By Laura Bramon
My first rosary is invisible: a string of children’s voices ricocheting off the concrete walls of a slum convent, flying up to God and to the cold gray batting of the Altiplano sky. The children’s eyes are chapped with wind and cold, lines feathered like wings in their brown skin. This gives them a mask of wisdom: as if they can see beyond what I see, as if they can see God.
They see His Mother alive in the tiny concrete woman in the outdoor niche, to whom we herd them so they can bark their prayers. Sweet children, whose soft heads smell of moss and cold, whose breath is warm and gluey with the dried milk we feed them. First, we train the sucker feet of their lips to the tipped cups; we place in their hands the round, fleshy little loaves of bread they rip up and eat.
And then we line them up and walk them out into the sunlight to say the rosary in their backwater Spanish. I stand in their midst and stare at a woman I don’t know, her mantel draped like a crenulated shell, the warmth of the children’s bodies like a shuffling tide lapping at my hands and knees. I learn the prayers from the children’s mouths and we shout them out to her.
My second rosary is like a cheap carnival prize: clinking plastic jewels lassoed to a crucifix whose flattened Jesus languishes, stretched and tamped by some blind mechanical hand. It comes to me one night on the way home from work, when I screw up my courage and knock at the door of the row-house convent in my city neighborhood. The late sun is all gold, and floods the porch, slipping into the front yard shadowbox where God’s mother stands again.
The door opens; the sister doesn’t speak. She ushers me upstairs and presses a rosary into my hand. I kneel with her and a flock of others in the makeshift chapel, and for the first time, I try to say these prayers in English. I stutter and speak in the children’s language. Still, the decades rush over and through me, like water that feeds. When it is finished, I stumble out into the deep light of the setting sun, half-drowned, dredged up, beads strung and glinting in the fingers of my hand.
My third rosary is a broken specimen fished from a nightstand at a friend’s home. I put it around my neck and wear it down to Christmas dinner. There is no Jesus, only a knot of twisted metal where he once hung, trussed and dying. “Are you the corpus?” one of the aunts asks. The next day, she slips into my hand a strand of cedar beads, tawny and soft. They shuttle silently between my fingers as we sit around the dining table—all the generations, all the weaving voices—and pray these prayers that wake and calm my body.
That night, I go to see God’s mother where she stands in their woods, as tall as a real woman. In the dark, snow ripples at her feet and tips her mantel and lips with its glowing shadow. I remember how the children gazed at the woman in the niche and I take off my mitten; I reach my bare hand up to feel her cheek, to let the snow sting and melt and run cold from her face to my fingers.
“This is why you do not heal,” he says, and my poker face of innocence unfurls. Still, days later, an envelope appears, addressed to me in the uncle’s lightning-bolt scrawl. Stuffed inside is the most beautiful rosary I have ever received: a loop of faux seed pearls strung to an enamel cross, with Mary burned like a golden shadow inside the magenta medallion.
Back home, I don’t sleep. The words of the rosary run less like water and more like a wheel, sturdy and urgent in their blind work. A friend who barely believes in God gives me a rosary with faceted blue-glass beads and a heavy crucifix—a sign of hope, desire, and doubt. I wrap it around my wrist and go to a rundown church where young friars in brown cassocks pray like the uncle prays: in absurd sounds and cries.
“Open your mouth and speak like a child speaking to her mother,” one of the friars says to me. I think of the children yelling their prayers in the slum courtyard; I think of a friend’s tiny daughter who runs to me, throws her arms around my legs, and shouts urgently in a nonsensical language that she truly believes we share. This, I understand. I unfurl the blue rosary from my wrist and worry the beads; I open my mouth and speak: the rote prayers, the rote mysteries a gentle lead to loose my tongue until some other language cracks open and childlike words erupt.
Even so, I do not sleep. In dreams, I see who I am and what I have done, what I have failed to do. At night, I bat the bedside table and dredge up whatever my hands touch. I see the color of the beads by their feel in my hands: fat bulbs gaudy and white; flat discs a gray-streaked purple that, in some lights, resemble golden eyes. I clutch and lose each in the blankets; I wake with the shape of the beads stamped on my wrists or cheeks like the dimpled print of a fossil in a rock.
I don’t remember where I begin or end. I remember the uncle, the friars, the little children holding my hands as they shout out their prayers and it is easier, somehow, to open my hands and lose all language, to twitch empty fingers and pray in half breath and cry and cascading mumble. I am like a child, a very little child who clings to her mother’s side, who cannot see the way to the end of the fevered dream and trusts only by her mother’s breath that day is coming.
Laura Bramon lives in Washington, DC, where she works on international child protection issues. Her creative work appears in The Best Creative Non-Fiction (W.W. Norton), Image, Books & Culture, Featherproof Press, and other outlets.