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By Alyson Richman
Atria Books Copyright © 2004 Alyson Richman
All right reserved.
More than twenty-three years had passed before Salomé could listen to music without being reminded of the terror it had once caused her. It seemed ironic, then, that on the afternoon that the letter arrived, her old Victrola was humming in the background, the needle skipping over Satie's lonely notes.
After carefully reading the words, she folded the letter neatly into thirds and placed it in her desk drawer. Her skin was cold and her body shivered.
She went over to the gramophone, rested her hand on the shiny black horn, and released the arm. The music ceased as the record slowed its spin. Salomé was soothed by the silence that followed, relieved that the only sounds the music masked were the icy gusts rattling a half-opened window.
Inside there was darkness and outside it was dusk. It was only 3 P.M., but night had already arrived in the Swedish sky.
Aside from the cold air that penetrated the apartment, Salomé's apartment appeared tropical. When her children visited, they knew that, no matter where their mother lived, she possessed a divine ability to re-create their Santiago childhood home. The rooms smelled of dried geranium leaves, eucalyptus, and wild mint, for she had hidden tiny sachets filled with these fragrant leaves throughout the house, and had covered the walls with old cinema posters of their father, from when he had been famous. She had created small collections from things she had found -- things that people had disposed of thinking they were of no value. But she treasured them, those displaced things, and amongst the shelves lined with beach glass and dried lemons and pears, she gave them a home.
She had been the same way back in Chile. A collector. Their home in Santiago was enormous, many times the size of her present apartment, but still she had covered every open wall with a painting or drawing and every shelf with something she had found. She took the skins of hollowed-out avocados and strung them over her tiled stove. She filled jars with colored sand and kept a basket filled with seashells by the bathtub, scattering them into the water so the children could pretend, even in wintertime, that they were swimming in the sea.
They could not bring most of these items with them when they left. Time -- and the Chilean authorities -- had not been generous with them, leaving Salomé only a few days to pack their belongings. So when they closed the iron gate of the house for the last time, Salomé left it in very much the way she and her family had lived. Often, she wondered what the renters had done when they'd arrived. Whether they had slipped into her house, worn the clothes hanging in the closets, or used the soap that had been left in her grandmother's dish. She often pondered if the family who sent her a check each month ever thought about her family, all that had happened to them and why they had been forced to leave. Or whether they had purposefully chosen not to think of them and, instead, only to marvel at their great fortune to be able to live in such a big, beautiful house.
She had finally unpacked the Victrola a few months before, deciding it was time to go through some of the boxes she had left packed for so many years. She had screwed the black horn to the wooden base and replaced the worn diamond needle with one she found at a secondhand shop. The children, now grown, came over, as did her ex-husband, Octavio. And in her modest apartment, with the smell of eucalyptus fragrant around them, they all danced. They put Pablo Ziegler on, and Rafael danced the tango with one of his sisters, Blanca.
"Do you remember when we found that old thing?" Octavio asked his ex-wife, nestling a glass of wine in his hand. He wondered if now, with so many years having passed, his wife finally appreciated that he had packed the Victrola.
Salomé smiled as she allowed the music to embrace her. She tapped her foot over the wooden floorboards, the heel of her sandal twisting back and forth.
"It's wonderful to be able to listen again and have only good memories return," she said softly. And as she closed her eyes, Salomé remembered how she and Octavio had played the antique record player when they were first married. He had led her across the floor of their new home, thrusting open the French doors leading to the veranda, and the melody from the old machine had filled the rooms of the empty house and floated into the garden, overgrown with fruit trees and wild roses.
From that night on, she had begun to collect tango records. El Cantón, Piazzolla, and Calandrelli were all stacked by the Victrola's side. And how she adored them. She loved it when her husband would place the needle down and the record would begin to spin and the music would permeate the air. The children loved it too. They taught themselves to dance by watching their parents. They mimicked the wrapping of their hands, the entwining of their legs, and the swiveling of their heels. But, after Salomé's disappearance and her subsequent return, the music in their home had stopped. The Victrola remained where it had always been, but the records were no longer played.
There are some things that a woman knows she cannot tell even her family. It is part intuition and part self-preservation. Salomé had always believed that God had made women with wombs so that, after they had children, they had a place to store their secrets.
And indeed Salomé's secrets were not to be shared. Memories of a mother's kidnapping and torture were stories a child should never hear.
She never told them what was done to her back in Chile, although she knew that the children divided their lives into two halves: from the time before their mother was taken, and from the time when their family exile began. When everything changed.
Salomé believed she could limit her children's pain by never telling them what she had endured. So, she kept it all to herself, until it became too much, and she sought the expertise of a doctor. He was now deceased and her secrets were hers alone. Not even Octavio knew her story in its entirety.
But now, as Salomé sat alone in her apartment listening to Satie, she could not ignore the letter, postmarked in Great Britain, that had arrived in that afternoon's mail. The phrasing was blunt and to the point: "We are collecting the stories of the victims of Pinochet's regime," the letter from an international human rights group stated in cold black letters. "It is in the interest of history and for justice that the atrocities caused by General Pinochet be recorded and that he be held accountable in a court of law for the murder of thousands..."
Salomé knew that, days before, a Spanish prosecutor had requested that England extradite General Augusto Pinochet, the man she held responsible for ruining her beloved country, nearly destroying her, and forcing her family to flee in the night to the shores of a cold, foreign country. Now, perhaps, he would be held responsible for his crimes against her and the rest of humanity.
But it seemed almost painfully too late. Now with nearly twenty-five years having passed, she was being asked to remember. And it was not that she feared her memory would fail her if she testified. Far worse. It was knowing the impact it might have on her children. She knotted her fists into her stomach to try to alleviate the sudden pain she was experiencing. "It's only nerves," she told herself. But those secrets she had kept buried for so many years were relentless. She could not ignore them, just as she could not turn a blind eye to the letter calling for her testimony. She would need to decide if she was finally going to unearth those memories she had kept tucked away since her therapy had ended. She knew she was strong enough to face the demons of her past, but she feared the pain it might cause her children and even her ex-husband.
Copyright © 2004 by Alyson Richman
Excerpted from Swedish Tango by Alyson Richman Copyright © 2004 by Alyson Richman. Excerpted by permission.
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