The Lavender House
by L Vocem
First Published in AIM Quarterly, Winner Best Fiction Second Prize
The road descends, slowly, winding along the ravine, immersed in misty clouds, shrouded by lush tropical green. Brooches of birds and orchids lead it away from the valley of the city to the valleys below, to the flat lands, to the lands of heat and coconut trees, of cocadas and fish empanadas, of eternal sun and sandy beaches. My house is in one of the winding curves, in between those two worlds, overlooking the ravine, a steep descent into turbulent waters, white and bubbly, announcing its presence with a constant roar. When the days are clear, gray monoliths come into clear view, towering between the mountains towards the sky, alone and sad, like giant concrete crucifixes yearning for a purpose. They are the pillars of a highway that never was. I guess they tell all travelers about the big men who made promises, but let their lies, their greed and selfishness take over. I don’t pray for them.
I see lights at night. I hear engines groan almost out of breath as they slowly climb the mountain. They haul platanos, yucca, corn, bananas, or anything that can grow on the fertile plains. Young men with taut bodies sit on top of the cargo. They look at my house painted in lavender, they lower their heads and make the sign of the cross. I pray for them.
I pray for all of those who travel, for all of those who come like a gust of wind down the mountain, for those who pack their cars with joy and children to spend the weekend under the sun, for those who the road is their life, climbing the mountain in the dark to bring produce to market, going back during daylight, day in and day out. They are my friends. I pray for all of them. That is my penance. That is my place.
I am not alone. Other houses populate the side of the road. Some are stucco-white, others are light blue or pink. Some of their inhabitants are happy, others sad, others mean. They all have their reasons, they all have their memories. I have other memories besides the road, the ravine, the bright lights, the roaring river.
I know my place. I still miss the past. I have my memories. This is my place. I pray for you. Bright lights flood through my house, my lavender house.
I remember Mi Mamá telling me to change my skirt; that uniform is from last year. I have grown and the hem is above the knee. What will the nuns say, what kind of mother would they think she is? I pout. I like it this way. This is the way all the other girls are wearing their uniform in school, it looks… I see the lights of cars flashing.
Mi Mamá tells me to change into a new uniform and to put shorts under my skirt. You never know when a gust of wind, well you know…and boys. Boys are just boys, they can’t help themselves, but ladies, young ladies, that’s another matter. I oblige. I oblige, furious, but I oblige. Mi Mamá is always right, that’s how she got a good husband.
Mi Papá tells me to come over by the kitchen table, while he’s reading the paper. He pats me on the head. He calls me his little girl. I am no longer a little girl, but I like it. I smell the nicotine on his hand. He smiles at me. He always smiles at me. And I still like it, he’s Mi Papá. Even when Mi Mamá punished me for stuffing my bra with cotton, he smiled. He smiled and told me that soon I would be a woman and would find a good husband. He pats me again. To him I would always be his little girl.
In school, the clock on the wall stands still. The voice of sister Fátima drones monotonously incalculable equations, while outside cicadas plead incessantly for company. The sister’s voice drowns under the cicadas while the clock on the wall wrestles to move one notch. A few dots of perspiration form above my lip. I want to remove them but the heat, the cicadas, the sister’s voice, and time, perpetually attached to that moment keeps me from doing it. My eyes begin to close, but I snap back.
On the road by the ravine, it is never hot. A breeze coming from the river keeps my lavender house fresh, even in the heat of the dry seasons. And time moves at the speed of light, night blurs into daylight and days run together. But, I know for sure when is the 16th of every month though, since that is the day Mi Mamá comes to visit.
Time moves again when the bell goes off and chatter and laughter inundate every hall in school. We head to the gates where boys from other schools just happen to be going by on their way home. Most of them still wear their school uniforms, carrying their books under their arms. Some of them change their shirts so they don’t look like they are still in school, but their fuzzy whiskers, their khaki pants and baby faces give them away. They whistle at us. Sometimes at me. Sometimes past me to some other girl who didn’t lower the hem of her skirt and is fuller up there. I ignore most of them, but I can’t forget even now the sound of their whistles, the looks of acknowledgment, the piropos they whisper, while their voices break, vacillating between boy and man. I usually see the lights of a truck when I think of this.
There’s an occasion when time slows down at the ravine. That is the month of May, when the sky is clear blue and the mountains turn yellow gold with the flowers of the araguaney. This is the only time that I stop my prayers and look away from the road, and I let nature, the mountains, the birds and even the ants do the praying for me. But they don’t know of my God, the God of the cities and all the saints, so instead they pray to the river below, to the sky and the clouds and the God of the mountains. Soon, they begin to chant their songs of fertility, display opulent colors; birds fly from tree to tree, from flower to flower, courting and chirping in mid air; monkeys swing from branches, gossiping the same old stories; the few jaguars that still remain call with desperate roars their mates, their friends, their ancestors that succumbed to progress. Even the spirits of the first people come to life as the wind howls between the columns of the highway that never was, as if saying that it was they who stopped the tentacles of the big city because the men of speeches and promises did not understand what was, what is, and what will be—only nature is eternal. That is the only time of the year when I can overcome my shame, my guilt, my sorrows and stop my penance. I do not stop praying for travelers for lack of care, but only because nature, the mountains, the ravine is doing it for me, protecting them in their journey up and down the mountains, giving them a safe passage among the things that are beyond their grasp. That is the only time when the past and my memories become more clear, at least what I can understand. And I chant the songs of the ravine, and look back as if it was yesterday and let things be, without judgment, without prejudice, without contempt, without being blinded by my own thoughts, or the lights of cars.
When I was just a baby, Mi Papá used to tickle me on the stomach to make me laugh. It felt good, it felt wholesome. I don’t recall these moments, but now I can see them clear. Mamá wanted to dress me, but Mi Papá would continue until my smile became a chuckle and sounds came from my small lungs. Mamá innocently would tell him to stop, laughing as well, infected by my own happiness. But I could see it in her eyes, in the sudden moments of silence that she felt that she was losing Mi Papá to me and that I would always be the center of his universe. So discipline during my growing years was left to Mamá, and Mi Papá, with the little that he made, indulged and splurged on me every chance he got. He took me to the circus every time it came to our part of town. He took me to see the elephants and told me to touch their snout, telling me how sensitive it was. He took me to the Teatro Lido to see all the Disney movies, not once or twice, but more than ten times per movie. All this at a time before we had a car, so he would carry me on his shoulders singing “hi yo silver away” so I would not get tired on the way there. Mamá took care of other things, such as taking me to the market and to church so I would meet my creator.
My creator was a sad man on a cross, with blood coming from his hands and feet and a cut on his chest. I prayed for his sadness many times. But Mamá told me that he saved us and that we should pray for our salvation. Salvation for what? I remember thinking. Little did I know. Little did I know.
I pray to him now for the salvation of all those travelers. But I double my efforts during holy week, for it is then that he needs me most and the traffic is the heaviest along the road where my lavender house is, by the ravine. They go down for the whole week to the land of warmth and sandy beaches, where the horizon goes as far as the imagination and memories of tanned red bodies last for ever. But I pray for them, with all my heart, over and over, because with happiness comes sorrow and many of them, sometimes whole families perish on the way back, careless and gay as they arrive to the mountains, to the winding curves of the road, to the steep decent of the ravine, to its consequences. Believe me I know. I see it every year. Good people, good families, who don’t even have anything to repent.
Mi Papá and Mamá loved to go down to the beach. I see us surrounded by coconut trees, a soft breeze caressing our bodies, I in my brand new one piece swimming suit with Bambi prints all over, and Papá screaming from the shore, asking me to come over, that he has found a colony of Chipi-chipis. Mi Mamá tells me to put more sun protector on before I expose myself to the fierce sun. I oblige. I oblige. I take my shovel and bucket and rush to where Papá is digging. He tells me to look for bubbles coming out of the sand and then start digging and digging before they get too deep. We fill two buckets with the little shellfish. We bring them to Mamá and she says that she doesn’t have anything to cook them in. Mi Papá says not to worry and takes me to an abasto not too far from the beach and picks a few ingredients and buys a large pot. Mi Mamá is not too crazy about spending the money on something we already have at home, but not wanting to argue goes ahead and cooks the Chipi-chipis. We can not afford a hotel or to be members of one of the resorts close by, where people water-ski and act important, so Papá straps a canvas from the car and ties it to a couple of coconut trees and makes a little hut. Then he goes around gathering old coconuts, and anything that would fuel a fire, and while the Chipi-chipis cook, we watch the sun disappear on the horizon, reds and yellows cover the sky, while this large fire ball gets bigger and bigger as it goes into the water. Mi Papá says “shhhhhhh,” as the oval fire ball disappears. Mamá and I chuckle and some of the other families on the beach make a comment or two and laugh.
I find my happiness to be the memory of those fleeting moments. By the ravine I can’t say I am happy, but I am content to have my memories, to relive those moments between my prayers.
Check the tomatoes this way, Mi Mamá says. Look for bruises like this. Make sure their scales work right. Haggle a little, they think they can charge more because we are women, but we’ll show them we mean business. Keep your purse under your arm this way, there are too many pickpockets in the crowd and you’ll never know. Don’t buy fish you can’t see their eyes, that’s how you tell how fresh they are. Don’t slouch like that, it makes you look like a maid. Don’t stand like that, it makes you look like a whore. We are good people, you know. See this dress, it would look good on you if you ate a little more.
I saw him in the crowd, eating a cachito. Our eyes met and I looked away. I looked again and he was gone. Mamá told me to hurry and I bumped someone. He was right there and told the other person to be more careful. He said a few words, but I couldn’t stop staring at him. Mamá came back and told me that we were going to be late getting home. He introduced himself to Mamá, very politely, very nicely, like the boys from the good schools would. Mamá was not convinced. Boys will always be boys, I know she was thinking. He followed us to the edge of the market, to the big avenue with windows full of sales. We missed our bus. Mamá looked upset. He offered us a ride, but Mamá did not believe him. No boy like that could afford a car. Unless. Unless. Mamá said that she didn’t want to trouble anyone, but he insisted, reminding Mamá of how dangerous the streets were. He told us to wait, that he would be back with the car. Mamá didn’t believe him and after he went away, she told me that we were going to take a por puesto car, even if it cost more money. She counted her change. We heard a honk. He was inside a small car smiling at us. Mamá told him that he didn’t have to do that, but he insisted, very politely, like a boy from a good family would. He opened the passenger door and waved for Mamá to get in. Mamá sighed and told him that she would sit in the back. He took our cart, our bags and placed them in the trunk, and waved me to get in. I held my purse between my legs and fixed my hair that had fallen in my face. My heart beat unusually fast. We drove away.
Mamá asked him a million questions. What do your parents do? Do you work, do you go to school? Is this your car, or is it your parents? Don’t you know it’s bad to talk to strangers.
He called Mi Mamá, Doña, he called me Señorita. Doña this. Señorita that. He lived in a house, not in an apartment like we did. He was in school, but the university was closed because of the student’s strikes. His dad was a business-man, but he wanted to study engineering. Mamá smiled, but she was not convinced, his hair was two fingers too long, and he wore blue-jeans and a T-shirt.
He took all we bought up to the apartment and placed it on the kitchen table. He shook Papá’s hand. Mi Papá was suspicious. He asked me our phone number and made sure it was okay with Papá. I waved goodbye, he went down the stairs. Papá was not happy. Mi Mamá explained that he seemed like a good boy. Papá relaxed, but I knew what he was thinking. Boys will be boys and you are my little girl.
I dreamed of him that night. He shaved like a man does.
If they had finished the highway, I would not have a house by the ravine. If there was a highway, there would not be a need for prayer. Time would fold in half and people would forget the river below, the songs of birds, the chants of the mountains, the mysteries of the road. Only big things, fast and modern would count. The house across from mine would be abandoned, its candles would wither, its white walls would turn gray.
I know this is my place.
He met me after school and told me how much he liked my eyes. He didn’t mind I was skinny. He never looked at the girls with short-hemmed skirts, that had more up there. I still think of him.
In my diary I wrote a poem about him and his little car.
Mi Mamá doesn’t want me to ride in his car. Take the bus, you can talk to him at the park, and no you can’t go to the movies without your Papá’s permission.
Papá doesn’t want me to talk so much on the phone. This boy should be working, he should cut his hair. No girl of mine is going to go out with a bum, even if he has his own car.
He kissed me in the park, under the samán. Turpiales sang and doves took off in flight, circling the park in perfect unison. I smiled at the chicha vendor, I smiled at the honking cars, I smiled at the bustling city, I smiled at the lady on the elevator holding a grocery bag, I smiled at Mamá and Papá.
I slept that night on the air, hovering and floating around my room.
Papá doesn’t pat me on the head this morning. He fingers his newspaper and looks at me without saying a word. I drink my milk, move the toast around my plate and stare at the magnets on the refrigerator without reading the notes.
We kissed every time we went to the park. At night I felt a tingling sensation go over my body.
Papá gives my lavender house a fresh coat of paint every year. He fixes the roof, he rakes the side of the road. He likes to stare at the river below and listen to the rushing water. Sometimes he looks at the concrete pillars and shakes his head murmuring “they should have finished that thing by now.” I guess Papá doesn’t understand that’s just the way things are.
Papá said that it just had to stop. My grades were sliding. I was late all the time, and I was aloof at home and had my future to think about. I didn’t cry, I didn’t pout, I just went to my room and stared at the wall. Mamá came in and told me about boys and men. I told her that he was nothing like that. Mamá knew we had kissed and who knows what else. I told her it’s not so, I’ve never done anything like that. But I felt it inside of me, the flame growing and growing, but Mamá turned it into shame, something bad. I could not help feeling this way, it felt good, not bad. Mamá said it was bad, Papá said it was bad, the nuns said it was bad. I prayed, but I could not help it. I tried not to think. We had not done anything like that.
By the ravine, the mountains, the birds and other creatures don’t worry about anything like that. They have their natural clocks given to them by the creator. They all know when it’s time to be born, time to grow, time to reproduce and time to pass away. Even we follow the rules. I can see it better now. That’s why I pray for the travelers, since they think that they can cheat time, that they can change what is, get ahead of the pack, only to find themselves where they began or at the end of the road.
We were forbidden to meet, but we met anyway. My shame grew since I never lied before to Papá and Mamá. But maybe someday they would understand. Papá was suspicious, he took me to school and back, while I saw in the plaza other couples holding hands. The world was so stifling, so close, so blind.
We drove down the mountain in his little car. I told Mamá that I was going to a friend’s to study for an exam. I feel the shame of that lie still burning on my lips. But we wanted to lead our lives, maybe be husband and wife. But I was Papá’s little girl and he would not understand. Why this, why that, why did it have to be this way, why didn’t they just let us be?
After that day there would be no other choice.
The sand was white with radiance, seagulls plunged into the waters while we pretended to be just another couple at the beach. We didn’t talk about it so we swam, rested under the sun, ate a couple of empanadas and quenched our thirst with coconut water. The sun went down on the horizon and I said “shhhhhhh.”
Finally, I asked him if he had ever done it and he told me that he had. I pouted. I know I must have pouted. The man, turned into a boy and he told me that his friends would make fun of him if they ever knew that he had not.
We kissed and touched while the sky turned orange and red and little by little all that was left was a streak of lavender and then the moon and the stars. Under the moonlight we saw our bodies as the day of creation. He touched me on my stomach and it felt good. A breeze came by pungent with the aroma of cooking Chipi-chipis. Everything inside of me wanted this moment, but other emotions began to grow and confuse me. I trembled, knowing and not knowing, wanting, but wanting everything else about each other. I could not go on, maybe Mamá was right, maybe I still was Papá’s little girl. He noticed my trepidation and asked me if I was all right. I felt shame for stopping, I felt shame for going this far. He tried to be understanding, caring, but I could see the disappointment in his eyes. A great silence surrounded us. I told him that we better head back, since it was a long drive to the city. We dressed, picked up our things and loaded the car.
I told him that we had to be back before my parents began calling around and found out. Maybe it was already too late, I still don’t know. The clock kept ticking and the hours passing and we were still in the plains. As we reached the mountains that led to the city, cars and trucks began to appear. The slow climbing trucks reduced the snake of cars to a crawl. Some cars began to pass on the curves. The truck drivers waved at the traffic to indicate when the road was clear or when there were cars coming down the mountain. He began to pass, like the rest of the cars. I wasn’t scared, Papá used to do the same. I began to think what was going to happen, since inevitably we were going to be late. Mamá would scold me for what I had done, they would remind me of how bad I was, and that I would no longer be fit to be a lady and never amount to much. Papá will be hurt. He will ground me maybe for eternity.
We might be able to make it, he told me as he switched gears and passed a few cars. I was now terribly worried, terribly scared. What had we done? Why didn’t we wait? Now they know, now they are thinking the worst. And if so, why was I so chicken not to go through with it. Boys would be boys. My boy turned out to be a man, not for what he did, but for what he did not.
Maybe he was scared too. Maybe his dreams were my dreams as we dreamed of us together forever, and yes with Papá and Mamá, and his Papá and Mamá. Maybe we wanted it all. Was it wrong to think that way. I was scared. There was a long road ahead of us.
I prayed and thought and prayed and thought and even though the shame, the pity, the guilt has not gone out of me I felt a little better. I put my hand on top of his, resting on the gear handle and I told him that I loved him. He looked at me and smiled with a sweet loving innocence. A light blinded us. Oh God. He looked at the coming lights and turned the steering wheel. We got to the edge of the road. We heard the honk of the truck, or car, I don’t know what was coming down. He quickly pulled the steering back, to get back on the road but it jerked away as maybe one of the tires hit the edge of the road. Again, I don’t know, it was too fast, even now when I try to put it in slow motion. The car went away from the road. He tried other maneuvers but it did not work. Suddenly, bushes appeared and disappeared hitting the car. Then a strange vertigo took over me and the car leaned forward, down, and then peace and silence, peace and silence and the growing sound of a river we had not heard before.
I have tried to remember more, but I can’t. I just can’t.
I see a car by the rocks at the edge of the river. Steam still coming from with in. Two people are inside, their eyes closed, breathless. Voices pierce through the rage of the river, they come from above. People look, people call. Later, they pull up the bodies and hoist the carcass of the car. I look for him but I can’t find him. Maybe his conscience is clear and he was allowed to go to the other place. Maybe he is here and I just can’t see him. Why? Why, when I can see the others. It’s no use, so I pray.
Papá built my lavender house with his own hands. He bought the bricks and cement and had Father Quintana drop holy water on them. Mamá and Papá drove down the road and stopped when they saw the concrete pillars. He parked away from the curve in a bank and walked to where he saw skid marks on the ground and the disturbed foliage next to the ravine. He looked down and up to the sky, tears welled up in his eyes. He went back to the car and told Mamá that this was the spot and began to unload the bricks and materials. Trucks and cars honked as they passed him. Mamá was silent most of the time. At one point she looked around, at the dense foliage, and the mist on the air, hearing the roar from the water below. She said that I would like it up here. Papá went across the road to a stream that disappeared into a pipe and filled a container with water. He cleaned the area, mixed the concrete and began to lay the bricks on the ground. He said a prayer after laying each brick. When the walls reached the height of his knees, he began to work on a slanted rooftop. Finally he applied some of the mixture to the walls and asked Mamá to go for the paint. Mamá arrived with a small can of paint. Papá opened it and looked at Mamá. Lavender? He said. She always liked that color, Mamá said. He applied several coats and then sat next to the house. Mamá went to the car again and picked up the flowers and a candle. She placed the candle inside my lavender house and lit it. The flowers she divided between two old vases and fluffed them around until they looked pretty. That was the first time that she cried that day.
If only the big highway had been finished. I said that before. I am only sighing. I don’t blame anybody. There are too many what ifs, but in the end only the end is certain. And in a way, that is a new beginning.