Footholds

Image by Paul Esson

The heady fermented smell of guava filled the room as Amalia’s mother turned off the blender, tasted the peachy-pink mixture, and added more sugar. Amalia held one yellow globe to her nose and inhaled, the smell like bubblegum. She opened her mouth to take a bite, but her mother took the fruit from her hand and chunked it for the blender.

“Can’t you see I’m trying to get dinner ready? Go help Vicky clean the rice.”

Amalia didn’t want to help Vicky clean the rice. Vicky had slapped her that morning. She wouldn’t tell, though. She wasn’t a tattle tale. She wasn’t a tattle anything. Behind her mother’s back, she made a face at Vicky, pulling her cheeks down to show the ghoulish red-rimmed whites of her eyes. Vicky glared and took a step toward her, and Amalia ran.

At the doorway she froze. Don Chago’s grey cat scampered into their yard from next door, chasing a butterfly. She didn’t trust cats. She knew they took people’s tongues and brought bad luck. She ran the other way, around to the far side of their one-room house.

Her daddy was washing up out back, his sweaty tee-shirt balled up on the ribbed washboard. With a plastic bowl he tossed water under his arms and over his chest. He leaned forward and dumped a bowlful over the top of his head and down his back. Amalia noticed he used the orange bar of Dial that her mother liked, the one that made big suds. Not the hard white soap that her mother washed her with.

“What’s up, Buttercup?” her father asked her.   She smiled and picked up his towel, holding it out to him like he needed her to bring it closer, though it was plenty close already.

“Thank you, Princess.” He nodded to her with gravity, as though everything she did were suddenly very important, and she squirmed. “What, I can’t make you laugh today?” He toweled himself dry. She glanced around for a clean shirt to hand him, but he was already pulling on the yellow tank top that said Medellin on it. Amalia had learned to read only a few words, and Medellin was one of them. Her father’s favorite team. He leaned down to let her trace the letters with her fingers as she whispered their names. “M, E, B…”

“D,” he corrected her.

She grinned and whispered even more softly, “D, E…”

She paused. Voices she didn’t know from the front of the house. Men’s voices. Her father noticed too, and she saw the muscles ripple in his neck.

“Jorge!” her mother called. That was Amalia’s father’s name but she didn’t know to spell it. Her father still had the towel hanging over one shoulder as she followed him around to the front of the house. Her mother had put on her orange flowery apron to fry the rice.

Two men in green shirts and pants, both the same. Uniforms. One had a long gun slung over his back, and both had pistols. She stepped back to the doorway. She placed both hands on one side of the wooden frame, rested her cheek on the back of one hand and watched.

It seemed like the two men knew her daddy. They shook his hand and greeted him by name. Her mom’s eyes ricocheted between the men with guns and her daddy. Amalia looked at her dad’s feet, in dusty blue flip flops, one of his toenails black where a mule had stepped on it. The men were saying something to her dad but it was very quiet, very hush what they said, and she was thinking about that black toenail.

Her dad said to the men, “Okay then, let’s go.” He kissed her mom. They didn’t usually kiss outside in the yard, and it made Amalia feel funny. Her mom looked nervous, her hands smoothing her dad’s shirt, although it wasn’t wrinkled.

“Take care of the children,” he said to her, and then he walked away with the two men. Her mom stood still a moment, watching, then ran after the men. She grabbed Jorge by the arm. He sounded angry. “Go back in the house, Esminia. Take the children inside.” Then he smiled with just one side of his mouth and said, “I’ll be right back. Don’t worry. Please don’t worry.”

Her mom nudged Amalia into the house. Vicky was already inside, stirring the rice on the burner. A two burner hotplate and a big canister of cooking gas were the presents that her father had brought home not long ago. He barked about how he was tired of hearing his wife cough and having the house smell like smoke from cooking over an open fire, but Amalia could see he wasn’t really annoyed.   He was pretending. Grown-ups liked to pretend as much as kids did, but their pretend games were different. They were mixed in with regular conversations, and if you weren’t paying attention you wouldn’t even know they were pretending. Her mom was happy about the cooking gas, really happy. Her mom was skinnier than most of the moms and she coughed more than anyone. Now her mom blinked her eyes hard as she chopped onions, and said, “He knew those men, didn’t he? He said he’d be right back?”

When they heard the shots, Amalia covered her ears and crouched down. Her mother ran out toward the noise, doing just what her father had told Amalia and Vicky never to do. “If you hear a shot or a fight, stay inside, stay low.” Amalia thought about rolling under the bed, but Vicky turned off the gas and ran after their mother, and so Amalia ran too.

She heard her mother screaming as she ran. She screamed “No” and she screamed “Jorge” and she screamed “Bastards” and she screamed “No.” Amalia and Vicky ran faster to catch up.

Amalia reached the soccer field right behind Vicky.   Amalia’s Aunt Eva must have heard the screaming too, because she came walking fast behind the girls, and in the field she broke into a run, calling out, “Esminia!” Who sat on the ground, cradling Jorge’s head in her lap, her long braid falling over his face. She was crying in a looping wail, ratcheting up louder then dropping to a hoarse wheeze before igniting again. Amalia saw her Aunt Eva lift one of her father’s limp hands and lay it back down across his chest. Vicky put her arm out to slow Amalia down, and the girls walked toward their father quietly, respectfully. Amalia saw the blood staining her mother’s clothing. The red was brighter than the flowery print of the apron, its orange and yellow swoops suddenly faded and somber.

Vicky put her arms around their mother, holding her up on one side while their Aunt Eva embraced her from the other. Their mother swayed back and forth, burying her face in the tousled hair at the crown of their father’s head. She seemed to be getting his hair in her mouth as she sobbed. Later Amalia would suck on her own hair and remember this detail.

Amalia inched closer to her father, her eyes taking him in. She started with that arm draped over the Medellin emblem on his tank top and followed down to his black toenail. His legs were buckled off to one side, like he had been kneeling, and, in fact, she saw a piece of grass still stuck to his knee. His shorts were in place, nothing strange there, and his flip flops too. The bright yellow tank top was stained though, like her mother’s blouse, and when she forced herself to look at his face, she saw his eyes were closed, his mouth was open like he was sleeping, and his lips were twisted to one side. There was a trickle of blood dripping down by his ear and his hair was matted and wet. His whole head was bloody. The lower side of his head, where her mother had placed her hand, seemed to be falling out. Amalia remembered a time she slashed her leg on a log, and her mother had put pressure on the wound, the blood slipping through her fingers. Her mother’s hand looked like that now, so full of blood and bits of head.

Soon her Aunt Eva’s husband arrived, with more men. They wrapped her daddy in a sheet, while her mother cried louder. Everything seemed to move slowly. Her daddy like a cocoon. Her momma leaning into her auntie. Neighbors talking in quiet voices and pointing toward the woods, the road, the river. Amalia watched where they pointed and wondered where the men in green had gone. Her daddy said he was coming back, but then he died instead. Were the men coming back anyways? When would they come back to kill her? Or her mom?

Four men together carried her daddy back to the house and laid him down. Someone had put extra blankets and towels on the big bed, to make it comfortable for him. Her mother followed and pulled a chair right up close to him. She slipped into it like a balloon with all the air gone out of it. Amalia wanted to crawl into her mother’s lap but that bloody blouse frightened her. She stood behind her mom and rubbed her back instead. Everyone was crying, so it was okay that Amalia was crying too. Soon Vicky brought in a bucket of water and a wash rag, and handed it to the women hovering near her daddy’s body. Amalia ran out to the backyard sink and grabbed the golden Dial soap. If they were going to wash her daddy, they should use the soap he liked.

Inside, only the women and Vicky remained. All the other young kids were sent outside with older ones to watch them. Some of the men waited out front in plastic chairs. Amalia stood at the foot of the big bed, holding on to her daddy’s leathery cold toes. Vicki ran back and forth, fetching things. Basin. Towel. Amalia stood as still as she could, so no one would send her away.

After the body was washed, people came in and out, talking in hushed tones. They asked questions of her aunt and they comforted her mother. Even late in the evening, Aunt Eva and a few others stayed, so her momma and daddy wouldn’t have to be alone.

Amalia grew sleepy, and the sleepier she grew, the sadder she got. She wanted to cry but was afraid she’d be sent away if she fussed. Every sound outside scared her. She crouched on the floor at the foot of the big bed and hugged her knees up close to her chest, pulling her tee shirt taut over them and wiping her runny nose back and forth against the worn cotton in tiny rhythmic collisions.

Vicky told her to lie down, over on the little bed they normally shared, even though a neighbor woman was already dozing there, her feet pointed to the floor. It made Amalia angry that Vicky should act so grown up, so generous and wise.

“You’re not the boss of me!” Amalia hissed, her first words since they had returned with the terrible corpse of her father. Vicky hushed her and that made Amalia even madder.

Besides, how was she supposed to go to sleep now, without her daddy? Who was going to rock her and sing to her now?

Amalia couldn’t stop the sharp empty feeling along her arms where her daddy wasn’t holding her. She ran out into the yard and around the back, where she had held the towel only a few hours before. She ran her fingers along the rough ridges of the washboard, the rippled concrete sanding her fingertips. In the yard, just three men remained, sitting on blue plastic chairs, keeping watch.

One of the men was Don Chago, the one whose cat terrified her so. Tonight the cat didn’t seem so scary. Nothing was as scary as men in green who shoot people. Don Chago was leaning back in the chair like he was sleepy too, but just as reluctant to go to bed as Amalia was. Amalia walked up beside him, to get a better look.

Don Chago had blue flip flops like her daddy did, but even more scuffed up. He was fatter, softer, than her daddy, his thighs spreading out on the seat. The wide belt that held up his baggy shorts hung under his big stomach. He wore a tank top like her daddy did, but his was red, faded to pink. There were some words on it, but they weren’t words Amalia knew. His grizzled face hadn’t been shaven in a while, and some of his teeth were gold and some were not there at all. He smiled at her a little sad smile that made his eyes water. Some grownups smile at kids in a way that’s pretend – a smile that says, “Don’t bother us now.” But Don Chago smiled at her like she had as much right as anyone to be there tonight. More right, in fact. He smiled at her like he knew she missed her daddy, and like he’d been around long enough to know she wasn’t going to talk about it.

She touched Don Chago’s knee and he lifted her up into his lap. He helped her get comfortable there, her face resting on his chest, her legs dangling to one side. The words he said weren’t words at all, just murmurings of hush now, so-so, alright. She could hear the other men’s voices once in a while, but with her eyes closed the only words that reached her clearly were the few words of Don Chago. So-so, alright now, uh-huh. She fell asleep there, muffled against the old man’s chest, the damp night air hanging sad and quiet all around her.

The next day felt like a story of a day, unreal. First Aunt Eva’s husband brought a long wooden box and they took her daddy to the cemetery to bury him. The sky threatened to rain as they gathered around the hole in the ground, and everything felt hurried. Amalia and Vicky stood with their mother, who seemed like she might fall in the hole, too. All afternoon people stayed with them at the house. Amalia slipped in and out among the people, letting them touch her hair, picking up plates and cups and taking them to the wash sink in the back. At dusk the visitors left, and it was only the three of them in the house. The rain pelted down on the tin roof making it hard to talk, not that Amalia wanted to. They unscrewed the bulb early. Amalia fell asleep with Vicky in the small bed while her mother slept alone in the big one. She heard her mother sobbing in the night, her face deep in the pillow. Vicky got up to slip in bed with their mother and Amalia followed. Somehow it hardly felt less lonely, the three of them falling together into the sagging middle of the big bed.

Within a few days, things began to fall back into their routine. People still brought food over for them, but they didn’t stay as long as before. Aunt Eva checked in on them a lot. Vicky went back to school. Their momma laid down, the windows and doors shut and the bulb loose, because she said the light made her head hurt. She spent a lot of time lying down.

Amalia found four shiny Congolese Hearts and dragged them through the dirt in the yard, making patterns. The little one was her favorite, a warm reddish-brown seed with a dimple on top, like a heart. The next biggest seed was shiny black and perfectly round. The two larger ones were copper colored, and one had a mossy green spot on it. She drew big flowers like the hibiscus her mother had planted in the yard. She lined the seeds up by size and traced a house around them, next to the flowers. The biggest one would be the daddy, with his one green eye. Then the momma, the big sister and then the little sister, the prettiest one of all. She picked up a twig to draw a tree reaching over the house, when suddenly her stomach hurt. Picking up the green-eyed seed, she squeezed it in her hands, furious. Don Chago’s cat was sunning himself nearby, and she threw the seed at him as hard as she could. The cat ran inside his house and Amalia kicked the rest of the seeds away. She ran to the door of her house before she remembered her mother was resting, and stopped. There was nowhere to run to. Her daddy was still dead.

Don Chago came out of his house. He looked around for what had startled the cat, then fixed his gaze on her.

“Can you carry a coconut?” he asked her.

She nodded.

“How many you think you can carry?”

She shrugged. He raised his eyebrows like he was waiting for an answer, so she raised her hand and held up four fingers, then slowly added one more.

“Five coconuts? Okay, then come with me.” He started walking down toward the river. She looked back at the closed door of her house and trailed Don Chago, a few paces behind. He didn’t walk fast, his wide body rolling side to side, slumping over first one flip flop then the other. Near the river he turned down a narrow path that ended at a tall coconut tree. He held the trunk with both hands and left his flip flops on the ground as his feet pressed against the ringed trunk of the tree. There were places on the trunk where a machete had cut into it and the trunk had grown out around the wound, to form a toehold. Amalia ran her fingers over the lowest one. She liked how it felt to press her fingers hard into the place the tree had bled and then trace lightly the knob of living bark that sealed it.

Like a much younger man, Don Chago walked up the side of the tree, hand over hand and foot after foot. When he reached the green hanging globes, he pulled out his machete and told Amalia to stand back, way back. Five green coconuts fell to the ground, and the old man grunted as he began his careful descent.

The coconuts were big ones with bristly husks. Looking at them now, she knew she couldn’t carry all five, and she hoped he wouldn’t be mad at her. She held out her arms as wide as she could, and the old man laughed.

“Here you go,” he said, loading her up with one coconut under each arm. He showed her how to bear them so that the scratchy part of the husk wouldn’t touch her skin.

They walked back the way they came, him lumbering ahead with three coconuts in his arms. When they got back to his house, he pointed to the stump for splitting logs, and she put her two coconuts down. With his machete, he quickly peeled back the rough green casing and cracked the hard inner shell. He handed her the first coconut to hold while he peeled the second one, then motioned to the plastic blue chairs, still forlorn in the yard between their houses. They sat sipping their coconuts, without saying a word. The water was refreshing. It eased the tied-up-in-knots feeling that had overtaken her.

When they had drunk the coconut water, he piled three coconuts on her stoop and said to her, “Tell your mother that I can open those for her, whenever she wants.”

“My mother can open a coconut.”

“I’m sure she can. But tell her I don’t mind.”

Amalia nodded. Maybe she’d tell her. Her mother wasn’t eating much, anyhow. Neighbors stopped by to ask about her, or to pray with them. Some came and left right away, like killing were contagious. Don Chago himself had brought a string of fish the day before, neatly gutted and ready to fry. He didn’t stay to eat, but at least he never said she had to be strong now, or that she should try to cheer her mother up.

That night, Amalia hugged her own arms and rocked herself, but still she couldn’t fall asleep. All she could feel was that her daddy wasn’t there. Before dawn, she let herself out of the house as quietly as she could. She knocked on Don Chago’s door, softly. He must have been awake, because he answered right away.   He let her in and settled into his big wooden chair, saying “My, my. Can’t sleep, little one?”

She crawled into his lap and nuzzled against him while he swayed back and forth. So-so now, alright. He smelled sour and sweaty, but still she could catch a whiff of Dial soap. His breath smelled like beer and a toothache, and she liked these smells. She felt like an animal in its burrow as she leaned into his chest.

Days later, Amalia’s mother came over to Don Chago. “You know you don’t have to keep her here,” she said to their neighbor. A week had gone by since she had found Amalia’s daddy killed in the soccer field. She had just barely started leaving the house to talk to people again. Amalia scratched patterns in the dust on Don Chago’s floor with a pair of Congolese Hearts, listening to what her momma was going to say. She didn’t know if her mother liked her coming to Don Chago’s, but she kind of thought she didn’t.

“I know,” he said to her mother. “She ain’t no bother to me.”

“All the same. We’re doing better now. She doesn’t need to be running over here every night. Nearly scared me to death the first time.”

“I told her. She has to tell you where she’s going. She’s just a little bit, can’t be running around after dark.”

“Well, Vicky’s been sleeping with me, too. I think we’re all just…” her mother’s voice broke a bit and she stopped. Amalia watched her. Her momma was even skinnier and paler than before.

“You know, she’s like a granddaughter to me. You can keep her home if you like – I won’t let her in – but it’s no trouble at all if she wants to stay. I got her her own little blanket.” He nudged his chin over toward the pallet on the floor, with a blue blanket folded on top.

Amalia’s mother nodded, but she still seemed reluctant. Washed out. Amalia ran to the piece of fishing net that Don Chago had nailed up on the wall and put the pair of seeds in it beside the shell he had found for her, then followed her mother home.

A few days later Amalia ran in from playing, just in time to overhear her Aunt Eva and her mother at the stove.

“She always was a daddy’s girl,” her aunt said.

“Vicky was the same at her age. Couldn’t let Jorge out of her sight.” Amalia darted a look at her mother’s face. Usually when she said her daddy’s name, she cried.

There was a knock on the door frame, although the door was open. Don Chago stood there with a string of fish in his hand, and Amalia ran over to take them from him.

“Little bit, go get some water to keep those cool until your mother is ready to cook them.”

“You’ll stay to eat with us, won’t you, Don Chago?”

“I don’t want to cause you any trouble, Esminia,” said the old man. But he lingered all the same.

Vicky called him Grandfather, though he wasn’t. Family didn’t work like that – you didn’t get to choose, even if it sometimes seemed you did. Amalia wondered how to spell it. If the green men came back, she could write it on his grave.

About Janey Skinner

Janey Skinner is a writer, teacher and human rights activist, based near San Francisco. Her story, "Carnivores," was selected by Stuart Dybek for inclusion in the Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology. Her work has appeared online in KYSO Flash and Writers Resist, as well as several print anthologies. She is working on a novel.

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