Thursday, February 9, 2017

What It Feels Like For A Girl (The River Is Like My Heart)

The rains came early that year. The girl did not know then that it would be the last year she would be here to see the rains roll in. Rushing, brown water swelled rivers and the wild bananas burst into bloom as if to say thank you to the gods of alluvion. The ground became soft and slippery, thick mud squishing between her toes as she ran across the yard at sunrise to let the chickens out of coop.  Most mornings in the rainy season brought respite from the overnight deluge, so the birds could leave the coop and venture out to forage before the rain showers returned in the late afternoon.

On her way back from the coop, she paused under the mango tree, looking up into its leafy heights laden with clusters of pale green fruit that grew plumper day by day. It would be a good mango season this year.

The sun was cresting over the seven hill range in the east.  Pink and purple dissolving into azure blue as the heat of the day became palpable; a presence that induced languidness at even the highest levels of government in the small, post-colonial backwater where she found herself.  It would be hard to find dry wood this morning. 

Her father had been away for several days, and no one knew where he was.  He took Tony’s bus to town on Saturday to go to market, but now it was Tuesday and he had not returned. It wasn’t a huge surprise when he did not come back on the Saturday afternoon bus.  He had friends in town. They drank beer and played music into the night. The girl knew this even though her mother pretended not to.

There were no buses on Sunday, so girl spent the day listening anxiously for the sound of vehicles climbing up the hill from the river, peeking through the trees to see if was a truck that he might have hitched a ride on. By Monday, the anxiety turned into an intolerable combination of frustration and worry.  This morning, as the heat rose, so did a feeling of anger mixed with fear that the girl brushed away as she contemplated the tasks of the day ahead.

There was a fire to start, food to prepare, laundry to wash . . .

First, she had to start a fire in the hearth to prepare the day’s food.  Having rained relentlessly for nearly a week, today the woodpile had only a few dry logs in it. It was maybe enough to cook the rice, which was also running low. She prodded the damp logs; they were thick and would be hard to ignite. They needed to be split with an axe. Because she was a girl, her father had not taught her how to use the axe. Usually, her father would be the one to gather and chop firewood, but today it had to be her, because her mother needed to care for the baby, and look after the other children and the girl was the oldest, after all. Over the past few days, the girl sensed her mother’s rising anxiety, and wanted desperately to stem the tide of raw emotion that could be unleash at a moment’s notice.  Starting the fire would help.

Mustering cheerfulness, the girl climbed the rickety wooden stairs of the one room knock-and-stand-up house where they lived.  Her mother was up and opening the windows, pushing the wooden slats that covered the windows up and out with sturdy sticks. The girl could not help but think these sticks would make good firewood on a morning like this. Her baby brother, only six months old, began to wail and her mother quickly plopped onto the foam on the floor, picked up the infant and clutched him to her breast.  The baby seemed happy. The girl wondered if he was the only one. In the corner was a pile of dirty diapers from the night before.  Childbirth had been hard on her mother; she was still recovering.  The girl and her younger sister had to do the family’s laundry, which were mostly diapers because the girl and her two sisters only had six dresses between them.

While her mother nursed, the girl roused her sisters.  Her mother shouted something about them doing their lessons as the girls ran off into the yard.  The girl led them to a spot where, before the rains, her father had cleared the underbrush with his machete.  He planted some plantain and cassava here, which were doing very well now that they were properly watered.  In the clearing, she saw a parrot tree what had a lot of dead branches reaching up to the sky.  In the rainy season everything became green and lush, so it was easy to spot dead branches, because they had no leaves.  This was exactly what she was looking for.  Dead branches were good, because if they were upright and had bark on them, they usually stayed dry despite on rain. They would catch fire easily. While her sisters poked at a large snail that was crawling across a rock, the girl climbed the parrot tree.

From here, she had a good view of the road. She could see its gravel ascent up the hill from the river.  At this time of day, there were no vehicles.  The morning buses from the village left for town when it was still dark. She could see across the river to the hill on the other side, where old Chiac kept his cows.  His cows always looked hungry and sometimes he would herd them down the road to graze in other places on the reservation. No one seemed to mind, because Chiac was one of the few Mayan men who owned his own land. This morning, the cows were probably happily grazing on all of the new vegetation that came with the rains. She looked out past Chaic’s pasture, toward the seven hill range, and over the treetops of the valley that stretched all the way to the sea.  It was a wide open expanse that seemed just big enough to contain the daydreams that were welling up inside of her with more force every day.

Sitting in the crook of two solid branches, she reached out and put her hands firmly around a dead branch. She pulled on it withal her might. She persisted until she heard that satisfactory snap, and then pulled harder until the branch was broken free.

“Look out!” she yelled, as she let the branch fall to the ground.

Her sisters jumped back gleefully. She scaled down the tree and the girls began to break apart the branch; the small pieces for kindling, the bigger ones for firewood.  Now they could make breakfast.  The hens were very good at laying eggs, so her sister brought some from inside the house and the girl fried them in a cast iron pan over the fire she made from the parrot tree wood.

Now her mother was up, and insisting that the girls do their lessons. They did not go to school, so home lessons were all they got by way of an education.  Lessons seemed like a better deal than grating coconut or washing diapers, so the sisters obliged. The girl was learning algebra from an American textbook and reading David Copperfield. Since she did not have real friends, the fictional boy became like a friend to her; she felt like she knew him. He was kind, resilient and adept at making is own way in the world. She imagined him handsome.  It seemed he understood something about life that she was still trying to make sense of. There he was, in the greenhouse with Dora, falling in love. Or, as he described it, falling into captivity.

“It contained quite a show of beautiful geraniums. We loitered along in front of them, and Dora often stopped to admire this one or that one, and I stopped to admire the same one, and Dora, laughing, held the dog up childishly, to smell the flowers; and if we were not all three in Fairyland, certainly I was. The scent of a geranium leaf, at this day, strikes me with a half comical, half serious wonder as to what change has come over me in a moment; and then I see a straw hat and blue ribbons, and a quantity of curls, and a little black dog being held up, in two slender arms, against a bank of blossoms and bright leaves.”

She looked up from pages, a pondered, wistfully about the possibility of ever strolling through a greenhouse with a boy like David Copperfield.  Suddenly, a loud, raucous cacophony of Piam Piam birds disrupted her thoughts as they descended on a nearby guava tree and began feasting on ripe fruit.  It was mid-morning and time for laundry.  She put the book down. Laundry had to be done early so there was time for it to dry on the clothesline before the clouds rumbled in.

The baby and the youngest sister stayed behind as the two older girls carried a bucket overflowing with diapers down to the river. As they approached the bank, it was clear that, today, they would not be doing laundry in the river.  The river had jumped the bank. Muddy water swirled menacingly with a current that seemed swift enough to carry a child away. She remembered her father’s story about the Mayan boy who had drowned this way. She imagined his small, bloated, copper body floating by. Protectively, the girl grabbed her sister’s hand.  They stood in silence, mesmerized for a moment by the power and beauty of river’s transformation.  The river, thought the girl, is like my heart.

There was plenty of water in the rain barrels, so they did laundry in the yard that day. Jumping up and down in soapy buckets like a human washing machines. They pulled the petals off of trumpet shaped yellow Amandala flowers, dipping them into the sudsy water then blowing on the bottom to make bubbles.  Their father would call this “rass” but he was not here to scold them today.

As the noonday sun beat down, the girls draped diapers, threadbare dresses and floral patterned sheets over the clothes line that hung between trees in the sour sop orchard.  Hopefully, the sun’s heat and the wind that blew from the east would be enough to dry them quickly. Already, in the northeast, the girl could see a darkness gathering in the sky.

It was time to cook the rice and beans.  Her mother was working on getting the fire going again, blowing on the embers until she was out of breath.  The girls cracked open a coconut and used a knife to separate the coconut meat from the shell. Her little sister helped grate the coconut on a piece of metal pierced by nails that was fashioned into a grater. The girls took turns squeezing the grated coconut in warm water until the water became white and milky.  They strained out the coconut and fed it to the chickens.  The coconut milk was added to a pot with the last of the rice. If their father did not come home today with rice, tomorrow they would have to dig up cassava to eat.

He did return that day on the last bus from town. Her mother spent the afternoon listening for buses on the hill.  First, Chindo’s bus went by.  Then Pop’s bus.  When the Jalacte bus barreled by, her mother began to pace the yard nervously and mumble to herself. The girl began to think about where she would get firewood tomorrow. When Tony’s bus stopped at the bottom of the hill, a sense of relief swept over her. Her mother’s face lit up as she dabbed on lipstick.

Although he left with a grocery list and enough money for everything on it, her father returned with no money and only a few items from the list; just a couple pounds of rice and beans, some pigtail, a small bag of tomatoes and carrots, a gallon of kerosene and a can of sweetened, condensed milk. The girl could tell her mother was upset that he spent all the money with so little to show for it. But the girl was not surprised. Surely, the rest of the money must have been spent on Belikin beer, although she dare not say it.  Instead, she looked up at gathering clouds and knew it was time to bring in the laundry.

That night, her mother hummed a lullaby to the baby, looking like a Caravaggio Madonna and child in the dim light of the hurricane lamp. Hail Mary, full of grace.  The girls said their prayers and went to bed. As thunder rolled in from the edges of the world, her father stayed up listening to the BBC world news on their battery powered radio. In the United States, a presidential race was raging, in England, the IRA was blowing things up again, and Russia was sending men to the space station.

As the rain pounded on the tin roof, the girl lay awake, imagining the smell of geraniums.

Photo Credit: Wil Maheia

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely beautiful. Reminds me of most of my childhood. Such elegant words!