The day Robertico is crying, desperate and lonely outside my window, I don’t want to go but I must. To witness it makes me sick. It unnerves me but here it is common. ‘Abuela’ (grandma), he calls not wanting to enter the house. He calls my aunt this even though she is not a relation at all. He clings to the pole on the terrace that supports the roof. He cries a cry that I’ve come to recognise here.
It’s a cry of fear. More like a small animal in pain than a child crying. It’s more basic than when they fall over and more desperate than when they fight with other children. I always turn instinctively towards it. In the street, the sound as I walk past houses rising up through the wall of heat. Startled, I always raise my head towards the window. I always wish I hadn’t.
The first time I heard it I was walking back home with Eleanor and Maia from their grandmother’s house. It is late afternoon and I need to bath them to alleviate the heat. Robertico’s house sits next to ours. It’s a small, square single room made up of grey, wooden planks, bleached and peeling from the harsh sun and rain. The heavy wooden door of his house screams open, the wood scrapping against the stone floor. He comes running from his house crying. Wearing only his worn, yellow underpants, his skinny, boyish body exposed and vulnerable, cowering in the bright sun. Bare feet on the hot dirt road, the dust rising up behind him in a plume. He has an arm crossed protectively across his torso. The day is hot. He enters our house. I think nothing of it. He’d been up all night with a fever. I’d been told he’d eaten too many plums.
As we step through the front door I hear him crying in desperation in the back yard. I begin to step out onto the porch to see if I can help. Three of them round the corner into my sight. Robertico is between his mother and my aunt. He is begging, tears wetting his face. My aunt is holding him with one arm trying to calm him. His mother is delivering karate blows to his body. It’s a slicing movement of the hand to the arm or body (usually the arm). I usher the girls inside so as not to witness it. He is dragged back to his house, my aunt left standing at our gate. She cannot get involved further. He did not want to eat dinner.
Late in the night he’s taken to the dr who confirms a stomach bug.
The cry becomes imprinted and I hear it in Santiago as we walk through the streets. I hear it in Bayamo as we return home after watching The Band in the square. I hear it in Havana as we walk to meet Diego from work. I look up at the windows, always a child, always a slice, always a mother.