Children of Song
Every afternoon a light coating of dust blows in from the sand dunes by the sea, permeating every crack and flaw on the rooftops. The breeze goads people back into their homes after a day of work in the capital, towards the corner shop, and the sea. And every afternoon, a splash of sand welcomes students off the shuttle.
The dust clouds are one of Mariale’s daily reminders.
The schoolchildren leap into them, their flailing lanky limbs irritating her. They usually show up at the bus stop when she’s about to commute to work. She scratches her short nails over the surface of the violin case, in the same pattern she does every day. A figure eight with an extra loop. The next hour will be spent erasing any trace of dust from the body of the guitar. The bus has exited the maze of hilltop houses and Mariale sees the shore up ahead. If she wanted to get a glimpse out the window, she’d have to arch her neck in order to see the sand.
The white light would offset the deep greens of the fruit trees and the neon beach umbrellas. Twinkling pockets of sky would peek from behind these, moving and moving as she would run faster and faster, holding her cousins’ hands as they would sprint off manically. The “light flashes”, as she would call them, would appear and disappear faster if she widened or narrowed her eyes.
Ramon also loved music. He loved all sorts of things. At the dinner table when they were children, he would tell their parents all about airplanes and the solar system. Once he told Mariale that mathematics and music were one and the same.
Mariale learned to read music sheets at four. She had barely learned the alphabet when Ramon strode in the door one afternoon carrying a yellowing paperback in his frail arms.
“What are those lines?” she would ask. The new symbols looked like the tops of little houses, nothing like the curved letters she learned in school.
“It’s how to make sounds. To make music. Ta,” he replied, moving his finger from one symbol to the next, “ta-ta-ta...ta.” Mariale giggled.
“I don’t get it. What’s wrong with just singing?
“I don’t get it either, but my teacher said you can make new songs like this.”
She had no idea what he was talking about most of the time, she didn’t learn these sorts of things in school. He had. Not in class though, but in the library. Every day, he’d blab about so many factoids she couldn’t remember one by the time she fell asleep. The one time she could remember his dinnertime ramblings was when he told their mother, Alejandra, about musical instruments and reading music. This went on for longer than a night. Mariale watched her nine-year old brother convince their mother somehow that no, it’s not just another toy and that yes, they’d actually use it for a long time. Alejandra was easy to persuade at times, but never when it came to new toys. The day the acoustic guitar came delivered to their house was the day Mariale knew her brother was something else. She almost couldn’t believe when she finally learned how to play chords and make notes...without having to flip the pages of the library paperback.
“You’re the best, Ramon!” she squealed. “Why don’t you play a lot of music too?” Ramon just shrugged, saying that making notes go together is like counting. “Math and music are the same like that, he said. “I want to do real math. Other math lets you make buildings and robots, this math just lets you do music.” And it was true. Eventually, Ramon’s ramblings stopped being about everything and started being about something. And that something ended up being engineering. Surprisingly, Thomas the Train was not his favorite show as a child. The models he would draw were absurd but his teachers told him they made sense.
Sometimes, Mariale wondered why Ramon wouldn’t pursue music. Even today, she still can’t figure him out. All she really knows about him is that he’s just as brilliant as ever. But he never talks to her anymore.
She gazes out the window in the dark, cluttered kitchen. From a distance, she can see other concrete homes like hers, brick rectangles sometimes painted blue or yellow, divided by steep pedestrian staircases leading down to the highway by the ocean, which is hidden by the morning fog. Her mother, Alejandra, is spreading marmalade on toast, absentmindedly listening to something Ramon is going on about, something to do with the moon and the high tides this time of year. Mariale limps into the kitchen, her leg trailing behind her.
“My princess. Are you ready to amaze people once again today with your music?”
Mariale laughs and grabs a plate. “People just walk by, we usually don’t have an audience, Mom.” Ramon pointedly faces the window, noticeably silent.
“Did I hear something about the moon and the waves?” Mariale tries to sound light-hearted, glancing at both of them. Still, silence from her brother.
“Oh, Ramon was just saying that depending on how close the moon is to the earth...the waves get bigger? Is that right?” Ramon nods and mumbles “That’s about right.”
“That’s so cool, I didn’t know that.” Mariale twist open the marmalade jar and slices into a piece of bread. She’s not expecting a response. All she can hear is the clinking of silverware and her mother’s slow breathing as she tries to discreetly look at Mariale’s leg.
Mariale catches her gaze, and she smiles again, a little nervously.
“Are you getting those shoes at Plaza Vea today?” asked Mariale. Sometimes her mother just didn’t know what to do when her leg was the elephant in the room. Or when Ramon refused to participate in a normal conversation when Mariale was around.
“Actually, yes, I am!” Alejandra exclaimed, reaching again for the marmalade jar. She looked a little more relieved. “I don’t think I’m getting the silver sandals, though. I already have a pair. The brown ones are on sale too, and they’re nice.” Alejandra opened the supermarket catalog, seemingly oblivious to Ramon on the couch, who was putting on his sneakers.
”Speaking of which, I have to get going,” he says, leaning over to give his mother a kiss. Mariale looks up at him, but he looks towards the ceiling as he makes his way to the door.
Then, both women resumed the daily period of awkward silence in which they were confronted by the rift between the children, which after this long now seemed permanent.