Maggie was obsessed with feathers. The fascination had started two weeks ago when Rita picked an electric blue one from the stone path that took them out of the Castelo so they could avoid the eager tourists waiting in line. Rosalia had shown her the side stone road, contorted, hidden, and inviting like Rita’s thoughts after every visit to her only friend, the Castelo’s administrator. The faraway shy stops at the castle, whenever rain was imminent and tourists absent, had turned into a soothing routine for Rita during Rosalia’s lunch break. Neither of the two women ate much during the narrow hour, only Maggie filled her fists more than her mouth with the black hard candy that Rosalia smuggled just for her.
“She will turn three next week.” Rita sighed looking intermittently at the cod croquettes in her paper plate and at her daughter, who was following a peacock with a hand full of candy and a heart overflowing with greed for a blue feather.
Rosalia raised her head and followed the decisive steps of the girl on the grass of the historic garden with the same attention with which she chose the right words in English to express her Portuguese thoughts.
“She is a happy girl. At that age, my granddaughter was all about butterflies. She wandered around that same patch while I was at the office. She didn´t care for the peacock feathers. She was already afraid of birds.”
“Maggie is afraid of the fire now. I think her father was talking about the Lisbon fire the other day to a couple who came to the house. Henry loves educating the new ex-pats about all he has learned about the city. And Maggie happens to conclude that all that daddy says is a golden truth sung by the angels. So now she thinks the city can burn down any time like after the earthquake of…”
“1755?” Rosalia smiled. “All little girls are in love with their daddies. You know that… By the way… how’s the other fire in your house? The one you don’t talk about that much anymore.”
Rita left the strict watch on Maggie and gazed into the distance, beyond the stone wall, and into the far sea with the same attentive gesture of the gazelle smelling danger. “I am not sure I understand,” she whispered.
“Forgive me. I didn’t want to pry. I was trying to make a lousy metaphor about the lack of fire, of passion, between you and Henry. Are things a little better? This is the first time you mentioned him in a long time.”
“You know… I am confused. He’s there but he’s is far away from us. I’m not sure how much I care anymore. We love Maggie together. That I know. Sometimes I wish for a sign, a message, some little clue easy to decode. But nothing… I wonder day and night when it was that everything changed. But it’s like we’re only allowed to know the before and the after, the first kiss and the last, the time I struggled with Maggie’s thin baby hair and that tangled mane of curls I cannot manage now. But if you asked me how all that changed, or when, or even why… I just don’t know.”
Rosalia slid close to Rita and away from the sun. The surface of the stone bench was rough and welcoming at the same time. She hid in Rita’s hand one of the little candies destined for Maggie. “But knowing when things change doesn’t bring you any consolation either, my dear. There are only two moments in my life when I witnessed the exact wink of upheaval and both hurt too much, physically first and now still in an invisible vine of the universe that God doesn’t allow me to cut.”
“You mean when dear people died, Rosalia?”
“No, dear. Perhaps the exact opposite. I mean the moment I gave birth to my daughter.” Rosalia looked down, her eyes fixed on the grey threads of her uniform skirt. Rita kept her lips tight as her fingers played with the candy, inviting her older friend to spin the painful memory.
“I was alone and exposed, surrounded by two nurses and a midwife I had never seen before. All of them closing curtains and moving trays. One of the nurses had a cloudy eye, she was the one encouraging me in a language that I still hadn’t mastered. The language gap is wider, abysmal if you are by yourself and terrified. There were also three young women sitting in a corner with a big matron, another midwife or authority it seemed. She was lecturing them on the graphic aspects of childbirth. I had been chosen as a teaching specimen. Nobody asked me for permission. I wouldn’t have understood what they wanted permission for, anyway. I was just broken with pain and desolation. My baby was coming and nobody had been able to find my husband. My two idiotic sisters-in-law, Argentinean female versions of Groucho and Harpo, changed the subject every time I asked about him. And then, when my contractions hastened and my breath expanded and crushed my bones from within... that second midwife said to the future nurses, to those wide-eye pigeons clucking around her: ‘And this is the last stage of labor before childbirth. The baby is coming now. Transition is called. Write it down. Tran-si-tion.’”
“And you remember that?” muttered Rita touching her lower lip.
“It seems that panic and pain could be echo chambers of inappropriate words at the wrong moment, darling. Who knows? My next memory is having my baby on top of me and being thirsty and being happy and feeling abandoned and fulfilled at the same time.”
“Mammy, look!” In her tight fist, Maggie smashed half a whitish plume that one of the female peacocks must have lost in her disdainful dance from an electric-blue male.
Rita took the present from her daughter as if it were a relic and smiled toward Rosalia.
“And the second time?”
Rosalia was already piling the plates and cups on the bench and throwing the crumbs to the hungry birds.
“What second time?”
“When you noticed that something had changed without redemption.”
“Oh, that was when my husband slammed the room of our bedroom after I told him I was convinced our baby was deaf… That is the problem with transitions, my dear, someone always leaves, someone always stays. It could be you, me, the mermaids singing to the sailors in that sea, the snake, or Adam and Eve. Because every change is an instance of labor witnessed by the one who shouldn’t be there and suffered by the one following a feathery dream. Let’s go now. Let me take you to the back path before the mob gets here.”
by Fabiana Elisa Martínez
Fabiana is the author of the short story collection 12 Random Words, the short story Stupidity and a collection of short stories Conquered by Fog both published by Pierre Turcotte, and the grammar book series Spanish 360 with Fabiana. 12 Random Words, in its three bilingual versions, has won nine awards, and two of its stories were selected to be read in February 2017 as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s distinguished literary series Arts & Letters Live. The book was also among the six finalists of the Eyelands Book Awards 2022 and won the First Prize last December. Fabiana has been honored extensively for other short stories of hers in magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and radio around the world.
Fabiana was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She graduated from UCA University in Buenos Aires with a degree in Linguistics and World Literature. She is a linguist, a language teacher, and a writer, and speaks five languages: Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and Italian. For twenty years, she has lived and worked in Dallas, Texas. She is currently working on her first novel.