S H O R T S T O R Y
b y s u s a n s a n m i g u e l ~ s a n a n t o n i o , t e x a s
NOTE TO READERS: This story is in two parts.
If you wish to print the whole story, remember
to print both parts. The link to the second part
is near the bottom of this page.
THEY WERE a married couple in their sixties who looked like they had lived together for a long time. Once lean and muscular, they had become heavy with age, their bodies short and thick, just the same: one man, one woman. They leaned toward each other naturally, as if an invisible force existed in the empty space between them, pulling them together where they stood growing over time, like two vines intertwined.
It was winter in San Antonio, where it never gets very cold. The two of them were bundled up in heavy coats and thick pants with their hands and ears covered. They shuddered at the thought of even a little bit of cold and had taken extra precaution to protect themselves against it. Old knitted scarves coiled around their necks so that only the darkness of their faces showed. So many gray days in winter because those two had hoarded the sun. Deep inside of them, it just barely flickered to the surface in the sheen on their skin.
The woman wore thick, plastic-rimmed glasses that hid her laughing black eyes. She wrapped her scarf around her head so that her fuzzy iron-gray hair, once shining and black, would not blow away like feathers in the dead wind. Her jaguar claws she cleverly concealed in her thick woolen mittens.
The man's face was shaped oblong like an egg. His white bushy mustache looked as if it were frosted over with ice. A black knit cap clasped his balding head. The slant in his Mongolian eyes made him look a bit sinister; the straight, tight-lipped mouth, stubborn and obstinate. He hung close to his wife, gripping her elbow tightly, rocking back and forth with her toward the center of the earth.
There they stood at the bus stop for anyone passing by to see, the two of them side by side, existing in the same space, the way they once were and the way they are now. The same body, the same soul. The past a long journey behind them, the future to be reborn and lived, again and again, forever: Itzlacoliuhqui and Itzpapalotl.
We were just passing by. It was by chance that I saw them at all. I was driving, with Tomas in the passenger seat. We were moving slowly in traffic, easing up to the stoplight on San Pedro just before Hildebrand, with the Handy Andy in the background and the Taco Cabana across the street. A rusty Southern Pacific train was clattering over the bridge in my rear-view mirror. I turned to my husband, who was tapping his fingers on his knee to the beat of the song on the radio, watching for the light to change. "Did you see that?"
"That man just tried to strangle that woman."
The man on the sidewalk had turned to face his wife, so that I caught a glimpse of his eyes, slits of hardened blackness that seemed almost sightless. He had wrapped his thick sausage fingers around her neck, draining the sun right out of her face until it was gray like the winter day. He had restrained himself just in time, just as her sharpened jaguar claws tore through her mittens and obsidian butterflies floated out of her ears. He had seen the butterflies, and his mouth had hung open in amazement. He had apparently forgotten about them, or else had realized where he was and that he was attempting to kill his wife on the sidewalk of a busy intersection in the midst of late afternoon traffic.
"Who? Those two?" Tomas turned to look. The man's arms now hung limply by his sides. His face had gone blank, like granite. "The light's green."
I drove on.
At home, putting away groceries: "That man must have been really angry at his wife to go at her like that, right there on the street. Do you think there is anything we could have done for her?"
Tomas shrugged, opened a bag of potato chips. "You're still thinking about that couple? He wouldn't kill his wife," he said, as if he could know. "Besides, she looked like she could take him on if she had to."
The butterfly girl, Itzpapalotl, met her husband across the street from Kress Department Store on her way to the trash can to throw away a sticky lemonade cup. She didn't see him at first, what with the late afternoon sun so bright behind him, and him, just a dark figure that seemed to suck all of its light into his body as he moved across the street toward her. She bumped into him, smashing her sticky cup against his chest. "Con permiso," she mumbled as she shaded her eyes with her hand and tried to look into his face. But the San Antonio sun was so blinding that she only saw blue swirls. She blinked and looked away. A butterfly perched on the rim of the crushed cup, drinking up the sugary drops of lemonade.
"No, no, we go this way together. I will walk beside you." He held her shoulders in his two hands, as if to steer her in the right direction. She tossed the cup onto the heap of overflowing trash, flies buzzing all around. It landed neatly on the top of the pile, the butterfly still sipping innocently from the cup amidst all the trash and flies. He walked her to the bus stop, asked for her number and she gave it to him. She didn't know why. She had never done anything so bold. What if her mother answered the phone?
It's the same conversation every Sunday when my mother calls. "Pues," she begins and I always know it's her. "Just thought I'd call and find out what you two are up to. Your father is on the couch taking his afternoon siesta. Can you hear him snoring?"
"Yes, Mom, I can hear him. Well, I'm writing my newsletter. You know this is just about the only time I have all week to do this and... and I should get back to it."
"And Tomas? How's his job?"
"Did he ever hear if he'll be making that business trip to Florida? Last time I spoke to him, he mentioned that he might be going."
"Florida? No, he hasn't mentioned anything to me about it."
"Que? No sabes?"
"I didn't say I didn't know, just that nothing's definite."
"Well, then, you should ask. A wife should take an interest."
"I've just been really busy, Mom. Neither of us has had much time lately."
A long silence and I'm just about to hang up -- "Well, it's been nice talking to you again this week" -- because I know what's coming.
"I pray for you, Maria," she says. "I pray that God will bless your marriage with children."
"We're not ready for children. We need time for each other first."
"Four years is time enough. What're you waiting for? I will ask la Virgen to intervene on your behalf."
"Okay, Mom, you do that."
Since we have been married, Tomas has taken up a hobby. He makes lures, fishing lures. But he doesn't fish. He says he's saving for a boat and isn't going to go fishing until he has saved enough to buy one. In the meantime, the neighbors come over and buy his lures. Our garage is full of tin cans filled with wire and hooks and plastic grub worms and I don't know what all -- everything he needs to make his lures. He works in the garage with the door open. The neighbors stop by, pass the time of day, buy a lure, and the next day the neighbors are off to Corpus Christi on a fishing trip. On the weekends the house is very quiet. Tomas's hobby doesn't make much noise. I can't even hear him outside in the garage where he's making his lures.
They listened to the low rumble of planes flying overhead as they lay side by side on thin white cotton sheets. For their honeymoon, friends put them up in an apartment near Kelly Air Force Base. All day that Sunday afternoon the windowpanes rattled and the walls vibrated with the roar of C-5s while husband and wife lay still and dark against the sheets, not speaking, hardly moving except for the easy rise and fall of their chests as they breathed. Though hours passed, they thought it was no time at all. The air in the room grew wet with a humidity which seeped through the cracks in the windows and beneath the door, covering their bodies with a film of sweat.
Outside, the vapor had crept up from the earth and wrapped its arms around the building where husband and wife lay, bringing the people out on their balconies and front steps in awe at the presence of the thick cloud that formed around them. Afraid at what seemed to be a rare natural phenomenon, they hurried out of the building to view the thing from across the street where, strangely, they found the air to be as sunny and as dry as any other spring day in San Antonio. Every sound -- the mingling of the peoples' voices, the roaring of the planes overhead, the restless squalling of two cats in a backyard nearby -- rang out against a heavy silence that hung in the air with the cloud. They waited.
Itzlacoliuhqui and Itzpapalotl were aware only of their own hearts beating, the rush of blood, the urgent need. Finally he reached out and lay his hand upon the hollow of her stomach, thinking her only a shadow, expecting his hand to go right through her. It did not. He found her hard and firm like himself. She rose to his touch. He moved on top of her. She thought him large and rough like a lava rock, a mountain moving when it's supposed to be still. The heat of their united bodies ascended through the ceiling and up into the sky. A C-130 transporting a cargo of surplus aircraft parts to Tinker Air Force Base in Norman, Oklahoma hit the dangerous pocket of hot and cold and made a nose dive for the ground. The crew groped for the ropes strapping them in. They cursed under their breath. One man who had been walking about freely crashed his head into the ceiling of the plane and was knocked out cold. Another clutched his heart when he felt the sudden drop in altitude and went into cardiac arrest. The plane made an emergency landing at Kelly Field.
The cloud loosened its grip. It swirled into a funnel and swept down the street, leveling two houses and an Esso station on the corner before it vanished.
"We will have many children, " Itzlacoliuhqui said as he stroked his wife's hair.
"Yes," she agreed.
They had nine.
I have read that the goddess Itzpapalotl gave birth to an obsidian knife from which sprang sixteen hundred demigods who peopled the earth. Either way you look at it, that's a lot.
"Are you busy?" Tomas stood in the doorway. His T-shirt, spotted with dampness, clung to his chest.
"No, come on in. It must be hot in the garage."
"Not really. I just wanted to give you this." He held up one of my dangling earrings. "I found it in the garage. You must have dropped it when you were getting out of the car. I almost mistook it for a lure," he grinned.
"Thanks. Actually I wouldn't have minded if a fish swallowed it. It's kind of ugly."
He laid the earring on the dresser and stood there in the doorway a few minutes longer.
"Well, I'll let you get back to work. See you."
"We can cook dinner together later," I suggested as he backed out of the room.
"Yeah," he answered. "That'll be fun."
The butterfly girl, Itzpapalotl, thousands of years old, but seventeen years ago at age forty-five, chopped onions and chiles in her kitchen to put in the carne guisada that she would feed her husband and children. She sang to herself as she looked out the window at the salmon sky. Louder and louder she sang trying to make the sadness creeping into her heart go away, but it would not. It was autumn, a little bit cool, still very hot during the day. She liked autumn. But winter would arrive soon.
Her husband entered the kitchen sniffing the air. She felt the chill that she sometimes sensed on him. The end of things.
"What's this?" He stirred the contents of the pot simmering on the stove.
"Dinner, " she answered shortly as she nudged him aside, dumping the chiles into the pot. She went back to her singing, the words gushing from her throat and dissolving in the air between them. Slivers of transparent onions slipped in her fingers. The juice stung her skin, blurred her vision. The knife, a streak of silver in her hand, was a carving knife, the same one used for carving the Thanksgiving turkey.
Itzlacoliuhqui stood with his arms crossed trying to stare her down.
"What's wrong with you?" he asked finally.
She paused, looked up at him, raised the knife high and, in one quick motion, brought it down on her finger. She nudged her husband aside once more and dumped the onions and the bloody finger into the pot.
"Dios mio, look what you've done."
The blood from her bleeding hand streamed down the wooden spoon into the simmering carne guisada as she stirred. Her finger, which had been numbed and toughened over years of cooking and cleaning and raising children, did not seem to feel the boiling heat. She would have known if it had. The finger floated on top of the gravy with the onions sprinkled around it.
Itzlacoliuhqui peered into the pot in disbelief. "That's our dinner."
She smiled, showing off her chipped front tooth, reminding him of the time he had knocked her head into the refrigerator.
The littlest of their children stood in the doorway sucking his thumb, tears welling in his eyes. The rest of them, the older children, were used to their parents' fighting. Their father often yelled at their mother, slapped her around a bit. One of the older ones came and coaxed the little one away.
That was when Itzpapalotl realized that if anything happened to her, everyone would assume her husband had something to do with it. The children, the neighbors, the police who had been called to the house so many times -- they would all think he had killed her. He would suffer for her death.
Now the sky had turned deep violet and a chill October wind blew in through the opened window. Itzlacoliuhqui took a deep breath. His chest swelled. He seemed to thrive on it.
Again, Itzpapalotl picked up the knife. This time she pointed it toward her own heart, to show him what she would do because winter was coming on soon and it was time to leave. She would cut out her own heart. She would.
"Estas loca? Do you want to die?"
"Yes, I want to die, " she answered, laughing at him.
Such a wicked sound, her laughter. She was trying to kill him with it.
He lunged for the knife to save himself, afraid he would be left to live without her. Because then he may as well die, too. They struggled, its sharp edge just ripping her blouse and grazing her skin when he managed to jerk the knife away.
Once again, he had won. When she looked out the window once more she noticed that the sky had turned black. Night had come so quickly and she had not even realized it.
"Clean yourself up, " he said roughly, trying hard not to look at the blood trickling down the cleft in her breasts and dripping in large drops from her hand to the floor.
Obediently, in a sort of daze, she wrapped a towel around her hand. Their son went for hamburgers while their oldest daughter mopped up the blood. The husband drove his wife to the emergency room. In the car during the long ride to the hospital, Itzpapalotl thought, If her husband had not been there to take the knife from her, she would have died. If he had not been there... For this she cried all the way to the hospital.
THIS IS THE END OF PART ONE
CLICK HERE TO LINK TO PART TWO
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