She would board the plane in Albuquerque, although she knew that doing so could kill her. She would fly to New York and then to Belgrade and Sarajevo, where she would get on a bus. Thirty-five hours it was supposed to take Carol Lynn Leland to complete her journey. Eight days she was scheduled to stay in Yugoslavia, in a mountain town where people depend more on miracles than they do on medicine. At any time she could get sick, dangerously sick. And yet as she got on the plane, she was strangely fearless, somehow certain she could only die as she had always imagined herself dying, at home, alone, her cats the only witnesses. She would not die, she thought, on an airplane. And she would not die, she believed, in Medjugorje, the Yugoslavian village where the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, has revealed herself to the world.

Carol had said her prayers. All her life she had found it within herself to speak to the God who allowed her to suffer and to the Virgin who never eased her pain. And now in the middle of the night at Kennedy airport in New York, surrounded by people who spoke in some Slavic tongue, Carol had to pray again, for a few tanks of oxygen. Without the oxygen, she could fly no farther, she could not be a pilgrim, she could come no closer to her God or her Virgin; without the oxygen, she would suffocate as she rose in the sky. Long ago, indeed at the moment of her conception, some rogue cells had conspired to disable Carol’s liver, allowing poisons to bend her body and spoil her lungs. She had emphysema. She had survived thyroid cancer. She had endured two heart attacks. She was epileptic, diabetic and arthritic. She was recovering from a broken back, a consequence of osteoporosis, and a disastrous marriage. She weighed 85 pounds. She swallowed 67 pills every day. She was 37 years old.

Twice she had died, she said, and had rushed down a tunnel of light toward the cold peace of God, but the damned doctors had revived her, jerking her back to her pain. Here she was again, pushing toward peace, toward Medjugorje, and functionaries of the Yugoslavian airline were standing in her way.

They had no oxygen. Carol’s request had come too late, and she would have to go home to Albuquerque. The five men who stood before Carol all wore uniforms and, in words she could not understand, spoke of what they couldn’t do. So close, she had come so close, this stooped woman with the curly hair and blue eyes and a smile that made her look sometimes like an old lady, sometimes like a child. So close, but to what? A miracle? Is that what Carol wanted out of Medjugorje? A healing, something to take the pain away? No, she wanted what the other 22 people on her pilgrimage wanted, what everybody who went to Medjugorje wanted and sometimes received. A sign. A glimpse. A chance to wonder what they would do, how they would react, if what happened to six children 10 years ago, on June 24, 1981, happened to them.

On that day, the children said, the Virgin Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Madonna, the unblemished one they called the Gospa appeared to them on a hill outside Medjugorje. She appeared in silence the first day, but the next day she spoke, and she has never stopped talking to them. Since then, 15 million people have visited Medjugorje (pronounced MEHD-joo-gore-yeh), a town with a permanent population of about 1,000, and have turned the nightly apparitions into an international phenomenon beyond the control of any religious institution, including the Roman Catholic Church. Americans, Australians, Mexicans, Filipinos, Spaniards, French, Austrians, Germans, Russians, Czechs, Indonesians, English, Irish and Italians—they all have come to Medjugorje. They all have come to pray, to fast, to go to mass, to sing, to do penance … and to see a sign of her presence.

“I almost melted to my seat,” one woman said after seeing the priest.

Was Carol any different from the others? She had sinned, like all the rest, and she had suffered, and she wanted to know that the suffering was not because of her, that God had not punished her. She had seen God, or at least what God permits, in her body, her lungs, the disease strangling her, and she wanted to see a different face, a face of concern, of sympathy and, yes, of intercession. She wanted a Mother in heaven to present her case to the Father. She was not even an ardent churchgoer. She was pro-choice and sometimes, in her speech, profane. But she wanted a sign.

So there in the airport Carol decided to leave everything to Mary. If it pleased Mary to permit Carol to reach Medjugorje, Carol would somehow reach Medjugorje. If not, she would return to Albuquerque. As the five men in uniform were talking and shaking their heads—no, no, there was no oxygen—Carol and her mother and the tour director knelt, gripped hands and began saying Hail Marys. An hour later they found oxygen, and at 2:15 a.m. Carol Leland headed with her mother to Medjugorje.

This is a story about faith. It is about a woman who has suffered like Job, and like Job, managed to lift her voice in praise to an unseen God. Carol Leland is not a fanatic; indeed, as a perpetual patient and then as a nurse, she has learned more than most to welcome the grinding march of science and reason. She has simply never let go of God, and she believes that in turn God has never let go of her. There will be cynics who will find her trip a feast of folly, who will deem her merely desperate, who will say that she made her pilgrimage for a payoff, and that if she hadn’t suffered so terribly, she never would have gone at all. There will be believers who will find her trip heroic, who will say that she worshiped in spite of her pain and not because of it, and who will find actual beauty in her. Whether they think Carol’s faith courageous or cowardly, beautiful or grotesque, they will have to admit that faith itself is as peculiarly human a characteristic as the opposable thumb, at once glorious and absurd, as fragile as a flower, as stubborn as a weed and tangled forever with an analogue of doubt.

In Medjugorje the first to have her faith rewarded, the first to see a sign, was Carol’s mother, Shirley-Fay Smith Hull. She had climbed the mountain. She had trudged with the other pilgrims through the vineyards that had sustained Medjugorje in the days before the apparitions. She had passed the beggars and the old women selling their wares and the souvenir shops hawking rosaries and crucifixes and blessed bags of the local soil.

The other pilgrims were just like Shirley. They were from all over the United States, from Colorado, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, and they all had stories to tell. Bad marriages. A sick son. A drunk son. A sick grandson. A sick sister. One of the men slept at night holding a crucifix. Two of the men were skeptics and had come to Medjugorje to win back lost loves. Six pilgrims had seen their spouses go to the grave, and one, on her last trip to Medjugorje, said she had been rewarded with a vision of her husband in heaven. They all had their reasons for being there, and on the first day of the pilgrimage they all had climbed the same mountain as Shirley.

The mountain’s name is Podbrdo, but everyone calls it Apparition Hill. Medjugorje is a Croatian town, a Catholic town, and everyone climbing Apparition Hill stops at a tall iron cross bedecked with plastic roses and surrounded by rocks and candles and pictures of sick children and brittle weatherbeaten letters in 10 languages, the ink running but still legible, still able to register the pleas of the faithful: Oh, Blessed Mother, help us. Help me.

It was at the spot of the iron cross that the visionaries—as they are called now—say they first saw the Virgin. Two girls were on a path, talking, and in the distance, as the story goes, they saw a woman bathed in light, hovering above the ground. “The Gospa,” one said, and they scurried away to find their friends. They came back, six this time, and saw her again, although she remained in the distance, silent, with babe in arms. The next day five teenagers and one child—Ivanka Ivankovic, 15; Mirjana Dragicevic, 16; Ivan Dragicevic, 16 (no relation to Mirjana; none of the visionaries is related); Vicka Ivankovic, 16; Marija Pavlovic, 16; and Jakov Colo, 10—returned and upon seeing the Virgin ran to her feet, dropped to their knees and prayed. Since then they have been condemned and celebrated, prodded and poked, monitored by machines, interrogated by priests, police, psychologists, reporters and pilgrims. And yet 10 years after their first walk up Apparition Hill, only one fact remains beyond dispute: Every evening, no matter where they are, whether in Medjugorje or in another country, the visionaries fall to their knees, gaze toward heaven and move their lips in mute appeal to an image no one else can see.

They don’t pray to see the apparition but they pray to see a sign that the apparition sees them.

To see—it is the gift that beckons the masses to the hill in Medjugorje, among the goats and the brambles and the rocks. Will she come? Will she show herself? They don’t pray to see the apparition—such a gift is beyond their dreams, the sole province of the visionaries—but they pray to see a sign that the apparition sees them. Maybe they will reach into their pockets, and the cheap metal linking their rosary beads will have turned to gold. Maybe they will stare at the sun without hurting their eyes, and the sun will spin ) and pulsate and shed many colors, and they will go home and say they saw “the miracle of the sun.” Maybe they will smell roses where there are none, a sweet perfume the Virgin is said to leave behind when she departs with the wind. Or maybe they will climb Apparition Hill, like Shirley, and stare at the iron cross and see….

But Shirley hadn’t even prayed for a sign, so she couldn’t be seeing what she was seeing. She had hoped for a sign, just as she had hoped for God to heal her daughter, but she had never gotten on her knees and made a formal request. No, when she got on her knees, she prayed for this: that Carol, and Carol’s life and death, be in God’s hands. That’s all. For nearly 40 years, she had been praying for Carol in one way or another. Back in the days when no one thought Shirley could have a child, when she had miscarried five babies, she had prayed for Carol’s arrival. When Carol was born, a poor little scrawny thing, 19 inches long and four and a half pounds, she had prayed again. And then when Carol was a teenager and got so sick. … She calls Carol “my jewel” now. “My sweetheart.”

When Shirley’s first husband dropped dead many years ago, she took a job as the cafeteria lady in a local school. There is still something of the cafeteria lady about her, a kind of epic forbearance etched in the bags under her eyes, in the tiny wrinkles scoring her face, in her slow and stolid step. A woman of endurance rather than expectation, she did not know what to do when she saw the gentle red glow suffusing the iron cross on Apparition Hill. Three times she closed her eyes, thinking that when she opened them it would disappear. But each time she looked, the glow would spread, until it filled the horizon, and she had to sit down, in tears.

No one else saw. The others who had climbed the mountain with her, they could see all of Medjugorje, could see the new stucco houses with the red tile roofs, the group of French pilgrims carrying a boy in a wheelchair up the rocks, the hundreds of homemade crosses planted on the hill. They could see all this, but they couldn’t see the glow.

Neither could Carol. She was not there. She couldn’t make the climb; she was not up to it. So Carol had stayed behind, parked her wheelchair at a cafe near the foot of the hill. Shirley couldn’t wait to tell her what she had seen, a sign from God that Carol was in his hands. But when she arrived at the cafe, Carol was gone. The wheelchair remained where she had left it, but Carol had ; gotten sick, and people were cleaning up after her.

“Vicka! Vicka!”

“Per la Madonna, Vicka! La Madonna!”

“Tre baci per la Madonna, Vicka.” Three kisses for the Madonna. “Tre baci!”

She would stand on the steps, and they would come to her—Czechs, Germans, Americans and Italians, pushing, pushing as close to her as they could get. She would stand before them in an old quilted coat, black stretch pants and sneakers, her hair dirty and her wide peasant face unadorned, and when she spoke to them they would bless themselves or place their hands over their hearts or reach for her, crying her name: “Vicka! Vicka!”

They overflowed from her patio out into the street, as far as she could see. They huddled in front of the souvenir shops and jammed in front of horse-drawn carts pulling hay, a horde with cameras and camcorders, flashing lights in her eyes, begging her to tell them what she has seen, where she has been, what the Virgin looks like. Oh, Vicka (VEETS-kah) Ivankovic had to see so much, she could be forgiven for not seeing the woman sitting on the step right next to her, shrinking with each surge of the crowd, shivering in the wind.

It was the third day of the pilgrimage, and it was cold. Carol had not counted on the elevation of Medjugorje sapping her breath. She had brought no oxygen. The headaches were coming, and her fingernails were turning blue. Still weak after collapsing in the cafe two days earlier, she should have stayed in bed, but Vicka—she had to see Vicka. Everyone had to see Vicka. She was the star. By now all of the visionaries had their own styles—Ivan was sour and debonair, Jakov was cute and shy, Marija was pious and mystical, and Mirjana and Ivanka were married and no longer saw the apparitions except on special days—but Vicka expressed her holiness through her famous smile. And when she smiled, peeling back her dark red lips and showing her teeth and her gums, the people loved her even more.

“Vicka! Vicka!” Now she was speaking into a microphone, in Italian, on the stairs of the house where she used to live before she moved into a brand-new one with a red tile roof. And even though Carol had arrived early by taxi and sat right on the stairs, a big man with a bullhorn kept crowding her, pushing her farther and farther away. She moved one stair step back, then another. The bullhorn was thrust in her face, so she could hardly see Vicka anymore. She could only listen to her. The Blessed Mother wants you to pray four hours a day. The Blessed Mother wants you to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, bread and water is best. The Blessed Mother wants you to say the rosary, and to do penance, and to find peace within.

What is truly extraordinary about Medjugorje is the fact that it is not truly extraordinary at all.

Hundreds, thousands of times, Vicka had addressed swarms of pilgrims in Medjugorje, and hundreds, thousands of times, she’d repeated the same message. So when her translator announced, “And now, Vicka would like to describe what she saw of heaven, hell and purgatory,” there was a massive “ah” of fulfilled expectations, as though Vicka were a rock star ready to sing her greatest hit. Twenty minutes, she said. That’s how long it took. The Blessed Mother had taken her and Jakov by the hand and given them a 20-minute tour of hell, a fiery pit full of men and women turning into beasts and crying out against God … and purgatory, a place of ashes … and heaven, where happy people floated on clouds, wearing cloaks of yellow, pink or gray—no other colors at all—with little angels flying around their shoulders….

Nobody blinked. Some pilgrims got misty-eyed, and some smiled with delight, but nobody seemed to register disbelief or even suspicion. Nobody seemed to care that among Catholics unsympathetic to Medjugorje, Vicka’s 20-minute tour of the final residences of all souls—damned, saved or otherwise—stands as an indication that the apparitions are a grand hoax. Right-wing Catholics, left-wing Catholics, theologians distressed by the idea of a peasant proffering a glimpse of heaven and hell—they’ve all been coming after Vicka ever since she appeared on the television show 20/20. They’ve called it “simplistic,” “implausible,” a “Sunday school” conception of something awesome and ineffable, an insult to God’s infinite potential. And yet day after day Vicka has gone on about the colors of the cloaks, and the fact that everybody in paradise is 33 years old, and the pilgrims have never stopped believing.

Belief. Medjugorje inspires it, and the Catholic Church doesn’t know what to do about it. Over the past 160 years, the Church has approved—through a scrupulous investigative process—only a dozen or so apparitions as “worthy of pious belief,” and Medjugorje is not one. So far, the Vatican has remained uncommitted on the apparitions, the local bishop has called them fraudulent, and a commission of Yugoslavian bishops has stated that “on the basis of studies that have been made … it cannot be affirmed that supernatural apparitions and revelations are occurring here.”

What is truly extraordinary about Medjugorje, however, is the fact that it is not truly extraordinary at all. It is part of a logjam of the supernatural that has grown thicker and thicker as the 20th century draws to a close. In the last 50 years, the Church has had to investigate more than 200 reported Marian apparitions, and in the past decade—in the wake of Medjugorje—there has been an unprecedented acceleration in the number of people claiming some sort of acquaintance with the Virgin. Why? Some churchmen talk about Catholicism’s “crisis of modernity” and the profound unease of the faithful with the demystification of religion engendered by Vatican II. Others, like Father Ken Roberts, who has helped popularize Medjugorje in the U.S., say that for any one sanctioned apparition there will be dozens of people hearing strange voices and seeing strange sights.

“Doctors get people with measles; priests get people hearing voices,” says Father Roberts. “It goes with the territory. But you never know. We live in extraordinary times. Maybe the Blessed Mother is taking extraordinary measures to save us.” And yet, while most of the other apparitions wither in the face of Church investigation or dry up of their own accord, the pilgrims keep coming to Medjugorje. What’s more, they keep saying they don’t care what the bishops say, they don’t care what the Church says, they know in their hearts the apparitions are genuine. And therein lies the paradox of Medjugorje, which has at once revitalized and challenged Catholic orthodoxy. On the one hand, the Church has not condemned the visionaries, because it does not want to be in the position of condemning prayer, penance, conversion, the rosary and a renewal of humankind’s allegiance to Mary. On the other, it fears what the visionaries have unleashed, because if by chance such extraordinary piety is the result of a hoax, then not only has the Church’s authority been called into question but also the whole enterprise of belief.

“Vicka! Vicka!”

She was done, and again the pilgrims were calling her name. She had told them about heaven, answered their questions, demanded their piety. Then, with her hands folded over her heart, she prayed with them. The moment the prayer was over, they began to come at her, handing her stacks of letters and petitions bound in rubber bands, begging for her prayers, her kisses, her – autograph, passing her their prayer books, their maps and itineraries, their credit card slips, any scrap of paper she might grace with a single word, “Vicka.”

Carol was right behind Vicka now. She even managed to put her hand on the visionary’s shoulder, but Vicka did not seem to notice her—until she turned to go back inside the house. And there was Carol, standing right in front of her, in dark glasses, slipping a gold ring off her finger. “Take this,” Carol said. “Take this.”

Vicka looked at the ring for a second and said, “No, no.” But then Carol suddenly bowed her head, and Vicka laid her hands on it and prayed over her longer than she had prayed over anyone, as if she had known Carol and had been waiting to heal her. There were still people crowding and bumping them, but there was warmth flowing from Vicka’s fingers, Carol said later, and even in the midst of the swarm, the two women appeared to be alone.

That afternoon Carol went to bed again. She was exhausted. Everything hurt, and she was turning the color of an old penny. Her mother put a blanket over her and went into the dining room to tell the pilgrims in her group that Carol either had to get oxygen or go home, or else she wasn’t going to make it. The pilgrims began to pray for Carol. They were sitting in a circle, holding hands, and it was at that moment that Carol burst into the room, her face white with fright and wonder, and said, “Mom, come here, I need you now.” Carol led Shirley outside and pointed to a wall, a blank, white, stucco wall. “Mom, do you see it?”

“See what, honey?”

It! On the wall—do you see it?”

“No, I … See what?”

Her sign! Carol had received her sign! There, on the white wall, in shades of pink, yellow and blue, pulsating, shimmering. She had been praying for it, asking for it, and there it was. After she had told her mother that she couldn’t go on, and her mother went out to tell the group, she had stood by the window and prayed to Mary for some confirmation of her faith, some source of strength, some reason to endure. Then she looked out the window at the wall, and the wall turned the colors of the cloaks in Vicka’s heaven, like some kind of living, beating form of light, like the miracle of the sun. But Shirley was saying that she couldn’t see anything, and Carol was getting angry. Shirley hugged her, then looked at the wall again and said, “I see flashes of white light. Do you see the pretty white light?”

“It’s blue light, Mom, pretty blue light.”

But the color didn’t matter: Shirley had seen. She went back to get the group, and although they couldn’t see a thing, they were frightened and amazed by the gifts of God, and they decided that after dinner they would have a healing service for Carol.

At dinner, though, somebody said that Ivan, one of the visionaries, was going to receive an apparition that very evening, at 10 o’clock, on Apparition Hill. Suddenly, Ivan’s apparition seemed to evoke more enthusiasm than Carol’s healing, and several pilgrims started grabbing blankets.

“Aren’t you coming?” a woman asked a man still at the table. “Ivan’s having an apparition!”

“I’m staying for Carol’s healing,” the man said.

“Well, I don’t know about you,” she said. “But I’m going to go see the Blessed Mother.”

She went, and so did most of the others. All along, there had been tension between the dictates of pilgrimage and the dictates of tourism, and while some pilgrims went to the hill to plead Carol’s case to the Virgin, others went to check off an item on their itineraries. A handful clustered in Carol’s room for the healing. The priest intoned and anointed. Carol had never blamed God for her sickness, she said, only “the bad cell that my parents had made.” She had never submitted to a healing, but here she was, on the bed, propped up on pillows, eyes closed, the smile on her face beautiful but also somehow scary, for it seemed the smile of a soul in final repose. “I wish that all of you could feel the love I’m feeling right now,” Carol said to the men and women praying over her. “I wish that you could all feel the joy.”

She was asleep by the time the pilgrims returned from the hill. They had missed the apparition—they had gotten there late—but they had seen a woman who smelled of roses and told them that the Virgin had spoken to Ivan and said she was “praying for a special person in Medjugorje.” The pilgrims didn’t bother pondering who that special person might be; right away, they knew, they felt it in their spines, like a shot of electricity. Carol! The Virgin was praying for Carol.

The next morning, although some people who lived in town and spoke Serbo-Croatian said that the Virgin’s message was actually somewhat different—she had said that she would pray for all pilgrims—the people in Carol’s group were exultant. They admitted they didn’t quite catch the name of the “special person,” but they knew. And later that morning, when a local physican found some tanks of oxygen in his garage, they all believed in miracles.

The man had power. That was certain. It was in his dark eyes, his short black hair, in the sharp white blade of his teeth, in the theatrical way he bit his lip and, most of all, in his voice, so soft, so low. Jozo Zovko was a Franciscan priest, yes, but when he entered the church, “I almost melted to my seat,” one of the women said later. About 35 pilgrims sat in the church in a cluster, and as he approached them, his long brown robe flowing, his eyes turned immediately to Carol, and he shot her a smile that in a bar would have either gotten him slapped or gotten him lucky. It was a lover’s smile, and she winked back at him, giggling like a schoolgirl.

How did he know? How did he so quickly recognize her need? It’s the power, everyone said. Jozo was a saint. He could “slay in the Spirit.” He could heal. He spoke to the Virgin, some suspected, although he never told a soul. In the beginning, when the visionaries first reported the apparitions, he was the pastor of the parish in Medjugorje, and he wound up going to jail at a time when defending the supernatural in Yugoslavia amounted to subversion. He was now in another parish, just outside Medjugorje, but the pilgrims still came to see him because he was charismatic, in the Christian sense of the word, in the sense that he received gifts called charisms from the Holy Spirit.

She had never lost faith. It was not Medjugorje but rather Carol’s faith in life and in God that had restored their own.

For the last 20 years there has been something called a charismatic movement within the Catholic Church—a movement of Catholics who speak in tongues, sway back and forth when they pray and otherwise engage in forms of worship once associated with Protestant tent revivals—and the movement has helped fuel the phenomenon of Medjugorje, charging it with a special excitement and apocalyptic fervor. For what were the apparitions if not charisms, if not gifts, if not bolts of divine lightning? The Virgin had come to Medjugorje to give humankind its second Pentecost, its last chance to accept Christ. At Lourdes, at Fatima, she had shown herself just a few times, but at Medjugorje she has tarried among the faithful every day for 10 years—10 years!—and once she departed she would never come back. The judgment of God would be at hand.

Signs and wonders—critics have always charged that charismatics have an inordinate need to see signs and wonders. But here was a place that was about signs and wonders. Here was a place where the Virgin Mary herself expected you to see them. So the charismatics flocked to Medjugorje, and once in Medjugorje they flocked to Father Jozo, who, with the touch of his hand, could give them exactly what they wanted.

The touch of his hand. That’s what they were all waiting for in the church as Father Jozo spoke through an interpreter about the need for prayer and fasting, as he stretched the rosary languidly before them, like a chain, and as he passed out pictures of the Virgin and instructed them to kneel. Then he began to whisper, his voice so soft, so low, that the sound of a rooster in the courtyard was like the sound of a woman screaming. “Look at the picture,” Father Jozo whispered. “This is your mother….” The voice went softer, lower. “Now close your eyes and look at the picture with your eyes closed….” Softer, lower. “Now kiss the picture.” The pilgrims kissed the picture, and then he called them to receive his blessing, to feel the power in the touch of his hand.

They lined up across the front of the church, and he blessed them two by two, with the interpreter ready to catch them if he slayed in the Spirit and made them fall. He blessed eight of them, and they did not so much as wobble. He blessed Carol, laying both his hands on her, and she returned to her seat with a small, almost quizzical smile. Then he blessed the tour leader, Ruth, a woman with a crow-black bouffant, and she went down with a rustle of her skirt. Suddenly, all the women who had melted to their seats were falling to the floor—Charlotte and Claire and Anne and Pat and Dot and Eileen—and a Palestinian-born woman named Asma was standing right in the middle, looking at them in horror, crying, “I am afraid, I am afraid … I do not care, he is hypnotist! He is hypnotist!”

Then, when Father Jozo had finished, he turned from them and started for the door. But Shirley and Ruth began imploring Carol to go after him, to seek a second blessing. She had not fallen, and they wanted her to fall. “No! No!” she said, quickly and sharply—but she rose from the pew to please her mother and walked to the front of the church. The interpreter had to catch up with Father Jozo and tell him to turn around.

As the rooster kept screaming, Carol bowed her head, and Father Jozo blessed her a second time, and for a second time she did not fall. She walked back to her pew, her head down, then returned to the bus to rest. Outside the church in the sun, the others gathered around a woman, Dot, who had twisted her ankle the day before, and she was saying that Jozo’s touch had healed her. Carol was in the bus, under a blanket. But out in the sun, Dot was dancing.

The next morning Carol curled her hair and put on makeup for Sunday mass. She walked to the church with Shirley, a clear plastic tube in her nose, an oxygen tank rolling behind her. She knew that she probably should have taken a taxi to church, but the morning was beautiful, and she wanted to hear the birds, to smell the air, to feel alive.

She made it halfway through the sermon. Then she collapsed. She threw up outside the church, lost control of everything. Her mother took her back to her room and put her to bed. Carol’s heart was rattling the tiny cage of her chest, beating in a frenzy of tachycardia, and she could not stop shivering, even though the sun was pouring down upon her through an open window. “C’mon, God, c’mon….”

She was throwing up everything she swallowed, even the pills that were supposed to kill her pain and keep her alive, and every five minutes there came a contraction that twisted and squeezed her. “C’mon, God, c’mon, I can’t take much more of this….” She began to stare out of eyes that seemed lost and afraid in their own sockets, and she said, in a small voice scorched by her vomiting, “Mom, I’m sorry. I must be a real pain in the ass.”

“Yes, you are,” Shirley said, with a little chuckle. “But I still love you.”

A priest came to bless her, to give her last rites. The funny thing was, she didn’t want to hear his prayers. She had been trying to sleep, thinking of her cats, of poems, of herself lost in a field of flowers, but here was this priest praying over her, and she was getting angry. Outside her window pilgrims were praying for her, hoping for a miracle, but Carol’s own miracle had occurred long ago. She had never despaired of God. She had never lost faith, and later there were some pilgrims who said that it was not Medjugorje but rather Carol’s faith in life and in God that had restored their own. Now, though, now that the priest was gone, she still could not sleep, and the sickness kept squeezing her. She began to cry out, like a bewildered child, “God, what did I do to deserve this? Did I have too little faith? What did I do, God?”

Finally, a doctor gave Carol a shot of morphine, and as she was taken away in an ambulance, she murmured the words of another girl lost in a strange land, some sort of incantation she remembered from a place that seemed so far away: “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

She would not die in Medjugorje. She made it to the hospital in Mostar, a place of crumbling concrete and broken windows, of cigarette butts and gobs of spit on the floor, of a doctor in a filthy smock shouting, “Protocol! Protocol!” The place had no heat, and there was only one blanket, so Shirley climbed into bed with her daughter. Carol had suffered a heart attack, tests would show later, and she was being strangled by dehydration and lack of oxygen, but she would not die in Mostar. She would not die in Dubrovnik, where she caught her return flight, and she would not die on the plane home, and she would not die in Dallas, where she had to be hospitalized because of an infection from a dirty needle. She would make it all the way to Albuquerque. There, she would be at home, alone, and her cats would witness her recovery. There, she would look one day at an old iron cross her father had given her, and she would feel the bolts of lightning, and she would tell everyone that the thorns in Christ’s crown had turned to gold.

[Picture by Bags]

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