20 The Scream
The kettle is about to boil, and the telephone rings. He dries his hands slowly and goes to answer it, expecting Mandy Navarrete’s fourth child. Christmas Day, a long silent day, will end now with a long unpleasant night. There was a time when deliveries excited him; during the gene-pool study he looked forward to those infant eyes, and setting up his camera and lights. But there is nothing to study now. Mandy Navarrete is all muscles and resistance, a woman who delivers in her own time. Her grandmother Concepcion Navarrete was his first-grade teacher. She was similarly muscular, and disapproved of his family.
He lifts the receiver slowly on the fourth or fifth ring. The voice speaks in hurried Spanish but he answers in English because he knows they can understand. He hasn’t spoken Spanish since the day he married Alice. “There is plenty of time,” he says. “I know this process. We don’t need to be in a panic.”
He hears silence, static, several different voices and questions and then the same voice again, emphatically repeating its word: Secuestrada. Kidnapped.
“Who is this?”
He listens. The voice is very distant and often breaks. It is a woman, a friend of his daughter. He tries to understand which daughter they mean. Secuestrada. Codi has been away for several days but this voice is saying “Hollie.” Someone is keeping her. She was in the field alone, with her horse, when they came to blow up the building where she has chemicals for the crop. He understands none of this and lets it sift past him like pollen, like his life. There are many more words in his life than he would like, most of the time.
Hollie, the woman insists, as if she is trying to wake him from sleep. Are you the father? El padre de Hollie Nolina? We are very much afraid.
We are very much afraid.
In the first grade she hit a boy and they kept her after school. The boy’s name was Simon Bolivar Jones. He was angry at her and had called her vicious names because she climbed to the top of the tall slide the wrong way, up the slide and not the steps, and stood up there and danced, shouting, her hands outstretched. No boy could do it.
“You should let her come home. She hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s being punished for an act of bravery.” He isn’t sure whether he has just spoken in Spanish or English.
S'i, the voice answers after a moment. Claro que s'i.
“Where is she?”
No estamos seguros. We think they must have taken her into Honduras, where they’re camped. A large patrol has gone to look for her. Thirty people, more than half of them from the village where she lives. There were more who wanted to go. Even an eight-year-old boy. Hallie has many friends.
Even an eight-year-old boy. Thirty people.
The words are so much fine dust suspended in the air before him, in the long, trapezoidal block of sunlight from the window. He examines the dust. He sees the word “Hallie.” It was Codi who stood up and danced on the slide.
“You should let her come home,” he says again. He can remember precisely the muscular line of Mrs. Navarrete’s disapproving jaw. “Let my daughter come home now.”
The voice rejects this statement, says nothing.
He touches the corner of his eye and is surprised to find moisture on his fingertips. He stares at an iron coal bucket beside the fireplace, trying to recall its history, how it came to him. He thinks, for no reason, that this iron coal bucket could save his life, if only he could remember. He remembers instead that he no longer delivers babies, the telephone call could not possibly be Mandy Navarrete. It is a woman from another country, who knows his daughter. He is trying hard not to look at the dust in the air but the sun has illuminated each particle so that it glows. Each word burns.
“Is there something I can do?” he asks finally. “I know she has friends in the Ministry of Agriculture. Do they know?”
“Everyone knows. Our Ministry of Agriculture, your Ministry of Agriculture.” There is a pause. “You understand that this occurs every day. We’re a nation of bereaved families. The only difference this time is that it happens to be an American. It happens to be Hallie.” The voice weakens again, and he waits, and it goes on. “We sent a telegram to your President and the NBC. We think if they are embarrassed enough by their contras, they could do something.”
If they are embarrassed enough.
“Wait. Let me take down the number where you are. So I can call you tomorrow.”
“I’m in the office of a church in Managua. Nobody here knows anything. You can call the Ministry of Agriculture if you want. Or your President. He is the responsible party.”
He understands that she is being as helpful as she can. She is a kind, tired voice. He doesn’t want her to hang up, because then his life will begin. There is a pause while she talks to someone else who is there with her, and then she returns to him and says, “I’m sorry.”
“Is there anything more? Besides waiting?”
“I’m sorry. There is nothing.”
Carefully he puts down the receiver and looks at the air in front of the window in this empty room. The dust. He listens inside himself for a long time before he understands that it’s the teakettle that is screaming.