‘Grandma… Why are we brown?’
The grandmother puts down the rifle she’s been cleaning. Another rifle and a box of ammunition are sitting on the kitchen table in front of her.
‘Why are we brown?’
‘We’re not brown, we’re morochas. Where did you hear that?’
‘We were in gym class and Tati shouted, “Ewww!!! She has brown nipples!”’
The kettle comes to a boil and the grandmother stands up to turn off the stovetop. She wraps a dishcloth around the iron handle before picking up the kettle. Then she puts two bags of coffee in one mug and a teabag in the other and pours in the hot water before bringing both mugs to the table. The sugar and spoons are already laid out on the cloth. She unwraps the bread, which has been bundled up in cloth to keep warm. It came out of the clay oven less than an hour ago.
‘How did she see your nipples?’ she asks, sitting down.
‘We were finishing gym class and had to get changed back into dry clothes. So I was sweaty and took off my t-shirt and she saw my boobies. Why are we brown?’
‘We’re not brown.’ The grandmother sips from her mug, which she holds in two hands. Her gold wedding ring is shoved right up to the top of her finger, where it meets the palm. ‘Brown is the wrong word, it’s a filthy color. We’re morochas, which is different.’ She sips from her mug but the coffee is burning hot and scalds her throat. The grandmother grimaces in pain and tears come into her eyes. Her granddaughter laughs. ‘We’re not brown, we’re morochas, OK?’
‘But that’s not an answer.’ The girl puts two heaped spoonfuls of sugar into her tea, adds milk, cuts two slices of bread and dips them in too. The bread swells with milky tea and she starts to scoop it up with the spoon like soup.
‘We’re morochas because the paint ran out while we were being made.’
‘At the place where people are made they didn’t have enough paint to make us really dark. We were going to be black, but they ran out of paint in the color department. There are a lot of people like us in the world. We didn’t get so many coats. But they didn’t paint white people at all, or only gave them very thin coats, which is why they get hurt so easily. Sometimes you just have to poke them for them to turn red as a tomato.’
‘You’re making things up.’
‘No, I’m not. It’s not me who says so, the old women do.’
‘Yes, but there are plenty older, believe me.’
‘So why did Tati say ‘Ewww’ when she saw my brown nipples?’
‘Because she’s an idiot. Only idiots say things like that. It’s better to be morocha. She can be as gringa as she likes but at the place where people are made they didn’t bother to paint her. They must have had a good reason.’ She sips her coffee again, more carefully this time, before continuing. ‘And there are a lot of advantages to being morocha. Colors look better on you; red, orange, yellow. Put a yellow dress on that girl who said eww about your nipples and see how it looks on her. Personally, I’d much rather look good in yellow. And as if that weren’t enough you can go out when it’s sunny without turning red like an iguana or burning your skin as easily as this Tati girl. And there’s something else: morochas age better too. Look at your grandmother’s skin.’
The grandmother presents her face to her granddaughter framed in her hands as though it were a jewel, something to be treasured. First one cheek, then the other, then the cheekbones. ‘Look, look at your grandmother’s skin.’ She lifts her chin with her eyes closed, showing off her neck. Then she undoes her yellow dress to show the girl her collarbones, look at your grandmother’s skin, good and dark, the bones in my chest, look, look. The old woman holds up her forearm in profile, it gleams in the sun like a sword.
‘Look. Not bad for seventy-three. Just fresh cream and the sun. If it weren’t for the sand and dust you get in August and the lime from the quarry, I wouldn’t even need the cream. But the dust dries everything out.’
The girl still looks terrified: a moment ago she thought that her grandmother was going to undo her shirt all the way to reveal her nipples. Why was she showing off her wrinkles? She decides not to ask, just in case, and continues to sip her spoonfuls of tea-soaked bread. When the bread is gone, she cuts more and dunks it until it falls to pieces. Having finished cleaning the rifles, stimulated by the coffee, the grandmother grows talkative:
‘Also, we’re worth more…’
‘How are we worth more?’
‘Darker things are more expensive because they’re rarer.’
The girl frowns. Why is her grandmother talking like this? The house has sucked up as much light through the windows as it can and now they have to light an oil lamp and candles to see by.
‘Think about ebony furniture, it’s the darkest wood in the world. Do you know anyone who has an ebony chair?’
‘Of course you don’t, because they’re so expensive. Do you know anyone who wears a black pearl necklace?’
‘No,’ the girl says sighing, annoyed by her grandmother’s questions. This way she has of asking questions instead of answering hers. Wouldn’t it just be easier to say why they’re brown?
‘You don’t know anyone with a black pearl necklace because they cost an arm and a leg and they’re very hard to find. And it’s not just about money. Black things are much nicer than any other color. Do you remember the black singer we saw on TV, when you said what a good singer she was and got goosebumps?’
‘Yes!’ the girl replies, happy at finally being able to say yes to something. There was a time when they had electricity at home and watched television. Life was very different back then. ‘Look at black panthers. Black olives! Don’t you think blackbirds are prettier than canaries? It’s better to be dark.’ ‘What color was mommy?’
‘She was like us. Her friends at school called her tar candy. Tar candy! Tar candy! And she came home crying and said it was my fault. It took a lot of effort to make her understand that it was better to be morocha. We could fall asleep in the sun without blistering all over!’ She gestures in exasperation, sensing that her words aren’t getting through.
‘I’d like to be like my friends at school. Like Tati. That colour.’
The grandmother finishes the last of her coffee and bangs the mug down hard on the table. Her granddaughter jumps in her chair.
‘It’s getting dark, let’s go.’ The girl puts down a mug whose bottom is sticky with crumbs and follows her grandmother as she picks up the two rifles. They cross the yard, where night is falling fast, leaving footprints in their wake, like the tracks of small vehicles. Bags and bags of earth are piled along the fence. A trench of potato sacks filled with earth. The dusty earth of the region. The grandmother lays down a tarp and kneels on the ground. The girl imitates her. She gives the girl a rifle and she takes it with big, scared eyes, struggling because it’s too big and heavy for a girl her age. The grandmother watches her as she sets herself like a soldier. That’s right. They lean on the bags of earth and take aim. The house is left empty and all the animals in the yard are asleep. Except for the dogs. The dogs don’t sleep while one of them is still awake.
The girl and her grandmother have the eyesight of a lynx. They’re as comfortable as ghosts in the dead of night.
‘When they come, if any of those bastards gets out of the truck, aim at their head. Don’t hesitate,’ says the grandmother and her granddaughter adjusts her shoulder, finger on the trigger. She digs her feet into the dust and takes a deep breath. Just like she’s been taught.
Copyright ©2023 by Camila Sosa Villada. English Translation copyright ©2023 by Kit Maude. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of classic and contemporary Latin American writers such as Armonía Somers, Jorge Luis Borges, Lolita Copacabana, and Ariel Magnus for a wide array of publications and writes reviews and criticism for several different outlets in Spanish and English including the Times Literary Supplement, Revista Ñ and Otra Parte.