Volume 69, Number 1 · Fall 2019

The Furious Branches

Chapter 1 – The Lives

June 4, 2016

The tragedy is always that it could have been otherwise. Everyone feels this at some point in their lives—that folded inside our many selves are who we could have been if we’d fought harder, given up more, become something else, if we’d hesitated for just a moment longer at the door, if we’d walked in the plantain groves on a different day and been spared what happened there. But unlike other people, I know my infinite selves like the lines on my palms. Pressing on this story are the people I am in other timelines, other futures. The ones who saved my mother, who were able to orchestrate seven people, each with their part to play on the night of my mother’s many deaths. The infinite number of ones who couldn’t.

How can we forgive ourselves, knowing how easily everything could have gone differently?

▴ ▴ ▴

In one timeline, you are my confessor. In another, you are a disappointment.

Here is one confession. Most mothers will tell you that they love all their children equally. But they’re lying; there was one of you I loved the most.

When you were little, I would see your many selves, laughing in a gaggle around you. Sometimes standing in the same place as you, a myriad of expressions playing on a thousand lips. I didn’t know which of you to address. Your imaginary friends were as real to me as you were, and sometimes you’d be surprised that you didn’t have to tell me what each had said, like you did with other adults. Mercedes, I would call across the timelines, and all of you would answer. Those were still the years you wanted to believe my stories, about people who could throw cars above their heads, trade places with their shadows, bring people back from the dead, see the truth of a wound. You spent childhood games pretending you could fly, leaping off your bed.

But then you grew up, put aside childish things—you forgot how to see. Each day, I woke up and some of you and some of me had disappeared, disambiguated into other timelines, shuffled off into their solitary paths. You had moved in another direction. America had moved in another direction. We became different people.

The one of you I loved the most was quiet, filled with rage, and when she did speak, the rest of us listened. She could change every injustice, if she said the right words. And she would stand on the steps of the Capitol Building, risk the ire of people red-faced with a selfish need to keep what they had for themselves, risk the ire of one rage-faced man behind the wheel of a truck who plowed through the crowd. Her world, a world that is no longer ours, would listen to her. She was the one most like my own mother. When you came home from college this last time, I saw that this version of you had disappeared, no longer your silent twin. But there is still another you, one that will become that kind of leader, although much later than the first. She will take a long time to understand, a long time to listen, and because of that will become even stronger. That one will take me dying to understand what it is she should stand for. And there are many other yous who will never listen, who will select only the parts of my story they wish to hear, and they will all have their own courses to travel. The thousand and one yous, the thousand and one paths—we are all prisoners to our stories, their many versions. We don’t choose our worlds; we arrive in them.

I’m watching you sleep, your knees tucked to your chest like when you were small, your eyes flickering like the timelines are unraveling before you. I wonder if in sleep you might have the power I have in life. I am whispering this story, of how my vision was unlocked that day in 1965, of what I tried to change, so that you’ll understand. I whisper this story to you as you sleep, humming a song of warning: in eight days come my many deaths.

▴ ▴ ▴

You’re angry at me too, I know. Since this moment last summer: I laughed when the oncologist told you and your dad that I have breast cancer, rubbing her pearls at her throat. I laughed at the joke of it all, at the fact that only in one timeline is it the cancer that kills me, a statistic so small as to be irrelevant, and none of you will believe me. There is another irrelevant timeline, in which I outlive even the cancer, even the car accident, a world so thin I have stopped squinting to look at it. But then, of course, it’s something else that kills me later, and I know a life can’t be measured by its length—not even by its specifics. (In other worlds, I accept the chemo, and I don’t have the strength to tell you this story.) I, too, tried to save my mother. I, too, tried to measure her life and what she’d given me.

The day after the results of the biopsy came back, you asked me, “What can we do?”

“No news yet,” I said, always smiling. 

So you asked your father.

“Prognosis is good with chemo,” he said.

You sighed in relief.

But I refused the operation, and chemo, and radiation. I said this wasn’t how I was going to die. Going to die? Will die? Am dying? Have died. I am living all my futures to their ends.

You said, “Mami, you could not possibly know the future.”

I said, “It’s complicated.”

“Tell me where I’ll be in twenty years,” you demanded.

“I hope,” I said, “that you won’t disappoint me.”

You felt sorry for your dad and you felt sorry for yourself. When I snuck into your room to tell you stories, you would spend the time arguing for me to do something, anything, about my cancer. Some nights you yelled. 

I said, “What you need to do is listen.”

But listening was the last thing you were prepared to do.

▴ ▴ ▴

Instead of starting your senior year at MIT, you wanted to stay. You thought if you just kept at it, you could convince me to go to chemo. Two days before your flight, you found your bags already packed at the foot of your bed. You understood this was one of those things I would not give in on, citing some future I had seen, something you had or had not done that deserved my ire. So you returned to MIT and your classes in physics and quantum computation. You drifted down the Infinite Corridor. Your first project of the semester was counting the operations the universe had made since its birth. The information coded in the universe swirled around your head in dreams. But were the answers that escaped you in atoms? This last semester, I would call to tell you stories of how I was born, events long past, and your blood boiled with some indefinable frustration. You put your cell on speakerphone so your roommate could overhear the “shit I was telling you.” You rolled your eyes and you did your problem sets, because you couldn’t bear to actually listen. I was getting sicker, and the tumor had invaded my lungs, so when I spoke there was a new rasp in my voice.

You were angry all the time. You had this rage bubbling up under your surface and you had no idea who put it there or what to do with it. Your friends were always trying to pull you places, to clubs where people cared about the disappearance of the bees, or string theory, or Syrian immigrants, or state censoring of journalism, or they were laughing or programming robots to perform in lunar conditions. And while you blew the curve out of the water in your physics classes, while you had all this rage that surely would propel you into some kind of action, this version of you just didn’t know what to do or how to care. You were fine, weren’t you? You expected to lead a comfortable life: no dictators after you, no secret police arriving in the middle of the night, your education exemplary, no way barred to you because of the Spanish you spoke at home, your features pale enough no one would ever know. So you passed the year in a numbing sea of equations. It left you with an empty space in your bed that reached over at night and tried to suffocate you.

Then, just weeks before graduation, some classmates brought you to a protest on immigration rights. “Your parents were immigrants, right?” they said. 

People yelled in Copley Square, chanting with voices that droned into noise, waving markered signs streaked with rain. The rain dropped heavier with a steady hum, a thousand random drops per second, a million calculations of the universe, and you could barely hear the people. A few student leaders yelled into a microphone at the center and whipped up a frenzy. You felt like a tourist. What were they yelling about? Your friends lifted your umbrella up into the sky whenever the person with the microphone said anything they could hear over the rain. You saw two of your professors looking stern and righteous. But what did you believe? You felt the old anger rising up in you, and the next time your friends clapped you on the back, you let out a shout, and then the whole crowd started yelling louder.

You looked around at all those open mouths in wonder. It was just like the day the planes crashed into the twin towers, how all of you kids didn’t know how to react. The adults were hysterical, but you thought they were always hysterical, every time a kid skinned a knee. So you looked to each other, keeping your faces solemn, like you were in church. The parents rubbed you up and down to be sure you were alive. Others tried hard to impress upon you the gravity of the situation, trying to bring together threads of how close we could have been to further disaster. President Bush had been giving a speech to second graders one town away. You couldn’t understand my hysterics. (I was mourning so many other daughters, other worlds.) It felt like it had happened to people on the other side of the world, and you watched the news clips with gravitas, trying to convince yourselves that you should feel something. And what were you supposed to feel at Copley Square, fifteen years later, these people screaming around you? How do you decide what matters, who to listen to, how to weigh what is needed with the means to enact it?

This is the moment I lost the one of you I loved the most to another world. She went down one path to seek the answers. But you—this you—went back to your dorm shouldering umbrellas in the cold as the downpour continued, talked with your friends about your plans after graduation. Told them about a job offer you’d received at Boeing. Watched your spring breath cloud up in front of you as you exhaled. Went to sleep. Came home for spring break and went back again.

Hours ago, you greeted us at the Logan Airport with a group of friends, waving limply like you could not bear to have us here for your graduation. Your friends loved how strange I was as I looked over their shoulders at their selves that walked in all directions. Your dad hovered just behind me, his hand always on my back, guiding me around, saying my name when I went blank and confessed I hadn’t been paying attention. Your dad looked tired, sad, shrunken, more depleted than I was. Then we went to the hotel while you finished packing up your dorm room.

Which brings us to this moment, you asleep in the other hotel bed, the blue glow of streetlights outside, light fanning over your face through the timelines. You turned away from me but now I’m standing in the door of the bathroom on the other side of the room, whispering, and I can see your eyelids jumping, your chest animated with breath. This is my love: that I know you are a shade of what you could have been, that your unhappiness fills you like a balloon, and still if I had the choice to save the world—save all of the worlds—or save you, I would choose you. But that’s a weakness I’ve never overcome, in any version of myself. I expect more from you.

Why am I telling you these things, if we can change nothing, only wait to see which world we arrive in and which ones are taken from us? In the future where I tell you nothing, the woman I love the most never exists. In this one, you might still become her. There are versions of you so faint and fleeting I can barely see them. I have to strain my eyes. I tell the version of you who will laugh at me so I can tell the version of you who will listen. Before you break from each other, you are still one: head cocked, eyes narrowing as I open my mouth.

And of course, there are versions of me who are silent. But I’ve already been ripped from them. In this branch of time, I am not a silence but a voice. So let me tell you how I saved my mother, how I could not save my mother. Let me tell you how all my lives broke open the night of the machines. Let me tell you your possible futures by telling you our many pasts.

▴ ▴ ▴

And in eight days, the car accident. Yes, once you start believing me, you’ll want details so you can stop it. What will the other car look like? Will I be walking or driving? What time will it happen? But those details are irrelevant. It’s a delivery truck running a stoplight; it’s another car whose driver looks behind for a moment too long; it’s a concrete median. What’s important is that I stop, I pay attention to another world for moments too long, I listen to the future for the moment I know is coming, the sound of tires screeching. I wait to arrive in the one world in which I would walk away unscathed. Sometimes, I die instantly. In others, I survive long enough in the hospital for you to confess your regrets. You will be with your father, so you will not be alone when you get the call.

In the world I hope for, you never make it to that job at Boeing. Suddenly—too late, you think—you are listening. 

 

Chapter 2 – The Birth

August 1, 1959

I was born an infinite number of ways. Even so, I’ll try to tell this story the way you would understand it. As if infinite just means a thousand, a billion, something you can count. Like cause and effect are givens, like these are singular paths we walk, not branches that fork out so infinitely they look as thick and smooth as glass.

For you, I’ll begin this way: I was born in an armoire.

▴ ▴ ▴

The day of my birth in 1959, two hunters drove a VW bug across the Duarte Bridge into Ciudad Trujillo. They were caliés: hunters of human flesh, hunters of rebels and dissidents, agents of the SIM, the not-so-secret police force known for the black Beetles they drove, run by Johnny Abbes the torturer and commanded by Dictator Trujillo. The driver, a cousin of Johnny Abbes who was trusted to do the bloodiest work, laughed and sang to the merengue on the radio. The car rumbled over the bridge, the sound like graves turning over. Below them, the Ozama River roiled and crashed against the city walls, the same river they’d dumped bodies into, counting on the sharks to carry the scraps away. They were looking for a woman, the wife of a rebel. My mother.

▴ ▴ ▴

Eight and a half months pregnant and a few miles away, my mother, Lora, stood behind a doctor as he attended to a woman who complained of a pain in her jaw so sharp she couldn’t eat. Lora was running over the lymphatic system in her mind. Finals for her medical classes were only a week away, just a week before her baby was due, and she was determined to get perfect scores, to prove to all the professors who told her as soon as she started showing that she should drop out or at least take the semester off. Even this doctor was only letting her shadow him as a favor to her father. But that wasn’t the only reason she kept wringing her hands and bringing them to rest on her stomach.

Her husband, Tinio, had called two weeks before. He was confident as ever, vague on the details. He’d talked in code.

“When will your business dealings be done?” she’d asked. When is the invasion landing?

“When the crop quality is certain,” he said. “I can almost taste it.” Within the month.

Soon the dictator would be dead, or Tinio would. She’d hung up shortly after, not being able to bear the excitement she heard in his voice. How sure he was.

▴ ▴ ▴

Lora and Tinio had argued for weeks about whether he would go to Cuba to train with the rest chosen for the coup they hoped would overthrow Trujillo. Tinio had just graduated from UASD the previous summer and had started working for his father’s law firm. Before he’d graduated, both of them had gone to university organization meetings that whispered about opposing Trujillo. At the meetings, Tinio had gotten connected to a group that romantically described leaving to Cuba to train, reentering the country by surprise, and sweeping through from the mountains the way it had happened in Cuba just a few months before. But the Dominican Republic was not Cuba. In Cuba, Batista’s grip over the country had already cracked, the people were coordinated in an uprising, and support snow-balled as the movement rolled downhill. Trujillo still had support from the Americans, still had a firm grip on fear. Lora was certain the first villager any rebels came across in their sweep through the mountains would call the secret police immediately rather than get caught and tortured.

Lora believed in getting rid of Trujillo, yes. The rapes, the murders, the disappearances of anyone who disagreed with him, how he’d turned the economy of the country into his own personal expense account. Even Lora’s best friend had lost family. For thirty years, Trujillo had poisoned their brightest hopes. But what was the answer? Kill him, and twenty more would vie for his place: his puppet presidents, his secret police, his military seconds, his brothers and sons. So many people had been sucked into his machine of power. People they knew. So many people too afraid to do anything but what he demanded. So many people had wanted to stay alive. So many people seeing their opportunity.

“Exactly,” Tinio had said, “a big machine of power.”

“You can’t kill everyone,” she’d said.

Tinio’s philosophy was that the whole world could burn, if it meant starting anew from the ashes. But how much violence was necessary for peace, without becoming the people you replaced?

“And what about our parents?” His who’d escaped by looking away. Or her parents who had American passports. And what about all the people back in the United States whose ignorance and racism justified Trujillo and the American occupation that had trained him?

Her father, Don Rafael, was a cautious man. Before, he’d always thought that political trouble stopped at his front gate, and, if he was careful enough to avoid it, he could run his businesses and live a peaceful life. He expected Lora and her brother to take over the milling, shipping, and pharmaceutical businesses he had built. Instead, Lora and her husband, Tinio, had carried politics inside her father’s gates.

Everyone would describe Don Rafael as a good man. A man famous for his brutal honesty, though his American passport afforded him the ability to be so honest. Businessmen knew to take him at his word. Beloved by his workers, he and Lora’s mother would yearly ship a boatload of tinned fruitcakes, a rarity, from London to Santo Domingo and deliver them personally on Christmas Eve to everyone who worked for them, from the heads of factories to the servants alike. When Lora was little, she went with them, holding out the tins to whoever opened the door. They were expensive, people remembering them for decades after they’d received them, but Lora remembered handing a fruitcake to a grieving woman, someone who Trujillo’s son had ruined. Her hands trembled as she accepted the cake until finally someone else came out and took the tin, set it aside. What was goodness when goodness was not what was needed?

“So what’s your solution, then?” Tinio had asked.

“We keep our heads down, use my father’s import business to get letters out of the country, target the people that your father has befriended through his law practice, sway the support Trujillo still has abroad. Send a deluge of letters from everyone we know who has had relatives disappeared.” If they just killed him, his network would remain intact, but if they got rid of his support, no one would make his same mistakes.

“It’s like you don’t know what the cause of all of this is,” Tinio said. And it was true, she didn’t. How to untangle the knot, figure out how to bring it all down?

When they’d argued about it before, neither of them had the answer. But then suddenly Tinio was whispering to her in bed about leaving for Cuba like he was sure. When he wrapped the sheets around her shoulders, it felt like she was being packaged away. At school, where she watched doctors explain the human body, its ailments, the surgeries that could fix what was wrong, she found herself marveling at how there was no surgery to fix the argument that was spiraling out of control between them. When she found out she was pregnant, this only made him more determined to go. “To make a world our child would be proud to live in.”

Wasn’t that what she wanted too? She’d slammed the door to the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and waited until he retreated from the door.

She stopped asking him not to go to Cuba. And not once did he ask her to come with him. But he did mope about the house apologetically, lingering by her desk while she studied, opening the door when she came in from the hospital before she’d even wrestled out her key. Lora almost got the sense that if she finally just spoke to him, asked him to stay this one last time, he might have stayed. She didn’t.

She drove him to the boat launch in the middle of the night, both of them silent beneath the protestations of the engine. She handed him the envelope of money that she’d withdrawn from the account her father had set up in her name.

If he’d only stayed, what happened afterward might have been avoided. He held her hands; he trembled slightly. He wanted her to say something. All it might have taken was the right word.

“Good-bye,” she said.

Already he had the look of the doomed, as the pontoon boat gurgled and then retreated and he waved good-bye. His path across the water was seamless after the moonlight and waves lapped it up, leaving no track she could follow. That was six months ago.

▴ ▴ ▴

The doctor palpated the woman’s throat, felt around the glands under her jaw. He gestured for Lora to do the same, her fingers pushing on the small beans of the lymph nodes. She leaned forward over her stomach. In the woman’s neck, a lymph node had enlarged, firmed. Probably the immune system gone outraged over some illness elsewhere in the body, the immune cells rushing out to tag the offenders. And wasn’t that the argument with her and Tinio? They were immune cells, furious, trying to find the root cause of the problem; they just disagreed on what it was. Tinio would be landing soon.

She tried to calm herself. When her thoughts raced like this, Lora tried to dream of anatomy: bones and arteries and tendons. A distraction, a puzzle she could trace and solve to stay calm. Diagnoses, answers, the tracing of lines. Lora traced her fingers down the line of nodes underneath the woman’s skin, tried to keep her hands from shaking.

Already she felt like she had to pee again. Sometimes there was so much weight in her, pressing down, she thought she was bearing twins, but she knew it was just one girl. But inside Lora, unbeknownst to her, the baby was a multitude, the womb a cavern of possibility. Everything the baby could become was folded within her, her possible selves vying for their moment, grasping their futures in their tiny, infinite hands. She pounded on Lora’s stomach, fists tight as if she would not let go of this place where her selves were still her sisters, playing together in the dark.

Lora waited until the doctor swabbed the woman’s cheek, then excused herself to go to the bathroom.

One of the nurses intercepted her. “A phone call for you.”

“Who?”

“They didn’t want to say.”

▴ ▴ ▴

Four hours before, Tinio’s expeditionary force of fifty or so men had touched down eighty miles north on an airfield in Constanza. They were meant to be the distraction from other forces landing simultaneously by boat in various parts of the country. But the plans were sabotaged. The boats would be delayed for many days, after much of the airborne force had been shot and the surprise factor had disappeared. Trujillo’s soldiers were already on the prowl, alerted to where the antitrujillista forces would land by spies that reported to both America and Trujillo. The moment Lora received the phone call, Tinio was one of the lucky ones. He was already dead, face down on the runway, mouth full of gravel, one of the first killed as a group of Trujillo’s soldiers discovered the airfield. In this world, my father would never end up, like many of the others, chased and starving for days, wounded and shot on the spot or captured and taken for torture. Instead, his mouth would remain open, as if there was something he’d forgotten to say, gravel falling from his tongue.

▴ ▴ ▴

Lora crossed her legs to hold in her pee, picked up the phone receiver. “Hello?”

“Lora?” Was that Dulce’s voice? She had gone with the expeditionary force. Was it good news then?

“What’s going on?” Lora said.

Just one word, before the other person hung up: “Run.”

Lora knew immediately two things: that Tinio was dead, and that someone had been captured for torture and had already started giving out information, like who had funded the expedition, who had sympathized. So now they were coming for her.

▴ ▴ ▴

The two caliés were closing in on their destination, only a few miles left, the location different in every world: her grandfather’s house, her cousin’s, her best friend’s, the colmado where she often stopped for lunch.

▴ ▴ ▴

No time to use the bathroom then. Lora wasn’t supposed to leave for another few hours, and her driver had taken the car to the shop. Anywhere she went would have to be by foot.

“Ready for the next patient?” the doctor called down the hall.

For a moment, she almost asked if he would hide her, almost turned to the nurse next to her. But none of them were people she trusted; they could just as easily turn her over. In this regime, even brothers turned each other in.

She waved to the doctor, smiled like she’d misunderstood him, like nothing was wrong at all, and walked swiftly out the door and down the street, shedding her white doctor’s coat as she went and dropping it in a trash heap.

Forward, blindly. She had to get off the street. Forward was her father’s house. Too far, halfway across the city, but it was the most obvious place to go. But because of that, the caliés would know to go there first and could pick her off easily on the way. And her brother was the best reason not to head there. Alfonso had been in love with a girl that Trujillo disappeared, Lora’s closest friend’s sister. Alfonso had been waiting to walk her home in the courtyard of the school on the day she disappeared. Ever since, Alfonso treated the world like it had taken something from him. Even after the memory of the girl herself had faded, the bitterness remained. He stoned birds from trees, courted sharks while surfing, played fast and loose with machetes. He’d signed up for the American military. The night before he’d left, he’d picked Lora up from school instead of the chauffeur, drove her out of the way, rushing forward on Abraham Lincoln Avenue in the north of the city, swerving into the opposite lane. A car was coming, but Alfonso kept driving toward it, playing chicken, the engine roaring, the other car looming larger like it was magnetized to them, until Lora screamed. Then he swerved back. (In a thousand worlds, they hit the other car. In countless worlds, my mother would never grow up to be my mother.) And now that he’d returned from the Korean War, he was a hothead without a cause. He wasted himself on drinking, gambling, and women he didn’t want to see again. He drank so he couldn’t be counted on. If Lora had told her brother she was hiding, he would have yelled, swaying in the streets, for Lora to reveal herself.

So not her father’s house.

To the right was the house of her closest friend, Carmen, the one place she thought she would always be welcome. It was with Carmen that Lora had learned that she wanted to be a doctor, by the river when they were ten years old. That year, Carmen’s father and older sister Tania had gone missing. They’d had a visitor before that, a messenger who said Tania was to be picked up to appear at the dictator’s party, along with her parents. The dictator’s taste in young girls was infamous, and his intent was clear. Her father lapsed into fury, and then a week later, no one was able to find him. That day, a limo showed up at their school, parking just as Tania emerged into the sunlight. Alfonso, who had been waiting for Tania to walk her home, watched, frozen, as a man emerged from the limo, grabbed Tania’s hand, and pulled her in before any of them could react. They never saw her again.

Months after the disappearances, Lora brought Carmen and their other friends to Dajabón, where Lora’s father was surveying land for a new mill by the Dajabón River. Carmen was listless. Lora and the other girls dunked their feet in the current, but Carmen wouldn’t swim. She kept mentioning ghosts hovering at the edge of the water.

Lora hadn’t known about the thousands of murdered Haitians whose bodies had been dumped in the bend of the river, but she believed that her friend had somehow reached past the veil of death.

Lora had seen baptisms, knew that a person could be transformed by words and water. She was still young enough to believe she could fix what had been broken.

“Come here.” Lora splashed her friend with water. The current rushed past them in tight cordons of force. Slip, and they could be swept downriver. The river terrified Lora, who was used to the straight lines of her pencil on paper, the linear drawings of birds she would transcribe in her notebook. The water retreating from them roared and rushed, seamless and powerful—no source she could see, nothing stopping it, all the disorder she could not gather up with her arms. But she braced herself and planted her feet for Carmen.

Carmen went under, her hair waving wildly down current, then Lora brought her up again, raising her by the armpits. Afterward, they dried themselves on the shore, shivering even in the heat. But what was missing was still missing, and Carmen did not smile.

Then Alfonso came running through the trees, laughing with Tinio, who had still been his friend then, rage leaking out of Alfonso’s laugh. He ran up to them and pushed a girl in: Linette, who could not swim, though he didn’t know that. Alfonso and Tinio ran away, not realizing what Alfonso had done. Linette’s foot slipped, and the river, the ghosts—they too laughed with rage as the current swept her away. By the time the girls had run to catch up with Linette on the riverbank, her eyes were closed and they didn’t think she was breathing. Lora traced the problem, the water down the girl’s throat, water in the lungs, water that could be pushed back out. All the girls touched her, Lora pushed on her chest, Linette’s bathing suit clinging to her hands as she pushed. Then Linette coughed up water, gasped, sat up.

“You healed her,” Carmen said, as an offering. Lora nodded, her heart slowing down. Why couldn’t it be that easy?

▴ ▴ ▴

Ten years later, Lora, running now as best as she could with her large belly, saw Carmen’s street. Still, she could have kept going, heading to her father’s house, miles away but a straight shot, risking everything, tempting her brother, walking in plain sight on a street where anyone could predict she would travel. Instead, she turned right, headed toward Carmen’s house.

Carmen’s mother opened the door. Then the smile melted from her face, and her eyes were a storm of survival as she took in Lora’s state. Surely, someone who had lost a husband and daughter to the dictator would want to hide Lora. Instead, she hissed, “Get away from here.”

Carmen was on the stairs behind her, eyes down in shame and grief. Lora could see Carmen was already mourning her, already filing her away under those that had been lost. Carmen’s mother was now sobbing. “Please go away.”

Then Lora understood. Resisting the dictator had already cost them so much. They wanted to salvage what was left. She could see in their eyes that they wanted no more asked of them, not even for Lora. She started running before they’d even shut the door.

She had nowhere else to go. Inside Lora as she ran, the baby swam with her sisters, her other selves. Now Lora was even farther from her parents’ house, passing faces and houses she knew, the curtains drawn as soon as they saw her. They all knew she was Death knocking on their door. Who would invite it in?

It was disorder Lora was afraid of, not death. Even if the caliés found her, she’d tell them they could kill her. But they wouldn’t. She was afraid of torture, the insides of her muddled, living with something that could not be healed. Among the doctors, she’d heard whispers of men with their eyes sewn shut, their fingernails or fingers ripped out, electrocution.

Urine was dripping down her leg. She let it go, pissed herself in the street. It was as hot as her fear.

Suddenly, she remembered a classmate from medical school, Felina, the only other woman in her year. They didn’t even know each other well, just had studied together once at her house, not far from where Lora was running. But they had caught eyes in solidarity, first when one of the surgeons had commented on a nurse’s mistake, blaming it on her being a woman, and again when another surgeon had praised Trujillo.

When she reached Felina’s house, Lora heard singing coming from the windows, high-pitched and frenzied, a warning she didn’t heed. She knocked on the door. Felina answered.

Lora, gasping for breath, wet, wild-eyed, with a look of the damned on her face, couldn’t say anything.

Understanding, then determination, passed over Felina’s face. “Get inside,” Felina said.

▴ ▴ ▴

In this world, the caliés drove toward Don Rafael’s house. They would miss my mother. But here the timelines split again. One of them had to use the bathroom. His cousin’s cousin’s house, wasn’t that a few blocks over? They would make a pit stop.

Inside the house they drove toward, Felina and Felina’s aunt avoided mentioning what they hid upstairs. In a back bedroom on the second floor, an armoire of solid mahogany cracked its doors slightly ajar as if in carelessness. Inside that armoire hid the woman the caliés hunted.

A thread of light lanced between the armoire doors. Lora ignored the cramps that burned in her legs and back, the weakness from running that had emptied her out. The whole world was outside, but she could only think about the four-foot width of the armoire, the white blanket underneath her, and the ghosts that attended to her there.

Deep in her belly, she felt something like metal bending. A contraction—but she was too early, and her premature contractions had always passed before. (Of course, you know better, this being the day of my birth.) Now the contraction washed over Lora, making her clench her fists. Then it passed.

There were voices warring inside her. Her husband, an accusation. Why did you let me go? Her parents, begging her to stay still. The others saying, Get up and scream. Get up and walk. Get up and run. But she wouldn’t get out of that armoire, not yet. (And once the men hunting her arrived, which would she choose? In one world she stayed hidden; in another world she burst forth.)

▴ ▴ ▴

Outside the house where she hid, the two laughing men parked, their tires grinding against cobblestones. The doors slammed and voices rose along with the racket of someone calling his wares, selling avocados, mangos, and plantains on horseback. A few people passed on the street but kept walking, their voices fading into the distance, their own sorrows waiting for them there.

Dust motes swirled around Lora and glittered in the shard of light. She could almost imagine they were glimmers of the future in which they’d all be free, tempting her from the corners of her eyes. But Lora could only look backward, wanted to trace how she had gotten to that moment in the armoire. What Tinio had asked her so many months before haunted her. It’s like you don’t even know the cause of all this. She leaned her head back into the darkness. The past shrouded her. She traced it from moment to moment, thread to thread. If she could trace it, she could find a way out, she could bring him back, she could find the thread that, pulled, would unravel all of it.

The baby kicked her in a sharp rebuke, and Lora gasped. She froze. Had someone outside heard her?

Downstairs, Lora heard a knock on the front door. Dread washed over her. This was the moment Felina could give her up, or Felina’s aunt, or the maid. (And in many worlds, they did. Everyone afraid and tempted by survival even in their most resolute moments. This person who you are now, wouldn’t you have given her up?)

Lora sat up and started to pull the armoire door tighter, cringing as the hinges squealed, until she didn’t dare keep closing it.

That feeling again like metal bending in her stomach. Another contraction. Lora held her breath and gripped the blanket underneath her. Inside her, the baby’s infinity was thinning, some of her born into their own worlds and leaving her behind. Look, the baby’s grip loosened. She was losing her sisters; they slipped away from her. She was about to become herself, exit the full, soft darkness.

Voices clattered downstairs. Lora clenched her teeth as the last of the contraction passed. The tension in her body was the buildup of rage. Just a moment before, she had thought she could hide in that armoire forever. Now she felt something rise from her belly to her throat and she thought she would burst from its doors yelling, Come get me! in some kind of triumph.

Lora heard the first notes of a song trickle up the stairs then pass down the hallway. The maid, Alegria, sang softly as if to herself a ballad about a lost lover, the code they’d settled on just before she had run upstairs, for when guests arrived that were dangerous—had ties to Trujillo or loud mouths and weren’t to be trusted. Lora was to keep silent and still. Alegria sang it all the way into the kitchen and through her preparations so no one would pinpoint the sound to the upstairs bedroom where Lora hid in an armoire. Alegria strung the hallway with her song, danger laced in the notes, the trills rising, death in the music like a flood, the song reverberating inside the armoire like Lora lay in the wooden cavern of a guitar. Lora was a glass, rigid and taut, vibrating with a note at the point of breaking. Would she die today, before the baby could escape? (In a million worlds, yes. She would be pulled from the armoire by her hair, she would bleed to death in the darkness. But not this one.)

The end of Alegria’s song snapped something loose in Lora like a dam giving way. Liquid steadily pooled between her legs. Her water had broken. The white blanket underneath her was seeping red—no longer a controlling white like a lab coat, now a flood spreading. The bottom of the nightshift Felina had exchanged for her urine- and sweat-soaked clothes stuck to her. She was giving birth, weeks too early. The sweet smell of the amniotic fluid drowned her. All around her was the course-less water she feared, seamless and powerful, full of her own blood. The river, a river inside her.

The baby’s sisters were being stripped from her like sand falling from a fist. If she could cry, she would have, but instead, she grabbed at them as they slipped away. The soft, fluid darkness solidified around her, around her head, pulling her through. Where were her sisters, the rest of them? They were being born, emerging into a dark space and dropping like rocks with their sudden heaviness. They were breathing, sucking in the harshness and sharply hearing their own lungs, or they were already dead, or they were still dying and then they were nowhere. She slid slowly toward where they had gone, and she left behind more of her. Slowly, wave by wave, the slick of her future opened its mouth.


Brenda Peynado’s short story collection, The Rock Eaters, is forthcoming from Penguin Press in early 2021. Her stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Literary Award, inclusion in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other awards. Her work appears in the Georgia Review, the Sun, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, the Threepenny Review, Tor.com, and other journals. She received her MFA at Florida State University and her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She’s currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.

Read Brenda’s essay about writing this novel, "Naming my Obsession"