Cleanse by Leticia Urieta

I remember the healer Grandma took us to in San Anto after our parents were killed. The woman rubbed us with an egg and smudged our bodies with smoke to cure us of our family’s terrible luck.

There would be no ritual after your funeral. My last words to you were lips whispered against the wood of your coffin. I won’t say them again. I hope you were listening then, because I’m not coming back to visit your grave. That you in the ground stopped growing and expecting answers long before they buried you.

Our aunts needed time to debate about what they were going to do with me when they sold our house in San Antonio and moved Grandma to a retirement home. Auntie Minerva decided that I should live with Mommy’s family for the summer. I hadn’t seen them in five years.

I packed my small sketch book, including that last drawing I did of you, and what few things I could bring in a duffle bag. Auntie Minerva dropped me off at the bus station to ride down through Laredo, Nuevo Leon, all the way down to Guerrero, where the family was waiting to pick me up from the bus depot in Ixtapa. I didn't fear leaving Grandma, changing buses in Monterrey, even being hassled on the bus because I look so Americana. I even slept without clutching my bag to my side.

When I stepped off the bus I was hit with that humidity that makes even your insides sweat. Out on the street, Uncle Mando had the little blue truck parked out front and a sign that read “Bienvenidos Cristina.” He pulled me into a moist embrace and I felt where his flimsy shirt stuck to his chest, like he’d been waiting awhile. “It’s so good to see you,” he whispered into my hair.

I stayed with Auntie Lucy for a month. I slept for days, rolling in out and out of dreams only to drink water. Then one morning she came into my room. I thought at first that she would sit softly on the side of my bed and rub my back through the blankets like Grandma used to when I was upset. Instead, she pulled the quilt out from under my tangled, sweating body until I stumbled onto the cool concrete floor. “Get up, Cristina.” She waited while I stood in my tank top and underwear next to the bed while she folded the corners over and made it for me. When she left I pulled on my shorts before Humberto could burst into the room to tease me about my boy hips. Even after years of absence, I knew my cousin enough to remember his tricks. I went into the kitchen, the one room containing a sofa, a table and the gas stove in the corner, for breakfast. Auntie Lucy made huevos rancheros and fruit to tempt me to eat. She insisted that I needed to gain weight. I ate half of my plate to please Auntie, knowing that as soon as Lucinda saw my clothes getting too tight, she’d tell me I was looking “gordita.” I wanted to argue, like I would with Grandma, but the distance that had separated us for so long kept me from complaining that I wasn’t hungry, that I wanted to be left alone to talk to you.

“What will you do today, Cristina?” Auntie asked me. She watched me like a balloon she was afraid would pop.

“Nothing,” I croaked, my voice hoarse from too much sleep.

Auntie frowned. “You’re up now. You should try to make something of the day. You could help your Tio load the truck for the cows. You could play with Humberto. Take a walk.”

The more activities she listed, the further I slumped down into my chair.

“Do I have to?” I couldn’t remember the last time I had said something so whiney.

“Nobody is forcing you to do anything.” She set a plate down hard in front of me and salsa slopped over the side onto her white embroidered tablecloth.

I didn’t come back to her easily.

When I grew tired of company, I climbed trees by the arroyo that bordered the property to draw plants I didn’t remember and the lazy sleeping figures of the iguanas perched on the branches that hung towards the water. I missed Sunday night football, all of us on the couch rooting for the Cowboys. I missed keeping up with the weekly comics I used to draw for my friend Ashley. I missed having a way to reach out to people, but if I’m being honest, I stopped doing that even when you were alive.

Though he annoyed me, I appreciated Humberto, who liked to steal my sketch book and hide my things. He treated me as he always had. At least his mischief was fair.

One night Auntie and I were alone. She brought out a round hat box full of pictures for me to look through at the kitchen table while she made caldo de res. It was one of those long summer evenings when the sun takes its time descending behind the mountain. Some of the pictures were of Grandma and Grandpa from years ago, of their daughters, including Mommy. There was one of you, sent from Victoria, the inscriptions on the back reading “Angelina, tres años.” There was one of Mommy and Dad’s wedding there. She was wearing a lace dress with a sweeping train. I held the photo of them over the steam of the pot. “Look how beautiful Mommy looks in her dress,” I said.

Auntie moved my hand away and took the picture. “We were all so happy that day,” she said. Her face hung over the pot, the steam drawing out each line, and her eyes tilted up like the paintings of holy saints looking towards the heavens with mingled anguish and hope.

“We missed you, Auntie,” I told her.

She put her arm around my shoulders, both of us sweating near the boiling pot. “I missed you too, Cristina. You and everyone. Too many of us are separated. Some here, others allá en el otro lado.” She meant her sisters across the border. But I thought of the borders between space and time, where you and our parents might even now be reunited.

“When you have a family, you’ll know what it is to give up certain things for them,” she added, stirring the broth in the pot while I poured the onions and cilantro in, and we remained standing side by side until the stew was ready to serve. This was one of those moments I knew I wouldn’t soon forget. Memories can be as persistent as ghosts.

I remember the day you came into the room, clutching yourself the way little boys do. 
You said it burned. “Come see,” you told me, taking my hand. In the toilet, there was bright red blood floating in little rosettes like watercolors on wet paper. After weeks of tests, the rounds to the clinic, then urologists, Grandma ushered us to a specialist’s office to explain your condition. End stage renal failure. The first thing you asked the doctor as you peered up into his bearded face was “will there be needles?” Grandma hid her face in an embroidered handkerchief Auntie Minerva sewed for her. Outside the office we waited for Grandma to pull the car around. It was the kind of day you loved, bright sunshine and grass so green it reflected light. You said “look!” and showed me a monarch butterfly perched on a dandelion that swayed in the wind. Its filmy wings fluttered and there was no urgency in either one of you. You watched that butterfly until it tilted backward in the wind and took off, and you ran to follow it, trying to clap your hands around it to keep it from flying away. Nothing in your flushed face, your rhythmic leap and descent said your blood was poison, recycling impurities through your cells, killing you slowly.

After I’d been back with the family for a while, Uncle Mando’s brothers and all their kids and wives came into town to celebrate my return to Mexico. Our tias spent three hours cooking carnitas, making fresh tortillas, smacking balls of rolled masa between their large brown hands to make gorditas. Most of these women I hadn’t seen for years, some of the kids I’d never even met. I humored them with hugs, but they wanted to press me to their sweating bodies like I could be reabsorbed. The already crowded house overflowed onto the front porch. I went to sit underneath the avocado tree to watch the commotion from afar. Our cousins chased the chickens across the dusty yard and antagonized the ancient donkey, Berto with sharpened sticks. I watched everything happening like I was looking through a porthole at their lives. Our prima Lucinda came with a beer and sat next to me beneath the tree. She came home from school just for this party. Her brother waved to her as he poked Berto again near the tail, narrowly escaping a kick from the powerful old hoof.

“Avoiding everyone again?” She waved her bottle to warn Humberto away from the donkey.

“I’m glad everyone could come,” I said.

“Anything for a party,” She took a big swig from the bottle. “You’re not talking much like you used to.” It wasn’t an accusation so much as a statement of fact.

“You haven’t seen me in a long time. Maybe this is me now.” 

“Maybe. But I doubt it.”

The light from the canopy hit her face and I said “hold still.” I took out my sketch book, and started to draw the lines of her shoulders, her sweeping black hair dyed that ridiculous blond and her full lips. Despite years of tweezing there was still a sweep of fine black hair above them. Noticing that I was drawing her, she sat very still and gave me an expression of absolute seriousness, not her usual puckered kiss that she would give to a camera. We sat there as I drew her, ignoring the sounds of the birds overhead or the buzzing of mosquitos and dragonflies. When I was done, I ripped the drawing out of my notebook, dated it and handed it to her.

“Keep it,” Lucinda said as she pushed the picture back to me. "When I’m famous you can sell it.”

I folded the picture back into my sketchbook and lay my head on Lucinda’s shoulder and she swept the hair from my forehead.

“You’ll be alright muchacha. Even if you aren’t right now.” She reminded me of when we were still little, the first few times we came to visit Auntie Lucy’s family. We still fell into the same rhythm, no matter how much time had passed. I understood that they could not gather the money to come to your funeral.

“I’ll be better when I’m not here.”

“That’s a shitty thing to say,” Lucinda said. She was smiling.

“I mean, I love your mom but…”

“I get it. You should come live with me. I have a pretty big apartment now since my roommate moved out.”

I took the bottle warming in her hand and took a bitter sip.

“If you say so.”

Throughout the afternoon we snuck swigs of tequila from the gigantic curved bottle that Uncle Mando’s brother brought from Aguascalientes. It helped that I stuffed down three gorditas full of that sweet, marinated meat that spent hours simmering on the stove. Someone was playing cumbias on their phone, and we kicked up dirt trying to keep up with the steps.

We came together at the two long tables pushed together to accommodate everyone. Uncle Mando raised a glass to me. They thought that to toast my health was be a talisman of sorts, to protect me from the bad luck that has ravaged our family. Whether I believed it or not, I raised my glass, shouted out “salud” and drank down the wine in my cup.

Walking down the street through the barrio towards town with Lucinda makes me feel like I am walking in the shadow of a parade. All the vecinos say hello and all the men take a second glance. In my khaki shorts and sandals, no one is looking at this güerita, as they love to call me. If it isn’t for her pushing me to accompany her on daily errands, I might not have left the house at all. But she got me drawing again.

Drawing Lucinda was the first time I considered drawing someone other than you. I liked drawing you when you had to sit for hours, hooked up to that huge, whirring machine, tubes coming out of you and into you to receive your dialysis. You laughed when I passed the time by drawing you. Sometimes like a cartoon, with your eyes bugging out. Once I drew you as a superhero cyborg, in which the dialysis machine transformed into your protective suit. The time I remember most was when you said, very seriously, “Draw me like I am right now.” I finished that drawing over a series of visits to the clinic, trying to remember where I left off so that I could change little details here and there to make it seem like it was just one moment, when it really stretched out a year and a half. . Your sickness was a part of our life by then. Grandma pulled you out of school. “I can do better with her at home,” she explained to the principal. I used to think that if I had been in your place, I would have slacked off to watch cartoons. When you threw a fit and tossed your pencil down because you hated long division, Grandma was the one to set down her spoon as she cooked dinner and prop you up again. I can confess to you now that I didn’t want to come home to you. I stayed out playing basketball with my neighborhood friends, even if they weren’t really my friends because they didn’t ask after you. I would walk to the corner store for snacks I couldn’t afford just to avoid home for a while. Grandma tried to notice, but you were her full time job.

In my last drawing of you your face is swollen. Your black hair falls down to your back, you have those furry little eyebrows you were too young to care about and beneath them, those clear brown eyes, daring me to look away.

Sometimes in the morning, Lucinda poses for me while she drinks her coffee and flips through her textbooks. At night, we sit out on the patio. I admire the smoke of Lucinda’s cigarette and the dark overhang of the tree that protects the people passing underneath us. There’s something about floating above people like ghosts that made me feel closer to you, and yet there was Lucinda next to me, watching right along with me.

To help Lucinda pay rent, I got a job at the local supermarket.They let me stock shelves, price items, and sometimes work as a cashier, though people’s accents throw me off, and I have trouble remembering the right words. I got so flustered my first week, trying to make change while a mother with her three kids waited with an outstretched hand that I dropped all her coins on the floor. Then my manager Javier put me on stocking duty. Andres, one of my coworkers, comes and visits me sometimes when I am stocking. He likes how clueless I am and likes to help me.

“You know, usually people don’t migrate to Mexico from the US. Most times it’s the other way around,” he says, handing me a box of cookies to put on the shelf I’m busy stacking.

“It wasn’t exactly a choice.”

“Yeah, it isn’t for others going to el Norte either.”

I feel my face growing red.

“Phew, she gets riled so easily,” he teases. “Have you gone out since you’ve been back? We go dancing after work on Fridays if you want to come.”

“Have you seen my coordination?” I say, making to catch the precarious boxes as if they might fall. He grabs my hand and tries to dip me, laughing. This is a boy who would only be too happy to grind on me at a party and let me drink too much. How was I supposed to know that once you were gone that I would have to build a life outside of you?

A little girl with long black hair and red shoes runs shrieking down the aisle, and I fall to my knees, Andres falling down with me. That little girl barely looks like you, but her laugh runs through my body because I haven’t heard your high-pitched shriek in so long that my ears don’t remember you.

“You ok?”

I let my palms rest against the freezing, stained tile and breath hard through my mouth. Then I nod.

“Yeah. Let’s finish up here.”

After that, I’m cool with Andres, but I avoid being alone with him if I can. He pushes too hard. I wait for him to put up the rest of the boxes and leave to work the cashier before I rest my forehead against the shelf and hope that no customers come down the aisle to see me falling apart.

I don’t tell Lucinda about Andres or how my co-workers are even more skittish around me than before. But on a weekend when neither of us are working, Lucinda decides that we both need to get out of town. We are going to catch the three-hour charter bus to Acapulco for the day. “We’re gonna have so much fun!” she reminds me, as if I need convincing. Lucinda falls asleep an hour in, leaving me to stare out the window at the palm trees flashing by, road side stands filled with papayas as big as my arm, the Toyotas two decades too old driving alongside us.

When we get to Acapulco, she is quick to study her reflection in the window and wipe the small line of drool from her cheek. “¡Que horror!” she exclaims at herself. We walk through the bus terminal to the entrance outside that opens onto a side street. Acapulco is all tourists and wide city streets where the only trees growing are the palm trees hanging over street vendor’s stands. It is just as hot there as where we left, so we stop to get snow cones to cool our dry throats. As we walk, she points out all of the nightclubs popping up, the new resort hotels that no one is staying in now because even in Acapulco, Americans think it isn’t safe to visit. I laugh at the lines streaming into the Wal-Mart’s, the Costco’s, so much of home there that I feel like crying. “Oh yeah, they love that stuff,” Lucinda says, dismissing the monstrous box stores which give the skyline an appearance of modernity that falters next to old women selling fruit in plastic bags.

Lucinda takes me to a city park with a laguna full of dirty water where we rent a paddle boat, chasing gooey-eyed couples and splashing them. I’d forgotten how much I liked my cousin; for all her swagger, she is fun. As we float across the surface of the pool, watching the dragonflies circle around us, she lights a cigarette and offers me one. I shake my head no. It’s been hard to get used to her smoking. Grandma quit years ago and slapped one out of my hand when I was little and pressed it between my lips to taste the smoky sweet tobacco inside.

Lucinda lets the smoke swirl out of her pink painted mouth, showing her yellowing teeth and taps the cigarette against the side of the plastic boat. The ashes slide away on the surface of the water.

“I needed this,” she sighs. “Midterms are killing me.” She is taking summer classes to get past her prerequisites.

“Oh yeah. Sitting in the lap of luxury.” I lean back far enough for my hair to dip into the dirty water and she slaps my arm.

“No seas pendeja.” I roll my eyes.

“You seem better to me.”

“Maybe.” I don’t like to let Lucinda take credit for moments of my happiness.

“Do you think you’re going to stay?”

I wasn’t expecting this question and the boat wobbles when I straighten up.

“I ask because I want to know I can count on you sticking around for a little while. You’re helping me out and…I think I am helping you too.”

“How am I helping? I make enough to buy food. That’s about it.”

Lucinda smiles.

“There’s other ways to help. The dishes were never this clean before.” Now I slap her arm until she laughs. “It’s been hard to live alone, away from the family. It’s been nice to have you around. You could do more here. Come take classes with me.”

I didn’t finish my junior year of high school. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

“I think I should be able to decide what happens to me. That feels important now,” I tell her. Lucinda stubs out the cigarette and throws it in the water.

I think of you and how many times I had failed to be present when you needed me, and whether you would be jealous of my time with Lucinda.

I hop out of the boat at the bank, and then allow Lucinda to grab my hand before she tripped on her heels. We stroll through the rest of the park where a makeshift zoo is set up. There are rusting cages full of toucans and other brilliant birds, a rock and a little pool for three long alligators, and last, one cage, no longer than twelve feet, for a black panther. Several kids crowd around the cage while the panther sleeps. Their parents are busy buying ice cream cones. They chatter around the cage, holding onto the bars and tossing in pebbles. He is sleek as night, the only thing to give him away are those glowing yellow eyes. Lucinda goes to buy a Coke, and I stand behind the taunting kids to watch the sleeping animal. His eyes are crusted, his black coat dusty from the red dirt kicked up around him. When one pebble hits the rock where he is sitting, he opens one bright yellow eye. Whether he pleads for peace, or for the child to come a bit closer, I am not sure because he closes the magnificent eye a minute later. I sit on the bench by the cage, waiting for Lucinda, staring at the panther. I think of you again, before they closed your casket and your funeral started. Your hair was polished obsidian, cascading around your arms along the silk casket lining. Unlike our parents, you did not need as much makeup, so you looked almost like yourself. In the endless minutes before the service began, I stood beside your casket with Grandma to receive the handshakes of each nameless visitor. If I stared hard enough, I could imagine your chest rising and falling beneath your green satin dress.

The panther’s fur and your hair blend for a moment. Lucinda puts her arms around me and leads me away from the cage. I can’t see my face, but it must have begun to crumple into that ugly expression I make when I’m coming undone. “I’m sorry,” she keeps muttering in my ear. I wonder what for.

The ability to beg is beyond me now. There is nothing that I want enough to beg for it. I begged for you. For months after your diagnosis I would come home after school and go straight to my room, unable to say hello to you. I imagined you standing on the other side of the door, though I never checked. I left the light off, lay my backpack on my chair next to my desk and sat on the bed, feet planted on the floor. My hands would run up and down the comforter and make a static rhythm that seemed trancelike. In world history class we read about meditation, how if you center your thoughts on one idea, that you had the potential to heal yourself. If I did the same, centered my mind on healing you, you would live. I closed my eyes, pictured your face and moved my hands back and forth across the bed. My whisper was barely a breath I repeated over and over, falling into a state only Grandma could bring me out of when she called me to dinner. I can’t tell you what I whispered, what my mantra became. Some things are private.

Grandma never took us to church, not since we went to live with her. She prayed the rosary at home locked in her bedroom. As many times as you tried to listen in on her prayers and I kept you away. Grandma had her own questions she wanted answers to. I think of her in the nursing home and wonder if she would recognize me now, though I still look the same. Auntie Minerva tells me that when she visits, Grandma still asks for you, forgetting that you’re gone. I do miss sitting on the edge of her bed while she reclined, her eyes barely focused on the TV across the room as she napped, to hold her wrinkled hands, running my thumb across the raised river of veins that are comforting to know still flow with blood untainted. I don’t know if Auntie tells me this to make me feel guilty. They prefer I would scream and shout than not know what I’m thinking. She tries to put Grandma on the phone, and I say no. It is easier to be away than to hear Grandma whisper your name in my ear.

Lucinda took me to Sunday Mass once. The skin under my hair was damp with sweat as I knelt in the pew. The priest compared the Lord’s love to an undying flame, one that can always be rekindled inside us if only we ask for his intervention. I felt the flames, the heat in my cheeks, and ran my hands up and down the legs of my jeans, trying to find the soothing rhythm I used to have. I refused to take communion. The priest offered me the proffered cup but I kept my lips sealed. Your blood Angelina, unclean, filtered through a machine, poisoning your undeveloped body. I refused to drink the blood of sacrifice. You were no sacrificial lamb.

I visit a curandera instead.

This woman is kind. Her grey hair is in a beautiful braid, and she reaches for my face first, holding it for a long time. I don’t pull away. Though I don’t understand all of her instructions, she shows me how to build an altar with pictures of you, and your beaded necklace, the last thing I have of yours. The curandera tells me to put you in the West, where the dead live, to surround you with the four elements. A cup of water, copal to burn, candles, a deep purple amethyst Lucinda bought for me in Jalisco that is supposed to bring calm. She tells me to pray your name into the candle’s flame, that with each word to you, I will call you into being. Grandma might tell me that this is all nonsense, that none of it means anything, but it is all I know to do. Lucinda let me use an entire table to set it up in my room and put the stone there herself.

I am instructed to perform a ceremony, and Lucinda encourages this. I am supposed to burn sage in the space, to say your name like a prayer, and meditate, envisioning your face, and leave your soul in the past where it is supposed to rest. “You’ve brought a lot of bad memories with you. This will help you let go,” Lucinda explains.

Lucinda means well, but she has never lost like me. The pictures of her parents, of Humberto and her friends from college are reminders of a life lived in happiness, and hopefulness. She has been so patient, yet I am still a problem she wants to find the solution to. She tells me I can enroll in school like her, to do what I don’t know. I can’t begrudge Lucinda her request when her entire energy is bent towards creating her best chance.

When I am tucked under the sheets at night, I still feel your warm body next to mine, the way we used to sleep together when you were scared of the shadows coming in through the window. You rolled over, hugged my back and whispered “I’m not afraid Cristina,” casting that statement into the universe to protect us both.

I prepare to light the sage, to let the smoke lick the corners of the ceiling, to close my eyes and concentrate on leaving you where you belong. In the end, I stick the bundle back in a drawer. I tuck you away inside me like silk folding over a ruby, careful not to scuff or break my memories of you.

Contributor Notes

Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.