BellaOnline Literary Review
Korean Dogwood by Lisa Shea

Table of Contents



Mathew Allan Garcia

Mama excelled at forecasting. She studied the contours of lines on me and my sister’s faces, searching for imperfections, a blemish that was not there the day before. On my face she looked for lines on my brow from worry, bruises on my arms; signs of Julian’s drunken rage. I smiled coyly, a blush rising to my cheeks.

“He worries,” I said. “He loves me too much, Mama.”

“Tell him to love you less,” Mama responded.

On my younger sister she scanned her neck for love marks. Beth comes from the clubs late at night, her high heels clacking on the cobble stones. Mama stood waiting by the door. Beth bought her shirts one size too big, and brought the sleeves below her shoulders to show her cleavage. Her blouses looked pulled and moist from sweaty hands pawing at her all night.

Mama clicked her tongue and shook her head, moving to the side to let her in.

“Your tatas are gonna fall out, stupid,” I hissed at her, a little jealous that no one pawed at me anymore. Or dared to, for fear that Julian would break their skulls. At that time we had only been dating for a few months.

“You’ll only attract pimps like that,” Mama said. “Men who beat you and then say they love you. Then beat you again.”

Beth sits at the sofa looking from Mama to me, then back to Mama. Her eyes swim with the dazed understanding of one who is still stupid with drink. A wan smile pulls on her lips.

Mama places her hands on her hips, her elbows jutting out with the sharp ferocity of a hooker’s tongue. “You want that?”

Mama studied the skies. Greys and purples intermingled like a painter’s palette. The colors stretched like party streamers across the hot Mexico sky.

The smell of rain became as familiar to her as the trails that lead to the Coronita, in the mountains surrounding the city of Zapotlan. Rain was a thickness in the air, an earthy stickiness and a breeze that carried a subtle warning across the neighboring corn fields and hills of Laredo. It carried a warning to Mama long before the crack of the first lightning bolt split the sky. Long before the dark clouds gathered, and rain drowned the cattle that dawdled too long in the Vino Gulch.

Mama felt the same warning when she met, and again when she married, Papa. The fire that grew in Papa´s eyes when enraged scared her from the first moment she had incited it, though it was also the passion that most ensnared her. She relished the glow that followed her when he watched her cross the room, and he had a smile that only few witnessed bear fruit. But it didn’t last, and Mama lost him as quickly as a bag with a hole loses sand. He took to drinking. He took to beating.

“You do it like this,” Papa said, once when he took me to his job. Papa built two-story, five unit apartments with a crew of men he gathered from town. He tapped the nail with the hammer, and brought it back in a soft arc. The power of the blow was in his wrist and forearm, not his shoulder. His head, not his muscles. Slow and methodical blows. It was a gracefulness that I did not often see in him.

My turn. I was five, and rained blows like a five-year-old.

“Ssst,” Papa hissed. He gripped my wrist before I struck it another time. The nail was ruined, crooked at the tip like an old man in prayer. His grip, tight enough to stop the blood flow, made me release the hammer. The head struck the foot of his boot, and rolled into a patch of thorny nopales, the kind Mama made for dinner sometimes.

He only smiled at me, the dimples in his cheeks deepening. Hollows of a bottomless well. He took his hat off and wiped the sweat off his brow. The blow did not hurt him. He wore steel toed boots. He flapped his wrist in the air towards the hammer.

“Go get it.”

When we got home, Mama was waiting on the doorstep. She worried, knowing that accidents befell men on the construction sites. Some men lost fingers, others lost their sight.

She inspected me as she would for many years to come, from head to toe. The nopales did not hurt me much. I was small, and maneuvered through the patch easily. A misstep, and an unforgiving cactus at the end, got me. It marked me with two parallel lines across my cheeks just below my left eye.

“It’s nothing,” Papa said, before Mama had a chance to say anything. “She was playing in the nopales.”
But Mama looked into my eyes, and she knew.

Later that night Papa discovered Mama had ruined his shirts, bleaching two of his favorites. He took after her immediately, calmly gripping the end of his belt from his faded blue jeans. I still remember the way the buckle sounded as it scraped on the tile floor.

Mama’s eyes filled with water, but she did not fight. At the table, finishing my dinner, I watched the whole thing.

“In the room, Antonio,” Mama whispered. “Please.”

To me she said, “We’re going to talk, Ana. We’ll be back.”

From outside I could only hear the cracking blows. They sounded like lighting cracks in the high country. I lost count of how many there were. Mama did not cry out.

In the end Mama left him, when she caught wind that he had gotten mixed up with the local cartel. I was six years old, Beth the size of a kidney bean inside Mama’s belly. Mama packed our things and sent for her brother, Ernesto, to pick them up. The bags were gone by the time Papa came home.

Papa stooped down on his haunches, and stared at me at eye level. His black mustache smiled at me.
“Morenita, why do you have Tobbs with you? Going somewhere?” He lifted my stuffed elephant with one hand, never pealing his swamp green eyes off of mine. His callused hands brushed up my skin, leaving a trail on my forearm. I had not known real fear until then.

“I...I” I stumbled for words.

“Ana wanted to go for a walk,” Mama said, coming out of the kitchen. A lump left my throat and settled back into the pit of my stomach. “Dinner will be another hour or so. We’ll be back by then.”

“Cocido again?” Papa asked, smelling the air like a dog. A playful smile on his face. At six years old I knew that smile meant that Mama had done wrong.

“Yes,” Mama said, lowering her eyes to her shoes. She fiddled with her apron pocket. Her back and arms sang with a sharp discontent of things that would come. In their ten years together, Mama had never left a meal unfinished, and the thought that we would never come back did not cross Papa’s mind. If it had, Mama would be dead.

Later that year Papa’s body washed ashore on the Rio Grande, pock-marked with gun shots wounds. The cartel was done with him.

Despite everything, Mama still cried.

The day Julian Napoles asked me on a date, Mama took me into the kitchen. “That boy is going to bring you nothing but trouble, Ana,” Mama said.

I returned the next day at five in the morning. Julian’s uncle owned a night club and let us hang out in a private room, so long as the people who booked it didn’t show. Julian put his hands on me, touching my body in ways I had not experienced. I burned for him, a flower that bloomed bright in the pit of my stomach. We danced. We drank.

In the morning Mama washed the dishes before church. My head felt swollen, as though cracked in half by a log splitter. I drank a gallon of water before eight in the morning.

“Estas cruda,” Mama said. She brandished her black eyes at me like knives that pierced my skin. You’re hungover.

I waved my hand at her. “He’s not like Papa,” I said. Words that I understood later must’ve hurt her more than all the blows Papa had dealt during their years together combined.

She said nothing on the subject again. And when the beatings began, she did not fling my words back on me with the same ease and dismissiveness I did to her. When Julian left me at the nightclub one night because he accused me of looking at other men, Mama was waiting for me at the door, as she had for Beth. The sound of my high heels clacking on the cobble stones made me cry.

Mama engulfed me in her arms, whispering words softly in my ears that I could not hear over my own sobbing. Mama cried too.

“Mira me,” Mama said, in a commanding voice that I rarely heard her possess. I looked at her, as she asked, and saw my own tired eyes stare back at me. “One day, you will say ‘enough’, and leave that trash.”

By then, that trash was blowing up phone lines with his calls. He threatened half of our friends, insisting they were hiding me.
“And when that day comes--hopefully soon--I will be here for you. As I am now.” I smiled, and hugged her close.


“How many?” Natalia asks.

“Ten will do,” I respond. I chop the corn into chunks, and cut the head of cabbage in half. The beef boils in the pot, with onions and garlic that have become soft, and then fully disintegrate into the broth. Bay leaves float to the top and I remove them.

“Ten potatoes?” Natalia moans, a teenager’s whine reverberating in every syllable. She’s sixteen. “Mama, I have to go. Charlie is picking me up in ten minutes.”

“Ten,” I say. I smile, without turning.

“Gaaahh,” Natalia cries. She chops the potatoes in half. Then the halves in four sections, and dumps them into a bowl with the other vegetables.

I left Julian across the border, a year before moving to California. Beth, who went to the university in San Diego and lived in a duplex just outside the city, took me in. Natalia, just about ready to be born, was what made me go. Julian, a bad man, was not Papa by a long shot. Or, at least, I had not yet allowed him to be. I still wonder about that.

When Natalia had finished her potatoes, she took off.

“Wait,” I say. I hear Mama’s commanding voice in my words. Natalia hisses and stomps back into the kitchen.

I brush her bangs out of her face. Her green eyes, Papa’s eyes, stare back at me. I see his fire in her eyes when she is angry, but Mama’s kindness in her smiles. She has Julian’s almond shaped eyes, and my cheeks, which are quick to blush.

“Morena,” I say, “be careful with Charlie, ok? I am not ready for grandchildren.”

“God, Mama!” Natalia exclaims, an expression of disgust on her face. “He’s not a bad guy.”

I like Charlie. He’s polite, and always exclaims how great my cooking is. Even when it isn’t. But Mama’s worry had seeped into my bloodstream. It’s part of me. When Natalia was born Mama no longer hovered around us. The creases that I had seen on her brow since she was with Papa went away and for once in her life I saw her relax and Her forecasting days were gone.

“Why can’t you be like Grandma?” Natalia asks, not really asking. It hurt me a little. “I miss her.” Her voice softens into brief contemplation. Then she walks out and up to her room.

Ay, pequenita, I think. I felt as though a fist gripped my heart. If you only knew how much of Mama I hold within me.

Charlie knocks at the front door in less than ten minutes. He smiles at me and says hello.

I watch Natalia step out the front gate and get into his car. They drive off and I stand there until their back lights blur, then finally disappear. A worry grips my stomach and then subsides.

They’ll be fine, I think.

I forecast too.

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Reader Feedback:
I loved this story. I said as much with what it did not say, as what it said. Breaking the chain can take generations. Awareness comes first. Great short. Thank you.