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Miriam Wolfe Laughlin

Who's That Standing There?

 

The first week of Lent, early in the morning, Marta, Aunt Socorroís maid, came by to tell me that my aunt had taken a turn for the worse. The doctor did not know if she would last the night.

I did not want to visit Aunt Socorro by myself. My sisters were out of town, and the only person I could think of asking to accompany me was Juanita. I hesitated to ask her because I know she hates monkeys. I promised Carpicho would be locked up during our visit. She agreed to go. She is very patient with invalids.

The clouds had tumbled over the mountains, and by the time 4 o'clock mass ended it had already begun to drizzle

We met in the park. Juanita carried a pot of herb tea she was taking to my aunt. We were just about to say hello when we saw Don Evorio.

"My God!í

Juanita grabbed my arm and pulled me behind the kiosk. We watched as Don Evorio appeared from the other side.

He looked older than I remembered. He had lost most of his hair, and he had grown a trick mustache as if to compensate. He wore a navy blue pin striped suit cut too sharply. His body was thin and wiry. He darted gracefully among the students and Indians who crowd the square then swung into a car parked in front of the Hotel Santa Clara and drove off.

Juanita stood beside me still clutching my arm. Her tiny body quivered like a hummingbird's.

"Letís go," I said.

"I canít, Celia." She was clutching the pot in her arms as if it were the only thing that could save her.

I looked behind me. There was a bench sheltered by a palm tree. "Weíll sit down, then," I said.

She moved stiffly. "I never thought Iíd have to see him again," she said between her teeth.

"Heís gone. Donít think about him."

"Thatís easy for you to say. How would you know what itís like to have a husband like that?"

She was right. Iím lucky to have married Chusito. What does it matter if heís a little dull? At least he never gives me any trouble.

"Sometimes I think of nothing else for days," she continued.

"You shouldnít do that, you know. Itís not good for you."

She narrowed her eyes. "What do you suppose he came here for?"

"To see the mayor?"

"Maybe. The last time he came to San Cristůbal, it was to see his lawyer."

"Lawyer?"

"He wants my land. Heís been trying to get it for years."

"But the papers are in your name, arenít they?"

"Evorio knows how to change papers."

"He canít change your fatherís will."

"Ay, Celia, youíre so innocent! Donít you know he has a trick for

everything?"

I crossed myself. "May God forgive you," I said.

I looked about me, scared someone had overheard, but there was no one near except a Chamula Indian family. The three women and an old man were sitting on the grass beside us, passing a gourd of corn gruel from one to another. They were dressed in black, except for the women, who wore blood red tassels on their blouses.

"He will kill me, that man, if I donít get him first." Her face paled. I was afraid she was sick -- maybe in the head, in the heart.

"We should go."

She sat rigidly on the edge of the bench, cradling the pot of herbal tea now like a baby, completely lost in her feelings. "Mol Shalik is helping me."

"Mol Shalik?"

"The old shaman. The one who cured me when I was sick last fall. The one

who lives on our place."

"What does he know about Don Evorio?"

"Heís known him for years. He treated him when he fell off his horse that Christmas we spent at the farm. Don't you remember?"

"No."

"Evorio was in a coma." She squeezed her hands together until her knuckles turned white. "Indians say you lose your soul when you faint. Only a shaman can bring it back. Thatís when Mol Xalik discovered Evorioís nagual."

"His animal spirit."

A few drops of rain fell on the pavement.

"We should go," I said. "Itís beginning to rain."

"Oh..." She looked up, at the ground, then stood. "I hadn't noticed."

The afternoon died early as the fog and rain shrouded the town. We walked briskly, too cold to make conversation. The lid rattle against the enamel pot as Juanita followed me down the street.

It worried me that she was still so obsessed with Don Evorio. I have known her since she came here twenty years ago from the country. That is when she and on Evorio moved into the house across the street. We are as close as sisters. Whenever one of us needs something, a cup of sugar, someone to look after a child, we help each other out. She teases me because I am lazy and have put on weight. But I poke fun at her, too. She runs around like crazy all day. If sheís not raising money for a new school or helping out a sick person, sheís selling the fruit from her farm. She sells it herself from the front of her house. You would think she would hire someone to sell it in the market, but she says she earns more that way. Besides, she enjoys keeping up with her neighbors.

Sometimes she puts up palmetto relish and cured peaches, which she makes at night. She doesnít complain, but I know she is short of funds. She is one of the kindest people in San Cristůbal. I have never known her to say a cruel word against anyoneóanyone except her husband.

Don Evorio is highly respected in San Cristůbal, but Juanita and I know him for what he is. Even when he lived at home, he was so busy making friends among the politicians; he didnít have time to talk with the men in the neighborhood. My husband, Chusito, owns the hardware store by the market. It is the best one in town. Don Evorio never speaks to him unless he wants a discount on some bags of cement or a blade for a new chainsaw. He hasnít lived here for years. Even at that time, we only saw him when he came home from a drinking bout to dormir la mona, as we say. He would spend the night and then slink off when he was sober enough to drive down the mountain to Tuxtla. He had himself elected deputy to the state government. He has a mistress in Tuxtla. He doesnít come to San Cristůbal much anymore, not even to see his children.

She didn't say a word the whole way from the park to my Aunt's place.

Aunt Socorro lived alone in the old adobe house, which belonged to her father. She never married. She closed off most of the rooms around the courtyard when her father died, keeping only the parlor and the bedroom for herself. The rooms were dark and musty. They had no windows, and the only light which entered came from the doorways onto the patio. The parlor was still furnished with the red velvet chairs my grandfather brought from Mexico City. They were covered with sheets of plastic. The dust was so thick on them you could no longer see the red through the plastic.

Photographs of the family adorned the walls, tinted pictures of my grandparents, my mother and father when they were married, my brothers and sisters and me when we received first communion. Six wooden chairs were lined up against the opposite door. Aunt Socorro kept the room open so it would be ready for her wake.

Her body was swollen monstrously, and she could no longer get out of bed. She had lost all her teeth. Her hands shook so badly she sipped her meals through a straw. Her only consolation was her spider monkey, Capricho. She spent her days chattering with him. Her housekeeper, Marta, claimed she had even taught the monkey to talk. Capricho had been with her twenty years. He stayed in her bedroom, tearing through the rubble under the bed, swinging from the crucifix above her head, wreaking havoc wherever he went. He drove away all the servants except Marta, who had been with my aunt as long as the monkey.

The women selling roasted corn on the steps of the cathedral warmed their hands over the coals in their braziers. They hissed at us to buy some as we passed by. We shook our heads, not bothering to answer them.

The cobblestones on my auntís street were slick, and we had to walk slowly to keep from falling.

Marta unbolted the heavy wooden door. She was wrapped in a black wool shawl and a voluminous skirt which reached below her ankles. The hem was stained with water.

"Thank God youíve come," she whispered.

"How is she?"

She shrugged. "The same."

I heard the muffled shrieks of the monkey.

Juanita stiffened.

"Where's Capricho?" I asked.

"I locked him up." Marta looked at Juanita accusingly. "I understand the seŮora does not like monkeys."

"I detest them," Juanita said.

"Capricho will stay in the kitchen." She clutched her shawl to her throat. "Come around the gallery. Youíll get wet crossing the patio." She shook her head. "Rain during Lent, can you imagine! Since when has it rained during Lent?"

Marta entered Aunt Socorroís bedroom. "DoŮa Ceiliaís here," she said. "Sheís brought a friend."

My aunt muttered something I could not hear. The stench from the room was making me nauseous. "Weíll talk to her from the doorway," I told Juanita.

"No," she said. "Iíve brought her some tea, and Iím going to give it to her."

"Come in," Marta said. "Iíve propped her up, and sheís ready to see you."

The light bulb suspended above the bed cast a sickly yellow light on my auntís face. She held both arms towards me. "Where were you, Celia? Why havenít you come to visit me?"

"Iím sorry. Iíve been busy," I told her. "Iím on the committee to decorate the church for Lent. And Chusito doesn't think I deserve free time, you know." I kissed her quickly on the cheek and returned to the doorway.

"Whoís that standing there?" she asked squinting her eyes at Juanita.

"Thatís my friend, Juanita. She brought some tea for you."

"Tea?" She moistened her lips with her coated tongue.

Juanita approached the bed. She embraced Aunt Socorro with both arms, as if she were an old friend. "Itís something I made to soothe your liver."

"Nothing does me any good."

"Try it. Maybe it will help." Her voice was comforting. "Do you have a cup?"

Aunt Socorro looked around. She pointed to the box of straws on her cluttered side table. Juanita put a straw in the pot of tea, understanding at once. She leaned over the bed and held the pot so my aunt could drink.

Aunt Socorro took a sip. She smiled.

"Do you like it?" Juanita asked.

She drank some more. "Who are you?" she asked. "I want you to stay."

Juanita laughed gently. "Iíll bring you some more, if you like. I made it with fennel from my garden and a touch of Tila flowers for your nerves."

There was a crash on the other side of the courtyard. Capricho dashed into the bedroom and scrambled up the bedpost. He stretched his frail black body so that he could nestle his head into Aunt Socorroís hair.

Marta appeared in the doorway, out of breath. "Pendejo monkey!" she yelled. "How did you slip out of the kitchen?"

The monkey chattered wildly.

"Itís all right, Marta," Aunt Socorro said. She smiled at Capricho. "You wanted to see who's here, didnít you, darling?" she asked in a falsetto voice. She turned to Juanita who stood pressing her back against the wall as if wishing to pass through it. "Heís such an affectionate little fellow, he canít be without me for a minute."

Juanita stared at him.

Capricho noticed her, too. He leapt through the air and landed on her shoulder.

Juanita screamed. "No!"

The monkey tucked his head in the crook of her neck and licked her ear.

Juanita turned her head towards the monkey, and their eyes met.

He squealed and started to pull away, but she grabbed him by the neck. She twisted it with both hands.

Capricho dropped to the floor.

She watched him stonily as his little black hands opened and closed.

I shuddered and ran to the bedside. Aunt Socorro stared at the monkey, but her face was calm, as if she did not see his little hands opening and closing so helplessly. He took short, quick breaths, causing his belly to heave up and down. He gasped, and his whole body shook. Then he was still. A trickle of blood shone brightly at one corner of his mouth.

"There!" Juanita said. Her pupils were dilated so that her eyes looked like two lumps of coal.

"Go home, Juanita," I said.

Juanita, covering her mouth in shame, eyes welling with tears, ran out of the room, out of the house, and into the downpour.

Aunt Socorro seemed to have suffered some kind of a stroke, but she was not in pain. She smiled, and her eyes looked past Marta and beyond the room. "Whereís the lady?" she asked. "ÖThe kind lady who brought me the tea?"

"Sheís gone home."

"When will she come back?"

"I donít know."

Old Marta followed me from the room.

Outside, the rain was splashing in the courtyard. "Why did she kill him?" she asked.

"She had to."

Marta drew the shawl across her face to hide her grief.

I could bear it no longer. I ran along the corridor and unbolted the door. I stepped onto the sidewalk. The drain spout shot streams of water onto my head, but I paid no attention. The cathedral bells were tolling. I could not mistake the heavy tone even above the din of falling water.


Miriam Laughlin lives in Chiapas, Mexico where she works as an adviser to the Mayan Indian women's cooperative, Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya (FOMMA). Over the years her stories have appeared in The Arizona Quarterly, Long Pond Review, and Crosscurrents.

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