The Woman Whose Tears Gave Everlasting Life

By Lawrence Buentello

 

When I was a child I lived in a small town in West Texas where the dust blew up from the desert and washed away every prayer for providence spoken by the poor people who lived there, the Mexican families and the indigent Poles and Germans. Hope was the only commodity that anyone possessed, a hope pulled from religious texts and the promise of an eternal compensation following the trials of earthly life. Perhaps it was this religious intoxicant that kept the people from ruining one another in their impoverished grief. I was a child all those years ago, and didn’t realize how painful such poverty could be.

 

In this poor, hot, dusty town my grandmother lived and died. One day I walked with her to the shanty house of the woman whose tears gave everlasting life. This is what my grandmother told me as we walked down the road to the small house just beyond the town. Long ago, she said, when the woman was a young girl she saw a vision of the Virgin Mother, and was struck dumb by the experience. When she returned home from the market one morning her mother asked her why she refused to speak. The little girl could only point to the portrait of the Virgin Mother on the wall and nod silently. Her family implored her to explain her condition, and she reached out and pulled the picture into her hands and gestured toward her eyes. When she grew older she was able to write about her experience, but only in a partially literate hand that left more questions for her family. Eventually, they came to accept the vision as a gift from God.

 

Her mother noticed, though, that she never laughed or cried in the years following the vision. She nodded her assent, or shook her head in denial, but said nothing more, and rarely exhibited emotions. This seemed to be the way of things until one day when the girl was grown into a young woman, and the old family dog she’d known for seventeen years lay down to die. She sat by the dog, stroking its ears as it breathed shallowly. Her father explained that it was the dog’s time, and that he had been a good dog, but that all living things must eventually die. The young woman studied her father’s face, then leaned over the dog mournfully and cried a single tear. The tear fell on the dog’s eye, and it blinked once, and then stirred from the ground. The family watched in amazement as the dog ran about the house as if it was born new. The dog lived on and on, eventually running away into the desert after coyotes, having lived with the family for thirty years.

 

Over the years the family watched the young woman move through the world, but she only shed tears a few more times, and always unexpectedly, for the young woman wept silently for the death of odd things, desert flowers grown withered in their pots, or a fallen bird of beautiful plumage. The tears she dropped over these dead and dying things recovered life, and they lived again, eternally. The flowers bloomed every season, and the birds returned year after year. Or so my grandmother told me as we walked beneath the unrelenting heat of the sun.

 

Many times people came to the woman through the years, begging her to cry her tears onto some sick child, or dying spouse, but when she came to the deathbed of these people she did not weep, or grow remorse. No one knew why she was so reluctant to feel sorrow at the passing of people she had known all her life, but no one, too, was able to implore her to grief. She stroked the hair of the dying children, but wept no tears. Eventually people came to realize that her gift wasn’t to be used for human beings, or at least it seemed to be God’s will. Every so often someone would attempt to convince her to cry for their dying loved one, but human grief was something she seemed unable to feel. Even when her own mother and father lay on their deathbeds she cried no tears, but only stroked their hands and waited for their eyes to close forever.

 

My grandmother had been a little girl when the woman had seen her vision, and so grew into old age knowing the woman, yet not knowing her, seeing her in the town but never approaching her. The superstitious whispers of my grandmother’s family filled her with an abiding fear, and she never spoke to the woman, as a child or aged adult.

 

But now she walked me toward the shanty house and helped me keep my balance on the rough road. I was a small child, and very thin, and those years are almost gone from my memory. But I remember that day, and the dry calluses of my grandmother’s skin as she held my hand in hers. When I grew too weak to walk she carried me in her arms. My mother was still sleeping, and my father had run away long ago. My mother didn’t know we’d left the house, and would have grown angry if she had found that my grandmother had taken me out into the sun. They argued often over me, and I would listen quietly in the bed by the window. So much of my day was spent watching the dry, desert world beyond the house, but there was never much to see other than the shimmering reflections of the sun and an occasional buzzard circling the hills.

 

The shanty house was patched with tar paper and old wood, and when my grandmother stepped onto the porch the boards sank gently beneath her feet. The door opened, and an old, white-haired woman appeared. She said nothing as my grandmother introduced herself, and asked if she and I could enter. The old woman nodded, and stepped away into the room. We entered into darkness, for the old woman kept the windows papered, and the air was terribly hot. I felt sick, but I said nothing. I think I was afraid, though in the same way I was afraid when my mother brought me to the church to pray. My grandmother spoke to the woman for a long, long time.

 

I remember only a few things after that; the old woman took me by the hand, and walked me to the window. She peeled the papers from the window frame until a shaft of light fell on my face. When the old woman saw my face she shook her head, perhaps sadly, and stroked my hair. I didn’t feel well, and sat on the floor. I wanted to sleep, but my grandmother told me to stay awake, that I must stay awake. I obeyed her, and watched the old woman as she studied me. My grandmother’s voice filled the room, though I don’t remember a word she said. I was too sleepy to care. She was speaking so fast that I couldn’t understand, though there was a note of sorrow in her voice, a sorrow as old as she. The words continued for a long time until I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, and began falling asleep. I remember thinking of the Virgin, and how beautifully she’d found life in my grandmother’s words; and then I saw her in my sleeping mind, a woman so beautiful, ethereal and loving that I never wanted to wake again. Her face shone with a light brighter than the candles in my room, and seemed to carry words within its glow, loving words that made me feel content. You are so beautiful, I said to her in the dream, why can’t I be with you forever?

 

And then I felt something touch my face, something warm and soft, a burning touch that might have been a flame, which wakened me suddenly. I touched my fingers to my cheek, but there was no wound. Then I stared into the face of the old woman, and saw the tears in her eyes.

 

Will I ever see the Virgin again? I asked, but, of course, she couldn’t reply.

 

My grandmother took me in her arms and carried me back home.

 

When the old woman died everyone in the town came to her funeral. They’d been afraid of her in life, but honored her in death, for she had seen a vision of the Virgin and would now rise to stand in her light. I stood watching with the rest, a young boy with faded memories, while the priest spoke of how the Virgin had blessed the woman with a special gift. The people whispered that it was a shame she never used it for a worthy man or woman, or child. My grandmother never spoke to anyone of the day we walked to the old woman’s house, though before she died she told my mother that I’d been blessed by providence.

 

That was a hundred and forty years ago, and only now I understand why the old, old dog ran away.

 

 

Lawrence Buentello lives in San Antonio, Texas. His work has appeared in Zahir, The Storyteller, Mindflights, Word Riot, Paradigm and many other publications. He is also the author of the novel South of the Moon and the short story collection Ghosts of the American Dream.

Published on April 5, 2009 at 1:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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