from a memoir about growing up in Belize
My mother sent my older brother and me to the village’s river to get water for cooking and drinking. She boiled the water until it tasted of charcoal, a smoky wetness. Ibrahim was an athlete, so he sprinted down to the river, his feet slapping against the bank. My legs were long and I wobbled, trying to keep up. We descended the river bank with a gallon in each hand and slid pass the elephant tree.
This tree had mystical secrets. A dark hole, stretched into a lazy yawn, was carved into the trunk. The resting place of Tataduende: a short human-creature with no thumbs, who lured men, women, and children away from the village and into the unknown. As we passed the dark hole, I was certain a duende watched us—waiting for one of us to trip, fall, and black out so he could drag us into the undiscovered.
Further down the riverbank, we heard the loud moans of howler monkeys. Echoes of Huuuuu! Huuuuu! were sung daily. More Tomorrow villagers called monkeys baboons, but in my mind they were invisible giants, singing sad songs. Outcast creatures lurking above the canopy, who screamed their laments because they could do nothing else. My mother said “no fear them,” as most Muslims recited to Allah huu huu as well and so the howlers were praying, just like us.
As our feet patted into the red clay and we descended the bank, the howlers’ warnings swelled my belief of the lurking duende. I imagined its fingers pressing into my shoulder, clawing at my neck and I thought, just once, that he whispered my name. But I never saw him. Many claimed to have seen a duende though. My mother was sure she saw one.
Bending over a bucket of damp clothes, the bushes rustled. She looked up and saw a gaunt face, staring at her.
“Who you?” she asked. The music of her Belizean Creole echoed into the bushes. “Who you?” The figure sat low in the grass, unblinking and stared directly into her. “Jose Luis? You bloody-rude-pickny.” She advanced toward him, thinking that it was a child who when we moved to the village had called her ‘negra’ while scoffing. She cut through the grass quickly swish swish swish; it purred with her movements.
She stood looking at it, waiting for an answer. But the face started to crumple in on itself: the cheekbones pushed forward and the eyes sank back into its head. The face wrinkled and wrinkled and wrinkled, like a brown paper bag, until the young boy resembled an old-old man. She lifted her machete, which she always kept nearby and advanced even closer, but he vanished. She rushed further into the bushes, a tight grip on her machete, and down the riverbank. Nothing.
Every time I passed the tree, I looked ahead and stared at the moving river-water. If not, her story lingered: Would duende come for me, always knowing where I was? Would he whisper for me, like Jinns? Spirits? Would he take me into the dark hole, with flies and worms, and show me his secrets?
The river water was sparkling green, but had a reddish tint. The earth dyed everything it touched, colored everything to its own. The river was always moving, it’s current strongly pushing things in a twisting and unknown direction.
When I sank my toes into the red-tinted-water, I knelt down as if praying. I dipped the empty jugs into the surface of swirling currents. The gallon’s opening sucked the water in with a swirl. I stayed in the shallow waters, where shaded reflections of swaying trees moved on the surface. My brother was beside me for a short time and then splashed into the deeper, more forbidden, parts of the reddish pool.
Soon we’d be walking back, our gallons full. The river bank was a steep uphill trek and water sloshed out of our gallons because we didn’t have covers for them. Our wet feet mixed with the soft clay and made a slippery union. We dug our toes into the mush, becoming one with the red as it slid over our toes and feet. We pushed all of our weight down and finally waddled up the bank. I always felt that I had survived a great thing when we got back near our room; that the river bank had let me out; that I hadn’t disappeared into a dark hole or moving water.
Then, a rough hand pushed me into the river one day. I sank into the strong currents as it swallowed my limbs. One gulp and it tasted me. I was inside its belly. Water rushed up my nose—my head flooded. I panicked. My mouth contorted. My throat choked. I saw my black hair flowing all around, as my nails scratched at the heavy water. My outstretching arms clung to something hard and slimy. I grasped the underwater branch and climbed. The water pushed inside again, not letting go of my breath. My face, finally, emerged and I coughed my life back into existence. I feared that a mystical creature was waiting as my body wrung itself dry.
I looked up and saw a group of boys laughing; it was my brother, he’d pushed me.
Only then, had I learned to fear what was in front of me.