But there was something different about the houses down the hill heading to the cemetery. The sun hardly shone down on it, and in the evenings, when dusk fell on the entire village, smoke stacks billowed out in ghostly tendrils, reaching out to the skies, joining and forming puffs of clouds that blanketed the area for hours at a time. The thatched roofs looked like closed, tired eyelids against the shaded valley, houses soot-stained and dark, with faint lights shining through the cracks in the walls.
The people mingled, children played with each other, chasing and hiding, sharing sweeties, pencils and paper in school, books when one didn’t have, lice and ticks when the season kicked in. But every evening, the difference became more pronounced. The sounds that came from the ramshackle building at the base of the cemetery included screaming laughter, loud music, occasionally, the shatter of glass and in the early morning hours, the sound of retching.
Stealing out like thieves in the night, young men, husbands, and alcoholics would make their way slowly down the hill. Trusting the light of the moon, they would forgo the trusty beam of a flashlight, making shadowy shapes meandering downhill. Sometimes, there would be stories of drunks awaking between two tombs – their yelps of fright would echo slowly downwards, to the suddenly silent bar below.
From the darkened doorways of one of those thatched houses came a young girl, not more than seven, small for her age. Following her, often with his nose dripping, was her chubby little brother. He was as dark as she was fair, the resemblance between them only visible by their nose. Flat and broad, their noses flared slightly as they made their way up the hill. They hardly ever wore more than rags, with the young girl fighting to remain decent in nearly transparent, threadbare shirts and skirts. He often wore shirts so long they fit like smocks, eliminating the need for pants.
They often had to run to the school building, where they were more than likely late. Dressed in hand-me-downs that included tears, ink stains and grass marks, they tried to fit in their classrooms. By mid-morning, her stomach would be growling so hard, the teacher would look outside to see if a dog was nearby. Recess was painful, if only because everything within reach was not within their means. So she stayed inside the classroom, head on her scrawny, sinewy arms. Lice eggs dotted her strands of sunburned hair that shone golden when the sun hit, and every so often, she would scratch ferociously at the lice that buried themselves in her scalp. She had hardly any friends, having no time to socialize, and no energy to play. Not having toys also hindered her social life.
Outside, her brother ran around, energy abundant in his system from the extra tortilla she had slipped him. Her tortilla. Her breakfast. Inside, she lay her head on the table, making economical movements to save her energy till she had to go back for lunch. It was a routine she learned quickly since starting school that year.
In another classroom, an eight-year-old girl sat reading a book, completely absorbed, her toys abandoned in her bag as she voraciously digested page after page of words. She had been reading since she was three, and her every waking moment was now consumed with finding and reading as many books as possible. Her friends were numerous, but when she was on a kick, they knew best to leave her alone. A few coins jingled in her pocket as she shifted positions to best catch light.
She wore shiny shoes with buckles that twinkled with rhinestones. Her socks had a lace cuff, and her uniform was stiff from the ironing and starch it had been treated with. Her hair was tied up in neat pigtails, shining curls cascading down either side of her face. She was a clean, healthy little girl. She was a world apart from the poor girl in the classroom before, yet she too, saved her energy, choosing to stay inside, not wanting to move too much. She much preferred to lose herself in another world, one painted by words, and her imagination.
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