Abuelita told me wishing on stars was a waste of time.
“The same with fountains and wells,” she said. “Don’t bother. You want a wish granted, eat a dandelion and tell a toad a story.”
“Why not a frog?” I asked. “In the stories of princesas they kiss frogs to find their principes.”
She trapped my cheeks between her old wrinkled hands to hold my gaze. “No. Nunca hagas eso Isaura. You and the next eight generations of your family would be cursed.”
Then she pressed a kiss to my forehead and I went to play with my prima Laena. For years afterward I would remember the moment distinctly, still caught in those intense brown eyes of hers.
Abuelita died a few days before the fiestas for Santa María and nearly a month after my sixteenth birthday. It was a shock for everyone. She rarely got sick and when she did, a few days rest was all she needed.
When I found her still in bed after nine, I didn’t expect to discover a corpse, long since dead for several hours. I expected to find her sleeping in for a change and maybe forgoing the trip al campo.
Mamá and tía were a mess so that left Laena and I to keep them fed as they grieved. By all rights Mamá should have dealt with the arrangements but after a day of bed rest with no signs of improvement, I decided to take matters into my hands. I visited Padre Max and he let me know of the coffin and dates available for the velorio. Abuelita had spoken to him about it on more than one occasion so there was thankfully a set of specific instructions should her death occur.
I invited all the friends I knew abuelita had in San Valen and even made calls to those in the neighboring pueblos. A few said they would stop by but others didn’t answer.
When prima found out how many people were coming she glared up at the ceiling. “Abue why did you know so many people?”
The day of the verlorio I stood by the front door greeting and accepting the condolences my mother should have been listening to. They were mostly women of the town bringing along their daughters and sons. A few men stopped by but they didn’t stay long as was expected.
Laena stayed inside, keeping an eye on our mothers and everyone else. I could hear her offering café or té and walking between rooms to fetch the steaming tazas for the women who asked.
When I was sure the last person entered the house I made to go inside to get ready for the misa but abuelita’s story came back to me.
Maybe it was the warmth of the sun on my face which reminded me of her hands or maybe it was the way Tía Isra or Perla stared at me on their way in (their eyes were just as sharp as Abue’s).
A dandelion was at the edge of our patio, golden and swaying with the wind. A firm tug had the weed free from the earth. The gate creaked behind me and I began to walk. I knew where to find a toad. There was a pond just on the edge of the forest, surrounded by rocks and a cross-wire fence which was low and bent at odd places.
Originally the pond was a school project, a means to teach children the importance of habitats and conservation. However after one particularly harsh winter most of the toads died save for one female and her eggs. The children were given As for their effort and the pond was never visited again.
Sometimes older teens gathered around it in hopes of catching the elusive toad or her offspring which had disappeared all those years ago but for the most part the people of the pueblo had forgotten about it.
I had only visited the area once or twice before but the path was common knowledge. As I walked I kept my eyes down on the sandy ground. The ducts of water on either side of the street were the only sounds reaching my ears as the rest of San Valen stood quiet. I imagined it was mourning the loss of Abue.
The walls rising up in front of the houses, kept me hidden from view. Those who weren’t invited to share our pena wouldn’t know I wasn’t there. They were probably keeping cool in their houses, savoring the leftovers of the feast for Santa María.
If anyone saw me, I doubt they’d stop me. I was a figure in black, head lowered and shoulders showing the obvious decline of shame. My place was not among these streets, it was by Mamá’s side.
I gripped the dandelion tighter and hurried my pace.
The road began to narrow and soon the houses became fewer and fewer, walls rising and falling with each one. I could hear dogs barking in the distance and soon a pack of five came round the corner, concentrated on a dark furred one in the front holding the bloody remains of an owl. The others were yelping and whining, trying their best to make a grab for the meat but failing either due to their stature or due to the respect they had for the one carrying their prize.
I stopped and stared after the sight. It was a recurring one in San Valen but I was still caught off guard by its sudden appearance. Coughing at the dust which floated about in their wake, I resumed my walk.
The street soon gave way to sand which began to mix with dry dirt. The dry dirt became yellow grass then green the closer I came to the forest. Finally a path came into view, once clear of grass and paved with flat stones, now cracked and interrupted by the growth of weeds and moss.
Carefully avoiding those which looked sunken and broken, I made my way to the low fence at the end of the path. Gripping one pole I pushed it to the side and slipped through the fence.
The small dip of water had several rocks surrounding it, but many had fallen in or were on their way to falling. I sat down near one and looked out into the greenish depths.
One lone fish swam by, a swirl of blue and purple. I had no idea what species it was but it looked pretty. As I looked away I jumped at the sight of a toad perched on the rock beside me. It had grayish-brown skin with blotches of darker shades on it. Its yellow eyes looked at me, expectant. I bit off the end of my flower and began to chew.
A small voice called out to me, shrill and hurried:
“Don’t sing yet.”
I looked around in confusion. The voice had come from somewhere below me. But there was no way anyone could be in the pond. It wasn’t deep enough.
“There are dead fish inside of him.” In the water the fish I had seen before was poking its head out.
Abuelita had said fish generally never spoke when out of the water. It was only when you were under with them that you heard their voices. I stared and it stared back. Slowly I replied, unsure. “Toads don’t eat fish.”
“He does,” the fish said. “It’s the only way to bring them back to life.”
I glanced back at the toad. “So he doesn’t grant wishes?”
“No, he does.” The fish swam a little closer to the edge.
In the next moment the amphibian opened its mouth wide and belched out two small fishes of a lighter violet shade into the pond. They were still as they floated downwards. Suddenly one twitched and the other soon did as well. I leaned forward, watching as they slowly began to swim.
“You can tell him your story now.” The fish turned away to meet the others.
I turned to the toad. It blinked once, gaze expectant. Fingers shaking I raised the rest of the dandelion and finished off my morsel. Once swallowed I began my story.
“Abuelita used to dream of a house without windows. She’d sit with a couple and share a meal every 10th of the month. Some nights she ate golden fruits, other nights she ate green flowers, but most nights she had red meat. They never spoke, they only ate. And when Abue woke she was full and rested but the red bracelet on her wrist would turn white. On those mornings my bisabuela would cut the cord off and tie another one.
“She had asked why it turned white but biasbuela only ever told her it was the work of her angelitos and the bracelet was their gift. One morning, not long after bisabuela was dead and gone, Abuelita forgot to replace the cord. She was older now and didn’t remember her dreams anymore. So she got dressed and headed out to her campo. Only she never got there. Hours later she woke in el bosque, exhausted and not alone. By her side was a baby girl. She was in a basket made of web, bones, and red strings.
“The baby was still and quiet but very much alive and so she took her home and named her Marcia. That girl grew up to be my mother.”
My story finished, I looked at the toad, waiting for it to tell me when I was allowed to ask for my wish. The toad however said nothing and instead stared at me, unblinking. It was only when I blinked that I realized that the toad had grown at least three feet in size. It opened its mouth and out tumbled a black bundle of blankets, oozing red from its middle. I picked it up at its first cry, gasping when I found a baby inside. I looked back up but the toad was gone.
“I guess you got your wish.” The fish was back.
I shook my head. “I didn’t tell it my wish.”
The fish looked at me through one eye, the other trained on the smaller fishes below. “You don’t tell him your wish, he knows what it is from your story.”
The two smaller fish suddenly dove into the depths of the pond and after a slow blink the bigger fish followed
Tired but ready now to face the people in my home, I carried the bundle back to the house.
The guests parted, allowing me the space to reach Mamá. I didn’t tell her about the toad and what I had done, I simply told her I found a baby.
It had been days since she showed any other emotion besides grief. Tears cleared from her eyes and curiosity filled them.
“She looks just like your grandmother.”