15

After Tía Pati passed, four days after, Concha—whose weeping had not yet stopped, for the loss, yes, of her sister, for the loss of her cousin, of course, but also to grieve the condition of this sister’s soul forever, as it is written, And these shall go away into everlasting punishment—gave birth to Rolf Moreno, the youngest of four living children in the household. He was born small, even for a baby, although the pregnancy had lasted all its weeks, and his head was even smaller, like a cat’s. The child was weak, very weak, and, when he was brought out of her body, he did not cry. As all babies do, he slept through his first few weeks, but without a sound, so the story has gone for years, without so much as a cry of hunger.

He was kind even from the very beginning. He had learned early to smile his smile—that rise only of the mouth but not of the eyes, which was the way he smiled his entire life. The rest of him, however, came slowly, over the course of years, long after the children his age understood how to think or speak or do, and the parts of his body were small, always small, his hands and arms, his feet, his legs, the width of his shoulders, all these were small, never catching up in size with anybody his age, but it was his head which even on the day of his birth caused everybody, especially Concha, the most concern, since it was the first and most obvious indication that he had been born deficient, and that the Lord might still be carrying a grudge against her.

But Concha was a woman of great devotion, and these, her son’s deformities, like all other trials of her life, only made her to undertake the journey of prayer and questions with even more fervor, entering into His presence every morning, sitting beneath the tall, lovely Araucaria, carrying Rolf into the backyard wrapped in a blanket, singing him songs about the love of God, kissing his tiny head, whispering to the child the truths of the world, He has provided and He will provide, He loves His creation, He takes pleasure in all His children, and then, spreading out a quilt over the grass, setting the child down to sleep or to watch the sky, she herself knelt down, the sun barely up, the warmth of the air of Ecuador hovering around her, as always, and she crossed herself and closed her eyes and spread out her arms with her face pointed up, up, up, saying, My God, my King, my Lord, answer my cry for help, listen to my groans, each morning I come before you and every night I cry out, and because of your great mercy, O my God, I am filled with wonder, so I beg you now to teach me, I kneel before you to offer my devotion, will you now guide me, now won’t you make your teaching clear, what will you have of me, what more can I confess, O Lord, since I need you to save me, I have come to the deep waters and the floods again surround me, they have come up to my neck and I am worn out calling for help, my throat is dry, so answer me, Lord, answer me out of the goodness of your love, out of your kindness, out of your mercy, and turn to me, and do not hide your face from your servant, for I am your servant in trouble, it is I, dear Lord, it is Concha, please, God, please, please, come near to me and rescue me from your wrath.

Concha wept and prayed every morning, before the house began to stir, for the loss of her sister, for the health of her baby, for understanding of her troubles.

___

But Concha was not the only one sad. Everybody else in the house had been ruined, too. Within a few weeks, Nelson, quiet and brooding, more and more had given himself over to the way of the streets of Guayaquil, devoting himself to wandering Miraflores and other parts of his great city, to lacing up his zapátos lucharónes, to carrying cork in his pockets always, to picking fights when he could, sometimes winning and sometimes losing, to stealing a little money, to sneaking out of the house at night, to going down to the River’s Toe in order to smoke and drink and cuss and touch girls with the older boys. Some nights, when he had enough money, he flew to La Diez y Ocho, to his woman there, and he entered deeply into the way of lust, to touching, to being touched, to paying his money for the sake of that prize: forgetting. Anita, the child, was still too young to understand everything, although she understood sadness, and, as we all do, in her depths she understood despair, so to see all these things in her Mami and Papi and brothers had caused her heart to begin feeling what loss, what heavy loss, everyone around her already knew. Sr. Moreno did not speak to anyone, it seemed, at all. Although he was perhaps the one who had loved Pati most, nobody saw him weep. At her funeral service he stayed quiet, hardly greeting his brothers, Tito and Emilio, who had traveled all the way from Manta to bury their sister, and afterwards he fled on his motorcycle to God knows where, staying away for more than a week, missing the birth of Rolf and, even when he returned, hardly noticing his new presence in the house, hardly noticing his wife’s feeding the child, or her songs to the sleeping baby, merely going in and out of the house, back and forth, back and forth, to and from his office at the harbor. When Sunday came, when the family should have climbed up onto the motorcycle, when everybody in their place was to manage the ride as they always did, to defy danger and death for the sake of that Moreno parade which rode all throughout Guayaquil, past the famous statue and the beggars in the streets and the merchants and the boys who juggled, in order to arrive at the restaurant at the harbor, to eat, to drink, to forget, Sr. Moreno instead removed the car from the garage, and everyone piled into it, its smell the dark wet smell of the garage, its upholstery cold, the children sharing the back seat and Concha in front holding Rolf—who, she told the children, must have been the reason, thank God, they were driving the car, saying, There are too many of us now—but perhaps Nofrito knew best that this was only  an excuse, that they could have found a way.

Nofrito, my father, who had believed in his tía, who had had faith in her, who had received the rewards of her sacrifices, and who in response loved her more than he had ever loved anyone, was perhaps the worst off. He, too, still snuck out of the house late at night. Still with Nelson he climbed out the window, bread crumbs in his pockets to quiet the ducks; still they managed to walk over the broken glass and jump down safely to the grass; but Nofrito did not go to the River’s Toe or to La Diez y Ocho like his brother, and he did not lace up his shoes in order to pick fights—although over the years those came nonetheless; nor did he yet follow the girls of Miraflores, showing up at the windows of the young housekeepers to whistle that eight-note tune, a romancer’s famous come-on, each note standing for one syllable: Si no sales no te veo—If you don’t come out I won’t see you; that all came in time, all in its time. No, when next to the cement wall Nofrito landed on the grass, he watched his brother run off down the street, off to play with the older boys, but he himself turned around and walked into the backyard, the quiet of night still all around him, the stars and moon above him like prayers, and he climbed up the tall, lovely Araucaria tree, to his spot among the branches, where he had waited for his Papi to come riding home, and he sat silently, waiting, imagining the soul of Pati entering heaven, wondering whether God had heard him that night in the hospital, hoping that He had. But, he wondered, was this—was that prayer, was that hope—was it only a child’s game, a silly strategy? He did not know. Here in the tree, he did not know. He remembered his tía on her bed, how she had breathed in and out through the mouth, how the smell of vomit filled the room like smoke, how yellow she had become, and how full of hatred, that now it seemed the smell, and her yellow color, and her hatred—that they were all one thing. She had said awful things, he remembered, and she had said true things, and now in his memory Nofrito could not tell which was which. This was how he passed the nights, not sleeping but hoping, remaining in that tree for hours, watching the moon pass over him, listening to the world beneath the silence of the stars.

___

My father says to me, On one of these nights, mijo, when I passed all night up in the tree, I had cried a little, thinking of my tía, and I had fallen asleep a little, too, because you cannot stay awake all night without feeling tired, but in the end I had spent the entire night up in that tree, and in the morning, as the sun was rising up, here came Mami, carrying the child Rolf in one arm and an enormous folded quilt in the other. I kept my mouth shut—I was not allowed to have been out—and I watched her come into the backyard. She walked slowly and quietly from the house to the grass, to just beneath my tree, beneath where I sat in the branches. She was singing something to Rolf very softly, smelling his head and kissing his cheeks. She dropped the quilt to the grass and kicked at its corners to spread it out a bit, after a moment placing Rolf down onto it, then spreading out the quilt some more, until it lay open like a mouth. I saw my brother lying on the yellow and blue and red of the quilt, looking up, beautiful and small. His head looked like a doll’s—it always did, for the rest of his life—like a doll’s head you would buy in a store to replace the first head, but when you brought it home you saw it did not quite fit the body. Slowly, he blinked his droopy eyes. He was my brother, and I loved him.

Mami knelt down, mijo, just below me.

She was still singing to Rolf, singing the song children sing to their fathers, the song she had sung to him when she was still pregnant, as though to teach it to him. He was too young to understand, of course, but that is how mothers are with their babies, not caring how young, for there is no such thing as too young, since all women know, it is their instinct, it is never too early to teach a baby love. She sang it to him, looking into his face, moving her lips above the baby’s, over and over and over: Papito, Papito, chiquito yo soy—Daddy, Daddy, this tiny I am—¡pero grande…grande es por ti mi amor!—but this big, this big my heart loves you!

In a little while she stopped singing, and she moved to pray. She let Rolf lie on his spot on the quilt, and she spread open her arms and she pointed her face up to the heavens, and her eyes, if they had been open, would have been looking at him, at Nofrito. Instead, she was looking at God in her heart, praying to Him. From here in the tree he had a view like God’s, and he saw down to her as God did, and he watched her with His pity, and His love, and His mercy, and her lips moved, and he heard the words come out of her mouth, O my Lord, O my Tower of Strength, hear my cry, listen to my prayer. I call as my heart grows faint because you have cast us off, you have scattered us, you have shown us desperate times, giving us wine that makes us stagger. But, O my Refuge, turn to us again, show us your face. I have married my cousin for your sake, that we would not live in the sin of adultery, or of rape, and we were married in your house. I have been pregnant, my God, eight times, and you have given me four with breath: Nofrito, Anita, Belinda, Rolf—and you have given us Nelson, too. But you took Belinda, whose heart stopped dead, and you took the others, the ones without names. All four of them, O God. Four cold babies.

You have given me a husband who beats us, who whips us until our bloods spill, until the blood of our bodies falls to the floor, the blood of my sons, the blood of my own body, and we are made weak by him. I confess I do not know how to protect my children, for the fear I, too, have of him. I have wept, and I have asked for the strength to fight him, to protect my children, but you have not given it to me.

You gave my cousin, my sister, Pati, a mark on her face, one that repulsed the world, and you stole love from her. She said when she spoke out against you that you gave her a life without love. And so she took to drinking, Lord, which killed her. She died loveless, alone, in the dark of the hospital, and now she lives forever in the darkness of eternal torment, abandoned.

When, O Lord, will you rise up? When will you hand us your favor? When will you protect us? You are God, and my soul thirsts for you—but we are in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

And now, less than a week after Pati passed, you gave me a son, you gave me Rolf, my baby son whose body is weak, whose head is too small, who does not cry, who smiles but who does not smile fully. Here is my son, O Lord, and do you have a grudge against him, too, that you would make him so malformed? Was he not covered in prayers? Did I not come to you every day and every night? Did I not have faith enough? Did I disobey?

What, O Lord, what, what, what have I done!

___

And now I look at my father as he sits across from me in our little brown booth, and he is out of beer now. I imagine him, imagine his face, to be the child Nofrito’s face. He hears Mami praying. He hears her cries out to God. She recites their lives to Him, she gives Him her soul, she spreads out the world before Him, and Nofrito watches her below, as God must also be watching, and her body is stretched out, and her arms are raised up to the sky. She begins to sing again, whether to Rolf or to God nobody can tell, Papito, Papito, chiquito yo soy…¡pero grande…grande es por ti mi amor!—it is a song for children and a prayer, and she will sing it for years, teaching it to Rolf, allowing him to inherit the troubles and suffering of all Morenos.

A thousand things come into my heart, because I know this story. I know what happens next. Nofrito will remember the night he prayed with Mami, the night he came into the dining room and she cried out, when she taught him how to pray, giving him the words to come before God, so that now while he sits in the tree, in the goodness of his child’s heart, Nofrito’s mouth will want to fill up with those same words, May the Lord spare us, may He give us new life, may the Lord’s delight surround us….

But fear, beginning in his stomach, will creep over him, and it will spread like very cold water all throughout his body.

Two things will happen to him at the same time: The child, let me tell you, will want to pray, for has he not seen in Mami the beauty of prayer, its weakness, its wide open need? But that fear will spread out and cover him, because his soul—his salvation—has he not already given it away? The child will believe that God cannot listen to him, cannot hear his cries, that he is forsaken, that he is lost forever in a place without a horizon, since he has given himself over for the sake of Tía Pati. And what a feeling this will be, and what a wound will open up in him. This, the child will believe, is exile; this is being forgotten. And he will suffer a great loss, the greatest of all losses—to reach out to God and to hear only His silence. What child should endure such an exile? Who can spare him now? Who can act as his protector?

At the same time, something equal and opposite will occur, taking the form only of questions, Is God not to be hated? Is God not to be abandoned? Had He not robbed Tía Pati of love, and has He not robbed him, Nofrito, as well? Has He not robbed Nelson, the son of a whore, and Mami, the wife of her rapist, and Anita and Rolf, whose deformities they will carry forever? How many nights and days and weeks and years, how long has Mami prayed, and how has God resisted what Nofrito himself has just seen to be an act of great love, of great devotion? He will fill up with rage and exile, and he will harden, silenced by hate so pure its white could blind your eyes.

Finally, my father will climb down out of the tree. He will feel all things at once. The weight of his exile will be an enormous hand on his back, pushing down. Crying, he will fall into his mother’s arms, and they will huddle together, shaking, afraid, suffering, saying, Mijo, Mijo, Mami, Mami, Mijo, Mami, Mami, and it will be one sound to the heavens, and before long their bodies will become like one thing, one beautiful thing that shares all things between them, shares hope, and pain, and love, and curse.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

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