It was the sound of swallows that woke me from my late afternoon sleep.
For the fifth year running they’d nested in the beams. They made their home in the far left corner of the garage just after the boy was born; perhaps as an antidote to his cries as a baby. The doctors said he had severe colic; the swallowing motion of eating and drinking hurt him. It was a feeling I knew too well: that yearning and not wanting, the obligation, the fury.
Now, at nearly five, he was a child small for his age. And yet, not much had changed. The swallows nested and left; he picked at his food like it were poison. Life is made up of consumption and release; the preparation that surrounds both.
That afternoon I knew something had shifted, gone. My hand trembled as I reached across to my son. I could hardly see with the panic. But then as I touched his forehead I felt his body breathing. He laughed, suddenly, his eyelids fluttering like butterflies, the stream of sun seeping through the blinds. I lay back in the bed beside his and watched the clock move towards merienda, the snack before dinner, listening to my heart beat. In this house, I was next in line to die. Probably in this bed. Unless he married, my son would also die here.
And then I saw her. Dreamlike, a picture of a girl I once knew: Maribel. On a swing made of wood and rope, tied to an apple tree, her laughter crystal. Cute as a baby, clever as a girl, popular and beautiful as a teenager. Yet in her perfection she craved other things, too. Jealousy and pain were part of her desire. She watched me, wanting me, wishing she was me. I was the poor one, without brothers, without sisters. She had a clatter of both and her time was spent vying for her parent’s attention.
As teenagers, Maribel and I would go straight from the beach in our striped dresses to the bars and drink Coca Cola through straws. We’d cycle, past the pilgrims on their way to Santiago, waving at them, wishing them luck. We were glad of our freedom, happy that the bags on our backs sat light with towels, sun cream and whatever water remained in the bottles. Summer was infinite; everything was a gift.
Within a few years, we’d moved beyond the familiar, catching buses into the nearby city of Avilés, following the latest band. Weekends were spent parading under the arches of the old town, our hips wiggling naturally. We’d flick our hair at unwanted gazes from older men, at the shy advances of boys our age. We’d reach for each other’s hands, seeking refuge in the warm touch, our bodies echoing each other, our giggles synchronised. We’d time our soft kisses, palms sweating with fear of failure. We tried not to recognise how our bodies desired more than we could bear.
It was Maribel who I learned to juggle with. There was a song we used to sing and I teach it to my boy. I sit in a deck chair and he stands in front of me, prepared. I sing:
A la una sin mover
De un pie
De otra pie
De una mano
De la otra mano
Atras y alante
A la redondita
Y me vueltacita.
And he does as the song bids: throw the ball in the air without moving, without laughing. Lift one foot then the other, throw the ball from one hand to the other, jump and throw the ball in front and behind and lastly in the air and give a fast turn (on your heels works well) and catch it before it hits the ground. Maribel and I got so good at it we’d swap balls, mid-rhyme. We’d show off in the schoolyard but my boy is shy and prefers to play it only with his mother. He will get tired of this game, though, of that I have no illusions. He will tire of this village with its sound of the sea, with its clouds which race from forests in the mountains to the rough sand of the Atlantic. And he, too, will leave.
The exams for entrance to university were on. We concentrated on our studies that year. The fun was over. I sighed through the house, a sigh for each kiss that I was without. We did well, Maribel and I. Not top of our class but somewhere middling. Our grades were deemed decent. We were told we had futures. That same summer, bucking the trend, a rock band we’d been following for nearly three years played a one-off in our tiny seaside town instead of the city. Maribel laughed as I sneered at the denim waistcoat the guitarist wore, the one everyone loved. She rolled her eyes at me, what did I know, she said, she was leaving for Denver with him the next morning.
I laughed it off until that night, the after-party over, I found myself alone, waving as she led him by the hand down a cliff path to the stony beach where we used to go. I wondered, as my eyes searched for a hint of moon, whose hand I would hold. Drunk,
I staggered home with the realisation that she’d spent those weekdays in the city not in libraries, as she’d said, but with him. I wondered if they’d slip on the rocks in the darkness, if he’d catch her or let her go. That night, alone, I pictured her body shifting like sand on top of the stones engulfed by the midnight blue sea and the long-haired guitarist.
Friends stick together, people said. Like I was some sort of guardian, I was blamed for letting her go, leading her astray. Her family were devastated. Even her older sisters, married with children of their own now, complained to my mother. But maybe they were right to place blame on a lifetime of friendship with someone who stood, wobbly on a cliff edge, waving goodbye.
The truth was that in those kisses we had released all responsibility of friendship. After she left, I traced my loneliness through a dance, a sort of Russian roulette with food, gaining, then losing control, oscillating between numbness and feeling.
Six years ago my father became ill with cancer. By the time they realised what it was that he was complaining about, there was nothing much they could do except let nature take its course. The night after he died, my mother screamed at me to get out. I did. I drove to Avilés. Alone, I ate a heavy meal of steak with blue cheese sauce followed by a double portion of creamed rice pudding. I couldn’t recall a time when I’d not vomited after eating but that night I held it all down. I drank too many wines and in each bar I breathed in the air of the sea, the waft of alcohol and cigarettes. I felt the slide of sawdust underfoot.
A man smiled at me and we spent the rest of the night wandering from bar to bar, our lives spreading out like spilt wine on a picnic rug. His name was Fernando. He was a teacher; mathematics was his drug. I was nothing, I told him. I cared for only my mother now and soon she would die, too. He laughed at that, shaking his head, telling me not to be talking that way.
Fernando’s apartment was decorated in blues: navy and baby. It was something he owned, he explained. I smiled, realising that I’d already disappointed him—he wanted something different from me, like possession, admiration or maybe even sorrow. He made coffee with rum and ran his hand in the space between my jeans and my pants as we watched the alcohol burn off. We could, I thought at that moment, have been anywhere, been anyone.
He had a wooden crucifix hanging above his bed. It loomed nearer and retreated farther as we moved. His bed was wide and he had a blanket on it with bears woven into its browns and beiges. He slowly touched and kissed me. He stroked my hair like I was a dog or a doll. He told me I was beautiful. He whispered my name in my ear, like I’d forgotten who I was. I breathed deeply, my eyes closing, the bears becoming confused with coffins, the cries of my mother’s grief, his hair turning into Maribel’s. The sudden involuntary shudder that night was a heat that I’d never again feel.
A few weeks ago Maribel’s mother appeared at my door on crutches which, she
told me, were healing her brokenness, turning it into newness, after a hip operation. Maribel and the children were due in the next day. After almost twenty years of silence, she’d come back. The guitarist no longer played in his band but did sessions, which were terribly popular. His hair was cut short now; he no longer wore waistcoats. He —they—were respectable professionals, she explained. Maribel was teaching Spanish to white American Protestants who didn’t want the brown Catholic Hispanics to take over. Her gaze paused on the handle of her crutch. She looked at me, questioning.
My mother, the line goes, died of a broken heart. She loved my father to the core but I know she died because she didn’t want to live with me any more. My memory of her soaking pea-green-towels with blood when she lost another of my would-be-sisters-or-brothers often appeared like a still from a movie. Beauty in devastation. And to the side, an image of me, mouth hanging open, a hand outstretched towards Maribel. Maybe, I thought, one night waking suddenly, Maribel and I had starved each other as well as feeding each other with life.
I told Maribel’s mother, as her hands shook on the handles of the cloud-grey crutches, that Maribel was welcome to call. Even though I’d buried my mother just the week before. Besides, it wasn’t everyday I had a beautiful visitor.
The next day I heard her children shouting outside. I peered out through the blinds. Mouthy Americans, shouting their boredom, not a word of Spanish between them. They looked nothing like her. They were of Kit, I supposed. Kit the guitarist now session-master. And Maribel was dressed like the woman she had become, white patent heels and a black mini-skirt. Blonde hair, her dark, almost-Indian roots showing. Her beauty gone, erased from the moment she had started down that spiralled path to the rocky beach. Naked, I needed to feel warmth. I shivered. I stepped into the bathroom and turned the heat of the power shower up to the maximum. I sang loudly as hot water sparked off my skin, the red blotches growing on my torso, desire spreading and disappearing. As I dressed myself in a white linen dress, ran my fingers through my wet hair, I thought of Maribel signing herself as Caucasian. By the time I was ready to receive them, they’d gone. Americans, I’m told, don’t have much patience.
Often things just happen once in life, like death, like a lifetime of passion in one intense movement running through a body, like friendships that aren’t supposed to last.
It was 11 am Denver-time, 6 pm as the swallows sounded, when Maribel died. Shot by her eldest son. A tragedy. They wouldn’t, they said, be bringing her body home; her ashes would be scattered high in the hills near a stadium outside Denver city. They said the son with the gun was just like his father with a guitar, could make that thing sing pretty well. Planned to be in a rock band. It was the thing to do. He was in the right place for it, for sure. Maribel’s mother is doing quite well, considering. Every morning to the minute when her daughter died, she walks down that crooked path to the stony beach. I see her shadow go by my window and long to reach out, touch it, glean from it what I never will know, why Maribel had to leave me.
The swallows were a week late flying south.
My son turned five. I made him a cake of chocolate and orange and we stirred the chocolate as it melted, humming a song from a cartoon. Bate bate chocolate. Beat, beat as Fernando had dialled and dialled in vain the wrong number I’d given him, years not knowing he was a father. He was a good man, that night we shared. I should have contacted him. Written, or perhaps sent a photograph. Maybe he would have replaced the crucifix with a photograph of the boy. Maybe he would have found happiness, comfort, even in knowing he had created.
This morning I held my son in my arms and we waved the swallow families goodbye. Their tails like arrows, a pattern in the sky, searching more of their type out. Pointing southwards where things are brighter.
They’ve gone and what’s left of them is made of twigs and mud: nests, empty and useless.