by Richie Narvaez
In Puerto Rico that summer, red from the sun and so bored his ankles itched, Fever saw the boys playing softball. He saw them from his aunt’s front porch, picked up the bat his uncle had given him and ran across the street. He was twelve, thin, and had a boxy head.
The players were around his age, dark haired and bronzed. Fever stood off to one side and did practice swings with the bat.
He went up to one of the boys and, in English, asked the boy’s name.
The boy looked him up and down and said, in a thick accent, “Janqui go home.”
“I’m not a Yankee,” Fever said. “I’m a Met.”
The boys ignored him and continue to play their game. After a time, he went back across the street to his aunt’s house. His little brother slept and his sister watched cartoons in Spanish on TV. He tried to watch, too, but they didn’t show any of the shows he watched back in Brooklyn and, if they did, he wouldn’t understand anything they were saying anyway. He got a soda from the fridge and went back to the porch to watch the ball game again. He scratched his left ankle with his right foot.
The next day, the field was empty. He wore an orange t-shirt and blue shorts. None of the local boys were there, and the sun blazed overhead, cooking the dusty soil and the dry grass. Fever collected a pile of rocks and placed them on the ground at home plate. He picked up one rock, tossed it in the air, and then smacked it into the outfield. He picked up another and did the same thing.
His little brother had followed him and stood nearby.
Fever said, “Stop standing so close. I don’t want to hit you.”
“You won’t hit me.” The younger boy, whose name was Edgar but who everyone called “Eggy,” was short and skinny and had a boxy head.
“You better move back.”
“You won’t hit me.”
On the next swing Fever connected with a rock and he imagined it sailing in slow motion past the pitcher’s mound, past second base, over the fence, into the skies, hitting God on the back of the head. The crowd roars! But at the same time—also in slow motion—he turned to see his baby brother falling to the ground cradling his face.
“Oh shit,” Fever said, “oh shit, oh shit.”
Fever saw no blood or smacked-out eyeballs on the ground. Eggy looked more shocked than hurt. He was curled in a fetal position, holding his face.
“Ohhh shit,” both brothers said.
They both knew what this would mean if their mother found out.
Eggy sniffled and said, “I think I can hide it.”
“But it’s going to get swollen,” said Fever.
“I’ll hide it till it goes away.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I did it before.”
They walked back to their aunt’s house. Their mother sat with their Titi Evelyn and Tio Angel Luis and the cousin the kids called the Skipper because he wore a sailor’s hat like the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island and because they couldn’t pronounce his real name. The adults drank and smoked in the patio, which had originally been a driveway. There was furniture and a bar and a refrigerator.
Eggy walked around the adults—keeping his right side facing them. He said, “I’m tired. I’m going to take a nap.”
Fever, holding his bat, walked back and forth in front of the bar. He was sweaty and flushed. He kept swinging the bat.
The mother put a cigarette down and turned to him. “What’s wrong?”
Fever said, “Nothing.”
She got up and ran inside.
Titi Evelyn asked him, “¿Tienes hambre?”
He understood that, and yes, he was hungry, he was always hungry. But instead of answering her he opened the screen door and followed his mother into the house, which was thick with heat.
He ran into his older cousin Beatriz. Her skin was copper, her hair white blonde. She wore the shortest shorts he had ever seen in real life.
“Rafael,” she said to him. “You want to play some cards?”
“Hi,” Fever said back. “Oh, yeah. Yeah, we could play cards. In a minute.”
“What do you mean, ‘In a minute?’” was all Beatriz said before he whizzed past her.
In the bedroom, he saw his brother lying on his side on a cot. Eggy was hiding the left side of his face on the pillow. Their mother sat down on the cot and asked Eggy what was wrong.
She put her hands on his face and slowly turned his head. “Oh my god!” She turned around to Fever. “Why did you hit him?!”
“It was an accident!” Fever said.
“Mami,” said Eggy. “It was an accident. I was standing too close.”
She told Fever to get a paper towel and some ice.
He ran to the kitchen and when he came back, his mother was brushing his brother’s hair with her hand.
She put the paper towel with ice on his face. She said, “You try to hide from me. But I catch you.”
While she held the towel to the younger boy’s face, Fever wished it were him who had been hit and was lying there. Their mom asked Eggy if he was hungry.
“When’s Popi coming?”
“Soon, Eggy. Soon.”
She went into the kitchen and made them both sandwiches of salami and cheese on buttered bread. The boys sat on their cots and ate in silence. Fever wolfed down his sandwich and wanted another. He could see the area around Eggy’s face getting red and swollen, but it didn’t look like the eye was going to start bleeding or ooze out.
Fever went to look for Beatriz but Titi Evelyn said she’d gone to see some of her friends. This made him angry at first. He wasn’t sure why. It was just cards. He could play with his sister Evie if he wanted to. What was the big deal?
He went back to the front porch. Like many of the houses in P.R. it was enclosed in a metal gate. There was still no one in the park. He sat on the porch for as long as he could before getting up and marching across and hitting rocks into the air again.
Ever since their father had taken her (and just her) to see Charlotte’s Web on her tenth birthday, Evie loved pigs. They had had to leave early because of Papi’s business but that was okay. So she was excited when their mother announced they would be going to see pigs.
She had never seen a farm animal before. She had been to the Bronx Zoo on school trips and had seen penguins and bears and a monkey with his thing out. But a genuine live pig, that she had never seen.
It was already hot when they left early in the morning. Her brothers slept in the car, but Evie was wide awake. Finally, her aunt pulled over to a dusty farm. A series of low buildings made of corrugated metal were set against a hill. The sun glared off the buildings, but she could see, in the shade under the metal, big, pink things moving around in wooden pens.
“What is that smell?” her little brother Fever said.
Her baby brother Eggy said, “It smells bad.” Part of the left side of face was still swollen.
Their mother told them they could look around. “Don’t get lost,” she said.
“Is this where the pigs are?” Evie said. “I can’t see them.”
They walked under the metal roof, toward the pens. The things moving in there looked impossibly large.
“Oh my god,” she said, seeing how gigantic they were, bigger than their plastic-covered couch back in Brooklyn. They were pink but not a cute pink. They were spotted, bristly. Ugly.
“Can we touch them? Can we touch them? Can we touch them?” Eggy seemed ready to pee himself.
Evie looked around for her mother, but her mother was with their aunt, talking to a thin, dark man with a big mustache. They were laughing.
“Yes, you can touch,” she told her brothers, “but don’t get too close.”
“They feel cool.”
“They feel rough.”
“I wish we could ride them,” said Eggy.
“You don’t ride pigs,” said Evie, who soon found the pig she thought was as beautiful as the pig from Charlotte’s Web. The pig just stood there and did not look up or oink or eat.
“I want to take his picture!” she said.
Fever said this was a stupid idea, but then he said, “Yeah, take its picture. See if it attacks.”
Evie ran to her mother and asked for the camera.
“Why?” the mother asked.
“I want to take a picture of the pig.”
The mother laughed through her cigarette. “Okay, but not too much.”
She wanted the big pig to come closer, but it stayed in its dark corner. “C’mon, Wilbur,” she said to it.
The pig came closer. The boys reached out and touched its nose.
“Oh wow, it’s wet,” Fever said.
Eggy touched it also. “Oh wow.”
“That’s snot,” Fever said.
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”
Evie said, “Let me take a picture of you.”
She snapped the picture, and then they heard their mother calling.
“Quick, take a picture of me.” Evie gave the camera to Fever and he took a picture of her with the wet-nosed pig.
“You’re so ugly but you’re so cute,” she said to the pig.
They ran back to see their mother and aunt talking to the thin man. He was smoking a cigarette, and hanging from a hook in front of him was something long and shapeless.
Evie realized the shape was a pig, smaller than the ones they’d seen. Its tiny front hooves were tied. They could see its eyes still open and its mouth curled open to show its small bloody teeth. A stream of blood trickled from a hole in its neck. Without taking the cigarette from his mouth, the man cut open the pig’s belly.
“He’s killing the pig!” she said.
“I think it’s dead,” said the baby brother. “Is it dead?”
“It’s dead,” Fever said.
The mother took the camera from Evie and snapped a few pictures of the gutted pig. The children were silent on the ride back to their aunt’s house. Evie leaned her head against the window glass and watched the palm trees lining the road.
They stopped and the aunt and mother got out to go to a store.
Evie turned to look at the trunk, where the thin man had put the pig. “Poor little pig,” she said.
“Yeah,” Fever said. “But you like pork chops.”
Eggy said, “Leave her alone.”
“You feel bad for the pig, too? Pork chops is pigs, you know.”
“Leave him alone,” Evie said.
The aunt and mother came back with a man who loaded the car with two cases of beer.
Back at their aunt’s house, the Skipper took the pig from the car and took it to the backyard. All day long, the corpse of the pig spun over coals in a barrel. The aroma of its meat filled the backyard.
That night the mother tried to get them to eat the pernil. “C’mon, you like this.” She turned to her daughter. “Evie, mira, it’s food.”
But she refused and so did Eggy, although they were very hungry. The Skipper, his face greasy with fat, laughed at them.
But Fever said, “Yeah, gimme a plate.”
He ate big chunks of pork with pork crackling and rice and beans on the side. His fingers greasy, he laughed at Evie and Eggy. They tried to ignore him and look as sad as possible. Then his mother came over and gave Evie and Eggy sandwiches of ham and cheese on buttered bread.
The food looked good, but Evie didn’t want it. She turned away from everyone, laid her head on her forearms, and stared at the ground. Next to her, Eggy did the same.
She said, “I wish Popi was here.”
“Me, too,” the little boy said.
Every day, their mother promised to take them to a pool. But day after day, they ended up going to another relative’s house instead and sitting around and trying to watch TV in Spanish. One morning their mother told them, once again, that they were going to a pool.
“You always say that,” said Eggy.
“Yeah! Whose house are we going to now?” Evie said.
The car was hot and sticky, and their uncle was driving, which made it worse because he drove so slow. They liked it better when Titi Evelyn drove because she drove fast and that meant more of a breeze came through the windows.
After a long drive, Uncle Angel Luis pulled the car over to the side of the road by some trees.
Their mother announced: “Here’s the pool, kids.”
All Eggy could see was trees and more trees. Where was the sign for the pool? Where were the lockers? Where was the exciting smell of chlorine? “Where’s the pool, Mami?”
Their mother told them to take off their t-shirts. The Skipper and Angel Luis took a cooler from the trunk and walked into the woods on the side of the road.
Eggy heard it before he saw it. He passed through the trees and there was a rushing stream with clear, cold water.
“This ain’t no pool. This is a lake,” Eggy said.
“It’s a river, stupid,” said Fever.
They had to walk over slippery rocks to get to the water.
“Get in,” their mother said.
“What if there’s fishes?” said Eggy.
“They won’t eat you.”
“There is fish,” Evie squealed. “Look. Look.” And they all saw the little fish swimming along in the clear water. The adults laughed and waded in. The Skipper set up the cooler and handed out beers. Other people were there and they had a radio playing salsa.
“I bet Papi would like it here,” Eggy said to Fever, who had worn his blue and orange swim trunks.
“Why?” Fever said. “It’s not like he ever takes us to the pool.”
The kids waded into the water. It was chilly but not deep, and felt good after the stuffy ride. Surrounded by forest, they were as far away from the city as they had ever been. Except for the sound of cars on the road just through the trees.
“Look, mami,” Eggy dunked himself into the water past his head. “I can see the fish swimming underneath!” He felt like Tarzan in the jungle.
After a while, they sat on the rocks and ate ham and cheese sandwiches and drank soda.
Eggy waded over to his mother and told her he had to pee.
“Go ahead,” she said, lighting a cigaret. “Do it there.”
The boy was shocked. But his mother seemed serious, so before she could change her mind, and smiling widely, he did as he was told.
Their father arrived in San Juan on a Friday.
When the children saw his familiar fast walk and the familiar shape of his head, they jumped up and down. “Popi! Popi!” He carried a small piece of luggage. They crowded around him. He shook Angel Luis’s hand and kissed Evelyn and their mother on the cheek.
Eggy kept bouncing and touching the keys that hung from his father’s belt. Evie held on to her father’s hand, but Fever stood back.
The mother went with the aunt and the Skipper back to their car. The kids followed their father to the car rental. He rented a red hatchback, which was an adventure in itself, so different than the station wagon their father drove back home. They leaned forward, wanting to tell him about what they’d been doing on their vacation, but he was talking in Spanish with the Skipper.
The father followed Angel Luis and they drove to a restaurant that looked out over a river. The adults spoke in Spanish and were drinking.
Fever walked to a balcony thatlooked down at the rushing water below. His little brother came over.
“Look, Eggy. Look how far down that is.”
Eggy was not impressed. He kept turning around to look at his father, to make sure he was really there. Evie was so unsure herself that she never went more than a few feet from him.
Fever watched the river and thought it must be clean and cold. That the fish were big and colorful like the ones in the river their mother said was a pool. He wondered how far down it really was, and if he could dive off and live. And if anyone would notice.
The next day they took a long, winding drive up a mountain up to the father’s parents’ finca. They had to stop twice—first for Eggy, then for Evie to go to the bathroom. The mother followed them into the woods and gave them tissues. Back in the car she told them that when she was a little girl in P.R., she and her twelve brothers and sisters used to use corn to clean themselves when they went to the bathroom.
“Corn!” “Oh my god.” “That’s disgusting.”
She said that sometimes they used banana leaves.
“Eeeee-www,” said all three kids in unison.
Fever was proud he didn’t have to go to the bathroom. In truth, he really had to, but he was proud that he could hold it and not be like Evie and Eggy.
They came to a dirt road lined with trees heavy with banas, quenepas, and mangoes. At the end of the road was a small cement house. Standing in front of it was their grandmother, smoking a small cigar out of the side of her mouth, and their grandfather, his eyes hidden in the shadow of a straw hat.
There were animals—live animals!—walking around. Chickens, one goat, cows. Fever kept saying “Wow,” until he said, “Wow, I bet I said, ‘Wow’ fifty times.”
Their father was showing the kids around when Eggy stepped ankle-deep into cow manure. “It’s warm,” he said.
They took him inside to hose the manure off.
“That’s good luck,” his mother said.
The grandmother showed them around the farm, speaking only in Spanish. Her skin was dark and wrinkled, and she had a big, boxy head. The front door was wide open and it lead past a small hall into a kitchen with a back door wide open. In the backyard, chickens pecked at everything.
While she was talking with their mother in Spanish, the grandmother stooped down and picked up a chicken and, without looking at it, twisted its neck and tossed it onto a butcher block. Without pausing, she turned around and did the same thing to another chicken. As she twisted its neck, she saw the look on the children’s faces. She said something to their mother and they both laughed.
At twilight, the father insisted on taking the children for a walk. “I want to show you something. When we were kids my father used to take us to this creek to fish.”
Fever walked behind his father and could tell that he was drunk by the wobbly steps he took and the way he talked. Only Evie could hold his hand because in his other hand he had a plastic cup full of liquor.
Only a sliver of moonlight shone through the dense trees. It was as spooky as an old Dracula or werewolf movie. Still, the children were anxious to see the place where their father used to play.
They expected a rio like the one their mother told them was a pool. Instead there was a trickle, a tiny stream of water with tiny, tiny fish. The fish in the fish tank at home were bigger.
The father seemed disappointed as well. “It used to be bigger.” Then he said, “Do you hear that?”
All around them were odd whistle sounds, repeated again and again.
Fever said, “Those are crickets, right?”
“No,” their father said. “That’s the coqui. You hear it? It’s singing. ‘Co-qui. Co-qui.’”
“What is it, an insect?” asked Eggy.
“It’s a little brown frog,” the father said.
“Where is it? Is it invisible?”
“You can’t see them in the dark.”
They stopped to look around. They could barely see the farmhouse, which was less than a city block away. The coquis kept singing.
“You know,” the father said, “nature is amazing. The coquis won’t sing anywhere else. They take them to Florida, to Mexico and they’ll live but they won’t sing. They only sing in Puerto Rico.”
The father walked around the side into a clearing. In the moonlight, they saw the cows, dumb and still like statues.
“They’re just going to stay outsideall night?” Evie said.
The clearing was hilly and difficult to walkon. Suddenly, the father, who had been walking ahead, stumbled and disappeared into the darkness.
“Popi!” Evie screamed.
For a moment it was as if their father didn’t exist, as if he had disappeared from the Earth not then but a long time ago, and that this moment was something they were only remembering.
She told Fever to get help, but then the father stood up, wobbly, his drinking cup now empty.
“I’m all right. I’m all right,” he said, brushing himself off.
That night they stayed at the finca. Evie and her mother slept in one room, the father and the boys in the next. There was no glass or screen in the windows, and mosquitoes filled the air. They had to sleep underneath netting, but it made them hot and uncomfortable. Still, it was also the first time the boys had seen their father sleeping, and Fever and Eggy looked at each other and then at the sight of their father snoring.
The next day, in the morning, the father drove them back to Ponce. He dropped them off at their aunt’s house, then the Skipper drove him to the airport, and he flew back to New York.
Eggy was impossible to dress. His mother tucked in the shirt and within a few minutes it was hanging out of his pants. She buttoned his shirt to the top and brushed his hair, parting it to the side.
“When are we going home?” he said.
“Tomorrow,” she said.
“What are we doing today?”
She said that they were going to see her mother.
Eggy’s eyes widened. “You have a mami?”
The children lined up, clean, in ironed clothes. Their skin had turned copper brown.
Titi Evelyn drove them to a small street in Ponce. Wearing socks with blue and orange stripes, Fever noticed that the street nothing like his street back in Brooklyn. Instead of apartment houses lining the street, there were old wooden buildings that looked like shacks and that were set back from a crumbling concrete curb. Their mother’s mother lived near the middle of the street, in a house that stood on stilts. Chickens ran around the house, and there was a very big white bird there that honked at all of them.
“Holy cow! What is that?” Evie said.
“An ostrich?” Eggy said.
The mother said the word in Spanish but struggled to remember how to say it in English.
“A goose,” Fever guessed. “Like Mother Goose.”
Inside there was a wooden floor, one sink, and an electric bulb hanging from a wire. The bathroom was outside of the house, in the back. There was a small radio but no television.
Their grandmother had a haze of white hair around her head. She touched each child with hands as soft as a blanket. Then she said something to their mother that they didn’t understand.
Evie and their mother stayed in the kitchen while Fever and Eggy ran outside to play with cousins who had also come to visit. The cousins looked like them but spoke only Spanish. So for fun they chased the chickens and each other around and under the shack.
After a while, Eggy stopped running and sat on the back stairs as the others continued to circle around the house. Evie came out from the shack and sat next to him.
Coming around the corner, Fever saw them and stopped as well. “What’s the matter?”
“I want to go home,” Evie said.
“Me, too,” Fever said. “Me, too.”
“Me three,” said Eggy.
And the next day they all flew back to New York.
Richie Narvaez was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His work has been published in Mississippi Review, Murdaland, Latin@ Rising: An Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Sunshine Noir. His first book of short stories, Roachkiller and Other Stories, received the Spinetingler Award for Best Anthology/Short Story Collection.