Authors: Luanne Rice
Tags: #Short Story, #Fiction
“Where’s the baby’s father now?” Lydia asked.
“Still in the States,” Sara said.
“Can’t he come here if you can’t go there?”
“He came long enough to get me pregnant. Then, funny enough, adios. Besides, he’s educated. He’d never have been happy picking lemons.”
“But he’d be with you and the baby.”
“I’m the one who wants her,” Sara said. “He doesn’t. I could go live in Juárez, at least be near him and try to cross the border, but he has made it clear he doesn’t want this—doesn’t want us. And Juárez is a war. My father worries about my safety when I go there.”
“You’re having a girl?”
“The doctor hasn’t told me, but I’m sure of it. I talk to her at night, and when she answers I hear my mother’s voice.”
Lydia drank icy water straight from the glass bottle. She wanted to tell Sara she’d heard her own mother speaking here on the hillside. Monarch butterflies flitted past, landing in groups on the lemon tree trunks and branches, their tiny claws gripping the bark. Her mother had always loved monarchs, had created a butterfly garden behind the farmhouse in Black Hall, tall stalks of milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, sheep sorrel, sweet everlasting, parsley, dill, and bee balm.
“What’s her name?” Lydia asked. “Your daughter’s?”
“You believe I am having a daughter?”
Sara nodded and her brown eyes glinted. “Isabel,” she said.
“Was that your mother’s name?”
“Yeah. What was yours?”
“So if you have a daughter…”
“I’m not having kids, but if I were I’d name her Anne.”
“Why aren’t you having kids?”
Lydia looked down. She stroked paint on the canvas, shadowing the grove. She had mixed thalo green, cadmium green, cobalt deep green, cobalt turquoise, cobalt yellow, and ultramarine—which she chose for its deep, almost black-blue darkness, and used it for the most elusive lines, the branches within the foliage—using broken strokes in homage to Black Hall impressionists.
“I’m going to paint, and I won’t have time to be the kind of mother mine was.”
“Your mom didn’t work?”
“She did. In a tree farm, like you.”
“Well, she raised you, and taking care of trees is
mucho más difícil
than putting color on paper.”
“It’s not paper, it’s canvas.”
“Your mother picked fruit?”
“She planted evergreens. And cut them down with a little red saw and sold them at Christmas.”
“Yep. That’s our family business.”
“So you could bring your daughter into that, take her out with you the way I’m going to bring Isabel to work with me. It’s the life.”
“No, painting is going to be my life,” Lydia said, more harshly than she intended. She didn’t want to explain to her new friend, this young woman excited about her child, that death colored everything. It was the ultramarine, the dark and unknowable hue of loss. It had taken her mother before either of them was near ready—and would they ever have been ready? If her mother had lived to be ninety-five, would Lydia have been prepared to lose her? She switched that thought around and imagined a little girl named Anne, her daughter, and what if death’s ultramarine came for her?
“When are you due?” she asked.
“September third,” Sara said.
“Just over a month, Isabel will be here.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t keep working.”
“Then I’ll starve, and that won’t be good for Isabel.”
“If I give you my address, will you write to me after she’s born, tell me about her?”
“I will,” Sara said. “And maybe someday, if I can ever get another visa, we will go to the States. It’s beautiful here, but poor. My mother wanted me to have my education. I would have brought her to the States if I could have, for the best doctors. But that couldn’t happen. Maybe I can do it for Isabel. So she can have the best.”
“The best,” Lydia said, reaching out her green glass bottle to clink with Sara’s. They toasted and drank to the baby, and Lydia stared up at the blue sky, to escape the shadow that had fallen over them—the reminder that all things end.
The days were hot, even on the hillside where the breeze was constant. Lydia painted in the shade, wearing sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat to protect her freckled skin. She kept her gaze on the orchard, watching Sara and others climb tall wooden ladders. They had white mesh bags slung across their chests, and they would hold on to the ladder rail with one hand and pick lemons and shove them into the bag with the other. Sara’s brother always sang, and sometimes the others joined in.
Lydia saved pastries from the hotel breakfast basket and shared them with Sara on her breaks. They talked about their mothers, surprisingly alike considering how different the outward details of their lives. Both had been only children, the daughters of devoted mothers, and both had had single daughters, no sons. They each nurtured their girls, encouraging them in the fields they loved best—art for Lydia, business for Sara. And they both died of lymphoma after long periods of remission.
“I thought she’d beaten it,” Sara said. “I was sure. She passed the five-year mark, and I thought it was over.”
“But when it came back, it was bad?”
“Yeah. It spread. She went to church, we all did. We walked on our knees, all the way to the doors of the cathedral in San Miguel. You saw it?”
“It’s across from the hotel,” Lydia said.
“You should go in,” Sara said.
“I’d just get mad,” Lydia said. “My mother prayed too. And we went to church too. And then she died.”
Sara tilted her head, gazed at Lydia with a cross between affection and pity. “You can get angry in church. God can handle it. After my mom died I cried loud, even yelled. Who else was I going to tell? My mother was gone—nothing was bringing her back. Yours too. He can take it. Go into the cathedral and you’ll see.”
“She died a long time ago,” Lydia said. “Seven years now. I’m not mad anymore. It’s just…sad.”
“Just try it,” Sara said.
“I don’t think so.”
The next morning, somewhat to Lydia’s shock, she found herself walking across the plaza before the group gathered for breakfast. The town was in shadow; birds were just starting to sing in the laurel trees, hopping along the backs of the wrought-iron benches, early morning light glinting off the cobblestone streets.
Lydia’s mother’s final illness had come in November, just after the year’s first big snowfall. Lydia and her father had spent every free minute at the hospital. It was their busiest time of the year on the tree farm, but they didn’t care; he had hired extra help to fill in on weekends.
Had Sara knelt on the stones? Lydia tried to imagine the family making a pilgrimage like that; what had it been for? Had they prayed for a cure? Was that so different from Lydia’s and her father’s fervent hopes? One night they returned to Black Hall from the hospital to find snow had fallen, followed by sleet. The temperature had dropped fast, freezing a thin layer of ice on top of six inches of snow.
“We’ll be lucky if the trees survive this,” her father had said as they’d walked up the sidewalk toward the kitchen door.
“They have to.”
“Because we want them to? It doesn’t work that way, Lydia.”
“Yes, I want the trees to survive. And Mom, too!”
“Okay, honey,” her father had said, hand on her shoulder, sensing she was losing it, as she had repeatedly since they’d been told that this was it, that her mother probably wouldn’t live until Christmas.
She had waited until he’d gone upstairs. She told him she had homework to do. If he had been paying attention he would have realized the teachers were taking it easy on her; Black Hall was a small town, and the school looked after her. The teachers were not expecting much while her mother was so sick.
Lydia walked outside. She was twelve and tall, and she wore her mother’s old down jacket, patched with duct tape from where stray fir branches had torn the fabric over the years. The coat smelled like her: lemon shampoo, lavender lotion, pine tar, and salt air.
Walking down the rows of Christmas trees, she heard her boots crunching through the thin layer of ice. When she got to the inner circle, the tallest and oldest trees around the clearing, the ones that were her mother’s favorites, Lydia could hardly breathe.
Her father was right—the snow and sleet weighed heavy on the trees; their branches drooped almost straight down. The youngest saplings leaned so far over they looked ready to break in half. The old trees had sagging branches, ready to crack. The outdoor thermometer, nailed up to the faded red shed, registered 8 degrees. Lydia’s lungs hurt, breathing out clouds of cold white air.
“If the trees live, you will live,” Lydia said out loud, walking down the first row. “If the branches don’t break, you won’t break.”
She listened for her mother, but heard nothing. She was in the hospital twenty miles away, and it was impossible she could die. Lydia couldn’t conceive of a world without her mother. The planet would skid off its axis; the oceans would spill into space; the monarch butterflies would disappear first, because her mother had loved them so, followed by every other species.
“Live, Mom,” Lydia said. “Stay.”
She reached out, shook the branches on the first tree, one of the oldest, encircling the clearing where her mother always said Lydia would one day get married. Ice tinkled, falling like broken glass to the ground. The limbs, relieved of the weight, bounced up. So Lydia shattered the glass on the next pine and the next. She ran through the tree farm shaking every branch, each trunk, leaving her footprints and piles of bright, clear ice behind.
There were four hundred trees.
By the time she finished, her mittens were frozen and her fingers were stiff and blue. The sky above the Connecticut shoreline blazed with winter constellations. Orion seemed to be walking from one treetop to the next before dipping below the horizon over the Sound.
“Lydia!” she heard her father bellow.
Was he angry, had he looked in her room and not found her? “Here!” Lydia called, running toward the house. She couldn’t wait to tell him what she’d done—she’d saved the tree crop to save her mother.
“Your room was empty,” he said, opening his arms so she could throw herself into them. “Your mother’s not here, and neither were you.”
“I’m here. And Mom will come back,” she said.
Her mother died that night. The trees lived.
Now, walking through the Mexican plaza, quiet except for speeding cars and birds singing, Lydia thought about deals with God. What was she doing? She entered the tall and many-spired pink cathedral. A bank of candles glowed at the altar. From childhood habit she genuflected and lit one. Saints and Stations of the Cross decked the walls. She paused by
Señor de la Conquista
, the crucifix painted with cornstalk paste by indigenous people.
The land had touched them, and they had touched the land—like her parents, like Sara. She didn’t believe, but she knelt, as Sara had done on the ground outside. And her mother had died anyway. Lydia tried to feel what had been familiar when she was a child: going to church, kneeling and praying, smelling the old wood and incense and candle smoke. She had believed in miracles back then. In fact, it had seemed that the most ordinary thing—butterflies, a full moon, the high tide, a piece of blue sea glass—was divine, a miracle sent just for her. But that was long ago.
She left the church in San Miguel de Allende, lighting two candles on the way out: one for her mother, and one for Sara’s. She skipped breakfast, went straight up the hill with her backpack, canvas, and collapsible easel, and set up in the usual spot. It was an hour earlier, and she was surprised to see the workers already on their ladders. No sign of Sara, though.
Painting intently, she waited for her friend to walk over with some cool water. She ran words through her mind, trying to figure out what to say about the church, about the emptiness she’d felt there. By eleven, Sara hadn’t come over, so Lydia walked into the orchard, over to a cluster of ladders stretching up to the highest trees in the grove. Sara wasn’t there. Lydia waited for someone to notice her, but they were too busy working. Eventually she called up.
an old man asked, peering down.
“I’m looking for Sara.”
“I don’t speak Spanish, I’m sorry. Sara? Where is she?”
. Hospital,” Sara’s brother called from another ladder, down the row.
No problem understanding that: but this was July, and Sara wasn’t due until September.
“Which hospital?” Lydia asked.
Lydia gathered her things and went straight back to town. She asked for directions and found the public hospital, a semi-modern building, notably austere in this five-hundred-year-old city of Gothic and baroque structures. Security inside seemed lax, and not knowing her friend’s last name, she looked for a sign for the maternity floor. Seeing a man carrying a blue plush teddy bear, she followed at a distance.
Her heart was pounding. She hadn’t been in a hospital since she’d last seen her mother. The sounds and smells were the same—crackling voices over the loudspeaker, disinfectant and illness. She wanted to run back outside, into the fresh air and back to the hillside. She didn’t even know this woman, who’d said her painting was “not bad.” But she kept moving, looking into each open door until she saw Sara sitting in a bed in a crowded room.
At the sight of her, Sara began to cry.
“What’s the matter?” Lydia said, rushing over. “Isabel?”
“She’s beautiful,” Sara said. “Five weeks too early and tiny, but she will be okay. I need to see her, though. She must be hungry again, but they’re too busy to take me to the nursery.”
“Do you know where it is?”
,” Sara said.
Lydia looked around for a wheelchair, but when she couldn’t find one right away, Sara got impatient and gestured for Lydia to haul her out of bed. With her arm slung around Lydia’s neck, white hospital gown drooping and open in the back, Sara inched along the corridor. They passed the nurses’ station, but it was empty, everyone busy in other rooms.