Like a frightened child clinging to his mother, my normally silky hair clings to my neck and forehead in thick, grimy clumps. Raucous laughter and pulsing disco music accost my ears and enter my body so that my heart begins to throb to the rhythm of the music, while my head becomes an unwilling prison for the sounds of drunken laughter.
I hold my hands open, palm down, over my eyes as a sort of shield from the punishing sun, and squint down the narrow highway that sits like a ragged gray ribbon along the northern boundary of our town. I glance at my watch and notice the bus is already fifteen minutes late.
A steamy breeze pushes at my face, forcing odors up my nose: the sharp, fetid smell of urine from the soiled public restrooms mingled with the too-sweet scent of cheap perfume. As the oppressive breeze thumps at my body one last time, my nose is surprised to detect the mild, syrupy aroma of piping-hot corn merged with sauteing garlic and onion. My stomach flutters and gasps at the aroma, and, glancing at the empty road one last time, I turn toward one of the crowded food booths tucked haphazardly into the south end of the open-air bus station.
I try to ignore the dust latched on to the bottom of my jeans, oozing between my toes, and sticking to every inch of my sandal-clad feet as I squeeze between myriads of rickety blue plastic tables and matching colossal, wobbly chairs heaving with people. My ears buzz with the cacophony of hundreds of voices competing with the disco music for their companion’s attention. I trip over a toppled chair in my path, nearly knocking over a nearby table roofed with half-empty glass bear and coke bottles.
As I regain my balance, I see that I am, miraculously, standing near the victuals that apprehended my attention. Lined up behind a smudged, sticky glass panel are dozens of arepas—disk-like, thick white corn pancakes stuffed with garlicky shredded beef.
In exchange for a few meager bolivares (Venezuelan money), a clammy-faced, plump woman clad in a stringy white tank top and tight-fitting blue jeans shoves an arepa, wrapped loosely in waxed paper, into my hands. Excitedly, I sink my teeth through the deep-fried shell into the juicy, meaty center. Grease streams past my fingernails and pools in the crevices between my fingers.
Now that my hunger has begun to be satiated, I swivel to see if my bus has arrived, just in time to see it slamming its brakes as it comes to a halt next to the empty highway. Knowing that if I miss this bus, I will have to wait three more hours for the next one, I trip and fumble my way through the bustle of the bus station towards my ride. I send up a prayer for protection as the bus driver hops out of his vehicle to pour water on the bus’s overheated radiator, but I am not so worried when dozens of rumpled people, who have been riding the bus for the last few hours, disembark, tired, yet unhurt.
My body might be curled in my favorite blue chair in this quiet living room, but my mind is busy, awakened by the scent of the hot chocolate in the giant mug my hands are hugging. Tonight I will indulge myself in this hot-chocolate memory, though I will have to travel at least thirteen years back in time, and two countries south.
When I close my eyes, the backs of my eyelids become a sort of planetarium. No matter where my eyes turn, there are stars. The sky is deep with them. I am so dazzled by the stars I don’t notice the moon, but I know it is full because when I look down, I can see my swimsuit-clad body, and when I look around, I can see all twenty of my friends, perched with their knees by their faces in our small bark canoe. I can also see the white ripples the motor makes in the tranquil tar-colored water as we move forward.
The only part of my surroundings the moon doesn’t illuminate is the thick vegetation on the banks of the river. It is a black wall, though I know if we moved closer, turned off the engine, and sat in silence for an hour, that wall would be alive, screeching, slithering, and growling with life. Here, far from either shore, I believe the lie the darkness tells me—the jungle-covered shores are secure walls, embracing us, keeping us safe from anything which might want to harm us.
My memory’s eyes shift back to the canoe and my friends. This memory is far too pleasant to be marred by the reality of my environment. I see a blue thermos rocking perilously on a small platform at the end of the canoe, ahh….hot chocolate!
Our chaperone cuts the canoe motor off. Our voices are shrill from competing with said motor and, feeling as though we are rude intruders into the serene night, we lower our voices to a whisper. This abrupt silence allows the chaperone to get our attention and admonish us to behave, telling us next that we are free to jump into the water.
We forget about being rude to the quiet and, lugging oversized inner tubes made from tractor tires, we crawl and clamber and finally jump over the edge of the canoe into the murky depths of the water. There are too few inner tubes for us, and we have to share. Soon, someone starts a game of King of the Mountain (aka "King of the Tractor Tire").
Some of us tire of the game and swim to “quieter” inner tubes to gossip and ponder the deeper questions starlit nights bring to mind. When we get cold, or thirsty, we drift over to the canoe, and there is hot chocolate.
My body in the blue chair takes another sip. I open my eyes wide and blink, trying to decide whether I should come back to America and my dry, cozy living room or not.
Then I hear my precious son’s breathing on the baby monitor, and I decide I would like to come back to the present. Now I have a new story to tell him about when I was a teenager going to boarding school in the Amazon jungle, and how I used to float on the Orinoco River with my friends at midnight.
My parents were in this building. I could feel it. I tried to keep my wings from vibrating too rapidly—too much fluttering would alert the evil Bezra that a free, albeit young, Ytori had infiltrated their city. I flitted cautiously from one shadowed alcove to another, until I reached the hulking entrance of this building that I sensed my parents were enslaved in.
My breathing came more and more rapidly and my hands trembled as I inched my way cautiously into the sinister interior. Tears of sorrow and despair filled my eyes when I saw the shapes of dozens of Ytori huddled against the back wall, huffing into giant tubes. I gulped in horror.
The Bezra were using my people to lure others of my kind into enslavement in their city! Gazing at the colorless shapes that were Ytori slaves, I clenched my fists in anger. The Bezra had filched these Ytori’s colors, and their identities.
At one time, the enslaved Ytori sparkled with colors that identified families, from gentle purples and blues to bright oranges and vibrant greens. Now, I realized with despair that since my parents’ bodies no longer radiated soft blue, I would never be able to identify them.
I tiptoed into the darkest corner of the room I could find. I needed to think. Everything I had learned about the Bezra and my parents' capture paraded through my mind.
The Bezra, shadowy creatures with twisted bodies, arrived in our dazzling world of purple skies, lofty cream-colored trees, and countless arrays of exquisitely hued vegetation shortly after my parents were married. The evil creatures were accompanied by a massive floating city. The Bezra never leave their dark and dismal city; we believe they are afraid of color, though we aren’t sure why.
When the Bezra first brought their city, it hovered quietly above our planet for many months. My people are wary of other creatures, and they were relieved when the Bezra did not venture out of their murky home in the sky. Some Ytori even began to think the colorless city was beautiful: one giant, tangled mass of gray towers set against our majestic purple sky.
One day, a beautiful melody floated out from the city. The Ytori love music, and many of our people began to flit closer and closer to the hulking fortress during their daily ramblings. Some of the older Ytori worried, warning that we needed to stay away from things we didn’t understand, quoting an ancient proverb about how evil is coated in alluring colors.
One day, my mother left me, still enclosed in an egg, in the care of her sister, while she and my father, along with many other young Ytori, drifted near the city to listen to the captivating music. The music on this day was particularly enticing, and they began to sway to it, all the while floating closer to the city, unaware their color was beginning to fade.
My aunt watched in horror from her home as the hulking forms of dozens of Bezra swarmed out of the city, slashing the air with peculiar silver sticks. The Ytori near the city lost all of their color, becoming as powerless as new hatchlings. Then the Bezra herded them out of sight.
I have lived in the shadow of the city into which my parents disappeared ever since I hatched. Once, according to my elders, my people were full of spontaneous and radiant joy. Now, joy is only a mask covering a palpable sorrow.
When I first learned my tiny fingers could transform an ordinary blade of grass into an effervescent little rainbow, I should have been ecstatic, but instead I felt hollow and empty—I wanted to share the joy of creating with a mom and a dad.
My auntie loved me dearly, and called herself my mother, but she and I clashed. For one thing, I was a different shade of blue than she. For another, my auntie confined herself to a minuscule area, experimenting with the colors there for endless days. I, on the other hand, fancied adding color to the fringes of the land on my planet.
My auntie allowed me to venture a small distance from her confined area, but it was never enough for me. I lived with a feeling of discontent, an itch that I could not scratch.
Finally, when my wings first budded, with a sigh, my aunt told me the story of my parents. I think she hoped I would heed the story as a warning not to be too adventurous. What she didn’t know was that she made my unscratchable itch intensify.
I had to find out what the Bezra had done to my parents. I had to free them. And so I secretly made preparations. I practiced coloring my surroundings to camouflage my blue body so I could approach the city without being seen.
I watched the Bezra patrol their borders, eager to lure in foolish Ytori who flew too near. I found gaps where no Bezra patrolled, shadowed spaces between buildings where I might flit in. I wove a cloak of grass that covered my form completely, and experimented until it was colored with the blacks and grays of the city.
I hoped that if the Bezra could not see me, then perhaps they would not be able to drain my color. When all of my preparations were complete, I donned my murky cloak and fluttered cautiously into the city. I was relieved when I peeked under my cloak and found my color had not faded.
As I stole carefully between buildings, I reviewed my plan to rescue my parents: I would find them and touch them to restore their color. Then, before the Bezra could capture us, we would fly free of the city.
After hours of combing the city, I had finally reached this building. Now, huddled in a corner watching the bent and sad forms of my fellow Ytori, I realized that saving my parents wasn’t enough; I must try to free all of these captured Ytori. But what if my parents weren’t among the Ytori in this building? Tears filled my eyes as I struggled with the impossible choice I had to make.
This is when a Bezra guardian squinted his eyes with the realization that a tiny Ytori was standing in the shadows, not working. I knew then I had to act quickly. I threw off my cloak, and as the Bezra guard yelped and shaded his eyes so he would not have to look at my colored form, I dove, touching Ytori one by one as fast as I could, not noticing that as they began to glow faintly with their unique colors, my own was fading rapidly.
“Little one, quickly, grab my hand!” A hushed bass voice urgently begged. As I weakly grasped his hand, I gasped at the sensation of warmth filling me, astonished to see that his color was identical to my own.
Frantically, we moved to clasp hands with the Ytori scattered throughout the room, amazed to discover that together we created a blazing blur of color that could not be extinguished. Bezra guards tried to step in our way, wielding their silver weapons, but screeched in alarm as their bodies began to dissolve.
“This way!” a melodic voice called to the others. “Keep holding on to each other! I know where the other Ytori are.” As one, we floated through the city, grasping any Ytori we found, creating a radiant ball of light. Bezra shrieked when they saw us, even as their bodies were shrinking!
We roared with delight as the city itself began to crumble, disappearing faster and faster, until, as if by magic, the Bezra and their hideous fortress were gone! The light and cacophony of noises had awakened all of the Ytori from our world, and as they watched they sang a song of exaltation.
Cries of “We’re free!” and “How did this happen?” began to erupt from the Ytori surrounding me.
“It was this little one,” a rich, deep voice said, as its owner lifted me and held me above the others. When I looked down at him, I gasped! This was the Ytori who had helped me in the building, whose color was identical to my own!
“Daddy?” I whispered.
Before he could respond, the melodic voice which had urged us to rescue the other Ytori in the city spoke from beside him: “Oh, my. You are beautiful, just like I always pictured you. You must be our daughter!” Weeping, I leaned down, stretching my arms out to these two Ytori whose colors so perfectly matched my own. My family was together again!
An acrid tang penetrates my mouth as I sink to my knees, shivering uncontrollably. My stomach clenches like a fist, forcing partially-digested food and bile up my throat only to spew, geyser-like, out my mouth. Clutching my stomach, I rock back and forth, waiting for the nausea to subside. Only then do I notice I am sobbing uncontrollably.
Amidst the sobs, I perceive a hand, ethereal and yet radiating life, resting on my shoulder.
“No,” I moan, softly at first, and then louder and louder, until I am screaming it. “You’re not there; you can’t be. I ran away from you. How did you find me?”
Then I hear a whisper in my ear: “I love you.” Oh, that tender voice, deep with love and sorrow. I shrivel as an arm slides around my shoulder, though I do not thrust it away as I have so many other times. I am too broken.
The meek girl to whom the voice belongs has been by my side since I was a babe. The creamy skin on her wrists, soft as a newborn babe’s, has been inscribed by my knife with dozens of purpling scars; though it was into my wrists, and not hers, I had sawed. It was too late I realized that each time I drew the knife across my flesh, it etched a bloody line into hers. With each stroke, she had absorbed the sting of my father’s hatred.
She used to dress in the most exquisite clothes. Now, she wears the oversized and tattered ones my mom shoved at me when I entered high school. The clothes draw stares wherever we go. Kids my age mock her; her elders look at her with pity. After she put on my clothes, she adorned me with her beautiful raiment so I could stroll through high school without shame.
And so, because of me, my companion has a scarred and ragged visage. I cannot look at her without staring at all of my sorrows and shame. That is why early this morning I boarded a bus which would take me far away from her.
It was after I had brooded for some time over all the pain I caused her that I heaved my dad’s old gun out of my pocket and twisted it towards my head. Then, as my index finger was pinching the trigger, everything spun out of control. I saw a man’s arm thrust the gun away from me. I heard an anguished scream and tires shrieking. I felt my body leave the seat when the bus began its first roll, and there was blackness all around.
When I woke up, a crumpled rag beside the toppled bus, everything was silent and still around me, and all the passengers, strewn like pieces of trash on the ground, were dead.
“I love you.” The gentle voice jars me back to the present as a crescendo of sirens fills the air. The hand, so warm with life, moves off my back. I begin to shift my eyes from the ground to the road, and that is how I see she is standing, holding my gun. In a trance, I watch her walk toward the sirens, and then kneel, resting the gun on the ground at her feet.
I see her hands slide up in surrender. I watch the police handcuff her and shove her into a car as ambulances arrive. I watch paramedics identify bodies, and I weep softly as they cover them with horrible black bags and stack them in the ambulance.
No one seems to notice me. Hours pass. I remain where I am, with my arms wrapped around my body, rocking back and forth. Everyone leaves. I am alone, with the mangled frame of the bus lying in front of me.
Oh, the shame! I cannot bear to live anymore.
And then, like a gentle breeze, a whisper tickles my ear: “I love you.” Though I know she left in the police car, it is as if she is still here, sitting beside me. The whisper becomes a chant, turning the words into invisible arms which embrace my mind so I cannot think about anything else.
“Stop! You can’t love me!” I wail. “Look what I have done! Look at the pain I have caused you!”
“I love you” sings the reply.
“Ok,” I finally wail, “I have to let you love me! I can’t fight you anymore, and I can’t get away from you.” More time passes. I remain where I am, allowing love to swell into every crevice of my being.
“You love me,” I whisper into the stillness of the night. A smile, blooming from my soul, creeps onto my face. “You love me,” I shout.
And I dance, free of my shame.