THE SILENCE THAT DRIES ROCÍO
by Jhon Sánchez
“Silence may kill my granddaughter,” I told the cellphone’s customer service representative after explaining to him that I was calling from Patía, the southern part of Cauca. “The lack of the sound of rain is ending her life. She is only seven years old.” The phone was not making the rain sound for quite a while and my granddaughter, Rocío, had been sleeping and sleeping, and her spiky hair growing and growing. And still, she was sleeping, almost dead, as Doña Juana would put it.
After her games and dances under the rain, Rocío’s hair had dropped curly, tender and wet like beautiful panicles of rice. I tried to explain to the agent how pleasant it was to feel Rocío’s cold hands and body. She came out to the rain and returned like ice and hours later despite the inclement sun, it was nice to be around her body that seemed to emanate the air of a freezer.
The phone agent listened to me all the time. It was a signal that he was an envoy from God’s will. I heard his name, Isidro, and I thought, Like Saint Isidro, the patron of rain. I told him about the saint and asked him whether he knew Santa Maria de la Cabeza. “Saint Isidro’s wife also has the power to irrigate the crops.”
Here in Patía, we are in a drought, the first time in my life without rain, and Rocío was only sleeping. When I think about this drought, I imagine the earth like the shape of my own ear, an almost deaf ear unable to perceive yells, thunders, whispers, and drizzles.
“My granddaughter needs to listen to the rain to be awake,” I said to Isidro, the phone agent, speaking straight to the little machine’s receiver, with the speaker pressed against my left ear. I have to do the same when my daughter calls from Nueva York, talking to the screen with some square images and moving it quickly to my ear to listen to my daughter’s voice. I said it slowly word by word to see whether Isidro could understand,
“In this land now, there is only the quietness of a desert where the dead earthworms look like charcoal.”
“Do you have the serial number?” I remembered Isidro had asked. The serial number, like the numbers the sewing machine has underneath. Pulling my large-ear lobe, I looked at the square screen up and down, but there was nothing. This metallic box was so different from the phone that came along my jaw, one place for the ear, one place for the mouth that rested on the console, and numbers for dialing.
“Isidro, you don’t understand. This is an emergency. If this phone does not work, my granddaughter is gonna die.”
He told me there was a gray square with some gears on it. I put on my glasses and saw the gray thing. He said I needed to tap it. I did it twice like I was going to poke someone, or better to say the way that I used to tickle my late husband, who burst into laughter as the rivers once sounded under thunderstorms. But nothing cackled, neither in the phone nor in the dry rocky-river beds.
“Can’t you help me out? My granddaughter needs to hear the rain in this machine.”
But Isidro only sent me to look for the papers that came with the phone. I have all those papers together, the manual for the iron, with its box, the manual for the blender, and the receipts, all the papers for the refrigerator. I spread all those papers across my carpet and sat on the floor. My ankle ached and I massaged it all the way up, passing my varicose veins. Isidro asked several times if there was someone to help me out, but who? In this town without a meow, a bark, a moo, not even a buzz. Under the interminable glowing of the sun, Doña Juana is the only one around, but she does not know about those machines either.
My daughter brought the cellphone from Nueva York, and she was the one who made it work. She told me just to plug it in at night while Rocío was sleeping. I explained that to Isidro, maybe Saint Isidro, and he repeated, “Yes, yes.”
Among the manual papers, I finally found a little booklet with a sticker on it and read aloud some letters with some numbers. Isidro said,
“Ok, we found it. . . . Doña Rigoberta, are you there?” the customer service agent asked. “What’s the problem?”
I told him this was my granddaughter’s phone. “She needs it to be awake, to be alive—”
“You are talking from your granddaughter’s phone, aren’t you?”
“It seems that everything is working fine, Doña Rigoberta.”
“No, no, no.” I looked at my granddaughter who was sleeping right there under the closed shower faucet. Her bony nose with a sharp tip and that hair that looked and felt like wicker. Her hair changed so much. It used to be so smooth and slippery like wet marble, mostly after the rains. But after the drought, there was no way to comb it down, neither aguapanela with lemon nor any of the chemical jelly jams which my daughter had insisted I buy, worked out. Looking at that hair, I understood what Doña Juana had told me when she tried to cut it off: “For this you need the strong arm of a man with a machete, because it has the same texture of dry corn branches.”
Who in the family had that hair? It had to be her father’s hair. The rain turned it so dark, similar to the forest at night. Nobody had that hair. With the drought her hair turned crunchy like dry paper and no one in my family has that hair either, same in color and texture as dry leaves. I have never asked who her father was. I only knew that my daughter’s belly once grew, and Rocío was born during a storm—a baby who did not cry, but made a long croak-sound like frogs on the lake. Her baby baldhead felt like sprouts under my freckly hands when I rubbed it.
How could I have explained all of that? The way my Rocío had changed! I almost thought to tell Isidro that my Rocío’s hair had doubled in size after the phone stopped making the rain sound ten days ago. I wanted to yell, “Her hair grows, grows, and grows,” but I stopped myself. He would have not understood that she was drying out or “fading like a flower,” as Doña Juana had said.
I sighed and went on trying to explain to Isidro. “If my granddaughter could listen to the rain or at least thunder, she would wake up—”
“Are you talking about the ring sound, ma’am?”
“No, no, no.”
“Doña Rigoberta, I have a hard time understanding you. Maybe my supervisor can help you better.”
“Isidro, no. Please! Only you and Santa Maria de la Cabeza can help me, can save my granddaughter!” I pleaded, because he might have been Saint Isidro and his wife, Santa Maria. Only he, Isidro, Saint Isidro, could recover the cellphone’s sound, the long-day drips. I used to leave the phone charging at night and in the morning, I just put it in her ears—the little plastic things that go into the ears—and tapped the square picture that my daughter showed me on the screen. I do not have to say Rocío go to sleep. She was making her movements back and forth, clip clop, clip clop. Around eight, I held her with my right arm and I retrieved the plastic things from her ears. She faded like a doll and I brought her to bed. It was my daughter’s idea because Rocío used to wake up during the rainy days. She could stand up for days until the rain was over.
We used to have rain here in Patía. The clouds twisted as if giant hands would wring a huge wet, black blanket. My granddaughter’s eyes started to roll up even before the black clouds appeared. They rolled up when the cloud was a single line on the horizon. As the drops hit the window, she would bang it with a silver spoon. Ding-dong, dong. Ding. Precisely one heartbeat behind the raindrops, as my piano instructor, Madam Corinne, once taught me to use my right hand. I never learned. I was a little girl, seven, like my granddaughter was.
On more than one occasion after the storm, I found Rocío drenched in the backyard, but she never coughed, not even a single Achoo! in her life. I caressed her icy skin. Maybe she got it from my own genes.
I used to have cold fingertips, too. Madam Corinne, my piano instructor, picked me out from my classmates to give me lessons because “only a person with cold hands can be a good pianist.” We were ten students who went twice a week to the doctor’s French wife’s house. Before each class she made us wash our hands with cold water and told us that the secret of the perfection of the Stradivarius violins lay in the fact that Antonio Stradivari made them of wood from the Alps during the coldest times in history.
My fingers cannot play the piano even if I wanted to or knew how to. I looked at my twisted fingers, and I yelled at Isidro on the phone, “The rain sound is a sort of music for my granddaughter!”
“Music. Hmmm . . . a kind of an application, I guess. With the sound of the rain?” Isidro asked with taut voice.
It was like music. My granddaughter danced with it. I knew it was a dance. She did not walk, she danced instead, the short steps back and forth following the trickling of the rain.
“My Rocío lives and dances with the rain. San Isidro, please help me.” Then I told him how my daughter brought this little machine for Rocío. When Rocío was only two, my daughter traveled to Nueva York and one day, I told her over the phone how Rocío would suddenly wail along with the thunder-like notes of the church’s organ. In those rainless days, I rested her on my lap. She was completely asleep during the mass but with music, with slight taps of the drums, she would wail, whoop, or her voice would intone a long vowel. I wish I knew how to play the piano well or at least how to sing. My throat is incapable of imitating the sound of clouds ripping apart.
It was during my daughter’s first visit after leaving for Nueva York that she brought the machine, the phone. She made me cut the landline. Putting the little machine on my ear, she made me hear the running water, the same sound I heard on the rainy days. Then, she put it in Rocío’s ears and she woke up. I clapped, thanking God.
As I was thinking of how to explain to Isidro what happened to my granddaughter, I stared at her shut eyes under the waterless shower. Her pores looked like deep dried wells across her cheeks. I had spread some lard on her lips, but I felt as if I had rubbed sand. Even her eyelashes deepened in the skin below the eyes. They were some kind of scars left from the weight of sleeping or from the lack of moisture, perhaps. I had dragged her to shower during the hours that we had water. I let the water run and her skin absorbed it in like the mashed potatoes soaked in milk.
“Isidro, you don’t know how her skin dries out.” I wished I had the language of the Indians that invoked the rain with flutes and rattles. Instead, I went to the priest, and I asked him to bring the skull of Santa Maria de la Cabeza from Madrid. “A procession of her head can charge the clouds and finish the drought.” He giggled and said, “Better use your own head and leave the Saint resting in Madrid.”
“Can I talk to your granddaughter? Maybe she can—”
“She doesn’t talk!” Instead she used to cluck when the rain was slapping the windows. One day, by the time she was already running, she placed buckets of different sizes with water in the back yard. As the first drops of rain fell, the plops sounded different in each bucket. The long and short plops became an overture for upcoming moody acting of the clouds. I remember her small hand interfering with the clang of the falling rain, rapid and small intervals that changed the monotony of the humming. Suddenly one day she ran across the back yard lifting the broomstick, plucking the steel clothes line as if it were a giant guitar under thunderstorms. Even her thick wild hair fluttered and a plink sound of a cascade wafted through the windows.
Afterwards, with the phone in her ears, Rocío was not the same. She kept dancing, but with this weird unblinking expression as if she had seen a ghost. She used to go to the yard where her naked feet had once run over the sprouts of green grass, but after the drought, I would find her confused, shoving sand with her hands. Was she looking for a well?
Praying for the rain one morning, I put the phone to her ear, and clapped near her face, but her eyes remained shut. I shook her body, but she never responded. Mute. Dry. Cooked, I guessed. I put the little plastic things in my ears, and it was silent. I saw the square that my daughter taught me how to tap. It had a little red image on it.
Days later, when my daughter called me from Nueva York, I explained to her that the phone was not working. It did not make the rain sound that Rocío liked. She gave me the number to call the company. I could not understand how this failed. My daughter did not know either. Maybe Rocío did something to the phone.
“No, she never has said a word, not even ma or pa like the little babies do. Isidro, can you hear me?” The phone went dead and my granddaughter’s limbs turned the color of ashes. It was God’s Will. I never heard from Isidro again. At least, his voice, the Saint Isidro voice, had given me some peace.
We put Rocío’s little tiny body in a coffin twice her height because her dried-leaf-like hair could not be folded. Doña Juana placed a glass of water underneath so the dead could drink it. I tossed it away and with tears in my eyes, I blurted out, “You don’t understand. My Rocío does not need a glass of water. She needs a whole storm to kill the silence.”
Every morning I look at the window and as the sun burns the leafless trees, I imagine a drizzle, little raindrops hitting the glass, forming those long tears. I try to recall the splatter, drip, drip, of one drop of rain after the other and ask myself, In this town, in this desert, what kind of music will be left, if any?
A native of Colombia, Jhon Sánchez immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum and is currently an attorney in New York. His publications in 2017 are available or forthcoming in Swamp Ape Review, Existere, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Newfound, and Caveat Lector. His work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015 and 2016 and The Best of the Net 2016. He was also awarded a residency in the Newnan Art Rez program for summer of 2017. He would like to thank Samuel Ferri, Nan Frydland, Martha Hughes and Adam Schleimer for their editorial comments.