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As a nod to the holidays just past, I’m launching with an unpublished short story called “Snow Angel.” I hope you enjoy it!
By Donna Migliaccio
“She’s out there again,” José said from the window. “The one I told you about. Come look, little mamá.”
Glad of an excuse to leave the television and its continual drone of bad news, Maria heaved herself from the sofa. The action was rewarded with a kick of protest, but she stroked her distended belly soothingly, and the child in her womb quieted. She kept up the gentle caresses as she waddled to her husband’s side.
“Yep,” José said. “Right on the corner, same as always. Whoosh – she almost lost her blanket just then. That wind is fierce.” He used the shirttail of his scrubs to wipe a clear spot for Maria on the steamy window pane.
Five floors below, the big, bent figure stood in its usual place, in front of the bodega on the street corner opposite their building. Rather than huddle in the niche between the store’s door and wall, as most of the city’s homeless would, the woman stood right in the middle of the sidewalk, large as a boulder and just as immobile, even though scurrying pedestrians jostled and buffeted her. With her right hand, she clutched a tattered blue blanket tight about her head and humped shoulders. It snapped fiercely as another blast of snow-laden wind hit her.
“Poor old thing,” Maria said.
“Watch her, now” José said. “Watch what she does.”
He put his arm around Maria, and she cuddled against him. Below, the old woman – Maria was not even entirely sure she was a woman, so enveloped was she in nondescript layers of clothing – stood motionless.
“She’s not doing anything,” Maria said.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the figure began to lift its head, and feature by feature the woman’s face came into view: broad, flat brow, slabby cheeks, wide nose, heavy-lipped and downturned mouth, a large round lump of a chin – a child’s version of a face, sculpted in mudpie brown.
But the eyes made Maria catch her breath. They were large and wide and so pale they were nearly white.
“Cataracts,” José said, in answer to her gasp. “I had a good look at her yesterday when I passed. Poor old thing must be nearly blind, and with that terrible curvature of her spine, it’s a wonder she can walk, let alone raise her head. But she was standing just like that when I left for work, and she was still there when I got home. And now she’s back.”
“What’s she looking at?” Maria asked, shivering a bit. The pale eyes were turned toward a point somewhere above their window.
“Dunno. At first I thought she was looking at the water tank on our roof, and then I thought maybe she was looking at the pigeons roosting up there, but Carlos at the bodega says she’s looking at the sky. When I stopped in for milk on my way home he said she’d been standing there all day. He said he went out and told her to move along, she was blocking the sidewalk, but she ignored him, just like she ignores everyone who bumps into her or curses her for being in the way.”
“She gives me the creeps,” Maria said.
“Ah, she’s just an old lady,” José said, and laughed. “Crazy old lady, maybe. Like my old abuela. When she thought no one was around, she’d have long talks with Pepita, her little Chihuahua.”
“A lot of people talk to their dogs.”
“Pepita was dead twenty years by then. Give me my sandwiches; I’m gonna be late for work.” He hefted the brown bag she handed him. “You keep feeding me like this, soon I’m gonna be big as you, mi gordita.”
“You work long hours. You need the extra food.”
José wrapped his arms around her and kissed her soundly. “You’re gonna be a wonderful mamá, Maria. Now you stay warm and snug until I get home, orderly’s orders. And don’t watch the news all day; it makes you too worried and sad. I like to see you smiling when I get home.”
“Have a good day,” Maria said, but in a whirl of shabby coat and woolen muffler and knit cap, José was already out the door. She hurried to the window and waited until he appeared on the stoop far below. He waved at her; she waved back, then stood watching as he crossed the street. Shoulders hunched against the wind, he passed the woman on the corner. He paused for a moment, then turned back, rummaging in his lunch bag. He produced one of Maria’s lovingly assembled and carefully wrapped sandwiches, and held it out to the old woman. For a long moment neither moved, but finally, from somewhere deep within her layers of clothing, the woman’s left hand appeared, an ungloved and clumsy brown claw, and grasped the offering, although her pale eyes never moved from the sky overhead. José grinned, turned on his heel and strode off, a jaunty set to his skinny shoulders.
Maria sighed. José is so kind, she thought; that’s why he’s such a good orderly. And he’d be such a good doctor if we only had the money for med school. But their life together had been hardscrabble even before things had gotten so bad in the world, and then when she’d discovered she was pregnant….well.
The television was still going, the yammering heads still shouting their outrage and the tickers at the bottom of the screen still sliding past with their messages of fear and doom. Maria knew she should turn it off – every channel was full of bad news – but instead she turned to the stove. When José got home he’d be cold and hungry, and a nice pozole would be a special treat. From the pantry she retrieved two cans of hominy and one of diced green chiles; from the back of their little refrigerator she resurrected a small, fatty chunk of pork shoulder. This she put in a pot with water to cover, and set it to boil while she chopped garlic and onions. The onions were pungent, and made her cry a bit, and then the baby began to kick again. She retreated to the window, dabbing at her eyes and stroking her belly. Below the old woman still stood with her white eyes turned to the sky, but she had unwrapped the sandwich José had given her, and was mumbling at it.
“Poor old thing,” Maria said again, but she shuddered with revulsion, and was immediately ashamed of herself. José was kind to her, she thought; you should be kind, too.
With renewed fortitude she returned to the little galley kitchen and the smelly onions. She added them to the pot with the pork shoulder, along with cumin, black pepper, oregano and garlic, and brought it to the boil. As she skimmed off the floating clouds of fat and inhaled the aroma of simmering pork, she made a mental note of the ingredients she’d need to garnish the stew: an avocado, a few radishes, some jalapeños. She put a lid on the pot, turned the heat down to a simmer, and hurried into her coat and hat for a quick trip across the street to the bodega.
Up close, the old woman was even bigger than Maria imagined, and a thin crust of snow lay in the creases of her blanket, like snow in the folds of a mountaintop. People gave her a wide berth as they passed. Maria started to cringe past too, coat collar turned up against both the weather and the sight of the woman, but then she hesitated, just as José had done. Something in the melancholy downturn of the woman’s mouth, in the wrinkles that seamed her face and the few silvery wisps of hair the wind had snatched free of the blanket, awakened a tingle of true compassion.
“Buenos dias,” Maria whispered.
The slab-like face twitched, but the pale eyes remained fixed on the sky.
Maria ducked into the bodega. Carlos shook his head at her as she shut the door. “Miserable out there. You shouldn’t be out in such weather, mamacita. You could have called for delivery.”
“It’s just across the street,” Maria said.
The avocados were expensive, and she sadly selected only one, the largest and nicest she could find, ripe enough to give slightly under the pressure of her fingers and thumb. Her other items were cheap, though, and she took pleasure in choosing five smooth, jade-green jalapeños and a fine big bunch of radishes, bright as rubies. “Making pozole, eh?” Carlos said as he rang up her purchase. “A good meal for a cold day. Hurry home now – it’s snowing harder.”
Maria did not answer. Her attention was on the big bulky figure outside, and the snow swirling all around it. “Charge me for a coffee, too, please,” she said. “A big one.”
Carlos frowned a bit. “So much caffeine isn’t good for the baby.”
“It isn’t for me.”
“Don’t tell me you gonna give it to that loco lady outside?”
Again, Maria did not answer. With an exasperated sigh, Carlos gave her a big Styrofoam cup, her bagged purchases and her change. At the coffee counter, Maria filled the cup, paused with her hand on the cream, then added a healthy dollop, plus two sugars. She turned up her coat collar and headed out into the storm.
Once more she approached the silent, still figure. “Here,” she said, holding out the cup. “Coffee.”
The old woman did not move. Her gaze remained fixed on the sky.
“I put in two sugars and cream. I hope you like it that way. Take it. It’s cold out here.”
Suddenly the baby kicked, and as if in answer, the woman turned. Maria could not help but shrink back as the pale eyes locked onto her.
“Who are you?”
The old woman’s voice was low and rumbling, the sound a mountain might make if it could speak. Up close her white eyes were even more disturbing, with a rim of brown showing just at the outer edge of the irises. From within her voluminous layers of clothing her left hand appeared, reaching toward the cup Maria still proffered.
“Who are you?”
Don’t tell her your name don’t tell her your name Maria thought, her heart rattling in her chest as the brown hand enveloped both the cup and her mittened fingers. The baby kicked, and kicked again.
“Who are you?”
“I’m…I’m…” Maria’s voice scaled up into a hysterical giggle. “An angel. A snow angel. Take the coffee. I have to go.”
She pulled her hand free and hurried across the street, barely making it before the light changed. She ducked into her building, gasping. Stupid, she thought; stupid, now she knows where you live.
Upstairs, their little apartment was warm and redolent with simmering stew. Maria leaned against the door and shut her eyes. The baby was kicking hard, and she shrugged off her snowy coat and stroked her belly until both she and baby were calmer.
But the old woman’s strange eyes and low, resonant voice haunted her. All through the afternoon, with the television’s angry blurts and blats mingling with the good, homey smell of pozole, Maria wandered from kitchen to window, window to kitchen and back again. The big humpbacked figure still stood on the corner, nearly obscured at times by blowing snow. Although the old woman occasionally sipped from the white Styrofoam cup, she kept her eyes fixed on the sky. Just before five o’clock Maria looked out again, to see if José was in sight, and found the white eyes staring right at her. It frightened her so badly that she did not look out again.
It was nearly six, and growing dark outside, before she heard José’s weary tread on the stairs. She had the door open while he was still laboring up from the landing below. “Hola, mi amor,” he said, looking up with a dimmer version of his usual smile. “Do I smell pozole?”
“You do,” Maria said.
She helped him out of his coat and hung it to dry in their tiny bathroom while he worked off his wet boots. In his sock feet, he padded over to the stove, lifted the lid on the pot and inhaled the stew’s aroma. “What a nice surprise,” he said. “And what an angel you are for making it.”
Snow angel, Maria thought, and could not suppress a shiver.
José looked at her curiously. “What?”
“Was she still out there? The old lady?”
“Right on the corner, poor thing. With a cup in her hand. Maybe she’d been begging.”
“I gave her the cup. Just some coffee.” Maria swallowed hard. “She touched my hand. She asked who I was. I told her I was a snow angel.”
“Nothing. I ran away. Later on I looked out and she wasn’t looking at the sky any more. She was looking at me. She scares me, José.”
José frowned, moved to the television and shut it off. “She’s just an old lady, Maria. You listen to this damn TV and its bad news too much. Now, you made this nice pozole and we’re gonna enjoy it, with no bad news in the background. I’ll set the table, and you light a candle and turn out the lights. We’ll pretend we’re having dinner in a fancy restaurant.”
They ate by candlelight. The pozole was tasty and warming. The smooth mellow avocado sliced into it provided a pleasant contrast to the crunchy slivers of radish and rings of spicy jalapeño they scattered on top.
“That was a meal fit for a king,” José said, pushing back from the table with a contented sigh.
“There’s some left over.”
“Save it for your lunch tomorrow.” He rose, stretched and wandered to the window.
“I was going to pack it for you to take to work. You could heat it up in the microwave.”
José did not answer. He had rubbed a clear space in the steamy window and was peering down at the street.
“Still snowing?” Maria asked.
“Not so much, now.”
“Is she still down there?”
“Is she looking at us?”
“Can’t tell.” He sighed again, but this time the sound was melancholy. “It’s so cold out. She must be so cold.”
“I wonder why she’s there. What she’s looking at.”
José shook his head. Maria came to his side, and he laid his cheek against the top of her head. Below, in the light from the streetlamp, the hulking figure stood motionless, the empty Styrofoam cup clutched in its exposed left hand.
“Let’s give her the leftover pozole,” José said suddenly.
“It’s still hot, right?”
“But we’d have to give her one of our bowls…a spoon…”
“We can dish it into her cup, right? And we gotta have a take-out spoon around here somewhere.” José started rummaging in a drawer. “Put your coat and hat on, mi amor; we’ll take it to her now and show her she has two snow angels.”
With the pot clutched in Maria’s mittened hands and José brandishing the plastic spoon, they went down the steps and out into the street. The snow was coming in fits and starts now, and clouds scudded quickly across the night sky, revealing and hiding the moon by turns. The snow was thin on the sidewalks; already turning to ugly gray slush in the streets. They waited well back from the curb as cars and taxicabs sped by, sending up sprays of icy wet, splattering the old woman who never moved, only stared with her white eyes at the sky.
“Buenos noches, abuela,” José called as the light changed and they started across. “See what your snow angels have brought you!”
He reached the old woman first, smiling and chattering about the pozole. Maria followed more slowly. The baby had begun to kick, hard this time, and she grunted a bit as she mounted the curb. Once again, as if she sensed the baby’s movement, the old woman’s head swiveled toward Maria. The pale eyes bored into her.
“Hold out your cup, abuela, and the snow angel will fill it,” José said. “Nice hot pozole will warm your belly better than a coffee and a cold sandwich.”
He put his hand on the old woman’s, as if to guide the Styrofoam cup toward the pot Maria timidly extended.
At that instant there was a distant thud, followed by a rumble and flash. The old woman’s head jerked toward the sky, which was rapidly growing lighter.
“It’s time,” she said.
Her hand reversed in José’s, gripping his fingers. Her other hand released the blanket she held at her chin and whipped out, knocking the pot aside. She grasped Maria’s wrist. The baby tumbled and spun in Maria’s womb. She cried out and tried to pull free; José was cursing and doing the same, but the old woman held on; held on and pulled them both close. The rumbling was growing nearer, nearer. A blast of wind snatched the blanket from the old woman’s head and hunched shoulders.
“It’s time,” she said again. She wrapped her arms around José and Maria and the baby, holding them against her big body, as a second blast, this one hot as a furnace, struck them like a massive hand. Maria’s feet no longer touched the ground; her nose was mashed into the old woman’s shoulder and she could barely breathe but the baby was kicking and kicking and from the rounded mountainous hump of the woman’s back something was rising, tearing the layers of clothes, unfolding like wings –
And then Maria saw that they were wings, enormous and sinewy and bare as a plucked chicken’s; they rose high above the old woman’s head, arching over her shoulders against the hurricane –
And José was crying and praying and the baby kicked and kicked and Maria turned her head so she could catch a breath and the great wings cupped forward like giant fleshy hands, shielding them from the burning wind –
And quills began to poke through the skin of the wings, and the old woman groaned as the quills lengthened and split and the damp feathers within spread against the heat, smelling strangely of bread and coffee and pork stew –
And a shattering roar broke all around them, and all around them the earth shook with thuds and slams and crashes; all around them people screamed, but they were nestled and muffled inside the giant feathered wings, and José’s free hand found Maria’s and they gripped each other tight as the cacophony went on and on and on –
And then silence.
Silence as dark as coffee. Silence as thick as pozole.
“It’s time,” the old woman said.
“Don’t look,” she said.
And she held Maria and José close, and the great wings unfurled. Maria and José buried their faces in her shoulders as the wings stretched and beat and bore them upward and upward, away from the heat and the flames and into the cold silent fall of snow.