‘Things changed, see? They don’t sleep any more on the beach.’
– Murray Ostril
It wasn’t your son’s pale skin or his gaping eyes that made you race, Carmelo, to the shoreline; a little body that barely fit in the cradle of your arms and that you had learned to love the way one loves a plant that’s been rooted in the garden for a long, long time. It wasn’t that, but something you had never thought about, and which hit you like a rush of cold water the second you spotted him in the distance, in the dead of night, his lungs drowned in salt water and helpless to survive because he was too fragile, too small, and you, Carmelo, had left him there to drown. It was the fierce dread of losing Marina. Because, although no one ever explained this to us, however brutish we might be, we’re still capable of feeling something more than rage and fury.
So, with your balls shrunk from terror, you kicked off your huaraches and started to walk, you walked until you wore your mind out imagining what would happen next, because when you’re drunk things happen that you don’t expect will happen, especially not to your own child. Especially not when you decided to take him out in the middle of the night, to feel the blackened sand under his feet; feet still too young to understand that none of it made any sense, Carmelo. You lifted him out of his crib, making the most of Marina having gone to visit her mother, who had caught a fright and fallen ill. She had left him with you in an act of faith, because in spite of everything, she believed in you, she expected you to take good care of the child. And so, contorted and with the thick night air sticky on the nape of your neck, you walked, and looked all about you. The boy was over there, face up, foaming at the mouth like an animal left to his fate; as if the real animal wasn’t you, Carmelo, who had just left the little boy there to die. And not any boy but your own, the seed you’d sown in Marina when, all that time ago, she’d hitched up her skirt on one of the old wooden pallets from the feria to show you some of that good stuff, and from there to the home stretch came months of touch and go: for some your wife still loved you, and for others she no longer looked at you tenderly and surrendered to soul sadness, to tirisia. How were you going to tell her Carmelo? How were you going to tell her you’d lost everything down the bottom of the bottle? That the one good thing she had left in that place had simply disappeared like foam.
You wandered lost on the beach for some time, not knowing who to turn to. You could no longer feel your arms: by the time you bumped into Jacinto you were exhausted and before you knew it you were asking him, help me, compadre, and at first he heard you out but then he realised that the lump in your arms was your son, and that he’d soon be dust. Help me get him to Doña Pancha, you begged him, believing she could cure your son; believing, against all evidence, that this mess was just a bad dream and it would turn
out the baby was bloated or in shock from spending the night out in the open.
You walked and you walked, Carmelo, muttering the same futile words over and over: the boy’ll be better soon, the boy’ll come out crawling any minute now, Marina’ll come back and I’ll never drink like that again, ain’t that right, Jesusito? Because you were incapable of looking death in the eyes. You stood and took it when your feet sank into the cool, windswept sand. Ain’t that right, señor? You took it, too, when Doña Pancha opened her reed door only to shout in your face: What the fuck is wrong with you, Carmelo, the only thing this boy needs is his last rites and a decent burial.
You walked down the narrow streets that led from the seafront into town. You put your son on your back wrapped in one of Marina’s rebozos, and people noticed you staggering around street corners wearing it. They talked; it was a small town. They could judge you all they liked. Your senses had been dulled anyway, although you could still remember certain things, like the last mouthful of black beans with epazote you scarfed down earlier and which was now repeating on you, as if to tell you what a moron you’d been to crack for a shitty hip flask of cheap liquor that hadn’t given you even a moment of glory. A dog snapped at your trouser leg and you stumbled, almost falling flat onto your humpback, the lump that had once borne your son’s face, but you struggled to your feet and crossed the threshold you would come to wish you never had, Carmelo.
You sat for a while with your hands clasped in a knot. You looked up at that man with blood running down his forearms and withered feet, nailed to a splintered post, and you cried even harder: you didn’t even have the fucking consolation of a wound. You sucked up your snotty tears and then he appeared in the middle of the altar. I came looking for you, Father, you snivelled, but he didn’t reply. The sour stench of your bender reached all the way over to where he was. I came to confess ’cause no one’ll hear me, you finished, and he understood that, though drunk, you still had a modicum of decency. He opened the confessional door and sat you down as best he could. What have you got there, Carmelo? he asked, and you said nothing. Tears fell down your face into your moustache. My boy, padrecito, or what’s left of my boy, and you unwrapped the shawl to reveal a swollen little body still dotted with patches of sand. I came for you to cure my fucking sadness, and you fell to your knees. You could no longer hold down the hot bile building up in your throat and you confessed everything to him: how the night was cold but just the same you’d taken him out for a walk to show him the sea. How, a few drinks down, you went back to bed and forgot to take him with you. How, by the time you woke up it was early morning, and that’s why you were there in that state, weak-kneed and reeking of cantina, desperate for someone to tell you what it was you were supposed to do now. That was all you needed: the false sensation that someone was guiding your steps and there was no chance you’d mess up again. You were sick of always messing up.
The priest buried his face in the grubby weave of the rebozo. Inside, a tiny thing with salt still dusting his forehead and stiffened lips which in life had never spoken a word. You were sitting now on the pew, Carmelo, wondering whether your wife was home yet, whether she’d found the empty crib, noticed the absence of your usual ranting and the boy’s babbling. The priest took a deep breath. He noticed that sourness hanging in the air around him, that smell of belch and urine and salt water pervading his church. And what do you expect from me, Carmelo? he said. This child doesn’t have so much as a face to mourn.