"Some abortionist's needle
hooked me out of darkness, pulled me here. Was it a mother who
raised me with her killer-white skin, hair red as flame? And
the way she had of throwing back her head? And screaming and
screaming and screaming without let-up till the courtyard shrilled
with it? Was it a father, that dried homunculus, jarred in the
specimen room among the display cases, cotton, straight pins,
and formaldehyde? Crucifying cecropiae? Impaling their pale wings
in caskets lined with silk? His attic shelves sagging. Cages.
All manner of tiny cages. And butterflies. On his knees, praying:
"My angels," he would whisper,
smiling dementedly. "Do not disturb my little angels."
And he would cross himself. And outside in the courtyard my mother's
hair would catch on fire and she would scream and scream while
I ran first to one, then to another, offering concessions, negotiating,
hammering out terms, conditions for a truce.
I would push the attic door ajar. I would peer inside. It was
always dark. He said he could not afford light. I would wander
around the fixing tables and the dusty display case, sagging
with its weight of cobwebs, looking for him. I would find him
in a corner, kneeling. Always he managed to find that thin shaft
of light streaming from the clerestory. On his knees, his day
was a kneeling penance, following the trajectory of sunlight.
"Hush," he would whisper, placing his elegant crescent-shaped
fingernail to his lips. "Don't alarm my little angels. Poor
little innocents, they can imagine none of this." And he
would rise to show me his latest invention.
He had constructed a cunning little holding pen, a tiny cage
with the most elegant of blinds, made of narrow strips of tortoise
shell, hung together with tiny ropes of silk. He would lower
the beautiful creature, the finials of her antennae trembling
like tiny ferns in a tempest, into the chamber. He would pull
the blinds shut. Then he would begin to laugh softly, a kind
of dry hiccoughing, the kind that wells up from the throats of
certain effigies in the House of Wax. He would insert a tube.
He would gulp a mouthful of chloroform, press his lips to the
mouthpiece, and blow the exterminating droplets into the chamber.
He would rinse his mouth with the distilled water he always kept
in a sealed beaker. Then, dabbing at his lips, he would lift
the lid of the chamber.
"Look," he would invite me. On tiptoe, I would strain
to see inside the cage above the fixing table. Then he would
slide a stool toward me. "Climb up," he would say.
"See? My little angel has gone to heaven with the other
little cherubs." And I would peer in the chamber. The beautiful
cecropia lay without moving, her wings pale, veined, dusted with
the lavender powder of eternity. He would rattle his collection
of pin boxes, already selecting the manner of her crucifixion,
the tiny satin-lined casket of her resting place. His chuckle
would grow broader. "Father, Father, forgive them for they
know not what they do," he would say. His pin would impale
the furry, swollen body. Brown insect blood would seep out, staining
the cotton. He would raise it to his delicate nostrils, quivering
with the subtle distinction of a world made of odors, none of
which meant anything to me. He would smile with satisfaction.
"Frankincense and myrrh," he would whisper,"the
finest, and a suggestion of creosote--to remind us of the desert."
My father was not an entomologist. He was born in Mexico City, the son of a prominent conservative, a lawyer who, with my grandmother, Trinidad, sired five children, four sons and one daughter. With his father and brothers, he fled the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The women were left behind. He found himself loose in the belly of the beast with the assumed name of Pratt, a Mexican pedigree, no cash, and a lust for acquiring degrees, three of them in all. He became a professor of languages.
He married a red-haired woman from French Switzerland, five years
his senior. He had plans to go straight. She had plans to have
a baby before her forty-five years made it impossible. I was
born . . . My only passport is the English language."
--from the author's autobiography, "Deracinated: the writer
re-invents her sources" in Máscaras, ed. Lucha
Corpi, Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1997.