Home > The North Face of the Heart

The North Face of the Heart
Author: Dolores Redondo

 

PROLOGUE

ELIZONDO

Amaia Salazar was twelve years old when she went missing in the forest for sixteen hours. They found her in the early morning, eighteen miles north of the place she’d wandered off the path. She lay unconscious in the pouring rain, and her clothes were scorched and smeared with mud like those of a medieval witch pulled from a bonfire. In stark contrast, her skin shimmered white, pure and icy, as if she’d just emerged from a glacier.

Amaia always insisted that she remembered almost nothing of her ordeal. She recalled losing her way, but after that, her memory flashed the same image over and over. The effect was the exact opposite of Reynaud’s nineteenth-century praxinoscope, the spinning device that displayed a sequence of still images to create the illusion of movement. Her own blurred mental pictures froze everything into a single scene. Sometimes she wondered if she had really wandered all that way through the forest or had only stood there hypnotized by the sight of a single tree, staring at it and burning its primitive maternal form into her mind forever.

She’d gone out with her dog, Ipar, on a Sunday morning like any other with a group from the Aranza hiking club she’d joined that spring. She liked the woods, but she’d signed up mostly to please her aunt Engrasi, who’d been insisting for months that she should get out more.

They both knew she couldn’t just go play in the village. For a year she’d gone nowhere outside their home except back and forth to school and to church on Sundays with her aunt. The rest of the time, she stayed inside, reading by the fire, doing her homework, or helping with the cleaning and cooking. Anything to prevent being seen outside. Any pretext to avoid what she would face in the village.

She told her rescuers that all she could remember was staring at that tree. But that wasn’t entirely true. The tree remained etched in her memory, but so did the storm . . . and the hut in the forest.

She awoke in the hospital to her father looming over her, his wet hair plastered to his forehead. His eyes were red and raw from weeping. When he saw her lids flutter, he leaned over, his face anguished, hoping she would recognize him. She choked on a surge of immense tenderness. She loved her father, her protector, more than ever, but before she could tell him so, his warm lips brushed her ear and he whispered, “Amaia, don’t tell anybody. If you love me, do that for me. Don’t tell.”

All her love, everything she’d ever felt for him, squeezed her heart till it ached. But the words to express her feelings withered and became painful memories congealed around her vocal cords. At last she nodded, incapable of speech, promising silence, promising to keep the deep, dark secret that ended her love for him forever.

 

 

PART ONE

A composer is always thinking about his unfinished work.

—Stravinsky

The dead do the best they can.

—Engrasi Salazar

 

 

1

ALBERT AND MARTIN

Brooksville, Oklahoma

Albert was only eleven. He wasn’t a bad boy, but he disobeyed his parents the day of the murders. Not to defy them, but because he really thought nothing was going to happen, like the last time and the time before that. For hours, the forecasters had warned that an enormous storm was brewing. Warm masses of moist air were colliding with cool dry winds from the north, which could generate tornados. It was the same old hysteria they’d heard all spring. His mother kept the TV in the kitchen turned way up, even though the weatherman kept saying the same things over and over. She didn’t let him lower the volume or change the channel. His parents took this stuff about tornados very seriously, and for the life of him, Albert couldn’t see why. They’d never been hit by a tornado; their house had never been damaged. He told them that Tim, the younger Jones boy, wanted him to come over and play that morning, but they refused. He would have to stay inside. The Joneses’ barn had been flattened by a tornado three years before, and the same thing could happen again. They all had to stay close to the storm shelter in case the alarm was given.

Albert didn’t protest. After breakfast, he left his cup in the sink and slipped out the back door. He was about halfway to the Jones farm when the atmosphere changed. That morning’s cloud cover broke, churned, and went crazy. The sun shone erratically through the torn and whirling clouds. Intense shafts of light cast long shadows across the ground. A deathly calm settled over the land. The birds fell silent and farm machinery sat idle and untended in the barns. Albert strained his ears but heard nothing but a dog howling far in the distance.

Or maybe it wasn’t a dog?

The first violent gusts struck as he came around the bend in the road and spotted the Jones farm. He broke into a panicked run, scrambled up the front porch stairs, and grabbed the doorknob, turned, and pulled.

Locked! When no one came to answer his pounding, he raced around the house to the kitchen door that was always open—except today it was bolted. Cupping his hands around his eyes, he peered into the kitchen. Nobody there.

Then he heard it. He took two steps and poked his head around the corner of the house. A howling funnel was barreling toward him across the deserted prairie, a locus of black destruction clad in a swirling coat of cloud and dust. Awed by its swift progress, Albert stood fixed to the spot, hypnotized by its power. Flying dirt blinded him and tears of pure panic filled his eyes. He looked around desperately for some place to take shelter.

He knew the Jones family had a storm cellar, maybe behind the barn, but it was too late to go back that way. Desperate, he raced toward their sturdy chicken house, glanced back for an instant and saw the monster still advancing, and then ran as fast as he could, praying they hadn’t locked the coop. He twisted the heavy latch, a crude metal plate mounted on a sturdy spike. He plunged inside and pulled the door shut behind him.

Albert found himself in near-absolute darkness, but his eyes adjusted to the dim light seeping through the cracks. He panted and wheezed, half choked by the stink of feathers and chicken shit. Fumbling through his pockets for his inhaler, he remembered leaving it on the table by the television. He fought back panic as he heard the howling beast outside change its tune. Was the horrible noise abating? Had the monster turned from its course?

Albert threw himself on the ground, heedless of the warm excrement that immediately soaked his trousers, and peered through a screened vent set low in the wooden wall. If the funnel had indeed altered direction, just for a moment, it had changed its mind again and was back on track. He saw it advancing, tearing across the prairie, a living thing compounded of everything it demolished along its path. Albert looked back into the interior and only then, as his eyes once more adjusted to the gloom, did he see the chickens. The hens were huddled all together in a silent, compact heap in the far corner of the chicken house.

They knew they were going to die, and he was seized by the same horrible dread. Shaking uncontrollably, he dragged himself to the mound of poultry. He made himself as small as he could and pushed deep into that warm living pile an instant before the tornado hit. The birds’ silent acceptance of their fate exploded in cackling, thrashing screams that sounded almost human. Albert yelled with them, calling for his mama, feeling the air being sucked from his lungs. In that wild moment, he remembered the diagram the allergist had used to explain how the sacs in his lungs sometimes collapsed and denied him oxygen. He kept yelling, emptying himself completely, his voice reduced to a high, thin, useless shriek. Albert knew his end had come when the beast outside drowned out his pathetic squeak. The last thing he felt as the chicken house blew apart and showered debris everywhere was the warm, convulsive spurt of urine as he peed his pants.

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