The Skin of the Sky

Elena Poniatowska; Translated from the Spanish by Deanna Heikkinen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Skin of the Sky
"Mamá, does the world end over there?"
"No, it doesn't."
"Prove it to me."
"I'll take you farther from there than you can see with the naked eye."
Lorenzo listened to his mother as he watched the horizon at dusk. Florencia was his accomplice, his friend; they communicated merely by looking at each other. That was why she yielded to the urgency in her son's voice, and the very next day, as she held the little one's hand, she bought second-class tickets to Cuautla at the San Lázaro station in Mexico City.
Lorenzo was thrilled when the locomotive pulled out, and as he watched the landscape fly by in the opposite direction, bidding him farewell, he was filled with amazement. Why was it that the posts flew by so quickly, but the mountains didn't move at all? And what bothered him most was the line of the horizon. He was sure they would reach the end of the world and fall into the abyss, train and all. As they approached the peak of the mountain, Lorenzo kept getting up out of his seat, crying, "Here comes the cliff; it's going to end."
Florencia could see the fear in the boy's eyes. "No, Lorenzo, you'll see, it begins again. You're going to come to a valley and then another valley. There are other mountains after Popo and Iztá, another horizon. The Earth is round, and it spins; it doesn't have an end. It continues, continues, and continues. The sunset revolves and goes to other countries. It's never-ending.
That trip nourished Lorenzo for months. Before falling asleep, he would go over it again and again to see if he had missed something. But it raised more questions. "Mama, is what I see just an insignificantpart of the whole?" The alarming limitation of the senses was another cause for his sleeplessness. "Why can't eyes see farther away? Why can't they take in more space? Mama, am I the one who can't grasp any more?"
"Pretty soon I won't have answers for you. You'll find them at school," she said.
Florencia knew all about the Earth and the sky, the multitude of living creatures in the air and in the water. "We have to cover up real well tonight because it's going to be cold. See, my son, how many stars there are and how they shine?" The children didn't need school. Florencia delighted in teaching all five of them. She hadn't counted on the fact that her eldest would question what was already established as fact. They only needed one book, the one about nature. "Okay, Emilia, draw me a circle here in the dirt," Florencia said. "Lorenzo, you draw another one on top of it."
Juan and Leticia were spectators.
"Juan, tell me what it is."
"It's two tomatoes on top of each other," Juan said.
"An eight!" shouted Lorenzo.
They laughed. The circles multiplied, as did the sticks, the dots over the i's, and Florencia's stories about the age of the trees, the rings on the trunks that expanded with the years, the pollen in the center of flowers, the convex crystal that could light a bonfire with the sun's rays.
Florencia never stopped dazzling them. Her face would bead up with sweat as she played with her children. It was impossible to resist the magic of her body, her legs that danced in time to some internal music.
Lorenzo and Juan looked alike; they had the same build, the same inquisitive eyes, the same nervousness. And what grace Emilia and Leticia had. "Little angels," Florencia's friend Dona Trini called them. They walked on their tippy-toes and smiled at everyone they met. "Here come the little angels," the neighbors said.
Waking up in San Lucas was to open oneself to the first rays of the sun. Laughing, Florencia sat them down to breakfast. Hot golden bread out of a golden basket, along with jam and butter she had made herself. The large cups of café con leche, ay, marvelous!"Let's see who can make the best milk mustache." She laughed as she watched her children, with Santiago, the youngest, on her knees. Lorenzo and Emilia, the oldest, consumed her with their eyes; the next in line, Leticia and Juan, couldn't live without her. After breakfast they ran to the garden to finish their chores. "Emilia and Lorenzo are the only ones allowed to get water from the well."
They were also the ones chosen to light the candles at night and to let La Blanquita, the cow, out to the pasture. Emilia even knew how to milk her. Lorenzo liked the sound of the milk squirting into the bucket, but nothing enticed him as much as visiting their horse, El Arete. The moment Lorenzo entered the barn, El Arete turned his head with the grandest gesture imaginable and fixed his twinkling eyes on the door. Watchful, ears perked up, he seemed to be asking a question. He was all liquidy gold, a gold with so much red in it that they had considered calling him Colorado. Florencia preferred El Arete--the earring--because he was delicate, fine, and shiny, like the earrings that swung from her earlobes.
The horse was seven years old, three years younger than Lorenzo. "That animal is more mysterious than the pyramids of Teotihuacan," Florencia said. "We'll never really know him. This horse is yours, Lorenzo, and the donkey is for Emilia."
"Yes, yes. Emilia can have the donkey," he said.
Florencia invested so much ritual in the morning tasks on the farm that it sanctified them. Nothing was more important than doing things properly to start the day out right. The animals had to be cared for, and the trees and plants as well. The order of the world depended on the work being done conscientiously.
Amado, "the de Tenas' worker," arrived at six. The children loved him. Nobody really knew where he came from or where he slept, but his total devotion to Dona Florencia was immediately apparent. He baled the hay, arranged the bales, cleaned the stable, and fixed what was beyond repair with a slow, sunny-warm knowledge while he spun yarns about his village in an unhurried voice.
The children were allowed to accompany him in the afternoons, to sell the leftover milk and walk through the tree-lined Coyoacan neighborhood, because he looked after them better than any woman would. He took special care of Santiago, the youngest.Sitting atop Amado's shoulders was the perfect way for the child to experience the world. With this creature on his shoulders, Amado looked like Saint Christopher walking in the middle of the river.
Years earlier, he had carried Lorenzo the very same way as he told him stories about Roman gladiators.
In one story, Graco, the best of all the gladiators, the most skillful and impetuous of the slaves, asked permission of the emperor to fight against his master. Although surprised, because no one had ever requested this, the emperor conceded--if and only if the old man agreed.
The young Graco came upon his mentor, his hair white and his muscles tired, seated in the afternoon sun on a warm rock, his noble countenance in a meditative state.
"Teacher, I want to fight you."
"Why me, son? I have taught you everything you know."
"Because you are the only one I have not defeated."
The veteran gladiator eyed him at length. "All right, we'll fight."
The fighters entered the Coliseum amid all the bluster and expectation of the crowd. From his gold-and-silver royal box, the emperor gave the signal. The fight began. As it went on, the young man looked stronger and more agile, and the old man stumbled, breathless, under Graco's merciless blows. A female lament ran through the stadium each time the teacher hit the dirt. Lorenzo imagined the fighters, the short tunics and the strong legs shod with sandals like the ones in the book he leafed through at night with his mother.
Once, when his teacher fell, Graco dared to put his foot on him, and a sharp murmur ripped through the circle around the arena. The old man was bleeding, not a single place on his body uninjured. Then, to the bewilderment of the crowd, he knocked the young man down and seized his neck tightly, but without killing him. The emperor declared the old master victorious, the most outstanding of all the gladiators, and as they left together through the tunnel of the Coliseum, Graco protested. "Master, you never showed me that move."
"No, I didn't. It is called the traitor lock."
Lorenzo felt the same elation from that story as he did when Florencia showed him how to decipher letters-those little dancing black spiders that were so difficult to capture. "There are twenty-six of them. Remember that, twenty-six." Thanks to her, he excelled in his first year of school because he already knew how to read, add, and subtract. "I never finished elementary school, son," Florencia said. "I don't want the same thing to happen to all of you." She taught with every step they took around the small farm. She would draw a symbol in the dirt: "Guess what letter this is." In the kitchen, she had them watch for the exact moment the milk would rise, so they would understand pasteurization. Fascinated by the explosion of the bubbles and the rising steam, the older ones would argue about whose turn it was to take the pot off the stove in time. "Look, they dance and sing."
At night the mysteries became more incomprehensible, unfathomable. Florencia taught them to recognize Ursa Major and Minor and the Seven Sisters, and at home by candlelight she showed them how to hold their fingers to make a butterfly, a snail, or a wolf with shadow play on the wall. Then there was the magic of soap bubbles. "They float because they weigh less than the air," she'd tell them, and from there it was just a hop, skip, and jump to the story of the Wright brothers. Lorenzo took that leap easily, holding Florencia's hand.
The animals on the farm were part of their education. What a wonder it was to see the baby chick--that ugly and frail little thing with its ridiculous peeping--become a majestic rooster with a monarchic crest within just a few months. That rooster had much to flaunt, and his attitude impressed Lorenzo, especially his scornful treatment of females. He would mount a hen furiously, and the fool would submit, bending her beak and closing her eyes. The intense vibration of their feathers ignited the atmosphere as well as Lorenzo's thoughts. An enormous wave of life came from the corral whenever the rooster broke into song, which was answered by the other roosters in the Coyoacan neighborhood. "Kikiriki, I don't want any slackers around me," Florencia sang, clapping gaily. Therooster, his neck stretched out, exploded like a flamboyant tree. He was an animal in flower, a red-feathered flower that challenged the universe.
Sometimes the red member of Orion, their sheepdog, came out of his thicket of fur, which intrigued Lorenzo. With Santiago in her arms, tied tightly inside the rebozo ("He gets heavier every day." Florencia smiled), his mother put everything into perspective with a naturalness that Lorenzo would never find in another woman. "He wants to put it into some bitch." Seeing her son's rapt attention to the rooster and Orion, Florencia explained that all species--plants, animals, humans--procreated so as not to die. "It's their desire, son."
"What do you mean, desire?"
"Desire for life."
When the cow began to bellow, Dona Trini lent them a bull, but he mounted her so quickly that Lorenzo missed it. Or maybe Florencia just didn't encourage a view of the spectacle. She sent her son with Amado to pay Dona Trini. Nine months later, when La Blanquita was ready to have her calf, Florencia called the older ones. "I'll need you to bring me water."
La Blanquita began to pace back and forth in the stable, desperate, her hooves scraping the rocks. She went from the manger to the door, unable to get comfortable. Something in her belly shook her entire body, she had to get rid of the encumbrance, and every now and then a hoarse bellow escaped her throat. At a certain moment, as if being ordered, she went to the hay and spread her legs. Something inside her must have opened up, because she doubled over under the impact. "It's not coming out," said Florencia. She rolled her sleeve above her elbow and put her hand, and then her entire arm, into the cow's bloody insides. "It's coming just fine now; it's coming just fine," she said loudly, and she pulled. First the enormous head came out and then the body, the skinny legs, the delicate hooves pressed against the ribs.
As the drenched calf lay on the hay, Florencia's arm kept rummaging around inside La Blanquita, and with eyes half closed, the cow allowed it. Florencia was searching for something, and when she found it, she pulled hard and brought out a gelatinous red bagthat to Lorenzo looked like a huge twisted tongue. The calf didn't move, and the cow had become distant and indifferent.
Florencia washed her arm in the bucket as her two eldest children looked on, frightened. And she said, "Throw that water out and bring more."
When they returned, the placenta (that's what their mother called it) was gone, as was the dribbling blood. She caressed La Blanquita, rubbed the star on her forehead. The children were quiet. Then Florencia spoke to the calf: "Now you, stand up. Come on."
She encircled its belly and back, supporting it against her chest. The calf got to its knees and then up on its feet, balancing. Turning to her children, Florencia said triumphantly, "You see that? What it takes humans a year and a half to accomplish, an animal can do at birth."
Lorenzo was spellbound. Oh, my mountain flower, oh my water flower, my Florencia!
The days that followed brought the pleasure of watching the cow nurse her calf as it stood under her great belly as if under a protective sky. La Blanquita, back to her old self, licked her offspring, nuzzled it with her forehead, then licked again. Her powerful hot stream of urine yellowed the dung-covered floor, and she filled her four stomachs, chewing slowly and constantly, her enormous udders resting on top of the newborn that sucked them impolitely.
That San Lucas farm was a celebration of life. The luminosity, whether from the sky or his mother, caused Lorenzo to squint. After the rain, the smell of fresh grass rose from the ground, and the trees dripped their greenness, filling him with feeling. Lorenzo would always associate the smell of wet dirt with his mother, not knowing that sometimes nature can take revenge, which Florencia could never do.
Only his father's visits darkened Lorenzo's days. The pleasure that their mother's presence afforded the children was inhibited by their progenitor. He descended from a taxicab, wearing gloves. Even his words wore gloves, and his blue gaze, very foreign, rested with indifference on the dirt-packed floor of the house.
"Children, come greet your father."
Florencia took a chair out to the patio. Don Joaquin de Tena did not make the least effort to help her. As he sat down, he lifted his pant leg so as not to wrinkle the crease. And Florencia looked at him with eyes like La Blanquita's, damp and sweet, sometimes imploringly. Lorenzo did not like one thing about that stiff man, with his silver-handled cane or his black umbrella, depending on the weather.
"Tell your father what you've been up to."
Emilia would become lively, communicative. The smaller ones interrupted, without getting close, to avoid getting him dirty. Lorenzo never said a word. Don Joaquin de Tena barely noticed them, his gaze faded, as if his eyes, sunken deep in their sockets, could achieve no color. Dead fish eyes, thought Lorenzo. It didn't matter to this man that his eldest son never spoke to him. He never even noticed. He regarded his children as a bunch, like grapes. He didn't distinguish among them.
"Say good-bye to your father." And Florencia sent them to bed.
Lorenzo never noticed when his father left. He did know that some of his clothes were in the closet. "Your father's shirts," said Florencia as she ironed them meticulously with her callused countrywoman's hands.
Don Joaquin de Tena lived in the Juarez section of the city with his sister, and on Sunday afternoons he traveled to Coyoacán in a cab. He made that trip in deference to Florencia.
For him, for his sister, Cayetana de Tena, for Mexican society as a whole, Joaquin was single. His social class nullified his union with Florencia, and therefore his children didn't exist. No de Tena would acknowledge an illegitimate child. On several occasions Cayetana quietly discussed the farm woman--Joaquín's mistake--with her trusted cousin Carito, as if she were an illness to be vaccinated against. At times two weeks would go by and Joaquin wouldn't come. Sometimes even three months, and Florencia would explain, in case they missed him, "Your father went to a reunion with his former classmates at Stonyhurst, in England," or, "Your father went to Vichy for the healing waters." Not even a postcard. How nice for Lorenzo. The less news, the better. That man came between them and their mother.
But Don Joaquin did something even worse. He denigrated her with his very presence, although maybe it was only Lorenzo who noticed. His mother may not have known about Piccadilly Circus, but she realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and she concluded therefore that man was not the center of the world. Believing that, she put everything into its rightful proportion. "Let's not make a mountain out of a molehill," she would say to Emilia, who tended to be overly dramatic. "Tonight it seems enormous to you. Tomorrow you'll realize its insignificance."
"It's just that father doesn't pay any attention to me; he doesn't see me," Emilia would shout, pulling her hair.
"So? He doesn't pay attention to me either, and it hasn't killed me," Lorenzo answered. What was the significance of the cry of an unloved little girl beneath the immensity of the celestial canopy?
If Florencia missed Don Joaquín, it wasn't apparent. She had her children, the animals, and the plants, so there was no opportunity to long for the past. When Santi--the one she always carried in her arms--slept wrapped up in his crib and she sewed or mended their clothing, one of the other children would lean up against her knees. "Mamá, tell me a story."
She had no time for thoughts that did not focus on the immediate present. After a prolonged absence by Don Joaquín, Lorenzo heard her tell Amado that the money was running out. Amado must have done something. Maybe he asked around the neighborhood. Who knows what he did, but ten days later Florencia was offered a job selling candy in the concession stand at the Eden movie theater, and she agreed to be there before the four-o'clock show and to bring her two eldest to help her. Lorenzo's and Emilia's lives were no longer confined to their garden paradise after that. They identified with the images projected on the screen, images that caused them both great uneasiness, hurling them into the unknown.
One night, at home, Lorenzo heard a pleading tone in his mother's voice that he had never heard before.
"How can you sell candy at a movie theater?" Don Joaquín demanded.
"Because I don't have enough money. You have to understand, Joaquin, there are a lot of mouths to feed. I can't manage any other way.
"I cannot allow my son to walk around carrying a box of candy at the Eden. What happens if someone recognizes him?"
"No one knows us. You've been careful to make sure of that. The only person who comes to the farm from time to time is Dona Trini, and it's always to help us out."
"Oh, yes, the one who's always wearing an apron."
"She may be in an apron, but she soothes my soul as lovingly as La Blanquita licks her calf."
"People in Coyoacan know who the children are, Florencia, and a lot of people go to the Eden movie theater."
"Not people from your neighborhood. The Eden is a community movie theater."
"I cannot allow it."
At that moment Lorenzo heard his mother sob. It was the first time ever. I'll kill that man, I'll kill him, he thought, shaking with rage. He would have gone into his mother's room and hit him if the door had not been locked.
Copyright © 2001 by Elena Poniatowska Translation copyright @ 2004 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC