She arrived in Buenos Aires with the story born of her travels so fulsome in her that she felt like a woman she’d seen in a mountain hut, supported by other village women, walking wide-legged as her baby shifted through the birth canal and began the final bloody inches of progress into the world. There was a heaviness, a sense of needing to bear down. The story was that close, it only needed a push, and here was the quiet place she could settle in to give it.
Señora Navarro was a friend from the women’s congress last year in Guatemala, before all the travels, a grand and gracious lady with mother of pearl combs in her black hair who made her invitation repeatedly to the young yanqui in the self-consciously correct accent of the southern cone.
“Come to my house,” she’d said, pressing an address into Clementine’s hand on embossed stationery – Rosa Maria Navarro de Galicia, a lyrical name Clementine had whispered under her breath many times, testing the vowels and rolling the double r’s. “I’ll show you my beautiful city.”
Clementine had promised, and she did want to see Señora and the city, but more than that she must find space and quiet to write by whatever means necessary. With this in mind she’d returned from Chile to Bolivia to take the slow train south from La Paz, second class, sitting propped against the window for so long what with delays for sheep on the tracks that she could barely unfold when they reached Retiro Station. The walk began easily, through the parks and around the monuments of Recoleta, asking directions of well-groomed porteños who looked askance at her peasant clothes and the woven shoulder bag that replaced her lost suitcase. By the time she got to Señora’s street in Barrio Parque, lined with houses that looked like embassies, she could feel each pebble on the sidewalk through her thin shoes.
When she found the house, not as grand as some but at least three stories, sharing a court with similarly dignified structures, she wondered again if Señora Navarro would really be happy to see her. The months of travel showed. She was relatively clean, but everything on her was second-hand and worn, she’d cracked a tooth in Panama and her last haircut was in Los Angeles. She’d grown used to being shunted aside in public places, another poor creature who gave way reflexively to men in suits, ladies in hats. Wouldn’t the lady of this house take one look and shut the door?
She tapped so timidly at the ironwork grate leading into a passage to the front door that the inhabitants could hardly be expected to notice. No one came. A lady walking her white dog – or maybe only a maid, but erect and graceful – slowed as she passed and gave Clementine an indifferent glance. It was desperation that made her raise her hand again and grasp the knocker. Before she could lower it, a girl of perhaps sixteen opened the inner door and stood outlined against the shadowed passageway, much like Clementine in a dirndl skirt below the knee and worn out espadrilles.
Clementine began to explain herself and offered the sheet of stationery, but the girl showed no interest. Perhaps she couldn’t read? Was she reluctant to touch the creased, dirty paper guarded for many miles?
“Señora isn’t back for hours, Cook is at the market and I can’t let strangers into the house,” the girl said, lounging against the grate. “Are you really from America?”
“Yes, a place up north called Minnesota. Señora Navarro invited me here at a meeting in Guatemala last year.”
“You were at the meeting in Guatemala City?”
“Yes. Ladies from an organization in California sent me as a delegate. I had no idea Señora’s house would be so …”
“It’s a pain to clean. I remember when Señora went to Guatemala City because the pump broke and I carried water from next door for a week. Then Lidia and Cook got sick and I cleaned and shopped and carried water and cooked for Señor and Abuela, who left half the food on their plates. If Señora had been here she’d have found other help.”
Clementine shifted the weight of her bag and looked up and down the street, increasingly aware that what passed in the country was inadmissible on a street like this. A gringa, taller and paler than the women around her, someone of whom people expected a presentation she couldn’t manage. She’d stumbled nearly penniless out of the train, grateful to escape the noise, vibration, and traveling barnyard. If Señora Navarro wouldn’t take her in, she had no good alternative. The girl gave no sign of opening the grate.
“I know I’m not a good cook,” the girl continued in a dreamy voice, oblivious to the anxiety consuming Clementine, “not like most women. I had no mother to teach me, so I wasn’t wanted in my village and wound up in the city doing other people’s laundry. They say I have bad luck but it never worried me much because the seer in our village, Chela, told me when I was eleven that things will happen to me. Different things, unexpected. Chela comes from the Huarpe – descended from the gods. Unexpected things have happened just as she said, like you coming to the house like a child wandering out of the mountains, raised by wolves!” The girl covered her mouth with her hand when she giggled.
Clementine hitched her possessions higher, feeling the cold and more insistent hunger now that she wasn’t walking. The girl stood in the doorway of a heated house in an alpaca sweater thicker than anything Clementine had, indifferent to the chill.
“I’ve come a long way,” Clementine said. “Over land from Ecuador, by foot and bus and donkey and train and anything that moved.”
The girl made the sign of the cross – forehead, chest, shoulders. “Your eyes are like Chela’s,” she said. “Not dangerous, but definitely loca. Not of this world. Are you a spirit?”
Was the girl not right in the head? “I’m not loca,” Clementine said, “and I’m not a spirit. Please, I’m just hungry. And cold. Señora Navarro knows me. Could I come in out of the wind?”
The girl looked at the hall behind her, which ended in a heavy carved wood door. A heavy straight-backed chair was the only furniture.
“I guess it’s okay,” she said and stepped back. “Come in.”
The latch opened when Clementine pushed. The girl stood several paces away as she entered, the way one would keep distance from a wild thing, crossing herself again. Behind the grill was a solid door that Clementine pushed mostly shut on creaking, unused hinges to enclose the entry hall. It was dark, but much warmer. The girl backed out, shut the inner door, and Clementine was alone and safe in a protected space, if not quite warm, until Inés the cook came home, absorbed the surprise of finding her as if waifs appeared regularly in the front hall, and led her to a stool near the stove where a cup of maté and a hunk of brown bread appeared.
Several hours later, as Clementine was making good progress peeling a mound of potatoes, the girl reappeared at the kitchen door to wave Clementine forward to the side door onto the carport, skipping ahead in excitement. Lidia, the maid Inés had pointed out as she moved through the house on her efficient rounds, waited in her tidy uniform as Señora Navarro stepped out of the Cadillac like returning royalty, a whirlwind of perfume, fur, and scarves.
“These go in water, Lidia,” Señora said, handing over an armful of hothouse lilies, “and there are bags in the – but who is this?”
Lidia looked at her skeptically. “Someone Inés let in,” she said.
Clementine stepped into the light in her dark dress and thin sweater, still carrying warm maté always ready on the stove, suddenly afraid that Señora wouldn’t remember, or that the invitation was only politeness. The thought of venturing back into the cold so close to dark brought back the shivers she’d only recently shaken off.
“It’s Clementine Lagrange,” she said, trying to revive the enthusiastic person she’d been in Guatemala City where she’d done her best for the Zonta ladies who dispatched her. Now she was less sure and more damaged. Thinner. Altogether less winning. The difference might count to Señora Navarro.
“Clementina? But no, it isn’t possible! My dearest! Lidia, tell Inés to set another place for dinner, then run upstairs and pour a hot bath. Oh my dear girl, you’re so thin! What have you been doing? Are you all right?”
Señora embraced her with the overflowing generosity she’d shown in Guatemala City, not an iota changed or restrained, but behind her, retreating toward the kitchen behind Lidia and the lilies, Clementine saw how the girl watched with distrustful eyes, crossing herself again, and felt the tenuousness of the welcome.
After dinner, at Señora’s direction Lidia led Clementine to the bottom of a winding staircase leading to a rooftop room and handed her a stack of fresh sheets topped with rose sachets.
“Your room is up there,” she said. “But I don’t go up there.”
Lidia, who did everything quickly and as silently as possible, only shook her head and hurried back downstairs. Clementine climbed the stairs with trepidation, fearing what she might find, but the girl was there to take the sheets and make up the low bed in the corner. As Señora had promised, the desk was full of paper and pens. On a shelf was an ancient typewriter needing only a fresh ribbon.
“What is your name?” Clementine asked. The day was nearly gone – another day and time so precious – what with gaining admittance to the house and singing for her supper by telling Señora and Abuela about her travels. She wanted only to sit down and work, but it was important to show appreciation for the girl’s dutiful efforts to make the room pleasant. The household seemed to ignore her.
“Bernardina,” the girl said, smoothing a cloth along the length of a bookshelf holding the complete works of Cervantes. She moved slowly at all times, Clementine observed. She could have made the bed twice in the time Bernardina took, but she filled in the minutes with a monologue covering unspoken gaps in the story of the house.
“This was the room that Señor used as an office before he went to prison for saying things he shouldn’t about Perón.” She pointed through the French doors onto the terrace facing north over rooftops and into windows on the south-facing house across the courtyard. “It’s cold in that house because they never get sun, but this room is always warm. Señor would rest on the bed while he wrote for his university job or made pamphlets for the Communists. They sent me up to clean so I learned not to mind it, but the house moans in the wind and a shutter gets loose and bangs no matter how you fasten it. Felisa who was before Lidia thought it was haunted, and Lidia never says a thing but she won’t come up here now that Señor is gone. Of course a yanqui wouldn’t believe in a thing like ghosts.”
“Sometimes we do,” said Clementine. “Why would there be ghosts? What happened here?”
Bernardina looked at the four walls, ceiling, and floor as if to reassure herself that they were solid. “No one knows what happened to Señor after the police came to get him – came right into this room when he wouldn’t go down and hit him so there was blood. They say he’s in prison, but you know. Bad things happen in prison.” She was at the threshold onto the terrace.
“Is that common? People locked up for criticizing the president?” Clementine thought of steady, smiling President Truman and how different her land was from Argentina – people would always be free to speak their minds in America.
“Oh all the time!” Bernardina’s small feet stepping onto the outdoor tile barely made a noise, but she left the door wide and a cold breeze filled the room that had been cozy a moment earlier. Clementine rushed to shut it. When she looked out, Bernardina had disappeared from the terrace. A low wall separated the bedroom terrace from the portion of the roof where laundry hung, where there must be another staircase. Clementine gave a moment’s thought to where Bernardina had come from at such a young age, what the girl’s life might have been, then surrendered to the compulsion to sit at the desk and write until dawn.
Bernardina came up to the little study regularly to tidy and dust in a desultory way that said she was there more to observe than serve, and if Clementine glanced up at the right moment she’d catch the girl making the sign of the cross every time she left, as if Clementine were a sort of caged household demon.
“Why do you do that?” Clementine asked once when Señora and Abuela had already left the breakfast table, because Bernardina was unfailingly silent around them.
“For protection,” Bernardina said, in her disarmingly open way. She told Clementine everything – how when she was only three her father killed her mother then himself in a fit of jealous rage over a scrap metal seller who brought little trinkets to the tiny house, her dream of being an artist, every glamorous thing she imagined Señora doing on her trips, parties and dancing, when Clementine knew that Señora traveled the Americas making political allies who might secure her husband’s release. Most of all Bernardina wanted to read, so Clementine began to teach her.
“Why would you need protection from me?” Clementine asked. Even in her preoccupation, she wanted Bernardina to like her and was disturbed at her attitude.
“I asked Father Juan Miguel what saint to pray to about a crazy person in the house but he thought I was joking. He’s a silly priest. He thinks everything is funny and uses poetry in his homily. I heard that the archbishop is going to send him back to Spain and I’m glad. In my village we had Father Jorge who shouted about hell and made you feel like you went to mass for a reason.”
“But I’m not a crazy person.”
“A crazy person would say that,” Bernardina answered firmly. “When you first arrived, I was afraid Señora would have you sleep in the other bed in my room behind the kitchen, where I’d have to wake up with those strange light brown eyes looking at me and listen to you sing songs from the radio with words I don’t know. I don’t mind the singing, but it makes me nervous in the same room, all those gringo words like witchcraft.”
“No witchcraft,” Clementine said as she contemplated the thick coffee swirling in her cup, black grounds with a little water. “Only homesickness.”
“Don’t your people miss you at home?”
“My people?” Clementine watched the progress of a small brown spider up the oiled tablecloth, how it evaded obstacles in the crocheted cover and tested the slick edge of the butter dish with one delicate leg, ever determined, always in motion. “My people are my home. They’re with me everywhere.”
“Only ghosts can be everywhere,” said Bernardina and crossed herself again for good measure before leaving the room on mysterious errands that kept her out of the house much of the day.
Clementine spent as much time as possible cloistered at the top of the house, scribbling dense pages while activity carried on below. Señora introduced her to a set of university students who invited her out in the evenings to debate the future of South America in the cafes. It was a relief to talk to people after days living in her head, and the students grew animated at her stories from the campo of the people’s poverty and desperation, talking late about how things must change.
In the sleepy mornings after nights of talking, dancing, and even later writing, she often heard Bernardina, who ranked lowest in the house and got jobs not properly assigned to Inés or Lidia, singing as she hung laundry on the roof – Argentinian folk songs or American pop songs with Spanish words substituted. If Bernardina wasn’t much of a worker, she was an eager and accurate barometer and newspaper for the household.
“I hear you here every day,” Clementine remarked one day, trailing into the morning sun in her nightgown, leaning over the low wall between the tiled terrace and the laundry lines as Bernardina smoothed dry sheets but showed little interest in taking them down and folding. “When is your day off?”
“You yanquis and your vacations!” Bernardina replied. “Here in the city house there’s always something to do since I came here two years ago, but less now that the children are gone to European universities and farther too and nobody knows when or if Señor will be back. Lidia lives with her family in Boedo, so I’m the first one sweeping and mopping in the morning. Don’t let Señora come down and see a dirty rug! I like it then, by myself. When Lidia arrives she starts breakfast and the smell awakens Señora, Abuela, and their house guests. There are many guests. Maybe that’s why Señora put you up here, so you won’t be bothered with all the coming and going.”
“I like it up here,” Clementine said. “I asked to be out of the way, in a quiet place.”
“What do you write about?”
“I write about everything I saw on my journey, to get it out.”
Bernardina considered this but didn’t comment. “You eat well, that’s for sure. Everything Inés puts in front of you you eat like a street dog, she says. I understand, though. She’s a good cook.”
“I ate nothing but arepas and baked potatoes for weeks in Chile, in the mountains with the guerrillas. I was malnourished when I got here.”
Bernardina put her hands on her hips. “I don’t believe you were with the guerrillas. I’ve heard of women going with them, but they were village women, like me. Strong. Not like you. You’re so thin, you couldn’t carry much. What use would you be? Some people might be crude and say the men had uses for you, but you don’t look like that kind of woman. You’re like Señor, always thinking, then talking about things like ‘means of production’ I don’t understand. You might be a teacher. That’s why Señora likes you and wants you to stay, because she misses talking with Señor.”
“I hope she wants me to stay,” Clementine answered, glad to hear this opinion. “I have nowhere else to go. How did you come here?”
Bernardina stepped behind a sheet and trailed her finger along it, invisible but for the impression through thin white fabric. “I’m alone in the world. I chose to be, rather than spend my life with the villagers touching amulets to ward off my bad luck.” She came around the end of the sheet and took a handful of Clementine’s going out dress, blue with white flowers and a lace collar, the only garment she owned decent enough for going out with the students from fine families. Clementine washed it herself in the rooftop basin, carefully with hand soap, and hung it inside out to keep it from fading. Bernardina ran her fingers along the seams of the skirt.
“Cut on the bias, Lidia calls that,” she said. “It falls in such a pretty way when the women dance in their high heels. I never had a dress like that. This label in English – did you carry it all the way from the United States?”
“No. My suitcase got lost – or stolen – on the boat from Panama. I traded potatoes for this dress at a market in La Paz.”
“That young man who comes for you, on the motorcycle – he looks like the maned wolves that wander near our village. He has a hungry face. He’s a wolf who’ll devour us all and then himself. Are you going to marry him?”
Clementine cocked her head. “Aren’t you funny? I’m never getting married. Señora thinks he’s so well bred. She talks about his family. She loves how he shines his shoes and comes into the house to greet her.”
“Well bred. I hear them say that about people, like the calves out of a good bull and cow. She means that he isn’t like my people. He’s not a peasant.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your people,” Clementine said. “Or mine.”
“Señora and Abuela think there is. Maybe not Señor, but he’s an intellectual. Everyone in this neighborhood thinks so, even if they don’t say it out loud. They have silent ways of telling us, like how the landowner who gave me a ride to the city made me ride in back with the boxes and goats instead of in the empty seat next to him.”
Clementine was distracted, thinking of how forcefully the boy with the motorcycle had argued the night before, how passionately he’d held her in the dark park. He’d never become a doctor, she thought. He spent too much time drinking and arguing politics. They squandered precious hours when she should be writing.
“Probably,” she said, mere acknowledgement.
Bernardina waited for more, but Clementine turned around without more words and sat down with her pages.
“This came for you,” Bernardina said, following. She dropped a thin blue airmail envelope on the desk. “You’re wanted at home.”
The letter was sealed. There was no way Bernardina could know what was in it, but Clementine snatched it up, read it hungrily, then pushed past Bernardina and thumped down the steps so loudly it sounded to her ears like falling, like what Bernardina called her ‘loose yanqui bones’ rattling against the walls. What did Bernardina know about bones anyway, and about her sister Martine’s letter? She avoided Bernardina the rest of the day and wrote a whole chapter.
That night Bernardina was like a shadow on the wall when Abuela held up the letter Clementine had showed her and said that of course, she should go home if her grandmother was sick. Señora scolded her for making their guest feel unwelcome, but Abuela was an old, old woman, nearly ninety, and did what she wanted. One morning recently Lidia on her way to work had found her walking down the middle of the street, yelling at drivers to get out of her way. The street was quiet and she wasn’t hurt, but everyone was worried, trying to keep her calm, watching the doors.
“Your place is with your abuela,” she told Clementine loudly. “What kind of girl leaves her family for so long? What kind of girl runs around with a man on a motorcycle?”
“Mother!” Señora said.
Clementine nodded. “Of course you’re right. I’m making plans to head home.”
Three days later Bernardina was on the roof watching the sunrise when Clementine emerged into stark light like pins in her eyes from the tiny cinder block outhouse up there with a seatless toilet used only by the servants. There was a nicer inside bathroom that she shared with Abuela, but she’d climbed the dividing wall and crossed the length of the roof to get to this one. Bernardina, nearby at the roof’s edge, startled at the apparition of Clementine.
“You scared me,” she said. “I could’ve fallen.”
Clementine, looking startled herself, came close to her and whispered, “Please don’t tell anyone I was in there. Please keep my secret.” She wiped her mouth with a washcloth and Bernardina sniffed.
“You smell like vomit,” she said. “You should wash.”
“Yes. I will,” Clementine said and hurried over the wall and inside. Beside her bed was the little suitcase Señora had found for her among Señor’s abandoned things. It would look more respectable on the flight, she said, when she handed Clementine an airline ticket to Minneapolis, probably the most valuable thing Clementine had ever held. The envelope was thick like Señora’s stationery, a promise of riches inside.
“How can I repay you?” Clementine asked.
“Finish your book and publish it. That’s what I want. It’s what Emilio would want, if he were here. Will you do that for us?”
Clementine promised, then slipped out of the house and exchanged the ticket for one to Guatemala City, where her friend Patrícia would take her in and help her when the baby came. It was impossible to think of going back to Minnesota now.
Señora was to drive her to the airport the next morning, so she carefully ironed the going out dress and went down looking as proper as she could to sit beside Abuela at breakfast, wondering if she should tell Bernardina before she left about the character based on her. Perhaps it would mean to her that the seer was right and things would happen to her. It was little to leave in thanks and apology, but Clementine was disappointed when Bernardina wasn’t hovering as usual.
“Where is she?” she asked Abuela. “The girl?”
Abuela was trying to open a sticky jam jar. Clementine took it and wrenched off the top, feeling strong, already tasting the new adventure of the day.
“She doesn’t get here until nearly ten. She gets her children to school first,” Abuela said.
“No, the other girl. Bernardina.”
“How do you know about Bernardina?”
“What do you mean, how do I know? She’s in my room every day.”
Señora walked in wearing a full suit and pearls, ready for the drive.
“Listen to this, Rosa,” Abuela said. “The yanqui says she’s seen Bernardina.”
Under foundation and rouge, Señora went pale. “You’ve seen her? Where?”
Clementine grew uneasy. Had the girl run away? Was something wrong?
“Not since early this morning, on the roof. She was standing by the east edge, watching the sunrise.”
“Up there?” Señora pointed at the ceiling, through the floors of the house to the exact place Bernardina had been. “Along the street?”
Señora’s and Abuela’s eyes met in a shock Clementine didn’t understand. “What’s going on?”
Señora picked up her coffee cup and drained it before answering. “That’s where she jumped. Eight months ago.”
Clementine went cold all over. She felt an instinct to jump up and run out of the house, but as far as she got was standing suddenly, knocking over her chair. “That’s not possible,” she said. “I’ve seen her every day. In this room, with the rest of you here. She tidied my room. She brought my letters. She never stopped talking!”
Señora left the room abruptly and came back with round, maternal Lidia and squat brown Inés wiping her hands on her apron. “These are the only servants in the house,” she said. “Has either of you seen someone else? Someone like Bernardina?”
Lidia and Inés looked intently at the floorboards.
“Answer me!” Señora cried.
“She’s up there,” Inés said flatly. “She never left.”
“We should call the priest,” Lidia said.
“Not that silly priest,” Señora answered. “He’ll turn this into a circus. What if I just lock that bedroom?”
Lidia shook her head, still looking down as if mortified to discuss this unholy topic. “She’s on the roof too.”
Clementine realized she was watching with her mouth wide open. “Are you seriously saying she’s a ghost?”
“The servants,” Señora said, breaking into English for the first time since Clementine had known her. “They’re superstitious. But you saw her too!”
“I saw …” Clementine thought back to her experience of Bernardina – how quiet she’d been in the presence of others, the way she never seemed to do anything outside the upper bedroom, her long disappearances. Even the first day, what had Bernardina done but invite her in an unlocked gate? And why? Was she lonely? Bernardina had wanted her in the house until she didn’t, a change of heart that coincided with the night some six weeks earlier when she’d made a decision – a drunken concession to a man she’d never see again – that would change her life. “I don’t know what I saw.”
Señora checked her watch. “We have to get you to the airport, so you can go home and tell them how crazy porteños are!” she said with a look that sent Lidia and Inés scurrying back to whatever they’d been doing when she summoned them to the dining room. Clementine picked up the suitcase and followed to the carport.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she climbed in. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. You’ve been so generous.”
“The girls must have told you stories and your imagination carried you away,” Señora said, beginning the painstaking progress backwards out of the tight space, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the back of the banquette seat. “You’ll go home and laugh about it.”
The car swung wide into the street, slung into gear under Señora’s firm hand in a driving glove, and rolled clear of the airy gum trees that camouflaged the roof. As the sun broke through into Clementine’s eyes she glimpsed, as she knew she would, Bernardina at her post on the roof, watching them roll away. Señora was still chattering nervously, describing the many things Clementine would surely miss about the city, waxing sentimental about how her young man would pine. Clementine considered for a moment telling her that Señor must be alive because he had no ghostly presence in the upstairs room, but decided it would only upset her more. Instead, she folded her hands on her lap and fixed her gaze on the road, thinking that what a ghost said about you must be true, that she was dangerous, feral – a bruja unleashed on an unsuspecting world.