Built on Sand

It began with the bones. She was scouring the terrain of her mother’s backyard for metal, maybe a tire, buried in the upper levels of the earth’s crust. She read incessantly about sinkholes and wondered if, one day, the matter below her mother’s home would decay and give way, swallowing the ranch and her mother, too. She told herself that this—yes, this—was the reason why she did not care to visit her mother very often. But just this once: after all, the house was built on a dump. There might be something of interest to find there, and she readied her space near the stream, marking ten square feet with stakes and ribbons into an even eight sections, poking her Marshalltown trowel into the dry soil that seemed to beg for a bit of late-August rain, and in an instant, the tip of her tool made contact with something sharp, hard, and greyed over time, but clearly once white. She carefully poked the trowel around the object to excavate it. It looked like bone immediately, a centimeter wide, maybe, and only a few centimeters long. The remains of a carcass of an animal, perhaps, she thought, who had felt its twilight approaching, and curled its tail around its body and laid down near the edges of the town’s landfill. She used her coal scoop to shift the sediment on top of the bone, and freed it from the surface of the land with her bare hands, placing it carefully in the shaker screen, though there was little dirt that needed to be brushed off. It merely seemed like protocol, and she marked her finding in her log until she looked, carefully at the small sliver of what she knew was a combination of collagen, vitamins, minerals, and calcium. She pulled the bone close to her left hand, and used her right to turn it over, first vertically, then horizontally, until it was next to her index finger. Was it? No, it couldn’t be. But it was nearly the same size, had the same shape. No, no. It was not the metacarpal bone of an index finger. No, this was not a human bone, she told herself, over and over as she stared at her own hand. It was tailbone of a raccoon. A piece of its tail. She brushed a stray hair from her face, and for two hours afterward, she knelt with her trowel, uncovering dust, until she found four perfectly preserved distal phalanges. Then four middle and then five proximal phalanges. This meant something; people had thumbs. Thumbs did not have middle phalanges; the fact that she had only uncovered four was consistent with the remains of a single human hand. She located the four remaining metacarpals quickly, and then the ulna and the radius: the longer bones that form the forearm. The smaller bones—pisiform, capitate, scaphoid and others—were lost underground. Only when she assembled the hand, with all its moving pieces did she flip open her cell phone, dial the numbers, and hear: “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” 


The wintry June air of Buenos Aires whipped around her in small circles, moving the dry leaves around the street corners in the Belgrano district. Nora had the skeleton key to the front gate of the student house tied on a string around her neck, peso notes in her bra. The Dutch girls kept telling her that pickpockets were everywhere. The warnings on tourist brochures said not to go out running on your own. Simone’s coat had been lifted from the discoteca a few nights before, and she begged Nora to help her file the complaint at the police station on the corner of Avenida Cabildo and Santos Dumont. When they stepped into the barren entryway, Nora’s Spanish faltered, and the admissions officer told her that she’d come to the wrong place, and smiled a small smile. Nora breathed in, explained herself again, and the officer reached out and patted her arm. He drew her a map on a ripped sheet from a blue telephone book. 

“Aquí,” he said and pointed to the end of the third street. They left the station, and Nora counted the blocks, running through his fast-lick Spanish in her mind, until they reached the right one. They followed the street to its end, to the place where the sidewalk came up jaggedly in sheets and curved unnaturally by the road, until they reached a Chinese grocery store. 

“It’s OK,” Simone said. “We can just go home.”

Nora brushed a single snowflake from her face. It hadn’t snowed in Buenos Aires in twenty years, someone had told her that morning at when she ordered a cortado at the Belgrano Juan Valdez. She preferred her espresso cut with a bit of milk to ease the bitterness as she swallowed it. She preferred to cut most things with something white, something smooth, to ease the bitterness, but that wasn’t something life afforded you always, she thought. At least there were no more dreams in Buenos Aires, not in the five months she had been there, taken up a study-abroad project in another hemisphere to see if the tilt of the earth felt different here, unmoored her from her Connecticut soil. But if snow could fall in an Argentina June, she told herself, she could find the secondary police precinct. 

Simone sighed and pulled out a cigarette. 

“We counted wrong,” Nora said, as she waved her hand in front of her to help dissipate the smoke. “It’s the next street.” 

As the snow fell, it caught on Nora’s eyelashes but not the ground. Puddles began to accumulate on the stone of the street, and she wiped at her eyes with the back of her gloved hand. 

“It’s got to be the next one,” she said. “It’s got to.”

Nora charged back up the street, and tried to pull back the memory of the station at the edge of Santos Dumont. Eighteen steps between the door and the edge of the walk; twenty-nine across Santos Dumont to the other side. She switched directions, ready to remedy her error. Each step mattered. Each step of the nineteen blocks between where she came from and the place she was supposed to be. 

Simone put her hand on Nora’s cheek and pulled her gaze up to meet hers. Nora hadn’t realized she was looking down.

“Thanks,” she said. And the rest was lost as Nora began running the numbers in her head again: eighteen—twenty-nine—seventeen—eleven… But when Simone was no longer there and Nora was left alone to trace and retrace her steps as the light of the day dimmed, she recalled that Simone had announced she was going to take the subte to Palermo because the afternoon market was going to close soon, the jacket was lost forever, and she thought she ought to see if she could talk someone down to 400 pesos for a wool blend before more snow came. Nora was close to giving in. She hadn’t even gone to the discoteca, and now here she was. At eleven. Eleven blocks, almost back to the Cabildo station—almost. The ink on blue phonebook page was running now, and her feet were wet through the socks. The main station would be closed. No, no, no. She was going to find the second station. Report the missing jacket. Make them account for it. Mark it in their logs. One wool coat from the Netherlands. Count it. They needed to count it. Make sure it counted for something. That’s what she wanted. 


In her first dream, Nora took the shovel in her hand and uncovered layer after layer of till on the bank of a soft moving stream on the west side of town, until she reached a depth of four feet. She breathed hard, in and out, panting for the geologic terms to come to her. They did not come. She reached in the soil, and inside she found the remains of a human corpse, all 206 bones fully intact, fossilized. It was her height. 

In the second dream, Nora was preparing a plate of food, when she was drawn to television set mounted next to the microwave, and heard the police commissioner say, over and over, that the body of a nineteen-year-old woman had been found beneath the dirt, discarded twenty years prior, the same year Nora was born. The telephone rang, and the commissioner asked Nora if she would help the archaeological team dig for more bones, help carbon date them and organize them. Nora replied that she would, but when she arrived at the site, the grass was pristine, and there was no dig team to be found.

In the third dream, Nora saw a nineteen-year-old girl sitting on the edge of a dump smoking a cigarette. When she breathed out, her soul dispersed with the smoke, and Nora’s pregnant mother walked by and breathed it all in. 

The fourth dream wasn’t a dream but a recurring asphyxia of time, rendered in her REM cycle daily. In it, a nineteen-year-old girl was choking, and Nora reached to help her, to grab her hand, and as she did, the girl’s face faded into her boyfriend, Max, who said to her: “I’m sorry. I know it’s not a good time, but when is a good time, really?”

The fifth dream was one she tried to forget. It involved hospital tubes and tears and her father patting her hand, and spoonfuls of dirt being packed into her mouth, one by one, until she could no longer breathe. 


When she finally turned onto Santos Dumont, the wilting winter leaves of the jacaranda trees combed through her hair, catching their branches in the curve of her back. She didn’t understand why someone couldn’t trim the branches. They ought to be trimmed. More orderly. Kept in line. 

The old woman at the corner kiosk was selling something warm at a folding table, and when she approached, Nora saw she had set up paper napkins and empanadas in a large insulated bag, plastic cases dripping with condensation. 

“Le puedo ofrecer algo?” she asked, and Nora pointed at what she surmised were the meatless ones. Each variety of empanada was cinched at the edges differently, and Nora could never remember the patterns for cheese, ham, or beef.

“Mondongo?” the woman asked, wiping her brow. 

Nora didn’t recognize the word. She was near the student dormitory; she would look it up in a moment.

“Sí, como no,” she said, and the woman wrapped two in a paper napkin. 

As Nora walked back to the gate, she willed herself not to count. When her foot landed, she concentrated on the empanadas. She moved with a steady rhythm, left and then right. Take a bite, take a bite, take a bite became her new downbeat, until she shoved half of the first empanada down her throat and the grease stuck to her chin. She wiped it with the napkin but only succeeded in spreading it over a great surface area. No matter. She had evaded the numbers, and the gate was before her. She wiped her hand on her pant leg and pulled at the cord around her neck for the skeleton key. On some level, she didn’t understand its purpose. The lock seemed easy enough to pick. Not that she would know how, but still. It was as if the gate had been erected to promote the idea of security rather than to sustain it. She pressed on the door buzzer, and heard the click of the door unlocking in a moment. The dormitory, with its spiral staircase in the entry way and interlocking series of ground-level rooms with musty couches and wooden tables, was usually quiet at this hour. The napping hour: eight at night. The discotecas began around midnight, one in the morning. The other students stayed out until six or seven, and Nora usually passed them on the spiral stairs on her way to prepare her morning tea. 

She could hear guitar music coming from the patio beyond the communal kitchen, she but settled herself at the screen of the computer in the entryway. She keyed in the address for the online Spanish/English dictionary she used when she was reading Borges.

Input: Mondongo.

Output: Tripe. 

“Oh, God,” she said, and swallowed down her stomach’s urge to reject what she’d just eaten. Max would have loved this, trying new things. She did not. She stared down the half-eaten empanada and swallowed the memory of Max down with the tripe in one long gulp and then dumped the remaining empanada into the paper recycling bin by the computer. Someone would empty it soon anyways. She didn’t want to go into the kitchen, find the guitar players, talk to anyone. She’d failed at her mission to report Simone’s stolen coat, and that was enough for one day, never mind the questions from the other Dutch girls and the high school-aged Argentines from the Pampas who found a home in the international student dorm on weekdays because the commute to the countryside to the city high schools was too long. No, what she wanted was to climb the spiral stairs and twist the handle of her door, and lay her cheek on the cool cloth of her white pillow and lodge the broken mattress spring she could feel through the padding right into the nook between her ribs and fall into a dreamscape where the colors of La Boca district were all that existed and memories of home faded into the sea with the salt breeze that swung its arms through the reds and blues and yellows of the streets.

Instead, she left the international dormitory, walked to Cabildo, bought a one-way ticket on the subte, and rode to the Plaza de Mayo stop. She disembarked, exited, and bought another ticket, this time for the nearly retired Line A. She stepped inside the turn-of-the-century coaches, and perched on the edge of her wood slat seat all the way from the Plaza de Mayo to Carabobo. When she turned, she saw Simone. Had Simone followed her? Next to her sat the bearded nineteen-year-old who watched the sun rise after coming home from the discoteca and drunkenly smiled when Nora made herbal tea in the kitchen at six in the morning. Who was behind them? A man. Her archaeology professor? Jorge Luis Borges? Nora looked down, thought she saw the shadow of petticoats and button-up, rather than zippered, boots. The Borges figure lifted his hand to guide her to the door of the light rail at Carabobo. The car had a fresh coat of navy blue paint. Still wet. 

“Tiene noventa y seis años ahora,” he said, motioning back toward the golden wood interior, with its leather standing grips dangling from the ceiling. The gold light fixtures flickered. 

“The cars have been in use now for nearly ninety-six years,” Simone translated, even though she didn’t speak Spanish and Nora had understood Borges perfectly. 

The nineteen-year-old approached her on the platform. 

“My dear,” he said, and reached for her hand right. When he came near to touching it, at the moment when their fingers were to meet, the flesh melted off her hand and fell to the floor in long strips, sliding down the waxed hardwood where it was unlevel. The car began to shake as it moved away from the platform. Borges, Simone, and the bearded nineteen-year-old gathered around her in a circle and watched as skin gave way to muscle gave way to blood gave way to bone, until the dry air of the underground caused everything to become brittle and her outermost extremities shattered to the ground. 

Nora exited the subte back on Cabildo. A waking dream? An overactive imagination? An effect of the mondongo? Her hands appeared intact. No, no more dreams, she willed herself to believe. She willed herself back to the international dorm and into her rented room. She opened the closet and saw the near-empty bottle of Isla ñ Simone had stashed there, since the semi-private rooms were checked for alcohol daily. She drank the rest of the bottle in three breaths. Where was the bearded nineteen-year-old? She was only three years older. She suddenly felt up to the task of the discoteca tonight. 

Nora sat on the edge of the bed and waited. She didn’t know what she was waiting for. The rum to set in. The blurriness to start. Borges to show up? Something. She wasn’t a drinker. She didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, not really. 

Nothing. There was a lot of nothing, just the sound of guitar music coming up the stairs. She ran a comb through her hair and pressed on lipstick, cinched her belt a notch tighter so her dress hugged her figure more. Then she went down the spiral stairs and into the vestibule of the house, where the guitar music and the sounds of laughter were getting louder.

“Vay-a! Vay-a! Vay-a!” 

She heard the chanting of the Argentine teenagers from the landing. When she rounded the corner, the edges of something began to soften. It was as if, she thought, her skin had smoothed out, like the pads of her hands no longer had papillary ridges to grip onto things and they just slipped over the railing smooth as glass. 

When she sailed through the kitchen and onto the patio, she looked up before she looked down. The cat was crawling along the top of the cupboard. The stars outside looked very far away, further than they ever did in Connecticut. The group outside was chanting still, as the bearded nineteen-year-old tore into a line of six shot glasses of a clear liquid, one right after another. When he finished, the group erupted in cheers. 

The bearded nineteen-year-old met her eye, and the glasses were refilled. 

“Vay-a! Vay-a! Vay-a!”

All eyes were on her. Nora stepped forward and pulled a single shot glass to her lips. Each of the others nodded, grabbing one each. 

“Uno! Dos! Tres!”

And they all drank it down, whatever it was, in an instant. 

She sat with the group, wondering where Simone was, as they sang and played guitar and watched the stars blink in and out of focus, until her head hurt and she could feel the mondongo moving in her stomach, and realized the bearded nineteen-year-old was talking to her, telling her she was pretty, telling her he always watched her boil water for tea, that he always wanted her to offer him a tea, that she was so aloof, that she had a Castilian, text-book accent when she talked, that he wanted to plow right into her every morning, knock her off her arrogant perch, bring her back down to earth, and then he was leading her into one of the interlocking living rooms with its musty couch, and he was on top of her, leaving her face wet, reaching his hand up her shirt, telling her she was nameless to him, he wasn’t even going to ask her name, he was going to call her Estados Unidos because that’s where she was from, and the light was flickering and she thought—Max—and she didn’t want to be there, and Max was coming up with the mondongo and when the bearded nineteen-year-old put his tongue in her mouth it made her gag, and she couldn’t even count anything because she couldn’t catch her grip, because her hands were made of glass and she thought—Max, why did you leave me when I found that corpse?—and then it occurred to her that maybe Max was a jackass, and then she could feel the papillary ridges of her hands asserting themselves, breaking through the glass, and all the anatomy and geology and archaeology she was trying to shut out came tumbling back in, and she thought—metacarpal, distal, proximal, ulna, radius—and she dug her fingernails into the bearded nineteen-year-old’s hand, and he grabbed her hand and squeezed it back, hard, until she felt something snap, and then out came the mondongo, sailing out of her mouth, and he shuddered back in disgust and pushed her away and stormed out of the room.

Things were clearing now, as Nora wiped her chin. In the world in which they got back together, Max would be able to erase the part where he left her for that other girl in his sociology class. He would take back the words I’m sorry, I know it’s not a good time, but when is a good time, really? Her mother would be back in rehab where she belonged, not in that old house in Decanter over the dump. Her father wouldn’t scream at her mother for letting her go digging in the squalor of her backyard. She would not be an archaeology major, and she wouldn’t have taken anatomy. She would not have run away to Buenos Aires, not argued to her father that yes, you could outrun your problems if you only went far enough. Nothing is built on stone, Borges wrote in this week’s Spanish textbook readings, all is built on sand. She was sinking into the sand now, sinking to her neck. There was no world where she and Max would get back together. She leaned her head between her legs and started to count, the number of lines in the wood between her feet, but it was too dark and the music was too loud and she was alone and the numbers didn’t have any traction this time. She sat there, in the interlocking room, for a long while, until the music was gone and everyone had left for the discoteca and she could finally stand and find her way through the maze of interlocking living rooms to the spiral stairs, and twist the knob of her bedroom door first right, and the left, and then right again, and fall into the softness of the carpet, in the small space of light from the moon and just be still for a moment. Just stop the movement, stop the counting, and be still. 

As the sun rose, Nora sat up and found her place among the carpet fibers. She moved toward the window, opened the curtain, and thought about making tea. She would wait a few hours, until the sun was well into the sky and the kitchen was clear. She would stay another day, but she was going to call her father and tell him she was coming back to Connecticut. The virgin ground of blank, Argentina dreams had been penetrated, the gaps between dreaming and waking were no longer marked by waking lapses of memory, and she wanted them—the dreams. She wanted them to come, to remember them again, to be able to wake, wipe the sleep from her eyes, and then push away the assault of images the way she’d pushed away the bearded nineteen-year-old. She stared into the rising sun. It was coming up orange, and she refused to close her eyes, even for a minute. She would phone her father and tell him she couldn’t stay on Santos Dumont, in Buenos Aires, on another continent, anymore. 


As she waited for the plane in the airport, Nora sat near the tall windows looking out onto the airfield. Nora turned her hand over in front of her in the twilight, so she could first see the palm with its soft pads of skin, then the dorsal side, with its skeletal protrusions. Palm. Dorsal. Palm. Her digitus medicinalis was swelling, puffing itself into rainbow shades of red and pulsing. Broken, maybe. She wondered if, when it healed, she would be able to fit an engagement ring over the scar tissue one day. Palm. The skin was softer here, whiter. She could see the papillary ridges in the light. Friction pads for her fingers. So they could grip things, hold onto them. She wanted to hold on. She wanted to find the police officer who sent her to the Chinese grocery store and say Do not antagonize me and dip the tips of her fingers in ink, covering the outermost layer of epidermis. She wanted to press each one onto the thick stock of palmprint cards, rolling it back and forth softly, slowly, until it made an imprint. Her own unique imprint. A piece of abstract art, with black lines and the absence of color where the ink seeped into the ridges and stuck. Her true signature. Her mark on this world. The fleshy proof that she was alive, that her hand was more than a pile of bones to be buried in sallow earth in a Connecticut town. Palm. Dorsal. Palm. A new pattern of contemplation. A pattern of three. A slip of the wrist. A manipulation of muscles in her forearm. Proof that she was alive. 

KRISTINA ZDRAVIČ REARDON is a student, essayist, fiction writer, and translator. She spent a year in Ljubljana translating Slovene fiction written by women in 2010 on a Fulbright grant, and then traveled to Buenos Aires to translate Spanish-language fiction on a Tinker grant in 2012. She earned her MFA at the University of New Hampshire and is now working on her PhD in comparative literature at the University of Connecticut, where she was recently awarded the Long River Graduate Writing Award.

The Adirondack Review