Birds, Stars, and Insect Wings: Following RoseSunWater by Angel Dominguez

I used to love
to sit up on the sundeck
and listen to the wind
blow through the big pine trees.
It was such
a different sound

—text from my grandma, 2022

I had a dream I was standing in the creek, cold singing through me, as my toes turned to purple, red, and golden pebbles rolling away in the current, and woke up in my room, as I always did, by the measured call of the Great Horned Owl that lived in our twin pine trees. The whole house smelled like coffee, grandma steeping it through a sieve over a pot of boiling water. The house shifted as you moved through it, each floorboard matching your step, the network of drafts tunneled by the termites catching you at every angle. Early and barefoot I sat at the kitchen table with my mom, asking me what I dreamt about as grandma listens at the stove. She leaves the room and comes back with the red book of dreams, looking up the words for me: creek, jewels, loss. And all those dream interpretations say is change, change again, life-giving change, irreparable change, and I roll my eyes because I know what she’ll say before she even says it but I don’t know, then, that there is change coming, the irreparable kind, that that’s really all it ever is from now on, and that we’ll spend our life trying to remember it beautiful. The blind dog trundled in, carrying his body across the house, and the cockatiels flew from their cage onto our shoulders. I held my cold feet and mom told me to put on socks and I said no and we drank coffee together, Nat sleeping late into the morning. And that was it, the last perfect moment.

Her name was Victoria Delgadillo. She lived in Querétaro with her husband and two infant sons when the Mexican Revolution began in 1910. Her husband wanted to fight for his country, but she knew if he did that he would die and leave her alone with two children. She knew that. But he did it anyway and he did die and they buried him in a mass grave with everyone else. On foot, with a baby on her back, she made her way to the border, cursing him all along. And in this way, he kept dying, over and over again, with less and less dignity. He died in a bar fight. He died of syphilis. He never died fighting for his country ever again. She named the baby Victorio, after herself, and killed his name. She did this all her life. Even now, as I hear the story, and every time I write it, he keeps dying. And it’s just what she would have wanted.

Angel Dominguez asks, “How do we mourn a space, or location, differently than we mourn the dead? What does it mean to lose one’s constant space of return/arrival?” (75). Their house in Van Nuys was what their grandmother called “the orchard,” because when their family arrived, they planted fruit trees all over the property, fruit trees that would take years to establish themselves and produce fruit. Avocado, lemon, mango, pitaya, oranges, mulberries. They planted fruit trees and the house became a portal, and everything around it became changed, and the house stayed this immaculate thing, tethered between worlds, by their grandmother.

I know that place. My grandma bought our house on the hill before I was born and planted avocado trees, plums and peaches, blackberries, lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees, apple trees, a persimmon tree, and roses, and herbs, gardenias, plumerias, hibiscus, angel’s trumpet, giant amaryllis, palm trees, night-flowering cactus. They built a pond and three treehouses in the oaks, a deck on the roof. They hung windchimes, and installed fountains and in the summer, the bears would haul their bodies into them and sit in their shallows. Snakes and mountain lions. Coyotes. Raccoons lived in the attic, their eyes glowing through the cracks of where we put the sundeck. We called the backyard our jungle, and in my dreams I would hide there, where I knew the pathways and treecovers. And in my dreams it became rivers and endless, it became chasms and held night, and it was safe because I knew every corner, every tree, every soft place where leaves gathered.

All cenotes lead to Xibalba. But not all cenotes are sinkholes, cyan, haloed with vines. The orchard opened into a cenote, a portal, which the ancestors could pass through. When Dominguez’s house was destroyed to build an apartment complex, the portal closed, and the house, though its bricks were repurposed across the city, and its trees remained standing, was taken to Xibalba, to the other world, where it’s safe, where it is still itself. And they know the house has been saved in this way, but Dominguez “still dream[s] of more time with the lemon trees,” (18) and they hope “every tenant’s aguacates rot before they can use them.” (17)

And I know that place. Because every day, barefoot in the grass, grandma took the green hose down to the jungle and watered every single tree, just the right amount she knew they each needed, and carried the heavy body of the hose back up to the house, coiling it, in concentric circles, by the basement door. Every other year, our trees gave us avocados. One or two, each of them thick with years, each of them worked for, day after day, each of them earned. So I know that prayer for rot, for degradation. I wanted the fruit to miss us. To miss her. For a pall to fall over the house until it’s been returned.

Every time I leave a house, I never go there again. I take a different street into town. I erase its plotpoint from my map. It ceases to exist. I have never been back to our house, in this body, as I am. But I think if a ghost has ever haunted that house, it was or it would be me, when I go there in my dreams.

When grandma received chemo, she would leave her body. She used to do it a lot, when she had a series of surgeries in the eighties for a condition later deemed benign. There were a few times she almost didn’t come back, and her sister told her never to do it again, that it was too dangerous.

Once, after a procedure, she went home with the surgeon, which is just so like her. She was always dating her doctors. She rested on his couch while he went out for a while, saying a nurse was on her way to watch over her. This couch is so white, she thinks while falling asleep, lover of everything clean and spotless (she would clean dust from the air if she could.) As she drifts into sleep she leaves her body, floating above it, watching herself from somewhere above the ceiling. How weird, she thinks, staring down at herself. She watches as blood starts to ink through her clothes, pooling quickly all around her. The nurse is outside, parking the car. Oh my god, she thinks, I have to wake up. I’m going to get blood all over his couch.

Procedure after procedure, the doctors would say, We nearly lost her, We nearly lost her. She has a tendency to drift away. She was ordered by the family to stay in her body. But there was a certain unmooredness to her while she had cancer. It seemed wherever she was, IVed to the chair, or standing in the jungle, she was floating. She was at peace with her whole life, ready for whatever was next.

When I can’t fall asleep, I make the room around me. I make the blue paint on the wall, I make the maps, my painted guitar on the stand, the caged lights Grandma and I painted red. The sheer green curtains rolled up over the rod to let moonlight in, my door open in summer, shadows of watermelon beetles and sphinx moths on the screen, spattered paint on the hardwood floor, my tie-dyed sheets around me. I make the mockingbirds singing through the night. I make the foraging of skunks through the oak duff. It opens all around me, and I see it, and I’m back there.

Grandma goes to Crystal Cove and sits in the cabanas. She makes the palm trees, beach evening primrose, blue-eyed grass. She makes tidepools full of starfish, she makes sea glass strewn, she makes air lifting the ocean to froth at her feet. She doesn’t wander. She breathes. She’s the wind.


Dominguez says, “I tried to make a talisman of the tragedy,” (18) and I made my house a myth, how I lost it like a country. Dominguez says, “I keep trying to write the same book, which is not a book,” (20) and I keep coming back to the same opening line in an essay of my own: Take me back to my river. A flood of stars, my mother’s unmade bed. I keep coming back to the same dream of the creek, where I start to become it from where I stand, and wake up before I’m lost completely. And I keep asking myself that question – is it a book? Is it a poem? Is it a dream?

Here is what I know for sure: I haunt the house. The house haunts me. We haunt each other. We do this because I have not reached forgiveness yet, though I’ve said I have.

Here is what I know for sure: Grandma is okay. She lives now in Nevada with the whole family. They cook together, they bicker, they grow what the desert will let them grow. When it snows, she listens to the music we both love. She makes snow angels.

“I have
a dream

in which
my grandmother

a bird” (25)

too. She lost most of her energy with chemo. She did not have the strength to go down to the jungle and water each tree, spray leaves from the decks, wash the concrete. She and that hose. She couldn’t do it anymore.

The yard grew large, reaching for her. Long grass covered the feet of the trees. Crane flies spawned wild and ruled the garden. Trees dropped their fruit without a gatherer. Persimmons turned to stains on the concrete steps. Oranges rotted where they fell, hollowed by ants and groundbeetles. But for all the drought and heat of those seasons in California, nothing died. It all turned green and restless.

And of course, everything was a sign. Rainless wind took up the umbrellas, wrecked the pottery, loosed the windchimes, broke the limbs of trees. It entered the house, which was falling apart from the inside. The money gone, repairs were left undone indefinitely. There were open holes with loose wires. Crumbling window sills eaten by the termites. Rain sacs on the ceiling. Curling paint. Splinters where the floorboards lifted. Wind, like the cancer in my grandma’s body, couldn’t understand the destruction it caused. But clear morning brought birds, and grandma says they landed at her window and looked at her. They looked in at her and she knew, she knew it was all going to be okay. 

Dominguez says, “The orchard follows me everywhere I go,” (34) and this is true for all of us differently. Grandma brought everything she could uproot with her when we left. She brought all the furniture from our rooms, including mine. She brought her lamps and chandeliers, she brought the cello and the sword next to the fireplace, she brought the six-foot-tall Batman movie release posters, she brought the clown that guarded our doorway, she brought the giant bell she told everyone to ring when they wanted to come inside, though the doors were never locked. She brought everything but the trees.

Grandma brings the house with her when we go. But when we go, and we’re gone, and even when we’re long gone, the house still brings me back to it.

Dominguez says, “I don’t want to lose the square footage. I don’t want to lose the angles and colors and dimensions of that house… How do I (re)build the house in my heart?” (44) and when they told me we were leaving, I couldn’t accept it. Every day, I took inventory. I noted every chip of paint on its walls, every splinter, every corner turned. I drew maps of it over and over again.

One night, when I couldn’t sleep, not quite knowing what I was doing, I got up out of bed. I planted my feet down on the floor. I closed my eyes and not once opening them, walked the house. Through its hallways and into every room, I trailed my hand along the walls. I measured myself down to my footsteps, the space between my fingertips and the wood and the paint. The house, or the way I had come to navigate it went like this:

My room                                          Bathroom              Front door

                                   Hallway                                                                                    Kitchen

Mom’s room
                                                                                                                                     Dining room

Living room    

Laundry room

                                   Grandma’s Living Room                                        Grandma’s Room


                                                          Walk-in Closet                                         Back Door

Dominguez says, “(Our) family, we’re all storytellers.” (40) And it’s true. After Victoria settles in Los Angeles with her sons, from the other side of the world, my grandma’s grandmother and my grandma’s mother immigrate from Spain to Texas and eventually to the same street in East LA, two doors down from Victoria and Victorio.  From the beginning, Victoria despises my grandma’s mother. But she and Victorio marry anyway, and go on to have five children, eleven years apart. My grandma is the youngest.

Dominguez says, “Todo mi familia son místicos, sabes eso?” (70) And I do. Though my great-grandparents went on to be married for decades, Victoria never forgave her son for marrying a woman she did not approve of. Though she worked her days as a seamstress in Los Angeles, by evening Victoria worked as a bruja. She was specialized in voodoo work, making dolls and other objects, carrying out spiritual acts of revenge, and was paid for it. When the days of death finally approached her, my grandma, her mother, and her older sister set out to clean Victoria’s house and take inventory of her belongings. Among hundreds of dolls and other talismans, they found a photograph of grandma’s mom’s face, pincushioned by hundreds of sewing needles through her head. Outraged, they brought the object to Victoria on her deathbed, demanding to know what she had done. It was a long time ago, she assured them, it’s all old and done, undone, it’s undone.

Victoria died that week, and grandma’s mother spent that evening burning all her dolls in the backyard, praying continuously over the black plume of smoke leaving them. But she kept the photograph, all its pins taken out. Grandma says she found it on her mother’s dresser once, and held it up to watch the light needle through.

My grandma’s mother died of brain cancer twenty-one years later. Her name was Isabel Marie Riojas Ruiz. My grandma is alive and lives in Nevada. Her name is Isabel (Izzie) Marie Valdies. My grandma’s sister is alive and lives in Nevada. Her name is Isabel (Nina) Marie Blonder. All three of these women are self-identified clairvoyants and work with what they call good magic. Their mother told them they must learn dark magic to give power to the good, and so they know but do not practice what Victoria did.

There was one night a huge shadow covered the porchlight outside my room. The backlit screen blocked the view, but I thought it might be a bat, or a mockingbird. Opening the screen door, I found the fixture covered in two brown wings, eyed and scalloped with iridescent blue and violet. The black witch moth is the largest nocturnal moth on the continent. Folklore in Mexico says a visit from a black witch is a bad omen often foretelling death, especially if there is already illness in the house. I never told my mom or grandma. It stayed on the porch all night, until I turned off the light.


Dominguez says, “The most complicated emotion I’ve ever known has been joy. Tonight, I experienced something I can only describe as the sublime” (46) and I know that place. In high school, I would wake up inside these eclipsing panic attacks. With no outlet and no relaxation techniques that stuck, I felt lost and endlessly on fire inside them. One night, not being able to shake one, I threw off my covers and paced the house. I walked into the kitchen and slid down onto the floor, the million city lights casting a beam of night light on the floorboards. And I stopped trying to put my hands over it and smother the fire. I sat there and dropped my arms and counted and described every single different emotion and sensation I was feeling. And the more I did it the stronger the fire got, until I was lit up, alight, on fire and I was more alive than I ever was or ever thought was possible. Tears fell through my breathing and I just sat there, washed in the wonder of it.

In “Experience,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “All things swim and glitter.” Dominguez says, “Everything levitates and glows” (60). I only know that world.

Joy, in the way I have known it, is made up of concentric circles, like the green hose. It is wonder, fascination, bliss, and happiness, but it is also loss, grieving, panic, and suffering. They all fit inside each other. They can grow and shrink, like ripples in a pool. Joy is bottomless, and somewhere in there, I know there is forgiveness. I just haven’t found it yet.

Dominguez’s house was bulldozed to pieces, pieces that scattered across the city, and became other shelter, other means of living. Dominguez says, “a Cenote opens up to eat the house. [It is] with the ancestors now.” (80) But our house is still standing on that hill, at the top of the jungle. Grandma says I was saving it for you. It was supposed to be my gift, what I left behind for you.

A season before we left the house, twenty one mourning cloak caterpillars pupated around the house. I would find them walking the leaf litter around our silk floss tree, armored blue and scarlet with long spines, then crawling up the stucco walls of the house, then all hanging at once from the rain gutters like a crown of teardrops. I counted them again and again. I had never seen them before that last spring, couldn’t accept they were veiling our leaving.

Last year, the house went back up on the market for double what we sold it for, (re)modeled and (re)painted and reaped of our gardens. The palm tree beds were covered with white sand, and from the pictures I saw, no flowers survived. Just the trees, everything else planted over with crabgrass.

I can (re)build the house in my heart. I can (re)build the house in Nevada, where she is. But I still feel lost, I still feel like a ghost, I still go back there when I’m asleep, I still don’t know how to forgive that time of my life for all it took from me. Mom says life left the house that day. That what we loved about it doesn’t live there anymore, that grandma took it with her. It sounds right. So I don’t know why, but I can’t believe her.

There’s this song I listen to, go back to. It goes:

    Mi casa es un recuerdo primavera
                                                        De pálidas plegarías sin Dios
                                               Mi casa es la que queda del verano
                                               De aquel insoportable inundación
                                                   Mi casa es un jardín enamorada
                                               Que crece insoportable bajo el sol
                                           Mi casa son tres risas que se abrazan
                                          Que dicen los que saben que es amor
                                            Y entiendo que la vida me reproche
                                             Mi insólita vejez del corazón
                                             Mi casa es una estrella que se apaga
                                             Que triste se despide de mi voz

“Casa” by Silvana Estrada
My house is a spring memory
of pale, godless prayers
My house is what is left of the summer
of that devastating flood
My house is a garden in love
Growing unbearable under the sun
My house is three embracing laughs
That say what they know of love
And I understand that life is reproaching me
My strange old heart
My house is a star going out
How sad, it’s even leaving from my voice

Where do we place our placeless grieving, our grieving of placelessness? Salvage through destruction, I get. I dream of it. And it’s selfish. To know the house will never belong to anyone else, that no one else will know its beauty, its secrets, its joy, that that would save me. I know how it sounds. We cling to bitterness and destruction because it’s easier that way. We remain blameless, with endless opportunities to turn away from it, to say you’ve been hurt, that you just need more time. We can allow ourselves to never face this dark, quarried thing. But I’m afraid that at the bottom, when the light falls a certain way, I can see that glint of forgiveness.

I don’t know how to end this essay, following RoseSunWater. I thought it might help guide me to an answer, to the last words I’ve been looking for. But everything just keeps going.

I had a dream last night that I was sitting on the hill with my sister, in a golden dry meadow, the house long gone. We sat there in the wind, the LA skyline and mountains surrounding us, where our bedroom would have been. We were young. Like we were. And there were no trees, not anywhere. We just sat there, in the wind, no one talking, the grass braided in and out of our fingers. We just sat there, in the wind, not a tree, not a sound, not a house, not what we were looking for, not what we remembered. Just us. Just the grass. Just the wind.

Works Cited

Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Essays, Second Series.” The Project Gutenberg EBook of Essays, Second Series, December 1, 2008. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2945/2945-                h/2945-h.htm.

Angel Dominguez. RoseSunWater. New York: Nightboat Books, 2022.

Silvana Estrada. “Casa.” Marchita. Glassnote Records. 2022.

Jennifer Valdies is a writer and artist from Los Angeles currently studying poetry at the UMass Amherst MFA for Poets & Writers. Her work can be found in the tiny, About Place Journal, and elsewhere.