She opened the inside door cautiously. He was waiting on the stoop, beyond the locked screen, in the bright, breezy, unseasonable warmth of the afternoon. The man’s pale skin was translucent, taut against his face; the chalk-white bone beneath was clear. He was old, wrinkled, his gray hair severely cut. Still, tall, lean and unbent, he stood like a late autumn birch flailed by years of winter storms. In his light tan linen suit and narrow black tie, he looked like an ancient villager in a travel brochure advertising the Mexico of her girlhood: a celebrant, perhaps, of El Día de los Muertos, calm and welcoming, dressed in his Sunday best for visitors who had come to explore a mysterious and magical ritual, in a mysterious and magical province of which he was a mysterious and magical elder statesman.
Below a pencil-thin black mustache, he had thin lips and perfect white teeth that revealed themselves with the warm smile which spread even to his coaly eyes. Save for those eyes, he looked so like her shy, dear Oaxacan father! (who, like her bold Parisian mother, had been dead many years; today, especially, the second day of November, she remembered them). She touched the mesh of the screen door between them, but did not unlock it.
“Senorita Amalina Tesoro?” he asked in a rich baritone, the “r”s rumbling from his tongue like tiny thunderclaps.
“Yes,” she answered hesitantly. She had never been comfortable talking to strangers and, at 36, she preferred to ignore her unmarried state. Maman would have understood, but not approved. Maman had been red-haired and Irish-green eyed, fiery as her appearance. Amalina had acquired Papá’s features — her hair was the brown of damp sand, like his in his youth, and her eyes a paler blue — and his temperament: He accepted life, as it was: Life simply is, he told her, still with a smile, just before he died. It slips by like a water lily on a calm pond.
Maman had admired Man’s creations; Papá admired Nature’s. He and Amalina had wandered together among wildflowers, and the hummingbirds and butterflies that frequented them. Once, when she was ten, just months before they left Mexico to seek treatment for Jericho in what Papá called the New World (and its denizens, New Worlders), a green and yellow swallowtail had lifted itself gracefully from a brilliant-crimson zinnia, hovered in the air, then landed on Papá’s fingertip, resting there, it seemed, to look at them with the same curiosity and wonder as they had for it.
¿Qué usted ve? Papá whispered to the butterfly.
What do you see?
The butterfly did not answer. It flapped, once, twice, then flew away, leaving a soft wake of fine white dust from its wings.
Papá’s life had rarely been troubled; there was only the occasional-but-terrible storm, like Jericho’s death, to disturb it. Hers, too was undisturbed, except for the three deaths. It was slipping by on her own calm pond. She did not mind: Death would return her to Papá, and Maman, and Jericho. Perhaps even to Sancho. Life simply is. Death simply is. Accept them both.
Accept being what you are: alone.
Amalina did not like being alone, but she did not dislike it, either: It was how she felt about most things. She spent her days in a partitioned cubicle at a publishing house, computing the royalties that were the reward for other people who had dreamed, then shared what they dreamt. Her nights were spent at home among the books and familiar music and photographs of her long-ago, in the living room she had brought from their home and recreated in hers. Her past intrigued her as the present, with all its helter-skelter possibilities, could not.
As a girl she had tossed caution into the great canyon of childhood and scrambled energetically through the possibilities, brown and white-spotted Sancho at her careless heels. She climbed tall lush trees, or stood on rocky hilltops and turned in slow circles to see the entire rest of the universe, a universe that was wide and deep. And endless as her dreams.
Now, she was cautious. In her bed with only the moonlight around her, Amalina dreamt and tried to look at it again, aching to see its entirety laid forth before her like an endless living mural. But the visible universe had narrowed to a darkened hallway too slender to allow her passage. At its distant end, she could sometimes see a burnished hand, with long fine fingers, open and held out to her.
On each finger sat a green and yellow butterfly.
But those were her dreams. Her life was a quiet one that had its comforts. Though she sometimes thought about the comforts she lacked — a husband, a child and the responsibilities and rewards that came with them — she did not miss those. She did miss her family. The past was, often, her present. Memory was a lovely, placid place where she felt at home; and she felt far from it in the riot of the world in which she was compelled to move. She slipped between them adeptly but reluctantly.
The old man seemed a part of neither.
He continued to smile warmly, and lifted a brown-paper-wrapped, square-cornered package, perhaps two feet long, a foot wide, just a few inches deep. “Esto está para usted,” he said, and offered it.
“For me?” she asked, beset by wonder: Who would send her a package? Who was this man?
“Yes. For you. ¡Por supuesto para usted!”
Señorita. Esto está para usted. So, perhaps, he too was of an old world. Like hers. The people she knew now were all New Worlders. She had lived among them, from the time she was 11 and Jericho only eight — sick even then with the tuberculosis he would die from two years later. But Amalina had always found them strange: always looking for something inexpressible. Another New World, perhaps. What was around the next corner. While she wanted, often and dearly, to revisit those beautiful corners she had long ago turned: the quiet afternoons in their curtained living room, sunlight seeping through the white chintz, dots of dust dancing in the beams, the music coming from the radio, the susurrus of Maman and Papá’s conversation while they prepared dinner in the kitchen, Jericho’s calls of “fetch” and Sancho’s answering barks from the yard.
Of course for her?
The old man’s face, crisp and dry as parchment, did not change; the long, flat package rested on his wrists and forearms, revealing the extended palms of his long, fine hands. The palms were unlined, smooth as if they were a newborn’s. I do not understand, she thought.
“Please,” he said. “You will enjoy it.”
But what was it? What could it be? A puzzle.
The visitor’s eyes brightened. “You will enjoy it,” he repeated. “I am certain of that.”
Still she hesitated. “But – why?” she asked. “Why for me?”
“I do not know, Señorita. Truly.” He tilted his head rakishly and his voice dropped to a whisper, to speak a confidence only she should ever hear. “But it is what you have always wanted.”
What she wanted? Amalina did not know what she wanted, so how could this odd old man. “What is that?” she asked timidly.
He looked about, saw no one, and leaned toward her. “I know only this: It is a box of beautifuls” he confided. “Very rare. Very unusual. Please.” He offered it to her yet again.
The paper had no address, hers or a return, just her name written ornately, perhaps calligraphed, by a careful hand in indigo ink. She debated; these days you could be sure of nothing, but she couldn’t think why someone would wish her harm: She’d done little in her life that had been of consequence to anyone. But a gift? There was no occasion.
She looked at the wrapping. The paper’s plain brown surface appeared coarse but pristine, as though any wrinkles had been smoothed skillfully; the ends were sealed in perfectly matching folds, the seam that ran its length was sealed as well. But there was no tape! Except that it was the kind of paper in which things like stacks of old magazines and boxes containing plastic beach sandals might be sent, it could well have been the product of a professional, hired to glorify holiday and birthday presents in ways that their purchasers could only envy and the recipients would hold in awe, even hesitating, to admire, before they ripped the package open.
“It is nice, si?”
Amalina nodded. “Es bonito.”
The old man grinned. “Then…?”
She unlocked the screen door. The latch clicked, but the old man did not move. He waited, only blinking and breathing through his grin, while she examined him again. A green and yellow swallowtail appeared, startling her. She gasped and brought a hand to her mouth. It flew past his face and lit on his shoulder. The butterfly fluttered its wings once, twice, then it too remained still, as if, like him, it were watching, waiting for her.
The world, still bright with afternoon sunlight, grew suddenly quiet, and the breeze stopped. Boughs did not wave, leaves did not shake. Amalina looked past the visitors, to the street. There, she saw a still life: A boy on a bicycle, stopped, his left foot poised above a pedal, about to push it forward; a girl, airborne as she hopped from one space to the next in a gleeful game of hopscotch. Cars and trucks and a bus stationary along the road, all filled with unmoving people. And all silent. She did not understand. She had heard all of it, all of life, moments ago, with the screen door locked. What she heard now was the steady breathing of the old man.
His chest continued to rise and fall, and he blinked. The swallowtail’s antennae trembled. Otherwise neither moved as she slowly opened the door.
The door creaked.
The butterfly spread its wings when she touched the package, freeing motes of fine white powder from them to the air. They hovered there, still in the windless space between her and the old man.
She looked again at the wrapped package, at the white mist, at the man and the butterfly. Again its wings fluttered; then, in what seemed measured flight, it rose from the old man’s shoulder, glided to her face and, resting first on one eyebrow, then the other, brushed each lash with its tails. Tiny bits of powder drifted down, a trail of miniscule white snowdrops, leaving a cooling prickle on her face where they landed. Then the swallowtail dipped between her face and the old man’s, slipping among the motes as a dancer among tiny orchids.
She had not seen it come, she did not see it fly away. It merely vanished.
The old man sighed. “¿Es hermosa, sí?”
“Like this.” He lifted the package. “You will see, Senorita.”
What do you see? she asked silently.
She reached for it, one hand, the other, until she had gripped it firmly between them. She lifted it. It weighed little. Uneasily, she brought it toward her.
“Do not be afraid,” he said. His voice was clear, soft. “There is nothing to fear. Not in Life, not in Death. ¿Sí?”
Amalina pressed the package to her body. It was warm, pleasantly warm, like the last embers on a winter hearth. “Sí,” she said.
“Thank you.” The old man tipped his head. She nodded. He smiled and his black eyes glowed, he bowed and left, turned the corner and, without looking back, vanished like the butterfly, leaving her standing, the package in her arms.
The boy, the girl, the traffic all began to move, and the mid-afternoon cacophony returned. She locked the screen door, then the inner door, and stepped inside.
In the house, thin rays of light slipped through the drawn curtains. Amalina sat on the aged sofa of her childhood, the package in her lap. She stared at it and, one by one, at the photographs that surrounded her: Papá, Maman, Jericho, Sancho. She listened to the clock’s tick.
¡Por supuesto para usted! Of course.
She tore one end of the paper, slowly, cautiously. Beneath was a side of an oak box, lacquered and polished to a glossy finish. She peeled the rest away, with a patience that would have maddened Maman but that Papá would have relished for the anticipation it brought. When the entire box was revealed, she folded the paper, set it beside her and ran her hands over the smooth, glistening wood.
It was, all, the plain white oak. The top was emblazoned with a wood-burned circle of Catrinas surrounded by a square of calaveras: dolls and skulls, symbols of this day, of El Día de los Muertos. A brass pin, inserted through a brass hasp, held the top closed. She touched the pin. Nothing happened. She withdrew it and lifted the hasp, and heard a slight sigh, as if there had been breath inside the box waiting to be freed. The top rose, just enough that Amalina felt the breath escape.
She felt her heart race, closed her eyes and took a breath herself. Do not be afraid. There is nothing to fear. Not in Life, not in Death. Accept.
She opened her eyes, and the lid, and gasped.
Inside, there was a kind of screen. Across it, she saw her childhood dance, one wondrous moment, one beauteous day, after another. There were her beloved parents, her brother, their little brown and white dog, all alive, vital. They smiled, they waved. Sancho wagged his tail. She closed her eyes again; this could not be – true. She opened them. It was.
Amalina sat, staring into the box of beautifuls. The days continued to flow past, a smooth stream carrying the sounds of joyful laughter and music and the wonderful smells of food cooking, and the faces of her family looking at her as they had not for so long, their hands reaching toward her, to the screen, almost, it seemed, touching it.
Outside, darkness fell. She glanced at it, then back to the bright days upon the screen. A green and yellow butterfly flew across it, and disappeared. A moment later there was another, this time above the screen. It landed on her hand and stood there, flapping it wings. Once, twice. Then it rose, flew, and landed again, on the screen itself. It slipped slowly into its surface, flew across it and disappeared. Her Papá watched, as she did, then turned to her and smiled. He held out the long, fine fingers of his hand. They did not quite touch the screen.
She touched it. The screen was warm, damp: Her fingers felt like water lilies floating on a pond the summer morning after a rain. Amalina pressed gently; her fingertips sank into the surface, but the world continued to flow around them, undistorted and undisturbed. She withdrew them and looked at them. They were dry, and looked no different. The screen looked no different. The people moving across it looked — different. Their smiles had widened, they were more energetic, Sancho leaped up and down as if trying to jump through the smooth surface and into her arms.
Amalina laid her whole hand on the screen and pressed again. It slipped through; she added her wrist and forearm. Her arm looked now as though it ended at the elbow, yet she had not reached the bottom of the box. Did it have a bottom?
She felt a rough tingle at her fingers. She looked down. In the still-moving screen, her hand was moving as well, floating like a water lily. Sancho was chasing it, lapping at her fingertips with his tongue. It – tickled! She giggled and closed her eyes. Slowly, Amalina pressed the rest of the arm into the screen, then her other, took a deep breath, and dived. She felt her body glide through the calm pond of its surface and into a waiting warmth that simply was. She accepted it, and opened her eyes.
When she looked around her, it was at the room she remembered. Sunlight streamed through the chintz curtains and flowed across her face. From the kitchen there was clattering, of plates and forks and knives and voices. The radio played, familiar music, and outside, she heard the clamor. She rose from the new sofa they’d bought, only yesterday, and went to the door, unlatched it. Sancho and Jericho sat on the stoop. Sancho barked. Amalina smiled and told them it was time for dinner.
|Evan Guilford-Blake’s stories have appeared online, and in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Wet Ink and Soundings Review, and have won 15 awards. He is also the author of 20 published plays for children and adults. He and his wife (and inspiration) Roxanna live in the Atlanta area. More information: www.guilford-blake.com/evan.
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What a wonderful, sad story. I love the intrinsic anguish and deft han
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Thanks for this very interesting article about the reality of educatio