The pool stayed the same for most of the year. Just a few meters from the beach. The waves came in far enough, breaking across the sand into the tangle of mangrove trees and long grasses, to give it just enough water to stay level with the well-padded trail that led from the small Honduran village to the shore. Bugs spawned in the yellowing water, and crabs hunkered down in the rocky bottom.
Julio Garcia walked this way every day. He’d finish work on Uncle’s long fishing boat, accept his meager pay of fifteen lempiras, buy fifteen lempiras of masa from the ancient looking señora Mondragon, and walk the path back to home so Mama could make that masa into tortillas. And every day Julio backtracked to throw bits of the corn flour into the pond. He picked a chunk, lightly rolling it between his brown fingers before letting it slip into the pool. Julio squatted down, hands pressing on dusty knees. He watched the ball fall down into the lichen-darkened water. It touched the bottom, balancing in a crack between the rocks for a moment. Then one claw emerged from the crack, then a pair of spindly eyes. In a swipe the masa was gone.
“Still watching those cangrejos, Julio?” a playful voice called.
Julio knew that voice. Suyapa Ordoñez. The daughter of Chepe, el jefe, the man who owned the group of lanchas where Julio worked with Uncle. He stood up smiling, “Ah yeah, well it’s either that or watch Mama make tortillas.”
Suyapa laughed, tugging on a strand of her hair. That hair, thought Julio, dark as driftwood pulled right from the sea, smooth and straight. Julio’s eyes caught on the red bow laced through her hair. She had been at the school in Choluteca today.
She knelt down to look into the pool. “What have the crabs taught you today?”
Julio began “Well, they eat what you throw in to them. Watch this.” Julio leaned over the water and spat into the middle. Sure enough after a moment one of the crustaceans flexed through the water, groping at the wad of saliva. “That’s it. Why don’t they leave the pool and go to the beach? More food there. More crabs to be with. No more spit.”
“More gulls to eat them too, yeah?” Suyapa raised an eyebrow.
Julio shrugged. It was hard for him to look at Suyapa. Every time, he got that strange feeling. Sort of like someone had lit a fire to cook tortillas in his stomach. They both sat down in the dirt.
“Que tal la escuela?” he asked.
“Ah school? It was okay. You’d love this school, Julio.” The tortilla fire burned hot as she spoke his name. “You just learn stuff. But my favorite part is after, when we go to the cyber to use internet for our homework.”
“Yeah?” Julio had been to the little school here in Cedeño. He learned how to read and write until he was twelve. Then the girls in the village began to weave fishing nets, and the boys began to work on the lanchas. It had been two years since Julio had left school. Suyapa was the only one in the village whose Papa had enough to send her to the big school thirty kilometers away in Choluteca.
“Yeah, they showed us this place called…Wikipedia…it’s a weird name, but you just type in whatever you want, and you can read about it.”
“Weeekeeepedeea?” Julio felt the strange word roll through his mouth.
“Yeah! I typed in ‘Cinderella.'” Her eyes widened. “You remember? From that movie we watched at my house?”
Julio remembered. Chepe’s house had a TV and a movie player. Sometimes, he’d round up some of the younger workers after the fishing was done, and they’d watch something. Most of the boys liked El Rapido y Furioso. They loved the speeding cars. Julio’s favorite had been Cielo de Octubre. He was fascinated by the learning process, how the boys had done the math and built the rockets. Suyapa, and the other girls of course always wanted the princess kind.
“They had so much about her. And other princesses too.” Suyapa nodded at Julio.
“So why do you go to school if this…weekee…can teach you everything?”
She laughed again. “You’re funny Julio. I’ve got to go home. See you.” She stood up, brushing the dust off her knee length blue school skirt. Julio watched her walk the path back to the village. She skipped down the road, sprays of sand lifting off the road and catching light. Suddenly she held her arms out, letting her skirt flair out. Spinning like a princess.
Julio’s feet padded through the sand. Sunlight arced through the coconut trees as he walked toward home. Other boys yelled at him to come play futbol before supper but he merely waved at them, continuing through the village with one new thought on his mind. “Wikipedia.”
* * *
Tuesday morning Julio rolled over in his hammock, eyes still closed. The air smelled of smoke. Mama was putting out breakfast. He opened his eyes to the clay wall where they lived. It was cracked and crumbling. They had painted it once, or twice. White paint chips hung on the wall only by soil-studded tendrils that sprung out of the wall. Julio wondered about roots. He stretched, letting his fingers twist the fraying holes in his hamaca. Where did roots begin? Mama smiled at him.
“Buenos dias hijo, quieres tortillas?”
Julio thought it was funny how Mama always said the same thing. You want tortillas? Tortillas. Most mornings that was the only option. But she still asked.
* * *
Julio hefted his side of the lancha. The rusted out grooves of the tarnished metal handle felt familiar in his hands. Uncle lifted the other side.
“Why didn’t you ever go to Mexico, Uncle?”
“Vamos, Julio, the sky is good right now.” Uncle looked at the sky. A sheet of clouds covered the entirety but the rising sun was still visible, like an ember behind grey ash. If it got too overcast that meant rain. Rain meant no fishing; the lanchas couldn’t handle the swells.
They ran with the fishing boat into the surf. Julio hopped into the front, holding on to the precious net while Uncle pushed the lancha into the grey water. Then Uncle lifted himself in. They floated for a minute, and Uncle started the old motor.
The dull thwack of the propeller blades sounded from the lancha. Uncle turned to Julio. His forehead crinkled from years of sun and salt.
“Today we will have enough pes to make Chepe happy, eh?”
“You are already a good pescador, hijo.”
Hijo. That was a word Uncle used for Julio a lot, even though Julio wasn’t his son. He was brother to Julio’s father. The unknown father who had left before Julio had been born. Mama didn’t talk about him a lot. And that was fine by Julio. Plenty of kids in Cedeño didn’t have Papa around. Uncle said he had gone to Mexico, for work. Sometimes those who left for Mexico sent money. Usually not. Julio understood why many of the men left for Mexico. Better work, better pay, better life.
“Why didn’t you ever go to Mexico, Uncle?”
Uncle slowly lowered the green net into the water. The threads disappeared into the sea, seamlessly blending into the depths.
“Ah…Mexico…” Uncle blinked, frowning at the sinking net. “Pues…my family is here. I’ve got to take care of them, no?”
“You can send money from Mexico.”
Uncle sighed, his frayed shirt tightening and then loosening against his sinewy frame. “Most don’t send money.”
It was Julio’s turn to frown. “But you would, no?”
“Espero que si. But maybe a Papa owes more to his family than just money, eh?”
Julio thought of his Uncle’s family. Poor, just like everyone in the village. Well, everyone except Suyapa’s family. Everyone else was stuck in Cedeño. If he had a chance to go to Mexico, or maybe even Los Estados, he would take it in a second. He let his slender fingers down into the water wondering why water let his hand pass through. Maybe Wikipedia knew about that as well.
Uncle looked at Julio again, “And besides Julio, Cedeño needs its people to stay, you understand? Stay and make Cedeño a good place. Look at Chepe. He fights like un dragon to make the village a better place. You should see him haggle with the men from el mercado. He will do whatever it takes to get the best prices for us, for Cedeño. He’d give anything to make this village good.”
* * *
The collection shack was housed between two coconut trees, about two lancha lengths from sea at high tide. It was built of mostly driftwood with a tattered yellow tarp nailed in for the roof. Chepe’s lanchas came in one by one from fishing, Chepe would weigh the contents, and mete out the day’s pay. At a little past midday Julio and Uncle dumped the contents of the now full, wriggling net into the old white cooler at the entrance of the collection shack. A squelching jumble of eels, small crimson anthias, and thick spotted groupers slid into the empty void of the cooler.
Chepe leaned in, inspecting the day’s haul. His shirtless gut hung over the side of the cooler.
“Ahhhh…bien hecho pescadores!” He straightened up, his teeth yellow like kernels of maize grinning in satisfaction. “Great big groupers are what we like to see!” He turned to Uncle, “The men are coming from el mercado in Choluteca tonight to inspect things. If it goes well, there will be more lempiras for everyone.” He nodded, bloodshot eyes intense. Chepe knew how important these meetings were. More lempiras meant a better Cedeño.
The men from the market. They already bought from Chepe, but Chepe brought them around once a year to renegotiate prices. They’d feast at the house, eating grouper, and drinking beers. Julio thought about Suyapa. She hated the night the men from el mercado came.
He turned to Julio, “And you, Julio! Maybe we make enough money to get a teacher to come down a couple times a week from Choluteca to teach some school to the kids in the evenings. You’d like that, no? Suyapa tells me you are always wondering things. We’ll make you into an educated fisherboy!” A deep laugh erupted from the man. He patted a meaty hand on Julio’s’ shoulder.
The words made it feel as though light was being filtered through Julio’s veins, lifting the heart in Julio’s chest. A chance to get more school? He thought of the boy in Cielo de Octubre. Studying, and launching rockets. Leaving the dark mines of his village to go to college.
“Si, Señor Chepe. I would like that.”
* * *
The pool had deepened when Julio passed by after dropping the masa off with Mama. Thoughts flitted across Julio’s mind like the dragonflies hovering around the balmy surface of the pond. He rolled a small ball of masa, watching as the more dry flecks flaked into the water. School. Wikipedia. Suyapa.
“Buenas tardes, Julio.” Julio turned, startled. She had sat down next to him so quietly. No comment about watching crabs, no humming of princess songs.
“Suyapa! You scared me.” She had a blue ribbon today. “I heard the men from el mercado are going to be at your house tonight. Your papa says maybe this time there will be enough money to get a teacher to come down from Choluteca.”
A breeze broke in from the sea, the cool air penetrating the dank humidity. She gave him a half smile, “Why would you need a teacher when you can just use Wikipedia?”
“Nobody here has a computer…as you well know.” She laughed at him, but only a little, dark bangs trailing with the gust of wind.
“I don’t like it when the men come to visit…” Her eyes lingered on Julio’s before looking down at her feet.
Julio looked down at his bare feet, next to Suyapas’ recently polished but now dirt speckled shoes. The hot anger rose to his throat. He remembered Uncles words. “…he’d give anything to make the village good.”
“Yeah, they get really borracho, no?” Julio thought of seeing Uncle drinking too much one night. Uncle, who usually was so at ease and levelheaded had been screaming at his kids in a drunken rage. How could a drink make a good man act so strange?
“Well it’s not just that they get drunk…” She twisted the point of her black school shoes into the sand.
“Someone has to…please them, no? Papa says any fish seller can give the men beer, but we can do more…my sister used to do it…but she left to go to the university in Tegucigalpa. Mama says I’m old enough, and that she is too old, so it’s my turn to help. Papa says that it’s the only way to make enough so I can keep studying, and it’s only for the good of Cedeno, but…” she spoke quicker, and quicker. The words spilling out like the eels into Chepes’ cooler.
The wind stopped blowing. A gull cawed softly in the distance. Something hot and painful welled inside Julio making him clench his hands into fists, the gooey ball of masa plastering to his palm.
“I’m afraid.” Her eyes fixated on the ground.
Julio looked down at his bare feet, next to Suyapas’ recently polished but now dirt speckled shoes. The hot anger rose to his throat. He remembered Uncles words, “…he’d give anything to make the village good.” He swallowed. “Chepe is making you sleep with the men?”
She nodded, tears springing from the corners of her eyes.
“You don’t have to do this.” The heart in Julio pumped heatedly. “Tell Chepe you’re sick, or hide tonight. Getting a beating as punishment is better than being a puta for the men from el mercado.” Puta. The word shredded the heavy air.
“You think I’m a whore, Julio?” She sobbed, standing up. “You think this is as easy as saying no, take the punishment, and yeah? You think I do this because I want hombres viejos touching me?”
Julio felt his face go hot. “I didn’t mean…”
“I need to help my family, no? We have to get the best prices. This is real life, Julio. This is Honduras.” She stopped sobbing, and looked at Julio. “This is what I have to do.” She turned and hurried towards the village, leaving Julio alone with her footprints in the sand.
* * *
That night, Julio lay awake in his hammock. The harder he tried not to think about Suyapa the more quickly the images came. Her face lingered on the back of his eyelids. You think I’m a whore, Julio? His stomach squirmed. He rolled over, trying to think about Wikipedia. What would he type in, given the chance? Cangrejos? In his mind crabs scuttled between the rocks in the pool. Raices? He thought of the giant palms that covered the village, all of them held up by roots. Raindrops began to beat on the tarp roof.
* * *
Thursday morning the rain continued. The sky was a heavy gray. Water plinked into a pot, drop after drop. Mamascooted the black metal pot with her foot, trying to catch more of the liquid sliding through a hole in the roof. She smiled at Julio.
“Demasiado lluvia hoy hijo, no vas a pescar. Un dia libre!”
There was too much rain for fishing. Mama knew as well as Julio a free day wasn’t a good thing, but Mama always saw the good in things.
A rumbling voice called from outside the door, meshing with the rain. “Ey, Julio you going to leave your jefe out here in the rain?”
Mama pushed open the door. Julio remembered lashing the wooden sticks to make the door last year. Chepe passed inside wiping his big hand across his forehead. “Lots of rain today, eh? Nobody can fish! But that’s okay. You all deserve un dia libre. Things went very well last night with the men from el mercado!”
The hot thing swelled up again in Julio. Mama clapped and exclaimed, “Que bien!”
“Yes! Anyways, I need to run by your Uncle and talk to him about the new prices, and wages, but Suyapa wanted me to bring you something.”
You think I’m a whore, Julio? The sob strained voice echoed inside Julio.
Chepe continued, “She told me how bad you wanted to go to a cyber in Choluteca to try out this internet thing, and well she’s not feeling well enough to go to school today. Must have eaten too much grouper last night…” Chepe paused for just a moment, breaking eye contact with Julio. He looked back up, “She told me to bring you the money she uses to pay for the bus, and to use Internet. What do you say, eh? Go learn something new in the city? If it’s all right with your mama, of course.”
Mama nodded. The sound of storm-enhanced waves crashed into the shore. Waves of shame and anger collided with currents of curiosity about to be satisfied inside Julio. He felt tears of gratitude bud underneath his eyelids.
“Si, Senor Chepe… Muchas gracias.”
Chepe laughed, slapping thirty lempiras into Julio’s hand. “Ah, and Suyapa says just to tell the lady at the cyber you want to use this…weeekeepedeea. She will help you.” Chepe moved towards the door, “And you should come by the house when you get back, we’ll watch a movie.”
* * *
Julio approached the lady at the front desk of the cyber. He pushed his hands deep into his pockets, nervously aware of the eyes staring at his dirty blue jeans and shoeless feet.
“Can you take me to Wikipedia?”
The lady looked up from the book she was reading, “Claro que si. You like to learn things, hmm? That’s good! Most boys just want to play games.”
Julio nodded. She led him over to the computer closest to the back wall. The fingerprints smudging the dark screen vanished as the computer filled with light. She entered Wikipedia into the machine.
“You just type in what you want okay? You can read the letters?”
Julio nodded again, and gave the lady ten lempiras. The lady walked back to her desk. He thought of Mama, Uncle, Chepe, and mostly Suyapa. Familia. He took a breath, and began to type, scanning the keyboard for one letter at a time. P….r….i….n….c….e….s…s….e…s. Princesses.