Inside a closet, there’s a faded mint green album with a row of pink and orange houses. Tucked between its pages is a photo of Vera on a mustached man’s lap. She wears a wrist-length turquoise dress with puffed sleeves and a lace collar. On her heart, a white bib with embroidered marigolds in a pink vase. Worn over a safety-pin-secured diaper, Vera’s white tights tuck into black Mary Janes. A white ribbon holds her chocolate hair. Her dimpled hands fold together, gripping the curled ribbons of a balloon bouquet. Trapped inside a balloon, a baby bear dusted with glitter.
Vera’s grandfather has traveled a long distance to see her on a day she won’t remember. They sit on a cream loveseat so overstuffed it might burst into song. The maids struggle to clean the lion-mane carpet, the reason the room is reserved for formal occasions. The blackwood table holds an orchid in a planter, an ashtray with a smoking cigar and a highball glass. The sky darkens through the window. The man is heavy in a way that suggests affluence. The ends of his mustache point to his sagging cheeks. He wears a gray button-down shirt under a blue knit sweater. His tweed pants, in proximity to Vera’s tights, produce a friction she finds impossibly itchy. The man’s fat fingers curl around her calf. His black hair is the same color as his leather loafers, though considerably less shiny.
A slender figure casts a shadow over the carpet—Vera’s mother, Camilla. She is the architect of this tableau and its documentarian. The man looks sternly into the lens of the camera. Vera’s eyes, black as marbles, look downwards and towards the left. Neither of them smile.
If you were to peel the plastic film from the page, its crinkling would threaten its disintegration. On the back of the photograph, in Camilla’s punctuated loops, you’d see the words: Vera, age two.
* * *
On Vera’s fourth birthday, generals and warlords come to pay tribute. Her father’s remarkable rise was predicted by many, most fervently by her mother. Vera wears her school uniform, a red plaid pinafore with a corset she insists on lacing herself. Each time a new visitor arrives, they sing the traditional birthday song. Vera claps when she hears her father’s baritone—so different from his war cry. She asks him to sing again and again.
At daily temple, Vera is enthralled by the frescoes of cherubim protecting the gates. She gives them names and imagined qualities. Ricky plays rock ballads on his harp. Chico travels the world straightening crooked frames. At birthday parties, Lety paints human children on the cheeks of cherubim and twists balloons into mortal forms. On her birthday, each emissary has been independently counseled by his wife to give the child a porcelain cherub. After receiving the tenth tribute, Vera says she would prefer a doll. Her mother laughs red.
“What a lovely collection you’ll have,” she says.
Vera stacks the cherubim into a pyramid on the coffee table.
“Chunkies go at the bottom,” she says.
The littlest cherub falls, chipping its wing. Vera’s father says he can fix it no problem. Camilla serves the guests cookies and a fortifying infusion tasting of bundled earth. Vera takes a fudge-filled chocolate wafer and smokes it like a cigar. The men laugh.
That night, mother and daughter write thank-you-notes that must go out before dawn. “Honorable _______ Family, thank you for my beautiful cherub, which I will treasure forever. I have named him/her ______.” On each card, Vera traces her mother’s clear letters with an ash pencil: V E R A
* * *
A cut on Vera’s chin is stitched closed with needle and thread. Gift-hunting the day before her fifth birthday, Vera found a pair of light-up roller skates. Her mother was at the department store making final purchases. Vera tied the white laces on the stairs while her nanny watched telenovelas. The stone floor was smoother than ice. Then the most marvelous idea appeared: If Vera slid down the wooden banister on her butt with skates on her feet, the momentum would propel her into flight. When her back wheel caught a step, she crash-landed on top of an ashtray. The healer was called, nanny was fired. Vera did not cry.
The next morning, Vera lies on the floor in front of her parents’ chambers. The marble cools her swollen chin. She watches their shadows move upside-down under the door.
“You fret too much, my dear. Once the scar heals, the child is destined to be a beauty.”
“Do you think I’d be this worried if she were ugly? There’s nothing more dangerous than beauty without breeding.”
“So she’ll go through a bohemian phase. Wealthy men like eccentrics. Trust me—for weren’t you a wild flower once?”
“There’s a difference between a dahlia and one of those strange little plants that devours flies. Your daughter always tracks in dirt digging up my garden. She broke your magnifying glass lighting ants on fire. And last week I found her giving funeral rites to two dead birds.”
“Have patience with her. Perhaps she found them that way.”
“Stop laughing. You’re not the one who reads the horrible little notes pinned to her pinafore every day.”
“Tell the teacher to discuss these matters privately.”
“She won’t. They enjoy humiliating me. All the generals’ wives know your daughter is incorrigible.”
“I won’t be troubled by ladies’ gossip.”
“How can I say wait until your father gets home when you come home every third day and it’s a party?”
“I provide. Raising her is your responsibility.”
“She’s fearless, so unlike her sister or cousins. When I yell at her, she yells back.”
* * *
Vera’s sixth birthday party transpires in a plastic restaurant perfumed with french fry oil. After devouring their boxed burger meals, the children climb the polycarbonate tower in cashmere socks, producing static. At its summit reigns a mesh pool filled with bright balls. Squealing in the pit, Vera notices one of her ears feels lighter than the other—she’s lost a gold earring. The cursory fear of her mother’s discipline is eclipsed with wonder. What other pirate treasures lay at its bottom? Vera commands her guests into an assembly line as they eject the balls from the connected slides. Just when they near completion, a wrinkled woman in a black visor and apron gathers them together.
“Don’t you see how naughty you’ve been in ruining the fun for all the other children?”
Vera’s nails mark half moons on her palms. She tells her guests the witch was a part of the game and they must return the balls before her evil curse. The children finish in time for dessert. They sing around a frosted sheet cake with a picture of the birthday girl. Vera gets to eat her own face.
* * *
The month of Vera’s seventh birthday, her mother takes her to the healer.
“I heard about a case like this,” Camilla says. “A little boy with mystery bruises all over his body—he was dead within the year.”
The healer examines Vera’s naked skin and sniffs behind her ear. He holds a vial of her blood up to the artificial light.
“Leukemia unlikely. Anemia improbable—she eats well from what I can see. Is she an active child?”
“Only still when sleeping.”
“Hm. Probably just clumsy then. Common with young girls. Their balance is underdeveloped.” The healer prepares a vial of arnica infused with rosemary. “Best to limit her to sedentary activities. We don’t want burst capillaries spoiling that porcelain skin.”
That night, Vera trembles in her nightgown while her mother rubs salve on her shrimp pink body. Camilla’s hands knead the purple spots her daughter pressed into furniture corners. As the metal rings scrape her back, Vera records this tender ache forever.
* * *
Camilla threatens to cancel her daughter’s eighth birthday.
“Only obedient girls get celebrations.”
Vera cleans the dirt from under her fingernails. She can’t distinguish between the ornate words her mother lances her with: Ungrateful, defiant, disturbed. They all mean the same thing: Bad. Every morning Vera prays to her guardian angel to help her be good, but then something happens. Whenever she acts out a bright feeling, either light or heavy, purple-pink or red hot, somebody gets mad.
Vera says sorry. She can’t wash away her mother’s words in the clawfoot tub, even when she buffs her body with a stone. Later Vera piles quilts, towels, robes and even a bathmat on top of her bedspread, crawling between the blankets to feel their weight. She squeezes her still-wet body into a ball and tries not to breathe. She must have the wrong type of angel. She wants to scream at them, but she knows screaming just makes everything worse. Outside of the temple, she once heard a shrouded woman say if you know the name of your angel, you can ask them to do anything.
“For only a dozen denariiI will uncover their name! Riches, greatness, an end to your suffering.”
The high priest cast the witch away with a rod. “Leave, she-devil. You will not tempt our good women with your craft.”
That night, Vera whispers every name she knows in alphabetical order until she falls asleep. She awakes to the sound of her father’s singing. Tears sting her eyes, swollen into serpentine slits.
* * *
Camilla threatens to cancel her daughter’s ninth birthday. Vera feigns a yawn and runs away before her mother can catch her skirts. Whenever Vera feels the ball-pit-feeling, she presses her embroidery needle into her fingertips. When adults punish her, she pretends she’s a spy protecting a secret under enemy torture.
* * *
Vera’s mother is canceling her tenth birthday. She really means it this time, young lady.
* * *
Vera’s twelfth birthday passes without incident. For some time now, Vera has convinced herself she’s a sleeper agent for a foreign power. Maybe angels or aliens. She’d be the Malinche for aliens, no regrets. Vera spends her days looking for signs of the secret mission which will only be revealed once she blends into the evil empire. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. She keeps herself clean and still, saying as little as possible except when directly called upon, which is never. The week before her birthday, Vera does as many chores as she can think of until the maids tell her to go away. Her family wakes her up with the traditional birthday song. She is very happy. When she unwraps her gift, she sees a dainty gold-and-red watch in a plastic box which says Your free gift with purchase.
* * *
Vera’s self-belief disintegrates around the time she gets her courses. No extraordinary person would have to deal with something so dreadful. The maids do a poor job of explaining it to her. They giggle and say, “You have to be careful around soldiers now.” The year Vera turns thirteen, there is an epidemic of anti-war graffiti on the sacred sites. On walks to the temple, Vera traces the layers of neon letters, enchanted by their mantras and three-eyed monsters The village elders gather in the formal living room to discuss the matter.
“This is the work of our foreign enemies.”
“The northern guards vow no one has trespassed. And don’t you think a spy would enact something less benign?”
“This targeted campaign against our morale is not nothing.”
“Check your sons’ uniforms for neon stains. They’re just teenagers who want attention.”
“Back in my day we served our duty honorably.”
“This generation is ungrateful. Even the girls, the way they dress. What will become of our people?”
That night, Vera dreams of a dark-winged creature taking hold of her body. Perhaps demonic possession is the reason she feels so out of control. It’s like a tapeworm for feelings, or a brain-eating amoeba trying to ruin her life. If her family knew the truth she’d be locked up with the war criminals and heathens. Her skin shakes with sadness as small stresses assemble. Vera vows to free the creature by destroying its cage.
Vera is not Vera. Her body is her parents’ sacred property. Vera’s father notices his missing shaving razors, but when his wife surveys their daughter’s sleeping body, there is nothing amiss.
* * *
Vera finally develops magical powers in her fourteenth year. Her sister moves away—married. Only her magazine subscriptions remain. Vera learns to sway her hips when she walks, flip back her hair and pout her lips when she wants something. She is not allowed to wear crimson polish, so she fills in her fingernails with red Sharpie, inhaling the fumes. There are four hundred ways to catch a man and Vera masters them all. She lays her head on an ironing board while the maids tame her chocolate waves between sheets of tissue paper. She sprouts boobs and starts making friends. When Vera feels the ball-pit-feeling, she plucks hair from her eyebrows, calves and bikini line.
The lectures from adults escalate in a direction only they saw coming. Vera tunes them out by listing the soldiers who probably want to kiss her, starting with her friend’s brothers and ending with her friend’s fathers. She glares back at the limbless veterans whose eyes lust after her nubile curves. While pleasing herself, she imagines the filthy things they would say to her if they did not fear her father.
The nights she narrowly avoids her father’s discipline, she shows off at the theater with her girlfriends. Standing next to a single soldier in the concession line, she convinces him to buy her a soda. She repeats the trick until she has a tub of popcorn and a box of the chocolate-covered ants she likes. The girls drink stowaway liquor at sleepovers, mixing mind-altering potions in highball glasses. Flipping through magazines, they practice fellating phallic vegetables—pleasuring zucchinis, cucumbers and bananas. They make a list of soldiers and assign them points. Some are negative. On a dare, Vera kisses another girl in front of her friend’s brothers.
* * *
For Vera’s fifteenth birthday, her parents host a ball to decree her a woman, though Vera has felt like a woman for some time. At temple, she reads the traditional peace passage in a bright, clear voice. A string quartet plays the birthday song as the guests enter the ballroom. There is no singing, just dinner and music and dancing for four hundred. Fireworks spell out her name. V.E.R.A. She wears a white strapless ball gown and satin slippers embroidered with flowers. They pinch her toes. Vera’s table manners glimmer, each guest graciously thanked. The photographer documents each dinner table. Flashing her new porcelain teeth, Vera feels her mother’s fingernail slide down her spine. “Sit up straight, dear.” The camera captures the moment: Camilla’s strained smile, Vera’s black eyes beaming with rage.
On the dance floor, Vera’s pregnant sister pinches the back of her arm.
“You can’t grind with your boyfriend—Grandfather is here.”
Vera’s boyfriend is not very nice, but he scores high on the points list. She doesn’t mind having to do things to him—she likes hearing him whimper—but she barely tolerates the things he does to her. He jabs and squeezes her in supply closets, under picnic blankets, in dirty bathrooms. Vera mimics the moans she’s heard in pornography and wonders if it will ever feel good. She’s proud to be the first among her friends to have sex, but she wishes it hadn’t gone down that way: in the darkness of a broom closet, not noticing until it was happening.
* * *
An angel appears to Vera the night before her sixteenth birthday—a floating purple geode unlike anything she’s ever seen.
“Where have you been?” Vera asks.
The angel apologizes and tells her she’s pregnant.
“How can this be if I am not married?” Vera asks.
The angel patiently explains the parts of human reproduction no maid or magazine foretold. Vera admits her boobs have been hurting for weeks. At the angel’s urging, she packs a suitcase and runs away on a train. Before leaving, she scrawls a note saying she is going on a great adventure and urging her parents not to look for her.
Day after agonizing day, Camilla clings to the letter as proof her daughter is not dead, at least not by her own hands. Her father sends men to the four corners of the kingdom. They pack provisions for ten days and travel on trains and horseback. Each time they return without his daughter, he dreams of beheading them. But even in the depths of rage, the general will not risk his position.
It is believed Vera has done what many foolish girls have done before her—fled to the front to become a war bride. It’s a job for a concubine, not a wife. Camilla can’t imagine how a girl who can barely distinguish a mop from a broom will manage to keep a trench clean in no man’s land. Vera’s family rarely speaks of her, but they cry both together and apart.
“I just wish I’d been harder on her,” Camilla says. “We failed by bending before her iron will.” The other women distance themselves from her at temple, as if grief could be contagious. Camilla asks the gods for forgiveness, sure that the missing scoop of her heart is retribution for failing a divine test.
* * *
A month before Vera’s nineteenth birthday, a beggar woman with a child scratches at the lion door-knocker of the palace. Camilla commands the maids to give the poor woman blankets and whatever else she wants. The stranger does not speak. Her chalky hair is the color of rich chocolate, her leather sandals are cracked and the fine clothes she wears have disintegrated into rags. Her eyes are black. She’s thin but the toddler on her hip is as fat as a cherub. Tears cut clean tracks through their dirty faces. In one such streak, Camilla recognizes a scar on the woman’s chin. Camilla collapses into tears at the sight of her daughter, but the woman will not speak. The child barely knows the mother tongue. While the servants prepare a feast and clean garments, Camilla washes the pair in the clawfoot tub, starting with their callused feet.
As Camilla washes the dirt from the woman’s skin, she compares it to her daughter’s soft body—a body she has not seen naked in many years. Train track scars cross her hips, stretch marks wrap around her thighs like tiger stripes. The woman nurses the child while Camilla combs and braids her hair. She will not say where she has been.
When Camilla asks for the child’s name, her daughter says, “Patience.”
“What a strange name for a child of this generation,” Camilla replies, resolving to call the baby Pat.
The woman sounds most like Vera when refuses to see the healer.
“I’m not sick and I’m not hurt.”
After eating plates upon plates of her people’s delicacies, she sleeps for many days. News spreads throughout the village of Vera’s miraculous return and passersby crowd the windows to sneak peeks of the sleeping beauty. She only wakes to nurse her child, who in the arms of the maids quickly learns the words for more and want.
Camilla vows to raise the child as if she were her own daughter. Vera’s quiet acceptance of this waters Camilla’s doubt.
“This foreigner is not my daughter.”
Her husband offers a list of logic.
“Now that Vera’s gained some weight you can see she’s barely aged. You’ve said yourself she has all the same features and scars. She’s comfortable here. She knows her way around without asking.”
“This young woman is not ours. Our Vera was a splitting headache. She talked and talked until we told her to stop. This young woman is mute. Can’t you see there’s no spark behind her eyes?”
“Of course our daughter has changed. Can you imagine what she’s seen? And she has a baby to worry about now.”
“She is a good mother when she is awake. And when I think of the conditions that child must have been born under…”
“Don’t think. Vera is her own cautionary tale. She lived her life on her own terms for a long time, disrespectful to our authority. Now she’s seen the light. Thank the gods for giving our daughter a second chance at life.”
Camilla is not convinced, and yet the baby is a carbon copy of her daughter as a child. Vera claims not to know the child’s exact age. She speaks little at dinner, as if measuring each word that escapes her chapped lips. While her parents share news and gossip sobremesa, her fingers twist the fringes of the linen tablecloth. Camilla would like to plan a homecoming for Vera’s nineteenth birthday.
“Please mother, no.”
“Then let us celebrate baby Pat’s birthday instead. We can present her to the gods at the temple and invite all our friends to cherish our little delight. In what month did you say she was born?”
“There was no time where we were.”
The healer examines the child’s teeth and proclaims her to be two years old, though it’s not an exact science. Vera now understands all the fearsome things a mother is powerless to protect her daughter from. There is no one to discuss this with. The woman who tamed her no longer lives. As wrinkles creased her mouth and eyes, Camilla became softer, less exacting. Not quite frail but physically less imposing. Is it age or grief? Vera can barely evoke the former flicker of fear, but the anger lingers.
Patience runs loose-haired throughout the palace, wearing flowered leggings and t-shirts she is quick to stain. No jewelry. Camilla chases after her granddaughter to pick her up and hug her. Patience squeals while her grandmother nuzzles her neck. At night, they snuggle together in the formal living room, drinking hot chocolate. Camilla finger-combs the child’s curls with the soft yolks of her fingers. When Patience smears strawberry jam on a settee, Camilla merely laughs. Vera rises from her embroidery-chair and walks silently up the stairs to her chambers, clutching the banister all the way up.
The words to confront her mother do not materialize. Camilla would surely counter with the same questions Vera would put to her own daughter: Who fed and watered you? Who put red thread on your forehead when you had hiccups? No, Vera will not risk their hard-won peace, but the circles keep up at night.
Camilla prepares sleep-inducing infusions, but Vera wakes up with bags below her eyes. Camilla hears her heavy footsteps wandering the palace at night. One night she gets out of bed and sees her daughter, dressed in a white nightgown and a dirty shawl, touching the furniture as if she were taking inventory.
The daughter does not turn around. She mutters, “My angel, my angel is dead. Poisoned in the desert with the others.”
“Yes my sweet, you are my angel. Let’s get you back to bed.”
When Camilla reaches out to touch her daughter, her skin is as cold as ice.
* * *
At her parents’ urging, Vera gets a job at a flower shop sweeping up petals and leaves. The owners tell her it’s a very important job—her hard work ensures nobody slips and falls. That’s the way people talk to her now—as if she’s fallen off a motorcycle. Vera learns the trade by watching the florists and asking them questions. Everyone else likes to talk. On her breaks, Vera makes small designs out of the materials the florists discard—flowers cut too short, leftover foliage, baby’s breath and eucalyptus. She shapes them in jam jars and watering cans, enlivening empty corners and shelves. They have a rustic, bohemian charm—as if freshly picked from a wild field. Passersby start asking to buy them—not for special occasions, but for daily relief.
“I want a Vera,” customers will say.
The owners are thrilled she found a way to monetize refuse.
“We always knew that girl was special. Quiet but bright.”
Vera makes tiaras out of the material for Patience, who wears them to school. Soon her classmates clamor for the crowns. Vera teaches Camilla how to make them to keep up with demand.
“These aren’t new, you know. My friends and I wore these as girls in peacetime.”
Time passes moment by moment. One day, a wealthy widower comes inside the shop. He takes his straw hat in his hands, pressing its edges with his fingers. The pouch of Vera’s black apron is heavy with tools. She wields a pocketknife like a machete, quickly scraping thorns off roses. The man clears his throat and speaks.
“I lost my dear wife a year ago. I go on solitary walks determined to sulk. And every day a curious little creation in this window makes me smile. Initially, I resented them. But as the weeks passed, they’ve become the reason I get out of bed. As I get ready, I try to guess what flower will be in the window, and every day what I see is wilder than my imagination. Something implores me to shake the hand of whoever crafts them. My guardian angel won’t leave me alone.”
Vera’s callused hands are stung by thorns, snipped by shears and scalded by steam. The man’s palms are heavy and soft. He is older than his forty years, aged by war and grief. Silver threads streak his mustache and beard. They go out for coffee. For the first time in many years, Vera speaks more than she listens. The man returns the next day.
As the years pass, they develop an easy friendship. The widower asks Vera’s father for her hand. Vera accepts his proposal on one condition. Three townships over, Vera opens up her own flower shop in a place where people do not look upon her with pity. She makes bold designs out of the wildflowers in her garden. She caters celebrity events and is even featured in a few magazines.
Dirt under her nails, Vera finds pieces of herself buried in the fresh earth. Her flowers bloom bigger and brighter than anyone has ever seen. She unburdens herself to them every day, squeezing drops of her blood into their roots. They nod their heads in the breeze.
Patience asks to return to the palace—she is old enough to make her own mistakes. Her grandparents let her come and go as she pleases. Vera learns to manage a house almost as grand as her mother’s. In daily phone calls, she evades the appeals of her mother and daughter to move back home.
By her thirtieth year, Vera feels like an old woman. Every year she suffers a terrible cold before her birthday. Her nerve endings misfire signals of pain. She feels the pressure of a hundred hands pressing down on her body. The day before her birthday, Vera receives a mint green card from her mother in the mail. On its cover is a picture of a cherub surrounded by marigolds. Inside, in Camilla’s distinctive loops, the following words:
I know you don’t like to make a fuss out of your birthdays, but I saw this card and couldn’t resist. It reminds me of the cherubs you collected in childhood surrounded by the flowers with which you make your living now. Past and present together in perfect harmony. I think of you every day. I’ve missed you deeply ever since you moved away. I am grateful for how often you talk to me by telephone. I’m not sure how helpful my advice is, but I love hearing the sound of your voice again. Your father and I are blessed to have such an attentive daughter. I pray you come visit us once Patience returns from her trip. I’ve told her how important it is for a young lady to see the world. I am eager to hold you in my arms very soon. I’m sending you a hug and a kiss.
Trembling, Vera walks outside barefoot and kneels in front of her flowers. She digs a trench with her hands, rips up the card into confetti, pours it out and covers it with dark earth. The flowers tilt their heads curiously. Tears carve Vera’s cheeks. For the first time in fifteen years, she yells out: “Who? Who is this woman you miss? Who?”
Brenda Salinas Baker is an audio journalist and writer of fiction. She holds a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.F.A. from St. Joseph’s University in Brooklyn, where she teaches undergraduate English. A recipient of the NPR Kroc Fellowship, her stories have been broadcast through national airwaves and award-winning podcasts. Her fiction has appeared in The Pinch Journal, The Breakwater Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Landing Zone Magazine, The Coachella Review, and Big Muddy. She is a trilingual Mexican immigrant with ties to Texas.