I kissed my great-grandmother on the top of her dusty black wig and asked what she would like for her birthday. I had already sewn her a jewelry roll and mixed her a new skin-softening oil—the best I could afford to do since I had lost my job—but you don’t turn a hundred and twenty-five every day.
Abuelita turned her milky eyes to me and lifted a trembling, withered hand from her rosary to beckon me closer. “Quiero morir,” she whispered in my ear. I want to die.
I shivered, not from the cold of the windowless room, but from recognition. “Yo también,” I told her in a voice just loud enough for her to hear. “Espera, por favor. Espera.”
Me, too. Please wait.
Grandpa Estéban eyed us suspiciously from his recliner. “What are you talking about, Melissa?”
I straightened up and forced a smile, raising my voice a bit more to carry over the hum of the compressors. “I promised her some birthday cake. Would you like some? It’ll be good. Sara made it.”
He grunted. Sara’s spice cake was a rare treat and he wasn’t too far gone to know it. “Just a spoonful of frosting.”
“Can do.” I stopped at the controls in the hall on my way out and added some oxygen to their sitting room. The hall door closed behind me, its rubber seals gasping as it shut.
In the kitchen, my grown daughter and my elderly uncle were finishing up their boring-but-healthy dinner of vegetables and rice. No meat, hardly any fat, no sugar. Sara said it would extend our lives; I didn’t see the point of life without flavor.
“Time for cake and presents,” I said, unzipping my coat. It was cool in here, but not outright cold, and the sight of the long prairie sunset through the window made me feel toasty. “Might as well leave the dishes. There’ll be more soon.”
“Okay,” said Sara, rising from her place to spoon leftovers into an old yogurt container. “How many plates?”
“Five plates, three forks, and two spoons.”
“They’re both eating the cake? I’m flattered.”
“Just the frosting. You might want to sprinkle a little extra cloves on it so they can smell it.”
They started putting on their coats and gloves. I nabbed the jewelry bag from my room, but I left the skin oil. I would mix her a fresh batch and change up the ingredients a little.
While Sara pulled the cake out from the fridge, Tío Gaspar picked up the small pile of presents. We didn’t usually make a big deal out of birthdays, especially Abuelita’s and Grandpa Estéban’s, since they’d had so many. We certainly never invited anyone from outside the family, since we were the only ones who knew Abuelita was still alive.
If that was what she really was.
“I guess we should leave the candles off,” said Sara.
She meant because of the heat. I didn’t mind, seeing as Abuelita had already made her wish.
• • • •
Grandpa Estéban and Tío Gaspar always had the Herrero name. I took it back after my ex left and changed Sara’s along with mine. She was just little, then. Everybody in North Dakota called us “the Herreros,” pronouncing the H like a harsh gust of wind.
Sometimes, they called us “the Mexican family,” although none of us has ever even been to Mexico. Abuelita was from Barcelona originally, but the rest of us were born in the U.S.
We liked North Dakota okay, though. The air was clean, the food hearty, and people kept pretty much to themselves.
I was born in Omaha, which I remember not so much as a place as the time Abuelita could still get around. I should have called her Bisabuelita—she was Grandpa Estéban’s mother—but she preferred to have everyone but her son call her Abuelita. I was seven when the white old-lady hairs on her chin fell out and never grew back.
After that, we moved to St. Paul, where Grandpa Estéban did refrigerator installation and maintenance for restaurants. It was where I met and married my ex, where Sara was born. My parents both died in a car accident there; Tío Gaspar came home and cried after identifying them. My soft Tía Rosa, who wore loose clothing and sloshed when she walked, was buried there, too. Sara remembers them all, but barely. My brother still lives there, doing radio voiceovers and murder mystery dinner theatre.
Grandpa Estéban was born in New York City, but out of respect for Abuelita, he never talked about it.
• • • •
I ate Abuelita’s birthday cake for breakfast every day until it was gone. Then I stopped eating desserts after dinner, gave up snacks altogether.
“You’re eating so much better,” said Sara approvingly.
That was what I got for sending her to medical school. Even though she’s an anesthesiologist, she still knows more about nutrition than Man was meant to know.
I made Abuelita a new batch of skin oil. I mixed in the powdered remains of the green paint we’d found under the wallpaper of this farmhouse when we moved in. Abuelita liked the house; there was a chance that it was older than she was. She didn’t have that experience often in the Midwest.
Although the arsenic and the lead shouldn’t have much scent, I added a few drops of myrrh oil. It made it smell smoky and thick.
In our family, we know a lot of things that people aren’t supposed to know.
• • • •
When Sara started kindergarten, I got a good job at the regional hospital. Doctors dictated; I transcribed. There wasn’t enough of anything in particular to specialize, so I heard a bit of everything. Most of it went in one ear and out the other, but sometimes, I slowed down a little so I could listen.
My turnaround on toxicology reports was never as good as on other things. Autopsies, either.
• • • •
“Me siento extraña,” complained Abuelita as I rubbed the oil into her skin with my gloved hands. “Y huelo mal.”
I fished around for the words to ask, “Is the bad feeling tingly? Are you losing sensation?” But my Spanish isn’t all that good, so I just said, “Es el regalo, abuelita. Lo que pidió.” The gift you asked for.
“Ah.” Her blind eyes lit up. “Muerte.”
• • • •
It was during our first winter in North Dakota that things started to go wrong for the Herreros.
Grandpa Estéban was excited about the cold. No urban heat island, no tall buildings to break the fierce prairie winds. Dirty, gray snowdrifts buried the shelter-belt trees up to their lowest branches.
He knew we’d get frostbite if we stayed out in the snow unprotected. But what if Abuelita stayed out on the back porch of this farmhouse? Someone had put up screens against mosquitos at some point. They would hold out most of the snow.
“Think of how it could slow the deterioration,” he said, eyes wide as a child’s.
“I don’t like it,” I told him. “Abuelita won’t, either.”
But Sara was too little to know what was going on and Tío Gaspar never said a word against Grandpa Estéban. Grandpa and Abuelita sat out there one night, over her bitter complaints.
When they tried to come in the next morning, Abuelita’s left leg, frozen and brittle, broke clean through. Grandpa Estéban developed a cough that didn’t go away until there was nothing left in his lungs.
The next time he shaved, his whiskers didn’t grow back.
• • • •
The month before Abuelita’s birthday, one of the two HR reps caught me on the way back from lunch. The door of the office next to hers was closed, so I knew what was coming when she sat me down.
“I’m sorry to tell you that your position has been eliminated,” she said. “The doctors are going to start using dictation software, instead.” She pushed a folder across the desk to me. “You’re not being singled out.”
The folder included a list of positions and ages of the newly unemployed. There were no names on it, but a glance showed that it was the whole department. The hit list went from the recent college grad up to my manager and me, the only ones in our fifties.
“I know you’ll do well, Melissa. You have great skills. Excellent skills. And this is an excellent severance package.”
I read the whole folder’s worth right there at her desk, taking my time. Somebody told me once that I “wintered well,” and although they might have meant “plump,” I liked to think it meant I could wait anything out. The HR rep sat there with an expectant, apologetic smile.
The severance was better-than-decent. I signed the papers and walked out of her office without saying another word.
My manager, Debbie, was leaving the other HR office. “I guess they took us in order of seniority,” she said. “At least they didn’t make me lay anybody off.” She laughed mirthlessly. “I’d feel like a murderer.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, walking toward anesthesiology in no kind of hurry. “I don’t think you would.”
• • • •
Sometimes, Grandpa Estéban talked about moving farther west.
“It’s getting too settled here,” he said one Sunday. All of us had gathered in the so-called living room, the living standing in our coats and the dead sitting down, to listen to Mass on Internet radio. “I keep reading that the state’s population is climbing.”
“That’s out west,” Gaspar told him. “It’s the crude. There’s no fracking here and we’d have to drive through all that activity to get anywhere quieter.”
“Nobody would care about us passing through. And who says we should go somewhere quiet? We can get lost in a city.”
Sara perked up at that. She hadn’t lived in a city since she went to medical school in St. Louis. “Portland, you mean? Or Seattle?”
“Maybe. The best place would be Alaska, but that’s a hard journey.”
He looked at Abuelita, hunched in her wheelchair. She was stroking the velvet and the lace on the jewelry roll I’d made her, although she kept it empty. She held it almost as often as her rosary, these days.
With Abuelita’s broken leg that could never heal, it took two of us to even move her from bed to wheelchair and back. Alaska was out of the question.
• • • •
I took turns with Tío Gaspar in the garden that summer, stinking of mosquito repellent and raising the healthy vegetables I didn’t much like. They soaked up the long summer sun and got big. Huge.
My hands grew callused and clumsy. My arms and legs grew strong. I ate the big vegetables, and the plain rice, and the boring barley soup. I shed the soft layers of myself.
I did not want another winter.
• • • •
One day in September, I went to town to pick up a shipment of our supplies. We have a little lab at home, and Sara’s very handy, but you can’t make everything from scratch. Luckily, you can get almost anything over the Internet.
I was standing in line at the post office when Debbie spotted me. “Melissa! Oh my gosh, I didn’t recognize you!”
She was doing okay, she said, working in a doctor’s office as an office manager. Bit of a pay cut, but when you added in the severance, not too bad a year.
“And you look great, Melissa! You lost so much weight! What are you doing?”
“Oh, you know. Lot of gardening,” I said.
“You working?” She eyed the slip in my hand, maybe hoping the carrier couldn’t drop off packages because I had a new job. Truth was, we just didn’t answer the door.
“No, I’m on unemployment. Good until almost Thanksgiving, as long as I keep looking.”
I did look, but there wasn’t much for middle-aged women with excellent skills in medical transcription, skin care, and poisons.
• • • •
Autumn was a brief, brown season. Years ago, when we still went to Mass in town on Sundays, we used to drive a special route in the fall. There were blocks and blocks lined with birch trees, their white trunks striped with black and their branches arcing pale-gold overhead. It was like driving through a cathedral. I was always sorry that Abuelita didn’t get to see it.
Bronze birch borers took all the trees a while back. By then, we weren’t going to Mass anymore, so it took us a few years to notice.
“Abuelita’s not doing good,” said Tío Gaspar to me over lunch one day of that last October.
Sara was at work, and Abuelita would be at her rosary. We could hear the compressors chugging along through one of the last warm lunchtimes in a season tinged with cold at the edges of the day. Grandpa Estéban would not come out into the unchilled part of the house in this heat.
“You mean the way she’s slowing down?” I said cautiously.
“Uh-huh. It’s been a long time coming and I think she’s ready.” He locked eyes with me. “You know, she never wanted to live the way we do. She thinks it’s a sin.”
After me, Abuelita spent more time with Tío Gaspar than anybody. And his Spanish was better. I nodded and spooned up some more potato soup.
“I think it’ll be a relief for her. I’m more worried about Sara,” he said. “She’s still young. She has better things to do with her life than take care of old people and living corpses.”
“I don’t plan to be a living corpse any time soon,” I told him firmly.
Tío Gaspar gave me a sweet, almost chummy, smile. “Me, neither.”
• • • •
Once, years ago, I had gotten Grandpa Estéban to tell me about New York. Sara was thinking about medical school at Columbia and he wanted me to tell her she couldn’t go.
“I can’t talk her out of it if you don’t tell me why you’re asking.”
“It’s not a good place for us.”
“You haven’t lived there in must-be eighty years. Everybody who knew you and Abuelita will be dead.”
“Eighty-five. And they won’t remember me, but Mamá and I remember New York.” His forehead furrowed. “You know my father died when I was young.”
“Abuelita said you were eight years old. The flu, she said.”
“They called it the Spanish Influenza. That made it even worse for a young widow and her son. There was no more school for me after that.” Although he didn’t need to breathe, Grandpa Estéban still sighed when he wanted to. He drew a breath then just to let it out.
“But Mamá was strong. She and I were the only ones in the family who survived. And she worked hard. We had an old house and she let rooms in it. Mostly to other Spaniards, who knew we hadn’t brought the influenza. One was a doctor. Doctor Muñoz.”
His usual raspy whisper dropped to a softer, more affectionate sound. “I brought him his meals and whatever he needed delivered … supplies, medicines, some of the same things we use today. He was kind to me, like a new father. But Mamá ….” His mouth twisted in disgust. “Mamá said his work was unholy. After a while, she wouldn’t let me visit him, anymore. No one ever took good care of him again. He passed too soon to learn one of the chants we sing to this day, one that might have prolonged his life.
“When Doctor Muñoz passed, I stole some of his notes. Some of his books. His work is the foundation of this family, of our life everlasting.”
I worked my numb fingers inside my mittens. I had never heard this story before. “That still doesn’t tell me why Sara shouldn’t go to Columbia if she wants to.”
“Your bisabuelita was fluent in English.”
“She had a heavy accent, but she was fluent. But the day Doctor Muñoz passed from our home, she stopped speaking it completely. The shock.”
He gripped my hand in his, bone-cold even with a mitten between us. “She’s the reason we’ll never go back to New York. It would kill her.”
I told Sara I would mail her application to Columbia, but I threw it in the trash, instead. I have since come to regret that, not just because of the betrayal, but because of the reason behind it.
• • • •
The unemployment payments on my ReliaCard ran dry in November and sure enough, I didn’t have another job. I’ll be fair: I was picky. I didn’t want to work someplace chatty and I didn’t want to work far from home. Abuelita was slurring her words and having trouble following conversations. She ran her fingers over the velvet of the jewelry roll until she dropped it from weak fingers.
It was hard to be sure, since she’d been blind and bald for years, but I think it was the lead in the paint that was doing the trick.
I added frankincense to Abuelita’s skin oil to welcome the season and sweeten the scent. She rubbed it into her skin carefully, reverently. I helped apply it to her legs and feet, since she couldn’t bend to reach them.
She still knew the touch of my hand, even through gloves. Abuelita and I were always close in a way that Grandpa Estéban and I never were. Whatever it was that made him want to live forever, we didn’t have it.
“Tu regalo,” she whispered. Your gift.
With unemployment over and years to go before I was eligible for retirement, it seemed like all I had to give anyone.
• • • •
I ran into Debbie at the post office again just after Thanksgiving. Always the over-achiever, she was mailing out Christmas packages. She turned as if she were going to say something, then closed her mouth and looked away. She couldn’t tell me I looked great, because I didn’t. I was gaunt and graying.
I didn’t mind. It was a relief, one more connection severed from the world.
• • • •
Abuelita died on December 23rd. I tiptoed in to check on her in her tiny, cold room and took off a glove so I could hold her hand as she passed. She didn’t breathe, and her hand was already cold, but it went slack—more limp than it did in sleep—and a foul smell crept in under the scent of frankincense and myrrh.
I was sorry she didn’t get another Christmas Eve. Although she hadn’t been to Mass in decades, she always listened to Midnight Mass on the radio. She loved the hymns.
“Vaya con dios,” I whispered. For the first time in years, I dared to kiss her on the cheek. It was tissue-soft and very, very cold.
• • • •
Immediately after Abuelita’s passing, I trudged through the blowing snow out to the old barn. We used it for storage, mostly, but it was also our garage for the RV and the truck. I started the truck in the dark and let it warm up, keeping an eye out for lights in the house. No one stirred.
Careful in the snow, I drove the truck further out into the country, out to the property of a self-described gentleman farmer who spent his winters in Phoenix. I ran the truck into a ditch. Then I made sure the windows were secure, turned up the heat, and peacefully breathed in the fumes as the snow gradually covered the windshield.
• • • •
I woke to the smells of frankincense and myrrh and old woman.
Abuelita was gone and I was in her bed. The jewelry roll was sitting on the dresser, all rolled up as if it actually had jewelry in it. Sara was sitting in my old place, the chair beside the bed.
“Welcome back, Mom,” she said. She looked exhausted. “You’re just in time for the New Year.”
I tried to speak, but it came out in a whisper. “What ….”
“You really did a number on yourself.” Sara gave me a sharp look through her tears. “Mom, couldn’t you have told me? I could have mixed something for you. Something safer. They kept you in a locker at the morgue for a day. I was afraid they’d do an autopsy on you, just like on Tía Rosa, and you’d never be right again.”
“She died. You knew that, didn’t you? You wouldn’t leave her.” Tears spilled down Sara’s face. “We took you home and said we’d bury you, and we buried her in the grave Gaspar made in the barn a while back. We’re hoping nobody ever exhumes it, but if they do, maybe they’ll think it’s you.”
“I wanted to die,” I murmured. “Really die.”
“I won’t let you, Mom,” said Sara. She took my hand. I felt the pressure, but not the warmth. “I’m an Herrero at heart and we always take care of our mothers.”
• • • •
We loaded everything we needed into the RV and the truck over the next five days. They packed me into a chest freezer for the journey.
“Are you comfortable?” Tío Gaspar asked. “I could get you a blanket for padding. You’re not giving off heat.”
“I’m fine,” I told him. “I don’t really feel anything.” It was just barely nightfall and the temperature was already dropping. I was outside after dark without a parka, without gloves, for the first time in months.
Tío Gaspar nodded. He looked back at the house, where Sara was fussing with the last things to pack. Grandpa Estéban was testing the vapor-absorption systems for the freezer and the RV. I could smell ammonia.
Gaspar leaned in. “I know why you did it,” he whispered. “I would do it, too, if Papá died, or if he wanted to. But you know how he is.”
Grandpa Estéban started singing to himself. His voice was cracked and tiny, but I could make out “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
“You have relatives in other places,” I whispered back. “Omaha. St. Paul. Maybe even New York, for all I know. Or you could go somewhere new.”
He shook his head. “I’m going to Portland with you. It’s what Papá wants and where he goes, I go.”
“Westward leading, still proceeding …,” sang Grandpa Estéban.
“I don’t have to agree,” said Gaspar. “I’ll always stay with my family, no matter what we are.”
He closed the freezer lid gently. I heard some stumbling as he helped Grandpa Estéban in. The whole RV would be cold. Since Grandpa Estéban had never gotten a death certificate, he could have the run of the cabin.
“No matter what we are,” I repeated in my forceless murmur.
“King and God and Sacrifice,” sang Grandpa Estéban, barely audible through the freezer walls.
I heard the RV’s motor start, smelled the ammonia anew. I buried my face in my hands. Without breathing, I took in the scents of frankincense and myrrh: the oils I had blended, the scent of our stone-cold tomb.
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