Featured Writer #89: Katherine Vaz

Katherine Vaz

 

 

 

I.

Maria Serafina Júlia Moniz Gato Vaz de Borges enters the world with green eyes. When her fisherman daddy is home in the village of Agualva—it means White Water—on the island of Terceira in the Azores, he whispers, “My little cat!” Because that is the meaning of one of the family names. She scampers kitten-fast if danger tries to bite her. She was born in 1914, when the Earth went howling-mad with War.

When Serafina is a child, cats nestle on the lava walls, among the hydrangeas and baby roses, and flick their tails at her. They are her friends. She zips herself inside a cat-suit to join them, or to become invisible and look for Pai on the sea. Stretching at her feet, they pay her homage; she is the Princess of Cats.

The word for “Father” in Portuguese is pronounced “pie,” but in America this sound means a glorious dessert filled with fruit and sugar!

There is a real creature in the New World called a “catfish”—oh, America!

When Pai goes away on fishing boats, he vows he is not leaving her. Everyone thinks the sea is blue—but they are wrong! The sea is green! He is sailing into her eyes. If she closes them, she can join him on the boat, catching codfish. If the boat gets lost, never fear, Little Cat! We wear long-stocking caps so if we’re caught alone in fog, we can wring our hats and drink the fresh water stuck in the yarn.

Mãe takes them to the beach when Pai’s boat is due on the fleet. The women and children remove their shoes. When they run to the shore, they want the rocks and shells to slice their feet, because if they bleed, if they are in a little pain, God will spare them the pain of being told their husbands and fathers are drowned.

Pai kneels in the sand. He teases her, Ai, ah, ah. I had a gift for you, Cat-Cat! It was from a treasure chest at the bottom of the sea! I dropped it! Mãe knows how to read. She reads books to Serafina about pearls and starfish made of diamonds, so Serafina searches Pai’s pockets for jewels, giggling. He has a pocket in his hat! Ai, Serafina-Cat, the present slipped away. Soon I’ll go back to find it.

He delights her with two Queen Conch shells, holding them over her ears. The pink insides make the sound like the one his chest offers when he sings a Goodnight Song. Is this the gift he promised from the sea? Mãe embroiders a pillow with waves on it, and Serafina puts a Queen Conch of Pai’s Voice on the pillow on her nightstand.

No, that’s not the gift I plan to give you from the bottom of the sea, Serafina, not yet! It will be such a surprise when you get it!

His name is Francisco, and Mãe calls him Xico. Her name is Maria Amparo. In 1917, there is a miracle in Fátima on the mainland, and everyone goes crazy wanting a personal sign from God. Serafina’s miracle is that Pai put his song-voice inside a shell.

Her sister joins them with brown eyes in 1918. It is the year of the Invisible Disease sweeping the globe. Flu Sickness. Serafina’s job is to protect little Idialeda.

In the year of Idialeda’s birth, their mother starts the One-Hundred-Year-Old Portuguese Cooking Club, because she is lonely, because she needs help with the new baby. Everyone must feed each other. “One Hundred Years” feels like the amount of time it takes for the men to sail home.

Conceição (dark brown eyes) arrives in 1920, and José (light brown eyes) crowds into the whitewashed house in 1923. Pai paints the shutters the shade of the lime-tinted tides. Color of sea, of Serafina’s eyes! I keep forgetting to bring you the Treasure of the Sea, Cat-Cat! Forgive me!

The baby boy and Serafina’s sisters cry and cry at home. On and on, screaming! Serafina zips into her cat-suit and claps the shells over her ears. Pai fails to bring her black pearls, or amber gems that whales toss from their spouts, or a blanket the mermaids have decorated with the shiny scales they scrape from their tails while scolding Pai, “Don’t break your promise! Bring your daughter the best possible gift from the sea!”

Instead the men bring fish. Most of the haul must be sold. They save enough for a feast. Enormous cauldrons are set over a fire built on top of wood, and into the boiling water they drop whole dead fish that dive down and then bob to the surface with cloudy eyes. This is soup. The vat steams like a witch’s brew. They toss the stomachs out of the cooked fish as food for the cats. The needle-bones feed the gardens. The men and women eat the flesh and fish-heads, eyes and all.

Fish are your friends! The sea is home. Thank your friends for feeding you.

Now your body is made of fish. You are a fish.

Men sit on the beach repairing the nets that are many colors, turquoise and apple-red, and they lift their sewing arms in unison, like a line of musicians in an orchestra playing violins, serenading the water.

Men in the Azores are the official stitchers. Pai sews a button onto Serafina-Cat’s church blouse before he goes away, and she offers a prayer: He must not fail this time to search until he finds me the gift in the treasure chest at the bottom of the sea.

It is Serafina’s fault he dies! Pai! I am so sorry! Pai, you drowned looking rather than fail to answer my foolish prayer! Come home! How can I gain your forgiveness?

In the year of her father’s death—his body is never found, because he is hunting for a talking opal, a sapphire jelly-flower that predicts the future—the mother of Serafina needs the One-Hundred-Year-Old Portuguese Cooking Club even more, because “one hundred” now means the feel of the eternity where Pai has gone. The women bring bread shaped as doves (when older, Serafina Borges learns that “dove” can be slang for the parts of a woman that deal with men and babies). The women bring pieces of cows cooked with wine and pepper. They pray. They force Maria Amparo to eat.

In her cat-suit of invisibility, Serafina searches the shoreline in case it reveals the gift that Pai died trying to find for her. She wants to throw it back into the sea. My father, forgive, forgive me!

 

II.

Maria Serafina Júlia Moniz Gato Vaz de Borges marries, in 1933, a man with stars in his eyes. His name is Augusto Cotta et cetera et cetera Dias. He does not want to fish, he does not want to tend cows, he wants to go to California where citrus fruits fall from trees onto outstretched palms and movie stars get into cars that go here and there as if they have rolled onto magic carpets. He buys her white gloves, because American women wear them in the grocery stores! Born on the island in 1934, their little boy is named Augusto Cotta et cetera et cetera Dias Junior, “Junior” because it is very American and (secretly) because Serafina Borges Dias is so in love she is greedy, she wants two Augusts. August Senior wants to be a teacher, an honorable profession. He has studied English since his boyhood in the capital of the island, Angra do Heroísmo. He dreams of being a painter, he will stand on the land that has veins of gold and call it up, call up the gold to buy his wife and their son a beautiful home on a hill. He will sketch a portrait of them. He will paint the large metal milk cans his uncles—they have drawn the path, gone before him to California—cart home from the dairies of the valleys on feastdays. He’ll put roosters, Madonnas, garlands, and angels on them, and until the gold rises from the yard, they can sell the painted cans as umbrella stands. Gold will feed the lemons on the tree they’ll own, they’ll be pieces of sun.

When they book passage on the sealiner in 1942, August Junior is eight and insists on getting into the tender on his own. The tender is the tiny boat that will take a dozen people at a time to the big boat. He slips and falls into the sea, and Serafina screams as the color of her eyes swallows him. He is plunging to meet his grandfather, to retrieve the gift of the sea that Serafina still wants, which is selfish when she has a husband who will teach and paint and give her a house on a hill in a land of gold, a husband who dives after their child, and for thirty seconds in the history of her life, for an eternity, she loses them both. Forgive me!

But her husband is a miracle-worker, and up he bobs, their son a netted fish.

During the trip, Serafina thinks: Our son is safe. But one day—why do we keep having children?—he will be old (she hopes, and what a thing to hope for!) and die.

He gets lost on the boat and later tells his parents he wandered everywhere, and doors opened and out popped the heads of strangers who looked like puppets.

They plow a route in the water for Idialeda, Connie, and Joe to follow. The sealiner is a knife. It goes over where Serafina’s Pai still looks for the treasure he promised her. Mãe refuses to join them; she is sad, she is resigned, she is glad for them. The One-Hundred-Year-Old Portuguese Cooking Club needs her, its members are family now, they light candles in case the drowned men appear, covered in algae forming reins for seahorses, clutching crowns made of foam-spangled barnacles.

Serafina Dias has an ice-box in California that August Senior buys with money from teaching in San Leandro, where so many other people from the Azores have come. Ice is like nothing she has seen, it is from a mine of mineral-mirrors, it is said to be cold, so why does it burn? The house is not on a hill, and no water can be seen from a window, but she paints the shutters green. She finds a tree wearing a coat of red fur, and though its trunk is too big for her to encircle, she hears its heartbeat because the tree is enchanted, it is gift enough, it is gift enough. She discovers artichokes. These too would be gift enough, they are gift enough. Her husband buys her a hat with a green bow to match her eyes and a cloth canary on it, because he grew up starving and his mother taught him to sing to feed himself, to eat music. The neighbors nicknamed them The Little Birds. August Junior grows up thinking that a hat with a bird on it is a supreme declaration of a love that stretches far back and far forward.

Before long—his time in California is a breath, it is nothing—he joins the Navy to fight in the War. He is the second man she loses to the water. She was born in a year of war. And now her husband has gone to the bottom of the sea to help her father look for the treasure she never stopped wanting and wondering about. How can she be forgiven?

August Junior makes her soup and sits her up in bed, to feed her. When he starts a restaurant, she will remind him its origin was his care of her. Here too is the launch of the California chapter of the One-Hundred-Year-Old Portuguese Cooking Club, and Idialeda and Connie keep it going with her. Because Serafina one day opens her door. She invites in everyone new who has come to the land with gold in its veins and everyone she knows already in the land with gold in its veins.

She borrows Joe’s Plymouth Sedan, drives with August Junior over the bridge into San Francisco, and joins the cars zig-zagging down Lombard Street. Roses gush out of the planters in the street’s sharp curves. She teaches August Junior how to take cuttings of roses. She must save him, she must not let him be the third of her men to die in water, because she is killing him with her tears, and Portuguese tears are sea-water, she knows this from her youth. Steering the car, she is frightened out of her senses, and she offers up this terror so God will take away the terror that her grief will wound her son.

The war ends. She improves her English so she can teach very small children.

For the One-Hundred-Year-Old Portuguese Cooking Club’s meals, guests bring cookies with the flavor of fresh oranges and soups of vegetables the color of her eyes. They slaughter chickens and shake the body parts in American brown-paper bags that once held onions, bags they fill with flour and paprika. They brew lemon-verbena tea; they cook until they can taste the home that is far and the home that is near.

They start a Cookbook in a white album holding everyone’s recipes, this tome of secret ingredients, where other secrets are written onto the pages, notes and gossip.

Lucy Soares brings tomatoes in cans—oh, America! Americans hide food inside metal. Lucy works at the apricot-cooling trays at the Hunts Cannery. Apricots in syrup are served at the supper that introduces Manny to Gloria, and lo and behold, they marry. Joe brings his friends, Bill Flores and Jimmy Dutra and others. The women in the club take turns hosting, they listen to the radio as they bake coconut tarts, they crumble oregano into stews, and Serafina is struck: This is the gold from the land, this club, these friends, this family, this bounty. Her son paints the placecards for the suppers.

She and August Junior go to the moving-pictures and watch Laurel and Hardy. What do you call a cow with no legs? Ground beef. Sometimes she still zips herself into her childhood cat-suit, hoping the world cannot find her.

In a book from the library at the school where she teaches children learning English whose accents are like her own, she sees the picture of a human mermaid named Annette Kellerman, who submerges herself in tanks of water to entertain people by holding her breath, but surely, too, because Annette’s father also once promised that he would bring her a treasure from the bottom of the Great Green Sea.

Serafina learns to swim. When she hauls herself from a pool full of American chemicals that will kill Invisible Sicknesses, her eyes are as cloudy as fish dropped into boiling cauldrons, but suddenly around the lights are rings bright with gold, bursting with blue, gold and sapphires, which tell her her father and husband still look to give her a gift out of water, the gift that will one day surprise her from the treasure chest at the bottom of the sea, though she asks them to stop now, please, forgive me!

 

III.

Maria Serafina Júlia Moniz Gato Vaz de Borges Dias remains the widow Serafina Borges Dias at the marriage of her son, August Dias Junior, to Karin Alwyn, large and American-fair. Her wedding dress is so plain it is puzzling, it is without lace or sequins, it is boxy, but in size and bearing, she is a goddess. Serafina and her sisters bake a vanilla-cream cake of three layers, and Idialeda makes meringue roses that they dot with red and green food coloring to honor the Portuguese flag. Connie laughs and says she hopes the freckling doesn’t make guests fear the cake is diseased. Idialeda replies that if they do, good; it will mean more cake and roses for the Borges sisters.

Idialeda had a son, Jorge, thrown from a cable car to his death. California is a land of gold, but the gold is fed with blood. She has adopted her husband’s niece.

To show Karin, oh she of few words, that she is welcome because Serafina has never seen her son so happy, she gives her a string of pearls. She pretends it is the gift from the treasure chest at the bottom of the sea that her father, and her husband dead of a gunshot in the water of the war, have united to give her, it is treasure twice over, she needs nothing except her father forgiving her need for sea-jewels, her husband forgiving her for not protecting him from bullets.

When Isabel is born to August and Karin in the summer of 1960, Serfina purrs; the moon drops a ladder of light onto Lake Merritt in Oakland where she walks with friends; she is restless with joy. The baby has green eyes! Everyone thinks the sea is blue, but the sea is green. She lifts that ladder of moonlight and climbs into the sky, where she taps on a door on the bottom of a cloud so it will let her in, so she can float. Isabel sleeps below a pink blanket from her Grandma, her Vó, her Vóvó, her Vóvózinha.

Serafina guards the child when August and Karin work at their restaurant, Caravela, like the ships the navigators rode over the water filled with dragons. When the baby cries, which is often, Vóvó Serafina tells Isabel to zip herself into a cat-suit so they can be invisible together, please, dear, and hide from whatever will not stop deviling her.

Karin surprises—stuns—everyone by tucking into a shell. She emerges from the shell in order to go to pieces. The newborn girl is so small it’s a shock her lungs are so large, fire-bellows; the fussing lifts the roof. At first, Serafina is patient with Karin; she recalls her own crying sisters and brother in the whitewashed house. But Karin won’t pick the child up, claims she’s afraid to drop her. Serafina would never have taken Karin for fearful, for depressed, and soon Serafina is furious, because her son begins to drown.

When Karin Alwyn Dias returns to her native Minnesota, to live with a friend named Joanie because her parents seem not to be real parents, Serafina moves into her son’s house and thinks, Good riddance. Because the child is hers now. Karin is vapor, she lives on Mars. But it is Serafina’s curse that not only must she lose the ones she loves, those she loves must lose the ones they love.

Her son adores his daughter, and he sings, he paints pictures for her, reads to her; he bathes her, feeds and dresses her, and rocks her in the chair when Serafina falls asleep.

And then one day, when Serafina is alone with little Isabel, there’s a phone call from Karin, who begs Serafina not to hang up. A darkness filled her, says Karin, and she tried to contain it. The darkness became a cloak. She’s cast it off and wants to come home.

Serafina drives to a long-stay motel down the coast in Monterey near Cannery Row, where the green curtains have ridges. A frying pan rests on a miniature range. Karin is as big as America, as strange. As casual and as prone to the failure to understand how much one has. In the Azores, Serafina used an outhouse that was only an open hole, pigs feeding beneath.

“Help me be at peace,” says Karin, her gaze attempting to pierce the chill encasing her mother-in-law.

Karin contacted her first knowing Serafina’s blessing would be hardest to get. She is right. However. Serafina recalls how much her son loves this woman. The crazy sadness that seizes women after giving birth must be weighed. Serafina has been waiting for her father at the bottom of the sea to forgive her for her insistence on a gift, waiting for her husband to forgive her for not rescuing him. When all along she has been waiting to become enough of a person to forgive someone else who is dying for it.

When she asks what Karin did for nearly a year, Karin replies, “I stayed with friends. Joanie. I had a boyfriend long ago named William, and he helped—”

Ai! Por amor de Deus! Why did she turn for this “help” to a boy who goes by the name of William?

“You see, Sogra,” says this female who looks able to saw down a tree on her own, “I ran back to look at what my life might have been, a road I was going to take, once long ago. I got frightened at how much I had. Do you see? William was very kind about—”

Stop! Enough about this very kind William! Serafina wants to ask if the kindness of this road-not-taken William extended to the most famous kind of kindness, one that she misses in her bed as a widow, but she would never forgive this tree-cutting-down-sized daughter-in-law if the betrayal is the worst. Maybe this very-kind-Mr.-life-once-upon-a-time William only pitied a woman insane enough to suffer with a lovely home, devoted husband, and healthy baby in a climate like a warm bath—yes, that is very frightening! None of this makes sense to an immigrant who bears not a single illusion about old places. But! All right! Big fat forgiveness! Serafina says, “We go walk now by the bay, Karin. We won’t talk about this anymore, because why do that, you are home.”

August Dias, united with his wife, blooms. Nothing magnifies love better than the threat of loss. It is a gift overflowing, it is full of the stars. Serafina with her green eyes hands over Isabel with her green eyes to her mother and finds a little house nearby.

Serafina has done her best as a healer of families.

 

In 1993, when Serafina is seventy-nine, Isabel brings her grandma, her Vó, Vóvó, her Vóvózinha, a book she has written that has a story about Serafina’s father, and Serafina is full with the wisdom that she lives in a land not only with gold in its veins but a family with gold in its arteries, forevermore. It is enough.

A week later, she is painting a thin piece of tin cut in the shape of a fish, turning it all the shades of the green sea. Her heart seizes. She walks toward the telephone, to call for help, an ambulance, to call her son, her daughter-in-law, her sisters, her visiting granddaughter. But water is filling the house she has made in the land of cable cars and oleander and dry hills and tureens. She lies on her spotless kitchen floor. Above, the lighting fixture has a single dead moth in the milky-white bowl. She must clean it. But the water is almost at the ceiling. Her husband appears. August Senior points at the bullet hole in his chest. Her heart shudders again. He smiles, she smiles back. August Junior leans over her, and Isabel shows up because her eyes are green and green is the true color of the ocean. And then Serafina’s father walks to where she lies at the bottom of the sea, and he holds out a hand, and she gasps. Because at last she understands that over and over he kept his promise about bringing her the greatest treasure at the bottom of the sea, from a chest that is human. “It was your heart! It was you,” she shouts, but no one hears. “My treasure was you!” She shouts it again from the depths, under the water where all their chests overflow with injury, ruptured from the immensity of never wanting to leave the gifts of this world, this affection everlasting.

 


Katherine Vaz has been a Briggs-Copeland Fellow in Fiction at Harvard, a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a Harman Fellow at Baruch. Her novels include Saudade, (St. Martin’s), selected in the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers series, and Mariana, in six languages, selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top 30 International Books of 1998. Fado & Other Stories won the 1997 Drue Heinz Prize and Our Lady of the Artichokes received the 2007 Prairie Schooner Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in dozens of magazines, and her children’s stories have been included in anthologies from Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Viking. The Love Life of an Assistant Animator is her most recent collection.

Vaz received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and is the first Portuguese-American to have her work recorded for the Library of Congress (Hispanic Division). She was appointed to the six-person U.S. Presidential Delegation at the World’s Fair in Lisbon.

She is currently (since December, 2017) a Developmental Editor for Idea Architects, which proposes, sells, and edits books, with a specialty in social-justice topics, psychological health, and other general interest nonfiction subjects. The company has produced nine New York Times bestsellers in the past few years. She lives in New York City with her husband, Christopher Cerf, an editor, satirist, Sesame Street composer, and TV producer.

 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

Illinois Arts Council Logo

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.