The night of Ernesto’s death, Sandra shuts off all the lights in her home and sits at the kitchen table, breaking off pieces of tostada. She makes a ritual of it, splitting apart bits of maize, suppressing thoughts of her brother’s spirit drifting into the afterlife. Sandra imagines Ernesto there: confused, flailing in empty space. Alone. She snaps the first tostada into jagged pieces. Sandra sets a sliver in her mouth, the texture brittle between her teeth.
The cuckoo clock strikes every half hour, the bird’s shrill laughter, harsh against the quiet room, and every half hour Sandra crosses herself and whispers into the dark: “En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amen.” Then she follows the Blessed Sacrament. She separates the second tostada into three sections, sharp with edges like canine teeth. El Padre, el Hijo, y el Espíritu Santo. She scatters the broken bread on her raw cedar table: uneven pieces severed from the body. Another tostada. Three. Sandra swallows, shards like splintered glass catching the roof of her mouth. She breaks the suffering, parts the flesh.
Another half-hour: the bird in the clock springs and Sandra breaks the body again. The bird sounds different every time it wakes. Sandra falls into sync with the bird. The bird springs. Sandra breaks. She eats. The bird springs. She breaks. She eats again. When Mamá calls, Sandra sits at her kitchen table, trying to block out the echoes of the rings. Mamá leaves no voicemail. Sandra prays words she can no longer taste. Prayers spin around her brain like a carousel. Throughout the night, Sandra consumes pounds of corn and meat and sangre. She stops at twelve tostadas, not knowing why she stops or if she even wants to stop. Part of her feels she can go on living this way.
The clock hands twitch into early morning. Sandra saves two tostadas for Ernesto’s spirit and lays meat out to dry on the windowsill. She slices too much aguacate, spills black beans on the stovetop. She makes an altar of her kitchen.
Ernesto had been the kind of older brother that drank too much and ate too little. In life, he had gambled often, wasting money on things he didn’t need, like neon lights for his pickup truck and dozens of designer shoes that fit loose around his ankles. Perhaps he had cared little about his future, but he had always been good to Sandra, his only sister, the only person whose future mattered. When Sandra had debated about going to college, Ernesto said, “Don’t give up on school. You’re too fucking smart to end up working some bullshit job like me.” Then when she said nothing in return, he whispered, “Christo, Sandra!”
Ernesto was never bothered by vulgarities, like using the Lord’s name in vain, and this had bothered Sandra. But she had never thought to question his faith. Ernesto had always been honest; this revealed a sense of morality. God would have forgiven him if there had been a little more time. Perhaps this is why Sandra now abandons tostadas on the dining room table. What if she can love her brother into salvation, enough to send him to a better resting place? “Padre,” Sandra whispers, “grant his spirit safe passage to Heaven.” She doesn’t add, “Take me instead” or, “Sorry for the unorthodox shrine. It’s not really for you.”
Mamá calls again. It must be an unkindly hour in the morning because the rings echo a little deeper and feel even more abrasive, bouncing off the empty corners of the kitchen. Sandra tunes out the click of the hands on the clock and forgets that clocks can do such a thing like count down to another tomorrow. She forgets how to get up from a chair, to find her bed, to sleep a little. Mamá must sense her forgetting. This time she leaves a voicemail.
Sandra doesn’t stir to check the message, but she figures it’s probably something loud as voicemails from Mamá usually are. Something seemingly gentle like, “¿Mijita, donde andas? Call me back.” Just more accusatory in tone, the way Mamá’s Spanish makes Sandra feel like she has done something she should be ashamed of. Like all the times Mamá says, “I’m just worried about you,” but instead it sounds like she’s angry with Sandra. Mamá’s words feel like contradictions; like bitter truths wrapped in kindness. Like she really means to say, “Damn it, Sandra! Me das un dolor de cabeza con tus tonterías.” Like, “Don’t fucking bother me with your stupid shit, Sandra. You’ll give me a heart attack. And I damn near expect to live ’til I’m ninety-eight.” Except, in Sandra’s mind, everything is in Spanish, and it’s all too fast, all too loud. Too much Mamá to handle. Especially when Sandra can’t even get up from her kitchen table.
Sometimes Sandra imagines what Mamá was like before her birth. She imagines Mamá with an unfamiliar lightness: her hair long and loose over her shoulders, her smile shifting her features into different shapes, her eyes softer. She thinks Mamá would be different if Papá had never left; she often wonders where he went. She wonders why he abandoned a six-year-old Ernesto and Mamá, pregnant with Sandra, in Wasco—a space nestled between all the Santas and Sans of California, a plain so flat and unsaintly—and drifted to a place unknown. Most days, Sandra likes to pretend she knows where she could find him. She imagines Papá blending into the hilly streets of San Miguel de Allende and all the colorful adobe homes and soft tortillas and street vendors who yell, “¡Tamales Oaxaqueños!” to closed doors, windows cracked slightly to welcome in daylight, while everyone sleeps or nibbles on conchas and bolillos because it’s just too early for shouts and savory foods. Here, the street vendors don’t care about waking the roosters, much less the townsfolk, as they roll their carts with elote con chile and paletas over cobblestone, their wheels loose and their utensils clinking against metal.
Sandra knows little about Papá, but she knows one thing for sure: Papá left with a woman who was not Mamá, and Mamá didn’t want to talk about it. Not ever. Sandra can never ask about Papá without Mamá saying something like, “Why do you want to know about that asshole? ¡Nos abandonó! You hear me? He is no man to me.” Sandra often wonders what her parents had looked like when they were in love or if it had all just been a fairytale.
Then Sandra would say something like, “Pero Mamí, ¿donde vive ahora?”
And Ernesto would butt in with his smart mouth, breaking up the Spanish like he always did, just for the sake of rebellion. “I hope he gets fucked by a fish,” he would say. “¡Que le folle un pez!” And Sandra would sit with that awful obscenity, wondering why Ernesto found crass jokes so funny and wondering why Mamá and Ernesto always skirted around her question—where is Papá now?
Sandra leaves the unleavened bread on the table. For the next three days, she eats standing up and only when she has to. Only when her bones creak in that muted tune that might suggest she needs more calcium, or more bones. Only when she notices her skin: taut across her cheekbones and sternum. In moments like these, Sandra remembers that her flesh is a dress for her bones. Mamá would curse at her if she saw her in such a state.
“¡Siéntate, flaca!” she would say. “Sit down. What are you? A maid?” Then Mamá would spoon feed her rice and black beans as if she were trying to break the surface of the earth with a shovel.
As the tostadas sit in the dry heat of her home, flies accumulate and roast. Die in a shrine of meat. Mijita, Mamá texts, I’m coming.
It’s the thunder that wakes Sandra. She looks up at the cuckoo clock. 6:15, no bird. She stirs in a state of simultaneous worry and confusion, her body stiffening against the wall by the front door. Her legs wobble as she stands. She can’t remember why she decided to sit here, by the curtains and the shoe rack and the doorbell, and when did she doze off? Did she go to work in the morning? 6:17. She remembers. Mamá is on her way. 6:18. She knows Mamá will be here soon; the thunder warns her, rattles the house with its low grumbling. 6:20. The kitchen. Sandra remembers the kitchen. The tostadas. The meat. The flies. Mamá will be disturbed by the mess. Mamá will scold her. Sandra must sweep, must clear the house of the remains. Must clear the house of the smell. She thinks of Ernesto. She can’t remember if it had been raining three nights ago, the night she learned he was dead, but she feels it must have been raining, the kind of rain accompanied by thunder so forceful it threatened to rattle the rooftops. The kind where lightning splits trees in half.
6:30. The bird returns. It bops its head downward, pecking at empty air. “Cuckoo,” Sandra whispers to her little friend. “Cuckoo.” The bird mimics Sandra. She smiles. It returns to its hole in the clock, a safe burrow. Sandra turns on the TV. It takes a moment for the screen to settle into color. The news is still on. Sandra has kept the TV on the same channel for days, half-expecting to see Ernesto’s face every time, knowing this is as irrational as the shrine in her kitchen. Sandra knows Ernesto isn’t worth the pixelated space on the screen. His death means nothing to the town of Wasco. Headlines flash across the bottom of the screen: “Father of two killed after falling from taxi window onto busy motorway” … “Despite warnings, FDA approves opioid painkillers” … “Mario Segale, the inspiration for Nintendo’s Hero Plumber, has died.” She reads these with mild disinterest.
Sandra’s mind whirls with alternate endings. He was in a car. He was out of a car. His girlfriend Christie was there. He hit a deer. He hit a tree. Someone hit him. It was a head-on collision. It was a murder. Her brother had jumped off a bridge. He was just going for a swim; he said he wouldn’t be long. No, he wasn’t on the road at all. He was in the barn behind Christie’s father’s house. A horse kicked him in the face. He had a stroke. He was so young. His body was found elsewhere. His cigarette cast hay into flames. Up he went with the smoke. Christie’s father hit him over the head with an empty liquor bottle. Christie caught him cheating. She slit his throat. He bled out in the river by the state line. How did he get there? Where was his body? He was still alive. It was just a prank.
Sandra can’t remember who called first or what was said exactly. But she knew before she picked up. She knew the moment the phone rang, and the person on the other side of the line took a moment too long to whisper, “Sandra?” She listened with ears that no longer belonged to her. When someone dies like that, words shift like clockwork. Sandra lived five hours in two minutes. Then everyone knew. She didn’t have to tell them. The hours had already shifted the world into a state of knowing. Who picked up the phone first? Who thought to call the next person? Sandra wishes Ernesto died a hero’s death, brave and stupid, an ending that would give his life meaning. Not this. Not this mistake. Sandra would rather spend her time imagining a different reality where her brother hadn’t gone this way, at thirty-two, barely an adult. Ernesto decided this fate. And he didn’t stop to think about all the shit he would leave behind: pieces of garbage that Sandra and Mamá would have to box and throw out later, all the hours’ worth of packing and deliberating, all the damn mail they would have to sort and return to sender. And, worst of all, he never fucking thought of Sandra. How he would leave her to wait on Mamá. That rampant knock on her door. The echoes of Mamá’s voice: “Sandra, ¿estas ahí?” How she would never have the guts to say, “No, Mamá. I’m not here” like Ernesto. Ernesto had gusto. Sandra had liked that about him. He would scream, “¡Ay, caray, Mamá! Stay out of my business.” Then he would crack open a bottle of Corona, wedge a lime in, and ignore her shadow skulking at the door.
Mamá starts with the kitchen. She sweeps, scrubs the floors with a brittle-sounding brush, soaks the counters in vinegar, and opens the windows and the back door. “Mugre moscas,” she says to the flies, turning her back to Sandra. “¡Pinche malvados!” She swats them with her shoe, chasing one around the kitchen until it collapses from fear, and collects the dead ones in a dustpan. She avoids eye contact and curses the flies some more. Sandra lets her roam the space like a wild boar. For once, the flies are to blame, not Sandra.
“He loved you,” Mamá says, neglecting her Spanish the way Ernesto used to. Perhaps this is her way of honoring his memory. “Before you were born, he told me he wanted a baby sister. He said, ‘If it’s not a girl, don’t come home.’” Mamá laughs. “¡Que terco era! So headstrong, even as a child.”
Ernesto was brilliant, but he was constantly dumbing himself down. He worked a construction job, not because it was something he had to do or something he wanted to do, but because it was precisely the kind of job where he wasn’t expected to do anything beyond a given project. He welcomed the static. There were no surprises.
Once, when Sandra was eleven years old, she asked him why he was flunking chemistry. Mamá had already chided him about his report card, and Sandra had listened in the doorway of the kitchen. Everything important in their lives seemed to happen in the kitchen. “You like science,” Sandra said. “It doesn’t make sense why you would make such bad grades.” Sandra had often watched Ernesto in their backyard, filling empty soda bottles with ingredients and waiting for chemical reactions. He seemed to always know what he was doing and wore rubber gloves that were so long they covered the skin above his elbows. To this, he shrugged and said, “So, I like to blow shit up. That doesn’t make me smart.”
Mamá is no longer cleaning, no longer shifting across space like a vacuum. There’s a silence about her that unsettles Sandra. She doesn’t ask Sandra what led her to this ceremony in the first place: why the meat was scattered on the windowsill; why all the lights were off until Mamá turned them on; why there were small shards of tostada scattered on the kitchen table and across the linoleum floors. She doesn’t ask Sandra about God, either, but Sandra knows Mamá thinks of Him as she thinks of Ernesto, and the way the days feel longer with his absence.
“Mamí,” Sandra says, “I pray for him every night. Even before—”
“Sí, mijita.” When Mamá speaks, her voice is softer than usual. “Lo sé.”
Lo sé. It’s one of those mundane phrases that often bothers Sandra. Mamá seems to always know more than she lets on. When Mamá says, “Lo sé,” she’s really saying something else. Something she’s unwilling to articulate in the moment.
Mamá and Sandra kneel before the kitchen window and bow their heads together, clasping their hands to their foreheads. They haven’t done this in a while. Mamá had given Sandra her first rosary, lilac with plastic beads that looked like a child strung it together. Sandra has since worn the lilac down to white from the pressure of her left thumb. When Ernesto had stopped visiting Mamá so frequently and started crashing at Sandra’s—when he and Christie would get into fights or when he just wanted a meal or to talk and not have anyone ask too many questions—Mamá stopped insisting that Sandra come to church with her, stopped praying with her over Thursday dinners and all the other meals that Mamá decided to schedule last minute. “¿Caldo de pollo o carne en su jugo?” she would ask, and Sandra would almost always reply, “Carne en su jugo,” because she loved the way her insides warmed as she spooned layers of carrots and chile and tender beef into her body. Ernesto would have never done something so vulnerable like bow his head before an open glass, or close his eyes to the rest of the world.
What do their hands reach for? The back door? The splintered wood on the cabinets? The spirit they feel there, pushing back at them through the windowpane? Something intangible. And bitter. Sandra wonders if Mamá can taste the salt in the air, too. She swears it hadn’t been there before. The wind picks up outside and enters through the window. Sandra and Mamá sit in silence as the air fills the room. The house expands like an accordion to fill the heaviness of their souls. And when they whisper, “Amen,” the house sighs with them.
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