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From the author: In a world where St. Catherine of Siena is the patron saint of those affected by the superhero virus, Coyote reveals that one of St. Catherine's Sisters, Alice Mary, is an unknown superhero. Alice Mary struggles to find what her power is--and discovers it in an unexpected manner.
“This meeting will be rather difficult,” said Father del Tomassa, Head Confessor for the Sisters at Our Lady Catherine of the Superheroes Monastery in Monalba.
“And why is that?” Sister Alice Mary asked. “Coyote's just another Trickster manifestation. Is he even really a superhero?”
Del Tomassa laughed. “Sister, have you forgotten your basic studies of the Pacific Northwest indigenous deities?”
She shrugged. “Except for a habit of thinking too much about food and his—er—male organ—Coyote has never struck me as being that difficult.”
“You had best not underestimate the power of Coyote,” del Tomassa warned. “The last time Monalba administered his Examination of Conscience, we lost three Sisters and a Brother to his cult. He's more dangerous than Loki. Go forth and prepare yourself.”
Her assigned partner for this Examination, Sister Jeanne, shook her head pityingly at Alice Mary. “Father, I promise that I will not be fooled.”
“That is good,” del Tomassa said quietly. “Sisters. Prepare. We meet Coyote at first light tomorrow morning.”
“Oh yes, Father.” Sister Jeanne bowed before gliding away.
Alice Mary lingered, a wry smile twisting her lips.
“You really expect Coyote to be here at first light? Seems early for him.”
“With Coyote, it's best to be prepared. He will always do the opposite of what you expect.” He frowned at her. “Remember that, Sister.”
“Oh, I will remember. Believe me, Father, I will remember.”
Alice Mary bowed and left, thoughtfully stroking the lily, the sign of Monalba's power over superheroes, which had been gifted to her at her calling by Saint Catherine herself.
Alice Mary was ready well before first light. She had considered fasting, for Sister Jeanne certainly was, but decided that for Coyote she was best off eating a hearty breakfast. She ate her breakfast happily, savoring each bite, and still had the sweet tang of huckleberry lingering in her mouth when she joined Father del Tomassa in the monastery garden.
Sister Jeanne scampered out of the chapel as the bells rang five o'clock, Rosary in hand, fumbling through the last decade of her prayers.
“You're ready for Coyote?” Father del Tomassa asked Alice Mary.
“As ready as I'll ever be. I slept well, then had huckleberries and sausage for breakfast, along with pancakes.”
“And you've prayed and meditated?”
“I thoroughly enjoyed the berries, Father. Each berry was a meditation in tangy flavor.”
Sister Jeanne tripped over a suddenly appearing root and fell hard just five feet away from them.
“You did not feel the need to fast?” del Tomassa continued.
“The sausage was from buffalo,” Alice Mary added as she helped Sister Jeanne to her feet. “And the pancakes were amaranth and quinoa flour.”
Father del Tomassa stared at Alice Mary. She noticed that his nose had acquired a pointed, canine shape.
“Father,” Sister Jeanne cast a scornful look at Alice Mary, pulling away from her. “I have prepared by fasting and praying half the night. You, Sister?”
“I have prepared myself,” Alice Mary told her absently, her focus still on Father del Tomassa. Her fingers tightened on the stalk of her lily. The faint shadows from the Sun seemed to bring out sharper contracts in Father's face, making him look more canine than ever.
Father del Tomassa matched Alice Mary's gaze. He grinned and she noticed the sharpness of his canines. A slight bulge appeared in the midriff of his cassock.
“So, Coyote,” Alice Mary said to him. “What have you done with our Father del Tomassa?”
“Sister!” Sister Jeanne gasped. “Why, why—” Her voice choked off into a frightened squeak as Coyote's penis slipped out from under the cassock. “Oh, oh—”
Alice Mary tapped Coyote's penis with her lily. “None of that, now,” she warned. “What have you done with Father del Tomassa?”
Coyote's penis retreated. He changed into a tall Native American man dressed in jeans and a fringed leather vest, a rakish gray flat-brimmed hat sitting askew between the pointed Coyote ears. His head remained that of Coyote, the eyes twinkling at Alice Mary as his tongue lolled lecherously out of one corner of his mouth.
Sister Jeanne fled, leaving Alice Mary alone with Coyote.
“So, Alice Mary, do you want to dance with Coyote?” Coyote asked.
“I already am,” Alice Mary said. “What have you done with Father del Tomassa?”
Coyote's shape changed and he stood in del Tomassa's form yet again, except for his head. “Who's to say there's a Father del Tomassa?”
Alice Mary scowled at him. For a moment she doubted del Tomassa's existence. Then she firmly pushed that doubt aside. Father del Tomassa had too long of a history with Monalba to be a Coyote construct.
“Where's Father del Tomassa?” she repeated.
Coyote sighed. “You're no fun,” he complained. “You're stubborn.”
Alice Mary arched an eyebrow at him and tapped the lily against her hand. “Father?” she repeated, noting how Coyote eyed her lily. She lifted it slightly. “You'd best return to your true form,” she added.
“You're no fun,” Coyote repeated as he changed back to the tall Native American man. “And your Father has managed to sleep in this morning. Funny things, those alarm clocks.”
“The Brother on call was supposed to awaken him.”
“It slipped his mind.”
“It won't make you miss your Examination,” Alice Mary said.
Coyote laughed at her. “Why should I listen to the precepts of an imperialistic, conquering religion?”
“Because,” Alice Mary said, feeling herself expand oddly, “we come from the same piece of the Divine.” The stigmata on her hands and feet pulsed and her skin tightened as the morning suddenly felt chillier. She looked. Her clothing was gone and she was definitely taller.
Coyote laughed again, his laugh ending in several sharp barks. “Sister, you're playing with heresy.”
“This is not my Examination,” Alice Mary said. “It's yours.”
“Ah, but that will change very shortly,” Coyote said, a note of strange satisfaction in his voice.
“I don't know what you mean—” Anything further Alice Mary might have said was cut off by a shocked exclamation behind her.
“Sister!” the real Father del Tomassa gasped, echoed by the higher-pitched squeak of Sister Jeanne.
Coyote turned to flee, but Alice Mary tapped him on the shoulder. “You will stay,” she ordered. “Whatever this is, it's your doing.”
“My job here is done. It's nothing that wasn't going to happen over time, anyway.” He started to step back but Alice Mary grabbed him by his ponytail.
“Explain!” she demanded, gesturing at her changed self.
Coyote laughed, twisting free from her grip. “Sister, you're a superhero.”
“She showed no talent at her Entrance,” Father del Tomassa snapped. “Otherwise she would not have been admitted to the Order. What have you done with our Sister Alice Mary?”
“Alice Mary has always been a superhero. A quiet superhero, but one all along.”
“I don't believe you,” Alice Mary said.
“What did your Lady Catherine say to you at your Calling?” Coyote asked Alice Mary.
“I'm the Examiner, not you—” del Tomassa protested, but both Coyote and Alice Mary ignored him.
“That I was to make things right.” Alice Mary's voice trailed off.
“Then, dear Alice Mary, I suggest you do just that.”
Coyote slipped away as Alice Mary stared first at her unfamiliar hands, then at the rest of her naked body. She set the lily for Examination and experimentally tapped one hand with the lily, tensing herself for the expected sting of chastisement. Naked, in public, even worse to be naked in public in the monastery itself in this outrageously disproportionate body shape. Outrageous! Surely the lily would chastise her, even if it was Coyote's doing.
A faint scent of lilies tickled her nose, stronger than it had been at Catherine's previous appearance. Saint Catherine stood before her, a firm grip on Coyote's scruff.
“You were supposed to tell her more,” Catherine chided Coyote. She shook him. “To leave one of mine in this condition!” She waved her hand and a white gown covered Alice Mary's nakedness.
Coyote shrugged, sidling free from Catherine's grasp. “You didn't specify the details,” he said. “All you asked was that I prod Alice Mary into acknowledging her true self.”
“Not like this,” Catherine said. “Not at all like this.”
“L-lady?” Alice Mary asked, daring to speak. “What am I supposed to be?”
“You are the one who will make things right,” Catherine said. “You will know when it comes. And, as for you, you miscreant—”
“But—but—but!” Coyote protested as Catherine grabbed him. His protesting yips seemed to hang behind for a brief moment as they both disappeared.
The Order acted quickly upon this new disclosure about Alice Mary. First came the formal process of her removal from the Order.
“She has been changed, but there's no sign of any powers,” Father del Tomassa—the real del Tomassa, not Coyote in his visage—protested. “Why treat her as a superhero?”
“She would not be the first superhero that Our Lady has identified who does not show powers right away. Her blood tests show that she has been infected by the superhero virus. Therefore, she is a superhero. As a superhero, she cannot be part of the Order,” Mother Superior pronounced.
Father del Tomassa shook his head, but Sister Alice Mary was then carefully and respectfully discharged from the Order.
“Though, until we know what task the Lady has set for you, we will continue to shelter and provide for you,” Mother Superior said to Alice Mary.
“It won't be long,” Alice Mary promised.
“However long it takes for the Lady to speak,” Mother said.
Alice Mary moved into a suite set aside for visiting superheroes. Her few personal goods were moved from her cell to the spacious suite.
Second came the discussion of just what Alice Mary had become. Her body appeared to fit the generic female superhero mold—taller than the norm, wasp-waisted, matched with big thighs, hips and bust. But her hair remained its usual shade of ashy brown; she didn't appear to have acquired any extraordinary powers of hearing, vision, or speech; she couldn't fly or change shape. She was still just Alice Mary, in a different form.
The lily remained hers. When Father del Tomassa tried to take it, the lily shocked him hard enough to knock him out. Mother Superior sniffed at his presumptuousness and asked Alice Mary to give it to her. Alice Mary handed it over, but the moment it brushed against Mother's hand, it shocked her.
“She came with that lily, so she may keep it,” was Mother Superior's final ruling.
But none of this answered the question of what her superpower was. Alice Mary took long walks and privately explored various possibilities for her superpowers. Such explorations left her bruised and sore. She reread Saint Catherine's On the Inquisition of Superheroes, hoping to find something that spoke to her issues.
But the Inquisition, as well as the saint herself, remained silent. And so a month passed by, with little for Alice Mary to do but learn how to live outside the Order in her new role as a superhero who had yet to learn of her powers.
She found volunteer services to perform in the nearby town of Monalba, ranging from keeping lonely seniors company to attending the frail and sick. To those she helped, her size, shape and status meant little. She was a caring voice, a gentle hand, and a friend who understood their needs.
But then there were the Innocents. The ones who had been thrown away.
Superheroes rarely manifested in adulthood and when they did, it was through Catherine's intervention, as in Alice Mary's case. The superhero virus struck unpredictably in childhood. Some parents did not react well to this change in their child and abandoned their superhero babies.
Monalba was a civilized place. It had orphanages set aside for those inconvenient young ones, encouraged parents to work with the Order and their children for training, and punished those who would abuse their superhero children before they became too strong.
But not every place and every parent was enlightened enough to treat their young superheroes in this manner. Monalba's orphanages also contained the broken and abused. As Alice Mary spent time with the Innocents, her anger toward those who abused them grew. Was this to be her path? Anger was without purpose unless she could find a use for it. But finding a way to express that anger without exploding in wrath was hard. Alice Mary knew that wrath was not her path. Healing was. But how?
Try as she could, the frail remnants of those who had once possessed superhero powers were too shattered to respond to Alice Mary's care. She spent hours delving into the old texts at Monalba, seeking a cure for the destroyed ones who tore at her heart so. But a solution continued to elude her.
Alice Mary was mulling on this predicament while walking from Monalba the monastery to Monalba the town on a drizzly winter's day.
Something caught her attention as she crossed the bridge over flood-swollen Monalba Creek. She heard a high, thin, wailing. Alice Mary listened closer. It was the faint, mewling cry of a young child. The lily warmed in her hand. It twisted toward the cry.
Alice Mary followed the lily off the road and through a wire fence. She thrashed through mounds of leafless blackberry vines without hurt, until the lily stopped her, next to the flood-swollen creek. A tiny child gasped for breath, half-submerged, wrapped in skeins of barbed wire held down with rocks, screaming whenever its head broke water.
Alice Mary dropped the lily. She climbed into the creek and chucked the rocks off of the wire. She unwrapped the barbed wire from around the child and pulled it out of the creek. She tucked the shivering and screaming child under her jacket and cradled her close. Then she bent to pick up her lily. It was hot to the touch and she fumbled it.
The lily brushed against her coat before it fell to the ground. The child quieted. The lily was slightly cooler to the touch as Alice Mary picked it up. It cooled more as she brought it close to the child. Alice Mary stared at the lily for a moment, thinking. Then she eased the child out of her coat and delicately brushed it over the child's bruised and torn body.
The bruises faded. The shivering child warmed to Alice Mary's touch. Alice Mary stared at the lily. She'd not used it to heal before now, thinking that as Saint Catherine’s tool of Inquisition, it could not be used for healing in her hands. But what if she were wrong? She tucked the child back under her coat and fought her way back through the brambles to a clear spot to set her down. She juggled child, lily, and coat, using her coat to cushion the babe against the saturated ground. Then Alice Mary took a deep breath, whispered a soft prayer to Saint Catherine, and gently brushed the child up one side and down the other with the lily.
The babe's sobs faded even more as the deep cuts in her body disappeared.
Alice Mary quickly picked up child and coat, holding the lily against the child. She ran along the road, now bearing for the orphanage that treated the most severely injured superhero children. She did not notice when her feet left the ground and she sped by a steam truck, outpacing it at a speed no ordinary human could stride.
When Alice Mary reached the nursery at the orphanage for those who had been injured, she glanced around, suddenly startled by how quickly she had arrived. She hurried inside with her charge.
“Help! I found this child!” she gasped to the head nurse. “In Monalba Creek. Way up in the blackberries.” Alice Mary struggled to steady her breathing. “Wrapped in barbed wire and weighed down with stones.” Alice Mary shivered, wondering now if that would have been her own fate, had she exhibited her own superpowers at this age.
“No sign of parents?”
Alice Mary shook her head. “No idea how they could have reached that place without hurting themselves. No sign of how they could have gotten there and gotten out. I—I healed her.” She slipped her lily from under the child. “Using this.”
And then she stopped, as both she and the nurse stared at her unscratched hands and clothing.
Alice Mary shakily unwrapped the rescued superhero child. She slept, but appeared to have taken no hurt. Only the dampness remaining on her skin testified to how Alice Mary had found her.
The nurse took the child from her. “Will your healing work with others?”
“There is only one way to find out.” Alice Mary gulped. “Take me—take me to the child who has been burned.”
The head nurse handed off the rescued child to another nurse who had come running up. Then she and Alice Mary hurried to another room. Alice Mary’s stomach turned as she surveyed the burned child, as it always had. She picked up her lily.
Please, she whispered to Saint Catherine. Please.
The lily warmed. Alice Mary carefully, delicately, brushed the wreck of the child's now shapeless hand with the lily. Both she and the nurse gasped as the hand reformed, with clean, unburned skin.
“Try more,” the nurse breathed.
Alice Mary's hand slipped as she stroked the child with her lily. Her hand touched the child's ravaged skin. Alice Mary jerked as a sharp shock resonated through her, but the child's skin reformed even more quickly. The lily pulsed hot in Alice Mary's hand but she clenched it tighter. That seemed to speed the healing.
“Can you help others?” the nurse asked.
“I can but try. Take me to the next case.”
As Alice Mary worked in the nursery that day, she discovered that her abilities extended only to those superhero children who had been abused for being who they were. Other ills and non-superhero children remained stubbornly resistant. And then Alice Mary remembered the saint's words.
You are to put things right.
Could this be her elusive superpower, her purpose for being a superhero?
Word of what had happened reached Monalba the monastery. A delegation headed by Father del Tomassa arrived. They listened to the nurse's tale, then examined the children Alice Mary had healed.
They caught up to her as she was working with another child who'd been thrown into fire. Alice Mary was gently talking to the five-year-old as she worked his arms and legs, breaking them free from the scar tissue before the skin could be made right. It was a maddeningly slow process, but as the observers watched, they could see the skin reform.
She looked up from the boy to her Inquisitors.
“I would ask that you let me finish with this little one before I face my Examination,” she said in a melodious voice quite unlike the Alice Mary of old.
Mother Superior shook her head, tears running down her cheeks. “Don't stop, my lady,” she breathed. “Don't stop.”
Father del Tomassa cleared his throat, as if to remind Mother Superior that it was supposed to be his call to give Alice Mary direction. But his voice, too, was surprisingly soft.
“Continue with your work, my lady of Justice,” he said. “Do what is right by these little ones, with our blessing.”
Alice Mary turned back to the child. When this one was healed, she sank back on her heels and looked around the nursery.
“Are there any more to be healed?” she asked the head nurse, her voice quavering with exhaustion.
“None here, my lady of Justice,” the nurse said. “You look fatigued. May we offer you a ride home?”
Alice Mary shook her head. Much as she wanted to proceed to the other orphanages and work with the less-injured Innocents, she needed her rest before performing any more healing tasks. She needed quiet. She needed—she wasn't certain what she needed, but she knew it wasn't a ride on a loud, rattletrap steam truck.
After a few pleasantries, she left the nursery much more slowly than she had entered it, tired but satisfied. The wintry sun had set, and she had lost track of her jacket. She borrowed one from a janitor to keep her warm against the damp fog that thickened as darkness fell, a thick woolen shapeless garment that smelled pleasantly of stables.
About halfway up Monalba's hill, just past Monalba Creek, Coyote yipped, twisting from coyote shape to human. Saint Catherine rose from where she had been sitting on the road's edge.
“So you have found your purpose, my lady of Justice,” Catherine said as Alice Mary knelt before her.
“I do believe I have, my Lady,” Alice Mary rose stiffly. She eyed Coyote, wondering why he was present.
“You will find that Justice has an element of the Trickster at times,” Coyote said, his voice solemn. “Humor and trickery will keep you whole.”
Alice Mary eyed him warily, then turned to Catherine. “My Lady?”
Catherine laughed softly. “My dear, without the Trickster in my life, my ends would not always be served.” She rested her left hand on Alice Mary's right shoulder. “Go forward with my blessing, to give you courage and strength.”
Coyote hung a small leather bag around Alice Mary's neck. “To give you strength to remember humor in the dark times, to keep yourself whole.”
They kissed Alice Mary on her forehead, then faded out.
Alice Mary stood alone in the fog. She heaved a deep sigh, then resumed walking, her step lighter, the fatigue no longer pulling heavy at her legs. She still had a long uphill walk ahead but it didn't seem so bad now. Nonetheless, she wished Catherine and Coyote could have whisked her up the hill to her suite without the long remaining walk.
Humility, my dear, humility, she reminded herself. She might be a superhero, but certainly they had more important things to do.
Then Coyote trotted down the road toward her, wagging his tail. He yipped, a chiding note in his cry. Alice Mary stopped, confused.
He transformed into Father del Tomassa. “Lady, have you forgotten? You are a true superhero now. Why walk?”
“I did not know I had a choice,” she said. “And I think it would be best to remain grounded in the good earth.”
Coyote yipped again. “Think of where you would be.” He transformed back into a coyote and loped ahead of her.
Alice Mary shrugged. The small bag around her neck stirred, warming slightly. She touched it, wondering at the change while thinking of her suite at Monalba. The world blurred around her and then she was there.
Coyote bounced on her couch, yipping. “There is being grounded and then there is foolishness. Superhero you may be, but you are exhausted and we have a great task ahead of us to put the world right. Rest well, Our Lady of Justice.” Then he disappeared.
Alice Mary sank onto her couch. She leaned back. Coyote's image leered down at her from the ceiling. A thought bubble reading DON'T FORGET TO LAUGH burst from his forehead.
An alliance between Saint Catherine, Coyote, and herself, to end the agony of the Innocents.
It was not something she would have believed in before she came to Monalba.
“What next, Coyote?” she asked the image. “What next?”
The thought bubble changed. SLEEP. REST. NOW. Alice Mary laughed again. She would not have pictured Coyote as a nagger. Nor would she have pictured him as a rescuer.
The Trickster is tricky in many different ways.
Still smiling, she prepared a simple meal and then took her rest.
Her dreams were full of coyotes.