Fina, I Am Fina

Short fiction by Ernesto Padilla

  Josephine, I want you to see something.  I have to tell someone before I die . . . for death
that takes a rent from high and low* . . . is close at hand . . . sorry if I ramble . . .  Josephine,
you are so quiet, such a good listener, such bright eyes.  I don’t know where you came from,
or why you wanted to work for me . . . You have been an angel in this dark night.  You are
like a friend.  Sit.  I have here one-hundred letters, but I only opened two of them . . . you
can see . . . only two have been opened.  You see that, don’t you?  I have had them for over
twenty years.  Before I got my inheritance, I used to deliver mail.  I had just returned from
the Korean War.  My route was over in the Barrio, from “O” street all the way to “T”
street.  There was this three-room shack on Q” street.  It had many fruit trees, a giant
mulberry, fig, apricot and some plum trees, elegant bushes, buganbellias . . . a great variety of
flowers, and lush, dense, fragrant grape tresses hanging from the dilapidated car port.  It was
a jungle, a garden, verdant, quiet, just luscious.  As I walked up to the mail drop at the front
door, I imagined myself in the Garden of Eden.  Often I imagined that I heard the melodies
of the wild . . . water trickling, monkeys chattering, birds singing and, sometimes, even
peacocks calling out to their mates.

  I never saw the lady who lived there until the end, the time when I blackened my soul with
greed.  But I will tell you of that in good time.  You must hear it all, from the beginning.   
No one ever saw her.  It may be that she grew the verdant jungle so as to hide, so no one
could see her beauty.  Where I got the notion .  . . who told me . . . the gossip of the barrio .
. . but yes, she was a reputed beauty . . . But no one ever saw her!  Her beauty was the
beauty of the original Eve.  I called her “Eve”: “O.K. Eve, here is another fat letter from
your lover who lives in a P.O. Box in Marysville.”  I always pretended to converse with my

  The envelopes were all the same.  These here.  You see, only two are open.  They are
official U.S. Mail envelopes, yes!  And it is a federal offense to steal U.S. Mail!  But I only
opened two of them, and I did that only in order to return them . . . well, maybe the first one
. . . Ah, why would I ever open any? . . . me a decorated . . . a Purple Heart! . . . All of the
envelopes are light brown with a stamp bearing the U.S. Mail insignia.  They look like official
government business documents, don’t they?  Without fail, like clockwork, one envelope
came every two weeks.  No Fina, you must believe, I didn’t steal them.  I only held them to
return them, someday, to the lost mail, but now I know better . . .

  Every two weeks I walked up to the same green door with the chipped paint.  The entire
house was green but not a U.S. type green.  You know that odd green that Mexicans use in
Tijuana.  All the houses are either this loud green or an off pink or some other loud color,
not like here: everything is white or a pastel yellow, toned down, sophisticated colors.  I have
read books on design and interior decoration in Latin American countries, trying to
understand the chaos of color.  No offense, I know you are Mexican, but you are different,
Fina.  They call you Fina, don’t they?  I don’t know why you have stayed with me for so
many years.  I don’t even know where you live, but you are a gem.  I can trust you.

  The letters came regularly for almost a year.  My curiosity became unquenchable.  Who
was this “E. Mendoza,” a man or a woman?  She had to be a woman, and the “E” stood for
Eve, as I said.  But why did Eve never come out?  And who at P.O. Box 1984 in Marysville
sent these U.S. Mail envelopes?  And, I especially wanted to know, what was in them?  All
were fat.  At first I imagined they were long love letters, but as I moved the hidden contents
around in the envelopes, it became clear that there were evenly cut, loose, small sheets
inside.  Many of them!  I began to alter my walking route so as to arrive at the house at odd
times.  I would walk my route backwards so as to end up at the house on “Q” street around
three in the afternoon.  I became so desperate to know more that one day I even went in to
work at 5 A.M. and delivered the envelope at 7 A.M.  but never did I see a hint of the
human shadow about the place.

  I would listen with care as the envelope dropped onto the floor inside the door.  After
months of carefully studying the hidden flight of the four-ounce envelopes (you see, I had
weighed one of them) behind the thick oak door, I concluded that the letters were not hitting
the ground, but were falling on top of each other.  They were stacking up higher and higher!

  Was Eve dead?

  I knew positively by this time that “E” was a woman because I could smell fresh
fragrances in and about the front door and the windows (yes, in my desperation to know, I
had walked around the house trying to look inside).  Another hint was that she did not
work.  If she worked, someone would have seen her come in and out.  And no one ever
did.  I had discretely asked her neighbors without arousing suspicion, “who lives next door
that grows such beautiful roses?”  But no one ever saw her.  Some thought that no one lived
there at all.  They never saw anyone watering the garden, although some had heard water
running late at night.

  One day I asked a Spanish lady two blocks away.  her eyes widened as if she were looking
at a sidewinder.  “Señor, that lady fears death.  She has an altar of candles.”  And then she
caught herself, as if she had said too much, crossed herself and would talk no more.

  One day, in the bleak December, I pushed the door gently.  It came ajar.  The bright
morning sun streamed through a rear window.  I couldn’t see in because the light blazed
out.  The next day, even though I had no mail to deliver, I came by again.  The door was
still ajar, very slightly ajar.  For several days thereafter, the door remained ajar without closing
or opening even a little.  Frustrated and determined to know more of Eve, one day I pushed
wide the door.  There on the floor lay hundreds of envelopes: unopened, unmoved, exactly
where I had dropped them.  The room was eerie.  I quietly pulled shut the door and walked
away, frightened, thinking that I could be arrested for “breaking and entering.”  The next
letter came, but it was not the regular size envelope.  It came in a 9 by 12 envelope which,
again, was an envelope that one buys at the post office.  By this time, my curiosity had me in
a dither.  I didn’t deliver that letter.  I took it home.  I opened it.  

  Here it is, very wrinkled . . . old . . . some coffee stains . . .   Lately, I have been reading it
almost every day.  I’ll read it to you:

Dear Mrs. Elvira Josefina Mendoza,

  I am very sorry to tell you that Adan died yesterday.  He will send you no more money.  I
am his wife.  We have four girls, Josie, Eva, Virginia and Irene.  Adan did not want you to
know.  I am sorry to have to tell you this.  I tried to convince him to tell you a long time
ago, to go see you in person, so you could go on with your life.  But he felt so bad about
taking you so far away from home to a strange country, and he felt bad because he had
promised your sick mother that he would always care for you.  I finally convinced him to call
you, you will recall.  I heard him tell you that he would be working on a big construction job
for the government up in the mountains, hundreds of miles to the north and had agreed to
not leave the job until the tunneling was finished and that is why he would not return to
Tulare for many more months to come.  Most of which he said was true.  Adan was an
expert with dynamite.
  After that, he could not bring himself to write or call, and he would not let me write.  All
he would do is send you money.  He became very angry every time I threatened to write.  I
know he was selfish and wrong, but I loved him so and would not go against him.
In going through his things, I have found nothing that might belong to you except for this
tejido of delicate beauty and brilliant colors.  The woman praying to the crucified
Christ must be his mother, or it pains me to think that it may be you. God forgive me that I
have wanted to keep it.
  Anytime you are in Marysville, remember that
mi casa es suya casa.*  Please send along a note
to let me know how you are and if I can do anything for you.  I wish you every happiness.

                                                Yours truly,
                                                Joyce Atwood Mendoza

P.S., My two youngest, Josephine and Eva are twins, just one month old!
I hope you can read English.

  After reading this letter, I went to the house late.  I saw a flicker of light through the
bedroom window, knocked at the door, pushed it open after getting no answer.  I stumbled
past the mound of envelopes and into the bedroom.  There next to an altar beset with a
multitude of burning candles sat a woman.  She had a black transparent veil over her face.  I
asked her if she was alright.  She nodded.

  She wore those old-fashioned stockings rolled down to mid-calf.  She had eighteen or
twenty safety pins all over her collar and down the front of her dress, like those you have on
your dress.  I can still remember them reflecting in the candlelight. There were coffee cups
and dirty dishes scattered all about.  She obviously lived In this room.  I got the impression
that she never left it except to water her garden or maybe buy groceries.  She sat at an altar
with clean white linen which was starched and had embroidered borders of delicate beauty.  
On the altar were pictures and statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints.  In the
center of the altar was a crude painting of a peasant woman praying to Christ on the cross.  
Behind the praying woman in the painting was a sick man in bed.  A great multitude of
candles burned brightly.  Also on the altar there were a number of Mexican coins of different
denominations.  They formed a symmetrical design.  They were perfectly placed at equal
distances.  I was mesmerized, but finally I broke silence.  “
Señora, why don’t you answer the
door?  Are you all right?”

Señor, váyase,” she whispered.  “Ya se que viene a decirme que murio mi esposo.”*  

  I have taken four years of Spanish at Tulare Union, have read many novelas* in Español,
and I had often spent summers in Ensenada, two or three weeks at a time, so I know
Spanish.  Why, I’m almost a native speaker!  
  I asked her, “
como sabes Ud. que he murido la esposo?”*

  She answered almost as if she hadn’t heard me, almost in a trance,
“Los sobres del gobierno . .
. cada semana me llega otro sobre.  Mientras no los abra, no esta muerto Adan.  Váyase Ud. por favor
Then looking at me with feverish eyes that burned through the transparent veil, she raised
her voice, “
Ya váyase.”

  It came clear to me: she had been afraid to open the envelopes!  She thought they were
official government communications, and that they announced the death of her husband.  
She was polite but insistent, “
Váyase, por favor.”

  I told her that I would not go.  But she became hysterical.  It was apparent to me that she
had developed a phobia about the envelopes and would never touch them.  She would let
me say nothing more.  Instead, she started praying the rosary, her body rocking . . .  Her
rosary, her beautiful, luminous pearl rosary, it transcended time and space.  It transformed
me somehow.  I’ll never forget it.  At the time, I thought only of its worth in American
dollars, “that rosary is an expensive piece of jewelry.  It must be worth hundreds!"  

  You have one like it, Fina.  Do you not?  I have seen it hanging out of your pocket.  That’
s why I think I can tell you of my crime.  I never saw her face clearly, but I’ll always
remember the safety pins on her dress, the rosary and that multitude of bright candles.  The
bright altar reminded of a poem by H.D.*:

    Beware of shapes,
    For in them lies such magic as altars dream . . .

Or is it a poem by Sylvia Plath?*  No matter, but to continue . . .

  The next evening there was a full moon, a reddish moon.  I came again . . . pushed back
the door of the darkened room.  By the light of the full moon, I could see her lying on the
bed . . . on top of the bed.  The bed was neatly made.  The room was clean.  She lay
perfectly still, her hands together in the prayer position, the rosary interlaced between her
fingers as if she were dead.  I called out, “Eve.”  No answer.  I called out again. Louder!  
Or, at least, I thought I was calling out loudly.  It was only a whisper.  I had lost my voice.  I
walked about nervously in a dream trance, unable to speak, but I saw every detail.  My eyes
witnessed all evidence of the death preparation.  A large bible lay by the bed.  It was open to
the front pages, the pages where one writes the family genealogy.  I couldn’t read the names
because it was dark, but I could tell that the names were written in a crude, uneducated
hand.  Next to the bible, the symmetrical coins were arranged to perfection.  I moved about,
trying to rouse her but still unable to speak above a whisper.  I don’t know why.  I knew she
was dead.
  It then entered my mind that I might take her pearl rosary.  It would sell for much.  Oh,
the horror . . . taking a rosary from a dead woman!  I wanted to lift her veil to see her face.  I
knew it would be the face of a Madonna.  Even though she wore the clothes of an old
woman, I knew she was young.  But I could do nothing except imagine that her breast
heaved.  I looked for even the slightest movement, looked at the rosary, turned to the coins
which seemed somehow luminous.  Again, the H.D. poem sang a warning,

    “Beware the magic of the coin that sings.
    These coins are graved with supernatural powers and
    Magic will that are more strong then ours.”

I turned to the altar, looked carefully at the centerpiece, the painting.  In the moonlight I
could make out the story that was part of the painting.  It was in Spanish.  It said something
to the effect that Adan Mendoza had died a spiritual death, that he had been taken by
another woman, but he had come back sick and was unable to get well.  His wife had
invoked the name of
El Señor de la Miseracordia* who would save Adan’s life.  As recompense
Adan’s wife dedicates to Christ this
retablo* and further promises a pilgrimage to the
cathedral in Mexico City.

  I remember the wording because I stood there reading it over and over, pronouncing the
words in my silent mouth, staring deeper and deeper into the faded lives of the sick husband
and the penitent wife depicted in the painting.  Here was serenity and faith, neither of which
have I known.  After what seemed an eternity of staring at the crude but brilliantly colorful
painting.  I remembered the envelopes and backed away from the altar and the coins.  As I
fell in a slow motion, backward direction, I noticed that Eve’s feet stuck out beyond the
blanket.  For some reason I jerked around, spinning on the ball of my left foot.  A violent
shiver travelled the length of my spine.  The door shut flush just as I was turning to rush
out.  On the back side of the door was a metal mirror, the kind that distorts the image.  By
the light of the moon streaming into the room, I saw my haggard image in the mirror.  It
was a stranger’s face: high, thin nose, black bushy eyebrows, sunken checks, grey, colorless
eyes with dark circles below, deep set those eyes . . . sunk so deep they looked like caverns.  

  I somehow escaped the room, took the envelopes, and here they are.  I took them so that
she could live.  If there were no envelopes, then her husband still lived.  My irrational mind
was racing as I stuffed the envelopes into my shirt, telling myself that I was helping in some
way.  Yes, I did help.  I am helping!  You can see that, can’t you Fina?

  I only opened one more envelope.  It had fifty, new one-dollar bills in it.  All the rest are
the same, one-hundred envelopes, fifty dollars in each.  I am sure of it.  That’s 5,000 dollars.  
I couldn’t keep them.  The next evening I went back with the envelopes in my mail bag, but
the house was empty, no furniture, nothing, except in the kitchen.  Embroider doilies and
tejidos, of all sorts were piled high on the large table.  There must have been hundreds
tejidos.  Also, on the table was the painting that told the story of tragedy, a story with no
end it seems clear to me now.  I feared the painting, but I again had the urge to take
something, the delicate
tejidos; however, the Mexican coins were on top of some of the stiffly
tejidos, and I would not touch the coins that sing.  

  Oh yes, but, I was saying . . . to return to the envelopes that have weighed so heavily on
my conscience, this I must also tell.  Clearly, I could not return them.  I have carried these
envelopes on my conscience many years.  Now, you must take them, Fina.  You are like her.  
I give them over.  And, here, take this
tejido also.  Take them, por favor.  You are like her, are
you not, Fina?

                                                  *   *   *   *   *

Si, patron, al fin de todo, Fina, I am Fina.*

* for death that takes a rent from high and low—death will take us all equally, both rich and poor (here the
narrator is muttering, talking to himself).  The passage is from Geoffrey Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales, “The Man of
Law’s Tale.”  The original passage, in Middle English, reads as follows: “For deeth, that taketh of heigh and
logh his rent.”

*mi casa es suya casa—my home is your home (note incorrect Spanish: suya should be su).

Señor, vayase.  Ya se que viene a decirme que murio mi esposo—Sir, please leave.  I know that
you have come to tell me that my husband is dead.


Como sabes Ud. que he murido la esposo?—How do you know that your husband has died?
(Note incorrect Spanish: “
sabes” should be “sabe”: “he” should be “ha”; and “la” should be “su”).

Los sobres del gobierno . . . cada semana me llega otro sobre.  Mientras no los abra, no esta
muerto Adan.  Vayase Ud. por favor.  Ya váyase
—The government envelopes . . . each week
another envelope arrives.  As long as I do not open them, Adan is not dead.  Please go.  Go now.

H.D.—Hilda Doolittle, American Poet (1886-1961).  

Sylvia Plath—American Poet (1932-62).

El Señor de la Miseracordia—Our Merciful Lord.
Retablo—an emblem, i.e., a combination of text and image into a composite picture.

Si, patron, al fin de todo, Fina, I am Fina. Yes, patron. After all, Fina I am Fina.
Illustration by Linda Haim