One has to be careful what one takes when one goes away forever. – Leonora Carrington
When I was younger, I’d say her name for hours. Even before it happened, before I knew who I was. I’d stuff it like cotton balls into the ears of dolls, scrawl it on fogged mirrors, or over my reflection in iced puddles. Her name was my secret weapon against teacher bullies, I’d lace it through the gums of babysitters for extra hours of television – cartoon collateral. The way her paint smelled like sweat and the marks she left on the world; a Byzantine femininity, or lack thereof. How her blood became a curse, or her bones became the moon. How into me she slipped her greatest gift. The incantation of escape.
My grandmother was born in England. She lived as an expat in Mexico City for the last six decades before my dad plucked her, weeded her out of greasy smog and planted her a palm tree in a gated community in Bosques de las Loma. Mexico was the oasis reward for misery endured. She had escaped asylums and Nazis, survived dam-broken love, painted urgency and labyrinthine worlds.
I think of her near water. She is small and often cold, wrapping herself in velvet. A sandy afghan tucked around her knees, burnt crimson cranberry. My grandmother adds pockets to everything, inside she stuffs paintbrushes and shells; bags of dried and pulled tobacco; little squares of waxy rolling papers; crumpled tissues. Once, I found a note scrawled on the soft paper, El Juglar es Leah? On the other side, Explain the moon. I think of her pulling on a cigarette, hand rolled and a flake of tobacco encrusted in the cleft above her mouth, the top half nestled, concealed by her left nostril. She was a woman the way my skin burns in the sun: considerably. Leonora Carrington. On her tombstone: “The truest Frida Khalo.”
Abuela, Safta, Grandma. The stronger the drink, the more explicit hybrid vernacular. Truffle layers of Spanish, Yiddish and English. I’ve come to Bosques de las Loma for the past twelve years. Once a year since the time it first happened. Each time I leave, we both think it will be the last.
The first time, I was fourteen. It was dusk in August and my father had moved Leonora to la comunidad three nights prior. Boxes of half-wrapped crystal studded the hallway and copper lanterns were strung up into evening. I was swimming and she fed me lemoncake, guava trees oozing in the wind. The sky was pink, sun was poppy wilts, hibiscus blooms. Felt a twinge, looked down and saw that I streaked woman. It was slime inside my thigh.
It was iron rot, the color of theatre curtains you close to let plays die. I thought, So it’s true. I am the granddaughter of an eel. So she had the voodoo blood. So she became fluorescent.
I became invisible.
I’ll tell you: it hurts. It’s a skin suit zipped off and stretched, the flesh flips inside out, slides onto the floor and is succulent spiked. There’s a bloating in your throat when it happens, like you’re carrying the weight of waves. Buoyant and immovable, a vertiginous plunge into freedom. And you feel it, ethereal and constipated in your gut, before you notice the shift of plasma. The moon is blue and bruised. Feeling afraid, feeling like your heels have tarred to granite. That your bones are keloids and the layers of scar tissue, ossified. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to breath.
When my legs fully dissolved, I cried out to her. Safta, what’s happening to me? I wanted to shout, Throw me my hands. I felt them curl, felt my fingers count my ribs and crack my toes. But I was nothing – vanished – and thus, did not exist.
Aye, Leah. She took a pull from her cigarette, composed. Where are you going?
Over the years, I learned the tricks. If your skin is soggy, it hurts less. No one comes with you. Your senses sharpen. You can still bleed. Often, water is a trigger. Lakes or tears, but usually a pool. Maybe it’s the gems burrowed into drains, the chemical taste. With practice, my transformation has quickened and now it is almost instantaneous. Still, the first time moved slowly, like ostrich yolks dripping down my breasts, neck and stomach. You think of your childhood and the times you ran away, how you whispered into your pillow, I wish I was invisible.
And when the process was complete. When I looked down and confirmed magic. Instead of a body, water. Ripples still respected my solidness, weaving around my knees and chest. But my flesh was a window and the pigment had dissolved completely. I held my hand in front of my eyes to shield the sun; where was the arm, the elbow, the knuckles? The light streamed through and into camouflaged skin, was absorbed. Was it? I could feel heat, the breeze. Could see Leonora ashing into a jade bowl; smell the city burning, humid and greasy. But I was a chameleon, my bodied self disappeared.
When I was younger, I would dream that lightning struck me deep, that my heart burst and my blood vapors shone iridescent. If I moved an inch, tissue would melt off to reveal the skeleton of a fish. It makes sense then, the animal yelp. I remember the maid called out, Is everything alright, Señora? Dónde está Leah? Leonora glared until Rosa cowered, retreated out to the coop and broke a chicken’s neck for supper. This way, no one was witness. My grandmother looked at the pool, at the floating, stringy rust. Come back now, please.
I wish I had known that I was not dying. That, in fact, this was the only way to live.
In reality, the first time I invisibled only lasted about a minute. The return, comparably, is painless. You shimmer; it feels myopic. Sponge your way back into view. Leonora was calm when I crawled out of the pool. It was not graceful – I was a slug escaping salt, shaky and fermented, ballooning into color. I lay on tiles, felt mosaics indent themselves into my cheek and the wind coax skin to rise. She told me not to be afraid. She told me this happens in our lives, that she did not have anyone to explain to her and that I should be grateful. It was instinctual; we both knew there was no other way. She would have to speak her origins. It was a zenith trap – the only place our stories could end, together and scooped out raw. Cautiously and with great regret, Leonora Carrington opened her heartchest. Cracked the lock and spoke the name I’d waited to hear since my father returned home one night, tequila sewing lullabies into his lashes and declared, She never loved my father the way she did that pendejo. El diablo. Max Ernst.
Until I vanished, the love she lost was not discussed. After he left her, she married: a Mexican for a greencard, a Hungarian Jew for companionship. The latter, my grandfather, was a good and solid man. He lived the predictable, stable life that unpredictable people every so often crave. She married him to wax poetic, to curb insanity and anchor her to soil. She would not be swept to sea again.
For me, she said, the first time happened because of Nazis. Max and Leonora were lovers. She was his bride of the wind, sunk into him and desperate when soldiers arrested and moved him to an internment camp. She said, He needed me. I remember my father. I remember I am invisible now, an eel. I shake my head. He needed paint.
One moment of silence before a toad croaks and she slaps me into salt. I was Lot, a pillar that fell and could not talk. She began again after I began to cry.
I snuck him brushes, threadbare canvases, oily crusts of violets, blues and greens. The most coveted paint, rojo número cuatro. Across the ocean, I telephoned my father. I did everything I could for his freedom. Drank orange blossom water and begged. Sometimes I met him with guards surrounding us. They were boys with guns. It was a film, I was the star. Guten tag, Leonora. Some would look through windows when I slipped him notes, my lips. They struck him when we reached for knees, a lock of hair. It was a new guard that gripped my waist and whispered, No more lover gifts without a price.
There are things you cannot compare: The stars and the sun. Love and hate. The fantastical and the quotidian. Black and white. Life and death. As Nazis laughed, Max protested. They beat him to dreams. Be quiet, you degenerate fuck! I turned to say goodbye and saw an ear streaked with blood; lice crawling the line of his jaw; eyes puffed shut. I hoped he dreamt of me.
So, of course I suffered after this. There was (she closed her eyes) New York. Rejections and Señorita Guggenheim. An asylum in Madrid, a family’s betrayal reverberated. Alchemy saved me. Women, our bodies and our freedom. Still, it was this day. I was led by hips into a building built of swastikas and ore. The Nazi took me to his room, drew a bath and put me inside. He said, If you scream, Ernst dies.
I could not die. I became invisible.
My grandmother has an opinion on everything. The story of her life, she says, allows this to be true. My hair is not my hair. She says it is not the hair of a gringa. She says it proudly and since I am a gringa, the hair is not mine. It’s long and brown and in heat, curls inwards. Every morning I wake in Mexico, she brushes my hair, takes control of my scalp. Mexico City is surrounded by mountains. El Ajusco, Nevado de Toluca, Iztaccíhuatl. All three peaks surround the community, all three peaks, when the wisps of cloud and sun blot together, are visible through the glass. At breakfast, my grandmother is surrounded by a cigarette, espresso and boar hair brush. ¡Vete aquí!
Before we eat, she will brush my hair. She will plait braids and pull the frizz, spit on her palms and smooth my forehead into silk. This is when she loves me best, when I am her painting. Split ends as veritable rhizomes. She takes a knife, prunes the lattice-cut length. Take better care of your hair, mitziah. Wash it less, brush it more. In water, my hair is an accordion ghost and spreads away. In sun, my hair shines red. Brush it. If not for me, for who?
My body, not my body. I watered you, she said to me, If you peel off your chest, a rotting papaya, same as mine. What it meant was body as autonomy did not exist. I am an appendage of you, our papaya blood. What it meant was opposing ideologies. The need to nourish, to watch me take up space. Endless scoops of rice doused in fish oil, cherries with sour cream and honey. What it also meant was bruises on my thighs from pinching nails. Leah, too big, no? You’ll never marry at this size. Safta squeezing my arms, laughing glamorously when her index finger did not meet her thumb around my wrist.
And if bodies are vultured, know that lovers are not yours alone. Even if irony is fat men with cigars, squeezing your cheeks, taking one moment too long to meet your eyes and tell you, Of course! Things are different now. People are thinking because of Señora Carrington. Even if some surrealist reclamation of sexuality has influenced generations, influenced me. I think about the ways she stretched the world. The ways she made mine very, very small.
I am her first, her only granddaughter. I learned through paintings how a woman’s heart is different when it liquefies. I don’t mean it analytically. The stories are true, after all, and Señora Carrington hated Freud. I mean it guttural, in the way a bird saves acorn husks in your chest and claws through the ventricles, beaks straw through capillaries as you tweeze your eyebrows; lay on the bed with a laptop burning into your belly; pee; make rigatoni.
I mean in the way when he leaves you, you are lost.
When I turned to glass, when a lover untied the strings I’d carved between our palms and I understood – finally – that fire was safer than roses, I flew to Mexico. I took a redeye down, used a ticket my father traded frantically for pesos he did not have. Leonora waited for me. She said, Hola, Icarus. Rosa had skinned a rabbit and its fur was hanging in the sun. It smelled like Mexico: oregano oil and rosewater and turmeric.
Get in the pool. You’re melting. We were alone, so I took off my clothes and she sat and it was dark by the time I found a way to dry myself out, wring my feathers and say, Abuela, I was not enough. Gulped and breaking, shrieked aloud the fear, the matted bruja that slept under my bed, rattled through my spine. What if I will never be enough?
Wings sprouted, I drowned them underwater. Kept my eyes open to burn the pupil, iris, macula, sclera. I still had not mastered my body (another failure) and could not unsee my skin, could not flip flesh on command. I did not want her to look, did not want anyone to see I was split belly open, my guts exposed and squished. Two days prior, my father had found me in the shower, razor in hand and upper arm spread in two. The leech in my brain had tried to blood beg insecurities away. Sadness: taking a tomato and squeezing it dead. When, instead of an ambulance, he called his mother. Knelt in the shower and said, Hija, what have you done?
Not enough?! My grandmother rarely loses her temper, but when she does, I am impressed. It is unself-conscious, axiomatic. She wobbles to the pool, her legs frantically keeping up with her beautiful, drying brain. Yanks on my neck and feeds me air. You think I sold my heart for paint? Focus! Focus!
So I close my eyes and think of paint. A tingle. Familial pain. A slosh of pool, and my body disappears.
At issue is a mango. Not quite ripe so it was reflex more than necessity when my hand twitched to mouth and pulled my lips. The pool was quartz and chlorinated blue. I stood along the edge, nudged my toes to dampness and watched her body tense. You are mine, she said.
I did not know she would leave so soon.
The first time her heart stopped, only her feet died. Technically, all of her was dead, but since it was just two minutes the black only took the bottom. When we fetched her from the hospital, the doctor warned us, She’ll need help with socks. She’s stubborn.
As if we didn’t know. As if she hadn’t turned us into crows and herself, a giantess.
Since this resurrection, her feet had thickened. Extra layers of skin and swell prevented non-slip-ons from fitting over Leonora’s toes, stretching under the balls of her feet. Antibiotics caused her body to retain fluid, glowing gourds of brine that strutted towards the bottom of a fleshy body bag. Now, even when I massaged eucalyptus oil into her heels, her feet bloomed blackberry muscles, artery prunes. My grandmother’s toes were clusters of lupines. At her request, after we returned from the hospital, I wheeled her outside to sit by the pool. Stop! Slow this chair down! You’re driving me meshugge! Anticipating my dismissal, her toenails dug their way into the concrete, rooting and twisting leather cartilage around the pipes.
Before the geodes broke in two, before they translated to hymns, my grandmother’s goodbyes often left me bruised. Her farewells were pointed and brief. Leonora brushed off my I-love-you-Safta’s with a wave and turned, rigid and embarrassed, if I wept. I laughed with relief when I realized it was not indifference but pain that pulled her from me.
My whole life has been chasing Leonora. Her art, approval, knowledge. Sometimes it felt as though I wore her name with no claim, a prestigious badge pinned hollow. This realization felt triumphant. My soulmate, my blood, loved me back.
Once, after we liquefied together, after we vanished for a prolonged period of time and needed minutes to realign our cells, Leonora touched my hand. It is impossible to think of leaving you, mitziah. I will not prepare for death. But know that one day I will leave, and only then find that I have done so. It is not goodbye. I just disappear.
Of course, it was me left unprepared. I was dreaming of sugarcane and coffee when a scorpion crawled onto my mattress. Escorpión, why are you here? He looked at me. Raised his right pincer in a beckoning motion and snapped his claws like sparklers. No more waiting. Sígueme.
I grabbed his tail to pinch him dead, tug out the mermaid fin with a satisfying pop. But he was stronger. Pulling me, he scuttled off the bed and before I could let go, jumped. In silence, we landed hard onto a stage. The world turned almond. Everything was dust-coated, save for the backdrop of the stage which spun blood orange under lights. Behind it, tents surrounded browning trees with whipped cream tops. Escorpión crawled onto the stage. He looked at me expectantly. It was time to join the audience. I felt the urge to vanish.
As I walked to my seat, I surveyed the crowd. With an adrenalinized gush, I recognized guests of mythic compositions, occultist corporals. One-eyed lions, feathery and yellow, drooled onto horses seated in front. A dragon bobbed overhead, wings beating only when she dropped too low to the ground. Suddenly, I knew this world. It was 1954. My grandmother stepped onto the stage. For the first time, the wind died down and I felt safe. Leonora gripped the scorpion by its sides and spread it out into air. Everyone applauded. Turned to me and bid farewell. El Juglar.
I woke at dawn, sweating and covered in sunblush. Hysteria built as I flashed down the stairs calling, Abuela, dónde estás!
But I was late. Already, a bottle of gin stood half-empty on the table. I knew my father was asleep on a couch, perhaps the lawn, snoring booze bubbles to ignore despair. On the table lay a dirty spoon, one plate with three grains of rice, dried out and cracked. Next to the silverware: the carcass of a scorpion.
My father told me later she had been sick for months. That she underwent quimioterapia at the local hospital. When I visited, a nurse came to the house. Crept in at night to stick needles into soft crooks of skin. It was this same nurse who sat down with the family, who explained the disease and introduced me to my new amigo. Fat, happy cancer. I see it multiplying, seducing its way into membranes, plunging poison into lucid streams of lapis blood. But Leonora told me everything, and she had not told me this. Besides, cancer was so common, it seemed ridiculous to attempt such a bodily coup.
Soon, I became convinced that only I knew the truth. My grandmother had a plan, trusted me with ruby secrets pushed deep inside my throat. Leonora Carrington was only gone in the ways people understood. The day of her funeral, I almost laughed. This spectacle, desfile, for what! Black cotton lined the rows of seats assembled by my father. Workmen were hired, but he unfolded and placed every chair himself. She would have thought that ridiculous, so I waited for her by the garden, prepared to tell her that my father – can you imagine? – aimed to serve red wine at the service.
Disguised as ghosts, humidity soaked our clothes. People fanned each other with hats and shawls; there was talk of rescheduling the post-service luncheon. Who cares, I yawned. Leonora will reappear soon, next to the skinny eulogist who claimed to know her best. She will laugh at everyone. She will take my hand. Together, we will disappear.
The eulogy was unfinished when I walked past the crowd and onto a freshly paved road. Sun boiled the asphalt and orange cones blocked a mile chunk to prevent journalists from entering the property. I lay on the street and felt the watersalt drip off my back, out through my eyes and sizzle onto tar.
Slowly, then faster, I began to chant. Come back. Leonora, come back.
Tell me where you’ve been hiding. Appear. Tell me the Nazis came to find you, you had no choice but to vanish. Tell me you need me, you will never leave. Tell me you love me most, more than animal bodies, more than fruit, more than him, el diablo, Max Ernst.
I remember she’d murmur – You never write, Leah.
Come back, Safta, and I will write you everyday. I promise. I will move to Mexico, to Bosques de las Loma, into your home, into your bones. Abuela, come back.
I will catch you the moon.
A car honked in the distance, salt in my eyes, salt sizzle. With great effort, I turned my face. Next to me was mistletoe cactus, pineapple sage. The bush was tangled suede and floral violets tucked under the stems. It hummed, alive, and grew louder. The plant vibrated and buzzed and I almost thought it would explode until I spotted the black and yellow blur. Honeybees. The supple hum of green, the pulse of road – it was not the burning bush of Moses, was not my grandmother wrought to haunt. Just bees.
I held my breath. Abruptly, a single bee darted north and then, just as suddenly – looking confused, deciding he was not yet sated – floated back into vegetation, disappeared.