“Isabel’s Enigma”

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Teresa Kendrick

In June I saw the first indications of rain. Clouds from the northeast began building in the late afternoons before dissolving halfway across the lake. I spent most days in my office, in front of the fan, working on projects and dodging Chuya.

“¡Mira!” she grunted one afternoon, summoning me to the front part of the terrace where pots of plants lined the edge. “Look, look, this plant has had too much sun.” She searched my face to see if the reprimand had hit home, turned, and continued her sweeping. It had been a plant I’d put there.

A hedge of blue plumbago along the terrace had recently been cut back so heavily that sun now poured into the porch for most of the day. The potted plants, once protected by their shade, now lay limp in their pots. Having seen the harsh pruning, Isabel predicted that several of the hedges would die and they were well on their way; two were now no more than sticks in the ground. The gardener was Chuya’s teenaged son, Beto. He was a source of endless frustration for Isabel who warned me after seeing his handiwork that some people shouldn’t touch plants. “They kill them, you know,” she’d said, with a horrified look that revealed how serious that crime was in her book.

Beto constantly left tools out in the garden to rust or to be run over by our cars. He wore the look of the dullard that some boys assume early in their adolescence and no amount of contact seemed to change the way he went about his work. Advice, warnings, admonishments, and praise, all failed to affect him. Isabel constantly grumbled about how hard it was to train him. But Chuya was the one I watched. Beto was the oldest child of a demanding woman. While she staunchly defended her son to Isabel, I saw her once berate the boy in the walled area where our clothing was hung to dry. It had been a private moment between them I wished I hadn’t seen.

Finally, six weeks to the day after the chicharras had begun their irritating whine, it rained. The first two or three were petit events, dampening the sidewalks and patios with modest sprinklings. After that the rains came every night and most afternoons. The villages along the Lake visibly relaxed as they let go of their pent up heat and breathed in the exquisite air.

The twelfth rain of the season turned into a rare hailstorm. The sky hurled balls of ice the size of limes that broke tiles and shredded the fist-sized flowers of the Tabachine tree that stood outside my window. I lay in my bed listening to the racket and watching the ruined blossoms fall to the ground. The storm lasted no more than 15 minutes but it had been fierce enough to leave mounds of hail in the garden. A walk of the grounds revealed a precise 25-foot circle etched out in the southwest corner, as if a giant ice chest had been upended onto the lawn.

I looked at the Tabachine blossoms that lay shredded beneath the ice. Their crushed red petals looked like puppies run over on the highway and for the millionth time I thought how cheap life could be. The in-your-face-reality of dead animals on the road between Guadalajara and Chapala unnerved me. The week before I’d seen a car roll over a young dog’s paw while his owner, a rancher, was crossing the highway on horseback. He looked over his shoulder once at the shrieking dog and never broke stride. My sentimentalism didn’t mean much to rural people who worked hard to survive and needed animals to function like machinery. A downed dog was cheap in a country of bigger tragedies. Losing myself in a sudden fury, I kicked at the ground in a rage, shoving the ice deep into the soggy soil.

That night I dreamed of my sister. Frames from an old 16mm film clicked and flashed a day from her life as she tilled up her garden and talked to someone away from the camera’s lens. Her voice, filled with irony, barely concealed the tenderness that lay within. Suddenly she laughed and looked directly at the camera. I gasped. Before I could call out her name, the reel changed as it does in dreams and I saw her running through a forest of trees, light and swift with music behind her. I, heavy with life, could not keep up. I stopped, held my chest, and watched her leave with a sob deep in my throat. When I woke, hot with sorrow, I headed outside to the garden. I stood there a long time looking at the pole star, fixing my position and breathing hard.

June 23rd rolled around and Isabel was back home. She’d returned during the evening while I’d been out watching a movie at the village’s new cinema. Her wheeled suitcase was stalled at the foot of the staircase and I smiled to myself, happy to know that she was home.

The next morning I rolled over and checked the clock on the wall next to my bed. It was time to get up; light was pouring in the windows and the two indoor dogs were bumping against the side of my bed to let me know they were ready to go out. Isabel had a strict rule against dogs in the house, but the rent I paid allowed me to keep mine in my downstairs suite at night, a generous concession on her part. As I went about my morning ablutions I wondered if she would be in the kitchen for coffee this morning or if the strain of traveling would keep her upstairs in bed. Drying my hands on a towel, I stepped out into the hallway that led to the kitchen.

“Hello”, I ventured.

The kitchen was empty except for the smell of coffee in the coffeemaker and the debris of traveling laid out on top of the chopping block: keys, ticket stubs and packages of foreign treats carried home to be distributed as gifts.

Through the kitchen window I saw Isabel in her straw gardening hat with its turned-down brim. She was checking on her orchids.

“Hello!” I called as I moved through the kitchen door, ringing the burglar bells on its handle, past the laundry and into the yard.

“How was your trip?”

“It was incredible,” she said, making the word rise up and fly a little. And for the next twenty minutes I heard about her flight and the weather, about her aged female cousins, one of whom suffered from Alzheimers disease, and the walks they took along the bridges of Aviles to see the fine textiles her male cousins sold in the family’s department store, Casa Herminio. Her enthusiasm spilled into the air, energizing the dogs who licked at our heels and competed with each other for attention.

“Off! OFF!” we yelled in unison as we scrambled to push them away. Isabel pushed back her hat and squinted into the canopy overhead, her eyes searching for the maracuyá vine. She pointed and said, “There it is. It’s beginning to put out leaves again. It will bear fruit again in August.” I looked at the vine and saw what looked like a withered length of dead rope and wondered how something that dry could produce anything of value.

Back inside the kitchen we filled our coffee cups and headed for the table, faithful as ever, to our morning ritual.

“I have pictures.”

There was one of Isabel swaddled in scarves against a dreary sky and handsome buildings, wearing a long woolen skirt and facing the camera with two women in their late sixties. One wore the lost, disconnected look that Alzheimers bestows. The other was an affluent, handsome woman.

“This is my cousin Isabel.” She pronounced it ‘co-sin’ with a long o sound. “And this is Ramona, the one who is not well.” That photograph was followed by others of male cousins Martin and Guillermo surrounded by bolts of luxurious cloth and furniture.

“I got hit with the thunderbolt…”

“What did you say?”

“You know, like in the movie with Cher, I met my cousin Martin and got hit with the thunderbolt.”

When presented with statements that staggered reality I find it more than prudent to keep quiet. This is going to be good, I thought.

“Here is this man, my cousin, whom I hardly know. I went to his shop to meet him again after 36 years and when I see him, something like electricity goes through me. I thought I was going to fall down. I wanted to sleep with him and then I wanted to slap him, together at the same time. It was in credible! My own cousin. And look at him. Look at him, he has a face that is funny.”

She showed me a photograph of a slender man with an oval head, large ears, and a handsome mouth. His affluence was evident from the wool slacks and ivory cashmere vest he wore. He looked directly into the camera’s lens without smiling, self-possessed and silent, without malice.

“This is how Europe makes the Spaniard.”

“Whew.” It was about all I could manage at the moment. I waited.

“The family was a little bit strange, you know. No one married. Out of six only two married. And the cousins, the same. My own father married my mother when he was 48 years old.”

“So what happened between you and Martin?”

“Well, nothing of course, but his hands shook a little when he held my arms to kiss my cheek. I thought he felt some kind of shock, too.”

“And then what happened?”

“He looked at me so long I became frightened. And then he left the shop!”

“He what?” I practically yelled.

“He never came back that day.”

“Did you see him again?”

“Yes, at dinner in the house the night before I left. But he was very like that, you know, formal. Callado. Quiet. Closed off.

“What do you make of it?”

“His mother was from the south of Spain. Maybe it’s the Arab blood.”

Neither one of us knew what to think about her story and for a minute we were silent, collecting our thoughts, spreading our bread with jam.

After a moment I shuffled the photos on the table and asked. “Who took this picture of your house?”

“No, no. That’s my father’s house in Aviles.”

“It looks just like yours!”

It did. The large, two-story, whitewashed adobe with its deep veranda along one side and tiled roof looked so much like Isabel’s that my face registered considerable surprise.

“Why is that,” I asked, and she shrugged, raising her eyebrows to suggest that the ties between families can spin themselves out in mysterious ways. I sipped my coffee, savoring her enigma, and waited.

There was more.

“I stayed at the house and spent days and days walking all around it. At the back I discovered a stair, a metal one, leading to the mirador,” she said with a little hush in her voice. Isabel had one just like it, located at the back of her house, leading up to her mirador.

“And then I saw something I couldn’t believe”, she said. “The bottom step was cut,” and she made the motion of a hacksaw in the air. “And when I asked my cousin why, she said, ‘Because of the mice. We took the step away so they couldn’t jump to the roof.'”

She’d waited to tell me that final bit of the story with such anticipation that, once she’d spoken, she burst into delighted laughter. I laughed with her.

“I don’t believe it.”

“Incredible, no?”

After more than a month of drifting I’d found my footing again. In that hour before we went our separate ways, we chatted about our appointments, people we knew, household details, the news of the world and sometimes, like this morning, we marveled at the mysterious ties that bind us.

As I washed up the coffee cups I heard Isabel telling Beto to get the metal saw from the tool shed. That step was coming off.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2003 by Teresa Kendrick © 2008
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