Returning

This summer I’ve returned to Spain with my wife and two daughters, aged eight and ten. I haven’t been back in years, so we’ve rented a villa near Jávea, not far from the town where I grew up. My children are wild and happy here, running under the pine trees, cracking open pine nuts with rocks, searching for turtles and salamanders that hide in the stone walls. They are ready for the beach, armed with red plastic pails and shovels, and bright orange striped towels. My wife looks more youthful too; she’s recovered from her surgery – for now anyway – enough to travel, and I am grateful. She wants to see the Mediterranean one last time.

At the beach, a small cove named La Granadella, we stake out our place with the umbrella, the cooler and towels. I set up my plastic folding chair so I can read the newspaper later, like my father used to do. My wife sits on a beach mat, while my daughters jump immediately into the sea. With our masks and fins we snorkel together through schools of tiny blue fish and yellow gilt-head bream and waving patches of forest-green posidonia. The girls spot an octopus scuttling along the ocean floor raising clouds of sand; they stay away from spiny black sea urchins, which I’ve warned them about. For lunch, we have fresh fish and fidueá, a noodle dish served like paella.

Now the girls play quietly in the sand and my wife lays on her side, under the umbrella. Her scalp, with bristly new hair, is covered with a scarf, her breasts protected from the sun. I cover her with a pareo, a soft cotton wrap. We hear a shout and look off in the distance at a man thrashing around in the water.

“Look, he’s in trouble,” she says, shading her eyes with her hand.

The man splashes and flails his arms. I get up, but a lifeguard is already running towards him. A crowd gathers to watch. The victim, a middle-aged man, has been bitten by a jellyfish. He’s perfectly all right – but having a panic attack. I know that feeling; the sharp twinge in your gut. Once when I was young, I was swept down the rapids of the Rio Vero. I was riding an inner tube that flipped over and I got sucked into a deep eddy. I thought I was drowning. When I surfaced, I tried to scream for help, but no one heard me over the noise of the rushing water. My older sister finally helped tow me in.

My daughters and I move back to our places, lounge again on the towels. Now Alice and Jill are reluctant to go into the water.

“What if a jellyfish bites me?” Jill asks. She hugs her skinny legs.

“You clean it, with vinegar. And remove the tentacles,” I answer.

“Ew. How?”

“With tweezers.” Alice pinches her little sister in the arm to demonstrate.

“Ouch. Yuck.”

“What about sharks?”

“No sharks here, dummy,” Alice says. She tosses her head but the wind blows her hair back in her face.

“How do you know?” Jill asks.

“I just know.”

Alice and Jill pat mounds of sand into turtle shapes instead, and bury their toes in a deep hole. I take my wife’s hand, grateful she is alive, that we have this time together.

When I was a child, we lived south of Valencia, in a little town called Jalón, famous for its wine and muscatel grapes. The river, of the same name, wound its way placidly through the fertile valley, and every Saturday, there was a flea market along the banks, where my father would sell his furniture. There were a lot of almond trees on our property, fragrant with pink blossoms in spring, teeming with nuts in the fall.

We used to collect almonds in September. My older sister, Melissa, would beat the branches of the tree with a broomstick, and the almonds, loosened from the stem and already half-opened, would rain down on the rust-red soil, shells crackling and popping. I would scoop them up into a large wicker basket. Sometimes, if I could manage, I would scale the tree and shake the taller branches with a spare foot or arm, grasping the sturdy trunk to keep my balance. There were bushels and bushels, which my father would later sell. Once, as our reward, he built a treehouse in the algarroba, the old carob tree in the back yard.

The carob tree was wider than it was tall, reaching out with thick horizontal branches that you could straddle like a horse. My father wedged an old fruit crate higher up in the center, secured it, added a ladder and hanging rope to shimmy up and down. In our refuge, sitting on the crate Indian-style, it felt secure, held in the lap of a giant earth mother. In summer the tree drooped with dark brown carob pods, hanging like ornaments. We would gnaw on them, hard and sticky-sweet, or pretend they were cigars, inhaling the aroma, smelling them like connoisseurs. When the ground was completely covered with carobs, the gardener would come with a wheelbarrow, fill up sacks to feed his rabbits. It made us envious, imagining a blissful scene of soft rabbits hopping and nibbling on those sweet chocolate-brown pods.

I’ve always had a thing about trees. It’s probably what got me into the natural cosmetic business in the first place. I’m in charge of marketing new fragrances, aromas that bring back sensorial, pleasurable memories that remind our customers of earth’s renewal – like the seedlings in spring, or harvest in the fall. While my wife was having chemo, she found her greatest comfort when I would massage her arms and legs with almond cream, or cherry blossom. Her favorite was fig and rice milk. And somehow, it assuaged me too – for a time.

Today I have brought some figs for my wife. I’ve kept them cool, and they are moist to the touch. I hand her one and she smiles, takes it and eats, making sounds of contentment.

“So sweet,” she murmurs. Her voice has that same catch, like that time she told me she was pregnant with Jill, over spoonfuls of lemon sorbet, sitting in our favorite café in Grand Rapids. I should be happy to see her this way, her desire to eat reawakened, after all those months of chemo, the stink of it, grabbing tufts of hair, the vomiting, and nausea. But I wonder why God puts us through this, giving us false hopes, the taste of a fig, a trip to the sea, knowing that our bodies are rotting inside, and will soon be in the ground. And soon I’ll be alone, with the burden of raising our children. It stuns me, life’s brevity – but I’m selfish I know, thinking of myself; it is she who must go, not I. I want to take her body whole, immerse her in the sea, kiss her fruity lips and heal her, magically.

Alice kicks sand accidentally in her sister’s face. Jill drops a fig in the sand, and starts to cry.

“Creep,” Jill shouts and tips a shovelful of sand over Alice’s head.

They both shriek and run to the shore to rinse off, then look back at me. I can tell they are still worried about the jellyfish, even though there are lots of swimmers in the water.

There was a giant fig tree too, at the end of our driveway. In August, the figs were as plump as fat babies, each one hanging in a soft green pouch. When they were ripe, slightly wrinkled with white cracks like stretch marks on a pregnant woman’s belly, you knew that they were perfect to eat. We would split one in half, inspect it first for bugs – because sometimes there were some – and then we would savor the purple-brown pulp, juice running down our chins. Bees buzzed in and out of the branches, abundant with fruit; birds pecked and gorged themselves, while the rest of the figs fell and spattered on the drive, hot in the sun.

I long for my daughters to experience all this, to revel in earth’s bounty, its generosity, its simplicity. I often think about it, during the long cold winters in Michigan, the streets slick with ice, waiting for the snow to melt, the grass to reappear, trees to bud. The city is wet and dreary, and summer way too short. I’ve never felt attached to the earth there, the way I do here.

But the world has changed. The property in Jalón is gone, sold after my father died. My children spend too much time indoors. Alice, the older one, is usually stabbing at her iPad and sulks when I take it away. Jill plays Nintendo games at all hours, and thinks I’m too slow when I play with her. I worry about when they get to be teenagers and start using social media. Already their teachers are warning us, trying to establish guidelines. Here in Spain, it’s simpler: I try to spark their interest in climbing trees and trespassing to steal fruit.

Before my mother left, stealing fruit became our passion. The countryside in Valencia is laced with orange and lemon trees. On the stone-terraced hills, you find rows and rows of olive trees – a testament to the Moors who toiled the land when they ruled Spain for seven centuries.

Winter was best when the fruit was ripe, yellow and orange dotting the landscape. We would hop over someone’s stone wall, grab half a dozen, and rush back to the car, our hearts beating with trepidation. My father, who was Spanish and had done these same things as a child, laughed, egging us on, while my mother would glower with disapproval.

My American mother was different. She was usually discreet and didn’t like to bend rules. She had never seen the Mediterranean before she met my father, only lakes in Michigan, where she had grown up. She had come over on a student exchange program, met my father and stayed, teaching English. But she had no close friends, and missed her family. A lover of fresh air and open spaces, music and star-filled sky, she often went on long solitary walks.

My daughters sit cross-legged, eating pale yellow muscatel grapes, spitting out the seeds, feeding them to their mother, pampering her. I’ve brought along a melon too. When I cut it open, it’s watery, cool and velvety on the tongue.

One summer, when I was about Jill’s age, I took up the guitar. My teacher was the neighbor’s son, a couple of years older, who accompanied us on our fruit-stealing expeditions. He was especially adept at plucking grapes off the vine. He knew how to play a few songs by Dylan and Sting, but mostly he made things up. His family was Scottish with five rambunctious children, all boys. There was a constant flutter, noise and chatter, coming from their house, children yelling, doors slamming. The father, an electrician who limped, barked orders constantly; the mother seemed worn out by all the activity, always hanging laundry, trying to quiet the yapping dog.

Teddy would come over and sit in the carob tree with my sister and me, his small pudgy hand clutching the neck of the guitar as he tried to press his fingers into place between each fret, inventing new chords. Melissa and I liked to sing like our mother, who had taught us to harmonize and sing in canon. The foliage of the carob tree was so thick that when we were on the wooden crate, no one could see us. Like squirrels, we hoarded our small rewards and plotted our day with secret missions. Melissa would cut our hair, but wouldn’t let us cut hers; we fed Doritos to the birds, and formed a secret society of insect watchers. We enraged my sister by releasing grasshoppers from their jars and letting spiders crawl on her back when she was sleeping.

My daughters are giggling and splashing, splurting water at each other, pretending they are whales. My wife lies with her hands under her head, eyes closed. She has no energy and can’t keep up. But my daughters understand and are wise; the three of us have managed yesterday, to bake and decorate a cake for her, surprise her in bed with a handmade birthday card, and compose a clever poem.

I’ve been thinking about going to see the old property, just out of curiosity, although it might stir up things I’d rather forget. But my daughters have decided for me. They want to see if the treehouse is still there. They dry themselves and brush the sand off as best they can, then we gather our things and load up the car. We take a drive inland on the back roads, past the old mill, the farms and terraced hills. We cross the Jalón river, drive down a long gravel road, past the fig tree, which is still there. But the house is gone. Instead, there are the beginnings of a new condominium complex. A tower crane swings back and forth, hoisting cement blocks and bricks; a bulldozer is digging up the earth, leaving deep tread marks. The scaffolding is up for the beginnings of a three-story building. The adjoining orange groves have all been burned down, the trunks uprooted, the soil leveled. On a woodpile, some workmen sit, eating their sandwiches, while others snooze in the shade of one solitary pine tree. Not a trace of the carob tree.

I remember the day we were quietly playing cards in the treehouse. My sister had taught us to play Julepe and always won – we made bets, using pebbles as coins. My mother had gone to a little stand down the road to buy fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. She had made a carrot cake and was preparing a special dinner for my father’s birthday. She promised to buy ice cream. We heard voices inside my house; my father and Teddy’s mother were laughing about something. Teddy’s father had gone to Alicante for the day to fish with the four older boys. Teddy had stayed behind because he wasn’t feeling well, after his father gave him a black eye. There was something about their hushed tone, then a slight giggle. Melissa put her finger to her lips, Teddy and I looked at each other.

“They’re planning a surprise,” Melissa whispered, excitedly.

“For what? Teddy asked, wide-eyed.

“Come on, play,” I said, jealous because they had been ignoring me. I was losing too by a mile.

“Shhh,” said Melissa. Peeking through the thick branches, we could see Teddy’s mother lying on the hammock under the pine tree, her dress up over her knees, her arms back, tousling her hair. She looked like a siren, swaying there. The day before I had been at her house with a splinter lodged deeply in the palm of my hand. Teddy’s mother had taken me into the bathroom, carefully extracted the splinter with tweezers, then rubbed my hand with alcohol, while I stared at her reflection in the mirror, her blouse open.

Now, my father, wearing swimming trunks, came close to her. He leaned over and kissed her, then rocked the hammock so that it swayed even more. Then she reached up and held his head, pressing him to her while he put his hand under her dress and stroked her thighs.

“Your dad is kissing my mom,” Teddy said.

“Shut up,” I said.

Melissa hissed at us to be quiet. The three of us sat, frozen in the tree; my ears thumping. I took one of her cards – an ace of hearts, wadded it up, put it in my mouth and chewed it, smirking, making a stupid monkey face. My sister slugged me. Teddy said, “oh man,” and threw his cards down. I grabbed them and tossed them off the platform.

Then there was the sound of my mother’s car in the driveway, a slam of a screen door, but Teddy’s mother had already hopped over the stone wall to her house. The hammock, though, was still swinging.

“Where’s the treehouse, Daddy?” Jill asks. I’ve told them other stories, the good ones, about fishing for carobs, pretending we were wild boars, snorting and cavorting through the fields, snuffling at acorns from the Spanish oak trees.

“It’s gone,” I answer. Maybe it never was. Maybe I just made it up. Why would I want to return to that place anyway, letting my melancholy get the better of me? I don’t know why I chose to vacation here, when we could have gone to the shore in New Jersey, where my sister lives, or somewhere exotic, in Italy. But it’s too late, and time is running out.

“I’m tired,” Alice says.

At dinner that night, my sister and I were very quiet. My mother’s voice was like a bell chime, sweet and soothing. She had made almond gazpacho, garnished with grapes, halved, with their seeds removed. Her eyes shone when she lit the candles on the birthday cake. My mother was happy about her singing class, went on about the choral rehearsal. The director was American too, and had organized a benefit concert to raise money for the local band. My father, distracted, did not seem to be listening. He hardly thanked us for the presents – a Casio sports watch from my mother, and some scented shaving cream from me and Melissa. After dinner, he went to the shed to work on some new wooden cabinets. You could hear him thumping and sawing, unusual at that time in the evening. We helped my mother do the dishes, then Melissa and I went down to look at the neighbor’s new garden plot. I stomped on a row of cucumbers and tomatoes, splattering them all. I ripped the melons off their stems. We dragged our blankets out to the treehouse and told our parents we were making a fort. But the cicadas were loud and the mosquitoes wouldn’t quit; I couldn’t sleep. Teddy sat most of the night, swinging his legs on the platform, strumming his guitar.

My daughters are disappointed. It’s nothing like what I described. Jill tugs on my hand.

“Come on, Dad. Let’s go back home,” Alice says. They sit quietly in the car, looking out the window.

“Bye, house,” waves Jill, from the back seat.

My wife, who has stayed in the car, is wearing her floppy hat; her face is pale, bags under her eyes. She used to be athletic, with runners’ legs, an enthusiastic mother who went rollerblading with her daughters and taught them to do backflips in the pool. Now she says she’s tired from the sun. We must go back home now, to the villa. Rest. Wait. There’s a message to call the doctor’s office. They have received the latest lab reports. Her cancer marker has gone up. There are other options for treatment, but we must decide quickly. I arrange the bed and pillows for my wife and go walking with my daughters, while they skittle about, collecting pine cones, making tiny huts with sticks and leaves. The earth smells of wild fennel and rosemary; the wind rustles through the trees. When we return, I bend and kiss my drowsy wife; the soft air refreshes, her limbs are warm. I take her face and cup it to mine, tell her I love her. Her eyes look past me towards the window, following a flock of birds. The abyss that awaits.

I go out and sit on the stone wall that borders the orange trees. It is evening, and soon the night is inky with stars. There’s a pungent smell of honeysuckle and something that reminds me of marijuana – those years in high school, smoking hash, trying to be cool and dull the pain. My wife has gone to sleep.

After my mother left, my dad used to smoke at night on the front steps, gazing up at Montgó, the mountain, while my sister and I huddled under the covers in our bunk beds. After a while the doorknob would rattle and my father would peek in, checking to see if we were asleep, which we were not. I, at least, always hoped my mother might come back.

That was our last summer in that house. My mother moved back to Michigan with the choral director. My father built an extension on our garage for his furniture making. He spent hours there, refinishing the wood, staining, smoothing, molding, sanding. He made new furniture for the porch, and sold tables and chairs, headboards and coffee tables, all with intricate inlay. The Scottish family moved away when Teddy’s father found out what had happened and beat his wife. Later, we went to Michigan to live with my mother and my stepfather.

She never returned to the sea, and our father never told us why.

It’s late now, and I’m feeling chilled. A breeze carries the fragrance of Cestrum Nocturnum, the galán de noche, which only blooms at night.

“Daddy?” Jill whispers. She comes, padding in her slippers and sits down next to me.

I put my arms around her.

“I can’t sleep. I dreamt about jellyfish.”

“It’s okay. Just a dream. They won’t kill you.”

I stroke the back of her head. She has her mother’s thick brown hair.

“Daddy?” The sky is dark, but I feel the earth swaying around me, throbbing with new growth and hidden life.

“Is there a cure for Mommy?”

I’m caught off guard. The word “miracle” comes to mind.

“Of course there is, silly,” says Alice, who has appeared like a phantom in her white cotton nightie. She sits down beside us and intertwines her fingers with mine.

“Mommy says we have to be very brave,” Jill says.

“That’s right,” I say. My daughters cling to me and we rock together, like seashells along the ocean floor.

Anne McMillan

About Anne McMillan

Anne McMillan is a writer, opera singer, mountain hiker, nature lover and proud Olympic mom. She also sings on the side in a jazz/folk trio. Born in Minnesota, Anne lives in Spain, where she performed for over a decade in the chorus of the Royal Opera House in Madrid. She recently completed her first novel, The Heart of the Aria and has published stories in Sixfold Magazine and the Madrid Writers’ Club Anthology.

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