My mother likes to hum. She stands at the stove, stirring this, tasting that, and humming, humming, humming.
I sit in a chair by the table. I have a job. Grate the cheese. It’s an easy job. The queso blanco crumbles to the touch. But I’m proud to do my part.
My mother says you do not have to be rich to eat like a king. It’s because she loves to cook so much. Everyone comes to my mother’s kitchen for her homemade salsa or special mole sauce, or my favorite, the little cinnamon churros dipped in chocolate.
I am five years old, which is old enough to stir the chocolate as it melts on the stove. Lentamente, my mother says. But not too slow, or it will burn.
Melted chocolate is hot. I stuck my little pinkie straight into the pot the first time, because I wanted a taste. First, I burned my finger. Then I licked at the thick chocolate and burned my mouth. My mother shook her head when I started crying. She used her apron to wipe my cheeks and she told me I was a silly chiquita and I must grow stronger and wiser so I do not stick my hand into bubbling pots. She brought me an ice cube to suck on and let me sit at the table and watch her fuss and hum over the steaming pans.
I am my mother’s chiquita. She is my mamita. Our special names for each other. I love watching my mamita in the kitchen. When she’s there, she’s happy. No shadows on her face. She stands taller. She looks like my mami again, and not the sad woman who leaves in the morning in her dull gray maid’s uniform. Or worse, the scared woman who sometimes comes home in the middle of the day, shoves me in a closet, and tells me I must be very quiet.
I always listen to my mami. Well, once I didn’t. I ran after a brown puppy because I wanted to pet his ears and the car roared by me so fast I felt the wind in my hair. Then my mother grabbed my arm and screamed at me, No, no, no, bad, bad, bad. She spanked me and that hurt. Then she sat in the red dirt and cried and rocked me against her and that hurt worse, like I had both a tummy ache and a chest ache at the same time.
“You must listen to me, my love. We have only each other. So we must take extra care. You are mine and I am yours, always.”
I wiped my mother’s cheeks that day. I lay my head against her trembling shoulder and promised to always be good.
Now that I’m five, I walk to the school by myself, then come home by myself. I’m alone all afternoon, which is our secret, my mami says. Others might not like it. They might take me away.
I don’t want to be taken away. So I’m a brave girl and I come home and turn on the little TV and watch cartoons and wait. Sometimes I draw. I love to color and paint. I’m always careful to clean up afterward. My mamita has a hard day, scrubbing and cleaning after others. Each day she leaves in a sharply pressed uniform with a crisp white apron. Every evening she returns exhausted, wrung out. And those are the good days. Sometimes, she comes home sad and scared, she must shed her drab uniform, pull on a colorful skirt, and head straight to her kitchen so she can smile again.
It’s nighttime now. We are having burritos with slow roasted black beans and shredded chicken. It must be a special night, because we don’t always get chicken. Meat costs more and we must be smart about such things.
But my mother is happy and stirring the beans, while the tortillas warm in the oven. Our kitchen is small but bright. Red tiles, green and blue paint. Pieces of pottery from my mother’s mother, who she had to leave a long time ago and will never see again. But my mother was blessed with these pieces so that her mami would always be with her, and one day, with me, as well.
“You don’t need many things,” my mother likes to tell me. “You just need the right things.”
I hear howling in the distance. The coyotes in the desert, singing to one another. The sound makes my mother shiver, but I like it. I wish I could throw back my head and make the same mournful cry.
I practice my mother’s hum instead. Then, I play my favorite game.
“Mamita,” I say.
“Chiquita,” she answers.
“Bonita mamita,” I say.
She smiles. “Linda chiquita,” she answers.
“Muy bonita mamita.”
“Muy linda chiquita.”
I giggle, because we are a pack, a little pack of two, and this is us, howling at each other.
“You are a silly chiquita,” she says, and I giggle again and steal a piece of queso blanco and swing my feet beneath the chair with delight.
“Dinner,” she declares, pulling out the tortillas.
The coyotes howl again. My mother crosses herself. I think I’m glad that I am hers and she is mine, forever.
The bad man comes after dinner. My mother is at the sink, washing. I stand on a stool beside her, drying.
He knocks, heavy and hard. At the sink, my mamita freezes. The shadows come back to her face, but I don’t understand.
I just know that she’s scared. And if she is scared, so am I.
“The closet,” she whispers to me.
But it’s too late. The back door bursts open. The man is there, filling the space. Our kitchen, which has always been perfect for a pack of two, is now tiny.
No place to hide.
I see his dark shadow as he lurches into the room, a giant, massive form, who appears more beast than human.
“What did you do?” he asks. He talks to my mother directly. Not yelling. His voice is cold, calm. It makes me tremble and want to cross myself.
“N- N- Nothing,” my mother tries.
She’s shaking too hard. I know she’s lying and the Bad Man knows it, too.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find out? Did you really think you could outsmart me?”
My mother doesn’t answer. I stare at her a long time. Her face has gone blank, but in its smoothness, I realize whatever the man is accusing her of, she did it. And he found out. And now, something awful is going to happen.
We are a pack of two. I want to reach for her hand. I want to be a brave girl for her. But my legs are shaking uncontrollably. On my little stool, I can’t move.
Abruptly, my mother sets a pot into the sink, cutting the tension with a loud clatter. “Would you like some dinner? Burritos. Please, let me make you a plate.”
Speaking of food, her voice calms. She moves slightly, placing herself between the man and me.
“Sure,” the man says, but there is something in his voice that makes me tremble again.
I wish desperately I were in the closet. But I can’t duck in there now. Can’t go anywhere without him seeing. And some part of me, stubborn, foolish, stick-your-finger-into-hot-bubbling-chocolate stupid, doesn’t want to go, and leave this man-beast alone with my mother.
She picks up the plate I have dried. She moves smoothly to the stove, where there are leftover tortillas and cold beans. She takes her time. Tortilla. A spoonful of beans. A sprinkle of queso. Folding the burrito. Placing it back in the oven. Finding the salsa, delivering it to the table.
“Beer,” the man says.
My mother crosses to the tiny fridge, removes one of the beers tucked in the back.
She appears very composed, except for her hands, constantly crumpling her bright red skirt.
“Sit with me,” the man says after she removes the burrito from the oven.
“I must finish the dishes—”
“Sit with me.”
My mother sits. She shoots me a quick glance. There is something in her eyes, something she’s trying to tell me. Standing on my stool, I don’t understand. I don’t know where to go, what to do. We must take care, she said. But I don’t know how to take care of her now.
I just want this Bad Man to go away, and for my mother to be alone with me in the kitchen again.
The man eats his burrito. Bite by bite. He drinks his beer. He doesn’t speak, and the silence makes my tummy hurt.
As the last forkful is scooped up, delivered to the Bad Man’s mouth, my mother exhales slightly. Her shoulders slump. She has made some kind of decision, but I don’t know what.
The man glances in my direction.
“She’s very pretty.”
“She’s a baby,” my mother states coldly. She stands up. “We’ll go outside.”
The man raises a brow. “Feisty, aren’t you?”
“You want to talk? We go outside.”
“I don’t know. I like your kitchen. It’s very cozy in here. Maybe you should clear this table. We could show your daughter what you’re really good at.”
My mother stares at the man. Suddenly, she marches around the table, straight toward him. He flinches, caught off guard, and I’m proud of my mamita for making the Bad Man recoil. She hits his shoulder with her body as she passes, hard, pointedly. Then she grabs the back door and flings it open. Before the man can react, she’s outside.
At last he stands up. He pauses, stares at me a long while. I don’t like the look in his eyes.
“What’s your name, girl?”
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. I am still shaking too hard.
My mother calls from outside.
He gives me a final glance, then moves for the doorway. “Stupid girl,” he mutters.
I’m holding the dish towel. Alone now in the kitchen, I stare at it, wish I had something to dry. Wish the night would go backward and I could be sitting at the table, grating cheese and listening to my mother hum.
Then, more noises. The man, his voice angry and booming.
My mother. No, she says, over and over. Defiant, then stubborn, then pleading. A crack, a smack. I flinch. I know those sounds. He hit her. She speaks again, but her voice is so low I can barely hear it. I just recognize the tone. Broken. The Bad Man has hurt her, and my mamita is broken.
The angry voices stop. Everything stops. The silence scares me worse.
We are a pack. We have only each other. We must take care.
I carefully step down from the stool. I walk to the open doorway. I head outside.
My mother is on her knees. The man stands before her. He is holding something. A gun. He’s pointing a gun at my mother’s head.
I don’t think. I bolt. I race to my mother, a blur of little arms and little legs. I fly like the wind, I want to believe. I hurtle myself into her arms.
As my mother screams, “No! Get away! Run, chiquita, run!”
She throws me from her, even as I try to clutch her arms. She tosses me behind her. “Run,” she yells again. “Run!”
I see the tears pouring down her cheeks. I see the terror in her eyes.
I don’t run. I can’t.
I hold out my arms for my mother. We are two. We must take care—
The Bad Man pulls the trigger.
Later, I will dream of this, night after night. Later, this one moment will be all I have left. The last time I spoke. The last time I listened to my mother’s hum. The last time I held out my arms for the person who loved me.
Now, the bullet tears through my mother’s throat. A spray of red. Her hand, belatedly coming up.
Then the bullet continues on, slamming into my temple. I fly back. I land on red dirt. Dazed, hurt, confused.
The Bad Man walks over to me. He reaches down, feels my neck.
“Huh,” he says.
Then, right before I pass out, the Bad Man lifts me up. I don’t fight him. A sheet of blood coats my eyes. I stare through it at my mother’s fallen form. And I feel the burn of the bullet that has gone from her to me. That has brought the last of my mamita into me.
Our pack of two is no more.