The painting is the work of Yulia Vasiltsova, called Black & White
She looked in on him. He was still sleeping, his breath like a stone if you pressed your ear close. Same oval face. Underneath the lids, would be the same dark eyes. Maria stood behind her in the doorway holding a bucket with soapy water. «Fuera, out of there.» Then to him, «Arriba, get up, chico.»
Maria brought Katya on Saturdays to help, but Maria knew she wouldn’t help. He rubbed his eyes, opened them wider and squinted so Katya’s edges darkened into precise lines—the elbows, the quick shoulders. With all ten fingertips, Katya swept the bangs off her forehead. «You look awful, demonio.» Her eyes found the mirror above his desk. «And you don’t flirt anymore.» She swiveled her hips toward Maria. «It’s so sad. He doesn’t flirt with—»
«Basta,» said Maria and walked out.
Katya looked back at him, stuck out her tongue and followed. Her flip-flops snapped around on the tiles for a while.
He must’ve fallen asleep again because Katya was just above, quietly laughing. Her hair formed a cave over him.
«Eres una belleza,» she said, half-serious. He looked at her. «I want you to say it,» she said. «‘I’m a beauty.’ Say it. ‘Soy una belleza.'»
«Katya, you’re in my face.»
«Remember she used to say, ‘Every day look at yourself and say, I’m a beauty.'»
«Do you?» Katya lifted her chin. «Do you say that, fool?»
Katya laughed, «Sure you don’t. Come on.» She punched his shoulder. «You promised.»
Maria insisted he have a piece of toast before they left. «You’re a stick just like your father.» She told him to bring Katya back before six. «Mama!» Katya flared up. The boy said they’d be back before then. Katya got pouty at that until they walked outside and he put his hand on her shoulder. Although she shook him off, her mood improved. They walked up the road to the outskirts of town. It took them half an hour. They were only a little thirsty when they arrived at the lake. Katya had packed a bag with two chicken sandwiches and a water bottle. They also had two towels, which were thin but clean.
He sat on a rock. They watched a few teenagers splash around on the other side.
«Have you seen me in a bathing suit?»
«No, Katya. I haven’t.»
«Are you excited to see me in a bathing suit?»
«Do you love me?»
«I love you awfully.»
«I don’t believe it when you say it that way. Say it like you mean it.»
«I love you awfully.»
«I don’t like that last word. Just say it without the last word.»
«Put on your bathing suit.»
She slipped into the woods.
He walked in the other direction and put on a pair of shorts.
A splash and when he turned around, he saw a small brown head easing toward the center of the lake. The water was cold, and he sat in the sun watching her. She swam quickly, turquoise flashes of her bathing suit beneath the green. No one else was swimming now. Shadows on the far side, she floated on her back in the center of the lake, the sun directly above her—a watercolor to be admired from distance.
Katya swam back toward him, her lips pursed in a circle, quick breaths. He smiled and didn’t move.
She swam to the edge and rested on a rock under the water. «Well?» she said.
«I’m not going in right now.»
«Not talking about that. Are you ready to see me?»
«I see you now.»
«In my bathing suit, fool. Are you ready to see me in my bathing suit?»
«Sure, I guess so.»
«Okay, but as soon as you see me, you’re going to fall in love. There’ll be years of heartache.» She pulled her hair back and squeezed. «Because I’ll treat you cruelly. I’ll subject you to whims.»
Her face straightened out.
«Are you mocking me? I swear I don’t like it when you mock me.»
«I’m just accepting my fate.»
«Turn around,» she said sharply. «You’re not allowed to look at me.» Katya pointed at him. «Turn around. I don’t want you looking at me.»
He turned, and she leapt up and put a towel around her. She looked at him. «You mess everything up,» she said.
They took out the sandwiches and ate while the reflections of a few clouds dug into the lake. They sat close together but without touching.
«How am I supposed to marry you when you don’t love me?» Katya said.
She was quiet a moment. «Are you going to be a ladies’ man? I don’t want to marry a ladies’ man.»
«No, I don’t think so.»
«I don’t believe it when you say it. Say it so I believe you.»
«No, I guess I won’t.»
«You don’t love me yet. But you will. I also know that.»
«You know a lot.»
«I won’t seem young to you in a few years. If you’d seen me in my bathing suit, it would’ve been over already. I’d be the strong one.»
«Thanks for sparing me.»
«You see, I hate that.»
She watched a water bug skitter between two rocks. «Everyone says I’m pretty,» she said with a strange objectivity. «I am, aren’t I?»
«You’re very pretty.»
«No, you’re supposed to say, ‘Katya, you’re not pretty, you’re beautiful.’ You have a lot of growing up to do, fool.»
«You are beautiful.»
After lunch, he went for a swim, and Katya pretended to nap. The boy swam to the other side where he got up, and sat in the cool shadows, until he was dry and getting cold. Then he jumped in and swam into the sun, which had now shifted to Katya. He got out and dried off. «I think we should go,» he said. Katya began packing up their things.
Young and tight-skinned, they walked slower on the way home. The sun warmed their backs. A cow blocked the path; he nudged it with his foot. Clumsily, grumpily, the cow got up, took a few steps and lay down in a pile of shit. When they arrived home, Maria had her street clothes on. She had prepared some tamales, a salad, rice. Turning Katya right around, she strode out the door, mumbling something about missing a bus.
Santa Maria de la Asunción was a dark-stoned church smothered in orange and white flowers. The boy walked up the five steps, pulled the handle, and stepped inside. It was 4 PM. The womb-dark plushness of the church always made his ears hum as it closed around him. A gloominess clung to the church’s interior as statues of big-eyed saints stared down. He didn’t notice the funeral until he’d taken several steps down the aisle. He sat in the tenth row. There wasn’t much of a crowd—the organist, the organist’s wife, a priest (with a yellow stole), three altar boys, a few others. He could barely hear the voices rising thin and even with the Our Father. The corpse, too, was a lonely corpse. He looked ahead at the sepulcher and the shiny blue casket. It’s what makes sense. The dead, in the womb you’re dead. In the pew to his left, a woman slept on her side, her rose and black albanico, loosely pinched by thumb and forefinger, fanned open toward the floor. She was in her thirties, maybe drunk, maybe mourning.
He used to stop here after school to pray. Now, after everything, he just came to sit. The tea-colored pews, the lofty glass rising in bright patterns, even the air, had changed for him. He used to pray for father, mother, kids at school. He prayed for them in part for their benefit but also because he knew it was the way to receive the Lord: to pray for others. Realizing his own falsity, after each prayer, he’d say, I know I can’t fool You. But help them in earnest. He thought, Yeah, that’ll fool Him, and then, almost in the same breath, he’d apologize again for trying to fool Him. Well, for better or worse, He knows what’s in my heart. So that’s that, I don’t have to say anything else. He sat there with thestrange pain in his stomach. From time to time, he leaned forward and wrapped his ribs around it.
Eventually, he stood. He didn’t look up as the saints stared down. When he reached the last row (there were fifteen) he stopped and sat again. The pain had gone further into his stomach and made him sit.
The procession started toward him, the cavalcade of the dead, the coffin in blue, the boys in their white shirts, led by the priest, his worn, stone face. The boy straightened up and watched. The scrawniest kid in the back chewed gum. As the black shoes passed him, the boy looked down at the coffin. A piece of Plexi over the face of a woman in her sixties (probably for the smell), her mouth, parted, brown at the edges, eyes, a quarter open, falling toward her right shoulder, perfect white hair . . . The door opened and the procession exited.
On his way home, he avoided the main avenues. Head down, he walked partly on the road to avoid the throngs. When he got home, William stood in the doorway tucking in the back of his flannel shirt.
«I’m going to the soccer,» William said. «You want to come?»
He put down his book bag. «My stomach hurts a bit.»
His father went to the fridge and pulled out a Coke. He took some for himself, then offered it to his son. «Have some.»
The boy walked over, took the Coke and drank a sip more for courtesy than wanting it.
«How bad is it?»
«Not so bad.»
«You should come, take your mind off it.»
He nodded and handed back the Coke.
«I’m just tired.»
William walked past him toward the window, and the boy smelled sand.
«Sorry,» the boy said.
«Sleeping and doting’s just going to make it worse.»
The boy spat into the trash. «I’m not doting.»
William unrolled the sleeves of his shirt, smoothing one arm, then switching. Some birds flew heavily over the yard. William watched them through the glass.
«You know what the doctors say,» William said.
The boy nodded.
«Well, what do you think?»
«Doesn’t feel imaginary. What it feels like is not that.»
He picked up his book bag and stood there.
William walked past him toward the bathroom. Erect, like a kind of desert-bird, then with a momentary falter, as if the floor injured his feet, he turned on the light, and stared back at the boy. «What can I do?»
The boy felt a discomfort on his neck. «I don’t know,» he said staring at the chalky line between two floor tiles. «But thanks.»
They were silent a moment.
«You sure you don’t want to come?»
«I’m sure,» the boy said. «I just want to sleep.»
He walked into his room and sat on the bed. He heard his father pick up the shaving cream and replace it on the glass shelf. He heard his father’s voice, «Well . . .» and one more time, fading, «Well . . . » and then the running water.
Next morning the bird fought out in quick shrieks, but he didn’t look down. Ten feet away, his father leaned against the doorjamb. They looked at each other. A brassy morning light hit the glass where the bird too had hit. What’d been the bird was now a sticky mess, pecking the inside of the boy’s knuckles. Unaware of the sharp, oily stabbings, he watched his father, who was fresh from a nightmare, his head bent against the orange sun.
«You’re not serious,» William coughed.
A few moments ago the boy had heard the bird hit the window, a thud like a rock wrapped in cloth. He had walked by his father who was on the couch snoring, an ocean stirring with cockleshells.
His father’s face narrowed.
«At Las Flores,» the boy said looking down at the ants painting the cracks of the driveway, then at the bird staining his knuckles. «She would’ve liked it.»
William said nothing.
«Both its wings broke.»
William looked over the boy’s head. The boy studied his father’s face trying to find himself; settling on the steep cheekbones, he thought, I have the same hawk nose but nothing else. Years later, he’d smell Listerine in a girlfriend’s bathroom and think,I’m also invaded by his smell.
«Come back for breakfast.»
The boy watched him duck the stone lintel then looked back at the window—the smear of grayish feather, the stain. «She would’ve liked it,» he said.
«You need to eat,» came from inside. «Breakfast.»
«Make her feel more . . .» the boy trailed off, turning around.
He closed the iron gate behind him. Heavy with exhaust and sweat, his jeans stuck to his knees as he walked by the stadium with the gunshots. A tobacco-stained cobbler in a straw hat, besieged by a disaster of shoes, looked and spat. He always had work and never lifted his head. A tincture of shit and burnt oil coated the air. Then the smell of pupusas doused in picante. Barefoot kids stopped busses to La Libertad selling melocotón and tamarindo in plastic bags with crushed ice for two colones. The secretaries were going to work. The boy got to the corner store and asked the lady for a pack of Deltas. He’d be sixteen in a week, damn well old enough to smoke. She looked at him and gave him his change.
The boy nodded. Gracias.
In her last delirious minute, she’d said, «Come with me. It’d be nicer if you came along.» The boy had kept her hand as she turned to the wall. Under her creamy gold nightgown, her shoulder blades arced toward each other, the cancer in her spine arranging itself bone by bone. «Well, it’s up to you,» she’d said, almost lightly.
He walked to Las Flores. A fifteen minute walk, and many watched him as he held the bird. Finally he passed the gate and walked six rows up, past the cloudy mausoleums to the familiar place. He broke the bird’s neck, rested it on top of the stone and turned back.