In Nayla Chehade’s short story “The Vigil”, a poetic tone of voice is introduced to tell the story of a young girl who died while living in a boarding school in a southern climate. Told in the first-person plural, the narrator is a subjective observer of what has happened in the life of Serena del Carmen Aguiar, the girl who died. The narrator is not identified by name and she remains capable only of seeing what she saw as a girl. There is no omniscience as she is only able to imagine what is happening to Serena whenever she is not actually within sight. The narrator is a former roommate of Serena from the days when she lived at a boarding school, telling the story as a reminiscence of her past. This means she tells it as a monologue, a single voice speaking throughout the whole story. There is no dialogue occurring in the story, which serves to keep the reader outside of the action as much as the narrator herself was kept out of the action.
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Serena herself remains as silenced in death as she was in life, her secrets kept only to herself. Even the narrator sometimes seems silenced as she remains frightened of telling too much about her subject. However, this does not mean that the story is absent of all emotion. Through symbolism, oppositions, characterization, time movement, and setting, Chehade presents a strongly moving tale.
The title itself takes on a strong symbolic nature in the story as the reader becomes a part of the vigil over this poor girl’s story who remains mourned by only a single grandmother and, perhaps, a boyfriend who had planned to marry her someday. The term ‘vigil’ means “a watch formerly kept on the night before a religious feast with prayer or other devotions; the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary; an act or period of watching or surveillance” (Merriam-Webster, 2007). This not only describes the actions undertaken by the narrator and her other roommates as Serena snuck out of the dorm to meet with her boyfriend, but also the actions were taken by the reader as they begin to anxiously wonder what happened to this young girl so full of life. This concept is emphasized as several of the paragraphs take on a more poetic cadence to them, such as “Light-skinned mulatto, nearly white, Serena Aguiar, tinkling laughter and just turned sixteen” and “Mulatto, mulatto, nearly black, Delfin Flores, mulatto from the capital, back patio and coal-burning stove” (Chehade). The term mulatto generally refers to a person who is of mixed black and white ancestry and is often associated in the literature with people of strong desires while the repetition of the word begins to take on the feeling of prayer.
The comparison of the black mulatto of Delfin Flores and the white mulatto of Serena Aguiar introduces the concept of binary oppositions that are used throughout the story as a means of increasing the tension. Binary opposition is placing two things such light and dark indirect relationships to each other, typically allowing one dominance or preference over the other. Delfin is further opposed to Serena as he becomes associated with the ocean (his name means Dolphin in Spanish) and the “ocean’s dampness that is always with him” (Chehade) while Serena becomes associated with the air between her name that suggests ‘serenade’ and her blue and white sky-like uniform. Despite this, Delfin remains relatively free to move about as he pleases while Serena must go through the motions of the school. Serena’s life and vitality, her impetuous nature, is also contrasted sharply with the two other older girls in the dorm, the narrator and Isaura. “Even during those numerous days of confession, when Isaura and I burned without clemency in the fires of guilt as we approached Father Efrain’s voracious ear trembling, Serena ignored the inquisitional stares of Sister Euphrasia and remained seated on the edge of the bench, her hands quiet in her lap and her gaze transparent” (Chehade). Everything Serena does is in keeping with a good child of a convent, but at the same time, she is revealed to be undercover, presenting one side of her to the Sisters at the school and another in her evening activities, only allowing the two to overlap occasionally when speaking with her roommates who necessarily must know something of her activities.
In addition to Serena, the narrator, and Isaura, the three girls who know of Serena’s nighttime escapes, there are several other characters in the story, fleshed out to a greater or lesser extent. For example, while an image is given of the narrator as a relatively shy and fearful child, Isaura remains identified in much the same way.
The narrator and Isaura are always presented as ‘we’, whether they are nervous about the silent places of the plants or looking at each other, presumably thinking of the same things, as Serena sneaks out of their room at night. Sister Euphrasia emerges as another major character as the disciplinarian of the school whose “shouts of warning in religion class remained crushed at the base of a precipice for several minutes” (Chehade). It is Sister Euphrasia that informs the girls of what happened to Serena, although it is couched in terms of a hereditary family illness rather than what, in hindsight, the narrator finally realizes it was – an attempted abortion. However, it is only Father Efrain that keeps the keys to the garden gate on his person. The women, regardless of age or profession, are left safely locked up each night.
The time progression of the story also introduces a dreamlike quality to the story, further placing it within the realms of poetic expression. A memory of the past, the narrator doesn’t concern herself with presenting the story in chronological order as much as she attempts to express her feelings about this wild and tragic life of a friend.
She begins the storytelling her audience about the tragic early death of a friend she had in boarding school and then begins to tell of the things she remembers about her. “We waited for Serena’s hands, which knew how to skillfully arrange the black waves of her hair, how to uncover new brilliance in the oily green paint on the walls, those hands that replaced the wilted flowers in the chapel with fresh ones, or were pricked by the needle in its forced journey of mending and hemming. I think now that she wasn’t beautiful, at least not as beautiful as we believed her to be then when each one of her gestures represented for us a powerful longing for the unattainable” (Chehade). In her every description, the narrator paints Serena as full of life and vitality but has already indicated that she died young. As she tells about the ways that Serena continued to sneak out of the room to meet with Delphin, one is not completely certain whether she is talking about the present, since she uses the present tense, or the past, further giving Serena new life. The period of Serena’s death seems to skip about in time to a much greater extent, much like the confusion the young narrator must have felt upon finding her friend dead on the bathroom floor.
Finally, the setting of the story contributes to the overall meaning as it suggests a heady ripeness, a readiness for desire and romance in its warm, tropical setting. Serena’s body is often compared to fruit, such as “her breasts like green limes” (Chehade) or flowers as in her “nipples that blossom in his mouth, Serena’s bouquet which comes united in his lips” (Chehade). The air is torpid, suggesting a sluggish, heat-sated lack of energy while the environment remains lush with growing things and high humidity. The girls are boarded in a convent or church of some sort, as they are frequently in contact with Sisters and Priests, but they are not necessarily in a convent as it remains up to them whether they choose to take part in confessional. However, only women live in the building, as Father Efrain locked the garden gate on his way out each night, even though there are plenty of places left unoccupied, the empty places that terrify the other girls but that provide Serena with space for freedom.
All of these elements contribute to a sense of the overriding male domination and militarism taking place within the story. For example, the girls are all locked up within the school with the men coming and going at their pleasure. While Serena’s father is unable to attend her funeral because “he was heading the mission in charge of capturing the rebels”, the suggestion of a dictatorship in trouble is overridden by the idea that Serena, as a girl, is only of minor importance to either of her parents. Delfin, though seemingly able to come to the school any night he chooses, is subject to the ‘jefe’, a Spanish term referring to the boss or the chief, and is seen in a photograph standing sad and still with a rifle in his hands after Serena’s death. Finally, the fact that Serena suffers what is seen as divine retribution for not heeding the words of the male figures in her life reinforces the concept of a militaristic, patriarchal society in which women are given little if any voice at all.
Chehade, Nayla. (year of publication). “The Vigil.” Name of book or collection. Name of Editor (Ed.). Place of publication: Publisher’s name.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. (2007). “Vigil.” 2007.