They reached Cúcuta at midday. All of them except the grandmother were hungry. She lay back in the seat, her eyes fixed on the bus ceiling. When they started making these trips, old Herminia stopped eating, fearful that her daughter and granddaughter might abandon her on a backroad near the border. She’d turned hunger into a form of self-protection.
At first they made the crossing only once a month. Now they did so every week. They left before first light. They came back after nightfall, with three small tomatoes sometimes or a packet of spaghetti that lasted, at most, two days. They boiled the spaghetti in salted water and ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No matter what goods they managed to get hold of, every trip made her ache to the bone.
‘We told you to stay home, Mamá, but you never listen.’
‘Uhum,’ wheezed the old lady, chewing over her fears like she would some chimó tobacco.
‘You’re as stubborn as a mule,’ Koralia added as she rummaged around in her bag.
She gave in to her daughter’s nagging and handed Milagros an old sweet and a packet of tissues, nothing else. They had eaten the last mandarins before reaching Capacho Viejo.
‘Well, what do you want me to do? Stay home alone?’ Herminia muttered. ‘You’ll desert me when I least expect it, never to return.’
‘Oh don’t talk nonsense, Mamá.’
‘How could we desert you, Abuela?’ piped up Milagros, Herminia’s granddaughter, cradling a baby whose explosive screams kept on until the whole family felt shell shocked.
Herminia endured these expeditions with a deep-seated stoicism. She was a Táchira woman to the marrow. She had the reserved air of the Andean páramo, bowed legs and hair pulled into a modest bun. Anyone who had seen her a few years ago wouldn’t recognize her now. She’d lost so much weight that her face had collapsed like a popped balloon, the damaged version of the one she’d presented to the world back when she held the reins of her life and the lives of everyone around her.
Now she looked nothing like the rotund woman who the neighborhood children had called Arepa Face. Herminia used to resemble the little corn cakes she had baked and sold from her corner store, which a group of soldiers set alight during a student roundup. Nobody footed the bill for the damages. Ever since, the years had come down on her like a mudslide, until they had buried her entirely.
Herminia was not a sweet woman, and if she had been once, she no longer remembered such a thing. She seldom laughed, and her poplin dresses lent her a rocky, severe look, as if she had donned a curtain rather than clothing. Her husband Antonio had died ten years before. One day in the early hours of the morning, his heavily loaded truck lost control around a curve on the Trans-Andean Highway. It ploughed off a cliff and into the rocks below. She never dressed in black, though anyone would say she was born with the face of a widow. The old woman’s life had not been easy, but she wasn’t one to complain. Her mother and grandmother never had, so why should she be the first to do so?
‘Abuela, take the baby while Mamá and I go take care of something,’ her granddaughter said, brazen as ever. ‘Don’t move from this spot, you hear?’
‘Yes, m’hija, I heard.’
Herminia wheezed and took the child into her arms. She didn’t much care for minding her but had learnt to see the act as life insurance: having the baby meant that she herself was safe. She was convinced that this was the only reason they would come back for her. She had heard the stories. Before leaving the country for good, families abandoned the elderly. They left them to their luck on the steps of a hospital with nothing but a blanket and a bottle of water. It was the way the elderly died on that side of the border: soaked in fear and asking when their children would come get them.
The old lady looked at the sky, imploring a bolt of lightning to make Santander Park vanish. At that time of day it was full of pigeons and ‘draggers’ – the name everyone on the border gave to the men and women who engaged in barter-trade, dragging potential clients by the sleeve. Like the pigeons, the draggers had an unsightly, flea-ridden air. And just as the pigeons pounced on cigarette butts – there was no longer any bread for them to feed on – the draggers fought over the desperate individuals prepared to exchange their back teeth for a few pesos.
Koralia and Milagros disappeared down the street. It took them ten minutes to get to Los Guerreros hair salon. It was a filthy place, bedecked with clippings from eighties fashion mags: teased hairstyles, purple eyelids, vests with bacteria patterns, out-of-date outfits. People were lining up out the door. Not to get their hair styled, but to sell it.
‘We’ll give you sixty-thousand pesos for yours, a little less for your mother’s,’ a woman said when, finally, it was their turn.
‘But my hair’s long too,’ said Koralia.
‘It’s not as shiny, and we only use hair of the finest quality for our wigs.’
Koralia lowered her gaze while the hairdresser held a strand between thumb and forefinger.
‘It’s dry and vitamin deficient. The ends are split,’ said the woman.
‘Well, that’s it,’ said Koralia, ‘do you want it or not?’
‘If we take the full length, it will be twenty thousand pesos.’
‘Only twenty thousand?’
‘And I’m giving you a good price.’
‘Mamá, quit haggling,’ Milagros interrupted. ‘If we add it to my sixty thousand pesos we’ll have eighty. That’s not bad.’
‘You’re right, hija, it’s not bad; it’s terrible.’
‘Listen, lady, you can go away and think about it if you want. I can’t stand around all day waiting for you to make up your mind.’
‘Well, I want to, even if she doesn’t,’ said Milagros, not wanting their trip to go to waste.
‘Put this on,’ the woman handed her a black salon cape. ‘And take a seat over there. I’ll go get a hairdresser.’
‘Are you sure you want your hair cut off, hija?’ Koralia murmured.
‘It’s just hair, Mamá. And attached to my head it’s not going to buy anything at the market.’
Koralia looked at her daughter as if she were waiting for her at the other end of a long tunnel. Then she pulled her hair up in a ponytail and went to find the woman who had made the lowball appraisal. She came back soon after, holding a black cape flecked with dye stains, and took a seat next to her daughter. There were still twelve people ahead of them.
The place seemed more like a barracks than a hair salon: there were no mirrors or basins, only a row of plastic chairs where women waited their turn to get shorn. The hairdressers were hardly worthy of the title. They cut off hair, period. They approached, comb in hand. They detangled sections and then sunk the scissors in. They cropped as close to the scalp as possible so as not to let a single centimetre go to waste.
When finally it was their turn, mother and daughter knew by heart the sound of the blades when they came into contact with the hair. A snip-snap, a removal. Tearing out things to sell to whoever will pay up. They felt like turning and running, or crying. They did neither. Only waited.
Old Herminia was nervous. It was almost six o’clock and the sun was starting to retreat, timid, in the dusk of the border city. The baby was asleep, worn out from all the crying. Hunger was like that: once you got used to it, it numbed any impulse. Where had all the things that once seemed lasting gone, Herminia wondered, surrounded by the filthy pigeons.
Koralia and Milagros appeared. Herminia recognized them by their clothing. From afar they looked skinny and withered, advanced into old age well before their time. She removed her glasses and cleaned them with her dress, wanting to make them out more clearly. Koralia had no hair and Milagros sported only the fuzz of a skinny chicken. They looked as if they were returning from war, not the market. They had two packets of pasta in hand, which they put into the backpack without a word.
‘Come on Mamá, the last bus leaves for Rubio in fifteen.’
They arrived home after midnight. They poured three cups of water into a large pot to boil and emptied into it a quarter-kilo of spaghetti. After settling the baby, the three of them sat around the table. Old Herminia just drank a small mug of starchy water that she had scooped from the pot. Her daughter and granddaughter separated the pasta strands with forks. They didn’t toss the pasta, but combed it, as if tugging at hair served up on a pewter plate.
‘Go to bed, Mamá. We’re going back to Cúcuta early tomorrow,’ said Koralia.
Before she had finished her sentence, Herminia felt her daughter’s gaze fix on the bristly bun at the nape of her neck.
Photograph © Immo Wegmann