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The Sound of Falling Sand

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When Dolores received her gift, she had been (as expected, as planned, as needed) five years old. But for most of that time, she'd heard the world in one great buzz of noise. One mass of things she couldn't separate, the sound of rain blurring fluidly into the sound of her mother's breathing, her father's pulse, her abuela gently asking what it was she could hear. For the first few months since receiving her gift, Dolores' world had been a waking nightmare. She had found comfort in the small things she could grasp for herself - heavy blankets to hide within, layers and layers of them all piled atop her tiny body for days on end while she tried for all she was worth not to think, not to breathe.

It wasn't something one grew out of, a Madrigal gift. But as overwhelming as it had been at first, the noises began to separate over time. Slowly sorting themselves into layers she could tune in and out of at will, as her brain tried to grapple with the sensation of hearing the world in such horrible, visceral detail. They became easier to manipulate, her focus dictating what she heard until if she tried hard enough, she could reduce it all to a background hum - could come as close as she could reach to hearing the world normally. It wasn't a pleasant way to live, but it was a manageable one. A tightrope existence Dolores could walk with practised precision.

Until she got sick.

When Dolores was seven years old, her brother Camilo was born. And when Camilo was born, the house flooded. Her mamá's pain and one particularly poorly timed prophecy from Bruno ('a child will be born - they will change the family.') had culminated into a storm, then a hurricane, then a tsunami until herself, Isabela and little Luisa had been each confined to their bedrooms, Isabela and Luisa huddled in a horrified mass beneath an oversized flor de pensamiento in Isabela's dew-drenched bedroom, sheltering from the rain while in a room of her own Dolores seemed entirely at the mercy of the elements.

The walls of her bedroom were thin to be heard through, the floors hard tile so that every footstep magnified and every slip could be heard. And indeed Dolores did hear, tuning in the downpour of rain on her floor and her thin walls, drenching the bed full of sheets in all different textures, to produce all different noises. It was a room designed to let the secrets of the outside in, and it stood no chance at keeping a shuddering 7-year-old free from a particularly bitter cold after the rain subsided.

Pepa had, to her credit, tried her best once she found out. Smiling with tight-lipped determination to produce sun. Enough sun to dry the walls, the floors, the bedsheets while Dolores sniffled beside her, groggy and clinging to her father's hand. Indeed, it seemed like a normal cold. One that she would recover from with rest according to her Tío Bruno, one she could at least soothe the aches of with the cuisine of her Tía Julieta. All of it was normal, all of it was simple right up until Dolores awoke from her nap to find that the world was no longer layers of sound she could separate and process. It was an endless, pointless noise. And with nothing else to console herself and a wracking cough that shook her senses, right back into old habits Dolores fell.

For a while, she held her fists to her ears to try and block out the sound and for a while indeed it had worked. Until in the still of the silence and the dark of her makeshift fort, she had become aware of her heartbeat. Her pulse and the creak of her lungs filling, emptying, filling, emptying over and over until Dolores scared herself out of her fort entirely, emerging from the blankets in a sudden burst of panic.

She tugged at the sheets and the pillows with uncoordinated shoves, tangling them under her legs or her arms and only really succeeding in trapping herself further. The shift of the fabric was too loud to coordinate through, the fresh horror of hearing her own insides still biting and horrible enough that even if the avalanche of fabric hadn't been so loud, Dolores couldn't have been at her most coordinated. She was drowning. Adrift in this heavy, crashing ocean and quickly losing her senses to the sound of her own panic. Her heavy breaths, her soft squeals, all the way down and down and down to the faintest pop of her brain ringing off the alarm bells, handing out the adrenaline to the sounds of the system she so badly wanted to ignore. So for what felt like an eternity, Dolores struggled in the haven she had created. Her thrashing wilder and wilder until in one great and terrible sweep of the loudest fabric she had ever heard, Dolores was free to the cold air.

She gasped despite herself, clamping her hands over her ears out of sheer habit. She knew that this attempt at soothing herself was exactly what had scared her in the first place, but what more could she do? How could one little girl properly understand how to escape this never-ending noise? How could a grown adult, for that matter? One that stood ahead of her with as much concern as apprehension, ordered to watch over a sick little girl while those that could within the family went out to work, and while those that couldn't awkwardly shifted in their recovery and tried not to put a name to the intense guilt that came with doing nothing.

Bruno stood there, wide-eyed and palid with the end of the blankets firmly clutched in his nervously twitching fingers. His gaze fixed and studying upon the sick little sobrina he had been sternly told to stand guard over, his hands suddenly seizing up as if reminded of her current sensitivity to noise. "Oh- sorry, niña." He hissed and let the blankets drop, only to falter again at the realization he'd probably made far more noise in dropping them than toying with them. "Sorr- Are you o- You know what I- I'll be quiet." Bruno decided as he sat himself down at the edge of her bed, withdrawing his anxiously extended hands and letting them quietly, quietly toy with the fabric of his ruana while little Dolores sniffled and winced, pulling her hands from their place over her ears.

She was a strange child to sit beside. Her eyes wide and ringed with little pinprick lashes that only seemed to amplify her gaze on Bruno, entirely unreadable and crystalline with tears. He wasn't sure what he could say. What he could do. Even before now, Bruno had never been the best tío of them all. He fumbled over pet names until his poor nieces wrinkled their noses at him, he delivered prophecies so, so hopeful they would be of some service to his familia and every time Bruno would end feeling distanced and stranger than the youngest Madrigals. Even here, with his concern sharp enough to have him toying restlessly with the frayed ends of his ruana, Bruno looked slightly apprehensive. Meeting Dolores' intense gaze as it followed him.

He'd given her a gift, for her last birthday. A very special one, that had required her to piggyback up the winding lengths of stairs in his bedroom, and to clutch tightly to Bruno's hands as the sand rose and a vision rose with it, giving him sight of those wide eyes as they grew up to know heartbreak. He had been so sure it would be a good vision. So sure he wouldn't have had to escort one sobbing six-year-old down the stairs to the sound of her mother's anxious hurricane, realizing his visions had yet again caused something horrific. He winced from his perch at the edge of her bed, and quickly averted his gaze from the sniffling, but curious little girl.

For a moment, there was (at least to him) silence.

And then in the softest of voices, with her ears gently cupped by her hands...Dolores began to speak. "You-" She began, pressing her hands down just a fraction more to muffle the noise of the world as it moved and Casita as it breathed. "You can talk, tío Bruno. I don't mind." She even smiled at him, though the bags under her eyes that suggested she hadn't slept a moment through her illness made the effect a little more...sickly than Bruno could stomach. "Just... quietly." She insisted with grave, deathly sobriety, her voice little more than a hiss through her breath. A hiss Bruno could hardly hear himself, furrowing his brows and leaning in her direction to try and get a grasp on what she was saying so softly, so quietly it could hardly be kept up for a whole conversation. But just the same, Bruno listened as if the tiny words of his niece were gospel. And just the same, Bruno nodded and did his best to follow suit.

"Right, yeah, si..." He murmured, softening and softening with each twitch from Dolores' direction, terrified of harming not only her future but her present too, her overly sensitive ears. "Are- are you sure, chiquita? I just...I know that I ruined your birthday last year, and you probably haven't forgiven that. I- you probably don't want to talk to me at all, in case I scare your gift away completely." Bruno mumbled, focusing harder on keeping his tone perfectly soft than what he was saying "I wouldn't of course. I couldn't- but if anyone could I'd probably be the one to- to..." He trailed off, glancing in silent confusion towards Dolores. She had inched towards him as he spoke, staring not at his face or his shuffling hands, but squarely at his throat. Bruno furrowed his brows, and instinctively scratched to see if there was anything there, shuffling over slightly to make room for his sniffling sobrina "what is there something on my neck?"

Dolores paused in her studying to shake her head, her movements slow and frankly...exhausted. A child struggling sleepless through what was quite literally the worst sickness she'd ever experienced, with a mamá still recovering from her pregnancy and a papi trying to juggle between a newborn, a sick daughter and a hurricane. She looked as though she'd gone months without sleeping, but as tired as she was, the noises were too loud to let her rest. Each time her eyes drifted shut something would snap her to attention and remind her just how loud the world was. But strangely enough, her tío's voice wasn't quite the same.

It was a steady, rhythmic tone that despite her sickness, she could focus on enough to down out most of the unpleasantness nearby. It was enough to make her swallow her pain and sit closer to Bruno, toying distractedly with her necklace as he rambled on about everything and nothing "Oh, no. Your voice is better than a lot of the noises. It doesn't hurt as much."

"Oh, right it- it doesn't?" Bruno questioned with his brows furrowed, his arms awkwardly raising so that Dolores could clamber her way into his lap, blanket in one firm little hand. She struggled to wrap it around herself, half covering her ears and half trying to manipulate the heavy fabric, and without really thinking on it Bruno let his hands drop to help her, gently setting the blanket over her head to muffle the noise and wrapping it around her - half swaddling her as his voice picked up, trying to fill the air for his niece. "Right. Ok. Okay, uh-." He paused, calming himself and taking a much needed breath "Sana que sana, colita de rana..." It wasn't the smartest piece of literature to recite or even a decent conversation starter, but to Bruno, it felt comforting. It was a song that held memories. Something his mother had sung to him after he scraped his knee and Julieta's cooking hadn't been well developed enough to heal it. "Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana." Perhaps the memories were tainted with the knowledge of how Julieta had spent weeks in the kitchen following the incident, slaving away over a hot stove until their mamá was suitably convinced that it had been some fluke, and that the fate of their encanto hadn't been brought into question.

"Sana que sana, colita..." He trailed off, frowning to himself as the softness of the words began to harden, the song no longer so comforting with the notion of Julieta's tiny, scorched fingers in mind. Abuela hadn't sung to her then. Had Abuela ever sung for his sisters? Had she ever sung for him, past that day? Where his fall had come from giving a vision so happy it had made the priest of the encanto scoop him up into a hug, surprising him into falling over. She had been so happy to see that he had helped, she'd only noticed his tears after she had thanked the priest. "Sana" Bruno finally gave in, trailing off into the silence of his rambling thoughts.

At least until Dolores elbowed him in the stomach, her tiny hands trembling from the overwhelming noise and the exhaustion.

He jolted in surprise and rushed to catch his niece before she fell off him entirely, stammering softly through his embarrassment "Oh! Oh no, oh niña I'm so sorry." And he really seemed to mean it, haphazardly searching through the pockets of his ruana for something to comfort her with, or at least something to keep his mind on the matter at hand instead of his own tumultuous thoughts. Scraps of paper, stubs of candles, snips of herbs from Julieta's garden. All of it formed a growing pile beside them both as Dolores clutched the blankets tighter about herself and tried to listen to the mutter under Bruno's breath, rather than the clink of object against object. Not that he was much better to listen to, an unsteady stream of sound pitching and faltering the way the heartbeat of Casita faltered, up and down and just as strained "Silly tío Bruno, right? Never paying attention. Always- always off in the clouds. Coming up with- with..with nothing, really. But that's fine, its-"

Dolores frowned to herself, and decided about halfway through his searching that the sounds of his pockets was preferable to the way Bruno spoke when he was nervous. Still knee deep in sickness, it was nearly impossible to ignore him altogether, so Dolores settled for turning around entirely. She turned to face him and buried her face in the green of his poncho, muffling his muttering as well as amplifying the sound of Bruno's hands rifling in a distracted, almost rodent-like shuffle through his pockets. "-oh..oh that's okay, you uh- you sit however's comfortable, that's fine. I'll just..." He continued, on and on until his fingers closed around a handful of sand. One that he lifted slightly, and let sift through his fingertips. Softly, Dolores shifted from her perch half on his lap and half on her bed.

If her ears could have stood to attention, they probably would have.

But as soon as the noise was there, it was gone in the rush of Bruno's compulsive movements through each pocket carefully sewn into his clothing, ensuring he could produce a vision whenever and wherever he was. Dolores wrinkled her nose, and in a rush of motion she hoped would be too fast for her ears to react to, she pulled her hands from her ears and tugged profusely at his shirt sleeve, staring at him with stubborn eyes and familiar furrowed brows. "Wait. Do that again. The sand." She insisted, returning her hands to their safe place atop her ears while Bruno blinked and then, despite himself, laughed. Pulling the small handful of grains free and staring at the pile in his palm. "I- Are you sure? I might get sand on your bed, chiquita-" It was Dolores' sudden burst of nods that finally got him to shut up, watching with poorly concealed fondness and fascination as his niece stared intently at his hands with tear tracks drying across her cheeks, watching him periodically pick up and drop the grains.

It seemed ideal for the both of them. A repetitive, consistent sound for Dolores to focus on and a task for Bruno to get on with. Something to do with his hands that kept his own anxieties at bay, grounding them both in the company of the other. The sand fell in tiny waterfalls of grains, and as soft as he could make himself, Bruno spoke over it. Narrating some fantastical story about particularly large pebbles within the sand as if lifted and fell, lifted and fell. Repeated and hypnotic.

It was despite himself that Bruno fell asleep to the action, his eyes getting heavier and heavier in the warmth of the room and the intense silence that filled it. And it was despite the noise and the sickness filling her that Dolores fell asleep a few minutes before him, sitting comfortably in her tío's grasp as the grains of sand in his sleeping palm fell to the tiled floor.

Ch. Ch. Ch.