A Hillsborough Community College Student Publication since 1978.
By Brenda Medina
Photo by Nelda Kampff
The woman grabs the deep-red and yellow mango from the pile and presses it gently to test for ripeness. She feels the wrinkles of its skin and the softness of its insides, then brings it to her nose and inhales its aroma. Now it only takes her a few seconds to close her eyes, and she will be traveling in time. It transports her to the back yard of a place called Casa, the house of her childhood. The woman sees the little, innocent girl she once was, lying in the hammock, tied between the two avocado trees. The little girl is singing a common Spanish rhyme while swinging in the hammock. “Fuin, Fuan rebe-pan… Mariposa de San Juan…,” the woman sings.
Suddenly, the woman opens her eyes, feeling embarrassed. She notices that people are staring at her. She puts four mangos in the cart and walks to get some bananas, then some pears, and a watermelon. In an attempt to ignore the pile of apples she moves faster passing by them, but it’s too late. It’s already there; the strong force that makes her always go to the apples. It turns her neck around and whispers in her ear. “Look back, you have just passed the forbidden fruit.” The force is like a snake, reminding her that apples will always be part of her life.
Today is different though. For the first time in years, she is feeling strong enough to confront the snake. She feels courageous enough to grab the apple, press it gently, feel its skin, analyze its color, and then smell it. She knows that the apple’s aroma will take her on a different journey. It won’t be a pleasant one; however, it is time to show the snake that she can overcome that trip to the past.
It’s a humid Saturday morning on December 23rd. Everybody is up early because Saturdays are Mercado days, and people need to get their missing items for the big dinner of Noche Buena, on the 24th. That’s the way people celebrate the birth of Jesus in the Caribbean; families gather to eat, drink rum and sangria, and dance until sunrise. For kids, the favorite part is when they get some dulces navideños and red apples. Since apples don’t grow on the island, they are mostly imported during Christmas season. Kids look forward to Noche Buena to eat some of the exotic and expensive fruit.
On the morning of the 23rd, the girl woke up before anyone else. She went to hide behind the Platano tree to get a full view of the killing. Her oldest brother used to get an annual sneak peek of the killing.
That year, her brother had turned 16, which meant he had informally become a man. He had moved to La Capital, the city. Because of this, she felt it was her responsibility to watch the ordeal; otherwise, her little brothers wouldn’t have a story to hear later that night.
She was very excited about the adventure. According to her brother, one year he saw tears coming from the pig’s eyes as soon as the butcher grabbed the machete.
“He knew what was coming,” her brother said. “That animal knew he was gonna be the dinner for Noche Buena.”
This year it was her turn to see if what her brother said was true. When the butcher took out his machete and started sharpening it, she tried her best to see if there were tears coming from the pig’s eyes. She saw none. Instead, all that was heard was the animal’s agonizing screams when the first jab of the machete went into its side. One drop came out, then another one, then there was a pool of deep-red, thick blood. She didn’t close her eyes once. It was as if she was glued to those horrifying images. When the butcher gave the final blow, and she saw the animal fall, the intense feeling in her chest made its way out through her mouth. She screamed so loud that the butcher dropped his machete, and the birds flew out from the trees. Before she knew it, her mother was grabbing her by the hair and dragging her back to the house.
“Coño! I told you that children aren’t supposed to see those things,” her mother said. “Now you stop crying and change your clothes. We’re going to the Mercado.”
The Mercado was an outside fair full of stands made out of rustic wood, built one right on top of the other in a long, dirty alley. On one side of the alley, there were stands for used clothes and cheap accessories. On the other side, they sold food. Seasonal vendors were always located at the end of the alley in an unorganized way. A combination of fried food, raw meat, sweat, and dirty water filled the air. The mother would stop at almost every stand there was to ask for prices. The girl heard her mother complaining to the merchants: “How much for this?…that’s too expensive…that was five pesos less, a week ago.”
The reality was that they had no money to pay for any of what her mother was asking.
Finally, they got some bread, vegetables for the salad, potatoes for the pastelon, flour for the pastelitos, and rice and beans, as always. She didn’t see her mother getting any meat and couldn’t help but imagine them eating the pig that she just saw being murdered. “Don’t think about it anymore. Let’s go get the apples and then we leave,” said her mother.
The girl’s eyes illuminated as soon as her mother said, apples. If there was something she loved about Noche Buena, it was the slice of red apple she always got after dinner. Her mother asked the merchant for two big ones. Then they started arguing about the price. Last year, apples were only 10 pesos each, but now the price for one was 18 pesos. She saw her mother introducing one hand underneath her own blouse by the collar. The woman moved the hand left to right between her breasts as if searching for something. The girl saw the merchant staring at her mother. His eyes fixed on her mother’s hand moving under the blouse. He was unaware. The girl, carefully, slid her little hand to the box of apples and took one.
Getting a little fabric bag with a small stock of rolled 10 pesos bills out from the middle of her breasts, the mother told the merchant to give her only one apple and handed him 18 pesos.
“It’s 36 total,” the merchant said.
“But I only want one.”
“La niña took one,” he said.
The mother announced to the small crowd of viewers that had gathered around them that there was nothing to see. Then she called the merchant an abusador, and told him that they weren’t going to buy his apple anymore. She grabbed the little girl by the hand. Before she took the first step to leave, the man got out from behind the stand and grabbed the woman’s arm.
“You ain’t leaving with my money!”
The woman tried to escape, but he twisted her arm so hard that she started crying. She dropped the bags on her other hand and slapped the merchant. He grabbed her by her neck with both arms and started choking her, yelling that no woman hits him and gets away with it. The girl saw her mother turning red. She saw her mother’s eyes going blank. Then she saw the merchant’s machete close to the box of apples. She grabbed it quickly, handling it in just the way she had seen earlier that day. Holding it with both hands, she stabbed the machete into the man’s side. He cried just like the pig and then fell down with the machete still stuck in his body. People were running from one side to the other, screaming. The mother grabbed the girl by one hand and ran as fast as she could. The girl felt more like she was flying.
How her family got the 10,000 pesos, she never knew. The only thing that the woman remembers is that two days later she was sitting next to her mother in a Yola, a little hand-made boat with the capacity for 15 passengers, that took them and some other 50 people on an illegal trip to Puerto Rico.
The woman snaps back and puts the apple back with the others. She knows that there are things she would never do again. Taking her cart, she walks towards the register.