Ch 46: A Tale of Woe
Pacing outside of the shack she just exited, Leti bit the end of her thumb and whined a little. This did not go according to what she had planned. This was supposed to be a joyous occasion. How often had Nieve said how she wished she could see her son at least once to tell him that she was sorry, to let him hear her side of the story? She was supposed to cry in happiness and embrace Papa like she never got to in life, and he would return it in kind. A mother and son reunited after over fifty years.
It should have been a happy occasion. It shouldn't have ended up with Nieve being furious at her and Papa looking like he was going to throw up.
"I made the right decision, sí?" she asked the two animals sitting outside with her. "I mean come on. This is the kind of situation that would make for a good story. Haven't these two always wanted to meet each other?"
Dante yipped in what seemed to be approval of Leti's question, while she could have sworn she saw Frangipanni's eyes dart slightly to the side.
"What? You don't think this was a good idea?"
Frangipani just looked at her with what Leti swore was a wince, and let out a puff of air from her trunk.
"Well why didn't you tell me before?!" Leti moaned. "Some spirit guide you are…" Easily dodging Frangipani's attempt to splash water at her, Leti fought to put a confident grin on her face. "Well no matter! It's been over fifty years since she's seen him, and no doubt Papa would have tons of questions for her. I'm sure they have loads to talk about!"
"I like your jacket."
Jumping slightly after the break of near dead silence, Héctor looked down at his jacket and picked at the purple sleeve. "Oh, gracias. It's Balenciaga."
"He's a fashion designer. From… Spain…"
This was excruciating. They both knew that this couldn't go on forever, let alone for the next few minutes. Héctor was obviously running out of time, the slow disappearance of his skin a clear indicator. But for some reason Héctor couldn't leave his seat. He just kept looking at this girl, trying to take in every curve of bone and every twitch of facial features. Trying to burn them into his memory. Several times he tried to say something, his throat constricting every time, until Nieve broke the silence once more.
"Look, we don't have a lot of time." she said. "And I know you must have questions."
"Not really, no."
His answer surprised them both, and Héctor knew that it was a big fat lie. Maybe it was because he was on a tight schedule and didn't have time to ask her his many questions, or maybe he was too afraid to know the answers. But seeing her face crumple a little at what he said, and feeling a small bit of satisfaction at causing it, Héctor could conclude he was just being petty. Letting his long-buried feelings of hurt and anger from his childhood come back up, he wanted her to feel even a little bit of the pain he had felt.
"No?" Nieve asked in confusion.
"Fine then, just one." Héctor relented. "Are you really my mother?"
It was confirmed. Héctor felt his belly drop and he sucked in a quick breath of air before pursing his lips and nodding. Okay, that was all he needed to know. He could just leave and never see this girl again.
"How old were you when you had me?" Héctor asked. "You look so young."
Nieve winced and lowered her eyes. "I was fourteen."
Perfect, just perfect. He was the product of a teenage love affair. But his quick flash of disgust was quickly subdued when he remembered he was not that much older when he and Imelda had Coco. He had no right to be offended by that, especially since he assumed she was unwed at the time she had him.
Still, she seemed so young.
"And… how old were you when you died?" He had to ask, fearing the answer.
"Wh-what?" Héctor choked out, suddenly horror-stricken. "You mean? Are you saying that I-… That it's my fault you-"
"No no!" Nieve reached out to touch him before stopping herself and drawing her hands back. Still she dared to venture a step closer to him. "No, I didn't die in childbirth. It was hard on me, but all ten pounds of you made it out in the end."
"Hah, good." Héctor sighed in relief and sagged back onto the crate. "I was worried that-wait, ten pounds?!"
Nieve nodded and for the first time her bony lips turned upward into small grin. "You were a very fat baby. The nuns said that meant you were healthy."
Laying a hand against his flat stomach, Héctor shook his head in disbelief. "Well I can assure you that the fatness didn't last long."
Nieve's smile faded, sorrow finding its way back. "Yes, I'm sure there were many nights where you went hungry. Didn't you?"
There were. More than Héctor would have liked to admit. The nuns were kind and Padre Mateo did all he could to make sure that the children under his care were well looked after, but Santa Cecilia used to be a poor town and food was lean then. Many a night Héctor found himself curled into a ball with a fist driving itself into his cramping stomach, trying not to cry through his hunger pangs. Even now it was difficult for him to gain weight, no matter how much food was available to him. It had made a lasting effect on him.
As Héctor stayed silent Nieve studied him some more and hummed in approval. "You look like me."
Nieve nodded. "Of course my facial features look better on you as a man, not so much on a young girl. I always felt I was too homely to turn the boys' heads… until I met your father."
"You look nothing like him, by the way. Well, you have his height and a full head of thick hair. All the men in my family were short and bald."
"Wait, you… know who my father was?" Héctor asked, not sure how many more surprises he could handle tonight.
This time it was Nieve's turn to look a little angry, crossing her arms across her chest and tsking. "Really now, I'm not some common street walker. There was one man in my life and one only."
Héctor mumbled out an awkward apology and had the decency to look ashamed of his unintentional rudeness. Looking around he had to ask. "… Is my father… dead as well? I mean, is he here?"
With a disgusted shake of her head and a sneer, she said, "No, that cabrón is still alive. Only the good die young, they say. He should be about… sixty-seven right now."
"I see… So he was young too." Héctor concluded after doing the math in his head, relieved that his father wasn't some viejo who had taken advantage of a young girl.
There was a pause, Nieve processing what Héctor had just said, her face thawing into something more wistful but still hurt. "Sí… He was sixteen, considered a man by society but… Dom was still in his boyhood in so many ways. He was so regal and charming, but he was also silly. I can't count the number of times he made me laugh with his antics. And so handsome, he could have any girl he could have wanted. I still don't know why he chose me."
Héctor found himself listening intently as Nieve described the beginnings of his parents relationship, hungry for the information. It was only natural, being an orphan, that he would want some inkling of what his family was like.
"He didn't live where I did in Guerrero, he was sent to stay with his tío to learn more about the silver mine business and was set to leave for home in the summer. I met him at a New Year's Eve party at his tío's mansion where my parents had sent me to work at as a waitress. I don't know why he came over to talk to me, but we really hit it off. He didn't seem to care that I was a poor, he just liked me for who I was. And eventually… we fell in love."
"We spent an incredible two months together until the wait staff found us one day mid kiss, and of course they informed his tío about us. Needless to say his visit was cut short and he was sent back to Santa Cecilia while I went back to my parents in shame. It was during that time while I was dealing with losing the love of my life and my parents' coldness and harsh punishments… that I realized that I was pregnant."
Shifting uncomfortably, Héctor didn't know how to feel about that. He sensed that this was where the story was about to take a dark turn, and that he was the catalyst.
"My parents kicked me out, naturally. My brothers and my sister wanted nothing to do with me, neither did my extended family. I was alone in the world, but there was one shining light at the end of the tunnel: To head to Santa Cecilia to be with your father."
"It took months to earn enough money to cross the state line to get to Oaxaca, and even more to get to Santa Cecilia. By then you had grown so much, so it was that much harder to make the distance. But in the end I did it! I made it to Santa Cecilia, found out where Dom lived, and walked straight to his house. I was so happy to see him, and he… just…"
Héctor watched as Nieve let the sentence die off, almost looking choked up and about to cry. But there was also simmering anger in her expression as well. He could easily guess what happened way back when, and if she couldn't say it out loud then he would for her. "He rejected you."
"But I don't understand?" Héctor said. "I thought you said he loved you. Why would he-?"
"'Because I am the son of a family descended from the richest houses in Europe, and you are a filthy peasant that came from savages and slaves.'" Nieve spat acidly, like the words had been burned into her mind and left to rot for decades. "He called me a whore, told me to never come to his house again, and slammed the door on me. Oh, after asking his servants to gently escort me off the grounds. My arms were bruised for weeks."
Héctor grit his teeth. "Bastardo… What happened then?"
"I was alone in a town I was a stranger in, but luckily the nuns took me in and helped me get settled in the church. At least until you were born I had a roof over my head."
Héctor nodded with a small smile. The nuns at his church were stern, for sure, but they were always kind to him. But a thought still bothered him. "So you never tried to pursue my f-… Dom… again?"
Nieve laughed bitterly. "Of course I did. Several times. Never at his home, though. Ever since my arrival it was guarded like a fortress. He dismissed me very time until the last time. Then he got physical. He grabbed me by the arm tightly, so hard it hurt, and shouted at me to never bother him again, or I would soon learn that no one messes with the Cavalleros."
Héctor's outburst startled Nieve into such a state that she automatically moved into a defensive position, looking like she was ready to karate chop the air. "What?! What'd I do?!"
Héctor started to pace the room frantically, wildly gesturing as he went. "The Cavelleros?!" he shouted. "I'm related to the wealthiest family in-Oh no, my family is the wealthiest now… But the former wealthiest family in Santa Cecilia?! In Oaxaca?! I mean they're not wealthy anymore, just today I got a business request from Ignacio and his father Dom…in…go…"
The fire that had lit underneath him sputtered out until there was nothing left. Shakily he sat back down onto the crate, feeling like he was going to be sick. Domingo Cavellero, the man who had never once talked to him but had often sneered at him if they came across each other in the plaza when he was just a small boy. Who forbade any of his children to listen to him play music with the rest of the crowd. The man who had actually bought his shoes from Rivera Zapatos, though always through a servant instead of in person.
"Domingo Cavellero… is my father…"
"A father is someone who loves their children and raises them, that cabrón did neither. Just forget him." Nieve said. "At least one of us has to."
Héctor had to agree to that. Domingo never did anything for him, it was best to just pretend like he was just another citizen in Santa Cecilia. But then he thought back to what Leti and her had discussed before he entered the room, and things didn't make sense. "You have an ofrenda. One that you refuse to go to… Is it his?"
"… It is."
"Why would he have an ofrenda for you if he rejected you?"
"I don't know, and I don't care to know. He told me to never return to him, and I am content to do just that."
Héctor could tell that she was not content at all, far from it, but Héctor was not about to argue with a teenage girl. Wait no, his mother. Damn, this was all so confusing. And some aspects were still not synching up.
"Wait a minute." he said, "I thought I was abandoned on the church steps. Padre Mateo and the nuns never told me that you were there with them until I was born."
Nieve's eyes lost their fire quickly at that, almost looking deadened, and she quickly turned back to the window. Looking out into the fog, she stayed silent for a few moments to the point where Héctor felt like he had to ask what had happened. Then she spoke again, quietly, "I assume they thought it was best you didn't know about me."
"…Because the cause of my death was not… condoned by the church."
Héctor was confused for about a second before the meaning of her words set in. With a quick intake of air he stared at her, heartbroken and a little angry. "Did you… kill yourself?"
Nieve kept looking out the window, trying not to meet Héctor's gaze, and sighed. "You were such a beautiful baby; I'll never forget the way you looked at me when you first opened your eyes. I could tell, even then, that you were going to be what your father wasn't: A good person to his very core. There was only one obstacle, I thought, that was standing in your way of happiness. That was me."
"I was so confused, so heartbroken, my brain was going crazy at the time. For weeks I tried to care for you, but every time you cried I felt more and more like a failure as a mother. There were times I would just stare at you as you cried, couldn't make myself to move and reach for you for comfort. Sometimes I wanted to just shut you up for good, and those times scared me the most. It was when that darkness kept overtaking me that I made the decision to stop it before something terrible happened."
"But something terrible did happen." Héctor said, his throat constricting painfully. "You killed yourself."
Nieve slowly nodded, still looking away. "I gave you one final kiss and left you in the care of the nuns. They had no idea what I was about to do until days later when my body, otherwise they would have tried to stop me... I walked down to the creek in the middle of the night, waded in, and let it sweep me away. December 31st, 1900. Exactly one year after I had met your father… I thought I was being very poetic, as most stupid little girls do."
Héctor sniffled and scrubbed his face with a boney hand, tears blurring his vision. When Nieve finally looked back at him she was saddened to see them fall down his cheeks, but still she dared not touch him. "I'm sorry Héctor, but I thought I had lost everything. I felt I had no other choice."
"You didn't lose everything!" Héctor snapped, wiping the tears away. "You had me. All my life I wanted to know who my parents were and why they left me. And now that I do know I feel cheated! I could have!..." trailing off he pursed his lips tight, looking up at his mother with watery eyes. "I would have been a good son."
That was it.
Without a seconds hesitation Nieve crossed the threshold and pulled Héctor into a fierce hug, pulling him close to her and knocking off her straw hat at the same time. It didn't seem like it would be compatible for a teenage girl and a grown man to hug, but they fit perfectly together. Even though he had grown, and she remained the same, Héctor was still able fit into his mother's hold. Hesitantly he put his hands on her back, eyes wide, before he too melted into the embrace. An embrace fifty years in the making.
"I know you would have been a good son." Nieve whimpered into his ear. "You would have been the sweetest boy from the stories Leti has told me… And that is part of my punishment, knowing that."
"Punishment?" Héctor mumbled.
Nieve nodded. "When I took my life I didn't care about what happened next. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. But it didn't stop, it stayed and grew. Only difference now is that I'm in this gaudy, technicolor party town where everyone celebrates their death and does whatever they want that they couldn't do in death. While I had something so precious in my life that I couldn't see through my pain. Now I'm just an old woman, living in isolation in the slums while pining for something that I threw away."
Pulling back, Nieve cupped Héctor's cheek lovingly and smiled. "You deserved so much better, Héctor."
"So did you." Héctor said. "I'm sorry your life turned out so bad in the end."
Nieve shook her head. "It could have been prevented. I knew something was screwing with my head and I just let it fester. I should have just asked for counsel with Padre Mateo or the nuns, or maybe gone to the doctor or an institution. Maybe then I would have been a better mother for you, if I had just… asked someone to help me, I guess."
Héctor felt something in his chest drop at what Nieve had said. That seemed… familiar. Staring off a ways, thinking about earlier conversations he'd rather be forgotten, he barely mumbled, "Yeah, maybe…"
Smiling tightly, Nieve pulled her hand away from him. "Are you all right?"
Sighing a deep, cleansing breath Héctor nodded. "I think so. I just don't think my heart can take any more surprises tonight… But I do have one more question."
Bracing herself to what it might be, Nieve wrung her hands. "Okay…"
"Why did you name me Héctor? Is it a family name or something? I just got teased a lot as a child."
Sighing in relief Nieve nodded. "In a way. I named you after my pet pig Héctor."
She nodded fondly, "He was a very good pig, so pink and squishy. Until he got too big, and we had to eat him. That's probably why he didn't turn up as my alebrije."
"You named me after a pig?!"
"I was fourteen years old! Of course I would name you after something I loved! And need I remind you that you were a fat baby!"
Crossing his arms in a huff, Héctor seethed while Nieve continued. "I had a lot of good memories with that pig, thank you very much. Riding on his back, rolling in the mud, eating fruit and chapulines. They were good times."
His pout fading away, Héctor looked back up at her. "Did you say chapulines?"
Nieve nodded, smiling again. "Sí, they're my favorite dish. Dios, I must have eaten my entire body weight in chapulines while I was pregnant with you. Why?"
His lips quirking up, Héctor shook his head in wonderment. "No reason."
Again there was a long stretch of silence between the two of them, but it wasn't awkward or painful anymore. They just stared at each other, smiling in contentment and newfound affection, before Nieve finally sighed.
"You need to go. Get that curse removed."
"Yeah… I do." Héctor said, a part of him aching to stay with her and learn more. But staring down at his boney hand he knew that that wasn't an option for him. He made move to leave when Nieve suddenly put her hand on his shoulder.
"Wait, one more thing." She said with a warm smile. Bending down and picking up her straw hat off the ground, she shook the dust off of it and raised it up. "I know it's twenty-seven days until your birthday, but since I'm fifty years behind on your other birthdays I need some catching up. It's not much, but…Feliz Cumpleaños, mijo…"
Reaching up, Héctor touched the frayed edges of the straw hat that had been plopped down onto his head. It wasn't much at all, really. Especially when he had designers to make proper clothing for him and his entire family. Not to mention he had never been much of a hat person outside of performing. But this was a gift from his mother, his first gift, and it had instantly become a treasured heirloom passed on to a son.
Still touching it with reverence, Héctor fought the urge to cry again as he choked out, "…Gracias."
"De nada." Nieve whispered. "Now go."
With a jerky nod Héctor stood up and away, pausing at the exit. "I… I will see you again, right?"
"Of course. All souls end up here eventually, though hopefully you'll last a few more decades yet." Nieve said with a grin.
Returning the smile Héctor peeled back the tattered curtain and, with one last look back, was gone. Alone now Nieve let her smile fall, sorrow filling her entire being, and collapsed to the floor. Trying to suppress the deep sobs in her chest, Nieve couldn't keep herself to comparing this last time seeing Héctor with all those years ago. With a little sleepy baby, innocent to the turmoil he would face without her, looking at her with half lidded eyes in the arms of a nun. An imaged practically burned into her retinas.
And as she wept she said the same thing she told him almost fifty-one years ago.
"Goodbye, my little baby…"