She walks to school with her head down. Strands of silky black hair fall to her cheeks. A stick in her small, strong hand drags through the pale dust. She glances behind her at the snaking line accompanying her footprints. If she were to go to the edge of the dense jungle and her tracks stopped there, everyone in the pueblo would think the snake took her away, charmed her into another life.
Instead, she follows the winding path to school. Study hard, her papá had told her. Then you can read to me, her mamá had said. She loves to sing and draw and race in the field, but words on a page are a puzzle to her. To others, they have a pattern. Señora Cruz can hold the book at half an extended arm's length and fly across the words as swiftly as a swallow gracing the cerulean heavens.
Sliding into her desk, the bough of a high oak waves to her from the sliver windows, drawing her attention. Each leaf appears as a green letter, as perfect and mysterious as the hard, angled book in black and white that her teacher holds. The story streams from Señora Cruz. The girl understands how it works: eyes take pictures of the words, words dance from mouth with meaning and rhythm.
At recess, the teacher calls her to a shade-speckled bench below the oak. From her lap, she pulls the slim book of words and stories. "Read this to me, please." The girl takes the open book in her hand, slides her fingertips across the page as if to brush the letters to the ground. But they stick. A black-and-white image of a butterfly is suspended in flight at the top of the page. The girl traces the words and weaves a story about a butterfly that becomes lost in the jungle. He must pretend to be a regal quetzal with vibrant, curved plumage in order to earn the respect of the other animals.
As she tells the story, the words take flight on the page. They dance around like hundreds of little flies, taunting her. Sit still, she tells them. They slow their dance, like lazy moscas do on a hot day, and settle into straight lines, but they keep themselves locked. Señora Cruz winks at her with a magic eye capable of deciphering the words.
Today she brings home her grades and Papá is disappointed. "You are not passing reading, mi'ja." He pulls the newspaper that Mamá was cutting a watermelon on, and points to the inky black words. "Lealo." Read it.
The words become ants. Each letter forms a bulbous segment of an hormiga. They begin their march towards the sweet, red watermelon, carrying pieces as large as themselves off the page and across the table and down the legs and out the door and towards the jungle and she wants to follow them. The girl turns to see Papá shaking his head at her; heavy disappointment emanates from his eyes and creeps over her like stinging nettles. "You need to learn to read. You must pay attention to the teacher." Looking back at the newspaper, damp with watermelon juice, she sees the ants are gone and all that remains are the slick tear-shaped black seeds sitting as scattered as the little letters on the page.
"I'll make it up to you, Papá." She wraps her stick-like arms around him and he softens. Mamá resumes slicing the watermelon and the little girl asks her for a clean page. The black letters are seeds and they will grow if she plants them. "Papá, I will practice reading this." She slides out the door with the newspaper a folded tail trailing behind her.
In the backyard, she walks the black soil between the sweet hibiscus and the elegant snapdragons, before the overgrown bougainvillea crowded with ruby-stained blossoms. She smoothes out the newsprint on a clear patch of ground. So many little black seeds, thousands on a single page. Señora Cruz would trace them with her fingers, take pictures with her eyes, and news from all over Guatemala would come from her mouth in stories.
She runs her finger along the lines, but the letters bounce from the page and she's afraid they will turn into moscas again. So quickly, before they know what is coming, she pulls the page to pieces, little strips. The lines shred apart. She crumples the little strips into balls. She digs little holes with her small, strong hands, buries the seed words into the black earth where they will grow, grow into stories and songs and poems that she could read. She covers the seed words, she waters them, she waits for them to grow.
Copyright © Susan Niz 2008.