I know a woman whom others regard as a saint without her having to make any effort for this to be the case. Let me clarify something: she does make efforts, in the same way as we all do. She never swears or speeds up with the car, volunteers at a food bank on Saturday mornings, and, if you ask, she will always have a minute for you. Nothing extraordinary, you might think – but enough to earn her sainthood. “She is a gift to us all,” people say with reverence whenever her name is mentioned. And, when she offers or agrees to help and encloses one of her half-smiles with her offer, people’s faces transform: gaze humble, smile incredulous as they realize it’s their long-awaited turn to be at the receiving end of one of her effortless miracles.
She intrigued me, so I observed her. After three months, I unraveled her secret. Before she opens her mouth to say yes, the slightest sense of inconvenience gleams in her black eyes, an ever-so-slight crack ascending along her forehead, minute wrinkles taking over the tanned flesh around her mouth. What she’s about to do for us, we sense, inconveniences her just by the right amount – enough that it’s a sacrifice, because of a saint we always expect sacrifices, but not so much that negates the joy she takes in serving others. Because of a saint we expect this kind of joy too. Only of a saint.
The discovery has taken away the mystery, and with the mystery went some admiration. Tthis gives me some unease – because she is a fine human being and makes other people’s lives better. She is not to be faulted for how others interpret her facial expressions.
Lately I have noticed that people have started to regard me as a saint too. In the last two weeks I have twice seen in others’ faces the dreaded expression of utter humbleness, incredulity, joy. A woman came to me and said: “You have saved my life.” I was about to say she was surely mistaking me for someone, then I remembered. A month earlier, I passed on some information she needed – and not of the life-saving kind, I would say – through a contact of hers. As I talked to her contact on the phone, I cursed inside, because her question came in at the most inconvenient of times, my desk brimming with discarded stationery, empty cups of coffee, my own impatience. I wanted to apologize to the woman for at least the latter, but I wasn’t sure of the etiquette to do so. “You have saved my life,” the woman repeated.
Yesterday, another woman welcomed me at a gathering and kissed me on both cheeks. Her face felt warm and peachy. “I’m so grateful that you’ve agreed to speak today,” she exclaimed. “You’ve saved my life.” I had been asked to speak at the gathering and agreed without thinking – because they needed someone, anyone, and I speak in public regularly; for me, it’s not even worth calling a favor. She grabbed me by the arm, seated me on a fine-lined vintage chair, handed me a cup of coffee and a cookie. I took a sip of the coffee, found it the best I had tasted in my life, secretly rejoiced that the woman had elevated me to the saint category and regaled me with such prodigious beverages, took a bite of the cookie, put it away on a coffee table next to me (because I shouldn’t have too much butter or sugar), spotted the woman looking at me as she sipped on her tea, rushed to grab the cookie again, not wanting to disappoint.
All of this makes me a bit uneasy. Often I would like it to go. I trick myself into thinking I can do it: it is all in the gleam of annoyance. I try to amplify it: I snort, roll my eyes when I am asked to do something. It doesn’t work. I try to make it disappear altogether too, my face a mask. It doesn’t work either. I am still a saint.
It occurs to me that this is happening because I associate with this woman quite a lot. In front of the mirror yesterday, I noticed that I resemble her a bit. My cheekbones now stick out in a sharp, if not inharmonious, curve. My lips and the flesh around has sprouted grain and accidents that weren’t there last year. A second puberty – the first time I emerged a woman, this time I will emerge a saint.
I am not sure I like it.
So I decide to ask the woman whether it gets better – it is possible to grow into being a saint.
“I wanted to ask you something.”
She reads a magazine and I see it in her eyes: she’s inconvenienced; she has had to interrupt an enjoyable reading. I marvel, because it’s even more fugacious than last time. She has perfected it to an extent that I doubt I ever will. Then she smiles.
“Whatever I can be helpful with,” she says.
“Does sainthood ever become better?”
She frowns; her face becomes perplexed, youthful, menacing – not very saintly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She looks at me one last time and goes back to her magazine.
I bit my lip, turn my back on her and walk away.
If only I could freeze the gaze, the instant. I would then play it in slow motion time and time again. I would force her to watch it until it becomes a fortuitous spark of the pupils, nonsensical in its repetition, as far removed as it can be from sainthood and indeed from anything else that is meaningful to us.
One day I’ll gather the courage, I tell myself, and ask her again. If I’m going to share her fate, it’s only fair I get an answer.
Originally from Galicia in Spain and a resident of Glasgow in Scotland, Eva Ferry’s fiction and non-fiction work has been published or is forthcoming in Salome Lit, The Public Domain Review, The ColdCreekReview, Foliate Oak, Adjacent Pineapple andNovelty Magazine, among others.Twitter: @TheDrRodriguez