First scene of my, as yet unnamed, novel.
The Southwestern Mountains of Honduras 1998
“I’ve got snot in my nose.”
Mia, my sister, was sitting on her mattress on the dirt floor of our shack. She was swallowed up in a t-shirt big enough to fit a cow with her knees bunched up to her chest and only her tiny feet showing.
“And you could help me like a good big brother.”
I smiled, went outside and yanked a leaf off the big tree, then brought it back in for her to blow her nose. She was being a blockhead this morning, and I was glad to see it. She had had asthma during the night. It was a mild attack, thank God, but I had stayed awake, listening to the rattle in her lungs, because I was afraid of what might happen if I closed my eyes.
“Raffi, the dream I had, you wouldn’t believe,” Mia said.
I poured myself some water out of the jug that sat on the wood stand in the corner.
“Raffi, are you listening? Don’t you want to hear? I saw Mama and Papa. They looked good.”
Mia had been four years old when they left, too young to really remember what they looked like. I always wondered, at times like this, how she pictured them.
“Mama waved for me to come. But my feet were heavy. Like when you’re standing in the river with all your clothes on and you try to walk. Like that.”
“How is your breathing?”
“Raffi. You’re not listening.”
“I heard. You had a bad dream.”
“No. It was a good dream with Mama and Papa.”
“Okay. I’m glad you had a good dream. You want some corn?”
She scrunched up her nose and shook her head. “What about a story?”
“Stories are for bedtime.”
“There could be wake-up stories.”
There was never such thing as wake-up stories, as she knew, and I explained that to her, but because I was relieved that her asthma was over, I sat on my mattress next to her and began to tell her about Pedro the burro, one of her favorite characters.
“Did you know Pedro played soccer?”
“Soccer?” Her eyes were wide.
“Yes. You see, one day Pedro was carrying a load of hay, and as he walked past the soccer field, he asked the boys if he could play. Of course, as you might guess, they said no, burros can’t play soccer. This made Pedro sad. And he became determined that he would play one day. So his master gave him a ball and he practiced in the barn. Then the day came, when one boy was sick and they needed someone to take his place. So they let Pedro play. And you know what?”
“He was fantastic. The best player. He scored eight goals. Can you guess why?”
She furrowed her eyebrows and chewed on the tip of her finger for a moment, and then she bounced up and waved her hand. “I know. Because he had four legs and everyone else only had two.”
“Exactly.” I stood. “Now I have to get to work.” The monthly market would start tomorrow and I needed to pick the avocados we used to make soap to sell.
“Okay. Let me change and I’ll be ready.”
“Oh no.” I held up my palm. “You were wheezing last night. You need to stay here and rest.”
“By myself? What if someone comes to rob us?”
“No one ever comes up here.”
“That’s the point. A thief can hike up this mountain and do whatever he wants, and there’s no witness.”
“No witness and nothing to steal. No thief will waste his time up here.”
She brushed back her bobbed hair and scratched her earlobe, giving me the feeling that she was going to try another tactic.
“My asthma is gone.”
“Don’t you want me to be with you if it comes back?” She held out both her arms, like this was so obvious that even a dumb brother could see it.
I sighed. “All right. Hurry up and get dressed.”
In a few minutes, the three of us – Mia brought Mateo, her stuffed bear - were outside. Our shack sat on a ledge of flat land that was edged into the mountainside, fronting the dirt road that wound up the hill. When we stood in our corn patch out back, we could see Pais de Nubes - Land of Clouds - our town, which sat below us in a high valley surrounded by mountain peaks.
We began edging our way down the wooded mountainside, stepping over rocks and scratchy bushes when the trail vanished, pushing through flappy leaves when it reappeared, until we reached the bottom where the trees opened up to a grassy meadow and we blinked in the sunlight.
We started toward the forest that waited on the far end of the meadow, and with me carrying my burlap bag and Mia holding Mateo, we high-stepped through the tall grass, until I saw it and stopped. It stood stiff on all fours, just a few meters away, a bony dog, mangy like so many other dogs, which made me wonder why I stopped. Why care? It was just another dog, wasn’t it?
Mia grabbed my hand.
When I was a boy, Mama would warn me about El Cajedo. “Don’t go too far from home,” she would say. “The devil’s dog is out there.” Why did I remember that now?
The dog opened his mouth, as if to smile, but his smile looked more like a sneer with his yellow knife-teeth bared. Standing there in the morning sun, I felt a chill. Just then, the dog twisted his head and a glint of light caught his eyes and for a second, the pupils flashed red. Red, the color of El Cajedo’s eyes. Then the dog cried out, or maybe laughed, before he turned and vanished into the tall grass. I stood still for a minute, wondering what I had seen.
I slowly, almost deliberately, took a deep breath of the wildflower air, and in that moment, the world went from shadow to sunlight. As I let the breath out, I felt the warm sun on my cheeks and I knew that this sun and this grass and this meadow were real, that nothing else had happened, that nothing else was here. Just me, Mia, Mateo and a forest full of avocadoes.
Mia sounded a little hoarse now. Was there a slight creaking in her chest? I thought about having her sit for a minute and rest, but I felt an urge to get away from this spot. We hurried across the field toward the outer edge of the forest where a scattering of avocado trees stood, each with a bushy canopy of fat leaves that spread out wide and dipped so low that you could barely see the trunk. I slowed to make sure Mia could catch her breath. When we reached the first tree, I bent back a branch, birds fluttering out, and I saw that all the lower fruit had been picked.
“Raffi, I’m hungry.”
“Why didn’t you eat at home? I tried to feed you.”
She lowered her head a bit. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t hungry then.”
“You sound a little raspy. Are you alright?”
We started down a path that snaked between the trees, and with Mia behind me, we walked in cool shade. Ferns carpeted most of the forest floor. I stopped at a tree with long branches that drooped with bunches of avocados.
“This one is perfect,” I said.
When Mia didn’t answer, I turned. She was hugging Mateo tightly, and her breathing looked strained. Three quick steps and I was at her side. I grabbed her arms and lowered her to the ground.
“I’m fine,” she whispered. “Just need a second.”
I knelt next to her. While listening to the grinding drone in her chest, I balled my hands into fists and tensed my arms, as if I could will it to stop. But of course I couldn’t and it didn’t seem to be getting better. Then again, maybe it was. Or maybe I was straining to make it sound better in my mind. I didn’t know.
So I watched and waited. While focused on Mia, I heard a trill and looked up to see a beautiful Quetzal, green crest and wings over a red belly, perched in the avocado tree, and it seemed at that moment that her breathing became smoother, but that was probably my imagination, the fantasy that somehow the Quetzal was connected to her breath.
When I looked back at Mia, she gave me a smile, but I could still hear the faint buzzing in her chest. Now I had to decide. Should I take her home to rest? But would her asthma flare up on the long walk, especially when we climbed the hillside? And we were right here with the avocadoes, fruit that I would turn into soap to turn into money to buy us food and clothes and whatever else we needed. Also, she could rest while I picked the fruit, which would strengthen her for the walk. Yes, as I thought about it, this was the best plan.
“If you are sure you’re alright, I can pick avocadoes here.” I pointed to the tree where bunches of our green egg-shaped harvest dangled from the branches. “Then we’ll go home.” She nodded, so I rose to my feet and made a half-turn, not completely sure if I should go. But she waved me forward so I moved to the tree, and as I reached out to grab an avocado, the Quetzal chirped, dee-dee-dough, dee-dee-dough, and I would swear, as crazy as this must be, that the little bird smiled at me. And, even crazier, I smiled back. What was this? An imaginary dog and a smiling bird? I shook my head and gathered myself, then wrapped my fingers around the first avocado, enjoying the feel, cool in my hands. I twisted and yanked it from the stem, then tossed the nipply fruit into my bag. Now a second and third one.
I glanced back and saw Mia sitting still with Mateo in her lap. Was her chest moving smoothly or was it twitching? I couldn’t tell. I gave her a hesitant nod and turned back to the tree. The Quetzal was gone now, and somehow, that made me sad for a second. Then, as I reached in to grasp another avocado, the light that filtered through the branches exposed a nest of crows roosting above. Suddenly, the crows erupted into a shriek of caws, primal and angry, causing me to wince. The flock shot out of the tree, branches left quivering, and it looked like a mass of black locusts tearing over the treetops. And then they were gone, their screams dying in the distance.
“Did you see that? Mia?” I turned and saw my sister lying on her side, curled into a ball, and what had been a hum had grown into a whine. I fell to my knees beside her. My heart thumped. She turned her head slightly, her eyes glazed, mouth open, straining for air, while her little chest shivered in fitful jerks. The tendons bulged around her neck and her face was sweaty.
Somewhere in the forest, a howler monkey let out a dark groan. Mia’s lips quivered and then a whisper came out. “Sorry.”
“For what? Being sick?”
“You… had to take care… me.”
I didn’t like this word ‘had.’ It sounded like the past, like my taking care of her was coming to an end. I didn’t just dislike it; it scared me to my core.
“You’re good,” I said, pleading. “You’ll be fine.”
The wheezing was louder now, too loud, the rasping saw-struggle for life. My hands trembled. My heart pounded so hard that it hurt. What should I do? Scream? Who would hear me but monkeys and birds? Wait, let her rest? No. She needed help now. I pulled her up into my arms, and tumbled forward into a run, rushing through the forest, dark trees sweeping past.
I slowed near the edge of the forest, panting. Just then, wind whipped through the trees, rattling the leaves, and a cold shiver shimmied up my spine. It was then that I noticed the wheezing wasn’t as loud. Was she better? Was it over? Still holding her, I put my ear to her chest. At first, I couldn’t hear anything, but when I closed my eyes and strained to listen, I could detect a hint of breathing, nothing more than the sound of a soft moan from somewhere deep inside. I shook her, my mind primitive, a bleary instinct that this would jump-start her breath.
It didn’t. A vomit of fear gurgled into my throat. “Mia, please. Breathe.” Through a blur of tears, I thought I saw a cold blue tint lining the edge of her lips. I heard a rattle in her throat. A noise like a wolf’s howl came out of me. I hurried back into a run, now rushing through the field, high grass slapping my legs. I don’t know how long I ran or when I stopped with Mia in my arms. I just know that there came a point when I knew that my sister was no longer here. And it didn’t seem real.
As I sunk down onto the grass with Mia in my arms, I felt a sensation that I had never felt before or since; a tingling that started in my stomach and ran up my spine until it exploded into my skull, my brain overcome with a ringing drone that drowned out everything. Then I went numb.
It was a long time before I could think. When I did, I remembered the traveling priest who came to Pas de Nubes every few months, and who once told us, while we waited for communion, my mother holding my hand, that the world was hard and we should never expect heaven in this life. And now I knew that he was right. There was no heaven here. But Mia, my sister, who was now turning white as an angel; Mia, my angel, had woke from this world’s dream, and she was no longer constricted, no longer hungry, no longer struggling in a world with no future because she was free from all this now and Mia, my sister, my Mia angel, could finally breathe in Heaven.
We didn’t move from our high-grass spot, me and Mia, and at some point, I noticed, with a shiver-start, that the sun had crossed the sky and was starting its blood-red decent behind the mountains. The moon was rising into the darkening sky, where it would replace the sun, and that was good because, while the sun gave us hope that was false, the cold moon told the truth. In time, a blanket of darkness covered us as we sat, waiting into the deep of the night, the lonely hours when spirits were free. Mia was cold now, and I hugged her tight.
“Would you like to hear about Pedro?” my voice whispered in the black. “I promised I would tell you what happened. Well, he did become a soccer star. He joined the Honduran National Team. Then he toured Honduras, going from town to town, greeting his fans. And when he got to Pais de Nubes, he signed an autograph, holding the pencil in his mouth, for a little girl, a sweet girl who lived with her brother. And Pedro told the little girl that he loved her.”
When the first hint of dusky light began to spread across the eastern sky, I carried Mia home and lay her on the ground outside our shack.
I kicked the dirt as I thought about how to bury her. Funerals were important in Pas de Nubes. By tradition, we would lay the body in a casket with candles and flowers, and friends would visit. Then we would load the casket onto a wagon and a procession of people would march alongside as we rolled the wagon to the small church in town for the burial. But I couldn’t do that with Mia, and I wasn’t sure why. I wondered about it, as I dug the grave.
By the time the sun was directly overhead, I was drenched in sweat and finished digging. After a drink of water, I carried Mia to the grave and lay her in the ground. Next, I picked up Mateo and thanked the little bear for being a friend to my sister before pulling a thread from his leg and putting it in my shoe, a piece of Mia to carry with me. Then I lay Mateo in Mia’s arms.
I shoveled a heap of dirt and tossed it on my sister, covering her feet, keeping it away from her face. At that moment I felt drained, and I wanted to drop the shovel. But I kept going. Now her neck was covered. One last look, and then I threw dirt on her face. My hand twitched, a reflex to wipe the dirt out of her eyes, but I stopped myself.
It was time for a prayer, but I didn’t know what to say. Without thinking, I clasped my hands together and cleared my throat. “Mia was a good girl. She was sweet.” I looked up at the sky. “And you’re a shit God for letting her die.”
But the truth was that I couldn’t blame God. He was just a scapegoat. And yet, I was angry. I could feel heat rising in me, and after wondering who to be angry with, I settled on me. After all, I let her come with me on the long walk that inflamed her lungs. And at that moment, I understood why I didn’t want a funeral. I felt shame that she had died on my watch, and I didn’t want anyone to know.
I sighed. There were too many memories here that would never be good, and I wondered if there was a way to shut them out. I wasn’t sure that was possible, but I decided the only way to clean out my mind was to leave this place. So after I dug a trench around the shack, I gathered up some sticks and leaves, and walked into the shack where I piled the brush into a corner. I shoved my toothbrush, my comb and razor into my jeans pocket and then I looked around for items to sell. I grabbed our cooking pot. It was worth a few lempira. Maybe Mama’s books? They were stacked in the corner, three of them, her trinity, from which she taught me to read: a book of poems, another about seven generations of a strange family, and the last about cowboys and a witch on the plains. We didn’t have paper, so Mama had started teaching me by drawing letters in the air and sounding them. Then she would show me the letters in these books and pronounce the words. I was reading them by the time I was ten, just a year before they left. These books had been good for me, but no one in town would want them and they were too much to carry, so I left them.
Still, there must be something I could sell besides the cooking pot. Then I remembered Mama’s trinkets. They were in the wood box by our mattresses. I had wanted to sell those years ago, but Mia insisted we keep them for when Mamma and Papa came home. There wasn’t much in the box. A chain with a cross. Rosary beads. A tiny wood carving of the Virgin Mary. I stuffed them into my other pocket. I was about to toss the box away when I noticed something. There was a tiny crack in one corner of the bottom and something green there. I picked at the crack, splintering away a few threads of wood to reveal more green under what looked like a false bottom.
I walked outside and smashed the box against our mud stove, and a piece of green paper fluttered to the ground. I picked it up and was confused by what I saw: green outlining a white background with a picture of a man gazing skyward. He was balding with glasses and he wore a military uniform with a cluster of medals. The rest of the paper was filled with paragraphs of small print, but I was only drawn to the large letters in the middle.
The Republic of Nicaragua Bearer Bond
Where did this come from? I had never heard of a bearer bond, but I knew that Cordoba was Nicaraguan money, and 15,000 was a lot of it. Which made me wonder how my mother got this, and most important, why didn’t she use this money while we lived as poor campesinos? I shook my head. None of that mattered. This was a gift, money that would get me to the United States. After stuffing it in my pocket with the trinkets, I went back into the house, threw a match on the brush, and went outside to watch it burn. As the flames leaped skyward, I felt like I had seen this before.