Novelist Laura Esquivel, author of the fabled Like Water for Chocolate, has tucked a sly mystery into the heart of this sensuous tale of “a fat policewoman,” an alcoholic to boot, who is a prime witness to an assassination in her Mexican district and understands fear—but also comes to understand that there are miraculous, healing influences that go beyond modern understanding. Compulsively readable, Pierced by the Sun was published last month by Amazon Crossing, an Amazon publishing house dedicated to works in translation. You can purchase this paperback here, here and here.
LUPITA LIKED TO IRON
SHE COULD SPEND long hours dedicated to this work and show no signs of fatigue. Ironing brought her peace. It was her favorite form of therapy and she turned to it daily, even after a long day of work. Lupita’s passion for ironing had been handed down to her by her mother, Doña Trini, who had washed and ironed other people’s clothes for a living her whole life. Lupita would invariably repeat the ritual learned from her sacrosanct mother, which began with the spraying of the garments. Modern-day steam irons do not require an article of clothing to be moist, but for Lupita there was no other way to iron. She considered it sacrilegious to skip this step.
That night when she got home, she immediately headed to the ironing board and began to spray the garments. Her hands trembled like a hungover alcoholic’s, which made the spraying that much easier. It was imperative that she concentrate on something other than the murder of Licenciado Arturo Larreaga—the delegado of her district, Iztapalapa—which she had witnessed just a few hours earlier.
As soon as the clothes were properly sprayed she went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, giving the water time to warm up. She filled a bucket with a copious amount of detergent and placed it in the shower. Before she stepped in she opened a plastic bag and immediately recoiled from the stench of the urine-soaked pants that were inside. She submerged the pants in the bucket and started to wash herself. She scrubbed away the cloying smell of urine that had emanated from her body, but the shame that was embedded deep in her soul remained.
What had all those people thought of her when they realized she had pissed herself? What would they think of her now? How could she make them forget the pathetic image of a fat policewoman standing in the middle of a crime scene with dripping pants? As an incorrigible criticizer herself, she was acutely aware of the power an image could have. What she dreaded the most was the thought of Inocencio, the delegado’s new driver. Last week she had made such an effort to get his attention, and for what? Now when they ran into each other Inocencio would only remember her in soaking pants. What a way to finally get his attention. Although she had to admit that Inocencio had behaved delicately with her. While she was waiting to give her official statement, she had stepped away from everyone at the precinct in order to not offend them with her stench. When Inocencio approached her, she panicked.
The last thing she wanted was for him to smell her! Inocencio was holding a pair of cashmere pants under his arm, explaining that he usually kept them in the trunk of his car. The pants had just been dry-cleaned, and he graciously offered them to Lupita so she could change. He even loaned her his handkerchief so she could dry her tears. She would never, in her whole life, forget this act of tenderness. Ever. But now was not the time to dwell on it, because she could no longer handle the emotional roller coaster she had been on since that morning. Lupita was so tired that the only thing she could do was iron. She stepped out of the shower, dried off vigorously, put on her nightgown, and hurried to turn on her iron.
This ritual helped quiet her thoughts; it would jolt her back into her right mind, as if removing wrinkles were her way of setting the world straight, of asserting her authority. Ironing was an act of annihilation in which wrinkles would die and give way to order: something she required more than anything. She needed to fill her eyes with white, with cleanliness and purity so she could confirm that everything was under control, that there were no loose ends, that the pavement at the corner of Aldama Street and Ayuntamiento Street—right across from Cuihtláhuac Park—wasn’t stained with blood.
That was what Lupita yearned for, but instead the white sheets she was ironing became a small movie screen on which images from that afternoon began to play out in front of her eyes.
Lupita saw herself crossing the street across from Cuihtláhuac Park toward the delegado’s car. Inocencio was opening the passenger door for his boss. Larreaga was on the phone. Lupita almost bumped into a man while crossing the street, a man who had his hand raised to wave to the delegado. Immediately afterward, Larreaga grasped his neck, which was hemorrhaging blood.
In that moment chaos erupted. Lupita screamed and rushed to the delegado’s aid, unable to make sense of what had just happened. Nobody had shot at the delegado. There was no explosion. There was no evidence of anybody in the vicinity having any sort of knife or blade; nevertheless, a sharp object must have caused the wound to the jugular that bled Licenciado Larreaga dry. The more Lupita struggled to understand what had happened, the more she doubted everything. The more she tried to forget the look of surprise in Larreaga’s eyes when he received the wound that would take his life, the stronger it replayed in her mind and caused her to feel nausea, tremors, anguish, discomfort, rage, indignation . . . and fear. Tremendous fear.
Lupita knew fear. She had felt it thousands of times before. She could smell it, perceive it, and predict it in herself or in others. Like a stray dog, she could detect it from a distance. She could tell if people were afraid of being robbed or raped by the way they walked. She could tell who was afraid of being discriminated against, who feared old age, poverty, or being kidnapped. But there was nothing more transparent to her than the fear of not being loved, the fear of being unseen, of being ignored. That was her greatest fear, and she now felt it deep in her bones in spite of having been the center of attention for several hours. In spite of appearing all over the news as the main witness to what the media were calling a political murder. In spite of her testimony being the only thing that could lead authorities to the perpetrator. Lupita had been pressured and rushed into giving her version of events. She’d felt forced to declare the first thing that came to mind so she would not seem like an incompetent fool who had not seen or heard anything, all of which magnified her fear of being ridiculed.
She even heard a television anchorman—referring to the fact that she had wet her pants—exclaim: “That’s what happens when you give a badge to a maid.” Asshole! Who did he think he was? The worst thing was that the comment actually got to her. It hurt her deeply. It cornered her as a third-class citizen. It catalogued her within a group of people who’d never be loved or admired even when they had stood in the eye of the hurricane. Nothing had spared her from being mocked for wetting her pants, not even the fact that she had rushed to the delegado’s aid. What bothered her most was the officer who’d taken her statement and his smug look when she mentioned that it might be important that a wrinkle had disappeared from the delegado’s shirt collar. Lupita felt she had not explained herself correctly. She had not been able to convey the importance of that wrinkle—a wrinkle that had been very clearly evident on his collar earlier that morning at the adult education center but was completely gone after he was murdered. In her opinion this opened a possible line of investigation.
The feeling of having made a fool of herself was eating at her from the inside. Her face was flushed and a fire burned deep within her. The discomfort was so great that not even two hours of ironing calmed her. Both her mind and the iron wandered aimlessly. Lupita wasn’t even aware of how clumsily and abruptly she was ironing. She slid the iron over the fabric without her usual finesse and created new wrinkles, which in turn forced her to spray more to get rid of the fresh markings. The steam that emanated as a result was irritating and increased the stifling sensation inside her. An incredible amount of shame was growing and spinning wildly in her chest. There were no words to describe what she felt; it was something similar to heartburn. It was a destructive fire that made her want to leave her body, to get away from herself before being engulfed in flames. Her heart was beating rapidly, out of control. Her hands went numb. She wished to escape this world, to be somewhere else, but at the same time she was terrified of dying. Her breathing was shallow, and she felt like she could lose her mind at any moment and go completely insane. Lupita turned off the iron and set it aside. She needed to alleviate some of her pain urgently or she would burst from sheer anguish.
To top it all off, her AA sponsor wasn’t picking up the phone. Lupita had left several voicemails, but he wasn’t calling back. He had probably gone on vacation because of the long weekend. She had a list of other AA members she could turn to for help, but no one was taking her call. Fucking holidays! Fucking country! Fucking TV news anchormen! Fucking corrupt politicians! This is what they had come to in order to prevent Licenciado Larreaga from interfering with their plans! Fucking thugs! Fucking narcos! And fucking gringo drug addicts! If they didn’t consume most of the drugs produced in the world, there wouldn’t be so many Mexican drug cartels trying to satiate their demand! Fucking narco-governments! If they weren’t so hungry for illegal money siphoned off from drug trafficking, there wouldn’t be so much death! Fucking chickenshit legislators! If only they had the balls to legalize drugs. Then there wouldn’t be so much organized crime or so much fucking ambition for easy money! We wouldn’t be in this state of disarray, damn it! And fucking God, who was so fucking distracted for some reason! Lupita cursed and cursed until there was no one left to curse, including herself, because in the past she had protected small-time drug dealers to ensure she got her fix.
For a split second she felt inclined to go out and get a bottle of tequila, but the memory of her dead son held her back. Lupita had sworn on his grave that she would never drink again, and she intended to keep that promise. She tried, and failed, to remember her child’s face. It was a blur. It seemed to purposely evade her. Trying to recall the sound of his childish laughter produced the same empty result. It was as if it had never registered in her memory. Her memory operated in a strange manner. Who knows what it obeyed—certainly not Lupita. Worse still, it was her best weapon for self-harm. She could only remember things that hurt, that tortured her, that made her feel like the worst woman—the worst mother—in the world. She couldn’t even recall happy and luminous events without connecting them to painful and devastating ones. After a great deal of effort, Lupita was able to recall the color of her son’s eyes, and his innocent gaze came to her mind as well as his expression of utter shock when she— completely intoxicated—landed the blow that had accidentally taken his life. She doubled up with pain. A wave of guilt crashed over her and sent her reeling to the floor, howling like a wounded animal.
That night, for the first time in her life, Lupita left wrinkled clothes on the ironing board.
Excerpted from Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel, translated by Jordi Castells. © 2016 by Laura Esquivel. Published by AmazonCrossing, July 2016. All rights reserved.
NB: All the LittleBirds will be offline this coming Monday, celebrating the last gasp of summer. Hope you’re doing the same! See you back here on Tuesday.