THE UNIVERSE HAS NEVER BEEN OFFERED MERCY,

AND SO IT DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO GIVE IT

 

            My abuelita is ten years old when she watches her birth mother bleed into a wooden bucket. She hears moaning, crying, praying — then, vida nueva, the third of her four younger sisters is born into their two-room apartment on a side street in San José.

            She is born alive, and into seemingly extraterrestrial gangliness: with spindly fingers and a toothless mouth and clumsy gazelle legs. Someday, she will learn English and sing on tall stages, marry a white lawyer and be a perfect vision of the american dream, but my abuelita doesn’t know this. My abuelita knows only the drip of blood and the way the sky opens itself in tired longing to shooting stars and old wartime ghosts during fleeting moments in the city slums just before the first light of dawn.

            Some time later, there is wailing, mourning, godless voices unfurling into the grayscale sky. The room is bleak and unforgiving — a multitude of rosaries and dried flowers and stucco walls. There is a dead daughter — a ghost small enough to be cradled and a heart-stained mother who will learn to love only the spectral of her first newborn.

            “Why did Beatriz’s baby die?” My abuelita asks her mother, crouched on the floor in the midst of the chaos. “Why did her first baby die, when she has no other? That isn’t fair.”

            “El universo nunca se le ha ofrecido misericordia, y por lo que no sabe cómo darle.” My great grandmother whispers, running calloused fingers through her daughter’s matted hair, quieting her. In this, my grandmother learns the tenuous equilibrium of life and death, and promises herself that, unlike the universe itself, she will always choose to give mercy.