Esmeralda fell from a luscious palm leaf.
That’s how her abuelo started her story when he told it.
Her umbilical cord was an emerald vein he said. A vein that stopped her from slamming to the ground when she fell. She landed in the great Dahlia pinnata and fed off its petals until she was strong enough to walk. He started it this way because it made his Esmeralda smile and he knew any girl who fell and fed from nature would see herself as a goddess one day. He knew that if he told this story enough times the little girl he loved so much, might believe him. He knew it was the only chance he had at giving his granddaughter something to remember when he was gone. Something to hold onto when the Dahlia pinnata receded into the dry, shallow soil. When the palm was chopped down and replaced with sterile cement.
Esmeralda came from Ciudad Juarez in her mother’s belly. Her mother sang to her at night amidst the tall grass where snakes fed. Being a pregnant woman, she felt safer among the snakes than the men. It was the men who wanted payment and from what she’d observed they weren’t picky about the ways in which they got it. Weren’t bothered by the pulse of her belly or the stench that came with three days of hiding beneath the bush. They knew a person willing to give up everything, willing to put twenty-eight years of life into one bag, willing to dodge gun shots and hide from the law of two countries, would do anything they demanded to get to the story of a better life. Oddly, it was Esmeralda’s painful shifts inside of her that helped her sleep among the sharp edges and eerie slithering of tall, dry grass. She focused on her insides–the life that existed there and the powerful body that protected it. We are powerful mi hija. No one can take our power from us. She whispered these statements to Esmeralda over and over until the slithering stopped and the sweat dried into sleep.
When she woke up to the whispers and pokes of a man telling her it was time to go she brushed the dirt off her face, rubbed her belly in circular motions until she felt the beat inside of her and checked her pocket for the piece of paper she’d been protecting just in case.
Esmeralda wouldn’t know that she was birthed in the back of a truck. She wouldn’t know that her mother was gagged because she was screaming too loudly. She wouldn’t know that men covered their noses and closed their eyes. She wouldn’t know that a woman named Sanga pulled her out of her mother and put her in her arms. She wouldn’t know the smile her mother had, the kisses she placed on her forehead and nose. The way she pulled a soft cloth from her bosom, a cloth she’d kept tucked in her bra so it was always with her, and gently wrapped Esmeralda in it as if she’d practiced every day of her life. She wouldn’t know the truck came to a halt and her mother, still bleeding, jumped up and sat with her child as if nothing had happened. She wouldn’t know that the blood and the stench brought the drivers to take her and her mother out and force them to stay behind, in the middle of the brush, with no food and no water. She wouldn’t know that the moment the truck started up again Sanga jumped out and took Esmeralda from her mother–both women sobbing. She wouldn’t know that her mother tore the paper she kept from her pocket and put it in Sanga’s hand screaming through her tears. She wouldn’t know that her mother’s screams followed the truck for what felt like an hour, that she was put in a duffel bag, that Sanga gave her warm water and let her suck on her fingers for comfort, that she never cried, that she was thought to be dead when they arrived. She wouldn’t know that Sanga took her to the grandfather who raised her still smelling of his daughter’s body–covered in her fluids–salted with her tears. She wouldn’t know that on her way there the man who drove her grabbed her breast and she had to show him little Esmeralda in a half-zipped duffel bag to get him to stop. She wouldn’t know that Sanga left her clothes with her friend’s father so he could cry over them, eventually burying them beneath a palm tree in the back yard. She wouldn’t know that Sanga stayed with them for three days while she acted as a mother to Esmeralda and that when she finally left she’d never come back but she’d send a letter every week signed Tu Mama.
Esmeralda wouldn’t read these letters until her grandfather died. Until she found the wooden box with dried Dahlia pinnata and folded-up pieces of paper inside. As she read them she’d cry and her tears would fall on the petals, making them bright and soft again–giving the illusion that life after death was possible. When she was done reading she’d lift her head upright, her face would stop cringing and turn soft again, her eyes wide open, allowing space for the tears to stay. She’d look the way a person looks when they fall inside of themselves for a moment and then she’d begin to whisper.
Esmeralda fell from a luscious palm leaf
Her umbilical cord was an emerald vein
A vein that stopped her from hitting the ground
She landed softly in the great Dahlia Pinnata
She fed off its petals until she was strong enough
Strong enough to walk away from her own pain
Strong enough to see the flowers and the emerald- green palm
Strong enough to remember the protective nature of dirt.
Melissa Hunter Gurney is a Brooklyn-based writer and founder of GAMBA Magazine, GAMBA Z’s Artist Residency, and GAMBA Forest (an art gallery and event space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn). She is interested in the artistic life as lived throughout South America and writes for La Gente Descalza (The Barefoot People). Her work has appeared in The Opiate, Those That This, Across the Margin, Pank, At Large Magazine, Brilliant Short Fiction, and Post (Blank).
image: Lukas Riebling, Dahlia pinnata, Creative Commons