The following story is for my cousin, Saadia, who passed away suddenly back in July. When we were kids, she had a library of children’s stories from around the world; for whatever reason, the Spanish tales were her favorite, though we’re not a Spanish family. I think she just liked the language, and the rhythm of the writing, but mostly, she liked hearing me read them.
We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, so this is, in a way, a tribute tale for her, from my own imagination; my candle, if you will. I think she would’ve liked it.
I hope you do too.
Maria sat on the steps of her home, her sweater folded into a cushion, her left leg curled beneath her. The setting sun lit her face and hair with a soft glow.
Autumn colors filled her eyes, and a bittersweet sadness twinged in her heart for the leaves that were dying.
But sometimes, Maria,’ a voice said, ‘a leaf of green breaks off in the spring, and never experiences the joy of changing.’
Her journal sat open, untouched, beside her.
Manny, her older brother came out and sat beside her; they smiled at each other, but said nothing. He too, looked out at the fading day.
“Do you think about Noa?” Maria asked, finally.
“Every day,” he answered.
He tapped her journal. “Not writing today?”
She sighed. “Can’t think of anything.”
He placed an unfurled strand of dark hair back over her ear, gave her cheek a light kiss.
“Close your eyes; you’ll think of something.”
Maria did, and heard the door open and close as he went back inside.
A soft wind stirred, and the smell of the earth came to her, and the scent of maple, and Mama’s cooking, and her thoughts drifted back on the currents until she found Noa’s little face, who in her brief life had given her sister the brightest of smiles.
The last of the warmth of the sun cupped Maria’s glistening cheeks in its rays, setting them alight.
She wiped her eyes with her fingertips, took a deep breath, settled her heart, and let the memories come.
She wrote then: of singing young girls of her childhood who shadowed the swaying hips of their elders, picking herbs and gathering seeds in palm leaf baskets, of sharing bread and fruit and fresh water with friends, of watching the stars through her window, counting until she fell asleep, of the feel of cool river water on a hot day, of secret glances at secret crushes, who smiled shyly back.
Of dancing in the rain with muddy feet, ruined hair, a drenched sundress, and a full and joyful heart.
Of the addicting sweetness of candy and chocolate, and mama’s frown when they ate it all.
Of fishing with papa, watching the sun scatter hammered gold and diamonds of light on the rippling waves, and how the smacking snap of jumping fish sounded like applause, and his contagious excitement when a catch was good, and his tranquility reflecting the still water when nothing took the bait, and they returned home.
“Then Mama says ‘I guess we’ll catch the fish at the grocery store.’ Papa frowns at her, but we can tell he’s trying not to laugh, and then we all go out to eat.”
Of the sad songs she’d play on her guitar by candlelight in her room when it rained outside, songs she could not remember, and never played again.
Of how things were back to normal, but would never be the same.
The evening star popped out like silver cufflink on a dark blue shirt.
Mama came to the door: “Dinnertime, bonita.”
“In a minute,” she said.
“All right. Don’t let it get cold.”
She went inside a few minutes later, and looked at the empty place that was always set for someone who was supposed to be there. She thought about the empty space they always left in the family photos, how they walked together with a space between them, something they had done at first that had now become habit, if not ritual.
And an idea came to Maria, one that she would tell them tonight after dinner.
In the car the following morning everyone was quiet, thinking about what they would do when they arrived. Her father had seen the merit of it, her mother was hesitant, but went along, and Manny had just nodded, unsure of what to say.
After dinner, she had given them empty pages in her journal to write what they wanted to say, and they would read it to Noa, each one, reading what they wrote.
“Nothing about sadness, or tears, or anger,” she told them.
Her mother wrote of the storybooks she’d collected that she’d wanted to read, and the wonders of a beautiful garden, and the hard work it took to keep it that way, but didn’t feel like work at all.
Her father wrote of how beautiful the water looked when he went fishing, and how the current made the hook drift, but you never knew if it was toward the fish, or away; the fun was in the excitement of the catch, but you learned more about yourself when you caught nothing.
Her brother wrote of how he would have taught her baseball, and how he loved the smell of the grass, of his first home run: the crack of the bat as the ball sailed, white and high and spinning over the fence, and the simple pleasure of oiling his favorite, most trusted glove after a game, smiling when he won, in contemplation of what he could have done better when they lost.
And soon, the cemetery gates were before them.
“If anyone thinks they can’t do this, now’s the time to say it,” Papa said.
No one spoke.
He drove down to where the child lay, and they all got out; the doors made a soft ‘thunk’ when they closed, and it echoed faintly in the morning stillness, broken only by random, inquisitive birdsong.
Slowly they approached Noa’s little white stone, her name patiently engraved over her suddenly erased life, waiting to fade away in its own time.
Maria stepped forward.
“We wrote you a letter, Noa. It’s kind of long, but we wanted to read it to you.”
Maria read first, then her mother, her father, and brother.
It took most of the morning, but they got through it, not without tears, and hitching breaths, and even smiling, their love for her like a swaddling blanket softening the hardening autumn ground.
The journal back in her hands, Maria wrote the final page.
“Con el amor a tu familia, a mi hermenita Noa. Te queremos.
With love from your family, to my little sister Noa. We love you. We miss you.
Maria walked up, and placed the journal against the stone.
A gentle breeze stirred, and she closed her eyes again to feel it against her face, the smells of autumn sweeter, sharper than she’d ever sensed, like children you hugged close after jumping into a pile of leaves, their laughter mingling with the crackle and crunch of colors bursting around them.
This wind, soft as infants’ lips, kissed her tears away.
Maria turned to find her family waiting, and as they turned to go, they all joined hands, connected in a new way; the space they’d always left for Noa closed, because they now carried her, truly for the first time, in their hearts.
©Alfred W. Smith, Jr.