The year Josefina tried to climb the walls in her sleep, my father learned how to swim. In the mornings Josefina would put her bruised fingertips into olive oil and then she would let the dogs lick them while she stood on the balcony and yelled down to my father in the pool. At first he kept his head above the water, but Josefina, after the dogs had licked her fingertips clean, went down to my father and pushed his head under and straightened his back and held his legs taut.
It was all for pelota. My father said opposing muscles were what would make him stronger and faster and see the ball better. Josefina said it would keep him from drowning.
My mother wrote to us from France saying we would have swim parties when she returned, she would buy us new suits and, for Josefina, a strong rope and some gloves.
Josefina decided that what would keep her from climbing the walls in her sleep was if she never went to bed. So all day and all night Josefina would clean. She cleaned the jars of spices and she cleaned the broom and she cleaned the dogs and she cleaned the pelota balls and she cleaned the walls and she cleaned my father and she cleaned me and she cleaned herself, and while washing her hair in the tub she fell asleep and in her sleep she climbed out of the tub and with soap still in her hair she tried to climb her freshly cleaned walls. In the mornings the dogs licked the water off the floor and Josefina pulled them back by their tails.
My mother wrote to us again, saying she wouldn’t be home for Christmas, but that she was sending us the suits. Small anchors were sewn into my father’s suit.
“I won’t wear this,” my father said, “I might sink down to the drain.”
Soon my father won every game of pelota that he played and he let the pool water drain and Josefina was found at night trying to climb up the sides of the pool, the dogs barking by the sun chairs above.
In the mornings, Josefina’s fingernails were blue from the paint in the pool and the bread she served us was blue and her face was blue from where she had touched it with her hands.
After my mother’s letters stopped coming my father began to lose his games of pelota. Josefina bought herself gardener’s gloves.
“My fingertips are losing their swirls,” she said, and the walls in the swimming pool and the walls in our house had Josefina’s marks all over them.
“Come here,” Josefina said to me, and I went up to her and she took my hand and put it in the olive oil and she made me press my hand up against the walls saying she didn’t want to be alone on her climbs.
My father said, “Come here,” to me also and he took me to the beach and we watched the waves and then he took off his shirt and then his pants and his socks and his shoes and he went for a swim. When he came out I dried his back for him and then he let me ride on his shoulders and I smelled ocean salt in his hair while we walked along the streets. He took me to where he played pelota and he asked me to bend down and kiss the floor on the side where he played. After I stood up I had dirt on my lips.
“Let’s drink coffee,” he said and he took me to one of his bars and he sat me on the table and had me shake the hands of his friends.
At home we found blood on the walls, but we could not find Josefina. We looked in the pool, and there was blood on its walls, but Josefina was not there. We found the dogs, and there was blood on their coats.
“Where is Josefina?” my father asked the dogs, and the dogs whined and turned in circles.
I found the gardener’s gloves on the floor. My father took them and he left to find Josefina. I stayed behind with the dogs and after petting their bloodied coats I put my hands up against the walls and stood back to watch my handprints there.
I ate bread with olive oil poured over it and walked around our house. I went into my father’s room and saw the swim suit with the anchors on it lying on his floor. I went to the side of the bed where my mother used to sleep and I kissed the sheet and my lips left an olive oil stain.
The dogs followed me and waited for me to give them the crust from my bread, which I did. I threw it out from off the balcony and I watched them hunting out the bread with their noses in the dead leaves at the bottom of the pool.
My father came back with one of his friends. Together they opened all the doors in our house, looking for Josefina in places where we kept the food, our clothes, and my father’s gear for pelota.
We found Josefina in the hospital. There was tape and gauze up and down her arms. She told my father she would clean the house when she got back and my father took up her arm and said with an arm like a stick like that he might have some luck in a game.
“Your mother could do that,” my father said and on the beach he pointed to a woman swimming like a dolphin, her back moving like the rolling waves and her kicks sending up foam. When the woman came out of the water I walked over to the towel where she lay and watched how her breasts and her belly moved up and down. Then I went to my father and sat between his legs and poured sand over his knees and he closed his knees together so that I couldn’t move. I tickled his sides and his knees came apart and I fell onto him, holding the hair on his chest between my fingers, and he told me to let go, that it hurt.
At night I would strap Josefina into her bed. With rope my father ran through the frame I would section her in three and tie knots around her. Josefina’s black hair, after having been braided all day, spread out onto her pillow in waves that fell toward the floor. Josefina would lift up her head and look down at my work.
“Tie the legs tighter,” she would say, “those are the ones that think I’m a goat and can climb.”
The next year my father did not learn how to do anything and Josefina did not climb the walls in her sleep. I went to school and learned how to spell. At home I stood on a chair and spelled all over the walls with my pens and wrote my mother long letters that I knew she couldn’t help reading if she were ever to come back and walk into our home.
Yannick Murphy is author of the novel Here They Come (released this month by McSweeney’s) and the children’s book Ahwoooooooo! (forthcoming in June from Clarion Books). She is also the author of a book of stories titled Stories in Another Language (Knopf). Her novel The Sea of Trees (Houghton Mifflin) was named a New York Times Notable Book. (updated 3/2006)