Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
When She Speaks
When my mother speaks, her hands fold in her lap like the wings of a pale bird. She leans back in her antique rocker and the amber light of her reading lamp shines in her bifocals like two rising moons. Her voice becomes a whisper. Her words drift through the room like the piñon incense smoldering from tabletop urns, caressing her display of relics – cowbells, coffee cans, railroad spikes, rosary beads – unlocking the stories within. When my mother speaks, I see relatives I have never met, walk ground I have never visited, inhabit memories not my own.
When my mother speaks, I dream.
A Dream of … Roses
Her father builds for their family a house of river clay – thick brown blocks of Rio Grande terrón, cool in summer, warm in winter, cut from the valley itself. Carlos stacks the bricks tight, then stacks them again, as tight as his knitted fingers. Along the northern edge of the flat sandy yard, as barriers from the llano wind, he plants Roses de Castilla, flowers of the Spanish missions, with small dense imperfect blossoms, less symmetrical than American Beauties, but with a votive candle fragrance he adores. My infant mother toddles behind him toward the thick ruffled hedges, carrying a chipped white enamel cup filled to the brim with pump water. Carlos steadies her dimpled hands in his. Together they pour.
This is her first memory.
She is not like her older sister and older cousins, who hate visiting their grandparent’s Los Corrales ranch while their mothers nurse newborns and their fathers irrigate the fields. They whine when Adelaida hands them baskets to gather breakfast eggs and complain when Abenicio asks them to churn butter. To the older children, the ranch is work. Hard work. They would rather be with their friends in Albuquerque – in the city. Not my mother. She opens the barn door to a trove of steel tongs, silver spurs, iron rods and brass bells. She descends the cellar steps to jewel-toned jars of cherries, plums, apricots and honey. To her, the ranch is a mystery, a miracle, and each day when her chores are done, she explores the grounds with Abenicio’s empty tobacco bags gathering arrowheads, dandelions, prairie hawk feathers, rusty nails, buffalo head nickels and shards of aged blue glass. Treasure pouches, she calls them, and draws tight the yellow strings.
She sits with her grandfather in the pink evening light while he savors his final workday cigarette. With scar-marbled fingers he folds a tiny trough of Bugle brand paper, sprinkles in a sticky pinch of Golden Harvest tobacco, and quick as a coin trick, rolls a pencil-thin cylinder for his wind-burned lips. This is her moment. My mother hops up from the workbench and scrambles into the kitchen for a sliver of wood-stove kindling, then returns a moment later cupping a birthday candle flame. Abenicio laughs his silent laugh – an earthquake in his broad denim shoulders. Chin high, like Popeye with his pipe, he aims the cigarette toward the lighted piñon, and drags deep, filling his lungs, holding it in for ten seconds, twenty seconds, before cooling the flame with a sigh. “Thank you, mi hijita.” His words rise on vaporous wings and wreath his head of thick white hair.
On summer afternoons, when thunderclouds recede from the valley, my mother follows her grandmother from the ranch house onto the scrub-prickled llano, which glistens in the rain-washed light as if dipped in silver. At the edge of an arroyo, Adelaida bends to one knee to cup a budding yellow aster. “I call these my little jewels,” she says, her own eyes a pair of garnets “They are all around for us to enjoy, but we don’t always stop to notices. I wanted to show you this. So you will remember.” My mother leans forward to kiss the pinwheel face.
… All Things
On the ranch, when a shirt collar becomes worn, Adelaida cuts it away, turns it around, and sews it in place. When a leather rein snaps, Abenicio trims it down, attaches a buckle, and fashions a bridle strap. A truck tire becomes a tree swing. A flour tin a flowerpot. Nothing wasted. Nothing lost. All things rise anew.
… Empty Spaces
Gathering kindling one morning, she and her grandfather hear a mewling from the woodpile. Abenicio moves aside a piñon log to reveal a sickly orange kitten. My mother scoops it up. Abenicio frowns. He does not need another hungry mouth. Maybe it’s better to let nature takes its course. When she nuzzles the newborn to her cheek, he relents, so long as she cares for the stray herself, and promises to understand if it does not survive. She makes a nest of rags behind the chicken coop and carries over a tin of cream. The kitten purrs. The next sunrise, my mother returns to find the rags scattered and the saucer upturned. Coyotes, Abenicio says, hand on her shoulder. Try to understand. It is the nature of things. Returning the rags to the barn, she pauses at a whimpering from the workbench. Under the stool, she discovers the watchdog, a yellow hound that had given birth to stillborn pups a week before, nursing the bony stray. At first my mother is puzzled by the wondrous thing – the union of opposites, how empty spaces somehow fill – but then she remembers her grandfather’s words. She fluffs the rags into a cushion and smiles.
Abenicio doesn’t believe in electricity. Doesn’t want it. Doesn’t need it. Although utility lines stretch through Los Corrales in the Thirties, he prefers wood-burning stoves, beeswax candles, coal oil lamps, kerosene lanterns – the old ways that have served him so well for so long. When my mother visits, he makes her job to keep the lamps alight. She begins after breakfast, as serious as the pocket watchmaker’s apprentice, arranging the lanterns before her like a city of glass – fluted chimneys from Italy, Portugal, France and Spain, geometric reservoirs of amber, ruby, crystal and emerald. She rubs off soot with a kerosene-dipped cloth. Brushes away dead moths and mosquitos. Turns the burner key three times clockwise to extend wick, trims the seared edges, and turns back the key twice counterclockwise. Unscrewing the reservoir cap, she steadies funnel, refills the oil, and refastens the cap. Task complete, she glides through the shadows, carrying blossoms of light.
Often, she is asked to pray at the bedsides of the sick and the dying, to offer the potent petitions of an innocent. At age seven, she does as she is told, not frightened by these requests, not really. Her grandmother stands close by. One evening, they are summoned to an uncle’s ranch in La Ventana. When they arrive my mother is told to wait outside the sick room while Adelaida and two other midwives attended a teenage cousin through difficult childbirth. Again and again, the young woman screams, filling the hallway with cries so dark they might have been bats. My mother covers her ears and whispers the sorrowful mysteries. After hours, after days, the door creaks open. Wood smoke and lamplight. The old women emerge, faces creased as walnuts, slick with sweat and tears, and disappear down the corridor. From the kitchen, a grown man fades into sobs. My mother bites her lip, steps forward to join them, but pauses at the sight of her cousin – eyes open, unmoving, covered by red-soaked sheets. A newborn lay at her side, just as still, just as silent. How perfect he looks. A porcelain angel. She approaches the bed to touch his cheek. Cold. So cold. Gathering the bedding, she bundles his tiny feet.
On Saturday evenings she visits her great-grandmother, Nana, to help give the viejita a bath. When the sponging is done and Nana dries off with a towel, my mother combs her wintery hair. Tortoise shell teeth pass through silvery strands like oars through water. A veil passes over Nana’s eyes – a cloud across a reflecting pool – and my mother wonders: What does she see? A red rubber ball in a turquoise sky? Her soft-handed husband climbing the step? A hummingbird tapping window glass? Eyelashes flutter. Thin lips part. My mother smiles. She sees them, too.
On hands and knees she explores Nana’s attic. Slides beneath a bare bulb past hatboxes, perfume bottles, vanity mirrors, gilded frames. Toy box shapes in shadow. She wants to touch one, to hold one, a pocket watch or a hatpin, to awaken the memories within. Before her: a golden round, a chalice or a cup, aglow in the amber light. She lifts the lacquered urn – the cherry wood tobacco box carved by her soft-handed great-grandfather, Pietro, who gazed down at her after death from a living room portrait, his auto-chrome eyes unmoving. She doesn’t know him, doesn’t remember him, but his smoke-scent she does. She opens the cracked dome lid to pipe ash and dust. Rim to nose, she inhales.
… the Desert
She rides with the apples and chile to the Dust Bowl ranchers of the Rio Puerco badlands, too small for heavy work, hugging barrels in the buckboard wagon. Although she enjoys the stoic company of her grandfather and father, she comes in truth for the desert – for the sundial shadows of yucca and mesquite, for the breathless wind that never stops talking, for the cursive ripples on the heat-soaked sand, spelling the letters of her name.
… the Crossing
This much she fears – the Rio Puerco, the dirty river, the brown-mud tapeworm swallowing sheep and cattle whole. Abenicio and Carlos have seen this themselves, but after decades traveling the badlands, have learned to read the sand. They approach on foot, probing with sticks as if the ground might coil and strike. My cannot watch. She turns in the buckboard from the darkening edge, from ravine walls so high they blot the sun. Carlos lifts her to his chest. Carriers her across.
He drifts through the village like an autumn leaf. Once he was a respected attorney, but when his wife leaves him for another man, he swallows rat poison and turns himself inside out when his eyes roll back in his head. For him: Everything opposite – waking at midnight and bathing outdoors in the snow. Mostly he wanders, gazing from roadside weeds into lamp-lit windows, hands in the pockets of a moth-eaten suit with crooked bowtie and dusty bowler. My mother turns from her embroidery and he is there – candle thin, range grass hair, staring into the sala window through empty spectacles. She frightens him, this purgatory soul, but meets his eyes with a smile. Gregorio tips his hat, and shuffles away.
… Elias Tonto
Club-footed, claw-handed, toothless and half-blind, he stands as tall as a man but speaks as a child, knocking on every village door no matter the season. Merry Christmas, he says with a rock candy smile. Elias Tonto. Slow one. When he passes through Los Corrales, crows trail behind him. On winter nights, he sleeps with Abenicio’s cattle, hugging the beasts for warmth. When ranch hands find him in the morning, dung on his clothes, straw in his hair, Abenicio orders his sons to clean him up, and the boys - it takes four of them to hold him down - haul Elias to the corral, strip his clothes, and plop him in a washtub, scrubbing him pink with horse hair brushes. Once the bath is done, they wrap him tight in a Navajo blanket, so tight so he can’t lash out with fists, and sheer his wild hair. Crying and screaming and asking why, why, why, he wriggles his good hand free to paste the fallen curls onto his head. Old clothes burn with the trash. Sobs turn to laughter when the boys return with denim jeans, a flannel shirt, leather boots, and a heavy wool jacket. Adelaida hands my mother a basket of apples, grapes, goat cheese, and tortillas. Merry Christmas, Elias tells her, and stumbles back down the road.
… the Other Side
Late morning. Laundry day. Adelaida is changing bed sheets in the spare room when she asks her fourth daughter, Balbina, and my mother, who is visiting again, to fetch spare blankets from a clothing trunk in the sala. The girls creak down the corridor of mirrors and stop at the dark wooden door. Balbina twists the black glass knob but it won’t open. She tries again. The handle spins in place. Shoulder against the polished oak, she pushes. The door moves an inch, maybe two, but no more, as if someone is pushing back from the other side. Balbina thinks it’s her older brothers – Benicio, Juan, Max, or Gilo – and shouts for them to stop. No reply. She bangs on the door with her fists. Abenicio, interrupted from a mid-morning coffee break, barrels from the kitchen and down the long hallway. The door swings open before him. Abenicio looks left, then right, but the sala stands empty. My mother glances at Balbina, who glances back at her with wet eyes. Abenicio searches behind the settee, under the table, in the clothing trunks, behind the chairs, but finds nothing, no one. He checks the doors, the windows, but finds them locked. On his belt the only keys. Adelaida appears in the threshold. Makes the sign of the cross. Abenicio closes the door behind them. Locks it tight.
Pick fresh petals. Fill up your skirt. But gather no stems or leaves. Come back to the kitchen and rinse out the bugs and fill the saucepan with petals. A few inches deep. Pack them gently. Put water on the stove and wait until it’s steaming but not boiling. Good. Now pour the water over the petals until they’re covered. Put the lid on the pan and let it steep until the water turns pink and the petals turn white and oil drops bead on the surface. Strain the pan with a colander. Press down on the petals with a spoon. Pour the juice in a jelly jar. This is rosewater, Adelaida tells my mother. Splash some on your hands and face. Now you are clean.
They gather around a bonfire. Abenicio roasts onions, sweet corn, peppers and chile. His sons strum corridos while his daughters harmonize. Wrapped Pueblo-style in thick wool blankets, Carlos sips apricot brandy and Desolina cinnamon tea. Embers like fireflies. Adelaida rolls a campfire stone beneath my mother’s boots. The warmth rises from her soles to her legs to her ribs to her bones.
… the Horizon
Autumn. Cedar smoke and apples. My mother sits with her grandfather on the backyard workbench watching the sun flame out behind the black gate horizon. Swallows streak across the orange sky, precise as ink quills on parchment. Abenicio leans in close. “You will never see this again. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not even two minutes from now. Look closely. It’s already gone.”
HARRISON CANDELARIA FLETCHER is the author of Descanso For My Father: Fragments Of A Life (University of Nebraska Press 2012), winner of the Colorado Book Award and International Book Award for Best New Nonfiction. His work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including New Letters, Fourth Genre and The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. A native New Mexican, he teaches in the Virginia Commonwealth University MFA in Writing Program.