Chapter OneThe River That Wasn’t There
It takes hard work to eat nine mangoes back to back, but that’s just what I’m going to do. I’m about to become mango champion of my village. My best friend, Stephanie, stacks a pile of mangoes in front of me. The boys assemble their stack in front of Paul, the boy I will be racing against. This match has been a long time coming. All the kids in the village put off their chores to watch us.
My heart is beating loud and fast, like a drum at a carnival. I look over at Paul. He’s taller, bigger, and quicker than me. But today is not his day; it’s mine. I’ve been practicing. I turn and nod to Stephanie; she smiles back at me. We are ready.
All the kids shout, “One, two, three—eat!”
I bite into my first mango—it tastes like honey and summer. It oozes out sticky-sweet nectar that runs down my fingers. I tear into another with my teeth, suck all the juices out, then toss the skin aside and start on a new one. While the boys laugh and make fun of me for even trying to beat Paul, I rip into my third mango.
Paul is showing off by juggling some of the mangoes before he eats them. He’s so sure that he’ll win that he takes time to joke around. But I’m not joking around. This is serious. I’m on my seventh mango. Soon, the boys notice that I am ahead and close to winning. That’s when they call out to Paul and demand that he eat faster.
“She’s a girl! You can’t let her win!” the boys shout.
“Hurry, Gabrielle! Hurry!” Stephanie shouts.
Paul speeds up—he’s like a hungry animal. I’m on my last mango, but Paul is close to catching up with me.
“You can do it!” The girls cheer as my victory gets closer. I bite and chew through the last mango, just as Paul is about to finish his. It’s close—but not close enough. I toss aside the final mango skin, and it lands in the bucket before Paul’s mango does—I win!
“Yay!” Stephanie and I rejoice with the other girls.
“Gabrielle Marie Jean, you better not be in another mango contest!” My mom’s voice rings throughout the village. The crowd scatters, everyone but Stephanie.
“You better not be staining that dress, it’s one of your good ones . . .” my mom says. I can’t see her yet, but her voice fills up the village. She’s getting closer. I look down at my dress, and it’s dripping with mango juice and dirt.
“Ah, we gotta go!” I say to Stephanie as I grab her hand. We run off and head to our favorite hiding place—the crawlspace under the church. We wiggle our way inside and lie flat on our stomachs. We look out at the parade of shoes and sandals going by us.
We hear my mom asking other grownups where I am. They all tell her they don’t know. My mom calls out my name. Judging by her tone, I’m really in for it.
“We can’t hide here forever,” Stephanie says.
“Maybe we hide just long enough for my mom to find something else to be mad about.”
“Okay, but you are usually the reason she’s mad, so . . .”
Stephanie’s right. I am usually the one who makes my mom use her I’m-not-happy-with-you face. And yes, sometimes I do get into trouble, but it’s mostly not my fault. Like, it’s not my fault that I like competing against the boys. They think that because they are boys they can do everything better. So it’s up to Stephanie and me to show them girls can do stuff too. Also, it’s not my fault that mangoes are so good that I have to eat them all.
“Gabrielle, you have three seconds to come out from wherever you’re hiding!” my mom warns as we watch her red sandals get closer. Stephanie and I look at each other with wide eyes.
“Go, save yourself,” I tell her.
“I can’t leave you here alone,” she replies.
“It’s too late for me. Go!”
“Okay. Good luck,” she says as she crawls out of our hiding spot.
I hear footsteps approaching. I see red sandals head toward me and then stop. Mom knows I’m under here. But she doesn’t scold me or yank me out from under the crawlspace. Instead, she sits at the base of the steps.
“Well, I can’t find my daughter. I guess I better get a new one. One who doesn’t get mud and mango juice all over her dress. One who finishes her chores before she goes to play. But even if this new daughter is perfect, I’ll still miss the one I had before. The one who gave the best hugs and made me laugh. The daughter who almost won a mango contest.”
“Almost?” I shout in disbelief. I crawl out from under the church to defend my championship. I stand before her. “Mom, I won, I really won!”
“Yes, I know,” she says as she stands up.
That’s when I realize . . . “Hey, you tricked me!”
“Moms are allowed to trick their kids. Now, explain yourself. You are a mess, young lady!” she says.
“I know, I’m sorry, but I had to compete.”
She looks me over, but this time she twists her lips from side to side. I think that means she’s thinking.
“Am I in trouble?” I ask.
“Well, that depends. Who did you beat out to win the mango contest?”
“He’s twice your size!” she says with a big grin. She quickly changes her expression, like she just remembered she was supposed to be upset. “You should be grounded this evening. Which is a shame, because guess whose bones have been talking?”
“Madame Tita?” I ask as I start jumping up and down.
Madame Tita is a round woman with pretty skin, like midnight. She wears colorful wraps on her head and moves like a turtle. Her voice is deep and rumbles. She sounds like what mountains would sound like if mountains had a voice. She’s one hundred years old, and what she says goes because she’s the oldest. When her bones ache a little, she says they’re talking to her. And when her bones speak, it usually means it’s going t...