I had been playing with my loose tooth for a month when I could finally flap it flat with my tongue. I stood on the porch of our living quarters at the Estancia del Rivero. My father had just come in from caring for the ponies after Señor de Rivero’s sons had practiced their polo, and he was taking maté with the other gauchos. I loved the bitter drink, but this was their time to be with each other after a hard day of work, so I stood at the edge of the porch and played with my tooth.
“Perpetua,” my father called, after handing the cup back to Antonio. “Let me see that tooth.”
“No,” I said, and snapped my hand over my mouth.
“Don’t worry. I won’t do anything.” He turned on his stool and faced me, his knees and arms spread wide.
“No,” I said, backing away. “You’ll pull it.”
“No, no. I just want to see how much longer it will be. Come here,” he said, and he called me to him with flapping hands. I walked closer but stayed just out of reach and Antonio laughed.
“Perpetua,” he said. “You act as though your father is sin vergüenza, some kind of shameless man.” The others laughed and slapped their knees or leaned back on their stools. “He is the head gaucho for Señor Enrique de Rivero, one of the largest estancia owners in all of Argentina. He is not to be doubted.”
I looked at my father, his head tilted now, the tips of his moustache turning out with his smile like the wings of a small bird. He turned his palms up, as if to cup my face. I stepped closer and put my hands on his knees and his baggy trousers slipped along his leg under my weight as I leaned toward him. My father held my chin in one palm and reached up to wiggle my tooth with the fingers of his other hand. Before I knew it, he held the tooth in front of my eyes.
“Look,” he said, his eyes as wide as mine. “It came out right in my hand.”
The others laughed and I stood holding the tooth my father placed in my hand. I looked again into his face and saw wrinkles around his eyes I hadn’t noticed before. His smile continued as he flicked the tip of my nose with a finger and sent me off to the kitchen to have my mother wash the tooth and prepare it so Señor Ratoncito Pérez, El Raton, might come that night and leave me a present.
The following morning, I woke before the sun and reached under my pillow. My fingers curled around something hard and pulled it into my palm. It had many sharp corners that poked my soft skin and sent tingles up my arm. I moved to the window and held it between my thumb and finger. Where light grew in the sky, it glinted off of the sides that joined to form the points, and where the world was dark, it appeared I held nothing at all. That was seven years ago. I am twelve now, no longer a little girl, and I don’t believe in El Raton anymore, nor do I look for presents under my pillow. The crystal, however, remains on my windowsill, where I sometimes watch the colors of the night dance off its many sides.
Standing inside the doorway of Romero’s, a pizza house across from Plaza Arellano, I sip from my iced maté and watch the Delgado’s three-legged mastiff work the tourists. Ouzo is a beautiful dog with steely gray fur that hangs on his body like an old blanket. He lost his leg when he was a pup and fell out of the back of Señor Delgado’s pick-up, catching his leg in the tailgate. From then on, Ouzo learned to get around on three legs and charm handouts from the tourists who eat their lunches under the shade of the trees in our square.
From the doorway of the pizzeria I can see Don Rivero’s Land Rover that my father often drives into town to pick up supplies. It is parked in front of the church. I like to go to church at San Antonio de Padua. Inside are lovely paintings on the walls of many saints. My favorite is of Saint Perpetua, for whom I am named. She stands in a large stadium, blood running down her face and arms, her dress soiled and torn, a bull standing behind her with its forelegs bent, dragging its nose in the dirt. But Perpetua’s face is blissful. That is all I can think. A glow radiates from her face and she is smiling as she bends over and picks her friend out of the dirt.
I wonder why Papà would be in the church now. It is Tuesday, and while I know it is time for the other gauchos to be resting, Papà normally goes to Señor Martin’s Goods for the rope, nails, wire, fencing, and anything else a person might need to keep an estancia running. I sip my maté and sit down on the threshold of Romero’s Pizzeria.
“Why are you out here, Perpetua,” Señora Romero says as she leans out and throws a bucket of water on the walkway to keep the entrance cool. The water arcs in a solid mass and sparkles in the sun, like the crystal on my windowsill, then hits the ground and shatters into dots of gray on the hot sidewalk that quickly evaporate under the summer sun. She looks toward the square where the dogs chase each other between the trees, and then toward the church. My father is on the front steps now, a young woman I have seen before holding his arm. She is from a tourist company in Buenos Aires. She came out to the estancia the other day to speak with Don Rivero and my father about some gaucho demonstrations. Her hair is big. It does not fall naturally along the sides of her face, or lie over her shoulders like a gentle hand. It surrounds her head in sweeping, twisting curls like the streamers we hang for parties at the estancia. She kisses my father on the cheek. He looks around, reaches across and takes her hand from his arm and shakes his head, then leads her around the truck and opens the door for her.
“Come in, Perpetua,” Señora Romero says and taps me on the shoulder. “I have fresh breadsticks and some prosciutto bits for you.”
“I know that woman,” I say. I sit at the counter and eat while Señora Romero cleans the counters.
“¿Si?” Señora Romero says. “And how do you know her?” she asks, but she does not turn to face me.
“She came in a bus from Buenos Aires the other day with a group who wanted to see a working estancia. She talked long with my father and the other gauchos before they left.”
“Ah,” Señora Romero says, “then I am sure your father is helping her to see the important places of our town.”
“Mmm,” I say and finish my breadsticks and maté. I thank Señora Romero and go out to my bike.
Leaving town, I cross Puente Viejo, the old rose colored bridge that begins the road to our estancia six kilometers away. As soon as I cross the bridge, I feel the sun I know I cannot escape until I get home. There is one place to pull over and rest under a small grove of trees that grows along the side of the road, so I ride slowly, saving my energy and riding just fast enough to create my own breeze against my face.
As I ride along the river, I think about my father and the young woman. I understand Don Rivero asking my father to show her around. Don Rivero has talked in recent years about going the way of the other estancias and opening his place to the tourists. The estancias are not making the money they used to, and the tourists want to come see the land, the gauchos, and our pretty town. So it is an honor that my father was chosen to show her around the town.
But the woman kissed my father.
My mother kisses my father like that sometimes, on the cheek, quickly, and with a little smile or a pat on the bottom. It isn’t much, but it shows me she loves him. I think it shows him, too. I know what they do when the lights go out. Marisol de Rivero told me what that was about, and she showed me pictures from a magazine. I don’t like to think of Mamà and Papà doing that, but I know it is what people do when they are in love. Marisol told me I will do it one day, and that she wants to do that with Roberto Castro, the principal’s son from her school. I have seen him play fútbol. He is a pretty boy, and very kind, so I don’t think he will do that with Marisol yet.
Halfway home I am hot and ready to rest. I see the grove ahead. From here I can see the taillights of Don Rivero’s Land Rover off the road and behind the trees. As I get closer, I slow down and look at the windows, but I see no one is in the car. I stop and drop my bike on the ground, and the young woman’s head appears in the back window. My father’s head pops up too, and then I see a hand reach up, an open hand patting the window, as if asking me to wait. I turn and pick up my bike quickly, put one foot on the pedal and swing my other leg over the seat, and soon I am pedaling fast down the road. My legs pump hard as I watch only the road in front of me, and they don’t slow down until I park my bike behind our house.
I am reading when my father comes home. He greets Mamà with a kiss and comes over to me in my chair.
“Hola, Perpetua,” he says, and gives me a nod of his head.
I don’t respond and my mother looks at me. A sickness rises to my throat, like when I watch the castrating and the branding of the young steers, but I can’t look at Mamà. I feel her looking at me though, and then she goes back to the kitchen.
“Perpetua,” my father says. “let us go outside and talk.”
“Are you sure, Papà?” I say, and I look up at him as he stands above me. Mamà comes back out to put a dish in the cabinet. Papà turns to her, then back to me. “Are you finished showing the young tour guides around our town?” I ask.
Papà looks quickly at my mother now, but her back is to us. Her arm stops moving, the dish in her hand hovering above the shelf. Then she places it inside another dish, closes the cabinet door, and goes back into the kitchen.
“Yes, Perpetua,” he says, not looking at me. “I am finished.”
I raise my eyes from my book and he turns to me. “I need to go help Antonio with the fires for dinner. We are eating with the others tonight, and we will have a wonderful meal outside, under the stars. We can talk then.” My father walks away and I put my book in my lap. I wait for my mother to come out, but I hear only her shuffling feet and the slap of a wet towel as she wipes down the counters.
We eat with the entire estancia this night, for the summer solstice. Don Rivero and his family and many friends eat in the large screened off pavilion, away from the bugs, and we are out back near the cooking fires. Every kind of food is roasting tonight. We have the asado, large slabs of beef ribs and young goat spread wide and hung on metal stakes that surround the fire, a fire as wide as one of the small gazebos on the grounds, and almost as high as me. And then there is the parilla. A grill set two hand widths from the ground and fed constantly with coals from the asado. This is where my favorite pieces come from. Here Antonio turns the bife loma, the most tender pieces, the chorizo sausages, and the chicken legs that he has coated just in salt and rosemary, and that he splashes with lemon when they come off the grill.
Our families eat after those in the main house and their guests, the older girls taking turns serving wine or coffee to those in the pavilion. As we eat, there is much chatter. We have six families that work here on the estancia, and our tables are crowded, friendly, and there is always much laughter. My father sits next to my mother and Señora Vazquez, Antonio’s wife, while Antonio tends the fires. Antonio loves to cook, and he will never leave this job to anyone else. And as he loves cooking, his wife loves talking. She keeps my mother and father busy with chatter, but she is funny, and they like her.
Normally, I sit at the children’s table, but tonight Mamà has asked me to sit with the adults. She says that with all the little ones, and now with little Gustavo needing his own chair and not his mother’s lap, it is time for me to make room. So I sit at the far end of the table, away from my mother and father and next to Angelica Diaz who had her 14th birthday last week. She is nice to make room for me, and lets me pick first from the tray Antonio brings around. I choose a small piece of chicken and put some bread on my plate. But as I watch my father laugh and put his arms around the chairs of my mother and Señora Vazquez, my chest tightens, and I have no stomach for food.
The girls chatter next to me, and the boys across the table look at them, whispering, and laughing. Some of the smaller children leave the table and come ask me to sit with them again, but one of the mothers sends them back and tells me not to worry about it. Antonio brings another tray around, but I refuse until he insists and puts a piece of bife loma on my plate, red juices drip from where he has stabbed it with the fork and soak into my bread. I turn away from my plate and see my father. He is still laughing and he tightens his arm around Señora Vazquez as she slaps his thigh and laughs.
My father sees me, and his smile fades.
I step away from the table and walk out past the low line of rosemary and bay trees that separate our yard from the vast pampas grasslands and beyond. In the dark I can still hear them laughing and the children shout after me. I catch a few words “nervous…big table,” and walk farther away, out into the dark, into the field and the still air of the evening. Papà is soon beside me. We stand, silent in the dark. Papà holds a beer by the neck of the bottle. I keep my hands in my pockets and wait.
“The pampas are beautiful at night, no?” he says, and turns his head to me. He points his bottle at the sky and sweeps it wide in front of him. “Especially the stars. One can see all the constellations out here.” He turns from me. “Perpetua,” he says after a moment. “What you saw is nothing. It means nothing. I am a man. That is all. Your mother…she understands this.”
I say nothing, just nod my head in the dark. I look toward the house. The glow of the fire hovers over the tips of the shrubs like a settling fog.
“There,” my father says, and he points toward the sky. “Do you see it? It is Taurus.” He turns to me then, holds the bottle of beer towards me and waves me in with it. “Come here, Perpetua. Let me show you.”
I go to him. He puts his arm around my shoulders, the cold wet from his bottle dripping down my arm. “Right there,” he says, pointing up toward a sky I’ve seen many nights before. Near the horizon the stars race across the sky, a thick flood of light that, if I wanted, I am sure could sweep me up in its current and carry me with it. This is the belt of fire we call vía lacteal, a milky path. I follow this path with my eyes as it streams as far as one can look in either direction. These stars are undetectable from each other, like the water thrown from buckets in the square, a cascade of light that allows no darkness in-between.
Elsewhere, away from this glowing river, blackness fills the space between the stars, a blackness like looking down an empty well. These separate stars shine bright, glinting now and again like the crystal on my windowsill. But the blackness is what I see now, what I feel. What my father spoke about, what I know of him, it is not nothing as he says. It is something. It will always be there, coming back, off and on, like the dark between these stars that fill our summer sky.
“Do you see it, Perpetua? Can you see Taurus, the bull?”
I look to the loose cluster of stars where he points.
“Can you?” he continues, and his hand tugs on my shoulder, pulling me closer to him.
“Si, Papà,” I say. “It is very clear.”
by Joe Baillargeon
Middle-Grade Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature