HARRISON CANDELARIA FLETCHER
She knelt with her grandmother before a shallow trench along the sun-warmed adobe of the ranch house sala, their aprons bursting with iris bulbs. The old woman pinched a wrinkled brown tuber and placed it the soil as carefully as if it were an egg in a nest of mulch. My mother, then a child, wrinkled her Indian Summer nose. “How can they be flowers? They look dead.” Her abuelita smiled. “Patience,” she said, and covered the bulb with dirt.
Summer `72. On the road to a graveyard east of Albuquerque in search of lost relatives.
My mother pointed over the dashboard toward a green spot on a white sandy hill.
“What?” My snoozing uncle snapped awake from the passenger seat. “Where?”
“That cactus. Let’s get it.”
The Comet swerved onto shoulder in a spray of gravel. In the back seat I blinked at my sisters, who blinked at me. We watched through the window as our mother and uncle retrieved two shovels from the trunk, and attacked the hill like a couple of grave robbers, sand flying, glancing over their shoulders for approaching traffic. Within seconds they wrapped the cactus in an old T-shirt and deposited it in the trunk beside a spool of barbed wire, a few chunks of flagstone and a wine bottle of warm orange Kool-Aid.
“We saved it,” my mother sighed, settling behind the wheel. “Poor thing was dying.”
No sooner did the Comet hit the road than we heard the whoop whoop of a police siren and saw red flashing lights. I melted into the seat while our mother pulled over. She smoothed her hair and glanced at my uncle, her younger brother, who had recently moved in with us. He slouched against the passenger side door, making himself small as possible.
The officer appeared outside my mother’s window.
Mother tightened her jaw. “What did I do?”
“I wasn’t speeding.”
The officer, sighed, shifted his weight and gave our dusty green Comet a long once-over. He was blond. Broad-shouldered. Clean-shaven. Hair buzzed Marine Corps short.
“Where are you headed?”
“Why?” said my mother, who like the rest of us, was longhaired, blue-jeaned and tie-dyed, bright as peacocks eight years after my father died.
“You look… Out of place.”
She flipped off her Jackie O sunglasses. Popped her head out the window.
“Suspicious? Did you say suspicious?”
“No ma’am… I just…”
“Are you trying to intimidate me? Because I’m a woman?”
“I’m just asked to see your license…”
“This is harassment. That’s what this is. I’ll have you know I’m a widow and these are my children. We were on our way to a cemetery to look for relatives. I’m suspicious?”
“Don’t tell me to calm down. You’re the one who stopped me for no reason.”
She extended both wrists out the window. “Go ahead! Arrest me! In front of my five orphan children. I'll bet that will make you feel like a real man!”
Back home, she knelt in her backyard cactus garden – no ticket, no warning, no reprimand – patting down the soil around her new transplant.
“What?” she asked my silent uncle. “Just hand me the shovel.”
The next spring, the cactus bloomed. Golden.
When her grandmother died my mother requested only one heirloom: a portrait of the Sacred Heart that had hung in the bedroom where her uncle Pablito succumbed to pneumonia. She had often been moved by the story of the sick boy and had knelt many times with her grandmother beneath the flaming heart of the brown-eyed Christ. When she tried to retrieve the print, though, she found it already been claimed by her older sister, who nailed it above her own personal altar with a shrug. “I didn’t know you wanted it.”
Years passed. The more my mother requested the portrait, the more her sister refused, igniting old resentments over who was entitled to what and why. On Sundays they sat on opposite ends of the church. When one took Communion the other turned away.
On the way home from the feed store, in the discount aisle of a Japanese nursery my mother found a potted fig among the Venus flytraps and Bonsai trees. The price: $9.95.
She loved figs. Just like her grandparents. During World War II, she and her family lived several years on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert in Victorville, California. On weekends they visited date groves. My mother sat for hours in the hot shade of the wooden shacks eating handfuls of honey-sweet figs. Each Christmas, her parents sent crates of California figs to the ranch in Corrales. Her grandparents glowed like a couple of coal oil lanterns as they opened jars of the sticky brown paste and spread heaping spoonfuls on cornbread or tortillas. They liked the dessert fruit so much they planted a few of the bushes in their apple and cherry orchards.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have fresh figs,” my mother asked my uncle, who stood nearby rubbing the belly of a Buddha. “Store-bought figs just don’t taste the same.”
“So get it.”
“Okay. I will.”
That fall and throughout the winter, the squat leafy plant grew two feet in a sunny corner of my mother’s den. When spring arrived she set the plastic pot on her front porch to soak up fresh air and light. Within a few months, it grew another foot.
That autumn, frost came early. Then snow. My mother drew back her dining room curtains and gasped at the site of the withering shriveled bush. Refusing to let it die, she placed the pot near the portable heater in her den, pruned the dead leaves, replaced the soil, and watered it like clockwork. After six weeks, a dozen buds returned.
When spring arrived, she placed the pot outside again – this time in her gravel driveway beside a bed periwinkle – for direct sun and irrigation water. Months passed, but the fig didn’t seem to be reviving, so she reluctantly decided to let nature take its course.
Then, one summer morning exactly two years since she bought the fig, she slipped on her leather gloves for a little yard work, parked her wheelbarrow beside the flowerbed, and reached for the pot. It wouldn’t budge. She pulled again, but it stayed in place – sinking roots through the tough plastic pot, through the hard-packed gravel, through the edge of the concrete driveway, and deep into the soil of her front yard.
“It wants to live,” she said, hand to her chest. “Its will is strong.”
With pruning sheers she cut away the thick container, cleared the gravel, dug a hole beside the periwinkle, placed the root ball inside, and soaked it with the garden hose.
The next summer, the fig sprouted a dozen white blossoms. A year after that, fruit.
My mother found herself with more of the plump brown figs than she knew what to do with. She plucked them by the handfuls and tossed them to the birds.
Pablito was different. Sabio, they called him. Learned. By age two, he spoke in full sentences, Spanish and English, each word enunciated with the grave tones of a priest. “Listen,” he’d say, knitting his long pale fingers. “I have something to say.”
In appearance, Pablito, fifth child of ten, resembled his father, with candle-flame hair and olive skin. But in temperament, he was his mother’s son, sharing her love of roses, linen, garlic. They spent hours together, her singing arias, him combing her thick auburn hair.
He was peculiar, though. He never addressed his father directly, speaking to him only through his mother, who he addressed by first name. “Adelaida,” he’d say at the kitchen table, hands folded like little birds. “Tell your husband to fetch the cows from the mesa. It’s going to rain. They will become sick. Their hooves will rot with fungus and they will die. Tell your husband to bring them home.” His father would sip his coffee and shake his head. But the cows would become ill, and they would die, and his family understood.
One damp spring morning, Pablito shuffled into the kitchen as his mother fed the wood stove. He stood patiently while she worked, hands in his trousers, until she faced him.
“I am very sick,” he told her. “Tell one of your sons to fetch your husband from the mesa. Tell him to take me to Old Town. I need to see a doctor. And very soon.”
His mother placed her palm on his eight-year-old forehead. Peered down his throat. Listened to his heart. Pressed his belly with two fingers. Massaged his glands. He looked fine. Tired, but fine. “I’m sorry,” she told him “Your father is branding. You just need rest.”
Pablito tugged her apron. “Please. Tell your husband to come home now. I am very ill. If you don’t do this, you will be sorry the rest of your life.”
His mother looked into his pale green eyes, as clear and deep as a well. Nodding, she ordered her oldest son to saddle up his horse and relay the message.
On the llano, his father staggered back from the branding fire, pulling off his leather gloves with his teeth. “No. I have to finish. Tell them I’ll be home before supper.”
That afternoon, Pablito’s breathing became shallow. His face candle wax.
His mother stripped his nightshirt, mopped his forehead, spooned him chicken broth and yerba Manzanilla tea. Still he burned. His hands melted in hers.
At sunset his father finally arrived. He took one look inside the sick room, scooped up Pablito in his arms, and loaded him into the buckboard wagon.
He slept with open eyes in his mother’s arms during fifteen-mile journey from Corrales to Albuquerque, gazing behind her, beyond her, at a place she could not see.
In Old Town the doctor clicked shut his bag and ushered Adelaida into the hall of her mother’s home. It was 1918, year of the Spanish flu. The camposantos had filled with bones. The doctor could not help him. The fever too high. The pneumonia too advanced.
“Why didn’t you listen?” Pablito told his mother. “Now you have lost your boy.”
She knelt at this bedside below a wall portrait of Jesus Christ – white robes flowing, brown eyes fixed, pink heart exposed, removed, alight.
One Easter parishioners at my mother’s church lined the altar with a few dozen potted white lilies, the traditional symbol of purity and light. As the priest conducted the service in the rosy glow of stained glass windows, the blossoms shone like wings. A week later, my mother asked if she could take one of the flowers home. She, like her grandmother, shared a devotion to St. Anthony, patron of travelers, poor people, lost things.
“Of course,” said the priest. “May I ask what you’re going to do?”
“Plant it,” she replied. “I know just the spot.”
The priest selected the healthiest of the withering flowers and gave her his blessing.
My mother planted the perennial in the northwest corner of her yard for the afternoon sun. She watered it each week, pulled weeds, and when my uncle accidentally mowed it over with the tangled grass, she placed a prayer card beside the stump and continued her vigil.
A year later, on the feast day of Saint Anthony, a white blossom.
Her sister called one morning, voice trembling. “Something happened. To the portrait.”
The night before, in the still of darkness, the portrait slipped from its nail and fell onto the family’s altar – directly on top of two flickering candles. Flames burned through Christ’s eyes and his chest before smoldering out. No one had knocked the painting off the wall. No one had seen the accident. Nothing else caught fire except Christ’s eyes and heart. Although the portrait was destroyed it was a miracle the whole house didn’t burn down.
“Yes,” my mother said, slamming down the phone. “A miracle.”
Her own voice trembling, she told my uncle, who had just entered the seminary, what happened. He folded his arms. “Makes sense. She wasn’t meant to have it.”
A few days later, she and my uncle wandered through an antique shop seeking a silver chalice for his ordination. Scanning shelf after shelf of dusty relics, my mother noticed a pair of familiar brown eyes gazing from a back wall gallery.
She hung the identical Sacred Heart print on her living room wall and chose for it a frame of the palest white gold, the perfect color, she said, to accentuate the flames.
Late autumn. After a day of yard work, my mother and uncle drove to the landfill above Corrales, not far from their grandparent’s old ranch. As she raked from the pickup dead grass and dried leaves she saw a pile of shriveled bulbs dumped beside the road. She held one to her bifocals. “Bet I can save them. I know just the spot.” She dug a trench in her back yard outside her bedroom window and placed a row of the brown wrinkled tubers.
The following spring, she woke to a firework display of color. Gathering a bouquet, she stopped short at the sight of one blossom towering above the rest – an iris of the purist velveteen black. Fearing she had transplanted some noxious weed, she fetched her irrigation shovel to dig it out. As she approached she set the blade aside. Above the flower: a corona of butterflies. On the breeze: the scent of orange, lemon, grapefruit, sunlight.