~ Katherine L. P. King
You emerge from the sea with a gasp: your first in the vast expanse of space above the water. Salt stings your nose, and the light stings your eyes. It’s white, not yellow as you imagined when you were still beneath the surface of the waves. The blue sky looks impossibly large and empty. You kick and splash and splutter your way to shore, where you lie in the soft dry sand. It clings to your brown skin. There are tiny hairs all over you where there never were before. You laugh; it is the first time you have heard your own voice. You lie eagle-spread, staring up into the blue.
You teach yourself to stand, and then to walk. You are thoroughly unprepared for how hard it is to move, how the air around you resists your movements rather than propels them. Your body is heavy. Your manhood swings freely and your feet are a marvel. You look back at the water and imagine them there, wishing you luck. Eventually you leave the sand and begin to walk on the hot dirt of the road, heading into the bright city in the valley below.
As instructed, you go to Morado. Morado is old, skinny, twenty years on land, and quiet. He gives you what was promised: papers, clothing, some local currency, and a slip of paper on which is a handwritten address. Still stumbling occasionally, you don the clothes and follow Morado’s garbled instructions to the address. As you go, the colors, smells, and sounds of the city assault you. You realize you have been living with a blanket over these senses and though you are anxious and sweating, which is entirely new, you pause to smell meat frying at a street cart, or to listen to a woman leaning out a window and strumming a small wooden instrument you cannot name.
Morado’s directions lead you to a red building, low, smelling of some strong spice. You knock at the door. There is no response. You knock again, louder, the wood splintering into your fist, and someone shouts before the door flies open and a tiny old woman lets you in. She leads you to a hot kitchen where several pots boil on the stove and men sit on over-turned buckets or crates, some peeling potatoes, others slicing onions, still others splitting open and removing seeds from chilies, their eyes red and their noses running.
The woman makes you sit on the last empty crate, hands you a dirty potato and a dull knife, and scurries away. You do not look at the other men, who are all looking at you. Instead you watch to see where your peeled potatoes should go—into a large pot of salted water on the table. You have never eaten potatoes before. When you feel their eyes are no longer on you, you examine the other men in turn. Their skins have been cracked and dried by the sun, like the flesh of dead clams. Their eyes are far away; most are brown, some are blue. Some men shake with exhaustion. One, a friendlier looking youth, turns to you.
¿Cómo te llamas?
You have prepared for this question, but the word still sticks in your throat.
You stare. He speaks so fast. You are not even sure he asked a question. His eyes are crystalline. When you don’t answer, he nods.
You hesitate again; the young man holds his hand parallel to the floor and lets it rise and fall in a rolling motion. His hand is like the waves, swelling and crashing. Suddenly, you want only to be back there, under the surf, in the blue. You blink away tears and nod. The man points to the others in the group with blue eyes and repeats: Del mar. Del mar. Y yo, del mar.
The next morning, you wake before the sun. You follow the others, keeping your head down, wanting to give no indication that you dreamed of home all night.
You all climb into the back of a roaring old truck and ride away from the rising sun. The tiny old woman hands out food—hot beans in a warm corn tortilla. You eat slowly. The warmth is so unexpected and so welcome.
When the truck stops, you are in a large green field. Each of you takes a wooden bucket and you walk into the field, stoop, and begin picking. When your bucket is full of shiny red peppers you trade it for an empty one. When the sun is hot and sweat drips down your back you are allowed to sit in the minimal shade of the truck, sipping lukewarm water and eating rice and beans. You listen to the others and try to learn their language. You begin to recognize some words: papas. Arroz con habichuelas. Concha. Trabajo. Soon you are back in the fields.
On the ride back, the truck scales a mountain and you can see, for only a moment, a strip of blue that is the sea.
At the end of the day, a large man with thick hair on his chest hands out paper to each of you. You stuff it in your shoe and sleep with the shoes next to your pillow. It is nowhere near enough.
On the rare evening when there is no kitchen work to do, you go out. The sky darkens to black impregnated with bright stars in a spray, like sea foam. The cobblestone streets are warm from baking in the sun all afternoon, and lanterns and candles cast pools of flickering light down the winding roads. Huge crowds mill around buildings, hanging out of windows, stumbling in the streets reeking of tequila. You join a crowd around a hot grill that smells like cumin and animal fat and when you push your way to the front and finally capture the attention of the cook, you order a tripleta. Soon enough he hands you a huge greasy sandwich which you devour as you walk. As you reach the last bit of bread and pork someone bumps your arm, hard, and you drop it. Turning, you catch a fist with the side of your face and lash out, but miss. When your vision clears you see a drunken man reeling in front of you with fists raised, his eyes rolling and unfocused. You turn away and hear him curse you, spit at you. Sirena.
It is six months before you can leave the little red house. You get a new job washing dishes at a restaurant. It is much better money and though the work is still grueling, at least you are not drying in the sun like a stranded starfish. Your apartment is hot, empty but for the cockroaches, and a long walk from work, but you are grateful, especially since now that it is winter, there are fewer fields to be picked. You work late every night. In the day you walk the streets, smelling the sea mist, singing along to songs, and sampling food. Your favorite is tostones, with rice and beans. The hot crunch and garlic aftertaste send a thrill down your spine.
You make your way to the sea at least once a week. It is so big and bright. You cannot remember exactly what it was like there. But you miss it—and them.
You send all the money you can. Sometimes your boss at the restaurant lets you work doubles and you send it all save enough to pay your rent and feed you.
After a year, you’ve sent enough to bring your oldest son. You meet him at the shore on a cool, crisp morning. His body is now brown and hairy like yours. You greet him with a soft towel, welcoming him as you were not. His hair is now a curly mop of black. He smells of salt and gets white sand all over him as he stumbles around, trying to get used to his feet, already learning to live without the embracing swell of the sea.
You show him all you have learned and seen so far: café con leche, the colorful streets, the clubs at night. He is amazed but he misses home. He gets a job as a server in the restaurant where you wash dishes, since he picks up the language faster. He makes lots of tips, being a beautiful boy, and sends it all home. You cannot convince him to save some for himself or to come out with you and drink away the exhaustion and the homesick.
It is on a night like this you meet Ascención. Ascención is twelve years your junior, small but supple, dark haired, dark skinned, quiet but confident. It is not long before she comes to your place, her heels clunking up the stairs, her compact body hidden by a sparkling black dress.
Your son ignores you both. You do not speak to him as you and Ascención leave the kitchen, chilled beers in hand, and close your bedroom door behind you. The beers are abandoned as you fight each other out of your clothes. Then she is there, and hot, wet, sweet. You’ve never known it like this, these warm flushes of pleasure circling through you.
Later, Ascención falls asleep in your twin bed so you go check on your son. He is curled up so tight on his mattress in the front room of your apartment. The only thing you can see is his face, constricted even in sleep.
He looks like his mother. You try not to think of her while you are with Ascención.
Ascención likes dates: seaside restaurants, overnight stays in nearby hotels, trips up the coast. You have to send less money back or you will not be able to make rent. Your son notices and you shout at him. Your hard earned money sent away, and it is still not enough?
Ascención will not move in with you. She has a place, she says. You wonder if you are the only one she is seeing. Still, she spends most nights at your apartment, which you furnish to her liking: a stereo system, a large television with all the channels, cabinets full of food and a bathroom full of soaps, towels, cleaning supplies. You search for a two-bedroom so your son can have his own room. You get a second job bagging groceries at a small store nearby, and ask for more nights off from your dish-washing job so you can take Ascensción out. The money is never enough. You send home less and less.
One day, Ascensción comes to you at the grocery store on your break. Her dark eyes are red around the edges. ¿Que pasa? you ask, taking her cool hands in your own, blistered from work.
Estoy embarazada. Pregnant.
You stare. Then you grin. You hug her tight to you and shout scrambled words of joy in two languages. When you release her, she smiles and kisses you. The rest of your shift flies by in a brightly-colored whirl of faces and lights.
You walk home along white cobblestones. The sun sets on the ocean, glints of light catching your eye. A part of you wonders how it ever meant more to you than scenery.
When you reach the top of the stairs and open the door to your apartment, your son is there, with a bag. He is leaving.
Hijo, no. Por favor.
He does not speak to you in that language, and pretends not to hear. Forget about me, he says, grabbing his bag and pushing past you. Forget about us.
Ascención is in the hallway, a hand pressed to her throat.
You watch your son descend the stairs, sling his bag over his shoulder, and walk off into the darkening streets.
Later that month, you have a choice to make. There are sixty-eight dollars left over from your last paycheck, after the bills, and the money you spent on Ascención, and your food. You can send it home. But why? You think of Ascención, here and now, a little baby—your baby—growing inside her. Silently, you tuck the money away.
You and Ascención do not go out so much anymore, since she cannot drink. You drink at home instead, and miss the days when you could go out alone, eating mofongo on the street, engulfed in the clear, bright light, smelling the salt water. One evening you do go out and stay drunk until the sun begins to rise. You walk around the island until you find the shore. You climb the rocks and explore the tide pools. You find the creatures which were once your neighbors. You poke at them with stubby fingers. Then you sit with your feet in the water and cry. You cannot go back.
When you get home, Ascención sits at the table with her head down. You enter and she gets up.
Me voy. Voy a hacerme un aborto.
You do not answer her. You do not breathe as she walks around you, gathers a bag, and shuts the door behind her. You do not move as the apartment settles in its emptiness.
Suddenly you have more money than you can spend, but you do not send it. You are no longer sure if they would take it. You quit your job at the restaurant and soon become a cashier at the grocery store. You spend as much time out, with friends or women, as you can. The thought of the sea burns enough that you stop thinking of it, and those you left behind, entirely, for years.
One sunny morning, you follow the sound of a crowd to a street full of tents, some kind of arts fair. You shuffle down the aisle of starched white tents where hopeful, wide-eyed creators peddle their wares: beaded bracelets, crucifixes on long silver chains, homemade soaps and bars of lotion, leather pouches and belts, small knives, braided ropes and flowers arranged in glass vases. The colors are so bright, the shapes so clean and clear.
One tent has paintings hung up on the exterior walls. You see one that gives a view of the sky from under deep, deep water. It is the kind of perspective only one of your kind could possibly know; it is far too detailed to have been imagined. The sun in the painting is a shimmery blur, obscured by the layers of aquamarine and turquoise and azure. You stare at the picture for so long that your body is stiff when you finally move. You circle the tent to look at each painting, all as beautiful as the first, each unique. Some have faces in them—faces you recognize. When you come to the front, you see a teenage boy sitting at a card table. He looks at you, bored. Your voice is thick when you speak.
¿Este tu arte?
The boy, his expression unchanged, taps a little paper sign taped to the front of the table he sits at. On the paper is a woman’s name. You know it better than you know your own, though it has been years since you’ve spoken it.
She’s not here, the boy says. No está aquí. En su galería de arte.
You look deep into his eyes. They are your own, not only because you have come from the same place. He stares back.
Do I know you? ¿Quién eres?
You shake your head. No. Soy un extraño para ti. You walk away with the words pulsing in your ears like waves: I am a stranger.
Katherine L.P. King is a horror writer from California. In 2016, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Jose State University. Her short fiction has been published in HelloHorror, Coffin Bell, Exoplanet Magazine, Aphotic Realm, and The Sirens Call. When not writing or working at her day job, she can be found whispering secrets to tree blossoms or making candles in her kitchen.
You can find her on Facebook (@katherinelpking).