W I N N I N G S H O R T S T O R Y F O R 2 0 0 4
b y l a u r a l o o m i s ~ p i t t s b u r g , c a l i f o r n i a
MAMA READS me the Bible, a few chapters at a time, skipping none. I thought I would die of boredom during Numbers, all those inventory lists of cattle and sheep. By now weíre up to the book of Judges, a story I donít remember ever hearing before. Itís about a general named Jephthah, who promised God that if he won his battle, he would sacrifice the first creature to come out and greet him when he got home. Of course, instead of an animal, it turned out to be his only daughter. But when he told her about his vow, she told him to go ahead and sacrifice her. All she asked was two months to go off with her friends and mourn. I thought: two months would be enough time to get very far away. But no, she came back and he "did unto her according to his vow," as Mama put it.
Mama sets down the Bible. "I guess it means God sometimes takes everything we love, and we just have to trust that itís all in his plan. What do you think, Cecelia?"
She always asks as if sheís expecting an answer. Even waits to see if Iíll give her one. If I could, Iíd have a lot to say. This Jephthah doesnít sound like much of a father to me. My own Papa, when he was alive, heíd never have made such a foolish vow. And if he did, he would have broken it just as easily, trusting God would understand that killing his own child was a whole lot worse than breaking some silly promise, even a promise to God. Especially when God pulled such a dirty trick in the first place. After all, God could have sent a goat out from the house first, or sent an angel like he did with Abraham and Isaac.
Iíve had a lot of time to think about such things, since the accident. Mama tries to keep my mind occupied, talking or reading to me. But somewhere during the day, the laundry has to get done, the dishes, the garden. Before Carlos left for college, he would read me books about los Estados Unidos, so Iíd know where he was going. He promised to bring me back some real snow, so Iíd know what it looked like, and he would hold it against my face. It would feel like ice, he said, only softer. I miss Carlos a lot.
After the accident, the first thing I remember is Carlos talking to me, telling me over and over that he was sorry. I started to focus on something dark and thin, which turned out to be my arm. Suddenly he yelled, "Mama! Her eyes are open!"
I heard footsteps flying up the stairs. "Madre de Dios!" she cried. "They were wrong! The doctors were wrong! Sheís awake!"
Mamaís face floated in and out of my line of sight. I tried to turn my head, but my neck wouldnít cooperate. What was happening? I couldnít open my mouth to ask. And what was this tube stuck into my arm?
"Cecelia, querida, speak to me," Mama begged. "Do you remember what happened? The car crashed."
"Celia, can you hear us?" Carlos asked. "Can you speak? Or something? Blink?"
I put all my strength, all my will, into my eyelids, trying to control them for the tiniest little twitch.
"I donít think sheís really awake, Mama," Carlos said, dropping his voice so I had to strain to hear him.
"Iíll call Dr. Nunez," Mama said, and Carlos followed her out of the room. A moment later my eyes blinked, twice, without any effort from me. I couldnít even call out to tell them.
After Dr. Nunez examined me, I only heard snatches of explanation. For some reason he preferred to talk to Mama in the hallway, as if I wouldnít notice that I couldnít move or speak. I did hear him say he wasnít sure if my mind was still normal or not, or even if I was aware of what was around me. And he had no idea if I would always be this way.
Mama never doubted that I could hear her when she talked to me. She would read me the newspaper or sing to me until she was hoarse. Carlos wasnít so sure. He told her maybe they were just comforting themselves. Still, he would read me stories from his schoolbooks, and tell me what the weather looked like outside.
For my quinceanera, my fifteenth birthday, Mama bought me the traditional frilly white dress. She gave me an extra good scrubbing, which is hard to do with someone who canít move. A lot of the time I smell. But that day, she even washed my hair and tied it with a white ribbon. She held a mirror in front of me, but at the wrong angle, so I could only see my neck and chest. I noticed how sallow my skin looked, how my hair had lost its black luster. "You look beautiful, Cecelia," Mama said. She sprayed lavender perfume on me, and fastened a cross around my neck.
Then she brought in some of the girls from the barrio, all dressed up like any other party. There werenít fifteen of themómost of my friends havenít come to see me since the accident. The ones who did, Mama must have talked to them about what to do. They talked to me, not about me, and brought gifts of books and fancy pillows, and saint medallions. One brought a picture of the Virgin Mary on a throne, and Mama climbed on a chair to tape it to the ceiling over my bed.
Then Carlos got home. I guess Mama hadnít told him ahead of time.
"What are you doing?" he yelled. "This isnít a quinceanera, itís a mockery! This is pathetic!" His fist hit somethingóthe wall, I think. I could hear Mama crying.
And it was pathetic, me lying perfectly still in my itchy ruffled dress, an IV sticking out of my arm. And who ever heard of a quinceanera with no dancing, no feasting, no boys? But it meant something to me, that Mama remembered how much Iíd wanted a quinceanera. She did her best to make it special. Carlos is a good brother, but he doesnít know much about girls. And he shouldnít talk to Mama that way.
The last few days before he left, the arguments between him and Mama were awful. He told her she was lying to herself, and I was never going to wake up. It was almost a relief when he left for Minnesota. But once he was gone, the boredom was unbearable. I tried to invent ways to occupy the hours. Counting ceiling tiles or cracks in the paint. I would try to guess the number before I counted. Each time Mama would wash or change me, I started the game over with my new field of vision. I wished there was some way to tell her to move me more often.
I learned to tell time by watching the shadows creep across the ceiling. Sometimes I would listen to the birds outside, trying to make up words to their songs. When it rained, though, there were no shadows and no birds. I had nothing to think about until the smell of frijoles or pollo con arroz announced that Mama was cooking dinner, and would soon be upstairs to change my IV. My dinner.
Sometimes I would pretend that I was crying. I would imagine the tears forming in the corners of my eyes, hot and salty. Only they would roll down the inside of my face, the dark underside of my cheeks and jaw, falling into my throat. I could sometimes make an hour pass this way, one tear at a time.
I prayed a lot, those first few weeks. I stared up at the Virgin Mary picture and prayed to get back even a little of what Iíd lost. Just let me talk to Mama. Just let me wrinkle my nose when a fly landed on it, instead of lying here feeling the tickle as it walked across my face. I prayed for healing, and when healing didnít come, I tried a new prayer.
Please, please let me die.
The visitor came five months, two weeks, and four days after my accident. I didnít recognize his voice as he and Mama came up the stairs. A new doctor, maybe? Who else would be visiting? "Iím sure this is the right place," he was saying. "She told me to come here."
They came into the room and Mama turned my head toward him. "Cecelia," she said very formally, "this is Don Alfredo Jimenez Guererro. Don Alfredo, my daughter Cecelia." His beard was graying and his work clothes were dirty, but he had a glow about him. As if his heart was a lantern, shining through his skin.
He sat on the bed and took my hand. "Cecelia," he said, "I have had a vision. The Blessed Virgin Mary came to me, and she promised a gift of healing. She told me to come here and find you, and she would work a miracle."
He laid both of his hands on my head. He and Mama said the Our Father together, and the Ave Maria. The faint glow in him became a white light, brighter and brighter until it filled the room. I could feel it racing through my veins, heating my body. Could they see it? They didnít seem to notice. They kept praying, each word weighty.
The light melted away, and I realized he was no longer touching me. I could feel drops of sweat forming at my temples, and between my breasts. I was exhausted, yet flooded with a sense of power. I tried to reach out my hand.
I tried to move a finger. A toe. An eyelid. Nothing.
Don Alfredo and Mama sat in silence for a long time. Finally he said, "Iím sorry."
"Maybe it takes time," she answered.
"If God wills it."
"If God wills it."
I couldnít understand. I had seen the light, felt it roaring through my body. It was real. But I still couldnít move.
For ten long, desperate days I kept trying to recapture the light. I prayed rosaries in my head. I relived those moments in excruciating detail. Nothing changed. Mama fed me, washed me, read to me. I started wondering if Iíd imagined it.
On the tenth day, Don Alfredo was back. He didnít walk up the stairs this timeóhe ran. He threw himself down on his knees beside the bed. "Cecelia! And Dona Beatriz," he added, nodding to Mama. "I donít know how to thank you! For two years Iíve had cancer in my stomach. Today I went to my doctor, and he said it was gone. He said it was a miracle!"
He tried to collect himself. "Cecelia, I thought the gift of healing was for you. It was for me instead. I am sorry. I will keep praying for you to heal."
Sorry? He didnít look sorry. He was grinning like a schoolboy on the first day of summer. I wanted to take him by his beard and slam him against the wall. How dare he, how dare he come bragging to me about his good fortune!
He stood up, and now Mama was in my line of sight. She had tears rolling down her face. "Don Alfredo," she managed to say. "We are happy that you have been so blessed. And if Cecelia played some part in it, we are grateful she could do Godís work."
Grateful! I was so grateful, I wanted to punch his teeth out.
After that, I quit praying at all.
A week later, Mama ushered two women into my room. She explained that Don Alfredo had sent them. The older woman suffered from blinding migraines, and they thought I might be able to help.
Migraines! Iím a human being, not an aspirin. I should be out dancing and having fun with my friends, not lying here with this stranger putting her hands on me. I wondered if Mama could see my cheeks flush. The white light didnít come, and I wasnít even sorry.
All right, itís not like I had anything better to do. But I resented it all the same. In the days that followed, I had strangersí hands on my face, on my body. One man with a heart condition even put his hand on my heart, just under my breast. It was embarrassing. I couldnít sleep when I wanted to sleep, and Mama practically had to chase them out of the room to change my diaper.
The third week, a young woman came in with her baby. She spoke to me, not to Mama, and told me her son had been feverish for days. She took my hand and laid it on the boyís forehead. And I saw it again. The white light. Not as intense as before, but I felt it flooding down my arm into his body, cooling under my touch. I tried to open my mouth and tell them heíd be fine. Once again, no sound came out. Just for a moment, Iíd forgotten.
After that, I began to pray again. Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. I still hope to be healed. But if that is not Godís will, then let me bring healing to others. After a moment I added, But if you heal me, Iíll bring Your gifts to even more people.
At first it would be one or two pilgrims a day. As the word spread about me, it became five, ten and then twenty or more. Some of them offered Mama money, which she always refused. Sometimes she would read me a newspaper article about me. They called me la Santa Callada, the silent saint. Me, a saint? Saints donít get bored or grouchy like I do.
It was only later I realized that she had stopped reading me letters from Carlos.
When Carlos got home for Christmas, I knew what had been in those letters. I could hear them argue all over the house: downstairs, in the hallway, even in my room. "Mama, how can you do this to her?"
"Do what to her? I do nothing. People come, they touch her, God heals them. God chooses his instruments for his own reasons."
"Instrument? Mama, sheís a vegetable! I tried to deny it, tried to pretend Cecelia was still in there. But itís just an empty shell. Sheís worse than dead."
I heard Mama take a step back, as if she couldnít bear to be near him. When she finally spoke again, she was choking on her tears. "Donít ever speak of your sister that way again. Never!" I heard his heavy footsteps walk away.
Mama came to my bed and took my hand. The tears were still falling, and she didnít bother to wipe them. "Donít judge him too harshly, mija," she whispered. "He misses his baby sister, and the way it used to be. He still thinks the accident was his fault. Itís hard for him."
Hard for him? I was the one lying here, unable to move, hearing my own brother call me a vegetable!
Better off dead. Heíd said I was better off dead. Iíd thought so too, at first. But when the light came, I let go of thoughts about death. I had a reason to live, and it was giving Mama a reason to go on as well. Iíd done all my crying inside my head.
Mama kept talking. "I canít imagine what itís like for you, querida. I hope itís some comfort that youíre helping people, far more than you ever could have before the accident."
Sheís said that sort of thing before. Many times. And Iíd always add: helping everyone but myself. I canít claim to know the ways of God. But still, but still, why does God answer some prayers and not others? Our Lady should tell him thatís not fair.
Mama stroked my face and sang to me, and then someone knocked downstairs and the dayís pilgrims began coming in. All day I looked, but the light never came. A woman brought her baby and said he was dying. She laid him on my chest, next to my heart. No light. Nothing. I prayed as hard as Iíd ever prayed. God never felt so far away.
I donít know if Carlos was home that day or not. He didnít come to my room until late that night, after Mama had gone to bed. He sat beside me for a long time.
Finally he spoke. "Celia, I know you canít hear me. But I need to say it out loud. Youíre dead, youíre worse than dead. Mama doesnít have the courage to admit it. But if there was even a flicker of life in your eyes, Iíd see it."
He moved closer, touching my face and hair. He studied my eyes. I tried to speak to him with a look, to tell him I was still here. But he just shook his head. "Nothing," he murmured.
He slowly pulled the pillow from under my head and began squeezing it on his lap. "Iím so sorry, hermanita. But this is the kindest thing. It will set you free, you and Mama both."
He couldnít mean what I thought he did. My mouth went dry. I tried to telegraph No! with my eyes. But he just kept shifting the pillow on his lap, talking in a low earnest voice.
"You should have had a clean death, like Papa. A heart attack. We didnít know how lucky we were. But this," he gestured over my rigid body, "this is too cruel. It hurts too much." He laid a cold kiss on my cheek. "I love you, Cecelia."
No! I begged silently, but then the pillow was over my face. I couldnít breathe. I couldnít even blink as the fabric pressed into my open eyes. Terror and disbelief crushed the air out of me, and I was falling into darkness.
I did the only thing I could. I looked for the white light. And suddenly it answered, filling my empty lungs. I could see Carlos through the pillow, as the brilliance poured from his wounded heart, filling the room. My eyes shut of their own accord, and still the light flooded in.
The pillow fell away. My eyes opened again. The light hurt, but I could see Carlos fall to his knees. He buried his face in the pillow. "Iím sorry, Celia!" he sobbed. Iíd never seen Carlos cry, not even when Papa died. "Iím weak! Iím too weak to do it!"
The light kept getting brighter. Carlos straightened up and looked around the room, as if he could finally see it. "Whatís happening?" he asked. The light grew so dazzling that he pressed his hands over his eyes. Soon I could only make out a silhouette. "Cecelia!"
The light didnít fade, exactly, but I was able to see again. I was still breathing hard, but more from the light than the near-suffocation. Carlos took my face in his hands. "Celia, what happened?"
Silently, with everything inside me, I told him everything would be all right. I might never be healed. But healing would come for him, finally, no matter how hard he fought it.
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