THE LAST ISLAND
Dinner ends. We try not to stare at what my family calls, the island of guilt. We sit with our heads bowed low and eye the last morsel in a sea of open plate. Our eyes feel moist at the sight of that single island of food, the last quesadilla or the lonely taco, the only chip pleading to be plucked from the ocean of porcelain and dipped into the red salsa sea.
Doomed to rot uneaten, the island of guilt will perish as compost in the backyard because of the many rules mother has: don’t eat the last bite on the plate, never-ever go down to the basement, don’t waste your time asking ‘bout things, and never stop feeling guilt. Remorse. The weight of the world on your shoulders. Never.
“There’s children starvin’ in Afghanistan and Tekumestan,” she says with authority. “No matter nobody knows where them placers be, we knows for sure there’s children starvin’ there and you bettah eat all yer tacos!” The bonnet on mother’s head makes her look like a pilgrim straight out of Plymouth.
“You just invent a place?” Papa stretches for the last taco but retracts his hairy brown arm when mother’s eyes pierce his retinas. “Whereabouts is Tikomostan, anyway? You just starved that country right out of the map. Try finding it! Ticomostan, Y cómo estan…” he mimics. “I am 139% in agreeance with that!”
If guilt is what mother dresses me up in every morning, Papa feeds me with his contagious sense of enthusiasm. No matter what he does, he is always, ‘139% in agreeance with that! Couldn’t be more!’
Mother ignores him as she always does. Papa seizes the moment, grabs the island of guilt and pops the last taco into his mouth. He notices me looking and he uncovers a piece of tamale he’s been hiding under the napkin. He hands it over to me. Shhhh…
I shove the crumbly cornmeal into my mouth but, Papa has given me his hot tamale!
“Ayyyyy!” I spit the wet crumbs on the table. “Water!”
Mortified, mother hands me a glass. “What’s wrong?” Suspicion covers her eyes when she spots regurgitated tamale on her tablecloth. “Where. Did them. Crumbs. Come. From?” she interrogates.
I look at Papa and he looks back. We shrug.
A flurry of chubby hands fly over the table making the crumbs disappear. Although we live all alone, mother always thinks someone out there is hungrier than us. When she returns to scrubbing dishes, Papa and I share a guilty smile.
It has always been like this. It has always been Papa and me against the world.
“The universe presents us with obstacles, my little Pet, to squeeze more love out of our hearts.”
“Whatcha mean, Papa?”
“Take your mother. She is the provider of obstacles. Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t have fun, don’t live life. Obstacles!”
“Yeah, and don’t ever dare eat the last bite, because there’s always someone hungrier than you who needs it more!” I laugh.
But, darkness covers Papa’s face. Only for a moment though. In a funny voice he mocks, “There are hypothetical children, in countries NOOOOOBODY can pronounce because they don’t exists--that are starving. Tell me, my little Pet, how can one not love such a creature?”
Papa’s knowledge of the world is astounding. Though we live surrounded by cornfields, away from cities, towns, and villages, far from people and their pets, Papa knows about the ways of the world. He says he gets his information from the stars, from which we are all made of, and from the gods of our ancestors.
“What do the gods tell you?” I ask Papa one day I sit with him in the room where he keeps a gazillion books.
“The god of avarice, tells me to look out for myself, feed myself, take the last damn island already but, the god of bellicose desires tells me not to fret about the last island, for I would have eaten the whole meal before the island became lonely and isolated.”
Papa does that all the time. He flings words at me as if throwing confetti, all jumbled up, without sense or reason, and in this confusion, the illusion of happiness rests on my ears.
“You sure know how to talk a tall mountain of words, dontcha?” Mother tosses Papa a cloth to dry dishes. “Why the hell you gonna poison little Pet’s brains with words not worth the air they float on? Words the blades of corn gonna cut up to pieces in a jiffy?”
“I am 139% in agreeance with that! Couldn’t be more!” Papa pats mother’s bonnet and attacks the dishes. I can see him smile when he scrubs the blue plate that floated the island of guilt.
Mother is stricter than ever. The list of obstacles she gives us, to build the mountain of love, is monumental. Don’t talk about ancient gods and don’t mention words nobody is ever going to use. Don’t think past the moment, don’t spend time wondering what if and don’t ponder, don’t ever, ever go down to the basement and leave the past to the dead.
“But, Papa says that the past teaches us about today,” I say one day mother and I are out rolling hay.
“You see a past in them cornfields? Them stalks got history ah-right. They know how to survive. Like what we do. You gotta shove the past in a basement and forgit ‘bout it completely.”
We work in silence, something that would never happen with Papa. He would be telling me about the kernels and the coronels, the hornets and the coronets. I look around us. Cornfields for as far as the eye can see. The corn feeds us, though we do not till the land. We do not tend the earth and we do not water the soil. The stalks grow on their own. I ask Papa about this.
“Magical they are, Pet, magical.”
“Have they always been magical?”
“Of course not! These fields have seen hard work. Plenty perished under the hardship of maintaining these rows. The ancestors died so we could eat today, they had to be sacrificed so their brethren could knit a self-sufficient strain of corn.”
I do not understand. We moved to this house after my sister, who I never got to see, was born. After that, we came to the house in the middle of the cornfields.
“Are the fields magical because they hide my sister?”
Papa doesn’t answer. He looks down the rows that never end, looks up at the sky that goes on forever and looks down at the earth. He grasps at the mud and lets it squish between his fingers. I think he mumbles something about dust and ashes.
On my tenth birthday, I confront mother, “What happened to your belly?”
“You mean, I is gittin’ fat? Gotta be the corn, Pet.”
“Not now. Before we came here. You had a big belly and then it went away. What happened to my sister?”
Mother’s brown skin turns white. She polishes the dinner table but says nothing. Beads of sweat gather around her forehead, roll down her chest, staining her apron. She keeps buffing until I can see my reflection on the wood.
“The table’s done, mother. Why do we—”
“—Don’tcha ever mention that again! You hear me?” Her face is puffy and her eyes red.
Mother storms out of the room. Fire spews under her bonnet. Ice runs through her veins. A black cloud floats over her as mother shouts and wails. She yowls and yells, shrieks and screams. From the wooden porch she looks at the fields—the cloud, the flames and the ice still there—and I see her sacrifice her heart to the Aztec gods.
At the dinner table, Papa smooths out the napkin he’ll use to hide a little something for later. His black eyes dart toward me and whisper, shhhh. It’s him and me against the world.
Mother is like an igloo. “I don’t wantcha talkin’ stupidness ‘round the table, you hear? No mention ‘bout why we here nor a sister you nevah see. Just eat your corn fritters and hush. I swear youz two like some kinda talkin’ Encyclopedia Britannica.”
The dark cloud rains on the flames above mother’s bonnet and I wonder whether she might have sacrificed my newborn sister to her Aztec gods. Engrossed in thought, I catch a glimpse of Papa stuffing a whole burrito into his pants. I notice he has others in his pocket already. To distract me, he points at the last fritter, the island of guilt.
That night, on account of all the corn fritters I ate, I cannot not sleep. I hear a noise and discover Papa prying the lock to the basement open. He carries a plate full of tacos downstairs. Minutes later, he returns carrying an empty plate but for the last island.