Seeing at Night
- For readers with no basic language of Spanish, like our editor-in-chief, we have a glossary here.
Jonathan Bark was writing in his matera. Well, he wasn’t exactly writing. He had finished writing fiction for the morning and was struggling with a few complicated lines of Spanish in a workbook while waiting for Teresa to return from town. A hot breeze drifted into the south window, cooling as it traversed the few feet to Jonathan’s writing desk. It was at least ten degrees cooler inside the matera than it was outside, Jonathan knew that, and as hungry and bored as he was, he hated having to go out into the summer heat for lunch. It was comforting inside the matera. He felt solace inside there. The cool cement cube somehow liberated his muse.
He heard Teresa’s Jeep pull up, so he closed his workbook and turned off his laptop, stood, stretched, and looked outside the north window. There was a chimango strutting about on the withered lawn, its luteous feathers reflecting the sun. The hawk turned its head and glanced toward the matera, then beat its wings and lifted off the ground. The door handle to the matera rattled, slowly moved down, stopped just where the latch should release, moved up and down two or three times, caught the latch, clicked, and the door swung slowly open.
In walked Benteveo. He was four years old and his head was level with the door handle. He carried two stacked boxes tied together with blue string. The top box was smaller than the bottom. Benteveo, leaving the door open, trod around Jonathan’s writing desk and presented the boxes.
“Tengo lechucitas,” he said.
Jonathan looked quizzically at him. He forgot what a lechucita was. He thought it might mean chocolate, or sausage, and the boxes might be filled with them, so he tried to untie the blue string, but the knot was too tight. He pulled out his pocket knife and flicked open the blade. Benteveo stared fixedly at the shiny blade as it slipped under the string.
As Jonathan reached for the flaps of the top box, Teresa stepped in with Cisna, Benteveo’s mother, and Calandria, Benteveo’s three-year-old sister. Teresa was wearing a cotton dress.
“They are lechucitas,” Teresa said.
Jonathan, with fingers probed inside the box, looked up at Teresa and said, “I know. What are lechucitas?”
“Uh, the animal your mother loves. You know, what is it?” She contemplated for a second, then mouthed, “Oww-wws.”
“Yes. That is it.” She nodded her head.
Jonathan retracted his fingers. “Oh,” he said. He heard scraping noises, then a small cry. He looked at Benteveo, who was still staring at the shiny blade of the knife held between his thumb and palm. He closed the blade and put the knife in his pocket. Benteveo looked down at the box in anticipation.
Jonathan slipped his thumbs under the corners of the flaps and slowly lifted. Four well-dilated yellow eyes met the light. The birds were puffy brown-and-white down, and their wings were small, like those of a plucked chicken. One of them let out a weak screechy cry, then the other did also.
“We found them at a feria in town,” Teresa said.
Jonathan studied the birds, then Benteveo, who was gazing at the birds with fascination.
“What are you going to do with them?” Jonathan asked Teresa. “Cage them?”
“What is ‘cage’?” she asked
Jonathan looked out the north window, then handed the small box to Benteveo, who cradled it.
“We have two more,” Teresa said. “Adults.”
Jonathan opened the second box. Four more well-dilated yellow eyes met the light. These birds were larger than the other two, and they were covered with burnish-brown feathers strikingly marked with black criss-crossing lines. One of them aggressively opened its wings, leaned its head forward, and hissed. Jonathan closed the box.
“My idea is to let the adults go,” Teresa said.
“Yes,” Jonathan said standing and handing the larger box to Teresa. “Lunch is ready?”
“Gansa is making asado.”
“OK. I am going to wash up.” He left them in his matera and strode across the dry lawn to the house. Gansa was outside, leaning over the barbecue, checking the underside of three splayed chickens. She threw a handful of sausages next to the chicken. He entered the kitchen door, passed through the kitchen, the living room, along a long hallway lined with doors leading to guest bedrooms, and into the back bedroom where the bathroom was. A desiccated wind steadily entered the bathroom window screen. The south wind, he thought. From Patagonia. No rain today.
He washed his hands and returned to the living room. Teresa, Cisna, Benteveo, and Calandria were in the kitchen. He stood at the periphery of the kitchen and studied them. The boxes were open, but from his perspective, he could not see the birds. Cisna was placing bowls of water in the boxes, and Teresa had pieces of raw meat in her hands, of which she handed portions to Benteveo. “Come,” Teresa said to Jonathan. “Watch.”
“No,” he said, and turned to walk to the patio’s sliding doors. He heard Teresa giving gentle instruction to Benteveo.
Looking through the screen, Jonathan noticed that the shadow of the patio roof was in equal line with its outside supports. The lawn’s yellow grass was eye-stingingly bright. Movement caught his eye. Across the lawn, on the other side of a large eucalyptus, a black cat ran hunch-shouldered with its tail between its legs. It stopped in the middle of the lawn, glanced up at the sky, then deftly darted to the left as a chimango swooped by with grasping talons.
Jonathan flinched, then jerked his hand toward the screen handle just as a second chimango dove cross-wise and swept toward the cat’s haunches.
“Hey!” Jonathan yelled as he tore open the screen. The cat nimbly darted to the right and the chimango closed its talons on empty air. The cat bounded toward a field of tall sun-burnt wild grass on the other side of the wooden rail fence that surrounded the house lawn. Jonathan ran frantically toward the cat as the chimangos circled above. As one of the chimangos began its decent, the cat was at least twenty meters from the fence, and Jonathan was at least thirty meters from the cat. Jonathan scooped up a handful of eucalyptus pods as he ran under the tree and threw one at the swept-winged bird, but the pod was captured by the wind and cast quickly to the ground.
“Hey!” Jonathan yelled again, as the bird rocketed nearer the cat. Just as it opened its talons, it braked suddenly upon the air by opening its wings cup-like, and softly lifted itself up skimming over the top fence rail as the cat slipped into the tall grass.
Jonathan stopped, put one hand on his knee, and breathed heavily. The second chimango lit atop the fence and began scanning the tall grass. Jonathan threw another pod and shouted, “Get out of here!” This pod also shot abruptly to the ground, but the sharpness of his voice startled the bird. It flinched and rose off the fence and joined what was a group of birds circling high above the wild grass. They circled once then tilted their wings and glided off toward the south.
Benteveo ran up behind Jonathan.
“Que pasa, Juan?” he asked. “Que pasa?”
Jonathan dropped the pods and placed a hand on top of Benteveo’s head. “Nada, Benteveo. Nada. Chimangos. Chimangos. Nada más.”
They turned toward the house where everyone was curiously watching from the patio.
Cisna left with the children, Benteveo hugging his box with the two smaller lechucitas. Jonathan and Teresa were outside on the east-side lawn, sitting on plastic chairs at a plastic table near the woodpile in the shade of a small patch of pines. They were eating the sausages and chicken. Jonathan ate ravenously, for he had written the entire morning without a snack, but after he ate four sausages, a plate of salad, and cleaned the meat from both breasts, one leg, and one wing, he felt suddenly full. He flipped the bones and gristle to a sheep dog lying at their feet, and sat back in his chair and swallowed a mouthful of wine. A cabecita negra warbled from a low pine bough. Another answered from the two-way radio cable that led to the house.
“Where are your lechucitas?” Jonathan asked.
“In the egg house,” she said.
He looked over at the small cement shed with the aluminum corrugated roof where the eggs from the henhouse were stored. “Did you ask Cisna before you bought the birds for Benteveo?”
“No. But you need see his face when he see the birds. He have fascination.”
“But, what did the mother say? What was her face?”
“It was good.”
Jonathan looked across the lawn on the other side of his matera toward a thick wood of diverse trees. “But, what will the father say?”
“He is a good man. He loves the son. He will build a nice house for the birds.”
“Yes, I know, but . . .” He looked back at the thick wood.
Gansa took their plates inside the house, and returned with ice-cream served in wooden bowls, and they ate in silence, surveying the area around them and listening to the birds.
“I want to let my birds free, you know this,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I know.”
“That is the reason I buy them.”
He looked up into the pine boughs above them, then at wood pile behind him. “We should let them go at dusk.”
“What is ‘dusk’?”
“That way they may find their way better. Just before night. That is what their eyes have evolved for.” He looked above him. “Maybe they will make a home here. In these pines.”
She looked up and smiled. “I hope,” she said.
He placed a hand over hers. She leaned over the corner of the table and kissed him. He took her by the hand and led her into the house.
In the bedroom, the air was sultry, and Jonathan pulled off her dress. He smacked her on her bottom, picked her up, kissed her, and threw her on the bed. Then he pulled off his own clothes and jumped on top of her, braking his weight upon the bed with his arms and legs so that his torso nestled into hers. He made strong, hard, pummeling love to her. After, perspiring profusely and lying atop the sheets upon their backs, their hands palming each other’s slick bellies, they took a siesta.
A couple of hours later, they awoke, and in cotton robes they moved to the living room and lounged upon the leather sofa. Jonathan went to the refrigerator and from a large glass jar, poured two glasses of cool sun-tea. They sipped their tea with their legs intertwined in the middle of the sofa.
“We need rain,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“The wheat and the corn will be stunted this year.”
“Maybe it will rain tonight. Yesterday it almost rained. There were black clouds.”
“And my flowers!” She placed a palm on her cheek. “My new trees! Dios mío.”
“We can go water them now.”
Jonathan got up from the sofa and went to the bedroom to dress. She followed him. They put on old pairs of khakis, light T-shirts, sun hats, and work shoes. In the kitchen, sipping another glass of tea before they were about to go outside, there was a knock on the door as it opened.
“Permiso.” It was Gansa, returning to work after her siesta in her home. She was with her twelve-year-old daughter, Paloma. Paloma, with immense brown eyes and glossy brown hair, stood shyly behind her mother. She had a box in her hands.
“Paloma tiene regalos,” said Gansa.
“She have gifts,” Teresa said to Jonathan.
“Sí,” Jonathan said. “I understood. Intendí.”
“Paloma,” Teresa said, motioning for Paloma to come. “Viene.”
Paloma moved from around her mother’s back, and set the box on the kitchen table. Jonathan eyeballed the box and listened for emanating noises. Paloma slid her fingers in the box flaps and shyly glanced up at Jonathan. She opened the box and reached inside with both hands.
She extracted a table piece she had made at school. It was a center-cut piece of wood with three standing pinecones and holly leaves glued to it, all painted silver, and three red candles. She handed the piece to Teresa. Teresa thanked and kissed Paloma. Paloma then reached back into the box and pulled out a homemade Christmas card and offered it to Jonathan. It was cut into the shape of a bell, with two holly leaves and one red paper berry attached to the outside. Opening it, He saw that she had written in English the first stanza of “Jingle Bells.”
“Gracias,” Jonathan said, and kissed her cheek. She turned red and looked at her feet.
“Bueno,” Teresa said. “We can water the plants now? Paloma can help us.” She bent toward Paloma “Puedes ayudarnos, Paloma?”
Paloma nodded. “Sí.”
They proceeded out the kitchen door while Gansa remained inside to clean the lunch dishes and tidy the house. Jonathan volunteered to work the two hoses on the west side of the house where the sun was strongest, while Teresa and Paloma worked with one hose on the east side. Jonathan would put one hose at the base of a young tree, then go to the other hose and spray a patch of flowers near the pool, then leave that hose at the base of another young tree and go back to the other hose and spray the flowers near the barn, then leave that hose at the base of another tree and go back to the other hose and spray the flowers near the patio, then leave that hose near another young tree and go back to the other hose and spray the flowers near the fence line. Teresa and Paloma worked methodically from one tree to another toward the yard’s east side fence, watering the lemon trees and magnolias behind the patch of pines, then worked the fence line, watering each equally intervaled sapling. Teresa had just last month planted the saplings, and if the new trees did not die from this year’s drought, they would grow into thick screening trees, providing privacy from other homes on the estancia. It was all slow work, and what originally looked to Jonathan to be about an hour’s exercise turned into three hours of sun-and-wind-blistering labor. The skin on Jonathan’s neck and arms began to sting just as he noticed the sun angled a few degrees above the horizon. He thought about the adult owls, turned off the water and went to find Teresa, but before he did, he stopped to enter the egg shed. They were in a larger box now, with a piece of metal fencing atop it. He leaned over the box and peered in, and they looked up with nervous yellow eyes, one of them backing into a corner while the other opened its wings and hissed. Jonathan spoke to them and they stilled, the braver one closing its wings and the other moving out of its corner to more closely examine Jonathan. Jonathan watched them a few moments, then slowly backed out the egg shed and closed the door.
Teresa was alone standing in the south-east corner of the yard, looking down upon a dry and leafless sapling.
“Where is Paloma?” he asked.
“She is waiting for us, to show us the new cow.”
“The new cow?”
“Yes. The ternero. The baby bull.”
Jonathan looked around. Paloma was sitting on the fence near the gate that led to her yard and house. She was kicking one leg up and down, pointing her toe. Jonathan looked back at Teresa. She was still regarding the dead tree.
“Come,” Jonathan said. “I will give it much water tomorrow. Maybe it is only dormant and not dead.” He led her away by the hand.
Paloma guided them to an expansive yellow meadow on the east side of her yard. There were four cows in the center of the field. Two were Holsteins, one ample with pregnancy, and the third was a black Hereford with a caramel-colored calf hiding behind her.
“There is the baby,” Jonathan said pointing.
“No,” Teresa smiled. “That one was born last week. There is a new one.”
Jonathan advanced in front of Teresa and Paloma as they moved toward the cows. The three large cows trudged away, and the baby Hereford followed them. The unpregnant Holstein tramped a few yards, stopped, turned around, and glared at the approaching humans. As Jonathan drew near she faced him and mooed defiantly.
“Wait,” Teresa said. “Slowly. She is nervous. Go ahead. There.” She pointed toward a patch of white in the grass.
Teresa and Paloma halted, Jonathan walked gingerly a few more steps, and a black-spotted face rose from the white patch. Jonathan fell to one knee. It stared inquisitively at him with luminous black eyes encircled by long eye lashes.
“Be calm,” Teresa said in a low voice. “Or the mother may charge. Speak to the baby.”
Jonathan spoke in soothing tones while the ternero stared at him. The mother calmed, lowered her head, and chomped a tuft of yellow grass. She swished her tail. The ternero rocked back and forth a couple of times then lifted its hindquarters, rocked a couple of more times, then rose on all four spindly legs. It wobbled while looking over at Jonathan.
“It was born this afternoon,” Teresa whispered. “While we were sleeping.”
Jonathan continued to talk to it. It wobbled again and took a pensive step toward Jonathan. Jonathan called it ‘little ternero’ and bade it come forward. It walked shakily up to him and raised its warm muzzle to his neck and sniffed, then pulled its head back and gazed into Jonathan’s eyes. Jonathan lifted one hand and stroked its neck. It remained there for a few seconds, allowing Jonathan to pet it, then the mother mooed again, and the ternero kicked up its hind legs and ran clumsily to her side.
Jonathan looked around. Teresa was smiling and Paloma was admiring him. He beamed at them, then glanced over their shoulders and noticed the sun lipped over the horizon. He stood.
“The lechucitas, mi amor. It is time.”
“Yes,” she said, looking at the setting sun.
“Paloma,” Jonathan said. “I like the baby bull. Me gusta el ternero. Gracias.”
They exchanged cheek kisses and Jonathan and Teresa walked toward their house and Paloma toward hers.
Inside the egg shed, Teresa removed the fencing from atop the box. One immediately flew out of the box and attempted to fly through the shut window, but it collided with the glass and settled on the floor near the wall behind Jonathan. Jonathan picked it up. It was surprisingly bony and its feathers soft. He had thought that since it was an adult, that its body would be fat and its feathers coarse. He set it back in the box, replaced the fencing, lifted the box, and carried it outside. The sun had disappeared over the horizon, but the light was still bright.
“Where should we put the box?” Teresa asked.
“We want them to live in these pines,” he said. “How about the wood pile.”
“No. The dogs can go on the woodpile. Worser, the cats.”
They looked around. “The top of the egg shed,” she said.
“I still like the woodpile. It is under the pines. It is high.”
“The cats and dogs cannot get on the egg shed,” she said.
Jonathan gave the box to Teresa and went inside the shed for the ladder. He unfolded it and placed it near one wall and climbed up a few rungs. Teresa handed him the box and he set it on the sloping roof.
“Give me a couple chunks of firewood,” he said. Teresa walked over to the woodpile and picked up two heavy pieces of hardwood. She struggled carrying them to Jonathan, and with them he braced the box so it would not slide off the roof. He removed the screen and climbed down the ladder. They sat in the grass near the egg shed and watched the box. A few moments later, one of owls leapt up to the edge of the box. Teresa drew in her breath.
“This is a fantastic moment,” she said. Jonathan placed a hand on her knee. The owl bobbed its head up-and-down, flapped its wings a number of times, and lept off the edge of the box to the aluminum roof. Its talons, unable to grasp the smooth aluminum, scraped down the roof toward the edge, and the bird frantically flapped its wings as its body neared the drop-off. With one talon slipping over the edge, it finally flapped hard enough to lift itself back up to the edge of the box. It bobbed its head a few times, then looked over its shoulder inside the box. The other bird leapt up to the opposite edge of the box. It repeated the same thing the first bird did by first bobbing its head, flapping its wings, trying to land on the roof, sliding down it, and returning itself to the edge of the box. The twilight was rapidly dimming, about to diminish completely. Now all Jonathan and Teresa could see were the birds’ silhouettes as they continued to alternate between bobbing their heads and flapping their wings.
“What are they doing?” Teresa asked.
“I don’t know,” Jonathan said. “I imagine they are exercising, because they were caged for a while. Or maybe its a ritual of some kind.”
“I feel a big emotion,” she said and gripped his forearm.
They watched the birds bob, flap their wings, bob and flap, bob and flap, bob and flap, until finally, the twilight was extinguished and they could see only gray phantom impressions upon their corneas and hear the staccato flapping of wings.
“Let’s go inside, love,” she said. “I will make you food.”
They walked holding hands toward the house. Teresa made pasta, and they ate while watching a movie about a boxer in Ireland. Halfway through the movie, Jonathan pressed the pause button. There was something tapping on the patio window.
“What is that?” Teresa asked. They went to investigate.
Fat green beetles that reminded Jonathan of June bugs were attempting to buzz through the patio door glass. There were dozens of them.
“The beetles,” Teresa said. “They come once a year.”
“We’d better close the curtains, so they can’t see the light.” But as he grasped the curtains, he saw one beetle flutter into a spider web near the upper right-hand corner of the glass. It struggled and kicked and attempted to move its wings, but each movement seemed to shroud it more with web. A brown spider scuttled down one strand of the web and pounced, lancing its mouth parts into the beetle’s abdomen. Jonathan closed the curtains.
“Let’s go see the birds,” he said.
“We can’t,” she said. “It’s too dark. There is no light on the shed.”
“Where is it?”
“In the kitchen.”
She went to the food bin and after digging around a bit, found the flashlight. They turned off the television and kitchen light and slipped quietly out the kitchen door. It was very dark. There were no stars or moon. They tiptoed to the egg shed with the flashlight illuminating the grass in front of them, then stood near the shed with one arm wrapped around each other, the flashlight spotlighting their feet.
“Are you ready?” Jonathan whispered.
“Sí,” she said.
Jonathan slowly elevated his arm, the light beam slipping up the wall of the shed, over the lip of the roof, across the pieces of firewood, up the side of the box to its top edge. The birds were gone. A screech came from over in the pines and Jonathan moved the flashlight beam over there. He scanned the trees. Another screech came from above them and Jonathan pointed the flashlight straight up. He discovered why there was no moon or stars, for the flashlight beam reflected a thick layer of low clouds. He rotated the beam in slow circles upon the clouds, then he pointed it back at the pines, back up at the clouds, back at the pines. They could not see the birds. He clicked off the flashlight. It was utterly black dark. They could not even see themselves. They gripped each other tight and listened carefully for the next screech.