From Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Samanta Schweblin/Megan McDowell.
“My Parents and My Children”
“Where are your parents’ clothes?” asks Marga. She crosses her arms and waits for my answer. She knows I don’t know. On the other side of the picture window, my parents are running naked in the backyard.
“It’s almost six, Javier,” Marga tells me. “What’s going to happen when Charly comes back from the store with the kids and they see their grandparents chasing each other around?”
“Who’s Charly?” I ask.
I think I know who Charly is— he’s the great- new- man my ex- wife is dating— but at some point I would like for her to explain that to me.
“They’re going to die of shame when they see their grandparents, that’s what’s going to happen.”
“They’re sick, Marga.”
She sighs. I take deep breaths and count slowly to keep from turning bitter, to instill patience, to give Marga the time she needs. I say:
“You wanted the kids to see their grandparents. You wanted me to bring my parents out here, because you thought this place, three hundred kilometers from my house, would be a good spot for a vacation.”
“You said they were better.”
Behind Marga, my father sprays my mother with the hose. When he sprays her tits, my mother holds her tits. When he sprays her ass, my mother holds her ass.
“You know how they get if you take them out of their environment,” I say. “And outdoors . . .”
Is it my mother who holds what my father sprays, or is it my father who sprays what my mother holds?
“Uh- huh. So if I’m going to invite you to spend a few days with your children, whom, I might add, you haven’t seen in three months, I have to anticipate the level of your parents’ excitement.”
My mother picks up Marga’s poodle and holds it over her head, spinning around. I try to keep my eyes trained on Marga to prevent her, at all costs, from turning toward them.
“I want to leave all this madness behind, Javier.”
This madness, I think.
“If that means you see the kids less . . . I can’t keep exposing them to this.”
“They’re just naked, Marga.”
She walks forward, and I follow. Behind us, the poodle is still spinning in the air. Before opening the front door Marga checks her hair in the windowpane and adjusts her dress. Charly is tall, strong, and brutish. He looks like the guy who announces the twelve o’clock news, only his body is swollen from exercise. My four-year- old daughter and my six- year- old son hang from his arms like two swim floaties. Charly delicately helps them fall, lowering his immense gorilla torso toward the ground and freeing himself to give Marga a kiss. Then he comes toward me, and for a moment I’m afraid he won’t be friendly. But he holds out his hand and he smiles.
“Javier, this is Charly,” says Marga.
I feel the kids crash into my legs and hug me. I squeeze Charly’s hand forcefully as he shakes my whole body. The kids pull away and run off.
“What do you think of the house, Javi?” asks Charly, his eyes looking upward and beyond me, as if it were a real and true castle they’d rented.
Javi, I think. This madness, I think.
The poodle appears, whimpering softly with its tail between its legs. Marga picks it up, and while the dog licks her she wrinkles her nose and coos, “My- widdlepuppums- my- widdle- puppums.” Charly looks at her with his head cocked to one side, maybe just trying to understand. Then Marga turns abruptly toward him, alarmed, and says:
“Where are the kids?”
“They must be in the back,” says Charly, “in the yard.”
“I don’t want them to see their grandparents like that.”
All three of us turn from side to side, but we don’t see them.
“See, Javier, this is precisely the kind of thing I want to avoid,” says Marga, taking a few steps away. “Kids!”
She heads around the house toward the backyard. Charly and I follow.
“How was the road?” asks Charly.
He mimes the movement of turning a steering wheel with one hand, simulates changing gears to accelerate with the other. There is stupidity and eagerness in each one of his movements.
“I don’t drive.”
He bends down to pick up some toys on the path and sets them aside; now his brow is furrowed. I’m afraid of reaching the yard and finding my kids and my parents together. No, what I’m afraid of is Marga finding them together, and the great scene of recrimination that will follow. But Marga is alone in the middle of the yard, waiting for us with her fists on her hips. She heads back inside and we go into the house behind her. We are her most humble followers, and that means I have something in common with Charly, some kind of kinship. Could he really have enjoyed the highway on his drive?
“Kids!” Marga shouts up the stairs. She’s furious but she contains herself, maybe because Charly still doesn’t know her very well. She comes back and sits on a stool in the kitchen. “We need something to drink, don’t we?”
Charly takes a bottle of soda from the refrigerator and pours three glasses. Marga takes a couple sips and sits looking out into the yard for a moment.
“This is really bad.” She stands up again. “This is really bad. I mean, they could be doing anything.” And now she does look at me.
“Let’s check again,” I say, but by then she’s already headed out to the backyard.
She comes back a few seconds later.
“They’re not there,” she says. “My god, Javier, they’re not there.”
“They are there, Marga, they have to be somewhere.”
Charly goes out the front door, crosses the front yard, and follows the dirt tracks that lead to the road. Marga goes up the stairs and calls to the kids from the second floor. I go outside and circle the house. I pass the open garage full of toys, buckets, and plastic shovels. I look up into the trees and see that the kids’ inflatable dolphin has been hung, strangled, from one of the branches. The rope is made of my parents’ jogging suits. Marga peers out from one of the windows and our eyes meet for a second. Is she looking for my parents, too, or just for the kids? I go into the house through the kitchen door. Charly is coming in just then through the front door, and he tells me from the living room:
“They’re not in front.”
His face is no longer friendly. Now he has two lines between his eyebrows and he’s overdoing his movements as if Marga were controlling him: he goes quickly from stillness to action, crouching under the table, looking behind the china cabinet, peering under the stairs, as if he would be able to locate the kids only if he took them by surprise. I find myself unable to look away from his movements, and I can’t focus on my own search.
“They’re not outside,” says Marga. “Could they have gone back to the car? The car, Charly, the car.”
I wait, but there are no instructions for me. Charly goes back outside, and Marga climbs the stairs again to the bedrooms. I follow her. She enters the one that’s apparently Simon’s, so I check Lina’s. We change rooms and look again. When I’m peering under Simon’s bed, I hear her curse.
“Motherfuckers,” she says, so I assume it’s not because she’s found the kids. Could she have found my parents?
We check the bathroom together, then the attic and the master bedroom. Marga opens the closets, pushes aside some clothes on hangers. There aren’t many things and they’re all very organized. It’s a summer house, I tell myself, but then I think about the real house where my wife and kids live, the house that used to be mine as well, and I realize it was always that way in this family— few things, well organized— and it had never done any good to push aside the clothes in search of something else. We hear Charly come back inside, and we meet him in the living room.
“They’re not in the car,” he tells my wife.
“This is your parents’ fault,” says Marga.
She pushes me by the shoulder.
“It’s your fault. Where the hell are my kids?” she shouts, and she goes running back out into the yard.
She calls to them from one side of the house and the other.
“What’s beyond the shrubs?” I ask Charly.
He looks at me and then back at my wife, who is still shouting.
“Are there neighbors on the other side of the bushes?” I ask.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. There are estates. Parcels. The houses are really big.”
He might be right to hesitate, but he seems like the stupidest man I’ve met in my life. Marga returns.
“I’m going first,” she says, and she pushes between us. “Simon!”
“Dad!” I shout, walking behind Marga. “Mom!”
Marga is a few meters ahead of me when she stops and picks something up from the ground. It’s something blue, and she holds it with her fingertips, as if it were a dead animal. It’s Lina’s sweatshirt. She turns around to look at me. She’s about to say something, curse me up and down again, but then she sees that farther on there’s another piece of clothing and she goes toward it. I feel the looming shadow of Charly behind me. Marga picks up Lina’s fuchsia shirt, and farther on one of her sneakers, and farther still, Simon’s T- shirt.
There are more clothes on the road, but Marga stops short and turns back to us.
“Call the police, Charly. Call the police now.”
“Sweetie, there’s no need for that . . .” says Charly.
Sweetie, I think.
“Call the police, Charly.”
Charly turns around and hurries back toward the house. Marga picks up more clothing. I follow her. She picks up another piece and stops before the last one. It’s Simon’s little shorts. They’re yellow and a bit twisted up. Marga does nothing. Maybe she can’t bend down for the shorts, maybe she doesn’t have the strength. She has her back to me and her body seems to start to shake. I approach slowly, trying not to startle her. The shorts are tiny. They could fit on my hands, four fingers in one hole, my thumb in the other.
“They’ll be here in a minute,” says Charly, coming out of the house. “They’re sending a patrol car.”
“You and your family, I’m going to . . .” says Marga, coming toward me.
“Marga . . .”
I pick up the trunks and then Marga lunges at me. I try to stand firm, but I lose my balance. I shield my face from her slaps. Charly is already here and trying to separate us. The patrol car pulls up and sounds its siren once. Two policemen get quickly out and rush to help Charly.
“My kids aren’t here,” says Marga, “my kids aren’t here,” and she points to the shorts dangling from my hand.
“Who is this man?” asks one of the cops. “Are you the husband?” they ask Charly.
We try to explain ourselves. Contrary to my first impression, neither Marga nor Charly seems to blame me. They just plead for the kids.
“My children are lost and they’re with two crazy people,” says Marga.
But the cops only want to know why we were fighting. Charly’s chest starts to swell, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to go after the cops. I let my hands fall in resignation the way Marga had done with me earlier, but the second cop’s eyes just follow the movement of the shorts in alarm.
“What are you looking at?” asks Charly.
“What?” says the cop.
“You’ve been looking at those shorts since you got out of the car. You want to let someone know there are two missing kids?”
“My kids,” repeats Marga. She stands firmly in front of one of the policemen and repeats it many times; she wants the cop to focus on what’s important. “My kids, my kids, my kids.”
“When did you see them last?” the other cop finally asks.
“They’re not in the house,” says Marga. “They took them.”
“Who took them, ma’am?”
I shake my head and try to interrupt, but the police beat me to it.
“Are you talking about a kidnapping?”
“They could be with their grandparents,” I say.
“They’re with two naked old people,” says Marga.
“And whose clothing is that, ma’am?”
“It’s my kids’.”
“Are you telling me that there are children and adults naked and together?”
“Please,” says Marga’s now-broken voice.
For the first time I wonder how dangerous it really is for your kids to be going around naked with your parents.
“They could be hiding,” I say. “We can’t rule that out yet.”
“And who are you?” asks one cop, while the other is already radioing the station.
“I’m the husband,” I say.
So the officer looks at Charly now. Marga faces him down again, and I’m afraid she’s going to refute my words, but she says:
“Please: my children, my children.”
The first cop leaves the radio and comes over:
“Parents in the car, and the gentleman”— indicating Charly— “stays here in case the kids come back to the house.”
We stand looking at him.
“Get in, let’s go, we have to move fast.”
“No way,” says Marga.
“Ma’am, please, we have to be sure they’re not going toward the highway.”
Charly pushes Marga toward the patrol car and I follow her. We get in and I close my door with the car already moving. Charly is standing, looking at us, and I wonder if those three hundred kilometers of exciting driving had been done with my kids in the car. The cruiser backs up a little and we pull away and head toward the highway, fast. Just then I turn around to look at the house. I see them, all four of them: behind Charly, past the front yard, my parents and my children, naked and soaking wet in the living room’s picture window. My mother is rubbing her tits against the glass and Lina does it, too, staring at her in fascination. Simon imitates the two of them with his ass cheeks. They’re shouting with joy, but no one hears. Someone yanks the shorts from my hand and I hear Marga curse the cops. There is noise from the radio. The police are shouting to the station, and they say the words “adults and minors” twice, “kidnapping” once, and “naked” three times, while my ex- wife punches her fists into the back of the driver’s seat. So I tell myself, Don’t open your mouth, and Not a peep, because I see my father looking at me: his old torso tanned by the sun, his soft sex between his legs. He’s smiling triumphantly and he seems to recognize me. He hugs my mother and my children, slowly, warmly, without pulling anyone away from the glass.