They called her La Curruca, The Warbler, in English. Tomas told me it was because warblers are murderers. That when a mate leaves a warbler for another female, his first mate will kill her successor’s unhatched chicks out of fierce jealousy.
I asked my mother if it was true, if The Warbler killed unborn babies, or worse, children. She brushed me off and said Tomas was a foolish boy whose fearfulness would one day make him spiteful and unkind. Even then, I knew what she meant. It took one look at Rey, the neighborhood mutt, to understand how cowards work: going from trembling pups to red-eyed, snarling brutes.
The following day, I found Tomas standing atop a flat rock encircled by the neighborhood kids. He waved his stick-like arms excitedly, like a maestro.
Again, he was fabricating stories about La Curruca, how she had been married once, but her husband left her while she was pregnant and put a baby in another woman’s belly. And that “Crazy Curruca” was so jealous that one night, while everybody was asleep, she snuck over to the other lady’s house with a sharpened knife and carved the baby out herself. “Like slicing a melon.” He made a chopping motion with his hand.
The kids gasped in disbelief, so I decided to set the record straight.
“It’s a lie,” I shouted. The kids turned towards me. “He’s a liar. If it were true, why wouldn’t she be in jail?”
Tomas threw me a look of disdain and crossed his arms over his chest, a gesture he’d likely inherited from his father, a businessman in charge of half the country’s copper mines. Ever since Tomas’s family moved to Chile from Buenos Aires he had been concocting stories to earn the respect of our cohorts. It bothered me that he thought we were so stupid to believe them.
His family used to come over for Sabbath — we had that in common — but eventually my mother found something not to like about them, about his mother in particular. She didn’t like other women, especially the pretty ones.
“She’s not in jail because no one saw her do it,” said Tomas.
“And you did?” The other children laughed as rosy splotches crept up Tomas’s neck. “Innocent until proven guilty.” It was something I had read in one of my mother’s crime novels. “Why don’t you go talk to her yourself?” I taunted. “Or are you too chicken?”
“Why don’t you talk to her,” Tomas shot back. “You’re the one trying to prove me wrong, not the other way around.”
The other kids: three girls and two boys, looked on expectantly. I couldn’t let them down. Besides, I was glad to make Tomas look like a fool in front of his new friends. The seven of us, trailed by Rey, strode past concrete houses, past the enormous white cross that jutted from a patch of weeds. A small group of nuns stood idling by the church steps. We passed the freshly painted municipal building and the butcher shop.
The outside of The Warbler’s house was much like the outside of the other houses on the block: a drab mix of concrete and brick behind a postage stamp lawn. As the afternoon sun settled into shadow, a thin sliver of light formed between the curtains.
Encouraged by the other kids’ cheers, I marched to her doorstep. I couldn’t wait to wipe that smug smile off Tomas’s face. The strip of light between the curtains darkened. Had someone passed by? My stomach tightened.
I took a breath and rapped on the door with my fist. Nothing stirred, so I turned to walk away. It was then that I heard the distinct click of a lock being unbolted and when I turned back around, there she was: La Curruca with her untidy black hair and long aquiline nose. A dark shapeless garment hung from her wiry form.
“Can I help you?” she said in Spanish.
“I - I.” I stuttered. A short-legged mutt skittered around her ankles. I could hear Rey’s guttural growl somewhere behind me. The woman, who looked as though she had just awoken from a deep slumber, examined me from top to bottom.
“If you want money for the church, you’re not going to get it here.”
The rustle of leaves could be heard in the distance. I didn’t dare turn around. La Carruca glanced toward the woods, where Tomas and the others would have been standing, and when her gaze returned, it looked as though her pupils had hardened to stone.
“What they say about me is true,” she said, locking her eyes to mine.
Just then, I remembered what my father had told me, that dogs could sense fear and will attack if they smell it. I wondered if she could sense it too, if I would become her prey. I stood up tall, pulled my shoulders back.
“Don’t come back, or I promise to God, I’ll live up to my name.” She slammed the door with such force that the whole house shook. When I looked back, Tomas and the others were gone. Rey was busy gnawing on a rabbit he’d trapped between his enormous paws.
I told my mother what happened. There weren’t many secrets between us because she always knew how to read my face, better than her own I thought.
“She scared me,” I said. Wasn’t she a child once?” I asked indignantly.
“And you, my platke-macher, my troublemaker, will one day be an adult and see why you were wrong.” Even though she had no one left to speak Yiddish with, my mother still held onto the language. It had been a vestige of her life back in Brooklyn, a reminder of her identity before she had handed her life over to my father, followed him down to Panama and along the Pacific, all the way to the city of Chillán where they would start a new chapter in a country that accepted their ideals, at least for a time. “Get your things, Love. We’re going to apologize. We already have enough enemies lurking around as is. No need to make another.”
It was true, she had enemies: the right-wing anti-communists, the anti-Semites, the anti-Americans. She had made enemies of my father and his circle, though I got the sense that they didn’t fully reciprocate my mother’s contempt, not because they liked her, but because they didn’t care. Then there were the women my mother snubbed at various periods: at Sabbath dinners, at my school functions, political gatherings.
It’s not that my mother was unkind. She had a good heart. But she was a stubborn woman who drew a thick line between right and wrong. And she just happened to be on the “right” side nine times out of ten.
Before I could dodge an apology to The Warbler, she had me out the door, our fingers laced tight as a fisherman’s knot.
“You’re going to say you’re sorry, then we’ll go home.” I counted the number of houses we passed. There were six. Six redbrick houses, just like theirs. Four dotted with roses and camellias. One raveled in strands of ivy, one worn and abandoned, its windows
“But she’s a mashugana,” I whispered. “She cut a baby out of a woman’s body.”
My mother’s hand tightened around mine. “Maybe the kurveh deserved it,” she spat. Even she was shocked by her own words, as if a conniving sinner had slyly placed them in her mouth.
“I’m sorry Lucy, I didn’t mean it. It’s not true what they say about her anyway. Which is why we must apologize and get on with it.”
At my mother’s knock, the same woman from earlier answered. She looked at my mother, then at me, betraying no signs of recognition. Her hair was still disheveled and she wore a long white linen apron.
“Did we catch you at a bad time…we can…”
“No, it’s okay.”
“You speak English?” my mother said, sounding surprised.
“My father was an Irishman,” said The Warbler with little enthusiasm.
“Okay, well then, you don’t know me, but I believe you met my daughter. She has something to say to you.”
“I’m really sorry,” I murmured. “I shouldn’t have showed up at your door like that and it was wrong of me,” I continued, looking sideways at my mother.
“Well don’t look at me,” she said. “Look at…”
“Cecilia,” said the woman. “My name is Cecilia.”
“And this here is Lucy, and I’m Ana,” said my mother.
“I know who you are.”
My mother stiffened. Had there been whispers about her too? Even the neighbors, who were deaf to the screams and curses following my father’s Citroen, could surely detect the honey scent of charred eucalyptus mingled with burnt polyester when she set fire to his possessions. “Well, I guess there are only so many of us New York families. We’re easy to pick out of a crowd.”
It looked as though Cecilia were about to say something else, but stopped herself and instead invited us inside.
The house smelled of turpentine and cigarette smoke. Sullied rags and paintbrushes were strewn about, tossed off haphazardly. The walls were covered in saffron yellow wallpaper, though there were large splotches of canary yellow where the paper was peeling. Tables were littered in dishes sprinkled with crumbs and glasses lined with a patina of brown residue.
If she was embarrassed by the untidiness, it didn’t show. Her paintings were laid out in a corner atop a canvas rug. She observed me looking at them.
“Those are mine,” she said proudly. They were hardly impressive to me, simple unicolor canvases overlaid with another color in a loosely circular shape, like giant stains or smashed flowers — but my mother seemed moved.
“So you’re a painter,” my mother said, as if it weren’t already blaringly obvious. I didn’t know what she was trying to get at. She clenched her jaw. “My husband left me for a painter.” It was the first time she had directly addressed my father’s taking up with Valeria. Normally my father’s infidelity was only spoken of in euphemisms.
“My husband left me for a whore,” Cecilia said. The two women began to laugh. First silently, then noisily and with their whole bodies, writhing and red-faced like newborns. Had I missed something? What was so funny?
“So it’s true?” I said. The room grew quite again. “It’s true what the other kids say about you.”
“Lucy, please,” my mother scolded.
“No, no it’s okay,” said Cecilia. “It’s only half true. That murdering unborn babies business…those are only rumors. I was only trying to scare you earlier.”
“It worked,” I said. She had indeed frightened me, though I surprised myself in my admission of fear. But I felt sorry for Cecilia. If I couldn’t understand her as a painter, I’d at least indulge her, far superior, acting abilities.
“And she doesn’t scare easy,” said my mother lighting a cigarette.
“I heard from a cousin who was a midwife that the poor girl lost her baby, my husband’s daughter, but that was God’s work, not mine,” she added. “The only red you’ll see on my hands comes from a paint tube.”
I felt better knowing the rumors were false, that she wasn’t a murderer, but still, there was something about her that unsettled me, so much so that when she invited us to come over another day and my mother readily accepted, I was beside myself. How could my mother not see what I did? Perhaps she did see it and didn’t care. Looking back, I think she felt a kindred spirit with Cecilia: two women spurned, cast aside like rotting meat.
When we went to Cecilia’s place the second time, it was neater, though it looked more like an attempt at cleanliness. Loose items were either clustered — kitchen utensils, paint brushes, cleaning products — or stacked — plates, books, napkins. Even her hair looked neater. She had smoothed the loose strands to her head, securing it with water or hairspray, or possibly her own grease. This time, the dog I’d seen during our first encounter stood by Cecilia, its thin legs quivering.
“This is Miel,” said Cecilia, lifting the dog with one swift movement. “My husband found him in an abandoned house his company had been asked to tear down. He was skin and bones then — probably feeding off whatever crawled or flew through the broken glass.” I could see Miel had developed bit of a paunch, which looked strange on his tiny frame supported by four frail legs. His ears, two triangles that stuck straight up from the top of his head made him appear alert, while his sleepy eyes told another story. Cecilia clasped the dog close to her chest and pressed her lips to his graying muzzle. His ear flinched at her touch.
She offered us cheese empanadas and handed me a rag doll with yellow yarn hair that I later found out belonged to her daughter who had been taken by influenza. Of course, I was too old for dolls at that time, but I smiled politely and thanked her anyway.
Again, Cecilia showed us her latest paintings, and though I continued not to understand them, let alone appreciate them, my mother looked deeply touched. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, and I felt a tinge of jealousy. Why was I so oblivious to their meaning?
“Would you call yourself an abstract expressionist?” asked my mother.
“You know a thing or two about art,” said Cecilia, sounding impressed. She poured the tea, which came out mixed with small green flecks that looked like sediment in a pond. “You’ve heard of Rothko?”
“Of course.” My mother nodded. “I see he was an influence,” she said, eyeing the paintings more carefully. “The way you overlay colors.”
While the adults carried on, I excused myself to use the bathroom. I could still hear my mother and Cecilia chatting away, even though there voices had dropped a few notches.
“I’m so sorry about your girl,” my mother said. “That must have been, well…I can’t imagine how that must have been.”
I switched on the faucet not wanting them to know I was listening. An ant crawled along the perimeter of the sink and I flicked it into the eddying water. When the insect squirmed, I extended a finger, a lifeboat.
“She looked just like her father,” said Cecilia coldly. “Throw a wig on her and they looked nearly identical. And there were times, I must admit, that I resented her, wanted her to disappear. And sometimes I think I willed her away. That God could read my sinful thoughts and took her away from me.” I could hear Cecilia whimper, and my mother tell her it was alright, that she had done nothing wrong.
On the way home I asked my mother if I reminded her of her hurt, if I salted her wounds.
“So you heard us,” she said. “Cecilia shouldn’t have said that.” She hadn’t answered my question, but something told me not to ask again.
We visited Cecilia regularly, almost every week, and each time Cecilia would give us dirty tea and cheese empanadas.
The kids at school had begun to give me more trouble. Tomas said it made sense that we were friends with a crazy because we were crazy too and that’s why our father left us. When he said this I hit him so hard across his small pink face that he bled from his nose. This only made matters worse, as the other kids began to believe I was as crazy as he said.
Years later, I would still remember the resounding bang that reverberated through the thick quiet of winter. The leaves had just begun to fall. Thin branches twitched in the howling wind. It was a Saturday and we were on our way to visit Cecilia. I had begun not to mind our visits, if only for the way they transformed my mother into a lighter being, lifted from the weight of solitude.
And yet, I still complained the whole way over to Cecilia’s, lamenting that I had to spend my Saturday with her.
“Do you have something better to do?” snapped my mother. “Quit kveching, would you?”
That shut me up.
We were crossing the street when the shot sounded. “What in God’s name?” said my mother, picking up her pace.
The door of Cecilia’s house had been opened a crack. I remember thinking it was odd because normally she bolted, sometimes double bolted, the door.
“Perhaps she’s busy painting and doesn’t want to be disturbed to answer,” said my mother, making her way inside the house with steady caution.
There was music playing loudly from the victrola, a crackling folk song. The house was the neatest I had ever seen it. The yellow walls were scrubbed clean. The dishes were back in their respective cabinets. Paint brushes were gathered in a tin can on the kitchen counter and the rags had been washed and were hanging up to dry, dripping languidly on the beige carpet.
“Cecilia are you here?” my mother called.
On the yellow wall, was a smeared crimson splotch, like a pressed rose. A heap of black hair lay motionless on the carpet beneath the dripping red smudge.
Cecilia stood over the heap, clutching Miel to her bosom. “Rey,” she moaned. “I opened the door to air out the house. He must have snuck in when I was tidying up and had Miel cornered.”
“Is he hurt?” my mother asked.
“Miel, I mean.”
“Only wounded,” said Cecilia. When she lifted her hands, they were soaked in a burgundy syrup. The small dog pulsed with rapid breaths.
My mother sighed. “You’ll need to clean up this mess. We can bury him in the backyard, behind the coop. Lucy get the shovel,” she commanded. At first I could only focus on the corpse. Rey’s black wisps of fur were clumped and matted. His electric energy stilled. Willing myself to look away, I ran to the shed and dragged out two shovels, both nearly my size.
I stopped when I saw Cecilia and my mother in the doorframe.
“Let me help you,” said Cecilia, wrapping the dog in a sheet of roll-up canvas. The women took hold of opposite sides of the canvas. They marched off to the backyard, bloodied and solemn, like two soldiers returning from battle, unsure whether they had lost or won.