• Dark Day

    María José Candela

    Summer 2023

    The first morning Aurora woke at the hospital, she noticed the tree.

    She had been operated on the day before. The surgery had gone fine so far as she could tell. She no longer had a uterus. Her chances of conceiving before the surgery had already been slim, but now they were nonexistent. The surgery also meant that she would not be in excruciating pain every month. The Germans were not allowing visitors because of the virus. To the right of the bed, on the rolling nightstand, sat her pill organizer. Krishna, her primary nurse, had carefully labelled it Frau Camacho 15/5, using Aurora’s husband’s last name, which she had not adopted. Her phone and tablet sat on a sliding food tray attached to the nightstand, which she could have easily pulled toward her, were she interested. She knew the screens’ blue light would deaden the moment and, for a change, Aurora did not wish to deaden the moment. She wished to see where she was. And in what world, exactly? She was hooked to two catheters: one for blood on the right side of her abdomen and one for urine, which the nurses had arranged on the left side of the bed. Both bags were transparent, which made everything look worse than it was. She could see the contents of her body in them. The blood bag was almost empty—there was some pinkish slime in it but not very much. The other bag was a quarter filled with light brown liquid. Aurora had not been drinking water. The anesthetic was still running through her system, which explained why she had not been in too much pain. She didn’t drink water because she hated the way her body clenched around the catheter the very moment she was about to relax into sleep. Drinking water did not make the clenching worse, but it didn’t make it better either, and it made her nervous. It wasn’t that the catheter hurt. She couldn’t even sense its precise shape or location, nor did she want to. It simply didn’t belong where it was. Her body knew the difference very well. It knew what was its own and what wasn’t. It followed only its own counsel.

    The tree was not important. It was always there when she woke up.

    The trunk was short, and its branches started low, only two or three feet off the ground. Generous branches opened wide, thick with leaves. The leaves stirred with thought but did not speak. She didn’t know what kind of tree it was. It seemed sad, not to know its name. She saw trees the way city people often did, the way they are drawn by children. A long, chunky rectangle followed by a wavy, round shape at the top. But this one was different. The white morning light delicately enveloped the tree, almost without the tree noticing, as if this was precisely its method. Distract, distract, love. Distract, love. Distract and love. It poured over the tree until it was obvious to Aurora that the tree, the light and air around them, the glass window through which she was looking, and even the fine film of her eyes, were made of the same substance. She pictured the substance as a strange, translucid, gelatinous thing with a beating heart, though it was so very thin and clear and silent and pervaded by nothingness.

    It seemed impressive to Aurora that the light would keep on pouring over the world without any intention of stopping, as if on a loop, like a fountain. The action becalmed Aurora, which was strange; she found the sight of them vaguely stressful, wasteful. Aurora worked in Frankfurt at an international environmental protection NGO. She acted as a liaison for young activists, several of whom were experts in their fields, though she considered herself pointedly not an expert on the issues themselves. She was only an expert in rhetoric, which made fights with her husband easy and terrible.

    Aurora was also part of the global mechanism that made climate change possible. She traveled often, moved every couple of years. There was something abstract in her motivations, she thought. Cameron and the environmentalists she knew always talked about the importance of “place” and “acting locally.” When Aurora was seventeen, she had left Colombia to go to Cornell and never returned, not really, not in any significant way. To what specific place, no larger than thirty miles in diameter—the number of miles that could be walked in a day—did she have an irrefutable, living connection? What place did she even know? Now, immobile and confined to bed, Aurora felt more acutely aware of regions in her body that had felt frozen before: the bunched-up muscle of her left calf; her right hip, which felt hot and cold at the same time. It seemed that some areas had thawed overnight.

    Eduardo, Aurora’s husband, thought she worried too much. He worked under the vice-consul, who worked under the consul, who worked under the ambassador of Colombia. They had met at Cornell, the only two Colombians in their class. He had inquisitive brown eyes and a long, thin mouth. He enjoyed public speaking, was gregarious, bookish, and popular, though not extremely, and prone to losing his glasses. He had been hard to miss and had gone straight for her, courting her as if she were a princess. He left long, emotionally vulnerable letters in her mailbox. Announced to all her friends that he was going to marry her. This had confused her. She had wanted to be treated as a peer.

    She was also largely unprepared for Eduardo’s seriousness, and for a long time had not trusted him because of this. She did not want him to think it would be easy or even worse, inevitable, because they were the only two Colombians on campus. She made things difficult for him, messed around with sloppy men from places like Westchester and Greenwich who didn’t know her name. She had practically tortured him, had only let him fuck her formally a year after they met. She wanted him to understand that being with her would be a particular brand of hard. She had already sensed that about herself and wanted to give him the opportunity to make a graceful, painless exit. But he had not taken the hint. After they made their relationship official, he never left. They had been together for more than ten years. He was the only honest man she knew.

    You have to smell the flowers, Eduardo had said—no, shouted at her—the last time they had gotten into a fight. In fact, it was true that she did not smell the flowers. She had not smelled the marigolds he had sent to her hospital room. Not out of spite but simply due to a lack of energy and an intuitive sense that their precise scent would make her feel nauseous. She had felt personally insulted when Eduardo had called her a fanatic. She wanted to bring up Cameron, the young man based in Hawai‘i with whom she had worked on shark protection the previous summer. Cameron had been attacked by a tiger shark a few years before; the encounter had left him with a prosthetic leg. But he still loved sharks, fought for them and swam with them. A couple of months after they met, he had been attacked again, this time less severely, and lost two fingers. If Aurora had to guess, he was probably swimming with sharks at that very moment. So while it was true that she liked to be thorough at her job, it was also true that she was not Cameron. In the end, Aurora had not mentioned Cameron in her discussion with Eduardo because Eduardo did not want to hear anything that had to do with Cameron. Aurora had only seen Cameron in video calls, but it was true that they had gained some closeness from working together, and sometimes she wanted to reach into the phone and touch his face and feel the sun in it, the salt. Cameron was handsome in that California way: sun-drenched hair; feral, caramel-colored eyes; perpetual tan; no sense whatsoever that his youth would not last and therefore no attachment to it, which added a certain glow to the creases that were already forming along the corners of his eyes due to sun damage.  Aurora found Eduardo’s suspicions warranted yet naïve. If Aurora and Cameron were in a room together, she was not sure they would even be able to tolerate one another. It was more a matter of whom one could stand. Eduardo was also a forgetful man. Forgetful of his happiness, of his own interests now that the surgery was done. Eduardo was the real fanatic; he was fanatical about her

    Krishna let herself into the room before Aurora had heard the knock on the door or understood what it meant. She was significantly younger than Aurora, with long, smooth hair she wore in a loose ponytail. The surgical mask concealed her nose and mouth, but Krishna’s eyes were expressive on their own. She had an unembarrassed, serious gaze. To Aurora, she seemed to appear and disappear from the room. Aurora had a cautiously positive opinion of her as a nurse. Krishna seemed to care about her, though not too much, which was also a relief.

    “Good morning, Frau Camacho,” she said, “how are you feeling?” She spoke English for Aurora’s sake, with a slight German accent. She set a long, sealed object on the table and then walked across to the large window and tilted it inward. A breeze carried the scent of wet grass.

    “I am feeling fine, I think,” Aurora said. “I am really hoping it doesn’t get worse than this.”

    “Okay, you are feeling fine. Good, Frau Camacho,” Krishna said. She grabbed Aurora’s hand and rubbed its back in a precise, clinical way that made Aurora feel certain that this was some sort of therapeutic technique. Even so, Aurora let herself enjoy Krishna’s indifferent touch.

    “Oh, you are all bruised up. But it will get better,” Krishna said, rubbing the bruises in Aurora’s forearms where the IVs had been. After several tries, the anesthesiologist had been forced to use two IVs for children, one in each arm, because Aurora’s veins were too thin and deeply nestled for the needle to catch. 

    “Your skin is dry. Do you have a little cream?” Krishna said.

    Aurora nodded and pointed to the shelf in the bathroom, which she could see from her bed. Krishna brought the little white pot with crema de caléndula. Her mother had shipped it to her from Bogotá. Her grandmother had been its greatest enthusiast in the family for every aesthetic concern and mood complaint—after her own grandmother, a distant, stern woman who had given birth at age fifteen, in a clearing, after riding sidesaddle, calmed by the scent of caléndula on her lip. 

    Aurora thought Krishna might rub the cream on her arms, but Krishna handed it to her instead. Perhaps this was to inspire self-sufficiency, a prerequisite for healing; perhaps this simply wasn’t her job. Aurora opened the pot. It smelled sweet and woody, like the resin she had once seen as a child oozing out of a tree in the garden of the family house after a fat branch had snapped. The golden globs had appeared to her liquid and thick, almost like honey, but were in fact solid and hard to the touch, like glass. Aurora’s grandmother had caught Aurora trying to tear a piece out.

    “Don’t do that, dear,” her grandmother said. “That is how the tree heals.”

    Aurora had not been to the family house in northern Bogotá since the pandemic. Well, several years before that. Was it three, or five? Aurora rubbed a small amount of cream on her arms where the bruises were. She had to make the pot last.  

    “You need to drink more water. Look,” Krishna said, gesturing to the urine bag near her. “Brown.” She used the remote to raise Aurora’s torso, which hurt.

    “I can drink from here,” Aurora said when she was close to forty-five degrees.

    “Okay,” Krishna said, and handed Aurora the cup of water that had been sitting on the table all night. Aurora drank in small sips. The water was stale.

    Krishna left the room and then returned with a fresh bottle of mineral water. Aurora read the label. The water came from Baden-Baden, a spa town in the Black Forest, about two hours from Frankfurt. Aurora had visited with Eduardo two years prior, before the virus asserted itself. They had recently learned about their options to help manage Aurora’s pain. The days were getting shorter, and the darkening trees seemed to be absorbing the remaining light of evening. Yet sitting in the hotel’s hot springs, Aurora and Eduardo could still see the red leaves hanging tenuously from a tree nearby, maybe for the last evening of the year. Eduardo had taken off his glasses and set them on the pool’s ledge. His eyes followed the horizon as it grew more saturated—a biker receding down a narrow path, a blond woman with carefully knotted hair talking on the phone outside the hotel—but they remained unfocused when they came to rest on Aurora. Eduardo could not see up close without his glasses, and his slightly off-center gaze made him appear collegial. Aurora enjoyed looking at him without being perceived. His eyes seemed larger, his regard softer. Eduardo tried to drag Aurora out of the water after a reasonable time had passed, but Aurora insisted on staying. She made Eduardo carry her around the pool in his arms, and he was delighted to be forced, as some people are. Their bodies felt heavy when they got out of the water, their hearts thick and loud. They missed their reservation at a French restaurant and could barely walk up the stairs. They devoured burgers and fries back in their room, which were terrible, and fell asleep watching an action movie dubbed in German that they had already seen. That night, they slept for twelve hours.

    Krishna filled two extra cups of water for Aurora. She opened the sealed object: a needle. 

    “What’s this for?” Aurora asked.

    “Thrombosis,” Krishna said. “Blood clots.” She pulled down the covers.

    “Will it hurt?” Aurora said.

    “No,” Krishna said. She pushed up Aurora’s gown, exposing her thigh. There was some sort of fluorescent yellow ink on the skin. Krishna inserted the needle quickly, painlessly.  

    “You are getting breakfast soon, okay?” Krishna said.

    “Okay,” Aurora said.

    “We will try walking this afternoon, Frau Camacho,” Krishna said.

    “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Aurora said.

    “Yes, we will try,” Krishna said, holding Aurora’s gaze as she stood by the door. “It’s best to try. And remember, if you need anything, just kling.” 

    Aurora waited for the door’s click. The room shifted with a sudden creak. She could hear the muted sound of a TV in an adjoining room. The dull ring of silence, which was, perhaps, only the sound of blood rushing between her ears. Outside her window, a car passing by. Tentative footsteps near the elevator—of someone who is afraid but isn’t sure what they are afraid of, Aurora thought. Or else those of an expectant mother. Aurora imagined such a woman. The swollen stomach like a perfect fruit. A hint of exposed skin below the protruding belly, which the woman is unaware of, an intimation of the ways she is already changing, and of her innocence. Everything else was quiet. It was Christi Himmelfahrt. Ascension Day. The hospital was practically empty. The Germans were very observant of their Christian holidays, especially in this small, suburban hospital. Professor Meyer, the doctor who had operated on her, had gone to Mallorca for the weekend. Aurora turned to the window again.

    She watched the branches of the tree sway formlessly. The grass outside was a hyper-clear green, a hue so pure it appeared liquid. Aurora did not think she had seen such a color before. Perhaps it had rained in the night. Perhaps she had simply never noticed the lucidity of a blade of grass on a German spring day. Such green was comforting. Hydrating, almost. An amuse-bouche for the spirit, Aurora thought. It was almost implausible to her, as she had always been a city dweller. It was clever, the way Germans surrounded their hospitals with nature to help their patients recover. She could feel firsthand the benefits of it. They loved their green spaces and did their best to protect them, rightfully so. Except, that is, for when they had wanted all the green outdoor space on the continent to the exclusion of everyone else—their Lebensraum. Aurora thought about what nation-states might be willing to do when the pressures of climate change disasters precipitated even more, when it became—even more explicitly than it was already—a matter of survival. She shuddered. She looked outside again. The green appeared to her both greener than before, and less green.

    Eduardo was calling. She declined the call. His texts started coming in, and Aurora put her phone on its face. Then she fell asleep. A nurse brought in her breakfast tray. Coffee, yogurt with muesli, a peach that had seen better days, two slices of whole-wheat bread, orange jam, a pale square of butter. Aurora wasn’t hungry, but she needed to eat something to stomach her morning pills. She put the small plastic tub with yogurt on her chest and had a couple of spoonfuls. Some bits of wet muesli fell on her hospital gown, and she flicked them to the floor and blotted down the stain with a napkin. She washed down a small yellow pill, a pinkish pill, and a large white painkiller.

    Aurora’s phone rang. It was Cameron, a video call. She accepted it.

    “What do you want to see my face for?” Aurora said.

    “You look good. A little pale, but I like it,” Cameron said. Behind him, the sky was a blistering orange. His wetsuit was neatly folded on the back of his balcony chair. “How are you feeling?”   

    “You know.”

    “It will pass,” he said.

    “Yes, but what comes after?” Aurora said.

    “The rest of your life. Are you kidding me?” Cameron said.

    “Yes, I am kidding you,” Aurora said. She enjoyed Cameron’s Americanisms.

    “Well, hang tight.”

    “Are you swimming tomorrow?”


    “What kind of sharks will you swim with?”

    “Depends on which ones I find. I’ll keep you posted.”

    “Okay,” Aurora said.

    “I’m glad you’re on the mend. I’ll call you later,” Cameron said.

    María José Candela was born and raised in Colombia. Selected as the winner of the 2020 Indiana Review Fiction Prize, her fiction has also appeared in the Kenyon Review. Her nonfiction has been published in Roxane Gay’s Gay magazine. She holds an MFA from Florida State University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Spanish Literature at Georgetown University.

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