And so the battle lines were drawn, so long ago, it seemed to Lupe now, standing between her weeping aunts, as the padre intoned Latin - Rest in Peace, Lupe translated. Peace! Nana had found it now, after all those months of watchfulness; Aunt Dora and Aunt Mercy, each trying to outmaneuver the other, Aunt Mercy fawning, honey-tongued; Aunt Dora too proud to stoop to flattery, but newly showing a dutiful respect, a daughterly attention to Nana's needs; soups and atoles, clean laundry and warm blankets for her knees, a caring belied by the unveiled hate in her eyes when she thought herself unobserved.
But Lupe had seen, and most devotedly guarded her Nana; first up in the morning, tapping at Nana's door, hearing her ragged breathing falter, strengthen, become a voice - "Yes?" - entering the darkened room full of the heavy odors of sleep and spikenard, and drawing back the curtains to flood the face on the pillow with sunlight, to see the faded brown eyes, awake and smiling: everything is all right. Early home from school, dashing breathless up the stairs and into that open door, patient through the long, slow afternoons with embroidery and school books, the drowsy evenings, before the final kiss on Nana's forehead, scanty hair tumbling over the pillow, teeth in the glass beside the bed.
Nana was finishing her pillow, filling in the last green petal with a tidy satin stitch, when Lupe pushed aside her Physics textbook, her assignment postponed for now, and said, "Nana, tell me about Great-Grandfather and you. When you were young. When you got married; what was it like?"
"Ah, child, what's there to tell?" Nana put her embroidery hoop down on her lap. "A girl, a man. Like always."
"How old were you, Nana?"
"I was fourteen, my Pedro was twenty-three. He had a good job at the bakery, and his own house - two rooms, child, it was a long time ago. He used to sing to me, nonsense about my eyes; I would pretend not to notice him until he got permission from my father, but I couldn't sleep for dreaming about him. And then we had to wait to get married until my clothes were done, the best my father could afford."
"Great-Grandfather didn't buy them, then?"
"No, that's the Spanish style. We went by the old customs: I wore all my wealth, although Pedro said I was beautiful the way he'd first seen me, barefoot and dusty from the road, carrying the corn to the molino." Nana picked up her fabric and made a few more stitches, running the final one under the length of the petal, then snipped her thread. "There, that's done."
"Now you tell me, Lupe. Are you going to marry Alexander?"
Lupe had never told Nana about Alexander, how had she known? But it was nothing serious, or so she had believed; a few evenings at the movies, a dance and a kiss or two at parties, talking over coffee after classes, at least until she had started to come straight home to Nana. Now he was meeting her every day for lunch, quite insistent that they get married as soon as she graduated.
Aunt Dora would be glad to be shut of her: Lupe had long ago overheard Aunt Dora explaining to a visitor that it was only because the old lady insisted that Lupe was tolerated in the house, bastard child of a servant girl that she was, said Aunt Dora, "gotten on her by my nephew, the slut claimed, but these girls will say anything, and if he agreed, well more fool him. At least he never legally adopted the brat, just foisted her off on his grandmother to raise. She'll be lucky to get a man from a decent family," Aunt Dora had said, "she should grab him before he thinks better of it." Yes, Aunt Dora would be glad to see her married. But no.
"No, Nana," she repeated. "I'm going to go on to University. I'm going to be an architect."
"Lupe," Nana said a few evenings later, "I need your help."
"Yes, Nana?" scrambling off the bed, ready to thread another embroidery needle.
"No, not now. Tomorrow. Can you come shopping with me?"
So Lupe had missed her classes (and lunch with Alex) and joined Nana in the back seat of a green taxi, surprising a driver by now accustomed to his lone passenger and apparently to her routine, for, without more instructions than "the bank, Carlos," he deposited them on the steps of a stone and glass building where a dapper little man, grey-haired but spry as a twenty-year-old, dashed across the sidewalk to open the door of the car. "My lawyer," murmured Nana.
Inside the bank, the manager, clearly expecting them, met them halfway across the lobby and escorted them to his office, where three chairs were already set out. The lawyer introduced himself - Mr. Lopez - and the bank manager - Mr. Sotelo - both men rising again from their chairs to shake Lupe's hand formally, before he snapped open his briefcase and handed a sheaf of paper to Nana, who nodded briskly and began to read.
The others waited silently. Lupe sat rigid on the front of her chair; she didn't know what to do with her hands. A truck rattled by on the street outside. In the room, the pages rustled as Nana laid them one by one on the desk in front of her, face down. Finally, she nodded once more to Mr. Lopez. "Good," she said, and, "Now, child," turning slightly in her chair.
"Lupe, I've brought you here today because I'm going to die soon."
"No, Nana, not yet..."
"Silence, child. I'm going to die with my affairs in order. No wills for your Aunts to contest, saying that I was old and didn't know what I was doing, no court cases to make Mr. Lopez here rich, no digging up old stories, nothing. Mr. Lopez?" stretching out a hand, palm up, in his direction.
"Your great-grandmother," said Mr. Lopez, "has the house and bakery in trust. It was to go to your uncle, and now will pass to his widow. Besides that, your great-grandmother owns and has the disposal of her savings -"
"I've got my own use for that," said Nana.
"...considerable savings; I would still recommend a will," he continued.
"No need," said Nana.
"...and the house in Mexico City. This she wishes to give to you."
"It was to go to your father, Lupe."
"She feels that her daughter-in-law, your aunt, would find reasons to contest this item,"
"Hold it up for years," said Nana.
"...so she wants you to have it now."
"If you're careful, child, the rent will pay your way through University."
"Silence, child. Now, where do I sign?"
So the deed was signed over and locked away in a safety deposit box, arrangements were made for rents to be paid into Lupe's account, hands were shaken all around, the bank manager declared himself delighted to have been of service, and Mr. Lopez escorted the women out to the sidewalk and the waiting taxi, still remonstrating with Nana about the need for a will, even as he shook her hand once more through the window of the car. They had lunch in a quiet restaurant just off the main plaza, where Nana talked about the city as it had been fifty years ago and refused to discuss the morning's business: "Silence, child," she repeated. Later they walked down the block to a dry-goods store where Nana bought wool yarn in red and burgundy and a deep red-black; then Carlos was back with the taxi to drive them home, Nana cat-napping in the back seat, Lupe carrying Nana's shopping bag and, clutched tightly, her old leather purse, now enriched by an envelope containing a bank book and the key to a safety-deposit box.
The work on the quechemetl started the next morning; when Lupe came home she found Nana framed by tall stalks of white flowers next to the window, her red and burgundy wools glowing jewel-like in the shaft of afternoon sunlight. In the centre front of the white cotton cape, a double-headed bird was taking birth, beaks pointing east and west, wings outstretched. Nana looked up, smiling, as Lupe dropped her school bag on the bed. "See, Lupe," she said, "it won't be too plain, after all."
Nana worked from no visible pattern, her needles following sure-footed a trail blazed in long-abandoned memory, day by day discovering a magical landscape where many-antlered deer cavorted next to self-absorbed swans, where vermilion rabbits and peacocks paraded among improbable flowers, and sleepless owls glared at chattering doves. She was tiring now; she slept often, needle and fabric slipping from her hands, losing themselves among the cushions of her chair. The wools tore at her fingertips until they were raw, as red themselves as the merry fauna of her paradise. But she held herself to her toil, morning and night. "I don't have time, child," she said when Lupe suggested a rest to let her fingers heal. "My Pedro is waiting."
For Lupe, also, time was short. Before the quechemetl was finished, summer had come, and Lupe was preparing for her final exams, studying long into the nights. At lunch with Alexander, her eyes strayed to her notes while he talked about his job prospects. She was pale; there were purple circles under her eyes. Her neck was stiff.
"You walk like an old lady, like your Nana," grumbled Alex. "You're studying too hard, Lupe. Why? Ruining your beauty, and what for, my life? What for? You don't need to go to University; I'll have a good job, I'll take care of you. Marry me, Lupe, and forget all this."
But Lupe went back to her old lady, her Nana, and helped her put on her heavy wool skirt, folding the nine pleats in front as she had been taught, and winding the belt tight around the waist.
"Now, Lupe, pin all the pleats down, top and bottom, and mark the limits of the fold in back," Nana said, and when the pins were in place, securely inserted through all three layers of fabric, "Now, undo the belt and help me out, but carefully, carefully."
The skirt was laid out on the bed and Lupe went back to redden her eyes over her textbooks, while Nana basted the pleats. They both went to bed very late that night.
Aunt Mercy's voice, raised in saccharine reproaches, was echoing down the stairway when Lupe came home the next afternoon. "...never saying a word, and dear Dora so worried; anything could happen to you, out all alone..." Aunt Mercy said, and "Ah, Lupe, here you are," as Lupe dropped her bag on the bed and went to kiss her Nana's downturned forehead.
"Your Nana has been very naughty today," Aunt Mercy said. "A taxi brought her home, sound asleep. She couldn't even tell the driver where she wanted to go, just stumbled into the back seat and fell asleep with the door open. Alone, downtown, and us here..."
"Wise of her to always take the same taxi, isn't it?" interrupted Lupe.
"But Dora and I; I would be glad..."
"Mercedes, I won't go out again." Nana's voice was submissive enough, but her eyes challenged, waved banners, triumphed. "You can tell Dora," she said, "I'll stay home now. Until they carry me out in that," waving carelessly in the direction of her coffin.
"Well!" huffed Aunt Mercy, then partially recovering, "That's good; I mean, you'll be safe, here at home, I mean; I'll tell Dora," extricating herself, escaping those sardonic eyes.
"Child," said Nana, after a pause, "can you thread a needle for me? I've got work to do."
"Yes, Nana." Lupe took the needle and the length of black thread from Nana's hand, and held them up to the window. She poked the end of thread at the gleam of light in the eye of the needle, and missed, twice. Her hand was shaking. She rested it on the window sill, and turned back.
"Nana, I..." hesitating, then bursting out; "It's not fair! You don't have to stay home just because my aunts scold! Don't listen to them, Nana!"
"Don't fret, child. I finished what I had to do. Their scolding?" Nana shooed away an imaginary fly. She grinned suddenly, a wicked, little-girl grin, full of mischief. Lupe had a sudden vision of her, fourteen years old, barefoot, hands on black-skirted hips, tongue stuck out at a tormentor; just so her Pedro, a young man himself, must have seen her and loved her; just so she must have said, "Let them scold! If they only knew!" The grin faded, and Nana was her Nana again, saying more soberly, "I closed out my account at the bank today. And paid my lawyer. I'm finished everything but the skirt."
"What do you have to do to the skirt, Nana? I know how to put it on you."
"I'm going to sew down the pleats and line them with paper so they hold their shape, lying down. It has to be perfect for my Pedro, Lupe."
"I'll help, Nana. I can do that."
"No, child. My own hands. All my wealth. My own...hands." Nana's head slumped forward. She was asleep.
Lupe threaded the needle finally, jabbed it into Nana's green velvet pincushion, and took out her books. She had a Math exam in the morning.
Nana didn't go to Lupe's graduation. She was too sleepy, she said. She was very happy, very proud, she said, but too tired. She set Lupe burrowing deep into the top shelf of her wardrobe, propelling the scent of mothballs into the room to vie for dominance with the spikenard, searching for a carved wooden box, which found, brought down and opened, disclosed a set of ornate silver earrings, black with the tarnish of many years. "My Pedro gave them to me," said Nana. "Wear them for me."
Polished, the earrings, while not in style, suited Lupe's face; with her hair smoothed up for the academic cap, they danced in incongruous light-heartedness, eliciting a sour grimace from Aunt Dora. "Entirely inappropriate," was her verdict, but Lupe tossed her head to hear the jingle of silver birds, and went off to catch a taxi.
After the ceremonies, Lupe walked in the park with Alex, taking the long way home, for once. It was quiet under the trees after the babel of voices at school and the roar and hooting of traffic; here the leaves whispered in the wind, birds twittered, feet crunched softly on crushed lava walks. The wind smelled of new-mown grass. Alex swept fallen leaves off a bench with the side of his hand. They sat.
"So what's your decision?" Alex said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you're finished. You've graduated. Now, can we get married?"
"I'm going to University, Alex."
"But why? I love you the way you are."
"Alex." How could she explain this? She spoke slowly, weighing the words as they came to her. "You only see part of me. The schoolgirl. The woman, maybe. The architect I will become is another part. When I marry, I want to bring everything, all of me, into it. If you want me, you'll have to wait."
"But I want you now."
The letter from the University came two weeks later. Lupe was accepted into the School of Architecture. She went into Mexico City to pre-register, and to find a place to stay; she rented a room in a private house near University City, almost walking distance, with meals included for a price she could afford. She went home and packed her suitcases. She wouldn't be taking much; a dozen or so books, a few clothes, a keepsake or two. Her school uniforms and textbooks she gave away.
All too soon, she was ready. But now she doubted. She sat one long evening in Nana's room, pretending to read a magazine, watching Nana's fingers push and pull the needle through the black wool. The pleats were all firmly in place, now, the triple fold in back tacked down top and bottom, and Nana had cut the skirt all the way up the centre back; so it could be wrapped around her easily, she said. Now she was blanket-stitching the cut edge, nodding off at intervals, waking soon to pick up her needle again. In the coffin, the pillow lay at the head, the quechemetl folded beside it, the belt rolled in a spiral on top.
Nana was cold, these days, in spite of the mid-summer heat, and the windows were kept tightly closed. The mixed odors of wood, wool, spikenard and mothballs, with no way to escape, became a concentrated essence of deathwatch, permeating the whole house, clinging to Lupe's hair and skin, infecting her dreams.
"I don't think I should go, after all, Nana. I don't like to think of leaving you alone here. With Aunt Dora. I want to stay with you."
"Nonsense, my Lupe. Look; I'm almost finished! Less than half a seam to go." She held it up, measuring it against her arm, fingertip to elbow. "Oh, and Lupe..."
"When you lay me out, remember: my feet should be bare; don't make me wear these old shoes for all those years."
"And weave wool into my braid. There's enough left from the quechemetl."
"And Lupe, don't look so mournful. I've had a good life, and you to cheer my last days. And my Pedro waiting for me. Be happy for me, Lupe."
"Yes, Nana." But a chill finger had brushed her cheek. She shivered in the heat. Nana was asleep again, and Lupe slid off the bed and stole from the room.
The next morning the skirt was finished. Lupe folded it neatly and added it to the collection in the coffin. She cut two lengths of burgundy wool for Nana's braid and laid them on the pillow.
Two nights later, Nana died in her sleep.
It was early afternoon and Lupe was dressing her Nana for visitors. The doctor had come and gone, the windows had been thrown open, the spikenard removed to the living room, where the coffin would soon be carried. Aunt Dora had shut herself in her room with the telephone. Lupe was alone with her Nana for the last time.
She worked quickly, washing, combing, clipping nails; doing for Nana what she could no longer do for herself. Then the clothes: Nana's best pink blouse, buttoned up to the neck for warmth; the quechemetl; a silky half-slip, Lupe's, actually, because the wool skirt would be itchy. The hair: Lupe brushed it gently back, careful not to pull, and made a long, thick braid in back, burgundy and grey twined together and draped forwards over the left shoulder.
Now she lifted her Nana, so light, like a corncob doll, and moved her to her silk-lined box, positioned her head comfortably on the pillow, straightened her limbs, bare feet together, hands for now at her sides.
The skirt was next; Lupe unfolded it, brushing away the beginnings of a crease, feeling the weight; no wonder Nana had been tired! At the top of one of the pleats, several stitches had pulled, no doubt due to a faulty knot Nana had not seen, black on black as it was. An edge of white paper was visible; it would have to be covered. Lupe pushed at it with a fingertip, then pulled instead. This was good, white, heavy paper; why did Nana not use brown wrapping paper?
She had to pull out a few more stitches, but she winkled the paper rapidly out of its sheath and unfolded it. And gasped. "Pay to the Bearer," it read. The sum would buy Lupe a good car. She calculated quickly: nine pleats, nine bearer bonds; the price of a house!
And now she understood. Nana's voice came back to her; "All my wealth," she had said, "I wore all my wealth." And again, "If only they knew! How they would scold!"
Lupe chuckled then, and quickly refolded the bond and inserted it into its pleat. A few stitches, and it was safely hidden. She smoothed the skirt around Nana's hips, tugged it straight at the hemline, snapped the belt around the waist, adjusted the point of the quechemetl, and stepped back to admire her handiwork.
Nana was beautiful, she thought, so peaceful, so - was that a hint of a grin on those still lips? - yes, so satisfied.
"Wait, Nana! You forgot something!" Lupe said, and ran to her room, returning with a small framed photo of herself. She arranged it in Nana's hands, now clasped under the quechemetl. "Give my love to Great-Grandfather," she said, bending to kiss Nana's forehead one last time.
She went to find Aunt Dora. "Nana's ready to go now," she said.
The diggers were working now, shoveling clods rapidly into the grave. At first, stones had drummed hollowly on the wooden coffin, but now the only sound was the rhythmic chick-shud, chick-shud, shovel and clod. Lupe stood watching the dirt creep up the sides of the hole. A hand touched her elbow. Alexander.
"Are you coming? We're waiting for you," he said.
At the entrance to the cemetery, the last of the mourners slammed a car door. A window rolled down, and a black-gloved hand beckoned impatiently.
"Do me a favour, Alex?" Lupe said. "Tell them to go without me. And call me a taxi. I have to take my suitcases to the bus depot."
Halfway back to the gate, Lupe turned to wave, one last wave. Above the eucalyptus, the vultures were circling.
Stories of Mexico
© Susannah Anderson, 1999