Skylight | The New Yorker
This is the second story in this summer’s online Flash Fiction series. You can read the entire series, and our Flash Fiction stories from 2017 and 2018, here.
The elevator gate had gold chalices with flowers and spirals of black iron foliage that would catch your eye when you were sad, watching, hypnotized by those huge snakes, the uncoiling elevator cables. It was my oldest aunt’s house, where I was taken on Saturdays to visit. Above the hall in that house with a skylight was another mysterious home, and through the glass you could see a family of feet, surrounded by halos, like saints, and the shadows of the rest of the bodies to which those feet belonged, shadows flattened like hands seen through bathwater. There were two tiny feet and three pairs of big feet, two with spiked high heels which took short steps. Trunks moved across the floor with the noise of a thunderstorm, but the family never seemed to travel. They always sat in the same bare room, unfolding newspapers while melodies flowed incessantly from the player piano, which was always stuck on the same tune. From time to time, voices bounced like balls against the floor or fell quietly onto the rug.
One winter night, a towering wooden clock that grew like a tree at bedtime struck nine; icy gusts whipped through cracks in the windows, which were heavy with curtains that smelled perpetually of mothballs, and shook the tropical shadow of a plant shaped like a palm tree. The street was filled with fruit-and-newspaper venders, melancholy like farewells in the night. The home above was empty, except for the small cry of a little girl (who had just received a good-night kiss but didn’t want to go to sleep), and the shadow of a hoop skirt, like a black devil in a perverse schoolmistress’s ankle boots. A voice that was all furrowed brows and wiry hair shouted “Celestina! Celestina!,” making a very dark abyss of that name. And, after the cry grew smaller and fainter, the two tiny feet appeared, jumping rope, and a laugh and then another laugh fell from the bare feet of Celestina, who was in her nightgown with a candy in her mouth. Her nightgown was the shape of a cloud, against the square panes of green glass. The voice from the bootie-clad feet was getting stronger: “Celestina, Celestina!” The laughs that answered her grew sharper, louder. The bare feet were jumping over the dancing, oval-shaped rope while a music box with a doll on top played.
You could hear the possessed footsteps of those very black ankle boots tied with laces that, upon coming undone, provoked deadly attacks of anger. The hoop skirt with the wings of a demon was fluttering once again against the glass. The bare feet stopped jumping. Both sets of feet ran in circles without reaching each other; the hoop skirt chased after the tiny bare feet, with talons outstretched, until a lock of hair hung, suspended in the air, caught by the black skirt’s hands, and screams erupted.
The lace of one black boot came untied, and one of the furious skirt’s feet tripped over the other. Once again a shock of laughter and loose hair, and the black voice howled as a dark well emerged on the floor: “I’m going to kill you!” And, like thunder that shatters glass, came the sound of a porcelain jug falling to the ground, the liquid inside bursting out, spilling densely, slowly, silently, a deep silence—the kind that comes before the cry of a child whom someone is beating.
Slowly, a head split in two was sketched upon the glass, a head from which bloody curls, tied in bows, sprouted. The red stain spread wider. Through a crack in the glass, large thick drops, rigid like toy soldiers, fell like rain on the patio tiles. A vast hush took over, as if the whole house had moved to the countryside; chairs formed a silent circle where visitors had been the day before.
The hoop skirt was flying once again around the lifeless head: “Celestina, Celestina!” And an iron bar thumped with the rhythm of jump rope.
The doors opened with slow creaking moans, and all the feet that entered turned into knees. The skylight was the green of those cologne bottles that undulate like pleated skirts. You could no longer see a single foot, and the black hoop skirt had become a kneeling saint, bowed lower than anyone else on the glass.
(Translated, from the Spanish, by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan.)