Illustration: Jia Sung.

The Hills

When the government announced that Pablo Escobar was in jail, Cassandra jumped up and down screaming and Mamá shook my shoulder. “Chula, do you realize? We can go to the movies! We can go out wherever we want now and we won’t have to fear being blown up!” I couldn’t show any emotion that Mamá could later use as a reason to take me to a psychologist. “We can?”

Cassandra was running down the stairs, then she was cheering outside, her yelling growing dim and loud as she ran up and down the block. I was frozen in place because Mamá was studying me. She was calculating something on my face. I tried to appear as natural as possible, like I was posing for a picture. After a while Mamá cleared her throat and declared she was going to give Petrona a holiday to celebrate Pablo Escobar being in jail. She was going to drive Petrona home. Did I want to come? I said yes, and Mamá said good, she would have forced me anyway. Cassandra stayed behind.

In the car, I sat in the back with Petrona, her backpack and things bunched up in the front passenger seat. We drove toward the mountains that looked orange like desert sand in the distance. Petrona wore tight jeans she had to pull up before she sat and a small black shirt she kept pulling down over her belly button. Her lips were bright red, her eyelids colored blue. I had never seen Petrona in her street clothes before. I rested my head on her shoulder and asked her if she would put blue on my eyelids like she had done with hers, but Mamá said something about germs and how you shouldn’t use other people’s makeup but your own, and that she would buy some for me later if I wanted.

I pulled away from Petrona and rested my chin against the pane of the window, watching the street rush under us in a blur of gray. Then I heard the name Pablo Escobar on the radio. A reporter was saying that on top of there being rumors about Pablo Escobar blackmailing the Assembly so that they would make extradition unconstitutional, there was also a cloud of suspicion on his whereabouts the moment he had turned himself in. Pablo Escobar had turned himself in at the exact moment the law making extradition illegal had passed. Some believed he had been inside the Government Palace, the reporter said, begging the question: who, really, is the president? Petrona was blowing a bubble of pink gum.

Mamá pointed to the passing cars and noted that everybody was smiling. Mamá said it was because people were happy Pablo Escobar had turned himself in to jail, and then asked Petrona whether where she lived the people would be celebrating. “In the Hills? No, Señora Alma. People like el Patrón where I’m from.”

I had never heard someone call Pablo Escobar that. I turned my eyes to the street, unable to imagine how someone could actually like him. At the stoplights I watched the people sitting together on the green hill between highways. One family crowded together around a sign that read, Displaced by the guerrillas. Lost wife and three children. Hungry. Unemployed. Help. The wind sprang waves across the man’s cardboard. Two children crowded at his feet and looked at the passing cars.

Then we turned and Mamá drove down the street I suddenly recognized as the place where the car bomb had killed the girl with the red shoe. Mamá must have turned on the street by mistake, because she cleared her throat and pretended like nothing was happening. The bomb had happened more than a year ago, but still I looked all along the length of the street for the dead girl’s leg wearing the red shoe. I looked for the exact spot I had seen on the screen where there was a crater flaming out of the pavement, but the sidewalk was clean and filled with people speed-walking and chatting and laughing.

Then the walls of storefronts and buildings became dusty and black. My heart was racing. Behind the pedestrians, yellow tape cordoned off a large area where construction workers stood in yellow hats and large machines broke up the ground.

It was obvious where the center of the explosion had been. The gutted building was in ruins, without front walls and half a ceiling. The crater, half blown into the street and half on the sidewalk, was black. Mamá honked her horn. In front of her traffic had stopped. I turned again to the building. At the center of the crater there was a pile of white roses. Our car started going again and I got on my knees and watched through the back window the pyramid of roses shrinking in the distance, thinking how that must have been the exact spot where the girl had her last thoughts. I looked out the side window in amazement as the walls and stores lightened from charcoal black back to bone white. As the blocks went on, the colors of the houses and buildings changed to more cheery colors: sun yellow, parrot green, flamingo pink. There were high-rises with security guards sitting inside behind tall desks. Then the sleek gray surface of the pavement disappeared, the trees died out, replaced by a dirt road that kicked up dust. Mamá avoided my eyes in the rearview mirror.

On one side of the road, children walked barefoot in a line behind mothers carrying baskets on their heads. One by one, they turned their heads and dropped their things on the road and ran after our car. There were so many of them Mamá had to slow down. I watched the children and the mothers as they cupped their thin palms against our windows and banged their fists against the glass, their mouths shaping around words I couldn’t make out.

“Mamá, do they want change? Give them change,” I said.

“No, Señora Alma,” Petrona said, leaning forward. “That’s how they rob cars. I’ve seen them do it. That’s why there’s so many of them.” She leaned against the headrest of the seat and turned to look out her window. “I bet those aren’t even their mothers.”

Mamá looked at Petrona through her rearview mirror and nodded, her hair and eyes nodding firmly with her. She returned her gaze to the road and kept it there, as if the children and the mothers didn’t exist. She held her chin high and let the car slide forward, slowly making her way through the crowd. Past her I could see a mother holding her hands open like a book, pleading soundlessly.

There was knocking on my window. I turned and saw a boy my age surrounded by many boys, but I only looked into his eyes, the one pressing most firmly: there were dirt stains on his cheeks. He glanced at his cupped hand streaked with sweat and dirt, and then looked up at me. He pressed his hand on the window, the light of his eyes turned off.

“Niña,” Petrona said, “don’t feel bad, these children have been turned wicked.” She put one hand on my shoulder and stared ahead. Her eyelids flashed steely blue.

Slowly our car slipped through the crowd of children and mothers as if through a forest, and then Mamá sped up.

We were coming closer to the orange mountains. The pavement had appeared again under us. We were amidst tall buildings decorated with gargoyles and lions, with big apartments and balconies and iron railings. We took an exit and the road curved up behind the new buildings and the hill took us higher until we could look down at the buildings’ garden roofs.

“Tell me, where do I go?” Mamá said.

“I’ll tell you when. We’re near,” Petrona said.

Opposite the new buildings was the orange mountain. There were huts made from scrap wood, tin, and old advertising signs climbing the slope of it, built, it looked, one over the other. The huts climbed the mountain like stairs. There were houses here and there, except they looked like a house does at its earlier stages of construction: poured cement floor, door and window frames without actual doors or windows, blankets hung from the inside. Everywhere there was orange dirt and the huts and houses blended with the ground like a sunset.

“Aquí,” Petrona said. “This is where I live.”

I guess I was expecting an invasión like Abuela’s, with pretty handmade clay houses and corn and cane growing in small plots. But what I saw was a mountain of city leftovers with people living inside. I tried to imagine what it would be like to wake up and see Pepsi logos and old plywood, the walls between you and your neighbors paper-thin.

Petrona opened her door and briefly patted my back and got out, going around the back of the car to the front in order to collect her things. I went out my door too, ready to take the seat by Mamá, but instead I had to wait behind Petrona, who was still bent at the waist with her torso halfway in the car, talking to Mamá about getting some extra money for vacation time. As I waited, I looked over the car to the mountain to see if I could guess which was Petrona’s house—but there, not too far, at the exact spot where my eyes just happened to rest, I saw, leaning on a shack and smoking, the same afroed young man Petrona had said was a carpet guy, who I suspected had stayed at our house, who I suspected was her boyfriend.

“Hasta luego, Petrona,” Mamá said. “Have a good vacation!”

Petrona was smiling when she emerged from the car, but soon the smile fell from her face. She must have seen him too because at once she turned and blocked the car door so as to not let Mamá see me, even though Mamá was examining her nails and not paying attention. Petrona grabbed my wrist and peered into my face. She hadn’t figured out I already knew he was not a carpet guy. Small rocks came tumbling down the mountain and when we looked, Petrona’s boyfriend was giving us a signal: forming his hand like a gun, three times he discharged it against us, mouthing the words bang, bang, bang. When I looked at Petrona, her face was pale and her chin trembling.

It surprised me to see that she was scared. Wasn’t this someone she loved who loved her back? I looked intensely at her, trying to let her know I had no intention of betraying her.

Mamá leaned over the passenger seat. “Are you coming?”

I stammered, “Yes. I am,” and got in. I didn’t look at Petrona and when I climbed into the front seat, Mamá smiled. We waited until Petrona made her way around our car and together we watched as Petrona climbed the hill, crawling and holding on to rocks, then climbing upright between the shacks by the middle of the mountain. She made it past the shacks, but she never turned around to wave.

 

Petrona

You know how to wash properly, little girl?

With soap and water, right? 

Those were the things la Pulga, Uña, and Alacrán said to little Aurora when they thought I had played them. They wanted me to see that they could talk to my little Aurora this way, with their rifles nearly grazing her face.

I didn’t look at them. I stared at my hands. They had seemed so civil at the Santiagos’; but I had misjudged. I pulled the husks off the corn. I listened to the tearing leaves. Something happens when you’re scared. Your mind goes off and your body doesn’t follow. It happened just this way to me. Suddenly I was not sitting there, powerless, in our hut.

***

I am in the valleys of my father’s farm in Boyacá. I am a little girl. The trees hum. Mangroves and mango trees and the coffee bush. I am crouching. I have found a bird’s nest. They are learning to fly. If one falls the mother will leave it but I will save it.

I hear the crack of a stick. The birds become silent.

Before I can turn, a man is on me, gripping his hand on my mouth. I bite. I taste the dirt. I yell, Papá, Papá, they’re here! He hits my head with something hard and metal. I think, My father, my mother, my brothers, my sister.

I wake up and it is dark already. The sky is starred and the chicharras are singing. The chicharras are loud. I see the tops of trees. I am outside. The air smells like burning. I sit up and see my brother Umberto beside me, bashing his head into the trunk of a tree over and over again.

I try to get up and stop him, but I am held back. It is Mami holding me back. More brothers and sisters behind Mami. We are all sitting on the dirt and I wonder why we don’t have mats. Some of my little brothers are crying. My brother Umberto is still bashing his head.

Mami says, They took all of them, Petro.

I look around to see who’s missing. My eyes are adjusting. Terrible for the eyes to adjust and see that it is my father who is missing, it is my oldest brother, Tobias, and the second oldest, Ricardo, who are missing. My eyes sting. Who took them? I say, but I know. I don’t need anybody to tell me and nobody does. The little ones sob—little Ramón, Fernandito, Bernardo, Patricio, Aurora— all of them at once. Umberto throws handfuls of dirt at the trees around us. Uriel, one year younger than Umberto, looks away into the night, stoic, or in shock. I know it’s the paramilitary who have taken my family. It’s the paras who have come to our farm, day after day, harassing Papi.

Mami begins to wheeze. Lie down, Mami, lie down, we tell her. We don’t know what to do. We are so stupid we fan her with leaves. Umberto says Mami is wheezing because when the paras burned down our house, the smoke of the house carried a spirit. Mami has swallowed it, that’s what the wheezing is. He calls me Petro. This is the last night anybody in my family calls me Petro.

***

You sure you know how to wash? Should we show you?

The rifles hovered just by Aurora’s mouth and I knew exactly what was meant by it and they knew that I knew. Little Aurora had no clue. This was all a show for me. If I did not raise my eyes, maybe it would delay their violence. And so I dug my stare into the ground, and so my mind went off again.

***

Now I am staring into Fernandito’s eyes, just before he becomes an addict. Fernandito tells me he is the man of the house as little Ramón once did. I am trying to think of what words to say. Trust me. I can take care of you. Fernandito tells me he is tough and he will kill. Twelve years old, he spends his time collecting sticks and rocks, playing like they’re AK-47s and machetes and grenades. He says he’ll become a soldier, policeman, guerrilla, paramilitary. It makes no difference to him. When Fernandito discovers glue, I am relieved.

I tell Mami, Better that, than the other thing. Mami slaps my face. She clings to a corner gasping and spends the money I make on candles. She lights one candle for the Virgin, one each for Papi, Tobias, and Ricardo who may or may not be dead, and one for little Ramón whom we know is dead. Little Ramón who lies under Diana Martínez, beloved wife.

One day Fernandito disappears. When he comes back he is an addict. Little Bernardo, then Patricio disappear with him.

Then it’s just Mami, Aurora, and me in the hut. I can’t stop thinking, Better that than the other thing. Mami blames me and I try to explain that I am just fifteen. Why is everything up to me? Why don’t the older ones help? Ask Umberto! Ask Uriel!

Mami wheezes. In between breaths she says, How—can you be—so useless.

Mami thinks Umberto and Uriel are good sons. They got married and forgot us. They drive trucks and promise Mami that if the younger ones make it to eighteen, they’ll set them up with a truck. Getting them to eighteen is my job.

***

Relax. Pulga gripped Aurora’s hair. Alacrán jumped on me and pushed my face against the dirt. Uña picked up the corncob that had flown out of my hands and started to eat.

I just want to check behind her ears, Pulga went on, breathing on Aurora’s neck. See if she knows how to keep herself clean.

I spat into the ground. If they were as close to Gorrión as he said, Gorrión must have known they were coming. He had allowed it. Stupid Petrona, I thought. Stupid Petrona played like a violin.

Then Pulga pulled the top of Aurora’s ear down and she squirmed but she couldn’t get away. 

No! I yelled, Stop! when he lowered his tongue on the groove behind her ear. Little Aurora sobbed. He threw her on the ground.

Yes, she’s clean.

They walked away then, left us shaking in the dirt. I covered my ears, but I still heard Mami’s voice, commanding me, Fix this, Petrona. Fix this.

 

Black and Blue

Papá got home late at night, but we went out as a family anyway to celebrate Pablo Escobar being in jail. We put on nice clothes, Mamá put on lipstick, and then we went to a restaurant in an area of the city with electricity. There was a steaming plate of pasta in front of me, then tea and a slice of chocolate cake—but all I could think of was, why had Petrona been afraid of her own boyfriend? Why had Petrona’s boyfriend threatened both of us? The weekend went by as I mulled over these two questions and when Papá left on Sunday, almost immediately there was an urgent knocking on the door. I ran back to see what he’d forgotten. “What is it, Papá?”

But when I lifted my eyes there she was—Petrona, standing at the threshold of the door, her left eye puffed shut and the broken skin by her mouth in a great swell. I widened my eyes in mute astonishment. I noted how the skin of her swollen eyelid ebbed in shades of black and gray and red, but worse, how the expanded flesh of her lid had not only grown out and swallowed up the slit of her eye but also her lashes. Not even the points of her lashes were visible.

Mamá ran from behind and put her arm around Petrona and ushered her inside. “Close the door,” Mamá said to me and sat Petrona down in the living room. “Petrona, Dios mío, what happened?”

I went to the kitchen to get sliced potatoes and plastic wrap because that’s what Petrona had done for me the night Galán was shot. In the kitchen, I thought of Petrona’s boyfriend pointing his hand like a gun, and then I imagined his hands into fists hitting Petrona. Had she left him? I held a potato trembling, took a breath, and steadied my hand and sliced through it six times.

When I returned, Petrona was trying to smile but flinched as her lip pushed into the bruise by the corner of her mouth, “Really, it was nobody, Señora. I fell getting off the bus.” She held the bruise lightly with the tips of her nails.

Mamá’s eyebrows went up. “A bruise like that, Petrona? Can only come from a man’s fist.”

“Honestly, Señora, I fell.” Petrona glanced at me with her one eye then back at Mamá. “Could I spend my vacation here? There’s no one to care for me at home.”

Mamá regarded her without blinking. “Of course.” She turned to Cassandra, who was sitting on the steps, and asked her to get some medical tape from upstairs. I didn’t know how long Cassandra had been sitting there for, hugging a banister, baring her teeth. Cassandra sniffed and went up the stairs quietly, and when she was gone Mamá explained Cassandra was afraid of blood, and I didn’t even bother to point out that nobody was bleeding. Instead I asked, “What bus were you on?”

“What?”

“You said you fell from a bus. What bus were you on? You weren’t coming here because you were on vacation, so where were you going?”

Petrona thought for a moment. “I had an errand.” Then Cassandra was back and Mamá said it was time to take care of Petrona’s wounds. Mamá made Petrona recline her head back on the couch and then the three of us orbited around her, like moons around the face of a planet. I held a sliced potato over her eye, careful not to push. Mamá put a patch of plastic on the potato and then Cassandra and Mamá moved about taping over the slice until it was held in place. My hands trembled. But if I watched Petrona’s eyebrow, thin and delicate following the bend of her bone, then I could breathe. I followed the curve of her hairline next, noting how her scalp was the whitest thing I had ever seen. Her hair was feathery and damp like she had recently taken a shower, and the shirt she was wearing, three sizes too big, was a men’s shirt and had a turnover collar that had been ironed.

I had to run up for some peroxide. Mamá had me pour it by Petrona’s lip, as Petrona reclined her face, and Cassandra dabbed at the dribbling liquid with cotton balls. Petrona didn’t scream like I would have. She didn’t make a sound. But I knew it was painful because the small muscles under her eyes flinched and tensed together. The bruise by her mouth, ballooning out in black and gray, appeared sleek under the peroxide, except where the skin was broken and blood had dried out, the liquid foamed. When it was done, Petrona found my fingers and squeezed. I held the potato in place with my other hand. Mamá and Cassandra worked on securing the potato in a way that would allow Petrona to eat. Petrona had to mime eating. Her lower jaw moved in the smallest of half circles and then clenched up. As Mamá and Cassandra secured the slice, Petrona continued opening and closing her mouth, slowly then quickly, then open, then closed, revealing her pink tongue, her white teeth. It looked like she was talking but her voice was muted, like Petrona was really telling us what had happened but none of us could hear.

*

From the Book:
FRUIT OF THE DRUNKEN TREE by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Copyright © 2018 by Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
Published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division
of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born in Bogotá and holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She is the 2014 recipient of the Mary Tanenbaum Literary Award in Nonfiction and was a 2015 fellow at the San Francisco Writer's Grotto. She recently received a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellowship. Her writing has been anthologized in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica and Electric Literature, among others. Contreras currently lives in San Francisco, where she blogs about books for NPR affiliate KQED and teaches fiction at the University of San Francisco.

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