This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Body transformation
My brother asks me why angel wings are furrowed by fluffy white feathers when their limbs ought to resemble bat wings, stretched slabs of transpicuous skin that pull and fold over cartilage and bone, an extension of the creature’s body built for cocooning and flight.
I shrug. I don’t know, ñaño, I tell him.
Juanmar is standing next to me, his hair parted down the middle, flakes of white perched between greasy strands. Tonight I gawk at him with our kitchen’s fluorescent lighting. Outside, as the sun leaves us, the quiet begins. Fog descends and marries our city’s undying layer of smog. Juanmar uses his index finger to point at the ceramic angel Mamá has hung above the microwave.
It’s chubby, too, Juanmar says, and smiles, yellowed teeth bare. His uncut nail hangs inches away from a bulky and angelic bellybutton. I want to seize his hand and hold it in between my own and trim his nails. I want to wash his dandruff hair with the shampoo that never made our eyes burn like when we were little, when we were tiny birds in a bath that Papá ran for us. Instead I stand here tonight amidst refrigerator hums and try to make conversation with my baby brother, the bird that never leaves his room.
Mamá has now ensured the entire surface of our kitchen is embellished with her religious décor. Her ornaments—little Jesuses and angels and vírgenes Marías in all shapes and sizes collaged and spread throughout our tiles—are her answers to the quiet, to the chirpless amaneceres and sunsets we’ve gotten used to. Papá searches for answers at work. He doesn’t know when all the birds will be back, if they’ll ever be back. He only finds bats.
Juanmar never once got to see a bird, but I did.
Oye y did you finish that game you were playing? I ask my ñaño, never knowing when to stop initiating conversation, nunca sé when he’ll spook and take flight. He hasn’t said a word to me in weeks, and right now Juanmar smiles and the kitchen feels like it’s spinning. I smile back.
It’s like four-hundred hours to obtain completion, he responds and rolls his eyes. I scrunch up my face and attempt to pet his head. He blocks my arm with his. Please, don’t, he asks me.
I cradle my arm close to my chest, prepared for him to flutter away, but then he speaks again.
Papá is bringing the bats tonight, Juanmar says, his eyes steady on the floor.
Oh? I respond.
I overheard him say he’ll keep them in the freezer and to not confuse them for snacks this time, Juanmar jokes. My smile pulls at my cheeks and I ache. The last time my father brought bats to our home, he had left them in the freezer for so long they sprouted layers and layers of ice. He mistook the murciélagos and began to defrost the animals for his birthday’s barbeque. We almost had his research for dinner. The conjecture that our air pollution killed all the aves of Ecuador and only the winged creatures that inhabit caves survived would still be unexplored and unproven, but our bellies full.
I think only Ozzy Osbourne eats bats, I reply. I feel my heart sink and vomit rise up to my throat as I prepare to ask my brother, Have you thought about going back to college? Would be nice to see you in the halls before I graduate.
Please, Cami, he replies. Don’t start.
I fear pushing him too much will make him stop talking to me, like he did with Papá and Mamá. He is part of their quiet, too.
A haze the color of charcoal and smoke covers our kitchen window. The glass thuds. Juanmar leaves me and heads upstairs, where he’ll lock the door behind him and find some comfort in his nest.
My thumb brushes her earlobe as her tongue grazes mine. We sit, knees touching on my unmade bed, in my room where the crooked blinds let some light through. Rocio lets her hands fall down to where my thighs don’t touch and I grab her hand to stop her.
I don’t think I’m ready, I tell her. Rocio’s eyes are brown like mine, her lips pink and glossy with the taste of me. Behind her head, my monitor’s screensaver bounces around.
Rocio sighs and gets up. She squats to pick up her boots and begins lacing them on. Some dirt falls off them and lands on my bedroom floor.
I don’t want to pressure you or anything, Cami, she says.
I feel like there’s a but somewhere in the end of that sentence, I respond.
Nada, she replies, shaking her head. It’s nothing. We’ve only been dating for like four months and nada. I haven’t even met your family yet. You sneak me up to your room like we’re teenagers.
Isn’t nineteen still technically a teenager? I say as I pat my bottom lip with my thumb finger. It feels warm.
Not when we’re in college and independent.
But we both live with our parents? I smile. Rocio’s face is stern.
And you haven’t introduced me to them yet, she replies. It’s so awkward. And I’ve never even seen your brother. I’ve only heard rumblings coming from Juanmar’s room anyway.
Her laces are intertwined and tight. Rocio’s delicate fingers carry silver rings and cracked nail polish. She rises and snatches her mask from my desk. The mask’s respirator bumps into my keyboard, displaying my last internet search.
It’s a tab that always remains open. The signs for a depressed loved one. Tips on recognition, words of support and courage. The last paragraph a candid overview of suicide.
A loud crash from my brother’s room saves me from having to explain this to her. We hear glass crack and fall into pieces. My eyes widen and I run. This is what I think about all the time. My brother cracking and falling, disappearing and leaving us. Rocio follows me, her boots stomping our floors, and I reach his bedroom door and tug at the handle. I can’t feel my hand, I can’t feel the doorknob. I feel like I’m going to disappear.
Juanmar unlocks it. His eyes look into mine. My brother grabs my trembling hand tight and leads me to the middle of his bedroom, where a constellation of the window’s glass lays across the wooden floor. And in the middle, placed so delicately, is a bird’s feather.
Papá thinks it originates from a condor wing. I tell him it’s impossible.
We’ve rummaged every corner of Juanmar’s bedroom and found nothing. No bird, no body. Where has this feather come from. Tonight Juanmar showers to wash away I don’t know what. But when I walked by our bathroom and the vapor escaped through the door’s gap and reached me, I beamed.
The condors left us decades ago, before I was born. Hunted for sport, Papá told me. Their wings snatched from their bodies and perched on Andean highways for tourists to see and awe and touch. Their caves blasted and stripped for mining. Flightpaths and homes burned because of a parched land and an angry sky. Lungs drowned by a miasma of us. They haven’t come back because we have killed them. The only condor I’ve ever seen is the one depicted in our flag’s shield.
Aren’t you like a scientist, I say to my father and point at his computer. There’s no way it’s a cóndor, I add. We sit on the kitchen island surrounded by Mamá’s ofrendas. Papá has his work notes propped up and a million tabs open.
No sé, mija, he replies, his glasses sliding down his greasy nose, cheese from tonight’s sandwich still stuck to his gums. I lean on his shoulder and sigh. From my research I know condor wings were huge and obsidian-colored like this one, he indicates. The pluma sits on our kitchen counter. It was Juanmar who brought it down for my father to see. Papá grazes the feather’s vane. It dips and succumbs to his touch.
I just know it’s not a condor, I say. Its feathers would be so much bigger. I raise my head and place my hand on my chin. What being would enter my brother’s room with such force. What creature would break a window with ease and later disappear. Why would it leave a trace of itself in my ñaño’s room, in my brother’s nest.
Why don’t you help Juanmar pick up the broken glass and leave the biology to me, eh? Papá says. I roll my eyes. Get your girlfriend to help you, too, he adds. So she can stop skulking around the kitchen.
Can you chill. Rocio left after the break-in, I tell him as I get up and place the dirty dishes in the sink.
Oh yeah? Left the house or left you? Papá says.
What is that supposed to mean? I squeeze soap out of the sponge.
No sé, mija, you don’t seem that interested in her. And your mother doesn’t like the way she brings in dirt to the house either. Tu mamá says Rocio never taps her foot on the welcome mat. It’s like she wants this house to be dirty.
I stare at my dad.
Your mother’s words, not mine, he smiles.
Rocio went home to finish up a project but said she’ll be back later, I answer him.
Uh huh, he mocks me.
So how are your little murciélagos, eh? I purse my lips in the direction of the fridge.
They’re safe in our freezer, he responds. Safer than outside. Do you think your mother hates it that I had to bring bats home again? my father frowns.
I don’t tell him I think Mamá has been upset for decades. She wanders our home like a ghost, and I know this is because of my brother, because he, too, shells himself from us and the world.
Instead, I offer something else and say, I just think she’s upset because your university lab won’t invest in bigger refrigerators.
This is true, Papá replies, shaking his head. Go check on your ñaño and then report back, please. I don’t know how he’s doing, I never know—
Okay, I say, accepting. He’s fine, I add. He showered?
Oh? Papá smiles.
The dishes are clean. I head upstairs with a broom and dustpan. I said I would help Juanmar patch up the window after dinner. He has gathered all of our newspapers, magazines, and duct tape to try and separate the outside from our in, the smog from our air.
As I walk upstairs, I hear Papá head over to the refrigerator. He opens the freezer door and shuffles around and screeches, Where’d the bats go?
Eucalyptus trees line my ride back home. They stand tall and parallel to our electricity poles, the ones where birds once perched on. My bike’s tires need more air. My legs struggle to take me back home. The mask that cinches my cheeks and presses my nose and pulls at my eyelashes shields me from the fumes that consume my very pores. It nestles in my hair and stains my skin gray. Papá has warned me about riding my bicycle to the university instead of going by car. But I don’t want to give in to this, to the haze that eats us all.
I pedal my bike through our neighborhood and think of my ñaño and the thing that left a remnant of itself on his bedroom floor. Has my brother been looking for the bird. Has my brother been sleeping okay. Has he finished playing his game. Has the smog filtered through his patched-up window. Has he abandoned us or when I get home and head upstairs and press my ear up against his door will I hear the computer on, his keyboard and mouse clicking, my brother still breathing.
My backpack feels so heavy as I look up at a sky with no clouds, only a constant layer of iron gray. I can’t make out the Andean mountains that sometimes fight through the fog and smog for us to see them, to remind us they’re here. I don’t spot the pothole that tumbles my bike over. I lose control of my handles and fall.
The mask’s glass pierces my cheek. I bleed and sit on our crude-colored road and breathe everything in. Through the fog, a silhouette makes its way to me. I can see it gliding through the air, its beak breaking through car emissions. Rocio stomps her boots even on the road. She flails her arms so cars can see me sitting up against the sidewalk with my bike leaning on my thigh.
I saw you fall, she says as she kneels next to me. Are you okay?
Not very elegant, right? I respond. I try pressing the mask up against my nose and mouth to inhale something other than this air.
So, how’s your little brother? Rocio asks. Through her mask that’s graffitied and dyed hot pink, her voice sounds like my dad’s old radio that still picks up the FM frequency.
Juanmar showered, I reply, nodding. She nods, too, fumes filtering through her curly hair. Yeah, I’m pretty elated, I add.
And, uh, has your dad solved the mystery of the feather? she asks.
Papá thinks the pluma’s from a condor, I say, rolling my eyes.
It’s impossible, Rocio replies.
That’s what I said to him, I nod. La pluma is way too small, I say, placing my dirty palm over my respirator’s holes.
No, Cami, Rocio laughs, shaking her head. Condors never existed, she says to me.
One hasn’t been spotted in over eighteen years, she replies. And even the older reports are so vague. Because how can you believe in something you’ve never seen?
The vulture’s in our fucking country’s flag, Rocio, I say to her, my saliva turning gray.
They did exist, and the smog killed them, I reply. I begin to sweat. We’re the reason they’re not around anymore.
That fog thing hasn’t been proven, she says, shaking her head. Sounds highly convenient, too, Rocio mutters.
Eighteen years of indefinite smog—yeah, so convenient. This is just all you know, I try to say, but I only cough some words out. My girlfriend rolls her eyes at me. How could anything survive in this? I ask her.
That’s such a lie, she shakes her head. Rocio spreads her arms over me in disbelief, a wingspan so big it creates a little shadow over my fallen bike. Well, whatever, Cami.
That’s not a lie, I say, staring at her brown eyes through her mask.
It’s like I can never win with you, she says. Or your dad.
I pause. You’re just very wrong about this, I wheeze. I can feel my heart beat in my ears. Cars pass by and honk at me and Rocio. They want us to get out of the road. I kind of want them to run me over and put me out of my misery.
Listen, she begins. I don’t think we should see each other anymore. I mean, I feel bad to do this now with your little brother freaking out but also, like, finally taking care of himself or whatever. But ya no puedo más, I just can’t do this anymore, she says, pointing at me.
Rocio breaks up with me as I sit and bleed and nod along. I find some relief in her words, a consolation in knowing now future dinners with Papá won’t feature conspiracy theorist Rocio, Rocio whose neck tastes of lavender, Rocio who liked to paint my fingernails and then blow little bouts of air to dry them, her flush lips near my skin. The smog solaces me, a cuddle of smoke.
It’s fine, I respond, trying to get up.
Also, Rocio says as she helps me lift my bicycle. Its tires are deflated. I took something of yours, she confesses.
What? I ask, cracked mask still shoved against my face. I start losing my balance again and feel lightheaded.
Your dad’s bats from your freezer, she says. I’m letting the murciélagos thaw.
Mamá has hung our birdfeeder outside our front door. The rusty hook is still perched on the rain gutter, and the birdfeeder clings strong. I don’t know how. The feeder is older than me. Its brick red is so washed away from time and olvido. My mother holds sunflower seeds from our cupboard and peanuts that I had hidden away in my room as a studying snack, and she crams it all in the feeder’s chamber.
Where have you been hiding this? I ask her as I walk up to our home. She notices the dried blood on my cheek and my broken bike. I fiddle with my mask because I see a wave of gray descending quietly from the sky and fear it will continue to penetrate my mask and me.
My mother stands underneath the feeder with her hands covered in seeds and doesn’t ask me if I’m okay. She looks at me with Juanmar’s eyes and brows. She exhales a Darth Vader breath as if prepared to share a secret.
En el garaje, she answers. I had stored this away until the birds returned like I knew they one day would, she says. Do you see that it’s working? she asks me. Behind Mamá is our cement fence lined by broken Pepsi and Coca-Cola glass bottles. The smog arrives and unfolds itself in between sharp edges. I lean my bike on the front porch’s steps and walk up to my mom.
I hold her hands on mine—some seeds now sticking to my pink palms—and ask her, What’s working, Mamá?
My offerings, she responds. Through her mask’s lenses, I can tell she’s smiling. We’re now embraced by the pollution that has tainted all of Quito. Every green tree’s sap is a vomited shade of ash, every quiteño’s eyeballs are now pewter white. I realize she’s celebrating the break-in, the feather.
Sí, I nod. Qué bueno. Have you checked on Juanmar?
She lets go of me and continues stuffing the birdfeeder.
He’s going to be okay, she says up to the roof.
I head upstairs to my brother’s room with my cracked mask in hand and stand outside his door like I have many times before, waiting for my ñaño to do something. Come out or utter a few words or shift around. Algo. My heart beats in my ears. Sometimes I come here at night and lean my head, cushion my cheek to the door, and just listen. A veces my hand sits on the doorknob, steady. Today I leave a little dot of blood from my face on Juanmar’s door, a trace of me.
Before I knock, Juanmar opens the door and tugs my mask from me.
I saw you fall from my window, he says, examining the fissure.
Many people saw me, apparently, I reply. You also probably witnessed Rocio break up with me, then.
Yeah, I figured something went down. Juanmar sits at his desk in front of his huge monitor and searches his drawers for what I believe is super glue.
Smells weird in here, I say, as I walk up to him and put my hand on the back of his desk chair. This is when I see it. The thing protruding from my brother’s back. He stashes away clumps of transparent skin. The skin folds and begins to pull at his shirt. It is growing and shifting and I can see my ñaño’s blue veins adorning it.
What did you do to Rocio to make her break up with you? he asks.
I didn’t do anything. She says cóndores never existed, I say, my eyes glued on his back.
Here. Juanmar hands over my patched-up mask. With the monitor’s glare I can spot his miel iris turning red. Does Papá know you dated someone stupid? he smiles.
Please don’t tell him I broke up with Rocio. He will gloat about this.
He doesn’t respond, which is my usual sign that our conversation is over. I never ask him for more than what he’s willing to give. I don’t want his quiet. My brother who now tucks his long hair behind his ears, his sharp ears, and whose eyes under today’s veil of smog are so red, waits for me to leave his room. As I head out, I spot the black feather sitting again on the floor, the same place it landed when the creature first visited Juanmar.
Papá now believes the pluma is a gallinazo feather. Giant black vultures that roamed our valley of Cumbayá and fed off the Machángara polluted river water. They ate the deformed rats that today still like to dive in the condensed stream and eat fishes whose skeletons are nothing but plastic. I tell Papá this theory is more entertainable than his last.
I’m taking the feather to the lab tomorrow, he announces to me and Juanmar over dinner. Make sure you bring it down, mijo, he says, his words slow and ennunciated. Papá closes his mouth and hovers his fingers above his lips, below his mustache, like he cherishes every syllable he speaks to my brother, like he aches with pain to do this again, to interact with our Juanmar who disappears.
Mamá is off somewhere outside with her mask tight around her cheeks and her knees deep in dirt. Her garden never wins the fight against our city’s contaminated air, but she persists. And Juanmar by some miracle sits next to me and our Papá and has decided to dine with us. I think it’s because the material we used to fix up his window wasn’t strong enough. I can smell the fumes from my bedroom still.
The bump in my brother’s back has grown. It stretches out his t-shirt and I can see how it pains him.
What was it like when the birds were alive? Juanmar asks my father, who is taken aback by hearing him speak. It’s been so long. I look at my ñaño’s face. Canine teeth honed and a nose I remember kissing so many times when he was little all scrunched up, wrinkled, almost a muzzle. I let out a sigh.
When I was a kid, Papá says, his voice trembling, and we lived with your grandparents out in the valley of Puembo, I could look outside my bedroom window and stare up at the equatorial sky. It shined so bright. Stars, constellations, our galaxy. Slowly, over time, they began installing streetlights. Su abuelo positioned some security light in our backyard that would stay lit all night.
Why all night? I ask him.
He feared thieves, he responds. I never got to see the stars again.
I’m sorry, I say.
What’s funny is that all the light pollution made the birds chirp at night sometimes. Pobrecitos, he says, shaking his head. They were so confused. Fooled by a sun that wasn’t a sun but your abuelo’s horrible luces.
I see Juanmar lick his teeth and the mountain birthed on his back spreading. I want to ask him if it hurts, if he’ll be okay, but then Papá interrupts my thoughts.
It’s like something was taken from my insides, Papá says as he closes his eyes. This is how I feel about the birds, he continues. They’re all gone, even the silly ones who tweeted at midnight.
Do you think there’s some part of me missing because I’ve never seen a bird? Juanmar asks the table. I move towards him and try to hug him, but Juanmar blocks me with his stretched out arms; they pull at his oversized shirt, forming a flat pinion. He stands up and heads upstairs, leaving us alone, surrounded by Mamá’s chubby winged angels.
Papá looks at me and then down at his food.
I’m not hungry anymore, he says.
Maybe Mamá wants to eat dinner, I say as I get up and walk to the kitchen window. My eyes search for her, but I don’t find my mother.
Papá and I hear rustling upstairs. We run up las gradas and he beats me to the door that’s ajar and we find Juanmar cocooned up on the ceiling; he hangs with his claws gripping the wooden beam. His skin wings embrace him like a burrito, his head hanging out. Mamá stands under him smiling and feeding him her seed hands.
From the kitchen, I watch the birdfeeder. The murciélagos Rocio let thaw hover above it, their skin wings fighting smog. Black fingers grasp at seeds and peanuts and shove them in their mouths. Ears upright, their blood red eyes lingering on mine. Round round bellies, I hope they find what they are looking for.
Editor: Vanessa Aguirre
First Reader: Belicia Rhea
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors