San Ignacio, Belize, AD 2002
Anna opens her eyes. Her great-great-granddaughter is inches from her face. Always with the Eskimo kisses, this one!
“Please,” Anna scolds. “Not so close, Francie.”
The child is oblivious to rebuke. “Love you, Grauma!”
“Go away now,” Anna tells her, even though what she really wants is to say, Your love is small compared to my love for you, Francie. I love you more than my own daughter. But it would delight the child too much to hear these things. There would be painful hugs. Not to mention Anna’s own, less-loved daughter is in the room. Anna can see the shape of her, hazy and dark, like a shadow behind a curtain. She’s not so bad, fat Samantha, just old, too old for a daughter. What she hates in Samantha is only Anna’s own stubborn living. When a daughter is past ninety, the mother should be dead!
Also in the room is Francie’s mother, who is Edith, or maybe Ellen. If she is Edith, there was also an Ellen, perhaps a cousin who died? Next to her, standing in the doorway, is a man Anna doesn’t know. He looks like Anna’s first husband, her little night-bird, who flew away in the storm. The Hurricane of 1908. For three hours the sky turned black. She counted every second: one help-me-Jesus, two help-me-Jesus, three help-me-Jesus, four. The next morning, she wept, hard and painful, her lungs and forehead burning. The doctor said she would kill herself, crying this way, so she began to cry inside herself only, her body growing fat with tears. Then she met Second Husband, who kissed away her heaviness and gave her all the babies she could handle, plus two more.
“You have a visitor, Grauma,” says Edith-or-Ellen.
Anna tries to see the man better, but Francie is dancing around the room to the music of the American singers on her tiny radio— every day for months, the same ones over and over, so that even Anna’s memory can hold them. Her favorite is the rapper Eminem, who sings so fast Anna can pretend he is speaking Kriol and fall asleep to him. She prefers to dream in Kriol. Her English dreams are not so nice, and are filled with jungle cats.
The man leaves the shelter of the doorway and comes to her side. Up close, he is too fat to be First Husband. Samantha, who rides a wheelchair, also comes closer. “Muma, this is Sadiq. He wants to talk to you about some doctors.”
Now they have Anna’s attention. “Someone to fix my hands?” Of all her pains, the hands are the worst. For thirty years, they have been locked into fists. There is physical pain, yes—like a scorpion-sting between the knuckles, every second of every day— but even more cruel is the pain of the heart. How she misses being able to hold things: a hot cup of tea, a paperback book, a child’s hand.
Everyone looks guilty. “No, Grauma,” Edith-or-Ellen says. “Not for your hands.”
Sadiq smiles at her. “You are an important woman. There are doctors in America who would like to learn from you.”
Anna feels sleep coming in the distance. It makes a sound in her head like footsteps. “Okay, so bring them? I’m not going anywhere.”
Sadiq makes an uncomfortable face. He’s holding some papers.
“They won’t come now,” says Samantha. “They’ll come…later.”
If Anna had the energy to laugh, she would laugh at this. Don’t they know how old she is? If they wait too long, she’ll be dead before they get here.
The fat man looks pained. “I’m not explaining this well.”
Samantha has fallen asleep in her chair. Her mouth hangs open, gargling oxygen. Samantha is the daughter of First Husband. When she was young, she looked so much like her father that it became painful for Anna to see her. Now she looks like Anna—like an old woman.
“After you die,” Sadiq says, “the doctors want to study your body. To see how you lived so long.”
Oh, Anna thinks, an autopsy. Why didn’t they say so? Her family assumes you cannot be old without also being dumb. It makes her long for the days of Samantha’s childhood, when Anna was prized for her intelligence. “Muma speaks four languages,” Samantha used to brag. “English, Kriol, Spanish, French.” At the time, Anna turned red-faced at these compliments—women were not supposed to be smarter than their men. But she did not marry First Husband for his brains! He had big, stormy eyes and a stomach as smooth and hard as a granite countertop. She remembers the day the German motorcyclist drove his noisy bike into the river. While everyone else stood gaping, First Husband stripped off his shirt and pants and dove into the glassy water. He threw the German to shore and dragged his motorcycle out of the river with one hand. She can still see him high-stepping in the shallow water, his stomach glistening in the afternoon sun. Praise God! She took him home with no time wasted, climbed on top of him, and punched that stomach until they made Samantha.
Also, she could barely speak French. More like three and a half languages, she used to tell Samantha. But now that number feels too small. It feels as if she’s had to master many more languages. She’s learned thousands of new words, adapted to changes in meaning. She’s 123 years old, born in 1879, but go ahead and ask her what a cell phone is. She’ll tell you, and get it right. She knows what it means to web surf. In one of Francie’s magazines, Anna has seen a photograph of a boy wearing a fauxhawk. Samantha was born in the spring of 1907, which was the same year Anna first heard the word moron. It was used to describe a child, but it was not such an insult then. It was just a way to categorize people. This child is a boy. This child is Guatemalan. This child is a moron.
Sadiq clears his throat, and Anna realizes she has been speaking out loud. To distract from her embarrassment, she asks, “They’ll cut me open?”
“And stitch you right back up,” says Edith-or-Ellen.
Anna first learned to read from an American priest, who taught her the meaning of grabby in more ways than one. Good riddance! He died in the hurricane with First Husband, though he was old by then. They found his entrails wrapped like baby snakes around the frame of his wooden bicycle.
So she says, “No, thank you.”
Edith-or-Ellen chews her lip. “It would be good for us if you agree to this.”
“It would be good for young Francie,” adds the fat man.
“Where is my Francie?” Right away Anna knows the answer: they’ve taken her from the room while they discuss the gruesome details of her great-great-grauma’s dissection.
“They will admit Francie to the QSI,” says Edith-or-Ellen. “Free tuition!”
Ah, Anna thinks, so a deal has been made “under the table,” as Second Husband would say. The QSI is the best private school in Belize. Very expensive. It would mean a world of possibilities for her Francie. Anna imagines the girl at her desk in the brightly-lit school, learning maths from a woman in a colorful dress. A woman with an American university education. She imagines Francie herself with an American university education. She sees Francie, all grown up, striding purposefully down the halls of some important building—a bank, a courthouse, the National Assembly! Men line the hallways, and they whisper to one another as she walks by. “Don’t mess with Francis,” they say. “She’s one badass chick.”
Imagining this, Anna feels as if her heart were about to explode. Can love kill you?
She remembers her hands. She shows them to Sadiq, who is still clutching what she now knows to be contracts. “Can’t sign.” No need to sign, he explains. Her family can sign for her. She agrees to this. They call Francie back into the room, and she comes in dancing, singing, an angel.
Anna is dreaming English dreams. The Jungle Cat roars.
She is a child. The American priest shows her what it means to conjugate. He gropes. He groped. He will be groping. He shows her what it means to feel disgust. She conjugates her disgust until it becomes something different. She is disgusted. She had been disgusted. She is ashamed. She had been ashamed. She is angry.
The American priest rides his bicycle from the market to the mission house. Papaya and sea grapes bounce in his basket. The Jungle Cat watches him from the trees. Its black fur is caked in mud. Its mouth drips with sea foam. The Jungle Cat sprints from the gray and green of the logwood and deflates the tires of the bicycle. It climbs onto the back of the American priest and scalps him with its teeth. It opens the stomach of the American priest. The American priest screams, but soon his screams are strangled by the space-constricting volume of his own blood. The Jungle Cat gathers the intestines from the American priest as if it were re-spooling a ball of yarn. It strings the intestines on the bike like Christmas lights.
Anna cheers from her hiding place. But then the Jungle Cat turns its emerald eyes onto the road, and onto First Husband.
Anna is a young woman. She dances with First Husband. He boogies side to side like a fiddler crab. She laughs so hard she spits. He twirls her. Anna has more thickness than the other women, but in his arms? She’s lighter than a leaf.
The Jungle Cat stays low to the ground. It sneaks through the crowd on the soft pads of its feet. It is 1908. One hundred and ten years ago to the day, an army of woodcutters and black slaves defended Belize from the Spanish. Anna comes from the woodcutters, First Husband comes from the black slaves. First Husband’s great-grandfather fought side-by-side with his owner; he aimed his musket at the waifish bodies of the Spanish soldiers— starved to the ribs by yellow fever—and watched their stomachs explode onto the pale sand of the beach. First Husband dances and says something Anna can’t hear.
The Jungle Cat takes flight. It extends a single claw on each of its front paws, curved and sharp like a pair of parentheses. For a moment it looks like this: (First Husband). But then the parentheses close, and the Jungle Cat divides First Husband into halves. Red mist coats Anna’s hair and face. First Husband’s top half disappears into the night air, his big eyes blinking in the rain of his blood. Anna screams and runs as if she were being hunted, but the Jungle Cat has no interest in her. It lifts its pink nose and smells Second Husband. It trots all the way to San Ignacio. Second Husband’s house is big and yellow. His neighbors call it Mustard House. Second Husband is not like First Husband, who was young and strong and required careful approach. Second Husband is eighty-six years old. The Jungle Cat walks in as if it owns the place. It strolls to the couch and breathes hot air onto Second Husband’s face. Second Husband wakes and opens his mouth into a silent O of surprise. The Jungle Cat crawls into that O. It swims Second Husband’s veins to his left ventricle. It shakes the blood out of its fur and extends a single claw on each paw. For a moment it looks like this: (heart).
The Jungle Cat sleeps for a long time. When it’s done, it stands and stretches and turns its emerald eyes onto Anna. It goes to her bedroom. She wakes up the moment it passes through the door. When she sees the Jungle Cat, she’s so happy she cries.
Finally, she says. Finally.
The Jungle Cat lolls out its tongue and licks her salty cheeks.
Anna closes her eyes. You remembered me.
The Jungle Cat uncurls her hands—at last—and kills her.
Excerpted from The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff. Published by Farrar, Straus
and Giroux June 11th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Jake Wolff. All rights reserved.