Mama's Little Bones
Translated by Karen Gomes
The flavor of anise always reminds me of the Delfino sisters. They used to serve my cousin and me Pernod in elegant little cordial glasses every time we visited when we were kids.
The sisters lived at the village edge where the wheat fields and pastures began. This was decades ago, long before wheat, sunflower, flax and corn yielded to the now commonplace soybeans, and before ranchers started sending their cattle to be fattened in feedlots.
We called them Aunt Serafina, or Auntie Fina, and Aunt Immacolata, or Auntie Ima. They were my cousin Alicia’s aunts, not mine, but since I was Alicia’s cousin, we were both free to wander into their patio without knocking. We would sometimes stop there to use the bathroom while we were running around the neighborhood. In that house it was a privy off the patio―nothing more than a hole over a little platform, which the ladies called the “lavatory.”
On those occasions they would invite us into the parlor and show us the many family photographs hanging on the walls. Sometimes they would bring out an old shotgun they referred to as a “9 millimeter.” This seemed to us rather absurd since it was clearly much longer than that. Somehow they must have thought that seeing it would be an edifying experience for us girls who would one day be women.
Then they would open the crystal hutch and the bottle would appear along with the little cordial glasses. We would take slow sips as if it were the elixir of the gods. Auntie Ima was the more generous of the two and always offered a second round. Serafina, the elder, had taken it upon herself to manage the household expenses and was therefore more parsimonious. Her excuse was that, since we were only 10, the alcohol might go to our heads. It did happen sometimes, but not often.
The principal attraction was not the photos or the liqueur, which burned our throats, but the ombú standing in the middle of the patio. That huge Pampas tree, which isn’t really even a tree but a giant treelike grass, was where my cousin and I would commune with the natural world, curling up in the hollows of its voluptuous roots.
The Delfino sisters, by contrast, were not generously proportioned like the ombú, but very thin and as tall as cypresses, those cemetery trees that are impossible to climb. People used to refer to them disparagingly as “dry” or as “dry as salt cod.”
The sisters’ main virtue was their cleanliness. Both dressed in black. Not because they were widows, since neither had enjoyed the pleasures of married life or, as they put it, suffered the unpleasantness of men, those coarse, filthy beings. They started wearing black when their mother died and hadn’t stopped since. They wore black skirts, black embroidered blouses, black winter stockings, and black shawls every day to morning mass. Their hair, their eyes, and their thick Sicilian eyebrows were just as black.
Once a month the sisters would climb into their Model T Ford—which was black as well and a relic even then—and drive the kilometer and a half to the cemetery with the wholesome purpose of cleaning the family pantheon. When their mother died, the family had buried her in a cheap pine coffin in the ground. At the time, even though their father had inherited a bit of land, they were not by any stretch well off. By the end of the 40s, however, when landholders had made fortunes exporting meat and wheat to European countries at war, the man had felt more prosperous. He no longer had to toil, stooped and sweating, in the fields like before. He was able, even, to buy a thresher and a harvester and grow a hefty bank account. Conscious of his own mortality, he built a mausoleum―or “pantheon,” as it was called in those parts―in the town cemetery. All the upper-middle-class families did this for the members of their clan for, as is well known, bodies laid to rest in this manner do not decompose as quickly as those placed in coffins in common tombs. Nor would they have to fraternize with the plebeian skeleton of just any old neighbor buried in a hole in the ground.
When the construction was complete, Doña Delfino’s remains, which were by now loose bones, were placed with proper ceremony in an urn gracing the pantheon’s small altar. Don Delfino died some years later and took his position in a luxurious casket against the left-hand wall. Places were reserved for the sisters when their hour arrived, on cement platforms to the right, one above the other, like bunkbeds.
This stark white pantheon was not as grand as others, but it had an imposing set of carved wooden doors, opulently decorated with angels. The sisters’ monthly visit followed an established routine. As soon as they entered, they would open the small round clerestory window and brush the spiderwebs off the cherubim and other plaster ornaments. After cleaning the floor, the sisters would apply their feather dusters to their father’s coffin, by now dusty from all the sweeping. They would then give the silver candelabra, as well as the altar with its various saints from the crowded Catholic Olympus, a good shine. Finally, they would clean their mother’s urn, a type of large jar with a lid. This always gave them some trouble. The material, not particularly fine, resisted both water and sponge. Because of the humidity, a light white film, like a type of mold, would form again and again just minutes after cleaning, as if by magic.
On one of their visits, after cleaning, lighting the candles, and saying the rosary, the sisters agreed to give up pointlessly scrubbing the urn and buy another of finer material.
“Carrara marble,” Ima proposed.
“It’s so expensive,” her sister objected. “Let’s go for Chinese marble—it’s good quality but cheaper.”
And, because Fina signed the checks and so had the upper hand, Chinese marble it was.
By that time, my father had closed his shop, which was selling next to nothing, and taken a job as sales representative for a mortuary house. His catalog pictured gravestones, caskets, and urns for niches or tombs, of bronze or marble, some with a small built-in vessel where water and flowers could be placed. Epitaphs were included in the price. Mourners could either specify the wording themselves or accept one of the salesperson’s suggestions. I loved to come up with phrases for my father to use during his sales, such as “Living in our hearts,” “Resting in the arms of Jesus,” and “At peace with the Lord.” I am proud to say that these were my first published works.
But back to the catalog, which also contained images of beautiful chests and amphorae in various materials where ashes or bones could be stored. The Delfinos wanted the best urn available—or almost the best—and this was good news for my father, who earned a commission on his sales. I remember the day they chose one from the display, and also the day that the distributor, a man we called “comisionista,” brought it from the city. Ima had placed the order, because the man had a grudge against her sister. He said Fina was stingy and distrustful.
The day after the urn arrived, the sisters got into their Model T and went straight to the cemetery. Ima drove, as always, and Serafina said the rosary while muttering about how much their bank account had gone down after the extravagant, though necessary, expense. The ability to compartmentalize was one of her talents. Because it was a weekday, the sisters found the cemetery empty. They were pleased about this, since they did not appreciate curious onlookers. I know this and other details because my cousin told me, and she heard it from her mother, who heard it from Serafina herself during her sister Immacolata’s wake.
Serafina said they parked the Model T under a weeping willow near the cemetery wall, opened the wrought-iron gates and made their way down the alley leading to the family pantheon. The urn must have been very heavy, but the sisters, though skinny, were not weak. They had spunk, as they say, and determination. I can imagine them walking and sweating in their long black dresses as they passed the silver crosses and the white tombs, carrying the marble jar between them for over 200 meters. I know the place well, and I know where the Delfinos are because on the Day of the Dead, when the villagers went to pray and place fresh flowers on graves, my friends and I would play hide and seek among the tombs and pantheons.
That day, when Ima opened the pantheon door, the hinges gave out an alarming shriek, which her sister felt was a bad omen. Serafina lit the lantern and pulled the chord that opened the clerestory windows. Brilliant light filled the mausoleum. She found matches and lit six candles, which flooded the place with the strange radiance that occurs when candlelight blends with natural light.
They set to work. After crossing themselves several times, Ima gently shook the old urn: a dry clatter told her the bones had not yet been reduced to dust. Good! Removing the cover, she began to take out, one by one, the bony remains of her late mother, laying them in a neat row on the altar.
At this point I must pause in my narrative so as not to be accused of telling tall tales. It’s true that Serafina did not specify whether she had or hadn’t seen the ring shining among the bones at that moment, and for this reason I cannot affirm that she had. She only mentioned that after a few minutes her sister Ima began to sneeze. An insidious dust filled her nostrils.
“This is disgusting, Fina,” Ima commented. “We have to wash them.”
Her sister agreed. There was no other way. The bones were pocked and pitted and covered with a dry residue. It would be wrong to ignore this fact. Always diligent and hard-working―no one could deny her these virtues—Serafina went looking for the bucket of water that cemeteries always have for filling vases, and also a towel they had in the Model T.
When she returned to the pantheon, she saw that Ima had moved the bones onto a cloth on the floor. They got ready to clean them one by one.
“And didn’t you feel … how should I put it … distaste, doing this?” Alicia’s mom asked when she heard the story from Serafina later.
“No, no. After all, it’s one’s mother, not just any old skeleton,” Fina assured her. “And of course, dear, dust to dust, you know. But I must say those bones were in awful shape. And I told my sister, Ima, for the love of God, we have to do a good job.’”
And so began the meticulous cleaning operation. Ima handed the bones over to Fina one at a time, and Fina submerged them in the bucket before giving them a stir and returning them to her sister, who dried them with the towel and carefully placed them in the new urn. In the gloomy silence not even the slightest click could be heard as Ima was very careful when it came to handling, with her delicate bird-like fingers, each and every bone and arranging them in the brand new urn. The little bones of the hands and feet gave them the most trouble. “There were so many!” Fina remarked. Every now and again they had to change the water, which would quickly become murky. An hour later, when they had finished up the task and were sitting on the ground for a well-deserved rest, an image crossed Fina’s mind.
“Wasn’t mama buried with her wedding ring, Ima?”
“I don’t know, Fina, but we would have seen it, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so…”
So the sisters’ macabre task ended. And, for the record, “macabre” is my addition; to them, it was just a sacred duty to filial love and cleanliness.
Some days later, with Ima absent, Serafina took the family photo album from a closet. There she found a photograph of her mother in her casket, in a lacy dress and a with bouquet of silken flowers. And she confirmed what was already circulating in the silent labyrinth of her memory: the gold ring with its little diamonds clearly sparkled on her mother’s ring finger. She consulted with the mortician, Mr. Di Celio. He told her he had personally supervised the transfer of her mother’s mortal remains from the original coffin, and that the ring was still on the corresponding metacarpal of her left hand, though a little looser, of course, when they sealed the urn. His probity was beyond doubt. Di Celio was a man of the church, her father’s countryman, an all-around honorable man, and also rich. Certainly not a petty thief. Besides, there were witnesses. No, it couldn’t have been him or any of his employees. There was only one abominable answer to the puzzle: Ima had been alone with the bones of their progenitor when Fina had gone for water. She had had sufficient time to … ah, the thought was so ugly it gave her goosebumps. She rejected it the instant it flowered in her mind. And yet, it began to obsess her relentlessly.
From that day forward, Serafina watched her sister very carefully. She noticed that Ima was praying more than usual and that the contents of the Pernod bottle went down according to the frequency of her devotions. Not only that, but on two occasions that week Ima disappeared toward the end of the afternoon and returned after nightfall, with the excuse of having been distributing picture cards of the Virgin and other pious explanations that didn’t quite ring true. All this was accompanied by brighter eyes and rosier lips, in contrast to Ima’s usual pallor. Fina decided to follow her.
It must have been July or August, because the weather was cold. She put on a pair of mechanic’s overalls, one of her late father’s jackets, and a hat. Fina mounted her bicycle and glided through the shadows of a winter’s evening, taking care to avoid the streetlights’ dim glow. It is not easy to go about incognito in a village. When the streets are deserted, there are spies peering through shutters with curious eyes. And the gossipers are plenty. One of these was old Fiorella. The sisters knew her well. Once, when she had fallen drunk into a ditch full of water and frogs, the two had rescued her, taken her home, bathed her, and left her neat as a pin, sleeping it off in bed. It had been an act of Christian charity.
Immacolata, as it turned out, was going to the old harpy’s house without telling her sister!
Fina stationed herself in the shadows and took up her vigil. Consumed by anxiety, she waited and waited. Thank God she had her rosary to pass the time and keep her lips busy too. It was at least 8 o’clock when the front door opened and out walked her sister. Something told her to stay put and continue watching that portent-laden door. After a few minutes, a male figure emerged, not by the front door but from the back. It was the comisionista.
Adrenaline ran riot through Serafina’s veins and her mind raced frantically as she imagined various reasons for this obviously secret encounter. She considered the possibilities. There were only two explanations, each one worse than the other. The first was that Ima was negotiating with the comisionista and trying to get the best price for the ring. This was unsatisfactory. Why would her sister need money? True, Fina, who ran the house strictly, was a little stingy―as was her duty. But … Ima did not lack for anything! The other option was that the pair … a flurry of obscene images swirled around in her head. She was furious. Unthinkable! Just the thought was so overwhelming she felt nauseated. Ranting, she flew back home, pedaling furiously so as to get there before her sister. She ran to her room, changed clothes, and came out holding a handkerchief to her mouth and a faking a coughing fit to hide her fury. She began to cook dinner.
That night the elder sister was able, through great effort, to stifle the volcano inside her. They ate in silence― a thick, electric silence. Without proof, Fina could not blame her sister for anything. Nor could she muster the strength to ask her sister straight out about her rendezvous. She would not give Ima the chance to accuse her of being a no-good spy. No, she needed to act calmly and with intelligence. Her sense of premonition, which often flared like a beacon in a fog when she imagined catastrophes, now led her to immediate action. As soon as her sister began to snore, Serafina put on a woolen robe that for some time now had showed its age, got the flashlight and, in the grip of fierce determination, went out to the garbage can on the sidewalk. It had been there all week. The garbageman would be by tomorrow. She brought the garbage can inside, hid it behind the ombú against the remote chance that Ima might open the window, and began to pick through the garbage―discarded Yerba Mate leaves, potato peels, eggshells, chicken bones, and other leftovers―what little the spartan Delfino sisters tossed away. It was not difficult to find what she was looking for because it was the only thing wrapped in newspaper: the incriminating garment.
Ave María Purísima! There could be no doubt! Her sister’s panties stained with blood! And it wasn’t menstrual blood: their periods were nowhere near due, she knew, because in this they were quite synchronized.
Ima had lost her virginity!
Serafina uttered an enraged prayer, put her sister’s rag in the woolen robe’s pocket, and went back into the house. She did not sleep a wink that night. Mentally, she reviewed the seven cardinal sins and then the venal ones. Robbery was cardinal. So was lying … but disloyalty? Why did it not figure among the cardinal sins? Had Moses run out of space on his stone tablets?
She got up weary-eyed, her face ashen, her breath foul, and could not stop herself from confronting Ima, who was preparing to mate.
“I don’t know which is worse, stealing or lying!” she spat, with fiery eyes and a demented look, holding the incriminating undergarment aloft.
Ima froze and went white as a ghost.
“You lied, you robbed, you FORNICATED! That will get you sent to hell three times over, sister!” Fina continued. “Out with it, what did you do with Mama’s ring? Did you give it as a present to your Mr. So-and-so, to pay for his services, maybe?”
Ima did not answer. She locked herself in her room and did not come out for a long time. Well, she did come out at one point, with a face like thunder―Fina corrected herself when she told the story―just to get the anis from the crystal cabinet, and then locked herself in once more. After several hours, by which time Fina’s knuckles hurt from knocking on the door, her sister finally came out, quite drunk, and said:
“You want to know where the ring is, yes? Come, I’ll show you!”
She stumbled over the patio in the direction of the privy, opened the door, drew the ring from her pocket and said to her sister:
“There’s your ring, go ahead and get it!” And she let it fall into the stinking hole.
The days following this event were a little confused in Serafina’s telling. It seems that the sisters did not speak to each other ever again. And it seems that Ima only left her room to go to the parlor like a whipped dog for a swig from the bottle. Then she would go back into her room and lock the door. In a couple of days she had downed a second bottle, 35% proof, they say, even though Fina was sure that it had been more. And when she finished, she put it on the dresser with a candle stuck into it.
What was indeed clear was that, on the third day, a rainy one, Ima packed up her things and disappeared, leaving only the following message:
Envy is also a cardinal sin. See you in Hell, sister! The ring was for a white dress. No matter. I’ll get married in black.
Outside, the rain fell like a round of applause.
Fina held a symbolic funeral because, she said, her sister was dead to her.
As for the unfortunate ring, they say Fina got a lantern and, with a hook at the end of a stick, fished it out with no trouble at all. It was still intact, shining atop of the pile of excrement.
“I sold the ring to my neighbor,” Fina said, “but the money wasn’t enough for the funeral, even though there was no body.
“And didn’t you feel it was … disgusting, fishing around in the privy?” asked my aunt.
“No, no. It was our shit, after all, not just anyone’s shit.”
Born in Brazil, Karen Gomes is a translator from both Portuguese and Spanish. She currently lives and works in Seattle, Washington.