Rosaura at Dawn

Daniel Saldaña París
translated by
Christina MacSweeney
Photo by Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

The fence is topped with barbed wire and winds between the shrubs, climbs dry hillsides, zigzags capriciously, and extends into the ocean for about a hundred yards. It stands tall and threatening, rusting in the sunlight, the northernmost limit of a dream gone bad. People peer through it, projecting hopes and a new version of themselves beyond the ICE patrols. There is no escape from this place.

I came to Tijuana four years ago, after the accident. I remem­ber that when I arrived, I’d just had the stitches removed from the wound on my leg, which looked a little like a bird’s-eye view of that frontier line. For a time I’d tried to carry on as normal back in Mexico City. I went to work, said thanks when offered condo­lences. I smiled when people looked at me in pity, pretending I didn’t know what they were saying behind my back: “That’s the lady who killed her mother.” But I didn’t kill my mom. It was an accident, and there’s no reason why I should smile if I damn well don’t feel like it.

The only tip I followed was the one that took me by surprise: “Go to Tijuana.”

At night, my husband would turn on the TV and fall asleep in front of it. In the bedroom, I’d pretend to be asleep, and I did in fact sometimes doze for twenty minutes or half an hour before waking again as if I’d been shaken. In the early hours, my husband would come to bed and kiss my forehead, but we weren’t really together, just sharing a refrigerator and, increasingly, profound silence.

I was given a lot of advice during the first weeks: meditate, see a therapist, find a lover, give up sugar. The only tip I followed was the one that took me by surprise: “Go to Tijuana.” It was offered by a colleague who was a widow; by the way her eyes shone, I was immediately certain that she knew what she was talking about. The next day I packed a bag and, before leaving for the bus ter­minal, told my husband I was heading north and not to expect me back. He embraced me (I think it was the first time he’d done that without our having sex first) and gave me five thousand pesos from a cookie jar. He seemed relieved that I was leaving.

The first months weren’t easy. I worked in a hotel, a pharmacy, and a party costume store whose only clients were prostitutes. Have you got a bee costume for adults? A Bigfoot costume? Zorro, but with a miniskirt? I found a small apartment in a noisy street, but as I didn’t sleep much I’d spend the night looking out the win­dow. All sorts of people passed by: tourists, drunks, drug dealers, Haitians, lone teenagers. That’s how I met Severiano.

Through the window, I saw a man of around fifty standing under a streetlight on the corner near my building. He was wearing a hat and carrying a cardboard box tied up with a cord. I thought he must be a migrant, probably waiting for a pollero to take him to the other side, but after smoking in silence for a while, he untied the box and a huge, white, majestic bird appeared. Severiano grasped its legs, as though it were a chicken, and when no one was around, he launched it into the air. The bird initially flapped uncertainly but then found its balance and flew away, its wings extended like a white brushstroke in the Tijuana night sky. Severiano followed its progress until it was lost in the darkness above my building, and that’s when he saw me in the open window. He smiled. It had been a long time since anyone had smiled at me.

“Hello,” he said from below, raising his hat like someone in a Pedro Infante movie. We chatted awhile, making small talk, but some shady characters came by and were looking hard at him, so I invited him up to my apartment. I know you shouldn’t do that sort of thing, especially not in Tijuana, but at that time I wasn’t worried about being killed; I couldn’t have cared less. I made chamomile tea, and we sat in the living room, which also held the dinner table and my wardrobe. I asked Severiano what kind of bird he’d freed, and he said he wasn’t sure but thought she was some sort of giant cockatoo. Her name was Rosaura, but he hadn’t freed her, he said: every so often, at night, he released Rosaura in different parts of the city, and she always found her way home. He went on to say that he had other birds, a lot of them, and one or two reptiles. When the police detained smugglers of exotic avian species, the wildlife department would contact Severiano and ask him to look after the birds until they found a biologist or a nature reserve to take them. They usually stayed with him for a month or two, but sometimes nobody came to collect them and Severiano ended up caring for the animals for years—or forever. He told me he had a farm in the hills near Tijuana with a view of the border, and as he said this I felt him turning to look at my legs, at the thick scar resulting from the accident. I asked if I could visit his farm. I wanted to see Rosaura close up, in daylight; something about her whiteness had me spellbound.

Instead of going to work the following day, I visited Severiano’s farm. In the midmorning they called me from the store to tell me I was fired, but it didn’t bother me because by then I knew that my destiny was to be with Rosaura, Pinocchio, Amarillo, and Rubeola. My fate was to help Severiano with the birds, learn to clean the aviary and to feed the hawk—it was kept apart from the others—with raw chicken and live mice, allow the zigzagging scar on my leg to fade slowly and the pure white of Rosaura flapping her wings in the borderland night to erase every trace of that fate­ful accident.

Severiano said I could stay in a small cabin some forty yards from his house. There was no bathroom, but that wasn’t a problem. If I needed to piss during the night, I could do it outdoors, among the rocks and shrubs surrounding the cabin. I still hadn’t recovered my fear of death, and thought that dying like that, squatting, bitten by a viper, was as good a way to go as any other.

the aviary was awesome: a palace, forty-five feet high and at least ninety in diameter, constructed from metal tubes, like the ones used in market stands, and completely covered in chicken wire. Severiano, who had been an engineer before buying the farm, had designed it single-handedly. Inside, there were areas of shade, fruit trees, a small pond, a scaled-down mountain of rocks with a gold mine, and even three smaller cages that housed the “punk birds,” as Seve called them: the misfits, the unhappy or aggressive birds that attacked the others and had to be on their own. It was like a city inside there, and I very soon started to add my own ideas: I planted a nopal so the benteveo would peck the fruit; I designed a jacuzzi with a fish tank motor for the pair of iguanas that roamed the ground.

On that basis, Severiano ceded me a section of the aviary, and that small kingdom, a tributary of his, became the center of my life. I bought sacks of corn and made a pyramid of cobs—it was a real success. Pinocchio, an oropendola, spent a lot of time in there making a little noise, and Severiano told me that before I came, he never spoke; he was a traumatized bird. I noticed that despite his usually undemonstrative nature, my teacher was proud of me.

Naturally, the animals didn’t like all my ideas. I once managed to get ahold of one of those fat, red Buddhas and put it in my section, surrounded by a small stream, so it would look like a Chinese water feature, but after a few days, I realized that Amarillo—a pheasant who wouldn’t fly and just hopped from one place to another—was afraid of the Buddha and would take long detours to avoid it. So I removed the Buddha to my cabin, where it stood facing the wall because I felt it watching me at night while I was undressing. (I don’t want this to seem like a lack of respect: if a Christ figure had made me feel that way, I’d have done the same thing. We all have our beliefs, and that’s okay by me.)

Severiano was a reserved, you could even say unsociable, man, and being around animals for so long had done nothing for his manners. But he became fond of me and, after a couple of years, offered to add a bathroom to my cabin. We completed the task together, and during those three weeks of heavy work under the hot-as-hell Tijuana sun, I got to know him much better than in the previous two and a half years, since he normally only spoke to ask me to buy bird seed, clean the cage, or take out Rubeola—the female iguana—to administer her eye drops. While we were building the bathroom, he told me that he’d once been married but had gotten divorced thirteen years before and hadn’t fallen in love again. He told me he was from Zacatecas originally but had come to Tijuana as an adolescent with the dream of crossing over the border, just like everyone else.

And that dream had come true: he’d lived in San Diego and then Santa Monica; had been a gardener and dishwasher, and for nearly five years had driven a truck delivering fertilizer, but then he’d gotten mixed up in drugs, spent a few months in the can, and ended up being deported. After that, he had no desire to cross over again and preferred to view the line, that scar splitting the world in two, from up here. In return, I confided that I was married and had caused my mother’s death. Severiano just nodded and, after a pause, asked me to fetch a shovel. For the first time, it seemed someone had offered me the condolences I’d hoped for, that someone had said something that made me feel a little better, or maybe it was simply that time had passed and I was now living in Tijuana and didn’t have to listen to my husband watching TV at night, but the thing is that from then on, I finally began to think that my moth­er’s death was going to be just one more event in my life.

Severiano ceded me a section of the aviary, and that small kingdom, a tributary of his, became the center of my life.

When we’d completed the bathroom, Severiano told me he had to make a trip, had matters to settle in Zacatecas. I asked what sort of matters, but he skirted around the subject, and I understood that he didn’t want to tell me; the moment for confidences had passed, and it would be best to return to our previous relationship, where he was something approaching my boss, or my mentor, my master in the art of caring for birds.

Before leaving, Severiano entrusted me with the last secret he’d kept during all that time working together: he taught me how to take Rosaura out and prepare her for one of her flights. He told me I had to feed her—just a little—and that before freeing her I must whisper some words in her ear, close to her beak. I can’t repeat those words because Severiano made me promise not to share them.

On the third night after Severiano’s departure, I got Rosaura ready, put her in her cardboard box, tied it with cord, and drove to the city in Seve’s car. I chose a dangerous street near Calle Coahuila, where sex workers hang out to pick up clients. At around one in the morning, when my eyelids were drooping, I got out of the car with the box, untied the cord and, following Severiano’s instructions, spoke the secret words to Rosaura before launching her into the air. I was afraid that some idiot would take a potshot at her, but no one was looking. Rosaura took flight, and I experienced a strange sensation, like a weight of sadness in my chest, that stayed with me all the way back to the farm.

I sat outside the cabin all night. When I lit a fire, all the birds went crazy and began to sing and make a frightful racket. I think I dozed briefly or was maybe lost in my thoughts, but at first light I heard the flapping of wings, looked toward the border, and saw Rosaura, a white smudge gradually taking form, flying toward me over the horizon. I can’t describe my feelings; it was as if she were an angel rather than a bird. Rosaura circled over the cage a few times, and the other birds seemed to be celebrating her arrival with chaotic screeches, and although I’d witnessed the spectacle before, when Severiano had released Rosaura, it had never felt so personal, as though the birds were celebrating me too, rejoicing that some­thing inside me had also returned.

The one who never came back was Seve. Two months later a lawyer turned up to tell me that he’d left the farm to me.

Daniel Saldaña París is a writer from Mexico City. Author of the novels Among Strange Victims and Ramifcations and the essay collection Planes Flying over a Monster, he has been a fellow at Omi, MacDowell, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library.
Christina MacSweeney has translated fiction, nonfiction, and hybrid works and contributed to various anthologies of Latin American literature. Her most recent translations are of Daniel Saldaña París’s Planes Flying over a Monster and Clyo Mendoza’s Fury.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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