Note: tw: suicide
When I was a little girl, I went to church every single Sunday without exception. Through good times and bad, through richer and poorer, through sickness and health; my first real commitment was to God. Not out of personal choice, when you’re a child there’s no semblance of autonomy. My parents never lied to me about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I hesitate to call the first years of my life a childhood because my father never treated it as such. Pretty much as soon as I stopped breastfeeding I was supposed to get with the programme. Our house was the Lord’s house and everything I did was supposed to be in His honour.
What a goddamn disappointment I must be to them.
For some reason, the memory of sweating in the pews of a church and counting the seconds toward the end of a sermon I had long-ago stopped trying to understand came back to me now under the sweltering heat of the Brazilian sun. It was the third month into what was supposed to be a year long trip and it seemed idiotic now to come to the Amazon during the summer. Being from Louisiana, I thought I was used to heat, but it was nothing, nothing compared to this. Even more idiotic was Kingston and I agreeing that we wanted to see the rural parts of Brazil and Peru. Talk to the natives, have them take us through hikes of the rainforest, impart to us their knowledge for the trade of money and/or food. I was nearly useless with languages but Kingston was bilingual and apparently Spanish was close enough to Portuguese that communication was possible if hard.
The village we were staying in now was small but hospitable. We wouldn’t have stayed long at all except Kingston took a liking to a girl named Estela. She was 20 years old and lived with her mother and younger brother, her dad having passed a few years ago. They were very welcoming and Estela had a keen ear and almost as much willingness to communicate as Kingston did. She knew the forests better than anyone we’d met, going as far as to teach us about species of animals and plants you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world. We should have left ages ago, but Kingston was so reluctant and Estela kept insisting that she still had plenty to show us if we were interested that we stayed. Due to the circumstances surrounding our trip, I was willing to allow Kingston to have whatever flings he wanted.
It was under her mother’s directions that I was making my way through the rainforest toward what she’d described as an abandoned old church. Inside was a statue that was a wish granter. What you had to do, or so the legends told, was go to the church and stand before the statue of a young angel. Out loud you told the goddess of your worst sin, no lies, and your wish and she would grant it if you showed remorse and if she deemed your wish something worth granting. Some people said she required some other sort of sacrifice but those details were hazy.
Estela had tried it, when her father was dying, but her wish didn’t come true. I believe she felt remorse for whatever she’d done, the girl was an Earth-walking saint, I just doubted she’d ever done anything horrible enough that admitting to it was pain inducing. Even though it hadn’t worked for her, I was willing to believe in this goddess like I had never believed in God. Perhaps anyone is able to believe in anything when desperation sets in and starts grinding away everything they’d once thought was true or false. When I heard the story I’d been filled with something that tasted too bitter to be hope, but rather a raw kind of yearning that coerced me into at least trying. That was a much better option than submitting to the helplessness of it all.
It was better than watching somebody die.
During the first day of our third week was when it happened. Estela had been the first one to start showing symptoms. Fever, chills, vomiting. At first we thought it was the flu since after tending to her for hours Kingston had started developing symptoms as well. He had a weaker immune system than me, I’d known that, it’s why I’d tried to pull him away from Estela when she got sick but he’d refused. According to Estela’s mother it wouldn’t have mattered anyways. The symptoms had abated for all of two days leading us to assume they were recuperating until Kingston started getting worse again. Out where we were it was a far shot away from a hospital and it had already taken us a long time to get to the village when we were both healthy.
One of Estela’s neighbours said that they probably had malaria and made the trip to find a doctor from a nearby village to come to our village after telling us not to worry, the doctor had cured malaria before. Most likely, Estela and Kingston had been bitten by the same mosquito. However, Kingston started deteriorating quickly, more quickly than Estela. The doctor came and did a dipstick test which confirmed malaria. Estela started responding quickly to the treatment and surely the treatment should have helped Kingston, and perhaps it did in some small way, but only hours after the first treatment he started to have seizures. Even though it was rare, the doctor said the seizures meant the infection had spread to his brain and needed better medical treatment than the village had access to. They were getting ready to transport him to a hospital in the closest city which would be far better equipped to treat the complications.
The plan was to follow later if this failed. Kingston was already so weak when they set off that I wasn’t confident he’d make it and the way Estela cried and hung onto his hand made me feel as if I had cause enough to visit the wish granter. However, I’d been walking so long that I wasn’t sure I was even walking in the right direction anymore. Estela’s brother had volunteered to accompany me but I knew this was a trip I had to take alone if only because I wouldn’t be able to do it if he came. The way we tell stories varies when another person is listening as opposed to when you’re alone, even if they can’t understand you, I’d be too worried about him picking up enough to understand the meaning.
I couldn’t deny that walking through the rainforest was a lot more frightening alone, the sound of my own feet against the forest floor making my hairs stand up on end. The trees were getting thicker the farther away from the village I walked, the canopy blocking out sunlight but not the moist heat that stuck to my skin and clothing. This had to be what it felt like to be slowly cooked alive. A feeling of foreboding sank through me, starting in the back of my neck and spreading down my body, triggering adrenaline to flood my veins until my fight or flight instinct was begging me to turn around and run. I was close to listening, ready to turn back and go to the village because I’d travelled further than I had into the rainforest before and my aimlessness was taking time, too much time when Kingston no longer had the luxury to waste any. Then my eyes spotted it.
Estela’s mother had called this worn down building a church, but it was barely the size of the plain, suburban two story house I’d grown up in. As I walked closer, I located the reason for my dread. The rainforest, always buzzing with life, had grown quiet around me, as if even the bugs didn’t dare to go any closer. Now yards away from the church the rainforest was absolutely silent and my lips parted with astonishment as I noticed that the trees surrounding the church had all grown leaning away from it, flooding the small clearing with sunlight. The few plants that had dared to grow close to the church looked like they were dying and even though the sun was relentlessly bearing down on the church, when I reached the steps leading to the big wooden doors the temperature had dropped. It was still warm, but was nowhere close to the stifling heat I’d felt since dawn, before the sun had even risen.
Goosebumps erupted on my skin as I crossed the threshold and for a moment I was absurdly worried I’d burst into fire or be struck down by lightning for walking into a sacred building. My eyes scanned the inside of the church. Even though it looked worn down on the outside, it was pristine on the inside. There was no dust on the floors or the wooden pews, they even looked polished. At the front there was a statue, just like Estela’s mother had said there would be, but she hadn’t given me a detailed description. When she had said the wish granter was a statue of a young angel, I’d been expecting a statue of a woman about my age. The statue was just an infant, though, her hands clasped in front of her body, a smile like Mona Lisa’s on her delicate cherub face. Her stone eyes as I approached her seemed to stare right into my soul, but that was probably just because I knew what I was here to do.
I fell onto my knees in front of her, not knowing if that’s what I was supposed to do or not. Perhaps I could have remained standing, or even sat on one of the pews. It felt like I should be in a prayer position for this, because that’s what this was, even if it was to an unorthodox goddess. For a few seconds, I stayed silent, trying to pull my thoughts together. All I’d done for the last three months was try to forget what happened, even though Kingston had tried to wheedle it out of me with alcohol and the promise that he wouldn’t judge me. After all, he knew I’d been having an affair with my professor, I’d practically bragged about it the first time I screwed him. If I were any good at art I would have probably painted a picture of the two of us together, that’s how pleased with myself I was. There were no words to adequately articulate how despicable I was but that was the point of this, to try, to save Kingston’s life.
“I was…um, I was in my second year of grad school.” My voice was hoarse and trembling, like I was crying, although I wasn’t, not yet. “I had a professor, Dr. Sennett, although he insisted all of us call him Henry even if nobody ever did. He taught about ancient Indian civilizations. I wasn’t really interested in the subject, thought I’d take it and maybe get an easy A. But he talked with such…passion. Every day I went to class I just thought I wanted to love something, anything, as much as he loved his subject. His eyes lit up every time someone asked a question, no matter how stupid and he always said that we could fail his class, as long as we all left with a higher appreciation of the civilizations that were here before the Spanish and the English colonised the New World.” I closed my eyes tightly, hating how my voice sounded when I talked about Sennett. There was still awe in my voice, I was still so, so infatuated with him, the man whose life I had single-handedly ruined. “Probably I was always screwed up; nobody ever loved me like that, not even my parents. I wanted to feel something because I didn’t feel anything, so I became kind of obsessed with him. Very obsessed with him. I wanted him to fuck that kind of passion into me. He couldn’t. I guess I knew that, deep down, but I was so sick of feeling nothing.”
In the spring, five months after we’d started sleeping together, the affair started to go stale. He took a little longer to get hard in my mouth, he stopped looking at me like he’d die a hundred deaths to touch me. I was his siren, his Parthenope, and I was starting to understand why she cast herself off to sea. Anything I could have done to keep him, I would have. But there was nothing I could do, he loved his wife, not enough to be faithful to her but enough to not leave her. The night he said we couldn’t see each other anymore I went to Kingston’s dorm crying. I asked him to take a year long trip with me, starting in South America, and he agreed just to get me to stop crying. He shouldn’t have cared, shouldn’t have come with me, because everything I touched turned to ashes. Kingston told me numerous times that I wasn’t a horrible person for sleeping with my professor, that it was his fault too and his responsibility to say no as the person who was in a position of power. And he was probably right, but it wasn’t that simple. I was a horrible person because I couldn’t just leave it at that.
“He never said he’d leave his wife. He was good about that, not promising anything he was never going to give me. I still wanted it, though. In the end, I just knew I didn’t want his wife to get him. So I sent her pictures of myself, nude pictures, with a letter. Told her I was just another little college whore that had a piece of her husband. That there were other. Dozens upon dozens, I don’t even know if there actually were. Maybe, maybe not, but I wanted her to leave him. So I told her there were so many girls that there was probably no piece of him that belonged to her. I told her I didn’t even get an A in his class.” I was crying now, the sobs making it hard to talk, rocking back and forth my eyes still squeezed shut. I didn’t want to relive what I had spent months running away from. But the guilt had chased me and caught Kingston instead of me. He couldn’t die. I couldn’t take any more blood on my hands. I whispered the next part. “She killed herself a week later.”
I heard it was her thirteen year old daughter that found her passed out in her bathroom with an empty bottle of pills on the sink.
“She killed herself because of me.”
My voice was barely audible now, but it didn’t matter. I could feel it, in this room that had grown steadily colder as I made my confession, that the goddess could see every thought in my head. Gossip about the affair between Sennett and I had spread like the plague around campus. Nobody knew about the letter or the pictures except Sennett and his daughter, and while plenty of people blamed me regardless, everyone had collectively decided it was his fault. Kingston knew that it was the suicide that had devastated me more than the affair, if only because I hadn’t felt guilt over the latter until the news of the suicide came out, but he insisted the suicide itself wasn’t my fault.
Even Sennett didn’t blame me; I had met him once, a few days before the funeral, at his request. I’d wanted him to yell at me, to slap me, to do something. But he didn’t. Instead, he told me that he’d shredded the letter and the pictures and he and his daughter hadn’t mentioned a word of them to the authorities before telling me it was best if I didn’t go to the funeral. When I’d started crying and apologising, he’d shaken his head. “Obviously you shouldn’t have…done what you did. But it’s not your fault, I don’t want you blaming yourself. I knew she was depressed, I should have spent more time at home with her.” The instead of with you had echoed deafeningly in my head even though he hadn’t said it.
He was wrong. Kingston was wrong. Even the people who already did blame me were wrong because they didn’t know the exact atrocity of what I’d done. Maybe the affair wasn’t all my fault and maybe she had been depressed. But nobody would have ever told her about the affair, even if everybody pretty much knew. Sennett certainly wouldn’t have. People might have thought of her as a fool and she might have never discovered what a sham her marriage was. But did that matter? She would have lived.
But she didn’t.
Not because of the affair in of itself, but because I had to go and tell her about it on the sliver of a chance that she’d leave her husband. I wasn’t even sure I’d wanted him in retrospect, I’d known even then that obsession wasn’t love. I’d killed her whilst hoping for nothing in return. There wasn’t a hell hot enough to be deserving of me.
“But Kingston can’t die, not because of me. He had nothing to do with it, he just has the misfortune of being near me,” I said, once I’d composed myself enough to speak, hunching in on myself. “Please, please don’t let him die.” It didn’t quite feel like I’d given the goddess everything I had to give for her to consider my wish worth granting, not really, and I needed to try everything. I didn’t even hesitate to speak when the thought struck me. “If the disease has to kill someone, then it should kill me, not Kingston. That’s my wish. I wish for the virus to kill me instead of Kingston.”
Everything remained as it had been in the jungle. Not a single leaf moved out of place and the insects kept buzzing while still keeping a careful distance from the church. The Earth kept spinning, the sun kept shining and the gods stayed silent. Nothing was affected by the last wish of a stupid, selfish girl.
Nothing that is, but me. In a second, the air touching my skin felt so cold that I started shivering, even as I started sweating more profusely than I had during my trek through the rainforest. It was as if I could physically feel my temperature rising into a dangerously high fever, even more so because there was no one mopping my head or putting medicine into my body like they were Kingston. None of that compared to the pain that suddenly seized every muscle of my body as I clutched my stomach. It felt like my body knew it was dying, and was fighting like hell to keep it from happening. My head especially, which was fit to burst. I moaned, partly in pain, but mostly in relief because if the disease had hit me so instantaneously then is must have left Kingston just as quickly. His life was wide open again, ripe for the taking, and he was the one who really deserved it out of the two of us. The goddess had listened. The goddess had granted my wish.
The goddess had righted this wrong.