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- Animal cruelty/death
Grandma died last year, yet she comes every Saturday to have lunch with me.
When she was still alive, she loved telling everyone that we were roommates. She would say to her embroidery club friends that her roomie had landed a very hip job in the city because she did not want to admit to them that I had moved in to take care of her, that our family had come to the decision that she should not—could not—keep on living alone. She was frail and transparent. Her skin was vellum paper. Her heart was like one of those birds she loved to embroider: red and small and barely alive.
Grandma sang to herself when her hands were restless with thread and needle. Her voice, a longing murmur, muttered about sorrow, the sea, and farewells. It was always the same tune, an old bolero about the crying moon. Her fingers then translated those words into the fabric, colorful birds made of embroidery floss and sound.
“When the time comes, I want you to make sure I’m buried with all my needlework,” she told me one day, out of the blue. She was eating a clementine for dessert. Her calloused hands peeled it with a tender touch.
“Abue, don’t say that.”
“Don’t say what, hijita? That I’m going to die? It’ll happen sooner rather than later and I must be prepared. You know, I never saved my braids. But I have an idea of what to do about that, and I want you to help me.” She looked at me with grave eyes, but a mischievous smile.
Grandma’s mother, her own grandmother, and all the other women before them had kept their cut braids neatly packed so they could be made into a casket pillow at their time of death. Their hair was an important part of them and they needed it for their journey into the underworld. Grandma had lived her whole life in the city so, unlike her female ancestors, she had cut her hair often, and had never dared to ask a hairstylist to give back her tresses for safekeeping. They would not have understood.
She took my hands into hers and said: “When I die, I’m going to trick the gods into thinking all those cotton threads are strands from my head.”
The smell of clementines floated around us and remained in the air for days.
I vividly recall that rainy evening when her singing murmurs stopped. I knew it happened when the water falling from the sky appeared to suddenly petrify before me. The air was still. A peculiar kind of cold started spreading through my body. I did not want to move out of fear of disturbing that instant when my grandma’s heart became silent.
I called her name even though I was sure I would not get an answer.
The door to grandma’s room was ajar, letting a dim glow shine into the hallway. I walked slowly towards that light. Every step was harder than the last. When I opened the door, the rain came down all at once. The violence of falling water brought every other noise into the room like an explosion. A skein of red floss lay on the floor.
Grandma was buried on a bright Saturday morning. It had been raining nonstop the whole night, but the daytime sky had cracked to let her join the earth easily. “There’s never a Saturday without sunshine,” she would have said.
The soil, like my face, was drenched and stirred up. My sore hands trembled as I held her head to let it rest on the casket pillow I had stitched overnight. It was a sloppy work. Unlike grandma, I could not command needles and thread to be an extension of myself. But I had done the best I could to get all her embroideries inside. All except one: an unfinished piece that, if complete, would have shown two birds with spread wings looking at each other, surrounded by a garden of intricate plants and dreamlike shapes. Only one bird had been embroidered in crimson thread while the other elements remained as faint traces on the fabric. I kept it hidden in a pocket, close to my heart.
Several months had passed since I lost grandma when I got a text from her number: “Hijita, could you pick me up at Barranca del Muerto metro station?” followed by an avalanche of random emojis.
I ignored it. It couldn’t be her; she was dead and I had started to accept the fact that she was gone forever. It was surely a scam, a malicious person trying to get money out of me by impersonating her.
“Hijita,” read another text. “I know I could easily walk to our apartment, but I brought a twenty-kilo sack of faba beans because they looked so fresh, and they were so cheap! Bring your bike with you so we don’t have to carry them, please”—followed by a bag emoji, a bicycle emoji, a taco emoji, and a face blowing a kiss emoji.
I was about to block the number when I received a video call. Grandma’s vellum paper face filled up the entire screen. Her gray hair was done in a braided bun, her eyes looked grave, but her smile, as always, shined in a mischievous way.
“Hijita, why are you making me wait outside the metro?” she said as soon as I picked up. “I wasn’t going to bring anything with me this time, but these faba beans … look at them!” She pointed the camera at the sack, the pods bright green. She continued, “We’ll have faba beans with nopales tacos for lunch. So hurry up with that bike. I can’t be waiting forever.” Then she hung up before I could say anything.
I ran down the station stairs. The wheels of my bike dragged at every step, making me feel heavy and clumsy.
Grandma waited by the ticket gates. She was giggling at the imitation of a woman I was at that moment: sweaty, hair a mess, confused but hopeful, and without matching socks.
I started crying as soon as I stood in front of her. I bawled uncontrollably on her chest. People who walked past us looked confused, but grandma dismissed them with a smile and a wave of her calloused hands.
“It hasn’t been that long, hijita. Now, wipe away those tears and help me tie this sack to the bicycle,” she said while gently rubbing her embroidered handkerchief on my face. It was made of a very soft fabric and smelled like clementines.
The way up the stairs was even harder with all the extra weight. I carried the bike slowly and with difficulty. Grandma, however, did not seem to care about my sluggishness; she was staring at the vaulted ceiling of the station.
“Those drawings weren’t here when I died. Were they?” she wondered, but it appeared that she was talking to herself.
Just then, I noticed that the ceiling had been recently painted with blue silhouettes that resembled a Tenango embroidery: animals, insects, plants, and flowers symmetrically arranged like in grandma’s own work. The dim lights of the station made the painting look ethereal, a garden of celestial harmony.
“You know, hijita, when people move away from Tenango, they take a piece of embroidery with them as if they’re taking a piece of their homeland, a piece of themselves. My mother taught me that. And I twisted that knowledge just a little bit in order to trick the gods into thinking those threads were my own hair, a piece of myself. But some of them remained here, didn’t they?”
I froze. Of course she knew I had kept her unfinished red floss project. The piece of fabric seemed to gain weight in my chest pocket: it was warm and pulsating, alive—another heart outside my heart. I tried to mumble an apology, but grandma stopped me.
“It’s fine, hijita. I wanted to come back to buy some skeins and pick up my old scissors, anyway. Now, hurry. We have some faba bean pods to crack before lunch.”
Every Saturday, grandma rode barely half an hour through eleven metro stations to have lunch with me and work on her unfinished project. She said she was happy our apartment was near Metro Line 7 because she did not have to make any transfers from Camarones, the station that connected this world with the land of the dead. The metro had been her escape into other parts of the city for years; now it was her way of coming back even after death. She was returning to me.
Her weekly presence was like sunshine. My fluttering heart did not need a piece of embroidered fabric to feel whole—it only needed grandma’s singing murmurs. Always the same tune, that old bolero about the crying moon.
“Abue, how was it?” I asked her on her second visit, interrupting her humming. I was kneading corn dough for tamales while she meticulously gave life to a manuelito flower with soft floss.
“How was what?”
“Your … journey.” I did not know how to ask without feeling like I was opening a very recent wound—a barely healed scar in my bird’s heart.
“Uneventful. Some kids were selling candy in the train; you can have it, it’s inside my handbag.”
“That’s not it,” I said, clenching the dough. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“Then, don’t be afraid to say it with all its letters.” Her thread kept on going perfectly through the fabric.
I took an eternity to finally ask: “How was it? Dying.”
“See? It wasn’t that hard to say. It wasn’t that hard to die, either.” She stopped her work for a moment and stared at her hands. “It felt as if I had poked myself with a very sharp needle. The trickle of blood that came out of my finger was the thread that connected my soul to my body, and before it reached my hand, it had already been snipped.”
She continued working on her embroidery. I stood silent for a while. Grandma’s murmurs sounded as if they were coming from very far away.
“This station is so deep in the earth, it’s only a floor away from hell!” she once said, as soon as I met her at the ticket gates.
“Abue, are you in hell?” I asked, surprised and a little bit worried. How on earth could she be allowed to visit if she was in such a dreadful place?
She laughed. Her laughter was a stream of clear water touched by the midday sun. “No, silly girl. It’s a manner of speaking. There is no heaven or hell in the land of the dead. Dead people simply are. We live another life there until we’re ready for what’s next.”
We climbed up the myriad steps out of the station. Surrounded by the blue silhouettes of the Tenango, we emerged into the world of the living.
“It’s not like this, though,” grandma said, pointing at the art installation outside the entrance.
The sculpture-mural was commissioned by the city many years ago. Some guy—because it is always a guy—had thought it would be clever to sculpt and paint his own version of the stories the people of this land had once told. His “vision” was full of fear, darkness, and misunderstandings. In the center, it depicted a mythical, monstrous buzzard that drank blood from a cosmic vessel. On the side, a winged traveler held the obscure celestial vault while some misshapen creatures, disembodied skulls, and bones followed the fire serpent into the metro station.
“The land of the dead is nothing like this. Not at all.”
“How is it then, abue?”
“It’s like a normal town, hijita, but as if everything was covered by a thick fog or smoke or I don’t know what.”
“So, pretty much like here,” I said as I opened my arms wide to signal the entire city, and looked up to the polluted sky that never allowed us to see the stars.
She laughed an ocean. “You could say that.”
I was happy to know that she was living in a place that was as familiar as it could be, so I laughed too with the carelessness that comes with delight. But one cannot be careless in this starless city. “Keep one eye on the cat and the other on the tuna can,” grandma would have said when she was still alive.
It happened so fast. I felt a burning on one side of my body. The puncturing pain was like scorching smoke that obscured grandma’s watery laughter. And in that somberness there was some pushing and grabbing and snatching and confusion. When I snapped out of that odd sensation, I noticed that the guy who mugged us was already running on the other side of the street. Grandma was on the floor.
“Are you okay, abue?” I helped her up.
“Of course I’m not okay, hijita. I’m dead!” She laughed again as if nothing bad had happened. “But look at you, you’re pale as organza. Now, wipe your face clean, your nose is bleeding,” she said, handing me her handkerchief. It was velvetlike and smelled like rosemary.
People gathered around us. A woman offered us some bread para el susto. Others said that they saw everything, that they could offer their witness statements and the guy’s description if we were filing a police report.
“What for?” asked grandma. “I don’t want to spend the whole day arguing with the police about a shopping bag taken by some guy. I hope the food serves him well. We already have a lot.”
Back in our apartment, grandma brewed some linden tea to help me relax. My hands were shaking out of fear of losing her again. I did not want that warm bird to slip out of my grasp.
The following week, I was met by grandma’s smile by the ticket gates. She was not alone: peeking out her new, colorful mesh tote bag was a corgi’s face. The dog was happily panting, its tongue sticking out.
“It looks just like Tamal!” I said, reaching out to stroke its soft ears.
“He’s the real deal, hijita. Which other dog would weigh as much as a sack of dumb potatoes?”
“But he’s dead,” I said in a low voice.
I felt guilty of his death. When grandma got Tamal, her heart was still strong. She would spoil him with special meals and handcrafted toys. I loved visiting her because I got to play with Tamal. His stubby legs were clumsy and made him afraid of going down stairs. So I spent many afternoons after school teaching him to jump sideways down each step. “To overcome his fear,” I thought then. Tamal enjoyed flying up and down the apartment building’s stairs until the day his newfound fearlessness led him to the curbside and then the street.
Grandma never got a new pet.
“Of course he’s dead, and it’s not your fault, hijita,” grandma said as if listening to my thoughts. “Dogs are like that: dumbly curious. He learnt to do something, but that knowledge didn’t kill him. What killed him was the heartlessness of a person driving a car.”
We walked home in silence.
When Tamal was around, grandma’s murmurs turned into whole, round words. Her singing voice came out clearer and louder, closer.
I was chopping some rosemary for the baked potatoes while grandma worked tirelessly with her needle. The aroma of the herb reminded me of copal incense: the smell of the Day of the Dead altars, the smell of the memory of the dead.
“Can you believe this chunk of fur was my guide into the underworld?” Grandma said, petting Tamal’s head.
“He was your dog, abue. That’s how they say it works.”
“I know, but somehow I was expecting to be assigned a majestic xoloitzcuintle or a graceful Mexican wolf.” Her laughter flooded our apartment. “Tamal is also your dog in a way. You’ll find yourself following his fluffy butt when the time comes, hijita. In the meantime, remind me to buy more thread; what I have left is not enough to complete the second bird.”
I woke up earlier than usual to go to the notions store. I wanted to surprise grandma with some skeins of the pearl cotton floss she liked. I hopped on my bike and rode through the early morning fog.
I got lost.
My maps app was glitchy or the reception spotty, as happens sometimes in this part of the city. It was so embarrassing riding in circles trying to find a store I had been to many times before. How could I be so clumsy? Maybe it had closed down. It had never been a busy place, and since grandma’s embroidery club had disbanded, the owners had lost some of their best clients.
I did not tell her a word about being lost in the morning haze, about my failure.
Luckily, grandma had found some of “the French stuff"—as she called her favorite embroidery floss—in the land of the dead. She seemed happy and chatty that Saturday.
“Remember Conchita from the club?” she asked on our way home. Tamal was trying to run in spite of his leash.
“The lady with purple hair?”
“It wasn’t purple, it was burgundy!” she said with her usual smile, then continued in a serious voice, “She died last week. Her family had abandoned her since god knows when, so she died alone.” After a pause, her words became sunshine again: “You should have seen her! She was delighted when me and La Nena went to welcome her at Camarones station. It was so nice to have the old gang together again.”
“But I saw her at your funeral. She looked fine and healthy.”
“There are a lot of things we old women decide to hide from others. Out of shame maybe. Or perhaps because we don’t want to bother anyone.”
“You could have told me to keep an eye on her,” I interrupted.
“Us dead are not supposed to change anything the living are not willing to do. It wasn’t a burden for you to bear, hijita.” She paused for a second. “I’m glad Conchita is in a better place now. She won’t be alone or go hungry anymore. She and La Nena are learning how to crochet as we speak. They think there’s more to us than embroidery. Go figure!”
We had chicharron tacos for lunch.
While we heated tortillas on the comal, grandma sang that old bolero. Her voice was clear as a river. The tortillas puffed up like yellowish clouds that looked as if they were about to float away and get lost up in the gray sky, like my thoughts.
My hands trembled as I did the dishes. The ceramic salsa jar was chipped and worn out; it reminded me of the bad job I had done with grandma’s casket pillow. I felt ashamed, and wondered what I would take to the land of the dead. I had no braided hair, nor embroidered threads to show the gods that I was carrying all the important pieces of myself. I only had me and my own heart. And, now, grandma.
“Do you think the gods will deem me incomplete if I were to arrive barehanded to the other side?” I asked, though I was mostly talking to myself.
Grandma took my wet hands and wrapped them in a dish towel as if it were a shroud.
And she started singing.
Gradually, her barely audible murmurs grew louder, clear as summer rain. The beautiful song that came out of her mouth embraced me with light. My hands—two trapped birds—pulsated inside the towel.
“You think you’re barehanded because you don’t notice that your heart is so big, it can’t fit inside your cupped hands,” she said when her song ended. “Let your heart fly, hijita. You are whole.”
She unwrapped my hands. I felt them caressed by the air that contained the last traces of her voice.
When we were done with the cleanup, grandma showed me her finished needlework. Framed by a wooden hoop, the birds looked made out of blood: red and pearlescent, two hearts beating in unison. Surrounding them, the intricate vegetation made of floss was like a hug.
With utmost care, grandma put her needles, thread, and scissors inside a beautiful sewing case. She touched up her bun and put a harness on Tamal.
“Leave your bicycle unlocked. We have everything we need. Let’s go.” She said finally.
“Are you ready?” Grandma hands me a metro ticket as we stand at the station’s entrance. A drawing of two birds mid-flight is printed on the rectangular piece of cardboard.
“For what?” I ask, though I already know the answer.
“You know what, hijita. You’ve known it for days, haven’t you? You’ve known it since the red thread that connected your soul to your body was severed just before it reached your nose. Now, say it with all its letters: you don’t belong here anymore, like I don’t belong here. It’s time to go.” She looks at me lovingly, and I can tell she understands what I am going through.
“I know, abue. It’s just that … I don’t know … I’m afraid of what’s down there.”
“It’s pretty much like here.” Grandma opens her arms wide signaling the whole city. She looks up to the polluted sky that hasn’t let us see the stars for I don’t know how long. Her grave eyes shine, the light that will be my beacon into the other side. Her mischievous smile flutters like a bird’s wings.
“Do you hear it, hijita? The song, the murmurs?”
“Barely, but I do feel you.” I say as I take her calloused hand: a warm, palpitating bird.
We walk down the stairs. The Tenango animals and plants in the vaulted ceiling shine bright blue, like the real stars, welcoming us into the underground. Tamal waddles happily in front of us.
The train awaits.