I once thought I saw what was left of my mother: a black low-cut dress, wrinkled and so heavy with silt that it looked like a dead bat. I do not remember her, but my grandmother did, plenty. Your mother got in a lot of trouble, my grandmother would say, and for a long time it was left at that. We lived in Mexico then, where “trouble” was another word for “life” and hard luck became our second skin. For some reason, the dress had been placed in a Macy’s gift box. I thought my grandmother had stored the box in her closet, but every time I’d go and search, it wasn’t there.
Later on, I was told that my mother would come home from time to time during her breaks from the maquila where she made T-shirts and slacks, but because many months passed with her gone, I learned to recognize her over and over again without falling in love. I was told we lived in a village but I don’t remember much of it, except for the things my mother brought home: glasses with labels for this or that kind of tequila and brandy, and once she brought home a pair of bikini underwear that weren’t hers. Or maybe I was told this and I never saw these things at all. Gradually it dawned on me that she had been gone for ages and was not likely to return. About that time, I learned that during the time of the murders, women like my mother turned into desert, their abandoned bodies hardening into the sand, their clothes floating to the surface just like the black dress.
My grandmother made sure I came to the States, to get away from this violent and un-predictable life. Once in school, I spoke only English, except with my grandmother, who didn’t speak English at all, nor did her friends. But still, my grandmother would tell me in Spanish to speak English as much as possible, because she was the past and I was the future, and I had to look away from the dust and rocks and factories and toward somewhere green. That was her way of saying “to the north” and far from her memory of terror. “Siga para frente,” she’d say.
Move on. This all seemed fine until I enrolled in a community college clothing design program. When my grandmother heard I was going into the merciless field of garment work, she broke down and wept in her hands. This did not move me though; I wanted to build clothes. I wanted to match the right clothes with the right bodies.
Ghost child #1:
Samantha is modeling a playsuit I designed weeks earlier and is now complete and ready for a photo shoot. Yet our little model is doubled over, weeping, hanging her head between her splayed out legs. When she looks up to see if we are paying attention, her large blue eyes look crazy with grief. Then she sinks her head down again, curling her toes in her white sandals, and she rolls into a thicker cry. Miles, the photographer, holds his camera to his chest and closes his eyes, patiently waiting. He motions to the small milk crate of toys. I go over to the crate, grab a handful of Legos and place them in front of her. Samantha stops crying, picks up a red piece, then screams even louder. Her mother, sitting on a bench at the side of the room, crosses her legs and pumps her feet, thumbing furiously through her cell phone.
“How hard is this?” Miles says above the wail. “The kid will outgrow the outfit in a couple of months. How old is she, two?”
“Does she think she looks fat? Is that what she thinks?” I shout back at him above the loud cries snagging the air.
At Dew Drop Fashion Inc, we make clothes for children. We design all kinds of outfits, from the upscale dresses made with Egyptian cotton, smocked with painstaking pleats, to the more modest playsuits for the Target and Walmart crowd. Our toddler collections: Blue is for Boo, Pink Bubble, and Green Hopper Frogs suggest an innocent world. My designs don’t use the ruffles and flower prints that are popular nowadays. My playsuit designs are a solid color with stark white cuffs and bibs to toughen the little wearer for adulthood. Samantha is the pinnacle of this effort.
She is the eye at the top of a pyramid.
Finally her mother stuffs her phone into her purse, goes over and snatches up her daughter.
“I’m sorry” I say weakly, though I know it is not my fault. Still, I feel a sense of responsibility. Her mother yanks the child onto her lap and proceeds to remove the playsuit, the one I created, slipping it off one chubby limb after another, then she dresses her daughter with the clothes she wore when she came in: T-shirt and leggings that smell of Snuggle Fabric Softener. Samantha stops crying and now she is happily trying to grab her mother’s earrings, but her mother slaps the child’s hand. She hoists Samantha onto her hip and tosses me the playsuit. Samantha looks over her mother’s shoulder in that mean baby way that makes me want to squeeze her little cheeks and pop that pus of cuteness.
I stand there holding the suit, now lifeless. It’s time to go home. Miles, with his camera in the case slung across his chest, flings up his hands and mouths, “Sorry.” Our assistants burst out of the sewing room. These young women, just hot off the community college clothing design program I attended, wear tight stretch jeans and their hair pulled back in buns (Michela’s hair a curly top-knot). They fling on their backpacks and talk about going for drinks at the Hoopla Room even though they say it’s a pretty stupid bar to show cartoons on the big screen and all. They spin backwards to wave at me, then head out the door with ribbons of laughter. Now empty, the workshop looks small because we only do prototypes here. If the prototypes are approved, we send them to large factories where cutters standing at waist high tables take rotary blade fabric shears and glide through layers of flowers and hopper frogs with wide-spaced eyes and pink polka dot bubble gum balls and yards of calming blue cotton. In endless rooms, women bow before sewing machines as their fingers push material through the feed dogs. They don’t stop until it is dark. Then they whip out their high heels, and head to the bathroom where, with blush and eye make-up, they paint their faces with color and glitter.
The workshop is quiet enough to hear my breathing. Finally I turn off the light. A small voice calls out “I’m still here!” and I snap on the light again. Everyone else has left. Dust flurries around the light bulbs. The night is warm and dry.
When I get home, Justin, my husband is at the kitchen table with his laptop working on his lesson planner program. This is his first year of teaching first grade, and he fusses to come up with three activities per hour which has to include some homework to show parents he is no slacker teacher, showing films all day. Or he is trying to figure out Common Core. My gringo even looks like a teacher, those pale guys in the Land’s End catalogs posing in khaki pants and cotton blend shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He takes a bite of sandwich and deliberately places the rest on a plate, to let me know I am really, really late and he had to fix something for himself. Because nothing gives him more pleasure than seeing my rounded ass at the stove, frying up his favorite little steaks. The local news on the TV is now onto sports stuff which means the program is almost over. Suddenly, a news break stops the show to report on a two-year-old missing child.
The picture on the TV shows the girl smiling with big blue eyes, radiating the unmistakable sweetness of one who has had everything in life and who has no business crying. She could be Samantha, or not. Perhaps I’m seeing just a shell of a child, one who has not yet felt pain. I think of all the possible ways she could have been kidnapped. Her irresponsible mother left her alone in the car seat to pick up something at the deli. The mother had a pervy boyfriend who took the child to a creepy motel with vinyl floors that know a nasty thing or two about the human race. Or the mother has brothers who are gang bangers, sons who are gang bangers,or an ex-con boyfriend who is made to sleep on the couch. She has a wealthy husband who is ashamed of the child and took her to a foster home. She has a cousin who wants a baby so badly that she steals a helpless family member to fill her empty womb.
I turn away and look into the refrigerator, trying to will the cold air inside me to freeze my heart. Justin has brought home a bunch of Bunny Love carrot packets and juice boxes from school lunches. I close the door and sit next to Justin at the dining table. “What do children in your classes wear?”
He’s a bit startled, the question coming out of nowhere. But he says he doesn’t remember much about kid’s clothes and such. Maybe leggings and sweatshirts, something with a Disney princess or something, he says. He makes it his business to watch the TV and ignore me.
But he knows more than he wants to talk about. He told me once that children’s bodies wriggle like puppies, but he is not allowed to touch them. If they cry, he lets them sit on the classroom couch and he pats their sweet heads. He prefers, he says, to watch whether one frustration sends them off the deep end, or if it can change with the joy of play. He looks closely at the pictures they draw. Do they use a lot of green? Or red? Or black?
He told me once some children have a dying face already, so young. One boy with severe asthma had arms so thin, other kids make thumb and forefinger bracelets around his forearms. He told me once that sometimes, when the kids are all sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on the rug, he imagines who will be the first to die. Probably the boys, he tells me with a wink. Guys are wired to be up to no good.
I imagine the cops coming to Dew Drop Inc. to investigate. They open a box and show me a shriveled little playsuit from our Blue is for Boo line, a solid blue with white bib and cuffs wet and dirty from river water.
Have you seen her? One of them asks.
Ghost child #2:
Up in the mountains, the sky turns deep purple as if the ink of fate has spilled and stained the night. About an hour away from here is a town called Felton. Felton is known for their ghost children, so much so, that no one goes near their small park at night. But nearby motorists often see the ghost children who glow in the headlights of oncoming cars. As you approach, the child steps onto the lane of traffic and you almost hit her. You stop and pull her into the passenger side and ask where she lives. She is too small to do anything but sob, but you see a small name tag on her, the kind that Justin’s kids use when they are on a field trip. Somehow you know where she lives and you drop her off. When you return home, you see that on the seat beside you, she has left her Blue is for Boo playsuit in the car. You find it odd because you don’t remember her naked. You remember where she lives, and drive to the house to give the outfit back, only to be told by the person who answers the door that the child has died years ago.
Ghost child #3:
One of my uncles told me that my mother’s legs were muscular like a horse. Even now, I picture the shiny high heel shoes she got on sale at Juarez and how it left half-moon bruises on her feet near the toes. I imagine her skirt, tossing in the wind like a parachute, her lace bra dimpling her tight bodice, her neckline low enough to show the brown cleft between her breasts. I see her bicep, decorated with a Cleopatra bracelet and her fingernails red with polish but chipped. She slouches in the doorway, looking at me as if to say: What am I going to do with you, hija? I almost imagine my uncles pacing outside the house, impatient, their work boots coated in red dust. One uncle has pant cuffs smelling like skunk cabbage because sometimes he works in the mountains. All of them—my mother, my uncles, sit in the back of the truck as it pulls away. Their bodies sway as the truck tires fling out small stones from the dirt road. They sit tight like birds without wings, the haze rolling until it covers them with distance. I strain to see where the factories are, the ones they talk about going to, but I can’t see nada, not even on a clear day.
I am not sure I saw them, ever. I was too young. I am the girl without a story so I make up what I don’t remember. I am the girl who was told I could see ghosts even when I was young.
I quit work early and shadow hipsters sitting in parklets on Valencia Street, with glasses of wine, their arms stretched out confidently on the backs of benches. I imagine Samantha’s mother among them, holding her baby on her lap, slapping her little hand as she tries to grab the glass of wine. I pull out my cell phone and tap the local news app, scrolling for something about the missing child. Finally a picture of the missing child pops up. She stares at me, her eyes so blue you could roll them in the palm of your hand. I want to reach into the screen and pull her out, like a new birth. I want to hear an Amber Alert screeching from every phone tucked in pockets and purses. I want to see the part where they interview the neighbor who thought the man next door seemed friendly enough yet a bit odd. Finally, with my cell phone search exhausted, I go to the Hoopla Room, a bar with a large TV screen that only shows old cartoons like Steamboat Willie and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Our neighborhood is being gentrified by young people who are still children inside. Angular women with bangs wear leggings and mini-skirts. The young men’s soft bellies are cupped by T-shirts with clever sayings. Yet their stylish bodies cannot hide their sulky stares and frantic sense of play. Of course, cartoons with booze are a natural fit. This afternoon, the bar is empty except for a couple of guys looking up at the TV try to get the bartender to turn on the Warrior’s game since the irony of the kiddie works gets old. But the bartender says his boss insists on ‘toons. I think of fairytales where parents leave their children in a forest with only a hunk of bread and think nothing of going on with their lives. I wonder why a witch, living in a candy house, would prefer to eat human flesh than gingerbread. I wonder why a perfectly attractive young girl would want to clean house for seven dwarves, or walk in glass slippers, or accept that a strange life with a beast in a run-down castle is better than no life at all. I picture ghosts and purple skies, and want to discover the playsuit in my car, its bib and cuffs still crisp and white. I picture myself walking through the desert near Juarez and finding a small set of bones, looking like a bundle of creosote.
When I get home, Justin is not happy. Why are you having drinks this early, he says, and with whom? I’ve never seen him jealous like this, where he would think I was dating someone else, but he is out of sorts today. I don’t tell him how I can’t stop thinking about the missing child and how it was my fault even if it wasn’t. Just knowing about it makes me part of the whole crime. It’s like how at one time I knew my mother and then she was killed and I chose to forget her because it was better for her to have never existed than to feel I drove her away.
Justin suspects that I am thinking about the child because we’ve been trying to have one of our own and all, and since the kidnapping, he’s turned into a sex fiend, trying his luck every night. But sensing I’m not in the mood, he gets angry at my sadness and says, “Since when have you been obsessed with children? With you, it’s always about the clothes.”
I throw myself on him and I hit his chest over and over again. At first he backs away, then stands still as if to give me a target and this makes me more furious and I hit him harder still, because if he works with children, he can protect them, even babies like Samantha. His face is stiff like how he gets when he is angry. He, the pure Anglo, full of pumped up reason, full of distant innocence. Finally I plunge my face in the snow, in his white shirt, his white pure skin, crying into the hole I dug myself into. The world is completely silent except for his breath. “Sheesh,” he says.
“Make me understand you.”
I hear footsteps and I lift my head up, and I realize I’ve pushed him back up to the sink and he is trying to free himself from my grief.
Ghost child #4:
Once upon a time, a hunter ventures too far into the woods while stalking a deer he had seen for an instant in his cross hairs, when he gets caught in a blizzard. He nearly freezes to death in the snow, until a ghost woman appears and leads him to a cabin with a comfortable bed, a roaring fire in the fireplace, and a hearty meal on the simple wood table. When he finishes eating, he crawls under the bed covers, sensing the warm body of the ghost woman laying next to him. When he wakes up in the morning, she has disappeared, leaving a pool of water with a few crystals of snow at the foot of the bed.
Justin is huffing and puffing on my face and neck as he throttles inside me. Finished, he rolls over. I touch his shoulder blades. Cuddle me, he says. I cuddle him from behind as if he is a child. I wonder if he’s given me a ghost child who will glow inside me and illuminate the dark road like a lantern. I wonder if he’s given me a ghost child who finds lost things or the kind that burns houses or the kind that sits in easy chairs at night, scaring insomniacs going into the kitchen cabinet for some brandy. I wonder if I will melt and disappear.
A child slipping under my skin, is the one who fell into the river. The child at the sandy bottom, looks up at me as if I were the golden coin sun. This is the child of the mother who cries as she wanders up and down the river bank. Blue is for Boo is disguised as the sky. In Mexico, we have the story of La Llorona, a mother who drowns her child in the river to get back at her two-timing husband. Then, realizing the horror of what she has done, she searches for the little body, praying for a miracle. My grandmother used to warn, “Watch out hija, for the Crying One, because she will steal children if she can’t find her own,” though she said it as if she didn’t quite believe her own stories.
This is the child inside me. It is the child who sings snow. It is the child who clings to my bones. It is the child who admires what I wear, who watches me intently as I put on makeup. It is the child in Justin’s class, the one with a Dora the Explorer T-shirt, who once drew me a picture of a monster, proudly announcing, “this was all in my head.” It is the child who wakes up at night, screaming because a scary thing in the closet keeps saying, “I’m still here!”
Eventually, La Llorona finds her child’s Blue is for Boo playsuit caught between some rocks battered by the river current. She wades into the water, grabs it, and holds it to her chest. She remembers when her child modeled the playsuit, and jumped and kicked her legs in the air when asked. That kid could look at the camera and laugh. The child inside me looks at my face a little too earnestly as if she knows my fear of the Crying One, the La Llorona. At first, I see the bright ball of blue waiting to be born. I am confident that the child will live. Then I see the part of me that has disappeared.
Kathleen de Azevedo’s fiction was recently published in Chicago Quarterly Review and is forthcoming in Notre Dame Review. Her novel Samba Dreamers (University of Arizona Press) about Brazilians in the U.S. was nominated for the Northern California Book Award and won the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award. As well, her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Américas, Boston Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, and Hotel Amerika among others.