By Ana María Shua
Illustrated by Henry González
Selection and Compilation: Carolina Fonseca
He had always liked playing in the sand. Making wells was the best thing. He explained to his grandchildren, while digging delightedly, shoring up walls and reinforcing edges to prevent collapse, that wells are also constructions. He liked wells much more than parapeted castles, fortresses with walls that could withstand the waves, mermaid sculptures, or towers decorated with that blend of sand and water that invoked Gaudí’s plasticity. Mario Laterra owned a well-stocked convenience store in an excellent location in Avellaneda, but he would have liked to be an architect.
That afternoon, he suggested to the kids that they make two big wells and connect them with a tunnel. At first, the kids were enthusiastic about helping and excited by the incredible size of the construction Grandfather Mario had designed just past the line of beach tents, where the sand was a little harder. Half an hour later and tired of digging, they ran to the beach umbrella to ask for money for the water slide.
Grandfather didn’t try to convince them to stay. He was so fixated on his work that he had almost forgotten about them. At five in the afternoon, the water reached the second well and he wondered whether he would manage to finish the tunnel without any mishaps. His daughter and son-in-law lounged on beach chairs, watching him work with a mix of irritation and admiration. The kids really enjoyed the water slide and returned to the beach umbrella to request money for ice cream. Their mother muttered something about money, money, money, and those kids always wanting more. Engrossed and happy, the old man worked alone.
It was difficult to make headway on the tunnel, since it ran quite deep. Mario lay down on the hard sand and plunged his right arm into one of the wells. At this most critical juncture, his hands worked better than a shovel. And he needed to go slowly. He didn’t mind ruining his fingernails. The obstruction between the two wells, the wall of sand hardened by water, gradually yielded.
Mario suddenly felt an area where the wall was thinner and beginning to crumble. And then…a shock. Coming toward him from the other side, from the other well, he felt the sandy fingers of a child’s hand touch his own large, aged hand. Grandfather Mario stood up in fright, trying to understand what had happened, but there was no one in the other well. He thought he would have noticed someone, although he knew it wasn’t possible. There was no doubt that he had felt it; he could still feel it. The hand had not touched his out of despair or exigency. It was not weak; it was the ordinary hand of an eight-year-old child digging a tunnel. He threw himself down again next to the well, reached in, and once again touched the hand coming from the other side. This time the hand grabbed his wrist with extraordinary strength, taking him by surprise. A rather violent tug pulled him to the bottom of the well, toward the water, toward the sand, toward the cold, toward the darkness, toward the ineffable.
He emerged covered in sand from head to foot. His mother came out of the water wearing a bathing cap. Marito was proud of his mother’s swimming ability, but he hated seeing her thick black hair swallowed by the awful rubber cap she used to keep her hair dry.
“Look at you, Marito! I’ve told you a thousand times to not bury yourself in the sand.
His mother took him by the hand and led him to the water. Marito loved going into the sea with her. They played in the waves as his mother helped wash him off. At Bristol beach, you had to run a maze to return to the tents; the young lad had gotten lost more than once.
“Mom, can I have a ham sandwich?”
“Surprise! Today we’re going to have a snack on the promenade.”
“Can we go to that place that serves more dishes than any other?”
Each café on the promenade competed to feature more choices than the others. Mario had never managed to convince anyone to take him to the one serving thirty-five dishes. Mom felt that others offered better quality albeit fewer choices. But she gave in this time.
How wonderful! It could have been unadulterated happiness. Heat cascaded from the heavens and tried to wrap itself around them in the manner of a furry animal, but he and his mother were nice and cool in sandals and robes over dry bathing suits —eating in wet suits was unhealthy— as they ate on the promenade. Dad was at work in the city; he only had free time on the weekends.
But nothing is perfect. There, waiting at the table on the promenade, was cousin Carlos. Mom and Carlos bought Marito a Bidú cola, which he drank reluctantly. There were sausages, peanuts, mussels, fries… Marito didn’t like Mom talking to cousin Carlos. He didn’t like how she put a cigarette in a holder and how she blew smoke out her nose. There were toasted sandwiches, potato salad with mayonnaise, olives, slices of jam, fried smelts… Marito didn’t like cousin Carlos, with his narrow mustache and his green glasses. He hesitated for a long time, but finally screwed up his courage:
“Mom, don’t be mad at me, but I don’t like to see you smoking in front of other people when Dad’s not here.
Mom didn’t get mad. She blushed a bit, put out her cigarette, and started to laugh, as did cousin Carlos. She never smoked at home; she preferred to smoke in front of other people, as if it was most important to show people that she smoked. To jolly Mario along, they bought him a cup of Laponia ice cream in his favorite flavor of tutti frutti.
But the ice cream was soon finished ―good things don’t last. It was still really hot, even hotter than before.
“Mom, I want to go in the water…”
“No Marito, are you crazy? You just ate and you have to wait. At least three hours.”
“Let the boy go wade in the water,” said cousin Carlos. “We’ll make sure he doesn’t go in beyond his knees.”
Marito threw his cousin a grateful look and the two of them escorted him to the shore. He removed his sandals and let the always icy Mar del Plata water refresh his legs.
At that moment, people began to look and point at the sea. Something huge and dark, something gigantic and crowned with foam was approaching the beach. Was it one wave or several? There was no time for anything. Mothers clasped their children, the wave crashed onto the beach, smashed against the seawall, and then retreated, taking clothing, chairs, and toys with it. Marito heard his mother’s frantic screams before the giant wave dragged him toward the deep, toward the cold, toward the darkness, toward oblivion.
He came out of the ocean exhausted and hobbling. His left knee hurt. The cold of the water didn’t help his arthritis.
“Dad, don’t scare us like that. Where were you?” The irritated voice of his daughter Paula rang out.
“We were looking for you, Grampa!” he heard, in the worried voice of his grand-daughter Sofía.
“The tunnel collapsed, Grampa,” noted the disappointed voice of his grand-son Santino.
“It doesn’t matter, Santi, now we’ll do something terrific,” he promised by way of solace. We’ll build the biggest volcano on the beach!
“You know I don’t like them to play with fire,” protested Paula.
But they paid no attention.