You followed Oleta Esteban every time you saw her. At the grocery store she was buying frozen peas, milk and bread, chicken broth, two bananas. Is this what women ate after they lost their children? Oleta looked as if she scavenged crumbs left for birds, seeds scattered. Brittle, she was, an old child, thin bones beneath yellow skin, suddenly, terribly visible.
You remembered her in a red dress and white sandals, Oleta before Dorrie and Elia died, arms bare, toenails painted. She dropped her sandals in the dark grass to dance with her children barefoot.
Dorrie gave her marrow to Elia but failed to save him. Nine years old, she was, the same as you were. Too close, the doctors said, a match too perfect. Dorrie’s cells didn’t recognize any part of her little brother as dangerous. Everything in Elia was good, even his cancer. Florid, Doctor Botero said, meaning the leukemia bloomed again, wild inside him.
You turned eleven, flush with love, falling in love with Dorrie Esteban. Dark-eyed Dorrie gave you a curl of her black hair tied with green ribbon, and later, swaying in a tree house deep in the woods, she showed you the violet scars high on her hipbones. Leaves whispered, and you wanted to speak now in their language.
You imagined the dark place inside her bones, hollow needle long enough to probe, sharp lance twisting to the center. You saw Dorrie’s secret core pulled into a syringe and pumped into her brother. Light spilled through the slats of the tree house, and you wanted to touch Dorrie where the light touched and be that silent.
Roof of sticks, floor half rotten—the tree house rocked in the wind, a broken cradle. Rays of light pierced Dorrie’s hips and hands. Nobody saves anyone forever.
At the river you skipped stones and felt blood thin as water rippling through you. Elia did live, five months longer than expected. Twilight streaked the sky rose and violet. Frogs sang from trees and swallows dove, catching insects. Everything loves life: frog, bird, boy, mosquito. You heard the fluttery whoosh of your own heart, valves opening and closing. Is this all we are: wings, stone, water, twilight? Dorrie’s marrow flowed through her brother’s veins to find its way inside his bones and become part of him.
When she said she was going to die, it didn’t surprise or scare you. Sometimes I see myself walking toward myself, and I just feel very beautiful. All day you wanted to touch, but failed to touch Dorrie Esteban.
Very beautiful. She did die—in the car, with her mother—a cold, bright day eight months later. Nineteen-year-old Kelly Flynn, blinded by the glaze of ice, late for work and helplessly hungover, hit the gas to run the light at Meridian. Oleta slammed her brakes hard with both feet, but the green Dodge clipped Kelly’s white truck and spun into the light pole. Why does any child die one day and not another? Dorrie’s seatbelt snapped, and the girl you loved flew into the windshield. Three minutes earlier or five seconds later—they might have never met Kelly Flynn if Dorrie hadn’t taken time to kiss and wake her father.
Now it hurt Oleta Esteban to walk on bones shattered. Why would God need all her children—not just Elia and Dorrie, but Amalita too, the little one never born, cells flushed away, blood whirling down the school toilet. Oleta Riero, still a girl living in her parents’ house, just fourteen the day Amalita went back to God, the dirt, the crows, the river. For seven weeks Oleta Riero carried the child of her father’s cousin. Uncle Paolo. Only her sister knew, and that night in the bed they shared, Graciela laid her hands on Oleta’s heart and belly.
You’ve mended well, Doctor Savoy said, better than we expected. He meant her feet and face, her ribs, her pelvis. At the grocery store, sixteen months after Dorrie died, Oleta used the rolling cart to steady herself as she moved down the aisles. You were thirteen, drowned with love, in love now with both of them.
There were things she touched but didn’t buy: oranges, mangoes, powdered chocolate—a peach pie with a lattice crust, peanut butter swirled with scarlet jelly. What did Mario eat? She can’t remember. Does her ragged husband shop for himself, or is he starved hollow as Oleta? You imagine their bodies in bed, bone piercing bone, no comfort.
Perhaps Mario eats at the houses he tends, the faithful caretaker devouring whatever people leave behind when they fly to their other homes in Montreal or Capistrano, Marseille or Kailua-Kona. He keeps nine houses now, respectable work for a man raised as a migrant. Mario remembers a night so dark and full of stars he thought God had swallowed him—Mario Esteban, seven years old, alone with his mother and father, silent and blessed, these three crossing a field together, the smell of mint impossibly sweet and strong in the night air, tender leaves rubbing his dark feet, the sweet smell becoming him. His sister Serafina had stayed in the tent with the baby so that Mario could go to the river, so that he might be loved and known, this one night, cherished as an only child. The wind was still warm, but they were cool and clean, and the stars fell into the black curve of the hills, and the stars above swirled. They were safe and dark as the night. Nothing was not God. Nothing could hurt them.
All day Mario Esteban might be hot and dirty, coughing from dust on the fruit they picked, choking on pesticides. He might drink from a shallow ditch winding through a field. All day he might refuse to eat, sick and hot and full of poison. But tonight, he was washed clean and hungry, and he knew when they returned to camp they’d find a dozen fires blazing, pretty girls dancing with old men, little boys with grandmothers leaping. They’d move from fire to fire, eating tomatillos with chipotles, eggs baked under hot rocks, beans fried with chorizo. Jalapeños, mulattos, pasillas, habaneros—his father’s mouth would burn, and Mario would run to bring him wine and water. They’d eat masa cake with caramel cream, the goat’s gift, milk thick with honey. All night Mario’s body would throb with the guitars, skull jangling like a tambourine, drums talking to his bones.
And this too would be good—but now, in the field, even the crickets stopped chirping, and the silence was God, and the stars were inside him. Mario Esteban had never been so good, so loved, so clean, so perfect. He remembers his father walking ahead, Aurelio Esteban becoming the shadow of himself, not quite visible—inside the night, not separate from it, Papá reaching the fence first and starting to climb over. Mario’s legs felt suddenly weak, chilled by the cold river. He was small in the great dark night, hungry and tired—but he knew when they reached the fence, his mother would lift him high and pass him to his father, and his father would feel how tired he was, and kiss his hair, and carry him.
Mario saw the flood of light and flash of gunfire, understood the cry of the gun before he heard the farmer’s warning. Aurelio Esteban clutched his leg, shot in the back of the knee, halfway over the fence, snagged in wire—Papá shot a second time in the hand, and a third time in the shoulder.
Mario’s mother knocked him to the ground, and he didn’t breathe because he couldn’t breathe, and he didn’t move because she pinned him. Every leaf of mint stood alone in the light, every thing on earth terrible and separate. He thought he’d die of his father’s wounds, that the smell of mint would drown him.
Aurelio Esteban never walked straight again, never danced with Serafina—never picked cherries with his right hand, never reached over a fence to carry his son Mario, never rocked in both arms the baby Tobalito—never lifted, Mario’s mother said, anything heavier than a bottle.
Today, or any day, a day in late June when you followed Oleta Esteban in the grocery store, Mario might be on the far side of a secret lake, high in the hills, with a view of the mountains. The house he tends has a private road: Turn Back Now. No Trespassing. Mario has a key to the wrought-iron gate, a whole ring of jangling keys—nine gates, nine houses. Look at you, his father says. Mario never knows if the dead come to praise or mock him.
Each bedroom here is bigger than Mario’s house. Thirteen children could sleep in one bed, a hundred hungry migrants hide in one closet. There are 327 bottles of wine in the cellar, and to the man who owns this house, each one is precious. Mario sees wine splash in the dirt, hears one bottle break, his mother’s curse, his father’s weeping—Mario Esteban feels his own skin torn, and tastes the blood of children spilling out of him.
He won’t go down the stairs today, won’t check the temperature of the cellar. He won’t open the closet doors, though he’s supposed to check for leaks and bats, spiders and squirrels. He’s afraid to meet a hundred dark faces in the dark, muttering to a hundred gods, praying in a hundred languages. He’s afraid he’ll recognize one face, Mario Esteban still seven years old, dizzy with the smell of mint, terrified and silent.
He stays in the light beneath vaulted ceilings. One side of this house is an eighteen-foot wall of glass, held tight between timbers thick as trees, raw wood meant to fool the hand and eye, left bare to look like cedars growing. It’s Mario’s job to keep the glass clean and gather birds that fly into it.
Turn Back Now. Rosy finch, meadowlark, bluebird—these three failed to heed the signs. The wild robin did not comprehend where sky was not the sky, where clouds did not belong to him.
Mario’s made a soft pouch of a tattered t-shirt, and he uses this to carry the birds back into the forest. He leaves their small bodies cradled at the roots of trees, safe in beds of dirt and needles. Mario keeps his faith: the bobcat will come tonight and make the birds part of him.
No one is safe in the house or the forest. Trespassers Will Be Shot. The long leather sofa is softer than Mario’s skin: smooth, dark hide scraped clean from the bison. Private Property. He lies down, suddenly so tired, one hand touching the pillow he can’t use, fur of the fox: Violators Shall Be Opened. He hates himself for stroking the deep fur, loving the red fox, forgiving the killer. He wants to slice the animal free, fold it back into the shape of an animal.
A whitetail doe stands just beyond the glass wall, watching this befuddled man without pity or judgment. Does she see inside, or is she in rapture, mesmerized by the elegant grace of her own reflection?
Mario needs to be home, now, cradled in a narrow bed in his tiny house—every curtain drawn tight, every window locked. He wants Oleta’s skin touching his skin. She won’t speak till night comes. The door to their children’s room is always shut. They don’t see the bunk beds Mario built, the flowered sheet Dorrie hung to hide herself, the blue ladder Elia climbed to sleep high on top. Their little boy loved to touch his glittering glow-in-the-dark stars, the heaven of twinkling light Oleta so joyfully and without fear pasted to her children’s ceiling and walls.
But Mario can’t go home. There’s work to do: beds to strip, tiles to polish, fireplaces to clean, a Jacuzzi to drain, the refrigerator to empty. And he’s hungry now—too hungry to notice wind riffling the deep lake, water flashing turquoise and silver.
You imagine Mario Esteban, hard-boned and stringy. He sits in the yellow glare of the open refrigerator eating soft white cheese and smoked salmon. Neither is a delicacy to him—the cheese sticks in his throat, the salmon’s too sweet and salty. He’s full after three bites—full and hungry. He gnaws on a cold lamb chop, cut thick but very small, so rare it’s almost blue at the center.
The departed have left Mario two miniature cakes made from the white flesh of the flayed rattlesnake. Did the snake trespass here? Did his rattle betray him? Who caught, who cut, who cooked this creature? If he eats the snake, will Mario be condemned to slide along the earth, forever breathing dust, forever dirty?
Should he dump the cakes, or bury them? If he leaves them for the crows, will the birds forgive and bless him?
The missing have left ten truffles for dessert, dense chocolates flecked with gold leaf, real gold—he could eat these and die, belly ringed in light, bowels gilded.
The disappeared drank wine from glasses so fine they have no weight, only shape and color, faint echoes of topaz or emerald—amethyst, tourmaline, fire opal—each one perfectly impossible, molten glass hand blown by a blindman in Palermo. Their jeweled light spills, sparking veins of quartz hidden in the granite countertop.
The five glasses have been left out to dry, for Mario to see, to touch, to want, to carry silently and without haste or harm to the cupboard. He’s afraid to breathe now, afraid a fragile glass might slip from his trembling hand, might fall and shatter on slate, might glitter brilliant as sapphires. Mario hears bright bells of breaking glass as if the thought of his crime has made it happen. Once the breaking begins, how will he stop it? He sees the cellar flooded with wine, birds flying into the house, glass clouds and blue sky on the floor in splinters.
He washes his hands, but they stay dark, palms wide, fingers clumsy. Are they clean? Is it possible?
He’s shaking now and decides to wait, to move the glasses when the sun is low and their dazzling light stops tempting. Mario hears muttering in the closets, prayers of the dead, the dead trying to protect him. Mother, father, nine aunts, six uncles—three grinning grandparents blissfully blind to their children’s future—thirty-two never known, half-loved, dark-eyed cousins—Mario feels them very close—the missing, the dead, the left behind, the not forgotten, the too old to walk with goats across the desert—he hears the unborn children of his children, Dorrie and Elia—the ones forever lost and still so hungry—Mario eats for them, cracking quail eggs into his open mouth, chasing them with pomegranate juice so brilliant he feels his bones dissolve to light, ribs and fingers glowing. Mario Esteban eats glistening caviar by the heaping black shiny spoonful. Nothing sustains, nothing fattens. His children starve. They murmur in the walls; they tap beneath the floorboards. But eating like this for the dead, stuffing himself sick, keeps them from wailing.
At the grocery store where you followed Oleta Esteban, a tiny child strapped in a cart whimpered. Her plump, pretty mother had walked away to find the perfect avocado. Momma fondled and squeezed—too hard, too soft, too black, too pale. The girl’s little body clenched and shivered.
She didn’t want to cry, but the cries rose up and out of her, strange fluttery sounds—too high to make the woman turn, too soft to bring Mommy back to her. Oleta stepped toward the cart, thin back quivering. You saw her shoulder blades, sharp as wings poking. You were afraid she’d snatch the child and run, that her fractured feet might break again, ribs snap, pelvis shatter. Still she’d flee, lifted by the child’s cries, pushed beyond pain by the small heart hammering. Oleta swayed side to side, already sensing the girl’s body pressed against her own—pale skin soft as something inside the body, and the smell of her, sweet as sugared almonds—you felt her too, this holy one, this living child.
You meant to step between and spare Oleta Esteban more sorrow. She didn’t reach or touch, only trembled. You couldn’t see Oleta’s face, but the little girl grew miraculously quiet, green eyes wet and wide, tiny hands opening and closing, as if she sensed something in the air, something too fine and light to see, something only the starved mother of no children could offer.
You remember Oleta Esteban’s hair, a dark wing curved against her small body. You wanted to slip your hands under her hair, but you turned away, afraid even your wild thought might hurt her. Now, cold as you are, numb to the marrow, you want to lie down in a small dark place and let the black wing of Oleta’s hair cover you.