I could hear the water running as I inserted the key in the lock. I thought I’d find her right where she was: in the tiny bathroom, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, with her hands still under the stream of hot water. She was staring at something I wasn’t able to make out through the window. She was looking at it insistently. She only realized I was there when I turned off the faucet and hurriedly placed the dry towel on her warm red hands.
‘Look what you’ve done,’ I murmured, trying to reprimand her. ‘They look like newly plucked chickens,’ I finally smiled, caressing them. She looked at me with her empty eyes. Then she blinked and, bending her head, looked at her hands. She lifted the right one up to her eyes, rotating it to better inspect it.
‘Their hands,’ she said. ‘They cut their hands.’
‘Yes,’ I answered as I gently pushed her toward her room. After turning off the television, I helped her sit down on her bed to take off her clothes, baggy pants and a cotton t-shirt, and put on the flannel nightgown she slept in. She motioned for me to pass her the brush sitting on the dresser and, as soon as she held it in her hands, she devoted herself to running it through her long gray hair. She seemed absorbed once again. The brush easily glided from the roots to the tips and then did so once more.
‘This time they also cut their legs,’ she murmured, suddenly looking at me.
‘Yes,’ I answered her. ‘I saw on the news. We’ll have to be more careful from now on,’ I concluded, giving her a few pats on the back and offering her a couple pills. Then I went to the little kitchen and put water on to boil. Time passes in strange ways. When the kettle emitted its high-pitched sound, a sound that always reminds me of a police siren, I had no idea what I’d been thinking about. I made her an orange blossom tea because I knew it was one of her favorites.
‘And they cut their hair, too,’ she said as if to herself when she took her first sip with unusual calm. She turned to look at me, and, knowing I was being looked at, I smiled at her. I never quite know what to do in these situations. When I turned off the bedroom light, the old woman was already asleep under the blankets. Her breathing, measured. Her eyelashes, still.
The building where we lived was gloomy, certainly, but it had the advantage of being centrally located. We could manage quite easily without a car, riding the bus or the subway when I needed to take her to the hospital for her routine check-ups. There were plenty of restaurants nearby where we could pick up food without an additional fee. There were laundromats and a post office and a police station. And I could see all this from the windows of her fourth floor. The red lights. The traffic lights.
That night I sat a while in her favorite armchair before ending my daily visit. I didn’t know for sure how she spent her days, all by herself, locked in the labyrinth of her own head, but I could read her activities in the traces she left behind: the television on, the door of the refrigerator open, a couples of knives on the counter. Her family had all but forgotten her, visiting her every now and then, especially on her birthday. She received a card or two throughout the year. A letter. I looked out the window just like I had seen her frequently do. The city outside trembled. It gave off that impression, anyway. I placed my legs on the ottoman and leaned back against the headrest. The cracks in the ceiling formed a map or a forest of twisted trees or a fishing net where a prisoner would have to fall. I closed my eyes, like the old woman, and thought that I was perhaps as exhausted as she was. Or as lost. Is it really necessary to live so long? I opened my eyes and crossed myself before even standing up. In the darkness, the apartment looked like a little museum of itself. The photographs. The rugs. The curtains. The spoons and forks. The vases. The wallpaper. Every object had been carefully preserved. No touching. The table. The chairs. I couldn’t help but wonder who would wind up with all this in the end. I picked up the plastic bag in which I was carrying a loaf of bread and slices of ham for a sandwich. After taking a final look at the apartment, I left and locked the door. I slowly walked down the stairs to the second floor. How long is eternity, measured in steps?
On the television they kept showing the same news. The dead girls. The signs of torture. The lingering question about their names. I avoided looking at the images, but I listened to them recount the events from the kitchen: a party gone wrong, a taxi, a ride into eternity. The police sirens interrupted my thoughts. The boiling water. As I spread the mayonnaise on the bread, I imagined the blue sky over their bodies. The sunlight, vertical, spade-like over their skin. The sunlight when it collides with bones. Their mouths, open. All those precious teeth. I fell into a chair. I looked at the wall. With the knife still in my right hand, inert like the statue I already was, I thought about how they hadn’t even had the time to feel tired. I thought about how, had they been saved, had they survived, they could rest their legs on the thick leather of the ottoman in the middle of a lonesome room.
Image © peribanyez