She awoke to angels kissing her heart.
A flutter of eyes, the peck of soft lips, a skip of a beat.
Flutter, peck, skip. It sounded like a rhythm. A bird’s rhythm, perhaps.
The birds outside Mila’s window didn’t have rhythm. They went about their lives, thinking bird thoughts, doing bird things. Nothing outside Mila’s window had rhythm, except the wind.
Because even here, even now, even in the lone dessert, the barren oceans of nothingness that was this place called California, the wind came from Colombia. Mila felt it rattling through her frail bones as it blew through Nadaland—Nothingland. Often, as she gardened, she would taste the wind here, and it was the very same wind she had tasted as a young woman, a midwife, in Bogota. Everything with rhythm came from Colombia. The wind carried it, carried the echo of a drum beat, the sounds of billowing laughter, the whisper of a Todoland—Everythingland.
Of course the birds here didn’t have rhythm. They’d never flown through southern wind, never felt the rhythm of a living soul. Rhythm-less. Like flightless, but probably worse.
‘You’re talking crazy, Mami. Birds don’t have rhythm. Wind doesn’t carry echoes. Obviously,’ Estellita used to say, back when she still used to say things. Estellita never talked to Mila anymore. Ever since Charli was born, anyway. Ever since Charli was born in a hospital, the birthplace of evil itself, as Mila says—not anywhere to bring a baby into the world. And, obviously, ever since Estellita went and named her baby girl Charli.
‘Baby girls are beautiful things,’ Mila had said, ‘Beautiful creatures made of the first rays of sun in the morning and the smell of the air after it rains. Little princesses. Little warrior queens. And their names should be a reflection of that. Like yours, Estellita—it means star. And mine—Milagra. Miracle. But Charli? What do you think you’re doing giving her a name like that?’
And Estellita had rolled her eyes and clicked her tongue. Because she didn’t believe in things like sunshine and stars and miracles, apparently. She didn’t believe in things like angel kisses and midwives. She believed in things like heart murmurs and hospital births. American things.
But really, none of that mattered now. Because it was all going to be over soon, for Mila. She had felt it in her bones when she woke, felt it in the air, felt it in the warmth of the sun shining through her bedroom window. She had felt it as the angels kissed her old, weak heart and as her mind raced through things like rhythm and Estellita and her beautiful Charli—Carla, Mila called her. Carla. A better name. A practical name. But a name for a princess.
‘Goodbye, birds,’ Mila whispers into the silent bedroom. ‘Goodbye, California. Nadaland.’
She felt it, just like she felt storms coming. Just like she felt a million heartbeats of a million people, drifting in the wind. The angels were coming for her soon.
Today was going to be a good day. Mila felt that, too. Today she was going to be alone, like she wanted. She had told Carla goodbye, despite her granddaughter’s protests.
‘Go to the hospital, Abuela. Please. If you’re feeling sick, you should see a doctor.’
‘I am a doctor, nena. I promise you I’ve delivered more babies in my days than any hospital man ever has.’
‘You were a midwife, Abuela. And not a certified one, either. You were an apprentice in Colombia, yes, but you never graduated. Officially, I mean.’
And then she had rested her hand on her ever growing stomach, her miraculous stomach. She was feeling the baby kick. Her eyes had lit up in the way mothers’ eyes did, and she had laughed, a laugh of a thousand mariposas flapping their wings, flying somewhere far away. Her laugh now was the same laugh she had had all her life. It hadn’t changed with the years—not a bit. It still jingled and tingled like a bell, still carried a rhythm all too familiar to Mila—the rhythm of a cool night, a Colombian night, with bustling streets and winking stars.
That had been the hardest part—saying goodbye to Carla. But it was over now, and Mila was going to read a book and try to forget the pain in her body, forget the pain of saying goodbye. Because it was goodbye. She wasn’t going anywhere. Not to the doctor, not to the surgeon, not to the dentist. Nowhere with swindlers, which was what they were. Tricksters. Mentirosos. Liars.
‘Not all doctors are cheats, Mami, and, frankly, I think its really rude of you to say things like that. We’re in America, for Pete’s sake! Doctors are safe. They’re a part of the government! I think. Actually, maybe they’re not. But it doesn’t matter. I’m having this baby in a hospital, with real doctors and nurses and a real epidural. You can go back to your little herb garden, Mami, and harvest your jasmine and dandelions or whatever.’
That’s what Estellita had said, after Mila had asked her to have a home birth for Carla. And, for what its worth, Mila didn’t use jasmine or dandelions in her tonics. As far as she, and anyone in her village back in Colombia, were concerned, Mila was a real doctor. As real as they get. But Estellita didn’t think so.
But Mila had told herself she wasn’t going to spend her last days thinking about Estellita and the hospital birth. Because it had been nineteen years, and Carla was having a baby herself, and Mila was dying. Estellita’s hospital birth didn’t matter. Carla’s did.
Mila had spent the last eight months of Carla’s pregnancy talking about home births. And midwives. And the evilness of hospitals. But none of it had worked. As much as Mila’s ‘Carla’ loved her grandmother, Charli was American. Born and raised.
‘Look, Abuela, I would love nothing more than to have a home birth. Really. But we both agree you won’t be able to do that, with your heart murmurs and back pain and all the rest, right? And if I can’t have a home birth with you, I don’t want one at all.’
Carla and her stubbornness. It ran in the family. Estellita, stubborn in all the wrong ways, and Mila, stubborn in all ways. Carla’s baby was sure to be a handful.
Mila smiled to herself as she sank onto her worn sofa. Carla’s baby.A child made of stardust, that’s what it was.
And the angels. They kissed Mila’s heart once more, their fingertips brushing her chest and their nails pressing gently into her lungs. A skipped beat and a lost breath. The angels were coming back. She knew they were. And soon, it wouldn’t be for kisses.
But her last days were good. Filled with stolen glances at the rhythm-less birds, glances of longing for the birds of Colombia, glances filled with too many words that felt both said and unsaid in a moment of frozen time.
The nights were harder. Like last night. The sun set early, the loneliness in the big house rose from the old foundation, creaking and shivering and snapping at strange sounds in the darkness. The floorboards shrieked out into the night and the cupboard doors wailed as they blew open and shut, and the house seemed to be sobbing—at what, Mila could not say.
The big willow tree with the swaying hips and long, lean arms, and flowing, curly hair rapped softly at the sill—a young bloom, awaiting a love at the window. How long had she waited, waited for her love to come and answer her knocks? Mila could not say. But every night, when the moon was high and the Colombian wind blew through her hair, the willow’s arms brushed the glass with a quiet urgency, a whispering of remembrance.
But the willow’s urgency is nothing compared to the sharp knives of pain stabbing at Mila every night. Last night. All pain is worse at night. Emotional, physical—all pain.
Her body, engulfed in fire. But her body wasn’t hers anymore. No, it belonged to someone—something—else. Something with scales. Claws. Spikes. A dragon, maybe. A dragon had taken her body prisoner. Captive. And every time the moon rose, the dragon lit a horrible fire. A horrible, terrible, fire. And Mila was there. Unable to move. With nobody to hear her moaning.
And the angels were gone, no matter how hard she called for them. The angel’s didn’t come at night—the dragon did. The dragon stalked her dreams. During her waking moments, the angels kissed her and brushed her shoulders and back with their long, flowing hair. Their thick eyelashes fluttered in rhythm with her fluttering heart.
And they were with Mila now, until they weren’t. They flew away in a wave of soft focus.
Because the doorbell rang.
It took all of Mila’s strength to lift herself from the sofa and walk to the door. The whole walk she was muttering to herself.
She had told everyone who would ever come by her house to leave her be. Let her live her last days in peace. She had been sure no one would dare come to see her, as being alone was her dying wish.
Opening the door, which seemed fifty pounds heavier than the last time she opened it, the glaring sunlight of the hot California mid-morning shocked her senses. A rare cool breeze blew her hair behind her ears, and she opened her mouth, closing her eyes. She could taste it. She could taste the rhythm in the wind, the little bits of Colombia. She could taste the trabajadores’ leather work gloves, the sweet, metal tang of the women’s bracelets, the salty freshness in the air of the mar. Colombia. Colombia. A promise. A war cry. A memory.
‘Abuela?’ a voice—far away—asked. A familiar voice. Opening her eyes to the reality of Nadaland, Mila saw an angel.
Or perhaps not. The silhouette of the tall, willowy woman came into view as her eyes adjusted to the brightness of the California ranch. In front of her stood, not an angel, but something very close to one.
Beautiful Carla, squinting Carla, sweaty Carla, pregnant Carla. Her long dark hair seemed to illuminate the bright landscape, her tan skin so soft it glowed. She was holding her stomach—her large, 8-months-pregnant stomach. She was frowning.
‘Abuela? You okay? You zoned out there for a minute.’
Mila offered a bitter smile. ‘Carla, what are you doing here? I thought I told you to let me rest. Alone. I thought I said goodbye.’
Carla’s frown seemed to take up her whole face. ‘Abuela,’ her voice glowered, on the edge of a lecture, ‘I came because David and I decided to find out the gender. And we chose a name. for the baby.’
‘Nena, you would look so much prettier if you smiled.’
‘Abuela, that’s a sexist line.’
Mila humphed. ‘Sexist my arepa,’ she huffed, ‘You’re not supposed to be here. You could have called to tell me. I wouldn’t have liked it, but you could have called.’
Carla humphed right back. ‘I love you, Abuela. Te amo. And the gender and name of your great grandchild seemed like something you would want to hear in person. Especially because of the name I picked.’
Mila stood, wavering, in the doorway of her California country home. The glow coming off Carla seemed to be getting brighter and brighter, and the sweat trickling down her forehead was getting more and more urgent. There was a certain familiar shine to her, a certain look on her face, a certain stance she took, that reminded Mila of something she had thought was forgotten.
‘Nena, are you sure you’re due in a month? You sure look ready to me.’
Carla’s face twisted into something like a skeptical glare.
‘Look, Abuela, you don’t have to believe me when I say yes, I’m due in a month, but please understand when I say I’m melting out here.’
‘Well,’ Mila’s eyebrows lowered, ‘You may be wrong, but you are pregnant, which gives you an excuse for acting like a fool. Come in. But be quick about it. You look ready to pop, and I’m sure I look ready to drop. We both have a timeline, nena. Lets stick to it.’
Carla pushed past Mila, frustrated, in a way only a pregnant woman can do. She bustled into her grandmother’s house, stopping as she stepped into the living room.
‘Um…Abuela? What did you do with all the furniture? All I see is Abuelo’s little sofa.’
‘Hmm. Yes. Your grandfather did like that sofa, didn’t he? I couldn’t bring myself to give it away. It only sits two people, but really, I guess that’s all we need. Two people.’ She gave a quick, judge glance at Carla’s midsection. ‘Well, if we count your big baby bump, you might need the sofa to yourself. I can sit on the floor.’
Rolling her eyes, Carla plopped onto the sofa. In the soft light of the living room, her glow was dimmer, but still bright.
Mila stared at the spot on the floor she intended to sit on. She willed it to rise up farther, willed the ground to get closer, willed her body to lower her all the way.
She squatted. She leaned. She teetered. And she fell.
A sharp, searing pain tore up her spine like a bolt of lightning. She yelped a shrieking yelp.
‘Abuela!’ Carla jumped from her seat, ‘Abuela, are you alright?’
‘Do I look like I’m alright, nena? Help me up.’
And it took longer than it should have, because of Carla’s protruding stomach and the aftermath of the dragon’s flames on Mila’s breaking body.
‘I’ll sit on the floor, Abuela. You sit on the sofa. Please. Relax.’
‘Fine. But honestly, lets make this quick. Don’t get to comfortable there on the carpet.’
But Mila got comfortable on the sofa. She sank into it, and it embraced her, the first embrace she had had in a long time.
‘So, Abuela, how’re you holding up?’ Carla gave a questioning smile.
‘That’s not important. Tell me the name, nena.’
Carla pursed her lips. She tilted her head. She sighed.
‘Fine. David and I have decided—ow!’ Carla tilted forward. She moaned. She groaned. She clutched at her belly.
Time seemed to slow.
Because Mila had seen this same scene. Heard these same moans. Countless times. And it always meant the same thing.
‘Nena? What does it feel like? Does it feel like a thousand foot drop from the Tequendama Falls? Does it feel like your breath, your body, your very self, is splitting into a billion little pieces? Do you feel a geyser inside you, building pressure to a point you’re not sure you can handle?’
‘Yes. Yes—’ Carla curled and uncurled on the ground she squirmed. Her breath paused and lingered.
‘Breath, nena, breath.’ Mila lifted herself, holding in a painful groan, her bones creaking like the floorboards she stepped on.
Carla didn’t breath.
‘Charli!’ The name sounded like a mouthful of pebbles in Mila’s accented mouth, ‘Charli! Breath!’
And Carla—Charli—lifted her head. She stared through squinted eyes at her grandmother. And she gasped for air.
Mila found herself laying there, on the ground, next to Charli, who was starting to groan long groans, starting the journey of bringing life into the world.
And Mila knew what to do. She may not have been a ‘real’ doctor, she may have been an apprentice, but she was a midwife. That was enough.
The baby was coming fast. Faster than normally. And it was early—it was small and weak. And Mila’s she was small and weak, too. But she loved Charli. Loved her more than life itself. And Charli needed help.
But then there were angels. They were everywhere. They were crowding, engulfing Mila. And they kissed her heart, and it skipped a beat, or maybe more, and she was drowning, drowning in angels. Drowning in rhythm. Her heart was going faster, faster, faster. She was losing herself.
And then Charli was screaming.
So Mila’s crumbling body crawled—dragged itself—to her granddaughter’s writhing figure. she fought off dragons for Charli. And the angels. They were pulling at her. They were there for her. But she wasn’t ready. Charli wasn’t ready. The baby wasn’t ready.
Mila did what midwives do. She massaged, with her fumbling hands. She yelled, with her crackling voice. She held onto Charli, with all of her being, with all of her love. She saw them—the angels. They were calling to her. and so was Charli.
And then the baby graced the world with its presence. It entered into its great grandmother empty living room, in the old, sobbing house, and slipped into the hands of an old, sobbing woman. And it was a jumble of light and sounds and chaos. It was brilliant.
And there, holding the screaming newborn, a little girl she was, everything else disappeared. Charli. The house. Nadaland. Even the wind. All that was left was the rhythmic beating of the baby’s heart. It twisted and danced until it matched the rhythm of Mila’s.
But her arms were giving way. She felt the angels cupping her head in their radiant hands. Mila shoved the screaming mess of beauty into Charli’s waiting arms.
‘Say something in Spanish, nena,’ Mila murmured.
‘Te amo, Abuela. Te amo.’
And those were the longest twenty minutes of Milagra Moreno’s life. The last twenty minutes.
‘You had a home birth, nena. Congratulations.’
Charli sobbed. The baby sobbed. Mila grinned softly.
‘Tell me the name, nena. Tell me the name.’