There was nothing to do but climb. The turquoise sky was immeasurable above the yuyuga tree, slim branches swaying and bending with heavy fruit. At ten years old, waking life was simple. The tree and the sky. Ricardo approached these things wide-eyed. He had been to church; they had taught him about Mary Mother of God and in this crisp instant, he imagined she would have to be invisible if she were up there. She would have to be able to fly, maybe. He loved her eagerly and for no reason at all. He threw his head back, rapt, and latched onto one of the low branches with both his hands, carefully lifting his feet off the ground. He swung forward and pulled himself up.
There was nothing to do in Honduras except stay in school and stay out of trouble. I know this because when my dad invokes this fateful tree climb, he calls 1976 a warm and boring year. He justifies his position perched in the tree, reckless and slightly stupid, by asserting his constant boredom. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never climbed a tree.
But I know about the tree and I know about the chickens. He talks about white chickens. They brushed up against his ankles when he used the outhouse at night. Now he heard chickens bawk and scratch beneath him, circling the tree trunk ritualistically, acutely aware of his small body hanging precariously above them. They bobbed and scurried amongst fallen yuyugas, sometimes jutting their beaks forward and pecking at the fallen green fruit.
More yuyugas tumbled to the ground. Then Ricardo fell, too.
The chickens flapped their wings in distress, skittering.
Ricardo groaned, rolling over on his side. A dull throb gripped his head. From his right ear, a small stream of dark blood leaked.
An especially curious chicken leaned over him, cooing and tender. He swatted it away with one hand, the other pressed into his head.
“Ricardo!” His grandmother Aurora called from the back porch.
Once, he had been showering, dousing his head in water with a large metal bucket. It had slipped from his fingers and crashed into his skull, leaving a permanent inch-long dent in his skin. When I was ten years old I could not imagine showering with a bucket heavy enough to dent my head.
But this was not like the bucket. The blood dribbled along the nape of his neck.
Aurora rushed barefoot through the grass. Her hands were warm and dry from scrubbing lunch dishes. She kneeled next to him and touched his head. Then she saw the blood.
“Blood! Come here mi consentido.” She held him.
He told me he had been her favorite, that she had spoiled him. She was elegant and mean. She chased him around with broken tree branches when she found him playing gambling games with the neighborhood boys because the notion that he was anywhere near criminal activity made her want to tear at her clothes and whip herself for raising him wrong. Ricardo often fell asleep against her chest when she stayed up late watching her telenovelas, talking back at the TV characters, crying when they got married.
“What happened?” His mother asked. Dilma stepped out onto the back porch, which rose above the shaded space under the house where the workers slept. Ricardo’s grandfather had built the house for his whole family, and his carpentry apprentices slept in the dry grass beneath it, nestled in with blankets. The warm wind rustled their hair and lulled them to sleep. It was almost better than a bed. Sometimes Ricardo asked if he could also sleep outside.
Now, he lay facing up on the ground, his dizzy head resting in Aurora’s lap.
“Mi consentido,” she told Dilma.“He fell.”
“What’s he doing up there in the first place?” Dilma had one hand on her hip. She had just gotten a perm, so she fluffed the back of her dyed blonde hair absently. “I tell him not to climb so high like that. He just doesn’t listen.”
“He’s bleeding?” Dilma said, dropping her hand to her side. She felt guilty, maybe.
Ricardo’s younger sister Karlyn must’ve heard the commotion. She ran to the porch and grabbed her mother’s hand.
“Bleeding!” She exclaimed, thrilled and horrified. “He’s bleeding!”
When Karlyn recalls Honduras, she tends to mention the turtle’s blood. She says that her grandparents both loved her so much that when she caught a cold, they tied her against her will to a tree. She was coughing and panicking as she tried to squirm out from beneath the rope that bound her. She knew what was coming. Aurora had found a small baby turtle from the backyard. She carried it with both her hands cupped as though it were holy communion. Then she sliced its thin throat open with a pocket knife. She squeezed the hot syrupy blood down Karlyn’s throat. Karlyn thrashed and sobbed because she could see the turtle’s blank eyes as she drank. My father insists it never happened, that nobody ever tied her to a tree, and that she made it up for attention. He accuses her of fabricating myths. Karlyn claims she healed perfectly within the day.
They both agree their grandmother loved them more than anybody in America is accustomed to loving. She would’ve wrung small animals dry for those children.
“Stay still,” Aurora said, pursing her lips. She pushed his head over so that the bad ear was turned up toward the long fresh wooden beams running across the ceiling. Dilma handed Aurora a cloth, soaking wet with hot water. She wrung it out directly into his ear.
Ricardo winced. The water gurgled in his head.
Ricardo squeezed his eyes shut.
“Think of something good. While I wash it out.”
His mother held the bucket as his grandmother tilted his head the opposite way so that it could drain. Some of the water stayed sloshing around in his skull, muffling Aurora’s speech. The rest of the water came out pink.
Ricardo did as he was told. He trusted his grandmother more than he trusted his mother. His mother knew this. This is why she held the bucket quietly for her own mother and let her glazed eyes wander away from the blood. Ricardo thought of Jaws.
He had watched beautiful white teenagers get eaten alive. He was small, and when the swarms had gathered sweaty and desperate at the entrance of the movie theatre, hands crumpling damp money, Ricardo had cut the line. Nobody noticed as he scurried through and stole a front row seat. The audience gasped and wailed and cried. The shark emerged from the water with bloody teeth. They screamed and threw snacks at the mouth.
When I was ten, we watched it together. After that I refused to get into swimming pools for fear of being eaten.
“OK, finished,” his grandmother said.
Dilma set the bucket on the kitchen table next to them.
“I told you not to climb the tree. This is why.” She left the room.
Ricardo’s grandmother drew him to her.
“Poor consentido,” she said.
That night, Ricardo slept soundly as his ears dried. Mangos sometimes fell, he tells me, in the chirping wet dark of the night. The sleeping children could hear their heavy thumps against the overgrown ground. Boys in the town scurried out of beds tripping over white chickens. Phantoms running barefoot across grass. It was a game. One of the boys would have sweet fruit. Ricardo didn’t hear any mangos that night.
This is not Honduras. My Honduras is not Honduras. This is purely fabrication. What’s worse is the life my father lived is also not Honduras. Thousands are fleeing central America this instant.
Every June, I ask my dad if he will take me to San Pedro Sula, insisting that there is enough summertime to do it. If only for a week. I just want to see it.
“Please,” I say. “Take me.”
I am steering us through Los Angeles rush hour traffic. Against all the concrete and gasoline I conjure mangos and grass. Honduran women. I just want to know that they are there.
“I’ll help plan it. What if we only went for a week?”
“You look too white, even if just half. You stick out,” He pauses, looking up out the passenger side window. “I don’t really know how dangerous it is.”
In over thirty years, he hasn’t been back. Going back scares us both.
“What if I tried to not stick out?”
“You wear those clothes. They don’t wear jeans like that in Honduras. You act white, too.”
In Honduras, a woman is killed every sixteen hours. It is the size of Ohio. A determined slaughtering is occurring. A femicide. American periodicals often write that in Honduras, women are killed for reasons related to gang activity, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and for speaking out against the government. And also sometimes, they write; women are killed for different, various, unnamed reasons. No reason. Strange inexactness. Pointless murder. Sometimes, a husband kills his wife, but of course, sometimes he does not. Sometimes, he kills a random woman walking home at night instead. He usually gets away with it, and for this reason, Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries on earth, of the ones that are not at war. It is not the 1970s anymore.
U.S. intervention didn’t help the situation—decades of exploitation and support of a political coup that ousted the democratically elected leader. There are so many hungry, terrified women. The U.S. helped them starve.
And yet I am trying to get back to Honduras. I have nothing to do with those women and I am lucky, but I am also missing something. Aurora and Dilma and Karlyn left long ago and now Honduras is a dim, unfamiliar dreamscape where women are shot for being activists and journalists and writers. It resembles the humble rural lives they once lived, the ones they fought to Americanize. But now there are McDonald’s restaurants and armed guards, tall barbed wire fences and desperate mothers. Ricardo’s family are not these women. There is nothing there, they say. There’s nothing to see. I think there must still be yuyuga trees.
Something was wrong. What his grandmother had done wasn’t enough. His right ear kept hurting, and then the left one began to bother him, too.
“Peroxide,” the doctor said. Aurora had preferred her personal healing methods, but she’d thought that she’d needed a second opinion for Ricardo.
“Peroxide should do the trick,” the doctor insisted.
“Yeah? Are you sure?” his grandmother asked, clutching her small handbag to her heart, legs crossed beneath her pink summer dress. “I’ve just been using water.”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, he needs something stronger. I’ll do it right now, and then you remember to do it for him twice a day.”
He poured peroxide down Ricardo’s ear. It pooled and burned somewhere near his brain. He turned his head over and dumped it out. Twice in each ear, twice a day was the advice. He even made note of it on a scrap of paper, and his grandmother tucked it into the front pocket of her bag. The treatment stung every time.
In college, Ricardo was missing things. Chapman University had offered him a work study that involved transcribing and translating notes during lectures. He was doing it wrong. He wasn’t getting full sentences. He was dropping minor nuances and unintentionally omitting words. Sometimes the professor would say his name and he wouldn’t turn his head, hunched over his notepad, studiously scribbling.
Finally, the university told him they thought he needed his hearing checked. They were right. Something was wrong. They told him they were willing to include hearing aids in his financial aid package.
“It is unclear whether the hearing loss is congenital,” the American doctor said, “or whether it is a result of your childhood wounds and the ways in which they attempted to help you heal.”
He stared blankly at the doctor remembering how rigorously Aurora had followed medical orders. He wondered exactly how many words he had missed, if this was a quantifiable loss.
He tells me the hearing aids looked like massive pieces of flesh. A wire wrapped around each of his ears. Bulky uncamouflaged contraptions stuck up, electric and obvious. They made him feel like an old man.
He waited a long time before he told my mom.
“I have something to tell you. I haven’t told you and—I don’t know exactly how.”
“What is it?” she asked, suddenly nervous.
“I don’t know what you’ll think.”
She is white and speaks fluent Spanish. The language had been her college major. They’d met at a salsa club in Los Angeles and her fluency had been a factor in their initial bond. He had asked her to dance but, my mother tells me, she didn’t feel like dancing.
They both felt like talking.
Ricardo had become a skillful lip-reader, but could not go on forever missing bits of her speech.
“Will you just tell me?” she insisted, expecting him to introduce her to an illegitimate child.
Ricardo reached into his pocket. Sheepish, he pulled out his two hearing aids. Finally, he was admitting what he had lost.
I used to avoid mentioning that I was Honduran. I tried becoming a better Spanish speaker in high school. I could barely roll my r’s. For a long time I had nothing to say about Honduras. For a long time, I wished I had turned out looking all white like my mother. Then maybe the burden would be eased and there would be less tangible evidence of this unresolved connection. I no longer wish this. It was something like shame and something like loss. I don’t know what I lost, but I miss it desperately. I can’t love a place I don’t know.
Aurora died before I was born and my dad named me after her. He tells me she would’ve loved me immensely, that I have no idea how much.
Each time somebody asks my name, I tell them hers. One cannot hear mine without hearing hers.
Dilma doesn’t talk about Honduras. She found faith and talks about that. She buys me second-hand coats I won’t wear and finds time to pull me aside every Christmas so that it’s just the two of us. She grasps my hands and starts telling me she loves me profusely, over and over again. Her English isn’t excellent and she only has so much vocabulary to use. She tells me I am pretty, and it means more when she says it than when an English speaker does. So pretty. Pretty hair. I love you sweetie. She is trying to say something more, but she doesn’t know how. My father claims she keeps an altar in her house with photographs of us, and pokes fun at her vehemence.
She tells me she prays for me every single night before she goes to sleep.
“Thank you. Gracias.” I say, speaking nervous Spanish. I want to slip away. I can’t think of anything good enough to say. I don’t know how to talk to her. She’s trying to make up for when she didn’t say she loved my dad. The thought of her praying for me makes me feel safe and guilty. I try praying for her in return, maybe.
When Ricardo thinks of Dilma, he thinks of how scared she was. She had been obsessed by money and how little of it she had in Honduras. She foresaw staying in that one house with her parents and her children for the rest of her life. This was not a pleasant premonition. She was young and knew her husband wanted to leave her, as he had been somewhat pressured into the marriage after he’d haphazardly impregnated her twice. And there had always been another woman.
So she took her husband and they drove to Los Angeles together. She had been sending her children to a private school in Honduras, and needed to ensure she could continue to pay for it into their high school years.
“What are we, rich? Paying for school?” her husband would ask.
She popped opened his beer bottles and paid the bills, solemn and determined.
She left Ricardo and Karlyn to work as a hairstylist, to make better money. She worked twice as hard and made more money. Her husband worked half as hard and made the same money. Dilma presumed that once they were financially stable, the time would eventually be right for her children to join her in America.
It was there that her husband officially left her and moved in with his mistress and his other two children. Her husband didn’t love her, it turned out.
Ricardo resented them all. He wanted nothing to do with America. At sixteen, he had grown an afro and had excellent grades in school. He didn’t need America.
Ricardo eventually understood there was a man. His mother wasn’t coming back. At a bar one night, Dilma had met the manager of the El Pix on Hollywood Boulevard. His name was Juan. He had worn a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a striped purple tie, and I imagine he had walked into the bar and asked her if she came there often and if she liked the movies. His movie theatre job meant he had saved up enough for a nice coat and a blue 1983 Oldsmobile. He was all about looks and he did well for an immigrant. Finally, after five years away from home, Dilma sent Juan down to retrieve her children for her. It was better if a man did it, she thought, in order to protect the children. And it wouldn’t make sense for both of them to go, in case one got caught.
Dilma no longer knew her children. Ricardo felt he was being stolen.
Juan parked his Oldsmobile in their yard. He kept it clean and sleek.
“We’re going to Los Angeles,” he said, leaning against the side of the car, chewing on a toothpick. “We’re going to stop in Mexico on the way—Karlyn, listen. Don’t you miss your mom?”
Karlyn was staring up into a tree. The family kept a white faced cachupin, a monkey named Mono. It was a pet of sorts. They fed him Aurora’s leftover tortillas. Karlyn was tutting at Mono, who was high up in the tangle of branches, solemnly staring down at the two children. He didn’t want to play when Juan was around, a stranger.
“We leave our luggage there, in Mexico, with my brother. We’ll get it some other time or they’ll send it. We’re crossing the border without luggage. Better that way,” Juan said. He hadn’t removed his aviator sunglasses and it gave the impression that he wasn’t looking at them when he spoke.
“Why leave our luggage?” Ricardo asked, folding his arms. He had begun to feel like the man of the house since his parents abandoned it.
“Easier. In case something happens.”
Things do have a tendency to happen. Especially in Honduras. For some reason or no reason.
They made it to the border. It was broad daylight.
Ricardo had a feeling that they had exhausted everything, that there was no feasible, imaginable life left to live anywhere at all. Juan pulled up at the checkpoint.
“Consentido, be safe. Be safe.”
Aurora had sobbed. Ricardo had grown tall enough that her head fell against his chest when she hugged him. He didn’t like that she was smaller than him now.
She had assured him that she would join the family soon, when the time was right. For now, she would stay in that same house with the carpenter’s apprentices sleeping below. She would make lunch and watch her telenovelas without Ricardo. Years later, she would follow the family to America, but in the midst of this farewell, she could not have known for sure. She had kissed Ricardo’s chin and touched his ears, saying soft prayers to Mary.
Now they sat hot and uneasy in a long line of waiting cars, collecting dust. Juan rolled his window down and unbuttoned his shirt. Soon it would be their turn to answer questions, to try to pass through. In between two distinctly different things, each new breath was horrible and thrilling.
The border officer appeared at Juan’s window. Karlyn was fast asleep, snoring gently with her forehead pressed into the window glass.
Juan explained that they had been on a trip to see family in Mexico. Ricardo was surprised and almost impressed by the ease with which Juan asserted the lie.
“This line is taking forever, man. Any idea how much longer?”
A terrified traveler crossing illegally wouldn’t dare make that comment. So that’s exactly what Juan did.
“Kids are getting tired and we’re all hot,” he said, dramatically swiping his forehead.
“Thanks for being patient,” the patrol officer told Juan.
Then he squinted into the backseat.
“What nationality are you?” the officer asked.
He was looking directly at Ricardo.
Ricardo didn’t speak English. But he knew he could’ve ruined Juan’s plan and gone running back to Aurora, to the big tree and the sky.
Just say American.
He said, “American.” This was the right thing to say, maybe.
The officer nodded once. It was that easy.
“Have a safe trip,” he said.
He walked away. They made it through.
They drove silently for miles and hours. Ricardo eventually fell asleep, too, and there was something comforting about the long roads as they grew dark. No más yuyuga.
Ricardo sometimes woke and witnessed fragments of the trip. His ears began softly ringing when he perked them up, trying to listen to the dead night. There was nobody around and nothing to hear.
Aurora Huiza is a sophomore at New York University studying Creative Writing and English. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has also appeared online at Embodied Magazine and The Drunken Odyssey. Her Instagram handle is @aurorahuiza.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.