Árida Zona


Too tall. That’s what the teacher with the green eyes, the one from the boy’s side, says. She’s too tall to play Mary. Joseph is only just a little thing. She could be a shepherd or the innkeeper’s wife, but the teacher says no. She is too big for the sheep costumes, and they can’t make a new one because then they won’t all match. Mary can be a cactus, she says. A cactus is just fine with her because her parents won’t come to see a cactus. They wouldn’t have come anyway.

Mary practices standing like a saguaro. Straight and long. She lifts her arms up, up to the gym ceiling where the basketball hoops hang. Up to where the climbing rope starts. She will have a crown of yellow paper flowers to wear and more to hold. It takes all of a man’s life for a saguaro to grow arms. The green-eyed teacher said so. She rises onto her toes.

After school, the girls jump her. Her teeth hit the ground first. The other ones hold her hands so she can’t cover her face. The biggest one searches in the dirt until she comes up with something that sparkles in her hand. Like ice. Only it can’t be. She kneels on Mary, half on, half off. One knee is under her ribs. The glass drags against her cheek. Then it doesn’t catch any more, but the girl’s hand still moves. She feels something run back into her hair, collect in her ear. It can’t be tears because she isn’t crying. Maybe she would if she could get her breath.

Before Catherine can start on the second cheek, Mary sees the girl rise up. Off of her chest. For a moment, she thinks that she is sinking, falling away. The ground has become soft and is ready to swallow her. To take her back. Then she sees the green-eyed teacher. She sees the nun that is pulling the girl away by the hair. The glass in her hand is blue-tinged. A Coke bottle.

Don’t touch your face.

She feels the side that Catherine didn’t have time to reach. Then she feels the side that has started to burn. Moves her tongue inside her mouth to feel if it has gone through. The green-eyed teacher’s eyes roll back into her head until they are all white. Mary watches her collapse to the ground. It doesn’t open for her, it doesn’t make itself soft. Her tongue meets the tip of her finger.

She said not to touch it.

The nun doesn’t blink, she’s still holding Catherine. But the look. Mary feels the tears start, her face aching and burning. She sits up and opens her mouth, lets the blood run out. Someone is screaming and it’s her.

One of the older girls has seen it happen. Gracia, the girl two grades ahead who helps in the library, she looks out the window to see her on the ground. At first she can’t tell because there were so many other girls around. The little ones, the fat ones, the brown and white ones. Even the shy ones. But then they all part, drift away, when the real trouble starts. Then it is only Catherine and the girls that hold Mary’s hands up into a sign of surrender. She drops her stack of books and can only point to the window when the librarian comes to see what is wrong.

It’s the sister who drives her to the hospital. She wears the old habit and has hiked it up to work the pedals. Mary looks at her feet. Sister Agatha has black orthopedic shoes with frayed laces. Flesh-colored stockings that are colored for someone else’s flesh. They wrinkle and sag around her ankles. She tells Mary that Gracia is the one who helped her. If by helped, she says, you mean to say looked until it was too late.

Fight. You needed to fight.

Mary lifts the cloth away from her face and feels the blood start to crawl down her chin. It is warm and she is feeling colder. She presses the cloth back down. Maybe Sister Agatha isn’t a very good nun. Telling her to fight. And the way that she picked her up off the ground while the other teachers only looked.

Don’t even give them tears, she says.

In the waiting room, Mary tries her cold fingertips against the warmer skin of her leg. She is sweating enough to leave damp marks on the vinyl of the chair, but she isn’t hot. A woman comes in a wheelchair and is taken back. One of the other women, who was there before Mary and Sister came in, goes to the window to complain.

I’ve been here two hours. 

The nurse doesn’t look up. 

Can you breathe? She can’t.

Mary isn’t even the one bleeding the most, not now. Sister walks to the windows and comes back. The sky is darkening and the orange street-lamps have come on. She asks again, but Mary doesn’t know when her mother leaves work. She doesn’t know when she’ll be home.

Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the curved needle diving and pulling away again, trailing dark thread. It flits like a hummingbird be- side her head. He has already stitched inside her mouth, the taste of his gloves gagging her. Sister Agatha sits in the green plastic chair where her mother should be. There are spots like rust on her habit. Her feet are crossed at the ankles, the dusty soles of her shoes showing.

You’re a lucky girl, he says. It could have been worse.

Sister frowns because this man, this doctor, he does not know what worse is. Or she is worried about the worst that he has seen and afraid that he might tell her. The silver needle rises again. This time he cuts it free of the thread.

Her mother, when she finally comes, presents her with a bottle of Coke that she can’t drink. Not even with a straw. When she tries, she can feel the air rushing into her mouth through her cheek. The ends of the stitches bristle up like spines under her fingers when she stops it. Mary turns the bottle, tracing the raised letters. Coca Cola. She holds it to her face and can’t feel anything. On the other side—wet and cool. Sister Agatha waits with her while her mother brings the car around.

What will you do?


Sister puts her hand on her head. This is a blessing, Mary knows. She rises up on her toes to receive it.

In bed, she runs her tongue back over the inside of her cheek. Now it tastes like metal, like electricity. There are raw edges and pieces of skin that feel like shreds of silk. She can’t stop herself. Her face feels twice its size, hot and heavy. Her stepfather comes in and gives her two huge pills out of the tough palm of his hand. She can’t get enough water to wash them down and they stick in her throat. She throws them up on the pillow and her mother has to drive to the all-night pharmacy to get something else. Mary’s mother isn’t about to spend all night washing and drying the sheets that she ruins, and she sleeps on the same pillow, turned to the clean side.

The boys gather around her. The wise men, they come to her side and adore. No one has seen a face like this before. At recess they watch her through the fence that separates their playgrounds, but here they can look all they like. She is near and real. They want to touch her face, and she lets them. Fingers flutter against the stitches, afraid, unsure. When Tomas takes his turn, she takes his wrist and presses his hand firmly onto her cheek. She tells them that she touched her tongue to her finger without opening her mouth. They would do anything for her now. And she has made Tommy magic too.

Velma rolls her eyes up to the heavens under her bed-sheet headdress. She has no lines, nothing to say at all. She only has to smile and nod. A stupid Mary who accepts everything and scorns nothing. No fight at all. And the dumb animals, they’re just that. Catherine hasn’t been seen, no one has spoken to her. She’s at the reform school, one of the boys says. But the other girls, they’re all there and they know who sat on her hands. Mary knows too—the angel and the Virgin herself.

She will not be a saguaro. This much is decided. The raised arms, the open palms. It is too much surrender again, too soon. They feel bad, they feel awful, they feel so sad about her face. She will be a star, the green-eyed teacher says. The Star of Bethlehem. She will have a white dress, a silver mask and a flashlight, and she will guide Tomas, William, and Sam across the stage. Until Sister steps in and decides that there will be no such nonsense. Flashlights are nonsense. Masks are worse than nonsense.

She will be the angel.

Luz is the angel.

Catherine’s sheep costume lies empty next to the stairs that lead up to the stage. Sister knows about Luz—that she was the last to run away. Gracia told her. From her window, from the top of her small ladder, she saw it all. And now Luz will be a sheep.

Gracia tells everyone what she knows. She plays it out again, the way the boys replay the baseball games they hear on the radio. Catherine swings her bag full of books and Mary falls to the ground. As she tries to get to her knees, Luz and Velma take her hands and pull her onto her back. Her head bounces o√ the ground. Catherine searches, looking in the dirt for something.

How did she stand?

Mary lifts the girl’s arm into place. Not high. Enough that her face is obscured. Another girl lies on the ground. To be Mary. Some of the other girls take their places. They stand where they remember standing. The shy one, she takes one of Not-Mary’s hands and pins it to the asphalt. A blonde girl takes the other hand. There is a rush to hold down her feet.

No, she says. It wasn’t like that.

They back away. Gasp as the signs are traced onto Not-Mary’s face with the edge of a dirty thumbnail. And they do it again with another Mary and another. She gets tired of directing them and walks off to where the red balls are lying abandoned. They bring her back.

The next recess, the game begins again. Gracia does not need to tell the story now. A Mary is chosen. A kicking and spitting Catherine, a Luz, and a Velma. An older girl drapes her sweater over her head and she is Sister, even though she is as pale as a snake’s stomach. Jennifer, who can make herself faint, is the green-eyed teacher. She falls to the ground, heavy. Now they hold their Mary’s legs. When she is freed, they swarm to comfort her. Mary watches from the steps, shuttling a ball back and forth between her feet. The rubber smell rises with each touch. Once they have run through it, she feels their eyes on her. All she needs to do is nod. And they will begin again. They all have their turn at being her.

Gracia comes to sit with her. More important than double Dutch, that’s what she is now. Older girls will sit around her, eat their lunches near her. Mary puffs out her cheeks for them. But they will not touch the black threads, as if they will attach themselves to their own skin. Tomas is the one that convinced her to tell, she knows that now. It was for sharing her magic. Mary has never told on anyone in her life, she is a keeper of secrets. Only no one has told her any. But now there is a constant rustling of them. She imagines that they roll their words up on scraps of notebook paper, on the white side of chewing gum wrappers, and push them deep into her ears. Tomas likes you, Gracia’s piece says. Miss Murphy is pregnant and it’s a priest’s, another reads. Tomas likes me, Mary says to no one. Miss Murphy is not pregnant, but they all think she is. She whispers this to a hole in the ground, to her pillow at night.

The next week, the game has moved on. Mary still must watch and judge, but now they are anything and everything. She sits on the steps with her court, their ankles crossed demurely, their skirts arranged in perfect folds. Joan of Arc is burned at the tetherball post. She yawns and nods. Anne Frank is carried out of her attic, the top of the jungle gym, screaming. Mary shrugs but blesses it all the same. Daniel is fed to the lions in their den at the corner of the yard. This is goodly in her sight. The game ends only when one of the teachers catches them helping a boy slip under the fence. They are playing Maria Goretti, and they need a boy to play. Just a knife is nothing. There has to be real danger. The boy they try to bring over, he wants the magic too. So they untwist the wires holding the mesh to the pole and lift it up for him to crawl under. Mary is not there. She has started sitting inside, in the library.

There is no such thing as being too tall for an angel costume. Sister Agatha pins the sheets into a dress. A himation, she calls it; green and red, with tinsel stapled to it for gold embroidery. There is an enormous pair of wings, stuck together out of glue, turkey feathers and posterboard. They are drooping with gold and silver glitter, enough to sparkle under the one spotlight. Sister Agnes gives her a cardboard sword. Angels should have them, is all she says. Even the green-eyed teacher admits that Mary makes a good angel. The wise men ask to try her sword, and the girls want to wear the wings, but they are all hers. When she spins, her wings catch the air and seem to lift her.

From the stage, she thinks she can see her parents. Her mother is sitting in the front, still in her uniform. Her father is at the back, near the auditorium doors, so he can sneak away before her mother sees him. No one hears her lines—she’s the only one with anything to say, but she can’t raise her voice enough to be heard. The parents clap anyway, and then it’s the choir’s turn.

After Christmas vacation, the games are different. No one remembers. The girls fight over the kickballs, over Chinese jump ropes made of rubber bands. The older girls do not tell her any more secrets. The boys don’t look at her at all. She finds gold and silver glitter everywhere, fallen from her wings. Then flecks of mica and quartz in the dirt. She can breathe again.