Thursday, May 04, 2006

Esperanza (Short Fiction--Part One)


Our mother spotted the story, which the wire services had apparently picked up, on page four of the Cincinnati Post. She sat at the kitchen table, turning pages with the hand of the same arm that cradled two-month-old Johann, who sucked on a bottle. In the driveway Dad worked on his car.

After a pause, she called the three of us kids over--even Betsy, who was six--to hear the capsule article. Manuel Suárez had been born two days before at a hospital in Esperanza, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Esperanza was the Argentinean base where Manuel’s father and other scientists conducted research on weather patterns around the South Pole. “Argentina’s President delightedly announced plans to grant little Manuel a lifelong annual stipend of ten million pesos, in honor of his countryman’s achievement as the first person born on a continent.” Mother and baby were reportedly doing well.

Betsy objected: if Manuel was “the first person born on a continent,” what were the rest of us, then--frogs? Only later would she enjoy sidelining the facts for the sake of a whimsical notion.

Our mother didn’t respond. Gazing down at the paper, she said darn. Then darn it, like a needle poking through wool. She had just had her fourth child--an easy, uncomplicated labor--and had overriden her husband’s picks to bestow on this final baby the name of her favorite composer, Bach. Our mother was a romantic sort who lounged on her bed, during the last months of pregnancy, leafing through the travel spreads in magazines like Town and Country and National Geographic. Our father had promised her a cruise for their fifteenth anniversary, coming up in two years.

But an opportunity missed, like that! It was only on reading about Manuel that she felt cheated somehow. After all, who would even have considered giving birth in Antarctica--or that it hadn’t been done before? We kids were extra nice to her that first week; we did our chores without being asked, and kept our rooms clean.

I tried pointing out that the mother, Mrs. Julia Suárez, had been flown into Esperanza by special transport plane in her thirty-third week. Even a ten-year-old girl like me could see the macho recklessness, the collaboration involved in pulling off such a feat. These arguments failed to stir my mother. She looked at her baby, who was suddenly needy and plain.

It was Tim who saved the day. He was a wiry, athletic eleven-year-old with no apparent interest in infants, and so Tim’s suggestion, that we “adopt” Manuel, came completely out of left field. But our mother immediately seized on the idea, and that night began knitting the baby a sweater. The sweater, embellished with penguins on both sleeves, came out so well that she hated to part with it. Besides, it fit Johann perfectly.

Instead we bought Manuel a few trinkets, the kind of brightly-colored toys that stimulate the mind of a child. My mother packed these in a small box which she placed inside another box, along with a letter directing the consulate to forward the inner package to Manuel Suárez, the little boy in Esperanza. Every year she sent something, an article of clothing or a toy, accompanied by a simple letter in English, signed by each member of the family. These packages never came back to us. We saw this as an encouraging sign. The continued receipt of these gifts, indicating the implicit approval and, indeed, involvement of international authorities, effectively sharpened in our mother’s mind the reality of Manuel, and his tangible relationship to her, to us. Rather than monopolize him, she actively encouraged, even demanded, our engagement.

Each year we held a birthday party for him. Rather than invite friends or relatives we kept the festivities within the family, decorating the ceiling with balloons and streamers and ordering a sheetcake from the bakery. Betsy threw herself into the spirit of these parties, playing games like pin the tail on the donkey and hide-and-seek with her “pretend” playmate, Manuel--who, as we all knew, existed. I helped our mother serve the cake while Tim set up the folding wooden stage our father had constructed for the puppet show. Only Johann, once he’d reached the age of four or five, reacted to these celebrations with indifference, poking at his cake with a fork. His birthday fell two months before Manuel’s, and each year he had his own party and presents.

Our mother was never completely the same after Manuel’s birth. At times she seemed both weightless and solid, reading novels and baking pies. Her hands were blue-tinged and she wore sweaters straight through June. Still, Mom was colored with an energy and determination to unlock the mysteries of the planet. Rather quickly her love of music and other man-made art forms shifted to a curiosity toward ice formations and natural phenomena. She found human beings interesting in proportion to their success in grappling with the elements. She respected Amundsen, first man to reach the South Pole, and even felt a pitying admiration for Scott, who died trying. Her hero and rival was, of course, Mrs. Julia Suárez. The lost goal not a South Pole landing but Manuel.


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