The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
[p.89]One time before the sun came up, I heard her walking past. I heard the slow drag of her bullet-shot foot. And she hummed little pieces of songs. I knelt there in my garden with my two pairs of shears and I listened. I wanted to tell her that I got up early too. That I was the only early one in our neighborhood. I wanted to say that we—the early people—we shared the clean quiet of a settled place.
When I heard her, I could set the big ones on the ground, the branch clippers. But there were the little shears too. Small as scissors and sharp. If I left them in the piles of clippings, I might step on them. I might cut my own foot. And if I ran to the street to talk to her with shears in my hand-it was still dark—I couldn’t surprise her like that, a woman alone.
The other thing we had in common was our children. [p.90]And later it occurred to me what I should have done. I should have cut some flowers for her. With my arms full of calla lilies at that hour I would have looked like one of the old senoras in the mercado. The ones you see in paintings. Seeing me with the calla lilies would have put her at ease. It would have reminded her of her home, of her children.
“I live by myself, too,” is what I had said the day she moved onto our street alone. “I lost my children, too.”
She had stood there, in her driveway, then finally said, “But this is North America. Who would kill them here?”
I asked her if she thought it was strange, that my children would choose to leave. That my children lived in London and Samoa and Mexico. And she said that one way or another they always leave you. They follow love, and if you see them alive again, their spirits are so broken they can hardly speak your name. If you see them again, is what she said.
My three girls. Just the day before I had tried to call up my daughter in Samoa. The operator had asked me to please try to not call on Sunday next time. If I could help it. She told me she could take the day off now and then if not so many people called on Sunday. And I never did get through to my daughter.
But see them again? My neighbor must have been able to tell. It must have shown like blood on my face. [p.91]That my girls did not want to see me again. I knew that she could tell.
I looked for her every morning in that early dampness. And when I heard the little bits of song, I was already waiting for her. I was crouching in my garden. Hands empty, shears over on the porch.
“Isabel,” I said. “Isabel, it’s me.”
She stopped her humming and looked into the lemon tree. “It’s me?” she said back. She looked behind her, too. To the sides.
“Don’t be afraid, Isabel,” I said, and I stood up this time. “I’m gardening.” When she saw me, already reaching toward her with a handful of gardenias, she said, “It’s you. Yes. I met you before.”
She looked me in the eye, straight on, the way a strong mother would have, and she said, “Are you looking for me? Did somebody contact you?”
“About what?” I said. “It’s so early and we’re both awake.” I did not understand her question just then. I tried to watch her eyes and not her hand. It was a pretty hand, prettier than mine, and she reached it to touch my gardenias, slowly. I drew them in closer to me until she was standing with both her feet in the soil of my garden. She stood her weight on the good foot.
I said, “See? Flowers.” I told her about my gardenias. How I looked after them every day. How they weren’t supposed to flower in this climate. And she was holding them with both her hands. If someone had passed by just [p.92]then, if someone else in our neighborhood were awake at that hour, they would have seen us together. They would have thought we were friends.
I said, “What are those bits of songs you hum?”
These were the songs of the revolution. These songs had followed her here. And when she said this, she looked carefully at me. She asked me what I knew about the revolution. And I was sorry. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know what it meant that she-a woman with jeweled hands-would end up here.
Here the street was empty, but she kept looking down it. To make sure, she told me. A woman this careful. She must have been a good mother to her children. They must have trusted her.
She started to move back toward the street and I said, “Over here, the calla lilies.” I had to show her the calla lilies. They were alongside the porch, all up and down it. I had to explain to her about them. I said she could sit on the porch dampness with me. She could be welcome here and we could wait for the sun to rise. If she wanted. There was a thermos of coffee already there. Two cups.
She asked me another question. She wanted to know if anyone had asked me about her. She said to please not mention this, about her being out early. It was her only time, she said. She let me pour the coffee and it spilled, three little drops on her wrist. Hot. So I dribbled it on my own fingers too. Little hot drops to find out what I had done to her. If I had scared her.
[p.93]“I know this flower,” she said. “I had this flower near my city. In the school where I taught.” I told her that the strange thing was that when I got to my daughter’s house in Mexico there were calla lilies planted all down the side of it. Along the wall, the way I had always had them. Like I had them at the house where she was born. The strange part was that my daughter could not have remembered that. I told my neighbor this. And she only nodded.
My neighbor was drinking her coffee standing up. It was not unkind, I guess, to stand when I sat. If she wanted to look around. She was looking at me, I thought. Her back to the street for the first time. But it was the shears she was watching. The small ones on the porch. My hand was on them and I had not known it. It was an accident, my own squeezing hand, and she had seen it. I slid them under my thigh. Out of her sight.
I told her that my daughter’s house was long and narrow. That behind it, across this dusty driveway, there was a chicken coop. An enormous chicken coop. So many chickens you wanted to kick up the dust to keep from smelling them. I told her I had waited there for morning to come, for my daughter to come out in the yard and discover me. There were machines, too, and scales. My daughter owned all this.
“We didn’t raise them on a farm,” I told my neighbor. We raised them to think that chicken came from Styrofoam plates at the grocery. My daughter had come out the door, though. She had said—the second thing she had [p.94]said-was that it was time to give them their final shots before the slaughter. I could watch if I wanted to. She had called me “Mother.”
Mother. She had brought me a glass of water to drink and said, “It’s clean, Mother. It’s okay to drink it.” This daughter was the only one who had ever called me “Mama.” Now, though, she was speaking to me in Spanish. Whole sentences. And then she would stop and say, “I’m sorry, Mother. English sounds so foreign to me now. I keep forgetting.” She had only been there four years.
I did not mean to go on so long. My neighbor was sitting by then. She had sat down on my steps and she was watching me. Looking down sometimes at where the shears came from under my thigh. I had not wanted to tell this much. But I still had not gotten it right. I squeezed the handle in my fist to hide it.
But my neighbor still had to know this much. That I had not told my daughter I was coming.
When my daughter had come out of her house that morning, when she had seen me, the first words she had said were, “Mother, you should have told me. How long will you stay?” Then she had taken me to see her chicken coop. Little girls from the neighborhood had gathered inside it, eleven or twelve years old. Two of them were tying up a net and tossing all the chickens to one side of it. They were laughing, the little girls, and sometimes they started singing. My daughter sang too. Or she mouthed the words, at least.
[p.95]But the word she said when she stepped into the chicken coop. It was just one word. A Spanish one. She said this and then nobody said another word aloud. Three of them would catch the chickens. Bring them to her. One would hold the chicken still in my daughter’s lap. And my daughter stuck the needle in its thigh. Fast and sure. I had not taught her how to use a needle.
My daughter and these girls, they did this for two hours. Almost in silence. When she nodded, the girls knew what to do, what she meant. And when she nodded again, they knew what that meant too. She never looked up at me until they had finished.
By that time I had learned the brand names of all the old tires. That the calla lilies had forty-seven blossoms. I knew that on the scales I weighed fifty-eight kilos. And that the machine with the funnel propped over the spinning blades was where my daughter slaughtered the chickens with the drugged thighs.
My neighbor was still sitting, still watching me not watch her. She told me she had to be home before light. She told me she was sorry. I was sorry. I was the sorry one, I told her. It was okay. She could go now. I stood up, then I realized again what I should do. I should cut the calla lilies for her. Give some to her. Flowers to make her feel at home.
My neighbor looked to the street. To the car that was stopping there now. “Do you know that car?” she said. I had not seen it before. She said, “I’ll wait a minute. Tell [p.96]me some more.” That was the end. There was no more to tell. Except that what happened was not my fault. My neighbor had to know that it was not my fault. And she asked what, what was not my fault.
I cut the stalk of a flower down and laid it across her lap. I told her that when the little girls had gone, that was when my daughter had finally invited me into her house. “We can eat now,” she had said. “Alejandro is coming.”
Even the dust could not have covered the smell of her then. Her hands were yellow. And all up her arms. It was all over her. Colored with bits of yellow or red. Bits of white and feathers. And she clamped one hand over the face of a fat chicken. A chicken with yellow serum in its thigh. This was my own daughter. She said, “In a minute, Mother, flip that switch there,” and she stepped onto the scale. My daughter, together with the big chicken, they weighed fifty-eight kilos. Just like me. I wanted to tell her this, that together they weighed the same as me and what did they make of that.
I said to my daughter, “Will it hurt? Does it know? I can become a vegetarian, you know.” My daughter nodded to where the switch was. She slid that chicken down into the funnel. Head first. She held it by its feet, steady, sure.
I asked my neighbor if she had seen this before. The slaughter of chickens. If this happened in the mercado, next to the stacks of bananas. She said, “Yes. It was like [p.97]that. If that’s what you think.” I was filling her lap with flowers.
For me, there had always been pavement, I told her. Always something between me and blood. But there the ground around the machine was stained dark. And my daughter, with her yellow hands, was nodding at the switch. “It’s going to be okay, Mother,” she said. The chicken in the funnel was not moving and I wanted my daughter to leave it there and move this switch for me.
She looked so tired, so dirty. She kept watching the chicken.
So I moved it just a little. I was going to turn it on fast and then turn it off. I was going to get it over with. I moved the switch just barely. Just enough. Almost enough. The screeching came from the blade first. Or from the chicken maybe. I heard it before I screamed myself. I was not the first one. The thud of the table was next. The scrambling, kicking chicken feet, everything moving chaos except the stuck blade.
It jammed, my daughter said, from my switching not quite enough. The blades, I guess they turned enough to stop it from screaming. But not from kicking. I don’t know. They stuck, I think. Stuck half way into its neck. Enough so that I could hear the blood start to splatter in the bucket. So that I felt a splash of wet hit my knees under the table. My daughter pushed me away. She switched it up and down up and down. That chicken there kicking and bleeding and kicking. And she [p.98]pounded on the table until the blades unstuck. I don’t know if it was five seconds or five minutes. I don’t know. I kept saying, “I’m not like that anymore. I’m better now.” I wanted my daughter to see that I’m not like I used to be.
My flowers were cut. My calla lilies were all in a pile. All stacked in a pile in her lap. I had not meant to cut them all. I had said too much. I had scared my new neighbor already. And there was no place to set my shears again. My daughter could have flipped the switch to start with.
It was light already. My neighbor was watching that car. She said to me, “Your flowers. What have you done?” But she was watching that car still. And when it started up, when it drove past with a woman driving it, my neighbor stood. She set my calla lilies beside her and said, “Your flowers .” And she said, “Thank you.”
The flowers were for my neighbor, though. I gathered them, took them all in my arms. And I followed her out to the street, her uneven steps. “Here,” I said. I put the flowers in her arms again. “Take these. All of them.”
She took them without slowing down. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s time I have to go. Thank you.” And she moved back into the street. And I stood in my drive and watched her. Her carrying my flowers, safe in our neighborhood, and pulling her one shot foot behind her.