The Things I Carry

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The things I carry are largely determined by necessity. Amongst my necessities or what I believe are necessities are messy bracelets, a three-year-old Casio watch, two hair ties (just in case one of them decides to break), a red swiss army knife, a complete deck of cards, my Apple earbuds, thoughts I keep to myself, a pack of Tic-Tacs, and a 50 spf bottle of sunscreen.

I carry my tight braid down my neck with the same loose strands of baby hair at the top that I always tuck behind my ears. I carry my dad’s cute little nose, his dirty blond hair and his almond-shaped eyes with the mixture of my mom’s laugh, smile, and her gaze. I carry my mom’s rhythm and feet that tingle whenever music springs to life, urging me to move. I carry my little wrists with twiggy fingers that are ideal for precise tasks and I carry my sturdy legs that support my body and can withstand days of hiking.

All I carried as a kid was limited by the size of my own palms. I carried pretty seashells from the long walks across the Basque shores with my grandma, I carried smooth pebbles or lucky pennies I would find on the sidewalks, I carried colorful leaves that had fallen to the ground from the trees above. All fourteen of my stuffed animals, I carried, each named and taken care of as if they were real pets. I also carried my magnifying cup everywhere I went. That was the object I used the most.

••••

While my dad always kept his head high up in the clouds, I was always busy burying my nose under the grass and soil beneath our own feet. Right before our trip to Mutumba Hills, my dad had gifted me a teleportation device that allowed me to shrink down to the same size of the critters that were concealed by the blades of grass, petals, twigs, that no one bothered to notice. A plastic cup, nothing spectacular, just a plastic cup with a magnifying glass on the top. The lid was a pale yellow and the plastic was molded into a flower form with large petals that suck out just a bit on the edge of the container. Nothing too fancy. Trapping bugs, or “bichos” as Ama would call them, in the container just to examine them, was all I did as a little girl on the top of this hill. A plastic cup with miniature black markings that indicated size was what it was.

Eight pointy legs with a little abdomen and an even smaller head. Eight matching eyes, beady and shallow, with superficial intelligence, positioned one above another. Four blue blotches stained its body that was black everywhere else, black, like the color of the unharmed night sky, black, like my mom’s trimmed hair, black.

Aita had shown me his magnificent encyclopedia of bugs & buzzers & beetles. Page after page he’d flip with his coarse fingers, each new one revealing a close-up photo of a beetle or a bug or a buzzer, mid-action shot, as if it just froze in space and time and would never be able to reach the next flower or leaf. Never again to come to life. Colors stained my fingers, clothes, eyes, tinting my vision with hues so contrast I thought I’d go blind.

Identical to a twig, it balanced itself to the best of its abilities to try convince me that it was somehow just a simple stick with legs. But it didn’t fool me, for I knew this critter only wanted to camouflage into its surroundings that were conveniently not there, making it look dumb in a way.

It was finding them, that was the hard part of this process. Finding the bugs that needed to blend into their environment in order to survive, and if they didn’t do that job properly, well, that was the end of that. Either their predator would come, or they’d be lucky enough and a little boy or girl like me would capture them with their curiosity only to release them a few moments later back into the safety of a bush or tree.

Its uncomfortable studs as legs bent in awkward ways as the critter stumbled around in the transparent container. Its flossy armor returned an ancient emerald green into the palid world of Akagera, made of mainly yellows and browns as if burnt to crisp by the flaring sun. Without a neck, the head stuck from under its wings timidly wishing it could retract into the safety of its armor.

“Amaia!”

It waddled back and forth, trying to find its way out of the invisible force it was enclosed by that was somehow keeping it in.

“Look up here! It’s another weaver bird with its yellow belly and wings – it’s making a snake-proof nest.”

Its minuscule head seemed to tilt slightly as if inspecting its surroundings, trying to understand a concept far too complex for its tiny brain to wrap around.

“Look! It’s a weaver bird with its yellow wings – it’s making its snake-proof nest.”

“Amaia! Come look!”

“Quickly, or it’ll fly away!”

••••

What I carried varied from day to day. Three out of the five days I would carry my bulky rubber and rope bracelets. I usually forgot them at home or would lose them for a week before finding them in my bag or in my desk at home. Two out of the seven days I would carry a bandana with doggie bones or with flowers on them; the bandana-phase was what my mom called it where all I would wear where those pieces of cloths on my forehead as if I were a three-year-old. Only once a week I would carry a necklace only to hide it in my shirt for one reason or another, but one thing I carried every single day was the thought of learning something new in school. I loved coming home and telling my dad and mom about how time travel exists or about how long a tortoise can live in the wild; 100 – 150 long years.

I carried the fascination of unexplainable phenomenons or riddles that no one could answer and the characteristic of it being unknown was what intrigued me the most. Pondering about these mysteries I would dream for hours off end with my dad of what the truth could entail. I carried National Geographic Kids magazines that would talk about these mysteries: The disappearances in The Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, The Walking Stones in Australia; these myths where what fueled my imagination as a little girl. I carried a box of magic tricks that promised anyone could be a magician but must’ve forgotten to mention me as the exception. I carried my grandma’s mystical rainstick that I was convinced was a pure form of magic when I played with it.

••••

There it leaned, against the Guatemalan tapestry that clad the Spanish walls of Amama’s apartment, her evidence of having escaped the safe borders of her hometown and out into the land beyond. It leaned against dynamic colors-reds and blues and greens and yellows-that intertwined and netted her latin memories into the home she so dearly cared for. If her husband were still alive, he would’ve taken it down by now and would’ve replaced it with an abstract work of art in shades of blues and purples, showing nothing but an eerie agony she always hated in him. But there it hung, securely, knowing he wouldn’t ever take it down.

A pipe at most, from the outside at least, wooden but with a polished texture, too glossy for it to be genuine wood from a forest. Tiny knobs poked out on the sides randomly which made it look like it was sprinkled with black polka dots or little droplets. It wasn’t until I asked Amama what it was that I found out what this magical instrument could really do.

Dusk, maybe 9 pm, the sun took forever to settle under the skyline but it finally did and the apartment began to glow with its yellow lights my grandma adored. Ama was outside with her old friends. Aita was somewhere near her, laughing loudly and telling them about our family adventures and how he had three kiddos. Amama was tucking Kepa and Unai into bed, reading them a bedtime story with her soothing voice that would lull them to sleep.

Clad in my long-sleeved PJs I sat on the carpeted hallway, criss-cross applesauce, facing the rainstick that just leaned lonely against a corner of two walls. The door to their room was shut and my ears couldn’t even pick up the slightest whisper from the other side.

Curiously I reached for the rainstick and flipped it upside down quickly, just to lean it back against the wall to pull back my hands in an instant and allow the magic to take place.

Instantaneously a noise filled my ears soft at first, like a hum, but became louder as the seconds passed by. The noise became a rattlesnake with its dense eyes and its maraca tail that shook back and forth hastily with its split red tongue that could smell me standing in the same hallway. The noise started growing louder and louder as the snake grew three times in size. All of a sudden, the snake swiftly hid under the rug for the numbing noise became a thunderstorm, pounding its millions of droplets onto the floor, penetrating the wood with an unthinkable fury. Afraid I’d become deaf I covered my ears with my hands but kept looking at the furious downpour that was taking place before me. The noise kept going until it calmed down, slowly coming to an end as it formed a smoldering fireplace with a heap of wood that was crackling under the touch of the flames as they licked the wood that forced them to break under their own weight. And that was when it stopped.

I sat still for just a bit to listen to the dead silence in my grandma’s little house. I still didn’t hear a peep from behind the bedroom door. Not even the radio was on in the kitchen, something that I thought was built into the apartment walls permanently. And then I’d do it all again.

Magic was what it hid within. A magic that made me believe until my father killed it by telling me how it really worked. Hollow was what it was on the inside, home to millions of pebbles or kernels or beads – no one really knew – that would trickle down the tube when flipped hitting hundreds of horizontal rods or pins to make a noise similar to the numbing sound of rain. After that, the rattlesnake never returned and the thunderstorms never formed in the hallway nor did the fireplace appear anytime soon.

But, there it leaned, against a corner of the hallway, one wall bare, the other coated in the Guatemalan tapestry of Amama’s apartment; the rainstick.

••••

The things I carried depended on my age. At 5 I started by carrying snuffy around: my worn out stuffed animal I dragged my entire life by one of its four old paws, as well as Duplo blocks, chupetes, my brother’s baby toys and colorful crayons I would use to draw abstract pictures with. Before then I never carried anything long enough to remember apart from my stringy bangs that were left behind for a good reason. At 6 I carried ziplock bags everywhere I’d go. Ziplocks with those sticky cheerios, or salty pretzels or even fresh apple slices my parents would prepare for me to bring to school and munch up. Ziplocks was all I knew of at that age.

7 years old was when I started carrying a dangerous amount of Silly Bands on both arms: those colorful rubber bands that were all unique shapes and colors that choked my arms leaving red marks I simply ignored. Silly Bands were what we traded as kids in the playground during recess time and the more you had, the cooler you were. Then I was 8, and I started carrying my mom’s habit of wandering around the house aimlessly with a toothbrush in my mouth as a behavioral inheritance, while my dad just stood in front of the mirror complaining how pointless it is to do so. 9 years went by too fast to remember, apart from a few cookie cutters and playdoh. 10 years was when I carried both hands up in the air exposing all the little fingers on my hands to prove I had finally made it to double digits.

And when I finally got my Apple iPod Touch I knew I was 11, old enough to carry addictive childhood apps like Temple Run and Dumb Ways to Die that I would play with my school friends in fifth grade. Before I knew it, I was 12 and I carried a large appetite everywhere I went. I carried the age of a teenager at 13, but felt nothing different than twelve. At 14 I started carrying my name proudly telling everyone that I’d never wish to change it. And 15 is the age I carry to this day knowing nothing better than to wait and see what’ll carry next.  

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The Things I’ve Lost

The Things I’ve Lost

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My baby grey eyes: that I was born with, quickly replaced by a hazel brown that was more of a balance between my dad’s blue and mom’s dark brown. The pancake house tokens: in our little Dutch town Uden, where eating off the kid’s menu rewarded you plastic grey coins, five per pancake, that you could trade in for a prize like a large rainbow slinky or a light-up boomerang that had an invisible guarantee of breaking after three throws. My habit of putting carrot sticks in my water to try and give it a slight flavor: a habit I learned from Zoe Goldman, my second-grade best friend, but that I stopped doing after she moved back to the states, just like the habit of eating Nutella-Butter Sandwiches. Unimportant arguments sparked by fusses with my brothers who always seemed to team up against me and shoot me down with twice as much power no matter how firmly I stood. Silly catwalks with Carmen, a close friend of mine who had beautiful curly blond hair I wished of having, a daughter of two Spanish fashion designers who took care of me as if I were their fourth child.

A flip-flop: in a small sandpit near a playground called Mama África that we used to visit ever of so often when I was building castles but then realized one of my shoes was gone. The flip-flop I had lost after having searched for half an hour straight with my friend in one of the smallest sand pits I had ever played in that had just magically swallowed my shoe and hid it so well I decided to leave with only one. My dad’s favorite frisbee (the blue one): after having thrown it as hard as I possibly could only to find itself in one of the most inconveniently tall trees in the area, impossible to climb. The silly bet I made with my Nepali friend Rivan Kayastha to see who could be the first one to climb that water tank tower, before I lost and gave him two gummy bears and a sour patch from my party bag. Quincy Jackson’s lucky marble in the gutters on a rainy day after Mr. Man’s music class where I knew he had regretted giving us those loud recorders to take home.

All my 20 baby teeth, starting with my front ones and going down the row; from when I pulled them out myself to swallowing one by accident. And then the longest nights that followed of waiting for el Ratoncito Perez to sneak into my room and trade my baby tooth for five euros – ten if I was lucky. Red heart-shaped sunglasses bedazzled with plastic gems that I only ever wore once for a picture before losing it in a family friend’s house. Every single game of chess against my brother, or dad, or uncle or even my mom’s cousin, Angel. A pinky toenail when I was running around my Rwandan yard and I banged it insanely hard on a corner of our porch while playing tag in the dark with my friends, all barefoot, by the way. The times when all we would do was catch grasshoppers: during recess and give them dumb names like Bouncy or Jumpy.

The belief that Sinterklaas was real and would come to our house to gift us sacks of presents every eve on December 5th, conveniently when family members or guests were visiting with suspiciously large suitcases. My voice at 10: when I stayed up the entire night for the first time in my life, singing along to songs loudly and gulping down candy as if it were caffeine, hoping the sugar rush would help us battle the sleep. My love for Shrek, the movies: as I would watch them over and over again at the age of 5 for an entire year as if I hadn’t seen it twenty times before. An anklet: all the way from the heart of Guatemala from when my mom bought them for her own friends that she never ended up giving them to when she was about my age.

The chance to apologize to my brother when I made him cry not so long ago just because I was in a bad mood myself and knew nothing better than to blame him for it. My love for the Phineas and Ferb soundtracks that I would dance to violently as a little girl, on our African balcony that was coated in those two red, fuzzy mats we had bought at Ikea the summer before. The sleepovers at Octavie Drevon’s French house that had walls that smelled like tobacco and where we played Fireboy and Watergirl for hours off end on her old Windows computer she probably still has. My mind when I thought my youngest brother disappeared in a fair in England that seemed to have more people than attractions after having let go of his hand by accident, but luckily finding him after only five minutes.

The thought that my mom lived an ordinary life: 1987, when she graduated from the only Experimental School run by nuns in Guatemala at the time, 1991, when she marched down the spanish streets, when she fought for her own rights as a woman, 1996, when her dad died of a heart attack while she was on holiday in Bolivia, 1998, when she made her way onto the front cover of a newspaper titled FIRST 9 BASQUE STUDENTS SENT OFF INTO THE WORLD ABROAD, 1999, when she found my dad in the middle of Haiti.

The thought that my dad lived an ordinary life: 1982 at the age of 17, when he decided to hitch hike alone around France, not knowing a single word in French, in order to learn their language, 1984 the year he underwent heavy back surgery after breaking a disk from his spinal cord only at the age of 19 as a result of his passion for volleyball, 1987, when he bought a ticket from China to Germany with his last 200 dollars to board the Trans Siberian Express in hopes of getting home safely, 1990, when he crossed the desert with one of his old girlfriends in a Peugeot 504, only to have it break down in the middle of nowhere where he by coincidence found another dutch couple and met Pepe, his closest friend to this day.

The thought I lived an ordinary life: way before I ventured out into poor communities that made up the Rwandan suburbs and I met little boys and girls like me that had to walk a dangerous amount of hours a day just to collect water in gericans. Boys and girls that didn’t go to school because they had to care for their baby siblings or help their parents. The thought of us being so different, until I realized that after all, we both had goats and chickens to look after at home.

Happening Truth / Story Truth

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A short story based on “The Man I Killed” from the Things they carried.


 

Midnight Fantasies

 

Like a majestic queen, she glided into her room with her head cocked upwards as if there were something on the ceiling apart from the ordinary leakage stains she wishes she could get rid of. Despite the risky heels supporting her figure, she manages to balance her entire body with a grace many ice skaters aspire to have. She takes two long steps and two short ones followed by another long one and then two short again. Her pace is like a dance as if she twirled around the room to a song no one could hear. Her hair was pulled up in a suffocating bun, restraining even the slightest strands of hair to peak up from the neat hairstyle, giving her an image of tidiness and formality. Smooth spotless skin, several shades darker than my own, made her lively eyes and vibrant smile stand out even more.

She had been one of many daughters, maybe, with another older brother and a younger one somewhere in between. Yet she never talked about them. Being one of the many children in a family meant competition. Nothing was truly yours until you bought it yourself. That’s why she secretly saved up money to buy what she’s wished for so long. It was the same smile she had worn as a girl the day she finally broke her piggy bank to realize she had saved enough money to buy herself her favorite band’s CD, at $14.99 only. Money she had earned through household chores, selling homemade brownies and washing her neighbor’s navy blue car once or twice. That unmistakable smile that sprung to life when she finally turned in the wrinkled bills and a few stray coins along with them in order to purchase the CD from the sketchy man in the corner store her mom warned her about. Maybe it was that same smile that she still wore to this day.

Silver hoops hung from her pierced earlobes that seemed weightless and elegant dangling on both sides of her face, giving her an impressive sense of symmetry. She wore risky, forest-green high heels that seemed as if they’d smell like pine trees and that matched her green top exposing both bare shoulders. Her head was still cocked upwards as if there were something apart from those leakage stains on the ceiling that looked like coffee stains she was so familiar with. Around her neck, a thin chain necklace shone brightly when the light caught it exactly at an angle, flaring its golden color against her smooth brown skin.

She had gotten the necklace from her best friend in New York twenty years ago as a lucky charm for their futures apart. She used to call her every Sunday morning while having breakfast just to catch up on things and talk about whatever seemed to be on their minds. But one day, her friend vanished off the face of the earth. Texts never reached her phone, calls were always missed and all her accounts ceased working. For fifteen years now she has been looking for her, through family members and friends, yet no one seems to know where she could possibly be. But every time she touches her golden chain necklace she feels as though her friend is looking for her too, somewhere. It was as if serendipity was playing a game on them as if they were trying to find their way back to each other but following two parallel paths that would never cross. The necklace was all she had left and all that kept her going.

She danced around the hexagonal tables positioned in her room, lined with plastic-metal blue chairs around them, with each a white lantern suspended from the ceiling that emitted a soft yellow glow. Around the furniture she glided, like a majestic queen or swan until she found her way to her lofty, black wheelie chair. You knew she was coming by the unmistakable sound of her heels clicking on the tile floor. She flicked up her MacBook air to kick off her day at work by reading the morning announcements aloud. She rubbed her hands together patiently as if soothing herself or warming them up for something. The same hands that had a secret talent of composing fascinating works of art with the medium of the English Language.

She carried around a crimson-red notebook. It was with her at all times. When one was filled, she’d replace it with another one: the same crimson-red color as the one before. It was midnight fantasies that she wrote in these, fantasies that only ever came to her after the clock struck 12. In them, she’d write about dreams and fictive stories about herself in alternate universes where “what ifs” were all she needed to mold the storylines for her imagination. Some were about her years as a little girl, the memories she had kept, others about her daughters and sons and about how much she’d wish for them to never leave her side. She lived in these fantasies, a world to all to herself. A world she’d never share with another. These midnight fantasies were what kept her up all night and were the ones to blame for the tired eyes she’d waken with a bit of makeup the next morning.

“Have a marvelous Monday, boys and girls,” she spoke with a clear crisp voice as light as feathers. Her hair was pulled up in a bun, restraining the smallest hairs from peeking up, giving her an image of tidiness and formality she met as a teacher. Her smooth spotless skin that covered her face, made her lively eyes, fogged up by all her dreams, and vibrant smile stand out even more. Her manicured fingers scurried over the keyboard before looking to dismiss us with a wink and a matching smile that bared her white teeth, blinding almost, in such a mellow room with lanterns that emitted a soft yellow glow.

She was a spitting image of her mother who had the same bold teeth and structured face, the defined cheekbones and arched eyebrows. The only physical characteristic she had inherited from her father was his hair, luscious black, easily tangled. Oh, and his humor, of course. His laughter. His jokes. She carried his clever way of mixing words and forming puns just to make others chuckle. She carried her mother’s manners: the nodding, the precise grammar, the agreeing politely – all of it. But she also carried her mother’s habit of misplacing things and losing them just to find them in the last place she’d think possible long after she needed them.

She remained seated in her lofty black wheelie chair, taking all the pressure off her risky high heels, that she somehow managed to balance her entire body on, and onto the spring in her spinning seat. Her suffocating bun pulled her hair back tightly as if there were a string at the end of it that tugged her upwards, like a puppet or something. Maybe that’s the reason why her head was always slightly cocked upwards. She rubbed her hands together again, taking a break from the keyboard, as if she needed to think twice or as if hesitating about something she wrote.

Despite her presence at school and the hundreds of students buzzing around her workspace at all times, she sometimes longs to be left alone. Longs of having time to herself, time to write more midnight fantasies. Her body might be at the desk checking emails and grading papers independently, but I knew her mind was secretly in another world, somewhere far away from where she currently sat.

 

 


 

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Tisha Meadows

Amama

Want to hear me read my memoir? – click here for the audiobook

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Lunar

“Maybe you’ll become an astronaut, algún día,” Amama insisted, stroking my cheek lightly with her delicate, aged fingers. Her loving eyes dug deep into mine, reflecting what once was a vibrant, youthful child but is now nothing but an exhausted and worn skeleton of who she used to be. Who she wishes to still be. Only when she smiles could one see the child in her glow again.

We were talking about my birthmark; the one on my face. My grandmother traced it with her soft fingertips, luring my eyes into hers.

“You’ll fly up in a rocket ship and be the first mujer to set foot on la luna.” Her soothing rhythmic words filled my ears, my eyes, mouth, throat, heart. She had a harp instead of lungs that produced notes too pure for ears to take in. I lay there beside her on the couch, nothing but a six-year-old girl who lived by a beautiful basque name, a language older than the pyramids, more ancient than the Colosseum, almost as antique as the stars in the sky. Basque, a near-extinct language we have to preserve, Amama says, a language we should adopt as our own secret one, she keeps telling me. My eyes listened, but my ears were too distracted by her melodious voice.

Like a red smudge from the corner of my eye down to my lip, my birthmark covers some of my right cheek. “Mancha,” I used to insist, “Stain,” as if I could just wipe it off with a wet towel. “Mancha roja.” But Amama would always correct me: “Lunar, Amaia, lunar precioso.”

“You’ll be la primera to discover the dark side of la luna, la primera who dares to do so.” she continued. Her finger became warm on my cheek, but a pleasant kind of warm. A warmth that I knew radiated from within her frail body.

Like a river that cascades down my face, my birthmark flows from the tear gland of my eye, downwards, to end up feeding my mouth like a tributary. It forms a red moon that curves down my cheekbone and that’s where all these fantasies came from; the red moon.

We were lying on the red couch she’s had for too long with peculiar stains that no one could explain. The t.v. was on but only for the sake of replacing the emptiness of the streets during the hour of la siesta. Amama would pick up the hesitation in my childish eyes. “Pero, te lo digo, Amaia, you have some sort of a connection with the moon.”

I believed her then, that I would go up into the great unknown and make her proud someday. I believed her when she said I would be able to talk with extraterrestrial beings because of the moon on my face. I still believed her when she said I would discover something phenomenal as a groundbreaking scientist someday, a scientist by the beautiful Basque name of my own, but the older I grew, the more these fantasies faded.

“Believe me, yo soy tú Amama y Amamas saben todo.”

 

Atrapasueños

Ever since I was little, I had trouble sleeping at night. I hated closing my eyes, afraid to sacrifice myself to the monsters that would chase me and tease me by pulling my long hair or poking me with their elongated, twisted fingers; the same monsters that came up from under my bed and out of my closet after the lights died out and my parents kissed me goodnight.

Unable to sleep, I would slip into my parent’s room, after only ten minutes of struggling with the scary beasts that conquered my imagination, hugging my blanket tightly and dragging it along the floor like a rag.

“No puedo dormir – I can’t sleep,” I would often whimper, standing at the foot of my parents’ king-size bed hoping that they’d protect me from my own thoughts and embrace me like they so often did. ∞

∞ “Mira Amaia,” Amama one day told me. It was one of those Sunday mornings where everyone would just ignore the early sunshine knocking at the door and roll over as if it would go away. It was the plague of the laziness that Sundays cast on the entire family, except for my dad, of course, whom I was convinced was the one who shooed the moon away and reminded the sun to rise in the mornings.

Amama shuffled to the breakfast table, revealing a stunning tangle of threads and leather and feathers and beads that formed something magical called un atrapasueños. Even its name sounded like something found in fairy tales.

“Esto,” she beckoned at the dreamcatcher with her eyes, “Esto es un atrapasueños.” Tempting to touch it, my fingers fiddled with the fine feathers as I continued listening to what my grandmother wanted to tell me. The circular frame was crafted with fragile fingers that were skilled at braiding and intertwining threads. The brown leather that bound the strings and wood together had small imperfections that only critics would be able to pick out.

“Y es algo mágico – And it’s something magical,” she would explain.

Aita, was at the table as well, partially ignoring us, still too early for him to interact with others. I could tell he had been up for hours, despite the fact that it was only seven thirty in the morning. He wore his flimsy glasses that clung to his large nose. The same glasses that he only ever wore when reading a good book or watching a nerve-racking soccer game on television. Glasses that I thought made him look older, but he’d claim older wasn’t the right word, but wiser. It would make him look wiser.

My brothers and mother were still lost in the world of dreams when Amama continued talking about el atrapasueños.

“Viene all the way from el País Vasco,” she stated, pleased to see I was already astonished by this gift.

“If you hang this above your bed, right where your head rests on your pillow, it will collect all those bad dreams of yours and only allow the good ones to get to you,” she spoke in a Latin-derived language I had learned through listening and repeating.

“De verdad?” I would more or less whisper to myself, questioning my wise grandmother’s words. My eyes drew the weblike threading in my head, tracing it with my eyes, over and over again, as if it were a labyrinth with no escape. The plastic beads matched the white thread and brown leather, adorning the gift with a glossy texture alongside the plush feathers. Gingerly, I brought it to my room, laying it on the neatly-made covers I was bound to sleep in that night. ∞

 ∞  Nightfall took its time, but when it finally arrived with its familiar pale moon and sparkly stars, I hung el atrapasueños carefully above my bed, just as Amama explained. Clad in my space-themed PJs with planets and green aliens, I got into bed all by myself, waiting for my parents to come in and switch off the lights. So they did, and as they kissed me goodnight, I closed my eyes like I did every night but this time allowed the darkness to envelop me without straining myself against it. Knowing the magic of el atrapasueños would shield me, I allowed the darkness to lull me to sleep and tuck me in. At last finding peace with what scared me most, I was finally able to sleep without my childish fears coming to life. ∞

∞ Even to this day, you can still find the same atrapasueños hung above my bed with its stunning tangle of threads and leather and feathers and beads, just the way I got it seven years ago from Amama.

 

El Puente

It was one of those summer nights where darkness came too late without an excuse, three hours behind the agreed schedule. The moon was still nowhere to be seen, as if this night forgot to bring it along. The black curtain that was drawn over the sky grew glistening stars, sprinkling the night with glitter that illuminated the dark space it was enclosed by. Down on the earth below, the colors grew dull and blunt as the light vanished with the disappearing sun. In no time, the street lights flickered on emitting a warm yellowness onto the stone cold floors.

The river below bathed in blurry colors that danced to the rhythm of the current, back and forth back and forth like a group of folks dancing Jauziak. Yellow dots floated on the surface, mimicking the glow of streetlights on the sidewalk above. Like fireworks, the colors blended and fused together which made the water take form and come alive as if there was a massive fish, playing in the waves. The coarse stone blocks fought back the playful waves that attempted to climb them as they stood firmly, supervising the river below.

There we were, grandmother and granddaughter, embracing each other with our interlocked arms like two penguins that cuddled for heat. Despite the livelihood of the city around us at this time of night, only the streets echoed the faraway voices of young couples at bars or coworkers inviting each other over for another glass. Before us, a sleepy bridge stretched into the grainy sky, unbothered to even acknowledge us, knowing we were anything but a threat. The suspended cables split the background in fragments like a kaleidoscope, but lacking the figurative color. We were walking across one of the countless bridges found in Bilbao, for the sake of satisfying our sense of savoring the sweet summer air. One of the countless bridges that provided passage for the civilians that needed to cross over a timid river that sliced the landscape in two.

The howling wind licked our faces, leaving droplets of dew from the damp air that lingered around our hometown all year round. With our sweaters hugging our waists, we kept embracing each other, until Amama’s voice interrupted the night’s song.

“No quiero ser vieja, Amaia, I don’t wanna be old,” she sighs. She stopped in her path, finally stilling her worn out legs after a lifetime of non-stop moving. Her eyes glistened, cuddled by her wrinkled skin on her face that stretches out when she smiles. Her mouth was pulled in an awkward grimace that made me wonder whether she was smiling or in pain.

I tried slipping my hand out of hers, but she held on firmly, unwilling to let me go, as if I would just run away or something absurd like that. I could hear the sorrow in her wasted voice as she pronounced those unsteady words that crumbled off her thin lips but penetrated my wobbly heart. The wind kept howling as we stood there, grandmother and granddaughter, but this time facing each other like opponents in a boxing ring.

Unsure how to respond, I just took in the sadness that transmitted through her tight grip, hoping it would ease some of hers. Unable to control my reaction I knew nothing better than to allow my eyes to swell up and form pools of water that blurred my vision of her sorry face. I still don’t know to this day where these tears came from, but all I knew is that I couldn’t bare to see my bright-spirited grandmother’s face intoxicated by misery, a true kind of misery.

Realizing that she’d opened up just a little too much to her naive granddaughter, her gaze apologized instantaneously, hiding her grief behind another mask. She frantically cut off the heartache flowing through our connected fingers and pulled me in for a tight hug. She blinked away a tear or two but none followed after those, settling in the back of her eyes for another day. There we were, grandmother and granddaughter, embracing each other once more on one of the countless bridges found in our hometown, suspended above the timid river that sliced the landscape in two.

 

Para Siempre

“Can I tell you something,” Amama will say out of nowhere while folding clothes or reading a book or even finishing a crossword puzzle. Her dainty glasses would balance on the edge of her pointy nose, praying not to fall off and shatter into millions of pieces.

“Claro,” I’ll respond.

“You know I love you, right? Te quiero más que cualquier cosa en el planeta.” She’ll pause whatever she’s doing, whether it’s the dishes that she’s cleaning or my brushing my luscious hair, she’ll just look up at me with her pleasant smile. She says it often as if it just would come to her mind and she needed to remind me, just in case I would forget.

I’ll just grin, bearing my pearly white teeth in response, once wonky, but now corrected by metal wires and cables, and let out a sigh, “Si, of course I know that, Amama.”

“Bien. Because I’ll love you para siempre.”

Native Hounds and Termite Mounds

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A Toyota Land Cruiser was the way we drove around the rutted roads, with potholes punctured into the unpaved paths that belonged to the Land of a Thousand Hills. With a V8 gasoline engine and the 32 valves, the motor hummed, gnarled, growled at the passers-bys as it consumed the road underneath it. Kilometer upon kilometer of uneven roads, terrible weather and at either dusk or dawn, our Toyota Land Cruiser persistently moved forward, confident to get to its next destination.

Riding it was like taming a wild horse, passengers always clinging onto the back of the leather-covered seats, afraid to be thrown off. Their nails dug deep into the grey coating which left scratch marks, as if we kept a vicious dog in the back. Anxious of being eaten alive by the monster of a car we had, they would always restrain their bodies and buckle down, even though we were missing a seat belt somewhere in the back. Our Toyota Land Cruiser never liked newcomers. At first sight, the bulky car would intimidate anyone in the right mind, but beneath the layers of paint and metal scrap, our Toyota was nothing but a playful cub.

Nothing but a child myself, I got along with our Toyota. I liked being tossed around in the boot, permitting myself to move with the vehicle. It gave me bruises, scars and even punched out my tooth once, but it made me feel free and wild for the first time. Like a lullaby, the constant twitching and wriggling of our Toyota would rock me to sleep as though soothing a baby.

Like a loyal companion, trustworthy dog, our Toyota Land Cruiser lived up to its name. Despite making a weird rattling noise that came somewhere below the engine, and the manual gearbox hissing violently every time my dad forced it into fourth gear, this wild beast we were all so fond of stayed intact and never disappointed us.

Once, a long time ago, our Toyota Land Cruiser had guided us to Akagera, a national park situated somewhere in Rwanda, the heart of África, right where my heart was at that point. Without a GPS, we miraculously drove the mischievous car into kilometers of unknown roads, some paved by hand, others barely even considered a road. With my dad’s foot never leaving the pedal, the car eagerly urged forward as we clung onto the beast, unfolding dusty, abused maps that were designed to lose people who settled to used them.

Every time we were confronted with an unexpected intersection, Ama would bury her long, Spanish-inherited nose, that she was always self-conscious about as a teen, into the map, studying it thoroughly. The stuffy smell of the untouched map teased our noses, tickling our senses, almost like payback for not having used it in an eternity. Impatiently, our Toyota would be jerked to a halt, but only briefly before it would fight back against my dad’s grasp. Somehow my dad would manage to keep it under control, though.

After three minutes of obnoxious yapping that came from three childish mouths in the back row, Ama would sigh, tuck the map away and hope we would somehow find our way to Mutumba Hills, our destination. Taking a wild guess, the car seemed to take hold of the steering wheel as it stuck to a random side, as though it knew exactly where to go.

After an hour of swatting horseflies, asking if we were there yet, and listening to rustic music from our age-old iPod (The Beach Boys and Earth, Wind & Fire on repeat) our Toyota came to a halt. I remember lifting myself up on the rim of the window with the little strength I had and peering curiously for the first time into the framed painting that replaced the window on my side of the car. A yellow-tinged tapestry was weaved together with the pale, glossy blue sky that seemed to never end. The same kind of blue that I then realized filled my dad’s eyes, a perfect match. No wonder, though, because this is where he belonged, after all.

The humming of the satisfied engine died out without a complaint, and our Toyota was finally able to rest, our little cub worn out of the four-hour car ride, ready for a nap. The exhausted pup let us unload ourselves and our heavy belongings without even a grunt. Before it could start snoring, my dad pat it proudly on the muzzle, hard as rock but as sensible as skin, to thank it. I could’ve sworn he murmured something under his breath, a few words of gratitude, speaking to the car in a harsh language it wouldn’t understand in the first place.

I tugged open the handle at my door, which responded with a simple click. I hopped off of the elevated frame with a pair of inconvenient green crocs clinging to my feet, begging not to touch the filthy soil underneath me. Like a magnet, the scenery attracted me as I tiptoed towards it, succumbing to its strong pull. Overwhelmed by all the colors and shapes, I stood there as if someone pressed mute on me, hands draped alongside my body, mouth open in awe, threatening to swallow one of those nasty horseflies. My eyes widened, wishing they could open up even wider, to take in the picturesque landscape that unfolded beyond me.

The infinite hills grew in every direction, covered in a patchy quilt of dry green puffs and dabs that ranged in every size and form possible. Leaves, trees, bushes, shrubs were braided together to form a rough rim that contrasted the unharmed blue sky, afraid of one day becoming contaminated and sick like its cousins in the cities. The innocent white clouds sailed lazily, avoiding the hills below, only to cast a passive shadow on whatever was going on beneath them, not that they bothered to care anyways.

Here and there the tallest trees poked the sleepiest, low-lying clouds to remind them not to fall asleep, to go back up where they belonged, or else they’d fall down to the earth and threaten to never wake back up again. Rivers carved through valleys, slicing through hills like a knife. A waterfall emerged from behind a mountain, cascading downwards, causing white foam to form at its feet. Even from here, it felt like I could hear the fuzzy, numbing noise of water clashing onto rocks.

Even though my feet were still planted firmly on the floor, my gaze traveled farther than I thought it would dare. Down through the slopes and basins, it flew, into the shimmering lake where it met wading elephants and hippos, and back up into the trees where it swang alongside monkeys. I felt my gaze escaping my body as if it were a spirit that could finally roam around freely without the burden of dragging a body along. It took my heart and soul along with it but didn’t get any further, for I pulled it back quickly before it might realize it wouldn’t want to ever come back again.

Peeling my eyes off the view, I spun around eagerly, ready to explore our temporary home.

“Niet te ver weg lopen, Amaia! – Don’t wander off too far!” my dad called behind me, his voice lighter than ever. His eyes were also bluer than I remembered, compared to the foggy grey eyes he wore to work every day.

“Zal ik niet! – I won’t!” I squeaked.

I skipped along the vast open area, allowing the tops of the lofty grass to nibble my fingertips as I dashed by. My stringy hair fluttered as I sprinted along, creating a brown cape that allowed me to take off. There were no fences or anything enclosing us, protecting us from the wildlife of this Sub-Saharan country; protecting us from the native hounds that would prowl around in search of their next meal, unable to distinguish a gazelle from a lost little girl, and unafraid to devour whichever. Wildflowers flourished between grassy spots and termite hills stretched to the skies, some taller than myself.

Aita once told me about the little critters that inhabited these muddy mounds. Termites. Those pesky, wood-eating bugs that know nothing better than to devour your chairs or tables… or so I thought.

He told me the distances these little fellas would travel just to chop up bits of wood to then carry them all the way back home. They didn’t eat that wood, they just chopped it up. He told me how these little guys were farmers, just like people, and how they planted and fed fungus inside these muddy chimineas they had build all by themselves. The interior was filled with hollow chambers, strategically build to allow fumes to escape out the gaping hole in the top. He told me how ramps and passageways allowed these termites to access rooms where the fungi plantations produced a sweet sugary substance they would then slurp up as a supplement.

Never had I thought that such an ugly mound of mud would be able to disguise such intricacy within.

Making sure not to stray too far from our base, I headed back to the gazebo that stood next to our car, with a thatched roof that became home to bats and birds during the breeding season. Kepa, my youngest brother, was still sound asleep, a 6-year old cozied up on a cushion in the back of the car. Unai, my second youngest brother, had already pulled out his Hot Wheels, building ramps in the dirt, right smack in the middle of the path, unbothered to move.

Hammered into the soil was a timid sign with shy letters that spelled out the name of our campsite: Mutumba Hills. It labeled the imaginary path, lined with only larger rocks on the sides to give some sense of direction. The campsite was what seemed like an elevated plateau home to chatty birds that created a soundtrack that perfectly matched the scenery.

Mutumba Hills, words that sound too good to be true. Suspended on a fancy sign above a full-star hotel golf course, it would be an embarrassment of a name, a waste of one, for sure, knowing that it would only disappoint guests of not fulfilling what beauty its title promised. Only here in Akagera does it take its rightful place, its name reflecting the breath-taking landscape and display it has set out for its guests to dream about.

Mutumba Hills, the place where I first used my pocket knife and where I first sliced my finger open with it as well. I remember bawling my eyes out, cradled by my dad’s secure arms who kept murmuring words I ignored, but I also remember proudly showing everyone the scar that stretched from one side of my palm to the other and up into my thumb. I remember joking with Aita, about how I got into a fight with a lion or wrestled with a crocodile or some bizarre tale we would trick others into believing. We would always wink and giggle at each other, knowing it was our little secret.

Mutumba Hills, where I first learned to make a fire with nothing but dried grass, twigs, and one match. The same place I deciphered the starry sky, long after my bedtime, with Aita as he told me stories of the Little and Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, the Milky Way. Where I build mansions out of leaves for the little ants, or braided grass to form flimsy rope.

Mutumba Hills, I was then convinced, was my home away from home.

The sun finally made its descent as it began to crawl behind the abundance of hills and tucked itself under the cozy blankets of tall grass and savannah trees. Taking the light with it, the sky absorbed any colors it had left as the clouds blushed pink in response. Patches of magentas and lilacs merged with rustic yellows to form a canvas prone to be stolen by a greedy artist one day. The wind prickled our goosebumps, hinting at the chilly nights upon this hill as the sun sunk lower and lower, making space for its sister, the moon.

I could see the warm yellow and orange lights echoed on the tough, abrazed skin of our Toyota Land Cruiser, never again to return to the authentic white coat it once wore. The yellows, became olives and emeralds while the oranges became magentas and mauves as they bent around the still-shiny skin of our dusty car, forming flames and streams of color, that flickered and danced on the glossy coating. From under the hood, I could hear our car humming, purring like a pleased cat near a cozy fireplace. Even though its eyes were shut, lights off, I knew it was secretly peaking at the most gorgeous sunset I had ever witnessed right there on Mutumba Hills.

A Long Way Gone – Reading Response #4

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At the very end of the book, Ishmael wraps up his entire experience of being a child soldier with an underlying comparison of his life and a tale that one of his friend’s grandfather had told him and all the other kids in the village. The story goes as follows:

 

“‘There was a hunter who went into the bush to kill a monkey. He had looked for only a few minutes when he saw a monkey sitting comfortably in the branch of a low tree. The monkey didn’t pay him any attention, not even when his footsteps on the dried leaves rose and fell as he neared. When he was close enough and behind a tree where he could clearly see the monkey, he raised his rifle and aimed. Just when he was about to pull the trigger, the monkey spoke: ‘If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don’t, your father will die.’ The monkey resumed its position, chewing its food, and every so often scratched its head or the side of its belly.”

 

Then the storyteller would confront the kids with a question: “What would you do if you were the hunter?”

 

Ishmael talks about how the kids tried to be clever and come up with some sort of a way so they could avoid harming anyone as if the story were a trick question, but the storyteller would reject any of the alternative answers they would come up with. When it was his turn to respond, Ishmael said he needed to think about it, but that wasn’t a worthy answer either.

 

Looking back at the same story, Ishmael finally was able to decide whether or not to shoot the monkey. He came to the conclusion that “if I were the hunter, I would shoot the monkey so that it would no longer have the chance to put other hunters in the same predicament.”

 

This final part of the book shows just how much of an effect the war has had on Ishmael’s life. After having fought first hand on the field and having experienced inhumane things no one should ever have to experience, Ishmael has decided that he would rather put his family and himself in danger or at risk, just to save the lives of many other hunters who would’ve confronted the same situation. Ishmael would prefer suffering once, himself, rather than having a lot more victims suffer the same consequence.

A Long Way Gone – Reading Response #2

 

9780374105235_custom-987fac9f97e0a3802dcf801b18a625d7074242c4-s6-c30Recalling traces of his ripped past, Ishmael can only strike up memories that took place during the war, those before seem to have vanished from his head. Many of those imprinted memories morph together to form nightmares that penetrate his sanity constantly.

 

During the time he served as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, he quickly adapted to the severe demands that came from the Lieutenant and became tough through practice and exposure. After two years of nonstop fighting, Ishmael became what he had once feared as a little boy.

 

“My nickname was ‘Green Snake’ because I would situate myself in the most advantageous and sneaky position and would take out a whole village from under the tiniest shrub without being noticed. The Lieutenant gave me the name. He said, ‘You don’t look dangerous, but you are, and you blend with nature like a green snake, deceptive and deadly when you want to be.’ I was happy with my name, and on every raid, I made sure I did as my name required.” (pg. 144)

 

This quote shows us how the Lieutenant had awarded Ishmael with a nickname which tightened their bond a little more and indicated that Ishmael was a worthy soldier, and finally was recognized by someone who seemed to care. The Lieutenant kind of became his father figure, as his true father illy-supported his shattered family and was the reason for the brutal divorce with Ishmael and Junior’s beloved mother and younger brother, as well.

 

As the Lieutenant would compliment him for his agility as a boy and tactful thinking, Ishmael had accepted his fate and done everything he could to not let his “father” down in disappointment. He had to make sure he “did as (his) name required,” every time he went on a raid with other boys. I noticed that even though Ishmael was afraid to admit it, he liked the fact that he had established a mutual friendship with the Lieutenant, finally feeling like he belonged in some place. He made Ishmael feel invincible, as if he could run away from death, and gave him the perseverance he needed to survive until the end. I wonder if the Lieutenant realized how much it must’ve hurt Ishmael when he “let go” of him and allowed UNICEFF to take him away from the newly founded “home” he was integrated into.

 

A Long Way Gone – Reading Response #3

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As I progressively read through this book, I truly begin to realize how much harm and suffering memories of wartime can bring to an individual, especially to one of such young age. Ishmael lost everyone: first his family, his divorced parents, and brothers, then his close friends and now even those who fought alongside him including the Lieutenant. Having been situated in a rehabilitation center, he must feel like an alien, vulnerable and alone, apart from some other boys who’ve been through a similar storyline. Having been torn apart so many times before, he faces trust issues and isolates himself from others who just want to help.

 

This tough stage of his childhood during wartime has set up a concrete barrier, impossible to trespass beyond the dreadful phase of battle and bloodshed. Trying to fish for memories before those is hopeless, for the only way to get a glimpse of life before the war is to travel back to the nightmarish past he’s afraid of to this day.

 

“That night, as I sat on the verandah listening to some of the boys discuss the volleyball game I had missed, I tried to think about my childhood days, but it was impossible, as I began getting flashbacks of the first time I slit a man’s throat. The scene kept surfacing in my memory like lightning on a dark rainy night, and each time it happened, I heard a sharp cry in my head that made my spine hurt.” (pg 161)

 

This quote above made me realize how lucky many of us are to not have witnessed horrifying events like these as a kid, events that prohibit us to look back at our childhood and associate it with comfort and happiness.I’m aware that this is something that happens still to this day to hundreds of helpless children and I wish I could do something about it.  I can’t even start to imagine how sensitive and paranoid I would’ve turned out to be if that ever occurred in my life. I feel like no matter how much rehabilitation someone is exposed to, they will never fully recover, as the era of war has already sucked the life out of them.

 

“The scene kept surfacing in my memory like lightning on a dark rainy night, and each time it happened, I heard a sharp cry in my head that made my spine hurt.” The simile in the quote also allows the reading to merely understand what it must be like to have your memories attack you instead of sooth you. The comparison gives us an image of how drastic and shocking it is to have permanent memories, that should only be permitted to be projected in fake Hollywood war movies and not in real life occasions, come alive as a reminder of one’s childhood.

A Long Way Gone – Reading Response

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“A Long Way Gone” is a compilation of memoirs written by Ishmael Beah that portrays his childhood that was exchanged for life-threatening wars he fought in as a child soldier in the African country, Sierra Leonne. Haven taken out his family and friends along the way, Ishmael had fled from the rebels for what seemed like forever, hoping to someday find a safe haven, but his fear turned into anger as he sought revenge and agreed on fighting back with force. Scarred by all the blood he had spilled and pain he had inflicted on others, Ishmael’s rehabilitation process is sluggish and the hope of restoring his childhood is close to impossible.

 

When Ishmael was first recruited by the soldiers to become a fighter, he was nothing but a 13-year-old boy without a choice. Having joined the team, Ishmael bravely set foot into something he’d certainly regret in the future.

“‘It seems that all of you have two things in common,’ the soldier said after he had finished testing all of us. ‘You are afraid of looking a man in the eye and afraid of holding a gun. Your hands tremble as if the gun is pointed at your head.’ He walked up and down the line for a bit and continued: ‘This gun’ – he held the AK-47 high up – ‘will soon belong to you, so you better learn not to be afraid of it.'”

In this quote, the Lieutenant is lecturing the boys on their first most important lesson; the gun is theirs and they must create a brother-like bond with it to survive and must learn not to be afraid of it. Inflicting demeaning words towards their fragile mentalities, the Lieutenant declared how weak they were and was straight to the point, brutal, almost. I was surprised when the Lieutenant just handed over the AK-47s as if he were giving out treats to the boys because these lethal weapons aren’t toys, yet he seemed to dismiss that idea. I am disturbed by the fact that the children were obviously frightened by these mechanical, monstrous weapons, but that the soldiers still treated them like trained men, expecting them to just buff up and get the hang of things before their time came to fight.

I wonder if the boys really knew at that point that they had to prepare for the worst. They couldn’t have even imagined what suffering they were about to go through. It also bothered me how the Lieutenant knew what these boys were about to witness, yet he acted like they would just be able to shrug it all off as if they could be trained to become immune to this appalling war. Despite all the drugs they took in and marijuana they smoked, I knew that the memories of the Warfield would never leave their side, haunting them like an evil spirit for the rest of their lives.

 

I’ll never begin to understand what Ishmael really went through during this awful time period, but what I can take away from this is that their childhoods were snatched from them, blindly, without them even having noticed.