Her grandmother’s adobe house was oddly organized, built one room at a time over a decade, with only one distinct bedroom. There was a kitchen off of which was a door. On the other side of the house was another door, which opened onto a concrete patio. In between was a hallway leading to the bedroom and then two other rooms, both large, one with two beds, one twin and the other full. The last room functioned as a living room.
She slept on the full bed in the room with two beds, and her uncle slept in the bedroom. She’d come to visit because she needed to know where her mother came from. She needed to know who she was and who she was going to be.
She woke up early and rummaged around some bookshelves. She found some photo albums. Were any of the women in the pictures her mother? She heard a strange noise outside, the same one she’d heard the night before, a buzz.
She walked out towards a lone apple tree. She kept hearing the buzz. And then she found it. It was some kind of bug or beetle flapping its wings. She kneeled down for it. And it buzzed like electricity.
“Weird,” she thought. Fascinated, she held her hands apart like parenthesis, waiting to catch it. The bug was big and ugly with translucent wings.
It flapped around. At home in Kansas, in the summer, at dusk, her friends would ride their bikes past the library to the city park to catch Big Dippers, fireflies. Her father warned her not to keep them too long.
“It’s how they meet each other, to make babies,” he said. She didn’t understand that. But she’d let them light up in the jar she had them in, and then let them go, because of what he said.
She’d never heard this sound or seen a bug like this before. The bug jumped onto her finger. She walked back toward the house.
“That’s a chicharro,” her uncle said as she walked toward him with it on her finger. “A cicada.”
She marveled at it.
“That’s a male,” he said. “He makes those noises to attract the ladies.” The he laughed.
“Let it go,” he said.
“He attracted me,” she said. The light. The sound. The attraction. It was starting to make more sense to her now.
“You’re too smart,” he said. “Let it go for now. There’s plenty more where he came from.”
She flipped up her hand and the big bug flew off.
“Let’s go check out the Santuario,” he said.
“What’s that,” she asked.
“It’s a church,” he said. “It’s Sunday, right?”
They piled into his big grey car and drove along a winding road.
“What ever happened to the car you drove to Kansas,” she asked him.
“I gave it back to your grandpa,” he said. “He wanted it back. He loves his cars. I’m surprised it’s still running after all the miles I put on it for that trip.”
She watched the fences and little houses clustered together near big fields pass by. Once and awhile her uncle would wave at the people driving the opposite way on the road.
“Do you know them,” she asked.
“Maybe,” he said and laughed. “Around here, it’s so small, you have to be nice to everyone like you know them, even if you don’t.”
She understood. Back home, it was often a finger raised from the hand holding the steering wheel. Or two fingers if the driver had both hands on the wheel. Her dad called that the devil’s wave or too much “Hello” for one hand. Waving was a signal, like the light of the Big Dipper firefly, like the electric noise of the chicharro.
Her uncle had given her what she had hoped for, stories about her mom and how she met her dad. She especially liked it when he’d start a sentence, “That reminds me of your mom.” Now he was taking her to a place he said her mom loved.
“What are you listening to,” she asked.
“That’s Vicente Fernandez,” he said “Your mother loved him. All the ladies do.”
“What’s he saying?” she asked.
“I left you,” he said. “And that was stupid. And now I’m going crazy.”
She listened closely.
“And I’ll return, return, return to your arms once again,” he said.
“What’s that yelling in the background,” she asked.
“El grito,” he said. “It’s pain. Love hurts. It sucks.”
“It reminds me of the cicada, the chicharro,” she said.
“See, you’re too smart to be from here,” he said.
They pulled into a parking lot that was almost full. She suddenly felt self-conscious. She wasn’t ready for church. And what was this kind of church anyway? It was an adobe building, as brown as the skin of the people waiting to get in.
It was like her church in Kansas, but people kneeled when they stepped into the pews. Then they’d move their hands back and forth across their chests and then kiss their hands. And there were so many statues. They were so creepy, like dolls but shiny and stiff. They gazed down on her disapprovingly at her blue dress and her face, paler than everyone else’s, but darker than the faces at home.
They found a spot and what she saw marveled her as much as the cicada. There was so much movement; kneeling, bowing, up and down. And she couldn’t see or hear everything. But it was exciting. Those faces staring at her, the language she didn’t understand, the singing, the dark faces with dark hair and eyes staring at her like she stared at them. This is where her mom was from.
When it was over, she was so excited and awake and disturbed. She had so many questions. She walked to one of the statues and touched it. She felt it with both hands.
“Hey,” her uncle said. “Come over here.”
There was a small room full of people reaching toward a hole in the ground. It was a hole with dirt. All around the room were crutches and crosses. She was overwhelmed with a kind of happiness. This was where her mom was from. She felt closer to her but also farther away.
An old lady with a wrinkled face was sitting in a corner in the room. Her uncle talked with her. As he talked her face warmed, she began to smile at her.
“She wants to tell you the story of this place,” he said.
She started to speak. Her face was like baked, dark, bread with wrinkles and edges. But her eyes were green and they were piercing. She started telling the story in Spanish, with her uncle translating. She loved looking at her face.
“One night a very faithful man was praying near here, very hard. And he saw a light. It was disturbing his prayer, his concentration,” her uncle said, translating the Spanish.
Her uncle became a bit dramatic, acting out the man’s annoyance at the light.
“The light wouldn’t go away. So, he went to find out what it was. He walked slowly toward the light, stepping over branches and weeds. It was moonless. And dark. But this light! And then…” Then her uncle got close, like he was going to whisper something, a secret.
“Boo!” he said loudly and threw up his hands.
She was startled. Her eyes got wide.
“Stop!” she said.
Then they all laughed. The old lady laughed hard.
Then she spoke again.
“Well, what he found was light coming out of a hole where there was a crucifix buried. And it was a crucifix like that,” and he pointed to a cross with a black colored Christ on the cross.
“He ran back to the priests in the village. And they took this thing to Santa Cruz, miles away. And they put it there. Then this man was praying again. And he saw the light again. And there was the cross, in the hole again.”
“It moved back to the hole?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said after translating. “Three Times this happened. And priests being lazy,” then they both laughed. “The priests, said ‘let’s build a church over the hole.’”
“Eso es!” she said as she pointed a finger at a small hole where people prayed and took dirt.
She said something in Spanish to her uncle that made them both laugh.
“What?” she asked.
“She said, ‘Thank goodness for lazy priests!” he said.
She walked toward the hole and put her hand into the dirt. She grabbed as much as she could. She put the handful in the pocket of her dress. She stepped back.
“They say that the black Christ came from Guatemala,” her uncle said.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“It’s a place very far away,” he said. “They have this too.”
“The dirt is supposed to heal people,” he said. “It’s like magic. See all the crutches people have left behind. When your mom was sick, we sent her some of this dirt. She asked for it.”
That night she heard the cicadas. She put the dirt in a cup she found. She stirred her finger in it. She wondered about her mom.
“My heart’s broken,” she thought. “If I feel this way my heart must be broken.”
She wished that she knew what her mom’s voice sounded like and that she was sharing this place with her. Maybe she was. Then she curled herself up as tight as she could under the blankets and cried until she fell asleep.