Luz Pinilla




Luz Pinilla is a Colombian-American writer of literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. She is a student in the creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso and has a Master of Arts in Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her work has appeared in 34th Parallel MagazineCommonTies, and Valiente Magazine.

Social Media: @LuzPinillaWords

My fingers clasped around my mother’s hand, I walked along the streets of the big city, careful to avoid the dark stains and cracks along the way. Already the traffic lunged and spat, an endless symphony of screaming horns as black-and-yellow taxis zipped across unmarked lanes and rickety buses, their once-colorful paint now hidden beneath a veil of grime and filth, released an exasperated sigh at every corner before depositing their passengers into toxic clouds of dust and fumes.

We passed several shops along the way. Merchandise spilled onto the sidewalks on makeshift tables built from wooden crates with prices hand-scrawled on cardboard signs. Across the street, a man in dark blue overalls used the strength of his entire body to push a cart of fruits and vegetables to the local market. And everywhere I looked, fresh-faced students gathered in masses of neatly pressed plaids and whites, laughing and joking before scurrying along to their morning lessons. I saw gamines, too. Street children casting wistful glances at anyone who dared to look them in the eye. As we neared two young boys in grease-stained shirts, frayed jeans, and dirty sneakers with bare toes peeking out from rips in the canvas, my mother turned to me and tapped a finger to her cheekbone—a warning to be on guard. Just ahead of us, a woman rushed out of a store and with a single, sweeping motion threw a bucketful of foamy, black water onto the street. She watched it fizz on the concrete for a moment before turning around stiffly, her face empty of expression as she stepped back into the store. Inside, I saw a boy my age with arms outstretched, gliding over the soapy floor with rags tied to his feet.

A few blocks further, we came to a bright, clean bookstore with shiny wooden shelves and enormous windows. My mother held the door open for me, and as I stepped inside I noticed the panels of a metal gate extending from the floor to the ceiling, folded back and forth like a giant accordion against each side of the front wall as the smell of brand-new books filled my nostrils. I followed my mother to the back of the store and stood beside her as she thumbed through books with soft spines and lots of print—the kind with clouds or doves or angels depicted on their glossy covers. “Books to help you live a better life,” she explained with a nod.

We left the store carrying her purchases in a blue-and-white striped plastic bag. Our final stop was to be the rectory of one of the largest Catholic churches in the neighborhood. We were going to meet the pastor and a few other members of the clergy—old friends of my mother— for coffee and pastries, but we arrived earlier than planned and she decided to take a detour into the tiny shop just before the entrance to the church.

We went in together and the darkness swallowed us up in one gulp. It took a while for my eyes to adjust, but once they did the first thing I noticed was an entire wall covered in crosses of every size and color imaginable. Ornate ones of silver and gold, others encrusted with gems and tiles. Rustic-looking ones, and ones made of smooth, polished wood. Some with Jesus, others without. I had never in my life seen such a magnificent display of crosses. My mother walked right up to the counter to ask about statues of Catholic saints, but I remained standing, half-dazed, just inside the entryway. A sudden breeze swept in through the open door, carrying with it the warm aroma of deep-fried buñuelos from a nearby street vendor, and I turned to face the light outside.

The sky was a smooth gray, almost white. Across the busy street the façade of blocky, concrete buildings seemed washed out and dull, but in the distance I thought I saw the faint blue of mountains. I stepped closer to the sidewalk and turned to look in the direction from where we had come. The street narrowed gradually, the buildings on either side becoming smaller and smaller as they approached the horizon. Above them I could see the mountains clearly. Green on this side, not blue. Rolling upward to meet the white sky along its edge. I saw a handful of birds gliding in the heavens, and then, squinting, I saw something else. A building, even whiter than the sky, standing on the very top of the tallest mountain, and I remembered its name. Monserrate. I had been there with my parents and their friends just last summer. I remembered riding the cable car all the way up, over the trees. Tossing coins into the fountain. Wandering around to the various shops and stands, listening to music, eating roasted corn and papas criollas. And I also remembered, with a shudder, that life-sized, bloody statue of the Fallen Christ contained within a glass enclosure.

I lowered my eyes back to the horizon.

Suddenly, the point at which the two sides of the street came together did not seem very far at all. The honking horns, the barking dogs, the crying children around me all merged into a single sound, and at the heart of the city’s incessant roar something small and black caught my eye. I squinted again. A tiny figure was making its way toward me. I would not have noticed it at all except that its steady, unwavering pace stood out in the sea of chaos that surrounded it. The figure came closer, and I saw that it was a woman. Hunched over, taking small steps using a thin, crooked stick as a cane. I saw that she was wearing a black shawl over her head, but I did not see her face because she looked straight down as she walked, as if she were finding her way through this enormous city by following the dirt-filled cracks upon its surface. The woman continued along, passing completely unnoticed through the crowded sidewalk like a plume of black smoke. I seemed to be the only person on the entire planet who had taken notice of her, and now that I had I could not force myself to look away.

She came closer still. I could see that her lace shawl was torn in several places, revealing silvery threads of hair beneath. I saw the soft, deep lines of her face. She was almost upon me now, so I took a step back into the doorway of the store in order to let her pass.

But she never did.

I held my breath and stared in wonder as the woman stopped in front of the entrance and turned toward me. She stepped into the store without looking up, and as she walked by I saw her fingers, gnarled and weathered, trembling as she grasped the top of her cane.

She went up to the counter and waited. I could hear my mother going on about Santa Cecilia and Santa Clara while two young women on the other side nodded respectfully. After some time, one of them finally took notice of the old woman and excused herself. She walked over, an unnatural smile pasted on her face, and asked if she could help.

The old woman’s voice was raspy and meek, but I heard her request clearly. She wanted to buy a rosary. The attendant’s smile grew wider, more impatient. She looked down at the display of rosaries and tapped on the glass. “Which one would you like?” she asked, still smiling.

The old lady stretched a thin, shaky finger toward one of the rosaries. “How much… how much is that one?”

The attendant gave her the price and I saw the old woman’s head shake under her shawl. “Oh, no. No, I don’t have that much.”

The eyes of the lady behind the counter became larger and her smile turned into a grimace. She squatted down to reach the bottom shelf and plucked out a string of brown, plastic beads. “What about this one?” she said, letting it fall in a heap upon the glass. The sweetness of her voice was so artificial it made my stomach tighten.

The woman lowered her head even further and chuckled when the lady called out a second price. “Goodness, no. That’s too much, too much… how much is your cheapest rosary? The cheapest one you have. I don’t—I don’t need anything fancy, you understand.”

“Well, how much do you have?” the clerk snapped. The smile quickly fell from her face as she watched the woman pull a tiny coin purse from her pocket, remove a handful of coins, and scatter them on the counter.

“This is all I have, dear,” the woman murmured. “Is there anything you can give me for this? It’s all I have.”

The attendant snatched up the beads and shook her head. “I’m sorry, señora,” she said. “I can’t help you. Our cheapest rosary is a child’s toy and it costs twice as much as what you have. There’s nothing I can do for you. Perhaps you’d like to come back…”

I swallowed. Shifted my weight. Took a breath. Prepared to speak. Looking over at my mother, I saw that she had finally found what she had been looking for and was watching the other attendant wrap the statue in sheets of newsprint.

I parted my lips and took another breath, but nothing came out.

As my mother handed her bills to the outstretched hand in front of her, the old woman in black collected her coins and placed them one by one into her purse. Then she turned around and began walking toward the door. As she passed me, I noticed that her eyes were gray and glassy, like the sky. I thought I saw a red tinge around them, too, but it was dark inside that store. I couldn’t be sure.

I stepped out behind the old lady and watched as the city devoured her once again in its thunderous rumble. I kept my eyes on her until she became a black dot in the distance.

I was the only one who saw.

© The Acentos Review 2017