The Butterflies Were Merely Ghosts (Fiction)
By Fernando Romero
Fernando, graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2009 and studied Creative Writing and Journalism. He is a co-founding member of Dreamers Adrift and co-founding member of the AB 540 group FUEL @ CSULB. He is the Coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, which is an immigrant-rights coalition in the Inland Empire region of California. He is also a contributing writer to the Huffington Post on the Dream Activist series and serves as Vice President Board Member for the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, a day laborer center in Pomona, Ca
Dear children, I hope that when you receive this letter you are all well. The money for the new shoes I promised you will be coming in by the end of this month. Things are going pretty well for me here. I have moved to another place and I no longer live with your uncle Islas. I live in a very large apartment in Hollywood, where all the movie stars live at. I always hope that during my commute to work I will run into a famous actor. This place is very nice and the people are too. You can’t imagine how beautiful it is here. Here all our countrymen are very welcoming; you simply tell them where you’re from and they open the doors for you. There are so many great places to work, so much so that I change employment every couple of weeks. If you could see me, you’d be very happy for me. With your cousins Claudio and Severino, every Sunday we go watch baseball. We became fans of the Dodgers. They are the best team here. The Dodgers win everything!Sending all my love to my children; I miss you a lot.
Maria del Carmen Castilla’s son had been dead no less than 4 days before she arrived at the fifth stage of grief. This stage, under the Kubler-Ross model, is where one gradually goes through the process of mourning and begins to accept the fact their loved one is no longer. Maica had been in an unreserved state of shock and disbelief throughout the past three days. By now it was Friday morning, only a couple of minutes before six a.m. and she is sitting unmoved on a bus bench waiting for the 102 bus. Sitting beside her is Bastian, the child she babysits for on the weekends. Bastian is a 4-year old boy, son of Gerd and Lena Brandenburg, two German immigrants who relocated to the posh neighborhood of Los Feliz, seeking early retirement after making a modest fortune at an advertising firm in Gelsenkirchen.
The world was still asleep. Rain drops of the previous night’s downpour had left indelible damps on the bus bench where they both sat. The somber overcast and the gloomy clouds that whirled in the sky spelled out that, that even today, it would provide no relief from the rain.
Thin and frail, her skin was pale and grisly. She wore a beige fleece sweatshirt and light brown jeans and underneath she wore an apron over a pink blouse. Her usual bright shining eyes were dull and heavy and the blush on her face had turned gray. Her natural beauty left her and in its stead was the disease of heartache.
Bastian is leaning into Maica’s side shivering under the wool blanket she brought along with her from her apartment. The little boy can’t hear very well out of his right ear. He has also been diagnosed (prematurely) by the family doctor, as autistic. And this is the part where I’m supposed to mention that Bastian was not supposed to be out of his home, but last night when the Brandenburgs called Maica to babysit (she was always on-call), the commute from South LA to Los Feliz wore her out and when she got there, and after receiving instructions from the German couple (and upon their departure), she decided to take the child home with her instead. Bastian’s parents would be gone until Sunday. This morning she found herself coming back to this point, and like Mercury in retrograde orbit, she caught the same public transportation route she had just been on the night before.
Bastian’s teeth chattered in his sleep as if they were about to atrophy. Maica took off her fleece sweatshirt and put it on him. She sat down again and now had her knees in her chest and her arms wrapped around them, bent in a fetal position to circumvent the chill of the winds. As anxiety began to get the best of her, she lit up a cigarette, took a drag on the harsh smoke, then in distress, she took another drag, flicked it on the floor, stood up and then stepped on it to extinguish the life out of it.
Maica once again sat motionless and distanced from the world. She sat there, waiting for the 102. She gradually became more unmoved and lost in her thoughts and if the clouds high above happened to crashed into one another and a deluge cascaded down, she would not budge nor find it necessary to run for shelter.
In the prism of her brown eyes was a small family portrait, a medallion clinging to her neck, on one side is the image of Santo Toribio Romo and on its flipside was a minute photo of her children trapped inside the pendant. Remorse grabbed at her (and I think we can all agree that only cowards leave their children behind). A single mother of five and three years a widow after her husband had died from complications of cirrhosis. She had arrived by running across the Sonora Desert in the middle of a cold night (which is not uncommon for the Sonoran Desert to be cold, but it is at least worth pointing out) almost a year ago. The crossing was now a distant memory and since the arrival, she had been working almost nonstop.
Her children could not come along with her and were left behind spread out amongst aunts and uncles. At the time of her departure, the oldest, Maria de la Soledad was 14 years old, Salvador Libertad was 13, Maria de los Angeles 11, Maria del Rosario 8 and Maria del Refugio was 6. When she said goodbye, she bid them farewell with a frown disguised as a smile and promised she would send for them as soon as she could save enough money to do so.
Salvador Libertad fell ill shortly after her departure and the whole family chalked it up to a disease of longing and loneliness from missing her mother and father. A curandera was brought in to treat the child and after a performance of consecrated rituals, the old woman simply uttered a few words to the relatives present and that a person’s life may be a lonely thing in comparison to nature but that it’s not isolated from those that feel for them in their hearts.
He died of advanced leukemia in a hospital in Guadalajara where he spent the last 4 months of his life surrounded only by the medical staff. And as they say, “he lost his battle,” to this horrible disease, and this euphemism is appropriate in this sense (because we can all agree that it’s redundant most of the time), because he had fought it hard and by the accounts and prospects of all the medical staff all assured that Salvador Libertad would pull through. Maica worked non-stop to pay for the mounting medical bills that engulfed her and the family back in that tiny little town in Mexico. The death surprised everyone because during the last few weeks, Salvador Libertad’s condition had improved drastically and when Maica called him on the phone he would laugh and smile and speak to her with the clarity of a preacher. The wake occurred 3 nights after he passed on, it was an open casket, and his siblings looked on in horror when his left hand broke off in the middle of the Requiescat in pace offered by the town’s only priest. The sickness had gutted his insides and had taken much from him physically, the way a merciless tax collector strips a poor family’s house of all its possessions. Maria del Rosario and Maria del Refugio cried the loudest at the sight of the broken hand sitting idle and detached from the rest of his body, while Maria de los Angeles verbally scolded the two for doing so, just shut up! now is no time to cry, she had said in Spanish. The eldest child simply sat silent bearing the situation with a stoic calm like a Samurai preparing to go into battle against a dragon knowing that at the end of it all, he will die.
“Are you getting on?”
Maica didn’t hear when an Armenian man asked her impatiently if she was boarding the bus, he had been standing beside her and Bastian for several minutes. Maica looked up with her eyes moist and glassy and saw the man looking at her with contempt.
“Yes, you. Are you getting on or not?”
She didn’t’ respond. With apprehension, she grabbed a hold of Bastian, lunged him over her right shoulder, picked up her tote bags with her left hand and boarded the bus.
She struggled with the tote bags and the child but found two empty seats next to a white man dressed in a business suit. She sat Bastian to her left and herself in-between the businessman who was dressed impeccably in a navy blue shirt, black slacks, black tie, black wing tips and a matching raincoat. A black briefcase stood firmly at his feet, unwavered by the movement of the bus. Maica tried to establish eye contact, but the businessman looked away. Bastian nestled his head on her side just above her ribs. The seats faced the windows on the side of the bus and she could see the rain drops begin to pelt the bus. At first, she turned her head back and forth, like someone unsure of their surroundings, then her eyes widened as she took in the atmosphere and people inside the bus, she looked down on her feet, her breathing began to accelerate and decelerate and then with a bleak smile, she looked at the man who sat beside on her right. The businessman smiled back with indifference.
Bastian went to back to sleep. The morning newspaper had been left behind by the previous person sitting in her seat. It was in English but she skimmed through the pages, there was a story about the restoration of the Los Angeles Central Library stemming from the damage in the 1986 fire, Eastern Europe was in strife after the Markale massacre in Sarajevo took the lives of more than 86 people and in the only article she would have cared to read was of the release of Absalon Castellanos, a former state governor, who had been kidnapped on January 1st by insurgent rebels in the southern region of Mexico.
Maica wanted to talk to someone, but she was too afraid she would falter. She could barely speak English and she chose not to speak because she was ashamed of the sound her voice echoed. She continued to fidget on her seat. Again, she looked to her right. No response as the businessman now stared aimlessly out the window. Slowly, she began to rock back-and-forth while the memories of a distant past cluttered her mind.
“You okay?” asked the businessman.
Maica had failed to notice the tears that strolled down her cheeks and the whimpers that had caught his attention. “Ma’am, are you alright?’ he asked again. His voice was groggy yet strong and he spoke with a usually clear intonation, like someone long-accustomed to public speaking with a symphonic cadence. She cleared her throat and tried to form words as her mind stammered.
Maica craned her neck to face the man.
“Ummh yea, es okay…me son…he umh…he die las’ week in Mexico.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” the businessman said with an off-handed reply. “How’d he die?”
Maica Castilla shifted her entire body around to face the man who sat beside her.
“Hee die of cancer,” she said.
She paused for a moment, sighed and then continued. “He in hospital and doctor… he say he okay, and then, he die,” she said. “ees…I dunno …mee son is die.”
The businessman went silent, but his eyes wondered off with disinterest, he looked to the front of the bus and looked out the windows. Maica continued as she placed her right hand over her chest repeating the same phrases and words in the same intonation she did the first time. She noticed a Korean couple sitting across the aisle from her, the man wore a beige baseball cap, khakis and an orange polo shirt while the woman wore a red blouse and white jeans. Maica cleared her throat and began to distinctly talk to them in their direction. When she made eye contact with them, she started from the beginning with the same phrases and intonation accenting the parts that were the most tragic for dramatic effect. A Latino man in his heavy duty boots and work uniform sat adjacent to them. He made eye contact with her directly.
“Then who’s this kid over here?” the businessman interrupted her in the middle of her invective, pointing to Bastian, who still slept with his head resting on Maica.
“I baby-seat heem”, she said and then went back, “My sohn, he was sick…but,” Maica Castilla now turned in her seat to see the effect of her words on the Korean couple. In mid-sentence, the conversation came to a halt and the businessman interrupted asking, “oh, so you’re illegal?!”
A perplexed look enveloped over Maica’s face as her eyebrows and nose sharply narrowed in as if the seams woven in her face had been tied at the hem.
“You don’t speak English, you’re a babysitter and you’re carrying a bunch of trash bags with you. You’re illegal. I can’t believe people like you are out in the city so freely. It’s people like you that we need less of.”
She couldn’t understand what the man was saying at the moment, but she knew it wasn’t polite or courteous. The Korean man and woman looked away in silence; the woman out the window and the man took out a pair of aviator shades and put them hiding his eyes like two suns blocking out two white moons during an eclipse. The Latino man, in his early 30s, stared at her quietly with a pensive look in his eyes. He was sitting a few feet away from both Maica and the businessman and as he chewed gum, he was moving his head up and down.
The man in the business attire continued, his groggy voice only supplemented the language as if though he was running out of air and precipitated himself to speak as fast as possible; as loud as possible. “You know, there’s a bill coming up in the state legislature that’s being talked about and getting a lot of support. It’s gonna take care of people like you! We’re cleaning house. I mean, I like you all, but you people are sucking our social services dry and…”
“But my sohn, he die…,”she interjected.
“Well, you should not have come here in the first place!” his voice rose a full decibel. “You should have just stayed in your damn country to take care of your son,” he said.
“That’s right!” the Latino man yelled out. “You’re right about that, man! We’re cleaning house.”
The bus went silent; that silence became obvious and perceptible, a loud silence, the way a deaf person would notice the sound made when a sudden rise in air pressure enters an empty room.
When the 102 reached Wilshire and Western, the Korean couple exited through the front door of the bus. A young African-American couple replaced them in the seats they had just occupied, the man in his early 30s and the woman in early 40s; both dressed as professionals. A couple of students got on board and took seats nearing the back.
The bus revved up once again, and the driver announced the next stop. “Ain’t nothing worse than folks like you leeching off, hardworking taxpayers like me,” the Latino man continued. “You know? I came here in 1978, legally, worked the fields with my folks when I was kid out in Coachella and now I can’t get a job cuz’of all these damn illegals coming in from Mexico and taking our jobs.”
Sitting across from Maica, the African-American couple could not readily understand to whom the comments were directed at.
“I was a free-mason up until a few years ago. And I made real good money too. Up until these sons of bitches started coming in and using fake socials to take our jobs. I have a trade school certificate and everything. That’s the kind of thing that would assure a job. I betcha’ none of the illegals that replaced me or my coworkers even went to school.
He continued, “There’s nothing worst than a wetback. Male or female, ain’t nothin’ worst than a wetback.”
“Amen to that!” the white business man, said this time with a grin on his face and his blue eyes getting bluer and bluer as he grinned.
Maica, with a pathetic look, kept her gaze to the floor. The African-American couple began to chat away and ignore the situation altogether. The remaining 8 passengers were scattered on the bus, which at the moment resembled more like a waiting area inside an emergency room, with its flickering overhead lights, unbearable silence with sliver slice of noise coming from the driver announcing the stops and with passengers or patients (whatever you want to call them) numb and in an ethereal reality. Among them was a college student, who raised her head every now and then to check in on the conversation, a middle-age Latina woman sitting in the back row with a child around the same age as Bastian, but this child had filthy clothes and had his nose unchecked, something which Maica noticed immediately. The Armenian man sat in the back as well. Everyone on the bus had heard the entire conversation that’d been going on up that point, Bastian rustled every now and then, he couldn’t hear a thing, but the cold he felt had abated, but this was an hour the little boy was not accustomed to.
The silence continued. The white man in the business suit stood up shortly after and walked toward the back of the bus. As he made his way to the back of the bus, it seemed like every person he passed by, he was bringing each head to a solemn bow along the way, including the Latino man.
She was left to herself and her thoughts once again. Bastian rustled in his sleep. Maica leaned into his left ear and began to whisper him a lullaby in Spanish.
The college student who sat three rows behind her seat, kept flipping pages on a mathematical workbook, she studied him for a brief moment, stood up and reached across and tapped him on the shoulder and asked him for the time of day.
“Escuse’ me, umh… you know time?” she said as she gestured and pointed to her left wrist.
The student looked up to face her, he was unsure as to why the woman had singled her out of the rest of the passengers. She shook her head 3 times and hinted that she did not understand what she had said. As the rest of the passengers who sat nearby, the college student had also overhead the conversation with the businessman.
“Time, time,” she said with manifestation on the simplicity of the word.
“It’s almost seven o’clock… Okay? Please, I have to study,” she said and promptly turned her gaze back to her book.
Maica returned to her dim expression. She tried to distract herself by staring outside, in her ethereal reality; she imagined that the winding road and incessant bus stops on this route would eventually lead her to the place where her children waited. It was useless thoughts, really, and she knew it, but people need things like that to go on living, mental landscapes that have meaning for them, even if they can’t explain them in words, (and this is part of the philosophy lesson) part of the reason we live is to come up with explanations for these things.
The businessman had disappeared to the back of the bus. Maica was again silent. She was unresponsive and unmoved for the rest of the bus ride. When her stop was coming up, she gathered her tote bags and got up. She nudged Bastian, leaned into his left ear to murmur sweet words to wake him. The boy opened his eyes disoriented and irritable. As they both walked to exit through the back door, she noticed the white businessman again, who was exiting the bus also. Maica looked down at the bus floor right in front of the man as she exited the bus. Maica went first, with tote bags in hand and Bastian right behind. She exited the bus, the morning light surprised her, and she felt ill. It was unnoticeable, just like no one noticed when Icharus came crashing down from the sky after flying too close to sun, or how we don’t notice that vultures sometimes also weep out of loneliness, or that the souls of flowers and trees escape each and every winter and that the monarch butterfly, the one which migrates every year is in fact simply an amalgamation of ghosts.
It wasn’t until she was walking down Franklin Avenue, an entire block after she got off the bus that she noticed Bastian wasn’t with her. Bastian had gotten lost in the throng of people exiting the bus and erroneously walked in the wrong direction. When she realized this, she turned around, a sigh escaped, she dropped her totes and began a frenetic run toward Los Feliz Boulevard. When she returned to the bus stop, she noticed the white businessman across the street, crouched on one knee talking to Bastian. She rushed across in the middle of moving traffic screaming at the top of her lungs in exasperated broken English “mee bay-bee! mee bay-bee!” the man grimaced at the sight of her running toward him.
He pulled the boy behind him, “What do you have to say for yourself?” he looked at her with rage in his eyes. “I’m going inside this café, I’m gonna borrow their phone and I’m calling the police.”
The café was teeming with morning customers. There was a group of four; three women and one man all of them in their late 20s, sitting in the patio chairs, they had all put down their cups of coffee, looking on as the situation unfolded like. Maica pulled her medallion out from her undershirt and she brought up to him, she opened it and displayed the picture of her family and bellowed out once again that her child had died from cancer and all alone, “mai bay-bee, mai bay-bee,” he paid no attention to her. In a fit of panic, Maica began to tug at Bastian at his left arm, the white man pulled from the other arm; Bastian’s eyes welled up with tears as he looked up, his figure smaller than ever before, the onlookers grew with tension and began to get up from their chairs and began creeping. Maica kept shrieking out for Bastian while tugging at his arm, then she let go of the boy’s arm, reached across to pry away the man’s hands from Bastian’s wrist. The white man instinctively reached back with his other arm which was holding his briefcase and raised it toward her. The briefcase struck Maica on the right side of her head, casting a gash on hear right ear. The hemorrhage was instant. The white businessman’s eyes widened, his jaw dropped, Bastian could not be consoled, Maica sank to the floor with her hands covering her ear, the blood gushed out like water from a hot spring with her hands preventing the full deluge from cascading down. The group of four approached the situation; the male in the group flagged one of the servers.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. It was an accident,” the businessman said with remorse in his voice.
The café server dashed inside and in less than a minute brought out a first-aid kit, trailed by the café manager. Ma’am, are you okay, they asked as they began to dab and cleanse the wound with cotton and alcohol pads. Maica simply nodded. We’re going to call the police, okay? The cafe server informed her in a slow and caring voice, enunciating every vowel in every word.
“No. es okey, no police, es okay,” Maica pleaded.
“Ma’am, you have to file a report,” the server said as he turned to face the man who had struck her. “I’m sorry. She came at me and started pulling at me.”
Maica stood up, the hemorrhage had yet to cease, and Bastian was standing next to her. The café staff took her and sat her on the patio chairs. The older of the two, like an expert surgeon, swabbed away the blood and placed a patch once the blood flow rescinded. “Ma’am, do you need to go to the hospital,” he said. Maica could see the rise and fall of his mouth as he spoke. “Es okay,” she said as she gestured with her hands a firm negative. What happened, he asked. “But my sohn, he die…,”she started all over again with same intonation in her voice as before. The café server sat with Maica and Bastian while the group of people reproached the businessman for his actions.
“Are you sure you don’t want us to call the cops,” the server asked again. Maica nodded and uttered, “es okay.”
48 minutes went and by the time Maica recuperated, the group of folks dissipated and the businessman had retreated as well. The young server handed her the first-aid kit, take it, he said. “Are you going to be okay,” he asked, once again enunciating every vowel of every word.
“Yes. I okay,” she said.
It was getting late. She retreated back to the spot she had dropped her tote bags before; they were still there. Bastian in one hand, tote bags in the other. Maica walked with Bastian with stoic fortitude. When she got to the Brandenburg home, the pair went into the kitchen where she prepped an apple sauce puree for Bastian. Maica was silent for a moment. She took the bowl of puree with her to feed him. As the child ate, she became relaxed.
“Eet,” she said as she fed him. “… mee baby is gone… He die last week… I miss him.”
The child continued to eat the puree made of apple sauce from the spoon with his head tilted over his right shoulder as Maica got carried away with the story of her son who passed away and about his life and how it had come to a deafening end.