Good Job, Little Girl by Fabiana Elisa Martinez

“When you get home tonight, you can hang the white towels. I keep them on the top shelf of the hallway closet. They are inside the muslin bag I got for preserving my wedding gown for your mother before I threw the gown away and realized that your mother would never get married.”

I raised my eyes from her bony hand, inert like a stained bunch of feathers enveloped in my fingers, and understood that she would not return home. She had never mentioned those stupid towels I had bought for her a decade ago, when I still believed that my impetuous adolescence had the power to change the laws of her castle on a fourth floor of Calçada do Forte.

“You never liked them, Grandma. It was bad of me to try to change your rules. You never wanted white towels in the house. I should have known better.”

“Do you want to know why?”

“The doctor said you shouldn’t talk too much. Don’t you prefer to rest? You can tell me later.”

“Now is later, menina. Now is the later of some other before.”

I pressed her hand and swallowed a thorny knot of tears. I could not reply without dispersing my fear all over the room. She took my silence as an invitation.

“At that time in Évora, there were only three cars, the blackest one for the priest, the biggest one for the mayor and the sturdiest for the general. Sarita and I could spend days betting on which one we would see next, stumbling along like a primitive elephant on our street. If one of those cars stopped in front of any house, the news of such an eminent event would run faster

than any vehicle could over the uneven cobblestones. However, there was one house that never got the honor of such a visit, none of the three moral authorities of the city seemed to acknowledge what the green door of María Marí hid. I remember people discussing the origin of her name, some said that she was not Portuguese but from Galicia. That she was a nurse who had crossed the Minho in a rush and had dropped some of the letters of her last name in its waters. Marín, Marino, Mariz. Who could know?

“Every week Sarita and I saw the women coming to her green door. Some distinguished, some trying not to look destitute. They did not seem to care much about María’s last name. Wise as little girls can be, we also noticed that except for the chimney sweeper who fulfilled his task every early fall, only women visited María Marí. They knocked softly on the door. They all carried a cape of uneasiness over the most elegant clothes they could wear and looked at their shoes until María opened with a tenuous smile. My mother also went. She took me with her a couple of times when I was very little. I remember vividly the smell of all the herbs María kept high on the shelves of her kitchen. I came to believe that María Marí’s door was green because of the intense herbal smell that flooded her house. It soothes me to relive that sugary aroma of grass and roots. Hospitals nowadays should learn how to replicate such a fragrance. It could help enervate the fears of its dying patients.

“Sarita and I had long debates about how María earned her life. We couldn’t fathom what kind of job she had. She did not have a husband, and yet she stayed at home most of the week as if waiting for the next woman who would knock at her door. For some unimaginable reason, we knew that asking about María at home would produce deep and stony silences and nervous looks between our mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. So, we never asked.

“But one afternoon, out of excitement or naiveté, I posed a dreadful question that led to the secret of María’s chamber of herbs. I had returned from school, on a windy Thursday of spring, and opened the door of the kitchen impelled by the illusion of my grandmother’s sweet

milk and cornbread. I didn’t have any homework because I had recited by heart with eloquent grandeur ten verses of Os Lusiadas that nobody else in the whole class, not even Sarita, could remember as perfectly as I did. I was about to impose the news on my mother and grandmother, interrupting their whispering and making them turn their somber faces from the counter to me. But I refrained my impetus when I realized that Mom was drying her eyes with the kitchen towel, and Grandma was looking at her with a rare mix of severity and hard compassion. I approached them and just before touching my mother’s back, I heard that word for the first time, a word I was unable to pronounce for the rest of my life. ‘Aborto? What does it mean… aborto?’ And before my mom could utter a sound, I felt the hard, cold palm of my grandmother’s hand flat, brutal, on my cheek. Her knotty fingers squeezed my right arm with violence and shame. And through her teeth came the odious diatribe. ‘You, prying girl! What are you doing here? Don’t you dare to repeat that word in this house ever again!’ My mom looked at her own mother with morose deception, turned from the counter, passed by my side extending a hand but not touching me. She took her purse from the wooden table, pointed at a piece of bread she had saved for me, and walked to the front door as if her shoes were made of bricks. She put on the round hat that she only wore when she visited other ladies for tea.

“Mom came back before the wind or the night had fallen, before my dad was back from work. The factory siren had not sung its blare of freedom yet. I was drawing butterflies on my slate board. Grandma was peeling potatoes for the soup. Mom mumbled some greeting, sat on the chair across from me, leaned her head back with her little hat still on, and closed her eyes as if she had performed a strenuous task that some inhuman creature had placed on her shoulders. I looked at her between butterflies. I was going to dedicate this garden of flying flowers to my tired mom. She needed the colorful hues I was combining to smear some life on her pale cheeks. Only my grandmother’s knife made a sound in the room.

“I had drawn twenty butterflies when the scratch of the chalk along the slate was interrupted by my grandma’s hushed scream. ‘Dalia dear, good God, come with me before Pedro gets here!’ She looked at me with terror while she tried to help my mother get up from the chair and pushed her through the back door to the water closet outside. ‘Rosalia, menina, get up, take this, clean it, clean it fast before Papai is here.’ And she passed me the most pristine towel I had ever seen in the house, whiter than the tablecloth she used for Christmas, whiter than my First Communion dress. I made the immaculate cloth obscenely red in a couple of seconds, stained for all ages in a viscous pool of blood that my father was not supposed to see. Some eternity or some minutes later, my grandmother took the soaked towel from my hands, kissed my forehead, and caressed with the tip of two fingers the traces of her former slap. Then she murmured a tearless prayer. ‘Good work, menina. You are a good girl. You did a very good job, my love.’”

Fabiana Elisa Martínez authored the short story collections 12 Random Words and Conquered by Fog, and the grammar Spanish 360 with Fabiana. Other of her stories were published in Rigorous Magazine, The Closed Eye Open, Ponder Review, The Halcyone, Hindsight Magazine, Libretto Magazine, and the anthology Writers of Tomorrow.
Instagram: @Fabielisam and @12randomwords
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