The first thing is a jolt. Pablo thinks a coach has slipped the ruts and maybe fallen sideways in the front of the house. Then the ground rolls and shudders. He looks up from his turtle beans to see his mother’s eyes. They are enormous. The chair he sits in scrabbles at the floor, rattling and sliding like a dog with long nails. The clay bricks show cracks as Pablo becomes aware of the noise. He has not heard it before. A cataclysm. A wrenching noise and the shattering of earthenware pots that clatter to the floor.
He hears his mother screaming. It has not occurred to him to be afraid until now, with his mother’s voice calling out – words he doesn’t hear – over the walls cracking. She grabs his arm. Too hard. It hurts him. She pulls him under the table and curls her body around him. She is whispering into his ear. She invokes the virgin.
The table shudders as the roof collapses onto its thick wooden surface. A porcelain nativity falls from its shelf and shatters. His mother’s prayer shifts to Pablo’s name saint. The ceiling is down and a wall follows. The table leg splits. Its corner crushes his mother’s shoulder. She cries out. Pablo imitates her.
When he wakes up he feels the dryness of the brick dust all around him. His mother is sleeping. She breathes rapidly, her breath tickles his ear. He tries to wake her, but his back is to her and he doesn’t want to use his elbow. He tries to squirm free from her grasp, but he cannot. The dust chokes him and he coughs; a spasm that reveals a deep pain in his side.
He struggles again and his mother coughs. She has awoken, but he cannot turn his head far enough to see if her eyes are closed or open. He knows she is awake because she is whispering, but inaudibly.
“Mama?” he calls.
“Pablito, be still.”
“It was a tremor.”
Tremor sounds like fear. The earth did not feel fearful, it felt angry. Or sick.
“Is it over?”
“I hope so. I don’t know.”
“Can we get up now?”
“I can’t move, Pablito. The table is too heavy to move. The roof has come down on top of us.”
“What will we do?”
“We wait, little boy. How do you feel?”
“My side hurts.”
“I am hurting too.” His mother’s words are soothing, but there is fear and pain in her voice.
Pablo doesn’t know how much time has passed. The darkness is oppressive and he would cry but his mouth is too dry. His eyes are smeared shut with dust. There is a scratching noise and then he hears a man’s voice call his mother’s name. The voice is loud but tired. His mother does not hear, or cannot answer. Her breathing is shallow and empty. Pablo yells back at the man.
“We are here under the table.”
“Pablito?” Pablo recognizes the voice as Don Nelson, a local missionary.
“Don Nelson, it is me! My mother is sick!”
Pablo realizes his voice is thin. Don Nelson cannot understand him.
“Please, Don Nelson, help my mother. She is sick.”
Pablo hears bricks being tossed aside, and the scraping of broken tiles. Then there comes light, and new air. Pablo hadn’t realized how poisonous the air had become until the new air is colder and clearer, with less dust. He coughs and calls again. He sees the man’s pale hand. It touches his face. He sees Don Nelson’s face with its brown moustache and straight white teeth.
“Pablo, you will be out soon. Here is water.”
He passes Pablo a jar of water, which Pablo drinks from. His mother is not moving.
Pablo is crying. His heart is sore. He sits beside his mother who is still asleep, breathing shallowly. Her arm is broken and her ankle is crushed. Her foot twisted backward where the wooden beam from the center of their home had fallen on her, a great split log of dry acacia. A doctor has come, injected her with clear liquid from a syringe. Another needle is in her unbroken arm, with a thin plastic tube and a bag filled with another clear liquid.
The cut in Pablo’s side has been bandaged, a long strip of white cotton wrapped around his belly. People keep passing by and telling him how lucky he is. He does not feel lucky. He holds the broken head of the lamb from the porcelain nativity. No one can tell him where his father is. Don Nelson is gone, looking for other children in the broken homes.
As Pablo looks around, there are no places left like he remembers them. Everything is shattered. Everything is dust and red bricks, broken open to show the old straw inside them. Now that he is someplace that they say is safe, he is more afraid than before. Before he could not see the damage to his mother’s body. Now he sees the twisted limbs, the collapsed shoulder. She has been asleep for as long as he can remember.
Many other people lie on beds. Noises that frighten him. Other people praying. Doctors bustling from one place to another. When Pablo looks back at his mother, her eyes are open. They are frightened, wide. Her lips move but there is no sound. Her good arm, the one with the tube, reaches for him and he clutches her fingers. Then her eyes relax but do not close.
Pablo squeezes her hand and calls to her. She is silent and her lips do not move. He is confused, momentarily. He looks around but no one seems near. He climbs on to her cot, lays his head against the breasts he used to suckle, though he cannot remember it, and folds himself into her receding warmth.