By Sabrina Vourvoulias
10 June 2013
Child's play. Tag. Hide and seek. Duck, duck, goose.
A group of people thrown together for an afternoon, or an hour, or a lifetime. Someone chasing. Someone running. Someone hiding or praying to be overlooked. No one has to tell us it's preparation for life, we just learn. Like we learn the multiplication tables and how to spell.
Leila has climbed midway up the ladder leaned against the back wall of the shed. She sits there, legs spread for balance even though it means all of us can see her underwear. It has lavender kittens on it. She's the youngest of us and hasn't played before.
I pat her foot even though I'm irritated at her. Leila is a big nine-year-old. She's already pushing five-six and no matter what goes down she's not going to get hurt. It's Chela and me, much tinier even though we're four years older, who stand to get the bruises.
It's not only size. There's the fact we aren't all golden innocence like Leila, or pretty in the way of the older American girls who play. The fact that we've been here all our lives and speak English with an accent we can't hear but the Americans can't hear around. The fact that we say yes to the game, even knowing we can't win.
It's hot in the shed. And quiet.
That's the worst. Quiet is made to be broken.
I understand magic. I have from the first.
The way the toffee-colored bark pulled in strips off a tree turns into exactly that confection the moment my lips close around it in craving.
The way a stone I kick over in boredom as I walk down a familiar path turns into a face and opens its mouth, telling me its story.
The way something from my student's hoard of paper and ballpoint ink becomes both passport and the need for one.
I can't properly remember who's outside the shed. Ron, for sure, because it's his shed, but the rest of the boys draw lots to see which ones are lucky enough to play outside.
Pato (Chela's brother) and Memo end up inside every time they play. Maybe it's not just terrible luck. They both have old-fashioned mothers who tell them girls aren't to be touched with anything rougher than the petal of a rose.
Or maybe it's just that they're both sixteen and the indignities of being on the losing side are worth it since they get to be near American girls from military families who wear shorts that show off their long, smooth legs. Neither Chela nor I wear shorts (our mothers won't let us shave until our quinceañeras) and the missionary girls aren't allowed to wear them anywhere but the beach.
The exact ratio of American military kids to missionary kids to natives in the game varies from week to week, as does the ratio of boys to girls. But there are always more girls.
Girls squeal better, is what Ron says.
That and the way some of the boys cop a feel while the girls' hearts are drumming with adrenaline are the incentives in stacking the deck, is what Pato says one day at school when I ask him about it.
He always answers my questions, even though I'm just his kid sister's friend.
"Nobody feels up Chela or me," I say to him.
"Because they know I'd beat the crap out of them if they did," he answers.
"But it's okay with you that they hit us?"
I see his eyes light on each feature of my face in turn, finally settling on my mouth before he answers. "No," he says, "but that's the game. And you were silly enough to agree to play it."
"Are you saying you wouldn't play if we didn't?"
"I don't know," he answers. Then, "Mostly I wish nobody played it."
Then it dawns on me. "You're worried about the American girls."
His nice face goes all scowly. I start to add something, but his patience with me is gone and he stalks off to the smokers' corner where no American—nor anyone my age—is allowed to go.
I'm tempted to follow him. I take a step, two, then stop. Rules. We all hate the way they hold us in our place.
But I might be wrong. It might only be me who hates it.
Magic waits for you to move from instinct to intention.
I learn to comb my fingers through its strands and find the ones that lead past an instant. This strand is thirty years old and is still as much a conjuration as it was then.
Martial law. Extrajudicial killings. Torture. Genocide. These words hang in the ether and I feel them brush my hand even as I go hunting for the less lethal ones of remembered play.
These days my magic isn't guerrilla, but something else. Magic turned in on itself. Like a sentence that doesn't end.
They don't bother to yell for us to open up. There's just the first thud cutting into the silence as a body slams against the door.
It budges the board we've wedged across it, but not by much.
We know from experience the shed's latch will give within the first five minutes unless we help it, and we spend most of our prep time finding ways to barricade the entry. This week I'm hopeful because, in addition to the two-by-four, Pato slips the new lawn mower into neutral and moves most of its weight against the door.
Chela finds a hammer and pounds the board back in, until the splintering on the ends lets her know that she can't ram our safeguard in any tighter. When she's done she balances the hammer on the end of her index finger then flips it and catches it on her finger again.
She wants to grow up to be an engineer, but we both know her parents won't permit it. Pato will go to university—la San Carlos, since that one doesn't cost—but Chela's destined for marriage. I may envy other things about my best friend (the hammer trick prime among them), but I give thanks every night for my family's bookish ways.
The guys outside have heard the pounding of the hammer and figure if they've loosened the board once, they can do it again. The next body that slams into the door hits with a lot more force. Leila starts whimpering.
After some five or ten minutes of pounding, the board shimmies again. Even with the lawn tractor to slow them down, we all understand it's the beginning of the end. We turn to find hiding places. There aren't many good ones, and Leila's been given the best—the ladder's new to the shed and rises so high its upper rungs are completely hidden in the shadowed rafters.
Chela fits herself behind the low cabinet where Ron's father stores tins stripped of their labels and old clothes to give to the ragpicker. Pato stations himself in such a way that his legs block the small opening she's squeezed into. He prefers to stand than hide anyway. Plus, one of the older American girls isn't too far off, hidden in the shadow cast by a tall, locked cabinet.
I want to tell him it doesn't matter how bravely he fights to protect—or to impress—the girl will never look at him the way she looks at Ron. It's more than just the difference in skin tones, it has to do with how we don't watch the same shows on TV, or listen to the same music. The food we eat is different, and the living that comes from it. They're the children of God and counterinsurgency advisors; we're the children of threat.
Pato catches me watching him and gives me a wave, then turns it into the finger-slapping shake that we use to wordlessly indicate the need to hurry up. I hear the board groan and the sound of splintering wood. As I hurry to hide myself behind a box of pump parts near the ladder, I notice Leila is only midway up the rungs.
"Get to the top," I say.
"I'm scared," she answers.
"Well then, get down and let Elena go up," says Memo, a few feet away from us, mottled by the skinny, pierced shadow of the ladder. "The top of that thing is the only chance we have to outlast them, and if you waste it I swear I'm going to thump you myself."
When we hear her start to climb, he turns back to me. "You'd think she'd know what to do."
"The soldiers don't go to the American houses." Then, because it's Memo, I add what I've heard my father say to my mother when too much rum has untied his tongue. "You don't dare piss off the people giving you guns and training."
Memo shoots a quick look around the shed. No one is close enough to have heard, except Leila, and she's got panic plugging her ears.
"When was the last time they came through your door for real?" he whispers.
"Last month. They trashed a bunch of my father's books and one of them twisted my mother's arm pretty bad. He's her cousin's godson and he still did it. She came this close to going to her knees. You?"
"Two weeks ago."
"Nah. We're all good about not mouthing off," he says. I swear his chest puffs a little with the words.
"We're good about it, too," I say.
I think he knows that he's insulted me, because his shamed smile-that-isn't-a-smile duplicates mine. "You going to say that prayer?" he says after a moment.
It's not a prayer, but a rhyme a bit like the one my mother intones when she rubs salve on a wound. But Memo hears it as a prayer because his family—half Filipino, half Guatemalan—is seriously church-going. We were once at the same novena and he actually knew the correct responses.
Me, well my bit of doggerel is what my grandmother would call a charm and my mother a poem because, even though she's got both church and bruja blood running through her veins, she'd rather invoke art.
I call for the deep of a grave, the shade under the wing of a crow, the dark of midnight on a moonless night.
It's only the second time I've used the spell during the game, and most of the others think it's just unexpected luck that so deepens the dark in the shed. Except Memo. I know he can't decide whether I'm cursed or blessed by what I do, but he's tired of the relentless losing too.
The dark magnifies the noise. The broken board bouncing off the lawn tractor, the constant thunder of bodies against wood as they try to budge the machine, my heartbeat irregular in the soundbox of my chest. A quick defeat would be easier than this waiting, and still, I ask for time.
Time, and the magic to cover me when it runs out.
The more years pass, the more I need details.
"You don't remember?" I ask them.
Most of the girls don't.
One seems genuinely happy to hear from me, but signs off to attend to bellowing children before answering.
"The military moved us from country to country every four years," Leila says. "I can hardly distinguish one set of memories from another."
The boys are no better.
The first deflects by revealing he's lost his religion, and is estranged from the rest of his family still on mission in a third world country perceived to be in need of first world grace.
Another hangs up as soon as he hears my name.
"You got away," Memo says.
"Not completely," I answer, "or I wouldn't be asking."
Then, after a long silence, he says, "It was only you who played with magic. You can't blame the rest of us for closing our eyes."
When they break in, the light follows. It falls on their movements with love, caressing them. It isn't such a friend to those of us on the inside; the light picks us out, exposes our hiding for what it is.
It doesn't take long for someone to grab the splintered butt ends of the board and start swinging. And connecting.
Friends or not, there is one guiding rule in the game: it's got to be genuine. Like life. Real. Anything else would be a cheat. And despite all of our other differences, no one in the shed is that.
Ron is almost to the girl by the locked cabinet when Pato steps between them. I don't believe he even thinks about it, it's just reflex. Like the look he casts at me before turning to face the bigger American boy. Neither says anything, they just stand with the muscles bunching up under their shirts and fierce mutual understanding in their eyes.
But the move leaves Chela's hiding place exposed and within seconds someone is there and dragging her out by her hair. She squirms to get free. Clear across the shed, I can hear the crack of a kick against her ribs.
I sense Memo near me, strand after strand of indignation palpably unwinding from his body. I can use it. I fling one hand out in his direction without looking and gather the etheric fuel around him. My other hand points toward the two I've been watching.
It's nothing I've practiced, just instinct, and a stanza written by adrenaline.
The hand wrapped around Chela's hair starts shaking as if caught in the mouth of a dog. Chela tears away and scrambles to her feet. She meets my eyes across the shed, then takes off at a run.
Straight into the entrapping arms of another boy.
"Elena, let me go," Memo's strangled voice makes me turn to him. He's somewhere in a confining bubble of dark I've pushed his way without thinking.
I quickly take the measure of the effect, then I spit out a word to make it twice as sticky. "They won't see you and won't feel you in the shed, even if they stumble into you," I say. I hope it's true.
"But, Chela . . .," he says.
"Chela's done for anyway," I interrupt. "The guy's got her half to the door already. So keep quiet now, okay?"
I hear an odd little sound that might be a groan or a sob as I turn back to the pandemonium. I put my hands out but, before I can pull together the elements for another spell, they're caught. The boy who holds them is the son of missionaries and doesn't play as often as the rest of us.
"I don't want to hit you," he says as soon as I meet his eyes. "Come willingly with me outside so I don't have to."
"You know it doesn't work that way."
His eyes turn troubled. "Why? We have only your word to say this is how it actually happens, and I bet a lot of the rest of us would be just as happy to imagine it differently."
My eyes dart to the other kids and when I meet the boy's gaze again, I shrug. I'm not so sure. And I'm already changing things—only not with permission or by consensus.
"Not just my word. Chela's, Pato's, Memo's. And, this is how it is. The game wouldn't be real otherwise," I say.
He stays quiet, disappointed I think. I've given him the standard response—what we all heard from whomever first came up with the game. After a moment, he gives me a half-hearted cuff to the face. It catches my cheekbone, and even without much intention behind it, my skin tingles and the throb makes my eye water.
"You're going to have to do better than that to get me out of here." I know I can safely goad him in a way I can't Ron or any of the other boys who start on the outside. Even if this one hits me again, it will be a checked blow.
But he drops my hands and steps away, a funny look on his face. Then I hear it, a whimper.
Without thinking, my eyes dart up the ladder. Leila is almost to the shadowed top. I can see her shoes and the fat drops of liquid poised to fall from them. She must be so scared she peed her pants.
The boy's gaze follows mine. I catch his hand before he starts up the ladder.
"Forget what I've been saying. She's so young. It's okay if it's not real for her." When he shakes me off, I close my eyes.
I hear the mumbling above me as he tries to coax Leila down from her perch, and grunts of pain from the other side of the shed. There are still plenty of strands of magic in the air to pick through, and tons of words in my head clamoring to be formed to the poetry of conjure. But I'm fried by the initial surge of adrenaline and I'm pretty sure nothing will hit its mark now, no matter how wily the wording.
Memo's temporary blind is the important thing. If he isn't found, the outsiders can't call their part a success, and it'll be our win by default. Then, for the next week or two it takes to get another game together, the outcome of every future game will be put in question. At least that's what I imagine will happen.
"Elena." I'm not sure who calls it out, and I'm stunned by what I sense trailing after it in the ether.
It's all the warning I get before someone brings the butt of the two-by-four down on my head and I black out.
Memory is a strange thing. There's no predicting what will be kept vivid.
I remember the feel of cloth and metal, not the screams.
I crawl in the dark from my bed to the walk-in closet, then pull myself to standing thanks to the winter coat I've bought in anticipation of leaving. Its boiled wool bears my weight without rending. I shove my hand in one of the pockets and come up with the key.
I don't want to think of what's happening to the others as I lock myself in.
I grab the passports from where we've hidden them, then I pull out the drawers for steps, and climb up to the high shelf. I stretch out behind empty suitcases and hatboxes and wait for what will come.
And it will come. It always has.
When I open my eyes, I'm stretched out in Ron's backyard, a good twenty feet from the shed. Chela is sitting near me, arms wrapped round her ribs, and Leila next to her, eyes fixed on the patch of lawn at her feet.
"Is it done?" I say as I push myself to sitting.
"They're furious that Memo seems to have vanished," Chela says without looking at me. "They're trying to figure how we got the win. Pato's still inside." There's accusation in her voice.
When I look away, the American girl whom Pato had stepped in front catches my eye. She's got this shade of reddish-brown hair that looks like it might burst into flame and feed the fire at the same time. I envy that more than the legs.
"Ron has his dad's gun on him," she says.
I nod, turn back, look at Chela again. We don't do anything, just sit and wait, as the rules of the game dictate we should.
Out here, we've been disappeared.
Out here, we've been taken to some secret police facility never to be heard from again.
Out here, we're dead.
Out here, we can't help the living.
There are no words that can change this.
When I finally locate Chela, I fly out to see her instead of calling.
The years have barely passed for her—she's still got the same tidy body, the same black hair, the same wide eyes that break your heart.
"It's a good thing you didn't call," she says as she ushers me into her house. It fits the academic she's become, there are more books than places to sit. "I wouldn't have agreed to this."
"Even after all these years?"
She shrugs and sits in a corner of the couch, then pulls her legs up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. "It could have ended differently. You could have stopped using words as weapons. You could have just let it be, and waited, like most of us."
It's nothing I haven't told myself year-in and year-out for as long as I remember.
"I was never as powerful as you all thought I was. Or even as I imagined I was."
I stretch my hands out, palms up. I see her take in the criss-cross of scars. I don't know if she knows that it's what magic does to you when you want too much, when you try too hard, when you'd rather die than fail.
"You and I were best friends once," I say after I drop my hands.
"We were children then," she says.
There's a long silence.
"You still a bruja?" she asks finally.
"A church bruja, like my mom. God and magic. I need both species of the supernatural to keep me going these days."
She cocks her head. "What do you want from me?"
"Memory," I say. "None of the others remembers. It's as if it didn't happen."
She scoffs. "It was never their country. They were all just passing through."
"Did he say he didn't remember?" she asks, sharp.
Her eyes go distant. "It got worse after you left."
"That's hard to believe."
"Is it? Someday I'll write my memoir."
"I hope so."
She focuses on me. "I thought by now you would have realized words aren't all that."
"They're the only 'that' I have."
She shakes her head, then looks away.
"My brother loved you," she says. "And sometimes you loved him too."
"It's no fair quoting Neruda."
She gives me a smile so like the old Chela I feel the breath catch in my chest. Then it's gone and her face is grave as it's been since I knocked on her door. "You left afterward. You understand how that makes things different, right?"
"You left too."
"Years and years later. What you bear on your palms, I bear on my heart."
When I don't say anything, she gives a short, humorless laugh.
Then, "Of course it happened. All of it. The little game and the big one. But, what does it matter who played it, or how, or why? The dead are still dead, and they can't help the living."
"Don't come here again," she tells me a half-hour later when I get up to leave.
It is as I knew it'd be.
Memo is hailed as either a hero or a villain depending on whether the person recounting the tale is an outsider or insider. But he gets described as a badass in either case.
Other things I can't foresee.
Memo never again meets my eyes.
Ron's father bans the game when he steps into the backyard and sees Memo finally staggering out of the shed, and a visibly pistol-whipped Pato high-fiving me when he does. Then, we all sit around with our bruises and concussions acting as if it's just an ordinary Saturday game.
Which, except for who emerges victorious, it pretty much is.
But, given half a chance adults blind themselves to the things they don't want to see and Ron's father swears up and down that he had no idea the game was so violent even as we played it under his nose week after week. Our parents scream at each other and threaten to press charges, but everyone knows it's bluff. No one in his right mind would go to the Guatemalan police for justice.
And the Americans, who might actually have recourse to a different justice, feel guilty. Not so much that their children aren't also hurt, because they are, but that even imbecile kids like us understand they're part of the larger game.
Ron leaves two years later, standard rotation for American military; Leila a year after that. Those who remain do no more than nod as they pass us in the school hallways.
It is always this way with childhood friends. But I might be wrong. It might only be this way with me.
The door splinters even though it is made of solid wood.
One of them pulls the clothes off the rod when he steps in. He rakes the space he's made with the muzzle of his gun. The second one notices the open drawers.
I long ago perfected the bubble of dark emptiness that magically shields me when his head clears the edge of the top shelf. He sweeps the boxes and cases with his rifle. I hear the clatter as they hit the floor below, then a muffled stream of invective from the other soldier.
I still my breath to nothing. Nothing around, nothing within.
The soldier looks right at me, touches my arm without knowing he's touching it. To his eyes there's nothing but dark, empty space before him.
Then I hear the shuffle of feet, a groan, broken breathing. The soldier who's been checking the shelf ducks back down.
"Where is she?" I hear a soldier ask it.
A mumble. A crack.
I inch to the edge of the shelf and look down.
One of the soldiers has caught my husband under the arm so he more or less stands. Pato's hair and face are matted with blood, his hands hang at odd angles, and one foot folds under him.
"I told you, she's not home," he says, the words distorted by the condition of his lips and teeth. They've busted him in the mouth with a rifle stock.
"It's sad when a man can't control his wife," the soldier says. He's got one of those regional Guatemalan accents that lets you know he was recruited young and went straight from farm to polytechnic.
"If I had been you," he continues, "I would have broken her hands so she couldn't type her reports. I'd have shut her mouth with a fist. If you had done that, we wouldn't be here."
"Yes, you would," my husband says. "Or, if not you, others just like you."
The soldier who checked the shelf laughs. He swings his rifle up, places the muzzle in the center of Pato's forehead, then pushes hard enough that my husband's head snaps back.
"What happened? Too slow to follow the bitch to her hidey hole?" he says.
"I've never once hidden," Pato answers. "I've always stood in plain view."
The words make me squeeze my eyes shut. Some things we outgrow when we trade childhood for adulthood, some things we don't.
The telltales of proximate exile—the passports digging their corners into the small of my back as I lay on the shelf unseen, the clothing for other climates now crumpled on the floor of the closet—aren't my husband's doing. To him, leaving is as much a cheat as hiding.
It's me who's never been willing to play by the rules.
There are hundreds of thousands of strands of magic for me to pick from. The living, the dead—every person lost to this dirty war that turns us daily against each other—they all cast a trace in the ether that I can draw upon. My hands comb through.
I'm searching for a spell to reclaim and keep both husband and country. A working so large it cries for witnesses, and begs for voices doubled and trebled. A conjuration of justice beyond any I've ever sought to cast.
When I am ready, I push it outward with both hands open.
Like wood, bone splinters with a groan. The roots of teeth crack and erupt from their nests of gum. Skin squelches as it's stripped from tissue. Hearts keep to their wet thunder one, maybe two, beats longer than they should. Soon there's nothing but scorched earth without, and within, and a dark emptiness that never fully goes away.
Magic doesn't save Pato. And it doesn't save my country either. Just me.
I tell you so there's no doubt.
Call it a game. Call it collateral memory. Call it real.