Waiting for Things to Die | Emile Estrada
Don Miguel’s white Buick spat smoke down the highway westward from Caracas on a Friday afternoon. Doña Soledad sat in the passenger seat shielding herself from the sun with her hands and young Rafael sat between them picking at a scab on his knee. The boy’s father sat in the back smoking menthol cigarettes with the windows rolled halfway down.
“Thanks for the ride, Don Miguel,” said Doña Soledad. “We’ll pay you on Sunday.”
“That’d be fine,” said the driver while he adjusted the rearview mirror to look at the man sitting in the back. “How’s Don Atanasio doing?”
“We shouldn’t talk about that now,” she interrupted.
“Mother, the boy needs to know,” said the tall, thin man from the backseat.
“Know what, dad?” asked Rafael turning around.
“There’s nothing to know, Rafi,” said Doña Soledad.
“You can’t coddle him forever,” said the boy’s father.
“If you want to raise your kid, take him to live with you,” she said. The man looked away and tossed his cigarette out the window.
“Is everything okay?” asked Rafael.
“Everything is fine,” replied the old woman.
“How come we haven’t gone to see grandpa in a while?” asked Rafael.
“It costs too much to have Don Miguel drive us every weekend,” said Rafael’s father.
“We used to go all the time. It’s been months since I’ve seen him.”
“You’ll see him today,” said Doña Soledad.
“Dad, if you keep my allowance, can we see Grandpa more often?”
“Ask your grandma.”
“Can we, grandma?”
“You’ll see him today,” she said in the kind of tone that ends a conversation.
Rafael kept picking at the scab on his knee until it came off. Blood dripped down his shin and he wiped it with the inside of his shorts, then he covered his knee with his right hand. He knew if his grandmother saw the blood she would make a big deal out of it. Old women have a way of doing that. The young boy looked ahead and saw they were driving behind a large blue truck. Ten minutes went by and they were still driving behind it.
“Don Miguel,” said Rafael turning to the driver, “I’ll give you ten cents if you pass the car in front.”
“You already owe me eighty cents.”
“I’m good for it, I swear.”
Don Miguel passed the blue truck in front and drove over the hills, and Caracas vanished behind its curtain of smog until the road gave way to a warm green country. Grandpa Atanasio lived in Santa Lucia, a small township in the Venezuelan countryside, where his shabby cabin plastered in cracked stucco had stood for decades. Two hours after passing the blue truck, the car took a right turn on a dirt road among dark cedar trees that soon opened into the yellow clearing where Grandpa Atanasio lived. He sat by the front door of his cabin on a wicker chair and a metal cane rested against his thigh. Rafael jumped over his grandmother and out the car and ran to his grandfather before Don Miguel had even stopped. The old man had his left arm in a cast and bandages wrapped around the sides of his bald head.
“Grandpa Atanasio, Grandpa Atanasio,” the boy jumped on the old man’s lap and they embraced. “What happened?”
“I’m alright, kid. It’s nothing,” said the old man.
“It sure don’t look like nothing. Does it hurt?”
“Not at all.”
“Rafael,” said the boy’s father, “Come say goodbye to Don Miguel.”
Rafael ran to shake Don Miguel’s hand who handed the boy a handkerchief to wipe the blood off his hand. With a smile, the driver reminded Rafael that he now owed ninety cents for passing cars on the road to Santa Lucia. Rafael smiled back and reassured him that he would pay later. Rafael’s father and Doña Soledad approached Grandpa Atanasio. The two men kissed each other on the cheek, and Don Miguel drove away in a cloud of yellow dirt.
“I’ll get dinner started,” said Doña Soledad and went into the cabin.
“There’s a fresh chicken in the sink,” shouted the old man through the door.
“Did you clean it?” asked Rafael’s dad.
“Just killed it moments ago but couldn’t clean it. Hand hurts too much.”
“It’s nothing, I lost my balance last Monday.”
“The neighbor girl called me. She said she drove you to the hospital on Wednesday night.”
“She came over to borrow something and found me.”
“She found you two days later? Why didn’t you go to their house?”
“The car hasn’t worked in months.”
“You need a phone in the house. You shouldn’t even be living all the way out here on your own.”
“It’s fine. You worry too much,” said the old man.
Rafael approached the two men and asked, “What happened Grandpa?”
“Rafael, go play,” said his father.
“But I want to know what happened!”
Rafael put his head down and ran past the wooden outhouse and then past the rusted Chevy truck at the back of the property to where Grandpa Atanasio grew plantains on a small clearing and kept a henhouse, where the palm trees were planted so closely together that they always kept the dirt cool and dark. He washed his hands in the well and then spent the rest of the day chasing chickens through the palms. Doña Soledad watched Rafael from the kitchen window as she soaked the chicken in a plastic bucket filled with cold water and plucked the feathers off the carcass.
“He’s in no condition to be living on his own,” Rafael heard his grandmother say from the kitchen.
“I can’t take him with me,” the boy’s father replied. “I don’t have any space for him.”
When she was done plucking the bird, she sliced it open at the abdomen with a dull curved blade, pulled the innards, and threw them to the side of the sink. The old man sat outside on the wicker chair chewing tobacco and, spitting into an old tin can of coffee, he smiled whenever Rafael ran by chasing after a frightened hen.
That night, Doña Soledad removed Atanasio’s dressings off his temple and cleaned the wound and the stitches with mercurochrome. She then washed Rafael in a tin bathtub and wrapped the boy’s knee tightly in a thick white bandage, so tight that the boy’s leg itched and ached, and once he was clean, the family sat in the small living room of the cabin to eat dinner. Before they ate, Doña Soledad cut the meat on Rafael and on Grandpa Atanasio’s plates. The old woman said a quick prayer and nobody spoke again until after the meal was over. Rafael noticed how thin the skin on Grandpa Atanasio’s face was as he counted the stitches on the old man’s head.
“Grandpa, did we eat one of your chickens tonight?” the young boy asked.
“We did,” said the old man.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to kill your own chickens.”
“You’re not,” said Doña Soledad.
“She was old and stopped laying eggs weeks ago. There was nothing left for her to do,” said Grandpa Atanasio.
“Do you have to kill the chickens when they get old?”
“When they get too old or too sick.”
“Are any of your chickens sick, grandpa?”
“One of them is.”
“Are you going to kill it too?”
“Do you have to?”
“It’s better this way.”
That night, Grandpa Atanasio slept on the leather couch in the living room and Rafael’s dad slept on a thick wool blanket on the floor. Doña Soledad and Rafael shared the bedroom, its walls covered in old photographs, most of them black and white. Above the bed there was a photograph of a man in white robes and a large white hat, one of a soldier in handcuffs, and another of a large group of people around Grandpa Atanasio when he still had a full head of hair and a thick black mustache. A large stack of damp newspapers sat in the corner of the bedroom and on top there were two golden medals, one of which was shaped like a camera.
Rafael looked at the group photo from the bed and asked, “Grandma, was Grandpa Atanasio famous?”
“He was well known.”
“What’s the difference?”
“He worked with lots of famous people. You see that picture of the man in the white robe? That’s Jean Paul II. He was the pope a long time ago. When he came to visit Venezuela, your grandfather was hired to take pictures for the newspapers.”
“Why is that army man being arrested?”
“He was a colonel when the army tried to overthrow the government. Your grandfather took that picture when they arrested the man.”
“Does he take pictures for all the newspapers?”
“Not anymore, he’s retired.”
“What’s retired mean?”
“He’s too old to work.”
“Do the people in the picture ever come to visit Grandpa?”
“That picture is very old.” The old woman paused for a moment before speaking again. “They’re not really around anymore.”
“Are they dead?”
“What’s with all the silly questions tonight, Rafi? Go to sleep; you have plenty of homework to finish tomorrow.”
Rafael and Doña Soledad sat at the dinner table all morning working on his homework and, early in the afternoon after he had finished and had eaten his lunch, Rafael ran out the front door to go chase the chickens again. Out on the back lot, by the farthest of the plantain trees, were two black birds, as large as the boy, and their faces were naked and red and they bickered and squawked with each other, and Rafael, down on his knees, looked at them from afar.
The birds fought and danced around in a circle until a large white bird flew down and the two black birds made room for him, and the white bird perched itself onto the carcass of a large brown hen and picked at the body with its dull golden beak and gored the dead creature while the black birds watched on. After it had its fill of the carnage, the white bird flew away and the other two swarmed what little remained of the carcass and pulled at it with their bloodied beaks and they squawked and bickered some more. The rest of the chickens roamed around the henhouse, pecking at the ground and clucking quietly, indifferent to the frenzy around them.
Rafael ran back into the house and cried and grabbed his father by the belt and dragged him to the kitchen. He pointed through the glassless window at the birds and his father rushed back into the living room.
“Dad, do you still have your air rifle?” said Rafael’s father.
“What’s going on?” said the old man.
“There’s vultures out back. One of the chickens is probably dead.”
“What’s a vulture?” asked Rafael.
“The gun is in the cupboard,” said the old man.
“I’ll go deal with them,” said the boy’s father.
“Are you going to kill them?” said Rafael tugging at his father’s shirt.
“Let go, Rafael!”
“Are you going to kill them?” the boy insisted.
“It’s a BB gun. It won’t kill them. It’ll just scare them away.”
Rafael’s father grabbed the rifle from the kitchen cupboard and pumped it a few times before walking out of the cabin. Rafael climbed onto the kitchen sink and sat on the windowsill that faced the back of the property and his father came into view. Rafael had stopped crying and then Doña Soledad grabbed the boy by the shoulders, took him into the living room and sat him on the couch where she proceeded to redress the dirty bandages on the boy’s knee. Rafael heard the clicking of the gun outside and the birds cried and their wings fluttered until all sound vanished.
That night Rafael could not fall asleep. He kept trying to scratch the scab underneath the bandages, but he knew if he tried too hard the bed would shake and his grandmother would wake up and redress his knee again. After Rafael’s grandmother had finally gone to sleep, his father dragged him out of bed, making sure to make as little sound as possible, and they sat outside under the crescent moon. The wind blew hard and the two of them heard the branches of the plantain trees sway back and forth. Rafael’s father sat on the wicker chair with a bottle of beer and the boy sat cross-legged by his father’s feet.
“How are you feeling?” Rafael’s father asked.
“My leg itches,” the boy said.
“You know what I meant.”
“I’m fine,” said Rafael.
“It’s alright to feel scared sometimes.”
“I wasn’t scared by nothing.”
“Vultures can be vicious.”
“They killed one of grandpa’s chickens,” said Rafael rubbing his eyes.
“They don’t kill anything. They wait for things to die.”
“Grandpa said one of his chickens was sick.”
“It probably died all on its own.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes. The boy’s father sipped his beer slowly and stared at the crescent moon as the clouds thinned, which allowed the moonlight to brighten the yellow clearing where Don Atanasio lived, and Rafael looked up at the sky and counted the stars but lost count after a short while.
“Is something wrong with grandpa?”
“Here,” the man said and handed Rafael the bottle. “Have a drink.”
The boy shook his head, afraid of what his grandmother might say, but his father insisted, so Rafael wet his lips with beer and handed the bottle back to his father. The man smiled and finished the beer. He put his hand on the boy’s head and Rafael turned around to look at his father.
“Your grandfather is old, Rafael. He’s going to be staying with you and your grandmother for a while.”
“Is grandpa sick?”
“Not really. He’s just old. You see, when people get old, they can’t take good care of themselves anymore, so it’s up to us to take care of them.”
“Grandpa is dying, like all of his friends in the photograph, isn’t he? I asked Grandma about it last night, but she wouldn’t say anything.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Everybody dies sometime.”
“Will I die too?” Rafael said after a brief pause.
“One day you will. So will your grandpa. So will I.”
“Are you going to be the one to put grandpa down?”
“What do you mean?” asked the boy’s father.
“I heard what he said about putting the chickens down.”
“No, we don’t put people down. We take care of them for as long as we have to.”
“I get it. It’s just for chickens,” said the boy with a sad smile.
“Just for the chickens.”
“Do you know how long will we have to look after him for?”
“I hope grandpa gets to live for a long time.”
“Me too, Rafael.”
Young Rafael stood up and sat on his father’s lap and asked, “Dad, does it hurt when you die?”
“Aren’t you full of questions tonight?”
“I just want to know.”
“I don’t know, son, I don’t think so. I guess it depends on how you die.”
Rafael’s father walked the boy back to the bedroom and tucked him in next to his grandmother who hadn’t noticed his absence. Rafael knew Don Miguel would be coming back for them soon after sunrise and the boy closed his eyes very hard but could not fall asleep. The white of the moonlight lit the bedroom through a crack in the ceiling and he sat up on the bed to take the bandages off his knee. He looked at all the old photographs in the room and the damp newspapers in the corner, his grandmother quietly snoring on her side. The chickens were quiet that sleepless night, but the wind made the swaying trees sound like the fluttering of wings and Rafael wondered how long it would take for the vultures to come for everyone he knew.
About the Author:
Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Estrada immigrated to the U.S. due to the deteriorating political landscape of his native country. He studied philosophy at San Jose State University and currently resides in the state of Arizona.