He noticed that she had awoken, and he set her down slowly. They were by the door, and sister and her mother were at the kitchen table. The smell of food was enticing, and as she blinked in the dim lamplight, she saw the man reach for his daughter. He was laughing and saying silly things to her, but Eva, with those eyes that had seen everything, saw how Andrea ducked her face, and she saw the fear. Even her mama had the same look in her eyes, but to anyone who didn’t know what it was like, it was a perfectly happy family.
She searched for a chair, wanting to stay away from the family, feeling like an intruder. The very nice woman gave her some water to drink, all the while chattering about feeding her before they took her back home.
Her husband explained that Eva’s papa had gone hunting, sending her down with him. He laughed as he told them how she fell asleep as she sat on the cart, not moving until they got home. Slowly, through the many stories and little things said amongst them, everyone relaxed. He went to unload the cart and loosen the horse, while Eva remained sitting at the chair. Sister ran around making sure there was water boiling, putting out the instant coffee and sugar. While Andrea set the table, her Mama asked Eva about what she had done that day. The hard work of children was not unusual, and there were many times when children had to leave school to work with their parents in order to eat.
When the man came back inside, Andrea grew noticeably bolder. While helping to remove his boots, she kept playfully making funny faces at the smell of his feet. He was good-natured about it, teasing and tossing his socks playfully at her from his perch on the hammock. The time was idyllic almost, and even though her limbs felt worn and leaden, even Eva smiled.
The food was soon ready and before she knew it, Eva was being pushed to the table to eat with them. It was early night, but her shrunken stomach growled hungrily. The sight of the hot, steaming flour tortillas, piled high at the center of the table, with a nice tin of butter on the side, made her mouth water, and her insides quiver. There were roasted tomatoes, hardboiled eggs, and a few pieces of cheese too.
For the first time in her life, Eva was served, and she was served first. Thoughts of her grandmother, probably snoring away while her little brother played in the dirt, flew out of her mind as she indulged herself. They filled a large plate with food for her, then served themselves equally generously. There was no measuring and pinching. The big people ate as much as they wanted, and the little girls got their fill. No-one was left for last, and no-one said anything about her filthy state, or her threadbare clothing that in some places, literally hung by a thread.
When Papa came through the door with her, Andrea had already seen them making their way into the yard. The racket of the cart was loud enough to alert them to Papa’s arrival. Dolls and other toys went into their boxes, and anything she had been playing with got cleared away. Mama had been standing at the stove making tortillas, and she too peered out the window by the small shelf. She saw the sleeping girl, and she saw the clothes she wore.
Papa walked in, and when he began talking in his jovial tones, both women unconsciously relaxed. Their jaws became less clenched, their breathing resumed a normal pace, and they knew it would be a good night.
After gathering that Papa didn’t want to wake Eva on his way into the village, they knew that she would be a guest for much of the evening until her father came back. Many of the workers had promised to bring any catch they made over to him, hoping he would also buy some of the meat.
During dinnertime, Papa was stern once because she talked as she chewed, but mostly, he remained kind and playful. She longed for Eva to stay the night, to be the protection against his unreasonable, unexpected spells of anger. She knew it wasn’t going to happen, but she kept looking over at the girl who was so much like her in face, yet nothing like her in any other way.
Eva ate as if she had not had food in days. She probably was tired from the hard work in the sun – Andrea had spent a few weeks sleeping under the hut herself. She remembered the frightening nights when the surrounding forest came alive with sounds of animals she hoped never to see. The long, endless days of hot sun and hard work were still fresh in her mind – her punishment for bad marks one term.
When dinner was done, Papa went back to his hammock, swinging as he picked his teeth using a piece of twig from the broom. The dishes were piled into a big plastic tub, and Eva made to go wash them. She was properly shooed off, and instead, Andrea’s mama led both of them through a doorway into the room where they all slept.
Eva stood by the doorway, not sure what to do, or why she had been taken in the room. The reason soon became clear, as the older woman started rifling through a box of clothes. Andrea watched her mother go through her things, knowing that soon she would have less dresses, and that her sister would be wearing them from now on.
The dress from the birthday party was the first to be pulled out, as were a few others. There was a very pretty, lacy yellow dress that was held up. Eva held her breath, wondering if that would soon be hers as well. It didn’t. Instead, a few blouses and skirts were added to the growing pile on the bed. A few more dresses and even a couple of short pants later, and the pile was ready.
Andrea watched as her mama took some of her clothes, a lot of them too tight to wear any more, and started preparing them for her sister. She saw how Eva looked longingly at one of her favorites, the yellow dress that had sheer material over a nice sunny slip. There were no bows, just a few layers that added a flounce to the skirt. It had been a gift for Christmas, from a family friend who no longer visited. The dress still fit, but something in Andrea stirred.
When the pile was set, Mama began looking for a bag to put the clothes in. Andrea went back to the box, pulling out the yellow dress and holding it up. Mama looked at her, and with a small smile, turned to Eva. “Want this?”
Eva nodded, “It’s pretty.” It went into the bag with the rest of the clothes. When Eva tried to pick the bundle up, her scrawny arms strained, but between both girls, they managed to bring it up and out to the living room.
Outside, there was a sudden shout, and the sound of galloping horses filled the night air. By the time the girls made it out to see what was happening, the horses had stopped, and a limp body was being unloaded. Eva peered in the darkness, the lamplight too dim to tell who it was.
There was a muffled conversation between the men, and Mama joined them, seeking for a way to help out. When she saw who it was, she turned back to the house where a little girl now stood fatherless.
Eva knew that it was him lying on the ground, his face swollen and purple. He was dead, never coming back. There was that smell again, the rank, fetid smell that she had sniffed while coming back from working. It came back to her in a rush: the smell had been a warning; snakes had been out early. The deadly yellow-jaw, which could kill within minutes, had been nearby. Perhaps there had been more than one, and all over the mountain where the men had been hunting in the dark. Grandma had always talked about it, warning them to make their way back as quickly as possible if they ever caught a whiff while outside playing. He hadn’t smelled it, or had ignored the warning.
So now, she stood over his body, watching, feeling nothing, only a worry about what would happen to her little brother and grandma. One of the men got back on his horse and headed to get the policeman, who was probably down at the bar by the cemetery. No-one mentioned that she accompany him, even if he would pass by her house. No-one said anything about her lack of emotion, because in a village that tiny, secrets were hard to keep.
Eva was led back inside the house, away from the body, and while she sat on a chair, Andrea came close to her and sat down too.
“Sometimes, I wish my Papa would come back home like that.” It was said in a whisper, but Eva still looked around wondering if someone would overhear. No-one did. She looked at the girl who was supposed to be her sister, her face rounder and fuller, with meat on her bones, and clothes that had been bought in a store, not made with scraps. Completely different from her, and still, they both had their nightmares. Eva’s eyes remained dry, even as Andrea’s filled as she thought of what she said.
They remained that way for hours, while outside, everything got dealt with. Eva would eventually fall asleep in her rags, and she would be moved to a hammock. The next day, she went home, facing a mourning grandmother, confused little brother, and a kitchen whose cupboards remained empty.
At the nicer house, on the other side of the village, Andrea got a sound whipping for breaking one of her toys, or was it for leaving scraps of cloth lying around…it was useless to remember what it was about, because any excuse would do.
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