Alexandra Lytton Regalado
Máma Carmen said Ada came to burden her life because she was born blue-eyed. Not that milky grey that most new mothers boast about. Later, you see those same babies propped on their mothers’ aproned hips: sunbrown and skinny, eyes dark as azabache stone with a stick-straight shock of black hair. Same as every other man, woman, and child from Canton Chancala.
This was not the case for Ada. The partera swabbed a cloth across her brow, handed her over to her mother still bleeding on her cot, and she gasped when Ada opened her eyes, blue as mints. “Dios guarde,” said the partera, and took a step back, making the sign of the cross. Like no color found in nature, Máma Carmen thought. Like the slap-dash coat of turquoise paint intended to give cheer to cemetery headstones. People stood whispering under the eaves of their ranchos all day long.
Her husband came staggering home two days later, stinking of guaro, took one look at Ada’s blue eyes and called Máma Carmen a puta. She convinced him Ada had his lips, the unmistakable stamp of the Gonzalez, a fish pout their older children shared. “I’ve called her Adalia, after you, Adán,” she offered. “Adalia Eduvigis with her saint’s name.” Adán fiddled with his hat brim, his face deeply tanned and creased from years of cutting cane. Máma Carmen intoned, “Amorcito, can’t you see she is a gift from God after all those babies we lost?” For a couple of months, he stuck around, just long enough to see downy blond curls sprout from Ada’s otherwise coco-liso head. Then he spat on the floor, turned without saying a word, and disappeared for good.
Máma Carmen says Abuela Consuelo was also blonde and blue-eyed. She who died in the Chalatenango mountains at the onset of the civil war. A snapshot tacked to a bedpost, the only photo ever taken of Consuelo, showed a little girl standing on the roadside, carrying a flower-print umbrella and squinting under a backlit halo of blond hair. Abuela Consuelo’s rancho was burned to the ground by guerrillas and Máma Carmen, just a teenager, was led crying and screaming across the river by her tia and tio. Ada’s older brother and sister were both dark-haired and dark-eyed. And a decade later, the war over, Abuela’s photo turned to ash. And so nothing to prove she really was Adan’s child.
Ada was a colicky child and even though she wore the red wool cap and red socks, the red bead talisman around her wrist to keep away the mal de ojo, Máma Carmen was certain a jealous visitor had given her child the evil eye. After Ada’s birth, Máma Carmen had more sewing business than usual. Neighbors brought dresses to tailor, pants to mend, and though Ada wailed in the back room Máma Carmen insisted the baby was asleep. Always, these visits ended with clients cooing to Ada in their cradled arms.
Unlike her older children who had only mewled once or twice before falling asleep, Ada was willful, having mastered a stabbing cry that culminated in blue-lipped breath-holding, arms and legs stiff as a corpse. The only thing that soothed her was being nursed. Bare-breasted, Máma Carmen spent hour after hour crouched over some woman’s shirt, embroidering birds and flowers while in her lap, her daughter drowsed on a cracked and bloody nipple.
Then, as suddenly as the colic started, it ended, though the cure proved more disturbing than all those nights filled with Ada’s cries. It was the peak of zafra and more than half the cane fields had been harvested. Their house stood at the dead end of a dirt road. A rusted chickenwire and izote fence enclosed a small patch of backyard. Then the pitted gully of a stream, and beyond that, vast, waving canefields.
To cut the cane, they first had to set fire to the field so the razor-edged leaves wouldn’t slash to ribbons the harvesters’ arms. Cane fires always sounded like the spit of rain on dry leaves. Then, the suck of oxygen, flames towering like a roaring ocean. The night lit up in a blaze of sunset oranges and the fleeing animals ducked into safe burrows, scrabbled up trees, or through the cracks of neighboring houses. The next day, everything dusted with ash, the only green the lush canopy of a centennial ficus tree standing at the corner of the razed field.
Máma Carmen imagined the snake out feeding when the fire was lit. Imagined it sliding over the smooth stones of the creek bed, through the rivulet of water, across their backyard, and through the eave to the rafters of their clay-tiled house. For two weeks, Ada had slept through the night, and although she looked pale and a little thin, Máma Carmen didn’t afford it much importance then. “Such a good baby,” she cooed.
It wasn’t until two weeks later, when Josué, her eight-year-old son, awoke with a middle-of-the-night fever, that Máma Carmen discovered what had happened. Josué parted the curtain separating her bedroom from the main room and screamed, dropping the flashlight when he saw the snake.
In the candlelight, Máma Carmen slept sitting up on her cot, her breasts bare and dripping milk onto her lap where Ada was cradled. Josué backed into the corner and cried out, “Mamá, Mamá! La masacuata! La masacuata!” and pointed to the rafters. Máma Carmen held out her arms and Josué ran crying to her bedside. She looked down at Ada’s face, her lips pouted in a perfect O and her tongue and cheeks moved as if suckling on something invisible. “The snake, Mami, it was drinking. It was drinking from your chichita,” he sobbed. “Ada was- was sucking on its tail.” Máma Carmen put her hand over her breast and felt the electric heat of her milk coming down. She had heard the stories about la masacuata, every woman in every pueblo had heard them. “Shh, hijito, you’re burning with fever,” she said and smoothed his hair. “It’s a bad dream.”
In the guttering light, she scanned the room, the darkness of the peaked roof. Snakes were attracted to milk, she knew that. She’d seen the limp body of the seven-foot masacuata they’d dragged out of Don Manolo’s barn. Eusebio Sanchez had held up the bloody blade of his corvo, said he’d discovered the snake suckling from a cow, the newborn calf tight in its coils.
But that night in her rancho, Máma Carmen never closed her eyes. She slept with her fevered son and newborn tucked at her side; she thought of her oldest daughter sleeping alone next to the sputtering hearth but didn’t dare get up until sunlight. She never saw a trace of the snake, not a wafer of shed skin, no pellets studded with hair or feathers. But she also never did see another mouse, spider, or beetle in her rancho. And though Máma Carmen took care to bind her breasts tightly each night, assuring no smell of milk would escape, Ada slept the whole night through, quietly in a hammock. Sleepless, Máma Carmen prayed rosary after rosary as she watched Ada suck, trance-like, at the air, the tip of her tongue peeking out from her pink, parted lips.
* * *
Peak of the dry season, a hot gust swayed the canefield, silencing the cicadas’ shrill alarm. Ada walked between the planted rows although Mamá had forbid her to enter the field. No matter that in September other nine-year olds, her own classmates, would be wielding machetes alongside their parents. Day in, day out, Ada traced a path through the canefield to her hideout. The knee-high leaves looked harmless, the green of lizards and sour candies, the mounds of newly tilled ground soft beneath her feet.
Knapsack slung over her shoulder, Ada reached down to grab a handful and pressed it together to form a tight ball. If she could toss it up and catch it whole, she could break her promise. Mamá had sent her for firewood—and if you bring me thin green branches I’ll use those to whip your shins, girl!—but there was something she had to do beforehand.
She caught the ball of dirt neatly and then crushed it in her fist. Once more to be sure. Again, she launched it up and the ball landed intact in her palm. But as she approached the end of the planted rows, she packed a third ball and launched it forward. Perhaps because the field was more sand than dirt it broke apart between her fingers. And that’s when she ran towards the giant ficus.
Near the rocky patch at the field’s edge she stumbled to her knees, though she didn’t stop to examine her injuries until she reached the shade. Bright blood crowned her kneecap. She clapped the dirt off her hands and used the hem of her school uniform to wipe her wound. Though the scratchy navy fabric didn’t show the stain, she smelled the dried blood on her underpants. Not one word of it to her mother; Ada was sure it meant she’d been bad, that her heart was honeycombed with lies. Not two days before, she had dawdled on the way to fetch water and arrived after the town pipe had run dry, found it leaking its last drops, enough to fill her jarra with three sorry mouthfulls.
For nights she’d wanted to ask her mother to sing her to sleep. Dormite niñita, cabeza de ayote, si no te dormis te come el coyote. But her mother would not. Any child old enough to fetch water and gather firewood knew better than to ask. “It’s the end of the day,” Mamá would say. “I’ve got nothing left to give.” Ada would not invite those words. To fall asleep, she stroked her own head, gliding her fingertips over her lashes and brows, smoothing the hair on the top of her head. Si no te dormis, Ada sang the lullaby but the threat of the words snapped clear once they lost that sweet incantation of her mother’s voice. Shhhsst went the candle flame, snuffed.
The sun pressed a bright ring around the ficus’ canopy, the fat trunk engraved with hearts and condemnations. She walked between the undulating roots, traced the tree’s scarred bark, the puffed letters of the older inscriptions, the jagged cuts of the newer carvings. Some letters repeated, some letters crossed out. Hanging vines created pillars and archways, secret caverns and pockets, and to enter her hideout she had to turn sideways into the oval slit where she then squatted and hugged her knees to her chest, the buds of her breasts pressed to her thighs.
How was it that a man and woman fit together? At school she’d discovered the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s picture of a many-layered woman. She’d turned the first page and peeled off the transparent skin, exposing the landscape of pink muscle, the birdcage of bone, until the woman was stripped to a puzzle of multi-colored organs. The mystery had to do with love and pain, like a thin hot wire across her entire body. Like how she squeezed pinpoints of blood from the scrape on her knee.
The pink sac between the woman’s legs was not unlike the ficus’ secret pockets. Not unlike this place she’d discovered, and where, over the years, she’d found a knife wrapped in a dirty handkerchief, a nest of empty eggs, a bundle of love letters, a lace-edged panty, the papery skin of a snake that crumbled between her fingers.
For the last two nights, a masacuata had visited her dreams, the snake’s coils squeezed tight around her waist. In the morning she’d found a rust-colored stain on the sheets between her legs. The second night Ada pleaded with the snake, tried to pry open its jaws to see if it would talk. It spoke only with its eyes. If she wanted to stop bleeding she would have to give him her only doll. Though she was too old, it was the only toy she had ever owned. Anita with the flower diadem, blond curls, and click-clack blue eyes.
She slipped the pack off her shoulder and placed it to one side. In the farthest recess of the den, she dug a shallow grave. She wanted to open the bag’s flap but seeing Anita’s sleepy eyes would only make her cry. Instead, she slipped her hand inside the bag and placed her finger in the doll’s curled palm. Then, she pushed the dirt back and sat atop the mound. The cicadas started their wailing and through the oval slit she looked out at the cane spears. It seemed it would never rain. She squeezed her cut kneecap again and pressed her lips to the jeweled blood.
* * *
At twelve, Ada protected her waist-long hair by braiding it in tight coils. When she was little, her mother had tried to shave it bald, saying, “It’s not a punishment, it’s the piojos,” and pretended to crush a louse between her fingernails. Ada saw the speck of dirt and knew better, that her mother hated the draw of her blue eyes, hated how people always wanted to touch her hair. Mamá claimed she hated it too, but kept the white-blond baby ringlets and all the sun-streaked tips in a shoebox in her top drawer.
Each morning when Ada reached the paved road she let down her hair and spread it like a mantle across her shoulders. All her life, neighbors, old or young, teachers, classmates, street vendors, everyone treated her special. But each afternoon her mother, who spent her days sewing and eating pan dulce, would huff as far as she could up the street. She’d stand in a patch of shade, the wide stratas of her breasts, belly, and hips balanced over calves crosshatched with veins and call out, “Get in here, Ada,” and snap her wrist. “Niña condenada.”
Mamá stopped sending Ada on errands, gave her no money to buy sweets after school. And yet each day, Ada came home with a baggie of peeled green mangos or a square of sugar-dusted semita, the telltale purple of snowcone honey impossible to wipe from her lips. Her forearms were often covered with bruises, that tight grip of fingers and pinchmarks left by her mother.
But that Easter Sunday, her hair loose and her arms unmarred, she walked to church in her best dress. The one she’d worn for every special occasion, years in a row, now sizes too small, the pink satin stretched tight across her chest and so she’d left two buttons undone, and the straps off the shoulder. The dress dug into her arms as she hefted a Styrofoam cooler from one hip to the other. Mamá’s earnings from sewing were not enough and so on weekends they sold tamales after mass at the soccer field. The 9:00 a.m. sun sparked the tin roofs of the neighboring houses. It seemed the first rains always fell on Good Friday but that year, though storm clouds threatened each afternoon, the ground was still tinder-dry.
Canton Chancala seemed hinged between two seasons, rain and drought, thrive and survive. Along the road the scrub-brush sizzled with insects, strewn trash, plastic bottles like alien eggs in nests of dried leaves. The countryside a patchwork of browns except for the flowering trees’ pom poms of yellow and pink snagged in bare branches. Wait, they seemed to say. Just wait, we can live beyond this. The trees in the field, how they told it over and over.
Ada liked to hang back, her mother a silhouette through the flowered nylon of her umbrella, her hips and shoulders swaying as she walked. “A woman is like a jarra,” her mother liked to say. “Like a clay jug, perfect and whole. But let that pot fall—no matter if you put together all the pieces—it will never hold water again.” With each footstep, a small explosion of dust rose from the baked ground. Ada attempted to step inside those wide footprints and smile at boys pedaling their bicycles, without her mother noticing.
“Teach yourselves not to want the things of this world,” was how the priest opened his sermon. Ada looked at the banners of cheap lace that arched over the congregation, the women hooded in makeshift kerchiefs of a folded hand towel and little girls itching at their spangled, stiff skirts. Fans stirred the hot air above the plastic chairs, as men stared blank-eyed into the empty bowl of their straw hats. In the back, their sons played catch with an oily rag or munched on fried plantains, sucked on copper-colored sodas from plastic bags. What was there to want in all of this? A skin Ada wished she could shed, like the splitting seams of her satin dress.
What had the things of this world taught her? That she was different. That people would treat her the way they do all things they misunderstand, a corner-of-the-eye sidestep, equal parts curiosity and dread. And lately, those girls at school all baring their teeth.
A few rows ahead, her classmates Rosalia and Yancy stood straight-waisted as boys, their empty bustiers sagging as they leaned over to kiss each other’s cheeks as a sign of peace. Rosalia must have felt Ada’s eyes on her because when she turned, she lifted her eyebrow and mouthed, Que? Ada tried a smile, but Rosalia whispered into Yancy’s ear. Ada took a deep breath, inched her dress down, her breasts bulging out over the top like the textbook pictures of Spanish queens as she kneeled along with the rest of the congregation. My body, she thought. What say did a snake have of its markings, a bird the color of its feathers? She was that kind of animal, showy and bold.
Beyond the single line of coconut palms that separated the church from Chancala’s soccer field, came shouts from those already warming up for the Sunday match. She cracked open the cooler lid, the tamales still warm. Her mother swatted her hand; throughout all of Lent she had tried to use her most patient voice. The time of sacrifice, Ada thought, was coming to a close.
When everyone lined up for Holy Communion, Máma Carmen and Ada slipped out and made their way to the sidelines where they set up their stall beneath the patchy shade of a cocoplum tree. Ada plucked a ripe fruit from a low-hanging branch and popped it in her mouth, the flavor of spun sugar spreading across her tongue with each small bite.
On the sunny field, the boys yipped and whinnied as they sprinted up and back the entire length of grass. Those on the sidelines bounced soccer balls from knee to knee, sometimes to the crowns of their heads. Aside from the water vendor, her cheeks splotched with maroon birthmarks, Ada and her mother were the only women on the field. Men gathered on the sandy slope beneath the coconut trees drinking guaro from plastic flasks and cheering on their sons. In the far corner, a young man leaned on the hood of a faded Datsun with its flame appliques and a racing fin. When Ada met his eye, he started to walk over.
Over the years, legions of boys, as well as many older men, had tried to cuentear Ada, she with eyes like jewels, hair of gold. But this man just smiled and held her gaze, while Máma Carmen tended to customers. He approached Ada’s side of the stall. A dusty blue cloud floated over the iris of his left eye. She made sure to select the fattest tamal and wrapped in the brightest green leaves. When he smiled at her, she imagined herself as a kite floating in a sun-struck sky.
After the customers left and the man returned to his Datsun, Máma Carmen turned to Ada. “You think I don’t know what you’re doing?” she said, and when she gripped Ada’s arm, Ada could feel the crescent moons of those fingernails piercing her skin. “Men like him will chew you up and spit you out. Te comera viva!” She stepped in front of her daughter, away from the bystanders that had turned and stared. Then she gripped the neckline of her daughter’s dress and yanked it up. “You may look like a woman, but you’re still a child.”
The noon sun intensified, the heat winding around Ada’s body and her mother leaning close and whispering, “What you have, niña, it is both a blessing and a curse.” A thin moustache of sweat formed across her mother’s lips. Ada closed her eyes and in the background she heard the slurred shouts and sniggers of the men, everything gone quiet in the lull of the soccer game.
Between the branches of the cocoplum the air was laced with dust. Mamá took a step forward, ran her hands across her daughter’s hair and said, “Listen to what I tell you.” Ada could tell her mother’s intention was gentle, but when her fingers snagged in the tangles Ada whipped her head, stepped away and said, “What could you know? You who couldn’t even keep your own husband!”
Máma Carmen’s hand came down hard across Ada’s lips and cheek, though she didn’t cry until she’d made it all the way to the church courtyard. Obey, obey. Mamá had meant to knock her clear of her stubborn ilk. Instead, each word had served to reinforce Ada’s will.
Ada walked along the road, kicking at stones and grinding insects into the asphalt. Near the turn off to her house, the Datsun with the flaming door panels pulled alongside. The man looked over, leaned across the seat and flung open the passenger door. She settled into the hot vinyl, and within seconds the wind was tugging at her hair, like a white flag, a sail, a ghost hand trailing from the open window.
* * *
Ada searched the smoke and alcohol of his tongue, wondering what he tasted in hers. They’d driven into the hills and parked beneath a tree between the chicken-wire fence of a pasture and a canefield. Shush, the cane waved its lavender plumes as he ran his hands across her body. She felt the heartbeats of animals crouched beneath the dry skirts of the underbrush. Maille-skinned zumbadora, vesper rat, savior beetle—one thing chases another, a never ending chain of open mouths.
Gray clouds gathered in the east, swallowing the hills of overgrown cane. Of him she knew only this: every time she tried to ask his name, his age, anything about him, he leaned in with his rough beard, pushed her harder against the seat. He sucked on the curve of her neck, traced his lips along her clavicle. No, she wanted to say. No. But her words were like the bare scratch of a matchstick. He pulled down her dress and as he licked her skin, her heart guttered and waned, and she felt her whole body pulse in wicks of flames. “No,” she said, finally, and inside her, that no flared. Her body lit up like cane fire, the heat climbing the stalks inch by inch, flames tight on the field’s green hips.
As she tried to push him off, he whispered into her ear, “No, niñita, don’t pretend. You know you’re going to give it up.” Followed by the rumble of thunder and in the corner of the window above her head, the first few drops of rain. On this switchback road, they hadn’t passed a house for miles. Might this be like being buried alive? Ada closed her blue eyes, click-clack and the sound of rain in a steady ssshhhhhhh.
He gripped her neck as he grunted above her. She was a stupid girl. In sheets of water the lacquered leaves nodded yes, yes, and yes. She was broken. In curtains, veils, everything slipped from her hands. She thought of her mother’s words and she felt them whole and perfect. She would carry them all the way home, down the long stretch of road, all that guilt balanced on her head like a jug of rainwater.
When he went to unbuckle his pants she lunged for the door. He shoved her back, slapped her full across the face and as she clawed and bit and kicked, the tinny taste of blood filled her mouth. Her ears rang with her own screams; the rain warped to the sound of fire. She imagined it rising, sucking the air to cellophane, opening its throat of smoke to a roar, a waterfall of sound that even tomorrow the men would claim to hear as they angled their machetes, sent them singing into the stalks. Even the cane field would say—Search the ashes, I am here, press my flesh until my veins run clear. Sweet is my strength, grip the burnt stalks, and throw me to the ground. I will never be yours.
Alexandra Lytton Regalado, co-founder of Kalina press, is author, editor, and/or translator of ten Central American-themed books, most recently the bilingual Salvadoran poetry anthology Theatre Under My Skin (2014). Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Notre Dame Review, MiPOesias, Narrative, OCHO and elsewhere. Her full-length manuscript was finalist for the 2014 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and her poetry chapbook, La Lotería, won Honorable Mention in the 2013 Center for Book Arts Competition. Nominated for Best New Poets 2012, Alexandra holds an MFA in poetry from Florida International University and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. After living in the U.S. for two decades, she presently resides in her birth country, El Salvador, with her husband and three children.