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By Cecile Pineda
Wings PressCopyright © 2003 Cecile Pineda
All rights reserved.
In the sky a cloud is forming. The head, the shoulders appear. It is May. There is a leaden grey outline lifting the white of the clouds in relief. The blue of the sky is cold, wintery. There is a greenish cast to the light. The sun is absent.
A wind forms across the bay. The expanse of water marks its restlessness in the apparently static crests and troughs. From this distance, the waves appear not to move - curls arrested on a tightly coifed head. They do not move at all. Looking, then looking away, then rapidly looking again, one can only seem to catch a movement, more imperceptible than breath itself. Or perhaps the waves are the same, the same crests as before. Or perhaps they have only moved one trough closer to the shore, shifting slightly, as if in a viewfinder.
In the sky, the cloud has changed now. The head is lowered, or perhaps it has turned around, or the shoulders have risen to ward off a blow. No more. The giant is gone. Other shapes are forming.
One stair, at the top, is etched with a crack now. The concrete in the vein has crumbled. Little pebbles, aggregates of dust perhaps, have settled in the interstices. A child worrying the crack could dislodge them with a grubby finger. A child gazing out to sea (past the hook of land), letting his vacant eyes roam the shapes of giants left by the wind, by the clouds as they move, vacant eyes puzzling the stillness of waves that move only when the gaze is averted.
The man stands there, not thinking of anything, fighting the stiff wind with each intake of air - the breath fought for, briefly denied, then won. Each time. Even with this wind, even at this height, the waves seem to hold their very breath. Still moving, they barely move at all. This is the sky he can see every morning. This is the bay which on calm days seems barely to breathe from this height.
The man stands to the left, a little behind the child, watching him idly. The child squats on the landing, worrying the crack. Perhaps some small dirt clod is wedged between his nail and finger cap. He studies it for a moment. The moment stretches, then snaps as, once again, he bends to his examination. An insect, perhaps an ant, traces its path in the vein, now emerging from the crack, now disappearing. The man stands watching. A handkerchief covers his face; it is white cotton (not linen). The corner, which hangs below his chin, flutters in the wind. The man stands there as if his hands are in his pockets. He does not move. This is the only pavement, this and the steps which stretch down the cliff face, switching back below, disappearing from sight long before reaching the water.
The man can see far down, to the point where the stairs are lost to view behind a jutting outcrop. Even the thin strands of grass there have difficulty holding their purchase. There are no trees, only the slate rock, the dead grasses assaulted by the wind. The surf is hidden altogether by the rock.
People have always lived here, before remembering, building their shacks high above the city from its discards: cardboard, corrugated tin, sheets of green plastic, potato and rice sacks, tar paper. Even the earth is greasy from its steady human traffic. Rain, when it falls, forms globules before dissolving beneath the dusty surface of water left to gather in the oil drums. Along the gutters, open sewers run.
It is grey now. The wind brings with it the chill of June, the smell of wood burning, the snap of wet bedclothes strung like sails against the wind. The boy stirs. Out of the corner of his eye, his glance has caught the open shoes, the dusty feet. He turns quickly to see the man standing there, hands in his pockets, face hidden behind the white handkerchief.
The man watches as the boy, still running, appears on the ledge below, smaller, still running, disappearing, now reappearing on a terrace far below, smaller still, still running, again disappearing.
"Mamae, Mamae." His cry is lost far below.
A solitary bird spreads its wings to the wind. The man shades his eyes against the glare.
In the street he wears the white handkerchief. He has worn it for - how long? A month? Since the first stone seemed to fly through his window of its own accord one morning. It was not to be the last.
He sits on the step overlooking the bay. From here he can see the stairs. Was it raining then? He still has trouble remembering. There was a wind. Of that he is certain. From the top he could see the bay, grey then, grey sky, water color of lead. He remembers the feeling he had of being pressed. Was there a letter, perhaps? Or a telegram? At first he only vaguely remembers. Later it seems to him as though someone had died.
Why was he unable to remember clearly? Had he been thinking at all in the first days as he lay in his cocoon of bandages? Or were his thoughts of a different kind? Was he perhaps without consciousness for a very long time? Or only sleeping? Was it the pain that allowed him to wake only for brief moments at a time? And where were the days that were lost to him, the ones that occupied his memory only by their absence? Had he perhaps died a little?
He could imagine taking his life - the old one, before - taking it off like a coat and leaving it, on this step perhaps, high overlooking the bay, and quite calmly walking away, leaving it there, still warm. Would someone find it, try it on perhaps, enter it seamlessly, wear it like a sleeve - Lula, the barber shop - without thinking about it? Perhaps even now there was someone inhabiting his old life, someone other than he, before this had happened to him; someone with a face, not even necessarily much like his had been before, but a face that could be worn, even in daylight - at noon perhaps - in the street.
What if it had been that way? No pain. Removing it, peeling it from him like a layer of being, leaving it sprawled on a bench. And what was left of his old life before the fall? The barber shop, the boss, Mario, they had all vanished. They were carrying on without him, had been now for nearly a season. And the boss must be cleaning up. With the apprentice there was even less to pay. And his mother? Had he ever known her to live anywhere else? Yet now, in the high village of the Interior, her wooden shack gaped empty, the shell of her passing. And somewhere in the Capital, sprawling there far below him, probably without giving him a passing thought, Lula ...
The sky turns wet. Cold seeps through his shirtsleeves. The clouds still melt.
There is barely time, barely time before the post office closes. He pushes the transmittal slip deep into his pocket. He begins to run. The bay reflects the play of lightning across its face. He can feel the first drops, icy, against his face and arms, and the smell, curious, acrid, the kind of sulphurous toying in the nostrils of rain long overdue. He is running - past the washlines stripped only moments ago by women even now making for the dry of their shacks.
He is running now, seeing without seeing the stairs, stained now with the first drops of rain, He is running, running down stairs only moments ago filled with people sprinting to bring their wash in from the downpour. He runs, now down one flight, now down another. He sees without seeing the wet of the slope, the fury of wind-lashed clouds stampeding the sky. He sees without seeing the small boy squatting on the landing, with his stick tracing a crack in the rock. Water soaks his shoes. A cold membrane of slime sends his soles skating over the leather.
He is heading for the post office, the transmittal slip crumpled and probably already wet in his pocket. He remembers the instant in which his running gives way, the instant of running when the stairs take on a running of their own. He remembers that moment when the ground fails before sending him arcing over the abyss.
Had it come from him? Was it his own black cry?
Mother of God!
It seemed to him then it was his mother's voice.
He can hear her scream above the roaring of the waters. He is plummeting, spinning, caught in a gigantic saucer, spinning sky, water, its black mouth yawning upward.
His body catapults over the water, whipped by gale. The stairs curl upward, surging like waves, smashing up through him, splintering - shards of light inside his head.
The small boy sends his stick spinning over the edge.
Mamae! Mamae! He is running toward the row of shacks fronting the steps.
A door opens. A hand reaches out to pull him clear of the storm into the comforting darkness.
"Someone fell down there. A man. Down there by the rocks."
He pulls her hand. They stumble together through the downpour. They come to where the man lies crumpled. They stand shivering, uncertain. Already her thin dress is soaked and clinging.
"Is he dead?"
The woman leans closer, studying him. From under the man's head, blood seeps. The boy stares in the dreamy way of children. He follows the sharp red tendrils as they blur into rain.
He is awake. Around him there are muffled sounds. A pillow is smothering him. He tries to fight off sleep. His hands, his arms will not obey. It occurs to him to call out. But when he tries to open his mouth, no sound comes. He can hear his own breathing. It is then he becomes aware that he is in some kind of sack. Again he tries to move his hand. There is a sound, footfalls perhaps. He feels someone restraining him.
"Don't move!" He hears the command distinctly. He remembers, he thinks he remembers as if through a long sleep leaping from step to step, picking his way between the stones. Perhaps the wind distracted him, or the gathering storm. He remembers, he thinks he remembers (was it raining?) having the impulse to run.
He remembers feeling nothing. For a long time. Nothing. Only the dark, the footfalls. Inside the sack, he thinks he knows daylight from night. Hands touch his wrist, take his pulse. He moves his index. "Don't talk. Don't try to talk."
In the darkness of his tomb, he thinks he remembers the wind, the water color of lead, the sky spilling its clouds of dead horses. The impulse to run. It must have been a telegram. Someone was dying. He thinks he remembers. He remembers her asking,
"Is it raining already?"
He remembers her asking, "Is it raining already?" For a moment they lie in the dim light, listening. Through the canyons, in the very high hills, the storm gathers momentum, where the wind races unhampered by the very tall buildings and the street canyons of the Capital. They can hear it through the shack door bolted tight against the fury of the storm. He catches her look, challenging, appraising. She laughs softly, prodding him. He slides over her.
"Tart, sweet little tart." He threads his fingers in the thick dark hair of her nape.
"Sweet little tart."
His tongue finds her mouth. She stirs under him. They rock and moan together, their breath sighing, a boat breasting the waves.
Was it a knock? At first he is not sure. He raises himself on his elbows. Now he is sure of it. Someone is pounding at the door to be heard. He fumbles for his trousers.
In the dim light of the open door, his neighbor stands braced against the wind, his shirtsleeves flapping, billowing in the gale.
"There's a telegram for you." His look is impatient. "Here." He jabs the transmittal slip at him. His words are almost lost through the door pulled tight: "Better get there before it starts coming down."
He stands squinting in the almost dark.
"What is it?"
"From Rio das Pedras. It's the old woman."
"Can't you go tomorrow?" She nestles impatiently deep inside the covers.
"She must be dying."
He was scraping the bowl's edges clean. His bare feet were cold where the chair rungs trapped his heels at the spur. His mother sat hunched by the kerosene lamp with the book open in the half-light. With her every finger prod, each word sprang to whispering life.
"The heavens opened and I heard the angel sound a great trumpet...."
His spoon rang hollow. There was nothing left in the bowl.
Through the pillow he can hear muffled sounds.
"Good morning." A man's voice, a doctor perhaps. He moves his index, his entire hand to acknowledge the voice.
"We'll take a look at you today."
Today. How long has he been like this, here in this sack? He has lost count. Only throbbing marks the passing of days he remembers better as absence. Today. He feels a pang of what? Dread? Regret? Regret, perhaps.
Scissors gnaw at the darkness. He can hear them distinctly, and the rasp of adhesive tearing. He can feel the gauze unwinding. No pain, or very little as the layers fall open like swaddling. He remembers the light stabbing at his eyes.
He sees the man in his white jacket through an aura at first, and the two women, and as he grows accustomed to the light, their starched head caps. One grasps a clipboard.
It was a telegram. He remembers now. His mother was dying.
One woman removes the tray with its soiled bandages and snarls of adhesive. The other soaks a gauze sponge. He can see her distinctly. She dabs at his skin with alcohol. There is no smell. At first he only vaguely wonders at it. No smell at all.
He can see something in their eyes. What, he is not sure. He remembers thinking is it so bad as that? He moves as if to get up. Quickly the woman displaces the water glass to the right of the nightstand. She slides the clipboard onto the cleared surface. She folds the sheet back. His legs seem thinner. He tries to move them. They do not obey. They bend over him. One moves his legs toward the edge of the bed. The other takes his knees and folds them over her forearm. She slips paper slippers over his feet before placing them on the ground. They do not look at him. The man has him by the armpits. They pull him to his feet. How long has he lain there? He tries to walk. He moves toward the nightstand. He falters at first. He gropes for the curtain. He is looking past the divider for a mirror. There is none. The wall is bare. Later, he remembers noticing the area above the nightstand, so free of grime it is a different color altogether. He lurches toward the toilet. They stop him now.
"Enough effort for today."
From a vendor by the lake he buys her a green, red, and orange ice on a stick. He is rowing. She sits facing him. Sunday rowers crowd the water. She watches impassively, her eyes never leaving him, rhythmically licking, first the orange, then the red, and the green at the bottom. She holds the napkin under her right hand. Her dress is pink. It is ruffled at the hem. He watches her: one lick for every one of his oar strokes. They say nothing. Only the blinking of their eyes from time to time reveals their secret: one lick, one stroke; one lick, one stroke.
Later they sit at the table in the open restaurant. The green paint on the table has been flaking in the sun. Someone has carved some initials on the exposed wood.
"You'll have your own shop when we're married, won't you? Won't you?"
He tries to get up. It is night now. A cold fluorescent light pulses in the corridor. In the obscurity of the room, he can make out the nightstand and the darkened entrance to the toilet.
His legs are made of lead. He slides them over the cool of the bedsheets till his feet hang over the edge. He lowers his weight onto them carefully. Supporting himself, first on the guard rail, then the dresser's edge, he propels himself forward into the darkness. The door jamb is within his grasp. He shifts his weight, regains his balance.
He runs his free hand over the cold tile of the wall, fumbling for the light switch.
In the sudden light, someone stands weaving before him on unsteady legs, something without nose or mouth, eyes dark purple splotches, sealed almost shut, particles tattooed onto the skin.
His groin goes hot.
Not me! Not me! His voice gargles in his throat. No sound comes, no sound at all.
He is running, the soles of his shoes pound into the dirt, stained now with the first drops of rain. Of a sudden, the ground under him comes loose. It curls upward like waves. Grasses snap sharp against his shins. Flung free, he rockets out over the abyss. The rocks are dark, glistening with wet. Fists of slate pummel his arms, his legs. Not me. Not me.
He would remember distinctly switching on the light. He would remember sensing that something had changed. He would remember searching the mirror on the wall opposite. He would distinctly remember not finding a face there. He would remember the sound of the light switch. He would remember seeing a mirror in the sudden light. He would remember the first instant of seeing something. He would remember feeling nothing, nothing at all.
Excerpted from Face by Cecile Pineda. Copyright © 2003 Cecile Pineda. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword, by J. M. Coetzee,
The Birth, Life, and Rebirth of Face by Cecile Pineda,
Introduction, by Juan Bruce-Novoa,
About the Cover Artist,
About the Author,