Every morning, as grandmother milked the cow while patting its ribs, my ten-year old brother, lanky with dark brown skin, held my tiny hand and walked us to the sugar cane fields. One day he hacked off a small piece of the cane for me to chew with a dull machete, the warm sweetness hurting my baby teeth. We ran around the stalks, digging into the dirt to bury treasures before the workers came. I remember my shoes, the leather dyed a raspberry red, were unbuckled, and so he hoisted me up on a wooden crate and fixed them for me and wiped the sugar stickiness off my cheeks with a spit-dampened bandana. This was the last time I saw him.
We had distant family near a place called New Orleans and a father with plans to kill us girls, so mama dug up the money she was hiding in a clay cup under the giant agave. She had sent my three older sisters one-by-one up north from Mexico, quietly, quickly, and we were the last to go. We got into the truck close to the border, where a stranger handed me a scratchy blanket. The bumps in the road felt like someone was kicking under the seat, but I knew we were taking a long trip and that I was supposed to be quiet for it.
For little girls, hours feel like weeks, but the truck stopped finally in a tiny dust-filled town. We stayed there to save money for the bus to New Orleans. The house we entered smelled of cinnamon and patchouli. We had some blankets spread out for us on the floor. In the evening, when everyone came back from working in the fields, after dinner was eaten and dishes washed, we sat around to watch I Love Lucy in English and eat blush-colored grapefruits and mangos the color of Mojave sunsets. Mama peeled the grapefruit for me, pulling the sections carefully away from the white fuzz. The sharp sweetness of the first juicy bite was replaced by a bitterness that lingered and stuck to the sides of my tongue. I preferred mangos when they became overripe, when the soft spots pooled with syrup that tasted like brown sugar.
My mother was quiet in her face only. I knew she had many sad thoughts swarming around inside her. It reminded me of the ants I once saw devouring a downed monarch butterfly. The bright orange, papery wings anchored to the dirt, becoming black and heavy with the weight of the colony gathering her up in morsels, pushing her towards the underground, a place which was foreign to her. How sad, I thought, to die in a place you’ve never seen before.
I remember hearing her crying at night. I heard her say to her sister before she left, “You know nothing. You know nothing until you’ve cut out two hearts that were once threaded together and burnt them over a pit. What would you know about loving a monster?” And I knew the monster was my father, but I didn’t know that love was involved at all.
Weeks, or maybe months, later she had saved enough money picking indigo grapes for us to take the bus to her cousin’s trailer. I was excited to go closer to the water, sad to leave behind the fruit cornucopia. I would be starting school as soon as we got there, and that also made me nervous as the only words I knew in English were Spice Girl lyrics and “Lucy! I’m home!”
We got our tickets at the station and a bag of chili-lime peanuts to share. We had many hours to talk about our new life in Louisiana. I had read about baby alligators that ate marshmallows, which I felt was a good place to start. My mother bent down to fix the straps of my sandals, much like my brother used to. I wondered then what was it that made boys like my brother and also made men like my father and why we had to leave both behind. I would ask her many years later, but for now we only spoke of baby alligators, wild banana trees, and all the gifts we might find in the dirt near our new home.
Rosanna Rios-Spicer is a full-time nursing student, public health worker, and new mother living in California. She has spent the last few years exploring the role of geography, family history, and conflicting identities in her short fiction writing. She often draws from her experiences as a Chicana growing up in the Midwest.