BASS 2016: Yalitza Ferreras, “The Letician Age” from Colorado Review 42.2

Leticia’s mother spotted the glint in between the cobblestones, near the statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colón, across the edge of her stomach like a tiny sun on the horizon. She bent down sideways, careful not to fold on the fetus that would soon be her baby girl. The ring was tiny, sized for a rich child’s finger. A pronged crown nestling a ruby intercepted the gold band.
I hope it’s a girl.

Leticia’s connection to rocks began before she was even born: the cobblestones of the street, the ruby of the ring, glistening like… well, like the red braids of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who watches over volcanos, whose hair runs down their slopes as lava flows and folds, and later becomes wispy slivers of volcanic glass. But Leticia starts out in the Dominican Republic and then New York.

An obsession with rock formations and volcanos begins for her at a young age. When her family moves from the Dominican Republic to New York when she’s 8, she begins to collect rocks in a shoebox: ordinary rocks picked up in random places, but she paints them with colors and thinks of them as various minerals and formations. It’s not only the beauty of the rocks, or the science, that appeals to her, it’s about the power displayed in geological forces, a power not available to her:

Geological changes that took thousands or millions of years to occur looped in Leticia’s head like never-ending movie: mountain ranges pushing out of the earth, minerals being formed from fluids that solidified and turned into beautiful crystals, rocks being compressed by heat and pressure, and the tiny scream of a mosquito as its life was pressed away. In volcanoes, the slow processes were sped up like cataclysmic changes she wanted in her own life, but most people were like rocks – shaped by circumstances and time. Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes something else.

I very much like that metaphor of how lives are created by forces that are outside of our control. I like a lot of the imagery and language in the story. One of the ways Leticia is shaped by circumstances is with the accidental death of her younger brother; when someone asks her if she has siblings, she tells him, “Yes, two. But now one.” That’s an interesting phrasing, connoting both the initial state, and the change, and highlighting the loss by forcing the listener (and reader) to think about it. Yet it’s not “written”, which would be incongruous in spoken dialogue; it sounds like an explanation an intellligent young woman who’s been asked this question many times might have ready. And when she meets the man who will become her fiancé, an astronomer, she admires someone who looks at the night sky all the time. He replies, “No, these days I spend very little time looking at actual stars. It’s mostly looking at hard data.” Having taken a course in solar system astronomy, I can agree that a great deal of the telescope work our instructor showed us was analylsis of signals and mathematical modeling of probabilities rather than stargazing.

Leticia’s parents are more practical-minded, and while they think rock collecting is a nice hobby, they encourage her to train as a secretary or accountant so she will not work in a factory like they do. I understand that; they’re hoping she will have a better life than theirs, but they see only one step ahead, rather than the three or four Leticia’s seen. The death of her brother solidify her plans, first with a lassitude that makes her unable to resist the path of least resistance, and second as she steps into the breach created by her parents’ grief-diminished ability to support the family.

But the astronomer does come along, and it’s on a romantic trip to Hawaii that the rocks of the earth reclaim her. Or, in another reading, that she chooses the lithosphere over the biosphere. The subsequent events aren’t entirely clear to me, and again I felt left up in the air, but the story is about that choice she made to return to her natural element; the rest, I suppose, is commentary.

According to Ferreras’ Contributor Note, the story is based on her own youthful fascination with geology and volcanology, and a “terrifying incident” that apparenty sent her in other career directions. She wrote an autobiographical essay about it, titled “Ten Famous Geologists and the Failed Geologist Who Loved Them,” a highly descriptive title. Snippets of those geological biographies are scattered through this story.

[addendum: I apologize for having done a very crappy job on this entry. I’ve been… distracted for the past couple of days. More like distraught, really. But you get the idea.]

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