Poems of Cruelty and Compassion

Poem with Too Much Rope in It                     

After the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice


I’m thinking of humans who cut the testicles off other humans, who string up

their fellow humans and laugh. Of people who set other people alight for the crime of

uppity, for the crime of gay, for the crime of, I refuse. I’m worrying about

my fellow humans, who can hang a pregnant woman upside down, disembowel her,

leave the fetus dangling—


I’m thinking of the many loving humans I know. Sheltering humans. I’m worrying

about how many people after the war still thought Hitler’s big mistake was

not killing all the Jews. Wondering, too, about those who hid entire families in

a few small rooms, risking the murder of their own. How do we reconcile this—

the fervidly brave, the fervidly cruel. Happy informers. The disbelieving informed. Them

and Us. Who did this to you? I want to ask victim and perpetrator—


I want it to be someone’s fault: twisted leaders, bad parents, beatings.

Or maybe it’s a Darwinian experiment. Something coiled in our genes. Here are

the conditions: let’s see who lives, let’s see who fouls their soul. Either way,

I walk down the street with affable people who would do these things—dangle

suffocating humans from branches, drag them behind jouncing pickup trucks and laugh,

roast alive the very humans who maybe—in another life—they dearly love.

Is there a life in which I’m laughing along with them?



Tomorrow, my father gets his foot

cut off—too much pain for too long—

time for another divorce.


For years, he declared

he was too old for this.

Maybe he was too young.


What a shiver—sickness,

wheelchairs, walkers,

canes. There’s been talk


of complications,

of a cut above the knee—

like the hem on a sexy skirt.


But he will insist, he says,

on below the knee. March—

a bit of snow clings


to the ground, but in his garden

he’s planted spinach already.

By my front steps this morning,


the hyacinths just beginning

to bulge out of the ground

remind me of knees—


how green and incipient

we can always be.

Below the knee—


all the things

he has done,

has not done,


could do,

can still do,

on his knees.


Professor Wyckhuis

Professor Wyckhuis would stand at the front of the classroom and lecture, his gaunt face tilted to the podium, his bare scalp growing red with fervor. He’d occasionally whirl toward the board behind him and scribble out etymologies, the chalk popping and splintering in his hand.


After class I’d join him for coffee in the Union. He would smoke cigarettes and touch his stout mustache and gently answer my questions about the Platonists and the Church Fathers, or describe his own scholarly projects: translations of commentaries by obscure saints and monks and mystics.


I once confessed to him that I was given to daydreaming, to making stories, and he, in a typically tender gesture, proposed that I might think of it as prayer and submit gratefully to it. We were walking beneath the trees of the quad, and he explained that the imagination might be exercised to understand our fears, and delight in the works of God, and grieve for our sins.


“Then,” he said, “if our devotion is deepened, and our minds not scattered, we may be called to the contemplative life.” He bowed his head and briefly closed his eyes to recite the words of—he later told me—a French parish priest, speaking so softly that I had to lean toward him. “The interior life is like a sea of love, in which the soul is plunged, and is drowned in love.” And then he opened his eyes and looked at me. “Just as a mother holds her child’s face in her hands to cover it with kisses, so does God hold the devout man.”


The story was that he’d left the priesthood in order to marry, his eyes still wetting with emotion whenever he’d speak of his wife, an elementary school teacher from Missouri, who’d passed from this earth twenty years before.


And there was also a competing and more dramatic story, that his wife had been a French girl, whom he’d impregnated when she was still at the lycée. It was then that he’d left the Church and married, and it was shortly afterwards that she and the baby died, the new bride hemorrhaging during childbirth, the infant’s neck bound with the umbilical cord.


If true, did he blame himself for the deaths of the schoolteacher or the French girl and the innocent child for whom he’d given up God, and whom God, in a show of spite and bile, cast to dust?


A reckless undergraduate was said to have mentioned the rumors to him, and he was reported to have smiled and said, “Charming,” and then, touching the student’s sleeve, “It is of course always easier to love the dead than the living.”


He once admitted to me that he’d stopped on the way home from campus the night before to buy a copy of Playboy. “I was angry,” he said, nodding his head. “I was very angry with God.” He crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray upon the cafeteria table. “So then,” he said, his jaw thrust forward, and he shook his fist in the air.


Once, late at night, Greta and I were leaving a party at a house just off campus, and we saw him walking slowly along the dim sidewalk across the street, in the direction of his own house, two or three blocks away. Twice he stumbled, the second time falling to his knees.


“Oh, Joe,” Greta said, and we started toward him, but one of the hosts of the party, a graduate student, who was standing on the lawn and talking to some girls, said, “I’ll get him,” and trotted across the street, helped him up, and then, his arm around the old professor’s shoulder, escorted him home.


There was a small memorial service for Professor Wyckhuis in January of my senior year. His body had already been flown to Antwerp, where a lone surviving brother was to bury him. As Greta and I stood in the dim chapel near campus, I felt thin and frightened, as if I’d been scooped out.


“Joe?” I could hear Greta’s whisper at my shoulder, feel her hand on my arm.


Later, outside in the glare of the winter sun, she told me that I’d begun to whine, a sound so slight and high pitched that she at first become aware of it only at the breaking of her own breath.


When he heard I was engaged, Professor Wyckhuis told me not to enter into marriage easily. He said that only those who’ve never been married or are destined for divorce think that they’ll not tolerate woundings or pain. I could smell tobacco on his sweater as he sat near me, clenching his hands. “It is like faith,” he said. “Some do not understand the necessary agony of the relationship with God, and so their faith . . . ,” and he suddenly splayed his fingers, like an object scattering.


His brother had directed that his personal property be given away or destroyed. And so in rounds—faculty colleagues, graduate students, and then undergraduates—we strolled through his house—polite shoppers at an abandoned flea market—bending to examine books, peering into dark closets, smoky with old sweaters, glancing at the chipped china in the kitchen, looking for something to take with us.


Everyone stepped softly past the bathroom. Devil’s madness.


The walls in the living room and bedroom were yellowed and bare, the dresser and table tops white with dust. I stood before his narrow bed and picked up from the pillow his glasses, the gold spindly frames, the lenses smudged, the nose pads mossy with oil and skin.


And then my face began to ache, as if I’d been struck, and I left his house without taking anything.


During the time that I knew him, Professor Wyckhuis battled insomnia. We rarely spoke about it, but I’d sometimes notice a weary edginess as we had coffee, as he answered my questions, sometimes struggling to recall a name or find a word.


“Have you seen a doctor?” I would ask.


“Yes, yes,“ he would say, nodding, and he’d shrug. “But it is the cigarettes, I think.” Or he’d simply smile and recall the words of some medieval monk. “Suffering is short pain and long joy,” he’d say.


Once, during the fall of my senior year, he stopped me on the quad and gave me a copy of his latest book, a translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. He offered it to me and then bowed. “A gift,” he said.


On the title page he had written, in his small, cramped hand, “To Joseph, Thank you for your spiritual help in the past. I wish you the best always: Deus providebit.”


When Greta became pregnant, she and I would walk the small Kansas town to which we’d moved, out to a graveyard on its north edge, five flat acres in a pocket of mulberry trees. It was there that we decided upon the name Hannah. We’d been taken with the tall and graceful headstone of a woman named Hannah Jane Flax, who was born in 1859 and died in 1947, and who was surrounded by family members, some—a husband, two children, and a grandchild—preceding her there, all now lying peacefully beneath blizzards and droughts, removed from the welter of the world. Greta saw her in those terms—a life lived deeply and then the serene and slow re-absorption into the earth. I tried to reckon the anger and the grief of those left living, that which had been loosed over the years on these few acres, the weight of accumulated mourning, still, surely, in the air, the damp of it on our skin.


I labor at forgiveness, thinking of Professor Wyckhuis’s instruction, his quoting of Francis of Paola, that the recollection of injury adds to our anger and nurtures our sin. “It is,” he said, touching his breast, “a rusty arrow and poison for the soul.”


He once told me that Qoheleth, delivering one of most brutally honest books in the Bible, revealed that traditional wisdom has failed, that we can’t know God, that we lack control, and that life is short and death certain. “However,” he said, crouching, bending close to the surface of the cafeteria table, his fingers poised as if to pluck from it a crumb of bread, “joy can still come to us in small portions.” And he looked up at me and smiled. “We need to be attentive.”


The story was that Professor Wyckhuis’s landlady found him dead in his bathtub, three days after Christmas. In the wastebasket were, supposedly, empty bottles of lorazepam and Tylenol and a spent blister pack of Sudafed. On the bath mat was a half-full three liter bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. His wine glass wavered on the bottom of the tub, between his legs, beneath the skin of cold water.


The story was that at the beginning of his last final exam in December, he wrote upon the board, Faith is the agent of things un-hoped for, as the thief proved. And the students laughed, and he winked and wished them luck, and left the room, and the building, a graduate student arriving to proctor and pick up papers. And no one on campus ever saw him again.


Are they starlings?

Should we go outside?


He sat out for the birds most evenings if he was able. Clipboard in hand, a drink to make it feel casual. As the minutes ticked on, a momentary panic could take hold: suppose they shouldn’t come? When they finally would arrive, he allowed himself modest satisfaction. The surge of a small hope realized.


When his birds finally would arrive, w hen the first group would pepper the horizon, he noted the time. Solitary birds didn’t count—it had to be a murmuration, a movement. On October 3rd, the first true group had shown itself at 5:31 p.m. They had risen like smoke over the horizon. They tumbled around the eastern sky together with one pulse. Then, as he had expected, they fanned out into a running stream. A chorus in cloud that streaked toward the blue-blush of the sunset.


His task was to record. The minute of their arrival, how long they held tenure over the little patch of sky capping his garden. Logging their departure, of course, was an unfair exercise of guessing and waiting. Suppose the last one should have been the last one? Yet he endeavored to maintain a faithful record. Most evenings, he faced the usual challenge: to lose one’s self entirely in the face of overwhelming spectacle. When his birds were thick overhead, the little edges of his day could curl up and allow the part of him that tired of a life in this body—a life without her—to slip out.


When his birds were kind, they were generous in number. They washed over him. The following Thursday, though, their advance lasted only eleven minutes. They were true to the sunset—just moments after—but on the whole, an anemic group. There were fewer birds in total, which distressed him more than he liked to say. However, the morning (and he recorded this on the line for observations) had been foggy.


Will it be any moment?


When he sat out for the birds, they eventually appeared. Not always when he expected, or in enthusiastic numbers. Occasionally, they crested the hill much farther south than he was accustomed to looking. His birds had their own brand of constancy. It comforted him very little.

He’d feel fairly sure that he had pinned down the window of their arrival, and then they would break with tradition. They might show up blindingly early, eclipsing a corner of the kitchen window as he washed up at the sink. Elbows dripping, he imagined confronting them over their indifference. “We are governed by different rhythms,” they would shrug, forcing him to see how petty and small were his complaints. Perhaps he’d love them all the more for this nonchalance. Such a response would speak well of him, he thought.


Are they starlings?


His birds were black without jeweled throats. They likely weren’t starlings. What’s more, they seemed quite large at times. He’d point at one and feel it drag his finger in a lazy arc across the sky. Large as a crow, perhaps.


The booklet said it had everything to do with self-preservation. They were afraid of being the first to roost. So they would take to the sky en masse, moving as one, where they could expect protection from the things gentle birds fear. Then they would alight together on waiting branches. It was defensive. Yet he feared for them all the same. His birds were nothing like the circling hawks, red in beak and claw. How easily they could be picked off, and how little they seemed to realize! Their numbers would not guard against disaster– they only promised a witness.


He greeted them prone on the 16th, his eyes fixed upward, filtering in the last of the evening light. They scrolled across the sky. He could not bear to check his watch and later found himself able only to record that there had been “a great many birds.”
How they were pitiless! His birds could not trouble themselves for the cares of a man outside on his back, crying to the heavens.


Will they come much after sunset?


It had seemed almost cruel to hazard a guess as to when they would appear. Then she would count the minutes starting in the late afternoon. The hands on a clock’s face eluded her, but she could still stand in front of the microwave.


“Now, it’s 4:24, and I’m sure of that.”


Depending on the season, when he came home it was straight out to the garden. In winter, there would not be a moment even to unlace his uncomfortable shoes. She’d see him coming up the walk and clap her hands.


Summertime, though, saw the evening stretch. She’d ask to fix herself an orange squash; he would assent. He knew when the sun would set and didn’t like to rush her if needn’t be. He’d leave her alone in the kitchen and listen from the hallway, warmed by the small sounds of her industry. If anything broke, he would be near enough to lift her bare feet.


She loved best the settling in. As twilight fell they would take to their chairs, side by side in repose. It was a happy ritual. He’d caution her against upending her drink, and she’d ask for the clipboard. Holding the pen aloft, she would nod gently while ticking off each cell—“There’s some writing there.”


They took such pleasure in these moments, lived in the anticipation of a great movement. Sweeping across the sky, the birds were haughty, exclusive. Yet at the same time, one felt urged along with the group. Their appearance was a nightly invitation to weep for the lack of wings.


Should we go outside?


He consented on November 7th to be taken out by cheerful friends, knowing full well this outing would make it impossible to collect the numbers. Rain was coming down in driving sheets, and the birds might respond in any of a number of ways. They could conceivably set out earlier due to the darkened sky, but it was possible they would wait for the sunset’s usual glory. They might hang around uneasily, exchanging glances: “It’s time to go.” “No, it’s not.” Surely, even now, he thought, they were squinting for the definitive signal. The one his birds must feel sure that they had been promised.


On the 10th, they were chaotic, outrageous. The birds arrived with the fair weather and apparently no idea of where they should go. Rather than their usual purposeful stream, they parted into opposing groups, dovetailing, wheeling back and rounding in on themselves. A piteous spectacle, these instinct-driven creatures who were suddenly unmoored.


The very next day they’d regained their composure. It was maddening in a way. It made him quite angry, come to think. They flew in a proud trajectory, as though the day before hadn’t been a sputtering disaster. His birds weren’t visionaries; they could be made so unsure of themselves. An early moon looming over the hedge or a stiff wind might send them into disarray.


By the end of the week, he no longer felt that he could trust them. Suppose the last time had been the last time? Sunday evening, he took to his car at their first appearance, determined to follow them to the place they roosted. He craned his neck out the window as he drove, cursing as their swooping progress turned in directions counter to his own. His breath shortened each time he reluctantly dragged his focus back, back into the vehicle, the body. Then he soared to join them. Back into the seat, a glance into the rear-view. A searching of the horizon. Pulling up short, he narrowly avoided a young woman and her dog who had stepped from the curb. Just as soon as he became aware of barreling through their shared space, he was past them. She had worn slim, reflective bands around her upper arms that bounced back the light.


He discarded this uncomfortable fact. He could not both drive and dwell on the boundless possible tragedies of each moment. His birds had presented themselves once more—(was it the group he had initially set out to follow?)—and their pace appeared to slacken as they neared their destination.


From the garden, it had always seemed they were chasing the setting sun. In reality, they streaked toward a stand of eucalyptus trees across from the Fred Meyer’s. He’d parked underneath those trees before, been irritated by the smattering of bird shit.


How long will it last?


The public broadcast station was playing that special on Western migrations again. Chinook salmon. His birds would have tucked their heads under a wing by now. He nursed a gin and tonic while not looking over to the picture window.


Her perch. She had installed herself on the tufted cushions after the incident with the pilot light, which he had said was no big deal. He trusted her, of course, and there was no need. He could switch off the line behind the range. It would be simple. Why had Mrs. Temple said she’d been on the bench all afternoon again when she was perfectly welcome? There was no need. She stopped thumbing through her book then, smiled at him dazzlingly.


“It’s cheerful here, really.”


How will we know when it’s really begun?


A group of six, though slight, might signify that it had begun. If they clustered together in formation, they could very well usher in the movement. They became together something far more urgent, more striking than they ever seemed alone. Once the beginning announced itself, it couldn’t be denied any longer.


One imagines a flock as a single mind, but surely one bird has to strike out for the sunset first. Was it a drop in the temperature, felt by those hollow bones?


Who could say the exact date it had alighted upon her? The first day, perhaps, it would have shown up on a test? The dawning realization of its inevitable course, the dread he had carried alone. He dutifully held and guarded her, tracked and fed and made the thousand loving gestures that measured a day. He saw to the milligrams, the ounces, the critical levels.


He had pictured such a disaster as theirs before. In his mind, the earth had rent in two; his birds on the wing would drop from the sky. He had never expected that anyone should have to preside over the fracas. In reality, their disaster was a startlingly quotidian affair. One that came with armfuls of bills and bottles. Over and over, the administration of it alarmed him – samples to be monitored, appointments to be scheduled. The slow thick glide of a dark, astringent syrup to be given up to three times daily.


Who will be the first to roost?


Nights he sat out for the birds, he bore witness to a homeward journey.


He was an imperfect observer. At times, he came in because he was cold. There was always the chance that he had missed an earlier group as he made his way outside. He usually sat in a patio chair, but once had chanced to stand and saw a dotted black trail disappearing over the valley’s edge. A group completely hidden from his previous vista. He felt abashed that he had failed to detect them when they were so close. But he couldn’t deny that these movements were happening in many places, so very many places he couldn’t see. And this felt like both a betrayal and a great relief.


No one had ever said what should be gained by recording these figures, he thought with no small amount of bemusement. He’d busied his hands taking down the information. Capturing the data resulted in little more than a ghastly approximation of the experience, though. There was a part of him that wanted to snap the clipboard over his knee in a great act of violence. It was a false prophet, a soothsayer. It promised regularity where there was none. Still, how easy it was to forget. He continued to sit out nights with his pencil poised, ready to fill in the next cell.


He came to understand how she must have felt when he smiled benignly and said, “Experience tells us, any moment now.” He came to understand that while there was a range of normal values, one couldn’t possibly produce any sort of estimate worth a damn. He came to see what it was not: which was to say not a dike against rising waters, not even an answer to the pestering of a sharp-eyed changeling. He ventured to the shore each night if only to unroll a feeler—a filament, a sustaining thread. He came to remember in his bones what it was like to be a pilgrim in a strange land, a visitor to a landscape whose patterns she had yet to discern.


My Abuela, the Puppet

I have been a fan of metaphor since I learned to read, first in English and then eventually in rusty, copper Spanish. This is not a metaphor. My grandma has become a puppet.


It would be a good metaphor if the circumstances were slightly different. Her body had started to change in the past few years and, though she stayed human, her physique lent itself to a description of her as a marionette. She had clunky, white orthopedic shoes that looked oversized and cartoonish when she took her small, concerted steps. Abuela’s back was permanently hunched over, appearing as if she were being suspended by invisible strings at the shoulders. She lost a lot of weight, and the lack of fat in her face combined with her wrinkled skin made her head look huge like a Muppet’s. But Abuela was still herself then, flesh and bones and dust.


Then she become a puppet and no one knew what to do about it. Papi wouldn’t admit it, but there were signs that her metamorphosis was coming, and it wasn’t just those dreadful orthopedic shoes.


For a long time, Abuela lived in an apartment by herself. Her relationship with my Abuelo had been another precious thing lost to migration, and she’d never bothered to date again. She had her children, who joined her in los Yunai Estais after she’d been cleaning houses, theaters, and embassies for nearly a decade, for nearly minimum wage. But, of course, Papi and his siblings had grown up and left Abuela in that musty-smelling apartment building.


We visited her one afternoon and couldn’t avoid the putrid smell that’d snuck into her home. The whole building smelt of old-person. In less kind words, the carpet and walls smelt of dying. But that morning Abuelita’s apartment did not smell just of dying, but already of death. In the fridge, there were rotten casseroles and the unquestionable stink of not-so-fresh queso fresco. Papi managed to save five slices from the loaf of bread, but everything else went into the trash.


Abuela claimed that she hadn’t smelt the food going bad. Her nose hardly worked anymore, she told us in an attempt to gain our pity. So, we went with her the the supermarket and bought a fridge full of groceries. Two weeks later, they sat in the fridge, largely untouched and mostly spoiled. My grandma had begun to lose weight, but she was still human.


Eventually, Mami convinced Papi to let Abuela move into our home in the suburbs. Abuela said they were being ridiculous, that she was fine in her apartment, that she was happy. But Mami was worried that she’d fall one day, and that no one would be there to help her. The weight loss also worried Mami.


Abuela had a large gut throughout my childhood, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you tipped her over and tried rolling her down the street. But by the time she moved into my old bedroom, her gut was gone. If you tipped her over, she’d plop onto the sidewalk like a plank of wood.


There’s a purse that Abuela loves. It’s a knock-off Louis Vuitton that she picked up in MacArthur park a year or so before the rotting fridge fiasco. When she became a puppet, a  version of the bag was stitched to her side, though it was made of felt and with less details than the original. But the purse sticks to her side, even as she lays tossed on the ground when there’s no one to hold up the wooden operating cross.


Before she was a puppet, Abuela swung that purse around and hit Papi straight across the cheek, leaving him with neck pains he’d complain about for weeks. She was accusing him of stealing money from her purse. Papi assured her that, no, he hadn’t taken anything from her, but she continued. She remembered putting a stack of twenty-dollar bills in the small pocket of her purse, and now she couldn’t find them. Papi had stolen them, she yelled, the ungrateful son of his father and then she pulled back her flabby arm and took aim.


In his shock, Abuela made a run for it. She pushed past me, with a strength that her limp marionette arms no longer possess. That the woman who sang me lullabies about baby chicks and coyotes would lay her hands on me without any of the tenderness I was used to nearly brought me to tears. It left me immobile as she opened the front door and ran out into the  rain-soaked neighborhood with her Louis Vuitton fake.


Mami and Papi got into the minivan and went out searching for her. They spotted her through a sprinkled windshield, waiting at the wrong bus stop. Her plan, my parents would tell me after I’d wiped the bags under my ears dry, was to ride the bus back to her apartment. She had forgotten the bus route to get there, though she’d ridden it often for nearly a decade. It’d slipped her mind that she no longer had a lease on that musty pink apartment.


The home we moved Abuela into after the 75-year-old runaway situation didn’t smell of dying. It was sterile, and the hallways of doors where hers stood was fenced off from the rest of the living facility. A brass gate separated those who could remember and those who couldn’t. A nurse would press a four-number code into a small keypad, and the door would open up to let us through.


Abuela lived in the section for people whose memories were turning into small wisps, ready to float away from their temples and into the clouds. Each of the tenants had their own room, but they’d take all their meals in a large, open-floor dining area. The nurses would go knock on Abuela’s door when it was dinner time and she hadn’t arrived to eat. Her mind was a lost cause, but there was no reason her body had to be as well.


Every visit gave us a clue that we ignored, opting for silence the way Papi had taught Mami and Mami had taught me. One day, Papi asked her how she used to make Christmas tamales. Being the man’s man that he is, he’d never stepped in the kitchen to actually make the dish. But he knew the steps well enough to know that his mother had forgotten them completely.


A professor had assigned an oral history project, so I’d decided to interview Abuela about the war and the way it had affected her migration. She began telling me the story, and the most graphic of details were sharp and clear. She recounted how an army soldier took a machete to a pregnant woman’s stomach because they feared that her baby was a communist. She told me that the guerilleros befriended her favorite cow and three days later murdered it for the meat.


When I prompted her to tell me her immigration story, she’d have to correct herself. Papi, who was sitting just few feet away, eventually led her along, reminding her that she’d gone to Puerto Rico before moving to Miami. He’d stayed in El Salvador for the first two year she’d been in San Juan, he told her, the hurt reverberating in his voice.


Soon she didn’t know our names. She called us all “mijo” or “mija.” Eventually, she opted to simply use “linda,” regardless of the gender of the person she was speaking to. Slowly, we became nearly strangers to us. My grandmother treated us the way she’d treat the mail man or a friend’s relative she was meeting for the first time. There was a sense of trust, but nothing more.


In the months before her metamorphosis, she often repeated a single phrase, over and over. He jaw falling unhinged, then rising again, and then down again. It wasn’t a coherent phrase either, but rather a string of muffled noise. Now, I’m realizing that maybe Abuela was speaking a clandestine language puppets speak when a ventriloquist isn’t pulling at their lips.


Though Abuela was human on all of those trips, I pretended that she wasn’t. Like the other people in this caged home for the forgetful, she’d lost her stories. I’d smile a hollow smile at them, tell Abuela that I loved her even though I knew she didn’t recognize me, and then slink away to a corner of the room.


When she became a puppet, my resentment for her grew. Papi and Mami refused to bury her. She’s not dead, they’d insist, pointing to the place where fish-wire strings met her joints. Mami grabbed my hand and pressed it against Abuela’s skin. The new texture of felt was kinder than the soggy, old leather Abuela’s skin used to feel like, but I still pulled my hand away quickly.


Abuela the Puppet hung in my parent’s home for years. Not wanting to be disrespectful, she watched over us from a hook in our living room–hovering as we watched TV, ate dinner, got into loud arguments. Abuela was the only one who saw when when I snuck a man into the house when I was visiting one Christmas break.


Most days she just hung there, but one weekend, when I was visiting in my few free days from graduate school, she began to sing. Her voice was stronger and clearer than it had been for years before her transformation.


“Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta, y no llores. Porque cantando se alegran, cielito lindo los corazones.”


It was my favorite song as a little girl, so I knew she was singing it just for me. My parents stared at me with a concerned look when I told them. When I tugged at Abuela’s strings and moved her mouth up and down my hands, trying to prove to my parents what I’d heard, she didn’t budge. My grandmother remained limp and unmoving. My father placed a wrinkled hand on my shoulder and told me that it might be a sign that I had that memory-denigrating termite Abuela suffered from for so long. It usually skipped a generation.


Mami and Papi died a year-and-a-half apart, leaving me to deal with my grandmother. I hated her. I hated her so much for taking so much space for so long, for forgetting my name, for making a fool of me with her lullaby. I hated her for the termites she’d left in my brain, and for all the pain she was going to put my children through. At church serves, a very seldom occurrence in those days, I’d prayed for death. God, diosito lindo, please don’t make me a puppet.


Online, I found a company that stored family members in Abuela’s condition indefinitely. They’d bought out an old lot of storage units and repurposed them to accommodate rows and rows of human-sized puppets. Most of the puppets were of people who’d formerly fled countries ravaged by wars funded in part by the United States, so when I dropped Abuela off they placed her in the unit marked CENTRAL AMERICA, with the other shrunken caramel grandmothers displaced from the isthmus. As the door to the storage unit closed, Abuela’s jaw twitched. No sound came out. The shell of a woman disappeared into the dark, silent once more.