In those days, the houses were built with courtyards slicing out their centers. Only a few square meters at the bottom, this careful extraction allowed light and air to filter through every level. Those days, I say, though the events of this story occurred long after the buildings had been divided into separate apartments and separate families, families who became, despite their different names, closer than kin. In partitioned houses, the courtyard was even more important. The interior-facing balconies were the only clean and airy place for those families who shared floors and staircases, who divided their rooms with each new generation. A building was known by its courtyard. Its residents’ reputation and, in time, their likelihood of surviving the war and interminable occupation, were judged by that slice of air and the small open heart at its base.
At 147 de la Concha, the housekeeper—who owned no part of the building but carried the keys and knew its history and divisions better than anyone—lived on the first floor. Though she had no balcony and everyone who lived above her walked through the courtyard—her only open space—she was paid for the intrusion with the information she gathered and the power she held in the residents’ lives. Doña Alba of 147 de la Concha was a kind tyrant, beloved by all who passed her tiny, arched door. She knew the secrets of each family and was called into their apartments to mediate disagreements or to provide the true account of events long past or passed in the night when only she could hear them. But there was one purpose, of the many to which she devoted her considerable power, that she held above all others: the preservation of young girls’ honor. For this reason, no matter the time or weather, Doña Alba could be found watering her plants or sweeping the dirt floor of the courtyard whenever Fidelia Armando Castell or Rosa Obejas Gijón came out on their balconies.
The residence of 147 de la Concha held two families and their extensions: the Catholic Armando Castells and the Obejas Gijóns, Jewish citizens of long standing in the small Creole city. Though each family was prominent, neither was wealthy, so the courtyard had a dirt rather than tile floor. There’s nothing cleaner than a dirt floor, Doña Alba said at least once a week. She preferred the earth that allowed her to water her hibiscus and mint without wondering where the water would go, and she did not have to spend extra time on her knees scrubbing tile. The residents not only agreed but held that the dirt marked their building as more prestigious. The newer buildings, with tile or those awful cement stones that burned children’s bare feet and palms, had been built after the long-ago struggle for independence, whereas 147 de la Concha had been built before. Under the occupation, that distantly remembered war was thought of rather quaintly, a time when friend and enemy spoke the same language, a beautiful tongue they could all agree on. A time when the enemy had been almost indistinguishable from themselves. Under the occupation, the enemy spoke a language they could not understand, that shared few words or roots with their own.
The courtyard’s passable space was mostly covered by Doña Alba’s flowers and herbs and the large rocker which could scoot across the floor depending on the balcony the residents she was talking with or spying on stood. Between Doña Alba’s sweeping and sprinkling water and the residents’ footsteps packing the dirt for decades—no one even remembered who had lived in the house before them or what long-dead Spaniard had built it—the courtyard floor was harder than marble. No heel could make a mark. Any shovel would have bent like a blade of grass trying to scuff a diamond.
Even the shoes of Fidelia Armando Castell, called Fidé, whose once-respectable kitten heels she had heightened with pieces of wood and whittled to points that stuck in the cobblestones and sidewalk grates outside the plaza, even these did not leave a dent deeper than a pigeon print in the dirt. This was the reason, Doña Alba lamented later, that it took her so long to know what the girl was up to. Fidelia left no trace, not a whisper. Only the ceiba tree, which had entered the building in a pot years ago and now stood in one corner of the courtyard, could mark the hard dirt floor. Doña Alba’s (now) late husband, seeing the tree’s struggles, had cracked the pot and carved the terracotta away from the ceiba’s roots, allowing it to expand into the heretofore impenetrable dirt.
Until Fidelia’s escapes, Doña Alba’s reign over the courtyard was firm. She argued that even if it appeared to waver, she was only allowing those she trained to step forth in their sacred duties. One such example that was often repeated was a story of Fidelia Armando Castell and Rosa Obejas Gijón together in the courtyard when they were still small enough to hide behind the pots of herbs and too fast for Doña Alba to catch, a story from long before the occupation. Their skin in shades of brown that shifted according to the season, their hair in two braids down their backs, one set dark brown mixed with red and tightly curled (Fidelia), one black and oiled straight (Rosa). With their backs turned, braids swung forward, only the color of their hair kept them from being twins. Their bodies the same disproportions: long legs, short torsos, big knees, and sprawling hands that Rosa grew into but Fidelia did not. Rosa had a fine black moustache that stood out on her skin, though she didn’t know she had it yet. Their features were different, yes, but their expressions and movements were the same, having been each other’s mirror since Fidelia was old enough to reach through the balcony bars and wave at the little girl across the courtyard.
Other children crowded around them, cousins and neighbors, on the balconies, passing through the courtyard, but to Fidelia and Rosa, no one else existed. So much so that when a girl from the other side of Calle de la Concha, a girl twice as tall who lived in a building guarded by royal palms and raised on both yucca and fine steaks, grabbed Fidelia by the arm, stopping her whirling, she threw her to the ground next to Rosa before anyone even knew she was there. Rosa leapt up and charged, head down, but the girl knew how to fight and dodged her. The girl went straight for Fidelia, who couldn’t even stand up so great was the whiplash from her fantasy game to this real one. She could only cover her face in her hands and wail. Rosa lunged at the girl again and kicked and pulled her dress but the girl had found the underbelly. She yanked Fidelia’s braids and spit on her pinafore, hammering her with scrubby fists, until there was a shout, a squawk really—like a hen or crow—from the balcony above. The big girl looked up and Elmo, Rosa’s youngest brother (who, though he was only two years younger than Rosa and eighteen months younger than Fidelia, was still too young to play in the courtyard), pulled down his short pants and pissed all over the girl. So perfect was his aim that not a drop landed on Rosa and Fidelia, who, hearing the squawk, had the good sense to run to the other side of the courtyard. Rosa shouted in triumph—a sound not too different from her brother’s squawk—and raised her fists in the air, holding them there, a tiny statue of militant joy. Fidelia, however, was silent. Her eyes darted between Elmo and the intruder. The girl, stunned and still dripping, slunk from the courtyard.
Rosa and Fidelia started laughing and it took them days to stop. Even years later, spotting the girl—who had grown up to be boring, respectable, and without an ounce of style—would send them into fits. Fidelia would sniff exaggeratedly or Rosa would raise her handkerchief to her nose and arch her eyebrows and they would have to run back to 147 de la Concha they were laughing so hard. Then Doña Alba would chase them with her dust cloths for showing their teeth and arching their necks in public, because who might follow them home after that display. She could only be calmed when reminded that she kept such a careful watch on the courtyard and had trained all the boys in the building to do the same. Doña Alba would sit in her rocker, both girls cooling her face with her sandalwood fans, and say, yes, she had trained the boys well, and a good thing too considering all that the girls—their white teeth, long necks—would need protecting from.
After the intruder girl had run away, both Fidelia and Rosa gave Elmo the sweets they had saved from Carnival the month before. He ate them all at once: the honeyed cake of the capuchinos now dry, marzipan with a crust of iron around their still-soft centers. He threw up on the balcony, and Rosa and Fidelia started laughing again.
Poor baby, Fidelia said when she could speak, poor baby Elmo, you saved us.
Fidelia’s family (the Armando Castells) were haberdashers of middling new-Creole stock but Rosa’s (the Obejas Gijóns) had lived in the city for as long as anyone could remember. Through the various rises and ebbs of illiberality they had survived, not untouched but still there. Their name was a constructed one (their ancestors had picked at random a type of livestock, then added the last Spanish city they passed through before venturing into the New World), but their religious practices were not. Some cited magnanimity unheard of since the days of Old Toledo as the reason for the Catholics’ (variable) integration of their Semitic fellows. In truth, the city was small, located on the southern tip of a narrow island, bordered by thick jungle and choppy sea, and there was no way to keep families—whether their roots were Jewish, Indian, Maroon, or Castilian—separate. Rafael Obejas was fond of pointing out that most of the estimable Creoles in the city were probably Jewish or Muslim to begin with, as who else would be willing to settle in a gold-less backwater except those fleeing that lisping king’s maniacal wife. Yes, the Obejas Gijóns and the few other Jewish families in the city were accepted into the larger weave, but their position, and by this I mean their not being stoned to death or starved through exclusion, was one that had to keep being earned. They had held their station for many years but that did not mean anyone forgot it was earned and not inherent.
Neither Rosa nor Fidelia cared much about this history, about the nasty lies recirculating, about the dusty pamphlets on the laws of physiognomy that once lay decaying in the back drawers of aged pharmacists and now, since the occupation, had begun to resurface. Rosa and Fidelia did not notice the pamphlets’ etchings creeping slowly towards the front page of the most widely read newspapers or their terms slipping from the back of the mind to the tip of the city’s tongue. Rosa knew only that in the years since the occupation, her world had shrunk. Fewer dresses, fewer streets she could walk on, fewer custards and translations of French novels, fewer hours she could walk those fewer streets. Her world kept shrinking. Her dresses down to two, one to wash and one to wear, and then only one so at the end of the week she had to wait, watching her dress dry on the balcony railing, stuck behind the latticed shutters, not even able to peek her head far enough to see the drops of water land on the dirt courtyard below, waiting for Fidelia to return from where she’d snuck off to. Because by now Fidelia Armando Castell was nineteen, and there were few powers—not even Doña Alba’s—that could have stopped her from slipping out of 147 de la Concha and finding someone to wrap his arm around her waist while music played.
On each block, on each night since the occupation began—which was an eternity for Fidelia, as long as Elmo (seventeen) had considered himself a man, and certainly longer than anyone younger than little Mirian (Rosa’s second youngest sister) could actually remember—there had been the young people’s dances. They were held in the courtyards of the larger residencies, the ones with tile floors or not so many plants or with a building plan that allowed entry to the upper balconies without entry to each apartment. Even overseen by the housekeepers and older family members, the parties were riotous. The bands played all night. Musicians came and, even if they hadn’t been paid, wanted to keep playing, and the young people danced as long as there was music. The old people never complained that these parties occurred with a frequency and frenzy unheard of in their youth. They did not do what every generation does once its feet hurt too much to dance all night. They understood the dances were necessary.
For a time the parties followed a certain pattern. Each day the group of girls who would host set about decorating their courtyard with birds of paradise gathered beside the cliffs, bits of colored paper from old advertisements cut into stars and moons, anything they could scavenge from the tin man or their closets. By evening they had constructed their costumes, made of the same set of materials and shaped according to the theme of the night. The themes began lightheartedly, extensions of secondary school balls: “Land of the Fairies” with paper wings and flower coronets (both Rosa and Fidelia participated); “Beneath the Sea,” with conch shell tops over their dresses and skirts woven of seaweed with long tails, a hint towards risqué yet still innocent (Fidelia attended but by this time Rosa was no longer allowed outside after dark). At a certain point the themes began to twist, torque, and complicate, culminating in the infamous “Ripeness Is Only the Onset of Decay.” On that night, the girls wore elaborate headdresses of wilted carrot tops, pineapple heads, and onion skins. They picked the worst of the rags from the tin man and—like the mummies lately discovered in the mines further inland—wrapped themselves tightly in strips of fabric, allowing shards of skin to show at the midriffs and thighs. They looked beautiful until you got close. By morning the courtyard sloshed with fetid vegetables. Everyone stank from sweat, the garbage-stained rags, the rotten tomatoes the girls had smeared on the walls late in the night. The lead girl, who wore two boiled-to-almost-collapsing pig’s feet woven into a wreath above her head like horns, drank the final drag of cane liquor and said, The stench was the point. They lived, invaded and occupied by the most putrid stink, and no dance or costume was going to change that. The courtyard was almost empty, the band packing up, the morning coming slow and soft like her heartbeat had once been long ago in a time she could not really remember. And, she shouted to the pigeons and the pink dawn clouds, I will never forget it! I will never forget the stink!
She disappeared three days later and the themed parties stopped. In their place, the local boys concocted elaborate competitions, combinations of skill and chance with each point or deduction payable in a shot of cane liquor. Elmo was at every party, quietly leading the revelers though not drinking much himself, because, since they were often his own creation, the games were too easy for him to win. And he was always looking for Fidelia, who was always there until she was not, and even when she was there he would only be able to stand by her while looking up at the moon until someone pushed his way between them and asked her to dance. Before the moon set, Elmo, along with everyone else, had forgotten again about the girl in her pig’s-foot crown crying to the dawn. Instead, he was thinking of a memory he didn’t quite have but that had been told to him so many times he almost remembered it. It was from long before the occupation, when Rosa and Fidelia were still small enough to hide behind the pots of herbs and too fast for Doña Alba to catch. He could just remember—if he pasted words and other memories together to fit—the acrid taste of the sweets coming up his throat, the shape of Fidelia’s palm on his back, the sound of her laughter, the joy that he had in protecting her.
Whether due to the dirt’s silence or Doña Alba’s advancing age, no one knew when Fidelia started going alone to the dancehalls ringed round the Plaza Mayor. These dancehalls teemed, in the words of the pig’s-foot girl, like an overflowing outhouse, with soldiers and bureaucrats and all the occupation’s necessary detritus, celebrating again and again their presence in a city that had long ago stopped fighting. No one knew Fidelia was among them, the enemy, the occupiers, dancing in her whittled heels, no one but Rosa.
By the time Fidelia started going to the dancehalls, Rosa’s world had shrunk to the size of the courtyard. That summer, her father had forbidden her from leaving the house in the evening. By fall, he would not let her leave the house at all, even with Elmo as escort. The city had begun to turn on the Obejas Gijóns, first under the pressure of the invading forces’ dogmas and later through a motivation all its own. In their home, the windows facing the street were kept closed. Rafael Obejas entered at dawn and returned at dusk. No one else in his family was allowed to leave 147 de la Concha. His grown sons across the balcony with families of their own made their own decisions, but they soon mirrored their father’s. Señora Obejas had to rotate which neighbor she asked the favor of buying groceries, pressing carefully folded pesos into their apron pockets when they refused to take them from her hand. Rosa’s sisters Mirian and Bernicia watched her watching the courtyard all day, growing more and more silent, and each night, Elmo argued with his father that he wanted to go out, to the dances or just walk up and down the Malecón. It made him less of a man to not be trusted to leave and return, to take care of himself. He would shout and pound his fist on the table, apologize to his mother, and leave, with the instructions for that night’s drinking game crumpled in his hand. Rafael tried to stay awake to wait for him.
Of course, Rosa knew. She knew days and even weeks before the first venture, had asked to hear again and again Fidelia’s plots to sneak down Peñitas and Calixto street and enter the dancehalls. Begged her friend to tell her, in descriptions whose durations mirrored the living of them, what she saw when she finally entered. Fidelia described in a whisper the way the lights sparkled through the bottles of ersatz champagne—which even she knew was fake, though she didn’t care—how the lights made the singer’s dress look like flames. How the singer was always about to be swallowed up, not by the lights or the strength of her voice but by the eyes of everyone in the hall watching. It was only because the attention was never quite complete that the singer stayed alive long enough to finish her song.
In the day’s heat, the shutters closed to keep out the sun and prying eyes and closed too against any breeze, Fidelia whispered right into Rosa’s ear, hands cupped like she was speaking into a shell. In the moment before Fidelia spoke, they both remembered how they used to play in the courtyard together, when they were still small enough to hide behind the pots of herbs and too fast for Doña Alba to catch. They didn’t laugh remembering the bully girl and Elmo’s perfect arc of urine, but they remembered laughing and remembered being both afraid and amazed. The memory linked them as much as the words Fidelia shaped as they lay on the stained mattress Rosa had been born on, curled around each other, two c’s facing and linked, Fidelia speaking and Rosa listening. If Rosa’s sisters tried to listen too, Rosa kicked at them. When the younger girls retreated, Rosa and Fidelia let their feet dangle off the bed, toes curling and uncurling in the empty space between the mattress frame and the floor. Rosa asked Fidelia to elaborate and Fidelia would. Soon Rosa hardly needed to ask, she said just enough to keep Fidelia speaking and could lie for hours, carried away on Fidelia’s voice.
Fidelia must go again to the dances and this time Rosa must go too. Then must come the dancehall itself with lights sparkling through fake champagne as Fidelia promised and the singer alight but not engulfed; then must come the officers and soldiers and translators and telegraph men, whom Rosa hated because they were the invaders, the occupiers, the reason her mother made coffee that was half chickpea flour and clogged the espresso pot and made it explode and cut Elmo under his right eye. Almost blinded him. Hated them for the ration stamps and rice with moths and the girl haloed in pig’s feet, hated them until a telegraph man complimented her dress, which was Fidelia’s but that even Fidelia admitted looked better on her, and a lieutenant pulled out a chair for her at a table with a white cloth, and another ordered a glass of fake champagne or cava or whatever it was that sparked in her mouth like those tiny paper parcels of gunpowder children throw on stone doorways to hear them pop. Then must come what Fidelia did or did not do and what the lieutenant and the telegraph officer did most certainly do. And after that.
But first the dancing and Rosa’s discovery that she could dance, to any music, and so well that it became a challenge the whole hall seemed to be in on: to ask the singer, imported from the capital, to play the newest songs, the oldest songs, the fastest songs. And that it was not the fake champagne or the tablecloths pressed as her grandmother used to press them or even the compliments, but that she, Rosa, was taking up a space large enough to be offered a chair, had a body that could consume a whole glass and ask for another, limbs that could fill in the layers of organza that made up Fidelia’s dress. Sitting in her apartment in the dark all day, sharing the bed with her sisters who pinched and snored and stole the blanket, rotating the wearing of the one dress not too tatty to appear on the inner balcony and when not wearing it, sitting in the shadows cast by the shutters, sucking on a licorice root like it was a cigarette, gnawing until the stick was a soggy pith and even her throat was numb. Waiting. Waiting for nothing except Fidelia to come home from the dances, pretend to sleep, and creep, on the pretense of a neighborly errand, to tell Rosa all she had done the night before. Sitting and waiting and looking over the courtyard in her slip so old it shone, Rosa started to believe she did not exist. She did not eat enough for a whole stomach. She did not speak enough for a whole mouth. She was being worn into a thin sliver, a lozenge disappearing on a child’s tongue. The very little that was left was sustained by Fidelia’s whispers. But that very little had been feeding on those words so long it was nothing without them. Rosa had listened to Fidelia’s stories until she felt she could devour her friend. Her hunger shaped into a thick cloud, smelling like the inside of an animal’s den, musky and slightly furred. This cloud swelled out of her pores that could do nothing but stain and stain again that hated old slip. Even the cloud was not her. Even my hunger is not my own and since it’s all I have, I am gone.
But she was not. Rosa looked at the men in the dancehall, some in uniform and some in fine suits, and they looked back at her. In their faces she saw herself. Not what she looked like but that she could be looked at. Further proof: their hands would not clasp around emptiness but around another hand, solid enough to pulse back against their palms. They did not walk to the dance floor to dance alone. They waited until the song was over and swept through the crowd to ask for the next dance, not from a slice of empty air, but from a body, whole and glowing in sweat that creased her gloves, breath passing lips that marked her glass with a stain.
It must be remembered that the men who raped her tore and battered at someone newly born to herself. Someone still blinking in the light of her shockingly solid reflection. The names they whispered, all the usual ones and a different one, a particular one, the one they claimed as their action’s catalyst and excuse, they cursed these names into ears still wet and unfolding. Ears newly wrung from the tunnel of the dance floor, reborn just moments before.
That new word—an old word, one that had ceased to be an insult before the occupation, but had become one as it slipped from dusty pamphlet to second page of the newspaper to the coffee vendor’s lips when he sold Rafael the lowest grade beans for the highest price, proving the insult was always there, carried generation after generation, a stowaway of hate—that word Rosa almost didn’t hear. But when the men were done and Fidelia, who had noticed Rosa missing but had only just started looking, opened a side door leading to an alley where she knew the soldiers often smoked or necked, it was the only word Rosa could hear. A word the men should not have known to call her. A word no one, except for Fidelia, her face framed in the light from the hall, would have known to tell them.
But before all that there is Rosa and Fidelia curled on Rosa’s bed, the endless loop of Fidelia’s words circling them and holding off, for now, the furry maw of Rosa’s hunger, their trip to the dancehall, Rosa pressed against the wall and Fidelia framed by the light, her mouth open to speak. They lay on the bed, wrapped around each other, warm from their circulating breath and still as if sleeping until Mirian (second youngest), trailed by Bernicia (youngest), wanting only to be kind and to hear a bit of the stories too, brought them a cup of linden tea to share. The tea was weak, the same leaves had been brewed the day before, but the water was hot. Bernicia stumbled on Fidelia’s shoe, cast off in the dark and boredom, and reached out for Mirian and Mirian fell forward. The hot water landed on Fidelia and Rosa’s bare feet hanging off the bed. The two shouted in unison, swatting at Mirian. Hearing their shouts, Elmo ran towards them and—not bravely because he didn’t think long enough to be brave—scooped up Fidelia’s foot and held it against the cool cup of his palm. Fidé, he whispered. Fidelia shrieked in mock modesty and Elmo dropped her foot. Shouting and swatting, the girls drove Mirian, Bernicia, and Elmo out of the room and when they were gone turned to each other and laughed, surprising themselves at the sound, then laughed again. There would be time later for rag bandages and to beg an aloe leaf from Doña Alba, time for the pain to reach them. But for now, they studied their feet. The water had scalded the top of Rosa’s instep and the outside of Fidelia’s arch. Their feet must have been overlapping because, when placed together just so, there emerged a detailed map of the splatter: brightly outlined in red, the water in the perfect shape of its own fall.
When Fidelia saw Rosa pressed against the damp stucco wall outside the dancehall, no one holding her there but herself, her body straighter than a body could be, what did she see? Did she see what had happened, who had forced their way inside her, what word plugged Rosa’s ears? Did she know she was no longer looking at her friend but at a story that had been told about her, a story in which Rosa’s body was only a costume, one that appeared again and again, never relinquished despite its terrible wear? When Fidelia stepped out of the light over the dancehall’s back door, into the slender corridor that ran between buildings, paths taken by widows selling fruit and children racing to beat the new curfew, did she know that she was stepping out of herself and into that same story? Did she know she left herself in the limen, not even a place for that self to stand when the door eased shut?
If she had turned and returned to the dancehall, pretending she didn’t see Rosa, if she had dragged her friend back inside and found the men and berated them, demanding justice, if she had run past Rosa into the night and kept running to the sea, even then she could not have stopped her entry into the story. Only if she had stayed still, if she had spun time like sugar and kept them, two paper dolls pinned—one lit in the frame, the other plastered to the wall—could she have stopped what happened next. But she did not have that power and by the time she stood in the doorway it was already too late. Even before she took Rosa to the dance, even before she herself went to the dance, it was too late for her, the story waiting, feeling no need to rush, waiting to prove that she didn’t even have a self from which to step out of. Her body never more than a box of sticks waiting for the story to open and scatter.
Fidelia slipped off her petticoat and tore the bottom strip. With this fabric, she daubed at the blood on Rosa’s legs and ankles. She eased Rosa off the wall and tied her own shawl around Rosa’s waist. The dress was ruined but the shawl would cover the tears and stains until they were home. Off the wall, Rosa felt she could fall, that she would tip and shatter on the cobblestones. But Fidelia held her up, moving her hands when Rosa winced—the sound coming from far away—trying to find a point from which she could support Rosa’s weight that was not an already-swelling bruise. Away from the dancehall lights, Rosa’s face was almost invisible in the shadows but she smelled of blood, sweat, the butcher’s floor, and other smells that were foreign to Fidelia until that night and that she knew, instantly, did not issue from inside her friend but from the deep innards of others. The smell, Rosa’s silence, meant that though Fidelia held her as tightly as she dared, kept Rosa’s body as upright as she could, down the back corridors, skirting the Mercado, down Peñitas and Calixto until finally they reached Plaza de la Concordia only a few blocks from their house, she knew she was transporting a foreign form. Her friend’s body was burning, and Fidelia’s own flesh might come off at the contact.
On the outer edge of the plaza, Fidelia’s shawl began to slip from Rosa’s hips. Fidelia leaned her, still unbending as a yardstick, against a royal palm and, careful not to touch Rosa’s skin as much for her own sake as for Rosa’s, pulled the shawl back up. Fidelia made a knot and tightened it against her own hand. The lace was soaked in spots and still dry in others, the shawl itself made of intricate knots her mother had tied years before. Fidelia brought her friend’s weight from the coarse bark of the royal palm onto her own body, her arms slick from fear and effort. Across Calle de la Forja and then home.
Doña Alba had seen both girls leave. She had debated trying to stop them. But she reasoned their punishment for a committed crime would be steeper than an attempted one and therefore a punishment that would lead more quickly to them behaving like the good girls families like theirs should be counted on to issue even, and especially, in war time. She waited in her rocker, covered in shadows, for the girls to enter the courtyard. They could not return the way they had left, an improvised path from storm drain to outer balcony that Doña Alba had witnessed only by chance as she emptied her toilet. Instead they would have to trip right over her toes.
Once inside the courtyard, and thinking it empty, Fidelia leaned Rosa against a pillar. She couldn’t carry Rosa up the stairs, and now, in the moonlight through the courtyard, she had to decide whether to awaken someone and whom and what to say when she did. Did Rosa need a doctor, is that what she needed, or could it be kept a secret, as these things sometimes were? There were babies born without surnames, and girls who walked unstopped into the ocean, their white nightgowns floating on the waves. But Rosa’s face in the courtyard light was unrecognizable, hardly a face at all, and Fidelia knew from the fresh marks on her own dress that Rosa was still bleeding. She held her friend upright, pressed her shoulders back with the tips of her fingers, and stepped away, just for a moment, to decide. Just a moment without that weight.
But Rosa fell. Fell as she had wanted to and tipped over the table holding Doña Alba’s bougainvillea. The clay pot and soil shattered across the courtyard. Doña Alba stood, and when Fidelia saw her she screamed, as loud as she wished Rosa would, louder than she thought she could, though it took no effort. She charged the ceiba tree and threw her body against its trunk. It would not yield and neither would she. Doña Alba grabbed her around the waist and pinned her fists under her chin. But she kept screaming and she was still screaming when the courtyard and balconies filled with her and Rosa’s families, their parents, their sisters and brothers, ringing the balconies, story after story, and there was no decision to make, no secret left to keep.
At dawn, not having slept, Doña Alba carried her broom to her courtyard to sweep the mess Rosa’s fall had made. But instead, surprised at her own strength, she lifted each pot as high as she could and dropped them on the packed hard-as-stone earth. She wanted to throw the pots. For them to crash and roll and burst like she was a god playing handball in the clouds. But she had watered the plants the night before, while waiting, and they were heavy, the soil inside rich and damp. Her destruction was slow. The results looked nothing like she felt. Even cracked, the pots held their shape. One was too heavy to lift more than a few inches off the ground. She pushed the pot over and smacked it with her hand, hoping to send it rolling across the courtyard. But the pot hardly bobbled and she felt, in the knuckle of her index finger, a sharp crack. She walked to the cupboard where she kept her tools and, digging with both hands, found the machete.
When she was finished, the courtyard was covered in stalks and leaves and flowers. It smelled of oregano, mint, the insides of calla lily blossoms, all too much green. She hacked at the ceiba tree as well, chopping into its bark and then arching the machete over her head at any branches she could reach. The fronds fell until she had to wade through the lopped limbs of the plants she had so carefully tended. Their stems and leaves, violently cut, tore at her shins.
In the silence Doña Alba could hear her own heavy breath and the soft rustling of vegetation settling. She had been staring at Fidelia for some time before she actually saw her. Fidelia was crouched under the stairwell leading to the second floor. She wore only a slip, her feet bare, hair wet and hanging in strips across her face. Doña Alba focused on the girl, who she had first seen when she was still coated in a caul. Fidelia held her face up to Doña Alba, her eyes searching for the old woman’s in the dawn light. Doña Alba wanted to spit but her mouth was dry. Instead she looked at Fidelia as long as she could and then turned away, as if she hoped she would never see Fidelia again.
When she turned back Fidelia was gone. Elmo had been standing in the shadows behind Fidelia, unnoticed by them both, and when Doña Alba turned, he grabbed Fidelia and dragged her up the stairs. Though Elmo was sweating and frantic, still he was Elmo, who had loved her all his life. Beneath the stairs, Fidelia had been caught by a terrible thought. Stumbling back to Calle de la Concha, wrapped in her stained shawl, Rosa was silent. The thought came to Fidelia then, in the courtyard, in the silence after Doña Alba stopped her hacking: what if Rosa never spoke again? Though Rosa’s words were rare, they were precious. What if Fidelia, the talker, would have no one to interrupt her, no one to prove she wasn’t just speaking to herself, no one’s voice but her own? The weight of that silence made her limp. She fell gratefully into Elmo’s arms, glad to be lifted, allowing him to swing her back and forth up the steps, through the door to Rafael Obejas’s apartment.
Inside, Rosa lay on the sofa, her mother and Mirian kneeling over her. Elmo dropped Fidelia at his sister’s feet and Fidelia was so frightened to see Rosa again—her eyes ruined plums, her lips a smear—that she grabbed for Elmo’s hand. He pulled away.
Rafael Obejas stood in a corner, as far from Rosa as he could while still in the same room. His mind was caught in a twist. In the days when there was someone to tell, he believed such a thing would not have occurred, and would therefore not need to be told. What to do now? In the occupation, he had to make new rules. Rafael asked Elmo what he was doing, what his meaning was treating their Fidé like that, but his mind was caught in the making and shaping of this new rule and he could not move from the corner.
Elmo didn’t hear his father anyway. Elmo began screaming and shouting, he punched walls, scattered furniture, and everyone who heard knew that he was so full of rage and guilt that he must have lost himself, must have put himself aside in the waves of his fury. But no one heard Rosa, no one knows what she said when Elmo laid Fidelia at her feet. Whether she tried to stop him, whether she screamed, whether she turned her head to the wall. When Elmo grabbed Fidelia’s shoulders, when he did not call her Fidé or Fidelia, when instead he shook her and said, you are going to tell us, you are going to tell us what you did, was Rosa still silent? Nothing, I did nothing, I didn’t say anything, Yes, you did, you told them, you told them who she was, you told them and then they hurt her, you did this you betrayed us you slut you. When Fidelia cried until she couldn’t, until Elmo’s hands were too tight around her neck, hands that had not touched her since they were children playing in the courtyard, that had kept their distance, save that one cupping of her burned foot. No please please no, until she had no breath to form into words, even such plain, formless words. When Elmo’s hands stayed around her neck long past her silence and when his father placed his own hands on Elmo’s shoulders, and only then did Elmo let go and Fidelia dropped to the floor. No one knows what Rosa said or did not say. Whether she saw any of this at all.
Rafael carried Fidelia to the courtyard. He cleared a space for her among the branches and broken pottery. Elmo followed him, shaking, his hands over his mouth, until he realized who his hands smelled like and then he did not know where to put them, wanted to chop them off. Rafael eased him out of the courtyard and back up the steps. He locked him in a room in his apartment that held potatoes and squash and old furniture and steadied himself for the trip to the Armando Castells’ door. There was no need. Fidelia’s parents stood on their balcony, the empty air of the courtyard hanging between them and Rafael.
The rest of the Obejas Gijóns fled to Rafael’s apartment and his older sons barricaded the door from the inside. All day, the moaning and the rosarios from the women of the Armando Castell family could be heard echoing through the courtyard. Rafael stayed crouched in front of the storage room, armed with a broken chair leg and waiting. But the Armando Castells did not charge his door. They did not plunder his sons’ apartments, nor—which was what Rafael truly feared on this terrible new day without rules—did they send in packs of the occupier’s police force. It was Diego Armando Castell, Fidelia’s father, who asked for the shovel from Doña Alba. At dusk, the Obejas Gijóns heard the peal of metal striking earth. After the sound rang out again, Rafael rose, gathered together his older sons, and joined Diego in the courtyard. When the dirt would not give, Rafael’s eldest son thought to make use of the ceiba tree. Together, the men hacked at the roots around the ceiba’s base, finally slicing through a large one. Together, they pulled the root out of the earth. From the small cavern the root had made, they gained entry to the ground. They carved with shovels and pry bars until there was a space large enough to hold Fidelia.
Elmo could not forget what his hands had done and stopped eating. Rosa would not feed him. Mirian and Señora Obejas did, when they could remember, but Rosa did not. Elmo grew skinnier, skinnier even than Rosa. One night, when everyone had forgotten that Elmo couldn’t use his hands and the food on his plate had been stolen bite by bite by Mirian or Bernicia because even before the occupation food left alone so long was fair game, he and Rosa sat at the table alone. He stank from not having changed his shirt in weeks and no one would go nearer to him than they had to.
Rosa stared past Elmo in the dark, as if she could see through the closed shutters to the street below. For weeks, there had been whispers of the liberating army’s victories farther up the coast or farther down, or hidden in the jungle, lighting smoky fires to announce their coming, but there had been those whispers before and no one believed them. The table was empty save for Elmo’s plate and the kerosene lamp that hadn’t held kerosene in years. From her seat, Rosa reached out her hands to Elmo’s, those lumps of clay, those burning stars. She stretched his hands, one finger at a time, out onto his thighs, smoothing the knuckles and splaying the palms. His hands had become soft as the creases of fat at his neck and knees when he was an infant. Elmo tried to curl his hands back into fists but Rosa patted them down until they lay flat, spread across his lap. Rosa stood from the table and Elmo stayed there, staring at the spot where she had sat, the darkness now complete.
Elmo died three days before the liberation, which wouldn’t have saved him anyway. Rafael peeled off his clothes, too fetid to keep, to prepare him for the funeral. There was hardly anything left of his son. He resembled more closely a buried stork or dehydrated frog, his skin not like skin but a film nothing living had occupied in months. Rafael carried him out of 147 de la Concha so there would be no question of his body leaving the courtyard. For years, there was talk of adding tile to the dirt floor but in the end, no one ever did.
Rosa lived in 147 de la Concha for the rest of her long life, walking over the courtyard floor, sweeping and sprinkling water, carrying home bread and tomatoes. She cared for Doña Alba as she grew old and sick, and when she died she became the housekeeper on the bottom floor, sweeping and bustling and knowing everything there was to know about the residents as if she were not an Obejas at all but an Alba, some long lost inland cousin come to tend the oregano and take up the sacred duty. If she thought of Fidelia each time she left and entered her home, or never, or fiercely at first for years until her friend began to fade into the dirt, no one knows.
What is known is what is remembered. On the night after the liberation, less than a year after Fidelia was buried, Rosa left 147 de la Concha and walked into the crowds. No one moved close to her. She seemed to push people away, her body at the center of a small but impenetrable orbit. Through Plaza de la Concordia, where children sang in the trees, stringing the occupiers’ jackets up like streamers, down Peñitas and Calixto, through the streets puffed and roaring with free citizens. The whole city was out, every wistful teen and crooked landlord, those who had snitched on the pig’s-foot girl and girls like her and those who had not. The people clogged the plaza, old women climbing on park benches, tossing guavas up to the children to keep them singing, mothers threatening to collapse the exterior balconies that had stood empty for so many years. No longer a city turned in on itself but gutted, each vein split and somehow still spilling. But Rosa spoke to no one. She saw few of the faces and she didn’t laugh or sing the old anthem or the other banned songs. She didn’t look back when the songs became a joyful garble because everyone had forgotten the lyrics but still wanted to sing. Rosa walked. In Fidelia’s whittled heels, Rosa walked down every street she could remember and those she could not. The shoes caught in the cobblestones and turned her ankles until there were no more cobblestone and the heels sunk in the sand and Rosa stood up to her knees in the ocean. The water was lit with firecrackers shot from the beach to burst above the liberator’s captured tanks and trucks, the city just one stop in their victory march. But the horizon seemed closer than it had when there was no hope of rescue from the east, when she had stood with Fidelia, their dresses tucked between their legs, screaming at the waves and throwing stones as far as they could, as if they could strike the invisible shores on the other side of the world.
Then Rosa turned back from the sea. I know this because I saw her, because everyone did, the whole city a witness, and she did not sing the old songs but she said one name over and over into the pink dawn and the rusted gutters and every corner of the city she knew and did not know. Whispered until her voice was only breath, warming the air, bringing each street back to life, until she became the shape of what she whispered, a dipped brush, slender and full, dyeing the city in the bright pigment of Fidelia’s name.