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Itze found the country of México crouching and hiding and hissing underneath a stone bridge in Central Park. And like any nine-year-old interacting with a wild animal, he approached it sideways, saying, tsk tsk tsk in a reassuring whisper.
The country of México, covered in broken feathers and grime, gave a low growl. Its shape, more than ever looking like a broken heel, pressed against the archway further, scrambling to get away. Its hide, green and white and red, looked bruised and tender. It reminded Itze of his mamá’s hands, after a long day of work, of the song made of colors she hummed.
Itze put up his hands in careful surrender. “It’s okay, I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
The country of Mexico looked up, stare holding nothing but caution. It glanced away, making itself small.
Itze took a tentative step forward and sat a meter away. His motions resembled all the times he sat next to his sobbing mamá—hesitant and fearful, scared of saying, or being, the wrong thing. He grew up quickly, that way. “You look injured, Mex. Can I call you Mex?”
Nothing, for a moment.
The top of its heel shape bowed in an ungraceful nod.
Itze giggled, cascading laughter that hid the pang in his heart. “Can I look at you? Maybe I can help.”
Only silence. No hissing, no growling, no attempts to get away.
Itze crawled forward. Twigs snapped under his palms, each making Mex shudder and flinch. Dust swirled around him, and he held in a sneeze. His mamá would be furious when he came back, but at that moment he didn’t care. He sat on his knees, looking over the country of México. Skin made of stretched leather, broken and gashed. At the top of the heel, two saddened eyes unable to make eye contact. Itze reached out with a tentative hand.
Mex flinched, clawing into the wall, away from touch, away from hurt, away from him.
“Perdón,” whispered Itze, “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m sorry.”
A memory made of pressure flicked behind his eyes. A phantom searing, like ice across his forearm, a dark corner of paralyzing guilt, a seeping of blood below his fingers. Itze let out his caught breath.
“I’ve also been hurt.” He stayed near, without touching Mex again. “Prometo no lastimarte. You can trust me.”
They sat next to each other, like that, in silence. Birds sang against the blue sky, creating echoes below the stone bridge. Whispers of laughter and shadows of people crossed above the bridge. Afternoon winds mourned, making the smell of wet earth dance underneath Itze’s nose. Eventually, the country of México un-tensed its taut leathery skin.
Itze noticed the tension in his own muscles and breathed. “Where does it hurt?”
Mex glanced up, hesitantly and full of fear. But it turned, skin stretching over tired muscles, the tip of the heel strained and limping. There, a gash, in the middle of its body. Deep and jagged and the color of copper, barely scarred. There, by the heart.
Itze’s heart pounded in his throat. “Ay, Mex.” His voice crumbled mountains. “Who did this to you?”
The colors of Mex’s skin swirled and mixed in response, creating a shifting pattern of images, like an old projector cast on a rugged brown wall. Images of broken words and ash-tasting shouts. Of snarls and control and pushing hands and dark corners and…
Itze turned away, his throat caught on familiarity.
“Mexi,” he gasped. His own images played within his mind, memories that flashed bright and ripe with guilt and anger. In front of him, Mex rippled and shook, the images fading from its skin. “Mi Mexi. That shouldn’t happen. That should never happen.”
He placed a delicate hand next to the wound. Mex flinched but didn’t run. Itze closed his eyes. “A lo mejor te puedo sanar,” he whispered. “To heal you.” And he reached in and up and out, and pulled from that place beyond time, where innocent wonder lives, trying to find the magic weaved there by his boyish mind.
But no magic seeped from his fingers, not then under his mamá’s blood, not now.
Anger, then. “¿Quién te hizo esto? Who?” Fists and teeth clenched to the point of tears. “Lo voy a matar.”
Mex backed away in a feral panic, knocking into the mossy stone arch, yelping in fear.
Itze realized. Fists and heart undone, he scrambled. “I didn’t mean it,” he stuttered, and those very same words reminded him of a cycle yet to be broken. He put his hands up in shame, and crawled close to the hissing country. “I get it now, I’ll do better.”
Mex’s body rose and fell in trembling breaths, but let Itze come close. They sat together, until the country of México breathed easier again. Like when his mamá held him after that last time of violence, singing her song into his tousled hair, their blood pooling together, hurt but free.
Itze hummed those notes now, to himself, and to the country that was once his.
“I get why you’re hiding. I hid before, too. But you don’t need to hide anymore. Mi mamá can help. She helped me heal. She can clean and stitch and nurse your wounds too.”
But even then, Itze knew something was missing, something just out of reach, swirling in fog within his heart and mind. He looked at Mex, breathing next to him.
A sharp inhale, a realization. “I have to help her heal too,” Itze whispered. He filled his chest with bravery, hopeful and light. “We can help her heal.”
Mexi nodded and moved closer to the boy, nuzzling against his side. Itze reached out a gentle hand and held the country of México. And he hummed that song of his mamá—for himself and for his beautiful, scared, scarred country—until the sun kissed the ground and the clock struck home. Until it was time to walk home and sing it for her too.