“It’s not very good.”
Blue eyes lifted, partially hidden by a fall of ink black hair, to glare menacingly at the uninvited intruder.
“Well, it’s not.”
His eyes held hers for a moment then dropped to the crude figure of a horse etched into the dirt.
It had been so clear in his head; the flowing mane, the powerful legs, the proud arch of the neck…
He scrubbed angrily at the dirt with the pointed end of the stick, erasing the drawing. Getting to his feet he stomped off, careful to keep to the welcome shade cast by the crumbling walls of the abandoned house while ignoring the shadow dogging his heels. He squatted, bracing his back against the wall, jabbing at the pebble-strewn ground with the stick.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched the little girl study him curiously, wrapping and unwrapping the ribbon which tied off her braid around her forefinger. He had seen her a few times around the village usually tagging after one of the other kids or with a woman he figured was her mama. He and his mama had only been here a few weeks; probably why the little nina had decided to poke her nose into his business.
“Hey, mestizo, keep away from my sister! Marisol!”
The skinny braid swung over the girl’s shoulder as she turned at the sound of her name.
Johnny frowned but averted his eyes, staring instead at the ground. The boy was bigger than him and he was not alone. Johnny knew from experience now was not the time to pick a fight though his hand tightened on the stick. Maybe the boy would just collect his sister and be on his way with only the verbal warning.
“We were just talking, Paolo. He was drawing a picture but it wasn’t very good. I hurt his feelings by saying so and wanted to say I was sorry.”
Johnny flushed with embarrassment feeling all eyes swivel in his direction.
“You don’t apologize to the likes of him, Marisol. You do not talk to the likes of him.”
“Why, Paolo? Mama says you should always apologize if you hurt someone’s feelings.”
“They aren’t like us. Come on, Marisol. Home, now!”
Johnny ventured a look, had a glimpse of Marisol disappearing into a doorway, of bronze and orange cempasuchils blooming in a large terracotta pot before a foot connected smartly with his shin. His head shot up to find Paolo staring at him.
“Hijo de puta.” Paolo hissed. “Talk to my sister again and you will be sorry.”
Slowly, Johnny got to his feet. The other boys crowded closer blocking escape.
“Let’s teach this stupid mestizo a lesson huh, Paolo, one he’ll never forget.”
There was no hope of his walking away now, not with the others itching for a fight.
Johnny’s chin rose.
Silvery light played across the freshly painted stones outlining the graves, muting the vibrant colors of the flowers left to honor the dead. A thin spiral of smoke hazed the air as a candle sputtered, the smoldering wick swimming in a pool of melted wax.
Johnny settled against the weathered tombstone ignoring the pain of battered ribs, arms hugging his upraised knees. Briefly his tongue explored the gash inside his mouth wishing he had something to rinse away the coppery taste of blood.
A grim smile pulled at the split on his lower lip. He touched a finger to it gingerly then eyed the smear of blood on his fingertip. He had managed to land a few blows of his own before the boys had run off.
Johnny hugged his knees tighter, hands fisting into the thin material of his pants. You would think he would be immune to the name calling, the prejudice; he had after all lived with it his entire life. Didn’t mean it didn’t hurt though. Didn’t mean he didn’t wish things were different. Burying his face in his knees he squeezed his eyes shut refusing to give into tears.
Didn’t matter there were still people like Marisol, good people. Easier to remember the pain, it reminded him of the need to be strong.
He must have dozed, lulled by the quiet and the elusive feeling of security the graveyard brought. He never understood why that should be so other than his mama had told him once the dead couldn’t hurt you only the living had the power to do that.
The rich spicy fragrance of cempasuchils perfumed the air tickling his nose. Johnny cracked open one eye and froze, stunned by what he found.
A woman, a cempasuchil tucked behind her ear, hovered nearby. Johnny didn’t recognize her but he did the flower; it was the one he had found on his way here, its petals flattened, crushed by heedless feet. He had put it on this grave, the one at the back in the far corner, the one no one ever visited. It hadn’t seemed right that it should be the only grave not decorated tonight of all nights.
And it had made him think. There was only the two of them, he and his mama. Who would decorate his grave? Mourn his passing? Not his gringo father of that he was certain.
Though the woman was dressed in black she glowed softly, as if she had somehow gathered the moonlight about her like a shawl. Johnny figured she must be a spirit drawn by his offering.
He wasn’t afraid not exactly but he was still wary.
A translucent hand rose, touching the drooping cempasuchil, a wistful smile softening her rather stern features. Johnny scuttled to one side as she passed by, crouching behind the tombstone to peer after her. She left the cemetery and, taking the turn in the path, abruptly vanished from sight.
A word lingered in her wake; a drawn-out sigh almost lost amid the more familiar sounds of night.
Johnny frowned, confused. He had done nothing special just put a flower on a neglected grave. It wasn’t even a proper bouquet just one beaten-up flower. Then it dawned on him. It wasn’t the offering but the reason behind it; a simple act of kindness with no expectation of reward.
Like a little girl’s apology.
Halloween October 2014
Cempasuschil-also called Flor del Muerto (Flower of the Dead)-Mexican marigold