She does not tell us what kind of cancer she has. I am eight and my brothers, Saul and Caleb, are five and four. She must think we are too little to know because she never tells me what she is dying from. Papi just says one day: Mami has cancer. That means she is sick and you have to be very careful with her. But she should know I am old enough to understand. My brothers are younger, and all they do is play and whine. They can’t remember she hates flies so much she will forget what she is doing in the kitchen and twist around tables and chairs with a wooden spoon for hours trying to kill them. But I know everything about her. I watch the way her hands move, the rhythm and lines of her comb after we wash, how many dumps of sugar go into a cup of coca tea. I know all of her secrets.
Maybe she loves being home because Papi goes away for months. My brothers cry into her skirts when Papi leaves on his trips, watching on the roof over the street as he leaves down the hill. He drives trucks to keep our city connected to the bigger ones, delivering bricks and food and mail. All those cookies at the corner stand you like? Papi brings those, she tells us. I used to think she wished she could go out on the only road away from our city and see other parts of the country, too, but once we stood on the roof at night just the two of us, looking out at the dots of homes in black hills and she said, Elena, you must always love the place you were born. Ayacucho has given you everything you know. You can’t change what you first loved, and you must be loyal to it. I knew she was talking about the kids who left for Lima as soon as they were old enough to take the bus themselves. I knew she wanted to stay, and hoped I would want to.
Her name is Marie Illary Flores Santiago. Four names, she says, gives you three more chances to make mistakes, one good life for every name. One day Saul asks: If you die, will your new name be Illary? and Mami laughs and says Yes, exactly. Illary is more beautiful than Marie. It means rainbow in Quechua. Saul says, I like Marie. Then he’s out the door making airplane noises like we were only talking about the rain or the best way to tie a shoe. I stay inside, put down my broom and put my head on her lap until she says, Ya, Elena, vamos, and we stand up to clean again.
Before: the cat on the windowsill. Carrots we peel on Sundays and grate into pasta. She hates to cook, so most of the time we eat avocado and pineapples from the market, or bread without jam. She makes me put on socks before bed so I won’t catch a cold, the smell of diesel fuel coming in through the window. We race up the hill to our house from the highway and whoever sees the blue curtains first yells out, Azul! and doesn’t have to wash the dishes, and Caleb is at the bottom of the hill crying because he dropped his pomegranate again.
We look under tables and chairs and door cracks for the shine. Every day after school, we get on our hands and knees to search for lost centimos. Any will do, although the silver glint of a five or a ten is always better than the dull brown of a one. It is easier to look now that Papi poured out a cement floor. The dust still gets in from outside but not anything compared to the packed dirt, when dragging your knees too long gave up clouds. Caleb or Saul will call to me when they find centimos under the stove, Ele, Ele, how much is this?! and I have to stop my combing under the mattress and look at their palms, the coins balanced so carefully there as though they expect them to break or disappear. Fifteen centimos, que chevere! I tell them.
This is the one part of our day we all love, when we take our small pile and run out the door. We sprint down to the cart on the corner where the woman sits with her tiny daughter, who is always crying on the ground. We comb her cart of cookies, chocolates and dried bananas, all of them in neat, colored packages. We find the galletas de vanilla, eight cookies for 25 centimos, buy two packages, say Gracias, Rosa, and run back to our steps as fast as we can.
There are four cookies for each of us, four for Mami. Saul eats his all at once, stuffing them in his mouth before running down the hill in his yellow shirt to play with his friends. Caleb sucks on his like ice cream until the edges are so soft he can just swallow them, and he’ll sit on Mami’s lap while she peels hot potatoes with a spoon. Elena, come help, Mami says. I will, but first I straddle the roof ledge, watch the white cross sticking out over all the trees in the hills beyond. In the dark I can see its center blink with light.
I eat my cookies a nibble at a time, hold the vanilla in my mouth, round their patterned edges with my teeth. The dogs wander by below, and I’m not supposed to feed them, but there’s a black puppy I love with his mouth inside of a trash bag. For you! I say to him as I throw one of my treats down, then watch a scruffy dog with sharp ribs come from the alley to eat the cookie whole.
My best friend Carlita invites us to church. She’s been trying to get us to come for months to Luz y Paz eight blocks away, but no one in our family goes to church. The first few times we are embarrassed because we don’t know any of the songs. We don’t know what to do when the pastor prays, whether to keep our eyes closed or watch him. We don’t know when to kneel or when to raise our hands, but I love the cool walls filled with people clapping and singing together. I don’t even mind having to sit on my bench and be quiet.
Saul and Caleb get pinched behind the ears because they won’t sit still but I hold myself so straight I could disappear and watch the mouth of the pastor in front, try to see whatever it is that makes these people smile and cry while he talks. Mami sits on her hands to warm them and stares up at the chipped ceiling like she is trying to find something. Mami, what are you looking at? Saul says, poking her, but she won’t answer. She thumbs the Bible someone gave her. All the kids go up on the roof for lessons, even when the rain comes and there’s nothing to keep us dry but a sheet of tin. The water melts our marker drawings into swirls. I imagine Mami still downstairs, staring up at the bottoms of my feet like she wants to watch me all the time.
Her hair is starless black and some days after school when she can’t get up from the mattress anymore I comb out two French braids like she taught me and tie the ends together with ribbon in the Andean way like my abuela does. She is so skinny I can see where her spine begins as I pull the hair off her neck.
My church goes to the campo to baptize five girls, including Carlita and me. It’s only been four months since we started coming to church but I know this is what I want. I told the whole room last Sunday, when they called to see if there was anyone else ready to commit to God. I stood up and said Yo! so loudly some people laughed, and I could feel my chest puff out when the pastor smiled and said, Muy bien, Elena.
Mami can’t come because the road we take would jostle her bones too much, but she braids my hair off my neck. We sit in the front room with our feet in a bucket of hot water. I wear a white gown that drowns my body, one of Mami’s old nightgowns. I want you to go, I say. She gives me her Bible. You don’t want to miss the van, she says.
I sit on a rock near the river while the oldest women cook greasy purple meat over the fire and try to feel what Pastor Alvaro calls the spirit inside me. The other girls scream while they change into their gowns because they are afraid the boys will look through the bushes. There aren’t any boys, and I think they are stupid.
But when I climb into the river, the mud in the water seems to drift right past me. Pastor Alvaro holds me by my shoulders and dips me under. My arms and legs melt away. I hear my friends singing, watch the children lining up on a rickety bridge as they are told to stay quiet, the sky above stretching so clean. I feel the water and the way my unwashed hair swims around me. I think of Mami and suddenly I am not angry; I am filled with warmth as I rise out of the water. She will be so proud of me. Everyone buries me in a hug but I still look for her as I get out, my gown weighting me to the grass.
She spends more and more time in her bedroom with the windows closed. Her whole body hurts. She eats jars of pills and the green syrups of plants I buy at the healer in the center of town. She calls me into the room where all the lights are off. Your brothers need baths, she says. I’ll do it, I say. I want her to get up but I also want to make her happy, to make her hurt as little as possible. It is our fault she is so tired all the time. We have so much energy.
My brothers scream as they drop water balloons on each other’s heads and I tell them to go out. You’re going to have baths. Stay outside until they’re ready, I say. These can be our baths! Caleb says, holding up a balloon. They’re water! They’re clean! I take the big pot Mami always uses to heat water and fill the rim to the top with cups from the sink. I can’t lift it onto the stove, so I call Saul for help. We count Uno, dos, tres, lift! and halfway to the stove we get tired and the water soaks the floor and our clothes.
Mami opens the door of the bedroom at all the noise. Ay, ninos, she says. Get the sheet from outside. She helps us strip out of our wet clothes. She shows me how to lift the pot, but even with both of us it is heavy. I notice Mami’s arms shake. She pours the hot water into a basin and puts soap into our hair. Her nails scratch into white foam at our scalps. Elena, you help Caleb, Mami says to me. She watches and nods as I fumble with the soap. Soon that’s what I will miss: someone who is going to fix what we can not do alone, someone to rub their nails into my hair, someone to wipe all the dirt away.
Afterwards: Papi is still gone for months at a time. He goes away to Lima in his truck two days after the funeral and calls from a stranger’s cell phone halfway to the city, but the static is so bad and there is nothing to say, other than We’re not fine, but we’re fine. School starts in a month. I turn nine in two weeks. Elena, I hear his voice say. You remember how to boil rice? I don’t know how to answer him. My mami is dead, and I remember nothing but the hard space filling up inside me, but all I say is: Yes, Papi. He says, You go to Emilie’s if you need anything, okay? She said you could spend the night there whenever you like. Yes, Papi. There is static for a long time. Papi? I say. I can’t hear you well, he says. I’ll try to call again soon. Are you taking care of your brothers? Yes, Papi. Good girl. Your mami would be so proud of you. No, she wouldn’t, I think, because I don’t know how to boil rice.
It’s the second week after Mami’s funeral and we are hot and bored. Papi is away, school is about to start, and I miss Mami so much I forget what it feels like not to miss her. I lie in their bed without a blanket and put a pillow over my face so I can stop seeing the world without her in it. Ele, what are you doing? Caleb takes the pillow off my face and his sweaty face appears above mine, his brown nose freckled, his ears peeled from sunburn. He blows breath in my eyes.
No me molestas, I say, poking his stomach, so he coils back. But I want to bother you, he says. I’m bored. So is Saul. He tied the chicken’s wings together again. I put the pillow back over my head. Tell him to stop. I will not move. I feel Caleb lay across my stomach, fitting himself to my body. Elena? he says. What? I say. Do you miss Mami again? I say, What do you think?. He pulls the pillow off this time. Mami would want you to play with us. Let’s play centimos.
Ya, Saul, I don’t want to play that. We haven’t played in weeks. I think of the last time, when Papi was home and went out to buy fruit from the centro. We crawled around quietly because Mami was asleep. Saul went in to give her lemon cookies, and he came out with them, saying Mami doesn’t want any. The next day they were still on the table. We felt strange eating them ourselves.
Finally I get up and play with the boys. We look through the whole house, the kitchen, the two bedrooms, the bathroom outside, and all we find is one centimo. What is this, Ele, we always have enough for cookies! they whine, Caleb with the coin, Saul and I empty-handed. I don’t know, I say, but we can use some of the money Papi left us. But I do know, I just figured it out, and as the boys run ahead I think how we probably won’t play centimos again like we used to.
We live where the road hasn’t been paved. I used to feel only comfort as I went to sleep on my mattress in our room next to the kitchen, to the right of Mami and Papi’s room, because I knew Mami was there to protect us. Now when the sheep that lives next to us brays all night long because he is hungry, and I think he must be dying, I have to wake up Saul and Caleb and we go sleep in Mami and Papi’s bed together. They get sweaty in the night and push me away from them, but when I feel their breathing fall even again, I hold their hands. I try to close my eyes and be calm. There is just wind banging against the door, the creak that came from outside didn’t mean anything, nothing bad will ever happen to us. I close my eyes tight enough to block out the light. Saul and Caleb are not scared because they have me. When we wake up for school, feel the air turned to chill, wash our faces at the outside tap, get eggs from the chicken, buy a bag of bread for 50 centimos, give the chicken our crumbs, I try not to think about the dark. I comb my brothers’ wet hair, and we all walk to school. When we leave the house we are normal, just three amigos going to school like the old days.
Mami would send us out in our sunhats and old sandals. The city was awake even when we weren’t, horns and buses an echo of life from the street. The children who studied in the morning were already out the doors with their backpacks and books, and we were impatient to join our friends. Saul would be halfway down the block with Caleb yelling, Espera, espera! and Mami still cleaning the breakfast from his face. Ninos, be careful and come straight home, she would say. Ya, Mami, we would whine. Vamos! She would hold up her finger and disappear into the house with hot boiled eggs to stick in our uniform pockets. She watched us run all the way down to the street.
One day Saul wasn’t with us after school and I didn’t think anything of it. He liked to be with his friends more than with us, showing off for them and pinching the little girls. I was tired of trying to chase him, so Caleb and I skipped home with cups of yogurt. When we reached the door, Mami asked us where Saul was. Con sus amigos, I said. Why did you let him go by himself, Elena? She left angry and went to find him, and when they returned, Mami holding Saul by his ear, I still didn’t understand the problem. We knew Ayacucho inside and out, could find our way on any crowded bus, ran out for pencils and sugar alone.
Only when I became the one waiting did I understand what it felt like to want to protect my brothers from the city, to keep them so safe they would never get hurt. When I watched Saul and Caleb run off by themselves, I worried they would get lost in all that space. I worried they wouldn’t come home. We came from school to an empty house as all the mothers waved from the doorways. The chicken huddled in ours as we climbed on bricks to unlatch the door.
Our church goes up into the mountains to help on a chakra in January. The farm has exploded with papas, so many potatoes that the children at the orphanage in town who normally pick and eat them cannot keep up. After too long in the soil, the ones ready to harvest rot into white foam that cracks from the skin. On our way up the mountain, we hold onto the sides of the pick-up, our feet flying in the air over the bumps and holes in the road. We pass cliffs foaming with green limestone and rivers a hundred feet below. The smallest kids try to pick the tuna fruit from the cacti growing along the road, prick themselves and cry. We are all bunched in, kids from the orphanage, kids from the church, until I cannot tell who is who. Carlita and I hold the crying ones on the floor of the truck and tell them about the potato lunch we will have, with lots of aji sauce, and the red flowers we can pick to make crowns.
The boys carry sacks of tools up the hill, a lifting of green land without end. Some of the five-year-olds are weighed down with shovels, stronger than me. The girls are sent into a shed where mountains of potatoes are piled up to my waist for sorting. The room smells sick-sweet with the rot, and we work on our knees, the little girls beside me shouting, Bueno! when they throw a good one at Carlita, Malo! for the ones crawling with flies or maggots or mold. We work until our throats are dry with thirst and our hands have held a thousand potatoes.
I take two of the girls to pee in the grass and afterwards we sit under a tree. I show them how to weave flowers into their hair. They call me Mama. I’m not your Mama, I tell them, but I don’t have a mama either. You have all these people to be like your mamas, but they’re your friends. I hold the girls all day and think of my mami. They are so warm against my skin, and they can’t stop laughing. Carlita has her arm around me. This is okay, I think, before we all run to the truck to beat the rain. Our mamis are gone, but we are going to be okay.
There is a place in Ayacucho where the lights never go out. They hang like pieces of broken moon against the dark, as though Dios pulled down the best parts of the sky and made them dance. Carlita and I enter the carnival gate, and their imprints snake across our skin in purple and red and gold, reflecting off the duck pond and the gloss of candied apples. Lista? Carlita asks. Of course! I say and squeeze her hand, even though my stomach is in knots. I’ve waited all my life to ride La Garra because you have to be ten or just so tall, and tonight we are both old enough. We stand in front of the claw, a giant flashing palm held upwards with fingers that spin themselves in circles. We hold our breath.
When I was little and Mami and Papi took me to the carnival for my birthday, I would beg to ride La Garra. You can’t, Elena, Papi would say. You have to wait a few years. I could hear the screams of older kids as they rode the only game that seemed magical, and it was as though they were yelling at me. Instead I would put on my smile because Mami was watching and spend my two soles on churros with manjar blanco caramel. My belly hurt from all the sweetness and the ache of wanting to grow up.
On my seventh birthday, I already had one churro in my hand and Mami said, Espera, Elena. She pointed from the candy to the Ferris wheel towering high above the claw. That one is even bigger, she said. Let’s go. Mami held my hand as we became a spoke in the giant circle, our little box taking us up through night clouds. Papi was an ant on the ground below. I know it’s not La Garra, Mami said, but soon you’ll be old enough, and while you wait, you can look down below and see what’s coming in just a few birthdays. But I wasn’t listening. I was up in the air above everything, bigger than everything, able to see the whole city of Ayacucho. I forgot about the claw as I settled against Mami. Elena, she said, we’re in the sky.
Now I watch the wheel as I strap into a seat by myself. Carlita’s face glows orange and my heart is in my throat. The circles begin, pulling me from the ground, and I try to keep my eyes open as the games blur. Our bodies hurl against the night even though our seats are solid beneath us. We scream to make sure we still exist, to make sure we’re still alive even as we spin through the air. Mami, watch me, I think, and as the carnival turns hazy, my pride tumbles out of my chest. Carlita and I get the carnival man to take our picture as we point up at the claw’s yellow arms, an illumination of our own. We are still stuck to the ground after all that spinning, and for this, we are smiling.
Photo by Donnie Nunley