On her eightieth birthday, a woman waits for a telephone call in this story inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet.” How can everything change without our realizing it?
After they tired of announcing on TV snowfalls that never arrived, the first snow fell, finally, the same morning that Aurora celebrated her eightieth birthday, on December 22. The week had begun colder than usual. The clouds from the night before had turned from a dark gray to a radiant white, and they shone heavy and quiet. The humidity rose like an invisible wall all around. Above the maple trees the sky turned white, and what was once an island of green woods was now a landscape frozen in that kind of immobility that portraits have. The grandchildren were the first to wake. They ran out into the yard, and in a matter of minutes were already hurling snowballs at each other like rockets. Aurora had fastened their coats, gloves, shoes. She demanded they drink a steamy cup of cocoa, which they did quickly and with excitement.
Only when they closed the door did she look at the phone on the small table in the living room. She went about picking up magazines that were strewn about. She will call, she told herself, I know she will call; she wrote that she would . . .
At this early hour, the house is peaceful like an abandoned temple: Muffy, tucked between the cushions of the sofa, purrs then growls when Sophie approaches looking for warmth. The sound of the kitchen clock fills the air, which Aurora no longer listens to from so many years of hearing it. It’s still early. Alfred would sleep two or three more hours, a habit that she believes to be her husband’s finest virtue. Emma, their only child, would wake up around ten, by which time Aurora would already have placed on the table, in meticulous order, a cup of coffee, scrambled eggs, bagels with cream cheese, fruit, and orange juice. In a way, Alfred had never forgiven her for not giving him a boy. Several times, when Emma was small and there was no longer a hope for more children, he would whisper, in a kind of monologue—whenever he was occupied by other things: reading the paper, cutting wood, watching a television show—that it wasn’t that he wasn’t happy with Emma but that there’s always a need for a boy in a house. That kind of silent judgment passed by her husband had caused her to suffer inconfessable bouts of depression that, like all good housewives, she drowned by washing the dishes or darning the old socks that Alfred would wear, the next day, in the countryside.
Emma and the children had come to live with them two months ago after a long divorce. Aurora had never been in favor of the marriage, but she had promised never to meddle in her daughter’s affairs. There’s no such thing as a perfect marriage anymore, Momma, Emma told her one afternoon as they watched TV in the living room, and her daughter’s eyes, swollen red from crying, looked like two blood clots. You and Poppa are an exception.
Her daughter’s words stuck in her memory. She pretended to focus on a horrible show with the Supremes singing “Where Did Our Love Go?”
She picked up the cup of tea and sat by the window. Its huge pane separated her from what was going on outside: the snow was falling, undisturbed, the children were running and jumping, and the snowballs were flying everywhere like a swarm of desperate white bees. Farther down the street, she saw people walking to town, and she imagined that the snowfall had caught them without food, that they surely were going after bread, milk, and something else from the grocery store on Scott Street. She heard dogs barking, too, which she wasn’t able to see, but which she felt sorry for; a squirrel, or some other animal, was racing, quickly, through the branches of the fir trees nearby. The fact that the first snowfall coincided with her birthday was an omen that she wasn’t able to explain. Her fingers rubbed against the glass. She looked at the wrinkles on her fingers, her tiny fingernails that not even the soft brightness of the snow was able to make shine, the spots that turned her forearms blue, and she realized that she was so accustomed to seeing them that she scarcely remembered not having had them.
There’s a faint reflection of her face in the glass; a knotty face that the years have deprived of life; her braids—that were once the same harvest gold of the fields—are now the color of snow; only her blue eyes, inherited from her Irish grandmother, boast a life of their own.
How would Betsy look after all these years? she wonders. The Betsy with dark eyes and hair, olive-colored skin, and a small mouth. Had she become an old prune, shriveled and bruised, or was she one of those women who aged gracefully, her legs free of unsightly varicose veins, who never experienced bitterness or pain?
She looked at the phone again. Nothing. How can anything produce so much silence? If she were dared, she’d break it . . . Dearest Betsy, old friend, you’ll call, you wrote that you’d call . . .
The sounds of the neighborhood arrive in a whisper, like those things one hears in a dream, unfolding in the great frozen night. In the distance, she glimpses the silhouettes of Grace and Daniel beneath the snow. Soon they’ll have enough to make a snowman, she thinks.
Later she turns her attention to her grandchildren: Connie, Sasha, and Robert are still playing, and she recalls that her childhood must have been the same. She had, in those days, a rebellious nature, which the years had tamed; she was always an agitator, a little matriarchal dictator who gave orders and devised plans that everyone had to follow, without belligerence, or they risked being expelled from the game: Johnny, you hide here; Brendan, you go there; Nick, you attack first; Johnny, wait until I give the order to defend. The game’s happiness, of course, lasted until Father and Mother came out to scold them and rattle off as many theories of the flu that occurred to them at the moment. Once shut up in the house, the four siblings went up to the attic, heads held low, and from there they looked enviously at the other children who seemed to be having more fun than ever. They watched until the last one left and everything began to disappear under the white blanket that continued to fall slowly, very slowly, hiding the shapes of the houses, the fences, the wells, the buckets on the ground, the rooftops, and the naked trees. Only houses with solid oak or red brick walls maintain their color in the face of the powerful, invading white snow. Today, as it snows, Aurora also recalls the glow that lingered on the windows of the Cunningham house, her neighbors, and the memory of Betsy sprang to mind so clean and vivid that she seemed once again to be there, next to the stove, the two of them warming themselves, and she didn’t have to close her eyes to remember those tiny golden sparks that the fire threw toward her friend’s skin. She could not recall, though, if that was that the first time she saw Betsy with different eyes.
Before she was able to stop it, Betsy was in her blood, in her dreams; she floated in her thoughts; she grew like a tree inside her.
Those moments that Mother and Father allowed her to spend in the Cunningham house were the closest thing to happiness she could recall. Before she was able to stop it, Betsy was in her blood, in her dreams; she floated in her thoughts; she grew like a tree inside her.
What should we play today? her friend asked, to which she answered immediately, Gone with the Wind. Come on, don’t run away, she said with all the seduction she could muster, and Betsy, now Scarlett O’Hara, did not run away because Clark Gable’s hands were suddenly clutching her maiden-like waist in flight, while the lips of the irresistible leading man kissed her madly and passionately.
She took an endless sip of tea and held her face momentarily over the cloud of steam that rose from the cup. On the table was the book of poems by Elizabeth Bishop that she had purchased in the secondhand bookshop. She smiled as she remembered the saleswoman’s face. A month earlier she had ordered writings of Yourcenar, but long before there were stories by Virginia Woolf. And now, to top it all, Bishop, the rumors about her be damned, and although nothing has been proven, it’s clear that she was indeed strong; yes, she, Aurora, did not doubt that Bishop must have been a very strong woman. Pardon me, the saleswoman told her with a tone of complicity, we also have The Sound and the Fury and The Great Gatsby. She insinuated a smile as she accepted the change. Two pennies rolled on the counter. Together their hands grasped desperately at the coins, as if swatting mosquitoes on the marble.
Aurora promised to return for The Great Gatsby.
She was struggling with a verse from the poem “Sonnet” when something unexpectedly hit the window glass. She looked at the shape of the frost; she tried, in vain, to find the snow’s symmetry, the geometric shapes that ice adopts; she withdrew her eyes only when the pieces began to slip, leaving a brilliant, wet stroke.
She thinks: this is our existence. We are condemned to fly for a moment and then hit an invisible wall only to later slip, fall, and become lost.
She returned to reading the poems. Reading was the only thing that afforded her a moment of happiness in her old age; as she reads she becomes those heroines that life went about denying her. It was so easy, book in hand, to become Madame Bovary and get into the carriage and surrender herself for the first time into the arms of Léon, oblivious to the fact that outside, the streets and plazas of Rouen passed unnoticed. Perhaps this is one of the few wonders that I have left, she thinks.
Caught, the bubble in the spirit level, a creature divided . This is how she felt so often. What would she be doing had she not read Elizabeth Bishop? The meaning of the word caught weighed on her mind many times, wondering if it meant being trapped or discovered. Like Bishop, she was also a creature, discovered and divided. She loved in silence the poet’s style of writing and envied not having become a poet herself. Who’s ever seen a farm girl from Wisconsin write poems, her husband had said; only girls from Boston or New York write poetry, because they have nothing else to do.
Still today she remembers the slap in the air and the pages with poems scattered on the floor.
To get the image out of her mind, she busied herself tidying up the room: she went over again and again, fulfilling a ritual of losing herself in thought, the same places until she saw behind a chair, lying on the floor, one of her husband’s shirts. It stank. She kept sweeping all the cracks without finding anything else. She looked at the phone twice; first in a disinterested way, like when your gaze lingers briefly on common objects: a vase with dried flowers, an old painting, the back of a mirror; but now, the second time, she was putting her heart into it . . . and the compass needle wobbling and wavering, undecided.
Ten years ago Betsy had started calling to wish her happy birthday. Before, when neither of the two had a telephone, her teenage friend sent her letters and postcards from Winter Haven, that distant Florida town that she kept a secret. In times of loneliness and depression, and only after making sure that Alfred would not return home early, Aurora took the cards and letters out of an old trunk to read them. She knew they were at the bottom, and first she’d have to dig through the photos of her first communion, tied with that awful lace ribbon, her birth certificate and those of her brothers, the few photos that had survived the fire of the first house and the one that showed her father, shotgun in hand, his right leg over a dead deer, the deer’s eyes, still open, followed her in her dreams. She dug and dug until the envelope tied with a string appeared. She always hesitated before opening it. Her hands trembled; the deer’s eyes seemed to search for her. When the image disappeared, there were Betsy’s letters, wrinkled and yellow, the ink of words beginning to fade. It read:
Dearest Aurora, how can I forget that summer we walked deep into the forest? To be honest, I was not afraid because I was with you. You were always the bravest of all. You were the best of leaders. And I followed you intoxicated, like bees follow the smell of honeysuckle in the air. Have you noticed that finally I almost write like you? You were my teacher in everything. I would like to kiss you as we kissed, naked, in the river. Your breasts against my breasts. Do you remember that I didn’t know how to kiss? You must be laughing now. I still love you. I’m enclosing a kiss. I think of you and of the river. Now burn this letter .
Aurora turned the yellowed paper over and read: June 25. The year had become a blot, an indecipherable palimpsest.
Dearest Aurora: soon it will be Christmas and I won’t be in Wausau to bring you the cake you like so much, nor will we be able to sneak away and make love as we used to. I’d love for you to come visit us one summer. Winter Haven is always green. My boyfriend and you will get along splendidly. Tell me more about you since you’ve barely said anything. Just that you miss me, and you talk to me about the cold and the snow. Why don’t you come to Florida? You know what to do with this letter . . . Dear Au: I’m sending this postcard a week before your birthday. I hope it arrives on time. It carries a big kiss. How old are you going to be, twenty-nine, thirty? In two months I’ll be twenty-five . . . Dear Au: Please forgive how long it’s been since I last wrote. How long has it been, eight, nine, ten years? Are you still in Wausau? I plan to be there in the spring. I’m going with Mark and the children. You must see them: two five-year-old blonde things that keep me crazy. The last I heard from you was that you were planning to marry. Do you have children? Do you miss me? You never wrote me again . . .
Dear Au: I hear that Wisconsin had the worst of winters this year. I got nowhere with the book you mailed me; unlike you I’m unable to enter the world of words. I read what you write to me: “you have to read a book as if reading life; that reading makes us eternal, that it is more than reading just the words; that you have to go inside them as if entering a cave and wait, there inside, patiently, until the darkness is wounded by the unfading glow of sensibility; to wait for the word to give our minds the same thing that fire gives to night.” Where do you get such beautiful words? Really I do not understand much of what you mean. I think I’m afraid of you, Au. I think I could drop everything and run to you and not return . . . Dear Au: I received your poem; there was just the poem, you said nothing more: “I’d say nothing for nothing’s always a threshold, a lonely palace, a ribbon that ties the flesh, the burning silent flesh yet untouched, undeceived, whispered by the darkest mouths. What paths should we take? What words to yell when the birds of night break into the glass? I am torn by the children’s cry. Where are they? Those living corpses that run wildly, what life do they flee from?” . . . Dearest Au: continue sending me poems. Don’t worry that I don’t understand them. You know very well that I’m not like you; you are a true girl of Paris tucked into the body of a farm girl from Wisconsin. I don’t know why you stay in Wausau, what thing keeps you in Wisconsin? You should run away .
While searching in the faded envelope of blurred papers, Aurora wonders when she ceased to be that daring adolescent she used to be and became a timid, introverted woman, wife, and mother. Did she not submit her brother and friends to her will? Was she not the one who that stormy night first dared to kiss Betsy, who was unable to stop her, and upon seeing that she offered no resistance, struck like a viper, biting her mouth, neck, and breasts, those breasts that will always be smooth in her memory, those breasts that she moistened with her tongue and nibbled with her lips, thinking that she shouldn’t give her time to react? What a delight to possess the fourteen-year-old Betsy, still a virgin.
How can everything change without our realizing it? Why does something like this go unnoticed like grass growing in a field? Dearest Au: your last letters are all poems. Not that I’m complaining. I read them although I only understand a few things. I read you and it seems that I am reading those poets they gave us in school. I’m not kidding, it’s the truth. Leave Wausau. Leave everything. Alfred and your children will continue their lives just the same. Have the courage that I never had. Don’t be a coward. I love you still, B . . . Dearest Au: Why don’t you write me? Why are your cards short, and there are no poems; they don’t seem to be written by you . . . Dearest Au: why do you no longer write? What happened to that rebellious girl who forced me to read? What could have happened to my Au to make her stop writing? . . . Dearest Au: no letters or poems in ten years. Hopefully you’ll get this postcard and it will find you beautiful and happy . . .
Freed, the broken thermometer’s mercury running away . . .
If someone had asked her how she felt, she would have thought about the mercury that escapes once the thermometer is shattered. Freed, she would have said, perhaps.
If someone had asked her how she felt, she would have thought about the mercury that escapes once the thermometer is shattered. Freed, she would have said, perhaps. Is not life a hasty flight from time? she thinks as she hears noise on the second floor. Could her husband or daughter have gotten up?
She goes to the kitchen without first looking at the phone. She thinks: she’ll call, she has to call; and she felt like sitting by the phone and doing nothing but waiting until on the other end of the line she heard Betsy’s voice asking how she is, telling her how much she misses her. Things like that.
How had she survived without Betsy’s voice? Why had she never found the courage to visit the many times she was asked? . . . Dearest Au, friend, wait for my call; now that we are two wrinkled old women, hearing from you is the only thing that gives me joy. It’s been a bad year. My husband Mark died. It was horrible. I’ll call you, you’ll be eighty, right? I’ll be seventy-six. A kiss. B.
Muffy and Sophie curled up around her legs; she was thankful for the shock of live wool against her body. If she were a few years younger, she would have sat on the floor to rub their backs.
She hears the noise on the second floor again, the water pouring from the faucets, the sound of footsteps, and she thinks it must be Emma. She calmly cuts the bread into slices of the same size; she takes honey and cream cheese from the refrigerator. When her daughter appears, minutes later, breakfast is ready. She says she had horrible nightmares; that she hardly slept; that daylight had crept up on her just as she was dozing off.
Outside the children are hollering, and Emma goes to look for them. From the window frame, she watches them accept that all games end when parents suddenly appear. And the rainbow-bird from the narrow bevel of the empty mirror. She would love to become that bird on the bevel of an empty mirror. What could Bishop have meant? How can one verse be lucent while another seems to tow an impenetrable mystery? . . . Dearest Au: this will be the last letter I write you. I lost count of how many I’ve sent without receiving a response. I suppose you no longer wish to speak to me. Kisses. B.
Why did she not write to her that Alfred had discovered the notebook with the poems she wrote for her and that he had read them even though he didn’t understand them, verse by verse, intrigued, racking his brain to find some explanation in them? She’ll never forget her husband’s furrowed brow, his eyes piercing hers, attempting to extract a confession. Knowing that she was discovered, caught, like in the poem, had put her in a difficult situation. They were poems, nothing more. Her nerves caused her hands to sweat and something in her blood was lashing out. The worst thing was her husband’s silence that lasted for weeks, the dinners when they ate without looking at each other, the endless Sunday mornings when, after arriving home from church, Alfred would stare at her, looking for any effect that the pastor’s sermon might have had on her.
When Emma returned with the children, Aurora was crying. She lied, blaming the snow for a sudden moment of nostalgia. She claimed that it reminded her of her days as a child, her brothers, her mother preparing pancakes sweetened with wild bee honey and her father bringing in firewood from the woods. She recounted, sobbing, how at night during blizzards everyone at home would sit around the fire to guess the shapes that their hand drew in the shadows on walls scarcely adorned with pictures.
Emma hugged her, and the children watched the unhappy spectacle of their mother and grandmother crying.
When the coffeepot whistled, Aurora rubbed her tears with her apron and went to take it off the burner. She wished secretly that no one were there at that moment. She wanted to be alone when Betsy called, and that feeling made her ashamed just then, making her feel like a bad mother, a terrible grandmother, a selfish and despicable being. She looked at her watch: it was almost eleven. What time do they wake up in Florida? Muffy and Sophie meowed, and this gave her an excuse to lean down and rub their furry backs with her hand. Where’s my head, she said out loud. I forgot to give them food. She stood up, dragging the heaviness of the entire world in her shoes. The cats followed her obediently. Emma watched cautiously, seeing Aurora lose her balance a little. As she leaned down to put the cat food on the plate, her hands needed the support of the kitchen cabinet to keep from falling. She miscalculated and poured some milk on the floor, which Muffy quickly cleaned up. When Aurora returned, Emma was pretending to scold the children.
Outside the snowstorm grew stronger. Aurora rubbed her hands together to warm them. She knew she was restless and unable to hide it, and that bothered her. Emma was sneaking looks at her and she knew it. When breakfast ended—although it was almost lunchtime—Alfred came down the stairs. She saw his gaunt and stooping body tucked into woolen pajamas. Her husband said good morning, mussed his grandchildren’s hair and, looking at the two women, asked why such glum faces so early in the day. And it’s not because of the snow, he added.
Aurora and Emma looked for each other’s reaction.
Halfway through breakfast, Alfred deepened his voice and mentioned that the day before someone had called from Florida. What was the name of the Cunninghams’ daughter? Betsy? One of her children called. She died a few days ago. They think it was a heart attack. They didn’t call before because they couldn’t find our number.
Aurora listened for long minutes to the pounding of the snow against the window glass. Emma asked questions that Alfred answered in monosyllables. The wind outside rolled like a drum. A ray of sunshine managed to filter through the glass. The sound of silverware scraping on plates returned her briefly to reality. She stood up to collect the glasses that the orange juice had yellowed around the edges. Emma rushed to help her. She heard Alfred say that the New York Yankees were playing against the Detroit Tigers today. The grandchildren asked what they could play since the snow was keeping them from going outside, and Aurora asked them to help her light the stove.
Hours later, the afternoon grew dark in the window glass. It was snowing less but the cold was still unbearable. The Yankees won two to zero. The fire in the stove threw tiny golden sparks at them. Muffy and Sophie had just climbed onto her lap. Aurora saw, reflected in the eyes of the cats, that strange dance of fire, alive, stormy. Dearest Betsy, she murmured . . .
Translation from the Spanish
By George Henson