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The Universal Language of Motherhood

By Pat Carr

0-7I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for—a wooden donkey with a wooden rider, a carved puppet, a stuffed cloth baby in a woven shawl, or a set of clay doll dishes—but I knew I had only a couple of hours to search the stalls for toys that could be made airplane proof before I had to catch a taxi to the hotel and repack for all of us.

“Señora, señora. Estàn muy buenos. Venga, señora.” Vendors called from behind trays of pineapple slices and gestured me closer, but I had to smile and shake my head; no matter how ripe and sweet the pineapples, I couldn’t afford to pause beside them or linger near the fragrant pyramids of spiny pitayas or chontadura hulls glittering with a scarlet sheen.

I hurried down the dirt aisles, past farmers with mounds of avocados and purple onions, candy sellers with sugared skulls prepared for All Saints Day of the Dead, spice merchants with baskets of golden saffron and bronze cinnamon whose aromas nearly overcame the metallic beef blood odor rising from slabs of lomobiche.

“Señora, venga. Yo tengo lo mejor.”

This time it was a child’s voice and a dimpled, tanned child’s hand that beckoned me to admire his rubber-banded sprays of gladiolas and trumpet flowers in their tin pails of water. Of course his rosebuds and orchids on their sticks would be the best.

His mother, in a black skirt and blouse of Guatemalan print, red and yellow and green, beamed and stood apart from the flower bench to let him, a boy of possibly six or seven, make the sale. The ebony braids framing her unblemished face glistened with pride.

He waited, smiling, gazing up with enormous dark eyes, and I appreciated his black, black hair, clear coppery skin, his lithe little body in its diminutive tee-shirt and jeans. He was an exquisite child, and in a dozen years he’d be irresistible to any beautiful teenager in Guatemala City.

But I had to smile and once again shake my head.

As I marshaled my Spanish to alibi my lack of a purchase by pleading the airport dash, he returned my smile with a redoubled sunny one of his own, and murmured sweetly, “Usted es muy, muy fea.”

I heard his mother gasp.

Across the aisle from the hanging chickens bleeding out in a row of headless feathered carcasses, our common maternal thread bound us together with crystaline chains, two mothers and a child—who had said to an adult, “You are very, very ugly.”

I glanced away from him to his mother’s face above the cotton primary-color stripes and watched a crimson blush darken her neck beneath her collar, seep upward to stain her chin, cheekbones, forehead.

But which of us as mothers hasn’t had to explain, “I’m sorry, she doesn’t know yet what that word means”? which of us hasn’t had a child blurt to a neighbor offering cookies to the PTA, “Those are burned”? which of us as mothers—?

I looked back at her pretty cherubic little boy and made an effort to retain the smile while I shook my head with faked bewilderment and pretended I didn’t understand Spanish.

Pat Carr has published sixteen books, including the Iowa Fiction Prize winner THE WOMEN IN THE MIRROR, and over a hundred short stories in such places as THE SOUTHERN REVIEW and BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. Her most recent books are a memoir, ONE PAGE AT A TIME (2010), a novella, THE RADIANCE OF FOSSILS (2012), and a graphic novel, LINCOLN, BOOTH AND ME (2013). 

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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