International Writers Magazine: Tragedy
Old Lady of San Pedro
day God made solemn the old womans foolish threat to allow
the gypsies to have the boy. She was a woman of few holdings;
enough to keep her grandson comfortable, but not enough to keep
him from thinking about the brutal way his mother died, nor the
revenge his father had intended but failed to deliver.
The old woman had
many plans and promises, but on the day an invisible silence made good
her disgraceful remarks to sell the boy to the gypsies, she lost immediately
the handsome soldier billeted in her memory. She retained only the sense
of frailty, which lived, in the face of her grandson.
Heroic men with gaunt faces searched the ravine for hours in the blistering
sun and the fearfully cool evening. They returned to her with the challenge
of good news and bad news. When asked, they told her, "He was not
there." She widened her eyes to command the sequel. They opened
their hands and repeated, "He was not there."
So they continued searching. Finally, after a time, which would have
been considered respectful from anyone other than a semi-retired grandmother,
they slowed their paces. Eyes, fatigued from following the irregular
lines of brush and horizon, earned the disdainful and penetrating glare
of the old woman when they dared find refreshment in cold beer. The
old woman could not understand why the search teams did not look for
as long as there was uncovered territory, as long as there was a new
place to search, or on old place to search with better eyes. Why did
they not look for as long as there was air to breathe.
She glared into their series of molested faces. They sat stiff amid
the medicine of fright. "We have searched everywhere." one
insisted." Everywhere, And where was that, The old woman thought
back to the days when faith moved mountains and the landscape was continually
twisting and changing. She imagined the villagers who were truly her
friends would have bled their eyes across the terrain until mapmakers
were considered an impossibility.
The priest of San Pedro, who had studied St. John of the Cross, Saint
Teresa, and not a few works of Kabbalah, was not surprised. Padre Gomez
shrugged his shoulders and, reaching for the old woman, spoke for once
from the heart of his faith: "Sometimes God takes it to mind to
dislike people. This is a trial," the village free-thinker proposed.
His remarks piqued her interest and she looked at him expectantly. Unfortunately,
he continued: "You must weather the storm. You might fight the
tide. You must hold the course." He did not understand. In her
world, there was nothing but storm, not even interrupted by tide, or
By the end of the month, she had shed so many tears that she was as
dry as a cactus. Her eyes were red as a salmon which had fished itself
to dry earth. Her throat was vacant and sore. She coughed too much for
a woman her age and wheezed towards disappearance.
She was tossed from one sleepless night to another. She dressed in anguish,
walked in fatigue, rested in agony. When sleep would not soothe her,
she sought the fluidity of faintness. She hoped for blissful mental
autumnal twilights. The old woman began believing in the resurrection;
not her own, she hastily added, but the resurrection of the hastily
departed. The old, she thought, might just as well stay dead. But the
young! They deserved more than a face full of earth or, as she feared,
the eagles talons.
As if overnight, her lusty black hair aged in streaks of gray and her
firm breast sagged with the weight of a lost world. She found herself
in possession of a stinginess of mind, refusing to give thought to anything
or anyone other than the boy. She was tormented by the fear that she
would loose his rugged good looks in her mind also. The old woman began
looking upon the girls in the village with a sour mistrust. She was
certain any one of them might have become her grandsons lover
or wife and, failing that, would try to steal his memory from her.
How long, she begged to know, would the blood of the living rust this
iron sky of death,
Her misery was strengthened by the knowledge that, two days before the
boy disappeared, her brother had called, frantic because he dreamt about
a dead coyote.
"What can it mean," he asked.
"It can mean that coyotes die, and that you dream."
Nevertheless, she was driven by the conviction that dreams represent
the insides of a person talking to them. If your gut had a voice, she
thought, it would tell you about its vile existence. Until the moment
of the call from her brother, the old woman attempted to pay attention
to the images, which occurred to her in sleep. But she had no dreams
of her own after the disappearance of the boy.
The old woman blamed the childs disappearance on the sins of her
own youth, on the failure of the authorities to have eyes for any but
vagrant tax-payers, on a legendary curse placed upon her family generations
ago which had somehow, miraculously, skipped her own life till this
moment. She even gave credence to the bold notion that beings from another
planet would have some use for the boy. The villagers had equally cogent
reasons for the childs disappearance. The earth ate him. The old
woman herself had done him in. A giant bird had carried the boy away.
The priest was being punished for studying the mysteries. His punishment
consisted of a new mystery which neither he nor anyone else in the village
could fathom. All were filled with horror tales designed both to relieve
and horrify the mind. Each sponsor-less rumor was spread in hushed voices
amid personal professions of disbelief. The village became a place where
people could only reason with their ears.
When it became apparent that no incantation would help, no charm would
bring relief, the old woman took a turn for the worse. The radio, when
on, played emptiness to emptiness. Her meals took longer and longer
to cook, but it did not matter. When dinner was ready, she refused to
eat. Utensils, which she once handled as deftly as a sergeant handles
pistols, fell freely from her clasp. Finally, she took to throwing knives
into the unoffending wall. Asked by one of the diminishing number of
visitors if these actions made sense to her, the old woman responded
by flinging a plate from the window. She enjoyed the sound of the plate
breaking on the dry clay. Then, immediately despairing of the feel of
anything, she broke the rest of her dishes.
Marie quickly closed the cupboards, closed the blinds, and turned out
the lights when the old woman demanded silence. One day she hurried
from the cottage, strangely sorry for the gallop her sandals tapped
across the wooden floor. She never returned, nor did the old woman notice.
Nor did she notice that her flesh felt faintly of loose, as if melted
worms stretched across banded, leaky bricks. Wings of vacancy spread
to soak in the full-bodied abyss. A carousel of memories spun her in
a web of tedious heartbreak. She felt as if the end of permanence had
But, hush! One should not spill anothers emotions with words.
Searching for sympathy, she found a towel, which proved more enduring
than the lurid attention span of others. She attempted to clean a spill
from her kitchen, but the stain would not be absorbed. Her thoughts
were stretched across a bottomless ravine, between the two plateaus
of squalor and unintelligibility. Her reaction was quite rational. Inasmuch
as she had lost her source of joy, she resolved to treat everyone from
the bitterness she felt in her heart. Her pride was ransomed to the
continual plea of anger.
The old woman sighed. She swept a bluish mist from her face, annoyed
that colors would bother her at a time like this. When the haze departed,
she experienced the lavender depths of loss once again. There was a
pool within her, a silver tear, but it was drowning in a swirl of purples
and magentas. She despised colors, and left her cottage to walk the
dusty roads. She sneezed when she was first outdoors. The sun disappeared.
The golden sun fell invisible through a haze of scarlet and landed on
the earth like pale yellow dust. The woman, who had so recently had
ageless features like the earth itself, became wearily cavernous, contemptuously
worn with folds in her flesh, like the land.
She wrote the boys name with a hundred twigs broken by the sharp years,
which were hidden in the sand. A rose, opening itself, she stepped on.
The day wheezed into lavender hues and she decided to endure it. Nevertheless,
the gardener opened his hand for the spade to fall to earth as he bowed
and saluted the old woman with his thumbs pointing to either side of
his rear. She absentmindedly scratched a fresh bruise into a festering
clump of pain and, asked about the infection, spoke a rude word of condemnation
to the man. Sparrows, once the only proof that heaven and earth were
connected, cocked their heads appreciatively to the side and warbled
drolly. Their song called forth the precision of her annoyance. She
felt as if she were about to rust in time and wilt in space.
"Why me," she shrieked, then offered the names of former and
future enemies. "What, not this one, Why not that one," The
indecipherable answer was a whistling of the wind.
People who once treated her with genuine respect now began calling her
"Ma´am" and "Madame" and "Your ladyship."
She once heard someone call her "a great horses ass."
It was the first time she smiled in months.
The old woman consulted sorceresses who wrenched open the old womans
hands. After reading her palms, the sorceress threw up her own hands
and bid the old woman to believe in the powers of the unknown. The old
woman turned her fingers toward the table and her nails, out of fruitless
habit, penetrated callous skin and reburied themselves in her flesh.
The old woman no longer noticed her insomnia. She had grown accustomed
to her waking nightmare. Once, she lay on her bed and, shocked by the
suddenness of sleep, awoke in tears. Voices, which disturbed her nightly
numbness, were recognized as memories. She cursed these voices, cursed
any sounds which occurred in her head, for seeking a different way to
live. She would allow nothing to use her.
Believing in a potency she herself could not understand, she pulled
herself from bed early one morning and buried a bowl and spoon in her
yard. She thought this would lure spirits to release her grandson. Before
noon, she despaired of the significance of the act, clawed the items
from the earth, and spat upon the ground to show her contempt.
As winter approached, the winds blew her hair from her head. Her tears
formed sheets of ice. Cows and goats on nearby farms began dying mysteriously.
The villagers formed myths and attached blame for all sudden or slow
occurrences to her doings. Word of superfluously imagined treats was
carried to her by the wind. After hearing what her neighbors were saying
of her, she tore her own hair out as a lament for their stupidity and
confusion. The animals were another matter entirely.
In an inspired moment of delirium, she wrote an inventory of each of
her possessions in a minute, cramped scrawl on two think sheets of paper.
The inventory was so detailed and precise that even the two sheets of
paper were counted. On a third sheet of paper, she scribbled the heading,
"Things I Do Not Have." She immediately lined through the
first two notations: a silver clasp given me by my mother, my self-respect.
The third line was most legible of all she had written. The whimsy of
dizziness tilted her when she noticed she had not mentioned anything,
which most people, according to the wind, desired from life.
When the first snows came, the old woman phoned her accountant and demanded
he come to her cottage. She cleaned for him by pushing everything on
the floor into a corner. He was not surprised to find the tangled mess
of "crap," as he was later to call it, "mixed with shit
and chicken bones" piled below the window. She instructed him to
close bank accounts, sell property here, buy this, write quicker, because
she had much to say, and do. She screamed at him a number of times to
do everything she said, no questions asked. Nor did he desire to ask
questions. He wanted to leave as quickly as possible, to get away from
the overwhelming stench. Nor did her requirements make sufficient sense
to earn questions and would not until questions were too late. He thought
the old woman mad, but did not understand that her madness was fueled
by the desire not for gain, but to deprive others of their property
or entitlements. He wrote quickly and left hurriedly.
The old woman was so consumed by the desire for denying that she did
not even care to possess. One after another, esteemed members of the
government succumbed to a servitude for which they had never anticipated
except in fine speeches announcing a lack they were prepared to help
voters avoid. The old woman closed her eyes, never opening them again
except to sign documents or feel her way about the village. As she passed
through the streets, she imagined boutiques and factories, an expanded
market-place and whorehouses, which would cater to new clientele. She
instructed one of her body-guards to write these words on a thin sheet
of paper: termites; transients; migrants; citizens.
With calloused hands, she managed the minutest affairs of her expanding
empire. She insured she had the first, the last, the only decision about
what was to go where, who was to do what, when they were to begin, and
when the chore would be completed. She made good use of her insomnia
to lose all sense of appreciation, all human feeling. She behaved with
the self-righteousness of a plague. Whatever it was she no longer recognized
in herself, she refused to hear about in others. Whenever a personal
problem caused a delay in transacting her designs, the offender was
dispatched in the most unpleasant manner. Ridicule, which was discovered
to be an adequate substitute for holiday bonuses, now became the institution
of the living death of banishment.
A servant, upon seeing the old woman, spread his hands across his cheeks
and allowed his mouth to fall open. "Close your mouth," the
old woman warned, "We have the flies to think about!"
As a final insult to the people, the old woman contracted with a circus
to come to town. She smiled painfully at the parade of llamas and clowns,
a tall, thin man walking on sticks, a ballerina who gracefully moved
through the main street with her arms spread to the side, her limp fingers
pointing to the dust. When they had gathered to the place they were
instructed to pitch their tends, the old woman led a parade of villagers
to the encampment and, with a great display and fanfare, announced that
this parcel of land was a city in its own right, and these performers
and freaks were the citizens. The villagers were intuitively confused,
but the circus people had a more worldly confusion.
If this tale had a proper ending, we would expect the grandson to be
found among the performers who walked with the mules and flew through
the air with the mosquitoes. But this tale has the harsh tones of reality
spread about it. The elephants reminded the people of a largess they
had once known when they were simple villagers. The clowns regaled the
villagers out of consciousness. The dangerously delightful dagger thrower
amused them. The lion tamer made them fiercely contemplate better days.
The brightly colored wagons distracted them from their dull ideas about
what life had once been like. But Juan was nowhere to be found, not
even in the memory of the sad faces, which watched the antics of bearded
women and well-laundered men. He existed only in the crooked smile of
the old woman who, wishing her grandson could see the spectacle of these
new citizens, broke down and cried.
The people of our village do not believe in ghosts. If asked, we will
verify the howling and terrifying groans, which can be heard from the
cliffs, adjudicating the mountains. Visitors to our village, who are
few and far between, rarely claim to hear the distressed cries, which
wearily wake us nightly. She should have been dead many years ago. Angry
animals should have claimed her many times over. Yet, Padre Sanchez
tells us through his habitual coughing, some things cannot be explained.
Some things never seem to go away.
© G DS September 2006
of the unexpected
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