The Magic Scar

M. Caponi 2014

I was too busy negotiating with God to listen, but I heard.


Maria Caponi was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and moved in her late twenties to Los Angeles where she lives and plays.  She has a PhD in physics and works part time as an aerospace technical consultant but spends a large part of her waking hours making up stories. She has recently completed the UCLA certificate of fiction writing with distinction and is currently working on the novel “The Street of Sighs, an environmental thriller.  She is honored to contribute The Magic Scar and Chad and Sabrina Dissonant Song to The Acentos Review.

“Promise that you’ll take care of Papi,” my mother said.

I touched the scab on my knee and worked on the right language to seal the pact with Heaven. I wouldn’t scratch the newly formed crust; I would let it fall by itself and when my knee would turn all rosy pink with new skin, my mother would be well.  

 “Alicia, look at me. Promise that if anything happens you’ll look after your father…” She repeated, and then sighed.

I nodded slightly, but I didn’t comprehend. I couldn’t really look at her; I was focused on the large wound on my knee instead and the effort to hide my guilt from myself.   I wondered if the trade was good enough. The cut on my knee hadn’t yet formed a nice crust.  It would take a week for it to be tempting enough to peel off.

 “Mamá, get up. Let’s go for dinner,” I said.

It was summer, and we were in my parents’ room at a resort hotel.  My mom lay down all dressed up for the evening on top of the bedspread. I sat on the edge of the bed and with my right hand traced the edge of the bedcover dark brown leaf design. She reached for my hand, and I tried to ignore the bump on her stomach that had grown since we had arrived more than two weeks ago. I looked at the string of pearls on her neck and caressed the silk of her white blouse. It was not tucked in. Her black pencil skirt would no longer zip all the way and was fastened with two interlocked safety pins. I had asked again if there was a baby coming but she said no. Her liver was inflamed from eating so many greasy foods.  For a while, it made me feel better. Eating too much, an inflamed liver and indigestion were traditional topics of conversation in my family.


That year we had decided to go to the mountains instead of the ocean for our month long summer vacation. Even more unusual, my father could stay with us for three full weeks instead of commuting for long weekends.  It was just after the presidential elections of 1958. My father had been working 80 hours weeks in the first truly free campaign Argentina had known in 30 years. He said that now that it was over he was able to take some well-earned time off.   For a month before we left, it seemed that all my parents would do together was plan the long vacation.  The hikes, the horses, the games, the pool! I got so excited my skin broke in a rash.


After ten long hours on an overheated bus, we finally arrived in the early afternoon to “La Falda”, a bright green and quaint town in the slopes of Sierra Chica, Province of Cordoba in Argentina.  As the bus drove up to the hotel entrance, I could see what it looked like an endless expansion of green, a huge swimming pool and best of all, a petting zoo!         I could barely contain myself and started running as soon as we got off the bus.  I wanted to do everything at once.  I remember my parents laughing and then my mother trying to calm me down.                                                                                              “You will have time to try everything,” she said, but I didn’t.  There couldn’t possibly be enough time.  I wanted to try the swimming pool right that second, even if the air was starting to cool off.  I had my red and pink striped swimming suit on in less than five minutes after we entered the hotel room. Towel in hand, I started to open the door.

“You have to wait for us,” my mom said.

“Why?”  I was almost eleven years old; I could swim like a fish and had a bull shark attitude.  Why did I have to wait for them?  I always had to wait. We traveled with too much stuff.  Formal dress for the evening, informal for the afternoon, shorts during the heat and swim stuff. Lots of shoes. It took forever to put everything away.

“Because they don’t let children alone in the pool. They don’t have lifeguards,” said my mother.

“Yes, they do.”

It was the start of one of our usual fights.  I jumped up and down. My father intervened. “Just wait five minutes,” he said, “while we put things away and change.”

“It’s never five!” I said.  I scratched the crease in my elbow, even if the rash was practically all gone.  “You’ll take hours to change and then you’ll say that it’s too late and you’re tired and it’s almost time for dinner and I won’t get to swim!”  I could feel my chest contracting and my voice getting louder.  I almost expected to be ordered to change back, no pool today, but I didn’t know how to contain my self.  To my surprise, the exchange that day didn’t end on a bad note.  My father looked at my mother and laughed. “Alichi, this time we’ll hurry up,” he said. I knew things were looking up when my father called me Alichi. 

My mother was ready before all of my bad temper could flare up. She had her beautiful turquoise suit on and a white pool robe on top.  The suit enhanced the color of her eyes. She carried her white swim cap, a pair of goggles, her reading glasses and a book.

“If you take a book, you won’t swim with me,” I whined. I didn’t want to give up my attitude so easily.

“Let’s go before I change my mind,” she said. My father agreed to stay and get the rest of the stuff out of the bags. He would join us later.  He was checking how to insert the film in his new box camera when we left.

 The pool was perfect, the water still warm, and the end of the day clear, the colors bright. The picture my father took that first day from the edge of the pool shows both of us with large smiles plastered on our faces. In the framed picture, my striped suit is green and white and my mother’s orange, but her green eyes and the blue of mine are just right. It had been a black and white picture; color film was not yet the norm and was quite expensive. Four or five months after our vacation my father who was a bit daltonic had it enlarged and colored from memory.

My mother jumped with me in the pool. There were a few kids playing, and I showed off every single trick in my water book.  I dove. I swam almost two pool lengths underwater. I did kick turns and cartwheels and showed only my legs above the water. Best of all, I was the last one out of the pool when the sky turned dark and the end of the evening finally arrived. This time I told myself, this time it will be great. This time as different from last year’s vacation when I had struggled first to make friends and then made enemies of the few friends I had.  I had never been able to break into the cliques of children who knew each other from the private schools in the city.  There was also the “difference in parents”. Mine were ten years older than the others and they liked each other too much. My mom had had a miscarriage when they first got married, and it took them a long time afterwards to conceive me, their only child.

I tried to convince myself that this time there wouldn’t be any clique.  This time, I pleaded and commanded, this time I had to find a real friend.  That night at dinner, as in answer to my request, there was a girl my age sitting at the next table.   When the music started and the first couples got up to dance, I looked up and she smiled.  Later we looked at each other across the tables and laughed together at some of the dancers. She was sitting with her mother, a dark pretty woman in her mid-thirties and a small boy. By the time my parents stood up to dance a tango, the girl got up from her chair and sat at my table without hesitation. My parents were excellent dancers, and they looked good together. People stopped eating their desserts to look at them move like one across the dance floor.

“I wish my parents knew how to dance, but they don’t vacation together.  They don’t even live together,” she said and looked straight into my eyes.

I was startled. I had never known someone my age that could be so direct, talk so confidently to strangers. I hesitated and managed to utter a sympathetic “uhmm” before she continued.

 “I am Irene. That is my mom and my little brother Gil over there. Do you know how to dance? What is your name?”

“Alicia.  Only ballet, I take ballet classes.  My father is trying to teach me tango, but I don’t like it.  It’s for old people,” I said and felt a breeze of exhilaration and anticipation. This was my new friend.

When my parents came back to the table, Irene talked to them as if she was part of my family. She introduced her mom, Jade, who was polite but reserved and four-year-old Gil, who was cute and shy.  At the end of the evening, Irene and I were going around the room making plans for the next day.  I could almost hear a sense of relief from my parents that I had found a companion for the vacation.  They seemed to like Jade even when they learned that she was a single mom and a biologist who worked at the University, something almost unheard of in their circles at that time.

For the next ten days, Irene and I were inseparable.  We raced each other on the green and in the pool and invented stories together. We liked to step in front of the mirror in the hotel lobby and call ourselves night and day, water and fire, earth and air. She was my perfect opposite with long dark hair, dark skin and dark eyes to my pale complexion, long fine blonde hair and blue eyes.   We told people that we were twins of ‘mixed-race’ parents, and we would burst in giggles at the shock in their expressions.  After a week, we started to complete each other’s sentences and invented a made up language to fool eavesdropping grown-ups.  Both of us were show-offs, and I think that each of us believed, but didn’t tell, that we were the queen and the other one the princess.

My parents liked Irene who was already eleven, seemed calm and mature and didn’t have a tendency to melodrama and hysterics like myself. When Irene and I were together, my parents were more relaxed about keeping track of my whereabouts every minute of the day; I mistook that for complete freedom.

Irene wasn’t really that mature, but she’d learned how to deal with adults better than me. She had a soft, low-pitched voice and talked in complete sentences. She also liked to climb trees, jump fences and could do slam dunks in the kid’s basketball court. I had a shrill voice, liked to run and swim and would shout and yell when excited. I wasn’t that good at jumping.  One day she got a piece of chalk and laid a hopscotch course on the pavement by the playground. It was a different design that the one I was used to play. She got a large rock from the garden and set it on the home base. We had to jump the rock to be safe.  We played three times before I managed to fall and get my knee stabbed by the roughest edge of the rock.

“Where did you get these ideas? Playing with rocks of all things!” my mother said.  She was cleaning the mess on my knee. “I bet that if you had been playing with Irene this wouldn’t have happened.”   Irene had disappeared the moment my knee started to bleed and I had hobbled alone to our room. I wouldn’t blame her; I loved the freedom it gave me being her friend.

Every day after lunch, my parents insisted that I take a nap while I waited to go to the swimming pool.  They claimed that if I didn’t wait ninety minutes I would drown from indigestion.   I had my doubts about that rule and I thought that it was because they wanted to have a nice siesta without worrying about me.  I had seen other kids go right in the water after they finished eating. When I pointed it to my mother, she said,

“That is because their parents are uneducated. The cold water interrupts their digestion; they can get a cramp and fall to the bottom of the pool. ”

I told Irene to ask her mom. Irene and Gil didn’t take naps or wait a long time to enter the pool after they ate.  Jade, she let us call her Jade instead of Mrs. Urik, said that it was an old wives’ tale, a Western belief not really based on fact.  I was conflicted. I knew that Jade was quite educated, but I decided to wait before attempting a family confrontation. I was having too much fun to mess it up.

One glorious morning, Irene and I had been competing for hours on who could dive deeper and stay longer under the water. So far Irene was beating me for a few seconds, and I wanted to give it another try when the lunch call interrupted.  This was a full pension hotel. One of those old fashioned resorts where people got to know each other sitting at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table. The food was exquisite. I wasn’t allowed to skip a meal, and I always ended too full.   I decided to eat less and try to get back into the pool as soon as I could after lunch to see if I could best Irene’s record.  When we left our table, I whispered to her.

“I’ll meet you at the pool in half an hour”

“What about your nap? You may die of indigestion,” she said laughing.

“ Shh, not so loud. I don’t want my mother to know. It’ll be fine. I didn’t eat so much ” I added, trying to convince myself rather than her that it was OK.

“What was all that about?” asked my mom as we were walking back to the room.  She didn’t miss anything.  “Nothing.” I said.

I waited until my parents were asleep to put on my swimsuit, wrote a short note on the hotel stationary, got my towel, and left the room.  The note said, “I am at the pool.”  I walked over the damp green grass, and the wet blades tickled my naked feet. I felt free and content. I ran and dove into the pool. Irene was already there, by herself. Her mom and Gil were at the playground, she said.  It was just as I had imagined, I was able to dive further and stay longer underwater than during the morning.

For some reason, we had the pool to ourselves.  Maybe it was too hot, but for me the perfect afternoon seemed to extend and shimmer around us.  I dove for one more time and touched the bottom of the pool. It was covered with blue tiles that felt cool and smooth to my hand. I opened my eyes and watched the light reflecting from their corners and the changes in the shades of blue.   It was so pretty and peaceful, and I wanted to stay there forever.  I felt calm and content as I moved my arms to stay at the bottom. I let my air out slowly and looked at the small bubbles dance as they started to ascend until I could not longer hold my breath. When I finally turned, I saw a shadow cover the light as I pushed off the bottom hard with my feet and rose like a bullet to the surface. 

Half of my body exited the water, and I took a gulp of air. My calm was broken by loud screams. Several adults seemed to be at the edge of the pool yelling to someone, but I couldn’t make sense of the shouts.  A young guy was bending at the waist ready to jump into the pool.   I looked around to see if there was an accident until my brain finally decoded the sounds.

“Alicia!!!! What were you doing?” someone said. It was my father’s voice

“She is alright.  It is OK,” said the young man

“Get out of that pool right this moment!! Right this minute!”  That was my mother’s voice.

“What were you doing? Do you want to kill yourself?”

 “How many times did I tell you? You are a child.  You can’t do what you want without thinking of the consequences!” and on and on.  I hated it. What was wrong with all these people?  I stepped out of the pool, and someone gave me a towel to dry myself. People started to disperse. My father pushed my back, and my mother took my arm.  They led me back to the room.

It turned out that my parents woke up and couldn’t find me. They didn’t see the note. They first looked in the grassy area where Irene and I used to play, and when they didn’t see me, they became mad with worry.  I thought that my parents worried a lot, all the time, because I was an only child, so this wasn’t new. The problem was that when they finally saw my note and went by the pool, they didn’t see me, or Irene who had gotten tired of our game when I started to stay so long underwater and was at the playground with Gil.  By then, my parents were crazy with fear. Later, when my father looked into the pool, he saw me floating at the bottom and he, who was usually tranquil and composed, completely lost it. He started to take his shoes off to go in and save me. A young man that was nearby came and was ready to jump when I surfaced. They said that I had been floating down there for more than a minute. I felt proud of my feat.

“Well, I was holding my breath. Duh!”

That put my mother over the roof. She started to yell that it was no way to answer her, that I had gone out without their consent and could have died down there. My father, who was relieved and happy that I was alive, tried to calm things down with little success. My mother’s relief had turned into agitation and frenzy instead. She had a lively spirit, my cousins used to call her affectionately “Vivita” for vivacious and vital but also for brash and intense.

“And what happened to your knee?  Did you hit it against the tiles?”

“What’s it with you?”  

I looked at my knee. My scab had started to bleed again.  Maybe I had scraped it against the tiles, or maybe I had been too long in the water and the wound had opened up.

“You can’t be still. You always have to get in trouble. Just when it was starting to heal,” said my mom.

She got some gauze and a large bandage.  We always travelled with a large box full of first aid medicine.   She started to clean the wound with alcohol, and I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the burn from the alcohol, maybe it was that my mother was so mad, worried and relieved at the same time that she rubbed too hard or maybe I was too tired after a full day of swimming in the sun.  I pushed her hand away.  The alcohol fell on the floor, and I ran in tears to the bathroom.

“Don’t touch me anymore. You are always after me!” I said.  My voice was shrill and loud.

“Come here.  Your knee is bleeding,” she said.

 I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the toilet scrunching my knee with three fingers to let more blood out. My mother knocked and tried the doorknob.

“Open up. Alicia, open up! What are you doing there?”

I didn’t answer, and my mother started to yell.  I think that she worried that I might do something terrible. I did.

We screamed back and forth through the closed door. When she tried the doorknob again and asked me to open up, I let out all my angst.

“You don’t let me do anything. I can’t do anything by myself. You are mean, I wish you were dead!” I said.  As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to put them back, but they were already floating and becoming real.

“Alicia, come on out. I am not mad with you. I am worried about you.”  My mother’s voice was calmer. Eventually I came out and we hugged.  I cried and promised that I wouldn’t go by myself again.  But I had a weight on my stomach and guilt inside my brain.

That evening, there was a big dance, and I watched how graceful my parents looked dancing together.  When they came back to the table, my mother complained that she was fatigued. She fidgeted with her belt and said it felt too tight around her waist.  I thought she looked tired. We ate, and I played with Irene who was not aware of all my family drama. She thought that it had been fun that everybody was so worried, because I was so long underwater.

A few days later, my mother began to complain that her pants were too tight at the waist.  She always felt full. She had a pencil thin waist and a flat stomach that now looked round. My father joked that she was eating too well. But she wasn’t; she had been leaving half of the food in her plate for a while.  After another week, we could see that her stomach was swollen, sticking out.  My father tried to joke that may be she was pregnant. I was warmed inside with the idea of a baby brother, but I knew it was wishful thinking.  I went to sleep wondering if I could create magic healing spells.

And then, after a few more days, my mother didn’t want to go to the pool anymore.  She would get short of breath going up or down the stairs, and her face was too thin. As she started to look more and more tired, her animation almost gone, I summoned my denial and entered in conversations with God.  

Now, I sat on my parents’ bed while my mother rested before dinner, and my father was on the other room talking to a doctor recommended by the hotel.  My mother looked worried, her face pasty as she collected her intensity to ask me to take care of my father if anything were to happen to her.  I couldn’t understand how I, a small child, would take care of my father. I refused to acknowledge what she meant, rather, I chose to believe that she was exaggerating, as usual, but then just in case, I worked on the right bartering terms inside my head.  I thought of something more difficult in exchange for my mother being her old self.  I wouldn’t get my knee wet.  As soon as the suggestion was out, I realized it meant that I would not be able to swim for several days. Maybe I could add something in exchange for a fast two-day cure.  OK, I thought, I’ll chew each bite 25 times before swallowing, and I won’t eat anything orange for a month.   That should do it.   I looked up and smiled. 


My mother was too pale. I knew things were not right. My father called my uncle to come and pick us up; she didn’t have energy for a bus trip back. Of course, it had to happen in the middle of the best vacation, I thought. Just when I had finally made a good friend and everything seemed just right.  Then I looked at my knee, at my large scab with the nice crust on top, and I shivered.  OK, I said to myself, maybe we can get back when the scar is completely healed.

We drove back in my uncle’s car, a black 1955 Buick Century with a strong diesel smell. It was still a nine-hour trip by car, the first part on mountain roads.  My father and I rode shotgun, or rather my father who sat in the middle.  I was squeezed next to the window to get the air and my mother and my aunt on the back. We had to stop every half hour, so I could vomit.  I couldn’t take the curves coming down the mountain. My mother was silent, leaning against my aunt. I hadn’t even been able to say bye to Irene. Everything had happened too fast.

As soon as we arrived in Buenos Aires, my mother was hospitalized in a valiant and vain effort at a cure. My father was at the hospital all the time and I was sent to stay with a cousin. My cousin lived in the outskirts of the city and her parents would let us go outside alone to play. She even had a dog we could walk around the block. For me it felt like another vacation for the first two days, until I started missing my mother. I had never missed her so much. The hugs from my aunt made it worse.  I felt alone.  

And then, it happened. My mother died three months later of an aggressive lymphatic cancer at a time when cancer was a word nobody wanted to pronounce.  When she died, the skin on my knee was bright pink and I hadn’t touched anything orange. I chewed everything for such a long time that everybody left the table before I was done. There was no scar except inside my heart. I hadn’t been smart enough to find the right antidote for my death command, and the guilt was overpowering.

“I killed her!” I said. I couldn’t contain myself, my voice was loud and in tears. My aunt shushed me; she thought I was in shock.

A few days after the funeral, I was home with my father. I was in my room and he in the kitchen crying when the doorbell rang.  It was Irene and her mother.  At first, I didn’t recognize her and then I couldn’t understand why she was at the door.  “We thought you would need some company,” said Jade and Irene smiled.  I nodded, walked to my room and closed the door. I turned up the radio so I wouldn’t hear my mother’s voice. “Please, take care of Papi.”


© The Acentos Review 2014