Introduction by Dvora Negbi
My grandma didn’t like the rain, and when the sky darkened before the first few drops started to fall, she would take bottles to the backyard and half bury them in the earth, the bottlenecks facing downward. I would follow her and ask, “Grandma, why don’t you like the rain? Why don’t you like it?” But Grandma never uttered a word. Evasive, shovel in hand, she just wrinkled her nose to sniff the humidity in the air. If it did finally rain, be it drizzle or storm, she would shut the doors and windows and turn up the volume on the television to drown out the noise of the raindrops and wind—the roof of her house was made of tin—and if the downpour coincided with her favorite series, Combat!, nobody could get a word out of her: she was hopelessly in love with Vic Morrow.
I adored the rain because it softened the dry soil and unleashed my passion for excavation. Oh, the holes I would dig! I used the same shovel Grandma did; it was small, the size a child would use to play at the beach, but made of metal and wood, not plastic. The soil in the backyard was filled with little bits of green glass, their edges so smooth they no longer cut; smooth stones that looked like tiny beach pebbles. Why were they in my backyard? Someone must have buried them. Once, I found an oval-shaped rock the size and color of a cockroach, but without feet or antennae. On one side it was smooth, on the other there were grooves in the distinct pattern of a smiling face. I showed it to Papa, all worked up because I thought I had unearthed a relic, and he told me that it was just a coincidence. Papa never got excited. I also found some black dice, their white dots now barely visible. I found fragments of frosted apple-green and turquoise glass. Grandma remembered that they had once been part of an old door. I also played with worms, cutting them into tiny little pieces. It wasn’t that I took pleasure in watching the cut-up bodies writhing, struggling to go on living. I thought if I chopped a worm up small enough, like an onion, ring by ring, it wouldn’t be able to regenerate. I never liked creepy-crawlies.
I came across the bones after a storm that had made a mud puddle out of the patch of soil in my backyard. I put them in a bucket that I used to carry my treasures to the patio faucet, where I would wash them. I showed them to Papa. He told me they were chicken bones, or maybe even steak bones, or from some dead pet they must have buried long ago. He insisted they were chicken bones because when he was young, my grandma had kept a chicken coop in the backyard.
It seemed like a reasonable explanation until Grandma found out about the little bones and started to pull her hair out, screaming, “little angel, little angel.” But her outburst didn’t last long under Papa’s gaze: he indulged Grandma’s “superstitions”—as he called them—as long as she didn’t take them too far. She recognized his look of disapproval and forced herself to calm down. She asked me for the bones, and I gave them to her. Then she told me to go to my room and go to sleep. I got a little angry at that, not understanding why I was being punished.
But later that same night, she called me in and told me everything. It had been the tenth or eleventh sister, Grandma didn’t quite remember, she hadn’t paid much attention to the kids at the time. The girl had died a few months after she was born, between fevers and diarrhea. Since she was a little angel, angelita, they laid her on a table adorned with flowers, wrapped up in a pink cloth, on a little cushion. They fashioned tiny cardboard wings for her so she could fly to heaven more quickly, but they didn’t fill her mouth with red flower petals because it upset her mama, my great-grandmother, who thought it looked like blood. There was dancing and singing all night long, until an inebriated uncle had to be thrown out and my great-grandma had to be revived; she had fainted from the weeping and the heat. A native mourner woman chanted Trisagions, and in return she asked for nothing but a few empanadas.
“Did all this happen here, Grandma?”
“No, in Salavino, in Santiago. The heat was unbearable!”
“So they aren’t baby bones, if she died there.”
“Yes they are. I brought them along when we moved. I didn’t want to leave her behind because she cried every night, poor thing. If she cried with us close by, in the house, imagine how much she would cry all alone, abandoned! So I brought her with me. By then she was just a few bones, I put her in a bag and buried her here in the yard. Not even your grandfather knew. Not even your great-grandmother, nobody. I was the only one who could hear her, except your great-grandfather, who heard her too, but pretended he didn’t.”
“Does she still cry here?”
“Only when it rains.”
Then I asked Papa if the story about the little baby angel was true, and he said that Grandma was getting old and tended to ramble. He didn’t seem so convinced, or maybe the conversation made him uncomfortable. After Grandma died, we sold the house and I went to live on my own, without a husband or children. Papa took an apartment in Balvanera, and I forgot about the little angel.
Until she appeared in my apartment ten years later, by my bedside, crying, one stormy night.
The little angel doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float, nor is she pale, and she isn’t wearing a white dress. She is half-rotten, and she doesn’t talk. The first time she appeared I thought I was dreaming, and I tried to wake up from the nightmare; when I couldn’t, and I started to understand that she was real, I screamed and cried and hid under the sheets, my eyes shut tight and my hands cupped over my ears so I couldn’t hear her, because at the time I didn’t know that she was mute. But when I emerged, a few hours later, the little angel was still there, wearing some shreds of an old blanket over her shoulders, like a poncho. She pointed outside with one finger, toward the window and the street, and that’s when I noticed it was daytime. I asked her what she wanted, but she just kept pointing, like in a horror movie.
I got up and ran to the kitchen, to look for the gloves I use to wash the dishes. The little angel followed me. Just the first sign of her demanding nature. But she didn’t threaten me. With the gloves on, I grabbed her neck and started to wring it. It isn’t quite logical to try and strangle a dead person, but one cannot be desperate and reasonable at the same time. She didn’t even cough; instead, some bits of decomposing flesh got stuck between my gloved fingers, leaving her trachea exposed.
Up to that point, I didn’t know it was Angelita, my grandmother’s sister. I kept squeezing my eyes shut, hoping she would vanish or I would wake up. When that didn’t work, I walked around her and saw, on her back, the yellowish remains of what I now know was the pink shroud, two rudimentary little wings made of cardboard with chicken feathers stuck to them. After so many years, she should have disappeared, I thought; then I laughed somewhat hysterically and said to myself, there’s a dead baby in my kitchen. It was my great-aunt and she walked, although given her size, she couldn’t have lived more than three months. I had to stop thinking in terms of what was really possible and what was not.
I asked her if she was my great-aunt Angelita. Since there hadn’t been time to register her with a legal name—times were different back then—they had always called her by this generic name. That’s how I found out that she didn’t talk, but she answered by nodding her head. So Grandma had been telling the truth, I thought; the bones weren’t from the chicken coop, they were the bones of the sister she had disinterred as a young girl.
It was a mystery what Angelita really wanted, because all she could do was shake her head yes or no. But there was something she wanted urgently, because not only did she keep pointing, she wouldn’t leave me in peace. She followed me all through the house. She waited for me behind the shower curtain while I took a shower; she sat on the bidet while I peed or pooped; she stood next to the fridge while I washed the dishes; and she sat beside my chair while I worked on the computer.
I continued living my normal life for the first week. I thought it might be a nervous breakdown with hallucinations, and that she would leave. I asked for a few days off from work, I took sleeping pills. The little angel would be there, waiting for me at my bedside when I awoke. Some friends came over to visit. At first I didn’t want to answer my messages or open the door for them but, to avoid worrying them further, I decided to let them in, claiming mental burnout. They understood; I’d been working like a dog, they said. Nobody saw the little angel. The first time my friend Marina came to visit I stuck the little angel in the closet, but to my horror and disgust, she escaped and sat on the armrest of the armchair, with that ugly grey-green face. Marina didn’t notice.
Not long after, I took the little angel out on the street. Nobody noticed. Except for one man who glanced at her briefly and then turned around to look again; his face went pale, his blood pressure must have plummeted. Then there was the lady who took off running and was almost hit by a number 45 bus on Chacabuco Street. Some people must be able to see her, that much I gathered, but certainly not many. So to save them from a gruesome surprise, whenever we went out together—or rather, when she followed me out, since I was powerless to stop her—I would carry her in a backpack of sorts (it’s awful to see her walk, she’s so small, it’s not natural). I also bought her a face-mask bandage, the type used for facial burns. Now when people do see her they are disgusted, but also moved with compassion. They see a sickly or badly injured baby, not a dead baby.
If Papa could see me now, I thought—he who always complained that he would end up dying without grandchildren (and he did die without grandkids, I disappointed him in that sense and many others). I bought her toys to play with and lollipops to suck on, but she didn’t seem to like anything too much, and she still had that blessed finger always pointing to the south—that much I had figured out, it was always southward—morning, noon, and night. I talked to her and asked her questions, but she couldn’t communicate.
Until one morning she turned up with a picture of my childhood home, the house where I had found her little bones in the backyard. She had taken it out from the box where I keep my photos: what a mess, all the other pictures were stained with her rotten skin that peeled off, all wet and gooey. Now she pointed at the house with that finger, she was quite insistent. “You want to go there?” I asked her, and she nodded yes. I told her that the house was no longer in the family, that we had sold it, but she just nodded again.
I put her in the backpack with her mask on, and we took the number 15 to Avellaneda. She doesn’t look out the windows on trips, nor does she look at the people or play with anything; it’s all the same to Angelita. I put her on my lap so she would be comfortable, although I don’t know if she can even be uncomfortable, or what that word means for her, or what she feels like. I only know that she means no harm, and that I was scared of her at first, but not anymore.
We arrived at what used to be my house around four o’clock in the afternoon. Like always in the summer, the thick smell of the Riachuelo and gasoline on Avenida Mitre mingled with the smell of trash. We crossed the plaza, then walked by the Itoiz clinic where my grandma had died, and finally we walked around the Racing Club stadium. My house was two blocks past the stadium. But now that we were at the door, what to do? Ask the new owners if they would let me in? Under what pretext? I hadn’t even thought it through. Clearly, my mental state was being affected by walking around with a dead baby on my back.
Angelita took charge of the situation. We didn’t have to go in. One could lean over the wall and see the backyard, and that’s all she wanted: to see the yard. We both looked, I held her in my arms—the wall was quite low, it must have been poorly built. There, where the patch of soil had been, now stood a blue plastic swimming pool, lodged in a hole in the ground. Evidently they had removed all the soil to make the hole, and as a result, the little angel’s bones had ended up who knows where, flung about, lost. I felt bad for her, poor thing, and I told her I was really sorry, but there was nothing I could do. I even told her I was sorry I hadn’t unearthed them again before the house was sold, to bury them in a peaceful place, or close to the family, if that’s what she wanted. If only I had put them in a box or a flowerpot and taken them to my house! I’d been inconsiderate, and I asked if she could forgive me. Angelita nodded yes. I understood that she accepted my apology. I asked her if she felt better and if she was going to go, if she would leave me alone. She said no. “All right,” I answered, and since I wasn’t too happy about it, I quickly walked over to the Number 15 bus stop, obliging her to run after me with her bare feet, which, since they were so rotten, were starting to show signs of the little white bones underneath.
*The story was first published in Asymptote Journal, in July 2014.
*Featured image: Mira Nedyalkova