does not say.
Sandra: He wasn’t surprised to see me. Srsly. He just opened the door and said, Oh, it’s you, like he’d been waiting for me. He invited me right in, just like that 😲
Naomi: You didn’t … you know?
Sandra: God no 😑
Lisa: So wait, i’m confused. Why’d you go there? Just tryin to understand
Sandra: I was in pain, and I had to know. And let me just say. Dawn, you were fucking right.
Dawn: I know.
After Sandra’s visit to the motel, the rest of us venture forward at the market. We are curious cats. We go in small clusters at first, two or more, and shift the baskets in our arms as we comment on the weather or church music. We are flirtatious skeptics.
The faith healer, he does not small talk. He gives a soft smile and asks how we feel, really. We try to practice honesty.
“Not too good,” we say.
Lisa tells him how she ran through poison oak. Naomi points to a wasp sting on her wrist. The faith healer nods, solemn, and removes the black gloves. Up close, he smells woodsy, like sandalwood and oak. His skin is bluish and his eyes are ringed. His hands, they are delicate—not like our husbands’ that have worn callouses like armor. These are piano fingers, long and pale. The faith healer touches Lisa’s patchy ankle. He holds Naomi’s wrist. And the pain? We feel it leave us like fog lifting off the lake in early morning. The light shimmers through. Is it magic? Is it God? We reach into our pocket books, unzip our fanny packs and drop whatever bills we have into the crate.
We are back the next week. And the next.
Soon, his market booth is the busiest every week, and not just with us. A young man who works construction approaches with a muscle spasm; an old woman with asthma throws away her inhaler after only five minutes with the faith healer. A young sandaled couple brings their toddler, knees raw from a tricycle fall. We feel like our husbands when they complain that someone has stolen a favorite fishing hole. We discovered him first. We have grown to like the Saturday routine—choir music, fresh bread, miracle.
But word spreads as word does. It does not take long for the faith healer to become small-town famous. Everyone in our town is like us, it seems. Curious and eager. We are not accustomed to excitement. The local TV station, K64.4, interviews him for their morning show, and a woman in red asks him questions at the market. When the story airs, we show our husbands.
“This guy’s the real thing,” we say.
“Sure he is,” they shrug and change the channel.
We want him. We all do. It’s obvious, the competition that sprouts like weeds. How Naomi chops her hair like the Xerox girl in Friends. For her daily run, Lisa swaps her gym T-Shirt for a sports bra, and we whisper to each other, “slut.” We imagine where he’d touch us, how he’d open the folds of our skin and move with knowledge, with care. He would know what to do. He would know where to let his finger pulse, where to reach down with his tongue.
We shock ourselves. We feel like teenaged girls who have just discovered the showerhead. And this is how we know the others feel the same way: Dawn says it first—at book club—after reading Fire Sermon. It is a sexy book. A Christian has an affair and describes everything. We can’t read it before bed.
“I’ve had dreams about him,” Dawn says. “Is that bad? Am I bad?”
“What kind of dreams?” Naomi takes a big sip of wine and tries to act disinterested.
“You know. Dream-dreams. Like, the kind I haven’t had since college.”
“Not since college? Poor you.”
“I’m serious, I feel bad about it. I haven’t dreamed about Daryl like that since—well, I don’t know if I’ve ever dreamt about Daryl like that. My mind is in the gutter.”
“Mine is always in the gutter.”
Our group chat feels the change. We stop confiding in each other when we see him; instead, we alert the others like sentries.
Sandra: I heard you know who was in the bookstore today? 🕵️♀️
Naomi: So? I can’t have customers now?
Sandra: Does he ever talk about me? 👀
Naomi: What? No
Lisa: I should hope that what he knows he keeps to himself
Dawn: What’s that supposed to mean?
Lisa never says.
A rumor circulates in choir that the faith healer is having an affair with someone in town.
August looms, and we wonder how long the faith healer will stay in town. Soon, the high will go from 95 to 90, and fall will be here. The anglers who summer at our lake will pack up their gear and return to the panhandle. The summer farmer’s market will end, and in its place we’ll plan fall festivals with snow cones and snake handlers. We need our miracles to stay. He has become our Saturday fix—all week is a countdown to the market, that intense gaze, his skin in that brief brush as he heals us. We’re feeling better than we have since ‘85. Our muscles lengthen like they did when we were girls, when we could flip across balance beams and golf a 110. Naomi’s skin brightens like creamed coffee. Lisa’s legs seem to lengthen. We do not know where the rings under our eyes go, but they go somewhere. Our husbands ask if we’ve been working out.
On the last market of the summer, on a rare cool day, we stay late and watch the vendors pack. We chatter with each other about Naomi’s upcoming birthday and the dinner we’ll throw at Lisa’s with fettuccine and oysters. But really, we watch the faith healer meet his lingering customers then pack his banana crate. He notices. He approaches, and we cluster like hens, suddenly shy.
“If it isn’t all my ladies together,” he says. “The first faithful ones.”
We blush, smile, say small nothings.
He continues: “You know, I was wondering. I used to offer fireside chats in my last town. It was for the more passionate ones, the ones who really wanted to learn about faith. Totally casual.” He smiles, and his product-heavy hair shines in the light. “Are you interested?”
Are we ever.
We want you to know before the story ends, that he does not hurt us.
We’re aware that it sounds stupid—going to a man’s motel room alone at night. Or worse, perhaps, the state park. We know you may not believe us. You might think we’re crazy old women, that we exaggerate, that we’re attention starved. Our husbands thought this, too, after everything. Our children rolled their eyes. We tried to explain how he’d helped us, but they just laughed and said, “Okay, mom.” We are their silly mothers who believe in the faith healer’s work.
Maybe we got lucky. Sandra’s daughter says we could have ended up on some PBS special about the killer who lured his victims through religious promise. “They’d call him the Miracle Man,” she says. “His victims miraculously vanish!”
We don’t know much about serial killers. We cannot stand the True Crime shows our daughters absorb like water. We don’t even know much about the faith healer, not even his name. To each of us, he told a different past, which at first made us angry and then made us think. We don’t need the illusionist to show us the cards or the trick slot in the hat. We do not need to know everything, so long as the show is beautiful.
The night of the fireside chat is the kind of hot that calls for watermelon. Instead, the faith healer stands at a charcoal grill and roasts bratwursts. The air is slick with smoky meat.
We have told our husbands colorful lies: we are at Canvas and Cheers, we are mixing chocolate martinis at Dawn’s, we rented tandem bikes for the lake path. Of the truth, they would not approve.
The sky is purpling—the clouds are watercolor wisps. He lowers the grill lid and tells us how we live with faith every time we trust the water from our tap or the seatbelts in our cars, how all those tiny nothings keep us alive. We sit like Girl Scouts on log benches and rub deet into our skin and nod and wonder when, exactly, we began to feel old. When he talks, we remember hours flung across our childhood beds as we listened to records and talked on the phone and waited for our parents to sleep so we could smuggle the keys. We have not been wild in so long. Maybe we never were.
“I want to tell you more about why I do this work,” he says and turns a bratwurst. The fat sizzles, and the skin pops. “It’s because the medical system doesn’t serve you. They miss things. They do not listen.” And we nod because he is watching.
He spears the brats and fills paper plates and passes them to us. There is lemonade, too, the powder kind in a pitcher. We feel like the 5,000, fed by miracles.
“You ladies know I’m not here to sell you nothing. I don’t hawk essential oils or tinctures or whatever. I’m here to get to the soul of the problem—I’m here because I was called, because there was need.”
He removes the last sausage and closes the grill. Mosquitos hover through the charcoal air, and we chew silently. The faith healer settles into the one plastic chair around the open pit. This is the park where our children had Field Day years ago—where we pushed them in strollers and fed bread to the ducks. Now, it’s nearing park curfew, and we sit around like campers, like we’re about to sing “Kumbaya” and roast s’mores. The faith healer is silent for a long time as he studies his hands.
“I want you to be honest with me,” he says at last. “I want you to tell me where it really hurts.”
The silence is interrupted only by bug song.
We tell him. It is so freeing to speak that the words tumble out of us like Jenga blocks, a loud clatter.
Lisa tells him how she “tore down there”—her words, not ours—with baby number one in ‘86. It never healed right. The stitched scar was a flap of flaming skin. How to tell her husband, No, maybe never? How to deprive herself forever from his body inside hers? This is why she runs, her libido, she runs and runs because only that makes it better somehow. That kind of high. Sandra describes the tenderness that lives in her muscles, like pain is a pioneer to stay. She doesn’t know where it came from or why her massage therapist hasn’t helped but it’s costing $60 a week to be rubbed with oil and make no progress. Naomi rubs her neck, stiff still from a bender years ago. Her baby was in the backseat, she says, and she was driving to the grocery store, and when the truck behind her clipped the back of her van, she whipped so quickly to check on the carseat that she pulled something that never quite healed. There is more, more. We have backaches from old mattresses; oven burns on our palms; knee pangs from when we could run on beaches, before the soft sand shot our joints. Some of what we share is small in comparison. Migraines, menopause, cramps that wallop our bellies at night. Small, but not, when you can bleed through your clothes at work. We have hot flashes and sweat stains, rashes and insomnia. There is more, there is more.
As the night deepens and stars stud the sky, we tell him of other pains. We tell him about the FaceTime calls with our children. Or not fitting in the skinny clothes we saved. Or how the news makes us so anxious that we can’t sleep. Or how, once, Naomi’s daughter called her “ignorant” for not knowing about Proposition 8, and Naomi has never forgotten that. How Lisa’s son said he hated her for supporting the Republican governor—how could her own baby hate her? Or the way our husbands touch the softness of our bellies and we wince in shame—or the way we can be out all day running errands, buying groceries, and return to a “What’s for dinner?” We tell him about the fury.
Dawn tells him about her dreams, that what hurts is wanting something wrong.
He seems to coax the words right out of us. He leans back in his chair and bobs his leg so that his sandals flap. Bird wings, we think—flying things! Our pain is airborne. We are warm and sip more lemonade, stale in paper cups. Always, he maintains eye contact with us, steady and owlish. He is never distracted. Soon, he knows more about us than we knew about each other in forty years.
He touches Dawn first because she is the closest to him.
In one swift motion, his palm strikes her forehead. She falls off the log. We blink in the dim. Dawn’s head thuds like a baby learning to sit. She writhes on a pile of pine needles and at first we think she’s in pain—but then we hear her laugh. She grabs her belly and spasms as a mosquito alights on her neck. “Holy laughter, yes,” exclaims the faith healer. “Yes, yes, yes. This is good—this is the spirit moving. This is your faith being tested.” He stands from the plastic chair and lifts both hands. “This is the proof of healing! Let the darkness leave you, like demons cast out, amen.” He moves around the circle like a mad game of duck-duck-goose. He strikes our heads with the heel of his hand, and it doesn’t hurt. His palm is hot and sticky with power. When he touches us, the heat rushes in fire rivers. We clutch our guts. We fall. Our hair hooks the palmate leaves, and mosquitos land on our necks like kisses. The laughter gallops from us—you’d laugh like this if you were pain free. We have never done drugs, but we imagine this is how it feels: better than tylenol, better than wine, better than sex and hot baths, we feel really, truly good—good in that fleshy way, where you’re overly aware of your body. At the heat of his touch, our muscles soothe and our scars heal, burned away like an oven on clean. The world turns gauzy. There is a film, a stillness. The pain, it dissolves like a baby leaving our bodies in one final burst.
And then he leaves. The very next day. On a Monday. In September. Just as the weather turns nice. Just like that. He checks out of the Motel 6, where, we learn later, he’s been sleeping with the leggy and tattooed owner in exchange for free board. He leaves with $10,000 cash from miracles and a copy of Sandra’s book, signed. He takes an Uber to Orlando, from where he buses to Amelia Island to heal rich white people on holiday. We do not know what to think. Except we have that small, sinking suspicion that the miracles will fade. Our muscles do not groan as they used to—Dawn’s toothache has not come back. But we fear the pain we’ve known can vanish. Ache is like hunger, always bound to return.
The morning he leaves, Lisa texts, Run with me? We say okay. We lace up the sneakers we only wear when our kids are around, pretending to exercise daily. And we squeeze these bodies that once housed babies into shorts that can’t hold us in. We follow Lisa through town, past the green and the Denny’s and the motel, past the county highway that leads to the park where our children used to play—it is only three miles, but our bodies bounce, they sweat, they burn, they hurt, they long, they itch, they thirst, they shudder. And we keep running.
Ciera Horton McElroy’s work has appeared in AGNI, Bridge Eight Literary Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Little Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine, among others. She is represented by Folio Literary Management.