A Sip of Lightby Liliana V. Blum (Translated by Toshiya Kamei)
The usual shadows of the restaurant have grown darker. The unexpected rain lashes against the window next to her table. Milena has asked for a second cup of coffee. While she pours cream into her cup, she glances out the window. The raindrops bounce off the pavement, forming small puddles, where the shoes of the men and women fleeing from the rain hopelessly flounder. People improvise raincoats of big plastic bags. Students cover their heads with books and backpacks. With hurried steps mothers drag small children who seem to fly behind them like paper kites. Old people hold onto their hats with one hand and wobble on their walking sticks in the other. In a few minutes, everyone is gone, except for a few beggars and yellow stray dogs that hide under the cornices. In the distance she sees the dark sky, a dirty blue flannel, occasionally blotched with bright white lines of lightning. Milena opens a magazine in front of her, trying to take an interest in any article. As she turns and flags down the waitress for some sugar substitute, she notices a couple a few tables away. With a desperate look, the woman attacks a plate of enchiladas, clanks her cutlery, pretends to listen to her companion, who sips his beer between his words, swallows a piece of roast beef, carries on his endless chatter...
* * *
Her aunt and uncle in the city lived in the biggest house Milena had ever seen. The spacious bedrooms, painted in bright, fresh colors, had large windows and soft curtains swaying in the breeze. The living and dining rooms were like a display in some classy department store. The sofas and chairs were upholstered in fabric that matched the curtains. Lamps, paintings, porcelain figures, cut glass ashtrays—everything seemed to come from the same catalog. Outside, the view was beautiful. The garden shone brightly in the afternoon sun. The walls bordering the garden were covered with vines. Several flowery shrubs guarded the entrance. In the middle a plum tree brimming with fruit and a peach tree in blossom proudly reigned. But the house wasn't entirely welcoming, though she didn't realize it right away.
Her mother thought it best for Milena to study in the city, where "everything is civilized and modern," and had sent her to her brother's house. He and his wife had gladly offered to take her as long as necessary. When they went to her uncle's house, Milena was five, with pigtails and dark eyes against pale skin like dominos. Her mother, older and heavier, was certain that she was doing what was right for her daughter. Seated on a big sofa in the living room, Milena felt as insignificant as the specks of dust that gathered on the glass of the main table. Her mother, on the other hand, approved of the house where her daughter would live from then on. Her aunt and uncle seemed anxious to show them the rest of the house.
Milena's bedroom had already been prepared. The bedspread had prints of blonde, curly-headed dolls, and a brown teddy bear rested on the pillow. The entire closet had been emptied for her, and a small pinewood desk was waiting for her school materials.
"Ah, Milena, darling. You'll be the daughter we never had," her aunt said, wrapping her stout arms around her. Milena felt the woman's large breasts against her chest. Her aunt smelled like chlorine, onions, and pepper.
* * *
It's not the restaurant that has darkened, but her eyes. The waitress, who brings Milena small blue packets for sweetening her coffee, looks like a gray silhouette. She can't make out the striped skirt, like a horizontal rainbow, much less the big V-shaped purple bib on the white blouse. Milena turns back to the window, to make sure she's still in the same place, the streets are the same, the magazine rack on the corner hasn't suddenly disappeared. Outside, the rain keeps falling steadily. On the road pools of muddy water join one another, timidly forming coffee-colored puddles, which remain undisturbed until tires splash through them. A bag of french fries and scraps of roasted corn drift down a small river that runs along the street, toward the drainage.
Two tables away, the couple has finished eating and ordered coffees. Milena fixes her eyes on them again. The woman plays with her spoon, tapping against her cup while pretending to pay attention to her companion. But she too looks outside, beyond where he is. The man talks, talks a lot, words pouring from his mouth like squid ink, damp, thick, viscous, staining and plunging everything into total darkness...
* * *
At first, her mother came to visit her once a month, and asked her about her activities in elementary school. After the first year, when Milena turned six, she came less and less often, then stopped coming altogether. Milena was allowed to spend the summer in the country with her family, but because of some odd family tradition, Christmas had to be at her uncle's house. Only then did Milena's parents visit the city and spend the holidays with their daughter. She wouldn't see her mother except for summers and Christmas. When this realization planted itself in her life like a nest of rats in a cupboard, Milena decided to disappear. The first time, her aunt looked for her for hours, shouting her name in desperation. The girl woke up a few hours later and decided to come out. When she did, her aunt and uncle scolded her. How dare she frighten them like that? Her aunt, with tears in her eyes, gave her a loud, painful slap. When her aunt left the room, her uncle tried to hug her, rubbing her back as if warming her. An intense chill, like an icy scorpion creeping down her spine, had traveled over Milena's back.
Despite the scolding she received, Milena became fond of remaining still, like a clay toad, inside the closet for hours on end. The smell of the clean clothes reminded her of her mother and eased her longing for home. The silence cuddled her softly, putting her in a state of mental coma. Her mind stopped and she could finally rest. She got so used to the darkness that the world outside the closet, with its light and colors, caused her pain. Still, sleeping in her bed at night wasn't the same. There the darkness was cold and threatening. Milena tried to take comfort in the smell of the sheets, but it wasn't the same. Once placed on the bed, they lost the scent she associated with her mother and got soiled with sweat, sweat that wasn't hers.
* * *
Devouring the paleness of her face, a bead of sweat seeps into her eye, like a teardrop that travels back in time. Later more beads gather, covering her forehead, like a bunch of salty grapes. An immense uneasiness invades her, a violent takeover of her whole body by the brigades of utter sadness. Dizzy, Milena walks slowly toward the restroom. She doesn't bother to take her purse with her or finish her coffee, which will be cold when she comes back. She's not in a hurry, she just needs to leave, escape the scene for a moment. The path seems long, and she barely gets through the small space between the chairs and tables in the restaurant. Milena runs both hands through her hair, her eyes fixed ahead, without daring to look at the people dining. Just as she steps into the restroom, she rests her hands on the sink and sees her reflection in the mirror. A woman putting on her makeup looks at her somewhat scornfully. Milena, sweaty, disheveled, watery-eyed, shivers softly, visibly shaken. Wavering between ignoring her and faking an interest, asking her if she's all right, the woman decides to put away her cosmetics as fast as she can. She gives herself one last look to check her makeup and walks out, leaving Milena alone.
No doubt she's not the same as before; she's no longer the girl who took refuge in the closet for the whole afternoon when she was in elementary school. She has grown a lot since then, but in the mirror she can only see herself frozen in anguish as before. But Milena has grown tall, like a plant hidden in the basement, dying of hunger for light. But she's still alive.
* * *
It all began with an innocent tickling game. Her uncle hugged her from behind and drew her onto his lap. Later, it evolved into something more. Little by little his hands went up her legs, under her dress, as he chose to interpret her desperate screams as giggles and laughter. It always happened at lunchtime when her aunt was fixing food in the kitchen and her uncle decided to spend time in the TV room "with his favorite niece." One day, during the daily torment, her uncle slipped his fingers into Milena's pink panties. There was no more tickling, only an icy silence that left her still and stunned. Her body, not her mind, felt his thick, rough fingers pressing and rubbing her vulva. The sweaty man's rough, smothered breathing filled the room. Now he licked his finger and put it into a part of her body Milena didn't know existed. Suddenly everything seemed to sink under a pressing silence as if all motion turned into a postcard, frozen. His left hand rubbed the crotch of his pants. When an ice floe of pain went through her, her uncle moaned like a wounded animal and stopped. Milena stayed there looking at him for a few minutes, unable to move. When her aunt called from downstairs and told them the food was ready, she ran to her bedroom and went into the closet. She wrapped herself in a wool sweater, but she couldn't stop trembling. Nor could she listen to her uncle telling his wife that the girl had decided to take a nap and would eat later.
* * *
After remaining on the toilet for several minutes, with the door closed, crying softly, just as when she was in the closet, Milena gathers her courage and steps out. She washes her face with care, wets her hair, ties it up in a ponytail, and tidies herself up as much as possible. The only thing she can't remedy is the reddish color of her eyes—that and the infinite sadness seizing her throat, a huge void, like an old hunger. Several women, always in a flock, come into the restroom, chattering, talking with each other, laughing, and placing themselves in front of the sinks next to Milena. They jostle her to get a piece of the mirror, a piece of their own image.
What if she were to talk to them, tell them everything that happened? Will they stop worrying about finding a maid, catching an end-of-season sale at the Palacio de Hierro department store, holding on to their husbands, despite everything? Will they reflect for a moment and stop shoving her to powder their cheeks, put on mascara, and touch up their hair? Probably not. Neither her aunt nor her mother listened to her. One afternoon, she found her aunt alone in the kitchen, drinking a cup of chocolate milk. For the first time, Milena dared to talk about what had been happening for years. Her aunt was furious when she heard Milena tell the sordid deeds her "dear husband could never have committed." The girl ran from the kitchen to hide in the closet as her aunt threw dishes and cups on the floor. Crying, pulling her hair with both hands, and refusing to believe, she called her sister-in-law and ordered flatly: "Come and pick up your daughter. We don't want her here anymore." Her mother's reaction was not much different. She slapped Milena several times through her tears, repeating, "But my brother wouldn't do such a thing, stupid girl. Why are you making up something like that?" She clearly ruined her chance of going to middle school and high school in the city with her aunt and uncle paying.
Milena steps back and frees herself from the hips pressing against her, leaving space for another woman in front of the mirror. Calmer than before, but still weak in the knees, she walks toward her table by the window. The waitress pours more coffee into her cup and smiles at this poor young woman with sad eyes.
* * *
Later it was no longer necessary to resort to the tickling game. It wasn't just a finger anymore. At night, her uncle came through the door of Milena's bedroom and lay next to her on the bed. She pretended to sleep and not to notice anything. He fought the urge to scream, his mouth filled with pleasure, keeping as silent as possible. Milena learned to transport herself to the still of the closet. There her mind went blank. She could leave her body and watch what was happening from outside without feeling anything. There she saw the pale body of a girl frozen under the brown mass of a man. Each time he panted more intensely until he fell exhausted, fixed his flannel pants, and hurried out of the dark bedroom. Only then could Milena go back to and take shelter in her body, cocooned under the sheets and blankets that failed to warm her.
* * *
Outside the window, the city has come back to life. The sky has cleared up, and the people have gone back to the streets as if nothing happened, trying to avoid the puddles that will stay there for a few days. The sun peeps out from behind the fleeing clouds and begins to warm the afternoon air. Milena asks for the bill, gulps her coffee, puts away her magazine, leaves a tip, and springs to her feet. Two tables away, the couple carries on their same role: he talks and caresses his round coffee cup; she listens and eats her tres leches cake. As he pauses, the man takes a long swig of his coffee. Just then Milena bumps against his sturdy body—sadly familiar—spilling the hot coffee on his chest, legs, and crotch.
Milena walks away without saying a word, ignoring the man's furious shouts. She can't hear anything as a flicker of a smile crosses her face, like a ray of light that slowly comes in through a window that has just been opened.