Anchor Books/DoubledayCopyright © 2002 Susan Straight
All right reserved.ISBN: 0385722613
Serafina held the Virgen de Guadalupe curled in her palm. The blue-
robed woman standing on a bed of roses was still warm. Larry had torn
the oval picture from the glass candleholder, the veladora Serafina
kept burning all day to assure the Virgen"s gaze upon her and her
"This ain"t Mexico," he had said, eyes red as pomegranate
seeds, and then he roared off in his blue truck.
Without the image, the candle flame shook small and lonely as
a glowing grain of rice. Elvia stared at the wick through the bare
glass. Serafina watched the tiny fire reflected in her pupils. The
little duplex room had filled with the purple light of summer evening.
Serafina smoothed the stained-glass edging around the Virgen.
This was not enough. She had tried to make an altar inside the
kitchen, but she needed to pray inside a church, with santos looking
down upon her, to ask what she should do.
"Ná?" Elvia called to her mother in their Mixtec
language. "Nducha yúján nun hi?" She wanted Serafina to make atole,
to heat the milk with ground-corn masa and sugar and cinnamon.
Serafina waited, her eyebrows raised. "Please," Elvia said
perfectly. She had just turned three. She could say many words.
Serafina picked her up and carried her to the kitchen so she could
feel the small hands fluttering like moths on her shoulders.
Serafina knew Please. Thank you. Money. Pay. Fuckin cops.
Fuckin truck. American. Speak English. Okay. Sorry. She could
say "sorry," but she couldn"t form her lips properly around any of
the other words. She had said "sorry" a few hours ago to Larry, when
he had whirled around the house and torn the Virgen from her veladora
and shouted, "Ellie"s American! My kid"s American, okay? Quit this
shit!" But her "sorry" didn"t sound right. She tried to whisper it
now, but her throat wouldn"t cooperate. She was crying. She wanted to
kneel inside the church at home, to touch San Cristobal, the patron
saint of her village, to rub Elvia with flowers and then lay them on
the altar as an offering, to pray about what kind of life Elvia would
"Ná?" Elvia crooned now. "Cap"n Crunch?"
It was almost gone. It was very expensive. But Serafina
poured the yellow pillows of cereal into a plastic bowl. She knew she
would have to drive the car. Elvia could carry the cereal. Elvia
reached up with a golden square between her fingers, offering it to
her mother, and Serafina crushed the sweet powder with her teeth.
Maiz. Nun . It was corn, she knew. She stirred a swirling
brown veil of cinnamon into the atole. The steam rose from the
thickened milk and clouded her eyes for a moment, and she saw home.
The mist descending from the mountains, softening the harsh light of
"Ná ?" Elvia said from near the TV. "Sesame Street."
Serafina kneeled next to her daughter, blowing on the mug of
atole, trying to imagine herself driving past the fence. The
television said, "A. Apple. A."
"Apple," Elvia said. "Ná —apple."
Serafina nodded, closing her eyes so the steam couldn"t
collect there and make tears that would frighten her daughter.
"B. Balloon. B." A boy was carried away by the blue circle.
"C. Cat. C." The yellow cat"s whiskers shivered when he
Outside in the twilight, she held Elvia on her hip and
touched the hot door handle of the black car named Nova, almost like
a bride. Novia. The car was Larry"s bride, with heavy-lidded jeweled
eyes. Serafina studied the dusty hood. The car always stayed in the
driveway, facing the street to hide the blank square where the
license plate should be. When Larry came home, he worked on the
insides, tangled like pig intestines.
He had tossed the keys at her and laughed. "Drive back to
Mexico," he"d said. "Get a life."
Now Elvia slid onto the front seat, laughing, holding her
bowl of cereal. She loved Larry"s truck; sometimes he let her turn
the steering wheel. Last week, when Serafina began to ease the Nova
up and down the dirt driveway, Elvia had explored each dashboard
knob. Her short brown legs stuck out stiffly over the edge of the
Serafina placed the mug of hot atole in the black plastic
tray on the seat between them. When she turned the key in its silver
circle, the car closed a dark hull around Serafina, and suddenly she
couldn"t breathe. The floor trembled. She closed her eyes, then
opened them, afraid. She had come to California in the trunk of a
car. The rumbling under her cheek had stayed inside her brain for
days. The oily air had stayed inside her throat.
Black gas step. Black stop step. She pushed on them, her own
short legs reaching with difficulty. Elvia screamed with delight at
the jerking movements of the car down the driveway. The cloud-haired
old woman from next door came outside, waving, pointing to something
on the ground. Serafina looked away. I don"t have her money, she
thought. Rent. No rent.
The car jostled off the curb and into the street. Serafina
made herself breathe. A white tower. She thought she had seen a white
tower when they had first moved here. She hadn"t been past the corner
store since. She pushed down on the black gas step and the car moved
slowly into the darkness, the engine growling like a large dog in her
At home, the church sat on the highest knoll, where people
could see the cross and blue door from miles away. The church was
always lit by candles, the door always open, in case someone needed
to pray or give an offering.
What did I bring? Serafina stopped the car with a decisive
jerk at the corner. I have nothing to offer. She saw two cars
approaching, and her heart ticked like crickets trapped in a jar. The
cars went past, the street was empty, and she turned onto the avenue.
Moving the wheel was hard. It was slick and bumpy, not like wood, not
rough and cool like stone.
Serafina pushed each step in its turn, and Elvia reached
forward to play with the dashboard knobs. The Nova bucked and moved
down the street until Serafina saw the white tower and cross, lit
bright. She turned the wheel again, and it fought her. The Nova went
into the parking lot, where bumps in the asphalt made the car rise up
and then fall.
Elvia said suddenly, "Ñuhun."
Fire? Serafina glanced at the dashboard, where Elvia pointed.
The knobs and lights and vents were like a strange altar. One knob
suddenly pushed itself back out, and Elvia pulled out a fiery-red
metal eye. Serafina snatched it quickly, and the car swerved.
Darkness rose before them, and Serafina tried to push the stop step,
but the car"s mouth hit something hard, like a fist against teeth.
The windshield was black with leaves, buried in a thick hedge.
Elvia screamed, and at the same moment Serafina felt the
burning pang on her arm. She stared at the knob in her hand, but the
heat had subsided to an ashen black circle.
The atole had flown from the mug when the car hit the hedge.
The thick white splatter on her own arm stung like the bite of a
thousand red ants. She saw one large drop on Elvia"s wrist, and
immediately put her mouth to the burn. The hot sweet milk disappeared
under her tongue, and she licked and then blew on Elvia"s skin,
licking and blowing, cooling and kissing and breathing on the burn,
saying she was sorry, she was so sorry she had made Elvia cry.
Elvia had cried only two times in the past year. Once, a boy
with hair red as chiles had thrown a rock from the street, hitting
her in the back. And once, Larry had driven away in his truck, and
Elvia cried because she wanted to drive again.
Serafina whispered to the wound, watching the angry red welt
glisten with her own saliva, and then Elvia shuddered one last time
and tucked her head into Serafina"s chest. Serafina heard scraping,
settling in the hedge, and she twisted the dangling keys. The engine-
muttering stopped. Elvia pointed to the black knob and said, "Tá —
Serafina dropped the lighter into her pocket. Then she put
her hands together on the black wheel and laid her cheek there until
Elvia said, "Ná ?"
Serafina ran her finger around the mug sides, collecting the
now-cooled atole on a finger for Elvia. She whispered to Elvia that
atole stayed hot forever, so it was the best drink for cold mornings
and nights at home, in Mexico. You could carry a mug of atole to the
field and sip it every now and then, and the warmth would seep into
Bells sounded in the church tower, but Serafina lost count.
Elvia yawned and laid her head on Serafina"s lap. Serafina felt the
hard lighter knob against her thigh. Now it couldn"t hurt her
daughter. Elvia would sleep, and Serafina would go inside to pray.
"Cus," she told Elvia, whose eyes were blinking slowly. "Cuhe
síhí." Sleep, my daughter. She waited until each small breath was
like a cloud exhaled.
Serafina hid the keys under the seat. She got out of the car.
Elvia slept, curled on the black vinyl, her hand cupped like a tiny
ladle. The leaves of the hedge were dark and sharp. A light went on
in a building nearby; a head was silhouetted behind a curtain.
Serafina saw a triangle of glass, a set of fingers when the curtain
was pulled back. Then the window went black again.
She tried the small door on the side of the long church, then
the double doors in front. Every entrance was locked. No wide blue
door slanted open, no welcoming golden candle flames. Serafina
glanced back at the car, which was like an animal grazing peacefully
in the leaves, and she went around to the other side.
Far across the huge lawn, the woman stood.
White stone. She had no blue veil or golden robe or dark
eyes. But her hands were held out in supplication, Serafina saw when
she drew close. She was a santo.
The statue"s face was paled by passing headlights, and
Serafina stood on the base, close to the hard lips, and touched their
icy coolness. The eyes were blank circles, but Serafina
whispered, "Help me. Tell me what to do, and I will do it."
She lowered her face to the hands, breathing in their chalky
scent, laying her cheek against one wrist. "Tell me," she
whispered. "Tell me she will have enough to eat if we go back."
She heard a short whirl of sound, and the stone blushed. The
white skin was suffused with red light, the lips and cheeks
translucent, pulsing. She heard her own language, soft and humming,
when she reached to touch the robe now flashing blue, like the
"Home," she heard then. "Go home."
Footsteps landed on the concrete behind her, and a man"s
voice said, "Hey, time to go home." His flashlight was in her face,
the blue lights twirling into the stone eyes. She turned and ran.
The policeman tackled her on the grass and lifted her by the
elbow, and she dropped her shoulder and began to run again. Her
tongue rose in her throat, and she gasped for air when he caught her
Another policeman watched while the first held her skull
between his hands and said, "ID? ID? You got ID?"
"Mydotter! Mydotter!" She screamed the words, felt their
strange shape pull the cords in her throat. "My! My dotter!"
"Okay, okay, you need a doctor. In Mexico. Get a doctor in
Mexico." He held her wrist with one hand and pulled her up slowly.
She hit him in the shoulder. She hit him in the face. She had to run
back to the car, around the corner, to the dark lot where Elvia
But he pushed her down gently onto the sidewalk until her
cheek rubbed the rough cement. "Damn," he said when she twisted
against the handcuffs, kicking him as they carried her across the
street to the flashing car.
Serafina screamed. She couldn"t see the car. They were taking
her away. "Elvia! Ná , Elvia, mommy, my dotter . . ." The words
spilled wrong all across their forearms until one policeman shifted
his sleeve over her lips.
"No habla español," he said softly, shaking his head like a
father. She understood those words. But she screamed again into the
fabric until the harsh red light circled close to her eyes, pumping
like blood from a deep cut when they laid her in the dark back seat.
The police car began to move. She screamed into the vinyl as
her body floated away from her daughter who was sleeping, her head
cushioned by braids. Serafina struggled to raise herself, to see, but
she saw only the red light glaring, draining her, flashing in the
same rhythm as her heart.
Moths dove in and out of the streetlight beam, banging against the
window near her, then veering away in bursts of blurry white.
Branches and leaves covered the windshield, pressed tight
like a blanket of black knives. Elvia wasn"t to touch knives. Her
mother used knives to take the spines off the green cactus pads. They
could eat the cactus then. Her father had gotten angry when he saw
the cactus today. Once Elvia had gotten spines embedded in her
finger, and her mother had pulled out the tiny red needles with her
Elvia studied the red circle of burn on her wrist. Her mother
had kissed the burn. Elvia licked it herself. Her mother would lick
and cool it again when she came back.
The crickets resumed their shrill scraping in the black
leaves all around the car. Elvia had awakened in the front seat. Her
mother was gone. The keys were gone. Her father had thrown the keys,
flying with silver wings and landing on her mother"s chest.
Ndéchi ná ? Where was her mother?
Ndéchi Barbie? Where was her Barbie? That was what the kids
next door said to her through the silver fence. Cap"n Crunch Barbie
Dandelion Stupid Beaner Mescan Hey Crickets Shut Up Ice Cream Truck
Her father had brought her the Barbie. Then he had gone back
outside to the blue truck that roared behind a silver nose. She loved
to steer the blue truck. She touched the dashboard knobs now. She had
been inside this car only a few times. Her mother drove up and down
the driveway. Barbie was on the ground, next to the hedge by the old
lady with dandelion-puff hair.