The next day after the moving truck arrived they were still trying to settle in. The wall next to Nita’s bed was already covered in hundreds of slick American pop star cut outs and photos of her school friends back in the states. Liliana watched as Nita let out a small sigh each time she pinned one up, and the way she lightly traced their pale oval faces before gently pushing in the tack.
Liliana thought about the moment they stepped off the plane, about the sea of shuffling bodies and the symphony of words Nita could barely understand. Liliana had held tight to her hand, repeating softly in her ear a slower version of the conversations going on around them. But when she had shrugged her off, rolling her eyes at Liliana’s pronunciation of the strange Spanish words it was obvious she already hated Buenos Aires, and no matter how true it now was, it would never feel like her home.
Though they’re father had struggled with it, they’d resolved to speaking only English when they were in the States. Maybe he’d thought it would be easier for them to assimilate or maybe he’d wanted to forget as much about Argentina as he possibly could—stripping himself of all of its nuances as if the ghosts he’d left behind wouldn’t be able to recognize him without them. But Liliana still remembered her mother’s voice and some of the soft Spanish words she would coo against her cheeks. So she studied her native language in school and took up practicing privately with Ana on nights when they were home alone.
Ana, their father’s cousin and also the woman who raised them, suddenly came clanking down the hall juggling a pair of heavy boxes.
“You girls look through these before I throw them out,” she called.
Ana was never the sentimental type. Kindness was a currency she had no use for and, in her opinion, not a valuable tool in the raising of proper young ladies. But she did love them and she knew that anything she was throwing out could have had some connection to their mother and might be worth saving. Ana set the boxes down in Liliana’s room and Nita began fingering each item carefully, pulling out the shiny things first.
“You can have this box it’s just full of a bunch of books.”
She pinched the corner of one and pulled it up towards her face. She examined the dust collected on the outside cover and lining the edges of the pages. She turned her face and dropped it back into the box, sending up a dark ripple and making her sneeze. By the time Liliana was dressed Nita had already carried two armfuls worth of costume jewelry, a few picture frames, and some shiny fabric she thought about making into a head scarf, into her own room.
But before Liliana had a chance to look through what was left she heard her father calling them to come downstairs. The front door was open, the car already idling in the drive as she and Nita met him at the bottom of the landing.
“Are we going somewhere,” Liliana asked.
“To see your uncle Raul.”
The four of them walked down a wide carpeted hallway—Nita clutching Ana’s wrist while Liliana kept her hands stuffed into her jacket pockets as they reached a wooden door with a clipboard hanging on the front. Their father knocked three times and then waited a moment before leading them inside.
In the bed was a narrow wisp of a man, pale sharp corners jutting up from his thin hospital gown. He was lying on his side with a pillow tucked between his knees, one of his frail hands clutching the bed railing while the other was clasped around the button of a morphine pump. Something twisted in Liliana’s stomach. She was afraid to look at him. Not because he was just bones, or because she could see the strain in his smile, the pain cutting him into pieces, but because he had her father’s eyes.
“Hey, it’s the Americans.” Raul managed a small laugh. “How was the trip?”
Liliana looked at her father, at his face fighting to stay neutral, but she could see in his eyes that he wasn’t prepared for this. He spent a few more moments just staring at his brother, his eyes being drawn to every sharp point of bone and every patch of almost translucent skin. Finally, he brought a hand to his face and squeezed his temple as if trying to will himself to speak.
“Long,” he finally said.
Liliana wondered if that was all he would be able to manage but before he could say another word Ana was tugging on Liliana’s arm.
“Let’s see if they have a vending machine or something downstairs,” she said.
Liliana grabbed Nita by the wrist and the three of them started to leave the room. Nita couldn’t take her eyes off of the man in the bed the entire way out and Ana pinched the soft flesh on the back of her arm. Nita squealed as her eyes began to water.
“Don’t gawk,” Ana told her.
“I was trying not to.”
Ana pinched her again. “Well, try harder or I’ll pluck those eyes right out of your head.”
They stopped just outside the door, Ana leading them to a row of empty chairs across the hall as it fell closed behind them.
“I thought we were going to the vending machine,” Nita said.
“You got any money?” Ana quipped.
Nita shook her head.
“Well me neither. Your father just needs a minute.”
Liliana glanced back at the door, at the grey rubber stop that still held it ajar a few inches and though their voices were low, whole words being swallowed up by the electronic whirr of the hospital, she could still catch fragments—a solitary exhale, prefixes and wandering syllables.
“I know how I look Manuel,” Raul said, “but I look worse than I feel. Trust me. They’ve got me on enough morphine to stop an elephant. I can’t feel a thing.”
“Where are Lydia and your boys? Why aren’t they here taking care of you?”
Raul sighed. “Lydia had to go back to work. She used all of her time off last summer when I was going through chemo and the boys aren’t boys anymore. They’ve got their own lives. One of them’s married; the other has a different girlfriend every week. They come when they can.”
“Why didn’t you tell me last summer, when all of this started?”
“There was no sense in worrying my brother who lived half a world away. Besides, the doctors were more positive then. They expected me to be in remission in no time.”
Raul squeezed the bed rail tighter and closed his eyes. Manuel stared at his brothers hands clasped around the bar, the gray bones of his knuckles slicing through his skin. Manuel slid to the edge of his chair placing his body closer to the bed. He took his brothers hand between his own and pressed it to his face. The skin was dry and cracking and it smelled like chemicals.
“Will Liliana be going to University?” Raul asked.
Manuel squeezed Raul’s hand a little tighter. “The Universities—are they safe?”
“It’s over, Manuel.”
“Maybe for now. Beasts like that never stay in hibernation for long.”
“Manuel, every day I see more and more of the Argentina from when we were boys. I promise you don’t have to worry about the girls.”
Manuel brought the cusp of his hand to his brow.
“And you,” he asked.
“You don’t get to worry about me either.”
“You’re my brother, Raul. I get to worry.”
“I am your brother, and you are mine. But I’m also an old man. We both are,” Raul patted Manuel’s closed fists, “and we can’t go back.”
Manuel looked out the window. He could see planes flying slanted toward the airport, a man down on the street wearing a fedora and selling ice pops, and people in bright clothing sitting beneath large red umbrellas on a sidewalk patio. Compact cars rolled into the hospital’s parking garage and people were passing through the glass walkway above them and into the next building.
The door clicked open and after a small nod from Manuel Ana led Liliana and Nita back inside. Manuel kissed his brothers hand and stood from his chair.
“Tell your uncle goodbye.”
Both girls took turns leaning over their uncle’s hospital bed and kissing him once on each cheek. When it was Liliana’s turn her uncle squeezed her hand lightly.
“So here’s the graduate,” he said.
Liliana nodded, trying to emulate her uncle’s proud smile.
“Your father and I have been talking about you going to University. It’s the middle of the semester but I’ll call General Vidal and get you an appointment.”
Liliana looked to her father.
“General Vidal? The military’s still running the school,” Manuel asked.
“They’re still transitioning. But he’s a friend.”
Manuel nodded. “I’ll come see you tomorrow.”
And before Raul could tell Manuel not to trouble himself they were gone.
Back at the vineyard the warm air outside was still swirling and thick, the humidity lingering though the sun was down. Liliana smelled the sweet almond aroma of her father’s tobacco and followed it out onto the porch where she found him slouched in a small metal chair, one leg hiked up on his knee, the mahogany pipe pursed between his lips. His eyes were closed and the smoke trailed thick from his lips, swirling above his head like a halo—the white mist lit up by the soft glow of the moon.
She watched her father, chest rising and falling as something like sleep slipped over him. When he finally opened his eyes and saw her lingering by the front steps he didn’t say a word.
“Is that why you wanted to come back? For Uncle Raul?”
He waited, silence spilling over them again, and then nodded once—the motion almost lost as he took another draw from his pipe. Liliana’s father never said much unless it was necessary but even then he always found a way to give the shortest or most ambiguous version of the truth, something to mull over in agony while he sat there, his words, his face void of any emotion. And so he was the silent and strong core of their family around which everything else orbited.
“How sick is he?” Liliana asked, poised for another one of her father’s pseudo-answers.
Her father took a deep breath. “Sick.”
Liliana finally finished unpacking all of her things, which wasn’t much, mostly clothes and old books. But she had tiptoed around the box of her mother’s things all afternoon, not sure where she should put them, a part of her a little afraid to sort through it all. It had taken Nita all of ten minutes to take from it what she wanted, but maybe that was because their mother was more of an idea, a fictional character to her, rather than an actual person. Liliana, on the other hand, couldn’t see the things that belonged to their mother without thinking of her touching them, of her wearing them, caring for them.
She finally sat on the edge of her bed, grabbed one of the cardboard lips, and pulled the box to her. It was full of dusty leather books, some without covers, and all in Spanish. The spines were all warped and a pile of loose cream-colored pages covered the bottom of the box. She grabbed a rag and pulled them out one by one, wiping the covers clean before shaking the pages over an empty wastebasket. She fingered through some of the stiff leaves, her mind working quickly to translate the titles, and added most of them to her bookshelf. Then she scraped up the loose sheets of paper and flipped through a few of them before letting the pages slip from her fingers over the wastebasket, her eyes catching on some black scroll, handwritten, and slightly faded.
Liliana pulled out the pages and rubbed the rough paper between her fingers. They had been stiffened by water and the handwriting had bled into the drying creases and folds. Liliana could barely make out the words but there was a small monogram at the top of each page—the small black outline of a bird clutching a thorn twig between its claws. She noticed the same black sketch of the twig running across the spine of a leather book lying at her feet and she picked it up, cradling it in her lap. She opened the cover, running her fingers along every grey water stain and smudged pool of ink. Most of the pages were stiff, cracking and curling under like a wave as she tried to turn them, tearing a few that had dried together. But eventually the pages started to become smoother, the writing more legible and more intact the more pages she turned.
Finally she reached some undamaged pages with clear dates written in the top left corners, every line below filled with large cursive letters that slanted dramatically to the right. Liliana let the pages fall until she was holding just the back cover and etched into the soft leather, Liliana traced the small indentions that spelled out her mother’s full name.
Diego looked down at the beach. He was high up on the ridge but if he stared into the water for too long he could feel it starting to rise, trying to reach him. He always stayed on the edge of the tree line where the small stone cliff started to edge out from underneath the grass. It hung just a foot out over the beach but Diego liked playing there, he liked being high over the ocean, as if he were in command of it somehow.
He saw something flashing in the sunlight; it was long and slinking down the beach. He pulled on his hat to block the sun and saw the older girl, her arms folded over her chest as she found a place to rest in the sand. He had expected her to look less like an Argentinean and more like an American—blonde hair, blue eyes, high-pitched voice, and obnoxious clothes. As if the simple act of moving countries could change someone’s DNA. But there was something else about her that caught him off guard, something he couldn’t put his finger on, something he couldn’t see. But maybe it was just the fact that the only thing he knew about her, about any of them, was that her mother was dead, that she had been killed in the war. Diego’s father hadn’t known her well but still enough to say that she was different. She had a tendency to sneak out her bedroom window late at night and she had a sharp tongue, a blunt boldness that scared most men half to death.
As she moved closer to the tide Diego began to wonder if the girl was anything like her. And though he knew she wouldn’t be able to hear him sitting at the edge of the waves, tide lapping against her ankles, he stopped playing anyway. The sun combed honey through her dark brown hair, turning everything, her skin, and the sand beneath her gold.
A sharp whistle barely trembled against Diego’s ear drum—the sound swallowed up so much by the waves that he would have ignored it had the girl not turned to face the house, acknowledging that she had heard it too. His father was calling for him. After stashing the guitar in the shed at the edge of the vineyard Diego met him on the front porch of the main house. The old woman was with him and she was holding a bucket of paint in one hand and a small brush in the other.
“The house is in bad condition,” she said between tight lips. “We start repainting tomorrow.” She sat the paint can down and Diego noticed the others stacked across the porch.
“We’ll scrape the house down first,” Diego’s father said.
We, Diego thought, until you’re too drunk or hung over and I have to do it all myself.
“I think everyone would be more comfortable if we could get the house in better condition, less…grey,” Ana said to them.
The house was falling apart—everything about it looked dead or dying. He had never seen it as it had once been, as it should have been with white walls and bright blue shudders, a hanging porch swing and a garden in front that sprawled out from end to end. He had only ever seen it in a state of decline. He suddenly realized what a solemn place it must have been to come back to. They had probably had a nice house in the states and they had left it for this, for a house that looked as dead and ghostly as its former inhabitants. But they weren’t just any inhabitants. They were the girl’s grandparents and her mother. He thought of her sitting there in the sand, at the edge of the ocean, as far away from the house as she could get.
“I’ll start tonight,” he said.