Biography
Jennifer Clement studied English Literature and Anthropology at New York University and also studied French literature in Paris, France. She is currently the President of PEN Mexico. Clement is the author of the memoir WIDOW BASQUIAT that made the "Booksellers' Choice" list in the United Kingdom and two novels: A TRUE STORY BASED ON LIES, which was a finalist in the Orange Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom, and THE POISON THAT FASCINATES. She is also the author of several books of poetry: THE NEXT STRANGER, NEWTON’S SAILOR, LADY OF THE BROOM AND JENNIFER CLEMENT: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS. Clement’s work has been translated into ten languages. Jennifer Clement won the Canongate Prize for her story, “A Salamander-Child.” In 2007 she received a MacDowell Fellowship and the MacDowell Colony named her the Robert and Stephanie Olmsted Fellow for 2007-08. Clement was awarded Mexico's prestigious "Sistema Nacional de Creadores" grant and in 2001 and she is also the recipient of a US-Mexico Fund for Culture (FONCA, Fundacion Cultural Bancomer, the Rockefeller Foundation) grant for the San Miguel Poetry Week, which she founded in 1997 with her sister, Barbara Sibley. Clement's work has appeared in numerous anthologies including THE BEST OF THE AMERICAN VOICE and AKZENTE, THE LONDON TIMES, THE HERALD, POETRY LONDON, THE NATION, THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, THE WARWICK REVIEW and THE INDEPENDENT MAGAZINE, among others, have published her stories, poems and essays. Recently, the composer Jan Gilbert created an “Eleven Song Setting” of Clement’s THE LADY OF THE BROOM for soprano, flute, viola, and violoncello. Jennifer Clement lives in Mexico City, Mexico.

SHE ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT SHE WOULD BURN HERSELF IN THE KITCHEN

- by Jennifer Clement

I.
In Mexico City there are only two seasons in the year:  the rainy season and the dry season.  During the dry season everything in the city seems to turn into stone—stone birds, stone flowers, stone butterflies.  The sun warms the black and red, pockmarked volcanic stone and the cement buildings and pavements burn.  In the rainy season the city becomes molten; streets turn into rivers that carry plastics, newspaper, dry willow leaves, and small shards of volcanic glass.  The volcanoes and mountains that surround Mexico City are like a fortress’ walls that keep everyone out and keep everyone in.
Mexico City during the 1950s was one of the most majestic cities in the world and was often called the “Paris of the West.”  At that time there was one woman who was famous for being known as Mexico City’s most beautiful woman. The local newspapers wrote about her all the time and followed her every movement as she attended dances, charity lunches, tennis games, and art exhibitions.   Her name was Maria Constanza Reyes Rios de Torres. She was the daughter of Doctor Reyes Rios who was Mexico’s most prominent surgeon and Lourdes Altamira, from the family who owned most of Mexico’s bakeries.  When the newspapers and magazines described Maria's eyes they wrote that they were the colour of grapes, dark purple grapes, and that her skin was as white as white baking flour.  But this happened before her son pierced her right eye with a pine wood toy rifle.
The accident occurred on a Saturday morning in April.  The night before the event Maria had been to the opera at the Palace of Fine Arts.  For that special evening, Maria wore a cinnamon red silk taffeta gown, long gloves that covered the complete length of her arms, and a short necklace of ruby beads from India.  She was with her husband, Carlos Torres, the famous criminal lawyer.  The opera was a rather poor production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman. The soprano was breathless and not mechanical enough. “A complete disappointment,” people said that night as they walked down the Palace’s white and grey marble steps, through the beggars’ finger- webs of out-stretched hands, and to their cars and waiting taxis.
That night, before going to bed, Maria cleaned her face and rubbed oyster-shell cream around her eyes. This was a cream that was brought to her every month from Acapulco and it made her skin shimmer from the nacre and look the colour of baroque pearls.  In bed her husband held her inside one arm, pressed against his ribs.
Everything in Maria’s life was perfect and clean.  She knew that the next day would be a day of fresh linens, brightly rubbed apples, and a light rain.  She had an appointment at “Celia’s Beauty Salon” at ten in the morning for a manicure.  She knew she’d go straight there after taking her eight-year-old son, Diego, to school. From there she planned to go to the San Angel Market to buy a large red Judas made of papier-mâché, which they would burn after the Mass of Glory.  She would also check to see if there were any large black raspberries, which were often brought to the market from a neighbouring village.
The next morning just before sunrise, Diego came into the bedroom with his toy rifle, yelling, "Bang! Bang! Bang!"  It was a perfect replica of a smoothbore, with a front sight, rear sight, and even a mahogany stock and forearm.   Maria moved away from her husband and slipped out of bed whispering, "Hush, hush, quiet, darling, your father’s sleeping".  She gently pulled her son toward the door and past the sofa that was still draped with the evening clothes she'd worn the night before.  The red taffeta of her evening dress shimmered in the new morning light as they moved past.  Maria noticed that her silk gloves had fallen on the floor.  She thought they looked as if the pale broken arms of mermaids were emerging from a sea of Persian carpets.
But when Maria leaned over and tried to pull the rifle out of her son’s hand he let go and it moved in the air.  It moved five inches.  Only five inches.  It moved quickly and into Maria's left eye.  Into the cornea, iris, pupil, anterior chamber, and posterior chamber, and then the rifle's muzzle smashed the lens and vitreous body into an explosion of colours she new and colours she had never seen before.  Colours that had no name.  Never again would anyone look into her eyes.  Never again would she look into the mirror and find the small lachrymal duct of her left eye.

II.
Maria cupped the wounded eye with her hand and shuffled on her knees along the floor back into the bedroom and up on to the bed.  Her son did not move or speak but marched quietly behind her.  She woke     her husband and said, "Please, oh please, take me to the hospital."
Maria knew that forever after she would only be able to cry from one eye.
That morning the beautiful slices of papaya that sparkled with lemon juice on the light pink Limoges plates, and the round conch-shaped breads to be eaten with warm milk and coffee, were left untouched.  The linen napkins remained sheathed in their silver napkin rings.
Within an hour everyone knew what had happened to Maria Constanza Reyes Rios de Torres.  Everyone talked about her beautiful grape-coloured eyes. It was rumoured that many women were secretly happy since, as they had always thought, no one had the right to such beauty.  All men in Mexico City, however, truly mourned. Later her sister, Pilar, who always spoke in a great gust of words, said, "Oh dear, now some people on the street will spit when they see her." With this comment Pilar referred to the ancient and widespread superstition: To prevent ill luck from meeting a one-eyed person, you must spit over your left shoulder.
After the accident, Maria stopped going to parties, the opera and theatre, and became studious and withdrawn. This change of behaviour included a fascination to know everything she could about eyes.  She even took philosophy lessons from a university professor.  Maria learned that Plotinus had said that the eye would not be able to see the sun if, in a manner, it were not the sun itself.  Maria read about Wadza, the Egyptians "divine eye", and that the circle of the iris with the pupil as the centre was the "sun in the mouth". To make sense of her tragedy she also studied the myth of Cyclops.
The “evil eye”, Maria learned, is seen as a cause of illness and death in Muslim countries.  It can affect animals, crops, people, and even cooked food.   This is because the evil eye represents jealousy and envy. The people in these countries will go to great lengths to ward off the evil eye An example of this is that they often give beautiful children ugly names.  According to custom, another way to ward off the evil eye is to have egg-breaking ceremonies.

III.
Maria had her seamstress sew her silk eye-patches of every colour and some were even made to match with the fabrics of her dresses.
Maria learned to tilt her head to one side so people would only look at the left side of her face.
Maria remembered everything she had seen properly before the world became "a world through a telescope."  She hated to see her nose at all times and that she'd lost her depth of field so that she was always bumping into things or tipping over the lemonade pitcher.  When she reached out to shake someone’s hand, she always missed.
Nobody asked Maria for favours anymore.
When her husband left her for another woman everyone said that this was to be expected since accidents always had consequences.  Her husband claimed that he left her, not because of the loss of her eye, but because her personality had changed and that she was no longer the fun-loving woman he had married. His family completely agreed with him.  Maria’s family thought he had no heart.  And the high-class residents of Mexico City were divided on the subject.  Maria was the only person who had not openly expressed an opinion on her husband’s infidelity and abandonment.
Maria Constanza Reyes Rios de Torres did say this, however, and she said it many times, "It was not a war, but I gave my eye to my son."
Later, when she was an old woman and bent and cracked like an old chair, someone asked her what she had learned from all her scholarship.  They wanted to know if she had ever found meaning in the loss of her eye.
Maria insisted that she knew the answer.  She added that it had not been necessary for her to study or read so much since she’d always known.  She said, "It’s love.  If your child hurts you, you don’t mind."

IV.
After the accident, Maria developed a fascination for learning about the way that people dealt with their tragedies and losses. It was as if she felt that she had changed her race or her class. She now belonged to the continent of accidents and the country where an incomplete body was a passport.  She belonged to a world where soldiers wore the armour of wheelchairs, neck-braces, eye-patches, and where the battlefields were waiting rooms, laboratories, and hospitals. In this new land the colour white was a flag.  People held their memories in their bodies.
At first Maria only read newspapers and books regarding misfortunes, but then she decided to do volunteer work at a government-funded hospital.  Three times a week she put on a pale pink nurse-like uniform and performed small chores for the patients such as writing letters for them or reading the newspaper aloud. Through this work, she met a woman who had lost a leg in a boating accident, children who were bitten by dogs, and she even met several victims of crimes who had gunshot wounds in their bodies.
One day, while she was making her rounds at the hospital, she noticed that a new patient had arrived and was lying in a bed in one of the many dormitories that were designed for six beds, but that were overcrowded with fifteen.  The new patient was at the far end of the room beside a window that looked out on a junkyard filled with rusted car parts.  The smell of oil and diesel wafted up into the hospital room and mixed with the bitter scent of medicines and bleach.  He lay on the white sheet like a dark piece of driftwood.
The patient was nineteen-year-old Rodrigo Calles. Since he came from a poor family and needed to work, he had only finished his primary studies. Rodrigo worked in a glass factory.   As Maria introduced herself and shook his hand she thought they felt smooth and cold like the blue opaque hand-blown glass vases and pitchers that were lined along one shelf in her kitchen.
Rodrigo arrived on a Sunday afternoon with a terrible wound to his eye.  It took Maria several days to find out what had happened.  It was very simple, the simplest story of all, and the story everyone has heard:  he had stuck his own pencil into his eye.
Maria loved him instantly when he said, “I was given two eyes so that I could lose one.”
Rodrigo became her favourite patient. She brought sweets and cakes for him, which was strictly forbidden by the hospital. She told him all the jokes she knew about people with one eye or a a wood eye.
She even told him the ghastly joke about a man who swallowed his glass eye. These jokes made Rodrigo laugh and cry at the same time.  Maria also told him everything she had studied about the eye and even had her seamstress make him a black silk eye patch.  “Now, you can look like a pirate,” she’d said.
Rodrigo told her that he remembered his mother warning him never to run with a stick in his hand.   Maria said that what you are warned against never happens.  For example, she explained, she always thought that she would burn herself in the kitchen.
Rodrigo liked to study the parts of the eye and he recited them like a poem: pupil cornea, anterior chamber, posterior chamber, papilla, iris, lens, and retina.  He asked Maria if she believed in the justice of an eye for an eye?
No one ever understood this friendship that lasted until the day that Maria died.  No one from the important and rich families in Mexico City could imagine what Maria was thinking by spending so much time with a poor boy who had worked in a factory.  Only she knew that he was in the “Land of the White Flag”.  She took him into her home and raised him as if her were her son.  She educated him, stood by him when he married, and his grandchildren grew up the sides of her body like leaves of ivy.
Maria and Rodrigo liked to go out for walks in Chapultepec Park and, to this day, these outings are legendary.  The sight of the couple wearing eye-patches and walking arm-in-arm through the eucalyptus trees was mysterious.

V.
After one week in the hospital, Rodrigo asked Maria the question that nobody had dared to ask. “So what did you do?  What happened after the accident?  What happened between you and your son, Diego?” Rodrigo asked one afternoon as Maria was sitting on the edge of his bed.  Maria had been explaining to him how to cope with a loss of a sense of field and peripheral vision and, specifically, the technique one used for shaking hands.
“After losing my eye, I read the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa and, because of this, I realised that you are not only what you have done, but also what you have not done,” Maria had answered. “I have not climbed a mountain, or washed my clothes in a river.”
Maria also told him that she had never scolded nor punished her son.  Instead, after she came back from the hospital and her child could no longer look at her face, she had walked into the kitchen and removed two large soupspoons from the kitchen drawer.  Then she’d taken her son’s hand in hers and walked out to the garden that was filled with the soft April morning sun. They had walked past the row of bright pink azaleas and creamy camellias, until they stopped at an ancient fig tree.  There, they knelt on the grass and Maria gave her son one of the spoons and, quietly, they both began to dig. Her son helped her push away the wet black dirt as they scooped it out.  Once the hole was made they buried the toy rifle under the fig tree as if it were a dead bird.