Authors: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Maria Elena pushed open the heavy front door. Inside was just as Letty's father had described it: the wide marble staircase imported from Italy in the 1940s, framed on either side by gold railings leading up to the second-story landing. As a child, Letty hadn't been able to comprehend the elegance or the emptiness, and now here it was, spreading out all around her. She crossed the cement floor that had once been covered with plush carpet, fingered the powdery plaster encasing the fireplace, where a marble mantel had once hung. Through the dining room window she saw the lemon groves that had been sold off acre by acre, and she remembered her father's stories about the years the pool was filled, when boys would walk for hours from the neighboring villages to swim all day and sleep in the orchards at night, just to swim again in the morning. All this was before the war ended, before Letty's grandfather's unsold feather mosaics filled the attic rooms, long before the family had been forced to hawk everything in the house that wasn't bolted to the foundation. It was fickle, the art world, had been Enrique's only explanation: feathers had fallen out of fashion. And so he'd had no choice but to leave, the only child of a once prominent artist going north with his young bride, following friends who fought for work as day laborers in San Francisco. Enrique found a job on a landscape crew and made enough to support his family and still send money homeâuntil his back gave out and Letty had to step up in his place. She had sent money back to Mexico for years, but not nearly enough, it seemed, to maintain such a grand estate.
Letty's thoughts were interrupted by a loud crash. Turning in the direction of the noise, she walked through the empty dining room, down a long hall, and into the kitchen.
And there he was: her father. He sat at the table amid a tumble of feathersâKelly green and olive, forest and chartreuse. The jars into which he had been sorting the greens were lined up on the edge of the table, and one of them had fallen to the ground. Maria Elena kneeled beside him, gathering the glass with her bare hands.
“Are you okay?” Letty asked, addressing her father. “Where's Grandma?” It felt strange to call her Grandma, even though that's what she was to Letty. They'd never met.
Maria Elena looked up from the glass and shook her head solemnly. She nodded to the kitchen counter, where a water-spotted newspaper clipping lay. On it was a photograph of Letty's grandmother as a young woman, and a paragraph in Spanish about her life. An obituary, dated the week before.
“I'm sorry,” Letty said, crossing the room to her father. There were feathers everywhere, on the table but also on the bench and floor, clusters of red and orange and yellow like pools of spilled paint. She placed her hand softly on his shoulder.
Enrique nodded, acknowledging her, but before he could speak, Maria Elena stood up, her hands full of glass. “He says he wants to stay.”
It was too much to take in all at once: that her grandmother was dead; that her father was alive, and seemingly well; that he didn't want to come home. “What do you mean? He can't stay here all alone.”
“Tell her,” Maria Elena prodded.
Letty's father wouldn't look at her. Instead, he held Maria Elena's gaze. “You're my life,” he said. “You're my everything.”
Her mother studied him. Even at sixty-five he was handsome: his smooth skin cleanly shaven, his eyes as blue as the water in the pool must have been, and their draw just as strong. Dumping the glass into a waste bin, Maria Elena cleared a spot on the bench and sat down heavily beside him. Letty watched the unsettled feathers drift to the floor.
Finally, her mother turned to her. “He wants me to stay with him.”
Letty stood in confused silence, trying to understand her mother's words, and all at once it hit her. Of course. Enrique hadn't missed his ride northâhe'd stayed on purpose. For as long as she could remember, Enrique had wanted to move back to Mexico, and in the last few years, his pleas had become more urgent. Oro de Hidalgo was home. It was where his family had been for generations and where his extended family lived still. Of the twelve homes surrounding the tiny town square, Espinosas lived in eleven.
he would say over his morning coffee, when he thought Letty was still asleep. Always Maria Elena would argue, citing Letty, citing her babies, but Enrique would argue back.
She's all grown,
he would say.
She doesn't need us anymore.
He was wrong. Letty knew it and Maria Elena knew it, but the argument had persisted, and it seemed obvious now: drawn back by his mother's illness, he'd finally been given a reason to return to Mexico. And he wasn't leaving.
Well, he could stay if he wanted, Letty thoughtâbut he couldn't keep Maria Elena. She hadn't driven halfway across a continent to turn back without her mother.
“You're not staying,” she said, looking her mother in the eyes.
Maria Elena said nothing.
“They can visit,” Enrique said. “We'll fill up the pool.”
Maria Elena stared at the table. If she could survive it, Letty knew, her mother would cut her heart in two and send half back to California, to care for her daughter and grandchildren, and keep the other half here, to live out the remainder of her days with her husband. But she couldn't. She had to choose. The room spun, as Letty realized that for the first time her mother might not choose her.
“No, no, no,” Letty said. “You can't leave me. I can't do anything without you.”
“If you can't, it's my fault.” Maria Elena looked at Enrique, her expression half accusation, half surrender. “Your father thinks I've ruined your life.”
my life,” Letty said, realizing as she said it that her father had said the same thing only minutes before, and how much more pathetic the words sounded coming from the mouth of a thirty-three-year-old woman, aimed at her mother.
Enrique sighed, turning to Letty for the first time.
“Baby, baby, baby,” he said softly. He'd called her “baby” until the moment she'd started to show, and then the nickname had fallen away. Hearing it now, her throat closed. She shut her eyes against the tears. “You made two beautiful, perfect children. They deserve their mother.”
“Really? A bartender with no education and two DUIs. You think that's what they deserve?”
“Don't say that,” Maria Elena said. “That's not you. That's never been you.”
me. They need
The room fell silent. Maria Elena looked at Enrique in that way that had always made Letty slightly ill, a look that didn't belong anywhere outside the walls of a church. He opened his arms, and Maria Elena leaned against his chest. Letty felt herself losing. Grasping, she flung about for anything that could change her mother's mind and landed on her children.
“They're all alone,” she said. “Right now, at this very moment.”
Maria Elena pulled away from Enrique.
“What are you saying? They're with Sara.”
“They're not. I left them alone.”
It was cruel, but it was all she had left. Maria Elena looked like her insides had been extracted and laid out on the table, a mass of color as tangled and exposed as the feathers. Her mother didn't deserve this. Not after all she'd done for her grandchildren and, for seventeen years before that, for Letty. Maria Elena had been a good mother. While the other kids at the Landing ate Cup O'Noodles in the stairwells and stayed out past midnight, their parents passed out drunk or too high to care, Letty ate
and hot tortillas at the kitchen table and never missed a bedtime. She'd had everything she'd ever needed. That she'd become a teenage mother and done nothing with her life was her own fault, and now it was Maria Elena who had to suffer the consequences.
She didn't deserve it, but still, Letty couldn't let her go. She looked directly into her mother's eyes.
Letty couldn't do it. Maria Elena knew she couldn't do it.
But her mother shook her head, anger and betrayal settling into heavy disappointment.
“You can do this,” Maria Elena said finally. “Your father's right. You can.” She looked across the empty kitchen as she said it, and Letty saw how much her mother wanted to believe her own words, and also how much she clearly did not.
Letty closed her dark, tired eyes and pressed two fingers into her aching eyelids. “I'm not going home without you.”
Maria Elena shook her head. “Letty, please. You have your whole life ahead of you. You have to take it.”
“I won't. I told you I won't and I won't.”
Letty pulled her eyelids back open and they stared at each other, two pairs of wide brown eyes locked, and all at once Maria Elena sprang up, clutching both of Letty's hands and half-dragging her across the kitchen, down the hall, to the front door. For a moment Letty thought she'd convinced herâthat she would pull her mother into the car and they'd both drive home together. But instead, Maria Elena pushed her daughter outside.
Giving Letty one last angry, pleading look, she let go of her hands and slammed the door between them.
Alex and Luna would die without their grandparents. It was the only possible outcome, Letty thought, as she stood shell-shocked on the front stoop, in the same place a thousand wounded birds had breathed their final breath. She pounded the door. She popped a triangle of already shattered glass from a window and tried to climb through, but the space was too narrow. The glass pierced a row of holes across her palm, blood dripping onto the dirt as she walked around the side of the house and down into the bottom of the empty pool, collapsing into the cement cradle.
It was dark when she awoke. Decomposing leaves smeared her cheek, the smell of earth turning new, and she searched through glazed eyes for manzanitas, for arched willows, for the web of her father's hummingbird feedersâall the hallmarks of homeâbut instead she took in the cracked walls of the pool and the flat face of the enormous house and remembered. She wasn't at the Landing but in Mexico, two thousand miles away. Swaying and dizzy, she pulled herself out of the dry depths and staggered back around to the front porch. All the windows were dark.
She tried the front door. Still locked.
They weren't going to let her in.
“I'll forget to feed them,” she whispered, a desperate, final attempt. Though she couldn't see her, she knew her mother was on the other side of the door, her back pressed against it, as close to her daughter as she could be in the moment before good-bye. “They'll starve to death. I'll go to work and they'll drown in the bay.”
Something heavy creaked against the wood, the sound of her mother standing up.
I love you,
she thought she heard, but it might have been:
una's hair was exactly half-brushed. Maria Elena's tight braids had lasted two days, but by Wednesday morning no amount of water could coax the loose hair flat against her scalp, so she'd pulled the rubber bands out and tried to pull a comb from top to bottom. Her thick hair knotted and the comb stuck just below her chin, and again at the back of her head, and in a wild snarl above her right ear. She left it that way. It looked terrible, but when Alex tried to help, she screamed and ran out of the bathroom, refusing to brush her teeth.
Now, in addition to worrying about his sister, he was starting to worry that someone would notice they had been left alone. Maria Elena would never allow Luna to go to school looking like thatâbut what choice did he have? Pulling on his boots, he dragged her out of the house before Mrs. Starks settled into her lawn chair and chased her all the way to her classroom, where he lifted her up onto a low row of cubbies and swapped her rain boots for tennis shoes.
“Are you going to come get me after school?” she asked.
He nodded. “Stay right here, okay?”
With open palms he tried to smooth her hair flat, but she pushed his hands away and jumped down, throwing open her classroom door. Alex inhaled sharply, watching as the door bounced open and then inched closed on a taut spring: closing, closing, closing, closed.
Finally. He exhaled, long and loud.
He'd always liked school, but it was different now; now, it was the only place he could breathe. For six and a half hoursâfrom the time he dropped Luna off in her first-grade classroom to the time he picked her upâshe was not his responsibility. She could scream or cry or whine or say she was hungry or thirsty or tired and he would have to doânothing. Not one single thing. Yesterday he'd been able to forget they were even alone, sinking into math worksheets and spelling tests and an extra-credit report he was writing on native snakes of the San Francisco Bay, and it wasn't until after school, when he thought he'd lost her, that he'd been jolted back to reality. She'd come to find him at the same time he'd gone to find her, and they'd crossed paths in the crowded halls. After a frantic search he'd found her sobbing by the back fence.
I thought you'd left me,
she said, and he had to carry her crying all the way home, her rain boots dropping off her feet again and again until he finally gave up and carried Luna in one arm, her rain boots in the other.
But today, even the thought of Luna safe inside her classroom was not enough to ease the pressure on Alex's lungs. They were out of quarters and dimes and milk, and even if he'd been able to forget about food or money for one moment, there was no way he could forget the scalding three-inch-long burn on his forearm. The night before he'd tried to make eggs for dinner. All had gone fine until he took the frying pan off the stove and somehow ignited a dish towel, which burned a hole in his cotton sleeve, straight through to the skin. He'd barely slept from the pain. Underneath his shirt he'd wrapped the long blister with a wet paper towel, but it hadn't helped much.
Dreamily, he thought about skipping school and lying on his back by the bay, burnt arm floating on the water. But he wouldn't do it. He hadn't missed a day all year. Quickly, before he could give in to the imagined ecstasy of the cool water, he turned and walked to his classroom.
“Are you Alex?”
Behind his teacher's desk sat a substitute, a note in her hand. It was what his teacher always did, whenever she missed a day, because Alex was always there and always on time. He read her instructions and found the vocabulary tests under a pile of grammar worksheets at the back of the classroom.
“Couldn't you have just
you didn't know where they were?” Marcus Cooper grumbled from the front of the room. “Just this once.”
He wasn't in the mood for Marcus. Alex gave him his test first and then passed them out to the rest of the class before walking to his own desk, where he found a present waiting for him. Spread out on his plastic chair was a bright pink spray of seaweed, shaped like a sprig of mistletoe, the tips opening like little hands: a gift from Yesenia. He looked up at her and smiled; she nodded and then turned to the vocabulary.
Yesenia had been in his class on and off since kindergarten, and although they'd never talked much, they had a silent connection. Barely four feet tall even with her thick-soled shoes, she often went missing from school for weeks or months at a time, returning in a wheelchair or with bandages on the backs of her legs. But she would know the answers on every test, no matter how long she'd been gone.
The seaweed was the continuation of a long string of unexplained, sciencey gifts she'd left in his seat: an iridescent dragonfly wing, a sticky chunk of honeycomb, the exoskeleton of a Jerusalem cricket. It wasn't every day. Maybe once a month at the most, but it was enough to make him think about her while he lay in bed at night. He wondered what was wrong with her body, what exactly they were trying to fix. She looked fine to him. Better than fine, really. There was the way she walkedâa dip in her step, more than a limpâand her height, of course, but other than that she wasâwell, she could only be described as pretty. Perfect. Dark skin and dark eyes and dark lashes, and she'd grown this year, not up but out, her top half bigger than that of any other girl in class (unless it just looked big in comparison to the rest of her, which was possible). Recently, she'd dyed an inch-thick strip of her long dark hair a bright pinky red, the same color as the seaweed, and bought T-shirts to match.
He rolled the seaweed and put it in his front pocket so that just the tips showed, lacy and layered like a carnation, and turned to his test just as Yesenia finished hers. She flipped the paper over and started to draw. On his left, Washington Reed inched toward him, and as fast as he scrawled, Washington kept up. Alex slid his test as close to Yesenia's desk as possible and defined the last wordâ
while flipping his paper, so that at the very least he would deny Washington the final answer.
Test done, Alex settled in for the long wait. It was the same at school every day, too much time and too little to do and hardly anyone doing it anyway. Yesenia spent the hours drawing, and Alex worked in his notebooks, listing the things he'd seen on his walk to schoolâa black-bellied plover or an American coot or the footprints of a raccoon or weaselâand then, if the class computer was working, he would ask permission to look up the habitat, range, and breeding habits of each one. Most of the time it was enough to keep his mind occupied, but today there was the burn, which idleness seemed to make worse. Reaching under his sleeve, he pressed the blister gently and then harder, the liquid ballooning beneath the skin. Maybe he should pop it. Would it heal faster that way? With his nails he pinched until he broke the skin.
It hurt. A fierce stinging started where the liquid ran out of the small hole and then shot up the length of the burn, a pain so intense the room started to spin. He needed water. Somethingâanythingâto cool it down. He shot up from his desk.
Alex handed his test to the substitute.
“Should I get the math books?”
They didn't have math books, just occasional photocopied worksheets, but she didn't know this.
“Oh, of course.”
He was already to the door when Yesenia stood up. “I'll help.”
She knew they didn't have math books, but Alex was so focused on the water he didn't stop to wonder what she was doing. At a full sprint he crossed the playground and climbed through the hole in the back fence, racing to the shore. Not even bothering to push up his sleeve, he submerged his entire arm into the muddy shallows. It was a long time before he caught his breath and looked up.
Yesenia sat on a rock beside him.
“Are you okay? You looked like you were going to pass out.”
“It's just a little burn.”
He pulled up his sleeve; she grimaced and turned away.
Cooking dinner, the eggs, the fire: all of it led to the fact that they were alone. He picked up a rock with his good arm and threw it as far as he could manage.
“I was trying to make eggs,” he said finally.
“Is your grandfather still missing?”
“How'd you know?”
“Everybody knows. In my building they say Benny never even planned to bring him back. Mrs. Avalos says she wouldn't trust him to transport a dead rat across the border.”
Yesenia lived in the Courtyard Terrace apartments. They were well known as a drop-off point for newcomers, men and women and children smuggled into the United States from Mexico and Central America, so she knew Benny and every other coyote who worked Bayshore.
Alex had been to her apartment building only once, when a bus driver dropped her off after a field trip and asked Alex to walk her to the door. They'd gone through the parking lot and around the back of the building, and inside windows and open doors he'd seen mattresses lining living room floors, sleeping bags on couches, eight, nine, ten people sitting around tiny kitchen tables. Behind a partly open garage door he'd seen a mother and too many little kids to count, all lying on a bare mattress on the ground.
Yesenia's apartment was different. From outside he could see carpet as clean as Maria Elena's, and a vase of silk flowers on a coffee table. When she opened the door he was met by a particular smell: lime and bleach maybe, and something fried, and even though he'd never been there, it had reminded him of Mexico.
“Everyone thinks Benny just left him there?”
Alex shivered, suddenly cold, but sweating too. It was probably true. The question was whether or not Enrique wanted to be left behind. “What else do they say?”
“They say he's the best in the world.”
“I thought you said they wouldn't trust him with a dead rat.”
“Not Benny. Your grandfather.”
Everyone knew about his grandfather's art. It had been the same in Mexico. If a bird died anywhere in the state of MichoacÃ¡nâand later, in the Bay Areaâit found its way to the Espinosa family's front stoop. It was why Enrique had never given up hope. There must be a market for his work, he said, if God had gathered all of North America to support it.
“He might be.”
“Is it true you shoot birds for the feathers? Maritza says that's why you're always in such a hurry to leave after school.”
Alex laughed. He should say yes; it was so much better a reputation than having to run home just because his grandmother demanded it. “No. People bring him the birds, or we find them. They're already dead, most of the time, or hurt and dying. My grandfather leaves a basket for them outside our door.”
“And he plucks the feathers?”
“Yeah. And files them. He sorts everything by species and color and date.”
She looked at him directly, and he was surprised by her confidence. “Can I see them?”
“Now?” Alex checked his watch and felt a moment of panicâthey'd been gone too long already, and he hadn't even thought of what he would say when they returned empty-handed, Alex with a soaking wet sleeve.
Yesenia stood up and dusted off the back of her pants.
“No, not now,” she said. “Friday?”
There was a chance his mother would be back on Friday. But knowing Letty, they would probably still be waiting, and alone.