Rosario’s Jewel Box

by Sarah Maria Medina

Sarah Maria Medina is a poet and a fiction/creative non-fiction writer from the American Northwest. Her writing has been published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Midnight Breakfast, Educe Journal, PANK, Raspa Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in Indiana Review's 2015 Poetry Prize. She is also the poetry editor at Winter Tangerine. Medina is Boricua of mixed heritage (The United Confederation of TAÍNO People). She is at work on her memoir, The Necessity of Not Drowning.

Rosario lies in the damp of a field, tall grass a chant of green. Corn stalks a coarse whisper. Noon sun burns down her skin. A man sweats against her, smells of fear and cowhide, pulls her skirt up with his calloused hand. His beard scrapes her cheek. His hands raise her skirt further, but she pushes his hands back down. Her breath a jagged hush. She cups her hand over her cotton underwear, over her soft nest of hair. She pushes him again, but before he uncinches his belt further, he clings to her, lets a low howl.

She touches her hand to the wet seed he tosses on her thigh, tugs her skirt down, hears his feet pound as he runs across the field. A heavy terror wilds through her chest, makes her mouth move without sound. She straightens her blouse, rubs her dirt-caked hands across her wet face, then runs, her skirt hem dragging through tall grass and corn stalk.

Rosario abandons the shortcut, walks down the boulevard towards home and promises herself not to walk through the field again. She rubs her swollen eyes, then pulls her lower lip, swallowing the taste of dirt and iron.

In the kitchen, Rosario’s mother, Ana, ties on a flowered apron, and chops chicken on the wooden block: a crack of bone and flesh from her cleaver. Her father smokes in the patio; a storm of hen feathers gather at his feet. Mouths full of cookies, her twin sisters scream and pull ponytails, stealing marbles.

Berenice leans against the wall outside Rosario’s bedroom where it faces the square patio. She holds two cones of shave ice, one in each hand. “¿Qué te paso, Chiquita?” She rubs her wide boy-thumb across a dirt streak on Rosario’s cheek.

They press against the wall in the open pathway and suck on the shave ice, cherry sweet, the white paper cones wet in their hands. Berenice tugs her grey slacks, creasing the knee. Rosario takes two steps to the rusted boiler, but the flame is out. They step inside the dark of Rosario’s windowless room, and Berenice shuts the heavy wooden door, closing out the patio behind them and the wide-open twin screams that show their back cavities, their chanted sugar taunts.

When Berenice touches her mouth to Rosario’s lips, it’s like the moment between sleep and wake: that falling before the body startles.

Rosario flops down on the pink flower bedspread and closes her eyes. Her mouth numbed from the shave ice, the back of her head bruised from the field.

Berenice reclaims Rosario, crawls into the warmth of her arms. “Eres mía.” When Berenice touches her mouth to Rosario’s lips, it’s like the moment between sleep and wake: that falling before the body startles. Berenice tells Rosario again that she belongs to her, her voice a tug of want and need. She pulls Rosario closer, Berenice’s scent a cloud of yes, of woman and copper and grease.

Rosario decides not to tell Berenice about the man in the field or the wet seed he left smeared against her thigh. She shudders, runs her hand over her scalp, dried mud between her fingers and temple. She forces a smile, winces, then cups Berenice’s face in her hands. She traces Berenice’s mouth, inhales the oily scent of her black braids. Berenice mistakes Rosario’s wince for desire and presses her mouth so hard to Rosario’s that her lower lip swells.

“Te quiero, Chiquita.” Berenice calls Rosario their private name, though Rosario is anything but small, her thighs twice the width of Berenice’s trousers.

When Berenice leaves, Rosario drapes a long sky-blue cape over her shoulders to protect her from the cool that comes across the mountain city. She dreams of a baby with a bright bird tied to his crooked half-broke thumb, then wakes, gasping alone in her bed, the image of the baby pressed to her chest. Wide-eyed, panting, she searches her room until her breathing quiets.

Six weeks later, she crosses block after narrow block, the city a never-ending sprawl of tall buildings and homes hidden behind thick walls. The sun beats down against the black skin of her shoulders, her rose-tinted dress dragging a bit on the cobblestone that leads to the plaza. A blond dog lies dead on the side of the road. Flies mob his skin-bone body. A step past the dog and she retches. Her mouth fills with sour bile, and she wipes a string of spit with the back of her wrist.

When the church bells ring at dusk, Berenice brings Rosario their ritual cone of shave ice from the plaza down the block, and closes the bedroom door. The sweet cherry ice coats Rosario’s throat and a wave of nausea swells against her ribcage. She lays her head against Berenice’s shoulder, her eyelids heavy half-moons. The sweat of Berenice’s collarbone and neck, pungent like the angel bells that droop from the tree in the patio. Rosario wonders if she’s caught typhoid, her limbs a heavy crash of fatigue. She thinks of telling Berenice about the child with the bird attached to his broken thumb that keeps waking her at night, but instead she drapes her sky blue cape over the both of them, and presses her lips to Berenice’s wrist where she traces a crescent moon with the point of her tongue.

Almost overnight, Rosario’s belly grows. She recognizes the swell of calf from the field animals, the same as her mother’s swell, her hips lost as the twins pushed their fists against her ribs. Rosario presses her hand to her side to stop the swell, but it continues to grow. She’d protected herself with her hands, cupped her fingers tight, the man’s wetness only flung on her thigh, but she hadn’t bathed that night, the boiler broken. A sour taste in the back of her mouth expands like hollowed-out fishbone: picked clean, bone dry. She sips chicken broth, but gags and heaves over the marigolds in the garden. Ana makes an altar, leaves bread and sugar skulls, candle wax dripping in spools, her grandmother, a black-and-white photograph of wife and wide hips. Ana eyes her daughter’s belly, then dials an aunt in another city. She speaks about Joseph, an older single man, and says “husband” and “church” and “Rosario Maria,” her words muffled through the wall, but still making their way to the patio.

Rosario traps herself in her room, only opening the door to Berenice’s soft whistle. The twins steal cookie dough and launch it into their nostrils, sugar coating their cheeks. Rosario scolds them, then shuts the door. It’s dim in the room, and Berenice sinks her tongue into Rosario’s mouth—a hungry snake. A bitterness from Rosario’s empty stomach rises, the taste of dandelion or marigold or the fear of what their priest down the street refers to as her virginity, though she has been Berenice’s for over a year.

She recognizes the swell of calf from the field animals, the same as her mother’s swell, her hips lost as the twins pushed their fists against her ribs.

Berenice runs her hand over Rosario’s abdomen, the mountain of which she can no longer hide. Berenice’s eyes widen and an ocean pours down her cheeks, over her small chin, and the points of her pressed collar soak. Betrayal lies heavy on her tongue.

“No hice nada, te lo juro.” Rosario pleads. “No hice nada.” She swears to Berenice twice, promises nothing happened, but the field comes into the room, the burnt smell of corn stalk, the sweat of the man. Rosario’s eyelids swell, small pink rosebuds that overflow with despair.

“Eres mía. ¿Lo olvidaste?” When Berenice asks Rosario if she’d forgotten she was hers, she drops to her knees, and hides her small face in her wide palms.

“No Berenice.” Rosario kneels in front of Berenice, tries to kiss her mouth, but Berenice pulls away and paces.

Begging fills the room. First one and then the other. Words like “promise” and “never” and then finally “man and field” are spoken. They forget the family outside the patio, the scream of twins a sleeping volcano of melted snow tip and sister jealousy. Berenice pushes her gentle fist along Rosario’s upper thigh, then lies on top of her, clothed in her trousers and button-down shirt. Rosario feels her body float like it always does when Berenice lies on top of her, and then Ana pushes open the door, and a swift shift of light falls across the bedroom floor. A silent scream rushes across her painted mouth, and she flees back to the kitchen.

Rosario packs to the curse of “whore and disaster” that her mother shouts from the kitchen. “Mi hija es una puta! Dios mío, que hice yo? ¿Qué hice yo!” Rosario slips a few dresses into her book bag to her mother’s pleas to God. Berenice follows, leaving the twins to their hair pulling, to their snotty noses and dirty marbles, which one has just stuck in her ear. When the door to the patio slams behind them, Berenice’s arm makes a protective wing over Rosario’s shoulder, because neither of them know what will happen next, except that the burn of the smoke from the field haunts them now as they walk by it, and the electric lights of the cinema shine far too bright. When Berenice looks up at the electric billboard, she pushes pesos into Rosario’s sweating hand, tells her to watch a film, that she’ll be back in three hours.

Night in the city comes as a roar of cars from the freeway and a sound of hidden crickets. Rosario stays below the neon instead of spending the pesos for a ticket, and when Berenice returns, Rosario slips the coins back into her hand. After they cross five lanes of traffic, Berenice kicks a lone bottle cap down a tree-lined side street. Rosario follows Berenice up an upswept staircase, four flights to a small rented room off a rooftop in the city centre, over an hour from Rosario’s colonia. Once maid quarters, the cornflower blue wallpaper cracks and curls down the wall. Their room sits between other small rooms: one rented by a taxi driver who sharpens his machete at night; a second by a mathematician; and a third by a poet with an affinity for wild fish, which he steals from streams and brings back to the city. When Rosario walks past his room, a smell of soiled fish tank follows her, and she covers her mouth with her sleeve, then climbs into the bed that Berenice made, a thin bedroll, with a sprawling tiger resting its chin on its paws printed across the maroon fabric. Thick blankets with eagles and red peonies rest high above the makeshift bed.

Rosario rubs her thumb along Berenice’s shoulder, and her stomach swells and widens as they lie with one window cracked to a great tree. Sparrows flit and call and return to it each night. Rosario’s thighs and arms and stomach grow from the tamales that Berenice brings her from the vendors, whose trucks blare the recorded advertisement—a man’s echoing voice insistently hustling Oaxacan tamales. Rosario’s cheeks round out, too, from the flan and rice pudding that Berenice brings late at night. Sometimes Rosario ventures out with Berenice, and the woman that stands in her apron, selling from a foldable table, scowls when they slip their hands together. They try to ignore her furrowed forehead, and when they return to their rooftop room, spoon sugar-sweet rice into their mouths.

Their room sits between other small rooms: one rented by a taxi driver who sharpens his machete at night; a second by a mathematician; and a third by a poet with an affinity for wild fish, which he steals from streams and brings back to the city.

Winter brings colder nights, and a quiet panic flutters inside Rosario. They haven’t bought anything for the baby and each time Rosario collects names they fall short from her mouth … She wonders if the baby will look like the man in the field, or the field itself, then lifts her chin to make a deal with the sky gods that wink stars above the lit billboards. She looks beyond the billboard supermodels in blue dresses, their false lights a blur across her field of vision. She turns to her ancestors that tilt their ears to her and asks them to let the baby come from the field, from the corn, from the small kernels that grow from the earth. She tries to erase the man as best she can, and when Berenice comes home from fourteen hours of work, her small shoulders tired knots, Rosario washes Berenice’s hands, black from the film sets she has built all day. Berenice slides her hand below Rosario’s skirt, over her belly, across her wide forehead and jawline. Berenice becomes the hands that planted the seeds, and the baby kicks Berenice’s cheek as she lies against Rosario’s body. Berenice murmurs, “Coño,” her soft curse a mess of surprise and pride.

She turns to her ancestors that tilt their ears to her and asks them to let the baby come from the field, from the corn, from the small kernels that grow from the earth.

One night, Berenice comes back with something wrapped in a white cloth, twine tied in a small bow around it. When Rosario pulls apart the twine, she finds a small wooden jewelry box. “Lo encontre en el mercado de pulgas.” Berenice leans forward and stops her from twisting the golden handle, because it’s broken, she says, but that one day they’ll fix it. Rosario places it on the shelf next to other broken things that Berenice finds at the flea market: old cameras and pinned butterflies. Other nights, Berenice comes back smelling of tacos: of cow brain and eyes and tongue. Rosario pouts, dandelion bile coating her mouth. Berenice shrugs and leaves the room, leaving Rosario to her pout and spoon of flan. Later, when Berenice comes back from the poet’s room, she at least smells of whiskey now, and a grin extends across her jawline.

Rosario combs Berenice’s hair, braids from the tip of her crown: three French braids, small and tight, that will last through the night. As they lie on their bed, the woollen eagle blanket pulled up to their small chins, after licking the flan from the plastic cup, a sense of dread floods Rosario. A tinkering of jarana strings and a French woman’s sour croon float up through the floorboards. Rosario remembers the way her French neighbour smiled at Berenice, how her father, like Berenice, would come home late smelling of whiskey, but also of a rose oil perfume that was not her mother’s. When she turns to Berenice, now, the croon still swimming her ears, she thinks she smells rose oil or gardenia or just the French woman. She pushes her cold toes to Berenice’s thighs, which she knows Berenice dislikes, and asks her if she was truly drinking with the poet. The room feels wet and small. Berenice bites Rosario’s wrist, leaving an imprint of her back molars, stands, and throws on her creased trousers, which she left on the floor. Pulling on her shoes, she mumbles words like “faithful” and “if you don’t know by now,” followed by the slam of their door.

The room smells like death and birth and blood.

Rosario drapes the eagle blanket around her shoulders, and sulking, rubs the blooming wrist bruise with her fingers. The deep colour turns blue and then yellow. Then a harsh cramping comes, but it is too soon for the baby. She sucks in her breath until it passes, but then another cramp comes stronger than the first. When Berenice stumbles back at dawn, Rosario sees her through a dark haze. She holds her wet hand out, lifting her palm from the blood-soaked mattress. The cramps, close together now, sear her abdomen and she grinds her teeth. Berenice calls out “Amor” and rushes down the stairs to a neighbour on the first floor that was once a doctor. Now retired, she moves through her apartment feeding sparrows from her kitchen window.

The sky bleeds across the bedroom when Berenice stands next to the doctor. A small wet kitten, or what could be a kitten, covered in light hair and a white film of sea foam, slides from Rosario’s thighs. The doctor sighs a shake of her head, and Berenice sobs into her sleeve, and Rosario clutches the wet, blue kitten to her chest, rocking back and forth, the blue umbilical cord still attached to the placenta inside her. She rocks for what could pass for hours, back and forth, and Berenice shoves herself into a corner of the room. The doctor, after encouraging a final push for the placenta, and a snip with scissors, leaves them in their one-windowed room.

The room smells like death and birth and blood. It smells like the birth of a calf that Berenice once witnessed, and it smells like a bird nest that Rosario once found, all the house sparrows’ eyes still closed. She had eaten a twig of the nest, never forgetting the smell of their tiny, featherless bodies, the almost absent weight of them in her hand. When her rocking stops, her howling begins, which is when Berenice retrieves the little baby bundle from Rosario, who now pounds her hands across the wooden floor.

Berenice wraps the wet bundle inside a corner she tears from the old blue cape, and notices that his blue thumb is broken. She breaks a stained popsicle stick, and taking twine, straightens his tiny thumb. In what seems to take hours, she closes and re-closes the piece of cape around his now cold body, and sets the cape bundle inside the secondhand wooden jewelry box. When she sets the box back down on the floor next to Rosario—who has stopped slamming her hands and now lies in stillness, curled into a tight ball—the broken music box springs to a slow tune. They both suck in their breath, but as quickly as the music began, it ends—a stolen moment that neither of them are sure exists, and when it stops, neither of them can remember the tune. The sky outside is neither bleeding nor black, which is unfair to the both of them.


Sarah Maria Medina is a poet and a fiction/creative non-fiction writer from the American Northwest. Her writing has been published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Midnight Breakfast, Educe Journal, PANK, Raspa Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in Indiana Review's 2015 Poetry Prize. She is also the poetry editor at Winter Tangerine. Medina is Boricua of mixed heritage (The United Confederation of TAÍNO People). She is at work on her memoir, The Necessity of Not Drowning.

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