January 20, 2015
In a crumbling-stucco corner house off Frazier Street, lived a boy who believed he was nothing at all. Nightly, his drunk father’s eyes glowed red, and he spit fiery words, but not until fists hailed down on his mother did the boy run for the space between the stove and cabinets. There he crouched crying, “Coward! Coward!”
He listened hard through screams and breaking for his mother’s breathing. Sometimes she went silent, and he wanted to be more than a boy hiding between the stove and cabinet. There he fingered the black abyss of a crack in the linoleum praying, “Fall in. Fall in. Fall in. Fall in,” and one night his father did.
Trip! He went into the crack and the floor ensnared him. Before the devil could crawl out, he used all the power his little muscles could muster to push the stove over the opening.
“¿Qué ‘stás haciendo?” his mother begged.
His face went stone: “Sending Papí to hell.”
¡Blasfemo! she thought and slapped his sinful mouth. Before either could cry, she flew to light a candle at the altar for the Virgen.
The next afternoon, angels began paying secret visits during cartoon hour. At commercials they whispered in his ears words like courageous and rewarded. They whispered “prepare,” and he began to take baths before bed in cold water and lilies.
This worried his mother, who taxied him to pristine doctor’s offices, but with no insurance they rebuked her pleas. Outside tall white buildings they stood hand-in-hand beneath the harsh San Gabriel Valley sun, and she felt her guilt burn.
On his thirteenth birthday, the boy was honored with a visit from the Virgen herself. She traveled from the City of Angels and arrived worn from the 10 Freeway traffic. She was thankful for the cafecito he warmed on his sacred stove still standing guard over the crack in the floor.
While offering a pink piece of pan dulce, he snuck his first glimpse and found himself hypnotized by a multitude of galaxies gleaming and glittering across her blue robes. He thought, Amazing.
Then the ground shook, the room turned gray, and a single crimson tear fell from a silver eye.
“You are a brave boy,” she said. “You are a prince, and you have been chosen lamb of the forgotten. A sacrifice for the ignorant.”
“Sacrifice?” he cried, but it was too late. With her coffee finished, she walked out, taking with her every last bit of shimmer.
Twenty years later he heard scratching from below the stove and crack. To stop the monster from returning he threw his mother out of the house, grabbed a shotgun, and took his place between the stove and cabinets.
“I am not a coward!” he cried out, clutching the gun.
Flashing lights and sirens arrived, but he held his place. Suddenly he remembered the Virgen’s tear and the word, sacrifice. He gulped once and thought Jesus was scared too. When he moved to put down his gun the bullets came crashing through.
That night his mother swaddled her crumbling cuerpo in a black rebozo and lit a candle at the altar he now inhabits.
XOCHITL-JULISA BERMEJO was named the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner and her manuscript, Built with Safe Spaces, was a 2014 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize finalist. She has poetry published in The American Poetry Review, CALYX, The Acentos Review, and The Los Angeles Review. A short dramatization of her poem, Our Lady of the Water Gallons, directed by Hollywood director and Chicano activist, Jesús Salvador Treviño, can be viewed at latinopia.com. She is the curator of the HITCHED reading series at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center, and she is a co-founding member of Women Who Submit.