Lights die in Santa Barbara when it rains. Prepared to the end, Grandma finds the match box placed next to emergency candles, while we kids get into our drill: find the plastic covers under the beds and place them over the mattresses. Mama, Auntie and Uncle move sofas and chairs away from the waterfall building on the top of the lounge’s ceiling. Grandpa, paced and yawning, puts the water to boil and prepares the coffee and chocolate. Afterwards we sit, nesting our warm drinks in our hands. Then comes the never–failing ritual. It starts with the adults complaining about the electricity company and it ends with the adults talking about their ghosts – literally.
‘Remember, Paula,’ says Grandpa, his face glowing over the embers of his pipe, ’when your father used to haunt the backyard?’
‘Sure. It started when this young lady was born,’ she says tussling my hair, ‘and it took years of rosaries, masses and an exorcism by an Italian priest to convince him to get out.’
I shudder and look at the watery darkness of the backyard, resembling a painting inside the window’s frame.
‘So Mariana came to this world with a ghost, uh?’ teases cousin Pedro.
‘Shut up, you moron!’ I replied with all the eloquence of my fourteen years.
Uncle clears his throat and we hold our tongues, throwing angry stares at each other. Grandpa continues.
‘He used to come everyday, around six, mumbling and grumpy – his natural state, really, since that day his Isabel ran away with the Portuguese merchant. What was his name, Paula?
‘Joao Something…’, says Grandma, her mouth twisting into a dried fruit.
‘Who’s Isabel?’ asks cousin Leticia, sitting on Uncle’s lap.
‘She was Grandma’s youngest sister.’ answers Grandpa. ‘A real pretty thing, sweet and shy, like a bird. It was a real shock when we received the letter, saying she had left with…Joao, is it? She was so young, no more than fifteen at that time.’
‘We were living in the Capital then.’ Grandma adds, a sadden note lingering in her voice. ‘We have asked Father if Isabel could go with us, telling him it would complete her education, but he would not hear of it. Maybe if he had she would still be here, wrinkly and grey like the two of us.’
An angel passes over our heads. At least that is what they say around here when people become suddenly quiet and noises mute to nothing. We turn into a family portrait, painted in the golds and shadows of the candles’ light.
‘Anyway,’ said Grandpa, breaking the spell, ‘Old Baltazar’s ghost would circle the house, looking like he always did – cropped hair, khaki trousers, a lighted cigar hanging eternally on his lips- and go through the hen house, making the poor birds soil their bottoms and run as if a falcon was gliding nearby. He would pay no attention to them and continue his way, past the vegetable patch, to the Brazilian Nut tree, where he’d disappear.’
The hairs in my arms do a unison stand. I could see this man – had seen this man, through the panes of the bedroom I shared with Mama.
‘When did your father die, Grandma?’ I ask, drawing my skinny knees under my chin.
‘I don’t know… about thirty years ago? But we are interrupting Grandpa, again. Go ahead, Alfonso.’
‘Thank you, darling. We thought Old Baltazar had buried some sort of treasure. People used to do that a lot in those days, with all the revolutions and counter-revolutions shaking this poor country – until the arrival of General Montenegro, God rest his soul.’
‘Amen,’ mutters Grandma, as Mama and Uncle roll up their eyes.
‘Did you find the treasure?’ asks Pedro, his eyebrows arching.
‘No’ smiles Grandma, ’but your grandfather here had the time of his life trying. He dug the backyard for years!’
Everyone laughs but me, as memories gust like a gale on my head.
I was six or seven, sitting at the desk by the window, doing my lines (ma, me , mi, mo, mu ) when I saw him go by. He puffed and mumbled, his khaki shirt dishevelled, sweat falling from his forehead. And then I heard it: an “eee” or “peace”, something like a whine, like the plea of a mouse dragged by a jaded cat. Finding the perfect excuse to abandon my tiresome school work, I tip-toed out the hallway, crossed the kitchen where Auntie and Mama separated beans, and scurried out the backyard, hurrying behind the trunks of the mango and guava trees, to make sure he wouldn’t see me.
He stopped and I stopped with him, finally having a good look at the thing he was hauling. It was a girl. A big-bellied girl, kicking furiously, her pale lips slashed by a black cloth.
I tried to scream, but I couldn’t. The rosy evening turned into moon-lit night. There was a square, no, a rectangle, opened on the ground, right by were the Brazilian Nut tree was supposed to be, it’s absence filled by a scraggy twig poking from the grass.
Isabel saw the unearthed grave and shrieked, uselessly, as her father rolled her into the void, and somehow me with her, attached to her, enclosed in her, the fall softened by something supple and still warm. It was a body. She did not need the pale light to realise it was Joao, his torso caked in blood, his hands tied, his open mouth a centipede’s nest. Earth began to rain as she wept, sodden clumps of mud, pebbles and roots cramming the space, licking her feet, her calves, the baby, swimming desperately inside of her, the dirt walls closing in. Isabel screamed, begging her father to stop, please, stop, Papa, stop, STOP! But the earth rose, mercilessly, burning her lungs as she breathed it and petrified into it – her bound hands touching the damp night air, the last thing she was to remember.
‘Nope,’ sighs Grandpa. ’There was no gold, no silver, no jewels – nothing.’
‘Not even bones?’ I whisper.
Grandpa inhales his pipe, his eyes fix on me.
‘No’ he says, his words floating in the grey smoke. ’Not even a tiny, wincey monkey bone.’
There is a flash, and the lights come back. The kids clap, the grown-ups smile, the plastic covers go back under the beds. Grandma turns on the TV to watch “Nobody’s Daughter”, the new prime-time soap she’s already addicted to. Mama and Auntie herd us to our rooms, amid protests.
I pull the covers to my nose and study the marks on my wrists, which no one has been able to explain. Mama thinks they are abrasions from some forgotten Indian and Cowboy game and Auntie believes they are scars from the time I fell into the thorn bushes, behind the park. They resemble faint, rusted braids, circling my hands like a ghost.
‘Have you said your prayers, Mariana?’ asks Grandpa when he enters the bedroom.
‘Good night then,’ he whispers, kissing my forehead.
‘About that story…’
Grandpa halts my fears.
“It’s just a story, nothing more” he says, as the cropped-haired man walks by the threshold behind his back.