I hold my birth mother’s name like a string of pearls between my gum and my molars. I hold it on the right side of my mouth, where my teeth are strongest, where my smile rests, and I keep it hidden. It is my most valued possession, the only proof beyond my skin that I come from someone.
At night, I use my tongue to free her name from the rounded flesh that cups my teeth. I hold it in the warm cave of my mouth, and when I am sure no one else is awake, I speak it: “________ ____ ______ _____.”
• • •
I found her name when I was a child, covered in dust on a birth certificate—my first, the one in Spanish—in a box of documents on a shelf in a closet in a house we no longer live in. I scratched it from the paper with my fingernails, peeled the letters off and buffed them until they shone, and ate the name, so that it was mine for good.
I remember little of my childhood; I have hidden many of the memories from myself, down in the deep dark of my blood, but I remember the name.
I chewed it for a long time, exploring with my teeth the ebbs and flows of the syllables. When I had chewed it flat, ground it into a streak of sweet that stuck to the contours of my wisdom teeth, I spat it out into my palm, late at night.
It stung my hand with the thorny weight of lack, and I pronounced it out loud: “________ ____ ______ _____,” over and over, until it made me dizzy and the name was echoing, ricocheting back and forth between the walls of my bedroom.
My most secret voice turned each name into pearls, small ones: white seed pearls that I cradled in my hands, cupping my palms until the name rolled down my life line. I strung the pearls on waxed thread, pulled them taut, and tucked them into the back of my mouth.
• • •
I go home to Chile for the first time twenty-seven years after I am born there.
I live at the foot of Cerro San Cristóbal in Barrio Bellavista. As I walk the streets of Santiago, sticking to the shadows in the height of the summer, I slide my tongue over the pearls of my birth mother’s name.
I ride the funicular to the top of the hill, where it is still hot and dry, but we are above the worst of the haze, and I carry a large bottle of water in my purse that sloshes in time with my heartbeats.
I am alone in Chile, but for once I blend in. I am the same height as all of the women I walk past. As the funicular rises through the trees, I study the women in the car, but none of them have the face I see in the mirror.
At the top of the hill, there are vendors selling mote con huesillos. I hand over Chilean pesos for a plastic cup, sleek green bills printed with Gabriela Mistral’s face sliding through my fingers for the sweet drink.
As I sip it, slowly, because it’s nearly too much for my palate, I chew the mote one by one, taking care to not dislodge the pearled name I hold in my mouth. They feel the same, to my tongue, until I bite down; the wheat splits between my teeth. The pearls press back, reminding me that they are there.
I worry sometimes that I will kiss someone and lose the pearls, or that I will eat a meal and leave them on my plate. I recite their name often, silently. In work meetings, on the toilet, before I fall asleep.
And now, on top of the hill, as I navigate between wheat and pearls. I fish out the huesillo with my spoon when the juice is gone. It looks like a heart, dried in the unending summer heat of the southern hemisphere, then sold and sunk into my cup. It is stringy and sweet, and the flesh parts beneath my teeth with the barest of hesitation.
• • •
Sometimes, when I am not in Chile, I dream about Chiloé.
I dream my entire trip there. The flight, the car rental, the ferry ride. I dream the place where I have stayed twice before, where the man who owns the room I rent practices his English and leaves me jars of marmalade and fist-sized bunches of garlic.
I dream the market I visit, where I buy two dozen crooked potatoes with white and purple flesh, and tart summer berries, and fresh fish.
I dream about the room I sleep in, in a palafito that trembles as the tides shift beneath it, and the big windows that face the long view of ocean and nothingness. It has a little kitchen, and I dream that I wash the grit from the potatoes in the small sink, and when I look down at my hands they have spelled out the name I keep secret: ________ ____ ______ _____.
I wake from that dream with my hands wet, and when I spit the name into my palms in panic, it tastes like I have swallowed the sea.
• • •
When I am not in Chile, where everyone could be my mother, and I am alone, I try to cook the foods I eat when I am there, conjuring the scents and memories of my favorite markets. Around Thanksgiving, I buy cans of pumpkin puree so I can fry sopaipillas when it rains.
I push a fork into the dough before I drop them in hot oil, leaving neat rows of markings. The rain against my windows drums into the glass in the rhythm of my birth mother’s name, and a splash of hot oil on the inside of my wrist is a welcome distraction from the syllables I have not spoken to anyone.
In the early fall, I take a train to Queens to buy frozen empanada dough and to walk for a while on streets where the women are my size and color. Back home, I fill the empanadas with beef and hard-boiled eggs and olives, and I fold them like envelopes before placing them in the oven, where they cook like parcels I can never send to a woman I know only by name. When I pull them from the oven with only the edges singed, I hope that I have made her proud.
The winter I turn thirty-five, there are more protests in Chile, tear gas and paint in the streets, and a travel advisory from my adopted government grounds me, keeps me away from the southern hemispherical summer I long for all year.
That year, I dream about the pearls regularly.
They are terrible dreams. Sometimes, I dream that I have woken up and the pearls are gone. When I try to speak the name, all four parts of it, my throat closes. Some nights, I dream that the pearls fall out of my mouth when I am eating. Sometimes, I swallow them in my dreams, accidentally, and then can no longer find the name in my memories. Sometimes, they transform as they fall, and they strike the plate as tiny flecks of lapis lazuli, or red spots of ají that make my food piquant and familiar, until I realize that my dream-self is consuming the memory of my birth mother’s name, and I wake up feeling sick.
In the mornings, when I wake from these dreams, I push the pearls so tightly against my teeth I rub my gums raw.
I spit the pearls into my hand and inspect them. I test the strength of the string they are threaded on. I take off my glasses and hold each pearl a centimeter from my eyes. The first pearl is longer, the first name: ________. The second is shorter: ____. And then the two surnames are strung together so tightly they could be one: ______ _____.
My fear is that the pearls will fall from my mouth when I am awake, and I will not notice. My fear is that one day, when I am older, I will pull the pearls from my mouth as four long, white hairs, and they will be caught by the breeze before I can catch them and remember.
• • •
I am split; I live my life called south to the proud spine of the Andes, and when I follow that call, I wander streets that are almost familiar, where I speak a language that tangles itself around my tongue in ways I can almost recall.
Throughout it all, I study the faces of the women who pass by, pressing the tip of my tongue against the pearls of my birth mother’s name, waiting.