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The Fifth Sun
By Mary Helen Lagasse
Curbstone Press Copyright © 2004 Mary Helen Lagasse
All rights reserved.
Villahermosa, Tabasco (1926)
The body of Nicolasa Vasconcelos lay for viewing on the earthen floor.
Unmottled by the fevered anguish that had tethered soul to body, Nicolasa's face was as fine-grained and even-colored as a clay urn. The bridge of her nose was keener, the nostrils fixed in their natural audacious flair. The long straight lashes cast shadows that danced on the high cheekbones whenever the candle flames stirred. The coronet of plaited hair that was the base on which the young washerwoman had borne countless baskets of linens rested on the slopes of her bosom — two thick plaits interlaced with green ribbons.
Her head rested on a brick wrapped in a swatch of black velvet that the old neighbor, Josefina Romero, had rummaged from the bottom drawer of Nicolasa's dresser. Her feet, in pale yellow stockings and red leather sandals, pointed downward. Tip to toe, Nicolasa Vasconcelos' body fitted within the five-foot length of the mat and the thin mattress beneath that had padded the bedspring frame of the bed on which the woman, not yet twenty-nine, had died early that morning.
The only sign of the hideous strain that Nicolasa endured at the outset of her brief and mortal agony showed in the twitching of her jaw several days before her death. The assault that followed was so acute, the suffering so terrible, that it was impossible to believe that anything as inconsequential as a puncture wound on the ankle made by a rusted clothesline wire could have caused such grief.
"Is it true my mother has tetanus?" Nicolasa's daughter Mercedes had asked the old neighbor only days before. Her dark eyes, glittering, fidgeted in anticipation of the old woman's answer.
"How many times are you going to ask me that same question, and how many times am I expected to explain what the doctor said?" Josefina said. She bit hard on the worn kernel of a tooth thinking of how for the girl's sake and her own peace of mind she had approached the doctor and asked him to explain the nature of the disease that afflicted Nicolasa, of how the doctor had taken the time to explain it to her, his bespectacled eyes nailing her to the chair, doubtful that she understood anything of what he was saying.
He recounted the stages of the disease as Josefina herself had observed it — the stiffness about the wound site, the fever and sore throat, the rapid progression with which the stiffness engaged the jaw muscles, extending to the muscles of the chest, the back, the abdomen. He went over the fits and spasms, and the characteristic grotesque grin, which the doomed Nicolasa in her then undiminished powers had attempted to shield from her daughter.
Josefina had seen others die in the throes of the agony characteristic of lockjaw. She had followed the symptoms as they appeared, but the disease itself remained a mystery to her. Even as the doctor explained, what Josefina imagined was a segmented animal so minute it entered the body through a pinhole to spread its deadly yellow-red humors.
"I'm saying this for the last time. Don't ask me again," she said, wagging a knobby finger in the girl's face. "The doctor said it's a disease that enters the body through an open wound. This animal is so tiny it cannot be seen with the naked eye. It was abiding in the puncture wound made by the clothes wire before your mother stepped in the yard slop the day of the torn sheets and terrible rainstorm. What else can I tell you?" She bore down on her near-toothless gums. "The disease was there before the red streak appeared. It has nothing to do with anything you did or did not do, or with the storm, or with that good-for-nothing pig, Doblón!" she said in exasperation, and she rapped the girl's head with her knuckles.
The girl winced. "But will my mother die like the crazy man that was tethered like an animal to the post?" she persisted.
"Otra vez el burro al trigo!" Josefina muttered because for all of her efforts, the girl refused to be drawn from the trough of confusion and guilt. In her exasperation Josefina again rapped the girl's head with her knuckles.
The scene of two summers past came back to Josefina in all its brutal clarity — the rabid man baring his teeth, the cords of his neck ready to burst from the purple rage as he strained against the ropes, strained to escape the sight of the water they held to his face to test him for hydrophobia. Josefina shuddered, her very soul cringing from the unholy alliance the girl made of the poor tormented Nicolasa with the madman tethered to the post in the town square.
"Harsh as it was, taunting the man with water was the only way it could be determined if he was possessed by a demon or if he was rabid, so many weeks had it been since he'd been bitten by the mad wolf. His wounds had healed completely."
"But isn't my mother's fear of water the same as that madman's fear of it?" the girl asked, undaunted by the old woman's impatience.
The grimace on Nicolasa's face that bore a startling resemblance to that of the madman loomed before the old woman. In one seamless flourish, she sketched crosses on her forehead, lips, and breast. "Stubborn mula!" she hissed at Mercedes. Although Josefina understood the girl's anxiety, she resented her insistence on having contributed in some inexplicable way to her mother's illness. It appeared to Josefina that the snot-nosed girl was attempting to participate in powers that belonged to heaven alone.
"Your mother doesn't fear the water, she's frustrated, even outraged that she isn't able to drink it," Josefina said, clutching her throat. She winced, remembering Nicolasa's difficulty in swallowing, how she had clenched her teeth and hissed at the spoonfuls of water Josefina held to her lips; how Nicolasa had strained against invisible shackles that held her to the bed, as mightily as the madman tied to the post in the town square two summers ago.
She had taken the girl by the arm and led her away from where the tormented Nicolasa lay on the bed, her face turned to the wall so that she might spare them the sight of the grimace the doctor said was characteristic of the disease in its final stages.
"If I die wearing that hideous grin, promise that you will not let my daughter see, that you'll cover my face," Nicolasa had instructed Josefina, telling her where she would find the swatch of black velvet with which she would conceal the ugliness.
Josefina returned to the house in the still-dark morning, not four hours after she had left it, to find Nicolasa in bed as she'd left her, her breathing steady but ragged, and the girl setting the hammock in which she slept back on the hook in a corner of the room.
She was hardly inside the door when the girl asked, "Since her illness is different than hydrophobia, did the doctor say when her suffering will start to lessen?"
"Be quiet! Your mother's hearing is keen," Josefina hissed. She dragged the girl out of the door into the narrow street where the morning mist lingered above the cobblestones. She stood there, looking at the girl, not knowing how to answer her, not knowing that in asking again and again about her mother's sickness, the girl was denying the thought that her mother would die.
In her youth Josefina had seen a rabid man live placidly for an indeterminate time after having been bitten by a rabid dog. His wound had healed completely and the event was all but forgotten when the scar reopened and suppurated again — the agony of such an affirmation so long after the fact having been worse than the death itself.
"Basta! Enough of your questions!" she scolded, even as a thin wail pierced the air.
They had rushed back into the windowless room to find Nicolasa suspended in an agonized twist, her back impossibly arched, her feet and shoulders touching the padding that covered the squealing bedsprings.
As if she had been summoned, the very pregnant neighbor, Trinidad Camacho, appeared in the doorway. She thrust the baby she held on belly and hip at Mercedes and rushed to help Josefina who was doing her best to keep the writhing Nicolasa from falling off the bed.
Drenched with sweat and tears, Nicolasa strained against the two women.
Mercedes panicked, nearly dropping the child as she set it on the floor. "Mamacita!" she cried, and thrust herself between the two women.
"Stay back, girl!" Josefina said, fearful that the sudden jarring of the bed would precipitate another, possibly fatal, convulsion.
Too late. Mercedes had flung herself onto the bed and was on top of Nicolasa, willing the flimsy weight of her body to quell the convulsion that would have broken her mother in two.
Nicolasa's head swiveled to one side, her face drawn as if by a powerful magnet to the wall.
"Mamá!" Mercedes wailed.
Nicolasa gasped, caught her breath between clenched teeth and held it as if it were her last. "Vete, m'hija," she urged. "Go!"
Bewildered by Nicolasa's plea for her to leave, Mercedes glanced at the two women then back again, seeking her mother's eyes. She yearned to frame her mother's face in her hands, to turn her head so that she could challenge face-to-face the grimacing disease that was having its way with her.
The bed rattled, then fell silent.
The spasm sifted from Nicolasa's shuddering body like water through sand and she seemed to sink into the very mattress.
Still straddling her mother, Mercedes drew back.
Nicolasa turned her face from the wall in ratcheted increments. Tendrils of hair were pasted to her flesh. The muscles at the corners of her mouth twitched. She opened her eyes, looked up at Mercedes, and smiled.
Dumbstruck, Josefina and Trinidad looked at one another.
"Es un milagro," the younger woman declared. She fell to her knees and crossed herself, content to think that Nicolasa, having rid herself of the hideous grin, had conquered the disease and was on her way to a miraculous recovery.
"Ai, Mamá," Mercedes sighed, as if her mother had returned from some far-off place.
"M'hija," Nicolasa whispered, "— go." She lifted her hand as if she meant to touch her daughter's face. The girl took it and pressed it to her lips, and with that the light in Nicolasa's eyes dimmed, retreating into shadows cast by lashes long and straight as the bristles of a brush.
"Mamá?" Mercedes cried. She gripped her mother by the shoulders and would have shaken her back to consciousness had not the two women pulled her away.
"Santísima virgen! What is it you're trying to do? Let your mother rest. Go, as she's asked you to do. Make yourself useful and run to the pharmacy for the curare the doctor prescribed," the old woman commanded, drawing a folded wad of paper from her apron pocket.
She put the prescription paper into Mercedes' hand and reached into her pocket for her coin purse. "While you're gone, I'll make your mother as comfortable as possible. The rest is in God's hands."
Mercedes ran blind and crazy from the house, balling in her hand the doctor's prescription for the curare that was meant to ease her mother's torment. She did not see that familiar place where the sunken cobblestones made a wide depression in the street, where on rainy days, she and her friend, María Colorado, splashed and played. She stumbled and crashed to the ground, landing on the naked points of her elbows and knees. When they caught up with her to carry her back to the room where her mother had died, her limbs were still locked in position as if she had been caught leaping in mid air.
Josefina led the dazed girl around like a tonta. She stood Mercedes before the big rain barrel that stood in the patio, put a hemp ball in one hand, a bar of yellow soap in the other, and pulled the girl's dress over her head. "Wash now, and be quick about it," she commanded. Later, she had the girl sit on the floor and, clasping the girl's shoulders with her bony knees, she began to tug at the girl's tangled hair with a wide-toothed comb.
"Ai, don't be like that, Doña Josefina," Trinidad scowled, looking on.
Trinidad herself believed that mysterious diseases of the kind that had attacked and killed Nicolasa were insect-like spirits sent among the people to punish them for one transgression or another. They fastened themselves onto the victim and poisoned the blood, captured the weakened soul and carried it away.
Trinidad shivered, believing she'd glimpsed a fantasma misting a corner of the room.
What violation of God's law the strong-willed Nicolasa might have committed, she did not know. Had it to do with the way Nicolasa had disdained the application of holy relics on the wound? The pinch of dirt taken from the site of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin at Chalma? The bone chip brought over by Doña Josefina's nephew, a parish priest who procured the relic on his pilgrimage to the ancient monastery of San Bartolomeo on the outskirts of Mexico City? And what of Nicolasa's recklessness in mocking the powerful old brujas who remedied one's ills with spit, speckled egg yolks, and a crooked eye? Or, had it been Nicolasa's disdain for her inherent role which, according to God's law and the teachings of the Church, put all women under the dominion and protection of men? It was a role that Nicolasa had likened to that of a chinch bug squashed in a man's armpit.
Trinidad had never quite known how to take Nicolasa, whether in her irreverence Nicolasa was blaspheming or merely performing, but she remembered how raucously she'd laughed at Nicolasa's antics and how she had never failed to cross herself afterward. She reasoned that Nicolasa was a good woman who put little store in the healing power of holy relics, and that her acts of disrespect were without malice or contempt, but Trinidad feared that one could not get away with such things unscathed.
"Why not let me tend to Mercedes, Doña Josefina? You have enough to do preparing for the visitors," she said. Her hands, warm and rosy from the kitchen drudgery, rested on her belly.
"Leave the girl to me and go about your own business," Josefina huffed, brushing Trinidad aside. She refused to coddle Mercedes. She meant to guide her with a firm hand, to prepare her in the short time left for what she would face. And she meant to elicit tears of whatever kind that would bring the girl a measure of relief.
"How arrogant you are, Mercedes, to think that a snotnose such as yourself could have done anything to affect the will of God! I tell you for the very last time, the disease that afflicted your mother was abiding in the wound before she walked barefooted in the yard slop the day of the torn sheets and terrible rainstorm and had nothing, nothing at all to do with you or with that stupid pig." She resisted the urge to rap the girl on the head again, but she tugged the girl's hair and braided it ever more tightly.
The air was laden with the scent of beeswax and the dark irreverent smell of the guiso Trinidad Camacho had sizzling in the olla that sat atop the brazier in the kitchen space attached to the rear wall of the dwelling.
In the patio, Nicolasa's unvarnished four-poster bed, dismantled, leaned against the backyard fence. Alongside it was the dresser, its drawers and spotted mirror intact. The two large pieces of furniture had been moved to make space for the bier and for the few chairs that stood against the walls of the one-room dwelling.
Josefina determined to make a close and final inspection of the body. She grunted from the effort it took to let herself down on her withered haunches. She fluffed the ruffled collar of the dead woman's blouse, touched the small hands that clasped the wood-and-bronze crucifix and the gardenia nosegay that Mercedes had assembled from the flowers she'd plucked from the yard of one of the better houses nearby.
In the dancing light of the tall garlanded candles that stood at the four corners of the bier, the dead woman's eyelashes registered their shadow- flutterings on Josefina's old brain.
"Sí, muchacha," the old woman whispered, hunching closer, as if Nicolasa were listening. "I remember the day well — the water, sparkling and clear as truth —"
It was the feast day of San José, her saint's day, and they were sitting on the circumference of the fountain of Diana in the town square: she, Nicolasa, and the girl. Addle-brained old woman that she was, she had let Nicolasa coax her into taking off her shoes and putting her horny feet with their angry bunions alongside Nicolasa's.
"There was nothing there. I saw nothing." She whispered, thinking of Nicolasa's feet and ankles, ginger-glazed by the cool waters, smooth and unmarred.
Tears welled in the crescents of Josefina's rheumy eyes and fell like beads of glass onto the dead woman's bosom. "We are ready," she said, unnecessarily loud because Mercedes and Trinidad were already at her side, ready to lift her to a stand.
"Stop your fussing and turn those chairs to the wall," she instructed so that the best chairs, borrowed ones, remained unoccupied, reserved for the special visitors — the girl's father, Davíd García, and his sister, Azul.
Excerpted from The Fifth Sun by Mary Helen Lagasse. Copyright © 2004 Mary Helen Lagasse. Excerpted by permission of Curbstone Press.
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