December 2013

Snakes

     Rosa heard the discomfort in the priest’s voice before she could see his eyes. From her position on the ground, her hands moist with loam in the space around the tall, staked tomato plants, all she could see were his shoes, black sneakers covered in a fine layer of silt. He had been standing there, talking to her, for several minutes before she got up from her knees and looked at him. He took a step back.
     “I understand you haven’t been close with your father,” the priest was saying, “but he’s gravely ill. This may be the last opportunity you will have to talk to him, to help him through his last days.”
     Rosa wiped the earth from her hands on the lap of her thinning dress. This priest had been the first to come to the house since she’d moved there with Miguelito. The others had kept their distance, wisely in Rosa’s estimation, because Miguelito held no truck with priests. She had not thought upon her father for many years. Still, she knew he lived. Even here, in this place away from the world, she knew he lived. She had not felt his going, not in her heart, not in her mind. He must be seventy, she thought. He must be dying.
     “Okay,” she told the priest, Kavanaugh, a round man with a bright, pink face. “I’ll go. I’ll see him.”
     “That’s for the best,” Father Kavanaugh said. “God bless you.”
     Rosa watched him walk away, back to his Toyota, and returned to the tomatoes.
     In the morning, she stood in the doorway of her father’s house. There was no door. The windows set into the woodframe structure were open, broken, cracked. A breeze cooled the rooms, running through the house, pulling a low whistle through the shadows, the hidden places. Rosa heard it as she stepped across the threshold into the house itself, and swallowed bile as she inhaled her father’s scent. The house had the smell of death, the slow, languorous odor of decay.
     Clemente, her father, lay on the bare, blue-tick mattress of his bed in an otherwise empty room. His v-neck T-shirt was thin and eaten through in places and his underwear had gone the color of old newspapers. When Rosa stepped close she saw that, under his skin, the flesh had been replaced by squishy pillows of purple blood and ochre pus. His chest rose and fell in the hesitant anti-patterns of his fitful sleep. She watched him a long time until at last he awoke, opening his eyes. Glaucoma had made a desiccated gelatin of them, covering them with a dry, cracking film.
     “I smelled you,” he said. “You smell like beans.”
     “Hello, Papi,” Rosa said.
     “Kavanaugh told you to come.”
     “Yes.”
     “He’s a good man,” Clemente said. “He’s been bringing me communion. Listening to me talk. He feels sorry for me.”
     “You’re dying, Papi.”
     Under his shirt, Clemente shrugged. “That’s what Kavanaugh says.”
     “Do you want to go to hospital?”
     “No, no hospitals. No doctors. Just let me die here in my bed. It was good of you to come. Now you can go.”
     “Is that what you want?”
     “I wanted you to see me. You have.”
     Rosa took the red, ripe fruit from the pocket of her dress and held it up to Clemente’s sightless view. “Do you want it?”
     He narrowed his eyes and sniffed the air. “If you give it to me, and I take it, it’ll start something you won’t be able to finish,” he said. “Just go while you can.”
     She brought it down, slowly, until it grazed his dry lips. His gray tongue peered out from the hole of his mouth and licked the air. She put it against his teeth and he bit, sucking the juice from it, chewing the flesh.
     “You never asked about your mother,” Clemente said.
     “There was nothing to ask.”
     “But surely, you girls must have wondered, at one time or another.”
     “No.”
     He winced, something painful, something deep, and a shiver ran through him.
     “Chee,” he said.
     She looked around and noticed the old style milk bottle sitting in a bedpan by the mattress. She lifted the bottle and brought it to his genitals, easing it sidelong to the end of his penis.
     He was shaking now, a deep rumbling coming from someplace inside him.
     “Ca,” he said.
     She pulled him to a sitting position, her hands making the places where she grabbed him go white and pearly, and tried to ease the bedpan under him.
     “Stop resisting,” she said. “If you need to go, go.”
     “Go,” he said.
     “Yes, go.”
     “No.”
     “Well which is it, Papi?”
     “Chee-ca-go.”
     The syllables formed the word in her mind with a rush of sound. But when she looked down, she realized what she’d heard was the pink stream of urine filling the bottle between his legs. When he was done, she pulled the bottle away, not spilling any of it, and drained it out the window.
     “She went to Chicago, your mother, when you were girls,” he said. “I wanted you to know where she was.”
     “It doesn’t matter.”
     “If you want to find her, that’s where she is.”
     “It doesn’t matter.”
     “I wasn’t going to tell you, but you wanted to stay.”
     “It doesn’t matter.”
     “I’ll be dead in two days,” he said. “Just give my body to Kavanaugh. He’ll take care of things. You don’t have to be there.”
     He was true to his word and died two nights later. Rosa carried his body to the bath. The tub was clean, but when she laid him in it and turned the faucet, no water came. She boiled water from the kitchen and brought it to him, washing him and rinsing him with care. She laid him back on the bed, dressed him in old clothes. In the morning, she called on the priest.
     Two days later, she was working in the garden in the yard. The patch had cucumbers and squash in alternating rows of green and yellow. She was working with soil when she saw the snake. It was long and fast, the color of dry earth. She looked around for something to kill it with but there was nothing. She lifted her bare foot before the snake could strike, and brought it down, hard, on the beast’s head, smashing it in the dirt. It buckled and twisted, lashing and whipping itself, then shivered all over until it lay still. She stepped off it then, dug a thin trench with her hands, and buried it there in the garden.

—Álvaro Rodríguez

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