AlmaMia was seven the night she shaved her fourteen-year-old sister’s left eyebrow while the older sibling slept. Soledad hadn’t talked to her in two days, and AlmaMia was not going to ask for forgiveness. In her mind, Soledad had been the one to start all the trouble.
The afternoon prior to the shaving incident, Soledad and a couple of her friends from school had ambushed AlmaMia in the woods. She had been leaving Miss Toledo’s cabin when her sister and the other teenagers pushed her against a coconut tree and tickled her armpits until her underwear and legs got wet and warm. Mamabuela had been out of town attending a funeral, and Miss Toledo had gone to a meeting at Cienfuegos Boarding School where she worked as a librarian. AlmaMia tried getting back into Miss Toledo’s place to clean up, but her teacher’s doors were locked. The girl was forced to run to Vanesa’s house in shoes full of piss.
Moisture, heat and pressure weakened the cement glue that kept the top of AlmaMia’s shoes attached to their soles. The right shoe came apart. AlmaMia wanted to hide the split from Vanesa, but her mother caught her before she could sneak into the house. When Vanesa grabbed her by the hair, AlmaMia shut her eyes and covered her mouth with both hands. Vanesa always hit harder and longer if AlmaMia cried. That day, Vanesa took her favorite machete sheath and beat AlmaMia on the ribs and thighs only four times.
The leather scabbard bruised the side of AlmaMia’s right thigh. AlmaMia swore to herself that she would tell Mamabuela about the beating. But after the pain began to lessen, she realized she would also have to explain shaving off Soledad’s eyebrow with a crafting blade Mamabuela kept in her do-not-touch box. Instead of concocting an accusation plan, AlmaMia returned the double edged blade to the box and grabbed a small bottle of her grandmother’s arnica oil. After a couple of rubs, during a two-day period, the oil had taken care of the pain and most of the marks. Mamabuela’s herbal remedy had worked so well that AlmaMia was no longer angry at her mother or at her sister.
“Are you almost done ironing?” AlmaMia said.
Soledad continued pressing the blue skirt of her school uniform as if her sister hadn’t spoken. If she wasn’t such an ass, AlmaMia thought, she would’ve checked if Mamabuela had something to make eyebrow hair grow back faster. Sighing, AlmaMia wished Soledad’s ironing would take a very long time.
If she didn’t finish her homework before her sister was done, Vanesa wouldn’t let her go with Soledad and Matías, her father’s best friend, to a fiesta de palos at Miss Toledo’s cabin. AlmaMia was trying to complete the assignment, but her brain couldn’t think of any more three-syllable words that named people, things, or places which were hostile. She grabbed her head with both hands and wondered, How does Miss Toledo come up with these stupid homework ideas?
“Vanesa,” AlmaMia said to her mother. “What if I spell nine words and then tell you five aloud? That’s more, isn’t it?” She crossed her fingers under the table and waited.
“Write ten,” Vanesa said without looking up from the dress she had been mending.
AlmaMia looked at her wrist and willed the charms hanging from her silver bracelet to give her some inspiration. The small frog and the happy skull stared back at her without answers. Her third charm, a book-shaped infuser filled with rosemary leaves from Mamabuela’s garden, smelled like her grandmother’s hugs at dinnertime, but the scent didn’t trigger any words.
She scratched the top of her head with a pencil and searched around Vanesa’s living room for ideas; nothing useful on the packed dirt floor, the zinc roof, or the unpainted small window that let in the night breeze and every mosquito in the Dominican Republic. AlmaMia stared at Soledad’s pale face and bulging eye, and was wondering how to spell piranha, when something tapped her foot.
Matías was pointing at the table. AlmaMia perked up; her father’s best friend always came up with the best games. She followed his index finger to the cover of the comic book he had been reading, and copied the last word in the title: Araña. She didn’t think the eight-legged weavers were particularly hostile, but Vanesa ran screaming whenever she saw one. Maybe Miss Toledo would think of Vanesa’s blaring, and see spiders as mean creatures.
After writing the word, AlmaMia winked at Matías. Then she danced in circles around Vanesa’s rocking chair. “I’m done, I’m done, I’m done, I’m done, I’m done,” she squealed. “Ten mean words with three syllables in them.” She planted the notebook on Vanesa’s lap.
“Cheat.” The sound of Soledad’s voice made AlmaMia want to poke her sister’s browless eyeball.
Vanesa stopped sewing. “Did you cheat, AlmaMia?”
AlmaMia stared at her feet, paying special attention to the way the blackened nail of her left big toe stuck out of her faded pink flip-flop, before she glanced back and forth between Vanesa, Soledad, and the toe.
“Matías gave her a word.” Soledad’s hazel eyes shined brighter than the coals she had been using to heat up the iron.
“Did you help her?” Vanesa cocked her head towards Matías.
Matías stood up to talk to AlmaMia’s mother. “Yes Vanesa, but Mia was only missing one word. I just—”
“Soledad,” Vanesa cut him off, “You can go to the party with Matías after you’re done pressing that skirt. AlmaMia will stay with me studying her words.” Vanesa went back to her needling.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Matías said to Soledad.
“Someone needs to keep her from becoming a brat,” Soledad said, grinning at her little sister.
AlmaMia shrieked louder.
Matías walked away from Soledad and knelt next to AlmaMia. “All right, Mia, it’s all right.” He unstuck a patch of wet curls from the little girl’s face and patted her right cheek. “If you quit crying now, we can read Spider-Man together. There’s a lot of cool fighting in this comic book. I bet I can help you find more hostile three-syllable words for your homework.”
“Okay,” AlmaMia whimpered, wiping her face with the front of her t-shirt.
In less than half an hour, Matías taught AlmaMia how to spell serpiente, alimaña and piraña, the Spanish words for serpent, vermin and piranha.
“I’ll be ready in a minute,” Soledad told Matías. “I just have to put out the coals.”
“Leave them burning,” Vanesa said. “I need to press this hem when I’m done fixing it.”
After setting the iron in its metal cradle, Soledad stood, hands on hips, in front of Matías and AlmaMia. “I’m ready to go,” she said.
“Give me a second.” Matías looked up from Spider-Man. “We only have five pages left. Can you believe Mia learned how to spell three more hostile words already?”
“Four,” AlmaMia yelled. “I learned how to spell Trujillo.”
Soledad rolled her eyes. “Whatever. No one cares about some jerk that got shot to death thirty years ago. Let’s get out of here before Mami changes her mind and we get stuck with little shit,” she said to Matías.
“Many people care about jerks.” AlmaMia stuck her tongue out at her sister. “You’re just jealous because you repeated sixth grade this many times,” she held up three fingers, “and I’m only in third grade and know more long mean words than you.” AlmaMia saw Matías bite his lower lip to hide a grin and that made her giggle.
“Thirteen words?” Vanesa stopped the needle and extended a hand. “Let me see.”
AlmaMia gave the notebook to Vanesa and crossed her fingers and her legs, too.
Matías winked at AlmaMia. “That was a lot of work,” he said to Vanesa in an exaggerated tone. “I think Mia deserves a break. And I’m playing tonight. She hasn’t seen me hit the drums in a long time.”
Soledad kicked Matías on the side of the leg, and he dropped Spider-Man at AlmaMia’s feet.
Vanesa looked up from the notebook, and aimed an index finger at AlmaMia’s face. “You can go, but I’m testing you tomorrow before dinner. You need to become a doctor and make lots of money, so you can buy me a big house.”
AlmaMia kissed and hugged Vanesa with her eyes closed, and promised herself she would buy her mother that big house one day. Gripping Soledad’s hand, she said, “Let’s go, Sola.”
“Not before you change that t-shirt.” Vanesa scrunched up her face. “You got snot all over it.”
“I’ll get another one.” Keeping her undershirt on, AlmaMia took off the dirty t-shirt before going through the laundry basket that sat by the ironing board. She slipped into a red blouse that had big white and yellow daisies on it. “I’m ready,” she said and reached for Soledad, but her sister slapped her hand.
AlmaMia stomped Soledad on the foot.
Soledad smacked AlmaMia on the side of the head.
AlmaMia rubbed her ear and glowered at her sister.
“Stop that, you two.” Vanesa put her sewing on her lap, stared at AlmaMia and shook her head. “Soledad, are you going to let your sister walk outside looking like beasts live in this house? Put an iron to that top.”
AlmaMia pulled the wrinkled blouse over her head and handed it to Soledad. “Iron it, drowned cow.” She smirked at her sister. Soledad’s eyes were usually big and beautiful, but the missing eyebrow made her left eyeball bulge so far out of her face that AlmaMia expected it to jump out of its socket and knock somebody out.
Soledad grabbed the blouse, and said to Matías, “I won’t forgive you for this one.”
AlmaMia hugged Matías by the waist, and said, “I’ll forgive you for all the ones, in all the worlds, and all the times.”
Matías smiled. “I knew you were my favorite for a reason.” He ruffled AlmaMia’s wild hair.
She hugged him tighter before letting go. Matías was like a brother to her father, and other than letters and phone calls, he was AlmaMia’s only real connection to Papi. “His favorite, his favorite, his favorite,” AlmaMia sang, danced, and laughed in front of Soledad.
“AlmaMia Cienfuegos,” Vanesa’s eyes were on her youngest daughter, but her needle was still moving in and out of fabric that had been repaired too many times, “stop annoying your sister.”
AlmaMia covered her mouth to stifle lingering giggles. She waited until Vanesa refocused on the sewing before folding her undershirt all the way to the top of her stomach. Then, standing in front of Soledad, tongue sticking out and hands waving over her head, AlmaMia began rolling her belly around and around in one of her favorite mocking dances.
Soledad’s lips were thinned into a smile when she pushed the hot iron against her little sister’s stretched out belly.
Updated Oct 21, 2013.
|available at Amazon|