It starts as an inkling somewhere in the back of your mind. This cannot be right, it says, the words tickling against the rim of your subconscious like a soft falcon feather as beyond the windows the red stone of the houses grows paler and paler in the blaze of the sun. Sweat beads pool in the hollows under your eyes and along the row of your brows. Darker spots stain the brown of your dress under the pits of your arms and you keep them pressed close to your torso even though the old leather sticks uncomfortably to the skin of your bare arms.
This cannot possibly be right, it says again, persistently. You shake your head and blink against the bright sun, against the salty sting in your eyes.
The houses in the valley beneath you look so small from high up here, so small and dull in the dust that you imagine anything above them must be something at least. It is an exciting thought to think of as the groaning axles take you higher and away and higher still. It is exciting in a way that strangers are exciting because they wear funny shoes and speak in funny voices when they greet you on the street to ask for directions; it is exciting in a way that children slap their hands before their eyes when such a stranger passes and only dare to steal a glance at them from behind little gaps between barely spread fingers; it is exciting because it is new and unfamiliar and unlike anything you could possibly imagine within the realms of your limited little world. Are the others as excited as you are? You raise your head above the seat in front of you but all you see are black heads and gray heads, the back of heads, and no faces.
An unexpected tremor rips through the vehicle and knocks your knees to the side into a fleshy thigh; the thigh belongs to a matronesque woman next to you in her floral-print sack of a dress and bucket-like shoes. A little brown babe rests against her enormous bosom like a parasite attached to its host. It turns its head just as she turns hers to look at you. They both muster you briefly in much the same flitting probing manner before averting their eyes again, apparently deeming you dreary enough. You mumble an apology and remove your knees to the other side. The parasite shifts and buries its face in the bulge of the woman’s chin and you almost fear for its life as the folds of flesh come dangerously close to suffocating the little babe, but just almost.
You look away quickly and return your gaze to the view outside your window. How strange it all seems. To imagine that just yesterday, just this morning actually, you were down there among the houses and the dust, part of a life that now appears out of this white blaze – like a remote memory – right before your eyes. It is unthinkable and yet you have the very reminders etched into your flesh like the blueprint of a fragmentary artwork.
As a babe, you were just as brown as the parasite, brown and puny and skinny even then. Your mama blames herself for your condition still. She believes her doings while she was carrying you are at fault – her diet, her disposition, her overall constitution. Your pale and nimble mama cannot understand why you turned out the way you did, too weak to work, too dark to give away.
You are my punishment, Águeda, your mama would say, my punishment from God for every sin I ever committed, and little Águeda would not understand what her mother was saying, would only stand and blink and squint up into her mother’s face.
Now, not so little anymore, you have come no closer to understanding those words, and somehow you doubt you ever will. How could you, now of all times? Now – right now, here – right here, in this big yellow bus, with its brown worn leather seats, and with its springs that squeak and squirm at even the barest whisper of a movement, and with its thin stained windows that are still not stained enough to keep the sun from hurting your eyes. Now, when you believe this bus must be made of fairy dust that you, before today, only believed existed in tales and stories and far away places that you would never ever get to see.
Now, when you have never been in a bus, have never ridden in anything with wheels and seats, and how soft the leather feels against your legs and arms, as worn as it might be it still feels wonderful, now you will not start doubting your mama without reason. Surely your mama loves you. Would you be here, otherwise, if she had never loved you? No, you are convinced: your mama must love you, just as the matron next to you must love her babe. So the next time the inkling steps forth – but this cannot be right – you tell it off; and it leaves.
Content when silence finally settles in your head, you swing your legs to and fro under your seat and again watch the houses beneath you in the valley, growing smaller and smaller by the second, or so it seems. You try to make out your house from up here, but the village is too far away and the perspective is so strange and askew that the details you recall about home are sketchy and vague and would not really do to distinguish one house from the other, let alone one person from the next.
They all look like tiny black bugs, the ones you hate because they are everywhere all of the time; you can imagine yourself lifting your skinny leg and bringing it down again with force, squashing every single one of those filthy little bugs beneath the sole of your foot, and you can almost hear the noises they would make, those crushing squashy noises you actually kind of enjoy, until you remember that these bugs are actual people and you feel a sudden wave of shame flooding your face. Such thoughts… mama would scold your for having such thoughts; mama always knows what you are thinking.
You shake your head vigorously and wipe such thoughts from your mind; the matron turns her face to observe your sudden outburst; her eyes narrow a little and she shakes her head, though in a much different fashion than you. The babe on her breasts whines, startled awake, and she lifts one of her hands to its little back, rubbing up and down with her plump palm until it calms again.
The gesture reminds you of how your abuela would do the same for you, back when she was still alive. Her hands were not fleshy like the matron’s but thin, almost brittle. They would poke into your back when you crawled into abuela’s bed and she would hold you close to her old scrawny body with her equally scrawny hands.
Abuela spent all her time in bed; you do not know why and, as it is with so many other things, you might never know the reason for it. But that is all right, because that was just the way it always was, abuela spending time in bed, holding you. Something in your chest contracts at the memory, and it hurts, terribly so. You miss your abuela. Your abulea loved you. You knew that and you still do. You never doubted her, not once. Everything abuela did or said was true and everything was true because abuela said so. What would abuela say now, if she could only see you, riding the bus, clad in your best dress?
Abuela might turn to your mama and say, “Hija, look what you have done to my nietita,” and then turn to you and smear some dust onto your hands, onto your feet. Abuela liked you barefooted; carefree, she called it. She also liked your mama barefooted, but “that girl stopped being carefree a long time ago, and I am too old, and you are too young, so why bother?” and, too young, little Águeda never really understood what abuela meant by that, and you are no wiser now that years have passed.
Your best dress no longer looks like your best dress, stained with sweat as it has become in the sweltering mid-day heat, and you know the fabric will, if given the chance, dry in wrinkled creases. You smooth the palms of your hands over the skirt, trying to get rid of them before they even appear, but already they spring up as soon as you move your hands away and it is just so frustrating that you curl your fingers into fists and bury them under your knees to keep them still. You don’t really care how you look anyway. You have no real reason to care, do you? Why do you have to wear this stupid dress anyway? No one is there to see it, no one is there to take you somewhere people could see it. Where is this bus taking you anyway? Are there people waiting to tell you how pretty you look in your simple dress, with your hair combed into a fine ponytail at the nape of your scrubbed-clean neck, wherever ‘there’ might be?
All of a sudden you no longer want to be here. You want to get off this bus and go home, home to mama, home to Ani, and to Fredo, to Mari, and to Jojo, because you are a family, even with papa and abuela gone, you are still a family, right? Why are you the only one up here on this bus when everyone else is still down there, tiny as bugs on the bottom of the valley, so far out of your reach?
It feels as if someone has reached into your chest and has wrapped cold fingers around your lungs, freezing the air before it can flow into or out of your body. You struggle against the grip, open your mouth for big gulps, but no matter how hard you try you just cannot breathe. In the window you see your reflection gasping for air, looking like some strange kind of fish, an undiscovered rare breed of brown and black colors. Next to your reflection, even the parasite looks like it has more right to be than you do, its dark skin dull and raw, stretched over a shapeless jumble of bones for a body.
The thought is followed by the sting of tears, returning sudden but not unexpected to your eyes. You blink, and blink, and squeeze your eyes shut, but the sting is still there. Raising your hands to your face you press your fists to your eyes and hope that they will keep the tears inside.
You do not know how much time has passed when you are shaken awake brusquely. It is still and gray beyond the windows, the muted gray of early morning. The bus has come to a stop in the middle of nowhere. You blink, realizing that you have been on this bus for almost a whole day. How far from home might you be by now? You wiggle your toes and feel the responsive flex in your muscles travelling up your legs. Your back hurts a little and you hope that, wherever you are going, you hope you’ll be there soon. The thought that the trip back home will be just as long crosses your mind und suddenly the throbbing in your back seems just a little more pronounced.
What you wouldn’t give for a moment off this bus! As much as you want to return home, for now all you can think about is that dull pain in your lower back, and how stretching your legs, walking, running, anything but sitting really, would make you feel so much better. Being outside would also give you the chance to finally relieve yourself of the pressure that has been building in your belly for hours. You know there is a bucket somewhere in the back of the bus, a small shabby yellow bucket, but you also know you couldn’t go in here, not with everyone around. A shrub or a bush or a stone seems so much more inviting.
You are startled out of your sleepy haze by a heavy hand grabbing onto your shoulder. Your head whips around and you find yourself face to face with the matron, her eyes intently fixed on you. She has shifted the parasite on her breasts to the far side and her own body toward you, as much as her massive form allows her to move and twist in her seat. Immediately you worry that you have done something to draw her attention to you. Maybe you had a nightmare you don’t remember now and, in your sleep, flailed your arms and legs, hitting or kicking her or her babe. You shrink away, into yourself really, because even though you try you simply have no room to actually shrink back, but she just looks at you without saying a thing. Still you hardly dare to breathe.
Suddenly, though, the weight is gone from your shoulder as she removes her hand and instead uses it to help her push herself out of her seat.
The parasite gives a sharp yelp at the unexpected move, scrunching its face into an absurd mask of irritation. For a moment all lingering traces of humanity seem to be erased from it; then, with a touch of the matron’s hand, it disappears. You blink, taken by surprise. You are aware that you are staring, barely noticing anything else around you and hardly even seeing the man next to the woman until he moves toward you. He pulls you up by the arms, long bony fingers cutting into your skin as he drags you from your seat into the aisle and to the front of the bus.
It happens so quickly that you do not even realize what is going on until he pushes you down the few steps and you stumble clumsily out of the bus into the sand. You manage to stay on your feet even as your knees and your ankles protest at the rough landing, sending a spike of pain to travel up your spine. A cloud of dust springs up from the ground; you recognize the kind, the fine sand that will not settle soon and, when it does, it will be on your clothes and on your shoes and in your hair; your brown dress will be a shade lighter and your black hair will look almost gray.
The man pushes against the back of your head with the open palm of his hand, sending you stumbling again. You turn around to regard him, the man who has dragged you out of the bus. Why? What does he want with you? You blink against the pale light to see his face: haggard and drawn, it looks as thin as his fingers feel. Small eyes stare down at you and when you open your mouth to ask what is going on you see something in those eyes that makes you swallow and press your lips tightly together instead. Something familiar flickers back to life, pressing forth against the rim of your mind. This cannot be right.
“Ve!” He orders you, and you obey quietly, setting one foot in front of the other. You shift your eyes from his face to the ground before you and it is only then that you notice that there are other people out here, a small group of people standing almost right in front of you. You recognize the driver and two other men from the bus, but there are also strange people you have never seen before, a man and a woman with light hair and pink skin. The strangers are talking in funny voices, words you cannot make out even though you recognize the language as the language of all the visitors who have been to your village. You observe them curiously. You wonder what they might want here; there is nothing out here for people like them.
The command sounds again and the hand pushes against your head once more, knocking your chin forward against your chest. One of the strangers – the woman – jumps when she sees the thin man handling you this way, and she steps forward quickly, meeting you halfway. She lays a hand on your shoulder without actually looking at you, instead glaring at the man. You wonder who she is because the thin man abruptly releases your head and steps away, nodding, a move almost like an apology. Out of the corner of your eyes you track his movements as he walks over to the other stranger, the man with the pink skin, shaking his hand in greeting. Do they know each other?
The fingers on your shoulder tighten their grip for a moment and the pressure draws your attention back to the woman before you. She has tipped her hat back now so that you can finally see her eyes. They are a strange kind of blue, and they are smiling like you remember abulea’s eyes smiling at you; or maybe it just seems like her eyes are smiling because her lips are stretched into such a wide grin that her teeth are showing, gleaming in the pale light like the smooth rocks you collect back home.
She is speaking again, funny words that you don’t understand, and you wonder if she knows that you have no idea what she is saying. She squeezes your shoulder once more and then pauses, repeating that motion – speaking and pausing, speaking, pausing – while sometimes squeezing your shoulder and sometimes not. The words she is saying are the same again and again. You think she is trying to tell you her name. Doris, you think, what a funny name.
The driver and the other men walk by, heading back to the bus. They don’t even seem to see you, staring straight ahead as they are. The thin man splits away from the group as they pass and comes to a stop next to you. He seems happier than before for some reason, you think. He looks at the woman – Doris – without saying a word and for a moment you wonder if maybe he doesn’t speak their language either. But then they know each other, don’t they? Don’t you need to speak the same language to know each other? Then the man nods and tips his hat. You recognize that gesture: It means ‘good-bye.’ Papa used to do it whenever he went away, and he did it that day you last saw him. Even though you’re not wearing a hat, you know you are now expected to mimic the gesture and so you do: you tip your finger to your forehead instead and smile at the woman. The thin man turns back to the bus and move to follow suit, but the woman still has her hand on your shoulder and won’t let go.
She is speaking again. Her eyes are very blue now as she crouches down and wraps her arms around your waist, pressing you against her body. The smile falls from your face.
This is not right.
You don’t know this strange woman, even if you know her name. She does not seem to understand that you have to get back to the bus because you have to go home now. You will have to sit on those leather seats that will make your back hurt for at least another day, but then you’ll be back home with mama and Ani and Fredo and Mari and Jojo, and the strangers will be back home with their family.
You open your mouth to tell the woman to let go, but no matter how hard you try, the words just won’t come out. It feels as though the woman’s arms are wrapped so tightly around your chest that each and every word dies before it can even reach your tongue. You feel yourself being lifted off the ground, your feet dangling limply in the air as the woman rises to stand. Then the man is next to you and you watch them exchange smiles and more foreign words. You think there must be a reason why everyone seems so happy all of a sudden but you just cannot think of a reason, cannot think of anything really. Somewhere behind you there is a low noise and you dimly register that it is the sound of the bus starting up, gearing up to drive away. The strangers are still speaking, one in each of your ears, and their words are drowning out all other sounds around you, one by one by one foreign word.
Agatha, they say, looking at you. Agatha.
You blink, and blink, and squeeze your eyes shut.