You are worried about the bird thing but that’s the last thing you want to think about right now, smoking the first of your secret birthday cigarettes. You’re outside the house by the giant concrete sink, laundry covering the surface – today it’s the daughter’s underwear, the wife’s scratchy lace bras, the husband’s tennis shirts with holes in the underarm. Delicate things, white things, things that deserve to be washed carefully by hand as opposed to thrown into the American-imported washing machine, which will ruthlessly transform anything into a wilted grey smock if you’re not careful about sorting through every single item and removing anything with the slightest hint of darkness. The sun’s only just coming up; everyone in the house is still asleep, though the husband’s alarm will be going off soon in order to escape the inevitable Monday morning traffic jams. He never needs breakfast prepared though; he’ll have a ham and cheese sandwich in the office, but as soon as you finish this cigarette you’ll have to head to the kitchen to begin preparing the coffee. Not just yet though. For now, you still have time.
As you smoke you hold the cigarette the way a man would, between your thumb and index finger, like the men sitting on stools you used to see during your childhood. You inhale deeply, enjoy the brief sight of the flame glowing at the tip before tucking the stub under a triangle-shaped rock, where the stiff orange corpses of previous cigarettes are neatly lined up: buried away, hidden. You wash your hands with the thin sliver of blue soap that always leaves your skin terribly dry, the areas between your fingers red and cracking, but there’s nothing quite like it for getting rid of the nicotine stink from your fingertips – just as a precaution. Just to be safe. This way, you can be sure that nobody will notice.
Now the last thing you need to do before heading inside is check on the bird thing, which should take less than two minutes, assuming there aren’t any problems (which there very rarely are). Five quick strides towards the lime tree is all it takes. The banana you nailed to the trunk is still there, black and slimy and already attracting shiny green flies. The peel has been tugged down near the top and a large chunk of the banana is missing. You crane your neck back but all you can see are the rowboat-shaped leaves, limes swaying like tiny green suns. You exhale slowly and take the single slice of orange out of your apron pocket (the rest of the orange sits in the bowl of fruit salad in the fridge, waiting patiently for the wife’s yoghurt and granola). You leave it resting on top of the banana, so it now looks like the banana is wearing a tiny festive hat.
That should be enough for now – enough to keep it happy.
Men sitting on stools. Hairy men, dark men, men in sleeveless white shirts and legs sprawled lazily open. Men who never stand during the hottest part of the day, never walking around or standing behind store counters or leaning over pool tables, watching you run past in your bare feet towards the river. Nobody ever wore shoes and you didn’t either; the roads in town were only ever made of sand or mud; you never got blisters and never got sick and never stayed out past eight o’clock because that’s when they would ride by on their motorcycles and your mother would tell you in a sharp voice to come inside, stop wandering around the yard like a lost chicken. Your father is going to buy you a pair of red running shoes for Christmas, assuming that the crop of yucca is good.
You’re placing the glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on top of the daughter’s placemat when you hear a clattering sound in the kitchen. Make sure you swallow all the pulp, love, you say, hurrying back as fast as you can, not waiting to make sure she takes her multivitamin.
The bird thing has just left. You can tell before you even open the door. The pot has boiled over, the stovetop covered with a strange white crust, the egg cracked open and cooked away into a frothy grey mist. You deal with that first, pouring the water into the sink and toss what remains of the eggshell into the trash. The stovetop is quickly cleaned with a damp rag. A new pot is put on to boil; a fresh egg is placed on the counter. You take the bread out of the fridge along with the parsley leaves you’ve let go wilted and sad (you’ll have to hide them in a soup instead of using them for the salad like the wife requested for this week’s menu). The daughter’s lunchbox has long since been removed, now sits in the hallway besides her backpack and thermos – you’ll put in the tiny cup of Alpinito yoghurt at the very last second, right before the bus arrives, to make sure it stays chilled long enough for her midmorning snack.
After closing the fridge, you lean against the door for a moment and take a deep breath. The handles press into your stomach in a way that makes you feel slightly sick, but there’s no sign of a headache yet, your head is still clear, vision unblurry. And there’s no bird thing smell in the air either. No traces of sulphur. Just faint whiffs of orange peel and scraps in the garbage from the wife’s fruit salad, bananas and apples and grapes.
When you finally bring out the toast and egg (soft-boiled but not watery), the daughter is slumped forward, her cheek resting on top of her placemat. The glass of orange juice is empty but the vitamin tablet is still there. I’m starving, she says as you place the plate beside her forehead. I’ve been sitting here forever.
You wipe your hands off on your apron, a few bread crumbs falling to the floor that you instantly know will be difficult to sweep up later; you’ll have to use the tiny hand-held broom instead of the big one.
Well, you say, why didn’t you come to the kitchen and get it yourself?
She stares at you like you’ve said something incomprehensible – like you’re suddenly speaking a foreign language. And now it’s the nuns in primary school all over again, shortly after you muttered under your breath an expression you learned from your grandfather, and the nun who always smelled like dead flowers took the lobe of your ear between two icy cold fingers, twisted it sharply and said, Only Spanish here.
(Somewhere deep within the garden – you can hear it – the bird thing is raising its scabby head and croaking out its bird-thing song.)
You pick up the daughter’s glass and study the streaky trail left behind by the pulp, a single seed on the bottom.
Good job, you say. I’ll strain it better next time.
The school bus honks and the daughter’s eyes widen.
Eat what you can, you say, rushing to the kitchen. When you return with the front door keys the daughter is gone, the toast missing a single bite, orange yolk hardening on the fork. You find her in the bedroom, tearing through the bookshelves, throwing stray papers and plastic ponies over her shoulder. My library book, I can’t find it, it’s due back today! You bring her the backpack so that she can check what you placed inside. No, not those. Now I’m going to have to pay a fine. Sighing heavily, she follows you to the door.
You spot it before she does: a pile of stiff brown twigs, scattered over the tiles. Dusty twigs, dirty twigs, the kind of twigs dragged inside by an animal, something planning to build its nest – or already starting to. Darting forward, you throw yourself towards the door, dragging the daughter forward. Have a good day, you say, turning the key at the same time that you shove the twigs roughly out the way with the side of your foot. She looks at you suspiciously, rubbing her arm, but then the school bus honks again. Thank you for breakfast, she says, rising on to her tiptoes and turning her cheek towards you for the usual kiss.
It is only when she is clambering up the black rubber steps, the bus doors on the verge of wheezing shut, that you realise you have forgotten the yoghurt.
That nun always smelled like dead flowers; the other one had terrible breath and never let you wear your tiger tooth bracelet. It didn’t matter on Saturdays, because that’s when you got to run down to the riverside, slide down the bank towards the water where you could go swimming or throw stones or try to catch tiny silver fish with your bare hands, feed them leftovers from lunch. Except when the bodies were there, floating in the water. The rumour was that men always floated face-up, women facedown. Sometimes there were vultures sitting on them and sometimes not. But then you just would go to the little stream instead and that was better. There the fish would eat rice straight from your hand, grains floating through the water like confetti thrown at a wedding.
The wife turns back and forth in front of the hallway mirror, yanking the black cardigan down over her belly (four months now and just starting to show), before slowly beginning to unbutton it. Leaning against the wall, the other sweaters draped over your arm, you ask about tonight’s dinner, if she wants you to include lentils or eggplant in the vegetarian lasagna. The wife smiles and touches your forearm with her hand, a kind touch, a light touch, her hand always so soft and white you can’t help but be reminded of the puffy bread rolls the husband sometimes brings home from the French bakery. Cook it like last time, she says. It was delicious. Her words produce a swelling inside your chest, a kind of rising heat, and you can’t help but smile and nod vigorously as she tells you she won’t be home for lunch today, she’ll be visiting cousins all morning – Roberto will be driving her, you remember him, the one with the overbite, just so you know he was asking about you the other day. You roll your eyes and run a finger across your throat, and she giggles like the daughter does when you find her during hide-and-seek. And then she has meetings with students all afternoon, but if you could have the table set for dinner by six, that would be lovely.
As she hands over the unbuttoned cardigan she pauses in a way that makes you instantly want another cigarette, a taste so bad you press into your palms, as if to prevent your hand from automatically reaching towards your mouth, holding the tiny orange body between your fingers.
Do you need, the wife says, some more headache medication?
No, you say, folding the cardigan so that it won’t get wrinkled. That won’t be necessary. Thank you, though.
It wouldn’t be a bother. I can ask Roberto to stop by the pharmacy.
That would be a waste of time. But thank you.
She falls silent, smoothing the bottom edge of her shirt, and you immediately find yourself tensing up: did you forget to do the ironing last week? Was that even possible? Could you honestly have done it – taken the clothes off the laundry line, folded them up in the wicker basket, then retreated to the bedroom to rehang them in the closets, put away in the drawers, all without remembering to head to the ironing board first? Did that really happen? If you could have done that, what on earth are you capable of doing next?
…next weekend, she’s saying, and you have to blink and point at your ear, smiling apologetically, saying, I didn’t catch that, sorry.
Your time off, she repeats. Would you like to do it sooner?
You look past her shoulders towards the door. The driveway outside can only be seen through the crisscrossing bars, tiny diamond-shaped slices of the hedge and sky.
Yes, you say. Next weekend would be fine.
She smiles but her eyes still look slightly wide, as if startled. But then it’s okay, she’s reaching towards her purse, she’s handing you money in case the water man comes early, she’s reminding you to make sure the daughter doesn’t have any treats until she finishes her homework, and is there maybe any chance you’ve seen her blue-green scarf? It’s in here, you say, turning towards the hallway closet.
Now it’s time to make the beds. The sheets and pillowcases are stripped on Saturdays; for now it’s enough to tuck the blankets into the corners, pulling them into a taut embrace with the mattress. The fan is dusted with a single wet rag, the pillows and stuffed animals are punched as hard as possible in order to fluff them up. Toy ponies are put in the blue plastic container, dinosaurs are lined up on the bedside table, books are returned to the shelves where they lean wearily against each other, too exhausted to properly hold each other up. Everything has a place; everything can be ordered. You put the missing library book on top of the daughter’s pillow, where she is sure to see.
Lunch is simple: dried beef left over from dinner, chewy white rice, arepa, a fried egg. You eat at the white plastic table at the back of the house, among the orange barrels where the bags of lentils and pinto beans are stored, the peeling green cabinets of mosquito repellant and garden fertiliser. You listen to your favourite soap opera on the radio and use your fingers to push a little bit of everything onto your fork at once. You like it when the plate has plenty of options, lots of different bites you can choose from. The afternoon is for watering the plants in the garden with the long green hose, for taking a cup of coffee out to the bodyguard. You bring a cigarette with you and you share it together, passing it back and forth, and when he brazenly asks what you’re doing this weekend, if you have any plans, you tilt your head to the side so that your hair falls in across your face in a certain way and say, Going to church, of course, smiling broadly as you flick away the ash. Then it’s time for Clorox bleach in the bathtub, for swiping cobwebs away from the crucifixes. The toilet bowls need a hearty scrubbing to get rid of the shit smears, a generous squirt of bleach. The cockroaches in the shower are killed with a broom, the horseflies on the windowsill with a quick slap.
The afternoon is not, however, for finding half-eaten earthworms or cracked black beetle shells scattered across the floor in the husband’s study. It is not for finding long white scratches on the table left behind by dry talons or crooked claws. It is not for finding a single white feather resting on the middle of the carpet, as light and flimsy as dandelion seeds. The afternoon is for none of these things.
Everybody knew about the river but nobody wanted to know. The time your mother took you to the cemetery, hundreds of tombs stacked on top of each other like empty cupboards waiting to be filled. She took you to the section of the anonymous and unnamed, left orange segments and half-peeled bananas resting on the tomb entrances, made the sign of the cross on your forehead and told you to always make time in your prayers for the people suffering and in need. Not everybody has what we have. We’re very fortunate. The time she slapped you on the mouth when you asked her about the group of young men on motorcycles, huddled together in the plaza: why did they have such short haircuts, why did they have red bandanas covering half their faces, who were they and what did they want? She slapped you in a way so that her nail cut open your lip. The time your father took you down to the river when there was no one in it and you helped him catch turtles. You put a stick in the turtle’s mouth so that it wouldn’t bite your fingers and your father cut the feet off first, pulling off all the meat while it was still alive, saving the head for last. Without its shell the turtle reminded you of a newborn baby bird, wrinkled and sad. Turtle was always best in your mother’s stew when it was all mixed up with everything else, an indistinguishable mash, impossible to tell which body part was which.
The daughter comes home with a school friend who greets you by name and wraps her arms around your neck in a solemn hug as you greet her. She hasn’t had friends over that often since the wife’s pregnancy (just a phase, the wife said that one time you mentioned it to her. She’ll get over it. Remember her long sulk about Easter?). It feels like a good decision to bring them both treats, despite the wife’s instructions. You take Coca Cola bottles out of the crate in the garage and pull Tocineta chips out of the plastic bag in the lentil barrel, where all the rest of the junk food is hidden. After a moment’s consideration you take out a few packets of Festival cookies too – vanilla sandwich ones, her favourite. You use the Winnie-the Pooh plate for the cookies, the one you bought her as a present for her fifth birthday three years ago.
You carry the tray out to the swimming pool, where the daughter is splashing and playing Little Mermaid – look, see how deep I can dive, I’m being chased by a shark, come save me! The friend is doing – you are not sure what. Some sort of float, her knees pulled into her chest, the bones in her pale spine sticking out. She bobs in the water face-down. Hair drifting, not moving.
Very nice, you say. What wonderful swimming. The scent of rotten eggs – thick, sulphurous – is flooding your nostrils, a wave so powerful you can’t keep yourself from gagging, covering your mouth with your hands. The daughter screams. You turn towards her quickly, your mouth already starting to form the words, but before you can get them out something hard smacks against your foot. You look down; there are ice cubes scattered across the gritty patio tiles, pieces of dirt stuck all over them. The Winnie-the-Pooh plate is cracked neatly across the bear’s face; the cookies are rolling away like wheels.
Her friend pulls her face out of the water with a deep gasp, water streaming down her face, blinking furiously. She and the daughter float there, staring at you, but you’re still watching the cookies: they roll until they hit the flowerpots, tumbling over.
They said that without a body, the dead person stays alive. Hovering around the living like horseflies around cattle, flitting at people’s hair like birds. They live on your thoughts, spitting out your memories, vomiting up your dreams until you become so lost and confused you don’t even know what’s real anymore, where you are in time and what’s happening. You lose your name and who you are, where you’re from and where you’ve been. They said the bodies in the river were put there so they wouldn’t be recognised and that some had been cut open so that they wouldn’t float. They said that they were workers from the mines. They said it was the boy who sold lottery tickets and the woman who sold empanadas. A young man was found dead in middle of town with pieces of his fingers and tongue cut off, like your father used to do with the turtles. They put his body in the truck, throwing it in towards the very back.
The daughter and her friend want to help you put the cookies into the trash bag but you tell them to stand back, watch out for the glass shards. You set fractured pieces of Winnie the Pooh aside – you’ll piece it back together later, pay for repair glue with your own money the next time you go grocery shopping. You bring out fresh packets of cookies and chips and the daughter and her friend eat them while sitting at the pool’s edge, swirling their feet around in the water.
Wait at least 15 minutes before you swim again, you say as you head to the door, the garbage bag slung over your shoulder. Or else you’ll get cramps.
The daughter smiles at you with a mouthful of mushed-up cookies.
You follow the rotten egg scent through the house. You scan the living room, the dining area. The chairs are still upright, no candles have been knocked over. There’s no trail of dirt on the rug or stray bits of leaves on the bookshelves.
You leave the garbage bag in the kitchen for now, take a cigarette out to the lime tree. Inhaling and exhaling, hand trembling as your raise it towards your mouth. The daughter could see you at any second, wandering over in her towel (could we have some more chips, please? Come play Penguin with us!). The husband could arrive home early with the tennis rackets in the back of the car, stare at you in brow-furrowed confusion. But you keep smoking anyway, keep your eyes focused on the small light hovering before your face as though the rest of world around you is pitch black and that’s the only thing you can see. You lean against the lime tree, the bark scratchy against your dress fabric. The piece of orange is gone; the banana still untouched. You crane your head back, staring up at the branches, but as usual there’s nothing to be seen.
It’s when you shove the cigarette stub under the rock that it hits you. Staring at the neat row of cigarettes – you now know exactly where to look.
Through the kitchen. Past your bedroom door. To the very back of the pantry. There are stacks of red brick from the men who redid the roof, the lamp that no longer works, the gardener’s tools (lawnmower, rake, hoe). By the back wall is the big trash barrel.
You walk right up to it. You pull the lid off and push back the top layer of molding newspapers, wrinkled plastic bags and dried-up orange peels. Spiders drop to the cement floor and scamper over your toes and up your legs; you kill them with a few brusque slaps.
The bird thing is hiding at the very bottom. It’s trembling. It smells absolutely terrible. It’s surrounded by leftovers from its meals. Pieces it didn’t have any use for. Bits it discarded.
You lean over the barrel edge. And just for a second, you can see everything.
You use the gardener’s rake to push it down. It makes a crackly sound like the dried cicada shells clinging to tree trunks, the ones the daughter likes to crush in her bare hands, toss into the air like confetti. Like the snake skin you used to find discarded by the trees at the riverbank, crumbling under your bare feet. Brittle remains, discarded remains, vomited up and spat out and now bundled at the bottom of the trash. You push down its undigested leftovers. Grains of mushy rice get stuck to the rake and your mother’s turtle stew stains the side of the barrel where it will gradually harden. You poke down the white dress with orange blossoms you rented for your first communion, the copper smell of blood so similar to money. The words you used to know – sapos, snitches, vacuna, extortion tax. The motorcycles without registration plates, the red bandanas.
And then there’s the nurse who took care of you in the hospital. She offered to buy your baby for a couple in France who wanted one. A baby like yours, with blond hair like that? Who wouldn’t want it? You had to say no at the last minute when your mother said that she wouldn’t let you – couldn’t let you. Leave the baby with her instead. She’ll take care of him while you moved to Cali and got a job, washing clothes and selling arepas in the street, maybe even working for a family if you were lucky. You could save up money that way, send it home to her, give him a good life. It’s a wonder, your mother said, you couldn’t get the father to help – with a baby so blond like this one, the father would have to be someone important, someone high-up, a foreigner even. God knows how or where you were even meeting somebody like that.
You just pressed your lips together and turned away, not answering.
There are some things that not even the bird thing gets to have. Some things don’t ever deserve to be told.
You make the lasagna with eggplant after all. You bring the husband and wife’s plates out first, then the daughter’s, setting them down as the phone rings. You hurry to answer it as fast as you can, sandals slapping against tiles. Hello, you hiss through the tiny holes in the receiver. Yes, fine. Very busy. Did you get the money?
Happy birthday, your mother is saying. He’s doing well – he got to raise the flag up the pole at school last Tuesday. He misses you, of course. Wants to know when your next visit is. It’s been so long. Only holiday weekends; that’s barely enough, and you end up spending all your time in church anyway. Never a phone call, not even a photograph in the mail.
You twist the phone cord around your finger until the skin turns dark red, almost purple.
He should come join you in Cali when he’s old enough. Live with his uncle, his cousins. It’ll be so much easier for you to see him that way –
No, you say, cutting her off with an abruptness that startles even you. That’s not a good idea.
Your mother is silent. Back in the dining room, the tiny silver bell is ringing.
I can’t talk anymore, you say. I’m with the family.
You rush back as fast as you can. When you push open the swinging green door you’re greeted by the daughter pulling at your apron, wrapping her sticky arms around your neck, shouting Happy Birthday! There’s a cake on the table covered in candles; there’s a package beside it wrapped up in shiny red wrapping paper. It takes you a second to realise what’s going on – to remember. The wife is smiling and the husband has his hands folded in front of his mouth so that you can’t see. Your heart is pounding in the way it gets when you’ve finished smoking an entire cigarette. Thank you, you say, picking up the daughter’s empty plate, only a scrap of eggplant remaining. Leave it, the wife says, reaching out and touching you on the arm.
You stand in front of the cake, not smiling while the wife takes a photograph. You open the packet (not tearing the paper, folding it carefully so that you can re-use it later), hold the black cardigan against your chest. If it doesn’t fit, the wife says, I can exchange it. You cut the cake evenly, your hand not trembling. You pass them each a slice. You take your own back to the kitchen, the door swinging behind you.
When they’ve finished eating, the wife comes in to help you with the dishes. It’s your birthday; go sit down! You shake your head – you wash, she dries. As soon as she leaves, you take all the dishes she put away and return them to their correct places in the proper cabinets. You set the table for breakfast: bowls, spoons, juice glasses. You tuck the daughter into bed, recite the prayers with her, including the one you taught her about guardian angels, making sure to mention the people suffering and in need. You make the sign of the cross on her forehead and she says, Butterfly kiss. You lean in close so that you can blink rapidly against her cheek, eyelashes fluttering on her skin.
As you pass the suede armchair, where the wife is sitting and watching the news, you stop and tell her that you made a mistake. Actually, you don’t need next weekend off after all.
Are you sure? Her eyes flicker from the screen towards you. Things will be getting much more busy soon. She touches her belly lightly, the bump more of a bulge now in her saggy white nightdress.
Yes, you say. God willing.
She tucks a strand of hair behind her ears: brown like the daughter’s, no grey at the roots. Whatever you prefer. But remember that we need you here for Easter.
That’s fine, you say. I’m not going anywhere.
Her eyes are shifting back towards the screen when you ask if it would be possible for you to have a copy of the photographs taken tonight. Of course, she says, still smiling, though her eyes are fixed resolutely on the screen now. I’ll have Roberto take them in by the end of the week.
You nod, say goodnight. You take the beef out of the freezer and into the fridge so that it can defrost; tomorrow’s dinner will be goulash. You wipe down the counters. Last of all is locking up the front door – it feels strangely satisfying, turning the key in the lock, like you’re scratching an itch that you’ve had for a long time. As you pull the key out you find yourself thinking about it – how a photograph is a good idea. The boy will be happy to receive it. A photograph can be kept in a frame, on a bedside table. A photograph can be taken with you wherever you go. Something better than church visits on holiday weekends, long bus rides, promises you can’t keep and glimpses of a life he shouldn’t know you have. With enough time, and a little bit of luck, it might just work out – some things are better if you just carry them yourself.
You fold up the damp dishtowels. You slip off your sandals and turn them upside down so no roaches will sleep in them. After you hang your dress in the closet, you pick up the battery-powered alarm clock and make sure the switch is set to the correct position. Tomorrow, the apron will have to be washed. Tuesday is ironing day, always.