It is better to look after a thousand goats than one curious girl.-Tican Proverb
My name is Pluma de la Oso and I am almost seventeen years old. I was born under the sign of the mermaid on the coldest day ever recorded in Tica. Tonight is a big night in our family. We are hosting a dinner for El Diego, our leader and unofficial king, at our house. My maid, Neptuna, reminds me that I have less than a year before marriage as she washes my hair and rubs an herbal paste on my round face. Mother makes her do my two sisters and my hair before functions so the photographers can capture us at our best. Ticans obsess over marriage, social standing and our dual religions: one from the Vatican and the other from the sea.
I want to go to college and leave the island. Imagining the scandal as Neptuna puts my indigo hair in rollers makes my green eyes bulge at the delight of starting my own life. Neptuna scolds me for making my eyes even bigger and I resume my thoughts. Nothing too bohemian, I want to live for something else besides picking the next house as my new prison. My ancestral house is on two hundred and thirty-four acres with purple ivy that covers it all the way down from the fourth floor. Papo, my father, is president of the sugarcane association. Mother wants me to be a political wife, maybe even the future 86th Noor. Our leader can take two wives and we call theme Noor, which means light. Neptuna scolds me to sit still as the rollers singe my scalp.
I am looking forward to smelling El Diego’s wife, Noor Florianna. What not even my own family knows is that I can inhale emotions. Anger smells of iron, love is a rose, sickness a wet dog, and sadness has the most beautiful fragrance, like fresh grass mixed with honey. Mother suffers tremendous allergies, so I am not questioned about my sniffs. Sometimes I wonder if Mother can smell as well I do. We both have green eyes bordered by heavy curtains of navy lashes that soften their size. Both of us share the same rounded faces, small red lips, and hourglass figures. Looking at her is like looking in the mirror. She has two inches of height on me, but I am thinner by three pounds. I know this because Mother has been with her seamstress all day lamenting her weight.
One of our guests of honor, Noor Florianna, is a powerful woman; she does not walk in the streets, yet is in every newspaper and tabloid. I imagine her scent to be of lavender candies or an exotic dessert. Mother enthuses, after tonight, she will have her pick of suitors for me. I do not know how to tell her I would be happiest living in a little room and writing for the rest of my life. She would not even consider it and might even deadbolt the library. There are certain expectations of me and I feel trapped by each one. Earnest Hemingway says to write one true sentence a day and the only rebellion I have for certain is the truth. Today my truth is sometimes your life is not your own. Mother requests we meet in her closet for a private chat. I enter and she ignites a candle for the miniature Saint Rocco stature, which lives next to her shoes. When I was a child, the statue frightened me. Its eyes seemed to follow my every move. Mother checks my appearance.
“You are to make polite small talk if our visitors address you, otherwise just smile. Do not touch your nose for any reason and make sure your sisters are behaving. I expect big things Pluma. This is a chance for use to move into the political circles.”
Mother cringes and ties my bow a bit tighter than necessary.
Before the dinner hour, El Diego’s motorcade pulls inside our gate. Please let me be perfect for him I implore Saint Rocco, adjusting the flowers sewn into my hair as I watch from the upstairs window. In a swift, fluid movement, his long legs emerge from the stretched car, then he stands to his full seven feet. His green eyes flash as the evening sun hits his face. Noor Florianna comes out next. I count ten pleats on her purple dress and marvel at the height of her bun. My nostrils flare in anticipation.
I fly down the stairs to take my position in the main entrance hall. Mother shoots me an annoyed glance for not setting the best examples for my sister. Papo opens the door and moves a strand of ivy out of the way, my two little sisters and I curtsy, then present Noor Florianna with orchids, the same as those in our hair, and they match her dress as we’ve planned. My hand brushes hers just enough to pick up her essence, but not arouse suspicion.
El Diego shakes our hands and pulls a flower from behind Clarka’s ear much to her delight. The youngest, Ine, has a coin pulled from behind her curls. He pauses before me.
“Ah, yes, Pluma. How are you? Your father tells me you are quite the writer.”
“Yes, I do like to write and read. I’ve discovered an Icelandic writer…”
“Good, good,” he interrupts. “We need a real writer on the island. Too many critics here with nothing to do besides stare at the Omakis.”
Papo guides our leader to the grand dining room. I had our leader’s attention for less than a minute. I press my lips together and remind myself I have the Noor’s scent on my hand for later. Neptuna summons me to the kitchen where we eat a miniature version of the adult’s feast: braised goat in pickled bloodberry sauce and the traditional five side dishes. Ine and Clarka try convince Neptuna that El Diego is magical. They hold up the torca and flower as proof that he can conjure objects out of thin air. I assert he is more magical than Papa Christmas. Near bedtime, Neptuna leaves me in the kitchen as she prepares my sisters for bed. I assume my favorite vantage point by the staircase, to see how the visit is going. In Tica, it is good luck to house a chinchilla under the main staircase of the home. The creature is a convenient excuse to blame any noise that could lead to talk. I make sure to feed it plenty of sugar when no one is looking so that it likes me.
They are discussing the Omakis. Most Ticans will only discuss these outsiders after a few drinks. From the smell of the room, the champagne is overflowing. Father and El Diego discuss their business dealings with the foreigners. I know we have to allow some outside business in, but these men and their families are a threat. Although everybody loves El Diego, another wave of sickness would be on his back for having allowed the visitors. During his weekly radio address, he asks the people to tolerate them as a way of creating prosperity. Our leader echoes this sentiment tonight, but the table still laughs at their sunburns, which never seem to go away. Mother says it should be the charitable thing to do to teach them how to make sun cream, then she bursts into laughter. Noor implies after our coffers overflow, we will return them to their homelands, “Tica for the Ticans” they toast.
Mother and The Noor venture to the library making me run to catch them in the next room. As they were both Art History majors at Graciella University a few years apart, Mother is eager to show off our pieces for official approval. The kings of the family collection include a Dali, a Picasso and a Rodin.
“Oh darling, you have a sketch of Gala, how impressive,” Noor fawns.
“Not as impressive, I’m afraid, as a wax vow from a real Pope,” Mother replies as hints of envy-iron tickle my nose.
Followers of Saint Rocco make wax molds of the parts of their body that the saint has cured, parading them through the streets on his feast day. To have one from a pope must be lucky.
“Thank you. That one is staying with me when we retire. I do wish people appreciated creativity here and did not think of it as another shade of stupid or lunacy,” Noor says.
“Oh, I agree. I hear the mural of Los Diegos is beginning. Your husband must talk about it every night.”
“Well, I am paying for it myself. We want to bring get the people more involved with art. I am making it my new effort.”
They continue talking about art and lament the lack of local talent. Most Tican artwork is kitschy with subject matters such as fishermen, goat herds and occasional mermaids. I want to jump out and show her my journal. Rumor has it that a writer arrived from another country to be the honorary writer, but I would love to do it.
The men call the women back for a nightcap, and I leave my post for bed. I am eager to smell Noor Florianna on my hand. My sisters, with their petals strewn about the floor, are sleeping in my bed. They must have snuck in after pretending to be asleep for Neptuna. I push them over a bit and kneel at my bedside to thank Saint Rocco for the best night and ask for people to read my writing all over the world one day. My fingers perch under my nose as I inhale then exhale her essence. She smells of beer. Breathing again with my thumbs up, I have the strongest flash of my knowing yet. Beer is from the conditioning treatment she does every night. She is afraid of losing her hair’s luster, the pride of her youth. I see her doing this in a deep black marble bathtub, pouring the amber liquid over her head while immersed in white suds. She is afraid of aging-lavender-and longs to be attractive for her husband so he will not take another wife. El Diego strolls in, removing his tie, and sits on the ledge of the tub. He talks about a foreign writer invited to the island for official purposes. She smiles for him and prays for an heir-sweet grass. They are completely devoted to each other, but they cannot produce an heir and she feels her status is in jeopardy.
I sense the Noor’s disappointment. She and her husband were not real to me until tonight. In hindsight, I had heard whispers in the street that Noor not being the best wife and her ankles were on the medium side, but I dismissed it for jealousy. Now that I know she is awaiting a pregnancy that may not come, I feel for the first time I have invaded someone’s privacy. If she cannot produce the next Diego, how can their line survive? From downstairs I smell something curious, cigarette smoke, and leave the bed. Our company went home an hour ago. Tiptoeing down the stairs, I station myself outside the kitchen. Neptuna is gathering and washing the dishes.
I watch her fill up the sink twice. She works over the silverware with vigor. A cough incubates in my throat from all the cigarette smoke and I step out ready to request juice, but pull my foot back into the shadows. Neptuna purses her lips out and she kisses the four dessertspoons. She serenades them chanting “Happiness/Good luck/Praise”. I look away to ease the burn in my stomach. When I look again, she takes out a metal container from underneath the sink and drops dessertspoons inside. Despite the volcanic activity in my stomach, I concentrate enough to see her take a wooden bowl and mix honey, sugar, leftover champagne into a gelatinous pile. Then she is quiet. A trickle of sweat oozes down my back and leg to my ankle before she cries out “Osiria, Osiria” holding the bowl underneath her mouth. I behold her releasing drops of her own saliva into the container and a sea of acrid liquid rushes up to my throat threatening to out me. Father Infanta does not spit in church, and I know from the countless retelling of an anti- gypsy story that spitting has deep meaning. I just cannot think right now.
Neptuna straightens up from her crouch and seals in her mixture. What is she doing? Why the spitting? I know she is performing a spell. Denalis have a separate religion from Guerros. Sometimes I see in the marketplace Virgin Marys with offerings of watermelons and fish tantalizing the stray dogs. That religion is not allowed in our house, but I cannot tell Mother. Neptuna’s mother was my grandmother’s maid. I need to walk away and think about what is happening. I need a moment, but I cannot look away now. She lays the box on the counter and washes her hands. My throat constricts when she picks up the box and walks out to the garden. I hesitate, but run to the largest sculpture for cover.
Under our mahogany tree that looks like a headless man with broken limbs, Neptuna digs a small hole. A stray dog comes from nowhere looking for scraps. Cursing the animal, she dismisses it with her foot. I insert a finger into my mouth to steady my breathing. Inhale, exhale, and inhale as the new smell arrives. Charcoal. Neptuna stands still and looks in my direction. She knows I am here and is going to scold me for being out in the night air. Inching up higher, I stand on the balls of my bare feet when another sound besides my breathing presents itself. It is low at first, I sniff again and the charcoal undercurrent intensifies, Neptuna gathers something in her throat. With each heaping shovel of dirt, Neptuna spits. The stray dog comes back again. Neptuna takes off her shoe and pops it on its backside.
Please Saint Rocco, I pray, let my maid not wish death upon us.
“Do you think I will have a beautiful diecisiete?” I ask Neptuna days later. I see her in my mind’s eye with the shovel.
“Keep your eyes on the streets. Heaven forbid one of these chingotos tries to put his dirty hand up your skirt,” Neptuna responds her skin heavy with charcoal.
A man with goats tied to his stall shoves a grapefruit in my face. My eyes cross with the stench of his fingers-goats and marshmallows the tang of business. Neptuna throws down his grapefruit and shouts at him to leave me alone. We run off before he can recover. My sisters and I call her hands the washerwoman hands of death given the might of each finger, so I can only imagine how painful her sneak attack was. I look back at the man and his face reddens with anger. His fist shakes in the air and I ask Neptuna if we can get an ice cream underneath the statue of Saint Rocco when we catch our breath ten rows over. Her feet shuffle towards the column. Glancing over my shoulder, I see umbrella merchants open and close their enormous straw marvels for the sunburnt Omakis. I sniff to assess any danger, but there is only cooking meats in the air. Neptuna sanitizes our hands with a small vial of vinegar she carries around before we eat our bloodberry cones. We settle in the shade of the pillared statue ignoring the congregation of dogs.
Rising so high in the air, I could smell the purity of everything is a bronzed dog with a loaf of bread in its mouth and a holy man with an open sore on his thigh. The man overlooking the island is Saint Rocco, patron saint of the plague and the dog memorializes the one who brought him bread during his excommunication. In honor of this, we allow strays to live here. The statue erected a year after I was born to honor Tica’s salvation from sickness that terrorized the island for two straight years. No one knows how it came to the island, but Omakis were not able to return until last year.
“Neptuna, you hit that street vendor.”
“Yes,” she says.
“You can’t go around hitting people.”
“Your mother does not want any man to come close to you at all before the party.”
“There will be no questions about your honor.”
I look in the direction of the vendor and continue eating my ice cream in acquiescence. A stray comes over who is pregnant and I give it the rest of my cone. Neptuna slants her eyes, but says nothing. We walk home to practice for my party.
“Now, dear, how was school?” Mother asks when we arrive.
I hide my lips. Mother begins the questions drill. Ticans love to interrogate children about their home lives in a series of rapid fire questions.
“How are your parents Miss de la Osa?”
“Senora, my parents are excellent and are always looking forward to your next visit.”
“Where are your parents going for their next vacation?”
“Senora, they are keeping it a surprise for the family.”
“How is your father’s business?”
“Senora, my parents do not talk to me of such things, but I can only hope we are doing well.”
“Pluma, do you have your monthlies yet?”
“Senora that is an impolite question that I will only answer to my mother.”
“Little girl, where is your father tonight?’
“Senora, if he is not working he is with my mother.”
“How was your family’s visit with El Diego?”
“It was a tremendous honor.”
I pause at this point and Mother faces me. I pause at this point and Mother smiles, with her mouth only, and not with her eyes. Here comes the threat that ends every lesson.
“Remember your sisters’ reputations rely on yours. Choose your words and actions with care so that the island welcomes the girls in their homes. I will not tolerate any rebellion from you. As much as you think it will set you apart, it will only make your sisters outcasts.”
Sometimes my mother is such a chingota. Papo walks through the door, all the training stops. His cigar scent is liberating.
“How was school and your day?”
“It was fine Papo, thank you for asking.”
Papo excuses me as Mother begins to entertain him. I run upstairs to my favorite part of the day: private time in my room to read. For the thirty minutes before dinner, no one watches me. Rikur Bondi is waiting for me on my bedside, earmarked and ready to begin where we left off.
Haldor was certain that the bad luck following him had taken on a physical form.
I have been able to push Neptuna’s midnight adventure out of head for most part, but now it was confronting me on the page. Why would she hit a man? There are certain Guerros that would have no problem making a Denali disappear not even caring for who she worked. I have never seen her hit a living creature besides the stray in the garden. It was shocking then, but a man is out of the realm of possibility. Her skin carries the scent of charcoal, but I am not sure what that means. I root under my bed for my scents journal. It helps me decode smells. For the most part, I have inhaled every scent, but new ones do pop up now and again. I cannot remember anything from the plague, but my journal helps me decode the world around me.
I open to the last few pages and review some recent findings. A scent is distinctive, but related to something else. A grapefruit and a bloodberry have different scents, yet they both categorize as fruity. This is someone is about to hear some unexpected news. I recognize good news as grapefruit, bad news as bloodberry. Sulfur could be like charcoal, but rotten egg smell is desperation. Reaching the center of my face, I yank my nostrils up and down. Nothing. Neptuna spends the least amount of time in my room. I try not to have anyone in here so it just smells of me. I take comfort in tomorrow being Saturday. Mother goes into the store to redress the mannequins while Neptuna allows my sisters to play in the yard which lets me sit in the library to look at maps and read for a few hours. Then we leave for a late lunch at the club to hear gossip and pretend that it is not about us.
“I heard the family ordered fifteen white doves for when the oldest de la Osa girl walks down the stairs,” says a particularly plump housewife in a red polka dot dress.
“No, no I am certain it is pheasants,” retorts the laundry owner’s wife.
“Or peacocks” argues a bored newlywed picking at her homemade manicure.
“Yes, seventeen white peacocks to parade around the city during the party” chimes the storeowner’s wife, wanting to have the final word.
We walk to our table in the back and I look up at the ceiling to practice describing setting. A gilded former monastery teetering on a cliff where over privileged Guerros spend their Saturday afternoons trying to take over the island. Their heavy pleated dresses reflected in the silver damask wallpaper and the walls of windows that look down at the moody sea. My favorite part is the epic fresco of a 1920s party with flappers and men in tuxedos looking down on the crowd. A mermaid is in the center holding court over laughing women is backless dresses dancing with stoic men. On the farthest left hand corner is my great-great-great grandfather standing over his Denali men in the sugarcane fields. I nod hello at him, pretending he is happy to see us again.
Mother interrupts me, taking my hand and steering me in a new direction.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Don’t be difficult,” she says.
We stop at a table with the largest boy I have ever seen in Tica.
“Mrs. de la Oso, charmed to see you. This is my son Rudolpho Gritos.”
Mother kisses them each four times. She turns to me and I do the same while trying to hold my breath.
“Rudolpho, this is Pluma. She is turning seventeen next month. Maybe you can be in her court,” Mother chirps.
“Delighted,” I recite.
A few minutes of small talk pass as Rudolpho looks me up and down. I am trained to smile and look at him as friendly as possible. I inhale his musk. This boy is my first suitor. He winks at me. I take a step back and Mother takes notice.
“Well, we are all hungry so we shall see you again. Good health.”
We walk to the table with Mother’s vein dancing in her forehead.
“You should have not acknowledged his wink,” Mother hisses as we sit.
“You should have acknowledged his weight,” I say.
“He is still growing.”
“He is growing sideways, Mother. You are lucky Ine wasn’t here or she would have asked him why he was so big.”
“You have to grow up Pluma. Not every suitor is towards your liking.”
“They just have to be to yours.”
“I have spent today organizing who you are considering. Some of these choices are political.”
“Why do I even have to get married? If you make me date anyone I don’t want to, I’ll leave the island and go to university elsewhere.”
“If you leave, your father will disinherit you and your sisters will date Denalis. You stand there, look pretty, and pretend you don’t have a thought in your head.”
“But I do have thoughts. Many. And they all involve leaving.”
“You will never leave and in the middle of the club is not the place to discuss this.”
“It is never the place to discuss anything.”
Mrs. Gritos waltzes over to us and kisses me again.
“So beautiful. I am glad my son has caught your eye. He is smart.”
“Thank you Mrs. Gritos. I look forward to it.”