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Annie Vitalsey


Junie, when we speak of how she rose from the dead, we do so in hushed, careful tones. Junie, with the sequence of miracles so inexplicable we would roll our eyes if we weren’t her own cousins. Our family miracle, Junie. Junie, our unbelievable truth.

We used to picture Junie—young lady—in her own fancy bedroom with Grandma’s imitation gold leaf mirror hung over her bureau, putting on her lipstick with a twinkle in her eye. Junie, who should be on Broadway, who should be set up on a parade float in a little outfit. She was that sort, our cousin Junie. This was of course before the twist in her spine morphed so bad as to prohibit her movements. Back when she could still sashay around with her dress pulled tight around her waist, singing show tunes in her warbling soprano. Junie, who took her father’s arm when she walked out in public. It was a glamorous life, Junie.

Junie was a frail thing, even through the lipstick. Her bird bones swallowed whole in loose cotton dresses—white, yellow, blue—she looked like she might fly away if not for her heavy brown shoes, one sole much thicker than the other. It was like those shoes alone kept her tethered to the earth. We liked to imagine Junie taking flight, her loose dress billowing in the wind, the cropped hair she hot-rolled each morning windblown, her red mouth glowing like a beacon.

Junie with the red fingernails, Junie with the red lips. We eyed that red mouth when she came to fold our laundry. So many of us, and such a bleak situation. Our small house. Our many mouths. Four whole sets of twin girls under one roof. The oldest of us not yet cracking teenagehood, the youngest only just out of our diapers. We had no singular father among us. While our mother told us we had come to her by magic, out of thin air, we had stopped believing her. We saw the way fine ladies passed her in the street. We heard their tongues click as we trailed behind her, eight little miniatures, threadbare and mussed.

Junie’s mother made her come fold our laundry for some perspective. Junie was almost twenty. She felt sorry for us. We looked up to her, Junie. Junie folded the laundry with her feet propped up on a chair. It helped with the pain, Junie. Sometimes Mother asked us to lightly massage Junie’s shoulders. Our tiny hands on her fine, fair neck. Junie might sigh. Things could be worse for her, Junie.

Junie’s father was a minister in the town of Beaufort by the sea, a thirty minute drive on the highway from us, our little slice of nowhere. He did well enough to own a three bedroom house, and support Junie and her mother reasonably. Just enough for Junie to buy the lipstick, that one treat just for her.

When Junie felt sorry for herself and her unnatural contours, her mother reminded her of us. Remember the cousins, Junie, she said. Their situation. The baked beans they are given, the way they play in the dirt, those scuzzy men who come around too often and then not often enough. We may not have it all, but we’re better off than some, Junie.

But then one Sunday a generous patron slipped a large donation into the collection plate with a note: For Junie. The church knew of Junie’s pains. The church prayed for her daily. With the generous gift, Junie’s father could finally afford the surgery that would straighten her out.

Junie’s parents drove her all the way to Raleigh for the procedure. At the hospital, Junie rode an escalator for the first time. She clung with one hand to the revolving handrail, and the other to her father’s starched sleeve. The movement of the steps made her afraid—the flattening and expanding, the moment to disembark, the fear of getting caught and sucked under, all so new for Junie. The escalator made its way into her dreams, and she woke, terrified in her hospital bed.

Her mother decorated the room with flowers and balloons. The church pooled their money to send her a pair of pink ballet slippers. She already has the proportions for it, they said. It’s just a matter of tweaking the alignment. As they wheeled Junie to the operating room, she felt as if she were flying, as if she had finally made it. Her big break.

On the operating table they slit Junie’s back top to bottom. They began the procedure, fixing metal rods to bone, coaxing her spine out straight.

An hour in, Junie died on the table. Just like that. Something that happens, Junie.

She said it was a bright force that pulled her from her body.

Jesus? wondered Junie. She forgot her dreams of ballet dancing, of hot curlers and lipstick. She forgot her parents and her church and us too, and flew upwards. But at the ceiling, she stopped.

She wanted to go. She really did, Junie. She was done with her sorry old body. Beyond the ceiling, she felt a beauty beyond words. Desperately, she wanted to be there. But she couldn’t. It wasn’t time.

The work is not done here, Junie. Junie, you have more to do.

And so Junie came back to her body on the table, like slipping on an old dress, a worn-out pair of shoes, and the doctors finished her off. No explanations. She came back on her own. Her parents gave thanks with their sweaty palms pressed together when they heard the news. Junie, you are a revelation, they said.

They called our Mother on the phone and told her about their miracle girl. When we learned of Junie’s latest, we snuck off to our own little room and took turns playing Junie, playing the doctors, playing Jesus. We carried each other from bed to bed, and worked again and again to perfect our own resurrections.

Before this moment of Junie’s, we found ourselves crying out in the night sometimes, thinking of the frightful mystery of death. Mother, what will happen to us when we die? We would look at our hands and think about them turning black with rot and we would weep. But after Junie, we had no fear. We wondered what it meant to see a beauty beyond words, we yearned for it. We waited patiently for our own miracles.

Junie approached her recovery with an uncommon vigor, and in record time she was walking, running, dancing. But Junie never did join the ballet. And no longer did she fold our laundry either. We saw less and less of her, Junie. We heard stories of her out on the town, twirling with respectable young men, stories of romance and of likely marriage proposals, until one day when Junie was at home. This time, no vision, no beckoning, no heavenly host, just a quick heat up Junie’s half-metal spine. She felt a tickle in the pit of her stomach, and a wholeness she had never known. She thought she knew what had happened, but she couldn’t be sure.

Again, Junie drove to Raleigh, this time on her own. Her father let her take the bellowing Chrysler by herself, and she went straight to the airport, up the second escalator of her life, and marched right through the metal detector. It did not go off. She couldn’t believe it. She went back through again. Then again a third time, Junie. Nothing. She raised her hands, beckoning towards heaven, face upturned catching the light from a large window overlooking the tarmac. An older man approached her, Are you okay? he asked. Yes, said Junie, I’m sorry, yes. She walked over to the window with her heart full, and spent the afternoon watching the planes fly off to God knows where. The metal rods magically erased.

Now this time, when we heard the news of Junie, we couldn’t help but ask about our own selves. Junie, with her second miraculous encounter and there we were still going to bed hungry, without the slightest master work of God to show for it. Junie, only child, daughter of a pastor, darling of a congregation getting two. Jesus flying to her rescue, sometimes for no reason at all, when she didn’t even really need it, just because he was paying attention. What had we done to deserve none of it? We, with no dresses to pull tight against our own waists. We, who pressed our mouths around overripe cherries hoping our lips might absorb the stain. We, who only had each other’s arms to take when walking out in the street. By then, Mother made us do our own laundry. Cook our own food. Go out into the world and take a part of it for ourselves.

Eventually Junie left the state of North Carolina, flying away with her sweet new husband to start a church in Southeast Asia. There she let little children run their silty fingers up and down the scar on her spine, and told them how she was raised from the dead.

And here we are now, all these years later, still thinking about her, Junie. When we tell her stories, we catch each other’s eyes and feel silly at how dreamy the whole thing turned out to be. When we say her name, it doesn’t feel real. We have to remind ourselves she is still out there, still hanging around like the rest of us. Junie. Are the miracles still coming for her? Does she still walk the earth with that same blessing, or has she discovered it too? This wiping children’s bottoms. This picking little bits of mold off otherwise good bread. This having sex with your husband even when you don’t quite feel like it. This feeling strange pains and lumps in your body and hoping they aren’t the ones that will do you in. This hurt. This love. This disappointment. This joy.

It feels strange to us that Junie might keep up with the same television programs as we do. That she might have voted absentee for our president. That she still has to cut her hair. That maybe she has to shit in a hole in the ground. Junie, we think, we are still here, working hard. We are rising up, Junie.

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