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A Dollar for Santa Muerte

It has been almost a year since you left.

I heard a song from Mexico the other day, and for a second I thought it was you, plucking out Spanish guitar songs in the living room. I heard the song while I stood in the kitchen, slicing bread, the bread you taught my husband to bake, from the cookbook you gave me for Christmas.

I stood in the kitchen, where so many evenings after I gave birth, I stood and cried with my baby, who could not be consoled when I set her down so I could make something to eat, not until you came home from work in your starchy white shirt smelling like fried fish and you picked her up and she stopped crying and smiled, so happy to see your beat-up face and your mohawk and those hoops in your ears.

My heart jumps every time I see my husband wearing that old head scarf you left, with the picture of Santa Muerte. I never understood Santa Muerte so well as I do now, I think.

The first time I saw her was in Mexico, way deep in the bowels of the market, in an aisle full of witchery--dried up rattlesnakes and powdered beetles and herbs that closed my throat so I couldn't breathe. She was terrible, a skeleton bristling with American one-dollar bills. They say she is the patron of children who are lost. She is an inverted tooth fairy, a hopeless shadow of Saint Christopher, a dry wishing well. She lurks behind the colorful memorials of departed family, peaceful souls resting in love and laughter and the smells of kitchens. She keeps watch of the souls in limbo, those wanderers who cannot be recovered nor grieved.

I knew we would lose you one way or another. I always knew it, and so I was angry at myself for taking it so hard. We would have been happy for you, you know. We knew you loved Sonora, the desert, the hot sun and the carne asada. We knew you would not be able to say goodbye.

The day you were sneaking out your things, I caught you. I knew something was wrong, I had seen it for weeks, how not even the baby could make you smile, but I didn't know what it was. You were like a cornered animal--I could feel the panic as I ran down the stairs. I had been trying to catch you for days, but you were so good at disappearing. And I was delicate and fragile, my breasts swollen and sore from nursing. I was aware of my breasts, running down to trap a wounded creature. Would you hurt me? How could I even think that you might hurt me? But the panic in the air--I didn't know what you might do.

You moved so fast, rushing out the door with an old, soft lie and a promise and a cardboard box. You rode off so fast into the pouring rain that I could not run to the window in time to see which way you had gone.

I went into your room, and it was empty, drawers empty, bed stripped, hangers naked except for one bike jersey my husband had given you, my husband, your best friend, your brother at one time? There were things left, though, in the house, and so I knew you had not gone for good, not just yet. You would be back before you were really gone.

I ran upstairs to my baby, and she was just fine, playing with her toys. She looked up at my face and cried.

When her daddy got home, I showed him the empty room. We erased the white board that showed how much you owed for utility bills, wiped it clean. I wrote a letter to say goodbye, to wish you well. I left it on your bed. I waited all day. I canceled appointments, waited and worried, called your phone and your friends' phones and nothing.

I went down and took back the goodbye letter, crumpled it up and threw it away. No, there would be no goodbye on paper.

I lay awake that night, staring at the ceiling, reaching out with my ears and my heart, feeling you still here, close. I would stay awake until you came back to get the rest of your things, and I would run out of the bedroom and tell you goodbye.

Many times I drifted off, only to wake up again at the tiniest sound. And then one time I heard the door open for sure. I jumped out of bed and tried to run but I was trapped in slow-motion--a dream. I woke, but I was frozen, paralyzed in my bed, and drifted off again. And then I could get up and move freely. I walked into the bright kitchen, blinking, and there were noises outside. I went out into the cold garage and saw you there, loading up a truck, your blue eyes looking back and resigned. I went to you and said, "Just say goodbye. We love you." I opened my arms, my fingers reaching for your bony ribs, my tender chest seeking your heartbeat, just once, but I could not close my arms around you. There was an invisible barrier and I could not touch you.

I woke in a fury, knowing now that you had been home and gone again, and I had missed you. I missed you.

The next day, we went through the remains of your room, your leave-taking. You took the gifts my mother had given you. You left behind a chest packed with broken childhood toys, letters, photos, gifts from every loved one you had lost to death or cruelty or abandonment. You left your baggage for us to unpack. You left your favorite headscarf with the picture of Santa Muerte.

It was like the time, many years ago, when we tried to visit you in jail. We could not see you, speak to you, give you a message or a candy bar or a pack of cigarettes. Our names were not on your list.

What would I give, if it could reach you? A letter to Saint Christopher, a penny for your thoughts, a dollar for Santa Muerte. I hear this song and I think of you.


  1. That was really beautiful. The longing in the words made me all teary.

  2. Thanks, M. It was cathartic to write.


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