Plain Text Version - Fiction
Palomar by Jennifer Anthony
I can make it, Paloma told herself. It’s just three days.
Paloma picked some crumbs from the corners of her mouth, plucked a feather off her shoulder, and tucked her arms behind her like wings. The babysitting was a favor for her sister Marisol, who claimed there was no one else to watch her grandchild – not a soul who could take on the little monster for sixty or so hours while Marisol frittered away the time on a mother-daughter weekend in Carmel.
Children made Paloma tense. The questions. The poking around. And the endless and suffocating needs: hungry, thirsty, tired, bored, sick. She had only seen this particular specimen twice – seated in the church’s last pew at Paloma’s mother’s funeral, five years back, and then her father’s, just six months ago. With translucent blue eyes and glowing alabaster skin, the kid was hard to miss.
At the last funeral, the child had stage-whispered questions to her mother as she stared, beady-eyed, in Paloma’s direction: Who’s that birdy-looking woman not talking to anyone? Why’s she just staring out the window? After the service, the girl had shaken her hand, firmly. Paloma never was too good at guessing children’s ages but she figured the girl – that stern hand shaker – had about ten tree rings. About the same number that Paloma – who now had 71 or so – had had, when she first Changed.
And now the little urchin was spilling out from her grandmother’s ridiculous gold Mercedes and lurching up the pathway that led to Paloma’s front door, weighted down by an enormous backpack. Marisol trailed behind her like a burro, carrying the rest of the girl’s luggage.
Just three days, Paloma reiterated to herself. She swung the door open wide and attempted a smile.
“Buenos, Palomita!” Marisol said, dropping the luggage on the porch and squeezing Paloma in a bone-popping, arthritis-inducing hug. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you’re taking care of Heather.” The family had moved from Argentina long ago – when Marisol was eight and Paloma, sixteen. But Marisol had recently resurrected an accent – fabricated and for show, like the car, the house, the two daughters she had spawned, and their brood of children who she dressed and paraded around like her own.
“She is so very excited!” Marisol continued, gesturing to the child who stood, morose as an upright cadaver, beside her grandmother’s cream and white pant-suited body. “She won’t be a hassle at all: fácil fácil fácil. She’ll probably read the entire time, or work on her Sudoku puzzles – she’s a whiz with numbers.” With a pointy pink nail, she gave the child a poke, quick as a cattle prod. “Go on inside – first bedroom on the left – and put your maletas down, niña, while I talk with my hermana.”
Paloma watched with mild amusement as the girl schlumped down the hall with her elephantitis-inflicted luggage.
Marisol’s smile vanished. “Are those damn pigeons still out there?” One pink nail pointed in the direction of the back yard.
“Por supuesto,” Paloma said, using the Spanish for irony. “You think just because Papí died I’m going to kill them?”
“Ugh,” Marisol said, gazing around the room at the dust-covered furniture, the toppling stacks of books, and the several coffee mugs that hadn’t quite made their way to the sink. “Those birds are so damn filthy. Why don’t you set them free?”
“They are homing pigeons. They’ll come back,” Paloma said. “And besides, I like them. It’s you and Mamí who hated them, always.”
“I’ll tell you why I hate them,” Marisol whispered, as footsteps approached on the hardwood floor. “Because they were all you and Papí cared about. Disgusting creatures, is what they are. Shitting all over everything. And Papí, spending all that money on their food, the leg bands, the racing clocks, the coops, everything.”
Paloma watched in fascination as her sister’s face purpled. For years, she had managed to arrange this lecture by phone and avoid the visual theatrics.
“And another thing, Paloma!” Marisol continued. “You cannot do any of your disappearing acts! You cannot just up and leave, like you do – like you have done. Heather is a child – you can’t leave her on her own.”
“I sometimes need to Change, Marisol. Just like Papí. And you know that, so why did you ask me, of all people?” Paloma eyeballed the couch, wishing above wish she could lie down on it to ease the jabs of pain shooting up her legs. Or that she could slip outside, close her eyes, flap a little, and propel herself into the air.
“No one else was available,” Marisol said, with a sigh. “Trust me – we asked everyone. Promise me you won’t – well, you won’t disappear.”
“Transmogrify,” Paloma corrected. “The word is transmogrify.”
“Hush!” Marisol said. “That’s a bunch of mierda.”
“You have seen me Change, Marisol,” Paloma said, gently. If she gave her sister heart failure, she would have to drive the damn kid home. “You’re pretty good at it yourself, you know. In your own way. You change your whole persona to suit what’s popular. And the transmogrification is hereditary! Maybe Feather –”
“It’s Heather!” Marisol said. “And I have no idea what you’re talking about, Paloma. Oh look, here she is!”
A pair of glowing eyes peeped out from the hall. It was July now, and yet the child was still white as parchment paper. Paloma supposed she could dump her off at her neighbor Esmeralda’s pool next door, for starters – pump a little Vitamin D into her system. Esmeralda loved kids – might even scare up a batch or twelve of cookies for the occasion – and then everyone would win. Esmeralda had just made chocolate chip cookies the night before and the crumbs she had scattered across the porch for the birds had been delicious.
“I’d like to see the pigeons,” Heather announced.
“Oh, not those filthy things,” Marisol said, shaking her head. “Why don’t you ask Palomita to rent a movie? And tomorrow she can take you to the mall – or the neighbor’s pool?”
“I want to see the pigeons,” Heather repeated.
“Oh my gods!” Marisol said, pushing her sleeve up her arm to expose a Rolex. “It’s late. I better go. Behave yourself, Heather. Keep an eye on Paloma. And don’t touch those filthy birds!”
Heather and the birds stared at one another through the mesh wire of the enormous bird coop, immobile except for their eyes, blinking steadily.
After three minutes or more, Nacho, the youngest pigeon, shifted his weight, rustled his feathers behind him, and broke eye contact.
“I’m impressed,” Paloma said, standing behind the girl. “You won the staring contest. That means they’ll respect you.”
“How do you know?” the girl asked, without shifting her eyes from the birds.
“I know some things, despite what your grandmother might tell you,” Paloma explained.
“She doesn’t say much about you,” Heather said. Translucent eyes glowing, she turned to regard Paloma. Her arms hung like limp noodles at her sides, as if she had forgotten they belonged to her. “Sometimes she even talks about you in the past tense, like you’re dead or something.”
Paloma nodded, flabbergasted by how kids could get away with being so blunt. Those were the days. “Dessert?” she asked, scratching through her mental archives for something in the house that might qualify as such a thing.
“Nope,” the girl said. “If it’s okay, I’m going to my room to read.”
Paloma swallowed a peep of exultation. This was going to be easier than she had thought. Perhaps the kid would stay in the room the entire weekend.
“Fine by me,” Paloma said. “See you in the morning?”
Arms flopping at her sides, the girl delivered a curt nod of affirmation as she walked away.
And Paloma waited, putzing around the house to fill up the time, agonizing over the aches that seemed to intensify with each passing minute. Standing up meant the sharp pains, rocketing through her legs. And sitting down meant the scary ordeal of standing back up.
She waited until she heard the telltale click of the bedside lamp, until the light no longer shot out from the space underneath the closed door. And only then did she push open the screen door and wince her way down the five porch steps. She chirped a hello to Nacho and the others who watched with expectation. Like her, they were great fans of routine.
Eyes closed, she flapped her arms, slowly at first, then faster and faster. As she lifted from the ground and shed the weight and the human appendages, the pain began to ebb. She was weightless, and free, and young again. She shot into the sky, circled up and around the oak trees, whizzed through the cooling night air, and dipped down past the coop. Nacho scooted out through the open door and joined her.
Paloma managed to scare up some stale cereal the next morning and watched over her coffee mug as the child brought it, spoonful by spoonful, to her mouth.
One and a half days, she told herself. Nine a.m., and the temperature had crept up to seventy-five degrees already. Sweat was trickling down the backs of her knees and her neck felt as if someone had jammed a steel rod into it. Her clothes felt tight all over – too much snacking on the fruit trees the night before.