Ear to the Ground
by Rios de la Luz
Soledad handed you a knife for Navidad. Let me show you how to use it, she said. She placed an apple on your head and told you to stand against the kitchen wall. She held onto the knife and shut one eye as she looked above you at the manzana. She threw the knife and it made a woosh sound into the bag of beans next to you. She praised you for not showing fear. She dug the knife out of the beans. You don’t have to learn how to use the knife, but it could be beneficial. She patted your head and you smiled at her. When the knife was back in your hands, you hid it under your pillow and ran into the living room to sit next to Soledad. You watched stop motion movies together. The images birthed butterflies in your belly because you thought you were watching someone else’s memory. You said this to Soledad and she told you she felt the same way. You both had Christmas sweaters on because madre thought it was cute. You covered in penguins. Soledad covered in candy canes. You both ran for your matching red and green beanies and darted out of the house. You played tag around the pecan tree that marked the middle of the neighborhood. Soledad joked about magic powers in the tree.
“It talks to you if you put your ear to the ground.”
She crouched toward the dirt then, she placed the side of her face toward the earth. She slapped her knee and laughed. You tapped your feet on the ground with impatience and fear of tree roots grabbing them. Soledad sat with criss-cross legs and reached up at you. You helped her up and watched the tree branches stretching themselves out toward the moonlight. Soledad hugged the trunk of the tree. Once boredom hit, the two of you ran back inside and drank warm horchata from mugs shaped like lizards and played lotería while madre cooked pozole verde.
In the summer, you sliced open the stuffed jalapeño toys your madre sold to the people waiting in cars to get back to the U.S. You sewed them back up by hand and never told your mamá about the notes you placed inside them. “Be cool, stay in school.” “Chill out, don’t shout.” “Hasta la vista, mamacita.” The jalapeño pepper wore sunglasses and had a huge grin with little arms that gave the buyer a thumbs up. Como, it was saying, thank you for taking me away from this border town. Thank you for taking me out of the harsh sun and the smog. You helped madre a couple times a week with newspaper and a spray bottle filled with watered down Windex. She told you to run up to the car and don’t give them a choice, you spray the front window, take your newspaper and wipe that shit down before they can shoo you away. Look for U.S. license plates. Look for the gueros. They are supposed to be strangers, so they better tip you. Never refuse a tip from the blonde ones, but don’t let them touch you.
Years pass and you’re a woman now. This is what the eyes say on the walks home from the corner store. Sometimes men whistle. Sometimes they vocalize. You never give the satisfaction of eye contact. You have three knives on you. One by your side, one in your dangling earring and another in your boot. These are the material possessions that bring you peace of mind. You run errands for madre during the day. She’s always tired, always in bed, but she says it is a phase for her. The TV light radiates on her smile lines and worry lines. She asks you where your sister is. Is she out dancing? ¿Dónde está? Is she at the library finding new books to read? ¿Dónde está mi hija? Soledad has been missing for two months.
You have talked to every single person in your neighborhood. You roughed up a couple of men who attempted to flirt with you when you asked them for information. One of them grabbed you by the waist and sniffed your ponytail, so you pierced into the middle of his hand with the blade in your earring. You cleaned the knife on your pant leg and asked him to talk. This was a power you were growing into. The other man asked you to listen to him. Neither of them knew who your sister was or who made her vanish from this tierra. There are rumors of a bus taking women away. That is all he knew. The wounded man, bleeding and screaming, wailed at you about his kids at home. You told him to be better. Take care of those bebés and help his mujer at home. Be better, hombre.
Even though it’s the middle of summer, you wear all black layers so you won’t be seen en la noche and because you are mourning. During your investigation of the neighborhood, you run into your hermana’s ex-boyfriend. You shove him against coral painted walls. He makes a simple statement about the way you wear your eyeliner.
“Have you seen Soledad?”
“I haven’t seen her since we broke up.”
He scratches his face and pink skin exposes itself.
“Have you heard anything about women disappearing?”
“There’s a rumor about the local bus driver. Supposedly, he takes women to factory job interviews in the morning, but he never brings them back.”
Soledad was looking for employment because the restaurant she worked at was shut down. Your mom was working less and you were having very little luck finding somewhere to make money. You pretended to educate yourself from school books you stole off of some kids at a bus stop in downtown El Paso. They were college kids. You liked the idea of exposing yourself to a couple of books belonging to the university. Sometimes, you would stare at the university through the chain-linked fencing. You tried to memorize the lists of facts and the Americanized version of history. Soledad lied and told Madre she got the books for you. Do you think she went to El Paso to find a job, mija? Creo que sí mamá.
Soledad’s ex shows you what stops the bus makes. The bus is painted like the Lineas de Juárez. Green and blanco como el flag pero sin la sangre. He tells you everyone knows about the buses, but they’re too afraid to say shit. In the morning, before the sun has shown up, you walk to the corner of Calle Cactus and Dalia. The second stop for the bluffing bus. The bright green bus arrives on time and you get on. You shake for a matter of seconds and look up at the driver. As you step on, you see another woman on the bus and you calmly ask her to get off. You grab for the knife in your boot and you caress the blade against the man’s Adam’s apple. You apologize to the woman as she steps off. “Que Dios te bendiga.” This is the only thing you can think to say.
You drag the man out. He is small. He has a gold chain with a cross around his neck. The belt looped around his waist has a buckle with gold flakes glistening against the sun forming a skinny line on the horizon. You are confused by his willingness to come along. He tries to introduce himself so you slice a shallow line into his neck. He doesn’t say a word after that. Inside the house, you tape him up to a chair and close the blinds. Madre’s TV is loud and you know she won’t get up. You go to her room and kiss her hands. You tell her to let you know if she needs anything. You step back out to the trapped man. You grab his face. Your fingers digging into his cheeks.
“You drove those women away. You drove them away from their families. Ya no existen en esta tierra because of you. ”
He spits at you. It oozes on the side of your cheek. You wipe it off and slap him repeatedly on the cheek with the full force of your body. He coughs out blood and looks up at you.
“I need income, niña. I have mouths to feed. I have grandchildren. Look in my wallet. I carry them with me todo el tiempo.”
You are tempted to dig through his pockets, but for money to give to madre. You place a strip of duct tape over his mouth. You spit at his face and then go check on madre. She ate the soup you made for her. She asks you for water. You fill up two glasses for her and place them on her nightstand. As soon as your sister was gone for more than 48 hours, you started figuring out how to provide for your mom. You stole food from the grocery store. You sold stuffed animals on the border.
One night, on your way home, you passed the giant pecan tree in the middle of the neighborhood. A pecan landed on your head and when you cracked it open, there were rounded sprinkles inside. You opened more, one of them had honey inside and another had pomegranate seeds inside. The last pecan you picked up had confetti inside and a photograph. It was of you and Soledad. She made bunny ears behind your head. You both screamed CHEESE at the same time. You covered in penguins. Soledad covered in candy canes. You couldn’t breathe or scream. You knew Soledad was gone.
After kissing Madre on the forehead, you go back to the trapped man and kick his chair over. You reach for his wallet and take out the photo of his grandchildren.
“I’m keeping this. I will pray for them. You can’t do shit for them while you’re in purgatory. ¿Me entiendes?”
You reach for the knife in your boot. You place it between your teeth while you pick the fallen man up. His hair thick between your fingers. You tilt his head back and he looks into your eyes. You twist his head around and to the side. You press the knife against the side of his head and his ear plops off into the palm of your hand. He screams beneath tape. You hold the ear between your teeth and grab his hair. You start to slice and rip some of his hair out. Once you’re done cutting off his hair, you place the ear inside his wallet.
“You will be trapped in a purgatory. You will sit in a cell and you will listen. You will listen to the mothers praying at night for their kids to come back. You will hear the last words of the missing women. You will feel what they are going through until you deteriorate.”
You are shaking and tired. You take the photograph of his grandchildren and tear it in half. You drag him outside. Blood follows you both to the pecan tree. You knock on the trunk, grab the man’s shirt collar and throw him on his side.
“Did you know? If you put your ear to the ground, the tree will tell you the history of this neighborhood.”
The man is crying now. You’re crying too. You grab the photo of you and Soledad and crumple it in your hand. His crying stops and he starts laughing.
“Can you hear the joke too?”
You could never bring yourself to lie on your side and listen. You caress through your hair and start to braid it while you wait for the roots to grab him. It’s only a matter of seconds before you’re both gone.
Rios de la Luz is a Portland based writer. Her first collection “The Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert” will be available in March 2015 via Ladybox Books. She is currently an editor at redfez.net and runs the Ladybox blog “Ladyblog” which will debut in February. Follow her on twitter @riosdelaluz
Image via Creative Commons