The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
My grandma didn’t like the rain, and before the first drops fell, when the sky grew dark, she would go out to the backyard with bottles and bury them halfway, with the whole neck underground; she believed those bottles would keep the rain away. I followed her around asking, “Grandma why don’t you like the rain why don’t you like it?” No reply—Grandma dodged my questions, shovel in hand, wrinkling her nose to sniff the humidity in the air. If it did eventually rain, whether it was a drizzle or a thunderstorm, she shut the doors and windows and turned up the volume on the TV to drown out the sound of wind and the raindrops on the zinc roof of the house. And if the downpour coincided with her favorite show, Combat!, there wasn’t a soul who could get a word out of her, because she was hopelessly in love with Vic Morrow.
I just loved the rain, because it softened the dry earth and let me indulge in my obsession with digging. And boy, did I dig! I used the same shovel as Grandma, a very small one, like a child’s beach toy only made of metal and wood instead of plastic. The plot at the far end of the yard held little pieces of green glass with edges so worn they no longer cut you, and smooth stones that seemed like round pebbles or small beach rocks—what were those things doing out behind my house? Someone must have buried them there. Once, I found an oval-shaped stone the size and color of a cockroach without legs or antennae. On one side it was smooth, and on the other side some notches formed the clear features of a smiling face. I showed it to my dad, thrilled because I thought I’d found myself an ancient artifact, but he told me it was just a coincidence that the marks formed a face. My dad never got excited about anything. I also found some black dice with nearly invisible white dots. I found shards of apple-green and turquoise frosted glass, and Grandma remembered they’d once been part of an old door. I also used to play with worms, cutting them up into tiny pieces. It wasn’t that I enjoyed watching the mutilated bodies writhe around before going on their way. I thought that if I really cut up the worm, sliced it like an onion, ring by ring, it wouldn’t be able to regenerate. I never did like creepy-crawlies.
I found the bones after a rainstorm that turned the back patch of earth into a mud puddle. I put them into a bucket I used for carrying my treasures to the spigot on the patio, where I washed them. I showed them to Dad. He said they were chicken bones, or maybe even beef bones, or else they were from some dead pet someone must have buried a long time ago. Dogs or cats. He circled back around to the chicken story because before, when he was little, my grandma used to have a coop back there.
It seemed like a plausible explanation until Grandma found out about the little bones. She started to pull out her hair and shout, “Angelita! Angelita!” But the racket didn’t last long under Dad’s glare: he put up with Grandma’s “superstitions” (as he called them) only as long as she didn’t go overboard. She knew that disapproving look of his, and she forced herself to calm down. She asked me for the bones and I gave them to her. Then she sent me off to bed. That made me a little mad, because I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to deserve that punishment.
But later that same night, she called me in and told me everything. It was sibling number ten or eleven, Grandma wasn’t too sure—back then they didn’t pay so much attention to kids. The baby, a girl, had died a few months after she was born, suffering fever and diarrhea. Since she was an angelita—an innocent baby, a little angel, dead before she could sin—they’d wrapped her in a pink cloth and propped her up on a cushion atop a flower-bedecked table. They made little cardboard wings for her so she could fly more quickly up to heaven, but they didn’t fill her mouth with red flower petals because her mother, my great-grandmother, couldn’t stand it, she thought it looked like blood. The dancing and singing lasted all night, and they even had to kick out a drunk uncle and revive my great-grandmother, who fainted from the heat and the crying. There was an indigenous mourner who sang Trisagion hymns, and all she charged was a few empanadas.
“Grandma, did all this happen here?”
“No, it was in Salavina, in Santiago. Goodness, was it hot there!”
“But these aren’t the baby’s bones, if she died there.”
“Yes, they are. I brought them with us when we moved. I didn’t want to just leave her, because she cried every night, poor thing. And if she cried when we were close by, just imagine how she’d cry if she was all alone, abandoned! So I brought her. She was nothing but little bones by then, and I put her in a bag and buried her out back. Not even your grandpa knew. Or your great-grandma, no one. It’s just that I was the only one who heard her cry. Well, your great-grandpa heard too, but he played dumb.”
“And does the baby cry here?”
“Only when it rains.”
Later I asked my dad if the story of the little angel baby was true, and he said my grandma was very old and could talk some nonsense. He didn’t seem all that convinced, though, or maybe the conversation made him uncomfortable. Then Grandma died, the house was sold, I went to live alone with no husband or children, my dad moved to an apartment in Balvanera, and I forgot all about the angel baby.
Until she appeared in my apartment ten years later, crying beside my bed one stormy night.
The angel baby doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she isn’t pale and she doesn’t wear a white dress. She’s half rotted away, and she doesn’t talk. The first time she appeared, I thought it was a nightmare and I tried to wake up. When I couldn’t do it and I started to realize she was real, I screamed and cried and pulled the sheets over my head, my eyes squeezed tight and my hands over my ears so I couldn’t hear her—at that point I didn’t know she was mute. But when I came out from under there some hours later, the angel baby was still there, the remnants of an old blanket draped over her shoulders like a poncho. She was pointing her finger toward the outside, toward the window and the street, and that’s how I realized it was daytime. It’s weird to see a dead person during the day. I asked her what she wanted, but all she did was keep on pointing, like we were in a horror movie.
I got up and ran to the kitchen to get the gloves I used for washing dishes. The angel baby followed me. And that was only the first sign of her demanding personality. I didn’t hesitate. I put the gloves on and grabbed her little neck and squeezed. It’s not exactly practical to try and strangle a dead person, but a girl can’t be desperate and reasonable at the same time. I didn’t even make her cough; I just got some bits of decomposing flesh stuck to my gloved fingers, and her trachea was left in full view.
So far, I had no idea that this was Angelita, my grandmother’s sister. I kept squeezing my eyes shut to see if she would disappear or I would wake up. When that didn’t work, I walked around behind her and I saw, hanging from the yellowed remains of what I now know was her pink shroud, two rudimentary little cardboard wings that had chicken feathers glued to them. Those should have disintegrated after all these years, I thought, and then I laughed a little hysterically and told myself that I had a dead baby in my kitchen, that it was my great-aunt and she could walk, even though judging by her size she hadn’t lived more than three months. I had to definitively stop thinking in terms of what was possible and what wasn’t.
I asked if she was my great-aunt Angelita—since there hadn’t been time to register her with a legal name (those were different times), they always called her by that generic name. That’s how I learned that even though she didn’t speak, she could reply by nodding. So my grandmother had been telling the truth, I thought: the bones I’d dug up when I was a kid weren’t from any chicken coop, they were the little bones of Grandma’s sister.
It was a mystery what Angelita wanted, because she didn’t do anything but nod or shake her head. But she sure did want something, and badly, because not only did she constantly keep pointing, she wouldn’t leave me alone. She followed me all over the house: she waited for me behind the curtain when I showered, she sat on the bidet anytime I was on the toilet, she stood beside the fridge while I washed dishes, and she sat beside my chair when I worked at the computer.
I went about my life more or less normally for the first week. I thought maybe the whole thing was a hallucination brought on by stress, and that she would eventually disappear. I asked for some days off work; I took sleeping pills. But the angel baby was still there, waiting beside the bed for me to wake up. Some friends came to visit me. At first I didn’t want to answer their messages or let them in, but eventually I agreed to see them, to keep them from worrying even more. I claimed mental exhaustion, and they understood; “You’ve been working like a slave,” they told me. None of them saw the angel baby. The first time my friend Marina came to visit me, I stuck the angel in the closet. But to my horror and disgust, she escaped and sat right down on the arm of the sofa with that ugly, rotting, gray-green face of hers. Marina never knew.