A Heartbeat in 3/4 Time by Kelly Duarte
Updated: May 7, 2019
When Mami and Papi first got together, they made a pact: she got to name the girls, and he got to name the boys. Papi was certain that there would be no need for her to make lists. But she made them. On the bus rides from the lake, up the winding road to the house they just bought. On the back of shopping lists. On the margins of the crossword puzzles she would patiently finish while Papi read the news. There must have been hundreds of names with a common theme. Mami liked names that ended in -a. She said they were a melody in the air while your tongue danced, trying to catch up. Always beautiful. Like she hoped we would be.
I came out first. Maya. Then my little sister Elena, two years later. Papi was getting
frustrated that his naming skills were useless. He didn’t carry lists, the names he wanted were right there--still living in my abuelo and tios. Like clockwork, my mother got pregnant the year after Elena.
Whenever Papi was not in the room, Mami would gesture for us to come closer and feel the life growing inside her. Our hands rubbed her belly, feeling bumps rise under soft skin. Mami would whisper her secret, I think you’ll be getting another sister. And we would giggle until Papi came back, usually with a pastelito in his hand. He’d ask what we were talking about and we’d giggle even harder.
I was in the backyard with Papi, holding a small pocket knife he was teaching me to use, when Mami’s water broke. Papi pried the knife from my hands and ran into the house. He carried my mother upstairs and into their bed. There would be no time to get to the hospital, a good thirty minutes away by car. He told me to run to get my mother’s closest friend, Chicha, who lived down the hill from us.
My feet slapped the earth, picking up rocks and twigs that came with it. I reached
Chicha’s house and told her the baby was coming. She picked up a black leather bag by the door and told me to get into her car. We got into her bug and I willed it to pick up speed, to stop rattling and fly to my house. When I saw the familiar overgrown grass and leaning tree, I could breathe again. I ran into the house while Chicha walked. I wanted to run behind her and push until her legs picked up enough speed to get inside the house faster. But Mami’s manners were drilled into my head.
Chicha told me to stay downstairs and take care of Elena. She assured me that Mami and the baby would be fine. Elena was in the living room, silently playing with empty cans of beans that Papi had sanded down. The screams were ignored as her thick brows furrowed into each other, trying to figure a puzzle only she knew how to solve. Because only she knew what the problem was.
Every inch of my skin was on edge, bumps that made me feel like this body was not my own. More like a caiman’s, the ones that loved to sun themselves on papi’s workbench. Each hair on my arm stood out. Although Mami told us not to wish for a television set, I longed for one. At least then some noise would drown out the upstairs. Welcoming a new life into the world sounded so painful.
The screaming from Mami stopped and another, higher voice took her place. My breath returned to my lungs. Elena looked up at me and smiled, as the puzzle she was solving led to the birth all along. I felt Papi’s footsteps as he stomped down the stairs. He didn’t look at us as he headed to the backyard. The stench of his cigars trailed into the the house. Chicha steps were gentle. “Do you want to see the baby?”
We laid down next to our mother as our new sister leaned into her breast. Even Elena was in awe of this new being, unable to take her eyes of this pale, almost porcelain angel. I peeked a glance out the window that faced the backyard. The smoke plume had reached the sky.
“Have you chosen a name yet?”
Mami smiled at the both of us. “Sofia.”
Kelly Duarte is a Guatemalan-American writer based in Southern California. Her work has appeared in Palabritas, The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, St. Sucia and more. When she’s not writing, you can find her making zines, taking hikes with her dog or collecting polaroids.