Fiction selection from the 2007 issue
by Dolores de Leon
Magdalena in her grave heard the forces of nature discussing her fate. She heard the earth grinding as it turned on its axis, the tug and pull of the other planets. She heard seeds popping open underground. She heard the worms starting to scrape and chew on her flesh.
Death was not, as she had expected, quiet. But it was lonely. None of her clan who had already gone to Glory could talk to her, nor she to them.
Her only recourse was the name of her little nine year old granddaughter, Ana Maria. She repeated it over and over again.
She was repeating it still when she felt herself suddenly lifted aloft on a bed of light and carried off to Glory.
Ana Maria speaks: Grandma is gone. She won’t be calling my name anymore. I woke up in the middle of the night and started crying. I guess I was loud ‘cause my Aunt Pastora came in. She sat next to me and held me. When I stopped crying enough to talk, I told her grandma had gone to Glory.
Magdalena spent most of her time in Glory sitting on an alabaster bench watching the celestial hierarchals wheel in flight around a central light more brilliant than a hundred suns.
Magdalena should have been ecstatic. But the Seraphim with their six wings constantly beating made her nervous. The Thrones with their bodies of fire frightened her. But the worst by far were the Cherubim: with their forty sets of eyes Magdalena felt she was being watched all the time.
Nor did she enjoy the other glories of Glory: the Elysian Fields were boring; nothing ever withered, dried up, or died; there was never a bug, a slug, or a snail. Nor did she like her own life: nothing to plan for, nothing to gain, and nothing to lose.
In short, Magdalena was miserable in Glory.
She wanted to discuss her problem with a celestial. It was not, however, an easy thing to bring one of them down to her level. It was finally an angel, of the 399,000 hierarchals, the very lowest order, that at last left off its rapturous flight long enough to settle on the alabaster bench with Magdalena and listen to her.
Not that Magdalena minded talking to only an angel. But even talking to a lowly angel had its protocols. Angels speak only in epiphanies, one-word epiphanies. Out of that one word Magdalena would be obliged to distill Divine Meaning.
Seated opposite the angel, Magdalena phrased her problem simply: she took no joy, no glory, in Glory.
Magdalena did not ask the angel to solve her problem. She knew enough to know that angels do not do the dirty work for humans. They give direction, subtle proddings, advice.
The angel listened, her small body glistening and shimmering, the feathers of her large, white wings riffling from the breezes of the other flying celestials. Then, putting a finger to to her lips, tremulous with the excitement of her inspiration, she uttered one word: Deception.
Magdalena, alone again on the alabaster bench, pondered the angel’s word. Deception was as natural to Magdalena as breathing. Among other things, she had stolen money from her clan, lied to her Father Confessor, and refused her son, Aurelio, forgiveness after he had cut off his own finger for her.
Now it seemed to Magdalena that the angel was encouraging her to use deception to solve her dilemma.
Magdalena had no difficulty with that. Furthermore, she knew exactly what she wanted: it would be Glory enough for her to live and see the world again as a child. The only problem, of course, was that as an incorporeal, she would require someone else’s body to do it.
Magdalena chose to return to earthly life as Ana Maria.
Ana Maria, her eyes open, had lain in her bed two days not eating, and not speaking. The third day, Pastora, alarmed, called in the bruja.
The lumpy, dumpy bruja, her face lined like a rutted road, arrived with her basket of amulets, talismans, herbs, roots, animal entrails, and cantharides. She placed a powder made from the teeth of a white dog on Ana Maria’s tongue; she rubbed her temples with the brains of a magpie; she tied red string around Ana Maria’s wrists; she spat on her eyelids. Nothing brought Ana Maria around.
Finally the old bruja sat back in her chair, looked up at Pastora and said she feared the worst. She asked Pastora to bring a dishpan of water in which she placed two straws. When one of them sank to the bottom of the pan, the brujasighed heavily and nodded her head. She knew: Ana Maria was ‘possessed’.
But however quiescent Ana Maria seemed to be to the bruja and Pastora, inside her there was a battle raging. A noisy battle with Magdalena, who, sometimes moaning and sometimes wailing, called to Ana Maria from across the bottomless abyss of death, begging and pleading that Ana Maria let her in.
But Ana Maria, who had always wanted to please her grandma, knew that this time she mustn’t. With a will as strong as Magdalena’s, she said no.
Then Magdalena changed her approach. Her voice became cooing, cloying, reminding Ana Maria of all she had learned from her. Because of her, Ana Maria could make flowers bloom out of season; she could move dark clouds across the sky; rats and mice would leave the caves simply because she asked them. Ana Maria, Magdalena cajoled, haven’t you missed me, child? Just think, child…we would be together again, you and me. All you have to do, Ana, is let me in, let me share in your life.
But Ana Maria, doubting her grandma for the first time in her life, knew she didn’t want to share in Ana Maria’s life–she wanted to become Ana Maria. No, grandma, no, Ana Maria sobbed, I don’t want you anymore!
Magdalena was stunned. She had expected resistance from Ana Maria, but not rejection.
Like a sea anemone closing in on itself, she retreated, abashed. Still, Ana Maria continued to be possessed.
The bruja sat for a long time looking at the straw at the bottom of the dishpan of water. Finally she spoke. Who was the last to die in your clan?, she asked Pastora.
When Pastora replied, Magdalena, the bruja knew who was possessing Ana Maria.
Magdalena’s clan, angry at her for stealing money, had not attended her funeral, and especially they had not held a juerga for her. Her clan had always seen the dying off with a juerga, a flamenco party with everyone singing and dancing, eating and drinking. Why mourn for one who isn’t dead yet?
For Ana Maria to be ‘un-possessed’, the bruja said, Magdalena’s funeral rites would have to re-enacted.
So Ana Maria’s room was cleared and in the middle of it Ana Maria was laid out on a table.
Pastora, running up and down the streets of her barrio in her best dress, asked every Gypsy to the funeral. No one questioned.
Bringing wine, sausages, bread, and extra chairs, the Gypsies danced and sang all night, ate and drank until dawn. Then Pastora folded Ana Maria’s arms on her chest and made the sign of the cross over her. And the bruja, bathing her in salt water and dressing her in five blouses, five petticoats and five skirts, pronounced her dead and ready to be buried.
The Gypsies sobbed; they wept, they screamed, they hollered–until noon when they picked up their chairs and went home.
They had scarcely left when Ana Maria, speaking for the first time in three days, told Pastora she was hungry.
Pastora was delighted. But the bruja, attributing Ana Maria’s return to her own cleverness, asked double her fee. Pastora’s husband, Pepino, enraged, said the whole thing was nonsense. Any idiot could see that Ana Maria woke up from all the noise.
Magdalena, pacing back and forth in the Elysian Fields, ranted and raved to herself: Ana Maria was spoiled, ungrateful, and selfish.
It was several days (earth time) before she began to take a certain pride in Ana Maria’s strength. After all, wasn’t Ana Maria who she was because of Magdalena?
It was several more days before Magdalena called to the angel again and asked if she had another Word for her.
Sitting on the alabaster bench and listening to Magdalena, the angel’s pale face grew even paler as Magdalena told her what she had attempted to do. Then the angel, pondering, one dimpled finger over her lips, finally spoke. Self,she said, and quickly left.
Magdalena, putting the words Self and Deception together, did not like it. Even if she admitted, or if she denied, she was self-deceiving, she could still be deceiving herself, couldn’t she? There was no knowing the truth. Except for one thing: Magdalena knew she was miserable in Glory. Or, she wondered, was she in Glory?
Magdalena had prided herself on by-passing Purgatory. But a cold chill cut through her: if indeed she was in Purgatory, and not in Glory, she did not know it. And because she was self-deceiving, she could wander the mazes of Purgatory (or was it Glory) forever, never knowing, never finding a way out, and always miserable.