Ximenita capably climbed up the hill covered by soft grass, not so far away from her house in Hanga Roa. Narval, her faithful pet fox, naturally followed her along. The little girl who was almost eleven years old―“practically an adult,” in her own words―sat down on the ground and waited for nightfall to come. Soon the sun disappeared behind the moai and the sky, which still displayed its vibrant colors and took that violet hue she loved so much. “Day-and-night violet” was the name she gave that color, even though her father insisted it was closer to malva or lavender.
Narval made itself comfortable by her feet, laying on its fluffy tail while licking and biting the girl's feet, which was at the same time a fun and annoying game. Ximena smoothed her red hair that had been flying around because of the cold salty wind coming from the ocean. She laid down to see the stars better. That was her favorite secret spot, away from the village lights, where she could study all the constellations described in her books and, if she were lucky―Yes, that was her lucky day!―she would be able to see a falling star like the one crossing the sky on that very instant, ripping the silky black night sky with fire and fury before disappearing over the ocean. The loud noise only reached her sharp ears a minute later. She remained laying there for a few more moments, equally astonished and lost in wonder.
She heard her father calling her from afar. The ever-so-devoted Narval was already on all fours, jumping up and down excitedly by her side and pulling on the sleeve of her loose woolen sweater.
“Narval, you bootlicker! I'm coming, I'm coming!” She ran down the hill, her breath visible on such a cold night. She couldn't wait to share the news about what she had just witnessed.
“Maria Ximena Gallino Velásquez! I've been calling you for quite some time now! Dinner is getting cold. Where did you go, you sassy young lady?” Her father only said her full name when he was really upset, but calling her “sassy young lady” also indicated that he wasn't all that mad at her.
“Father...” she mumbled, cocking her head to the side and twirling around on her tip toes, batting her eyelashes. “Oh, I've just seen the biggest and most beautiful falling star! It fell on the ocean and then I could hear the big boom! You should have seen it!”
“Mmm... It must not have been a real falling star then,” he replied, helping his daughter with her coat. “It could have been a meteorite or, most possibly, another satellite that fell to earth due to a lack of orbit correction. And don't even think about sitting at the dinner table before washing your hands, Little Red! Make sure you keep Narval outside!”
The red-haired girl pouted a little, but obeyed her father. Upon returning to the dining room, she took in the pleasant aroma coming from the small warm kitchen. Since her mother had died six years before, her father had taken on almost all house chores, despite of how hard he worked every day as the village doctor.
“It smells good! What did you make today?”
“Whale steak, mashed yams, and baked breadfruit. There's also some soy salad left over from lunchtime.”
“Whale steak again? That's all we eat here: dry whale and fish! Where's that big hunk of seal meat you bought yesterday?
“Don't be ungrateful! Be thankful for the food we have today. Have you forgotten that the seal is for our Christmas dinner? Tomorrow we'll have dinner at the parish church and I'm supposed to bring a roast.”
Ximenita played with her food and raised the fork mid-air after picking a piece of the steak. With her other hand, she rolled a lock of hair around her finger while her light eyes were staring at nothing on the wall in front of her. Her father smiled, for she always did that when she wanted to ask a question.
“Father, why do people send machines to space? Why are they falling down now?”
“These were communication devices,” he replied with food still in his mouth. “Haven't you learned that in your History classes?”
“No... Ms. Conchita is always stringing us along, talking about Greeks and Romans, Egypt and a bunch of other places I've never heard of. They told me it was because of the plague, but I don't really know what that is supposed to mean.”
Her father took a deep breath and frowned a little, trying to look concerned. Talking about the plague was a common taboo on the island.
“Finish your dinner and we'll talk about it in the living room. You're old enough and I believe you're ready to know about our legacy.”
“Lega-what?” she smiled.
Laying on the couch with her head resting on her father's belly, soft as a pillow, they shared delicious spoonfuls of banana puree from the same bowl. Ximena waited for Mr. Andrés Gallino to carry on with his story.
“As you well know, Ximena, not all people are good in nature...” he started, referring to an important quarrel he had had with his former mother-in-law. “The world was vast and complicated in the past, extremely rich and evolved, with so many marvelous machines such as the satellite you saw falling from the sky. It was a very dangerous and violent place too. Can you believe there was a time when people wanted to kill each other for stupid reasons, such as the color of someone's skin or the fact that someone worshiped different gods or had a different opinion? Well, your great-great-grandpa Juan Gallino was a very good man, but he was extremely afraid that the world was coming to an end. He knew war and intolerance would one day lead Men to the brink of extinction and was constantly alert about any serious events that took place around the world. My great-grandpa was a great scientist, as I told you once. His researches were famous, as the one in which he explained that domestication changed the genetics in some species. Narval and all the other foxes on the island are a great example of that.”
“So people didn't have foxes as pets back then?!” she asked, astonished. “That's absurd!”
“I know! As I was telling you, there was this place called South Africa that had the fourth consecutive administration of a black president. And then there was this man―I think his name was Daniel van der Waals or van der Walls―who developed a secret biological weapon. He discovered how a virus could target and kill only those people who had certain genetic features. So, in this case, it was something that would only kill black people, which he despised with all his strength. That is how he changed a terrible virus called Ebola and combined it with several other viruses, such as those for the cold and AIDS, another disease from that time. On October 2nd of that year―at least that was the date people estimated after the fact―van der Waals ordered to install sprays carrying his virus in large cities: Johannesburg, Pretoria, and some others whose names escape me now.”
“What happened then? Did people get sick?”
“Of course they did! A few days later, only black people and mulattoes started to get sick. He happily named that virus Killnigger. It would spread through air, when people sneezed and coughed, just like the common cold. It caused extremely strong hemorrhage and killed victims in less than ten days. Dr. van der Waals was celebrating the results in his hiding place when the virus mutated and started killing people of other races as well, in addition to pets.”
“That is horrible!”
“This madman made all possible efforts to create a virus that would be hard to cure, but he didn't expect it to mutate so quickly. Cities soon collapsed, panic had set in and everybody of every skin color started to die, as well as other mammals. Africa was then the home to incredible wild animals, very beautiful specimens, such as lions, zebras, and elephants... Did you know that? So many people, so many animals... Except for cetaceans, seals, walruses, and foxes, all other mammals died. It was simply one-hundred-percent lethal! Fortunately, before the disease reached the Americas, my great-grandpa collected all his resources and convinced some of his fellow scientists, along with the military and some technicians, that they needed to flee on a large ship that was later called “El Arca.” It carried many plants, seeds, and animals. They left with their families and came here to the Easter Island.”
“The belly button of the world,” she joked, showing her own navel.
“Exactly! Our Rapa Nui, so isolate and distant from the rest of the world, would be protected for awhile. Juan convinced island authorities with his argument and the local government declared a strict quarantine to ban any other ships or planes from docking or landing here, no matter where they were coming from. Here on the island, Gallino and other scientists studied several animals to try to discover what made them immune to Killnigger. Then the island population was vaccinated and we survived when the disease finally reached us, some forty years after it had spread all through Africa. However, despite all efforts, thousands of people ended up dying, including poor Juan. We also lost many other animals, all the dogs, cats, and sheep, for example. Back then, we were cut off from the rest of the world and we couldn't get a TV or radio signal any longer. Who knows what happened out there... Now, over a century later, we can only imagine the worst.”
The girl tried hard, but she could not imagine the world outside―almost a million times bigger than the seventeen thousand hectares of her seemingly vast home―covered by the corpses of humans and animals.
“And nobody has ever left the island, Father?”
“It's some sort of a secret, my daughter, because it was a huge risk... You cannot tell anyone, but about three months ago a group of very brave volunteers reached the former Valparaíso City. They have been there and kept in contact with us through radio. They have not found any survivors, but didn't feel the effects of the virus either. We believe that soon we'll be able to inhabit the rest of the world once again! The world almost came to an end, Little Red, but thanks to Gallino and our courage and persistence, human kind will have a second chance, even though we don't really deserve it.”
Question after question, they carried on with their conversation, but soon the girl started to yawn and doze off for a bit, so her father made her go brush her teeth and lay down.
In his own bedroom, Andrés reflected on the revised version he had just disclosed to his daughter. He asked God never to allow her to have access to DVDs with news reports from those days. He never wanted her to see streets littered with corpses spewing blood like soaked sponges and people stepping on one another like irrational cattle while trying to flee the city in panic. Books only mentioned that the methane gas released from the bodies had increased the temperature of the planet in five degrees during the first five years after the breakout. Even there, on the island, violent storms and droughts had almost finished off what the virus failed to exterminate. Nowadays, there were only 563 people left to keep the Homo sapiens species from becoming extinct.
Lost in his thoughts, he ran his fingers through his graying hair, retrieved a key he kept in his pocket at all times and opened the last drawer on the left of his nightstand to gather some material to read until sleep would finally come.
The main parish hall at the Santa Cruz de Isla de Pascua Church was perfectly decorated for that Christmas Eve. Wreaths made of starfish were hanging on the walls and a small band played Christmas songs, salsa, and cueca music. At the back of the room, a long table made of wood planks supported by stands was covered in treats: roasted turkey, pastel de choclo, chupe de loco, grilled king crabs, humitas, cakes and, of course, Andrés Gallino's famous seal roast.
Adults were drinking wine in moderation, since that beverage was too expensive and hard to make on the island. Children ran around, following the instructions of the games organized by their teachers.
Ximenita was wearing her “Sunday best”, the color of malva like the uncertain sky between the light of the day and the dark of the night. She was talking to a boy who had brown skin and was a Rapa Nui native. They were about to go outside and play “Pin the tail on the donkey” when Don Gallino suddenly appeared and asked his daughter a favor.
“Little Red, I've prepared a fruit sauce that goes with the roast and I completely forgot it back at home. It's on a small pan with a lid on and I left it on top of the stove. Could you go get it for Daddy?”
The girl didn't think twice and ran as fast as she could to please her father. She was a little bored anyway and could not take another bite of all the dishes that the old ladies were making her try. As she approached the house, Narval received her with excitement and couldn't stop barking, jumping, and urinating in all its joy. Ximenita was about to leave with the saucepan when a sudden cold breeze convinced her to go upstairs and grab a sweater in her bedroom. She walked past her father's room and noticed he had left the light on. She thought he had probably been too distracted and decided to go in and turn the lamp off. On his desk, badly hidden under a pile of paper, there was a book that looked like an old diary. She had never seen it before.
There were some faded and yellowed old pictures and notes written in elegant handwriting abundantly covering all those pages. She curiously went through the pages, even though she could not understand some technical terms. “[...] -31C and -511C: It has been confirmed that such wild recessive alleles found in vulpines and cetaceans did not allow a molecular adhesion with viral receptors […] group CD32 […] vaccine simulations on the computer have failed miserably […] imminent risk of contamination through migrating birds. Oh God, how will we ever save humanity? […] Periodic vaccinations with placebo to prevent panic: desperate measures for desperate times […] Ramón Fernandez and Kirsten O'Hara advocate for the creation of an egg and sperm bank […] Is ethics really the first to abandon a sinking ship? What else would we dare to do?”
She was about to close the book and get a sweater in her room when a large picture that was still exceptionally clear and showed passengers of El Arca caught her eye. The caption said, “Juan Gallino Martín and friends at the Hanga Roa Port – 12/24/2012 – Day One, Year Zero.”
“Bu-Bu-But... How could this be?” the girl started to say, feeling as if the ground had disappeared from under her. “What...” she mumbled, without understanding a thing.
She rushed to her bedroom. Narval followed her, whining in solidarity. She sat by her vanity desk, weeping, and the fox climbed up on her lap to lick her tears away.
The terrible picture of those people would be burned in her brain: the small weird ears, the smile so full of smooth teeth, the naked pale faces and the eyes... How inhumane they were! Ximenita looked at her reflection in the mirror and a shriver ran through her spine. She hugged Narval and, for a moment, those two pairs of yellow eyes with vertical vulpine pupils blinked together, staring at one another in amazement, the product of the audacity and genius of great-great-grandpa Juan Gallino.
Rubem Cabral is a software engineer born in Rio de Janeiro and living in Zurich, Switzerland.
He is passionate about fantastic literature and has published some of his work in collections, such as the well known "FC do B," an annual publication by Tarja Editoral. He placed 1st in the Short Story category in the Raízes Literary Competition in Geneva in 2010.
Rubem usually tests the limits of written texts with metafictions, but also writes fiction, alternative, sci-fi, satire, and horror short stories. To learn more about his work, visit his blog Contos Agridoces [Bittersweet Short Stories].
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