Luisa the Unforgotten
by Julia Ballerini
Third Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017
Katie is seated cross legged on the floor in front of a long-lost, battered, military trunk that was recently delivered to her Manhattan apartment. She slides out a flat envelope: PERU PICTURES. Please, Oh God, please God let there be photographs of the maids, she murmurs. She knows it’s unlikely although it was they who cared for her, loved her, protected her throughout her first ten years of life. They were the ones who parented her. Yes, parented. Back then she wanted to be one-hundred percent of them, fully of them even while she knew she was not, never could be.
As she expected, not a single picture of a servant, not one, ninguno, nada, not even the politically incorrect colonial kind where The Help—as her mother referred to them as if they were some sort of prosthetic—are lined in a row, faces as grim as their starched uniforms, not even a maid in the background by accident. No snapshot of a niñera holding baby Katie. You’d expect at least that. Brown and black bodies always among them, but unexposed, unrevealed, secreted beyond the edges of the photographs.
One picture is of a little girl dressed in what she knows, even from this picture faded to a soft brown, was a vivid, striped native costume. The child sits astride a dusty burro amid lush tropical foliage. But the child is not a native. Katie was that child—or so her mother told her. An arm extends; the hand holds the halter of the burro, but the body to which it belongs has been cut away by the right edge of the picture. Only the arm and hand remain. Only what was necessary to hold still the donkey for the safety of the child and the success of the photograph. The missing body was probably that of a servant, a man, to judge from the rough fabric that sheathes the arm, perhaps the gardener. Most likely a half-breed descended from African slaves or from a Spaniard who lusted after a native housemaid. Identity compromised by birth and exploited by injustice. Invisible beyond the margins of the shot. What’s not in a photograph is often more important than what is.
A stack of photographs is of a house: stucco exterior, hallway, living room, dining room, bedrooms. Empty of all inhabitants. Like the scene of a crime, she thinks, spaces cordoned off from the living.
It’s their house in Peru. There’s her room with its little bed, her parents’ room, its big bed subjugated by its ponderous headboard, the sitting room without a comfortable place to sit, the dining room dominated by its huge polished table and six heavy chairs. She holds that picture close to the light, squinting. Yes, she can make out the legs of the table and chairs reflected on the gleaming tile floor. Luisa. She would have been reflected there.
Luisa was the housemaid in Lima. Katie wasn’t quite five when Luisa disappeared, vanished without even an adios. “Mommy, where’s Luisa? Where’s Luisa?”
Her timeworn memories are mostly of Luisa’s ample, enveloping body with its scent of cinnamon and Murphy’s soap and the sing-song rhythm of her soft voice—but two scenes return again and again with filmic vivacity. She sees a gleaming tile floor—any gleaming tile floor—and there’s Luisa on hands and knees waxing the deep, blood-red tiles in their dining room in Lima, squat body ribboned with sunshine streaming though slats of a window shade. Bands of light stroke the hair twisted away from her smooth, broad face. Heavy breasts sway with each stroke of polish. She teases her as her tiny footprints leave a trace.
“Mira! Mira! A little ghost has been here. Did you see the little ghost?”
“It’s me Luisa. Me! My feet. I’m the little ghost, soy una pequeña fantasma . . . whoooo, whoooo.”
It’s a scene now become so soft and threadbare, Katie wonders if it actually occurred or if she’s borrowed it from a book or a movie. Or is it totally fabricated out of a longing for such an instance of joy? So much of what happened back then she can’t remember, never could remember.
The other scene she knows is all too real, even if it too may be infused with memories of other events and readings and possibly movies.
For what it’s worth, this is the story she has:
Her father, Cesar, is driving Luisa home. She always took the jammed blue and yellow bus with chattering people hanging off the sides. She has no idea what prompted him to give Luisa a ride on that particular day—there must have been an ulterior motive. Even more unusual, he brings her along. He never takes her anywhere.
Katie is happy to be heading towards the hills; excited to get up close to the little houses of the pueblos jóvenes she sees from her bedroom window. Little toy houses, blues and pinks and yellows speckled against the hillside with tiny figures moving about, shapes shifting like in the kaleidoscope her Aunt Lola sent for Christmas. Cesar didn’t seem to notice. It’s only later that Katie connects the pueblos jóvenes with the gun he always carried.
Back then she asks Luisa, “Are the pueblos called jóvenes because there are a lot of kids there?”
“Oh, chiquita, there are many kids, but they are not called jóvenes because of the niños. It is because of the pueblos; they were not there until now when campesinos, like me, came to Lima.”
But this was before the car ride. No one speaks during that sweltering ride. Certainly not Luisa from the back seat. And certainly not Katie. Not a peep out of her when her father is around.
She sits propped up on a cushion in the front seat of Cesar’s brand-new car. She looks out over the broad hood so shiny and silvery she has to squint against the glare. They head towards the foothills, the far away ones she can see from her window. When they—that is to say Cesar, Katie, and her mother Gertrude—drive anywhere it’s never in that direction. Actually, the three of them hardly ever drive anywhere together. Family outings are not their thing. Family is not their thing.
As Cesar’s gleaming car winds up the rutted dirt road, its gleam diminished by the dust it raises, she sees the houses aren’t like toys even if they are very little. Then she sees they aren’t even real houses, just propped up junk—jagged pieces of wood, dirty cardboard, and chunks of rusty metal. Of what she saw from far away in her bedroom, only the patchwork of colors is the same, but dirtier.
They stop in front of one of the piled-up pieces of stuff. A bit of wood on the front is freshly painted a brilliant aquamarine blue. She recently learned the word “aquamarine.” The “marine” part reminds her of the navy for which she has already formed a dislike—Cesar being a commanding officer on a US submarine—but the “aqua” half is like the water word in Spanish and everything Spanish is good to her. The color itself is pretty. She loves bright colors.
“Qué linda color!” she exclaims to Luisa. Her mother always says something nice about a house when she is visiting (unlike after she leaves), so she figures it’s the thing to do. And it is a pretty color.
She jumps out of the car, following Luisa as always—daylong everywhere, every hour of her waking day.
Cesar roars, “Get back in the goddamn car! What the fuck are you doing?”
Half-naked children come zigzag running towards her. Scrawny chickens squawk out of their way. A dog barks. She sees Cesar draw his gun from the pocket of the car door. She’s scared, not of the kids or of the dog, but of Cesar. What’s he going to do? She wants to run, but her feet are weighted, too heavy to lift.
A little boy, a couple of years younger than Katie who just turned five, is naked. His penis waggles as he scampers towards her. She zeroes in on it. She’s never seen a penis before—at least not on a human being. More children scramble out of what she realizes is where Luisa lives, a home, if you could call it that. It looks even smaller than Katie’s bedroom. The floor is just dirt—the same dirt as outside, not shiny tiles like in her house.
Cesar is getting out of the car. Katie shocks into a run. She’s got to stop him. But even if he hadn’t been yelling and waving his gun, she needs to get back into the car, crouch down on the floor so the dusty children with almost no clothes can’t see her, can’t see the embroidered dress their mother had ironed, can’t see her white cotton socks and shiny black patent leather shoes. Minutes earlier, she’d been so proud of that outfit. Luisa too had been proud, turning her around, smoothing a crumple in the fabric. “Oh qué bonita! Mi linda princesita.” My beautiful little princess, Luisa had said. My princess, mine. She is Luisa’s little princess.
As Cesar lurches the car around towards the road, Katie wants to push the door open, leap out, rush into Luisa’s arms. The car swerves wildly as he accelerates; she can only look back. Luisa is standing in the dusty yard swarming with children, her hands pressed to her cheeks. “Ay, Dios mio!” she moans. “Dios mio!”
“What the fuck is wrong with you,” Cesar is shouting. It is then she realizes she’s crying.
“Where’s Luisa? Mommy, where’s Luisa? Why isn’t Luisa here?” she asked the next day and the day after and the one after that. “She won’t be coming to our house anymore,” was all Gertrude said. Luisa simply disappeared.
Or was disappeared. Disappeared by Cesar? Why? Because I was crying for her? What could I have done? I was a child.
On the sidewalk below a woman is speaking in Spanish. Softly. The words are indistinguishable, but the rhythm—the syllable-timed rhythm, vowels never condensed no matter how rapid the speech—is always recognizable. The muted murmur spreads, vibrates in Katie’s body, a deep tremor like the subway’s passing vibration deep beneath her building. In the far away distance another voice cries out in Spanish. “Mira! Mira!” Ghosts banished from photographs leave an impression.