A LADY OF TIME
The sun lit up the street intensely, but in the sky clouds were swirling and hinting at a storm, promising an afternoon of the torrential rain typical of a Costa Rican May. Meanwhile, sitting in the shade of a beautiful, leafy tree, the little girl was watching people passing by at their leisure, raising enormous clouds of dust. In her eyes, they formed the surprising shapes of storm clouds packed with powerful lightning bolts and fierce winds, like those that had recently bent trees in two and rattled windows and doors, making her feel as if the world was going to be snuffed out. Now, seeing the dust forming into dark clouds, she smiled happily and imagined that a tiny storm was hitting a group of tiny people.
The dust cloud dispersed and was replaced by strong gusts of wind, and the girl imagined that the storm had passed and the tiny people had been saved. With a sigh, she saw another vehicle pass by, and then another. After a few minutes, she wondered where the mad girl could be. Maybe she was hidden away at home, thinking about strange things. Sometimes she came out, and she frightened her. But she couldn’t see her now and everything seemed calm.
She looked calmly across to the other side of the street, where a small boy was playing with dirt. Then she looked towards the building next to her house, and she noticed that the door to Esteban’s corner shop was open. Would he have ice lollies? It was so hot that thinking of the delicious natilla ice lollies Esteban sold all year round made her mouth water. Maybe he would have some, and all she would have to do was get up and walk the short distance that was separating her from heaven.
With that tempting thought, she turned back towards her house. She couldn’t see anything as her eyes were too dazzled, but she knew that her mother was in the kitchen.
“Mummy!” she called. “Can I go ’round to Don Esti’s shop to get an ice lolly?”
“Now?” protested her mother from the depths of an almost impenetrable darkness. “But we’re going to eat lunch soon!”
The girl pouted, but she didn’t want to give up.
“I could put it in the freezer?” she suggested. Her lilting voice sounded pleasant in the silence of the house, and her mother smiled in the dark.
“I suppose. Go on then, but take care. Don’t go out into the street because cars can kill you, alright?”
“I know Mummy, I’ll go through the garden!”
“Good… Hey! Elena!”
“Ask Don Esti to save me some milk for tomorrow, would you?”
Elena skipped back into the garden and headed right, where a footpath linked her garden to Esteban’s. She opened the gate in the fence that surrounded the building and went through. It was a large garden. The house was modest and had a built-in corner shop, which was kept very well stocked and so the neighbours generally preferred it to the supermarket in the town centre. The path Elena was taking was paved with cobblestones and ran parallel to a wall with railings which faced the street. She then turned right again to reach the corner shop counter.
As she skipped on, she noticed that the mad girl had come out of her house and was running towards her on the pavement, a look of terror on her face and her hands outstretched. She always had a strange expression and often said terrifying things. This was no exception. Elena jumped when she saw her, and was even more scared when she saw that she had come into the garden and was running towards her. Frozen, not knowing what to do, Elena waited until she had come to a stop in front of her and was looking at her with bulging eyes, breathing hard.
“Look out, Elena! There’s going to be a huge earthquake!” she exclaimed. “A reeeally big one, soon! You’ve got to hide! Ruuuuun!”
Elena blinked, confused and scared at the same time; the girl seemed out of control. Then, a skinny, irritable-looking woman approached them along the pavement and came into the garden, shaking with rage.
“Paula! Get over here, you stupid girl! I’m going to lock you up if you carry on like this!”
The mad girl shook her head and started to shriek, terrified, but Elena didn’t stay to see if her mother punished her. She took off, running straight across the grass until she reached the corner shop counter.
She was always scared whenever she crossed paths with Paula. She felt even more scared when she was out of control like this, howling as if the whole world was crashing down around her, saying terrifying things that Elena barely understood, like when she prophesied storms or told someone that they were going to die soon. Paula was older than she was, but her mother told her that she should feel sorry for her, as she had always been ill and had never behaved like a normal girl.
When Elena reached the counter, she looked back and caught a glimpse of Paula’s mother dragging her along the pavement, fury on her face and terror on her daughter’s. Paula was still shouting.
“Poor woman,” commented the old lady in front of the counter. “What a terrible punishment being landed with that girl! She’s getting worse every day.”
“If I was her, I’d register her with that special school,” commented Esteban, the shopkeeper, putting some of the lady’s groceries into a shopping bag. “That one they opened last year. Maybe she’d have calmed down.”
“I doubt it! I’ve heard that the teacher is, let’s say, not all there; she’s more lost than the child of the Llorona, and the few children that go to her are layabouts. That little girl is fit for an asylum, if you ask me.”
Elena looked her at curiously, wondering what an asylum could be, while Esteban frowned disapprovingly. Above them, a television was showing the news, but neither Esteban, a large and very heavy man with a well-kept appearance and a small earpiece in his left ear, nor his customer, a lady full of airs and graces who was wearing a flowery dress, seemed to be paying it any attention.
“An asylum?” he repeated scornfully, pulling a face. “No chance! I put my Dad in a home two years back and I really wish I hadn’t. They abandoned him and the poor guy was turning into a skeleton before my eyes.”
“But is he getting better, Don Esteban? How is he now?”
“He’s alright now. He’s gone to live at my brother’s in San José and that’s sorted him out.”
The lady sighed in sympathy.
“What’s that poor girl going to do now?”
“Who knows. In the clinic they said there’ll be no curing the girl.”
“If I was her I’d swallow my pride and call her father.”
“Pfft, I don’t think he’d listen, Doña Marta. He’s gone to San José and he hardly even remembers that he has a family, let alone a kid as strange as that one.”
“Don Esteban, can I have an ice lolly?”
Both Marta and Esteban jumped, but then Marta smiled indulgently as Esteban smiled at Elena from behind the counter. Elena had already recovered from the shock the mad girl had given her and she was tiring of a conversation that didn’t involve her and was starting to lose her.
“In a sec, sweetie, can’t you see I’m busy?”
“But you’ve already finished packing the bag…”
“In a minute… what were we saying? Oh, yeah, do you want to pay next time, Doña Marta?”
“Oh yes, if you wouldn’t mind, thank you. Miriam still hasn’t been paid.”
“How come? Didn’t they give her a fixed contract?”
“Well, yes, but…”
Elena sighed, frustrated, as they launched into another conversation about things that didn’t matter to her. She started to rock back and forth, looking around her distractedly, until she discovered what appeared to be a new refrigerator, shining immaculately with no marks on it. Attracted by this novelty, Elena turned away from the counter and went over to the fridge. The television above her, which was a flat screen attached to the wall, continued to report the news; brightly coloured images of people and places flashed by, some of which Elena recognised and some of which she didn’t.
“The President-elect has stated that there will be greater restraint on expenditure for the forthcoming 8th May, while heads of state from Panama and Colombia are expected to be present at the inauguration ceremony. In other news, it has been confirmed that new devices for the early detection of seismic activity are to be installed. The installation will be led by OVSICORI and various representatives of the international scientific community, such as…”
Yes, it was a new fridge. It was so shiny that she could see herself reflected in it; a small girl in a summer dress and white sandals, her hair in stubby bunches. The fridge was a vivid yellow colour and had a shiny panel covered in buttons. She liked the look of this, but she couldn’t reach them. Maybe if she found a stool and stood on tiptoe she could find out what those buttons were for.
Somewhat sneakily, she looked back at Esteban, who now had his back to her. She also noticed that a minibus, the kind that came from one of the beaches, had stopped in front of the shop and several people were coming out. They looked as though they could be foreign, although she wasn’t sure, as she was often wrong about people like that.
“Excuse me, could you tell me if this is the way to the quay?”
“Yeah, this is it…”
The driver, a young man wearing beach clothes and a baseball cap, concentrated as he received directions both from Esteban and from Marta about the best way to reach the quay, while his passengers entertained themselves looking at the shop’s merchandise.
Elena smiled contentedly. Nobody was paying her any attention. Determined, she went to the back of the shop and started to pull some packages off the little stool they were lying on, which would serve her purpose. Just as she finished clearing it, Esteban’s smartphone vibrated noisily and Elena jumped, thinking that she would be discovered. She dived for cover behind a set of shelves as Esteban answered the call, speaking through his earpiece.
“Hello? Yes? Javi! What…? What’s that? No, nothing’s happened here at a-”
At that moment, a deep roar like a bellow from the throat of an apocalyptic monster travelled across the floor beneath their feet. The ground shook so violently that several objects crashed to the floor, while people shouted in alarm.
“Oh, God above!” Marta screamed, gripping onto the counter, terrified. Packets of crisps, sweets and cheap toys rained down on her head, and the frightened tourists headed for their minibus, which was swaying dangerously from side to side as if it were made of paper. Inside the corner shop, the walls sounded as if they formed an enormous cardboard structure which was being brutally twisted and ripped apart.
“Eli! Where are you?” Esteban shouted, as he tried to support himself against one of the walls, remain on his feet and find Elena at the same time. “Eli!”
Stacks of shelves started to fall on top of each other as the walls cracked and the entire world seemed to go mad. Elena was terrified, not knowing how to get up or move. She was shouting things that were drowned out by that monstrous roar; thinking about her mother, about the enormous shelves that were falling on top of her, about the earthquakes they had talked about at preschool, about her dolls at home, and about her own terror. She could only curl up in her corner and put her small hands over her head, crying uncontrollably. The shouts of fright and of pain, the desperate crying of old and young people alike, the never-ending roar of the earth that was rising and rocking beneath her feet, the walls of the shop falling around her, the dust and the darkness and the panic she felt from not knowing what to do, all made her shut her eyes and wish with all her heart that this monstrous experience would end.