Fiction

He Will Cover You With His Feathers


Lima, 2017

My uncle’s car smells like Vienna sausages and bad eggs. We’re driving through Jesus Maria, and then to the ocean. He keeps fidgeting with the windows, unsure of where the smell is coming from. The car battery broke down on the way to the airport, he tells me. It shut off at a gas station, and the attendants had to push the car into the street, so it could start after picking up some speed. Afraid that the battery would shut off again, my uncle left the car running, and waited for my call in the parking lot.

“The tide is low today,” he says, rolling down the windows.

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

We go under an unfinished overpass. He rolls up the window again, and turns on the AC.
“You know the old mayor tore down the stairways going up the cliffs? She couldn’t get a contract to build new ones—damn!” He rolls down the windows again, “how was your flight, little man?—damn! I can’t stand this smell!”

*

Arequipa, 2017

“Dónde vive?” asks the man at the cell phone store. Where do you live?

“Between the market and the cemetery,” I say, giving him my ID. Then, I sign fourteen different documents and leave a fingerprint next to each signature. That’s how I get a local number.

After that, I take a cab to my grandmother’s house. It only takes 20 minutes but the market is closing down by the time we drive by. Though there’s usually something for the people who come late or linger, if nothing else, at least a kind of silence. Tonight, my silence is a man wearing a fleece blanket around his waist, carrying a stool over his shoulder. He is backlit by the blue glow of a television as he walks in front of a stand. The streetlamps aren’t working. I can see the stars.

It used to smart, the feeling of distance I would get when looking at the moon. Now, it’s a humming pain. Chronic and unapproachable.

When I arrive, my grandmother is reading the Psalms at the kitchen table, leaning over a blue book, slightly smaller than her palms.

On the table, there’s a jar of sugar, a pillbox, a mug, a melamine plate, and a plastic bag. Together they make an altar.

On the street, the watchman blows a whistle. A dog barks.

She licks her finger and turns the page. I listen to her read. Then she asks me to help her put everything away.

“I’ve gotten old so soon,” she says.

Then she tells me that she’s been off her gastritis medicine for more than a year, because it was causing her to lose her memory.

“I was forgetting the names of things,” she says, “I used to point at the microwave and call it ‘the radio.’ It gave me a terrible feeling of loneliness.”

*

Toronto, 2017

In the morning—at the movement workshop—we take our shoes off and stretch. We get paired off and are told to begin by pressing our palms to our partner’s. Until now, my partner has only existed in emails and missed calls. The day begins with contact dancing, which I don’t want to do, but only slightly less than I want to be the person who doesn’t want to do it—so I do it. My presentation is very short.

In the afternoon, we go for a walk, and see the salmon swim upriver. Some of them smash their bodies against the rocks, and others lie along the banks, the flesh under their torn skin, like clouds after sunset—blue, grey, pink—and their loose scales, scattered in the mud.

On the way back to my hotel room, there’s a short man in the elevator, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“Goddamn it!” he says. Clearly, he has to pee.

We catch each other’s eyes in the mirror, as I run my finger along the bottom of my right eye, pressing on the purple skin. I think he knows I’m going to write about him, and his knee-length basketball shorts.

That night my father calls. He wants me to know that he had a disagreement with my grandmother’s doctor—“I have learned to smile,” he says, “to breathe, to count in silence up to whatever number is necessary, and to try to make it seem as if I’ve developed patience. It’s called old age. It seems incredible that I’m already 60 years old!” He’s talking about my other grandmother. Everyone’s getting old.

*

I wonder what makes you feel loved while looking out the window of a moving train. And I wonder if the people who live in the houses along the tracks think more often about what moves all of us from one place to another.

When I was in my 20s, a friend who’s about ten years older told me that you don’t know what you don’t know until you know, and what he said gave me this feeling like the truth is a matter of duress and possibility. I was attracted to him for a short while after that. Then, one day he tapped my shoulder and pointed over the kitchen counter to a very muscular guy who’d just walked into the restaurant where we worked.

“See that guy?” he said, “I’d watch him in a porno but I wouldn’t date him.”

Years ago, another friend told me that she wanted to read more books on conditional love.

“Love that is conditional,” she clarified, “but without specific conditions.”

We were leaning over untouched plates of pupusas, trying to make sense of difficult break-ups with people we remained committed to caring about. I don’t know why I’m thinking about her now, or why it feels like I’m driving across the desert and watching the mountains turn purple as the sun sets.

Yes. Health begins with loss. And on the other side of the glass, a seagull flies above the lake. A child runs on a wooden boardwalk. A woman’s white hair rustles with the wind.


Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos Alonso Gamarra is a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at McGill University, who is currently doing field research in Arequipa, Peru. His work focuses on the place of food and agriculture in making, maintaining, and imagining a common existence in light of a recent history of internal armed conflict (1980-2000) and ongoing neoliberal restructuring.