WHEN I WAS A BOY, Papá had a llama and he loved that llama. Her name was Mercedes. He spent his days with her, grazing the patch of grass on the side of our house. He introduced her to everyone that passed. Most of those passing were neighbors who already knew Mercedes, but he introduced her excitedly each time. It was fun for the kids walking to school to laugh, with great exaggeration, 'Hello Mercedes! How wonderful it is to meet you!'
The men passing were campesinos, it was no small kindness for them to lend a glance and a tired smile. The women, though, the women met Mercedes with venom. These were the women who loved to circle around Mamá as she mocked Papá and his fat llama. Papá drove a taxi and he said he made more money Friday and Saturday nights than he could all week. On weekdays, then, Papá stood with the llama he was so proud to buy. Mamá didn't like he spent money on a llama instead of food and clothes for his children. Papá swore she was jealous and she told him, 'Love your llama, Augusto, because you won't get near me.'
Mamá exacted ceaseless revenge on Papá, she instructed the women say to Mercedes, 'Hello fat llama, it gives me no pleasure to meet you. Will you do nothing today, Mercedes, as you did the day before?' They would then improvise insults, something new every day, and always end with, 'You are worthless, fat llama, as worthless as the idiot who bought you.'
This, without fail, ruined Papá's day. You could see in his face they broke him before they even spoke. He would listen without protest, let them walk on, then sit and stare at the grass Mercedes bit to the stalk. Sometimes those women, Mrs. Wilca, Mrs. Castaño, or even Miss Castro, went to call on Mamá for afternoon tea, or maybe they'd go to the creek to wash clothes, fetch water, and on to the fields to bring their men lunch.
If it wasn't time for tea, Papá might join Mamá in the kitchen. He would go to the table, making sure she heard him come in, and she would ignore him completely. She'd stand over the counter and cut Turon de Doña Pepa until her friends arrived. When they did, Mamá dismissed him with a shake of her bum. I never went in the kitchen when Mamá had visitors, I was afraid the three of them would shake their bums at me. I was six then and their butts were at eye level—Mrs. Wilca had a huge, indistinct mass she carried under a plain black skirt, Mrs. Castaño and Miss Castro were skinny, only Mamá's butt showed full and round under her second-hand dress.
When I was younger, I liked to run to Mamá and hug her from behind, nudge the side of my face in the arc of her thigh. During the age of Mercedes I feared that bum, those three-quarter moons struck terror deep in my belly. I wanted to be with Mamá while she prepared tea, but I couldn't bear the humiliation of her wagging that bum at me. I made a plan, then, that if I could sneak up as far as her side, where I wasn't behind her, I would be safe. My plan expected Mamá would be singing gypsy songs as the water came to boil.
I waited patiently for the right day, the right moment to creep up slowly, clumsily in the shoes that were still too big. I remember it was dry that week and the dirt crackled under my shoes, I thought I was caught where I stood but Mamá sang on, exquisitely, over the sound. I don't know how she didn't hear me but I managed to make it to her hip. I should've felt safe but I didn't, my knees trembled as I stretched to see over the counter. I felt Mamá look down but I was nervous to look back, I focused on the steam rushing out of the kettle. That's when she put her hand behind my head, cradled it like checking a melon for ripeness. When I finally looked up I felt the glow of her smile, I heard her say, in half-whisper, 'Hello, my sweet Prince. How's my freedom fighter, Simón?'
Mamá named me after Simón Bolívar, our continent's great liberator. She named my older brother, Lucho, in honor of her favorite writer, Jorge Luís Borges. Lucho is short for Luís. I think Papá was so excited to introduce Mercedes because he got to choose her name. Names were important where we lived. We are from Cusco, we lived on the hill with VIVA PERÚ marked in the grass. Our house was under the second V and the Wilcas lived across from us. They had two boys, Mayta and Yachay. Mayta was my age and Yachay was three years older like Lucho.
The Birs lived down the street by the Ú. Their daughter, Malisa, was pretty but spoiled. Our baby sister, Isabella, is a year younger and you could've mistaken them for twins. Everyone said Isabella was more beautiful, though, because of her light. The Birs were rich, I liked their house because they had a television but we usually went to the Wilcas. The Wilcas are indígena. Lucho liked their house because they taught him things like how to speak Quechua. Quechua is the language of the Incas. I thought we learned things at the Birs but now I don't know. We learned from television that everyone in Lima is rich, and we learned life is beautiful in America. Mrs. Wilca said the United States is arrogant to call itself America, she said we are all from America and Lucho says life can be beautiful in our America, too.
WE DIDN'T HAVE a lot of money then, no one did except for the Birs. Mamá said that's why we didn't have a full change of clothes and couldn't buy fruit and more vegetables. I would have liked it if we could. Mamá blamed Papá for our lack and she never said his name without the word lazy. 'Papá wasn't always that way,' Lucho told me, 'It started after Isabella was born.'
Isabella is a strange name choice because of Ferdinando and Isabella, together they led the Spanish Inquisition and sponsored the ravage of our America. We never got to ask Mamá why she chose that name. 'People started talking,' Lucho told me, as if I didn't know, 'About how white the new baby was.' Mamá is mestizo and Papá is indígena, 'Some even say she is Mr. Bir's child, Papá's been depressed ever since.'
I didn't know the part about Mr. Bir, he is pale mestizo. 'A lot of the neighbors dismiss the idea because Mrs. Bir is white and Mr. Bir wouldn't lower his status to love a mestizo. What kind of people are we to accept that idea?'
I wasn't sure if Lucho wanted an answer so I went outside with Papá. I sometimes heard Papá telling his woes to Mercedes and I thought he'd like to talk to someone who could respond with more than a spit or groan. He didn't tell me the things he told Mercedes but I know he liked having me out there. We stopped introducing Mercedes to everyone that passed, only the kids and the campesinos. When the women came by, ready to ruin his day, I'd start talking the way I heard men talk to one another. I'd say to Papá, 'Hey friend! How's the taxi business?' or 'How are the wife and kids?'
Papá didn't answer, he only looked to me and smiled. His smile didn't glow like Mamá's but it had its own sort of light. Sometimes, when neighborhood women visited Mamá, Papá would call on Mrs. Bir. I went with him even though I'd have to play with Malisa. Malisa had plastic Barbies instead of the tela dolls Mrs. Wilca made. The Barbies were strange—tall and white and way too skinny. They didn't have bums like Mamá, and definitely not Mrs. Wilca. I learned to like playing with them if we could change their clothes. This meant they would be naked and I liked that. Malisa figured out why I wanted to change them and she didn't like it, then she did. She'd run her finger along their curves and smile, I'd kiss their chests and she'd giggle. My favorite time with Papá was walking home from the Birs.
ISABELLA'S FIFTH BIRTHDAY was a big event. Papá wanted his cousin from Urubamba to play with his band. Papá never spoke of his family, or of being indígena, but he thought his cousin's sikuris would be better than the orquesta Mamá wanted. They argued, of course, and the neighborhood took sides. Papá appealed to the men, 'Imagine the tambores echoing down on the Plaza,' to which Mamá said 'The children should know salsa better than any tourist can learn in classes.'
Papá answered, with veins in his neck, 'Who has the money to pay for an orquesta?' This was the only time I saw Papá address the tea group and his point made everyone quiet. Everyone stopped arguing when Mr. Bir said he knew a guy. I couldn't guess what that meant until, the morning of the party, I watched the brass flicker on the tuba the fat man hoisted to his belly.
All the kids gathered around Mrs. Castaño as she fixed the piñata to the Elderberry. She'd made a giant bull with colors brighter than any I'd seen in this world. Mrs. Wilca made a skirt for Isabella and the colors, because the telas were new, were just a vibrant. When the orquesta started no one was dancing, Mamá wanted me to practice with her but I said I wanted to teach Isabella. I didn't quite know myself but she and I had fun. Mamá and Papá didn't go near each other. When Papá took Mrs. Bir's hand I could tell he wanted Mamá to notice. She didn't, really, she talked to Lucho all night. Mrs. Bir was a terrible dancer but Papá led her beautifully.
The party got moving once the sun went down. Mayta split the piñata and I wasn't upset it was me who opened its belly just before him. Candies scattered about the road and as we chased them down the band really started to play. There came a point when it didn't matter if it was salsa, bachata, or merengue, we danced with our backs to the band so they knew we didn't need Mr. Bir's favor and they couldn't stop until we said so.
People smiled like I'd never seen. Miss Castro seemed alright that she never had any children, Mr. Wilca gave a grin that said, 'The plough will have its rest tomorrow' and Mrs. Bir glowed under Papá's command. We all laughed at the Plaza below, we laughed at the tourists and we laughed at the rich, we laughed at the Big Men keeping our country for their own and at the foreign powers who kept them in charge. We laughed hardest at tomorrow for that night shook the stars from their bough.
I CAN'T REMEMBER if it was the next morning or the morning after that, I only know it was the first important thing after the party. Christmas was coming and the school year was almost through. In March, I would join Lucho for my first year at La Escuela de San Francisco. This meant that, instead of shouting salutations with Papá, I would follow Lucho ahead of the other students like I was embarrassed. I didn't want to be embarrassed of Papá. It was silly, the kids greeting Mercedes every day like for the first time, but it was also nice. It was nice to start the day smiling and I don't think Lucho was right that they were laughing at Papá. That morning I didn't wake to warm salutations, didn't scurry out to join the fun. That morning I woke to Papá and Mamá arguing, speaking quietly so you wouldn't know they were fighting unless you knew that tone.
Lucho was already in the doorway watching them, I went over and saw the kids walking past, confused and disappointed. Mamá was pulling Mercedes into the road and Papá looked sadder than when the women ruined his day. Mamá seemed worse with her eyes the color of rain season. She gave a knowing glance to Lucho and when she didn't look at me I felt a panic I never want to know again. I wanted to shout, 'Look, Mamá, I'm right here! Right here, Simón, your sweet Prince!' My throat was tight, though, and the words got caught. I never said what I wanted but I think she knew it as she turned away. What little I still keep of my mother is her looking back at the house, her figure consumed in fog, already a memory.