Friday, January 22, 2010

"Asunder" by Judith Mercado

The Literary Lab proudly presents the winner of the Genre Wars Literary category:

by Judith Mercado

He turned away from the front window and said, “If she’s not here by now, she’s not coming.”

His wife shrugged without looking up from the tattered lace handkerchief she was darning. If thirty-four years of married life gave him license to guess, the shrug likely meant, “I never invested myself in hope.” But Edie didn’t say anything. Her mastery never lay in talking about what she knew, but in knowing what she knew.

From her shrug he was free to construct whole worlds. Sermons had been inspired from prior shrugs. Stoicism, he focused on one time. God’s will, another. Inner peace, a month and a half ago. Perhaps they all amounted to the same thing. If a shrug suggested an inner fortitude, accepting whatever happened, Edie had succeeded in finding the key to serenity. If their daughter Esther showed up or not in the next half hour, Edie would not falter.

“Mom’s like an old oak,” Esther said once, “standing stubborn and proud.”

“More like Earth Mother,” he had rejoined.

Esther laughed, not unaware of his condescension.

He could take no satisfaction now from their shared cleverness. It was no surprise that Esther could so easily overlook those other qualities of Edie he esteemed, like piety and devotion. He rarely mentioned them. If he inadvertently guided Esther astray in devaluing her mother, he surely never intended for her to end up in the barren, God-less terrain of a nonbeliever. He had named her Esther in honor of a Persian queen who saved her Jewish people from massacre. A strong woman who stands for principle, that’s what you want to be, he told her when she was young, adding quickly enough, a strong Christian woman. She only listened to half a counsel.

An old oak at least has leaves that rustle in the breeze, he thought now. Edie’s stillness had no language he could hear. He watched her needle penetrate the lace border; her movements small, measured, as if the old lace could only be repaired with painstaking care.

Add constancy and loyalty to the attributes we overlooked, Esther.

Edie’s stillness seemed to permeate every molecule of air, a stillness he had to escape. “I’m going outside for a moment,” he said.

She hardly seemed aware he was in the same room with her.

He opened the back screen door and suffered the whine of the rusted hinges. He would oil them tomorrow. If Esther came, he would absolutely oil them tomorrow. If you let her come, God, I’ll do it tomorrow.

He shook his head. He, of all people, should know that bargaining with the sacred for the mundane was a profanity.

He stepped into the back yard. The rose arbor overhead sheltered him from the still hot setting sun. He stood underneath and gazed out, the delicate scent of yellow roses reminding him once again that he could never remember their name. Nor could he remember the name of the spiky blue flowers towering above all others in the garden planted by Edie. He wondered if after more than three decades she remembered his sermons.

He suspected she did. Maybe not the fine turn of phrase he labored over for hours, maybe not the surprising classical allusions he inserted. More likely Edie remembered the title. It was perhaps his greatest challenge every week, how to condense into a meaningful but sparse phrase the potency of his message. Once the title of the sermon was posted, he would wait for Edie to walk up and examine it. If she nodded, however slightly, his delivery of the sermon was always lightened somehow. They shared that, he and Edie, the importance of the message. It guided their lives on a path of faith and committed worship. Why it failed with their daughter, he could never understand. All he knew was that somehow he had to be at fault.

He traced visually the tortured path the rose branches wove above him. When Esther was still with them, he had pointed to the juxtaposition of thorns and blossoms as a lesson in trust.

“You must trust that you can get beyond the thorns and end up with ample reward. Trust in God facilitates that journey.”

He ran his hand down his tie and let it rest on his belt. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Edie’s work bench sheltered under the eaves. He walked over and examined the elaborate tools hanging from the pegboard. Edie owned so many cutters. Did each type of plant require a different cutter? He unhooked the nearest one and turned it over in his hand. He’d have to get a ladder or risk cutting into the weave of intertwined lower branches.

Edie would never forgive him. He hung the cutter back on the board.

He heard a car coming down the street and listened as it approached. If it were Esther, he’d cut a rose anyway and hand it to her as she walked in the front door. Surely Edie would forgive him for desecrating her rose arbor for this occasion.

The car drove by without stopping. His breath escaped slowly. Tearing a leaf from the rose bush, he scrunched it in his hands and then looked down at what he’d done. The leaf’s green color was striated now. Smoothing it out wouldn’t rescue it. He stared at the mauled leaf, thinking, not for the first time, how unnatural his daughter’s withdrawal seemed. How could she not yearn to connect with her family? Even the prodigal son returned home in the end. And Esther wasn’t living a life of wasteful extravagance. At last account, she was teaching mathematics at an inner-city school, nothing to be ashamed about.

His arm dropped. The leaf floated onto the ground. He pulled the back door open and cringed at the whine of the hinges. Inside, he stood by the door and looked at his watch. 5:28. Seven minutes left before they had to leave. He turned to look through the screen at the rose arbor.

When he suggested that thorns and blossoms were a lesson in trust, Esther had gazed at him evenly. “They’re just thorns, Father. No need to complicate matters.”

This became their dialogue’s running theme once she was old enough to acknowledge for all of them how unsuited she was for the family she was born into. All his sermons and admonitions, it seemed, were attempts to complicate matters.

“Life is challenging enough,” she said. “God is an unnecessary complexity.”

His life’s work reduced to unnecessary complexity.

Less than an hour from now, that life’s work was being honored at a church dinner. The entire congregation was coming. Pastors from neighboring churches were invited. A small insurrection among the younger women threatened for about a day to include Edie as an equal partner in the acknowledgement until Edie found out and absolutely prohibited it. He debated whether to convince her to change her mind, but then was distracted by something, he couldn’t remember what.

Maybe, by wondering how Esther would react to the news of his being honored.

They sent her an invitation.

Her response came by return mail. “Congratulations, Father. A prophet is honored in his own land. You must be pleased. Love, Esther.”

He had walked into the kitchen and wordlessly handed the card to Edie. She wiped her hands and took the card, read it, blinked hard once, and handed it back to him. With economy of motion, she picked up her knife and began slicing carrots. Only today, in a momentary lapse, did he deign to state what they already suspected—Esther was not coming. Two years earlier, their only child announced that she would never step foot inside a church again. Why should today be any different? In the only land I really care about, Esther, the prophet is not honored. Had it been that bad, being the daughter of a minister and the lightning rod for everyone’s hubris of spiritual mastery?

He walked into the living room. Edie remained bent over the handkerchief. He stood behind her and looked over her slumped shoulders. Her precise stitches had nearly filled the hole in the lace border. It was an old handkerchief, yellowed, hardly worth preserving.

“Dear, that seems like eye-blinding work. Don’t you have one in better condition?”

Her needle paused in mid air. Then both hands floated to her lap as her head rose, her gaze fixed on a distant point. Not for long. She soon picked up her handkerchief and bowed her head. “You don’t remember,” she said in an even tone lacking vitality.

What had he forgotten? “Would this have belonged to your mother?”

A barely perceptible shaking of her head.

“I apologize for forgetting, Edie, but what don’t I remember?”

She paused in her stitching without raising her head. Then she inserted the needle into the lace again. “It was my grandmother’s.”

He still didn’t know. “Which one?”

“Grandma Hoxie,” she said in that dispirited voice. He stood straighter and took a deep breath, careful not to be heard.

Esther Hoxie. He had named his daughter after a Persian queen, savior of her Jewish people. Edie had named her after her grandmother, a woman whose iron mettle was embroidered with the appearance of fragile womanhood.

Edie raised her head abruptly. “You know, I don’t know if it was just hers.” Her voice became almost animated. “It could have belonged to her mother, my great grandmother, Edith Bramley.”

He walked around to the sofa abutting her chair and sat down. “Remarkable. That it’s still here, I mean.” Remarkable that one would hold onto something so inconsequential for so long.

She bit off the thread and then searched through the sewing basket on the floor. It was an orgy of spools, yarn, and bits of fabric. She shoved it all to one side and felt on the bottom for something. He couldn’t understand how she didn’t get stabbed by loose pins. Finally she straightened up, a pair of scissors in her hand. She snipped the thread close to the lace and threw the scissors back in her basket. He watched them spear a ball of yarn.

She raised the handkerchief to the light, holding it on two corners. Even he could see that the fabric was thin to the point of translucency in certain areas.

“Are you well satisfied with it?” he said.

She tilted her head slightly to one side. The handkerchief floated to the floor. Immediately, she bent over to retrieve it and placed it on her lap. Almost without touching it, she smoothed out its creases. She started to fold it but her hand fell to her side. The handkerchief lay inert, fragile, and tired, and she stared at it as if trying to make up her mind whether she was satisfied or not.

Finally, she looked up. “It hasn’t fallen apart.” With deliberate slowness, she placed the handkerchief in her pocket.

“It is admirable that you take such good care of it.”

Her jaw muscles flickered. “Good care is necessary, Reverend.”

He winced. The Reverend was a dead giveaway. Patently unfair, he could have said. There were two of us here. One of us could have kept her in the fold. Instead, he nodded slowly.

Edie stood up, brushed her skirt, and started walking away. In front of the fireplace, her gaze fixed on the mantel clock. She stopped and turned stiffly.

She looked beyond him. “It’s time to go.”

He noticed her feet were awkwardly juxtaposed as if she couldn’t quite manage a complete turn. He rose and stepped toward her. Before he could reach her, she was in motion again. By the front door, she paused to pick up her purse. Only inches behind her, he reached around her to open the door with his left hand. His right palm rose as if to guide her through, but he let it drop.

An interview with Judith Mercado:

Tell us about you.

Born in Puerto Rico to evangelical ministers, I moved at a young age to the U.S. That immersion in Latino and religious cultures preceded later experiences as a businesswoman and trawler live-aboard. My short stories have been published in literary magazines. My novels await publication. I blog at

Tell us about your story.

“Asunder” emerged from asking the question, “How would a minister and his wife feel about their atheist daughter's rejection of the belief system that had defined their lives?” The story is not autobiographical though my parents were evangelical ministers, and I also left their church, albeit not to become an atheist. The central issue of a clash of beliefs is still the same, but the story’s characters and plot bear no other resemblance to my family’s story. I found that creating fictional characters freed me to address a question I often ask myself about my parents’ probable pain and dismay at my abandonment of their church. Had I been trying to write a memoir about that, I might have felt inhibited. That said, the question’s resonance for both the fictional and also the real-life families led me to care deeply about how the story’s characters resolved their situation. As I came to know them, though, I also became aware that their issue went far beyond their daughter’s rejection. I realized that these characters already had a history of not connecting with each other on a meaningful level. This was a family torn asunder on many levels, not just the specific issue of whether the daughter showed up or not for a dinner honoring her father.

Tell us about your future.

My literary plans and hopes include completing my work-in-progress novel, continuing to write for my Pilgrim Soul blog, finding literary agent representation, and—starry-eyed hope of starry-eyed hopes—getting my novels published and read by book buyers!


  1. Thank you, Literary Lab, for choosing my short story. I just want to let readers know that for some reason the link you provided to my post is not linking to my blog. The URL seems correct,but the link is not there. The Pilgrim Soul link is:

  2. Judith, I got it fixed! I just have to say that I love, love, love this story. So well done and so meticulous to detail, just like the characters. You've done such a fine job! Thank you for sharing this story with us!

  3. Wonderful soul-searching story Judith. I truly appreciated the lace handkerchief, I have several of my great-grandmother's and no one understands why I keep them. I cannot mend them, they are more than yellow and very frayed, yet they remind me of the strength of a woman who was, at heart like Edie.

    Thank you for this lovely story.

  4. A great story. It's just so finely crafted, with great details and control and an understated emotional tone. I particularly loved how Edie and her husband named their daughter after different Esthers. That's such an elegantly telling detail.

  5. Ooo, so much pain: the needle, the scissors, the thorns and the groaning hinges. I found myself cringing waiting for the blow, but of course, that's not Edie's way. And poor Ester, she's looking but totally misses the point-uh, no pun intended.

    Beautifully written, Judith.

  6. Edie was such a vivid character in this story. That's what put it over the edge for me. Her personality is so well-rendered, and the prose was just flawless.

  7. This is a beautiful story.

    I like the practice of placing a real human question, about yourself or someone you know, in a fictional context. I have also found that it's much easier to explore those questions in fiction than in an autobiographical work. It's emotionally satisfying, and the characters come out very complex and lifelike, somehow even more realistic than when you try to write about a real person. At least, that's been my experience.

  8. I love the light touch on this one. So much allowed to rest between the lines, in the silences between the characters. Excellent job, good lady.

  9. Lovely, perfectly crafted story. So sad for those stoic parents. Yet I identified with Esther.

    Note to Literary Labsters--Today I'm a guest blogger over at Nathan Bransford's blog

    Come on over and check it out. Judith, I empathize. The link to my blog is wrong too--my bad, not Nathan's. But you can click through my picture or name to get to my blog. More writing humor over there.

  10. Congrats, Judith. Hopefully this win will help you on your path to getting your novels published and read.

  11. This was very interesting. Your talent with characterization comes through very well, to the point that I can truly see and feel these people. Very nice job.

  12. Thank you for your wonderful comments. What a wonderful way to end my day.

  13. What a wonderful, beautifully-written story.

  14. A very finely written short story by Judith Mercado. I am a great admirer of her writing style. In this story, especially, her style stands out. Her ability to enter her characters' psyches is amazing, and her delivery is outstanding. Her compassion and understanding for the characters leaves us feeling for them, and with them. By the end of the story, we know the characters very well, and we are living their world with them. A very elegantly executed piece of writing, indeed!

  15. I think this is a fine story...
    I am taken by the way he thinks about his wife, about what her slightest shrug might mean, his interpretations...
    Since I was raised as an agnostic (to be an atheist would have acknowledged the irrational nature of religion, to be an agnostic was to ignore it), I identify with the general idea of family pressure for the child to conform... but the Edie I imagine from this story has long-suffering qualities of my very devout grandmother (pinched and tight lipped).
    Thank you for giving us a story that we can read so much into.

  16. What a beautiful story. Quite touching. Some great lines in this. "From her shrug he was free to construct whole worlds", "bargaining with the sacred for the mundane was a profanity". Thanks for sharing.

  17. To those who continue to stop by, thank you for your wonderful feedback.


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