Crafting the Very Short Story
Helena Vivien Viramontes: The Moths
I was fourteen years old when Abuelita [Grandmother] requested my help. And it seemed only fair. Abuelita had pulled me through the rages of scarlet fever by placing, removing, and replacing potato slices on the temples of my forehead; she had seen me through several whippings, an arm broken by a dare to jump off Tio Enrique’s (Uncle Henry’s] tool-shed, puberty, and my first lie. Really, I told Ama [Mama], it was only fair.
Not that I was her favorite granddaughter or anything special. I wasn’t even pretty or nice like my old sisters and I just couldn’t do the girl things they could do. My hands were too big to handle the fineries of crocheting or embroidery and I always pricked my fingers or knotted my colored threads time and time again while my sisters laughed and called me bull hands with their cute water-like voices. So I began keeping a piece of jagged brick in my sock to bash my sisters or anyone who called me bull hands. Once, while we all sat in the bedroom, I hit Teresa on the forehead and she ran to Ama with her mouth open, her hand over her eye while blood seeped between her fingers. I was used to the whippings by then.
I wasn’t respectful either. I even went so far as to doubt the power of Abuelita’s slices, the slices she said absorbed my fever. “You’re still alive, aren’t you?” Abuelita snapped back, her pasty green eye beaming at me and burning holes in my suspicions. Regretful that I had let secret questions drop out of my mouth, I couldn’t look into her eye. My hands began to fan out, grow like a liar’s nose until they hung by my side like low weights. Abuelita made a balm out of dried moth wings and Vicks and rubbed my hands, shaped them back to size and it was the strangest feeling. Like bones melting. Like sun shining through the darkness of your eyelids. I didn’t mind helping Abuelita after that, so Ama would always send me over to her.
In the early afternoon Ama would push her hair back, hand me my sweater and shoes and tell me to go to Mama Luna’s. This was to avoid another fight and another whipping, I knew. I would deliver one last direct shot on Marisela’s arm and jump out of our house, the slam of the screen door burying her screams of anger, and I’d gladly go help Abuelita plant her wild lilies or jasmine or heliotrope or cilantro or hierbabuena in Red Hills Brothers coffee cans. Abuelita would wait for me at the top step of her porch holding a hammer and nail and empty coffee cans. And although we hardly spoke, hardly looked at each other as we worked over root transplants, I always felt her gray eye on me. It made me feel in a strange sort of way, safe and guarded and not alone. Like God was supposed to make you feel.
On Abuelita’s porch, I would puncture holes in the bottom of the coffee cans with a nail and a precise hit of the hammer. This completed, my job was to fill them with red clay mud from beneath her rose bushes, packing it softly, then making a perfect hole, four fingers round, to nest a sprouting avocado pit, or the spidery sweet potatoes that Abuelita rooted in mayonnaise jars with toothpicks and daily water, or prickly chayotes that produced vines that twisted and wound all over her porch pillars, crawling to the roof, up and over the roof, and down the other side, making her small brick house look like it was cradled within the vines that grew pear-shaped squashes ready for the pick, ready to be steamed with onions and cheese and butter. The roots would burst out of the rusted coffee cans and search for a place to connect. I would then feed the seedlings with water.
But this was a different kind of help, Ama said because Abuelita was dying. Looking into her gray eye, then into her brown one, the doctor said it was just a matter of days. And so it seemed only fair that these hands she had melted and formed found use in rubbing her caving body with alcohol and marihuana, rubbing her arms and legs, turning her face to the window so the she could watch the Bird of Paradise blooming or smell the scent of clove in the air. I toweled her face frequently and held her hand for hours. He gray wiry hair hung over the mattress. Since I could remember, she’d kept her long hair in braids. Her mouth was vacant and when she slept, her eyelids never closed all the way. Up close, you could see her gray eye beaming out the window, staring hard as if to remember everything. I never kissed her. I left the window open when I went to the market.
Across the street from Jay’s Market there was a chapel. I never knew its denomination, but I went in just the same to search for candles. I sat down on one of the pews because there were none. After I cleaned my fingernails, I looked up at the high ceiling. I had forgotten the vastness of these places, the coolness of the marble pillars and frozen statues with blank eyes. I was alone. I knew why I had never returned.
That was one of Apa’s [Papa’s] biggest complaints. He would pound his hands on the table, rocking the sugar dish, or spilling a cup of coffee and scream that if he didn’t go to mass every Sunday to save my god-damned sinning soul, then I had no reason to go out of the house, period. Punto final. He would grab my arm and dig his nails into me to make sure I understood the importance of catechism. Did he make himself clear? Then he strategically directed his anger at Ama for her lousy ways of bringing up daughters, being disrespectful and unbelieving, and my older sisters would pull me aside and tell me if I didn’t go to mass right this minute, they were all going to kick the holy shit of me. Why am I so selfish? Can’t you see what it’s doing to Ama, you idiot? So I would wash my feet and stuff them in black Easter shoes that shoe with Vaseline, grab a missal and veil and wave good-bye to Ama.
I would walk slowly down Lorena to First to Evergreen, counting the cracks on the cement. On Evergreen I would turn left and walk to Abuelita’s. I liked her porch because it was shielded by the vines of the chayotes and I could get a good look at the people and the car traffic on Evergreen without them knowing. I would jump up the porch steps, knock on the screen door as I wiped my feet and call Abuelita? mi Abuelita? As I opened the door and stuck my head in, I would catch the gagging scent of toasting chile on the placa. When I entered the sala, she would greet me from the kitchen, wringing her hands on her apron. I’d sit at the corner of the table and to keep from being in her way. The chiles made my eyes water. Am I crying? No, Mama Luna, I’m sure not crying. I don’t like to go to mass, but my eyes watered anyway, the tears dropping to the tablecloth like candle wax. Abuelita lifted the burnt chiles from the fire and sprinkled water on them until the skins began to separate. Placing them in front of me, she turned to check the menudo. I peeled the skins off and put the flimsy, limp looking green and yellow chiles in the molcajete and began to crush and crush and twist and crush the heart out of the tomato, the clove of garlic, the stupid chiles that made me cry, crushed them until they turned into liquid under my bull hand. With a wooden spoon, I scraped hard to destroy the guilt, and my tears were gone. I put the bowl of chile next to a vase filled with freshly cut roses. Abuelita touched my hand and pointed to the bowl of menudo that steamed in front of me. I spooned some chile into the menudo and rolled a corn tortilla thin with the palms of my hands. As I ate, a fine Sunday breeze entered the kitchen and rose petal calmly feathered down on the table.
I left the chapel without blessing myself and walked to Jay’s. Most of the time Jay didn’t have much of anything. The tomatoes were always soft and cans of Campbell soups had rusted spots on them. There was dust on the tops of cereal boxes. I picked up what I needed: rubbing alcohol, five cans of chicken broth, a big bottle of Pine Sol. At first Jay got mad because I had forgotten the money. But it was there all the time, in my back pocket.
When I returned from the market, I heard Ama crying in Abuelita’s kitchen. She looked up at me with puffy eyes. I placed the bags of groceries on the kitchen table and began putting the cans of soup away. Ama sobbed quietly. I never kissed her. After awhile, I patted her on the back for comfort. Finally: “Y mi Ama?” she asked in a whisper, then choked again and cried into her apron.
Abuelita fell off the bed twice yesterday, I said, knowing that I shouldn’t have said it and wondering why I wanted to say it because it only made Ama cry harder. I guess I became angry and just so tired of the quarrels and beatings and unanswered prayers and my hands just hanging helplessly by my side. Ama looked at me again, confused, angry, and her eyes were filled with sorrow. I went outside and sat on the porch swing and watched people pass. I sat there until she left. I dozed off repeating the words to myself like rosary prayers, when do you stop giving, when do you stop giving when do you stop giving when do you…and when my hands fell from lap, I awoke to catch them. The sun was setting, an orange glow, and I knew Abuelita was hungry.
There comes a time when the sun is defiant. Just about the time when moods change, inevitable seasons of a day, transitions from one color to another, that hour or minute or second when the sun is finally defeated, finally sinks into the realization that it cannot with all its power to heal or burn, exist forever, there comes an illumination where the sun and the earth meet, a final burst of burning red orange fury reminding us that although endings are inevitable, they are necessary for rebirths, and when the time came, just when I switched on the light in the kitchen to open Abuelita’s can of soup, it was probably then that she died.
The room smelled of Pine Sol and vomit and Abuelita had defecated the remains of her cancerous stomach. She had turned to the window and tried to speak, but her mouth remained open and speechless. I heard you, Abuelita, I said, stroking her cheek, I heard you. I opened the windows of the house and let the soup simmer and over boil on the stove. I turned the stove off and poured the soup down the sink. From the cabinet I got a tin basin, filled it with lukewarm water and carried it carefully to the room. I went to the linen closet and took out some modest bleached white towels. With the sacredness of a priest preparing his vestments, I unfolded the towels one by one on my shoulders. I removed the sheets and blankets from her bed and peeled off her thick flannel nightgown. I toweled her puzzled face, stretching out the wrinkles, removing the coils of her neck, toweled her shoulders and breasts. Then I changed the water. I returned to towel the creases of her stretch-marked stomach her sporadic vaginal hairs, and her sagging thighs. I removed the lint from her between her toes and noticed a mapped birthmark on the fold of her buttock. The scars on her back which were as thin as the life lines on the palms of her hands made me realize how little I knew of Abuletia. I covered her with a thin blanket and went into the bathroom. I washed my hands, and turned on the tub faucets and watched the water pour into the tub with vitality and steam. When it was full, I tuned off the water and undressed. Then, I went to get Abuelita.
She was not as heavy as I thought and when I carried her in my arms, her body fell into a V, and yet my legs were tired, shaky, and I felt as if the distance between the bedroom and the bathroom was miles and years away. Ama, where are you?
I stepped into the bathtub one leg first, then the other. I bent my knees slowly to descend into the water slowly so I wouldn’t scald her skin. There, there Abuelita, I said, cradling her, smoothing her as we descended, I heard you. Her hair fell back and spread across the water like an eagle’s wings. The water in the tub overflowed and poured onto the tile on the floor. Then the moths came. Small, gray ones that came from her soul and out through her mouth fluttering to light, circling the single dull light bulb of the bathroom. Dying is lonely and I wanted to go to where the moths were, stay with her and plant chayotes whose vines would crawl up her finger and into the clouds; I wanted to rest my head on her chest with her stroking my hair, telling me about the moths that lay within the soul and slowly eat the spirit up. I wanted to return to the waters of the womb with her so that we would never again be alone. I wanted my Ama. I removed a few strands of her hair from Abuelita’s face and held her small light head within the hollow of my neck. The bathroom was filled with moths, and for the first time in long time I cried, rocking us, crying for her, for me, for Ama, the sobs emerging from the depths of anguish, the misery of feeling half born, sobbing until finally the sobs rippled into circles and circles of sadness and relief. There, there I said to Abuelita, rocking us gently, there, there.