Near my childhood home, there ran a river that flowed through a deposit of rust. The rusty water was tinted yellow-orange, the color of an early sunset. When I was young, I thought it looked like a river of gold.
On hot afternoons, mother took us to the shore of the river. Flies swarmed the mud banks and the hills in the distance were peppered with pink, white and yellow homes. While mother sat, watching my elder brothers play on the bank, I told her stories. They always began the same way:
“There is an island in the river of gold where there is a castle. Everyone there is rich and happy and there are no slaves.”
I was the first of my family to be born in America. During my childhood, my father held two jobs with no hope of reaching minimum wage without a green card. My mother was forced to leave her job scrubbing rich women’s bathrooms after she almost died giving birth to my younger sister, Estrella. After that she walked bow-legged and we had only enough money for one meal a day.
During the long afternoons after mother couldn’t work anymore, I tried to ease the tiredness out of her eyes by describing the diamond tower that rose in the middle of the island, the ladies who played lutes and broke hearts, the knights who jousted and feuded and defended the river of gold from sea monsters with rusty scales.
“Who does the laundry?” scoffed my cousin Flora one afternoon when she was visiting from Mexico. Flora was older than me, but younger than my aunts, an awkward in-between age. Her mother sent her to visit a lot when I was little. I didn’t like her. I was too young to understand the passion behind her politics. All I heard was the anger she leveled at my brothers and I for coveting American toys; at papa for silently enduring his boss’s racist slurs; at the rich kids in the gated communities across the valley for owning their multi-storied mansions while my family crowded into two mud-floored rooms.
I looked to mama for help, but she only fanned herself with a red kerchief and waited for me to continue. I thought fast.
“Madeleine the washerwoman,” I said. “Her hands are burned with lye from scrubbing and her back bends like an arrow pointing to the ground. Her children play tag among the vats of water and pretend there are animals in the shapes of the steam.”
My answer got their attention. Mama’s eyes lingered on the calluses that marred her palms. Flora leaned forward, the light sketching dramatic shadows across the ridges of her hollow cheekbones. “How did Madeleine’s back get bent?”
“It just did,” I said. I set down Estrella who toddled off to play with our brothers. I turned to mama. “I don’t want to tell any more stories. I’m going home, okay?”
It took years for me to learn the answer to Flora’s question. It came when I was in high school, long after I’d stopped telling stories about the river of gold and retreated into my teenage habit of spending as much time as possible in solitude, reading other people’s words.
That day, mama called me out of class. I met her in the principal’s office. My two older brothers, Pablo and Jorge, had already arrived. Mama held six-year-old Estrella tightly by the hand, ignoring the little girl’s attempts to pull free. From that alone, I knew something was wrong.
“What happened?” I asked.
Mama said nothing. She led us out of the office into Uncle Alain’s pick-up truck, which our family shared when he didn’t need it. We chipped in insurance and repair money when we could.
For several long minutes, mama sat hunched over the steering wheel. Jorge and Alain bullied Estrella into the middle of the bench in back. I sat in the passenger seat.
She sat up, inhaling a fast startled breath, and pulled out of the parking space. Scanning over her shoulder for cars, she spoke in bursts. “Your papa was attacked…on his way to work at…the slaughterhouse,” she said. “Five white men in business suits. What do they want with your father, men in expensive clothes like that? They said he was taking their jobs. Like your papa ever earned more than rice and beans.
“They broke his nose and three of his ribs, maybe more. Alain strapped him into the bed of the truck and brought him home. Alain says they probably left him there to die. I want to take him to the hospital, but he won’t let me.”
Estrella started to keen. Pablo, the elder of our two brothers, hugged her. Jorge told her to stop crying. Pablo punched him in the arm.
“Stop!” said mama. “Not today. Just stop.”
At home, papa lay on a palette mama had made up for him in the bigger of our two rooms. As we walked in, his eyes focused on me briefly, blurry with pain. I lingered by the door.
Mama touched her hand to papa’s forehead, then reached for a cool cloth. “This is foolishness, Eduardo,” she said. “We have to get you to the hospital.”
Papa’s voice was barely audible. “No. You can take care of me.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jorge. He stood over papa’s palette, fists balled at his sides. “I’ll get them. They won’t get away with it.”
It’s difficult for me to remember Jorge at sixteen: he stood tall and skinny, with an adam’s apple so big it looked like he’d swallowed a whole fruit. From the tips of his long bony feet to his uncombed hair, he was filled with bluster and machismo, always rushing to do what you told him not to.
“Quiet, Jorge, don’t say such things,” said mama.
At the same time, Pablo rolled his eyes and said, “Grow up.”
At eighteen, Pablo was sober and straight-laced. Without vying for authority, he always held it, the quiet child who can entice birds to land on his shoulders. But despite his natural gifts, he hadn’t yet learned when not to speak wounding truths.
Jorge flew at him, eager to repay the incident in the truck. Pablo batted him off, landing a shot accidentally on the younger boy’s jaw. He shot an exasperated look at Uncle Alain as if to say what are we going to do with these kids? Estrella bawled.
“Stop it!” shouted mama. “Look what you’re doing to papa!”
Papa had rolled up as close to a fetal ball as he could manage with his broken ribs. His eyes were squeezed shut, furrowing his skin into deep crags. The wrinkles showed how pale he was, how frighteningly old he looked.
Uncle Alain held up one hand in his gently authoritative way. “Why don’t we talk about this at my house?”
“But we should take him to the hospital,” mama said.
“All this talk is only keeping him awake,” Alain replied. He looked at me. “You stay with him. Make sure he gets some sleep.”
The family left. Jorge went last. Before he went out the door, he wiped the bloody corner of his mouth with his wrist and made a fist at Pablo’s back, glancing up to make sure I’d noticed.
The moment before my family left, the house was grave and uncomfortable. I felt aware of minute processes in my body: the pulse in my throat, the tightening of my stomach around the small amount I’d eaten for lunch, the tired ache behind my eyes. Yet I can’t help but remember that moment fondly; it was the last time my family held the shape I’d grown up expecting.
The next day, Pablo dropped out of high school so he could find a second job and support the family. Not to be outdone, Jorge turned himself in to the principal as an illegal so he’d get thrown out. He wanted to prove he was a man too.
When Pablo discovered what Jorge was planning, he tried to stop him from going. He pleaded with him, shouted at him, threatened to beat him up and tie him down. Jorge threw the first punch—or so Pablo said. I have only Pablo’s word.
They circled each other, ready to beat out tensions that had been simmering for years. Pablo fought strong and steady, but Jorge held nothing back. He bit chunks out of Pablo’s arm, ripped open a gash above Pablo’s eye with the sharp ring he wore on his pinky. When Pablo knocked him on the ground, Jorge picked up a piece of broken glass from the gutter and went after Pablo’s neck. Pablo backed away, hands raised. Jorge scrambled to his feet.
“Don’t follow me,” Jorge ordered and ran off—to join the Mexican army probably, mama said. He never came home.
Estrella and I stayed in school. I won a scholarship to college, and later a fellowship to a Ph.D. program in Spanish literature which prepared me to teach the politics of radical novels to my community college students. Ten years later, I helped Estrella take out loans so she could enter medical school and eventually found a free clinic.
Growing up, I’d always known my younger sister and I were different from the rest of the family. We’d been born here; we were citizens. I’d never expected to see our family split along that arbitrary line.
But those stories are only part of what made the moment I want to tell. The heart of my tale lies years before I became a literature professor, on the night my father was assaulted.
As soon as everyone left the house, papa’s eyes drifted open again. I found some leftover soup and spooned it into him. I tried to change his shirt, but as I pulled it off, I saw the fabric was stuck to his back with fresh blood.
“What’s this?” I asked. It didn’t match any of the injuries mama had described.
Papa turned his head. “Don’t tell your Mama.”
I peeled back his shirt. Across papa’s shoulders, a series of jagged slashes spelled the word “WET.” The cuts weren’t deep, but I knew they’d scar.
An image rose in front of my eyes, so real I could almost touch it. Madeleine the washerwoman from my imaginary island of gold: tiny, dark-skinned and bow-legged like mama, but with Pablo’s short-fingered hands, Jorge’s broad eyes, Estrella’s wavy black curls that caught the light like stars in a night sky, and papa’s…
Madeleine turned her back to me and unbuttoned her starched collar, lowering her blouse inch by inch to show me her nape, the top of her spine, her shoulder blades.
I beat my forehead with my palm to drive the vision away. Papa’s real body lay in front of me. I beat harder to drive that away too.
“What did they do to you? Oh God. Oh, Holy mother of Christ.”
I should have tended him, helped him conceal his secret, at least for the night. Instead, I eased him onto the pallet and fled.
I saw Mama outside, arguing with Alain. “Go in!” I shouted. “Papa needs you!” I ran down the curving road to the river where the answer to Flora’s long-ago question surged beneath slick layers of oil and detritus.
The next day, Jorge would raise a piece of glass against his brother, the glint in his eye an echo of the one that had shone in the pupils of the man who cut hatred into papa, setting these events into motion. My family would crack apart like the ground in an earthquake, leaving us grasping to stretch our fingers across the widening rift. At that moment, my mind did the same.
Without childhood to transform it into magic, the river was orange, not gold, stained by trash coursing downstream from the city, not dragon scales and treasure troves. This was what Flora had always known, wasn’t it? What she’d seen as I stood on the banks, spinning fantasies of fairy gold. Madeleine the washerwoman hunched beneath my pretty words like the garbage beneath the river’s ruddy sheen. The lords and ladies of the island laughed and sipped champagne and decked themselves in emeralds and rubies, never seeing who lay crushed beneath their feet. And if she died—well, washerwomen were replaceable, weren’t they? There was always an endless supply of laborers to scrub and starve and lie crushed beneath delicate heels. I felt the story of my life rewrite itself, like the letters of a coded message rearranging into innumerable illegible patterns until, suddenly: clarity.
The sun dipped beneath the white, pink and yellow homes in the distance. A dusk breeze drew cold around my shoulders and crickets emerged to play their mournful melodies. As the water roiled in the dying light, I began to speak.
“There is an island in the river of gold, and it’s true, you can find castles there. Everyone who lives on the island is happy, and there are no slaves.
“Not by that name.”