Story by Si Mitchell. Illustrations by the super-talented Jake Pond.
Pablo does not move until he can no longer smell the tobacco and beer. He knows silence in the city doesn’t mean safety, just that the current dangers are still unknown.
Marta is not moving. Pablo takes the remnant of plastic sheeting that came between him and a similar fate and drapes it over her stained and half naked body. She lies awkwardly, half on and half off the old tabletop they pinned her to. It rocks gently on a chunk of concrete, one of many strewn across the floor of the building they’ve been calling home these last weeks. That’ll stop now too. Marta’s body lies creased – twisted like one of the bar-ribbed dead dogs they find on the dump. Pablo is surprised by how little there is to her. He shouldn’t see her like this. He tries to look away as he tucks the plastic around her. He tries to be gentle but can’t mask the clumsiness that comes with being seven years old and scared out of his wits.
But Marta doesn’t stir. What little city light has leeched in through the tears in the back wall bounce blue green off her shiny, crow feather hair. The band she likes to hold it back with is gone and black tails hang across her face hiding her eyes. Pablo cannot see if they are open or closed. His breathing quickens. He wants to see her eyes sparkle like he knows they can in the dark. He wants to hear her do her raucous, shameless laugh. At nine years old Marta may only be two years older than Pablo, but she is all that stands between him and what’s outside. If Marta dies he has no idea how he’d survive. He should have done something. But what? Died too?
Done aside, Pablo has no idea what to do. Embarrassed by his lack of bruises, he shuffles back to where the shadows are denser. Without Marta to check them, Pablo’s demons are loose. But darkness owes no loyalties and hides small boys just as well as bogeymen.
He returns to his hiding place under the splintered desk with its drawers pulled out. The wall against his back is a certainty, as is the dislodged brick he perches on, skinny arms wrapped round skinny knees. Pablo’s street-black toes grip the brick’s coarse edges, and he rocks back and forth like one of the wing-clipped birds the old ladies sell in the covered market. And though he doesn’t dwell on it, right now Pablo understands exactly why they swing the way they do.
Headlights skitter up the walls and across the remaining rafters of the tiny warehouse as cars lurch along the rutted road outside. The roof they once held up is now scattered across the floor providing, amongst other things, the see-saw for Marta’s tabletop. Every now and again the lights provide Pablo with a snapshot of Marta’s small round face, but it remains unchanged. And any relief brought by the light is tempered by the fear the car may stop.
Marta is all the family Pablo has in the city. She has looked out for and after him – on the dump, in the zones. She keeps the bandas – the gang kids – and the drogueras – the druggies – at bay. She sees that he eats. She found them the collapsing shack in barrio La Libertad where they sheltered during the rains until it washed away. She’s just a child, but she’s been like a mother to him since he came to the city. Since he left the mountains. Since he left his own mother.
Pablo isn’t entirely sure why he had to leave Quiche province, but he distinctly remembers his uncle Moses bringing him on the bus from the village to the city. His mother and father had had many children and Pablo, as the oldest, had to leave to find work. Yes, that was why – to earn money so that one day he could return to them a rich man.
His father had worked his small patch of land hard. Pablo had helped him plant maize, lift weeds and pick beans from the few coffee plants that nestled beneath the single tall avocado tree. He remembers how the sun lashed their backs as they worked and how they would rest under those big green leaves and share water from his father’s stoppered bottle. His father’s name was… What was it? Julian, that’s it, a silent sinewy jackal with soil dark skin. He wore ancient colourless plastic sandals and trousers that ended at his calves. A straw hat kept the sun from his beady black eyes. Pablo cannot picture how he looked without it. His mother, she had tended the house and the children. Seven, maybe eight of them? Girls. Any boys? Nine kids including Pablo – the oldest, the bravest… yes, the only boy, the one who had had to leave. The one who will, one day, return. They called her… what was it? Was it Marta?
Pablo pictures his mother – strong, but not big, wiry, strict but loving. And like all the women that gather at the firepit she wears the huiple of the Quiche Indian, bright pink and yellow and thick stitched with too-green trees and sticky campesinos labouring under rainbows. Pablo remembers the giant coloured handles that would connect the hills above his village. Nunca ay arco iris en la ciudad. There’s no rainbows in the city.
Why did an only son leave his family? Why did his mother let him go? He can picture her kneeling outside that tough little house, a fat band of threads rising from her waist to the eaves while her fingers whittle among them spinning magical patterns in elaborate pieces of cloth. His sisters sit behind her, miniaturised versions of the same, a weaving train with rattling back-and-fore engines that never leaves the station.