by Martin Velasco-Ramos
Swarms of bronze bodies bustled to and from under the hot Mexican sun, taxis and buses squeezed by, their rusted metal only inches away from grinding against each other. The only thing Chuyito liked about the place were the stands. Along the roads merchants of every trade bartered with the passing frenzy: meats, chickens, feed, baskets, fruit, furniture, clothing, booze, and medicine. It’s the city, his mother had said, everything is for sale.
“Can we get some fruit after work?” Chuyito asked.
“Yes,” his father mumbled. “Now be quiet. We need to find work first.”
Chuyito smiled and thought about all the fruit he would buy after they found work. If they made a lot, maybe he could have more than one fruit. He’d ask for diced watermelon and mango, with coconut slices and pineapple. He’d make the fruit man splash it with lime and sprinkle it with chile. His mouth grew wide and he tugged at his mother’s bright dress. “Mama, what fruit are you going to get?”
“Yes Chuyito,” his mother answered in a brusque tone. She was ignoring him again. His parents did that when they went to the city. He liked it better when they were in the hills picking coffee and cutting crops. At the end of a long day, they would sleep under the same trees they had picked. Chuyito would use his sack of coffee as a pillow and look up at the naked branches, thin silhouettes of darkness reaching across the night sky like cracks. Sometimes he would pretend the sky was actually breaking. He’d make snapping noises with his mouth and pretend large chunks of the sky were shattering away like glass. The next morning it was back to work. Back to picking and cutting, carrying heavy sacks up and down the steep hills. It was hard. But at least they talked to him then, told him what to do and where to go. Not here. Not in the city. The coffee was already baked a deep brown and the crops were already cut and bundled for others to buy. No, there was no use for Chuyito here. And his parents only talked to him when he was useful.
“Mama,” he whined.
His mother kneeled to his level and stiffened her brow. “Be quiet,” she whispered. “You’re going to make your father angry. Do you want that?” He looked down at his dirty toes and shook his head. Her mother nodded and returned to her husband’s side. He didn’t understand why his parents had to act this way. It’s like they changed into different people once they entered the city. Their eyes grew distant and watchful and they didn’t stand as tall and only spoke to each other in whispers. When they did speak up it was in a different language, rolling their tongues like motors. He didn’t understand why his parents had to speak like the Mexicans. The Mexicans never spoke like them. They walked around speaking their own language, walking their own streets, living in their own homes, driving their own cars. But Chuyito and his parents spent their lives sleeping and working on borrowed land, riding in public buses; even the ground they stood on was borrowed. It only made sense that they would borrow their language too.
Chuyito scanned along the crowds. His people were easy to spot. Their skin was darker, their clothes brighter, and their tongue quicker. Even when they dressed like the Mexicans, their high cheekbones and almond shaped eyes gave away the facade. There were many families just like Chuyito’s there. He watched a family of Coras briskly walk by, a mother and father, their youngest child strapped to their eldest daughter’s chest in a bundle of deep purple. Their skin was stained with dirt, their calloused feet hugged the silver pavement with each step. They came within a foot of Chuyito and the scent of brush and bark slipped into his nose. As he watched the couple pass, he wondered if they were looking for work too.
Chuyito spat on the ground and it stained the pavement a dark gray, a tiny speck in the vast sea of silver. He spat a few more times in the same spot, widening the pool of saliva until it swelled into a small puddle. It was still miniscule compared to the great silver sidewalk, but he felt proud of it. He wondered how much bigger he could make the blot. Could he make the whole sidewalk a shade darker? No, he didn’t have enough spit. If only it rained. The whole city would be drenched, all the homes, stores, roads, flowers, animals, even the people would be painted a shade darker. Chuyito was about to spit again when someone grabbed him by the shoulder. He snapped his head up to see a massive black mustache staring him down. The man said something to him, but Chuyito didn’t understand. He just stared, lips parted, admiring the man’s mustache, trembling under his gaze. All the Coras he knew had no facial hair. But this Mexican, he had hair everywhere. On his head, above his lips, rows of stubble along his neck and chin. Curls of salt and pepper protruded from his collar, even strands of hair lined his arms and fingers. To him, the Mexican seemed like a living crop field, able to grow and cultivate whatever he liked.
“Chuyito,” his mother whisper-shouted. “Stop spitting.” Realizing the problem had been solved, the man grunted, released Chuyito, and sauntered away. “Now sit down,” his mother ordered. Chuyito obeyed and crouched down, hovering only inches above the pool of spit. His parents spent the next few minutes speaking to anybody that would pass by, desperately trying to get their attention. Nobody listened. They didn’t even look at them, which was normal enough. Most of the time Chuyito felt invisible in the city. Nobody looked at him for more than a moment before shifting their eyes to something else. No Mexican had ever looked at Chuyito for that long, let alone touched him. Maybe his parents should start making their own pools of spit, that’ll get their attention. Chuyito prodded his pool of saliva with a dusty finger and hovered his shadow over it. Yes, he would obey his mother. He would stop spitting and sit down, but he would not let the hot sun dry up his precious little stain.
“Chuyito, stand up,” his father ordered. Chuyito didn’t hesitate and stood erect. “We found work,” his father said, nodding towards a pair of people standing before them. It was an older couple, old enough to be grandparents.
“Hola,” the older woman said with a smile. It’s one of the few words Chuyito understood. He knew that it was a greeting and that he should say it back whenever someone said it to him.
“Hola,” Chuyito replied.
“You’ll be living with them now,” His father said.
Chuyito’s brow curled. “What about you?” His father’s jaw clenched and he shook his head. Chuyito turned to his mother searching her face for answers. “Mama?” His mother’s eyes were low. He followed them to the floor. She was staring at Chuyito’s puddle of spit. It was already starting to dry. “Mama?” Chuyito repeated. She lifted her head and their eyes met for a moment. She opened her mouth to say something, but it just hung there. He tugged at her dress. “Are you coming with me?” She looked away and lightly pulled her dress from his grip.
“Listen to your father, Chuyito,” she whispered.
“But…I thought you said we found work.”
“We did…We found it for you.”
The older man gave his father a stack of bills.
“You’re their son now,” his father said. “That is your work.”
“But I don’t want to…”
A glint of light flashed in his father’s eyes and Chuyito shut his mouth.
“Go,” his father ordered.
Chuyito looked at the old couple. They were smiling earnestly, but Chuyito had the same feeling he got under the mustachioed man’s gaze.
“Go,” his father repeated. Chuyito’s legs trembled. Everything in him told him not to move towards this couple. But to disobey his father would be to disobey God, so he dropped his head. The woman kneeled down and offered something colorful to him. Bright reds, yellows, and greens mixed with oranges and whites appeared before his eyes. It was a fruit cup, sprinkled with chile and lime just like he dreamed. His fingers limply wrapped around the cup, and the woman whispered something to him as she lightly tugged on his free hand. Chuyito craned his neck around to see if his parents were still there. Maybe this was just a joke, or a punishment perhaps, or maybe it was just a test to see if he would actually leave with the old couple. He searched through the crowd, past the bustling bodies and roving cars, strained his vision for his mother’s bright dress or his father’s snowy white clothes, but his parents were nowhere in sight. They were gone. The only thing left was the little dark stain on the pavement, fading away in the sun.
They drove for a long time, past the chaos of the city, past the villages nearby, and past the hills of pineapple and coffee. All the while, Chuyito sat still as stone strapped in the backseat, the fruit cup firmly wedged between his legs, cooling the inside of his thighs. The car rolled along the pavement and cold air droned in through little vents on the ceiling, brushing away any warmth from his skin. The woman would occasionally turn around and speak to him in her strange tongue. Her voice was warm and good-intentioned, but the foreign words fell flat against his eardrums and mixed with the droning of the vents. Eventually the woman gave up and spoke to her husband instead. Chuyito just stared out the window, shivering as he watched the world he knew swim by.
Eventually, the newly paved roads gave way to old brittle ones. And as the houses and buildings decreased, the trees and brush increased. Immense green hills and towering trees rose from the sides of the road as they entered a village he’d never seen before. Men rode horses, herds of cattle trotted along the roads, mules and donkeys carried loads. Children in navy blues, ran by homes painted light blues and faint pinks. Women carried infants and groceries in front of stores of timid yellows and faded browns. Their car rocked along like a boat at sea, it’s rubber feet bouncing off the cobbled road. The husband rolled down his window, smiled, and waved at a few men standing outside a bar. In the distance, Chuyito could see the sparkle of water, a wide river reflecting the afternoon sun. They drove deeper into the village and a large cross rose into the sky like the tip of a spear.
When the car came to a stop, the husband got out, pulled a fence aside, and drove it up a steep rocky driveway. The woman opened the door, smiled, and offered her hand. Chuyito looked down at his untouched cup of fruit and offered it to her.
She shook her head. “No, Chuyito.” His name sounded strange in her mouth, like it was hard to chew. She released him from the seatbelt and helped him down from the car. “Tu casa,” she cooed.
House, Chuyito assumed was what she meant, but all he saw was a building made of faded red bricks surrounded by flowers, beyond that was the dusty ground and a large mango tree. But the view, that was the part that got Chuyito. He was so high up he could see the tops of trees and roofs. He could see beyond the village, to the massive hills standing over the town like green giants—to his home. And it was so close, maybe a day or two by foot. He could make the journey easily. But how would he find his parents? There were too many hills and even more trees to sleep under. They could be anywhere. And who’s to say if they were even in those hills? They left him for a reason. And even if by some miracle he did eventually find them, what would he say to them? Take me back?
The woman grabbed Chuyito by the hand and led him around the brick home. She was speaking to him again. About what, Chuyito didn’t know, except that it had something to do with his feet. Around the corner, there was an even smaller brick house, too tiny for anyone to live in. She pushed aside a thin blanket that hung from the doorway and entered the tiny house. It was dark inside. The only source of light was a small hole where a few bricks were missing. The woman pointed at his feet and rubbed something off his cheek before turning a silver knob on the wall. A stream of water hissed from above and Chuyito jumped back. This wasn’t a house. It was a washroom, and she wanted to bathe him. But he’d never used a washroom before, only the river, and even then it was only with his mother.
The woman lightly tugged at his shirt and Chuyito jerked her hand away. His heart pounded against his ribcage. The woman noticed his fear and stepped back. She said something that sounded like an apology and closed her eyes. He didn’t understand the gesture, but he felt more comfortable knowing that she could not see him. With her eyes still closed, the woman pulled at his shirt. He stiffened but didn’t resist. His shorts and underwear fell to ground in a dusty flop and a breeze seeped in past the blanket-door. His thighs trembled to the chatter of his teeth. In the dim light he could only see the silhouette of the falling water, but he could clearly hear the sound of it. The woman felt for soap, grabbed Chuyito by the shoulders, and inched him towards the water. His body went rigid and he dug his heels into the concrete. The woman pushed hard and a flood of water splashed against his skull. A surge of icicles shot up his spine and he let out a shriek, turned on his heels, slipped under the woman’s grasp, and sprinted out of the washroom.
Naked, he dove into the dirt, covering his skin in a thin powder of earth, letting the crumbs of dust seep in between his toes. He laid there for a moment, baking under the sun, enjoying the warmth of the earth until he felt the vibrations of the ground as heavy footsteps approached him. He opened one eye and saw the woman coming towards him. A jolt of fear sprung his feet to life and he jumped on all fours. Every muscle in his body was taut with caution as he slowly backed away from the elderly woman. Someone’s shadow blanketed his and he twisted his neck to find the husband towering right behind him. Before he could take off, the man’s powerful hands wrapped around Chuyito like a vise and lifted him from the ground.
He kicked and screamed. Every cell in his body tried to shake the man’s grasp. It was useless. They were getting closer to the washroom and his heart hammered in fear. He pictured the icy water and it sent another jolt of terror into his core. He didn’t want another round of chilly torture. And this man was too strong to shake loose, so Chuyito did the only thing he could think of: He craned back his neck, opened his mouth, and fired a glob of saliva in the man’s eyes. Stunned and blinded, the man loosened his grip. A twist of the hips and Chuyito was free once again, running naked across the yard. He knew the man was bounding toward him. Where could Chuyito hide where they could not reach him? The mango tree. Chuyito sprinted towards the tree and clawed at the bark until he hoisted himself up onto one of the farthest branches.
“Bajate, Chuyito.” The woman said.
He didn’t need to know their language to understand that she wanted him to get down. He shook his head and replied with the only word he knew.
The woman sighed and went to her husband’s aid, who was cursing and rubbing saliva from his eyes.
That’s it, Chuyito decided. He could never climb down now. The man would beat him for having insulted him. Together, the couple disappeared into one of the brick homes and left Chuyito alone in the mango tree. For a moment, he considered climbing back down. Maybe he could make a run for it while they were preoccupied. He thought better of it when the woman reappeared. She had something in her hand, something colorful.
“Por favor, bajate, Chuyito,” she begged. “Mira, te traje fruta.” She placed the fruit cup under the tree. She was trying to bribe him. Again, Chuyito shook his head.“No.”
The woman frowned, went back inside, and Chuyito was alone again.
Dusk arrived and as the last beams of red-orange left the sky, hunger pinched at Chuyito’s insides. He hadn’t eaten all day and his arms and legs were sore from holding on to the branch for so long. He wanted more than anything to come down, if only for just a moment. But fear glued him to the bark like sap. He looked at the small cup of rainbow below and his mouth watered with longing as he imagined the sweet fruit sliding down his throat. Maybe he should go down, just for a moment, just long enough so that he could quench his hunger and thirst. No, it was too dangerous. Maybe he could pick one of the fruit from the branches instead. Chuyito pulled himself up and scoured through the leaves and foliage. Not a single mango in sight. A chunk of bark slid under his left hand. He had to dig his nails into the tree to prevent himself from falling. Chuyito looked down. The trunk was surrounded by a sea of bark and faded leaves. Dread seeped into his gut like tar. Peeling bark and flaking leaves could only mean one thing during the summer. The tree was dying. And a dying tree cannot bear fruit.
There was no other way. If Chuyito wanted to eat, he would have to climb down. Slowly, he lowered himself from the tree and when his soles touched the ground, he watched the brick house carefully, half-expecting the old couple to come running out at any moment. When they didn’t, his shoulders relaxed and he turned his attention to the fruit. His lips trembled with anticipation as he lifted the cup. The fruit tumbled into his mouth. His cheeks bulged with citrusy sweetness and juice ran down his face and chest. His tongue danced in ecstasy and he devoured the fruit until his belly was purring with pleasure.
A door creaked. Someone was coming. His breath caught and he nearly choked on a coconut slice. He dropped the cup and adrenaline coursed through his veins as he quickly scaled back up the tree. When he reached the top again he found the husband standing at the foot of the door. His brow furrowed in curiosity as he looked from the tree to the empty fruit cup. His mouth slowly curved into a smile and he went back inside. Chuyito sighed in relief and rested his cheek against the coarse skin of the tree.
When the sun finally disappeared behind the horizon, the cold set in and the wind whistled against the leaves, sending chilly tremors into Chuyito’s bones. It sapped the strength from his muscles and his grip on the bark slowly slipped. His hands and feet stung, gripping the bark for so long had irritated his skin to the point of blisters. But the physical pain was nothing compared to the torment that paraded his skull. For the past few hours, all Chuyito had thought about was his parents. If only he had kept his mouth shut about the fruit cup. He would have been huddled in a ball with his parents, warm and safe, instead of being trapped in a mango tree, cold and sticky. Maybe if he hadn’t wanted that fruit so badly, his parents wouldn’t have given him away to the Mexican couple. Maybe if he had asked for less his parents would have gladly kept him forever. His eyes grew wet and he shivered as the tears ran down his cheeks.
“Chuyito,” Someone whispered.
His frame stiffened and he slowly looked down. It was the woman again. She was standing below the tree, her face calm and creamy under the moonlight. At her side was a large pot. The woman got on her knees, cupped her hands in the pot, and spread something across her arms. Her flesh glimmered with moisture and wisps of steam rose from her skin like little streamers. Whatever it was, it was warm. And Chuyito’s skin prickled with longing. Before he knew it he was climbing down, each limb after another, involuntarily moving towards the pot of heat. Once he was on the ground, he watched the woman with restraint, his teeth chattering in the wind. She just sat there, her face hovering above the pot of warmth. Carefully, he peered into the pot and caught his own reflection in the water. He was filthy, his face stained with dust and bark. He cupped his hands and dipped them in the water. The warmth penetrated his pores and soothed his open sores. And as he lifted his hands from the water, the woman bowed her head. Without hesitation, he poured the steamy water over the woman, and watched in awe as her light-brown hair darkened into a deep chocolate. He giggled in excitement. The woman lifted her head, and smiled. She cupped the water, and this time Chuyito bowed his head. The woman slowly poured the liquid across his scalp, droplets trickled down his spine tingling his skin. Together, they bathed each other under the night sky, taking turns washing away dust and dirt. When they finished bathing, the woman clasped his hand to go inside. Chuyito turned one last time, stared at the blackened spot of moisture left behind by their bath and his father’s words echoed through his mind: You’re their son now. That is your work.
Martin Velasco-Ramos lives in Visalia, Ca, at the heart of the central valley. He is currently attending College of the Sequoias as an English major, and also works as a tutor for the Writing Center and as an augmented instructor for the Puente Project. This is his first publication.