by M.M. Giron
It is dawn and Manuela opens her eyes to the insistent call of the owl. Far away, another owl responds. She knows her owl lives in a high tree in the garden and keeps her safe. She turns toward the window. There is always hope, she thinks, if her Tata is near. If her mother pays attention. If she wakes up from a night full of dreams, memories of yellow light and bougainvillea climbing over walls, touching the edges of windows.
Glad for the soft, humid air and for her Tata Manuel waiting for her in his bed, she lies on her back, rubs her stomach, and stretches. She smiles at the light behind the window curtains. Her toes catch in the sheet wrapped around her legs. She wiggles them, frees them and thinks someday she will be big enough to reach the end of the bed.
A small breeze moves the curtain. She imagines herself dancing wrapped in thin silk. She will dance for her Tata after she wakes him. She knows he will remember, as always, the rule they have. A rule that encourages her to jump on him before he wakes. She hugs herself again and glances at her older sister, Maria, rolled up in sheets next to her. Maria’s head of golden curls seems to glow in this soft dawn. Maria, her big sister, her angel with the wide smile and too sad eyes. Maria, the dreamer, who never wakes first.
“Stay asleep, you sleepyhead,” Manuela says and jumps off the bed. She runs barefoot down the hall into the opening day.
The house holds the moist breeze following her down the hall to the door of her father’s room. To prolong sweet anticipation, she opens the door. Smiling, this time at the cool wood under her feet, she starts to giggle. Is it the owl, now joined by other birds in a jumble of song, that makes me so happy, she wonders.
Anyway, who cares? I am my father’s sunshine, always and forever.
She slips into the room and eases the door closed. Light spreads pale across one wall. She stops. Something dark gathers like heaped clothes in a corner. She can hear her father snore across the room. He draws breath like a rock bouncing down a cliff, pauses, then starts again with another rock. She steps forward. The room smells different, like a baby’s diaper. She stops. Phew…this can’t be my Tata, not my Tata’s room, not his smell. No…it is him on the bed. Then why does he smell like that?
Manuela is still, silent, so as not to disturb the something she knows is there. She holds her breath and touches the end of the bed. She moves her palm against the mattress. The bed seems larger than usual. Her father’s body is in the center of lumped covers, one large leg and limp foot exposed. His head, at first, seems buried in his pillows. He is deep in sleep, far down in a place where she is afraid to go.
By now he should sneak a peek at her through half-closed lids, a little smile lifting his mustache at the edges. Or his stomach should go up and down with silent laughter, ready for her to pounce. Instead, he lies there. And that gurgle? What is that? Why does he get so still and then, quick, catch his breath? Where did the tumbling rocks go?
She hears him gather in breath again. He sighs. He stops. His breath falls like small pebbles. Stops. Silent. Wait…it is too silent. Where is the first rock, the next pebble? Any pebble?
The morning gathers itself, becoming bright on the wall. She tiptoes around the bed, holds her joy inside her voice, and leaps on her Tata’s big stomach. She throws herself over him and hits his chest with her hands.
“Tata Manuel, wake up! Wake up!”
She looks into his face. In the new light, he seems asleep. Why doesn’t he open his eyes? His breath has been funny for a long time. It goes in and then comes out like thin air under a cracked-open window. His gaping mouth smells like old fruit left for the flies. And that other smell? Phew…it is much too strong. She moves her foot. Something is sticky. Something is wet. Her Tata has made a mess.
Manuela bounces, pushes her hands against his shoulders. Her arms tremble all the way to her neck. Her Tata’s eyes blink open, tears forming on his lower lids. His eyes have a special look. They stare at her like her doll’s do. They seem made of glass. Brown, round, shiny glass.
“No. No, mihija, no te preocupes, I am only sleeping. Drinking last night, I forgot my pills. The little yellow ones. Now I am stuck like this. I can’t play because I am asleep. I can hear you in this sleep. I can’t see but I can hear. I know you are nearby. No, no, mija, don’t be afraid. Your Tata is only sleeping. I want to wake up. Maybe later. Later, as always. Always, para siempre. Go get your mother. Someone bigger. Go, get your sister, not your mother, not yet. And yes, better hurry. Ya. Apurarte, apurate!”
Manuela jumps from the bed. Her foot sticks to the floor. She rubs it on the socks she finds nearby. She doesn’t cry. Her heart cries instead. It beats and sobs and beats. She hears it. She thinks her Tata is talking, that he wants her to hurry. She slams open the door, runs, bumping against the walls in her hurry to reach her sister.
“Maria! Maria, come! Come make my Tata wake up,” she screams.
The bedroom fills with a gentle breeze. Manuel, father and husband, no longer held in a worn body, floats along the ceiling like a half-remembered song. He settles in a corner near the door and waits for his children to return.
He hears his heart beat, the sound of rain. A small storm approaching. He imagines large raindrops on wide banana leaves. The ground is dark, soft. Vines curl up tree trunks. He huddles underneath, watches the drops glitter and spread. High up in an old dead tree, a toucan squawks. A stream gurgles, separates the ground. Rivulets run full, like small veins, matching the sound of his blood. Is the storm inside him, he wonders, cleansing, changing course?
The garden in the rain forms a memory, flowing through his comatose body. His thoughts run clean, create visions. He imagines the white walls of his mother’s home. Bougainvillea falls in cascades of red and orange. The rain softens the petals, burdens the leaves. The arched windows appear dark behind misted glass. And there, on the top floor, is the orange glow of his mother’s lamp.
The old house, where morning beckons red and turns quickly gray. Clouds spread. Disappear. Reappear. He can hide behind the surrounding wall, entranced by flitting, small-winged Golondrinas that nest there.
His mind wanders outside the garden wall to the finca. His finca, where, if he wishes, he can roam for hours. Days, on horseback.
His finca. His true place. The place where he began. Where each day opens with a certain glow. His place. Trees hover overhead, the edges of branches touching. He sees himself standing next to a thick vine that has consumed what was once a great tree.
Ah, the finca. Home. Perhaps, if he never wakes from his coma, he can return like a thin cloud that gathers into a storm and rains down on the place he loves, enriching the ground, making things green, delighting the parrots, the shy quetzal.
Manuel knows he will stay in this liberating form or return to his still body. They will need him. How can they survive without him? They will need his constant attention. His strength. They will need, but will he want, really want, to be with them in spite of so much love? Is there something deeper, richer, less restrictive than love?
Out of his body, they might even sense him from time to time, might light a candle, might call to him. Might revere his memory.
Or he can choose to go back inside his too wide girth. Walk and talk again, be with them a little longer. Be with them with all his faults. All his dark moods. His stubborn refusal to believe he is invincible. That he has a disease the doctors call diabetes. His childish rebellion against self-care. His ever present needs, like an endless dark hole he does not wish to climb out of. His refusal to listen to the doctors’ advice.
They say he will always have to take pills, behave. The disease makes him feel old, helpless. Old or not, he hopes Manuela is on her way back with Maria. They are his girls. It should be his duty to return to them. To be a good father, husband, lover. Bring each of them his kisses and his poems. His laughter. His huge hugs. His wise moments. All the big heart of their big man.
Aye, damn this dilemma, he thinks. This pinche everyday life, taking pills and trying for my children’s sake, or the life of a friendly spirit, traveling free?
The truth is that here on this wall, he thinks, I am better off. Less sad. More enticed and entertained. I am certainly less angry, less jealous of Virginia and her grasshopper mind. Less thirsty for food or drink. Less afraid. The fear. The old pain seems gone. The pain that has followed me along a road from the finca, out of Guatemala to Mexico and finally to this country, to this city.
If I continue to float like this, my girls and my wife may come to know me as a helpful ghost, a beckoning, kind one. They might believe that their father never wanted to leave, not them, not their mother, not my mother. Not the world of bodies and song and drink and food and power to influence men, to seduce women and little girls into believing in me. I might become a mythical figure.
Maria wakes to screams. Sobs course beneath, a dark river never ending. Just a leftover dream, she thinks and pulls the sheet over her head, her legs toward her chest. She wants to turn inward, to continue dreaming of warm arms.
The screams subside. Manuela calls her name again, jumps up on the bed. Thumps her thin back. It hurts and she slides toward the farther edge of the bed. Manuela moves closer, hits her again. She sighs, opens her large dark eyes, hugs her pillow one last time, and turns.
“Stop it. Stop hitting. I’m still asleep.”
“No, you can’t be. No more time. Get up,” Manuela yells between sobs.
“Oh, stop. Stop. I’m awake, just get off me. Get off this bed. Wait. Are you crying? What’s wrong?”
“Get up. Stay awake. You have to. You have to hurry and come. You have to come now. My Tata Manuel is funny. He doesn’t move.”
“What? Doesn’t move? No, don’t pretend. Is he sleeping?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell. Please…please get up,” Manuela cries. She pulls the sheet off Maria, who yawns, straightens her limbs, and slides off the edge of the bed.
“Okay. I am up. Get off that bed and stop yelling. You are screaming in my face. Are you crazy? Wait, you look crazy. Why?”
“My Tata. My Ta—Oh, please, hurry.”
Maria stands next to Manuela, who looks up at her sister. Manuela wants to wait, but even a minute seems too long. She goes to the corner of the room, huddles against the wall, and closes her eyes. She does not move. She feels herself lift into a thin white cloud. Into a place where her Tata, her Tata Manuel, is the same as he was yesterday and will be for all her tomorrows. She starts to sob.
“No, don’t cry. Don’t cry,” Maria pleads. She walks over, reaches down, pulls Manuela up.
“You are not a baby. Be big. You are too old to cry like this. Hey, look at me. Maybe nothing is wrong. Maybe our Papi is really just asleep.”
Manuela squirms out of Maria’s arms. She gulps, sniffles, rubs her eyes.
Maria smiles at her, pats her head. “Now, take my hand and let’s go see.”
“Okay, but you have to promise to make my Tata wake up.”
The room still holds the new morning. Light drifts between large shadows, catches in corners, spreads unevenly over the bed, over their father’s form. The closet is open. Clothes are thrown everywhere. Maria lets go of Manuela’s hand, stumbles over a discarded shoe, rights herself, and tiptoes toward the bed. It looks larger. She closes her eyes. She opens them. Here he is. He looks big, normal, rumpled. But wait, he is not snoring. Perhaps he is tired or maybe he ate something bad. She puts her hands on the sheets. They are warm.
Imagining the worst and timid by nature, she quickly moves away. She wants to wait, stay wrapped in the humid air and see if he moves or grumbles—anything. Maybe, she thinks, he is hiding in the closet and his leftover body is on the bed. That would make sense. Then she could go into the closet, put on one of his huge jackets, and wait.
But no, I can’t, she thinks. This is no time to hide. I have to, I have to do something. I have to, even if I find out what is really wrong. I have to, even if I hate this. I hate being this hunched-over person like an old woman over her chores. I’m just a kid. Doesn’t anybody get that?
She sighs and climbs onto the bed, looks across her father’s body at her sister. Manuela has scooted to the opposite end of the room and sits, bunched up like a baby, tears streaming down her face.
“It’s all right,” Maria says. “Daddy is asleep. He probably forgot his medicine. See, it’s not here on his table. No pills. No water. Nobody put it there for him. He can’t wake up yet. That’s why. He needs his medicine. Maybe that, or he fell asleep and can’t open his eyes. Maybe he’s dreaming.”
“No,” Manuela shouts between sobs, “he is not all right. You say what you want, but look at his eyes.”
Maria puts her small hand on her father’s chest. She looks into his face. His eyes are open. She jumps back. She almost falls from the bed. She feels her arm muscles tighten, her legs go limp. She rights herself by grabbing the edge of the mattress near his head. The sound she makes comes from someplace deep in her body. It is as though her insides are upside down and the sound comes from where her bowels turn. “Ah-h-h-h, no…no,” she moans. She lets go of the mattress and yells at her sister.
“You have to get up,” she yells at Manuela. “Get up now.”
“Okay, now stay still and be quiet. I want to see if Daddy is all right. I want to see if he can see me.”
“No. He can’t. His eyes are made of glass. Something came in the night and hurt him. He’s not good. He breathes funny, in and out, all broken. His breath went way down inside him when his eyes turned like that. He’s not right, not at all.”
Maria ignores her sister. She inches closer to her father. His eyes look dim. She imagines they are losing color. They seem almost gray. She touches his face. It is cool, much too cool. Normally he is hot and sweaty, especially after too much drink, too much food, and too little sleep. She presses his hands against his eyelids and soothes them down, because that is what people do in books and because now he does not scare her.
Maybe, she thinks, he has fainted or is in a coma. She knows what a coma is. She remembers hearing her mother yell at her father to stop drinking or he would end up in one.
Or, she imagines for a second time, he is in that half-open closet, or on the wall, watching. If he is, she doesn’t want him to stop watching. If he stops, she will have to be the watcher for him. She looks at his handsome face and says, “No, I am too young, much too young to watch instead of you, Papi. You have to watch over me. That’s the way. That’s the right way.”
Manuela pulls herself off the floor and takes a few steps. She stops and waits. She doesn’t want to get closer.
“I’m too scared. Can you get off there? We have to go get Mama.”
Maria looks at her father. She does not want to cry, no, not now. She feels a thin trickle slide down her cheeks, fall off her chin. She forces the tears away with her knuckles. She can’t let Manuela see her cry. Or Mama. Mama would want her to be strong. Daddy would want her to be strong. She knows that for sure.
“I don’t want to stay here. I’m scared,” Manuela whispers. “Daddy isn’t here anymore, is he?”
“Yes, he is. He is just sleeping. Maybe he is more here than you think, even if his breath is funny. I don’t think you should be so scared. He’s going to be all right pretty soon.”
“I don’t care. I am scared. You think you’re so big, but I’m little and he’s my Tata Manuel, not yours.”
Maria turns toward her and is glad Manuela is not loud, not yelling or throwing one of her tantrums. Her own fear, her own sorrow, makes a small sound like a dribbling creek. Better, she thinks. Too much noise would disturb our daddy.
“Okay, we have to go get Mama. I have to hurry, so you stay here.”
“No. No…I can’t stay. I don’t want to stay. He scares me. What if he opens his eyes? What if he moves and falls off the bed?”
“He won’t fall off the bed, but okay, you can come with me, but you have to be brave. See me. I am brave. You have to be brave too. We have to. Our daddy wants us to.”
“Okay, give me your hand.”
Manuela takes Maria’s hand. They stand a moment by the side of the bed, watching their father breathe.
They turn, hurry through the door and down the hall to their mother. Maria pulls Manuela after her. She feels her chest tighten. She wants to run ahead. It’s not fair, she thinks. Too many things are not fair anymore.
Manuela struggles to keep up. She wants to turn back, to stay with her Tata. She thinks he is calling her name. She imagines he wants to say something important. Something that will make her happy again.
“No, no, mis hijas,” Manuel tries to call. “I am all right. What is not all right is my selfish desire to leave you behind. To return to my finca, my true place. I see that can no longer happen, not in this small life. Forgive me; I have been a selfish father, a selfish man.
“Now, thanks to your loving despair, I see the truth. That the decision to stay in my old body or become a spirit is not mine alone. You two have made it for me, with me. Your fear. Your sorrow. Your lives are more important than my longings for a life long gone. For a life without pain in some imaginary heaven.
“Yes, you two are more important than my self-indulgence. More important than any dark moment I may ever face if I return.
“Please do not cry, mis queridas. Be brave as you run to your mother. Help her. Help each other. Yes, hurry down that hall. Go get the help you need. I will be here, waiting.
“Soon, mis hijas, I will be back where I belong. I will hold you, play with you, laugh with you again. Perhaps not today, but in a day or so. I promise.
“Go and let me rest. If I am to wake from this coma, my poor body has to first recover. If I am to stay with my promise I must be strong physically, mentally, emotionally. I must accomplish all three, for your sakes.
“While I’m recovering, I will compose music, poems to match the beating of my heart. I will sing them to you both. And to your mother. When I wake up.
“Then, I will take my place as your beloved Tata.
“My decision is clear.”