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The International Writers Magazine: Life Stories

Al Norte
• Susan Arthur
The same scene was being played out in at least four other homes, he thought. Perhaps it was the same in all of the other 28 homes but he didn't know those people nor their families. They weren't compatriots. They weren't Honduran.

His four friends and at least four others were Honduran. The others he was yet to meet came from as far away as El Salvador the man had told him. It didn't really matter who they were, or even if they were from the same country. As he saw it, it really all boiled down to the same thing. No work. No money. Hungry family. He was a man after all, and with that came the duty to provide for his family. He had always done just that, working long hours and sometimes taking on extra work just to make ends meet. It gave him pleasure to know that he could provide for his family, but since losing his job as a night watchman he had felt impotent in doing just that.

He thought about the other men again. Their desires and dreams were the same as his. It had to be. Why else would you risk your life? Their families and struggles had to be almost identical, he reasoned. Poverty has a way of equalising everyone he thought, pushing these musing out of his head as he simultaneously pushed the door to his small tin roof hut.

The slight in draft caught at the tail of the oil blotched white curtain that covered the doorway, and it inflated with life and then just as quickly died in the breeze as Elmer quietly opened the door. He stood for a second scanning the familiar scene in his small house. Everyone was accounted for. Maria his wife and their five children. His father Don Santos. He brushed aside the curtain that had now veiled his face and entered the room. He crossed over to the kitchen table and placed his backpack on the only uncluttered spot. It was not as if his wife was not good at keeping house, far from it, she worked hard all day washing and cooking, but there just was no room in the tiny house for storing things.

The older children cried "Papi" as he entered the room but beyond that no one else moved nor stopped eating. Don Santos, his father, sat as he always did in his hammock which was slung diagonally in the far corner of the house. The hammock was not for relaxing. It was where Santos slept and ate and where the children played when Santos was outside cleaning the yard, or tending the few animals they owned. In a sense it was the only piece of furniture in the small space besides that of the roughly made table and the one bed that Elmer shared with his wife. The children all slept on thin mats that Maria kept jammed behind the table, out of foot traffic during the day.

The table formed the hub of the house. It was laden with 3 five gallon paint buckets which held an assortment of kitchen utensils and food. Along the wall of the hut, which itself was made of left over scrap wood and zinc, nails were used as hangers. Soot covered plastic bags held the other possessions of the family. Birth certificates, old photographs, even a few toys. Everything was covered in the soot that seeped in through the spaces between the boards from the fogon outside. Elmer's bedroom was separated by a curtain and several bed-sheets that hung on a cord which stretched the width of the room.

Maria now was standing with her back to him as she fed their 2 year old Josue. Elmer knew long before he reached home what the children were eating. He could smell the beans as they simmered in the old pot outside on the fogon, the wood burning stove. He could smell too the rice as it boiled vigorously, and he could smell the sulphurous smell of eggs that were being fried with tomatoes. But Elmer didn't have to smell these familiar smells to know what was being cooked. The smell of today's cena was no different than the smell of yesterday's dinner nor of the dinners last week. Rice, beans and eggs were the staple in the house, along with tortillas de maiz. This was a good week. Some weeks they only had tortillas and mantequilla, a thick salty cream.

Nine year old Jessica was the only one who put down her bowl of rice to hug Elmer around the waist. She was the closest to him even though she was only his step daughter. When he met his wife, Maria, she was already pregnant with Jessica and it was he, Elmer, who had named the baby, and it was he who had insisted that he was her father. After allowing Jessica to hug him he began to pull the items from his backpack. A can of powdered milk, a few cans of mixed vegetables, a bag of rice, a large bag of flour and another large tube of manteca, cooking lard.

A silence fell on the group as they all looked to see what else Elmer would withdraw next from his bag. Each item fell with a heavy thud on the wooden table. The children, and for that matter Maria, had never seen so many grocery items lined up on their kitchen table all at once. Instead of being excited at seeing so much food they all fell silent. They suspected something had happened. Something unpleasant.

Sensing the heaviness in the room, Maria handed the bowl of rice and beans to her son and wiped her hands on a rag that sat on the edge of the table. She turned her face up to him and said, " y eso," and this?

Elmer smiled, " I came into some money today. I sold Pirin."

Don Santos who had been utterly silent while his son pulled the items from his backpack like a magician reaching into a bottomless hat, slowly stretched out of the hammock and asked, "how much did you get for her?"

Elmer turned to his father and said tiredly, "not enough viejo. Not even nearly enough, old man."

Maria remained silent as she tried to read the label on the large can of powdered milk. She pushed aside the milk and once again turned to Elmer and said, "why didn't you tell me you were planning on selling Pirin. How are we going to get to Balfate? You know we always get a little something extra when I lend out Pirin. He was an old horse but he was still strong."

Elmer quieted her with one look, and just said, "mujer," woman.

Maria knew better than to argue. Elmer was a good husband she knew. He worked hard and never complained. He gave her all of the money that he made and had been a good father to all of them even to Jessica, but Elmer, like his father and like every man in her village was machista. Maria turned away from her husband and went towards the table to find a bowl to serve him his dinner. As she brushed past him on her way outside to where the beans still simmered on the comal, Elmer caught her by the arm and whispered in her ears, "listarte," get ready.

"What about cena? ," Maria asked.

"Mujer, I don't want cena tonight," then he softened his voice, "at least not right now. I have some things to do. Get ready."

Unsure of what her husband had planned Maria quickly ran to the bedroom and pulled down a worn towel that hung lazily over the bed. She went outside where the family had constructed a pila, a large cement hole that was reliably always full of water since a natural spring ran directly in line of their property. Maria quickly took off her clothes and felt comfortable as the dark of night cloaked her nakedness.

The cool mountain air swirled around her, but the water had maintained some of it's warmth from the day's hot sun. Quickly Maria dipped a small pan in the water and let it cascade down her body. She took a piece of soap that was stuck on her washing stone and passed it over her arms and legs. She scrubbed her underarms well. She could tell from the whispered words that Elmer wanted her in the bedroom. As she lathered herself she thought it odd that he would want her so early. They usually waited until everyone was asleep to make love. Many years of living with her father-in-law and with so many children running around had taught them both to be quiet in their love making, so it was not impossible to give in to her husband.

Maria began to shampoo her hair and imagined his hands on her. He was always gentle in his lovemaking; a gentleness that he didn't possess during the day. The soap fell into her eyes and she closed them. Her hair was long and thick and she usually wore it in a long braid down her back. Both she and Elmer were indio, but where his skin was as dark as unroasted coffee beans hers was milky white. Even now as the moon began to rise she could clearly see her body. She lathered her belly and felt the hardness there and knew then as she had known since last month, that she was pregnant again. She smiled. She had been thinking about the baby and had not yet told Elmer since he had only recently lost his job. Maria thought that perhaps tonight she'd tell him since there was some excitement at having sold the horse.

Pirin, was a good horse and the money that Elmer made would be enough for a couple months until he found another job. Maria ran her hands over her small breasts that had now felt bigger in her hands. She ran her hands between her thighs where a thick patch of black hair carpeted her pubis. When they first met Elmer had marvelled how the hair there was so silky soft. She knew little of these things. It was unlike any other hair on any other woman and he forbade her to ever cut it. Maria pushed between her legs and an instant wave of desire flooded her. She knew that Elmer would be waiting for her in the bedroom. She knew that he'd want her to gently ease down on him. Slowly he'd told her, as a knife slipping out of the neck of a butchered hog. He'd taught her well, and on nights like those they'd both shudder together.

As she threw the last pan full of water over her body Maria quickly turned around at the sound of a voice behind her. Elmer with whom she had had 4 children, with whom she'd been married to for eight years, had never seen her body truly naked. It was not their way. And here he was standing behind her. How long had he been standing there, she did not know. She could hear the tension in his voice, but she could not now, in her embarrassment, discern if it was the tension of desire. One word, slipped his lips. "Mujer" he said as he walked away.

Maria quickly grabbed her towel and dried herself off under the gaze of the moon. Had he seen her touching herself? Had he heard her moan? She pulled on the same clothes she'd worn and wrapped the towel around her hair. When she entered the house the children were still eating. How could they still be eating, she thought. She felt that she had been gone so long.

Maria ran towards the bedroom and slowly dragged back the curtain. Elmer was not lying on the bed as she had imagined, but was standing fully dressed with his backpack open on the bed. What was he doing she wondered?

He quickly turned around as she entered the room, Maria then registered a sad heavy look on his face. Instantly she knew to go to him, " what's the matter, 'more?" You are so different tonight."

Elmer took her hand, something he rarely did and said, " Amor, I'm going. I'm going North." Maria pulled away from him.

"What do you mean you're going North? When? How?" Elmer went to her.

"I'm going North. I have a coyote this time. I paid him his cash already, that is why I sold Pirin, to pay him half."

Maria couldn't look at him as tears had started to form in her eyes. "So when are you going Elmer? Don't tell me tonight."

"Yes, gorda. I'm leaving with the other men tonight, " he replied.

"Dios mio. I can't believe this Elmer. We never talked about this. What about the children? What about me? El viejo? What are we to do without you?"

"Listen mujer," he said. " You know there is nothing here for me. We need money, and there is no money here. I have a cousin in Boston who is going to pay the rest of the money for the coyote. Everything is going to be alright."

"How can you say everything is going to be alright," Maria sighed, "what about the train? People get killed on that train all the time. What about border patrol? The gangs?"

"Mujer. I can handle myself, you know that. You're worrying about nothing. If everyone else has made it, why shouldn't I? I've got to try, I can't see my family eating beans and rice every night."

"We like beans and rice. Beans and rice never killed us. You grew up eating beans and rice. Why now are you so creido? Ay Elmer, I don't want you to go. I don't have a good feeling about this."

"It's already been decided and paid for. Now I need you to do your part," he said.

"Which part is that?" she cried. "Wait for news that the migra got you? That the Mexicans have slaughtered you? Tell me where's the dream in that?"

"Mujer! Ya basta! That's enough." This is not so easy for me either."

Maria leaned into him, "I'm sorry. I know. It's just that I don't have a good feeling about this."

Elmer pushed her back at arms length, "what is it you propose I do? Keep working the land and still not have anything to show for it? Have kids I can't feed? I have four now, plus Jessica and I can barely stand to watch how hungry they look after they eat. No woman, it has been decided. Now get my things packed." He walked towards the doorway and then slowly turned around, " and now I 'll have my dinner, except pack it with a little extra to take with me."

Outside a lone dog howled imitating it's ancestors. The moonlight glistened on the broad leaves of the banana trees illuminating the edges. Dark shadows began to move in the stillness and quickly four pair of eyes appeared at the doorway. In unison they sang out noches, as Elmer hugged his girls and rubbed the heads of his boys. He grabbed little Josue and kissed him squarely on his slippery lips before handing him back to Don Santos.

The visitors outside shielded their eyes. They did not want to relive the scene that they had just left behind in their own homes. Don Santos put an arm around his son and patted him on his back. His own weathered fingers grasped his son's shoulders as he said, "que le vaya bien, " go well.

Elmer walked outside in the cool night air and from the doorway Jessica whispered, "adios Papi. Te quiero mucho." Bye, bye Daddy I love you would accompany him on his journey.

Elmer waved to his step daughter and yelled, "take care of your Ma, do you hear? And help her with the cipotes." Maria thought she is going to need all the help she could get with the children now with another one is on the way. She grabbed his hand as he walked by.

"So this is it huh?"

"Yup," he said. "Don't worry, I'll be back. I'll call you in a few days from Mexico and then I'll call you when I get to Boston."

"Okay. Well I will wait for your calls then. Listen Papi, be careful. I love you," Maria said.

"Yes, gorda. I know. I'll be careful."

"Hey," she said playfully even though her heart was heavy. "Why did you make me change are you taking me with you?"

"I am gorda. You'll always be in my dreams. I wanted to see you like that so I will always remember how beautiful you are." Elmer turned away as the words began to catch in his throat.

The other men began to shuffle in the dark and Elmer knew it was time to go. He turned away not looking back and began to laugh with the men. Be brave they all thought as they picked their path in the dark. Each man carried a small backpack on his back, and in each he carried all he owned. They were not afraid of not making it in El Norte, each had many relatives who were making it and sending money back home. They were afraid though of just not making it. Mexico was dangerous. Coyote or not.

Maria slowly dragged herself back inside and put her kids to bed. After the house was quiet she stayed looking at the shadows of the banana leaves in the moonlight. She wondered if her husband was now eating his dinner. She would spend every single night like this, looking out the only window in the bedroom. She'd spend every night waiting for news from him. She'd spend five months waiting for his call, until the day her belly started to show and she decided that she'd just spend her time now waiting for her baby.

© Susan M. Arthur October 2013

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