Slowly, the crowd gets denser. Groups of women, their heads covered with white kerchiefs, join the tight masses that have already gathered in the Plaza. Few of them are good-looking. The rest, if they ever possessed it, lost their beauty to coal stoves, clouds of steam from their irons, cold water and waiting, interminable waiting. Violet paths criss-cross some of the stumpy legs encased in thick elastic stockings, grey hair swept into lumpy buns creeps from under the kerchiefs and they blow it away from their eyes.
They stand body to body, October sun grilling them unmercifully, then shuffle their feet leaving imprints in the half-liquid pavement. A chant floats through the crowd, quiet at first, barely a ripple, then gathering speed and volume it climbs to a keening scream. They can see the car now, a black monster with smoky glass, armoured like a desert armadillo. The driver manoeuvres expertly, never stopping.
An ocean of placards sails up, each with a grainy picture and words painted in black: Where are they?
Behind the dark screens of the car the women outside sense rather than see movement. They want their words to penetrate the steel sheets of the car.
“Where are they? Where are our children?”
“Did you see him? Did you?” a woman with chipped fingernails and parched skin asks.
They shake their head, no, they didn’t.
The car is gone now, it sneaked into the Casa Rosada, the cheerfully painted Government building but it will be back. Not yet, not until tomorrow but it will. And so will they. Day after day, the women trudge on foot to the Plaza and wait. The man dressed in a gaudy uniform, protected by the glass-and-steel sanctuary of the vehicle, cannot be seen but he can see them and that’s what matters. They will come again: tomorrow, the day after, next month until they get an answer. Where are their children?
Gradually, the Plaza empties. The women return to their pots and dry gardens.
A slim woman with a wrinkle-sculpted forehead turns around.
“I thought I’d never find you!” The woman is fighting for breath. She’s not yet forty but years of waiting have extinguished her inner zest.
“I have news for you. Good news.”
Adela’s wrinkles deepen.
“Yes, they found her! They finally found her!” The words are tainted with envy.
“They” means the National Assembly of Mothers from Plaza de Mayo, a voluntary organisation helping Argentinean women find their loved ones who vanished during the military regime.
“Is she well?” Adela asks.
But how stupid! All those years and that is the only thing she can ask!
“Is she well?” As if Ana were returning from vacation in the sun soaked Bariloche.
“Yes, her parents…” The woman stops.
“Go on, Mimi. I knew that if we ever found her, there would be other parents. Veronica is dead. Carlos too, but Ana…She was so pretty someone was sure to take her.”
“They live in San Telmo, in a grand house. The father’s a banker. I guess they’ve taken good care of your Ana. How old is she? Ten? Eleven?”
“She’ll be ten in December”. Veronica called her an early Christmas present with the baby coming just a day before.
Adela remembers Veronica’s return from the hospital. A wailing bundle with a puffy face, slit-like eyes, porcine nose and black fuzz on the pear-shaped head. She had never seen an uglier baby but was too much a mother herself to mention it to Veronica. Thank God for small favours because Ana developed into a beauty. The slits opened and two green lakes peeped out. A bud, because one couldn’t call the small thing a mouth, formed a tiny O and her colour changed to a healthy bronze. The fuzz had fallen out too and was replaced by a black and shiny helmet. A Kodak baby, everyone said as they drooled over the girl, smacked their lips and she responded with happy gurgles.
A year later Veronica and her husband Carlos were taken away by soldiers. Ana disappeared too. After five years of knocking on doors and often having them slammed in her face, she found them in the second patio of the la Chacarita Cemetery in Buenos Aires. A common grave that became home for more than a hundred.
Never overly religious apart from the occasional mass and a quick prayer she ran all the way begging.
“God, I know Veronica is dead, I feel it but please, not her, not Ana. Let her live, no matter where. If she does, I will not look for her anymore.”
She scanned the list on the concrete slab covering the pit.
Rafaelli, Andres, 23
Raul, Stefania, 41
Recabarren, Augusto, 50
Her heart was beating crazily like a jungle tom-tom.
Renard, Carlos, 25
Renard, Veronica, 21
She couldn’t go on, dreading to find Ana’s name under that of her mother.
The drum calmed and her heart returned to a normal beat. She felt ashamed, her daughter was dead, buried among other bodies and she was grateful Ana was alive.
And she decided to ignore her promise to God. A slow but constant search for her granddaughter began. Again she spent hours trying to cut through miles of bureaucratic red tape, again false assurances were flung at her like scraps thrown to a dog.
She made the placard herself, painted white a piece of cardboard, glued Ana’s photo to it and attached an old broomstick. Day in day out, for three years now, she has joined other mothers in Plaza de Mayo.
And now that Ana’s been found all she can ask is “Is she well?”
They set off to San Telmo immediately, a neighbourhood where gardeners sweep fuchsia flowers the moment they fall on impeccable lawns. They find the house, nearly opposite the market, on Defensa Street.
Mimi was right. It’s grand, late colonial without superfluous ornaments or giddy turrets that often mark the mansions of the newly rich. This house smells of old money, money invested in Swiss banks, money wrenched from the fertile pampas and sweated out by gauchos, the Argentinean cowboys. It’s Anna’s house now.
A car pulls up. Two legs in silk tights step out. Then the rest of the body: a woman in a beige suit cut tight around the waist. She’s young, her black hair pulled back severely and fastened with shiny combs. Her heels click on the pavement.
“Wait here,” Adela orders and breaks into a trot. She can’t lose the woman now.
“Senora!” she shouts.
The woman makes a half-spin. Her face is dark but it’s not the inherited darkness that marks people born in poverty. Hers is a tan achieved artificially from hours spent under an ultraviolet lamp or on the Necochea beaches o even in Punta del Este.
“Yes?” she is impatient, a million things to do, lunch at one, a sauna session, shopping.
“I think you have something that belongs to me.”
The woman flicks her hand angrily. A big diamond the size of a swollen lima bean catches light and glows coldly.
“You are sure you have the right person?”
“What is it, then?” she says testily.
The tip of the woman’s nose pales.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ana, my daughter’s baby. You know where she is.”
Adela realises she is still holding the placard. She thrusts it forward.
The woman’s hands flutter like sparrows then land quietly alongside her body.
“You’d better come in.”
They enter. Once inside, surrounded by the familiar elegance of her home, the woman regains her confidence. She leads the way to a large sitting room. Furniture arranged in unstudied clusters. Damasks and cottons, silver and brass. Mahogany nests of tables and leather armchairs. A hand of a clever designer clearly visible.
She sits down and motions to Adela to take a seat opposite her.
“What do you want?”
“I want my granddaughter.”
The woman slings one leg across the other and gently taps her knee with her fingers.
“She is Renata and she’s my daughter now.”
Bile surges up from Adela’s stomach. They took away everything, even her name.
“Does she know?”
“There was no need.”
“But you’ll have to tell her now.”
“Why don’t you tell her yourself?”
“Why not? Hello, Ana. I’m your granny, pack up and we will walk – I hope you don’t mind walking – to my house in, sorry, what’s the shanty called?”
Adela’s gaze creeps to the carpet where bright reds mingle with indigo and black.
“What’s your name?” the woman asks not unkindly.
“I’m Patricia. Was Renata…Was Ana your daughter’s child?”
Adela nods. There is a soft tick tack of a clock in the room. Or it might be her heart knocking against her chest.
“It was easy to adopt in the seventies, the orphanages were full. They called and said: take your pick. There were hundreds of babies, some still in cots. A supermarket of babies, you choose the goods, pay, no questions asked or answered. But I couldn’t make up my mind. Not that I didn’t like any of them but somehow I knew they were not for me. One day, it was in November I think, we went again.”
“And I saw her. She was sitting on the floor, rocking and playing with wooden bricks. Banging them. Three taps and a pause, three taps and a pause again. It didn’t take me ten seconds to feel she had to be mine and when she looked up… I fell in love at once. We took her home the same day. My husband wanted to call her Renata, after his late mother. We gave her everything, not only money. Now she is a normal girl with normal interests. One day she’ll go to university. She wants to be an economist like her father.”
Adela smiles. Her father was a construction worker, she wants to say.
A smooth hand reaches for Adela’s wrinkled one. She can feel the chilly pressure of gold, see the icy shine of the diamond. For no reason she remembers Andresen’s story of the Snow Queen she used to read to Veronica. The Queen’s touch or even her gaze could turn any human being to ice in a matter of seconds. She feels that hear heart and her hand is turning into a little square of ice right now.
“I want the best for her,” Patricia says.
“Do you want to take it away from her now that she’s happy?”
“Take everything from her or from you?” Adela thinks.
On the wall hangs a portrait of a girl. She looks confident and strangely resembles Patricia. The same self-possessed features, prominent cheekbones. But there are traces of Veronica, too. And of Carlos. The hair, especially the hair, black and parted in the middle.
“What can you give her?”
Patricia laughs but there is no mirth in it.
All of a sudden, she looks at the door. A young girl comes in. She stops, looks at Adela then shifts her gaze to her mother. Yes, her mother.
“I didn’t know you had a guest,” she says politely.
Patricia stands up, uncertain.
Adela’s heart speeds up the beat. No, after all it was not a clock that tick-tacked so wildly.
She stands up, tries to steady her step, moves forward then stops. Words flock to her mouth but fail to leave. Seconds pass.
“I was just going,” she finally manages to say.
Her voice breaks, she gulps air, chokes on it, clears her throat. She nods to Renata, to Patricia. Grateful eyes stare at her in a silent thank you, the first indication that behind the glittery facade there is a human being.
Take care of her, is the equally silent answer.
Adela walks to the door.
“Wait!” The girl is behind her.
“You forgot something.” She hands her the placard, their hands brush briefly before the girl pulls away and runs back to the room. The ice cold that she had felt at Patricia’s touch suddenly gone.
From across the street Mimi waves.
“Well? Speak up, woman!”
Adela’s hand rises to her throat and presses lightly as if trying to help non-existent words take form.
“Did you see her? Did you see your Ana?”
Blood rushes back from Adela’s face, down her body.
“What? Ana? No, it’s not Ana.”
The eager sparks in Mimi’s eyes fade. She puts her arm under Adela’s and leads her away.
From the second floor-window Patricia looks down. For the last time, their eyes lock - the eyes of a Mother from Plaza de Mayo. The eyes of a Mother from San Telmo.
Author Notes: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1028142
You can read more of my stories free of charge in Smashwors - link above