I hate it when it’s kids. I hate it when a new saint is wheeled in and it’s an eight-year-old hollowed out by their sanctity and turned monstrous with growths. I hate it when I know outside there are parents with heads bowed and throats tight and when I’m in here in this mortuary with its scorched walls and smell of formaldehyde. I hate it because I know how they feel and I know they don’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve it either, when it happened to me.
It’s mostly kids who get called to sainthood. Nobody knows why; we’ve had so many in our little nowhere town that our nurseries and schoolrooms are nearly empty. I passed the park the other day and it was like a graveyard. How many miracles can one town stomach?
Today’s saint is named Lilith. Not irony, she just has that kind of parents. She’s covered in crocodile scales, running from the top of her feet to her neck. Her parents want her in her favorite sundress for the funeral. I put the double gloves carefully over the sharp knobs of bony keratin pushing through my hands, and pull at one of the scales on her belly with the forceps. It comes off smoothly; the skin underneath is untouched.
Lilith’s gift was in finding lost things. Her mother tried to save her by locking her in the house to stop her from talking to anyone. But once sainthood sets in your child isn’t really your child anymore. This I know too well. They’re just children, after all. You can’t expect them to resist the call of their gift like adults can. No one knows how hard it is to block your ears to its whispering, to sit on your hands and pray no flames shoot out of it. I couldn’t stop my Clara, even though I tried. Lilith here slipped from the house like salmon every time someone wanted to find their wedding ring, their car keys, their long-lost cousin. She didn’t last long.
I pull off all the scales on Lilith’s neck and shoulders. This one is easy. The town’s first saint, Annie, had grown a magnificent pair of wings, dark and shiny as a rook’s. People called her Angel Annie, and she healed the sick for forty-nine days, until she suddenly collapsed. I had to cut off her wings with a bone saw so that she would fit in the casket. I didn’t know what to do with the wings, so I asked her parents if they wanted them. They did not.
My hands hurt as I work. It’s like teething: I can feel the keratin lumps growing through my skin all the time. A constant reminder. I wear gloves and long sleeves everywhere, even at home, even in egg-frying temperatures. I’m not sure what people will do once the turtle-shell lumps reach my face and I can’t hide what I am any longer. What can they do?
People ask me, is sainthood contagious? I say no, but I think I was chosen only because of Clara. I shouldn’t have prepared my daughter’s body myself, it’s bad form, but none of the neighboring towns wanted to take a body of a saint. They were afraid our town’s curse would come along.
My dear Clara, my sweet-cheeked bright-eyed little miracle, my baby girl. She died covered in golden fur, telling the fortune of some sap who came from six counties away. I wanted to cremate her body, but her birth father wanted an open casket. So that was that. I had to shave the fur off her face. When I got home after the funeral I found the first lumps pushing through the skin of my back in the bathroom mirror. They looked like an accusation, a proof of guilt.
I don’t know if my gift is what it is because of what I didn’t get to do for Clara. I’m lucky the summonses for fire are few and far between. I’ve learned to combat them. They don’t hold sway over me.
I finish doing Lilith’s makeup. She looks like she’s just asleep on the cold metal table. Gloves off, time for cleanup. Blue flames lick up my fingers as I sterilize my equipment in a small blaze. It’s taken so long, but I’ve finally managed to get it under control. Now I know it’s there when I need it, and I can use it as I wish.
Somedays I wonder about burning it all down — this workroom reeking of preservative, this building and its overgrown carpark, the whole damn town with its rows of houses filled with grieving parents. But then who would be left to tend the dead? Who would be left to cut off horns and hide extra teeth and disguise claws as fingernails? I’ve seen the parents’ faces when they see their child again. They look so much like before, they tell me. Like it never happened.
It’s things like that which get me out of bed in the morning, when I can feel the creep of bony protrusions spreading further across my skin, when I can feel the phantom fire ravaging my insides. I still get up and go. Because the saints need me. And I will continue getting up and going until I cannot anymore.
Lilith looks perfect now, a job well done. I draw the sheet over her and wait for the next saint to come in.