A Dutiful Daughter
My mother died praying on her knees. Her rosary beads were still in her hands when we found her. She left no note, said no good-byes, gave no last hugs or kisses. Only the empty bottle of sleeping pills that had rolled under her bed proved that she'd meant to leave.
I found her first. But I didn't know she was dead. I thought she was praying.
That morning, I eased her door shut, tied on her apron, and made breakfast for my little brother and sister. I felt proud to scramble their eggs and butter their toast.
Later I tied blue ribbons in Olivia's hair and dipped the comb into a glass of water before parting Frank's. I had no idea it was the first of many mornings I'd be doing that.
After my mother died, my father couldn't bear to look at the front door of our home. I overheard Tata tell my mother's older sister, Auntie Bernadette, that he saw my mother's ghost standing by the door. That's why we're staying with Tata's sister, Auntie Minerva, in Tamuning.
"Just for a little while, Isabel," Tata told me the day we moved here, but it's been five long months. I asked Tata why we couldn't stay with Auntie Bernadette in Malesso. She lives a few houses away from us. But Tata said, "Bernadette is . . . was your mother's sister. Not mine."
Tamuning is north of Malesso. Stores and restaurants line the streets. All night long, I lie in bed and smell spicy scents from the Thai restaurant across the road. I hear cars pass on the highway. Sometimes a siren whines, reminding me of the morning the ambulance carried my mother away.
We're stupid staying in Tamuning while our lives take place in Malesso. Everyone we know lives there--Auntie Bernadette and Uncle Fernando, my friends, our dogs. Our store is there, Frank's school, and my father's boat. We're like clubs trying to be hearts in a stack of cards.
Rides to St. Cletus
Each weekday morning, before the sun rises, Tata slips out of Auntie Minerva's house and heads to Malesso to feed our dogs and spend the day fishing. Later, Auntie Bernadette drives from Malesso to pick us up for school because Auntie Minerva claims she's too busy with the church. Before taking Frank to the public school, Auntie Bernadette drops us off at St. Cletus in Talofofo.
This is Olivia's first year at St. Cletus. She's in second grade, and my father believes when girls get old enough to notice boys, it's good for them to be surrounded by nuns. I'm in eighth grade. The nuns can't stop me from looking.
Auntie Bernadette has no kids of her own and is old enough to be my grandmother. Even though she was born with a crippled hand, she's one of the most respected suruhanas on Guam. Auntie heals aches and pains and helps barren women become pregnant. She drives with her right hand, or, as she calls it, her good one. As if the other hand that stays folded, pressed against her chest, is the bad one.
Auntie Bernadette talks the entire way to Talofofo, and in the afternoon she picks us up and talks the entire way back to Auntie Minerva's house.
Olivia likes Auntie's talk because she gets to hear about how Mrs. Cruz's daughter is going to have a baby, but no husband, how Mrs. Santos spent her entire paycheck at bingo, how Roman's mom poured a pitcher of water on Roman's hungover dad and he just rolled over and peed on the couch. Olivia knows more gossip than any seven-year-old at St. Cletus.
One day I tried to remember what my mother said during our daily trips to and from school, but I couldn't remember a single word. My mother lived in a world of her own--a world filled with sadness that I couldn't see.
My school friends, Delia and Tonya, are back to their normal selves, gossiping about Lola, passing notes in class, sneaking bites of dried squid. But, after my mother died, whenever I approached, one of them would quit talking and say, "Sh-sh."
Even the nuns stopped whispering to each other when I walked by. Sister Agnes nudged Sister Rachel and their bodies straightened. "Hafa adai, Isabel."
Sh-sh. So many secrets. Don't they know there's nothing they can tell me about my mother's death?
Unless they know why she left.
Whenever I think of my mother, something fills up inside me, like water filling a bucket. It fills me up so much, I'm afraid my feelings will spill over for everyone to see. So I close my eyes and picture the water in the bucket evaporating until nothing is left, not one single drop.
1. Get up
2. Draw Olivia's bathwater and wake Olivia
3. Hide Olivia's nightgown and wet towels
4. Make sofa bed
5. Get ready for school
6. Remind Frank to comb his hair
8. Clean bathroom and vacuum
10. Eat dinner
11. Finish homework
12. Read until lights-out
Auntie Minerva is a techa. To be chosen a techa, you must know the rosary in Chamorro. Most people my age understand a few Chamorro words like Hafa adai, but English is our main language. Even though she lives in Tamuning, Auntie Minerva grew up in Malesso, so she leads the rosary for most of our village's dead. She said the rosary, each of the nine evenings, for my mother.
"I knew the rosary by heart since I was eight," she tells us for the millionth time.
Of course, Auntie Minerva doesn't perform the rosary every day, but she finds reasons to go to church. Usually to light a candle and pray for someone. Tonight she lifts her muumuu and shows me the bruises on her knobby knees. "This afternoon I prayed for six hours straight," she says. "But my suffering is nothing like our Savior's."
When Auntie Minerva isn't fasting, she barely eats. Twice I caught her spitting food into a napkin; she's afraid to put some meat on those bones. I've seen the way she shakes her head, studying Auntie Bernadette's full hips.
It's been almost six months since we came to Auntie Minerva's house. Every couple of weeks I ask Tata when we will go home.
"Soon," he always says. But he never looks in my eyes when he says it.
After Auntie Minerva's tasteless dinner tonight, I ask Tata again. And when he answers the same thing, I tell him, "You always say that. Are we going to live here forever? Why can't we go home?"
Tata glares at me. "We will go when I say so."
I should know better. Tata always does as he pleases, never minding anyone else's feelings. When I was younger, I pretended I wanted to fish so I could be near him, but he never asked me along. And when he returned from the sea, he claimed he was tired. He was never too tired to drink beer in the cabana with his friends almost every night. Frank was the one he spent time with, but that changed when Frank became afraid of the water.
Back then I liked going to Mass because he went, too, and we sat on the pew together like a real family. But Tata hasn't been to Mass since my mother died.
Sometimes I get angry when I watch television programs that show fathers who take their kids to the movies, play basketball with them in driveways, and give great advice. I don't know any dads like that.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Keeper of the Night by Kimberly Willis Holt. Copyright © 2005 by Kimberly Willis Holt. Excerpted by permission of Listening Library (Audio), a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.