(Fiction) Dia de los Muertos

“Time to wake up.”

Xana opened her eyes. She had fallen asleep on her luggage. The sun had moved in the sky and she was no longer in the shade. She squinted. She was sweating. It was hot. The insects were squawking.

Sister Rosa smiled down at her. She wasn’t wearing the habit today, but she had the same long blue skirt and white blouse as always. Xana could see more wrinkles and a good deal more white hair than she remembered. How long had it been? But it was the same patient face, the same calm voice, the same Spanish accent.

“The childrens have all gone. Better to come out of the sun. I have something for you.”

Xana sat up. She draped the duffel over her shoulder, picked up the suitcase, and followed her teacher down the slope to the fence.

Sister Rosa looked back at the luggage. “What is this?”

Xana hobbled next to the nun holding everything she owned in the world. She knew what Sister Rosa thought—that Xana was trying to take AJ and run. And the truth was, she had thought about it. More than once. “I have to find a place to stay.”

“I see. And what happened to your head?”

Xana could feel a cake of dried blood pinching the skin of her ear. It must look terrible. “It’s a long story, sister.”

Rosa opened the door and motioned Xana in. The school only had a few rooms. There was no gymnasium, no computers, no cafeteria. Children ate at their desks. But no one cared. Xana remembered the smell. She had so many happy memories. But she remembered it being bigger. Xana looked up at an irregularly stained ceiling not more than five inches from her face.

“Most of my students, they stop growing after they graduated.”

“Yeah . . .”

The nun put a hand on Xana’s, still clutching her belongings. “I have something for you. Come.” She motioned to the left. “This is his classroom.”

The door was open. Mismatched desks, most with with chipped or missing paint, were arranged in a circle around a colorful rug. Underneath, a linoleum floor. Posters and lessons hung on the walls.

Xana dropped her luggage and looked around. She remembered this room. She remembered passing notes to her friends and a lot of giggling.

“Here.” Sister Rosa lifted a cigar box. Papers poked from under the lid.

“What is it?”

“AJ’s school works. Some art. They left it when they take him.”

Xana looked at the box. She took it slowly. She opened it. There was folded construction paper and worksheets covered in scrawling pencil. He’d gotten a C- on his arithmetic. Xana smiled.

She pulled out a crayon drawing. It was a tangle of swirls and colors. The figures were distorted but unmistakable. Xana put a hand to her mouth and stared at the snarling behemoth with its arms raised over a schoolyard of smiling children. She dropped slowly and sat Indian-style on the rug. She kept her mouth covered and her eyes on the paper. “Is . . . Is this how he sees me?”

Sister Rosa didn’t answer.

Xana stared. The people were scrawled in blacks and browns. The sun was a green oval. Xana’s clothes were purple. Her face . . . She couldn’t look.

Xana put the drawing back into the cigar box and shut it. She looked at her hands. They were enormous and calloused from work. Every nail was short, broken, and dirty. “Do the other children tease him? About me?”

The nun was reluctant to answer. “Sometimes.”

“What do they say?”

“It’s not important.”

“What do they say?”

Sister Rosa sighed. “That you eat people.”

Xana shrank. “What?”

“That you cursed him.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“That you left.”

Xana’s heart surged and her mouth turned down. She whispered, “I would never leave him.”

“Children can sometimes be very cruel.”

Xana sniffed. “Did he believe it?”

“I do not think so.”

“But you aren’t sure.”

“He is very young, Xana. Just a boy. When he is older, he will not even remember these times.”

Xana smiled weakly. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Rosa put her hand on her old pupil. “A child never forgets his mother just as man cannot forget God.”

“He’s punishing me.”

“No, he is not.”

“He’s punishing me because Declun and I weren’t married. I knew it was a sin, Sister, but . . .”

“Your son is a miracle. Milagro, we say. God will not use the one human being to punish another. This is not the work of God. This is the work of one man.”

Declun’s family hated Xana. She was a mongrel: German-Argentinian on her father’s side, some native blood, even a little Hispanic through her mother. In a country where everyone was either African or Indian, she was a mutt. And they were the McDooms, one of the oldest families in Guyana. They owned the sugar plant where she worked and the free clinic and a great deal of property overseas. They even had a village named after them. She passed the sign every time she went into town. It was a constant reminder.

Xana was quiet. “I’m not talking about AJ, sister.” She looked at her hands. “I’m talking about this.” She made fists. “God tested me and I failed.”

“That is silly. You were already growing before you had AJ. I think maybe that’s why you got pregnant, no?” She gave Xana a knowing look.

Xana recognized it, stern but caring. She shrugged.

“Maybe you thought it was your last chance to have a family. To be loved.”

Xana rubbed her hand and moved her hair out of her face. Her ear stung. She patted it and winced. She knew what Sister Rosa would say. God is love and she should have looked to Jesus first before the arms of a man, especially a playboy like Declun McDoom.

Sister Rosa looked at Xana’s ear. “It is not easy to give up on a dream.”

“No,” Xana breathed. “It’s not.”

“You always wanted to be a mother, I think.” Sister Rosa walked to the sink at the back of the classroom and retrieved some tissue. She wet it under the tap. “You know, when I was young, I was in love. Very much.”

Xana looked up. It seemed silly, but she’d never imagined her teacher having those kind feelings, romantic feelings. Not for a man. Not for anyone but Jesus.

“I did all the little things to get his attention.” Rosa gave a coy look. “I wash my hair and wear the nice clothes and walk around the village always where he is and I hoped maybe he will notice me.” The nun walked to Xana. She held out a hand to steady her pupil’s head and gently washed the blood from her wound.

“Did he?”

“Oh yes. And he found me very beautiful. Too beautiful, it seems.”

Xana scowled in confusion. Then she understood. She looked down. “He raped you.”

Sister Rosa nodded. “Afterwards, I feel so bad. People say it was my fault, that I will no find a husband.” She chuckled and shrugged. “So I go to the convent. I marry God.”

Xana frowned. She felt guilty for complaining. So very guilty. “I’m so sorry.” She didn’t know what else to say.

“Oh, it’s okay. I had a good life. God took me here, to this mission, and I helped many, many beautiful childrens. Like you. Like your son. Maybe along the way I make a few more Catholics for the pope.” She smiled and threw the bloody tissue in the trash.

It was an inside joke. Xana had converted shortly before graduation. She had stood in front of everyone and declared her faith. She felt for the cross around her neck. She had gotten it that day. She’d only taken it off to get a bigger chain.

“Tell me.” Sister Rosa walked around to her desk by the chalkboard. “Do you recognize this?”

It was a tiny trophy, not more than five inches tall, in worn blue plastic and chrome. Xana took it. The whole thing fit in her palm. She couldn’t believe how small it was. In her mind it was two feet high.

“When they take AJ, I knew you would come here. I thought about you very much, and I remember how you liked to play softball.”

Xana was the pitcher on the team that won the little trophy, a miniature praise.

“But,” Sister Rosa went on, “this is the only picture I could find. This is how I will always remember you.”

Xana gasped. She set the trophy on the rug and took the picture. “This is from the . . .” She thought. She couldn’t remember the Spanish name.

“Dia de los Muertos. Day of the Dead. It is a holiday in my country.”

Xana nodded. Seeing the picture brought everything back. Her eyes welled.

“You were so happy.”

Xana’s father would never let her wear makeup, especially when the boys were noticing her more. With her big, toothy smile and that wild, curly hair, lighter than her skin, she looked exotic in the dark-skinned country. The prohibition made the face paint seem so naughty, like a sin. Adorning herself with flowers and skulls, Xana felt pretty. It was one of the few times in her life she had felt beautiful, really beautiful inside and out. And she had forgotten about it completely.

Xana looked at the picture. Her buck-toothed smile stretched from ear to ear, and it was genuine. She was skinny. Her skin was painted blue with roses for cheeks and skeleton lips. Her eyes were like a puppy’s. “I was so happy.”

“Yes.” Sister Rosa smiled at her pupil.

Xana held it up. “I’m not this girl anymore.”

“Of course not! We are all of us different. But she’s still inside of you.” Rosa took the picture from Xana and smiled at it. “I think this is what God sees when he looks down at you.”

Xana rubbed her big hands together. The nun handed the picture back but Xana shook her head.

Sister Rosa pressed it into Xana’s palm. “You keep it. As a reminder that you can always be happy.”

Xana looked again. “Thank you.”

“Now . . .” Sister Rosa sat in one of the desks facing Xana. “Maybe you will tell me why you are homeless with a broken ear.”

“It’s not your problem, sister. You have the children.”

“I did not stop to care just because you got older and graduated.”

Xana looked at the rug. She felt it in her hand. It was just like she remembered, rough and horribly uncomfortable. The coarse fibers made her feel better all the same, like wrapping herself in an old blanket. “They took him to America.”

Rosa sighed. “I see.”

“I’ll never see him again.” Xana felt like she should cry, but she was numb.

“You do not know that.”

“I don’t have very long, sister.” Xana was quiet. The school was quiet, deserted. “The doctors say I will die before too long. I don’t know what to do.”

“You must not give up on your son.”

“But what can I do? He’s not even here.”

“How many times in life have you heard it when they say ‘it’s just not worth it,’ hm? That’s how they do it. That’s how they take, how they win.”

“Who?”

“The rich. The powerful. The bad people. They have all the moneys, but there are many more of us, so they throw enough in our way to keep good people down, so they will say ‘it’s not worth it. There is nothing I can do.’ They make it just hard enough so no ones will try.”

Xana rubbed her ear without thinking. It stung. “I’m not trying to start a revolution.”

“Dios, no. But you must fight. Anything you don’t fight for, all the times, they will take.”

“No, I mean I don’t even know what I can do. The judge has ruled. They’ve already taken him. It’s ove—”

“No.” It was final. “No. God made a promise to all people. He has said, there is always hope. Even at the most terriblest of times, there is hope. That is why Jesus died.”

“But I’m not . . . clever.”

“You are. You were always very good student. You just think too much the best of people. It gets you into trouble, I think.”

Xana pressed her lips together.

“Like choosing Declun to be a father.”

“I thought the McDooms were nice. Their foundation runs the free clinic. They give to charity. They are always saying nice things in the newspapers.” Xana sighed. The newspapers were full of wonderful stories. “I know it’s not really true.”

Rosa smiled. “As I said.”

“But I’m not clever.”

“Now you make excuses.”

“I’m not.”

“So find someones who is.”

Newspapers . . . Xana lifted her head. The reporter. The American. She was clever. Too clever. Xana had been so worried about her meeting with Renkist she hadn’t thought to wonder why the reporter was at Royal House or why she wanted Xana’s help.

“Sister, can I leave my things here? I will come back for them.”

“Of course. I will lock them in the shed.”

“I’m sorry. I have to go.” Xana stood and turned for the door. “I’ll be back.”

“What will you do?”

Xana turned. “Anything. I’ll do anything.”

Xana-kid


Had to share a selection from Episode Two of THE MINUS FACTION on Dia de los Muertos!

cover art by Dimary

Xana illustration by Juan Ochoa