We need to invent us a virgin,” said my Tia Connie.
She came up with her scheme to fight the landlord while I was lying on the sofa muffled in its original plastic so that I crinkled every time I breathed. He had doubled our rent. She’d already remarked a dozen times, May he die with his mouth twisted, and I should have been fascinated that we were weeks from being thrown into the street, but all I wanted was for her to keep crocheting, watch her Jeopardy to learn better English (she also watched it in the hope that one night there’d be a category about the Azores and she could pretend to win thousands of dollars), and leave me to sharpening my fantasy that a banker (I’d named him Noland) would carry me away in his Jaguar. He was built like a cornstalk, with a tuft of yellow silk hair, and when I held him too fiercely, he’d say, Ouch, you’ll snap me in two. Tia would be grateful for the checks we’d send. I’d write letters to her from Noland’s greenhouse, among the irises. He’d share my passion for menthol cigarettes.
I sat up to make sure her plan was entering my ears right: We would issue a scream heavenward—it would ricochet back to earth—that we’d beheld an apparition of the Virgin Mary outside this very apartment building—Estudillo Gardens—on East 14th Street in San Leandro. I asked why Mary would think of blazing a path here, and Tia Connie looked hurt and said, “I tend so nice those artichokes in the patch in front. She’ll visit and be Our Lady of the Artichokes, perch on the thorns, and she’ll cry and cry, then disappear. People will say, ‘Come back to me, water me with your tears.’ The landlord son of a bitch gets trampled, maybe to death. That part I cannot help.”
The richly piquant part of this miracle was that I, Isabel Serpa, seventeen-year-old smoker, a roller of my eyes at Mass to convey that I believed nothing, would report the sighting; my infidel status gave me more credibility. Estudillo Gardens would be declared a shrine, and just try and lock out women and children where the Madonna had burned her outline in the exterior paint the shade of “sand dune,” one of those timid California earth tones when mauve or chartreuse would be sunnier to come home to. Tia hadn’t dreamt clear to the end of the story, but God could pick up the thread, seeing as He hadn’t done much so far, but OK, He had all those baseball players crossing themselves, demanding the downfall of their millionaire enemies. I was beginning to suspect that all prayers were requests for immediate action, and no one was willing to sit inside any mystery—which seemed the point behind even a simple Our Father . . . a release of the will into a timeless thing I couldn’t name.
“Don’t be crazy,” I said. “I’ll get a job after school to help pay the rent.”
“No! No! You save your energies, study, sneak cigarettes and talk big make-believe with friends, be a big saint or big cheese or somebody some day, my job is to worry, what the hell else do I have to do, answer me that.”
“I’ve got worries too.”
“No, you no got you no worries. What you got now is a homework that you tell everyone Our Lady she talk with you.”
She kissed the picture of Jesus in Gethsemane, snapped off the light illuminating him, and covered him with his brocade square, which she hand-brushed twice a week. She draped a baby’s blanket over Senhor Zé, her canary the color of limes, before tucking me into bed under my crazy quilt my mother left behind when she ran off with a dentist from New Orleans, and I itched to burn the quilt and mix in sulfur and find out where she was hiding solely to mail the bitch the ashes, but Tia said that a crazy quilt was good for leeching madness out of your bones. My quilt she dry-cleaned whenever she sensed the cloth swollen, as if with a blue yeast, saturated with the panic and want and what-have-you that I failed to contain within me.
I heard Tia fitful in her room. Normally she was a goddess of sorts of equilibrium. Though she ate as she pleased, she was thin; she was fifty but her hair was pure black and she did not dye it. Her skin was perfect, soft as an eggplant, which is why once when I had acne boiling on my cheek, she dragged me to a lamp, pointed at my face, and said, What is that? as if she were a creature from another planet, and I yelled with shame and slapped her, but instead of hitting me back, she punched the lamp.
When I heard her slip out the front door, I put on my robe and snuck to the kitchen curtains to watch her waving around the pastry torch I’d given her for Christmas. Her family in Fontinhas had owned a bakery, and she liked blasting sugar into amber glass on the tops of puddings or wielding the fire to form hearts with arrows, or bows with split, snake-tongued endings. She was using the torch to brand the outline of a veiled woman near the strip of garden at the front of our building, and my only prayer was that no one else was watching. The last thing we needed was a bill for repainting where a lady of bright light had burned, in toast colors, the nimbus of her body to announce the blank of her white heat.
I am not without my talents as a liar, and I own the raw stuff to have sounded the first note of hysteria—but I couldn’t. Tia Connie had to enlist a chorus of widows. After her day’s labor at Snow Drift, a Laundromat, she joined the prayer group kneeling with their rosary beads near the stain. The landlord must have figured it would create a bigger stir to have them hauled off for vandalism. My auntie’s full name was Maria Conceição Amparo Serpa because she was born on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, so the widows whispered that she and the Virgin were just like this —and they’d open two fingers into a wide scissors and then slam the scissors shut.
Clutching my schoolbooks, I walked past this display of the hardening that visits female solitude. The women were old frights, like the progeny of birds of prey and boulders; a guy’s thing had rattled their privates for decades before dying, and it gave me a crawly feeling of pythons in crevices. Those penciled brows, hairs stiff enough to pry open locks, those wounded, glassy stares. I feared the widows would climb onto me in bed and suck my desires out through my eyeballs. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . . blessed art thou amongst women.
My friend Lily told people at school about the vigil, and I stared at my white shoes when Mark, the boy I liked, walked past. He always pretended I wasn’t there. My shoes looked like lozenges of stale cream.
It was my youth that might have saved Tia and her friends from the howls of laughter: Old women! Biddies, beatas, here’s-Christ-in-a-tortilla, sex-starved fools, the snickers barely containable in a two-inch column on page 10, Metro section of the San Francisco Chronicle. I waited for her reproach, but instead, at the dining room table, under the framed picture of JFK festooned with a black ribbon—almost thirty years past his death—I heard her extending the rhythm of nonstop praying, Oh, come to us, Oh, come to us.
Late one night I caught her wrapping a noose of clothesline around the neck of her statue of Saint Anthony. “What’s the poor guy done now, or is it me?” I said. If I found him head-down in the laundry basket, it warned me that I’d upset her and therefore he wasn’t doing his job as the patron saint of love.
“Nothing, he does nothing and I’m sick to death of nothing.” “You’re not going to win him over if you hang him again,” I said. “He won’t learn I mean business elsewise. I’ll sew him a new cape if he behaves.” “You’re being gruesome, Titia.” She held him up. “Isabel, Izzy. This is a statue. Not a man.” “You never quit fighting with him. How’s he supposed to like you?” “Well, OK, you and I always are fighting too,” she said, and dangled him by his neck in her clothes closet.
Smothered laughter brushed up and down us when we arrived at the Holy Ghost Festival. We were ten days from our eviction notice. I’d listened to Tia’s chants of Make my girl the next queen, please, Sant’ Antão, but this year the honor had been granted to Lúcia Texeira, a pretty girl with a bum leg. Her crown was like a wedding cake invisible except for its sparkling trim. I was assigned to traipse behind her, and I swear she was leaning on her cane and going extra slowly in an excess of piety and injury designed to make me a crazy woman, and so half by accident and half on purpose I kept stepping on her cape . . . and Lúcia countered with half-turns and half-smiles of forbearance, Ah, yes, you live in those shitty apartments with the nut who sprayed her wall with a blow-torch, and I lost my mind and kicked her in the back of the knee of her crippled leg.
Ten witnesses reported—to the police and the bishop—that they’d seen me kick Lúcia, who dropped her cane and flexed her stupid leg in both hands and screamed. And then—simply walked. The way everyone backed away from me I could have been a drop of acid.
Do not mess with the Holy Ghost, the faceless fire, Tia used to say. For Easter there’s the eggs, Christmas we got the tree . . . what outward sign exists for Pentecost? In the early Church, doves were released in a basilica to provide a usable symbol, and they crapped on the heads of the faithful. Tia and I roared ourselves sick whenever she reveled in this story; “little dove” in Portuguese can also mean vagina.
I told anyone who’d listen that Lúcia liked infirmity, claimed it as a special mark, and I’d merely done what some doctor should have forced upon her long ago. Her kneecap needed realigning; I’d happily, freakishly reset her leg and ruined her act. But that night in front of Estudillo Gardens, the old ladies were joined by mothers bringing their children, and a few men, and I heightened the call in my brain for Noland, my made-up boyfriend, to spirit me away. I fell into a chant that filled the air of his Jag with a thorny calligraphy: Save me. Save me. Save me. Then suddenly I was alone, wearing an apricot-colored slip while standing at a window in Paris, with Noland due to arrive and take me out—somewhere. He was off on international banking business. He sat on sacks of silver coins, their metallic edges bulging ridges in the cloth. We’d drink burgundy and eat little game birds cooked with their bones. He’d show me where the knife should go to cut them. When he finally entered our room, I turned to him—oh, the horns, cars, iron lace, melted-caramel light—and said, “I was afraid you wouldn’t come to me.”
I heard a wail from the women outside calling for the Virgin, and I summoned my courage; miracles do not come to those who wait, God helps those who help themselves, etc., do not dream your life away, etc., and I lit a cigarette and called Mark and exhaled smoke when he answered. “We’re awaiting our visitor from heaven,” I said sunnily. “Why don’t you come by and watch with me?”
“You’re as wacked as your father was,” he said.
I stumbled outside, past the ladies. They didn’t see me. I lived with Tia across the way from a diner called Zinger’s, with a revolving sign of a chicken brandishing a revolver and wearing chaps and spurs. This Great God Chicken of the West faced the outdoor cage of canaries that Tia housed on the side of Estudillo Gardens. They were vivid and tart-colored as jawbreakers, yellow, green, and orange, and one little peach fellow who’d doom me to sobbing when he died, and one I’d swear was blue and of a size that made him like a darting eye.
I walked to the movies so I could be alone in the dark. Celine and Julie Go Boating was playing at the foreign-film place. Celine and Julie dissolved a hard candy on their tongues and the sugar transported them to a distant scene, where they solved a murder mystery. I’m not sure how tears seeped through my head, but my scalp was sopping when the movie ended.
A light was shining in our kitchen. The crowd gazing at the stain of the Virgin had dwindled, but Zinger’s was filled with the sheen of pilgrims, ions sparking other ions, metal filings in search of a magnet. I wasn’t ready to face my aunt. I rested my head on my knees and cried for my father. He’d stumble home from the dairy immaculate in his white uniform and fall onto the couch with arms open, legs splayed as if broken, as if he’d been dropped from a height. White is rigor, white is melancholy. The method he chose was pills. An envelope addressed to me said: “Love is tender. Nothing is forever. Goodbye, my darling.” He was especially proud of how well he’d learned English. My mother vanished. Conceição, his oldest sister, took me home with her. I was fourteen. That first night she cooked three pork chops and gave me two and a half of them while saying, We have us a deal, sugar-pie, yes? You have a car, you take me where I need to go, here, there, store, church, Laundromat. I’ll never go to the graveyard to visit my brother; he’ll stay here now, some in your blood and some in mine.”
The car she’d been referring to had been my father’s, and I used to steal and drive it even though I was underage. Now it would be mine, until the DMV caught up with us. It was a Chevrolet with grillwork that gave it a frog’s face. It grinned whenever it broke down on me. Tia named it “Mister Better Late Than Never.”
The canary Senhor Zé was trilling like mad, and I walked in to find my aunt sprawled on the kitchen floor. “Jesus!” I said.
“Naw, only me, I polished the floor, thinking the people to see Our Lady will want to use the bathroom, drink a glass of water, my house needs cleaning, and I slipped. I take good care, bang, I get punished. Life. My neck is not so good.”
I started screeching as I grabbed for the phone. “I’m calling an ambu-lance!”
“No! I am not a peasant! I have to change first into a good dress.”
I told her to lie still, but she stood, her head tilted to one side. “I think maybe the floral one with the tie-bow because my neck, Isabel, my neck asks for a little cheering up.”
The doctor said, “Mrs. Serpa? Are you aware that you’ve broken the bone the hangman tries to snap in the condemned?”
“Huh,” she said, “so what.”
She was fitted with a metal contraption to keep her head immobile for two weeks. Her skull was stuck in this silver birdcage of open slats with screws I had to tighten. I put her to bed and asked if it hurt. She said, “I’m alive. But what is wrong with my child?” I whispered I was fine, just worried sick about her. “Come here to me.” I climbed next to her and curled up. With only one hand she could reach into my hair and form a loose braid. “What I know about boys is not so much, Izzy, but mostly it is air and attraction, and you cannot study how to make them want you.” She said she’d been a lover of parties in her young days, but no one had dazzled her; she’d never slept with a man; it seemed that a girl must not pretend there’s a dazzling when it’s only hope churning a bit, or fear of loneliness churning a lot.
Like a comet forced into a chute, the world poured hard down our street and to our door, and my palm, on the door’s inside, throbbed from the heat of the mob. Tia’s surviving a broken neck was the second miracle. Even those who’d figured my kicking Lúcia resulted in a fluke cure were willing to rethink the violent, inexplicable ways of wonder. While I brought Tia her soup, sponge-bathed her, adjusted her metal cage, read her favorite tales from A Thousand and One Nights, we heard desperate believers tapping at our windows, groaning, all that heaving, sagging longing pawing at the stucco. The single-paned windows rattled in their casings, and noses and mouths left a smear of fog from peering through the slit partings of the curtains to catch a sighting of the young saint and the old saint. Such tormented desire, such a willingness to whip and beat and shout the ordinary into sanctity. I would have laughed to the point of collapse if it hadn’t been so scary. I no longer went to school.
I called Mark, thinking I’d ask what to do. I’d never been to his house, but I pictured it soothed with beige and lemon paints, with chrome that wore starbursts flung down from the track lighting. His mother would favor whimsical refrigerator magnets, strawberries with protruding seeds that would drive Tia and me to get up at night to pick at with our fingernails. Their cupboards would have cranberry waffle mixes, and Caribbean spice pouches, and stuffed green olives, and twisty metal with signature beads to wrap around your very own martini glass so no one would by mistake wash down what was yours. I howled in pain. “Mark!”
“What? Who is this?”
I hung up on him.
When I thought it was safe to sneak out to the grocery store, I was set upon with a shrieking that swallowed my own shrieking as hanks of my hair were ripped out by the follicles and my clothing got torn. Someone’s nails gouged my bare breast.
A man pulled people off me and marched me to the door, but my eyes were shut tight and I only had the feel of his hands, which seemed to have the weight of wood, but pliable, on me, guiding me back home. When he’d delivered me to the door, waves surged against his back but he wasn’t knocked aside, and when I opened my eyes and turned to say thank you, he was already on his way. He wore a blue uniform. His back was a large square, like the picture of a swimming pool. An orange bus waited at the curb.
I tried to joke with Tia that the third miracle was that I was able to get back inside owing to the kindness of a stranger. I’d observed that rivulets of blood now obscured the torch’s stain, from people trying to scratch the shadow of the Virgin. On the television, we saw the lame, the blind, the deformed, the arms with angry sores and the legs with ulcers, the women who’d pulverized their lifelines into raw meat from clutching rosary beads. Tia and I, starving, gnawed an ancient salami and stale Ritz crackers. Senhor Zé loosed an aria about being low on birdseed.
Our landlord—a single day before the notice was to have been posted—announced that he was a deeply moral man and, given the surprise events, he would postpone a rent hike. We listened to boots circling the house, stamping out a moat, and then—television was still our best way of fathoming what was going on right outside—the hawkers came, the vendors of Our Lady of Fátima and Guadalupe; the scapular- and candle-waving brigade, the dealers in aromatic oils and talismans, the fortunetellers with card tables and the police scrambling to arrest them; not long after the bullhorns ordered everyone to disperse, a woman rammed her head against the thin membrane of Tia’s bedroom window, broke it, got hoisted in, sliced her forehead on the cut glass, came staggering forth with red cataracts over her eyes and shouted, “Kiss me,” and Tia sat up in bed and said, “The truth is it was all my invention,” but she blew a kiss in the direction of the bleeding woman. The people following the first invader through the window knocked the last fangs of glass out of the frame and ground it underfoot on the carpet so that no one else pouring in got injured, and from the inside of her metal halo Tia leaned forward to give each of them her best version of a kiss, saying, “The truth is it was all my invention, forgive me,” and to a person they answered, “Please, I’m dying for your kiss,” and into the night I directed the parade of strangers through the bedroom and out the front as if our apartment had turned into a stomach, and they asked the same of me too, “Kiss me, dear, kick me if you like,” and I’d offer my lips. My arms deepened to a midnight bruising from the grip of believers needing to touch me, my nose and half my face were abraded red. The flying glass had come to rest after being jagged little shears, pinking a touch the threads of the carpet.
I waited for the man in his blue uniform, but he did not show up for me to thank him right before I begged him to rescue us again.
Of course no third miracle occurred, and we were called charlatans. The blood was fresh as new kill on the outside wall, and in place of the artichokes was a trench six feet deep, from everyone making souvenirs of the roots and any dirt that might have brushed against the roots and any second-degree dirt that had brushed against that dirt. My Chevy’s frog snout was smashed, his hood dented, his feet stripped. Tia said, “My lips are a ring of fire from kissing that much, forgive me.”
The taunts returned, and the landlord sent out a notice that in one month, per the previous plan, the rent would double, but out of the kindness of his soul he’d pay for a repainting and replanting—some zinnias? mums?—instead of bringing certain overwrought women and children up on charges.
Tia forced me to accompany her to a special bingo night at St. Joseph’s in Alameda. Her metal headpiece had been removed and replaced with a cloth neck brace. My car wouldn’t start, and she was frightened of traveling on the buses alone at night. The bingo ladies liked to carry bleach bottles they’d sawed in two, ringed with punch holes, and fitted with a drawstring knit top, like a purse, to carry their individual markers. “You can be so embarrassing,” I said, refusing to carry it.
In the hall, with the other ladies with their bleach-bottle purses and the din of N-17, O-42, she made me help her cover the four cards she was working at once. “My luck she gotta change,” she said. “Going to.” “Huh?” “Going to change. You get in with all these Portuguese ladies, you start losing your English.” “No, I do not.” “Yes, you do, and as you recall, you keep asking me to bring such matters to your attention.” A lady next to her shouted, “Mexe!” because the barker had taken a fifteen-second break. “Mexe!” yelled Tia. “See?” I said. “Oh, excuse me, I mean… Mix! Oh, my, that is a huge difference.” “I should break your neck for real, Tia.” “Go ahead, you do me a favor, I no have to live with you no more.” “Let’s go home.” “I think you should buy a nice card, maybe win some money, fix your car, forget boys who they no good.” “What boys? I can’t get a date.” “Because the boys they no good, otherwise they ask you out.” “What do you know. You just keep me around for that stupid piece of shit car.” “Yes, good, that is right. For your excellent car that is the reason we take the bus tonight.” “I want to go home.” “Aw, Madonna! I lose again!” She dumped her markers back into her bleach bottle; a new round began. “Are we going to be here all night, Tia?” “Until I win.” “You’ve lost thirty dollars. This is a dumb way of paying the extra rent.” “My luck she gonna change.” “My luck is going to change.” “I just say that.” “Tia, please! Remember when you threw your back out working the slots in Vegas? I had to take you to the hospital then, too. I’m going to sign you up for Gamblers Anonymous.” “I am not anonymous. Don’t call me that. One time I pull one muscle in my back, you no let me forget nothing.”
She was near tears when we left at midnight. She’d lost fifty dollars. We weren’t speaking at the bus stop, except for me to hiss that it was likely we’d missed the last one of the night. The haze around the streetlights made it seem we’d been swimming in a heavily chlorinated pool for hours. “Aw, looka,” she said. A bus picked us up. We were the only riders.
“Good evening, ladies,” said the driver, and I stormed down the aisle to hurl myself into a seat, but she stood dropping the coins for our fares in the slot, one by one, chink, chink, chink, and I said, “Tia?” Because from the back, where I was, he looked like the man who’d ushered me home during the Our Lady of the Artichokes riot. “Sir?” I said. But he was staring at my aunt.
She said, “Where are you from, Senhor?” His name was Rui Alves, from Angra do Heroísmo, the capital city of the island of her birth. She adjusted her neck brace. He was driving a bus, he said, owing to his desire to be different, sort of a city fellow, not in the dairy business or on the ranch like the other Azorean men who came to California. He was strangely tall, with a rock-hewn face, black eyes; a widower, forty-eight. A younger man, said Tia. It came out like a breath.
“Hold on,” he said, spinning the large round wheel pressed to his midsection. “You’re that lady the Virgin she talk to.”
“You were there,” I said. “You showed up.”
“I hadda go see, yes,” he said. “It was big stuff on the news.”
“And you saved me from the crowd,” I said.
He turned around in his seat and grinned at me. “Naw,” he said, “the Virgin she rescue you.”
“The truth is she was a girl I dreamed her alive,” said Tia. “The miracle, well—I invent her.”
“I’m sure she’s grateful you did that,” he said. He seemed to switch between knowing English well and knowing it halfway.
She sat in one of the pews reserved for the infirmed, holding the silver pole and smiling at him while he drove. No one else boarded the bus; it was the last run until morning, and he knew right where to take us, if we were ready to call it a night.
They married a week later, and he moved into Estudillo Gardens with us and paid the rent.
While they were on their three-day honeymoon in Monterey, Mark appeared. He took my hand and said he’d never seen the genuine spot where that fuss had erupted about Mary and the vegetables, could I show him? He looked pale, but the bones in his face stuck out; it seemed to hurt him to have a skeleton bent on announcing itself every minute. The Zinger’s chicken in its cowboy hat spun around, bang, spun around, bang. I led him to where the blood had been scrubbed off and the wall recoated. The burn mark was gone now, I said, as if he couldn’t see for himself. We leaned there, and he kissed me. When I asked why this sudden change, why the interest, he said the caper I’d pulled with my aunt made me almost a famous person and famous people were hot.
“Almost—hot?” I said.
“Then I need to tell you a story right now,” I said. “Let’s say you go over to that cage of canaries and touch one. She’ll lose her oils where your fingers went. The world gets in at those spots, and the canary dies.”
“What are you going on about? You’re famous but still crazy, I guess.”
“It might be tonight or the next night or the next, but she won’t survive. Haven’t you ever learned that animals can flat-out die if someone touches them? In part they die of fright.”
“Go away, please. Please, before I change my mind.”
Rui wasn’t sure why I was moping, but he quickly had enough of it. One Saturday the three of us piled into my car and he drove us down the coast to the Mystery Spot near Santa Cruz, a point where a magnetic crossfire throws off everyone’s balance. Balls roll up ramps. A person standing still seems to be tilting to the point of falling. A whisper disappears and pops out a corridor of air away. Water swirls in the wrong direction beneath a grove of redwoods, their stiff branches converting them into red candelabra. I held out my arms and my aunt and new father laughed and said I looked to be a mile off. At the point where the confluence was supposed to be strongest, Rui asked Tia, “What does it feel like?” Waves of her hair cupped gold, from the afternoon ladling out reductions of its own light. She was wearing silver pumps like a runaway bride because beauty should cause a little pain. He’d started her on the habit of putting lanolin into gloves to wear at night after working all day at the Laundromat, and her veins had stopped bulging at the knuckles. She said something along the lines of it feeling like him, like somebody had changed him into an actual place, as far as she could see.
Tia got out her Singer machine at home. I hadn’t known about her keenness for sewing. Rui came from a family of dairymen, but some of his neighbors back home had been fishermen, and as a boy he’d liked repairing the nets. He stitched on our missing buttons and instead of just tacking them on, he added the winding shank beneath, and he darned our socks, and one afternoon he and Tia outfitted the canaries in capes and bonnets. “Is Easter almost,” she said. “They put on the new bird.”
He took both of us to my senior prom at San Leandro High School and borrowed a bus from A.C. Transit; my car was in the shop again. With our orchid corsages we appeared like time travelers from the fifties at a party whose theme was “Punk Carnival,” with glitter-clotted streamers from the ceiling of the gym to the floor. Rui found the music unbearable, so we each danced two waltzes with him and prepared for an early exit. He was good at weaving us clear of the gyrating bodies. He held my hand as if we were stepping even farther back, to the seventeenth century, as he said, left foot, right; good; now right, left. In the dark, he dissolved, with that accent born close to my father’s village, into lost male tones in waves breaking over the scene, the loud music, our silence: Forget your heartbreak; put on your pretty dress; if you won’t go to the party yourself, I’ll take you, step here, now there, like this.
He parked the bus on the grounds of the Dunsmir Estate, and we drank wine out of Dixie cups. I was thrilled that my blood might get tinged purple. Our faces were greasy from being up late. Tia had packed small round cheesecakes, and they were so pleasantly laced with the smell of diesel fumes that they tasted like travel.
Rui was with us for three years before he was diagnosed with leukemia. A fine white powder settled on his papery skin when he was finally in bed at home. Within his reach I propped a snapshot of him with Tia at the kitchen table, grinning; they’d just downed two glasses of buttermilk, the old live-wires; and the drained insides were coated white, like the drippings caught off ghosts. The outdoor canaries were allowed in, uncaged; sometimes death will seize a tiny animal and leave a sick person in peace. But the birds were wily and flew so fast in the air of our rooms that they were beyond capturing, as if their bodies were melting, painting streaks in the air—lemon, orange, emerald, and a tartan cross-hatch—and the colors solidified back into birds, and then again melted. The three of us were bound in the bright weave of these ribbons, and the birds pulled it tighter and tighter. “Put that tray down. Look at me,” said Rui. I’d been fussing at his bedside. Death runs a scalpel through the gel surrounding us and says, Come out.
I sat down. I fell into his sights.
Good night, Father. Oh, what if prayer is really surrender? What if it is up to each of us to love in a way that gives birth into the dreamed-up realm of the world?
We did not mention that the notice had come that Estudillo Gardens was slated to be torn down for luxury condos. Checks would be forthcoming as an aid to relocation for tenants. All of us would find it utterly impossible to buy even a closet in the deluxe new building.
Rui said he regretted that he would not hold the baby I’d have some day.
I laughed and took one of his hands in my own. “Baby!”
“Sure, just you wait and then you see,” he said. Could we indulge him this once, he wondered, with a fantasy of him being a grandpa?
I might own a canary named Senhora Xica, in tones of marmalade, who screeches joy joy joy when I find out I’m to be a mother.
“Is it a girl? Or a boy?” said Rui, shutting his eyes.
“A girl,” I said.
“And her name?” asked Tia, clutching Rui’s other hand. Soon she would kiss his lips as the last moth rose from inside him; perhaps she’d want to swallow it so that she could follow him, but the moth would move at phantom speed and spiral into the air to be eaten by the birds.
“Clara,” I said. It means light, gap or opening, egg white, clarity. “She’s stunning. She’s dazzling.”
“Clara!” shouted Tia Connie. “Beautiful! It’s Portuguese and English! She’ll be us from that other world, and you from this one! Heavens!”
“I send her my love,” said Rui. “Teach her everything you know.”
Come along now, Clara. Where shall we begin? This is how to eat an artichoke: Cut off the thorns. The stem is called the leg, and it’s an extension of the heart; don’t throw it away. Toss the inner protective junk. The green pan of the heart is delicate; lots of work for small reward. Life is tender. There’s a smile on you! A picture of you is burning through me forever. The leaves carry tips of the heart. Pull them hard between your teeth, my darling. Again. Again.
Image by Mauro Cateb
Katherine Vaz has been a Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She’s the author of two novels, Saudade (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection) and Mariana, picked by the Library of Congress as one of the Top 30 International Books of 1998. Her collection Fado & Other Stories won a Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and Our Lady of the Artichokes won a Prairie Schooner Award. Her children’s stories have appeared in anthologies by Viking, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster, and her short fiction has appeared in many magazines. She won a New York Film Academy and Writer’s Store national contest for a screenplay idea based on one of her stories. She’s the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded by the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division). Other honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a citation as a Portuguese-American Woman of the Year, and an appointment to the six-person Presidential Delegation (Clinton) to the World’s Fair/Expo 98 in Lisbon. “Our Lady of the Artichokes” was the title story of a collection first published as the winner of the 2007 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The story has been reprinted in several places, including the anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press, 2015).