Bruises, scrapes, smears of pressed dust dusky against the white of her sleeping robe. There isn’t any way to hide. Not any more.
The city is on fire.
Rose is standing in the middle of the flames.
Under cover of night, they find her in the kitchen. They come in their bedclothes and make themselves at home. Stare at her. Consuming. Moments she wishes she could crawl out of the envelope of her skin when the intruders leave behind grains of sand to grate between nerve ends and tissue.
The best she can do is run to the harbour when morning comes.
Run out of the house letting the small stones that cover the front yard fly loose beneath the soles of her shoes. Run down the cracked pavements while the heat rises from the asphalt and makes the world waver and undulate in front of her eyes. Run until there is no firm ground left to hold her, only the drop of the sea below, dark and deep. She could drown there, down below. She wishes she could keep running and just let her body drop, sink feet to head, her dress billowing around her like a cotton bloom emerging from its pod, the seaweed, thornlike, pawing at her body. The only thing that keeps her from throwing herself into the waves is the memory of her grandmother, and her mother, still bereft, in the house, cleaning rice alongside Virginie, their housekeeper.
Running and sinking.
Every time she thinks she’s done it, she wakes in a cold sweat with a feeling of dread clutching at her from her insides, remnants the ghosts have left in their wake.
Rose is afraid of telling anyone what she sees. La cubana, their next door neighbour, is the one who comes to her the most. No one knows if she’s really from Cuba or from somewhere else. She has straight, jet-black hair and a chalky white complexion that recalls the flesh of the coconut. To her face, they call her Coco.
Rose watches the woman from the corners of her eyes as she drifts into the kitchen like the others when night falls. Watches her eat leftover potato pudding with her hands. It’s been days since anyone has seen her in person, except for Rose, sitting at her mother’s kitchen table in the dark, seeing the ghosts walk by her in search of solace.
Rose knows they aren’t really ghosts, or zombies. They sleepwalk in search of rest. Unlike her, they have somewhere to go.
It’s not that she’s never walked in her sleep.
She used to walk the house in the dark, barefoot, inching forward with her splayed toes, trying to remember how the cold ground felt beneath her feet, charting a map of the house around furniture and the corners of walls. Her mother had told her that it would end when she was older and it had, for a time. But since the disappearances started after the elections, or just before – it’s hard to keep track – she sleepwalks restlessly, imitating the ponderous fear that catches everyone in the throat when they leave their houses. Some don’t even make it that far, don’t even make it to the stoop of their houses. One of them had told her, as he ate cold chicken down to the bone, that they’d found him collapsed in a pool of blood pouring out of four bullet holes, still holding a sock in his two hands that he’d been pulling on, sitting on the edge of his bed.
Rose hears the delicate chicken bones grind between his teeth.
Is he dead? Must be dead, she thinks, as she listens to the man standing against the kitchen counter dressed in a soccer uniform. She peers down at his feet and sees he has only one sock on. With the bare foot, he scratches the bulging calf muscle above the curled top of the ribbed sock.
Sometimes Rose isn’t sure what to believe, but the next morning she reads in the paper that they found the bodies of all the members of a soccer team, killed before a big match, none of them in the same place, as if the killing had been random, unplanned. Except that they were all dead. The opposing team won by default. They claimed their victory in silence, wondering who would be next to fall.
Who would be next? No one knew.
They lived daily in an elaborate game of hide and seek. No one knew who was it, who was safe, just that it was necessary to hide away.
They’re not always dead, Rose comes to realize. Often, they’re only dreaming, sleepwalking like her. They’ve left their bodies behind and appear to her like mirages. She’s meant to be their silent witness. It’s all they want. Someone that sees: to be seen.
Rose has no choice in the matter: she sees.
Some of the neighbours saw them take Coco away, the men dressed in lightning blue, saw how they dragged her out of her house in a sheer pink nightgown, the areolas of her breasts like dark eyes beneath the fabric, dragged her out by the hair so that the pebbles of her driveway were marked by scarlet drops. It takes weeks before she returns.
She doesn’t have her slippers, is all that her husband can babble. Rose listens to him speak to her mother across the fence. Her mother nods and walks away. What can they do? What can be done? As she watches the two separate, Rose is full of dread. She knows Coco will be next. And she is, standing in the kitchen, eating her way through the leftovers Rose will be blamed for taking in the morning, standing there with the others as they tell their stories, words slipping over each other until she can’t make out what they’re trying to say. They don’t seem to realize that all of this is slowly driving her to the edge. Rose tells this only to the water as she runs to the port and looks down, wanting to plunge.
Once, Rose looks out of a window into the yard and sees Coco’s husband sitting on a chair in the middle of the driveway. It’s as if he’s waiting. It’s dark but she can see his eyes are filled with tears, red. He wears the pink slippers, frayed and worn, on his feet, rubs his hands together as if he is a genie who could bring her back with a thought. Rose looks away, ashamed of witnessing something she hasn’t been asked to take in: his vulnerability, his nakedness. Feels the grains like sandpaper grating against her nerves. She’d scream if she could. If the night air wasn’t already choked with screams. It’s her burden. The others dwelling in the house are just bystanders who’ve heard the car crash but won’t inspect the carcass, people too afraid to bear witness in case they recognize a face lying inert against the asphalt, skin pocked with grit from the ground.
Lying in her bed, Rose’s body throbs with pain. She doesn’t know how to make it stop. She places pillows below the places that hurt. She swallows four or five aspirins at a time. She cries softly into the bed sheets that smell of coarse detergent. And once, after seeing Coco in the kitchen, face twisted and wistful, she feels a searing pain in her genitals, as if she’s been knifed, flamed there. She presses her hands between her legs but it doesn’t go away until she begins to recite Hail Marys. Hail. Hell. Mary. Mary. She moans. She twists in the sheets and moans. Hell.
She wishes she were dead. Just like the person whose pain she is feeling, with no explanation other than the fact that this is how she is, has always been.
One morning, Coco’s husband walks out of his house wearing her slippers on his bare feet as he crosses the sharp stones of their driveway.
He shuts the gates even though they are broken and can’t be locked. He places a large metal chain around the two sides of the gates and locks them with a large cadenas.
He won’t let anyone in, not even Rose.