Although the flood was more or less a citywide problem, my grandmother’s street, being situated at one of the lowest ground levels of the region, took most of the damage. A collective effort in my mother’s side of my family was formed to help her, for, albeit the little belongings she owned and the uncommon strength she still retained in her body from years of domestic labor, there was a general consensus against leaving an elderly woman to fend for herself in such a dismal situation. I was forced to tag along.
Despite the bleak, darkening sky, the day was heavy with heat. Sweat clung to our shining, brown skin, the flies abundant in the air. Her tom cat watched us with her spectral eyes in languid contemplation from atop a wicker chair. Sagging with the weight of existence, the leaves of her potted plants peeked out of the filthy water like shy animals. Carcasses of fallen fruit from her orange tree floated in the water. I pawed at them from the wooden table I was lounging on, amusing myself with these strange sightings, partly in an effort to contain my anger at having being forced to come for no apparent reason, since my young self couldn’t really offer much help, and partly to distract myself from the stench.
Unhurried and yet diligent in their work, my family gradually emptied out my grandmother’s house and packed the ruined furniture into my father’s truck. My mother was removing the potted plants and, deeming them irrecoverable, throwing them into a dumpster. The tom cat was carried away. Books were thrown out, their bookmarks falling behind like discarded napkins, pages dripping trails of dark ink on the surface of the brown water before dissipating. No, this deluge wasn’t the consuming type. It instead transformed everything obsolete, be it threadbare, run-down furniture or old, seemingly insignificant belongings that once might have meant a lot to someone. Alexandria was in flames, so to speak, except that the remains did not consist of ashes, but soaked, sullied waste. What little chance these items had of being recovered was overlooked. My grandmother’s children only saw the decay, not out of ill will but out of ignorance. At the blithe age of eleven, I thought no differently than them. So I continued to watch them working, until, actuated by my incessant, childish need to busy myself, I grew bored and decided that I might as well get dirty, too.
I heard, between my own careless laughter as I leveled myself into the dirty water, weary cries from my mother and her four sisters. The mischievous deed having been done, they turned away with heavy sighs as I began to amble through the muddy, surprisingly chilly water.
I used the collar of my shirt to mask the scent as I made my way through the kitchen. A portrait of Jesus with his heart glowing from his chest watched me curiously from the fading mint green wall. It was obvious that this portrait was older than me; the body was a ripple of neglect from the years of curling up the poster paper had withstood, and the color had bleached down to a brownish light green. The matching green paint of the walls was peeling away, revealing pink cement underneath. I grew up with these tiny details, and therefore had never noticed the poverty and dilapidation residing in every corner. Rather, I regarded my surroundings as one off-handedly regards their childhood home, an ingrown comfort engendered by many days spent in this house. Despite the filthy water on my skin and the foul scent permeating the room, I felt immensely at ease.
I found my grandmother in her bedroom, sifting through her papers from a dresser drawer.
Without turning her head as I entered the room, she told me, “Ya te ensuciastes, cochina.”
“It’s just up to my knees,” I retorted, always so ill-mannered.
Her ankle-length skirt swishing in the dirty water, she gesticulated for me to approach her with her withered, brown hand.
She allowed me a peek inside, something I never had the privilege of before. Packed full into the dresser drawer was all sorts of memorabilia, from sepia-toned documents to newspaper articles to dented cassette tapes, everything old and everything soaked to an irreversible extent.
I peered up at her, awaiting an explanation. An odd look was playing on the corners of her mouth, her wrinkled face contorted in a way I had never seen before. She looked neither sad nor happy, but not altogether expressionless either. Maybe she was just being pensive; I still don’t really know to this day.
Pushing some newspaper clippings aside, she began to pull out crinkled photographs from underneath.
“I had forgotten that this was in here,” she commented in Spanish, picking out a single photograph, only about three inches in length and height.
The picture was made of a delicate, archaic material, and was ragged at the corners. Dampened and frail, it curled around my grandmother’s fingers, a little girl’s face barely discernible through the tawny film of filth that had collected over the years. The child appeared to be very bored and unimpressed, like she was angry at the entire world for having being forced to take a photograph.
“I don’t remember taking that,” I said.
My grandmother responded by handling them to me. I took them hesitatingly. For some reason, I felt repulsed by them. It wasn’t the filthiness of the soaked photograph itself, for I was long past that sort of disgust. I couldn’t quite pinpoint the exact cause of my abhorrence, but something about the child’s elfish frown left a sour taste in my mouth.
“I was five-years-old when I took that picture,” my grandmother said.
It was barely audible, but I could just make out the painful crack in her ancient voice.