Joyland

New York |

Ice for Martians

by Claudia Ulloa Donoso

edited by Karina Leon

Translated from Spanish by Lily Meyer

In Peru, the word “marciano” refers both to Martians and to a common type of fruit popsicle.

My sister waved her finger in front of the webcam, showing us an engagement ring. My mother shrieked and kissed the screen, leaving a waxy smudge above my sister’s pixilated face. Once she calmed down, a very tall, blond man appeared onscreen and gave us all a smile. “Hello, I’m Lars. Beautiful Peruvian. Beautiful familien.” Then my sister announced that she was coming home at the end of the month so we could meet her future husband. She was cackling, as was my mother. On the call screen, she looked like a woman talking to an old photograph of herself.

The moment the video call ended, my mother began planning, then distributing orders. Suddenly she’d become an event planner. I got half the tasks, my father the other. Mine included washing the car, switching out the energy-saving lightbulbs with halogen ones, and Photoshopping a picture of my sister and her fiancé onto a Norwegian flag, since Lars was Norwegian, and printing it on good photo paper.

First, we had to clean the house. My mother started by washing the walls. Next, she polished the floors with steel wool, then rearranged the furniture, then called landscapers to clean up the garden. As my sister’s arrival approached, my mother began spending hours online, looking for cleaning tips and tricks she could use in each corner of the house. She cleaned the doorknobs, the sockets and light switches, the faucets in every sink. She even scoured the old copper kettle, which was always greasy and smudged.

“I cleaned it with muriatic acid, come look.”

I was done helping her clean, and even more done with her coming into my room to use the computer. While she was YouTubing ways to make bath towels smell less like mold one afternoon, I coaxed her into watching a video about Norway instead. Her curiosity kicked in right away, and soon she was researching Norwegian and looking up facts about Norway. It seemed like a good thing at first, a helpful distraction from housework, but my mother’s Norwegian education quickly turned into an inferiority complex. Suddenly, she found everything ugly, deficient, or vulgar: her country, her neighborhood, her family, herself.

“Look, in Norway the buses don’t run on gasoline. They recycle garbage to make fuel. With all the trash in the streets, here, think how much fuel we could produce, but of course, this country couldn’t care less about progress.”

My mother installed herself at my desk and went hours without leaving my room. She’d completely taken over my computer. She spent days teaching herself about Norway, scrolling through images of elk, the Aurora Borealis, fjords, men in waders brandishing enormous salmon, other men dressed up as Vikings. At first, the days she spent at my desk were so dull I thought I’d go crazy, but soon her comments started to entertain me. I liked watching her reactions and responses as she sat there, hour after hour, clicking through her infinite sites.

“Look! I was trying to watch this video of snow falling, but all your naked girls popped right up. I didn’t click any, because who knows what I’d see next?”

Her innocence made me feel affectionate. The photos weren’t mine, I explained; they were ads, meant to attract visitors’ attention. But, I added, you should never open those pop-ups.

“So, what, I didn’t win that cell-phone raffle?”

“No, Mom. Pop-up ads are traps. Mostly they steal your email address and use it to send you more junk.”

My mother knew you could be robbed in the street, but until now, she’d had no idea you could be robbed in your own son’s bedroom. Even worse, she’d had no idea that we lived in a country whose buses spat polluted filth, whose trash was embarrassingly useless, whose society was corrupt and macho, and whose capital city smelled like fish and mold. She’d never seen that Cerro San Cristobal, which could have been a pine-covered Nordic peak, was instead a dry, dirty hillock crawling with unnecessarily bright houses, and that this was all she’d seen from her living-room window for years.

My mother’s collision with reality distressed her. For days, she barely moved or spoke. She abandoned the computer and went back to her midday shows, but she didn’t smile at the TV like she used to. I had to lure her back to the computer. I suggested that she watch some PromPerú videos, or look through its website, so she’d be able to tell Lars more about our country, and before long she’d forgotten the Vikings and fjords. The video flights over Machu Picchu delighted her, as did the video cruises across Lake Titicaca. She was overjoyed to learn that the Amancae flower hadn’t gone extinct; in fact, it bloomed on the pampas not too far from our house, the ones she’d always assumed were overrun by riffraff, filled with shacks or converted into garbage dumps.

My mother’s mood had transformed. She even looked better. She was visibly content and excited, not only because my sister was coming home engaged, but also because she was filled with patriotic pride. Whenever she talked about our country’s tourist attractions—which, to her, were now imposing and grand, noble and ancient —she brimmed with endorphins. Her eyes shone when she told me about our unrivalled ceviche or the nobility of our hero, Miguel Grau. She spent days at the computer again, watching videos about our native flora and fauna and reading historical and scientific sites.

My mother hadn’t seemed this happy in a long time. The change stunned me and my father. A few years before, she’d gotten sick, and we’d never been able to find a diagnosis. Her head hurt, and she had wild swings in appetite, from days she only ate tea and toast to days my father had to bring massive orders of roast chicken home to keep her happy. She barely slept, and woke me—never my father—in the middle of the night to keep her company while she cooked and chattered about whatever crossed her mind.

Maybe all she needed was to get excited about something. Maybe the problem was that her daily routine didn’t give her reasons to think about anything new, or to learn about much beyond what her midday TV shows offered. Maybe some excitement could have prevented the disorienting incident when she disappeared and came back days later, filthy and exhausted, her body covered with cuts, swearing that God himself had instructed her to return to her family, whose love would be her refuge and her salvation.

***

At Sunday breakfast, she introduced the idea of the condor. My father and I woke to the smell of freshly brewed coffee, unusual in our instant-coffee home. My mother had returned from Mass with chicharrones, fried sweet potatoes, and tamales.

“It won’t even be hard,” she told us. “The condors aren’t full-grown, and they’re captive. They barely fly. And they’re used to people, besides.”

Dad didn’t reply. He concentrated on chewing his baguette, which he’d stuffed with chicharrón and fried sweet potato. When my mother shut her mouth, he took a sip of coffee and started picking at the bits of meat and onions left on his plate.

“Well?” my mother asked. “Are you two going to help me?”

Her tone was nasal and intense. My father pushed his cup aside and turned to me. I filled my mouth with tamal, but my mother was watching me so intently my throat constricted and I couldn’t swallow.

“Look, sweetheart, that sounds a bit tricky,” my father said. “And risky.” He poured himself another cup of coffee.

My mother pushed her chair back from the table and began clearing the dirty breakfast dishes away. From the dining room, we could hear water streaming into the sink, china ringing and breaking against the metal basin, the pantry doors slamming open and shut. My father and I stood silently at the table, like sentries. When my mother returned, she had a knife in her hands. Between her sobs, she said, “You never help me. I take care of you, I keep you happy, I show the whole world how close this family is. I’m always the enthusiastic one. I’m the organizer. I make your lives run. I devote my whole life to you, and now, when I ask you to do your sister a favor, when I ask you to help show your daughter’s fiancé how welcome he is, the two of you stand there, mute, like always. My whole life! Trapped here with your unbearable silence.”

Dad locked his eyes on some spot on the table. I walked over to one of the dining room windows and pushed it open. The air outside smelled like our breakfast, like the breakfast the whole city ate every Sunday.

“Fine, Mom. Get all the things, make the calls, do the talking, and as long as all we have to do is come with you, then fine. We’ll come.”

“Yes, yes, leave it to me. We’re only taking the little condor. It’s the same size as a Christmas turkey.”

My mother set the knife on the table and went back to the kitchen. My father was silent. After my mother fell asleep that night, he came to my room and shook me awake. In a furious whisper, he said, “We do whatever she wants! You’re her son. You could have said no, and it wouldn’t have made her as angry as me saying it. Now what? What if the cops catch us? What if the bird dies? Then what?”

***

She told us how to dress. Dark pants and a white shirt for Dad, a blue nurse’s uniform for me, and a marine-blue skirt and eggshell blouse for her. Dad carried the animal crate, I had the cooler with dry ice, and she had a leather purse and, in one arm, a folder she’d filled with pictures of birds and papers that looked like invoices and business correspondence.

We got to the zoo not long before it closed. She went to the ticket window, talked to the manager, then signaled that we should go inside. When we got to the administrative offices, she went in alone, telling us to wait for her there.

She emerged after a few minutes, accompanied by the head zookeeper, a middle-aged man who greeted us with a smile, then guided us through the park. Dad and I walked behind them, and as we passed between the gardens and enclosures, we noticed—maybe at the same time—that my mother was a good-looking woman, front and back. She had a narrow little waist, and curvy hips she hid under long housecoats at home.

The man radioed the keeper in charge of feeding the birds, who turned out to be a kid younger than me. He showed up holding a long wooden pole, said a friendly hello, and let us into the condors’ enclosure. Dad stayed by the entrance, and Mom and I followed the kid through the condors’ little park with its drying artificial lake, its craggy fake mountain made of cement and rocks.

“The female’s not acclimating. See, there she is, hidden in her cave. Every so often she comes out to eat and fly a little, but that’s all. The male is better acclimated. He’ll fly, follow commands, keep the visitors entertained.”

The female was indeed hidden in her cement cave. The male perched on a metal bar that ran across the enclosure, observing us silently from above. My mother had made us rehearse today’s steps over and over, to the point of exhaustion, and now she directed me with barely a glance. Her features were as still as her ID photograph, just a few muscles moving, a few words slipping out.

I entered the female condor’s cave. She saw me, but she wasn’t bothered by the invasion. I opened the cooler of dry ice and put it near her. My mother produced a tiger-striped blanket and blocked the cave’s entrance with it, holding it from the top like a curtain. The bird took a few steps, flapped her wings gingerly, and lifted her neck. The only light in the dim cave came from her gleaming black eyes.

The bird started getting drowsy, thanks to the gas from the dry ice. She sat down, like a chicken roosting on her eggs. I watched her through the white smoke, imagining her flying freely over the Andes. I imagined her watching the world through the clouds, with no concept of the cages below, no concept of humans at all.

Before she collapsed, the bird opened her wings slightly. I tugged the blanket down, and light returned to the cave. My mother tossed me a sleep mask. I lifted the bird carefully, stroking her satin feathers. I gathered her wings and made sure the back of her neck was protected, then covered her eyes with the mask, wrapped her in the blanket, and left the cave cradling the bird in my arms. My mother had a stethoscope around her neck now, and she approached us and mimed listening to the bird’s heart. Where did a caged condor keep her heart? She gave me the stethoscope, and I tried to listen. What I heard sounded like my childhood, when I’d press my ear to the dining room table and bounce a rubber ball on the floor beneath.

Dad ran to us with the crate. He ran like a servant fetching something for his master. As we settled the bird in the crate, I watched my father closely. I looked enough like him that I was afraid the zookeepers would realize we were a family, not a team of veterinarians, but it wasn’t that thought making my hands shake and turning my sweat cold. It was the thought of myself running like a servant someday, watched by a woman, carrying my very own cage. Dad and I got in the back of the car. Mom stayed and talked to the head zookeeper for a while, then took some papers from her folder. The man signed, and they kissed each other’s cheeks in goodbye.

We headed home, the bird riding next to me in the back seat. The dry ice in the cooler was still emitting carbon dioxide, which kept the bird asleep the whole drive. In the front seat, my mother talked about the ways we’d keep the bird happy, all the tasks left to prepare for my sister and her fiancé’s welcome lunch. My father said nothing. Both he and I were as fed up and exhausted as the crated bird.

At home, we tied a red-and-white cord around the bird’s foot to keep her in the living room. She was waking up, and eventually she stood. We gave her a few pieces of meat, which she ate after she’d resigned herself to the fact that she was tied to a piece of furniture, barely able to take a few steps on the newly waxed parquet floor. When she began beating her wings, we brought more dry ice into the living room to calm her. My mother told me to keep watch over her in the night, to bring food and water periodically, and to clean it up right away if she shat on the floor.

When the house was dark and the neighborhood nearly silent, the condor flew as high as the cord would allow. She perched on an armchair, dug her talons into the upholstery, and made herself comfortable on the seat. I watched her from the sofa across the room. I wanted to set her free. After a few hours, I decided I could get closer. My presence didn’t upset her. She let me run my little finger over her pitch-black satin plumage. I imagined her lost in the city, perched on some building downtown, out of place among the pigeons and roosters, longing for the Andean peaks to which she would never return. I didn’t want to let her go. I didn’t want her eating trash from the river, or filling her stomach with the dead.

***

Dad had already gone to get my sister and her fiancé at the airport. My mother was putting the finishing touches on the dining room table, which she’d set with linens from Huancayo, ceramics from Chulucanas, clay flutes, and clay pots she planned to fill with the food staying warm in the kitchen. Around noon, the condor woke up. The dry ice my mother had set around the living room had completely disappeared. To get more, we’d have to go to the industrial zone, across the city from where we lived. There was no way we’d get back in time.

My mother raced to the computer and searched for some way to tranquilize the bird so it wouldn’t attack our guest. She considered giving her a few drops of her Rivotril in a chunk of meat, but she couldn’t figure out how the drug would affect a bird. The condor was getting more and more agitated, and we started worrying that the red-and-white cord around her ankle, thick as it was, might snap. What if the bird wrecked our welcome?

Maybe, we thought, we could buy dry ice in the market. We could try the ladies selling marcianos, or, if we were lucky, we’d run into an ice cream cart on the way. My mother ran out of the house, leaving me in charge of entertaining the bird. Remembering the zookeeper, I went to get a broom, which I balanced between the coffee table and the couch. The bird opened her wings and flew to the broomstick. She spent a while coming and going, flying around the living room at a low height, but eventually she returned to perch on the broom. As a reward, I offered her bits of meat every time she returned to the broomstick, and the game kept her under control.

My mother returned in a mototaxi, carrying a raffia bag filled with dry ice. We scattered it around the living room, and soon the house filled with white smoke. Then my father returned, and at the sound of the motor, the dazed bird climbed off the broomstick and lay down in a corner by the sofa. My sister and her boyfriend walked into the dining room. My father put on a CD, filling the house with huaynos and instrumental versions of Creole waltzes. Lars introduced himself without my sister’s help. He was a sweet, extroverted guy, and he tried hard to speak Spanish with the family. The white smoke in the living room surprised him, and he asked whether it was Lima’s famous fog. My mother winked at me, and I went to get the condor. The bird was only half-awake, but she leapt from my arms and perched at the center of the table.

“It looks like fog,” my mother said, “but it’s just a harmless gas. It comes from the ice for marcianos, and it keeps our ancient Peruvian condor calm.”

The bird returned quietly to the living room, and we ate our lunch happily, like tourists making their way through an exotic feast. A strange, new happiness overtook us, as if we weren’t ourselves at all, but a group of strangers who’d met on a tour, eating lunch at the best tourist restaurant in some town we wished we’d never have to leave, on the last day of a trip we wished would never end.