Your name, Esther, in your mother’s shy campesino voice
sounded like Estele, though even then, unsure
whether I had misheard, I wrote it out,
and she nodded, Yes, that looked like your name.
So that now at El Instituto Santa Rosa
your white jumpers are all mislabelled
with the name you cannot hear, Estele,
learning to form those vowels in your mouth,
to read my lips explaining why you are here.
In the village, you were the errand girl,
carrying water up from the river; your head
cocked at an angle with the heavy loads
as if you were hearing, far off,
the sound of your new name being called.
La Muda, the villagers shrugged when I asked
why you weren’t in school, why you
were the little carrying horse, why you
didn’t tell me your name along with the others,
flocking around me, begging for alms.
It was then I took an interest in you,
out there beyond the reach of the words I love.
Each time I came to the village, I lured you
away from bundles of kindling, just-washed clothes,
and wrote down words on the blank tablets
I had meant to fill with poems after years
of my own silence, wrote down in capitals
your misheard name, signed you, wrote mine,
wrote fishing boat, orange, whatever we saw,
whatever you pointed at I’d spell
until the paper darkened with your new words.
We walked the rocky coast looking for things
to name, I taking this opportunity away
from the watchful eyes of the villagers
to clean your cuts, feed you the oranges
you love, check the lice in your hair
with a cream your mother couldn’t afford to buy.
Once or twice I checked to see
if the words had taken, cutting the paper
in strips, pointing to something, asking you
to pick the name out from the pile in my skirt.
You seldom hit: the gulls were waves,
the palms were fishing boats, the seashells
tennis shoes, the world misunderstood
Copyright © Julia Alvarez