On María Isabel Alvarez:
María Isabel Alvarez is an MFA Candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. She was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala where most of her fiction takes place. Fruit, plants, and other objects of the natural world are common symbols in her writing. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters, The Gateway Review, and Agave Magazine. She is the First-Looks Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Follow her on Twitter: @maria_i_alvarez
“War” appears in Arts & Letters Issue 32.
I travel through North America at the expense of strangers. In Massachusetts, I sleep on the twin bed of a little girl who never reached the age of ten. Her mother receives me in her arms and leads me to the tiny second floor bedroom, wood-plank stairs creaking beneath her pale bare feet. The room appears dusty yet tidy. The silhouettes of floating ballerinas border the blush pink walls, delicate lace the color of bone drapes the single bedroom window, and a floral comforter lays stiffly over the mattress as if handwashed in starch. The mother points toward the direction of the bathroom and offers a set of towels, a spare key dangling from a lanyard, and a gentle reminder that she’d prefer if I return each night no later than eleven. I ask this question of every one of my hosts and each time I receive a vastly different response: What compels you to open your home to strangers? The mother’s answer echoes how I feel about the home I’ve left in Guatemala, that through the continual exchange of strangers she has learned to overcome the residual madness of grief.
In Texas, I toss and turn from the humidity, my neck and thighs seeping in sweat. In New Jersey, I fall dormant to the angry screams and then savage lovemaking of an Italian couple. Then in Louisiana, I never sleep. I lay immobile among the cotton sheets, my forehead pressed flat against the cool plaster as I attempt to decipher the language in which my host is weeping. And though I never discover what heartaches ail her, or what tragedy visits her dreams, once dawn casts its nuanced indigo light, I conclude that her sorrowful crying sounds as haunting and harried as mine once had.
I learn to sleep on sofas and loveseats, some clean, some covered in dog hair; down comforters spread in layers across the floor, leaky water beds and children’s bunk beds—sometimes vacant, sometimes not; day beds and trundle beds and outgrown racecar beds, canopies slung heavily in curtains, rubber air mattresses, a single army camper cot, the rear seat of a Cadillac sedan, and an eco-chic, Japanese-inspired platform bed made entirely of faux bamboo.
My favorite remains the hammock strung between two California palms, the crosshatch twines pressing against my arms and legs as the repetition of waves rippling like black silk hypnotize me into a sleep so deep and continuous that I wake the next morning as though I am finally well-rested.
When I arrive in Minnesota it is spring, and I am unprepared for the sleet that pelts the pavement. My host’s name is Reta, an Ojibwe woman of the White Earth Nation of Northern Minnesota, and she is as simple and quiet as the house in which she lives. The interior is coated in a deep shade of crimson and unlike many of the other homes suffocating in family portraits and opulent pieces of art, her walls are void of any distractions. The house possesses a kind of uncontaminated spirit, as if those whom have lived within its corridors summoned every known indigenous ritual and cleansed it of impurities.
Reta speaks curtly and selectively, in a low and smoky voice, and relies heavily on hand gestures to relay emphasis on certain key phrases. The kitchen is there. The bathroom is upstairs. There is no telephone. I am intrigued by her economic way of speaking and feel it imprudent if I don’t employ the same courtesy, so I simply nod in understanding and thank her for her hospitality, never asking what had motivated her to open her door to a nomadic Latina woman with nowhere to sleep.
She shows me to the bedroom parallel to hers. The room contains only three pieces of furniture: a twin bed swathed in a vibrant indigenous blanket, a cherry wood bureau affixed with brass hardware, and an old wicker rocking chair that seems to mysteriously sway.
I unpack my duffel bag, extracting toothbrush and travel shampoo, washcloth and hand soap before submerging myself into the well of a clawfoot tub. I rub the bar of soap under my breasts, lather the crevices between my thighs, scoop water into the cavities of my collarbone, rinse the oil from my roots with baby shampoo, my brown skin pruning like dehydrated fruit as the minutes turn into hours and the hours turn into sleep.
I dream about my family, remembering how we bathed with buckets of cold water drawn from a well. My mother had washed all six of us in a large yellow tub outside our tin house, taking a kitchen cloth to our baby skin and scrubbing the dirt between our toes, the sweat from under our chins.
“My children are clean children,” she’d say in our native Spanish. “Because my children are God’s children.”
During the summer, she’d boil a stockpot of water and wait for it to cool before draining it over our mosquito-bitten backs. Then she’d leave us to play and we would splash each other and poke each other and huddle against one another after the leaf-laden water had lost its appeal, oblivious to the fact that half of us were girls and the other half were boys and we were all naked.
And then our bodies became less like taper candles and more like kerosene lamps, shapely and heated from within. Us girls were forced to plead with our neighbors about bathing in their private showers, offering to sweep the dust from their floors, feed rice to their many wailing children or stir their simmering pots of homemade recado. And sometimes they’d oblige, immediately propping their colicky babies into our arms, but other times, because these were war times, we were left to wander outside the city and into the lush countryside for fresh river water, only to discover that the rivers had become bloodied with bodiless limbs.
After the war, after the Ixil and the K’iche and the Q’anjob’al had been wiped from their communities, after their homes had been set ablaze and their children trampled like stalks of weeds and their wives and daughters raped as repeatedly as shells are shot from a submachine gun, we found that the rivers could no longer sustain the sins of our country, could no longer dilute the transgressions of war, so we stopped bathing altogether.
My brothers were the first to succumb to the bloodshed; one after the other they were slaughtered like pigs with corroded machetes, dropping to their knees into the wet earth, their carcasses devoured by ravenous white maggots.
My mother and sisters—they weren’t nearly as lucky.
Our neighbors, church fellows and distant relations, they fled to the mountains, believing the myth that the highlands would save them, that the closer they were to God, the better they could evade death.
Death found them faster than sound travels.
I dream these things each night. Each night the dead haunt me for having survived; each night their cries strangle me in my sleep.