Fiona, thirty years old and pregnant with a child she does not want, returns home to help care for her grandfather in his final days. The women of the family care for him the best way they know how: Fiona’s grandmother makes a secret pact to help him die (she keeps a vial of morphine in the pocket of her housecoat for when he utters their code word); Fiona’s mother resorts to New Age affirmations, old-fashioned Catholic guilt, and increasingly desperate medical interventions to keep him alive at all costs; and Fiona tries to chase down her uncle, the youngest of her grandparents’ children, whom no one has seen in years. But when death finally comes for this family, it is not the death they have been expecting and Fiona must learn to reconcile two very different kinds of grief–one for the living and one for the dead.
Excerpt from A Graced Traveler in a Foreign Land
The first English word that Begonia learned was sugar. She was six years old, standing in stocking feet on their uneven, wooden-planked floor, when her father came home on a day seemingly like any other and said they were going to America. When she dared to ask why, he said in his careful, newly practiced English, thick with accent: for the sugar.
Sugar, she repeated, mystified. The word felt heavy and grainy in her mouth, moved sweet and slow against her tongue.
The next evening, her father talked nonstop about this America—the land of plenty, where the streets were paved in gold and it didn’t matter if you were a pobre in your own homeland because America would be your new homeland, and you’d be reborn, a new man in a new world, no more squatting or stealing or—
and that was how Begonia knew they would not be eating that night. In town, when people eyed her dirty, torn clothes or mussed hair and dared to approach her father, he simply shrugged his shoulders, brushed off their complaints about his neglect. He was a picker by trade. Some days, the picking brought more, other days less, and that was all he said about that.
So that evening, like the others before it, Begonia slipped out of their one-room shack to roam the streets in search of the panadero’s truck. The panadero was a portly, mustached gentleman who took his time, chatting with the neighbors or other passers-by who he happened to come across in his deliveries. It always seemed as though he chatted longer, just a little louder, on their street, his back turned carefully away from the truck. Begonia snuck in and out of his truck with lithe speed, inhaling the sweet, sour smell of yeast as she crossed herself—an imaginary line drawn taut against her body from child-forehead to child-heart, from left lung to right lung, as she breathed in and out, in and out—as much to beg forgiveness as to secure a safe escape.
Once home, Begonia left the loaf for her father on the one table that sat in the modest living area. She never said a word about where it came from, as was their code, but she would not eat with her father on these nights. Instead, Begonia tore off the heel of the loaf, then absconded to the water closet, which was an absurd luxury given the state of the rest of the dwelling. It had been installed by the people who had come before them, a rapidly growing family whose matriarch yearned for a lifestyle that would never be theirs. Not long after her husband had labored to afford the modest, ramshackle addition, the family lost their house. It had lain vacant for mere weeks before Begonia and her father took up residence as squatters.
The closet was a dank, dark corner, with its own set of acrid smells that couldn’t help but seep out to the rest of the house. But it had a thin, wooden door that opened and closed, and there, in the awful privacy of the water closet, Begonia sat and chewed her bread, savoring the texture of the tough crust between her small child-teeth, not wishing it to be anything else, even for all the sugar in the world.
That same week, her father boarded up their tiny shack in their rural village in the north of Spain, then hiked a half-mile to the nearest neighbor to ask the family to keep watch over it until their return. Days later, the next generation of squatters took up in the precious space between its rotting, wooden walls, but Begonia and her father had already boarded the great monster of a ship that would take them to the land of plenty, and when, years later, her father would eventually return, he would return alone, to a home that was no longer his.
Begonia had wanted to ask after her mother, who she secretly felt they were leaving behind, abandoning along with everything else—their shack, with its water closet, and their land, however miserable for the picking. Her mother had been buried in the ground the day Begonia herself was born, and now she wanted to run off the ship, jump into the cold, dark waters below and swim until she reached the shores of the ground she knew, which had the mother she did not know buried somewhere deep inside of it. She’d drag herself up onto shore, clothes heavy with seawater, salt drying on her skin, and she’d be shivering and alone and her lungs would be raw with effort but she’d be home.
Instead, she sat with her father on the cold, wet deck of the boat, rocking, rocking, rocking, eye-level with her father’s fingernails that were dirty and torn from long days of picking in the Spanish countryside. Begonia, young as she was, with strong, skinny legs that still bore within them the memory of the womb, took to the sea just fine, but her father rose with a sudden violence—no matter how often, it surprised her every time—to spew his insides into the sea. Her father spent the better part of their three-week journey in just this way, sitting silently with his daughter until suddenly, he would scramble to his feet, as unsteady as if he’d been drinking, lean over the side of the steel-faced ship, and heave into the water as if paying a debt to the sea, retching until he was dry inside, nothing more left to give.