She must have been five years old the first time it happened. She was living in Colonia del Sacramento, in Uruguay, in an old house behind the port, overlooking the estuary. She was playing in a dusty courtyard, away from the older children, who had devised a game of jumping off a low wall into the garden next door and terrorizing the neighbor’s old dog.
Julia knew she was poor. Not because she lacked anything but because her mother complained about it. The word “poor” meant nothing to Julia. Oddly enough, she associated it with her carefree existence, far removed from adult preoccupations. But she also understood that it was the reason why her father had gone away and left them. And she missed him. Her mother would point to the Río de la Plata* and explain that he had gone to look for work over there in Argentina, on the other side of the water.
“The river of silver, the river of silver . . .” Julia would say to herself over and over, like the words of a magic spell. She would stand at the railing for hours on end, staring down at the port of Colonia and the expanse of gray water flecked with silver that stretched as far as she could see. What more could there possibly be on the other side? She didn’t understand.
“Mom,” she would ask, “why has Dad gone away?”
“To get money for us, of course!”
Julia would stare with fascination at the platinum glint of the water below her. Turning to her mother, she would insist: “But, Mom, what about all the silver in the river? We don’t need any more!”
Her exasperated mother would roll her eyes and reply: “¡Nena! ¡El Río de la Plata no es ni un río, ni es de plata!”†
Her twin brothers were only too delighted to hear their mother scolding Julia. They were nearly two years older and liked to treat her as a punching bag. They taunted her mercilessly, shoved her around, and tripped her up. Anna, her older sister, would rush to her rescue, gathering her up and chasing the twins away with a slap. “Daddy will be home soon, Julia. Don’t worry,” she would whisper in her ear.
Anna was the only one who could console Julia, because she too was desperately impatient for their father to return. For that reason, and because her mother was so distant and so strict with her, Julia showered all the love she was storing up for her father on her older sister. She would have liked to be included in the twins’ games but she was too scared of them; they were such daredevils. Besides, they had taught them- selves to swim and spent most of their time in the river, where Julia couldn’t follow them.
On the afternoon of her first mysterious journey, Julia was in the backyard, sitting on the kitchen steps. She was playing by herself, drawing shapes in the dirt with her finger and filling an old oil canister with pebbles. At that time of day, the children had usually finished their lunch. It was Anna’s job to reheat the meal their mother had made at dawn before leaving for work. But on that particular day she had told Anna to wait: she would bring some groceries back from town.
The sun was beating down. Wearing a cotton dress that was too short for her—one of her sister’s castoffs—Julia was getting bored as she sat uncomfortably on the uneven stone steps. She started to feel unwell, almost feverish, but kept quiet as usual for fear of being scolded. Then she began to feel a prickling sensation up and down her legs. Thinking she was being bitten by insects, she swatted at her legs in annoyance.
The tremors spread very quickly, rising up through her body and stiffening each limb in turn until she was completely immobilized. Panic-stricken, she called to Anna as loudly as she could, but the twins’ high-pitched shrieks and the barking of the old dog drowned out her thin little voice.
All at once she couldn’t see. She thought she had fallen into the River of Silver. She was suffocating, trapped inside a thick white substance with no taste or smell. Disconnected from her body, petrified and blinded, she floated in a state of nothingness. She would remember that moment for the rest of her life. Emptied of her being, she understood what it meant to die.
She didn’t start breathing again until her eyes pierced the milky haze around her and she could once again make out the shapes of things and people.
That was when Julia became convinced that her sense of sight was not her own. The wide-angle images were moving, as if she were walking, but she knew she was totally paralyzed, unable even to control the direction of her gaze. She might almost have thought she had nodded off and was dreaming, except that this was different: it felt like she’d been cut in half and was seeing through someone else’s eyes, like an intruder catapulted into a strange world.
Julia, with her child’s mind, couldn’t comprehend why it was already night. She could make out a full moon hidden behind a flurry of clouds overhead. She saw the prow of a boat pitch upward on a nasty swell, as if she were on board. Violent gusts of wind whipped up the waves and sent them sweeping over the deck. Fascinated by the majestic scene unfolding in front of her yet feeling strangely protected from it, she forgot to be afraid.
Suddenly Anna crossed into Julia’s field of vision. She was walking toward the prow, every muscle in her body straining as she clung to the rail. She was trying to reach the twins, who were huddled on the deck in a pool of vomit, dangerously close to the edge. Julia couldn’t see her mother, but out of the corner of her eye she spotted her father standing next to the tiller, directly to her left.
Just then a huge wave crashed onto the deck, and the prow disappeared behind a curtain of spray. The next moment Anna had vanished. Julia’s field of vision panned around and she found herself looking in the opposite direction. She tried to will the vision to search for Anna, but what she saw instead was her father’s distorted face, screaming. In the foreground she recognized her mother’s white, veined hands clutching at him. She was her mother. Terrified, she realized she was seeing through her mother’s eyes.
The next few seconds changed Julia’s life forever. Her father’s face was as hollow as a dead man’s. She saw her mother’s hands lash out and scratch him as she tried to grasp control of the tiller and turn the boat around. He was staring, transfixed, at a dot in the water, a dot that was getting farther and farther away, that was being lost in the furious agitation of the waves. Unable to move, he looked on as his world was being swallowed up. Julia wanted to throw herself at him too and force him to jump into the water after Anna. Why wasn’t he doing anything?
All at once her view shifted again. For a fraction of a second she saw herself, as if in a mirror. She was clinging to her mother’s skirts, her body rigid, panic in her eyes, screaming as loudly as her father.
The shock of seeing herself as another person was so brutal that it broke the connection. Shaking uncontrollably, she tumbled into empty space and plummeted down, sucked into a vortex. She wanted to cry out, to shout for help, to shake off this unfamiliar body. A second later she found herself entering the viscous white substance, coming up for air, ready to implode.
She landed with an abrupt thud and opened her mouth as wide as she could, gulping for air. Her lungs began to reinflate slowly and painfully. She recognized Anna by her smell of salt and guava alone: Julia’s eyes had dried out in the white-hot December sun during her trance and she couldn’t see. Anna was calling out her name in desperation and shaking her like a rag doll.
Julia let out an inhuman scream and burst into tears of fear, rage, and powerlessness. She didn’t yet have the proper words to express her emotions, so she clung to Anna’s neck and howled.
The next thing she knew she was lying on her bed, covered in blood. Anna told her she had toppled headfirst down the kitchen steps and cracked her forehead. Then Julia noticed the twins: just standing there, same hollow cheeks, same dazed expression. Struggling free from her sister’s arms, she flung herself at them, scratching and biting them with her tiny teeth, her small fists, spluttering that it was all their fault, that Anna was dead and they hadn’t done anything to rescue her.
Hearing her cries, her mother rushed into the room. It took all her strength to separate Julia from her brothers. She spent hours trying to calm her daughter down, offering cuddles, sweets, and rewards. But even Anna’s appeals couldn’t convince Julia to let go of the crazy idea she’d gotten into her head. Clinging to her big sister’s neck, she kept screaming that Anna was dead and that no one had tried to save her.
She remained in the same state for the next few days. She refused to have anything to do with the twins and insisted on being allowed to go down to the sea on her own. She had decided she wanted to learn to swim. Her mother watched her from a distance, overcome with a feeling she hadn’t felt for any of her children, more akin to resignation than to affection.
She let Julia have her way and sent Anna to keep an eye on her. Anna had an instinctive aversion to the brackish water the twins swam in. Out of love for her little sister and in the hope of curing Julia’s madness, she overcame her disgust. She agreed to accompany her sister into the enigmatic waters of the river, but there was no getting Julia out. For hours on end Anna would hold her up in the water as she tried to do the breast- stroke like the twins. Julia finally learned to swim and soon became as bold as her brothers. Through sheer persistence she managed to get Anna to swim too, though her sister went along with it more out of devotion to Julia than from any natural inclination.
Christmas Day came. And as one good thing often leads to another, their father returned from Argentina laden with food. He had gotten himself a decent job in Buenos Aires and found a house for the whole family. His wife was overwhelmed with a joy that quickly spread to everyone else—everyone except Julia, who kept fiercely to herself.
One night she heard her parents talking at the kitchen table for hours after her older siblings had gone to sleep. So they really were going to leave Uruguay. Though Julia wasn’t quite sure what that meant, the tone of their voices was enough to set her heart beating faster. Julia didn’t want to leave Colonia. She liked her little world: the cobbled streets that wound upward as if searching for the sky; her own sloping, rickety house with its roof of crooked pink tiles—the exclusive domain of the neighborhood cats that Julia fed in secret. She felt she was the mistress of this small, safe world where she could do as she pleased with her days; where Anna alone was al- lowed to enter; and where everyone except her mother respected her desire for childhood solitude.
For some time there was no further talk of moving, and Julia thought they had given up the idea. Gradually her distress began to fade. Maybe it had just been a dream after all.
Like everyone else in the family, her father had been trying to coax her out of her shell. Walking to the market with him one day, her hand in his, Julia looked him straight in the eye and said with a grown-up air, “Alone at last!” Her father gave a shout of laughter. He lifted her up and twirled her in the air. Julia thought she would fly off into the blue sky that sucked her upward, taking her breath away, and was glad of her father’s strong arms around her.
The departure took them all by surprise. A man in a sailor’s cap arrived one morning and gruffly announced that the boat was ready and that they would have to set sail that evening. The household was thrown into utter upheaval. Everything was taken apart, stacked, folded, rolled, trussed, and piled up outside the house. They all found it hard to believe that their entire life could be reduced to such a small number of possessions.
Julia gathered up the things the others were throwing away. She found a long piece of string and threaded it through all the empty containers she found in the house and the garden. She dragged her train of dented receptacles behind her like some precious treasure. Amid the chaos her family greeted her eccentric behavior with relief. They had been worried she would have a nervous fit in the middle of their preparations to leave.
They set off toward the pier in a little procession at dusk. The captain was waiting for them. Julia instantly recognized the boat. The dread she had felt during her vision returned, and she began screaming in terror. The captain, all black beetle brows and bulging eyes, thought the child was throwing a tantrum and lost his patience. He even threatened to punish her, having decided that her parents lacked authority.
Julia became hysterical. Clutching her string of bottles and cans, she took refuge between her father’s legs, but nothing could calm her. Despairing, he took her in his arms, climbed into the boat, and instructed the elder children to join him in the stern. Meanwhile, the captain was loading the boat and balancing the cargo in the hold under their mother’s watchful eye.
There was a full moon, and the night sky was clear and starless. Large black clouds were building up in the distance, but the crossing wouldn’t take long—two hours at most. However, the wind began to pick up as soon as they sailed out of the port, and the rising swells slowed the boat’s progress.
Just as in her trance, it all happened very quickly. The twins began to feel seasick, and the captain sent them to the prow. Anna wanted to help them and began to make her way to the front, gripping the rail. The boat pitched dangerously, and the captain left the tiller to secure the front hold. Their father took his place.
It was at that precise moment that a giant wave surged up and crashed with the sound of thunder across the deck. The captain had just enough time to snap on his safety harness, grab hold of the twins, and pull them to him. Anna went overboard. The roar of the wave drowned out Julia’s screams. She was still gripping her string of bottles and cans. Left alone at the controls, her father yelled with fear, unable to steer the boat and thrown into a further panic by his wife’s hysterical shrieks as Anna disappeared into the hollow of the wave. The boat had filled with water and the captain was frantically attempting to bail it out in order to escape disaster, all the while bellowing instructions to Julia’s father, who seemed incapable of understanding him.
The twins hesitated for no more than a second. They exchanged a meaningful glance, launched themselves at Julia, grabbed her string of bottles, and jumped overboard. The last thing Julia saw before she passed out was Anna’s head bobbing like a cork in the trough between two waves.
*In Spanish the word “plata” is used interchangeably to mean either “silver” or “money.”
†“Girl! The Río de la Plata isn’t a river, and it’s not made of silver or money!”
From THE BLUE LINE. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2015 by Ingrid Betancourt.