“Then she took up a knife which she had hidden beneath her robe, and plunged it into her heart, collapsing from her wound; she died there amid the cries of her husband and father.”
– Livy, History of Rome
In the days of noisy summer afternoons, I didn’t yet know how to read omens. I was too young. I was more worried about the hot road under my bare feet, and the kicking of a tin-can soccer ball. I was worried about the voice of Chuyi yelling “Car!” while someone was close to making a goal. I was not worried about the death of La Vieja Doña Marie. She was La Bruja from down the street. All of us said she had witch powers, that she ate cats and children, that she could turn into a crow and attack us from above, but none of us believed it. Still, we were afraid to get the toys that fell into her backyard.
My sister, Lucrezia, always defended her. She worked for the witch on weekday afternoons, helping her around the house, making dinner. Sundays, after mass, she went by and had coffee with La Vieja. She was our real and only window into La Vieja’s life, but our imagination was more interesting.
“Does she talk to the devil?” Raúl always asked questions.
“No. But her house smells like yerba buena and garlic,” my sister told us.
“Sounds like a witch.” I don’t remember who said that. Sometimes I remember it was Chuyi with his red cheeks. Other times I remember it was green-eyed Raúl. Sometimes, I remember it was me. But that doesn’t make any sense… No… If I had been so dedicated to her being a witch, I would have read the omens.
We trusted Lucrezia more than anyone. She wasn’t just a scholar on La Vieja. She knew it all. She was our leader. When we rode our bikes, when we played soccer on the street, when we rolled in the mud after the summer rain, she was the one who taught us how to wheelie, how to run on asphalt without getting blisters on our feet, and how to stay clean enough for Mom not to get mad but muddy enough for it to be fun.
One day, she excused herself from street soccer to check on La Vieja. Lucrezia stood over the collapsed woman, who lay face down on the floor covered in her black witch’s robes, already dressed for her funeral. The greatest loss was not an old soul leaving that feeble body. If Doña Marie hadn’t died, everything might still be okay. That wouldn’t have been the last summer we rode our bikes together.
I don’t remember much. It wasn’t until every father of every family in every house came out in their sweatpants and stained t-shirts that I noticed who and where I was. My father was the first: he came out of the house to tend to his daughter, he called the police upon seeing the dead old woman, and he calmed the rest of the families. I didn’t realize what had happened until my parents called me inside.
“La Vieja falleció,” Dad told Mom before they set the dinner table, Christ at the last supper on the wall behind him. Any other day, Lucrezia and I would have been outside playing with Raúl and Chuyi. There was still light out. The bright afternoon summer sun was no time to be inside. Yet there we were. I stood by the kitchen window on the side of the sun watching my Mom and Dad cook, set the table, and stand in prayer before the Christ painting, “Do this in memory of me.” My father rolled the mantél over the table and told me there was a life beyond this one, even beyond La Vieja. My mother cried, first over the sartén then into Dad’s arms. La Vieja did something to the little street we lived on in Gregory, Texas. She made my mom cry. She made dinner taste salty with tears.
We never had cold-fronts in mid-July, but we did on that night. No one knew why it came. My dad went outside for a smoke, came back in, grabbed a sweater, went back out. I remember, too, my sister wanting to be alone after dinner. She had a jacket with her when she went to the dark backyard.
Looking back, I now see the omens everywhere. I know that cold front was La Vieja’s last breath. I know she wanted Lucrezia and me to taste our mother’s tears. I know she called us out to that cold dark night, and stay inside while the sun made the day warm. So, I stood out on the backyard patio and yelled, “Lucrezia, are you okay?”
Her voice came from a dark place. “Go back inside.”
I dragged my bare feet on the wood floor. I just wanted to be with her, but it was warmer inside, anyways.
La Vieja’s forgotten family materialized in our neighborhood soon after her death. We all assumed that she had no children because no one visited her, not even on Christmas. From beyond Gregory came three sons, all of different fathers. One was Rafael Gutierrez II, but he went by Yunior. The second was Dustin Gabriel Villa II, who was, of course, Dustin. The last one, the one who only asked for the old pictures when the brothers divided up their inheritance, was Juan Miguel Leon II, also called Yunior. He was the Yunior we never saw. This, is a universal human truth. Good and evil go by the same name: Catholic, Purity, Chastity, Worship, Yunior.
Dustin drove down from Fort Worth to arrange her funeral and take her jewelry and money. Rafa Yunior got the house and whatever knick-knacks Dustin didn’t want, which was everything that couldn’t be sold quickly. Yunior drove up from Brownsville to empty the house, throw drunken fists at his half-brother while the kids from the barrio watched, and call his mother’s place of death his new home. The day after La Vieja’s funeral, the unpaved narrow driveway where policemen parked to confirm her death was turned into a yard sale. Cheap plastic picnic tables lined up the cracked concrete and dirt patches. At first, everyone was offended, but by sunset we were browsing the stacks for hidden treasure.
Yunior was a big scary man. He had a scar on his cheek that chismes said was from a gang fight. He was balding, but he looked a bit young to bald. His dark moustache was never tame like my dad’s, and he wasn’t cross-eyed, but his eyes never seemed like they were focusing on the same thing. Shifty eyed, looking everywhere at once in constant fear of what might come out from nowhere. While our dads in the barrio only wore their stained white t-shirts inside, presenting them outside only in an emergency, Yunior wore his outside without discrimination. When the neighborhood children played, he’d be there in that dirty white t-shirt painting his fence some offensive yellow-green vomit color and drinking Bud-Light. I was afraid of him. I didn’t tell anyone. I hated myself for it. My father, of course, was the first to meet him, take his name, and invite him over to have a beer with the compadres. They were on good terms, but Dad still told us to watch ourselves around Yunior.
My sister browsed the old-lady dresses at the yard sale, maybe just to remember but not to buy, then went over to her tablecloths and sewing equipment. Finally, she landed on a table of old journals. She spent the whole afternoon there, scanning every one of them. Yunior scanned her.
“How much?” She asked Yunior.
“¿Para ti, chaparrita? Llévatelos. For free.”
My sister blushed. It wasn’t a happy blush. It was an ashamed blush. A sad blush. She left $10 on the table, and hauled the box away. He stared at her leaving. His eyes grabbed at her slight hips. I noticed, but I didn’t know what it meant.
“¿Y tú, qué?” He barked at me, so I ran away.
Lucrezia spent the next weeks between leather and canvas covers of dusty journals. She was gone in the family while lying in our living-room. Like clockwork, the late afternoon sun summoned her onto the couch. She was predictable, not like the mundane passing of days, but like the epicycles of Venus crossing heaven. Golden hour came and left with her. Everyone was at peace, and no one was concerned.
I always looked up to Lucrezia, but I never noticed she was beautiful until she lounged on the couch reading dusty books. I didn’t think sisters were the kind of thing that could be either beautiful or ugly. They just were. The ghost of La Vieja told her she was beautiful, which was good, because I wasn’t going to. Through those old pages came a courage she didn’t have before, one that not Mom or Dad nor I gave her. She would be the first girl in our family to wear make-up before her wedding day. One day, on the way back from mass, she turned to Mom and she said, “Mamá, creo que ya puedo usar maquillaje.”
“¿Sí mija? Y cuando tú tienes tu casa y tú mandas puedes maquillarte.”
Lucrezia had a sense of humor, though. She would never rebel directly. What she did instead was upset my mother in any other way she could. She painted her face with ridiculous dyes. Sometimes it was juice from berries, others it was washable marker. She looked like a Picasso on a good day, and Dahli’s Scream on a bad one.
“Te ves ridícula,” my mom complained.
Lucrezia retorted, “¿Mas ridícula así o con maquillaje?” That was when my mom understood, when we all understood, Lucrezia didn’t want to wear make-up to show off, to look pretty. She changed, but in that way. It was never about anyone else. She wanted it for herself.
“Okay, pues, maquíllate. Pero cómpralo tú solita,” my mom negotiated. Lucrezia would be allowed to wear make-up, but she would have to get it herself.
That was no problem. Lucrezia had inherited La Vieja’s words and dresses, just as well that she inherit her make-up too. So, she went back down the driveway to Yunior’s door and asked if there was any more of La Vieja’s stuff. He said there was some in the garage, but she’d have to pay for it. The box on the curb was full of what he couldn’t sell. She ran to the curb to save every relic she could. The ghost of La Vieja had become her guardian angel. Everything she wanted was there. Stationery, shawls, and most importantly maquillaje. All of the colors were exotic, nothing was conventional. There were only shades of precious metals and gems: ruby, sapphire, gold, silver, and emerald. Nothing commonplace. No apple or cherry red. Only plunder, not harvest.
It glistened like lost cities on her dark skin. Her long and wild hair made it look like herself, but possessed, eudaimonic; a ghost from heaven, or even from hell. With La Vieja’s dresses, she adopted her colors; with the make-up, her rite.
They were the witch dresses. Dresses of an old gypsy woman who stole your soul with a slight of hand. On Lucrezia, however, they were Bohemian. Her freshman year of high school hadn’t started, yet she was a woman. I already saw boys saying hi to her at church, at the park, when we bought groceries. She used to be one of the girls from the town, but something of La Vieja turned her into an exotic beauty. She was a visitor among us. I noticed it, my father noticed it, most importantly my mother noticed it. My mother saw the way she handled herself around others, around the clerk at the bank, the grocery store check-out workers, the parishioners at mass, around everyone. She would give a coy smile then look away. She would pretend like there was no conversation happening unless she was referred to directly, then her eyes would focus on the speaker only until their sentence was over. People took on the habit of being long winded around her, tacking subclauses upon subclauses. She replied in almost a whisper, looking at the floor, holding her long curly hair in a fist. My mother would say, “Mija, Saluda a los Villa-Platas,” and my sister would walk towards the family, extend her hand, smile, then look away at nothing in particular. When she listened, she always made the other person feel like there must be something more interesting going on with the dirt on the floor and the spiders on the wall. She nodded, and sighed, and said, “Sí, sí,” if she was speaking to someone at church, or, “alright, yea,” if it was someone at the store, but she hid herself from everyone and everything. The ghost of La Vieja had taught her something her mother’s love never would. To show off, yes, but beauty is hidden, too. To look like a goddess is one thing, but to behave like one is another. To be like God is to make others feel like you’re not listening, but look so that they want you to. In her lipstick and gypsy dresses you saw she was beautiful, but in her other-wards glance you knew she was not yours, not her mother’s, not even God’s. She belonged to herself and no one else. She was the Greek urn. Even if someone kept it on a pedestal beside the fireplace, it could not be had. She was other. We all saw it, and we all loved it.
When summer ended, it wasn’t so easy anymore. Lucrezia brought home half-written papers marked up in red pen and labeled things like, “C,” “D,” “F,” and, “See me after class.” She stayed after school for detention. Her teachers said it was because she was absent-minded. They would give instructions, ask questions, order, and to all Lucrezia stared at the ceiling. There was no eye contact or signs of reception.
“¿Que pasó, mija? ¿Porqué no pones atención?” My mom was a patient woman, but she turned red in the face and screamed about school.
“¿Mande?” My sister gave a glazed-over look.
“¿Para que chingados te mandamos a esa escuela si ni pones atención?”
“Pues déjame en casa.”
Nothing was wrong, really. Nothing moral, anyway. She was just losing her vision. I know because she asked me, “Why do they all write too small?”
We were sitting at the kitchen table studying together. I was doing my math homework, and she was doing hers.
“Who?” I replied.
“Everyone,” she said. “The printers,” she chuckled at herself. “In high school they print everything so small.”
I went over to her side of the table. I saw her worksheet. It wasn’t any different from mine, really. Not in font. So, I went back to my side and held up three fingers as clearly as I could.
“Lucrezia, how many fingers am I holding up?”
“If you hold them so close together how am I supposed to tell?”
So, I told my mom, “No es floja. Esta ciega.” That explained everything. The lack of attention; the other-wards glances; the face buried in the journal. My sister had followed the path of Homer and St. Francis. We thought she cried so much for La Vieja that she went blind. She was one of the lucky few with eyes set on heaven. The ghost of La Vieja said, “Look over here,” and Lucrezia obeyed. She looked. She didn’t turn away.
Then they took her to an optometrist and confirmed it, but glasses were $300 so it wasn’t much help, anyways. There wasn’t the money for it. That was when my sister had this idea:
She went down the street to La Vieja’s house. Yunior was living there now. No one said he was a witch even though he lived in a witch’s house, although a few people said he sold drugs. Cars came by his house every hour or so. He came out and said hi to them, then the cars left. After one drove away, Lucrezia yelled out, “Yunior! Do you have any more of La Vieja’s stuff?”
And he said, “I do, in the garage.”
“Can you get it for me?”
He yelled, “Come in. Get it yourself.”
The two disappeared into La Vieja’s house.
I waited for my sister riding my bicycle around the block. She didn’t ask me to. She didn’t ask me to come with her at all. So, I tried in whatever way I could to forget about it. I thought about how Chuyi and Raúl and I didn’t play together anymore. I thought I should invite them out to play, but I didn’t. The streetlights turned on. I stood on my bike, crossed my arms on the handlebars, and rested my head on my forearms waiting for my sister to come out. It was time to go home, but when would Lucrezia be out? I rode over beside La Vieja’s house and knocked on the door. Yunior opened it and said, “She’s not here,” then slammed the door.
I took my bike and rode it down the street. I saw my sister walking towards our house, but not walking, more like leaning so heavily in one direction gravity pulled her towards it. I slowed the pace of my bike to match her walk and rang the bell on it. I didn’t say anything. I just waited for her black eyes to meet my own. Then she told me, “Llévame a casa.”
I didn’t understand. I expected English but she gave me Spanish. It was always English with my sister, Spanish with my parents. The words didn’t even register. “What?”
“Llévame a casa.” I finally recognized it was Spanish when I saw her eyes were full of tears. None of them dripped down to her cheeks. The water was tense. It couldn’t be English. People don’t cry like that in English. Not my family, anyways.
I got off my bike, walked beside it, and held Lucrezia’s hand. She held back with one hand and cradled herself with the other, clinging to La Vieja’s gold-rim glasses. For weeks, she didn’t talk. But she had the glasses, we got the lenses replaced, and the metamorphosis was over. She was once Lucrezia, now she was a flowy clothed, gypsy dressed, Egyptian painted vessel of the ghost of La Vieja. Before that, I still hoped she would someday lead us around the block on her bike and teach us about the world. Instead, she led nobody nowhere and taught no one nothing. She walked in no direction and the flow of her dress in gentle breezes followed. Her eyes looked at nothing and her large glasses and golden mascara brought out all of their little perfections, undertones of honey and sunset in those deep brown pupils. Looking at those eyes, you might be convinced that, outside of them, there was nothing important worth looking. The other-wards glances were Lucrezia’s wisdom. Her unbound pacing wasn’t anything to follow, but you always wished to line your step with hers. Her utter silence… it was suffering. It was the ugly face of hurt. It made her sigh feel like heaven. I wished that she would talk to me, like she did when she led us.
She began to haunt the house. We lived with a ghost. First, Mom misplaced a cooking pot. Then, herbs were lost from our garden and eggs from our fridge.
“Me hice desayuno,” my sister said but we knew she wasn’t eating. Despite that, we chose to believe. But knives went missing, ladles, and my sister said she had no idea where these things went. I don’t know if my parents noticed, but there was a smell coming from my sister’s room. It made my stomach turn when I went by it. It smelled like sulfur, like cough medicine, like roadkill rotting on the shoulder.
None of us wanted to ask her about it because none of us wanted to ask her anything. She had left her place on the couch. She was no longer reclined there reading in sunset light. She was now a creature who went to school, said nothing, had dinner, said nothing, went to her room, then said nothing. Occasionally I would hear her footsteps through the house at night. Twice I heard the back door open and close. I knew she was sneaking out. Maybe we all knew it, but pretended not to hear. She was, after all, a woman now. Whether she had her quinceñera or not, she treated herself and behaved like a woman. She swayed like a woman. She was beautiful like a woman. She made you feel like she was a woman. So, she left the house like a woman, and had her long hair to cover her.
This went on for weeks, until the day of the note. It was a Saturday night, or a Sunday morning. I remember because we had mass the next day. She knocked on my door at midnight—the only time she ever did anything anymore. I didn’t want to come out of bed. I didn’t know if I should open the door for her. The knock woke me up, and I knew it was her, but the hair on my arms rose with goosebumps at the idea of seeing her at night. I don’t know why I was afraid, but I pretended not to hear her.
The hinges on my door whined as she opened it. Her footsteps clunked. She was wearing heels, I could tell. She sat on my bed, on the side of my back when I slept on my side. She reached over to my nightstand and left a white note. Then, like an angel, she kissed me on the cheek.
Yes, I thought, but kept pretending to be asleep, Goodnight.
Her footsteps went out of my room and the hinges whined when the door closed. I spent the rest of the night crying in bed until I fell asleep. I don’t know why I cried, but I did.
At sunrise I woke up, showered, and dressed for mass. I was too afraid of the note to think about it. It was somewhere on my nightstand, or maybe I had knocked it on the floor, but I didn’t want it on my mind. My parents were already dressed and waiting for me. We sat down there and waited for Lucrezia. Five minutes passed, and she didn’t come. Ten minutes, then fifteen minutes, but no Lucrezia.
Mom was passing up and down the living room. “¿Y en que chingados esta tu hermana?” she asked.
“No sé.” Whatever she was doing, she didn’t tell me about.
Dad grabbed Mom’s hand and said, “Déjala.No quiere venir.”
“¿Vas a dejar que tu hija peque mortalmente?” Mom told him.
And Dad said, “No sabemos qué está pasando en su corazón.”
We left her, and my Mom cried the whole mass and was mad at my father. The priest rose the holy of holies in the air, and my father blessed himself. Once mass was over nobody talked. We went home silently, as silent as Lucrezia, God knows why. To prepare for her, maybe. As if she was a rite.
They approached our front door slowly. My father put his arm around my mother. I know it was to comfort her, so she would be more charitable to her daughter when she saw her, but it felt more mysterious than that. It felt like behind that door, there would be the same holy of holies we saw at mass, the body of our savior. It was, however, just an empty living room, and an untouched downstairs.
“¿Estás bien mija?” Mom asked. I didn’t know why. A premonition.
My dad walked up stairs, knocked on her door, no answer. He knocked again. No answer. He began knocking violently. “¿Mija?” he asked. He continued knocking. “¿Mija? ¿Mija? ¿Estas bien? Por favor ¡Mija!” but nothing.
It wasn’t a strong lock. It was easy for my dad to push in the door with his shoulder. A rank smell flooded the house. Everything in the room made itself known: experiments with dead animals and rotten food. But my dad stood still. He blocked the rest of the room from us. He went a few steps farther into her room, then ran in. I heard the sound of my father crying. My mother after him. I followed the steps, and saw the golden light of the afternoon sun casting on my father hunched over Lucrezia’s body. My mother, petrified, stood over at a corner of the room watching. There was no question from the blood on the floor. That body had no soul. It ripped itself out. You could tell by the slits on the body’s wrists—the ones just above the charm bracelets. Lucrezia was no more of this world, so she left. But she didn’t take anything with her.
Just behind my mother standing and my father crying over the corpse, there was the ghost of La Vieja. My sister had used my mother’s cooking pot as a witch’s cauldron, and placed it beside her bed opposite the door. In it were garden lizards and attic mice. A trail of a blood stain snaked under the bed, where there hid dead raccoons. That smell that flooded the house was from the pet cemetery arranged around the cauldron. That wasn’t what I was looking for. Desperately, I wanted to find her journal. I needed to know why. I thought it had to be La Vieja. Her ghost was somewhere in Lucrezia’s suicide, in her murder. It was she who turned Lucrezia from our leader to a witch. She was the one who took Lucrezia away from the mass and brought her to the cauldron. Under her bed were unmarked boxes: all empty. In her closet was gypsy dresses and shawls. Nothing. No writing anywhere.
“Mijo ¡porque estás destrozando su cuarto!”
I couldn’t speak. I threw dresses one way and another. My tongue was frozen. My face started turning red.
Dad grabbed me. “Ya paralo mijo!”
First the snot came, then the tears. On my upper lip a trickle of mucus flowed down. My voice wasn’t obeying, but I forced speech. “Los cuadernos…” I finally spat in a sob. “Los cuadernos…”
A light shone in my father’s eyes. He began throwing pillows and clothes in all directions just as I was. He picked up and moved her desk, her bed, but nothing. Finally, he threw over her mattress. There it was. How people before banks kept their life savings under them when they slept, Lucrezia kept every word La Vieja had ever written. It was all there. In La Vieja’s diaries were what to do at every full moon, new moon, the changing of the epicycles of Venus and Mars, the Solar and Lunar eclipses with their appropriate festivals. She was a witch. She had written recipes for love potions, revenge potions, and even time dilation.
In the most abused and damaged journal, the one with pages sliding out and string not holding paper to the leather, she wrote how it all started. In these pages I found the demons that haunted Jovencita and turned her into La Vieja, La Bruja. Those same demons haunted Lucrezia. This, then, is the parable of La Vieja:
In her younger days everyone thought she was going to be a nun. No one saw it coming when she fell in love with a young Juan Leon, not even she. Juan Leon was a sweet boy who brought her flowers and wrote her poems. He made Jovencita want to vomit, in a good way. Their first date was the first time she snuck off with a boy. After the third poem, they were both unclothed in the backseat of his car. She cried everyday thinking she was pregnant, thinking she would be disowned. Months passed, however, and no pregnancy. Soon they snuck off together again. Gregory, Texas began to speak rumors. Her reputation went from that of a nun-to-be, to a puta. At the time, the town had a different bruja, whose name nobody knew because nobody ever does. She told Jovencita, “You can bring your pretender here next time.”
La Jovencita was offended, but within the week, the two were embraced skin-to-skin in the old bruja’s guest room. It wasn’t long before she was really pregnant, and Juan Leon took the noble responsibility of marrying her, because he felt that he should, because he loved her. The two lived happily in the Leon Family’s house until the week before the child was born. Juan Leon, who spent all his days working construction with his father to buy himself and Jovencita a house, didn’t live to see the birth of his only son. He lived to write the son poems, instructions on how to be a good man and love his mother and his woman, but not to see the crowning of his head or christening of his soul. On the drive back from work the brakes on his car went out, and he went straight for the only busy intersection in town. He was struck on the driver side by a cargo truck pushing 70 on a 40. His little Chevy Impala was crushed like a tin can. Silver aluminum bloodied red from Juan’s grapefruit body still inside it.
The doctor who delivered Juan’s son asked, “What’s his name?” then he remembered who he was speaking with, La Jovencita, who he heard she was, and suggested, “Juan?”
So La Jovencita said, “Juan. Yes, Juan. But Juan Miguel.” The nurse handed her the new little body. It was red like the blood of a lamb, but his eyes were brown like church pews. “Miguel. So, someone will defend him.” Thereby naming her son Juan Miguel Leon, after his father and the Archangel protector from demons.
On the other hand, Juan Miguel Leon’s unfortunate brother Dustin Gabriel Villa II was not conceived for love, but for convenience. Once Juan Leon died Jovencita’s mother-in-law went back to calling her a puta, and changed the locks to keep her out. Out of money with nowhere to live, Jovencita took herself to be the mistress to a rich man: Dustin Villa, who inherited large portions of land which cradled oil buried beneath. Dustin had a wife, and several other mistresses, but Jovencita was the most discreet. That was why Dustin supported her and Juan Miguel for so long. While other mistresses were discovered, nameless inconspicuous Jovencita retained something of the meekness from her nunnish maidenhood. Unlike the other mistresses who cast devious stares at him when the wife was around, Jovencita always had her nose towards the ground and wore her hair like a veil.
She knew that financial stability was one pregnancy away with Dustin, and financial ruin was five years of wrinkles and a new assistant away. The problem was that Dustin was as inconspicuous as she was. He only ever wanted to finish on her face, chest, in her mouth. He could not risk her pregnancy.
Jovencita started keeping a syringe in her purse. After sex, she would go to the restroom, “I need to clean myself up, gordo,” and collect all the semen into one place with a spoon, before sucking it into the syringe and inseminating herself. All she needed to do to make it believable was say, “Please start inside of me, just to get me horny… I want you inside,” then tell him the pregnancy must have been caused by pre-ejaculate.
Dustin denied it, of course. “She’s a puta. Anyone could be the father.” Rumors, however, spoke Jovencita’s favor, and soon a blood test did, too. For once, the town sided with her, but Dustin did not budge. He stopped depositing money in her checking account. So, when the baby was born, she named him Dustin Villa II. Whispers followed the Villa family. Everyone heard them, even in mass, even during the sermon; Dustin’s wife threatened to leave him. Finally, Dustin Villa I gave Jovencita a large sum of money to quiet down, rename the child, and tell everyone he wasn’t the father. She followed these instructions, and gave Dustin Villa II the middle name of Gabriel after another archangel who had some title Jovencita had forgotten.
Although she was rewarded with welfare, she was also punished with a reputation as a whore. Men would see her at the grocery store, at restaurants, anywhere in public, and asked if she wanted, “a ride.” She’d blush and leave, but the more she blushed and left the more they followed. Jovencita’s cousin, Rafael Gutierrez, was the one who followed most persistently. First, he would follow her with his eyes in and out of the store. Then, he would slick his hair back and follow her into the store. She’d notice, and get her shopping done faster. “Hey,” Rafael would grab her attention. “Need help with the bags?” he said with a lisp on account of three missing teeth.
“I’m fine on my own.”
After an incident where he pressed her against her car outside the grocery store and the clerk threw him off the premise, Rafael had to get more creative. He waited until she went to the grocery store without the kids. When she did, there was always a point when the distracted boys who watched her car were busy playing with the shopping carts, smashing them into each other. One smash was a timed enough destruction for Rafael to pick the lock of her Ford Fiesta. He waited in the back seat for her.
She fought back. Rafael, however, was a big man. Her fighting back soon turned into his getting what he wanted. Thus, Rafael Guiterrez II was born. His father already had the name of an angel, she thought, so the boy didn’t need another name. Like that, La Jovencita became La Vieja, and was no more with angels or with God. She adopted brujería, and helped several young girls of Gregory, Texas reach womanhood without the rape of any man. Never again would a woman have to suffer what she had to suffer. She had magic powers now. Archangels served men, La Bruja would serve women.
The three brothers were raised by their grandmother because La Vieja didn’t have the heart to nurture them anymore. Rafael, she never had the heart to see. She had the heart to give them only what their fathers handed down to them. Poems made the first son, Juan Miguel, into a monk. A Franciscan one in the very monastery I joined years later. He wrote to his mother daily and fathered my apostolate. Money made the second son, Dustin Gabriel, into the most successful used-car dealer in San Patricio county. He sent enough money to his mother every month to fight off guilt; he didn’t want to know she was starving while he was driving a Hummer. Then there was Rafa, Yunior, who got nothing and became nothing.
After reading these diaries, we had a better notion of Lucrezia’s transformation, of her rejection of the church, but not of her suicide. When Father Julio called after hearing about her death, my father said, “No vamos a tener un funeral Católico.”
“Porqué no?” asked Father.
“Fue bruja. Se suicidó.”
Still, Father said, “We do not know her heart,” and the funeral was arranged.
It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that I read the little white paper she left on my nightstand. It was folded several times. It was hard as a rock and the edges were bitten so she could keep folding it. She didn’t want God to open it. Inside, behind the several creases, was her diagram of the back yard with a red X between the bluebonnets and the Easter lilies. So, I put my hands in the dirt and I dug up the small leather-bound journal Dad got her for her birthday. The pages made a skirt shape, the way they do when you always have a book with you. I took it with me to the funeral and hid it in my coat pocket. I couldn’t pay attention during the mass. All I could think about was the journal. So, I took it to the back pew, and opened. I skimmed over as much as I could, until I reached what I knew was her suicide.
From the front yard of La Vieja’s house Lucrezia yelled out, “Yunior! Do you have any more of La Vieja’s stuff?”
And he said, “It’s in the garage.”
She said, “Can you get it for me?”
“Come in. Get it yourself.”
Passing him was when she noticed his hands were shaking. His eyes were shot read, almost dead red. She didn’t see them when he hid behind the garage door, but he stared straight at her through the kitchen and into the dark room. He pointed a flash light at the box of La Vieja’s things. She ran towards it like a child. Once she bent over to pick up the box, she felt a pressure on each side of her hips. Then it felt very warm. How pretty you look, he said, in neither English nor Spanish, or both and something in between. All she did was look at the box under her be crushed. It smelled like dust.
I didn’t notice her blood when she came out of La Vieja’s house. I didn’t notice it at all. She wrote that she bled like they do in the movies, like you imagine in the books. The only thing she did more than cry was bleed. She bled, she saw me, and she said, “Llévame a casa.” I walked her to our house.
Lucrezia performed the purification ritual. She followed La Vieja’s instructions best she could: to construct Mary the Jewess’ Bain-Marie and separate the blood, to recite Sappho’s ode to Aphrodite, to burn a candle for Artemis. She built a Bain-Marie from our mother’s kitchenware, stealing one pot at a time. She needed to unite herself with nature. She needed animal blood. She began with the lizards in our garden, then the rats in our attic. Soon she had the raccoons in the dumpster carved under her bed. When the Bain-Marie was ready and the rite could begin everything went wrong. The blood boiled over the copper pot and onto the floor. It flowed down the burner and onto the rug. When she tried to stop the heat, blood seared her hand. She threw over the Bain-Marie and the last of the blood spilled out. Her panties fell from the pot unto the burner itself. While she was focused on the mess, the very thing which needed purification went up in flames, but pink lace was not too different from red fire. She gave up. Her purity now lost, she felt her worth go with it. All the gold in the world wouldn’t convince her there was something of God in her. She grabbed the Bain-Marie and let her hands feel the three degrees, so she could place it upside down on the fire and choke it out. She used a wet towel to push the blood under her bed, where it dried, how we found it the day of her suicide.
She felt no closure. She failed both God and goddesses just like archangels failed La Vieja. She had to end it all. “Llévame a casa,” she wrote, those same words she told me, but she just kept writing them down on the page. “Llévame a casa,” the only thing she’d ever said to me in Spanish.
As I read those words the funeral was ending. We had processioned outside and I hadn’t even noticed. The coffin was being lowered into the ground. “Llévame a casa,” repeated in my head. Take me home. They lowered her into the same ground I picked up her journal, in the same earth we buried La Vieja. She would be far away from everyone, untouched, mummified, preserved eternally in that steel box. “Take me home,” she begged. La Vieja heard. Lucrezia was taken.
Oso Guardiola was born in Mexico and raised in Texas. He carried this severe “borderlands” syndrome through his education in Philosophy and Theology and now uses it in his readings at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and writing their Book Project.