A single shot broke out over the trees, the shrill fiery exhale rustling through the leaves and bouncing off of the cobblestone steps. Liliana’s knees began to tremble and loose squares of cement and small stones began to vibrate against the pavement as the steady chanting withered to a low hum. As the tanks rolled in Liliana’s father scooped his two small daughters into his arms and then they watched as young men in civilian clothing descended from their vehicles.
Their faces were smooth, their heads shaved, and each one cradled a gun against their forearms. Liliana could feel the urgency, thick and buzzing behind them, as a few people tried to slip quietly into the shops through crowded doorways or as they feigned calmness and continued walking to one of the public parking lots across the street. But then there was another blast, the sound ripping across the pavement and Liliana traced the wisp of smoke to the center of the square, floating and phantasmal above one of the soldier’s guns. His aim had been silence but Liliana could still hear that low feminine hum, its persistence making her palms sweat.
A group of women in white head scarves had chosen to carry on with their peaceful protest—their bodies shuffling clockwise around the plaza. One-dimensional faces, stark in black and white, hung from their necks like shining ornaments—photographs of all of the people who had been taken, the one’s they called los desaparacidos. Some of the women held tight to their photos, fingers pinched at a curling corner while others were gripping the chain around their necks, shoulders rolled forward under the weight as if it were an anchor. And some just kept their hands clasped low, eyes closed as they continued circling the square, dark shadows trailing the ones who bore the weight of two or more chains.
Even after using her elbows to draw herself up onto her father’s shoulders, Liliana shuddered at the size of the man who stepped forward. His face was glaring, pale skin showing every harsh slant along his jaw and across his mouth. But he was also young, traces of his infancy still lingering in those cheeks, especially when he spoke.
His voice was a hiss and it set the crowd buzzing, everyone shuffling and whispering as they looked for a way out of the square. But he wasn’t watching the crowd pressed and trembling on either side of the street, storefronts and doorways so packed because people were afraid of even stepping off of the sidewalk, feet slipping off the curb and sending them directly into the trajectory of every soldier’s gun.
The young man lowered his rifle, the barrel resting against his forearm, and then he fired a few shots at the women’s feet. Liliana threw her face into the nape of her father’s neck, one of his large hands covering both of her ears, as she watched the pavement split into tiny trembling chunks that flew into the air. But still the women didn’t move.
For a moment Liliana wondered if they had even heard the blast—only a few of them having opened their eyes. But their feet remained fixed, forever in orbit, betrothed to their path around the plaza and betrothed to their missing children. The sun slid behind the watchtower, the pink house burning a honeyed crimson as it began its descent into night. Shadows bled over the tanks, turning every soldier’s face to stone. But again the young man advanced, his face dark as he tossed his head forward and littered the ground, spit trailing from his lips. The impatience of the other soldiers manifested itself behind him in a low hum. They were, like everyone else, waiting for him to make a move. When he finally did, the dead silence of the plaza spun into a low rumble erupting in feet pounding against pavement and more gunshots followed by the hollow sound of flesh meeting the black tar of the crowded street.
Diego let the wind throw back his hat as he raised a sun stained hand to his hairline, wiped off the sweat, and shook it into the breeze. His calloused fingertips worked carefully as they pulled bushels of grapes off the vine, each snap sending the sweet tartness spiraling into the air. He looked down at the row of leaning posts, pregnant with grapes still waiting to be picked—suspended rubies strewn like swollen veins along a thousand leaf-trimmed arms. And though the sun above him still hung suspended at mid-day, the tips of his fingers had already begun to tingle, palms itching and each limb starting to curl under, hungry for the smooth neck of his guitar.
The sea’s warm breeze pulsed through the leaves, every branch trembling with the tide; sunlight passing through them in broken beams casting tiny shadows along Diego’s skin. He looked out over the sloping ridge that led down to the water, his eyes following the path he never traveled anymore. The rolling tide was dark and the white tips of the cresting waves looked like white clouds rolling across the night sky. Diego looked away from its reflection and then up above the trees to where a hollow ceiling of blue hung still and empty; his shoulders relaxed.
Two years ago the planes stopped coming but the echo of the engines still resounded in Diego’s memory so loudly he could sometimes still feel the vibrations along his skin. Door less flights had become a method of disposal when Diego was still just a boy. At first the rumble of the engine, as if coming from an invisible giant, would send him running for the beach where he would wait for the belly of the plane to finally pass over the vineyard, cutting through the clouds with a sharp hiss as it headed straight for the skyline.
In the beginning, before he understood, Diego would crouch behind a sandbank or some patch of tall grass and watch the plane as it shrank into the horizon becoming the size of his thumb. Then just before it dissolved into nothing the plane would slow down, resting there, suspended between sky and sea. And too far for Diego’s eyes or mind to reach, the door of the plane would open and bodies, unconscious but still alive, would be tossed over the edge. With their hands and feet bound they would crash into a glass wall of ocean and sky—their bodies being swallowed up by the waves in the same instant that their souls were being pulled into the bosom of the clouds.
Diego often wondered if he had seen any of them falling, if he had caught sight of anything in the horizon like a tiny dark speck he may have mistaken for a bird or the long silhouette of a stranger, falling too fast for him to see, the shape connecting with the water and leaving the interior of the plane in the same beat. To know that he had been present for those moments, not only for the person’s death, but for the suffering and drowning that preceded it, whether he could see them or not, made Diego’s soul recoil.
Diego had read about war, had learned about it in school, and had seen it glorified in movies. But the war he had seen with his own eyes, the war he had lived through seemed much different. While other advanced countries liked to fight from a distance with their bombs and nuclear weapons, the Argentinean military had an affinity for the intimacy of torture. They liked to see their captive’s eyes, the flame behind them swelling with fear before finally flickering out. It was a tactic, or rather an obsession inspired in them by the Nazis during World War II—one they’d inherited from Hitler’s retired soldiers who they hired to train their troops when they decided to carry out a mass extermination of their own. Fear, they had come to realize, not machines, is the most powerful weapon there is.
The sound of car tires grating across the gravel driveway broke through the wind. Diego pulled his hat back on to shun the light reflecting off the car’s windshield and took a step back, concealing himself behind the vines as he waited for a glimpse of his new employers. Flora, the old woman who had lived there, who had always quietly watched him moving about her late husband’s vineyard through her kitchen window, giving him the occasional nod when they made brief eye contact, had passed away. The only family she had left had fled to the United States during the war. They had been gone for more than a decade. But even after all of that time they had decided to come back. Diego wondered what they were expecting, if they remembered the old Argentina at all and if that’s what they were hoping to find again. He wondered what they would do once they found out that it was gone, that it, like all of the other desaparecidos, had been lost forever.
The car pulled to a stop in front of the cracking white steps that led to the wide wrap around porch—just as faded, the boards beginning to rot. Diego watched as an old woman and a young girl, black hair tied back in a loose braid, made their way up the porch. The girl picked at some chipping paint along the doorframe as the old woman fiddled with the lock and then Diego got his first glimpse of his new employer. He had stopped for a moment to rest his forearms on the hood of the car, the tires sinking a little beneath his weight. He stood there just staring at the house, his face pulled into a frown by the mangled boards hung over the bare windows and the chipping paint that looked like faded gray scars. And then another girl, older than the first, a pair of sandals dangling from one finger and a book cradled to her chest, lightly tugged on his shirt sleeve, something solemn in her grip, and then the two of them went inside.
Liliana stood in her mother’s old bedroom, the smell of salt and molding cardboard already trying to adhere itself to her skin. There was an old wooden bed frame in the middle of the room and a small window seat inserted into the wall next to it, though the view of the bay, one of the only images Liliana had carried with her from her childhood, was obscured by four rows of black rotting boards. Liliana could hardly believe that her grandmother had been living there just months before. The entire house seemed like it had been abandoned for years and every boarded window and dust-covered surface made the guilt in Liliana’s chest ache even more. It was for their own protection that they had fled. But that wasn’t all they had done—it wasn’t just the war they had left behind, it was a life, a family, a culture, and two grandparents who were the only connection they had left to Liliana’s mother.
Liliana stepped to an old bookshelf and blew the dust from its choking shelves, sending the faint specks spiraling into the air. She would wipe down the entire room once their boxes arrived but for now she just let the dust continue its invisible dance, resolved to blowing the surfaces clean until it set her sneezing. The opposite wall was scattered with exposed nail heads and a strip of paisley blue wallpaper ran along the center. Liliana sat on the window seat, tilting her face into the thin stream of sunlight that had slipped in between the boards. She closed her eyes for a moment, exhaustion from their long flight stifling her limbs, and sat there letting it warm her face. But a moment later there were two faint honks followed by the sound of Nita’s sneakers on the stairs.
An hour later cardboard boxes had crawled up nearly every wall in the house and as their things were being carried in, the remnants of the old tenants were being carried out: a few paintings, an old green couch missing two of the cushions, and a foldable kitchen table. That was all that had been left after the house was stripped clean in an estate sale. The lawyer had put the money in a trust for Liliana and her sister but as she stood looking at the small pile of all that was left of her grandparent’s belongings, Liliana realized she would rather have had their things, any thing.
Nita flew by, small hands ripping stained sheets from the windows and doorways along with their father’s cousin Ana who, gripping a rag in one hand and a spray bottle filled with water in the other, was already scrubbing the walls and pulling cobwebs from the door frames. Every small crevice and dark corner in the house seemed to be filled with sand. Even the porch steps seemed to be choking under it and Liliana suddenly thought that maybe they’d arrived just in time, before the entire house had been swallowed up by the beach.
Being there right then, Liliana could feel that it was true. What other than fate could have moved her father so, could have forced him back into his skin and back into his life? He had always been stubborn and clung to his routines so fiercely that she couldn’t believe he had agreed to this, to living here where the intangible remnants of his late wife were the heartbeat of the house, her memory breathing life into every inch of the place. And the house—it was the physical manifestation of their grief, bare as bones, and beaten by the sea. Restoring it would take at least a year or more.
Liliana’s grandmother, her mother’s mother, was the last living member of their family to live in the house. Her husband had passed away shortly after his grandchildren moved to the states and the vineyard was left under the care of his wife. It was a small vineyard on a small hill overlooking a small private bay. Even with the windows boarded up the house was filled with the sound of the tide crawling up the beach and the breeze blowing off of the ocean carried that sweet sulfur smell, embedding it into every soft surface of the house.
Six months ago when Liliana’s grandmother passed away both the vineyard and the house were left to her and her sister Nita. When they received the news they were living in a small rental house in California. Liliana had just graduated from High school and Nita had just turned thirteen. Their father had called them into the kitchen they never used and was holding a letter. They each sat down on one of the cold metal fold out chairs they kept in the hallway, for the nights when they didn’t eat dinner on the couch, and he read it to them.
Liliana barely remembered her grandparents. They didn’t see them often and after her mother…well after her mother was gone they never saw them at all. But she did remember that they were both short—a sprightly couple, both with plump cheeks and small eyes. Her grandfather always wore a short brimmed hat and she remembered him putting it on her once, her small head being swallowed up by it. She remembered that her grandmother was quiet, hands always clasped tight in her lap, lips slightly curled at the ends—old age having pulled them into a constant frown.
After Liliana’s father finished reading, he’d slid the letter over to her. She’d picked it up, bottom lip between her teeth, as she looked for something helpful in her father’s expression. But there was nothing. No glimmer of consideration, of any kind of decision at all. Liliana never pushed the move. She never felt like it was her decision to make anyway even though she was technically an adult and her life beyond graduation was entirely up to her. But for almost two months her father never mentioned it either. Then one day when Liliana was trying to get Nita to trade her Glamour magazine for a worn yellowed copy of Jane Eyre their father called them into the kitchen again.
He’d placed one of his large hands on Nita’s head, giving it a gentle squeeze as if already trying to console her for the tears he was about to trigger, and said, “We’re going back.”
There was no discussion. Liliana knew some part of her father had always wanted to come back to Buenos Aires—it was his home. But they had been avoiding it for so long she never imagined that they ever would. Nita cried for days and Liliana tried to soothe her. Nita couldn’t remember Buenos Aires at all but she knew it was far away. Far away from her friends and the school she loved. She had just turned thirteen and life was already more than she could bare what with becoming a “woman” and all. Liliana didn’t have many memories of Buenos Aires either but she remembered one thing. She remembered why they left.
Late one night when her father was up watching the news she went and crawled next to him on the couch. He handed her the blanket and she curled herself up in it. Their close proximity made her uncomfortable and she hated herself for always feeling that way. But she understood what was between them. Everyday Liliana looked more and more like her mother. She had her long wavy hair, her full lips, and her high cheekbones. But even if her father had been blind he would still have been able to sense the resemblance. She had her mother’s laugh, her curiosity. Liliana was a daily reminder of what her father had lost, of what they all had lost and most days she hated herself for it. After her mother disappeared they never had a body to bury. Liliana became her mother’s ghost and she knew her father felt haunted by her.
Silence hung between them, desperate to be filled as Liliana stared at the television set on mute and tried to remember the beauty of Argentina, the parts of it that could be found in travel magazines or in movies, the parts she may have known once as a child. But instead she remembered the fires, the tanks patrolling the city, the chaos.
“It’s different now Lili,” her father suddenly said, “they’re starting to put things right.”
And Liliana, staring straight ahead, could only give a small nod.