By rani Jayakumar
“Eduardo, close the door.”
The assistant shut the heavy gray door with a nearly silent click behind Arturo, who shuffled in with a slump.
The dentist, or as Arturo called him in his head, “El Doctor,” motioned to him to sit on the brown reclining chair. The room smelled of fresh paint and antiseptic. The air was deliciously cool.
Arturo lay down and felt the familiar creak of furniture underneath him. The brown vinyl sighed and stuttered as he sank into it. His feet dangled off the end, the sneakers already too tight, holes in the toes fraying. He turned his legs in and out, seeing the bare gray sock come and go, avoiding the too-bright light bulb hanging in his face. He kept his hands in his empty pockets.
“Open,” said El Doctor, his greasy wavy hair swirling around his head, then briefly poked a long metal mirror into his patient’s mouth. Arturo’s dry lips cracked as he pulled them apart. He closed his eyes and saw his eyelids turn red under the light. The dentist consulted a chart. He looked him up and down. “You’re a big guy, huh?” he asked, chuckling.
Just as Tito and his buddies used to say, grinning up at him, strolling down the field in their baggy green and white soccer uniforms. They were always asking Arturo to pass the ball to them, or describing his last match-winning kick in vivid detail, calling him a “Big guy.” But what they said in admiration, El Doctor made into a disdainful joke.
He had the same deep laughing voice as Papi, but Arturo couldn’t imagine him flipping omelets the way his father did. Papi would make piles of them, stuffed and spicy, all the while telling stories of the old days when he, too, kicked around a pelota de futbol with his friends. Whenever he said “Goal!” the omelet would fly into the air.
“Hmm,” grunted El Doctor, as Eduardo handed him a set of dental calipers that gleamed in the light. He moved in closer, his fat gloved fingers reaching in, and Arturo reflexively opened his mouth wider. “Nnnn…ah…” he continued, and clicked his tongue, again looking at the chart. “9…8.1. 10…6.0. 11…7.2.” he said, touching each tooth with the cold metal. Eduardo rushed to keep up, hurriedly scribbling notes with a pencil.
Mami had said, “You’ll be alright, mijo, we’ll be together soon,” but she had tears in her eyes and gripped his hand with both of hers just a little tighter. She and Papi exchanged a look. It was the same look they gave each other when she was frying up empanadas and Arturo ate up yet another tray, his body ever growing. And then, moist-eyed, she had secretly given him the small blue bottle–for breath, when he was close to gasping.
He winced. “Sorry,” said the dentist, not sounding sorry at all. Arturo tasted the metallic saltiness of blood and swallowed. The dentist proceeded to the back teeth, counting again, “12…7.1. 13…7.0. 14…10.2..” Eduardo listened intently and wrote furiously on the chart with his yellow pencil. Abruptly, El Doctor stopped, beckoning urgently to Eduardo with his free hand. Grinning with excitement, he exclaimed, white teeth gleaming, “Look–16!”
“16!” Isabella had squealed, her ever-present rainbow flower headband bobbing up and down. “Please please please take me with you!” She cupped her little hands around her chin and gave him her best bambi eyes. But he was going to take the truck with his friends and party til late to celebrate this momentous year. He’d shaken her off. “You’re only 9, Bella.”
“Yes, I know” she’d said, twisting back and forth with her hands on her hips. “But I look 12. At least.” He couldn’t deny it, she was … developing. It made him shudder and cringe, so he shut her down. “Yeah. That’s why you can’t. No.” She’d stuck her tongue out at him like a baby. That night he and his friends played music out of the truck, danced with girls, and planned their futures as football stars. They told the stories they remembered again and again, then lay on the ground laughing, staring at the stars.
“All right, you can get up,” said El Doctor, snapping his gloves off inside out. Eduardo and another woman he hadn’t realized was in the room helped his large frame up. They had him gargle and spit, wiped off his face with a tissue, and stood him up. The chair tilted forward, then back, creaking again. The woman’s head came up to his chest, even though he tried to sink down, his fingers grazing his knees.
“How old are you, son?” the dentist asked. For the millionth time. The teachers, the neighbors, the police, the caretakers, the guards. They took one look at his size, and they always asked.
“Sixteen,” he sighed. But they wouldn’t believe him. Again.
“When were you born? The date?” They measured his height again, and his weight. Gasps and looks filled the room. Someone chuckled. “July 8, 2004.”
“Summer babies are strong!” Abuelo would say, his gray eyes and teeth shining, white hair flying away from his face. He himself was 80 but looked at least a decade younger.
Abuelita’s brown eyes would sparkle, and she’d laugh like a blushing girl. “Ha! All the family babies are strong. And tough.” In a whisper, she would add conspiratorially to Arturo, “And touched by angels.”
“Don’t lie to us, your teeth say you are 18.” El Doctor flashed a sheet of white paper with strings of numbers on it. “Eighty seven point seven percent. What do you say to that?” He waved the paper high, too close to Arturo’s face.
Arturo looked at his toes and touched his sock to the cold cement. “I don’t know…” he mumbled. He didn’t like being scolded. What could he say to make them believe him? Certainly not the truth.
Since he was a baby, on every New Year’s Day, Abuelita, dressed warmly, with a red hibiscus tucked into her hair, would bring out her little wooden box. It was an ordinary brown wood, but had little golden intarsia diamonds all over it, and small carvings of birds, and water, and angels. Abuelita had carved the box herself as a little girl, passing evenings learning from her grandmother, as now Isabella sat with her and chiseled a box of her own. It creaked open, and inside were vials of different colored glass, handed down to her from her own grandmother. She would run her fingers over the smooth, reflective glass, telling her story again, slowly and with gravity. “My Abuela gave me these. She was given them by hers, going back and back into the past, back all the way to one of our ancestors, the Great Abuela.
“When Great Abuela was very, very old, she was visited by an Angel, a true, real angel, who came to her on the third night of the summer moon in a dream, all dressed in ancient robes that were all colors of the rainbow and shining with mirrors. The angel told her to climb all alone, at sunset, to the very top of Cerro de la Encantada, the Enchanted Mountain. There, the angel would meet Great Abuela and reveal her secrets.
“There were many stories about Enchanted Mountain–it was the place of the sun rising, where birds were said to sing at night, where the stars showered blessings and cast spells on the ground. No one that Great Abuela knew had been there, but they all said it was a mysterious place no one should go alone, especially not at her age. But Great Abuela had always been curious, and she could not resist the words of the beautiful angel.
“And so, Great Abuela left her family one evening just as the sun was setting. She dressed in her warmest clothes, picked up her walking stick, packed a small bag, and stooping in her old age, climbed slowly up the mountain. She was very tired, and very slow, but she kept on walking, step by step, until she reached all the way to the topmost peak of the Enchanted Mountain. And there, she stopped, gasping for breath, and collapsed on the rocky ground.”
Abuelita would stop at this point, look down and pick up one of the bottles before she continued,
“Suddenly, she felt a trickle at her feet, where there sprang five very tiny springs of water. Where the springs came up, there grew a cluster of small red buds. Great Abuela cupped her hands, so, so tired, so, so thirsty. She sipped from one spring, which tasted like cool, sweet water, and gained her breath, her heart beating strong and slow. She tasted the second one, which was gritty and slightly bitter, and she threw away her walking stick and shawls and stood up straight. With the third sip, like a smooth wine, she saw the wisps of hair around her face turn black, and looked down at her hands to see the wrinkles smoothed away. When she tried the fourth spring, which was crisp and cold, she could think and see and hear as clearly as in her youth. And with the fifth, which was sweet and delicious like nothing she had tasted before, she lifted her face to the sun, her body rose from the earth, and she saw a vision of all the generations past and all the generations to come, coming out of her body, strong and light and beautiful.”
There, she saw the Angel rise into the sky, and she knew she must bring these five waters to her family. She filled these medicine bottles, blue, brown, green, white, and red, which had appeared at the bottom of her bag. And so, each year, we drink in memory of Great Abuela, to give us breath, and strength, and youth, and clarity, and love.”
Then Abuelita would smile gently and hold up the first bottle, a bright blue glass. Breath. She would uncork the top, and one by one, tilt each child’s chin up.
“Say aaaah,” said El Doctor, holding a shiny cigarette-sized flashlight, and looked once again into Arturo’s mouth, even as they stood. The dentist had to stand on his tiptoes to see into his throat. Arturo automatically backed up against the wall. “See that? See? These are the teeth of an adult.” He called Eduardo, who thrust a mirror in his face.
Arturo saw his own pimpled face, the spindly mustache he’d been trying to grow, the black hair that had grown too long these past weeks. He saw the red inside of his mouth. And he saw Abuelita’s brown eyes.
The door clicked behind Arturo, and slammed loudly shut as someone walked closer. Hard black shoes. A shuffling of papers. A woman’s muttered words. A blur of forest green uniform. A heavy hand on his shoulder. “Come on, kid,” said an unfamiliar voice. Eduardo looked down, holding the door open, as the man led them out of the bright room, into the dark. Arturo blinked.
He walked with the officer down a long hallway, up two flights of stairs, past another heavy door, and out through double doors, where the air became hot and sticky again. They went through the fence, another long walk, into another fence, and another, the doors clicking and beeping along the way. Finally, he was led into a giant outdoor space where there were old men, young men, of all sizes, light-haired, dark-haired, gray-haired, all wearing the same somber expressions of dismay, confusion, and fear.
Arturo turned around slowly in the little space available, his sneakers squeaking against the tar. The hands of older men patted his shoulders empathetically. They murmured words of encouragement. “Turo!” someone said. At least twenty men turned at the name.
“Turo!” Isabella had cried. She reached out her hand to him when he left, cheeks wet and dirty, and he’d gripped hers tight, too tight at first, then let go. She would feel the warm blue glass in her hand, and she would be strong. “We’ll be together soon,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers.
When her flowered headband was no longer visible, he’d walked away, his eyes wet, wiping his nose on his sleeve, shrugging it off.
A balding gray man was making his way through the mass of men. Arturo knew that head. “Papi!” he shouted, raising his arms, jumping. “Over here! Over here!”
His father pushed through the crowd a bit, then flew into his arms with a jingling sound. He always had coins in his pants pockets. He put one hand there now, the other wrapped tight around Arturo’s shoulders, beaming at him. “Ah, you made it.” He said it as if it was what he’d wanted all along.
His eyes betrayed him: no telltale crinkle at the corners when he was really happy. Instead, there was that crease of worry above his left eyebrow. “Yeah,” Arturo grinned back. He was glad he wasn’t here alone. “I made it.”
His dad’s eyes shifted, pulling him over next to the fence gate. “Look,” he said, his gray eyes grave, and pulled two vials from his pocket–red and brown. Arturo looked up in shock as his father pressed the brown bottle into his hand. “You need it more, Turo.”
“But…” he started to protest, but Papi shook his head. Arturo knew it would be no use. He palmed it and put it in his own pocket, where the blue one had lain recently. His hand came away wet; the bottle was leaking. He wiped it off on the rusty gate hinge, then pressed the cork in his pocket tighter. He followed his father back to the crowd. Papi’s hand still held the red bottle, uncorked, which he surreptitiously swiped on each guard he passed. Red for spreading love.
Arturo had a million questions: what happened to Mami? And Isabella? Where were they? Where would they all go now? Could they go home? Or onward? Would that be like home–starry and colorful? Or drab like these walls, nothing but dust and tumbleweed for miles? The questions kept coming in his head. But his father would answer none, the bottle safely back in his pocket. Instead, he was calling him over for the meager dinner and laughing loudly with other men, telling jokes in the way only he could, slapping backs, teasing.
“You’ll never be like him,” Abuelita once said. “But it’s okay. You’re you. Quiet, but loud inside.” She pressed her finger to the center of his forehead. “Let the world see you,” she often pleaded. But he just couldn’t. He slumped, and brought his tall frame down lower to where he thought he belonged.
The sky was dimming now–plates were tossed, everyone looking for space to lie down. He followed his father into a room behind a few men he’d made friends with. He and Papi shared corners of a thin shiny blanket as the stars blinked on outside, barely visible past the blinding stadium lights. He sat up, staring out the window, where he could see just a bit of fence.
Papi shook him awake, seemingly a moment later, and he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Pulling their shirts down, they made their way outside again. Across the way, they could see the women’s compound. Men hooted and called over to family members. Arturo strained to find Mami and Isabella. He wriggled his way through to near the gate, and caught a glimpse of a row of colorful silk flowers. “Bella!” he called. She raised a hand straight up in the air, then pulled up Mami’s arm beside her. Isabella’s free hand flashed blue for just a moment, and as a spray of liquid tossed in the air, a wave of breath surged in all the women and girls. Then her hand disappeared and the flowered headband moved to the right.
Arturo and his dad followed their direction, keeping the bouncing flowers in sight. Arturo listened for his dad’s jingling behind him. They were pushed against the same fence by the crush of bodies. But now, around the rusty hinge of the gate, a weed had grown. It was a beautiful weed, a curling vine of fresh green, ending in a small, bright scarlet red bud. Red like Isabella’s lips when she was a baby. Red like Mami’s lipstick. Red like the hibiscus flower that was always in Abuelita’s hair, even in the sleep of death. Red like the bottle that Papi now sent sailing over the fence, scattering love into the wind.
In the morning mist, he saw a shape start to appear just beyond the gate. It gradually grew into a form, a body, a woman dressed in layers and layers of colors. Of intricately woven clothes covered in small mirrors. Of long gray-black hair twisted and twisted behind her head with red flowers. Of a gentle smile. And her single hand–a familiar wrinkled finger–beckoned to him.
First he opened the brown vial from his pocket. Strength. Then he tilted his chin. He grabbed hold of Papi’s hand, to his father’s surprise, and did not let go. A creak of fence sounded off to their left, in the women’s area as Bella’s flowers moved ever forward. And then, with all his might, Arturo pushed.
Abuelita crooked her finger and said, “Let the world see you.”
So Arturo pushed, and both gates creaked, and swayed, and bent. Beyond, the mist was rising and darkening the sky, swirling away to reveal a vast garden of small red flowers. Mami and Bella were running, weightless, Papi’s pants jingled behind him, and Arturo felt his own heavy, towering body rise from the ground. He turned. Behind them, below them, the guards were smiling, love in their hearts, as men and women and children flew forward.
Arturo looked Papi in the eye, and shouted out loud, “Goal!”
rani Jayakumar lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been in Honeyguide Magazine, Ab Terra, Secret Attic, Vine Leaves Press, and her upcoming novella will be published by Running Wild Press. More work can be found at okachiko.wordpress.com