“Maybe I will be more explicit about why is it that I am reticent to speak about love. It is because the discourse of love has continued absolutely unbroken through the transformation that interests me. America was conquered in the name of love. Today, people can be bombed in the name of love. So, if everything is love, if religion is love, and if love is everywhere, and, you know, all you need is love—then fine. It’s just that it appears that much more than religion and Church, people have killed each other in the name of love, in a way that is… brutal. And you would think by now it’s time that, rather than rave against the Church—not that there’s nothing to rave against, I am in agreement—why is it that no one is against love? Because it’s about time—no?—that we recognize the damages that love has done. Now please don’t construe me as some kind of pessimistic, solipseric whatever. But I don’t see any reason why it’s more justified today to criticize religion than it is to criticize love… I have people who tell me that they love so much that they will burn me to death. Then I say you have a peculiar way of love, but I’m not going to say, oh, you were lying. No, fine, this is your love. It’s one that burns and kills. You’re strange that way.”
– Gil Anidjar, FMK Beograd, On the Christian Question
In 1965, Tomás Paoli made love to a ciguapa on the sandy banks of the Ozama River. He would say later that he fell in love with other women, but my uncle is the kind of man who lies to himself. He would go on to survive several tangles with death, and no matter how many cigarettes he smoked, no matter the kind of trouble he got himself into, he lived to tell the tale of each dance with mortality. “God loves me,” he says these days, to himself as much as to the family. “I ain’t never gonna die!” Sixty-something and counting, he remains unmarried. Picks up women at the Port Authority GW bus stop on 178th Street, where he hangs out with his homeless friends, druggies and rehab rejects discarded by their families as he was by his. I’ve learned not to listen to Uncle Tomás, no matter what he tells me about the women he meets. He hasn’t fallen in love since 1965. In the end, the ciguapa was the only woman who reached his heart.
In 1958, Tomás and his brothers spent their days swimming across the Ozama River. Tomás was eleven, and his brothers were about the same age. They raced the neighborhood boys into the distant water, through the sun and heat, and by the time they reached the other side their friends would have only traversed two-thirds of the river’s breadth. The Paoli brothers were fast as barracuda in the dark blue waves. They had the stamina of bluefin and the lungs of whales. No one on the island could swim like they did, could lay strokes through the waves and kick into their wake without a splash, could last that many minutes beneath the surface.
Uncle Mike describes this to me at Thanksgiving. His four other siblings, their spouses, and their children have gathered around Titi Lourdes’s living room in the apartment on 169th, plates filled with steaming chicken and moro. Some of us sit on the couch or a chair, and others are standing. Conversation has scattered. Mom, Uncle Tomás, Uncle Carlos, and I listen as Uncle Mike describes one of the days they raced their friends in 1958. He relishes the memory. It looks as if he is about to close his eyes.
“Tomás was always ahead of us,” he says, shaking his head but smiling. I picture Tomás’s arms moving in and out of the river with the efficiency of a trained rower’s oar. The water would flow around him, filling his pores, eyes, mouth, ears, and nostrils with its cool touch. “But Carlos and I, we were close behind,” Uncle Mike adds. “Más o menos.Not that far. He thinks he was.” The neighborhood boys remained pricks of foam far away.
But young Tomás didn’t know that.
“He never looked back,” Mom explains to me from across the couch. There is salad stuck between her teeth. “Like those brothers in that movie. Gattaca.”
Uncle Tomás, seated beside me and smelling of cigarette ash, nods to her, swallows a glob of plátanos maduros, and points his fork into an invisible distance.
“Straight ahead,” he says, nose raised.
He kept swimming, already five-foot-three with arms as long as the trunks of baby trees.
The Paoli brothers climbed onto the opposite bank and collapsed into the sand and grass. Caked with grains of coral, salt, and seashells and basking in the sun like breaded fish on the frying pan, they turned onto their backs and watched the river of sky overhead. Tomás had never seen an ocean without waves, a river without rapids, a pool without ripples. The Dominican sky was not like this. This sky was a body no one, man or nature, had tampered with. One day, Tomás thought, I will swim those waters.
He turned to his brothers and smiled. “Too slow!” he stuttered. “I b-beat you again!”
“You had a head start!” Miguelito yelled back.
Carlos nodded, quiet but in agreement.
“You shoulda started faster,” Tomás replied.
Miguelito and Tomás stumbled to their feet, swinging at one another madly with arms heavy from exhaustion. Still they fought. “There are no Indians in our family,” their father, Rafael, used to say. “There are only Chiefs.” Miguelito tackled Tomás to the ground, dispersing sand as Carlos watched on. Mud and sand clung to their wet skin and their water-clogged swim trunks.
They wrestled until the other boys’ uneven, noisy strokes reached their ears. Tomás and Miguelito rose, bustling shoulder to shoulder, until the boys hobbled ashore, legs quivering. The three brothers stood.
These were the same boys who taunted Tomás when he was seven-years-old and mute. He still spoke funny to them. He still used the words they taught him. The bad words, words for maleducados. They were jealous that he was so blond. “Tan hermoso,” the mothers in the neighborhood would say. “The girls will go crazy for him.” Sometimes they would pay him to sit on their porch for an afternoon, a living decoration, because his hair was so blond and his skin so pearly white. Mom tells me the other boys didn’t like that someone their age, someone as blond and tall as Tomás, could be so slow to understand, that at first he could not distinguish their insults from praise. They didn’t like that he could outswim them and, eventually, beat them in a fistfight, a skill previously their exclusive domain.
In the long run, they won. Tomás may have been bound for handsome, but he didn’t stay that way. I know that now as I stare into my uncle's misshapen face beside me, a face that reminds me of fried plátanos, with a scar along his cheek like a ragged Martian canal. These days Uncle Tomás is loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, grimy, unshaven, and accompanied always by the ineradicable stench of cigarette smoke and smelly feet. When I’m walking with him down the street and a pretty woman passes, he points and says, “You gotta look, man! You gotta fucking look!” Mom makes him shower before entering the house and wash his hands before plunging them into popcorn at the movies. She doesn’t even want him to show his face when her suburban friends knock on the door because she complains he’s feo and nosy and smells like old wet socks.
But at age eleven in 1958, Tomás believed he was destined for greatness. In fact, he would spend the rest of his life believing this, as if, now a registered senior, he can find the time to grow up. He still smokes voraciously. He invited prostitutes into this apartment, where he used to live with Titi Lourdes until the TSA arrested him for smuggling Colombian heroine into JFK. And he buys bootlegged DVDs from his friend in the Bronx. I can see it now in his eyes, determined but elsewhere. The way he chews his chicken and rolls the moro around his mouth with his tongue, as if he’s got all the time in the world. If he was never going to die, as he saw it, what fate could he look forward to? His destiny was not ahead of him but behind, in the circumstances of his birth. But, as when racing the boys across the Ozama, Tomás never looked back. He was a man pinned to the present, running circles around it, a whirlpool in the flow of the Ozama River.
“You were f-fucking slow!” he told the neighborhood boys when they collapsed onto the sand.
“Yeah, what took so long?” Miguelito demanded. “Had to adjust your bra strap?”
Carlos grunted assent. “You swim like girls.”
“That’s right,” Tomás said, pounding his chest. “I’m the R-R-Road Runner. You better b-believe it!”
Miguelito stepped forward. “I’m the Road Runner!”.
Carlos nodded again. He didn’t mind. He was the least Chief among the Chiefs. “Yeah,” he said. “One of them’s the Road Runner.”
The other boys shook their heads and glared.
Tomás and his brothers knew they were the best swimmers in their neighborhood. This meant they were the best on the island. Chiefs of the Dominican Republic, here to reconquer the place where Columbus spoiled the virginity of the New World. This place that was now theirs.
At the Thanksgiving party, Titi Gloria, overhearing from her seat on the arm of the couch, grips Uncle Tomás’s wrist and leans toward me. She tells me this was only the banter of pubescent boys. In their way the neighborhood boys liked the Paoli brothers. And the brothers—except for Tomás now and then—liked them. “Next time I’ll beat you,” the neighborhood boys would say, and next time they’d try. And next time they’d lose. They lied to themselves, told themselves they could compete with the Paolis, but beyond the machismo they regarded them as brothers. After all, the Paolis owned the TV. When the cartoons went on, Tomás, Miguelito, and Carlos would call from their front door: “The cartoons! The cartoons are on!” Children would pour from the streets into the Paolis’ living room, where my abuela, Milagros, resident matriarch of the block, would cook them okra and sancocho and my abuelo, Rafael, would ruffle their hair. The Paolis weren’t filthy rich, not Trujillato rich, but the neighborhood boys valued their role in the community. Rich and poor walked the same streets, sweltered in the same gecko-infested homes, shared the same meals, waited out hurricanes behind the same concrete walls, watched Bugs Bunny on the same kiwi-fuzzy screen.
But the Dominican Republic in 1958 was no utopia. “If Trujillo or his generals pointed at you and said, ‘I want you,’ ” Titi Gloria tells me, “then you didn’t complain. You said, ‘With pleasure.’ ” There were three sisters in the Paoli family: Gloria, Lourdes, and my mother, Dolores, who was four-years-old. Gloria was the eldest at sixteen. “I was very pretty,” she tells me. Trujillo would’ve plucked her from the curb if he spotted her. If he so much as smelled a whiff of her. If he so much as heard a rumor of a rumor. “The man was a giant chick radar,” a cousin interrupts, smirking, “as if to compensate for something smaller.” Milagros said she would wear a burqa and force her daughters to follow suit, if it came to that. Rafael’s mother, of German descent, had fed Trujillo’s family when they were living off scraps. In fact, she was Trujillo’s midwife. She carried him into this world with a generosity equal in magnitude to his otherworldly evil, a wolf birthed into the arms of a lamb. Had she known, then? Until she died, she would intercede on behalf of Trujillo’s many prisoners, delivering food and prayers to the bodies of the violated. Rafael’s cousin was a prestigious lawyer, one of a handful of notables in the DR who openly opposed the regime. By guilt of association, the Paolis were denied access to food and Rafael lost his job. “It got to the point where we didn’t even have milk in the house,” Titi Gloria recalls. No one would help them, as others feared a similar fate. “Because of my German grandmother’s history with Trujillo, my dad could’ve held any position in the regime,” Mom tells me. “But our family doesn’t do that kind of thing.”
In 1961, conspirators gunned down Trujillo in his ’57 Chevy. Trujillo’s son, Ramfis, continued his father’s dictatorship. The Paolis lived between two army strongholds, and every few days Ramfis would ride by in his military convoy and peer into their home. Gloria would cover herself and hide in the depths of the house; she would not allow him to undress her with his gaze. Against her mother’s prudence, she joined demonstrations opposing the regime. She describes herself to me as a prophet, a radical, sacrificing the security of her livelihood for the cause. “Not a prophet,” she amends. “Prophet-like. This is the kind of thing prophets did.” She gives me a needs of the many speech and recites her father’s words. “I want you to be your own person,” he always told his children. But Milagros knew the punishment reserved for the family of open dissidents. Gloria ignored her mother’s warnings, and Milagros beat her with escalating intensity until one day she cracked open Gloria’s skull. “You will not ruin this family!” Milagros bellowed. “I will sacrifice my daughter for the lives of this family, if it comes to that.” But Gloria was as stubborn and stupid as Tomás. That’s how Mom puts it, anyway.
Titi Gloria and Uncle Tomás snort in Mom’s direction. She is the only child, “the spoiled brat,” Titi Gloria teases. Mom waves a hand and continues the family history, this time with my abuelo.
She explains that during all this, Rafael was forging ground in America. His grandfather was an Italian-American soldier in the DR during the U.S. occupation; he’d fallen in love with my half-German great-great-grandmother and settled on the island in 1918. Six years passed before the country declared its independence. Despite being born in the DR when it was under American occupation and spending a few years in the States, Rafael had voted in Dominican elections. He could not claim American citizenship. He had to work connections, travelling frequently between America and the Dominican Republic, although no one in the family knew precisely what he did. He was supposedly a businessman, the first employee of the Alcoa mining company, but they suspected he worked for the CIA. Eventually, he arrived in New York with four dollars in his pocket, about to live the American dream he had perhaps, in one way or another, already lived. One by one, Rafael and Milagros shipped their family to the land of the free, ladies first, beginning with Gloria and Dolores.
Arriving almost half a century after his Italian-American grandfather, Abuelo’s connection to this place felt like something to be read in a book. That’s how it sounds when Mom tells me this story. Distant. But this is her favorite part.
“Were we leaving or returning?” she asks me over the dwindling piles of food on our plates. The chicken is beginning to cool. She asks me this question each time she tells this story, as if the thought is born anew.
“Mom, I know,” I complain. “You always say the same thing.”
She smiles. “Every day is a new day for me. I wake up, no regrets, no memory, nothing! Rasa tula.”
“Tabula rasa,” I correct. Her Spanish is about as bad as her English. She doesn’t have an accent, but her vocabulary requires years of practiced interpretation. Dad and I tease her. We say she only preserved half of each language.
“Yes, tabula rasa,” she replies. “You know the Renaissance guy got that from the Muslim guy?”
“You say that too.”
“Oh, I do?”
“Yeah. It’s Locke and Ibn Tufayl.” I wave a hand. “Keep going.” I want to know the family history. I want to know how Uncle Tomás became who he is.
Before Mom can continue, Uncle Tomás interrupts. “No, no,” he says, bits of avichuela spewing from his lips. “She doesn’t know about the ciguapa. She doesn’t believe that shit.”
Mom rolls her eyes. The other siblings groan.
“Coño, Tomás…” Titi Lourdes says from across the room. She trails off the “s” in Tomás so that it sounds like “toma.” Take. Everyone has a habit of saying his name that way, often when exasperated. “You never met a ciguapa. There’s no such thing.”
He laughs. “I more than met that chick,” Uncle Tomás replies. And then, as if it isn’t clear already: “I banged her!” There is a collective sigh. My aunts wring their hands. He turns to me, eyebrows jumping. “I’ll tell you the rest, boy, you listen up…”
He tells me how Abuelo settled the family in Spanish Harlem. In the family apartment on 135th Street across from City College, Tomás missed the days when he and his brothers would swim and swim. The water in New York was cold and polluted, dark like the night sky, not blue like the day. Even the days were cloudy, tarnished by plumes of smoke that rose over the skyscrapers. Someone had tampered with this sky.
In the summer of 1965, the Paolis returned to the Dominican Republic. Tomás and his brothers dove back into the Ozama River, into the warm water and the grassy sand and the sky that could not be tampered with. They raced each other and the neighborhood boys until the sky blushed.
One day, Tomás told the others to go home for the night.
“Gonna cross one more time,” he said, surveying the currents with an unthinking gaze. Was this home? He liked it better than Manhattan. The air here was fresh and salty. But he didn’t live here anymore, did he? He lived in the streets of Spanish Harlem, where the space between buildings hummed, where the air was thick and loud and smoke tarnished the brick-and-metal-pricked sky.
They jeered. “You won’t cross before it gets dark.”
“I will,” he said. “Watch m-me.”
“We’re not gonna watch some pendejo drown. We got bellies to fill, eh? We’re going to go eat your mama’s ropa vieja, eh?” The boys and his brothers clapped each other’s palms and beat their chests. “Eh? Watch TV and shit.”
“Go to hell,” Tomás said. “I’ll be b-back. Watch me. You’ll see. I’ll be b-back,” he repeated, like Schwarzenegger’s T-800 on a feedback loop.
I’ll be back.
He watched them laugh and swagger home as he turned toward the Ozama, breathing through his nose. He stretched his arms, swung them around his torso, gazed for a moment at the colors overhead, and ran headfirst into the water. This time he looked neither behind nor ahead. He simply closed his eyes and swam until his muscles grew numb and until the sand of the opposite bank came running down his torso. He beached himself like a canoe and lay face down for a quarter hour, waves crashing around his ankles.
When Tomás flipped onto his back, the sky was dark.
He dusted himself and climbed to where the sand was cool and dry and breathed heavily through his mouth. He decided to rest before making his way to the bridge a mile down. While his chest rose and fell, stars began to appear overhead. He hadn’t seen stars in so long. He couldn’t see stars in New York.
As Tomás reclined, he heard a splash interrupt the sound of flowing water. At first he mistook the noise for a small animal in the surf, but when he turned absently to the bank, he spotted what looked like a thick wad of hair crowning the waves. The figure emerged from the water, revealing a bony face, then broad shoulders, and finally a tall, slender body swaying in the breeze. It was a she. She wore a thin, wet shawl that wrapped around her torso and legs. The shawl, Tomás realized, was a long band of algae. Fine gills, pink in the starlight, perforated her neck and fluttered along the exposed sides of her torso. Her face was narrow and filled with broad angles, occupied by long niches of shadow along the ridges of her cheekbones.
She stepped forward, moving with care over the sand and grass, as if treading the surface of an alien planet. Her backward feet laid a trail of footsteps leading into the ocean.
His mother had told Tomás and his brothers stories about the ciguapas when he was small. That they had backward feet. That they lived on the seafloor and riverbeds. That they emerged in the night and returned in the night, the pattern of their footsteps made to deceive the unthinking eye into believing someone had entered and left rather than left and entered.
Her jade eyes glimmered, and she spoke in a voice like falling crests.
“I have never seen a boy as pretty and stubborn as you.”
He stood. He didn’t talk to girls other than his sisters. Not yet at least.
“You have hair like the sun,” she whispered, taking another step.
His heart began to thud. The night air settled into his damp skin. He shivered and struggled to part his lips. What could he say? What should he say? He was the brutish, handsome retard on the block, the hermoso with a brick for a brain and gold for hair. Ridiculous, beautiful, and speech-impaired.
She stepped again. He could smell her now. Fresh soil and a fragrance heavy and sweet that he could not identify. The bare, slick skin between her sternum and her gilled neck reflected constellations.
Are these stars the same here as there? he wondered, remembering New York.
He moved his tongue between his teeth. “Who…”
She placed her backward heels against the tips of his toes. Her heels were smooth, not calloused and hard as most feet are. They were cold. Colder than the sand. Colder than the night air or the black between the stars or the Hudson River in New York.
“You could not pronounce my name,” the ciguapa murmured in stilted Spanish, almost Catalan.
She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and scratched her heels against his blunt toenails. She moaned softly.
“That feels better.” She smiled and opened her eyes, looking down to where their feet touched, his toes to her heels, before meeting his gaze. She bit her lower lip. “I had an itch.”
“Who...” Tomás repeated. Her reversed feet confused him like an impossible staircase.
She rested her elbows on his shoulders and crossed her wrists behind his neck. Her arms were hard and cold and stretched a distance longer than her legs.
“You have never met a ciguapa, have you?”
“No," he managed.
“Well know this, my friend: Few do. But I decided to break a promise. I broke my promise for you… Who are you, my friend?”
“Rafael Tomás Paoli,” he said, confidence growing, adopting for the first time his father's tenor. His great uncle was Antonio Paoli, one of history’s great opera singers, nicknamed The King of Tenors and the Tenor of Kings. His ancestor was General Pasquale Paoli, who founded the first constitutional democracy when he freed Corsica from Italy, only for it to fall into French hands. Titi Gloria has told me that Napoleon was Pasquale’s bastard son, but the dates don’t quite check out. What I do know is that if not for Pasquale, Napoleon wouldn't have been born French, so there's that blunder for the family name. Abuelo, the tenor, and the general—they blundered occasionally but they were grandiose men always, spoke of failure like singing opera from the Senate Floor. This is the voice Tomás used to pronounce his name for the ciguapa.
They stood, breathing one another’s air, until she raised her arms and laughed.
“What are you going to do? Rafael Tomás Paoli.” She stopped laughing. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
He frowned and looked away. She returned her elbows to his shoulders.
“You have never fallen in love, have you, Rafael Tomás Paoli?” She stepped back and skirted in a circle, drawing a moat in the sand. Her hair spun round her, sprinkling him with water. “Do not worry,” she said. “I will teach you how to fall in love.”
She strode toward the shore, toenails glimmering behind her in the starlight.
“How—” Tomás began and stopped. She turned, forehead raised. “How do I, uh, f-f-find you?”
“Tomorrow at midday, look for the city beneath the church.”
Before he could think to ask What church? she turned and flared her gills. Uncle Tomás tells me that, if he looked only at her legs, it would’ve seemed as though she were doing the electric slide into the surf.
“Shoulda looked just for her legs,” he says to me. He’s finished his meal and his siblings have already migrated to the kitchen to drop their plates in the sink. It’s only the two of us now. Uncle Tomás looks away. “Damn, those legs.”
I roll my eyes. “And she spoke like that?” I ask him. “Who speaks like that?”
“Oh, that chick did!” he says. “Just like that. All formal. Like she was dressed up or something. You know. Like an old lady. But that body, boy...”
“You’re old, Uncle Tomás,” I say, smiling.
The family’s discarded him, yet somehow he was once loved by this impossible creature. I can’t help but wonder how he pulled it off, how he attracts the strangest friends. There is something in him not worth discarding, something I think the ciguapa knew better than any of us, perhaps better than Tomás himself.
He chuckles and gestures as if batting flies.
“Aaah, fuck that, boy,” he replies. “I’m not old. You’ll see. I got the angels watching over me. I got plenty of time. Don’t listen to your mother. You’ll see. I’m gonna live forever!”
He pushes aside his plate and finishes the story.
The next day, heart beating and face red, Tomás left home at dawn. He scoured the river banks until he found what he was looking for: a decrepit church hanging over the Ozama. Footsteps led to and from the river’s edge. Here the bank did not slide into the water. This was a straight drop, a rocky but vertical cutoff that, for what Tomás could see, descended as far as the riverbed several tens of meters below. Even in the clear water, shadow and natural detritus blocked his sight.
The church itself was wide but overgrown, so much so that he realized he had already passed it several times that morning without noticing. Trees covered the walls, branching from the earth as if reaching their tips toward water instead of light. The edifice beneath the overgrowth was beige, brown, and crumbling, interspersed with tall, stained-glass windows. Ancient pillars rose along its sides. Tomás didn’t think he’d ever seen a thing this old. There was an old man the Paolis knew, a neighbor Milagros had made him visit. She said it was important to visit the elderly. They remembered forgotten histories. They were wise. But this church did not speak. It could not remember. It could not dispense wisdom from its cracked walls.
During a family vacation, I find the place. It is old. But the water beneath it is not as blue as I imagined. Perhaps time has aged the river as it has the church. I wonder if time has aged the memories of my family also. Uncle Mike has told me stories about this church and the city beneath it, of swimming between skeletons of rubble in the murky water, but Uncle Tomás never mentions that his brothers visited this place. He insists that he met the ciguapa when he was seventeen, but he exaggerates. Mom says he was twenty when they returned to the island, but she prides herself on forgetting, on each day being born anew. Hardly anyone in the family seems to remember the year he or she was born. Each time I ask, the answers change. They confuse their birthdays with their birth certificates—they’re different, they tell me—and their dates of citizenship with their college diplomas, if they have either. My great-great-grandmother was from Santo Domingo, not San Cristóbal, where Trujillo was born, but my aunts unanimously agree she was his midwife. After all, she did pull weight with the dictator. Their stories are inconsistent, my narrative patchwork and invented.
As I stand over the bank and smell the river’s mud, I wonder if I can draw a line between my imagination and theirs. Does it matter that they lived these lives and I have not? I do not want these memories to become history in my mind as my great-great-grandfather’s have become in theirs. I want so badly to live these memories as they have.
1965 is a good number, I decide. There was a civil war in the DR and America was occupying the country again, so I’m not sure if my abuelos would have allowed the family to return, but I think about my cousins on Dad’s side these days, travelling to and from Pakistan like it’s no big deal. Titi Gloria insists this was the year, and Titi Lourdes says not to listen to her, but it feels right.
1965, I say to myself. Let’s call it that.
And so it was on that fateful day in what I will call 1965 that Tomás filled his lungs and dove beneath the church. He swam and swam, swam as only a Paoli can swim. The detritus cleared and the darkness gave way to distant lights. Beneath, a city glowed from the slitted eye of a crevice. Through the gash in the riverbed, he glimpsed pulsing, emerald towers and rows of huts. Figures moved through the aquatic borough.
When he felt his lungs begin to pound, he kicked to the surface, breathed, and dove again. Each time he narrowed his distance to the crevice.
The fourth time, someone squeezed his torso. He spun, blinded by the bubbles swirling from his nose. It was the ciguapa. Her hair circled her scalp, and her gills fluttered as if dragonflies had perched along her neck.
She gestured. This way.
He followed her through the particulate water and beneath the shadow of the church, where she led him into a cavern. Dresses, tattered and wrinkled, were scattered across the rocks.
“The priests used to smuggle girls here,” the ciguapa explained. “Not for the priests. For the congregation. From Trujillo. He made alliances with the rest of the Catholic Church. But these priests were not like the others.” She pointed at the dresses. “They left in a hurry. El Jefe found them.”
She touched the wall where someone had labored words into rock:
GOD IN HEAVEN,
TRUJILLO ON EARTH
She took his arm and helped him out of the water. As she spoke, Tomás watched her with an intensity he’d reserved only for his kiwi-textured cartoons, Clint Eastwood, and WWII movies. Where once he had stared, mouth agape, he now looked, truly looked, with the concentrated effort he usually reserved for a long race across the Ozama River.
“But El Jefe never found us,” she was saying. “He is another kind of evil, Rafael Tomás Paoli. Just as we are another kind of people. He is not like any man. He is more than a man and less also. Thank God he is dead."
Tomás was a survivor. He would grow into the most dysfunctional man I’d ever meet, the kind of sixty-something-year-old living on government disability checks and the financial benefits of his siblings’ more prosperous lives. But no love would repeat what he had with the ciguapa. He was lucky. Very lucky. Perhaps he knew this. Perhaps, although he would spend the rest of his days attempting to fall in love as he was about to with the ciguapa, he knew that it was futile. Perhaps this was why he would later search for love in mirrors of himself, people on the edge like he was, heedless survivors, as if to allay the hurricane that was the reincarnating series of dances-with-death that would sum to his time on mother earth.
For now, Tomás was about to waste a lifetime's affections on the ciguapa from the Ozama River, the woman with backward feet whose name he would never know.
They began to spend their evenings on the banks of the Ozama. Night by night, she taught him how to love. She taught him how to hold her face and how to hold her hips. She taught him where to run his fingers through her hair and when to wrap his arm around her shoulders. She taught him how to fondle her.
“Melons!” Uncle Tomás says to me when he tells this story. He gestures with dirt-stained fingers as if he's a kid describing to his friends the menu item at Burger King with the coolest toy. “Breasts—they are like big, soft melons!" he exclaims. "You should go out with some girls sometime, eh, boy? You should! C’mon, boy, do you have a girlfriend? You can touch their tits. Like fruit.”
He smiles through his yellow teeth and cigarette-worn lips. His eyebrows leap to kingdom come.
“Sure, Uncle Tomás,” I say. “Working on it, Uncle Tomás. Yeah.”
“No one? Ah, you’re not my fucking nephew.” He chuckles. “C’mon, tell me really, you fuck…” He trails off and winks. “Italian? Chinese? Chinese girls… Do you like Chinese girls?”
“Chinese girls are nice.”
Somehow this filthy old man was once the prize of a ciguapa’s eyes, so beautiful that she had spotted him from the depths of a river. So strong and fast in the water that she had at first—she admitted this to him shyly—mistaken him for a dolphin. Tomás grinned as she ran her hands through his golden hair and told him this, oblivious to the fact that it was a compliment.
The ciguapa’s gaze fell into the distance.
“I am afraid for you,” she said.
“Nothing to, nothing to, nothing to—” he stuttered. “Nothing to b-be afraid of.” Tomás flexed his muscles and smirked.
She shook her head. The niches of shadows around her jaw flickered across her face.
“No. I”—she pointed at herself—“am afraid”—at him—“for you. I am not afraid. You should be.”
He laughed. What was there to fear? He was the tough kid now, not the bullied fool. He was the one who had swum drunk across the grimy Hudson, who had taken an ice pick in the chest to fight an alleyway crook for a nickel. He was six-foot-one and growing. She was the one bound to the waves and delicate above the surface as a butterfly who’d newly shed her cocoon. She would never survive New York.
Her eyes followed the movement of his jaw.
“Here I am vulnerable,” she acknowledged. “But in the water, you are.”
“I can swim,” he protested. “I can swim b-better than anyone!”
She curled her body and sat up. “It is not about the swimming,” she said. “It is about what you cannot control. The current, the tide. The other creatures in the water.”
I want to know this moment. My uncle doesn’t have more to tell me. I only know the ciguapa through him, filtered first by his adoration for her memory, filtered again by his lifelong refusal to understand. I want to know why she fell in love with him, and why she stayed with him. Tomás didn’t think about any of this. He assumed her love, as he would assume the support of his family, as he would assume his inability to die, as he would assume God’s favor. All I do know is that, despite the odds, the two remained together. His stutter even disappeared for a few short months. The match was too peculiar for them to be other than true lovers.
What I see in him today are only slivers of the young man she knew and loved. These days, when he showers and wears his cleanest clothes, he’s very handsome. I can see the blond beneath the grey and white, a young man in a suit too old. I’ve watched his face illuminate when my little cousins run past. I can remember the hours he spent playing basketball with me when I was their age, how he huffed and puffed until the cigarettes made it impossible for him to play. I want to know that man. What I think I see in him, the ciguapa knew. I can only guess. Perhaps she too assumed his adoration.
As she expressed her affection, he expressed his in the only way he knew. He would climb coconut palms and crack open their seeds, feeding her their clear milk and white meat. He would pick fruit from the nearest tree and place them in his lips, then hers. This was a practice he had adopted as a boy and that he had taken as a habit. If there were fruits on a tree, why not pick them? They were usually sweet. He had never shared the fruit he picked until now.
“You are an anomaly,” the ciguapa said gravely, sliding her fingers through the hairs on his barrel chest. She paused and opened her mouth, drifting between awe and adoration. “You are of this land, but you have hair like a white man.” She placed her palm flat on his breast. “You have the heart of child.” She tapped his lips. “But you have the tongue of a tigre.” She gazed into his eyes; hers remained quiet and dark. “There is none like you, Rafael Tomás Paoli.”
Tomás struggled to make sense of this, let alone to formulate a reply. He could not digest words the way he climbed trees or swam. He hardly knew how to form them. He had only begun to speak at the age of seven. Words embarrassed him. He preferred the words the boys in the neighborhood had taught him. They were comfortable in his ears and on his tongue. Putita, the name of the local stray and the girl who wouldn't kiss any of the boys, not even a peck on the cheek. Hijo de gran puta, the kid with the lazy eye, the father with the alcohol problem, the man who wouldn't give them back the baseball they'd sent crashing through his window. Coño, the word to be used when something hurt or someone hurt him. Cabrón, the name for the guy on the other end of a fistfight.
But that day an angel whispered in his ear and told him exactly what to say to the ciguapa. The whisper pronounced the words in his mind syllable by syllable so there would be no mistake. Say this, the voice seemed to say, as if it were a spell.
“There is none like you,” he replied and took her in his arms.
As the summer aged, so too did their affections. The ciguapa used to emerge nightly from the waves. Now, she did so only every other evening, and then every second evening, and then every third, leaving Tomás alone for many nights on the cold banks. He admired the night sky and reminisced, surprsingly, of the filthy streets and black water of New York. The dirt from that place clung to him like nicotine.
Tomás missed the ciguapa’s intimacy. The ease with which she smiled. No man or woman in his life had loved him as she did. She had brought him wonders from the river. Fish the shape of boomerangs, sponges the color of red peppers, weeds that smelled of fruit and slid like silk between his fingers and hers. The boys on the block had abused him, his brothers competed with him, his sisters teased him, and his parents were too busy acclimating a family of eight to the streets of New York City to devote their hours to him. These people loved Tomás in their ways, but only the ciguapa demonstrated her affections. Only she cared for him with such gentle ferocity, as if she had blinded herself from any sight except his. I think she saw in Tomás the gritty beauty of the earth but also glimpsed her heritage, displaced from itself and borne from the world above, for he swam with the elegance and purpose of the most dedicated creatures of the river.
As the ciguapa saw in him the earth, Tomás saw in her the river, the island, the uneddied sky. She exuded calm and constancy, with eyes that did not blink and skin that did not wrinkle like raisins in the water. But something of the earth followed her as something of the river followed him. It lingered beneath her formality and the steadiness of her gaze, churning and mucked as Tomás himself.
Yet Tomás remained alone on that beach for countless nights. Had she pretended to befriend him like the boys in his neighborhood? Had she abandoned him? What race would he have to win to show her who was number one? Against what obstacle would he need to demonstrate his tenacity? He could refuse the boys on the block a look back. But he could not refuse her. How strange that to watch her move toward him was, if he didn’t check his senses, to watch her walk away. As if she were grinding up to him, ready to dance merengue to a tune only she could hear. With the ciguapa, movement was a backward thing.
I like to think she still loved him. I believe she did. I know she did. She was protecting him. Not his body, for his body would always survive, but his spirit, for his had not yet taken form, had not yet developed the barnacled hull that would ferry him from each tragedy to the next. The ciguapa loved in him what I have only had the opportunity to pity: the simple heart beneath the shielded exterior; the ease of his smile, like hers, no matter how old or ugly or improperly timed; his colloquial relationship with God; his irreverence for the Devil and his trials. Below the choppy waters of Tomás Paoli, beneath the cat-calls and the cheap booze and the Marlboro Reds, was a child’s attachment to life, a perseverance of wonder that could not implode with puberty or break with adulthood or peter with old age. As he took long walks on the beach and dawdled for hours climbing trees during his youth, he spends these days—the only days that I have ever known him for—enjoying long strolls across the length of Manhattan. And if he tries to love again, as he has, he does so with every charcoal breath he’s got. Tomás Paoli cannot erode.
But he is a very difficult man to love. “He doesn’t think,” Titi Lourdes told me once. “He just does whatever! He believes he owns the world.” In this, I think the ciguapa believed she could be of service. Something had changed beneath the river, and she wanted him out of it. She would swim to the depths of the oceans for him, battle the fiercest demons of the sea and of her people, but not if doing so let these demons loose upon him. She believed he would understand that her distance indicated their time together had reached its end.
Tomás, being Tomás, did not understand. I suppose, like the rest of the family, he has as many problems making sense of distance as a ciguapa does. He took her absence as a call to arms. He remembered Gloria’s bravery against Ramfis Trujillo, his father’s words—“Be your own man,” he recalls to me—and, it seems, chose to forgo his mother’s prudence.
As the summer of 1965 reached its end, he swam beneath the church and entered the cavern. There he rested until his lungs were to capacity, climbed to the highest rocky perch, and dove. He narrowed his body like a sparrow piercing through wind, conserving energy through the intuition of his muscles. For seconds he sped through darkness. Seaweed and minnows brushed against his figure. As his ears began to pop, the blue light of the aquatic borough revealed itself through the crevice, interrupting the blackness.
Tomás angled his form so that he passed through without stopping to maneuver. He blinked as he sped into the luminescent borough, as if he were staring into the irregular, flashing heart of Times Square. But the place below was no city. No looming edifices or gargantuan monuments stretched in either direction. The buildings were stout and round, squeezed against one another at irregular angles like oysters. Tomás observed no streets; the ciguapas emerged from orifices laid atop the buildings like blowholes and swam above the roofs and between the coral, vegetation, and rock scattered across the unending floor. He tasted salt in his mouth. The ocean had somehow reached this place.
Only the occasional tower rose to the pulsing ceiling, circled by thousands of bioluminescent plankton, like power cords running the largest disco this side of the Americas. Did they dance bachata here? he wondered. Behind him, jellyfish the size of MTA buses and tuna the size of taxicabs clung to the rock ceiling. These creatures glowed, pulsating blue, green, and yellow, shedding light on the population below. Several crevices lined the glowing mess, visible as streaks of black across the makeshift sky.
His lungs began to ache. He kicked upward and through the crevice, rested for twenty minutes in the church cavern, and dove again.
He explored further this time, touching the smooth blue surface of a building. The ciguapas stopped around him, eyes wide. He smiled and waved. They retreated into their buildings. Tomás allowed the smile to drift from his face, but before he could return to the surface, someone snatched him by the ankles. He whirled in a flurry of bubbles, struggling against his attacker. But his lungs, already exhausted, collapsed and invited the river to fill him.
He woke to the whimpering of tortured dogs. As his vision cleared, he realized they were not dogs at all. “They were the ciguapas,” he tells me. “Giant fat ones with crazy hair and superhero muscles and metal clothes.” His eyebrows jump as he recalls the memory. “Boy, those sons of bitches were it. And they were giving each other shit. I could see it in their faces. Those guys were pissed. But my girl, she’s there and she’s giving it back to them. I have no idea what she’s saying, but she ain’t taking their shit, you know? And I’m starting to breathe, coughing water and shit, and they give me this crazy-ass look and they start screaming like the fucking Predator, boy, taka taka taka RAAAAAH!—”
The men stomped their heels, knees bent, torsos reclined, alien in posture. The woman gave him a look somewhere between consternation and relief.
“You get yourself into too much trouble, Rafael Tomás Paoli,” she said. “You are nosy, my love. One day, I will not be here to get you out of the mess you make for yourself. One day very soon.”
Tomás retched and then gasped for air. He scoped the room. The walls and floor were featureless turquoise, smooth as a retro spaceship, except for a triangular opening that seemed to block the water beyond with a membrane like Saran wrap.
She approached him. Her hips swayed one way, her torso the other, balancing the pressure from her toes. Her movement was insectile, each foot placed ahead of the last with uncomfortable precision, arms extended this way and that like antennae. He had never seen her on a flat surface. She was as unsettling in this place as the cockroaches in the family’s Spanish Harlem apartment, angled and skittering on the white tile, earthly yet not. The other ciguapas looked at her but she waved a hand and spoke in a voice that stung his ears. She leaned over him and dragged him up by his armpits.
“These brutes cannot understand us,” she said. “They are the Viceroy’s Guard. They think I am about to drown you. You are lucky. They wanted to have your head. They will have to wait for that. You are very lucky, my love.” She smiled purposefully. “Tell me, now. Do you have your breath?”
He coughed again and rubbed his forehead.
“Do I have my b-breath?” he repeated.
“Yes,” she hissed. “Do you have your breath?”
“I g-guess I—”
“Good.” She pushed him toward the triangular opening. “Take care, my love,” she whispered, her eyes sullen and her gills deflated. The other ciguapas screamed again, impatient. They marched toward her, awkward but menacing, like giant beetles on their hind legs. She continued to speak, jaw clenched. “You are the last man I will ever love, Rafael Tomás Paoli. You must believe this with all of your heart.”
Tomás opened his mouth, about to say, “I do,” when she shoved him through the triangular frame and kicked him into the passing current. Her last words were, “Swim! Swim, love, swim!”
He flailed, losing air, until his blood calmed and he could make out the aquatic borough sprawled in all directions, foreboding in its volume and light. He swam up toward the nearest streak of black overhead, but already his lungs were pounding. Mere moments passed before he began to see spots and stars and his arms refused his will. His strokes lost their precision, his legs their strength. Each advance took a heavy, trembling effort. He held his body still and concentrated on every movement until he had pushed into the river overhead.
Once again, he felt blackness crawl into him through his sinuses, the blackness of drowning, of suffocation, of meters of pressure. The blackness he knew from the tricks the neighborhood boys once played on him in the shallow water. Quiet entered his veins and stilled their frantic beat.
As his eyelids fluttered, someone slid against his torso and carried him upward. He recognized the slick feel of the ciguapa’s algal shawl and the thick cloud of her black hair. “I never saw her swim so damn fast!” he exclaims to me. “Whoosh!” He makes a swiping motion with his hands. “Like a fuckin’ torpedo. The other bastards were down there, just staring, wondering what hit ‘em.”
She flew into the belly of the church, trailing bubbles and seaweed, his body clutched in hers. They sailed through the cavern and collided with the rocky floor, crunching fingers and toes, before rolling into a stalagmite. The ciguapa knelt over Tomás, pressed both hands on his chest, and pushed her lips against his until he began to breathe.
“I was, uh, you know, uh, pretending,” Uncle Tomás tells me, giggling. “Just a little bit. It was a while, you know? But she, uh, she wasn’t happy—”
As soon as he began to breathe, she leapt to the water’s edge, placed one palm on the rock, clumped her hair at her nape, and stared into the river’s abyss. Her gills flared and her toes bent, strained at a paradoxical angle. She assumed the poise of a mantis about to strike, mandibles retracted, hind legs quivering. A minute passed with her back to Tomás as he heaved water. She exhaled and whispered something that tingled in his ears until at last she faced him. She knelt backward, resting naturally on the hind support of her toes, and spread her arms in exasperation. Her skin was riddled with bruises and lacerations, oozing blood and puss. Her jaw was dark as mamey, and the gills on her neck were the color of sugar cane.
“What do you think you are doing?” she demanded. “Do you believe you can go down there and knock on doors? Would I do the same to you? Your people would burn me as a witch.”
Tomás perched on his elbows and knees, waiting for his heartbeat to steady.
“I could help y-you,” he offered. “I w-w-want to help you,” he said, louder.
She looked away and laughed. “Help me? This is not any old sticky situation, Rafael Tomás Paoli. This is life and death. For you and me. When Trujillo found this place”—she indicated the moonlit cavern—“my people did nothing. Such are my people. There are reasons for what I do.” She paused. “You could not understand, my love.”
Tomás’s lips curled and uncurled, his tongue searching for words he could never find.
“No,” was all he could conjure. “No! That’s not t-true!”
She crawled to the water’s edge and faced him on her knees. No longer did she hold a shield between them. No longer did she raise her guard or put on airs. She faced him as she was, her expression contorted by wounds deeper than the pain in her bones.
“I am sorry,” she admitted. “I am sorry that I ever met you, Rafael Tomás Paoli, that you eclipsed the sun above me, that I ever saw you skirt the waves overhead like a bird your sky. Have you ever fallen in love with a bird, Rafael Tomás Paoli? You spend so much time in trees. Are there men above the earth who fly as you walk? I loathe walking. I cannot move on land as I can in water, and my ankles begin to ache. But I yearn for the feeling of ground against my soles. Not riverbed or plaster, but the thick, dry soil of the forest. Beneath the water, I cannot feel the weight of this planet. Most of my people feel this weight only for its pain. I find it reassuring. More so than the weight of the river on top of me. The water is…suffocating. God gave us legs for a reason. Not fins. Our people came from the mountains, you know. We have forgotten who we are…” She sighed and craned her feet to dip her bruised toes into the waves. “You long for water, and I for earth. Our people do not.”
Tomás stumbled to his feet. “No, you can’t g-go!”
“I am going,” she murmured. “It will be safer for both of us. You will see. Be ready. A time will come. It will be easier if we end it now instead of then.”
She plunged, and Tomás followed suit but soon lost her in the darkness. His lungs were too weary to bear his search. He clambered into the cavern and waited until the sun rose. For the first time since he’d moved to New York City, he shed tears. At first they were scarce but as the sun illuminated the sky, they flowed with the effortless movement of the Ozama River.
He admits this to me shyly, hiding his crooked teeth with long, yellow fingernails. He shakes his head and looks over my shoulder.
“I was in a baaad place,” he tells me. “A real bad place.”
Several nights later, Tomás again found himself alone on the opposite side of the river, waiting for the ciguapa. Minutes passed. The stars gathered. The water departed his skin, and he could feel his pores fill with air. He began to shiver. He knew she would not come, though he had yet to understand why. A man like Uncle Tomás does not respond to trauma. Warning signs have always taken post on roads beyond the map of his vocabulary.
After an hour, he rose and dusted the sand from his swim trunks. He spat into the water and turned toward the bridge when he heard a splash and a grunt. He began to spin round.
A figure leapt from the water and dove into his back, knocking the wind from his mighty lungs. Tomás swallowed sand, felt the particles fill his eyes. The figure landed blows into his spine before turning him and pinning him by the elbows.
It was a ciguapa, a male. “A big, ugly motherfucker,” Uncle Tomás tells me. A burly giant with shark eyes and a silverback’s lumpy sixpack. Heavy as lead. His hair long and black, the remainder of his body sleek as blubber. Gills spiked from his neck, larger than the female’s, webbed and throbbing red. “Like one of them freaky dinosaurs,” Uncle Tomás tells me. “One of those crazy bastards with the things that go like this.” He folds his wrists against either side of his neck and flaps his fingers, bearing his rotten teeth. It looks like he’s doing a silly face for one of his younger nephews. The scar across his left cheek keeps it real. “The guy stares at me like this is it and he goes—”
“You fucking her, boy?”
He struggled, muscles writhing, cursing into the air. It’s just like Uncle Tomás to shatter relationships. It’s very funny, you know, if you don’t take into account the fact that he was about to get nearly pummeled to death by Aquaman. The ciguapa’s boyfriend. He looked like Aquaman. Ludicrous and noob—if there were noobs in sixties aquatic culture—but buff as hell. This is how Uncle Tomás describes him to me, as if he has molded this new adversary from his childhood comics. He thinks his life is laughable and that, like his favorite superheroes, his Creator will resurrect him from one edition to the next, Vol. 1 to Vol. 2 to Vol. 3, battling foe after foe, generation after generation, ageless and molted to some fantastical and endless present. Striding backward against the progress of time.
But he is not leaving the suffocating waters of his past, as he believes he is. He is bound to them. Tomás can’t avoid trouble. This is his curse. Nothing in his life lasts very long. That is why he seems to live so many of them, as if the universe thinks it can make up for their brevity with quantity.
“Who?” Tomás screamed. “Fuckin’ who, man? Fuck y-you, man—”
“You know who.”
“Who?” Tomás asked, eyes wide.
He didn't wait for the reply. Tomás never knew a lot of things. He never quite finished school. He never figured out how to read a book cover to cover or got past algebra. But he knew how to survive. He saw a fight when it was coming, and he knew he could never talk himself out of one. So he talked himself into it.
“She didn’t tell me her name.” He blinked away sand and grinned. “Why?” he jibed. “Are you fucking her, man?”
The boyfriend’s gills flared the wingspan of a hawk. He released Tomás’s left arm and pressed his knuckles against his own hairless jaw.
“See this, cabrón?” the ciguapa said and raised his fist. “This is dy. Na. Mite.”
“You’re the fuckin’ cabrón, man—” Tomás managed, before his opponent’s knuckles collided with his chest.
The blow sent him to a dark place. Tomás lingered there, bobbing in the ether of his soul. But he was a Paoli. He had the lungs of whales. It was as if all those years in the Ozama had been spent to spare him this moment, to give him strength as he treaded the dark pool between this life and the next. As if God truly loved him. As if Tomás was not about to learn that his curse was not death but living.
Tomás grappled in the darkness, wrestled with it. He tells me the Devil was there. “I messed him up real good,” he tells me. “I gave it to that son of a bitch. I told him I was outta there. I told him, I’m on a mission from God.” Tomás climbed through the ether, feeling his body return to itself, feeling his lungs return to air, his eyes to light—
He emerged before his opponent’s shark eyes, gasping, smelling sweat and dead fish. The boyfriend’s eyes bulged in shock.
The ciguapa raised his fist again and swung.
This time Tomás rolled, taking the ciguapa’s other arm under his body and kicking forward, cracking it. The creature bellowed and faced the moon. Tomás kept rolling, pushing the body facedown and then mounting it, the ciguapa’s toes wiggling in the air. He sat on his opponent’s upper back and pressed the bare soles of his feet into the ciguapa’s head, forcing his face into the sand. Uncle Tomás paints the picture for me blow by blow like he’s trying to convince Dad that the bootlegged DVDs he bought from his friend in the Bronx are tip-top, narrating the detail of every swing, block, and duck as if to prove that he really did see Iron Man 2 or Terminator Salvation or The Expendables kick ass in perfect detail.
The ciguapa thrashed, arms stretching to reach Tomás around the bulk of his body, legs spazzing, gills going full dinosaur, kicking sand skyward. The boys on the block had done this to Tomás in the river several times. This was how he developed his underwater stamina. You thirsty, pendejo? You fucking thirsty? Now he reverse-engineered the process without a moment’s hesitation. It was easier to understand drowning from the perspective of the drowned.
The body slumped. The dino gills receded, limp as wet feathers.
Exhausted, Tomás fell onto his back and watched the stars, remembering the first time he laid here at night, when the woman with no name first approached him. You are an anomaly, Rafael Tomás Paoli. You have a mane of gold. Are you a white man, Rafael Tomás Paoli? You do not have a white man's name. You are an anomaly…
Soon a second ciguapa stepped onto the sand. This one was gaunt and short. His hair was silver and his eyes were hidden by folds of skin. Several more emerged from the shallow water, including the woman with no name. The first and last woman Tomás would love. The rest of the ciguapas would make sure of that momentarily.
He began to stand but their heads turned from the dead boyfriend to him. The silver-haired ciguapa shook his head. Tomás knew not to fight back, that the cost of fighting exceeded the gain. It was not a calculation for him. It was a feeling in his gut.
Silence, said the voice in his head, his brother Carlos's. Quiet.
The silver-haired ciguapa knelt and picked the corpse by the balls of its feet, then dragged the body on its belly backward—forward?—into the water. The others rose wordless from the surf and paced the bank, ruffling the footprints. Only the woman with no name remained in the water, watching Tomás with her jade eyes. He thought he noticed a sad smile on her lips.
The ciguapas returned to the waves, and the silver-haired one faced Tomás. He nodded to him and spoke in a voice high in pitch but resonant, from a place deeper and grander than his tiny, haggard body, as if bearing the music of whales.
“Rafael Tomás Paoli. I condemn your soul to the place outside of space and time, to the place where the great aspen grows to the weight of a metropolis, nourished by the flame it feeds. I banish you there so that you may wander this world and serve those you have not. I render impossible your erasure. I curse you with survival—”
The silver-haired ciguapa cut himself off and tilted his head. Behind him, the ciguapa Tomás had come to love placed a hand on her mouth, stifling laughter.
Up until this night, Tomás had only survived one death. The near-fatality of infant meningitis, the thing that had rendered him mute and, later, stuttering. His curse would be to suffer several more deaths, and it was in this second death, this second second coming, the encounter with the boyfriend, that Tomás Paoli would be cursed to survive the rest. Mom likes to say that he’s got so many lives it’s like he’s a cat. Nine lives, a series of resurrections to rival Jesus Christ himself. With each rebirth, Tomás would visit upon his setting an Armageddon. With each, he would come to dive in and out of time and space according to the merits of his cosmic affliction.
I know this is why the ciguapa was amused at even so dark an hour. What was the purpose of cursing a man already cursed? The act was so futile as to render its cosmic proportions irresistibly laughable, as pointless and ludicrous as “forty-two” was the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The silver-haired ciguapa had just realized what the female already knew, and what I have come to know, by bothering to care for this man’s damaged soul.
“Oh dear,” the silver-haired ciguapa continued, stating the obvious. “It appears you are already cursed. Who did this to you? Did you do this to yourself? Poor boy.” He waved a hand. “No matter. I curse you anyways, killer of cuckolds.”
The silver-haired ciguapa nodded once more, looked left then right as if startled from an ambiguous dream, and dove. The water gurgled with the sound of departing creatures. The woman was the last to dive, gaze averted, hair sparkling in the moonlight, the sad smile returned. But, seconds later, she too submerged.
“That was it,” Tomás tells me, shaking his head. “Don’t know what that old guy was talking about. Weird-ass son of a bitch.”
He looks down, eyebrows jumping again. I’ve never seen eyebrows jump so high.
As the ciguapas retreated to the place from which they came, Tomás retreated to his future, to 135th Street, then 175th, and finally 169th and Fort Washington Ave, to packs of Marlboro Reds and, until his liver ballooned, bottles of Bacardi. He’d left his home but his footsteps pointed the other way, kept saying he was bound for a better time and place.
I ain’t never gonna die. God loves me! I ain’t never gonna die…
Uncle Tomás was a fighter and a swimmer but never again a lover. He would try, but trying does not count in the game of love. He was a poor learner too. Shit went through one ear and out the next like smoke in a cartoon on his old block in Santo Domingo. What he did learn he easily forgot. Instead he continued on his trek for love, hitchhiking on kindred, apocalyptic souls along a road without direction.
Perhaps this was the nature of the silver-haired ciguapa’s curse. Perhaps this was the nature of Tomás Paoli. It’s hard to say. He’s oblivious to both. He is nature, after all. Lions don't contemplate their consciousness. He doesn’t realize he made love to a myth, a Dominican siren for all I know. That he killed her badass boyfriend with the mad determination of a shit-out-of-luck Jason Bourne. I don’t think he’s registered the meaning of it through that hard head of his, stubborn and anomalous and no longer draped in gold. People don’t make love to myths every day. It’s a very stupid thing to do anyway. What other outcome could Tomás have expected other than tragedy? A lack of foresight, that's what it was. From a ciguapa’s point of view, a lack of hindsight.
“Never saw that chick again,” he tells me, like she was just another one.
When I visit the church, I search its crumbled walls for an entrance, but there is none. I discover a narrow staircase leading under the foundation. I take it, inhaling mold in the claustrophobic dark, and stumble into the cavern beneath. I shiver. Although the sun peaks from irregular gaps in the rock walls, the geography of this lair generates a breeze that whistles between the stalagmites and stalactites.
Someone has chiseled the face of Santiago Matamoros into an outcropping of stone. The face is gnarled, contorted like a tear-stained painting. It bears tiny cavities for eyes, a nose the size of my thumb, and the outlines of a conquistador’s morion. By its side, the artist etched a sword the size of a pencil, and flecks of chipped stone mark its beard. The locals tell me mystics attend to the figure as a Catholic shrine, for it possesses properties of the unseen. They spend days fasting in this place, clutching their rosaries and searching for God. A woman with breast cancer lived here for a year, and the disease left her. Others, the locals say, have entered never to return. They tell me the face moves a few centimeters every year, creeping away from the water as its eyes peer in the direction opposite its igneous crawl. “Perhaps it’s yearning,” a man tells me. He shrugs. “Maybe conceited.” Over time the face shifts along the wall with a speed as gradual as the erosion of a riverbed. Uncle Tomás has not mentioned it to me.
“It’s from Santiago Matamoros,” Mom explains to me. “Santiago, Killer of Moors and Jews, from the Inquisition. Santiago is that guy from Othello.”
“Iago, you mean.” She’s told me this before.
“Yeah! That’s it,” she says. “The slimy one.”
I wonder if Nazis etched this shrine, a relic from that strange era when Trujillo opened his arms to the Third Reich. Did they curse this stone or was it born cursed, like Uncle Tomás? It perplexes me that the locals pray to this hideous thing, the emblem of the conquistadors who raped their ancestors—the Moors in Spain, the slaves from Africa, the Taínos of this island. Do they curse themselves with their prayers? I imagine the day that the face of Santiago Matamoros will slip through the tunnel and fall backward into daylight like a ciguapa who’s lost balance, unleashed upon the world with the fury of a caged jinn.
Someone has scrawled letters into the wall. The phrase is the reverse of what Uncle Tomás has described to me:
TRUJILLO ON EARTH,
GOD IN HEAVEN
I dip a finger in the water. It’s warm. I consider stripping to my underwear and taking a dive, but I don’t know the currents. I’m a swimmer, but I’m not a Paoli, not like Uncle Tomás. I want to be. I don’t know if I want to see what’s below, if I want to learn whether his account is real or not. I want to believe it is.
I climb from the cavern. Beside the church, I observe a fresh pair of footsteps leading to the vertical drop of the bank. The toes point to the river, as if someone has left for a swim, but the waves remain undisturbed. The trees behind me are obscured by leaves and shadow. I realize, then, that this place no longer reeks of mud. A steady wind unfurls from the depths of the forest, and I can detect a hint of jasmine. It is a scent as alien to this place as I am to its memories, as Tomás to death.
“Did you ever smell jasmine?” I ask him when I return to Manhattan.
“Jasmine?” he replies, after cursing and demanding I convince Mom to pay the airfare for a trip of his own. “What the hell is jasmine?”
I spend weeks looking for a jasmine flower that carries the same fragrance, and I forget about it for a while. Months later I recognize the scent in the back of a florist’s downtown. They are bunched in an open cardboard box, the petals of each spread into a cone the circumference of a fingernail, white along its edges and orange near its center. When I see Uncle Tomás next, I offer one to him. He lifts the flower into the air, pulls away as if bitten, looks at me, and sticks the grimy tip of his nose between the petals.
“Damn, boy,” he says, fumbling with the stem between dirty fingernails. The stamen has dusted his nostrils with bright yellow pollen. There is wonder in his eyes, big and clear as a newborn’s in the carcass of his skin. I can glimpse the hermoso my aunts have described to me, the tall boy with skin as smooth as sand and hair the color of the sun. The most beautiful boy on the island. He grins stupidly. “Damn, boy,” he says again, eyebrows jumping. Just another one. No big deal. He shakes his head. “Damn, those legs…”
Overnight, a million nooses appeared from deep sky, and all through the morning they came down, these long fish hooks lowered from a peerless blue...
These hours descended slowly as falling angels, clean and out of blue, each bearing, in their oakum loop, as gifts of frankincense and manna, a beautiful promise of blue...
School was cancelled for the day, and my little brother Tomo and I stayed in bed, looking out the high window.
The sky had risen, it was predicted that something would come in and kill ourselves. When I went to get oyster crackers, the faint stars of morning bulged and burst, spurting streams of white pus through the empyrean blue, which trickled over the city skyline, were dissolved in the silvery glow’s horizon.
By Noon, the city had reached its apotheosis, the real victory of self-consciousness. Swarms of noose, teeming like worms, touched down; flowed and pooled in so many noodly messes that, up to one’s armpits in rope, through the sloshing streets one had to wade, linking arms and in pairs.
Beneath the vast blue expanse, the automatic traffic came to a standstill, appeared self-aware; the city stood in hesitant silence. Although none had heard of a wind in forever, a breeze blew, and the masses of hanging noose, bumped here and there, brushing against one another; waving, washing...and in their midst, alone and faraway, a wind-chime, ting-ing, cluttered ding-a-ling...
Father and Mother roamed through our high apartment, checking their iPhones, sneaking glances out the window that returned hypnotized in blue, their eyes alight with a numinous joy.
‘No school tomorrow, either...’ Father said, kneading the hand of his wife. She asserted that when so divine a tempest had descended, and on a city so becalmed, it was actually immoral!, not to take advantage of it. ‘And can you remember the last time we saw any weather? I’d think myself to be a child then...’
She had a point. Our city had so well programmed itself that even the dome of the sky fell under its dominion. There was never weather. A certain numbness preserved our city, as a land perfected on a hill. The streets were orderly. Everyone was given over to an endless leisure in a time without sleep, accompanied by sweet, timeless, monotonous skies.
This Noon weather, though, was a bit strange. If you stretched your head through the loop of a noose, up you would go, lazily into the sky like a lost balloon. Tomo and I, from behind a window, saw our neighbors rising skyward, their bodies flopping like fish on invisible hooks, rising above the skyscrapers and clearing into pure space, all the while twisting along the rope’s axis as whirligigs in bored afternoons; or waking up halfway through and, perhaps regretting their decision, dancing ecstatically like fresh trout. ‘So many fishies!’ Tomo said. ‘Goodbye, goodbye!’
‘Isn’t that Father?’ I asked.
Our parents, knotted together at the neck, were floundering in the air, the marital blue behind them. It seemed they had gone out walking and decided against returning.
It was too bad. We were actually very sad.
So many people were being raptured that day, so many having their hearts’ desire. But suicide was becoming quite boring, no longer worth getting rapturous over, nothing to get out of bed for. It was not at all original to climb the ladders of sky, since the stars, and their broken shells, were giving very obvious directions. And there were times when the strange weather simply demanded it. If a midday breeze blew apart a veil of air, you might spy something there as like a revelation; and no sooner marked by its beauty, your neck rests upon the wide bosom of sky.
The day passed quietly, exuding a sense of sparkling clarity and saintly cleanliness. The airplanes went pirouetting through the air scrawling out messages of thanks, for the grace that faith had longed for. The radio hummed quietly as to itself, a euphoric madman: ‘...and it did take God a while, no doubt. But everyone’s just happy he finally got around to what he promised, the secret covenant at last. We totally agree it was about time he undid his errors, washed the world in erasure.’
The news droned on, never new. We waited for something more peculiar to occur. A sense of finality would have been the ne plus ultra. All that those upflying disturbances left in their wake were tall stalagmites of air, clear and pure as glass, into which, if you dipped your ear, you would merely hear the raptured yet gurgling, strung up in an endless ascent toward death. It was said that only a few had managed to die.
The radio, when it got word of this, assured us: ‘But this is merely a minor glitch. Not unexpected. After all the Infinite himself has no noose strong enough for himself...though it should be hoped, and we are all together at this hour, that there are nooses strong enough for our souls...’
No one made lunch, as Mother wasn’t home. I didn’t really feel like eating. The day had never been very interesting.
I wanted very badly to go outside and try what everyone else was trying, to shoot myself into the sky. Indeed, in my imagination I had already accustomed myself a thousand times to going up like a balloon, to setting sail across a shoreless blues, hopefully drowning where no one would hear...
Ah, but I am doomed to never get what I really want. As soon as I push open the fifth-floor window, Tomo clung onto my leg, anchoring me to the floor. I complained that this impedes my highest desire, that he was being very childish. But he said No, he was not. ‘And why should I be noosed to the earth,’ I asked, ‘tethered by a little brother who’s probably not even real?’
‘You are not to be not!’ he cried.
His rascally pun caught me off guard; my brother used every tactic in the book. Though smaller, he clawed with his nails, hitting groin and eye—wrestling for my extremely dear life.
I got a leg over the window-sill; but no sooner, he reached over, and as to end a game almost out of hand with a power he could easily have exerted before, hit a tendon on my thigh, laming me. When even then, limping, I tried to kick him against the wall, he began to cry, which was even more irritating.
‘Brother!’ he cried. He said that I was his only brother, it was not nice for me to go. I would leave again and not bring him, which was very unfair.
Supposedly, I was always doing things like that.
During the afternoon, when Mother usually sedated Tomo with a nap, we instead watched the sky through the window and ate udon noodles at my desk. Tomo sat on my lap, a steaming lacquer bowl in his hands, and I helped him eat. When a noose poked its head through our window, we batted it away with our chopsticks, on which a noodle writhed like a worm.
‘Obviously, we are eating,’ Tomo informed the noose.
The afternoon was clean and blue, quiet and of clear air, as if underneath a pillow. We could hear the distant honks of cars, the humming of far away churches, and in the middle distance, the soft swaying of rope, of swings scree-cree and suicide, a suicide of summer and gurgling bodies, slowly swinging away the long, heavenly afternoon...
And all around the city the skyscrapers start to crumble. These skyscrapers, made of glass, shine like the sad noon sky, a symbol of humanity’s sterile flourishing, its reaching for the apex stars and finally attaining its uplifting apotheosis.
But if by chance you rubbed away a patch of walls, you would uncover, like the magic lotto number of a scratch-away ticket, a giant hidden within the skyscraper.
As if mankind had always kept under his tall dress of steel a lovely beast of apocalypse, warm to his heart...
The window cleaner Enoch is seen as if in the sky.
He uses the arrays of noose to travel along the sides of a nearby skyscraper. His foot catching on an opened loop, as a monkey in a jungle of vines, he swings upside-down and along, jogging through the walkways of rope; and since in the background the skyscrapers rise blue and bright as sky, he appears a man freely walking the empyreans, liberated from blue. As soon as his foot steps off, the rope jerks skyward and is gone...
All afternoon, he worked from here to there, wiping the glass skin of the skyscraper, cleansing the sins of man, a grimy rag passing over his soapy blue reflection.
At one stop, he hung upside-down by his foot; sponging and scrubbing he accidentally uncovered an eyelash of a giant. It swung out of the opened glass and licked him along the face. The last we heard of him, he slept blissfully in blues on high.
“All is for the best in the best of possible worlds”
The world is one of many. It is but one, in fact, in an infinite set of possible worlds. Each world in the infinite set of possible worlds is composed only of an infinite set of propositions; call them p, q, r,etc. Each proposition can be either true or false at a world but its truth value can change from world to world. Every possibility is represented therein. Picture, for example, a hall of mirrors of the kind that reflects an image interminably in time and space. Only in this hall of mirrors, which we may call the universe, each image is identical to the last save for one altered proposition. One image may be of a simple mahogany table. Another, of the same table, only in cedar. The next, the same table with only three legs. And so on. These images are the different worlds in our universe. Every world is real although we may only ever see one.
Dr. Cornelius Khan, PhD, B.S, D.E.S, M.D, was present at the moment of conception of the theory, called by some a philosophical movement or a paradigm, and known as Strict Modal Realism. Of course, Khan was young at the time SMR was discovered (or invented, depending on whether one asks Dr. Melville Marks, PhD, M.D, B.A, M.B.A, and most surprisingly M.F.A, or Prof. Heinrich Schultz, whose various titles are so numerous and well-known they need not be enumerated). So Cornelius Khan, then a first year college student at the Stockholms Universitet, disoriented by the sinusoidal, labyrinthine corridors and minimalist Swedish signage, happily walked into the room where the tenured Dr. Marks and the senior Prof. Schultz verged upon what has been called by one bombastic commentator “the most important discovery [invention] of the twentyfirst [sic] century”. Khan studied logic under Schultz’s tutelage the remainder of his undergraduate years, and after a brief tour of France and Spain and an even briefer residence in Munich, returned to Stockholm to work in Schultz’s department. Khan would, however, never forget the wind that sifted through the trees of Munich’s Englischer Garten nor the distinct charm of Bavarian women offering him beer by the banks of the manmade streams.
Once back in Stockholm, Khan and Schultz, the latter of which was often called “the Shark” by his students (presumably in admiration), became increasingly engaged in esoteric experiments, the nature of which were unknown to even the most influential of the Universitet. Meanwhile, the more debonair and charming Melville Marks began publishing a series of books in which he attempted to make clear the tenets of his theory to a lay audience, and these books were translated into twenty languages including, quite strangely, Latin and came to comprise the canon of Strict Modal Realist literature. A year after Khan returned, Marks left Stockholm for a book tour that included stops in Tanzania, New Guinea, a Caribbean cruise ship, and a small football stadium in England, but only after organizing an extravagant farewell celebration at which neither Khan nor Schultz was present. It is unclear why the theory reached the astronomical popularity that it did under the reins of Marks. Perhaps because the public, since time immemorial, has been mesmerized by the hope of a world beyond our own.
In the following years, Khan and Schultz grew both closer together and more reclusive as rumors began to circulate that they were on the verge a creating a machine, a so-called vehicle, that could transport a human from this world to another in the multiplicity of possible worlds. Of the possible romantic nature of the relationship between Khan and the older, decrepit Schultz, I will say nothing. By this time, Dr. Marks had begun to distance himself from the now-global school of Strict Modal Realists in order to pursue, among other things, his truest passion: ornithology. Naturally, with the departure of its handsome and endlessly alluring leader, the cult of SMR began to undergo a gradual but irreversible decline. He offered no comment on the doings of Khan and Schultz, who likely never forgave Marks for his mutiny. This mysterious complicity continued until Heinrich Schultz, worn with age and every day slightly less sane, disappeared. He was presumed dead although his body was never found. Almost simultaneously to Schultz’s disappearance, at quite an alarming rate, Khan closed down the laboratory and relocated, quite surprisingly, to Argentina, where he purchased a property of four hundred hectares in the outskirts of San Carlos de Bariloche.
Worlds can be characterized by accessibility relations. A world w is accessible from another world w1if a change in w’s properties can result in w1. Some worlds are inaccessible from others. A series of worlds can be organized chronologically to represent time. So time is merely a string of possible worlds, particularly, the sequence of worlds that one experiences in one’s surrounding. However, all moments of time, all possible worlds must exist at once and permanently. “Time’s winged carriage hurries near” (Belnap, 1994). This is what some might call eternity. Of course, eternity is an illusion and so is time. All that exist are strings of worlds that transform into others.
Included in Khan’s unexpected land purchase in Argentina was a small island known as Isla Huemul just off the coast of the mainland in Lake Nahuel Huapi. Huemul had been, in the 1950s, the site of an eponymous project led by Austrian ex-Nazi physicist Ronald Richter, the goal of which was to develop nuclear fusion, and although Richter claimed to have succeeded, he was unable to ever replicate his results. Almost a century later, Cornelius Khan, freshly arrived on Argentinian soil and familiar with the above story, inspected the remains of the compound built by Richter on Huemul, and despite its being quite perfectly preserved (unnaturally so, in fact, as fifty years of abandonment is normally long enough for Nature to reclaim her property), Khan ordered the structure to be entirely demolished, and in its place, began a construction that almost single-handedly stimulated the southern Argentinian economy out of a recession. The construction lasted for the better part of five years and involved the importation of exotic materials from diverse countries but then stopped quite suddenly when Khan declared the project completed. The workers were asked to sign contracts forbidding them from discussing the work they had done, and with the end of the commotion and industry that had gone on on the island in previous years, the nearby towns and their residents returned to their quiet provincial lifestyles.
The compound as it exists today is an enormous modern state-of-the-art facility. Its official purpose, of course, remains undisclosed, and in keeping with the secrecy surrounding the project, the building is rather inconspicuous from the outside. Its walls are made of indiscriminate white stone, providing a thickness that makes it seem impermeable, a white monolith emerging from an otherwise rocky and uneven island (the compound covers nearly the entirety of the island’s surface). It is assumed by many of the villagers to be some sort of power plant, inspired undoubtedly by rumors of the Austrian Richter’s previous residency, and most are quite satisfied with this explanation. The townspeople are ignorant, however, of the compound’s interior, which resembles not at all a power plant or a factory, but rather uncannily, with every detail matched to a disquieting degree of exactitude, the baroque lobby of the Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski Hotel in Munich. Cornelius Khan was never known for having good taste in interior design, nor in fashion, as he was often spotted by townspeople on the mainland wearing a purple bishop’s robe and an old Spanish straw hat.
Take a moment to attempt to properly imagine an infinitude of possible worlds. There is a world somewhere that contains the proposition: “This world was created by God.” It is not this one. But such a world exists, and with it, so does an unending string of worlds accessible from it. (Keep in mind, please that this revelation in no way constitutes a triumph for believers, as there also exists a world containing the proposition: “This world was created by Lucifer.” In fact, there exist an infinitude of worlds containing each proposition). It is difficult to properly conceive of an infinitude. There exists a world that is identical to our own save that dogs have three legs. There exists another world that is identical to our own save that Germany won the Second World War. In fact, there exists a world identical to our own save that I never wrote this paper, another in which I never wrote the following sentence, another in which I never wrote the following word, letter, and so on. Such is the case with any other event or endeavor imaginable ad infinitum. Any conceivable accumulation of propositions constitutes a possible world. Go on: discover some worlds yourself.
In the following years, the number of visitors to the Isla Huemul was increasingly scant, so the arrival of a man in a tailored silk suit and chauffeured in an elegant black Rolls-Royce was seen as a shock to many of the townspeople. This visitor was none other than the largely forgotten Dr. Melville Marks.
Marks had made the long trip from New York, USA to southern Argentina following a brief but not insubstantial correspondence with his former colleague, a correspondence which Khan insisted ought to be carried out in paper with invisible ink so as to preserve the secrecy of the matters discussed. The content of their letters is mostly irrelevant to our narrative, apart from the admittance that Marks’s interest in bird-watching was nothing more than a cover for a long but ultimately futile pursuit of a woman, a former student in Sweden. The opening of one of his letters reads as follows: “Old friend, I have sacrificed not only a good part of the unredeemable time left for me on this earth, but also the remainder of what once seemed a truly promising academic career, and all for this rotten, bitter [illegible, due to invisible ink]”. Caught somewhere between pity and compassion, Cornelius Khan extended Marks an invitation to visit his facility in Argentina which, Khan said, represented the absolute zenith of their joint intellectual achievements. Naturally, Marks understood this to mean that the widespread rumors were true, that Khan had indeed finally succeeded in creating a vehicle to another world in the multiplicity of possible worlds.
Upon disembarking on the shores of Isla Huemul, beholding the massive white stone of the compound, Marks was greeted with the utmost enthusiasm by a Cornelius Khan in full regalia.
“What a pleasure it is to see you again, Melville! I began to think the day would never come,” said Khan with open arms, wisps of his grey curls blowing in the wind. Marks was struck by the way Khan had aged, but had trained himself over the years to betray no surprise in his expression. Marks followed Khan along a narrow dirt path surrounded by pines on either side to the entrance of the compound. Two towering gates crafted almost entirely of unmistakably pure ivory were before them, and Khan placed his hand on the white stone as if in a gesture of worship. The gates, imbued with some electrical apparatus, read his fingerprints, and approving of his identity, opened slowly, glacially even, to reveal the extravagant German baroque lobby, which Khan and Marks proceeded to enter.
“What do you think, Marks? It’s modeled after the lobby of the grand hotel in Munich, and modeled quite faithfully if I may say so myself!”
“It’s quite something. Very tasteful indeed,” Marks’s enthusiasm was feigned well enough that Khan failed to notice its falsity, nor did he notice the expression of near-horror on Marks’s visage.
“Follow me to my office. We can begin to discuss things there.”
Objects and individuals in our own world can have counterparts in other possible worlds. That is, objects and individuals in other worlds may seem identical to those in our own, but by virtue of their being in another world, are different entities in themselves. Therefore, there is an individual identical to you, dear reader, in another world, but that individual, logically, cannot be you. If one were, hypothetically, able to visit one of these possible worlds, one would possibly encounter his own clone. True, our world-traveler would be leaving behind his family and friends in our actual world, but let us not forget that there already exist an infinite amount of worlds in which (for various reasons) he has already abandoned his family and friends. And our actions in a given world are then quite meaningless, given that all possibilities are already accounted for. One must consider the liberating nature of this revelation. Everything is permissible, everything is possible exactly because everything has already been permitted somewhere, and everything has already happened.
Khan’s office was another curiosity. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were paneled in dark mahogany. A single window of thick glass above Khan’s immovable desk (also mahogany) was tinted in dark blue, flooding the entire room with a dank, submarine light. Beside his desk stood a Victorian globe rotating freely on a gimbal. On the walls, various landscape paintings from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, a television screen, off, embedded in the wood paneling, and the taxedermized head of a buck with an expression of complete agony.
“I hope your trip was comfortable.”
“Quite comfortable. Thank you.”
“You haven’t aged a day, Mel. You look fantastic. How long has it been?”
“Twenty years? Perhaps more.”
“Yes, more. Not since Stockholm. Not since the disappearance of our colleague.” Marks had been cautious not to speak of the case of Heinrich Schultz, but when it was mentioned, was not able to resist the curiosity. The day he heard the news of Schultz’s disappearance, Marks was in the penthouse suite of an outmoded hotel in Biarritz in which room were found after his departure: two empty bottles of bourbon, a velvet pillow, punctured and eviscerated, a pair of women’s undergarments, and stains on the wooden desk, from what can only have been water or tears. Marks knew that Schultz was not dead, but rather had only departed this world.
“Will you permit me to ask, Cornelius, exactly what it is you have so magnificently built here?”
“Why, I expect you already know the answer to your own question. I expect that the answer to your question is precisely the reason you have traveled half way around the world to visit an estranged former student in his very secluded new home.”
“Yes. And what have you decided to call it?”
“Well, the latest model, and I should say, quite presumably the final model, the one that you will see shortly, I have christened ‘The Conveyance’.”
“‘The Conveyance’. Yes. A fitting name. A beautiful name indeed. And I imagine it has been used before?”
“Dear Melville, do you really suppose I consider you, the oldest of friends, a test subject? Of course it has been used before and successfully every time. I would not think to offer you my service if I were not assured of its absolute safety.”
“How does one tell if the conveyance has been successful? How does one know whether the subject has properly been conveyed to the desired world?”
“There is no way to know certainly that the conveyance has succeeded in the same way that one cannot know certainly that the sun will rise tomorrow. The old problem of induction. But I assure you all of the calculations have been made with the utmost care and meticulousness. You should know. I have drawn quite extensively from your own work. Particularly your On the Nature and Ontology of Possible Worlds and the I think gravely underappreciated Strict Modal Realism as a Natural Science.”
“Please do not speak of my work. Those titles, Cornelius, those books were written solely for one person, and since she left me, I regret to say, I have known that I am finished with this world.”
“Then you were quite right to write me, old friend.”
Cornelius Khan stood from his desk and slid open a door that was previously unseen, not so much hidden as simply camouflaged seamlessly into the wooden paneling behind him. The taller Melville Marks was required to bend down aggressively to fit through the doorway and then saw before him another room unlike any he had seen previously, a phenomenon he had come to expect in walking through Khan’s facility.
“This here is the antechamber. Here on this console one sets one’s parameters. One programs the Conveyance, so to speak.”
The antechamber was lit solely in neon light, mostly red, though certain panels were illumined in a ghostly blue. The light, made of liquid curved in long plastic tubes, flickered at times, giving the inhabitants the awareness that the room was positively electrified. The console was a large, imposing thing, occupying approximately ten meters horizontally. It rested against the wall. Above it, a glass pane, which was at this moment darkened to opacity, when transparent gave view to the larger room that housed the Conveyance itself.
“What you must do now is simple. Type into the console the propositions specific to the world you desire. The computer will locate the nearest, that is, the most similar world to our own that contains the desired propositions and that world will be your destination.” Thus spoke Cornelius Khan while pulling various levers and turning manifold dials on the console. On the screen before them appeared the text “p = _____” and a cursor flashed. Melville Marks hesitated briefly.
“I can give you some privacy, Mel, if you please. Of course, it is not my business where you choose to travel.” But without saying a word, Marks typed in the designated line so that it read “p = I, Melville Marks, am in heaven”. With this, the previous jocularity descended into a solemnness; the two were silent, perhaps both moved by the honesty and utter desperation of Marks’s singular wish. His desire was beautifully simple. All intellectual musing, all sublime acts of reason always ending in the most animalistic and base of responses: fear of death (or was it rather want of eternal life?) The naiveté of his wish was mutually acknowledged, but seemed not at all to diminish its simple power.
Khan pressed a large circular button, before which he lifted three safety switches, and the Conveyance began to receive power. A low-frequency electrical sound emanated from within as if some massive magnet rotated. The sound dopplered down in pitch periodically. Cornelius Khan and Melville Marks walked into the final room.
The Conveyance itself was a rather small thing, which shocked Marks on the basis of everything else he had seen. It was a chamber about the size of a bed and plastic tubes rose from its cover, some connecting to the ceiling, others to immense tanks of various gasses that lined the circular perimeter of the room, at the epicenter of which was the Conveyance.
“You may lay here my friend.” Khan motioned toward the Conveyance while prancing around the room, turning knobs, dials, pulling levers, consulting gauges, undoing latches. Marks climbed into the machine as if into a coffin and lay his head on the cushion provided. Khan began to lower the canopy, sealing Marks within. Gasses flowed in the chamber through the serpentine tubes of neon in magenta, cyan, vermillion.
“Goodbye old friend! I imagine you are in for quite a ride!”
The possibility of world-to-world travel becomes more likely with every day that passes. A student and colleague of mine has, in recent times, begun conducting experiments in particle accelerators and other quantum-mechanical instruments to this very end (Khan, 2033). It appears however, that he has come to a quite inevitable and sobering physical realization: once an individual travels to a possible world, it is impossible for him to ever travel back.
All was silent and still in the Baroque lobby of the facility (“El Templo” as it was often called by locals) when Cornelius Khan walked in, still giddy from the recent conveyance, removed two glasses from a cupboard and poured in a translucent golden liquid which he sipped. From the far corner of the room emerged a darkened figure, hunched and cloaked, in a wheelchair-like contraption. The bald, fetal-looking creature was Heinrich Schultz. Khan genuflected.
“Your will is done, Professor!”
“Yes. Good. And what was his final wish?”
“To be in heaven.”
“Wonderful. Ironic. Well, there can be no better way to die than thinking one will live forever. Is that not the business we are in?”
“It’s beautiful really, the symmetry. All that remains of him is a husk.”
“Beautiful, the symmetry,” Schultz repeated.
In the small bay of the Isla Huemul, resting on the time-smoothed submarine rock, fathoms below the surface, in the impossibly dark and dense ever-moving current, Melville Marks’s corpse sleeps silently in a plastic bag, around which fish simply hold against the tide. A final breath materializes from his unwholesome lungs, and rises through the tiered ocean, stopping at the surface, then becoming one with the sea air, rising yet into the deeper unknown of the thinning atmosphere of our world, and no possible other.
In Mandarin, the word for your father’s oldest brother is Big-Uncle-on-Father’s-Side. When I was eleven and Alaina was nine, we went to Havana with Big Uncle during his Chinese New Year vacation. Cuba was Dad’s idea even though no one but me spoke Spanish and, besides visiting family in China, we never ventured further than Nashville. Big Uncle could have stayed with us—he had hosted us twice—but maybe Dad didn’t want to give him the chance to compare Shanghai and Indiana, or didn’t want him in our home, even with so little time left. Maybe he was only trying to display some American adventurousness.
Time has warped and confused some moments from that trip: the church turrets forlornly elegant above decaying rooftops, the chipped sidewalks bristly with dirt and paper scraps, the ear-feel of Cuban Spanish, the landmark-to-landmark passage of days. Others feel preserved and clarified by minute, involuntary revisions.
We aligned layovers to meet Big Uncle in Miami. For Big Uncle, there would be no break between 14- and two-hour flights to countries he did not know, the former reuniting him with Mom after five years, but he looked easy as always: duffel bag by his feet, one hand on his hip, other hand loosely at his side. He grabbed Dad’s forearm—“Nice to see you, Sun,” Dad said—lightly hugged Mom on one side, squatted to hug Alaina, and picked me up against the hard bump of his stomach to spin me. I smelled cigarettes and felt stubble against my neck.
“My favorite niece,” he said. “You’re so tall now.” I planted a kiss on his cheek, something Mom had to make me do for other relatives. Big Uncle’s face was a broader version of Dad’s. I thought he looked like Chinese Leonardo DiCaprio. Though I had only seen Big Uncle a few times, I had always liked him, or at least the idea of him.
“Why am I not your favorite?” Alaina demanded.
“Heidi is smarter,” Big Uncle said. Mom laughed a little, and Dad smiled without showing his teeth.
“I’m glad I made it,” Big Uncle said. “I’m scared of those long flights. You could get a blood clot in your leg and die of an aneurysm. Well, you could get a blood clot in your leg and die of an aneurysm anytime.”
Big Uncle worked from home as an oil salesman. A lifetime of smoking had left him stranded in the desert of his own body, and sitting all day only made it worse. Last time we visited his bachelor’s apartment—he was divorced, and his daughter was at what Dad deemed “an expensive and mediocre college”—Dad tried to get me to talk about my little league sports, and Big Uncle told us that he never exercised intentionally. That must have had everything to do with the sickness. Later, Mom and Dad later said they had not known how to talk about with Alaina and me.
“Those blood clots are pretty scary,” Mom said, looking from Big Uncle to Dad. Dad had a bad leg, its limping rhythm tapped deep into my memories of piggyback rides and walks.
“Is that why you visit so infrequently?” Big Uncle asked. Three years passed between every visit to Big Uncle, and Mom had not come to Shanghai with us last time. Mom lifted a hand as if to stroke Big Uncle’s shoulder, but suspended it midair as Big Uncle began to cough. The skin on Big Uncle’s face turned a ragged red. Mom redirected her hand to the new camera around her neck, a present from Dad.
“You four stand together,” she said quietly when Big Uncle stopped shaking. Alaina groaned.
“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” I told her.
“Why not?” Big Uncle agreed scratchily, pulling us close. “Come here, Little Brother.” Dad stepped behind us. Mom crouched, her walking shoes squeaking on the linoleum, her fingers eager but a bit uncertain around the buttons. When I went through the photos later, I saw that that one had turned out inexplicably beautiful.
Big Uncle and I sat together on the plane, Dad and Mom and Alaina one row behind. Dad kept getting up and walking the aisle.
“What are you reading?” Big Uncle asked. The school librarian, accustomed to my precocious requests, had recommended The Motorcycle Diaries. I showed Big Uncle the cover, from which Che Guevara glowered into middle distance. Big Uncle loved history, one reason I liked him. In Shanghai, he would recount each neighborhood’s past as we walked through.
“Che Guevara’s diary. He rode a motorcycle around South America.” When I explained the book’s premise to Dad, he had seemed appalled; I didn’t fully understand about Communism’s history in China and Cuba. As I read, I had been torn between the recklessness and the adventure of it. Big Uncle only smiled approvingly.
“He also helped Fidel Castro win the Cuban Revolution,” I said. “Did it make the news in China when Fidel died?”
“Oh, of course,” Big Uncle said. “China’s not on a different planet. Did you know, Heidi, that Raúl loved Communism before Fidel did? People forget that about him.”
At José Martí Airport, Big Uncle lit a cigarette as we waited for our luggage.
“Sun,” Mom said.
“Let him do it,” Dad said.
“Smoking is gross,” Alaina complained in her awkward Mandarin, tugging on Big Uncle’s shirt. Big Uncle dropped the cigarette.
“Stomp it out for me,” he said.
“It’s going to burn my foot!” The ember pulsed lazily; Alaina ducked behind Mom as smoke began to thread around her face. “Uncle! Put it out!”
I crushed the cigarette with my tennis shoe. Big Uncle smiled and spat a mass of red-flecked phlegm onto the floor. An airport attendant said something derisive in Spanish that ended with los chinos.
“Lo siento,” I told her.
Big Uncle said, “All right. No more cigarettes.”
“You never change,” Mom said.
The hostel Dad booked was in Central Havana, beyond the old city’s government-funded polish. Pastel facades overlaid by rusted balconies, delicately concealing empty interiors, reflected the soft Caribbean sun. Reggaeton thumped through the evenings. Cubans talked on stoops and crowded in the market. Mangy dogs and cats sprawled on the street and pawed overflowing curbside dumpsters. Rickshaws, Soviet-era sedans, and round “coconut taxis” jolted recklessly by, flattening littered cans and cardboard.
Mom insisted we not take taxis unless absolutely necessary. She loved walking, and in Havana loved seeing men and women dressed in all white for Santería, the parks overflowing with Wi-fi users, laundry billowing overhead, even the thick gray exhaust from the vintage cars. She pretended not to hear Dad’s remarks that it was all a bit backward. She kept touching the brim of her big straw hat and the zippers on her purse; she wore too much perfume. On the first morning, when she left the bathroom with a swathe of unblended sunscreen above her eyebrow, Big Uncle reached over to wipe it off with his thumb.
Alaina had not packed walking shoes and made Dad carry her in his uneven piggyback when the street looked too dirty for her sandaled feet. He never would have tolerated that at home, but did not protest as he hurried us between destinations with Alaina clinging to his neck. He did not, I think, want to seem too anxious in front of Big Uncle.
Big Uncle’s swagger absorbed Havana: his egregious floral button-downs attracted disproportionate light; his diminutive, distended frame seemed to take up the whole street. He walked pigeon-toed with his shoulders loose, and never in a straight line. On the broad paved boulevard of the Paseo de Prado, he orbited us in big loop, only staying still when Mom wanted to take a photograph. He bought a box of cigarillos and kept one in his pocket to occasionally place, unlit, between his teeth. (“I like the taste of tobacco,” he told me. “It keeps me from coughing.”) He feinted at the street animals as if to grab them, shouted greetings to local men, and even tossed a few words toward idling girls. They scoffed, but Big Uncle just grinned and patted my back.
Big Uncle’s gutsiness was another reason I liked him. I grew up around Dad’s stories of their rural childhood, when Big Uncle slingshotted birds out of nests, fished in the river with his bare hands, and tossed firecrackers into his neighbors’ pig pens. I always thought I was more like Dad, but I admired how Big Uncle was loud and impulsive and almost surreal.
In the Museum of the Revolution, Big Uncle let me read him the exhibit panels, listening patiently as I translated propagandized histories into broken Mandarin. I had given up on carrying The Motorcycle Diaries, and lugged a Spanish-English dictionary instead.
“Did they ever fight among themselves?” Big Uncle asked, moving his face very close to the glass between us and the blurrily enlarged photographs. The guerrillas all looked the same in their beards. “Well, you probably wouldn’t know.” He half-ruffled my head before walking to the next display case. “And what does this say?”
Alaina sped-walk past us. “Hurry up,” she hissed. She had stopped making the effort to speak Mandarin, only talking to Big Uncle via translation when absolutely necessary. “I want to go.”
Dad usually would have stuck with me to listen to my garbled tour, but he did not stray from Mom. I could track their slower progress by the snaps of Mom’s camera shutter.
“Why don’t you just read them?” I heard Dad ask. Mom muttered something and he laughed. At home they always walked side by side, hands swinging close but not touching; that day, he kept his hand on the small of her back.
On the ramparts of the Castillo de Tres Reyes, an old Spanish fort overlooking Havana, Big Uncle pointed out fishermen crouched at the fortress’s base. They fished with lines fed through their bare palms, their toes nearly in the Caribbean water.
“How did they get down there?” I asked. “Doesn’t that cut their hands?”
“I’m sure they’re tough by now. Let’s go take a look.”
We went to the fortress’s lowest tier, where man-smoothed stones gave way to wild rock. The only visible path to the fishermen was a concrete strip along the fortress’ base, barely wide enough to stand on.
I stood beside Big Uncle as he sat down on the edge of the walkway. He swung his calves, flip-flops dangling from his big toes.
“Did you know, Heidi,” Big Uncle said, “Che executed a lot of people in these forts.”
“I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet.”
“It’s probably not in your books.”
He spat toward the water and then, turning to face the fortress, lowered himself to stand on the rock crags half-submerged in water.
“Let’s go talk to those fishermen.” He grinned and wrapped a hand around my ankle. His palm felt surprisingly taut and calloused.
“Get up,” I said, “that’s really dangerous.”
Dad stepped on the walkway. “There you are,” he said. “Alaina’s hungry. Let’s go.”
Big Uncle let go of me. “Heidi and I were going to climb these rocks.”
“No, we weren’t,” I said. “It’s okay, Dad. He’s joking.”
“I’d ask you to join, but I don’t want to strain your leg,” Big Uncle said.
“You get up now,” Dad said.
Big Uncle stared at Dad, then back at me, before heaving himself to safety.
We ate dinner at a restaurant in Havana’s quiet one-street Chinatown. Feral cats slunk around the patio, padding beneath our feet, flashing their marble eyes to solicit food.
“Do you think they’d let us pet them?” Alaina asked.
“They’re wild cats,” I said—in Mandarin, for Big Uncle’s benefit. “They’ll probably scratch you.”
“Alaina wants a cat?” Big Uncle asked me.
“No,” Dad said. Big Uncle smiled at us, slid out of his seat at the head of the table and, with an astonishing downward lunge, grabbed a ginger kitten around the middle. The animal screeched; the tourists at the next table—German, by the sound of their talking—stared, laughing, and turned back to their meals. Big Uncle held the cat away from him as it flailed.
“Put it down, put it down!” Alaina begged.
“You’re being an idiot,” Dad said. “Let it go.”
“I’m just having some fun.” He took a step toward Mom and Alaina. “Anyone want to touch it?”
“Please don’t,” Mom said. Still grinning, Big Uncle took another step; Alaina, sitting on the outside of the table, wildly swung her arm.
The cat screeched and swiped. Alaina screamed. The Germans turned again. The animal landed on its feet and bounded away. Big Uncle twisted Alaina’s palm up toward the paper lanterns overhead, clumsy imitations of the ones that must have festooned Shanghai’s streets to welcome the New Year. The thin red line looked purple under their dim light.
“Why did you scream like that?” I asked Alaina. She wagged her head angrily and banged her good fist on the table.
“It hurt,” she said in English.
“It’s just a scratch,” I said in Mandarin.
Our waiter shuffled over. “Everything okay?”
“Everything is great,” Big Uncle said. Está bien, I translated.
“Why don’t you go back to the apartment, Sun?” Dad said.
“No,” Mom said tiredly, “It’s okay.”
“It was an accident,” Big Uncle said.
“It doesn’t matter. Just go back.”
“What? Don’t believe me?”
“Can we please just eat,” Mom said, but Big Uncle let go of Alaina’s hand and reached into his pocket for his knife. He scored his palm with a cut that bled quickly, thickly, much deeper than Alaina’s. He proffered it for us to see as he sat down. Alaina turned away and slammed her fist again. Plates clattered. There was murmuring from the next table, pale gazes darting like agitated minnows.
Mom pressed her fingertips to her eyelids. “Let’s just eat.”
Big Uncle ate more than the rest of us combined, though he maneuvered his chopsticks awkwardly with his left hand. His right hand curled on a red-specked napkin, a small wounded animal.
On the walk back, I lagged behind with Big Uncle. Alaina slouched between Mom and Dad, clutching Mom with her good hand, the other cradled at her chest. “Stop dragging me,” I heard Mom whisper. Big Uncle fished the cut cigarillo from his pocket and stuck it between his lips.
“Did you know there used to be a lot of Chinese people in Cuba? They fought against Spain for Cuba’s independence. We should go see their memorial before we leave.”
“Promise,” I said, as serious as I had ever sounded.
We went to the beach at Santa María del Mar, where Big Uncle and Dad swam, really swam. The lines of their bodies wavered as they moved farther and farther into the ocean, cut by the water’s peaks and troughs and the knifing white slivers of sun. There must have been a grim and gasping understanding as they chased each other forward, steep and intimate stakes.
“When are they going to turn back?” Mom said. “They’ll drown themselves.”
Alaina sat as far from the water as possible, scraping sand into a pyramid with her left hand. “Help me get carry wet sand,” she told me. I rooted at the surf line for muddy fistfuls to sprint back to her. They escaped between my fingers and down my legs as soon as I moved, splattering darkly against the dry sand. Alaina wasted my precious cargo on the pyramid’s top, its weight dispersing the powdery flanks. The harder I worked, the closer the pyramid sank toward nonexistence, but still, for five minutes I ran back and forth.
“It’s not working!” Alaina complained.
“Your dad and uncle are finally coming back,” Mom said. She had stood and watched the entire time, fingers tight around her shuttered camera, book unopened on her towel. “Thank God.”
Big Uncle walked out of the water first. His ribs were moving visibly in the exertions of a landed fish. Seafoam slid down his pale chest and stomach to the heaves of his breath. Dad returned more slowly, a dozen meters behind, fighting the inertia of the shallows. Big Uncle and Mom met eyes, and Gatsby and Daisy would remind me of them, that sentence when they lock gazes and everyone knows.
And then Mom looked beyond Big Uncle to Dad. “You shouldn’t do things like that,” Mom said to him. “Your leg.”
“Not a problem,” Dad replied thinly.
“Two sick old men who can’t even go for a swim in the ocean,” Big Uncle said. “What would you have done if we hadn’t come back, Lu?” He turned to Dad. “What about if I started sinking back there? I have bad lungs, you know.”
“Sun, don’t,” Mom said.
“What would you have done if only I came back? Or if only my Little Brother came back?”
“The girls are here,” Dad said. Alaina kept shunting sand, intent on the listless pile, humming something thoughtless.
“I’m just asking you some questions. Heidi—isn’t that how you say the American education system works? You ask questions.”
“Don’t bring her into this.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be sad at all, you son of a bitch,” Big Uncle said.
Dad punched him in the stomach. Thwack, the sound of a dropped melon. Alaina screamed, and Big Uncle slid to one knee in the sand.
“Stop screaming!” was the only thing I could think to say. There were other people on the beach, who I could feel staring, and the screaming—I grabbed her shoulders and pinched hard.
“Ow! Ow, stop!” Alaina swung her arms, but I had her firmly from behind. I had begun my growth spurt and in the beach’s oppressively bright light she seemed even smaller between my hands. Big Uncle bent over, forearms cradling his paunch, silent.
“Stop, Heidi,” Dad said. I viciously kicked the sand pyramid before I let Alaina go. She lunged and dug her nails into my arm.
“Stop it, I built that! You hurt me!”
“Shut up.” Mom yanked Alaina away. Her long eyelashes, clumped by tears, stuck to the whites of her eyes. “Please. Everyone. Shut up.”
“No problem, Little Brother,” Big Uncle wheezed. He groaned and coughed. Blood flecks. “Help me up, Heidi.”
“This doesn’t have to do with you, Heidi,” Dad said.
“I want to go home,” Alaina whimpered. “This place is the worst.”
Big Uncle grinned up at me, squinting against the sun, and held his hand out. The cut was puckered white with salt water; it must have burned when he walked into the ocean. I felt a burning on my own wrist—a ragged pink crescent of skin where Alaina had torn at me. Never had I sensed my family’s presence so acutely. I placed my palm in Big Uncle’s and pulled him to his feet.
Dad came into our room that night after we had turned the lights off and sat on the edge of my bed.
“We’ve all been very tired,” he said. “Me and your mom and uncle. It’s stressful to be in a place you don’t know. I’m sorry if we worried you.” I wasn’t sure that Alaina was awake to hear him, or that Dad needed her to be. I nodded, which he might not have been able to see either. He set his hand on mine for second over the thin sheets and left.
The last place we saw was the Necrópolis Cristobal Colón, the famous cemetery in Vedado. Alaina, who had already packed her suitcase, said she did not want to go.
“I’ll stay with her,” Dad said. “I’m a little tired. My leg.”
“You don’t have to go, Sun,” Mom said.
“Of course I’ll go,” Big Uncle said. “I’m not afraid of a graveyard.”
Mom, Big Uncle and I walked half an hour along freeways and overgrown sidewalks. Tour buses and dilapidated pick-ups roared by; passersby stared. The Necrópolis radiated outward from a Central Chapel—140,000 acres and 800,000 graves, according to the map Big Uncle bought me. Sunlight diffused among granite and marble, sank richly into the chapel’s canary yellow paint.
“You go find everything you want to see,” Big Uncle said. “We’ll only slow you down.”
They spoke as they walked in and out of my view. I saw Big Uncle take Mom’s hand; she let him hold it, but then he leaned in close to her face—he might have said something, or maybe she did—and she pulled away. Big Uncle kept her hand captive in his and slid to the ground as if to hug her knees. Later, when I read about Odysseus, I would recognize his supplication. Mom made a frantic gesture, flipping her fingers to the sky again and again—Get up, get up—and eventually he did, slowly. I heard the echoes of his laugh from across the cemetery.
Mom would never tell me what Big Uncle had said, only that of course none of it had been my fault. Before we left, I told Mom and Big Uncle to stand in front of the chapel for a photograph, the only one of them from the trip.
“Otherwise you won’t be in any pictures,” I told Mom. She hugged me, my chin already clearing her shoulder.
For our last dinner in Cuba, Dad made eggs from the hostel’s stocked refrigerator. He made us eggs every Sunday, and would do so until Alaina left for college. His face still looked razed by sun and ocean water, or maybe just fatigue. Even on the unfamiliar gas stove, he cooked our eggs perfectly: Mom’s runny, Alaina’s fried all the way through, mine somewhere in between. For himself and Big Uncle, scrambled.
Alaina forked half of her egg onto my plate. “I’m sorry I scratched you, Heidi,” she said softly.
“Where’s mine?” Big Uncle asked. Alaina huffed but gave him the other half, which, after admiring for a second, he returned with a wink. We ate quietly. Big Uncle announced that he and I were going to look at a memorial.
“Which one? Isn’t it late?” Mom said.
“It’s still light outside, and we made a promise. Didn’t we, Heidi?” I nodded. “Besides—I don’t know when I’ll see her again.” Dad shook his head slightly. Mom’s arm shifted to rest two cool fingers in the crook of his elbow.
We walked toward the Malecón, the sea front, only a chest-high barrier and a few yards of rock between ocean and sidewalk. Waves broke against the rocks in suicidal collisions and splashed over the wall, clear water sliding around our feet toward the curb. The green-pink dusk cooled to granular, blue-gray night, the glow of streetlights filtering through like oily scales. There were still people out, Cubans and tourists, but their numbers dwindled as we walked toward the Castillo.
Big Uncle stopped and lit a cigarette. I paced a tiny, uneasy square on the sidewalk. I could see two older teenagers a dozen yards away, probably Cuban: the girl sat on the seawall, feet dangling toward the city, and the boy stood between her legs with his hands on her kneecaps. They talked intently, too quickly for me to make out words.
“You know where this memorial is?”
“Let me tell you another story,” Big Uncle said. “There were once two brothers. Let’s call them Little and Big. When Little was 16 and Big was 19, one of Little’s friends bought a motorcycle and let Little borrow it for a day. Big, who was home for the New Year, wanted to ride the motorcycle, too. No one else in town had one. After dinner that night, when their Ma wasn’t looking, Big got on the motorcycle behind Little and they went off. Nothing exciting, just to the edge of the town. It was getting dark, and Little wasn’t very good at operating the motorcycle. Big couldn’t see well, either, because Little’s head was blocking his view.”
I had read enough books to guess: “Did Little crash the motorcycle?”
Big Uncle smiled, teeth striated and asymmetrical. “Little crashed intoa man who was walking along the road. When they hit him, Big was thrown off the motorcycle, but not injured. Little’s leg was broken. The motorcycle was in bad shape.”
“And the man?”
“Probably dead before the two brothers picked themselves up.”
The wind tugged an ember from the tip of the cigarette onto Big Uncle’s sleeve; the cotton singed and he did not move. “People would find out what Little had done. They liked that man, and Little had two more years to live in that godforsaken town. So what should they do next?”
“Bury the man?”
“They would find the body, and then the brothers would be guilty of something worse than the accident.”
“Tell them someone else killed him.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why are you telling me this story?
Big Uncle took another drag. “Big loved a girl. He promised he would get a high-paying job and marry her. She was the most beautiful girl in his town, or maybe anywhere. After Big told the town he hit the man—to protect his brother, you know, because you can’t imagine what it could have been like in those villages—she could never see him the same. She eventually married Little, who had always wanted her, and maybe you can’t blame her. Their family was the most prosperous there, and they were the two smartest boys. If she was going to have a comfortable life with anyone, it would be them. Big went back into the world. He married another woman and had a daughter with her.”
Another drag. “Or maybe,” he said, “Big and Little were play-fighting on the farm one day, a little shoving, and there was an accident with the equipment. Little’s leg was never the same.”
And another drag. “Or maybe,” he said, “Big and Little got into a plain fight. Because Little said something mean to Big, or over the girl, or because they’re brothers. That simple. Maybe Big kicked Little in the knee harder than he meant to. Once something starts, how mean it gets has nothing to do with the reason for fighting.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“You don’t have to. They’re just stories.”
“You’re trying to tell me why Dad’s leg is like that.”
“I didn’t say anything about your Dad,” he said.
I crossed my arms, angry. “You’re lying.”
“I’ll tell you the truth if you’ll believe it,” Big Uncle said. He let the breeze take the remnants of his cigarette, slid the knife from his pocket, and pointed the tip at my hand. I heard the Cuban couple’s sudden silence. The night shifted—sharpened, particularized.
“When you cut your hand and shake, you can’t go back on the promise,” Big Uncle said.
I didn’t want to look scared, so I said “Fine.” Louder, for the Cubans, I said, “Está bien.”
“This won’t hurt,” Big Uncle said. The knife had no temperature in my skin. Big Uncle traced an inch along my fate line just deep enough for it to flush darkly, and he was right, it did not hurt, but when it came to himself he slashed carelessly. Red droplets trailed to his fingertips. We shook. The Cuban girl murmured to her boyfriend, still watching us.
“Was that motorcycle story true? What actually happened to Dad’s leg?”
Big Uncle pointed at the horizon. Blood wound its way toward the crook of his elbow. “A fisherman fell into the ocean,” he said.
“No, he didn’t. Answer my question.”
“Did the wind push him? Or his friend?”
“No one fell in.” The more times I denied what he said, the less convinced I felt. “If there’s really someone in the water, we should get help.”
“Help? You are American, huh? No one would get here in time.”
“We should go back,” I said. The light had hardened into diamond chips, and I was afraid now—afraid of the foreign dark, afraid of him. “You cut yourself really deep. Why did you do that? Let’s go back, we’ll bandage it.” He did not seem to hear me. “I don’t mind about the story,” I said. He lifted himself onto the seawall, its concrete gleaming slick and treacherous as causality, and stood facing the water. The Cuban girl slid from the barrier and took two steps toward us.
“¿Qué pasa acá?” she said loudly. Her boyfriend muttered something behind her.
“Big Uncle, please.”
His silhouette, arm trembling, felt around its pocket. The girl waited. The ocean threw itself against the Malecón. Line cut into fishermen’s hands.
“That was my last cigarette,” Big Uncle said. He made a sound, a horrendous cough or a broken laugh, and tossed the empty carton onto the rocks. “Help me get rid of this—” he jumped down and handed me his pocket cigarillo “—and we’ll go.” I threw it hard as I could into the navy dark.
“Está bien,” I told the Cubans. “Nos vamos.” The girl still looked concerned, but when the boy pulled her close she relented and turned her face into his chest.
Big Uncle killed himself a couple weeks after returning to Shanghai—a plunge from the balcony of his apartment. Dad would tell me that much, at least.
Eventually, I came to perceive the burdens, fears, and histories with which we try to marshal the past. Before that, though, there was Big Uncle and I walking back to the apartment with his arm around my shoulders. I do not know what his prognosis was, but it could not have given him long. He was a glutton at heart—for stories, for life. Maybe I would also say he wanted revenge or justice if it had been anything so rational as that, anything less desperate than the fish who tears its organs to escape the hook.
“I don’t know what your Dad tells you about me,” he said, “but I really am a family man.” He spat on the ground. We stopped in a bar to clean the blood from our arms.
Earlier that day while getting dressed, slowly, painstakingly, the same dirty flannel as yesterday and the day before buttoned one plastic button at a time, something in Adrian snapped. The beige walls of his father’s home closed in on him. He had to get away.
As he walked to his car, the sole of his right loafer peeled from the outer edge. They were the particularly ugly pair that Marlene had gifted him at Christmas two winters ago. He had forgotten to thank her right away, absorbed in examining their awkward stitching, and by the time he had remembered, it felt too awkward to bring up.
But he shouldn’t be thinking about her anyway.
The museum had been renovated since his last visit. An unexpected windfall from city hall had bolstered a turnover of not only the facilities, but, as Adrian had very personally discovered, the employees. He didn’t understand how there could be that many people in the job market for museum curators. But maybe that’s where all the jobless liberal arts majors were ending up now. Museums. A long, curated exhibit of jobless, indebted young people strapped to their degrees. A bachelor’s, a master’s in fine arts, a mile-long trail of empty ramen cups.
Strangers mistook Adrian for younger than he was, slipping student tickets into his hand to his chagrin. He pre-emptively handed his ID to the woman at the counter, a receptionist of massive proportions. Absolutely massive. He was certain she thought he looked emaciated and sick but hah, he thought, at least I have an excuse. The pink of her sweater made her look swollen, spilling forth from the reception desk, through the neat rows of pamphlets and museum maps and custom-made museum-insignia-plastered pens, over the ebony desk top like waves of human stench.
“Sir? I said that will be twenty-five dollars for one adult ticket.”
“Right.” His voice came out like worn leather. His tongue was dry; he realized he hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. He cleared his throat and tried again to the same results. “Right.”
He handed her two bills and she slipped the ticket to him. “Enjoy.” The oil on his fingers slid slowly on the gloss of the ticket. It was holographic, showing two different images depending on its angle to the light. One image showed the front façade of the museum, designed to look like some bastardized combination of austere New England brick and classical white pillars; the other, the featured exhibit: a long row of sarcophagi whose blue and gold faces seemed to drift off into infinity.
“We went with a more engaging design for this exhibit. All the posters and tickets are by a new graphic designer. She adores this place, and I think it really shows,” said the pink woman, gesturing to the wall-length posters. The words burbled out of her. Clearly, she was new. She paused, waiting for him to smile back. The small rotating fan on the desk blew a wisp of her hair behind her wide grin. He swore he could smell her. Like old meat.
He shuffled away from her to the exhibit. He looked back momentarily, but the pink woman had already shifted her attention back to her desktop.
He shivered entering the exhibit, both from cold and from a sense of awe. Immersed in darkness, surrounded by walls painted with descriptions, and then panes of glass and lines of black or white framing case upon case of rediscovered beauty. The museum was the only luxury his parents had afforded him in childhood, once a month, and it still felt like a treasured occasion to visit as a guest. Strangely, Ba had always refused to buy the membership, a habit that, though in all logical sense must have wasted money better spent on the electricity bill or new shoes, continued in him, like other remnants of his father that refused to budge - his juvenile appearance, the stubbornness of his character, or the way his lips tightened at the edges in moments of anger.
The mummy exhibit was itself a tomb, cold and empty and possessing a hollow resonance. As the end of the path, Adrian recognized the face of a man he knew-a curator, Thomas-who stood stationed at the corner between a case detailing canopic jars and a placard describing the mummification process. His shoulders tensed as he walked past Thomas. He and Thomas had both started working at around the same time, bonding over shared confusion and excitement. Adrian had often saved Thomas from the embarrassment of not being able to answer a patron’s question, swooping in at the first glimmers of panic in Thomas’s otherwise eternally calm demeanour. He held his breath as he walked past his colleague, as though he were a child again walking past the earthy musks creeping from his parents’ herbal medicine shop on the way to the bus stop on Main and East Hastings.
Thomas didn’t notice him. He probably didn’t recognize him anymore.
Entering the final hall spilt pins into Adrian’s feet. It was a place of calm. He nodded slightly, silently giving approval to the display that drew the eye towards the focal point of the sarcophagus. He felt a calm settle his twisting gut. In the years he had worked in the museum, there hadn’t been an exhibit like this, the contents of a tomb complete with an internationally revered mummified resident.
For a moment, he felt as he always felt surveying a new exhibit-exalted, connected to a grander sense of self-and then a biting, tar-like bitterness swelled in the back of his throat, choking him. Bile. He pressed his hand to his face, breathing deeply, still struck by how prominent the bones of his jaw had become, holding in his retch. The nausea crested, then fell away.
When Marlene left the last time, it came as a surprise to the both of them. She stood in the doorway for a few moments, breathless. It was the usual tableau: eyes red, hair pulled in tangles through a rubber band, an overnight bag in hand. Phone and keys in one hand, a power move. Feverish cries, face sapped of its usual grace and smile. One moment, Marlene had been holding him, taking a break from preparing their dinner, humming a tune, playing with his hair. Next, she stood on the threshold of their home, against the railing they had had painted just the previous summer. It was all too familiar, but this time, he was too weak to run after her. This time, she didn’t come back.
“It’s just too much,” she had said through her tears. “Each day I’m waiting- waiting for you to…” Her voice gave way to further sobbing. “It’s my fault. It’s me, I swear. I’m just weak. If I were-I couldn’t, I can’t be there for you. I’m too weak. I’m so, so sorry.”
It was always the same words, some frantic combination of “can’t” and “weak” and “sorry” strung together in gasps. Her self-inflicted blame drowned both of them and through the cocktail of medications in his system slowing his thoughts and numbing his nerves he moved too slowly, mustered words too trite, and by the time he even said anything, Marlene was gone.
Still, his mouth moved slowly to say––
“It’s not your fault.”
He said it dumbly, to no one in particular. Of course, no one replied.
Since then, one shameful call to his father later, he had moved back home to finish his recuperation. He had an entire liver to integrate into his system. Or rather, a fifth of a liver. A fifth of Marlene’s liver. A literal, aching reminder of their relationship. He had a part of her with him at all times now. Always. And thinking of it pulsating within him, he would imagine Marlene saying “always.”
The first night in his childhood room, the walls full of holes from where posters of world artifacts used to hang, he threw out his nausea medication. It clattered in the ashy-coloured trashcan.
It was still there, useless, when he awoke abruptly after two hours of fitful sleep and stumbled to the bathroom. He vomited straight into the toilet bowl. When he stood up to rinse his mouth at the sink, he noticed the stench of his own breath. It made his words taste like the bitterness of roots and herbal teas.
He breathed a cloud of condensation onto the mirror. With his index finger outstretched, he hesitated a moment, then wrote her name. The curls of the e – n – e wanted to go on forever, so he dragged a long tail from the final stroke.
Recovery was painfully slow. The organ wasn’t taking as well as it should have. Marlene was being rejected in flares of fever and inflamed flesh.
His father kneaded his feet each night. Thirty minutes, each foot, the exact same spot on both, until there was a perpetual purplish tinge of a bruise resting on the raised bone just to the left of the centre of both feet. He practiced reflexology, believed strongly in traditional medicine. Adrian tried to protest, embarrassed to see his aged father working his wrinkled hands on his feet, but Ba insisted.
“This and ginger tea. Red dates. The liver needs warmth to recover.”
After smelling Adrian’s rancid breath, he began kneading twice as long.
He had met Marlene early in their college days, just as the leaves started to change colours. They grew close quickly, over midnight strolls in dewy air after last-minute races to paper deadlines, over long conversations about their mutual longings for home. The first night he stayed over at her dorm, she had remarked that his sleeping face reminded her of her brother’s. She had quickly laughed it off at the time, and he had quickly forgotten the strange comment as he got to know her better. It wasn’t until months of dating when he visited her home and met her parents and the well-polished photo of her brother on the altar by the incense that the comment bubbled back into Adrian’s consciousness. Her brother had been a freshman in college doing a summer course. Marlene had been at sleepaway camp, and hadn’t found out until she came home.
It began to rain heavily, those few days of his visit. With little concern, the leaves turned to mush beneath their feet.
Once, he and Marlene lay nude over the sheets together in the heat of August. The thin cotton stuck to their backs; still, Marlene kept her left leg draped over his right. The hollow under her kneecap was warm with sweat. He had been released from the hospital just two days earlier, fit enough to walk, to prance even, the doctor had joked. Poorly. His recuperation was going splendidly.
Marlene let her index finger trace over the Y-shaped line of scar tissue, first on his body, then on her own. It was reverential, in Marlene’s strange way. She leaned over carefully and kissed it, up and along the line of raised, motley tissue, then gave it a little lick like a cat.
“Does it still hurt?”
“No, not much anymore. The painkillers are fantastic. Though I do miss the morphine drip.”
She frowned, touching the space between his brows gently. “You’re tense.” She kneaded his forehead, coaxing relaxation.. The pads of her fingertips felt like warmed silk. “Tell me.”
“Bearable.” He rolled onto his side, facing the digital clock. It was blinking the incorrect time. 4:38. 4:38. 4:39. AM or PM? he wondered, though it was moot either way. The blinds were drawn. Neither of them had been to work in weeks. The days were sliding by like spilt crude pooling onto the sea, and he imagined his body sinking into the bed deeper, deeper.
“Still. You gotta tell me. You know I worry about you. I love you.” Her voice had risen in pitch. She drew closer to him, the heat of her body warming, then burning his thin form.
“Ah.” A sweat drop lingered on his temple. He tempted gravity and turned slightly more to the side. It continued to linger.
4:39. 4:39. 4:40.
Three months into at-home recuperation, he was scheduled to return to work. He shaved for the first time in months, swiping away the patchy stubby. He caught glimpses of his own smile in mirrors and vainly, in the backs of spoons and the oil puddles on streets, for the first time since the surgery.
Marlene busied herself, tossing out the doctor’s guides and patient-care pamphlets, bringing gluten back into their meals and recycling the old orange pill bottles. She ironed his shirts and played music from the year they had met. They were the awful pop hits of the year, and Marlene knew every single word. It was the music she always described as captured in the amber tones of their meeting.
“Amber, like fall, like insects caught in tree sap,” she would muse, hands in his hair to pluck stray leaves from their midday walk, which had slowly grown from five minutes, to a quarter of an hour, to two. His hair’s curiously curled texture made it a magnet for bits of tree. Once she had found an acorn cap and found it so funny that she kept it on her nightstand for months, long after the leaves had melted into the soil.
Marlene was at home that year, completing a degree in graphic design online after quitting her office job shortly after his liver had failed, before her own donation. She seemed satisfied by the meandering loops their days had become. She talked happily about his return to work, chattering more brightly the more Adrian’s life restarted. She chattered and forgot things and fidgeted, coffee spoons left pooling milk on the dining table, shoes flung one over the other by the front door, bits of paint chipped off cupboard corners by nervous fingertips.
On the morning of, he felt a tug on his arm as he began to roll out of bed. His phone alarm began to play softly. The digital clock on the nightstand continued to blink the wrong time.
“Don’t go.” Marlene had been awake for some time. “What if something happens?”
He smiled placatingly at her concern, already moving to stand. “It’s going to be fine. I’ll make breakfast.”
When he stood at the stove ten minutes later, the weakness returned. And then with the aroma of coffee percolating and the steam of oatmeal pushing at his nose, a sudden nausea roared through his form. He curled over the stove. A tearing sensation coursed through him, then heat. What followed was the smell of burning oats, the sound of Marlene’s cries, his body forced atop a rolling and shaking surface.
He dreamt of their fourth Christmas together, the first in which both of them were employed, renting the basement suite of a family home, Marlene insisting that they keep the holiday to themselves, rather than their usual trek to her parents’ home. His father was in China visiting relatives.
“Won’t they miss us?” Adrian brought his coffee cup to his lips, frowned slightly, placed he cup back down and dribbled in more honey from a squeeze bottle.
“But don’t you think it’ll be a romantic way to celebrate the day, with just us? It’ll feel like we’re our own little family.” The last few words were spoken awash in the sound of rushing water as Marlene rinsed off a hot skillet. A plume of steam rose from the cool water hitting hot iron.
When he looked at her that day he recalled he found the usual charm of her crooked-tooth smile to be ugly, and he had had to look away. He loved her. He knew that. He was sure he knew.
And he woke up to that smile, her face hovering over him.
“The doctor said three more months at home would be plenty of time,” she said, “I knew you weren’t well enough to return to work.”
She looked triumphant. At ease. Adrian closed his eyes.
“But I’m here for you.”
Alone in the exhibit, Adrian absent-mindedly touched the scar on his abdomen through the cotton of his shirt. In Ancient Egypt, the liver was considered sacred enough for preservation in canopic jars. It was guarded by a god with a human-head, the only organ protected by a man’s face rather than a baboon’s or a jackel’s. He wondered what happened to his liver, choked with decay before its excision.
His scar’s raised texture made it feel like a foreign creature was clamped to his skin. A parasite guarding the wound, the tear in his abdomen. The doctor had called it a chevron incision. Like the pattern on his socks, his scar was chevron. And beneath the chevron incision, for as long as he continued to live, Marlene was filtering his blood, cleansing him.
And in Marlene, Marlene was regenerating. She had given up a fifth of her liver but it would have all grown back by now.
“It’s astounding, really,” the doctor had said at the consultation shortly after the diagnosis of his chronic liver failure, “the human liver’s ability to adapt to stress and produce new tissue is unparalleled by any other organ system.”
“Warmth,” Ba would say, shredding ginger into his rice porridge, steeping red dates in boiling, twice-distilled water. “The liver, when it struggles, needs warmth. The sick liver creates anger.”
“I’m sorry,” Marlene had said. He had screamed at Marlene that Christmas, as the roasted chicken and homemade mash sat on the kitchen countertop. She wore a red sweater embellished with bells that jingled slightly to the heaving of her chest with the heaviness of her breaths. He had called her sick. So tangled in her own past that she trapped him there, made him stagnate and rot in a romance that was built around the remains of a gone, absent, dead sibling.
She left that night, and was back by morning, curled at his side. Her breaths were ragged even in her sleep. When she woke, she apologized.
A week later, his eyes had yellowed like worn linen sheets.
And then the consultations, the paperwork, the reassuring toothy smiles and held hands; the blood tests, the pre-op, the calls to bosses and refinancing of Ba’s home; the drive, the caress of the IV, the final look before the drugs kicked in.
“See you soon, love.”
Memories roaring, forehead pressed against the glass, he let his body curl in pain, this time, the ache emanating from his chest and not the echoes of sutures across his abdomen. The smell of tar began to fill and stick to the moist walls of his nostrils. His liver was already gone, and so he imagined the cool touch of a hook snaking up, tasting of metal and coldness past the tingling masses of hairs and mucus. Through the cavern of his sinuses and deep into the mass of thoughts in his skull. He shuddered, even though he had read before that the brain cannot feel pain.
There was a click of footsteps. Adrian turned. It was time to leave, certainly a security guard was about to tell him that. Or worse, perhaps it was Thomas, here to greet him, to ask him if he was well, to tell him a false fact about the exhibit that he would smile and nod at.
He saw her crooked smile first. Her lips moved and her eyes darted but Adrian felt the words pass through him. She glanced at the crumpled ticket stub in his hand. She smiled, sadly. “Not a fan?” A nervous chuckle. “My work was never really your style.” She shifted her weight onto her right leg. Waiting.
Adrian imagined holding her. Taking a step toward her. She had come back. She would take him back. She would always, always, take him back.
Marlene moved to take a step forward. She reached a hand out to him––
––and Adrian fell back. His feet dragged unconsciously backwards as though the ground slipped beneath him as words tugged loose from his lips. “I can’t. I can’t.”
“What do you mean you can’t––”
The words wouldn’t stop coming, words he didn’t realize had been festering and trapped in his mouth like the flesh in the cases that had for centuries been embalmed in bitumen and cloth. “Stop coming back, Marlene. Please, please just stop coming back.” He didn’t pause to see her reaction, could imagine already the way her face would distort and her eyes would tense and her hands would rise as though to catch him.
“Adrian––” And suddenly he making his way out of the museum with teeth grit so hard they sent ceramic noise through his skull, hands streaming with sweat, through the back exit straight past the woman in pink and her protests and her stench. The museum’s rear was framed in surprisingly large and full dumpsters. They reeked. The smell of city and rain mingled with the piles of trash. There was a hole he hadn’t noticed before in his loafers, and now they bid entry to a flume of trashsteeped rain, wicked to his skin by the grey knit of his socks.
A noise like raging wild dogs wrenched itself from his throat, and he felt his hand curl and smash into the brick. The numbing ache screamed relief. His chest heaved, his glasses tumbled from his face onto the asphalt, his flesh, his gut inflamed and tearing apart -
A car drove by.
A distant bird called. Another replied.
He knelt to pick up the frames. They sat crooked on his face. He rose.
Wetness on his hand. His thumb, bleeding. The lens had popped out and shattered. He set his thumb in his mouth, the taste of iron assailing his dry palate. The rain grew heavier.
Ba was waiting. There would be ginger tonight, ginger and red dates floating in lukewarm rice porridge. Ginger and red dates and rest days for warmth and health.
He waited there for many moments before taking the long way home.