Girl in a SuitcaseCassandra Passarelli
The sky’s a bowl with a lid of clouds. Palop is close to the brim: some days our heads touch heaven. During rainy season, when our streets turn into rivers of thick red mud, the lid is tightly shut. In winter, fog descends at midday and no one leaves their house. Only in November the sun breaks through, hardening the mud, warming skin and drying clothes. Then we smile easily, wash our hair and visit neighbors. My name is Jasinta, after my uncle, Jasinto. He disappeared north, along the mule path leading to Mexico and the world, before I was a twinkle in Mami’s eye. He returned from Florida when I was still in nappies, with stories of slave-driving gringos and thieving Negroes. And a gray vinyl suitcase full of gifts. He didn’t bring me anything – didn’t know I’d been born. So he gave me the suitcase.
Our yard is full of animals. My puppy Sochi is round, fluffy and black: she chases the chicken, head lowered, squawking for her life. Sochi’s terrified of the turkey. The black sow, tied out front, eats slops and gets on with everyone. The sheep used to be out back, but he was slaughtered. I have five sisters. Jasinta the Elder is married with five of her own. Cecilia left for Washington three years ago. Elena the Elder has a sharp tongue. Maria, the prettiest, is seven. Then there’s me, followed by Elena the Smaller who can’t speak yet. And two brothers; Juan and Pedro. There were two more, but they died. Juan works with Papi all day and Pedro never sits still: always fighting, yelling and throwing himself down the slope among goat droppings, with my cousins, hair-lipped José or Diego, the wrestler. Pedro wears the leather jacket Uncle Jacinto brought him, full of zips, embroidered with Yanqui flag and eagle – he only takes it off to sweat in the temascal.
Before the stranger arrives nothing much happens. We wake before sun-up, Mami builds the fire and smoke fills our hut. Light filters in through gaps in the slats, while smoke leaks out the corrugated roof. Elena mills coffee. I bring water from the pila outside. It’s tricky: just before you reach the front door there’s a muddy pit and over the threshold a volcano of earth. Our floor is as bumpy as the mountains about us, everything balances just so: we know the curves like our own. Mami makes eggs and tortillas. Maria passes down enamel cups hung on nails and pans slung on a small bush. I hand out bowls from a cupboard and count spoons from a bag dangling from the rafters. We sit on stools, the bed or squat. After breakfast we play. Boys jump on the bed, fight, throw clothes about. Big girls roll smaller ones into hammocks of blankets and sing:
‘Vamos a la vuelta, del toro toro gil,
A ver a la rana comiendo perejil...’
My favorite game, mine alone, is climbing into Uncle Jasinto’s shiny gray vinyl suitcase. Maria or Elena the Elder push me, bronze wheels bumping over the stones, eyes peeking above the metal zip, and I cry at the top of my voice:
‘Take me to la Capital.’
‘To the stars,’ or:
‘Out of the bowl!’
We get in trouble if we disturb Papi, snoring in through his flat nose and out through fat cheeks. He and Juan walk early-early in the night to our land, half-way down the valley and around three bends where we keep three cows and grow maize. They bring home firewood in nets belted around their foreheads. On Sundays they hunt for deer. Pedro wants to go, but he’s too little: at each gunshot he looks up, wistfully.
We girls stay home; help Mami cook, scrub clothes, wash dishes and weave black, red or white huipils embroidered with parrots and horses. We hang the cobs Papi brings home from the rafters to dry and, every eight days, we fill a sack and bash it till the grains are loose. They’re washed in a huge basket and brought to the boil in a cauldron with water and a cup of lime, golden kernels hidden beneath thick layer of scum, till bubbling, they break through. Once they cool we rub them till translucent husks fall away and grind them to a clay the color of sunflowers. At each meal the moon-shaped comal is coated with wet lime and put on the coals. As it heats, continents and oceans shimmer and disappear like those in my dreams and slapping tortillas begins. Over the smoking fire, strings of lamb, tied to the rafters, cure more each day.
The buses stop just below our house. Two leave for Nebaj before dawn, horns echoing across the mountains. They return in late afternoon bringing villagers from the market, chickens bound by the feet, crates of fizzy drinks and foil packets of fried platinos. They tie bundles and crates on donkeys to bring them to the shops. Behind us lies the school, with its slatted windows and barbed fence. From our front yard you can see the valley with its green crescent of lake, like the fragment of mirror we comb our hair in. Cows and sheep graze in the sloping fields marked with posts and barbed wire. New roofs shine silver in the sun, while thatched and rusty roofs soak it up, camouflaged. Smoke eddies all day from one house or other, painted pink or green. Waxy white lilies, yellow flor de muerto and violet bells of jabon fill the yards.
One day the bus brought the stranger. He was tall and thin, hair like dry corn leaves and skin pink as carnatira seeds. He carried a bag with clothes, a box with a glass window, some books, drawings of mountains and an exercise book. On top he'd tied a rolled mat and house of folded sheets. He stayed in our yard for a month, learning Ixel from my sisters. He gave Mami quetzales to feed him and got Papi talking about the future.
Papi translated. In his country, people had only two or three children. We never understood how, but Papi reckoned it was something they ate. Papi told him the Church said it was a sin but the stranger didn’t seem to think so. Some people had no children at all, he told us. What did they do with their land if they didn’t have children, asked Papi? The stranger said they didn’t have land – they rented rooms, one on top of the other, like a honeycomb. So where did they grow their vegetables? They got them from shops that bought them from big farms. Papi thought about this a while. Then he asked if they were happy. It was the stranger’s turn to look confused.
The stranger said there were others like him who wanted to come to Palop. The mountains, he said, were a marvelous treasure and the Cooperacion would build a path to connect one village to the next. Papi said there were some already, but the stranger said they needed signs and special huts. Palop would be a fine place to build one. But they needed a certain type, not like ours, all black with smoke, its floor lumpy, mattresses heaped with dirty clothes. No, they needed a hut with wooden beds, new cupboards, a flush toilet and a hot shower. Oh, and electricity. Papi scratched his head.
The stranger told him that the Cooperacion wanted to help mountain folk hit by the Civil War. When Papi told him Grandpapi’s house had been burnt to the ground by the army, he seemed pleased. He offered to build the hut if Papi would let him use his land. Visitors would pay a fee and, after Papi paid the Cooperacion back, we could keep the hut. Papi explained this to Mama, who said nothing, till the stranger had gone to his tent. Then they discussed it for hours and called Uncle Jacinto over to get his opinion.
Made of pale new wood, it stands on red painted cement, under a shiny roof. It has a wooden door, shutters and wires, switches and bulbs for electricity. A dozen beds stand inside with new mattresses, a huge chest and cupboards. Below, a shower room and flush toilet. Three men in green shiny jackets built a trail. They told us to be patient: trekkers would come. Rainy season cleared into a bright November. Clouds dissolved into storms again. Papi put chickens into the attic, stored bags of feed on the floor and kept his saddle on the chest. When we killed sheep, he hung skins from the rafters. Mami stored things: coils of barbed wire under the beds, white plastic chairs, school books in the cupboards. For a long time we weren’t allowed to play inside, but when no trekkers came, Papi didn’t bother shooing us out, nor the dogs, any more.
The year I became too big to cram myself into the suitcase new strangers showed up with hair white as maize. They carried strap-on bags and heavy leather boots, the women wore trousers. Their youngest laughed at my plastic sandals. The grown-ups were upset about chickens in the hut and cold water. More arrived in the weeks that followed. We were kept busy making coffees, tortillas, washing sheets and cleaning up.
They stopped coming in rainy season. But when the rains cleared the hut was full again. We were the first in Palop to put electricity in our house. My sisters bought a stereo, my brothers a TV to watch wrestling. Papi bought Mami a gas cooker. Everyone was happy. We had everything we’d ever dreamed of. And many things we hadn’t. Elena, the Elder, followed in Cecilia’s footsteps: she got forty thousand quetzales together and crossed without papers. Maria married and went to work in a dentist’s in Nebaj. Elena, the Smaller, the first to finish secondary school, became a teacher in Xalbal. Pedro became a traveling salesman, bringing Tigo mobiles with a hundred and fifty quetzales of credit and a free wind-breaker to Quiché. Mami was proud but Papi never understood why they’d left. Only Jasinta the Elder, for whom good fortune came too late, stayed… and Juan who worked the land with Papi.
I fell in love with a straw-haired Frenchmen who came from a village near Dijon to trek. Jacques wore leather shoes and carried a huge gray vinyl suitcase with a silver zip and four bronze wheels. I almost fit inside: no wonder I fell in love. My Spanish was good enough to let him know. His was good enough to give me his word he’d come back for me. He packed his clothes in a Hessian sack and left the suitcase as his guarantee. It took him three years to finish his studies, find work and return. I’d nothing to pack in the suitcase but my toothbrush and a huipil Mama wove for my wedding day. Papi and Juan gave me hard hugs before they left to work. Thumping along that winding, craggy dirt road, hawks circling, I escaped the bowl for good. As I looked back at Mami through the greasy rear window, fog swallowed her up. She was still waving.
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