Every spring since her mother disappeared, Aria had saved a baby bird from its death. That made three innocents she’d rescued in Berlin. She watched her latest catch peck at the kitchen window begging for crumbs. This one was pushed out of the nest by its mother who’d become indifferent to the scrawny little thing after it failed to imprint. Smart for a newborn, Aria thought, and lucky to have survived the fall.
“It’s the journey that counts you know,” she had whispered into her cupped hands at the time she’d scoop the pitiful thing up. “Tell me what you learned on the way down.”
Now and then, she’d genuinely wondered the same of her own life for she felt suspended, up, floating above the puzzle, deprived of the forward momentum towards answers.
What she was certain of was that she did not want to move from Germany to New York with her father and she did not want to meet or be left with her father’s brothers, whom he’d called strange. What she wanted was to stay in Berlin with her grandparents and wait for her mother to return, and to honor her grandmother by at least going through the motions of her rite of passage, the Batizado do Anastacia. She knew only small fragments of herself felt safe enough to live outright. The rest were blanched, void of spirit, cowering in some deep cavity of her body, hiding from light. This was all she had to take with her to New York. It would only take minutes for things to change, she deeply believed. If she could just explain to her mother what happened with Herr Rausche. Two minutes for her mother’s forgiveness to breathe life back into this girl in pieces.
“Stop staring and drink your tea, ma fil,” Oma, her grandmother, demanded. She repeatedly slammed a lemon against the cutting board with such force that the dishes rattled in the dish rack.
“You promised you’d try to control yourself.” Aria wanted to go to her or maybe run, but felt stuck in the chair.
“Yes, and this is me trying.” Oma took a cotton handkerchief from the pocket of her apron and dabbed at her eyes. She turned, grabbed one of her sharper knives and sliced several lemons in half then proceeded to juice them. She added eggs and flour to the juice, but no sugar, and set the bowl aside. This morning Oma was making something sour because this is how she said she felt, and so did Aria. Oma beat egg whites into firm waves while reciting some Brazilian curse with angles and sharp edges. The half-dozen bangles on her arm clanged together rhythmically.
“You are my daughter’s daughter.” She sniffed in time with the bangles, “My one and only. I don’t have my daughter anymore and now I’m losing you to that poha! He couldn’t even give me two more months with you in Berlin. Two months is all we would have needed to get you through your Batizado. What’s going to happen to you? Who’s going to be there to help you? That selfish… I’m surprised he let you spend this last weekend with us at the house.”
She stopped, drew a long inhale. “Forgive me, Deus, I can’t seem to hold my tongue.” She continued, “What am I supposed to do? That rat, no worse than a rat, a flea on a rat’s… Look how he makes me talk, that flesh-eating bacteria on a whitehead.”
Oma looked lost in her own head. Her eyes darted from one end of the kitchen to the next, to the ceiling, to the rows of pots and pans suspended from the ceiling over the stove, finally landing on the string of garlic hanging next to the sink. The room was wide and open with a central stove in the middle of the room. Grooved paths on the wooden floor lead from the sink to the stove. The wheels of Oma’s mobile cutting board squeaked and fussed as she pushed it..
“He’ll probably leave you on the streets of New York to fend for yourself. Or leave you with his crazy family. We don’t know those people. One tried to kill himself, you know.” She picked up the knife and stabbed the wooden cutting board leaving it standing. “He’s stealing you from us.”
“What did Idelina see in him? Looks and intelligence are nothing if your heart has wings.”
There was too much right with what her grandmother was saying about his dependability and only a little wrong. Her father had been in and out and then out and in of her life since she could remember. Aria imagined herself wandering through the streets of New York: skin and bones, her curly mane matted, returning to a house full of lunatics. She stopped. No matter how unreliable he was, he’d be the only one she’d have in the very near future.
She sat at the kitchen table rocking, staring through the murky fluid in the teacup. Leaves that had escaped the strainer clumped on the bottom slightly to the right. Three or four of them looked like fingers pointing towards the door warning her to flee now and not look back. She inhaled and lifted her head. Oma stood at the sink, shoulders quivering, eyes misting, leaning against the counter. Her whole being seemed to sag. It was hard to see her grandmother’s spirit so disabled. Oma began to pump the spoon she held in her left hand. She knew what Oma would say next; Aria had heard it several times before.
“And what that son-of-a-pig’s-behind did to your mother. She’s gone because of him.” She snatched the air in front of her with her right hand. “Dear Anastacia, see he’s made me curse again, that feces-of-a-larvae.”
“Oma, please. He didn’t kill her. We just don’t know where she is.” Aria fought back resentment for both her father and the person delivering the truth, Oma. She looked at the tea leaves once more.
Oma was not one to hide her emotions or hold her tongue about anything, including thoughts that might not be true.
Her grandmother leaned in, “Killing her spirit is the same as killing her body. Aria, let go. Be mad with him. It’s allowed. You don’t have to like him or forgive him if he isn’t sorry. Love him, yes; but like him—he doesn’t deserve it.”
It was confusing and complex. Aria’s fingers twisted and popped in the strange dance she’d developed over the past couple of years. Oma didn’t understand that it was Aria’s fault her mother disappeared. Her stomach sank to a new depth. It was all there on the video. A desperate need to tell someone what happened with Herr Rausche ate at her from the time her father announced the move. Oma was the only one she’d even consider, but she couldn’t risk having her grandma push her away or worse, leave like her mother did. Aria decided to soldier on, guarding her darkness. In her head she quickly went over the plan to bury the video early the next morning.
“Ma Deus, I’ve scared you. I’m sorry. You know I say anything, Aria. My tongue is too loose,” she said, observing Aria’s hands. “You’ve got to control that there. Between that thing you do with your fingers, and your muttering….”
She made a half-circle around her ear stopping short, returning to beating the egg whites. Oma looked at Aria and seemed to read the pain in her heaving chest. She stopped beating the meringue and joined Aria at the table, reaching for her hands. She settled herself with another deep breath in.
“Bird, we’ll never let anything happen to you.” She composed herself again. She was a girlish-looking grandmother, shapely and full of life. However, she seemed to age over the past two weeks. Her cheeks seemed more sunken and the span of her lips not as wide.
“This is your thirteenth year, Bird,” Oma said while kneading Aria’s hand.
Aria fell into the warmth of her fleshy palm, her fingers calming from their crooked dance.
“I know,” Aria responded. She appreciated that change of subject to the initiation ritual. Talking about the move and her father made Oma crazy and terrified Aria. Talking about her religion brought her peace.
“I am going to tell you this year’s story, now because he is taking you away. You won’t be with us on July sixteenth, the day before your Batizado, your baptism into the sect of Anastacia. I should’ve been able deliver this lesson in person, but he’s taking you away.” The house stilled with only the sound of the kitchen wall clock ticking through the long pauses Oma took between sentences. “It was in her thirteenth year that Saint Anastacia received her metal plate, the year of transcendence.” Oma had stopped kneading and begun patting Aria’s delicate hand. “You remember the story from last year, no?”
“I remember, Oma.”
Followers were taught to dwell on the significance and apply the Saint’s ways to their lives. Reaching July seventeenth meant a lot to Oma but Aria had no idea where the courage to live the lie up to that date would come from, the lie that she was pure and untouched in body and soul.
“By her thirteenth year, Bird, her magic had grown; she began to have visions. The miracles she was able to perform brought many people, slaves and free, to her Master’s land. She cured many, most with horrible wounds inflicted at the hands of slavers, in a system of inhumanity. She never turned anyone away. Compassion is what drove her.” Oma shook her index finger to make the point. “She even cured her master’s wife of malaria and his daughter of seizures without a second thought.”
Aria sat mesmerized, drinking in the story, searching for herself in them.
As Oma recounted the story, she stared off into a space alive with the old people she spoke of. Her deep eyes followed images as she spoke; her reactions rose and fell to the activities of the invisible characters.
She continued, “At thirteen, she began to whisper and then speak out against the brutalities that had caused so many of the illnesses and wounds she’d healed. And the people listened, Bird. They listened with their ears open and heads nodding. Then they began to listen with their fists balled and teeth gritted. The people began to rise up. Word got back to Saint Anastacia’s master that she was inciting slaves. He warned her with forty lashes to stop.” Oma wrapped her arms around herself and rocked for a moment. She flinched as she took in the blows against the Saint’s young skin. She wiped away a tear.
“But still the people came with wounds so grotesque, vultures turned away. People with broken spirits so far gone—no physical wound could be as gross as what had been done to their souls. We have an expression in Portuguese: birds found it necessary to fly out of her mouth. The broken people came, and the words flew.” Oma pointed to the invisible Saint and nodded her head in solidarity toward her.
“So the master beat her. He tried to stop the people from coming, but he couldn’t. He tried to sell Saint Anastacia, but her reputation preceded her. He dare not kill her because he was afraid of her magic. Instead, he had the blacksmith make a metal plate and a cage that went around her head with spikes that stuck out from the neck. That metal plate covered her mouth, tight. She could only mumble.”
“Oma, what did she do? Was she still able to help people?” Aria felt a lump form in her throat that sank to her belly. Her concern with this new chapter of the saint’s life had most to do with the saint’s imprisonment and separation from freedom..
“When she couldn’t speak with her mouth, they say Yemenja spoke through her eyes and miracles happened. Skin as dark as night and those blue eyes.” Oma turned her head slightly from side to side as if looking into the Saint’s face. “So strange, her eyes; black skin with ice-blue eyes.” She continued, “The master then separated her from the people and she spent her days in isolation, in meditation.”
“Did she eat?” Aria asked.
“Only once a day. Mia Deus. They say her shack began to glow with blue light the color of her eyes. The people would touch the light and be healed.” Oma looked at Aria. “In this state, this state of transcendence you can be with her, Bird. Follow her practices. Meditate. Pray. Use the Batizados you’ve seen before, the ones for the Saint not the ones in the church with water and dunking. For the Saint you must be pure of flesh and heart. Untouched. You will be graced with even more knowings on this day, your thirteenth year. Even more consistent and clear than the ones you have now.”
Aria’s knowings were inconsistent and random, and apparently bizarre by other’s standards according to her mother: men and women with secrets—both good and bad, joyful and ominous—appearing with animal parts. Her earliest memories were riddled with images of people with roster combs, monkey tails, and elephant ears. Until her mother pointed it out, Aria had no idea that she saw things that others did not.
Up until she turned eight, it wasn’t uncommon for her to grab one of these people by the hand and whisper such things as, “Someone is trying to tell you something,” or, “if you keep crowing so loud, you’re going to scare your whole family away.” Sometimes the strangers would ignore her, or laugh it off as a little girl’s folly. However, sometimes what Aria delivered would land squarely in the midst of the stranger’s turmoil, and they would look at her with stormy eyes, and cry. These times of connection Aria felt close to the Saint. She was just a messenger, a disciple even though she’d not been baptized fully into the sect of Anastacia yet. Her mother and Oma were quite proud that she had been graced with gift, but pretended to act slightly annoyed when she delivered her prophesies. They’d give her a wink and grin as they walked away.
She still saw things, the same things she did when she was younger, things like animal tails, bird crests, beaks, feathers, scales, and fins, to name a few. They were always attached to some chaos and compelling message she needed to deliver, but would dare not share them with strangers now. At some point, as joy had slipped away over the years, she only desired to disappear, and go unnoticed in life. Always with her, it was neither a burden nor an asset, just a sense like smelling or seeing.
“You know what sacrifice you need to make, no?”
“I remember, Oma.” Her stomach flipped. How could she possibly succeed, she knew nothing, no one would be there to help her?
“Don’t disappoint me, Aria. You are my good girl. Maybe the Saint will bring your mother back for your sacrifice—I just have a good feeling.” Oma nodded her head to Aria then turned towards the Saint. Her face softened, as if she were a child being caressed.
“Oma, do you know where Mama is, because Daddy says you might?” Aria’s voice trailed off into an awkward silence, feeling that maybe by asking the question she was calling Oma a liar. She wondered if she asked this out loud because her grandmother didn’t respond. It didn’t matter; it was a lie anyway. There’s no way her mother and grandmother would do this to her.
After some time, Oma got up without a word or a glance and returned to making her special lemon tart. There was no choice. The least Aria could do was to go through the motions of honoring the one reliable person she had left in her life. And maybe by some miracle the saint would bring her mother back.
Oma could make something from anything, all the while spinning tales and recounting her younger days in Rio. The stories she told while cooking were pure theater: Orisha dances, character re-enactments of life in Rio de Janiero and samba. Any spatula, serving spoon, and other cooking utensil she’d happen to have in her hand, she used as a prop. Aria had taken to filming many of these stories with the old video camera she’d taken from Herr Rausche.
She remembered when Frau Steiner, the neighbor, an old grouch in her seventies, spied Oma when she put on her old Carnival outfit—an electric-blue midriff, matching pants, and shiny blue high heels. Dancing samba on Sundays, music blaring. Whenever Oma wore this outfit she unleashed her long hair that swung on her back from side to side. Frau Steiner open, then slammed closed her window. Oma noticed, and she danced over to the window, and shimmied her bosom square on in the direction of Frau, whipping her long hair from side to side. Frau Steiner’s mouth dropped open, then bunched as she snatched the shade closed. Oma growled a deep laugh and kept on dancing.
Frau Steiner started a rumor that Oma was a prostitute. Oma could’ve had hurt feelings, or could’ve told the woman off, but instead she enhanced the rumor, true to form making it much bigger than it was. She told the neighbors having the guts to mention it, that indeed she was running a lesbian brothel and she couldn’t wait until Frau Steiner decided to partake in her services. After she’d made the announcement she sauntered up the stairs with an exaggerated hip swing and thrown back her head with a throaty, devilish laugh. This was Aria’s Oma, the storyteller, the fierce protector, her next-to-everything.
For the last two weeks, there was no dancing, or singing, or recounting tales. There were plenty of conversations damning her father to hell, and plenty of finely minced spices and whipped ingredients.
Aria headed out the back door into the yard. It had been a dry spring in Berlin. Bald patches of earth spotted the lawn. She walked off the path and chose a place to lie in the grass. Rolling to her side, she cradled her head in the crux of her arm, then focused on several tiny sinkholes collapsing in the bald patch closest to her. Sugar ants broke ground, emerging from their dark tunnels into the light with grains of dirt secure within their mandibles. These creatures were magicians, breaking dark paths grains by grain. She noted how large and clumsy she felt, with no idea of where to even start.
She felt herself turning from the world; after all the moving and leaving, she closed little doors, locking parts of herself away. Her life felt so small and unpredictable, even smaller than these ants. The ants had each other after all, and more importantly, they knew what to expect day after day. Those expectations were not extraordinary.
She framed the sky with her thumbs and index fingers forming a picture box. Of the large blue, this small portion she could handle. She smelled the approaching spring rain mixing with soil. The scent loosened memories of migrating birds. Her stomach twisted and she thought of the last time she saw her mother.
On a Saturday when the birds began to return, V-shaped lines dotted a mandarin-colored sky.
Aria’s mother said, “Their calls willed an end to winter’s hibernation and a salute to spring’s push towards the sun.”
Aria remembered nearly pressing her nose against the window as she sat perched on a stool, ticking off hash marks. She recorded losses and gains. She and her mother always counted the members of each winged family as they journeyed back from what seemed like the edge of the world to Berlin. It had been something they did since she was four, waiting for her father to return from one of his disappearances. Aria connected his return and safety with these migrations.
The birds’ winter migration frightened Aria the most. It was the anticipation of the flock returning home one fewer, because of death or of accidental separation—the family continuing after the disappearance, unfettered, because that’s just the way things work. Her fingers knitted the space.
Aria looked at the great willow tree. Under its weeping limbs is where she’d bury the videocassette that night. She meant no disrespect, but thought it strong enough to eventually erase the blemish it would soon hold.