By TERE DÁVILA
They started building right away, as soon as it was safe to go outside.
“I can feel them moving!” Cristina squealed, standing knee-deep in leaves.
“Their teeth tickle!” laughed Zoe.
Something had caught their attention as they searched for pebbles and twigs. They crouched amid the soggy storm debris, then sprang up, kittenlike, uncombed curls against the gray sky, chattering and unaware of my presence. But as soon as they saw me approaching they stopped and exchanged looks. Cristina bit her bottom lip and smiled, a small and well-calculated gesture of contrition designed to deflate a scolding, but Zoe, the eldest, fixed her eyes on me, and her body tensed. She seemed ready to run, like a surprised wild thing.
I was being shut out of my daughters’ world, just like the fallen trees had closed us off from everything beyond our farm, trapping us on a mountain where all that previously felt gentle and generous about nature had turned dangerous. But then again, that was my interpretation, my mood and not theirs. On the contrary, the more discouraged I became, they more energetic they seemed, the more they wanted to play in their new burrow.
They stood amid the dead rubble, waiting for my next step. Would I get closer or leave? Nothing moved. Suddenly, the mound rustled. Cristina looked down, and my gaze followed hers. A long, pinkish rat’s tail coiled around her leg.
“We’ll be sleeping in Wonderland,” I told the girls the night of the storm, hoping the name we’d jokingly given the utility shed contiguous to our home would make it sound like an adventure.
It was a ten-by-ten-foot windowless cement cube where we kept everything odd or otherwise: old toys and art projects, gifts we did not like but felt bad about throwing out, boxes of photos, used crayons, glitter, my tools, and dog food. You never knew what marvels could come out of Wonderland, and at midnight, when the hurricane gained full force and peeled away our home’s gabled roof, it was the only place to take cover. The girls and I set up camp between the boxed-up Christmas lights and the washing machine, sleeping—or trying to—on the few dry towels left.
The next day, after the winds subsided, we went outside to assess the damage. Our home was destroyed beyond repair. The roof and walls on the north and east side had been torn away; the hurricane had swept up everything inside it and spun it into shards.
“I’ll use these for our new house,” Cristina said, holding out some little stones in her hand as she waddled toward me across a puddle of drowned leaves and bugs. “You’ll see. It’ll be so nice.”
“That’s great, honey,” I said, feigning enthusiasm; a good father should play along.
But Zoe wasn’t humoring her little sister.
“Don’t be dumb, Tina. We’ll need better stones than those, and this will be much better than any house we’ve ever had.”
And off they went, looking for better materials, larger rocks and sturdier twigs, whatever they could carry in their teddy-bear arms.
Maybe the girls meant to rebuild the pink doll cottage I had made for them in the backyard. It, like the big house, had also been whipped away by the winds; both were lying in pieces somewhere down the hill. They talked about making a new place to live, and I was relieved they had a game to keep them busy while I tried to get us out. The storm, which had caused a small landslide, had fenced us in by putting up huge walls of fallen trees and mud in one horrifying night. Clearing a passage and reaching someone in town was the only escape.
I had never wanted city life for my family. My daughters, I thought, should grow up with mud-covered sneakers and dirty fingernails, knowing and liking the musk of horses and dogs. Sofía, when she could still make sense of things, would worry that the girls were too rough-edged. They need to learn table manners, she’d insist; they need to comb their hair, and for God’s sake, girls, wash at least the important parts before going to bed. But good manners and hygiene have gone to pot now. Even if their mother were here, the things she considered important don’t matter anymore.
The girls spent hours rolling mud into little balls that they would lay out in the sun to dry. They dug up stones to place around the base of what started to look more like the entrance of a cave or the shell of a huge egg than a playhouse. My little birds, I called them, as they went back and forth, building their nest. They were conveniently busy while I despaired against nature, my progress amounting to nothing; the small machete I had was inadequate for the massive circumference of the fallen trunks, and the first passage I could clear only led to a deep crevasse with a fallen bridge. I realized that, up here in the mountains, the worst of a storm is not destruction but isolation, and I wondered: What was left on the other side? The roads were impassable, the bridges down, access was blocked to the rest of civilization, if there was still any left out there. In the beginning, I kept a log of the passing days, but they all became the same: sawing from sunup to sundown, thigh-deep in mud and battling mosquitoes. I would return to the shed disoriented from exhaustion, sometimes counting the same day twice and sometimes not at all, until time came to be measured only in terms of how long the food and drinking water would last. While I worried, the girls kept busy. They did not seem to notice my mood, nor the fact that I was slouched by fear. I, in turn, did not notice that, even though they kept adding branches and earth and pebbles to the thing, the exterior of their project did not increase in size. Only now has it become clear that, from the start, they were excavating tunnels.
“Bartolo will be okay—right, Dad?”
The dog had gone missing the afternoon before the storm. The three of us had looked for him in the woods, calling out his name with promises of sausage. When the winds picked up, I went back out alone, walked out as far as I dared, then gave up.
When Zoe, who considered Bartolo more hers than her sister’s—it was her prerogative as the eldest by two years—saw me return, she understood I would not go back to look for the dog that evening. She started to cry, and her smaller sister joined in.
“He’ll be okay,” I assured them, pulling them close. “Animals have a way of knowing when something bad is coming, and they hide.”
I hugged them, and remembering them so close throws my heart into a dark freefall. If only I could hold them again, kiss the crowns of their heads, even caked with mud and worm-ridden.
A good father does not let his daughters play with rats. It doesn’t matter that the eldest protests that they’re friends, that they won’t bite, or that the youngest seems thrilled at having one wrap its hairless tail around her chubby little leg. It didn’t even occur to me that the rats were eerily unafraid of the girls. I just dragged Zoe and Cristina away squealing and scrubbed their hands, their arms, legs, and faces with soap and some of the water I had collected in large plastic drums before the storm. They cried, but I was furious and paid little attention to whether I hurt them or not; that water was supposed to be just for drinking.
“You could die! Do you understand? Rat saliva can kill you!” I pointed to the burrow. “Don’t ever go back there!”
Cristina bawled so hard she started hiccupping and could barely breathe. I felt awful.
“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to scare you that much. You’re not going to die.”
“No!” she cried.
“No!” she squealed. “No, no, no,” she repeated in an ever-higher pitch.
“Stop it!” I shook her by the shoulders. “You will be fine!”
“Let her go, Daddy!” Zoe pleaded. “She knows that.”
“I’m not scared!” Cristina finally blurted. “I just want to go home.”
But they were home. With me. What was it about that thing they had built that had such a pull on them? And yet, hours later they were sleeping peacefully in Wonderland, on the towels I had laid out. Kids adapt; they’ll roll with what’s thrown at them. I looked down at Zoe, who had her arm draped across her sister’s belly, as if to protect her. Cristina was sucking her thumb, the same one that had stroked rat fur.
Every night after the girls went to sleep, I’d go outside to smoke. (I allowed myself one cigarette an evening to make the pack last.) I’d blow rings in the dark and listen to the racket of insects and frogs, trying to isolate their calls and distinguish one from the other. The coqui population had flourished after the storm, that was evident—their chorus grew increasingly aggressive each evening—and there were also more crickets, toads, and beetles out there, the air so thick with their combined buzzes, peeps, whines, and croaks that I could feel the vibration pressing against my head. I imagined that Earth had somehow turned itself inside out; that soon these creatures would take control of our space. Or perhaps they’ve always had control, and ours has been just an illusion of dominance, which will vanish as we are overcome by troops of lizards, worms, flies, roaches, rats, snakes, and others that have, like us, lost their homes and wander about, not knowing where to sleep or what comes next.
“Someone’s out there,” Zoe said the first time we saw the circles of light hovering in the darkness on the other side of the fallen woods.
“Shh!” I warned.
The natural reaction would have been to cry out for help, but instead I instructed the girls to keep quiet.
“If they come near, Zoe, take your sister and hide. Can you find your way in the dark?”
Both girls nodded without a second’s thought, which made me wonder: Were they already familiar with the terrain after sundown? While I slept, rendered unconscious by toil and hunger, had they been sneaking out to spend nights more to their liking in their new nest?
We watched in silence as the lights loitered just beyond the trees, then retreated and disappeared. Maybe it was the absence of accompanying chatter or that there were no calls, no inquiring hellos, no shout-out: “Is anybody out there?”; I knew that whoever was behind those lanterns meant no good.
My body got used to running on very little. Before the storm, I would get bored if I ate the same thing more than two days in a row; now I downed the same crackers without thinking, never looking up, the way Bartolo ate before he got lost. The girls, however, didn’t care about anything I offered. You must eat, I insisted, and they’d return a dullish look of incomprehension, then turn away, back to their games. Their legs and arms lost all baby fat, but they didn’t look frail. Once I saw Cristina jump on top of a rock that was almost her height. They both scurried around the yard, nimble as cats. They must have been feeding themselves somehow. My guess was lizards.
They also had adapted to the night’s thick and complete darkness better than me. We stopped using flashlights or candles so as not to attract the attention of the marauders. My cigarettes were gone, but I wouldn’t have risked being exposed by their glowing ash anyhow. Once night fell, the blackness only yielded a choir of insects. I’d curl up against the washing machine, wrap the dirty towel around my shoulders, and try to ignore the girls’ comings and goings outside. Sometimes they’d hide from me and refuse to come inside. From what I could tell, their night vision had grown sharp, but I still feared they’d get lost, and even if they didn’t, I should have gone out to look for them anyway. Even though it felt useless, it’s what a good father would have done.
It’s hard to get a bat out of a room. Harder with two little girls scurrying about your legs. Cristina and Zoe weren’t scared—a bat in the house is common here—and I let them have their fun while I swatted at the thing with a broom, doing the best I could in the twilight. They screeched and jumped up, all of which I though was part of their game, until I noticed their jaws snapping in the air.
“Yum, yum!” squealed Cristina as she shot for the bat.
“Yum, yum!” said Zoe.
“Stop it! You’ll get bat poo in your mouths.”
“Bat poo!” They both laughed. “Poo-poo! Yum!”
I felt a sharp pain in my thigh. I looked down and saw the bite mark, blood welling where the skin had been punctured, and Zoe baring her teeth at me.
“Mean Daddy!” she cried when I slapped her.
“Mean Daddy!” Cristina repeated and jumped on me, opening her mouth.
The full circle of baby teeth glistened in the fading evening light before she sank them in. She attached to my forearm, and I shook her off violently, instinctively, as I would have done had I been attacked by a rodent. But this was my daughter that I sent flying across the shed. She hit the washing machine with a thud, then lay still.
I rushed to Cristina. It was now too dark in the shed to examine her without the flashlight, so I made an exception to make sure she was okay. I lit it, holding it up to her face, and was met by twin glowing marbles. Then she hissed.
When the girls started spending all their nights away from Wonderland, I’d sit awake and listen for movements in the woods. Sometimes I’d hear their voices, their tiny feet scrunching leaves, but my door stayed shut.
One night, I heard rustling outside. It wasn’t the girls, I could tell. There was no glimmer from lanterns, so I doubted it was the trespassers.
“Bartolo!” I whispered, when I finally cracked the door open and saw the dog. He stood in the moonlight, halfway between me and the girls’ lair.
I called him again, still whispering so as not to alert them. But it was useless; they had already smelled him near.
“Bartolo! Bartolo!” they called out with Tinkerbell voices.
The dog looked at me, confused, then in the other direction.
“Come here!” I commanded, now in a loud voice. Like a good dog, he lowered his head.
“Bartolo! Bartolito!” the girls insisted, so sweetly.
“Here!” I insisted. “Here! Here!” more desperately. But the dog was already heading toward the burrow, wagging his tail.
I knew they would come—it was just a matter of time before the lights would cross the woods—and their silent approach speaks of their cruelty. There are no sounds coming from the girls’ lair either. They’ve surely felt the strangers’ presence. The tree frogs and the crickets are making quite a racket, though, like stadium fans greeting their team.
There’s no use staying inside. Wonderland won’t provide protection against this. I watch from behind a tree as the lights come closer. Shadows enter the utility shed, then exit and walk around the destroyed house. One stops, turns around and points a lantern in my direction. The others follow. From here, I could run to the burrow and escape, but I cannot move. I am stuck, paralyzed while the earth under my bare feet boils with worms and roaches and spiders. I can feel thousands of creatures excavating tunnels at full speed, digging furiously toward my girls, my daughters still, whatever it is they have become. A good father would be with them now. The burrow is so close. I still have time. Meanwhile, the circles of light increase in size and intensity.
Tere Dávila is the winner of two National Prizes: for Short Fiction, awarded to Aquí Están las Instrucciones, and Novel, for Nenísimas. Her short stories have been translated into English and published in national and international anthologies. In 2017, she received Puerto Rico’s New Voices Award. Dávila has also published the short story collections El Fondillo Maravilloso and Lego, as well as children’s books and books on Puerto Rican culture. In 2015, her short story “El Fondillo Maravilloso” was adapted into an award-winning short film.