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Isa slipped into Sarita’s ice-cream shop and lolled at the counter. Her dark hair hung in ropes down her back, her huipil was unhemmed, skirt dusty. Hilda, a thick-set woman, looked back from the sink, a smile lighting her worn face.
‘Hello, Isa, my love,’ she laughed, and turned back to rinsing cartons. Hilda was known for siren blasts of startling mirth; peals that made others giggle even if they’d missed the joke.
[private]Isa shifted from one foot to the other, bursting to say something. Hilda, stacking cartons in lop-sided piles to dry, didn’t notice.
A family stepped into Sarita’s to study the menu boards.
‘I want scoops,’ the daughter said.
‘A waffle cone,’ said the granddaughter.
‘Scoops?’ asked the old man.
Isa stood, twisted against the freezer, her message on hold. The old man was twice grandfather’s size, the old lady had cropped flossy hair, so unlike granny’s long grey plaits tied with rags. The Señora, like a freshly-picked hortensia in frilly Lycra, was made-up and perfumed and nothing like Isa’s mother. The girl was a hand taller than Isa. Isa envied her hair clips with plastic daisies stuck to them. Wished she looked as shiny with so much colour in her cheeks.
Hilda smoothed her pinafore over her square hips, tucked a wisp of hair firmly behind her ear and tilted her head attentively.
‘Vanilla, dipped in chocolate and nuts.’
Hilda folded herself over the cabinet, shovelling grainy ice-cream into generous clods and trowelling it onto the cone. She dipped the scoops in the bain-marie and the melted chocolate set from shiny to dull. A sliver of drool escaped Isa’s lips before she sucked it in, biting her lip. Hilda slid open freezer doors and shifted boxes around, fishing for a vanilla sandwich. The old man pointed to a tub of dulce de leche, wordlessly.
Isa wedged herself deeper into the corner, between the drinks cabinet and the wall. From the shadows, her eyes, dark as dried plums, darted from one face to the other, ogling the lips and tongues that nibbled or licked. She followed the trickle that curled around the girl’s wrist and dribbled onto the floor. Hilda busied herself, folding empty cardboard boxes, stacking them behind a fridge. The family left the shop strewn with wooden sticks, plastic spoons and wrappers. Hilda began to sweep behind the counter, working towards the front.
‘So little Isa, what brings you here?’
‘Mama sent me.’
‘To bring you a message.’
The little girl scrunched up her face.
‘With flu? A cough? Fever?’
She struggled to find the words: ‘Mama says it’s serious.’
Hilda looked hard at the child, heaving a sigh.
‘Let me finish my work. Or there’ll be none tomorrow.’
Stepping onto the pavement, Hilda’s world expanded briefly. The plaza with its pruned ficus, cement benches and tiled empty stage. The hefty colonial whitewashed church was counterbalanced by a smooth-barked, improbably tall ceiba. At the far end of the park crouched the brown statue of the legendary Matalbatz, chief of chiefs, who’d refused to bow to Conquistadors. Young men and women sat on church steps, drinking atol. A micro-bus hovered at the corner, accelerating and stalling, bus-boy hollering ‘Coban, Coban, dale, dale.’
Hilda was weighing things in her mind: how bad might Juanito be? She never visited her sister these days – couldn’t bear it. Calamity befell Ana like rain floods and drought blighted the Verapaces these days. Drunks, poverty and children. Hilda warned her to go slow, but the babies kept coming. Her fifth died; and still she had four more. Hilda’s pothering dismay plunged into resignation. She stopped asking how sisters, raised in the same house, could end up so different. One or other of the kids showed up at Sarita’s during the day. Mostly they just dallied; basking in the shop’s bright colours, the comings and goings. Sometime she gave them ice-cream. Hilda’s favourite, Isa, less tarnished by want
than her siblings and still at school, was her most regular visitor.
In half an hour it would be dark, the streets empty, Hilda safe indoors. Eric’s twenty-four-hour shift would keep him in the city tonight; her only daughter would visit with her baby. They’d laugh over sweet bread dunked in coffee. When Eric got home at dawn, he’d tell her of his night; hit and runs, bruised women, an accident with a machete. Few Cruz Roja stories had happy endings, but Eric tried his best. His placidity was the antidote to her vivaciousness. On days off, he tenderly washed his rusting black Corolla Deluxe, kept under a blue blanket in the front yard. Or spread his freshlyscrubbed white T-shirts with their Red Cross logos on the bonnet to dry. Then stood, stork-like, against a pillar, nodding at neighbours’ chat, stroking his paunch. He didn’t chase women like Hilda’s first husband.
When she stepped back into the shop Hilda had half forgotten Isa, but she was still there. She’d have to go to Ana’s after all. She hung her pinafore on a nail and lowered the grille to the floor. She counted the takings and hid them under the freezer. Locking the shutter to the ground with a padlock, she took Isa’s hand and they picked their way across the plaza, alongside the market and toward the outskirts. They walked in silence, past the big cement block houses, till the buildings thinned. Soon they were passing board shacks with tin-corrugate roofs surrounded by maize. And still further they went, across a bridge and past cattle. Night sky clouds, backlit by a sickle moon, lent a glow to the dips and mounds of rainforest. It was balmy, all wrong for this time of year, dreaded for its seeping cold. Hilda was glad of the mildness,
though she knew it hinted at thinning rivers, shrivelling rice and withering stomachs.
They neared Isa’s home. Smoke came from the chimney but the house was too quiet. She pushed on the makeshift door, falling off its hinges. She could make out Ana, kneeling on the dirt floor, by what remained of a glowing fire. As her eyes adjusted she saw all the children huddled on an old mattress, some hidden under dirty clothes and blankets. At the edge, swaddled in rags, was Juanito, face swollen, eyes staring, listless.
‘Ay, Hilda, thank God you’re here.’
‘Isa said you wanted me.’
‘I knew you’d come.’
No one spoke for a while. There was just the sound of the baby suckling and children dreaming. Hilda knew that Ana was preparing what to say.
‘Diego was picking macadamia last month, but there’s just coffee now … none of mine are old enough to help. Alone, he barely fills two sacks. A man needs a drink after he’s broken his back for eleven hours. If I get to him first, I take what I can … these days he finds new holes to hide in. By the time I root him out, it’s all gone. Then I’ve nothing to feed the little ones. We’ve eaten tortillas for weeks … no black beans, plantain, forget anything else.’
‘Ana, how many times …? You’ve good kids, but look, Rosa’s not been to school for three years. And the others … without food in their bellies, how can they …?’ Hilda fell silent. The time for chiding was long gone. Ana had followed in her mother’s footsteps; it was simply that everything around them had changed. Men weren’t made in Papa’s mould any more, food was scarce, people had lost faith in their gods. It had happened perplexingly fast.
‘Have you taken Juanito to the hospital?’
‘Yes … three days ago.’
‘What did they say?’
‘He’s not long to go.’
‘They said that?’
‘They were angry …’
‘Because you didn’t bring him when he fell sick!’
‘Doctors know nothing; hospitals are dirty, full of disease.’
‘They could have helped him. What’s wrong?’
‘They gave me pills and bags of Incapariña. They said he must eat better and drink lots of water … With what can I do?’
Hilda calculated if she gave Ana what was tucked in her bra she could manage the next three days on beans and credit, till she got paid.
‘Here … but what about next week and after? I’ve nothing left for myself. You’re my sister … If your husband drinks, throw him out. Better without him. Send your children to school. Or in ten years they’ll be in the same place.’
‘Thank you little sister, bless you. Where would I be without you? I’ll do as you say, I’ll go to the doctor’s tomorrow, ask the priest to help. Tell Diego to go …’
Hilda wasn’t listening; Ana said whatever came into her head. As she stood up she felt dizzy. She went over to the bed and stroked Juanito’s brow. He gave no sign of knowing her. As she picked her way along the stony path back to town by starlight, the soft tread of a child caught her up. Isa thrust a crumpled piece of folded paper into her hand. Hilda bent down to kiss her warm scalp and put the paper in her cardigan pocket. Her head ached and her legs throbbed. This was how life was. For a moment her mother’s tinder eyes blazed in her head and she thought she heard the cough that had faded the frailer she grew.
She wondered if it were better for Juanito to escape this suffering, then pushed the thought away. Instead she recalled him, newborn in her arms, light as a basket of forest mushrooms. She thought of the Sunday he’d stolen a chuchito from the pot and she caught him sharing it with a street dog. Of the night he stayed at her house and she’d warmed up water for him to shower; the fright of his skin stretched taut over his ribs, like thread on a loom.
When she got home she scrubbed the soapy clothes she’d left to soak. By the time she hung them out the clouds had moved on and a sliver of moon lit the yard. She opened the tap so that when public water came, in the early hours, it would fill the pila. Indoors, she put tortilla-coffee on the gas and ate stale sweet bread. The Evangelists finished singing and the yowling dogs took over seamlessly. Hilda took off her skirt and got into bed. For once, she didn’t turn the television on. The tears of helplessness came hot and fast. She remembered the paper in her cardigan pocket and fished for it. She unfolded it under the white light of the bulb. It was a picture such as any six-year-old would draw. There was a house, with a chimney and smoke. A tree with curly green leaves. And outside, on the grass, were a mother with a babe-in-arms and a father. Seven children of different heights stood in a row. A yellow sun shone down on them. It wore a smile on its face.[/private]
Cassandra Passarelli has run a bakery, managed a charity and sub-edited; travelled in the Middle East, Africa and Sri Lanka; studied literature, journalism and creative writing. She runs a children’s library project in a Guatemalan village, swims in the River Chi’o and practises yoga. She’s published in Earlyworks, Cinnamon Press, Pulp.net, Salt River Review, Litro, Takahe and shortly in Switchback.