There must have been a noise, a rustle perhaps, a snapping of twigs underfoot. Something heard then but now forgotten compelled her to look to her side as they hiked up the path through the forest, she and her best friend and their young redheaded teacher. It was with a sense of surreality, of wrongness, of out-of-placeness, that she registered a male figure, fuzzy in the background and then–a penis, shocking, in the foreground. The penis dominated her vision with its paleness, like the underbelly of a snake, made even more prominent by the wiry bush of black hair surrounding it. She doesn’t remember reacting at all, at least externally. Instead, she averted her gaze from the man leering through leafy branches at the small group of young women and focused, with startled determination, on the rugged dirt path before her.
The mountain is actually a volcano, a solid pyramid looking over Quito. It is a dependable constant in the landscape of the small Andean city. So familiar a sight is it to her, as she lives her life in the valley below, that she often ceases to think of it or even to really see it. But today, for the first time, she is hiking it. She and her friend, both in eighth grade, have earned a fun day out with a young female teacher, new to the missionary school they attend. Thinking back, she wonders at the innocence with which they set out, three young females, one in her twenties, white and freckled and obviously American, and two in their tweens, awkwardly transitioning from the quiescence of childhood to the burgeoning sexuality of puberty. The teacher, the sole adult, is young and naive, a guaranteed virgin of the fervid Evangelical type, almost sexless in her modest hiking pants, covered arms, and short haircut. There is nothing provocative about her—even her hair is more faded strawberry than fiery red. It is the white femaleness of the teacher that adds to the incongruity of their presence in the mountain forest of the Andes. That day, even when she discovered the strange man’s nakedness among the trees and woody undergrowth, there is no conscious awareness of their vulnerability–the fear lies quiet, buried deep inside her psyche, a mute sense of foreboding rather than a flash of awareness or the sharp sudden recognition of danger. Because she chooses then to remain silent in painful uncertainty, she does not know if either of her companions saw what she glimpsed, so suddenly, the moment over almost before it had begun.
Another day, walking from school through residential streets to her friend Julia’s house, she helps form another threesome, this time with Julia and Julia’s older sister Fatima. Unlike her best friend, who is pale and blonde, Julia and Fatima are dark, darker than she. They favor their mother. With their matte brown skin and heavy black hair, they look more like the maid who cleans their house than the father who pays for it—a wealthy American businessman, working abroad. She is more familiar with this maid, who cracks eggs into an inch of bubbling vegetable oil for them to eat with salty white rice for an after-school snack, than with their mother, similarly brown and Ecuadorian, who seems always away, absent, in another room.
There are plenty of rooms to hide in at Julia and Fatima’s house–oversized for a family of four, it has the requisite stucco wall with shards of broken glass thrusting sinisterly from the cement on its surface, the iron gate topped by menacing spikes standing guard over the long driveway, the double wooden doors carved in the Spanish colonialist style at the entrance, and the indoor/outdoor pool that, loosely S-shaped, winds its way from the pool room and under massive sliding panes of glass to emerge in the carefully tended garden. She has never met the father, but has seen him once at his house, during a school party that spilled over into the evening. He had stepped out onto a balcony overlooking the pool that was lit up from the inside, clear water shining through the inky blackness of the night. A shadowy, vaguely ominous figure, cocktail in hand, he seemed to hesitate at the railing, swaying…was he about to say something? But he did not. He continued to look down at them instead, his gaze consuming their pubescent bodies silhouetted by the watery light and shivering in the evening air, goosebumps tantalizing on exposed flesh, thin wet suits calling as they clung to emerging curves, and merely smirked before retreating, stumbling slightly, to the darkness of the master bedroom.
That day, still blocks from the house, Fatima, who is walking a few yards ahead, abruptly turns toward the opposite sidewalk. When she and Julia catch up to her, they see what she sees: a man standing, legs planted wide, in an empty lot between walled residences, brazenly ignoring the NO URINE AQUI scrawled in garish orange paint on the peeling wall. As he urinates, foamy yellow liquid slides down the chipped concrete to disappear among weeds and empty soda cans. Then, pants still crumpled around his knees, he spies the girls and turns toward them, insolent, thrusting his groin forward, confronting them with his genitals. Once again, she is silent, almost paralyzed, as she takes it all in, the shock of the moment, the repulsiveness of the sight.
Fatima, however, is not silent. Fatima is not still. Short and stocky, she stops. With her index finger, she points. With her broad lips, she laughs. She yells out at the man, voice projecting. In Spanish, she makes fun of his penis. She calls it small; she calls it pathetic. All of a sudden, just like that, the threat seems to fade, to shrink. The man turns in on himself and turns away from them, quickly pulling up his trousers, clutching his coat in front of his crotch. Laughing at their own daring, exhilarated with power, the girls race the rest of the way home.
Decades after and thousands of miles away, back in the United States, she flicks through a glossy National Geographic. She almost doesn’t recognize it. At the last minute, she flips back to a page she has just passed over in her superficial perusal of the magazine. Something pulls at her consciousness about the image of a volcano, erupting, ferocious with fury. The caption below the photograph verifies that it is the mountain she hiked so many years prior, as a child. Here, however, the city is being assaulted by a storm of thick smoke and black ash. Hot clouds of gray obliterate the sun. The mountain, usually a restful green, has transformed into its violent alter ego, a raging monster spewing havoc and devastation. The foreground of the photograph features a woman waiting patiently for a bus in the valley beneath. This woman is indigenous: short and stocky, brown-skinned, face prematurely lined, wearing coarse stockings pulled over thick calves and cheap work shoes that are cracked and misshapen from her splayed feet. One hand holds a plastic shopping bag straining against its heavy load, the other an open umbrella. Even later, years after she finds the National Geographic image, she will remember the umbrella as red. A strong and bright red. A steady beacon of color. A red that pushes back against the swirling sooty ash, protecting the woman who holds it.
Marianna is an emerging writer with no previous publications. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area.