Our father kept a hole in his chest.
Sometimes he dug around it with naked hands, left birdseed in the dark indent where his heart used to be. Other times, his fingers would climb into it, caress the hollow, creeks bursting from his aching brown eyes. Every time we came back from the riverbank, me and my sister muddy with innocence and travel, he would hold our hands and look at our bare toes with a whispery laugh. He would march us inside the house, scrub us clean and feed us broth, then brush our hair for ghosts and chalk fairy tales on our bedroom until we slept. Then he’d sit outside, bargaining with the wind.
Our father missed our mother. He thought she had turned into a sparrow and flew away.
Things were not the same when she returned from the hospice. We used to huddle around her on the mattress every night, our ribs hungry for warmth. Moonlight would peer from the chinks on the roof and our hands came to life in shadow play, midnight rabbits and wolves dancing on the walls. But after, when her head swam in fear and she tore the roots of her hair, she could no longer bear our mirror faces, the sweetness of our father’s birdsong. One morning, she sprang from the house into the woods, the birds mad at that hour. Days passed before we found her under an old oak tree, now a mother to horseflies only, her freckles rusting quietly.
Nights, coiled around each other, we closed our eyes in fear of the shadows on the walls.
Our father, bearded and sweet and beautiful, folded his long limbs around us when his friends arrived at the cemetery. Dead of fright or famine, it didn’t seem to matter. Our mother would return, he spoke plainly to us as we wept and moaned. He swore loudly that he would wait until his sparrow came home. Aunts came to visit, blessed all three of us with scrubbed-clean hands, though we never trusted the hyenas in their smiles. When they noticed the cavity on my father’s chest, they never came inside again, and just left birdseed on the front porch. Each year fewer people came to visit and our father, wrinkled with age and creaky like rusty hinges, could no longer thaw mother out of memory.
We found our father hanging from the rafters, the house-bones creaking from his weight.
We buried him in the backyard, swaddled in our clothes. There was nothing much of him left to carry. With our bare fingers, we planted flowers in his hole, and we did not weep. My sister, who had bargained speech for a way out of mother’s womb, pinched the air between her finger and thumb next to her mouth, and I nodded.
We set off on our own, away from what we could no longer call ours, until in the distance there was only the house, a sparrow, his song.
+++Diogo Ribeiro lives in and writes from Portugal. His work has appeared so far in two Portuguese poetry anthologies, and in three Portuguese small fiction anthologies, Coletânea de Contos de Natal (2018), SMS (2019), and Cartas de Amor II (2019).