The Blades of Ana Velasquez - Uncharted

The Blades of Ana Velasquez

By Alexa T. Dodd

Most girls bleed.

“A visitor,” Mama and my tias had called it for years, their shared and groaned secret, like a pesky neighbor arriving too often. “Someday, you too,” they’d promised. When I awoke to the twisting in my center, a foreign pain that was somehow familiar, I thought I was no different. I was thirteen. About time.

 Almost a belly ache, lower and tighter. I hurried out of bed but didn’t make it to the bathroom before I doubled over on the hair-tangled carpet of my bedroom as something passed from my body. I reached down, felt for wetness in my pink panties, the elastic worn stretched. Felt a firmness, a heat like metal, instead.

The blade was no bigger than my pinky finger. As I lifted it, it caught the light that glared through the slat-holes of my blinds. Shining, clean, clear as glass. Edges like a razor, tip as fine as a needle. A miniature weapon expelled from my body.

At the pounding on my door, I pinched the knife along its flat surface and hid it under my t-shirt. My little brother, as usual, fulfilling his morning duty with too much zest.

“Wake up, Sleeping Ugly! We’ll be late for school again.”

“Go away!” I said, hurrying back to my bed. “I’m sick.”

“Javi!” I heard Mama’s voice behind the door, heard Javi’s slippers as they shuffled and tripped down the hallway. I clenched the knife beneath the blanket as Mama opened the door. Her shape filled the doorway, hands on hips. Her yellow maid’s uniform was tight at the breast but seamlessly pressed and spotless above the cracked, sandy skin of her knees.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I don’t feel good,” I said. “My belly hurts.”

“Did you eat something?”

“No…not like that.”

Mama raised her eyebrows, darkening the crease that stretched across her forehead like a wire. “Ah,” was all she said. She left the room and returned holding a bright blue package, torn open at one end, half full. “Welcome to womanhood,” she said, not unkindly, as she handed me the package.

I looked to see the neatly folded pads in their shiny white envelopes. Her hand rested on my shoulder for a second, a touch so unfamiliar it made me tense. And yet, I wanted to pull the dagger from beneath the covers. Show it to her and ask, “What do I do with this?” Have her smile and wave her hand, that maternal flicking of her wrist to tell me to stop complaining, stop worrying. It’s nothing at all. Every woman holds a blade, its miraculous passing each month, one of the drudgeries of our life. An occurrence most men know of but don’t understand, one of those whispered mysteries of the female body. Something your father always tried to ignore, when he was still here.

But before I could find the bravery to ask, she stepped away.

 “Better get going,” she said. And I knew not to question her, not to question my own body. I put the knife under my bed, determined to forget about it.

Month by month, my collection grew, glinting little weapons in a heap beneath my bed, the sleek blades harboring dust bunnies. Other girls shared their woes with the discreet passing of tampons between lockers, with grumbles of, “You too?”, while they applied lip gloss and slipped Midol at the bathroom sinks. So, I tried to do the same, though my experience was always more sudden—an exclamation point, rather than a period. The pain would fall over me without a moment’s notice, doubling me over as I jogged around a track or draining my face of all color as I stared across the cafeteria at Jared Callahan. While its arrival was somewhat cyclical, like that of many teenage girls the date was unpredictable.

But, at least at school, I could tell the girls, and they would sympathize, pass me Advil, cover for me with the teacher, even if they did not know that I ran to the bathroom to catch a weapon instead of blood. Maybe I was lucky to have it over with so quickly, but no one knew the secret of what my body made, month by month. Mama, with religious timing, brought me a new package of pads every month. I took them to school, handed them out to girls when their eyes met mine with that familiar panic that endears even enemies. We were girls, and at least we shared the pain, even if what I made seemed to contradict my own femininity.

With each blade, I recalled the day before Dad left, seven years before the advent of my womanhood. He had taken Javi and me to Lowe’s. At the checkout, he’d put Javi, two years old, on the ground beside me and told us to stay close. Before long, we’d wandered a few feet to the display of pocket knives, wooden and red handles engraved with initials we couldn’t read. I wrestled one off the rack, encased in its plastic box, and pretended to point it at Javi. He shrieked, a shrill echo through the store, and Dad swatted the back of my head as he left the register. He picked up Javi, told him to be quiet, and made me put the knife back.

“Those are boy toys, Ana. Come on.”

The next morning, his guitar was gone, his truck missing from the driveway. Mama wouldn’t say where he’d gone, or why, and eventually, I stopped asking.

After a year of cycles, I could not hide the pile of blades under my bed anymore. I thought of tossing them out, but I was sure no Walmart grocery bag could contain them without ripping. Besides, it felt a little wrong simply to throw them away, a kind of sacrilege, like throwing out the Rosaries and holy cards that sat unused in one of the kitchen drawers. Mama always said the only way to dispose of those holy things was to burn or bury them. So, I filled my backpack with the blades one evening and told Mama I was going to study at Kaitlin’s house down the street.

When I crossed the railroad tracks behind our subdivision, there was nothing but the hush of the little wood that hid the creek where teenagers liked to drink on Friday nights. Under the fluorescent bulb glow of the street lamp, I knelt on the ground, spongy from the rain earlier in the week, and opened my backpack. I used one of the blades to dig the hole, the tip sinking into the earth with a satisfying squish. Bit by bit, I shoveled a shallow hole, then dumped the rest of the blades out of the shoebox where I’d harbored them. They glistened like shards of broken glass in the light, beneath the darkening skies and the blinking red and white lights of planes as they soared, oblivious, over our city.

When I’d finished patting the dirt, I shouldered my backpack and ran toward home.

 I slipped inside, heard the soundtrack to America’s Most Wanted playing in the living room where Mama was folding laundry. She didn’t ask why I was back so soon as I walked toward the narrow hallway off the main room. She told me to take off my shoes, because I had tracked mud inside.

“Did you forget where the sidewalks were?” she asked.

“Sorry,” I said as I slipped off my tennis shoes and left them in the pile by the door.

For a moment, I stood in the living room, which smelled of cumin and old carpet, and the ancient cat Javi had terrorized since toddlerhood. I told myself if Mama turned her head from the bulbous TV screen, angled her body just a little from the ironing board, if she just glanced at me and not the dirt I was leaving, then I would tell her the truth. I would confess to the treasure trove of blades I’d just buried. I’d ask her if I’d done something wrong in hiding them or in having them at all in the first place, because if most girls were ashamed of something as natural as blood, shouldn’t I be ashamed of these hot silver knives and what they meant for my femininity, my fecundity, my future? Maybe she’d take me to a doctor and he’d prescribe the Pill, just a quick scribbling on a pad to rid me of these woes. Maybe she’d show me her own box of knives hidden under her bathroom sink along with the Epsom salt and hydrogen peroxide and pink Dove soap boxes stacked in the corner.

“You don’t have to bury them,” she could tell me. “Better to hold onto them just in case.”

Standing there while a commercial for an A/C repair company played, I hated my own body, my shape and my coloring, and my ever-changing adolescent qualms, all of it unchosen, simply given, simply inherited—the result of two strangers’ choices, a love that was so wrong Dad couldn’t even be bothered to say goodbye. Maybe the knives were their fault, some mutated gene from their aberrant union, or maybe it was Eve’s fault, that poor woman my CCD instructor was always pointing us back toward, who made one bad choice and doomed us all. But Adam made the same choice, and his body and the bodies of his sons didn’t bear the mark of it month after month.

Mama didn’t turn toward me, and I didn’t linger when her show came back on. I didn’t want to hear John Walsh narrate where the female victim had last been seen, the camera zooming in on the portrait of a high school senior, her smile wide and eager, full of everything she never got to be.

Javi was born when I was four years old, my parents’ last-ditch attempt to keep our family together. Or maybe just an accident, like I was. Mama always told me I was the reason she had to forego the wedding dress of her dreams for a fluffy one that hid her growing bump.

I don’t remember much of Javi as a newborn, except that he came out a purplish lump with a furrowed brow, and I was supposed to love him. I remember the startling darkness of the areolas of Mama’s nipples, the hugeness of her breasts as she brought Javi’s wide lips to them.

I remember, one night, I awoke to the sound of Dad yelling in the kitchen, except that his voice didn’t sound angry. It sounded scared. And then I heard Mama, the pitch of her voice driving me out of my bed because it seemed to reach every corner of the house. I crept down the hallway toward the kitchen, and I saw Javi writhing and screaming in the playpen we kept in the living room. I huddled by the couch and peered around the corner into the kitchen, and I saw Dad posed on one side of the kitchen island, Mama on the other, as if she were about to run.

“Please, Magdelena, just come back to bed,” Dad pleaded, a tone I’d never heard him use.

“You fucking go back to bed,” she told him, and it was so fast, the swipe of her arm to the knife block on the counter. She drew one, a butcher blade that shined white in the yellow glow of our brown kitchen. She held the knife, hovering, over her left wrist, the blade practically touching the skin, turning it pink even from my vantage.

“Ohmygod, ohmygod, Magdelena. Holy shit, what the fuck are you doing?” Dad took a step toward her, and she drew a step back. They went on like that, a dance I couldn’t understand, Dad begging her to please, stop, please stop, give me the knife, yelling at her that he was calling the cops, whimpering that he needed her, that Javi needed her, he needed her, until Mama began to weep, the hand that gripped the wooden handle shaking, but the rest of her body still, so that he could reach across the island and pry the knife from her grip. And as it clattered onto the linoleum counter, Mama crumpled, and he caught her, pulled her to him as she cried, open-mouthed, into his chest.

I remember, soon after that, the bottles on the drying rack, the large tubs of baby formula that dissolved like magic into warm water, Javi’s mouth as eager for rubber as it had been for Mama’s skin. I never saw Mama nurse again.

Sometimes, after the first blade fell from my body, I thought about that night, of the blade in Mama’s hand, the strange connection she seemed to share with it, the magnetism of the cold steel to her skin. But why use a kitchen knife—why scream and call attention to herself—if she didn’t have to, if she had her own weapons, hidden somewhere only she knew? And I knew not even Mama could understand what was wrong with me.

But I still imagined someone could. Jared Callahan, the boy I’d had a crush on since eighth grade, seemed the next obvious choice. When it was senior year and he was the boy swaying up against me in a hotel ballroom during prom, I told myself, if he asked, I would give myself to him. Afterwards, I could tell him someone the truth.

After the dance, he drove me out to the train tracks in his dad’s Ford Focus. He reached across the center counsel and rested his hand on my thigh. I thought of Ms. Z’s lectures in CCD class, how giving yourself away before marriage left you like a glass of water with chewed-up crumbs spit back into it. Contaminated. Spoiled. Unfit to share with the man God had planned for you. But maybe I wanted to know if I could be spoiled, torn by a boy just like every other girl. Maybe I wanted Jared to matter. I wanted there to be a consequence, something Mama would have to notice, something that maybe even Dad—wherever he was—could feel in his bones and know he’d missed out on. Maybe I wasn’t afraid of a baby, which Ms. Z would say had worth and dignity even in the womb. Maybe, I thought, my body had to have those things too, even if I made this mistake, even if, once upon a time, I’d been a mistake too.

This is what I thought I wanted, until the moment came to act. Until he parked on the dark side of the tracks, killed the headlights.

“You were so pretty tonight,” he said. He unclicked his seatbelt and leaned over the console and put his hand in my hair and we started kissing.

I began to panic as his mouth grew more urgent against mine. They’d told me it hurt your first time. But I was different from other girls. What if I hurt him instead?

“Jared,” I whispered, trying to pull back.

“It’s okay, baby,” he said. He’d never called me baby, the word in his mouth sounding like a costume he was trying on, to see if it fit, to see if he could play the role of the guy who got the girl to do what he wanted.

I pulled away again, pushing his hand off my chest.

 “What?” he asked. “We’re seniors, Ana.”

“What does that mean?”

He kept one hand in mine, rested the other over the steering wheel.

“You know,” he said, looking away from me, out the windshield to the tracks, to this sacred space of other teens before us, the feigned liberty of a car and bodies on the cusp of adulthood, of all that was supposed to be the point of the seventeen years we’d trudged through thus far. And I knew then, what he meant, the difference between what he wanted and what I wanted. A rite of passage, scrawled with and across our sweat-slickened bodies in the cramped backseat of a sedan. But what he couldn’t know was that I lived an initiation into the future again and again, every month spelling for me that I was becoming and was already someone whose body was not just for herself. The blades, an endless testament to what I should have been because of what they were not—not the welcoming well-spring of an empty womb, pouring from me with the color of life, but rather the dry and cold edge of some mutated fertility.

It was less that I didn’t want what this boy wanted and more that I realized I was no longer, had never been, a girl to his boyhood, that what I needed he could not answer and he could not understand. No, he could not understand.

“I’m sorry,” I said, even though that wasn’t quite right, not really true. I opened my door and stepped out of the car, high heels sinking in the soft earth, and ran as he called.

I hurried down the tracks, my feet aching, stumbling over the ties until I reached the next crossing. There, in the ground I had visited every six months since that first burial three years before, my biannual pilgrimage, it was more than just a patch of smoothed-over dirt. The clear crystal of it protruded from the earth at a point. Kneeling in sequence and tight polyester, I brushed the dirt away, dug with manicured and chipping nails until I could pull the full shape free. In my hands, it had the heft and the feel of solid stone but colder, and in the light of my bedroom, after I’d trekked home, I saw that it was even clearer than I’d first thought, like glass smelted into a crystalline orb. As though the blades had braided and curved together beneath the earth.

I didn’t sell the first one. Though not the largest, though without my conscious forming, it was, to me, the most valuable. My awakening that I was more than broken.

I could have consented to the tests, the scrutiny of doctors and scientists when they learned what my body created cyclically, what I used to form my creations, laying them into a puzzle in the ground, letting the time pass to dig the new sculpture out again. But I sensed they could not understand either, not in any way that would give meaning to my body, my future.

Still, the testaments to this unknown substance—organic and yet lifeless, solid but somehow malleable—were what fueled the interest of the buyers. The art museums paid my way through college. And there was enough, after art school, to pay Javi through school too. There was enough, eventually, to buy Mama a new house, even though she found in it plenty to criticize, her sighs and complaints enough to tell me she was humbled by it, which was nearly gratitude. I had shown her a sculpture after I made my first sale.

“It’s interesting, Ana,” she’d said, turning the orb in both hands and then placing it, at arms distance, on the tabletop. “How did you say you made it?”

And there was less surprise than a sense of defeat that I had never told her. As if this were the usual disappointment of mothers and daughters. I suppose, in some ways, it was—that a child should keep secret her creations from the one who created her.

For myself, I chose a city that belonged to artists and entrepreneurs alike, though I didn’t belong, really, to either category. More so, I was an alchemist, a gardener, an endless student of my own body and of the earth. As the years unfurled with a relentless winding, more rapid in each succession, the past—childhood and adolescence—were a weight that tethered all that followed like an anchor. There were friends, and there were men, most of them cynical, jealous, or a little afraid of me and the mystery of what I made. Sometimes, the loneliness still ate at me the way it had in my youth. Sometimes, I called Mama just to hear her go on and on and on about her sisters, about Javi, about Dad and all his faults. Just to hear that I had come from somewhere, just to hope that someday, out of the static between us, I could understand my difference just by being her daughter.

And then, late at night, I walked home from my studio-turned-greenhouse on the campus where I worked. In my bag, a new piece and a single blade I had not found a place for yet. I was alone on the street, as usual, as always, but at peace with the grumble and panting of vehicles at the intersection. When I turned onto the block of my building, a quieter stretch, I thought nothing of the homeless man huddled near the alleyway. Until he said my name.

“Ana O’Reilly?”

No one had called me O’Reilly since high school, when I dropped Dad’s name and took Mama’s maiden surname, the one she no longer even used. Velasquez. My attempt to belong more to her and yet be someone separate.

I turned to see the man standing in the streetlamp light, hands in the pockets of a thin raincoat. The hair stubbled with white, shaved close to his head. Two front teeth that shone brighter than the rest as he gave me a pained smile and took a step closer.

“Ana, baby, you remember your old man?”

 “How did you find me?” I asked. The rain picked up, scattered and staccato on the pavement.

“I did some searching. Heard about your residency here.”

It didn’t seem he could be done speaking, so I didn’t reply.

“You going to invite your dad inside?”

The doorman eyed us on the way in, or rather, eyed me with concern, but I gave him a reassuring smile as I pushed the elevator button. Dad was talking the whole ride up, both of us dripping to the steady beat of elevator music, but I could hardly listen—he spoke in words that were simple and yet made no sense. Gigs. Dallas. Boise. Bossier. The guys ran out on me. Started Over. Scraping by. Not as young. Still got it. Making do. Saw something about you online. Couldn’t believe. My little girl.

In my apartment, he sat on the couch while I grabbed him a glass of water. I waited for something; he must have sensed it as much as I did.

“How’s your mom?” he asked.

“Fine. Still back home,” I answered, even though I didn’t like equating him with that place, of saying it like it was somewhere he belonged too.

“You know I tried calling her. Asking her about you. She wouldn’t talk to me.”

For a moment, I felt ashamed of myself for not having my mother’s will power.

“I’m sorry about all that, you know? I shouldn’t have walked out on her like that. But you gotta understand that she wasn’t an easy woman to live with.”

There it was, then, all I had waited for, summed up as “all that.” As if “all that” hadn’t been my whole life. All that wondering, all that waiting, all that knowing Mama better than he did, though I didn’t know her at all, all that making myself without him and without anyone because his leaving had made me too afraid of any man who seemed willing to stay.

“I was thinking though, you know, there’s no reason you and I can’t have a relationship, now. I’d love to hear about your art. Didn’t fall too far from the tree, did you now, with your creative talents?”

The words he was saying, like a script, and yet the performance so underwhelming.

“Could I see one?” he asked.

My bag was on the floor by the coffee table. I reached into it and pulled out the most recent sculpture, this one shaped into a branching structure, almost like a tree, but with limbs that spread about its trunk like the rays of a star.

“Wow,” Dad said. He asked about my process, and I gave him the truncated, impersonal version. The frames in which I laid the blades, the planters that held them for the weeks or months that I let them grow and become crystallized.

“A single project can take two years,” I told him.

“And how much…how much does something like this sell for?”

“It depends,” I said.

“Could I keep it?” he asked.

“Well, this one was commissioned, actually.”

“You’ve gotta have one around here then, right?” he asked. “One you’re not planning on selling.”

When he placed down the most recent sculpture, my chest eased its tightness, until he stood up and began pacing the living room. It didn’t take long for him to spot it, the rough shape on the entertainment center: the very first orb, the one I had never meant to create. As he went to it, I slipped my hand back into my bag.

“Wow,” he said, elongating the word again. “I love the weight of it,” he said, letting his hand rise and fall with it.

The image that flashed through my mind was of someone testing the weight of a baby, someone who had no idea how to hold an infant. I gripped the blade at the bottom of my bag.


“Would love to show this to some pals of mine, you know? Tell them my little girl made it herself.”

I stood up and let the bag fall away. He didn’t see the hand at my side because he was too busy trying to see his own reflection in the sculpture.


Finally, he looked up at me, and his eyes darted to the dagger that I raised, not exactly pointing it, the tip rising toward the ceiling. I waited for him to say something—a warning or a reprimand, all that time since my childhood collapsed with the mere inflection of his voice. I was afraid I wouldn’t be brave enough to withstand it.

“Hey,” he said. He put the sculpture back on the shelf. When he stepped toward me, I didn’t lower the blade. “No need to work yourself up,” he said. “God, you’re like your mother, you know that?”

Yes, I know, I wanted to say. No, I’m not, I wanted to say.

He shuffled around for a moment as though he’d brought more with him than his hanging clothes and his sense of belonging.

“I’ll go then,” he said. “If it makes you that uncomfortable.”

At the door, he paused, hand on the knob. He didn’t look at me, his gaze on the ground, on the eyelike whorls of the vinyl floor.

“I get I wasn’t what I should have been, all right. It’s good to see you’re safe, Ana. At least that.”

And he was gone. When I had washed his glass, when his impression and the moisture had exhaled from his spot on the couch, I could almost believe I had imagined all of it. I could almost believe it was enough, the half-admittance he had offered, the half-violence he had pulled from me. The half-remembered lessons of those religious classes, nigh on two decades ago now, surfaced against his inadequacy. The promise of a Father who loved me completely, not for anything I was or anything I could give him. Did he exist from the great ache of our longing or was he the one to sew the need, forever unanswered by the fathers, even the mothers, of this world? How could I escape from who they’d made me?

When I went to the orb on the shelf, the other blade had found its way back into my hand. I stared at the fractals—weaving, and branching and never-ending inside the stone—until I could no longer hold back my tears. The knife clinging to the sweat of my palm, I sat on the ground, brought the rock to my lap, and drove the blade’s tip into a jagged edge.

Indestructible. That was the assessment the labs had made. But I had always intuited they were wrong. With the talents I’d perfected in school, I chiseled at the stone, the flakes of it falling to the rug in a flurry like warm snow.

You are mine you are mine you are mine, I thought with each stroke, the shape emerging into my hands. And yet, I knew, even before I finished carving, that she would not be mine. Even now, as I made her of the stuff of my womb, as my hands began to cramp—from clenching, scraping, beveling—as my back contracted with the strain of my labor, I knew that she would defy the mold I attempted to place on her. That I would belong to her more than she to me. And I would never let her doubt that.

I fell asleep there, amid the scrapings, the crystal shape of her in my arms. As morning bore through the shades, light in rays to defy all the wet and darkness of the night, I heard her first cry. When I looked on her, I saw she was more than I had ever imagined. Along her spine, the tracing of feathers, their color so soft as to be almost translucent. I imagined the wings that might grow, if I didn’t pin them back. I slipped my finger through the tight fist of hers, felt, as her nails pressed into my skin, a familiar sharpness. I unfolded her hand, gazed at those fingertips. And she showed me the talons, like blades, hiding just below the surface. I would have to teach her how to use them—my daughter, my blood.

About the Author

Alexa T. Dodd is a writer of Mexican and Polish heritage, a native of Texas, and a mother of two. Her work was the winner of the Puerto del Sol Prose Contest, a semi-finalist in the Nimrod Literary Awards, and has appeared in Literary Hub, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She’s a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus, a recipient of a Hypatia-in-the-Woods residency for women artists, and she holds a master’s in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. She is represented by Trident Media Group for a speculative, magical realist novel.

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