Philippe asked you the first time months ago, before you could smell coconut when he entered the room, when all you saw were the patches of his beard, when he stood on campus and struck up conversations with everyone and you felt no more special when he spoke to you than if you were a cashier at the theater. But he came to you and asked you to dinner and you accepted, not because he was the first man to ask, and not because your definition of a man was limited to the ability to grow a beard, or the patches of beard that Philippe grew, but because he asked you a question, that wasn’t a question: come to dinner with me.
And you ate, and talked, and kissed, and repeated, and after weeks in this cycle Philippe told you he spoke to people on campus to see who questioned the government and worried about Argentina’s future, and you had never thought about the government or Argentina’s future because you were preoccupied with your own future. But when Philippe said he had a meeting, you asked if you could go, and so he never asked you, you asked him, but he asked if you actually wanted to go and you said yes, not because of the way he kissed or the coconut smell you were becoming used to, or that his breath always tasted like fresh mint, or that now he was in your life it was hard to imagine an empty face where a patchy beard once stood, or the absence of the warm arms that held you, or the voice that was soft but with a gravel edge that made your spine tingle; you said yes because you wanted to.
Gaston sat at the breakfast table with the newspaper in his hands. “What’s this?” he asked, lowering the paper.
“The paper,” Sofia said. Music, fried meat, and smoke drifted into the dining room.
Gaston didn’t say much anymore. He sat at the head of the table. Sofia had brought in the paper; he had turned down the music. He said good morning. Sofia told him to sit. He sipped his orange juice, his tea, and straightened the paper. Sofia set the plate of sausage and eggs on the table. She refilled his tea. She buttered his toast. She sat. Almost a year had passed since Valentina had been arrested. The empty space in their home was suffocating.
Gaston thrust his plate away. He slammed the newspaper on the table. He straightened out the creases and shoved his finger in the paper.
It was an advertisement; on any other day he might have passed over it, might have thought editorials were a waste of time. But today he read the right page, at the right time, or scrolled through all the pages and found the ad the Mothers had written, the ad the Mothers had discussed, but as far as Sofia knew, had not decided to publish.
Come home soon: Néstor Gallo, Salvador Braverman, Carolina Noia.
Close to the bottom—Valentina Morales. She wanted to shred the paper, to throw her plate across the room, to slam her glass to the floor and watch the pieces scatter, but it wasn’t just an ad for the mothers who were a part of the group, it was also for those who weren’t, for the women whose children or husbands had been taken but didn’t know there were others like them, others who were ready to stand, even in silence, and tell the government, tell the world, that they would not hide—and Sofia was with them, a part of them. Even now. Even though she hadn’t known about the ad’s publication. She didn’t want Gaston to question. He didn’t want her to participate in the march, or the demonstrations, or the meetings. This was much more than a list of names. So many names that hadn’t been mentioned, the names of children whose mothers sent letters to the group, signed by women around Argentina who demanded to know the whereabouts of their families. How she wished the list shorter—down to zero, or selfishly, at least shorter by one name.
She imagined all the mothers of Argentina’s unnamed children, imagined the ad cut from the paper, a mother writing her child’s name at the bottom of the list to add their child to the names of those who would return home, those beautiful children who would never be forgotten, as if their child’s name needed to be on the list to be remembered—to have been disappeared. Sofia didn’t know the list had been published; Gaston wouldn’t understand that she needed this. And she needed to act like she knew about the paper.
You went to the meeting and stuffed yourself between the corner of the can-sized room and the bodies inside. You tucked yourself as far down as you could because you felt out of place among the bodiless voices that clouded the room and spoke of the president as a beast and a warmonger to his own people, and the future is here were the words that you started to inhale in your corner with your knees pressed to your chest as you hugged yourself to keep from running because you had never felt a part of the world, or what would change it.
Philippe stood on the table at the far end of the room and towered over the people while the cloudy words of the crowd dissipated, and the breaths you took were full of only air. His voice started low so you leaned forward to try to hear the words that dripped from his mouth, but you couldn’t until the gravel in his voice grew louder and pushed everyone back into your corner, because of what he said, because of how he said it, because he stood so tall his head tapped the ceiling. You absorbed the words and the crowd absorbed you and the room absorbed the crowd. For us and for those not here. For us and for those to come. And Philippe raised his fist in the air and the room stood and raised theirs, you with them, unable and unwilling to ever put that fist down.
“Why is our daughter’s name in it?”
“Because I put it there,” she said. “Because that is our daughter and I refuse to pretend she doesn’t exist.“
“Did we not agree to not get involved? Did we not think it would be too dangerous for the men—?”
“We who? You sat in silence. I told you the decisions the Mothers made, in concern for our husbands. The rest of our families. Well this is it. You and me.”
Sofia pushed the paper from the table and stood up. She took her plates. Threw them into the sink. The plates shattered. Wrecked. Glass mixed with chunks of chewed sausage fat.
When you walk into the room the cloud of words do not hang over your head, instead you walk into the cloud and let it absorb you, familiar with the cigarette smoke, the thick of it. You walk through the crowd and it is your turn to stand on top of the table and wait for the room to quiet, and you look at the corner you had fit yourself into months ago, and now you stand above the cloud and watch it disappear into silence as the room looks to you and your words. And you feel them shape and form in your stomach until you feel sick with them and they need to be released. Shaped into a ball and pulled through your lungs, you are ready to scream them because we are what they fear. But you never say them.
Gaston pushed his way into the kitchen, suddenly too large for the small door, the cramped cabinets, the tiny stove, as if he’d never before set foot in the room.
“And if they come for me?” he asked. “What if they see her name and decide that no husband is safe?”
“And what if they come for me?” Sofia said. “What if they decide the men aren’t the only dangers? They didn’t think it ridiculous to take our daughter. This was my choice. I chose to put her name there.” Her choice: Valentina or Gaston. And she chose. She wanted Valentina’s name out there for all of Argentina to see, to bear witness her daughter had existed.
“We took a risk from the beginning. But not you. You stayed silent. You always stay silent.”
The door pounds. The room looks. A crack. A pound. A cave-in. The room fills with more smoke. The room turns gray and dark. The room screams and your eyes fill with smoke and your lungs fill with pepper. You cough. Your thoughts burn. Your body burns. You cough. You hear the police enter, banging their batons against their shields. They yell at the room to get down. Unlawful Assembly. The corner stuffed full of bodies, bloody, teary. Police bat their ribs, and their wrists as the bodies protect their bones like glass from a rock—and shatter—and you watch them and their bones because you can do nothing else. The crowd has scattered and you want to scatter with it, with the fist that you never want to put down, with the eyes that burn and the lungs that don’t work. You scream for Philippe but hold onto the table because you aren’t sure where you can go. The smoke fills the room. You duck beneath it to see if the room has a pocket of air where the cloud of words remains, a space where you can see the future and breathe.
A brick. Your nose bursts open. Blood leaks into your mouth. You taste it. Feel the baton against your ribs. They crack. Break. You turn into a ball. Protect yourself. Scream. Stuck. Your fist has fallen. You look for Philippe. From under the smoke. Through the batons. Through the shields. You see him. The patchy beard. The coconut smell gone. But he is there. By the window. Open. To let out the smoke. To clear the room. But he jumps.
“And what would you rather have? Another missing body? A corpse—“
Sofia slapped Gaston. Her fingers spread across his cheek. The shattering of a once-strong substance. She had never hit Gaston before. This is where their lives had brought them. The threads that bound them together had been turned to glass, and with that slap she shattered the final piece of them, and without him to tether her to earth she might not last much longer, already feeling what the world was like without the threads of them, together, left with herself and the unknown of what happened to Valentina. She made her way to church. She wanted to be alone. Surrounded by crowds of people. But alone. Hiding, with the echo of the slap on her fingers. The shadow of the steeples lingered over the street, a darkness cast by a house of light.
The chapel held a crowded silence, the sound of a crowd that tried to be quiet—a shift in the seats, a whisper to a neighbor. Sofia walked to the votive, dropped to her knees, and lit a match. She froze. The match burned. Should she pray for herself? for Gaston? for the disappeared? For Valentina—
You smell shit in the air and when they take the blindfold off there are two of them; you can see the silhouette of their faces merge but you imagine how they look, like stone, rotten from the inside out; the smell isn’t you, even though you can feel the shit run down your leg—it’s them, rotted, and one tells you that you must talk, tell them everything, and he implores you to spill what you know of the subversives you were with and the plans you all had, but you know you aren’t a subversive and you know you’re scared, you’re covered in your own filth, and grime has crusted your face, and you hope that you’ll be set free after this, but the man calls you back with a knee to your face and you bite your tongue and spit blood from your mouth—it tastes like metal, and you want to scream, you want to tear out his eyes, but your wrists are cuffed behind your back and the men grab your hair and drag you across the room, roll you over and tie your wrists to your ankles while you drool, unable to hold all the blood in your mouth—the rope burns and digs deep into your skin; you tremble and you’re cold in the concrete room that you couldn’t stretch in if you weren’t already bound, and you aren’t sure if you’ll ever make it out—
Sofia traded the match for the confessional. The door creaked. It was another noise in the crowd of noises. She kneeled before the grated window and crossed herself in the small, crowded darkness. She preferred open space and candlelight, but now nightmares crowded the open spaces.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was…” Sofia kept her head down and her palms together. She didn’t care to hear what the priest said. She wanted to talk. She wanted to apologize. She wasn’t ready to apologize to Gaston. “I have been an unfit mother and an unfit wife. I have let my family down. My daughter has left me. My husband has left me. I want to leave myself. Is that possible, Father? Can I separate from myself?”
“Your husband left you?” the priest said. “Was he a Catholic?”
“He hasn’t physically left,” she said. What a stupid question.
“Than why did you say he left?” he said.
“He’s not the man I married.” She didn’t feel comfortable talking about Valentina. Could she trust a priest? This is what her life had become, to question whether she could trust a priest, a man of God. What could a man of God do that God didn’t do Himself? What could a priest do? Even if she trusted him. “Our lives have changed. Our family has changed. This city has changed.” The priest cleared his throat. “He doesn’t talk anymore. I don’t know if he’d notice if I left.”
“These are not the questions of a devoted wife,” the priest said. “Your doubts will consume you. Is there anything else?”
“This morning…” She cleared her throat, “before I came to confession, we had a fight. I slapped him.”
“Are you sorry for your transgression?”
She felt a slight tingle in her fingers. Gaston had been wrong. He had changed. He should apologize to her. How could he say such a horrible thing about their daughter? About her daughter. That Valentina was dead, a corpse. Sofia had to choose—Valentina or Gaston.
—you think days pass; they shave your head and you try to lick the hair off your shoulders because you think it might taste better than the dried blood that has dressed your lips since the moment you woke up in the concrete room; they take your blindfold off once in a while and fill your mouth with water and a lemon, you savor the citrus, you savor any change from dried blood, and you want to feel fresh water because you’re tired of washing your hands with piss, and the water is a nice change from your bone-dry saliva, but the blindfold is quickly replaced, another demand is made and another knee to the cheek—you feel your face crack in half, but they aren’t finished and they pull your eyelids back trying to peel your skin from your body, scalp you from your green eyes back until the only remnant of you is your sallow muscles that no one would be able to identify—
“No!” she said. “I’m not sorry. I have no reason to be sorry. He should be sorry.”
“I cannot give you penance if you do not believe in your guilt.”
“I don’t want your penance. I want my life to be put back together. Can God help with that? He hasn’t so far.”
Sofia stood, opened the door. A loud thump filled the room when the crowd shifted. Sofia moved the hair from her face. She patted her curls and adjusted her hat. She lit another match at the votive. The priest wouldn’t carry her prayers to God. She turned to the flame, attached her prayer to the smoke like a letter to a balloon. If it lifted high enough, all her prayers would be answered. What if her prayers were too heavy to get to heaven? Gaston was so certain of providence. But I’m not.
—they release your wrists from your ankles, turn you over, lift you onto a mattress and for a second you feel relief until they re-bind your wrists to the bedpost and strap wires to your skin and you feel the wet of freezing liquid hit your stomach followed by a hellfire pulse through your body that swallows you from the inside and gives new meaning to the fire in your eyes because you think they have lit an actual fire behind your eyes—you think smoke escapes from your lungs instead of sound, once, twice, three times and swallows you whole, and three times you feel like you breathe fire, but you don’t, and you have survived but they aren’t finished with you as they drag you back to your room, the smell of dried blood and dripping filth fill the cold, damp air, but you welcome the bitter cold as if the cold outside might help the fire inside, but it isn’t helping and you don’t think you’ll ever make it out alive and you aren’t sure how long it is since you first arrived or if people know where you are or how they can help you, or if they can help you, but part of you feels relieved that they haven’t raped you and maybe you shouldn’t have stopped going to church and that your father had been right in his silence—a slight pinch in your arm—you drift to sleep—
Smoke rose from the candles, gray and thick; it lifted slow to the ceiling and Sofia knew it would never get past the roof. That should have been her first prayer, to let the rest of her hopes through the ceiling and up to heaven. She imagined all her prayers stuck in the roof tiles, huddled together and crowded like coins in a fountain, cluttered and waiting to turn from wishes to reality; that was what she had told Valentina; when a wish came true the coin disappeared from the well. Valentina had marked a coin once as a child, marked her wish with red paint and threw it into the fountain. Gaston asked what she wished for; she said a new bike. Two weeks later Valentina had a brand new bicycle and rode to the fountain to see if her coin was under the water looking back at her. It wasn’t. Years later Sofia told her the fountain was cleaned out every few days—wishes stolen and never coming true, Sofia now realized, like the votive prayers, bloated and stuck between the ceiling and floor ready to crush everyone below. She had enough weight on her body, she didn’t need the addition of unanswered prayers, especially her own.
—You are in a plane but have no idea where you are or where you are going; the choppiness of propellers cuts the wind, the heavy scent of exhaust fills the compartment and your nose burns but it’s a burn you are happy to feel and your head hurts and your cheek aches from when it was cracked and your tongue is swollen and bloody almost all the time now and your hands are tied together and you notice the searing pain in your shoulders as you move your arms for the first time since God knows when—you think about home and you wish you could have one more alfajor, another quiet conversation with your mother, but it is too late, and someone pulls you up by your arms, their giant hands wrapped around your tiny body; you close your eyes and hear the passing air outside—someone has opened the door and you smell the sea and feel the rush of the wind and hear the propellers crush the air and the hands push you. You fall. And you whisper good-bye.
Sofia wanted to take all of her prayers back. All the prayers she ever had. All the candles she ever lit, all the hopes she had that never came true, the life she should have had, the family she should have had, the daughter that should never have been taken.
Sofia extinguished the candle. The smoke of other candles continued to rise. Her prayer snuffed out while others rose into the crowd of smoky litanies above her. Sofia couldn’t afford to live on faith any longer. It ended up hurting too much. One by one, slow, quiet, with little more than a whispered end, Sofia snuffed the remaining candles, each one a bitter fragment of the mother she had been. For every prayer she had that was never answered, she extinguished another light, another’s prayer, determined to take it back.
Douglas Weissman is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at the University of San Francisco. He has written a Young Adult series and a New Adult novel released by Epic Press in Fall 2016. He was shortlisted in Glimmer Train’s “Family Matters” writing contest in 2015. He currently works as a travel writer and lives in Los Angeles.