By P. E. Garcia
She wakes, and there is the dark, the muted smell of soap, and the sound of the stray dogs rummaging through garbage in the streets. Today she will drown herself.
She lights the oil lantern, and in its glow, dresses; her joints ache with every bend and extension. While blowing out the lantern, she tucks the flowers underneath her arm.
Her room is a small shack standing atop the roof of the Hostel Leguia, and as she locks the door, the cool wind whips around her. She feels a drop of water. Maybe rain, she thinks, but doubts it; it has not rained in Chiclayo for a long time.
Briefly, she looks at the sky to admire the stars and the moon, and then she heads down the stairs. At the last stair, she stops and waits. The light is on in the hallway of the second floor. She peers around the edge of the wall that divides the stairwell from the hallway and sees the manager of the hostel, Luis, slumped in his chair at the check-out. He snores loudly, and she fears that she might wake him. He would be angry at her for leaving when she must work soon, and he would be even angrier if she disturbed him.
She does not wake him, though, as she heads down the steps to the outside, and she is relieved. The unpaved road is firm under her feet, and there is little light in the alleyway. It is dangerous for her to be here, in the dark, a woman, alone. She wonders if she will be harmed, but she can see no one in the darkness with her, and the stray dogs barely lift their curious heads.
In these streets, there are always thieves and drunks and rapists, and, in her younger days, there would have been a man to protect her. And after the men stopped showing up, there was her son, and she dragged him through the streets instead, and he would act bitter.
Her son is in America now, and she hurts at the thought of him.
She turns onto Calle Leguia, into the well-lit street.
What is in America that is not in Peru? She cannot imagine. She has seen Americans, their fragile pale bodies hunched under the weight of their enormous backpacks. They leave the hostel and are gone all day. They come back only at night, their pale skin turned a bright red, their soft, smooth hands torn by a day’s work, and their backpacks overflowing with llama wool sweaters, wooden flutes and pictures of the Incan mounds.
She asked an American once why he had come there.
“En-ton-deer tu famil-ah,” he said.
That is how he had said it, “famil-ah”—as though that is what the Incans or the pan flute players or the people in the mercado, hawking their cheap wares, laughing with each other over the piles of American money—as though that’s what those people are to her.
She wonders if her son is that way now, pale and soft.
Dust blows across the street. She covers her face, but it still gets in her eyes. She winces but continues walking, her eyes watery.
She is on Juan Timis Stack, and she only notices because this was once her favorite part of town. The buildings had been bright and colorful, but now are deteriorating, and the dingy white beneath the peeling paint shows through; it makes her think of vanilla. There is a refrigerator on the sidewalk, made up from the parts of other refrigerators, refurbished to be sold in Lima, where the people can afford those kinds of things. She steps around it and wishes that she could have it for herself.
At the corner of Juan Timis and Avenue Pacifico, she sees the small stand of Julio, closed up and layered with the dust that is blowing down the road. As she passes it and turns down Pacifico, she runs her hand along it, the dust rubbing off onto her palm. She remembers kissing Julio, and the acidic taste of ceviche coming off his lips onto hers and burning. She can see him sleeping, wrapped up tight in a blanket, but she cannot see the bed, or the room, or herself, and she wonders who makes him ceviche now.
As she continues down Pacifico, the cemetery comes into sight. She runs her hand along the black metal bars of the fence, the thick rust crumbling off at her touch. At the gates, she stands and admires the metal, tracing her finger down the bars, around the latch, and then back up.
She was sick as a child, and the doctor thought she would die. She only wanted to sleep, to sleep and to be left alone, but her mother had pulled her out of bed and dragged her here, singing softly to her:
Luna, lunera, cascabelera,
Cinco pollitos y una ternera,Sal solecito, caliéntame un poquito,Por hoy y por mañana por toda la semana.
Over and over again, she sang to her. It makes her sick to think of it.
She slowly pulls the gate open. The hinges creak loudly, and she feels embarrassed by the sound, as though she has been caught doing something wrong. Walking down the dirt path through the graveyard, she wonders where it is that her mother dragged her. Who was in that grave?
Each tombstone she sees frightens her. Where had they been? Who was there? The man, painted, holding bones—whose bones? She did not know, and colors, such colors, and fire and heat and warmth and Luna, lunera, cascabelera, but now there was another song and she did not want to hear it and she could not understand it so Sal solecito, caliéntame un poquito, over and over again. But there was dust, and bones, and her mother weeping and calling out that new strange song, and the man forced some kind of meat into her mouth, the taste of blood, and everything was so ugly.
And within a few days, she was well, and her mother thanked God.
She comes to the only place in the graveyard that she knows, the plots reserved for her and her family. Her mother and father are the only two there, and there is the empty space left for her. She pulls at some of the weeds sprouting from their graves, though it feels strange to kill what has grown from her parent’s bodies.
As she places the flowers on her mother’s grave, she imagines what it would be like to fall through the ground and join her.
There are no flowers for her father’s grave. She did not know him, only that he did not want conversation at the dinner table, that he built up the riches that her mother squandered away, and that he loved to chew coca leaves.
Coca leaves gave him energy, her mother told her, so that he could make the trips to Lima. He chewed them, even when he was dying, lying on the sofa and cursing God.
“Nada se queda,” he said. “Nada se queda.”
And that is all she knows of her father.
Nada se queda.
She stands and leaves the graveyard, looking down at the path before her, so as not to catch another glimpse of the tombstones. Back on Pacifico, she walks towards Juan Pomis, every step deliberate. She is going to the ocean; she knows it and feels at peace.
The dark is fading into a light purple, and the birds call to each other from the trees and the rooftops. She thinks of the birds, and then of parrots: the parrot that swooped into her window once, confused. It flew about her room, pecking and crying out, smashing itself into her dresser, knocking her jewelry to the floor, slamming into the mirror, and tangling itself in the bed sheets. When it flew out again, she laughed, and she only laughed because she was so scared.
She sees the bird fly out through the window, into the bright blue sky, and the sky becomes the ocean, and she thinks of the ocean again, and how she is going to drown in it. The thought brings heat to her body. Sal solecito, caliéntame un poquito.
She used to go to the beach with Brijida and admire the young fishermen, their chests toned and sweaty, and that used to be good.
She thinks of the fishermen, and Brijida, flirting and smiling at them. She goes with Brijida beneath the dock, goes and lies with Brijida and two fishermen. One is on top of her, and she smiles and she laughs and she is having fun and she is in pain and there is blood and she did not think it would hurt so bad and she wants him to stop and she pushes that sweaty chest, but it is not the same sweat. It is a new sweat. It is a bad sweat, a greasy, filthy sweat, and he makes her sweat the same greasy, filthy sweat and he will not stop. And it hurts, but he does not stop.
And she is crying beneath the dock with Brijida, and they hold each other, and do not talk to the fishermen again. She thinks of the ocean, the ocean and drowning.
The walk is longer than she remembered. Her bones are aching; her muscles are aching. There was not so much pain when she was younger. She should stop and rest, she knows, but she will not stop. Her muscles ache, and her joints burn. She will not stop; she does not stop, not when peace and relief are so near.
She does not think; she leaves her head, her body, and she is somewhere in the sky, sitting with Christ and her father and her mother and the man with the bones and the song. She is with her pale soft son in America, sipping coffee at his kitchen table. She is somewhere else, anywhere else, where her muscles and joints and thoughts do not burn.
The night continues to fade, and the adobe huts that surround the beach come into sight. She slows when she comes near them, and she hears the sound of the people rising for the morning. The scent of garbage and dead fish fills her nostrils, but it seems inviting and familiar. She breathes it in with pleasure.
Among the houses now, the sounds jumble together: a baby cries, a woman calls to her child, a man yawns, a dog growls, and she knows them all, and she listens. A thought comes to her, that there could be peace here, among the poor and the simple, and she could smell these smells and hear these sounds and she would have that peace.
Two children run towards her, shirtless, kicking a balled-up pair of socks back and forth like a soccer ball. She stops walking to admire them. They call to each other with laughing voices and run past her, nearly knocking her down, and she feels a slight breeze from their running. She turns to call to them, though she is not sure what to say, but they are far away now. She stands with her mouth open, looking after them.
Sighing deeply, she tastes the scent of the air. There is no pleasure in it anymore.
She walks past the houses and comes to the long dunes of the beach. They tower above her, and she worries about the pain in her bones and her muscles. She does not want to quit, though. She is going to the ocean, and she is going to drown. She knows it; she wants it.
The dune is steeper than she thought, and she struggles. There is no sure footing; her walk becomes a crawl. At the top of the dune, she rests. She does not want to, but she must.
She looks out over the ocean: what would it be like to die? Would it be peaceful? Her father looked peaceful; her mother looked peaceful. Jesus looked peaceful. She would be peaceful.
She hears the calls of the fishermen, and she remembers them and their sweat and their heat and their grease, and she feels disgust.
She will drown; there will be peace.
Walking down the dune, she steps carefully onto the beach. There are old fish bones and teeth buried in the sand, and she tries to avoid them; they still cut at her feet through her old shoes and calluses.
There was an old bloated seal carcass on the beach once. Had he drowned? He did not look peaceful, and he smelled worse than anything she could remember.
She stretches, and there is salt in the air.
She slept on the beach once as a child when her mother took her. She swam and played so much until she fell asleep in the warm summer sand. Sea air made sleeping sweet.
She would be peaceful.
As she pulls off her clothes, piece by piece, she feels the warmth radiating from the water. Timidly, one foot goes into the ocean, then the other. The sand is soft and squeezes itself between her toes, and it feels good.
It would not be so bad to drown, would it?
There is the seal, bloated and rotten.
And her father and mother in their caskets.
And herself, what would she be?
“Ah, Señor Jesus. ¿Qué se queda, Señor? ¿Qué se queda?”
There is no answer but the beating of the water on the shore.
She curls her toes into the sand.
Nada se queda.
“Nada se queda.”
She walks farther into the water, and the sand becomes rocks lined with algae. Turning, she floats upward onto her back and sinks down. Her nipples and nose poke out from the water, and she feels good. She turns again and swims out farther and sees the long dock on the other end of the beach.
The dawn is breaking. Smoke rises from above the dunes of the beach, and it is all she can see of the city. She swims forwards and backwards, never coming closer to the shore and never any farther.
She is in the water, somewhere amid the white foam of the deep blue waves. She tries to imagine looking down upon herself from the sky; she cannot. A nervous relief overtakes her, and her body trembles in the water. She knows that she must end it.
Downward she goes. The ocean is swallowing her; she is dying. She will be peaceful. She will be the bone, the sacred song, the pale, soft carcass. She will be the seal, the father, the mother, the fishbone and Christ. Nada se queda.
The weight of the water is painful. Out of habit, she holds her breath.
She opens her eyes under the water. The salt stings, and she sees only light and blue and her arms waving, and she is suddenly frightened. She fights. She swims. She fights, and she breaks the surface and gasps for breath.
What has she done?
She treads the water, sore and tired, and looks out over the ocean. The horizon is barren. She must try again, must drown; there must be peace.
Turning again, she floats on her back and looks up at the sky. She must rest, must prepare herself. Next time must be right. The water laps around her, and it is the only sound she hears. She admires the sky, and finally, she is ready.
She straightens up, ready to dive down again, when she hears the voice of a man call to her. It is a fisherman in the distance. She tries to wave to him, to show him that she is okay, that she has not drowned, but he is not calling to her. He is calling to his shipmates. He is pointing at her. He is laughing.
They are laughing. They are calling to her and grabbing their crotches.
Hot with embarrassment, she feels their greasy sweat and their chests, their eyes following, burning her as she turns and swims back to shore. The sand is hotter than she remembers, and as she dresses, her clothes cling to her wet body.
She rests on the shore, warming herself in the sun, watching the sweaty, greasy fishermen as they return to their work. Is there no peace, no dignity to be had, even in dying? These men, these beasts with broad chests, greasy sweat, dark eyes, dark curls, callused skin; they drive her to death, and degrade her still. Nada se queda.
She does not know what to do; she can only stand and turn to walk back through the hot sand, the bones, the dunes, the garbage and filth and dust, back into the city where she lives.
Originally appeared on The Toast.