As a girl, Maria would climb the fire escape every night to watch the moon crest and float over the roof of the apartment building. She was sure to leave the latch on the balcony door unlocked, slightly ajar. As she ascended, the creak and rattle of shuddering metal below her slippered feet made her pulse quicken. She flinched with each wailing siren below as if hearing it for the first time. But when Maria saw the moon, everything slowed down and she could finally breathe.
When she was older, after her mother left, she would count the hours until she could be reunited with the moon. Her father never sang to her anymore and rarely spoke over the pop-hiss of the bottle cap. Maria would wrap her pillow around her head, muffling the cries of the baby that shared her room. She’d gaze skyward, the moon a quiet blessing.
At the age of seventeen she took to the fire escape for the last time, eyes red and raw. The moon bathed her in light, exposing her like a live wire. A crash from above and she froze. She heard her sister whisper from their shared bedroom window: Where are you going? Take me with you . Maria looked down, unable to meet Lorna’s eyes as she shook her head and descended the escape.
But she was not that girl anymore. She was thirty-two now, a retail specialist for a major paint manufacturer. Her husband, Felipe, had grown a mustache that Maria didn’t like much, but he was a good dancer, he had strong calloused hands, and he loved Maria. They lived in a cracked, yolk-colored house on the east side of downtown, with sputtering street lamps, and ugly metal bars on the windows. The streets were loud and there were too many things that needed repairing, but Maria had a porch and could see the moon from their bedroom window. Each time she came home from work, kicking off her shoes by the door, and pressing her lips to Felipe’s cheek, Maria felt that everything had slowed down and she could finally breathe again.
Until the night the moon disappeared.
Maria had been unable to sleep, propped up with pillows and rolled-up towels and blankets. She was anxious and hungry but didn’t want to wake Felipe up again, so she was trying to relax by watching the moon, humming, hands resting on her belly.
Then before her eyes, the moon uncurled and a small shimmering wisp of a child climbed down from the sky. The night sky puckered and crinkled in her clenched hands, leaving faint folds above as the glowing child descended below her field of vision. Maria rocked to her feet, and as she stood she felt her body lighten, her aches fade, and a new energy course through her. She rushed out of the house, her steps utterly silent. Maria walked without conscious direction, past houses and buildings she had never seen before, feeling her feet lead her towards a faint glow ahead. As Maria walked under the street lamps, they pulsed brightly, dimming only as she passed. The houses around her were odd and alien, though she could swear she had seen the metal window bars and fire escapes somewhere before. Metal and light—light and metal. Maria held her breath and let these things blur around her as the street opened up on her right. A small public park greeted her—the kind Maria could almost remember going to when she was a girl. There were steel monkey bars and swing sets, a solitary slide, and even a basketball hoop. In its center, the small moon-child sat on a swing, waving towards Maria, beckoning her over.
“Push me!” the girl exclaimed.
“I can’t. I don’t know you. Ask the stars to push you.”
“Please, Maria.” The girl’s eyes were bright—impossibly bright, impossible to look at.
Illustration by Émile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville, via Wikimedia Commons
“But I—” the words died under the heavy weight pressing deep within Maria. She gathered the chains of the swing and pulled the girl up in her seat and released her, and the moon-child arced back and forth towards the night sky. She looked close enough to touch the dark canvas where the moon had been.
The swing slowed and its arc shortened until it finally came to a full stop. The girl bounded off the swing and hugged Maria’s side, barely reaching around her waist.
“Will you play with me some more?”
Maria’s throat tightened as shame tugged in her gut, “I . . . don’t know.”
The girl ignored this and dragged Maria by the hand toward the slide. “Let’s go down it together!” She climbed the metal ladder easily and looked down over the safety rails on the sides of the platform at Maria, urging her to follow. Maria obeyed. Despite the creaking and shuddering of the metal, she somehow found herself with the young girl at the top. But it felt too small, like the railings were closing in around her. The slide before her was narrow, the fall too steep, and Maria felt her eyes full of tears.
“I’m so sorry. I can’t do this. I’m sorry I left you.”
The girl pulled her hand gently, guiding Maria to sit up front, “I know. It’s okay.” She rested a small palm to the crescent of Maria’s pregnant belly, “Don’t be afraid.”
And Maria was sliding down, looking back at the girl she had left behind, at the moon-child climbing back into the heavens, curling back into a sleeping circle.
Te amo. Te amo. Lo siento.
Her hair fluttered behind her like small wings, and before she could reach the end of the slide, the metal faded away. There was a widening silence. And Maria was still in motion, still rushing down and down and down, breaking through water—and the pain shocked her as the first contraction tore through her, wet bed sheets under her hips, the moon watching from above.