By the Light of My Father's Smile (19 page)

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
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I was beginning to get the tune. Slow and dreamy. Tremulous. There seemed to be a vibration in the body this song stirred up. As I sang I felt myself quite moved.

It is this stanza that gave us the most trouble with the priests, said Manuelito.

But it is very beautiful, I said, like all the others.

Yes, he said, but have you really listened to what it is telling you? We explained to them that at the ceremony of joining lovers together we burned sweetgrass to cleanse ourselves and our surroundings. That we used feathers to spread the smoke all around. That eggs were eaten in the hope that the union would be fertile, not just in children, but in ideas, creativity, bountifulness for the tribe. All these things they said they understood. However, they did not appreciate the idea of a mother and father touching the breasts and kissing the vulva and phallus of their grown children, even to bless them. We explained that the kissing was respectful, the lightest touch. But they did not care. Because we practiced this, they raided our villages, hacked off our heads with machetes, enslaved us to work in the gold and silver mines. Burned our children alive.

For some reason this struck me as comically vile.

Why do you smile, Señor? asked Manuelito.

Because it is so stupid. In our culture you can watch men and women sucking on each other all day long on television.

But it was out of this tradition of hypocrisy that you came to us, Señor.

My thoughts turned to my daughter Susannah. When she was little, it was always difficult to know what things frightened her; she was composed, unflappable, even as a child. Stolid in her aura of calm, if thoughtful, repose. However, what frightened her more than anything else that I knew of during her childhood was
the discovery one day that the Nuer people, in the unmapped wilds of southwest Ethiopia, forced the women to wear disks the size of dinner plates in their bottom lips. Langley had visited this tribe and brought back photographs.

But, Mommy, Susannah had said, wide-eyed, how can the women talk with those things in their lips? How can they eat?

Langley explained that the women only had to wear them in the presence of the men, and that yes, eating was a problem. From the men's perspective, however, the women's condition assured that the women could barely speak in the men's presence, so heavy was the ceramic disk, and this ensured their silence; also, the women could not eat as fast as the men. Which meant the men ate most of the food.

Susannah had had nightmares for weeks after seeing the photographs. She would stand in front of the mirror stretching her own bottom lip.

What are you doing? I asked her one day.

Pulling on her lip she said: But I can only stretch it this far. If I stretch it further, it hurts.

Lips are like rubber bands, I said. She gave me a look of horror. That is what the dentist once said to me, I added hastily. But actually, the way it is done is simple: first a small disk is put into the hole that has been cut in the lip, then a bit later, a larger one, then a larger and larger one, until you get to the dinner-plate size.

And you call that simple, she had said, with a look of grown-up dismay. She was equally disturbed by the sight of women who were forced to wear heavy iron collars around their necks with what appeared to be an iron penis sticking out in front.

How much does that thing weigh? she asked Langley.

Ten pounds or so, said her mother. About as much as this bag of rice.

Susannah looked stricken.

Why don't the women revolt? asked Magdalena.

By now they are the enforcers, said Langley, sighing. They have no memory or record of a time when they did not wear disks and did not wear iron collars with penises on them.

God, I said, it's pretty damn blatant.

All three of my girls turned to look coolly at me.

Yes, said my wife. While I was there I stayed with missionaries who deplored everything about the tribe. Except these practices. They thought that since the women were the enforcers they had originally dreamed them up and were not oppressed by them. Besides, they said it was these symbols of tribal culture—the disks, the iron collar—that made the tribe unique. I said, But the lips and the necks of the women are raw and infected. And because the collars can never be taken off, their necks are never washed. They shrugged and said they passed out cotton swabs, and gallons of alcohol. The men, as I understood it, frequently attempted to drink the alcohol, with horrific results.

It was wonderful being married to my wife. I had the feeling that nothing of importance ever escaped her interest; that she was as open as a sea anemone to the prickling realities of the world. She was alive in her thoughts and her passions in a way that I had ceased to be.

How do you keep believing in your own thoughts? I asked her. How do you continue to have faith in your own beliefs?

She had been building a fire in the corner fireplace of our dusty adobe dwelling. Shrugging her sexy shoulders, she said: I believe my own senses, she said. I feel others because I feel myself. Nobody would freely choose to slit her own lip. Nobody would freely choose a neck rubbed permanently raw and chewed on by flies. I had to force myself to stay under the same roof with the missionaries,
she said. I couldn't join the Nuer because I would have had to classify myself as male to receive any respect, from the men or the women.

Ah, my love, I had said, suggestively, while opening wide my arms, how regally you manage to sit on the horns of any dilemma. I have a small dilemma here that I believe you could help me with. But this was one of the few times my wife absolutely refused to make love. Instead, rising from the hearth, with a weariness in her movements she almost never showed, she gave me what I'd come to classify as simply “the look.”

We have heard, said Manuelito, that there are people who, just before the young are to be married, cut them there. In the place where the Mundo kiss.

This is true, I said. Parts of the body are cut off and, with a curse, thrown away.

Manuelito's face was a study in disbelief.

Even our dead do not know this, Señor, he said.

Anthropologists, like the priests and the missionaries, have known about this for a long time. Without protest, I added.

How hard life is to understand! said Manuelito. Death should be much easier, don't you think, Señor?


I had never dreamed I would one day have to go to Magdalena's apartment and pack up her things. That she would be dead, and I would be left, the last one of our family, alive. Daunted by the huge pieces of heavy furniture and by the tall piles of gross, unwashed clothes I encountered everywhere, I started by cleaning out the refrigerator, on the front of which was taped a snapshot of me. Typed above my head were the words “Suffering Makes You Thin.”

I stared at the photograph in a trance. The woman in it looked out at me smiling. It was true that she was thin; I noted the bones that showed above the neckline of her black dress. The finger she was pointing at the camera was a bony one. The photo appeared to have been taken at a party; I was clowning. It must have been taken by one of Magdalena's students the week I stayed with her and attempted to help get her deteriorating body in shape. We'd gone to Weight Watchers, to the gym, to a spa. Nothing had made much of an impression on her.

She had simply kept singing. Sometimes audibly, sometimes under her breath. Sometimes humming the melody of the song she had learned in her youth. The song Manuelito taught her.

One day, weighing her, we noticed she had lost two whole pounds. I'd clapped my hands and said merrily, thoughtlessly, stupidly: You see, suffering makes you thin!

She had looked at me as if she didn't care if she ever saw me again.

In the end, I hired movers to clear out Magdalena's stuff. I gave her clothes and furnishings to charities. I gave her papers to the university where she had taught. I kept the copies of our parents' anthropological articles that they'd published in the Fifties.

It saddened me that Magdalena had died alone. Was she singing? I wondered. Which was all she seemed at the end to hope for. I asked this question of the men who were first on the scene; men in white coats, distracted and brusque. They did not want to tell me at first how she was found. A can of beer locked in one hand, a hunk of chocolate cake squashed in the other. The sweet and the sour, commingling forever in her mouth. No, if she was stuffing her face, she couldn't have been singing, they finally said.

Closing the apartment for the last time, removing her galoshes and umbrella from beside the door, tossing them into the trash as I walked down the street, I felt an emptiness, a lightness actually, that was not unpleasant. I could not pretend I would miss a sister I never really had. Ours had been a sistership that was fatally blighted one sultry afternoon in the mountains of Mexico. I would have loved having a sister; but Magdalena wasn't the sister I would have loved having.

A few days after her death I received a package, addressed in Magdalena's loping, rather sloppy hand. Inside there was a photograph of a very cute, young Manuelito riding Vado, and a beautiful if crudely made black leather belt decorated with small, oxidized silver disks. There was a letter that began with the stanza of a song:

At the crossing
it is the right way
to release those who
have taken comfort
from our torment.

It is the right way
to leave this place
with a heart
softer than stone.

At the crossing
it is the right
to forgive.

It is the right way to release
all hostility toward those
who wound us
by their hapless presence

It is in forgetting
the trespass
of others
that the
at last
becomes home.

Dear Susannah, she wrote, imagine! If the Mundo are right there will be no reason for us to see each other ever again, even after we are dead. Our relationship, ostensibly as sisters, was in fact a relationship of strangers. I successfully killed all sisterly feeling in
myself toward you, in any case. Perhaps if people do reincarnate, as some believe, we will find ourselves once again in each other's lives. I will be your butler or you will be my father-in-law.

I tolerated you, but no, I never loved you. Even before your transformation at the keyhole, I thought you were a wimp. You
me, Susannah. Your “goodness,” like your thinness, seemed a cowardly hesitation before the banquet life. Of which you should get one, and stop just writing about it. In fact, the letter continued, you are vain and cowardly; the life you have chosen for yourself, trashy and contemptible.…

But this is not true, Susannah said to herself as she read, glancing at the long, rambling pages of vituperation still to come. This person, this “other” that Magdalena has constructed to be her rejected sister, is not me. None of my friends would see me this way. Nor is this the way I see myself.

Closing her eyes, she felt Magdalena watching her as she struggled to suppress the love she had felt for her hapless (yes) father. “I do not care for any,” she heard Magdalena's maturing voice, as it had sounded that long-ago day in the car. She saw again the green-apple jellybeans, fresh and bright in her father's outstretched palm. Saw herself refusing to raise her hand or her eyes to return his warm look. Saw and then felt herself betray her own love. Among the Mundo the greatest crime one can commit against oneself.

Without her being aware of it, tears were flowing down Susannah's cheeks, off her chin. A pain of loss so sharp it caused her to cry out sent her to the floor. She lay sobbing, pressing her face into the carpet. Like a fool, she had murdered something that had been strong and beautiful within herself, the unconditional love she felt for her father; Magdalena had wanted it to die, and had coldly helped it along. Never caring about the wounds, on both sides, she had left.

Susannah cried until she could cry no more. Daddy, Daddy, I'm sorry, she whispered tiredly. I didn't know what it meant to give you up. I didn't know what it meant not to forgive. And now it is too late!

And yet, just as she was thinking this, she felt Peace itself enter the room. She envisioned it as a naked dark-skinned man holding a bouquet of peacock feathers. He did not stay but swept through, on his way across the room and right through the opposite wall. Humm, said Susannah to herself, rising, and swabbing at her wet cheeks and runny nose.

Was that Daddy before I knew him? she wondered.

Magdalena's letter was still clutched in her hand. Encouraged by her new feeling of serenity, Susannah began to force herself to continue reading it. In fact, she tried to begin again at the beginning. But she discovered, immediately, that there was no need to. She simply felt no interest any longer in anything her sister had thought.

I will not let her manipulate me into feeling the same way that she does about my life or her death, she whispered to herself, feeling more sane than she'd felt in a long time.

Amazingly, because one never thought this is how growth happened, or at any rate, at long last announced itself, in the hushed moment of thinking these thoughts, while blowing her nose on her skirt and not minding the snot, Susannah felt herself complete the process of becoming an adult. She was grown up. She could handle her own life. Magdalena ceased to be a manipulative and mangled psychic twin, stuck to her by pain. Unfinished, the letter slipped from her hands to the floor.

For Every Little Sickness …

How long it takes to understand something! Colonization, for instance, or war. Pauline was speaking passionately through a haze of sinsemilla smoke. Susannah nodded as Pauline passed the joint to Irene. The three women sprawled on velvet cushions on the floor in Susannah's sunroom and the late afternoon sun of a warm spring day lit up their faces and their hair.

So is it true that the CIA helped to drug the black people in America? Irene asked, suppressing a cough and tapping her rounded chest with a pale and fragile hand.

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
7.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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