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Lydia MilletBudnitz manages to be both funny and serious, whimsical and substantive: With a wry rap across the knuckles she draws our attention to small and vital things.
— The Washington Post
The soldier appeared at the door, and before Precious could say a word he cried out how he’d missed her and hugged her to him. He smelled like a week’s worth of sweat, and when he smiled his cheeks stretched into taut creases that looked like they might split at any moment. Don’t you remember me? he said. Of course she didn’t. She’d never seen him before.
He did the same to her mother, embracing her before she could resist. Precious saw her mother’s face, propped on the man’s shoulder, the eyes closed, and for just a moment her mother looked blissful. Then the eyes opened and her mother’s face hardened again.
It’s good to be home, he said.
He’s lying, Precious said sullenly.
Her mother knew it too. And yet she cooked him a meal and allowed him to stay the night. She kept closing her eyes for a few seconds at a time; Precious knew she was imagining that it was true, that one of her sons really had come home.
In the dark of early morning Precious heard a creak and felt a breath on her shoulder. A finger found its way beneath her blanket, it pointed and beckoned. She turned over. And then everything happened fast, before she could say a word, like a gourd cracked open and the pulp scooped out, to be replaced by something else.
In the morning the woman arose to find her imposter son gone and her daughter too. One of them had taken all the money she had.
This is the story the daughter tells to her unseen audience, the listener swaying in a travel hammock made of her own flesh. She tells the story over and over, the rhythm of her voice matching the rocking rhythm of her legs, hoping he will understand.
“If you’re an illegal,” the man says, “the only absolutely surefire way to get into America is to stow away inside a woman’s belly.”
She asks him what he means. He tells her that anyone born on American soil is automatically a citizen. “Doesn’t matter who or what the parents are.”
“But what happens to the baby’s mother? She’s the mother of a citizen now.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “Anyone without papers, if they catch you they’ll deport you. And they will catch you. Probably take your baby away.”
Her hands slide down the front of her dress.
He narrows his eyes. “You seem determined.” She nods. “Do you know how to swim? Ever been chased by dogs? Can you run fast on those pretty legs?” She nods; she has never done the first two, but surely they are instinctive. Surely, under duress, her body will know what to do.
“Will you still be able to run fast in a month? Two?” he says and with a sudden brisk movement cups his hand against her stomach.
“Yes,” she says, trying not to flinch.
“I might just be able to help you,” he says. “How much money do you have?”
She wants to go to America. She’s heard they give you a free dishwasher the minute you cross the border. In American stores there is always a hundred of everything, food as far as the eye can see, more food than you could eat in a lifetime. There is plenty of work for anyone who wants it, because the Americans are the laziest people on earth and will do nothing they can pay someone else to do for them.
Once you get there, everyone agrees, the rest is easy. Soon you’ll be a lazy American yourself, having fat children and buying furniture. Furniture? Yes, a woman tells her, in America if you want furniture, a refrigerator, even a car, you can pay a tenth of the price and take the things home; the Americans will trust you to pay the rest later. They are as trusting and gullible as children.
The visions of abundance keep her up at night. It’s not for herself that she wants these things. It’s for her baby. She knows he is a son, riding high inside her; with every breath she feels his heels crowding against her lungs.
Months earlier, when she told her cousin she was pregnant, her cousin hugged her and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it. I know two good ways. One hurts less but takes longer. The other hurts a lot but is over quick. Which do you want?”
“No!” she cried. “Neither,” she said, pushing her cousin away.
She cannot even contemplate getting rid of the baby. She loves him already, has begun crooning to him and addressing conversations to her belly long before she starts to show. But as her son pushes out the front of her dress farther and farther, she begins to wonder. Does she want to raise her son in a country where half the babies die before they are a year old? A country where a woman could have eight children and consider herself lucky if one survives to adulthood?
She begins collecting stories of America. She builds a house in her mind, furnishes it, plants trees outside. She imagines her son, fat and white, playing on a vast expanse of immaculate carpet. She sees him as a boy, big and healthy and strong, wearing stiff brand-new clothes, pushing the other boys so they fall down. She pictures him when he’s her age—by American standards, still a child, he’ll be going to school, playing with his friends, whistling at girls, and trying to put his hand up their short American skirts.
For some reason, whenever she pictures her son he is bald, his head white and oversized and glowing slightly, like an enormous light bulb. She puts a baseball cap on him. Better.
“You’re crazy,” her cousin says. “They’ll take your baby away and give him to some American parents. They’ll snatch him away the minute you get there and send you back. Americans love foreign babies.”
“Love to eat them,” the cousin’s friend says. “At least that’s what I’ve heard.”
“Do you want your baby taken away and raised by foreigners?” her cousin says.
Of course not, she says, and suddenly realizes she does.
She sees the strange man again and asks if he can help her.
“You want to cross over,” he says. She gives him half a nod.
“You’re in luck. It’s a side business of mine, arranging these things.”
She looks around to see if anyone is listening.
“Just remember,” he says, “there are no guarantees. If they catch you and deport you, I don’t give you your money back. If they catch you, I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before in my life.”
She nods. The first time she met him he was wearing a flowered shirt and a baseball cap like the one her son wears in her daydreams. Today he is wearing a cowboy hat and a nice-looking suit. When he turns to go she sees that it is all crumpled in the back, riding up into his armpits.
She tries, and fails, to remember his eyes. She thinks he has a mustache.
They meet again so she can give him the money, and he asks for her name.
“Precious,” she says, and looks away. She does not like to reveal her name; she senses it is dangerous for anyone to know her true worth. Precious is the name of someone treasured, adored. It means there are people somewhere who would gladly pay ransom for her, rescue her from a tower, lay down their lives for her. This is not true, but it is what people assume. She’s afraid he’ll raise his price.
But he grins a wide face-creasing grin. He thinks they’re playing a game, giving themselves nicknames. “Then call me Hopper,” he says. “First name Border. And what about”—he nods at the front of her dress—“what about Junior there?”
She stares back at him stonily refusing to acknowledge anything.
“You know,” he says softly, “they don’t like it. They don’t like this kind of thing.”
“What you’re trying to do. They see it as an abuse of the system. They’ll try to stop you.”
“I don’t care.”
“Good!” he says, breaking into a smile again. Today he is wearing grease-stained coveralls such as a car mechanic would wear and, beneath it, incongruously, a spotless white dress shirt. In a brisk businesslike voice, he says, “We here at Hopper and Associates have many options to offer the busy traveler. Would you prefer plane, train, boat, or automobile? Business class or coach? Smoking or nonsmoking?”
She turns the choices over in her mind. “I’ve never been on a boat.”
“I’m joking, sweetie.”
“Yes,” she says. “I knew that.”
She sees the border in her dreams: an orange stripe, wide as a road, dividing a desert from horizon to horizon. The border is hot; people run across it screaming in pain, their shoes smoking. The border guards are lined up in pairs on the other side, each pair with a swatch of black rubbery webbing stretched between them. The moment someone reaches their side of the border, two guards snag him and slingshot him back to the other side. The guards are neat and precise; nobody gets through. The people pick themselves up and try again, running across the scalding line. Again and again they are repulsed. Some are flung through the air; some are sent skidding across the border on their faces. The people tire, they are staggering, crawling, propping each other up. The guards continue their work mechanically, occasionally pausing to take a man’s wallet or fondle a woman’s breast before sending them back over. There is something about the guards’ alert, smooth movements that seems familiar, as if she’s seen all this before.
She must work out the timing of the crossing as precisely as possible. If she goes too soon, it will mean spending more time, pregnant and waiting, on the other side. The longer she’s there, the greater the chances the deportation people will catch her and send her back before her son is even born.
But if she waits too long he’ll be born outside the border, on un-American soil, and will never get his baseball cap, his citizenship.
She has told her son about America, told him about her plans. Told him the story of a woman and her seven stolen sons. That’s what you can look forward to, she told him, if we stay. She hopes she can count on his cooperation.
The man, Hopper, doesn’t care about her plans. “You’ll go when I tell you to go,” he says. “You can’t control these things. You have to seize opportunities as they arise.”
She waits and waits. Apparently the opportunities are slow to bubble up. She’s in her ninth month when the time comes. She rides a bus to a border town, arrives at the meeting place.
She and six others cram into a secret space behind a false panel in the back of a delivery truck. There are a few nail holes for air. They are afraid to talk; when one makes the slightest noise the others pinch him, roll their eyes. They are all strangers to one another. Their initial excessive courtesy dissipates with the rising heat. The metal walls are like an oven. One man insists on smoking. The two people on either side of Precious accuse her of taking up too much room.
There are delays; the truck stops and starts, the back door opens and closes. At first they all freeze expectantly every time this happens. But the stops continue. Precious begins to wonder if the driver has forgotten about them and is going about his usual deliveries.
Night falls, they know this when dots of light in the nail holes go out and they are in total blackness. No one lets them out.
The second day is more of the same. One man wants to bang on the walls; they’ve forgotten us, he says. The others restrain him. The heat rises and they squabble silently over the last plastic jug of water.
On the third day they all fall into a stupor, frozen in positions of cramped despair. The only one stirring is Precious’s son, kicking impatiently. On the evening of the third day they cross the border without knowing it.
It is dark again when the truck stops, footsteps approach, the metal door is wrenched back. They blink in the glare of a flashlight as the driver helps them out. He tries to make them hurry but they cannot unfold themselves. He carries them out one by one, like statues in tortured poses, and places them on the ground, where they lie unmoving for a long time and then begin to uncurl as slowly as new leaves unfurling.
They lie on hard earth surrounded by trees. The truck disappears down a dirt track leading back to the highway. They begin to groan and creak and stretch themselves—small things first, fingers and toes. Precious stands up and leans against a tree. She tries walking a few steps. The movement makes something shift within her, then shift again, sinking lower, like the tumblers of a lock falling into place. Good, she thinks. Right on time.
She heads down the track toward the highway. The others call after her, warnings, halfhearted offers of help. She knows they’re glad to be rid of her. She’s a burden, a liability.
She walks along the highway. So far America is a disappointment, bare and empty. It’ll get better, she tells herself. Americans, she knows, are optimistic. She thinks of big white gleaming American hospitals.
She waves at the occasional cars zooming past. She can’t see the drivers’ faces. If she were in their place she wouldn’t stop either, she thinks. Who wants a strange woman having a baby all over your nice clean American car?
But within minutes a car pulls over to the shoulder ahead of her. She clutches her son, tries to walk more quickly. Americans really are friendly after all.
The car is a dull gray, dirty, unremarkable, and she’s close before she notices the heavy wire mesh separating the backseat from the front. The driver has already stepped out of the car and has his hand on her arm before she can think of running.
He helps her into the backseat and drives on. He doesn’t seem surprised to see her, seems to know exactly who she is and what she’s doing. He’s driving in the same direction she’d been heading. At first she thinks he’s going to help her after all; then she realizes that they are heading back to the border, that she’d been pointed in the wrong direction.
She’s still hopeful. Everyone says even when you get caught, they make you stay in a detention center for weeks while they ask you questions and write words on pieces of paper. She’ll have her baby and then go home.
But that’s not allowed to happen. She’s rushed through a series of gates and hallways and waiting rooms, and people ask her questions and eye her belly and hustle her along. Before she knows it she’s sitting in a van with other defeated-looking people who don’t meet her eyes. She recognizes two of the people who shared her secret place in the delivery truck but pretends not to.
This time she can see the border as they cross it. It’s not how she pictured it. Just a fence, a checkpoint on the road. She holds her belly. Her son is shifting around. Not yet, she thinks fiercely. Not yet.
She looks for the Hopper man. She assumes he would have disappeared by now, but no, there he is. “Don’t be mad, little mama,” he says. “I told you there were no guarantees.”
She stamps her foot. The pressure inside her is unbelievable. But she wills her body to hold itself together.
“Tell you what,” he says. “How about I set up another trip for you? Free of charge? Because I’m such a nice guy?”
“Not the truck. The driver was bad. I think he told the border police where to find us.”
“That’s terrible,” the man says. “You just can’t trust anyone, can you? I won’t use him again.”
The second time is on a boat, a huge boat, a cargo ship. She doesn’t know what it’s carrying; the cargo could be anything; it’s packed into truck-sized metal rectangles, stacked up in anonymous piles.
She and twelve others hide in the hold. It’s dank, dark, cramped, but the gentle motion of the boat soothes her; this is what it must feel like for her son, she thinks.
Her son is very still. She worries that he is dead, but she tells herself that it’s only because he’s grown too big, has no room to move. Just a little longer, she thinks, and then you can come out and begin your new life. Some people told her America’s territory extends from its coastline, fifty miles into the ocean. Others have said five miles. She wants to wait for solid land to be absolutely sure.
But they’re stopped almost immediately. She and the others are sought out with flashlights, led up to the deck, and lowered into a smaller boat that speeds them back to the harbor. She would have tried to run, to hide, if not for her son. Any violent motion, she fears, will bring him tumbling out. If she jumped in the water, he might swim right out of her to play in the familiar element.
“My goodness,” the Hopper man says when he sees her. “Are you having twins?”
“Your boat people are bad,” she says furiously. “They told the border people we were there.”
“You don’t say! I certainly won’t be using their services anymore.”
“I think the border people pay them money to turn us in. A price for each person.”
“What makes you think that?”
She has heard people arguing, pointing at her and arguing over whether she should bring the price of one or two.
“We’ll get you over there,” the man says. “I give you my promise. Three’s the charm.”
The next time, she rides in a hiding place built between the backseat and trunk of a small car. They have trouble shutting her in; her belly gets in the way. It seems luxurious, after the first two trips. She has the space to herself. A man and woman sit in the front. On the backseat, inches from her, a baby coos in a car seat. She doesn’t know if it’s their baby or someone else’s, a borrowed prop. Her son shifts irritably, probably sensing the other baby, probably thinking, Now that’s the way to travel.
At the border they’re stopped, the trunk is opened. The panel is ripped away, and for the third time she’s blinking in bright light. She imagines her son beating his fists against the sides of her womb.
Not yet, she thinks, not yet, my son. Just a little longer.
She’s now nearing the end of her tenth month. Her belly is strained to the breaking point, her back aches, her knees buckle. But she’s more determined than ever. And her son seems to be as stubborn as she is.
“Now it looks like quadruplets,” Hopper says.
“He’s going to be an American baby,” she says, through gritted teeth. “Babies are bigger there. A nice big healthy American baby.”
“Is that what he told you?”
“He’s not going to come out until we get there,” she says.
“I’ll do what I can,” he says. “No guarantees.”
She’s been told there are places where you can climb over the fence. There are places where there is no fence, only guards in towers who sometimes look the other way. She’s going to take her chances on her own. Enough of his gambles.
“I wish you the best,” he says, tipping his fishing hat.
She can barely walk; she stumbles, lurching and weaving. Other people look at her and say, “There’s no way. It’s impossible.” She ignores them.
She walks, through scrub brush and rocks and burning sand and stagnant, stinking water. She walks and walks, thinking: American baby. Nice big American baby.
She hears a sound echoing from far away: dogs yelping, frenzied. She can almost hear them calling to one another: There she is, there she is, get her.
They burst over a rise and she can see them, a mob of dark insects growing rapidly bigger, a man with a gun trailing far behind. Has she crossed the border already? It’s impossible to tell.
The first dog runs straight at her. She stands still and waits. It seems nearly as big as she is, a small horse. At the last minute it veers away and circles. All the dogs swarm around her. But they do not touch her. They keep their heads lowered abjectly to the ground. They seem in awe of her big belly.
The fat sweating guard who comes puffing up behind them is not impressed. Soon she’s sitting in a familiar van, heading back.
She’s been carrying her son for over a year now, with no intention of letting him go.
“Now, that can’t possibly be good for him, little mama,” Hopper says. “You should let the little feller out.”
“He’s going to be an American baby,” she says, slowly, as if talking to a child.
“Let me help you,” he says. “I know a man—”
“No,” she says.
“We’ll try another way. I can get you a fake passport.”
“No,” she says. She hobbles back to the border, is stopped by a fence, and begins tunneling under it, clawing the dirt with her fingernails. She’s crawling through, nearly breaking the surface on the other side, when her son shifts, or perhaps instantaneously grows a fraction of an inch, and suddenly she’s stuck. Border guards come and drag her out by her heels. They don’t seem surprised, they seem as if they’ve been expecting her. They look bored, almost dis- appointed, as if they’d expected her to have a little more originality.
“Why won’t you let me help you?” Hopper says.
She doesn’t answer.
“Free of charge.”
“Why are you being so generous?”
“I don’t know. Out of the goodness of my heart?”
Today he’s wearing a bolo tie, a snakeskin vest. He is wearing rings on every finger, like a king, like a pirate. Like a pirate king.
“Please,” he says. “I want to. I insist.”
She realizes something she should have seen months ago. He’s been tipping off the border guards. He takes money from people for helping them cross; then he takes money from the guards for telling them when and where to expect visitors. She’s been making money for him with each of her trips.
“You are a bad man,” she says.
“Oh, come now,” he says. “You can’t blame me. It’s a game of chance.”
“An evil man. When my son gets big he’ll come back and kill you.”
“Your son’s already big,” he says. “And I don’t see him doing anything.”
She is determined. She flings herself at the border again and again. She travels in cars, trucks, buses. She walks on blistered feet. She travels in a fishing boat, an inflatable raft. She wears disguises, buys false papers. Each time the border repulses her, spits her back.
Big American baby, she tells herself. She sees his size as proof of his American-ness. Only American babies could be so big, so healthy. She has convinced herself that he has always been American, that she is merely a vehicle, a shell, a seed casing meant to protect him until he can be planted in his rightful home.
She carries him for two years. She constructs a sort of sling for herself, with shoulder straps and a strip of webbing, to balance the weight. She uses a cane. She looks like a spider, round fat body, limbs like sticks.
Her son is alive; she can feel the pulse of his heartbeat, feel the pressure as he strains to stretch a finger, an eyelid.
She thinks she can see a dark shadow through the taut translucent skin of her belly. She can see his hair growing long and black.
Her body is adaptable. Her skin stretches, her bones shift, her blood feeds him. When people see her they are amazed, but she is not; she has seen it before, the lengths the body will go to to preserve itself, to cling to life.
Big American baby, she thinks. Nice big American baby. It is her mantra.
She carries him for three years. Three and a half. She becomes a legend, then a joke, with the border guards. They wave to her as she creeps past, cheer her on, drag her back at the last minute.
Don’t you think he wants to come out by now? people at home say to her.
He’s safer living in my belly than in this wretched country, she says, though she has been so single-mindedly set on her mission that she has taken no notice of external events. War, famine, peace, prosperity: it is all the same to her. America is the only option, the only ray of hope.
She carries him for four years.
Big American baby. Nice big American baby.
She has in her mind pictures of hot-air balloons attached to bicycles, fanciful flying machines. Some days she imagines she will simply lift off the ground and float over, suspended by the power of her will alone. Hers and her son’s. Or she imagines that she is invisible, intangible; she breezes across the border. The air, it seems, is the only thing that crosses freely.
Her son is so big, she imagines he fills her completely, his arms fill her arms, his legs fill her legs. She is a mere skin covering him, like an insect’s carapace, soon to be flaked off and shucked away.
She’s too tired to speak now, just pants and whistles through her teeth. The words rattle in her head.
Nice big American baby, someone chants. Not her. Him. The voice of her son gurgling up from her belly. Muffled and airless but undeniable.
My son’s first words, she thinks, smiling proudly at a shriveled bush. You hear that? No baby-talk preliminaries, no babbling or lisping. My son: so precocious, so American.
From the Hardcover edition.
|Where we come from||3|
|Elephant and boy||176|
|The kindest cut||223|
Posted January 16, 2015