“The Isabels” by Mariel Yovino

Issue 19 / Fall 2019

 

“Is that her?” Lucía asked.

“Yes, ma’am, that’s her. Every sequence is the same,” he said. “Every molecule.”

They were as proud of her as Lucía had been when she’d seen her—the original—for the first time.

She’d been born in her amniotic sack. Lucía’s mother had crossed herself, but Margot had said it was good luck, in her distant, medical way. Her eyes had opened the moment she was placed in her mother’s arms—large and brown and ready to face the world.

The little girl across the glass had her eyes, her timid step, and her curious smile.

“Would you like to meet her?”

“What have you told her?” Margot asked.

“We’ve always said her family was away, and one day, when she was ready, they’d come for her. She’s excited to meet you.”

Margot placed her hand on Lucía’s shoulder. “Are you ready?”

Lucía nodded, but her thoughts were very far away.

The women were led beyond the two-way mirror into the playroom. The child was standing next to a miniature table and chair, and the doctor made the introduction.

“Isabel, we have two very important guests who have been waiting to meet you for a long time. Do you want to say hello?”

Lucía noted the softness in the man’s voice and wondered how long she had been in his care, and if he felt even a bit of what Lucía felt at seeing her. She watched her give that weary look to the three adults, assessing a situation too heavy for her to understand, and then her decision to say simply, “Hello.”

Lucía’s eyes teared at the familiar sound. Margot stepped forwards and knelt in front of her. “Hello, Isabel. May I call you Izzy?”

The child looked at the doctor. He nodded.

“Okay,” the girl said. She shuffled on her feet. “What’s your names?”

“I’m Margot, and that,” she said, glancing behind her, “is Lucía. We’re your moms, and we’re here to take you home. Would that be okay?”

Isabel bit her lip and reached towards the table. Lucía didn’t move, but Margot asked, “What have you got there?”

“I drew it.” She pulled the paper off the table and hugged it to her chest.

“Oh, I love drawing!” Margot said. The portrait of Margot and Lucía in acrylic paint hung magnetized to a refrigerator in their house a few miles away. The girl peeled the paper from her chest and turned it around slowly, towards Margot.

“Oh my! That’s wonderful! What is it?”

“Rainbow,” Isabel answered.

“We have lots of rainbows by our home,” Margot said.

The girl’s eyes widened.

 

*

 

Margot and Lucía sat side by side on the living room sofa. Isabel walked around the room in uneven steps. Margot looked over at Lucía, who was allowing herself to smile. The toys hadn’t changed. In four years, the bin that held the toys on the bottom shelf by the wall in their family room hadn’t been moved or rearranged. It was dusted along with the other permanent objects in the house each Thursday.

“She likes the cubes,” Margot commented. Isabel had always been drawn to the toys designed to test her intelligence and reasoning skills. The toys were all chosen to get Isabel into a competitive preschool, then a distinguished kindergarten program, and eventually a well-established grade school. Margot watched Izzy gravitate to the same toys, stacking and unraveling blocks, more interested in the process than the result. Lucía watched the child touch and move the toys, interacting with her new environment with ease.

“It’s so bizarre. She’s the same…” Margot said to Lucía without taking her eyes of Isabel.

“But different,” Lucía replied in the same way.

“Exactly. Except…she really is the same. Her hair curls the same way. She…I don’t know, she plays the same way. Don’t you think?”

“Yes. But she feels different.”

“Well,” Margot said gently, placing her hand on her wife’s knee. “She’s different, she was bound to be. She didn’t grow up these last three years in our house. We’re not her mothers…yet. She didn’t–” Margot hesitated. “She didn’t grow inside you, but she’s yours.”

Lucía touched her hand to her stomach in an unconscious reflex. “Right.”

“We just need to give it a little time, babe. Will you do that for me? For you, really.” Margot’s tone was gentle, but her request felt heavy. Lucía nodded.

 

*

 

Lucía had that dream the first night Isabel slept in the house. Izzy was under water, pulling for her but she couldn’t reach her. Lucía slept poorly. She had the dream again and again as the nights went on. They were all under a murky water with seaweed threatening in every direction. Izzy was ready for her, and her arms were outstretched, Margot in her periphery screaming blindly through the darkness of the water. Lucía reached but couldn’t get Izzy in her grasp, and she didn’t know which way was up anyway. Then the water became ink and it didn’t matter. There was only down, down into the black.

Lucía screamed in her dream at them, but they were gone. She screamed and reached and pulled nothing but water and ink towards her. They reached her. She felt the fingertips on her shoulders, then the words formed, and she felt her arms. It was her and Margot was sitting next to her with her eyes wide.

“You were dreaming.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You were.”

“I was remembering.”

“The day…” she asked, but she didn’t have to.

“Not that. The dream from before. When I first knew…”

“That was just a dream, too.”

“It wasn’t. It happened.”

Margot explained something she learned in her grief counseling, that sometimes a distraught mind remembered things differently. That a memory could sometimes create a false sense of foresight. She explained that Lucía had probably only had that dream shortly after.

Lucía lay back down and faced away from her wife. “What’s the point of a premonition if it changes nothing?” she asked.

 

*

 

Isabel pulled her legs across the yard, her eyes wide with wonder at the grass, the trees that bordered the yard in a false privacy from the close neighbors, and at the open blue sky that had no height of fences to restrict it. Margot asked if the girl liked cookies, and presented a tray of warm homemade butter cookies, still cooling from the oven. Isabel made her way over as fast her legs could carry her, which wasn’t particularly fast. The grass was soft under her feet, and she struggled not to trip as she moved.

Margot held the tray high with a mitt and embraced the girl with the whole of her left arm. She kissed her on the top of her head and asked her to be careful as she lowered the tray and pulled one off for her. “It’s butter, your… I thought you might like this kind,” she said carefully.

The girl took one, tore a bite, and smiled.

“Do you like that?” Margot asked.

The child sensed her intention and nodded.

“Have you had a cookie like that?”

She examined the half-bitten remains. “The sprinkles are blue.”

“Yes, they are. Do you like blue?”

She nodded and finished the treat, then said ‘thank you’ and returned to the soft canvas of the yard.

Margot approached Lucía, who sat on one of the woven chairs by the dormant fire pit. She pulled up a matching chair. “Cookie?” Lucía shook her head. Her knees were drawn up in a curve and her arms were draped over the rests on either side of the chair. Margot popped a cookie in her mouth. She said with a full mouth, “Man…this batch came out good,” and held out the cooking tray with her mitted hand.

Lucía shook her head again, but her stare never separated from Isabel.

Margot placed the cookie rack on the bistro table and reclined on the chair. Isabel bent down to watch something in the grass. Margot noticed the fabric move up her chubby legs and wondered if she was a little taller than Izzy had been at her age. The only clothes in the drawers in the house were just that size and no larger. Margot was thinking about shopping, of maybe going to that store off Fourth Avenue.

Lucía interrupted her, “You watch her the same.”

“How else should I watch her?”

Lucía scoffed.

“How else should I watch her?”

Lucía was silent.

“How do you see her?”

“This feels like a bad dream. Like in the beginning when everything seems normal but you know something bad is going to happen soon but you can’t wake yourself up.” Lucía hugged her knees to her chest.

“This is a good dream. This is what we wanted. We both made this decision. This is a second chance.” Lucía watched Isabel pick up a snail with two tender fingers.

Margot told her to be gentle, and the child placed it back down on a rock. The women watched the animal latch onto the rock, and Margot said, “She’s kind, just like her. She laughs the same, plays the same. Please tell me you can see that.”

Margot watched their new daughter and felt the swell of softness she’d forgotten she could feel. “There was a time I begged in my head to no one for this.” She faced her wife. “For all of us. This is all I’ve wanted for so long. You, too, as I remember it. Please, try.”

Lucía nodded and watched the snail move its way across the stone.

 

*

 

It was Izzy’s fifth birthday. There would be two fifth birthdays before there was a sixth birthday. Margot and Lucía had been over it for three weeks, until Margot’s parents had intervened. Margot’s mother had begged for the party and cited the financial support they’d offered in finding the replacement. They’d given nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, after all. There had been the argument.

Our granddaughter.

Our daughter.

Our money.

Our lives.

The future.

And the debate was put to rest.

The balloons were a different color. The store was out of blue, so purple won. The cake was similar. The neighbors’ and schoolmates’ children were too old now—precisely seven years too old—so it was a party without peers. Lucía had begun early with a white wine spritzer, while Margot concerned herself with small games, the jump house, and the cleanliness of the kitchen. Lucía’s mother found Lucía on the front steps, a whole house between her and the party. She had betrayed the ice and soda water for the wine and the glass.

Lucía’s mother sat on the step beside her. “How are you doing, kitten?” It was a term of endearment tracing back a long way that always softened Lucía’s edges. “You feeling alright?”

“I’m fine, mom. Did Margot tell you to check on me?”

Her mother laughed and stretched her legs out in front of her to absorb the sunlight. “No one needs to tell a mother to check on her child. You know that.”

Lucía nodded.

“We worry about you all the time, you must know that.” If there was one thing Lucía knew, it was that she didn’t like being told she must already know something.

Lucía nodded.

“When you were little, my God,” her mother touched the cross on her decolletage. “What I wouldn’t do to relive those years. They race by and you miss the parties, the games, the days when they needed you.”

“There are things you wouldn’t do or couldn’t… You wouldn’t want to relive it if…”

Lucía’s mother turned to her daughter and crossed herself. She said, “Mija, that’s not what I meant. If anything, I couldn’t have lived through it. You and Margot are the strongest mothers I know. We didn’t have options then. The end was the end.”

“There’s always an end to things,” Lucía said.

“Yes, but it’s different now. You have a second chance.”

“Illusions are illusions, Mama. God just tests our resolve, that’s all he does.”

Lucía and her mother crossed themselves at the same time.

“But sometimes, mija, he gives us a rope.” She turned to her daughter and placed her hand on her knee. “We have to take that rope and see where it lands. It’s not always a test; sometimes it’s a lifeline.” She looked at the wine glass in her daughter’s hand. “Sometimes it’s a miracle just when we need one.”

“But sometimes, Mama, it’s just a snake in the grass.”

 

*

 

The party commenced, and there was cake and music and happy grandparents. Margot played hide and seek in the bordering trees, and lit the candles, and wiped a tear off her cheek when Isabel blew out the flames before Lucía could see it.

After the party, Lucía watched the child sleep. The guests had left, and Margot had fallen asleep on the couch. Lucía closed the door behind her so she wouldn’t wake Margot. The child breathed softly in her blankets. Lucía walked to the corner of the room and sat on her legs. She pulled out the old pages, held upright in the bookshelf, and withdrew the drawing. They stood in the picture, with their cat that had run away. She remembered how Izzy had loved the cat, and how the cat had disappeared soon after the drawing. In the blank white landscape of the paper, Margot, Lucía, and Izzy held hands under a cartooned sun. Lucía touched her belly and remembered the feeling of Izzy growing. She felt the distance to Margot. This was a distance only a mother could feel, and only a writer could even try to explain. The drawing was damp at the top left corner now, and Lucía needed to look at her. This mirage of the life she once created, this daughter she once grew inside of her was asleep in the old bed, in the old room, in the old house of her former life. Lucía bent over to smell the child.

It was off somehow, more spice and less talcum, to Lucía. She felt the sudden urge to wretch, but pushed it down. Lucía sat on the edge of the bed. She heard the Devil’s words that had been placed in her head.

This is not your daughter. You bore her. You wrapped her body in a sheet. This creature sleeps on her left side. She occupies a spare life, empty from before. Lucía watched Isabel sleep and pictured the laundry room. On the meticulously hung shelves above the machines was an unopened bottle of bleach, waiting for the white sheets Margot would never buy, for the dance uniform Izzy would never wear. She pictured Margot finding her on the floor, next to the bleach bottle cap rolled under one of the machines. She closed her eyes and the feeling in her stomach returned. It was the never-far-off feeling of the premonition. The water pushed its way into her lungs, and she reached out her arms over the sleeping form of the creature. She felt the Devil’s grasp. What’s the point of a premonition? What’s the point, except to speak to the Devil? Except for Job to prove his allegiance? She remembered Margot asleep on the couch. Margot, the mother who would never understand the thing all knew but none could express.

Lucía’s eyes were running water now as she picked up a pillow. As she pressed it down, she remembered Izzy, her daughter who used to sleep on her right side and who she couldn’t walk the Earth without. When that task was done, she found Margot, but left her as she was. Lucía entered the laundry room with the drawing, dampened with tears, folded in her shirt front pocket. She shut the door, and asked for forgiveness in her first language. She locked the door from the world that tried to make her forget, prepared herself for the next one, and turned to see the dusty bottle of bleach undisturbed on its shelf.

 

Mariel Yovino’s poetry has appeared in The West Trade Review, VerbalArt Journal, and Gyroscope Review. She has poetry and short fiction forthcoming in Loch Raven Review, Caesura, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Sin Fronteras. Yovino pursued a BA in literature at Boston University and now works as a freelance writer in the Boston area.

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