By Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle
Gaspar awoke with a start. Something was not right, he thought. He lay as still as he could. He could not quiet his raspy breath, but he could will his body not to move. The mosquito net had slipped off one of the posts of the old mahogany bed during the night and he found himself in a corner of a gauzy tent, a thin sheet bundled about his feet.
The familiar noises that crowded the moments before dawn — Chencho’s dog barking madly in the valley, garbled cocks’ crows that sounded like children crying or cats dying, the desperate calls of the tree frogs — were muffled by the closed windows. When had he closed the persianas? Why in the infernal heat of the night had he closed the windows?
He heard the noise again. If he had been a younger man, he would already have had his machete in his hand and the door thrown open; he would know what was not right. He looked down at what was left of his body, barely visible. He didn’t need light to know what 86 years under a subtropical sun could do to a man. To him.
He slept naked — to the dismay of Pura when she was still alive. “Just as I came into this world, naked and helpless,” he had told her, “that is the way I will stay. That is the way I will go.”
Not Pura. She slept and died as she lived, wearing black. It was no wonder, after bearing eight children, losing seven. Ten years of mourning them, more years for her parents, her sisters, her brothers, mine. Mourning has no dawn, no end.
An iguana, he thought, or a feral cat, a bird lost and disoriented in the night. But in the cracks of the shutters he could see that the sun had already flared its incandescent light. First night, then day, nothing in between. He lifted the mosquitero and as quietly as he could extricated himself from the haven of the bed.
If only Ramón were here. “If only” is a prayer as useless as a rosary in a heathen’s hands, as Pura would have said. But if he were here, could he defend me against phantoms that scratch and howl in the night? Could he defend his father against the steel and concrete that buried him in the tunnels of New York? Or against the bitter urn of ashes that remain of his own wounded soul?
One year I knew him, my grandson. He appeared here on the mountain, here at this old house, the day I planted the plantains; he was gone by the harvest. One year of cries and condemnations, of rebellion and regret, but also a year that loneliness moved off as white and tenuous as the mist over the jungle after a rain. I know now he was waiting.
Every day but Sunday at hot noon, while I rested in a hammock in the shade, he made the long walk down the mountain to the buzón, the rusted rural mailbox that I never opened. Every day but Sunday he returned from the steep hike red-faced and sweating, often with letters in his hand and sadness on his face. “Junk mail.” He’d repeat it with an exaggerated accent, “Just Yonqmaíl.”
Until the day he ran up to me, pushed the hammock and made me laugh. “I’m in! I’m enlisted!” It was the letter he expected, the letter that took him away. I’ll write, he said when he left. If he did, I do not know. I’ll never know.
Gaspar gathered his courage into his hand and slowly opened the persiana. He was momentarily blinded by the unforgiving sunlight, then he saw it enter: a butterfly as large and black as a rainforest orchid, its wings battered and frayed. It fluttered to the floor at his feet and he knew. He didn’t need a letter or any Yonqmaíl, he knew that now he was utterly alone.