We are deep in the Mexican campo, far off the beaten tourist path. We’ve come to a wide place in the road that marks a small tienda, a cinderblock and corrugated tin hut that serves as the only grocery, hurricane shelter, gas station, post office, and cantina for miles around. My daughter has asked that we stop here. After a day exploring authentic Mexican ruins she wants authentic Mexican gum.
Newborn, my daughter’s skin was the color of Ivory soap; blue veins ran like lace beneath her tender knees and elbows mapping the way to her heart. Now at thirteen, she’s all legs like a colt, but unlike a colt she walks with the grace of an athlete and the unconscious entitlement of Bolshoi ballerina.
Gathered high on her head in a no-nonsense pony tail, her Nordic blond hair shimmers as she moves from the sunlit road through the doorway, cascading like molten gold down her back. She sets her sunglasses on the top of her head and pauses to let her ice blue eyes adjust to the dimness. Turning to her left, she stalks the scant aisles and shelves for interesting candy or gum.
Behind her to the right, a small brown button of a girl stands enrapt as this vision glides by like a lioness. The girl turns and furtively follows my daughter, touching what she touches, examining what she sees. I stand by the cash register, waiting. A woman old enough to be the girl’s great-grandmother putters around the counter, watching without looking.
Unaware, my daughter turns abruptly, bowling over her shadow, knocking the girl off her tiny bare feet.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” my daughter flutters, helping the girl up. She brushes the dirt from the floor off the girl’s dress and glances around for nonexistent shoes and adult supervision.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“¿Eres un ángel?” Are you an angel, the girl whispers.
My daughter smiles. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but it’s apparent that the little girl is okay. She warmly pats her shoulder, flashes another Colgate smile, and turns her attention to the few boxes of sweets that originally caught her eye. Impatient, she flips her hair back over her shoulder. Mesmerized, the girl reaches out, but her fingers stop just shy of nestling in Rapunzel’s golden web.
Realizing her shadow is still next to her, my daughter squats on her heels so they’re near the same height. The girl drinks all this in. My daughter motions to the candy.
“Which do you like?” she asks.
The girl gravely considers her toes.
“This?” In my daughter’s hand a pineapple dances the merengue with a banana on a bright green and yellow package.
The girl glances up, then shakes her head no.
Another package. “Chocolate?”
The girl shrugs her shoulders. My daughter stands and holds the package out for me to see.
“It’s chocolate,” I say. “Probably over thin sugar wafers with vanilla crème in between.”
She nods and puts it back.
“Get what you want,” I say, “but hurry. It’s a long way back to the harbor.”
My daughter makes a pouch out of the bottom of her tee-shirt and fills it with more treats than she’ll ever eat, more than what everyone waiting in the rented van would eat. It’s an odd sampling of golden taffy, fruit chews, gum, and chocolates that she dumps on the counter.
The elderly woman raises an eyebrow. I’m sure we’ve wiped out most of her supply. She calculates and I pay; the total is less than the cost of a Coke on the cruise ship.
The shopkeeper sweeps the sweets into a brown paper bag, creases the edge, and hands it to my daughter.
“Que linda.” How beautiful, she says to me, shaking her head in pity.
“Gracias.” Thank you, I murmur, rolling my eyes. I know what she means.
At the doorway my daughter rummages through the candy and pulls out a package of gum. She refolds the bag and holds it out.
“For you,” she says, handing the rest of the treasure to her shadow. “I didn’t know what you liked. I hope there’s something in there that’s your favorite.”
The girl takes the bag and raises her arms.
“Oh, sweetheart, of course I’ll give you a hug!” My daughter bends down and wraps her arms around the girl, engulfing her in an embrace. “I’m sorry I knocked you over.”
“Angel bellisima de Dios, llévame contigo. Quiero irme al Cielo,” the girl says. Beautiful angel of God, take me with you to heaven.
“Conchie!” snaps the woman, followed by a torrent of colloquial Spanish I didn’t learn in high school.
Stung by a whip, the girl jumps back.
“Oh,” my daughter stumbles, “I—,” no longer a lion, like a gazelle she flees out the door.
“Lo siento,” sighs the woman. I’m sorry. She looks at the girl, then back at me, touching her forehead with a flick of her fingers. “Tocada.” Touched.
“No problema,” I say and walk out the door.
Back in the van my husband teases our daughter, “Just a pack of gum? Looked like you had a shirt full.”
“I bought more, but gave it to a girl. Did I do something wrong, Mom? Are they mad at me?”
“Of course not.”
She cracks the cellophane wrapper and hands the hard Chiclets out.
“I just wanted to see,” she says.