by Thomas Maya
She doesn’t want to tell you her story. This is easy to notice, especially with her hesitation and unease: She shakes her head from side to side as her gaze lowers to the floor. She fidgets with her fingers, her hands. She holds one in the other as if tending to an injured bird. She thumbs at the ball of her palm to coax more life into the poor thing. She pokes the flesh there, she pinches, at the inner surface where the lifelines are found. Then she pulls at her fingers as if carefully resetting a pair of crumpled wings. When she finally speaks, all the muscles of her lean face move slowly, a demurred response. She’ll say, “It’s too painful to think about,” but you insist—the way you always insist when asking to hear her story. As she looks up in response, there is the dull glow of shyness in her eyes, a hesitation made of stone, and her observations of the world are evidently fragmented; she steals glances at your feet, at your legs, at your hands and arms, and over your shoulders into the calming distance behind you, where an empty wall sits. But she hardly ever looks directly into your eyes, where you might find a reflection of her unspoken words, responses that wait like an arsenal of old bones forcibly unearthed. These unwanted conversations are why she hesitates; she has no desire to return to those scorched moments, littered as they are with your polished promises.
She will start slowly once ready. She will set the scene for you, telling you about her mother’s difficult life before it happened, how her biological father was an abusive man, a man who regularly beat her mother, at night before bed and in the morning before breakfast, in the afternoons if she was late serving him a small glass of Coca-Cola and biscuits for el algo. A man who used fists more often than words. A man in strict command of her mother’s body: he would throw her onto their small mattress and lay waste to her whenever he had the urge. In this manner, they brought a number of children into the world, of which she is the eldest, the one most familiar with this painful stretch of years. Her father, a drunk with a penchant for home-cooked meals followed by nights out chasing younger women, would scream at the children and threaten abuse. But her mother always got in the way of those fists, even though she knew where such insubordination led. She will squeeze her wrists for comfort, first one, then the other, as she explains what she means. She will look at her own small fists and describe the bruises on her mother’s body, calling them blossoms everlasting with a dismal laugh. She will open her fist, the left, and trace the M-shaped lines of that palm with her right pointer finger. She will say she never knew her mother’s skin to be without such blossoms, such stains. Never knew her mother’s voice without its heavy measure of pummeled-out sadness.
She will then explain to you why they fled, leaving Medellín for Bogotá, where her mother had two older brothers she could turn to for help. Moving slowly with her words, she will tell you how her father had been alone with the youngest girl, and that her mother had returned from the market to find this girl of eleven naked, cowering behind her bed. She will allude to the fact that she was familiar with this behavior well before her mother’s discovery, but—even though her words slow to a trickle—she will move on from this part of the story at once. There are certain things that do not bear repeating. She will say it happened in secret, her mother’s plans for escape, after this last most odious of straws, after the donkey’s broken back, an evening departure on an overnight bus leaving from the city’s southern terminal. She will describe how the night played out in detail, the way her mother finished washing dishes after dinner, without mentioning a word of escape to any of the children, the way she’d been affectionate toward him, her monster of a husband, while he sat eating his second bowl of sancocho, how she brought him his glass of Coca-Cola with a kiss. All accomplished as it was on any night, to ensure her husband remain unagitated and, more importantly, unsuspecting, off guard. Even this: the way her mother darned tears in the elbows of one of her father’s favorite work shirts, sitting beside him at their small table as he finished his meal. A true monster, she’ll say about her father, accompanied by a dutiful wife.
The second their father left for a nearby plaza, where he always went for his first drinks of the night, she would turn to them all with a stern look, telling them to each pack a single bag, and to make sure to bring only what they felt was essential for a new life in a new city. They were not to ask questions, they were not to speak with one another about the mysterious nature of her request, they were simply to prepare, and quickly. Knowing her husband as she did, she knew that they had roughly seven hours before he returned home, drunk, but by then they would be hours into their overnight journey. Telling this part of the story, the part about their escape, she mentions the bus because it’s important to hear, she says, about the ride itself, she adds, describing what she remembers, how she got nauseous from the curves as they wound their way through the mountains. Then, in the dark early hours of the next morning, an unexpected stop and nervous chatter when the passengers, waking to the disturbance, realized that it was for a military checkpoint. She recalls the gaze of the army men like machete blades, sharp and glinting eyes, fixed viciously on each of them, even the youngest of children, as they were forced down off the bus for an inspection. She recalls the long wait as some of the military men climbed aboard the bus, machine guns in hand, their bodies and the long barrels visible from outside as shadows that inched along the dark windows, while the rest of the force of men reviewed documents and rummaged through luggage, peering into satchels and deeper still into the eyes of fretful souls; they were young and easy to cruelty, these men who held power over them that night. These men in command. All in the name of protection, she now says with a laugh and an upward glance. Not unlike you with your questions, she says.
In Bogotá, for the first week, the seven of them slept in a single room at one uncle’s apartment. The second week, they spent at the other uncle’s even smaller home, on makeshift beds that had been put together in the living room once armchairs and a sofa were pushed aside. She’ll describe both of her uncles as kind but busy men. Men who did their best to show that they cared. But she was old enough to recognize the irritation they both felt having to care for a younger sister who they plainly believed had always made mistakes with her life. On their third week in the capital city, they moved into a one-bedroom apartment of their own. By then, she’ll say with a surprising bit of cheer to her voice, all six of the children had already started working to help their mother pay for a more expensive life in an unfamiliar place.
She will mention her siblings by name for the first time, listing off their ages and the work they’d found, going in order from eldest to youngest, skipping herself, of course: Alejandro, age sixteen, she’ll say with pride, was able to find two jobs, one delivering dental castings to dentists’ offices across the city and another returning empty soda bottles to a local bottling plant. The twins, Jose Manuel and Juan Manuel, both thirteen, worked on leather goods together, making bracelets and other charms that they would sell in a plaza near the apartment, using a fraction of the money they made from sales to buy more material for more charms, giving everything else directly to their mother. Catalina, the youngest girl, eleven, had been taught how to make different kinds of arepas by their mother, and she spent her time at home, making as many arepas as she could each day, especially arepas de choclo since these sweet corn flatcakes often sold the best, while also watching after the youngest, Samuelito, who was only seven. Even Samuelito, she’ll say with a pride-filled smile, had found work for himself, bagging his sister’s arepas neatly and sitting right outside the front door to their new apartment, selling those bags of fresh goods to anyone walking by.
If you ask what she did for work, she’ll say it’s not important. She’ll look down at her hands and say nothing. And you might notice that her eyes are—at this moment—somehow absolutely still and yet filled with an odd frenetic energy; in those churning cauldrons, you will see something in her that speaks of a difficult past, of indescribable trauma, of a pain you can’t begin to imagine. This moment is a sort of magic that’s held there in her eyes for you, like looking into a fire’s embers for signs and images, of things past, things gone. Things endured. That’s exactly why you’re here to see her—isn’t it? To reach for those embers, to grip them tight, to feel the searing of flesh, to learn of those odious smells, to know them this way. But before arriving at all of this, she’ll look away for a long spell of quiet, and then, without warning, without looking back in your direction, she’ll start speaking about her mother once more. And she—she’ll be smiling and crying at the same time as she tells you about all the many jobs her mother took during that short span of time, when they lived together as a family in Bogotá.
The tears will be slow but steady, welling up fat as bluebottles at the corners of her eyes before they cut half-shimmering wet lines down her cheeks. As you watch this play of light on her face—perhaps thinking that tears are a foregone conclusion for those who have suffered through lives such as hers—you’ll learn how her mother baked bread for a small bakery right around the corner from where they lived, leaving for this first job in the dark hours of the morning, and how she went from the bakery to one of their uncle’s corner stores on the other side of the city, early enough still to receive deliveries and stock a small collection of shelves, while also tending to customers for the better part of those mornings and early afternoons. On her travels across the city, on buses and on foot, she would sell lotto tickets to anyone willing to take a chance with the chances she peddled. She would still be selling lotto in mid-afternoon, too, when she traveled across the city once more, stopping at her other brother’s small ceramics factory to pick up a new collection of wares to hawk in the evenings. It’s more of a single large room than a factory, in your gringolandia understanding of things, though he called it such.
Then her mother would make her way to different locations in the center of the city, finding busy sidewalks and street corners to lay down a small blanket, on top of which she would place all the items her brother had packed for her, the ceramic water jugs or bowls or serving plates or anything else she was meant to sell, selling what she could to city-dwellers as they began their evening commutes home. Some days, she would sell everything easily, quickly, and she would be able to head home that much sooner in the evening herself. Other days, she wouldn’t sell a thing, and she would remain there at whatever corner she’d chosen for as long as it took, struggling to sell what she could until well after dark, leaving only after the city-center streets had emptied out, going slow and quiet in their abandon. Those days, she would return home late in the evenings with a new project for her Samuelito to take on, selling what was left of her consignment out in front of their apartment the next day, along with the arepas his sister would make for him to bag.
On holidays, she’ll tell you—as she takes a hand to those shimmering half-moons above her cheeks—how her mother never rested. Wiping away tears with the back of her fist, she’ll describe how hard her mother worked on those days of rest, even though one brother’s market was often closed and the other brother’s production of ceramic housewares temporarily halted. To make up for the lost earnings, and to give herself something to do, her mother, she says, stayed up all night on the eve of any holiday, making holiday breads and holiday treats. She describes her mother working feverishly in the small kitchen, making the dough for buñuelos, frying them up on the stove as she bakes pan de yucca, pan de queso, and pan de oro in the oven. In many ways, she’ll say to you, these treats her mother made through the night weren’t just holiday treats, they were simply el pan de cada día, the breads and pastries Colombians eat each and every day, along with their arepas, to have alongside tinto or wide mugs brimming with hot chocolate.
She’ll ask you if you’re familiar with any of these Colombian foods, and when you say no, she’ll start by describing buñuelos for you, flashing the OK sign with one of her hands, pointing to the empty circle her fingers make with her other hand, providing a visual when telling you that buñuelos are a kind of donut hole, only bigger and less sugary, and always a golden brown. You may be surprised by her use of the English term ‘donut holes,’ how it sounds out of place against the rest of her Spanish, but she won’t be surprised by the curiosity in your face. She’ll tell you that there are now Dunkin’ Donuts in Colombia, but there weren’t any then, not when this all happened, when they suffered through the story she’s still trying to avoid telling, doing so quite well by this point, or so you might think. She’ll explain the other pastries, too, the pan de yucca and the pan de queso and the pan de oro, describing all three of them as being like deflated donuts, but yummier, she’ll say with a smile, because they aren’t so sugary, so sweet. And arepas, of course, but this daily bread she’ll expect you to know about.
Then she’ll get quiet again. She’ll get pensive and sad. She will hold her wrists once more, rubbing at them the way someone might rub at a set of bruised wrists after being forced to wear handcuffs too tight, or for too long. When she catches you staring at this, at how she holds her wrists, she’ll use an unfamiliar word, ‘muñeca,’ to describe that part of her body. She will hold up her right muñeca to add that the word also means ‘doll’ in Spanish. She will say the word ‘doll’ in English to explain this to you, repeating that alien word many times as she shakes her head and laughs, a grim laugh full of pain—and then she’ll say that it all happened on el Día de Amor y Amistad. It was a Saturday in September, she’ll say. The third Saturday in September. She’ll repeat some of what she’s already said, saying that this holiday is always the third Saturday in September, adding this last bit of detail yet again, explaining that the holiday is similar to your Valentine’s Day in February, but better because of being a celebration of both love and all manners of friendship. She’ll say that it was a very difficult Saturday and this is when you know that you’re getting closer to the heart of the matter, to the tragedy you’re hoping to hear about, because of the near-constant repetition of what seems like pointless details. She’ll get quiet then, holding her one wrist tight, gripping it and turning it, pressing at the skin of her muñeca in a way that seems violent, brutal, and, as she continues with these rough movements, as she gets deathly quiet, you may look into her face again and wonder if she’s thinking about that Saturday, if she’s thinking about all she’s lived through, perhaps wrestling with whether or not to dredge up the past, for herself, for you, for anyone.
All to be able to refuse your request.
But no—you’ll insist. You always do.
And she’ll say the words “Esa mañana—” to begin yet again. She’ll repeat those two words—“¡Esa mañana!”—getting louder with her voice, an inchoate exclamation meant to chastise anyone not paying attention. She’ll watch for your eyes to focus in on her, watch to be certain that you are all attentive to her story, to this part especially. Then she’ll describe the start of that morning—how, after breakfast, her mother took the twins with her to the city center, so that they could sell their leather charms beside her, as she sold the breads she’d been making all night long, along with what they could carry of her brother’s remaining wares. She’ll say that they left shortly before the sun had come up. She’ll say that everyone else was at home, her and her other brothers, Alejandro and Samuelito, as well as her sister, Catalina. She’ll say that she was out front all that morning with Samuelito, sitting on chairs they’d pulled outside to be able to sell bags of arepas and some of the heavier housewares her mother hadn’t managed to sell that week, a few remaining pieces not carried off by their mother or the twins. She’ll tell you that she was outside practicing English words with Samuelito, a little boy obsessed with the third installment of the Back to the Future movies—she’d paid for them to see the movie together twice when it had been in theaters that August, against her mother’s wishes about spending too much time in public spaces because of all the recent danger—and he’d been reciting lines back to her ever since. She’ll tell you that there’s one line he said over and over and over again, that it’s a line she’s been unable to forget all these years. She’ll tell you she can still see him standing beside the small table they have set up just outside their front door, that little boy’s face with those warm brown eyes made sharp-edged, his half-serious look as he says the words aloud: “Re-mem-ber, where you are going, there are no roads.” She’ll repeat the last few words in English once more, saying “There are no roads” as she gazes into all of your eyes, but only briefly, hoping that short fiery glance of hers is enough to answer your questions.
Then she’ll tell you how her mother sent the twins home for lunch around one-thirty that Saturday afternoon. She’ll tell you that it had been her job to make the afternoon meal for them that day, that she served them frijoles that had been simmering most of the morning, cutting up the few pieces of pork as evenly as possible, ensuring adequate if small scrapings of meat off two pig’s feet would be available for each bowl, with the hoof-bones left behind for the eldest, Alejandro and herself. She’ll tell you how she sat the younger children down to eat first, serving Samuelito and Catalina earliest of all. She’ll tell you that Alejandro said that he’d wait for the twins to return—and everyone knew how the day was supposed to go because that was the way holidays always went, in their new city as in the old. She’ll say she sat with her youngest siblings and ate the smallest bowl, ate it quickly, sucking what little marrow and tendon she could from the meatless bones, starting after they’d already started and finishing well before they’d finished, getting up right after to wash her bowl, to have it ready to use for when the twins arrived. She’ll tell you that the large two-liter of Coca-Cola they always had around went empty when she remembered to serve Samuelito and Catalina their sobremesa. She’ll say that she thought to send Samuelito to the corner store to buy another one as soon as he was done with his serving of frijoles, which is what she did when the twins walked in at a quarter to two that afternoon.
She’ll choke up here for a second and blush in an odd way, and perhaps you’ll realize that she’s trying to swallow back another welling up of emotion. She’ll shake her head slightly and grab her wrists, her muñecas, her skinny and fragile dolls, and say that she sat her three brothers down at the table right after she’d sent Samuelito for the bottle of soda, with a five-thousand-peso bill to pay for it. She’ll say that they were talking about that same movie—the boys of her family, she recalls, were all obsessed with seeing it that year—when it happened, detailing how Jose Manuel was mid-bite as a violent whooshing sound came bellowing in through the windows with such force that it shattered the glass on the front side of the apartment, shooting tooth- and fingernail-sized fragments across the kitchen floor. Then the pig’s foot that Alejandro had been holding to his mouth fell, first against his lap, then to the floor, but none of them heard the sounds it made. The ringing sat so loud and heavy in their ears. In the uneasy tinkling silence that followed, she’ll say that they listened to the brief sound of something like rainfall, which was replaced by near-distant screams, and only later, she’ll say, did they realize that this rainsound was the slower shower of broken glass falling from taller buildings, falling intermittently as if some passing storm would never let up, never pass.
She’ll tell you that she knew immediately to be worried about Samuelito and her mother, knowing the blast was a close one, but not the exact location. She’ll say she was frightened but collected, that she pointed at Alejandro and told him to check the corner store for Samuelito, to find him and to bring him back to the house immediately, and to wait inside until she returned with their mother and the twins. She’ll say that she asked the twins to lead her to where they had left their mother right away, so that they could check on her, so they could help her pack things up very quickly, because of how hectic things would get in the city center after another bomb, after another attack against the government. She’ll say that they ran out of the apartment leaving Catalina standing at the door, the youngest girl alone, waiting for Alejandro and Samuelito to return from the corner store, that out in the street, there were others, all starting to shuffle out as well, from their homes, their small businesses, their little offices, looking stunned and scared, all eyes turning in the direction of the screams, some hurrying back inside, others clumping together to voice mounting concern, while many of them ran off in the direction she started running in, following the twins toward those sounds, following those sounds toward the busy street corner where their mother was, most likely already packing up all the daily breads, leather charms, and ceramic goods she was trying to sell that day of celebration. She’ll say she was scared and that she said a silent prayer as they ran. She’ll say that the fear felt heavy inside her, like having innards made of stone.
She’ll say that the air went dusty and cloud-grey the closer they got, that the screams got louder, that sirens started up very quickly, off in the distance but racing in toward them. She’ll say that she remembered the smells, the chalky concrete-like smell that caught in the back of her throat, the familiar scent of burnt plastic, something like rotten eggs, something like the smell of fireworks, and along with all that, an unpleasant ashy smell, like rotten meat left too long on an open fire. She’ll say that the smells got worse the closer they got to where the twins had left their mother, that there was the horrifying stench of an open fire defecated on, and with that acrid smell, that the air got even dustier and turned to a wall of white, that the screaming turned to shrieking, turned to the sounds of suffering and pain, turned to horror, turned worse still, and that they had a hard time seeing through the billowing dust of that wall, that figures came toward them as if conjured up and newly made, like apparitions made real, some limping and splattered with blood, others with faces full of ash and soot and fearful optimism, looking panicked yet grateful to still be alive as they moved away from the horror.
She’ll tell you she put her hand on Jose Manuel’s shoulders to ask if they were close and at that precise moment her mother came out of the morbid fog for them all to see, to behold. She was arranged on the sidewalk as if sleeping, the way a beggar might throw themselves down, when in absolute desolation, and she wasn’t alone. She’ll tell you then that they found her there with Samuelito, that he was already on his knees, the youngest of the bunch, cradling her head in his lap, gently arranging the hair on her head, brushing it back out of her face, to make sure that it was set the way she’d set it that morning before leaving the house.
She’ll start to cry again, worse than before, and she’ll stand up and she’ll gesture toward her own stomach when she tries to explain how the blast had torn through her mother’s body, saying the words “estaba toda explotada” as her hands jerk in uneasy circles over her own abdomen, her upper legs. She’ll turn away from you then and won’t add any other grisly details about her mother’s state. She’ll keep her back to you as she cries for a time, tending to the painful memory of that moment, and when she turns back, she’ll say that it was like the Pieta, in some odd way, how Samuelito was there, holding her head, his heavy tears falling onto her face and forehead. “¿La pieta?” she’ll say again, to ask if you know of it. Then, with that image as a backdrop, she’ll detail the next few minutes, describing how they all sat with her there, all four of them on their knees, Samuelito with her head in his lap, the twins each holding one of her hands, how she was kneeling just behind Samuelito, how the whirling mess of violence disappeared as everything went quiet for them, all of the sounds of the world all at once, gone. She’ll say it was Samuelito who started their prayers, Samuelito who said the first Hail Mary, and that the twins’ voices followed, that she was the last one to add her own voice to those prayers they chose to recite there in that awful moment. They prayed, she’ll explain to you all, with such conviction, it was as if they believed that those prayers might have the power to bring their mother back to life.
She’ll say that they were still praying some minutes later when the authorities came through, the ‘autodefensas civil’ as she calls them, making everyone who was able to walk, who wasn’t dead or badly injured, leave the scene. She’ll say that the twins refused to go at first, that Samuelito wouldn’t get up either, but she saw the rifles and she saw the danger, and that was when she pressed them just as their mother would have, all because it was her job to get them somewhere safe—she knew as well as most that the police and the military weren’t to be trusted, that they were no more peaceable than the guerillas, the paramilitary groups, or the damn cartels. Many of them were nearly as monstrous as the monster who will remain nameless, she says to you, whose name she will never speak, whose name you shouldn’t speak either, she advises. But his image will likely form in your head as she goes on to say that she was the first one to stand, that she clapped her hand to Samuelito’s neck and whispered into his ear that they needed to go. With the youngest to his feet, she turned toward the twins with the same serious and stern look her mother had always used for any of the children when misbehaving, and with those stabbing eyes and a few more strong words, both Jose Manuel and Juan Manuel knew to listen.
She won’t say a word about the walk back. She won’t mention how they moved in a dismal silence, how they couldn’t help but hear the continuous clamor of sirens and shouting behind them, the occasional fall of another bit of showering glass. She won’t tell you the image she saw in the eyes of her siblings when they came in through the door, those empty-nested eyes of theirs waiting so desperately for them, those faces filling with anguish and terror and grief the moment they saw them as they did, covered in blood and soot and ash, having to watch them walk in without their mother, this dismal cortege of children—their loss worn like the kinds of black hoods prisoners are made to wear over their faces moments before being shot or hanged.
You will want to know about the aftermath, perhaps about their mother’s body, receiving the remains, the burial, and all that. You will most certainly want to know reasons why—why the violence, why the use of bombs, why the death of all those who died? Was it the monster’s fault? The guerillas? Anyone else? Instead, after a few moments of silence, she’ll tell you that there was a doll out there on the street that day. “A doll,” she’ll say in English with another laugh, the same bleak laugh, used as if to stab at the air between you. She’ll say she noticed it after she’d ushered everyone inside, all her many siblings, noticed it after the table and chairs came back in. Housed within those moments of great anguish and fear and horror, she found herself looking out to the street one last time before closing the door, knowing that she was closing that door to a motherless world for the first time, and in that final glance, that was when she saw it, the thing fallen to the curb, left behind, the doll that made her scream, a scream that came out instantly because she thought what anyone might have thought in a moment such as this—that it was a dead baby, not a doll, that someone had left there in all that pandemonium. She’ll be rubbing her wrists again as she explains all of this, as she tells you that she went out there thinking that it was just that, a dead and abandoned child, a small one, lifeless and forgotten, but when she knelt down beside it, she saw how clearly mistaken she was, how it was evidently a child’s doll, a muñeca made of plastic and foam and cheap cloth, nothing more. Nobody, she told herself, with you as her witness, would dare leave a child behind like that, no matter what the cause.
She has finished her story and she is silent now as she traces the lifelines of her left palm. She is silent but her mouth is moving, she is shaping words without breath, not letting air from her lungs out through her voice box. When you tell her it will be okay, that it will take time, that the grief, no matter how painful, will recede, she shakes her head; she is defiant when responding that no, these are all just lies coming from you. These are the kinds of things told to children, she says, so as not to believe in the reality of monsters, the horror of violence which is so very much a truth to behold. She has heard these lies before, many times. They are used often and remain well-polished. She goes back to tracing that M in her hand and she says two words. First the word ‘Mama’ and then the name ‘Maria,’ her mother’s name which is, in her family’s tradition for naming the firstborn, also her own.
Thomas Maya’s stories can be found at PANK Magazine, Broad River Review, The Acentos Review, and Wisconsin Review; his poetry is available at Harpur Palate. His short fiction has been awarded an honorable mention for Broad River Review’s 2021 Rash Award, selected as a finalist for Witness’s 2022 Literary Awards in Fiction, Arts & Letters 2021 Fiction Prize, and Passages North’s 2020 Waasnode Prize. His novel-in-progress was a semi-finalist in the 2021 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. In addition to a first novel, he is at work on a collection of stories and a book of poems.