“Don’t forget to feed the chickens,” Pepa’s parents told her when they left for the jungle to take care of the yellow fever victims. As if she could forget such a thing. Wasn’t she the one who took care of them, who collected the eggs, swept up the droppings, slit their throats with the scalpel her father had given her for this very purpose? If she had forgotten to feed the chickens, they would have come pecking at the back door, would have jumped onto the kitchen windowsill and poked their beaks between the louvers. How could she possibly forget to feed the chickens?
The chickens had been Pepa’s idea, after all. Her parents had not approved at first. “What do we know about keeping chickens?” they said. But they seemed to forget that in the beginning they had not known any of it. They had not known how to cook beans, had not known the taste of fried bananas or the Spanish word for rice, had not known how to hang mosquito netting or the sound of monkeys screaming in the night or that you had to bribe the health inspectors as well as hide the water cistern when they came around every so often looking for what they called “standing water.”
“What do they expect us to do, live without water?” her father had asked when the inspectors threatened to turn the cistern upside down.
Pepa smiled and spoke to the inspectors, using the few words of Spanish that she knew. “Please,” she said, “can I offer you some coffee?” When she served them the coffee in the porcelain cups that they had brought with them from Vienna, she set a few coins in each saucer. The inspectors thanked her profusely for the coffee, which they said was the best they had ever had. They even bowed as they left, and Pepa’s father smiled and bowed, also. After that, the inspectors were her responsibility too, like the chickens.
“I will learn how to take care of chickens,” Pepa told them, and she did. She bargained hard for them at the market, and she and her brother Kurt carried them home upside down by their legs the way the market woman had shown them.
When her parents left for the jungle to care for the victims of the yellow fever epidemic, they did not know how long they would be gone. Their friend the pharmacist had offered to take Pepa and Kurt while they were away, but they did not accept his offer. At fourteen Pepa was old enough to handle the house, to watch after her brother.
“But won’t they be afraid to stay in the house alone?” the pharmacist had asked. It was Sunday afternoon and, as they did every Sunday, they were dining with the pharmacist.
“They will not be afraid,” Pepa’s father had said very sternly. “We will not be afraid again,” he added. “Right?” he asked, turning to Pepa.”
“I am not afraid,” she replied.
“If they need anything, anything at all, I am here,” the pharmacist said.
On the evening of the first day of her parents’ absence, the pharmacist knocked on the door. She and Kurt were doing their lessons, their books spread out on the dining room table. Pepa prepared coffee and brought it to the table.
“Your parents are very brave to go to the jungle,” the pharmacist said.
“It is their duty as doctors to help people,” Pepa told him.
“But it is very dangerous,” the pharmacist said.
“Life is dangerous,” Pepa replied.
“I suppose it is,” the pharmacist said laughing. “Well, promise you will let me know if you need something.”
“I promise,” Pepa said, but she could not imagine what she could possibly need that the pharmacist had.
For two weeks her parents were gone, and during this time Pepa took care of her brother as she did when they were not in the jungle. She prepared meals. She went to the market and mopped the floors and fed the chickens, of course. She made sure that Kurt took a bath every day and helped him with his lessons. When her parents returned from the jungle, their clothes caked in red mud, their breaths smelling of hunger, Pepa washed their clothes, stomping and rinsing them over and over, the water flowing red like blood. Then she made them a twelve-egg omelet, for the protein, and fed them mounds of rice and fried bananas. After the meal, which they ate dutifully and in silence, they slept for twenty-four hours straight.
It was after they returned from the yellow fever epidemic that her parents began sleeping in the clinic. Their clinic was on the other side of the patio—two small rooms that smelled of rubbing alcohol and bleach that they had painted a soothing blue like the eyes of an Alaskan husky, like winter. The house, they said, had a strange odor, something sweet that kept them up at night, gave them headaches. Pepa understood, however, that it was not about the smell. Rather, at night, when there was time to think, to remember their careers at the best hospital in Vienna, they needed not a soft mattress to lie upon or the sound of their children breathing in the next room but the certainty of steel instruments and the clean smell of alcohol. “We are just on the other side of the patio if you need us,” her father said every night before they retired to the clinic.
“I am not afraid,” Pepa said.
In fact, she could not imagine what could happen to Kurt and her as they slept. They were far from the dangers of Europe now, as far as one could be. At night they kept the louvers open just a crack, just enough to let the breeze in and keep the monkeys out. The monkeys were the only danger. They could destroy the house in a few minutes—pull all the dishes from the shelves, smash them on the cool tile floor, rip the sheets from the bed, urinate on the walls.
In the market, the cabbage woman did not even know there was a war on. “What are they fighting about?” she asked Pepa, and Pepa did not know how to answer her.
“They are fighting over Europe,” she said, and the woman smiled.
“They will regret it in the end,” the woman said. “They always do.”
At night, after Kurt had gone to sleep, she lay in her dark room listening to the sounds of the night, to the insects, the monkeys, the rain. She imagined her parents lying on the jungle floor burning up with fever, clutching at the red earth, gasping for breath. She made herself look into their wide-open dead eyes. She lay there perfectly still, arms at her side, palms up, her heart beating slowly as if she were asleep. She would never be afraid again. That was what she learned when her parents went to where the yellow fever was.
After her parents’ return from the jungle, Pepa began going out at night. She walked all the way to the edge of town to where the jungle began. She walked into the jungle, pulling the branches apart as she went. Each time she went farther and farther, but always she found her way out. She could sense the path, sense which branches she had touched before and, always, she found herself back out on the dirt path that led to the town, to the whitewashed houses, to the plaza, the church. When she had mastered the jungle and no longer thought about the possibility of getting lost in its rubbery shadows, she began spending her evenings, after she had finished her lessons, on the church steps. On Friday and Saturday nights there was a banda and people danced, and Pepa watched, counting the steps, counting the beats. Gradually she moved from her position on the steps closer and closer to the dancers. Every night she came a little closer until she stood among the young women who were waiting to be asked to dance, and on the second night, a somber young man approached her. “I am Guillermo and you are the doctors’ daughter, no?”
“Yes,” she said, and he led her to where the people were dancing.
That first night they did not speak again until after the banda stopped playing. Pepa concentrated on the music and on Guillermo’s hand pressed against her back. When the members of the banda had put away their instruments and the dancers had dispersed, Guillermo wanted to walk her home, but Pepa said that she liked walking by herself.
“You are not afraid?” he asked.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
“No, of course not,” he said.
“You see, there is nothing to be afraid of,” she said and began walking across the plaza towards her house. That is how it started with Guillermo.
The next night Guillermo was waiting for her. “I thought you wouldn’t come tonight,” he said.
“Why did you think that?” she asked.
“I thought you were angry because I said that you might be afraid,” he explained.
“That is no reason to be angry,” Pepa said, and the music started, and Pepa took his hand and led him to where the other dancers were, and after the dancing was over they walked to the edge of the town, to where the jungle started, and Pepa led him into the thickness of the jungle. “Close your eyes,” she said. “It is better to feel the way than to try to see,” so he closed his eyes and took her hand. Around them was the sound of millions of insects. After a while they stopped and the sound of the insects grew louder like applause or water plunging onto rock. Guillermo kissed her and she was not afraid of his tongue and his hands on her body, and she wanted to stay with him all night, wanted to lie down on the wet earth, but he turned around and began walking back, pulling her behind him, and soon they were out on the road and the sound of the insects grew distant, and the trees no longer protected them from the stars. “Don’t look up. The stars will blind you,” Pepa said and Guillermo laughed, but he did not look up.
Pepa’s parents did not notice a change in her. They tended to their patients and ate the food that Pepa cooked for them with their usual lack of gusto. They did not notice that Pepa swayed gently back and forth while she washed the dishes because they were too focused on the end of the war. Their visas would be going through, and soon they would be able to leave. They practiced the few English words they knew. “Hello, how are you?” they were always saying. “I am fine, thank you, and you?” During dinner they practiced their numbers, chanting them as if they were a victory cheer. Pepa tried to close her ears to all of it and concentrated instead on Guillermo’s hands on the soft insides of her thighs.
It was only after their visas arrived that she told her parents that she and Guillermo were expecting a child. Her parents did not say a word. They looked her in the eyes and shook their heads, and Pepa ran to her room and flung herself on the bed, but she did not cry. They did not come to her. She heard them talking softly, still sitting at the table where she had left them. All night she waited for them to get up from the table, to go out to the clinic so she could go to Guillermo. He would know what to do. They could work on the coffee plantations. But always when she awoke, she could hear her parents at the table, talking softly, and their talking worked liked hypnosis, lulling her back to sleep.
In the morning, her parents came into her room, spoke to her from the doorway. “Pepa,” they called. How had she slept so long, so late? She always woke before dawn, when the roosters crowed. The chickens. She had forgotten the chickens. Her mother followed her out of the house onto the patio. “Where are you going?”
“To feed the chickens,” Pepa said.
“I already did it,” her mother said, putting her hand on her shoulder, leading her back into the house.
Again she thought about going to Guillermo. Her parents would not have run after her. It was not their way. But she hadn’t gone to him. She couldn’t, so she slept.
The talking continued. Sometimes their voices were loud and angry and at other times she thought she heard them crying, but she could not find the strength to get out of bed to open the door just a crack, to stand by the door and listen. How would they manage in New York without her, she wondered. Who would take care of Kurt? Who would make sure there was always a meal on the table? It did not occur to her that in New York there were no health inspectors to fool, no chickens to raise. In New York, she and her brother would go to school, and they would have to concentrate on their studies. Yes, she would rest, simply rest. There was still time, just a little time, to remember how she and Guillermo had danced like ships and lain down on the jungle floor.
In the clinic, her parents prepared the table, the instruments. When they came to get her they said, “Come,” and they both held out their hands and the three of them walked slowly to the clinic where her mother helped her up onto the examination table. She saw the instruments then, lined up like soldiers, and everything smelled so clean.
ANNE RAEFF is author of the story collection The Jungle Around Us (October 2016, University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Raeff’s debut novel Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia was published in 2002 by MacAdam/Cage. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New England Review, ZYZZYVA, and Guernica among other places. Raeff, who is fluent in several languages, has lived in various cultures around the world. She has also taught in Spain, Malaysia, New York City, Albuquerque/Santa Fe, and San Francisco. Today she is proud to be a high school teacher at East Palo Alto Academy, where she teaches English and history, and works primarily with recent immigrants. She, too, is a child of immigrants and much of her writing draws on her family’s history as refugees from war and the Holocaust. She lives with her wife in San Francisco.
Photo Credit: Dennis Hearne
Excerpt copyright © 2016 Anne Raeff. Reprinted with permission from University of Georgia Press.