Ana had been my cleaning lady for a decade. Her boysenberry tips often appeared in the sunlight as a magenta halo floating on her spiked and well-gelled hair. She wore her signature wrestling shoes, tied up to her knees, with black leggings neatly tucked in. I had never seen her wear anything else. A woman in her late 60’s, Ana loved people to comment on her youthful style. She regularly gifted us her yard sale finds, a soap holder, a rug she thought matched the duvet. She left magazines on the coffee table, bookmarked at the interesting stories. But this morning, when she tapped on the sliding glass door, her youthfulness had given way to doubt. She was unsteady, quivering with exhaustion.
She sunk into the sofa, and into my coffee. She whimpered as she apologized. With her head hung, she mumbled to me about some bird. She said that when she lived in Florida she cleaned house for an old lady who had four cute little love birds. She cupped her hands to demonstrate just how little. The birds would sit on the old lady’s shoulder. She’d baby-talk them, kiss them, and squeal at them. Every week the old lady went to her sister’s house while Ana cleaned. For the entire day, it was just Ana and the birds. Sometimes Ana let the birds out of the cage even though it was forbidden. She loved them dancing around her while she cleaned. When they perched on her, she really felt like Cinderella.
Then Ana stared me, and slowly and almost belligerently, stated, “I never opened the windows.” She knew that was dangerous for the birds, but the hose, she hadn’t thought of the hose. She had it on the vacuum, sucking the cobwebs off the ceiling. In a moment, without her even seeing, one of the birds was sucked into the vacuum cleaner. Into the dust bag, there it was. Dead.
Instead of panicking, she said she immediately knew what to do. Ana drove to the pet store for another bird. The following week, the old lady mentioned that her bird must have been sick. He didn’t snuggle her or respond to her calls. He didn’t even seem to know her. Ana never came clean.
I had been to Ana’s house a couple days before. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I had to tell her. She poked her head out the door before I stopped the car, her spikes glowing in the cold winter’s light. She quietly ushered me in because her husband was asleep, and she wanted to keep it that way. I knew she wondered why I was there. When we settled on the sofa, I sipped the steam from my teacup for courage, and worked the words free from my throat.
“Ana, on Thursday our house burned down. It was just after you left.” Tears joined the words, floating in the winter light, and, like snowflakes, in silence they settled to the ground.
I stayed focused on my tea, sipping carefully through the heat and finding comfort in the hot water. I looked up. She was waiting for me to continue.
“We smelled the fire after you left. The tree was a ball of flame by the time we saw it. And the wind was practically throwing flames onto the roof. By the time the fire department arrived, it had spread so much that the house was destroyed.”
Still she asked nothing, so I continued.
“Hot ashes from the wood stove started the fire Ana. An ember from ashes caught the tree on fire.”
I thought she would get it this time. She cleaned out the wood stove and placed the ashes by the tree. She started the fire. I kept my eyes on her, waiting for something to happen. I needed something to happen.
“Oh my. I am so sorry. Where are you staying?”
“We are staying at our neighbor’s house. Ana, we had to give the insurance company your name and information. I didn’t want to, but they pressured us. They wanted to know who was in the house and who cleaned the wood stove. I had to give them your name. I wanted to tell you. I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“Honey, I am fine talking to the insurance company. I will help however I can, but you, you had that beautiful home, and that beautiful artwork. I just loved going over there. I guess you won’t need me to clean anymore.”
At sunrise a couple of days after my visit, I was finding courage in my morning coffee. That’s when I saw Ana standing outside the sliding glass door. Mascara ringed her eyes, which magnified them, red and swollen. She lunged at me with a lingering and clingy hug. Her quivering started to make me nervous, and I made her sit down. She calmed herself with a slow sip of my coffee.
“I’ve been up all night. I woke up and realized it was me. I did it. I cleaned the ashes from the wood stove. I burned your house down. You had to come to my house to tell me, and I didn’t even get it.”
“Ana, I wanted you to know from me before the insurance company called you. I guess I just wanted you to know that we know it was an accident. I am sorry that we all have to go through it.”
“I thought you were firing me. But really, I ruined your life. Your stuff. I burned it. Your artwork. It’s gone because of me. How can you be so nice? It’s awful.”
“Ana, bad things happen. You didn’t do it on purpose. It is terrible, but it was an accident.” And that’s when she finally came clean.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I truly want you to know. Only this one time. There was this damn bird.”