The Oracle

Image of black desert sand.

Tía Marisol whispers the names of the dead. 

I call her tía, though she is only my mother’s neighbor. She is blind and deaf in one ear, but her glassy eyes stare into my soul like she sees me fully, knows the contents of my black heart. To many, tía Marisol is something of a neighborhood seer. People put their heads down when they pass by her house, call her a witch, though she is really no more than a woman that has outlived her visa. 

Sometimes, when I come home from school, I hear tía Marisol in her backyard, yelling the names of the people she’s lost. Her arms are outstretched toward the heavens. She stands upright in her outdoor jungle—her backyard, turned to weeds. The rest of her time is spent on the couch with a quilt stretched over her lap. Tía Marisol goes on for hours until the live-in nurse calls her to dinner.

Mamá sends me over with a bowl of caldo de res or enchiladas de mole most Sundays. She tells me to go spend time with this woman who is old and lonely. “You know,” Mamá said once, “she’s from the same pueblo as my mother.” I’m surprised to learn this. I’ve never met anyone from Guatemala before, much less my grandmother’s pueblo. Mamá is Mexican through-and-through; she’s never even touched the soil of her mother’s homeland. “Did she know my abuela?” I ask her. Mamá shrugs and goes back to cooking. I’m used to this evasion. Mamá doesn’t like to talk about her mother.

I carry the food she makes next door, and the live-in nurse thanks me for my kindness. “It’s from my mother,” I say, though the nurse just smiles and asks if I would like to sit with tía Marisol, talk to her for a while. “She needs the company,” the nurse says.

I sit with the old woman and think how weird it is that no one comes to visit, how weird it is that the nurse is her only companion. 

“Marisol has family looking out for her financially,” the nurse tells me. “But they’re busy people and live far away.”

I nod along as the nurse explains the situation, but I can’t help but disagree. I think it’s cruel for people to abandon their family like this. 

“It’s not so unusual for this to happen, you know. Plus, it gives Marisol some independence, which is rare and valuable at her age,” she says. 

Sometimes, when I sit with tía Marisol, she doesn’t acknowledge me. Blindness, I’m told, heightens the senses that remain. She can listen to the TV with the volume on high and still sense someone approaching from several feet away, so I know tía Marisol is straight-up ignoring me when she wants her peace. When a good part of a telenovela comes on, when the nurse bothers her with physical therapy, when she’s eating a plate of rellenitos de platano that reminds her of home. I let her eat in silence. I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to talk to her, either. Sometimes I want to save the “¿Tía, cómo estás el día de hoy?” for another time.

The days she has reason for silence––like after her home infusions––she’s chatting up a storm, offering me her arroz con leche, calling me tío or hijo or primo over and over. The nurse reminds me, like silence, talking to the dead is tía Marisol’s way of coping, avoiding what happened. 

“Niño,” says tía Marisol, “si cocinas mañana te vas a quemar en la sartén.” She goes on with her warning, repeating the frying pan, the frying pan, avoid cooking tomorrow! I avoid cooking the whole week just in case this prophecy does come true, and I end up burning my skin something ugly. 

Later, when I ask Mamá what the nurse meant, what happened exactly, Mamá shudders and tells me about the civil war in Guatemala, how thousands of descendants of Mayans were targeted and killed. “No sé mucho,” says Mamá, “pero sé que Marisol…” She trails off and looks out the kitchen window at the Sycamore tree in our backyard. “She es lucky to be alive.”

On a particularly quiet day, the nurse comes in to give tía Marisol her medicine. 

“So she’s giving you the silent treatment, too?” she says, and laughs. 

I watch tía Marisol take a bunch of pills, then gather my coat to leave. The nurse opens the door for me and steps outside to talk. Here, she reveals the real reason for today’s extraordinary silence: tía Marisol’s dog has died. 

“I didn’t even know she had a dog,” I say. 

“She’s had dogs all her life,” explains the nurse, hanging her head. “She had Pico for nearly eighteen years.” 

I whistle. “That’s a fucking long time for a dog to live,” I say.

Tía Marisol takes the loss pretty hard, though she’s dealt with worse. Sure, old people get emotional, but I’m surprised when it takes weeks for tía Marisol to speak. Then one Sunday Mamá sends me over with a fresh batch of flan and, before the old woman has a chance to pick up her fork, she says, “Tráeme la pala. Es hora ya.”

I know she means to bury the dog, but it’s too late now. The dog has been taken away and disposed of. Still, I bring her the shovel Mamá keeps in our backyard, the one with the long handle. 

“Tía,” I say. “Aquí tengo la pala.” 

She sits up straighter on the couch. The quilt draped over her lap falls to her feet. “Acércate, hijo,” she orders. “Dámelo.”

I hold the handle out for her to take. She snakes her hands around it, but her grip is too loose, so I keep a hold of the end. Tía Marisol starts crying and her grip loosens even more. I let her go off for a few minutes, then take the shovel away. 

“Ya no llores, tía,” I tell her. “Ya pasó.” 

Once the shovel is gone from her hands, she turns on me, becomes skeptical. She asks me over and over what my name is, who I really am. I keep repeating I’m her neighbor’s son, I’m over to deliver flan my mother Lucia made special—just for her. She scoffs. “¿Por qué siempre me dices mentiras?” 

So I say, “Bueno, soy tu sobrino Ernesto. ¿Me recuerdas, tía?” 

The woman stands up from her seat and reaches out her arms to touch me. I lunge into her embrace to keep her from toppling over. “Sí, mi niño,” she cries into my shoulder. “Claro que sí. Te recuerdo mucho, mijito lindo.” She pinches my cheeks and holds on for a long while. When she finally lets go, I say goodbye, add, “te quiero mucho, tía,” and pinch her cheeks, though not as hard, just enough to make it even. Then I walk the few steps home, my cheeks still burning. 

From that moment on, we are family. I am her sobrino and she is my tía Marisol. We develop a routine that plays out almost every Sunday. Mamá sends me out with food, and I pop over next door and say, “Buenas tardes, tía. ¿Qué tal el día de hoy?” And she says something like, “Estoy enojada con Luis,” her husband who has been dead many years, or she speaks another name from the past, tells me what it is—good or bad—they are doing now, how her scam artist cousin is getting on her last fucking nerve with his estupideces, trying to squeeze money out of her pocket for a new business idea, how her daughter is getting married (“¡por fin!”), how she’s relieved the husband is a kind, respectable man, and is going to take good care of her daughter. 

This last story makes me sad when I hear it. Tía Marisol’s daughter died by strangulation. Mamá found out one day while talking to the live-in nurse. Later, Mamá told me what had happened, so I would be careful not to mention the daughter during my visits. She was only nineteen. It was the husband who killed her. “Is no wonder,” says Mamá, “she doesn’t remember it happen. But is better that way, don’t you think, Ernesto?”

One day, tía Marisol tells me, “Tomas demasiado, hijo,” though I am still in high school and not even twenty-one yet. And, though others might find this hard to believe, I don’t drink. “Te va hacer daño,” she says. “Tienes que cambiarte la vida.” I tell her not to worry, that I spend my days inside, avoiding everyone, that it’s hard to become an addict when I’m so isolated from the world. But then I realize this is not so true—isolation can fuel addiction—so I back track. “Es muy difícil hacer alcohólico cuando no tienes dinero,” I say instead, like this is any better. Plus, I add, I’ve avoided trouble for this long, kept my head down. Disaster happens around me, but not inside my mother’s house. She would never allow it anyway. 

“Te voy a perder,” says tía Marisol. She covers her face with her hands and weeps. “Te voy a perder otra vez.” 

It takes me a while to realize she was never talking to me. 

I put a hand on her shoulder and say, “No cierto, tía. Voy a cambiar. Te prometo que todo estara bien. Vas a ver que sí.”

Tía Marisol stops crying, then, but she also stops speaking. 

The nurse comes in with a hot bowl of soup and gives me a tight smile. Impersonating the dead is a big no-no. It triggers tía Marisol’s PTSD. The nurse has warned me many times before that bringing up the dead will only make Marisol worse. Reminding her of the past will conjure horrific memories, images of her village in Guatemala under attack, buildings on fire, neighbors abducted from their homes, members of her family slaughtered in front of her. I leave without saying goodbye.

When I return home, Mamá announces we’re going on vacation. 

“To San Francisco!” she says. “I’ve always wanted to go.” 

Mamá has saved enough money to stay a week and has taken off from work, which she never does. “Who died?” I ask, and Mamá gets pissed at me for being tan desgraciado. 

Really,” I say. “What happened?” 

I don’t remember the last time we went on vacation. 

“Ay, Ernesto,” she says. “Why do something bad always have to happen? I thought you would be happy. A vacation to San Francisco is nice, no?” 

So I ease off and try to look forward to it. I write down things I’ve always wanted to see: old school trolleys, that big golden bridge, seals lounging on rocks, hilly streets that wind like crazy, neverendingly…

 The night before our trip, I help Mamá load up the trunk with our book-bags and cases of plastic water bottles, so we don’t waste our money on inflated San Francisco water. It’ll take five hours or more in the car—depending on the traffic—to get to our hotel. 

I load up the last case of water into the car and, as I shut the trunk, I hear an ambulance round the corner. They park in front of our house and pile out of the vehicle with their equipment. One EMT drags a stretcher behind him. I watch a blur enclose tía Marisol’s house and fill our little street with so much noise the neighbors turn on their porch lights. Faces press into windowpanes all the way down the block, but nobody steps out of their houses.

I stand on the front lawn as they cart tía Marisol out. 

“Tía,” I say, but she doesn’t answer. Her mouth is covered in some contraption made of plastic. “Marisol,” I bark, willing a more authoritative voice. “Marisol, ¿adónde crees que vas?” I want to trick her into thinking I’m one of the dead. “¡Marisol, mírame!” I yell, but she doesn’t look my way.

An EMT notices me and asks, “Are you family?”

“Yes,” I say, breathless. “She’s my aunt. I just saw her yesterday.”

“She’s going to be okay,” he says. “It’s a miracle, at her age, to survive a heart attack. We’re going to bring her in overnight to keep an eye on her, but your aunt will be home soon. Don’t you worry.”

The EMT pats me on the shoulder and rushes back to his team. I watch them pack up their equipment, pack tía Marisol in the back of the truck. The ambulance starts up the street and I run after the taillights, yell for the old woman but, later, don’t remember what I said. 

I lay in bed all night staring at the popcorn ceiling until Mamá knocks on my door in the early morning. The sky is dark still, the sun in hiding. She sits on the edge of my bed and strokes my hair like she used to do when I was just a kid. We have cereal for breakfast, and the sound of our crunching syncs up. We don’t talk about tía Marisol. We leave Sepelio behind and go to San Francisco.

In San Francisco, I take photos with a disposable camera. Though tía Marisol can’t see, I plan on developing the photos and bringing them over. I’ll spread the pictures out on the living room carpet as tía Marisol eats another meal Mamá made. I’ll describe the scenes I captured. Tía Marisol will listen and reveal some twisted prophecy after, one that isn’t intended for me, really, but for someone she used to know, before. 

She’ll warn me of the dangers of life, then kiss me from cheek to cheek, calling me hijo hermoso, hijo precioso, speaking the names of the dead over and over. I’ll be her sobrino adorado, her primo favorito, her hijo lindo, every departed soul she’s ever loved, to the day her spirit runs dry. 

Then I’ll be someone else.