Ever since Renata could remember, her grandmother had wanted to die. Not only did the old woman desire death, but she desired it loudly, to anyone in proximity. She would say things like:
‘I’m so tired. I don’t think I’m going to wake up tomorrow.’
‘This will be my last summer, I know it.’
‘Soon He will call me to Paradise and you’ll be sorry.’
‘Everything hurts. Everything. You have no idea. It hurts to talk, walk, breathe, sleep, see, hear. Bright colours are violence to my eyes. Your voices scratch at my eardrums. There is pain in my back, my fingers throb, my knees are swollen. No one knows.’
Sometimes she implored God directly:
‘Do you hear me? It is cruel to keep someone alive so long.’
She’d shake her clasped hands at the ceiling and cry: ‘Why haven’t You called me to Paradise yet? I’m READY.’
‘This life is a curse.’
Renata’s grandmother didn’t just wear her emotions; she embodied them physically in every movement and sound she made. She made her home inside them. She moaned, she wailed, she cried out, she sighed. She constantly made comments heavenward. She bit her fists, leaving either teeth marks or faint bruises, depending on whether she was wearing her dentures. Sometimes she begged, occasionally she fell to her knees. If you disappointed her, she would cover her eyes with her hands, as if the very sight of you inflicted physical pain. On her son’s wedding day, the woman bawled throughout the ceremony. According to Renata’s mother, the woman’s wails were so loud that the priest had to shout the benediction, so much so that he became hoarse.
On top of a cabinet in their home, there was a framed wedding photo. In the photo, Renata’s mother had plump cheeks, like a baby doll; her father’s forehead was already creased and his shoulders were hunched like an old man’s. Her mother in the photo was sixteen, the same age Renata was now. Her father was almost twenty, having just completed his military service. Now, both their faces were ruined. In the photo, they were surrounded by their own parents: all dead now, except for her grandmother, who scowled down the barrel of the camera lens through her tulle veil.
Renata suspected that her grandmother didn’t want to die so much as she wanted everyone to know that she suffered, and that this suffering had gone on for longer, and to a greater degree, than theirs had. If Renata complained of a headache, for example, her grandmother would reply that she had been in pain for twenty years. If Renata’s mother mentioned that she was tired, her grandmother would respond that she had spent her life working from dawn until dusk without help and without once sitting down. When she was young, she went days – no, weeks – without sleeping. She toiled the fields, picking olives with a baby on her back. She darned socks and made dresses with another baby at her breast. She cooked and cleaned the house with a further baby on her hip. According to her grandmother, neither Renata nor her mother had any idea what it was to be tired. When would God allow her to rest, she’d wonder. When her grandmother began to talk like that, Renata made a silent prayer that God would listen.
When her mother began feeling the pains of labour, it seemed to Renata as though something was very, very wrong. It seemed unnatural. It seemed like her mother was going to die, like the ground beneath her feet was going to split apart and suck her down into hell. Even more troubling – nothing was wrong. Apparently, it was all perfectly normal.
Over the months prior, Renata’s mother’s body had swelled and ripened like a plum, the long waistless maternity dresses she wore only exacerbating the squatness her figure spread into. Even after her belly had become bulbous, her mother liked to crouch down on her hands and knees and check under the couch for hair and dust clumps and bread crumbs. She would lie down on her side and peer under the fridge for grime: dirt and lost coins and grains of rice. She would remove all the contents from the kitchen cupboards and hunt for specks of flour or sugar granules, check the packaging for webs or teeth marks. She would apply so much disinfectant to the shelves that the whole apartment stank of antiseptic. She would take an old toothbrush and scrub the black mould from between the bathroom tiles. Once, at breakfast, a mouse was heard scuttling behind the stove. Her mother pulled the stove and the fridge from the wall. She laid out metal traps and placed blue pellets on small white saucers behind the fridge and the toilet and underneath the sink. She boiled broccoli and dipped it in poison and dropped it behind the stove. Her grandmother followed her mother around as she did this, running a commentary. According to her grandmother, no rodent had ever dared to enter any home that she had made. They might as well move, her grandmother had said. Mice carried the plague.
Her mother did not seem to hear. One morning, they heard a scuttle: her mother’s ears pricked, like those of a cat. She pushed the kitchen table against the wall, coffee cups and plates crashing to the floor. She yanked out the stove and grabbed the broom. Once she found the mouse, she and the creature looked at one another. The ingested poison had slowed the mouse; it cowered rather than ran. Down came the broom: once, twice, three times, over and over, until the mouse was a wet, flattened mess.
It was morning when her mother’s labour began. Her father was at work. The coffee pot whistled and her grandmother had been eating sardines. The whole kitchen smelled of them. Her grandmother picked a fork through a can of the oily fish, her dentures gnashing the fuzzy bodies. Occasionally she slipped a hair-fine bone from between her teeth and placed it on the kitchen table in front of her. When Renata asked her grandmother how she was that morning, both she and her mother knew the response already: ‘This life is a curse’, the old woman moaned. ‘Last night I dreamed that I was finally at the Gates of Paradise.’
Renata’s mother had rolled her eyes at her mother-in-law, before taking the empty sardine can and throwing it out the kitchen window and into the alley below. In this home, everyone spoke in running monologues that occasionally bumped into one another to little effect. Now, her grandmother’s plaints drowned out her mother, and Renata watched as the two women paced the kitchen, her mother grunting with her arms under her belly, as though it were about to fall out from under her dress. Her grandmother shook her hands at the ceiling and beat her prayer beads to her chest. ‘Oh, my Lord,’ she howled. ‘Don’t curse this baby with life, take him back!’
Renata had left school at the end of autumn. Most other girls her age would be helping their mothers around the house or would have picked up jobs. Just the idea of washing a plate or running a duster along the shelves made her want to take a nap. Now that it was summer, her schoolmates crowded the town square, buying ice creams from the bar and sharing cigarettes. In the mornings and evenings, they would hover around the street vendor who sold bits of anonymous meat that had been rolled in bread crumbs and fried. She preferred to take her food home. There, she ate in the privacy of her bedroom: fried balls of rice filled with meat, candied figs, olives soaked in oil and spices, warm bread rolls filled with cheese, hollowed-out peppers stuffed with minced sardines and bread crumbs, salted almonds, thick squares of bread slathered in tomato sauce and dotted with anchovies and cheese. She liked to eat until her thighs felt gelatinous and slick with sweat, and her stomach ballooned out, sore and firm as though she had drunk cement that had now set. She whiled the days away reading the sexy paperbacks her mother kept hidden in her wardrobe – the ones with watercolour covers and pictures of women in frothy dresses clutching their breasts at the feet of muscular stallions, both equine and human. Some nights she struggled to sleep, her body too restless from having rested all day. When she did sleep, she ground her teeth so much that by morning she tasted blood and her jaw jerked when she opened it.
The time that her mother spent in the hospital was enjoyable for Renata’s grandmother. The old woman seemed giddy, almost girlish, and her cheeks regained some of their fullness. She rose early from bed like someone with purpose. She made coffee for her son, raising the cup to his lips as he slumped half-awake in bed. During meal times, she wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin while he ate. She cut up his meat into bite-sized pieces. While he napped in the afternoon, she would place a blanket over him, stroke his hair and tuck him in tightly so that he was swaddled like a newborn. She would softly kiss his forehead and his cheeks and his lips. She would run his nightly bath and sit on the toilet lid while he bathed, reminding him to wash behind his ears and under his arms and between his legs. In the middle of the night, she would sneak into the bedroom and sit at the corner of his bed and watch him sleep. Watching her grandmother as she did these things gave Renata a sick feeling. She had never seen the woman so happy; there was a brightness to her eyes. Stroking her father’s cheek at the table, her grandmother said, ‘My son. My life. My son.’
She said the words as though she were uttering a sacred script, like it gave her pleasure just to say them.
While her father was at work, Renata found her grandmother burrowed in the sheets of her parents’ bed, huffing the smell of her father’s lone sleep. Her grandmother either didn’t notice her or pretended not to. Saying nothing, Renata left the room and closed the door behind her, feeling hollowed-out. She couldn’t articulate exactly what she had seen, but she wasn’t surprised by it. It was as though she had waded into it, this secret inferno inhabited by her grandmother. She went to the kitchen and turned on the television, wanting to flush the image from her mind with other images. A variety show was on, and a beautiful woman with made-up eyes and big hair crooned at the camera while the studio audience cheered. Renata wanted it to be so that one day, when the moment came back to her, she wouldn’t be sure whether it was a memory or a dream.
A couple of days after she had gone to the hospital to have the baby, Renata’s mother called. They were ready to come home, she said. It was a boy.
A boy. Her father seemed pleased with himself. He poured the three of them glasses of wine to celebrate. ‘That poor child,’ her grandmother wailed. ‘He is cursed to this life.’
Secretly, however, she was happy. Little boys loved easier and were easier to love.
The day they were supposed to pick up her mother and the baby, Renata’s father wanted to celebrate. He brought home the carcass of a piglet. She filled buckets with boiling water and ran them down to her father, who had laid the animal down on a small table in the alley below their apartment. In the thin light of dawn, the two poured the hot water on the pig while running flat metal blades across its skin. Each time she poured the water the pig’s skin hissed and a cloud of steam rose from it. With the steam arose an overwhelming smell – a sweet sort of burning skin smell that made her feel dizzy and feverish. ‘Pour!’ her father told her. ‘More!’ he shouted. ‘Harder!’
Running the blade along the animal’s hide was difficult, and occasionally the blade caught and skimmed a hand. They had to scrub its skin without stopping until its furry hide was clean and smooth to touch. When they were done, she turned her palms over and saw that her knuckles were flecked with red smiles.
He ran a knife down its underside and held it over a large pot into which thick blood gushed. Once it had been drained, she ran the pot upstairs to her grandmother and rushed back down. Now he was wrist-deep inside the pig. With a thunderous crack, he split its ribs open. ‘Quick!’, he barked.
Into her palms, he pushed the steaming heart, a red so deep it was almost black, a hot ruby. An hour ago, it had been inside the pig, beating. Up and down the stairs she ran, delivering pulp and insides. When he was finished, her father entered the kitchen with the animal over his shoulders and he heaved it onto the kitchen table, where he began dismantling what remained of the body for her grandmother, who pummelled the meat with a mallet into thin strips. As she did so, she listed the places that she had given birth: in a field, in the kitchen, on the way to her brother’s wedding. She had silently delivered the babies by herself, she stressed, and as soon as she was finished she carried on with her day.
A few hours later, the thick, metallic scent of blood pervaded the room, and then it grew richer and sweeter as the meat cooked, the fat crackling and spattering. Renata’s father finally lay slabs of the pig on their plates. They helped themselves to a bowl of sliced oranges and fennel and red onion. Her grandmother said, ‘Oh, your father is so good to us. Look at this. No, just a small piece for me. Oh. Oh! Just look at it.’
Her grandmother cut her father’s meat for him. Renata ate greedily, relishing the sweet-tart tang of the oranges as they burst in her mouth and cut through the rich decadence of the pork. As soon as her father was finished eating, her grandmother said, ‘Have another. There’s more. You need to eat.’
He dutifully took another slice while Renata mopped up the juices on her plate with a crusty hunk of bread. Once he was finished with that, he laid his hands on his stomach and leaned back in his chair. Her grandmother said, ‘Go on, have some more. I know you’re still hungry. You work so hard.’
While he was chewing his last bite of his third helping, her grandmother heaped more meat onto his plate. He shook his head. ‘Please,’ she said. She placed a hand on his thigh. ‘You need your energy. Please.’
They sat in silence as her father gradually consumed what was left of the pig. His breathing became laboured. When it was over, her grandmother smiled a satisfied smile. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Good.’
Her grandmother, who only wore her teeth on days of worship and at meal times, unhooked her dentures and dropped them with a splash into the plastic cup next to her plate.
After lunch, Renata and her grandmother watched American soap operas together. It began with their favourite, which was known in their country as Forever. Her grandmother waited in her chair by the kitchen window, fanning herself. She slipped off her court shoes and put her feet up on another chair. The old woman wore black, itchy things; cardigans and flesh-coloured stockings that didn’t match her skin and did a shoddy job of masking the thick blue veins that were scribbled up her calves. Renata turned on the small television and sat in another chair. She and her grandmother hummed along to the theme song. Her grandmother sighed as her favourite character, Stone, came onto the screen, having just survived a coma without being replaced by another actor. Silence stretched out and spread like a blanket over the hours following lunch and preceding dusk. The soap opera’s dramatic music and stilted dialogue only seemed to make the silence more intense. During these hours, there was no hiding from herself, Renata thought. They were a sort of desert, a no man’s land in the hot country of the day. In the long pauses of the characters’ conversations, one could hear the torpor that seemed to flood everything. Her father’s snores rumbled from the couch, sending tremors throughout the apartment.
The kitchen window shutters were half-closed like all the others in the apartment, blocking out the sun that was at its most violent in the afternoon. Outside, the sun bleached the apartment building opposite, their neighbours’ white bedsheets and undergarments flapping weakly in what little breeze made its way from the sea to the town. Now a snarl and a cluster of frightened foreign voices from the street below. Renata and her grandmother rushed to the window and poked their heads out. It was as they had suspected: a few red-faced tourists from The Continent being hounded by one of the street dogs. The tourists wore straw hats and khaki shorts and big cameras looped around their necks. As they walked the dog stalked them, occasionally snapping at their ankles or growling. These people always came in the summer and waded through the town as though it were a zoo, gawking and snapping pictures of the inhabitants as though they were exotic animals. They went to the bars for lunch, spending a long time in the restrooms and snapping their fingers at the staff when they weren’t served quickly enough or getting huffy because they either did not understand or did not like the menu. One of them always fainted from the heat or, like today, their outing ended when they were hounded back to their car by one of the street dogs. The tourists and the dog turned the corner. Her grandmother and the woman in the apartment opposite smiled and shook their heads at one another. She nudged Renata’s shoulder and laughed. ‘Did you see their dumb faces? These people.’
Dogs were wild here; they stalked the narrow alleys in packs. These mangy creatures were the descendants of mothers raised to guard properties. These were the unwanted young that had been flung out of cars and onto the shoulders of roads shortly after they had come into the world. Road shoulders were shrines for unwanted things – not just dogs, but also soiled mattresses, kittens, out-grown clothing and torn couches. On Sundays after church, elderly couples and families piled their backseats with plastic bags of rubbish and deposited them at these places. For a few hours on a Sunday evening, before the seagulls and the vultures had begun their attack, the plastic bag formations looked like neat Egyptian pyramids.
During those sweltering summer afternoons, Renata felt violent and lousy. It was the feeling of wanting to hit someone or break something, but lacking the energy to do so. She was sick of herself, of her family, of the town they lived in and all the towns that surrounded it. All she wanted was to claw herself out of her own body. The air seemed to quiver and she felt as though she were stuck in a dentist’s waiting room, waiting for all her teeth to be pried from her mouth. Lately, she felt queasy from morning until night, which her mother told her meant she was becoming a woman. You hope, Renata had thought. Her mother was beginning to worry.
On Forever, Victor, the family’s patriarch, had fallen off a boat and died, leaving his eldest son Stone to marry Vanessa, the woman that he was in love with and that his father detested (Victor had also once had an affair with Vanessa). Just as they were about to be married, Stone discovered that his beloved mother Kelly was also missing and presumed dead. A husband with dead parents, Renata thought. Lucky.
Her grandmother said, with her eyes still trained on the screen: ‘If you get married without me – if you get married after I die – I will never forgive you. I’ll make you wish you were dead.’
Later that afternoon, after her grandmother had retreated to her room with a migraine, Renata and her father set out for the hospital to pick up her mother and the baby. The rolling hills that surrounded their town were a patchwork of vineyards and orchards and pastures. The hospital was in the city, and the city was high up on a hill that overlooked the sea. She had heard that the island they lived on had once been green, lush with forests and flowing rivers. She had heard that once there were even elephants that thundered over the mountains. Now it was dry, the anaemic grass black from fire and drought. The men here worked under the sun from childhood, and callouses protruded like promontories from their thumbs and palms. The island was covered by the knotty growth of flowering cacti. Donkeys clambered up and down rubble-strewn mountains. Cratered roads zig-zagged madly through the red earth. They drove past young laughing boys doubled up on bikes, their satchels stuffed with figs and oranges pilfered from the orchards. As the car jerked around the sharp corners, her father gulped down the last of his Coca Cola and flicked the can out the window. They had built the roads like this on purpose, her father told her as he rubbed his thumb and forefingers together. So that more people would get paid.
The landscape was dotted with half-built houses and tractors and goats. Around here, all the houses were left unfinished – window frames left without panes, a missing side wall exposing rooms to the public and the elements like a dollhouse, pipes left exposed, a roof left untiled, electricity that ran only to half the house, building equipment and rusted metal poking up through long grass. The logic was simple, her father told her. A homeowner only had to pay tax on a house once it was finished. If you never finished the house, then you never had to pay tax on it.
Under a bridge some men in singlets with singed chest hair roasted meat. Smoke billowed out of the tall tin cylinders they used as grills. They drove past orchards bursting with oranges that looked like small suns. The sky was so vast that it domed over the fields. The actual sun was crimson like a broken egg yolk that had spilt across the atmosphere.
The city came into view. The buildings that ringed the city were grey and concrete and falling apart, even though they hadn’t been built that long ago. From a distance, the mountain seemed like the head of an angelic king, with the city his concrete crown and the smog that surrounded it his dirty halo. In the valley just outside the city, the white columns of marble ruins emerged from the red dust like broken teeth. At school, they had said these were temples from another world, one that was totally different to theirs. Primitive people had come from the sea and built temples to a panoply of wicked gods, and inside those temples they had sacrificed animals and sometimes children. Now people carted wheelbarrows to the ruins, hacking off chunks of them to build houses. Once, her father had taken her. The valley was filled with almond trees, and he broke a young almond open for her, splitting apart its fleshy casing to reveal the milky meat inside. She remembered old black-clad women crouched amongst the ruins, picking through the long grass. They rummaged amongst the detritus: empty detergent bottles and used condoms, napkins and empty packets of sugar. They plucked up wild fennel fronds and bitter chicory to later be cooked in stews. She and her father had found a mulberry tree and her father let her climb it. As she plucked the mulberries from the branches the fruit burst, and red and purple juice gushed down her arms and clothing. When she climbed down she realised she had scratched up her arms. Her blood had mixed with the juice, making it impossible to tell between the two. She remembered that the temples were strewn with debris: discarded cardboard, sheets of Styrofoam, empty cigarette packets, beer bottles, snotty tissues, balled-up receipts, soiled nappies and little plastic cups. Empty bottles of tomato sauce, butter yellow margarine tubs. Surface spray. Religious pamphlets and chip packets. The memory felt like a dream, and she wondered if it was. It was nice, she thought, that no matter how much time separated them, people were always leaving behind evidence of themselves.
Behind the city, the end of the world.
The hospital was a looming grey structure surrounded by a parking lot. It was made up of tall towers, the tops of which were ringed by clouds. The windows were medieval: tall thin slits. In front there was a kiosk, where old men in caps and suspenders clustered together, smoking. They drank wine and bitter liqueur in small thin glasses. At the entrance to the hospital, they were given a map to the information desk. The map led them through a series of corridors and up a flight of stairs that opened onto another series of corridors. Once they had arrived at the information desk, they were given another map to the maternity ward. The map led them back down through to the entrance and up another flight of stairs. They followed it through another series of corridors and down three flights of stairs. They opened a fire exit onto another corridor, which led them through a garden and a boarding house for cats, and down ten more flights of stairs. At the entrance to the windowless maternity ward they took a number from a ticket machine. Here, there was a crowd. Men and women stood in small clusters or sat huddled together on the floor. Children ran amongst them, playing games and calling to one another. An old woman grilled thick slices of breaded eggplant on a portable grill and wedged the slices between slabs of bread for the small whining children grouped around her. Two men played cards with cigarettes wedged between their teeth. One woman clipped her nails, others flipped through magazines or whispered amongst themselves. A young girl trawled the scene, hawking packets of tissues, bruised roses, cigarette lighters and hand sanitiser. Tickets were clutched in fists or clamped in mouths. Numbers flashed silently on a small screen, around which a group kept watch, their faces tinged blue from the televised glow. After a time, their number flashed. They scuttled into a large room, where a woman behind a desk rolled open a drawer in the tall filing cabinet next to her with a clank. From it, the woman procured another map, for Renata’s mother’s room, and handed it to Renata’s father. This map took them down a long corridor lined with closed doors. Behind them, she could hear the wails of babies and the cries of women. It smelled of antiseptic. Finally, at the end of the corridor, they reached her mother’s room.
They opened the door to find her mother cooing over the baby in its metal crib. She looked like a squat seagull in her white hospital gown. Her belly seemed strange, like a half-deflated balloon. Renata wondered what would happen to her mother’s insides now – the guts or whatever had been there. She pictured it empty now, rotting and dark like old fruit. She pictured the insides shrivelling up and rolling out of her mother in bits and pieces.
The baby was thrust into Renata’s arms. It seemed squashed and fed-up and tired, like it was uninterested with the world in which it now found itself. The baby didn’t seem like a person yet. It was too squashed-looking, its body too soft. She didn’t like its tangy soiled-bed-sheet-sour-milk smell. She suddenly had the urge to vomit, all over the baby. Her mother was preoccupied with the baby and happy in a sleepy kind of way. She didn’t have any edges around her, she was too unformed and gloopy and soft like the baby. It seemed like they were all suddenly too close together, like they were inside her mother, melting together as one body.
‘No, you hold the baby,’ her mother said. ‘You’ll have your own soon enough.’
Disgusting, she thought.
By the time they had piled into the car and began the drive home, the sky was purple and a cool breeze swept over the valley. Her mother in the back with the baby gathered to her chest, like it was an amputated arm or another part of her body that had been sawn off and so was now separate from her but no less the domain of her flesh. They drove very fast out of the city and through forest and farmland, her father swerving around the sharp corners in the zigzag road. The skin was taut on his knuckles as he gripped the steering wheel and he had a worried, wild look in his eye as he threw quick glances in the rear-view mirror. It was late. Renata’s mother urged him to drive faster; she was keen to get the baby home and besides, he had to be up early for work.
It was dark, and the trees along the road loomed like witches. A figure, tall and shadowy, stumbled onto the road. Her father gave a little, barely perceptible gasp, and continued speeding forward. She closed her eyes and braced her body. The car jerked: a horrible thud. Her body shivered. She opened her eyes. Her father was still driving. The road was smooth again. It seemed as though everyone were screaming, but the car was silent. She opened her mouth and closed it like a fish. Her stomach turned over and she gripped the door handle, unsure of whether she wanted to hurl herself out of the car or just vomit out the window. Her father kept his gaze fixed on the road ahead, while her mother cooed over the still-sleeping baby.
Suddenly her parents seemed monstrous, like in the nightmare she had when she was little, which always took place in a big house. In the nightmare, she would search for her parents in the big house until she finally found them. But when she found her parents she realised they were not her parents. They were identical to her parents, except for a slight, significant difference – their eyebrows were too pointed for example, or their pupils were too big, like ink splotched across their eyeballs, or their teeth were too sharp and white. And they all had the same too-big smile. She couldn’t help but think that the nightmare from her childhood had been a premonition, not a dream. Those not-parents had killed her parents, and had been wearing their skin as suits.
They passed farmhouses, rubble, fenced-off land, the leafy canopies of vineyards. She looked at the road ahead of them and imagined the figure was before them again. She envisioned what she had shut her eyes to before: the figure toppled, and the car drove over it. Some parts of the figure were squashed by the tires, and others got caught up in the machinery of the car. She imagined it again. Blood and flesh everywhere. Again. The figure jumped out of the way and just its leg was flattened. Once more. The figure crawled away. Over and over. The figure crawled onto the road before it was hit. The more she imagined it, the smaller the figure became. The figure was four-legged. She recalled the jerking of the car in her mind. It too, became slighter, gentler, like how a car would jerk if it hit a large rock or a small animal, a dog perhaps.
A dog. Renata was tired. Her parents were tired. The baby was finally sleeping, her father would be up early for another day of work. Her grandmother was at home waiting for them. It had been a long day. It was easier if it was a dog. And even if it had been a man, they probably didn’t know him, and they didn’t owe him anything. But it had been a dog. She preferred it that way.
Photograph © Joel Bombardier