THE GIRL WHO APPEARED IN A TREE
When Salomé finally wrote to her daughter—by then a young woman, a stranger, thousands of miles away—she said everything that disappears is somewhere, as if physics could turn back time and save them both. It was a maxim she’d learned in school: energy is neither lost nor created. Nothing truly goes away. People are energy too, and when you cannot see them they’ve just changed places, or changed forms, or sometimes both. There is the exception of black holes, which swallow things without leaving even the slightest trace, but Salomé let her pen keep moving as if they did not exist.
Her skirts were wet and clung to her legs and her pen moved and moved without her hand seeming to push it, forming the spires and spikes and loops of cursive words, sharp t’s and j’s, y’s and g’s with knots at their base as though to tie themselves together, tie women back together, and as she wrote the loops grew large, as if more rope were needed to bind what had blown apart inside her, and not only inside her but around her, and before her, in her mother’s days, her grandmother’s days, the hordes of stories Salomé had not lived through but that came to her as stories do—copiously, uninvited, sometimes in an easy sprawl, sometimes with a force that could drown you or spit you up to heaven. Other stories had never come; they went untold. They left hollow silence in their place. But if it was true that everything that disappeared was somewhere, then even those still breathed and glittered, somewhere, in the hidden corners of the world.
The first day of a century is never like other days, and less so in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, a speck of a town, known for starting centuries with some peculiar miracle or another. And so the townspeople were primed that morning, ready, curious, tingling, some drunk, some praying, some drinking more, some stealing gropes under bushes, some leaning into saddles, some filling gourds of mate, evading sleep, peering at the slate of a new century.
A century before, in 1800, when Uruguay was not yet a country but just a slice of colonial land, huge baskets of purple berries had appeared at the altar of the church. They came from nowhere, succulent and perfectly ripe, enough to feed the town twice over. An altarboy called Robustiano had watched the priest open the door to find the gift sweltering under Christ’s feet. For years Robustiano would describe the priest’s face when he saw those berries sweating in the stained-glass sun, three baskets as wide as two men’s chests, the fragrance rising to intoxicate God. Robustiano spent the rest of the day, and the rest of his life, describing the way it happened. “He just turned white, white as paper, then he went pink, and his eyes rolled into his head, and—páfate—he collapsed onto the ground! I ran over and shook him, calling, Padre, Padre, but he was like a rock.” Years later, he would add, “It was the smell that was too much for him. You know. Like the smell of a woman who’s been satisfied. El pobre padre. All those nights alone—he couldn’t take it, those berries hot from the sun, in his church, too much for a priest.”
Women, gauchos, and children came to feast on the berries. The pew were not accustomed to such a crowd. The berries were small and bulbous, ripe and tart, different from anything that had been seen growing in these lands. As the town lay down for a digestive siesta, an octogenarian stepped up to the altar and told the tale she’d heard in her youth, of the miracles that came to Tacuarembó on the first day of each century. “I’m telling you,” she said, “this is our miracle.” Her bearded chin was stained with convincing purple juice. Miracles are miracles, she said; they come unannounced and unexplained and have no guarantee of giving you what you want; and yet you take them; they are the hidden bones of ordinary life. She told them the story of New Year’s Day one hundred years prior, in 1700, exactly as it had been told to her, and no one had a decent reason to doubt this: on that very day, songs in the old native Tupí-Guaraní language had haunted the air, from one sunrise to the next. Though most tacuaremboenses had native blood mixed in their veins, even back then many had lost the tongue. But still, the sounds were unmistakable: the guttural clips, the lilt like a stream shocked by stones. Everyone could hear them but no one could find the singers; the music rode, disembodied, potent, broken, on the wind.
Pajarita heard all these stories as a little girl—the berries, the songs, the purple-skinned woman. She had no idea what Guaraní sounded like. All she heard at home was the Spanish of Tacuarembó, the hum of fire, the staccato of knife through onion, the low rustle of her aunt Tita’s skirt, the bright lament of her brother’s battered guitar, the crows outside, the hooves of horses, the chickens quibbling, her brother berating the chickens, Tía Tita’s constant fold and clean and stir and cut and sweep and pour. Tía Tita barely spoke a word, except when she told stories, and then she was unstoppable, exhaustive, demanding of uncompromised attention. She told them as she cooked. They purled and flowed and rushed from her, spilling everywhere, filling their one-room hut with fluid spectres of the dead.
“You have to know,” she’d say, “why your brother is called Artigas,” and this was Pajarita’s signal to come and cut beef for the stew. She knew the contours of the story just as she knew the knife’s shape before she grasped it. She nodded and came and stretched her ears so wide they felt like the openings of wells.
“He’s named after your great-grandfather. I know some don’t believe it, but José Gervasio Artigas, the great liberator of Uruguay, is my grandfather—it’s true. Yes, he led the fight for independence, with gauchos and Indians and freed slaves. Everyone knows he did that and next time I’ll tell the story. But he also sowed his seed in the belly of a gaucho’s daughter with hair down to her knees. Analidia. She made the best blood sausages this side of the Río Negro. She was fourteen. No one will believe you, but you can’t let that matter, you have to be relentless to keep history alive. Mira, Pajarita, cut the meat a bit smaller. Like this.”
She watched Pajarita until she was satisfied, then bent over the cooking pit and stirred the coals. The raven-haired girl holding blood sausages hovered behind her, translucent, wide-eyed, palms opening and closing on the meat.
“Pues, that José Gervasio, he spent one night in 1820 sweating on fresh hides with Analidia, right before he was defeated by the Brazilians. He fled to the Paraguayan forest and was never seen again. Analidia gave birth to a perfect baby girl. Esperanza. My mother. Remember her name? She was stronger than a bull in a stampede. When she grew up she fell in love with El Facón, that crazy gaucho, your grandfather. He was born Ricardo Torres but it didn’t take him long to earn his real name. Nobody wields the facón knife like he did. I’d like to see the angels try.”
Pajarita, chopping, chopping, saw her grandfather, El Facón, as a young gaucho, holding his own facón up to the sky, blade glinting, dripping fresh red bull blood to the ground.
“In those early days, before your father and I came along, El Facón was famous for his sweet voice, touchy temper, and deadly aim. He roamed the land freely with his facón and his bolas and lasso and he chased down cattle and took their flesh and hides south to the ports. He brought home gifts for Esperanza, jewels from India and Rome, fresh from exotic ships, but she didn’t care much about them. They piled up in the corner of their hut. She wanted him next to her, more than anything, and so she suffered. When I was born she was alone. She made herself sick reading the leaves of her ombú and ceibo tea, which bore terrible warnings. Obvious warnings. War was everywhere. Every season a new tyrant came through, gathering an army, killing an army off, gaining power, losing it. Young men cut one another up and threw the pieces to the dogs. So much blood was shed the earth should have turned red. Don’t make that face, Pajarita. Look, the water’s boiling.”
Pajarita squatted at the red-hot cooking pit and heaped the beef into the pot. It was flesh from a cow, not youngman flesh. Late sun lacquered the dirt floor, the table, the sleeping hides; soon it would be time to light the lamp.
“So there they were, El Facón and Esperanza, living in a countryside torn apart by fighting. And then the Saravia brothers came. Aparicio and Gumersindo—he was doomed, that Gumersindo—and grew their army here in Tacuarembó. They were hell-bent on independence from the latest tyrant, they were sure that they would win. Your abuelo, El Facón, he believed everything they said. He followed them out of Uruguay, to Brazil, into the battlefields. There are things he saw there that he never uttered, that he swore he wouldn’t say even in hell. The devil couldn’t stand it, he said. So we don’t know. But we do know he buried Gumersindo with bare hands, then watched the enemy dig him up, cut off his head, and parade it everywhere. Well, after that, three years after, El Facón trembled back to Esperanza. They built this ranchito, this very one we stand in now, and your father was born here, and so was your brother Artigas. And that’s how Artigas got his name.”
Tía Tita stirred the stew and fell silent. Pajarita teemed inside (with severed heads and long long hair and gems from overseas) as she cleaned the bowls and knives.
Pajarita’s brother, Artigas, remembered exactly when Tía Tita moved in: it was 1899, when Pajarita was born the first time, before the tree, before the miracle.
That year, he had turned four and his mother, La Roja, had died in childbirth. She left nothing but a sea of blood and a baby with big black eyes. The birth before that had ended in death also, but it had been the baby who had died, and Mamá who stayed to cook and sing another day. This time she stopped moving. The blood soaked the pile of hides the family used for sleep and they were clearly ruined, so Artigas was afraid when he saw his father, Miguel, rubbing them against his face, weeping, staining his skin red. The baby was crying. Miguel ignored her. There was no sleep that night. In the morning Tía Tita came, and looked around the hut. La Roja’s cow-skull stool had been taken from its place at the table. Miguel held it with both hands, sitting still, facing the wall. Behind him, Artigas sat on congealed hides, holding a writhing baby. The cooking pit was cold and empty; Tía Tita filled it with wood. She scoured the bloodstains from the walls, made tortas fritas, hauled out the ruined hides, and cleaned the clothes. She found a young mother four hillocks over to nurse the unnamed baby. Esa bebita, that baby, they called her over the wells of Tacuarembó.
Tía Tita stayed with them, and Artigas was glad; his aunt was like an ombú tree, thick-trunked, alive with silence. He curled into the shade of her. He slept against the warm bark of her body. The seasons churned from cold to heat and back to cold. Miguel grew hard, like beef in smoke. He didn’t touch the baby. One night—as the winter wind swept through the cracks in the walls, and outside the treetops arched and swung against clear sky in which the moon looked big enough to spill a calf out of its belly—the baby girl cried in Tita’s arms.
“Shut her up, Tita,” Miguel said.
“It’s the wind. And her teeth are coming in.”
“Then kill the little whore!”
Artigas crouched into the shadows. His nameless sister gazed at her father with large eyes.
Tita said, “Miguel.”
“Miguel. Calm down.”
“I’m calm. I said kill her.”
Tía Tita tightened her arms around the baby and stared at her brother, who stared at the baby, who did not look away. Artigas felt the need to defecate; he couldn’t stand the expression on his father’s face, a look that could have slashed a man to pieces. The fire ebbed and crackled and his father turned and pushed through the leather curtain at the door. Artigas imagined him standing outside, alone, under a bowl of stars, and heard him slide onto horseback and ride out over flat earth. The next morning, the baby was gone. Though they all slept on the same hides, the Torres family hadn’t felt her leave. A thorough search of land around them yielded absolutely nothing: no crawl-marks, no clues, no miniature corpse. A week after her disappearance, the gossips of
Tacuarembó proclaimed her dead—or, as the devout Doña Rosa put it, carried off by angels into heaven. She had died of starvation. She had died of abandonment. She had died under an owl’s claws, unnamed, unwanted. Miguel said nothing to this, neither agreed nor disagreed, neither wept nor smiled.
Only Tía Tita kept searching for the baby, with a mare’s tireless pace. She looked everywhere: green fields, low hills, thick bushes, tall or deep or shady trees, the sun-drenched slope that led to town, the plaza, the church, the three stone wells, and the homes—ranchitos peppered sparsely along the landscape, small cubes with cut-out windows, the women inside ready to cluck their tongues and gesture no. At night, Tía Tita brewed a tea of ombú and ceibo leaves. She stared at hot, wet shapes for a sign of the girl’s whereabouts, or at least a sign of her death. None came. The search went on.
She took Artigas on some of her quests. One of them changed him indelibly (and he wondered, years later, as an old man toting rifles through the jungle, whether without that day he might have aged uneventfully in Tacuarembó). It happened on a Sunday that began with mass at the town church, a place Artigas hated for reminding him of the last time he’d seen his mother, enshrouded in black cloth and wildflowers. The priest spoke with a passion that edged his mouth with spittle and Artigas’ knees got sore. On the way home, his aunt pulled the bridle and changed the course of their ride without warning or explanation. Artigas gazed around him at the grass, the tall eucalyptus, the distant sheep. No sign of his sister. They rode in silence, the sun’s hot liquid all around them.
An hour passed. Artigas grew restless. “Tía,” he asked, “how much longer will we look?”
She neither answered nor slowed down. Her skirts sang swish, swish against the horse’s skin. The detour might be for a special sprout or crooked leaf or bitter root for one of her healing teas or balms. She was always gathering and gathering. In town she was notorious for hitching her skirt up to her thighs so she could carry weeds she’d ripped out of someone else’s ground. The Gardel boys teased him about it, I saw your tía’s legs covered in mud, your tía’s crazy to chase dead babies. Artigas had come home scraped and bleeding and victorious.
When Tía Tita finally stopped, she slid off the horse and didn’t move. He slunk down behind her.
They stood in an unfamiliar field. There were no cows, no sheep or people, no baby girls falling out of the sky, nothing at all except grass and a couple of ombús. Empty. Empty. Sisters can’t be found in empty space. Little girls do not survive the wild. Even if they found her she would be mangled, all white bone and gnawed flesh, like the carcass of an abandoned sheep. Artigas sat down and stared at Tía Tita’s back, with that long, dark braid running down its center like a seam. She stood impossibly still. He waited. Nothing happened. The sun bore down. He was hot and he wanted to slap something. This bare, dumb field. This heavy sun. That strange, unmoving back of Tita’s. He leaped up. “Tía, what are we doing here?”
“We’re listening. To birds.”
Artigas opened his mouth to protest this absurdity but nothing could come out because in the time it took to draw his next breath it had occurred, it was too late, the sound of the field flooded his body, birds sang in the sky and in the leaves, his bones were bursting open, there were birds in his bones, singing, small and loud and delicate, hidden in flesh, hidden in foliage, saying the unsayable in keens and croons and cries, almost unbearable; the field, the fierce little throats, the open world, beyond his understanding, and the sound shimmered open and spilled a secret music that could steal him and never bring him back. He filled with terror and something else and had to pee or cry but couldn’t,and so he buried his face in musky grass and listened to birds.
They found no baby that day. In fact, on New Year’s, it was neither Tía Tita nor Artigas but young Carlita Robles who galloped to the plaza with the news. Artigas saw her walnut braids flying behind her with the exact same hue and gleam as her horse, as if they had been soaked in the same dye. Her timing was perfect. The century was nine hours old. The plaza’s cobbles sizzled from the stare of morning sun. Stragglers still clung to the site of the party: snoring drunks, young lovers, stray dogs, Artigas with his worn guitar (with which he strained, against all reason, to enter the hidden lairs of sound). The devout Doña Rosa still hadn’t emerged from church. She’d been there since midnight. She’d been fasting since Christmas so that God would not make their miracle a bad one, like a massacre or cholera or a flood of infidelities (though nobody took her campaign too seriously, as three years earlier, when her son had disappeared with Aparicio Saravia’s rebel forces, she’d become obsessed with fasts and prayer and if her husband couldn’t find her he simply rode to church, where he’d invariably catch his kneeling wife and bring her home to cook his dinner. Such a patient man, people said. Not an easy lot, to be cuckolded by God).
“I found it—the miracle!” Carlita called. “There’s a baby in a tree!”
Artigas stopped strumming, the couples stopped kissing, and Alfonso the shopkeeper lifted his groggy head from the bench.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Let’s go see.”
They went to the chapel first, to tell Doña Rosa. Stained light eased over their heads and sidled to the pews, down the aisle, over Doña Rosa’s pious back. Carlita dipped into holy water and made a rushed sign of the cross. Artigas followed suit for her sake (she was so pretty).
“Doña Rosa,” Carlita whispered. “The miracle. There’s a baby in a ceibo!”
Doña Rosa looked up from her rosary. “A baby?”
“Ah.” She frowned. “What a blessing.”
They rode the dirt path toward the eastern edge of Tacuarembó. Artigas settled into the hot equine muscle beneath his legs. The sleepless night had left a veneer of alert exhaustion and he didn’t want to rest. He would ride his horse to the edge of town; he would ride his horse to the edge of the world; it was a new century, he would ride and ride, and a baby could be, no it couldn’t, impossible, but if it was. How bright the colors were around him, the green and gold of summer grass, the hot blue of morning sky, the dark-wood brown of the ranchitos out of which
more people came to join their travels. Kerchiefed women craned their heads through curtained doorways for the news, then left embers glowing alone in cooking pots. Men drinking mate in the sun untied their horses and scooped their children into saddles.
The group doubled, and doubled again, growing the way armies do as they sweep through towns. By the time they arrived at the ceibo tree, the sun had brushed its zenith and begun to slide. The tree towered over the eastern well, and at the very top, thirty meters from solid earth, grasping a slim branch, there perched a girl.
She was not quite a year old. Her skin was two shades lighter than hot chocolate and she had high cheekbones and chaotic hair that spilled to her naked waist. Her eyes were round and moist like birthday cakes. She looked neither afraid nor eager to descend.
Artigas threw his head back. He burned to catch her eye. Mírame, he thought.
“She’s a witch!” one woman said.
“A bruja sent us a brujita!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Doña Rosa. “She’s an angel. She’s here to bless Tacuarembó.”
“With what? A rain of baby caca?”
“That’s no angel, it’s just a child.”
“A dirty one.”
“Maybe she’s one of the Garibaldi kids. They’re always climbing trees.”
“Only the Garibaldi boys climb trees.”
“And they only climb ombús.”
“That’s true. How could anyone get up this trunk?”
The necks of fifty tacuaremboenses craned up at the girl. The tree looked impossible to scale. If it had been a native ombú, with its low, inviting branches, there would have been no miracle or legend or ninety years of carrying the story. But here was the tallest ceibo known to Tacuarembó, its lowest branch many meters from the ground. No one could imagine an adult shimmying up with a baby in her arms, let alone a baby’s lonely climb.
“Very well. Doña Rosa, you’ve got your miracle.”
“Miracles are miracles, what more can we say?”
“Only thanks be to God.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. I certainly do.”
“I meant no harm.”
“Look, everybody, let’s not quarrel.”
“We’ve got to find a way to get her down.”
“Let’s shake her out.”
“There’s no ladder big enough—I know, I made them all.”
“I could climb the tree—”
“You can barely climb onto your horse, hombre!”
“We should wait for a sign—”
“And what? Leave her up there for another century?” The infant sat high above the din, impassive, barely moving. Artigas thought: Mírame. She turned her head, this way, that way, and their eyes met. You. You. Their gaze had flesh, their gaze had strength, their gaze was a branch between them, invisible, unbreakable, bound to last forever,or so it seemed.
“I know her,” he shouted. “She’s my sister.”
Fifty faces turned toward the boy.
“Ay . . . he means . . .”
“Look, Artigas.” Carlita Robles knelt beside him. “This can’t be her.”
“She’s been gone too long.”
“She couldn’t have survived.”
“Little girls can’t survive alone.”
“But she did,” Artigas said.
Carlita and Doña Rosa exchanged a glance.
“Besides,” he added, “if it’s not her, where did this girl come from?”
Doña Rosa opened her mouth, then closed it. No one spoke. Artigas looked up again at the infant in the treetop. She stared back. She was far away, close close to heaven, yet he could swear he saw the texture of her eyes: dark pools, wide awake, red veins in the whites. He imagined himself soaring up to meet her.
“Wait for me,” he called into the foliage.
He mounted his horse and galloped down the hill.
He found Tía Tita outside their hut, plucking a chicken. He dismounted in a rush and told her everything about the morning plaza, the crowd around the ceibo, the child up on the branch. She listened. She tilted her face to the sun. Her lips moved without making any sound. She wiped her wide hands on her apron and untied it. “Let’s go.”
By the time they arrived at the ceibo, most of the town had formed a ring around it. Women had brought their children, children had brought their great-grandparents, men had brought wives, the stray dogs from the plaza had brought one another. Horses grazed. Doña Rosa had sacrificed the front of her dress to kneel on the ground and pray intensely with her rosary that had been blessed sixteen years earlier by the pope. The shopkeeper’s son brandished a wooden flute. Dogs barked and brayed. Several mate gourds and baskets of empanadas circulated from hand to hand. Arguments rose and broke and rose again, about the girl, about the pastries, about who drank how much and did what with whom last night in the plaza. The infant stared at them from the highfoliage, which held her like an adoptive guardian’s arms.
Tía Tita and Artigas slid from their shared saddle. The crowd grew quiet. Tía Tita was not tall, but she was large somehow, hard-jawed, commanding. “Leave us alone,” she said, looking at the baby but speaking to the throng. No one wanted to miss the story, break up the party, let someone else fix the problem. But Tía Tita—odd, unfathomable, needed for the cure of old men’s creaks and the froth on soldiers’ mouths—could not be easily denied. Slowly, grudgingly, the crowd dispersed.
“You too, Artigas.”
He did as he was told. Horseflesh moved damply below his thighs. The air was hot and thick and heavy. He joined a cluster that had formed in the shade of an ombú, and turned to watch from his saddle: Tita and that high speck of a girl, still and dark against a ruthless sky. Tita raised her arms and seemed to wait, and then the treetop shook and rushed with leaves and sudden-downward-streaking and her arms closed around a thing that thudded against her chest. Artigas watched his aunt walk from the tree, away from town, returning home on foot. By the time the moon had risen, all of Tacuarembó knew the story of the fall that turned to flight or flight that turned to fall.
They called her Pajarita. Little Bird.