passageways-294By Samanta Schweblin

Translated by Joel Streicker

from Issue 17: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal


 

 

I turned off the TV and looked out the window. Silvia’s car was parked in front of the house, with the emergency lights on. I wondered if there was a real possibility of not answering the door, but the bell rang again; she knew I was home. I went to the door and opened it.

"Silvia," I said.

"Hi," she said, and entered without my managing to say anything. "We have to talk."

She pointed to the sofa and I obeyed because, sometimes, when the past knocks on the door and treats me like it did four years before, I continue to be an idiot.

"You’re not going to like it. It’s . . . It’s hard," she looked at her watch. "It’s about Sara."

"It’s always about Sara," I said.

"You’re going to say I’m exaggerating, that I’m nuts, all that kind of stuff. But there’s no time today. You’re coming home right now, this you have to see with your own eyes."

"What’s going on?"

"Besides, I told Sara that you were going to come, so she’s waiting for you."

We remained silent for a moment. I thought what would be the next step, until she frowned, got up and went to the door. I grabbed my coat and went out after her.

Outside the house looked as it always did, with the lawn recently cut and Silvia’s azaleas hanging from the balconies on the second floor. We each got out of our cars and went in without speaking. Sara was on the sofa. Although classes were out for the year, she was wearing her middle school uniform, which fit her like the ones on schoolgirls in porn magazines. She was sitting with her back straight, her knees together and her hands on them, concentrating on some point on the window or in the garden, as if she were doing one of those yoga exercises of her mother’s. I realized that, although she had always been rather pale and skinny, she looked brimming with health. Her legs and arms seemed stronger, as if she had been exercising for a few months. Her hair shone and her cheeks were slightly pink, as if they were painted, only this was real. When she saw me enter she smiled and said:

"Hi, Daddy."

My girl was a real sweetheart, but those two words were enough for me to understand that something was wrong with that kid, something surely related to her mother. Sometimes I think that maybe I should have taken her with me, but almost always I think not. A few yards from the TV, next to the window, there was a cage. It was a bird cage—some two, two and a half feet tall—hanging from the ceiling, empty.

"What’s that?"

"A cage," said Sara, and smiled.

Silvia gestured to me to follow her to the kitchen. We went to the picture window and she turned around to make sure that Sara was not listening to us. She remained sitting up straight on the sofa, looking toward the street, as if we had never arrived. Silvia spoke to me in a low voice.

"Look, you’re going to have to take this calmly."

"Quit jerking me around. What’s going on?"

"I haven’t given her any food since yesterday."

"Are you kidding?"

"So you can see it with your own eyes."

"Uh-huh . . . Are you nuts?"

She said that we should return to the living room and she pointed to a chair. I sat in front of Sara. Silvia left the house and I saw her cross in front of the picture window and enter the garage.

"What’s up with your mother?"

Sara shrugged her shoulders, giving me to understand that she didn’t know. Her black, straight hair was tied in a pony tail, with bangs that fell almost to her eyes. Silvia returned with a shoebox. She held it straight, with both hands, as if it were something delicate. She went to the cage, opened it, took from the box a very small sparrow, the size of a golf ball, stuck it in the cage and closed it. She threw the box on the floor and kicked it aside, together with nine or ten similar boxes that were piled up under the desk. Then Sara got up, her pony tail shining on one side and then the other of the back of her neck, and she went to the cage skipping, like little girls five years younger than her do. Her back to us, rising up on tiptoes, she opened the cage and took out the bird. I couldn’t see what she did. The bird screeched and she struggled a moment, perhaps because the bird tried to escape. Silvia covered her mouth with her hand. When Sara turned toward us the bird was no longer there. Her mouth, nose, chin and both hands stained with blood. She smiled, ashamed, her giant mouth arched and opened, and her red teeth forced me to jump up. I ran to the bathroom, locked myself in and vomited in the toilet. I thought that Silvia would follow me and start in with the blaming and the ordering around from the other side of the door, but she didn’t. I washed my mouth and face, and I stood listening in front of the mirror. They were taking something heavy down from the floor above. They opened and closed the front door a few times. Sara asked if she could take a photo from the mantelpiece with her. When Silvia answered that she could her voice was already far away. I opened the door trying not to make noise, and I looked out into the hall. The main door was wide open and Silvia was loading the cage in the back seat of my car. I took a few steps, with the intention of leaving the house yelling a few choice words at her, but Sara left the kitchen and went toward the street and I stopped cold so that she would not see me. They hugged. Silvia kissed her and put her in the passenger seat. I waited until she returned and closed the door.

"What the fuck . . . ?"

"You take her," she went to the desk and began to crush and fold the empty boxes.

"My God, Silvia, your daughter eats birds!"

"I can’t take any more."

"She eats birds! Is she out of her mind? What the fuck does she do with the bones?"

Silvia looked at me, disconcerted.

"I suppose she swallows them, too. I don’t know if birds . . . " she said and stood there looking at me.

"I can’t take her with me."

"If she stays here I’ll kill myself. I’ll kill myself and first I’ll kill her."

"She eats birds!"

Silvia went to the bathroom and locked herself in. I looked outside, through the picture window. Sara waved to me happily from the car. I tried to calm myself. I thought about things that would help me take a few clumsy steps toward the door, praying that in that time I would manage to turn back into a normal human being, a tidy and organized guy capable of standing for ten minutes in front of the canned good shelves at the supermarket, corroborating that the beans he’s taking are the proper ones. I thought about things like if we know that some people eat people then eating live birds wasn’t so bad. Also, from a health perspective it’s better than drugs, and from a social perspective it’s easier to hide than a pregnancy at age thirteen. But I think that even the car doorhandle kept repeating she eats birds, she eats birds, she eats birds, and so on.

I took Sara home. She didn’t say anything on the way and when we arrived she took her things out by herself. Her cage, her suitcase—which they had put in the trunk—and four shoeboxes like the one that Silvia had brought from the garage. I wasn’t able to help her with anything. I opened the door and waited there for her to go and come with everything. When we went in I indicated that she could use the upstairs room. After she settled in, I made her come down and sit in front of me, at the dining room table. I prepared two cups of coffee but Sara moved her cup aside and said that she didn’t drink infusions.

"You eat birds, Sara," I said.

"Yes, Daddy."

She bit her lips, ashamed, and said:

"You, too."

"You eat live birds, Sara."

"Yes, Daddy."

I remembered Sara at age five, sitting at the table across from us, her head no higher than her plate, fanatically devouring a squash, and I thought that, somehow, we would have to solve the problem. But when the Sara I had in front of me smiled again, and I asked myself what it would feel like to swallow something warm and moving, to have something full of feathers and feet in your mouth, I covered up my own mouth with my hand, like Silvia did, and I left her alone before the two untouched cups of coffee.

Three days went by. Sara was in the living room almost all the time, sitting up straight on the sofa with her knees together and her hands on them. I went out early to work and I spent hours searching the Internet for infinite combinations of the words "bird," "raw," "cure," "adoption," knowing that she kept sitting there, looking out toward the garden for hours. When I would enter the house, around seven o’clock, and see her just as I had imagined her the whole day, the hair would stand up on the back of my neck and I had an urge to rush out and leave her locked inside, hermetically sealed, like those insects one hunts as a kid and keeps in glass jars until the air gives out. Could I do it? When I was a kid I saw a bearded woman at the circus who put mice in her mouth. She held them there a while, with the tail moving between her closed lips, while she walked before the audience smiling and rolling her eyes back in her head, as if it gave her great pleasure. Now I thought about that woman almost every night, tossing in my bed without being able to sleep, considering the possibility of putting Sara in a mental hospital. Maybe I could visit her once or twice a week. Silvia and I could take turns. I thought of those cases in which doctors suggest isolating the patient, distancing him from the family for a few months. Perhaps it was a good option for everyone, but I wasn’t sure that Sara could survive a place like that. Or maybe she could. In any case, her mother wouldn’t permit it. Or maybe she would. I couldn’t decide.

On the fourth day Silvia came to see us. She brought five shoeboxes which she left beside the front door, just inside. Neither of us said anything about it. She asked about Sara and I pointed to the upstairs room. When she came down, I offered her a cup of coffee. We drank in the living room, in silence. She was pale and her hands trembled so much that they made the china rattle each time she set the cup on the saucer. Each knew what the other was thinking. I could say "this is your fault, this is what you accomplished," and she could say something absurd like "this is what happens because you never paid attention to her." But the truth is that we were already very tired.

"I’ll take care of this," said Silvia before leaving, pointing to the shoeboxes. I didn’t say anything, but I was profoundly grateful.

In the supermarket people loaded their carts with cereal, candy, vegetables, meat and dairy products. I limited myself to my canned goods and I waited in line in silence. I went two or three times a week. Sometimes, even though I didn’t need to buy anything, I would stop by before going home. I would take a cart and walk down the aisles thinking about what I might be forgetting. At night we would watch TV together. Sara, erect, sitting on her corner of the sofa, me on the other end, spying on her every once in a while to see if she was following the program or if she had her eyes fixed on the garden again. I prepared food for the two of us and carried it to the living room on two trays. I would leave Sara’s in front of her, and there it stayed. She would wait until I began to eat and then she would say:

"Excuse me, Daddy."

She would get up, go to her room and delicately close her door. The first time I lowered the volume on the TV and waited in silence. A sharp, short screech was heard. A few second later the faucets and the water running. Sometimes she would come down a few minutes later, perfectly combed and peaceful. Sometimes she would take a shower and come down already in her pajamas.

Sara didn’t want to go outside. Studying her behavior I thought that perhaps she suffered from the beginnings of agoraphobia. Sometimes I would take a chair into the garden and try to convince to go out a while. But it was useless. She retained, nevertheless, a skin radiant with energy and every day she looked more beautiful, as if she spent the day exercising in the sun. Every so often, going about my business, I would find a feather. On the floor next to the dining room door, behind the coffee can, among the silverware, still damp in the bathroom sink. I would pick them up, careful so that she wouldn’t see me doing it, and throw them in the toilet. Sometimes I would stand there watching how they went down with the water. Sometimes the toilet would fill up again, the water would settle, like a mirror again, and I would still be there watching, thinking about whether it would be necessary to go back to the supermarket, about whether filling the carts with so much junk was really justified, thinking about Sara, about what it was that was in the garden.

One afternoon Silvia called to let me know that she was in bed with a ferocious flu. She said that she couldn’t visit us. She asked me if I could manage without her and then I understood that not being able to visit us meant that she couldn’t bring more boxes. I asked her if she had a fever, if she was eating well, if she had seen a doctor, and when I had her sufficiently occupied with these answers I said that I had to hang up and I hung up. The phone rang again, but I didn’t answer it. We watched TV. When I brought my food Sara didn’t get up to go to her room. She looked at the garden until I was done eating, and only then did she return to the program that we were watching.

The next day, before returning home, I passed by the supermarket. I put a few things in my cart, the same as always. I walked down the aisles as if I were doing a reconnaissance of the supermarket for the first time. I stopped in the pet section, where there was food for dogs, cats, rabbits, birds and fish. I picked up a few packages of food to see what they were. I read what ingredients they were made of, the calories they supplied and the amounts that were recommended for each breed, weight and age. Afterwards I went to the gardening section, where there were only plants with or without flowers, flower pots and dirt, so I returned again to the pet section and I stood there thinking what I was going to do later. People filled their carts and dodged around me. A sale on dairy products for Mother’s Day was announced on the loudspeakers and then they played a melodious song about a guy who had a lot of women but missed his first love, until I finally pushed my cart and returned to the canned goods section.

That night Sara took a while to fall asleep. My room was below hers, and I heard her through the ceiling walk nervously, lie down, get up again. I asked myself what condition her room must be in; I had not gone up there since she had arrived. Perhaps the place was a real disaster, a corral filled with filth and feathers.

The third night after Silvia’s call, before returning home, I stopped to see the cages of birds that were hanging from the awning of a pet shop. None looked like the sparrow that I had seen at Silvia’s house. They were colorful, and in general they were a little bigger. I was there for a while, until a salesman came up to ask me if I were interested in a bird. I said no, absolutely not, that I was just looking. He stayed close by, moving boxes, looking down the street, until he understood that I really wasn’t going to buy anything, and returned to the counter.

At home Sara waited on the sofa, sitting up straight in her yoga position. We said hello.

"Hi, Sara."

"Hi, Dad."

She was losing her rosy cheeks and she no longer looked as well as before. I made my dinner, sat on the sofa, and turned on the TV. After a while Sara said:

"Daddy . . . "

I swallowed what I was chewing and turned the volume down, doubting that she had really spoken to me, but there she was, with her knees together and her hands on them, watching me.

"What?" I said.

"Do you love me?"

I made a gesture with my hand, accompanied by a nod. Everything together meant that, yes, of course I do. She was my daughter, wasn’t she? And even then, just in case, thinking in particular of what my ex-wife would have considered "the right thing," I said:

"Yes, sweetie. Of course."

And then Sara smiled, once more, and looked at the garden during the rest of the show.

We slept poorly again, she pacing from one end of the bedroom to the other, me tossing in my bed until I fell asleep. The next morning I called Silvia. It was Saturday, but she didn’t answer the phone. I called later, and around noon as well. I left a message, but she didn’t answer. Sara spent the whole morning sitting on the sofa, looking at the garden. Her hair was a little messy and she was no longer sitting so straight; she seemed very tired. I asked her if she was doing okay and she said:

"Yes, Dad."

"Why don’t you go out to the garden for a little bit?"

"No, Dad."

Thinking about the conversation the night before, it occurred to me that I could ask her if she loved me, but immediately it seemed to me a stupid idea. I called Silvia again. I left another message. In a low voice, taking care so that Sara wouldn’t hear me, I said on the machine:

"It’s urgent, please."

We waited, each of us sitting on his end of the sofa, with the TV on. A few hours later Sara said:

"Excuse me, Dad."

She shut herself up in her room. I turned off the TV to hear better: Sara didn’t make a sound. I decided to call Silvia one more time. But I picked up the phone, listened to the dial tone and hung up. I took the car to the pet shop, looked for the salesman and told him that I needed a small bird, the smallest he had. The salesman opened a catalogue of photos and said that the prices and food varied from species to species.

"Do you like exotic ones or do you prefer something more domestic?"

I smacked the countertop with the palm of my hand. A few things on top of the counter jumped and the salesman remained silent, looking at me. I pointed to a small, dark bird, which moved nervously from one side of its cage to the other. They charged me one hundred and twenty pesos and gave it to me in a square box made out of green cardboard, with little holes punched around, a free bag of birdseed that I didn’t accept and a flyer from the breeder with a photo of the bird on the front.

When I returned, Sara remained shut in. For the first time since she was at home I went up and entered her room. She was seated on the bed in front of the open window. She looked at me, but neither of us said anything. She looked so pale that she seemed sick. The room was clean and orderly, the door to the bathroom half open. There were some twenty shoeboxes on the desk, but broken down—so that they wouldn’t take up so much space—and piled carefully one on top of the other. The cage hung empty near the window. On the little night table, next to the lamp, the framed picture that she had taken from her mother’s house. The bird moved and its feet could be heard against the cardboard, but Sara remained immobile. I left the box on top of the desk and, without saying anything, I left the room and closed the door. Then I realized that I didn’t feel well. I leaned against the wall to rest for a moment. I looked at the breeder’s flyer, which I still carried in my hand. On the back was information about care of the bird and its procreation cycles. It emphasized the need for the species to be paired during mating periods and the things that could be done to make its years of captivity as pleasant as possible. I listened to a brief screech, and then the faucet of the bathroom sink. When the water began to run I felt a little better and knew that, somehow, I would figure out a way to get down the stairs.

Comments are closed.