A Smaller Heart

By María José Navia 
Translated by Lily Meyer

Why does his family piss him off so badly? No clue. All he knows is that he wants to scream. He nestles each fly into his tackle box. In the kitchen, his wife makes tuna-and-tomato sandwiches, their fish smell pervading the living room. She fills Ziploc bags with carrot sticks, washes a matched pair of apples. Once, he would’ve helped her. Once upon a time in their youth. Now, Caro is eight months pregnant, and José, if he’s being perfectly honest, can’t spend a single hour alone with her. He finds it unbearable. Not that he can tell her that. Lately, he has so much he can’t tell her, he feels the words clogging his throat.

Caro smiles at him from the kitchen. Her feet and face are swollen. This pregnancy, she’s really let herself go. Look at her packing him a healthy snack, when she’s wolfing fries in front of the TV every chance she gets. José leans his rods by the door, sets his fishing hat on a chair. Tomás is reading at the kitchen table. He didn’t want to come. No persuading him. Caro even tried chiming in, but no luck. Tomás wanted to sit here, face hidden, buried in books. Shielded completely. A little bunker inside a family on the brink of collapse.

This is the seventh day of their vacation, everyone tripping over each other in their little cabin. Caro faking sick, Tomás reading nonstop, Sofía roaming the house in search of attention. She appears now in full princess regalia, a little Snow White with snarled hair.

“Can I come?”

He’d like to tell her a hard no. His afternoon’s shot the second she gets bored. José’s mind runs in a furious present tense. He has an urge to jump in the car and drive to Santiago, though the city’s steaming hot and he loves it here. But Caro is looking at him, wide-eyed and hopeful.

“How about it, José? Could you take her?”

Sofi launches into a made-up ballet, pirouetting from one parent to the other. She flutters between Caro and José, doing little jetés, waving her magic wand so it sheds glitter all over the floorboards.

For the rest of their vacation, bright specks of glitter will cling to their shoes, their sandals, the webs of their toes.


José is not a bad father. He loves his little girl. But, right this second, he wants to leave her here, watching cartoons with her mom. Now that Tomás has refused to go fishing with him, he’s decided he deserves alone time, too. Time alone with Mario the fishing guide, anyway. Mario, who owns the boat, and who will be here to pick him up any minute.

Caro sets a bag on the table. It holds plenty of sandwiches for two people, even three. (Did she know Sofi would ask this? Did she put her up to it?)

“Can I come, Daddy? Can I?”

Sofi leans on his knees, batting her green eyes. The Snow White dress is a little too big. José can’t help smiling, and Sofi takes the smile to mean yes, yes, you can come, what could be better than fishing with my little daughter? He only realizes what he’s done when it’s too late. All he can do now is ask her to put on different clothes. Princesses don’t like to fish.

Caro smiles, too. José translates her smile as thank you! I love you! Caro only meant please, please take her. A day alone with her oldest child is a whole new world. She can pretend to be invisible. Tomás will read in the living room while Caro takes an endless nap. Caro and her planetary belly. 

A few minutes, which feel to José like an eternity, pass before Sofi returns in her fishing costume: a shirt with a sequined fish (sequins that will end up in the bottom of the boat, catching the sun through smears of fish blood), jean shorts, and Little Mermaid sandals given to her by José’s father-in-law, who bought them on his last trip to Miami (lucky bastard, vacationing at Disney World). Caro handles sunscreen, rubbing viscous lotion on their daughter’s arms and legs. She squirts some on Sofi’s hand, telling her to do her own face. Sofi obeys with disgust. She hates how sunblock feels on her fingers, and she’s scared to get it in her eyes. Tears roll down her cheeks.

This will be a nightmare.

This will be great.

This will be.

Mario pulls up in his pickup, and Caro tugs a dress on and helps carry the tackle box, hats, and lunch bag to the car. As Mario begins driving away, she calls, “Did you bring bug spray?” but José acts like he didn’t hear. He’s in the back seat with Sofi, head tilted to the window, already looking sorry for himself. Their beaming daughter flaps her right hand goodbye. Tomás keeps his nose in his book.

Caro shuts the door.

Finally. She and Tomás are alone.


Mario talks to Sofi for the whole drive, though he seems no more pleased than José to have her along. He asks which princesses she likes best (Snow White; Belle; Ariel) and what her favorite foods are (chocolate ice cream; strawberries). He even wants to hear the poems she has to memorize in school. Sofi is thrilled. No one has asked her this many questions, or looked at her this many times, in days. She radiates pure delight.

Mario smiles, too, but his smile conveys a different message: the boat’s going to be cramped, Sofi’s going to shriek if there are horseflies, she’s going to turn lobster-red no matter how much sunscreen she’s got on.

He looks in the rearview. José is silent. It really is a gorgeous day.


Caro brings Tomás avocado toast and milky tea. He barely thanks her, which is fine. She’s proved herself to be a good mother who nourishes her son properly, which means she can now shut herself in her room. Tomás won’t miss her. Hundreds of pages of peace. Caro closes the bedroom door, then opens the windows, letting in the deliciously cool morning breeze. She could read, but she’s not in the mood. She’d rather lie on her back and stare at the ceiling.

Eduardo moves, which hurts her ribs. She can barely breathe. She feels completely invaded. She thinks Eduardo sounds too adult, so, secretly, she calls him Ed. Eduardo was his paternal grandfather. José never talked about his dad much, but the moment he saw the pregnancy test’s two bright lines, he asked Caro if this baby could be named Eduardo.

“What if it’s a girl?”

“If it’s a girl,” her husband told her, “you pick.”

Now Ed kicks her constantly. He won’t let her sleep. The kids are getting anxious, knowing he could be here any day.

Caro hauls herself to the bathroom and splashes water on her face, avoiding her reflection. She hasn’t wanted to see herself in months. Water runs down her cheek and neck, splashing her pajama shirt. She doesn’t care. The dampness is refreshing. She peeks into the living room: Tomás’s plate is empty, and steam no longer rises from his mug. She can’t tell if he drank the tea or not.

Without Sofía and José, the cabin is calm. Guiltily, Caro thinks how much she likes it this way. Right now, she means. She’s not in the mood to fuss over lunch, or over José. Cheering him up is exhausting. Smoothing his world out before he loses his temper at the kids. She stops him from badgering Tomás to go for a run or kick a soccer ball with him. Persuades him to let Sofía sing her princess songs for the hundredth out-of-key time. Nobody said he had to like her voice, but couldn’t he fake it? A bit?

In bed at night, Caro reminds José that the kids can sense his mood. When he’s anxious or mad, it affects them. José never says much in response, and Caro can feel Ed reacting to his dad’s silence. Even the unborn baby can see the problem. Even a blind person would.


“Sofi, sit down—slowly! From now on, you do exactly what I tell you. Okay?”

Jose tries to muster his best smile. Sofía grins back. She’s not saying okay, Daddy! but, on the bright side, she’s sitting down, Disney-princess backpack beside her. She hauls that backpack everywhere. He has no idea what it holds. Toys? Colored pencils? She never unzips it, but she always has it with her, like Linus and his blanket in Peanuts.

José sits in front of her. Mario takes the oars.

“No touching the water,” José says. “Not unless I say so. Understand?”

Sofi beams. It’s a hot day, sun beating down, but a soft breeze is blowing. José opens his tackle box. Instantly, Sofi reaches for the flies.

“Sofi!” he shouts. “Careful!” His smile is gone. “Watch out. These are sharp.”

She eyes the lures, unsettled. “I have to be careful with the ones with pretty feathers? And the colors? And the sparkly bugs? All of them are sharp?”

José produces a pink fly and shows it to her. Cautiously, she brushes her tiny finger over its feathers. “So soft.”

He brings his smile back. “Yes, very soft. I can make a soft one for you when we get home, if you want. One with no sharp part.”

Mario does not contribute to the conversation. He hasn’t been around kids for a long time. His own are adults now, living in Santiago, and summer people tend not to bring children on his boat, unless you count the odd zitty teen. The river is low, which worries him. He hopes the fishing is good. That should brighten the day. José is the type of client who brings his catch home to eat. Not like the gringo sport fishermen who expect to be sainted for tossing a trout back, as if the poor fish could live a full life with its jaw shredded. As if it were delighted to swallow a hook so a gringo could drag it from the water, take a picture, and throw it back, wounded, for another gringo to catch. José is a good client. Mario just hopes the little girl behaves herself, and manages not to cry if she’s bored.

He rows on.


Caro listens to music. Nothing cool. Giggly pop songs; weepy ballads. She started wearing headphones to avoid waking José, and now they make her feel strangely safe, as if the songs formed a protective shield.

Sometimes, in Santiago, she takes herself to the movies. A risky pastime, but she knows the danger she’s assuming. She knows some movies will remind her how easy, relatively speaking, she has it; how many families are more dysfunctional than hers. Others, though, refuse to let her forget how sad her situation has gotten. If Caro’s life, right now, were a movie, it would be one where the characters barely speak. A movie where the viewer knows every character is completely alone. Where not much happens, but, in the long, silent shots of people watching TV, sorrow pools till it’s deep enough to wade in. After watching a movie like that, Caro has to return to fashion magazines for a few days. Magazines never ask tricky questions. Their pages are safe terrain: beautiful women, frivolous things.

Caro takes her headphones off. She goes over to Tomás, whose eyes stay on his book. He still reads with his finger, which Caro finds sweet. “Tomi,” she says. “What do you feel like for lunch?”

She rarely asks, but today she’s in a generous mood. She’d even take him to a restaurant in town. Why not? She has the car, and José and Sofi won’t be back till the afternoon.

Tomás still hasn’t looked at her.

“We could go out. See if that new Argentine place in town is good. What do you think?”

Tomás sets his book on the table. She knows he’s not happy. If she wanted to be honest, she would admit that he hasn’t been happy. Not today; not on this trip.

After a while, he says, “Your call.”

“We could go to the lake. It’s so nice out.”

“Mom. You know I don’t like to swim.”

Caro sits beside her son, and he scoots away. Uncomfortable.


José whistles an old song while he waits for a bite. He’s been waiting a long time, testing different size and color flies. So far, Sofi has behaved like a queen. She’s been looking around quietly, all but hypnotized by the river and trees. Maybe the water soothes her. He, too, feels calmest by the ocean, or at the bottom of a pool.

Mario casts using his own flies. He’s had some bites, but hasn’t landed a fish. When the line jerks, Sofi tenses, stiffening in her seat. José suspects she’s been holding her breath. Her little nails are polished bright pink. Caro’s work, he assumes. He dislikes it. For some reason, he’s never liked painted nails.

José feels a tug underwater and rises. The fish on his hook is ready to fight. Mario offers help, but José says not to worry. He’s got it. He reels patiently, careful not to snap the line. He wants to land this fish for Sofi. Make her proud of her dad. Already, the fish is rising to the surface. A little one, not a keeper. If he pulls much harder, the hook will tear right through its jaw.

Sofi starts shrieking. José thinks she’s excited at first, but soon realizes she’s terrified. “You’re hurting him, Daddy!” she cries, standing to claw at his arm. Pink sequins pop from her shirt, landing at the bottom of the boat. “You’re hurting him!”

“Sofi, sit down,” José snaps. He tugs the line once more, and the little trout lands between them. Carefully, Mario scoops it up.

The fish’s mouth is torn. It flails wildly. Look, Daddy, you hurt him, put him back, let him go. Mario frees the hook, and the fish vaults from his hands, flopping frantically. Sofi shrieks even louder. Christ. Could she shut up?

But she’s out of control. Tears pour down her cheeks. Her face is scarlet with disappointment and rage.

She clings to her seat, terrified of touching the little trout as it turns and thrashes, beating itself against the bag that holds their tuna sandwiches, their carrot sticks, their perfect pair of apples.

María José Navia was born in Santiago, Chile in 1982. She holds an MA in Humanities & Social thought from NYU and a PhD in Spanish Literature and Cultural Studies from Georgetown and is now a professor in the Facultad de Letras at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She is the author of the novels SANT and Kintsugi, as well as the story collections Instrucciones para ser felizLugar, and Una música futura. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Ribera del Duero Award for her unpublished collection Todo lo que aprendimos en las películas. 

Lily Meyer is a writer, translator, critic and PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati. Her translations include Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s story collections Little Bird and Ice for Martians

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Eckleburg is a print and online literary journal that offers original fiction, poetry, essays, music, art, writing workshops and more.