They walked as far as Silvito's corner, or what might have been a corner if his house had been on an actual street and not on an unpaved stretch of dirt packed down from so many people walking on it. Around it houses were sprouting like strange plants, not in straight lines like on Casa Rocio's Calle Lucero, or the streets that bordered the square of the Plaza. The unpaved almost street reminded Elba Luz of the Guacabon. The almost street flowed with a river's shape to the next turn, still dirt, but narrower. There Mami called out to Don Maximo who was several steps ahead. "Esperen. Esperen." She gathered all of them, Don Maximo, his wife Catalina, and Elba Luz. She spoke, looking mainly at Don Maximo. "No los podemos dejar aqui solos. No puede ser. Aqui en el culo del mundo. " She didn't wait for Don Maximo to show whether he agreed or disagreed. She took Elba Luz by the hand and ran with her back down the packed dirt almost street to Silvito's. Maximo and Catalina speed walked after them.
Mami knocked hard and Dona Ines opened the door a crack. Silvito and his young brother and sister jumped out of their beds, ran to their mother, clung to her legs from behind. Ines' big black eyes, so like Silvito's, bugged out of her head. It scared Elba Luz anytime a grownup looked scared. As soon as she saw Mami Ines stepped back and opened the door just wide enough for them all to get inside. They stood in what was supposed to be la sala, a narrow, empty room the width of the house, , no sillones or sillas or mesas or arecas in big clay planters. Almost empty. There were a black sewing machine in a wooden table with several empty burlap sacks folded on it, and a hard backed chair beside it.
"Vengan. Vengan a mi casa. No se deben quedar solos aqui con esos guardias descontrolados."
Ines nodded. She didn't need to be convinced. She took an empty burlap rice sack from the pile on the sewing machine table and walked into the bedroom with her children trailing behind her. She opened a black chiforrober and began to fill it with girl clothes and boy clothes and woman clothes. She tapped Silvito's shoulder. "Busca tu maleta de la escuela y la de tu hermana." The girl, Inesita, ran out to the pila and brought all their toothbrushes. Within minutes all of them set off again, down the packed dirt almost street, to the narrower dirt street until the street river joined Calle Lucero. Elbita caught up to Silvito. "When you think about it, you and I actually live on the same street." His eyes lit up with surprise. He thought about it. "Verdad que si."
At the door to Casa Rocio Don Maximo and Dona Catalina kissed everyone good night and continued to their home behind the farmacia across from the Plaza. Mami put her fingers to her lips and motioned to Dona Zoila's door. "Cuidado, que se despierta de nada." This was what everyone said. Dona Zoila claimed she never slept. Elba Luz had seen her asleep plenty of times, with a flowered scarf tied around her eyes and clumps of bees wax in her ears.
Mami told Dona Ines to put her things in the big front room with the two big double beds, the room that would have been the saleta, across from Dona Zoila, whose room would have been the sala. It opened onto the pasillo grande from the front, and onto a smaller room on the side. "Mami dejanos estar aqui. Por favor Mami." Elba Luz took Silvito by the hand into the next room and pushed him onto a big bed, bigger than Mami y Papi's. "Dejanos un cuarto solo de ninos." The women looked at each other and Mami smiled. "Y porque no."
Elba Luz twirled. She loved to spin her braids. Silvito jumped up from the bed, ran into the hallway, and did a cartwheel. He planted his strong arms on the tiles and flung his legs. Inesita and the small boy Federico threw themselves on their backs in the big bed and for a few seconds pretended to go to sleep. Within minutes little Fede walked into his mother's adjoining room and curled up against her. "Mira, " Silvito pointed to his mother. "Even with all our leaping and laughing Mami se durmio." Dona Ines had fallen asleep on top of the covers with all her clothes on. Mami got them to lie down, tucked them in, turned off the light, walked away. She left the door ajar and it made a fan of light on the floor. Elba Luz stared at the light and listened hard. She heard Mami turn on the TV in the salita del pasillo by the kitchen. The drums and violins of the theme music were loud. La Desaparecida was on, Mami's favorite telenovela.
Silvito pressed her arm. "Elbi, estas despierta?" She sat up. Ine sat up. They tiptoed into the hallway and began to twirl and leap landing silently. Ine squatted and jumped up and Elbi and Silvito followed her movements. Silvito lay on his back and pushed up on one arm and the others followed his movements. It was Elbi's turn and as she was balancing on one leg with her back to Mami and her TV she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned. "Mami Mami no te pongas brava." Rocio looked at the children, shook her head, and shrugged. "Jueguen hasta que se queden dormidos de pie." She hugged and kissed Elba Luz, then Silvito, then Inesita. "Manana no van a la escuela." They watched her go into her bedroom at the bottom of the house, past the salita and the kitchen, and close the door.
"Tenemos permiso!" Elbi ran toward the middle of the house. the wide hallway between the two patios, where neither Mami nor Doña Zoila nor Abi were going to hear them. Silvito started a game of los agarrados. He couldn't catch the girls or maybe, Elba Luz guessed, he was pretending not to catch them. They ran and ran and screamed and screamed and screamed. Mami peeked at them now and then.
Elbi sat on a stool in the patio de las palomitas to show the others her pet. Her eyes closed. Silvito kept her from falling. Silvito stood close by her holding her up. "Your Mami was right. Nos estamos durmiendo de pie." The three tiptoed arm in arm and fell asleep curled together in their shared double bed.
Los grandes were gone when they woke up, first Inesita ("Silvi, Silvi donde estamos?"), and with those words the other two sat up in bed. "En mi casa, nina preciosa." Elbi spoke in Mami's soothing tone. Una hermanita al fin! Y dos hermanitos! The joy propelled her out of bed. She ran barefoot to the back of the house but instead of Mami she found Dona Erotida, the woman who helped Mami do most things. Elbita imagined Dona Erotida must be 100 years old. She was very dark skinned, with tight white curls she braided close to her skull and then coiled into a big bun on the top of her head. She was very skinny and strong enough to lift and spin Elbita even now that she was big. Sometimes she lived with them and sometimes she went back to her home further down Silvito's almost street by the river.
"Se fueron a donde los abogados." Erotida bent her tiny waist forward and kissed the top of Elbi's head. "Banense y vengan a desayunar. They ran back to the front room. "No lo creo!" Inesita got into the bed next to Federico. She kissed her sleeping brother. "Dormido es tan lindo! No puedo creer que todavia esta dormido." The little boy awoke, looked into his sister's face, smiled. Silvito lay on Fede's other side and curled into him. Elbi lay beside Silvito. "Acucados, acucados, que rico." Federico spoke in a sing song. Inesita sang along, "Acurrucados, acurrucados, que rico." Elbita understood and snuggled into Silvito. "Que rico tener hermanitos."
"Pero banense ya." Erotida appeared at the door and handed Elbita a clean pink t-shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans para la casa. She handed Elbita four clean towels, the ones kept for the huespedes. She pointed to the burlap sack on the floor. "Busquense ropa." Inesita found t-shirts, pants and underwear for each of them. Erotida applauded. "Una mujercita!"
They filed into the small bathroom where Papi had built two narrow shower stalls in the space where there had once been one when the casa was just for the one familia. "Aqui los dos varones." Elbita pointed to the shower by the wall. "Y aqui las hembras." She handed Silvi two towels. Inesita and Elba Luz both stepped inside, barefoot. and stood on a wooden lattice Papi had put over the tiles and the drain. They stripped and hung their towels and clothes on hooks Papi had screwed onto the outside of the shower frame. "Que frio." Inesita shuddered. "Eso no es nada." Elba opened the spigot and a stream of ice cold water hit her back. She screamed. Inesita wet her feet and scrunched her face, stepped under the water. jumped back out. They barely scrubbed themselves with the tiny sliver of jabon de castilla. "La ducha mas corta del mundo." Elba Luz reached for their towels. They rubbed themselves dry and dressed fast. The boys were already dry and dressed when the girls stepped out of their stall. Inesita sniffed them. "No creo que se banaron." The boys tagged them and ran away. They raced back to the kitchen where Dona Erotida had set their places, filled their mugs with very hot sugared milk, and then, while the young people watched her, she poured three drops of the coffee black as ink she kept in a small glass bottle with a glass stopper. "Es magia." Elba stirred the drink. "Si si si." Silvito sipped. "Se volvio cafe con leche." They ate a slice of crusty bread with a thick slab of soft butter on it.
Here was a whole day without grownups, only Dona Erotida who wouldn't keep track of them. But what to do with Federico? If they took him he would slow them down. Silvito walked him to the patio de las palomas and while Federico poked his fingers through the alambre de gallinas, he and the others quietly walked away, raced down the hallway, and walked outside. "Dona Erotida se lo va a decir a Mami." Silvito walked back inside. "Se me quedaron mis libretas y tenemos que ir a casa a buscarlas. Se queda con Fede?" Dona Erotida picked up the little boy. She softly butted her forehead against his. "Topi, topi, topi." She sing songed and Fede laughed. "Y como que no me quedo con este angelito."
Within seconds they were all outside again. They looked up Calle Lucero and then down.
"Que hacemos?" They didn't have to speak. They walked to the plaza and caught the bright green guagua de las nueve. They sat huddled on one seat on the beach side of the bus, pressed their faces to the window and watched the street lined with pink and yellow houses with their big wooden doors flush to the street become the narrow carretera. "Mira, mira. Aprieten los ojos." Silvito said. As the bus moved, if they squinted, they could make the low bushes and distant rows of sea pines and tall skinny palmas become green ribbons. They were all looking hard. "Mira, mira, mira." Inesita pointed to the speck of turquoise blue of the playa.
Along the portion of the carretera by the Ecopreserve there were dozens of small wooden kioscos and the smell of the frituras made from plantains and land crabs reminded them that they were starving and they were thirsty and they had forgotten to bring food and drink. Silvito led them single file along the narrow path behind the kioscos. Halfway down the row he stopped and stared at a short woman with very big, strong arms, short straight black hair with white roots. She stood at a table facing away from them, and was bent over two burners. They could smell the frituras she was turning. Silvito approached her and tugged at her long flowered skirt. "Dona Vilma, Dona Vilma." She turned and faced the children. "Hoy vienes a trabajar o vienes a jugar? He shook his head. Now Elba Luz knew this was where Silvito sometimes came to work when he needed to help his Mami with the expenses when his Papi was away. All of the Papis were often away. Dona Vilma studied them and gave them a stern look. "Pero y porque no estan en la escuela?" Silvito whispered. "Es que se llevaron a mi Papi y mi Mami se fue con los abogados."
Dona Vilma bent down and kissed him. She set three plastic stools under the seapine nearest her kiosco. She gave each child a fritura on a small paper plate. Elba tasted the sweet plantain and the different sweetness of the land crab meat they almost never got to taste at home. "No se metan en travesuras!" She put frituras and small boxes of fruit juice into a plastic bag. She handed it to Silvito. She kissed them on the top of their heads. "Cuidense o me mata tu Mama."
"Feliz, feliz, feliz." Inesita's pony tail bounced as she ran to keep up with Silvito. He was the one who skipped school often to come to the EcoPreserve to work with Dona Vilma and to mataperrear. He was the fastest runner in their school but Elbita was next fastest. They ran through the forest of seapines to the beach and ran by the water. They ran beyond the portion of the beach marked off with bouys to a place where the shore was narrow and beyond that toward the mangles. Just before the mangrove there was an inlet, a perfect, beautiful little beach. "Una playa de ninos." At last, Silvito stopped. They stripped to their underwear and waded in. Silvito floated on his back. "Te enseno a flotar." He held out his arms and Elba Luz lay in them. "Te suelto?" When he let her go she sank like a stone. She jumped up, breathless. Silvito held his breath but she was laughing. He told her to fill herself up with air. Next time he squatted into the water and let her go with his arms ready. But with her body filled with air she floated. The sun was hidden by a huge, thick bank of white clouds and all around it the sky was blue all the way to the end of the universe. She had never seen the sky like this. She floated on the water and imagined she was floating on those clouds. Inesita shouted, "A mi, a mi." He floated his sister.
They ran and played until the sun was halway down to the edge of the world. They ate half of their frituras and shared one of their boxes of juice. Silvito set off again but the edge of the mangrove was too narrow for them to run. They walked carefully to where a small canoe dug out of a palma was wedged between two mangle roots. They tugged on it until they worked it lose. They climbed inside and rowed with their hands. Elba Luz knew exactly where they were going, the Base Naval Papi and Mami and Dona Zoila and the huespedes talked about for hours when they sat and drank cafe after dinner and made their plans for taking their fishing boats into the restricted waters, a protestar. These must be the restricted waters.
Miren una gran cerca." Inesita pointed and Elba Luz stared. It was almost invisible in the sunlight but there was an enormous fence sticking right out of the water. It looked like it reached to the very edge where the water made a long line against the sky. Once her eyes found the fence Elba-Luz saw that close to them it disappeared into the mangle. A few yards before they reached the fence Silvito jumped out of the canoe and pulled it to the shallows. The girls climbed out and together they pushed the canoe between two mangrove roots. With Silvito in the lead they waded among the mangles following the fence. They stopped by the fence and peered through it. They could see at least three walls of metal mesh. They waded deeper into this forest of tangled roots. "Aqui." Silvito pointed to where the mesh had been cut. Elba Luz guessed Silvito's plan. She had one moment of terrror and then she grew very calm. He took a deep breath, closed his nose with his right thumb and index finger, and dunked his head into the dark silty water and squirmed his way to the other side. Elba Luz motioned to Inesita to go first and the girl did exactly as her brother had done. Elba Luz had to choose between the terror of following them and the terror of being left alone in the mangle. She took a deep breath and plunged into the fishy smelling water. They waded chest deep and found the breach in the next perimeter and the third.
Mangle and more mangle extended forever on the other side of the last fence. "Tengo hambre." Inesita wouldn't budge until she ate. They perched on a branch low enough to reach, high enough to keep their feet outside the water. Silvito took the plastic bag with their remaining frituras and boxes of juice. He had folded and folded the bag in such a way the food was mostly dry. They ate in silence. "Cada vez que las probamos las frituras estan mas ricas." Inesita said. Silvito laughed. "Porque cada vez tienes mas hambre." He closed the bag and put it back under his shirt. "El ultimo juguito pa despues."
From their perch they could see a group of metal huts beyond the end of the mangle. Elba Luz pressed Silvito's arm. "Y si no vemos a tu Papi?" He looked into her eyes. "No es la primera vez. Ya vine antes. El fue quien me trajo." Elba Luz opened her eyes. "Y tu Mami te dejo?" Now Silvito choked back loud laughter. "Pa que fue aquello. Se pelearon por eso. Ella que casi nunca le grita puso el grito en el cielo." Silvito went on with a tale that Elba Luz would not have believed if she wasn't perching on this tree herself. First his Papi let him go on one of the fish-ins. Silvito got to stay up late, leave with Papi at midnight from their house by the Guacabon on the little fishing boat he tied up there, all the way down river to the Bahia de Coral where they'd met up with dozens of other fishermen. They'd hung banners from their boat. FUERA LA MARINA DE CORAL and their fleet of bannered fishing boats moved as one in the dark night to the very edge of the sea fence. "Fue la emocion mas grande de mi vida. Antes que hoy."
The lead boat was stopped and its pescadores arrested and the boat seized and the other boats left the restricted waters, went out beyond the territorial waters of Isla Karaya. Later Papi had brought Silvito by land, the same way Silvito had now brought the girls, looking for the companeros who had been arrested.
"Y ahora que hacemos?" Inesita shifted her weight and moved closer to her brother.
"Esperar. En esas casetas fue que metieron a los detenidos. Esperar a ver si vemos a Papi."
Elbita put her arm around Silvito. "Eres muy valiente. Yo sola nunca me hubiera atrevido. She sat closer to her friend. "Pero porque no nos acercamos?" He thought and then nodded. They slid back into the shallow water and marched slowly toward a mass of seagrapes a few yards from the metal huts. They crawled into the hollow near the roots. "Aqui no nos ve nadie." Silvito mouthed the words, not one sound. "Se esta poniendo tarde." Inesita spoke softly into her brother's ear. "Mami se muere si no llegamos." Silvito put his index finger to his lips. He mouthed the word. "Miren."
A guardia led four men to the hut just feet away from their sea grape shelter.
"Papi." Inesita stopped herself from yelling. The guardia unlocked the door, pushed the detenidos in the door, locked it again, and walked away from the hut. The guardia walked so close that they could have touched him. He was very tall and thin and wore the jungle camouflage uniform Elbita ahd seen him wearing in Coral, when he came home to see his Mami. Silvito jumped out from his hiding place and tugged at the guardia's pant leg. "Robertico, Robertico." The young man jumped.
Elba Luz got a good look at Robertico, el de los papalotes. He lived next door on calle Lucero and she'd known him all her life. He looked almost the same, but like a man and not like a boy. How could the same thin, long, brown face, big, curved nose, bushy eyebrows, hidden eyes, tiny moustache look so much the same and so different? He gave her his huge, toothy smile. He knelt beside them. She put her arms around Robertico el de los papalotes. He let her and Silvito sometimes have his old kites if the beautiful tissue birds had survived the cuchillas of the other kites. He let her and Silvito run and run in the field by the river until at last, every once in a while, those old kites soared. Two weeks ago he had taken them to the shed behind his house where he built the kites and she and Silvito were halfway finished making one of their own. Now he was surely going to save them. She kissed him on the cheek.
Robertico grabbed Silvito by the shoulders. "Pero muchachos atrevidos, que hacen aqui?"
"Buscando a mi Papa."
Robertico said nothing. He walked back inside the hut. A few minutes later the door opened and Papi Silvio strode right toward them. A green leaf guardia uniform fit tight on the huge muscles of his arms. His jet black pony tail had been shaved off. His big eyes shone with surprise and joy. He lifted chunky Silvito into the air. "Como una plumita," Elbita whispered to Ine who had rushed to hug her Papi's legs and wait for her turn to fly.