by N.T. Arévalo
The Toncontin International Airport, the actual landing strip, is one of the shortest (most dangerous) on the planet. The pilot descends quickly into a canyon, ducking a mountain, and when the plane hits the tarmac, it must do so at an exacting speed so it brakes before the cliff. That’s right: the cliff. There’s even a traffic light to pause motorists as the plane’s wheels dip a fistful of feet from the highway.
This is Tegucigalpa. This is Honduras. It is my grandmother’s, Scarlett O’Hara de las Hispanas, land. She passed in 2010 at the age of 100 but only by choice; never by the will of God or man. It was only because she chose to relent to her own cliff, and she wouldn’t do it a minute sooner, regardless of what time or gravity demanded. All her life, she recited propagandist poetry in Spanish from her youth and it is the poetry that marches through my skull as we slap the ground and I feel her fist finally release, depositing me to the rest of her family, origins, and land.
It is the same month that San Pedro Sula, the city to the north on the road to Copan and the Mayan ruins, is named the most dangerous on the planet. If only to rival the notoriety of the capital’s airport.
Patient cousins line the swinging maroon ropes at the gate.
“I hope you weren’t waiting long,” I say, in Spanish, as I embrace one after the other, nieces and nephews I never knew I belonged to.
“Iy, pues, your mother got us here over two hours ago.” The kids look weary.
I hug but do not look at my mother, who knows well my arrival time. I no longer know whether to stick this behavior in the Before or After column, though it’s always crossed the border of family to any being in her orbit. She was a manic-depressive the first third of my life and the last two-thirds she’s been battling schizophrenia, barely present, barely a mother at all. It is Doña Paula, my abuelita, that binds me to her. Paula blamed the devil, America, my father for the sullying of her only child. My father blames a domineering Doña Paula, last seen shaking her fists at her 100th birthday party, as if she’d bested us all. My mother blames people we cannot see.
I am whisked from the memory of that cliff, that possible bookend of my life, through colonias and cousins. My heart is from the same shadow of an abuelita, a tia we share. This means love and affection, without question, and sharing what little we all have—a tortilla, a T-shirt from Alcatraz. All gracias and good to see you warming the car more than the midday’s sun.
In the capital, my skin is too light to evade discussion.
“Mira, mira!” Arm to arm, bouncing in the back of my primo’s Toyota, my limbs are lined up to prove where our freckles match and where our pigments—porque tu padre es un Anglo—do not. Our fathers and mothers have determined where in the Americas, in the color streams, we land, not our abuelas and tias, even if we search each other’s eyes and know we are one and the same. The airport I’ve left leads toward a bay flowing to the Pacific. No valley in the shadows. No cliffs.
“But your brother? He’s dark like Paula?”
“Yes,” my mother grumbles. I go on with tales of my brother, tales to make them laugh and think he is family, even if he isn’t with us.
“His voice mail message used to say”–and in my big sister bellowing I try it on–“‘I’m John. People love me.’” They laugh, I laugh. My mother, as is always the case with John, keeps silent.
“John Wayne? Like the movies!”
“Like the movies.”
They point us to the things that had grown up in the years since I’d visited as a child, at the foot of Doña Paula. Progress is marked by malls, Burger Kings, and gated communities, already looking a little used, like the markers en los Estados. The progress spills, like it tends to do everywhere, and we come across dumpster heaps where far distant cousins search for food. The only time we stop is to share whatever we have left and then zoom on again. Never to look back, never to stay in the past. Unless it is of abuelita. Anything else will be too dangerous, as dangerous as braking too soon on the tarmac or braking too late.
My mother begs they stop at stop signs or lights, at least. But my cousins know the land and its consequences well, and any attempt to question What Is meets with the same tales:
One could be stabbed.
Tia Blanca went to the market and had earrings ripped right out of her ears. And She’s an old woman; she’s from here. That’s what these people (not this country, not this economic situation) do. Leave your jewelry in the States.
They speed on, bolt the locks. I feel my mother’s gaze. They do not ask me What Is where I am from, as if it is no mystery at all and sits thick amongst us.
Strangers who had known my abuela share Tamarind juice but nowhere am I stabbed. My mother acts as if we are all family. Everyone speaks with the loud artifice of reverence and the twittering whispers of jokes, befitting a long gone queen, a long gone time, when we didn’t know there’d be progress at all.
This trip will end with me writing a Manifesto for the Motherless. The Motherless write sad songs, happy tales, a new life; The Motherless can take care of themselves; The Motherless cannot have warm family photos. That kind of thing. How does one survive the valley of tempting death and the bosom of new family and come to write such a manifest? It is only because abuelita, the queen, is dead.
It is the fourth night of hearing my mother’s cough in the room we share. This time it is a hammock I rest on. I have not slept much in days but I have eaten more starches than one Californian can absorb. I haven’t asked her yet to say more on what she tells everyone else.
“Well, that was when I was sick. And now I’m better.” It is her marker of history, how she passed the time from here to the States and back. Everything is “while” she was sick. No before, no after. She doesn’t look at me when she says it, but smiles.
My second cousin Liselda walked with me the first day, gripping my arm, and wondering in the sweetest tones: why can’t you live with your mother? Now, with no one there, no Paula, she is alone.
She is with my father, my brother, her son, I say and I try to get my chin to lift.
But a woman needs her daughter, another woman to talk to. You are a whole continent away. Do this for your mother.
Liselda did not see me when I was six and nine and ten and twelve and fifteen.
“Wake up,” my mother used to whisper, shaking in a white gown that dragged on the floor, her cold hands gripping my arm until her palm molded into it. “I need you to be with me.” And I was up with her, sleepless, awaiting her beasts, watching her mind speed away, until I could no longer identify what some people call youth. I became a night watch zombie, a graveyard shifter in my own home, at six. She’d move through her depression by first trashing first grade reading awards, moving on to shred any gifts or toys, before launching bonfires of my clothing or beating me for the sole purpose of letting my friends tremble as they waited in the adjoining room.
“He’s my real son!” my mother would shout at the innocent boys I baby-sat. She would shout until the ambulances came, again, and they knew her by name.
“I want to talk to you about this letter,” I would hear from teachers and friends’ parents and early employers. I could never explain that I didn’t mean the things she said in those letters. I could only stalk our mailbox in hopes of blocking the monsters from our world from escaping into theirs.
I made up mothers along the way that went by the name of Denise or Bonny or Mrs. Newman or Mrs. Connor and I hid, more than I did anything else, in their homes until they moved or died and I mourned them as if they were all I knew of home. Abuelita, Doña Paula, because she loved me so and claimed I was of her spirit, because she nearly outlived them all, remained stuck to me like family. But if she was expectant and righteous on aging she was even harsher with the expectations of her granddaughter to her child.
Now a hundred years had passed and there were less people who knew I was supposed to be a daughter. No one held the record that she was supposed to be a mother, with the exception of myself, and I so often ignored a culprit’s record. Time passed, not time served, brought us to the land she shared with her mother, amnesty the secret hope between us.
I like where I live, I say to Liselda. I keep the refrain with the next cousin and the next and the next until I am covered in shame and bolted indoors again. How can you not be there for your mother, with her mother gone? It becomes less sweet the more I hear it.
There is only one thing on the record I need to clear. I say nothing until I am on the last night and alone with my mother, this time sick with a cold, in the blessing of an illness everyone can see.
“I am better, you know,” she says between coughs.
I’d survived that cliff. I’d bothered to come at all. They were treating me like family and so I had to ask if she means what I’ve been waiting for her to mean: “Then you believe John’s my brother now?” I try not to sigh in relief. It is too early.
John is the secret between us, a son denied once her illness came along, teased, unclaimed. The one who resembled everyone in this family, more than I, yet treated as the tacit guest in a home I had long ago abandoned.
There are tissues and loud American television programs sharing our space this last night. The rest of the family sleeps, all together, in the room next door. The water will only run from six to eight in the morning. I will leave at noon. We’ve got to get dirty now, got to say what needs to be said.
“There are things you just don’t understand. They took him from me. You weren’t there!” And the science fiction from her head begins again. She shouts and pounds the pillows the way that only a liar can. Her eyes are bloodshot, spewing my treachery throughout the room. The question is not allowed. Not in this country, not in any. And the room next door stirs.
I know I am to relent, to be dutiful, not to slam the brakes too soon on what could have resembled family and toss myself from a hammock. Not to brake too late and descend the cliff, alone. Instead, I say what’s never said: “How can you not see he’s my brother? How can you still think that?”
She kicks and froths, denies and cries and all over again, she is the child and I am tormentor, witness, and guard. She tears into me, with every malevolent thought my father, John (not my brother; she still won’t say the words), even dead abuelita and she herself has ever held of me. And all these words are shadowed by one: Traitor. I am squeezed with shame until I fit in the granules of grout on the tiles below. I am the scum and the pain. I am the disease. Anticipation arises in me and it is a familiar strain: how will she hit me this time? And that part, was it Before or After the illness? Or is it its own thing? I am 35. I should know. I alleviate, apologize, back down, survive. I spoon that night with fear, my senses on alert. At last, she snores and rests, while I stand watch, repeating to myself: you are safe.
In the morning, she is part honey and part terror and the terror is looking for me. Everyone’s eyes drip in the shame of me and they speak in loud, calming reverence of my mother, who has inherited the queen’s protections. But not I. My freckled, foreign arm is whispered to and my heart is stabbed. “You must be patient. You can be a better daughter than this.”
Paula’s, Scarlett’s Tara, too, will not be my home.
As the plane ascends, I begin to write the rules. Number one: You will not relate to people who shame you, lie, or reduce your self-esteem. Number two: Replace the holidays. Avoid family-like functions and come up with a stock answer to explain why you are alone. And the Manifesto.
The Motherless have tired of castigations and duplicity.
The Motherless will teach themselves.
The cliff is behind us but now we must come out of this mountain and flee the shadows in the valley below. The plane drops quickly, ten feet or more, and I cling to the paper. The Motherless do not expect. The Motherless can take care of themselves. The Motherless were born for solitude and loneliness is the warmest, most trustworthy blanket.
N.T. Arévalo‘s stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Necessary Fiction, Rose & Thorn Journal, Waterhouse Review, and Eclectica and received Honorable Mention in the 2014 Bevel Summers Prize Contest. She’s been a contributor to Literary Arts, an advocate for human rights and expression, and manages a community theatre program.