The news was brought by Darío, the baker’s son. We knew something had happened as soon as we saw him, standing up on his bike pedals, coming closer under the midday sun. Someone said, “Who could that be? Hey, it’s Darío!” We were sitting on the terrace, exhausted from the hot, still air that had settled in over the last week, and the sea-like hum of the fan was the only thing that could be heard. Across from me, Clara was dozing, her dress rolled up above her bony thighs, and her chest, like a scrawny, embalmed bird, was rising just enough to let a little air in. Next to her sat Mamá, dressed in black despite the sweltering heat wave. Her hair was pulled back with bobby pins and her bun looked like a poorly constructed tower. Farther away sat Gorda Teresa and her husband Jesus. They were both wearing new clothes as they liked to do on national holidays. She is in a sundress and him in a shirt Gorda had sewn for him with leftover fabric. That’s what I was thinking about just before someone, perhaps it was Gorda, spotted the bike on the road. Then Clara said, “Yep, it’s Darío.” We sat up a bit, though not enough to get up from our deck chairs. Mamá crossed herself, and the unease on all our faces was like a bad omen of things to come.
“Hilda, go fix something for the poor thing,” my mother said, with a nod of her head.
I slipped my feet into my sandals and slowly stood up. My bones creaked. Something inside of me seemed to resist the movement, threatening to snap like a dry branch. As I passed in front of the fan, with its light, warm air, I stopped for a minute to let the breeze hit my face and blow through my hair.
As he got closer, I could hear the sound of his tires on the gravel. I was waiting for him at the door, with a glass of lemonade in my hand. Darío stopped a few meters away from the house. He put one foot on the ground and hopped off the bike, which kicked up dust as it fell sideways. “Hi Señora Hilda,” he said from a distance. He was puffy from the heat and his eyes were sunken deep into his face, like two openings made by a blow. He was clutching a brown paper package. The sun was beating down strongly, and though I had sought refuge in the shaded line made by the eaves, I began to feel the wet hair on the back of my neck again, and the ruthless heat rising from the ground.
“What do you have there?” I asked him.
He took a few steps toward me, indecisive. The poor kid wasn’t sure if he should tell me the news first.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that you can get sick this time of day?”
He didn’t have the nerve to come closer, or maybe he didn’t know what to say, because he stood still in the ray of sunlight, straight and solemn like a soldier as the sweat dripped down his face and soaked his T-shirt.
“It’s sweet Christmas bread,” he said, and offered me the package, lifting it with both hands.
I motioned for him to come onto the porch.
“Here, do you want some lemonade?”
He nodded and moved closer with apprehensive steps. He gave me the package and once his hands were free, he wiped his forehead and eyes with outstretched palms and then took the glass. The package was burning hot and I could feel the flattened, sticky bread through the paper.
“Thank your mother,” I said, but I don’t know if he heard me, because the glass was covering his face up to his eyebrows as he swallowed the lemonade with a gulp.
When he finished, he looked up at me and spoke slowly, still out of breath.
“He’s back.” He looked down into the empty glass as if he were waiting for something. Then he rolled his tongue, which I imagined was cool and damp, and seemed to gather courage: “Señor Augusto told my mamá and she didn’t believe him but he said everyone saw him, and that he’s here, alive and kicking. That’s what Augusto told her, and that he’s on his way here, and that it was best to let Señora Luisa know so she doesn’t fall into a swoon.”
“Yes, a swoon,” he said again, and something in his eyes sparkled, the fleeting illusion that something terrible might happen.
“All right, I’ll tell her. Do you want another glass?”
He wavered, and then refused with his head and looked over at the bicycle lying in the road.
“Thank your mother for the bread. And don’t you worry, I’ll let Señora Luisa know.”
This seemed to calm him down. Maybe he was worried I’d drag him up to the terrace and force him to repeat those same words in front of my mother. And then the swoon, a fainting fit, an unrestrained shriek of happiness. Tears, perhaps. Her hands flung to the sky, her eyes blank, her tongue rolled back, stifling her dry throat. She no longer believed in miracles. And there was Darío, like an angel with his hot and rusty metallic wings.
I wasn’t surprised by the news, just as I hadn’t been surprised by the previous news of his faraway death. Maybe it’s because since I was little I had gotten used to imagining him dead, lying inside a coffin, not pale or cold, but as if he were sleeping, his head surrounded by flowers. It started the year they sent my mother to Misericordia Psychiatric Hospital. My sister and I were left in Fabio’s care. Clara was a baby, she doesn’t remember anything. But I remember the cold, and my body shivering under the stiff white sheet. I had to take a bath before I went to sleep, and thought Fabio would let me wash myself, he always stayed in the bathroom. To this day I shower with the radio on to avoid remembering that silence of the water. Afterwards, he’d wrap me in a big towel and dry me off. Sometimes, as I was trying to fall asleep, I’d imagine Fabio dead, with a crown of roses. Sometimes the coffin was the bathtub. Sometimes I was the only one keeping vigil over him.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised. But Clara wept for him violently, exaggerating each rattle of her skeletal chest. She’d tell whoever would listen about the day Fabio had saved her from the collapse in the wood cabin. And who knows how many times I’d heard her say, “My brother was everything to me.” Mamá, silent and proud, restricted herself to dressing in mourning. And to this day, twelve years after that semblance of a funeral from afar, the black and worn-out clothing she had imposed on herself was still her way of showing everyone that she had the deepest, most unforgettable grief. But not me. I didn’t join the women’s chorus of lamenters, Gorda included, and deep down I always believed the only thing my brother wanted was to get away from us, from Mamá especially, and that the whole town thought he was some sort of victor or hero. Now he was turning into something more: a resurrected dead man who had come back full of great adventures and tales of how death had almost, unexpectedly, taken him away.
I stood there in the front entryway watching Darío ride away. I was holding the package with the soft, lumpy bread in one hand. In the other, the boy’s glass. The ice cubes had melted and I took advantage of the wet glass to cool off my forehead and neck. This time he set off down the slope and was barely visible, hidden now behind a cloud of dust. If I had been thinking about something, I don’t remember what it was. Sometimes thinking about a lot at the same time feels like not thinking about anything at all. I just know that I waited there for a long time. I waited, that is, even after there was no trace of the bicycle and the ground had started to settle again, now devoid of any mystery.
The sun didn’t reach the dining room, and the candles flickered on the altar in the cool and moldy darkness. The flames had stained the wall with soot and in the middle of the two black columns hung rosaries, photos of the Virgin, crosses, small bleeding hearts crowned with thorns. Below, on the sideboard, there was a collection of photos of Fabio at almost every age, surrounded by plastic flowers, holy cards, and prayers that relatives and friends had left: He was even more handsome dead than alive. Now we could love him even more. What would he be like now? Old. Maybe wounded, legless, fingerless, with a patch over one eye. Or haggard from the years, toothless, ravaged by the elements and all the lies like an abandoned tin can of peas. I thought of the can and saw myself shooting him in the chest. Three perfectly round holes, my aim spot on like before. The rifle was kept in the mahogany cabinet, right beneath the altar. I just had to turn the key and wait for him at the entrance to the property. After all, no one was expecting him. No one would go out looking for him. I could see it: an old and holey tin can, and through the holes, the memories slipping away, together with the last possibility of any return.
I left the glass in the kitchen, passed by the fan without stopping, climbed the steps with the same slowness with which I had come down, and slumped back into the chair. I slipped off a sandal with one foot, dropping it onto the wooden floor with a thud, then the other. Everyone waited in silence as I took them off.
“They sent us this bread,” I said and began to unwrap the package on my lap.
“Hilda,” said my mother.
Despite the brightness, her face was obscured by the shade.
The hot, smashed bread, wrinkled with cracks, now looked like an exposed brain, a terrible and painful flower.
“They sent us this bread,” I repeated, firmly, “and asked me to come over. The oldest daughter and her husband split up and the guy took everything: the furniture, money, everything. She’s devastated.”
“And what do you have to do with it?”
I shrugged my shoulders:
“They don’t have anyone else.”
Gorda drew in a quick breath as if she was going to say something but Jesus gestured to her to keep quiet. I looked up. In the distance, on the southernmost part of the road, a black figure, still imperceptible to the others, was slowly making its way toward us.