The Place Where Birds Die

Translated by Sarah Moses

We didn’t bury the first one deep enough. A few days later we went back and half its body was sticking out of the ground; ants were crawling over its feathers and it was all puffed up. It smelled, and made us want to puke. The shovel was over in the abandoned house. I’m the one who digs the pits now. Castro isn’t strong enough.

The place where birds die has more trees than the rest of the woods—the branches are tangled and you almost can’t see the sky. The abandoned house hasn’t changed since last summer, except for the mountains of sand and bricks that used to be there

Dad comes on the weekend because he has to work. He says that grown-ups can’t take two months of vacation, that we’re lucky Mom’s on maternity leave, that if it weren’t for the baby we wouldn’t have been able to stay at the coast all summer.

But it’s not our fault everything’s so boring here. It’s been raining for like a week, and when the sun does come out we can’t go to the beach because it’s bad for the baby. We can’t go into town either because she cries all the time, and Mom gets nervous when people stare.

We’re not allowed to walk around on our own even though there are no cars. We’re far from town, the streets are made of dirt and get all muddy. Dad says he likes the silence. We can only get away when Mom’s napping. The place where birds die is two blocks from here, walking downhill.

The baby’s name is Jazmín and she was born less than two months ago. I was the one who thought of her name, but it made me mad when Mom and Dad decided to use it. I wanted to save it for when I have children. She can only do six things, Castro and I have counted them: breastfeed, puke, pee and poo, sleep, squeeze your finger, and cry at the top of her lungs. Her crying wakes us up almost every night. She can’t even open her eyes all the way, it’s like they’re stuck half-shut.

I’m the oldest sister and Castro’s in the middle. Castro’s name is really Martina, but Dad gave her that nickname. He thinks it’s very funny, I don’t because I don’t get it, and Castro doesn’t care either way. I’m almost three years older than her, she’s six. Sometimes she tries to tell me what to do and I have to explain that I’m the boss. If she doesn’t listen I pull her hair. But she pulls mine back, she’s getting stronger.

Both of us think another child, especially a girl, is one too many.

We’ve spent the summer here since forever, except for the year we went to Peru. I was really little and don’t remember it, Castro and the baby didn’t exist yet. Dad always says they traveled the mountains from end to end with me in a backpack. So I don’t understand why we have to stay inside all day, why we can’t even take the baby three blocks from here, to the beach.

But no, we can’t, Mom repeats with a tired look on her face, and she sits me and Castro down in the living room to watch the same movie for the tenth time, with the volume really low, on a TV that’s not even half as big as the one we have at home. Castro does the robot walk and I try not to laugh because I’m angry.

Dad says it’s lucky people haven’t discovered the area yet, that the day a real estate agent clues into the woods all around us, there’ll be houses and shops everywhere. A gated community, he says, they’ll build a gated community here.

Jose, my best friend, has a house in a gated community. Her dog has a collar that gives it a shock whenever it leaves the garden, like the washing machine at home if you touch it without shoes on. But Dad says it’s not going to be like that, it’ll be nicer and the dogs will be able to go wherever they want. He’s always saying that we should buy land and asking me and Castro if we’ll lend them our savings. That’s ridiculous, Mom says to him, while she serves us pasta, We haven’t even finished paying off the car. We eat pasta every day.

I wish there were shops. Even a golf course would be okay because then we could go looking for golf balls in the trees. Me and Castro love the woods, but there’s nothing to do there. Except for the place where birds die.

Mom’s been cooking because Dad’s coming today, now she’s lying on the couch hooked up to that horrible thing that pumps her milk. I set the table. The baby’s sleeping, today she cried almost all day and then finally got tired. Castro’s looking at her tiny feet.

We wait, starving to death, until Dad calls. I answer. He asks me to give the phone to Mom, but I tell him she’s lying down, that the baby won’t let her sleep. Mom yawns, nods her head, and smiles with her eyes closed. Dad says the traffic is terrible, that all the idiots leave the city at the same time, that he doesn’t know when he’ll get here, that we shouldn’t wait for him to eat. I repeat everything to Mom, and Castro shouts, Idiots, what idiots! Mom tells her to be quiet and I ask Dad if tomorrow he’s going to take us to the beach. He promises.

After dinner, Mom asks me to help bottle-feed the baby. But she won’t let me do anything, just sit with her and watch. Jazmín’s cheeks are red and she reminds me of a doll I had when I was little. It was my favorite until Castro poked out its eyes with a pair of scissors.

Castro’s in charge of picking up the birds because they don’t gross her out. She grabs them by the wings or legs and throws them into the pit. Whenever we go, there’s at least one bird, sometimes there’s two or three. I cover them up and then we jump on the dirt. Castro says that birds eat maggots, but when they die it’s the opposite. She looks at me, all serious. They’re enemies, she says.

After we cover up the pit, we put a stone on top. We like to know where each bird is and how many there are. So far we’ve buried eleven this summer, and even though they’re deeper down, they still smell.

I dream of birds crying because they know they’re going to die, but when I wake up it’s the baby. Dad has her in his arms and comes over to my bed. It’s still night. I ask him when he got here and he says, Shh, sleep. He gives me a kiss on the forehead and leaves the door open a bit.

Castro wakes me up early. She’s already got her bathing suit on and says we’re going to the sea. I get up and we run to Mom and Dad’s room but they’re still sleeping. So is the baby. I go over to the bed to wake them and Mom says they need to sleep a little longer, that they didn’t get any rest all night. She closes her eyes and curls up next to Dad. Okay? she mumbles.

No! Castro shouts. Mom and Dad wake up right away. The baby moves in her crib and we all keep very still and hold our breath until she falls back asleep. Mom grabs Castro’s arm and covers her mouth. My sister bites her finger and Mom grabs Castro by the hair, takes her to the couch in the living room. You’re to stay here and keep still, she says with clenched teeth. You’re not to talk, make noise, or move. You too, she says to me, and goes back to her room.

We’re hungry. Castro’s grumpy because Mom and Dad won’t get up. She turns on the TV and raises the volume. I lower it and tell her to wait, not to bother them. I grab a box of crackers to calm her down. But she gets more and more worked up, says she wants hot chocolate. I tell her I’ll make her one, but that it’ll have to be cold, and she shouts, Cold hot chocolate, that’s disgusting! Be quiet, I tell her, if you don’t make any noise I’ll heat one up for you.

Turning on the stove is easy, first the match and then the gas. I put the milk in a pot on the stove. Castro runs back and forth, gets down on the floor, and drags herself along, she loves to hide under the table and grab your feet when you walk by. I tell her to stop because she’s wearing a white shirt and getting it all dirty.

I climb onto a stool, see that the milk’s started to bubble, turn off the stove, and get two mugs. Castro comes up to me, she wants to see. And because she can’t keep still, she pushes me, the pot slips from my hand, and the hot milk spills onto my arm.

I shout and Castro does too. You burned yourself, you burned yourself! she says over and over like a parrot, and wants to touch my arm. Dad comes running. Now what’s going on? he asks. Then he sees me and sits me down on the counter to run the burn under a stream of cold water. We told you not to use the stove, he yells. The two of you are always getting into trouble. It’s the baby’s fault, Castro shouts. What’s going on? we hear Mom say from their room. Then we hear the baby’s cry, soft at first, until suddenly it deafens us all.

Dad gets dressed and puts us in the car. My arm really hurts. I ask why Mom’s not coming and he tells me she has to stay with Jazmín. At the first-aid clinic, they put a bandage that’s all sticky on the burn. It has fat in it, the doctor says, to keep your skin moist. Castro comes over and smells it, makes a face like she’s grossed out, but then smells it two more times.

They also tell me I can’t go to the beach for a week. The burn could get infected.

Mom gives me a hug, asks if it hurts. I tell her it does and she says she’s sorry for not getting up to make us breakfast. Get me something to eat! Castro shouts. I’m hungry!

Calm down, Mom says. If you keep shouting you’ll be paying for it all summer. But she says it like she doesn’t mean it and Castro doesn’t listen, climbs onto a chair, and shouts louder, The baby gets all the milk she wants while we starve to death!

Dad laughs. Don’t encourage her, Mom says. Castro gives her a look of hate, jumps down from the chair, kicks her in the leg, and runs out the door. Mom and Dad look at each other. Unbelievable, he says, the little brat. Go on, she tells him, go on, and while Dad runs after Castro, she puts the baby in my arms. Take care of her, she says, and goes to find them. Jazmín looks at me, opens her mouth, and breathes in. I feel her slipping from my hands and hold her tight. She starts to cry.

They take forever to come back, or at least that’s how it feels because the baby won’t stop crying and I don’t know how to calm her down. Dad finally comes in holding Castro by the arm, she struggles to get away but he drags her to our bedroom and slams the door shut. Don’t even think about leaving, he yells. Mom takes the baby from my arms. She can’t calm her down either and I see she’s crying. Dad leaves our room, picks up Jazmín, and tells Mom that everything will be fine, that she should go lie down and rest a little. Mom says, Okay, but her head drops and she doesn’t move. Dad puts his hand on her shoulder and leads her to their room. Then he turns on the TV, tells me not to talk to Castro because she’s been punished, and goes to look after Mom in their bedroom.

At night, Castro shows me her arm. She has a purple bruise and shows it off. It didn’t hurt at all, she says, not even a little bit. I take off the bandage and show her my burn, which is way worse. There are yellow blisters on it and my skin is really red, it looks like the cheese on a piece of pizza.

On Sunday we go into town for lunch. Mom and Dad promised that after we eat we could go play video games for a while, but Mom’s still and very quiet. Something’s going on with her. We finish lunch and Dad says he needs to get on the highway early, that we’ll have to wait until next weekend.

My burn is starting to feel better, but when Mom asks, I tell her it really hurts and cry a little. Come here, she says, and gives me a hug. Her hair and clothes smell like baby puke.

Before the baby was born, they told me I was going to have to help out. Because I’m the older sister and because I’ve always behaved. But now they don’t even let me touch her, Dad says she’s really fragile and the two of us are really clumsy. Then he laughs. Mom yawns, I get upset, and Castro doesn’t even listen, she’s staring out the window. You can’t see it from the house, but she’s looking in the direction of the place where birds die.

Mom’s always telling us we almost never cried but that Castro touched everything, that it was dangerous when she started to walk. One time, they found her on top of an end table next to an open window, half of her sticking out, looking down. We lived on the fourth floor.

We don’t know what time it is. For several nights, the baby hasn’t stopped crying and we’ve barely slept. We get up because we can’t stand the noise anymore and we go to Mom’s room. She’s sleeping on her back with her arms spread out.

Her nightgown has slid off and one of her breasts is showing. For a second I’m afraid, I think she’s fainted, but then she moves a little. She opens and closes her mouth like she’s dreaming she’s a fish. I go over to the bed to cover her and turn around because I hear a noise. Castro has Jazmín in her lap. I tell her to put the baby down, that we’re not allowed to pick her up unless Mom or Dad’s near. Castro doesn’t listen, she rocks Jazmín slowly and the baby stops crying.

We go into the woods to play and Mom tells us not to go far. Through the window we see her lie down and watch us, but then she falls asleep. We run fast, we have a lot of work to do.

There are four birds to bury, one is all black with a long beak, it’s the biggest one we’ve found so far. Before throwing it into the pit , Castro pulls out a feather. That’s gross, I tell her, but she doesn’t even listen, she spins the feather between her fingers and watches it like she’s hypnotized.

Mom takes us to the clinic in a taxi. Castro, the baby, and I. The doctor sees me and says my burn healed very well, that I can go to the beach now but I have to wear a lot of sunscreen, enough so my whole arm is white. Before we leave he gives a lollipop to me and another to Castro.

We bug Mom until she finally takes us to the beach. For days, we’ve been wearing our bathing suits. We run to the sea. Mom yells at us to stop but Castro goes in up to her neck. She jumps and laughs, I’m afraid to go get her. Mom calls her and my sister doesn’t listen, so she asks a fat man to help, to go in and get Castro. Mom yells at us, says that we can’t do this to her, that we have to cooperate. Please girls, she says, I can’t go on like this, I need your help. I think she’s about to burst into tears and I say, Yes, Mommy, I promise, we promise.

We go back home and I don’t talk to Castro all day. It’s her fault we couldn’t even stay at the beach for five minutes. And poor Mom. It’s like Castro did it on purpose.

It’s late and we haven’t eaten yet. Mom’s talking on the phone in her room. When she comes out, we can see she’s been crying, but she thinks we don’t know, tells us Dad says hello. She makes pasta with canned tomato sauce and it comes out all stuck together. She doesn’t eat.

Dad gets here on Friday night, and Saturday morning he takes us to the beach. He teaches us to bodysurf, even though I already know how. We go home for lunch and he promises to take us to the beach again in the afternoon, but it gets cloudy and we stay in and sleep.

I lay down on the couch next to dad, he smells like the sun and the sea. When I was little, I’d always nap in his bed while he read the newspaper.

At night, we gather pine cones and branches for the fire. Dad teaches us to make a pile of charcoal, you have to leave space for air to get in. He tells me I can light it, but Castro complains. In the end, he gives both of us a match.

On Sunday afternoon he leaves. It feels like he just got here, that he hasn’t even stayed a full day. Mom doesn’t get up to say bye, she has a slight fever. We wave goodbye until the car disappears behind the trees.

I’m digging a pit, the bird is on the ground and suddenly moves a wing. Castro is nearby, she’s looking between the trees to see if there are any more birds. I call her over and she picks it up by the legs and gives it a shake. The bird is light brown and moves its head, tries to flap the wing that’s free, opens and closes its beak. I toss the shovel to the ground and say we’re going to heal it. Castro says, No, it’s almost dead. She throws it into the pit.

I push her and she falls to the ground. I get down on my knees to reach for the bird but Castro picks up the shovel and stabs it into the bird’s neck. Its body lies on one side and its head on the other. The blade has blood on it. I burst into tears and Castro covers up the pit by herself.

The trees fill with caterpillars. They’re green, almost fluorescent, and when we step on them, blue slime comes out and sticks to our flip-flops.

Castro goes to our bedroom and comes back with the black feather. Mom’s asleep on the couch with Jazmín on her lap; her arm’s around the baby, but her eyes are closed, her head falling back. The baby’s quiet, she looks at us. Castro takes out the black feather and tickles Jazmín’s nose until she cries.

Dad gets here at night and says that we’re leaving tomorrow. That Mom’s too tired and can’t look after us. That Jazmín might be sick, she needs to be taken to a doctor because it’s not normal for a baby to cry so much. Castro says we already knew she wasn’t normal, that everything’s going to be the same at home, that we want to stay. Dad says he’s had enough of her talking back and sends her to our bedroom. It’s not fair! she shouts. Dad grabs her by the arm and Castro breaks free, looks at him with hatred, and goes to the bedroom on her own. She slams the door so loudly the windows shake.

Castro wakes me up, it’s night. She tells me the birds are going to die there because they’re sick. I’m half-asleep and don’t understand what she’s talking about. She leaves the bedroom and I get up, follow her to Mom and Dad’s room. I see her lift the baby into her arms and I ask her quietly what she’s doing. She doesn’t answer. Jazmín smiles and looks at us with her big eyes. Castro starts to walk to the living room carrying the baby and I say, Stop, I’m going to tell Dad. But she doesn’t listen, opens the door, and walks toward the woods.

I follow behind her, I’m afraid. I tell her we have to turn back and grab her, but not too forcefully, she could drop the baby. Castro breaks free, walks quickly.

We get there and she tells me to dig a pit. I tell her she’s crazy, that she needs to give Jazmín to me. She’s so little, anything could hurt her. We’ve never been here at night. It’s really dark and we don’t have shoes on, there are sharp pine needles on the ground. No, says Castro and looks at me very seriously. Then we hear a noise and see that the branches are full of birds. Dark, black birds that also seem to glow. They scare me but I can’t look away. There are so many more than I can count. I can’t see the stars, or the moon. It’s like a black roof that moves.

Suddenly they start to make noise, they screech and flap their wings. I shout that we have to leave, but Castro doesn’t hear me and puts the baby on the ground. I go to pick her up but all the birds take flight at the same time. I get on my knees and cover my head with my arms. I feel them fly down and touch me, and I fall to the earth. Mud, feathers, and dry leaves get in my face and my mouth.

The noise is very loud, it’s deafening, and then suddenly it’s over. I’m scared to get up because now it’s too quiet. I keep still and cover my eyes until I hear Dad’s voice yelling our names from far away. I see him between the trees with a flashlight, running toward us. Castro is covered in mud, kneeling on the ground; she looks up and smiles with her eyes, with her mouth wide open, as though she’s seen the most unbelievable thing in the world. The baby’s no longer here, neither are the birds.