By Barbara de la Cuesta
Featured Art: by Farrukh Beg
A late afternoon after work, Rosa puts the flame down under the rice and beans and sits with her feet up in Laureano’s recliner. The knock on the front door Rosa thinks must be Mondo’s social worker, the only person she knows who doesn’t just walk in the back door. Mondo is in detention again for defacing a wall, or an overpass, something.
But it isn’t the social worker, it’s little Esmeralda, daughter of the Mexican grocer on Moody Street, who comes in politely, sits opposite her with a notebook, and asks Rosa can she ask her some questions. Hah, like the social worker, Rosa thinks, then corrects herself. This is a child she used to see sitting on the floor of her father’s abasto sorting red beans. The girl tells Rosa she needs to write a biography of an older person for her fifth grade class.
Ah, Rosa, with her aching feet, feels old.
Not old, old; just older than me, says the child. She used to be in Rosa’s catechism class at St. Justin’s and was notably better behaved and brighter than any of the others.
Hokay, says Rosa, not yet realizing what will happen to her.
So, over the next three weeks, the little girl stops in and sits at the kitchen table with her notebook, drinking café con leche and eating Goya Biscuits while she asks her questions, and sometimes Laureano comes in and wants to sit with them and tell his life story, becoming infatuated with the pretty child.
Rosa does her best to remember: dredging up the more respectable parts of her life in Xoyatla: how her mother had died and she and her sisters and brother had been brought up by her aunt, who cooked the daily soup in great pots on the petroleum stove behind the house, throwing in pieces of meat, when there was any, roots, verduras—you never knew exactly what was in it; and she washed clothes in another great pot over a woodfire, laying the whites over the chicken coop in the sun to bleach. And how they all slept together in her aunt’s big bed, and each older one had to feed a younger one before she could eat herself. And they put on stiff dresses and shoes to walk to church on Sunday, being careful not to scuff the shoes or you couldn’t go out to play after.
All this was until the day her father wanted them all back and took them to live in a half-built house on another street in the village and how they’d been so upset they forgot all the things their aunt had taught them about cleaning and cooking. Why did he want them back? she wonders for the first time. The little girl has made her thoughtful.
But how could she tell the girl about Alejandro turning mean?
How could she tell about Wolfie?
These matters she ponders walking to her jobs out in Piety Corner.
Well, when was she happiest in her life? the little girl asks, causing Rosa to admit the years with her aunt had been happy, however strict her aunt had been.
And the years with their father terrifying, though he was never cruel, only distant; and the littlest, Tito, repeatedly ran back to their aunt and uncle’s house and inserted himself back in their big bed between them.
This leads to telling of that other happy time, living with Alejandro, watching as he built their house, how true his corners were, and tending garden and chickens while she awaited Mondo’s birth.
But this time of happiness led to Alejandro’s shocking cruelty, and her own running away from him twice to save her life, a story she can only hint at for it fills Rosa with shame and Esmeralda is only eleven years old. Rosa can remember her when the girl was six or seven and sat with her eager eyes in the catechism classes she used to give to the Mexican children at St. Justin’s.
So, while the little girl makes her ponder some things for the first time in her life almost, some parts of her life she can’t tell Esmeralda precisely because of that old catechism class.
Rosa loves the Mother of God.
It was the Virgin who saved her those times she had run away from Alejandro. She tells the little girl. When the dark came before her eyes and she fell that time in the forest, it was the Virgin who came to her as a shape of light and lifted her up in time to catch that bus just before dawn, to save herself and Mondo; then saved her a second time when she collapsed with birth pains running away from his blows. The fool she was to go back to him after the first escape went to the priest to ask for advice, and he asked her if she denied him her bed, or failed to serve him his meals. She said, no, none of those things, and he told her to search her heart, there must be something. It was a long time before she consulted priests again.
And then the Virgin gave her the courage to follow Tito to Lowell, Massachusetts with her two babies and live in one dark room in that city of dirty windows, and later to live over a store in Billerica where there was grass and a bright yellow school bus came to pick up Mondo, for school, and she could work outdoors picking the apples.
Always the Virgin help me, she makes clear to the little girl.
But now Rosa, who calls on the Virgin most every day, at her work as a home health aide, to help her not to curse at Helen Schade with her avalanches of supermarket flyers and catalogues, and newspapers she never throws away, or to search all over the city for Alcide Arsenault when he runs away from Eulalie, begins to remember the big bed where they all slept together and what happened to her youngest sister Patricia there, begins to wonder why the Mother of God needed to be a virgin at all to help her.
Maybe a brother or an uncle was the father of Jesus.
This thought doesn’t bother Rosa very much in regard to her own love of Her. To Rosa, She is still to be worshipped; but she knows that, for most people, this thought would bring down their whole Catholic faith.
Rosa, pondering, among all the other memories she picks and chooses to tell the little girl, considers her nearly forgotten sister Patricia.
While the other three of them were verbally nimble, and made good grades in school, Patricia barely talked until she was four, and after that spoke in such a soft voice that they all barely listened to her. Her teachers in the school were always calling their uncle in over her failure to learn to read and write, and he scolded her so much that the little girl asked if she could stay home and help in the house. Their aunt didn’t approve of this, and even Rosa, who had tried to help her read, felt bad about it. But finally they all gave in and forgot about the matter.
When they went back to their father, the arrangement continued, and no one even thought about it anymore. The three of them continued being rapid readers and multipliers and dividers, and to fall into fits of giggles over almost everything that happened, in spite of the trials of living with their father. And then Patricia helped both her father and her aunt and often spent overnights with her aunt and uncle, because she loved her aunt, and was afraid of their father. And no one much spoke to her or noticed her.
Then one after another they all got their bleeding, but not Patricia; and, when they found out why, everybody noticed her. She had a belly that just kept growing. Their aunt suggested that perhaps her bleeding was getting stuck inside her. But that theory couldn’t hold up for long, and when she had just turned thirteen, she had this baby on the floor of their latrine. She got up after from the packed mud floor, cleaned herself up, and brought the child to show her sisters.
He was very skinny always; they tried in vain to fatten him; but the little boy lived and the little girl lovingly took care of him. Their father was ashamed but a little pleased by the boy child; he thought his wife’s death had deprived him of all the little men he could have had running around. No one needed another theory about why Patricia’s belly kept growing.
Rosa alternately blamed her father and then her uncle, and never resolved this question, though it had been her uncle who had tried to make advances toward her and been scared away by her loud protests; La Escandalosa he called her. Probably all three of the fast readers and loud talkers, who also slept in the big bed with their aunt and uncle, were too noisy for him.
When Rosa tries to imagine how Patricia felt about all of this, she never gets quite to the end of her thoughts, but the matter comes into her head a lot when she is alone trying to clean Helen Schade’s house around all the clutter Helen won’t let her touch, the junk mail cascading from ceiling to floor, the forests of walkers and commodes blocking the door, the green and white fuzz-filled boxes from the The Celestial Mandarin that can’t be thrown out. Just straighten, the agency says. We’re not supposed to clean. Ha! She’d like to see them try.
The little girl tells Rosa about things she learns in school, about the Aztecs and the Mayans. They were Rosa and Esmeralda’s ancestors, she says. Rosa has never heard of any such a thing.
They had roads and palaces and temples and astronomy and writing on stones, the girl tells her.
But where did it all go? Rosa says, astonished.
The Spanish took it all away, the little girl says.
Ah, Rosa feels the old sorrow, the defeat of Xoyatla.
And they had writing you say?
Yes, historians are just starting to figure out how to read it.
Mondo has his own alphabet he sprays on walls and overpasses. Only his friends understand his messages. Her son is an artist like his father, she tells Esmeralda. Alejandro carved a long graceful boat once, the kind he and his brothers used to walk down the sand and launch in the ocean and recline in with a fishing line tied around their toes. It is in the museum of art in Tegucigalpa, she says, and some big people want to give him a place to work and make more, but he say no one can tell him what to do, and it come to nothing.
What is the use of art, Rosa wonders; what is the use of hanging off an overpass and painting some alphabet no one can read?
But still there is that boat in the museum.
She is so proud of the little girl. Her teacher has given her a used word processor to write on and says she must practice to be a writer. Soon she will be a woman. She will fall in love and then maybe Rosa can tell her things she can’t possibly confess to now.
But Esmeralda will not be like a ripening pear for any man to pick. She will be a writer. And someday, yes, Rosa will tell her all the parts of her life she can’t speak of now.
All of Patricia’s education came from catechism classes, which, unlike school, she went to happily. She was a good memorizer, so good that once Rosa came upon her resting in a rocking chair reciting to herself a long, really long, part of the Bible almost as if she was reading it. She went on and on, without a stumble. This was an uncanny thing that Rosa never forgot.
Maybe the little girl used these stories to make sense of her mute life.
Maybe as the child grew in her and brought the pains on her on the floor of that latrine, they were all she had to make sense of what was happening to her.
Did she know even, Rosa wonders now, what was sex?
The other three of them had a hold of parts of the sex story. These they found gruesome and hilarious. They were mostly what they giggled about. “Oh, I need to go to the latrine. Maybe it’s a baby coming out!” Patricia was never part of this silliness. Every one of their school friends knew some part of the sex story, depending on how much their parents let out, so they didn’t really miss out by not having their own mother.
And they were good readers. They found much more interesting things to read than the Bible stories that Patricia knew by heart. There were the fotonovelas for sale at the abasto, with their photos and speech balloons based on the romantic soap operas on the radio. These satisfied them for awhile, but were rather formal and couldn’t really show you much sex beyond kissing in a photograph. They found out more after moving on to the centavo paperbacks, whose pages fell out by the time they were passed to the third or fourth reader; and even a sex manual someone found in her house. And of course the boys told them things.
In the case of these dirty boys, at this time, it was enough for them to shock the girls with their revelations. None of them could touch them.
But what could Patricia have thought about her uncle’s huffing and puffing on top of her? Maybe she wasn’t even awake. She seemed as innocent after the birth as before, as much a virgin as before. Was she really still a virgin? By all the standards Rosa knew, she was more a virgin then than her three knowing sisters.
Was this what happened to the Mother of God? Rosa tries to follow this thought on a warm day as she picks dead things out of her garden, thinking of spring creeping up.
They didn’t think Jesus could read. Could his mother?
Like Patricia, Mary must have had the stories by heart. In her heart. Or in her belly, her womb.
Rosa remembered having to explain to the catechism class the line in the Psalm: “ . . . and also in the night my ‘reins’ instruct.” Had to explain that reins were kidneys, and that all the bellyaches described in the stories of the patriarchs really referred to heartaches.
Rosa stands upright and puts her hand over her heart, feels its beat, nothing more.
Could this so-called improvement of the Psalm be incorrect? Could the heart feel pain? Not unless you’re having a heart attack, she thinks, digging around the gardenia bush.
No, it’s the belly, she thinks.
The womb. The womb feels pain. And joy. Elizabeth’s womb leaped when Mary came to visit.
She straightens again, and goes to throw the withered gardenias on the trash pile. Flores marchitas. Rosa’s womb alerts her of its presence every two weeks lately. Her periods saying goodbye to her; she got a heavy one just weeks after the last one, giving her cramps like when she was fourteen.
Not the heart. The belly, the womb.
Her womb, stirring joyfully as she lay in the hammock in Xoyatla, watching Alejandro build their house, feeling Mondo inside her.
For women at least it is the womb.
And in the Dirty Old Book, as they called it, babies came because you asked God for them, like Hannah asked for Samuel.
Rosa forgets all the three names Patricia’s boy was given. They had giggled about her deciding he needed three. The first was Francisco, after their father, the second Jesús, after their uncle, but the third puzzled them, and she couldn’t remember.
She had gone to live with Alejandro soon after and found out all she thought she ever needed to know about sex. It was an odd name, one of the two middle ones. They tried to talk Patricia out of it. But she could be stubborn.
He’s my baby, she said, and seemed to gain some ascendancy over them from then on.
After Rosa learned what she thought were the final secrets about sex, she continued to find it impossible to imagine how sex had come, all unexplained, to Patricia.
She had trouble seeing her uncle pumping above any one of them with their aunt in the bed too.
And how did her aunt and uncle ever do it together, with all these children in their bed?
This is the first time Rosa’s ever had this thought, and she pursues it after she goes in and washes her muddy hands and sets the rice to boil.
Her uncle must have developed a way of doing it, even with his wife asleep beside him, in a way Rosa’s never experienced.
When Rosa dreams of Wolfie coming to her in a bed she imagines it as it must have been with Patricia, awakened out of sleep at a gentle insinuation, teased into a receptive state which required of her not the slightest movement or wakefulness. Until it came, the ravishing.
These are the fancies she walks around with, now that she no longer goes to Wolfie for his bath. She thought she knew all about sex; but no, she can only imagine this different kind of sex when she thinks of Wolfie in his helplessness. His kindness, his beautiful eyes.
Wolfie is a Jewish lawyer in a wheelchair. All she knows about him before his stroke is that he used to help people like her. Like when Isabel Morena’s husband built a house without all the permits and the town bulldozed it to the ground, he helped them salvage the materials. And when Tito Morales’s wife went home to Mexico for her father’s funeral and wasn’t allowed back to care for her three children, Wolfie fixed that too.
Then he had his stroke and could no longer walk or talk very much. Two years the agency sent her to him for his bath. She saw his creamy white skin, without a blemish, his heavy black hair hanging over his brow. She washed his backside and handed him the cloth to wash his own penis the way the agency instructed. His body reminded her of the statue of Jesus come down from the cross and ly- ing across his mother’s lap, a replica of which she had in the bedroom.
Rosa is rich in religious art.
And there was Wolfie, a Jewish man like Jesus. She couldn’t believe they wanted to kill Jesus, their own beautiful son. There must have been some other explanation. And all the time she washed and loved Wolfie, she noted that he seemed to be worshipping her.
Probably because she was gentle. Rosa knew many health aides were hurried and rough, just trying to get through their day.
Ooman, he would groan.
But one day his penis, nested usually in its black curls, stood up. They both looked at it with concern. Then they laughed. They were that easy with each other. And Rosa knew from then on that she represented womanly beauty to Wolfie. Maybe her body reminded him of his wife, who she knew had died many years ago.
“Oooman,” he moaned when her breast brushed him once. Rosa was, she knew, like her mother, una mujer bien plantada. And at least before Alejandro knocked out two of her side teeth, she had been the lovely one of the three older sisters, making the other two jealous.
The agency hasn’t sent Rosa to Wolfie for almost six months. All she can do is observe him from across the room at the Sunshine Club and note some times when no one is helping him to eat. They’ve sent another aide to him, probably someone careless or cruel. Probably the Fahey woman who left people naked on the toilet while she put her feet up and ate one of the snacks she brought in her great night-shift bolsa along with her slippers and her portable radio. Probably it was she who somehow knew about Wolfie’s penis standing up. Though how this was possible Rosa couldn’t explain. The Irish have their Santeria too, she thinks, you could see in their divining eyes.
Rosa at this moment is absently fixing herself a bowl of farina and a cup of coffee, and sees she has filled her coffee cup with farina.
She shakes these vain thoughts out of her head. What has made her so dreamy lately? Missing Wolfie, she thinks. And the little girl with her questions.
How can she ever tell the little girl about Wolfie? Rosa, a married woman.
Well, not married. But she’s lived with Laureano for twenty years. He won’t marry her because he won’t go through the bother of divorcing his wife who left him. Laureano is Puerto Rican and if they were married she’d be legal, but he’ll never get around to it. She’s accepted that now.
She pours out the mess, manages a cup of coffee and a Goya biscuit, and sits down.
With Patricia, the uncle’s sin, as soon as it was delivered into her womb, was purified by Patricia’s innocence. Of this, Rosa is sure. Of all the sisters, she is the pure one, still. Unlike the three rapid readers shrieking over the revelations in the yellowed, falling-out pages of the centavo novelas from the bodega, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, read, knew only the stories she had memorized in catechism.
Rosa is all in a sweat and turns on the kitchen fan before turning the flame down under the rice. An eggplant needs to be used up and she cuts it up into the rice, along with some cilantro and a zucchini.
She tries to think what were the stories in Patricia’s head: Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rachel, Hannah and Samuel, all about women longing for children. And when a child arrived it was a special child.
What was the boy’s third name? Did he live and grow up to help their father? He would be one year older than Mondo.
It was such an odd name. The sisters repeated it over and over, trying to make sense of it.
Madre! Has she again become the dreamy housekeeper who lived with her father and moped around while Patricia did all the work?
She served them all and never complained. And they thought it was her job, since she wouldn’t go to school.
Francisco Jesús . . . These were both names from the family: Francisco, the father, and Jesús, their uncle, and the third name . . .
Francisco Jesús Samuel Flores! There it was.
Two family names and then that strange one they had tried to make her give up.
Hannah. Hannah who shrieked for a child in the temple. The priests thought she was drunk.
He would be a little older than Mondo, who is presently in jail for defacing walls; but there is no one left in Xoyatla of her generation who can read and write.
There is no sin in Patricia, Rosa knows. Just like there was no sin in Mary. Or in Jesus when they crucified Him. He took away the sin of the world. She never understood before what that meant. Seemed like a bad bargain. Was supposed to make her grateful, but it never did.
Yes, he would be a little older than Mondo.
But there was no one left in Xoyatla to write to.
Barbara de la Cuesta has worked in Latin America and in this country as a teacher of English as a Second Language and is currently working in outreach in a Spanish-speaking church. Previously, she has published one novel, The Spanish Teacher, winner of the 2007 Gival Press Novel Prize, and has received fellowships from the New Jersey Council on Arts, Ragdale, the Virginia Center, and the Millay Colony. She has also published Rosa, winner of the Driftless Novella prize from Brainmill Press, and The Mists, from Finishing Line Press. In the works are Henrietta Rose, from Finishing Line, and The Place Where Judas Lost his Boots, Winner of the Brighthorse Prize from Brighthorse Press, a collection of short stories.