Juanita opens her mouth and exhales into the train window, fogging up the glass, her breath erasing the world outside until, bit by bit, it returns again, slightly changed. Memories of the last few days, during which her life has also changed, drift through her head. Her mama has died. Yesterday, on the morning they buried her, Juanita felt her tears build up inside her, but she couldn’t cry. In the afternoon, her dad had lain still in bed, unresponsive, his eyes open until evening, when finally he got up and explained to Juanita that they would need to leave in the morning for Grandma’s farm, where Grandma would cook proper meals for her. He wasn’t, he said, up to it, the long illness having left him exhausted.
The journey is slow, the train itself seems to be sick.
—You’ll need to behave, she doesn’t like spoiled girls. If you listen well, she’ll give you treats like dulce de leche, drippingwith caramel and nuts. She might even teach you to make carrot cake, but you’ll have to remember to ask her to write down the recipe. She taught your mama when we got married, but mama forgot because she didn’t write it down. So she could never make it the right way. And Grandma resented that, I should never have told her ….
Juanita’s father stares out the window for a long time. In his face, she can see the lines of something that can’t be either solved or sustained. She reaches up and gently rubs her father’s brow, but the furrows re- main. Her dad turns to her and continues:
—But Grandma’s very sweet, she knows a lot of things you can learn. If she shouts sometimes, don’t be scared; she’ll get over it and then she’ll make you something delicious, oatmeal cookies or cottage cheese. Don’t ask her to buy you things.And don’t get too close to her dogs, they don’t know you, they don’t like children. But the cows do …. Staring out her own window now, Juanita is distracted by the pam-
pas grass edging the road, by the silent mountains sluggishly drifting across the plain like immense animals without mouths.She falls asleep. Her father keeps talking, even though he knows no one is listening to him anymore:
—It’ll only be two months, I’ll pick you up … two months, I promise.
They arrive at dusk. Grandma flings open the gate and shouts:
—Come in! Hurry up then, I don’t want the dogs getting out!
But their barking nearly drowns out her voice. The girl feels her grandmother’s hand gripping her arm, hurrying her through the gate. Her father lifts her up so the dogs don’t jump on her. Together, they cross the farmyard.
It’s a long way, riding on her dad’s shoulders, her fingers in his hair, watching the sky between the trees slowly going dark.Before the light is entirely gone, she makes out an orchard, alfalfa plantations, and the cows . . . the eyes of the cows.
They pull off their boots on the porch. Then Juanita enters the house and feels the solid floor beneath her. The fireplace is litand she walks toward it until she’s ordered to stop—so no spark jumps into her eyes. The fire’s warmth softens a little the knot she’s carried in her stomach since the moment when she found her mother on the bathroom floor and then discovered that she couldn’t scream. Her eyes wander across the many curiosities distributed throughout the immense and ancient house. Long dark stone tiles cover the floor, flat and cold, and in the center of the room, the skin of a puma with its raised head seems to be eyeing the door, waiting for the right moment to escape.
Over the fireplace, photos of her father and uncles when they were children, another of her grandfather, the one who died when her fa- ther was a boy, dressed as a hunter. And also a photo of Grandma, very young, wearing a hat and riding a horse.
—So, aren’t you going to give your grandmother a kiss? Come on then, give me a kiss!
Juanita’s eyes open wide, but she’s frozen. She tries to smile, but maybe, she thinks, maybe she’s only making a face of disgust.
—Come now, child? I’m your grandmother! I bet you want a sweet, some chocolate milk? What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?
She’s been asked that question a lot in the last few days, but she still doesn’t understand how a cat could swallow her tongue if she hasn’t opened her mouth.
Grandma throws up her hands and speaks to her son:
—How skinny this little girl is, my God. You can tell her mother didn’t breastfeed her. And those dark circles under hereyes? Don’t you feed her?
Grandma looks at Juanita and raises her voice.
—How old are you? Don’t you know?
—She knows! Of course she knows, she’s a big girl; it’s just that, since, you know … She hasn’t spoken since then. It’sshock. Remember, she was the one who found her. You hear me? We don’t know how long she was on the floor there with her,but—
He turns his face toward Juanita.
—Show her with your fingers. How old are you, Nita? Show Grandma.
Juanita raises her right hand, opening five fingers toward her grand- mother before she hides her hand behind her back.
—You see? You know, she’s a very smart girl!
—Well, but she’s too small for a five-year-old, she has to eat more, develop her defenses, build bones. Look at those skinnylegs, they’re like braids.
Juanita thinks about the bones in her knees. Grandma speaks loud- er and louder.
—With me she’s going to put on some weight and learn to follow directions, none of that trauma nonsense, you’ll see. Withchildren, it’s firmness that counts. Her mother was too easygoing and that’s what happens, it leaves them like this, see? You haveto push them to be strong, to build character, that’s love, and that’s what makes them grow up.
Juanita’s father is staring at the puma hide on the floor.
Grandma tries to read her son’s lips, but they aren’t moving. So she marches into the kitchen saying, Five years old and she looks three. I made lamb soup. It’s hot; I’m going to serve.
That night, Juanita dreams that her mama doesn’t answer her. She calls out repeatedly, but her mama doesn’t answer. Her dad wakes her up because she’s wet the bed. They have to change sheets, ask Grandma to lend them new ones, and put towels on themattress so she can lie down again. They both scold her, but not too much, because her dad explains to Grandma, again, that they have to be patient with her for a while. Grandma is quiet, but looks at Juanita as if she’s waiting for something. While it’s still dark outside, Juanita wakes, frightened, to strange howls. They aren’t human; it’s the cows bellowing something terrible that no one understands. She turns to see if her father, in the adjacent bed, hears them, but no, he’s snoring away. Juanita stumbles to the frosted window. Her shallow breath fogs the pane, so she rubs the window with her sleeve, but nothing comes clear. Darkness hides the path and whoever it was out there she thought she heard banging cans. Little by little, the bellowing dies down. She puts on her boots and jacket and goes out to look.
The first light of dawn clarifies the path to the stable, toward which Juanita makes her way. As she nears the hulking structure, she slows down before stepping lightly over the threshold of the big double doors, suddenly remembering the time her mother pointed out to her the stained-glass windows of a soaring cathedral. The rose window’s liv- ing colors dripped ontothe floor and drenched her feet with light, and although she and her mother were speaking softly, their voices filled the whole universe.
Juanita takes in the immense semi-dark room of adobe, wood, and straw, which smells of damp dung and alfalfa. She’ssurprised to discov- er that cow dung doesn’t smell like poop, it smells like a mash of plants and saliva, and though it’s not exactly fragrant, she thinks she can get used to it without holding her nose.
She pauses. In one of the stalls, she sees a cow and, hands under its bel- ly, Grandma, shoulders hunched, sitting on a very smallbench, so small that it looks like a toy. Her grandmother stretches the cow’s pink teats and spurts of milk come out. Juanita hasnever seen a cow so close, or she no longer remembers. An immense cloud of astonishment floods her, a feeling for which she can find no word. She begins to move forward again, mesmerized, until she’s standing directly behind her grandmother. The milkrings against the metal bucket in pulses which remind her of gunshots. Her grandmother moves mechanically like a machine.
Amazingly, Grandma doesn’t sense her, doesn’t turn around. She hasn’t heard footsteps, she has no idea Juanita is spying on her. She would certainly scold her, Juanita thinks, and order her back to the house because of the cold. Juanita takes a tiny step closer and stands very still, very close. She watches the can of foam fill with a deep smell, the smell of the inside of the cow’s body. When she’s had enough, she turns around and quietly runs out of the barn.
She trips on a small stone, kicks it away, and then walks. Back at the house, she remains seated on the porch steps with hereyes fixed on the ground.
It’s early morning. Grandma rings the bell. Dad gets up and takes the steps down to the landing. Juanita, already there, takes hishand and walks almost behind his legs. She peeks around him. Grandma prepares the outside table for breakfast: she spreads a tablecloth embroidered with white flowers and lace, which is not new, but stiff from being folded and stored; its folds don’t relax,even when Grandma smoothes it again and again with her palms.
The sun tints the mountains, and the early morning comes on, smelling of bread, cheese, butter, and dulce de leche. The dogs rush over to greet everyone, wagging their tails this time without barking or jumping; they’ve already been fed and are happy.
Smiling broadly, proud of her good teeth, Grandma comes from the kitchen, hauling a big jug of boiling milk. It’s that milk,Juanita thinks, the cow’s milk from this morning. Grandma pours out three big iron cups.
Juanita likes milk very much, she’s sure of that, in her memory, always. But she’s never experienced the smell of real milk, raw,just extracted the interior of a giant animal. Her sensations are confused, as though she doesn’t know what she’s always known.
The steam makes her gag. She has to control herself because her grandmother is eyeing her with a steely judgment to which Juanita is just beginning to condition herself. She looks down at the table, takes a slow, deep breath. Cream hasalready risen to the top of the milk.
She thinks about sticking in her finger to break up the milk-skin, but because Grandma keeps looking at her, she elects to useher spoon. The skin gloms to the cool metal and remains there, hardening in the air when she sets the spoon on the saucer. Her dad smiles at her for a sec- ond, and that’s enough assurance for Juanita to stand up on the bench and reach for the sugar herself.With the spoon from the sugar bowl, she dumps in two, three dollops, but she avoids plunging the sugar spoon into her cup. Her mother taught her well that this is not done, and she doesn’t intend to risk it now. She returns the dry spoon to the sugar bowland, grimacing, takes her own, clotted with milk skin. She sinks it into her cup and stirs the milk until the webs of skim andcream briefly submerge. How is she going to swallow this? She feels nauseous and tells herself to take a slow breath while she continues whisking.
Meanwhile, her father slathers the bread and tells Grandma, speak- ing rather loudly, how much he’s missed his breakfasts, the dulce de leche with nuts and the carrot cake.
Grandma smiles while, with a sidelong glance, checking on Juanita, who is still blowing into her cup, postponing the inevitable.
—It’s already warm, child, drink the milk. Or do you want me to put some oatmeal in it?
The girl shakes her head many times to say no.
—It’s okay, mom. I made her some bread, says her father, offering it to Juanita.
Juanita, astonished by all the dulce de leche heaped onto the bread, takes it from her father’s hands, breaks it in two and, in amoment when Grandma is distracted, sinks half of it into her cup to overpower the taste of cream and skim. As she chews the wetbread, she acknowledges how bold she’s been, how she’s found the perfect solution. And the dulce de leche with nuts is really justas scrumptious as she’d been told it would be. Juanita eats it with a hunger that has been accumulating for days, enjoy- ing herselfso much that she doesn’t mind Grandma telling her father:
—Sopping the bread is very bad manners. Who taught her to eat like that?
Before Grandma turns and corrects her, her dad calms her down, say- ing: Take it easy, Ma. The important thing is that she eats,and she’s eating. Leave her alone. Last night you scolded her for the soup, don’t make a big deal about the milk. It’s time for your ownbreakfast, you wake up so early. Grandma considers her son’s words and let’s herself relax, for now, her vigilance over Juanita.Then she sighs tenderly, watching her grand- daughter lick from her fingers the dessert that she’d prepared especially
for Juanita’s arrival.
When they finish breakfast, her father hoists her onto his shoulders to walk back across the farmyard. He’s got his overnightbag in one hand. Juanita understands that her dad is leaving.
Before opening the gate at the entrance to the farm, he puts her down and steps to the side with Grandma, talking to her inwhispers. Juanita hears her own name pronounced twice. Their words and gestures are hur- ried. And then: Enough! I know how toraise my own granddaughter.
The father closes his mouth.
When he comes back to Juanita, still standing at the gate, he is ashamed to look her in the eyes, but Juanita manages to see his own— like shattered red glass.
Juanita’s own face puckers as he embraces her goodbye. She touches her father’s hair with her fingertips, and tears streamdown her cheeks. Her father’s own tears wet her ears. Grandma kicks at the dog that sidles over to lick them. Then her father stands back wiping his face on the sleeve of his sweater. Juanita feels the cold wind on her cheeks, but she doesn’t want to dry her face.
As he walks away toward town, Grandma locks the gate. Turning back toward the house, she notices Juanita’s semi-closedeyes, her trembling lips. The girl, her face a wet mess, looks up at her grandmother. Grandma reaches to wipe away Juanita’s tearswith her thumbs, but the girl dodges and runs off.
She runs feebly, all the way to the house, like someone shot in the stomach.
Throwing herself onto the bed, she buries her head under the blanket.
She falls asleep almost immediately. Grandma doesn’t call her until lunchtime. When she wakes up, she’s not sure where she is.She sees the window, the threadbare curtains, the pine trees outside, and then she remembers everything: the trip, the dogs, themilk skin, and her mama frozen to the tiles. She sucks her thumb for a long time without getting up, listening to the birds that sing so differently on the farm.
That afternoon, her grandmother takes her to the town fair where they buy almonds, raisins, and some wool mittens with pink puppies sewn on them. Then, when Juanita pauses over a little tin stove, her grandmother buys it for her on the spot, without even having been asked. It’s red, with six white burners and a little oven into which she can put tiny stones as if they were loaves of bread.
She plays all afternoon with the stove in the greenhouse, and in the evening, Grandma again makes her milk, which Juanitastirs quickly so that no skim forms, and bread with dulce de leche with lots of caramel.
—This is just because it’s our first day, but don’t get used to it; from tomorrow on, you’re going to eat as God commands.
It’s not easy for her to sleep without her father in that alien room, but she doesn’t dare try to walk in the dark to hergrandmother’s room either. She hugs her little tin stove so hard its edge sticks into her chest. When she falls asleep, she dreams of stone loaves.
At dawn, the same sorts of screams she’d heard the night before make her stomach turn. This time, she jumps out of bed, dresses faster, and rushes outside.
She’s afraid to fully enter the barn, the whole place feels hostile, so she hides behind the door beside the milking stalls and watches.
In the shadows of the closest stall, a small calf trots toward its moth- er, urgently seeking her udder, sucking from teat to teat with all the voracity of its scrawny body. The cow, which had been calling it, calms down, closing her eyes. She licks her lips,swats invisible flies with her tail, and breathes deeply, steadily. Silently, the morning light begins to lift away the shadows.
Then a woman and a man, one behind the other, approach the stall from the long central aisle. The man yanks the calf by its hind legs, dragging it away from its mother and out of the stall. He loops a leather leash around its snout as the calf squeals,working its jaw pathetically. And the mother bellows, stretching her neck backwards to look. Juanita can see now that the cow’s front legs are hobbled, and a rope dangles from her neck. The woman, standing beside the cow in the stall, takes the rope and tethers it to the stall’s wooden slats. In the meantime, the man has dragged the struggling calf out of the barn.
By the time Juanita loses track of the calf’s cries, the woman has arranged the bucket and the bench. The cow lowers her head and lets herself be milked.
And suddenly Juanita’s grandmother enters the stall from the aisle near the barn’s far door. Without a word, the woman milking the cow yields her place on the bench. And Grandma takes over the milking with a noticeably faster and more practiced rhythm.
Juanita slips away from her hiding place and runs back toward the house, a knot tightening in her stomach, the back of herhands splotched with purple dots, her knees trembling. She wants to cry, but she can’t. She can’t scream or even speak. She opens hermouth, not a word comes out. At the porch steps, she changes her mind and angles toward the greenhouse. She makes her waythrough rows of tomato plants and at the far end, in the farthest corner, she lies down in the black loam on her belly. It’s something she learned from her dog who, on hot days, would relieve herself of the heaviness of pregnancy by digging a hole in the earth into which she would settle her huge belly. Doing so her- self, Juanita feels welcomed by the earth. She feels her grief dissipating between the roots of the plants. The earth, she senses, knows the waters inside her. There in the greenhouse dirt, shefalls asleep and dreams that she is with her mama, bathing their little dog in the yard. It begins to rain, and the dog scrambles away from them and runs off. Her mother chases after the dog until both are lost from sight. Now Juanita is alone. And there’sno house anymore, but only a dry field—no trees, no birds, nothing but straw and stones. She knows that no one will answer ifshe screams. That’s why she doesn’t scream.
In the near distance, the porch bell rings, calling her to breakfast. Juani- ta wakes up in the greenhouse, disoriented. She doesn’twant to go back to the big house, but she doesn’t dare to disobey either.
Eventually, she quietly shuffles to the outside table. Grandma is still clanging the bell on the porch. Juanita sits on the bench before her grandmother notices her. But when she turns and sees her, Grandma pounces.
—Where were you? I went to wake you up and you weren’t in your room, where did you sleep? And that dirt on your clothes? Come.
She roughly wipes down her granddaughter’s clothes with her hands, sits her down again on the bench, placing a cup ofmilk in front of her, the sweet bread next to it. But Juanita doesn’t move.
—Eat! I said eat!
Juanita refuses even to glance at the cup; but still, the steam clouds her eyes. She tries not to blink.
—What’s wrong? It’s getting cold now!
There is no answer. Grandma breaks the bread in two, scrunches one half in her fist, and tries to force it into hergranddaughter’s mouth. The girl lets herself be handled like a doll, but she won’t open her mouth, and the wet dough slides down her frozen face.
—What do you think you’re doing, you little brat? You’re not getting up from this table until you finish that milk, do you hear me?
Grandma tosses the wet bread into the mud and goes inside.
All day long Juanita sits there, petrified and somber. At some point she pees, but she barely notices, only when she feels thecold sticking to her legs. The grandmother has not approached her, nor spoken to her, nor forgiven her, but, when it’s almostdark, she sends a maid to pick her up and take her to bed. The maid obeys, but doesn’t make eye contact with her.
Juanita drops to sleep like a dead weight.
She dreams she hears her mama calling her. And although she moves toward the voice, she can’t find her. Then she’s digging inthe dirt in the greenhouse, digging a deep pit that fills with water. And she’s slipping into the water, her legs, her whole body sloshing under. And she can’t close her mouth.
Before it’s light, the sound of lowing brings her back to herself. She wakes up knowing. As much as it terrifies her, she can’thelp it; she has to see. Over her dirty clothes from yesterday, she puts on her jacket, thicker pants, new boots and gloves. She racesalong the path to the barn.
No one sees her. And she arrives at just the right moment. The calf is already suckling, the mother’s eyes closed, and thedaylight is coming on. But this time, everything happens much faster. The same man as on the day before appears and loops aleash around the calf’s neck and yanks it away, the cow begins to bellow again, and tears of fury run down Juanita’s face as the manhauls the struggling animal out of the barn.
There’s more mud than yesterday, and the heels of the man’s boots sink into it as he stomps forward. But the calf’s feet are just beginning to know the ground, and they slip and catch and twist in the slurping mud. The man tugs the rope, the calfshrieks and spins awkwardly, and something happens to its neck. It collapses, motionless, in a heap. The man bends and tries tolift it, but the body has gone limp. He stands up slowly and takes a step back.
Then, out of nowhere, the grandmother is there, prodding the calf with her walking stick to make sure it’s dead.
And inside the barn, the cow, which has witnessed everything, lets out a dark groan. Juanita recognizes that darkness,although she’s never heard it before. It’s the same darkness that has taken her voice.
The cow stands motionless in her stall, looking out, her head hanging down.
The grandmother curses her farmhand. The man says nothing in re- ply. He leaves, pulling the calf after him while Grandmashouts for him to cut it up for lunch, and to do it well, because she herself will check the cuts. Then she turns back into the barn, sits down on the bench by the cow, and reaches for her udder.
In the greenhouse, her belly nestled in the dirt hollow, Juanita waits for the earth to ease her into sleep. But her eyes don’t close,she can’t release her tears, her throat is dry. She opens her mouth like a fish, but nothing comes out.
When the porch bell rings, she doesn’t return to the house. Hearing that she is wanted, she does not go. She stays hiddenamong the plants, she covers her face with earth and mud, she remains still and invisible. Nobody knows where she is, nobody.
As the hours go by, her grandmother grows anxious and, when final- ly night begins to fall, she picks up the phone and calls her son.
—I don’t know, we’ve been looking for her all over the farm. There’s no way out, I’m sure she’s hiding, but what do you wantme to do? You bring me a spoiled child, and when I try to educate her, she runs away from me! How could I know what she waslike? She doesn’t talk! Come? No, you’d better not. Are you going to travel at night? I don’t think it’s necessary, the cold will bring her back, but do whatever you want.
Night comes on and nothing. The grandmother can’t sleep. She’s replaying the last two days in her mind.
—A whole day is too much, it’s really too much. Maybe I was too severe. But it certainly worked with my own children,just one evening in front of the plate and they never threw a tantrum at the dinner table again. Girls, though, they tend to be weaker. All the more reason to make her strong. Or was it too soon? What’s happened to her? When she wanted to dunk herbread, I let her. I bought her a kitchenette and those cheap gloves she chose herself. Maybe I didn’t kiss her goodnight …I didn’tteach her how to make cake, those things …But I’ve already for- gotten all that. I should have had daughters, all these years alone now …I must be turning to stone.
At four in the morning, the guilt is burning through her head. She steps out with a hat and lantern to look for hergranddaughter. It’s freez- ing. Although the dogs accompany her, the darkness makes her nervous. It’s been a long time since shewandered the edges of her property at that hour, or maybe she never did, or she doesn’t remember. She steps tenta- tively throughthe mud, slips and falls to her knees, gets up as best she can. Looking down at her muddy hands, her soiled clothes, she feels small.
The lantern sends out a wide halo that dissipates in the thickets and bounces back from adobe walls. In the near distance,someone ap- proaches. The dogs bark. A chill goes up her back.
—This is my own property, by god.
She wants to move forward, but she pauses. The silhouette too pauses behind some trees.
—Who is it?
She raises her walking stick and advances, and the silhouette on the wall grows more massive.
—It’s me …how stupid. Just me …the witch. She lowers her walking stick.
Holding up her lantern, she looks up into each of the trees that she imagines the girl might have been able to climb.Eventually, she enters the greenhouse, and walks between the rows, her lantern illuminating the way. Something in the far corner flashes. Hesitantly, she approaches. It’s the little tin stove in a hollow of dirt, the little stove and some tiny stones. The oldwoman feels around blindly in the loam. She finds one glove, then the other. She claws deeper, scraping her fingers, but there’s no other trace of the child.
Dawn is coming on, and she expects that her son will arrive soon. She knows she should go back to the house, at least to wash her hands and change clothes. In the slowly intensifying daylight, she turns off her lantern and begins to retrace her way.
And as she passes the barn, she hears a noise—the cows, of course, but then it’s the only place she hasn’t thoroughly searched. She steps inside where it’s dimmer, and in the weak, cold light, near the milking station, she discovers Juanita. She ison her knees, pressed tightly against the cow, suckling at the warm teats.
The grandmother hovers there dizzily, unable to utter a word.
Without moving her body, the cow swings her massive head toward the older woman, exhales heavily, and closes her huge dark eyes.