Niña Ali was strange, strange even in her generosity. For example, she wouldn’t give us expired food or old clothes. She gave us the good things. The same as she ate and wore. Of course, her clothes were far too big, but she sent them to be altered before giving them to us. And when she travelled she brought us back new clothes, handbags, make-up, and presents, as if we were relatives and not just the girls. Niña Ali was like that. She’d order food and ask us what we fancied because, as she put it, there might be something we didn’t like, had an aversion to, right? We’d never thought about it like that. Other Niñas would order anything for you and you just had to eat it. Or, for example, when we went to the supermarket she’d give us her purse. Just like that, in our hands, her purse. So she was strange, but strange in a good way. Oh, Niña Ali, you really are the best, we would say to her. The other girls told us that their Señoras would only give them rotting fruit, suspicious-looking meat, black avocados –good for nothing but your hair– or shoes with worn heels, trousers with frayed crotches, creams that had already begun to separate. Rubbish like that. All the same it was: thank you Niña, yes, lovely, very nice, Niña. And they’d also check through their handbags and plastic shopping bags when they left and sometimes even under their skirts in case they’d hidden a piece of food in their underwear. And they’d say, if you weren’t such thieves we wouldn’t have to act like police on top of everything else we have to do. They’d say all that while pawing at them down there or frisking their legs on top of their trousers or making them empty their handbags onto the ground.
With envy, the other girls would say: so the fat lady is kind, is she? Fat ladies are always kinder. If only I could find a fat lady. Those skinny ones are super miserable. And they’re mean. They just go around thinking about how they can lose weight all the time, they take those pills. Marlene, where are my pills? Coming, Niña. What on earth is in those pills? That Señora goes around like a crazy person, with her eyes bulging out, looking like a barn owl. Oh, my one sometimes, when she’s preparing for an engagement, spends whole days having nothing but low fat cheese and mineral water and if you say good morning Niña she bites your head off and if you don’t she does as well. Mine vomits: she asks for a family size pizza, chocolates, fries, locks herself in, guzzles it all down and then I hear her vomiting and vomiting. Poor Karina –the girl who does the cleaning– is the one who has to clear it all up and there’s no thank you or anything. Of course not, they pay us, don’t you see? The minimum, but they pay us. Their grandparents didn’t have to pay their girls, they were what you might call ‘owners‘. The girls were brought from the countryside, given away by their own mothers, and were provided with a home and food and thanks, boss, may the Lord Our Father bless you and grant you a long life. Sonia worked for one who was a drunk and took pills and slept all day and when she got up she’d become furious and beat the daylights out of Sonia if she tried to come between her and the children. When she sacked her, oh how that Sonia cried, because that woman loved those children, she said those little creatures called out, don’t go Sonita, don’t leave us alone, Sonita. And the baby howled like it was his mother abandoning him, in genuine suffering, because Sonia really was a mother to that child. Yes, that was next door, in the gated community just next door, the one with the lake. The Señor had a very important position in government, working for the mayor, I don’t know how. And then with her friends: everything was perfect, everything divine, everything a dream. That laughter, right? Covering their mouths. Those faces they pull, completely fake, with that stuff they inject that makes them seem permanently surprised, those women look more like they’re made of plastic, eyes wide-open, lips just like a frog. They go around bloated, hideous, as if suffering withdrawal symptoms, but they pay good money for that. At their parties they hire waiters in white gloves. This must be so they don’t get their dark hands on the white tableware, and they put down tablecloths that are worth more than we make in a year. And they fill those tables with that raw pastel-coloured fish. And they put flowers all around the house. And they bathe themselves in perfume. To mask the smell of vomit I suppose. The smell of dirty pyjamas and dirty sheets, shit, menstruation, flatulence, from when they don’t get out of bed for several days. Nobody sees them like that, when you have to move about quietly: Niña? It’s the Señor on the phone, he wants to know if you’re up. Tell him I am, that I’m in the bathroom. Don’t let anyone disturb me, Mireya, go with the chauffer to collect the children and give them some food and for god’s sake don’t let them in here, do you hear me? And the children no longer even ask for their mother. They did in the beginning, but now they just go to the kitchen by themselves. And they tell you things, about football, about their exams, about their friends, about what is going well for them and what isn’t. About what’s going on in their hearts and minds and you tell them things too and in the end they’re like your children. They grow up in the kitchen, eating with you, until they’re big and suddenly it seems strange to them that they care so much about you even though deep down they know their real mother was you and they see you one day and don’t know whether to start bawling and run into your arms like they used to after they’d fallen over when they were little or greet you with a nod because they’re now Señores and Señoritas in society and know that you don’t go greeting the help with hugs or kisses.
So the fat lady was a good mother then?
Yes. Niña Ali was an excellent mother until just before the end. Then she completely flipped and she couldn’t do it anymore, not anymore. She was no longer able to have Mati near her or even touch him. We couldn’t believe it, a little creature like that, like a baby Jesus, with those small golden curls and that round little face, an angel, running to give her a hug and her, in a voice that was now strange, too high-pitched, like when you stomp on a rat, she’d cry out to us. As if her life were in danger. Because of that little creature. Her little baby. Alicita was older and that girl was always very intelligent, extremely bright, sharp as a tack. With those big blue eyes that noticed everything. Oh my, that girl’s eyes, it was as if she could see every little thing inside of you. It seemed she’d seen something ugly inside her mother because she knew instantly. From the start. She would no longer enter a room her mother was in. She stopped thinking she had a mother: she already looked like a little orphan girl, playing on her own and taking care of her brother, it made you want to die from pity seeing her like that, so serious, dressing him or telling him to stop crying over nothing, to grow up. And the young man, well, the young man did what he could with his mad fat woman, he left for work like all the Señores in the gated community, all at eight on the dot, all in their four- by-fours, all wearing shirts and trousers that were ironed by us. And that sad expression that could crush your soul. He too already felt like a widower, with his little children and their crazy mother. Since the beginning of her breakdown, her madness, Niña Ali slept in the guest room and would ask us to bring food to her in bed. She hardly saw the young man. When they ran into each other around the house, she would say what’s the matter and he’d try to embrace her, but she wouldn’t let him, she’d let out her cry of a flattened rat and run back to the guest room and he’d remain outside, just standing there for a long time, sometimes with his hand on the door. We felt sorry for the young man. We felt sorry for all of them, to be honest. Niña Ali smelled bad, poor thing. Mati didn’t sleep at night. Alicita hardly spoke and the young man we don’t know about – he worked until late and just said thank you, thank you. When Niña Ali’s mother, Señora Teresa, came over things became really terrible. She forced her to have a bath, to cut her nails, to shave her legs, to wash all of her clothes, to air out the room. You could hear the screams from all across the complex. Señora Teresa’s chauffer would come in to help lift Niña Ali, and the presence of that man would drive her as crazy as if he were the devil himself. We all wound up scratched and bitten and crying because when she saw that man Niña Ali became deranged, she turned into a terrified bull, a hundred kilos of raging mass. You practically had to tie her up to get her into the bathroom. When the chauffer left, Niña Ali appeared to relax a bit and if we were able to notice this we couldn’t understand how her mother, Señora Teresa, wasn’t, and always brought that man with her. We’d banned the chauffer and the gardener and the window-cleaner and the boy who brought the shopping from the supermarket and Alicita’s swimming teacher and any other worker from entering the house when Niña Ali was awake because we’d already seen what happened with males. Niña Ali what’s the matter? What’s the matter? What happened?, we asked the first few times, when her attacks began and sometimes she didn’t know what we were talking about and sometimes she’d say close it, close your door, don’t sleep with the door unlocked, close my daughter in, close her in tight, don’t let anyone have my daughter’s key, close her away, and she would set about trying the lock on the door to her room a hundred times. But her mother didn’t notice. May god forgive us, but that woman appeared blind, senseless. She didn’t even talk to Niña Ali. She only came because of that thing with her leg and only asked about the leg, but any moron would have noticed that her knee was the least of the Niña’s problems, the dumb fall she’d had in the pool and the bottles and bottles of sedatives they’d begun giving her for the pain, some prescribed by the doctor and some not. In the kitchen, we talked about looking for other doctors, head doctors, for crazy people, but who was going to listen to the girls? The Niña was no longer the same person and each day she became less so. No-one but us appeared able to see it. It wasn’t her leg, why did they keep going on about her leg? Why did they insist on her leg, her leg, her leg? The leg would get better, but her, who was she? She was someone who put her children to bed and watched films and ate pizza or drew or played with clay or came up with little pieces of theatre or took us all for hamburgers or organised fancy dress days. She was someone who took care of her plants, who ate multi-coloured cereal like her children and would watch Mati sleeping and then say to us, can you believe I could have created something so precious? She wasn’t that woman who, monstrously fat, now fled from her husband and children, who stank and would lock and unlock her door forty times a day. No, that wasn’t our Niña Ali. One day her father, Don Ricardo, arrived without warning. We opened the door, he asked for his daughter and we said in the guest room. We’d gone to the kitchen to make the coffee he asked for when we heard the front door slam. We ran to the Niña’s room and there she was: her eyes like saucers, one hand grasping the sheet beneath her neck and the other a pair of nail scissors. She pointed them towards the door. Her arm was shaking from the shoulder down. Niña? She began to scream. Make him go, make him go, make him go. Who? Your father? He’s gone, my lovely Niña. Make him go. Close the door, please, so he can’t get back in. Close everything, lock the doors, so he can’t reach the girls, so he can’t reach Ali, because I can see, I can see and I can hear and I know. What do you know, Niña? What do you see? She began screaming that it hurt. What hurts, my lovely Niña? Where? The scissors always pointing towards the door. And then she did it, it was lightning quick: she took the scissors and slit from her hairline to her jaw. We’d never seen so much blood. Our Niña’s face split open like a fillet. Vinicio, the chauffer, heard the howls. We lifted her into the car and took her to the clinic. On the way, we called the young man. Oh, that poor young man. We waited for news at home, with the children. Alicita didn’t ask about her mother. Not one word. We told her there’d been an accident and she didn’t even look at us. She came back worse. The bandages on her face seemed unbearable, she wanted to see herself, she was constantly trying to take them off, so they had to put bandages around her hands as well and remove all the mirrors. We heard from friends of her mother’s that the doctors said it wasn’t a good idea for her to see herself yet, that first they had to follow a treatment plan, plastic surgery, because it was a very ugly wound, deep purple, with keloid scarring and, what’s more, it crossed her entire face, from her forehead to her neck and it was a miracle she hadn’t punctured an eye. We also heard the thing about an accident. That she hadn’t meant to do it. That she’d been half asleep, that she’d always been a sleepwalker, ever since she was little. A sleepwalker. Nobody asked us what had happened because if they had, we’d have told them the Niña grabbed those scissors and sank them in and dragged them downwards as if she’d been trying to obliterate that face and that she’d been good and healthy, wide awake, and that her father had just been inside her room and that she was terrified of that Señor and had asked us to keep the girls away from that Señor and that the person she’d wanted to sink the scissors into was that Señor. But everybody said sleepwalker and the opinion of the girls is of no consequence, so we simply dedicated ourselves to feeding Niña Ali through a straw and straightening her pillow and making sure she was comfortable and left in peace and quiet, taking care of the children and the young man, who was like a little tormented soul, watering Niña Ali’s plants, spending time with Alicita, whose heart became drier each day, answering the phone and saying yes, Señorita, well, no, at the moment she’s sleeping, yes, Señora Teresa, better today, yes, she’s had lunch, a carrot purée, yes, young man, yes, don’t worry, we’re right here, not at all, we’ll see you later, yes Señorita, I’ll let her know. When her mother, Señora Teresa, came over, the Niña would turn to face the wall and sometimes remain like that all afternoon. The Señora would bring her friends along so she didn’t get bored, although it was perfectly clear that her daughter didn’t like her bringing company: she’d hide her head beneath the sheet and stay there, like a shrouded body. For us, there was no end to the making of coffee, serving of glasses of water, of low-fat snacks, the handing out of biscuits and ordering of desserts from the café in the shopping centre. Perhaps Señora Teresa’s friends thought they were being helpful by visiting Niña Ali and gabbling and gossiping about the whole world, but sometimes we would come in and see her, immobile, miserable, like a fettered animal, or sometimes with streaks of tears where the bandages didn’t cover her face. When all those Señoras left, what a relief it was, you had to aerate that entire house with hairspray and perfume. We were like tadpoles gasping for air, opening and closing our mouths. The house was finally emptied of something like a dense liquid, as if it were, for example, a fish tank full of those strange fish: all painted nails and permed hair and golden accessories. They left. We went back to how we were before. Niña Ali came out from under the sheet and asked us for some of the desserts they’d left behind. We laughed and ate desserts and it would seem as though we were getting our Niña Ali back until she’d grab our hand and say, frightened to death: is the lock on the door working? And the one in Alicita’s bedroom? And we told her yes, of course, and we stroked her greasy hair and she asked us to look after her and would then sleep until the first nightmare arrived. In the nightmares they wanted to take off her clothes. In the nightmares someone forced her to do things she didn’t want to. In the nightmares she locked all of the doors. In the nightmares there was always an adult with a set of keys. Around that time, the young man took the children to stay with his mother because of the thing between Niña Ali and Alicita. The truth is that we still believe she had no intention of doing anything bad, that she wanted to help her daughter, to teach her, but the young man arrived and just saw them there in the bath, Niña Ali and her naked daughter, with that plastic thing that was like a large man’s penis and the young man went crazy, he yelled and beat her, he called her crazy bitch, what are you doing, you crazy bitch, you fat, stupid, filthy lunatic, I’m going to put you in the mad house and she could do nothing but cry. That’s what the girls in the house next door said they heard because we weren’t in, it was a Sunday. So, during the night, the young man took the children in their pyjamas to his mother’s house. From then on Niña Ali no longer raised her head. Her mother came to stay and the Niña stopped talking altogether. When we were alone, she would sometimes open her eyes and ask about Alicita. We told her she was fine and she asked to see her. Then she’d start crying and her mother would tell us to give her another pill. A doctor friend had given her mother some pills that left her drooling and empty- eyed. We thought it would have been better to let her cry because it seemed Niña Ali had lots to cry about, an entire lifetime, but her mother gave her pills like they were sweets. Non-stop. We were very sorry to see her like that, turned into such a monster. The wound that crossed her face like a purple worm, the tremendous flab, the drooling, the distant eyes, the white robes her mother had brought her from the United States and which, she said, were so she would always look clean. The days went by. And the months. Christmas arrived. Niña Ali was a bit better, she got up, came into the kitchen, had some cereal and told us she wanted to buy presents, so we imagined she was intending to win her children back, her husband. We were thrilled and left her alone for a moment to go get dressed for the shopping centre. When we returned, she was in the bathroom and the door was locked. We heard a lot of water running, for far too long. Niña Ali? We knocked on the door. Niña? We went to find the keys and when we returned there she was, wrapped in a towel, her long, straight, soaking hair sticking to her back. She smiled at us. What’s the matter? It was madness at the shopping centre: carol singers, screaming children and hundreds of people. We were worried; Niña Ali had spent months without leaving the house, but apart from a slight limp and her enormous size, no-one would have guessed there was anything wrong with that woman, that she’d been through what she had. That’s how it is, right? You see people and you don’t know what’s gone on behind closed doors. Almost immediately she looked at us and told us she needed to buy some important presents for some important people and that those people weren’t to see the presents, so we’d have to split up for a while. Everything seemed to be going well. She winked, smiled at us, was carrying her handbag, wearing sports clothing, red running shoes. She looked like a normal woman, the same old Niña Ali as always who was heading for the fifth floor to buy us who knows what. We watched her go up in the lift and Christmas music was playing and it seemed like all the madness was really over, that she was going to be a mother to her children and a wife to her husband and that this was a miracle sent by the Baby Jesus because we’d prayed so much and they say God listens more closely to the poor because he feels more love for the poor, and that this being poor shit had to be good for something, for getting our Niña Ali back, so that her nightmares would end along with everybody else’s. We saw her appear at the balcony of the café on the fifth floor and then we knew, suddenly we knew, there’s something that warns you – you can’t explain it – when a horrible thing is about to happen. Various screams at the same time, the sound of a body shattering, as if you’d dropped a bag of glass, stones and raw flesh, one side of Niña Ali’s skull caved in, as if melted, more screaming, a scream that comes from inside you, a scream that’s like a knife wound, the scream of the heart and the lungs and the stomach and Niña Ali there, like a large splayed-out doll, an inhuman pose, as if filled with wool instead of bones. We stood there, hand on mouth, until the doctors arrived, the police, the young man, Señora Teresa, Don Ricardo and someone began to shake us in order to take us back to the house so we could attend to all the people who soon began to arrive desperate to know why, how, and Señora Teresa, handkerchief in hand, said accident, terrible accident, wet floor, she was unstable, you know, her knee, but she insisted on going out because she was such a wonderful mother, of course, of course, said the friends, and she wanted to buy presents for the children. How awful, yes, an accident, my poor gorda, said the friends. But, when the Señora left the room, one of them would read the news about the Suicide in the shopping centre off her phone and the others would listen, hands decked in rings covering their mouths and wide eyes unblinking. Another woman said in a hushed voice that she’d heard there was something strange about the house, that the brother and the sister, the father and the daughter. The others angrily told her to shut up: don’t repeat that nonsense. At the funeral, a woman from the cemetery handed out white roses so that Niña Ali’s nearest and dearest could lay them on her coffin. When she came to where we were she skipped us and gave roses to some very elegant women with large sunglasses who we’d never seen before. The day after the funeral, Don Ricardo, Niña Ali’s father, gave us one hundred dollars, what we’d earned so far that month he said, and, before we left, Señora Teresa searched our handbags and plastic shopping bags in case we were stealing anything. There, in the place she hadn’t searched, we were carrying the Niña’s wedding ring, her beautiful watch and a string of pearls she’d never worn. The Señora didn’t say goodbye, or thank you. Behind her, Alicita watched us with those big blue eyes, so intelligent, so frightened. Those same eyes – absolutely identical – as her mother’s.
Translated by Victor Meadowcroft