Fiction – “Flying With the Dead” by Sabrina Vourvoulias
My mother is the first to tell me about the butterflies.
She has seen them – hundreds of thousands arriving in Mexico in time for the Days of the Dead. The butterflies come, and the sky turns black and orange.
Those must be the colors of the dead the world over, my mother says after her first Halloween spent up north among witches and pumpkins.
Here, where the trees cast off their dying leaves every year around the same time, we make a point of pulverizing the fallen leaves with each step we take. Or we rake and jump into piles of them. Not so in Mexico with the butterflies. Their corpses stay untouched, whole in death, until the cold bleaches them of color.
I’m eight years old and unmoved by my mother’s story.
I know about the monarch butterfly migration. We study it at school. The journey of the fragile creatures from Canada to Mexico is so improbable it amazes even us boys – and we’re tough to impress.
I do not reveal to my teacher what my mother says about the butterflies. I can tell by Mrs. Proximo’s eyes she has no dead to keep track of. Unlike my mother whose fine, dark eyes are filled with ghosts.
After going to one of the parent-teacher conferences – the only one, it turns out, she’d ever be able to make – my mother asks about my science teacher.
“How old do you think she is, Chucho?”
My mother is the only one who calls me by that nickname, and I’m glad of it. It rings of Mexicaness – something I work hard to avoid. I’m American, I tell her, call me Bob.
I shrug in my mother’s direction after she asks about my teacher. I’m not good at guessing ages.
“I think she’s my age,” my mother says. Then, when she catches the expression on my face, she looks away and lets loose a nervous laugh. “No. I guess not.”
Later that night I see her trying to smooth the creases around her eyes. She looks really strange with the droopy skin pulled tight under her fingers.
“You don’t look old.”
I don’t say it to her, but now I wish I had.
It isn’t until loved ones are gone – as my mother was six months after that parent-teacher conference – that we realize we have been stingy with our words.
After her death, I’m left with nothing, except a box I’ve seen her touch but never open, and a note. I cart them to every foster home I pass through. Through college and finally to the apartment where I live now.
It is a large box, about the size of a toaster oven, made of wood. It is very old. I know this from the feel of the wood, which is closer to glass than anything organic. The leather-wrapped handle is old-fashioned, and so are the tiny hinges and the brass latches on three of its sides.
The latches are all locked. My mother’s note doesn’t tell me where I might find a key to open them. It doesn’t tell me much of anything. It is one line, handwritten in my mother’s loopy script: “You’ll know when.”
A Guatemalan girl I like tells me in her country my nickname means mutt. Much as I hate to admit it, that suits me. I’m rangy and a little bit scruffy. Plus, I’m smart and resilient enough to get through the toughest times.
Ingrid and I meet November 1, which is officially All Souls Day or All Saints Day – I can never remember which – and unofficially one of the Days of the Dead. I’m at the cemetery putting food on my mother’s grave. In Mexico, the food believed to feed the dead also feeds the living. The poor know to go to the cemeteries for the banana- and corn-leaf wrapped bundles, the candies and sweet breads heaped on every tomb alongside the flowers and trinkets.
Here, without the poor waiting outside the cemetery gates, the food I leave graveside every year is probably eaten by stray animals. But that’s okay too. Need is need. My mother taught me this, as she taught me everything that lives inside me.
Ingrid is at the cemetery for a cousin buried six sites over and three rows away from my mother. Unlike the others who come and go quickly after praying and arranging flowers in containers around the tombstones, she’s here for the day. The twelve or so members of her family unpack coolers full of food and as many kites as there are children among them. The adults pick at the food while they watch the children trying to get the handmade constructions airborne. Every so often they yell out instructions. Eventually all the kites are flying and the children run between the tombstones and mausoleums to keep them climbing in the leaden sky.
I don’t disguise my interest in their doings.
Ingrid walks over. She greets me in Spanish.
Years of foster homes haven’t managed to excise my mother tongue, but they have left it a little tied. “Why the kites?” I ask her. I’ve forgotten the Spanish word for kite, so the question is in Spanglish.
She looks up at the colorful quadrangles riding the wind. “I don’t rightly know if they’re meant to carry the prayers for our departed up to heaven, or whether the souls of the dead ride them up,” she answers.
“I hope it’s the second one,” she says, returning her eyes to me. “I like to think that once a year the dead get to play.”
She tells me only the children are good here – by which she means they’re the only ones with papers. It’s an instant sort of intimacy – born of shared language, twin skin color, family buried in the same neighborhood. She believes that because I’ve met her in this barrio of the dead I will keep her secret.
The thing about a secret told is it demands one in return.
I tell her about the box.
Her eyes go round. “And you’ve been able to hold off prying it open?”
“Fifteen years and counting.”
“It wouldn’t have lasted more than a day or two with me,” she says. “I’m too curious.”
“I’m curious,” I say. “But it’s the final mystery of my mother’s life. When I open it – poof – she’ll really be gone and I’ll be alone.”
I don’t expect to tell her that part.
She looks at me with sympathy in her eyes. Like my mother’s, they are dark and fine. Full of ghosts, too.
“Family is everything,” she says after a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
It has been many years since I’ve choked on that acid, but I feel a lump forming in my throat. It’s hard to get the words around it. “We don’t get to choose what knocks us about.”
“No,” she agrees.
I can see her inwardly tallying her life’s troubles as she says it.
I know the look. I see it nearly every day at work, on faces like and not like ours. For a moment I consider telling her I work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That I’m one of the city’s best agents, actually, and that I send people like her and like my mother back to their countries of origin every day.
But I don’t.
“Will you be at St. Thomas church for the Guadalupe feast next month?” she asks.
I’m not a churchgoer. But I know that church. My mother took me there with her every Dec. 12 for the Mass Ingrid’s referring to – a celebration no Mexican would dare miss. Our Lady is so identified with Mexicans that many wear her on their skin. And if not on their skins, tattooed in their hearts.
But there’s another reason I know the church.
ICE stakes out that church at every Latino feast day. We don’t pick people up while they’re in church, but after Mass the churchgoers gather in the park to eat tamales or pupusas or arrepas, to listen to music and to socialize with each other. We’ve made some of our most successful raids during those hours in which the park is transformed into what amounts to a street festival.
And still they insist on gathering. As if this moment of shared cluster is worth what follows.
“I’ll be there,” I say.
She covers my hand with her small one – smooth-skinned, the color of coffee with lots of milk poured into it. Mine looks a little darker and coarse beneath it.
“Good,” she says. “I’ll see you then.”
I feel my heart stutter in my chest.
I watch her walk back to her family. The men – two brothers and three cousins, she’s told me – acknowledge me by “pointing” my way with a pursing of lips and a jerk of the jaw.
My colleagues at ICE have learned from me there’s no surer way to identify a Latino immigrant than to notice this habit.
Except for gathering outside a church that holds Mass in Spanish.
Maybe this year I’ll go inside, I think, as I continue to watch Ingrid.
She glances my way every so often, and when she does, the other women with her flash me a smile. One of them directs a child to bring me a couple of caramelized milk sweets wrapped in a paper napkin. The little girl, no older than five or six, hands them to me. She doesn’t say anything, just nods seriously when I thank her, then trots back to the safety of her family.
Even she, young as she is, has ghosts in her eyes.
I know exactly when and how my colleagues are planning to bust the Guadalupe festivities. I also know which agents have been selected to work the park.
My bosses want me on the inside.
The agency’s been getting bad press lately for throwing citizens into detention by mistake. But not our office. My instinct for winnowing legal from illegal is unerring.
It’s snowing the night of the feast.
Hundreds of people gather three miles from the church to walk with the image of Guadalupe on a rose-covered platform borne on their shoulders. I do not walk with them.
I enter the church early, before most people trickle in, and keep my eyes on the front doors. One or two of the priests do the mouth-pointing thing to acknowledge me as they scurry about. None of them has ever seen me in the church, but it doesn’t matter. I pass as a person of faith.
When Ingrid walks through the door with her family, I wave them over to sit with me. We fill the pew.
She sits next to me, but doesn’t look at me. She looks pretty. Her black hair is braided with ribbons and she wears clothing the colors of butterfly wings – swallowtail yellow, birdwing green, morpho blue.
“Do you normally stay after the Mass?” I ask her as our eyes turn to the doors where the procession is poised to enter.
“Yes,” she answers, right before the musicians that precede the entourage drown her out.
Fifteen minutes later, after the musicians have finished singing, there is a moment of quiet before the Mass actually starts.
“We always stay for the celebration in the park,” Ingrid whispers to me. “The music goes on for hours. Everyone talks and eats and laughs a lot. Like the biggest family you can imagine.” She meets my eyes for the first time that evening. “You should stay.”
That’s when I tell her. As Mass starts.
Contrition, petitions for mercy, responsorial. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve prayed the words you remember them. They linger on the tongue – bitter as trespass, sweet as the hope of deliverance.
Ingrid’s face doesn’t register any expression. She says something under her breath to the cousin sitting on her other side. It’s not in Spanish, or English, or Latin, or any language I recognize. Since meeting her, I’ve read up on her country. There are close to a hundred languages besides Spanish. Not dialects, languages. And no matter if they seem related to each other, they are completely different.
Like Ingrid and me.
“Why?” she asks in Spanish, when she turns back to me.
I think she’s asking why any Latino would willingly work for ICE.
“Because I’m good at it,” I say after a moment. “It’s the one place where my background is an advantage. I’m Latino enough to be better at the work than any Anglo could be, and not Latino enough to shy away from what I have to do.”
“No,” she says, “why are you telling me about the raid?”
“You know why,” I say.
She looks down at her feet, and my eyes follow. She’s wearing strappy pink sandals made from rubbery plastic – shoes from some dollar-store bin, intended as beach wear. No native-born Latina would ever wear shoes like those, even on a night much warmer than this one.
This, too, makes my heart do strange things in my chest.
“I like you,” I say. “So I’m telling you – don’t go to the park. Don’t even go out the front doors. After Mass ends, go through the sacristy. There’s a door that leads to the street behind the church. You’ll be okay on that side.”
She doesn’t speak for a long time.
“You’re like that box of your mother’s,” she says finally.
She doesn’t sound angry. Just resigned.
“Everything is locked up,” she continues, “where you can’t get to it.”
“You forget, I don’t have a key,” I say.
“Of course you do.”
Her family members all go up to the altar to receive Communion; she and I stay together in the pew.
“Give me your hand,” I say.
I always have at least one or two pens in my pockets – though there’s never any guarantee they’ll have enough ink to write. The one I find does, and I scribble my cell phone number on her palm. “Call me if you run into any trouble. I promise you I’ll help – no matter what.” I don’t know why my heart has chosen her, but it has, and with that comes obligation.
“I have a cell phone, you know,” she says when she takes her hand back and looks at the numbers lined up there – a tattoo-like mark much uglier than the real ones I’ve seen peeking out from under sleeves or over collars at this gathering.
“Memorize my number. Don’t program it into your cell phone,” I say. “And if you have any other numbers programmed in your cell, memorize them and also delete them. The first thing I do when I snag an illegal is to confiscate the cell phone and use the numbers in the directory to track down others.”
She nods, keeps her eyes on her hand.
I watch Ingrid’s family start to make their way back toward the pew from the altar rail. It’s time for me to leave. As I shift in anticipation of standing up, Ingrid reaches over and takes my hand in both of hers.
Her face is open, trusting the supremacy of the heart.
No adult should wear that look.
“Take care,” I say as I withdraw my hand from the warmth of hers. It’s an inane goodbye, but a real wish.
Then I leave.
It ends up being the most successful single-night raid in the history of our office.
We take 97.
The next Day of the Dead I carry the box to my mother’s gravesite.
It is still unopened.
I set it next to the tombstone and look around. No Ingrid. No family.
I walk over to the cousin’s gravesite where they had congregated last year. Osvaldo Matías. He was 23 when he died.
I try to imagine his story. I can’t.
Instead, I think of kites.
I wonder if one was cut loose, and caught on a strong wind, would it travel as far the monarchs do? Would it be carried by prayers so fierce they’d turned to winds? Would it find its way to a place where others like it flock together after the journey – a tree of kites in Guatemala like (and not like) the trees of butterflies in Mexico?
The sound of a truck pulling up interrupts my imaginings. A chubby woman in clothing too light for the weather gets out of the pickup. I recognize her as the one who last year had sent a child over to give me homemade candy. Whoever is driving the truck stays inside with the engine running.
The woman walks by me, sets some yellow and orange flowers at Osvaldo’s tombstone, then steps back.
“No kites this year?” I ask in Spanish. I’ve relearned the word for kite, committed it to memory.
“No,” she answers.
“I’m a … friend of Ingrid’s,” I say.
“I remember,” she answers.
“Will she be coming today?”
“Nobody but me.”
I want to think Ingrid would have called me if something had happened. I want to think she would have known how exceptional my offer was.
“Is she okay?”
The woman looks up at my face. Her eyes are exactly like Ingrid’s.
“Some things you have to take on faith,” she says, then pats my arm before she leaves.
I go straight from the cemetery to the office.
Nobody is in there, but that doesn’t mean nobody’s working. I set the box on my desk next to the computer. It takes the PC an irritatingly long time to boot up. As soon as it does, I log in and get into the database. It can take a couple of weeks before the detainees’ names appear on a public web site, but every agent keys the information into the database minutes after the determination that the illegal should be detained.
There are 17 entries under the surname Matías, five with an initial “I” preceding them. I click on the link to each full entry. Idalia, Ignacio, Inés, Inocencio.
The last one doesn’t spell out the first name. I glance at the agent who entered it. Mike. New guy. Sloppy.
I scan the rest of the linked information. A woman. No I.D. Tracked down from the cell phone listing of another detainee. Assumed age: 22. Assumed country of origin: Guatemala, which could not be verified since she spoke to the agent in a language other than Spanish.
She was picked up months ago.
I sit back, close my eyes while I consider.
It could be Ingrid. Maybe. The detention center where “I” is being held is hours upstate, and it’s a long way to drive on chance.
Before I log out, I look up some other surnames and click on several links under each. It’s subterfuge, primitive and rudimentary. I’m not sure what I’m willing to do if I find Ingrid, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want anyone else to know who I’ve gone looking for. Or that I’ve gone looking at all.
She doesn’t even glance at the box when she comes into the visitors’ room at the detention center.
That’s because she isn’t Ingrid.
Not even close.
She’s fairer, taller and wears a cynical expression that seems natural to her face.
She sits across the table from me.
“You aren’t who I was looking for,” I try in Spanish.
She nods. “Of course not.”
“Your arresting agent wrote that you didn’t speak Spanish.”
She shrugs. “The pretense didn’t help, so what’s the point of keeping it up?”
“Which native language was it?”
She laughs. “None. I was speaking jerigonza, the Spanish version of pig Latin or Pidgin English. If your agent hadn’t been such a moron he might have realized it doesn’t sound anything like a real language. Children learn it in play. Every capirucho has it stored in his or her memory banks.”
At my blank look she says, “Capirucho is slang for someone from Guatemala City. Like me.”
She looks at the box then. “Were you planning to torture the person you came here to see? Or were you bringing a gift?”
She studies me. “¿Y entonces?”
“She’s my friend. I wanted to help her.”
She snorts. “That’s a first – an agent befriending an illegal.”
“We’re not all alike, you know.”
“Neither are we.”
After a moment, she sighs. “What’s her name? Maybe I’ve run into her. This is the third detention center I’ve been moved to.”
“Ah, now I understand. I’m Isabel Matías. No relation. And no, I’ve never crossed paths with her. I’d remember.”
“I don’t even know for sure that she’s been picked up.”
“But you think so. You fear so. Some people think if you fear something enough, you call it into being.”
I wince at her words.
“But that’s just magical thinking,” she says. “And who believes in magic in this country? Only the poor idiots crossing the border.”
She stretches her arms wide, then gives me a shrewd look. “And look at where that gets us.”
“Maybe I can help you,” I say. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to say it.
Her laugh is short and without humor. “Because of the accident of my name? I’m one of 400 people here – what makes you think I deserve your help more than any of them?”
“Maybe I can help them all,” I say.
She leans back in her chair. “Well, that’d be some magic.”
As soon as she says it, I understand that the box I’ve been carrying around all my life will contain exactly that. And that this is the moment I’m supposed to open it.
She follows my gaze. “It had better be a truly powerful genie you have in there, then.”
“Shall we see?”
Isabel leans forward.
“We’re going to have to find something to use to bust it open, because I don’t have a key,” I say. For some reason it sounds like I’m apologizing to her.
“It’d be a shame to ruin it. You don’t need a key to get into a locked box anyway,” she says as she pulls the box closer and examines the brass latches.
“You have a ballpoint?” she asks after a moment.
“Unscrew the barrel and hand over the spring.” She makes a gimme motion with her hand until I place the pen’s innards in it.
She takes her eyes off the box long enough reshape the spring, leaving a few coils untouched.
She works an end into the locking mechanism of the latch closest to her. After what seems an eternity of jiggling and adjusting, I hear a tiny snick.
“I’ve got a little bit of a record,” she says when she looks up and catches my expression.
She reshapes the implement she’s fashioned, and then sets to work on the second latch. By the time she attempts the third, she’s wearing a look of triumph. After the last latch is unlocked, she pushes the box away.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “It’s your genie to command.”
I move to stand next to her and pull the box toward us, so we can both see. The top lifts up and back on hinges. It exposes a shallow space that runs the length of the box and frees a panel that drops open to show multiple drawer fronts of different widths and lengths. The exposed space and every drawer we open are filled with desiccated butterflies. They are all the same unidentifiable type – big and white, with light grey markings.
There are hundreds of them in the box.
“It’s a specimen case,” Isabel says. “Victorian, or maybe Edwardian era. Probably expensive.” She caresses the brass knobs on the drawer fronts. “Really nice materials and workmanship. But not magical.”
I start laughing, but really feel like crying. “It was a stupid conceit anyway,” I say, turning away from the box and from her. “If you knew how long I’ve carted that thing around. As if it contained treasure. What a ridiculous thing for a mother to hand down to her son.”
“Who understands why our parents value what they do?” she says, but her voice is softer than it has been. “They have different eyes, vos. Different hearts.”
“That too,” she says, but there’s a hitch in her voice.
I turn back to catch her staring at the box.
In the still-open drawers, I see the wings of the butterflies have turned the color of clotted cream. As the moments drag on they take on pinkish cast, and then a yellowier one.
They develop into rich orange as the grey markings deepen to black, and as soon as the color settles, they take flight.
The room fills with them until they start slipping under the door and through crevices that lead into the rest of the detention center. When I open the door to the adjacent hallway, hundreds of them fly out to join the others already there – carpeting the walls, floors and ceilings.
“But there weren’t that many in the box,” I say. I sound as if I’m asking Isabel to explain it to me.
But she’s not answering. When I turn around I see revulsion and wonder in her eyes. There are butterflies crawling in her hair, on her face and down her arms. I feel them on my skin too – light and raspy insectoid legs – and catch the flutter of wings close enough to make me blink.
They cling to the warmth of our bodies in this cold place.
The sound of the butterflies’ beating wings fills my ears. It sounds a lot like my heart.
Months and months afterwards the scientists are still trying to figure out whether it’s a reaction to some stray chemical or the deranging effect of global warming that causes the monarchs to migrate in droves to our corner of Pennsylvania rather than Mexico.
The butterflies die, of course.
But not before the infestation closes the detention center.
Not before the vans transporting detainees from one center to the next are enveloped by thousands of improbably resilient winged creatures swirling thick on a current of wind and prayer that leaves no human behind.
Not before the butterflies swarm over the center’s visitor log and turn the records of that place to dust.
Immigrants take their ghosts with them wherever they go. I think this on the next Day of the Dead spent at the cemetery.
They keep faith with their dead.
They feed them and talk to them and hand them down, like other families would an inheritance.
And so their dead take wing for them – crossing countries and borders and all other human and inhuman distances.
It was so with Isabel.
It will be so for Ingrid, wherever she is.
Ghosts remember love and its obligations.
I know this.
I see it in my eyes.
About the Author
Sabrina Vourvoulias was born in Bangkok, Thailand — the daughter of a Mexican-Guatemalan artist and an American businessman. She grew up in Guatemala, and moved to the United States when she was 15. Her poetry has appeared in Graham House Review, We’Moon and in Scheherezade’s Bequest at Cabinet des Fees. She works as the managing editor of a weekly newspaper and lives in Glenmoore, Pa., with her husband and daughter.