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DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Migrant Writers, is a PEN America workshop series for young undocumented and migrant writers. This week we excerpt an anthology of their work.

Star pulled her backpack straps tighter around her shoulders. She missed the bus and had to walk to town. Her aunt Marie was at weekend mass and could not drive her. The bus passed every half an hour, and it was normally empty this early in the morning on weekends. The path in front of her was laden with salt and snow, and the cold air stung her face and seeped through the thin soles of her shoes. She walked quickly as cars drove by. Star occasionally hitched rides when necessary. This morning, she was determined to walk.

Star woke up early to make breakfast for herself. She had prepared her belongings the night before. Her clothes were faded with wear, her socks had holes in them, and the hemline of her pants reached above her ankles. She packed a camera, a wide-angle lens, a tripod, an apple, and bus fare. On the weekends, she traveled solo to places miles from home to take pictures. Star was determined to visit every town nearby. She’d visit thrift stores, bookstores, and antique stores. Sometimes, she would converse with passersby if they were friendly. Mostly, Star wanted to take photographs of what others did not notice.

Star did not plan where she wanted to go. She liked to challenge herself to leave home and travel to locations that she stumbled upon by accident. She found gloves, shoes, furniture, and books on her walks. She followed her inner compass and walked to the ends of roads, into abandoned buildings, spoke to elderly people sitting on benches, spaces closed off from the public, and forgotten items on the street. She saw herself in them as she saw her own reflection in the bathroom mirror. These places resonated with her more than people. Their vastness filled the vastness within her. Star found comfort in the silence of peeling paint and faded floorboards. Here she found the solace she could not find at home.

When she felt brave, she would ask strangers if she could take their portraits. Some replied no right away, others would look back confused, and some shrugged and said yes. Their reaction was always the same: hesitation. To take a portrait was an act of intimacy. In this way, a camera was not much different from a shotgun. A camera caught its captive with the simple snap of a shutter. The captive died at the click of the button, forever trapped in the photographer’s frame.

Star used to photograph Fernanda, her mother, when she slept late on Saturdays mornings, her only day off from work; during their outings to the local zoo and museum; when she cooked ceviche in their wallpapered kitchen; and when they were out with friends. Perhaps no one had seen Fernanda like Star, and no one ever would. Star was at Fernanda’s side until the last heavy snores accompanied her forgetful slumber.

There were close-ups of Fernanda’s gentle oval profile, the salt-and-pepper curls cascading down her forehead, and her frail hands in Star’s photographs, her eyes glimmering with the vigor of youth. Fernanda often bit the skin off her lips and chewed off the ends of her nails. These were habits she could not change, done almost automatically, during free moments. Fernanda’s thin figure graced the walls of Star’s room. When Star felt lonesome, she looked at the frames above her bed. These were Star’s most prized possessions. Star kept Fernanda alive by looking at the pictures, imagining she was by her side still brushing her hair and telling her stories about her week at work. Star sang songs in Spanish out loud for the both of them.

Fernanda’s laughter echoed in Star’s memory. In the evenings, they sat beneath the faint glow of their television screen, the light illuminating the soft lines on Fernanda’s face. They watched cartoons and the news to help Fernanda learn English. Star helped Fernanda sound out words, and she pronounced them slowly, her mouth stumbling on the r’s and o’s. Fernanda laughed when Star corrected a word she mispronounced. Fernanda’s favorite word to sound out was, “Star Wars.” She pronounced it, “Ester Wers.”

They left the television on in the background while Fernanda recounted her day at the grocery store, her joints aching with the weariness of standing and bagging groceries. The tips of her fingers were rough with callouses. She soaked her feet in salts at least once a week to lessen the soreness. She told Star stories about fussy customers who argued over the cost of items and the customers who demanded she carry their bags of groceries to the car. Fernanda politely replied, “I do not do that sir. That is not my job.” The customers threatened to speak to the manager or refused to pay for their groceries. Fernanda practiced English until she could speak for herself, and she firmly repeated, “That is not my job.”

Customers asked, “Where are you from?” At first, Fernanda did not think her appearance was out of the ordinary. Fernanda was of average height and weight. From the back, there was nothing to distinguish her from the average woman. After a few weeks, Fernanda realized strangers were interested in her dark eyes and hair and her tan skin. She did not look like the local townspeople. The more customers asked this question, the more self-conscious she felt. Fernanda said to Star, “The loudest customers are the most unkind. The quiet ones are always polite.” Star took this lesson to heart. She watched and she listened, but she did not speak. Star waited for Fernanda to finish speaking before responding.

Fernanda told Star about how she learned to call birds to her hands without scaring them. “You have to be very still, my daughter. This is how birds learn to trust you.” Blue Jays and mockingbirds flew to Fernanda’s palm in the backyard of their first home. In their backyard, Fernanda planted a lemon tree, tomatillos, dandelions, and hydrangeas. The birds chirped as soon as the sun was out. There was a wooden yellow birdhouse on the corner of the yard with seeds and water Fernanda refilled each morning. She fed them breadcrumbs while she stood as still as she could, the birds pecking lightly at her palm to get their fill. Her aunt Marie, Fernanda’s sister, did not have a birdhouse in their backyard.

When Star was photographing, she imagined she was part of her surroundings and let the camera lens guide her. Her hands became the camera. Star walked for half an hour or so until she saw a mound of hay on the side of the road. The road stretched far ahead of her without a visible ending. Cars drove by, and she watched them disappear into the distance. Three tall skinny trees stood in the background of the hay, the sun a pale muted halo. The land cracked beneath her feet as she walked towards the trees. The mound of dirt was as tall as she was; she could not see over it. Star walked a few feet back to set up her tripod and camera.

The tripod was creaky from use and storage. Star had found crates with the tripod, a film camera, and stacks of expired film in her aunt’s attic a few months ago. Elated, she had researched how to use it. Star placed the camera on the tripod and set it over a patch of flat grass. She photographed the stark, sharp limbs of the trees in the distance, their crumbling leaves hanging like pearls from the ends of branches. Star walked in front of the tripod and set a self-timer to shoot self-portraits for her friends. She walked to a big pile of leaves and stood in the center of the frame. She took pictures of herself smiling and jumping up and down in front of the camera into the pile, the leaves flying and getting tangled within the long dark strands of her hair.

Star knew someday her limbs would creak and her hair would be as white as her aunt’s. With a camera, she would always remember. In pictures there was no anxiety about the future and no memory of the past. A picture was a perfect moment immortalized for eternity. If she could photograph every moment of her life, she would always remember. No memory would be out of her reach.

Star wanted to remember all; she did not want to miss a single second. One day, her memory would not be as sharp, and these details would blend together. Star wanted to breathe in and fill her lungs with as much of the world as she could. With a large intake of breath, she smelled the morning air, the sharp coolness piercing her chest.

Star packed her belongings and made her way back to the road. The sun was starting to set, and fewer cars were on the highway. With no bus in sight, she made the hard decision to walk back home. The gravel crunched beneath her feet as she moved quickly to be home on time. Star called Marie to tell her she would be a few minutes late for dinner. Marie did not like it when Star was late.

Star had lived with her aunt for the past five years. Marie was a small stout woman with a rigid routine. She awoke at 5 a.m., prayed over her bed with a handful of rosaries to a small wooden cross of Christ, and promptly prepared a bowl of fruit by 6 a.m. By twelve o’clock in the afternoon, she served lunch; by five o’clock in the evening it was dinner time, and the lights went out by eight o’clock for the night, regardless of whether Star was ready for bed or hungry. The towels, the forks, and her clothes were always in the same place. Not a single hair was out of place in Marie’s perfect updo; her clothes, always perfectly ironed and clean, though their colors were muted and sullen. She wore collared shirts and knee-length skirts.

Marie had followed the same routine for as long as Star could remember. Sparse, dark wooden furniture occupied the rooms, and the white walls were bare. There were no bright colors. Plastic covered the couches and chairs. The curtains were open and flooded the living room with warm light. This was the only color visible in their home.

Marie rushed from one end of the kitchen to another to prepare lunch for her niece Star. The perfectly stacked pots and pans gleamed in the sunlight. They were scrubbed so hard that streaks from the scourer could be seen on the sides of the pots. A rack of potatoes roasted in the oven, and a pot of warm stew awaited on the stove. Marie pulled plates from the cupboards and set them down on the bare wooden table.

Marie had not expected to care for Star; she had planned to never marry or have children. Others in the family had children and families to care for on their own. Now it was her duty to care for Star after Fernanda, her only sister, had left for an evening drive and never came back. On that evening, Star had accompanied Fernanda to the grocery store, where they had exchanged quick goodbyes, not knowing they would not meet later that evening as planned. The car was found on the side of the road with Fernanda in the front seat the next morning.

Star had Fernanda’s smile and her warm demeanor. Fernanda had been the loudest of the two. At parties, small crowds of people gathered to hear her speak. Marie was always in the background. Marie preferred to step to the side while Fernanda received praise and attention. Fernanda had more suitors and attended more parties than Marie. Star missed her mother’s loudness. With Fernanda, Star had never felt alone.

“Star, where did you go today?”

“I went out by the fields on the west side of town to photograph.”

“Be careful. Remember not to talk to strangers or wander too far into a place without others around.”

Marie and Star spooned stew into their mouths in silence. The liquid burned the insides of Star’s mouth. The stew was too hot, and the potatoes were a little sour. Not wanting to hurt Marie’s feelings, Star ate quickly and did not comment on the flavoring. Crickets outside their window chirped as incessantly as Marie. In the distance, street lamps lit up as the moon climbed into the sky. Star washed the dishes and slipped beneath her cool covers.

Unless she had school, Star awoke in the afternoons. She helped Marie with laundry, washing the dishes, and cleaning their sparse home. On her walls were posters of Styx, Los Tucanes De Tijuana, the Ramones, and Rocio Durcal. In the corner of her bedroom were a pile of messily stacked books and a vinyl record player. The walls of her bedroom were painted a bright blue. Star refused to have bare walls. The color reminded her of the sea during the summer. On her windowsill, Star lined a row of seashells from smallest to biggest to remind her of the beach. Star had gathered the shells from her trips to the beach with Marie and Fernanda.

Marie disapproved of Star’s room. There were piles of clothes on the floor and furniture. Stacks of dishes and cups lined her nightstand. Star witnessed the efforts Marie undertook to maintain her clothes and their home, and she wished she was more relaxed. Life was too short to be rigid. Marie had worked as a secretary at their local elementary school for the past fifteen years. Her daily job required her to organize files, meetings, and events. She carried this habit into their home. Marie was only five years shy of retirement. When Star asked Marie what she wanted to do after she retired, Marie replied, “I want to sit in peace from morning to evening. I don’t want to answer another phone or sit at a desk again.”

On weekends, they went for long walks on the dusty roads near their home, reminiscing about Fernanda, wondering whether she would have enjoyed the town, too. Fernanda’s presence walked alongside Star and Marie. She was with them when they watched television, when they sat down to eat dinner, and when they tried to feed birds, and neither could stand still enough to feed birds like Fernanda had.

They left flowers at Fernanda’s grave in the town cemetery every few weeks. Star and Marie took turns changing the flowers. Fernanda’s favorite flowers had been daisies; they were simple and classic. Next to the flowers were candles and a picture of Star as a newborn. Star vowed to replace the flowers each month for as long as she was alive. The candle containers were stained and weathered from the rain. Those had not been changed since the day of the funeral.

Marie often worried about Star and how she coped with her mother’s death. When asked, Star replied, “I miss Fernanda. I hope she remembers us.” Star walked around with her face pressed to that camera, withdrawn into her own thoughts. Trying to bring Star back was like trying to wedge a spoon out of a jar of honey. She had few friends—another girl who was as quiet as she was, and a boy she took photographs with. She brought both of them home for dinner. They were polite kids who wore heavy eyeliner and ripped jeans.

Star would be entering adulthood without the guidance of the one adult who had raised her during her first years. Marie did her best to care for Star in the way Fernanda would have wanted her to. She made sure Star spent time with people she knew, stayed out of trouble, and came back home by nighttime. She knew she was not a replacement for Fernanda, and Star would not regard her with the same trust she had for her mother.

This distance between them became evident when Star gave terse responses to questions about her wellbeing. A conversation in the morning was resolved with a quick reply, “I slept well and I don’t want to be late for class.” Marie remained conscious of the row of framed photographs above Star’s bed. She knew Star sat beneath them when she missed Fernanda.

Marie looked at Star’s messy room, her unkempt clothes, and she admired her ability to not fuss about cleanliness. Marie had often admired her sister’s ability to enter a room and turn heads. She placed others at ease with her nonchalance and attracted others with her humor. Marie’s need for security led her to adopt an inflexible routine in her older years. After Fernanda’s passing, she became more aware of life’s dangers. She needed to know exactly where she would be and what she would be doing. The smallest detail was not left unplanned.

Marie was content spending her days caring for Star, and she was worried about her leaving home as she neared adulthood. This was one part of her life she had not yet planned, as she could not conceive of the idea of Star leaving home. She was settled into the routine of caring for Star and doting over as if she were her own child. Marie was content with their life the way it was now. She looked forward to cooking for Star and spending time with her. She was not ready to let go. She wanted now more than ever to not be alone.

Marie waited for Star to return from her outing. Today she had decided not to iron her clothing. There were light creases in the cotton of her dress. Her hair was a little out of place. Star returned promptly before dusk.

“How was your day, Star? Did you do anything interesting?”

“I went to the local cemetery on the other side of town with Steve. We photographed tombstones with black and white 34mm film and then walked back home. How was your day?”

“I organized the clothing in your drawer. I have been feeling tired lately. We are having ceviche for dinner today.”

Star sat down at the table and ate the shrimp quickly. She was hungry after a long day of walking with Steve. She was ready to go to bed.

“Steve and I were talking about what we want to do after school today. He said he wants to go to school out of state. I’m thinking about looking at schools out-of-state as well. It would be fun to be on my own.”

Marie’s stomach dropped when she heard Star. She was not prepared for this conversation.

“Let’s talk about this in the morning.”

Marie went to bed with an empty stomach. The idea of waking up to an empty house filled her with dread. After Fernanda passed away, they moved to a new town where she knew no one. She had no friends here and was not comfortable talking to the locals. Star’s statement made her confront her future without companionship.

Star pulled the covers over her chest and looked up at the ceiling, thinking about a future where she might be far away from this town. She glanced at a photograph of Fernanda standing in their backyard, watering lilac-colored hydrangeas in their old backyard with a thin hose. She would have the opportunity to photograph new places and people. Star was ready to travel to new places beyond her immediate surroundings. Her mother would accompany her wherever she went; she did not need to stay in this town with Marie to be by her. She knew Fernanda would have wanted her to pursue her aspirations.

Star knew Marie required certainty. Star had given Marie companionship, knowing she had no other close acquaintances or friends. She was worried about Marie as she approached retirement age. What would she do? Star tried her best to imagine Marie setting the table for one, folding her own clothes, and watching the news by herself in their little living room. The thought filled her with guilt. How could she have fun while Marie sat alone by herself in the evenings? Star wanted a life of her own yet did not want to leave Marie by herself. Marie had raised her when no one else in the family would take care of her after Fernanda’s death. Marie and Star were inevitably bonded by the loss of Fernanda. This bond tied them for life regardless of where Star went.

Marie awoke an hour later than she usually did that morning. She glanced out the window as the sun went from a deep pink to a bright yellow. The air was damp with humidity and morning rain. She swatted flies gently away from her face as she brought a cup of hot coffee to her lips. This morning, she had not bothered to tie her hair into a bun. She had left yesterday’s clothing in a rumpled pile by the bed.

Marie gripped the coffee cup firmly as she imagined a future without her niece. First Fernanda, and now Star. Like Star, maybe it was time for her to start anew. She finished her coffee and sat in the living room waiting for Star to climb down the stairs.

(c) Yesica Balderrama, 2021. Reprinted from DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Migrant Writers.

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