Caiman Tango – Victoria Haggblom
Anya screams from the attic and I know at once she has found the crocodile. I remain by the living room window. It’s March and outside, the Yorkshire Dales are a faded khaki after winter. The fields surrounding my childhood home in Brazil never seemed to change hue. Between harvests, the air shimmered over plants that grew taller overnight and required sickle-shaped scythes to be separated from the earth.
Anya’s steps down the stairs are urgent like knocks on your door in the middle of the night. She stands in the doorway, her hands lifted as if expecting someone to grasp them.
“What is that thing, grandma? Under the sheet?”
I settle onto the couch. “I asked you to get the record player. Did I tell you to look for anything else?”
Anya is twenty-three, the same age my mother was when my father persuaded her to leave Porto so they could bring his garment business from Portugal to South America. Mother thought we’d live in a metropolis; she never expected we’d end up on the edge of a swamp.
“I forbid you to go to the river,” she told my older sister Leah and me the first time we watched the village children tumble against the muddy current in their underwear on a sweltering day. “The water is dangerous and I don’t want you to play with those farm urchins.”
Anya sits down next to me. She wipes beads of sweat from the side of her nose.
“It’s a crocodile,” I say.
“What’s it doing here?”
“Your father never told you? He grew up with it.”
“He never tells me anything.”
I’d almost missed it when I skipped over to the vegetable garden to get some green onions for our Shabbat dinner. The giant body melded with the ground and the evening shadows. My white shoes and bare ankles must have passed its line of vision, but it didn’t move until I entered the house again. As I turned to close the door, the crocodile whipped once, twice, propelling itself toward me with startling speed.
“I made you trifle,” I say. “It was you who asked about those old tango records.” My son Benji, Anya’s father, wants to pay for a professional organizer to clear
out my closets and cabinets, but why stir up so much dust when I’m still alive? Let them do it when I’m gone.
“It scared me,” Anya says.
I touch her cheek, warm like an apricot in the sun. “My father had it killed. It saw the lights from our house in Paraná and came up from the river one evening.”
I had not screamed. Leah and I were taught to behave like good girls and Rona, our nanny, slapped the back of our heads if we made noise while playing inside. I dropped the green onions on the floor. Ran into the dining room, where father sat in his leather armchair drinking Cachaça.
“Desculpe-me,” I said, waiting for his permission to speak. “Excuse me, father.”
“There is a crocodile outside the door.”
“Everyone stay,” my father commanded, rushing toward the telephone in the foyer.
Mother, Leah, Rona, and I kept stock-still, scattered about the room as if captured by an inexperienced photographer. No one spoke. On the gramophone, a shellacked record kept turning, swirling a ribbon of Argentine tango into the air: violins, accordion, the crooning of Carlos Gardel.
“Tell me about the crocodile,” Anya says. “Did anyone get hurt?”
“Do you really have time?”
“We have rehearsals all week, but I don’t need to be back in town until six.”
“I’m proud of you.” I pour more tea into our cups. Would I have a concert pianist for a grandchild if my parents had never made it to England? Would I have found a husband like Simon, given birth to a physician like Benjamin?
“It’s so big,” Anya says.
“It used to be two meters. I think it’s shrunk with time.” I take a sip of my cold Earl Grey. “It could’ve come inside and attacked us. Mother was very unsettled by the incident. She wanted the crocodile stuffed, as a reminder that we’d been spared. She thought if we ever returned to Europe, we could sell it and make a good deal of money.“
I’d almost forgotten about it when it was delivered a few months later, its claws and skin perfectly preserved, the eyes replaced with glass. The mouth was fixed in a half open snarl, revealing rows of teeth sharp as thorns.
“Did all your friends want to come over and see it?” Anya asks.
I smooth the fabric of my wool pants. “Leah and I didn’t really have any friends. We had a private teacher from Sao Paolo, Miss Lopez. She refused to go near the thing. When I didn’t want to do the homework she assigned, I hid under the grand piano. Right next to the crocodile.”
Anya laughs. “You must have photos.”
I gesture at the ceiling. “Perhaps up there.”
My granddaughter’s dark eyes are suffused with light. “I feel fine now,” she says. “I’ll get the record player.”
“Let’s just sit here together. Tell me about the performance. What are you going to play?”
Anya ignores me. She’s already on her way up the stairs. If she didn’t remind me so much of myself, I’d probably shout at her.
Before Miss Lopez came to us, we attended the village school. One day, our teacher called my sister up to the front of the room. He positioned her so she faced the class and then pointed out the various traits of her physique he considered typically Jewish and therefore undesirable: her aquiline nose, the shape of her eyes and chin. Every student in the room had black hair, so the teacher also referred to Leah’s copper locks as an offense. At recess, some boys gathered around Leah and me; they wanted to see if we were different in other ways, under our clothes. I didn’t listen to the fear in my head. I pushed three of the boys so hard they landed on the ground. We never returned to the school.
I get stiff when I sit for more than a few minutes, but I manage to toddle over to the attic stairs. The door at the top is open. A smell of mothballs sweeps down the stairway.
“Forget the record player,” I call out, as my granddaughter appears with the box in her arms. She balances down the steps, sets it on the hallway table.
I take hold of her sleeve. “I want you to bring it down here.”
Anya frowns, tilts her head. “What?”
“It’s bulky, but it’s not very heavy.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“It used to always be under the grand piano.”
This isn’t entirely true. The winter my father learned of more war brewing in Europe, he sold his failing business and most of our furniture. He purchased boat tickets from Rio to Lisbon. We spent two weeks on the ship. When we arrived in Portugal it became clear we couldn’t stay in my mother’s home country.
“Who knows what will happen to us, Dora,” father said to her. “But I hope we’ll be safer with my relatives in England.”
Bringing the crocodile to London was more than father was willing to do. In haste, it was donated to a local museum whose curator was thrilled by the gift. Father, sensing mother’s disappointment, put his arm around her. “We should only bring necessities,” he advised. “Hair brush, sweaters, an extra pair of shoes. No point taking a monster across the border.”
Anya glances toward the living room. “You don’t have a piano.”
“I gave our Steinway to your father when you were born.”
She regards me for a moment. “If the thing falls apart, don’t get angry.” She starts climbing the stairs.
“Keep it wrapped in the sheet,” I say, unsure if she can hear me.
Father had been dead for a decade when, in the spring of 1960, my mother received a letter from the museum curator in Porto asking if we wanted the reptile back, as they no longer had room for it.
“Why don’t they simply give it away to some other institution?” Leah’s husband Herman asked.
“Of course they can’t,” my sister said. “They know it belongs to us.”
“It’s a long way to travel,” Herman observed.
Mother laughed with delight. “We’ll explore my hometown,” she said. “Stay in a nice hotel, go to the beach.”
Herman threw his hands in the air and my mother and sister flew to Portugal, where they walked for miles, spent an entire day at Palacio da Bolsa and another swimming on Miramar beach. At the museum, the crocodile had already been brought out of its glass display case and squeezed into a wooden crate. A yellowed sign attached to the lid read: Caiman yacare. Family: Alligatoridae. Species endemic to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Donated by the Joseph Curiel family, March 1939.
Later, mother told me she was troubled to discover that Leah cried herself to sleep every night during their trip. It was especially bad during a thunderstorm. When asked what was wrong, my sister said she had nightmares about bomb raids. She wouldn’t listen to mother’s insistence that there was nothing to be afraid of anymore. That we’d been spared and had to let go of the past.
They took the train back home and the crocodile traveled easy; my mother could probably have filled it with drugs and nobody would have suspected any wrongdoing. The thing sat under her grand piano until she passed away. Leah then agreed to have the crocodile in her home for some time. After two nervous breakdowns and hospitalizations, my sister’s psychiatrist convinced her to pass the animal on to me. I hesitated, but what could I do? It was the last remaining object from what was our version of the old world, a time when we owned land and had servants dressed in black and white.
Anya holds the crocodile away from her torso as she descends the stairs one step at a time. The sheet has slipped off its scaly rear. I flip the light switch and my granddaughter sways in the brightness.
“Hold on to the banister,” I urge her.
“Can’t.” She pauses. “Almost there.”
If she falls, I’ll throw myself in her way to lessen the impact. What on earth was I thinking? If her hands are hurt, or even nicked, she can’t play.
When Anya was two, I asked Simon, now gone eight years, to put the crocodile away in the attic. I thought its stink of formaldehyde could be harmful to a toddler. Without the piano, it was also a tripping hazard.
“Esther, are you going to give it to her when she gets older?” Simon asked.
“If she wants it,” I replied.
“Who in their right mind would want to,” he muttered.
“It’s always been in the family,” I said, watching the back of his curly gray hair as he hauled the mummified beast out of sight.
“I think it’s technically a caiman,” Anya says, bending over and setting the crocodile down so its feet make a rasping sound against the linoleum.
“I’m pretty sure crocodiles are found only in Africa. This is a caiman.”
“You’re better educated.”
“Where do you want it?”
“Leave it here. I’ll deal with it later.”
“I’m going to wash my hands.” Anya strides out to the kitchen and I follow her.
“Do you want something to eat?” I ask.
“Still full from lunch.” She turns on the faucet. “After all that, don’t you want to see it?”
I shake my head. If we remove the sheet, I’m afraid I’ll be hurled into a time tunnel. I can already feel it tugging at me, erasing the stainless steel appliances and the warm water streaming over Anya’s hands. I see the well behind our house and the countless chickens only my father could slaughter for us in the right way. I recall the despair in his voice when I overheard him telling mother we had to get out before it was too late. We had to be with family, community, he said. In a place we wouldn’t be the only Jews in a hundred-mile radius.
Anya takes my arm, rests it in the crook of her own. “Why don’t we listen to one of those records you were talking about before?”
She smells so lovely. Dove shampoo and vanilla. “Let’s,” I say.
In the living room, I turn on the propane fireplace while Anya sets up the record player. The bandoneon isn’t an instrument to sit still to. My grandchild floats back and forth in front of me, pretending she has a partner in her arms.
“Is this how you tango?” She smiles, dips and swirls. “Right, left, right, turn around?”
“Looks good,” I say.
In Paraná, we usually had nowhere to go and there were rarely any guests, so in the
evenings when father wasn’t on the road for work, my parents danced. Oil lamps flickered in the shadows. A curtain moved in the breeze from an open window. On the
rug, Leah and I sat with our ankles crossed, watching mother and father in the twilight. I
thought it would go on forever. That they’d always want to dance.
Anya has her jacket on. “I’ll come back next Sunday,” she says. Her slender hands cover my arthritic ones. She kisses my cheeks once, twice. “That was a strange surprise.” Gesturing to the outline of the crocodile under its sheet, Anya looks as if she wants to ask me something, but she doesn’t.
I want to hold on to her so she can’t go; instead, I tuck her scarf in under her collar. “Have a wonderful rehearsal.”
“We’re starting some other music today.”
“I look forward to hearing it.”
I wait until her red Fiat disappears behind the hill. Then, I go inside and pull the sheet off the crocodile. It has the same color as dead grass, but its neck looks as if strong muscles hold it erect instead of steel wire. I don’t utter a word. I throw the sheet back over its stare and fetch my gloves, camelhair coat, and an old leather belt from the closet.
Before Leah and I were sent to live with an old cousin in the Scottish countryside to protect us from air raids, father told me to look out for my sister.
“She’s not as strong as you,” he said. “But whatever happens, you have each other. Never forget that.”
I stand in front of the crocodile. “You’ve already been through this,” I say, my gloved hands tightening the belt around the animal’s throat and yanking it toward the front door. I don’t care if it scratches the floor.
Mother didn’t want the crocodile shot; it would’ve ruined its hide. Instead, some gauchos with lassos were brought to our house. From a window, I watched the beast thrash and struggle. It took forever before it ceased moving and even then, even after the men flipped it over to reveal its pearly belly, it seemed capable of springing back to life at any moment.
I reach my car and open the back door. With the pull of a strap, I lower one of the seats. I click open the trunk with my key. I only have to lift the crocodile a little. Once its head is inside, a few shoves bring it all the way in. I have no problem driving; after all, one doesn’t drive with one’s age, but with one’s senses. My hearing and eyesight are excellent, as are my reflexes. I was always sprightly, even as a girl. Never fragile, like
It’s an hour and a half drive to the coast. For twenty years, Simon rented a slip in the marina for his skiff. When he died, I didn’t see a need to get rid of the boat. A young man named Colin, son of an actual fisherman, tars it each fall, makes sure the wood is conditioned, the sails in decent shape. We never named it; Simon wanted to call it Sojourn, which didn’t make sense; Benji voted for Party Favor, which I nixed. Both of them thought Fathom, my suggestion, had too ominous a ring.
I park outside the gate to the jetty. As I walk onto the pier, I spot the skiff bobbing in its usual place, as if it’s waiting for me. I return to the gate, prop it open, and pop the trunk.
“Here we are,” I say to the caiman. Anya is right, that’s what the creature is called. We ought to call things what they are. It was never a crocodile; that was one of the many things mother refused to see.
After the war, everyone was rebuilding, restarting their lives from the rubble. Father’s new clothing chain in Oxford was a success. Leah and I were in a high school for gifted girls. Mother studied economics so she could be helpful to father. Then one day after dinner, he sat down by the fireplace, nodded off, and never woke up again. The official cause of death was stroke. I know he died from a broken heart, crushed by too many losses.
In this weather, at dinnertime early spring, the marina is empty. I drag the caiman, its sheet lost somewhere behind, down the jetty. I plan to first step into the boat and then hoist it onboard. The narrow vessel wobbles as I lean forward to unhitch the rope from the cleat. I pull on the leather belt and lose my balance. I fall onto my back and the caiman descends on me, its claws digging into my breast.
My heart contracts, falters like a broken instrument. Twisting to the right, I push the caiman to the left. As I sit up, my elbow breaks through its side, cracks the skin open. The gash reveals disintegrating straw. The skiff drifts. On aching knees, I crawl to the stern. I climb onto the seat and stare at the outboard motor. What if there’s no gas in it? After a few attempts, I find the start button. The engine growls to life. I try to remember how to move the lever and pull it into reverse. Purring, the boat slides backward. I push the throttle forward and head east.
My coat is thick, but it’s no match for the Atlantic gust spitting freezing drops onto my face. Despite the gloves, my fingers are soon numb around the outboard’s tiller handle. The water is the color of lead. In one direction, I see distant lights on the shore; in the other, the horizon is darkening. I steer away from land, my gaze on the waves.
I keep the engine running in neutral and kneel on the floor of the skiff. If we capsize, my
body will probably never be found. Using all my strength, I lean to the left while grabbing the caiman and tipping it to the right. It goes overboard with a gentle splash, the way I imagine it sounding when these beings paddle through the murky waterways of
Brazil, Uruguay, and northern Argentina.
How cold it must be. Hypothermia or drowning; I’m not sure which would be faster. Who by fire, who by water? Who by earthquake, dementia, high cholesterol? They’re all gone now: Simon, mother, father, Rona, and Herman. All my cousins, aunts, and uncles. Neighbors, strangers, so many others.
I’m glad father never found out that thousands of German murderers were given refuge on the continent where we once lived. I wish I could tell him I tried to save my sister but like him, she died from living, which sounds absurd, but is true. I wanted to experience everything. They couldn’t handle the weight of all they felt.
The caiman is sinking. Its head goes last, the glint of the eyes and the nostrils that stopped breathing a lifetime ago. I could join it, the two of us clutching each other in the depths as we are swallowed by silence. Then again, we’re not going to the same place. I pull on the lever and feel the vessel shift direction. I turn my back to the open sea.
Victoria Haggblom is a writer and translator of Swedish. Her short fiction has been published in Shenandoah, Cutbank, and Oakland Review. She is currently at work on a novel set in the Mojave desert and in Italy.