Valeria placed her fingers on the receiver. A docent, connected by ten feet of insulated wire, tapped out a message. As the current jumped the spark gap, dots and dashes appeared in a pattern on the paper tape. Valeria began to decipher, checking the embossments against a code key on the wall. It was slow going, and she could hear the rest of the youth group shifting behind her, their tennis shoes squeaking against the linoleum.
Father Murphy reached for his cigarettes, then remembered he couldn't smoke inside.
Valeria completed the first word.
"What," she said.
"This message is identical to the first sent by Samuel Morse," the docent explained to the group.
"Hath," Valeria said, already onto the next string of symbols. Today was Tuesday; she was six weeks late.
"God," she said.
Her breasts had been tender for days, which she thought meant the blood would come, but as she transcribed the last word, she knew differently.
Valeria was born in Ruby Valley, Nevada's first westbound station on the transcontinental telegraph. Where Highway 80 runs now, the telegraph line, which traced the routes of the fur trappers, then the stage, then the Pony Express, took a dive through Deep Creek, Egan Canyon and passed just south of Ruby Lake.
When the wireless and the telephone made the telegraph obsolete, the stone stations and wooden poles were abandoned. The few inhabitants of the valley took what was left behind as their own; Valeria's childhood swing hung between two poles of stunted pine. A wreath of the rusting line hung in their barn; Valeria's father used it to mend fences. By the time her mother died and they lost their land, the coil was gone, woven into the boundaries of a farm that was no longer theirs.
Valeria was nine when her mother died, twelve when she started having the visions. Once when she lay on the valley floor, her mother's shawl pressed to her cheek, The Guadalupe appeared in the noon sky eclipsing the sun: dark skinned, surrounded by white light. Valeria squeezed her eyes tight with fear, prayed for the image to go away, but the Holy Mother appeared on the inside of her eyelids. Valeria began to shake. A wind blew through the tall grasses around her, soothing and gentle. The shawl, which until this moment had lost the last hint of her mother's scent, became infused with sagebrush and soap in such concentration that Valeria felt her mother all around her. Valeria inhaled and her fear dissolved: the lady in the sky didn't mean to hurt her.
Soon after, Valeria began to see the girl saints. Barbara swung her feet out the hay mow in the barn; Philomena, just her age, loved to lift and lower the red metal flag on the mailbox; Catherine of Alexandria would often sit beside her as she fell asleep and guard her in her dreams. She recognized them from her mother's illustrated The Lives of the Saints. What each girl held made them easy to identify: Philomena had two golden arrows, Catherine—her wheel, and Barbara—a small stone tower in her palm.
Valeria's father had been a shepherd, but once all of the small farms had been bought up by cattlemen whose shepherds were electric fences, he worked less and less until the bank foreclosed and they moved to a county trailer twenty yards from the interstate near Elko. After Valeria left the stillness of Ruby Valley, she kept seeing Mary and the other saints, but at night they disappeared, replaced in her dreams by swarms of bees that chased and stung her without mercy. In the morning, she'd have trails of itchy redness and swelling along the inside of her arms, and another set of lines radiating toward her breasts like a starburst across her stomach. She thought about telling her father, but the little time he was home he swatted at her if she got too close, yelled at her for asking questions. Instead, Valeria resolved the swarming sound was the buzz of 80, the nearness of the interstate vibrating against her skin.
In the fall of 1982, Elko's mines were exhausted. Valeria's father found some work running cyanide through slag heaps, pulling out the last bits of gold. The tailings collected in poisonous red lakes that stood sentinel to the dwindling city. Gaming, which saved Reno and grew Las Vegas, never did much for Elko. By the time travelers reached eastern Nevada, they were in a big hurry to get somewhere, anywhere else.
In this withering town, Father Murphy was parish priest of St. Joseph's church. He delivered sacraments, taught catechism and ran the youth group; he functioned as an occasional social worker, sometime medic and the only available groundskeeper for the church and rectory. His was the only parish in the state where the priest was expected to cook and keep for himself. But despite his thinning white hair and shrinking spine, God gave him the strength to do it.
The priest was old enough to remember Valeria's mother when she'd been a little girl. He had blessed her marriage to a Basque shepherd who lived on the other side of Ruby Ridge on old Shoshone land and baptized her baby girl, welcoming her to the church.
After Valeria and her father moved back to town and started attending St. Joseph's on Sundays, Father Murphy encouraged her to join the youth group and study her catechism. Everyone else her age had taken first communion years ago, and Valeria was embarrassed to be so far behind, but Father Murphy had explained that the Eucharist conferred grace and grace would be necessary to bring her, one day, to her mother's side in heaven. But, instead of making Valeria take her catechism with the second graders, Father Murphy taught her at the Formica dining table in the rectory during confessional hours, the door propped open in case anyone needed to drop by.
The rectory bookshelves had a newer edition of The Lives of the Saints. No matter how carefully she searched, Valeria couldn't find any of her companions except Mary, Queen of them all. Barbara, Catherine and Philomena were missing.
"Where are they?" Valeria asked Father Murphy.
He found his glasses and studied the book.
"The Vatican decided they lacked historical data, were more legend than real, and the veneration of them would be heretical. They've been removed."
Valeria felt the blood drain from her face. Just that day she'd seen the trio of non-saints with Mary, Mother of Jesus, strolling across the football field at Elko High, arm-in-arm like sisters.
Valeria asked Father Murphy to hear her confession.
"I'm seeing things I shouldn't. Some of the saints, some of those that were removed. They're friendly to me, they appear at the side of Mary."
"How long has this been happening?" asked Father Murphy.
"Since I lived in Ruby Valley," Valeria said leaning her cheek against the mesh screen of the confessional. "Help me, Father. I don't want to have a false heart."
Father Murphy thought of Valeria as a bright spot in his youth ministry. While the other girls rolled up their skirts and drank behind the abandoned middle school, Valeria finished all her confirmation worksheets and helped Father Murphy clean the rectory. "Your heart is pure, my dear," he said.
"The Bible says I should be stoned to death."
"I don't believe the Bible says that."
"'A bewitched female is not allowed to live', false prophecy is a mortal sin." Valeria said, trying to calm herself, rocking against the cool, solid wall of the confessional.
Father Murphy exhaled. He was a decent counselor, but an ill-trained psychiatrist. "Do you have any visions that aren't of saints?" he asked.
"At night bees sting me; they leave marks." Valeria said and continued to rock against the wood with a rhythm that made Father Murphy anxious. He came to Valeria's side of the confessional and examined her arms, which she always kept covered, scarred like an addict's from her itching and picking.
"You've committed no sin," Father Murphy said, trying to swallow his disgust at the state of her skin, "but I would like to take you to the doctor. He can help ease your mind, help you relax, have an easier time adjusting to life here in Elko."
The only doctor at the clinic was a young man from Boston, reducing his student loans by working a few years in northeastern Nevada. He was sick of this cow-ville, being the only doctor to do everything, and had eight months left to go before his debt was repaid, crossing the months off his wall calendar one by one. After a twenty-minute appointment, he diagnosed Valeria as borderline psychotic and prescribed Haldol. The little blue pills made her mouth dry, her legs and hands trembled, but the girl saints went away, the bees stopped their stinging, and Valeria was alone again. Sometimes she would think she saw the edges of their skirts behind a pillar at St. Joseph's, or turning the hallway corner at school, but when she ran to look there was nobody there.
At the telegraph museum, in an alcove off the main room, there was an exhibit on lady telegraphers. Because of the need for Union soldiers, miners and buckaroos, the Nevada telegraph had been operated mostly by women. They learned Morse like any other language—halting at first, but with fluency the dots and dashes flowed from their fingers without the need for conscious thought. Within seconds they could translate and amplify messages that flowed between New York and San Francisco, cities none of them would ever likely see. When the telegraph died out and the women lost their vocation, they found themselves searching the clatter of dinner plates, thudding feet at a grange dance, the clap of their baby's hands for a message they could decode.
After leaving the museum, instead of heading home, Valeria returned to the front of the red brick church, praying to God for guidance, for some hint of what to do, as the chill mist turned to rain. She got no answer. Father Murphy found her there before Matins and after her confession, took her to the clinic for a pregnancy test. After, Valeria slept in one of the clinic's rooms, sedated.
Itzal Beleren, Valeria's father, was only a generation removed from life in the Pyrenees. He'd been a shepherd like his father and a dozen Belerens before that. Taking him off the land had done damage. Father Murphy heard alcohol pushing rage over the line.
"Who is responsible?" Itzal demanded.
"Either she doesn't know or she isn't telling," Father Murphy said.
"A monster she is," Itzal spat. "Dead to me."
In the morning, Father Murphy called Casa San Gabriel in Reno, the diocese's home for unwed mothers. Located in the basement of a dilapidated Victorian in downtown Reno, Casa, as its residents called it, had six rooms for twelve girls, although they were never full. There was a main room with a couch and a television. Upstairs was a kitchen, an office for the director, and storage rooms filled with the girls' belongings. In the winter months, Casa smelled of mildew; in the summer, it reeked of dust.
As soon as Valeria arrived at Casa, the director took her Haldol away.
At every meal each girl received twenty-five grams of protein, a quarter cup of canned vegetables and a glass of milk. A bowl of mealy red apples, untouched, sat on the counter for snacks. On the director's desk was a thick three-ring binder with laminated letters and photos from families who wanted babies.
"Because you took anti-psychotics during your first trimester, there are a limited number of families for you to choose as your sponsor," the director said and gave Valeria three sheets. Sponsor was the euphemism used at Casa for those who would take the babies home from the hospital. Two of them were from Las Vegas; their white teeth tremendous in the glossy photos. Valeria put them aside. The third was a single woman from Carson City. She was not beautiful—this was often the reason the other girls gave for picking their sponsor, the beauty of the mother—in the picture she stood smiling with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, holding a camera forward in her palm.
"Her," Valeria said pointing to the sheet.
"She's been in our system for years," said the director, looking over the application. "She's single; nearly fifty. Your baby will not have a father."
"Her," Valeria said.
To build the telegraph line, the Overland Telegraph Company's representative James Street, made a treaty with the Shoshone Indians who roamed the Great Basin.
Sho-Kup wanted to tell his people about the telegraph and Street translated it as talking wire. Sho-Kup thought the talking wire was an animal, long and skinny. An animal that stretched so far must need a lot to eat.
"What do you feed it?" Sho-Kup asked.
"Lightening," Street told him.
Valeria stayed in the same room her entire time at Casa. No one else wanted it because of the closet. It wasn't a real closet, but more a hole cut low in the wall, not tall enough to hang even a shirt in. None of the other girls liked the door into the earthen space; the director even offered to move her when another room became vacant, but Valeria didn't mind and stayed. On hot nights, cool, sweet air flowed from the dark warren and Valeria would crawl inside, lay her blanket on the hard-packed dirt and read her Bible until she drifted away. Outside, thunder cracked without the relief of rain.
One night, Valeria woke in the closet, her cheek pressed into the thin pages of her Bible, and heard a voice. It was Philomena. She spoke words Valeria could not understand, but transcribing them phonetically was easy enough, her hand running like current across the page. She wrote until it was light and then moved to her desk. When someone knocked, Philomena went silent.
"You've missed two meals," the director said, poking her head in the door.
It was one in the afternoon. Valeria was still in her nightgown.
"Are you sick?" the director asked, noticing a nasty, bleeding rash creeping up from underneath the neckline of Valeria's gown.
"No." Valeria said. She wrote Philomena Veritas across the top and tucked forty sheets of Latin verse into a drawer.
Father Murphy came to visit. He gave Valeria a purple rosary.
"Have you seen your father?" he asked.
Valeria shook her head.
"I believe he's left Elko. When I went to visit the trailer, it was abandoned."
They sat together for several minutes in silence.
"Without the pills, have your disturbances come back?" Father Murphy asked.
Valeria wanted to tell him that Philomena had dictated something long, something important, that her rashes had returned as painful as ever, but Mary stood in the corner of the room counseling silence, her finger to her lips. She'd never spoken to Valeria, but of all the visions Mary reminded her the most of her mother, and Valeria was as good as mute.
The residents at Casa had aches and pains: leg cramps, false contractions, sciatica, and the like. Although there was little she could do to soothe her own skin, Valeria found she had a talent for massage. Her lithe fingers found their way between the muscles and joints of the girls, pushing injuries out from their hiding places, letting them evaporate and rise. She worked on the girls each afternoon while they watched One Life to Live or General Hospital. After Valeria finished, the girls slept, the bad spots eased, the pain taken away.
When she woke after the birth, her daughter's sponsor sat in a chair beside the bed.
"I had to see you, to thank you. I need to know where you are going after you leave here," she said.
Barbara, Catherine and Mary ringed the room; Philomena stood at the side of Valeria's bed. They were silent, watching, and among them, Valeria thought, her sponsor looked in place.
"I'm sixteen," Valeria said. The morphine was wearing off and she could feel the itchy bits under her chin, on her wrists, and the pain and soreness from the birth. "I'm going to stay in Reno and get a job; I'd like to have a regular life."
"Are you sure I can't buy you a ticket home?"
"No, thank you."
Valeria slept again, and when she woke only Philomena stood watch. On the table there was a little paper cup with the pills. One of them was a familiar blue.
After, Valeria worked at the Shiloh Inn as a housekeeper. The other housekeepers were older, and their arms and backs ached from making the beds, pushing the heavy carts, and scrubbing forty toilets each day. Valeria wanted to help them, to give them her fixing massages, but the medication had brought her tremors back worse than before and her hands could barely tuck in sheets or wipe a counter; they did little that could be considered amazing anymore. When she was cleaning rooms and she heard the clock-radio alarm of a previous guest going off through the thin walls, she'd go to the noise, kneel on the floor, and place her fingers on the dial listening for the rhythmic hum, the space between frequencies, before she slid the switch to off.
In the fall of 1861, when the telegraph was completed, James Street offered to bring Sho-Kup to San Francisco. Sho-Kup agreed and they set out by stage. When they stopped near Reno, Sho-Kup wanted to go no further. One of his wives was ill and he felt he was getting too far from home.
"Once we get to San Francisco, you can talk to your wife over the telegraph. You can ask her questions and she can answer back."
The idea of such communication was incomprehensible. Sho-Kup got nervous when the white men talked nonsense. Although he promised to honor the treaty, he turned around and went home. His wife recovered, but before the end of Sho-Kup's life he saw his tribe dwindle from war and sickness, his people pushed onto smaller and smaller pieces of land, and his language disappear.
It was so hot in the summertime, Valeria took to riding Reno transit when she was not at church or work. The busses were cooled to a bearable temperature and she used them as a place to read. All lines returned in the end to Virginia Street, the main drag of The Biggest Little City in the World, where Valeria could stretch her legs, looking into the gambling halls and slot palaces until the next bus came. She'd been in Reno a year now, and still had no friends. She had acquaintances at church and work, but something about Valeria made people keep their distance. The trembling and fidgeting didn't help. Her clothes were mismatched, frayed. The room she could afford was an uninsulated tack-on to the garage of someone who was never home. The loneliness was soul-crushing.
Father Murphy called Valeria to invite her home for Thanksgiving. Valeria declined.
"I won't be coming back," Valeria said over the wire.
That night, she cut her dose in half.
Lack of proper heat kept Valeria on the busses in winter, too. As she took smaller and smaller slices of the blue pills, the saints returned. Now that she'd thrown the Haldol in the trash, they were with her almost constantly. She'd look up to see Philomena across the aisle or Mary waiting up when she came home. The others had started whispering their stories to Valeria in pieces and bits. She typed Philomena Veritas at the public library and not knowing what else to do, mailed it to her sponsor with no return address.
The bees returned too. Valeria prayed to the saints to take them away. She tried hydrocortisone and Calamine to dull the pain and itch of the outbreaks that slowly gained on her body, creeping on to her face, over her palms, down the insides of her legs. She hated the rash, but she hated being alone more.
One night, Valeria's bus wound down toward the lights on Virginia, slipping in and out of shadow, ending up in front of the Gold Digger Casino where a neon blond in a tan sheath knelt to dip her pan in the river, exposing a peek of her breasts and bottom each time. Across the street at The Garden of Eden, the gaseous body of the serpent cusped an apple in its fangs. Eve, tilting to the side to hide her nakedness, with the apple in her hand, faced front, and took a bite. Then the sign went dark and started anew, trapped in an infinite loop while the crowds milled below.
The coil of the snake came alive again and the voices of the banished saints descended upon Valeria. They came all at once, and their sound was deafening.
Valeria ran down the block to a convenience store. A slight man with dark skin stood behind the counter feeding lotto tickets into a machine like tinder to a fire.
The voices were so loud in her head she could barely contain them, barely keep them from spilling out of her mouth.
"Do you have paper?" she asked, both hands gripping the edge of the counter.
"Paper?" he asked, his accent British, his eyes on her hands which she noticed itched bloody again.
"Yes, a pad of paper and a pen... I need them." Valeria scrambled through her pockets collecting all her pennies and dimes for an offering.
"No, no writing paper here. Beer, lotto, condoms. That's what we sell."
"Please, something to write on," she begged.
An older woman, his mother perhaps, sitting behind the counter in a white plastic lawn chair, stood and offered a stack of lottery marking sheets and a sharp yellow pencil. The older lady nodded, smiling, a bright ruby nestled in the crease of her brow.
Valeria grabbed the pencil and the lottery sheets and went back to the filthy sidewalk, her feet in the gutter, and wrote as fast as she could. Junk food wrappers whipped around her ankles as the next bus slowed, then passed. She was kicked, cursed, stepped on, but immovable. The saints surrounded Valeria as their voices came across the line.
Title graphic: "Visage" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.