“How could they?!” Emilia pounded up the steep mountain trail taking long strides. Her mind screamed, breath deepened and pace quickened until she was almost running again. Her eyes were swollen with tears and only anger propelled her forward. Climbing into a light fog through dense green woods, the air grew humid and heavy. Ahead was a steep, rocky ledge. She had never been to the top of this mountain, never past the base of this cliff face. She once saw a couple of older boys scale it to the top, but it took more strength and courage than she had. “I disagree!” she said defiantly out loud to her own thought. Gritting her teeth, she confronted the cliff, clawing and scratching in vain, rubble falling at her feet, then slipped back against the stone, resigned to letting it win once again. Turning around, she picked up a rock, threw it down the hillside with all her might, then chased it with a scream. She did it again because it felt so good the first time. Mama was right, she knew for years that this day would eventually come but denied the expectation of it, and never allowed herself to think of it as real. She could not accept the destruction of her prized garden because there was nobody, and everybody, to blame.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, she slid down to the ground, sat quietly with her back against the rock and closed eyes. She inhaled deeply so her breath could catch her. Moist, earthy air engulfed her by the lungful, like it was breathing her instead of the other way around. Forest sounds pressed into her ears. The green canopy rustled overhead with birds and breeze; an occasional dew-drop of water crashed through the leaves, landing with a soft, mini-explosion of soil. Far away, howler monkeys bickered over something unbearably important, bursting with the rambunctious energy of springtime. But Emilia was still. Only the heavy rising and falling of her chest gave her motion.
She stood again with new energy and determination, confronting the rocky obstacle. She looked up to the top, down at her feet, then straight ahead into the hardness. One hand found a hold. Then the other. One foot pushed, the other kicked itself into a stone crevice. The energetic exertion of muscles transformed anger into resolve through sweat and heavy breath. In and out, one lungful at a time, each brought deeper focus and clarity until it was only her and the rock. Left hand, right foot, right hand, each in turn finding a place of stability. Breath seemed integral to the rhythm of her progress. Inhale; release and grip. Exhale; push and up. She gulped air as if it was pure energetic food. She and the rock were of like mind, each known to the other in strength and intention, neither one to yield. Anger wore itself out against the grit of the stone.
Her upstretched hand landed unexpectedly on soft ground, fingers digging deeply without purchase. She felt her torso slip down. Her legs sprang quickly upward to compensate, allowing the other hand a few precious inches to find and grasp the trunk of a small tree. Heart pounding with fear of falling, feet scratching at nothing, both hands now clenched around the tree, she pulled with all her might. She was finally able to lift one knee high enough for a solid connection to the ground and pushed, pulled, and dragged herself up on her belly, then quickly rolled onto her back, pushing against the tree with her feet to gain some distance from the precipice.
She lay there, looking at the sky, exhausted and breathing hard before realizing what she had just done. Sitting up slowly, clutching the tree, she peered over the thirty foot tall rock face and stared straight down at her accomplishment. It wasn’t really that far, but she earned herself a whole new perspective with nothing more – or less – than all of her determination.
Emilia stood slowly and looked around to get her bearings in this new place. In the past, she imagined this accomplishment would one day be filled with pride and celebration, but instead she felt only mild satisfaction with a strong dose of indifference. A small sound, faintly familiar, floated on the air. Tilting her head, the distant low hum quickly evaporated, along with the forest’s mesmerizing spell, leaving an opening for disappointment to run through her once again like ice. People. ‘How could they be so mean?’ Frozen to the ground with clenched fists, she raised her arms and screamed up at the mountainside for as long and loud as she could, the passionate anger of the loss she felt couldn’t hold back its fearsome expression. There was no way she could go back, not after this.
The promises Caláco made got everyone excited about progress. It was hard for her to imagine what people did before all the jobs and projects they brought. They seemed to start something new every few months but none of their projects were finished yet. She recalled the teacher’s puzzling look at school when she brought up the name. There was another sign she’d like to put up: “A new world of better living, HA! Through destroying my garden!” The thought of it forced a growl that started from deep in her belly; she yanked a tall fern out of the ground.
After all the long days and years of work she did for them, bent over in the field planting and picking coffee beans. She didn’t even like coffee. In fact, hardly anyone ever drank the coffee they worked, yet they spent the best part of every day caring for those plants. She resented every last little bean. They would travel the world while she was stuck here in a life smaller even than a coffee bean. ‘I have got to get out of here’ she thought, ‘maybe go work in the city. Anything. Anywhere. But not here.’
She stroked the feathery fern in her hand. The base of the cliff she had just climbed was where she taught herself to sing. She was too shy to even speak when she was younger, no encouragement could break her open. Her parents were concerned but she wasn’t, she knew what to say when something was important enough for her attention. It was just that most of the things others cared about seemed insignificant to her. Anzi urged her to go up to the mountains where nobody could hear and sing. ‘A song can be sung just for you. Sing long, sing loud, sing until you fall in love with your own voice’ he told her. It felt silly at first, but learning to not be afraid of your own self seemed like the best advice she had ever gotten. As for now, there was no song in her. Her back slid down against the tree that had just saved her, she dangled her feet over the edge, sunk her head into her folded arms and sobbed.
She had no idea how much time passed and didn’t care. The sun was hidden by increasingly dense mountain fog. She inhaled the rich, heavy scent of young plants and fertile soil being exhaled by the planet, and filled her ears with the sounds of mountain life. Digging her hands softly into the ground on each side, Emilia played with the soil, sifting it between her fingers. She loved everything about the soil, the way its many textures felt in her hands and between her toes, the way it smelled in all different weather and seasons, how it held the roots of living things. Most everyone else thought of soil as just dirt, something to avoid and wash off, but she was captivated by the magic it contained to support life.
Energy began to rise again, compelling her to stand up, shake off the tears and move. A narrow, wooded animal trail revealed itself and she started walking, spinning the fern she still held around in her fingers. She began turning over options in her mind. How long could she survive out here? There was fresh water in the stream, fruit trees, and she knew how to forage for wild edibles. Anzi taught her that. There were jobs in the city, she could work at any market with her experience. But there were no gardens there; none to grow, but none to lose either.
Deep down, Emilia loved her family. Mama seemed to understand her, mostly; at least she had a way of making things right in the end. Until now. But Papa made her crazy! They tried to understand each other, but they did not think alike at all. Wherever she went though, she would miss Anzi the most.
Anzi, more than anyone, was her favorite person. He always made her feel safe and important and she was proud that he was part of her life. He was an old man, a keeper of the old ways, the best story teller in the village, and the oldest member of the village Council. He was… just… old. Like he was born that way. But she didn’t always understand him. There was a mystery about him that Emilia caught glimpses of only occasionally and briefly. He knew all the ancient secrets, the stories, and history of the village and practically everyone who had ever lived here. Like the fern brushing along the plants on the trail as she walked, his stories just barely skimmed the surface of an idea, leaving much to the imagination. He moved quickly, teasing with words that grazed against inspiration but left her hanging without closing the circle of his thought. This frustrated Emilia because she wanted to know. She loved hearing the old timer’s stories, even though sometimes they didn’t make any sense to her. She blamed her own inability to think like them, or maybe she just wasn’t smart enough, but often wondered if Anzi and the others intentionally made things difficult to understand.
Kneeling by a small mountain stream, her cupped hands filled with water. She slurped it down, then splashed her face and dunked her wrists to cool off. Reaching into her satchel, she pulled out a small leather pouch and rubbed it between her fingers. The simple, spiral, snake-like design decorating it represented the continuous cycle of growth and change on life’s path. At least, that’s what Anzi said when he gave it to her. She opened the pouch to inspect its contents. Inside gleamed a collection of teeth. Twenty of them. Over the years, Anzi had saved all of Emilia’s baby teeth as they fell out. On her thirteenth birthday, he gave them all back to her in this pouch he made, saying “These teeth are a part of who you once were. They will remind you that with every loss comes something new. They will remind you of the younger you who brought you safely to today; and that today, you are responsible to your older self to deliver your best to her.” She turned the words over in her mind while turning the teeth over in her fingers. Whenever she felt alone and unimportant, like now, she could hear him say, “In all the world of being, there never was a never-was”.
You know how when you overhear half a secret conversation and you have to fill in the blanks, but you know that you’re making up half the story? That’s what talking to Anzi was like sometimes.
If she went to the city, would it be like she was never here? Would it erase her life up until now if she started new somewhere else? She didn’t really want to go to the city, she would miss Anzi, and school, and Miguel. She felt the belly bubbles again when she thought of him and took another drink. But how could she stay here and live the sad fate of a bean-working worker-bean for a company that destroyed her most prized possession? She exhaled long and loud, and lay down on her back, dangling her feet in the stream. As much as she hated it right now, it was still her life; and the sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded her were part of who she was, part of the multi-textured fabric of the place she called home. It would be hard to leave.
Her life was not so different from everyone else she knew, with one exception: where she was right now on the side of this mountain was the farthest she had ever been from home, and few had ever ventured here. Anzi told her about the spectacular views and panoramic perspective from the top. It was still a long hike from where she was now, but she was determined to make it there one day.
Emilia’s world grew much smaller today. There was more to explore, but she was out of ideas for the moment. ‘With every loss comes something new.’ He was totally wrong about that! Nothing good could possibly come from today. Everywhere, bullies seemed to be pushing her life around! She tried once more to imagine life somewhere else but could not. The tears were coming again, but she defied them this time, wiping them back before they had a chance to escape. Somehow, she would have to make the best of things, or at least learn to live with them. She sat up, brushed the fern over the water and watched it float downstream.
It was getting dark, and she was hours away from home. Emilia sat up, carefully put the teeth back in the pouch, tied it tight, and put the pouch into the satchel. She always kept it in the safest of places and often carried it with her. His love filled the pouch with luck which was hers, it seemed at times, for the asking. But not right now.
End of Chapter Two.
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Eve, by Sarah Jarosz. I think Emilia would like this song. Do you?