The rain beat down on Elsa’s cabin in the redwoods while ancestors visited her in strange dreams. Real memories of visiting Peru as a child and those haunting dreams were hardly distinguishable. She recalled her grandmother Angelica’s large, old house in Lima, and also the country house in the Andes where her great-grandmother lived.
Elsa remembered following her great-grandmother Lucía into the adobe sheds in the backyard of the country house. Beds of silkworms in various stages of their life cycle filled the dank rooms. Moths, dull and gray, laid tiny specks of eggs, smaller than grains of rice. Those specks would hatch into pure white worms that rapidly grew monstrous as they gorged themselves on fresh, green mulberry leaves.
After their ravenous feasting of leaves, and at some instinctual moment, the worms would rise and begin their search for a suitable twig. Elsa’s great-uncle José spread out thin branches on the plank beds, and out of their own body’s machinery, the worms constructed cocoons resembling perfect, alabaster eggs.
Indian women sat by the fire in the courtyard, while the cocoons were carefully boiled in cauldrons of water, and one cocoon could produce a single silk thread stretching miles, leaving only a dried pupa behind to be used as animal feed.
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Six-year-old Elsa would toss the dried out insect larvae to the chickens in the pen. Some cocoons had to be separated out, allowing moths to emerge and mate and then lay fertile eggs before they quickly died, keeping the cycle going indefinitely.
Elsa watched her great-grandmother Lucía, bent and crooked as she spun the wooden spool, winding thin, wispy raw silk into thread. Lucía would ask Elsa to help her untangle the bundles of thread, so Elsa sat on the floor beside her as the old woman rocked back and forth rhythmically in a creaking chair.
And one night, Lucía magically spun her dead husband, Salvatore, out of the silk piles resting at her feet. As she rocked in the old chair, the wooden spool cast him out, and she worked with tired, stiff hands to reel him back in. Salvatore had become a determined, stubborn man.
But his gentler, softer form billowed above her left shoulder, and he cried, “Lucía, Lucía, how could you be so indifferent to that cancer eating away at my stomach, my liver, at all of my pitiful guts?” His figure of silky, translucent threads swayed and stretched.
Elsa watched in amazement and fear, crouched by her great-grandmother’s side.
“It was the guilt that made you sick,” Lucía replied. “It was guilt that ate away at your insides. My conscience is clear.” And to that, his tenuous form quivered, and the threads collapsed into a heap on the floor.
Elsa then helped Lucía gather up the silk bundles from the cold tiles. Lucía tossed them into her basket and slowly made her way through the courtyard strewn with passion fruit vines, past the laundry hung to dry on chords, past the chicken coop and dog’s shed. And Elsa watched as Pastor, the three-legged dog, came out of the shadows and followed the shuffle and thump of Lucía’s cane up the staircase to her tiny room with its single bed. Lucía’s daughter, Angelica, appeared then. Elsa’s grandmother was plump and soft, and she had sparkling dark blue eyes. She took Elsa’s hand and led her to bed, tucking her in with a kiss to the forehead. Even after Angelica’s warm touch, the ghost of her great-grandfather and those strange, pale worms haunted little Elsa’s dreams.
One week later, Elsa and Miguel landed in Lima. They took a taxi from the airport. Lima at dawn looked grim and dirty; the desert-like terrain left everything covered in beige dust. They passed the section of beach used as a dump, and Elsa shuddered as she saw children trek across the smoking mounds and the dark green waters foam yellowish white. Elsa watched out the window of the taxi at the auburn visages of people walking down bustling streets and literally dangling out of crowded, dilapidated buses.
She noticed the dry desert cliffs running above the seashore, which they had navigated to get down to the beach when she was a child. She then remembered the smell of the mounds of burning garbage on the street corners, which her abuela had cursed at when the city’s trash collectors went on strike.
“Ay, Dios mio, we are a poor country; they call us third world.” Angelica had cursed them when they passed the stinky, black smoking mounds on the sidewalks. “It’s the politicians! Sinverguenzas! Swines!”
Elsa recalled the constant assortment of noises, bells and horns that had passed by the street in front of the house at every hour of the day. One particular whistle woke them up at 6:30 in the morning, the baker pushing a cart with fresh rolls, and with that began Angelica’s busy day. The only bell Elsa had recognized was the ice cream cart, which passed by every afternoon during those summery December weeks of her childhood.
Now they entered the more picturesque Barranco, with its small plazas and colorful houses. The narrow streets were lined with trees and ornate iron gates. They pulled up to the front of the house. It was six in the morning, but already disheveled men pushed carts loaded with newspapers, milk bottles, and sacks of freshly baked bread down the street. The winter morning was gray and damp.
Barranco was a bohemian neighborhood where the country’s most cherished artists — musicians, writers, and painters — congregated to live and work. The beloved songwriter and singer Chabuca Granda called it home, and many of her lyrics described the edifices of the neighborhood, like the Bridge of Sighs where lovers met. Mario Vargas Llosa, the famous writer, lived just blocks away from Angelica before he bitterly expatriated and moved to Spain after a failed campaign for the presidency.
Her father rang the buzzer, and Elsa could hear a dog bark and Tia Lina yell, “Quieto!” Lina opened the door, and she hugged them both while nudging them quickly into the house. Elsa hadn’t seen her aunt in several years, since the last time she had visited Peru with Charles. In their seven years of marriage, they made only one trip to Peru. They traveled around the country for three weeks, and stayed in the old house in Barranco with Lina and Angelica for several days. Charles had struggled with the language barrier and culture shock. He preferred trips to Napa Valley more than the adventure of South America.
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The taxi driver helped carry in the luggage. Lina tipped the man before shooing him out the door. Elsa noticed that her aunt looked tired and haggard; she had aged in just a few years.
“She’s been asking for you, Miguel,” Lina explained to her brother as she embraced him and tears ran down her swollen, blotched face. She took her brother’s hand and led him and Elsa down the hallway to their mother’s bedroom.
Angelica was bed-ridden, drifting in and out of consciousness, and was ninety-six after all. She refused to leave her big, colonial house, with its countless bedrooms where her children had grown up.
Elsa stood in the doorway, looking into the dim room and at her grandmother’s frail frame reclined in the sagging bed. Angelica was hooked to an IV, and as Elsa scanned the small room, she noticed the bedpan and a musty, acrid smell. A large crucifix hung over the headboard, and a framed portrait of the Bleeding Heart of Christ presided in one corner of the room. Elsa felt the weight of her grandmother’s impending passing, of Angelica’s suffering.
Elsa thought back to her childhood visits to her grandmother’s big, boisterous house. Elsa had always carried the basket as she walked with Angelica to the market in the mornings. Her abuela rattled on in a singsong castellano that Elsa could barely decipher. And then there were the meals that Angelica had prepared with one course after another. Elsa and her baby brother would sit at the big, long family table, their feet dangling, as she served them warm, nurturing foods like cream of squash soup, chicken soufflé, and rice pudding doused in cinnamon.
When visiting their grandmother’s house, they had been invited into another era, another world where time passed slowly, where family was abundant, and Angelica’s doting, maternal instincts oozed out of her like honey from a hive.
“Children, eat,” she encouraged them while serving generous second helpings. “I want to see my grandchildren muy gorditos.” Their bellies stuck out of their shirts and she smiled. Being chubby in Peru was a compliment, and parents called their children gorditos even if they were as skinny as poles.
As Elsa stood in the doorway of Angelica’s room, she decided to give her father time alone with his mother. She didn’t want to overwhelm Angelica, so Elsa roamed the large house. There were crumbling adobe walls, and the open courtyard was filled with plants beginning to wither and die in solidarity with their housemother. Elsa strolled down the long corridor and peeked into rooms. She peered at the photos in the living room, placed in mismatched frames. There was a photo, nearly faded, of Lucía and Salvatore seated side by side, stately and proud. They both wore serious expressions, and they had made a handsome couple. Elsa looked closer, noticing a dark, long shadow looming behind Lucía. It gave Elsa an eerie feeling.
There was another photo that stood out from the others because it was the only one of Angelica and her husband with all their children, three lanky boys and one little girl, Aunt Lina. The family stood squished together, dressed for a beach outing. She took one last glance at the photos of her father as a child. His large brown eyes and pudgy cheeks, and the innocence of childhood apparent on his sweet face, tore at Elsa’s heart.
Finally feeling the exhaustion of the trip, Elsa sat down in the dining room.
Tia Lina walked in just then looking frazzled, tucking loose strands of gray hair back into her bun. Caring for her dying mother was taking a toll on her.
“My dear Elsa. We left you stranded. Angelica woke up long enough to chat with Miguel. I think it’s revived her some. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Don’t worry, Tia. I can get it myself. I remember that the kitchen’s in the back. I’ll make us a pot.”
“That would be lovely, Elsita. But you must be tired after the flight.”
“I don’t mind stretching my legs after sitting for so long. It will just take a minute.”
Elsa rose and headed down the hall toward the back of the house. There she found the kitchen with its rusty appliances, crooked shelves, and the same old transistor radio on the counter. She filled the teakettle with water and placed it on the stove. The last time she was in this house, she was with Charles. How strange it felt to be single now. Even though he complained a lot while they were there, she missed his energy, his quirky sense of humor woven through the snarky comments.
Elsa remembered standing in the kitchen with him, as he opened the freezer looking for ice to add to his glass of soda. Charles said, “No luck, I guess the gypsies haven’t shown up with the latest modern invention to impress the natives.” His sarcasm could be both irritating and amusing at the same time. Elsa let the weight of her loss settle once again and shrugged off the feeling of nostalgia. But the house and Angelica made it hard to shake melancholy.
Later that evening Elsa sat at Angelica’s bedside.
Angelica reclined with her head resting on pillows, though she appeared alert and clearheaded. “Is that you, my little Elsa? You are a beautiful, grown woman now.” She spoke to Elsa in that same singsong Spanish. “You still have those lovely curls, but your hair isn’t pale-yellow anymore.” Elsa’s hair hadn’t been light blonde since she was a girl. Angelica didn’t seem to remember Elsa’s last visit with Charles.
Elsa stroked her grandmother’s fine, white hair and then kissed her forehead. “I missed you, Abuela. I was curious about this photograph. It’s so lovely and all your children are here.”
Elsa handed the framed picture of the family outing to the beach to Angelica, and with a bony finger Angelica stroked each face. “There’s an entire lifetime housed in this photograph. My children and so much loss.”
“I don’t want to make you sad. I hoped the photo would make you happy,” Elsa explained.
Angelica whispered, flushed and out-of-breath, as if making her last confession. “Did you know that my father, Salvatore, had another family, with a wife and children, living on the other side of the city? They had no idea he was married to my mother until his funeral, when both our families showed up: two women dressed in mourning and both claiming to be his wife. Imagine their surprise!” She chuckled, the years seeming to have softened the blows of the fiasco.
Elsa was stunned by this revelation; she had no idea. Her father had never talked about it. The story brought to mind those faint recollections of her great-grandmother’s spinning of thread, spinning her husband out from fine silk strands —– or had it all been a dream? Elsa wasn’t sure. Then Elsa recalled Salvatore’s desperate pleas to Lucía, his ghostly form woven out of silk threads, at the patio of the country house. His guilt made sense to her now.
Angelica’s eyes looked beyond Elsa, as if she were talking to a ghost. Suddenly, she scooted herself upright with the pillows on her bed, and became more animated. Angelica told Elsa that she hadn’t been with a man since her husband died. “He was my first and only lover. Is that very unusual?” she asked eagerly.
“It’s rare to find that now, Abuela. People get married when they’re much older these days, if they do at all.” Elsa felt tempted to add that most marriages end in divorce. What was the point of her marriage with Charles, especially since they never had children? Elsa wasn’t sure if those seven years, even the good ones, were worth the heartache. She wished she could just wipe the slate clean, and recapture time. When she miscarried the first time, she blamed herself. The second time, she was so hurt and angry she blamed Charles. Still, she never imagined that he would betray her, and with one of his students no less. She thought they were grieving together, she thought they would come out the other end stronger, more determined to make it work and have a family. She had even made an appointment at a fertility clinic. Instead, Charles ran away the same year that Elsa turned forty years old.
“Yes, I know that times have changed.” Angelica then seemed to drift off, until she said, “I was only thirty-two when Pablo Miguel died of a heart attack. He was young too, it was a genetic condition, you know. Anyway, I think I almost went crazy for a time. I used to dream about him touching me, his hands on my body, and I sometimes woke up crying.”
Elsa was taken aback by her grandmother’s candor, which made her wonder if Angelica deliberately chose Elsa as a confidant, or if Elsa just happened to be there as these things slipped out, the ramblings of an old, senile woman.
Elsa hadn’t been with a man for over a year, since her divorce. She too felt a yearning and desire so great that it filled her with pain, as well as tears. She never expected to share this connection with Angelica.
Elsa would find herself wrestling with an unseen presence, the sheets tangled and damp with her sweat, damp with her desires, only to wake up with tears and sobs. Those were nights she feared being alone for the rest of her life. Those were the nights that she cursed Charles and his younger lover.
Elsa’s confidence had been shattered after Charles’s affair. She had gone to the college on her day off to pick up some papers, and that’s when she saw them leaning against his car. Charles appeared to have the girl pinned as he kissed her, but the girl didn’t resist. Elsa stopped in her tracks, sheepishly went back to her car and drove away. Now she shook off the memory, as Angelica stroked her arm softly.
“You don’t have children?” Angelica whispered.
There was the dreaded question. Elsa had prepared herself for this. The Latin culture still valued motherhood and family above all else, even in this day and age. But still, her gut tightened. She whispered back to Angelica, “No, Abuela. I don’t.”
Elsa’s thoughts became a mantra. I lost them, it wasn’t meant to be, it’s better this way.
Angelica was getting tired. She could barely keep her eyes open as she continued, “Maybe I should have remarried, but with all those kids? I guess I didn’t really have the time. But listen, mi niña, don’t be afraid of love. El Amor — it comes in all kinds of packages.”
Claire Ibarra received her MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. Her work can be found in many literary magazines and anthologies. She currently teaches creative writing in Colorado. Learn more at www.claireibarra.com.