by Heather Debling
Barbara pointed to the chicken she wanted. It would have bothered her once: the wholeness of the meat, the unplucked skin, the head lolling about, the wattle—if she looked at it hard enough, long enough—still seeming to shudder. But after her trip, she would find what was once normal to be unnatural, her stomach turning at all the headless little chicks lined up in a row at the grocery store, cling-wrap worn like a second skin, tight hospital corners to hold in the juices.
When she first arrived in Argentina, Barbara had thought there was some fundamental genetic difference between her and these people who lived so much more openly—their exposed skin, their wide gestures, their loud exclamatory outbursts, a stream of harsh or joyous words punctuated with the slapping of arms or cheeks. But when the cold snap began, she’d seen these people assume familiar postures—heads ducked, clenched fists tucked protectively up shirtsleeves, shoulders raised to rub some warmth back into earlobes—and she’d realized: it’s the cold that turns us inwards.
The two women were huddled together at the booth. Barbara pointed again to the chicken and then looked at one of the women as if to say, How much? The woman said something, but too fast for Barbara—who only had basic Spanish—to understand, so she held up her hand to double-check. Four? The woman nodded. Barbara smiled and gave a sharp nod of her head. That was easy.
The woman picked up the chicken Barbara had first pointed to, then the one beside it and then the one beside that one. Barbara had to shake her head—No! No! No!—her hands X-ing the air in front of her like a pair of dull gardening shears. She felt rude because María, the cleaning woman who came with the house Barbara was renting (no matter how adamant Barbara had been that she was perfectly capable of looking after herself), did the same thing to Barbara whenever she did something foolish or unhelpful—¡No!—the only word they seemed to have in common. But how else was Barbara to tell the woman that she’d misunderstood, that she had no need of four whole chickens?
After she’d decided to spend a year travelling alone around South America, Barbara had borrowed Spanish language CDs from the library and practiced on her drive to and from work. ¡Buenos días! Muchas gracias. No entiendo. She had started jotting down key phrases in a notebook, using pronunciation spelling. “Dawn-day-stale-bano” so she could always find a restroom and “may-paw-aril-are-you-there” so she could ask for help. She’d taken her time practicing each word, trying to give her mouth time to memorize the right movements, savouring the different sounds she was learning to make. Her lips and cheeks had been sore afterwards, but it was a pleasant ache, the pride of working life back into numbed muscles.
But one day when she was stuck in traffic, Barbara saw a man in the next car giving her a funny look, the corners of his mouth turning up as if she was somehow amusing him. She still listened to the CDs after that but began resting her elbow on the window frame, her knuckles against her mouth so no one else could see her lips moving. And the sounds becoming muffled, had caged in her throat. When she tried to say the words now, they felt unnatural, much too loud, too exclamatory; her lips and cheeks rigid, no matter how much the sounds pushed against them.
Barbara pointed her finger at the one chicken she did want. How much I (she pointed at herself) pay (she mimed counting out bills) you (she pointed at the woman.) She lifted one finger at a time, counting to four. No response. Barbara held up her thumb. Five?
The woman clucked her tongue. She flashed open her hand impatiently, her left to Barbara’s right, as if they were playing the mirror game. The woman’s hands were swathed in strips of brightly coloured fabric to keep out the cold, either the sharpness of the wind or the tightness of the bindings flushing the tips of her fingers. Five. Barbara began rooting around in her fanny pack, eager now for the transaction to be done. When she looked up, the woman was smiling broadly at her. Hanging upside down from her hand, five whole chickens—their heads swaying about, knocking into each other, one bird’s beak nuzzling the neck of the one next to it.
Barbara took the chickens from the woman and then fanned some bills out in front of her with her spare hand so the woman could choose what she felt a fair price. She probably took too much, but Barbara pretended she didn’t mind. That’s the price you paid for these kinds of impulsive purchases.
Barbara had always been cold. When she was growing up, her father had kept the house at a penny-scrimping 61ᵒF. If Barbara or her mother complained, he just told them to put on another sweater or a thicker pair of socks.
There was only one place you could find temporary relief from the cold in her father’s house: the shower. He kept the water hot, scalding hot, to ensure everything was properly sanitized. Barbara’s skin steamed the tender pink of baby shrimp through the thick, yellow rubber gloves she wore when washing dishes. Her father would stand outside the bathroom with a stopwatch whenever she was in the shower and bang on the door when her five minutes were up. Barbara couldn’t count the number of times she’d had to go to school with shampoo residue clinging to her hair, or a tight squeezing headache from trying to wash it away with cold water in the sink.
Years later when her mother died, Barbara’s father moved into her spare room. She told him he could bring whatever he liked—clothes, furniture, knick-knacks—and that she’d make space, but he arrived with just two suitcases and a cardboard box he’d gotten for free at the local discount grocery store. The box smelled of Spring Fresh laundry detergent.
He had spent all afternoon alone in his room unpacking. When he finally came out for supper, he was wearing a dark blue, fisherman sweater that, once snug, was now two sizes too big for him. He rubbed his hands together as he sat down at the kitchen table. “You keep it awfully chilly in here, Barbara.”
Walking back home with her chickens, Barbara passed a stall with a few souvenirs and some newspapers. One local paper had a picture of cattle lying on the grass. They could have been asleep except their eyes were open, their heads and legs resting at slightly unnatural angles—the sunken rigidity only seen with death.
Maggie, a work colleague, forwarded articles to Barbara from all across the English-speaking world about the extreme weather she—and by extension the rest of South America—was experiencing. A few days ago she’d sent a picture of a Chilean man in a parka and sun hat buried up to his waist in snow. Barbara had shuddered. They’d had no snow in Mar del Plata, but it was cold, unseasonably, bitterly cold. Barbara had finally given in and bought socks, scratchy wool ones that she wore two or three thick, the fabric bulging against the straps of her Trekker sandals.
Maggie never wrote anything in the emails, just pasted the URLs, though she couldn’t seem to help putting some trite comment in the subject line: “Brrrrrrr! Hope you’re keeping warm! Did you pack your mitties?” She’d even sent two screen shots from the Weather Network yesterday: Buenos Aires at -4.5ᵒC while Toronto was a balmy 29ᵒC with a smog alert. “Who’s sorry now?!”
Barbara had met Maggie at the photocopier. Their paths might not have crossed otherwise, working, as they did, in different departments—Barbara in editorial, Maggie in marketing. The copier had jammed, and Maggie had every door open, all the innards pulled out as she tried to figure out what was wrong. “Damn!” she’d said, sucking the tip of her index finger which she’d burned as she tried to pull a tiny scrap of paper from one of the metal plates you were never supposed to touch.
“Yes, I have checked the side door, thank you very much,” Maggie said to the copier, furiously pressing and re-pressing the touch screen. She’d turned towards Barbara. “Technology, eh? It would be brilliant if it wasn’t so bloody stupid.”
The copier was temperamental, and Barbara avoided using it whenever she could, not wanting to be seen in precisely the state this woman was in or causing the same kind of inconvenience. Though Barbara had been waiting from what she hoped was a suitably patient three and a half feet away, now that she’d been somehow involved, somehow implicated in all this mess she said, “Do you want some help?”
Maggie groaned in relief and said, “Yes, please,” as she shook Barbara’s hand, transferring some grainy black toner powder onto Barbara’s fingers. “You’re a saint!”
When it was fixed, Maggie had asked Barbara if she wanted to eat lunch together. “I’ll buy you a coffee to say thank you.”
Barbara had agreed, had said something like Sure, that would be nice, since no one else ever bothered to ask her to eat lunch with them. Her colleagues all thought, Barbara supposed, that she enjoyed eating alone at her desk, that she liked wearing down each carrot stick to a soft pulpy mush with her molars so the crunch of them didn’t disturb anyone nearby.
They’d been eating together ever since, four or perhaps five years now, even though Barbara didn’t really like Maggie; she could barely stand her some days, though she knew more about her than probably anyone else in her life.
Her feelings about the new marketing manager, for example. “What a conceited little shit!” Maggie had paused for a moment, swivelled her head around to make sure no one from her department was nearby before continuing. “As if a post-graduate certificate—certificate, mind you, not a proper graduate degree—makes him some kind of expert.”
Barbara knew about Maggie’s hair colour, her pesky ingrown toe nail, her trouble finding a bra that didn’t leave red welts under her arms and across her back, and her children—dear Lord—did Barbara know a lot about Maggie’s children.
“Mackenzie only got a 79% on that English test. A 79! I mean, who gives a 79?”
It was like this most days, Maggie not even saying hello, not even letting Barbara get seated before she started complaining about whatever was bothering her that day.
“Now you know me, I don’t like to get involved. I refuse to be one of those helicopter parents, but in this case I had to. A 79 for God’s sake!”
Maggie took a bite, barely swallowing before she continued, a scummy layer of leftover lasagna coating her tongue. “So I called, and I said to her, to this teacher of Mackenzie’s, ‘What’s the difference between a 79 and an 80?’ She couldn’t tell me.” Maggie took another bite and smiled smugly as she chewed.
“Oh, she spouted off some gobbledygook about Mackenzie’s answers lacking substance, but she could not with any clarity tell me the difference between a 79 and an 80. And yet she’s qualified to tell my daughter she’s just average? ‘Because that, Lady,’ I told her, ‘is the difference between 79 and 80. It’s the difference between average and above average.’”
Barbara always had little to say, finding it hard to share in these workplace camaraderies— the strange, mundane confidences that people who had little in common hoisted upon one another around gold-flecked linoleum tables.
That day, though, when Maggie stopped talking about Mackenzie long enough to take a sip of diet cola, Barbara had said, “I’m thinking of going away.”
“A holiday? You should. You deserve it after everything with your father.” Maggie scraped her fork along the sides of her plastic container. “You were a saint through all of that, Barbara. An absolute saint. I don’t know that I could have done the same.” Maggie took a large sip of her drink, some of it dribbling down her chin and onto her blouse. “Damn!” she said, spitting on her brown paper napkin and scrubbing at the spot. “Of course, it’s different for me. With Jerry and the kids to look after.”
“Not a holiday,” Barbara said. “A sabbatical. A few months, maybe a year.”
“In this economic climate? Are you nuts?” Maggie leaned across the table. “No one’s irreplaceable, you know. And you’ll have no income for a whole year. Have you thought about that? Maybe you think your father left you enough to swan off and be a Lady of Leisure, but mortgages still have to be paid; water, gas, hydro—they all have to be paid, even if you’re not there to use them. Just wait till you’re retired. You’re forty-nine now. Whatever you want to do will still be there in fifteen or sixteen years, won’t it?”
Barbara’s throat tightened as she thought of all those lunches—of the thousands and thousands of lunches she had in store for her over those fifteen years—Maggie talking incessantly about the latest miracle cream she’d found to wipe away her cellulite or her wrinkles; Maggie nearly in tears over Mackenzie’s bulimia or Jerry’s suspected infidelity (It’s such a cliché, Barbara. His secretary for God’s sake!); Maggie on her high horse of self-righteousness over her son’s girlfriend’s pregnancy scare (I doubt it’s even Taylor’s, I mean that girl’s got that kind of reputation. I tried to tell him, you know. I said, why don’t you find yourself a nice girl, one who hasn’t slept with half the rugby team, but would he listen? Young love and all that bullshit.)
“I have to go,” Barbara said. She stood up so abruptly that the edges of her sweater coat caught under one of the chair legs.
“Back to my desk,” Barbara said as she tried to free herself from the chair. “I have work to do.”
“No,” Maggie said, rolling her eyes. “On this year-long sabbatical?” Maggie tapped the prongs of her fork against her bottom lip. “Somewhere they speak English, of course. Europe might be nice. A grand tour. You could send me a postcard from every country.” Maggie’s eyes grew wide as she squealed, “Oh! You could spend Christmas skiing in the Alps!”
Barbara had shuddered at the thought. “South America,” she had said, the furthest place she could think of from all that snow. “I’m going to South America.”
She’d come in to work the next day to find a foot-high pile of printouts on her desk, articles about crime in South America—gang violence, car bombs, kidnappings, lots and lots of kidnappings. The particularly salacious passages were highlighted; some had exclamation marks beside them in the margins.
Barbara took the pile to the shredder and let the blades cross cut page after page after page. That’s where Maggie found her, when she didn’t show up for lunch. Maggie opened her mouth to say something, but Barbara put another piece of paper through the shredder, pleased with how the metallic whirring seemed to block out Maggie’s disdain, both in person and on the page. The clear plastic bin was almost full, a pile of white shards with just the odd flecks of black and yellow and hot pink.
Barbara shifted the chickens to her left hand to count out money for a postcard for Maggie. It was a beach scene, the sunbathers as tightly packed and glistening as sardines.“Wish You Were Here!” was scrawled across the bottom right-hand corner.
María was outside sweeping the front steps when Barbara arrived at the house with the chickens. She was wearing sweatpants under a black skirt, and she’d wrapped a shawl around her head, cinching it together under her chin with a row of wooden clothes pegs. And she had floral oven gloves on her hands to keep out the cold.
María was on the phone. She worked all day like this with her head bent to one side, the cordless headset held tightly between her ear and her shoulder. She saw Barbara at the end of the front walk, and her voice changed as it often did when Barbara thought María was talking about her, the volume lowering and something of a mocking smile in its tone. She always felt the guilt of eavesdropping even though she couldn’t understand what was being said.
Barbara held the chickens behind her back, out of sight, kicking herself that she hadn’t just dumped them in an alley or a garbage can somewhere. All the way back to the house, she’d been trying to figure out the best way to broach the subject of the chickens with María. Even if they spoke the same language, Barbara doubted that she could explain this want that had come over her when she’d passed the stall with the chickens, this desire to be shown by María—how to pluck, to gut, to clean a chicken, to have her hands held tight inside the carcass just as María’s always were, to see if the innards steamed the way she imagined they would.
María, of course, never had any trouble making herself understood, having quite the vocabulary of gestures and sounds for Barbara’s ineptitude. Slamming doors if Barbara slept in too long. Clattering the silverware extra loudly as she cleared the table if Barbara hadn’t eaten enough. Turning on her way out the door at the end of the day and shaking her index finger as if she was on the verge of saying something. Don’t make a mess or Stay out of trouble.
In response Barbara would smile helplessly, hang her head, and retreat to her room— actions of avoidance, apology and affirmation. Yes, I am being troublesome. I do make an awful mess of things, don’t I? I’ll try and stay out of the way from now on.
No, Barbara decided. Not this time. She would present the chickens to María. She would hold them out in front of her. Look! See what I’ve brought for you. And though María might press her hands to her head in exasperation—Five chickens! Whatever were you thinking!—Barbara would not be discouraged. She would follow María into the kitchen and no matter how María would try to shoo her away, just as Barbara’s mother used to—Get out, get out from underfoot—by refusing to go, by standing her ground, by taking an interest and then trying to mimic what she’d seen María do with one of the other chickens, and by letting her correct her when she did something wrong, Barbara would earn, however begrudgingly, María’s respect.
And things would be different after that. Tomorrow, when María arrived, Barbara wouldn’t skulk in her bedroom, waiting to hear the vacuum start up before sneaking into the kitchen to eat breakfast—her plan to stay out of María’s way backfiring when she tripped over the cord or put the coffee maker on and overran the circuit. No, tomorrow Barbara would be in the kitchen with coffee already made when María opened the front door—two mugs on the table—and she would say to María, ¡Buenos días! ¿Cómo está?
Though their days would still be relatively silent, it would be a more companionable sort. María would no longer shake her head at the silly, wasteful things Barbara did like washing and blow-drying her hair every day, or picking out the slimy innards of tomatoes and pushing them to the edge of her plate, or sitting down in the afternoon to read a book on the patio just when María wanted to wipe down the chairs. María would stop going about the house muttering under her breath things that amounted to stupid tourist, and her tsk tsk-ing—because María was not the sort of person to stop trying to help Barbara—would take on a good-natured tone.
When María left each day from now on, Barbara would say, Gracias, María. Muchas gracias. Hasta mañana. And finally, in a few months’ time, when it would be Barbara leaving, Barbara leaving for good, she would say the same thing: Gracias, María. Muchas gracias. Hasta mañana. And María would shake her head—No, No, No—but this time there would be tears in her eyes as she tried to mime that mañana means tomorrow. Barbara would laugh, knowing what it meant—of course, it means tomorrow—and she would say Hasta pronto instead, and María would nod her head, even though this was wrong too. They would not see each other soon; they would probably never see each other again. And she would hug Barbara, not seeming to mind how Barbara’s protruding bones sank into her fleshy middle. Yes, see you soon.
Barbara walked towards María. There was a strong gust of wind behind her, and Barbara could feel the beating of wings against her legs. Startled and afraid, afraid that one or more of the chickens had been playing dead, Barbara let go of them; but instead of taking flight, they fell in a rigid pile at her feet. Barbara stood still as María walked towards her, mumbling something into the phone and then laughing at whatever was said in reply. She hung up and then sighed and shook her head and bent down, wincing as her knees cracked. María gathered the chickens up one by one, brushing and patting the dirt off them, leaving nothing but an offering of dust and a few feathers at Barbara’s feet, and then she carried them into the house.
They’d had a going away party for Barbara at work, a cake with palm trees and a graham cracker crumb beach. “Bon Voyage!” The writing was crooked, and her boss Michael had forgotten to buy utensils, so they’d had to scavenge what they could from the lunchroom and desk drawers. Some ate with spoons, some knives, some with coffee stir sticks. Some made do with their fingers, licking icing off, sucking it out from beneath their nails.
Barbara had a piece from the very centre of the cake with the capital B and some palm leaves. Maggie sat down beside her. She had a corner piece and she’d somehow managed to get her hands on a fork. “I really shouldn’t,” Maggie said. “I’m watching my weight.”
They’d not spoken since Maggie had found her at the shredder. Barbara had spent her lunch hours at her computer instead, looking up things for her trip, researching where to stay, where to eat, what sites to see. But she didn’t want to tell Maggie about any of that, so when Maggie asked what she’d be doing, Barbara told her, “See some sights, I suppose. Perhaps do some volunteering. I’m winging it.”
“You? Winging it.” Maggie half-heartedly chuckled.
Barbara shrugged, watching Maggie cut down one side of the piece of cake. “I want to be somewhere warm for a change,” Barbara said. She watched the unsupported icing quiver and then fall towards the edge of the plate. “With no snow.”
Barbara didn’t know when she’d started hating winter. It had once been snow angels and hot chocolate with peppermint marshmallows. It was walking home through the park with her friends after school, stepping on the shadows the trees cast, and pretending they could hear the snap of branches beneath their snow-encrusted boots. It had been the shock of putting her foot into a snow bank deeper than she thought, that giddy Oh! as she fell through, the world seeming, for an instant, to collapse beneath her. It was Old Jack Frost nipping at your nose, whipping round trees and bushes, carrying a dusting of snow up, up, up into the air the way Barbara imagined words could be carried too—all the ones she needed to be heard but couldn’t actually say to anyone.
And she’d loved the falling snow, especially the bigger, fluffier, lazier flakes—a freshness she could catch on the tip of her tongue.
Now winter was the grimy, blackened slush of salted roads, the slippery sidewalks that made for treacherous walking. It was scarves and hats and mittens and ankle-length down coats that kept Barbara contained but never really kept her warm. It was resentment, Barbara always shovelling precisely one shovel-width beyond her half of the driveway; her neighbour George—always in a rush—shovelling at least two-shovel widths less, leaving big blobs of snow down the middle that Barbara had to clear. It was the taking off of boots and the putting on of those blue plastic booties that smelled of other people’s feet when she took her father to the doctor’s office; her cheeks flushed with a layer of shiny sweaty embarrassment when she and everyone else in the waiting room saw her father’s big toe sticking out of his sock.
It was arriving too late at the hospital because the roads were slick. It was sitting alone with his body, still wearing her hat and scarf and gloves, half-laughing when she realized this visit wasn’t much different from all her others, with her shivering in the chair while he lay there sleeping. Except now he was dead. Barbara had taken off her gloves and rested her hand on the bed beside his but couldn’t bring herself to touch him, not sure which of them would be the colder.
The ground was too hard to bury him in February, so she had him cremated and left his ashes at the undertaker’s until the spring thaw; the guilt of his being there alone was better than the mortification she would have felt if she’d (clumsy as she was) knocked over the urn and scattered his ashes all over the living room carpet. There was no evidence that he’d ever lived with her, except for his dentures, which were sitting in a glass of water on the dresser in the spare room. When she’d packed up her father’s things, she’d lifted the glass, intending to dump the water out in the bathroom, but the teeth had seemed to chatter. Barbara had set them back down as carefully as she could and hadn’t been able to touch them again since.
What Barbara hated most about winter was the driving, the reduced visibility, the fishtailing of tires, and the carelessness of other people who drove with less caution but more confidence than she did.
On her way to work that November morning—the day Barbara had made her decision about leaving—she lost control of her car. It was the first morning that the temperatures had dropped below freezing, and she’d had to scrape the windshield and then sit in the car with the defrost on long enough for her breath to stop fogging up the window.
She’d driven as cautiously as she always did, but she’d hit a patch of black ice, and the tires slid from asphalt to gravel to grass before she was able to right herself.
When Barbara had gotten to work, she’d sat in her cubicle, not even bothering to take off her coat, her hands still shaking. She wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d almost gone off the road but that she’d fought so hard not to. She pried open her hands, her frozen fingers cracking and buckling, still bent as if gripping with all their might the curve of the steering wheel.
She held both hands up to the faint heat coming off her computer screen. I need to go somewhere I can thaw, she thought, looking at the wallpaper on her monitor: a beach scene that she’d never bothered to change, people lounging on beach chairs or frolicking in the water, their tanned skin baked by the sun, their feet arched against the nearly unbearable slippery heat of the sand. Somewhere I can melt.
And those first few weeks in Argentina, Barbara had never been so hot. Sweat pooled everywhere. Under her arm pits, behind her knees, all down her neck and back. It slid between her breasts and moistened the bridge of her nose. Whenever she stood up, she had to tug at the hem of her shorts with her thumbs and index fingers as discreetly as she could, trying to loosen the damp, crumpled cotton that had ridden up her thighs. Even her toes sweated, the dirt from the roads sticking to them, the paste of sweat and grime hardening and cracking whenever she went into the air conditioning.
Barbara found ways to cope. She kept out of the sun as much as possible, seeing tourist spots in the morning beneath a parasol she bought from a street vendor, and then resting in her darkened hotel room for most of the afternoon. If there was no air conditioning where she was staying, she’d lie on the floor in her underwear with her head in the bar fridge, a chair barricaded against the door so the maid couldn’t come in and catch her in such a state.
But even in all that heat, there was still something of a chill. She might feel it in any of the countless hotel lobbies she was in. The receptionists’ practiced, chipper tones and topics of conversation had a pleasant but frigid sameness that—no matter how she tried to engage them in conversation—kept her at arm’s-length. It could be found in the overly broad smiles of the tour guides who said Thanks instead of Gracias whenever Barbara tipped them, their grins vanishing as soon as the coins clinked into their palms. And even when she stood on street corners, feeling safe and snug within the crowd, someone behind her would suddenly say something to their companion, the words she couldn’t understand like a persistent draft on the back of her neck; and she’d cross her arms across her chest, her hands slick with sweat as she tried to grip her upper arms and hug herself for warmth.
She decided to abandon her carefully researched itinerary and instead settle in one place. Be part of a community. Have neighbours she could say good morning to and invite over for drinks.
She went to a local internet café and Googled “Mar del Plata” and “house rental.”
Yes, Barbara thought, browsing through pictures of beachfront properties, houses where every entryway was a rounded arch, living rooms painted bright yellows and oranges and blues. That’s the ticket.
After Barbara had been in the house for a couple of weeks, Alejandro, the rental agent who was also María’s nephew, called to make sure everything was to her liking.
Barbara told him everything was fine, though the rattan furniture which she’d found charming when he showed her the house was squeaky and uncomfortable to sit on. And the neighbouring houses were closer than she’d expected; the six-apartment rental property next door, an eyesore of a place with jagged stucco walls, seemed to have a weekly rotation of vacationers, all with wailing children.
“Also,” he said, “María is not here next week. She asked me to tell you she is going home.”
“Where she is from. Tilcara. For the holiday.”
Even though it seemed a bit soon for a holiday, María only having worked for Barbara a couple of weeks, Barbara had said María deserved a holiday, that she worked very hard.
Alejandro laughed and said that she’d misunderstood. “No, for Carnaval,” he explained. “To celebrate. They are burying their devil.”
There was a pause as Barbara heard María’s voice in the background. “She says that you are to come too. There is a van. Plenty of room.”
Barbara said that was very kind but that she would be fine on her own.
“But there will be no one to take care of you she says.”
“I can take care of myself.”
Another pause as Alejandro translated and María replied. There was then some back and forth between them, the voices a bit more muffled than before.
“She says you are coming.”
Barbara protested, but Alejandro said, “I know my aunt, Barbara. This is not an option. This is required.”
It was not what Barbara expected; her only exposure to Carnaval the usual images of samba-dancing girls in bikinis and feathered headdresses, their brows and bodies bedazzled. In Tilcara most of the people wore old, faded t-shirts, with jeans or khaki shorts; their faces, arms, and clothes were stained with a chalky powder. But mixed in among their drabness were men dressed in colourful devil costumes—harlequinesque figures—with strips of orange and blue and yellow and red overlaid with round mirrors encased in a stitched diamond of sequins. There were small gold bells hanging from the edges of their jester-inspired tops and running down the sides of their trousers. Some people played drums, others clanged out the beat on long-necked beer bottles. And there were trumpets, a languid brassy sound that everyone but Barbara seemed able to settle into.
Barbara was on her own, having lost María in the crowd. Barbara couldn’t count the number of times she’d regretted not being more insistent about staying behind. It had taken them a full day to drive to Tilcara, a full 24 hours, sleeping sitting up, washroom stops only. Everyone had brought packed food except Barbara who didn’t know this was what was expected. She ate little and was grateful that everyone else’s chatter, none of which Barbara could understand, drowned out her grumbling belly. And when they had finally arrived at the house of María’s other cousins, Barbara had been briefly introduced, shown to her room, and then forgotten about. She’d waited all evening for someone to call up to her, to knock on the door, to tell her it was time, but no one did, and then it was too late; she’d have arrived when everyone else’s plates were three-quarters cleared, and they’d all have been obligated to sit and watch and wait for her to finish. And this, Barbara thought, feeling both foolish and resentful as she listened to the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses below her window, is how María takes care of me.
A crowd had gathered around a large pile of stones. Flowers sprouted out of the centre, the blossoms entwined with brightly coloured ribbons and streamers, the stems watered with upturned liquor bottles. An elderly woman supported by two young girls stepped forward and left some long leaves at the base. Next, a middle-aged man knelt, his hands pressed against the rocks as others revellers came forward, anointing both him and the pile with wine and beer.
The man standing to Barbara’s left seemed a bit shaky on his feet. She pulled slightly away, not sure if he needed help or if he was just drunk. A small girl ran up to the man and pressed her talc-covered hands onto his belly, giggling as he staggered backwards. He raised his hand, Barbara thought, to strike or swat at the child like some troublesome fly, but instead he blessed her, making a trembling sign of the cross in the air above her head.
María tapped Barbara on the arm. Her hair was caked with talc, and Barbara could see she’d hastily wiped the powder from her glasses—bits of white pushed to the outside edges, smudgy fingerprints across the centre. She gave Barbara a broad smile. She waved her hands like you do when shooing a pesky or reluctant child. Go on, go on, she flapped, urging Barbara forward. Barbara shook her head shyly. María frowned, and Barbara held up her hands, cupping the empty air as if to say, But see? I have nothing to give. María shrugged and went forward herself. She knelt down, kissed the stones, and then rose with her arms held up to the sky, losing herself in the swaying jumble around her.
Someone sprayed the crowd with foam. It floated through the air like big, fat snowflakes, clinging to people’s clothing, their hair, their eyelashes. A flake landed on the inside of Barbara’s wrist. She touched it with her index finger, and it melted, leaving a dry, flaky residue on her skin.
Barbara swallowed hard as she started imagining people from back home here. Her co-workers’ ties and cardigans askew as they danced in circles, punctuating the beat with their raised fists. Her neighbour George, his beer belly stretching the round mirrors on his devil costume into ovals, the reflections distorted like a fun house mirror; his wife Amy trailing behind, wound up in his tail. And there was Maggie, gulping down booze from a bottle raised to her mouth by a man who looked—no, it couldn’t be—but, yes, as she blinked away her tears, Barbara could see it was her father. Open wide, he said, smiling, tipping the bottle and pouring teasingly at first. Maggie’s eager, greedy tongue darting out, demanding more until he was pouring faster than she could swallow. The excess ran out her mouth and down her chin, trickling down the front of her grimy white tank top, down her flimsy peasant skirt, down her sun-kissed legs, the liquid pooling at her feet.
As Barbara tried to move to the centre of the circle, to reach them all, she was grabbed from behind. She cried out as a hand passed across her open mouth, smearing her tongue with a chalky powder that made her cough. Her attacker, a devil with a holy trinity of balloons strung between his horns, slapped her good-naturedly on the back and then moved on. Stop! She wanted to say, Don’t go! But the talc had mixed with her saliva, gluing her tongue to the roof of her mouth.
Barbara awoke to a dull rhythmic pounding. María. Through the wall, Barbara could hear her splitting apart the carcasses; each precise cut and snap seeming to mock what would have been Barbara’s clumsy, awkward incisions.
Barbara got out of bed and peeked out the curtain. The backyard was covered white. Barbara thought it was chicken feathers at first, but realized, after hurriedly pushing the curtains back all the way and fumbling with the lock, it—the whiteness—was everywhere. It was still falling.
Barbara went outside.
Yes, yes it was—it had to be—snow. Snow! A light dusting. But still. Snow! Here. Of all places.
Barbara stood in the middle of the yard, snow soaking her socks. She’d forgotten she wasn’t wearing any shoes. She’d have to hang them over the stove later to dry; María would crinkle her nose when she arrived tomorrow to a house smelling of scorched wet wool.
There was a banging on the glass behind her. She turned. María was beckoning from inside. Come in! Come in!
When Barbara shook her head, María stuck her head out the patio door and pantomimed being cold, furiously rubbing her upper arms with her hands and saying, “Brrr,” her Rs taking on an almost metallic ring.
Barbara bent down and gathered some snow, water dripping through the cracks between her fingers as she formed a slushy ball with her bare hands. Barbara held her hand up, jokingly mimed throwing the ball at María, who did that thing she always did, raising her finger and shaking it. Don’t you dare! Barbara threw it anyway, gently, and María ducked behind the glass door with a startled, “Oh!”
María came outside and stood beside Barbara. Barbara smiled at her. Isn’t it wonderful? María looked around and shrugged. Haven’t you ever seen snow before?
María clucked her tongue when she looked down and saw Barbara wasn’t wearing any shoes. She took the shawl from around her neck, and standing on her tiptoes, wound it round and round Barbara’s head. I’m sorry, Barbara wanted to say. For the chickens. For everything. But she didn’t know the words; she hadn’t written them down in her notebook. She hadn’t realized she’d have anything she needed to apologize for. So instead she said, “Thank you.”
María tied the ends together, her calloused knuckles gently scraping Barbara’s chin. “De nada,” María said, and then went back in the house.
Barbara held her head up to the sky and closed her eyes. She felt each flake on her skin, a light touch on her forehead, her cheeks, her eyelashes, the tip of her nose. Barbara stuck out her tongue, eager for that first taste of salt-flecked snow.