Authors: Lynne Ewing
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Social & Family Issues, #Peer Pressure, #Violence, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Sword & Sorcery
“Give him to your mother,” she said to me. “He comes with my husband.”
Pocho ran after her.
“I don’t love you anymore,” his mother had said. “Go with your father and his whore.”
She left Pocho crying on the porch. I wrapped my arms around Pocho, trying to keep him from crying, because I knew if his crying woke my mother, she’d be angry. But Mom wasn’t angry when she woke up. She held Pocho and kissed his tears and rocked him the way I had longed for her to hold me. The more remote he was, the more my mother loved him.
Then one day, when he was eleven, the street became stronger, and the gang stole Pocho from my mother’s love. He hid guns in the house and snuck out at night. He sprayed graffiti on the walls inside the house, and quit going to school. Mom walked the streets at night looking for him, but he was practically unrecognizable to her now.
I hated Pocho because Mom didn’t go looking for me when I joined the gang. I hated Pocho because Mom gave him my kisses and they weren’t good enough for him. But now, looking at Pocho, I saw for the first time that my
mother’s kisses had meant nothing. She was just a woman to him. It was the kisses from his own mother that he missed, and the absence of them had made him mean and angry.
“I’m not going to fight you,” I said. “I don’t want your kind of life anymore.”
He looked at me like he didn’t believe me.
“I’m done, Pocho. The life is killing us, and I don’t want it,” I said. “I’m sorry for your mother leaving you. I’m sorry you cry over it.”
His eyes darted around like an animal caught in a cage looking for escape. I was telling the one thing he didn’t want told.
“She didn’t mean it when she said she didn’t love you anymore,” I said. “She couldn’t have meant it. Maybe you should try to find her.” I turned and walked away from him, my hands filling with blood.
People had come out of their homes and were standing at their gates. No one bothered to help me. They were too afraid of Pocho. I didn’t blame them. He had too much hate in his eyes, and his reputation was too big.
“You’re loca,” he yelled after me.
“I’m sorry,” I yelled back.
Tears were coming down my face now, and I didn’t know if I was crying for me or the old lady on the bus or for Ana or Pocho or maybe for us all. I felt like the tears were making
a river, and if I could find a boat, it would carry me to some distant, better place downriver.
I stopped in an alley to look at my stomach and see how bad it was. Then I walked to Harbor General Hospital and went to Emergency.
A doctor sewed up my stomach.
“Well, my mother never taught me how to embroider,” she told me as she laid gauze over my stomach. “So I’m afraid the name tattooed across your stomach is going to look like hieroglyphics now.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s not who I am anymore anyway.”
She gave me a white envelope. “Take one of these pills every four hours for the pain. Keep the stitches clean and dry. Don’t take baths. Showers only.”
When she finished bandaging me, she stopped a nurse. “Will you find her some clothes she can wear home?”
The nurse took me to a storage room and found a pair of green slacks and a yellow sweater. I pulled them on and looked at myself in a thin mirror.
“You look like a regular kid,” the nurse said. “We got a program to take the tattoos off with a laser if you’re ever interested. It’s free to gang members who quit the life.”
“Thanks,” I said.
As I started to leave, she handed me the bagged-out jeans, Pendleton, and T-shirt.
“Don’t forget your clothes,” she said. “They’ll wash up, and you can sew the tears.”
I looked at my clothes, rolled together like an abandoned cocoon.
“Burn them,” I said.
I swallowed one of the pills and started to walk home, but as I passed the botánica, the fierce eyes of a ceramic saint caught the sun, and the reflection bore through me. I stopped and looked in the window, past the dangling charms, beaded necklaces, statues, and incense.
Something drew me inside. I opened the door slowly so the bells wouldn’t give me away. The air was thick with gray smoke from burning tobacco leaves. Drums beat steadily, as rhythmic as the Sacred Mother’s heart.
I crept past a line of brown coconutlike heads. Their shell eyes seemed to watch me as I stole to the back of the store, where the woman who had made me the pouch stood at a small altar decorated with seashells, starfish, and coral. The old woman bent and touched the floor with her hand, then kissed the dust on the tips of her fingers and placed a basket of red grapes in front of a statue of a beautiful black woman dressed in a blue robe the color of the sea.
“Buenas días,” I said to her back.
“You come to me for revenge?” she said without turning, her voice low and angry.
“No,” I said.
“The boy who shot your friend, his badness will make his own downfall.”
“I didn’t come for that,” I said.
She turned and stared at me until the force of her gaze made me blink. Then she walked behind the counter. At first I thought she was going to go in the back room and leave me, but instead she struck a match. The flame flickered. She held it between us for an instant, then picked up a cigar and put it between her lips. She lit the cigar, took a long draw, and blew more smoke into the room.
“Why do you come, then?” she said, and lit a blue candle with the same match. She dropped the burning match into a small seashell.
I was afraid to say the words that tickled at my tongue.
She picked up the candle and held the flame in front of my eyes.
“You come here to show off the pretty future you got written all over your face now?”
My hands went up to my cheeks. My sudden movement made the flame jump. “You see a future?”
“Go home,” she said, and set the candle back on the counter. “You don’t need me.”
She smiled at me and then she was laughing.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I don’t do nothing for you,” she said. “You’re never so lost that God can’t find you.”
“Thank you anyway,” I said, and ran outside, the bells on the door clanking after me.
My feet started dancing faster and faster down the sidewalk. I leaped over two little girls drawing with chalk on the cement. Their heads jerked up and they looked at me. I smiled at them and jumped, pulling my arms tight to my chest, doing a complete rotation in the air.
“Wow!” one of the girls said.
When I landed, hot pain seared through me, but it was worth the smiles on their faces.
They dropped their chalk and ran to me.
“Do it again,” one said, and looked up at me with a huge smile.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Mila and Bella,” the girl said, unable to say her name without calling the name of her friend.
Blackness washed over me. What good was a future without Ana?
I turned and started walking, pressing my hand against the stitches. The little girls ran after me, their shoes scuffing the sidewalk as they leaped and jumped. I couldn’t stand the sound of their giggling. It made my heart think I could turn back and see Ana dancing after me.
When I got home, Mom was sitting in the backyard, her face yellow from her disease, a big sunbonnet on her head, the brim flopping in the breeze, her hands up to her elbows
in a bucket of hot water. Feathers danced around her face and settled like new snow around her. The puppy chased and barked at the feathers.
Mom looked up, and when she saw me, she crossed herself, then closed her eyes as if she was saying a silent prayer. Finally she said, “Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Thank God you’re safe,” she said, and brushed a feather settling on her face.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m making dinner.” She smiled and pulled the carcass of the chicken she was plucking from the steaming water. “You remember the jalapeño chicken that Abuelita used to make?”
“Yeah,” I said, and sat down watching her.
When she had finished plucking the chicken, I said, “Mom, how come you loved Pocho more than me?”
“What?” She lifted the chicken from the water like a newborn.
“You always held him and hugged him and gave him kisses that I wanted.”
“You didn’t need me,” Mom said. “You were always cleaning and helping and silent like you had nothing to say to me. You had your own world from the day you were born, and I thought you were happy with it. Pocho had nothing but tears.”
“I kept my tears inside me,” I said. Then I told her about the old woman on the bus.
She nodded. “When I didn’t find you home this morning, I took the last pennies from the teapot and went down to the church and lit candles. I prayed to Blessed Mary to take pity on another mother. Somehow I knew you were going to be okay, so I came home, and, well, this is what I did so we could have a dinner. There’s not much food in the house.”
“You knew I was coming back?”
“I felt it in my heart.”
She came to me and gave me a kiss. Her breath smelled of coffee, and that smell made my heart so happy my mind started spinning a good future for all of us.
“Where did you get those clothes?” she asked finally.
“The hospital,” I said, and lifted my sweater.
She drew in air in a long hiss.
“I’m done, Mom,” I said. “I quit the life.”
She wrapped her frail arms around me. I tried to hug her back, but my body felt stiff from the stitches and pain.
“Go lie down while I make dinner,” she said, and puckered her lips for another kiss.
I awoke to the smell of chicken frying and went into the kitchen. Mom had set the table with Grandma’s white china, then lit candles in old seashells and set them around the room. Her hair was long and waving down her back.
She kept pushing it behind her ears to show off the fiery opal earrings.
Nando came through the door and smiled awkwardly like he was meeting us for the first time. His collar was wrinkled as if he had tried on a tie, taken it off, and tried it again before finally deciding against it.
We sat at the table. Mom placed a platter of fried chicken in the center of the table and poured a glass of water for each of us.
“I don’t have anything else to serve,” she said. “No vegetables.”
Nando took a big bite.
“This is the best chicken I’ve ever tasted,” he said. “It doesn’t need anything else.”
I took a bite, the peppers burning my lips and tongue. “It’s just like Grandma’s,” I said.
Mom smiled and sat down, spreading a linen napkin across her lap. “Now, doesn’t it make more sense to use those poor chickens for dinner than to sacrifice them to some Santería god?”
Nando looked at my mother. Then he looked at me.
His mouth dropped open and the bite of chicken fell out.
“You killed Consuela?” Nando cried.
“Consuela?” Mom looked from him to me and back at Nando. “Your bruja?”
Nando put his hands over his eyes.
Mom spit her bite of chicken onto her plate. She understood in a flash of clarity that Nando had never had a West Indies girlfriend, only a pet chicken named Consuela.
“I didn’t see it was always the same chicken. I was too drunk to see.” She kissed him and stared into his eyes. “Too drunk to see the truth.”
She left the room and came back with a soup tureen. She placed her linen napkin in the bottom of the tureen, then piled the fried chicken inside.
“Get the shovel,” Mom said.
I met Mom and Nando at the corner of the yard, under the avocado tree. Mom nodded, and Nando dug the hole.
Mom placed the soup tureen in the hole, then took the shovel and worked until the hole was filled. I think Consuela was the only chicken of Nando’s ever sacrificed.
“Come on,” Nando said. “I’m going to drive you up to the mountains.”
Nando drove us up the winding roads to the Angeles National Forest in his battered VW Bug. My grandfather said that a city was a reflection of the minds of men and women but that nature was a reflection of the mind of God. I didn’t know what that meant until I stepped from Nando’s car, dry pinecones crackling under my feet, soft pine needles brushing against each other in whispers of welcome.
I stepped to the edge of the mountain and gasped as I looked up at layer upon layer of stars. I felt the immensity
of God, and the last bit of my anger drained from me.
We sat for hours under that black dome of space, ready to fall off the world into the arms of God. I thought about Pocho and the gang, and I knew all that was behind me now. I’d never forget any of it, but I’d never be it again.
I gathered pinecones and pine needles before we left so I could take the fragrance home.
That night the winds blew, rumbling against my window. A branch broke free from the apple tree and hit the glass. I got out of bed, shivering in the cool room that smelled of fresh air and pine needles.
Ana was at my window, wearing a long, flowing white gown like the ones we had drawn in the sand with sticks. The lace train swept behind her, ruffled by the wind, flapping to the edge of the yard.
Ana smiled at me, but it was a sad smile. She held up a baby for me to see. I pressed my palms against the glass, hating this barrier between us. I opened the window, and as I did, Ana’s form faded into the thick shadows at the base of the avocado tree.
But a gentle breeze caressed my cheek, and somehow Ana was there, her breath a whisper in my ear telling me to dance. Vamos a bailar.
I stood in the moonlight, and my feet started to move, slow and unsure at first. Then I heard music. At first I thought it was my imagination or maybe that Ana had
brought it with her from heaven, but then I realized it was coming from a neighbor’s home far away. I stopped and listened to the beat, not bold like the music I was used to, but my feet started to move anyway, trying to find the rhythm.
I danced for a long time, the moon like a halo around me, and finally I could feel Ana beside me again. For only a moment I was with her in heaven, our feet reaching back, urging waves across the ocean.
Then Ana pulled away from me, her hands lingering on my face, then pushing me gently back to earth. The moon set and the darkness surrounded me, but still I danced, finding my place in this new music, waiting for the first rays of dawn to bathe me in a new light.