It is the early eighties, the start of the civil war in El Salvador, and Maira is a child of the raindrops that come early in the summer. Thousands of raindrops. Maybe millions. Las lluvias. Desperate raindrops that smash into the mountains and the treetops, prod the soil and also the pebbles and flores, the earth forced into a river moving downward.
Maira lives in the mountains, in a village named for flowers, in a house made of mud bricks with her grandmother and younger sister and two uncles and a grandfather she does not like. All around her is the forest and further off the fields of café. The raindrops arrive in May, and Maira, who is not yet eight years old, slips off her handmade dress and barefoot chases her sister into a clearing outside their home. In the rain, the girls wearing only panties run in circles.
Maira tells me now how happy she was back then. She did not have toys, not the way we think of jugetes here in Southern California where she lives now, but she had the lluvias and her baby sister, and afterwards, she had the second rain when the raindrops courted magic and turned into wings.
It is easy to make up this part of the story, and I find myself wanting to believe that in El Salvador when Maira was a child the raindrops stretched in the cocoon of hydrogen molecules and dreamt of wings, translucent veins, fluttering.
But what Maira says is true.
She did witness a second rain—that time in El Salvador and so many countries in Latin America and also in Texas, when thirty or forty minutes after the early summer rains, the sky is suffused with the zompopos de mayo, the leafcutter ants. The zompopos fly in search of love, all of them virgins with wings almost too large for their heads. They find each other in that moist sky of El Salvador’s early summers and make what I imagine is a furious and rushed love.
Picture Maira sitting on the wet earth. How the wings of the zompopos de mayo kiss her black hair and her dark eyelashes, her elbows and toes and also her baby sister next to her. Eveywhere Maira looks — in front of her, behind her, to the side—the wings hover, hundreds or thousands of tiny virgin queens and their beloveds until Maira reaches out and plucks one from the air. A large queen ant with flapping wings.
See Maira’s hands: the knuckles, the fingertips, the blank slates of her palms. Holding the insect, Maira catches the wings. She tugs once, maybe twice, finally plucks the wings from the leafcutter ant and drops the queen zompopo to the ground. Dismembered, forgotten. Maira snatches another zompopo from the air. Her baby sister does the same. They spend entire afternoons like this, each girl tugging at the sky, rich with the quivering of a thousand wings.
The word in Spanish for wing (ala) is one letter away from the word for soul (alma). Ala y alma, the sister words so close in sound to the divine, to Allah.
Ala y alma. The words Maira and her baby sister need when the ground trembles not with raindrops but with the boots of military men. Girls like Maira and her baby sister would feel the earth shake and know it was time to grow wings themselves. Off they flew into the woods with Maira guiding her younger sister, the two of them dashing behind bushes, squeezing under tree branches, anywhere that leaves and twigs might cover their girl faces, their arms and toes and belly buttons.
The forest hid them, but it could do nothing for the inside of Maira’s ears. From where she and her sister buried themselves for hours, she heard the screams of women and children as the soldiers plucked boys and girls from their homes, dragged the little ones through the mountains to enact the horrors we would one day read in newspapers: raping the children, throwing them onto trucks, into helicopters, into mass graves, and sometimes, yes sometimes, selling the children to childless couples, making infants and toddlers and older children, too, gifts from the mountains to military wives. Ala y Alma.
When the boots moved away, when the earth beneath them stopped its shivering, Maira and her baby sister would emerge from the forest, two girls in bare feet, waiting for the next storm.
Daisy Hernández is the author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir and coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. The former editor of ColorLines magazine, she has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and NPR’s All Things Considered and CodeSwitch, and her essays have appeared in the Bellingham Review, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, Rumpus, and Tricycle. She teaches creative writing at Miami University in Ohio.
Artwork by Allison Dalton