By the Light of My Father's Smile (5 page)

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
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We furnished our home with just a blanket, hidden behind some rocks, and a water jug, refilled from Manuelito's goatskin each time we came. In our home, I was called by my name, Magdalena. It was only in Manuelito's voice that it sounded right. He said it softly. With such respect! He said he liked the sound of it especially whispered, like a prayer, against my clitoris. When his mouth formed my name there, and I experienced the feathery movement of his breath, I felt my whole self seen. Everything in me, including everything in my soul, seemed to run into his arms. Manuelito, my love, my
, my pretty, pretty boy, I whispered back to him. And the light and the mountains and the bluebells … all of it was us.

I thought I could have become pregnant since I was fourteen, for that was the first time I lay down with Manuelito, himself one year my junior. But when I told him this later, he laughed and said no, that for one whole year we had fumbled blindly, for he had not known quite what to do. Everything we did pleased me, and I was fulfilled simply to lie close beside him and nibble at the corners of his mouth, or lick his eyelids. His lashes were so long that, when he closed his eyes, they appeared to be small black fans.

Maybe by fifteen years of age I might have embarrassed my father by carrying Manuelito's child. But by then his father and uncles and older brothers had taught him what all the young boys were taught during initiation: how not to impregnate anyone. I was safe. Worshipped is how it felt. To know myself so thought of, so cared about, to know that he would withdraw from me at just the right moment, no matter that I held him tight. To feel in myself and in my response to Manuelito such depths of trust and desire caused me to feel innately holy, as if our love made a magic circle about me that cloaked me in a private invisibility when I was obliged to return home.

Manuelito's soft tongue on my nipples, his soft words in my ear, his sturdy penis moving inside me. The beauty of his brown body above me, warming the shaded, sometimes quite chilly cave. The light that was drawn around the shrub guardian to suffuse our space. All these images I stored up for the time, later, when I would be in the North. A brown girl whose father was a minister and who had had the unusual experience of living years of her life in the faraway mountains of Mexico.

This time my father knew. I wonder if he'd known other times as well. For there was a craftiness, a streak of crafty meanness, in him. Perhaps he deliberately waited until we were about to leave the mountains before confronting me. Manuelito had given me a silver belt—rather, it was a leather belt that was covered with small silver disks. He'd made it himself. I kept it in bed with me, underneath my pillow. It was with this that my father punished me.

This is not an unusual story. I know that now. Fathers attack their children around the world, every day. But I did not know this then. I knew I was wild. Disobedient. Wayward and headstrong. But I did not understand his violence, after I had just experienced so much pleasure. So much sweetness. If he had known, if I could have told him, I felt he should have been happy for me. If in fact he loved me, as he often said he did. But no, he thrashed me in silence. I withstood it, in silence. I sent my spirit flying out the window to land on the glistening black back of Vado, my arms circling Manuelito's neat waist. We flew along our favorite trail through the mountains, bluebells vibrant at our feet. Apparently Susannah sobbed for both of us. On her knees outside our bedroom, her eye to the keyhole; my mother behind her, packing with an air of righteous resignation. Once again, because of his stubborn behavior, she said, she was going to leave my father.

She never did.

After the beating she was warm to me and cool to him for several weeks. Then, it simply evened out again. The temperature in our house—the roomy, boxy one with the lawn, in Sag Harbor—became normal. He moved, finally, into the big bedroom where she slept alone at night. Sounds came from that room, voices, late into the night. Within a month, or less, my father loved my mother back to himself.

But something had happened to precious little Susannah at the keyhole. It was as if she'd peered into our simple, girlish bedroom through the keyhole and witnessed her gentle, compassionate father turn into Godzilla. She would never be loved back to her daddy again. With time, as I understood how severely the twig was bent in that moment of her horror and disbelief, my revenge against my father, a revenge so subtle Susannah would not realize its damage to her for another thirty years, was born. As for my father, he would never again be permitted to really know or enjoy his favorite little tree.


Susannah is writing a novel that explores the relationship she had with a man after her marriage to the Greek. But she is having difficulties. She cannot write in any sex.
Write it in
, I screech from the celestial sidelines.
Put the sex right on up in there!
Even if it's nothing but the copulating dogs you saw from your window as a five-year-old when we lived in Mexico: you thought they were twins, that being hooked together in that way was what being twins meant. Your mother and I laughed, and I remember thinking that even your little mind was cute. Or think of the giraffes you saw doing it years later in Africa, their long necks like chimneys. You stared, and started to fan yourself. Your lover smiled to himself. That night he shocked and stirred you, when he entered you from behind. It is not so big a deal! I want her to know. As I see her, crippled in a place that should be free, and still, after all these years, perplexed by the memory of her sister's stubborn face and the sound of the whistling silver belt. And my own face, what did she read there, what message about the consequences of a searing passion, ecstatic sex?


If a man has not committed too grave a crime it is not impossible to love himself back into his wife's arms. It is even easy to do this, if she is sick, weary, or weak in some way. Langley, when we left the mountains, was all of these things. My behavior with our daughters exasperated her. My assumption that Susannah was pure and Magdalena a tramp. She had left the home and social circle that she knew in Long Island to follow our shared anthropological star to Mexico. There she had dutifully masqueraded as a pastor's wife. And even gaily lived in sin, after I elevated myself to priest. She had, being Langley, gone beyond this role to become a sunny and welcomed force among the village women, making friends she cherished and busily writing down every aspect of their ways.

Her sacrifice was in the isolation she endured, far from her family and friends; the absence of a daily newspaper, the
; the remoteness of our splendid wilderness in the thin air that we loved.

My own remorse for having struck the child was great. In the solitude of my ostracism, an estrangement from all my girls,
Langley as well as June and Susannah, I contemplated my error. I could find no justification for it. Yes, the child was willful, disobedient. She was born that way. The idea that a child comes into the world a clean slate is a ridiculous one. When she was two and we tried out the notion of shoes on her feet, she rebelled. At five she said a final no, thank you, to oatmeal. At six she wanted a zipper at the front of her pants just like I had. And then the red zippered pants Langley had found for her caused offense. In her child's mind—but after how many previous lifetimes as a discriminating being! my friends the Mundo shamans might say—they did not seem serious enough. After all, I never wore red trousers.

I prayed over it. Spare the rod, spoil the child. One says that and swallows down one's immediate protest. Stifles the voice that hates the rod. Would never, on its own, have even thought about the rod. There was something in me, I found, that followed ideas, beliefs, edicts, that had been put into practice, into motion, before I was born. And this “something” was like an internalized voice, a voice that drowned out my own. Beside which, indeed, my own voice began to seem feeble. Submissive. And when I allowed myself to think about that submission I thought of myself as having been spiritually neutered. And thought, as well, of the way Langley, Magdalena, and even the all-accepting Susannah sometimes looked at me. In dismay and disappointment. Daddy, the girls seemed to ask, where is your own spark? Langley seemed resigned to the fact that it was missing.

How long it took me to realize it was the
ness of me that was missing! That next to the men of the Mundo village, even before we could comfortably converse with them, I was a shadow. It wasn't, as I used to think, that I wore the long black coat and black hat and trousers that marked my occupation as shepherd of
souls, no. In some odd way I was, the self of me, canceled out. I was a man mouthing words that sparkled, but going through the motions of my own life.

Except, in our most private life, with Langley. There was grounding in her presence. In her arms. Grounding especially in her laughter, the naked shedding of roles that was her sleep. I loved even to hear her snore, though to awaken and see me peering at her as she did so embarrassed her. Then she would grab a pillow and jam it over her head. And I would tug it off, and tussle with her. Her warm naked body the fire of life. Her breath the breathing of life. And when she was sick and weary and weak, and when she cried in frustration or when she was angry enough at me to throw chairs—then it seemed to me I loved her so much I was in danger of forgetting the voice inside my head, forgetting even the voice I began to recognize as “God's.”

We had agreed, even before we were married, that we would never lay a hand on our child. We believed in correction, which we thought could be accomplished by reason and consistency; we did not believe in corporal punishment. This had been of such importance to us that we had discussed it thoroughly, over years, until Langley felt it was safe for her to bear a child. By beating her eldest daughter, to the point of actually drawing blood, caused by the disks on the accursed belt I used, I had betrayed her completely.

We were beaten in slavery!
she screamed, weeping as if her heart would break.

She cried every night and would not let me enter the big bedroom with the gauze curtains that blew limply in the muggy summer heat. And each night, as soon as the girls were asleep, I made my way there, to her door. On my knees, outside the locked door, I pleaded.

Only forgive me, I said. I do not expect, or deserve, anything more.

Please do not cry, I said. Crying now, myself. I am not worth one tear that falls from your beautiful eyes.

Don't break any more of your precious treasures, I said. As a crystal vase we'd kept in storage while in Mexico—a vase she loved—crashed against the door.

Everything in me wanted to break down the door, pin her flailing arms to her sides, drag her to the bed, lick away every tear, drink from her flowing body, and pour my whole being into hers. But I, my heart breaking, could not rise from my knees. She had seen me turn into a monster; how could I ever expect her to forget? I fell asleep there, growing cramped and chilled as the night wore on.

In the morning, her face wrinkled as a crone's and tear-stained, she opened the door, sniffed at me as if I were disagreeable garbage, and stepped gingerly around my cold, ashen, and yellowing feet.

This nightly ritual seemed to go on forever. During the day I called June June. I took her and Susannah to the YWCA, where they swam and made macramé wall hangings. I took them shopping. I went to Montauk with them, where an old friend of mine had the very last house before the Island petered out into the sea. In the nonexistent traffic there, I taught June to drive.

Preoccupied, I tried to imagine my life without Langley. I could not. For without Langley all of it was just going through the motions, following the dictate of the voice in my ear, the emptiness in my soul. But there was no warmth without her, no fire. No rebellion of my own angel to enjoy. No surprise.

She became so weak from her grief that when she stepped over me in the mornings, she stumbled. She was eating next to nothing. I was the same. I think we both had fevers, for our nightly exertions took their toll.

I begged her to let me take care of her. She laughed, a mean laugh. And tossed her hair, which since our return from Mexico she'd both straightened and bobbed. In her plum-colored silk pajamas and fluffy-toed mules she was a different woman—which I found amazing and almost unbearably exciting. She had also begun taking courses in comparative anthropology at the local college. It drove me crazy not to be making love to her and, while loving her, learning her new thoughts.

I decided to learn golf.

It did not work. I disliked the cap. The cart. The balls. And hadn't I heard somewhere that the green itself, because of the chemicals used to keep it so, was toxic?

One morning she did not leave her room. By then I had dragged my mattress from my room and slept on it just beside her door. After half an hour of waiting, I went inside. Surprised to find that the door was not locked. She could not get out of bed. Seeing this, I felt—it is almost impossible to describe, except to say I felt the mother in me fully ripen and rise to the occasion. Suddenly I was all over the room at once, tending to Langley; changing the sheets, opening the windows, adjusting the curtains, picking up newspapers and books from the floor. Then, down in the kitchen, I made soup, squeezed oranges, made toast. Got the children out of the house. Then I came back, watched Langley eat, tucked her in, and went to my room to dress.

BOOK: By the Light of My Father's Smile
12.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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