KR OnlineFiction

The Transfiguration of Maria Louisa Ortega

The first time María Luisa Ortega cursed, after stabbing herself with a pair of steel tweezers, she turned into a sea urchin. Two weeks passed before a peripatetic priest found her lying in the sand and uncursed her. It was a frequent occurrence, he explained, and for this reason he always carried a squirt bottle of holy water in his bag, to bless the poor souls he found in the shapes of dolphins, fish, lobsters, or, in less fortunate cases, mollusks. “You were there only two weeks,” he said as she wrung water from her clothes. “I once found a fisherman turned into a mussel for six months, during which time his wife presumed him drowned and married another. It was only by the grace of Christ that no murder was done, for when he found them together in bed he swore the most horrible oath that had ever been heard in that town and in that instant became a starfish. His wife keeps him in a bowl of water with their wedding ring and kisses him every morning. I thought this for the best, because there is no sin in being married to both a man and a starfish. Our Lord has been gracious to you.”

“I have lost my tweezers,” she sighed, “as well as the specimens I was collecting for the university. They will think I have walked away from my job.”

“But are you not now more valuable to them than any heap of kelp could be? You know exactly how Arbacia punctulata masticates its crumbs of algae and compounds its poisons and ambulates with dreadful slowness across the tidal pool. You could write reams of papers on the details that you researched so closely these last two weeks, and perhaps they will give you a lectureship. But you must be careful not to swear.”

He smiled at her, a beautiful strong smile like the sun on the sea, and because she could not bear that smile she looked at his straw sandals and his leather bag, which was glassy and soft with use.

And María Luisa Ortega said, “No, I will not go back to the laboratory and the students dissecting their oysters, not even for a professorship. I will take holy orders, and then I shall wander the sands and collect lost souls, even as you do.”

“It is a hard and lonely life I lead,” the priest said. “I live on periwinkles and sleep on the sand, and I speak to no one but the birds and those I recover to human form.”

“I am prepared for such a life, Father,” she said.

“Then take my bag and my sandals,” he said, “and may God walk with you always.”

And smiling a beatific smile, he uttered a profanity so terrible that the seagulls dropped out of the sky.

Even as a sea lion he was handsome, with skin like silk and caramel and sweet black eyes. María Luisa kissed him on one whiskered cheek, because that was now permitted, and watched him swim into the sea, waves breaking over his golden head, until she saw him no more. Then she put on his sandals and slung his bag over her shoulder and set off across the sand.