Aunt Isa’s house became our retreat from the bustling world outside. On each of our visits, she made us feel at home with a warm heart and lively laughter. We were welcome in every snug corner of her house.
But all rules have exceptions. There was at least one corner I had never entered. It was a small room next to Aunt Isa’s bedroom, no more than 15 square feet. And though the door wasn’t locked, it had never been opened for any guest. However, we had enough decency to respect her privacy and keep our curiosity at bay.
Besides the truer-than-truth tale she had told us of her Aztec ancestors, the rest of her life was a blank. We found neither childhood pictures nor family photos in any room by which to trace her earlier life. It seemed she had magically emerged from her side of reality to walk among us, perhaps to mock the all-embracing yet illusive reality we had been born into. How thrilling! As absurd as it sounds, the absence of an earlier life reassured me that she couldn’t be anything but a witch creature.
Never had I had a chance to check if the door wasn’t left ajar, or there wasn’t a clanging noise coming from inside. Then I caught sight of Aunt Isa busy tending the garden. What a good chance! In the dim daylight seeping through the door as I sneaked in, I found her cat Chiquito dangling atop a mahogany shelf on the wall and apparently pushing some flat object onto the floor. That stealthy cat must have run into the room to chase a spider for his snack, giving me a good excuse for being there in case Aunt Isa found me.
Lying at my feet was a photograph in a silver frame. I picked it up and looked into the face of a pretty Latina girl who looked no older than 16. Her bursting smile gave me the impression of a young girl with no idea that tragedy and misery or such things existed. What attracted me most was her large pair of dreamy eyes, wide open in wonder as they stared right at me, thrilled and amazed, as if my sudden presence was to her magical enough. Although the girl’s facial features and Aunt Isa’s overall were not the same, the expression in her eyes strongly reminded me of the older lady’s.
They shared the dreamlike expression of one who thinks miracle upon miracle will be waiting for them at every step of their walk.
Except for the mahogany shelf on which that picture had stood, the tiny room was bare of furniture, as if it was only used to hold that portrait. Though the room was stark, there were signs of daily cleaning; this tiny space was treated with care. After I shooed the cat away and found no damage to the picture, I returned it to the shelf and tip-toed out of the room as if it had never been disturbed.
I remembered how Aunt Isa sneered at people’s tears, for a good reason: eyes were given to people to appreciate the world, not for weeping at its gloomy side. But only a couple of days later, Sonia caught sight of Aunt Isa walking out of that room. Nothing would have been out of the ordinary had she not heard Aunt Isa’s strangled sobs as she left that corner. Thank heavens she didn’t notice Sonia noting the contradiction to her own antipathy to weeping. Later that day Sonia found the older lady going about her routine – smiling and chatting with everyone she met – as if she had not just a moment ago been shedding tears
It’s true that a book and a man should have one feature in common. They both need a mystery, a twist and turn, to bring intrigue to a reader through every page – as well as kindle a zest in every step of a man’s life.
How thrilling to know Aunt Isa had a secret. She would rather have all her blood drained from her heart than let a single teardrop slip off the eye. That girl, whoever she was, must mean the world to Aunt Isa, as no one else seemed able to move her to tears.
That led to a conclusion made by Sonia, Mimi and Giovanna. The girl was beyond doubt Aunt Isa’s own flesh and blood; that’s why they shared that eerie expression. And because she had given birth to an illegitimate daughter, a love child conceived out of wedlock, she had kept the girl’s existence a secret. Not only had this stigma in her otherwise discreet life brought shame to her family, it had forced her to leave her child behind and conceal herself in a new place under a new identity. Her past had been buried for at least 15 years until a picture of her grown-up daughter was sent to her to evoke the old trauma. Worst of all, the daughter left behind could possibly be dead around the time that picture – the first and last – was sent. Otherwise there would be later pictures of the girl in other corners.
And so, they said, it led to another prospect: that small room was Aunt Isa’s most sacred place in the house, a shrine for a grieving mother to come to regret and cry her eyes out in secret, a way to release the intolerable weight of guilt that kept her awake night after night. They couldn’t measure the agony she endured beneath the smiling mask she wore when facing the world.
Though every piece of the jigsaw seemed to fit and I couldn’t find a reason to dispute their presumption, I simply couldn’t bring myself to believe it.
To believe meant to humanize one who wasn’t human. It meant to delete an otherworld identity from a witch and change her into a banal human being. Her story should end in a breathtaking surprise, not in the mundane twist of a runaway woman who had wronged her daughter. But my girlfriends jeered at my denial to see reality. They said I was going to graduate soon and leave this place behind – time to outgrow the fantasy stuff. All I needed to do was be prepared to meet the future awaiting me at home.
How things could change over time. When I had arrived at this town, I had wished the time would fly so I could go home 10 times faster. Now that the time to leave was lurking around the corner, I wished my remaining days would stretch way, way longer. I would never find another to take Aunt Isa's place.
A few days before leaving San Diego, Aunt Isa gave me a farewell party. On my last evening with her, my eyes worked like a good camera, capturing every memorable moment – imprinting the sights and scents and sounds that had cast a spell on me since the day I had first wandered into the courtyard garden where we were now clustered for dinner. As usual, Aunt Isa’s cat Chiquito was cuddled in her lap. He didn’t care if the world slipped away as long as the soft flesh of that lap provided more comfort than the entire world. As her hands caressed her pet affectionately, I felt hot tears well up. On the verge of bursting into sobs, I knew I had to get rid of the sentimental tears before Aunt Isa noticed them and became upset. I excused myself and ran for the bathroom.
Instead of heading for the bathroom to wash my tear-smeared face, my feet led me trance-like into that forbidden room. I simply tiptoed inside, for the door was unlocked. I held my breath and looked up. There on top of the shrine, the girl smiled up at me from her picture. Though this was the second time we met, she still stared as if my presence was a great wonder to her. It was impossible to break the spell of her eyes and turn my back. Those eyes seemed to shine and glow mysteriously against the dimness of the room that obscured most of her face. Except for her eyes. How strange…
I jumped a foot. I heard a crack at the door as footsteps trudged into the room.
“Suda, are you all right? I saw you slipping in here.”
If she was capable of detecting the colours of things while blindfolded, following my whereabouts in her house must be nothing to her.
“Well, did anything in this room appeal to you?”
Her voice remained casual, as if catching me red-handed exploiting her trust hardly made her turn a hair. I’d never loathed myself so much. Stammering, I managed to give her the most honest answer.
“I … just…” I let out a breath and went on. “I just wanted to see … her one last time.”
Her eyes solemnly searched for more clues on my face. So I decided to confess all while she listened in a cool, calm and collected manner to the end.
“It’s her eyes that haunt me. It makes me wonder … I don’t know why her eyes kind of remind me of yours…” I gulped.
The rest was left unsaid because it seemed too blunt. Yet what I’d already said should be clear enough for her to grasp.
While she kept studying me quietly, I couldn’t bring myself to meet her eyes. Ripping open her secret, I didn’t deserve the acts of goodwill she made for all who came, in need of her big heart. I started a choked cry.
“Shush…” I felt her warm hand on my face, wiping away the tears. “Don’t cry. Let’s forget the whole thing.” A smile began to light up her face. “Come with me to see the gift I have for you.”
It was now or never. I collected myself to dare ask for one more truth before I never had another chance. I needed to know. Only the truth would save her real existence that my girlfriends were trying to distort.
“Please, if you want to give me a keepsake, can I choose it myself?” And before losing all courage, I breathlessly continued. “Please let me know more about her, that girl. I … I promise to keep it only to myself for life.”