Frank Thomas Smith
Grown-ups called her Doña Margarita. She had come to Argentina from Europe many years ago. It was said that she had lost her whole family in a concentration camp during the war. That's why she had no grandchildren. The children on the block used to call her Grandma because she was like a grandmother to us all.
She worked as an operator for the telephone company and almost every day she called one of us from her job and gave us a message from God: that we be good, that we obey our parents, that we love and help one another -- that kind of thing. She didn't say they were messages from God, but my friend Agustina, who knows more about those things, said they must be and the rest of us were sure that she was right. After Grandma retired she didn't call us any more because she would have had to pay for the calls and she didn't have much money.
On her last day at work I was the one she called:
"Hello, Carolina. It's me, Grandma."
She didn't need to say who she was because I recognized her voice immediately. Somehow I knew that what she was going to tell me was very important, so I grasped the phone with both hands as though I could hear her better that way.
"Soon you will receive an important message," Grandma said.
"Not now?" I asked. I'm an impatient person, to tell the truth. And curious.
"No, and I won't be the one who gives it to you. I don't even know what it's about. I have to hang up now. See you on Saturday.
Every Saturday the kids of the block were invited to Grandma's house. She always served us home-made apple pies which she called "strudel", and she told us stories. The pies were delicious but the stories were better--full of fairies, giants, animals and children who were good, but sometimes just a little naughty.
After Grandma stopped working we went to her house on three more Saturdays. Then she got sick and they took her to the hospital. Some of us went there to visit her but they wouldn't let us in.
"She is very sick," the nurse said gravely. "Only family members may visit her."
"But she has no family," I said. "They all died--were killed in the war."
The nurse looked at us for a moment, then said: "It doesn't matter, it's the rule. Only family."
"We're like her grandchildren;" my friend Agustina protested.
"In any case, children are not allowed to visit intensive care patients. It's the rule."
She turned around and left us standing in the hall.
"It's like in school," Nicolás mumbled. "Always rules."
We were sure that Grandma would love to see us, even though she was so sick. That's why we felt so sad when we left the hospital.
That night I prayed that Grandma would know that we, the children, were thinking of her.
I fell asleep and after a while--I don't know how long--a voice calling my name woke me. I opened my eyes and saw a soft light at the foot of my bed. I sat up with my heart thumping. The light faded and a beautiful woman stood there in its place.
"I am Grandma's Guardian Angel," she said and smiled at me.
I couldn't say anything. I just stared.
I have a message for you." Her voice was sweet and clear like a bell.
"Grandma isn't happy there in the hospital. She is lonesome."
"We tried to visit her but they wouldn't let us in," I said. Just then it occurred to me that I might be dreaming.
"You aren't dreaming, Carolina," the angel said. "I am real and I am here with you."
"O..Oh, thank you."
"Grandma wants you to get her out of the hospital and take her home."
I didn't know what to say.
"Will you do it?"
"Yes, of course. But will they let us?"
She didn't answer.
"Go to her house with some friends," she said, "and get her clothes--the green dress, underwear and shoes."
"Can she walk?"
"She will walk: The key is in a hanging plant beside the front door."
"We could take her home with my father--in his car," I offered.
"No! No grown-ups. You will find money in the sugar jar for a taxi. Say nothing to the grown-ups."
She looked into my eyes. "Do you understand, Carolina?"
"Good. Do it on Saturday. Now go back to sleep."
I closed my eyes and fell asleep immediately.
The next morning I told Nicolás everything.
"You were dreaming," he said. My brother is a know-it-all sometimes.
"I was not dreaming. She told me herself that I wasn't dreaming."
"Do you have any proof?" It was a typical Nicolás question since he began taking physics in school. He didn't believe anything unless he had proof.
My answer surprised him: "What do you mean, yes?"
"Do you think that Grandma is happy in that hospital where they don't even let her loved ones visit her?"
"Of course not. But that's no proof that her guardian angel told you that we should go to the hospital and...kidnap her."
"Not to kidnap her, silly. To help her escape."
"What if it really was her guardian angel and we didn't do what she said?"
My brother sat looking at his hands for a while, thinking. Finally he said: "It would be terrible."
"All right," he said, "we'll kidnap her. But if they put us in jail it'll be your fault."
"Thanks, Nico." I wanted to kiss him, but knew that he wouldn't like it. Boys are like that.
"Nobody's going to believe it," he said.
We went right away to Agustina's house and I told her about Grandma's guardian angel.
"Wow!" she exclaimed. "I've never seen an angel."
"Will you help us, Agustina?" I asked her.
"Sure. Let's go to the hospital."
"No, it has to be tomorrow, Saturday," I reminded her. "And first we have to go to Grandma's house to pick up clothes and money."
"I don't understand that," Nicolás said. "Doesn't she have her clothes in the hospital?"
"I don't know. That's what her guardian angel said."
Saturday morning we found the key to Grandma's house in the hanging plant, went in and selected the clothes she would need. We also took five pesos from the sugar jar for a taxi.
At four o'clock in the afternoon we went to the hospital, where a lot of people were going in to visits patients. Agustina and I mixed in with them and Nicolás waited outside to have a taxi ready when we left with Grandma. We took the elevator to the third floor where the intensive care ward was. Some children were sitting outside and Agustina and I sat with them near the door. The nurse came hurrying out of the ward and passed by without looking at us.
"Who are you waiting for?" I asked a little girl about five years old who was sitting next to me.
"My uncle," she said with tears in her eyes. "We came to visit my mother who is sick, but they won't let me go in."
Agustina got up and went into the intensive care ward. She came back out almost immediately. "No nurses," she whispered.
I stood up and said to the children: "We can go in now."
"But...will they let us?" the five-year-old asked me.
"Do you want to see your mother or not?"
"Yes!" She jumped up and entered the ward, followed by the rest of the children. Agustina and I went in too. Once inside each child looked for its sick relative or friend.
"Oh, Teresita," we heard a woman say as we passed one of the cubicles, "I'm so glad to see you!" And we saw the five-year-old embracing her mother.
We found Grandma's bed at the end of the hall. She shared the space with an old lady with no teeth who was snoring. When Grandma saw us she smiled and said: "I see that you got the message, Carolina. I knew you'd come to take me home. Do you have my clothes? Good. Quickly, help me to dress. We must leave before the nurse returns".
As we helped Grandma get dressed we noticed how thin she was. But she was happy and gave us each a kiss when she was ready to leave. She took two steps and stopped. We could see that she was weak.
"We'll help you, Grandma," Agustina said, taking her arm.
"No, child, thank you," Grandma said. "I'll walk alone."
She kissed the old lady, who was still snoring, on the forehead and said: "God bless you, Ernestina."
Then, confident and with her head held high, she left the room.
The intensive care ward was full of laughter and happiness when we passed through the exit. But...Oh, horror! Just at that moment the nurse who had told us we couldn't go in appeared.
"Keep walking," Grandma told us.
"Children aren't allowed in the intensive care ward," the nurse said angrily. Obviously she didn't recognize Grandma, who said as we passed, "The ward is full of children, nurse. I believe you are mistaken."
"Oh, this is terrible!" the nurse cried, and ran toward the ward.
"No," Grandma whispered, "it's marvelous."
We left the hospital and got into the taxi that Nicolás had waiting. Grandma sat between Agustina and me.
"Sorry, kid," the driver said to Nicolás when he tried to sit in front because there was no more room in the back. "You're not twelve yet, so you can't sit up front."
"We'll wait for you in my garden, Nicolás," Grandma told him, and the taxi drove off while Nicolás ran to Grandma´s house.
When we arrived, Grandma said that we should go into the garden. Once seated comfortably in the shade, she said: "Now go and bring the other children. It's story time."
We were surprised that Grandma wanted to tell a story right after escaping from the intensive care ward, but we ran to obey. Not all the kids were home, so we were only twelve--including Nicolás, who had arrived in the meantime--seated on the grass around Grandma when she told us her last story.
Once upon a time there was caterpillar who crawled on the decaying leaf of a tree, taking bites when he felt like it. There was also a bird's nest in the tree. The caterpillar saw how the birds made the nest and the birth of the young when they emerged from the eggs.
"What beautiful creatures birds are!" the caterpillar said. They have wings and can fly. How marvelous it must be to fly!
Then he thought: "And me? A miserable worm, always alone. All I can do is creep on the ground and eat blades of grass or climb a tree to eat its leaves. Fly? No, I'll never fly.
One day the caterpillar heard a voice speaking to him in caterpillar language. It didn't come from another caterpillar, or from above or from below. It came from within. It told him to make a cocoon.
He didn't hesitate for a moment. He began to knit a raccoon of silk and didn't stop until it was finished. He worked rapidly because he had many hands. Then he realized than he was enveloped in total darkness.
"What a fool I am," he thought. "I knitted the cocoon around me and now I can't get out. Luckily I attached it to a branch, so at least no one can step on me."
Suddenly he was very tired. "Tomorrow I'll decide what to do, now I'm too tired." He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
The winter passed. On the first day of spring the caterpillar opened his eyes but couldn't see anything because he was still inside the cocoon. Nevertheless, he said: "Ah, I feel much better after that nap." And he began to chew at the cocoon from inside until he had opened a hole big enough to crawl out.
"I feel so strange." he thought when he was clinging to the branch, now full of blossoms. "As though I were newly born."
He decided to stretch his legs and...POP!
"What beautiful wings!" he exclaimed. "But...it's a miracle. They're mine!" It seemed to him that his wings contained all the colors of the rainbow.
Suddenly a breeze blew him off the branch. Frightened, the new butterfly moved its wings and found that it could fly. With a joyful cry it flew up and up toward the sun.
Grandma smiled and closed her eyes.
I had been so interested in the story that I hadn't noticed the soft light glowing behind Grandma -- or maybe it only started glowing at the end of the story. Then I saw Grandma's soul. It left her body and, together with her guardian angel, flew up and up toward the sun.
© 2000 Frank Thomas Smith