By Clare Moore
Celia, or Cici as she was known to her family and friends, was six years old when she made her first acquaintance with death. Her parents had not sheltered her—she knew that death was a part of life, much like birthdays, school, and asthma. Death was why she had never met her great grandmother Celia Hernandez, her namesake. Deep contemplations about death and its inevitability, however, occupied very little of this six year old girl’s imagination, and were often pushed aside in favor of fairies, cupcakes, and the color purple. Until one day Cici’s mother interrupted a rather detailed imagining of fairies to tell her that her grandfather had suffered a heart attack in his orange orchard that morning and passed away before reaching the hospital.
“At least he went peacefully,” Mama said, holding back tears at the death of her father. Cici knew that people cried when death happened—her friend Amanda had cried when her grandmother died, and cousin Lorena sobbed when her dog was put down. Her mother needed to cry, so Cici hugged her, letting Mama brush her fingers through the little girl’s hair until her mother’s breathing become more regular.
“I remember when we first moved into the house on Cherry Lane,” Mama said, tears still close at hand. “I cried every night because I missed my friends in Arizona. Then one night Papa came and sat on my bed. He told me, ‘Josie, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to miss your friends and the old house and Senora Sanchez across the street. You just cry till you feel better, and then you’ll see that California isn’t so bad.’ He held me until I stopped crying and went to sleep. He even cried too.” Fresh tears slid down Mama’s cheek until they dropped from her chin onto the embroidered couch pillow. Cici could feel the wet circle they left on the pillow.
She wanted to cry too. She squeezed her eyes shut as hard as she could, but nothing came out. She’d heard adults talk about how hearts could hurt, but Cici knew where her heart was and that wasn’t where the pain was. Her stomach ached, like it did when she was hungry. It was a hollow, empty feeling, but it didn’t make her cry. Why couldn’t she cry?
If she went to the old blue house on Cherry Lane, Papa wouldn’t be there. She missed him awfully, like she had when he and Grandma Anita had traveled to Mexico City. She’d hated the empty house on Cherry Lane those two months, but then he’d come back and nothing was empty or missing anymore.
Cici had seen Papa yesterday when they’d squeezed oranges together to make fresh orange juice. They’d only done half of the oranges they’d picked, so she’d have to go back to finish the other half. They’d planned to finish the rest today, so how could he not be at the house on Cherry Lane when she came over this afternoon? People didn’t just disappear, and there was still half a bucket of oranges to squeeze.
“The funeral is on Thursday, Cici,” Mama said. “We have to find you a black dress.” She dried her eyes with a tissue and left the couch, going into the bedroom. Cici heard her start to cry all over again with Daddy.
The black dress Mama found was itchy, a hand-me-down from her cousin Rosa. The stuffy heat of St. Mary’s Catholic Church only made the itchiness worse. It was a hot day for June, and none of the church’s vibrant stained glass windows opened. The Hernandez family mingled amidst the church pews, the women all in black dresses and the men in suits and ties. All of Cici’s family was here, even her Aunt Sofia who lived in Oregon. It felt like Christmas or Easter with everyone gathered together, but this time they wouldn’t go home and make Grandma’s Hernandez’s special tamales. Instead, Daddy had ordered enchiladas and burritos from a restaurant. Restaurant Mexican food. There were few things Cici hated more.
She fidgeted in her dress, pulling the lace on her waist trying to air herself out. Small beads of sweat were forming under her arms, courtesy of the thick cotton and lack of ventilation in the church. Even her shoes felt uncomfortable, her toes pinched in her black Mary Janes. Cici felt ready to burst, but then she felt a cool hand on her shoulder.
“I remember the first time I met your papa,” Daddy said, his voice steady but quiet. “Your mother brought me over before Christmas. She joined your aunts in the kitchen and left me in the living room all alone. Your papa came over to me and put a beer in one of my hands and a box of Christmas ornaments in the other, pointed to the tree and told me to get to work.”
Cici glanced up to see the soft, far-off look in her father’s eyes. It was odd to see Daddy looking so distant.
“I always respected that man,” he said. Daddy didn’t cry like Mama. He just stared out towards the crucifix hanging in front of the church, then beyond.
Cici curled up and rested her head on his shoulder. She felt him tilt his head down and kiss the top of her hair. She felt the need to cry again. She squeezed her eyes shut, but nothing happened.
With a heavy sigh, she curled her scrawny knees to her chest and hugged her legs. Cici loved Papa; he deserved tears. She missed him as much as Mama or Daddy. She wanted to find Papa in the crowd of suits and black feather hats and ask him why she couldn’t make any tears. She always directed her questions to him. But then she remembered she wouldn’t find him in the sea of black that filled the church, and she thought of the unsqueezed oranges sitting in a gallon paint bucket in the kitchen on Cherry Lane.
The funeral mass was longer than Cici expected. Mama had left the Catholic Church years before having Cici, and it took a lot of concentration to count Hail Mary’s and not lose her balance with all of the sitting and standing and kneeling. Cici thought she did a fair job of not squirming between Mama and Daddy, but she was grateful when everyone stood and the priest walked down the aisle after the final prayer.
Her mother squeezed her hand and left to thank Papa’s old friends for coming. Cici saw some of her cousins dash outside, with her Uncle Victor chasing after them. Looking around, she saw everyone slowly making their way towards the door, but she noticed Aunt Sofia and Sonja make their way to the front of the church.
Papa’s casket was there—a dark brown box longer than the altar—surrounded by blue and orange flowers. Cici watched her aunts approach the wooden box and kneel on a padded stool before it, arranging their black lace skirts around their knees.
She tugged on her father’s sleeve. “What are they doing?”
He followed her gaze. “It’s an open casket, Celia. You can go see him if you want.”
Cici’s eyes widened, and she noticed the lid of the casket was propped up.
“Can I see?” she asked.
Daddy nodded briefly. “If you want.”
Cici looked at the casket. Sonja and Sofia were just standing and reaching into their purses to grab fresh tissues.
Papa is there, she thought. But so was a dead body. She wanted to see Papa, but would he look different? Would he look dead? She didn’t even know what dead was supposed to look like because she’d never seen a dead body before except on TV, and that never looked real.
She pulled her father’s hand. “Come with me.”
He shook his head. “I want to remember him how he was in life. Not like this.”
Cici’s heart sank. She didn’t want to go up there alone, with a dead body, but a growing curiosity pulled her towards the casket.
Cici slipped past her father into the aisle of the church. Looking straight ahead, the red carpet was a straight shoot to the altar, draped in white lace. Jesus hung on a cross above the altar, his head tilted to the side, looking away from the coffin. Maybe he wanted avoid looking at death. His face was forlorn. Cici supposed that was how people looked before they died. But Jesus had come back only three days after he died. He hadn’t been gone forever, which she thought was a poor example to set. If Jesus’ friends got to see him three days after he died, she should get to see Papa.
Biting her lip, she looked up at the effigy before her. It felt like he would disapprove of her curiosity to see the coffin, especially when she had yet to cry, even a little. She remembered from Sunday school that even Jesus cried when someone died.
She quickly turned away from the altar towards the coffin. It stood amidst a garden of flowers, underneath the stained glass window of St. Joseph. Unlike Jesus, St. Joseph’s gaze fell straight down on the coffin. His face looked worn, but gentle, much like Papa’s had always looked. Joseph looked like he understood her, and gave his permission for her to approach the coffin. She took a deep breath and stepped up to see Papa.
The casket was long—Papa was tall and thin—and made of a dark, smooth wood. Cici curled her fingers together as she stepped up, and then slowly sank to her knees. She wrung out her hands, unsure of where to put them. On the casket? No. On the railing?
She could see his face: eyes closed, mouth rigid. He wore a suit with a plain blue tie, and his once dark, tan skin looked yellow and sickly. She frowned at the sight of this doll made to look like Papa. None of this seemed right. She’d heard adults say being dead was like sleeping, but Papa didn’t look asleep. He looked worse—too still, too rigid, too unnatural. He smelled a little, like something she’d never smelled before, something vaguely like sour milk. And his lips? Papa always smiled. And when he wasn’t smiling he was cross, but he never had this blank, emotionless expression on his face.
Cici remembered the time she’d accidentally left the door to the chicken coup open. Thirteen chickens had escaped, running this way and that over Papa’s yard, through his garden and under the orange trees. Papa had been angry—he’d told her a thousand times to always latch the door behind her. His voice was curt and even when he was angry, but worse than his words was the way his face looked when he was angry. His eyes narrowed, his mouth drawn into a thin pressed line, and his eyes lost their usual sparkle. It had made Cici cry.
She caught four chickens before she’d stopped crying, and Papa rounded up the other ones. Once all the birds were back in the coup, Papa had walked over to her. She’d been only four, but the apologizes came spilling over just like her tears. Then Papa’s voice had gotten soft, and he picked her up and held her to his chest. His face changed, his eyes softening and his mouth relaxing, and he looked almost amused. Then he smiled and wiped her tears away, his eyes sparkling again. Papa’s face had always been full of life—happiness, anger, sadness, fatigue. But never nothing.
Cici let go of the railing. She didn’t know this person. This wasn’t Papa, and she shouldn’t have looked.
She turned and hopped down the steps, almost running into her cousin Carlo. She ignored him and hurried down the church aisle, past her father waiting in the pew, past her mother hugging Grandma Anita, past Jesus hanging from the cross. She found the door and went out to the sunlight, her Mary Janes click-clacking on the pavement of the church parking lot.
She hugged herself as she paced, walking off the eerie feeling and funny smell from the casket. It felt like a bad dream, and she would wake up and finish squeezing the oranges with Papa. But she couldn’t shake the memory of that face—Papa’s brown skin turned sickly, his face without any trace of life, that awful, faint smell.
Cici decided she didn’t like funerals. If Mama and Daddy would come out to the parking lot, they could go home and forget about this, forget Papa was dead. They could drink orange juice and talk about the time Papa took her to see baby chickens at the feed store or let her ride on his shoulders at the zoo. They could go to Cherry Lane and she would finish squeezing the last of the oranges. That was better than wearing an itchy black dress on a hot day, better than listening to her mother cry, better than seeing a lifeless body that was certainly not Papa.
She should have followed her father’s example and let the last time she saw Papa be making orange juice in the kitchen on Cherry Lane. Not this.
Cici sat on the curb, hugged her knees to her chest, and started to cry.
Clare is one of the managing editors of Ampersand, but she’s just biding her time until she can run away to New Zealand and live in a Hobbit hole. Until that day, she spends her time in California binge watching episodes of Once Upon A Time.