Vultures skulked overhead. Their sharp skulls bludgeoned back into their hunched shoulders, black eyes flickering greedily over the poolside terrace, watching Francisco’s daughter as she stumbled from bust-in deckchair to mould-ridden bench and back, carrying with her – with intense concentration – the plastic spoons and forks and mugs that Francisco had taken from the kitchen earlier that day for the visit, not wishing to risk that someone may be using them by the time little Luciana would arrive. She would cry if she could not have the plastic kitchenware to play with, and Francisco hated it when his daughter cried.
He watched to make sure she did not fall into the pool and that no bird would swoop down on her with its talons, cutting into her flesh. She was only four years old and couldn’t defend herself. In Patagonia, there were stories of young children being carried away by condors, plucked up from gardens or parks or fields, carried away into the sky and never seen again. If that happened to Luciana, his ex-wife Gabriela would never trust him again. He needed to be careful.
Luciana placed a plastic spoon on the bench and hurried back to where she had left the mug on the ground by Francisco’s feet. She grabbed it and ran to place it beside the spoon. Then she smiled at her father who tried to smile back.
For her age, Luciana spoke very little, even Francisco could see that now; though for a long time he had insisted that they wait before seeing a doctor, hoping that she’d grow out of it. He did not feel any regret at this indecision on his part. He reasoned that life is mostly destiny, and there isn’t much anyone can do to change the machinery and how it works itself out. Gabriela hated when he said things like that and this was something that he did not understand. She wanted him to lie to her, he figured, to tell her that they were in control, in the driving seat, to make her feel better. So, he did, though he resented her for this. And it was rare for Francisco to be resentful towards anyone or anything.
As she approached the swimming pool, Francisco moved closer to his daughter. He told her to crawl. She obeyed, getting down on all fours and scrambling to the edge of the pool. She craned her head out, cautiously – far more cautiously than was necessary, which allowed Francisco to relax a little – and stared at her reflection in the dirty water, dark green in colour like mango leaves in winter. She looked up at her father and smiled, and this time Francisco managed to smile back at her. He crouched down beside her and waved at her reflection. At first, she looked at her real father in confusion, but when Francisco directed her gaze towards his reflection in the pool, and she realised that this reflection was waving at her, she shrieked in delight and began to wave frantically herself. Then she yelled and pushed herself to her feet, and Francisco went to secure her; but she ran away from the pool to the bench where the plastic spoon and mug were waiting. She grabbed them, rushed back to the pool side, and went to fling them into the water; but Francisco stopped her. She wailed and stomped her feet. He tried to take the spoon and mug from her, but she twisted her back to him and held her treasures tightly to her chest.
Francisco was tired now – this tired him deeply. He caught a glimpse of a vulture’s reflection sliding over the surface of the algae-infested pool. His chest tightened with fear. He could feel himself moving further away from any sense of fun, could sense the imminence of a dark mood. He didn’t mind this usually. He would just sit in his room until it passed, but he did not want to let Luciana down. She did not understand when he became silent and irritable. Once or twice he had even shouted at her when, during one of his down moods, she had insisted on having his attention.
But this day, he had come prepared. He would only take a pinch, enough to keep him level, no more. He knew he had to tread carefully. The larger bag had been cheaper and so, despite his firm intentions to only buy twenty reais worth, he had a fifty bag in his pocket. A lot can happen with fifty reais worth of coke.
Francisco turned away from his daughter, brought the baggy up close to his face and quickly dipped a key in. He sniffed the key-full and shoved the bag back into his pocket. Then he turned to his daughter and smiled.
“Dada!” she screamed in joy.
Luciana was sitting on the oversized rattan chair fingering her pasta and watching the TV. He had taken her t-shirt off so that he didn’t need to worry about the tomato sauce dripping on it, which was a good decision as her chest was splotched with red by now, some of the marks blobs of sauce, others fingerprints. Luciana was a very messy eater, even for a four-year-old.
They had played nonstop for the last two hours and Francisco had managed to keep his private business under control. He had only used a tiny portion of the bag. Well, maybe not so tiny, but he was proud of himself, he had not used so much. It had been hard at times to resist the temptation to get that little bit higher, to feel a real high and not just the absence of tension that the small key-fulls gave him. But resisted he had. All and all, the experiment had been a resounding success, and it was a useful lesson for him that would have many future applications.
On the TV was a dubbed Hollywood animation, something about a woolly mammoth and some sort of rat crossing the Arctic. Luciana never smiled or laughed when she watched television, no matter how apparently comic the things she watched were. Instead she stared, bluntly and persistently.
Francisco was taking advantage of this distraction to get some work done. He needed to be at Copacabana early the next day, and he had very little merchandise to sell. With a reasonable amount of attention and effort, it is easy for a street vendor to ensure that he has enough produce, but these last few weeks had been complicated for Francisco, and, besides this, he wasn’t naturally gifted in the realm of forward planning. Except perhaps when it concerned his private business. So he now found himself in a fairly significant rush to produce earrings and bracelets to sell the next day. He would probably be up all night doing this, but that was fine. Once Gabriela collected Luciana, he would be able to hit the rest of the bag and work nonstop until dawn.
But already the tiredness was setting in. And, though he hadn’t checked his wallet, Francisco knew that it contained almost nothing. He needed to sell the following day to be able to afford a small pinch to take the edge off the evening. It would be a long day’s work, and he couldn’t stomach the idea of coming home with nothing in his pocket.
He would allow himself one line, a real line, not a key-full, and this would take him until Gabriela arrived, which should be in the next hour. There was no point on wasting this whole hour. Luciana was safe in front of the TV. Vultures couldn’t get her indoors.
Francisco ran quickly to his room, racked a line, snorted it, and then sprinted back to the drawing room, leaving the bag behind to avoid any further temptation.
Luciana hadn’t even noticed that he was gone. The rat on the TV was sliding over an iceberg now, mouth open, wailing in terror. Apart from his raggy brown fur, the whole screen was that calm, icy blue of the South Pole or the glaciers in Patagonia in the winter. Coke always made Francisco nostalgic for Argentina, for the cold winters especially, the long weeks snowed in, the frost on the windows. How had his parents chosen a city like this? It had dreary palm trees; endless, scalding summers; and never a single flake of snow. Francisco was quite sure that they had adapted better than he.
When he was high on coke, Francisco liked to think of Argentine winters, the glaciers, the snowdrifts, the ice. When a gringo told him once that in the United States, they called cocaine “snow”, he had almost wet himself with laughter. The man had not understood what was so funny. Francisco had broken into renewed peals of laughter when the gringo tentatively tried to explain that in his country, the coke was actually white, not the off-brown crap they sold in Brazil.
“But don’t let a Brazilian hear you say that. They freak out if you insult their country,” the gringo had finished off, an expectant note in his voice suggesting he trusted he would have conspiratorial agreement on Francisco’s part.
Francisco had merely stopped laughing and said, “That’s not why I was laughing. But you think Brazil is bad, go to Argentina, it is far worse.”
That had been a funny night, and it gave Francisco the desire to get out of the house. Maybe he would skip the beach tomorrow. He could work for a couple of hours tonight and then take the rest of his bag out to Lapa and have some fun. Then he could take it easy for the next couple of days, slowly make some more earrings and bracelets, and then go to sell them on the following Sunday.
Flurries of computer-generated snow swept across the screen. No, that was an awful idea. He needed money now.
Francisco half-watched the film as he strung semi-precious beads onto leather cords, twisted metal wires into settings for gemstone rings, glued colourful bird feathers together to create the tropical-looking earrings that the tourists adored. He doubted if they ever wore them once they got home, but once they bought them, he didn’t really care. Occasionally he would make comments to Luciana about the film or his work, but she was completely entranced and did not pay any attention to him at all.
Francisco looked up. Tag was standing above him. They pumped fists. Tag’s gaze lingered, he stared into Francisco’s eyes and for a second Francisco thought the faggot was coming onto him, which he supposed would only make sense.
“Fuck sake, man,” Tag said.
Obviously, Francisco thought.
“It’s my medicine, I need it. I have lung problems. Ask Gabriela.”
“Just get out of my face, okay?” Francisco snapped.
Tag appeared offended. Francisco hated using this trick on people. He held no malice towards anyone, but ever since he had discovered that it was easier to offend people than explain things to them, he had been obliged to use this tactic many times.
Tag patted Luciana on the head as he left.
Francisco felt awful now. He liked Tag, and Tag had helped him out once or twice. He was acutely conscious of burning a bridge; and, despite what many thought, seeing how he dealt with people, Francisco was extremely aware when he alienated someone who may have been of help to him in the future. He felt it like a punch in the gut. And for this type of feeling, brutal in its intensity and bringing with it a whole ghostly horde of worries about the future, there was only one solution.
He ran to his room to get it.
There were no longer any vultures in the sky, but bats were flitting about the garden, snatching insects from beneath the buzzing poolside lamp. Francisco was laid on the rotten bench in the darkness. Gabriela had said that he would never see his daughter again. Of course, she was exaggerating. She could not do without a free babysitter, no matter how untrustworthy. And if she did really carry out the threat, well, Francisco would learn to deal with the consequences, just as he had learned to deal with the consequences of many other things in his life. And, on the upside, in his frenzy he had made many, many bracelets and earrings and rings to sell the next day. They would all probably need a sober touch-up, but he could do that at the beach. It was better that way in fact, the tourists loved to see an artisan at work, diligent and concentrated; a “craftsman”, someone had once called him, in a tone of great respect. All in all, Francisco did not feel so bad. Despite the dramatic flare-up that had ended it, he had enjoyed his day with Luciana. And he didn’t always enjoy them. In addition to this, he was high. What more could a man like himself ask for?
Snow. That’s what, snow. Cold, calm, peaceful snow because snow makes Francisco think of snow. Waking up before dawn, the silence, his bedroom strangely bright. And he would know then that it had snowed, the light on his walls reflected from the pure white outside.
Snow makes it snow. Francisco loved this, the freedom of his imagination when he was high. Snow on the high peaks, snow stuck to the windowpanes, shoving the door open against a wall of snow. Happy memories of home. Argentine snow, the only true snow, the best snow in the world.
He was so free, so full of wild imaginings and memories, that when he looked over at the lamp, the insects fluttering below its light seemed to be snowflakes, falling obliquely down to earth.
And he enjoyed this illusion, for a while, until a bat swung out of darkness and bit down on a snowflake and carried it away into the sky.
Dermot O’Sullivan is from Dublin, Ireland. He studied English Literature in Trinity College, Dublin. His work has been published in various journals including The Honest Ulsterman, Causeway/Cabhsair, The Incubator and Fence. He currently lives in Brazil, where he recently had his first full-length play produced. His story In November first appeared in The Village Square Journal in 2018. Read his interview with our founding editor, Obinna Udenwe in our Summons to the Village Square series here.
Featured image courtesy of HowToGym