My cousin Irlanda was more beautiful than I remembered. As a girl her angelic face had been marred by only two defects—her thin light hair and almost always elusive eyes. But now her hair was nicely done, and she had learned to look out from under her lashes.
Until three years earlier we had spent a lot of time together. Then she was sent to an international school. My sisters and I were always told to be like her. Even when she played with clay, she kept herself clean and neat, and that pleased Grandmother. She knew the right thing to say at the right time, and had a way of getting whatever she wanted from grown-ups with smiles. Irlanda was wonderful and graceful. We didn’t look at all like cousins.
I barely knew Roberto. He was too old for my sisters and me. Their friends, one boy and two girls, went to the same school. One girl was a brunette and the other a blonde with shockingly light hair. The boy had a far-off look in his eyes. The friends were kind but distant, having been told probably what certain subjects they shouldn’t bring up with me.
The blonde had left the chessboard and followed Irlanda into the kitchen, taking out the plates and napkins for dinner. From time to time she put her arm around Irlanda’s waist and behaved as if they were the only ones in the room. I’d never had girlfriends. I didn’t need them. Once I had played on the beach with a girl who let me borrow her bucket and shovel, and we jumped over the waves together. But I never saw her again.
Sagrario was with me in school and at home, and when she couldn’t go to school anymore, our little sister, Nena, and I went straight home slipping through the gaps between cars, to keep her company and tell her what happened in the outside world. That was what our parents told us to do, and they were never wrong.
I had been a mischievous girl with a strong imagination, and I was always getting Sagrario into trouble. She loyally followed me, even though she was more thoughtful and less impulsive and always warned me of disaster.
“We’ll be in trouble,” she’d say. Then, helpless before the inevitable, she would shrug and add, “Oh well. You’re the oldest.”
The girls around me cared only about their studies or their parents or both, and none of them shared my interests. None of them had discovered the pleasure of obeying grown-ups and the satisfaction of a job well done. All were in love with singers and actors and adorned their books with their photos, and read teen magazines for instructions for putting on lipstick. They weren’t like my bright little sister or Sagrario.
Now Sagrario was gone, and I didn’t know anyone my age. When Nena wasn’t playing near me, I was so alone that I sometimes talked aloud to feel a voice around me. Irlanda asked if I had already had dinner, and put a fruit bowl and a small jug of white roses in front of me.
“You still like flowers?”
I smiled. “I brought my herbarium with me.”
“Good. There’s nothing here. No television, no people, not even books. If you get bored easily, you go crazy.”
“I don’t get bored easily.”
“We won’t let you get bored,” said Roberto’s friend, speaking for the first time.
“No,” said Roberto. “There’s always excitement. Like when you’re sleeping, you feel something on you and it’s a rat running across your bed.”
The girls protested in chorus.
“Or bedbugs,” he continued. “You don’t notice them until they’re all over you.”
“Don’t be so childish!” Irlanda said. “By the way, Roberto, do you remember my friend, the brunette with an upturned nose, the one you chased all over the dance floor and who had enough sense to snub you?”
“You won’t see her at school this year.”
The blonde opened her mouth wide.
“No! What happened?”
“Early Sunday morning she got caught with three grams of cocaine in her pocket. She had spent the night with a boy in a hotel. She said the drugs belonged to the friend she had gone to visit, and it turned out to be true, but she’s not coming back to school in the fall.”
“Did she get expelled?”
“No,” said Irlanda. “I didn’t say that. She’d rather change schools. I don’t think anyone would dare come back under those circumstances.”
“Nowadays, nobody would be surprised that she’s going out with a boy. Besides, who hasn’t dreamed of spending a weekend like that?”
“But everyone would talk about it. She wouldn’t be able to stop the whole school from talking, and she’d have a hard time talking to us,” explained the blonde, with a trace of envy in her voice. “I wouldn’t be speaking to her.”
“You must follow certain rules of conduct if you want to mix with decent people. If you want to have a good time and live on the edge, you should do it discreetly.”
“Somebody must have reported her,” said Roberto’s friend. “Principals don’t spy on students during the summer to try to dig up dirt on them. Somebody must have been jealous of her.”
“You saw her that same day, right, Irlanda?”
“Yes. The same afternoon I saw her on the street, near my house, where I had agreed to meet my friends. I said hello to her, but she looked away. We never got along well, we weren’t close friends, but that’s no excuse for snubbing me. After all, the scandal didn’t do her any harm.”
I was very tired, but if I had found a rat or a spider on my bed, I would have screamed until I lost my voice, and I could never stand making a fool of myself in front of my cousins’ prep-school friends.
“If I stay here longer, I think I’ll fall asleep at the table,” I said, trying to appear awake, even though my smile wasn’t all that sincere. “I’m having fun, but I’d better go to bed.”
Irlanda accompanied me to the stairs, helped me make the bed, and closed the shutters.
“Don’t pay any attention to Roberto. He just wanted to tease us. There aren’t any rats or anything like that. We put out traps and poison more than a month ago, and there are no more rats.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “As a last resort, we have the cat.”
“The cat? He’s so spoiled with the cow’s liver and treats we give him. He wouldn’t even notice rats. We fumigated the whole place, so there aren’t any bugs left.” We smoothed out the sheets. “Now, you know where we are. Roberto sleeps in his usual place, and Gabriel in the other room. The red room is also clean, but I thought you would rather sleep here.”
Sagrario and I had always slept in the red room, the two of us together in the same bed, with sheets so tight that we couldn’t even move our arms. Aren’t you cold? Or is it just me? My feet are always cold. Don’t move. There… now let’s pretend we’re asleep. Are you asleep, Natalia? Are you asleep? I shook my head. Irlanda smoothed the folds in the bedspread.
“I was counting the days until you would come,” she said. “The house didn’t seem complete without you. It feels strange to go back to places where you grew up. Don’t you think? Don’t you miss Grandma? I can almost hear her voice. She would have been pleased to see us so grown-up and sensible,” she sighed. “There’s a time when you think you’ll never grow up and that grown-ups will be always right. Then you grow up without realizing it, and all the rooms that seemed enormous before have shrunk.”
I was thinking that grown-ups would always be right, and that growing up was terribly slow and painful, but Irlanda leaned over the bed with so much grace that there was no doubt she had grown up. And the realization hurt me, which somehow made me grow up too.
“I don’t want to grow up,” I mumbled.
“Don’t be silly. When you grow up, you’re allowed to do anything you want.”
“But only children are allowed to make mistakes.”
Irlanda looked at me, a bit surprised.
“Do you remember this room? Grandmother spent so many hours here, sipping coffee and praying for everyone in the family, both the living and dead. When she was very old, her bed was brought in here, and she hardly left the room, poor Grandma. Of course, you may not remember. I’ve spent more time here than you.”
Wearing a dress and a ribbon in her fluffed-up hair, Irlanda had spent whole afternoons seated next to Grandmother, when they were out on their visits. At night we heard them coming back, Irlanda almost overcome by sleep, Grandmother proud but also tired. We gave her a kiss before going to bed, making sure that we had washed our hands and face, because she would notice, with her clear eyes, if we hadn’t done so.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said again before she left. I turned my face toward the wall, not knowing what to say. “Good night.”
I couldn’t fall asleep right away. My bed sagged in the middle, inexplicably soft, and the bug spray smell made me sneeze. I tried to think of the boy I had met that morning, his book, the bench, the park beyond him, but I got distracted right away. I heard the others going to bed. They went upstairs one by one, tiptoeing over the creaky wooden floors. When the last door was shut, silence fell over the house, and Sagrario, drawn by the chemical smell, appeared in the other bed in my room, as she looked in her last days, when the smell of medicine had filled the air and the cool May wind kept us from opening the window to let in fresh air.
I was sitting next to her and reading aloud to keep her distracted. I had taken my mother’s place, because it was going to be a long night and Sagrario hardly slept. She sat up against her pillows.
“It’s horrible to have only one life to live, and my life has been like this!” she said in a hoarse voice. “It’s horrible to go on living like this while my memories do me no good, and to feel the seconds fly by and not to be able to do anything. I keep looking at the clock, and it doesn’t stop, and death will end my time. It’s horrible not to be able to dance, not to have danced!”
She would get quiet and then start complaining again.
“Not to visit other countries; not knowing what spreads beyond the corners of the park, an empty space or a half-remembered city; not feeling any more kisses than the ones I have already received; not meeting other people; not knowing what you’ll say about me; not seeing Nena grow up; not waking up again; not feeling that I sleep.” She cried big tears like hailstones. “I’m ready to die now. I want to leave this place. I want my time to end once and for all. I want to be free from sadness and free from the fear of night in another world. I must die, now that I see the beginning of the path, and I’m on it without fear; a path I’m walking alone.…”
I looked at her for a long time and could hear the silence her death was leaving behind. I placed the pillows under her head and let her sleep and slip into her new world. We found her dead in the morning, her heart stopped, her mouth half open.
The wind started lashing the windows, seeping through the cracks under the doors, and I found myself in the room with a view of the well, alone again, not knowing if I was dreaming or if time was coiling around itself. Did I have to relive the chain of events since Sagrario’s burial and come to the country house and sleep in the room facing the well and remember Sagrario on her deathbed and at her funeral; like looking into facing mirrors, reflecting each other into infinity. But I stayed still. I gradually remembered there were new things, things that I hadn’t lived through, and time marched on, like it was supposed to.
I ducked under the sheets and listened, my heart pounding against my chest. The wind slipped through the fingers of the dead and carried their voices to me. I didn’t want to listen anymore. If I could make out what they were whispering, they would force me to join them, and I would remain captive forever, imprisoned between two worlds.
In those moments, the night split open to reveal the path where the two worlds met. If I could get up and draw a circle around the place I was sleeping, I would be safe, but it was very dark, the moon had come out, and the ghosts could snatch me if I unwrapped myself from my cocoon of blankets. I shut my eyes tight, trying not to think of the turtle. It wasn’t the first time it had followed me to the country house, and I prayed Sagrario would hold it back, as she danced among the new spirits.
I woke up and found myself in an unfamiliar room. The day had dawned. I opened the shutters and glanced toward the west in the early-morning sky. The sunlight reached the rest of the house much later, and I could see the shadows disappear with their burden of fears. The sun quickly rose over the field. The well bucket, which was still used, had rolled across the grass.
Years ago, a small orchard grew there, but now there were only rows of red dirt, hardened among the nettles, a multicolored jumble of wild plants and brambles, and farther away, woods of chestnut and bay trees. We weren’t allowed to go that far. We plucked bay leaves from the shrubs growing next to the wall of our house and added them to our food. One red cabbage survived in the old orchard, with its bleeding heart, next to the stubborn chamomile bushes and stones that had crumbled off the boundary wall.
Things reverted to their normal forms in the daylight, and there was nothing to be scared of again. The dream shook the dust off its wings, and only those creatures who lived among dirt and cobwebs still lay asleep. Are you asleep, Natalia? Are you sleeping?
I looked at my room. I had never been crazy about it, because it never got enough sunlight and it was cluttered with old junk that Grandmother didn’t allow us to touch. But now there was only a wide bed, a closet with a cloudy mirror, and a crucifix that hung above the bed. The furniture was ornate, but it seemed lost in the void. The walls were bare, with dark marks left by other furniture and at least two other crosses that used to hang on them. I remembered a few high-backed chairs of woven esparto-grass, and a small tea table where our knees banged.
Don’t run down the hallways, Natalia. Don’t play with the figurines. Don’t touch the table. Don’t you see you’re making it dirty? Why don’t you go sit and read a story, like your sister?
Come on, Natalia. Let’s read a story together and play princesses. Let’s make tiaras out of silver paper and go slay dragons and stepmothers.
The sun was already high. I got dressed without any noise, finally happy that I had decided to be away from my parents. Sagrario would be happy to dance among the tall grass, to forget her bed, pillows, and the sadness of not being able to tell the difference between sleep and wakefulness. It was going to be a gorgeous day, the summer stretched before us, and the ghosts had stayed behind.