R and I are in southern Spain, wandering through Casares, an Andalusian village of white houses cascading over a couple of hills above the Mediterranean Sea. Across a parched valley of olive and cork trees, beyond the sapphire water of the Strait of Gibraltar and through a dirty mist of what one local told us is a broiling Sahara wind called levante, we can just make out the Rif Mountains of Morocco. At sunset, El Rif appears to be draped in a glowing hijab of eggplant and lavender.
But it’s midday in Casares, and the sky is a mind-boggling blue over the towering castle ruins where we’ve taken hundreds of shots, as if we’re the last two photographers on earth and have about five minutes before our camera batteries run out. The sky is so impossibly blue that it makes my eyes water, or maybe I’m crying from the ecstasy that only this degree of blue can produce. I want to lie on a hot rock, die in this perfect state of azure-ity because life doesn’t get any better. About then, I hear a familiar metallic sound that isn’t R’s camera clicking away like a cicada on a stone pine, and overhead a giggling griffon vulture knifes through the blue.
Vivid as a lucid dream, a picture pops into my head of a blue sheet flapping on my mama’s rotary closeline in Van Nuys. California, when I was nine. I know. Weird, right? How can the Spanish sky trigger blue sheets in the San Fernando Valley? Sure, we had bluish skies back then, but they were usually bleached to a powder blue by three-digit heat waves or smogged down to the color of sand. No, I thought, this memory is coming from something else.
I lure R down to the centro with a promise of beer and tapas at La Bodequita where our friend Manuel works. He feeds us the best gaspacho in Andalusia and lets us paint watercolors from his roof. We wind our way down streets so steep and narrow, so requiring of focused foot placement that I know it’s only a matter of time until I’ll slip on a cobblestone and break into a pile of shards. But I’m a lousy concentrator, especially in 90 degree heat, and then there’s that sound.
“What’s that noise?” I ask R, who can focus on his art for days and who has never fallen in his life, as far as I know. Right now, as he guides me through the minefields they call calles in Spain, I’m gripping R’s hand so hard our blood can’t be circulating.
We stop, look around, look up, and there it is, a cosmic flapping and whapping of sheets in the wind. One of them is blue. They are hanging from a balcony railing and behind, in the shadows, a woman watches us.
Only they are my mama’s eyes and she has been crying behind a blue sheet pinned to a rotary clothesline. She steps forward. The wind whips the sheet against the center pole. Cloth slapping metal. A unique sound.
“What’s wrong, Mama?” I ask her. I’ve never seen her cry before.
She pulls out a tissue from the cuff of her sweater like mamas used to, wipes her eyes and tucks the tissue back under the cuff. Her face is puffy and mottled all the way to her chin. She smiles, takes my hands, enfolds me in her arms, squeezing me so tight I can’t breathe, so I hold my breath.
“Princess.” Her voice is thin and high pitched, as if her vocal chords are made of wire. “Princess, Daddy went to heaven this morning. He is with God now.”
I pull myself away from her, look past my mama at the blue sheet and understand that it is a flag waving goodbye to my father.
“You okay?” R asks me. “Wanna go see Manuel? Have a cold beer?” He pulls me down the hill like I’m his child, making sure I don’t trip and shatter into a million pieces.
“Yep,” I answer taking one last look at the balcony as a young woman comes out to take in the sheets because they are dry.