In the slum of Santa Maria la Morena, the last district to the south on the map of Rio Bonito, where I live, the people used to whisper that in the house at the corner lived a madman. I said they used to whisper because they stopped doing it a long time ago, and nowadays they talk about it in full voice.
“Mechis!” my mother used to tell me, “stop staring at that man and come here to help me with your baby sister.” Then my mother would go back to the gray stone laundry board. “That fat woman, Mrs. Ramirez…”, I would hear her murmuring while I trudged away carrying the baby. “She wants this laundry clean, full of sun, ironed and folded tomorrow morning. If we only didn’t need her money I could very well step on her oversized underwear.”
Sister was a very heavy baby, especially for me because I hadn't grown much yet. But if I put her on the swing in our park next to the old cemetery, she would stay there for a long time smiling at the air. Eventually she always fell asleep. Then I would have enough time to do whatever I wanted to do, like watching the place where the madman lived.
Whenever I saw the madman by the only window of his mustard house, rocking himself, small, chubby, stooped, in an invisible rocking chair for hours and hours, he seemed to me like a person, not a son nor old like a grandfather, but one who could very well have been somebody’s dad. Of course a lunatic dad who never had the good sense to stop wearing the chocolate knitted hat that covered his hair--though nobody knew for sure if he had some--and the wool sweater which must have been as old as the earth because it was nothing but a worn-out rag full of little holes that he seemed to have repaired with brown ribbons all around. He wore those clothes every day, even during the hottest days when all of us children got permission from our parents to go around the street with nothing on but our underwear. A walrus mustache stood above his mouth like the crazy quills of an animal living on his face.
Nobody seemed to know what in the world had made him insane, or if he had ever had somebody to look after him. Nobody knew either when he had arrived in the neighborhood, not even Dona Panchita who was eighty-three years old and had a very bad memory anyway. She had been living on the block since she married her husband, just a little after she changed from a child to a woman--as she always told anyone who listened to her. Not even she was able to remember days when he wasn’t there avoiding everyone around. Whenever somebody passed next to him he turned his eyes to the sky or the floor or to any other side. One day I even caught him closing his eyes so he would not have to share a glance with anybody.
“ There comes the madman!” cried a bunch of kids running away to hide behind a street post as if it were wide enough to conceal the five of them. “Agustin’s hat the Cachichin has!” one of the boys sang, making up a new phrase for the old song.“Agustin’s hat the Cachichin has!” became the madman’s song among the children. Cachichin--the bitterest nut that can only be eaten with lots of salt. The kids in the block always ran away whenever the man came around walking with his small jumpy steps, or whenever he stood rooted in the middle of the street gazing at the sun or the ground, or whenever he moved, breathed, existed. “The cachichin, the cachichin”.
“Mechis, bring that baby inside. It is getting cold out there!” my mother would say after a while. No more of the madman until the next day. Sometimes I would carry the baby back home, dress her in her warmer clothes, and pretend she was my baby doll that needed a diaper change or a feeding, and I would prepare dinner for her on my little plastic china. Some other times I was nothing but a mommy carrying my giant baby until our real mama was finished with her chores and prepared a real dinner for us.
Inside my house my mother used to keep me from watching that man. “One of these days he is going to come out that window and he is going to chase you away. One never knows with crazy people,” she used to say.
The fall he disappeared was the windiest I can remember. That was a happy season for the children in my neighborhood because the wind brought even greater joy to the kite battles. Every afternoon I saw the kids, especially the boys, coming back home from the school and moments later out on the streets carrying kites that to my eyes appeared to be enormous. Then they spent a few minutes fastening blades they had taken from their papa’s razor, tying them to the long tail of their papalote, the biggest kites. The tail was usually made from their mama’s bed sheets. With the blade attached to the tail, the children fought to cut the threads that held other kids’ kites. Those clashes were so impressive to me that during the nights of that fall I only dreamed about papalotes tangled by their threads, by their billowing tails, by their blades, by their colors: green hunting yellow, red pulling fast, blue fading in the sky, purple chasing the clouds, furious black in a tussle for their lives.
After three days of begging at my mother’s lap, she finally got me my own kite. It was not a big papalote like those of the older kids. Mine was a paloma, a dove, a little diamond of tissue paper with a short tail and no blade at all. Palomas are entirely silent because they lack the zumbador, a small band of paper placed at the top of every papalote. When a papalote is being flown, sailing through the windy waves, the zumbador makes the papalote announce its presence with a noise that resembles that of a bumblebee looking for a fight.
I didn’t have a papalote, all right, but I had a violet paloma with a yellow double tail that flaunted itself at the air’s least insinuation. I went to the street carrying my kite in one hand and pulling with the other my barefoot baby sister who was doing very well walking and holding on to me. I put my sister in the swing and whispered to her, “Look at me, beloved child, I am going to make this dove fly like a real one.” Then I started running, holding the thread behind me. With me went my kite, following me down the lemon grass, going with me near the graves by the cracked wall of the graveyard, coming back as I did over the hill of the eroded park, then running away with me again. My baby sister smiled at the air but this time with a reason: my dove had already found its way and was soaring high above us flapping its paper tassels at both sides like colored wings. I knew the wind was my friend that day. I could not take my eyes off the sky any more.
Then I heard a zumbador. I had to get my kite back quickly. Papalotes can also be big bullies that cut you out even if you are just a little one. With both hands I pulled the thread down, calling my dove back. She quivered and turned back to me immediately but without hurrying, still caressing the skies with the flatness of her violet paper body.
Coming from high above, the papalote arrived. It came squared orange all around as if it had just stolen the sun. In the center shone a magenta star of a heart. At the bottom a green cotton tail waved painting a curly path of yellow daisies liberated from a pretty bed sheet.
The papalote rushed down to my dove. When it was nearly there, it stopped. It dropped, loose, falling calmly, heavy and lifeless, passing below my kite until its tail almost touched the ground. Then it jerked up. It rose flashing towards the sky again, the long tail following it, wriggling. Just one lash. The blade sleeping among the daisies wounded apart my dove’s thread and made it come down falling weightless as if it had fainted. I felt my hands emptier than ever while my dove flew away, dragged by the afternoon breeze. Three kids were already running after her trying to catch her.
I started running too, incapable of letting her go just like that, when I heard my mother screaming, asking me about my sister. In that very moment I remember about the baby and saw that she was not there any more.
I felt my face growing hot and harder, stiff and overblown like a red balloon about to pop.My mother came, walking fast, bouncing with almost every step because of her thin feet getting caught between the spaces of the round river rocks that made our street .She kept asking for the baby, shouting loud and waiting for an answer I could not give. Her hands were damp and cold.She had a permanent yellow scent of the “1-2-3” soap bar. yes">I could not stop thinking about her smell while she shook me by my arms asking me for the baby.
I stood by the sidewalk with my arms limp and my feet dead still. My mouth pushed forward and my eyes blinked without my permission. My nose clenched.In a moment all the red color I saw inside when I closed my eyes became purple and escaped out through the center of my forehead. I started crying, my mouth wide open like a big muddy brown swamp.
My mother grabbed my hand, up high above my head, and dragged me running down the street toward the empty swings until I became a paloma myself when my feet fluttered from the ground to the air and my free arm flapped like a tassel. Then Senora Rosa showed her face through her open door at the other side of the street and yelled: “Lupe, look there, the cachichin has your child!” She shook her arms pointing at the corner where the grass became dry and yellow and the dusty sidewalk started. “Hurry up, Lupe! That man is a sick one,” she shouted once more.
The dark brown hair of my mother blew out long after her when she ran down the street and, for the first time as long as I can remember, I thought about her as beautiful.The madman was on the sidewalk walking my sister by the hand just like I had done before. He never looked up to see my mother coming toward him. He kept looking down at my sister in the same stiff way he always used to watch at nothing. My mother didn’t stop to take my sister away. Still running she lifted her by the cloth of her skirt and pushed the madman with the weight of her racing body. He tripped flat to the ground and landed on his side. My mother slapped her hand many, many times on the man’s back and on his shoulders and his arms, and she shouted:“This is my child!” her fair face blushed all the way to her forehead. “This is my child! Never touch a child of mine!”
He stayed immobile facing the ground while my mother shouted and slapped him. She didn’t seemed to want to stop until my sister started crying softly. All by himself the madman sank little by little toward the ground. People had started gathering around and women came to take their children by the hand, afraid that the madman had already released the monster inside him.“That crazy man tried to kidnap Lupe’s baby!” people started to explain to each other.“He was taking the baby who knows where”. “Holy Mother! What else can we expect of a man like this?” cried a young woman who held a broom in her hand.
Somebody suggested calling the police, and someone else, in fact, ran to look for one. The man stayed on the dust listening to the multitude talk about him as if he weren’t there. “I always knew it was dangerous to have a wacko living among us.” His head hid between his shoulders and his gaze went down like a pup that had been caught eating bread. I stood next to my mother still holding the thread spool in my left hand, quiet, looking through the ocean tears of my eyes, realizing for the first time how old the mad man looked after all. His crazy mustache was sprinkled with gray hairs, and his dark face was wrinkly all around his eyes and mouth--just the way I imagined it would be for somebody who laughs a lot.How come if I had never seen this man smile, leave alone laugh; he looked, after all, like somebody’s grandfather, I thought.
Two policemen came running down the street. “Here he is!” “He is the loco!” The crowd pointed to the man. “He wanted to hurt the baby!” The officers bent themselves, puffing, to hold the mad man by his arms and make him stand. He rolled his head down even more as if he was about to extend a shell over himself. Then, he unrolled his whole body only to look up directly to my mother’s face: “La nena was alone, trying to get off the sidewalk,” he said loud and clear. The tone of his voice was like a dark night above the slum: deep, calm, strong; “la nena…” Nobody else talked. No one made a sound after he said the only words anybody had ever heard from him. “He seems to be saying the truth, ma’m,” one of the officers said breaking the silence. Nobody answered, not even my mother. I stepped forward, moving my hands to clear the hair that fell over my eyes, and looked up to the madman’s face. Lost among the immensity of his fluffed eyebrows I found his small gray eyes. “Thank you, Sir” I said.In that very instant I felt my mother pulling my hand all the way to our house. She didn’t stop until our metal door closed behind us with a big bang.
That night was a windy one. I especially remember it because the current was playing with the two tin tubs hung outside our door and they kept smacking each other the whole time, making some kind of autumn melody. The only light in the room sparkled over my mama’s head, making her hair shine back to me. Next to her, a mountain of hot fragrant clothes were folded in piles of different sizes and colors. Too many clothes for a family of three, my mother always said. But not that night, because that night she was silent and didn’t say anything while she folded herself over the table to iron Mrs. Ramirez’s laundry.
The baby rolled over to me kicking the blanket. I pulled the blanket up to cover her again. Then I tucked myself up to my face under the bed cover and felt how tiny and warm her sleepy body was. I curled closer to her and stayed still smelling the sour of the milk from her mouth
“You are a big sister.” My mother’s voice surprised me. She sat on the bed, behind me, watching me with those eyes like dark water holes along the river of her face. Again that aroma of laundry soap came with her. She leaned forward and moved my sister closer to the edge of the bed by the wall and kissed her. Then she moved me up with both hands until I was in the center of the bed. “Getting heavier, and heavier,” she said standing up to turn off the light bulb. With her dress still on she got into bed next to me and passed her warm hand over my back, her mouth near my head while she said over and over “my child, my child, my child…”
The madman’s mustard house was closed the next day. He was not there in the afternoon rocking himself in his invisible chair. “Agustin’s hat the Cachichin has!” sang some children by his window, but he never showed up. Then they had to go and hide from each other, taking turns being madman.
After one week of his absence, Dona Panchita sent her son to knock at the madman’s door. The old woman insisted that someone had to go and check to see that the man wasn’t sick or maybe--“The Lord would not allow”--dead. The woman’s son didn’t get any answer, so his mother sent him to tell the police. He came back some minutes later and, not without excitement, told all the neighbors waiting by Dona Panchita’s door, that the police had found that the mad man had a son, and he had come the other day to pick up his father at the police station.
It was then that people in the slum started talking about the madman in full voice.
“He was a man of God,” Senora Rosa announced one day with her skinny finger pointing to the imaginary heaven in the sky. “He saved Lupe’s little girl from being run over by a car on the street.” Nobody dared to argue since Senora Rosa was a woman of God herself, devoted day and night to the church and to the Saint Atocha Child.
“The man had lived in this neighborhood forever. He was a son of our community,” Don Pepe the storekeeper said one day as if he was revealing an undeclared truth.
Somebody else remarked how the madman had been a person of few but strong words. “When he spoke it was only to reveal the inexplicable.”
It wasn’t very long before the kids complained that they missed the Cachichin so much, and it was so sad not to have anybody to hide from, and how the neighborhood was just not the same without him. Some mothers even insisted they should go try to find the madman and bring him back to our neighborhood where he really belonged.
One day someone came and said he had seen the madman living in the east of the city, in a small, dark, yellow house in front of the old and long Noviembre street.Nobody else got to see him, though.Even Dona Panchita sent her son, again, to look for him with the hope of finding him. Along went a bunch of neighbors. They didn’t even find the yellow house.
After a while they stopped the search and, from the perspective of nothing left to do, they began making up stories to tell the young children so they would never forget him. The last one I heard says that there is a gentle, happy madman who lives by the edge of the world totally alone in a house covered with flowers. He sleeps all the day until the middle of the night when he wakes up to open the door and the windows of his yellow house. From that time and until the sun comes up, he sells kites of every imaginable color, and the colors of his kites are so bright that they light the edge of the world the whole night. Such a good madman. We are so proud to say that he is the same madman that used to live in the house on the corner of our slum, Santa Maria La Morena.