I still don’t know if I want the story to be true.
At eight years old, my asthma was at its worst. I remember staring at the ceiling the day after I got out of the hospital, sweating through my t-shirt, anxious and breathless and anxious about being breathless. I can’t remember if it was April or June or September, some indistinguishable month in the endless Florida summer of my childhood, but I remember the heat as if it were still pressing down on me. I was propped up on couch cushions in my twin bed, watching the brown thumb of my chubby body contract and expand, contract and expand, never finding quite enough air to clear the rasp from my wheezing.
Just like me.
My mother spoke to me, as always, in a clear, enunciated spanish, the secret ever-present language of my youth. It would be decades before I realized that she spoke a version that read as rich and educated, almost off-putting in its formality. Growing up poor, it was easy to forget that she had once been wealthy.
She put a damp cloth on my forehead, as if I had a fever. In South Florida, the fever was everywhere, I just felt it more, like a broken bellows pulling only heat with my every struggling breath. She frowned at me in a way that made me want to feel better. She hated that I hated the part that came next. I knew where she was going when she left the room.
She came back holding a big covered pot with a tight fitting lid, pluming a trail of smoke behind her as she entered. She had done this every night for a month, following the bruja across the street’s instructions to the letter. Eucalyptus leaf and Vaporub boiled for twenty minutes. Lid off, under the bed, let the steam rise through me.
Te digo un cuento?
Can I tell you a story?
She held my hand while the world went hazy. My glasses fogged. My eyes watered. My lungs burned, bright and sharp with every cautious breath. The smell was an assault. When I inhaled I could feel the parts of myself that didn’t work. I coughed. Every night, I coughed, exhilarated with relief. I could feel the steam razing the asthma out of me with every painful inhalation.
Can I tell you a story about my asthma? In Colombia?
My mother squeezed my hand and I could see her there in the house she grew up in. It was a house I’d never been in, in a country I’ve never been to. I could see her as my grandfather led her down the stairs into the basement.
Some days my breathing was worse than yours is now. But in Colombia, do you know what the cure was?
I could see the cigarette dangling from my grandfathers lips, a man I’d never meet, living forever mid-laugh in page after page of black and white photo albums.
What’s the word for armadillo in english? Is it armadillo?
When she tells me the story, I can see it, hanging from a beam by leftover clothesline. Was it even struggling? She tells me it wasn’t. She tells me it didn’t look real until her father cut its throat with a kitchen knife. She tells me about how calm he was holding the armadillo still with one hand, his other hand maneuvering to catch the spraying drip of something fully trapped still trying to run. She tells me that’s when it struggled. She tells me that it screamed until it didn’t. She never tells me why she didn’t run. When her father turns and offers her the glass, she makes sure to tell me she didn’t hesitate. She makes sure to tell me she drank it all at once, like medicine.
Do you know what it tasted like? Fresh milk.
After the story, she kisses me on the forehead and I can feel it linger for a long time after she leaves. After the story, she turns out the light and I pretend not to hear the back door click closed when she steps out to smoke her secret cigarettes. After the story, I can see her, staring at the glass in her father’s hand while it fills with blood. I can see her growing more and more certain of what will come next. I can see the little girl that would grow into my mother step forward and take the glass and know what she had to, had to, had to do.
I’ve told that story a hundred times, told it to everyone who’s ever met my mother. When I tell that story while she’s in the room, she always laughs at the end. I don’t know if she’s laughing at us for believing her. I don’t know if she’s laughing out of nervousness, like whistling past a graveyard. I don’t know if she’s laughing about a lifetime of locked up secrets or a million more impossible everyday stories from the parallel universe of her youth in a different time, a world away. I still don’t know why she never hesitated. I still don’t know why she didn’t run.
I still don’t know if I want the story to be true.
Joaquin Fernandez is a recovering filmmaker and South Florida native perpetually tinkering with his first novel. His work has appeared in Okay Donkey, Cotton Xenomorph, Cheap Pop, and Pidgeonholes among others. He’s guest edited special issues for Kissing Dynamite and X-R-A-Y Magazine in addition to editing for the Radix Media anthology AFTERMATH. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger and on his website joaquinfernandezwrites.com.