A Fierce and Subtle Poison - Samantha Mabry

Green Skin and Grass For Hair

THE HOUSE AT the end of the street is full of bad air.

That’s what the señoras always told us. They stuck their fingers in our faces and warned us not to get too close. They said it wasn’t right that the shutters on the windows remained closed, even after rainstorms when the air was so thick it would rest on your skin and stick in the back of your throat. They said that the house had been cursed by the woman who once lived there. She hadn’t always been bad, the señoras said, but her husband’s constant neglect had left her hollow and wicked.

According to the old ladies, no one had ever trusted that man: he was white and a scientist. He was never in church. He walked the streets in the rain. He’d leave Old San Juan for weeks at a time and go out to the forests around Rincón, where he’d tear the legs off frogs, dissect live snakes to see their hearts beat out, or do whatever else it was that scientists did.

While he was gone, his wife was confined to the house. She spent her days behind the three-foot-thick plaster walls tending to the plants in the courtyard and caring for the scientist’s prized macaw. Everyone in town hated that bird. It never shut up. Every morning, it would jump onto one particular limb of a banyan tree and let out its ungodly screeches while its green and red feathers flickered like a pinwheel in the sun. Whenever someone walked by, the bird would slowly cock its head to an absurd angle, stare silently for a second or two, and then begin clucking blasphemous phrases, reciting lines from Borges stories, and singing songs nobody had ever heard before.

When I asked the señoras which lines from which Borges stories the gringo scientist taught his bird, they said they didn’t know. It wasn’t important. They curled their lips and asked why I would care about such a thing.

What was important, the señoras stressed with wags of their wrinkled fingers, was that the scientist was a very, very bad man. Somehow, somewhere, he’d lost all the beauty in his life, and that—that loss—was what caused him to rob his wife of all the beauty in hers. Everyone knew a Puerto Rican woman needed sun and wind and ocean water. But the scientist didn’t care. He treated his wife like a creature under glass. He treated her like . . . the señoras always paused here for a moment . . . un especimén.

That’s how life was for the woman who lived in the house at the end of Calle Sol until one summer, during which five hurricanes ravaged the island, battering the coastlines and tossing around telephone poles, a summer during which the scientist had again disappeared to the forests near Rincón to do whatever it was a scientist did. That was the summer things began to break apart.

The cracks in the exterior plaster walls came first, thick and meandering like the veins in an old woman’s legs. Then the concrete of the sidewalk in front of the courtyard split, causing a mighty fissure a foot and a half wide. Aphids took over the garden. The macaw, perched up on its banyan tree, would spend hours plucking out his red and green feathers, letting them fall into the street one by one.

The woman’s spirit was crumbling. And, as if out of sympathy, the house and the garden and the bird began to crumble along with her.

Around this same time, the people of Old San Juan all started having the same nightmare about a green-skinned little girl who would stand in front of them and throw stones at their faces. After waking from fitful sleeps, they suffered further by having to listen to that tonto bird curse and croak out songs all day long. For months, they never had any peace. Then, one night in early December, the little green-skinned girl stopped haunting everyone’s dreams. The following morning the scientist came home from Rincón to find his wife and his bird gone. The woman had taken nothing and left a curse. The bird’s green and red feathers were scattered across the house. Only the plants in the courtyard remained.

That was the day the man closed all the shutters and never opened them again, and that was the day all the birds in Old San Juan stopped flying over the house. They knew better than to get