Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Virgil merely nodded and, taking this as a cue, approached them. “I’ll be glad to, Father,” he said.
“Good,” Howard said, clasping Virgil’s shoulder before he set off across the room, joining Florence and Francis, and taking up the seat Virgil had been occupying.
“Has my father been bothering you, telling you what he considers to be the finest type of manhood and womanhood possible?” Virgil asked, smiling at her. “The answer is tricky: the Doyles are the finest specimens around, but I try not to let it go to my head.”
Noemí was a little surprised by the smile, but she welcomed the warmth after stomaching Howard’s odd leer and his sharp grin. “He was talking about beauty,” she said, her voice charmingly composed.
“Beauty. Of course. Well, he was a great connoisseur of beauty, once, although now he can barely eat mush and stay up until nine.”
She raised a hand and hid her grin behind it. Virgil traced one of the snake carvings with his index finger, looking a bit more serious as he did, his smile subdued.
“I’m sorry about the other night. I was rude. And earlier today Florence made a fuss about the car. But you must not feel badly about it. You can’t be expected to know all our habits and little rules,” he said.
“It’s stressful, you know. My father is very frail and now Catalina is ill too. I’m not in the best of moods these days. I don’t want you to feel we don’t want you here. We do. We very much do.”
“I don’t think you quite forgive me.”
No, not quite, but she was relieved to see not all the Doyles were so damn gloomy all the time. Maybe he was telling the truth, and before Catalina had fallen sick Virgil had been more disposed to merriment.
“Not yet, but if you keep it up I may erase a mark or two on your scorecard.”
“You keep score then? As if you’re playing cards?”
“A girl has to keep track of a number of things. Dances are not the only ones,” she said with that easy, genial tone of hers.
“I’ve been given to understand you are quite the dancer and the gambler. At least, according to Catalina,” he said, still smiling at her.
“And here I thought you might be scandalized.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I love surprises, but only when they come with a nice, big bow,” she declared, and because he was playing nice, she played nice too and tossed him a smile.
Virgil in turn gave her an appreciative look that seemed to say,
See, we may yet become friends
. He offered her his arm, and they walked toward the rest of the family members, to chat for a few more minutes before Howard declared he was much too tired to entertain any more company, and they all disbanded.
She had a curious nightmare, unlike any dream she’d had before in this house, even if her nights had been rather restless.
She dreamed that the door opened and in walked Howard Doyle, slowly, each of his steps like the weight of iron, making the boards creak and the walls rumble. It was as if an elephant had trampled into her room. She could not move. An invisible thread anchored her to the bed. Her eyes were closed but she could see him. She gazed at him from above, from the ceiling, and then from the floor, her perspective shifting.
She saw herself too, asleep. She saw him approaching her bed and tugging at the covers. She saw this, and yet her eyes remained shut even when he reached out to touch her face, the edge of a nail running down her neck, a thin hand undoing the buttons of her nightdress. It was chilly and he was undressing her.
Behind her she felt a presence, felt it like one feels a cold spot in a house, and the presence had a voice; it leaned close to her ear and it whispered.
“Open your eyes,” the voice said, a woman’s voice. There had been a golden woman in her room, in another dream, but this was not the same presence. This was different; she thought this voice was young.
Her eyes were nailed shut, her hands lay flat against the bed, and Howard Doyle loomed over her, stared down at Noemí as she slept. He smiled in the dark, white teeth in a diseased, rotting mouth.
“Open your eyes,” the voice urged her.
Moonlight or another source of light hit Howard Doyle’s thin, insect-like body, and she saw it wasn’t the old man standing by her bed, studying her limbs, her breasts, staring at her pubic hair. It was Virgil Doyle who had acquired his father’s leering grin, who smiled his white smile, and who looked at Noemí like a man observing a butterfly pinned against a velvet cloth.
He pressed a hand against her mouth, pushing her back against the bed, and the bed was very soft, it dipped and swayed and it was like wax, like being pressed into a bed of wax. Or perhaps mud, earth. A bed of earth.
And she felt such sweet, sickening desire flowing through her body, making her roll her hips, sinuous, a serpent. But it was he who coiled himself around her, swallowed her shuddering sigh with his lips, and she didn’t quite want this, not like that, not those fingers digging too firmly into her flesh, and yet it was hard to remember why she hadn’t wanted it. She must want this. To be taken, in the dirt, in the dark, without preamble or apology.
The voice at her ear spoke again. It was very insistent, jabbing her.
“Open your eyes.”
She did and woke up to discover she was very cold; she had kicked the covers away and they tangled at her feet. Her pillow had tumbled to the floor. The door lay firmly closed. Noemí pressed both hands against her chest, feeling the rapid beating of her heart. She ran a hand down the front of her nightdress. All the buttons were firmly in place.
Of course they would be.
The house was quiet. No one walked through the halls, no one crept into rooms at night to stare at sleeping women. Still, it took her a long time to go back to sleep, and once or twice, when she heard a board creak, she sat up quickly and listened for footsteps.
Noemí planted herself outside the house, waiting for the doctor to arrive. Virgil had told her she could get a second opinion, so she had informed Florence the doctor would be stopping by and that she had obtained Virgil’s permission for this visit, but she didn’t quite trust any of the Doyles to greet Dr. Camarillo and had decided to serve as a sentinel.
As she crossed her arms and tapped her foot she felt, for once, like one of Catalina’s characters in their childhood tales. The maiden gazing out the tower, waiting for the knight to ride to the rescue and vanquish the dragon. Surely the doctor would conjure a diagnosis and a solution.
She felt it necessary to be positive, to hope, for High Place was a place of hopelessness. Its shabby grimness made her want to push forward.
The doctor was punctual and parked his car near a tree, stepping out, doffing his hat and staring up at the house. There wasn’t much mist that day, as if the Earth and sky had cleared up in advance of this visitor, though it served to make the house look more forlorn, unshrouded and bare. Noemí imagined Julio’s house was nothing like this, that it was one of the shabby yet colorful little houses down the main street, with a tiny balcony and wooden shutters and a kitchen with old azulejos.
“Well, this is the famous High Place,” Dr. Camarillo said. “About time I saw it, I suppose.”
“You haven’t been here before?” she asked.
“No reason for me to come. I’ve been past where the mining camp used to be. Or what’s left of it, at any rate, when I’ve gone hunting. There’s plenty of deer around, up here. Mountain lions too. You have to be careful on this mountain.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said. She recalled how Florence had admonished her. Could she have been worried about mountain lions? Or was she more worried about her precious car?
The doctor grabbed his bag and they went inside. Noemí had been afraid Florence might come running down the stairs, ready to glare at both Dr. Camarillo and Noemí, but the staircase was empty, and when they reached Catalina’s room they found the woman alone.
Catalina seemed in good enough spirits, sitting in the sunlight, dressed in a simple but becoming blue dress. She greeted the doctor with a smile.
“Good day, I’m Catalina.”
“And I’m Dr. Camarillo. I’m pleased to meet you.”
Catalina extended her hand. “Why, he looks so young, Noemí! He must be hardly older than you!”
“You are hardly older than me,” Noemí said.
“What are you talking about? You’re a little girl.”
This sounded so like the happy Catalina of days past, bantering with them, that Noemí began to feel foolish for bringing the doctor to the house. But then, as the minutes ticked by, Catalina’s ebullience began to fade and turn into a simmering agitation. And Noemí couldn’t help but think that even though nothing was exactly
, something was definitely not right.
“Tell me, how are you sleeping? Any chills at night?”
“No. I feel much better already. Really, there’s no need for you to be here, it’s such a fuss over nothing. Over nothing, truly,” Catalina said. Her vehemence when she spoke had a forced cheerfulness to it. She repeatedly rubbed a finger across her wedding band.
Julio merely nodded. He talked in a steady, measured tone while he took notes. “Have you been given streptomycin and para-aminosalicylic acid?”
“I think so,” Catalina said, but she responded in such haste Noemí didn’t think she’d even listened to the question.
“Marta Duval, did she also send a remedy for you? A tea or herb?”
Catalina’s eyes darted across the room. “What? Why would you ask that?”
“I’m trying to figure out what all your medications are. I’m assuming you saw her for a remedy of some sort?”
“There’s no remedy,” she muttered.
She said something else, but it wasn’t a real word. She babbled, like a small child, and then Catalina suddenly clutched her neck, as if she’d choke herself, but her grip was lax. No, it was not choking, but a defensive gesture, a woman guarding herself, holding her hands up in defense. The movement startled them both. Julio almost dropped his pencil. Catalina resembled one of the deer in the mountains, ready to dart to safety, and neither knew what to say.
“What is it?” Julio asked, after a minute had gone by.
“It’s the noise,” Catalina said, and she slowly slid her hands up her neck and pressed them against her mouth.
Julio looked up at Noemí, who was sitting next to him.
“What noise?” Noemí asked.
“I don’t want you here. I’m very tired,” Catalina said, and she gripped her hands together and placed them on her lap, closing her eyes, as if to shut her visitors away. “I really don’t know why you must be here bothering me when I should be sleeping!”
“If you will—” the doctor began.
“I can’t talk anymore, I’m exhausted,” Catalina said, her hands trembling as she attempted to clutch them together. “It’s really quite exhausting being ill and it’s even worse when people say you shouldn’t do anything. Isn’t that odd? Really…it’s…I’m tired. Tired!”
She paused, as if catching her breath. All of a sudden Catalina opened her eyes very wide and her face had a terrifying intensity to it. It was the visage of a woman possessed.
“There’re people in the walls,” Catalina said. “There’re people and there’re voices. I see them sometimes, the people in the walls. They’re dead.”
She extended her hands, and Noemí gripped them, helplessly, trying to comfort her, as Catalina shook her head and let out a half sob. “It lives in the cemetery, in the cemetery, Noemí. You must look in the cemetery.”
Then just as suddenly Catalina stood up and went to the window, clutching a drape with her right hand and looking outside. Her face softened. It was as if a tornado had struck and spun away. Noemí didn’t know what to do, and the doctor appeared equally baffled.
“I’m sorry,” Catalina said evenly. “I don’t know what I say, I’m sorry.”
Catalina pressed her hands against her mouth again and began coughing. Florence and Mary, the oldest maid, walked in, carrying a tray with a teapot and a cup. Both of the women eyed Noemí and Dr. Camarillo with disapproval.
“Will you be long?” Florence asked. “She’s supposed to be resting.”
“I was just leaving,” Dr. Camarillo said, collecting his hat and his notepad, clearly knowing himself an unwelcome intruder with these few words and Florence’s lofty tilt of the head. Florence always knew how to cut you down with the succinct efficiency of a telegram. “It was nice meeting you, Catalina.”
They stepped out of the room. For a couple of minutes neither one spoke, both weary and a little rattled.
“So, what’s your opinion?” she finally asked as they began walking down the stairs.
“On the matter of tuberculosis I would have to take an X-ray of her lungs to get a better idea of her condition, and I really am no expert in tuberculosis in the first place,” he said. “And on the other matter, I warned you, I’m not a psychiatrist. I shouldn’t be speculating—”
“Come on, out with it,” Noemí said in exasperation, “you must tell me
They stopped at the foot of the stairs. Julio sighed. “I believe you are correct and she needs psychiatric attention. This behavior is not usual with any tuberculosis patient I’ve met. Perhaps you might find a specialist in Pachuca who could treat her? If you can’t make the trek to Mexico City.”
Noemí didn’t think they’d be making the trek anywhere. Maybe if she spoke to Howard and tried to explain her concerns? He was the head of the household, after all. But she didn’t like the old man, he rubbed her the wrong way, and Virgil might think she was trying to overreach. Florence certainly would be of no help to her, but what about Francis?
“I’m afraid I’ve left you with a worse conundrum than before, haven’t I?” Julio said.
“No,” Noemí lied. “No, I’m very thankful.”
She was dispirited and felt silly for having expected more of him. He was no knight in shining armor nor a wizard who might revive her cousin with a magic potion. She ought to have known better.
He hesitated, seeking perhaps to provide her with more reassurance. “Well, you know where to find me if you need anything else,” he concluded. “Do seek me out if it’s necessary.”
Noemí nodded, watched him as he got into his car and drove away. She recalled, rather grimly, that certain fairy tales end in blood. In Cinderella, the sisters cut off their feet, and Sleeping Beauty’s stepmother was pushed into a barrel full of snakes. That particular illustration on the last page of one of the books Catalina used to read to them suddenly came back to her, in all its vivid colors. Green and yellow serpents, the tails poking out of a barrel as the stepmother was stuffed into it.
Noemí leaned against a tree, standing there with her arms crossed for a while. She walked back inside the house to find Virgil standing on the staircase, his hand on the banister.
“There was a man to see you.”
“It was the doctor from the public health clinic. You did say he could visit.”
“I’m not admonishing you,” he told her as he finished climbing down the stairs and stood in front of her. He appeared a little curious, and she guessed he wanted to know what the doctor had said, but she also guessed he would not ask yet, and Noemí didn’t want to blurt it all out either.
“Do you think you’d have time to show me the greenhouse now?” she asked diplomatically.
It was very small, the greenhouse—almost like the postscript at the end of an awkward letter. Neglect had flourished, and there were dirty glass panels and broken glass aplenty. In the rainy season the water seeped in with ease. Mold caked the planters. But a few flowers were still in bloom, and when Noemí looked up she was greeted by the striking vision of colored glass: a glass roof decorated with a twining serpent. The snake’s body was green, the eyes were yellow. The sight of it quite surprised her. It was perfectly designed, almost leaping off the glass, its fangs open.
“Oh,” she said, pressing the tips of her fingers against her lips.
“Something the matter?” Virgil asked, moving to stand next to her.
“Nothing, really. I’ve seen that snake around the house,” she said.
“Is it a heraldic symbol?”
“It’s our symbol, but we don’t have a shield. My father had a seal made with it, though.”
“What does it mean?”
“The snake eats its tail. The infinite, above us, and below.”
“Well, yes, but why did your family pick that as your seal? It’s everywhere too.”
“Really?” he said nonchalantly and shrugged.
Noemí tilted her head, trying to get a better look at the snake’s head. “I haven’t seen glass like that in a greenhouse,” she admitted. “You’d expect transparent glass.”
“My mother designed it.”
“Chromic oxide. I’d bet that’s what gives it that green coloration. But there must also be some uranium oxide used here, because, see? Right there, it almost seems to glow,” she said, pointing at the snake’s head, the cruel eyes. “Was it manufactured here or shipped piece by piece from England?”
“I know little of how it was built.”
“Would Florence know?”
“You’re an inquisitive creature.”
She wasn’t sure whether he meant it as a compliment or a defect. “The greenhouse, hmm?” he went on. “I know it’s old. I know my mother loved it more than any other part of the house.”
Virgil moved toward a long table that ran along the center length of the greenhouse, crammed with yellowed potted plants, and to the back, to a bed box that held a few pristine pink roses. He carefully brushed his knuckles against the petals.
“She took care to cut out the weak and useless shoots, to look after each flower. But when she died, nobody much cared for the plants, and this is what’s left of it all.”
His eyes were steadfast on the roses, pulling a blighted petal. “It doesn’t matter. I do not remember her. I was a baby when she died.”
Alice Doyle, who shared her initials with that other sister. Alice Doyle, blond and pale, who had been flesh once, who had been more than a portrait on a wall, who must have sketched on a piece of paper the serpent that curled above their heads. The rhythms of its scaly body, the shape of its narrowed eyes, and the terrible mouth.
“It was a violent death. We have a certain history of violence, the Doyles. But we are resistant,” he said. “And it was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter.”
Your sister shot her
, she thought, and she could not picture it. It was such a monstrous, terrible act that she could not imagine that it truly had happened, in this house. And afterward someone had scrubbed the blood away, someone had burned the dirty linens or replaced the rugs with the ugly scarlet splotches on them, and life had gone on. But how could it have gone on? Such misery, such ugliness, surely it could not be erased.
Yet Virgil seemed unperturbed.
“My father, when he spoke to you yesterday about beauty, he must have spoken about superior and inferior types too,” Virgil said, raising his head and looking at her intently. “He must have mentioned his theories.”
“I’m not sure what theories you refer to,” she replied.
“That we have a predetermined nature.”
“That sounds rather awful, doesn’t it?” she said.
“Yet as a good Catholic you must believe in original sin.”
“Perhaps I’m a bad Catholic. How would you know?”
“Catalina prays her rosary,” he said. “She went to church each week, before she got sick. I imagine you do the same, back home.”
As a matter of fact Noemí’s eldest uncle was a priest and she was indeed expected to attend mass in a good, modest black dress, with her lace mantilla carefully pinned in place. She also had a tiny rosary—because everyone did—and a golden cross on a matching chain, but she didn’t wear the chain regularly, and she had not given much thought to original sin since the days when she was busy learning her catechism in preparation for her first communion. Now she thought vaguely about the cross and almost felt like pressing a hand against her neck, to feel the absence of it.
“Do you believe, then, that we have a predetermined nature?” she asked.