Only mystery allows us to live, only mystery. -- Federico Garcia Lorca
The eggplant bore its fruit first. Its violet, bell-shaped flowers swelled. Tiny globes shone black in the moonlight and glistened like oil in sunlight.
Then the tomato set fruit, lime-green at first, turning red, to be stained from the sepals downward with a color like indigo ink. When I cut into the first orange from the tree that filled the largest sun spot in the garden and severed the translucent membrane between its soft, plump segments, it wept red juice. Angeline tells me it is a blood orange.
I am here in this house of salmon-colored stucco because my mother’s sister, whom I never met, left the house and it’s overgrown, walled garden to her. And, with my mother’s passing, it came to me at a time when I had nowhere else to go—nowhere else to be. I had sold my parents’ home two years before when my mother entered the nursing home. My father had died nine years earlier, just before I graduated from college. On her last day in the emptied house, my mother wandered the rooms as though she had never seen them before.
“I want to go home now,” she said.
“I know, Mom.”
“You don’t know. You don’t know how to get there. You don’t know me.”
We were speaking in code, I thought. She, like a woman being held hostage, trying to send me a message that I, and not the kidnapper, would understand. And she was frustrated that I seemed oblivious to her struggle to reach me, to outsmart the malevolence that held her captive. Why couldn’t I understand what she was really trying to say?
In the eleven years since my father’s death, I have lived in five apartments, never unpacking all the boxes, some of them unopened since college. I have shared anonymous space—where I never hung pictures or draperies, never bought matching kitchen linens—with three boyfriends and one husband. None of those spaces, none of the rooms with views of light shafts or fire escapes or even trees greening in April were ever home. They were never going to be the small bungalow where my mother’s orange Fiesta dinnerware filled the shelves around the kitchen sink and my father’s oxblood polished wing-tips sat inside the narrow entry way.
My parents had met just days after my mother immigrated from Guatemala. She took a cleaning job in the small print shop my father owned with his brother. My father looked up one day and saw a slight woman with topaz skin and eyes the color of polished agates. I think that, like the Pantone fan decks of tiger-eye, macaroon, apricot, canary that brightened his shop, Deysi, my mother, brightened his world. In my memories of her, she is, like Guatemala, a spectrum of colors warmed by sun and risen out of volcanic soil.
My father was a man so calm and so in love with this quiet woman that I can recall overhearing just one conversation between them that seemed tense. I think I was eleven. They were talking about my mother’s older sister, my aunt Areli.
My father was insistent. “She must leave there immediately.”
My mother sighed. “She won’t. It was our parents’ house.”
“But you tell me she has heard the trucks at night, and the men in the garden next door.”
“She tells me that, but then she makes up explanations. That it’s just city workers repairing the water lines because it’s too hot to work during the day.”
Several times that year, I heard them making plans for my aunt’s arrival. But at the last minute, there would be a delay. My aunt couldn’t sell the house. She was ill. The weather would be too cold in New York in November. Then, one day I came home from school, and my mother was sitting in the living room. Even from the doorway, I could see the tears single-file down her cheeks in the late afternoon light. Aunt Areli had died in her bed the night before.
An old friend saw to the burial next to my grandparents in the moldering cemetery, closed up the house, and sent my mother three boxes that arrived looking as though they had been broken open and hastily resealed. There were sepia-toned photographs, their silver-plated frames missing, shawls of bright, woven ribbons of fiber, and pieces of flowered china, crushed like dry petals in the bottom of the battered boxes. There were some letters addressed to my mother written in a tiny, cramped script and a will that left my mother the house. That was all.
When my mother died, among the possessions left to me were my aunt’s boxes, just as they had arrived from Guatemala. I knew that the house in Santa Luciá, now abandoned for more than 15 years, was mine.
I sat with the boxes for three days as though I were keeping watch at a wake. They were stacked in a corner of the apartment’s living room. Before he left for work that morning, David gave me instructions.
“You need to go through those and get rid of the boxes, Nita.”
The night before he told me that I was like an immigrant in his life who never wanted to assimilate.
“You’ve still got boxes of your own you’ve never unpacked. Jesus Christ, you’ve been here over a year, and it’s like you’re going to be gone any day. You are so fucking alone, Nita. Where are you right now? Off in your head somewhere. You’re not interested in sex. You don’t really want to be here, do you?”
And I couldn’t argue with him. I bought the ticket to Santa Luciá the next day and told my boss at the graphic design company that I had a family emergency in Central America. I didn’t know when I’d be back.
Now, I sit under a yellow striped awning, greening with mold, and wonder about this inherited garden. Twisting vines and branches have slinked from under the shade to seek the sun and bear fruits that darken more each day under its vigilant orange eye. Even at the brightest moment of the day, the garden seems secretive, furtive. There’s so much I don’t know about the plants. How deep do their roots go? How long will they live? What tells a seed that might have been dormant for years to uncoil a tender secret upward into the soil?
Where does this stain, this dark color come from? Professor Roberto tells me it is anthocyanin, a chemical sunscreen a plant produces to protect its fruit from sun scald. He lives in the walled villa next to my aunt’s at the corner of Via del Diablo and Via de la Mujer. Angeline calls him Professor Roberto and quotes him as an authority on all things, vegetables, home remedies, astronomy, or more accurately, what dangers might befall her when Mars transits the sun. He is as casually erudite and elegant as I would expect El Diablo himself to be and the type of man I’ve found dangerously attractive in the past. Now, I’m intrigued but wary. I suspect he is a member of the previous military regime living under a stolen identity.
When I hired Angeline, she gestured toward the street signs, drew back her shoulders, and said, “Well, the devil better not be up to his tricks when this woman is around!”
If evil could be vanquished with brooms, buckets, and bleach, Diablo would tremble in Angeline’s presence. She attacks the patina of dirt and mold in my long abandoned, little house with the vigor of a crusader. My one fear is that my lungs have been as scoured by the caustic fumes of bleach as have the tiles of the shower. Once a dull, limed-over gray, they are now an iridescent cobalt.
Some humid evenings in the windowless bath, I step into the shower and feel I’ve discovered a subterranean stream in a cave carved of cool lapis. The water pressure is reluctant. It emerges in a silvered column of languid droplets from the brass head as though coming from far beneath the earth. Those evenings when the air is heavy with the scent of moldering vegetation and the heat embraces me like a needy lover, I lie on the shower floor and let the droplets strike me like a tympanum. First my breasts, my navel, then my thighs. I am played by the water, and my body thrums as though striking a harmonic chord.
In the morning, I lie still in the shadowed bedroom. Despite the French doors to the garden, only a furtive, greenish light pries it way into the room. I feel alone, yet watched, as though the garden were the watcher. From over the wall I can hear the Professor in his garden, the scrape of a wrought-iron chair along a stone patio, the clinking of a cup on a saucer.
He’s having morning coffee in the garden, I think. I believe I can smell the coffee, a strong, peat-like aroma, not unlike the earth beneath the sentinel copal tree along our shared wall.