On Mercy’s plate there rested a homemade tortilla, fresh from the griddle on her mother’s stove, slightly charred. Her older sister, Lydia, already imperious and miserable at 10, had cried at the wretchedness of the burned patches, and in frustration stormed out of the kitchen and off to school, dragging their brother Isaac along, slamming the back door behind her.
Mercy ate her sister’s share. It was delicious, especially the crisp, blackened bits. Mercy had turned 8 in September, just a month before, and her mother had marked that day with a breakfast of hot muffins, crisp bacon, fried eggs. Mercy actually got two slices of bacon that morning. Lydia had cried at the injustice of burned bacon.
After Lydia dragged Isaac out the door, her mother made sure the stove was off, put a wool hat on and wrapped herself in a shawl. She spoke to Mercy in Spanish. “I need to finish this dress for Mrs. Lansdown. You’re going to stay home this morning and take care of Joel. I’ll be back in an hour.” As her mother slammed the back door, the wind rattled the kitchen windows, and Mercy stood, watching the wind beat against the oak trees.
Her mother said the baby’s name more like “Ho-ell.”
Mercy watched the bright sun, the blue sky and the flailing tree branches for a moment, then walked through the house. She walked through the front room, with its sofa, radio, rocking chair and sewing table. Often her mother was the fixture that accompanied the sewing machine, pumping the treadle, pins between her pursed lips, tugging, pulling, rearranging fabric on her machine, the fine lines of wrinkles on her face echoing the threads she worked with. A granny quilt, made from years of knitting and crocheting
Scraps, lay tossed across the sofa. In the center of the floor was a braided rug, made from years of sewing scraps. Mercy wished there were a rug like that in the room she shared with Lydia.
She walked past the bathroom, cold white tile, cold white toilet, institutional chrome fixtures. She went into her bedroom and pulled out her doll, Amalia.
Amalia was her Christmas gift when Mercy was 5. She was a porcelain-faced doll with silky brown hair, lifelike cheeks, lips and eyes. But the thrill was when you tilted this doll, as Mercy did now, and she said, sweetly, plaintively, “Mama!”
Mercy hugged the doll close.
She walked by her brothers’ room. Joey was in there, but he was quiet, and Mercy wasn’t going to bother him.
Mercy brought her doll into her mother’s room. Her mother slept in a huge four-poster bed. It was neatly made, covered with a quilt. A matching small braided rug lay at the side of the bed.
Mercy propped her doll against the pillows and pretended to serve her breakfast in bed.
Mercy’s favorite room was the kitchen because it was slightly warmer than the rest of their house, and the aging wood under her bare feet felt smooth. The kitchen had a small breakfast table, which couldn’t possibly fit all of them at once, so they ate in shifts. Her mother extended the table with a leaf on only extremely formal or important occasions, like the afternoon Mercy’s father was buried. Her mother had widened the table in order to hold the serving bowls, casseroles, dishes and desserts that his parishioners had brought to sustain his family.
Mercy brought her doll into the front room and sat down on the rocking chair. She rocked back and forth for a moment. The wind continued to rattle the windows, shake the branches. It was howling now, and drafts entered the house. She stared at the radio in the center of the room, just under the windows.
Mercy was absolutely forbidden to play with the radio. Isaac had once, breaking something so severely that the radio was quiet for a month. Their mother told them over and over how many dresses the repair cost. How many hours of careful measuring, cutting and stitching. Mercy knew she was forbidden to play with the radio.
She turned it on.
The music she heard was light and playful, and it filled the small living room. Mercy recognized the same music they played at the white steeple church where they held dances on Saturday nights, the dances she and her sister spied on. Mercy loved to watch everyone dance; the women were so beautiful, the soldiers from Camp Cooke so thrilling. That’s what she would do when she was old enough.
That was beneath Lydia’s dignity to even contemplate.
“They’re just a bunch of nobodies from nowhere, like us,” she said. “When I get out of here I’m going to dance with somebodies. I’m gonna be somebody. Look at those dresses! Half of them were sewn by your mother! When I grow up I’m gonna buy everything from the store. Brand new. Everything.”
Lydia always referred to their mother as “your mother,” as if that was the only way she could bear it.
Mercy went into the boys’ room to check on Joey, music trailing behind her.
He lay in his crib, on his back, a trail of drool sliding down his cheek. Mercy watched him. Her mother had said Joey was a good boy, a sweet boy, a blessing from God born after their father’s death. He was not like other 3 year olds. He never crawled. He couldn’t walk. And she, Lydia and Isaac spent a lot of time hauling him from one part of the house to the other, so he could watch them play. He watched and burbled at them. He waved his hands and smiled at them. His smile made his eyes sparkle, and whoever he aimed his dazzling smile and sparkling gaze at involuntarily responded in kind.
Everyone knew Mercy was his favorite.
He also cried at the most unexpected times. Right at the most crucial part of “The Shadow,” where the identity of the beautiful jewel thief was at last revealed. Or early in the morning, before the birds began to sing. Or just as their mother placed the last quesadilla on the hissing griddle. His shrieks were alarming, his cries inconsolable; at those times he was passed and patted and hummed at and drummed at and sung to and ultimately shouted at: “Ya no mas, mi hijito, ya no mas!” Enough, my little son, enough, their mother pleaded.
Then he would stop and sleep for 14 hours.
That was what had happened last night, and that, thought Mercy, was probably why she was with him now. Normally, their mother would take Joey on a short visit, like to Mrs. Lansdown’s. After measuring and buying materials, their mother worked from home. Usually, when their mother needed a sitter she would impose on a neighbor, Mrs. Huggins, who had a crush on Isaac.
So, Mercy reasoned, her mother must have squabbled again with Mrs. Huggins, which explained why she had been left to watch the drool trickle down Joey’s cheek instead of being where she belonged, in Mrs. Ganz’s third-grade class.
When Mercy went back into the living room the radio had turned into a terrible drone of adult language. She wasn’t brave enough to find another program, so she turned it off.
It was later than she thought, 11:30. If her mother didn’t get home soon, Mercy would have to figure out something for lunch, and something for Joey.
She sat on the rocking chair, ignoring the wind, and was halfway through the second chapter of “Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With a Circus” when she heard Joey. Joey had turned quite insistent by the time Mercy put the book down and got up.
He looked up at her, sparkling and shiny with pleasure at the appearance of Mercy’s face at his crib. She went to get a handkerchief to clean him up. He tugged at her wrist as she wiped his nose and face. She hauled him up and over the crib rail and carried him around the house.
Joey was 3, but with a big, wide face and huge blue eyes that made him look younger. His hair was long, brown, stringy and curled upward just past his ears. He was the palest child in the Fuerte family; while everyone called Isaac “el indio” or “Negrito,” everyone called Joey “el guero,” or blondie.
At his baptism Joey had been cooed at and adored by a long line of parishioners admiring his light skin and pale eyes. What a gift, what a lucky boy, said the laborers, their skin darkened by their work in the fields.
As Joey’s infirmities became more apparent he was less pawed and praised. But his smile remained sweet.
Mercy propped him up in the kitchen in his high chair. He slid in his damp diaper against the white slats and lightly pounded the tray with his pink fists. Mercy diced cheese and placed the cubes on his tray. She couldn’t find any leftover tortillas, even though she knew her mother always had a few safely hidden from her children. So instead, Mercy lit a match, lit the stove and heated the pot of beans.
When the beans were lukewarm she placed a few spoonfuls into a saucer and fed Joey. He liked grabbing her wrist and gnawing playfully at her fingers before clutching the spoon and savoring the beans.
When the beans were hot Mercy served herself some, then dropped the diced cheese on top. She wished she could find those tortillas her mother had made last night. Joey played with the cubes of cheese on his tray, knocking half of them onto the floor. Mercy patiently picked them up, rinsed them off, then gave them back to him. It was 2 o’clock.
Mercy was still hungry. She looked at her baby brother pawing through the bits of mashed beans on his tray, pushing the cubes of cheese back and forth.
She went back into her mother’s room, where a huge wooden trunk stood at the foot of the bed. It served as a resting space for her mother’s clothes before they were pressed and hung, never as a space for her children to sit upon and visit or play. There were no clothes on it now, just the smooth sheen of polished mahogany.
Mercy tilted the heavy lid toward the poster bed. Underneath were gray woolen blankets, piles of fabric tied neatly with another scrap of fabric. Keeping the lid propped up with her left arm and prying with her right, Mercy poked around and beneath the woolen blankets, the bolts of cloth, the linen napkins and tablecloths. She heard, at last, the rustle of wax paper.
She pulled out the neatly wrapped packet and stared at half a dozen flour tortillas. She unwrapped the package carefully. They smelled almost as fresh as they had the night before. She took one out, rewrapped the package, and placed it back between the linen napkins.
In the kitchen Mercy heated the griddle while Joey watched. She heated her tortilla, watched it bubble and collapse, then put it on a plate and smeared a lump of butter, watching it melt and trickle.
Joey was quite interested now, but Mercy was hungry. He gaped at her with an open mouth, his way of begging for more. She tore off a corner, placed it in front of him, and ate the rest of hers quickly.
Joey picked up his scrap and swallowed it. He looked at Mercy, his mouth open and started moving his head from side to side. He banged on the tray with both his fists. He waited for more.
“Let’s go play, Joey,” Mercy said, to change the subject, and began to unstrap him from the high chair.
“Ah ah ah,” he said, softly. As she pulled him out of the high chair he began to scream and wail.
“All right, all right,” she said, strapping him back in.
But now Joey was on his way. Little red patches of anger spread over his face. He began crying and wailing and fussing so hard that he began to cough. As he coughed and cried and wailed, Mercy patted and cooed and sang. But he would not be calmed.
Mercy gritted her teeth and headed back into her mother’s bedroom. This time the trunk lid felt heavier, but now she knew where the wax paper was. Again she unwrapped the package, taking out another tortilla. Then she carefully rewrapped the package before placing it back in the trunk and lowering the lid. Her mother would certainly know this time.
She hadn’t remembered to turn the griddle off, so it was too hot, and Joey’s tortilla was marred by a hunk of char, but he didn’t seem to mind now that it was slathered in butter. Joey shoved it into his mouth. Then he started to cry again, mouth agape, crammed with food, nothing going down, nothing going out.
As he cried, he began to cough and Mercy rushed over and started pulling the tortilla out of his mouth, but Joey fought her, slapping at her hands and holding onto the food in his mouth and crying and coughing and suddenly choking.
Her arms seemed heavy and her own breathing stopped. She tried, she tried so hard, to unstrap him. She pulled him out of the high chair, but too slowly it seemed, too slowly, turned him upside down, patted his back. She thumped at his back, whacked at his back, but nothing more came out of his mouth. Finally she righted him, and there was Joey, his face purple blotches, his eyes wide in wonder and astonishment, and then nothing more at all.
Mercy clutched Joey to herself, stumbled out the back door and headed against the wind to Mrs. Huggins’ house. She fell against the gravel in the road, scraping both her knees, scrabbled back up, still holding Joey, and pounded at Mrs. Huggins’ door. She pounded some more, but the home was mute and motionless.
Joey’s body quivered, then heaved, and a mass of vomit landed on Mercy’s chest. Mercy held him back to look at him, but his eyes were open and still.
Mercy watched her mother approach from down the dirt road, covered in her hat and shawl, carrying her huge fabric bag.
Mercy stood in the middle of the road, buffeted by the wind, and waited.
“What did you do to him?” was the first thing her mother said.
That night, after the scolding by her mother, the questions, the curiosity and hysteria of the neighbors, the stunned silence of Lydia and Isaac, Mercy went to bed. When Lydia was told to go to bed she cried and stamped her foot and swore that she wouldn’t ever again sleep in the same room as Mercy the murderer. Mrs. Fuerte allowed Lydia to sleep in her room.
Too alone to cry, Mercy clutched her dolly tight, but then it startled her with a mewling “Mama!” She heard the accusation, threw the doll onto the floor, and Mercedes Alvarez Fuerte lay on her back on the cold sheets listening to the wind.