The Cult of Death, by K.L. Pereira

The first time you saw her, she was getting change from the machine in the lavandería; copper and nickel clacked against her metal palms, a rain of clicks pricking your eardrums. She was just as grotesque as your sister said: silvery fingers stiff as stone, jointless and smooth, unable to pluck the money from the open mouth of the change-maker. She struggled to scoop the coins into the stiff basket of her hands but you wouldn’t help her. You were too busy praying to Saint Lucy to take away your voice for good this time.

cult-pull1After your father’s death, you couldn’t speak; your throat was dry and not even startled bird sounds flew from it. When you were finally able to nod for yes and shake for no, your mother sent you back to school because what else could she do with you?

It was autumn and the neighbor’s cat was twining around your legs and you bent and ran your short brown fingers down its back and up its tail and what could you do but sigh at the feeling of soft silky fur? You hadn’t meant to. Until that moment, you hadn’t even known that you could make that airy rumble in your throat. The cat stumbled then, looked at you and then behind you with eyes so dilated there was almost no green left in them and then limped away under the front bush. It was strange but then, people had been running from you since your father died, the tiny mute girl who witnessed it all.

When you came back from school that afternoon, your neighbor was looking and looking but never found her cat. You cried into the orange carpet beneath your bed because you loved cats and had hoped you were not such a bad girl, that the first time, the time with your father, was just an accident. You started to breathe long and even and slept with your hands around your neck so no sounds would come out while you were dreaming.

You were doing so well, until the day the boy fell over. You hadn’t known your tongue started to work again, could push the airy hum that you kept pressed down in your chest into stubborn syllables until the boy decided to stab you in the cheek with the pencil. You were all the way at the back of the room and the boy, who was only as cruel as children can be, turned to you and jabbed the yellow stick into the softest part of your face. The jagged point of the lead ripped your skin and made it burn. His eyes dared you to tell and so help you, your voice swept from the dark valley of your lungs, not loud but fast and you couldn’t have stopped it. What you whispered was unintelligible but terrible enough and you’ll never forget the tremble of his eyes and the convulsing of his lips or the blood that pooled after his head hit the floor.

You wrote his mother that you were sorry but she never wrote you back and your ma didn’t send you to school after that. Your ma asked your abuela, who was still alive back then, what to do with you and Abuela said you must pray to the Virgin but that hasn’t gotten you anywhere. So you pray to Saint Lucy and when you’re supposed to be kneeling on the hard wooden floor of the confessional or doing penance by cleaning houses while everyone is doing laundry or shopping or work and making very sure you do not open your mouth, you walk around the town pretending you are the only one alive. Because you could be.

You see her the second time outside of the church. Your ma and your tías have told your sister the woman was exiled here. They are all afraid of her, disgusted by her. How could she let a man do that to her? She’s too calm and unashamed, walking with her head high in crowds, nodding to the matriarchs of the town. She doesn’t offer apologies when she catches children, or even adults, staring at her hands, her feet. You never see her slinking out from behind the dark walnut of the confessional, or pressing her forehead to the polished shoulders of the pew in front of her, or taking the Communion. You wonder if she’s even Catholic.

You are, just like everyone else you know. Saint Lucy is your favorite saint because you can talk to her in your full voice and she doesn’t mind. She scared people, too. She plucked out her own eyes to stop a pagan king from adding her to his harem. When he found out she’d disfigured herself, he had her beheaded. Now she walks around where the spirit world and the people world rub against one another like cats on a new couch, her eyes held before her on a bright blue plate, eye-sockets dark caverns in her face. Even though your ma tells you to pray to Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, you pray to Saint Lucy, the protector of those who have trouble with their eyes and throats. You pray she’ll take your voice away for good, or at least steal your ma’s eyes so she won’t have to look at you.

Your sister says she knows for a fact that the woman with the silver hands is in the witness protection program, saw the feds parked outside her door.

How d’you know they’re feds? Isn’t she from China or somewhere? You scribble on a memo pad in big block letters and hold it up to your sister from across the room.

Your sister loves you, but will only let you sit with at least a room between you, in case you get excited or angry, in case you can’t help it, she explained. It’s not that she doesn’t love you, Abuela told you once. She just fears Death.

Your sister reads the pad and just gives you a look. She watches a lot of television, all of the murder shows and detective shows and cop shows and if anyone knows feds, it is her.

Well, how do you know they were there for her? The memo pad is full so you write this on the thick back cover.

—Please, she says. Who else would they be here for?

It’s true. Why would the feds come here?

You wonder. Later, you will hate yourself for it but you wonder what the woman did wrong. What she did to deserve it—being cut and sent away. Did she do something as horrible as you did?

Probably worse, you think. At least they let you stay.

The third time you see the woman, she’s in the produce aisle of the grocery. It is a Friday, a day when most women are at the lavandería, catching up on gossip and telenovelas while their whites and darks spin in lazy circles. Your ma and tías are probably there, too. No one shops on Fridays. You, however, have decided it’s the perfect day to visit Lorenzo, your only friend, who is deaf and who you therefore cannot hurt, in the vault of the funeraría, where they keep the bodies before they go underground. You will get kiwis for him because he has a weakness for strange fruit. Then you will sneak off and visit your abuela.

The woman is standing in front of the melons. They are round, ripe, huge as your tías’ breasts, and their warm smell tells you that they are already mush inside, too soft, like the head of a new baby. But the woman doesn’t seem to catch their scent. Instead she places the melons in her basket, cocks her head and moves to the nectarines, the plums, the strawberries. She must feel them to know if they are good to buy. You see her press the tip of her hard finger to their tiny fleshy bodies, one by one.

You wonder: How can she feel ripeness? Anticipate the taste on her tongue?

You feel sorry for her. You wonder: What would it be like to never know if the fruit at your lips will run juicy down your chin, or crunch dry between your teeth?

You pluck a perfectly red strawberry from its sage-green carton and, with gentle pressure, you run your thumb down its seed-speckled fullness. It is perfect. Then, without flinching, but also without touching, you place it in the palm of her silver hand.

The woman looks at you and nods. She pays for the fruit, yours and hers, and follows you out of the store.

Later, at the café, she tells you to call her Marsha. You wonder what her real name is.

She says that her hands and feet were removed. Not cut or lopped or hacked off. For a moment it makes you think that maybe, just maybe they were surgically separated from her body at birth, due to some kind of defect. This thought, your thought, makes you feel momentarily comforted.

Before you can begin to imagine how a baby can crawl with no hands or feet, she says:

cult-pull2—You are the first person to acknowledge me. Even the cashiers at the bodega look away from me, keep silent, as if their lips where as hard as my hands.

You are sitting at a dirty plastic table, drinking strong coffee, even though your mother has warned you that this will stunt your growth. You stir a pure white waterfall of sugar and a lake of cream into your cup. Marsha does not touch her coffee. And even though she is strange and broken, you somehow know that it would be impossible for you, as evil as your ma says you are (and she is probably right), to hurt her. Perhaps it is the way she looks at you, as if she has already forgiven you for whatever you might do, whatever you have done.

You decide to open your mouth because for once, someone is talking to you and is not afraid and this makes you brave. You breathe in, fill the shadowy caves of your lungs and then, slowly, let them collapse with your words.

—You’ll get used to it, you whisper. They do not like anyone to be more interesting than them. My abuela used to call them the quedadas malas. They don’t like me either. I call Death.

You don’t tell her why. You don’t know why, not yet. You are sure that if she sticks around town long enough, she will figure this out on her own. Her eyes are black and round as the cup of coffee between her hands. She does not reply, does not try to comfort you. She simply watches; a very still animal waiting for something to happen, a change in wind, a shift in the shadows.

—So, what are you doing here?

Impatient, your voice splashes into the air, louder than you meant it to, and she is as still as the statue of Saint Lucy you pray to every night, and for a brief but flaming second you are afraid, truly afraid, that you’ve killed her. That her eyes will run and her mouth will weep with saliva and you will be left, again, with the body.

Her eyes are so still, pools of oil and her skin the solid yellow-brown sand of the earth and then she says:

—I’ve come for you.

She doesn’t flinch when she says this. Something in her tone calls to you, an understanding, a kinship, something in her deep eyes and careful words makes you feel you could fall into her arms, the blanket of her compassion warming you, that you could stay there forever and not be afraid. You hold your breath until the lights in the corners of the café go flashing and blue and then you let it out. You tell her everything.

You are not supposed to confess your sins to anyone except the priest (the priest who will not hear you, who lets you sit in the brown dark of the confessional alone because even he fears for his life), but you do. You lay your woe at the silver feet of this woman you just met, this woman you are supposed to ignore, but who has somehow, miraculously come for you. You tell her about your father’s death, when you were just a baby in his arms. How he sang to you: mi cielo mi cielo mi cielo and how you, after months of trying, could finally form the sounds, say the words back to him. You loved your papa, your heaven. You did not understand when his pupils shrank and his mouth gaped and all the muscles in his face went slack and he fell on the slick lino of the kitchen floor and when you saw the blood you called and called until you lost your voice and someone you did not know came to take him away. You tell her about your abuela, who, years later believed you when you drew out for her what you’d done, and who told you it was no evil, but a gift, a gift she made you promise to use when she was old and suffering too much, and you were the only one who could do it and so you did, just like she asked, and now, now everyone hated you, especially your mother who missed your father, and her mother, and would never ever forgive you for calling Death to take them.

You’ve led Marsha to the cemetery. The day to clean the graves is months away and most stones lie in neglect, covered with the dust of rotten flowers. Marsha sits at the foot of your abuela’s stone and watches as you polish the statues of Guadalupe and kiss the head of your own Saint Lucy and place her with her plate of eyes in the middle of the marble, flanked by petunias and marigolds and three ripe strawberries. You’ve already told Marsha everything when she says:

—When I was a girl in Xi’an, I played the violin. I could make the bow and the wood sing and all who heard it swore it was more beautiful than the cries coming from the very heart of the goddess Kwan Yin. Do you know her?

You shake your head, snake your hand to the top of the gravestone and sneak a small strawberry. Since you sat on the warm earth the scent of ripeness has been stealing into your nostrils and you cannot help yourself. Your abuela would not mind.

—She is the goddess who hears all the suffering of the world and is said to give comfort. She does not flinch from death, nor from life, no matter how full of sorrow. Marsha continued. —In any case, I was promised to a very wealthy, very cruel man. My father said that the man would ensure that I had the finest education, lessons from the masters of string and entrances to the greatest orchestras in the world. I only had to obey him. It was not hard to say yes—I was very young, what did I know of marriage?

—So you were married?

Marsha looks not much older than your sister. You want to ask her if she misses her father but instead you suck the fruit into your mouth. You are not used to interrupting, to the deep ocean of your voice and the way it sounds when it is full, when it does not kill.

Marsha places her shining hands on her knees, palm up and squints at the sky:

—Yes. Yes, we were married. We were not happy. We loved different things. I loved my music and he loved having a wife, a possession.

—But how was he cruel? Did he lock you in a tower?

You think of all the fairy tales you were ever told, the stories you and Lorenzo tell each other with your hands in the dark recesses of the funeraría vaults where only the dead can hear.

—No. Listen.

Marsha’s voice is strong and clear and all the stones in the cemetery shake like they are going to crack and her eyes fix on you: black and shiny and terrifying and ready to swallow you if you say another word.

—What matters is that I had a gift and he stole it away. How can I describe how creating music felt? It was more than the hum along the strings, the small brown body of the violin trembling beneath my chin; it was as if every sorrow there ever was had shaken loose from the world. I had just started my instruction at the conservatory when I became pregnant. My husband would not allow me to be a mother and a violinist. My place was by his side. He was a lonely man and the prospect of a child made him believe that he could keep me, keep us forever, objects in his collection. But how could I give up the one thing that made me who I was? So I refused.

Her words are nails piercing coffin-wood. The sparrows in the trees above stop their chittering and sit perfectly still, tiny brown stones waiting to fall from the leafless trees.

You look at her hands then, thinking that you understand.

—No, little girl. It was not simply what was taken from me that made me what I am. It was what I found after.

She raises her palms and all of the light in the world streams into them. The grass, the trees, the gravestones, everything, falls colorless, simple shades of glass and shadow. Nothing moves. Not even the air. Not even your chests.

And in this place of still smoke and mirror you start to know your gift. You close your eyes and know: you are the woman in the boat who cradles the king’s head, you are the saint who sits beside the goddess of mercy, you are Death and though you are feared, you need not fear yourself.

You open your eyes and again, are in the day, the cemetery. You sit beside Marsha, the woman, the outcast, the only person you can speak to in your full voice. You will follow her, wherever it is that she takes you.

She lifts a perfectly round watermelon from her bag and with heavy, silvery hands, knocks on the jungle-green skin of the fruit. You feel the dull thump deep in your chest and before she cracks the rind you know the pink taste of sweetness, can feel it flood your mouth, your throat, your heart.

fin

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Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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