I read her the Bogotá letters she mailed to Mother
in 1960. She stares up at me, sheeted in her sour midden,
eyes blinking like blown coal, aching to remember
her own life, her fingers on the Underwood,
to see herself again in dig coats and dusty hotel mirrors,
that Berkeley-trained gringa, that child exile of the Blitz,
far from home, as an anthropologist must always be.
She barks in a Yorkshire accent whenever I mispronounce
a township, Ramiriquí, Sopó, Facatativá gumming in my mouth
like dry bread. I want to read her face, and follow the recognition
as her gin blossomed forehead tightens, slacks to the words
greying in the cumulus of my voice.
You are 26 years old, Sylvia, broad shouldered and sandy-haired,
crawling through a mountain to the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá,
the altar a block of the purest salt you’ve ever seen.
You are counting bullet holes in the wall of the Museo Nacional,
where firing squads did their daily business for a century.
Frantically, you bail mud from the dolmens in the dam’s path,
Guatavita’s shoreline creeping toward the find of your career.
You shoo Penny off the balcony. He keeps gnawing
down geranium limbs, eating the fuchsia.
Eduardo throws a sack over a comadreja, a weasel
in the attic, and skewers it with a pitchfork.
You take notes while the chicken thief’s shrieks fill the fields.
People ask aloud, but quietly, when Las Violencias are coming back.
Appearances of the Virgin follow bodies of previously sacred water.
One night a government truck plays “The Twist” on a loop,
you dance, dance in the plaza with the local torero, drunk,
throwing back black coffee whenever you float past your table.
This is you, Sylvia, waving from a VW Bug at the head
of a slow parade of threshers and pack mules to the Livestock Fair,
skinny bullfighter for a Prince Charming, rockets blazing, blurring
overhead, wrangled somehow into this, your life’s version
of a fairy tale you once imagined as a child.
Her face is full finally, not smiling, but smooth as a windbellied sail.
A stray patient, doubled over, rolls in from the hallway dragging
a doll by its smudged ankle. The woman’s tongue hangs past her lips
and untoothed jaw, jutting in and out, at once ghostlike and mechanical.
She shuffles her wheelchair to the other bed and lifts her head just
enough to hold a blanket over the baby’s face. She whispers, I don’t care
if she dies, if she dies, again, again, with just a trace
of Alabama upglide. I press the call light.
Sylvia clutches my wrist when I stand to leave. I won’t tell
her where I’m going. I can’t risk telling her where she is now
and watch fifty years of dust cross her face.
So I say, I love you, the leaves of her hands and shoulders
trembling, and she says, I love you, Allen,
who died before I was born.