You wouldn’t talk about it for years, Nando, how Papá became the copious lluvia, the incipient lluvia, the devastating lluvia.
It happened weeks before the ’99 referendum. And at the time, Papá quarreled with Mamá over her refusal to vote Si in favor of a new constitution and of La República Bolivariana de Venezuela. Their bickering was futile; Mamá—like so many others—didn’t make it to the polls because of the torrential rains that crumpled hills and inundated bridges, houses, roads. That day, we took Papá’s moto without his permission. Although I was ten, you let me sit on your lap and steer the handlebar while I urged you to chase the breeze that tasted of dust and sand and led to Playa Copey. We fled because I dropped a watermelon from the roof or fed a mongrel half-a-pack of galletas María. And you came because you felt bad that every time you forgot to carry out an errand or left trails of mud in the kitchen or cursed loudly when you played video games, Papá and Mamá blamed me for it. I was the sucia, the malcriada, the one with blood between her legs. I learned that escaping was better than throwing a pataleta because that would only push Mamá to beltbuckle me on the nalgas. I also learned not to cry. Crying was dangerous, for many women in our family had died of llanto, and years later, our Tía Julia—Papá’s sister—would fall prey to this dreadful maldición.
I was the sucia, the malcriada, the one with blood between her legs. I learned that escaping was better than throwing a pataleta because that would only push Mamá to beltbuckle me on the nalgas.
The day was busy weaving clouds above a foul odor. You wanted to leave as soon as we arrived at the beach, but I ran toward the crowd to get closer to the dead whale that had washed ashore and rested like a lonesome, deflated rubber toy. Back then the tastelessness of death still surprised us for we were fond of all things. Birds hovered over the creature like awkward, estranged children. This would always happen: you stayed behind, travelling worlds in your mind. So I had to walk back to the moto—you had barely stepped off of it—to grab your hand and pull you: I wanted you to see the world, and the world was this dead whale. But once we reached the ginormous mammal, you didn’t gape at it.
Instead, you stood in front of its body, frozen. I wiped, several times, the heat of sea salt from your neck, waiting for your timid nervousness to wane. People called it a female. Said a boat had probably hit her. That officials were on their way to tow it away. To dispose of her. I couldn’t tell how long she had sat there. For hours? Days? How long till someone had noticed?
We agreed on a lie: Yvana, our cousin, had called us to come to her aid. Her father punched or kicked our Tía Julia again, and she was afraid that she was next. You weren’t home when she called, we would tell Mamá. We had to go get her, help her. We knew Mamá wouldn’t have the heart to punish us, and Papá would sit stoically while he listened to our story and remain, as usual, undecipherable. Mamá wouldn’t call to check on Tía Julia. She had learned to wait on the sidelines, to be called to the rescue, to nurture Tía Julia back to health, and then, unwillingly, deliver her back to him with faded bruises.
Remember how the sky darkened that afternoon, Nandito? It rained with the desire to drown. The drops were cold and hard and their force so tremendous, so absolute that you refused to drive la moto. By the time we got home, which took us nearly an hour, the rain still made it difficult to see what stood in front of us.
We came in through the backdoor, and Mamá was in her nightgown, soaking wet and kneeling on the grass. We stepped hurriedly to her side. She held her face in her hands, and her mouth burst into a silent song. I turned my eyes from her and saw a silhouette—Papá’s frame—near the front gate. I wanted to go to him, but it was too late. He was braced in a strong swirl of water like an upstream river, and he crested. Why hadn’t he clutched to the earth? I feared that he would crash headlong; instead, the clouds broke apart, and the firmament uttered a welcome. There was a loud snap and Mamá’s gold necklace of la virgencita slithered down her bosom, the leaden sky echoed a separateness I had yet to grasp, and your hands, Nando, your hands trembled like you were witnessing the edge of the world.
And like that, everything changed. The weeks that followed were the worst. It rained eight to twelve hours without cease, for days. Our neighbor told us that many fishing boats sunk or were damaged. Sewers collapsed and palm trees fell on our backyard. We had to evacuate to the nearest center. That’s where Yvana got cholera—she vomited constantly, where you, Nando, were too nervous to eat, and where Mamá finally seemed like she belonged in el pueblo: no expensive heels or jewelry, and no time to do her hair and makeup punctiliously.
When it was all over, we returned home. Mamá hired people to remove debris and to attempt to clear up the mud and its mess. Mamá was mostly worried that we would get sick. You, Nando, complained constantly that the electricity was out. No one talked about Papá.
There are things we should never know about ourselves, Nando. So I never told you that there was something wrong with you. Besides, Mamá had forbidden me of acknowledging the strange in you: how you would often become a rock in front of people, sweating profusely; how words sometimes all jumbled up for you, and the plates meant spoons, and the spoons, knives; how your eyes would roll back, while—in those prolonged seconds that felt like minutes—your brain rummaged for answers to small talk.
There are things we should never know about ourselves, Nando.
So, Mamá rarely asked you to do your share. And our father, even before The Day Papá Folded Into The Sky occurred—the one who knew the world would fail to tolerate you—was barely around to teach you how to be a man in a place where the one who had the most viveza, like the edges of a sharpened machete, survived at the expense of preying on others.
But Mamá didn’t agree with the world; she praised you daily: you had a thin waist and broad shoulders—the build of a torero—and your back was tender and smooth like the petals of our garden flowers, and this magnolia skin of yours was proof of worth. Admiration she never bestowed on me, for I had taken after Papá’s side of the family. And although I felt my skin to be rich in color and ambition, Mamá clearly favored yours. The attention to your physical attributes felt all too exaggerated to me. After all, I did things faster than most people, walking by eight months and reading by four years old. I was fast at any task, so Mamá relied on me to wash the dishes, buy groceries, plant the watermelon seeds, and clean the house while she cooked. Mamá was convinced that my help or adherence to her rules was expected behavior. I became obsessed with excelling in school hoping that at least in that area I was worthy of praise. I envied that you couldn’t care less, Nando, what your performance was. I envied that you didn’t try to be the perfect hijo. The world valued us constantly, and that scale was the opposite of the one Mamá had fabricated at home.
Once Papá had been gone for almost a month, and Mamá thought it was a good idea that we worked after school to keep us from asking questions about his whereabouts. I was hired as soon as I walked into La Natura. You, Nandito mío, were quickly turned away from several places until Mamá thought it was too risky for your self-esteem to continue trying. I know you wanted to know about my day, Nandito, you always asked about it. I wanted to tell you, Nando, I did, that I had pressed over a hundred sandwiches and made even more batidos de melón, that La Dueña had raised my hourly salary in just a week. But as soon as I recounted my day, Mamá would change the subject or shush me with a cutting stare. So those hours of my days became silent spaces between us. I knew then that if I was to remain with you, I had to hide. Three weeks in and I told Mamá that La Dueña had fired me.
Of course, it was hard to explain that Papá was part of the sky. After all, where was our proof? Mamá had phrased it that way—he’s part of the sky now—after what we had seen. But my classmates, mostly girls, would turn to me during recreo and say something bad like, Your dad is not the sky. He left your mother to have another wife. Even though you refused to defend Papá or to tell them about The Day Papá Folded Into The Sky, you hated these girls even more so than those boys that called you an idiot, Nando, Nandito mío.
We never thought that we would find ourselves trying to convince Mamá to dress up to go to church on Sunday. But after The Day Papá Folded Into The Sky, we underestimated how long Mamá would act weird. At first, I thought she didn’t want to go through the same thing we endured at school. Convincing people of the truth can be exhausting. But Mamá no longer wore her medallion of la virgencita, and I realized that she had lost faith. I decided to pray by myself at night: for Mamá to bathe more often, for Nando to make friends, for it to rain so that I could feel Papá’s hands on my shoulders again.
Our family became so closed off. It was increasingly hard to persuade you to leave your video games to venture outside. So, as we grew older, we spent less time exploring and going places. I told myself that it was to be expected because that year you were in bachillerato while I remained in secundaria at school. I missed having the same lunch as you, Nando, and I was looking forward to graduating. When that happened, something new was the thing to do: it was the business of parties and learning how to kiss.
It didn’t take long before I stood out in high school. But I did try, Nando, I tried to keep my head down, to remain unseen. So that the ocean between us would still be navigable. I did what I had always done in the past: buried myself in books, mapped the coastline of Playa Copey and Playa Grande for us to traverse on the weekend, kept getting 20s in all my classes. Let’s just say, half way through my first year of bachillerato, I had accumulated many party invitations and gifts from admirers. I noticed that the boys who liked me stopped stealing your backpack or calling you a gallo. I felt that this was the only way that your weirdness might start to go unnoticed. And sure, we wouldn’t get them to believe what happened to Papá, I couldn’t help that. But I could help you.
I won’t lie: there were times that I hated taking you with me. There would always be a girl you liked, Andrea or Lucia or Macarena. And you would stand real close next to one of them—no matter what they were doing—lighting the candles, eating a piece of cake, having a conversation with another boy. Anchored in silence, hands like broken branches. So, I had to stop dancing and rush to your side. Talk to you. To help pretend that you were normal and to ask you something that would recalibrate you to movement, to come back to life. Girls my age were already having boyfriends, and I knew that Ricardo wanted to kiss me because he tucked my hair behind my ear. And I wanted to find out if I, too, wanted to kiss him. But you made everyone uncomfortable, Nando. But you never noticed, did you, Nandito? Watching you in public made me so heavy inside. So, I called Mamá to pick us up early from parties. And told myself it didn’t matter that I no longer felt Ricardo’s lanky hands on my hips when we danced or missed out on Andrea’s story about going to Canaima with her father. It was just easier to turn down invitations. To retreat from embarrassment.
Mamá was a sifrina even at home; she patrolled the house with great poise and clinky, gold bracelets. Looking over my shoulder while I completed homework—scoffing now and then to show her disapproval over misspellings or intellectual shortcomings. Mamá never reprimanded you for not doing your homework; in fact, she would often do it for you. At times I wanted to ask Mamá about our life: how come Nando didn’t have to do his own homework? Where did Papá go when he was away? Why would she send us on a bus but would never accompany us to see her mother, Abuela Elena? But Mamá had a bad temper, so I never dared. I did, however, enjoy going to Abuela Elena’s house because getting a break from Mamá felt like lluvia on a sultry summer afternoon.
We were used to learning most things about our family from someone else. Remember that time, Nandito, when we waited for the fishmonger lady to prepare the fish while Mamá bought the vegetables? Remember what she told her daughter, Soledad, the one with the pretty mole by her nose who went to our school? That fishmonger lady had placed her hand flat on the fish, punctured underneath the chin and slid the knife all the way down, and said to her daughter loud enough so we could hear:
—Mira, the children of La Musiú. She used to manage the apartments of that tall building in Calle La Cruz before her mother cut her off. And now, look at her, coming down to the market herself.
You were lost in thought—I think—and I wish I had, too, been staring at something else that wasn’t her bony fingers pulling the guts out of that hole.
I could convince you of doing certain things, Nando mío, and so once you agreed to be the one to ask Abuela Elena about Mamá: why was she not allowed to visit? But it would be a long time after that day at the market before we saw Abuela Elena again. Mamá couldn’t afford to give Lupita, our maid, her monthly meager pay; so, she could no longer take us to Caracas. To Abuela Elena’s yard full of cotoperi and pumalaca trees. To drink Toddy in the morning and eat cachito con queso. To roam the house with no chores to do and no Commanding Officer to follow. We could talk to Abuela Elena about anything we wanted—how well school was going, how Mamá’s carnitas tasted stale in comparison to Abuela Elena’s, or about the latest beauty competition in el pueblo—as long as we didn’t mention Papá.
Mamá had rescued Lupita from an impoverished family that had often tied her to a chair and let her get bit by rats while her parents went to work in the cotton fields. Now, La Tía Julia had Lupita, and Mamá took on the unglamorous job of training me in the kitchen. But you didn’t have to learn, did you, Nando? To cook and clean and sweep the floor. But you missed Lupita, too. Because she would fill our cups with Coca-Cola instead of milk without Mama noticing and let us eat the heart of the canilla bread while leaving the outer part like a discarded carcass. She would let me run around the house wearing nada or just my underwear. You never really knew how to let loose, Nando, although I tried real hard to teach you. To show you how to enjoy the world and to be ready for it. So, we would go on treasure or vigilante hunts because we had to eradicate all sorts of beings that could scare or hurt you: snakes, black cats—we used that white powder with moldy odor Mamá once bought for a swarm of insects—and ghosts. Perhaps, that way, we would be in charge of our lives. But nothing had scared you like the cuento of La Llorona. Remember that cuento, Nando? Lupita told us about it while I was recounting The Day Papá Folded Into The Sky. Lupita nodded, at first, not dismissing that the sky was capable of reclaiming human beings of great ancestry. But she wasn’t all that convinced. What if his disappearance was linked to something else?
—So—she asked—you heard a noise from above that sounded like bones cracking? It could have been La Llorona, you know? She walks around after sunset. Wailing inconsolably. An ominous cry in search of her missing child.
She punctuated each sentence with a cut of the carrots. You clenched your fists, Nando, and I thought about taking you out of the kitchen. But I needed to know—what had this to do with Papá?
—People say she’s out to get all sorts of unfaithful men. She lures them in with her incomparable beauty and luscious, onyx hair. She wants revenge for the death of her child. Once the men approach her, she shows her sharp teeth, her claws for nails, and her fiery mouth. And do you know what happens to the men she preys upon?
You wanted to say something, Nando, but as usual—when Mamá wasn’t around—I interrupted you and volunteered my answer: They run and lose their way! I said. And she laughed. A hollow laugh. Then said:
—They are punished. Punished for all their sins. Because a man she once loved had gotten her pregnant only to leave her for another woman. So, she drowned her own child out of sorrow. So, be careful, Fernando—she said to you—La Llorona might think you are hers.
I remember we didn’t sleep much that night, Nando, because we heard a sharp sound and wonder if it came from La Llorona wandering outside. We clung to each other underneath the sheets. I held a kitchen knife and gave you a tree branch. We had learned to protect one another even back then when Papá was still around. One time you had seen a ghost when you went to the bathroom. You had bloodshot eyes, and I was the only one that believed you. You were so shaken that I let you curl up in my bed the way wet soil receives a falling, dry leaf.
The next morning, you ran to Papá and begged and begged for a large dog so that the barking would keep the ghost at bay. But no, Papá wouldn’t have it. You were always so fearful, Nando, of everything. And this time you tugged on his shirt and bellowed in fear. Cheeks wet from tears. I thought Papá would slap you right then and there. But he didn’t, he stared at you in what—disbelief? Pity? Indifference? I could never tell what Papá felt or thought about you, about anything really. Sometimes I wished someone would slap you, and I felt guilty for having that thought. But I wanted you to be a fighter. To be tougher. I think Papá did, too. But he was a quiet man and most of the time he wasn’t home anyways.
We did all the things Lupita said might work to keep you safe: placed salt underneath your pillow, wrapped you in sheets while you went to the bathroom, and placed a rabbit’s foot on your pocket. We had to scavenge for money to buy the foot in the market. But, in the end, it worked: you were safe.
You were unable to hide any dread or pain, so you wore it on your skin, Nando, which meant that it was easy to identify when you needed me. But some people are followed by pain like a shadow. So, for several months, I didn’t notice that Mamá’s heart had been dropped into a sharp, desolate field. So, without notice and almost a year after The Day Papá Folded Into the Sky, Mamá would lock herself in her room and made terrible sobbing and choking noises. By then, Lupita no longer worked for us, so we spent a lot of time unsupervised. We would wake up to the roosters crowing, chase wandering cats out of the patio, and pick out burrs from our shoelaces. We would, to no avail, knock on Mamá’s door and plea for her to come out in the mornings. After a while, we left the house and occupied ourselves with what we could. We removed lichens from trees—hoping to stop them from growing sad and dying—and hiked mounds, evading cacti and shrubs. I would suck on my prickled skin to rid of the blood as we made our way through. The plants would make noises—some kind of sibilating—as if the stems and branches came alive after drawing blood. Once, we made it to the hot springs and paid five hundred bolívares that we found in Mamá’s tin box to pay for the entrance. I convinced you to get in, and you let me rub mud on your face and belly and arms, to rid you of any looming mal de ojo.
You grew increasingly quiet, Nandito. I couldn’t get a word out of you. Even when Mamá came of her room, our house held a tomb-like stillness. Tía Julia and Yvana would drop by once a week. But you stayed in your room, playing video games. Tía Julia made us carne mechada and platanitos. Combed Mamá’s fair hair while she stared into nothingness. I would listen half-heartedly to Yvana who talked on and on about a boy she liked. If they did not show up one week, we figured Tía Julia had gotten into another fight with Yvana’s father. But Mamá no longer seemed to care. I could condone Mamá giving up on Tía Julia. I even expected to become invisible to her. But, when she stopped doting on you, Nandito, I began to really worry.
She acted as if Papá was dead or as if he had disappeared like Lupita had implied when she told us about La Llorona. But we had all seen it, hadn’t we? Papá swirling up to the sky. Now, he returned every other week, like he used to, in the form of a rainy day to quench our thirst for him. I couldn’t take the deafening silence any longer. I decided to call Abuela Elena. I told her about The Day Papá Folded Into The Sky and about Mamá becoming una sombra.
She made it to Carúpano—an eight-hour drive—from Caracas before the end of the week, packed some of our clothes to take to her house, and said only this to our mother who was sprawled on the sofa, her arms dangling tentacles, like a medusa discarded onto the sand by a receding tide:
—Ever since you ran off with that lewd mujeriego, I prayed that you wouldn’t end up like this, hija, a mere waste.
I quickly protested. Told Abuela Elena, again, about The Day Papá Folded Into The Sky. I implored you, Nando, to tell her what had really happened. But you didn’t, Nando, you didn’t tell her that Papá had spiraled up, had folded into the sky, had not abandoned us. And of all the times that I needed you to do something, to say something, this was it.
I never could forgive you, Nando, for the silence you created.