Cabeza-Vanegas-CJ HambroLike this. They drop this girl off at school after a visit to the dentist. Midway through the day when all we do is throw stones at the rain. Her gums are numb, so incredibly numb; she opens her mouth wide and digs her finger nails into them, swearing all the while that she does not feel a thing.

Or like this. I hold the cat that has never liked to be held against my shoulder while you try to clip its claws. I press it down against my body like a baby full of helium and needles. It tries to wriggle out of my grasp, digs its claws deep into my shoulder and right above my ribs, climbing shoes on a mountainside, spigots on a maple tree—little itchy dots and pinpricks of red sap.

Or better yet, Jesús—who looks after the garden behind my elementary school classrooms in Cali, Colombia. A round man in a blue overall jumpsuit, chest hair caught in his zipper, machete hanging from an unused belt loop, he lets us call him, “Chuchito! Chuchito!” We’d surround and harass him like so many featherless, wide-mouthed birds in a nest. A ring a ring o’ spinning and chanting and begging and pleading, “Chuchito tiene caña, tiene caña?” Until he’d take the machete from his hip like a holy staff, a brass serpent, a tiger’s tail. “Porfis, Chucho, porfis,” Pleasies, please-please-please. And hurriedly cut sugar cane down for us. Swift, sweet—soft sugar soaked pulp still sheathed in splintered stalk. Grant us, Jesus, our daily cane. One swing to pluck, another to split. And we ran swinging green stalks like swords above our heads.

Like this girl, back in school after a visit to the dentist telling us her gums were numb, so incredibly numb; she opened her mouth wide and dug her finger nails into them. “Thee? Notheen.” But it’s hard to believe and we tell her she’s faking. We know that everything that hurts always hurts, and hurts right away, and sometimes for a long time after. So she reaches for a pencil. “Am noth lying,” she drools, she protests. She pecks a tiny path of graphite holes across her gums line with the pencil, colorblind stars on a pink sky. “Cannoth feelth ith. Noth ath’all.” But we shake our heads. We say no. And no, no. “Faker.” Because maybe we don’t believe, or maybe we want to see what else she cannot feel. So she reaches for a stapler.

Like this. My mother sitting in a cemetery coffee shop. Atop the metal table a wooden box full of her older sister’s ashes. She lifts the lid and presses down on the ash-filled plastic bag; she’s surprised how little is left, how thorough the ovens, the fire. Ten years of cancer, hospitals, referrals, intubations, ambulances, electric beeps, and iodine hospital hallways. Ten years awake and asleep, waiting rooms and induced comas. A thousand needle-mosquitos on a handful of veins, a hundred blood tubes clinking, a lifetime sedated and punctured. And it all fits in a box. Little wooden box. So she presses down and feels something sharp in the ashes, “Do you want to feel?” She asks me, because, “Not everything’s burnt all the way through.” Fingertips down on sharp bits of charred bone.

Like Chuchito quietly going back into his garden, machete swinging from his hip, while we chewed through math class until the edges of the stalks made our gums bleed, and we drooled sweet blood-water on grid paper arithmetic. Like it won’t hurt when the sugar dries up, when she doesn’t wake up. Unfelt sores and private scars. Like my mother holding her older sister one last time while the cemetery men kick stones at the road. A final moment before placing her ashes in the ossuary beside their father and grandfather. Her hands are on the box, her eyes are on the lid, and her voice cracks, splinters, it is pierced and piercing. “No one,” she says, “Can call you names now, Chiqui.” Like a girl, dropped off after a visit to the dentist, opening her mouth so wide we can hear the sides crack as we stick our heads in like lion tamers. A single file line of staples above the gum line while the Novocain wears off.


Lina Ferreira was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia and has since then been tumbleweeding aimlessly through the world. She is the author of Drown Sever Sing, and her ode to cannibalism can be found in the collection titled, After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. She herself can be found—currently if not briefly—in Columbus, Ohio, where she works as a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at The Ohio State University. She is a graduate of The University of Iowa’s Creative Nonfiction and Literary Translation programs, and her work has been featured in Arts and Letters, The Chicago Review, and Fourth Genre, among others.

Artwork by Jeff Kallet