Ashes by Jennifer DeLeon


Graciela Ana Fernandez remembers everything, including her birth.  She can still see the honey-colored walls of the sticky clinic birth room in Mexico where a dozen women in various stages of labor formed an L shape with their cots. Some shared the company with their own mothers clutching their hands.  A few had no one but an indigenous nurse to trace the length of their brows with an ice cube. Then there was the old midwife lady who hovered over Graciela’s mother and her perfect, round belly.  From inside her mother’s womb, Graciela could hear the little old lady say, “She is almost here, so get ready Señora, in two minutes you will hold your daughter in your arms.”  A shriek broke from Graciela’s mother and echoed into Graciela’s ears, which at the time resembled two dried apricots. Graciela hesitated to kick her feet away from her mother’s core and nudge her head toward the heat of the opening that led to the rest of the world.  Her mother grunted in horror as she pushed a hairy head out of her, along with a sprinkling of urine. This was normal, the indigenous nurse assured her, sensing her possible embarrassment. One hundred and one years later and Graciela still remembers the cold air that felt almost wet on her scalp as she slid centimeter by centimeter out from the centerfolds of her mother. 

The memory of that cold air will return in her second year of primary school, when Graciela is asked to write a paragraph to the prompt: Where I Come From. She will write the first sentence: I am from the dark hole in between my mother’s legs, a never-ending spool of thread that connects me to God.  What will follow minutes later are the icy smacks of tree branches on the backs of her thighs as the school Director makes her pink and swollen for all the students to see, including Alden, the German boy whose parents were in Mexico for PhD research.  For Graciela, this will be the worst part: Alden’s laughter during the school Director’s interrogation. Where did you hear that? From where did you copy this kind of language? Graciela would try to answer these questions for the rest of her life. And each time, she remembers the midwife. 

On the day of her birth, the little old midwife lady spit in the palm of her hand and mumbled a prayer into it before smearing the warm liquid on Graciela’s milky torso. Even the woman on the cot to the left turned toward baby Graciela. She was kneeling on all fours and wore only a stretched out pale blue tank top, while another, younger midwife cupped her hands underneath the woman’s naked end as if she were about to catch a slippery fish.  

Outside, the sun spilled light over the sea. The unforgiving rays caked the dirt paths that connected like veins to the main artery of town. Even the ancestors stayed in the shade of the plaza’s shadows. Inside, for a room full of women about to be ripped open, it was rather quiet.  Only breathing sounds waved in and out the spaces between them all.  The old lady midwife giggled and pressed her old lady wrinkled lips to Graciela’s nostrils, two dots the size of raindrops, and whispered in it a prayer. 

After a final prayer, the midwife left the room. No one ever saw her again. You were the last baby she delivered, they would tell Graciela when she was older. She left you her gift: being able to remember everything. Every detail, memory, billboard sign, secret, direction of the wind on a given tree on any Sunday after church, all of it.  Even those conversations you’ll wish you hadn’t heard.

Of those, there is one that stands out from the one hundred and one years that will be Graciela’s life: the conversation she had with her father the last time she saw him. She can still hear him singing to her while they sat under the lime tree in the central park in Mazatlan when she was just four years old, the way the melody coupled with the afternoon sun lulled them both to sleep.  Never could she imagine her father leaving her the way they said he did—resting on her side on the wooden park bench, in such a deep sleep that she ignored the tingles developing in her forearm that she had used as a pillow.  It was the last time anyone saw him, before he vanished like a participant in a stage magician’s show, leaving behind only his sweat rimmed caballero hat, browned with the last scent of him.  

Graciela’s mother refused to believe that her daughter, now ten, does not remember where he was going and why.  

“You remember everything.”  

“But I can’t remember what did not happen.”  

Like this, it went on for hours, then days, then weeks, then years and centuries.  

“What did you do to him? Where did he go? With whom?” 

Her mother spanked her with any item she could summon every Sunday: wooden spoon, sandal, cat.  Rather than dig it out, her mother only stuffed the information in deeper. 

Graciela remembers Christmas that year. Her mother played boleros on the record player until she passed out from crying so hard. It snowed. It had only done so once in Mexico, fifty years ago. The Indians thought it was the ashes of their ancestors falling down. This year, this time, Graciela collected the snow with a broom outside in the street and slow danced with the ghosts of the past.


Contributor Notes

A couple of years ago I took a road trip down the Pacific coast of Mexico. On Christmas Eve in Mazatlán, I listened to a woman share her birth story. The image of a room full of women in various stages of labor is one I could not get out of my mind. That image, coupled with my ongoing fascination with memory, was the starting point for "Ashes."

Born to Guatemalan parents and raised in Massachusetts, I am an instructor at the Grub Street Creative Writing Center and the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where I am completing an M.F.A. in Fiction. My fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Ms., Poets & Writers Magazine, Guernica, Solstice, Generations, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010. I have received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Currently, I am working on a novel and editing a literary anthology on the Latina experience in higher education.