Now that the house was in foreclosure, it would pass from her family’s hands, sweeping away the memories of their lives as though they’d never been there. Thank goodness for her memories, stored away like old linens carefully folded in a chest so she could still take them out when she chose, smoothing the wrinkles in order to see the past more clearly.
“Nena?” her granddaughter said softly, touching her grandmother’s shoulder, not wanting to startle her from the far-away place she seemed to be seeing beyond the porch rail. “Nena? I’m going to walk around for a little while, okay?”
Nena nodded, patting her granddaughter’s hand absently, eager to be alone for a moment.
It was kind of the developer who was purchasing the property to let Nena’s granddaughter bring her here to say goodbye to the place. His investment group had a wonderful vision for the house itself—the two-story structure built of softly-weathered oyster shell tabby would become the heart of the resort’s clubhouse, satisfying a desire for old Florida authenticity among the privileged few who would purchase lavish new homes, carefully designed to blend with the original, in the dappled shade of venerable palms.
Sighing, Nena raised herself from the chair her granddaughter had found for her. Not the curved, comfortable wicker that had graced the porch for so many years—that furniture had invited you to sit back and sink in; to listen and to dream. Long ago, when she had been the girl Magdalena rather than the grandmother she was now, she would sit with her great aunts on the porch, listening to them murmur and gossip like drowsy hens in the heat of the afternoon.
That was just one layer of memory in her treasure chest, fragile as tissue and fragrant with the old-fashioned verbena scent she could still recall her aunts having favored. She set the thought aside and reached deep for others: the sweet smoke of her father’s occasional cigars; the faint hint of almond hand cream that was as much a part of her mother as her rosary, slipping bead-by-bead through her fingers during family prayers.
Nena sat down carefully, stiffly, on the edge of the porch. While the years had stolen some of her freedom of movement, they had sharpened her ability to stroll through the past, savoring memories from her long and mostly blessed life.
Out of habit, her left hand sought the deep cut in one of the pine planks of the porch floor. She had never let her husband replace the scarred wood because it meant so much to her—it was a physical reminder of an instant between life and death, when her world hung in the balance of another’s hands.
She closed her eyes, thinking back to a morning long ago—the first day home on summer break from Flagler College. She would be a junior that fall, and Nena smiled now to remember how limitless she’d felt then with nothing but days of sun and blue water stretched out before her, and evenings with her friends, drinking Coca-Cola with splashes of rum from a furtive flask concealed in her date’s pocket.
It was mid-morning already, but no one else was around as Nena moved across the porch in her mind’s eye, pausing to light a cigarette at the same place where she now sat, drawing in smoke and pluming it out into the humid air. Everyone at school smoked, of course, but Nena knew her parents disapproved, so she kept the habit to herself when she was home.
“Magdalena? Quiere un café?” her mother called from the kitchen.
“Sí, Mami,” she answered, slipping effortlessly into the language of her childhood. She took a final drag on the cigarette before dropping it into a stone planter on the steps where it could smolder safely until it went out. She remained a moment longer, swaying a little, belling her nightgown out around her bare calves, enjoying the swish of cool air it created for a second. She half-turned to go, then froze: from the planter came the unmistakable warning sound of a rattlesnake disturbed by her half-burned cigarette.
All these years later, her scalp crawled at the memory, just as it had that morning. Motionless, afraid to breathe for fear of goading the snake into action, she felt sweat inching down her spine. The eerie, seeds-shaking-in-a-gourd rattle continued. She could feel the thing poised, ready to strike—
A shadow flashed between her and the sun, shearing the snake’s head from its body just as it struck. Already dead, it still twisted itself in grotesque loops as it toppled down the steps. Her breath escaped in a sigh and she looked down to see the rattlesnake’s monstrous head tangled by its fangs in the thin cotton of her gown.
Martín, a young man she’d known all her life, was there. He’d become a landscaper after returning from the war, and now he worked for her parents several days a week to keep the lush tropical surroundings from swallowing their house. Martín hadn’t tried to check his downward snake-killing swing; the blade of the machete he’d used was imbedded deep in a plank of the porch floor. Catching a fold of her nightgown, he held it away from her legs so that nothing could touch her.
“You were here to save me,” she whispered, touching his cheek with one shaking finger which he reached for and brought to his lips.
“I will always be here to save you,” he said, just as softly, “just as you saved me. You were who I was fighting for, over there.”
“Nena?” her granddaughter’s voice startled her, and Martín’s memory rippled and faded for a moment, but Nena knew he was always with her, just as he’d promised that long-ago morning, and frequently throughout their long life together. Looking down at her grandmother with Martín’s same warm smile, her granddaughter put a hand under Nena’s arm to help her rise.