For Osvaldo and Yolanda,
for Maria and Rubito.
On the morning of the day Sara would have turned 20, I woke to a cry from Cornelia.
I couldn’t get back to sleep. Even though I’d been up through the early hours of the morning, pacing the dining room, stopping now and then to open a book whose first paragraph I repeatedly failed to read. Cornelia had been asleep and for me, that was enough. Before bed I’d reminded her to breathe deeply as a sedative dissolved under her tongue. The next day would come and all we’d have to do was steel ourselves for an afternoon visit to the house of another married couple. They had agreed to my request not to mention Sara. Lukas promised to welcome us with a comedy, Swedish cinnamon buns, and booze. He always made Cornelia laugh with his impersonations: a neighbor with a limp, or a Spanish actor (rolling his R’s with difficulty). Svetlana would smile at me contagiously. That house, with the two of them in it, seemed to be one of those places—winter or summer, morning or late afternoon—where the sun always shone.
Judging from the light entering our bedroom, it was no later than nine in the morning. Cornelia’s weak cries continued. I listened to her repeated sniffling as I dressed and looked out on the overgrown grass in the plaza. A white dog ran through the flowerbeds. A man wearing a hat shook a stick as long as his arm and then threw it. The stick spun in the air. The dog ran under its smooth shadow.
Cornelia was biting her fist, sitting in an armchair in the living room, a dozen photographs spilled over her skirt. The rest were in a wooden box on the table: the half of our lives we’d spent together, some images facing up, others blank white rectangles with Cornelia’s delicate handwriting—a foreign city, a date.
I stepped behind the chair and placed my hands on her shoulders. Pressing gently, I made circles with my fingertips. I knew silence was better than anything I could say. The wrong word could land like a blow. A full embrace might break her open.
Entering the kitchen, I could still hear her murmuring. I put the water on, prepared breakfast, and opened the curtains. The man with the hat was now seated on a bench. The dog lay at his feet.
Cornelia said something that I didn’t catch and I pretended not to hear. I went and gathered the photographs and put them back in the box. Then I returned to the kitchen, asking what kind of tea she preferred. Jasmine, she whispered, rubbing her thighs.
I saw that one of the photos had fallen under the table without her realizing. She was nearly stepping on it. I figured it was probably one from Sara’s childhood. If Cornelia picked it up, she would flip it over. And whichever photo it was, if Sara was in it, it would come to carry more weight than all the rest. Cornelia would reminisce about it until she began crying again, remembering every detail of a night the three of us had gone to the circus and Sara had posed with the elephant. Cornelia would remember the smell of the elephant. And then the smell of our daughter.
For months we had been planning another trip to southern Italy. As newlyweds we had gone to Salerno and Sangineto. It was one of the few places we had traveled just the two of us, a nod to our family trees, which both had their beginnings there. On that trip we busied ourselves with the highest branches. Now, with this new trip, we were trying to find a way to move on from the smallest branch, one that had hardly flowered before snapping off in a storm. The metaphor was absurd, but that was how I thought of it.
Cornelia’s eyes were bloodshot and lost, stark above her pale, freckled hands, resting against her white face. She thought of things in a straight line. She didn’t have the strength or the desire to drum up similes or figurative language. Today, Sara, our daughter, killed in an accident thousands of miles away, should have been turning 20 years old. And she wasn’t. That was what Cornelia was thinking. It hurt me too, even though I’d long forced myself to set aside my own needs to better protect her.
It was a habit that had origins in my childhood: I was swimming with my brother Jorge at La Playa de la Agraciada. We weren’t more than ten years old, escaping from our tents during the hour of the siesta. At the edge of the forest we collected stones and threw them into the water to scare off the rays. The grisly prospect of having our heels sliced open made it so we barely entered the river before attempting to float and paddle with our arms. The mud disgusted us, but far worse was the fear of the rays waiting in the river bed, their sharpened tails ripping through the soles of our feet, the arches, the instep. We’d never seen anyone get attacked. This was worse: our imaginations under the afternoon sun.
Jorge splashed out, away from the shore. I followed his lead. We talked, making circles with our hands. He scooped river water into his mouth and spat it in my face, then dropped below the surface to escape. After a chase, I managed to trap him. We struggled. I spat my own stream of water into his ear and he screamed. The first time he asked for help, I didn’t believe him. I told him not to mess around. He screamed again: Cramp! Cramp! I approached slowly, certain at any moment he would force me under the water, pull me into a headlock, knee me in the thigh. But no. This time, no. He disappeared, and I went after him.
Underwater, screams have a strange, piercing tone. It doesn’t matter what’s being said; it winds up sounding like a lost language. I brushed against an arm or a leg. I came up for air and immediately went back under, feeling a pounding in my chest, in my temples, something that seemed to come from outside my body, from some far-off place in the river itself. Everything was yellowish-green down there.
I found my brother and pulled him from the river. I no longer cared about the rays. I threw him over my shoulder and carried him to shore. I yelled something—I don’t remember what. A man came, then another. They tried to help him. I buried my head in my arms, wishing the death were mine. As they moved him from one side to the other, Jorge vomited water. He was coughing.
“Pass me a cracker,” said Cornelia.
“Sure. You want jam?”
“No, it’s fine. Just to eat something. What were you thinking about?”
“I was thinking we could take that trip to Italy this September. The north and the south. Rome, Naples...”
“I want to go to Uruguay.”
“I’d like to go back to Montevideo,” she said, pronouncing it with her Swedish inflection.
Cornelia had vowed she would never go back to Montevideo. We couldn’t even mention the country in passing, or acknowledge any of the news that occasionally trickled in from there. It was a place I had once used to seduce her—I enchanted both her and Sara with stories of my childhood. But after Sara’s death, the whole idea of Uruguay had turned rotten, like a soft, spoiled potato, forgotten in the darkest corner of the kitchen.
I told her it didn’t seem like a good idea. I insisted it was better to plan for Italy, reminding her of the meals we’d had in trattorias in Sangineto, the way we wondered whether my grandparents as children had eaten those same dishes, or if the dinners were merely an act for tourists, prepared with whatever was on hand.
Cornelia didn’t want to reminisce. I got her to lie down for a little and reminded her that Lukas and Svetlana were expecting us after lunch. I dissolved half a sedative in a smoothie and left it on the bedside table. She only drank some, but she dozed until midday.
I sat in the dining room and picked up the novel. Before I went back to the story, I skimmed the dust jacket, which I’d read before buying, then the back cover, then other titles in the collection–a review of authors’ names and ways to title a work. I remembered the photograph under the table, but certain that I would have time to pick it up before Cornelia woke, I continued reading. I read without understanding. Often I have to flip back multiple pages to figure out what’s evaded me. It bothers me, this habit, but I can’t help it.
Ten or twelve photographs appeared before my eyes as I tried to read. They were probably the ones I would have rushed to save if I woke one morning with water up to my ankles. I closed the book and picked up the photo. Sara wasn’t in it. But both of us could have pictured her clearly, standing on the sidewalk below, the camera covering her face.
We had traveled to Uruguay together three times. On the last trip, Sara was fifteen. We rented a furnished apartment in Parque Rodo, near the Engineering School. Sara and Cornelia went walking each morning among the trees in the park. They would return around noon, and I’d be waiting for them with lunch prepared, ready for them to tell me about the ducks that fed on crackers near the paddleboats, about the books they had found in the Castle Library, how down at the beach the water had barely reached their knees, even after they’d walked a hundred meters into the sea. The sea. No matter how many times I explained to them the distinction, they, like many others, used the wrong word to refer to the Rio de la Plata. The afternoon Sara had taken the photo, we had eaten our meal on the balcony. There were five days remaining before our return flight to Stockholm, and she said that we had to take a picture of the building before we left. Cornelia and I were in bed, waking up from a nap. Sara instructed us to go back out to the balcony. I asked if she wanted me to uproot the medicine cabinet from the bathroom as well so that we might remember it also.
“They’d charge you for it...It’s not a good idea” Sara answered me, half in Swedish, half in Spanish.
She ran down two flights of stairs and reappeared below, waving up at us and saying something I couldn’t hear. Cornelia came out to the balcony and called Sara’s name.
“Sit down, Mom, and act like you can’t see me!” Sara yelled back, looking through the viewfinder.
“We could wear masks,” suggested Cornelia.
“Ett, Två, Tre,” I imagined Sara counting.
The photo I found under the table was the first. She had taken a few more when a girl on a bicycle stopped nearby. They talked. I’m sure that Andrea apologized for the interruption, but I suspect she stopped with the idea of chatting for a while, bewitched by Sara’s camera, by her long blond hair, by the tenderness we feel when someone struggles to speak our language. Andrea was two or three years younger than Sara. She said so when she introduced herself, removing her backpack and setting it on the pavement. They wound up sitting on the curb and talking for half an hour. Sara even asked if she could take the bicycle down to the corner.
“Dad, Dad, I’m a gaucho,” she screamed, letting go of the handlebars.
Cornelia told her to be careful, and although she could have done it herself, she suggested that Sara invite the girl to have a snack with us. The two of them came up the stairs carrying the bicycle. They left it next to the door. Andrea seemed used to being around foreigners. She greeted us cordially and ate twice as many cookies as Sara, who was chatting excitedly about Nordic schooling, traditional Swedish foods, the taste of snow. Andrea talked about her first year in high school, listed various siblings and cousins, explained her fascination with drums, and confessed a desire to become a dancer. For her part, Sara predicted that as soon as she finished high school she would enroll in courses at the Veterinary School.
“And be a photographer in my free time.”
The four of us laughed because photographer was a word that gave her trouble, and I had to help her separate the syllables.
That night during dinner the three of us talked about Andrea. We reminisced as if grasping at something we would never lay eyes on again.
“Maybe we can see her before the flight,” said Sara. “We still have four days.”
Cornelia was awake. I responded the second time I heard my name, without knowing what to do with the photograph. At first, I thought to leave it in the box, but I didn’t want it to trigger the same chain reaction in Cornelia: a point-by-point recounting of Sara’s final days. So as I went to see her, I folded it into quarters and put it in my back pocket. It was no longer morning. Something troubled me in the pit of my stomach. We were depending on Lukas and Svetlana.
While Cornelia showered, I left a bottle of Amaretto and a box of chocolates on the table along with the keys. I went into the bedroom, sat on the bed, and whisked off my slippers. Then I tied my shoes, listening to the water in the bathroom. I thought about Andrea. I called up her face, a mannerism where she lifted and dropped her shoulders. I closed the window and heard Cornelia’s footsteps. She had put on eyeliner and an orange shade of lipstick. Her hair was pulled into a bun that highlighted the size of her eyes. She tossed the keys onto the bed but didn’t say anything. In Sweden leaving the keys on the table is believed to bring bad luck. She had told me as much a hundred times since we met. Sara too, as kind of a joke, joined the superstition patrol, calling me each time she found the keys on the table to come move them. On one of my birthdays, they gave me a key hanger with two little hooks they themselves had made the night before. It was a wooden circle with a print of Artigas pasted to the surface, the same image found on the Uruguayan Peso. One of the hooks jutted out of Artigas’s neck, the other, out of his nose.
“We had to kill him to change our luck,” Sara said when she handed me the gift wrapped in newspaper. “A culture clash.”
I put the keys in my jacket pocket, placed the bottle of liquor and the chocolates in a paper bag, and waited for Cornelia by the door. From the bedroom, she suggested we ride the metro. She knew neither of us had the mental clarity to manage the day ourselves. Not taking the Volvo had advantages, like our being able to drink as much as we needed. I nodded my head as she came toward the door.
We got on at Kungsträgården. In ten minutes we had reached Vreten. We walked two or three blocks with our hands around each other’s waists, moving slowly, barely talking. I had the feeling that we must have looked about fifteen years older than we were. We rang the bell. I noticed a truck parked in front of the warehouse across the street. A forklift came and went, carrying packages, its metallic horn sounding.
”Welcome! It’s great to see you,” said Svetlana, appearing at the door. A puppy, black from muzzle to tail, bounced up beside her.
”How’s everything? Don’t tell me there’s been a new addition to the family,” Cornelia said. I could hear her effort to sound natural.
We passed through the gate. I gave the dog a pat.
“It’s a Nordic Spitz, straight from Lapland,” Svetlana explained. “We call him Hjärta. A co-worker offered him to Lukas, and we thought some extra company would do us good, so here he is. Wag your tail, Sweetheart, wag your tail...”
We crossed through the garden. Cornelia and Svetlana stopped in front of each plant. The dog picked up a stuffed ball with a bell hidden inside and trotted next to me until we reached the main door.
“Saluti para tutti,” cried Lukas opening the door and offering his right arm. “We have the dog and we’ll have the circus in no time.”
I put the paper bag against his chest and he grabbed it with the extended arm.
“Cute pup. Congratulations,” I said out of obligation.
We waited by the door for Svetlana and Cornelia to join us, my wife now bearing a handful of bulbs that would be wrapped in newspaper and planted in our balcony’s flowerboxes in the coming days.
“Mmm, smells lovely,” Cornelia said entering the house.
“Lukas was thinking about making cinnamon buns, but I convinced him that we would like carrot cake even more.”
“Delicious! Ricardo and I both love cream cheese.”
They went off toward the kitchen. Lukas started talking about the dog again. He looked around the room and located him in the corner. Then he sat next to me on the sofa and offered me a cigarette, which I accepted. I could tell he was casting about for some other topic of conversation to entertain me with, aware that we could only talk about animals for so long. It wasn’t a subject I cared for, and I didn’t try to hide it.
“I bought a DVD. The guy at the store says there’s nothing better on a Sunday afternoon. At least for us fifty-somethings. That’s what he said, something like that. I just looked down at my shoes and laughed.”
He showed me the cover: a colorful-looking family at the beach, with their fishing rods and suitcases.
“The Anderssons in Greece,” he said to Cornelia, wagging the case between two fingers.
Cornelia nodded and set the carrot cake and a bowl of whipped cream down on the table. Svetlana brought glasses and the bottle of Amaretto. She offered tea and coffee. I watched the dog doze in the corner of the room. A black ball, almost bluish. The others began serving themselves, talking about the vacation Svetlana and Lukas had taken the summer before to Elafonisi Beach. I barely heard them. I was watching the ball of black fur, the rise and fall of his breathing.
“Are you okay?” Cornelia asked in a whisper.
“Yes,” I said with more energy. “Carrot cake with extra cream, please. Coffee would be great.”
We spent an hour and a half pretending to laugh enthusiastically along with our friends. More than once Lukas’s guffaws woke the dog. The last one brought him out of his bed and over toward us, where he sniffed around the table. Svetlana greeted him with restrained excitement, due to our presence. She and Cornelia had met a few years before in a therapy group for parents who had lost a child. Since then, the four of us had gotten together once or twice a month. Little unites us, or rather just one thing, so we have few shared interests. But a mutual affection, yes, which lets Cornelia and I overlook the times we’ve found them to be phony, even ridiculous. For Swedes they are warm-hearted.
When the movie ended, Lukas applauded loudly. Svetlana joined in, but only for two or three claps. She turned to us with a faltering smile, as though abruptly recalling a thing that was forbidden, her hands folded atop her skirt.
“More coffee? Liquor?”
I had snuck glances at Cornelia throughout the movie. I knew that somewhere behind that plastered half-smile lay Sara, that Cornelia had seen her, too, in the Andersson’s teenage daughter. I reached out and took her hand. The two of us, somehow able to communicate perfectly through that joining of skin, flesh and bone, silently sang happy birthday to the daughter we had buried thousands of miles away, in a place we had decided never to return to.
I thought of my daughter then. I imagined a boy her age coming by to look for her on his motorcycle, a boy who was sometimes tall and blond, other times a transplant from elsewhere in Europe—sometimes even Argentina, chatting with us into the night about Martín García Island, about the old Abasto. I pictured her studying to become a veterinarian, filling the house with dogs, cats, and rats, installing in the garden an aviary where the birds would come to feed before disappearing back into the tree branches overhead. I saw her with a swollen belly and I heard her trying to say the word abuelo as she stroked the hair at the back of my neck. I dropped Cornelia’s hand and picked up the glass of liquor, drank it all in one gulp, and served myself some more. I was breathing hard, listening to Lukas explain how the beaches they’d seen in Greece were even more exotic than those in the movie—the result of a tip from his boss at SKF, who had recommended lesser-known places under the condition they tell no one else and preserve them as paradises.
He gestured with his hands and summoned the dog, who threw himself at his owner’s feet. Noticing our collective silence, and feeling the responsibility to carry the baton, he told two or three jokes—we laughed politely—and ended with an imitation of Bardem, truncating all the words for effect.
It had gotten dark. A brief glance with Cornelia was enough. We began moving slowly on the couch, and Svetlana, sensing our decision, offered a final glass of liquor. She reminded Cornelia not to forget the bulbs, and closed the newspaper around them.
The four of us stepped outside in silence. We looked at the full moon, newly risen among the trees of the nearby forest. Svetlana said there was no moon like the moon of Nazarovo. Lukas opened the main gate. He said he’d have to see it and judge for himself. From close by came the sound of an alarm—the forklift, still unloading cargo. Red lights winked in the night. The dog passed between the four of us like a shadow. He growled, then tore after the vehicle. Two or three sharp barks mingled with the screams of Lukas and Svetlana. They were also sharp, those screams. Sweetheart, Sweetheart, they yelled. The forklift turned the corner and the dog disappeared after it. Lukas began to run, shouting urgently. I felt embarrassed. I tasted something sour in my mouth. Cornelia looked at me. The little green shoots sprouting from her hand moved with the wind. I ran after Lukas.
“Leave it to me!” he shouted. “Don’t worry, he won’t get far!”
I stopped running once I made it through the intersection. The dog resembled a black soccer ball rolling in the distance. Lukas jogged with his arm raised. The forklift had stopped. The driver seemed completely unaware of what was happening. He took off his earmuffs and said good evening. Beautiful moon, I responded, pointing toward the trees.
I reached Lukas. The dog had made another turn and was no longer in sight.
“Hjärta, Hjärta!” he repeated.
We walked two more blocks. Pivoting in the middle of the street by the park, we scanned the area. Far off, we noticed a stopped car beginning to move. We found the dog there, against a tree at the edge of the forest, just a few feet from the road. His four paws were together and his body arched, as though he were trying to catch his tail. His head was smashed against his chest. His snout was warped. He looked like he’d been crushed by a machine. He seemed made of Play-doh, a toy weathered by time.
Lukas knelt at his side. He covered his face and screamed. Sweetheart, my Sweetheart, my Sweetheart. He petted the body, stroking the bushy tail, tracing the pointed ears. I laid a hand on his shoulder. I felt for them, the dog and the man.
A neighbor crossed the street to meet us.
“I’m sorry,” she said, introducing herself. “The car stopped, but didn’t wait long enough. It was a gray Toyota. We have dogs. I know how you must feel.”
Lukas didn’t look at her. He just ran his hands over the black fur.
“Svetlana,” he whispered every few seconds. “Svetlana.”
He asked the woman for a bag. Then he quickly introduced himself, explaining that he lived a few blocks away. Fighting to keep his composure, he murmured to the dog: Sweetheart, my Sweetheart.
The woman went back across the street to find a bag for Lukas to wrap the body in. I thought of Cornelia. I pictured her, pictured the two of them as we appeared with the destroyed dog in our arms. I told Lukas it would be very painful. Why not just tell them we hadn’t found him? It was better that way, leaving open the possibility that he might appear at any moment, rather than returning in silence with the body slung over his shoulder.
He looked at me, not knowing what to say.
The woman reappeared with the bag. Lukas wrapped the dog, lifted him into his arms, and we walked a few yards. His whimpering echoed down the deserted street. The cries of a child. Then he bent down and placed the dog on the grass. He turned to look for the woman, who was standing where we had left her.
“A shovel, ma’am, please. Do you have a shovel?”
We dug a shallow hole near a tree. When it was clear Lukas couldn’t go on, I lifted out a few more scoops of dirt and asked him to place the dog. I covered the body quickly. I wanted to get back to Cornelia. She might be worried.
Lukas looked for two sticks to make a cross. He couldn’t find anything to tie them together, so he just lay them flat on the little mound of earth. We thanked the woman and gave back the shovel.
She murmured something neither of us understood.
As we retraced our way back to the apartment, Lukas grew calmer. We both knew, on this day, that we couldn’t come back with a dead dog, couldn’t come back with something we’d have to bury, shovel-blow after shovelful-blow.
“We couldn’t find him,” I told him. ”Keep the gate open at all times so that he can come back. In another week, get another. You’ll forget him.”
“I don’t want another,” Lukas said, looking at his bloody hands.
I wiped down my clothes, then helped him with his t-shirt and the legs of his pants.
“Do you have a napkin or paper of any kind? A rag?” he asked me, looking around. “I should have asked the woman.”
I put my hands in my pockets. I wasn’t thinking. I no longer had the faculty to remember anything. I pulled the photo from my back pocket, then stopped, looking at it. Lukas grabbed it from my hand. He wiped one side, and then the other. The white backing turned pink.
He didn’t know what to do with it. In the distance we saw the gate to his house, the silhouettes of Cornelia and Svetlana slowly growing larger.
Horacio Cavallo is an award-winning poet, novelist, and writer of children’s literature. His collection of stories, El silencio de los pájaros, in which “El sabor de la nieve” appeared, received Uruguay’s Premio Nacional de Literatura in 2015. Recent works include Poemas para leer en un año, published in Argentina, and Un cuento en el viento, published in Mexico. Cavallo’s work has been translated into English, French, Portuguese, and Italian. He lives in Montevideo.
Travis Price is a writer and translator who has worked with a number of contemporary Uruguayan writers. His translations have been featured in Latin American Literature Today. Travis’s own fiction has appeared in pioneertown, The Collagist, Clockhouse, and Toho Journal. He lives in Philadelphia.