Tita is with Dr. Brown in his laboratory, watching as he makes matches from wood strips and phosphorous. Instead of obeying Mama Elena, John Brown brought Tita to live with him and his small child, Alex. John had been married before, but his wife died. Tita feels grateful to John for rescuing and caring for her, but she has chosen to remain silent so that she can think about everything that has happened. When she first arrived, she spent hours staring at her hands, stunned to realize that they belonged to her and not Mama Elena. After a life of endless work, Tita doesn’t know what to do with them now. Each day, she would crochet the bedspread with the yarns John bought her. One day, she wandered into a room outside, where an old Indian woman was making tea. She went each day to sit with the old woman, who reminded her of Nacha.
After a long life of repressing her feelings and working hard to survive, Tita is no longer in survival mode. She uses the calm, safe place provided by Dr. Brown to process all of the traumas she has experienced and to regain her strength and sense of self. Her choice to remain silent for a while allows her to look inward. Tita’s hands represent her sense of agency, which Mama Elena took from her by trying to control her every word and action. Tita’s newfound sense of agency thus brings endless possibilities, which baffle Tita because she has no point of reference for what freedom looks or feels like.
Slowly as Tita regains her lucidity, the room where Tita watched the old woman cook transforms into the laboratory where she watches John perform his experiments. Tita doesn’t question this transformation in her perception of reality. John tells Tita that his interest in science came from his grandmother, Morning Light, a Kikapu Indian who loved to study the medicinal properties of plants. During battle, his grandfather had kidnapped Morning Light and made her his wife. His North-American family despised Morning Light and took no interest in her culture. This changed when John’s great-grandfather got sick with lung disease. After his great-grandmother Mary worsened his condition by applying leeches, Morning Light saved him with her healing powers and herbal remedies. She earned the respect of the family, who treated her thereafter as their “family doctor.”
This passage highlights the history of conflict in Mexico that predates the Revolution. John’s history serves as a reminder that colonial powers (which became the federal government) took the land from the indigenous people, who now comprise the majority of the rebel movement. The cultural war in this passage is represented as colonizer/male against indigenous/female. Morning Light’s remedies represent the wisdom of the feminine powers, which include a deeper connection to magic and body. Typical to magical realism, Tita doesn’t question the appearance or disappearance of the old women, but accepts it.
While teaching Tita to make matches using phosphorous, John explains the philosophy of Morning Light. Everyone has a box of matches inside their soul. A loved one’s breath is the “oxygen.” Music, food, or any sensory experience that kindles emotion is the candle. When a loved one’s nearness is combined with one of these experiences, an inner match is lit. Left unlit, the matches will dampen, and the soul will leave. If lit all at once, the explosion creates a bright tunnel that carries the soul away. People with cold breath can kill the flame. Tita cries, and John wipes her tears. Tita then realizes that the old woman from before is Morning Light’s ghost. John asks Tita to write the cause for her silence on the wall with her fingers, claiming he will later divine her words. In reality, phosphorous (which John has just been working with to make matches) leaves behind a powder that glows in the dark. That night, John smiles when he sneaks into the lab to read her words: “Because I don’t want to.” Tita wonders if her matches will ever be lit again.
Tita’s words serve as her first act of agency after leaving Mama Elena. John’s joy at seeing her defiant words show that he is motivated to help her establish autonomy. By helping Tita instead of taking advantage of her vulnerability, John breaks the pattern of male violence established by his predecessors in both the novel and in history. The metaphor of the candle, which becomes literal later in the book, explains Tita’s dwindling spirit after losing almost all hope of love. Tita now has a philosophy that helps her to understand her experiences. Tita’s ability to see Morning Light highlights the magical world that connects women, particularly in times of suffering.