The sky gathered a milky haze, La Luna Blanca playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. In girldom, hiding was Bianca’s favorite game. She would slink into a laundry closet or the accordion-doored pantry where Mama kept her one bottle of brandy (for blessing the house, she’d said the time Bianca had caught her with it). And wherever she’d hidden, she’d wait. Girlchild tucked into a storage basket or flat-fished at the bottom of an empty bathtub in a dark bathroom, stifling the urge to giggle, the need to breathe. She wasn’t even sure she’d told anyone they were playing. She would just climb in among the soft piles of linen or cans of stewed tomatoes and wait for salvation. She was so sure someone would find her.. . . from Jubilee, by Jennifer Givhan
The Night Water, The Bridge
Keep driving. Breathe deeply. Bianca prayed the words Mama taught her to pray.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Everything ached. But she had to make it to Matty.
She sucked in sharply at the thought of Matty. What would he say?
Off the road, tumbleweeds swept the dry arroyo beds. Stalks of alfalfa swayed in the Anza-Borrego night, their shadows dusting the earth. Mound after sage-smudged mound, like burial plots as far as the basin stretched in every direction, a pelvic bone, a sopa bowl scraped clean.
Monsoon season, the channels would swell, the quick rise and fall gathering mud and mosquitoes. Floodwaters would return. But this season of Lent, the embankment cradled rocks. Carrizo Creek and Alma Wash lay arid beside the mud caves, silent as salt-creek pupfish led astray, unable to find their way before sand swallowed water.
Blessed art thou among women.
Along the toxic Salton Sea, figs fell from palms and plopped to the brined beach. Black mission figs Bianca had peeled countless times with her teeth, sucking the pulp-pink flesh in the dirt lots behind her girlhood house. Summers, she had gathered the purple bulbs into the folds of her T-shirt then chucked their bulbous little heads off the mesa down toward the New River, watching the wine-colored skin splatter against the gorge.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
Slip-faced dunes tilting their horns toward a brittle sky nodded solemnly as Bianca passed Seco del Diablo and Canyon Sin Nombre. Of the devil and without a name. The moon above had a name, La Luna Blanca. She’d sung to Bianca when Mama could not.
At the highway’s edge, the Painted Rocks hunched restless as sleeping beasts at the mountain pass, signaling the way toward Palm Desert. Their tattooed bellies, their colorful graffiti, “Victoria & Angel 4-ever” and “Cynthia was here” and “Tres Locas,” hushed by dark.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, payer for us sinners.
Bianca wiped her swollen face on her sleeve. She’d been crying again, her cheeks and the tender skin around her eyelids rawed with salt and rubbing. Her vision blurred with dehydration and exhaustion and the ceaseless fucking tears she couldn’t stop. She should’ve asked Lily to drive her, despite the awful things her friend had said. Bianca was so exhausted she would have endured even the corrugated tin of Lily’s snark to stay awake. Bianca turned the radio to a loud cumbia rock station and rubbed her eyes again, clearing the salt and haze, refocusing on the road. It was too late to turn back. Anyway, she didn’t need her eyes. Not on this drive. She knew the landscape by heart. She didn’t need to see it, filling the car with an ache. It was a rearview mirror she wished she could break. Years of floodplain evolution, the basin come to this: A woman driving home. A woman driving away from home.
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
She checked the back seat. Her boxer curled in a brown ball of fur, snoring in piglike grunts beside the rear-facing car seat. She couldn’t see Jubilee. But she could imagine the steady swell and sink of chest, the pair of butterflied lungs, small wings flapping, steady compression of a fire bellow stoking the flame. Bianca let out the breath she’d been holding. “We’re almost there, baby girl,” she whispered as she thumbed the steering wheel like rosary beads, then recited the prayer again. And again.
Where Highway 86 met the 60, she left the Imperial Valley behind, its story stitched into her ribs, leaving her thighs and breasts and belly sore, a blood-soaked pad pressed against her crotch.
Left with the fork, past Beaumont, past mountain switchbacks and Chino’s cow shit, toward Orange County, toward Matty. He’d know what to do.
The sky gathered a milky haze, La Luna Blanca playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. In girldom, hiding was Bianca’s favorite game. She would slink into a laundry closet or the accordion-doored pantry where Mama kept her one bottle of brandy (for blessing the house, she’d said the time Bianca had caught her with it). And wherever she’d hidden, she’d wait. Girlchild tucked into a storage basket or flat-fished at the bottom of an empty bathtub in a dark bathroom, stifling the urge to giggle, the need to breathe. She wasn’t even sure she’d told anyone they were playing. She would just climb in among the soft piles of linen or cans of stewed tomatoes and wait for salvation. She was so sure someone would find her.
She merged onto the 57S, toward Santa Ana, the radio threading static through the hills. By day, the cattle grazed like some postcard pastoral smack dab in the congested intestines where Orange and Los Angeles counties crossed. But tonight, shadows and darker shadows walled the asphalt beyond the metallic gleam of guardrail. It would only take one turn too sharp, too steep. One nudge of the foot, and off the edge she’d soar.
How had she ended up a twenty-year-old driving home to her family? She should’ve been a junior on a university scholarship. She should’ve been a writer working on her first collection of poems. Or, at the very least, in a coffeehouse somewhere beside some scraggly goateed undergrad or supportive Lily-alternative (insert college version of girlhood best friend here), snapping instead of clapping after each alliterated slam rendition of Slay, Queen! She should not have been bleeding. Not yet. Not this much.
In the city, light pollution made the stars impossible to see, but Bianca took comfort in the glowing haze above the chiaroscuro of buildings and houses: a nightlight in the sky whose dim bulb reminded her of the bedroom she’d shared with Matty at Bisabuela’s house.
Matty didn’t know she was coming.
Later Dr. Norris would ask what she’d imagined would happen when she got to Matty’s. When Mama heard she was home, she would cross herself and praise the Lord her daughter was back for chocolate eggs and three-cheese broccoli casserole at Abuela’s with the family. She’d be the prodigal daughter returned for Easter ham. Mama would insist she attend Mass. She could practically hear the aunts whispering, Mija looks like caca. Pobrecita. What happened to her?
Something was wrong. Deep down she knew it. But she couldn’t think about that. Not if she wanted to keep driving, keep breathing. Even at two in the morning, the city kept an eye open. It yawned. It blinked bright red and yellow and orange. Gas stations and twenty-four-hour drive-throughs flickered as benign as white flies circling streetlamps in the Valley.
She exited at Main, where Santa Ana bordered the rest of Orange County. Matty and his partner, Handro, had bought a house and fixed it up, near the courthouse in the historical district, a few blocks from the public library where Bianca had gone the year before to hear Sandra Cisneros. She’d signed Bianca’s copy of Loose Woman, a dog-eared, well-worn book of poems blessed by the living author herself: ¡Write on, chica!
A few blocks later, Bianca turned right at the stoplight past the carnicería, the market with a squat merry-go-round outside the glass doors. At the edge of the parking lot, a cheery-looking Payday Loans with its green dollar symbols spray-painted onto the windows.
Downtown gave way to houses, colorful and cluttered. During the day, the paletas man would trudge through the neighborhood with his cart, ringing his bell, selling Popsicles and bags of churritos, crunchy pinwheels of pork fat with chile. Women with children would vend plastic cups of fresh melon slices, pepinos, pineapple. Some of their husbands and brothers would stand at the freeway’s edge to sell flowers and bags of oranges.
Once, in the Valley, a man had stood in a parking lot selling a single orange. Gabe had been waiting for Bianca across the street in his truck, but she insisted on stopping to see what that man was about. He’d sliced the orange in half and to every person who passed he offered this one piece of fruit. Why this orange? Had he picked it from some nearby tree and chose to sell it rather than eat it himself? And who would want a halved orange, cut by a stranger in a parking lot? After she’d climbed into Gabe’s truck, she’d realized she should’ve bought the orange from the man. He’d had a need. To fill that need, he’d offered his fruit. He’d sliced it open, so Bianca could see it was good, it was ripe and would taste delicious. She wished she could’ve been so open with her own need, so ready to slice her gift and offer it, with no pretense, no artifice. Simply a woman with an orange.
Santa Ana reminded Bianca of licking the lemon and chile from her fingers with Lily. The two girls would sneak the lead-filled Mexican candy Mama had warned Bianca not to eat or it would turn her blood black. Still she and Lily had pushed the sweet-spicy goo through the holes of the pop-top like worms, then squished it onto their tongues and spread it across the roof of their mouths until they went numb with heat. Bianca could handle it until she couldn’t. Like her BFF’s candor. For all her badass behavior, Lily could be chile-sharp. Bitter. Bile in the back of the throat. Driving away was milk, a salve to Bianca’s memory. Leaving was bread in a burnt mouth.
Even leaving her Lily of the Valley.
The apodo fit her blond-haired, blue-eyed, porcelain-ivory-CoverGirl-foundationed best friend forever since junior high. Lily, no regular white girl. She ate chiles like pepinos, and not just the kind in the bag with onions and carrots, but the really hot kind they put into the blender for salsa. Lily could do the washing machine Selena-style like nobody’s business and understood what a busticaca was. And in junior high, Lily had lined her lips with a darker brown than even Bianca had dared, when they were going through their chola phase. Lily still preferred the tangy granules of the candy called Lucas, like the boy’s name, rather than a chocolate bar. And when they were kids, Lily poured lime crystals into her hand, sucking her palm then waving it all “Wáchale” at passing cars as they sauntered down Rio Vista shaking their hips (because that’s how junior high girls walked anywhere) meaning both “Check me out” and “Watch it, man.” She would bawl out anyone who tried to holler at them for real though, anyone who slowed the car too slow and rolled down the window. Lily would curse a storm and scare them off while Bee giggled and rolled her eyes, then her friend would link her arm through Bee’s elbow and say something like, Don’t forget how that one girl ignored a guy’s catcalls so he tracked her down and killed her. You can’t mess with these scrubs. To Lily’s way of thinking, she was slaying dragons. She had protected them like that. Had understood she’d needed to protect Bianca. La Dreamer. La Empath. La Heart on Her Sleeve. Bianca had needed a practical Lily to pin her feet to the ground so she didn’t go fluttering off into el cielo.
But Lily dealt in truths like lead around the neck and the ditchwater rising. Bianca couldn’t stand her friend right now. She’d promised to text her when she was safe at Matty’s. “Stay at my house, Bee,” Lily had insisted. “Don’t just take off in the middle of the night.” But Bianca had to get away. She’d made up a story about not burdening her. A lie. No, she couldn’t handle listening to Lily’s shit opinions wrapped as tough love, callous dronings on what Bee should’ve done instead. What difference would it have made?
Or maybe she was afraid to show her Jubilee.
Matty’s porch light shone against red bricks at the end of Woodland Street. The natives of Santa Ana pronounced it like the guitarist Santana with a Spanish accent, all one word. But the streets had English names like Baker, Treeline, or Moss. Names that conjured up forest images, though there were no state parks in Santa Ana. At Tía Lydia’s in the ritzy beachfront section of Orange County called San Juan Capistrano, twenty miles away, all the street signs were in Spanish, and Tía’s friends pronounced them funny, making Campanilla sound like “camp vanilla.”
Bianca’s legs ached, but not from driving her stick-shift all night. She pitched into the driveway behind Spacedog—Matty’s nickname for the silver Nissan Sentra he shared with Handro. She yanked the parking brake and released the clutch, forgetting she was still in first gear. The car lurched, then died. Shit. She hadn’t done that in years. Not since Dad had taken her out to the country beside the irrigation ditches and vegetable fields and taught her how to drive a stick because a girl should be able to do that kind of thing for herself. Exhaustion settled like powdered dirt onto her chest and shoulders; she fought to keep from resting her head on the steering wheel.
What would Matty think?
She pulled down the visor and checked her face in the mirror. Her forehead and cheeks glimmered fever-pink, slick and shiny with sweat. The bluish pool of bruises had yellowed to soggy pears across her cheeks and chest. Her dark hair matted in frizzy curls around her face. Her ass and inner thighs throbbed; the pad in her chonies clung hot and sticky against her skin. Her stomach hurt. But she was at Matty’s. He would take care of them. He always had.
She glanced toward the house. She wasn’t afraid, despite Santa Ana’s reputation. The neighborhood was safe, though most people assumed otherwise. “You live in Santa Ana?” people asked, wide-eyed. “Isn’t that dangerous? Especially for you guys?” Matty and Handro shook their heads. When they’d moved in, the handyman across the street had welcomed them, offering to fix up the place. Did they need help pulling weeds? With plumbing? Could he park his work van in the double driveway they shared with the neighbors since the house next door was vacant? Matty and Handro were fine with the firecrackers every holiday, the mariachi music weekends, and the avocado tree lobbing its fruit onto the grass in their backyard. And the neighborhood was fine with them, the mariposas in the redbrick house at the end of Woodland Street.
Bianca pressed chanclas to cement; a shockwave of cramping curled her over. Knees buckling, she hunched, hands to thighs. She could’ve been a leaf in an electrical storm, crinkled and burning.
Once the painful jolts released her to the dull, steady drum that had replaced her body, she pulled the handle, and the front seat swung forward. She reached back to unbuckle Jubilee, pink and fuzzy in a bunny-eared romper. Kanga cocked her unclipped ears and wagged her stump of a tail. Earlier that morning, back in the Valley, Bianca had balanced atop a lawn chair on the backyard porch of her empty girlhood house, then wrapped a cord around her neck and hung the slack around a patio post. She’d stared at her dog. She’d willed herself to kick the chair. To do something besides stand there, wobbly in bare feet, with the cord dangling down her chest. She’d closed her eyes and prepared herself to fall. But Kanga had barked and barked until Bianca climbed down and knelt on the slab of unfinished patio cement, still bleeding between her legs.
She hugged Kanga’s brown neck and cried into her fur. Then she remembered Jubilee.
She’d broken herself into pieces, for Jubilee.
“Come on, girl,” she said to Kanga. To Jubilee, “We’re at uncles’ house.” Jubilee didn’t blink or cry, but Bianca soothed her anyway. “Shhh, shhh, sana, sana,” she whispered, patting the pink romper and resting the soft body against her shoulder. Bianca padded up Matty’s porch steps and rang the bell.
Kanga barked. No one came.
She rang again.
This time, heavy footsteps across the wooden floor; Matty had woken up. Handro nearly floated when he walked, his petite frame almost hovering, a slender ghost gliding on the tip of his own long white beard in a Remedios Varo painting. But Matty was solid as sculpture.
The curtain rustled; Matty peeked out the door’s glass window.
Bianca tried smiling, but her face wouldn’t oblige.
Locks unchained, unclicked, and the doorway flooded with warm yellow light, revealing Matty, her massive older brother, his black hair sleep-rumpled, his dark eyes tired and confused. He was technically her half-brother through Mama, but Bianca would’ve punched anyone who said so, like she’d punched that bitch Vanessa at the Catholic school who’d called Mama a whore (she’d said “ho”) for having kids with two different dads. Matty was her full brother.
“Bianca?” Barefooted and gym-shorted, Matty stared at her. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, tears landing on Jubilee’s fuzzy hood.
His eyes narrowed into a frown. “Is that . . . a baby?”
Bianca nodded again, unsure whether he’d be loving or judgmental.
“Oh my God. Come in.” He reached for her arm and led her into the house. “What happened?” He pulled her into his wide body for a hug. “Jesus, you’re burning up.”
She tried to speak. Couldn’t.
“Here,” he said, leading her to the couch, “let me hold your baby.” He reached for Jubilee, but Bianca couldn’t let go. She hadn’t slept for days. She must’ve looked crazed. A La Llorona out of the waters, stealing dreams. “Bee, I’ll hold your baby so you can rest.”
She choked out a sob, letting him take Jubilee as she wobbled backward, landing on a couch that reminded her of the borrowed one she’d been bleeding on for two days, in the empty house-for-sale two hundred miles away. But soft and beige and beckoning, this one whispered safe. Whispered let go.
Her eyes fluttered. Matty said, “Wait, what the hell?” His voice reminded her of a flashing siren. It sounded an alarm. Something cold and blacktop and ugly. She squinted, willing herself not to fall asleep. Was something wrong with Jubilee? She tried opening her mouth to speak, but her tongue scraped sand. She’d become a noiseless womb. Mami’s here, she thought of saying. But she couldn’t recognize her own thoughts.
“Shit, Bianca. What’s going on?” He seemed repulsed by Jubilee, holding her away from his body unnaturally. Was he angry Bianca had stayed in the Valley with Gabe, then come back with Gabe’s baby? Matty had always hated Gabe. A childhood of abuse had given Matty a sixth sense that Bianca hadn’t developed. Where she trusted everyone, he trusted no one. Yet surely Matty would forgive her mistakes, now that she was here, that she’d come home. Accept her for what she’d become. That’s why she’d gone to him instead of Mama.
Hug her, she tried saying. The words wouldn’t form. Hold her tight. It’s calming.
“Bianca? What is this?”
She closed her eyes. Matty’s living room swelled and shrank, a lung, breathing her in, breathing her out.
“Handro,” Matty yelled. “Come help me. Something’s wrong with my sister.”
Jubilee was safe. The flashflood was gone. The arroyo was dry. Bianca was a lungfish. Drowning.
“Handro? Get my phone. I need help . . .”
Hail Mary, full of grace. Switch off the light and grant me peace.
And the light switched off.
Before Bianca’s father had left for good the year she’d floundered at Holy Cross, he’d gotten sober. He’d changed. He wasn’t the drunken asshole who called her brother a faggot and her mother a fat slob, but a man whose whole life could be summed up with one word: regret.
That night at Matty’s house, Dad was there with her, she was sure of it, telling Mama he’d called the family and they were praying. Maybe he was there. When Bianca had nearly died, her dad, her red-bearded gringo, her mad scientist of a father, soft-spoken-with-the-alcohol-gone, had finally come to pray.
Mama was there. That was verifiable. As in, others would agree that she was in the room and not just a part of Bianca’s imagination or . . . the other things they would say about her. Still, though she was flesh and blood, Mama’s voice floated specter-like above Bianca’s head. “Sana, baby girl. Sana.” She meant sana, sana colita de rana. Heal, heal little frog’s tail. The rhyme Mama had recited to her from girlhood, and she’d never outgrown. Translated literally it hadn’t made sense. She’d asked Abuela why they prayed for a frog’s tail to heal. Bianca hadn’t understood the difference between dichos and prayers, or maybe there was no difference since Abuela hadn’t corrected her. She’d only replied that the frog grows a new tail, a type of healing. Then she’d handed Bianca an empanada filled with mashed sweet potato.
Now Mama stroked Bianca’s hair as if she were a child again, home sick from school. Bianca had sometimes stayed home even when she wasn’t sick so Mama would take care of her, so she’d pay attention.
Mama lifted Bianca’s arm, turned her palm over, held two fingers against her wrist. Did she have a heart? Was it beating?
Am I alive, Mama?
Mama’s lips pressed against her forehead. But the dead couldn’t feel, could they?
Mama smelled like rosewater. Could the dead smell rosewater?
“Has she said anything? Has she woken up at all?” Mama’s voice was thorned with worry.
“No, she’s been like that for an hour.” Matty sounded thick and heavy. It reminded Bianca of the sourdough bread he loved to bake, yeasty and pungent in her memories. “I called you as soon as she got here. She was crying and rocking that . . . doll.”
Jubilee. He meant Jubilee.
Mama was crying, and Bianca pictured rosewater. No, not rose. Holy. The kind she had sprinkled around their house. Tinged with alcohol. Waters breaking, no taking. Yes. Waters taking.
“Can you drink this, baby girl?” Mama put water to Bianca’s mouth, and she drank.
Handro’s polka-dotted socks poked at the couch’s edge. He said, “I’ll get a washcloth.”
Mama peeled off Bianca’s sweater, fingertips pressing the wet stains across her breasts, below each nipple. “Why didn’t I drag you away from there, mijita? He hurt you, didn’t he?” Mama gave guilt a voice. It hurt Bianca to hear.
She wanted to tell Mama to stop pressing into her stomach, stop prodding her; she tried moaning, but Mama only kept pressing her backbone, her abdomen, her thighs. Each kneading of Mama’s hands into her skin throbbed, but not in the healing way of a sobradora giving a massage to get the blood flowing or cupping at the lungs to break up a phlegmy cough. No, Mama’s hands were like knives now. Everything hurt. When Mama reached Bianca’s buttocks, Mama called to God in Spanish. And Bianca knew. Mama had found the blood.
“Pick your sister up, mijo. We need to take her to the hospital.”
“Mom, we shouldn’t have left her there . . .” Matty’s voice shook as he lifted Bianca off the couch. It scared her.
While her family carried her, wherever they carried her, she dreamt.
She hovered on a bridge, dirt-covered and crossing a concrete canal. Dippy Duck, the baseball-capped mascot to the irrigation district, stood at the other side calling: “Play it safe. Be cool, swim in a pool. Stay out, stay alive.” She had swum in canals though, as a girlchild, used her blue-ribbon swim-team skills in the precarious ditches in the countryside.
Water rushed through the canal. Instead of carrying twigs and leaves, tiny corpses. Dozens of them. Tiny faces mired in scum, sealed in the ditchwater, swallowed by its rushing force. She lingered, transfixed by the mud caked in their hair, their toothless gums. Green, grimy liquid pruning their fingers.
From the bridge, she sat motionless in the truck. Gabe’s pine-green truck on the bank between the ditch and stacks of sweet-smelling hay. They were a depression in the brown earth.
He reached across the center console and caressed her thighs, as she sat cross-legged in jersey-knit sweats. She recited John Donne.
Sweetest love, I do not go,
For weariness of thee,
Nor in hopes the world can show
A fitter love for me.
He buried his face in her hair and began sobbing. She called him a sissy la-la for all the times he’d told her to stop crying.
She was a stick. Lying in the mud. Beside tiny bodies. Drowned.
Mama had never told Bianca the story of La Llorona. She’d never sent her to bed frightened on purpose. Instead, they’d said their bedtime prayer together: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me Jesus through the night, and wake me with the morning light. Mama had omitted the most insidious parts of the prayer. She’d protected Bianca that way, deleting the dangers.
Bianca didn’t learn until later: If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Gabe had taught her that, like La Llorona. Gabe and his mama, Esme.
Her stomach growled. She was waking, or coming back.
When Bianca was a girlchild, Mama had read her the gospels. A child comes back to life there too—through the miracle of belief. How crystal a thing, belief. How shimmering.
Bianca thought of Jubilee.
She opened her eyes. Hospital room. Clock on a wall. Wires and machines. A small salmon-colored pitcher on a tray.
A monitor beeped.
She pulled herself into a sitting position. She was dizzy and dehydrated still, that cotton on her tongue and lining her throat, but less fuzzy. Less prickly. She could keep her eyes open and focus on the objects around her. Balloons and a bouquet of white daisies. A card with a ballerina bear. She wore a hospital gown.
She tried her still-numb feet, pressing them against the linoleum floor. It was cold, but the jolts of pain were gone. It was like waking from a dream, unable to tell the difference between the dream and reality—how a young woman awakes believing for a moment she can fly. It isn’t until the sleep crust wears away that the wings retract into the shoulder blades.
Mama told her later she’d been unconscious for two days, three hours, and twenty-seven minutes. Bianca had asked how many rosaries Mama had prayed. Mama hadn’t kept track.
The urge to pee stung her bladder. The catheter pinched. Instead of pushing the red call button for a nurse, she called to Mama, but before Mama came into the room, Bianca remembered Jubilee. She needed her baby.
“Mijita? Baby girl?” Mama hassled through the doorway, a portrait of concern, and Bianca thought of the Bible verse Mama had taught her, how an angel had troubled the water. And how whoever stepped first into the troubled water was made whole.
In the room, Mama’s gaze landed on Bianca sitting up in bed, and her face relaxed. She sighed and pressed her hand to the rosary around her neck, whispering, “Gracias a Dios.” Mama had lost more weight since Bianca last saw her. She looked good, but tired. Her jet-black hair streaked golden around her face, covering any gray. But her face was Oil-of-Olay smooth. If she had wrinkles, they were well-concealed. So different was this thin, angular woman from the round giantess Bianca had grown up with.
“You’re awake,” Mama said, and she thanked God.
But her arms were empty.
“Where’s Jubilee?” she asked. Bone tired. Bianca was still bone tired. And troubled. The water was still troubled.
“Who?” Mama’s forehead creased. There they were. The wrinkles.
“Jubilee. My baby.” Bianca felt cold. Wings retracted too soon. Or, cut off. She wanted to return to the place between wake and sleep.
Mama pursed her lips, tilted her head. The expression that flickered across her face was inexplicably sad. She looked at Bianca and said, carefully, “You didn’t bring your baby.”
Bianca scanned Mama’s face, waiting for the punch. “Yes, I did. I was holding her when I got to Matty’s. Where is she?” She stood now, stepped away from the bed and faltered, her legs buckling. A humming in her ears. Someone was singing. Or a memory of a song. “Matty?” Come away to the water.
Mama reached out, supporting Bianca’s weight. “Let me help you.”
Down by the water.
“Help me find Jubilee. Matty had her.”
The milk of Mama’s eyes juddered sharply, muddying at the center. Like Bianca was a girlchild again and had done something terribly wrong. But Bianca couldn’t focus on that.
“Matty?” Bianca called again, louder than was normal for a hospital. She didn’t care. Down by the banks of the hanky panky where a bullfrog jumped from bank to bank. A nurse rushed in, ordering Bianca back to bed, checking her monitors, catheter, IV drip. Bianca wasn’t pacified. “Matty!”
The nurse paged the doctor.
“Shhh, Bianca. Calm down,” Mama whispered, stroking her daughter’s tangled hair. “He’s down the hall in the waiting room. I’ll get him, pero cállate, the doctors will give you another shot.”
Bianca felt like a child. Her pulse pounded in her ears. “Matty,” she screamed again. “Where’s Jubilee?”
And not a drop to drink.
When Mama came back into the room with Matty, he looked at Bianca with a mixture of relief and pity. “Bee?” His brows furrowed. “You didn’t give me a baby.”
“What?” Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down. “Yes, I did. I drove her to your house.” And pray the Lord my soul to take.
“No, Bee,” he said quietly. “You drove this.” He held her up as proof. She was still wearing her furry pink bunny pajamas. No one had changed her. “Not a baby. A doll.”
Sail on, silver girl. Sail on by.
The humming sounded like water. And water soothes. Water soothes the soul.
And what is a soul but a bubble in the void. But floating in the vacuum of nothing?
Dad had taught Bianca about quantum universes. He’d sat her down the way he had when he’d taught her about Mole day or Pi day (sometimes even brought her a slice of cherry pie that a student had given him). The way he’d taught her to drive, the way he’d taught her to ride a bike.
In the many-worlds hypothesis, he’d said, anything that could’ve possibly happened, but didn’t, has happened in another universe.
Bubbles, bubbles everywhere.
In this one, Jubilee was alive.
Bianca stretched out her IV-wired arms. Mama nodded, and Matty handed over Jubilee.
Step into the water, child. Be made whole.
At some point, a therapist named Dr. Norris came in and evaluated her. In what sounded like something from an absurd Monty Python movie, he explained to Mama and Matty that Bianca was in shock. She’d need a low dose of Clozapine to start, antidepressants, and a weekly therapy session with him, but she wasn’t a danger to herself or anyone else, humming Simon and Garfunkel and so on. She wasn’t a danger, so she could go home. Bianca heard him. She heard them step into the hallway so they could ask their worried questions without her hearing. She heard anyway. She knew what they thought was happening. She knew what they thought.
But here’s what she saw. Once upon a time, there was a girlchild. A brand new girlchild, smiling. So innocent, so new. Her mama held her tightly, and she was safe. The end.
After all, Jesus rose again, didn’t he? And his mama must have held him. Mother Mary in a teal robe, clinging to her child—Pietà turned beautiful. Restored to babe in arms.
Bianca’s daughter had returned. Her Jubilee. And she wouldn’t let her go.∎
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Jennifer Givhan, a National Endowment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow, is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert and the author of four full-length poetry collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series chosen by Billy Collins), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize chosen by Ross Gay), and Rosa’s Einstein (Camino del Sol Poetry Series, University of Arizona Press 2019). Her novels include Trinity Sight (2019) and Jubilee from Blackstone Publishing. Her other honors include the Frost Place Latinx scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, the Pinch Poetry Prize, and the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The New Republic, Ploughshares, POETRY, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, and many others. She lives in New Mexico with her family near the Sleeping Sister Volcanoes.
From Jubilee by Jennifer Givhan. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Givhan.