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from the June 2004 issue

from “The Wind from the East”

When the Olmedo family arrived at their new home a strong easterly wind, the Levanter, was blowing. It blew the house's canvas awnings so high it appeared they would come free of their aluminum frames, then let them drop for a moment before inflating them again, producing a monotonous sound, muffled and heavy, like the beating wings of a flock of monstrously large birds. A rhythmic sound, metallic, much sharper, conveying the roughness of rust, could be heard now and again when the wind ceased. The neighbors were rolling up their own awnings, all green, all the same, as quickly as possible. Juan Olmedo immediately recognized the echo of the steel rings which spun on the awnings' rods and thought to himself that he'd had rotten luck. The contrast between the blue sky-its brilliant sun reflected off the facades of identical white houses like a balloon of light-and the hostility of that wild wind had something sinister about it. A few times, during the trip from Jerez while they were isolated in the car, the windows closed, the air conditioner blowing, Juan had promised Tamara that he would go swimming with her before dinner, but the perfect beach day that had beckoned to them through glass had suddenly turned into a nightmare of a hurricane. Now she walked a step behind him, looking at everything suspiciously with her new, cold eyes, but without venturing a word. Alfonso hadn't followed him, but Juan didn't notice till he had unlocked the door, marked Number 37, and entered the house that was his despite the fact that he'd never seen it. Then, while the distinct odor of recently completed construction assaulted him like a cat that has been dipped in paint and varnish, a yellowed old sports paper, stiff with age, rustled before it was swept out the door and into the open air. Juan's eyes followed the dance of the loose pages, which ascended suddenly in spirals or fell dramatically toward the ground, and in the distance made out the figure of his brother, standing stock-still in the middle of an intersection paved with red stones. Alfonso's arms hung at his sides, his legs apart, very still, but he rocked his head slowly from right to left, his face lifted toward the Levanter, brow furrowed, mouth ajar. Before breaking into a run toward him, in a gesture that had become second nature, he checked Alfonso's fly and confirmed with relief that it was closed. His poor brother-who continued sniffing the air like the slow, confused creature he was-would be the focus of plenty of attention in that sterile, private community, even without holding his sex in the palm of his hand. Arriving at Alfonso's side Juan hugged him carefully, smiling at him, and kissed him on the cheek before putting his arm around his shoulders to guide him. Alfonso moved his head up and down three times in a row, so sharply it seemed he would shake his head from his neck. It was his way of showing agreement. While the two brothers walked along the narrow sidewalk, not unlike a little road up to a dollhouse, the wind swirled a tumult of bougainvillea petals around them, pink, red, purple, inert, light as feathers, and Alfonso Olmedo finally smiled. Tamara, leaning against a wall waiting for them, clutching a colored jewelry box, two books, and a Barbie to her chest, received them with laughter. Her two uncles had blossomed. The petals dusted Alfonso's bald head and Juan's hair, their pants, their shirts, and their arms, giving them a comic but ambiguous appearance, something between two badly camouflaged soldiers and two street mimes that had decided to dress as trees to attract children's attention. Juan shook himself off and brushed the petals off Alfonso while all three laughed, before gently herding his family into the vestibule. As he closed the door he wondered if all this, the new house, the new job, the new town, so many hundreds of miles away, had not been a mistake. He thought to himself that it was still too early to know.

Sara Gomez had watched the whole scene from her bedroom window, closed tightly against the wind. She was fastening the shutters when she spotted the figure of a tall, brunet man in the distance, followed closely by a girl who was also brunette, hair falling at her shoulders and with the disproportionately long legs of a child who has just had a growth spurt. She studied them closely because that day, the 13th of August, a Sunday, the stores were closed and the Levanter was blowing, a combination of circumstances that obliged her to take her leisure against her will. She had been very busy in recent weeks. Furnishing a new house, what with its infinite details and her perfectionist's streak-which forced her to consider every detail essential-was turning out to be a much more time-consuming task than she had expected. Once she finally found a cheese grater she liked, she realized that she needed a garlic press, and when she found that, she noticed that the mirror in the guest bathroom was too small or that she couldn't let another day pass without mosquito-netting for each bedroom. Time was flying by in the parking lots of shopping centers, the summer was slipping rapidly away, along with the seaside heat that she had pursued to this place, a landscape so different from the city where she had been born and raised, where she had spent the unremarkable fifty-three years of her life. For this reason she had decided not to let a single sunny morning pass without swimming in the sea, nor any fair afternoon without walking along the damp sand at low tide until she had left the last sunbather far behind. September's proximity agitated her. Despite the fact that she couldn't remember making a decision that had pleased her so much as the purchase of that house, she didn't yet know what it was like to spend October next to the ocean, in a village where the taxis didn't have meters and where you could walk any place.

She shared this feeling of uncertainty with her new neighbors, but she didn't know this yet. She didn't even know if they had come to stay. Number 37 was still under construction when she had chosen Number 31, situated almost directly opposite and already complete, apart from some finishing touches. She chose it for this reason, and she didn't inquire about the neighbors. Instead of the iron fence she had imagined with disgust before visiting the development, she discovered that the private garden of each house was surrounded by thick whitewashed walls, over five feet high, which ensured complete privacy. When the awnings were open there was not the slightest opportunity for any curious party to observe what was happening on the facing porch, and if she hadn't been standing next to the upstairs window when the Olmedos got out of their car, she wouldn't even have known of their arrival. This privacy had so appealed to her that she hadn't paid much attention to the real estate agent while he explained-in the monotonous tone of things learned by rote-the fact that the walls were constructed to protect the garden from the winds, ever-changing but constant, some dry and full of sand, others humid and surprisingly cold, pleasant at certain times of year but almost always-he only went so far as to say bothersome-devastating.

On the 13th of August, 2000, as she was beginning to learn about these winds, Sara Gomez, leaning slightly to the left of her bedroom window, watched as the shutters of Number 37 opened one by one, all green, freshly painted, identical, and how the Levanter blew them wildly against the façade of the house, banging them again and again, until a member of this strange family returned to fasten them to the walls with nervous hands. Without realizing that she was retracting all her preconceptions, Sara studied the Olmedos, not only because she disliked the thought of living across the street from a house that was rented by the week, nor simply because that particular morning the closed stores and impossible weather kept her indoors against her will. She watched them because she had not been able to figure out who they were, what bonds united them, why they were living together. Ever since her borrowed childhood, Sara Gomez, like so many other children accustomed to being alone, entertained herself by imagining the lives of the people whose paths crossed hers, and when she allotted that tall, brunet man forty years and the paternity of the girl who walked one step behind him, looking for refuge from the wind, she hadn't realized she was beginning a tale so different from all the others she had spun. From afar, subject to the questionable accuracy of distance, the two looked very much alike. The girl, also brunette, tall with long bones, would be ten or eleven. Sara, who could not know that she had estimated both their ages correctly, wondered what the mother would be like, the woman who had stayed behind to search for something in the car or explore the subdivision, and whom her husband went to look for in a whirl of newspaper pages like big yellowed parenthesis setting off portions of air red with bougainvillea petals. Until that moment, the scene was so predictable it was boring, but then the girl stood alone outside the open door and didn't show the slightest sign of entering. Leaning against the wall, hugging herself, some books and a blonde doll, she looked frozen, completely immobile, her head still, her eyes darting about with an alert expression, as if she deeply regretted being there and had good reason to be suspicious of the place. The stranger who was watching her wondered what kind of child could resist the temptation of dashing into a new house and began to suspect that no mother would arrive. She had just begun to imagine it was a holiday with a separated father-with or without a new companion, as well as a huge inventory of filial grudges, perhaps justified-when she spotted the tall, dark man again, walking very slowly, his arm around another man, a variable she hadn't considered. But her surprise didn't last longer than the scene itself. The laggard walked like a crudely fashioned marionette, synchronizing the movement of his legs with difficulty, tilting his head to look at the sky with an open mouth, abandoning himself in the arms of his chaperon, who guided him with the skill of a man accustomed to looking after someone who wasn't capable of looking after himself. He was more fat than burly, and almost completely bald; Sara guessed correctly again when she estimated he was a little over thirty, and realized that she had been completely wrong about everything else when she saw a smile spread across the girl's face upon seeing the two men return. The tall, dark man put his left arm around her and pressed her to his side, keeping his other arm around the man, and he kissed them both many times on their heads and their faces, over and over again, almost wildly, before gently pushing them both into the house. When the door closed, his new neighbor thought he looked like a sad man.

Soon all the windows of Number 37 were open, the shutters secured, and Sara Gomez backed away from her bedroom window with a vague feeling of guilt, as if she had committed an unpardonable sin by witnessing the gloominess of the new arrivals, their pale happiness. Seated on the couch in her empty living room, vacant spots claiming in vain the presence of furniture whose future proprietor had ordered in half a dozen stores, she listened to the howling of the Levanter, now free of the obstacle of the awnings, more ferocious and more monotonous, like an implacable, cacophonous, unceasing band at the far end of the garden. With no company other than that deafening hum and a packet of tobacco, she began to doubt her own uneasiness and her sense of a furtive, almost clandestine attitude she thought she had distinguished in every movement of the new arrivals. Finally, she was learning the lessons of the wind. She knew enough to suspect that on any calm day, a beach day, placid and hot like any other August the 13th, her new neighbors would certainly not have seemed so strange.

Read more from the June 2004 issue
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