“Don’t worry mujer, I’m good at this.” María looked down at the girl’s sweaty brow, tan as her own, and ran a calming thumb over it.
“You are the best . . . .” It was a statement, and a question.
“Yes. And the quietest. I’ll be quiet for you, and you will be quiet for me.” She put a finger over her lips. The girl nodded. Something beyond María’s shoulder caught the girl’s eye. María turned to follow her gaze, just in case they were found out, and saw the waxing moon rising through the upper windows of the lavandería, where signs for bands and cervezas did not hide their actions from the outside world.
“As quiet as the moon,” the girl said, returning her attention to María.
María nodded and began.
Coyolxauhqui had locked her door. She was a good girl. She went to Catholic school, and she believed what they told her there. Every night she would kiss her Mami and Papi on their cheeks and would walk to her room at the back of their family complex, past the stern men who were armed underneath their uniform-like black suits. She would turn around and lock the door, and then pray a very long and involved prayer that included requests for absolution for herself for sins she had committed but forgotten, sins she had committed and remembered, and sins that she would commit in the future, most likely on accident. She prayed this intricate prayer both for herself, and for her parents, because while she was young, she knew that not everyone at her school had a house as big as hers, or as many guards outside.
That night, when they broke down her door, the door that she had locked, they showed her no mercy, though they did let her live.
Her father, now a broken man, could not look her in the eye. And when she stopped bleeding, he would not let black-suited men drive her to school. And when her stomach started to swell, her father put her back inside her room, only this time it was he who locked the door, from the outside.
Once a month, the moon looked in through the window that she could see but never reach. She hated it for looking down at her bloodlessness and mocking her.
After a time, she gave up on even praying.
She birthed her child alone inside the room, with no one to hear her screams but the moon, until near her end, when her father came in, and saw the blood on the ground, and the half finished thing that she had done. He completed what she’d started there, with a gun, and looked up through the window, at the moon, instead of down and at her and what his actions had wrought. He backed out of the room without looking down, staring only up, because to look was to accept, and in this way he tried to make himself master of his realities.
But instead what would happen is that once a month the moon would rise, and in it, he would see her smile in its edge, and her swollen belly in its fullness and it would chase him with her memory for half of every month across the sky.
Sometimes the children came back during the day. Not the women–the women came back to haunt her at night–but during the day, she saw mostly the children. María would see them in the suds that swirled around inside the washing machines, curled up like the worn socks pressed against the glass, or in the amorphous mounds of lint it was her job to remove from the dryers. Sometimes they were in the shape of the skin cancer scabs on the back of a trabajador’s hand, at other times they were in the mud on the balls that the children kicked around outside in the filthy street. They were always indistinct, as if, because her actions had robbed them of what they might have become, they were trapped in a state of never being anything precisely, but visible in everything, at least to her.
“Change, Señora,” the man said, waving a low denomination bill in front of her face. Coming to attention she smiled quickly at him, and gave him the tokens that worked the machines. He smiled back, without teeth.
Cihuacoatl had birthed Mixcoatl with the brothel’s best midwife looking on. The midwife had assigned the other women to useful tasks, keeping the ones that needed to be kept busy, busy, while keeping those who had skills in such things close at hand. Chipped turquoise nails flashed over her forehead, soothing her with a damp washcloth, as she stared at the ceiling and felt the muscles of her stomach becoming rigid, like they were part of an iron engine that would not stop, rocking back and forth like a piston, again and again.
Just as she thought she could not take anymore of anything, and that death was around the corner with his silent skull-faced grin and that she would welcome this if only he would make the pain stop–the final contraction pulsed, there was a rush of fluid and of bag, and the child came free. The midwife took him up, cleaned him off, and set him down against her sweaty breast for her to hold, still attached to her by the cord that they shared.
The evening bells rang and women left the room, one by one. Despite the fact that she was no longer alone in the world, she’d never felt more abandoned. A small knife rested on the nearby table, for her to use, when the time was right. She waited until the cord was done beating, and finished the midwife’s job.
She stared at the ceiling of the room as the child suckled, listening to the sounds of life through thin walls, women whimpering in pleasure and fear, men grunting as they planted their seed deep within undecided wombs.
What did she want to be? Not a mother.
What did she want to be? Not a whore.
She gathered the boy in her arms, and went out into the streets, out past the flickering electric lights of generator-powered civilization, until she found herself at a crossroads in the dust, with only the moon watching down from above.
She set the baby down in the middle of the night, set the small knife that had severed him from her beside him, and kept walking. She did not look back.
Much later, she returned. She found the knife.
“What have I done?”
Fists pounded the door and set it to rattling in its hinges. They found the windows next, wrinkling the advertisements with their impotent fury. Then the wailing would begin, and the sounds of tears, dripping slowly at first, like a leaky faucet, then gathering into a firm trickle before rushing into a louder stream. Like the storm gutter outside that had claimed her deeds was full with summer rain and overflowing, threatening to make the plump rats there disgorge the many meals they had eaten there and reproduce all the witnesses against her in this world.
Another pounding fist.
“Where are my children?”
María sits inside on her countertop, a wall of washing machines and dryers at her back. On nights like this she never opens up the door. Not even if the moon is full.
“What have I done?”
She lights a cigarette and waits.
Coatlicue has flat breasts. When she was younger, they were shaped like well-watered melons, pointing pink flower nipples up to the sky. But now they have been drained of all their juices by so many mouths to feed. Seven children still live with her, and certain of her children’s children, and so she only counts the many ones she buried behind their house on Sundays, when she says prayers for them as she walks to Mass.
She spends her time pounding corn, soaking beans, scraping skin off of meat.
Her bones are brittle from lack of milk. She has no teeth. Her skin is as wrinkled as the moon.
She gives and she gives and she gives. She does not think of any other life she might have had because dreams are as foreign to her as moths are to sun. There is only this life that she is in, and there is only this now, and there is always, always, someone left to feed.
One day she is in the garden behind her small baked-mud house, tending the plants that grow up out of the earth over the corpses of the children that she buried there. A snake is startled by her intrusion. It bites her, and she dies.
“I’ve heard of you,” the girl says aloud. María blinks. They are at the mercado together, herself and this girl, and on this evening they have met in the isle of canned meat and warm Coke.
María looks down into the girl’s eyes, past her eyes, into her flesh, where she knows there is something beginning to grow. Something that must come out.
“I’ve heard of you,” the girl whispers, as if talking in a secretive voice will give the words a different meaning.
María makes a smile that is half a frown, and nods. “I know.”
Cassie Alexander is a registered nurse and the author of Nightshifted, Moonshifted, and Shapeshifted, out now through St. Martin’s Press.