The day after I was born my great-aunt Paulita led Nemecia into my mother’s bedroom to meet me. Nemecia was carrying the porcelain baby doll that had once belonged to Aunt Benigna. When they moved the blanket from my face so that she could see me, she smashed her doll against the plank floor. The pieces were all found; my father glued them together, wiping the surface with his handkerchief to remove what oozed between the cracks. The glue dried brown, or maybe it dried white and only turned brown with age. The doll sat on the bureau in our bedroom, its face round and placidly smiling behind its net of brown cracks, hands folded primly across white lace, a strange and terrifying mix of young and old.
The doll opens and closes the story; it’s a little on-the-nose as a representation of Nemecia, but it’s certainly effective. It’s a family horror story, but none of the characters seems aware of that in the moment. It’s available online (registration at narrativemagazine.com is required, but it’s free and painless).
Nemecia at thirteen is her six-year-old cousin Maria’s worst nightmare: she eats her food, ruins her toys, even gouges her cheek when teenage acne makes her jealous of the younger girl’s still-perfect skin. But she’s also Maria’s best friend, in that convoluted way children have of forming attachments to people who abuse them. Besides, Maria’s scared of her, for good reason:
I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.
…“I killed them,” Nemecia said into the darkness. She spoke as if reciting, and I didn’t at first know if she was talking to me. “My mother was dead. Almost a month she was dead, killed by me. Then she came back, like Christ, except it was a bigger miracle because she was dead longer, not just three days.” Her voice was matter-of-fact.
“Why did you kill our grandpa?” I whispered.
“I don’t remember,” she said. “I must have been angry.”
… The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
Maria’s mother won’t tell her anything about that day: “You’re lucky, Maria, to have been born after that day. You’re untouched. The rest of us will never forget it, but you, mi hijita, and the twins, are untouched.” When we withhold information from a child, that creates a vacuum, and the child will fill that vacuum with whatever is available. We tell ourselves we’re “protecting” the child, but it’s really ourselves we’re protecting. And by the way, no one in the story is untouched by the events of years past, but it’s more comfortable for them to believe in that fiction. Counselling centers are full of people who don’t see what’s very plain to everyone, and, as I’ve said before, adults are seldom aware of what’s really important to children – especially when it means facing harsh realities themselves.
The narrative comes to a boil when Maria, expecting to lead the Corpus Christi parade, discovers that Nemecia will “help” her. Once again, the pattern of their childhood is played out: Nemecia doesn’t want something until Maria has it, at which point she ruins it. This time, Maria doesn’t let it roll over her; but this act of will has more consequence than she expected.
There isn’t much of a resolution, but how could there be? Nemecia is as much a mystery to herself as she is to Maria, and to us, even after we find out the true backstory. In her Contributor Note, Quade says: “As I wrote I discovered that I was less interested in the murder itself than in its reverberations and in the way trauma can become a kind of treasure, a currency to be hoarded or envied or spent.” Nemecia is an expert trader; but what good does it do her in the end?