The Saint of the Sidewalks
by Kat Howard
Joan wrote her prayer with a half-used tube of Chanel Vamp that she had found discarded at the 34th St. subway stop. It glided across the cardboard – the flip side of a Stoli box, torn and bent – and left her words in a glossy slick the color of dried blood: “I need a miracle.”
You were supposed to be specific when asking the Saint of the Sidewalks for an intervention, but everything in her life was such a fucking disaster, Joan didn’t know where to start. So, she asked for a miracle, non-specific variety.
She set her cardboard on the sidewalk, prayer-side up. Then lit the required cigarette – stolen out of the pack of some guy who had been hitting on her at a bar – with the almost empty lighter she had fished out of the trash. You couldn’t use anything new, anything you had previously owned, in your prayer. That was the way the devotion worked: found objects. Discards. Detritus made holy by the power of the saint.
Joan took a drag off the cigarette, then coughed. She hadn’t smoked since her senior year of high school, and she’d mostly forgotten how. Thankfully, she didn’t have to actually smoke the thing. Cigarette burning, she walked three times around her prayer, then dropped the butt to the sidewalk, and ground it out beneath her shoe.
Then she waited to see if her prayer would be answered.
Other people waited too, scattered along the sidewalk where the saint’s first miracle occurred, with their altars of refuse and found objects, prayers graffitied on walls, or spelled out with the noodles from last night’s lo mein.
The rising sunlight arrowed between the buildings, and began to make its progress down sidewalks lined with prayers. This was how it worked: if the sun covered your prayer, illuminating it, the saint had heard you. There was no guarantee of an answer, but at least you would know you had been heard. For some people, that was enough.
If your prayer caught fire, if holy smoke curled up from its surface as the sun shone down on it, that was a sure sign you had been blessed. Heard and answered, and your intention would be granted. A miracle. If she just had a miracle, things would be better.
Joan didn’t need to watch to follow the progression of the sun. Cries of disappointment and frustration were common. Gasps of joy and gratitude much rarer.
Everyone had theories about how the saint chose to grant prayers. Some said it was whether she liked the altar, or the things you used to make your prayer. Others said she could feel the need in your heart, and mend your broken life that way. Joan hoped it was the latter, since it wasn’t like her hasty scrawl and filthy cardboard was that impressive. Certainly not compared to what was next to her – a salvaged player piano, painted with neon daisies, tinkling through a double time version of “Music Box Dancer.” Though really, Joan hoped the saint had better taste than to pick that one.
She tapped the toes of her left foot on the sidewalk as she waited, just below the cigarette. Maybe it was bad form to be impatient about a prayer, but Joan didn’t care. She just wanted to know. Plus, she really had to pee.
The sun crept closer, the light crawling over her ancient Docs. It licked up her legs, over her chest, illuminated her hair, a brief halo.
Then paused, on the sidewalk again, inches from her prayer. Joan bit her lip hard. Come on, come on, come on, she chanted inside her head. Please.
A drop of rain. Then another and another. The sky greyed, then grew storm-dark. The opened, rain sheeting down. The worst of all possible signs.
Soaked to the skin, Joan ran into a coffee shop. She shouted her order as she passed the counter so she could use the “For Paying Customers Only” toilet. After she washed her hands, she rubbed the smeared mascara – waterproof her ass – from beneath her eyes.
Well then. No miracle. She would figure out something else.
The voices woke Joan the next morning. A crowd of people outside of her apartment, congregating on the sidewalk, on the steps. She angled her head to better see out of her sliver of window.
There were the beginnings of altars, but these were made to honor some sort of saint she had never seen before – coffee cups and lipstick cases, worn Docs and tights with holes in. The hair on the back of her neck stood up.
Joan checked her Book of Hours, but there were no saints scheduled to appear on her street today. It wasn’t a feast day, either.
She shrugged into a thrift store kimono, worn at the hem and wrists, but its embroidered peonies still bright, and went down to see what the fuss was about, hoping she was wrong.
“Our Lady of the Ashes!” “Our Lady of the Lightning Strike!” greeted her as she opened the door.
The people outside had smeared ashes on their faces, were waving scorched pieces of cardboard like holy relics. Most had painted their lips with dark lipstick. The front line of them fell to their knees before her.
“Oh, fuck no,” Joan said, and fled back into her apartment.
Joan hadn’t been online to do more than check her email in over a week. Nine days ago, she discovered that her (now ex) boyfriend was cheating with her (now former) best friend, which would have been bad enough on its own, but Joan had still been drunk and angry enough the day after to punch the asshole who liked to grab her ass when they were in the elevator together. Except. Said elevator was at work, and said asshole was her (now former) boss. Joan had gotten fired.
On reflection, it had not been her finest twenty-four hours.
In the wake of all of that, she hadn’t wanted to scroll through social media feeds full of pity and snark, or pictures of the happy new couple – because, of course, the best friend and the boyfriend were in love – so she hadn’t looked at anything.
She did now.
She had run fast enough ahead of the storm that she hadn’t seen it happen, but lightning had struck the cardboard on which she had written her prayer. Had scorched it, but had not consumed it. Even stranger – although the cardboard had been prayer-side up, her words had been seared onto the sidewalk, still in the same shade of elegant goth Chanel lipstick she had scrawled them in.
Nothing else had been touched.
People were already calling it a miracle. Apparently every major department store in the city had sold out of Vamp, it was backordered online, and tubes were going for upwards of $100 on ebay.
Joan closed her laptop. “This is too weird,” she said. She looked out of her window again. There were even more people out front. She shrugged into a hoodie, and pulled the hood tightly over her hair. Then she slunk out of the back of the building, holding her breath against the stench, and very carefully not looking at the spatters and smears as she passed the dumpster.
Things were even crazier on the street where she had made her offering yesterday. Her rejected offering. Because whatever this was that was happening, it was not how the Saint of the Sidewalks worked. No one had ever heard of her making a new saint before.
Ash-smeared people wearing blood-red lipstick waved scorched pieces of cardboard. Some were calling out “Saint Joan of the Lightning! Strike us!”
Great. Not only did they know where she lived, but they knew her name. Joan pulled her hood tighter over her head, and walked as fast as she could back to her building.
That was how saints were made. Some piece of strangeness happened, and it hooked itself in the heart of someone who saw it, and called it a miracle. Once they decided that’s what it was, people tried to reenact the miracle’s circumstances. They ritualized its pieces. They named the person at the center of it, gave them an epithet, something memorable.
The Saint of the Sidewalks had been a homeless woman, with a pile full of belongings, broken and worn. Perhaps relics from her previous life, perhaps more recent scavengings. She sat it like it was her throne.
One day, it caught fire. Spontaneous combustion, said the witnesses. Too hot and fast to save her.
Except. No body was found. Surely a miracle, in and of itself. But then the stories started, saying that everything the fire touched had been made whole, restored. And so she became the Saint of the Sidewalks, her altars made of broken things, refuge her relics, and prayers sent to her in fire and smoke.
Joan did not want to be a saint.
The crowd at the front of her building had grown even larger, and there were peonies, baby pink and fuchsia and striated with color, woven through the handrails on the front steps. Those gave her pause for a moment, then she realized – the pattern on her kimono. Scary, that that was all it took.
The press of people was terrifying, the number of them, the fervency. She could feel the want, the terror and desperation, rising from them in waves. It made her dizzy, seasick, and again, Joan slunk in through the back entrance, trying to remain unnoticed.
Joan thought she heard someone yell her name, but she pulled hard against the door, not letting go until she felt the lock engage, and then ran up the steps to her apartment.
She had 41 new emails, 36 direct messages on twitter, and there were 407 new pictures that she was tagged in on instagram. She herself was only in 13 of them. The rest were her building, the lightning-struck sidewalk where her prayer was.
Almost all of the messages and tags were requests for prayers, for interventions, for help.
Joan didn’t even make it through ten of them before she wanted to punch something – the world, maybe – and a few more after that and she was crying. Hot, angry tears, that these people were so desperate as to see her as their best option.
She wasn’t. She didn’t even know how to fix her own life, much less theirs. The lightning had struck her prayer, not her – she had no superpowers. She was just a woman with a cheating ex, no job, and no coffee in her apartment.
Joan ordered in groceries and promised an obscene tip if the delivery person would meet her at the back. Nine text messages from her ex came in while she waited, all variations on how he was “So sry, bb.” Not sorry enough to type entire words, apparently.
Plus, he was selling the cardigan she had left at his place on Craigslist, calling it a holy relic. He was also not sorry enough to just give it back to her when she asked him for it, the dick.
Getting the groceries was a fiasco. The crowd of people had found the back of her building, and by the time she had gotten back inside, three of her eggs were smashed, someone had stolen her grapes, and she had gotten smeared with ashes, her arms covered in people’s handprints. She wondered if yelling “Get the fuck away from me, you fucking freaks!” would make people see her as any less of a saint.
She wondered if they’d see her as normal if they saw her hiding in her bathroom, wiping away tears, or if they’d just hold out vials to collect them in.
For some people, the saints were like candles bought at bodegas: a series of interchangeable names etched on glass, to be forgotten when the too-vivid wax burnt down. They were the equivalent of love spells found on the internet, tarot cards bought to be party tricks.
If Joan was honest, that’s what they had always been for her. Even the intention that had gotten her into this mess – “I need a miracle” – had been desperation, not piety. In the darkest part of her heart, she hadn’t really expected anything to happen, even if the sun had immolated her request. She had hoped something would happen, sure, but the gesture had been more of a way to feel like at least she had done something, than out of any fervent belief.
It was after midnight now, and raining, and there were still people clustered around the doors to her building. She had been braced all day for management to complain, but the message that pinged her inbox hadn’t been a noise warning, but an offer of a month’s free rent. The publicity her presence generated had been a real boon. Oh, and he’d be happy to get her oven fixed, too. (It spontaneously turned off after twenty minutes, no matter what temperature it was set to. Joan had put in the maintenance request three months ago.) He just had a quick prayer he wanted to send her way. Joan looked away from it. It seemed too intimate, to read what someone was praying for.
There was a gif of a lightning strike at the bottom of the email.
Joan typed “Yes” – meaning the rent and the working oven – and copy-pasted the gif, because she didn’t know what else to do with it. She felt sick to her stomach. She wasn’t a saint, she wasn’t, but this had to be better than just ignoring the guy, right? She hit send.
Blue-white lightning cracked outside her window.
There was a crash. A scream. Then cheering.
“Saint Joan of the Lightning!” they cried.
She did not get up. She did not look.
Joan sat at her computer, staring at the “message sent” icon, hands covering her mouth. I need a miracle, she thought.
This time, the voices that woke Joan weren’t from the chaos outside. They were in her head. People begging, beseeching: “Strike me with your holy fire, lady.” “I cover myself in ashes until I am worthy of your light.” Other things she understood less – languages she didn’t speak, incoherent weeping. She sat up in bed, and clung to her blankets.
This was insane. She was no saint. She couldn’t answer prayers. Didn’t want the responsibility. Certainly didn’t want other people’s fucking voices inside her head.
She opened up her laptop, and started to type.
Turns out, once people decide you’re a saint, they’re reluctant to let you stop being one. They retrofit your actions to their desired narrative. So even though Joan wrote an explanation to her followers – ugh, that word – that she was just like they were, denied all ability to help people, to work miracles, they took her words as a sign of humility, of caring, of becoming modesty. The devotion to her only increased. She couldn’t walk anywhere without prayers reverberating in her head.
The constant press of people sent her into trembling panic attacks, and so she lied, said that any unwanted physical contact would shock people, a result of the lightning that still passed through her.
She’d picked the ability because she wished she’d had it around her grabby ex-boss. But the story spread, and people gave her space. Almost enough that she could breathe.
Joan was never sure, after, how it happened. If the man had acted deliberately or not. But there was a hand on her upper arm, and then there was a spark and snap, and then there was a man, flung backwards, heaped up against a wall.
Joan stood, frozen to the spot. The man scrambled to his feet, then prostrated himself before her on the sidewalk. Already, the branching tattoo of the lightning strike was visible on his skin. He apologized and begged her forgiveness.
She gave it to him, of course. That was what saints did.
“It gets worse, the more they believe in you, not better.” The woman sat on a stoop, bright fuchsia sequined converse scattering sunlight from beneath the hem of an unbelted cream trench coat. “All of the supernatural bullshit, I mean.”
“How do you know that I” – Joan started.
“You look haunted. Hollow. Like people have been biting off pieces of your insides.
“Plus, you’re all over the internet. Our Lady of the Lightning.”
There was a clink, as the piece of a shattered flowerpot replaced itself, making the terracotta whole again. A sensation like flame passed over Joan’s skin.
Down the block, a flat bicycle tire refilled itself, and the bent wheel of a homeless man’s shopping cart straightened.
Refuse made whole. Tiny, spontaneous miracles of proximity, accompanied by the heat of flames that did not consume what they touched. Joan felt pretty sure she knew who she was sitting next to.
“Right. Of course. What do you mean, it gets worse?” Joan plucked at a torn cuticle, worrying the skin until it bled, then winced at the pain.
“The more they believe, the more you become a part of those beliefs. Or did you think hearing voices and being electric were just talents you picked up?”
Joan shook her heard. “Does it stop?”
“Maybe. If you’re lucky.” There was longing in the woman’s voice.
“I only wanted a miracle,” Joan said.
The woman stood up, her shoes blinding in the sun. “And what makes you think you didn’t get it?”
For the first time in her life, Joan desperately wanted to pray. To pray fervently, devotedly. To light candles before an altar, to obscure the sand of a mandala with her feet.
And she couldn’t. Every time she opened her Book of Hours, every time a text alert popped up on her phone to notify her of a holy day, she thought of someone else, trapped by the weight of people’s desires. Someone who, like her, could not sleep without being woken by voices raised in prayer, who could not leave their apartment without becoming the unwilling head of an impromptu pilgrimage.
She couldn’t pray, not when doing so might trap someone else.
So she left. Joan wasn’t sure if you could abdicate sainthood, but she would try. She hoped that if she could just get far enough away from the ecstasy of belief, find somewhere that people didn’t know her face or care where she lived, she could go back to being normal.
She dyed her hair in her sink. She left in darkness. She used the last of her tube of Vamp lipstick to scrawl “Do not Look for me. I will not be Seen.” on her mirror and she left the door to her apartment wide open.
She did pack her peony covered robe. She really liked it.
And then she ran.
Far, far away from where things began, Joan watched as the devotees of Saint Joan of the Lightning staged a service in her honor.
They wore masks now, that completely obscured their eyes, so that they could not accidently see her. It had been that, more than the distance, that had helped – she could grocery shop in peace, most days, and usually the people who recognized her only thought she looked familiar. They didn’t quite know why. And if she had peony plants in her yard, well, so did most people. She stood out less, having them.
She watched on her laptop screen as they slicked dark lipstick over their mouths, then wrote their prayers on pieces of cardboard and pressed them to the sidewalk. She thought she saw a pair of fuchsia sequined converse walk through the crowd, and she smiled.
Joan felt the hair raise on her arms, felt static electricity crackle across her skin. She would hear the voices – she had learned to listen without going mad, to separate out the pleas – and when she heard people asking for their own miracles, she touched her screen and struck their prayers with lightning, burning them to ash, letting hope rise up like holy smoke.
She was very careful to only choose the most specific prayers. She knew very well that without direction, miracles were never what you expected them to be. She watched her own, and touched her finger to the computer screen. In a crackle of lightning, at a distance, a prayer was answered.
About the Author
Kat Howard lives in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in year’s best and best of collections, and performed on NPR. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot, will be out from Saga Press in May. You can find her on twitter at @KatWithSword.
About the Narrator
Eve Upton is huddled in the darkness of the cupboard. She appears to be scratching words into the floor. Upon closer inspection, they say: nolite the bastardes carborundorum.