Elves and Emeralds
by Gaither Stewart
Rafael opened his eyes. He smiled. There it was, the sun. The yellow sun Mamá had painted on the ceiling had long bright arms. She said his waking up should be sunny. He loved his Mamá. She was very beautiful. Everyone said so. When he was grown he would marry her. Slightly raising his head he turned his eyes across the room. It was big. It was full of their things. The table and the two blue chairs where they ate. The sink. All the shelves with their dishes and their food. The gas burner. The table with their television. The soft chair where Mamá sat and his low stool for watching TV. In the corner the box with his toys. He had to put everything into it each night before he went to bed. He could see the long hood and the silver fenders of the red car the Señora had given him. How he loved cars. The Señora and the Señor always said coche, but he said carro.
Oh! he suddenly remembered, today they had to wash the carro. Or the coche. They had to get up. It was a big day.
“Mamá, Mamacita, wake up!” he whispered in his mother’s ear and tickled her nose. She was lying on her side facing him. Her eyes were closed tight. She was breathing deeply. She liked to sleep in the morning. She did not know it was time to get up. “Mamá, we have to get up!”
“Shush, Niño! It is too early. Go back to sleep.”
“But Mamá, we have to wash the carro today. Mamá, wake up.”
“Rafael mi amor, go back to sleep. I have to sleep a little longer.” He knew Mamá was awake but that she wanted to stay in the night. So Rafael kept pulling at her, forcing her back to the real world. Yet he was afraid that her real world was cruel, like a trap in which she was caught like a field mouse in the claws of a hawk. Sometimes she said it was better to have been born an Otomí. No one cared -- except Rafaelito. And he depended on her. He had no one else either. Some days she wanted to die. Well, maybe not die, he thought, but not suffer any more. She just wanted to stay in bed! Maybe if you sleep long enough you just kind of die a little, without actually leaving the world.
“Mamacita, do you not remember? The Señor promised. We can wash the big car today.” He would like to get up alone. But with the wall on one side, his mother pressed against him on the other, and the blankets tucked in tight under him he could not move. 'Our bed,' he thought. 'We have so many things. I have always slept in this bed with Mamá. She says I came into the world in it. She says it is too small for both of us, that I am too big now. Nearly hombre. I know she just says that because she loves me. I am really only five,' he said to himself, opening all five fingers on his right hand. 'When I am six, no one will call me niño any more, but Rafael Sánchez. That is my real name. And I will be a World Cup soccer player like on TV.'
Rafael put his left arm around her neck and blew funny noises in her ear. She finally opened her eyes. She too smiled. “Buenos días, hombrecito,” she said, and yawned. “You are right. We have to get up. That is, I have to get up. You stay there warm under the cover until Mamá brings you a cup of chocolate. Today we have milk. Remember?” He liked that. He remembered they had milk. The Señora gave it to them yesterday. They did not always have milk. It cost too much, Mamá said.
He liked the days he could stay in bed after Mamá got up. He liked to watch her dress. She was the most beautiful mamá in San Miguel. “Oh, it is very cold,” she said, hopping like a rabbit across the room barefoot. “Will we never have a stove? It is all right in the sun but our house is a refrigerator. How I hate this shack. Oh, how I hate the mud and dirt streets outside and those filthy barefoot children and having to wait for that bus and that long walk over the fields. How can I get through the day? What did I do to deserve this? How could I have been so stupid?”
She liked to complain in the morning. He lay on his back and stared at the sun and pretended not to hear. But he was listening. He wanted her to be happy. She took off her T-shirt with the red monkey on the front -- just like his -- slipped on a light blue sweater, stepped into her jeans and then her black slippers. He liked the way she dressed. He liked their house. But he did not like playing outside where the big boys made fun of him and beat him up if Mamá was not there, or those that had fathers teased him because he did not have a father. Many of the kids here did not have fathers. But he was sometimes afraid. That is why he went to work with Mamá.
He liked the ride up the hill on the bus and the walk across the fields of cactus. It was like a ranch. Most of all he liked to ring the bell at the Señor’s gate and then the “hola, que tal” or “Buenos Días, Rafael,” when they stepped into the front garden -- and he saw the big car parked inside. The days spent in the big house were magical, watching TV, playing in the garden, or going for a ride in the big car with the Señor or the Señora.
While he was drinking his chocolate, Mamá laid out his nice black pants, a blue shirt and sweater and his new black shoes. “But Mamá, if we have to wash the big car today, I cannot wear my new shoes.”
“Oh, how stupid I am! Of course not,” she said and laughed her quiet laugh that he loved and brought him his black sneakers. He had such nice clothes. The Señor and the Señora always said so. Yesterday everyone had admired his new black shoes that his aunt gave him, the kind he saw big kids wearing on TV. He had not wanted to play in the garden for fear of scuffing and dirtying them.
As he walked hand in hand with Mamá across the desert fields from the bus stop to the Señor’s house, he watched the ground fog swirling here and there among the cactuses and low shrubs. The sun was burning it off quickly. He liked the fog. It was mysterious, intangible, like smoke. It was like in his dreams. You reach out and try to grasp it and it slips through your fingers. Strange, like the wind. Where did the wind come from? Where did the fog go? What took its place? It was baffling. He saw that there was something everywhere. Mamá said gods in the heavens moved everything around with their great hands. They were like children, she said, and liked to play. After the smoke, there remained a smell. After the wind, fallen leaves and papers strewn on the floor. Maybe the god of the evanescent fog would forget and leave behind something magical for him. It was a strange day.
How he wished that on one of these magical days while they walked across the soft white sand of the cactus field something would suddenly give under their feet and they would sink, tumbling and rolling head over heels, down, down, down, into some newborn element unlike anything he had ever known, never imagined, into an enchanted land where magical things really happened. He and Mamá would fall into this new place and a father and a grandfather would be there waiting for them. And it would be a world of ineffable joy and tenderness where Mamá would not work and the big boys would not beat him up. A world where fabulous adventures awaited them and they would be transformed into unimaginable beings.
Gangs of workers were waiting outside the other Señora’s house. She was the white Mexican lady who always patted him on the head and said “que niño lindo.” What a cute little boy. He did not like her much.
The men whistled and called, “hola, Rafaelito, que tal, hola Esmeralda, cómo estás.” He knew they were looking at Mamá because she was so pretty. She smiled. A frown crossed his eyes. He did not like their shouts and whistles and Mamá should not smile. He and Mamá had not spoken to them.
The Señor tousled his hair and closed the gate behind them. And he was again in a fairy tale world. It seemed like a game they were playing each day. He and Mamá together with the Señor and the Señora. There was no mud. Only the flagstones of the patio and the flowers and the trees and the black birds and the colibris in the garden. And the huge gray car parked there near the door. And the funny language that at times resounded through the house when the Señor and the Señora spoke together and he and Mamá did not understand what they were saying. And the loud music without words on the stereo.
He was shy when they first arrived. He held Mamá’s hand. He smiled to himself and followed Mamá to the back room where they left their jackets and sweaters. Gas stoves were burning in some of the rooms. The house was very warm. It was not dirty at all but Mamá would clean it anyway. Then they would wash the carro. Later maybe the Señor would take him for a ride.
The Señor passed carrying a fuming tray. Like every morning he disappeared into the Señora’s room and closed the door. Rafael sat at the kitchen table next to the big window full of vases of flowers and bowls of fruit and ceramics and some funny pictures and hanging strings of garlic and watched Mamá washing the dishes at the sink. The refrigerator was singing. The smell of coffee and toasted bread whirled around the room. Outside the window he saw the hummingbirds fluttering around the honey pot hanging in a jacaranda tree. He hoped he would one day become a hummingbird, to fly in the sun and suck the honey from the flowers. Magic was in the air today. He looked at the warm sweet roll the Señor had left for him but did not touch it.
“I am not hungry, Mamá.” He said that because Mamá always said she was not hungry. He really liked the sweet rolls the Señor brought him so it was difficult to know whether he should eat it or not.
“If you do not eat you will turn into a Chichimec like your grandfather,” she said. “You already look just like your father. Except you are darker like your grandfather.” Mamá had light skin, almost like the Señora, just a little darker. He had never seen his father, nor his grandfathers nor grandmothers. He only had Mama. She said the worst thing in the world was to be an Indian because they were poor and miserable. It was not clear why by not eating you turned into an Indian but Mamá must be right since Indians had nothing to eat but tortillas and beans. Certainly none of them had cars.
“Are we rich, Mamá?” While Mamá was busy with the dishes he pinched off a small piece of roll and quickly slipped it into his mouth.
“No, Rafael, we are poor. But Indians are the poorest people in the world. They do not have anything ... many not even shoes.”
“Then we are rich. We have nice shoes. But why do we not have a car like the Señor?” He wondered if he was talking funny with the piece of roll in his mouth. He swallowed it as fast as he could.
“Because the Gringos are rich and we are poor, Rafael.”
“What are Gringos, Mamá? I always forget.”
“They are white people from a rich country far far away who speak different from us.”
“Like the Señor. Like on TV? Where everybody drives around in big cars?”
“Why are they rich and we poor, Mamá?”
“I do not know, Rafael. You must ask the Señor.”
“Are there poor Indians in that rich country in TV ... like here?”
“Some, I think, but not many.”
“I do not want to be an Indian, Mamá.”
His mamá had finished the kitchen when the niño approached the Señor at his desk in the study, stopped, stretched out his hand, and with a serious mien said, “ahora vamos a lavar el carro.” Now we are going to wash the car.
“Muy bien, Rafael. Uh, Rafael when you have finished we might read some more of the story we started yesterday and then maybe go for a ride in the clean car. OK?”
“OK,” Rafael said, and raised his thumb in the air and wiggled it. “Just us! OK?” And ran toward the garden. He could not wait. He would rather wash the car than anything else except ride in it. Sometimes the Señor fastened his seat belt but that was not as much fun. He could not see out and people could not see him. He preferred to stand next to the Señor and look out. Best of all was when he sat on his lap and drove.
“OK,” the Señor said.
'The car is so big! Big enough to carry all the boys on our street as far as that country where the Gringos live. It has many doors and an enormous room in the back that the Señor opens with a secret key. The other boys can ride back there. I will drive. Mamá can come too. Rafael washed the wheels, the lights, the mirrors and the shiny metal all around while Mamá washed the higher parts. The whole carro must sparkle and glisten like the carros at the car store. It must be a big help to Mamá not to have to wash the big car alone. She says she is always alone, but of course she is not, she has me.'
He looked at his reflection in the shiny headlights. He liked the face he saw. 'My face is round and my hair as black as those shiny black birds with the long tails. No, I do not look like her. I wonder why my skin is darker than Mamá’s? Maybe I am turning into an Indian. They are all so dark. Who knows why? I am dark and everybody says I am so bonito. I think people with dark skin are more beautiful than white people like the Señor and the Señora.'
'Gringos! Who knows why they are so pale? They must be sick. Maybe that is why they talk so funny. Even when they speak with my words they sound funny. That is why I do not always understand the Señor and the Señora.
When the Señor closed the black machine on his table the niño knew it was time for the morning juice ritual. “Vamos a tomar un jugo, Rafael?”
“Si, Señor.” Rafael clapped his hands and ran to the kitchen and crowded close to the counter and watched the oranges, grapefruits and lemons spinning around on the juice machine. His job was to throw the squeezed hulls into the garbage. He then held his ready while the Señor filled their glasses.
“Salud!” said Rafael. “Salud!” echoed the Señor. Three clinks, three times “salud”, that was the ritual.
When they had settled on the couch and Rafael snuggled against the Señor’s chest he thought it must be like having a grandfather. Yesterday they had read about a poor girl whose sisters and stepmother treated her bad, she had no clothes and worked hard, like Mamá. But with the help of her magic godmother she was dressed in beautiful clothes and glass slippers and she rode to the fiesta in a magic coche made from a pumpkin, a calabaza. He liked that kind of magic and laughed and asked the Señor to read it again and again.
“But,” the Señor said, again reading from the book, “she had to go home early because when the clock struck twelve midnight the carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Just imagine, Rafael, into a calabaza!”
Rafael watched the Señor laugh and wanted to cry. He never cried, it was not manly, but he often wanted to. “Do the sisters and bad stepmother eat the calabaza?” he asked. It was important. If they ate it then the carro was gone. Vanished like smoke, like the wind and the fog.
Before the Señor could answer, Rafael grinned, a flash of understanding crossing his eyes. “But it is only a story, verdad, Señor? Can a calabaza really turn into a carro? Mamá says I will turn into an Indian if I do not eat. Did you know that Indians are the poorest people in the world? Mamá says we are poor and Gringos are rich. But we are not as poor as Indians. Señor, why are Gringos rich and Indians the poorest people in the world?”
The boy cocked his head to one side and stared at the man. The Señor looked upset. He stared back at him. Rafael felt a tear rising from the depths of his big black eyes. What was the Señor thinking?
“I do not know,” the man said instead, his face suddenly red.
“Mamá does not know either. Quién sabe porqué?” Who knows why?
From their position on the couch, they couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the Señora and Mamá in the open kitchen. Esmeralda never volunteered any personal information; yet, if you asked her a direct question she answered candidly, without hesitation. “No, the only relative is my aunt I told you about, my mother’s sister, over in Dolores. But,” she laughed and pointed toward Rafael, “the niño does not like her. She is too fat, he says. And she tries to make him eat. When we are there he just sits on a chair with his thumb in his mouth and frowns. So we never stay long. But she gives him lots of clothes anyway. She is alone too.”
His mysterious abuela, his grandmother, Mamá said, was in the States. They were not in contact. She never knew her own father, she did not know if she had siblings, and Rafael’s father refused to recognize his son. “He is very poor too,” she said. “Actually he never lived with me. We are alone ... and I like it that way. I see him on the street sometimes. He looks at Rafael but has never spoken to him. Sometimes he follows us. Rafael needs his father. See how he hangs onto your husband. But for me ... I do not want a Mexican husband. Unless of course he were rich! And we lived in California.”
“Señor!” Rafael pulled at Peter’s arm for attention. “Por favor, look at me! I have to tell you something. During the night there were many little men playing games with me. They were making big houses out of little sticks.”
“In your dreams, Rafael. Maybe they were elves.”
“Si, si, and the elves wore chains with shiny green stones around their neck. Mamá was there and she too had a necklace with green stones.”
“Maybe they were emeralds, Rafael.”
“It was a funny place where we were, with lots of fog and smoke. Not like here at all.”
“It was a magic world too, Rafael. You know, a dream world. You dreamed of elves and emeralds.”
“I liked the little elves and their green emeralds.”
“Mira, Rafael,” the Señor said after a long moment while they looked at each other, “what do you say we go for a ride? And walk around town a bit. We can read some more tomorrow.”
The magic of this story was too difficult anyway and the Señor seemed tired of reading. Rafael was really just waiting for the ride. “Si, si,” he yelled and ran to ask Mamá’s permission.
Downtown was full of people. Cars were at a standstill in all the streets. The smell of gas hung in the air. Drums were beating somewhere. The Señor said it was because March was the high point of the winter season. He did not know what that meant. Like always he held the Señor’s hand tight when they were in town. He looked up at the Señor and grinned bravely. It was a nice secure feeling, walking with a man in the town, he could walk like that forever. It was not the same as walking in town with Mamá. They were like grandson and grandfather. But that was stupid. The Señor was a Gringo and he was nearly an Indian. And he did not have a fairy godmother to turn him into a Gringo. And the Señor did not want to be an Indian because they are so poor. He wanted to keep his carro. The fairy godmother was only make-believe anyway. Some things were real and true. Other things were only make-believe, like when he played with his toys and made funny noises. The Señor was a make-believe grandfather.
Of course there is always Dios, he thought, and also magic, so maybe he really is my abuelo. How he wanted a grandfather!
“Do you like magic, Señor?” he asked. They were crossing the big jardín. There were thousands of people, dark children like him, Mexicans, Indians, and Gringos too. The sun was shining through the high trees. The drums were close now. There was a big crowd on the plaza in front of the high pink church. It was like a fiesta where everything is magic.
“Yes,” the Señor said.
“But is magic real or just make-believe?”
“Well, sometimes it is real and some times it is not real,” the Señor said. “Sometimes it is illusion. A trick. You know, like the magician on TV. It looks like ... he makes you think you see him take a rabbit out of his hat but he really does not.”
Rafael looked up at him and smiled. How could he understand when the Señor talked like that? Then slyly pulling on the Señor’s hand so that he leaned down toward him, he said, “I want to know if you are my fairy grandfather?” He hoped he was not just a TV magician who did tricks that were not real.
The Señor laughed and picked him up and swung him around three times so that his feet flew in the air. “That is magic and I am a little bit a magician to be able to make you fly like a colibri,” the Señor said as he lowered him back to the sidewalk.
They stopped for a moment near the benches facing the plaza. Rafael was shy near all the pale Gringos like the Señor -- men and women, no children, all talking quietly among themselves, some reading the newspapers, some eating ice cream. They were listening to the drums. He tightened his grip on the Señor’s hand. Near them, on the street, the balloon vendor who lived on his street with his many children was looking at him and smiling. He did not tell the Señor, he might think he wanted a balloon. He did not, he was too big for balloons. Not far away was the ice cream vendor. He would like an ice cream but the Señor did not see him.
Craftily the Señor maneuvered them through the crowd in front of the church until they were standing alongside the circle of drummers and dancers. “They are Indians,” he told the Señor. “Mamá says I am turning into an Indian.” Most were wearing high feathers, loincloths and leather leggings. They were not darker than he. Some were nearly as light as Mamá. He thought they looked like other Mexicans. One of the drummers looked like a man who lived on his street. What would it mean to turn into an Indian? Totally absorbed he stared at the performers. The drums were hypnotic.
Gradually Rafael became aware of a man standing beside him. He looked up. The man smiled at him. He looked familiar. Was that not the man he and Mamá often saw on the streets who smiled at Mamá and sometimes walked behind them? Rafael thought he was another of those men who smiled at Mamá and spoke to her because she was so pretty. His hair was cut like Rafael’s, straight across the front, anthracite black, long and silky. He was tall and slim. He was dressed in jeans and a white shirt. The man leaned forward and said softly, “Hola Rafaelito.”
“Hola,” the boy answered in a low voice, sidling up against the Señor and taking his hand in both his hands.
“You do not have to be afraid, I just wanted to say hello.”
“Who are you?” the Señor asked, stepping forward toward the man and pulling Rafael toward him.
“No one, Señor. Just a friend of Rafael’s. Por favor! No problem, I am leaving. You see ... well, it is simple, for a long time I have wanted to talk with him. Well, you see, I am his father but his mother does not want me to speak to him. This is the first time I have ever seen him without her. I know she works at your house. I followed them.” The man spoke to the Señor as if Rafael were not there, as if he could not hear him. But he heard him and he was a little afraid. It must be magic. A man on the street who says he is my father. Is that the way fathers are? Strangers on the street?
“But he does not know me,” the man said and looked down again. “Do you want to know your father, Rafael?”
“I do not know. I have to ask Mamá.” Of course he wanted to know his father. He dreamed of having a father. Then they would be rich, Mamá would not have to work and the big boys would not beat him up -- and he would not turn into an Indian. Not if he had a father.
“Yes, that is right,” he said, leaning toward Rafael. “Ask Mamá.” Then straightening up, he said to the Señor, “I want to talk with Esmeralda but she refuses to speak with me. She is right. I have not helped with Rafael. She has done everything. But I was very young, younger than she, I had no work, no money, no education. My parents are very poor. It is easier for women to find work here, for foreigners like you. The only thing we poor Mexicans in San Miguel can do is dig holes in the streets for a dollar an hour. I thought it better to disappear from their life. But I was wrong. I want my family.”
He seemed like a nice man, his father. He liked the way he spoke. He was also bonito.
“What do you want to do now?” the Señor asked.
“I want to go to the United States, to California ... with my family. I can find good work there. Would you like to go to California, Rafael?”
“I do not know. Where is that?”
“It is a beautiful land,” his father said. “And everyone is rich there.”
“You mean there are no poor Indians there?” Rafael asked.
“If there are Indians there, they are rich too.”
“Is that true, Señor?” Rafael asked. “Is it a magic land like in the story? Where calabazas turn into carros?”
“It is very rich, Rafael,” the Señor said. “Some people think it is magic.”
“Are there rich Gringos in California ... like here?”
“Yes,” said the Señor. “They are nearly all Gringos.”
“Then they are all rich. Bueno, then I would like to go there. Did you know I can drive a carro?” he asked the man who said he was his father. “Can you drive a car?”
“Yes,” said his new magic father. “Sometimes I drive a taxi.”
“If we had a car we could drive to California,” the niño said, looking up at both the tall men. Since the Señor was a fairy godfather and had made him a father, maybe he would make them a car too and he and Mamá and his magic father could drive it all the way to California where they would be rich. He reached out and took his father’s hand.
The magic day never ended. It was like one of the games he invented with the robot toys. The beautiful monsters zoomed around one another, their magic eyes-lights flashing, their motors humming, and shot with their laser rays and he made loud noises and he never knew who won what. His world was upside down like it was that time Mamá took him on the roller coaster at the fair near the Tianguis market. The world of Mamá, their house, their things, the trip up the hill, the walk through the fog across the magical cactus fields to the Señor’s, washing the carro, -- everything seemed to be caught up in a moment of magic and magicians, fairy godmothers and calabazas, a grandfather and a father. Was it really happening? Or was it like in his dreams? Or like the magician on TV?
Maybe I only think he is pulling a rabbit from out of his hat. It is what the Señor said, that word. It is not real. It is ilusión. He liked the sound of that new word but he did not trust it.
His new father rode with them in the car. He did not know whether to sit on his father’s lap and the Señor did not tell him to drive, so he stood between the two men. He looked out the windows and pretended not to listen. But he did listen to every word although he did not understand. They were speaking his language but they spoke a lot of meaningless words that he had never before heard adults use. The Señor said they had to get pasaportes. They needed visas, to go to California.
His new father argued and got red in the face and said, “no, no, no, they will never give me a pasaporte. I am a poor man.”
He looked closely at his new father. He was not an Indian. He looked like a prince. So he could not be very very poor. Maybe the Señor was right. Maybe they would give him the pasaporte. It was truly a magical day like in the story. A day when elves wear emeralds and strangers become fathers, when pumpkins are transformed into automobiles to take him, Mamá and his new father to California where they will be rich. Where he will not turn into an Indian. And his new friends will not beat him up and he will tell everybody the fairy tale about the calabaza and the carro. He sat down beside his father and crossed the fingers of his left hand. He hoped it was not just ilusión.
Gaither Stewart can be reached at GaitherStewart@libero.it