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Watching People

by Karen Lethlean

I came here, to begin a new life, so my parents are always telling me.

‘Isabella, you will be able to grow into a woman in a better place, get a new life, get more from a new future than us.’

But I look around and see much I do not like. This place has robbed all human goodness. After so long I can feel things shuffling no closer to accessing advantages.

One time I cut my leg on fencing, hanging out washing. Cross our fingers for luck things will not be stolen while drying. Until my father hatched a scheme, and I became a dedicated person to watch washing. Where Carlos and I began to talk. If we sit close by dripping empty clothing which looks like skin, hooked through mesh of chain fences. Of course, there are no such luxuries as pegs, washing lines, laundries, even tubs nor powers or soaps here. But we do our best. My being here limits chances for someone to steal our clothing. Makes sure my father’s shirts are will not be worn by a stranger.

Carlos used his bottled water to wash the cut, one of a few tokens we can secure. He said ‘…not too deep, only bleeding because when you stand blood flows down.’

While I wasn’t sure to believe his words, I felt my face glow with his quick, kind touch, and I wanted so much to lean back against him as he stood next to me. Rest my head against his wide shoulders. True Carlos, no doubt was younger, fitter and more handsome as a younger man, but his kindness won my affection.

He fixed a clean dressing, saying, ‘please don’t tell anyone I have these.’

Numbers of our secrets build. He doesn’t know this is a two-way road.

Carlos told me, ‘in Honduras I am a police officer.’

‘My father an engineer… builds bridges.’

A story I cling to, fragments of truth exist. But officials already said, Father is unlikely to be able to work in the same capacity. Probably only be a laborer on building sites or pick fruit like so many others. Being here draws us back to a place where humble beginnings are normal.

As I think back, friendship with Carlos was born from such harmless beginnings, yet something went wrong…I can’t help wondering what did I do?

Things happen in the dead of night. Differences from home, or this new place are settled, in sometimes the most complicated ways. Even father says, ‘not things a young girl ought to see.’ But I do see, much more than he imagines.

Casa Loca.

Even Mice trapped in such a cage would begin to eat each other.

Despite being told, ‘don’t talk to strangers!’ I am surrounded by them. Sleeping right next to us. That night when I bushed my cheek against a bundle of clothing which served as a pillow I thought again about Carlo’s shoulder, shuddered at thoughts of bushing my cheek against his calm strength. Is it so bad to cling to nice things, in such a place.

Sleep, takes a long time, often becomes impossible because a main highway hums with traffic day and night. Sort of like a nest of angry hornets, some larger, deeper and struggling with heavy loads, while some with a persistent whine. Headlights cut holes in night skies. I imagine these might be huge trains, or spaceships lading more aliens into this place. Why do others call us those names? Sometimes I think if so much traffic speeds past, when will we go somewhere? Leave all our baggage in this shelter, walk into blackness…do something unpredictable.

Still I am sure someone will stop us. There are men with guns, some wearing uniforms. I am sure they patrol lands outside these fences. Better to stay locked within.

Supposedly this land is full of possibilities, like a map unfolded on a table and not yet followed.

They call this place a shelter, but nothing resembling shelter is provided. We remain uncovered, with little rest from sun and rain. Unsafe in so many ways. Families do not have any tents. Who thought to bring tents when they fled homelands? So many stories about motels, hostels, shelters, kind border guards, all untrue. So those around me use plastic bags or boxes anything gathered or stolen from another. Often our sleeping pads become wet, muddy sponges soaking up rain, like how many strangers suck up anything appearing of value.

I watch, wander about, nothing else to do with my time.

No school. Even so, I would soon be too old.

‘Exams and study are wasted on girls.’ I overhear my father say. ‘Soon time for Isabella to marry.’ As if I might be traded like produce, my parents grew, cared for, nurtured. But now must be sold on. As if some treasured banana tree, in the corner of their yard. Or a trusted goat who will soon give superior milk.

Maybe marriage is another of his schemes to overcome our poor beginnings. He often says, ‘we do not know we are poor…I am only waiting to become richer.’

My knowledge of home, lodges as if an indigestible lump. Our home meant having smoky kerosene lights and being proud of them, cooking on open fires. It did mean continual talk of money and malicious talk about new things people brought and how they paid. Half hints as to working outside laws. Pride and jealousy flaring over something like a new doorknob. Such trimmings are forgotten in this world of without shelter from rain and mud.

At least back home existed sense of order… knowledge of who to avoid, who my father might pay off, who required a smiled greeting. Here everything is turmoil. I can’t help but feel we have stepped backwards not forwards. Maybe this is part of Carlo’s thinking too. Else why is he avoiding me so much. No there is more, something between him and my father. I do not know what.

Those around us embody wretchedness; depravity. Except Carlos, one softness.

Raw sewage lingers near portable toilets quickly spreads oozing its way across hardened ground and into belongings of those sleeping nearby. I wonder why these facilities cannot be emptied more often. Surely amongst those trucks, some could turn off the road occasional. Yes, they do come to remove our waste, but not before it oozes like a festered wound. There are so many other things I think of as infections spreading into our lives.

Carlos has friendly eyes. Tiny mole on his chin, no hairs like those from such a blemish on a witch’s nose. I smile at remembering his features.

And no tattoos. Notable, as so many others parade body ink about as if in pride. I can understand images of loved ones, children, Gods or religious symbols, even identification of your tribe, but not those blocked chunks of letters, in a language I cannot decipher.

I know, from experience these men are bad, evil, not to be trusted. But who to tell? I am helplessness, and not just because of this place. Carlos must doubt every time he sees those tattoos, but what can he do. Perhaps he gives these men benefit of seeking new beginnings too. We are all haunted by nightmares. Just last night I closed my eyes, to experience a force pushing me down, difficult to catch my breath. As all sorts of weapons appeared near edges of my head, I sunk deeper into dirty earth. I tried to cry out, but only after several attempts I formed words, ‘…help me.’ Shadows of threats continued to push in until Mother touched my arm and I woke. Gasping.

One time, when he still spoke to me, I asked Carlos, ‘these men with tattoos, doesn’t it hurt.’

‘Yes. A thousand pin pricks or as if poked with points of sharp knives. Not to mention inflamed skin afterwards. Worse than when you scratched your foot on the fence.’

‘Why do they do it?’ These are questions I am too afraid to ask my father.

‘Something about leaving a childhood life behind and taking on an adult life defined by pain. Putting a signal, on their skin, they want to use others, be violent, form parts of an evil circle.’

See he confirmed pain, these people must want to feel something, so they opt for pain. Some call it body art, but I cannot drive the word – inked out of mind. What makes them think this is attractive? These men are marked, like permanent scars. Can never rid themselves, never be free.

I do understand tattoos are a way to make a statement…a bit like graffiti, except not on walls. A man decides to be a member. Except here everything these people belonged to and with from back home is a rubbish dump, same as trash surrounding sleeping mats and half-hearted attempts at tents and shelter.

To me tattoo marks are like monsters with a lot of heads. Out of mouths of one head comes insults and accusations. Hot and cold, out of another false apologies and slimy pleas, out of another just lies, cruel and silly, wasteful talk. I know, I heard such things, very close. Words to add to ink to draw someone into tangled webs like patterns visible on arms, hands, faces necks. No effort to remain hidden under shirts which do come off in heat and glare. Carlos does not know why my father always wears a shirt despite hot sweaty days. Giant symbols written in another language. How many ways to write things only other members can understand.

You can cast off an ex-wife. I heard tales of women left behind, families cast aside while hopes of new life are embraced. Or when a grandparent dies, some ancestral knowledge also passes into dust with preceding generations. But these skin-marks remain permanent, glistening with sweat, moisture never erases them. A life of their own, moving and gyrating, appearing alive.

‘Can’t change a leopard’s spots.’ I say to Carlos, crossing my fingers behind my back, hopeful this is not true.

‘Or a baboon’s bum.’

We giggled, shared laughter.

These questions were not why Carlos stopped talking to me. There is something more.

Father reminded me, not take candy. As if a stranger might sweeten my life by offering buttons of sugar. But fruit is not candy.

Carlos offered me some berries in plastic. I recognize them from people who try and flag cars down and sell these by roadsides. Unfortunately these morsels were watery and flavorless, looked so much better. Huge, bright droplets of red. Appeared nicer than they tasted, like so much here.

Dogs followed Carlos, frightened me some. But these animals seemed drawn to him, would lick his hand. One dropped a litter of puppies. When they grew to be big enough, tumbling over pudgy, milk fed legs, they began to disappear. Not taken as pets, who needs more companions requiring food and pushing in on slimmest slivers of shelter offered. No, hungriest here ate them. Roasted on a fire, fumes of charcoaled flesh hung in air like warnings.

Still I wonder what changed Carlos.

Wasn’t the body. Even father said, ‘…a bad man.’

A fight broke out, I heard clumps of fists hitting jaws. Sounds which hovered deeper in recesses of our baggage. Next morning someone laid face down in sewage overflow. Reminded of bodies left in streets back home.

But a dead bad man, not why Carlos began to hide back in his hovel and not come out.

I must think back, perhaps a special moment involving recognition of a familiar face.

Carlos withdrew, not long after a time when father grabbed my arm. Pulled me so hard inside my shoulder twisted like a knotted rope. His face full of blackness something to do with a sin much more than sharing a few strawberries.

‘What are you doing?’ Came in a hoarse whisper.

‘This man is Carlos, he used to be a policeman, he is my friend.’

‘You cannot be friends with this man!’

Something deeper, more startling is unsaid.

Now I think there might be a link with Carlos’s new hallowed out eyes and crazy person ways.

On day I thought to untie kinks I saw on my father’s brow by introducing Carlos. Maybe a new beginning, in this new place, they might also become friends. Exchanges came so easy between us two, I thought man to man might work. Guess I was wrong.

‘This is my father, Juan.’

But I saw new acknowledgement in both their eyes. My father remembered, not just Carlos’s shape; solid, not with this much paunch, such thickening was new. I saw my father inadvertently gaze, find new meaning to a stocky man, dressed in jeans, belly curling over his belt. A grey half-grown beard spreading about his chin. His returned gawk, a dismembering look, father cutting Carlos right from neckline to groin which caused core tingling embarrassment. I turned away. But heat of this exchange drew me back. More than any distrust about a relationship with his daughter. This time as I peered from one face to the other, doing my best, …what is happening, why this fire, what did I do? …expression. That’s when I noticed father’s tongue flick out as he slowly licked parted lips like a lizard creature

Regrets about my families past trickled in like flow from a cracked dam, threatening to burst. I did thank luck, or stars, or what-ever force pushed us through barriers and assisted our escape. We’d veered away from temptation of a dizzying array of chemicals, and bad people. But suddenly everything pricked freshly sharp again as if just now torched. Like stepping back in time, spotting someone central to a neighbourhood dispute with years later, worse this was seeing one who’d tormented your family, who’d held you down and forced himself into your little girl panties.

So much evil, alive again and bouncing out from what I thought hidden memories like giggling ghouls never quite left behind and now enjoyed this new loosening. My father became a catalyst, strutting about like a rooster, his body language saying – I know what you tried to do… Like those times father’s actions were fuelled only with a desire for money. His stance saying, I had cash, protection, you did not.

I felt a grip on here and now failing, I looked down. Trembled with fear. Knew I’d lost so much. Wondered how these two men found themselves sheltering here, sharing desires to move beyond fences.

To let loose these haunting ghosts wasn’t fair. I fixed my eyes straight at Father, uttered with as much defiance as I could muster, as if intending to slap his face, saying, ‘no, this is not the one, you must be mistaken.’

Another look followed, up and down; another reptile grin. I waited for a following counterattack, meeting his stares with eyes as black as all those nights, and giving less away.

When I locate Carlos again, cursing under my breath, for what I did. I am familiar with his intriguing eyes, brown but flecked with grains of other tones. But this peeking out of his hovel disguises any gentleness.

‘You must forgive me. I did not know. There must be something I can do to make it up to you. Some way in which I can help?’

But Carlos isn’t listening and puts his coat over his head. I can’t help but hover over spaces where he cringes. Cross legged, pushed hard against a piece of fencing, rocking back and forth.

We sit on a threadbare rug, I touched his face, where hair is beginning to grow as scratchy fuzz. Carlos shivers, and begins again to rock back and forth. As if initiating a meeting between him and my father was too much, pushed him too far. But I cannot be sure in which direction. What terrible secrets did I loosen into our world? Carlos can’t even manage a tiny snippet of recognition, for him there is not freedom. I hold him while he sinks into tearful convulsions. Rasping breath smells of stale food, his shoulders rise and fall with so many unshed tears.

If I cannot draw him out, Carlos will cringe and flee back into his coat.

Hatred simmers hard behind his eyes and he whispers, ‘Isabella, I can no longer hide. People like your father are watching me.’

About the Author

Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher, from Perth Western Australia.

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