A thirteen-year-old girl stands in a landscape made almost entirely of garbage, screaming at a common domestic sow. The skyline of the port city of Cartagena, Colombia, stands overcast in the background, shrouded in cloud that melts to the Pacific.
The sow shakes its jowls. Instead of entering its pen made of tamarisk boughs, it turns to face the girl. She swats it on the nose with a metal bar. The sow squeals, a glottal shriek. A second, larger sow approaches, gnashing its yellow fangs with loud clicks as it snuffles over the surface of the trash. It raises its head to look at the girl, who urinates where she stands. She doubles over and screams. The pee washes stripes in the dark grime on her legs.
A middle-aged American in a white shirt and khaki pants, carrying binoculars on a strap around his neck, rounds a pile of empty detergent bottles. He takes a heavy branch from the fence. He drives both sows into the pen while the girl lopes away. He calls after her, “¡Momento, momento! Quédate, maja. ¿Cómo te llamas?” He walks toward her.
“Amalia,” the girl says.
“Venconmigo. Te doyde comer,” the man says, holding out his hand.
She drops the metal bar and follows him as if she had nothing to her name in the world except this one stiff, coarse, bloodstained smock. And in fact she owns absolutely nothing but that one formerly white smock, and she never returns to the dump.
* * * *
Two decades later, two hours into the year 2005.
A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness. Its dim firefly of tobacco flies upward and brightens with an intake of breath. It falls and comes close to dying.
The invisible smoker lounges naked on a heap of animal skins. She is twelve, brown-skinned, black-eyed, with long, dense dark hair. Her hairline is very low, hardly more than an inch from her eyebrows, and her nose hooks like the numeral six. Her legs are short, her waist thick, her breasts small and high.
Five tall, pale men silently walk a narrow trail broken through week-old snow. They wear mukluks and nothing else. Behind them, the steam of a burning Christmas tree rises from the chimney of a house. A two-story farmhouse, red paint peeling off clapboard, hunkering below the cliffs of the Palisades just south of Nyack, New York. The night is moonlit but overcast.
The first man in line carries a kerosene torch in a bamboo holder. He is seventy-one, the oldest person present, with white hair and a white beard. The torch trails a greasy plume of black smoke. He holds it so as to spare the others, and the wind carries the smoke away. The men’s boots scrape on the snow, a regular noise like caterpillars eating leaves.
The group approaches a dark mound—a sweat lodge on a wooden platform, a simple hut, built of willow and covered with deerskins.
The white-haired man plants his torch in the snow. It illuminates a blue one-piece ski suit and furry mukluks at waist level a few feet away, lying on the crust of ice on top of the snow. Frowning, he raises a flap. The smoker extinguishes her cigarette on the rim of a three-legged iron cauldron and drops it inside, between two hot stones.
“Is that the koala?” a younger man says, peering into the lodge. He looks very much like the old man, tall and trim and muscular, with the same full beard, his hair still black.
The old man, father to him and the girl, yanks four deerskins off the willow frame, exposing a quarter of it, and says, “I’m disappointed in you, Penny.”
“Stop it!” she says. “You’re making me cold!”
“You should be in bed.”
“I couldn’t sleep. You won’t let me smoke in the house, and it’s freezing out.”
He turns to the group. “I’m really sorry, everybody. Now I have to air out the lodge, and it’s going to take time to get back up to temperature. Maybe an hour?” He speaks to the girl again. “Get your butt in the house,” he says. “Now.”
Penny slithers out over the ice to grab her ski suit, puts it on, and zips it up. She wriggles into her mukluks, brushing powdered snow off the furry shafts. She runs back down the slope a hundred yards to the house. Four men follow her: her two half-brothers and two of her father’s friends. There is light in the downstairs windows. Some of the others are still awake, talking in the kitchen.
From the front door she goes straight upstairs to bed, stripping off her ski suit by the dim glow of a night-light. She lies down under a narrow polyester comforter. The flannel sheets are a faded dark red. She turns to face the wall and lies still for ten minutes.
She sits up, too unsettled to sleep. She thinks of going downstairs to ask for some water from her mother. Naked and barefoot, she ventures into the hall.
Through a bedroom door at the head of the stairs she hears a couple having sex. She opens the door and flips on the light switch. She sees the dark-haired man—her half-brother Matt—still naked, collapsed on his girlfriend, and says, “What happened to fasting before sweat lodge? No food, no sex, no alcohol.”
Matt says to his girlfriend, “I swear to you, I’m going to kill that fucking brat.”
“I swear I’ll kill that fucking brat,” Penny singsongs, mocking him.
He withdraws and steps off the bed. He lunges at his much younger half-sister.
He is right to assume she is inured to nudity. But his penis at that moment is like nothing she has ever seen. His anger, likewise. She senses a connection between the two, something exclusive to him that is not good or pleasant. She loses her sense of precociousness. She is still clutching the doorknob when he picks her up under one arm. He carries her back to her room while she kicks at his legs. He throws back the covers and drops her into bed.
A silent tussle follows, typical for siblings, but not quite right. More like a father tickling his child, but still not right: a naked man in his midthirties using force to hold an adolescent down in bed. She raises her foot to kick him in the stomach and accidentally brushes his penis with her calf. She shrieks in the shrill, spontaneous monotone of a child ten years younger, so close to Matt that it reverberates in his ears like tinnitus.
Reflexively placing one hand over her mouth and nose, he says, “For Christ’s sake.” She makes a fist and punches him in the chest. For him, the sensation is that of being struck by an errant ping-pong ball. Then he becomes aware that his penis, still tacky from sex, is tugging on the skin of her thigh, stuck to it. He releases her, with a certain dramatic self-awareness, both his arms flying upward, as though a latch had been sprung.
He stands. She turns over to face downward and sobs, contracting and expanding her body in an inchworm-like way that reminds him of laughter or orgasm. He covers her with the sheet and comforter and says, “Come on now, be quiet, you crazy kid. Calm down.”
As he steps into the hall and closes the door he sees her mother, Amalia, rounding the corner from the stairwell. “Hey, Matt!” she says. “What happened?” She is brown and sturdy, three years younger than her stepson.
“Penny had a nightmare that made her scream. She scared the shit out of us. She’s all right. Good night.” He returns to his girlfriend, closing the door.
Penny’s face is flushed. Her eyes are red; her cheeks, streaked with tears. “Did you have a bad dream?” Amalia asks, sitting beside her.
“Matt tried to rape me,” she says, flipping over and sitting up into the light to display her tearstained face.
“Oh my god. That is a bad dream! You scared everybody in the whole house!”
Penny shakes her head and falls back on the pillows. Amalia kisses her cheek, buries her face in her daughter’s thick hair, and wrinkles her nose. “What’s that smell? You smoke cigarettes? Be honest.”
“Why you steal my cigarettes? Why don’t you ask me?”
Penny is silent. Somewhere inside her head, where logic matters, she rebels against the absurdity of asking permission to do something forbidden. Outwardly, in her face and eyes, she shows only remorse.
* * * *
When Amalia is gone, Penny rises and puts on her ski suit. She sneaks out the front door and walks uphill through the snow to the barbecue pit where the old man, now dressed in blue coveralls with a Peruvian-style ski cap on his head, is reheating the stones for the sweat lodge.
“Daddy,” she says.
“Come here, baby. I’m sorry I got so PO’d.” He tries to put his arm around her. She shrinks away. He tries to look at her face. She hides it. “Tell me. What’s wrong?”
“Matt tried to rape me.”
“And? Did he succeed?”
“Well, then obviously he didn’t try.”
“Imagine you’re trying to cut a baby mouse in half with scissors. Come on. Visualize.”
She sniffles, visualizing, and says, “No way.”
“That’s right. Something stops you. If you ever got as far as trying, that mouse would be in two pieces. And that’s how I know Matt didn’t try anything. Now turn off your little narrative self-righteousness machine and tell me what happened.”
“Matt dragged me in my room—”
“Where was Naomi through all this? Go back to the beginning. I want this blow by blow. I want to hear the details that don’t matter, as if you were describing a dream that didn’t make any sense.”
Penny nods. “Okay. Naomi and Matt were in their room making a lot of noise, so I opened the door to ask them to be quiet—”
He throws his head back and laughs. “What’s funny?”
“You didn’t ask them through the door? You know sex is a private thing, and you know it’s polite to make noises while you’re having sex. At least you ought to know it at your age, and I think you do know it. I think you opened that door because you wanted to piss them off.”
“That doesn’t give him the right—”
“To do what? What did he do?”
“Okay, he got mad and put me to bed, but it was weird.”
“Now you’re playing dumb, pretending to be a little kid. It’s my fault for not treating you like an adult after you smoked up my sweat lodge. And Matt’s fault, too, for not treating you like an adult after you stopped him making love to Naomi. Do you seriously believe it wasn’t just as strange for him?”
Penny is silent, embarrassed. She turns away to kick at a concave bank of melting snow, stained orange by the reeking kerosene torch.
“You can’t have it both ways. You’re not a kid anymore, and nobody should treat you that way. Not even yourself. We are equals here. You take responsibility and apologize, and I’ll talk to Matt. Deal?”
“I hate Naomi,” Penny says, looking at her boots.
“It’s not our job to like her,” Norm says. “It’s Matt who needs to love, honor, and respect her. We are all individuals.”
“What don’t you like about her?”
“Let’s see,” he says, pushing a rock deeper into the embers with a length of kindling. “She wants like hell to marry my senior son.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“She is constantly bowing and scraping to please him, and she sucks up to me and your mother. She’s a bore. She’s going to lose him. Now, I’m Jewish enough to wish he would settle down already with some nice girl and give me some grandchildren. Wouldn’t that be nice? Little nephews and nieces everywhere?”
“Babies are cute,” Penny says.
“Now, if there’s one thing I hope you figure out in life, it’s how to learn from other people’s mistakes instead of having to make them all yourself. Right now you have a chance to learn from Naomi. There’s no point in loving people, if it makes you act phony. Because then you can’t even say ‘I love you’!”
“She says it all the time.”
“She says ‘love’ and ‘you’ all right, but where’s the ‘I’? It’s gone! Missing in action!”
Penny picks up a stick of her own and pokes the embers to make them glow. She smiles at her father and he smiles back.
“I,” he says firmly, hugging himself with his hands on his upper arms. “Love,” he adds, standing tall, spreading his arms high, looking at the sky. “You!” he concludes, leaning down to hug her close. He sways. Revolving, they trample the snow.
“Now me,” Penny says, and imitates the ritual, swaying so hard her father loses his balance and almost stumbles into the fire.
“And so to bed,” he says. “Next chance I get, I’ll tell Matt you’re a grown-up with all the attendant dignities and he can’t push you around for any reason, no matter how much you act like a jerk. From now on, he negotiates. Deal?”
“Deal,” Penny says.
* * * *
Matt, in a crummy mood, trudges up to the sweat lodge to keep his annual ritual sweating appointment. It is nearly 4:00 a.m., and he would rather be asleep.
His father confronts him. “Did you lay hands on Penny?”
It is a striking picture. Lit by dim orange flames a little way off, the two men resemble two antagonistic big cats—one young and naked, an image of power; the other now sweet-looking, in thickly insulated coveralls and a goofy hat.
Matt rolls his eyes. “News travels fast,” he says, taking off his mukluks. “And no, I did not touch her. I was a little antsy coming off some cocaine and she barges in our room, okay.”
“You will not touch her. She’s twelve years old, and she’s my daughter.”
“Jesus, Norm. Shut up.” Matt dives into the lodge. He arranges a few sheepskins in a row and lies down heavily.
Norm strips to join him. “When are you going to marry Naomi?” he asks as he crawls through the entry. Reaching a wolf pelt, he rolls over and sits upright.
“That girl loves me blindly, like a dog. She doesn’t even know me.”
“Nobody ever really knows anybody, but some women would make excellent mothers.”
“I don’t need a mother. Give me some steam. I’m cold.”
Norm dribbles water from a ladle over the stones in the cauldron. “Talk to me,” he says. “Tell me why you won’t start a family.”
“Because I’m happy,” Matt says. “I have a fulfilling career, and I’m financially and emotionally independent.”
“I think you miss out, not having a community of any kind.”
“And I think you miss out, depending on community for your sense of self. Those clients, man. You’re out there milking the most vulnerable people in the world, so don’t tell me it’s your community.”
Norm says softly, “I help heal souls when bodies can no longer be healed.”
“When they won’t be needing the money anyway. I’m not here to take life lessons from you. I have my own life. I make an honest living, and I’m proud of what I do.”
“Design garbage trucks.”
“Designing prototype mobile waste compactors that are changing people’s lives. While you’re telling them life is fine the way it is—that it’s fine they’re dying, because they rode the cosmic snake. Teaching them resignation. You know why I don’t need a community? Because garbage trucks are necessary. I don’t have to sell anybody on garbage trucks. And don’t tell me your drug dealing paid for my education. I could pay off anybody’s student loans ten times over with what I’ve made with creativity and working my ass off. So don’t tell me I design garbage trucks. I am literally saving people’s lives, increasing landfill capacity so we don’t have to burn that shit and fill the air with dioxins until everybody gets terminal cancer and has to come to you for a trip to Brazil and ride the cosmic snake. Or would you rather we dump that shit in the ocean?”
Norm dribbles more water over the stones, and visibility in the tent drops to near zero. The steam hides his look of profound distress. Matt, stretched flat on his back, suddenly snores. He is sleeping.
The other men—including Norm’s younger son, Patrick—return as well and take places on the furs around Matt, careful not to wake him. They sit cross-legged, and Norm leads them on a spirit journey.
* * * *
April 2016. Eleven more years have passed.
A hospital towers above a river that flows through a large city in northern New Jersey. Its facade is white, with long, curving ribbons of blue reflective glass. The architecture echoes the forms of the river below, but not its colors, which are pale green with black banks.
Penny sits in an armchair upholstered in black plastic, surrounded by dull beige walls. She wears red ballerinas, shiny black leggings, and a white cotton sweater that is falling off her left shoulder. No makeup at all, but clear skin and thick, dark lashes. Her bra strap is showing, a half-inch strip of black satin. Her hair hangs to her elbows. Sometimes she looks out over the river. The arms of the chair creak when she shifts her weight.
She reads aloud to her father, who sits propped up in a hospital bed. Hardwood veneer clothes his headboard in a warm color like champagne. Steel spigots, labeled oxygen and suction, are set neatly into recesses in the wood. The book is Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death.
He laughs at a turn of phrase in the book. He coughs. Blood begins to flow from his mouth.
Still holding the book, she runs out of the room. She stands outside the door, looking both ways. There are many people in the hallway, but she doesn’t know who is responsible. “Help!” she says.
A nurse abandons her cart stacked with medication in paper cups. Another nurse abandons her desk behind a counter. They run past Penny and into the room.
While Penny walks unsteadily to a waiting area with potted plants, the nurses place a dark blue towel under her father’s chin. The bright, glassy blood turns his beard pink and the towel almost black.
He coughs, his mouth full of blood, and says, “No. No.”
“Tell us what we should do, Mr. Baker,” a nurse says. “Remember your advance directive. A transfusion now would set you back two weeks.”
He shakes his head and croaks, “I don’t want to die.”
The nurses stand upright, touching the bed rails. “Whole blood and platelets,” the first nurse says. The other nurse rushes out the door.
Blood runs from his mouth. He breathes noisily through his nose. The color of his face changes from beige to gray. He inclines his head to the left to let blood flow to the pillow, breathing with great effort. His hands, hidden under blood-soaked blue towels, never move. His bare arms are spotted with subcutaneous pools of purple.
He has some kind of acquired hemophilia, and his bone marrow is not keeping up.
Penny, light-headed, sits on a sofa in the waiting area. She calls her mother and says fearfully, “Dad’s going to die.”
“Bring him home,” Amalia says firmly. “Let him die here at home.”
From Nicotine. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2016 by Nell Zink.