BASS 2022: Yohanca Delgado, “The Little Widow from the Capital” from Paris Review #236

This story is inspired by a Latin American nursery rhyme I sang growing up called “Arros Con Leche.”
…This story takes the collective first person because nursery rhymes are stories we sing together, retelling and reinforcing them for ourselves and for each other. As I wrote, the story swiftly revealed itself to be an exploration of collective narrative – which we sometimes call gossip and sometimes call history – and its ability to transform and subvert itself, even when we think we’ve got all the facts. That the story is set entirely in the domestic sphere is no accident; I wanted to celebrate how full of life, magic, and imagination domestic spaces are because they are the spaces women have traditionally occupied. This is a story about women talking to each other at home.

Yohanca Delgado, Contributor Note BASS 2022

I had a quick and simple post planned. A nod to first person plural (I’m a sucker for oddball narrations), a look at the two-act-plus-an-epilogue structure, a bit about muñecas Limé, and bam, I’m going to get caught up so I can blog through BASS by January 1st. But the more I read about the narration, and the dolls, and the closer I read the text of the story, the more intricate it became: less of a nursery rhyme, more of a meditation on the tension between individuals and groups. Because we all live in both contexts.

To start with the simple view, let me defend my two-acts-and-an-epilogue structure (and be forewarned, there will be spoilers). I have no training in theatre or drama, so have no idea what technically constitutes an act of a play, but I saw two reciprocal halves in the story. The first half rises in mood, the second half falls, and then there’s a tiny little ending that allows fitting it all into a concept.

What?

On the day the widow finally arrived in New York, the rain came in fast, heavy drops that sounded like tiny birds slamming into our windows. She emerged from the taxi with a single battered suitcase and, little-girl small, stared up at our building as the rain pelted her face. Behind us our men and children called out for their dinners, but we ignored them. We would wonder later if she had seen our faces pressed up against the windows, on all six floors, peering out over flowerpots full of barren dirt.
…. She was younger than we expected her to be, thirty, maybe. The amber outfit was all wrong for the chilly autumn weather. She was from Santo Domingo, but she looked like a campesina visiting the city for the first time, everything hand-sewn and outdated by decades. She wore an old-fashioned skirt suit, tailored and nipped at her round waist, and a pair of low-heeled black leather pumps. Seeing them made us glance down at our own scuffed sneakers and leggings. On her head, she wore a pillbox hat, in matching yellow wool sculpted butter-smooth. She dressed her short, plump body as though she adored it.
Instantly, we took a dislike.

On first read, this seemed straightforward enough. A stranger comes to town. A woman in a building of women with husbands, a woman who doesn’t fit in. “We ourselves had been raised on a diet of telenovelas and American magazines, and we knew what beauty was,” the group confidently proclaims, and the little widow is not beautiful, but seems to adore herself nonetheless. On rereading, I recognized so much more: a persistence of images, from birds to families calling out for the women who are busy snooping to all that home-sewn getup.

The little widow and the residents fall into a stable if slightly uneasy truce of moderately friendly greetings in hallways but restricted access beyond. When they discover she can sew, the residents use this to get a look at her apartment: she’s hung burlap on the walls of her sewing room and embroidered scenes of palm trees and ocean vistas down to individual grains of sand. They arrange for a cousin new to town to rent a room from her, and use that as a way to get a look at the widow’s bedroom, which is also embroidered, though with a different motif:

Like the wall of her sewing room, the wall across from her bed was covered with burlap, and on that canvas the little widow had hand-stitched tidy rows of Limé dolls.
The faceless dolls looked just like the clay figurines tourists bought as souvenirs. They varied in hair and clothing—some wore their hair in a single thick plait, draped down the side of their necks, and some wore it down around their shoulders. Their dresses were every color of the rainbow and some wore Sunday hats and carried baskets of flowers. But rendered in the little widow’s hand, these familiar dolls took on an eerie quality. Sonia studied the wall for a long time and became convinced that the dolls represented us.
She took a picture and texted it to the group. We looked at the faceless dolls, with their caramel skin and their ink-black hair styled into bouffants and braids and pigtails. Then we looked at each other, with our jeans and winter boots and blonde highlights.
The resemblances are uncanny, we said.

It takes a lot to look at faceless dolls with black hair wearing rainbow dresses and carrying flowers and decide the resemblance to one’s blonde highlights, jeans, and winter boots is uncanny. You really have to want to see it that way. It makes for a more exciting life, just as it does for a more exciting story. And it gives them an excuse to dislike her, mistrust her, think she’s a witch out to steal their husbands. And by the way, this is only the second time in my life I’ve encountered the word “ensorcel” in any form.

Of course, given my love for researching all manner of trivia from these stories, I had to look up Limé dolls, better known as Muñecas Limé.

Muñecas Limé, also known as Dominican faceless dolls, are a celebrated handicraft of the Dominican Republic and in Dominican homes. Over 40 years ago, in 1981, pottery worker Liliana Mera Limé began sculpting small clay dolls in the town of Moca, located in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic.
Two challenges faced Limé on the potter’s wheel as she set out to depict the beauty of Dominican women in the small, ceramic figures. First, she lacked the necessary tools to define small facial features. Second, no single face could depict the broad spectrum of Dominican diversity. Her solution gave the dolls their most significant feature. Each ceramic figure was given a smooth surface without facial features. Therefore, Muñecas Limé (Limé dolls) became Dominican faceless dolls.
Limé’s original figures were styled with baskets of fruit, hands holding flowers, colorful hats, and dresses with ruffles. Their simple beauty attracted mass appeal and quickly drew interest in Dominican shops.
Today, Dominican faceless dolls are crafted by numerous artists across the Dominican Republic. Their styles and features have broadened to better encompass diverse Dominican identities.
The dolls have many skin tones and depict the mixed heritage and diversity of Dominican people. They honor African, European, and Indigenous identity.
Dominican faceless dolls reflect the multifaceted roles of Dominican women—roles recognized and unrecognized, celebrated or ignored. They depict Dominican mothers, children, wives, farmers, street-vendors, artists, breadwinners, laborers, and more.

“Muñecas Limé: Dominican Faceless Dolls”: article available online

These dolls incorporate the tension between individuality and group identity that runs through the story. The artist sacrificed the individuality of faces to appeal to group identity, yet they must be individuals, for she had to select skin tones, clothing, role indicators, and other details. There’s a subconscious (or maybe not so sub-) tendency to associate these dolls with voodoo, but I could find no connection; voodoo is more a Haitian phenomenon. Still, the connection remains, and the group reinforces it with their concerns about witchcraft.

But this act, as I’m calling it, does start to lift in mood with the arrival of Andrés, the little widow’s suitor. “[W]e heard her laugh ringing in the halls, a lovely, alien sound.” When he proposes, the group runs to see her engagement ring, “[r]elieved that she was finally on the right track, heading toward a life we understood…” The individual has found a way into the group, and the group has found a way to incorporate her. End Act One.

Act Two goes in the other direction, as Andrés turns out to be a scumbag. She sends him away while wearing “a silk dressing gown, embroidered with human hearts the size of silver dollars.” I have to struggle to visualize this detail. Had it read “embroidered with hearts” I wouldn’t have given it much thought, but why the detail of human hearts? That makes me think of anatomical hearts, but I’d be surprised if that’s the case; the anatomical heart doesn’t really resemble the more common Valentine’s heart. I wonder if the idea is to generate imagery of the dress being covered with actual hearts. Now that’s creepy.

Andrés is devastated by the little widow’s rejection, first begging for forgiveness, then asserting the same idiotic masculinity that got him in trouble in the first place. The group all listen at their doors, “swatting away needy children and chatty husbands,” as he tries to beat down the door, while Cheryl, the one of the group who lives across from the little widow, surreptitiously watches the results:

Only Cheryl – who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all the while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andrés – can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.
Andrés raised his arm again, and as he drew it back for another blow, it froze. The arm appeared to be stuck to his head, as if glued there. His back still to Cheryl, Andrés shook himself and tried to use his other hand to pry it loose, but that one became attached, too, and then it looked like he was holding his hands to his head, the way men do when their baseball team is losing. He began to make a frantic humming sound.
When he turned to Cheryl, with the purest, most desperate panic she had ever seen blazing in his eyes, she discovered that his lips had been sewn shut with large, sloppy stitches.
He dropped to his knees with a grunt, and then bent in half at the waist. He kept folding in on himself, over and over, becoming smaller and smaller, his moans of distress more and more distant, until he was just a small scrap of cream fabric that fluttered to the floor in front of apartment 4E.

Thus the witchcraft – in literary terms, magical realism, a realistic story with one magical element as opposed to a fantasy story in which magical events predominate – the group has been assuming, that has been hanging over the story like a faint vapor, becomes realized. This is cool enough, but two outside sources helped me see it in other terms.

First was Jake Weber, my blogging buddy, who in his post (link below) writes: “When something that doesn’t happen in the real world happens in a story where most things do happen in the real world, then, I look at it like a song in a musical. It’s not about the thing, it’s about what the thing signifies.” That sort of takes the fun out of musicals and the magic out of magic realism. Of course we can note that the little widow’s will shut the guy up and reduced him to nothing; there’s reference later that he might have been seen elsewhere, but it’s presented as highly questionable. As the story says, you get to decide what to believe.

The other reference was a post on the Ploughshares blog (again, link below) which compares the story to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and discusses how a named character from the group, in this case, Cheryl, is discredited, punished, temporarily ejected, to maintain the homogeneity of the group:

Named individuals, importantly, are doomed in both pieces… The group narrator, however, casts doubt on the credibility of Cheryl, its chief spy, who allegedly witnessed the incident: “Only Cheryl, who slowly and silently slipped the chain lock into place, all while holding her door ajar and keeping one eye firmly on Andres—can describe what happened next, and only you can decide if you believe it.” In undermining Cheryl, the group narrator communicates that she has outlived her usefulness: she sees and is seen as an individual. Cheryl comes to this realization as well: when the widow locks eyes with her, Cheryl “nearly died of shame.”…
The group narrator is threatened only by individual agency. But, in a twist of fate, the group narrator grows by recruiting individuals. When the group’s desires go unfulfilled by the individual resisting affiliation, group aggression corners the individual until they are vanquished. Groups form when individuals relinquish their autonomy, but they cannot exist without individuals.

“The Monolithic, Unforgiving Group Narrator” by Dedria Humphries available online at the Ploughshares blog

I’m not sure I buy this. There are two other named characters, and neither are excluded in any way; in fact, their information is incorporated into the group. But it’s still an interesting point: individuality again must be sacrificed to belong to the group, which may or may not accept individual contributions. In the case of Sonia and Florencia, the group absorbs their individual contributions; in the case of Cheryl, they doubt. Even Cheryl’s name is different from the other two. Is her story too outrageous for belief, even by this group that’s already considering witchcraft?

But we still haven’t finished Act Two: the little widow – who, notice, is never named, who is not afforded that particular individuation – is still on stage. It is her wedding day, and the rejection of the groom doesn’t deter her from putting on her wedding dress – embroidered with women’s names – and marching down the aisle – er, hall – and climbs up to the roof, raising herself, where of course she throws herself off before the group realizes what’s going to happen and belatedly moves to stop her.

The dress dissolved into a thousand pigeons, and they filled the space between our building and the next with brown and grey and white, with the sounds of wings flapping. The air was thick with the feathery thrum of their wings as they flew away in different directions, toward downtown, toward the river, toward the Bronx, and skyward, toward heaven.
The little widow was gone. All we had left – as we huddled together for warmth on that silver roof and watched the sky deepen to the bruised plum of Manhattan night – was the story. And so we told it again, and again, until we had stitched the details into our memory.

And now that trifecta of images from that early paragraph – birds, neglected families, snooping – is fulfilled. While it’s perfectly understandable that someone falling off a roof in a city would disturb the ubiquitous pigeons, it’s so much more magical to imagine the dress transforming, the widow disappearing, perhaps embodied in the birds as they fly everywhere. Whichever, she is, for the group in the building, gone.  And all that is left is the story, as is – or will be – the case with all of us. End Act Two.

The final few paragraphs, what I see as the epilogue, are all about the story. In this, the group not only absorb the little widow into their group, but they can “write” their wrongs: the little widow is not gone, but shows up in another town to a warmer welcome, her magical sewing ability now something wonderful instead of frightening: “[W]e, too, thrilled to imagine it.” They now see her as Legendary.

Although this is only the second story in this year’s anthology (and I’ve briefly glanced at the third story), I’m beginning to sense a thematic connection: the connection between stories and history, for better or worse, since stories can range from accurate reports to gossip to wishful thinking to outright lies. A historian requires documentation; a storyteller can rely on imagination. We might do well to mind the distance between the two; both can be enjoyed for themselves.

I greatly enjoyed this story both as a fun read and as a more technical work that plays with narration and imagery. It’s worth considering how we embrace and exclude people from our overlapping communities, and worth thinking about what individualities we must give up in order to join a group – and which ones the group can absorb.

  * * *   

  • Delgado reads the story (starting at about the 10-minute mark) at the Paris Review podcast #19, “A Memory of the Species”
  • Jake Weber’s post at Workshop Heretic disenchants, perhaps, but makes a valid point, by comparing the story to musical theater. And he taught me the word “diegetic.”
  • Dedria Humphries compares the story to Faulkner in her post “The Monolithic, Unforgiving Group Narrator” at the Ploughshares blog.
  • Find out more about Muñecas Limé at the National Park Service website (if you’re wondering why the Salem, MA branch of NPS is doing an article on Dominican dolls, it’s because there’s a sizeable Dominican population in the town).
  • The song “Arroz con Leche” and the lyrics are easily available; there are several variations.

2 responses to “BASS 2022: Yohanca Delgado, “The Little Widow from the Capital” from Paris Review #236

  1. I hope it’s not too disenchanting. I, too, enjoy the musical numbers. I can lose myself in the song, but when I’m thinking about it later, I don’t imagine that the significance has anything to do with literal flash mobs doing numbers in the streets. I just figure you have to imagine what kind of emotional truth that number presents. Over time, I’ve come to look at magical realism’s moments in the same way. I can both enjoy the magical quality but also step back from it and think about it afterwards.

    BTW, it was my son who taught diegetic to me a few years ago. Not him, but the video he was watching. Just so I’m not pretending I’ve been going around my whole life knowing stuff.

    • Not bad for a kid who, IIRC, wasn’t into school.

      I remember when the film version of Cabaret was released, a lot of people (including my roommate at the time, who at 27 seemed impossibly sophisticated to my 19) were relieved that a musical could have a more natural incorporation of song. Me, I still go for people bursting into song in between kisses. In film, at least – not so sure I’d go for it IRL.
      Now that would be a cool performance art piece – someone suddenly singing randomly throughout the day as the mood struck them.

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