Monday, December 14, 2015

#189: Our Lady of Guazá by Sara Schaff

~This story previously appeared in Inkwell (2010).
~Selected by Kenneth A. Fleming, Assistant Editor

After the funeral, Abuela tells Marcela and Valentina to sort through their mother's belongings in the living room, which they do, wordlessly and tensely, each putting aside trinkets until they spy something both of them want: a pair of jeans their mother liked to wear out dancing.
"I remember seeing her in them," Marcela says. "I don't know when that was."
            "Too small for you," Valentina says. "Perfect for me. Besides, you don't dance in the United States. Remember Tia Mercedes' Independence Day party in Miami?—all her fat gringo husband's fat relatives, sitting around in plastic chairs like at a meeting, drunk and boring."
Marcela can only stare, affronted and helpless. Honestly, she does not miss her mother, but she would rather not be condescended to by her younger, half-sister. And, inexplicably, she desperately wants these jeans with the swirls of glitter on the back pockets.
Valentina slings the jeans over her shoulder and puts aside other objects: a purse, a silver tube of lipstick, plastic hair clips.
            Marcela sits on the couch. "They won't fit you either," she says. "Our mother was tiny."
            "I'll show you tiny," Valentina says. She strips down to her cotton underwear and tube socks, then pulls on their mother's jeans with visible effort. She has to leave the top button undone. "You see? Perfect fit!"
            "You think you should have everything you want."
Valentina flops next to Marcela on the couch and scrunches uncomfortably close, her breath hot on Marcela's neck. "And you are one cool cucumber," she whispers in unsteady English. "One smooth operator."
            Marcela almost laughs, but Valentina pokes her arm and hisses. "I deserve these jeans because I lived with our mother for the entire fourteen years I've been alive. I had to identify her dead body. What have you had to do?"
She has had to move back and forth between this world and her own, that's what. She is the one their mother left behind in Boston. But Marcela doesn't say this, because no, she did not have to identify their mother's body, crushed by metal from her car and from the rock of a washed-out road.  Marcela can't imagine what that was like and is afraid to ask. Valentina turns on the television and begins to flip through the channels mindlessly.

From the kitchen, Marcela can hear their grandmother's knife—chopping potatoes for ajiaco. Marcela says, "The earrings you're wearing—I'd like them back."
            Valentina brushes her long, dark hair away from her ear, revealing a turquoise teardrop earring, something Marcela's father bought on a business trip in Arizona. "I thought they looked prettier on me."
            "And my iPod?"
            "Haven't seen it."
            Their grandmother appears next to the television, straight and silent, her eyes red from days of crying. "Enough," she says. She holds her hand out, and Valentina passes her a box of tissues. "You're at university, Marcela. Be the adult." She looks at Valentina. "Valen, darling. Listen to me. Marcela is your only sister, and she's leaving soon. She doesn't realize it now, but she loves you, even though you steal from her, you nasty little thief."
            When Abuela is back in the kitchen, Valentina hunches her shoulders in imitation. "Be the adult," she whispers, then rolls her eyes at Marcela. Suddenly, Marcela smiles, unable to help herself, and Valentina smiles too. Her hair spills over her shoulders, and she looks beautiful, like their mother in old pictures.
Marcela is on the verge of making a conciliatory remark when Valentina whispers in her ear: "I wish you were leaving sooner."
Marcela is relieved when her sister has to go to work, because this is her chance to go through Valentina's drawers, reclaim her iPod from between crisp school blouses, and take the jeans, which she hides under her mattress. She is not convinced that Valentina won't look for the jeans there, but it's the best place she can think of.
            Later, because she has to get out of the cramped apartment, Marcela walks around the boutiques and stalls of the pedestrianized Zona Rosa, wondering what her life would be like if her mother had not returned to Colombia to care for Marcela's ailing grandfather. The trip was meant to be temporary, but she had fallen in love with Valentina's father. Marcela has always wondered why her mother didn't send for her. She could have spent summers with her father and Stephanie instead, they would be in less control of her life, she would feel more at home here in Bogotá, her Spanish would be better. But probably she and Valentina would still hate each other. Abuela is right about a lot of things, but not about her feelings for Valentina; Valentina is impossible to love.
Marcela stops at a stall selling leather goods; the impetus to buy a Christmas gift for her father is automatic, even though no one would expect her to return from her mother's funeral with souvenirs. She sees a belt that would not offend her father's ordinary tastes: plain and black.
Though her hair is almost blonde and the man who makes the belts calls her a gringa, he gives her a good deal, because, he says, she speaks okay Spanish. Paying, she spots a small painting of the Virgin Mary next to the box where the vendor keeps his money. Marcela has never been much interested in Catholicism, but she has been surrounded by rosaries this week; at the funeral she stared at the baroque altar, the marble columns, the crying virgin—so that she would not have to look at the weeping men and women around her. Relatives she hardly knows.
This Virgin's face is pretty and wise; she looks calmly into the face of the sleeping infant in her arms. Abuela would like this painting. Poor Abuela, bereft of her daughter, burdened by her squabbling grandchildren, this cold and unfamiliar American girl.
"How much for Mary?" she asks.
            The man looks at her, unsmiling. "She's not for sale," he says. "And she's not Mary, but Our Lady of Guazá."
            "Patron Saint of Miners. My brother works in the salt mine in Zipaquirá. You can find her there, in the cathedral made from the old salt mine."
By the time Marcela returns home, it is almost dinner time, and Valentina is still at her father's downtown electrical appliance store. Abuela shakes her head. "Works too hard when she should be doing her homework," she says. "Every weekend. Organizes all his books! The worst thing is, his new girlfriend is a child practically herself."
In the bedroom she shares with Valentina, Marcela lies on her springy mattress and thinks she can feel the shape of the jeans pressed beneath her. She doesn't actually remember seeing her mother wear them; that had been a lie. But she would like to have such memories: what her mother wore for special occasions, what she liked to eat when she lived in the U.S.
Marcela once asked her mother what she had seen in Valentina's father. This was long after he'd left her for someone else—and she said he had reminded her what it felt like to be at home. And then she turned away, back to whatever she'd been doing—drying a dish or folding a dress—and Marcela felt she'd been reprimanded, but she wasn't sure what for.
What would she do if she had more time here? Rent a car and see the country? Visit relatives in Bucaramanga? Through her college, she could arrange to study at a university for a semester; her comparative literature professor suggested this when he heard her mother lived in Bogotá. But Marcela realizes that she, like Valentina, wishes she were leaving sooner.
            Her grandmother startles Marcela out of her thoughts by sitting on the bed. "What are your plans for tomorrow?" she asks.
            Marcela has no plans. But in the face of Abuela's grief-stricken face, this feels like a self-indulgent thing to say. Maybe Abuela wants to spend time together before her departure. "I thought I would visit the Salt Cathedral. Would you like to go?"
            "Valentina does not work tomorrow. Take her with you."
            "Valentina won't want to come."
            "No, but she'll go and be glad. Who knows when you will return. Or if?"
            Marcela shakes her head. But she's not actually sure she wants to come back here, ever. Her parents' custody agreement means nothing now, and she's an adult anyway; Abuela said so herself. "I will always come to see you," she says.
            "And your sister."
            "Yes," Marcela says, just as she hears the door to the apartment open, and Valentina's unmistakable sigh. "Of course."
She had imagined the church where the funeral was held, but pillared with white salt instead of gold and marble. A sort of whimsical confection. Only upon arriving at the mountain in Zipaquirá does she realize what this sight-seeing really entails: she and Valentina must descend with hundreds of people 600 feet into the earth. It's a disturbingly morbid activity to undertake so soon after her mother's death. But it is also something to do, so she buys their tickets and joins Valentina in the long line near a tall cement cross that marks the entrance to the mountain.
A misty rain begins, Valentina groans, and scores of black umbrellas open in front of and in back of Marcela and Valentina, a trail, like the dark scales of a long serpent twisting its way down the hill, toward the red-tiled roofs of the village.
"We should have gone to the mall," Valentina says.
Inside, they are greeted by the smell of sulfur, by darkness, by pools of water that collect in corners and reflect the lights placed low on the damp cavern walls.
Their guide wears a miner's yellow hard hat, but her face looks scrubbed and rosy, even in the dim cavern lights. She explains the history: decades ago, miners began to carve altars into the caves from which they excavated tons of salt. These men dedicated their prayers to La Virgen del Rosario de Guazá.
As they pass austere chapels, no longer created by the miners but by artists to represent the stations of the cross, Marcela can picture those original worshippers: leaving flowers for La Virgen on damp rock walls, carrying rosaries in their mouths through chambers passable only on hands and bellies.
Glancing at Valentina spoils her satisfyingly somber mood. "You took it again!" She reaches over to yank the earphones out of her sister's ears. "Anyway, you shouldn't listen to music in here."
"Oooo. Will Jesus be angry?" Valentina holds her hands on either side of her mouth in mock horror, then points heavenward and whispers. "Listen to this shit. That would piss me off, if I were Jesus."
Marcela strains to hear: Ave Maria, sung by digitally enhanced monks and accompanied by wind noise. More haunted house than church, as though they are about to be grabbed by a disembodied hand. She has to admit, it's awful.
They're standing with their group at a balcony carved straight from the mountain. The cavern extends below and in front of them, a mineshaft lit by blue lights planted in the ground and in the walls, shrinking at the far end to a dark point—a hole that leads deeper, connecting, Marcela imagines, to the part of the mountain that still functions as a mine. If she listened carefully, beneath Ave Maria, she might even hear the clink of hammers, the cracking of the earth.
Some people are tossing coins into the dark.
Valentina waves her arm over the drop. "Do you have any?"
Marcela digs in her pocket and hands a few coins to Valentina, who returns one to Marcela's palm. "Make a wish," she says. She closes her eyes and throws her coin. "Your turn."
But Marcela has never been able to think of the thing she wants when it's time to wish for it, so before she formulates a thought, an expression of all that she desires in that moment, she has tossed the coin into the mineshaft, wishing for nothing but her mother's stupid jeans, which she already has.
She loses her group, she loses Valentina. After wandering, she finally finds her sister sitting on a kneeling stone in a stark, empty chapel. Slicing through the gloom, white light emanates from a towering cross, carved so deeply into the rock that it makes its own tall and narrow cavern. The look on Valentina's face is familiar: bored, angry, calculating.
The sound of heavy boots on stone and rustling paper makes Marcela turn: A flame-haired woman squinting at a pamphlet, fumbling with her glasses. A man stands close to the entrance. In American-accented English, the woman says, "Well, Raymond, this one's supposed to be when they took away His clothes." She looks at Marcela. "You have the right idea, dear, sitting there, contemplating His awesomeness."
This woman is irritating, and Valentina probably connects Marcela with her, an American who makes assumptions. In Spanish, her eyes glassy, her voice flat, she says, "God is dead."
Valentina giggles as the pair leaves. "Shit, gringos are stupid," she says. And before Marcela can come to the defense of herself, if not the tourists, Valentina is pointing to the cross, her expression dark again. "Go in there," she demands.
"What? No."
Valentina pushes Marcela toward the hollowed-out rock and salt that forms the cross. Marcela feels off balance, ready to fall, but then her back touches the wall, and she is engulfed in brightness from the lights planted in the base and sides of the cross. Beyond this brightness, Valentina is a vague and menacing shadow.
"Close your eyes, cool cucumber. Relax."
"For a younger sister, you are very bossy."
"Imagine you're in the wall. You are part of the mountain."
"This is weird."
Suddenly, Valentina squeezes next to Marcela, turning Marcela until they face each other, each of their backs pressed now against the sides of the cross. Without warning, Valentina wraps her arms around Marcela's waist, and though Marcela tries peeling them off, Valentina's grip is firm.
"My eyes are closed," Valentina says. "Are yours?"
They aren't but Marcela says, "Yes."
"Imagine, Marcela, we are in a coffin." She crushes her face against Marcela's arm. "What if we were buried alive?" She mumbles into Marcela's sweater. "Like all the miners who have died in the mountain?"
Valentina must be pulling her leg. But when she lifts her head, Marcela sees tears in her sister's eyes.
A memory returns: sharing a bed with her sister—summer evenings when Valentina's father slept over and Abuela stayed in Valentina's bed. Huddled together in the dark room, Valentina's small body curled under Marcela's arm, Marcela sometimes covered her sister's ears to drown out the moaning that came through the wall. Sometimes she woke in the middle of the night to Valentina's hand wrapped tightly around her fingers.
Marcela is finally able to disentangle herself just as a guide leads a group into the chapel.
A woman steps toward them. "You want me to take your picture?"
Valentina gives Marcela a quick shove forward.
"No, no," Marcela says, stepping out of the hollowed wall. As she blinks, adjusting back to darkness, Valentina has slipped past her and back into the main tunnel.
The crowd carries Marcela forward. She passes beneath a domed ceiling, lit by blue lights. Strange planetarium. Instead of stars and clouds, there are the swirling patterns in the rock, veins of salt.
At the bottom of a hand-carved staircase, Marcela stands at a balcony, gazing into the main nave of the church. Below is the tallest cross in the world, 145 feet high, lit from the inside. She feels suddenly cold, realizing for the first time that her jeans are still wet from the rain. Around her, people are praying and taking pictures, kissing each other and looking at their cell phones. She tries to conjure the awe one should feel in a place of worship, but she finds this place so strange—smelly like eggs; sad, but trying hard to be grand and meaningful. Disneyland for grownup Catholics.
At the front of the gallery, she feels Valentina's chin digging into her shoulder. "I'll tell you what I used to wish for when I was a kid," she says. "I wanted your father to be my father."
"What for?" Valentina would hate living with her father and Stephanie! Valentina thinks American parties are like boring meetings? Well, growing up with her father and Stephanie has been like one, never-ending meeting about her grades and life goals.
"I wanted to live in the United States. You always had such nice things."
"You had our mother."
They look at one another for a long time, and to Marcela it seems that perhaps she has said something wrong and offensive because Valentina's gaze turns stormy.
"As soon as you would go back to your father, she would do nothing but watch television all day for weeks." Her long hair shields her face. "I miss her," Valentina says. "Now I'm an orphan."
"That's ridiculous. Your father is still alive."
"He's too busy paying attention to his new girlfriend. Who, by the way, is the same age as you."
Nineteen—their mother's age when she met Marcela's father on a beach in Cartagena. Too young to marry a gringo and move to cold Boston, where she knew no one.
Clutching at the damp, salty wall for support, Marcela follows Valentina down the unlit staircase that leads to the nave. They end up at three narrow doorways.
Valentina scowls. "You know what his girlfriend wanted for her birthday?"
Marcela shakes her head.
"Boobs. My father bought this chick bigger boobs." Valentina shakes her head. "He hates hospitals, so I had to meet her after the surgery to take her home. Can you picture her? My height with dyed-blonde hair? I had to hold her up as we walked to the taxi. Her new chest put her off-balance. One time I let her go, just so I could see her wobble."
Valentina laughs, but Marcela has never seen her sister look more furious. Even when they were fighting about their mother's jeans, Valentina's mouth did not get all tight like this, as if she were about to bite.
A guide is explaining how to choose the right door: the first is for hardened sinners, the second for the average person, trying to lead a decent life, and the third for the person with a perfectly clear conscience. Marcela backs up toward the opposite wall as the crowd around her swarms toward the first door. "We're all sinners!" a voice cries, and they're like a conga line passing through.
Valentina waves at Marcela to follow her through the third door. "We're good people, right?" she says. A little of her mischievous twinkle has returned.
Marcela hesitates. Her last time in Bogotá, she and her mother walked the cobblestone streets of the Candelaria, climbed to the top of Monserrate, the lush, green mountain overlooking a city built mostly of red brick. They barely spoke; Marcela did not know what to say to this woman who was more like a distant relative than her mother. So, looking at the incline they had ascended, and at the ski lift shuttling the lazy or tired to the top, she talked about how her father and Stephanie had encouraged her to learn to ski that winter. She had given in reluctantly—how reluctant she was about many things!—and then sprained her ankle and decided that kind of speed was not for her. Listening, her mother seemed flushed with nostalgia for New England, and she talked about skiing with Marcela's father, how clumsy she felt compared with him, and then she laughed about the first time she drove in the snow, her car skidding and crunching over dirty bits of slush and ice. Without warning, she had pulled Marcela close and begun to weep.
"Are you crying?" Valentina puts her hand on Marcela's damp cheek.
She takes Marcela's hand, and Marcela allows herself to be led through the central nave with its milling tourists. A guide chides those who sit, exhausted, in the pews. "Only the wicked need rest!" she says, laughing.
Halfway up the stairs leading up and out of the mountain, Marcela links her arm through her sister's, the way she sees many girls connected on the streets of Bogotá, even here, in the tunnels. They hold onto each other and the wall and move along with the throng of people ascending with them.
`"You can have our mother's jeans, Valen," Marcela says. "I took them from your drawer yesterday while you were at work." Valentina stops moving, her eyes narrowed. "I'm sorry," Marcela whispers. "They would never fit me anyway."
But Valentina breaks into a brilliant smile, their mother's smile. "It's okay!" she says, letting go to dash up the final steps. Once she has reached the exit, daylight flashing behind her, she hooks her fingers through her belt loops and shouts down the stairwell, "I'm already wearing them!"
How did Marcela not notice before? Because they fit Valentina perfectly, better than yesterday when she had to leave the top button undone. And her jacket covered the pockets. They have looked like ordinary jeans all morning.
Marcela trudges up the remaining stairs to a transformed day—sunny and hot. Valentina greets her sister by spinning slowly, removing her jacket, and wagging her hips to show off the swirls of blue and silver glitter, which sparkle now in the light.


The process of writing "Our Lady of Guazá" was unusual for me in that it started with a place rather than with a situation or character. I started the story in graduate school, after living in China, and before that in Colombia, where the Catedral de Sal truly, miraculously exists. For a long time, I couldn't stop thinking about the cathedral—darker than dark and yet full of a strange light. But early drafts always sounded more like a travel guide than a story. I had to hone in on Marcela and Valentina's relationship for the former salt mine to have real resonance, and that only happened after many drafts and several years.

Sara Schaff's stories and essays have appeared in The Butter, Hunger Mountain, FiveChapters, Southern Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative writing at Oberlin College. Find links to her work at

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