Coming of Age Historical Fiction Sad

TW: Rape, murder

1968, September 2nd

Fireflies jittered in circles around me, little fallen moons floating. We watched the world bathed in rubicund light, flares rocketed into the clouds with a snap and smoke. I thought they were fireworks and bounced with glee, waiting for the whistle, the crackle as prismatic shooting stars rained down, fulminating shattered snakes hissing with hostility and then bursting into a blaze. But I was not met with the sonatas of gunpowder dusting the sky like spilled eyeshadow, arson turned to art. I was only met with the bang of automatic weapons firing into the crowd, the wails of the withered. You don’t know the sound of bodies flopping and flailing until you feel bullets whiz by and strike your neighbors like a hand smacking a naughty child, blowing them back a foot into other screamers and die-ers, tripping them into the dusty film on the streets.

You can’t gauge the true weight of a body until you try to lift one whose heart slumbers.

That afternoon I knew nothing of it. I was still a seven-year-old child enamoured by the world’s orbit, still sure that when you close your eyes and live your dreams you will always reawaken.

I took the bus home from school and combed my doll’s hair on the concrete steps of our house near Plaza de las Tres Culturas, rot descending into the boards like infection, water through a sieve, worming into the walls and grey paint. “Sopi, your hair is so knotty,” I whispered to my rag doll as I struggled to pull a purple plastic comb through her mass of embroidery-thread locks. I yanked the comb sharply and with a rip like Mama making rags out of old clothes, a chunk of strands of raven hair tore from the seams, a spilled bottle of ink. “Your hair!” I shrieked, losing grip of the comb in a fluster. 

I quickly regathered myself, holding her by a fraying hand, and rushed to my Papa’s workshop, the shed in the yard that is a facsimile of the house, only a reduction. “Don’t you dare go bald Soportar Luna Perez!” I commanded, waving the comb at her, in my best imitation of Mama whose chiding was always followed by GracielaLunaPerez, forcing me into a state of unwavering amenability, so it must have kindred consequences for my ragdoll.

“Papa!” I called out into the chamber of his workplace, my echoing cries shrill, gales blistering into sonoluminescence. He sat on the edge of his workbench, lanky legs skidding his boots on the dust ground, a beer in his left hand as he wiped his brow with the right. He set it down when he saw me galloping in, patting his lap as I leaped into his embrace.

“What is it, muñequita?” His arms swaddled me and I nuzzled my face into his shirt, emanating his cologne and sweat, his callused hands the same shade of tan as my own skin brushing back my flyaway obsidian hairs. I stared into his warm eyes, tasting of the piloncillo sauce Mama makes infused with cinnamon for our Christmas day buñuelos.

I spoke into the linen of his button-down. “Sopi’s hair is falling out,” I revealed, voice muffled as I drew attention to Soportar by swinging her about along with the hair stuck in the comb.

“Gracie, you know I cannot sew,” he chuckled, picking me up and placing me beside him on the workbench, my little legs swinging. I huffed frustratedly, arms crossed as I sighed dramatically. I knew that, obviously, so why did he assume that’s what I sought from him?

“Is there no other way? Being sewn on sounds really hurtful.” I’d stabbed myself sewing before and I could not imagine a needle going all the way through the skin and to the other side.

He clucked at me, resting his head in his hands as he teased, “Dios mío. Do they teach you anything at school? It’s painful, Gracie. Not hurtful.” 

“Papa!” I whined, sighing at my humiliation. “Why do you always have to correct me?”

“I am only acting as a good father,” he shrugged, patting my head and ruffling my hair into a field of wild black tulips, bowing to the sun and swaying to the rhythm of the clouds.

“Well it’s painful,” I reiterated, even though they mean the same thing. “Can’t you glue it back or something?”

“It will look a mess and won’t last. Have your mother sew her up when she gets home.” He rose, dusting his pants off from sawdust, and placing a sheet of maple wood in the space he previously occupied. “If she says the magic word, it will not hurt.” He secured the wood, preparing to saw into it, a chasm rupturing into two islands.

“What’s the magic word?” I glowed with anticipation as the sun does in the depths of summer, warm on golden ray kissed faces, bleaching the air into a pastel filter.

“Her name, of course. Soportar.” Bear. “They are fierce creatures. She is too.” I nodded, enamored. 

“What does the magic word do, Papa? Is it just for her, or all dolls and people? How do you know it works? Why does it-” I rambled, wide-eyed and eagerly pulling at a corner of his shirt that had come untucked from his trousers.

“Gracie,” he interrupted, putting down the saw he held and bending to be at my eye level. “En boca cerrada no entran moscas.” No flies enter a closed mouth: Mama and Papa’s dicho of choice for me. “It is time for me to work. Now run along and wait for Mama.”

I followed his directive, darting from the residence of sawing and screws, their strange siren call one my father always felt allured to, the wispy voices of handheld tools a lullaby plucked on a silver-stringed harp. I began to play in the beige dying grass of our front yard, tickling my bare feet as my squeals floated on a breeze like dandelion seeds. 

How naive children are, they slurp fairy tales and falsehoods like the nectar of an oasis, the broth of abrasive desert sands melting into lush foliage and dewy greenery. Or perhaps they are the perspicacious ones, trapping credence in the unprovable like a firefly in a bottle, using it as a nightlight on a ledge overlooking the beach, zealing to be worn smooth by the sea into semi-transparent slabs of muted glass, to be proven real. They trust that the world has inexplicable enigmas in its coat pockets and doesn’t wish to turn them out, caching the checkered pattern of the interior.

My sister Maria Pilar observed me from a smeared window, a sallow face with eyes that knew sorrowful tears more than crows feet from grins, Simón on her hip, absent-mindedly stroking his dirty-blond baby hair as he sucked on his thumb. I stopped to wave at her, but she vanished behind the butter-yellow drapes when she noticed that I had seen her. I didn’t understand then that she longed to be me, wistful for the childhood stolen from her svelte fingers, lace with too many holes so it is easily torn. What is the word for nostalgia when it is all a fantasy you pine for, an idealized lie when the truth is too much to bear? I believe the Portuguese call it saudade, a longing for something that is absent, but we have no exact translation.

She had been a fourteen-year-old girl with ebony braids and a laugh that fluttered like swallowtails swooping out of her mouth carrying her cachinnations through humid air and across continents, until an American tourist was a guest to us when his car overheated. Mama said no, he is an American, their government supports our destruction, but Papa believed in hospitality, arguing that he is not his government just as how we are not ours. The American slipped into my and Maria’s room and laid with her, his repulsive body too close, too close, too close, silencing all her protests with threats to me, kissing away her sweet giggles, pirating her voice but not before she could whisper me a warning, speech waning: close your eyes, Graciela. He disappeared into the night like a shadow flitting as headlights project into a window at witching hour do, left a seed inside her, one that grew with her shame and was born with his mane and peacock eyes. Now her locks vignetted her face and obstructed her chocolate eyes; she raised her child with tenderness and affection, but in silence. 

The American’s car was never broken.

After half an hour or so, she tiptoed to the top step of our porch, Simón cooing at her, “Mami, play. We play Mami.” She directed his attention to me and assisted him as he descended, toddling over to me, hanging onto my arm. He surveyed Soportar, his tiny voice flooded with concern, tide pools at low tide writhing with hermit crabs, urchins, starfish.

“Gwacie, where her hair?” He pointed to her bald spot, like a hole straight through her head to the bleached-out grass, a full moon’s shadow projected onto her scalp, an astrobleme.

I ran my fingers through her hair, twirls of black licorice. “It fell out.”

“She broken?” He delicately took her from my grasp and cradled her clumsily, a baby bird attempting to gracefully soar, only to shakily ascend and plummet.

I nodded. “Yeah, she’s broken. Abuelita is going to fix her when she is done delivering furniture.” 

He held two of my fingers in his grasp as he dragged me to the stairs to Maria. “Mami fix,” he proclaimed, handing her the doll, a delicate, fragile creature he protected. She shook her head no, passing it back to him as she smoothed his hair and pressed the doll into his palm. 

“Why no fix?” he questioned, confused, his transparent eyebrows raising.

“It’s okay,” I reassured him upon seeing Maria chew her lip anxiously. “Abuelita will fix her.”

“But she need hair to look like Mami. Mami need to fix.” At this Maria’s eyes started to fill, diamond tears encrusting her cheeks as she darted back into the house. “Mami?” Simón called after her, nervously holding my hand. 

“It’s alright.” I gave his head a peck, his hair smelling of the lavender baby shampoo Maria always uses on him. “Mami is fine.”

She recognised too much of herself in my fractured, splintering doll, a mirror held up to her visage to expose every bruise and imperfection, every flaw and fault. 

She didn’t know how to mend Sopi when she could not heal herself.


“Mama, mama! Can you fix Sopi for me?” Mama had pulled into the driveway just before 6:00, when I hurled myself to the door, attaching myself to her leg as she carried a roll of burgundy fabric, nearly tripping her. 

“Graciela, let go! I have work to do with Papa.” She stood on one leg, shaking me off then regaining her balance as she trudged to the shed. Papa met her in front of the house to help her unload the car. She informed him, “Our neighbors, the Lopez family, commissioned us to build them a new couch. We have to get started if we’re going to get it done within the next two weeks.”

“But Mama-” I complained, placing Soportar atop her yards and yards of cotton, a grand throne for such a ratty thing.

“What is this? Take your doll away from my fabric, GracielaLunaPerez!” She launched Soportar by the hair to the pavement, dirt mixing into her fabric and even more strands unraveling like colors melting from a canvas submerged in a flood.

My breaths quickened, uneven and shallow as my eyes stung, shaking feverishly, tears and tears and tears, cold and salty identical to deep-sea waves, dark and dark and darker drowning me in fear like I had that night with the American, when I kept my eyes closed, my hands squeezing Soportar so tightly I thought stuffing would explode out of her head, and I could hear everything everything everything through the thin sheets over my head, I could hear my sister weeping and yet I was too paralyzed to scream.

Mama used to smile, her perfect teeth the envy of us all, glittering in every family photo, but since Simón all she ever did was shout as if it would turn back time and keep that man from ever crossing our doorstep. She never said it, but I knew she blamed me for not stopping it, I knew she hated my father for letting him into our lives. Maybe most of all she despised herself.

But at that moment I didn’t drill into her mind and mine a piece of her conscience and discover it tainted by her own self-censure, all I thought was that she had thrown my doll, the one who held my hand as a man raped my sister in the bed right beside me.

So I yelled, “¡Te odio!” and swooped to gather Soportar as I sprinted down our driveway onto the street.

I. Hate. You.

I should have noticed the street clogged with people, should have noticed the students standing elevated above the crowd delivering speeches, the thousands of onlookers. The only things that caught my attention were the flares, the stupid flares that my stupid childish self thought were fireworks, and by then I was in the thick of the crowd, Mama and Papa as well, following me, shouting my name. Gracie, Graciela.

The flares rang, chanting out their somber shrieking song through the thick clouds enveloping the sky. We all heard the blaring, howl howl howl howl. The world was still, entranced by the light, a rabbit hiding in the underbrush, the moon absent over the glassy surface of a waveless river: a pendulum stationary with no force to act upon it. 

And then bang bang bang, bullets hitting skulls and ribs, taking out love and thought. They continued to ring out, each one a soul taken, a person killed. Over and Over and Over they were machines, they continued. 

Bang kill bang kill.

Each death became a number, forgotten when laid to rest in the street among many, eyes open and glassy still shocked from the gunshot, still hoping for a taste of Mexico’s freedom.

Bang kill bang kill.

The blood on the ground painted pictures, children grasping for their parents in the dark, inches apart, illuminated once the guns sparked. They were broken paper chains, scattered construction paper, the glue dry and no longer holding.

The old shed tears as they were forced to watch their family fall to the ground. Their screams were silent but their pain was loud.

Bang kill bang kill.

Yet all was QUIET, and the bullet's were mute, and the corpses were snow falling in a forest with only the stars and trees to witness.

For all shooters cared not. No one helped or tried to save them, my parents, with gaping scarlet wounds in their chests. I was frozen in terror’s icy gaze. Momentarily.

I dropped Soportar, losing her in the crowd of buzzing frantic frenzy. I tried to lift them, but they were too heavy. I shouted, “Soportar, soportar!” until my voice was hoarse but they still died in pain. Papa lied about the magic word.

So I ran home and screamed.


I’ve written many stories and shared most of them with Maria and Simón, but this one I have waited years to write, and I’m not sure I’ll share it. I’ve always known it was my fault Mama and Papa died in what they now call the Tlatelolco massacre, that they would never have been harmed if I hadn’t run into the crowd as they only subtly participated in politics against the PRI regime, but never overtly, in order to protect Maria and me.

If I share this it will be to Simón, I would never force Maria to relive her hell. He doesn’t know how he was conceived, doesn’t know his father was a man with an evil soul. He is too young now, at the age where you’ll do anything to find something in yourself to hate. But when he is older, I will tell him everything.

I will tell him that he and Maria, they are the fireflies, subjected to cruel circumstances that they survive by chance because even when they are swallowed, they glow in the throat.

Tell him that Mama and Papa were the flies. They didn’t have to do anything to get swallowed, just buzz by and wait for the government to open their mouths and crush them with a crunch. They could lacerate the lips with their iridescent, bejeweled lace wings, but they will still always die.

Tell him that I am a bear and that

when you kill a bear and 

tack its skin to a wall it’s your history of victory. 

The bear can’t carve its starved story with its claws 

into the wood

but it still snatches your childhood.

What they don't say about hunting a bear is that even if you don't successfully slay it, its forest is still on fire.

July 17, 2021 02:01

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Ella Dodge
00:04 Aug 19, 2021

Very descriptive! I enjoyed reading it :)


01:08 Aug 19, 2021

Thank you!


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M.A. Williams
15:35 Jul 22, 2021

Very good story! Extremely descriptive, well written. Great job!


23:50 Jul 22, 2021

Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed it and found the language descriptive. I appreciate the feedback :)


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