"I'm calm. I said kill her."
Tía Tita tightened her arms around the baby and stared at her brother, who stared at the baby, who did not look away. Artigas felt the need to defecate; he couldn't stand the expression on his father's face, a look that could have slashed a man to pieces. The fire ebbed and crackled and his father turned and pushed through the leather curtain at the door. Artigas imagined him standing outside, alone, under a bowl of stars, and heard him slide onto horseback and ride out over flat earth. The next morning, the baby was gone. Though they all slept on the same hides, the Torres family hadn't felt her leave. A thorough search of land around them yielded absolutely nothing: no crawl-marks, no clues, no miniature corpse. A week after her disappearance, the gossips of Tacuarembó proclaimed her dead—or, as the devout Doña Rosa put it, carried off by angels into heaven. She had died of starvation. She had died of abandonment. She had died under an owl's claws, unnamed, unwanted. Miguel said nothing to this, neither agreed nor disagreed, neither wept nor smiled.
Only Tía Tita kept searching for the baby, with a mare's tireless pace. She looked everywhere: green fields, low hills, thick bushes, tall or deep or shady trees, the sun-drenched slope that led to town, the plaza, the church, the three stone wells, and the homes—ranchitos peppered sparsely along the landscape, small cubes with cut-out windows, the women inside ready to cluck their tongues and gesture no. At night, Tía Tita brewed a tea of ombú and ceibo leaves. She stared at hot, wet shapes for a sign of the girl's whereabouts, or at least a sign of her death. None came. The search went on.
She took Artigas on some of her quests. One of them changed him indelibly (and he wondered, years later, as an old man toting rifles through the jungle, whether without that day he might have aged uneventfully in Tacuarembó). It happened on a Sunday that began with mass at the town church, a place Artigas hated for reminding him of the last time he'd seen his mother, enshrouded in black cloth and wildflowers. The priest spoke with a passion that edged his mouth with spittle and Artigas' knees got sore. On the way home, his aunt pulled the bridle and changed the course of their ride without warning or explanation. Artigas gazed around him at the grass, the tall eucalyptus, the distant sheep. No sign of his sister. They rode in silence, the sun's hot liquid all around them.
An hour passed. Artigas grew restless. "Tía," he asked, "how much longer will we look?"
She neither answered nor slowed down. Her skirts sang swish, swish against the horse's skin. The detour might be for a special sprout or crooked leaf or bitter root for one of her healing teas or balms. She was always gathering and gathering. In town she was notorious for hitching her skirt up to her thighs so she could carry weeds she'd ripped out of someone else's ground. The Gardel boys teased him about it, I saw your tía's legs covered in mud, your tía's crazy to chase dead babies. Artigas had come home scraped and bleeding and victorious.
When Tía Tita finally stopped, she slid off the horse and didn't move.
He slunk down behind her.
They stood in an unfamiliar field. There were no cows, no sheep or people, no baby girls falling out of the sky, nothing at all except grass and a couple of ombús. Empty. Empty. Sisters can't be found in empty space. Little girls do not survive the wild. Even if they found her she would be mangled, all white bone and gnawed flesh, like the carcass of an abandoned sheep. Artigas sat down and stared at Tía Tita's back, with that long, dark braid running down its center like a seam. She stood impossibly still. He waited. Nothing happened. The sun bore down. He was hot and he wanted to slap something. This bare, dumb field. This heavy sun. That strange, unmoving back of Tita's. He leaped up. "Tía, what are we doing here?"
Excerpted from The Invisible Mountains by Carolina De Robertis Copyright © 2009 by Carolina De Robertis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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