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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Survival stories / Success stories
- Subject: Tragedy
- Published: 08/21/2010
The Stories of the ConstellationsBorn 1987, F, from Vermont, United States
The road to Gromete Medina is long and winding. It curves through downtown Lima--past Spanish colonial buildings guarded by policemen dressed in olive green and carrying plastic shields and machine guns. Past the outskirts of the city--dusty slums populated by car-parts stands and stray dogs. Past the mountain covered in shanty towns with houses built of cardboard, thin wood and mud, with chickens running all over the rooftops. Finally it reaches Avenida Benjamin Franklin and the arch over the small roadside park proclaiming the entrance to Gromete Medina.
When the taxi driver pulls into the neighborhood, the street is busy and alive; brimming with sights, smells and sounds. It’s Saturday morning, so no one is working. Women hail the taxis that fill the narrow side street, speeding by and honking furiously to attract passengers. They pile their children inside and clutch straw bags on their shoulders, already looking tired, and head off to the market to stock up on the week’s food that they can’t find at the corner bodega. This particular taxi, like most of the others, is nothing more than the driver’s personal car--an old gray Toyota Corolla--with the word taxi written in block letters in the corner of the windshield.
The taxi driver makes eye contact with a woman standing on the corner and pulls over to pick her up. Her name is Sati. She is young--late twenties, maybe, the driver guesses. He watches her in the rearview mirror as she gets in. Her face is tired and her hair disheveled already, even though it’s only 8 am. She sighs as she directs him to downtown Lima with a resignation that seems too deep for such a simple direction. He senses that she needs someone to talk to, but knows that that isn’t his place. He has driven people to and from Gromete Medina for twenty years, but he knows better than to interfere in the lives of its inhabitants. So he shifts his gaze to the street in front of him and presses the ignition.
As the car pulls away from the curb, a group of teenagers walk by, chatting and laughing. The crooked brick houses crowd each other and the street, occasionally interrupted by a bright blue, red, or yellow house—often all three colors in one. Sporadically blinking neon signs reading bodega hang on every other house, places where you can buy Inca Kola (the 'national drink' of Peru, as the billboards proclaim), beer, or Sublime chocolate bars, and little else. Above are the living quarters of the owners, rooms stacked upon each other unevenly, built whenever there was a little extra money for some wood or bricks. Laundry hangs from lines on the roofs, bright clothes waving in the breeze. Concrete balconies jut out from the walls, and some windows have metal grates across them. Electrical lines stretch across the skies, and TV antennas reach up from the roofs. The street is still littered from the previous night’s parties—-broken bottles in the street, radios left on front steps.
Across the street from Isabel and Maria live the dogs. There are three, all ownerless, dogs that perpetually wander the rooftops, walking over old lumber and bricks. Isabel loves the dogs. She always calls to them when they walk by, ignoring Maria’s warnings about diseases and ugly little bugs.
A motorcycle drives by with a little boy sitting between his father and the handlebars, smiling, his hair blowing in the wind. A man bicycles by, selling chicha, the homemade corn beer so common in these parts, from a cart on the front of his bike. A trio of men, all about 30 years old, sit on the curb and drink out of old brown bottles. Occasionally a few of their words are audible, and then laughter. Their wives are gone to the market, and they don’t work today.
Inside a gray cement house Isabel and Maria hurry through the tamales their mother, Sati, made them this morning before she left for another day of job hunting. They sit at an old wooden table cluttered with papers and dishes, eating silently. When they finish, they rush outside to play in the bright mid-morning sunlight, as they do every weekend. Maria brings out their new red ball, still shiny from when they got it at the market last week, picking it out from a stand full of toys, notebooks, and pencils. They’d been good girls, weaving behind their mother through the butchers’ stalls, huge canvas bags of spices, and all the people, pushing and shoving, so she‘d bought them a rare present.
Sati gets out of the taxi, after rustling through her purse for exact change to pay the driver, and walks to the glittering entrance of the hotel. The doorman stops her on her way in and asks if he can help. She tells him she has a job interview. He directs her to the back entrance.
At the end of an alley is a large metal door, rusted and dented. She pulls at the handle and the door swings open onto a chaotic scene of maids dressing, time clocks being punched, and the smell of laundry being done in huge steam vats. An older man in olive green tattered scrubs directs her to the office of her interviewer. She thanks him and weaves through the crowd toward the designated door.
The office is sparsely decorated, with a cheap wood desk, chairs with cushion’s whose stuffing is coming out at the corners, and nothing on the walls. The man at the desk is not any more impressive. Greasy hair and a thick mustache top off a cheap suit and the smell of cheap cologne. But Sati greets him politely and energetically, holding out her hand to shake his.
The interview goes relatively well, until he finds out she is a single mother. They’ve employed single mothers before, and they’ve had problems. Having to take days off to care for sick children was not acceptable. She assures him that someone else can watch them, but he is not convinced. Besides, she has no experience. No references. A simple girl from a poor family on her own with children in the city.
After leaving the hotel, Sati feels the hopelessness washing over her. She has been searching for jobs for weeks without any luck at all. That was the last place on her list.
She crosses the street and starts to walk in the park, but after a couple minutes she feels dizzy. Sitting down on a nearby bench, she watches the people walk by. Try as she might to distract herself, she can still think only of her situation, and worry about her girls. They are her world, and if only she could provide for them. But she has done nothing but harm to them. Never will Sati forget the day she walked into Maria’s room to find her and Juan Carlos, her 7 year old cousin, “playing grown-up.” At the time, she had been dating a man from a few blocks away named Pablo. Things were going relatively well. He drank a little too much, but he seemed to like her a lot, and he got along with her kids. Which is more than she could say for the other men in her life. When she opened the door to Maria’s room, it took her a few moments to look around and process the scene. Then she started yelling.
“What are you doing, mi hija?!?!” she had screamed. “Stop, stop! Juan Carlos, go find your mommy. Put your clothes on. Carajo!”
Juan Carlos ran out of the room, eyes wide, pulling up his pants. Maria had started crying. Sati calmed down and pulled her daughter to her chest and stroked her hair, trying to dry her tears. When she had stopped crying long enough to speak, Sati asked her again, “Mi hija, what were you doing? Where did you learn that?”
Then came the sentence that tore Sati’s world apart.
“I was just showing him what Pablo taught me.”
The girls pass the ball back and forth, chanting the rhymes they have known as long as they can remember. The ones they learned from their friends back when the other girls would play with them instead of passing by silently, only to burst out in giggles when they thought it was safe. Now they just have each other.
The ball bounces rhythmically on the concrete. Thump, thump, thump, little clouds of dirt rising from where it hits the street. Then it slips barely out of Maria’s reach and rolls slowly down the street, stopping a few yards away. She starts to run after the ball, then a strong gust of wind pours down the street and sweeps the ball further away from her grasp, stirring up with it dirt and small pieces of trash which tumble through the air to dirty other doorways. Now the ball has rolled over towards the men on the curb. Maria freezes for a moment, torn. She wants the ball back, and knows she has to get it. Her mother will be upset if she loses a new ball, especially if it’s because she was afraid of these men. And she isn’t really afraid of the men. She knows all about them: what makes them do what they do, and how she can get them to do what she wants. At least she thinks she does. She’s seen, heard, and lived things that made her older than her twelve years. But they still make her a little nervous, these men. She’s seen one of them leave the house early one morning, and sneak back across the street to his wife’s bed. She hadn’t been able to sleep, and had gone to the window for fresh air.
“¡Muévate!” Isabel calls. “Go get it!” Maria goes, shoving all thoughts to the back of her head. They won’t even notice you, she tells herself, they’re too busy gossiping. And they say women are gossips. She walks timidly in the direction of the ball, eyes averted. As she nears the men, she hears them laughing and joking. She sees them taking swigs of the chicha and sees the empty bottles already on the stoop. She is aware of their stares and the comments directed towards her, but she ignores them. Then one takes an empty bottle and throws it her way. “Hey, punta, catch this!” The bottle smashes inches from her feet, sending shattered glass all over the street. The men laugh, and hassle the man for his poor aim. Maria picks up her ball and runs away. Once across the street, she nearly runs into Sandra, the older woman who lives next door.
“Come on inside, Maria.” Sandra puts her arm around Maria’s shoulders and ushers her into her house. “I’ve made some cakes for you two. Come and eat with your sister.” She turns and glares at the men on the stoop, her disapproval as visible as the rays of sun cutting in between the houses, before she follows Maria inside.
“Maria! Come have some of this cake! Mmmm!” Isabel’s voice wafts out from the dining room in the back and Maria runs to join her sister, all thoughts of the men and the ball left behind. The girls sit at the wooden table in Sandra’s small dining room, eating the small sweet vanilla cakes she has baked for them. Sandra walks in and opens the refrigerator, drawing out two bottles of Inca Kola. She opens them and sets them on the table, then sits down herself.
“So, girls, tell me. How is school going?” They immediately start to babble about school; their teachers, classmates, what they are learning. They tell Sandra about their recent tests, and the other girls in the school, who giggle in little groups at recess. Maria talks about her progress in English, which she loves. She can read simple books and talk about her family and the weather, all in a thick Spanish accent.
“One day,” she says, “I will move to the United States, and I will live in a big fancy house like on TV, and I’ll have a dog, and my husband will work for the bank, and I will cook him a great big dinner every night. And we will have a big TV and watch American shows and laugh at American jokes!”
Sandra laughs. “And you, Isabel, what will you do when you grow up?”
“I’m gonna be a movie star, and I’ll be in all the action movies, and beat up all the bad guys, like this!” She jumps out of her chair and shows off the moves she’s learned from the boys at school, who watch American Jackie Chan movies that they can’t understand, but they practice and practice the moves until they are ready to take on the world.
This time both Sandra and Maria laugh. “You’re too little, Isabel.” Maria teases. “You couldn’t beat anyone up.” Isabel runs over and starts to swing at Maria with clenched fists.
“Hey! Hey, stop it, Isabel. Stop!”
“Now Isabel, leave your sister alone. She didn’t mean it. And Maria, let your sister dream. You have your dreams. Let her have hers.”
“Hey Maria!” Isabel yells, still jumping around. “Bet I can beat you outside!”
The sisters clamber to the door and spill out into the street.
Sandra’s shoes echo on the wooden floor as she clears the table and enters the tiny alcove of a kitchen, piling mismatched china plates in an old aluminum sink. The counters are cluttered with dirty glasses, ends of vegetables, and everything else that doesn’t belong there but doesn’t really belong anywhere else either. On the bent metal coils of the stovetop sits an old teapot with yesterday’s water, and a pot with dried rice still clinging to its walls. Taking a resigned glance around, Sandra turns on the water and starts with the dishes.
Without meaning to, and before she can stop, she thinks of her children. Maybe it was the girls who reminded her of Laura and Giovanna. Or the letter from Ivan that lays unanswered on the kitchen table. Whatever it is, she can’t stay away from the subject she dwells on most.
Ivan is marrying that woman. That’s what he wrote from Trujillo to tell her. The mother of his child. Normally Sandra would insist upon a wedding before Raquel started to show, but she has seen the slashes on her youngest son’s arm, like the claw marks she saw on the news on a zoo-goer who had gotten too close to a tiger. She sees the shadows in his eyes when someone mentions Raquel’s name on one of his visits home. She doesn’t know what goes on, doesn’t need to. The woman is evil. But now Natalia is two and Ivan is convinced that it’s better for her if her parents stay together. His saying that was like a stab through her heart.
“You don’t think that it was hard for me, eh? You don’t think I don’t lie awake every night worrying if it was the right thing to do? But I couldn’t live with that man. Not after what he did.”
“Mami, I don’t want to hear that. He’s my papi, and I love him. I won’t be in the middle. I love you both.”
“One day, you will know. You will get to a point where no matter what you do, your daughter will suffer. So you do what you think will hurt least. I didn’t want you to grow up with that kind of influence. I didn’t want you to go to sleep to the sounds of fighting. I will be judged and if I was wrong, let me suffer. I did all I knew how to do.”
Ivan had stormed out, leaving Sandra standing in the middle of the living room. She remembered when he was younger, when she wouldn’t let him buy the chicle they were selling down the street. You’ll get sick, mi hijo, she’d say. And he knew she was right, that was what made him angry, Even at such a young age, he couldn’t take people talking sense to him.
After spending all day walking the streets of Lima, searching for a way to do something right by her girls for once, Sati finally hails a taxi and heads home. She has come to a decision. The taxi driver, the same one that had driven her downtown in the morning, notices the difference in her face. The tiredness in her eyes is gone, the lines gone from her face. She looks younger, happier. And determined.
“Accomplish what you went for?” he asks, smiling at her in the rear view mirror.
“Yes. Yes, I did.” she responds. A smile brakes out on her face and then she starts laughing, as though she hasn’t laughed in years. As though it was the funniest question she has ever been asked.
On the streets of Gromete Medina, the sunlight falls onto the street at a deepening angle and a cool breeze blows, promising a chilly night. After Maria and Isabel have run around chasing each other for a while, they flop down onto the curb, panting and laughing.
As they sit there, resting and chatting, a group of girls walks down the street. Though most of them are older, Maria recognizes a few from her class.
“Hey, Carmen! Angela! Wanna play?” She calls, suddenly tired of her little sister. The girls look her way for a minute, and keep walking. Their group whispers and shoots glances at Maria, who has jumped up and is now standing awkwardly in the middle of the street.
“Hey! What…. Oh never mind! Who wants to play with you, anyways?” She stammers, her face red from the rejection. “Stupid girls! Who wants to play with stupid girls anyway?! I don’t, that’s for sure.” She squints into the bright sun as she watches them continue down the street, and keeps screaming at them even after they are out of hearing range and laughing openly among themselves. Maria watches them in silence as they turn the corner. Then she turns around and shuffles to the doorway of their house. She sits down and pulls her legs in to her chest, sniffling to hold back tears.
“I’ll play with you, Maria.” Isabel has gotten up, and she walks toward her sister, bouncing their red ball on the pavement. “C’mon, Maria. I learned a fun game yesterday at school. Let me teach you.”
Maria shakes her head, turning to face away from Isabel. Isabel sets the ball down and sits next to Maria, playing with her sister’s long black hair. “Those girls are stupid. And ugly, too. They’re just jealous, that’s all. Jealous of your beautiful hair.”
Maria smiles half-heartedly. “Yeah, that’s it,” she whispers, putting her arm around Isabel. “They’re jealous.”
The girls sit there, intertwined and dozing off, as the sun sets and the shadows grow. A street dog saunters by, stops to sniff them, and then walks on, unconcerned. A mother and her children walk by with their goods from the market, after having been left off on the corner by the taxi. The men on the stoop get up and head to their own houses, knowing their wives will be home soon. But Sati has not yet returned. Isabel stirs in her sleep, waking with every passing footstep. But none are her mother’s. She dreams of the days when her mother would hold them tight and play games. Sometimes she can feel her arms around her. Though things are different now, she still waits every night for a bedtime story that never comes.
The cement is cool under Sandra’s bare feet as she stands on the balcony in between the second and third floor and looks out at the night. She is preparing for her daughter’s visit. Elena lives in the United States and comes to visit once a year, like a good, dutiful daughter. Her children, on the other hand, are spoiled and ungrateful. Accustomed to American behavior and expectations, they complain of the dirt and the food and everything else Peruvian. Sandra tries not to pass judgment on her daughter’s parenting techniques but she wishes she would be stricter with them.
Giovanna’s (Elena) coming also means that Ricardo, Sandra’s husband, will be at the house every day. They separated when Elena was ten, but when she visits, he acts like he still lives there. It’s an arrangement Sandra and Richard came to for many reasons. It’s easier for Elena to only have to visit one house. Ricardo wants to see his daughter. But mostly because of how much the separation affected her--on trips home, Sandra thinks, she shouldn’t have to deal with bad memories and emotions. So they pretend nothing ever happened, Ricardo goes home every night after everyone has gone to bed, and no one says anything about it. One happy family.
When everyone is finally asleep and the street is quietly soaking in orange light from the streetlamps that illuminate the emptiness, the sound of tires approaching echoes off the walls. A taxi that would normally blend in during the day is now the center of the attention of the streetlamps. It slows down and stops in front of Sati’s house, where Maria and Isabel are still asleep in the doorway. She reaches gracefully into her purse, takes out a bill and hands it to the driver. “Keep the change,” she says. She steps out into the chilly evening air and closes the door behind her.
Sati bends down over her sleeping daughters and carries them inside. Isabel wakes up and sees her mother’s face smiling down at her. She smiles and nestles up to her chest. After tucking them into the bed that they share, Sati tells her girls a bedtime story. By now they have woken up. The story she tells them is an old folk story that her grandmother used to tell her, about a mother puma who travels the world searching for her cubs, who the condor-god has kidnapped. She goes through many trials and finally finds them, on top of the highest mountain. In the end, the puma gives the condor-god her soul for the lives of her children, who are set free while she is put in the sky as a constellation, watching her children but unable to guide them.
This is all Sati can give her children in terms of an explanation. When the girls are fast asleep, Sati stands up and walks serenely into the kitchen. She lights a fire in the fireplace, then makes a bed of straw on the floor next to the grate. She methodically takes off her simple jewelry, then moves on to her clothes. Making sure that the fire is going strongly, and removing the grate, she lays down to sleep, naked and peaceful for the first time in years.
She doesn’t feel the flames lick the bottoms of her feet like the puppy she had as a child. She doesn’t feel the heat as her bed catches fire and she is surrounded, warm like a lover’s embrace or a summer evening. She is asleep, dreaming of the future her girls will have, safe without her influence.
Sandra is taking down the laundry that was drying on the roof when she sees the smoke coming out of her neighbor’s house. At first she simply wonders why Sati is cooking at this hour. Then the smoke keeps coming and suddenly it is pouring out of the windows and a familiar scent hits her nose. The same smell as when Ivan was a toddler and he stuck his hand in her cooking fire, but a thousand times stronger. She drops the sheet she is folding and runs down the stairs. The sheet lays crumpled on the empty cement roof, clothes rustling in the breeze above it.
When she sees the scene in her neighbor’s kitchen she is stopped, breathless, for what seems like hours. She knows it is too late to help. She just stands there, stunned, until she remembers the girls.
They are sleeping soundly. Not wanting to wake them, she sits in a chair in the corner and wonders what to do. She will take care of them, at least at first. Someone in the neighborhood will be able to take them in. They can take care of their own here. They are a proud community. Sati would have known her children would be looked out for. But for now, she lets them sleep. On her way out the door she realizes that, after so many nights of shivering under thin blankets, they have thrown off their covers. The heat from the fire has kept them warm.
The streets are abandoned and the taxi driver is heading home. The neon signs are off and even the street dogs are asleep. He stops on his way, at a park not too far outside Gromete Medina, for a cigarette. Leaning up against a statue of Simon Bolivar, he pulls a lighter out of his pocket, flicks the flame and lights the cigarette cradled in between his fingers, all in one smooth movement. Smoking gives him something to do while he reflects on the day, and no one approaches him.
Staring off at the skyline of all the neighborhoods he drives through every day, he sees the sprinkling of stars and wishes he remembered the stories of the constellations--stories of lovers and heroes immortalized in the sky and in the memories of the story-teller.
A breeze blows the burning ashes of his cigarette into the air and for a brief moment they dance in the dark. The taxi driver drops the ashes and snuffs them out with his foot. Right before climbing back into his taxi, he looks up again. Above the rooftops of Gromete Medina rises a snake of smoke. It curls and winds itself up to the sky, finding its place among the stars and joining the stories of the constellations.