Aunt Dora stumbled as she stepped out of the lead car, and Lupe hurried around to take her arm, steadying her across the uneven ground. Aunt Dora, of course, could barely see, blinded as she was by tears, and by the scrap of black lace she was using as a handkerchief. Raspy black lace, inabsorbent, more suited to irritate, to sandpaper those drowning eyes, to redden the puffy lids.
Behind them, looking like a salesman in a black suit and tie, Alexander murmured encouraging words to Aunt Mercedes, who strode along ignoring him angrily, Lupe could see when she looked back; furious, probably at having had to cede first place in the procession to Aunt Dora, who was, after all, the widow of the defunct's son, not just a second cousin, like Mercedes.
It was Aunt Mercy's voice, though, Lupe was sure, that she heard whispering in the kitchen last night, while Lupe sat silently in the living room, watching the last candle guttering out at the head of the coffin, her great-grandmother lying serene now, triumphant in all her finery. And the whispers in the kitchen, murmurs rising and falling, respects paid, condolences offered, muted sobs, and then a new voice, more penetrating, though still sibilant: "My dear Dora! Such a tragedy! How terrible for you!" A murmur of assent, then: "Yes, we'll miss her. But what a job she has left you! That room! All that stuff to clean out! It's too much for you, my dear Dora; I'll come and help you. No," after a protesting mumble from Aunt Dora, "no, I insist!"
She would, Lupe had thought, she wants to be there when they go through Nana's room, to be present when the deeds are found, the deeds to the house and the bakery, the house in Mexico City. She wants to be the first to find the cash hidden under the mattress; don't all old people hide money there? And the key to the safety deposit box. And most of all, a new will, she's sure there must be one, hidden between the pages of the missal or secreted among the folds of long unused tablecloths, starched and ironed and folded in tissue in eternal readiness for guests that would never again sit at a table. Surely a will would be found there, surely Aunt Mercy's assiduous visits over the last year, her frequent little gifts; "...just brought you a teeny bunch of grapes, look how luscious, a dab of lotion for your hands in this dry weather, a drop of wine for the cold, my dear Nana," surely they must have paid off!
Lupe knew they hadn't: Nana wasn't blind, or the doddering old fool that Aunt Dora said she was, after she fell down the stairs: "Was pushed," said Nana, "Dora pushed me" but Aunt Dora had been away at the other end of the house in her bedroom at the time, a fact attested to by the maid, who had heard Dora open her door and rush out, after the clatter on the staircase, after that terrible wail from the old lady. "Was pushed," insisted Nana, but the doctor agreed with Aunt Dora; after all, Nana was over ninety, unsteady on her feet and easily confused. It was a miracle she survived, so fragile and yet back on her feet the next day, albeit with a splint on her thumb and a large purple bruise on her cheek, still faintly discernible, even as they shut the lid on her coffin, almost a year later.
At the gravesite, a rectangular pit had been prepared to the left of Great-grandfather's headstone, the clay still damp at the bottom, baked dry on the mound alongside. The pall-bearers, Aunt Dora's two sons, two of Mercy's, lowered the coffin onto its trestle, hands involuntarily straying to middle-aged backs. The flowers were removed, laid out on the mound, the movement sending waves of cloying scent into the dusty air, spikenard and roses drawing an invisible curtain, enclosing the graves, the coffin, the mound and the mourners in their secret woe.
Lupe remembered the day she had come home from school, sunburned , eyes smarting from dust and glare and exhaust fumes, opening the street door, relaxing in the flow of cool air dropping down the staircase in its rush for the exit she had provided, tensing again as she identified the aroma it carried; spikenard, the flower of death. She had rushed up the stairs then, abandoning her school bag in the open doorway, tumbling breathless into Nana's room, to find Nana sitting tranquilly in her stiff-backed chair between the bed and the coffin, now buried in a great heap of spikenard.
"Nana! Are you all right?"
"Of course I'm all right, child. Now go down and shut that door," voice strong and confident, eyes bright, still in command of herself and her household.
Aunt Dora, of course, had her own opinion: "The woman is crazy!" she exclaimed down in the bakery for all to hear; "Last month saying she was pushed downstairs, next ordering her own coffin and having it delivered and set up in her bedroom -in her bedroom, if you can believe it! - now the flowers, spikenard ordered for every day until she dies! It's not to be tolerated!"; this last pressing her left hand to her forehead, elbow high, right hand flung outward; a flamboyant gesture of despair, wilting suddenly as she turned and saw her niece. Lupe, holding a tray half-filled with golden rolls, stood startled into stillness, the tongs poised over the bin, forgotten now in her sudden alarm and doubt.
From then on, Lupe took to sitting evenings in Nana's room, cross-legged on the foot of the bed with her books spread around her or piled on the floor, studying diligently, but every now and again glancing up, sometimes feeling alert eyes drawing her, at times made uneasy by a change in Nana's breathing, looking up to see the grey head drooping, chin on chest, that chest still rising and falling gently in this room where Nana waited for death.
But not yet. For now there was a new purpose in her step, an interest in life that had been missing since Great-Grandfather had been gone. The next morning, while Lupe was at school and Aunt Dora had gone to the market for the day's fresh vegetables, Nana phoned for a taxi; the cashier in the bakery had seen her through the window, the driver solicitously helping her into the back seat, settling her bag and her cane, seeing that her skirt was inside before shutting the door on her and driving her away. And she was not to be found; though Aunt Dora had phoned every member of the family, and all her friends, not one had seen her, until there she was in the early afternoon, in the same taxi, and obviously much pleased with herself, but so tired that she fell asleep in the midst of Aunt Dora's vehement scolding.
Nana would not say where she had been, not for Aunt Dora's threats, nor Aunt Mercy's coaxing, nor even Lupe's wide-eyed interest, limiting herself to quiet, inward focused smiles, and when much pressed, an announcement that she was going to bed early tonight, and would they all please get out of her bedroom, so she could undress.
And three days later, she went out again. This time she brought back purchases; a meter of heavy satin, creamy white to match the lining of her coffin, embroidery threads, new needles, "Something to keep me out of trouble," she said, and retired to her room to trace out flower patterns.
"What is it going to be, Nana?" asked Lupe that evening, as they sat companionably together, both working.
"A pillow for my head. In the coffin." And Lupe was suddenly embarrassed, not knowing what to say, not willing to say anything that would acknowledge the presence of that wood and chrome box, the flowers at its head and feet, the lid now thrown open to expose the place where Nana would one day lie. Lupe bent over her books, flipped pages, scribbled down frantic notes, looking up finally to Nana's amused glance.
"It's a long time to sleep without a pillow, child," she said. "A long, long time."
A week later, a peasant woman, strayed somehow from the Friday market, with a large bundle wrapped in a reboso on her back, and a grimy toddler clinging to her apron, rang the downstairs doorbell, asking for the "señora". When Aunt Dora, not a little annoyed at the interruption, went down to get rid of her, it was found that the woman had a package for "the older one, the very old señora," and Aunt Dora had to stomp back up to notify Nana, then down and up again, a double trip made necessary by her distrust of anyone in plastic shoes and wool-woven braids; how else could she be sure that the person didn't just pretend to shut the door, leaving it ajar for every thief and ruffian to come in?
The bundle, unwrapped, disclosed a length of hand-loomed black wool, still carrying the odor of the sheep it came from, blanket-stitched into a large circle: the traditional skirt of the tribal people of the area. With it was a narrow belt, woven in an elaborate design of stylized flowers and geometric figures, maybe birds, the warp a pinkish white, the woof in deep burgundy and red, knotted into a fringe at both ends. Nana would not be satisfied until she had tried it on, with the assistance of the weaver and Lupe, and had been instructed in the proper manner of forming the triple fold of fabric at the back, the nine deep pleats across the front: "Watch carefully, Lupe, you'll have to help me later," said Nana. Then with the skirt held in place - this took three hands, at first, until - "Ah! I remember now!" said Nana, holding the belt in one loop around her waist with the left hand and awkwardly reforming the pleats with the other; "Now bring the belt around once more, child, and pull it tight." Another loop, and the ends were tucked in, hands were removed, and the skirt held. "Now the quechemetl, did you bring it?" asked Nana, and the peasant woman dug once more into her reboso, producing a small white cotton cape, unadorned, which was slipped over Nana's head. The points were adjusted to hang centre front and back, just below the belt line. "Perfect!" said Nana.
"Hush, child. Later."
And they helped her out of the skirt and cape, set her down, somewhat breathless, to recover in her solid chair, while the woman re-folded the clothes, and Lupe went to bring Nana's purse from the wardrobe.
"But, Nana," Lupe repeated, coming back into the room after escorting the weaver downstairs.
"But the cape is so plain, Nana. And did you wear those clothes before? Why did you buy them? They're too heavy for you!"
"One thing at a time, my Lupe! Yes, I wore a skirt like this one, many many years ago, forty at least. Dora will remember. I wore the skirt the day I married, Dora won't remember that, a new skirt and quechemetl, especially made for my wedding day, very beautiful I was, and my Pedro - your great-grandfather - so handsome!"
"But why now, Nana?"
"Now? My Pedro is gone, but I will be joining him soon. I want to meet him in my bridal outfit. He'll remember."
"But the cape..."
"Child, child, so many questions! Wait and see. Just wait."
"It's indecent!" stormed Aunt Dora, at supper the next evening; "A wedding dress for her burial! The idea! And then, a native costume! Does she want to shame the whole family?" All this addressed to Aunt Mercy, who was visiting, Aunt Dora being by now beyond speaking to Nana, or even to Lupe, whom she plainly regarded as an accomplice.
But Aunt Mercy, playing out her new role as loving niece, supported Nana: "But, Dora, if it's her last wish? Everyone is entitled to last wishes! And besides, it's not as if she will be seen, with the lid..."
"Open casket," said Nana. "I've already instructed my lawyer." And she returned her attention to her bowl of soup, the clink of her spoon against the china the only sound now in the room.
Aunt Dora sat with her cup half way to her lips, eyes widened; Lupe read consternation on her face, consternation and wrath, blazing momentarily, then quickly hooded. Then the cup chunked on the table, too hard; coffee slopped over on the tablecloth, and dripped on the floor. "She went out again today," Aunt Dora said.
Lupe got up and went to the kitchen for a cloth to mop up with. When she returned, Aunt Mercy was discussing the price of vegetables in the market - outrageous, she declared, simply outrageous!
© Susannah Anderson, 1999