Saturday, February 25, 2012
Fulgencia, Anna’s mom, had returned to Puebla several times during the first year after her fancy clothes and her Bible had tiptoed out when Anna was 8. Each time, the mother became more sarcastic toward the daughter, gradually moving to open rage. It was as if the mother returned only to throw aside her previous life by destroying the links that bound her to those who loved her. Anna, try as she might, could not move past the place that children go when a parent leaves, by abandonment, divorce, or death. One morning, she would look up at the crucifix she took off the wall – that wall in that room with that empty bed for one alone – and hurl invective at a God she had started doubting long ago. The very next morning she would kneel in front of the crucifix, with its cast-iron martyr peering out from under his crown of thorns, and beg Him to care for her mother and to remember her among the myriad billions of believers on this world or any other.
When she was eleven years old, she had discovered her classmate Magdalena sitting cross-legged in front of the giant sycamore tree in the school’s courtyard. This deciduous gift came from the Archdiocese of Seville as part of the earthquake reconstruction effort sixteen years earlier. The tree towered above the stumpy palmeras of the native climate, its bark looking like an endless row of greenish chameleons by comparison to the scaly brown exoskeleton of the much smaller palms. Magdalena’s light skin and blond hair marked her as an outsider. Anna felt like an outsider on the inside. Since Magda’s Danish mother had divorced her father and returned to Copenhagen, Magda and Anna shared parallel lives, but until this Tuesday in October, a bright sunny interpause in a month of solid rain, they had never spoken.
Wordlessly, Anna sat down on an exposed root of the great tree. Unlike the sticklike Magdalena, Anna had hips to tuck under herself even as a sixth grader. Noticing the slighter girl’s shoes neatly placed next to her schoolbooks, Anna placed hers the same way. The girls sat in lotus position like two yogis.
“What are you reading?” Anna asked.
“La Indagacion de la Poesia.”
“Mande?”, which is the Mexican idiom for, “I did not get that. Again, please!”
“It’s one of my brother Marco’s textbooks. When I was born, I was careful to choose a family that would have a brother ten years older, so I could read his books.”
“With my luck,” replied Anna, “he would have been a naco futbolista.”
“That was part of the bargain. If he wasn’t a reader, I don’t get born.”
“Si, claro. Por supuesto.” Anna had never heard the white stick-girl talk before. She liked it. “What would he do if he knew you had his book? I’m telling, jajaja!”
“You don’t know where I live. In fact, you don’t even know my name, do you, burra?”
Magdalena’s tone, the little toss she gave of her rich Mexican brown hair, and the furtive wink of her Danish blue eyes put the lie to the harsh words she had just uttered.
“Magdalena da Silva Jort. Burrona.”
“Mande? How did you know my matronymic?” Magda’s eyes widened, and her thin lips remained parted slightly at the end of her question. She blushed, more from embarrassment than from anger. The idea of a nearly-complete stranger knowing such a personal detail, especially as she perceived her mother as having abandoned her, felt like a violation.
“I do my research.” When the girls were in fourth grade, Anna had noticed a tall, blonde woman in the school. Perhaps it would be better to say that the tall, blonde woman penetrated Anna’s consciousness, striking a silent blow to Anna’s self-image and placing a permanent chip on her shoulder. Anna walked in the tall woman’s shadow to the office, and hid in the stairwell until she saw which girl left, hand-in-hand, with her goddess mom. Anna had the classroom responsibility of running messages to and from her classroom, so she spent the last three periods praying that the Sra. Morales would ask her to take something to the office. The moment finally arrived in art class. A new poster and English phonics game had arrived earlier in the day, but Sra. Morales had left it in the copy room by accident. Her lesson for last period depended on having this material, so she sent Anna to retrieve it. Anna feigned casual disinterest when she glanced at the early dismissal sheet, and there it was:
Heike Hjort Magdalena da Silva
Now Magdalena da Silva Hjort was reaching for her shoes.
“No, don’t,” Anna pleaded. “I didn’t mean any harm.”
“It’s just… just… nobody talks – uses matronymics. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“So tell me about, who is that, Villanueva?”
“Yes. He says that the central moment in the creation of a poem is like the moment of consciousness. Like the way the first man realized that he was a man and not an ape.”
“Yes! I think that this is the big idea in being human. Every moment is a new awareness…”
“A new possibility! And a whole universe is contained in it!” Magdalena gushed.
“Magda, would you read that passage to me?”
Magdalena read from the book. The entire passage occupied a page and a half, but it took up most of recess to read. That is, to read a single paragraph of it. The language was dense for an adult, and these were eleven-year-old girls. But they savored the language, the thoughts, the seriousness, the ADULTness of it, and they interrupted themselves interrupting the reading. Occasionally, Magda would look up whenever an older boy took up position nearby. She would shoot the boy a cross look and try to pick up where she and Anna had left off.
“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” Magda sniffed.
“Do what? Who?” Anna replied.
“The boys. They haven’t stopped coming since you sat down. Do they do that to you all the time?”
“No, but maybe,” speculated Anna, “I just don’t notice. That’s bruto. Barbaro.”
The bell rang, indicating that the children had five minutes left to go back to class. Both girls gathered their shoes, replaced their lunches, barely touched, in their book bags and caught each other’s gaze. Anna spoke first.
“Do you want to come over after school?”
“I’d love to! But I have to take my younger brother home. Then I have to…” The words froze between Magda’s larynx and tongue.
“My mom left too.” With that, Anna placed her free hand on Magda’s shoulder. The girls hugged. “I’ll come to your house, then. My father knows I usually stay in the library, so he won’t expect me.”
Even to the European thinness of their lips, the girls saw themselves reflected in the other.