Preparation for a Novena
Slithering, that was the word he used. The man next to her had grumbled the word “slithering,” and then suddenly stood, insulting the driver and demanding to be let off the bus.
“Let me off here, you sonofabitch!
The old woman with him chimed in:
“He’s driving this damn bus around in circles. What, you making a pit-stop at your house? Jackass!”
They struggled to get down the steps with their heavy sacks and then stood, pushing at the doors while still cursing the driver. She used this as an opportunity to approach the front of the bus:
“Excuse me sir, are we in Dulzura?”
The driver answered without turning to look at her.
“Almost. I’ll let you know.”
By the time she descended she was beginning to understand what the old man had been going on about: “Unbelievable, rains three days in a row here and suddenly everything goes along slithering in the mud.” She was also coming to realize why his comment bothered her so much. It wasn’t what he said, but how, his voice bubbling over with disgust. She wondered to herself, what if slithering was normal and the grotesque thing was to walk upright? Maybe even now, as she was walking down this street it seemed repulsive to some, and if it wasn’t, then why was everyone staring? The townsfolk had begun to set up the street market, their lopsided stalls balanced on buckets and wooden crates like hobbled creatures; amputees incapable even of slithering. Girls barely old enough to be women, prematurely aged by their buzzing swarms of children, began setting out enormous pots that looked like black, charred skulls.
They wouldn’t tell her a thing in the pharmacy. Not in the corner store either. An “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know him” would’ve been polite, but they wouldn’t even look at her. They’d ignore her question, annoyed like she’d been asking for years, as if she should already know that nobody knew who she was rattling on about. “But how should I know you don’t know? I’m the one who doesn’t know around here,” she was muttering to herself when she came across a man sitting at the foot of a Santa Muerte statue. The shrine stood in front of a little shack, towering over it as if the shack’s only purpose was to prop up the giant altarpiece. He was the one who finally helped her, and he did so as if it were his duty to guide her along her way, telling her in great detail which way to go. “It’s because you still got a long way to go, Miss, I’d take you myself, I would, but I’m here on guard duty.” He drew deeply on his cigarette, inhaling and exhaling a smoke that was so black it disturbed her. He inhaled as if it were as sweet as pure oxygen and then sat back down in front of the shrine like a loyal dog.
When she finally got to the house, she knocked hesitantly. Several lazy, stray dogs were laying in the street, yapping like poorly paid employees, as if being a dog were some boring chore. Not even bothering to wag their tails, they looked distractedly in other directions.
He appeared at the door which was made of short boards faded by the years, more symbolic than actual barrier, as anyone could have knocked it down with a gentle push. He held a straw hat in hand, which didn’t make much sense because the sun wasn’t out. In fact, no one had seen the sun in a long time. Didn’t seem like anyone around here was a farmer, although she thought that all the townspeople she’d seen so far, including him, were nothing more than country people wandering along these rows of buildings strung together as haphazard streets.
“Come in, can I get you anything?”
She entered, carrying her worn black purse in front of her like a shield. She said,
“Aristos, don’t you remember me?”
Aristeo Magro suddenly felt far outside himself, as if it weren’t him standing there in front of this lonely nobody of a woman. He was transported to that time long ago; the dull, dilapidated warehouse, enveloped in the hot steam, breathing in the smell of the seamstresses’ cold leftovers. All the workers and even the foreman, drowsy and lulled by the enormous clock grinding away the seconds above the door. She gave him a big hug.
“I’ve been looking all over—looking for you. Your Aunt Quintila told me where I’d find you.”
The last afternoon light was dissolving into darkness in the house’s only room. On the kitchen table sat a lamp with Chinese characters printed on the shade. He switched it on and invited her to sit. More out of awkwardness than politeness he turned on the TV. The voices and sounds transmitted from one side of the world to the other seemed to restore some kind of calm in him. He was afraid to hear himself talk, and he was afraid to hear her talk. He was especially afraid of never hearing anything ever again besides her voice and was afraid of losing himself once again in that voice.
He offered her a cushion for her chair, and then they said nothing, only stealing glances at one another as he poured a cup of coffee for her. He lifted the cloth on the breadbasket, pushed a plastic napkin holder within her reach—clearly a party favor from some long-ago wedding—and edged the butter dish closer.
“You still like butter on your bread?” he smiled.
After the first sip and with a hunk of bread between her fingers, she finally spoke.
“Fulgencio Jr. died. I just came from the cemetery.”
Aristeo looked at her, not angrily, but with a feeling of deep rage for having seen this woman go through so much. As if it wasn’t enough, the death of Ful-Gensio Senior, as he always called him, accentuating the syllables. Now this. They were tragedies made even meaner because of their impossibility for revenge. He began to stand.
“No…” She said, extending an open palm towards him, “don’t hug me.”
There was a knock at the door. A young woman with greying hair and a nervous tic of a laugh stuck her head in, bursting through the symbolic door. Instead of walking she sort of skipped, and in three little hops was inside. It was as if some unseen spring-mechanism wouldn’t let her walk normally or discreetly if she’d wanted to and instead made her skip before every step. Just as mechanically, she suddenly stopped, much to their relief. If she’d taken one more step, just one more little hop, she would’ve run straight into the wall.
“Atolito, corn drink for the pancito, Atolito. Hot and fresh, atolito. For the little old man…today we got chocolatey champurrado, Don Aris,” she said, fixating her big bug eyes on Aristeo’s visitor, not breaking her gaze for even a second.
“No thanks, not today.”
He rose to make sure the woman was gone as fast as she’d come in and then locked the door behind her.
They took a moment to adjust after the awkward interruption, but then she found her words again. “I’m fine, I just felt like I had to tell you, that I was the one who had to tell you, you wouldn’t have believed it otherwise. Last time he was in Mexico he asked about you, you know. He said to me, You should look him up, let him know. Let him know what? I asked. I told him you’d become a journalist.”
“I sell newspapers. It’s not the same thing.”
“Well he says to me, Tell him dad died, and of course that made him crack up laughing, so he can put it in the paper: Extra Extra! Read all about it, Fulgencio Sr., dead! We’ve got the photo! Read for yourselves, his lovely widow, single again after all these years…”
“No, I don’t do any shouting like that…I don’t know what to say. That was his dad after all. I don’t know why he’d think it was a laughing matter.”
“He was young when his dad died, he barely knew him. And he used to hit him, not hard, just some spanking, but that’s all he remembers. His aunts would tease him and say that he wasn’t his real dad, that he was…you remember? They called him the little bastard boy and he’d get so mad. And bastard Aunt Saula really was a bastard you know, she was born after grandpa died. Too bad Grandpa’s spirit never stopped by on the Candlemas—I don’t know why, but Junior always confused Day of the Dead on November 2nd with the Candlemas on February 2nd. Anyway, toward the end just about everything cracked him up. When he went north he’d write me and his letters would say, How’s the old lady doing? Here’s a little something so you’ll quit working so hard. He’d been a cop for a long time up there, remember? When he’d come down to visit I’d say, Let me see you in uniform, but he’d just laugh. He’d say, I’m a Mexican down here, old lady, I’m only a cop up there, on the other side. He always said I should go with him, What are you still doing here? You’re just making yourself miserable, you don’t even want to go out dancing like you used to, come on, let’s go out for cake and coffee, and he’d drive me in his car because he had his car here, remember? I said Why don’t you get married? Must be a lot of pretty little gringas up there, after all, you’re a gringo now, got to be at least one that thinks you’re alright, then you can bring her down here and I’ll braid her hair just like she were my own daughter, and when you want to come back you can bring her along and I’ll spoil her rotten, except, oh that’s right, you don’t want me in your house! because he’d already told me he wanted to buy his own house. I said to him, you’re getting old, junior, and I’m not getting any younger, don’t you want to give me grandkids? He’d joke back, Yeah, and what about you? Yeah, everyone knows I’m old, so what? You should find somebody, ya old lady. Don’t you want someone that’ll take you out for cake? And he’d bring up that time he wanted cake and was throwing a tantrum and calling out for his dad who’d just died, papa cake papa cake papa cake! and his aunts said, Shut that kid up, give him a spanking or something. His dad always took him to the café on the main drag, so I picked him up and went out with him in my arms, but the café had closed down, so I started wandering. I came across a big house where they were throwing a party, this huge party. The street was blocked off with cars, those extra-long Dodges we always said looked like boats, large as barges, the same kind Fulgencio Sr. had, and the people all started staring at me and then I realized I was crying too, but I couldn’t feel it, I just stood there holding Junior. No more crying, I whispered to him, Papa’s not here anymore but we’re going to find you some cake, and there was this woman, What’s wrong? What’s the matter, why’s the boy crying, and you too? and he says to her, papa, cake! Ah, the little guy wants some cake. Come on in, we have cake. So, they sit us down and give Fulgencio Jr. a piece, I mean, the biggest piece of cake you’ve ever seen. There there honey, don’t cry, tell your momma she should quit crying too. You remember?”
The wind began to howl, sweeping in all the sounds from the street. Mothers calling to their children, the shrill steam-whistle of the yam seller’s cart, car horns, laughing teenagers, shouting, and then the yowling wind itself. It swayed the sun-bleached screens in the windows without dislodging any of the dead flies stuck there. It was as if the flies stuck in the pale screen had sucked up all the color from the outside world, all the green, the blue.
“No, I don’t remember. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, remember?”
“So, all that became sort of a joke. I told Fulgencio Jr. no way in hell, I’m not going to look him up, he should look me up! So why didn’t you ever look me up?”
“What’d you want me to do? Invite you both to dinner?”
“All three of us, sure, why not? Fulgencio Sr. always knew we were friends. He’d tease me, saying, when I die, you’re going to run off and become an Aristocrat. Are you happy, Aristos?”
“I don’t know…you ever watch the soaps? Here, why don’t you come sit over here. The plastic chair is more comfortable. Pull it over, don’t worry if it scuffs the floor, I didn’t get a chance to sweep anyway.”
As night fell the sounds outside changed: sirens, drunken arguing, shattering glass, and wailing children.
“Here, I have some lady’s slippers, if you want to wear them. I don’t know why I bought them, on sale, I guess. No, they don’t belong to anybody. Course I slept with a few women, what’d you expect? But not here. I never asked them their names and, well, they’d never tell me anyway. There you go on laughing. I’m not going to promise you nothing. You want a pillow? Sorry they’re not washed. Here, have some newspapers to put your feet up, they’re clean. Hey, you’re still wearing the anklet, is that the same one? Yeah, I remember, from Taxco. I brought it back from Taxco for you. No, I wouldn’t dare touch you. No, never. Want some socks? It’s cold enough, huh? You comfortable? Yeah, it’s not so bad here. It is pretty late. I didn’t mean it like that, but I mean, if no one’s waiting up for you. No, I’ll sleep here in the chair. There’s a big stick over there if I come too close. No, if you get too close I’m not going to beat you with it, well, maybe just a little…I’m not laughing. I’m not hungry, but if you are. Sure, there’s no oven, but the hot plate works fine. There’s a pharmacy, they sell everything, food, drinks, sure, everything. Meat? Yeah, they even sell meat. You don’t want to eat meat? You’re the one who started laughing this time. No need for you to come along, better you wait here, it’s cold out there. No, no ghosts here, not like in your house. Just you wait for the gossip. You’ll see what I mean tomorrow, you’ll leave, but I’ll still be here.”
The walls were bare except for a large poster for an old Mexican movie. A woman wearing an anklet was sprawled out on a bed and a man wearing an expensive-looking suit smoked a cigarette. They looked happy, like they’d just been together or maybe it was moments before they were about to. There was a cassette player on Aristos’ table. She stood up in her bare feet, plugged it in, and pressed play. It started skipping, so she changed out the tape for a clear one with no label. The songs were from her generation, back when she and Aristos used to go dancing. He never came up to the house, but always waited on the corner instead—that was, until Fulgencio showed up, who’d eventually become the father of her son. She liked him from the very beginning, Look, Aristos, if one day he doesn’t want me anymore, then I’ll go out with you again. It’s just…he’s so handsome, and you should see the way he dances. It’s not because he has a car, you know that, right? I’m only going to go out with him for a while, okay? Then you’ll ask me to be your girlfriend again and we’ll get married, so don’t be mad. But Fulgencio wasn’t fooling around; he went straight to her parents as soon as he finished college. The three of them ended up spending time together, even though she doesn’t remember. One day they all ate lunch in the cafeteria together. She told Fulgencio that Aristos was a childhood friend, mentioning that she’d never had a friend quite like him, and it became apparent to Fulgencio that it was no coincidence Aristos was always hanging around. He’d seen him a few times at parties and back then, there weren’t so many dances, not like now. In those days, nice young ladies didn’t go to orchestra dances, but it was fine to go out if a girlfriend had a birthday or got married or invited you to some other celebration. Only then would parents let their daughters out of the house. No, it wasn’t the first time he’d seen Aristeo around. He found him endearing in a way. They invited Aristos to a party that night. He said, You should come along, Aristeo, because he never called him Aristos, but respectfully, Aristeo. As time went on, the two of them stopped running into him and all that remained was a single joke between themselves, especially whenever she got on his nerves about certain things, like the cold, which she always whined about, or the rain, which made her sick. Fulgencio would say to her, You always were such an Aristocrat…
“Took you long enough, I was starting to get cold. The wind here’s terrible, it’s howling.”
She went up to him and stood there looking at him, searching for that place where she knew he’d buried all the memories of those afternoons when school let out and he’d be waiting for her on the sidewalk with his bike. They’d soar over the streets, most of them still unpaved dirt roads at that time, and only when she thought she’d found that place, when she began to feel safe the way she had back then, sitting behind him on the seat while he stood pedaling, her arms wrapped around his waist, back when she believed they could’ve circled the whole world together on that bike, did she begin to speak.
“They said Fulgencio Jr. was in front but his partner went down first. Then they shot him too. Only thing he managed to say was that he wanted to be buried in Mexico. They didn’t bother taking him to the hospital. They kept calling me but couldn’t get a hold of me until they contacted some relatives we have up there who passed my address along. I don’t know how long they kept him for, but all I got were his ashes in an urn, and that’s what we buried, Aristos, just ashes. They showed up and gave them to me along with his badge and papers. Only one spoke Spanish, he had the face of a Mexican and said they were going to do the honor guard and all that, but I didn’t want them to, Aristos, what for? So, I signed some papers and they left.”
It wasn’t long after his death that she’d remembered the umbilical cord. She kept it in a little box her father gave her along with everything else from her wedding: the bouquet, the lasso, the gold coins, all of it.
“There was this little worm in there, Aristos. A little worm like this, tiny, whiter than white, crazy. I untied the silk ribbon where I kept Fulgencio Jrs.’ umbilical cord and there it was. It began to squirm like I’d woken it up, and it had little eyes like this, teeny, black. Hidden right there between the folds of dry flesh, or, I don’t know if it’s flesh, but between the folds of whatever it is. It was like it had a soul. So, there I was, taking care of it, and it kept rolling over and over. Then it crawled up my finger, but it felt so cold, I knew I had to warm it up. It had this way of dragging itself along, kind of slithering, and something about it made me feel so…alive. How do you think it’s possible it lived in there for more than thirty years? How long do little worms live, Aristos? Are you awake? Don’t fall asleep! I know it’s not him, but, it’s part of him, isn’t it? It was like he’d been born again, reborn in that little worm, right? I didn’t want to just toss it in his urn. I have it here. Don’t be scared, I told it, Fulgencio Jr. isn’t here anymore, but you’re the flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, and you won’t die because I’m here to take care of you. That’s what I told it. I’ll put you out here in the sunshine, so you can see how good life is, so you can feel the light and sun and sky, so you can feel the warm morning breeze. I’m going to take care of you. I have it here. I’m going to have a locket made so I can always carry it with me. Want to see? It’s dead, but still bright white. See its little eyes? Right there. That’s why I came Aristos, I wanted to show you since you couldn’t be the father of my son. I thought you might want to see how this little worm was born from his umbilical cord, flesh of my flesh. Hold out your hand, there, that’s it, hold it. It’s like it’s alive, right? I mean, it was born from living flesh. Then all the sudden it started to get a little paler. It was dying on me, and I couldn’t bring it back to life. I set it out in the sun. Live, live! I told it, but no. It was gone, and it kept getting stiffer and stiffer, with its dull little eyes that don’t shine anymore. So I put it back in Fulgencio’s umbilical cord. I’ll keep you here, I told it, So you won’t be lonely.”
They were eating breakfast the next morning when the atole lady came back. This time Aristeo bought two atoles and four tamales, two salsa two sweet. The atole lady asked;
“You have a visitor, Don Aris?”
“No,” he replied, “this is my wife.”
“I’m going to do his novena, Aristos. I’m going to put his umbilical cord and his little worm up there on his altar along with his picture. He brought me a photo once with him in his uniform and all his medals. I’m going to put it on his altar and if you want, I’ll leave one here with you too, if that’s alright.
On the third day, she left Aristeo Magro’s house and went home to prepare her son’s novena.
I’m thrilled to present to you, for the first time in English, the work of contemporary Mexican author, Noé Blancas-Blancas. This story comes from Blancas-Blancas’ collection, A La Sombra Del Sombrero (Conaculta/Praxis/Gobierno del Estado de Guerrero, 2015). In this story, an unnamed woman goes in search of a long-lost high school sweetheart shortly after her adult son is killed on duty as a police officer in the United States. What is most mesmerizing about this short work is Blancas-Blancas’ ability to quickly create trenchant portrayals of regular people and the monument-sized longing they drag behind them. “Preparation for a Novena” invites the reader to consider the dark edges of regret and what happens when our most intense desires bump against the periphery of our grief. The work of this author is tinged with the threat of disaster; the one-sided dialogue throughout is a howl into the void. I hope it sticks with you the way it stuck with me.
Allana C. Noyes is a literary translator from Reno, Nevada. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and in 2015 was granted a Fulbright to Mexico. In 2018, she was awarded the World Literature Today Translation Prize in Poetry, and in 2020, was selected for the emerging translator fellowship at the Banff Centre Residency program. Her translations have appeared in World Literature Today, Asymptote, Lunch Ticket, Mexico City Lit, Exchanges, and are forthcoming in Literal Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, InTranslation/BrooklynRail, and the Catapult/Soft Skull anthology of short horror fiction, Tiny Nightmares.
Noé Blancas-Blancas is an author from the state of Guerrero, Mexico. He is a professor at the UPAEP University in Puebla, Mexico, and has received several awards for his writing, including the Cuca Massieu award, the José Agustín prize for short stories, and the María Luisa Ocampo award for short stories. He was also a recipient of a FOECA grant in 2006 (State funding for arts and culture.) He is the author of two books of short stories and one book of poetry. His work has never before been translated into English. Photo courtesy of Espantajo Films.