Small Maria
by Elise Moser

On the sidewalk opposite, Small Maria and her sister walk with their father. Laura watches out the window. The father is hunched, unshaven, wiry. Surly. He smacks Small Maria on the back of the head; she absorbs the blow like a stain. It runs down the strands of her black hair, force dispersed and inconsequential.

At school they call her Small Maria because there are three Marias in her grade, and she is the smallest. There is also Maria Bobo, who vaults from tree branches and hurtles through alleyways on a skateboard; her knees are constant scabs, sources of offhand pride. And there is plain Maria, who the teachers call by her middle name, Laura; she has no distinguishing characteristics on the outside. Inside, her heart is tender, and, although hidden, sorrows much.

Laura watches, heels lifted off the floor, calves flexed hard to keep her balanced on her toes. Her eyes hover just above the window ledge. Across the street, Small Maria is weighed down by her purple backpack; Laura can see how it pulls across her shoulders. Small Maria's little sister, who stumbles along trying to keep pace with their father, clutches hers against her tiny bird chest, her black hair softly curling at the neck just like her sister's. They pass; Laura sees the three of them in profile. The little sister's face soft, her cheeks still curved out like a baby's. Small Maria has no more baby softness; her face is thin, strained, her mouth set. It takes concentration to receive pain. The little sister lags; the father raises his hand to deliver a blow. Laura sees Small Maria hesitate just long enough to be in the way when the flat of his hand meets skull. Her head judders forward slightly as the impact flows through her bones. Her hair falls forward and hides her dark eyes. Laura knows that just below the hairline, there is a dark bruise. She has seen it at school.

The small family reaches the corner. They live above the dry cleaner's. Laura has seen Small Maria coming out her door with a six-pack of empty bottles in each hand. She returns them to the supermarket for her father. She is not tall enough to trigger the automatic door opener, so she sets the cardboard carriers on the pavement, one on each side, and jumps until she crosses the beam of the motion-sensor. Then she picks them up and darts inside before the doors slide closed.

It is the beginning of the month, and Small Maria will have fresh bruises every day until the money runs out. Laura knows what this is like. She remembers her father, passed out and snoring like an erratic machine. Her mother, passed out too, bleeding, her breath beer-sour.

Laura sits down at her child-sized desk and scribbles with a peacock-blue crayon. She is not drawing, but the foster parents like it when she plays with the toys, so she has learned to keep her hands in motion while she thinks. Her sister, Julie, comes and stands in the doorway. Julie is one year older than Laura and Laura knows that this has made a difference between them. When they lived with their parents, Julie's skull found itself in the way sometimes. But Laura is tough. She took her share.

Laura turns halfway in her green-and-yellow Ikea chair, her hand still laying down scales of peacock wax. Julie is silent. Her window faces the same direction. She has seen Small Maria at school, too. She knows that Maria Bobo's broken arm is from playing street hockey. Small Maria's, last October, wasn't.

Tonight, the foster parents are going out. The yellow-haired babysitter is coming, the one who puts the girls to bed early so she can smoke dope by the living room window. She eyes the girls sideways when she is here. They know that for her, their ordinary past is a curiosity. They have heard her, and not only her, speaking about them in other rooms. Orphans. Violence. The sibilants rushing between tongues and soft palates like air escaping from inside a plastic cushion. Mother battered to death, father killed himself. Whispers growing wide and urgent.

Laura and Julie are bathed. Their brown curls are damp, plastered against their small round heads. Their cheeks are pink. They are dressed in pajamas, little stretchy pants and t-shirts. Laura's are yellow with pink flowers. Julie's are pink with yellow flowers. They lie in their beds, waiting for the babysitter to breathe her fragrant smoke and then doze off in front of the television.

Outside, the evening is sharply cold; the girls can see the clouds of breath as they step quietly through the alleyways. From the magnetic strip fixed to the wall beside the stove, each girl has chosen the handle that fits her hand best. Each knife is tucked inside a matching Barbie backpack. They can see through the window, Small Maria's father raging. They will hunch by the stairs to the back balcony until it is quiet. They won't let things get any worse. Not this time.

Elise Moser has previously published poems in carte blanche and also in nth position. She has published twenty short stories in anthologies and periodicals, and won the CBC/QWF Short Story Competition twice. She is coeditor, with Claude Lalumière, of Lust for Life: Tales of Sex and Love. Her first novel will be published by Cormorant Books in 2009.