Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   s h e l l e y   g i l l e s p i e   ~   s e a t t l e ,   w a s h i n g t o n

ADAN MET the last woman on earth in a cafetal in Costa Rica. Her teeth were brown and formed triangles as perfect as the bright colored triangles on the border of her flowing dress. Triangles like the very volcanoes that gave birth to the ground they stood on. Her brown teeth, however, weren’t as brown as the dirt under their rubber boots, which smelled like the fragrant spices that made ancient men desperate for possession. Cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom. She, too, made men desperate for possession, ancient and modern alike. Even more so now, as the last one to possess.

She’d never tasted carrots before. Adan couldn’t believe it. He brought her to his garden and plucked the orange roots from the moist soil. He wiped the tiny crumbs of dirt that clung to the carrots on his pants and handed her one. She took it and eyed its twisted shape. He liked eating carrots without washing the dirt off, something about that crunchy sweet flavor and the taste of dirt made him feel recently born, new to this world. She held one up to her mouth, and touched it with the very tip of her tongue. Together, they shared the discovery of carrots.

He didn’t speak her language and she didn’t speak his, so they spoke Spanish. Her accent. His accent. They could have swapped stories about vocabulary acquisition, how learning a language is a form of self-defense. Otherwise they think you’re stupid and childish, standing there wide-eyed and unsure. Their conversations, however, never got that far.

Her language originated way back in the throat where a fish bone might lodge itself, from that place where gagging begins. He listened to the men speak it. She sat behind them, in the distance, surrounded by her three children, resting her chin in her palm. Her eyes as black as a new moon night. Her dress was stained with dirt, coffee fruit pulp and baby spit. Adan thought they should make eye contact, exchange some form of solidarity in their glance. But she just stared into the coffee-planted distance. He didn’t know if she listened, if she could distinguish him from the other men.

One day, Eva spotted him in his garden. He was listening to the distant chatter of the picking crew in the cafetal as he tried to fix a sprinkler head.

Quiero café, Adan” she hollered. “I want coffee.” He almost dropped the sprinkler with the sound of her voice, he had no idea she was so close. Her accent made his name sound like it stuck to the roof of her mouth. He could barely see her behind the tall coffee plant she was picking just on the other side of the garden.

A simple request, no polite round-about words.

Claro que si,” he said and dropped the sprinkler right there.

He heated his leftover morning coffee on the stove, added sugar, cut a piece of bread and a slice of cheese. He crossed the garden, scrambled up the hillside to hand her the steaming cup of coffee. He wanted to give her everything he had. He thought he was the only one who knew about her. If the other men had known would they have treated her differently?

No tengo hambre. I’m not hungry,” she said and took the bread anyway.

“You should eat something with that coffee otherwise it will burn your stomach,” he said.

She held the cup close to her lips and took sip after sip. The harvest basket hung around her waste. She bit a corner of the bread, to please him, and swallowed it with a gulp of coffee, as if swallowing a rock.

“You should eat,” he insisted.

“I don’t want to eat. I’m not hungry, these days. All I want is a tiny piece of bread in the morning. Only bread but even that is too much, sometimes.”

“But what about your baby? You have to eat for your baby,” he said. He wanted to kiss her, run his tongue gently over her lips, over her teeth, taste the coffee on her saliva, but, but what was he thinking? “Are you producing milk?”

She swallowed the last of the coffee and handed him the mug. Her hands plucked at the leaves that had fallen into her basket. He shouldn’t have asked.

“I have a little milk. I also give him milk from the bottle.”

She didn’t look at him and he didn’t believe her. He’d found her baby yesterday hanging in a woven bag from the limb of a jocote tree. The woven fibers wrapped around the baby’s small body as if he was caught in a fish net. He stared at Adan with huge eyes, not quite as black as his mother’s, entranced by the shadows that danced on the bark. Perhaps he was already worried about the plight of his mother who gave him sweetened pink powdered milk from a bottle.

“What’s the pink color of the milk?” Adan asked.

“For flavor,” she said.

Must be strawberry, he thought.

Adan’s neighbors said that her people arrived to pick coffee with their stomachs bloated with parasites and viruses derived straight from the jungle. They raised dogs to eat, the neighbors said. They shit wherever they want, so look out. They are fierce and the men are small but strong and don’t get involved with the women because that’s just the way they are, bound to sit outside the cantina nursing babies, babies, babies, one two three four five six, they said. His neighbors must not have noticed. This year, there was only one.

Adan was drunk the night the German with the clear green eyes slurred out the same old story. They leaned against the bar, shouting over other people shouting.

“I think we need to work with them differently,” Adan said. He fondled the empty shot glass. “Maybe we’re wrong…”

A fight broke out in the corner, a chair fell on its back, chests pressed against chests before knuckles were bloodied. Half of the pack unsure as to why they were fighting. The German lit a cigarette and blew the smoke in the direction of the fight.

“You see, this is the way things are. How are you going to change that?”

The German would never understand the risk of losing her. The change had to come. Adan thought he could smell it sometimes on the breeze in the late afternoons.

In the other corner he recognized Rolando who tried to sing Ranchera but his companero on guitar couldn’t quite strum the chords he had in mind. The knot of fighters wound their rumbling way out the door into the street where the putter of old diesel engines mixed with the pulse of the crickets.

He didn’t say a word about Eva. Walking home, listening to the dogs barking in the barrios, he wished he had. The German was a famous documentarian. But then again, he liked keeping her to himself, as his secret, as his.

It was Sunday, he remembered, when he heard that Eva didn’t have any food because her husband Julio drank all of their coffee picking earnings in that bar and fought so hard he ended up in the drunk tank. It was Sunday because the wind blew in from the North and whipped at the shirts of the soccer game spectators as Adan wandered around the plaza, walking off his siesta with a particular patience cultivated especially for those afternoons. Patience was the last thing he felt when Rolando or Pancho, he couldn’t remember which, said that Eva didn’t have any food at the cabin.

He coaxed Eva out of the dingy room where the foam mattress on the floor, once yellow, was gray. Gray from her kids unwashed feet and hands, from her baby’s drool, from Julio’s drunken desire. The baby slept on the mattress. The children threw Saint Peter’s tears at the ceiling. As fast as their little hands could, they gathered the gray seeds the size of their fingernails, to see who had the most the most the most. Her orange thongs made a thwap-thwap sound over the tile floor. She brushed black strands of hair out of her eyes and smoothed her dress and followed him in silence to the corner store.

She stood with her back to the counter while he asked for chicken, for rice, for salt. Adan didn’t know what she wanted to eat and she didn’t tell him. She stared out toward the street at another stale day. The bland light of late afternoon mocked them both. He should have just bought the food and brought it to her, he thought. Adan had no idea what she liked to eat but at this point it wasn’t about liking or not liking. She deserved the right to choose. No one ever asked what she wanted, he was sure, and anyway, this could be her last meal. Didn’t she realize what he was offering?

“Do you want black beans?”

She stared out the doorway before she shook her head gently.

“Do you want oil?”

Another shake of her head. The five o’clock bus from the capitol chugged past. She crossed her arms over her breasts. Her indifference annoyed him.

Quiero pan. I want bread,” she said. Finally.

That’s when he heard what she didn’t say. I want a peaceful night of sleep and the smell of alcohol to go away and the right to my earnings and I want the fabric I need to sew new clothes and I want my children to stop screaming and food…

Adan wished he couldn’t hear but it was too late—the whispers conquered him. He watched the store clerk through a blur, paralyzed by her voice in his head.

…and everyday food and the voice of my grandma telling me stories from her hammock and respect and I want to see you suffer too for once and my own plot of ground down by the river and I want the pain in my stomach to go away and clean water and I want to go home and never see another coffee plant in my life.

“Yes, bread,” he said, and bought seven loaves.

Back at the cabin, the kids continued to throw the tears at the ceiling, giggling. Eva didn’t cry. She just swatted at the no-see-ums on her legs and wound the handle of the plastic bag around and around her fingers.

Once home, Adan wanted a glass of wine and a hot shower. He wanted to make her shout or scream. He wanted to lay her down in the leaves and penetrate her. That’s when he cried.

Eva remembered meeting Adan in that cafetal in Costa Rica where Julio had dragged the family, swearing they’d make plenty of money to bring home. Adan’s hair was as fine as the spider webs that strung across the coffee plants in the early mornings and his skin was covered in moles; an entire cosmos of moles that reminded her of those starry nights she watched from her Grandma’s hammock, before Julio, before the migrations, before suffering. He was the last colonizer on earth, she knew, even though she never called him that to his face. Adan would have turned bright red and attracted the hummingbirds.

Yesterday morning Gabriel brought her the news running right up onto her porch and rattling the door like there was no tomorrow. Adan was dying, he’d said. She marveled that the news had traveled so far and so fast and that Gabriel knew to tell her first, to give her time to pack her bag. Twelve years since she’d seen Adan. Now on the bus, waiting to cross the border, a child wails in the back and the hours turn hot and sticky and gather their moisture in her armpits, between her thighs. She hopes she can make it. If her mama were alive she’d say Eva was a fool, that she shouldn’t waste an ounce of her mourning on his kind. Eva would halfway agree with her but then she’d have to say, “Mama, you don’t even understand.” When you’re the last, you’re the last, and something changes. Mama was never last so she never understood.

Adan knew, though. Eva saw it in his eyes the day he brought her the little blue pills, as if he could change the thousand-year history he carried in every cell of his body. As if he could change what the men did to her. It would take a lot more than little blue pills, but that twisted kindness was a beginning. He’d trampled in through the kitchen door that afternoon. Clods of dirt fell from his boots. She was leaning over the sink, washing clothes, rubbing her knuckles against her favorite dress until the soap lathered white. The coffee pulp stained everything. Her baby sat on the floor, naked, his skin clean and smooth. Adan held the pills out to her. She kept scrubbing her clothes.

“I brought these for you,” he said. “They’re for parasites.”

“For what?”

“For parasites.” He shook the pills, rattling them in their foil package. “I was thinking that maybe you don’t want to eat because you have parasites.”

“Oh.” She rinsed her hands and wiped them on her dress. She didn’t like the color of those pills, the color of poisonous berries, frogs, flowers. “But, but,” he lowered his voice, “are you pregnant? Because you can’t take them if you’re pregnant.”

She shook her head. Que manera. First asking if she had milk and now asking if she’s pregnant. She held out her hand for the pills. She wouldn’t take them and he better not subtract their cost from her earnings. Adan knelt down close to her baby and kissed his forehead. As he left, her son burst into piercing screams. A trail of dirt clods leading out the door. It took her so long to console her little one that she never finished her washing.

That night her son’s screams woke up Rolando, who slept in the other room with his compadres. She could smell him before she saw him. She clamped her hand over her baby’s mouth hoping hoping please please please don’t let him. He threw back the blanket. She clutched her baby. Rolando’s hands tugged at her dress, his fingers grabbed between her legs. His thrusting plastered her to the darkness. Her baby whimpered. She thought she’d be torn open, that she’d seep, guts and blood and all into the foam mattress.

When Julio came home he could smell Rolando. She heard him punch open the door to Rolando’s room and then the brutal collision of their bodies. They grunted like beasts. Fighting for the last possession, mine, the last claim, mine. Tearing her to shreds. They fought like that all night and into the next afternoon before Adan found out. He arrived flustered and ready for the fight, as bright red as fury, with illusions of laying his claim, as if she would hand over her dignity once more, for him. She had to confess, when she saw him, that her heart beat hard in her ribs. Still, the nasty taste in her mouth reminded her to ignore them all. The fight lasted for several more hours before they all collapsed into a fragile truce that wouldn’t take long to crumble.

Eva remembered how Adan found her afterward when the others were exhausted and battered and sleeping off their sore delirium. She hung the clothes she’d finally washed on the line in the afternoon sun. She could barely see his eyes inside his swollen face. He reached for her hand. She let him hold it as he wept. His tears fell to the rocky ground at her feet.

Nothing would ever grow where they fell, they both knew. I don’t want to treat you like this. He pleaded with those steel eyes. I don’t want to destroy you. I want you to survive. Some things come too late. She slipped her hand out of his, wet with tears. She hung her favorite dress, with the red triangles, over the line.

At last the bus winds its way out of the stifling lowlands, away from the border, and into the mountains where the cool, foggy air clings to the forest. Eva opens the window and inhales the fog deep into her lungs. Her ribs expand like young, volcanic mountain ranges. She wants to see his eyes one last time. She wants the guarantee of watching his last breath. She’d promised herself to outlive him.

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