I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Six decades, five years, a fistful of months, another of days, and from among all these Papito’s thoughts returned him to the few hours he had tried hardest to forget. On that afternoon, clouds had darkened the sky to make it appear like night. By evening, heaven had collapsed and the wind incited what threatened to be one of the worst hurricanes in years. Along the beaches of Barahona, the swollen Caribbean Sea stood erect and stormed toward the shore, stooping only to snatch into its foamy hands and swallow greedily anything lying in its path.
Papito was 19. As the favorite son, born to his father in old age, he had inherited three acres and a shack situated a quarter-mile from the sea’s edge. He lived in it alone, his siblings having shrugged off responsibility for their father, who was so beaten by a lifetime of heavy labor that his body had bowed towards the earth as if longing for its grave. For 18 months during which he’d learned more about sorrow than any youth needed to know, Papito had listened to his embittered father rail against God, country, the wife who had willed herself to die, the children who had drained his strength. He had watched him shrink to a skeleton racked by arthritic pain and pneumonically spewing blood. He had bathed and clothed him. He had held a baby’s bottle to his lips and mashed his food, his father’s teeth having rotted from a diet supplemented by sugar stolen from the warehouse where he’d worked. Papito had done all of this and more, only to come home one day to find his father’s body convulsing with its last breath and his eyes brightening at the realization that he was finally about to die. Papito had seen him buried six feet deep and had not known, even then, if his father had confused the unlabeled bottles by his bed or had purposefully poisoned himself by ingesting the ointment for arthritis rather than the medicine to relieve his hacking cough.
A bolt of lightning slashed the sky. Papito emerged from what had once been his father’s room. Ears attuned to the wind rattling his walls and to the rain pummeling his roof, he ignited the wick of a candle a draft instantly blew out. Already most of his neighbors had sought refuge in a cathedral built on higher ground. Yet he kept postponing the moment when he would join them there.
Fumbling through darkness, he stuffed rags into cracked windows leaking water onto dirt floors. He shoved furniture away from where he discovered other leaks by touch. Determined to safeguard all he could against the storm, he draped oilcloths over perishable objects and also over those he was unable to move alone. As he stepped blindly from room to room, he muttered prayers for his home not to flood or be hauled into the sea. He vowed that if it remained intact he would rebuild it strong enough to withstand both wind and rain; he would add additional rooms; he would furnish them well enough to lure a bride able to disperse the gloom which had lingered since his father’s death.
Both of the shack’s two rooms were miserably small and forlorn. Few things in either provided comfort. Their meager furniture—a table, several chairs, a stack of crates, a woman’s dresser with an empty frame where a mirror should have been, an iron bed, a rolled-up mat—all showed the wear of time. The exterior of the house, with its splintering walls and corroding roof, lent it the appearance of one which had stood uninhabited for years.
Ever since his father’s death, Papito had been finding unbearable his solitude in those rooms. He longed for companionship, but not for that of male friends or of the women who welcomed him into their arms in exchange for a few pesos, a pound of sugar, a bushel of one thing or another. He yearned for someone to whom he could earnestly give himself, someone who’d be waiting when he came home each day and whose warm body beside his would remind him that he too was alive.
He had already decided who that bride would be. He had glimpsed her sitting on the beach in a white cotton shift hiked to just below her hips and with her plump legs extended to receive the sea rolling like her lover onto shore. In the tropical noon glare, her bronzed skin had seemed to radiate light and heat. Her woolly hair—whipped by a breeze and highlighted with strands of gold—had stirred as if alive. Although she had appeared to be about 15, possibly as old as 17, it had been clear, from the presence of the younger sisters who traditionally served as chaperones for marriageable daughters, that she had not yet been claimed by any man. Nonetheless, her face—with its features drawn tight across its bones and chiseled precisely in contrast to the cushy roundness of her body—had made her seem not like someone still in the midst of a protected childhood but, rather, like someone who had lived far beyond her years.
“Anabelle, you coming in?”
Her name rang in Papito’s ears as her sisters beckoned for her to join them in the waves.
One hand letting sand trickle slowly through its fingers, the other planted flat behind her, Anabelle remained focused on something at the horizon’s edge. And although she had not said a word, Papito imagined that her voice would be as enchanting as her name, her character as strong as her sculpted face, her passion as untamed as the hair curtaining her eyes. Watching her from a distance of a few feet, he felt his blood pulse riotously through his veins.
His father had been wrong. Life could not possibly be all bad if it had resulted in beauty such as Anabelle’s.
Right then and there, and without having planned to, Papito yanked off his shirt and dived into the sea. He lay on his back and licked the taste of salt from his lips, content for the moment to have Anabelle within his sight and to release himself to the waves whose motion matched the rhythm of his heart.
Having never encountered Anabelle before, he assumed that she had recently moved to Barahona. But after inquiring among friends, he discovered that she had lived there all her life.
“Stay away from her,” they warned, “or her father will come after you with a machete.”
He learned that her mother had died young and that she and her sisters lived in the countryside with their father. Rumor also had it that he controlled them with an iron will and was especially possessive of his eldest.
“Didn’t you hear what he did to Juan for just looking at Anabelle? And what about his falling-out with Don Lucas and Manolo?”
Whenever Papito had thereafter glimpsed Anabelle sitting in church with her head bent low, buying staples at the market, or washing clothes at the river’s edge, she had invariably been accompanied by her sisters. Yet although he and she had not been introduced, she visited him in dreams.
Silently, stealthily, she’d slip into his room to join him in his bed. From between her naked breasts she would magically produce a mango whose green skin fading into pink hinted at the ripe perfection of the fruit inside. Her fingers would gently knead the fruit, transforming its pulp into a nectar that moved tantalizingly beneath its skin. Then, lips scarcely opening, she’d puncture the mango’s tip. The bit of flesh her teeth had torn would drift onto her lap. Her lips would bloom into a bud against the fruit’s small wound, and her hands would massage its flesh, cajoling its nectar into her mouth. Any drops that rolled onto her chin she’d offer to Papito on a fingertip. Hungrily, shamelessly, he would lick them off. Only when he had begged for more would she recklessly strip off the mango’s skin and offer the fruit to him in the hollow of her palm. Rivulets of its juice would ooze onto her fingers. Papito would reach his tongue between them. One by one he would take her fingers into his mouth and lingeringly suck each. When unable to postpone any longer savoring the fruit itself against his lips and tongue and teeth, he would twine his hands through his love’s dark hair and draw her near so that she too might partake.
In anticipation of the fulfillment of this dream, Papito had begun to oil his ashy skin and to slick his hair back with pomade. The shoes he had not once bothered to polish prior to his encounter with Anabelle were now buffed daily despite the countryside’s perpetual dust. Clothes he had been indifferent to wearing torn were mended with seams he sewed surprisingly straight.
He began to take notice of other things as well: the windows dirty enough to prevent the sun’s rays from shining into his home; the chairs perched on wobbly legs; the warped, wooden table slick with grease; the ants perpetually marching across his floors; the cobwebs strung across beams and draped from corners; the weeds sprouting leaves through the crevices in his walls.
The desire to prepare a home for his intended bride served as an impetus for what he had previously ignored. He set aside time to dust, sweep, scour, and polish. He even learned to repair furniture, cork holes, spread dung on floors until they acquired a glossy sheen.
Once he replaced the leaky roof, he intended to ask Anabelle’s father for permission to visit her at home. To prove his intentions were honorable, he would assure them that he was employed and owned a home able to accommodate her and the many children he hoped they’d have. These and other details had been carefully worked out in his mind. Should his offer be refused the first time, he would try again and then again. He would remain patient until their resistance had worn down. He would comply with any demands either of them might make. More important, he would not, as he suspected others before him had, disrespect the father or the daughter by attempting to meet with her alone.
Papito paused between the two rooms of his home. He made a mental list to check if he had left anything undone. Between bursts of thunder, the wind vehemently shook the house and threatened to lift its roof right off. Hesitant to leave it but unwilling to endanger himself by remaining any longer, he pushed open the shack’s front door. A gust of wind snatched him from the threshold and flung him back inside the house. Sheets of rain simultaneously slanted in. The water which had begun to seep in under his walls streamed freely through the open door, hauling in sand, twigs, pebbles, a host of palmetto bugs, the sea grapes for which Barahona was well known, anything else the rain had amassed on its way downhill.
Drenched, Papito struggled to his feet. A tarantula hopped onto his hand and scampered up his arm. He swiped it off and dipped the same hand into the inch or so of water covering his floors. From the weight of what had been hauled into the house, he calculated that the storm was quickly gathering force. Worried that he had lingered far too long, he kicked off both his shoes. On bare feet better able to grip the earth and to detect changes in the terrain, he cast himself into the storm.
The wind howled evilly as he bent his body forward to push against it. It snatched leaves and fruit and limbs off trees, flinging them weightlessly through air. It snapped the trunks of slender palms. Gleefully, rolls of thunder joined the merriment of destruction with a frightful noise seeming to originate from massive drums. Bolts of lightning slashed the sky cloaked in funereal greys.
It was as if the devil himself had taken possession of the world, as if during the preceding weeks of sweltering days and nights—weeks during which the sun and moon had slithered lethargically across the sky and everything in nature had succumbed to a listless stupor, remaining inert or moving sullenly on water, soil, or air had it been necessary to move at all—the devil had busied himself sowing seeds of restlessness and instigating violence which the elements, out of boredom, had decided to unleash.
In the midst of this torrential storm through which he could see no further than several feet ahead, and at the bottom of a hill made treacherous by the waters rushing down its side, Papito found himself thrust back into the recurrent nightmare which, upon waking screaming, he had barely been able to recall. Each step he took nonetheless persuaded him that he had taken the exact same step in dreams. Every clap of thunder, bolt of lightning, drop of rain that slapped his face was one he was sure he had experienced innumerable times before. Although awake, he discovered, as in his dreams, that nature had turned against him. With an uncanny sense of premonition which he was unable to shake off, he also understood that everything he had worked for during the previous weeks would on that very night be undone. It would not matter that he had exerted himself trying to safeguard his home against the storm and might actually reach the safety of higher ground. Nothing he had planned for himself and Anabelle would ever come to pass.
This premonition shook Papito to his core. Yet, unwilling to accept it as prophetic, he tucked it away from conscious thought and concentrated on reaching higher ground.
His feet slid on mud and tangled in roots unearthed specifically to trip him. Shivering fitfully, he avoided the cover of trees and tried to orient himself in the dark. But the footpath which had zigzagged up the hillside to meet the road to town had been entirely washed away.
He managed to climb the hill on his hands and knees. The storm was far more treacherous on the open road. It ripped planks from the sides of houses and tossed them with the fury of a child grown restless with his toys. It ripped out two poles strung with a clothesline and twined this around the branches of a tree where the garments flapped like ghosts aching to take flight.
Papito shielded his eyes from the debris and pelting rain. For every few steps he took forward, the wind shoved him back another and threatened to lift him off his feet. Offended by the unprovoked assault, he summoned the strength of rage to keep himself upright. He had almost reached the town when he detected, through sheets of rain rent by lightning, someone walking aimlessly ahead. So disconcerting was the sight that he came to an immediate halt. The apparition—for no person of this world would have moved so carelessly in a storm—drifted toward him with its back against the wind, its white dress transparent against its skin, its feet barely touching ground. When it moved past him, its body reeling from the force of the wind pushing it along, Papito believed that fatigue and the terrors of the storm had made him see what could not possibly be there.
Heart pounding with alarm, he turned to follow with his eyes the apparition posing as Anabelle. Unaware of his presence, she stumbled toward the sea. Her tangled hair whipped her face. Her mud-smeared dress gaped with a rip from her shoulders to just above her waist. This strip of fabric fluttered behind her, lending her the appearance of one who had lost a wing and was attempting to make do with the remaining appendage too water-logged to propel her off the ground.
Leaves and twigs spun at a dizzying speed around her. A plank flew inches above her head. Yet she made no effort to protect herself at all. It was as if she were the eye of the storm and the surrounding violence lacked the power to provoke her fear, as if her thoughts were focused on a private realm impervious to whatever affected the body she inhabited like a shell.
Papito watched her halt in the middle of the road. Her arms flew up and her torso bent forward at a precarious angle. In defiance of gravity, she sustained this position and offered herself to the wind. When moments passed and her offering was spurned, her arms plummeted back down. It then appeared that her body grew heavy and her height diminished, as if she were being sucked into soil. She jerked her head around to inspect the landscape. Sighting a squat palm with wide, long leaves whipped into a frenzy, she abruptly veered off the road. Dismayed, Papito watched her drop at the base of the tree’s gnarled trunk. Even as a child, he had learned not to do this in a storm. And Anabelle was not a child. She was a woman witnessing a storm powerful enough to level trees, a woman placing herself directly in harm’s way.
Anabelle slumped against the tree and brought her knees up to her chin. She wrapped her arms around both legs and tucked her head between them.
Papito battled the elements to reach her. Pelting rain stung his eyes; his feet slipped repeatedly on mud; the wind propelled him at an angle from the path he urgently needed to take. When he at last reached Anabelle, he found himself absurdly held back by the impropriety of approaching a lone maiden in the dark. It made no difference that he was doing so to save her life. His upbringing prevented him from seizing her against her will.
“Anabelle?” he called out, only to have a burst of thunder obliterate her name.
He stepped nearer the tree scarcely tall enough for an adult to stand under its leaves. His hands shook as he reached for Anabelle. On contact, she instantly leapt to her feet. Papito himself stumbled back. In the glare of lighting, he detected the terror in her eyes. He also saw the body he thought he had grown familiar with in dreams. His own suddenly convulsed. Facts, details and hearsay burst in quick succession to the forefront of his thoughts. He recalled that neither Anabelle nor her sisters had ever been glimpsed alone. He also heard the hushed voices of friends speaking of how her father, like a jealous rooster, chased off potential suitors; of how he had forced Anabelle to take on the role of her deceased mother; of the town’s many widows who would have gladly helped him raise his family; of his refusal to rewed and estrangement from the in-laws who had snooped around his house out of concern for the three girls.
Papito’s thoughts scurried forward, side-stepped, then retreated only to again masochistically advance towards the idea steadily taking shape like the blurred image of a ghost which, once it has appeared, forever destroys any preconceived notions one might have held of life.
Barahona was a small town. Rumors spread quickly. Unless the gossip of the moment pertained to an act so abhorrent that its mere mention inspired dread, it was spoken of unabashedly and with glee. Otherwise, the words chosen flitted around edges, only hinting at, never naming the horrid thing itself.
Only now, confronted with the evidence of Anabelle’s belly protruding against the soaked fabric of her dress, did Papito understand why his friends had warned him to find himself another girl. Only now did he understand as well why she had hidden in shapeless garments throughout the previous months.
Had the culprit responsible for her condition been one of her admirers, the townspeople would have forced them to marry. Such things had occurred before. Desire, a lack of restraint among the young, foolishness and mischief were for the most part acknowledged and occasionally condoned. Moreover, in such a case, the girl’s own father would have hunted down the man. Yet no such effort had been made in Anabelle’s behalf.
Something inside Papito snapped. He approached his beloved, his heart attempting to leap out of his mouth to offer itself to the hand she held up in self-defense. Her lips emitted a sound which held no words, a sound like that of a rabbit caught in the claws of its prey and swooped into the air. At the utterance ofthat sound, Papito irrevocably understood that it had not been foolishness but a determination to encounter death which had sent her out during the fierce storm.
Flinging caution to the wind, he seized Anabelle by her thickened waist. Her body stiffened against his; her fists struck him anywhere they could reach. Yet he did not loosen his grip. To release her would mean that he too had relinquished hope and believed that life was not worth the trouble of drawing breath.
He lurched onto the road with Anabelle struggling in his arms. Again, he recognized bits and pieces of his recurrent nightmare. For some inexplicable reason, he also recalled a story his father had loved to tell. In it, an old man walked home with his donkey and his dog. He led them across a field and beat the donkey beginning to trail behind. After this had gone on for some time, the donkey squatted on its hind legs and refused to budge. When the old man raised his cane, the beast of burden opened its jaws to speak.
“I am tired and will lay myself down to die. Your beating me has no power to change my mind.”
The old man was so taken aback that he dropped his cane and ran from the donkey as fast as his legs could carry him. His faithful dog followed close behind. When they collapsed at the edge of another field, the dog cocked its head towards its master.
“Imagine that!” it exclaimed. “A donkey speaking!”
Papito’s father had told the story in the mischievous voice he’d often employed before his sense of humor was strangulated by discontent. As a child, Papito had watched him succumb to a fit of mirth, not understanding the humor of the tale and filled with dread at the possibility that animals might speak. That this story should now return to haunt him unnerved him almost as much as everything else he had experienced throughout that night. Despite proof to the contrary, he needed to believe in a world where man and beast both had specific roles, and where wrongs were redressed and good deeds repaid in kind. He could not accept that what he perceived as reality might shift.
Papito tightened his grip on Anabelle. He dodged sheets of tin ripped from roofs and tried to avoid as well the limbs of trees and fist-sized rocks hurtling through air. When Anabelle slumped against him, he settled into his resolve of the previous weeks. He would remove her from her home. He would marry her and help her raise her child so that she’d never again have to hang her head in shame. He would deliver her from the unnameable misery she had endured until that day.
Rain pummeled them both as he stumbled on the road transformed into a river of rushing mud. He ran a palm along the base of Anabelle’s spine where her dress had torn. The memory of her flesh glistening in his dreams quickened his steps and lent him strength. He reached the cathedral and kicked its doors barricaded against the storm. When they creaked open, he thrust both himself and Anabelle inside.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the hundreds of candles flickering in exchange for divine protection. Already most of the townspeople had settled themselves inside to wait for the storm’s end. They lay on pews with their possessions, leaned exhausted against walls, huddled in family groups along the back and up front, near the alter of an impaled Christ. Their lips murmured silent prayers. The heat of their breaths and of their crowded bodies gave the cathedral a claustrophobic air.
Papito searched for a spot where he and Anabelle might rest. So intent was he on his task that he did not hear the sharp intake of breath as he passed by the old priest. Nor did he notice the silence that overtook the townspeople closest to the doors as he patted Anabelle to let her know they had arrived.
When she did not respond, he lowered her onto the floor and ever so gently leaned her against the cathedral’s hindmost pew. Her head rolled listlessly to one side. He cupped and settled it at a more comfortable angle. As he withdrew his hand, he noticed the red smearing his palm. He stared at it, wondering from what wound the blood had spilled. His emotions grew strangely numb. He wiped the blood off on his rain-soaked pants. Flipping his palm back up, he observed that it was neither cut nor scratched. Still unwilling to understand, he directed his gaze toward Anabelle.
Her eyes remained closed, their lashes damp and glistening, every other feature peacefully at rest.
Papito grew as still as she. He discovered that he was unable to stretch out his arms to touch her, unable to shift his gaze from her face, unable to lift his tongue to call her name. Kneeling there before her—the space in his soul where his hopes had resided vaulting shut, his heart decelerating of its own accord—he was presented with the conclusion of his recurrent nightmare. He saw each of its details clearly, as if, like Anabelle’s, his own ghost had flown from his body to become omniscient. Yet although he’d reached the events from which he had woken screaming in his bed, he was unable to utter a single sound or shed a single tear.
His eyes and mouth were as parched as if, his body had passed through flames. His soul was as barren as a grave.
—Loida Maritza Peréz is the author of the forthcoming novel Geographies of Home (Viking). Born in the Dominican Republic, she now resides in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee