“Pobrecita!” Señora Chabela says when she sees my hands that evening. “Que hacemos contigo ahora?”
I was thinking the same thing: What can I possibly do now in the kitchen? In addition to my bloody palms, some of my fingers have begun to swell. I can’t make a fist with my right hand, so dishes and chopping are out.
Then she takes my hands gently in her own, turns my wounds to the sky, and sings: Sana sana, colita de rana, si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.
My cheeks are wet and trembly when she finishes. I haven’t heard that nursery rhyme probably since my abuela, my namesake Roberta, last sang it to me. The loving melody acutely reminds me of what’s been absent from my life nearly ever since.
Because she is an earth-tethered angel, Señora Chabela preserves my dignity and ignores my tears. She thinks a minute, then weaves around a flock of sous-chefs prepping for dinner – meatloaf with creamed potatoes – and returns with a basket and a pair of kitchen shears.
“¿Crees que puedes hacer esto?” she says, sliding the shears open and closed.
“Si, señora.” I slowly flex my fingers, miming a scissor.
“Bueno. Sígueme.” With that, she walks to a door at the back of the kitchen. When she pushes it open with her hip, a dazzling sunbeam hits the floor. I follow her through.
“It’s a secret garden!”
Before us stand rows of glossy green plants – I see pumpkins, kale, broccoli and fruit trees I can’t begin to identify. The garden runs the entire length of the building and sprawls out at least twice its width. It’s enclosed by the same barbed-wire and glass-tipped concrete wall that encircles the base.
“Not so secret but kind of secret, yes,” Señora Chabela says, guiding me to a small clearing in the back. “Most of this we use for officer meals. We can’t have cadets raiding it in the night. Mira, tu sabes que es perejil? O eneldo?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know many food words in Spanish because we didn’t eat food growing up.”
“Ah, ok. That is parsley and that is dill.” She points at rows of plants, one flat leafed and the other a delicate gossamer of green. “I need you to fill this basket with one half parsley and one half dill. Clip the stem at the bottom. Ok? You can do that?”
“Bueno. Come see me when you are done.”
With that, I’m alone in the garden. I breathe in deep: wet soil and the colors of fall. Glancing back at the windowless cafeteria, I set my stuff down and stand. My favorite book as a kid was The Secret Garden and I can’t resist exploring this place just a little. It’s like a gift. Like my imagination came to life, only more vivid, and who knows if I’ll ever be allowed back.
I decide to walk two rows before I get to work, starting at the dying raspberry vines in the corner. I can’t remember ever eating a raspberry. I glance back at the cafeteria again, pop a shriveled berry in my mouth and feel its tiny beads burst in my cheek. I grab another. I find wilted tomato plants, with fruits still green on the vine. The smell of the plants makes my mouth water.
Shadows lengthen and lightening bugs flick on their butt lanterns: yellow and bright green lights flicker in the gathering dusk.
“So this is what pastoral means,” I say to myself. I wish I could share it with someone. I wish Peasant or Zelda was here with me. Instead, I return to my basket, pick up my shears, and carefully arrange a pair of edible bouquets for Señora Chabela. Maybe someday she’ll let me come back.
“Were there peach trees?” Zelda later asks.
We’re lying in our beds in the dark. I just finished trying my best to describe the garden to her. I kept the news to myself at dinner. It felt too sacred to discuss over meatloaf.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen a peach tree.”
“It might be too cold for peaches here. Georgia is pretty hot.”
“How do you eat peaches?”
“You can grill them, put them in salads, make them into peach pie. That’s what we always had for birthdays when I was little – peach pie with fresh whipped cream. Sometimes my mom would make peaches and goat cheese biscuit sandwiches but I hated goat cheese.”
Zelda never talks about her family. I stay quiet awhile, hoping she’ll continue, wondering if I’m allowed to ask questions. “When’s your birthday?” I finally ask.
“I don’t know. I remember having them – I blew out the candles – I just don’t know when it was or how many candles there were. They assigned me a birthday when I got here because the Jesuits didn’t keep any record of it. Getting assigned a birthday was worse than not having one to begin with, because they’re making up something about me and presenting it as fact. I have a real birthday, I have happy memories, I was just too young when they were made to remember them clearly. I can’t even remember my mother’s face. I look in the mirror and I wonder how much of her is reflected in me and I’ll never know.”
How can I possibly respond to that? It’s probably a bad time to mention I turn 18 in a week.
“Do you believe in Jesus? Or in God, I guess?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Not like the Jesuits do. Like, I wish more than anything that I could see my parents again. I’ve wished it for so long that it feels like a part of me is empty except for that one wish. If I could just believe in God and Heaven… it feels like being outside a house at night, and looking through a window, and seeing all of these happy people sitting at a table together. That’s what it feels like. If only I had the key to that door, I could walk in and join them. But I don’t.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Are you religious?”
“No. My abuela was Catholic, so I think I’m baptized? But she died right after the war started and the only thing I really remember about church is her favorite church curse.”
“What’s a church curse?”
“You don’t know? I always figured it was a curse you were only supposed to say in church.”
“Okay, so what is it?”
So I tell her.
“That’s the most obscene thing I have ever heard,” she says, then she laughs and laughs and laughs. “You definitely can’t say that in church.”
Having friends that aren’t your sister is incredible for many reasons, one of which is that they offer you a perspective on life that you’ve never considered. Like maybe your abuela had a really filthy mouth and made up the whole concept of a church curse, which is something you always believed in, even if you doubted the existence of God itself. Or maybe you should be grateful that you still have a living family, even though it feels like they abandoned you.
“Would you still be willing to mail a letter for me?”
I flip on my bedside lamp and rip out a piece of paper from my notebook. I don’t know what to say, so I don’t overthink it:
I am doing fine. I don’t know if anyone told you but I’m now in Illinois, which is somewhere northeast of Utah. I am now in officer training school for Peacekeepers. Tonight, we had mashed potatoes for dinner. You’re right, they’re pretty good.
Please tell Peasant that I love her and I miss her. You can tell her that they gave me a new leg and now I’m one of the fastest sprinters here. Today, I ate a raspberry for the first time.
If she wants, she can write to me at this address.
Zelda shows me how to address it so that it’ll get to my mother at Circus Circus.
“I’ll put it in an envelope and mail it tomorrow,” she says.
“How long will it take to get there?” I ask, when what I really want to know is ‘how long will it take her to answer?’
What I’m afraid to wonder is, will she even respond?