Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE RETURN
b y   j a n e   e.   z i m m e r m a n n
s o u t h   d a r t m o u t h,   m a s s a c h u s e t t s

MARIA FERNANDEZ got up out of bed as she did every morning, washed her face, brushed her long hair, stepped into a sturdy dress, set her breakfast of cornbread and bananas on the table and started the coffee to brew, and it seemed like an ordinary sultry July morning, until Pedro Fernandez, her husband who had been dead for eight years, walked into the kitchen from the dusty street, hung his hat on a peg, and sat down at the table.

She grasped the edge of the stove to steady herself and looked at him a moment to be sure. Yes.

She thought it would be best not to vent her anger at him right away for taking so long to return, and for being stupid enough to be trampled to death by his own mule, who had been stung by a ground wasp, so she held her tongue.

She watched as he ate all of her breakfast as if he hadn’t eaten for the eight years he had been dead and waited for him to speak first. She knew she would have to wait a long time, because before he died, he had never spoken to her unless it was absolutely necessary, and it was clear that he had not wanted to hear her voice any more than his own.

She boiled water and prepared a bath near the stove for him. It would be important that he wash off the cobwebs of the grave. She wasn’t sure of the procedure in these matters, never having known of someone who returned like this, so she threw rosemary, vervain and lavender into the water just to be safe. What to do next? She’d go to church and pray for protection. Yes, if she didn’t, the whole town might disappear from the face of the earth, as had nearby Santander, shortly after the town’s crazy woman gave birth to the child with butterfly wings. The child had flapped his luminous wings and created a tiny whirling zephyr which slowly developed into a voracious draft from the heavens that sucked up Santander, leaving not a trace.

Pedro’s return seemed equally hard to believe, but Santander was gone and Pedro was here. Who was she to question such miracles? She pulled open the secret drawer in the sideboard and lifted out a small wooden box with a faded pink satin liner. She took out her good rosary beads and the small bag of coins she’d saved. Closing the drawer again, she turned and picked up her mesh bag, lifted her shawl onto her head, and started out for the church, leaving Pedro in his bath with a sublime look on his face.

In the street, the sun, not yet above the trees, was already hot enough to draw moisture onto her skin. Everything seemed the same. Window boxes on every porch railing were blooming and old Mrs. Sanchez was already fanning herself, sitting on her front steps. Maria nodded her greeting to the woman whose face looked like a dried apple. Chickens pecked in the dusty yards and children played, spending their youthful exuberance before the sun sucked even them dry of ambition.

Nothing seemed different except the way she felt. The world should have stopped and noticed the miracle at her house, not just gone spinning on as if nothing was different at all. It was that same feeling she’d had when, for the third time, she’d lost her child at birth and the doctor told her she would not be able to conceive again. That was when the women of Milleflores started avoiding her, out of fear of the contagion of her curse. And when she regained her strength and stepped out in that same street as a barren woman, Milleflores just went on without pausing for her sorrow, and she had felt invisible.

She realized then, that this village, these people, wanted to know of sorrows, but did not care to share in them. So she decided she would no longer care about Milleflores. And when the mule trampled the life out of Pedro and he was cold in the earth, she had nothing left to embrace but solitude.

She kept to herself, farmed her small piece of land, and scratched out a living by selling her woven articles to the flood of tourists who brought life to Milleflores in the springtime. They came to see the famed flowers that bloomed by the thousands on the rolling hills above the town. Each spring, the landscape was transformed into hills like pink llamas. In the shadows of these hills, Maria toiled alone with the peace of resignation.

Today’s was not an everyday miracle, and she was strangely disturbed by it. She did not want everyone to know until she was sure that her adventure was not a misadventure—that it was a blessing, not a curse. Her secret would be hidden in her invisibility. She would seek the counsel of her priest, after she protected herself with prayers. And so the familiar invisible feeling became like a secret vice, thrilling and satisfying, and mortal.

As she stepped into the dim church, the heat fell away. The holy water was cool in the marble basin and she touched it to her brow and blessed herself. She dropped her coin into the cup, chose a candle, lit it, and placed it in the sand with the others. The flickering light rose up and danced on the stone face of the Holy Mother, and she recognized her expression.

What to ask for? What does one ask for when confronted with...a return? She needed understanding. Pedro’s silence had not been easy to live with, and she had no reason to believe that it would be any easier now. But he had been hard working and kind. And in this town, a woman with a man existed. At least she would not be alone any more in her quiet house. If she could only understand him, his return, it would be better. Understanding she needed. Yes.

It was after the morning mass and there were few people in the church. She touched her knee to the stone floor and entered a pew near the back. Kneeling in prayer, she recited the rosary and asked forgiveness for her sins and for protection in the face of any strange events. And for understanding.

She rose and making the sign of the cross, she turned to leave. Her priest was sitting on a stone bench just outside the church, leaning on his cane, asleep in the shade of a tree. She knew she couldn’t hide Pedro forever, so it would be best to seek the help of the church.

“Father, good morning.”

Nothing. She cleared her throat and repeated her greeting a little louder.

He roused. “Maria, how are you today?” He nodded his head with its halo of white hair.

“Fine, thank you, Father. Well, I think fine...” She looked at the beads in her hands.

“Can I help you, Maria?” He brought up his hands in a prayerful position.

“I don’t know, Father.” She looked down at him. “Something strange has happened. A miracle, of sorts.”

“A miracle?” He nodded and stroked his chin.

She looked around at the people walking by. “Father, could we speak inside, please?”

He unfolded his long robed arm like a raven's wing, pointed toward the church door, and nodded his head. He leaned on his cane and pulled himself up off the bench. Shaking his head, he muttered as they walked into the church. They sat on the bench along the back wall, both gazing forward. She fingered her beads in the musty shadows.

“Yes, my child?”

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

“Maria, is this a confession?”

“No.” She cleared her throat. “Yes... I have taken the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Maria.” His voice was gentle.

“Well, I don’t know.” She sighed. How could she tell him? “I have overpriced my weaving.”

“You are a fine weaver, Maria.” He shifted on the bench to face her. “Now, something about a miracle?”

She’d have to tell him. Or she could make up something else miraculous, and if Pedro just stayed inside, maybe nobody would see him and nothing would come of it. No, he would eventually be seen. She’d have to tell.

“Maria?” His voice startled her. She clutched her beads to her heart.

“Yes, Father?”

“Is there something else to tell me?”

She took a deep breath. “Yes, Father.” How could she word it? “Father, Pedro came back this morning, for breakfast.”

“Pedro?”

“Yes, you remember.” She pulled her shawl close around her face and lowered her voice. “I have been visited by my husband who was dead.”

“My child, you feel you are possessed?”

“No! No.” How could she explain? “Resurrection. My husband is back from the dead.”

“Maria! Are you ill?” He took her hand and patted it.

“No, Father. I tell you, he is back and he is real. My hunger tells me so.”

“Your hunger?” He pulled back his hands.

“Yes, Father. Pedro is back and alive enough to eat my breakfast this very morning.”

“Ah, your breakfast. I see.” He nodded and stared off at the altar.

She listened for a reply. It was as if she could hear him thinking, ‘Ah, the poor widow’s gone mad for want of a man.’ Or at best, ‘The devil’s taken her poor soul!’

His voice broke the silence. “Maria, I hear no sin. Say one Hail Mary and go visit Doctor Angelo. Perhaps you have a disorder of the stomach. Bless you, my child.”

He rose, shaking his head, and shuffled out to resume his nap. She sat in the comforting darkness. She might have expected such a reaction. If she wanted people to believe her, she’d have to show them proof. She’d have to show Pedro to them. And suddenly, a plan unfolded its wings in her mind, and after an eternity of solitude and toil, she saw that things were about to change.

Her plan infused her with a vibrant energy. Her footsteps were resolute as she marched out of the church. The plan would have to work. She’d endured the slight of the town for too long, but soon they would be begging to come to her. First, she had to figure out how to keep Pedro happy. He had been a man of simple pleasures. Yes, first she’d stop at the tobacconist.

She crossed the dusty street and slipped into the store. She avoided the glances of the men when they saw a woman enter, a widow. It didn’t matter what they thought. She had her reason for being here and they’d find out soon enough.

“Maria,” Carlos Rodrigues nodded. “I haven’t seen you...well, it must be years.”

“Yes, it is years.” She had no need to give him the satisfaction of his curiosity. “Cigars, please. One, no, two boxes.”

“Certainly.” Carlos looked at her and waited. “Brand?”

“Macanudos,” she said. “Garcia Vegas, of course.” She looked him straight in the eyes and then she could not resist lighting the fuse to the blast she was planting, so she added in a loud voice, “Pedro’s favorites.” She held his stare and nodded with a slight smile.

Enough said to turn the town on its ear. She felt the stares of the men in the smoky shadows of the shop. Carlos placed the boxes in front of her on the counter. She paid and gathered them up and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Carlos called. “Your change.”

“I won’t be needing it,” she said without turning around. No, she wouldn’t have to scrape to save a few coins anymore. Her confidence was growing as she strode across the street, into the general store, and up to the counter.

“Maria, can I help you?” asked Helena, the matriarch of the town, civil and cool.

“Good morning, Helena.” She was almost drunk with the inspiration of her plan. “A fine morning, is it not?” She gave an unusual, friendly smile to the old woman.

She saw Helena’s gray eyebrows shove up the wrinkles of her forehead, and saw Helena just as quickly catch them and pull them back down into their familiar roost over her dark eyes.

“Yes.” It was more a question than a response. Helena eyed her.

She continued with a friendly voice, “Cornmeal, one sack, please.”

She watched the tug-o-war with the eyebrows. “A whole sack?”

“Yes, a two-kilo sack. Also two kilos of frijoles, and rice, and a kilo of cercena.” She smiled and wondered if Helena would dare ask if she could pay. The old woman plodded off and she could hear her in the back room exclaiming something in abrasive whispers about crazy and not giving good food to a loca.

She felt the smile of her secret as she waited. Two wrinkled faces peered around the doorway to look at her. Helena’s cronies were bold enough to step into the space behind the counter and stare, hands clasped against their apron-clad breasts. She held her gaze just above their heads, keeping the expression on her face slightly exalted, and watched as the dust filtered through the shafts of sunlight pouring through the smudged window above. They looked at each other and escaped to the back room. More whispers.

Helena returned with the sack of cornmeal and the other two women followed, carrying the rest of the food. They placed the items on the counter in front of her. The three women stood there waiting, the anger of suspicion in their eyes.

Helena broke the silence. “This will make a lot of meals.”

“Yes.” And as she was hungry after long years of cloistering herself from these people, she swallowed the hook with the bait and said back, “Pedro will be hungry after so many years.”

All three pairs of eyebrows shot toward the ceiling. She simply smiled and asked, “How much?”

“What?”

“Do I owe you?”

“Five thousand one hundred pesos.”

She counted out the money on the counter and, holding her hand over it for a moment, coolly said, “Prices have gone up.” Placing her things in her mesh bags, she turned and, leaving the store, she could hear the whisperings start.

Stepping into the sunlight, she saw the men of the tobacco shop lined up in front, watching her. As she walked down the street, she heard hurried footsteps behind her and turned to see Helena staring after her from the doorway of the store, her two companions fleeing to spread the news.

She could imagine how they would enjoy telling of widow Fernandez, finally gone crazy, thinking her long-dead husband was back from the grave. They could feast off such a piece of gossip for weeks. And she knew that she had started the unfolding of her plan, that they would have to come and see the crazy woman for themselves, and when they did, she’d have Pedro by her side, and then she’d show them that she was somebody, somebody worthy of God’s miracles. And she knew they’d pay to come and see Pedro and seek his counsel. And they’d come from far and wide. Yes, the coins would overflow the pink satin of the box she’d place to collect them.

Her parcels were heavy and she put them down in the cool shade of the church. She rested there a moment, and her eyes wandered to the graveyard. The particulars of her miracle were not yet apparent. So, out of curiosity, she walked behind the church and up to the graveyard all the way to the far east corner to see if Pedro’s grave was gaping open.

The sun felt feverish on her back. At the familiar site, she looked around. Could it be? Rulfo, Carpentier...Guillen...No Fernandez! Not a trace. He had vanished from the dead. She felt weak with the power of her miracle, so clean and perfect. She blessed herself and retraced her steps to her bundles, feeling an urgency to get home to Pedro. She was not entirely sure whether his return was to be permanent, or if he might be gone again as fast as he had appeared, and she wondered, if he did blink off again, whether they would have to dig another grave for him or if his old one would simply reappear.

As she walked down her street, she saw Mrs. Sanchez get up from her rocker and hurry inside. The curtain in the front window trembled as she passed. Helena’s messengers worked fast. No matter. She would have time to make Pedro presentable before the first ones dared to come.

She stepped across the porch and into her kitchen. The tub was empty. She placed her bundles on the table beside the empty breakfast plate and listened. Nothing. A coldness ran down her neck and across her shoulders. Dios mio, he couldn’t be gone again, not yet. Then she heard it, the familiar light tapping of his small hammer. She went into the main room and there he was, repairing her window box. By the light of the small window, his face looked older, more than eight years aged. Maybe it hadn’t been easy for him on the other side. He was wearing his clean clothes she’d kept all these years. Yes, things work out well when you have miracles.

Quietly, she placed a box of the cigars on the table beside him, and rested one of the panatelas across the top with some matchsticks and an ashtray. She’d let him work, hoping he would again enjoy making the planters he’d sold to the tourists.

Returning to the kitchen, she caught a glimpse of herself in the tiny mirror that hung on the wall above the washbasin. She paused and brushed back her hair, noticing the gray. What would he think? Her face looked tired and drawn as she eyed herself. Her eyes seemed dark and almost unfamiliar to her. Perhaps she’d just never cared to notice how she looked. Or maybe everything looked different while miracles were happening. It had been a struggle alone, but now it would all be easier for them both. She’d take note of her appearance. A bath for herself, and her best dress, and she’d find her face powder, too. She’d look her best for Pedro and the callers.

She bathed and dressed quickly, listening to the tapping of his hammer, and put on the makeup she’d not worn for years. She felt slightly like a peacock, but one should put on a little show under the circumstances. Much of the day passed while she watched him work. When the sun began to drop, she started cooking Pedro’s favorites: spiced rice, frijoles, chicken stew. Such a joy to be cooking again for someone else. She nibbled a bit while she cooked, but her appetite was satisfied by her miracle. As she lifted the tortillas from the griddle to a plate, the strong odor of cigar penetrated her awareness. She looked up. He was standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the falling sun, the smoke from the cigar clouding behind and around him, blurring the edges of his form.

“Pedro.” She put tortillas on the table. “I’m so glad you have returned.”

He nodded. Did she see a shadow of a smile?

“Come outside, it’s cooler. I have dinner for you.” She motioned him to the porch, and he settled into a rocking chair. She placed a glass of wine on the table beside him. The other box of cigars was there for him. He took a drink and nodded his approval. She touched his shoulder. It was solid, warm, real.

“I’ll be right back with your dinner.”

How strange to be in his presence, as if she were somehow in another world. Yet these were her pots and pans and it was the heat of her stove that made her sweat. It was all real; Pedro, his firm shoulder, the tapping of his hammer, the cigar smoke.

She brought dinner to him on the porch and let down the straw blinds all around for his privacy. She lit a candle and placed it at the far end of the porch so as not to attract bugs to where he was sitting. Still not hungry herself, she let him eat in peace. The visitors would come soon and the coin box had to be readied. She made a small sign that simply said ‘coins’ and placed it in the box in which she had kept her rosary beads. She put the open box, with its faded pink satin liner, and the note, on the railing of the porch where all could see it as they entered. She smiled at Pedro, who had finished his dinner and was smoking another cigar, rocking in his chair in the shadowy corner of the porch. The otherworldly feeling washed over her again, and she steadied herself with the familiarity of cleaning up her kitchen.

When the house was in order and she could no longer avoid the inevitable, she heard the floorboards on the porch squeaking rhythmically under his rocker, and she rejoined Pedro there. It was cooler and she pulled her shawl around her shoulders. The small candle flickered and went out leaving them with only the light of a waning moon to filter through the blinds. She offered a blanket to him that she had crocheted long ago, and he nodded. As she placed it over his knees, he somehow seemed frail to her. Would he be up to the parade of people who would come to see her miracle? Perhaps she should have kept him hidden, protected. Dizziness threatened to overtake her, and she dropped into her chair.

They rocked, in silence, in shadows, and a certain serenity began to infuse her. The air was filled with the comforting odor of cigar smoke. She watched Pedro rocking. The tip of his cigar glowed red, softly illuminating his face. He looked at peace, as if ready for whatever would come. And so she would be also. Nothing could disturb her now as she sat in the presence of a miracle. She needed nothing, not coins, not prayers, just this moment, and no more. She reached over and touched his arm. Warm. He tipped his head back and blew a stream of smoke into the air.

Voices floated in from the street. It was Helena and her cadre. They would be first. Well, why not? Not even Helena could penetrate her peace now. She kept patting Pedro’s arm and smiled, waiting.

Whispers. The sound of change in a purse. More whisperings.

“Maria?” Helena stepped onto the porch and peered around the shadows. “Are you there?”

“Yes, we are here, Helena.” How calm her own voice sounded.

“How many coins do you want, Maria?”

A number rang out in her head as clearly as a church bell. “Six thousand nine hundred pesos.”

More whispering, and the sound of coins dropping onto the satin in her box.

Helena’s voice again. “Maria, it’s dark. We’re going to light a candle.”

She kept rocking in unison with Pedro. A match flared and she saw the three inquisitive faces change to express wonder. The match dropped and the darkness returned. They left whispering wildly.

She nodded and smiled as the understanding that she had prayed for enlightened her. She shifted in her chair, turning toward him, and placed her hand on Pedro’s warm forearm. She would never be alone again. It was her reward for the patience with which she had endured her sorrows, her loneliness, her neighbors. She leaned her head back on her chair and watched a cloud of fragrant smoke drift in a circle above Pedro’s head. She rocked and, filled with the peace of miracles, she thought she felt the stirrings of a tiny whirling zephyr.

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