Publish the Word
Your Subtitle text
Angelus -- Chapter 14

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                                    Chapter 14

 

 

She judged a place by its color, she thought, as they angled down out of the clouds, first impressions like charcoal sketches she would go back to later.  Memory connected the ragged lines, but color was essence, the aura of a city.

She thought of the reddish-brown and grey of Chicago, Miami's orchid with its overlay of topaz, but what she saw of Ascuncion was blue: an endless glaze over the landscape, vaporous blue, a curlicue of indigo river and wetlands, blue smoke rising, a sprawl of buildings Chagall-like in their disarray, not the geometric grids she normally saw from the air.  The air seemed blue, a city of remorse, she thought, snapping her seatbelt at her waist and gripping the arm rest as thermals shuddered plane.  The pilot announced something indecipherable over the intercom.

Are you all right? Julie asked, squeezing her arm, her eyes like two antique buttons, two lapis lazuli.

She felt pressed down by an invisible hand as they descended, the jet engines laboring, she thought, her ears popping, the weight like swimming upwards in blue water, fighting gravity.  Takeoffs she could manage, but she hated landing.

They were banking left.  Everyone about her leaned the opposite direction, away from the inward pull, the steep spiral toward the airport.  She could see the runways, then the control tower.  A carry-on bag tumbled from an overhead compartment and skittered down the aisle toward the steward seats.

Safer than driving, Julie was saying above the roar, but then they touched-down, scudded, skipped momentarily airborne again, and finally settled, the rush of speed past the window too dizzying to follow.  She searched under her seat for her purse.

They had to de-plane and cross the tarmac, following the ant-line of passengers into a concrete building.  An officer in a khaki uniform stamped a three-cornered entry into their passports, waved them through Customs, and they were carried forward in a rivulet of travelers along a narrow walkway.  A tall and stylish woman at the corridor's end, behind a National Tourist Bureau counter officially welcomed each passenger, cautioning Julie and Ava not to exchange their dollars at a bank, but sell them on Calle Palma, where they would get a more favorable exchange rate.  Then, still in the flow of disembarked passengers, they were spilled out into the main terminal of the Aeropuerto Silvio Pettirossi.

Ava was surrounded by the people of her childhood, mestizos, Spanish Indians with black hair and coppery-cocoa skin swirling about her, a vortex of faces, snatches of language lost in her past.  All at once she felt overwhelmed, wearied by the long flight.  She sat down on a padded bench.

You feeling okay, Mom, Julie asked.  Want me to get our luggage?

Will you please, Ava said to her daughter.  Julie was still wearing her indelible grin.  She clasped her translation dictionary and surveyed the cavernous front hall of the terminal building.      
      
This is so amazing, Julie said.  To be in a foreign country.  To hear Spanish.  We're really here.  This is much better than going to Costa Rica.
 

Twenty minutes later Julie returned and explained that only one of their bags had come up on the luggage turntable, so she finally had to ask an attendant who went out to the loading dock to find Julie's leather satchel.  She had so stuffed it, the bag was impossible to carry, but Julie had resourcefully found what seemed like a grocery shopping cart.  Though the wheels thumped when they pushed it, they got their luggage out to the taxi lot. A silvery-hair man took their bags without saying a word and loaded them into the trunk of his car.  To his Donde?, Julie replied 3000 Calle General MacArthur, por favor.

Ava cranked down her window as they drove.  The moist, warm air felt exactly the same as when they had flown out of Milwaukee yesterday.  Mid-summer in Wisconsin was winter in the southern hemisphere, cloudless days and nights, she seemed to recall.  As the buildings and intersecting streets flowed past, she watched for something familiar, but it was as if she had never been here before.  Her first seven years were only vague images at the periphery of memory.

Do you recognize anything? Julie asked.  It's bigger than I expected, more modern.

Ava noticed the driver's eyes examining them in the rearview mirror.  As if to conceal this indiscretion, he hooked his right elbow over the seat between them, turned halfway and said Hace calor?

Si, Senor, Julie answered him.  She touched her mother lightly on the arm and said, he said the weather's warm.  If people speak slowly, I can understand most of what they say.

As they drove past several Romanesque style government buildings, Ava thought of her brother's voice on the phone, weeks ago now, unsure if the long pauses were a slight time-delay in the connection or some reticence.  His accent struck her as more Spanish than German, a stranger's voice, nothing familiar in its timbre or inflection, but he had told her to come, yes, by all means, come, he too would be anxious to see her.  What would he look like?  Would she recognize anything about him, not having seen a photograph since he had graduated from secondary school?  He would be fifty-seven now.

They had communicated so infrequently -- a Christmas card every five or six years, maybe less often.   She didn't know if he had married or had a family.  When her father died, she thought Udo had taken over the export business, but they had drifted away from each other.  She had met David and begun their family ten thousand miles away from her home, though she was never quite sure where home was.  He still lived in the same high-walled hacienda near the confluence of the Paraguay and Pilcomayo rivers, the home of their childhood, of that she was certain.  Nothing along the roadway, however, stirred any remembrance.

They drove past the modern facade of the Hotel Guarani on a tree-lined city square.  The driver spoke over his shoulder to them while Julie translated. 

This is Plaza de los Heroes, she said.  See that little domed building there, a memorial to Marshal Francisco Lopez.  He says Lopez was like an insane Napoleon who fought against Argentina, Brazil and Chile.  So many died that only old women and burros were left in the country.  He's not very popular today.

They crossed cobbled streets into a shaded, residential section of white walled houses behind century-old acacia trees and stone walls, cloaks of moss and dangling bromeliads so dreamlike to her she might have awakened into a Ruben Dario poem.  Then they were circumnavigating a neighborhood of makeshift dwellings of plywood and pallets, as if the architects had been schoolchildren with a perverse sense of design.  Julie leaned toward her and asked if people really lived in those.

The breeze carried mixed scents in through the window as they drove:: industrial fumes and diesel exhaust, humid odors of vegetation, especially eucalpytis, and then, aromas from the river, she recognized those, a pungent, decaying and malodorous presence beyond the row of trees which arched over the road.  She glimpsed patches of sunlit water as they drove, the houses now farther apart, the granite and mortar walls which shielded huge, colonial estates.

    Nothing yet matched anything from her memory, but intuitively she knew they were nearing the wrought iron gate with its baroque flourishes, the driveway beyond circling under a canopy of what kind of trees?  Were they magnolia?  Some type of flowering hardwood, she thought.  
           And then, as the driveway horseshoed around the terrazzo fountain, she saw in her mind the house with its two-storied, cream-colored walls, the red-tiled, Mediterranean roof her father was always mending, the rough masonry of the steps in front and in back, the patio with its inlaid camellias, the hedges she and her brother had played hide-and-seek in, the terraced lawns so cool and spongy and endless to her as they undulated down to the river.

Is this it? Julie asked.

They were turning from the road then stopping in front of a black iron gate, not the towering edifice she recalled from childhood. But this was the address.  The driver had gotten out and opened the trunk for their luggage..

No, please, por favor, Ava said as she opened the door, gesturing for him to leave the bags in the trunk.

What's the matter? Julie asked.

It's too far to walk with these heavy bags, Ava said.  Open the gate so he can drive up to house.

Julie got out, said Momento, Senor, then released the metal latch and swung the gate open far enough for the car to pass. Their driver shrugged, closed the trunk and got back in, idling the motor until Julie had slid in beside her mother.

To the house, Julie said.  La Casa.

Ah, La Casa, he repeated.    Ava leaned forward, a blue wave of sadness and regret sweeping over her unexpectedly.  Why had she waited so many years to come back?  What would she say to him?  She had agonized in her mind over how to begin, and now that she saw the house rising through the trees ahead, she was too nervous to think clearly.  How would he react to her?  Could they possibly pick up the threads of their lives?  Her chest felt clamped by panic that squeezed her breath out in tattered mouthfuls.              

Wow, a mansion, Julie said, as the full expanse came into view.  I can't believe the size of your house. And this is where you grew up?  Is that your brother?

She wasn't sure.  He was coming down off the shaded veranda to meet them.  He wore a peach-colored shirt over white pants.  He had a high-forehead, like her father -- yes, she could see the resemblance, lanky and large-boned.  He bent toward the car window on Julie's side when they stopped.  She saw his aquiline nose -- was it Udo?  Then she recognized his blue, watery eyes, the same eyes. even though the face seemed so different.

Is that you? he said in English, then added, Wilkommen, his melodious voice with its indistinct accent exactly as she had imagined, continental, like a diplomat.

He opened the door and extended his hand to Julie to guide her forward.  Then Ava slid sideways to reach and take her brother's other hand.   It was large and moist.  He drew her into the sunlight, late afternoon.  He stepped back to appraised them, then he raised his right hand to his mouth and tapped his lips with his index finger, silent and thoughtful, saying at last, I see you in your daughter, very clearly, he said.  But I would have great difficulty recognizing you, my sister,  after all these years.

And I you, she said.  You're a grown man, tall like father with his brown hair.

What little is left, he said.  His face relaxed and he smiled as he patted the top of his head.

Ava self-consciously touched her own head and adjusted the scarf over her hair which had begun to return in dense bristles, as thick eventually, she hoped, as it had ever been.  But she was still months away from sallying forth without her array of headcoverings.

I'm Julie, her daughter said somewhat impulsively, as she held her hand out to Udo.  He took and raised it to his lips. A pleasure to meet you, my niece, he said.


Thank you, she said, grinning appreciatively, a little flustered, her mother thought.  When he released her hand Julie took a step backwards and glanced at her mother, awkwardly waiting for her mother to say something and bail her out.

I wasn't sure how well you spoke English, Ava said.

I speak six languages, he said.  But none of them very well.

The taxi driver had unloaded their luggage at the base of the steps.  He stood patiently and surveyed the estate behind them.  Ava realized he needed to be paid and turned back to retrieve her purse from the car, but Udo had taken several bills from his pocket and gave them to the driver who was reeling off something in Spanish, thanking him, she assumed.

When the cab circled the fountain and disappeared down the avenue of trees, Ava felt a momentary dislocation and a flush of panic.  I don't know if I should hug you, or what, she said. I feel like a stranger, it's been so long.

Udo was silent and had shifted his eyes toward the ground at her feet,  just as uncomfortable, she thought, but then he said, let us try and he opened his arms for her.  Ava leaned toward him, into a half-embrace, wanting so much to surrender  her jumbled emotions, but all at once feeling so strange and distant from her past, truly a stranger to this man who she knew felt the same toward her.   If only they could compress four decades into this moment, she thought, feeling perspiration through his shirt, his clean, sweet fragrance.  When they came apart, something in the air between  had changed slightly.  What she had worried about for weeks and weeks was now past.

Come in out of the sun, he said.

Julie shouldered her backpack, while Udo hoisted their two clothes suitcases and Ava the shared third which contained makeup, their shampoos and miscellaneous female things. They followed him up the stairs, toward the cool interior Ava began to visualize with each step.


I can't believe I'm really here, she said when they paused inside the high-ceilinged entryway, their eyes to adjust from the brilliant sun.  The curvilinear, marble staircase swept upward and bent left to where she knew the bedrooms were, hers on the east side flooded by early sun which rose across the river each morning, and splayed its tentacles like those of a mythical beast upon the floor toward her bed.  Udo's room was directly opposite, opening onto the gardens and acres of forest beyond.  Her parents' bedroom, actually a suite of several rooms, occupied the far end of the hallway and branched off as a separate wing.  She remembered the sleek, black tracery of their balcony and the courtyard below with its fountain surrounded by a shallow pool.  Despite her frantic squeals, Udo would leap into the water from the second story when their father was gone and their mother preoccupied. Would she find anything the same, she wondered, after so long?

 She and Julie accompanied Udo into the living room and the attached, plant-filled alcove they had called the music room.  The piano looked the same, an enormous mahogany grand. She recalled the day several men had delivered it in a flatbed wagon pulled by two mules.  They removed the window and part of the wall to get it inside.

This is incredible, Julie said, twirling about to take in the entire room.  Nothing much was changed, Ava thought: the same well-worn Persian rugs and overstuffed German furniture, the French doors with their Isinglass panels open for cross ventilation.  All these books, Julie said.  They look really old.  And that tapestry, Mom -- I bet it's a family heirloom.

You still have that? Ava said to Udo.

It still hides the same cracked wall, Udo replied, amused.

It depicted a hunting scene of fat, red-cheeked burghers on Lippizan stallions.  The colors were muted golds and browns, faded by age.  Her father had loved the scene, but her mother hated it on the wall.


Would you like a cold drink? Udo asked.  Or a bath to freshen yourselves?  You might be fatigued from the travel.

I'm not, Julie said.  But maybe Mom needs to lie down.  She glanced at her mother who either had not heard or was choosing to ignore what Julie had said.

I thought your mother would like her old room, Udo said to Julie, but loud enough for Ava's benefit as well.  And you can sleep in the room at the top of the stairs, the room on the left.  It has a pleasant view and cool shade.  I'll carry your bags up.

Ava wandered into the music room and was plunking the keys to test their tone when she felt Julie come up behind her.  Your family's home is like a museum, Julie said, with all this antique furniture and neat old lamps and everything.  How old is this piano?

I played it as a child, Ava said.  It was old then.  Let me show you the upstairs.

They met Udo midway up the stairs.  He said he had to check on the special dinner he was preparing for them.  Please, you know your way around, he told Ava.

She tried to recall what was different about her room.  What had once been a window overlooking the courtyard was now a small balcony and a helical staircase.  And her  bed, which had been a little girl's canopied bed with scallops and truffles carved into a polished wooden headboard had shrunk to an unadorned brass bed that sagged in the middle.  Her twin dressers were gone, as was her round play table where she used to draw, the wardrobe that always smelled musty and of mothballs -- probably all furniture her father disposed of, though she wondered if he had kept it for even a few years, harboring some faint hope, perhaps, that his wife and daughter might return.


She and her mother had left with only two over-stuffed suitcases.  For months afterwards, when they were settling into the clapboard farmhouse in southern Wisconsin, boxes would arrive, pre-addressed in her mother's italic handwriting, parcels in brown wrapping paper, like battered immigrants, spilling their few, simple contents onto their formica-topped kitchen table in their American kitchen with its gas stove and Amana refrigerator.

Mom, I'm going to look around on my own if you don't mind, Julie said from the doorway, backlit by afternoon sun, barefoot and tanned in her cutoff jean shorts, so thoroughly Midwestern and suddenly incongruous to be here in Paraguay, a character in this dream, as if Ava's own mother had materialized like a glowing apparition.

Okay.  Go and explore while I lie down.  Ava unpacked her suitcase, neatly arranging her clothes on top of a wooden vanity table, the room's only furniture other than the bed.  That fuzzy-headed feeling was washing over her, but she didn't want to nap just yet.  She wanted to see her parent's bedroom, her other haven as a child and then survey the courtyard from their balcony and gaze at the river to see what else had changed.  She wanted to wrap herself in memory's warm blanket and hear her father's voice, his sonorous baritone awakening them with German folksongs. Then she wanted to hear her mother scuffling about in the early morning chill.  Ava wanted more than anything to indulge her nostalgia, and she believed if she stood silent long enough and let the room's tropical air submerge her, she could bring back every detail.

She sat on the bed and removed her shoes, listening to the house about her, the distant, metallic sounds from the kitchen, a roundelay of birds beyond the window, the bed underneath as she shifted her weight, her breathing, faint whine of a motorboat from the river, all so lovely and so ordinary and so sensuous.

Her skin felt damp from the humidity.  She unwrapped the silk scarf from about her head and used it to sponge at her cheeks, then her moist, cropped hair, fanning herself, calmer now that she had at last arrived, the ordeal of airports and planes behind them.  She envisioned her room again, as she remembered it, everything in place, even the lace curtains billowing at the window.


She had never wanted to leave.  She never understood, not even years later when her mother had tried to explain.  It was a magically golden life in the big house at the edge of  the river and jungle, so much better than the farmhouse buried under endless winter. To be wrenched from her brother and father while her mother was so stoic and quiet, shooshing Ava whenever she asked about Paraguay as she grew up -- that life evanesced forever.  Not until she was older and had been initiated by boys into new feelings did she learn how words could lacerate.  And not until she became an adult did she suspect her parents' problems were more severe problems than her mother was willing to admit.  But what still troubled her was why her father nor Udo had ever come to the states to visit?  Her parents' break had affected her, too.  She had vowed her own children would never suffer such loss.

She stood wearily, her energy levels fluctuating without warning ever since she had undergone the bi-monthly Mayo treatments over the summer.  And no, she wasn't going to surrender to a nap until she had revisited the rest of the second floor.

The hallway tile was smooth and cool beneath her feet, a pumpkiny color, with darker swirls, like tapioca.  Spices from the kitchen eddied about her from downstairs and the sickly-sweet fragrance from the gardens, of decaying orchids or honeysuckle and, of course, the incessant river with its melancholy of fish and decay.

As she reached for the doorknob to her parent's room, the door opened unexpectedly and a  pretty mestizo woman, maybe fortyish with her face half hidden by a cascade of black hair drew back, as  startled as Ava.

I'm sorry, Ava said.  I didn't anyone else was up here.

Que?  the woman said, composing herself as she glanced down at the floor and  rattled off something in Spanish.


I don't understand Spanish, Ava said.  But the woman slid past her without responding and vanished around the corner to the stairwell.  She had left the door open, and though the room was dim because the curtains were closed, Ava concluded it was now Udo's room.  She could see the bed and a high-backed chair, a stack of magazines on the floor near the door.  She wouldn't snoop without his permission.  She closed the door, then she checked Julie's room, and of course her daughter had not unpacked, but had merely dumped her backpack onto the bed.

If she had gone touring with Julie she could have pointed out what had changed over the years, but Julie didn't want to hear her prattle on.  She could have told stories about the life before her current one, that she had been a girl once as difficult as that might be to conceive, but Ava was lightheaded and felt like moths were fluttering just behind her eyelids.  So  she returned to her room and eased back onto the bed, toward its inexorable center.   She closed her eyes to the hazy light and sank down into the gentle wash of amnesia.

 

This is a feast, Udo said as he waved his arm over the dining table.  We have not feasted like this since the Secretary-General came for dinner two years ago.

The Secretary-General, Julie asked in awe.

Udo flung his hand upward, as if he were releasing a canary.   We did not bestow as much  honor upon him as we will you, my beautiful guests from America.  He was just an old baccarat playing companion.  We used to get drunk together in military school.

Refreshed, Ava wore a silk crepe skirt and peasant blouse, with a matching cranberry scarf.  Julie had washed her hair and swept it up, Spanish style.  She wore her sandwashed jeans and a clean t-shirt, a jangle of bracelets at her wrist.  Udo gestured for them to be seated opposite him at the table.


Now I know why you loved this place so much, Mom.  Uncle Udo showed me all your old hiding places, like your little chalet in the trees that your father built.

I had forgotten that, Ava said, holding Udo's eyes so long she felt embarrassed and shifted  her focus over to Julie who was sipping a pale rose wine in a crystal glass.

Not much of our playhouse has weathered the years, Udo said.  The walls have collapsed, but the platform remains.  We managed to scale the tree and from our camouflaged outpost against the world, we watched the boats passing on the river.  Your daughter is quite fearless.

What an incredible view, Julie said.

Did Udo show you the goldfish pond?

Unfortunately, Udo said shaking his head, the river flooded several years ago and liberated all the fish.  I did not bother to restock the pond.  I should, I know.  It was one of father's great joys.  But ah, the dinner arrives, he said, interrupting himself.

The woman Ava had seen earlier appeared behind her from the kitchen with a tray of steaming vegetables.  She quietly placed it in the center of the table.

Thank you, Carmela.  Udo rose in his chair and with a flourish said, may I present our splendid cook, my housekeeper Senora Carmela de la Vega.  She came to live with us as a teenager shortly after you left.  Father found her orphaned and living on the streets, but she has been like family ever since.  She may seem shy until you get to know her.

Ava studied the woman's face, the smooth mocha skin and her black hair which fell to the middle of her back so lush and lovely that Ava thought immediately of her own lost hair.  My Spanish is poor so I brought Julie as my translator.  My German is pretty rusty too.

Carmela nodded politely then went back into the kitchen.


She is very reserved, Udo said, but quite literate.  And don't worry about your Spanish. Carmela understands and speaks a little English.  She also speaks German and Guarani, which the Indians speak.  Paraguay may be a poor country, but we can discuss our poverty in several languages.  He smiled, diverted by Julie who had leaned forward in her chair so as  to breathe in the fragrant vegetables.

    The thin sliced vegetable, he said, pointing, the yellow spears mixed in with the onions, carrots and tomatoes is mandioca, more commonly known in your country as the cassava.  Udo picked up a decorative gourd and held it aloft as he explained its significance.  Before we partake of  this wonderful food, may I toast your visit with our yerba mate.  We drink it for good luck.

What is it? Julie asked.

A cold tea from the yerba tree, lightly spiced.  It will refresh you.  Please, he said, holding it out to Ava.  We drink through this wooden straw called a bombilla.  Paraguayans are as addicted to this as Brazilians are to their coffee or you Americans to your coca cola.

An alfalfa taste, Ava said, sipping a second time before passing it on to Julie.

At that moment Carmela returned bearing a large tureen.  She was followed by a younger, willowy woman in her twenties whose dark hair cascaded to her waist.  She held a baked-clay dish in front of her.

The sopa paraguaya, he said as Carmela placed it on the table.  It is a dumpling of ground maize and cheese.  And may I also introduce Evita, who has, I think, the chipa soo, a traditional bread filled with meat, one of my favorites.

Did you say Evita? Ava asked. Like the musical, Evita?  Do you live here, too? she asked the young woman.


When Evita smiled Ava could see the resemblance to Carmela, but her bone structure and eyes were less Indian.  Evita said, my mother and I live in the west wing.  He voice was soft and her English precise, with little trace of an accent.

 

Thank you, Evita, Udo said.  He waited until she followed Carmela from the room and then he said, she also is a college student, like you Julie.  You two will have much in common.  She listens to all the American rock music which I find infernally dissonant.  The music of chaos, I call it, though she ignores my opinion.

Her mother is Carmela? Ava asked. 

Yes, I'm sorry. I did not properly introduce them.  

Evita is a beauty, just like her mother.  Does Carmela's husband live here?

Yes and no.  She would tell you she is married to this house and its endless demands, worse than a husband and just as ungrateful.  She hires others to care for the lawns, to repair the plumbing and so on.  She is indispensable to me, honestly.  But please, I'm squawking like an old parrot.  Let us eat.

I don't recall eating like this when we were younger, Ava said.  I remember sauerkraut and lots of German food.  She took the bowl of sopa from Udo.  It had the texture of a souffle.

We tried hard to be European, Udo said.  I know at first our parents wanted to preserve the culture and heritage they had grown up with.  But that denied us the richness of local customs and the exquisite foods and drinks which father gradually began to prefer. I'm sure our mother adopted American ways after you left.

Ava was testing the vegetables' a unique flavor, cinnamon she thought.  Udo's statement rattled about inside her before she found a reply. She said, I don't believe mother ever gave up Europe.  America made her an introvert.  Not unhappy, but never content.  I don't know why she never went back to visit.  She always got misty talking about when she was a girl, how she longed for the mountains and the forests.  I guess the war traumatized her too much.


Udo laid down his fork and folded his hands thoughtfully, as if he were about to pray.  Well, I can tell you father had no wish to return.  Europe for him, was a moral, how do you say? a cesspool.  Old and evil and dying.  He preferred the simplicity of Ascuncion, like a young girl he always said, a virgin enjoying her first romance.  To him, Europe was an old whore.  Excuse my coarseness, he said to Julie.

But I always hoped you would come to America, Ava said.  Why didn't you?  At least to visit?

Udo shrugged and said, I had no good reasons.  No, truly, I had no reason.  I should have come. 

Carmela returned with a bowl of brown rice crested with black-eyed peas.  Quinoa, she said, setting it in front of Ava. Quinoa, she repeated.

Udo added, some people eat these cowpeas with tortillas -- a kind of peasant food. 

Keen-wa, Ava said.  It looks like bulgur wheat.

I love your shawl, Julie said to Carmela, who bent over for Julie to feel the fabric.

This nanduti, handmade lace.  In Guarani means spider web.

Beautiful, Ava said.  Did you make it?

My grandmother.  You enjoy food?  I bring you more wine? 

Everything is excellent, Ava said.  Isn't it, Julie?    Julie nodded, her mouth too full to answer.

Gracias, Carmela, Udo said.  I told you they would appreciate your cooking.  She is masterful with food, but I take her for granted.  Only when guests come -- and that is rarely -- do I appreciate her artistry.

Does Evita cook also? Ava asked her.


A wispy butterfly of displeasure flitted across Carmela's forehead.  She is no interest to cook.  Only her studies, her friends, her rock roll dancing.  Too much American television.

You get American television?  Julie asked. 

I have a 48-inch satellite dish, Udo said.  I can monitor the world's insanity without ever leaving home.  Except when Evita is not watching your MTV.

You get MTV here?  How bizarre, Julie said.  MTV in Paraguay.  I guess music is the universal language.

Not that music, I hope, Ava said.  Remember the chubby little man who used to give us piano lessons, she said to Udo.  Bushy eyebrows?  Mustache?  Always smelled of tobacco?

Maestro Garcia?  Yes, of course.  I continued studying with him for several years after you left.

Maestro?  Julie asked.

He used to conduct the Rio de Janeiro Symphony Orchestra, Udo said.  He came here to escape the jealous husband of a cello player.  An exceptional teacher.

He was, I remember, Ava said.  So you continued your lessons?

For a time.  And then I no longer felt the need for lessons.  Music became like breathing to me, no longer a struggle but my very life.  From the piano I went to the violin, then other instruments, the brass, percussion.  Music and my life were one and the same.

Really?  I never knew.  Ava settled back in her chair.  The room seemed to be shrinking about  her as light faded at the western windows, color draining away, the room's objects flat and two-dimensional, her brother's face a gray intaglio, Julie still eating, listening, also receding at her periphery.  She rolled her head from side to side, unsure what was happening to her.  Exhaustion?  Jet-lag?


Are you all right, Mom?  Julie was tugging at her elbow.  Mom?  You look flushed.  Need to lie down?

I do.  I think the flight--

Let me help you, Udo said rising, his head wavering in the dimming light like a Mylar balloon, his hand gripping her tightly on her other arm just below her shoulder.

She felt outside her body as they steered her up the stairs, she wobbling like a drunk, unable to find her feet or the marble underneath, Julie's calming voice at her left and Udo looming close on her right.

I'm sorry, she heard herself say.

You must rest, Udo said.  Sleep in the room of your childhood.  Sleep and dream of when you were a girl and we played on the banks of the wide river.

She lay down in the drift of early evening and let the moist song rising off the river lift her free of her heavy body.  Her dream, which she recorded in her daybook the next morning, was so vivid its memory lingered like an exotic scent as she awoke.

 

Daybook, August 3

    Ikaros' sister, daughter of the one-same Dedalus,

 

    could also fly, wingless though, her body pumped

 

    with a lighter than air gas, helium, say, or a rarer

 

    element -- fermium or lithium, a cryogenic cocktail

 

    she guzzled straight down, no waxy taste or afterburn,

 

    just a free floating sensation, the diaphanous gown tight

 

    about her Grecian body, rubber-banded at the ankles,


    her hair fluffed and sungold over bare shoulders,

 

    her arms upraised, like a Pentecostal or a girl waiting

 

    for the stadium wave to reach her, both hands open,

 

    expectant, yes, yes, she sang, eyes closed, oh yes.

 

    Better than a chemical rush, or Dutch chocolate,

 

    or sex (how would she know?) her body began to quiver

 

    deep inside, an upstraining, climactic thrust

 

    and windborn, was she?  Yes, her feet dangling

 

    like clean laundry, the tufted pasture falling away,

 

    the sheep lane, thatched roofs and treetops an optical

 

    allusion for cartographers, but not her, avian daughter,

 

    aloft, drifting left or right by whim, puffs, whoosh

 

    of breath, over the fishing boat bay, the slash of river

 

    as it broadened, the horizon succumbing to a sea

 

    of clouds above her, borne anew in this moment

 

    of lightness, of inner velocity, of life before

 

    this life, as she drifted, timeless, in the lemony air.  

 

 


She heard music faintly rising and falling in the distance as she lay her book and pen on the floor.  The curtains were flurrying at the window.  She sat up and inhaled the long-ago familiar: dampness from the river and over-grown vegetation, the groan and creak of the house, the cool, worn tile under her feet, kitchen sounds and birds, the omnipresent birds --   macaws,  the mournful cotingas, the woodcreeper with its Rudy Vallee-warbles, none of them like her northern deciduous birds in Wisconsin.

She selected a crinkled rayon skirt and a cotton top from her luggage.  After she dressed, she smoothed down her shorn hair, then wrapped a lilac scarf around her head.  Not that she was  self-conscious, she told herself, but the scarf made her feel more feminine.

 She let the music guide her along the upper hallway and around the corner to the suite of rooms which used to be her parents'.  The door was ajar, the room beyond bright washed with early sun.  In the outer room sitting room their mother would sew at her old treadle machine.  It now contained shelves of books, CD's and electronic equipment.   She went through to the bedroom which used to have an adjoining dressing room on the left and a bathroom with an inlaid marble tub opposite.  The bed and dressers were sleek, polished wood, not what she recalled from her childhood.  The double doors were open to the balcony where she found Udo reclining on a chaise lounge.

Good morning, she said as he reached over to turn down a large, portable stereo.

How are you feeling? he asked as he rose to his feet.  He wore white linen pants and a pastel print silk shirt. He gestured for her to sit in a twin lounger next to his.

            The trip wore me out, she said, but I'm feeling much better.  I'm sorry if I ruined your dinner party last evening.

No, not at all.  You didn't ruin it, he said.  I hope you will take all day to telax and recover from your travel.   Julie must be still sleeping.  I am an early riser myself, but I know how travel can throw your body rhythms out of harmony.  Personally, I hate to travel.  I rarely leave Ascuncion.


Ava settled back into the shade from the overhanging branches of a caranday palm.   She let her eyes roam off into the vista beyond the courtyard.  The shimmering lawn rolled down toward the treeline which hid the river.  Like a Watteau dreamscape, it all  seemed the same, almost surreal to be sitting here now with her brother after so years.  She tilted her head back and breathed in the air and the light and the indolent pleasure of memory.

Would you like some coffee? Udo asked.

No, thank you.  Perhaps some fruit juice.

That we have, he said.  He stood so he could lean over the balcony and call down to the courtyard.  Would you please bring us a glass of fresh fruit juice?

Below them Evita laid the book she had been reading upside down on the wrought-iron table.  She got up and went silently in through the flowered arch to the kitchen.  Udo said, she's a college student when she wants to be.  But most of the time we can't get her to do anything.  This young generation, they lack -- how would you say it in English?  Meaningfulness?  Nothing has much meaning for them.

I don't think it's much different back home, Ava said. Julie and her friends are just as lazy and more materialistic than we were. 

Yes, materialism, he said.  The anthem of  today.

Evita brought up a glass of mango juice, too warm and syrupy.   But Ava barely noticed.  She was telling her brother about the experimental cancer treatments, about losing her hair, her prognosis and her desire to return to Paraguay, a jumble of thoughts.  She sipped the juice and closed her eyes.  Here I am prattling on, she said.

Well, how would I know this since we stopped writing to each other, Udo said.

Why did we? she wondered aloud.

The air about them resonated with the soothing calls of birds in the forest canopy.  She listened to the arias and arpeggios and echoing response.  But the birds, she realized as she continued to listen, were not fluting and trilling in the nearby trees.  They were emanating from Udo's stereo.


That's lovely music, she said -- with the birds and nature sounds.

Do you like it?  He sat forward, waiting for her response.  It's my music.  I composed it.

Really?  It's magnificent, Udo.

It's a sinfonia of mine, a rather unique one, I think.  If you'd like I can introduce you to my collaborators.  He took her hand and helped her up.  They followed the balcony around the courtyard and over the servant's wing of the house where a white-walled portico led to the garage.  What used to be a flat-topped garage where she had kept her clunky German touring bike now had a second story.  Udo motioned for her to enter the open doorway.  My  refugio, he said as she stepped into a high-ceilinged room filled with computers and recording equipment.  We are not all backward tropicales here.

How does all this work?  she asked.

He led her to the console and began to demonstrate what he explained was computerized,  multi-track, midi sequencing with digital effects and fully automated, so the control board would remember the master mix and settings.  I can create almost any sound from recorded files.  Listen to this.

Strings rose from behind her, mostly violins and cellos, then at their left a refrigerator-sized amplifier blasted an urban cacophony of traffic which Udo gradually diminished in volume.  He conjured an entire brass section, added woodwinds and percussive congas and steel drums that he hushed o a low, pulsating heartbeat.  He brought in a gentle, other-worldly vibrato which became the wail of a distant train and then wind, rushing water, dogs barking, children singing and finally the music she had heard on the balcony.

Do you play all those instruments?  she asked.


Most of them, he said.  I studied piano at the music academy until I was twenty, then I unenrolled when I surpassed the teachers.  I thought of going away, perhaps to Europe, but father got ill so I had to take upon his business.  But like a faithful mistress, my music has remained more loyal than any woman ever could.  Ha! he said.  I am joking.

What do you call this piece? she asked.

It is my Divertimento for the Birds, he said.  Do you think the pun is too obvious?  And suddenly she saw behind his amused grin the impish brother of years ago. Udo brought up the volume to the threshold of pain, until she had to cover her ears.

It sounds like a thunder storm, she said.  But Udo didn't hear her.

He had turned away to throw open the French windows and was beginning to conduct, swinging his arms in exaggerated ellipses, his music swirling grandiosely into the brilliant morning. 

 

 

.