Elsa flipped through the essays piled on her small desk. She had to grade finals, but her mind was still reeling from the student conference she had just had. The student was angry about failing, but he hadn’t attended class for the past three weeks. He had pounded his fist on her desk before storming out.
The fluorescent lights in the office gave her a headache. The artificial light seemed to have its own wiry energy field, and it drained her. She peered out the window of the office and could see that it was still raining. There was a blanket of green stretching out beyond the campus and then a wall of redwoods, which stood like an ancient fortress in the distance. Elsa longed to be inside the forest, where the smell of rain and the green could nourish her.
“Hey there. Heard you had a rough conference.” Gary stuck his head inside and looked her over. “Our meeting probably didn’t help things. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” Elsa could see the look of pity in his eyes, and this infuriated her. She didn’t need his sympathy.
At the meeting, the faculty had been enlightened about the fact that enrollment at their small community college was way down and that major cut-backs were in the works. Elsa was informed that she wouldn’t have any classes over the summer.
“I’m fine. I’m heading home now.” Elsa rose and put the stack of essays into a manila folder. She grabbed her purse
“Come on, Elsa. I know you better than that. Why are you being so cold?” Gary stood in the doorway, blocking her exit. His black hair was slicked back, and his green eyes glistened like a cat’s on the prowl.
“Listen, Gary. I know you’re expressing concern, but I’m really tired. It’s been a long day.” Elsa squeezed by him and strode away. Then she stopped, turned briefly, and said,
“Gary, your good intentions often come too late. But thanks for trying.”
Her ex-husband, Charles, and Gary were best of friends.
Their marriage had ended when Charles had an affair with a student. He wasn’t even reprimanded by the school. Elsa had stubbornly stayed at the college—why should she be the one to leave if she’d done nothing wrong? Charles should have been fired. Hadn’t he broken some kind of ethical code?
Elsa made her way down the hallway and headed toward the elevator. Her heart started pounding. She always felt sure she would bump into him. His office was just around the corner.
Soon she was walking down the dank stairwell. This was the best way to avoid an awkward encounter. They had been divorced for a year, and she had become accustomed to slinking down hallways and rushing through the parking lot.
Elsa got into her car and took a deep breath. She made her way along the winding road. It was dusk, and the rain made the drive slow. Once she pulled onto the dirt road and approached her cabin, she could see the porch light glowing dimly. She had survived another day, and the cabin was her refuge—even if she often felt lonely there. She walked up the wet wooden steps and entered the warmth of her home.
Elsa was pouring herself a glass of wine when the telephone rang. It was her mother, Josephine.
“Honey, I wanted to let you know that your grandma has taken a turn for the worse,” her mother explained in a soft voice. Angelica, Elsa’s grandmother in Peru, had been declining in health over the past few months. “She is in hospice now, and she has requested to see you. How would feel about going to Peru with your dad?”
Elsa felt moved that her grandmother wanted to see her. It had been several years since she had last seen Angelica. She reminded herself that she now had the summer off from teaching. Maybe it would be a chance to break out of the rut she’d been in since Charles left. So Elsa agreed to accompany her father, Miguel, to Peru.
The rain beat down on Elsa’s cabin in the redwoods while ancestors visited her in strange dreams. Her real memories of visiting Peru as a child and those haunting dreams were hardly distinguishable. She recalled her grandmother’s large, old house in Lima, and also the country house in the Andes where her great-grandmother had lived.
Elsa remembered following her great-grandmother, Lucía, into the adobe sheds in the back yard of the country house. Beds of silkworms in various stages of their life cycle filled the dank rooms. Moths, dull and gray, laid tiny specks of eggs, smaller than grains of rice. Those specks would hatch into pure white worms that would rapidly grow monstrous as they gorged themselves on fresh, green mulberry leaves.
After their ravenous feasting, at some instinctual moment, the worms would rise and begin their search for a suitable twig. Elsa’s great-uncle José spread out thin branches on the plank beds, and out of their own body’s machinery the worms constructed cocoons resembling perfect, alabaster eggs.
Indian women sat by the fire in the courtyard, boiling the cocoons carefully in cauldrons of water. One cocoon could produce a single silk thread stretching miles, leaving only a dried pupa behind to be used as animal feed.
Six-year-old Elsa would toss the dried-out insect larvae to the chickens in the pen. Some cocoons had to be separated out, allowing the moths to emerge and mate and then lay fertile eggs before they quickly died, keeping the cycle going indefinitely.
Elsa watched her great-grandmother, bent and crooked as she spun the wooden spool, winding thin, wispy, raw silk into thread. Lucía would ask Elsa to help her untangle the bundles of thread, so Elsa sat on the floor beside her as the old woman rocked back and forth in a creaking chair.
And one night Lucía magically spun her dead husband, Salvatore, out of the silk piles resting at her feet. As she rocked in the old chair the wooden spool cast him out, and she worked with tired, stiff hands to reel him back in. Salvatore had been a determined, stubborn man, but his gentler, softer form billowed above her left shoulder, and he cried, “Lucía, Lucía, how could you be so indifferent to that cancer eating away at my stomach, my liver, at all of my pitiful guts?” His figure of silky threads swayed and stretched.
Elsa watched in amazement and fear, crouched by her great-grandmother’s side.
“It was the guilt that made you sick,” Lucía replied. “It was guilt that ate away at your insides. My conscience is clear.” And at that his tenuous form quivered and the threads collapsed into a heap on the floor.
Elsa helped Lucía gather up the silk bundles from the cold tiles. Lucía tossed them into her basket and slowly made her way through the courtyard strewn with passionfruit vines, past the laundry hung to dry on cords, past the chicken coop and dog’s shed. And Elsa watched as Pastor, the three-legged dog, came out of the shadows and followed the shuffle and thump of Lucía’s cane up the staircase to her tiny room with its single bed. Lucía’s daughter, Angelica, appeared then. Elsa’s grandmother was plump and soft, and she had sparkling blue eyes. She took Elsa’s hand and led her to bed, tucking her in with a kiss on the forehead. Even after Angelica’s warm touch, the ghost of her great-grandfather and those strange, pale worms haunted little Elsa’s dreams.
One week later, Elsa and Miguel landed in Lima. They took a taxi from the airport. Lima at dawn looked grim and dirty; the desert-like terrain left everything covered in beige dust. They passed the section of beach used as a dump, and Elsa shuddered as she saw children trek across the smoking mounds and the dark green waters foam yellowish white. She watched out the window of the taxi at the auburn visages of people walking down bustling streets and dangling out of crowded, dilapidated buses.
She noticed the dry desert cliffs running above the seashore, which they had navigated to get down to the beach when she was a child. She remembered the smell of the mounds of burning garbage on the street corners, which her abuela had cursed when the city’s trash collectors went on strike.
“Ay, Dios mio, we are a poor country; they call us third world.” Angelica had cursed them when they passed the stinky, black, smoking mounds on the sidewalks. “It’s the politicians! Sinverguenzas! Swine!”
Elsa recalled the constant assortment of noises, bells, and horns that had passed by the street in front of the house at every hour of the day. One particular whistle woke them up at 6:30 in the morning, the baker pushing a cart with fresh rolls, and with that began Angelica’s busy day. The only bell Elsa had recognized was the ice-cream cart, which passed by every afternoon during those summery December weeks of her childhood.
Now they entered the more picturesque Barranco, with its small plazas and colorful houses. The narrow streets were lined with trees and ornate iron gates. They pulled up to the front of the house. It was six in the morning, but already disheveled men pushed carts loaded with newspapers, milk bottles, and sacks of freshly baked bread down the street. The winter morning was gray and damp.
Barranco was a bohemian neighborhood where the country’s most cherished artists— musicians, writers, and painters—congregated to live and work. The beloved songwriter and singer Chabuca Granda called it home, and many of her lyrics described the edifices of the neighborhood, like the Bridge of Sighs where lovers met. Mario Vargas Llosa, the famous writer, had lived just blocks away from Angelica before he bitterly moved to Spain after a failed campaign for the presidency.
Her father rang the buzzer. Elsa could hear a dog bark and Tia Lina yell, “Quieto!” Lina opened the door, and she hugged them both while nudging them quickly into the house. Elsa hadn’t seen her aunt in several years, since the last time she had visited Peru, with Charles. In their seven years of marriage, they had made only one trip to Peru. They had traveled around the country for three weeks and stayed in the old house in Barranco with Lina and Angelica for several days. Charles had struggled with the language barrier and culture shock. He preferred trips to Napa Valley more than the adventure of South America.
The taxi driver helped carry in the luggage. Lina tipped the man before shooing him out the door. Elsa noticed that her aunt looked tired and haggard; she had aged in just a few years.
“She’s been asking for you, Miguel,” Lina explained as she embraced him; tears ran down her swollen, blotched face. She took her brother’s hand and led him and Elsa down the hallway to their mother’s bedroom.
Angelica was bed-ridden, drifting in and out of consciousness. She was ninety-six, after all. But she refused to leave her big, colonial house with its countless bedrooms, where her children had grown up.
Elsa stood in the doorway, looking into the dim room at her grandmother’s frail frame lying in the sagging bed. Angelica was hooked to an IV, and as Elsa scanned the small room she noticed the bedpan and a musty, acrid smell. A large crucifix hung over the headboard, and a framed portrait of the Bleeding Heart of Christ presided in one corner of the room. Elsa felt the weight of her grandmother’s impending passing, of Angelica’s suffering.
Elsa thought back to her childhood visits in the big, boisterous house. She had always carried the basket as she walked with Angelica to the market in the mornings. Her abuela rattled on in a singsong castellano that Elsa could barely decipher. And then there were the meals that Angelica had prepared, with one course after another. Elsa and her baby brother would sit at the big, long, family table, their feet dangling, as she served them warm, nurturing foods like cream of squash soup, chicken soufflé, and rice pudding doused in cinnamon.
“Children, eat,” she encouraged them, while serving generous second helpings. “I want to see my grandchildren muy gorditos.” Their bellies stuck out of their shirts, and she smiled.
As Elsa stood in the doorway of Angelica’s room, she decided to give her father time alone with his mother. In the meantime, she would roam the large house. There were crumbling adobe walls, and the open courtyard was filled with plants beginning to wither and die in solidarity with their housemother. Elsa strolled down the long corridors and peeked into rooms. She peered at the photos in the living room, placed in mismatched frames. There was a faded photo of Lucía and Salvatore seated side by side, stately and proud. They both wore serious expressions; they had made a handsome couple. Elsa looked closer, noticing a dark, long shadow looming behind Lucía. It gave Elsa an eerie feeling.
Another photo stood out from the others because it was the only one of Angelica and her husband with all their children, three lanky boys and one little girl, Aunt Lina. The family stood squished together, dressed for a beach outing. Elsa stared at the photos of her father as a child. His large brown eyes and pudgy cheeks, and the innocence of childhood apparent on his sweet face, tore at her heart.
Finally feeling the exhaustion of the trip, she sat down in the dining room.
Tia Lina walked in, looking frazzled, tucking loose strands of gray hair back into her bun. Caring for her dying mother was taking a toll on her.
“My dear Elsa. We left you stranded. Angelica woke up long enough to chat with Miguel. I think it’s revived her some. Would you like a cup of tea?”
“Don’t worry, Tia. I can get it myself. I remember that the kitchen’s in the back. I’ll make us a pot.”
“That would be lovely, Elsita. But you must be tired after the flight.”
“I don’t mind stretching my legs after sitting for so long. It will just take a minute.”
Elsa rose and headed down the hall toward the back of the house. There she found the kitchen with its rusty appliances, crooked shelves, and the same old transistor radio on the counter. She filled the teakettle with water and placed it on the stove. The last time she had been in this house, she had been with Charles. How strange it felt to be single now. Even though he had complained a lot while they were there, she missed his energy, his quirky sense of humor woven through the snarky comments.
Elsa remembered standing in the kitchen with him as he opened the freezer, looking for ice to add to his glass of soda. “No luck,” he had said, “I guess the gypsies haven’t shown up with the latest modern invention to impress the natives.” His sarcasm could be irritating and amusing at the same time. Elsa let the weight of her loss settle once again and shrugged off the feeling of nostalgia. But the house and Angelica made it hard to shake melancholy.
Later that evening, Elsa sat at her grandmother’s bedside.
Angelica lay back with her head resting on pillows, though she appeared alert and clearheaded. “Is that you, my little Elsa? You are a beautiful, grown woman now.” She spoke in that same singsong Spanish. “You still have those lovely curls, but your hair isn’t light-yellow anymore.” Elsa’s hair hadn’t been light blonde since she was a girl. Angelica didn’t seem to remember her visit with Charles.
Elsa stroked her grandmother’s fine, white hair and then kissed her forehead. “I missed you, Abuela. I was curious about this photograph. It’s so lovely, and all your children are here.”
She handed the framed picture to Angelica, and with a bony finger Angelica stroked each face. “There’s an entire lifetime housed in this photograph. My children and so much loss.”
“I don’t want to make you sad. I hoped the photo would make you happy.”
Angelica whispered, flushed and out of breath, as if making her last confession, “Did you know that my father, Salvatore, had another family, with a wife and children, living on the other side of the city? They had no idea he was married to my mother until his funeral, when both our families showed up: two women dressed in mourning and both claiming to be his wife. Imagine their surprise!” She chuckled—the years seemed to have softened the blows of the fiasco.
Elsa was stunned by this revelation; she’d had no idea. Her father had never talked about it. The story brought to mind those faint recollections of her great-grandmother’s spinning of thread, spinning her husband out from fine silk strands—or had it all been a dream? Then Elsa recalled Salvatore’s desperate pleas to Lucía, his ghostly form woven out of silk threads. His guilt made sense to her now.
Angelica’s eyes looked beyond Elsa. Suddenly, she scooted herself upright against the pillows on her bed and became more animated. She told Elsa that she hadn’t been with a man since her husband died. “He was my first and only lover. Is that very unusual?” she asked eagerly.
“It’s rare to find that now, Abuela. People get married when they’re much older these days, if they do at all.” Elsa felt tempted to add that most marriages end in divorce.
“Yes, I know that times have changed.” Angelica seemed to drift off, until she said, “I was only thirty-two when Pablo Miguel died of a heart attack. He was young too; it was a genetic condition, you know. Anyway, I think I almost went crazy for a time. I used to dream about him touching me, his hands on my body, and I sometimes woke up crying.”
Elsa was taken aback by her grandmother’s candor. She wondered if Angelica had deliberately chosen her as a confidant, or if she had just happened to be there as these things slipped out, the ramblings of an old, senile woman.
Elsa hadn’t been with a man for over a year, since her divorce. She too felt a yearning and desire so great that it filled her with pain, as well as tears. She had never expected to share this connection with Angelica.
She would find herself wrestling with an unseen presence, the sheets tangled and damp with her sweat, damp with her desires, only to wake up with tears and sobs. Those were nights she feared being alone for the rest of her life. Those were the nights that she cursed Charles and his younger lover.
Elsa’s confidence had been shattered after Charles’s affair. She had gone to the college on her day off, to pick up some papers, and seen them leaning against his car. Charles appeared to have the girl pinned as he kissed her, but the girl didn’t resist. Elsa stopped in her tracks, sheepishly went back to her car, and drove away.
Now she shook off the memory, as Angelica stroked her arm softly. “You don’t have children?” Angelica whispered.
There was the dreaded question. Elsa had prepared herself for this. The Latin culture still valued motherhood and family above all else, even in this day and age. Her gut tightened. She whispered back to Angelica, “No, Abuela. I don’t.”
Elsa’s thoughts became a mantra. “I lost them, it wasn’t meant to be, it’s better this way.”
Angelica was getting tired. She could barely keep her eyes open as she continued, “Maybe I should have remarried, but with all those kids? I guess I didn’t really have the time. But listen, mi niña, don’t be afraid of love. El Amor—it comes in all kinds of packages.”
The next morning, Elsa sat in a wicker chair in the open corridor, reading a book, when the nurse emerged from Angelica’s room. The nurse, wearing pink uniform scrubs, came twice a day to tend to Angelica.
Elsa called out, “How is my grandmother feeling today?”
“She’s still dehydrated. Family visits usually perk up patients, lift their spirits, but it’s often followed by a bout of exhaustion. She’ll probably sleep most of the day.”
Elsa waited until the afternoon to enter the dim room and sit once again at Angelica’s bedside. She watched her grandmother sleep, listening to her gentle wheezing, noticing the dark purple, bruise-like blotches over her translucent, withered skin.
Miguel peeked his head in and said, “Lina and I are going downtown for a walk. Would you like to come?”
“I think I’ll stay.”
“Okay. We’ll be back before it gets late.”
After a long while in stillness, Elsa reading her book and her grandmother lost in dreams, Angelica began to stir—her arms gently searching at her sides. She was muttering, “It wasn’t his fault, I made him follow me. I sent the letters, but we were only children.”
Elsa leaned in and stroked her head. “It’s all right, Abuela. Everything is okay.”
Angelica opened her eyes and tried lifting her head, but it fell softly back onto the pillow. “It was the plague. All the fault of the plague.”
“What plague, Abuela?”
“On the family hacienda, where the country house is, at Wayi.” She looked directly into Elsa’s eyes, and Elsa felt impressed at her grandmother’s awareness of time as she explained: “When I was little girl, before we fled to the capital, we lived on the hacienda. I have wonderful memories of life there: the river and the vast open fields resting below the mountains, and the kindness of the Indians. But that was before the darkness of the plague, before it swept over the land, killing the crops and leaving the people trembling in fear.” Angelica closed her eyes and clenched her bony hands in fists.
Elsa could see how upset her grandmother was, so she calmed her by changing the subject. “Abuela, tell me more about the beach outings with your kids. Those must have been good times.”
Angelica nodded and fell back into a long sleep.
Later Elsa asked her father why he had never told her about the plague at the hacienda. He just shrugged and said, “I’m surprised my mother brought it up. She never liked to talk about it with us. It all happened so long ago, and our family is sad enough as it is.”
Angelica seemed to enjoy Elsa’s visits and would request that her granddaughter sit with her. Then she would doze off, and Elsa would read or write in her journal quietly until her grandmother stirred.
“Elsa, look under the bed and you’ll see a hatbox. Can you pull it out?” Angelica asked one afternoon.
Elsa got on her knees, crouched down, and saw a large, round box toward the foot of the bed. She reached forward and pulled it out. The tattered box was covered in dust, which Elsa wiped off slowly with tissues from the nightstand. As they sat together in the candle-lit room, Elsa opened the worn box and took out the remnants of bygone days: baby clothes—booties, jackets, and caps—knitted in fine, shiny silk the color of gold.
Angelica said, “Before the plague, our family’s silk was considered the most luxurious ever produced. My father exported the thread as far as China. The shiny golden hue was natural, never seen before in raw silk. My mother taught the Gomez family, who still live in the country house, and now they are the only ones keeping the production going. If they stop, this lineage of silkworms will die forever.”
“Why didn’t anyone in our family keep it going, Abuela? What about your brother, Uncle José?”
“We all tried for a while. But life gets in the way, other obligations, and when my husband died, I was a widow raising my children alone. I do regret that we let it go,” Angelica said wistfully. Then she added, “You might be the one to save it, my dear Elsita.”
I found inspiration for my novel Fragile Saints from two years of living in Peru. Since childhood, I have been drawn to the Hispanic culture. I traveled through Latin America extensively and learned Spanish as a young adult. My daughters are fortunate to be of Peruvian descendent, and I myself feel fully immersed in the culture. My experiences in Peru have influenced my life and work immensely. The country offers a vibrant setting and a rich historical backdrop for any story.
My protagonist, Elsa, is on a journey of self-discovery, and one of the most important aspects of that journey is developing a deeper connection to her ancestors—especially to the lineage of women in her family. Elsa finds herself stuck after a failed marriage. Upon the death of her grandmother, she learns that she has inherited a country house near her family’s old hacienda, which is haunted by a dark secret. Elsa is intrigued by the house, its caretakers, and her new lover, Gustavo, yet she also encounters disturbing ghostly visitors. These visitors are part of the story’s backdrop, taking the reader back in time as the history of Elsa’s family unfolds.
The novel is written primarily from Elsa’s point of view, as she heals and discovers her purpose, but an omniscient narrator is employed as well, taking the reader into the family’s mysterious past. Like my favorite novels, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Fragile Saints uses magical realism to create a family saga in which ancestral mishaps and the natural world influence the present-day characters, especially Elsa, making her vulnerable and yet also indomitable in the face of adventure, personal growth, and change.
Claire Ibarra lives in Boulder, Colorado. She received her MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. Her fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have been widely published, and a chapbook of her poetry, Vortex of Our Affections, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. Visit claireibarra.com to learn more.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018