by Nora Studholme
Even though he was only my age, not even out of primaries, Luis walked like an old man, all bent over and dragging his leg behind him. He’d broken all of the ribs on his right side and shattered his pelvic bone. There were still shards of it floating around in there. Sometimes he took our fingers and let us feel them, strange subterranean creatures that pressed against his flesh.
Mariana, whose mother worked with mine at the market, lost all of her teeth out to the canines, top and bottom. You could feel a hot breeze when she smiled, musky and cavelike. When she ate, dribbles of broth and mashed plantain drooled from her lips.
“She will never marry,” my mother said. “Never,” she repeated, her eyebrows low in warning.
But I knew what they’d risked it for – or, more precisely, who. And I still climbed with them.
They called themselves Los Monos, and they were quick and brown and fearless.
They took their name for the cliff that rose, rugged and dripping, over the waterfall that fell abruptly in the center of the jungle. The villagers called the cliff Punta Mono, and it had the look of a bored monster, its great stony shoulders hunched and gloomy, peering down into the pool below.
To be un mono was to tame this beast, to haul yourself up the cliff face and fling yourself from the rim of its apathy.
On hot days, when we swam in the pool and tilted onto our backs in the cradling coolness, the cliff rose so high that it became the sky and the horizon all in one. We watched as surprised clouds caught on its ragged corners and tumbled down its face in a froth of white.
Up close, the falls made their own wind even when the air was still. We made a game of it, trying to swim as close to the base as we could until the power of the plummeting waters shoved us away from its fury, with hands like our fathers only stronger.
Normally, I stayed below, watching the boys as they leapt. I loved that moment of pause, legs notched as if they were running in the air, then falling, the same speed as the water behind them, so that if you looked at them together they seemed to be drifting down like seed pods, floating, suspended on the surface of our held breath.
Then the smashing of water, shattering harder than an explosion, forcing the air out of all of our lungs in a whoosh and a whoop, the relief of motion again, time and gravity returning to their familiar places.
But then I started climbing with them, and they let me come along because I could keep up. Even though I was a girl, and small for my age, my skinny fingers gripped the slick bulges of stone easily, my toes notching into the cracks in the cliff-face.
Midway up the cliff I found a small cave hidden behind the falls. I broke through the stinging force of the water to the sudden quiet, the droplets on the rock walls catching the light and glittering like buried silver. Sometimes I stayed there the rest of the afternoon, protected from the world and its expectations. Small gray birds flitted in and out, inspecting me confidently, their heads cocked to one side. Los Monos tell me the birds are the souls of those who’d jumped and missed their target. They say it to frighten me, but I find a strange comfort in it. If I were a soul, I would want to tuck myself into this cool cup of earth, peering out at the hurry and heat of the jungle outside.
Today, though, I don’t stop climbing at the mouth of my little cave. Today I reach the top. I pull myself over the fern fringed edge, ignoring the harsh scrape on my bare knees. Los Monos cheer and jeer. You here to jump, little one? They say. Their voices are brazen and teasing. They’ve seen this many times before.
I turn my back to them, finding the steadiness of my legs again. I move toward the edge.
Mother tells me the story of the boulder. It hides beneath the silver-green of the pool, waiting. It was once a beautiful young girl, she says, who came to the river to sing and do her washing and play each day. The river god M’Boi soon fell in love with her, and one day as she was bathing he came to ask her to be his wife. But when he rose up in all his power she was frightened. She began swimming down the river as fast as she could, away from this mighty force who loved her. She swam so fast in her terror that M’Boi could not keep up, and he twisted and thrashed in his fury, the river banks bending behind him. At last he tired of the chase and opened a great chasm beneath the girl, and she plummeted down down down. Just as she hit the basin far below, M’Boi turned her into a stone to spare her life, and to keep her for his own forever.
My mother smiles at me when she says how beautiful the girl is, pats my arm as she says how much M’Boi loves her.
But I can only think of how lonely she must be now, slants of sunlight filtering down to her in cold golden motes, her own reflection the only sky she sees.
I think of the ground opening up beneath her, and of her body falling, falling, falling. And I wonder if, for a moment, she thought she was free.
My toes grip the edge. They’re brown and slick with mist from the climb, a cut on the left big toe bleeds slightly.
Los Monos are shouting behind me, but I cannot hear what they are saying over the thunder of the falls, the familiar wind rising up off of it.
Just once I look beyond. My eyes fracture the waterfall into millions of individual drops, each one spinning over the sudden curve of the cliff, turning as they tumble. Far below, over the arch of the clamoring froth, the surface of the pool is sudden in its stillness, its surface glazed with the careful quiet of secrets held below.
The longer I look the further it sinks away from me.
She won’t do it, I hear.
The water droplets are teeth now, raining out of the ragged maw of stones, showered in spittle. The opening of the rocks where the water gushes a split bowl of bone.
I close my eyes and let the ground open up beneath me. Just for a moment, time stops. And then I fall.
I grew up the daughter of a librarian, and have lived with insatiable curiosity ever since. It doesn’t matter what I’m learning, as long as it’s new and challenges how I think. I travel the world with a book in my hand, finding stories wherever I go. I have two short fictions published in The Dillydoun Review and Club Plum, with one more forthcoming. My works have been finalists for several literary awards, including the Grindstone Novel Prize, The Alpine Fellowship, and Fractured Lit’s Micro Award.