Below is the complete short story, Little Maria, previously posted here only in segments. While the story is new, it is based on a chapter from my novel, Unidentified Woman, a literary crime about rape, revenge and redemption. I believe it stands alone as is, and will reward you handsomely when you read it.
“If life is a garden,
Women are the flowers.
Men are the gardeners,
Who pick up the prettiest ones.”
I sing this song while jumping rope with Adela, my best friend, before going off to school. I’m only twelve, but Mami keeps telling me I should grow up and stop jumping rope. Do things girls my age are supposed to be doing, like helping her in the kitchen and learning how to sew. I hate it when she says that. I’m holding tight to the rope that connects me to my childhood, afraid of losing it, afraid of growing up. It’s as if somehow, don’t know how, I know what lies ahead.
The dirt road to school, that’s what lies ahead. Adela and I run hand in hand there, skipping between the small stones, still singing that silly song a boy at school taught us yesterday, about the flowers and the gardeners. And laughing about it too, questioning who is the prettiest one: her or me? And this boy, Angelo his name, is he in love with me or with her?
We come off the bend to the only half-paved road in our poor little village, happy to bounce on solid ground. Just then a black car suddenly stops near us, making noise and raising dust. Never before in my life have I seen such a beautiful, shiny car. I can see myself reflected in it, like in a twisted mirror. But only for a second, because the back window rolls down immediately and a man pokes out his head, asking me for my name. Maria, I say. I hate my name, I really do. It’s so…
He tells me to come over and show him the way to our school. Adela whispers in my ear that I shouldn’t do it and drops my hand. But I do it anyhow, maybe because Mami always told me to obey men. Especially older men like him. When I get closer he opens the door suddenly, grabs my hand and pulls me inside. He is very strong, so it’s easy for him to place me in the backseat between his legs and push my head down. All I can think of is my schoolbag: why did I leave it behind on the dirt road? No matter, Adela will bring it to school with her. Of course she would. That’s where we are going, isn’t it?
The car answers me by taking off screaming. I want to scream too, but I can’t. His stinky hand is on my mouth. It hurts me so I bite it. He curses bad words and hits me on the back of my head. Now I really scream. He is strangling me. I can’t breathe. His firm thighs clap my hips. I can’t move. I can’t shout. I close my eyes.
When I close my eyes, I’m afraid the world that was promised to me—going to school with Adela, meeting Angelo and our other friends there, studying history which I like the most, our daytrip next week to the Mayan ruins, even graduation and going to high school in town—may be gone and lost forever. And together with the cloud of dust I imagine the speeding car is raising behind as it leaves our village, an evil cloud is falling all over me. Covering me with eternal darkness and sadness.
But the sun keeps rising. How come? Doesn’t care much about my darkness and my sadness. Brings a new day with her too, bright and chilly morning when we arrive at a farm, after driving almost the whole day and night. Don’t know where we are.
All I know is, during the night they stopped only once for an hour or two to eat and sleep in the car. Not me—I didn’t eat or sleep at all. The man who grabbed me and held me also touched me in my private part. Nobody ever did that to me before. His fat finger went inside and hurt me so bad. They were laughing about it later but I kept crying. Like I do now, when he gets out of the car and pulls me along with him.
Can’t see what the outside looks like. High walls are surrounding this place, that’s why. Don’t want to see it, anyhow, want to go back home and be with my Mami. Promised her yesterday morning before leaving the house to school that I won’t be late. More than anything else in the world I now want to help her in the kitchen and learn how to sew. But how can I explain to her why I’m so late? How can I tell her what this man did to me in the car? She would never believe me, I know her. She would tell me it was one of my stupid dreams. Better for me to die right now.
We found another girl for you, Big Mamá, the man who drove the car tells a big fat woman who comes out of the farmhouse. She wears baggy pants and sloppy, thick shirt over her mountain belly. Not even a skirt or a dress like the women in my village wear. She’s not damaged, says the ugly man who grabbed me and held me all night when he hands me over to her, but keeps crying all the time like a baby.
I want to go home, I say, trying to control my cry. I want my Mami. These are the first words I say since they took me away from Capirato, my home village. Maybe because she is a woman, and a Big Mamá, she would understand and send me back home. But her arm, the way she holds me, is even stronger and more hurting than how that ugly man held me. And her voice is threatening when she tells me: I’m your Mami now, so stop crying!
Cry even louder when she says say that. She is not my Mami. She is…
Slaps me. So hard she slaps me that I see only dark skies and lose my balance. But not on the ground I fall—falling and falling into deep and empty space. Going to die. Dear God: please let me die.
He didn’t. Wake up lying on a narrow mattress thrown on the floor, without a bed even. One side of my face is burning but the rest of my body feels so cold and numb. Above me I see a crowd of many faces: girls like me with dark falling hair and brown eyes, my age or maybe just a little older. They look at me with sad eyes. Never saw such sad eyes before, as if someone placed old eyes in these young faces. One of them is holding a wet cloth to my burning cheek. She takes it off and puts it in a little bowl of water that’s on the floor beside me.
What’s your name, she asks me. Maria, I whisper. Me too, she says. That’s why I hate my name so much, it’s so common. Where am I, I ask her. The farm, she says.
They look at each other, then around. Are they afraid to talk about it?
It’s a coca farm, one of them volunteers. Soon you will see.
A door opens and they all fly away. Like angels they fly. Maybe I’m in heaven after all. A coca farm in heaven, that’s it. Can hear clapping. Not the clapping of wings but of Big Mamá’s hands. She is standing by the door to the narrow hall we are all in. She is like a storybook giant. Her body covers the whole doorway. All the other girls gather around a long table near the entrance, where one of the girls is already busy bringing food to the table. Think she has wings the way she moves. Am I dreaming?
Don’t think so. Because I hear Big Mamá calling me from the doorway: We’re waiting for you, Little Maria, come join your sisters.
Stay still on my mattress. So she is Big Mamá and I am Little Maria. How come? I’m not little and I’m not hungry. Hear myself saying that: I’m not hungry.
Big mistake. Now she is coming over. Dear God, please stop her!
She stops by my mattress and kicks it, but not too hard, saying: You’re going to eat, Little Maria, hungry or not!
She may think I’m little, but I’m not stupid. Her voice is harsh and she raises her hand too. Know already what’s coming to me if I won’t get up. So I do. Leave my little piece of heaven and join the other girls at the table. After I sit down Big Mamá says the blessing and then we eat. Or pretend to eat the way I do. Terrible food: dirt soup and some dry tamales. My tummy and my head are aching for my mother’s food, poor as we are. See myself sitting there, suddenly, at our round little kitchen table at home, doing homework after school. Just the way it always is.
Hear Big Mamá’s voice comes from far away, telling the girls to be nice to me because I’m new at the farm. Anybody caught telling Little Maria lies will be punished, she warns them. You know how and you know where. All the girls but me nod their heads. Then Big Mamá orders me to follow her. Never obeyed anybody in my life the way I obey her now. Not even Mami or Papi. Not even Mr. Dominguez, old grumpy, the school principal in our little village.
Only when I get out of the hall do I see that it’s already evening outside. Most of the day I was away from this world and they didn’t even call a doctor. What if I was dying? Who cares. Not even me.
We walk in a long narrow corridor. See some dogs outside in the dusty yard. Hear music and laughter coming from open windows. How could it be: music and laughter here, in this awful place? What kind of a place is it, anyway? Dare not ask Big Mamá that.
We enter a dirty bathroom that has a toilet hole and a metal tub with a shower above it. She instructs me to take off my clothes but I refuse to do it in front of a stranger. Mami warned me not to do that. But the evil giant grabs my hair, my beautiful brown hair I love so much and bangs my head against the cold wall. You’ll do as I tell you, Little Maria, she yells at me as she waves a fat finger in my face. Or you’ll be dead tomorrow!
Do as she says. Not because I’m afraid of dying. Oh no—I would prefer to die. But she knows how to cause great pain, Big Mamá. That I already know. Learned my lesson twice. My head hurts so bad but the cold water takes some of the pain away. Turn my back to her as soon as I can. No matter, she turns me around and turns the water off. Looks at me naked, up and down. Nobody ever looked at me like that before. Orders me to lie down in the cold tub. Do as she says again. Shiver very hard, like a flame in the wind. Maybe because I’m so scared.
At home we don’t even have a bathtub. Think about it when she spreads my legs and places my feet on the edges of the tub. She looks down at my private part and I look up at the dirty ceiling. She touches it with her fingers and I see the spiders crawling slowly in their cobwebs above. She examines it but not like that ugly man did, the one who grabbed me away. She doesn’t hurt me so much. Why are they all so interested in my private part?
You can’t trust them animals, comes her answer as if she heard my question. Then she smiles and says: Good, Little Maria, you’re still a virgin. Get dressed.
Know already what virgin is. Mami warned me to stay that way until I marry the man I love. You and I talked about it a few times, Adela, remember? Feel like talking directly to you now. Do you hear me at all?
Big Mamá hands me a torn nightgown, thick and rough like an onion sack. She bundles my clothes into one little pile, my lovely school skirt I love so much as well, and hands it to me. She then lifts me up like I was some little doll and places me on a stool. She is using this threatening voice again, telling me to listen up. Nothing I can do but listen. Her teeth are yellow and some are missing. She has a small mustache too, almost as thick as my Papi’s. You’re going to sleep now, she continues with her instructions, because tomorrow morning you’ll get up early to work. You’ll wear these clothes, she points at my school uniform that’s under my arm.
Will I go to school too, I ask her. Big Mamá strokes my hair gently. Such a surprise. Surprise that it feels so good. She even smiles at me with her ugly yellow teeth and says: This place is your school, Little Maria, and I’m your teacher and your headmaster. You’ll do as I say, and everything we’ll be all right.
Don’t know what she means by that. This place is not my school—I love my school. Think about it when she leads me back to the hall where all the girls are. There is only one naked light bulb at the center, hanging down from the cracked ceiling, spraying fuzzy yellow light around. Find my mattress, where there is now also a thin, partly torn blanket. Put my bundle of clothes down under my head like a pillow and cover myself with the blanket. But I’m still cold.
There is an icon of the Virgin Mary in the corner and one candle burning underneath it. Each girl in her turn kneels down there and says her prayer under the dark eyes of Big Mamá. She forces me do so too, so I say a prayer for my Mami to come over quickly, save me from these bad people and this horrible place and take me back home. Then I lie down again like all the other girls.
Good night sisters, says Big Mamá. No more talking. She turns off the light and leaves, closing the squeaking door behind her. Then it is quiet, but not for long. Hear whispers in the dark. Some of the girls get together around one mattress. Not me—stay still. Think of you, Adela: what are you doing right now? Hope you took my schoolbag with you. Will need it when I get back to school. Be sure to tell Senora Molina what happened to me so I won’t get tardy marks and be punished when I come back. Would you write down our homework assignments for me? Sure you would. You are my best friend ever. You are my real sister, even if you called me a retard once. Why did you call me that, Adela? And why did you drop my hand and allow me go to that car?
Maybe you knew something I didn’t. Mami always said I was a bit slow. But if I was slow it was all because she sheltered me so much. Think of her now, and of my two brothers, Jose and Joseph. For the second night there is no family sandwich, because the middle girl is missing. Can’t even laugh at our family joke anymore. What do they think of me now? Do they think I ran away from home? That I don’t love them anymore? Of course I do. They must know that.
Cover my head with the stinky blanket. Feel as if a dark, heavy cloud is covering my soul and pressing hard on my chest. Want to go home and be with my Mami. Want to hear her telling me a goodnight story and give me a big hug and a soft kiss. Begin to cry again, just thinking about it. Without voice I cry because I don’t want the other girls to hear me. Like soft rain my tears fall, all night long.
It rained during the night but it’s a clear and sunny morning now, when Mario is pulling me off the bus before it leaves the farm. He is the man who took me away from my village and touched me in my private part. He is driving me away in that same beautiful black car as he did then. Don’t know where he is taking me. Don’t know why he is taking me. Afraid he is going to touch me again. Terrible as everything is, I now miss my sisters. Hard as the work at the factory on the edge of that ugly, dirty town is, I now want to go back there. Maybe I got used to it.
Every morning before dawn I get up, eat hardly anything, then ride in this noisy bus to town, to the clothes factory there or sometimes also to the assembly plant. Work all day there like a slave on the sewing machine, or at the assembly line, then come back to the farm, eat nothing much then go to sleep on the mattress that’s on the floor. Only one day off, Sunday, to wash our clothes and ourselves. Get to read the Bible if I’m lucky. It’s the only book they have here at the farm. You are free to read anything you like, Adela, but not me. You remember how much I like to read, don’t you?
Don’t know the date, or even what day of the week today is. Don’t know how many days and weeks I’m already here in this farm. Some girls call it the Coca Farm, but I’m yet to work in the coca field or in any other field. Every few days a different girl will go to work there. Most times she won’t come back. Don’t mind going away and never coming back. It’s so sad here, and the girls are so sad too. Not like you and me, Adela, back in our village. We used to sing and laugh and play every day. Miss it so much. Miss you too. Do you ever think of me at all?
Here they don’t even talk much. Learned why on my second day on the farm. Big Mamá took me away when we came back from the factory. Could hardly walk, I was so tired and hungry. Thought she was showing me the farm, the horses and the cows, the chickens and the pigs. But instead she led me outside the walls and showed this me this big hole in the ground full of snakes. A real snake pit, Adela, I’m not lying to you. A worker was feeding them mice. Saw a skeleton there too.
You see this snake pit, Little Maria? Big Mamá asked me. Yes, I see it, I answered. If you ever talk with anyone, she warned me, about anything that happens to you here, during the day especially, you’ll end up down with the snakes. You understand?
Yes, I understand. What else could I say? What could I tell anybody anyhow? There is nothing to tell, and nobody to tell anything to but you, Adela. Maybe it’s better for me to die here, I was thinking. Jump down into this snake pit and die and be like that skeleton down there. So I took one small step forward, as if to see better. But Big Mamá held my hand firmly and took me away from there.
Don’t be stupid, Little Maria, she told me on the way back, speaking suddenly with a softer voice. We need you here. And you… you have good things coming to you in the near future. Then she led me back to our sisters’ hall.
Why did she tell me that? And why do they need me here, anyhow? Me, Little Maria as they call me. Did she see something in my eyes that made her say that? And why, walking back from the snake pit, did I suddenly feel some warmth coming from her hand, holding mine? As if she really cared about me. As if she really believed good things would happen to me soon.
Now I know why. I have a strong feeling, especially on this morning when Mario is taking me away from the bus, when he is driving me through the flat fields toward those rolling brown hills, that one day soon I’ll be back home. That’s why the girls who go to the coca field never come back.
Feel lucky today, Adela. Breathe the clean, fresh air. Listen to the singing of the birds. Smell wild flowers. Shake my hair loose and let it fly. Quiet is suddenly all around me, and I can listen to myself thinking for the first time since I was kidnapped. Maybe there is a future for me after all, like Big Mamá said.
Work alone, the way Mario told me to. Not with the other workers I saw on the way here, before we entered this small narrow valley, hidden in the shadow of these high mountains. The work is easy, and much better than the hard work at the factory. All I do is water the coca plants with the black hose. The shrubs are about my size, no more than one meter and twenty tall. They don’t seem thirsty to me at all. But still, I fill the shallow circles that surround them with water.
The water is streaming so nicely and then, when it’s full, I move the hose around to the next plant. Feel the gentle touch of the breeze coming down from the hills. Hear the birds singing and the wind whispering, as if trying to tell me some secrets. See the water swirling and see yellow butterflies fly all around me. My wish at this moment is to be a yellow butterfly.
But then, suddenly, I see a long shadow in the water circling the plant. Hear footsteps too. When I raise my head to look, the man is too close for me to run away. He is tall and old and Gringo. He is wearing boots and cowboy hat, like in that movie we saw together once, Adela, in our village. Remember?
The hose drops down from my hand as if it has a will of its own, and I take a few steps back. That’s when he takes his hat off and throws it on the ground. His head is bald like a melon and so ugly. He looks me up and down. What for? He smiles an evil smile. You’re all mine, Little Maria, he says in Spanish with an American accent.
How does he know my name? Hate that name so much. One day I’m going to change it. Turn around and begin to run. He chases after me and grabs me from behind. Scream as loud as I can, but nobody hears me. Where is Mario? Where is Big Mamá? Where are the other workers I saw when we drove in here? Where is everybody?
He pushes me to the ground and turns me around. He looks at me like some wild animal. What does he want? I have no money. I have nothing for him. Scream again. This time he slaps me, once on each cheek. See the skies above him swirling like the water around the roots of the plants. He tears my shirt open and kisses my chest. My neck too. Feel how my legs are being spread apart. He lifts my skirt up and pulls my panties down. Maybe he wants to check my private part too. Why do they all…?
He does something in his pants and then I feel it. I feel a sharp pain and then something hard getting inside me, cutting me like a knife. He lets me scream, while he pushes it in and then pulls it out again. Why he keeps doing this?
He wants to kill me this way, I think. Where is God? I call on him: pray for him to strike this man dead and take him out of me. He groans real loud just then and pushes even harder. Feel something streaming deep inside me. Someone must have hit him on his head. That’s why he groans so hard, like the pigs in the farmyard. That’s why he falls on top of me as if he is dead. So heavy, breathing so hard. He doesn’t even move. Maybe God heard me at last.
But still, he breathes. And not so hard anymore. How come?
He pulls out of me and gets up. I’m burning inside: from the hurt and from the pain and from the shame. Don’t know why I feel shame—did nothing wrong. Can’t move or even bring my legs back together. My school skirt is still up but there is nothing I can do about it. Can’t move. My eyes are closed but I can see Mami at home in her kitchen, preparing dinner. She knows nothing. She would never believe me.
He is alive. Can hear him pulling his pants up and buckling his belt. He is whistling. Don’t know that song he is whistling. Why is he so happy, while I’m so sad? Why didn’t I listen to the secrets the wind was trying to tell me, as if urging me to run away? And where was God when I needed him the most? Busy with other, more important things? He let me down again, that’s what he did. Don’t need him anymore. This man was stronger than him. And he left something inside me. It’s dripping.
Maybe it’s the water from the water hose. Or it’s in my private part. Must have peed I was so scared. Without thinking much I touch it. It’s wet and warm, so I look at it. My fingers are full of blood. Lightning strikes my chest and my head at the same time. Dark is all I see now. Then nothing.
Nothing matters. Nothing but surviving another day without suffering even more pain. Night is my only friend here, my only time alone with myself. And with you, Adela. Tell you this: I wanted to die out there in the coca field but God didn’t listen to me. Maybe he has better plans for me. Don’t believe so. He didn’t kill the man who raped me. Now I know what rape is. And I know that there is no God, only Big Mamá. She saved me—don’t know why. She sees something in me that makes her want to save me. Hard as she treats me sometimes, she takes care of me almost as if I’m her own daughter. Now I’m her little helper too. Dumb Little Maria.
All the sisters are away at the factory on the outskirts of that ugly border town, Ciudad Juárez. Or out in the fields being raped. Either you are slaving at the factory, Adela, or you are being raped at the coca field. Or sometimes even both. If you die during the rape, or after, they toss you out of cars into the desert like piles of garbage. For the hyenas and birds of prey to eat.
Not me. Five times I was raped this way in the coca field but came out alive. Don’t know how. Don’t know why. That almost never happened, Big Mamá told me. Maybe that’s why she saved me at the end, after what the chief of the farm did to me. His name is El Meya, because if he catches you he’ll eat you alive like a spider crab. Big Mamá says he knows everything about farming and agriculture, and that he experiments with growing the coca plants here on the hills. It’s not their natural place to grow, she says.
As if I care. It’s not my natural place to grow, is it? He was so cruel to me, Adela, you can’t even imagine what kind of savage he was. You won’t find someone like him in any of the adventure and pirates books we used to read. He beat me up so hard first, then stripped me naked and tied me to a big tree. He did it to me from behind so I won’t see his face. But I know he was chewing a coca leaf while he was doing it to me. He was just having fun, you see, while I was crying in pain.
The other four, like the first one, were all Gringos from north of the border. Don’t understand why they need to come here and do it to us Mexican girls. Don’t they have rape farms in America? Big Mamá says they have everything there. That’s the name I gave it myself, Adela: rape farm. Because that’s what it is.
Now everybody thinks I’m deaf and dumb because I don’t speak anymore. Decided not to. No reason for me to talk. And I will never sing again, the way you and I used to sing. Remember that silly song we sang on the morning I was kidnapped? Always thought you were the prettiest one. Guess these evil gardeners decided that I was the one. So they picked me up from our garden. Yes they did. And used me: now I no longer pretty and my smell of innocent is all gone. Don’t understand why they didn’t kill me too.
But I almost died today. Suddenly I fall and pass out in the middle of cleaning El Meya’s room. Next thing I know I wake up in that cold empty tub. Feel a terrible pain in my tummy and in my pussy. Sorry for talking to you like that, Adela, but that’s how they all speak here around me. It’s no longer my private part, you see.
Nobody knows it better than Big Mamá. She is standing above me, holding some twisted wire as lifts something out of me. Her hands are full of blood. She throws it into the toilet hole and washes her hands while I scream so hard. Because of the sight I scream, even more than from the pain. But she signals me to be quiet. She takes a warm, wet towel and places it between my legs. She crosses my legs over it, then puts another small and wet cloth over my face and eyes. It smells terrible, so I close my eyes. Feel how I’m drifting away into a different world. Think I’m going to die at last. But still, feel Big Mamá’s hand stroking my hair. And hear her voice saying: Don’t worry, Little Maria, you’ll never get pregnant again.
Happy to hear that. Don’t want to go through that operation ever again, it’s so painful. What do I care if I’ll never have children? Who will want to marry me, anyway? Want to die, that’s what I want.
But she keeps talking to me. Don’t understand a word she is saying anymore. All I can think of are her hands, full of blood, carrying that poor little thing and throwing it into the toilet hole. And that if, if I’m still alive the next day, they are all going to pay for it. Don’t know how and I don’t know when. But you know me, Adela, you know how long I can carry a grudge. Remember when I didn’t speak to you for almost one year because you didn’t invite me to your eighth birthday party? Why didn’t you?
Never mind now. Forgive you. Forgive you even for dropping my hand that morning I was kidnapped, and not pulling me away with you. But I can’t forgive these men. Will make them suffer one day, you’ll see, for everything they did to me. Now I’m just a wounded bird, that’s true. Like the little turtledove you and I saved one stormy day in my last winter at home. Remember how wet and wounded it was, its wing broken? It couldn’t even fly, poor little thing. Yet it was dreaming of flying again.
Getting stronger now, after Big Mamá’s operation. Every evening I prepare dinner for my sisters, that’s why I’m the first to notice the new girl as she tries to climb up the stairs. Her skirt is torn, and her thighs are full of blood. Know what to do now, so I take care of her myself. Shower her and wash her clean, then I call Big Mamá. But she is mad at me and takes her away.
Is it my fault, Adela, for doing that? Don’t think so. Because the next day I stop sweeping the floor upstairs in the corridor when I hear shouts and screams coming from the yard. See El Meya and Mario carrying that worker, the one who raped the new girl, to the center of the yard where the well hole is. Big Mamá told me he grabbed the new girl after she stepped down from the bus, back from the factory. He took her to the stables where he raped her in front of the poor horses.
He is beaten very bad already. Can see the blood on him. Everybody in the farm comes out to watch. Big Mamá too. She doesn’t even mind that I stopped working. She looks at me close and I can see some sorrow in her eyes. That girl was a top prize, she tells me. Like you were once.
Know what she means.
Gringos pay many dollars for virgins, she continues. You know that by now.
Yes, I know that by now. But why didn’t she warn me before that I was such a top prize? Why didn’t she save me before I was damaged so bad? Before I was left to die on the ground of the coca field. Before I lost my will to speak.
I’m filled with rage again, Adela. Hope you won’t blame me for that, and for what I’m going to tell you now. Can’t take my eyes away when El Meya shoots the bastard. Then, after Mario strips him naked, El Meya draws this big shiny machete out of his side belt. That’s what he does, Adela, I’m not lying to you: he cuts the penis of the dead man and sticks it in his mouth. Just like that. They both laugh, Mario and El Meya. And they leave him dead there, under the bright summer sun, where the mean dogs of the farm are having a feast now.
Need to go back to my work but can’t stop looking. Me, Maria, who back home couldn’t even hurt one little fly. You used to laugh at me, Adela, the way I would feel guilty all day long if I accidentally stepped on a wondering ant. Lover of cats and dogs I was, but now I watch this man being eaten by dogs without closing my eyes or looking away. It makes me feel good, you know, watching it. Lost one God, who didn’t listen to my prayers. But found another God. This new one listens to me. Believe me he does.
Not today maybe. Because today Big Mamá calls me into her room in the morning after all the girls leave for work. That never happened before, Adela, so I’m afraid I’m in big troubles. She has a nice room with a real bed, and a white sink too. She tells me to sit on a wooden chair opposite her, while she sits on the bed. Don’t know what I did wrong. Don’t know why I’m being punished this way. All I know is, after El Meya she is the most powerful person on the farm. Even more than Mario. But now my luck with her is coming to an end, I’m afraid.
You’re very lucky, Little Maria, she tells me instead. You survived one year in the farm. Today is your anniversary!
Had no idea a year could pass so fast. Maybe it’s fall again, don’t know. This morning really felt a little chilly. Lost all sense of the passing of time and of important dates. Truth is, I think less and less of Mami and Papi. How come they didn’t look for me? How come they didn’t call the police? How come they didn’t come here to rescue me from this horrible place?
But I think of you, Adela, all the time I think of you. What you doing this minute? What you look like now? Sure you are pretty and all the boys are crazy over you. There are no boys here at the farm at all, just ugly, bad men. Sometimes I imagine I’m back at school, or even jumping rope with you again. Like we used to. It’s the only thing that makes me feel good: remembering that.
She kisses me on my lips, Big Mamá, for a long time. I don’t like it. She hugs me too. Almost kills me, so strong she hugs me. Then she tells me that one day, if I start talking again, I will take her place as Big Mamá. Because I’m strong, that’s what she says, and because I’m a survivor. Very few girls survive here the whole year.
Thanks, Big Mamá, I nod my head. But I want to ask her how come she is here doing what she is doing? How come she is helping these men do all those terrible things to us girls?
Me—I would never do that! And how come she never wrote to my parents when I arrived here? How come she doesn’t call the police right now? How come she hit my head against the wall that first day in the bathroom? And how come she kissed me on my lips like that just now?
But before I can ask her any of these questions, before I attempt to see if I can speak again, she surprises me with a present. A nice, small box wrapped with colorful paper and tied with red ribbons. She tells me to unwrap it and open it so I do what she says. Find a box of chocolates inside, Adela. Can’t believe my eyes. Haven’t seen a piece of chocolate in such a long time. Live on tamales with beans and dirty porridge. So I take one piece and put it in my mouth. Chew on it very slowly. It tastes like no other thing I have ever tasted in my life. It tastes like heaven.
It’s all yours, she tells me when I hand the box back to her. I’m too fat as it is, she says and taps on her big belly, as if I don’t see it. As if I didn’t feel it when she hugged me. Now come here, she orders and directs me to the sink. So I do as she says, and wash my hands and my face under her guidance. Brush my teeth for the first time since I was taken away from home. Look at the strange face in the mirror and don’t recognize it. See only sad, tired eyes. See pimples too. See a different girl. Hate what I see.
She brushes my hair gently meanwhile, then puts some red lipstick on my lips. She ties my hair with the red ribbon from the box of chocolates. She turns me around and hands me the box. No work for you today, Little Maria, she says. You earned it. She hugs me again, but I turn my face away when she tries to kiss me. Take the box but don’t move. Afraid she is angry. Go ahead, she waves her hand at me, do whatever you want today. But don’t leave the house. I will call you if I need you.
Can’t believe how lucky I am. So lucky that when I enter the empty sisters’ hall I’m tempted to stop by the icon of the Virgin Mary and say a thankful prayer to her. But I don’t. Not yet.
Lie down on my mattress and stare at the ceiling, at the cracks and cobwebs. Eat another piece of chocolate. Very slowly I eat it. Feel as if the taste of the chocolate in my mouth lifts me off the mattress. Stay suspended in the air above it. Maybe if I eat all of it I will fly all the way to heaven. Or even back home to my family. And to you, Adela. Going to eat it all and see.
But then, on second thought, get up and do something else with it. Place one little piece of chocolate at the center of every mattress where each girl sleeps. I am only one piece short. Hope the last two will share one.
Lie down on my mattress again and place my hands on my chest, over the heart-shaped pendant. The one you gave me, Adela, for my tenth birthday, with the golden necklace. It’s the only thing I still have from home. Close my eyes and see you going to school. You are alone. Call your name. Ask you to come jump rope with me again. Come share a piece of chocolate with me. But you just keep on walking. You don’t hear me at all.
Day of the Dead:
Hear shouts and orders all day. There is a big celebration tonight ahead of Dia de los Muertos. We work all day to prepare for it: clean the big barn for hours. All the girls—no factory work for them today. We fix up the whole place, the farmhouse and the yard too. The pariah dogs are chained already. Lambs and pigs are slaughtered and are spinning over the fire. When the sun goes down torches are being lit everywhere. Paper skeletons and sugar skulls, some real ones too, are hanging now in every corner for decoration. We even splash water on the dusty ground.
Mariachi band arrives at sunset and starts playing and singing. How strange: forgot there is music and singing in this world. Cannot move, just standing still on the balcony and listen to them. How beautiful it all sounds. Almost like home.
All the girls take shower and get new dresses. They look very nice. Not me—I stay in my dirty old sackcloth. Dumb Little Maria, damaged forever. Just watch the guests arrive, that’s al. Never saw so many nice shiny cars before. Police cars too. Can see policemen in uniform coming out of the cars. El Meya and Mario greet them. They shake hands with the policemen and lead them to the barn, where the music is merry and the smoke is heavy. Can see it rising from the roof up to the sky.
Big Mamá is wearing a real dress. Her hair is arranged high and she wears lipstick. Never saw her like that before. She orders me to stay inside the sisters’ hall and not dare go out. She takes all the girls with her but me.
Think of you, Adela, as I lie down on my mattress. Can see you in your beautiful white dress you used to wear. Remember how we decorated our houses together? How we led the procession to the cemetery once, holding hands, our proud parents and all the people of our village behind us? Can still hear the gunshots. The way I hear them now.
Hear music and singing voices too. Hear laughter and giggles. Breathe the smoke and smell the meat being cooked. The only one not invited to the party is me. Stay alone in the sisters’ hall, so big and empty now.
But it’s difficult to fall asleep. Think more and more of what I would do to them if I ever get the chance. Those men who raped me, I mean. Imagine very ugly things. Feel like I can kill someone now if I ever get the chance. Like Mario or El Meya. But just thinking about it frightened me also. Don’t recognize myself anymore, Adela. Don’t know what is happening to me. Hope you don’t hate me. Hope you would still be my friend when I come back home one day. You were my only true friend at school.
Maybe I should run away now. What do you say? But where to? Close my eyes and try to imagine it: running away into the desert, into the hills where the coca field is. And farther away even, into the high mountains. Keep thinking about, just as I feel I’m falling asleep.
Wake up in terror. For a moment I’m not sure where I am. In my dream there was a big fire in our village. Remember the fire Alfredo once made, Adela, on the eve of Dia de los Muertos? Papi used to call him the village idiot. Others did so too. Maybe he was, don’t know, because he set fire to his parents’ home while he was still living with them. He was so happy, dancing around the burning house. Some of our village people chased after him, while others tried to put out the fire. Do you remember, Adela, that big fire? Or am I still dreaming?
Sit up on my mattress suddenly and slide my feet into my sandals. Don’t think anymore, just act. Walk to the door of our empty sisters’ hall. But before I leave, in the doorway already, I look back one more time. Just to make sure. Then I close the door.
Outside it’s still dark, but I know it’s already Dia de los Muertos. Just know that, Adela, don’t ask me how. The main yard is empty: everyone is still in the big barn, celebrating. Hear the music. Hear the singing and the laughing. Hear the screams of my sisters. Hear gunshots too.
But it doesn’t bother me. I walk to the main yard and stop by the well, where Mario and El Meya killed that worker who raped the new girl. There are burning torches there so I lift one up and walk away with it. Nobody is around, Adela. Nobody sees me or cares to take notice. Only the mean dogs of the farm are here, but tonight they are all chained. They can bark all they want. They can do no harm to me.
Walking as if I’m floating on air, so light on my feet I am. Maybe I’m still in my dream. See all the cars near the farm’s gates, parked very close to one another. Like our herd of sheep back home. But I see no drivers inside the cars. They are all at the party.
And then, suddenly, in the middle of them all, I see the black beautiful car. The one that came to our village one day last fall and ended my life as I knew it and loved it. The one Mario pulled me into. The one he took me in and drove me away to my first rape.
And again, like in a twisted mirror, I see myself reflected in that shiny car. But no longer I am that innocent girl, ready to be plucked away like a pretty flower. NO. Only one year older I am, or maybe a little more than one year older. But really, Adela, the way I see it now: I am ten years older. Or maybe even one hundred years older! Old woman warrior, that what I am. And I have this torch in my hand.
So I throw it into the car through the half-opened window. And I stay still, until I see the fire catches on in the seats of the car and begins to bloom and grow. Only then do I turn around and walk away toward the gates.
Who left them open? No guards tonight? The police and government officials are all here. No need to worry then about leaving the gates open. They can come and go as they please. They can eat the farm’s pigs. They can drink the farm’s tequila. They can smoke the farm’s coca. They can rape the farm’s girls.
Can hear them scream and cry all the way here, my poor sisters. Don’t worry, I tell them in my heart, I am on my way to bring you help. But still, I look back again. Cannot move yet, as if I am stuck to the ground. Then I see how the beautiful black car is exploding in the air like a big mushroom of fire. See the bright orange flames of my pretty flower spreading around to the other cars. See a garden of cars blooming in beautiful fire.
Now I can look ahead. And far off above the high mountains I see a glimmer of orange light. From where, I trust, the sun will soon rise. Hear men shouting and hear gunshots too. But I am not afraid anymore, Adela. I am a wounded bird no longer. I can fly now.
Little Maria, by Hillel F. Damron