tatiana de la tierra

Thick and hot, the air scalded the insides of my nostrils. I inhaled meekly, just enough to generate another breath and then another, but none were the type that expanded the lungs to their fullest. That was difficult, at least for me, within the heat of the sauna. Some of the other people didn’t seem to mind, though.

“Did you hear,” said a man sitting on a plank below, “El Deportivo Cali came this close to beating el Atlético Nacional.” The other man coughed, then replied, “Those paisas won’t dare lose a match when they have to answer to el jefe.” Both men chuckled. Probably an inside joke on Colombia’s latest fútbol fury. I wasn’t big on it myself, but I did remember the scandal about the player who fumbled the soccer ball at a critical moment in the World Cup Series. Colombia lost the title, and a few days later, the athlete, gunned down in retaliation, lost his right to live. I’d seen his mother crying on television.

A couple walked in, and with them, a brief blast of light and cool air. They sat on the bench closest to the hot rocks and began to smear themselves with honey. “Help me put some on my back,” said the woman. She held the long-neck glass bottle carefully with the edge of the towel and poured the honey into his open palms. Then she turned her back to him and dropped her head while he spread the liquid along the nape of her neck, across her shoulders and down her spine. “Thanks, mi cielo,” she said, and then he poured honey into her hands and she did the same for him. They were in love, you could tell.

I’d brought white sugar for my sauna that day, though usually I preferred honey. They say the sweetness helps you sweat and nourishes your skin, but mostly, I liked to busy myself because in the act of doing something I could forget that I had to continue breathing that infernally hot air. The plastic bag was soft and piping hot when I opened it, and the sugar was dry and warm. I started with my face and neck, letting the granules mix with the moisture already on my skin, rolling the grainy paste in circles behind my ear, down my throat and over my chest. And there I lingered, my fingertips trailing my breastbone, feeling my lungs within my chest cavity, envisioning the intricate branches of the bronchials inside. I had recently recovered from pneumonia and was still struggling with the remnants of pleurisy. I had a sense of my lungs, for the first time ever. Being sick makes you notice things you never knew you had. My lungs were vivid in my mind’s eye and I tried to stroke them with my hands over my skin. Breathe in, breathe out. I inhaled the soupy mixture of sugar combined with the sauna’s musky cedarwood while I focused on the constant magic of each of my breaths.

“Half-hour massages! Only six thousand pesos!” announced one of the massage therapists as he burst in for a brief appearance. He hawked his services inside the saunas on weekends, when potential customers abounded. “Only two appointments left for today.”

And then for a little while no one else walked in and no one inside spoke. The silence, the heat and the semi-darkness of the sauna reigned. One window, a thin band of glass, several inches wide and just a few feet long, provided all the lighting inside the room. It was enough to see a hint of the sky outside, though not the shape of the clouds nor the tint of the mountains. It was a strip of baby blue, antique yellow, or a steady grey. On that Saturday morning the band of sky was silver.

Inside the sauna we were all shadows of sorts. The dim room allowed us to remain anonymous, or so I hoped, as I wore a frayed black bathing suit I wouldn’t be caught dead in with people who knew me. We were there to sweat, to cleanse, to attend to our bodies. Some of us were sick, or healing, or somewhere in between. I had been a regular at the health center for a few months and I knew the scoop on some of the others. Weak livers, digestive troubles, cervical cancer, high blood pressure, kidney stones, even paralysis, I had seen it all. We all wanted to believe in our rejuvenation, although sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t too late for some of us.

The doctor gave most of us the same advice: oxygenate your lungs, work your muscles, think positive, eat vegetarian, trust in homeopathy, eliminate toxins, and pray to God. Those too weak to withstand the sauna were prescribed massages, footbaths and mudpacks. We sought miracles from Dr. Melo. He was a seventy-three-year old who walked the mountain barefooted at five in the morning, had a black belt in karate and stood on his head while the sun set. He was quirky and kind, with a solid background in traditional and alternative medicine. Most importantly, he was a good doctor. And we’d heard stories, like the one about the newborn baby who convulsed nonstop. The doctors tried everything and advised the mother to plan the funeral. Dr. Melo, an intern at the time, raced in and injected the baby with enormous amounts of calcium. The baby lived to be a doctor. There were many stories, and all of them began with someone on their deathbed and ended with the same person bouncing back to life.

Not more than fifteen minutes would pass inside the sauna before I bolted for the door. Once outside I breathed freely, taking in all the cool air that my lungs desired. Then I let the ice cold water pound on my head and gulped air frantically while my pores closed and while the invisible toxins were washed down the drain. And then I rested on the open terrace that was between two saunas and across from another, by the showers. By the time I slid into a bench my body was pulsating with life, with the extreme ranges of temperatures I was putting it through. Each time I came out I was a little bit more rubbery, and a bit more alive.

From the terrace you could see the pyramid, where Dr. Melo had his office, on a small prairie down the hill. To the far left you could see the dirt parking lot that filled up by eight in the morning every single weekend. You could see miles of green, vegetable crops and cows grazing. Right below the saunas, on the ground floor, were the massage and hydrotherapy rooms and also an exercise room. That room had a huge inflated inner tube that served as trampoline, a board slanted for sit-ups, exercise bars and a few mats that were rigged with electromagnetic waves. Fifteen minutes a day, at least, was what the doctor ordered, and at times he even ushered us in there himself when we happened to be passing by. “Oxygenate! Oxygenate!” he would command. He also did physical therapy sessions in there, and sometimes they turned into private consultations in public. I’d heard colorful descriptions of people’s vomit and phlegm in that room in between my grunting sit-ups. Dr. Melo didn’t make appointments; instead, people lined up at five in the morning and took a number, hoping to be lucky enough to see him that day, maybe the next. And so wherever the doctor was, anything could happen.

Just across from the exercise room on the ground there was a small store stocked with fresh juices, organic vegetables and snacks. You could even buy a fermented kombucha drink and oatmeal soap. And then, if you followed the path uphill you could walk across seven mountains and it would take you anywhere from two to four hours, depending on your stamina. You could be there all day long, and many times, I was.

The first thing I saw as I stumbled from the sauna to the showers and then to the terrace was the sky. It was like seeing it always for the first time. Smaller than I had imagined it, in a way, because from inside the sauna’s dim view I envisioned a sky that was only sky, that had no countryside beneath it nor people walking upon the ground below. But if I tilted my throbbing head up and held on to the railing, the sky was all there was. It was Druids cloaked in ash delving through a forest, it was frosted barges navigating on a murky sea. It was clouds filled with mother’s milk, lavender before nighfall and it was cities of smoke and cathedrals with brass bells. It was wisdom even, and prayers.

“A child is sick,” I heard a woman say, and with her words I left my fantasies of the sky and returned my attention to the terrace, where others had gathered at the railing.

“There is the mother,” someone whispered, and pointed to a woman dressed in black. She sat on a rock, her knees drawn into her chest and rocked herself back and forth, her face cast at the ground.

“But she’s so old!” said another.

“And there’s the father, even older!” The man paced below us, his gray hair matted down the sides of his head, a bald spot in the center. His hands were tucked inside his sweater and his head also faced the ground.

And then came Lina, the nurse, running out of the pyramid and dashing up the hill with a tray piled with viles and needles and sealed packets. I’d always known her to be calm, but at that moment she was flushed and looked worried and out of breath. The door of the exercise room slammed beneath us.

A car screeched into the parking lot and when we looked the dust was still in the air as a teenager burst out and ran towards the parents. The mother stood up and the father stopped pacing. The guy’s chest was heaving. “What is happening to my little brother? What are they doing to him?”

“We brought him for physical therapy and something went wrong,” said the mother, her voice breaking.

“He was fine this morning. There was nothing wrong with him!”

“The doctor is doing everything he can,” said the father.

“I watched cartoons with him this morning and he was fine. Take me to him!”

And then the three of them faced the door of the room below. The parents stood still, hesitating; the teenager rushed in and they followed. I couldn’t imagine a little boy’s life wavering in there, amidst an inflated inner tube, chin-up bars and exercise mats. Yet that was precisely what was going on.

More and more people gathered at the terrace as they came out of the saunas to cool off and as the word spread. “He has the respiratory system of a puppy, that’s what the cleaning woman told me,” said someone, wheezing.

“Those people should be ashamed, having babies in old age. Nature didn’t intend it that way,” scoffed an old man as he peeled an orange, steam rising off his sallow chest. He had a weak liver.

“If that child was born it is because God willed it to live!” said a woman, as she pushed a comb through a little girl’s wet hair.

“Poor little creature!” said the girl.

“If anyone can save him, Dr. Melo can,” said one with pancreatic cancer.

“He is in God’s hands,” said another, and we all nodded in agreement.

I went back into the sauna after cooling down and tiring of other people’s speculations about the life in the room below. It was like walking into a passage to the underground. But the darkness felt safe then, and I welcomed the heat and the tiny beads of perspiration that emerged on my skin as if on command. The second time I went in the sauna was always the best because my body would just give in. It was as if another voice was whispering “release, release.” As if the hot planks beneath my thighs were the seat of a swing and my legs were dangling in the sky and the sweat was clean rain on my face and the smell of cedar came from a forest of trees, and the honey flowed from inside the trunks and with all of this I was complete.

Salty sweat flowed into my eyes. The salt was my own, bitter and concentrated. It was proof that

my body was alert to temperatures, alive to hope. The sweat was my certainty in healing. I wondered if the others had such simple measures, if they truly knew that the strong cells would overpower the diseased ones, that the breaths would continue. But none of us knew, really, so we took our bodies to medical technicians, to metaphysical healers and to anyone that could possibly help us. To God, even. While I bathed in the hope of my sweat, a little boy’s life was fluttering like a kite in the sky, suspended by an invisible cord. If released it would join the Druids in the clouds and become a mythical figure to our eyes. If reeled back down to earth, his
life would be another, just like mine, always ready to flutter away but staying strong to the ground.

I was alone for a while, questioning fate, talking to myself, until the sauna attendant, an adolescent boy, walked in. He wore leather boots and Levi’s with an open shirt, a chain and gold cross over his bare chest. He carried a bucket of water and a jar of herbal essence. “Be careful,” he said, and I turned my face as he poured water over the rocks. The steam hissed and rose and singed my shoulders. Beads of sweat bulged and glided out of my pores, dripping like holy water on Sunday Mass. Then he splashed the rocks with herbal essence and my sinuses opened completely with the eucalyptus in the moist air.

“Please, can I have some?” I tilted my head back and he poured the herbal liquid from the center of my forehead, to my hair and down my back. Then he spilled some over my neck and it went across my chest and down to my stomach, and then finally, he sprinkled the brownish water at my feet and left. Revived, I arose in the room that was now filled with incandescent light from the one band of sky.

Outside, it is high noon. Sunlight bathes the clouds from above. It threatens to wedge the layers with its brilliance, to pierce through stronger than any other hue. The terrace is filled with people that line up at the railing. They stand in silence, looking to the ground below, wearing damp bathing suits and clutching towels around themselves as if they were shawls. I make my way to the edge.

There is an ambulance parked at the side of the building. The driver is smoking a cigarette, leaning into the white van that has “EMERGENCIA” spelled out in black letters on all sides. He is looking at the countryside. A few children are eating watermelon and spitting seeds at each other in front of the little store across from the exercise room. Several cars pull up to the parking lot and people spill out and slowly walk towards the mother, father and teenager.

The mother clenches her fists and looks to the sky, speaking as if she had another audience besides us on the second floor. “You already took my father, don’t you dare take my son!”

The father extends his arms, opens his palms and walks in circles, saying, over and over, to no one in particular, “He’s only an angel, my angel.”

The teenager has his arms around his head and slams his body into the brick wall.

The others who have just arrived stand before the mother, father and teenager. They don’t dare speak, touch, or move. They look at us. The children stop spitting seeds and stand quietly.

Lina opens the door to the exercise room for a moment and whispers something that we can’t hear from above. The mother shrieks, throws her head into her hands. The father just stands there, frozen in blankness. Lina touches each of them on the shoulder, softly, and guides them into the room.

The teenager picks up a shovel that happens to be laying on the ground by him. He swings it at the windows and smashes glass as he screams, “Assassin! He killed my brother. Murderer!” He runs down the hill.

Sunlight glints off the edges of the broken glass. Moments later, the door opens one more time.

The father walks out with the corpse of his little boy clutched to his chest. The boy’s golden hair bounces with his father’s steps. The mother walks behind them. She carries the diaper bag, which is open and has a baby bottle jutting out and a white baby blanket that is about to fall out of the bag. The others follow the parents and the baby, single file, to the parking lot.

Down the hill, the teenager is kicking parked cars, wailing his anguish into the metal.

“Sebastian! Sebastian!”

28 de octubre de 1997, waterfall cottage, langley, washington

Published as:

de la tierra, tatiana. “Sebastian.” Mid-American Review 21.1 (2001): 56-62.