by Kit Cura
Cora stands at the edge of a cliff and stares through wind-narrowed eyes at the hidden ocean. Somewhere far below her feet, white waves seethe and foam onto the black-rock beach, a destructive dance to which she is a precarious observer. She can taste the water on her skin, too, bitterly cold and salty, burrowing into her bones alongside the heavy dew and drizzle — a second layer of flesh.
She blinks the blurriness from her eyes; blankets of fog stretch lazily outwards, shapeless bodies spilling onto the coast, reaching for her with translucent tendrils. She blinks again, and she sees her mother’s hands on the starched bed sheets, claw-like, white-knuckled.
Cora gasps into the wind and takes a step back, away from the angry sea and the curtains of fog. A hand settles on her shoulder, rough and solid.
“Tranquila. Easy,” says Tomas Calbo, the hand’s owner and Cora’s four-month guide to the Patagonian coast. “You are fine, I would tell you if you were in any danger.” He smiles through crooked front teeth and sparkling gray eyes; he thinks he is reassuring her.
“Sorry.” Cora looks at him, catches her breath. “I was… a little overwhelmed.”
Tomas nods, like he understands. “A little too much for you on your first day here, eh? The coast here tends to have this effect on people.” His accent is strange, not quite English and not quite Spanish; upside-down birdsong, beautiful, if a little jarring. He turns back to the horizon, still smiling, and adds, “I have lived here my whole life, and every time I feel the waters dance like this…” He pauses, losing his words in the waves below, and turns to Cora. “Ven, let us go back to the house. My family is excited to meet you.”
“Whales,” her mother scoffed from the hospital bed, “you want to study whales.”
Cora shifted awkwardly in the hard plastic chair and folded her hands in her lap. “Not just whales, Mom.” She made sure to keep her voice level, free of any passion, just like she had learned. “Marine biology involves many subjects: wildlife conservation, the effects of climate change on underwater ecosystems—”
“And you choose to focus on the migrations of slow, stupid whales in Panama.”
“Patagonia. Not Panama.”
“What’s the difference?”
“And they’re not stupid; current research suggests that certain species possess enough emotional intelligence to rival that of humans.”
Her mother crossed her arms, pursed her lips, and narrowed her eyes — a triple threat of disappointment. Her paper-thin and pale skin, the IVs stuck into bulging blue veins, the flimsy hospital gown flung over a too-thin body, they all faded away; for a heartbeat, Cora did not see the breast cancer patient, but the socialite who frowned her way through Cora’s life.
“Have you ever seen a whale run a business?” she said. Her gaze then shifted, focusing somewhere behind her daughter’s head. Cora followed her stare, swiveling in her chair and peering through the viewing window.
Her father stood on the other side, his back turned to her, a cell phone jammed against his ear, his broad shoulders stiff beneath his ironed work suit. He hadn’t entered the room yet, hadn’t so much as looked through the window. Cora couldn’t even begin to guess who he was talking to: one of his endless corporate lackeys, maybe, or perhaps some bushy-tailed acolyte from Oklahoma or Arkansas looking for some proud Texan oil baron to show him the ropes. She heard the rumble of his voice, glacial, carving progress with every syllable, no doubt. She wasn’t sure who she felt more sorry for — the poor bastard on the other end of the line, or her bedridden mother fighting for both herself and a scrap of her husband’s time.
“Now that’s intelligence,” she said, her voice dripping with reverence: she saw a martyr, not a man. “Don’t forget all that he’s done for you, Cora. You’d be stupid to throw it all away.”
The door opened. Her father walked in, the cellphone finally detached from his ear. His eyes went wide as he noticed his wife on the bed. Cora blinked, and she saw her mother through his sight, lifeless, with needle-pricked skin and washed-out hair, her eyes scowling even from six feet under. His lip curled — was it fear, disgust?
Not worry. Never worry. He didn’t have time for worry outside of himself.
“Hello, honey.” He averted his eyes from her face and spoke to the floor. One can only look at a corpse for so long. “How are you feeling?”
Her mother’s frown deepened. Creases appeared in her paper forehead. “I’ve felt better.”
Her father’s fingertips twitched; no doubt he’d hide behind his screen again if he could — it’s proved an efficient defense strategy for him. “How do you mean?”
“Your daughter wants to spend her last semester of college studying whales in South America.”
Cora ducked her head; she was a child again, staring at an untouched dinner plate and listening as her mother read out a list of her crimes. Your daughter gave herself a pixie cut with your hair clippers. Your daughter snuck out of the house last night — again. Your daughter kissed a girl in our driveway.
Cora was only a daughter whenever her mother tried to fight it.
Her father turned to her, his face a mask of incredulity. “Really?”
Cora fidgeted. She should have stayed in her apartment today, safe among the walls freckled with Polaroids of her friends, the cluster of succulents lined up on her windowsill, the wooden shelves buckling under English-to-Spanish dictionaries, biology textbooks, and trashy lesbian romance novels.
Her mother had called, and she had answered. A bad habit.
Cora pulled herself back to the present, fought to keep her head above the too-bright lights. “It was the only thing the program offered.”
She didn’t tell him how, the second she saw the study-abroad flyer posted on the biology department’s advertisement board, she sprinted to the office of the department chair, plopped down in the overstuffed leather seat across from his desk, and refused to leave until he handed her the required paperwork, pointed her to the necessary websites, and sent her on her way with an amused smile.
“But what about your graduate school applications?” Her father said, “Brown, Cornell, Duke? Are you really going to let all of those incredible opportunities go to waste?”
“I already turned everything in,” replied Cora, and that was the truth, “there’s nothing more for me to do but wait, and I don’t want to spend that time sitting around and doing nothing.”
I don’t want to spend that time with you. That’s what she wanted to say, but she knew better.
The first cracks blistered across her father’s face. Gears turned.
“Still, out of all the things you could do…” Her mother sighed, shook her head, “I just think that it’s a tremendous waste of time and money.”
Her father shifted on his feet, cleared his throat. His body ebbed and flowed; his voice the wave disrupting his wife’s shore. “Let her go, Helena.”
Her mother turned to him, her sea-glass eyes taut with betrayal. “What?”
“She has done all that we have asked her to thus far,” he addressed the empty space directly before him, “maybe she needs this; it’s a chance for her to get this… hobby out of her system.”
Her mother snorted. “Hobby is certainly one way of putting it.”
Her father started patting his coat pockets, glancing back towards the door. Cora mentally started counting down the seconds until he feigned another business call and ran out of the room. “I’ll pay for whatever is needed,” he said, “You won’t have to worry about a thing, dear.”
Cora looked up — the walls closed in around her, silent jaws. She should not have been surprised; this is how her parents’ relationship had worked since she first hit adolescence: her mother had a problem, and her father threw money at it until it went away.
More often than not, said problem manifested in the way of Cora’s five-foot-six, red-pixie-cut frame.
Her mother fixed her with a sharp glare— twin hazel daggers, the same shade as her own; her blood, her mother’s blood, they couldn’t fight what they shared, but they’d damn well try.
“Fine,” Helena finally said, conceding defeat, “Fine. Do what you want.” Her taunting eyes drew blood. “Just don’t expect us to rescue you the second you get homesick.”
It’s a thirty-minute drive to Tomas Calbo’s house. Cora stares through the window at the retreating coastline cliffs, watching them melt into the silvery sheets of fog. The stunted green shrubs and grasses of the moors writhe in the late afternoon wind, snippets of movement at the edges of her vision. Are they waving goodbye or beckoning her back? She can’t decide.
She’ll be back soon, she whispers to the wilderness, maybe even as early as tomorrow. After all, it’s why she’s here to begin with.
Tomas turns on the radio just as the moorlands begin to give way to the outskirts of Puerto Madryn, her home for the spring — no, autumn, it’s autumn down here, she reminds herself. She made sure to pack accordingly, all jackets and boots — no bikinis for her, thank you very much — but nothing could have quite prepared her for the grey chill that took up residence in her bones the second she stepped off the plane at El Tehuelche airport. Cold reality, cold air: what is the difference, who can say? She’d frozen on the steps and not moved until the woman behind her huffed out a sigh, muttered something in hushed Spanish, and pointedly drove the wheels of her carry-on bag into the back of Cora’s sneakers.
“Do you like this music?” Tomas asks suddenly.
Cora snaps back to reality. “I’m sorry?” She asks in English, then corrects herself, “Perdón?”
“This music,” Tomas repeats in English, again in that beautifully odd accent, “you like it?”
Cora listens. She deciphers cheery guitar strings and a high, warbling voice through the tinny speakers, the words lost in the static and a language freed from the slow, flat-tongued tapes she’d trudged through in preparation for this trip. She can’t recognize any of it.
“Yes,” she hears herself say, “I like it.”
Tomas smiles and turns the volume up.
Cora keeps looking out the window, resting her chin in her hands. They’re turning away from the seaside strip with its shiny tourist resorts and sleek, expensive high-rises; the navy-blue pickup truck bounces along the inner blocks of the city proper. Squat white and grey structures line the narrow streets, pedestrians bustle about the sidewalk, ants but not nearly as hurried; beetles, maybe. She watches them go, wonders if she’ll meet any of them before her time here is up. She’d like to, but she hopes not.
It would be nice to be lost in a crowd, for once.
The truck rolls onward, deeper into the maze. Tomas starts to whistle along with the song. Cora quashes the urge to tap her feet in solidarity.
Minutes blur; she nods off and opens her eyes to the city’s backstreets. The office buildings and apartments and street-side diners are gone, chased away by simple one-story houses with shuttered windows and pastel-toned wooden walls. They crowd together, peering into each other’s windows, sharing the same sparse front yard space, they, too, need warmth and company.
Little houses for little people, that’s what her mother would say, and then she’d laugh as if she’d just told a particularly amusing joke. Her father would keep driving, his hands choking the steering wheel; if Cora was lucky, she might even hear him mumble something about “underprivileged neighborhoods”.
Tomas makes a left turn onto Cordoba Street, and Cora allows herself to wonder if she misses them.
“Here we are.”
Cora looks up. The street ahead seems a perfect copy of all the others, punctuated by the same pockmarked paths, dull grass, and faded rainbow of homes. Wait — she blinks; movement on one of the lawns. A small figure darts into one of the houses; Tomas follows them, pulling into the bare-earth driveway and beaming like a child entrusted with a secret.
“My house,” he announces.
Cora’s eyes roam the cornflower-blue walls, painted by careful, complete hands; the white window shutters are thrown open, flickers of light wink at her through the sheets of glass. The single-story, the cracked front steps, the battered satellite dish sitting on top of the roof — she sees this, too, but it all slips somewhere below the surface.
Tomas carries her suitcase up to the front door. Cora offers to help him— the bag is easily half his size (her father insisted that she did not pack light), and he is already a rather small man to begin with — but he waves her away with a “don’t worry, señorita, I am stronger than I look.”
Cora gives up after the third try.
She stands at the door, waiting. She hears voices on the other side, a buzzing cacophony poking, prodding into her walls.
“You can go in,” says Tomas, “the door is unlocked. Everyone is waiting for you.”
Everyone. She hadn’t known there would be an everyone.
Cora swallows, hesitates. Her excitement is real. So are her nerves.
Her fingers close around the door handle — cold, rusted, sharp as needles pricking at her hands. The voices stop as one. Waves rumble in the shell of her ears; salt tickles her tongue. She spares herself a single, quick breath.
Cora opens the door and steps into a warm haze of yellow light.
Kit/Cat Cura is a senior-year English Major and Creative Writing Minor. She has recently graduated from Trinity University and is planning to persue an MFA in Fiction Writing at Texas State in San Marcos! Cat strongly believes in the power of diversity and representation in the literary world, and, as if she’s not already juggling too many writing projects, she’s also working on the inaugural issue of Bathtub Gin, an online queer zine, with her girlfriend. You can contact her at email@example.com.