José Corpas



José Corpas is based in Brooklyn, New York, where he operates a driving school. In between stop signs, he writes about boxing, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, the hood, and fiction. His fiction has earned an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train and his books, Black Ink and New York City's Greatest Boxers are available on Amazon and other online retailers.  

River of tears

When I saw Mama on what she thought was her deathbed, riddled with the chills and sweats of malaria, making funeral arrangements for Dad, but looking better than she had in years, I knew it was time to return to that ravine filled with lemons, where Dad disappeared. Mama spent the 22-years that followed Dad’s absence in denial, refusing to give us a proper funeral. I spent those years laughing when sad, my tears having run out during the year of everyday funerals.

My sons, aged five, knew Mama wasn’t going to die, that the doctor caught the malaria just in time but the fierce rhythm the heavy rains beat on the tin roof combined with the fleeting light in her candlelit room, had them clinging tightly to my dress.

“Give Abuelita a kiss,” I urged. “It’s depressingly dark in here.”

“There’s thunder,” Mama countered. Ever since a neighbor’s house was struck by lightning the year I was born and every light bulb in that house burst into flames, Mama sat in the dark and wore rubber soled shoes whenever it rained.

“Ay, Mama, that was thirty years ago. Everything is grounded now.”

“These houses look like they did in 1944,” she shrugged.

So we sat in the grey waiting for the rain to end while my twins, kindergarteners at the school I supervised, recited the alphabet for Mama, half-sitting-half-leaning on her bed. The same position I was in when Dad promised to pierce my ears.

Earrings were what I wanted most, with a dog a close second. I’d stand in front of the mirror holding things to my ears, deciding between studs or hoops. Whenever I asked, Dad fetched a needle and thread, but Mama would say, “not yet.” Instead, Dad came home cradling what I thought was a striped puppy, and promised that on my tenth birthday, no matter what, he would pierce my ears.

I named her Bohemia, after my favorite earrings and she slept in my room, coiled like a tiger by my bed. Only Dad could walk her, taking her to a secluded field where she hopped like a kangaroo. He was afraid she’d be mistaken for a cadejo and shot since no one knew what those things looked like. Bohemia never barked, purred like a kitten, but her growl was enough to keep away vermin and prowlers. She had free roam of the house, including the grocery store Mama ran from that part of the house where a nice living room should’ve been. Dad was an officer in the ENG stationed near Jutiapa. When I turned ten, a general with one eye came over and pinned the gold Captain bars onto Dad’s uniform.

Dalé duro! everyone shouted while I swung at the piñata that hung above. Wearing a dress Mama sewed, I kept one eye on the one-eyed general and the other on the piñata - a clown that smiled throughout the beating. When its sweet guts poured out of the wound, the one-eyed general stood up and told Dad, “You’re either with us or against us.”

After the party, Mama asked if I was ready. Dad waited, needle and thread in one hand, ball of cork in the other. Then Bohemia growled and a frantic knock on the door followed. A fat sergeant with short legs and emergency orders from the general whisked Dad away, taking the cork, and his promise, with him. The needle rested on the table. The coup d’état had begun.

The rain stopped.

My two boys kicked a soccer ball around the courtyard while Mama discussed the funeral.

“I was stubborn,” she said. “Contact Father Ramon, tell him it’s time.” I dabbed at the sweat on her forehead and told her, no. I stroked her grey hairs and silently recited a prayer I memorized when I was ten.

“You have to do it,” I told her. “I will help, but some things, you have to do.”

Dad was among the 50,000 who went missing during the CIA sponsored revolt of 1954 and the civil war that followed. Originally, only soldiers vanished. Politicians were next, followed by reporters and anybody else officials wanted gone. Some were in a rain ditch on the side of the highway, a flock of fat vultures circling above like police choppers. Most disappeared.

That’s what it said on the death certificate under “cause of death.” Disappeared, vanished, poof – like a helium balloon that a young girl let slip away.

“What year did he die,” the records clerk asked me through her gum when I went to claim it.

“Can’t you find it by name?”

“We file alphabetically by year.”

“Try ’54. Or ’55…I’m not sure.”

She turned half way in her seat, stopped chewing, and said, “Oh. Sorry.”

I stared at the certificate the entire bus ride home, hoping to find answers, hoping to find something that would make me cry. Mama put it away without glancing at it.

Dad went from “over there” to “somewhere” on an unknown date. It was an explanation I thought you’d hear only in a banana republic. My father, and the 50,000 others, deserved better. A parade, a holiday, reparations. At the very least, a fancier name, like they have in America – Missing In Action.

I was born the year the motorcycle-riding dictator was removed. A president who looked like Superman, quoted Voltaire, and passed laws that allowed women and the indigenous to vote was elected. That period became known as the “Ten Years of Spring.” I was named Esperanza.

I was an only child but never lonely. My cousins lived next door and, because of the store, we always had company. The only sad day growing up was when our parakeet disappeared. I waited days for its return, realized it was futile, then cried until I felt better. Life was average until the government started taking land from the rich to give to the poor. Unsuccessful revolts became normal.

As soon as the government targeted acres of American owned land, Washington D.C. got involved. When Dad was approached about joining the rebel forces, he didn’t know that backing the rebels were some bad gringos from the north.

Missing bodies meant empty caskets and hollow graves. Mama thought it all premature, like a five-year-old with earrings. Other families moved on.  

“The Major’s wife remarried,” I told her.

“She’s setting herself up for a fine mess,” she replied. “He’s not the forgiving kind.”

Memorial services were held, gravesites were decorated, and I watched with dry tears and bottled up laughs and wished I didn’t understand it all. My teen years were spent wondering what I should wear and whether a father I barely knew would approve because, Mama would say, he could show up anytime. Not without a body, she answered whenever asked about a funeral. The malaria changed her mind.

“I’m thinking about getting a mausoleum,” she said. “Big enough for everyone. I can have my parents moved.”

“Great idea.”

“Business has been good,” she said. “Check my savings.”

The bank was two blocks away. Mama kept her savings wrapped in a cheesecloth behind a loose brick in the wall. “There’s enough,” I told her after counting.  

The cemetery was divided like our town was. The tile-roofed mausoleums were on the west with a view of the Pacific. On the east, overlooking a dump, were the gravesites of those buried in burlap blankets. My grandparents were buried in the middle, in the so-called common walls shared by multiple families that stand in unpainted, uniformed rows, like public housing for the dead.

“What about military honors,” I asked.

“To hell with the military.”

The night my father was ushered away, Don Poncho, who delivered milk to our store on horseback in unrefrigerated containers, stopped by with an update. Dad along with 200 soldiers was ordered into a field. It was a trap. The one-eyed general had his rebels fire into the group. Only 40 survived, escaping and finding refuge in a ravine full of lemon trees.

“Oh,” Don Poncho added. “The bus fares go up next week.”

“No,” Mama corrected. “It’s been delayed.” Don Poncho mounted his mare. “You need a younger horse,” Mama quipped. “Before you finish your rounds, some of your news is history.”

Don Poncho laughed. “She gets sad when she’s not working.” Then he got serious and told us about that day when he left her in the pasture overnight and the horse’s tail and mane were braided into tiny knots. It was El Sombreron, he said, and it took Don Poncho nine days to untangle the hair.

I asked Mama if El Sombreron is real, if he might come to our house, braid our hair and jinx us with a bowl of dirt. Mama shrugged and said, only if you let it be.  

That same night, the one-eyed general showed up looking for Dad.

“I’ve never seen anyone climb the ranks that fast.”

“A lot of good that did,” Mama jabbed back.

“It’s not too late. I could use a loyal man like him. When you see him, and I know you will, tell him.”

“Is he alive? I hear things but see nothing.”

He excused himself to use our bathroom, leaving Mama in a pensive trance that was broken by a guttural growl. The general backed in slowly from the yard, Bohemia stalking.  

“He’s not here,” Mama said.

“You should feed her live chickens,” the general said while I grabbed Bohemia. “Squirming bones and hot blood is essential for her happiness.” We never saw him again.

Bedridden, stricken with fever, making funeral arrangements, Mama looked great.

“What color should we paint the mausoleum?”

“I like purple and blue. What was Dad’s favorite color?”

“He never fussed over details.”

Immediately following the coup d’état, roadblocks were placed. The only vehicles not stopped were the church’s Willys-Overlands. Hours after hearing of Dad’s whereabouts, we joined the families of the other soldiers, crammed into the beds of those small pickups Father Ramon said were visiting out-of-town churches. Prayer groups, he said. It’s a good thing that the God the Old World created was a forgiving God. After that trip, Father Ramon was first in line at confession because, once on the road, we passed every church enroute to the ravine.

The Pan American Highway was mostly paved. The truck’s shocks were stuck at attention. It was a jarring, hour-long ride of swallowing wind and hair that blew south. We stopped at the Botánica Cabrakan, a few blocks from the ravine. It was small, weather-beaten white on the outside, unpainted inside. In the back, an open door exposed an unused yard with a large bulldog chained to a post. The grownups stocked up on rosary beads, amulets, and ice. I sat with the sergeant’s daughter by the candles and waited.

Ruthie was my age, jovial, an only child, her favorite color was purple, sometimes blue, and liked cats. When I told her my dog purred, she wanted to meet Bohemia. She clutched a bunch of mint leaves, roots intact. “So that my father has something to eat,” she said. “Wanna help me start a vegetable garden?”

Dad kept one at home, but I couldn’t grow anything except the hair on my head. Even that I messed up, wishing my hair was straight. Still, I told her I would. It was a short walk to the ravine from the botánica. The smell of lemons informed us we were near. The streets were empty. We looked all ways before creeping towards the bushes like a pride of lions on the hunt.  

The ravine’s soil, dark and moist like used coffee grinds, muted our steps and the dense fauna provided a hiding spot every few feet. The Quetzals above flew without flapping their wings and the river - not clear, but opaque - was silent. “It’s not water,” Dad said. “It’s a tear drop from the God Xaman-Ek.” A tear that ends when Xaman-Ek stops caring. I watched that river religiously.

Dad said they escaped by swapping their clean shirts with the bullet riddled shirts of the dead, then held their breaths while the rebel soldiers did their inspection of the dead, shooting every bloodless shirt they saw.

Ruthie and I stared at the last Quetzals to inhabit the capital. Perched on the highest branches, where the sun’s rays pierced through the gaps of the leafy canopy like a hundred flashlights, I could tell by the length of their tails which were the males. We stared at the birds in amazement, they stared back with pity. With a single, silent flap of their green wings, they levitated above the tree tops and disappeared.

Some soldiers came down with the dengue, leaving them staring at a blank memory and cooling their heads with mud. Rosaries were recited, and the youngest soldier insisted a duende sitting on a branch kept laughing at them.

Ruthie and I looked for a place to plant the mint, our eyes averted from the purgatory surrounding us. Using her hand like a rake, Ruthie dug a hole and buried the roots. “It’s moist but we should still add water.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

Forming a cup with my hands by the river, I collected enough of the God’s tears to cover the roots. The following visit, I promised to bring tomato seeds. I held up my right hand and Ruthie did hers. We curled our pinky fingers around each other’s, a contract signed by the touching of our thumbs. I never got the chance to fulfill my promise.     

Dad said it was too dangerous for him to leave. “In a day or two, everything will be back to normal.” He knelt before me and placed ice against each of my ears. “I promised,” he said with a smile. He placed the cork behind each lobe and stabbed through them with the needle. No pain, lots of blood. Standing in the middle of this Limbo of the Patriarchs, a needle drenched with my blood in his hand, Dad never looked happier.

After putting Mama’s money back in the wall, we agreed to paint the mausoleum yellow. “When will you open the store?”

“I can’t think about too many things at once,” she said.

Because of the store, we knew everyone in town. Mama’s queso fresco, made with yesterday’s milk, was so good, everyone ate it in store, the moist crumbs falling on the wooden counter then smeared into the grains after they attempted to brush it to the floor. I spent many evenings digging out their carelessness with the teeth of an old comb.

One year after Dad went missing, when the year of everyday funerals ended, Don Poncho stopped by while Mama was feeding the chickens. I did something I wasn’t supposed to. I asked a grownup a question.

“Do you know what happened to the sergeant’s family? I made their daughter a promise.” 

“They moved.”

I knew then that I would have to return to Limonada one day, to fulfill my promise like Dad did his.

Located a few blocks from the National Palace, that slum, an abandoned offspring of the CIA, sprung up and spread like dandelions in this country known as the belly button of the Americas. Once a steep, narrow ravine, bordered by poisonous chichicaste shrubs on the south, and by the River of Tears on the north, filled with wild lemon trees and home to the city’s last flock of Quetzals, it had become a crater for the discarded. Today, the birds are rare even in the jungle and the lemons are gone, though an occasional shrub announces its presence with a burn that leaves the recipient cussing at the skies. It’s a pit now filled with lopsided homes sporting rusted corrugated roofs that look like they were sent tumbling from above.

Standing at the edge of the slum and looking down from any of the four avenues that do the disservice of taking you there, it’s as if you’re standing on the rim of a toilet the Devil himself decided to flush but, after noticing what was spinning in the bowl, changed his mind and left everything stalled in a clog. This place filled with people not quite wanted on Earth and not yet welcomed in Hell was originally—back when my father hid there—known simply as, “there.” It’s now known by the mist that rose from the bottom of the ravine each morning and comingled with the scent of lemons. La Limonada.

After agreeing on the color for Dad’s tomb, I told Mama I was returning there.

“If I must, I will get up from this bed and stop you,” she said.  

“You stay in that bed and get better,” I told her, handing her a cup of black bean broth. “And I’ll go over there, and get better.”

“If you insist,” she said, “then go with Roki,”

Roki, my cousin, was three years older, lived next door, and was abnormally large. His mother had undiagnosed gestational diabetes and Roki, named after the mountains, was born premature and fourteen pounds. By fifteen, he was six-foot-five, about 300 pounds. When he shook a mango tree, even the unripe fruits fell. No one knew he was diabetic. Always tired, he was a grade school dropout. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that when the Guerilla army came to town to recruit, Roki was deemed an ideal candidate.

Roki said he drove trucks, that he’d gotten his license at fourteen. I always thought he had too many pistols for a trucker. My favorites were the revolvers, whose cylinders I spun like mini Ferris wheels. Some pistols he hid where our vegetable garden used to be. Despite the artillery in the yard, it wasn’t until some neighbors, supporters of the new regime, accused Dad of having been a communist that I found out what Roki did.

It was a normal morning until a dead river rat was flung through the open window and landed by my feet. Then the chants started. Mama confronted them, but they weren’t reasonable. It was the only time we heard anyone say anything negative about Dad. They held signs, told us to leave, and shouted “boycott” in front of our store for three days. I prayed.

I was about to cry when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. It was Roki and though he didn’t say anything, I knew he wasn’t just a truck driver.

Roki stood at the door until they left. The next day he did the same. On the third day, he wasn’t there. Later that morning, while the church bells rang, scattered gun shots were heard. The homes of every protester were busted into and riddled with bullets. Even the mattresses. Forever after that, tension remained, hellos and goodbyes were colder, but no one held a sign in front of our store or called Dad a traitor again.

Mama took to vices after that. Her friends asked about her drinking and smoking. It was hard to tell if they were being nosey or caring. So I gave them the truth.

How’s her drinking? She likes her liquor dry and unmixed.

Why does she smoke so much? Nicotine is addictive.

Do you need anything? Yes, a lot.

Roki updated me on the ravine. Around 1960, it became the slum known as Limonada, a name I liked. I always knew I would return alone, but letting Roki know wasn’t a bad idea.

Roki had three kids, no wives. He still lived at home though he was welcomed to live with any of his girlfriends.

“I must go,” I told him.

“Each day it gets worse over there,” he said. After the coup, a puppet regime had its strings pulled whichever way El Norte wanted because, when you pay for the music, you control the dance. When not waltzing for the gringos, military rifles set their sights on unarmed civilians. Those escaping the bullets took refuge in Limonada alongside guerillas, poverty, hunger, desperation, and crime.

“I made a promise.” I told Roki it’s a gift to both parties when a promise is fulfilled.

“You’re a lot like your mom.” He snatched a paper and pen from his table and drew a rough map. “Follow that path. If shit goes down, tell them you know Mala Tiro. Tell him you’re my cousin.”

Mala Tiro was a ganglord. A freak accident cost him his shooting eye. His weapon of choice became the grenade. His street cred never suffered.

“Ese carnal owes me,” Roki said.

The next day, I pulled from my closet a plaid skirt I hadn’t worn in two years. I checked both profiles and the rear in the mirror, satisfied that it still fit. My husband, who looks like a Puerto Rican Cary Grant, entered.

“Why a teacher’s skirt?”

“Everyone knows teachers are underpaid but no one has any idea what a principal makes.”

“You know, it’s ok to cry.” he said. I stared at him. “Didn’t seeing your Mama in bed, the threat of death looming nearby, choke you up?”

“She’s not dying.”

“Not even a little?”

“Of course, it did,” I sighed. 

“Don’t fight it.”

“I’m not.” I plopped on the bed defeated. “I can’t cry anymore.” 

I thought back to that year of everyday funerals. When Father Ramon sat me next to the votive candles by the alter, a statue of Jesus looking down at me, a dry tear lacquered on his cheek. That morning we had attended the hundredth funeral of the year. A mother and father, sobbing before an empty casket. “He was just a messenger,” the mother repeated.

Tamales, fatty chunks of pork, and a punch made from dried fruits was served at all wakes. People were tired of eating. I was tired of saying I’m so sorry for your loss. “What else can I say,” I asked Mama.  

“You can say, He’s with God now.”

I practiced the phrase. Standing in front of the grieving parents, seeing their eyes filled with ungodly pain, then feeling some of that pain creep inside of me, made me want to cry like I never cried before. When I tried to comfort them, tell them their boy is with God now, I couldn’t speak or cry. I could only laugh. I tried to stop but I was too sad.

Everyone stopped crying to stare at me. Mama took me outside. A small crowd followed, thirsting for an explanation. I held my breath. That didn’t work. Hysteria someone shouted.

They made me sip warm water from a cup that smelled like a wet stone. A hand kept checking my forehead for a fever. Un demonio, someone said. The looks on their faces changed. Too old to be considered cute and too young to be considered appealing, I received no sympathy. Not even from the three church women. Always together, always praying, never seen anywhere but church and at funerals. They blessed themselves, asked God to save me, and took a huge step back.

I was rushed to the church. Father Ramon told Mama it was good to see her there then sprinkled holy water on my face, each drop inviting a giggle. Mama sat on a pew and reached for her temple. Another migraine, though this time it wasn’t because she was born during an earthquake. Father Ramon said it was affright. Everyone handles it differently, he said, though the Catholic cure for it was the same. A three-line prayer.

That night, before praying, I learned to hold in my laugh, like a fart. Word spread that God healed me through Father Ramon. The church had as many sick visitors as the hospital, as many men as the cantinas. At confession, I told Father Ramon it wasn’t the praying, that by mistake I discovered I could hold in a laugh by squeezing my throat as if swallowing. “Because of me, half the town thinks praying can fix things.” 

“The power of prayer is in the comfort,” he explained.

“I don’t understand.”

“Prayer is not a shopping list,” he said. “The more you say, ‘Thank you,’ the more you’ll be thankful. The more you talk about something, the more likely it is to happen.”

“I think I got it.”

“Never stop praying.” He looked at my eyes. “Don’t hold it in. Whether it’s a tear or a laugh, let it out. Once you stop, it means you don’t care.” I was free to go, he said.

“No Hail Mary’s?”

“You did nothing wrong.”

Mama said it wasn’t affright, it wasn’t a demon, and she didn’t care when I said laughing made me feel better than crying. I was selfish she said and explained that funerals were not about how I felt.

“It’s about supporting the grieving family,” she repeated.  

I made sure Mama never saw nor heard me laugh. Alone in my room, in the silent dark, I would smile myself to sleep.  

I didn’t blame my husband for not understanding why I couldn’t cry.  

“I don’t want you to become your mother,” he said.

“That’s why I have to return.”

“I don’t see the relation.”

“It’s a little voice in my head.” Before he could respond, I put my hands on his shoulders. “The same voice that told me to marry you. Besides,” I added. “I know Mala Tiro.”


“Not sure. Apparently, he’s a good guy to know if you’re in a bind.”

 The cab driver insisted he could only take me near there and not to there. I had been warned that no cab would dare take me to that slum. “Fine. Take me as close as you can.”

“It’s stuck,” the driver said when I tried to roll the window down. “Sorry,” he said, our eyes meeting in the rearview mirror. His name was Maximon and he’d been driving a cab for thirty years, knew every street, he said. “Why are you heading to that place?” he asked. “People usually want to leave.”

“It’s a long story,” I sighed.

“There’s traffic.”

“How do you stand the heat with the windows closed?”

“Too many fumes.”

The closer we got to the slum the uglier the homes became. And the stores, barricaded behind window bars, the rows of steel interrupted by soft hands exchanging money and goods.

“Are they opening a school there?”

“I haven’t heard of any plans for a school,” I told him, leaving out the part about no teachers wanting to work there anyway.  

“Another senseless murder over there last night.” He glanced at me through the mirror. “They kill over stupidest things these day.”

That murder was on the front page of La Prensa. So was the murder two nights before.

“They killed over the stupidest things those days too,” I replied. Though I could see a dozen questions in his eyes, he didn’t ask because, some things you just don’t do. “It’s a long story,” I repeated.

“This all used to be dirt roads and over there,” his finger motioning to the right, “was a forest.”


“Thirty years ago. The dictator kept a stable of horses there. He’d arrest you if you touched any, had you sweeping the streets for days.”

Traffic came to a halt. “I know a shortcut.” 

I leaned over and asked, “Are you familiar with the Botànica Cabrakan?”

“I used to drink Gallos with the original owner.” He shook his head nostalgically. “A young couple owns it now.”  

“Could you take me there?” Like the church jeeps, that was as close to Limonada he would go.  

I didn’t recognize it. The botànica was purple with a blue door. In the window were candles, bibles, and a cat. A man about my age asked if I needed help.

“Four rosarios please.”

The back door was open. Verbenas wrapped around the fence. In the center was an adolescent tree. “What is that?”

“Lemon tree.”

“I remember when the only thing back there was a dog.” He made eye contact.

“We bought this place five years ago. First thing my wife did was plant that tree.”

“Is she here?”

“She gets here at twelve.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“Thank you. Anything else?”

“That’s all. For now.”

At the edge of Limonada, I looked down at the result of twenty years of civil war. A nation in mourning. No music, no singing, a country out-of-step on the dance floors. It smelled like iron. From guns, or spilled blood, not sure. Throughout all those years, the rumor highway brought mostly remixes of the truth. The fate of my father, Ruthie’s father, and all the others who called the ravine home for a day was unknown. Only thing the rumors agreed on was who was behind the coup. Little by little but too late we found out that our country was not engaged in a revolution, but instead, was the victim of a takeover.

CIA was the first English word many learned. Their operatives, dressed like missionaries without bibles, were seen everywhere. They were a new type of soldier fighting a new kind of war. Still healing from fighting two World Wars in just thirty years, these soldiers got blood on their hands without setting foot on the battlefield. I wished I could’ve told Dad that “us” was “U.S.” and that he would vanish like the final pages of the Popol Vuh.

As I descended into that pit, I thought back to the days after he disappeared. Mama would sleep with me, holding me. Her grip loosened quickly. “Tuck yourself in,” she’d say. I’d awaken in the middle of the night to an empty bed and an orange light in the courtyard that dimmed and brightened in a rhythmic pulse. The first time I saw it, I was confused but unafraid since Bohemia remained calm.

“You should be asleep,” Mama said.

“When did you start smoking?”

“I’m supposed to see his chest hairs turn white.” She had been crying.

“Do you think he will ever come back?” I asked curiously.  

“There’s no more chrysanthemums in the garden – not much of anything,” she said between puffs. “You should plant some.”

“Help me,” I suggested.

She never did help and I didn’t mind because at that point in our lives, neither one of us wanted anything to do with digging holes.

The store stopped carrying anything that needed refrigerating and I wore my shoes until the hole in the sole was wide enough to poke my thumb through. I was tired of frying only onions just to keep the neighbors thinking we were eating well.

“There’s less in here than the last time,” she said, holding up a bottle of gin. She looked at me. I rolled my eyes. Using the small diamond from her wedding ring, she marked the level of gin with a scratch.

Around Christmas my sophomore year, my mind was made up. I took Bohemia to the wooded area behind our house and set her free without thought or expectation. She hesitated, then ran. I packed underwear, soap, and my toothbrush. Without looking back, I left. Before I reached the end of the wooded area, Bohemia ran up beside me holding a limp hen in her mouth.

I had no use for a dead hen and Bohemia wasn’t eating it, so I decided to go back home and make a pot of soup. It was enough to feed the three of us twice. Mama asked where I got the chicken from. I explained what happened and she listened. She told me not to let Bohemia out again, that she was a Thylacine, one of six that were imported and given to the military as gifts. Then she cocked her head like a confused dog and asked, “Have you been feeding her all this time?”

She fetched a spoon and sat down with a bowl. “I forgot how good this is. It needs salt.”

“Could you get some,” I asked.

In the kitchen, Mama found an empty salt shaker. On the shelves where we kept the rice were cartons of cigarettes and empty bottles of octavos, those eight-ounce flasks of fire water. On the counter, where the onions should’ve been, were old newspapers, a discarded cheesecloth, and a brick, the hole in the wall behind empty.

Mama sat down and tasted the soup again. “Any onions?” Her voice cracked. I didn’t reply. We ate, saying nothing, Mama holding in her tears, me my laughs.

Two days of chicken soup and suddenly everything was as limpid as the broth. I didn’t leave. Things were hardly better but, some things you just don’t do. In my room was a dresser, the bed, and a faded mirror. I wore no makeup and my best friends cut my hair. But it was home.

Mama started selling milk and eggs again. She helped feed Bohemia. She sewed me comfortable purple and blue dresses. On Three Kings Day, she held ice to my ears, then reopened my piercings. She bought me Bohemian earrings, the dangling kind. It was a slow recovery, mine taking one day longer than hers.  

Roki’s map did not prepare me for what I saw. The ravine had become a slum that rivaled any of its sister slums – South Bronx, Highland Park, Skid Row. Naked toddlers stumbled through doorways scarred by bullets. Light bulbs were stolen from the lamp posts and stop signs were painted over with gang colors. Children roamed the streets and alleys like feral cats because, schools did not admit students with a Limonada address. Flowers, crucifixes, and murals marked the spots where someone was gunned down, a reminder that I was in a place where blood flowed more frequently than electricity. 

Gone were the lemon trees. The River of Tears – still flowing - had become a conveyor belt for trash. A concrete footbridge was built high above the chocolate-colored waters and its base was planted firmly in the same area Ruthie buried her mint.

I worked my way down as close as possible and found a spot with no weeds. I used my fingers like a rake to dig a hole large enough to bury the seeds. As I poured water over the seeds, I had a flashback to that year of everyday funerals except this time, I could tell it was only a memory.

I noticed a familiar looking leaf to my right. I kneeled in front of it, my disbelief growing the closer I got. I knew what it was but still leaned in for a whiff to confirm. Goosebumps covered my arms and back like a light drizzle as the scent of mint filled my nostrils. A few feet away was another stalk and, a few feet behind that, another. In my mind, I saw Ruthie’s small hand gently patting the soil around the mother of all these mint bushes. I prayed. The same prayer I memorized when I was ten.

You, Lord are miracle worker for the sick, and for the lost souls.

You, Lord forgive us and save us from condemnation.

You cleanse us and make us born again new.

Standing in the middle of this American ghetto, dirt on my hands, tears running down my cheeks, I never felt better.

“Hey, are you okay?”

An old woman with sundried skin shouted down to me in Spanish wrapped in a K’iche’ accent.

“Yes,” I said with no urge of laughing. “I just planted tomato.”

When I reached the top, she said to me, “Only thing that grows here with certainty is trouble.”

“It’ll grow,” I assured her.

She looked me in the eyes like a foster mother would and said, “It’d be a miracle.”

“They happen.”    

Not here, she said before leaving.

I checked my watch. It was almost twelve.

© The Acentos Review 2018