For a long moment she didn’t react. Her first impression was that the old man was in distress. She had a glimpse of herself offering to help him back down to the ground, before the moment expanded, from the void between the old man and the road, to engulf her and the fencepost she reached out to and the swaying branches at the edges of her vision. He drifted on up the road, head thrown back, shirt glimmering, ruddy hands thick and gnarled in a rictus, pants coarse and faded, like the kind men wore in the fields long ago. He was not in distress. He was dead. Un muerto.
Alba backed away unsteadily from the road and turned to go back in the house. She quickened her step, glancing over her shoulder at the apparition. He grew smaller in the distance, moving slowly but steadily, a fleeting glimpse through swaying branches, like one of the American planes appearing suddenly in the familiar sky and making it wrong, a chill in the heart. All at once he was gone, or had stopped, out of sight behind the shrubbery. Alba stood rooted to the spot by the house. She moved her head, peering through one gap in the branches, then another. Nothing.
She walked warily back to the edge of the road and peered past the shrubs up the hill. The old man had stopped halfway up to the crest, about twenty paces away. He hung in midair, still as a post, but she could see his shirt rustling slightly in the breeze. He then pivoted in place to face her and came to a hard stop, like a door slammed shut, and she looked into his face for the first time. Hollow eyes, no eyes. Mouth open and black. She put a trembling hand up to her own mouth as all at once a rooster shrieked in the distance and a ray of light bled over the hill, the blue spreading across the sky like a drop of dye in a bucket of water. The old man was shot through with sunlight and he vanished.
Alba ran into the house as the din was taken up, hilltop to vale to hilltop; Doña Adela’s rooster back near the highway, then Moncho’s at the base of the hill and finally their own, letting out one reed-throated cry after another against the side of the house, rattling the thin clapboards as Alba sat heavily on the edge of her children’s bed. A root of pain and loss split her heart and stinging tears leapt to her eyes. They scattered the clear morning light that now crossed the front yard and ignited the picket fence, causing her vision to swim and shimmer. She pressed her fists to her eyes, and rocked a little, back and forth, not wanting to see the outside anymore, where everything seemed to be moving and taunting her.
She wanted to undo the dead man, send him back down the hill to wherever he came from. She didn’t want signs and portents, the distinction of having been touched by the hereafter. She didn’t want the responsibility of finding someone with peculiar talents, someone strange and off-putting, with a wandering eye or a house smelling of strange herbs. Someone to tell her how her life will end, or what lunacy Lucio might commit next or which son will pick up the evil eye.
The day deepened as she sat there with her eyes closed. The air grew heavy and warm. The light crept in around her fists, through her eyelids, tinted red then gold as she opened them. The room shimmered and took form out of a million specks like the sun on the skin of the sea. Out of this surfaced the boys’ shoes, the floor boards, a stool and the stove’s broad silhouette against earth and sky.
“Mamá— qué te pasa?”
Martín stood leaning against the wall beside the bed, shirtless, holding some bauble, one bare foot on top of the other in a little awkward dance. He was peering at her from under a fringe of unkempt hair, his voice low and a little frightened. Alba sniffed and wiped the dampness from her cheeks. She sat for a moment looking at the sun-dappled view, then turned to him and took a deep, calming breath.
“Nada, ninõ.” She stood and removed her sweater and folded it, placing it on the bed. It promised to get as warm as the day before. Martín was alone, the first one back. She wondered when he had come in, how long he’d been standing there, watching her.
“No me mires. Paresco una loca.” Don’t look at me, she muttered, passing a hand over her face. I must look like a crazy woman.
She looked down at the sparkling thing in his fidgeting hands. Then she gently took his wrists and gently pulled him towards her to see it more closely.
Martín caught his breath and snatched his hands back.
“Tino,” she admonished, firmly but quietly. “Let me see what you have there.”
She pulled his hands up close again and quickly dropped them, catching a whiff of something pungent. “Tino! Qué carajo…”
He backed away, whining. “Tito gave it to me! He said it was a yoyo! He said it was a new yoyo he bought for me. He told me to meet him under the ceiba tree at Adela’s and he gave it to me and told me to hold it tight, to squeeze it really hard. And it popped…”
He lifted his hands again, warily, to show her the mess of tin foil and cow shit plastered across his hands. Alba rolled her eyes to the ceiling and threw up her hands, then slapped them down on her thighs. Martín flinched.
“Mira, Martín, lávate las manos ya! Ecahte pallá!” Look, Tino, just, go wash your hands already. Get away from me! “Idiota. Since when are yoyos made of tin foil?”
In her disgust and anger she forgot about the dead. Her thoughts twisted and turned like a mule in a stall, wondering what punishment to devise for Tito. First he threatens Martín with a beating if he came near “his” tree, now he taunts him with filth and nonsense. Tito, with his eyebrows like a wolf. Eyebrows like his father, and just as malicious.
She dragged Martín by one thin arm down the steps and over to the rain barrel at the corner of the house, tossing the crumpled wad of tin foil into the dirt of the road. She shook her head furiously as she scrubbed. She was down to a precious roll of foil and Tito wastes it on mierda.
Martín peered up at her silently, rocking on his feet as she tugged roughly on his arm, scrubbing, scrubbing. He looked reproachfully at the glittering thing in the dirt, a piece of dirty string still tied around it.
“Tito owes me a yoyo,” he said in a thick petulant sob. “You tell him, alright?”
She should have slapped him for that, but she said nothing, merely glowered down at him as she tamped his hands dry with her apron. He frowned and averted his eyes, looking again at the tin-shit yoyo in the dirt. He knitted his brow now, like his older brothers, like Lucio. He had a wolf’s brow, too, she thought. A young wolf. A whelp. Young enough to run from a hawk’s shadow. She cupped his face in her hand, and ran a thumb gently along his forehead, smoothing it out.
“Now, now. No faces. One of these days God will punish you and you’ll frown like a monkey forever.”
Martín looked taken aback at the thought. He stopped frowning, but she caught him absently looking about with his tongue pushed under his upper lip, trying on the monkey face. She sat on the steps, pulling him onto her lap.
“Venga, monito.” Come here, little monkey.
They sat quietly under the weight of the sun-warmed air. Martín inspected his clean hands, then squinted at the fields, waiting for his brothers to reappear in the shimmering heat, one by one. Alba stroked his hair but otherwise was very still, staring at the point in the middle of the baked dirt road. Do the dead cast shadows?
A mockingbird on the roof called out: Wobi-wobi-wobi-wobi.
She looked up the road, searching for the spot where the old man vanished, but leaves and branches screened her view. What would she tell Lucio? Would he think she was crazy? No. He would bring the matter to his mother and Mamá would tell her what the dead are trying to say. Only it would be something Lucio would use against her, some excuse for him to press his thumb down even harder. To keep a better eye on the boys, or on the goats. Or a warning against Moncho, who was just a harmless fool.
She shielded her eyes against the sun, gauging its height. Lucio would be eating his lunch by now.
“Martín. No tienes hambre?” Aren’t you hungry?
“No. Adela gave me (counted on his clean fingers) three mangos and told me to stay out of her trees.”
“Oh, sí? And where was Tito?”
“He climbed way up, and she couldn’t see him.”
“Diablo. And you didn’t tell Doña Adela?”
“Because he said if I told he would drag me up into the tree, high, high up (stretched his arm above his head, leveled his hand) and drop me and kill me.”
“Ha. Que se atreve.” I dare him.
“But, Má, I wouldn’t die because I would grab a branch and swing down, like Tarzan. I know how.” Martín jumped out of her lap and picked up an old dry branch from the ground. He swung it about, and began to poke and prod the wad of tinfoil. The sparkling thing in the dirt caught the sun and it suddenly hurt her eyes.
“Martín! Deja eso.” Leave that alone!
She turned, rubbing her eyes, to climb back in the house. She needed to see how much foil was left on the roll, if any. She would need to have Lucio pick some up again, right away. She thought randomly about the shelf by the stove, where she kept a row of things that shone and glittered. She thought about the can of olive oil, and the faint trace of the Spanish city. A sparkling thing under layers of rust. Layers of years. A glimpse of the old man through the window, ruddy and dark, like an Indian.
Her heart suddenly leapt. The old man, the Indian, had finally spoken to her: a rumor from out of his depths, from his black ‘O’ of a mouth.
Lucio and his mother would get it all wrong. Or get it all right, perhaps, but never tell her.
Read Part Four>