Zyanya Avila Louis


Zyanya Avila Louis is a recent graduate of the MFA in Fiction program at Emerson College and now teaches in their First Year Writing Program. In her time working with students at Emerson, she as developed a passion for working with international students, multilingual students, and other diverse student populations, which is born from being bilingual herself thanks to having grown up on the US side of the El Paso/Juarez border. She lives in Quincy, MA with her fiance and her growing library of books. 

When the Dust Settled


Every afternoon, Matthew relished the moment his father, Antonio, downed his daily medication with the applesauce Matthew’s wife, Lucy, made from scratch. Today, as on many other days of that summer, Antonio turned his attention to the tray only when Matthew had finished lining up his numerous pills for him to pop into his mouth and swallow with water, one by one. Most of the medicines suggested they be “taken with a meal or small snack” so Lucy whipped up the applesauce every few days and Matthew fed it to his sick father so an achy stomach wouldn’t add to his many other ailments.

By the time Matthew settled in his usual spot in the arm chair his mother used to sit in, and had taken up his book again, his father was spooning the sauce into his mouth with a shaky but still accurate hand. Matthew wondered what his father would say if he told him that Lucy had also made it for her and Matthew’s baby, Antonio’s first grandchild. Matthew wanted to wait until his father had eaten the whole bowl and then unleash the knowledge, albeit petty, onto his father. That “someone like her” could make something so delicious that someone like his father could eat it—enjoy it with gusto and be soothed and succored by it, like a cool hand on a fevered forehead.

His father clanged his spoon against his empty bowl and Matthew looked up from the single page in his book he’d been stuck staring at. “Cabron,” Antonio croaked, “more.” The urge to tell him it was Lucy’s recipe returned for a moment, but Matthew got up, took the bowl, and headed back to the kitchen, muttering only, “Please, son,” in response.

Over his shoulder, not under his breath this time, he told his father he was also getting him a protein shake. Matthew handed an open bottle of chocolate flavored Ensure to his father, checked that he’d taken his pills instead of hiding them under the blankets, and made sure the remote control was still in his reach so that Matthew could eat his own lunch in peace.

Feeling nostalgic for his mother, Julieta, the day before, he’d made enchiladas with green sauce, chicken, and corn tortillas. They did not taste quite right because Matthew had never mastered Julieta’s skill of making fresh tortillas so his were always store bought and, somehow, foreign. Always round and soft, as if she’d used a protractor to measure out their exact circumference, his mother’s tortillas were best pinched right off the comal (“Watch your fingers, Matt!”) on which she cooked them. He enjoyed the flat soft discs of love smeared with butter and nothing else except maybe a glass of milk or champurrado in the winter. Lucy had never had the chance to meet his mother, and as such had never tried her enchiladas. Not having anything to compare to, she loved Matthew’s, but he knew the difference. Matthew was an only child, and despite his father’s protests that Matthew was a boy who needed to learn other things (as in things outside of the kitchen), Julieta spent hours with him in the one he now stood in, watching the helping of enchilada he’d served himself spin around in the microwave. Her presence lingered.

 “Oh, oh, be careful not to over-fill the tortillas, or they’ll break apart when you roll them up,” she’d said during his first enchilada lesson. His much smaller ten-year-old-self saw the kitchen as a palatial space of deliciousness and love.

“Si, mama,” he replied. If he stayed quiet enough, she would unravel a story for him all on her own. He liked it when a story came naturally.

“You know, this recipe came from your Abuela Tita. Your father’s mother. Mine loved to cook, but she could never master tortillas quite like Tita. So, she was the one to show me. She was also the one who helped me get my job helping Doña Elena Jimenez, too.”

Julieta had worked as a housemaid for a much wealthier family than hers, cleaning all the rooms in their echoing house and eavesdropping on their “rich people” conversations. Once she’d fallen in love with one of their sons, but although he reciprocated, the family drove her out. Social classes didn’t mix well back then and she was certainly out of theirs. She never saw her first love again and instead married Antonio a year or two later, when he moved back to Zacatecas; their families had been friends and they often met and played together as young children but grew apart when his moved away.

Julieta smiled at Matthew and cupped his chin in her hand, bringing his face up to look into hers. She kissed his forehead and asked, “Do you like cooking with your mama, Matt?”

“Si, mama,” he said again, nodding for extra emphasis this time.

Just then, Antonio came into the kitchen, bursting the warmth of Julieta’s bubble. “Bah! I thought I said not to encourage him to keep up this woman stuff, mujer. It’s bad enough he wants to do all that school stuff instead of coming to work.” Antonio enjoyed reminding Matthew that Abuela Tita was part German and his father part Indian, so tough ran in their blood, and so did good, honest manual labor. “You don’t need school to do just fine. I put clothes on your skinny back and food in your stomachs, right?”

Even later, in adulthood, Matthew did not know what came over him when he decided to ask, “What does our heritage have to do with being tough or supporting your family? Maybe I want to be tough and smart and be able to cook for my wife someday.”

Antonio’s face had gone a deep red over his normal dark brown, his eyes darkening to almost black as he glared at Matthew. Quick and powerfully, like a predatory cat, Antonio whipped off the sandal on his right foot and hurled it at Matthew’s face, yelling “Cabron!” Matthew did not have time to duck before the flying sandal hit him in the face. He remembered his mother calling out his father’s name, both angry and tired, and his father saying, “He needs to learn to be a man, Julieta.” Matthew crept away to his room and his mother finished their enchiladas alone. From then on, they only cooked together when Antonio was not home, Matthew’s most favorite culinary secret, besides the applesauce.

As he retrieved the dish from the microwave, he mused that at least he hadn’t known to point out that “Indian” wasn’t the correct term, or who knows what the punishment would have been. It was no wonder why Antonio would not accept that Matthew fallen in love with a woman who was Black. Antonio rejected Lucy before even meeting her. She was, in his eyes, the wrong shade of brown.

Now, as he swirled the last bites of enchilada in the green tomatillo sauce, he tried to remember instead how he and his mother would also talk about school, when Matthew was still going in California. She usually didn’t understand what exactly he studied in order to become a laboratory technologist, even when he explained to her in Spanish about the chemistry and his favorite work in hematology. He still treasured the way her eyes lit up, something they rarely did when she had gotten sick, when he told her he had landed a good job, and how the light in her eyes had made her tears of joy and pride sparkle as she brushed them away. It all made up for the fact that his father had not bothered to go see him walk across the stage to receive his degree. 

There was one story that Matthew asked his mother to tell so many times, he could picture it like a film: how her family was somewhat the mirror image of his father’s because she was the only girl, while he was so much younger than his only brother that he grew up as if he only had sisters. When she tired of her brothers fighting amongst each other and picking on her, Julieta would sneak off to play with Antonio’s sisters. Since Antonio’s brother was already working in the mines with their father, he was often left to play with the only siblings close to his age and Julieta.

One day, Antonio’s mother gave them a job to do: get some corn meal so she could make fresh tortillas; she said she would teach Julieta how to make them if she wanted— she liked Julieta for her son. Antonio’s sister Lola, who usually went into town for their mother, was told to stay and finish washing the clothes for the family while Antonio and Julieta went off alone to the market. They were only about ten and eleven, but were still expected to do their part; “Those were different times,” Julieta would say wistfully before continuing. Even though it was safe to go out, they were excited to have a mission and being sent to complete it on their own.

They waited while Antonio’s mother counted out the money. When they had enough, she shooed them away, warning them not to take too long. Antonio whispered to Julieta that when Lola was allowed to go to the dances and parties in town, his mother seemed to know what time it was when she got home and how many minutes she was late returning. Even a minute past the curfew she’d set for Lola, and she’d get a whooping. His mother hadn’t gone to school, but she still knew how much money she should get back after they bought the corn meal so he put the money in his pocket, making sure it didn’t have any holes for the coins to slip through. It was at this point in the story that Julieta always said, “I think you got all your smarts from your grandmother.” It made him smile, proud of the distant connection to a woman he’d never met, while hoping to not be nearly as strict with his own children. It was also here that Matthew’s father often pointed out that his mother was smart without school or fancy degrees on her adobe plastered walls.

The younger versions of Matthew’s parents ran out the door of his grandmother’s house, a faded yellow with an immaculate porch despite the dust in his imagination, past the gate that marked the end of her land and slowed to a stroll once they reached the road, almost out of sight of the house. The road was just gravel, but there was grass on both sides of the path, stretching far in front of them and disappearing into the town. Back then, Julieta told him, people left their doors unlocked and could walk through the streets without fear of being robbed or kidnapped or anything like that, even at night. They enjoyed walking.

They whispered and laughed at the people they passed on the way, waving to friends from school and church. The buildings were so pretty, everything made of brick or stone, with small, narrow alleys and streets. Once they reached the store, they stepped inside and greeted the man behind the counter, as they were taught. It was very rude not to say good morning, afternoon, or evening. He said hello back and asked what they needed. Just some corn meal, please and thank you, they said, and told him how much.

While they waited, Antonio and Julieta wandered over to admire the candy, all laid out in rows behind the glass and in jars on the counter. There weren’t that many since it was a small store, but it was enough to make their mouths water. Until the day she passed away, she remembered all the lollipops glimmering inside their wrappers; chocolates in rows, like tiny soldiers waiting to be marched into a paper bag and taken home; balls of gum that multiplied in their jar, making their vision swim with all the colors. Their eyes had both landed on the gum and when the storekeeper came with the sack of cornmeal, they looked over at each other at the same time, smiling in unison. The gum was the cheapest and would last longer than the other candy. It cost only cinco centavos, ten for both of them. Before the man could finish adding their bill, they pointed excitedly at the gum and asked him to add it on.

 They left the store, giggling and nudging each other with the sack between them. “Maybe we should go right back and give your mom the cornmeal,” Julieta said when they emerged from the shop. “We can hide the candy until we can really enjoy it.”  But Antonio, already a stubborn boy, replied, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m the only boy left, mama will never do anything to me!” They paused on a bench just outside to sit and savor the first few sugary minutes of chewing. The sweetness burst in their mouths, and Julieta said she remembered it washing over her tongue and making the back of her jaw tingle. Antonio was still giggling as he chewed, laughing at his rebellion and at Julieta’s face glowing, his eyes glinting in the way only a troublemaker’s do. She often speculated that this was the moment they fell in love and of damnation.

After a couple of minutes, they gathered up the sack of corn meal and began walking back home, still chewing. As they neared the edge of the fence still farthest away from the door, Julieta stopped walking and spoke up. “What are we going to do with the gum, Antonio?” Julieta asked, the joy on her face turned to uneasiness.

Antonio thought for a moment, stroking his chin where his goatee would later be, and set down his end of the sack and walked over to one of the fence posts. Julieta followed, leaving the sack behind. “I got it. We’ll just stick the gum to one of the pickets and come back for it later. No one will know. You worry for nothing, like a girl.”

They chewed a few seconds more, then reluctantly took their wads of gum and stuck them to the wooden fence post, his above hers. Just then they heard a snuffling sound and a moment later a shriek from the house. They turned around at the same time to find a pig, huge, fat, and mottled white and gray with its nose in the corn meal, nearly finished eating it all and pushing the sack around so that dust from the path seemed to surround them like hellish smoke.

The yell came from Antonio’s mother, who stood frozen on her doorstep watching the scene in shock; and then she came to her senses and ran toward them, in a fury like none Julieta had ever seen in her life. She watched Tita drive the pig away with one hard-handed slap on its bottom, but when the dust settled they could see that the pig had eaten most of the corn meal. Julieta could only stand, terrified and mouth agape, as her future mother in law turned her hard, rough hands on her own son. “Tita’s eyes just went all dark,” Julieta said, “I did not know what to do, could not really do anything but watch because who was I to do anything. We’d made a terrible, terrible mistake.”

As if the bruises on his face, arms, and ego weren’t enough as punishment, for the rest of the day, Tita pinched or kicked Antonio’s bottom until dinner time, when she sent Julieta back home with his portion of supper. His rear had been so sore he would hardly sit down. When Julieta mustered the courage to go back and see him the next day, she decided to look for the gum on the picket they left it on, but the gum was nowhere to be found. Antonio pushed her into the dirt where the day before the pig’s hooves had kicked up their fate. His eye was blackening, and he seemed different to Julieta. “Maybe that stupid pig ate the gum, and Antonio’s kindness too,” Julieta had said, her usual way of ending that story. The beating he thought he would never be dealt had proven too much.

Matthew wondered, like his mother had, if the incident with the pig, the corn meal, and Antonio’s mother really was the catalyst of Antonio’s cruelty or if it simply was around the time he showed his true nature. Was the stream of cruelty always bubbling just below the surface, or did it boil over out of nowhere like the milk did when his mother talked to him for too long without minding it? No matter how many times Matthew asked his father to please give Lucy a chance, to meet his granddaughter because she asked about her grandfather, Antonio still refused to allow them into his home; she was not of their race, just as Julieta had not been of the right class to marry the man she’d really fallen in love with all those years ago and therefore had had to marry the only other man her family approved of—Antonio.   

As the sun set over the Franklin Mountains, Matthew heard his father’s cry of pain and frustration and ran out to him just as his coughing fit took over. When his father pulled away the handkerchief Matthew gave him to hold to his mouth as he coughed, the white fabric was stained the visceral color of fresh blood.

Against his father’s wishes of bringing her into his house, Matthew called and asked Lucy to come and stay with him after he got his father settled back down. His hands shook as he tapped her name on his phone screen. He didn’t care how angry it would make his father to have her in the house; he needed the solace only his wife could bring. Sensing his discomfort and unease, she asked one of their friends to take care of their daughter for the evening. Matthew was surprised and relieved when it occurred to him to get that friend something to thank her for taking his little girl so often since his father had gotten sick— there had been times when Matthew wasn’t sure he remembered how to be a good friend, husband, dad. He was so busy trying to be humane to his own father.

Just after Lucy texted Matthew that she was on her way, his father’s chest stopped moving up and down with his breath. Matthew clung to the image of his father’s mischievous laugh as he popped the piece of gum into his mouth with Julieta, and yet he couldn’t help but remember the sharp slap of a sandal hitting him square in the check, the red mark it left. It was several minutes of staring at his father’s chest before Matthew began debating whether he should take his pulse. He wondered if all children felt this way about their parents as they sat and watched them on their deathbeds, not wanting to confirm what they had just lost or gained, wanting the ambiguity of not knowing to remain suspended for just a few moments longer.

Matthew heard Lucy come into the back door but didn’t respond until he looked up at the touch of her beautiful caramel colored hand on his shoulder. He could hardly turn his gaze from his father’s chest, trying to ascertain if it was moving. She didn’t need to ask what had happened or what he staring so intently at, and instead cut the thread of ambiguity for him, leaning forward to gently touch his father’s neck, feel for a pulse.

Finally, Lucy, without words, insisted on eye contact, bobbing her head into Matthew’s line of vision. She shook her head as she brought her hand back towards herself, as if afraid to offend. She put her hand back on his shoulder and he tried to focus only on its warmth there. And then, there was his father, bursting back into life, his arms outstretched toward Matthew. His eyes were open and alert, the deep brown that had mixed with Julieta’s green to give Matthew the hazel eyes that stared back at his father in shock. When Antonio’s eyes rested upon Lucy, a stillness fell over them. Matthew expected rage to creep onto his father’s face, for the bubbling and curdling of anger that Matthew had brought Lucy into the house, but instead he saw a mixture of sorrow and a kind of pleading, as if he wanted to beg something of her. He reached for her and she stepped forward to take his hand.

© The Acentos Review 2017