The Drowning Gull 1 - Page 31

They didn’t want to go. They didn’t want to walk all the way there, in the burning Peruvian sun; past the jeering men; past the pitying volunteers from the United States; past the half-dozen half-dead stray dogs.

They didn’t want to go. Their mother didn’t care whether they went or not-- she was too distracted from her long days of picking insects off of cacti. Disease for plants became lipstick for the privileged. Dinner for them, earning her a few soles a week. Enough. Depending on whom you asked, it was enough.

They went, though-- running, not walking. They raced past the men who whistled and teased; past the volunteers who waved and grinned; past the whimpering dogs becoming bones.

When they arrived, they nodded at the others. The others didn’t want to go either, but they were there. They were always there. And the most intimate conversations were the unspoken ones—those nods at each new arrival. Not just an acknowledgment of presence, but a nod of understanding. They knew. They got it. They were there, too.

The teachers had the same face. Not literally, but it was impossible to tell them apart. They wore identical wearied, wary looks—a signature combination of exhaustion and unease. Every day. Always.

The teachers didn’t say much, but were friendly in the way they walked and blinked. Once, the kids were sure they saw one smile, but it could have been a yawn. Bets had been made. No one won. No one lost.

It was fine. They had nothing to bet with, anyway.

The room was big (well, bigger than their houses). The room could fit all eight of the kids inside. They would sit at the table in silence some days; in loud chatter other days. The space was stifling, like a pocket in the sun, all days.

Once they were there- seated- they couldn’t remember why they hadn’t wanted to go. This place was heaven. This place was a miracle.

First, there were the chairs. Most of them had four legs. Some of them even had seat backs. They were wobbly, which made them fun. The game was that the person whose chair toppled over first had to kiss whomever the others chose. There was one rule: when the chair collapsed, and if the seated kid was somehow able to keep from falling with it, then that person could pick someone to kiss.

There were only eight of them, which meant everyone had been kissed. They—the sisters—even once had to kiss each other, much to the glee of their friends. The sisters didn’t mind. They already shared everything anyway.

Then, there were the crayons. The school had five of them (they used to have six, and the sisters suspected Tatiana had taken the blue one home with her).

The kids had broken them in half, so there were plenty to go around. The sisters always wanted the green pieces since that color was the color of luck (or so they had been told by a volunteer named Sean last summer), but the problem was that Juan knew this, too. It would always be a race between the three of them for the halves of green crayon. The sisters usually won-- but not always.

Those were the bad days: the days Mercedes was stuck with red or Mari had to use yellow. But they usually won. A sulking Juan would usually take a piece of gray and tell them it was the color of his soul. Mari would roll her eyes. Mercedes would laugh. It was a game to them all-- tradition, even.

The best part about the room, was the door. Well, the doorway, actually, since there was no door. The doorway was beautiful, but not for its looks. (The beehive incident made Mercedes nervous to walk underneath it and Mari would have to push her inside, complaining that the rotting wood was sure to fall apart on them.) No-- the eight students admired the doorway because of what came through it (other than bees, of course; although the bees took residence there for likeminded reasons). The doorway brought the first glimpse of the food.

Soup usually. Soup was the name given to this and that thrown into a bowl of lukewarm broth. It was placed in Styrofoam bowls and served with homemade chicha morada because the water wasn't safe to drink. Soup was the reason the kids went

three days a week and pretended they cared about 2+2 and names of oceans they would never swim in.

Sometimes there were seconds. Sometimes, the volunteers would understand Spanish, or at least knew what más meant. Pointing at an empty bowl or waving a cup around sometimes got the message across. Some days, they would get seconds and the green crayons. Mercedes’ favorite day was when Lucas raided the kitchen, stealing a full pitcher of chicha and hiding it away to share after lunch was finished. So what that they had all had stomachaches? It had been hilarious.

Mari, as the oldest and- by default- the most responsible in the group, would make them all push their broken-backed chairs into the table and throw away their bottomed-out bowls at the end of the meal. Mari took what she called “attendance”-- a thing they had once read about in a book about a class. Then, the laughing children with satisfied stomachs would skip out of that beautiful doorway.

They didn’t want to go, but the sisters loved going. Hungry for the knowledge that they would be fed, the girls raced to the school each time it was open. They didn’t call it home. Sometimes, smiles and soup stains said more than words.

Lunchtime in Lima

by Sarah O'Brien

Issue #1