BY KARIN RUMIE
Copyright is held by the author.
I HELD the sketch up to the window, a vibrant palette of sky and forest on the other side. All I needed for my dress design was the right colour. My father’s voice came from the hallway just as I found the perfect shade of blue. I placed the sketch and pencil case inside the desk drawer and slipped a smile on my face before opening the door.
He scanned the room with a frown, his eyes settling on my unmade bed.
“What are you still doing in your room? It’s almost 10.”
“I was just mending some tablecloths.” I pointed to a stack of linens next to the sewing table.
“I need you to take a VIP on a tour of the churches.”
I mentally scanned my list of excuses and came up short.
“Why me? Where’s Clara?”
He raised an eyebrow at my audacity.
“Your sister is in town placing the food order and I’m not going to keep a guest waiting while you mope around in your room.” My jaw set and his voice softened. “Please, Isabel, you could benefit from some fresh air.”
Fresh air was my father’s cure for everything from a bad mood to heartbreak. There wasn’t enough oxygen in Patagonia for me, but I knew better than to keep a guest waiting. I grabbed my nametag and followed him downstairs to the lobby.
A tall man stood in front of the bay window, his camera lens focused on the lake, it’s surface still as a mirror. My father cleared his throat.
The man turned, inquisitive eyes behind silver rimmed glasses and an easy smile. The camera hung around his neck. American, I thought — the man, not the camera. He was Clara’s definition of the perfect catch and she was not here. My mood brightened.
“This is my daughter, Isabel, one of our friendly guides.” My father gently pushed me toward him.
“She knows the history of the 16 churches better than anyone.”
I shook his hand, self-conscious of my calloused sewing fingers.
“Welcome to El Fin Mr. Alexander. Are you enjoying your stay?”
“Everything is wonderful, your father’s attention to detail is impeccable. But please, call me Mark.” He eased the camera into its case. “By the way, your English is excellent.”
Only Americans ever complimented my English. I stole a glance at my father’s face, bothered by my unconscious habit of seeking his approval. Still, I smiled to myself like a little girl when I saw his expression of pride.
On our way out, I grabbed a pair of ponchos. The sun shone on a cloudless sky but Patagonia was fickle and we could find ourselves under a downpour by noon.
Mark walked in silence, observing each detail of the scenery along the wooded trail. He stopped often, aiming his camera toward a woodpecker bearing on a beech tree or across the trail to capture the stare of a deer.
I had avoided the forest after Mauricio left, but the smell of pine drifted me back to those days when we’d lose ourselves exploring the forest – and each other. It had been two years since the last time I’d seen my fiancé. Our wedding date had come and gone, the food for the party parceled out to the hotel guests.
Mark’s voice brought me back. He was holding a berry, asking if it was safe to eat.
“It’s a Calafate berry,” I told him. “We use it on everything here. Legend has it any visitor who eats it will return to Patagonia.”
He popped the plump berry into his mouth and when he spoke, purple juice dribbled down his chin.
“You guys have a lot of legends here. The receptionist told me about the ghost ships on the lake.”
I’d forgotten to ask Mark about himself, a social faux pas my mother had warned Clara and I against more times than I could count.
“Where in America are you from? I’m sure you have some interesting legends too.”
“New York City. Actually, I was born and raised in Connecticut.” He picked another handful of berries. “Not too many legends in New York, but we’ve got our own kind of magic.”
“Why did you move from Connecticut?”
“I went to college there and fell in love with the city. I started working for a travel magazine and have been a New Yorker ever since.”
My father’s extra attention to detail made sense — even a small mention of El Fin in an American magazine could mean a windfall for the hotel. As we came out of the forest into the village, the first church on the tour appeared as if it’d been dropped from the sky.
He inhaled, as if savouring the last bit of forest scent, and removed his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose. His eyes were the colour of the aquamarine stone on my mother’s necklace.
“What about you? Are you in college?” he asked
I shook my head. After the coup, when university students become frequent targets of the police, our plans for higher education evaporated.
“I work as a seamstress in my family’s hotel now but I’m going to be a fashion designer.”
I had no idea why I’d just blurted this out. The only other person I’d ever told was Mauricio.
His eyes lit up.
“You should go to New York to study. They have the best design schools there. You could apply for a student visa.”
I allowed myself to imagine the possibilities. I often fantasized about studying in Paris or Milan, or working the backstage of an Oscar De la Renta runway. But with Mauricio’s disappearance, even Buenos Aires had become out of reach.
I waited on the sidewalk while Mark photographed the door, a massive wooden structure ornamented with forged iron. Painted in a bright lemon shade and designed in neo-Gothic style, it stood in contrast to the rest of the austere churches that made up the famous sixteen. Most locals considered it too extravagant, but it was my favourite.
I busied myself arranging lunch outside while Mark went into the church to take pictures. After I set out the cold meat sandwiches and beer the cook had packed for us, I went inside to get him.
The church smelled of frankincense and wet earth. Mark turned when I opened the door, letting the sun flood the vestibule with light. He waved to me just as the ground began to shake.
I steered the wheelchair through the hallway that led to the courtyard. Mark and I had been taking our four o’clock tea outside, away from the guests huddling around the fireplace. One month after the earthquake, his broken legs were almost healed. When the beam fell on him, I expected to find a shattered body beneath. Mark’s survival was considered a miracle. The women in our staff tended to him as if he were their only son, feeding him cazuela — the meat and vegetable soup known to raise the dead. I worried if he stayed longer around these Chilean moms he would be rendered as useless at taking care of himself as most of the men here.
I settled him on a table under what was left of the sun and poured our tea. A group of low-lying clouds reflected off the lake’s surface.
“Please tell me you never get tired of this view.”
“I can’t imagine any other view,” I lied, dropping a sugar cube into his cup.
Lately, all I seemed to do was imagine being somewhere else: in an apartment of my own, in a department store job, in an internship at Dior. Though the reality of my situation — being single and untrained — was bleak, I could not bear to let go of my career fantasies.
He was silent but I got the sense his mind was wrestling with something. When he reached for a pastry, his fingertips grazed my wrist and I felt slightly unbalanced by his touch. I had not even looked at another man since Mauricio. Maybe it was guilt that prompted me to tell him about us. How our families had known each other for years. How our childhood friendship had turned to love, despite Clara having used all her charms on him. I told him about his proposal before he left for Santiago to study at the university. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I told him about the news of his arrest and subsequent disappearance in the days after Pinochet’s coup.
“That’s awful, Isabel, I’m very sorry.” He said. “What do the authorities say?”
“They’ve told us nothing,” I said, shrugging.
“What do you mean? It’s been two years. They have to tell you what happened to him, they can’t just withhold this information.”
“They can do whatever they want, Mark.”
I was surprised by my bitterness.
“So what will you do now?”
It was a question I tried hard to ignore.
The early evening fog descended over the lake, shrouding it in a white veil. In the distance, the sea lions called to each other.
“Is that the sound of the ghost ship?” Mark asked, with the amusement with which intellectuals regard the unexplained.
The next morning, Mark went home. To my surprise, I was sad to see him go. At the time, I thought I’d never see him again.
Two months later, I received a call from Santiago. As the hotel operator pretended not to eavesdrop, my aunt’s crackled voice came on the other end to tell me she’d arranged a visit with a government official – a distant cousin of ours. She thought it best if I took the meeting alone.
She left the task of getting my father’s permission to me. He’d forbidden Clara and I to go to Santiago after his nephew nearly had his head blown off by the police one night. His only crime had been to sneak out after curfew to see his girlfriend but the junta police shot first and asked questions later.
In the end, I resorted to a cheap trick and told him how Aunt Ceci was the closest thing to my mother I had left and I could not let another year pass without seeing her. It was manipulative but it worked.
I arrived at my aunt’s house on one of those days between the end of spring and the start of summer. The austere facade that was in fashion in the upscale Santiago neighbourhood belied its colourful, warm interior. Cecilia Borges was my mother’s younger sister and one of my favourite people in the world.
“You’re the spitting image of your mother.” She planted a kiss on each cheek. “How’s my brother in law? And your sister? Has she found a husband yet?”
Clara and I had spent a few summers in Santiago, when we became too much for our mother. We’d sit on the stair landing during aunt Ceci’s dinner parties, eavesdropping on her eclectic guest list of poets, writers, politicians and socialites. One night, I became convinced that the older man flirting with my aunt was Pablo Neruda. Clara said I was being ridiculous.
Now, the walls in my aunt’s living room echoed with emptiness. I looked for Judy, my aunt’s long time housekeeper who had spoiled my sister and I rotten.
“Oh, she took the afternoon off to visit her son and his new wife. No doubt she’s inspecting their house from top to bottom as we speak. But don’t worry, she refused to subject you to my cooking and prepared a feast before leaving.”
We sat next to each other at the end of the long dining table, which she’d set in fine linen and elegant tea service. Taking my hand, she looked into the lines of my palm with a furrowed brow.
I dropped my hand and busied myself spreading Judy’s apricot preserves on a bread roll. I was in no mood to discuss my destiny.
In my mother’s old room that night, I unpacked the clothes I’d designed for my honeymoon. I ran my hand over the cool linens and silks before steaming out the wrinkles in the shower.
I lay awake that night, unable to drift off in the stifling room. I opened the window to the deserted streets below, the infamous curfew still in effect. In the distance, the giant shadow of the National Stadium loomed, its history tainted now after the Junta used it as its temporary prison and interrogation headquarters. There were rumours that women had been imprisoned there too, and a chill settled on me.
Many years later, I would learn that Mauricio spent three weeks in that very stadium, after his arrest.
The next morning, I dressed in a sleeveless linen dress and walked to the bus stop while my aunt slept. Three buses later, I stepped out in front of the police headquarters, where a line had already formed.
I waited another half hour in the sun, which had appeared as bright as midday. An American flag waved side by side with the Chilean flag in front of the US consulate across the street. The line snaked along the side of the building, disappearing into the adjacent park.
Inside, I was ushered into an office by an older woman. My distant cousin looked to be my age but carried himself more like a middle-aged government official. His eyes scanned my body as I sat across from him.
After we’d dispensed with the small talk about our mutual families, I got straight to the matter.
“Rodrigo, I’m hoping you can help me find someone who may have been detained while he was a student at the University.”
I gave him a copy of Mauricio’s identification card. He glanced at it and pulled out a book that looked like our hotel guest ledger.
“What is your relation to this person?” His tone was jovial, but I thought I detected something like contempt on his face.
“I’m his fiancé.”
After a great show of looking through names, he pulled a thin file from a credenza on the side of his desk. My breath caught when I saw Mauricio’s name typed neatly on the top.
He read the contents out loud.
“Subject was detained on September 14, 1973 for leading a group of dissidents to plot against the government.”
I recalled Mauricio’s naive love for Allende and his optimism after the election. He’d likely been heartbroken by his death, but the idea of him plotting against the government was ludicrous. I managed to find my voice.
“Can you tell me if he is still in prison?”
“I’m afraid this is all the information we have on the subject. Several files were lost during our move to this new office.”
His eyes burned into mine. In spite of my revulsion, I held his gaze, hoping to read the truth.
He spoke again as I got up to leave.
“He probably left the country. A lot of socialists went to Argentina.”
Outside, I waited for the bus in the midday heat. A veil of smog had descended on the city, seeping into my lungs. I thought of my father and his fresh air. A woman sat next to me on the bench. She looked to be around forty except that her hair was grey, not just a few strands but her entire head, as if she’d woken up one day like that.
“Did you find who you were looking for?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Not this time. I’m looking for my son.”
Her son had been a civil engineer, working for the government before the coup. They told his parents he’d been transferred to the North to work on a classified project. She’d been coming here every day for a year.
“Why do you keep coming back? They have no intention of telling us the truth.”
It seemed cruel to tell this to a mother, and I regretted it. But if my words stung, she did not show it.
“I know he’s gone” she said, “I can sense it. I just want them to tell me the truth.”
I should have reached out and touched her hand, anything to show sympathy. But at that moment, I wanted to get as far away from her as possible. I decided to splurge on a taxi downtown to window shop at the high-end boutiques. Perhaps I could find some last season fabrics to take home.
As I reached into my purse to count my remaining bills, I found the postcard I’d received shortly before coming to Santiago. It was a kitschy photo of several landmarks inside three giant block letters: NYC. On the other side, a short note in Mark’s elegant handwriting:
Wish you were here.
My delight at seeing Judy greet me at my aunt’s doorstep turned to concern when I registered her expression.
“No, thank you,” she said in a loud voice. “We don’t need any more milk, we still have an entire bottle left.” She put a finger to her lips and tilted her head toward the living room.
A man’s voice came from the sitting room. He was speaking to my aunt. I ducked into the side of the vestibule where Judy ushered me up the side stairs leading to the kitchen.
The man talking to my aunt worked for the police and had come looking for me only 10 minutes ago. My aunt had instructed Judy to warn me as soon as I came home.
“Mrs. Borges says I am to take you to my son’s house for a few days. Get your suitcase from upstairs and meet me back here. I’ve asked the driver to wait for us by the side entrance.” She wrapped me in a hug before turning to grab the tea service tray.
I watched her disappear behind the swing door and made for the bedroom.
The next few days felt like months. The hardest part was keeping everything from my father when we spoke on the phone. I’d had no choice but to call him, as he was expecting me home later that week.
Finally, my aunt showed up late one night. We sat in Judy’s son’s tiny kitchen, speaking in hushed voices to avoid waking my hosts.
“I think it was a mistake to have you meet with Rodrigo. I thought his being related to our family would make him more sympathetic but it seems to have had the opposite effect. Perhaps there was some old animosity I was unaware of.”
She pulled a piece of paper from her bag.
“A friend gave me a copy of his report. It seems he has flagged you as a possible dissident.”
I read the paper, dumbfounded. I searched my brain for what I could have said during our meeting that led to this.
“You did nothing wrong Isabel,” she said, reading my expression. “The problem with giving small men power is you never know how they might wield it.”
My mind raced. I longed to call my father but I dared not drag him and my sister into this. The Junta was known to arrest entire families of suspects.
“Did your friend say anything else about what could happen to me?”
“If there is no evidence, a person suspected of dissidence is taken for questioning. Sometimes nothing comes of it.” She looked into my eyes then. “His advice was for you to leave the country for a while.”
We spent the rest of the night evaluating different options. We had family in Venezuela and Argentina. My aunt felt that, as long as I would be exiled, I should spend my time studying. But those countries had close ties with Chile and requesting a formal student visa could be risky.
“I could go to the American embassy and apply for a visa.” I said, more to myself than to her.
“The U.S? But you don’t know anyone there. They require a sponsor and, even if you were accepted, you’d be all alone.”
I told her about Mark. Her eyes lit up briefly when I said his name but she looked sceptical.
“Your father would never agree to it.”
I had to admit that was a real obstacle. I would have to find a way to convince him, or accept the fact I may need to go without his blessing.
She tapped her slender fingers on the table; the wheels of her mind seemed to be turning.
“Let me deal with your father Isabel. I’ll go there myself to speak to him while you begin the process.”
I agreed despite my reluctance at having her take on this responsibility that was my own.
Now, all I had to do was convince myself that leaving Chile without Mauricio was not the betrayal it felt like. We’d dreamt of traveling around the world together. How could I go without him? What would happen if he came back looking for me before I returned? My mind looped around these questions. When my aunt took my hand and turned it to trace the lines, I let her do it.
“Do you see anything about Mauricio?” I asked, afraid but resigned to face the answer.
“No, I’m sorry, Isabel.” Her finger traced a line all the way up my palm. “But this friend, Mark Alexander, he appears in almost every one of your lines. You should go to him.”
It had taken three weeks and all of my aunt’s connections to get my student visa. My father had disowned me for two days after he found out that I’d gone to Santiago under false pretences. We had to say our goodbye over the phone. I planned on finishing my studies and coming back after Pinochet’s regime lost power but there was no way to tell how long that would take.
As the plane began its descent, I turned my attention to what lay ahead. I needed to tuck the thoughts of Mauricio and my family away for a while. I opened my English book to practice some phrases but was soon distracted by the view from my tiny airplane window. As the landmarks I’d seen only in movies rose up, a mix of thrill and dread spread through my body.
I was still seized by the urge to turn back when I stepped off the jet bridge and into the gate at John F. Kennedy airport. In the sea of faces, I found Mark’s, his familiar grin telling me that I was home.
Karin Rumie is a fiction writer living in Miami, Florida with her husband, three children and a yellow lab.