Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World

A Novel

Sabina Berman, translated by Lisa Dillman

Henry Holt and Co.

1
 
… the sea …
… and the white sand beach …
The sea flecked with sunlight all the way out to the horizon.
*   *   *
Then the white sand beach, where the waves roll in, dissolve into foam. And, up in the sky, a sun full of white fire.
*   *   *
I’m thirsty.
I’m going to stop writing and go get a glass of water.
*   *   *
And then, suddenly, 1 day, a girl, wearing socks and huaraches, sitting on a red blanket on the white sand, her knees pulled up against her chest. A skinny, gawky girl, rocking back and forth, whispering:
Me.
Over and over:
Me.
Me.
A skinny girl in a big white T-shirt that billows up with wind, her legs bent, her knees drawn up against her chest. A girl whispering into the wind, into the sea:
Me.
Me.
Then a wave rises up and crashes down and the girl loses herself in the din, she disappears from herself, she’s not there. What happened to Me? The fragile being made of words has vanished and in its place is only a vast Not-Me: the sea.
*   *   *
I’m going to get another glass of water.
*   *   *
Someone leads her into the wind, takes her by the hand—the skinny, gawky girl, her white T-shirt down to her thighs—and spreads a red blanket on the sand and sits her down and tells her what to say. Repeat:
Me.
Me.
This happens over and over, every afternoon of every day, this sitting on the sand and rocking back and forth and saying Me and this self disappearing in the roar of the wave that crashes and dissolves into foam that skims quickly over the sand.
*   *   *
My aunt Isabelle, as she later told Me, had come from Berkeley, California, to Mazatlán, Sinaloa, to take possession of her inheritance: a tuna cannery called Consuelo, which means Consolation. Consolation Tuna. The most ill-conceived name in the fishing industry on the face of the planet, as a marketing specialist was to inform us many years later.
1 day, my aunt Isabelle stepped off a plane that shimmered in the sun on the runway of the tiny Mazatlán airport, all dressed in white—white linen slacks, white blouse—with a wide-brimmed straw hat and big black sunglasses, and walked across the runway with her right hand clasped to her head so that her wide-brimmed straw hat wouldn’t blow away.
She went straight from the airport to the tuna cannery. Her inheritance valued at several million dollars.
The cannery took up 2 entire blocks—consisting of 2 gigantic cement structures and 1 cylindrical glass building—and ran from the street all the way down to its private docks: 4 parallel docks where 20 anchored tuna boats sat bobbing in the water.
She hated it. My aunt did. The cannery, I mean. The smell of saltpeter mixed with the rotting stench of dead fish.
Dressed entirely in white linen, wearing giant sunglasses with round lenses, she stepped into the first windowless cement block and stopped at the worktables where, beneath the buzz of a cloud of flies and down the length of 8 tables, women stood mechanically gutting the fish.
She decided to cast her eyes higher, at the cloud of flies, and asked:
Why the hell don’t you use insecticide?
Because, señora, her guide replied, the chemicals in the insecticide would contaminate the tuna.
She dared, then, to look down.
At the tables, the women worked methodically. The first would slice open the fish with a machete, as if pulling down a zipper in its side. Then she’d pass the fish to the next woman, who thrust both pink latex-gloved hands in all the way up to her elbows to yank out all the viscera with 1 swift tug and hurl them over the table, into the pile of red, pink, and violet viscera covering the floor. The third woman hacked off the head with a machete blow and heaved it into the bin beside her.
*   *   *
Sickened, my aunt Isabelle covered her mouth and sped on her white, wooden-heeled sandals across the pink foam-covered floor—a mix of seawater and tuna blood—rushed into a bathroom where 100 flies were flitting around and the smell of dead fish blended with that of fresh shit, and before she could make it to a toilet, she vomited into the sink.
The worst was still awaiting elegant Aunt Isabelle.
A taxi took her through a town full of squat, cement houses and potholed asphalt streets—asphalt that glinted like steel in all that sun—and dropped her in front of the house that my great-grandfather—my aunt’s grandfather—had bequeathed her.
Behind a courtyard of dried-out yellow grass and giant palm trees with huge, dejected, desiccated fronds, the white, 2-story, French-style mansion with pompous battlements running along the top was in ruins. A mansion with black-and-white checkerboard marble floors where the air got cool, but steel girders hung down from the destroyed ceiling and the windows either had no panes or had cracked glass and broken wooden sills. A French mansion built in the 19th century by my great-grandfather, founder of Consolation Tuna.
In the master bedroom with windows overlooking the sea, the 2 mattresses on the big, king-sized bed had rotted and 1 had a hole in the middle of it, a crater that had become the hub of an ants’ nest, red ants that marched single file down each of the 4 legs of the bed and under the gaps beneath the 4 doors, sallying forth down the 4 hallways leading to the 12 bedrooms on the second floor.
So the first night my aunt slept in a hammock she found in the living room, hung between 1 Doric column and another Doric column and close to another large, windowless window that also overlooked the sea.
And when she was half-asleep, as my aunt Isabelle has since told Me, she heard footsteps and then felt someone’s breath on her face.
Terrified, she opened her eyes and there stood a creature with a tangled mass of hair covering half her face. She was a dark, naked thing, and Aunt Isabelle could barely make out her large eyes beneath the matted clump of hair, a wild thing staring at her fixedly.
Who are you? Aunt Isabelle whispered.
And the thing took 2 steps back.
Aunt Isabelle got up out of the hammock quickly and the thing took 2 more steps back.
Aunt Isabelle took 2 steps forward and the thing ran away, more afraid of Aunt Isabelle than Aunt Isabelle was of it.
Aunt Isabelle watched it take off down the stairs like a shot in the dark blue air, running for the basement. She heard it bolt the wooden door, heard the tremendous racket made by things being hurled against the basement walls, a tremendous racket that soon increased, accompanied by horrifying howls—like a dog, like a coyote—coming from the thing, and it lasted, Aunt Isabelle said, 2 or 3 hours, making it impossible to concentrate on anything else. She went to her suitcase and took out a bottle of whiskey, threw herself down on the hammock, and drank half the bottle, taking long swigs, but not even that drowned out the terrible racket and let her fall back to sleep, until finally, close to dawn, it ended, after 1 long, final howl.
*   *   *
When she awoke, the marble floor and white walls reflected the noonday sun and she heard a dry rattling coming from the kitchen.
It was Gorda, leaning over the counter, turning the handle of the coffee mill. Gorda: the fat, dark-skinned house servant, wearing a black fabric belt that bisected her body and made her look like an 8, with huaraches on her chubby-toed feet.
The 2 women greeted each other, Gorda tipped the ground coffee into a pitcher of boiled water, and poured it through a strainer into 1 glass, and then into another, in silence, and although they only knew of each other from third-party references, the 2 women sat down at the table together and immediately began writing in a notebook all the things the house would need.
Provisions and cleaning supplies on 1 list, people they’d have to hire on another. Permanent: a gardener, a butler, and a chauffeur. For 1 week: an ant exterminator. For 1 month: a marble-floor polisher. And for 2 months: 12 construction workers to repair the walls, put glass in the windows, and bring in the furniture, when it arrived in the trailer.
At a certain point, Aunt Isabelle got up from the table, lit a cigarette, and, leaning against the stove, told Gorda about her encounter with the thing the night before.
Ah, the girl, said Gorda, laughing softly.
The girl?
She lives here. Nobody told you?
Who do you suppose would have told me?
Your sister, of course.
Gorda was still chuckling.
She actually forgot to tell you about the girl?
I didn’t speak to my sister before she died, my aunt said. We weren’t close.
Ah, well. There you have it.
And why does the girl live here?
Gorda considered the question before replying.
Charity, I believe.
On the blue-tiled kitchen wall, a machete hung from a nail. My aunt Isabelle snatched it up and headed down the basement stairs, Gorda right behind her. Behind the door, she found a gloomy cellar that reeked. It was littered with broken wood and pieces of furniture and shattered bottles, and after turning a corner she was temporarily blinded by light. In 1 wall, a big, bright, light-filled hole looked onto a turquoise pool of seawater. A pool of seawater contained in a wooden corral, some 50 meters from the hole in the wall, in whose corner stood—water up to her waist, thin as a black line in the turquoise liquid—the thing.
The thing sank down beneath the surface and reemerged with something red and wriggly in her hand, a red fish that slipped from her grasp and slid back into the water. She erupted with laughter.
She seems happy, Aunt Isabelle said.
Oh, yes. She’s always either happy, angry, or spaced out. Those are the 3 options. Should I call her?
Call her.
Gorda stuck 2 fingers in her mouth and whistled like a mule driver.
The dark girl turned to look at them, wet hair plastered to her face. Very slowly, she walked toward them. But every 3 steps she stopped, fearfully.
She doesn’t speak, Gorda said, she just grunts.
The girl was dark-skinned, ashy, and skeletal—so skinny her rib cage stuck out.
Gorda continued:
She doesn’t eat with silverware, she eats with her hands, no matter what you give her, and if she’s by herself she eats wet sand.
Aside from the mat of hair on her head, the girl was hairless: not a single hair on her body, not even between her legs.
She spends all day in her cave in the basement or in her little ocean pool, stark naked the whole time. And she’s afraid of everyone but me. With me, she’s tame as can be.
Gorda smiled and said:
Tame as a doggy.
*   *   *
At Aunt Isabelle’s insistence, Gorda bathed her in the marble tub in the master bedroom. She scrubbed her with a brush meant for floors and soap meant for dishes, and finally she broke through the crusted-on filth to expose pink skin. Her thick, matted hair was so stiff and tangled that Aunt Isabelle abandoned the idea of cutting it into any predetermined style and ordered Gorda to cut it however she could, lopping it off at the scalp with a scissors, and then Aunt Isabelle herself shaved the head with a razor, while the thing sat, gaga, in the steamy tub, drooling.
They pulled her from the tub, bald and pink and naked, and wiped the drool from her mouth and sat her down on a bench. She was so skinny that her knees were as wide as her thighs, her rib cage so prominent you could count each rib. Her finger- and toenails curled around like snails. They had to use pliers to cut them, the kind builders use to cut copper wire.
My aunt stared at the newly clean, bald thing with faraway eyes, the thing that now smelled like dishwashing liquid, and then she noticed something on her back: a wound. A wound that ran from her right shoulder all the way down to the left side of her waist. And there was another scar on her left thigh. A long scar. And 1 on her right arm and several circular scars on her left.
She was horrified.
Her eyes met the girl’s faraway eyes. And they were green. Light green.
Aunt Isabelle lit a cigarette and asked Gorda into the bedroom.
Tell me 1 more time, Gorda, why is it that this creature lives here?
Like I said, charity, señora.
That’s just a line. Tell me the truth.
My aunt stood at the open window, a breeze blowing away the smoke from her cigarette, which she held close to her face.
Well, who knows, really. I always say, when people ask, that it’s because your sister took pity on her.
And 1 more time, how long has she been living like this?
All her life, as far as I know. When I started here she was already in the house. Or rather, under the house, in her little sea pen in the basement, and when guests came, your sister had me take her out to the woodshed, at the far end of the grounds, so if she got mad nobody would hear the fuss. You saw what a ruckus she kicks up.
Aunt Isabelle slowly exhaled smoke.
And was she beaten?
By who? Your sister?
Or you. Or anyone. How did she get these scars? Tell me.
Well, I didn’t do it, Gorda said defensively.
So it was my sister? She demanded.
There were days when señora hit her, Gorda said, looking away. She’d lock her in a room and take a belt to her, the buckle end. I heard the girl scream and I kept cooking. Nothing I could do about it.
Aunt Isabelle kept smoking, staring through the window at the sea.
Gorda recommenced:
She was dim from the crib, you know. That’s why, I think.
What does that mean, dim from the crib?
You know. A dimwit. Simple. Born soft.
And that’s why, what?
Why your sister lost her temper with her and hit her, why she kept her locked away.
But those right there are burn marks, my aunt said, her voice tight. Christ, beating a girl is bad enough but burning her? Anyone who burns a girl should be locked up.
Gorda kept her lips pressed tightly together. Finally she whispered:
Well, I tell you what. If you sleep on the floor like that, the roaches will get you. A few of the scars might be from that.
Aunt Isabelle snorted. She had another question:
When my sister died, did she call the girl in to say good-bye?
Gorda looked down.
Your sister was very hard, señora, if I may say that. Your sister died alone. After the embolism her body got very stiff. She walked funny, stuck out 1 leg first, then the other 1 a while later. Hands bent up like claws. She even had trouble breathing, in that wheelchair. So she got 2 kids from the cannery to load her into her jeep and she drove off down the mountain road. Later the police said that marks on the pavement showed that on a sharp curve, high up in the hills, she didn’t turn, as if the road kept going straight.
Aunt Isabelle said:
Keep going.
There’s not much else to say. People said her leg must have gotten stuck on the accelerator. But I knew her and I know that’s not what happened. Same way she’d throw away food even if it was just a little off, same way she’d see a plant and say to me, Gorda, blight got its leaves, it’s no good anymore, pull it up, and throw it out. Well, I know she said to herself, You’re no good anymore, either, and just kept driving straight when the road curved.
A wave broke on the beach, 1 floor below them, and then spread across the sand with a hiss.
Weeks later, Gorda continued, some peasants found the jeep upside down at the bottom of a ravine, among the prickly pear cactus, and her body a little ways from it. She was just bones by then, and not even all of them. Her rib cage, skull, arm bones, and the fingers of 1 hand. That’s all. The buzzards must have eaten her flesh. And the other bones—who knows?—maybe the coyotes took them.
Runs in the family, Aunt Isabelle said.
What does, señora?
Being hard. Did you bury the bones?
We buried them in the garden, but all the tombstone says is her name. Lorena Nieto. We didn’t put a cross or anything. We didn’t know what religion she was, or who to ask.
She wasn’t, Aunt Isabelle said. The Nieto family has no religion. Gorda, I’m going to ask you something, and please tell me the truth.
Yes, señora.
She’s my sister’s daughter, isn’t she?
The thing?
The thing.
Gorda didn’t say anything for a while. Then she said:
No. How could that be? They don’t even look alike. Besides, she’d have said something about it at some point, don’t you think? And she never said a word.
What about her eyes?
The girl’s? Her hair’s always in her face, I can’t even remember what they look like. Are they green?
Light green.
Your sister’s eyes were brown, Gorda said.
Aunt Isabelle turned to stare at her, with her light green eyes.
That was what made her mind up—my aunt’s mind. The light green eyes. That’s what made her so certain that the thing was her niece, and so she set herself the task of turning it into a human being.
To start, she tried to get her to say her first word:
Me.
Me.
Me.
She’d take her by the hand and lead her to the beach, spread a red blanket on the burning sand, and sit her down, knees drawn up into her chest, and the thing was supposed to say Me, Me, into the wind and the sea.
And that is how, on August 21, 1978, Me came into being, there by the sea, screaming my lungs out, Me, Me, bald and fully formed, wearing knee socks and huaraches.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Sabina Berman