Each of us is alone
on the earth’s
passed by a sunray:
and night falls instantly

Salvatore Quasimodo


In an unmarked land, on an unnamed street—a rocky ground of comings and goings that becomes a quagmire in winter—she was expelled from her mother’s womb. Her mother viewed her birth as a misfortune and brought her to the grandmother’s house, depositing her like a parcel on the only bed. She left immediately. She offered no explanation. The mother was a broken clay pot that had given birth to a little bird. That’s how the wrinkled grandmother understood it, her body a map of stories carved by life, the sun, the wind. The soles of the grandmother’s feet were rough from the rocky land, the hills up and down, the walks to and from town. She had solid legs and a bulging belly. Her breasts, once fulsome, now fell to her bellybutton, limp as two weather-beaten gourds hanging from a calabash tree. Love and heartbreak, illiteracy, and a knowledge of the cycles of land and animal were all written on her face. Her grandmother knew that a bird’s song announced rain and death, that a clock was a parody of the passing of life itself, that time was fast and slow simultaneously, the present mixed with the past and an always uncertain future, night’s darkness was superficial, monkeys, foxes, and spirits formed so clearly before the eyes it was as if the sun lit them, and there are things the soul sees with eyes closed. And so, she didn’t turn when she felt her daughter enter through the door. She continued sipping her black coffee, thinking of a calabash tree shaking in the wind. She shed no tears, let out no groans of pain or surprise when she heard her granddaughter’s soft murmur, the door banging shut, her daughter’s footsteps departing. When she finished her coffee, having taken her time in doing so, she turned around and there before her eyes was the girl dozing on the bed. The girl’s face was a little old woman’s face and her eyes were half-closed. Wrinkles were already appearing at the corners of her lips and underneath her eyes, even on her hands. Hands that opened in spasms at the slightest sound. She was an old girl. The grandmother took her in her arms and the girl’s eyes opened wide, as if she had instantly absorbed the grandmother’s consciousness: the quiet suffering of her indigenous race forced to scatter in the mountain ranges hundreds of years before, the knowledge of how to use and apply leaves and ointments, and of how to suffer in silence with a repentant expression. The girl cried in her grandmother’s arms. It was the last time the grandmother saw her cry.

Two years passed, two years of the grandmother hiking up and down the ranch’s hills under the full moon, the merciless summer sun, and the generous winter rain. Two years of raising pigs and hens, and feeding, washing, and rocking her granddaughter to sleep. Two years of watching her crawl in the dust, roll on the patio, pull the dog’s tail, chase the hens, babble her first words, and sit at her feet in the afternoons to watch the sun sink down.

One afternoon in early November, the grandmother and granddaughter shared some thick fresh corn tortillas. They were sitting in a hammock in front of the ranch when the daughter’s figure appeared in the distance out of nowhere. She approached. Her face was very made up with green eyeshadow, painted cheeks, and crimson lips. She announced that she would take the granddaughter, that she had a job in the capital now. The grandmother watched her, slowly caressing the granddaughter’s head. She rose heavily from the hammock and entered the ranch. The girl looked at the new arrival with questioning eyes as she finished the last pieces of the corn changa. She went inside the ranch to find her grandmother. She watched as the grandmother packed clothes, towels, a couple of dresses, diapers, and two toys. The grandmother gave the little she had in this world to the girl’s mother without a passing word. The woman took the child’s hand firmly and as the distance between the ranch and them grew, the child locked eyes with the grandmother until they could no longer see each other. The girl didn’t cry; neither did the grandmother.

While they waited for a lift to the closest town, the mother gave the obligatory, and needless to say necessary, instructions in these circumstances.

“I am your mother, but you will call me Aminta. You are Sira.”

The road darkened as night fell. Finally a few men passed on horseback and Aminta and her daughter rode with them to the town where they would take the bus to the capital. It was already night when they reached the town and Aminta had nowhere to stay and no money to pay for a place to stay. She found a bench in the town plaza and decided passing the night there was the best option. A woman approached them.

“Hija, are you going to sleep in the park?”

The woman must have been about forty years old and had remarkably beautiful clear brown eyes that shone brightly.

“Doña, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have any money, not even for a room, and I can’t get a bus to Panama until tomorrow morning.”

“Come with me, stay at my house. You’ll just give me what you can for breakfast.”

Aminta hesitated briefly, but when she saw how deserted the town was, she got up, carrying the girl, and disoriented by the cold night and the exhaustion of the day’s travel, followed the woman through the streets. They arrived at a green house. There were no trees, no garden or outside decoration. There was only the house on the bare land. Two wooden beams arranged like crosses clamped the windows down. The woman, who said to call her Sara, opened the door, bent down and picked up a kerosene lamp, lit it, and invited them to enter. To Aminta’s surprise, there was nothing inside. She took a step back, but Sara had already shut the door. There were no pieces of furniture, no paintings, no pictures of saints or the Virgin. Missing were the usual traces of life—a cup of coffee cooling, plates unwashed, a painting hung unevenly, sauce spilled on the floor, a newspaper forgotten on a chair. There was nothing in that house that could help Aminta learn what type of person lived there. Sara explained that she had just moved. She was a widow and was looking for a new life. The girl woke up and began rubbing her eyes. Aminta put her on the floor. “Mom?” asked Sira running back and forth looking for the grandmother. She threw herself on the ground in desperation, breathless.

“I’m your mother, understand?” Aminta told her with annoyance. Aminta wanted to slap her.

Sara watched the scene with peculiar delight. She opened the door to one of the rooms. Inside was a simple bed and windows closed with wooden stakes and covered with black cloth just like the ones at the front of the building. The walls were unpainted and the air heavy.

“It doesn’t seem right to be so closed in,” protested Aminta. “Don’t you think it would be better to move the bed to the living room? And we have to open the windows, too.”

Sara helped her move the bed to the living room. Her eyes were no longer brown, but instead were two dark sockets, two burnt-out coals. Aminta looked at her in confusion; she would have sworn that the woman’s eyes were another color just a moment before. Worn out, she lay down on the bed next to her daughter, thanking her host for the great favor she had done her. Sara retired, taking the light with her. The room was left in darkness.

Aminta tried to pray, but she confused the Our Fathers with the Hail Marys. Countless questions ran through her mind. Who was this woman? Why was the house empty? Where were the other rooms? Her sleep was light and intermittent, and she sweated. The child’s exhausted breathing as she slept was the only thing to calm her. When Aminta did manage to sleep, she dreamt of the hill leading up to her mother’s ranch. She watched herself climb the hill over and over again without reaching the top. Her legs faltered, weary from so many attempts, and in the end she dragged herself through the dirt, unable to make it. She opened her eyes. A bullet whizzed by. It shocked her. She didn’t hear anything else. She jumped up, walked disoriented in the dark and banged into the door. She tried to open it, but the door was locked. She went back to bed and nearly flattened her daughter. The girl kept sleeping. She lay down. She put her hand on her daughter’s chest. She was breathing. She put it on her own chest. She was alive. Then who had the stray shot hit? She couldn’t get back to sleep. She managed to close her eyes. A cry that began imperceptibly became intolerable, until it was no longer a cry but a shout: “He killed me! He killed me!” Aminta jumped again, and this time covered the whole house, running into walls and trying to open doors. She wanted to find a way out or at least to locate where the shouts were coming from. It was all in vain. She screamed for Sara. No one answered. I’m going crazy. She kneeled down and began to cry. I don’t even know where I am anymore. The floor was wet and sticky. She rubbed the liquid with her hands; it was thick. She smelled her hands; that was blood. She screamed and she screamed some more, but no one heard her cries. The girl, she thought, I should have saved the girl, and run. She got up and felt her way back to the bed. When she finally ran into it, she carefully sat down. Sira kept sleeping calmly. How was it possible when she had screamed as loud as she could? The house is possessed. She ran to the door and crashed into it. Nearly unconscious, she gave up and again lay down on the bed, taking care not to crush her daughter.

She dreamed she was on a road. To her left the ocean crashed into a cliff. The waves splashed her when they broke. She found the roar of the untamed ocean insufferable. She tumbled forward. Vines spread from the trees that lined the road as she walked, making her fall and bruise herself. She heard a whistle. A small man barely a foot and a half tall appeared out of nowhere before her. He wore black pants, a white shirt, woven sandals of red velvet, a chacara bag across his chest, and a white hat.

“And how do I get to my house?” she asked him.

“You’re lost now, you won’t find her,” the little man answered, offering a slight smile of golden teeth.

The little man motioned with his hand for her to follow. She followed him until they arrived at an enormous pinnacle, a wall of black rock. The little man made a slight movement of his hand and her daughter’s name appeared written on the rock.

“What about Sira?” she cried out.

“There are things that are decided and still others left to be determined. Your daughter was born old and will die young. Your life remains to be seen,” he said with a shimmering gold smile.

Aminta woke up. A few streaks of light slipped under the door and through the windows. “Finally,” she cried, trying again to open the door. This time the lock gave and a sunny day appeared before her, streaming the room with light. Sira also opened her eyes. She was hungry and called out for her grandmother again, not looking to her mother. “We’ll eat soon!” Aminta told the girl sharply. She walked through the entire house looking for Sara, but only found three empty rooms, one open—the room they’d taken the bed from—and the other two closed. There was absolutely nothing in that house. She put her purse around her shoulder, lifted the girl in her arms, grabbed the overnight bag made from a dirty blanket that held Sira’s belongings, and left through the door without closing it behind her. She had only made it a few yards from the house when she heard the door slam shut. She didn’t even try to look back and kept walking as fast as she could.

“Good morning,” said a voice behind her.

Aminta dropped the bag in fright. She turned to see a farmer tanned by the sun, bearded, in a yellowish shirt and grey threadbare pants, with thick white hair. His gaze radiated an overpowering benevolence.

“Ay señor, I’m sorry, but you don’t know the awful night I’ve had.”

“Can I help you with something?” he asked, kindly lifting her bag from the ground.

They walked together to the town park. Aminta used the opportunity to relay all her terrible misfortunes: the gunshot, the door that wouldn’t open, the blood on the floor, and the mysterious woman who had taken her to that house. The man listened without disbelief, and what’s more, absorbed each word and relived each detail with her. When her tale was over, the man said to her:

“You’ve been in the evil one’s hands, the devil herself. Sara is a ghost, but she once lived in this town. By the way, my name is Juan Gonzalez, at your service.”

Aminta felt weak and stumbled several times. The man asked to be forgiven for delivering such information so bluntly and he invited her to breakfast at his friend’s food stall. The friend lived very close to the park where Aminta would catch the bus. It was still early after all and they had time. Aminta was very hungry, and the girl was too, so she accepted. Besides, ghosts don’t go around bothering people in the daytime, she reassured herself, in case the farmer turned out to be another apparition. There weren’t many people at the stand, and the kind farmer’s friend was soon serving them warm coffee, tortillas, and fried eggs. Juan conveyed Aminta’s misfortunes to his friend.

“This man can tell you all about Sara. Isn’t that right, compadre?”

The man sat down with them at the table and began to recount the ghost’s life.

“Sara was a woman of extraordinary beauty. People who think poets exaggerate in their verses for the beloved have never been in the presence of a beauty like Sara’s. Her eyes were her most admired feature. They changed color magically, according to her mood. They were the best way to know her true intentions. They could be green like the eyes of a seductive cat, blue like an angel’s, and black like the impenetrable night. She could have any man she desired, and she enjoyed herself for a time with a boy named Horacio from the village. If on the one hand Horacio was big, strong, and grey-eyed, on the other he was crude, ignorant, jobless and penniless. Later he would tell the village men, in one of his many drunken sprees, that Sara had gone on a date with him to a beach a few hours from here. They’d arrived on horseback and there under the moonlight, in the very sand, they’d become one. For both, the moment was a wave of pleasure existing until it dissipates and begins again. They were two continents of desire. And don’t think I’m borrowing from a radio-drama script, no; these were Horacio’s words. Like I said, a woman of extraordinary beauty or personality turns an ordinary man into a poet. And it seemed their trysts actually happened because Sara became pregnant. But she didn’t tell Horacio. Seemingly overnight she married a Spaniard named Jose de Leon, who had livestock and a large farm. The Spaniard was a pain in the ass and things in his house and on his farm had to go the way he wanted them to, nothing more and nothing less. He was iron-hard with his farmhands and he thought he’d keep Sara under control. Though Sara was known to have a strong personality and was capable of manipulating most of the village, the Spaniard turned out to be an even match and she always ended up doing what he wanted. They had only one child, Esperanza, a girl with beautiful grey eyes that looked a lot like Horacio’s. It’s funny that people are blind to what’s obvious, but that’s how they are. As much as the Spaniard wanted a boy, one never came, not even another daughter, and he had to resign himself to that. When he turned fifty, Jose de Leon laid eyes on Ramira, a flirty chola with long hair and a naughty laugh. Ramira had clear brown eyes that sparked with life, the same spark Sara’s eyes once had. When Sara discovered what was going on, her wild adolescent spirit was resurrected inside her, and she came here with her daughter, by then fifteen years old. This greatly upset the Spaniard, for a woman who abandons a man diminishes his authority, and if there was something Jose de Leon couldn’t forgive, it was someone threatening his authority. He didn’t run after his wife, but instead took his time. When Ramira did not get pregnant either, and he still wanted a son, he began to doubt Esperanza’s paternity. The girl, very beautiful, was not happy with her mother’s decision to leave and one day they started to fight. Esperanza wanted to return to the house of the man she thought was her father. They fought so much that Sara told Esperanza that her father wasn’t Jose de Leon, but Horacio, and that the Spaniard couldn’t have children, as she’d found out. Esperanza could not be reasoned with and went to her father’s house to tell him what her mother had told her. Contrary to what she’d expected, that the Spaniard would embrace her and say it was a lie, that her mother was crazy or whatever else, the man stood looking at her in a way that froze her heart. She told me this herself years later. The man entered the house, grabbed his rifle, and rode his horse to Sara’s. Esperanza, who’d walked for hours to get to the Spaniard’s, didn’t have the strength to chase or stop him. She could only wonder how the man she’d always considered her father disappeared in the distance with a rifle in his hand. As you can gather from the terrifying night you’ve been through, Jose de Leon killed Sara in her house with one shot and nothing more was heard of him. They went to a larger town to look for the Guardia to see if they could catch up with him, but it was all in vain, he’d vanished into thin air. Esperanza inherited all his lands since she was legally registered as his daughter. She never married or had children. If you had more time, I’d show you where she lives, so you’d see that this is no story….”

On the way to the capital Aminta shared their adventures with a well-dressed woman while the girl preoccupied herself with one of the toys the grandmother had packed, a horse carved of wood.

“And you’re going to believe a story like that? Clearly there aren’t any ghosts, and there’s no Esperanza, or any of that. Sara was probably a thief and didn’t realize until the last minute, God knows why, that you didn’t have a penny to your name and left you locked-up in the house. You hadn’t maybe had a bit to drink? Alcohol confuses the senses. What a beautiful girl! Who will take care of her in Panama?”

The young woman behind the wheel at Aminta’s side was a firm believer in scientific advancement and complained that superstition and a lack of education were slowing the country’s progress. She had been educated in France and was returning to the capital after visiting relatives in the country. She was one of the few women who drove an automobile and when she saw Aminta and her little daughter waiting by the road she decided to give them a lift. Though her mother recommended she take a steam engine with a first class cabin where she could travel in comfort to Panama, she preferred to drive and see the countryside until she made it to the ferry that crossed to the capital. “It’s 1937 and people still believe in ghosts!” she sighed indignantly. She looked at this sympathetic little chola beside her with her daughter: she truly wanted to help them. Without family in the capital, Aminta wouldn’t be able to work and care for her daughter at the same time. Rocío Gerbaud thought that the girl, Sira, could stay with her mother in the city. She would live comfortably, they would send her to school, and Aminta would work and see the girl on the weekends. The girl looked like a little doll wrinkled all over, and her eyes in particular looked like a little old woman’s. I’ll win this woman’s trust before we arrive; after all, I’m doing something good. Even though she wouldn’t be staying in Panama long—she was engaged to wed in France—she was sure her mother would take wonderful care of the girl. Her mother lived comfortably off rental properties, but was very lonely and needed company. Her mother couldn’t move to France with her and didn’t have any other children but her. This was the perfect solution for everyone.

As she climbed the stairs Aminta exclaimed, “What a tall building!” She had refused to enter the elevator. She had never been in a place like this. La Pollera’s façade was extremely original, with beautiful latticework on the balconies and tiles on the entrance door. The building was in the very center of the city, near the most expensive stores and the best restaurants, and the streetcar passed right in front. Her daughter would have a very good life. Rocío Gerbaud and her mother lived on the top floor. A maid opened the door for them. Deep inside the apartment, on a sofa near the balcony, sat a fat white woman with a sharp gaze. Rocío ran to embrace her mother.

“Mamita! Are you well? I’ve brought you a gift. Look at this little doll. What do you think?” She placed Sira in front of her.

“What a sweet girl!” said the woman smiling and stroking the girl’s head.

“What’s her name?”

“Her name is Sira,” responded Aminta, stepping forward slightly so the woman could see her.

“This is Señora Aminta, Sira’s mother. I’ve told her that we’re a very respected family, and that she needn’t worry about a thing, that Sira will be well cared for. Aminta will work in San Felipe during the week and can come and see the girl on the weekends.”

“Thank you for what you’re doing. God will reward you,” said Aminta.

They gave Aminta some money and she disappeared out the door quite pleased, promising to return the following weekend to visit her daughter.

At first she visited every week, but over time the intervals grew longer and the visits occurred only occasionally, during Christmas or Holy Week, until the mother didn’t spend much time with Sira at all. Over time, Aminta’s face faded in Sira’s memory like a paper consumed by fire. Disparate images were left here and there, the echo of a sharp word; the memory of her grandmother was what remained. Though Señora Gerbaud was kind to her, Sira endured her new life of endless confinement; she had been used to coming and going freely on her grandmother’s ranch. Now she passed her days morning to night in the apartment, the noise of Avenida Central drowning everything out. They only left the apartment on Sundays to go to mass at Merced Church, followed by a visit to Santa Ana Park where they would let her play awhile, and then would return to the apartment. If she was lucky, some of the señora’s distant relatives would come to look for them in a horse-drawn carriage, bringing them to the boardwalk where they would sit on chairs in front of the ocean eating watermelon and letting her run in the sand. They were all old; she was too. Her body aged with every passing year and her spirit aged even more: there were no children to play with, no ropes to jump, no imaginings to share, or toys to fight over. Her life began and ended on the balcony where she observed life yards below: the elegant ladies entering and exiting the French Bazaar, the lovers leaving Cecilia Cinema, the men meeting in Café Coca-Cola, the people advancing into Salsipuedes, Get-Out-If-You-Can, beside her building. She saw life pass in an endless procession. Sometimes she accompanied the maid in her shopping in Salsipuedes, both of them proceeding into the alley-bazaar with stores that offered things as varied as jewelry, clothes, fabrics, traditional vasquina shirts, babucha shoes, cutarra sandals, and pots and pans. There was the Javillo Pharmacy at the corner of Calle B. And street photographers. It wasn’t easy to walk down Salsipuedes with the large crowd knit together in such a small space, and the maid often carried her to keep her “little old woman,” as she affectionately called her, from getting lost. This outing occurred only rarely. Sira was very small and the grandmother was afraid something bad would happen to her.

When Sira turned seven years old her little-old-woman features became even more prominent. She continually surprised Señora Gerbaud’s visitors, who thought she looked more like the señora’s sister than a little girl. It was no longer just her physical appearance that aged her, the sharp gazing eyes, slow movements, hands resting in her lap, but that there was none of the rejoicing or natural inquisitiveness of childhood in her. Señora Gerbaud preferred not to think about Sira’s appearance. She declared the girl ready to go to school; Sira could read and write and would sit with her listening to the news on the radio and even to the radio dramas. Sira had no problems academically, but when the señora sent her to school, all of the children made fun of her for her little-old-lady looks, old-lady jargon, small stature, and the strange gothic dresses Señora Gerbaud had made for her. Sira only went to the school for three months. The Señora withdrew her, tired of the maid bringing Sira home quieter and more introverted each day from the children’s jokes. When Sira refused to speak even at home, the señora decided: I’ll teach her myself!

Together, the girl resting her head in the lap of Grandmother Gerbaud, as she had began to call her, they covered the trails of the great novels and of the world prohibited to Sira: the sunny days when she couldn’t run freely in the park, the countryside nights she couldn’t spend watching the moon with her grandmother, the horses she wouldn’t ride, the emotions she wouldn’t experience because her harried old age stole her life in plain sight; she lived it all through her imagination. It was difficult for her to understand some things, and Grandmother Gerbaud explained them when she could, and if she couldn’t, she said, “You aren’t meant to understand it in this life.” They cried together over María by Jorge Isaacs, emotionally reading aloud the letters that followed one after the other in dedication to his unobtainable love; they kept crying over Marianela by Benito Perez Galdos, when the poor woman died in anguish after Pablo rejected her. Once he had recovered his eyesight, he no longer valued his beloved’s interior beauty. They cried so much they unnerved the maid, who announced that they either change the topic or she would leave because sorrow does not make for a good counselor. “That’s very true,” reasoned Señora Gerbaud, “I’ve gotten carried away with these novels.” And so she assigned the work of reading Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and also The Three Musketeers. Sira was deeply entertained by these readings, imagining the descent into a volcano leading to a dangerous subterranean world, the clash of swords resounding in her ears. The señora sent the maid to find some more modern books, and she returned with two that she’d grabbed on a whim in the Morro de Arica bookstore. She wasn’t fond of reading, and had only carried out the errand. She gave the grandmother the poetry books Orquidias by María Olimpia de Obaldia and Onda by Rogelio Sinan. The grandmother thought María Olimipia de Obaldia’s poems were beautiful and soon Sira could recite them with great ease. Sinan’s book seemed different and she decided she would be the only one to read it. She wrote to her daughter in Canada, who had emigrated there with her husband when they had sensed that the war with Germany was imminent, that she liked the taste Sinan’s poems left in her mouth, though she considered certain poems a tad risqué. She quoted from one called “Tristeza” in the letter: “The green of the willows / was diluted in the water. / The pure clarity / was shaded / by its new mauve color.” The letter went on to relay Sira’s reading progress.

Señora Gerbaud invited some women over from church who occasionally dropped by to check in on her (she couldn’t even go to church now) so Sira could impress them. She was very happy with her adopted granddaughter’s recitation. Sira shone magnificently before their eyes in a little checker-print dress and a little matching hat—Sira’s hair was gone by this point. The women let out a flush applause. They made their way carefully down the stairs (the elevator was broken), touched by the grandmother and the girl’s situation. Sira and the elderly woman were in the same state and neither of them left the apartment, not even to walk around the block. And all at a time when there was so much to see in Panama.

One morning Señora Gerbaud woke up feeling very sad. Who would care for Sira if she died? She had less strength and energy than before and she wondered if Sira might even die before her—she aged relentlessly. She sent the maid to call her daughter in Canada, and ask her to please find a way to come to Panama even though her situation was extremely difficult. Her daughter wrote back that it was impossible for her to do so at the time, and she sent some money along with the address of a childhood friend, María de los Angeles Lefevre, who could perhaps help if her mother could no longer care for Sira.

María de los Angeles Lefevre de Rodriguez arrived at Señora Gerbaud’s house on the eighth of May in 1941 at two in the afternoon. She wore a black pencil skirt, a yellow silk shirt, and black satin Mary Jane shoes, and carried a black patent leather clutch. Her chauffeur dropped her off in front of the building and drove on, looking for a spot to wait for her in. She was a sober and elegant woman and quite a few passersby turned their heads to look her over more carefully. She had the air of a movie star like Myrna Loy. She climbed the stairs and rang the bell. The maid opened the door and was left speechless, sure a radio drama actress was at the door.

“Lolita! Are you just going to stand there like an idiot?” asked the grandmother from the living room.

Sira and Señora Gerbaud had anxiously awaited Señora Lefevre’s visit. Señora Gerbaud in particular had placed her hopes on Señora Lefevre as a savior-figure who would solve all their problems. She was reassured by her elegance and the air of authority that emanated from her.

“My dear lady!” said María de los Angeles, running to embrace her, “and this must be Sira.” She planted a loud kiss on the girl’s cheek.

“Your daughter Rocío has explained everything to me in a long letter. You have nothing to fear. I’ve already spoken with the Mother Superior at the María Auxiladora college and if anything should happen, Sira will have a place to stay and be educated. I’m very sorry that you all can’t get around very often and that you are kept inside all the time. Rocío has also told me the name of the lawyer who manages the business side of your rental house and my husband will be in contact with him in order to communicate all the decisions that are made to your daughter, in the case that you are no longer with us.…”

Suddenly they heard Sira’s small voice ringing like a bell from afar. Señora Rodriguez fell silent.

“Would it be possible for me to ride the streetcar? It’s the only thing I want to do before I die.”

From the moment she had arrived at the apartment, she had heard the streetcar’s lively bustle—the wheels screeching on the tracks, the electric cables buzzing constantly to and fro from four in the morning until nine at night. She was aware of the proximity of her death to a degree that the adults around her could not understand.

“I know that I’ll die soon. You don’t have to pretend. I’ll even die before grandmother. There are things that were decided before I came into this world. My only desire is to ride the streetcar.”

Señora Rodriguez was a woman of steel and even still she felt intense emotion and tears began to form in her eyes. The maid openly began to cry and the grandmother lowered her head. Attempting to regain her composure, Señora Rodriguez said:

“My dear child, there’s nothing I could want more than to satisfy your most costly desires, but the streetcar will stop running this very month. In fact there’s a demonstration or march planned for today as a sort of farewell and protest. I don’t know if this is a good day to take the streetcar. Traffic is a bit tangled—the chauffeur had a great deal of trouble bringing me here.” Señora Rodriguez lived in a beautiful house in the La Exposición neighborhood, one of the recently developed areas of Panama City.

The grandmother intervened.

“Let’s go. After all, what can we lose? We’ll join the protestors and have a new experience.”

“What are you saying, Señora!” exclaimed the maid. “You can’t go down the stairs, the doctor already came to this house and spoke very gravely about your and the girl’s conditions.”

“Don’t think that you can change my mind, Lolita. Help me get dressed, and you, María, dress the girl; we’ll leave immediately.”

The house filled with rare activity, and though it was extremely difficult for the grandmother to walk, the four of them finally reached the doors of the building. The grandmother enjoyed a long moment slowly observing the life that passed before them; she wanted to absorb the movements, smells, sounds, and gestures, like the air entering her lungs when she inhaled. Sira too guzzled each moment. The streetcar didn’t stop in front of the Pollera Building, but María de los Angeles Lefevre de Rodriguez boldly placed herself in front of a group that had formed alongside the streetcar and she gestured with both arms, managing to stop it. With tremendous effort, the grandmother boarded the streetcar, then the maid with Sira in her arms, and finally, Señora Rodriguez. The streetcar was full and several men stood up and offered them their wicker seats, a gesture they greatly appreciated.

One of the protestors rang a bell and others hoisted banners with messages like “Señor Streetcar’s Funeral,” “Rest in Peace, Rotten Egg,” “Down with the High Cost of Living,” “Fix the Housing Problem.” Sira’s face transformed when they turned down Avenida Central. Her eyes began to shine and for once she was a girl. The store signs passed before her: The Imperial Bazaar, The Palace of Ties, The Spanish Bazaar, The Japanese House, a restaurant called The Modern Cuban, the Arrocha boutique, on her left the North American-managed Power and Light that provided electricity to the entire city. And so on until they arrived at Plaza Cinco de Mayo, where the Hotel Internacional and the majestic Trans-Isthmus Train Station were. As they continued down the line, Sira felt lighter and lighter, and all the sounds and images—automobile horns, horse hooves on cobblestone streets, North American military policemen pink and sweaty, black Antilleans in hats, Patuas balancing bundles of clothing on top of red-scarf-covered-heads, the tune of the knife sharpener’s flute, ladies shopping, Chinese and Hindus in traditional dress—made a blooming of bright colors, a symphony of marvelous sounds, and then the image of the countryside, the wet land, the thick corn changas, the coffee in the morning, and the first grandmother, waiting for her, smiling, with open arms.


Melanie Taylor Herrera

Melanie Taylor Herrera is a Panamanian author and a professional musician. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in music therapy. Taylor Herrera writes poetry and prose, and her works include Tiempos Acuáticos, Amables Predicciones, Microcosmos, Camino a Mariato, and Atrapasueños. Her writing has received international recognition and has been translated into English, French, and Polish.

Christina Vega-Westhoff

Christina Vega-Westhoff is a poet, translator, and aerialist. Her translations of Melanie Taylor Herrera’s work have appeared in Asymptote, Exchanges, Ezra, Metamorphoses, PRISM International, and Waxwing. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Horse Less Review, LIT, New American Writing, Synecdoche, and Word For/Word.

Camino a Mariato. Copyright (c) Melanie Taylor Herrera, 2009. English translation copyright (c) Christina Vega-Westhoff, 2015.