Wolfson Award, 2009 (Short Fiction, 2nd Place)
The Day I Became Guilty
I was another Mexican girl with a yellow sack for a dress – but with a dying father. Papa was lying in bed on a sweltering July Tuesday, under our best sheets. We were too poor to take him to the doctor and he did not want to go anyway. Mama prayed for him constantly, and every hour she would say, “Isabelle, go fetch cool water,” and I went obediently to pump the water.
Mother’s prayers were in her mouth as she made lunch, clutching a black and gold rosary, winding it around her wrist, stroking the wooden beads with the tips of her fingers, unconsciously moving from one bead to the next. She held it in one hand while she made tortillas with the other. Her lips would move silently while she pressed the dough, and I knew the prayers so well that I could follow along, reading her lips while she prayed, the edges of her mouth wilting downward.
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Before Papa got sick, our house was full of life. It was a small ranch with faded-orange stucco, adjacent to the road, so closely that passing carts blocked our door. My friends would chase me from the street, right through our tiny living room and out the back. We were like laughing elephants stampeding on the clattering wooden floors, and it seemed like our house belonged to everyone.
Papa would yell at us, “Settle down!” But despite his efforts to appear stern, he could not hide the smile on his face, and we smiled along. He would shake his head at Mama and ask, “Did we ever act like that?” and she would answer, “Of course not,” with a grin. She said that she married Papa because he was the only person who ever made her smile. He was the center of our world, and when he became sick, so did everything else.
My friends no longer came around, and our house became still. I was tethered to that place—tethered to that awful stillness. Papa was a construction worker, but now the walls of his house, like all of us, were suffering with him. In my frozen moments, sitting by Papa’s bed, I noticed all the details of the walls. The yellow plaster had cracks, and I could see the blue paint from years-past peeking through. I would sit by his bed, tracing those cracks with my eyes – they were like rivers on a globe, cutting across the walls, and I knew them all by heart. The rivers seemed to stop near Papa’s water glass. The window by his bed allowed a little air to move the curtains, and sometimes they were all that moved.
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Finally Tuesday arrived, and each Tuesday I would fetch ice from the church. It would be chipped from the block and Mama would gently rub it on Papa’s lips, sometimes for hours. Last week, when I carried the ice home, my older brother, Antonio, embarrassed me by pointing out to his friends that my chest was not flat anymore. I hated him for that, and I wanted to wear extra clothes to hide my shame. But on this day, I would not be going for the ice. The rocks and cactus along the way were sharp, and my sandals were needing repair – so it was Antonio who would have to go. I was happy about it; he deserved it after his antics, but before he left, Antonio told Mama, “I think Papa needs cool water” – and then he laughed as I went to fetch it.
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Antonio and I loved our church with the type of faith children are blessed with. Our church was called Our Lady of Guadalupe, and she rested quietly atop a great wind-swept hill, until her bronze bell would ring, calling out in deep rich tones that would echo off the houses and into our hearts. The parishioners would appear in a procession of groups, ascending the hill, bringing their babies and bibles to pray. The hill itself was overgrown with green cactus and thick brush. Hidden within the brush were beautiful blooms, tiny blond flowers, brittle and elaborate, which could only be appreciated while looking carefully. Antonio would gather the tiny blossoms, using the delicate cuttings to mark the pages of the hymnals, reminding us all that the beauty of God was everywhere.
The inspiring wooden doors of the church had no locks, and they would groan loudly as they opened, announcing each visitor to the great room. There were large sacred bowls of water to dip our fingers into before making the sign of the cross. The bowls reflected the windows above, and when you dunked your fingers, the ripples seemed to last forever. The sunlight filled our church; it would cascade from the windows above, spreading out like warm butter onto the toast-colored pews. It was no great cathedral, but Mama told us it was the greatest of all churches, because our church was not the great bell or the large crucifix above the altar, it was the singing of the people. The singing was like heaven, lifting our hearts to God – and when the choir sang “Hallelujah,” their voices rose into the rafters; I felt like my feet would leave the floor.
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Aunt Gabriela would visit us without warning, and this day was no different. She was a formidable woman, powerful from farm labor, with hands like leather and the heart of an angel. She stared at Papa and lit candles for him, kissing his dark eyes and rubbing his cold feet. She sprinkled him with holy water and changed the sheets. She sang songs while she worked in Papa’s room, spirituals she learned working in the fields. When she was done, Aunt Gabriella warned Mama in whispered words that Papa was waiting to die.
She said he was too proud to let anyone see him lose control and pass on – he would wait until he was alone. This made perfect sense to me because I saw Papa’s pride. He fought in the village circle, upturning carts of red potatoes and breaking the axe handles of a vendor who overcharged me nine pesos. He told me it was the food in my Mexican mouth he fought for, and that it did not matter if it were nine pesos or nine thousand. I was proud too – so proud of Papa that I stood tall and firm with clenched fists when the police came. Papa loved to tell that story. He said I looked like a Chihuahua, small but with the heart of a wolf. He was prideful, it was his way, and even death would not take him unless it was on Papa’s terms.
When Aunt Gabriela left, Mama chimed, “Isabelle,” using a musical voice which sounded like a song but meant chores. She explained that Papa was never to be left alone. She told me it was important, and that I was to stay with him until she returned from the neighbors. She was going to get batteries for Papa’s radio.
I did as I was told, quietly at first, and then I sang to Papa, a song about butterflies which we made up together on the bank of the river. He opened his eyes a little and I saw him smile. “You remember our song, Papa?” I said, beaming – and he gently smiled back. He moved a little, bumping the nightstand and causing the water in his glass to rock back and forth. He looked at me like I was a treasure, and while his timepiece ticked the tempo, I sang as well as I could.
Our song was interrupted by Antonio. He’d returned from the church, struggling to hold the ice with both hands, kicking the front door to get my attention. I hesitated for a moment, looking at Papa, unsure what to do. “Isabelle open the door!” Antonio insisted loudly, so I left Papa’s room for a moment – a moment which has haunted me for 60 years.
I pulled the door open with a grin, but instead of Antonio, I saw Mama’s anxious eyes. She pushed me aside roughly and ran to Papa’s room. For a moment, everything was so quiet that I could still hear the ticking clock. I went to Papa’s door and saw her over his bed. Then I heard the sound of Mama taking a deep breath – the kind someone takes before they scream. She turned to me and clenched her fists so tightly that her rosary broke – and I watched while batteries and rosary beads tumbled and bounced with little thuds and pings, smattering all over the floor in what seemed like slow motion, scattering despairingly in that horrific stillness.
Mama’s scream was like nothing I had heard before. She cried, “Isabelle! Isabelle! You killed your Papa! You killed your Papa!” Her screams were so loud that they punched holes in me – holes which are still filled with the perfect precision of her painful words. The ice dropped from Antonio’s hands with a crushing thud. He started pleading with Papa to just be asleep, “Please, Papa, please just be sleeping, Papa, I need you, Papa, I have your ice, I’ll never be a bad boy again, please, Papa, please…” Mama stood tall, pointing at me, her cries turning into anger, “I just asked you to stay with him for five minutes and you did not love him enough to do this one thing. You killed him! You did this!” Her wicked words were in her eyes for me to see, and for a bewildering moment, she did not even look like Mama to me.
Antonio began to shake Papa, pleading for him to wake up, “Please, Papa, wake up Papa, please, please…” – his cries had changed into desperate pitiful-begging. He knocked over Papa’s glass and the water poured out onto the floor, draining through the wooden slats. Hearing Antonio’s cries hurt me deeply, and I knew our lives had changed forever. I became filled with fear, and I felt a sudden sickness in my stomach. This was all my fault and I ran from the house in a mindless frenzy. I ran all the way to the church and I flung myself on the floor in front of the altar, crying out, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, God, forgive me, I killed him… I killed Papa!”
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Hours later, Aunt Gabriella came to the church. She carefully pulled the cactus needles from my crimsoned feet, wiping away the blood with her apron – it felt like a dream. I remember how slowly she lifted me from the floor, wrapping me up in her powerful arms and rocking me like a baby while my tears dotted her yellow linen blouse. Her arms were a relief from the sorrowful gravity that pressed my face into the floor at the foot of the cross—a relief like Zoloft brings to the depressed, numbness instead of despair, but never truly restoring hope. She carried me all the way to her home, returning me to Mama the next day after Papa’s body was taken to the church.
I wanted to talk to Mama and tell her I was sorry, and sometimes I think she wanted to talk to me too, but we just couldn’t. It became a wedge of sorrow hanging sinfully between us, sapping all our happiness until we no longer spoke at all. Two years passed like that, and a week after my 14th birthday, I came home from school and found Mama, cold and lifeless, on Papa’s bed. She was just lying there, and I knew she was dead – the way she was sprawled out, one fuchsia shoe dangling from her foot.
I don’t know why I did it, but I simply backed away. For Mama there was no shaking, or pleading – no screaming or tears. She was just dead – spread out on Papa’s bed with the same look of unhappiness she wore every day. Later, I felt guilty for not crying – I wondered what kind of daughter would not cry when she found her mother dead like that? I felt pathetic and sinful.
At Mama’s funeral, I hid my face completely, not because I was worried people would see me cry, but because they might judge me for not crying at the funeral of my own mother. Even people who were almost strangers to her looked genuinely sad that she was gone, and I could not muster up a single tear.
I barely noticed how plain her coffin was, the type the church gives those who have no money – I was detached from the details, so disconnected that I did not deliver words for Mama, or even pray. Instead, I just sat there, selfishly hiding my face and wondering if she was even alive when I left for school the day she died because the silence of that morning was like every other. When the funeral ended, it started to rain. The sky seemed to spring tears for all of us, and it sent everyone scurrying back to their homes, leaving only Antonio and his friends to fill in the hole.
Aunt Gabriella said Mama died of a broken heart, and she took me in, leaving the ailing house to Antonio. Living with Aunt Gabriella was strange at first. It was never awkward or silent. In the days that followed, she spoke with me often, and in ways Mama never did. In time, I came to understand that Aunt Gabriella talked with a purpose – she used our conversations to gently reopen my heart.
After breakfast one morning, I was preparing to leave the house for school, and the thought of Mama dying on Papa’s bed took me completely by surprise. I could see her, suffering in the stillness of Papa’s room, alone and scared – and I felt profoundly sorry. My absent emotions appeared all at once, crashing like an aching ocean, drowning the fires of my arrogant heart, causing sorrowful tears to well up and flow willingly – and with them, I was my mother’s daughter again. I loved her, and missed her, and I knew it completely.
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I have lived a lifetime since then. I have dipped my fingers in the sacred bowls every day for 60 years. I’ll never know what words might have passed between Mama and me if we had been able to talk about the great sadness of that July Tuesday. I’ll never know if she could have forgiven me, or if she really blamed me for Papa’s death as much as I have blamed myself. The events of that day took Papa, and then Mama – and those moments have lasted all of my life, because it was the day I became guilty.