La Siguanaba Moves to Echo Park

Benjamin is his name. The boy, the American, who looks so much like his mother. Which means there can be no mistake. Perhaps he will present himself tonight. Perhaps not. She thinks of him as a lost child. Unfinished. Like so many. Half-grown Benjamin wanders the streets of Los Angeles asking, Quién Soy Yo, of anyone who will listen, a game taught to her children by the Peace Corps girl, sad creature, unable to pronounce the simplest word in Spanish, but why should Concepción hold that against her? She pushes her into the past along with the people in her village who began to call her La Siguanaba. Because her boss in the capital was murdered. Ay, Don Byron! Un hombre muy fino. Because her man Alejandro joined up with the rebels. Soft Alejandro, thieving and selling, not for her and the children, but for arms, for guns piling up high in the mountains. A delincuente, a terrorista. Concepción was a woman alone. Selfish, ambitious, a bad mother, irresponsible. A bringer of ill luck. A witch even, she might be, who knows? Because of her brilliant eyes, her horsetail hair. Spoken in whispers. A rumor.

These days Concepción walks in the park, without the pot, which has protected her until now, which has seen her through so much, leaving her head open to the elements like a bombed out house. Without the rebozo to cover herself. Someone has told her that to walk around the lake is to go one mile. So she walks miles. Just like before. Before the guerillas found her half dead and covered with scratches from stumbling through a field of maguey. And later, after they searched the crevices of her body and gave her a new name and a long leyenda to memorize, going from place to place on a march, a guinda, falling down muddy or dusty, carrying those wounded in bomb attacks and ambushes, or when their own weapons turned against them. Then she was Berta, one in the column with her hand on Meca’s shoulder. Meca, short for America, her comadre, her teacher. Scrawny, always ahead of her, her pock-marked face, still beautiful, her spicy breath. Moving forward in darkness, in silence, fleeing or shifting, keeping in mind what to look out for, a hole, a wall, a rock, just let it not be anything to splinter the bones. Resting sometimes, maybe even at night, sleeping almost normally on a piece of plastic, wishing for two pieces, what luxury when it rained. Waking up hungry and not finding water, the worst.

Concepción walks. This providential road is hers. As she does every day, she walks around the lake, approaches the locked gate to the green bridge, returns to the paved path. Bridge that goes nowhere she names the bridge. A stream of water shoots into the air, spray on her cheeks quickens her senses. She checks the progress of the lotus flowers, passes the playground without looking in case they are spinning there until they are dizzy, Manuel, Glory, and the baby, the one she and Alejandro called China because of the fringed slits she was given for eyes. The playground is primitive, everything made of wood like at home. Concepción worries. Though she knows they are dead, she worries that the merry-go-round they must push with their feet will give them splinters. They will stub their toes, China will fall off. There should be a sign: PELIGRO.

Concepción feeds bread crumbs to the ducks swimming in the dirty lake. She lives in a bad neighborhood with gangs invisible in the daytime. They come out at night to shoot at the cops and at each other. To sell drugs. To make love on the grass. To throw trash in the lake. Will she write a poem about them one day? About the fisherman she has talked to. Only to say Buenas tardes, or Hi, how are you? Because like her they are here every day. A black man with white curls and a big woman he calls Mama. It grows late in the afternoon. They are fishing for their dinner. Because what else can they do if they have no job? Will the poems stop coming? Will a poem about the life here ever throw her to the ground and leave her there without breath? A poem that is not even written, that hurts her head for days. By the time she puts it on paper she hardly recognizes it. She reads it to others, she gives it to the wind.

In the game the children loved, their names were pinned to their backs, no peeking. They ran around screaming with delight, pretending with gestures to be some animal, some story book character they were afraid of like La Siguanaba with her shiny pointed nails, making wild guesses, bumping into each other, outrunning the Peace Corps girl who could by no means control them when they broke into fights because someone had cheated.

Nada de Concha, de Conchy, de Conchita, de Conchiquititica. Play names, sex names, recited into her ears, her hair, in bed by Alejandro who liked to tease her for being short. Nada de eso. To find out who one is is the point of the game. Concepción sits on park benches choosing shade or sun according to the weather and the season. Today it is warm and sunny with dry winds. Santa Anas she has learned to say. And this is what they call winter. She thinks of the things God has given her. The priest who brought her to America, the poems, the boy Benjamin and his friends, the profesor who scowls, her job. She has the whole day because she works at night. In a restaurant. In a bar on Sunset Boulevard. She can walk, it’s OK, it isn’t far. And whatever they tell her to do there she does. She has been conscripted. La India, they call her. Que chula La India, they often say. For La India there is work in the kitchen. Or at the bar. She has learned to make pupusas on a griddle (they do not taste right) behind the counter squeezed in with the other women who work there, fat with gold teeth and dyed hair. La Alta, she names them, La Gorda. She feels herself growing deaf because the music is too loud. But this is the way they like it, the lonely ones at the bar.

Cuidado, cuidado, she tells herself tonight when she comes in the door before the loud music can turn into the whirring blades of the helicopter hidden in the mist that was filling the valley when she went out to look, sorry forever for leaving her children, for the image she made of a hen sitting on top of them about to lay an egg, for thinking why don’t you get it over with? Still, for a time because of the way her breasts were aching before her milk dried up it was possible to believe that China, so recently part of her body, was with her. She must pull herself away, move into the next room with the protective red curtains where roses spill out their dark blood on the tables. Someone has knocked over a vase.

The boy Benjamin comes towards her leaving his friends behind him at a table in the corner near the window. El Flaco, the thin one, she calls Galindo, one of the owners of El Salvador, but Concepción forgives him, though he doesn’t like her poems, because he is Benjamin’s friend, because he is still a young man, someone’s son, like her own Manu so big in her heart with his books and his homework, with his fascination with bombs and with mortars. There is also Patricia, who has a sweet smile full of metal, who came up to her with Benjamin after she read her poems in Spanish at the university. Last, the profesor who is angry at everyone, and still he is willing to help her publish her poems and to correct her English.

The first time she saw Benjamin she thought she would shit in her pants. It was like seeing La Siguanaba. At least that is what men say when they think they are lucky to find her down by the river washing her clothes, combing her hair with a golden comb. Drawn irresistibly to her back, to the inward curve of her waistline, not yet seeing the withered breasts hanging down to her knees, the face of a horse, of a devil with horns. He was so much like her she was afraid to think. Benjamin’s blue eyes were his mother’s eyes. Tierna, tierna. He was tender and white like a pork chop. How ridiculous.

What’s up? Benjamin asks her, and Concepción answers, Regular.

She knows it is a strange sight, the tall blond boy talking to La India who is short and dark. Even here she is the cause of whispers. Of rumors.

I have something to tell you. Someone I want you to meet.

It is your mother for Patricia to meet, not me.

It’s nothing like that, it’s... There’s this woman I know, she’s like, like someone you could talk to about... what I heard, in the poems, I mean, the stuff you write about...

Why don’t you say it? Concepción Hermosa is crazy. She should see a doctor.

It was just an idea. I just thought... I just wanted…

Is OK. Go to your friends. Do you want me to lose my job?

Concepción turns her back. Ni modo. It is the only way not to blurt out suddenly that she knows his mother is dead, for example, that her name was Melinda, that she has known him, his own self, Benjamin, from his time in the womb, before he had a name, ridiculous, yes, crazy, yes. Concepción thinks they will leave now. But they do not leave. They order beer and pupusas and she waits on them without words except for gracias and de nada and no hay de que. They are kissing and arguing and laughing and slapping each other on the back, even the profesor who is drinking too much. The bottles of beer icy in buckets are heavy. She fetches and carries. The plates of cut limes. She wipes up the sweat on the tables mingled with juice and with beer, the pounding music from the bar in the background, and she stands like a stone, like a statue, when Benjamin says goodbye to her privately in front of everyone. As though he has made her a proposal of marriage and, pués, she has given him her promise.

One day she will tell him everything. In pieces. With interruptions. In fragments. She will tell it to him like a fairy tale. Había una vez. Before she was your mother, once upon a time, she was a young girl, blond, the daughter of an American diplomático. Ay, Don Byron! Alone in the house all day while he was at work, listless in the heat, acting strange because she was pregnant, she made friends with a servant girl whose name was Conchy, a common nickname for Concepción, do you see? He must. He must see how it was, the life before, in the hot little room at the back of the house, behind the kitchen, the lumpy mattress filled with straw, the chairs Conchy painted herself in bright colors, the dog like a sausage whose name was ChoCho, next door the cook Soledad who spied on them, but just now she was snoring, Don Byron too on top of the bedspread in his air-cooled room on the other side of the house, the rabbit Lucero, the green devil of a parrot flying free in the patio. Melinda was teaching Conchy English, but first maybe she should learn to recite Toda la vida es sueño, or Yo te quiero verde, because the misspelled grocery list filled her with shame.

The restaurant closes, but the bar stays open late, into the unreal, illegal hours between night and morning when Concepción has to defend herself from the lonely ones who are drunk now, moody and changeable in their clothes splotched with paint and with grease and with dirt. It is the same every night, the happiness she feels to serve them when they first get off work, when their spirits are high, but now he is here again, the one whose name is José, but he calls himself Joe. My name is Joe, he says it in English. He jumps on his name because Joe is a hard word to say. He approaches her holding out a rose, as though he were making a fine gift to her, as though he has grown and picked it himself, but she doesn’t want him near her, his breath in her face, saying my name is Joe, what is your name? He is young and weak and she will never say it. Even under torture, what does he know, he is Mexican. Days of nakedness days of blindness days without water behind the blindfold or beneath the hood. Brought to nowhere in an open car, a jeep. Concepción the prisoner has nothing to say. Not the name of anyone, neither the position of the band of which she was a part, their routes and suppliers, nor any plans of which she may have knowledge.

It is better to lie naked, Concepción thinks, sightless burnt holes in her breasts where the nipples used to be, alone in the room she has rented above a clothing store with her hair growing down to her waist, for why should she cut it? With the moon shining in the window and on the lake a few blocks away. Once she was still quick enough, still pretty enough. To get a child to bring food to the edge of the forest. To persuade a campesino to part with his tortillas and a little salt.The poems will not stop coming, but they will be different. She will write about what she sees instead of what she remembers. One day she will write them in English. She will finish the story because she knows now that Benjamin will return. At first it was only to check on her, to make sure she was still there, now she has turned her back on him, to show him her other side. He will come to know Berta who slept in abandoned houses with the ghosts of farmers who used to live there until the army killed them all, who packed little pieces of rubber hose with powder and human excrement, vuela patas, strewed them behind her to explode in the faces of young soldiers, to blow off their arms and their legs, who made love to herself with her own hand. And this was not all. This woman he wants her to meet. A clinician? An inquisitor? A confessor? To unravel all this matter out. Visions, intrusions, hallucinations. She will never be ready to give them up. Her face in the dust of El Salvador. Cicadas how piercing their voices. The parched fields. The ruined country. Meca, who is dead now, so brave, so outrageous.

Perhaps the game will never be over, perhaps she will always be asking do I like this, do I like that, animal, mineral, vegetable, do I live underground like a mole, with my head in the sand like an ostrich, getting closer, becoming giddy, savage and bitter, her fingernails growing long and hard enough to strip flesh from the bones of a fish. She will go out in darkness, in obscurity, to snatch one from the lake.


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