Published in Yorick Magazine Vol. 2 (October 2013).
“When one is forgotten, one dies yet another time.”
Mercedes was lying in bed as Orion began his nightly trek past her window, staring at the ceiling and conjuring the black hair, radiant laughter, and shining brown eyes of Daniel, her only child. Her ex-husband, George – the excommunicated priest who had never really believed anyway and jumped at the chance to marry the single daughter of a congregation member – was wheezing and asleep beside her. Mercedes was thinking of the day she and George had agreed to divorce when Daniel was six, and how Daniel had lived with Mercedes the entire time he grew up, though George had always visited and sent all the money when he was supposed to – he was a kind, smart man who never left Daniel out of his life. Mercedes often told herself that she was lucky, that not everyone could be friends after a divorce, and not everyone had a son like Daniel, who seemed to understand from the very beginning that sometimes things don’t work out between people and it’s best not to try and force them. Ever since he had moved out after high school six years earlier, Daniel had called Mercedes at least once a week after work and told her not to cook dinner, that he would be over soon to do it for her. He was a tender person and a good son, Mercedes had often told herself, better than she ever imagined he would be – though, to be fair, she could say the same of George over the past half-year. The unspoken agreement that they would stand by each other – eating meals together, sleeping in the same bed like old friends, checking up on one another throughout the day – had been somehow prompted by him – and thankfully so, Mercedes was willing to admit.
Mercedes cleared her throat and let out a breath, her hands folded together and flat on her torso, her thumbs pushing against one another. The past five and a half months, ever since the motorcycle accident, Mercedes would see Daniel everywhere she looked, hear his voice in songs on the radio, smell cigarettes and leather polish even at work, where she damn well knew that none of the elderly hospice patients would have such things. She no longer had to excuse herself when she thought he was around, but those first few months had been awful, every moment swollen with the possibility of a morbid surprise or stark realization. Mercedes was used to death because of her job – people who are old and ill die suddenly and often – but she had never before had to pass by the reflective memorial marker – more of a flash of warning to other drivers, really, especially the young and impulsive – on the median of the interstate each day on her way to and from work, had never before watched as splatters of burgundy on asphalt faded from one morning to the next, muted by the blazing New Mexico sun and tire wear, or noticed the day-by-day decomposition of purple and red false flowers, the wire stems buried deep in the sandy earth at the base of the metal memorial marker. Mercedes had never felt death so fully – not even after her parents were gone, fading away like her patients, and at least that had been natural, couldn’t have been helped, happened to everyone eventually. The denial’s never lasted quite so long either, Mercedes thought, but she supposed that was simply how it was – when a piece of you dies, it’s hard for what remains to admit it. Mercedes sighed and rolled onto her side, her eyes now on the bedroom door and the lines of wood grain barely visible around the dimly gleaming knob.
And then there was the business with the angel – if that’s what it had been – a figure made of light and lace and glinting glass, all of it moving and never quite solid, that had come to visit Mercedes just two nights before. When she saw the vision, Mercedes had first thought of her abuelita, the time when she taught Mercedes to make tortillas, and the little doll-faced angels that adorned Abuelita’s bedroom – tiny girls wrapped in white silk and lace, with large chestnut-colored eyes and compassionate expressions. In each place where Mercedes had found a candle for the Virgen de Guadalupe, she had also found an angel.
“Los ángeles velan por nosotros,” Abuelita had told her that humid July weekend, winking at Mercedes as she kneaded the dough, her hands and wrists paled by corn flour. “Para asegurarnos de que tengamos lo que necesitamos.”
The angel at the foot of Mercedes’s bed two nights before had not looked like her abuelita’s angels – nor like the merciful and stern angels in the stained glass windows of Mamá’s church, nor the brooding, glowering ones that had been tattooed on the forearms of an ex-boyfriend from the mid-’80s. The thing in her room had appeared more like a star in one of those smoky-looking galaxies, a bright light with bare suggestions of shade to serve as facial features surrounded by an ever-shifting veil of voluminous, twinkling mist. Mercedes couldn’t know for sure, but felt from the voice that it had been a female – the sound was like shards of glass tinkling amidst a thousand children whispering the same words at once, so soft and smooth, yet also so thunderous. It comforted Mercedes, though she couldn’t pinpoint why.
When the angel’s voice had cracked through the darkness of her bedroom, Mercedes opened her eyes, her entire body rigid – the room had been shining like dawn, lit up like it was aflame, but everything dropped into Mercedes’s periphery as her vision fish-eyed on the presence before her.
Her hands, she remembered now, had felt as if the joints were about to pop apart, as if the pressure in the room had been increased, and she had felt a large weight balanced perfectly atop her sternum – in spite of herself, Mercedes’s mind had wandered vividly to the brightly-painted spinning tops she played with as a child on Abuelita’s tile kitchen floor. She had slowly looked down to the foot of her bed – George was still snoring; how had he not heard that voice? – at whatever was hovering just before the dresser. Despite the brightness, Mercedes hadn’t squinted or covered her eyes, as if the light filling her vision had been a different kind than she was used to – purer than flourescent, less harsh than sunlight, whiter than anything Mercedes had ever seen. The mirror on top of the dresser had reflected the immense brilliance of the angel – an angel was the closest thing Mercedes could think of, but she really had no idea what the figure at the foot of her bed had been – further intensifying the light and completely blinding Mercedes to the familiar details of her bedroom.
“Vos creés que has perdido a Daniel, pero no es así.”
Mercedes had slowly moved her hand under the covers until she had reached her soft thigh. This cannot be real, she had thought, alarm and awe pounding in her ears. Mercedes had gripped the skin of her thigh between two fingers and twisted until the pain made her let go.
“Este no es un sueño, Mercedes.”
Eyes still fixed on the angel, Mercedes had meant to answer, to ask what the angel knew of her son, but all that had come out was a grunted sigh.
“Busque en el ático. Dios te llevará a Daniel.”
Mercedes had started to nod, willing her limp tongue to answer, to ask what the angel meant, but the room had gone dark again before Mercedes could form any words. As her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, the groan of the central air and the sounds of the road outside hesitantly returning to her, she had filled and emptied her lungs several times in large gasps, every muscle tense and tingling, a strange stillness filling in the room. Electric echoes of the angel and her voice vibrated in Mercedes’s mind as her breathing slowed, even as she tried to conjure thoughts, her eyes wide and searching among the gaping nighttime shadows, and though she had found that she could finally speak, the words came out as a hoarse whisper: “What the hell was that?”
Mercedes now took a deep breath and clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. That first night, after the angel had vanished, Mercedes had lain in bed for only a moment before an image had popped into her head – George’s family Bible, handed down since before his family came over from Europe a few generations ago, sitting in a box in a cramped, dusty room that she had recognized as her attic. George used to tell her that he thought he had forgotten to get that same box when he moved out – she had looked once, when she was already up there getting spare blankets for a houseguest, but she hadn’t tried too hard in the interest of time – and he had stopped mentioning it after a year or so, chalking it up as a casualty of the moving company. But if it is up there, Mercedes thought, at least I’ll have something. She pictured her own script in the family tree inside the front cover – a tradition, apparently – smooth cursive rising and falling to spell out Daniel’s full name, added after he was born. At least it’ll be something, Mercedes thought, swallowing against the tight dryness creeping through her throat.
After hearing George’s snore shift into the tattered, growling gasp and exhale of deep sleep, Mercedes lifted the blanket and sheet off of her. The crisp night air snuck down to her bare toes and Mercedes felt a shiver run down her spine. Better go now, she thought. No reason to wait any longer. She lifted her legs as softly as she could and grimaced when the bed springs groaned beneath her as she rotated on her hip and slid her feet over the side of the bed and into her slippers. As she stood, reaching for the flannel robe with grit on it from the last two nights of searching in the attic, she thought of the only cluster of boxes left upstairs that she hadn’t already searched through. It has to be there, Mercedes thought. That’s the only place left. That has to be it.
The past two nights, Mercedes had barely felt the need to sleep: she had been filled with a giddy energy, as if she was on the cusp of some large event that she had been waiting for her whole life. She’d been upbeat at work the past two days, joking with the patients and other nurses for the first time since the accident, even when she knew she should have been falling asleep standing up, even though her stomach felt tense and tight. Tonight, though, that trembling, anxious ball in her gut had a scalpel’s edge to it, and she wondered, as her fingertips grazed the smooth bulb of her bedroom’s door knob, if that change had anything to do with how this last night of her task would go. It’s just nerves, she thought. Either that, or it’s the feeling of me going crazy. As she stepped into the hallway and gently closed the bedroom door behind her, an image of the angel popped into her mind and she felt her stomach do a somersault. Mercedes gritted her teeth as she stepped quietly down the hall, softly approaching the attic door. I’ll know by morning.
Standing in the hallway in front of the open attic door, the stairs looming tapered and gloomy before her, Mercedes heard a noise from the bedroom and froze, every muscle flexed and solid, eyes wide. George, she thought, an acute copper taste filling her suddenly dry mouth. I must have woken him. She thought of how she must look: hair unwashed and standing on end from laying on her pillow, dark circles under her eyes, wearing a filthy robe and slippers, slouched in the shadows at the bottom of the attic stairs. And how would she explain herself if George were to emerge? Tell him about the apparition – the room ablaze with light, her inability to speak, the deafening multitudes of that tender voice, all while he slept soundly in the same room – which she already knew he wouldn’t believe. ‘An angel?’ he’d say, taking her hand. ‘Are you feeling okay?’ Mercedes flushed hot in the darkness as she thought about advancing into the stairway, out of sight if he were to open the bedroom door, and holding her breath, creeping up the attic stairs to the task at hand.
Mercedes strained to hear anything else coming from the bedroom, her body aching from staying still so long, but the first noise was never followed, and she knew George was heavy enough to make the floorboards creak when he crossed the room. She paused, her eyes swinging from the bedroom door to the stairs in front of her, and tried to relax her shoulders, one hand resting on the loose wooden banister. Her heart was beating so quickly that it fluttered, never quite settling into a rhythm, just swinging around in her chest and knocking everything else into an unsteady, careening dance, like the movement of the mobile that had hung above Daniel’s crib when he was an infant. Before Mercedes could stop herself, other objects tied to Daniel arose in her mind: the bright crayon drawing from his kindergarten class that she had found the night before, the one of Mercedes, Daniel and George in front of their old house; the striped ceramic mug Daniel had made her in middle school that was too bulky and heavy to be practical, but which she still kept in the china cabinet, just beside Abuelita’s tea saucers; Daniel’s motorcycle in the spot where he used to park it in the driveway – his helmet hanging from the handlebars – despite Mamá’s protests about oil stains; the few scraps of paper with jotted recipes meant for the cookbook that Daniel had been asking Mercedes to make for years, an album of all the meals from his childhood, the empanadas and cranberry-raisin bread and barbacoa, all the foods they would eat together as Daniel grew up, the foods that had brought them each to the table to share what was happening in their lives, foods that Mercedes had been unable to even consider cooking for almost six months now; those tattered fake roses – now faded to the lavender and peach of the wide New Mexico sunset – flailing in the wind at the base of the marker where Daniel had finally landed, broken, on the median; and the Bible that Mercedes now searched for, the leather cover worn soft and thin by travel and time, and inside, the stories of holy bloodlines that her mother used to tell her when she was a child. Mercedes thought back to when she wrote Daniel’s name in the front cover, her neat cursive handwriting, the ink so dark and sharp beside the decaying list of other names, some of them now illegible, already gone. Her trembling fist clenched the wooden bannister as she squeezed her eyes shut against the burn of moisture. It has to be up there, Mercedes thought. I have to find it tonight. She opened her eyes and looked up the stairs into the heavy darkness of the attic, sighed and pushed her knuckles along her cheeks. Dios te llevará a Daniel. Please, Mercedes thought, evoking the angel’s muted face and the murmurous legions of her voice, please let it be there. She imagined Daniel’s bright laughter, the winking gleam of the memorial marker on the highway, and the cluster of boxes in the corner of the attic that she hadn’t yet searched – the only ones left. “You sent me this far,” she whispered. “Let me find him tonight.”
With that, Mercedes straightened her back, tightened her grip on the unsteady wooden rail that led to the attic, and stepped into the deep, cavernous shadows of the narrow little stairway.