Sunday 21st August
Sarah was the ninth reader at Story Shop 2016, the daily Edinburgh International Book Festival showcase of up-and-coming writers living and working in Edinburgh today.
Her appearance was on Sun 21st August 2016 at 3 pm in the Spiegeltent.
Story Shop performances take roughly ten minutes and are free and unticketed.
A short bio
Sarah Eakin has worked as Polo Correspondent for newspapers including the Independent and the Daily Telegraph.
She moved to Edinburgh last year and has recently completed her first work of fiction: Wed, White and Blue, the first of The Sterling Chronicles.
You can find more about her work on her Sterling Chronicles website www.thesterlingchronicles.com and follow her on Twitter @sarah_eakin.
You can hear the author read an extract of the story by clicking the play button on the photo above.
The story she read
North of the Border
a short story by Sarah Eakin
When Nana went away she took her Spanish with her. When she returned she didn’t bring it back. That is what happened in James’ mind. The day she left was the day he stopped speaking Spanish – not a word,’ ni una palabra’. Nana was gone and so was her voice.
“No quiero Nana,” he had learned to say verging on a typical two-year-old’s tantrum and not quite stomping his feet.
“Si, James. Vamo…,” she would urge him. “Tienes que comer.”
She called him her ‘cosita hermosa’, ‘my beautiful little thing’. He called her ‘Nana’, short for Antonia and it seemed to fit the relationship nicely. She was old beyond her years. She had three children, left behind with her mother and mother-in-law in Mexico while she and her husband Victor went to America to earn a living for their family.
Victor was a strapping man. He could clear two acres with a machete in one day and he fueled himself on six eggs and a dozen or more tortillas for breakfast. Food was important to them and they never missed a meal, nor ate one on the fly. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were at the table and tortillas were heated one by one in the fying pan, creating a sizeable pile, which Victor would use to soak up his food. He was always smiling when you talked to him, but there could have been a darker side that we never saw. The door to the cabin where they lived had been severely dented on one occasion. Victor, it seemed, had a temper.
Their stoicism was tested one winter when left at the house alone while we visited the UK. Stocked up with food after a mammoth trip to the grocery store, no one expected supplies to be a problem, but no one had anticipated an ice storm that lasted three days and knocked out power for two weeks. Victor and Antonia improvised, drawing water from the pond since the well pump relied on electricity, and scavenging for firewood, which thankfully proved plentiful, if not ideally dry.
Mr Alexander, a more than kindly neighbor, and farmer – a South Carolina local – stopped by to check on them having realized their plight. He brought them some pickled vegetables and the reassurance that they were not entirely alone. Nana never forgot his kindness. It forged a spiritual bond for her so that the day he died in hospital ten miles away, she said she had heard him knocking on the front of the cabin door.
She had a similar connection with grandma – a centenarian whom she’d seen on our camcorder videos. ‘Great grandma’ as she was to James, was equally enthralled with Nana and always asked about her in her letters. She passed away at 106 and visited Nana on her way out. The subject came up some days after her death when I told Nana that my mother was convinced grandma had visited their house in Scotland before she died. She had felt her presence in the kitchen, to the point where she had turned round and said, “Mother?”
Nana’s face changed. She was excited to be able to share her story. Someone was walking upstairs in the bedroom that day, she explained. We were all out and the only other explanation, ‘Patchy’ the Jack Russell terrier was curled up on a chair in the kitchen. Nana was a little scared so she sent Victor up to investigate. There was no one there. It was June 6 a matter of minutes after Grandma had died. Always curious about how the family were getting on and relentless with her correspondence, grandma had never been to my parents’ house in Scotland, neither had she seen our farm in South Carolina, though through letters and photographs she had heard a lot about both. Apparently she took advantage of the mobility offered to her by death, to do the rounds.
Nana had been stunned by grandma’s longevity. Not many people lived that long in Mexico she had explained. And it wasn’t just death that divided the cultures. When we returned to South Carolina after a summer on the road both Nana and Victor were shocked to find the contents of the house still in place. In Mexico the furniture and probably the windows and roof tiles would have been gone they said, taken by the ‘ratones’. It was that kind of hardship that had prompted them to leave their small village, their three young children – and fifteen hundred dollars in the hands of a ‘coyote’ – in search of the means for a better life.
When you go down to the Mexican border at Juarez, the divide between the would-be immigrants and the promised land is stark, As dusk falls, the hills climbing up from the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande descend into almost complete darkness – punctuated here and there by a lonely light. In Texas, El Paso is lit up like a Christmas tree. In the shadows across the water and the barricades, you can see ghostlike figures moving in the darkness, waiting, watching and wishing. Border Patrol officers are fully evident. There will be no desperate run for the borders here. No, it is further down the frontier, where the land is vast, the border intermittently policed and the desert offers a dangerous form of protection.
‘Wetbacks’ – the term given to Mexicans illegally crossing over the Rio Grande to get to the USA – did not quite apply to Victor and Nana, though anyone using the racial slur probably wouldn’t have cared that they hadn’t actually swum across the border. Instead they walked. Three days and three nights through the desert with no possessions aside from the six gallons of water they were told they would need to survive. Victor carried his wife’s for her. The long, dark walk through the desert inhabited by poisonous snakes and drug cartels to cross the border into Arizona undetected was tortuous. Nana feared the people more than the wildlife. Unlike a rattle snake that tries to warn you first, the ‘banditos’ would go straight to the kill.
After three days, jammed into a minivan, the windows tinted black, with 15 fellow Mexicans – only stopping at gas stations once, at night – Nana and Victor arrived at their relatives’ house. Nana’s father had sent them the money for the trip. They were not close, though, she told me years later and I think she was a little afraid of him. Having little or no money, I took her to the Goodwill store to buy clothes. They had brought none with them and the one pair of shorts and t-shirt she had were wearing thin. In retrospect, I felt sad that I had taken her there. When they started to earn money and were comfortable spending a little of it, she would shop at TJ Maxx – and she had good taste. For Christmas she bought me a beautiful designer black, suede purse. She started to dress better – and one day cut off her long black hair. It was too heavy when she washed it and it was wet, she explained and she did not seem sad to see it go, though I always imagined that a part of her Maya soul went with it.
Food shopping too, was an adventure for her. I would drive her to the Mexican food store. She would take James in with her – a little blue-eyed, curly blond-haired boy speaking Spanish to his Nana. The Mexicans in the shop were kind to him and gave him an empanada from the little kitchen/café at the back. Nana would buy corn flour and she found a metal press for making tortillas. She was not a fan of the grocery store version, especially the floured ones, that were an Americanism, and nothing Mexicans would eat. We took her to Mi Ranchos – thinking it would provide a taste of home. She wasn’t impressed. “Es no fresco,” she said.
Household appliances were a constant challenge. Once she got the concept of the washing machine, she put everything in it – shoes, rucksacks, probably Victor if he would have fitted. The stove too, took some getting used to. Coming home one day to roast chicken, I looked everywhere for the bird, not finding it in the oven, or still in the fridge, I finally located it in the draw underneath the stove where the roasting pans were kept. It was raw – and she laughed a lot, when I told her, that that, was not the place to cook it.
My ex-husband would call her Mamacita – ‘hot mamma’ – and she let him, but scolded him too because of it. She’d earned his respect – taking down a cartoon-sized hornet’s nest, in the yard at night with the kitchen broom. She also made swift work of a rattlesnake with the help of a garden shovel. “Nana mato serpiente!” announced James, impressed – as were we all.
“Lo siento,” she said, one day. “Tengo que irme.” Three years of missing her children had become too much. She was to return to Mexico and she was to leave Victor behind to work. “Voy a volver a Méjico – a mi familia – a ver mis hijos,” she told James. “Te quiero mi cosita hermosa,”
“Te quiero Nano,” he said. I love you. The last words he would ever say to her – in Spanish.
(c) Sarah Eakin, 2016
Part of Story Shop at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Watch & read stories by
City of Literature TV
Sarah Eakin reads North of the Border on 21 August 2016 at Story Shop during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Who is behind the project?