The Day Otilia Left
Rosa and Otilia had done everything for Clemente, their father, since their mother, Daniela, had left when they were children. They moved about the house in silence, eyes downcast, dusting this, washing that, sweeping here, tidying there.
Clemente had always been stern with them, allowing no levity outside the house and little more within its walls. When Miguelito honked the horn of his truck, waiting outside in the curve of dirt driveway that led to the small white house, Otilia wished Miguelito had been her prince instead of Rosa's. He honked a second time, a cool, clear note that rode the waves of heat and air, through the open window where Rosa was stirring a mottled-blue camp pot of boiling frijoles in the kitchen. The third honk shook Rosa from her task and she ran out the door, into Miguelito's truck and out of their lives. Dutifully, Otilia stopped dusting in the sala and went to tend the beans, as if she had accepted something without having been formally asked.
Otilia feared that with Rosa gone, Clemente might come to her for satisfaction, but it had not happened. Perhaps he was too old. Perhaps, at least in this occasion, he was a decent man. Only after Rosa had been gone for three whole weeks did Otilia breathe easily again.
When a month had passed, Otilia began to wonder if perhaps there was something wrong with her. She waited for Clemente every night in her mother's old camisole, threadbare and yellowed like lace, her body prone across her bed. But Clemente never came. She would fall asleep, her mind slipping into a strange place even as her eyes stayed open. Looking down at herself, she saw the camisole flutter over her breasts, her thin body, until the camisole became a flock of white birds. The birds took her in their feet and lifted her up, through the roof, into the sky, the blue sky, the endless sea of sky. When she awoke, Otilia washed the camisole in boiling water with lye soap until it disintegrated into nothingness.
The weeks and months passed like that, the ritual of cleaning and cooking, cooking and cleaning, for Otilia; Clemente would sleep for hours in the big brass bed, lying on top of the heavy quilts and blankets that had been made by Daniela and her aunts before they had been married. An old black electric fan oscillated uselessly at his feet now that the March breeze swept through the house. When Otilia passed his room, however, she could see his sleep was fitful, burdened. His hair clung to his body in wet clumps, and his fingers flexed and gripped at something he couldn't grasp.
Otilia swept the room she used to share with Rosa, the room that had become her own. In it, two twin beds on wooden frames with bookcase headboards stood side-by-side, divided by a squat, bare nightstand. Both beds were identically clean and neat. It was impossible to discern which had been Rosa's, so long unused, and which Otilia's. Otilia made the beds fresh every morning, even Rosa's, especially Rosa's, in the vain hope that she would one day return to live with them. And each day she swept without fail. The broom had straw bristles, frayed and brittle, and made little shushing sounds as she moved about the room.
That's when Otilia heard the thump. She paused, then resumed.
The thump became a thumping. It was coming from somewhere above her head, in the small attic space over her father's room.
The panel slid away under Otilia's hands as she stood on an old but sturdy steamer trunk. She pulled her small frame through the open space and into the attic.
There was not enough room to stand. She hunched over in the dark, reached into the pocket of her dun-colored apron and struck a blue-tip kitchen match against the ceiling.
The girl's eyes were frightened, her body pressed down against the bed, her bare backside quivering and tensed. And there was a smaller figure, dressed in black, with haunted eyes, squatting like a devil, watching her.
Otilia shook the match out, caught her breath, then lit another match. She saw clearly this time. The girl wasn't a girl at all but a painting of a girl. The brown-skinned girl lay prone with her ass to the world, looking over her shoulder, while the black spirit watched.
The name at bottom left was Gauguin. She supposed it was the devil's name. She brushed the painting aside, only to reveal more naked brown-skinned women. Some showed their breasts, one or both, others had hands pressed against their sex in a gesture Otilia saw as false shame. They were all naked as Eve, pale pink flowers in their long, dark hair.
How had they come to be here, these paintings, in this attic in a small house in ranch country? Otilia couldn't know. She guessed the devil had brought them here. She guessed the devil had brought them to Clemente, to taunt him, to assuage him, to make him a slave to their allure.
That's when she realized that her father had never needed her in that way, because he had these women, all these naked brown-skinned women, more beautiful than she, here, in the small space above the house, in the room above the world.
The match went out in her fingers, burning their tips, but she didn't move for several long minutes. When she did, she crept out of the attic, out of the house, while Clemente still slept, hot in the breeze and dreaming.
She walked down the dirt road. A flock of white birds by the roadside ignored her as she passed.
When Clemente woke, alone, he called for Otilia and received no answer. He rose, went into the bathroom to relieve himself, but stood a long time, as no water came from him. He called for Otilia again, then gave up his attempt to urinate and strode into the kitchen. There was a cake in the middle of the wooden table. The candle atop it had long since burned out, leaving a pool of dried wax like a pale medallion in the center of the chocolate frosting.