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Thursday, March 30, 2006

STILL LIVES by Julia Alvarez


Julia Alvarez

Dona Charito took the lot of us native children in hand Saturday mornings nine to twelve to put Art into us like Jesus into the heathen. She was an islander only by her marriage to Don Jose. She herself was cultured and from some place over in Germany and had been to the grand museums of Europe where she looked Art in the face. She had touched with the hand she held up to us the cool limbs of the marble boys, and those short blunt fingers had been shot through with talent. There was no arguing with Dona Charito over the color of the vermilion coral in the umber depths of the aquamarine oceans. She grappled the brush from your hand and showed you how, all the while barking instructions in her guttural Spanish which made you feel that you were mispronouncing your native tongue because you did not speak with her heavy German accent.

She had met Don Jose in Madrid during a tour of the Prado. The young man was abroad on a medical school scholarship, although he had no intention of becoming a doctor. Every year, the government awarded European scholarships, each one earmarked for a certain needed profession, and if you won one and were poor, you went for the chance to eat three square meals a day, one of them hot. Between meals, Jose sketched rather than dissected the cadavers and caught up on his sleep on a bench below a Gaugain and alongside several Van Goghs, in the Prado. His lodging stipend Don Jose spent on art supplies.

Three years of sleeping with sunflowers and starbursts and Tahitian maidens had done what a decade of Academy training could not do. Don Jose came into his own: "a high rococo primitivist church-sculpture style," our island art critic later proclaimed it. Great brown angels with halos of cayenna blossoms descended from heaven, pulled down by their enormous gourd breasts and ripe honeydew bottoms. Don Jose also came upon Dona Charito one late afternoon in the Prado as she was copying the garment folds on a Grunewald martyr. He was impressed with her big white slab of a body like an unfinished sculpture. She with his quick sketch of her as Our Lady in Garments. They married and returned to his home island where there wasn't anything to do - Dona Charito muttered in her gutturals - but get one's work done.

In the outskirts of the capital they built a storybook cottage, two stories, fretted with eaves and little porches and window boxes, and incongruous Alpine look in the tropics. There they lived for over twenty years out of the swing of island social life, The would have been totally ignored, in fact, had it not been for their strange house, which parents took their children to see on Sunday afternoon drives in the countryside. "There's that Hansel and Gretel house." If the curtains were drawn back and a figure peered out of one of the innumerable little windows like an eyeball trying to find a fitting socket, the children quailed, "The witch, the witch, there she is!"

You can imagine my amazement, then, when one Saturday morning of my seventh year, I was deposited on the doorstep of that house in the company, fortunately, of seventeen of my cousins for our first art lesson. It was really my doing or rather my drawings that had brought us to this brink. Up to this point, I had been an anonymous Castillo child, second daughter to a fourth daughter of my grandparents, Don Erasmo and Dona Emilia Maria de Jesus Castillo. The whole extended family lived on a large piece of property belonging to my grandparents, who had been blessed with too many sons and grandsons to take notice of yet another granddaughter. I was born to die one of the innumerable, handsome Castillo girls, and whatever else I was, personally, was as a dolly on wheels to pull that illustrious name from social gathering to social gathering. But then, one Epiphany, boxes of crayons and tablets of paper were distributed among the grandchildren, and it was discovered that some small, unknown hand was capable of capturing likenesses, dotting vision into eyes and curling hair upon a head so you ached to touch it.

"Who drew that baby? Whose cat is that?" They marveled. The artist was discovered at the bottom of the yard drawing Cook's boy with a brown and a gold and a purple crayon. "Gifted" descended upon my hitherto unremarkable shoulders like a coat of many colors.

A few days after my gift was discovered, Cook cast me a worried look at dinner. She made a pretext of cutting up my meat, and as she cut, she whispered in bite-sized phrases: "Please . . . little Miss . . . you must . . . come to . . . my house." After the meal, I snuck out to the forbidden part of the property where the servants and their families lived in their little shanty shacks. Her boy lay moaning on a cot. Holy candles flickered on a shelf. Cook had soaked the child in holy water. She had taken him to high mass at the Cathedral, but still he was feverish and wailed, as if he were keening his own death before going.

"Please, please, little Miss, you must release him," Cook pleaded, taking my drawing off the wall where she'd hung it beside a crucifix.

I stared at the little brown crayon face in my hand, then crumpled it up. The baby tossed. I put the scrap in her little cooking-stove, and then Cook and I watched it catch and curl yellow.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," she murmured and thumped her breasts. The smoke made Baby cough. He looked up at me with glazed spirit eyes. By breakfast the next morning, Cook gave me the nod. Her baby was cured.

I had less luck with my cats. I drew them on the front wall of our white house and was put to scrubbing the stucco for hours, then fed punishmentsupper—asmall waterbread, the cleavage unbuttered, and a tall glass of warm milk, green from the vegetables pureed and blended in it. Afterwards, I was sent to bed early to contemplate my bad character. That night, the pantry and supply closet were overrun with rats. That settled it. The family decided they had to get me trained in art.

Phone calls were made. Did anyone know of someone who gave art lessons? Dona Charito's name came up. The German lady, who lived in the two story chalet at the edge of town. Don Jose's wife, that poor woman. No one had seen or heard of him for a while. Several years back, he had been commissioned to sculpt the statues for the new national Cathedral, but the dedication had taken place in an empty church. There were rumors. Don Jose had gone crazy and been unable to finish this colossal project. His wife was having to take in students in order to pay the bills.

As I understand it, Dona Charito was insulted at the Castillo request: she was an artist; she took on apprentices, not children. But paid in advance in American dollars, she made an exception in our case , our case in the plural because the great democracy of our blue blood dictated that all the Castillo children be given equal opportunity to excel. So, whichever of the cousins could control their bladders for several hours and would not try to drink the turpentine were enrolled in Saturday art lessons.

We were eighteen all told that first Saturday when we approached that house, nervously plucking at the gravel in the driveway, trying to tear off the door knob to see if it wasn't a chocolate almond. But we ended up with nothing but the taste of real things on our tongues. Then, the nursemaid discovered a rope dangling down, she gave it a tug, and a little cowbell jingled above our heads. We all gave it a try.

The bell had rung over a dozen times, and I was going up on my toes for a second turn when the door flew open with such force, the bell jangled all by itself. Before us stood a mountain of a woman who looked even more imposing because of the brightly colored shift she wore. Exotic crimson flowers and birds poked their pistils and bills every which way up and down her torso. Her face was a pile of white cloud afire with red hair. She looked like something a child might draw who had not taken art lessons.

"Roodness, roodness," she growled the words out. "You!" She pointed at me. "You are the culpable one!"

I nodded and curtsied. We all curtsied. But it was more like genuflecting in her presence. Quickly, the nursemaid introduced us, handed Dona Charito a note, and fled inside one of the three black cars idling in the driveway like great, nervous, snorting horses. With a pelting of pebbles, they disappeared down the drive, and we children were left alone with Dona Charito to learn "the rood iments of art."

She opened the note in her hand, sighing with great impatience at its folds. We waited quietly while she read, and our intake of breath when she at last lifted her head made her gag with laughter. There were spaces between all her teeth; nothing dared block that woman's way even when she was smiling. "Ya, ya," she soothed. "I am goodhearted for all this." She waved a hand over our heads, indicating the world, it seemed like to me.

"Now which of you is the little talent?" She pronounced a name. She repeated it several times before I raised my hand warily. "Ha! I might have guessed so." She smiled, or rather her mouth hooked up slightly at the corners. It was more as if she were casting for a smile than that she had caught one.

"Enter, enter," she fussed, suddenly out of sorts, "after removing the shoes, of course." We removed and entered. I hoped it was the crust of mud on my shoes which made her glare at me as I passed by her.

Our visit began with a tour of the house, which was more like a museum than a house. Dona Charito's collected works hung on the walls: mostly pitchers and bowls of fruit, and violins or guitars. I couldn't tell the difference, for we hadn't had music lessons yet. There were two or three stampeding stallions, manes flaring next to stormy seashores in her bedroom. But that was that, no spiders, no mangos, no lizards, no spirits, no flesh and blood people.

When we had finally gone through the whole house, the older of the cousins, who were more experienced in lying said how much they'd enjoyed the paintings. The rest of us nodded.

"Goot! Goot!" Again, she laughed. I ached for the lesson to start so I could draw and color in those ivory teeth with the purple muscle of the tongue showing between like some fat beast caged inside her mouth. But instead, she shepherded us out to an open patio at the center of the house. We were invited to sit down, but there were only two chairs, and none of us dared presume a seat.

A very old woman, whose face was so wrinkled it looked as if it'd been used as a scratch pad, came round with a tray of warm, sour lemonade, no ice, and all the sugar at the bottom, and no spoons to stir it with. We drank and winced and waited for the lesson to begin. But Dona Charito had disappeared into her kitchen where we could hear her barking orders to the old woman — about how best to prepare us, I was sure. We children eyed each other, suddenly aware we were frail flesh, eighteen mouthfuls crowding Dona Charito's patio and drinking up her lemonade.

Finally, Dona Charito marched us into her studio. It was a big light room in a wing of the house, all the windows thrown open to air out the heavy oil and turpentine smells. Cane chairs had been arranged in rows, drawing boards on each seat, a crate between every two chairs with a big jar of clear water and several ripped up pieces of toweling on top. (This must have been the "some supplies included" of the agreement.)

"Find yourself an accommodation," Dona Charito ordered. There was a scramble for chairs in the back rows, but I was not one of the lucky ones. I had hung back at the entrance, cagily I thought, waiting to see what would happen to the others before I followed. I ended up the one in the front seat right under Dona Charito's cavernous nose.

The lesson began with physical exercise. "Mens sana in corpore sano," Dona Charito proclaimed. "Amen," we children chanted, for the sound of Latin cued us for liturgical response. Dona Charito scowled.

"One, two. One, two. One, two," she commanded. We executed jumping jacks. We touched toes. We flexed our fingers "for the circulation" and worked ourselves into quite a state of calisthenic frenzy.

At last, the actual art lesson began. Dona Charito demonstrated with her brush. "The first step one must check the bristles for the correct alignment." Dona Charito dipped her brush into a jar of water and made all manner of finicky, tidying up, tapping noises on the brim like a nursemaid spooning mouthfuls for a baby.

Obediently, we did likewise.

She went on in her garbled Spanish we could barely understand. "The second step is the proper manner of holding the implement. Not in this way, neither in this fashion . . ." She inspected, chair by chair. She mocked us all.

It seemed with so much protocol, I would never get to draw what I wanted to draw. I tried to keep my mind on the demonstration, but something began to paw the inside of my drawing arm. It clawed at the doors of my will, and I had to let it out. I took my soaking brush in hand, stroked my gold cake, and a cat streaked out on my paper in one lightning stroke, whiskers, tail, meow and all!

I breathed a little easier, having gained a cat-sized space inside myself. Dona Charito's back was to me. The hummingbird on her Hawaiian shift plunged its swordlike beak between the mounds of her bottom. There would be time.

I jiggled my brush in the water jar. The liquid turned the color of my first urine in the morning. I stroked my purple cake and a bruise-colored cat and then a brown stick cat darted out.

I was so much to myself as I worked that I did not hear her warning shout or the slapping of her island thongs on the linoleum as she swooped down upon me. Her crimson nails clawed my sheet off its board and crumpled it into a ball. "You, you defy me!" she cried out. Her face had turned the muddy red of my water jar. She lifted me by the forearm, hurried me across the room through a door into a dark parlor, and plunked me down on a stiff cane-back chair.

Her green eyes glared at me like a cat's. They were speckled with brown as if something alive had gotten caught and fossilized in the irises. "You are not to move until I have given you leave. Is that comprehensible?" I bowed my head in submission. From the corner of my eye, I saw my frightened cousins obediently practicing their first brush strokes. Dona Charito filled the doorway a moment with her large body, then she pulled the door to with a great slam.

I sat still as one of her still lives that hung on the walls around me. I felt her presence in the dark, hushed, airless room. Her brush was poised above my head. She could paint over my hair, blank out my features, make my face no more than a plate for apples, grapes, plums, pears, lemons. I dared not move.

But soon, I began to grow restless. I could see these art lessons were not going to be any fun. It seemed like everything fun in the world was turning out to be wrong. I had recently begun catechism classes in preparation for my first communion. The Catholic sisters at Our Lady Of Perpetual Sorrows Academy were teaching me to sort the world like laundry into what was wrong and right, what was venial, what, if you died in the middle of enjoying, would send you straight to hell. Before I could ever get to my life, conscience was arranging it all like a still life or tableau. But that morning in Dona Charito's house, I was not ready yet to pose as one of the model children of the world.

I lifted myself out of that uncomfortable chair and made my way out into the foyer where our shoes had been lined up in a tidy row as if they were about to be shot for having mud on their soles. Just as I had found the pair that was mine, I heard a man's voice, shouting and crying curses from the back of the house. Normally, I would have run in the opposite direction, but the curses he was yelling were ones I was muttering under my breath against Dona Charito. I was drawn to investigate.

The patio was deserted. The sky hung low, a cloudy canvas with swirls of dark purple and stormy greys. I crossed a high hibiscus hedge through an unlatched gate and came upon a muddy backyard, strewn with logs and stumps like a carpenter's yard. Ahead stood an unpainted shed with one high window and one door clamped shut with a great padlock. The man's shouts had come from inside, but what drew me now was another sound, a tap-tap-tapping like us girl cousins dancing for company. I wanted to find out something secret about Dona Charito. At my age, that is what I knew of revenge. What someone kept in a bedside drawer. What color was someone's underwear. What did someone look like squatting awkwardly on a small chamberpot. When someone fell upon me with violent discipline, I could undo with a gaze, I know you, I know you.

The one window was a head above my head. I rolled a small stump over beneath the glass, climbed on top, and peered inside. At first, I could see only my own face reflected back. I cupped my hands around my eyes and felt the glass hum with hammering as if it were alive.

Slowly, I made out the objects inside the shed. Giant, half-formed creatures were coming out of logs like the ones strewn in the yard behind me. Some logs had hoofs or claws, tails or horns; some had the beginning of a face, a mouth or an eye; some had hands with fingernails. A sheep's fleece curled from the bare nutty back of a pale stump that couldn't baa without nostrils or a mouth. I put my hand on my own face to make sure I was intact.

In the middle of the floor, a woman's figure reclined on two sawhorses, one at her feet, another at her neck, like Grandmother hanging from the rafters with her broken back. Sharp points came out of her head, the rays of the Virgin's halo, though they could just as well have been the horns of a demon woman. Her hair coiled in complex curls over her shoulders like snakes. Her head was fully formed, but her face was still a blank.

Tap-tap-tap, the sound came from underneath her. Shavings of wood and sawdust were falling on the floor where just this moment she was being given feet. Before my very eyes, the pale blonde stumps distinguished themselves into heel and toe; the high arches made S's of the bottoms of her feet. She could have stood upon those soles and walked all the way to Bethlehem.

When his brown head emerged from between her legs, I believed him at first to be one of his own creations. He was the same shiny mahogany as his half-formed creatures. Around his neck was a halter, trailing a chain to an iron ring by the door. The rest of him was naked: he was a tiny man, my size standing on a log, in perfect proportion, except for one thing. I had seen the stud bulls on my grandfather's ranch during breeding season and witnessed their spectacles among the cows. Once, a saucy nursemaid had informed me that in embroidered linens with the lights off and the fans going, my fine Castillo parents had got me no differently. The little man grew big like those bulls as he worked on the Virgin's feet. He climbed on top, straddling her, his rattling chain settling behind him like a great tail. He touched the blank of the face, tenderly it seemed, planted his chisel at the forehead and was about to come down on her. I cried out to warn the woman beneath him.

His elf face shot up. He looked about the room, then bull's-eyed on my face against the window, and lunged in my direction. His chain grew taut. But before he could reach the window, open it up, and yank me inside, I threw myself off my perch and landed hard on the ground. I was too terrified to feel pain, but I heard the little bone in my arm crack as I landed on a log on the ground.

His face appeared at the window. He studied me, and an inane grin spread across his lips like a stain. Tap-tap-tap, his hand beat on the glass as if to hold my attention so he could study me a little longer, tap-tap-tap. There was no need for that; my eyes were riveted to his face, and my mouth opened on a voiceless scream. At last, sound came to my terror. I screamed and screamed even after his face had disappeared from the window.

The Art Brigade came running from the house towards the open yard, cousins on stockinged feet, the old woman in tow, Dona Charito leading towards the muddy heap in the yard. I did not think there would ever come the day when I would be so pleased to see her.

"What has transpired?" she cried, but her voice betrayed genuine concern. "Why were you not supervisioning her?" she accused the old woman, then turning, she accused me, "What have you committed upon yourself?" She shot a worried glance down to the bottom of the yard. Tap-tap-tap came the sounds from inside the shed.

I lifted up my throbbing arm, an offering of broken bone. She could have my face smeared with tears, my body soiled with mud like a creature's, the small wet sobs coming out of my mouth. "I broke it," I wailed. Even in my shock, I knew it was best not to confess what I had seen inside her garden shed.

One could not say her face softened, for softness was not in her repertoire of expressions. She knelt beside me and reached for my arm. But even her lightest touch made me wince with pain. 'Brrroke?" She gazed down at me. The speckles in her eyes were splinters of bone, shards of things she had broken over the years.

Meanwhile, without supervision, my little cousins had begun balancing on logs, patting mudcakes, enjoying the holiday of smearing their clothes and darkening their white socks. A pair of intrepid boy cousins marched towards the shed with sticks. Dona Charito stood up and sounded the alarm. "Attention! Back, in the studio this instant, every one!" They scurried back. The rain began to fall, big sloppy drops as if someone were shaking out a paint brush.

She lifted me in her arms. I clung to her as if I were her own child. I laid my head above where her heart should be. Inside her, I could hear as if inside a conch shell the dark Atlantic, the waves thrashing in high winds, the vast plains of central Europe. She knew the world was a wild place. She carried a great big brush. She made pinwheels of the whirling stars that had driven many a man mad. She stilled the terror in my heart. I fell in love with her.

But that was the last I ever saw of Dona Charito. The cars came screeching to a stop in the driveway; my mother hurried into the house; I began to cry to convince her of the seriousness of my condition. As the shock wore off, I did feel a piercing pain in my arm as if someone were driving a chisel through the bone. At the hospital everyone's suspicions were confirmed: my arm was fractured in three places.

I wore a cast for months, and when it was sawed off at last, the arm was discovered to have healed crookedly. There was no help for it but to break the bone again and reset it. This was a major operation; I was given gifts and a little overnight case to take to the hospital with a lock whose combination was the month, day, and year of my birth. A mass was said for my quick recovery at the Cathedral, and I was allowed to have dishes of ice cream between meals to make me brave and — it was explained to my envious cousins — "to give her added calcium." I was sure that I was about to die and that's why everyone was being so kind to me.

I did not die. And the bone did finally heal, almost perfectly. But for a year on and off, I carried my arm in a sling. The cast was signed by several dozen cousins and aunts and uncles, so I seemed a composite creation of the Castillo family: Ana Castillo, Ique Castillo, Lucinda Maria Castillo. There were notes and rhymes. Some of the messages were smart-aleck remarks and skull-and-bones by cousins who resented me for getting out of lessons inflicted on them because of me. For though my own art career had come to a crashing halt, my cousins had to spend their Saturday mornings drawing circles, then on to ovals, finally these ovals were allowed to ripen into apples. Then, they graduated to utensils, a pitcher, a basket, a knife. The final project was a still life with all these objects in it as well as a small hunk of plastic ham. Bitterly, they complained: they hated art; they did not want to take lessons. But American dollars, they were informed, did not grow on island trees. Art lessons it would be for the next year.

By Christmas, the lessons were over. My cast was off. But I was a changed child. Months of pampering and the ridicule of my cousins had turned me inward. But now when the world filled me, I could no longer draw it out. I was sullen and dependent on my mother's sole attention, tender-hearted, and whiney: the classic temperament of the artist but without anything to show for my bad character. I could no longer draw. My hand had lost its art.

I did have one moment of triumph during that year of art lessons. Christmas Eve, along with the rest of the Castillo children, I was taken to the Cathedral for the nativity pageant where the new creche was to be unveiled. We marched up the aisle to the altar, decked with poinsettas and candles and curtained off with red and green draperies.

At the stroke of midnight, the bells began to peal. The side doors of the Cathedral burst open and out came a procession of priests and nuns and acolytes, clacking their censors, sending up the fragrance of myrrh and frankincense the Three Kings had brought over with them from the Orient. Two of the altar boys drew back the curtains.

Before me were the giants I'd seen in Don Jose's workshed! But these were sacred figures in rich velvet capes and glittery robes and shepherds' cloaks beautifully stitched to look ragged with patches by the Carmelite nuns. Kings and sheep and whinnying horses and serving maids and beggar boys gathered together in the frosty imagined night. God wasgoing through all the trouble of self creation to show us how. The wind was up. Rain splattered on the Cathedral roof. Far away, a dog barked.

When the altar gate was thrown open, the congregation surged forward to touch the infant Jesus for good luck in the coming year. But my eyes were drawn to the face of the Virgin beside him. I put my hand to my own face to make sure it was mine. My cheek had the curve of her cheek; my brows arched like her brows; my eyes had been as wide as hers, staring up at the little man as he knocked on the window of his workshed. I reached out my crooked arm and touched the hem of her royal blue robe. Then I too broke into glad tidings and joy to the world with the crowd of believers around me.

Posted by jebratt :: Thursday, March 30, 2006 :: 0 comments

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