My mother could have stayed, her feet hugging gravel and earth instead of slicing through sand and water in her rush to escape.
She could have stayed, our fingers curled around each other’s, the edges of our wrists bumping together, as her raft drifted away, growing smaller than a fingernail, neither of us caring if the people aboard lingered forever at sea, their salty bodies hardening as they took one last look back.
We could have walked back to our Miramar home, my legs wrapped around her waist, feet hooked around each other, happily ignoring the painful rub of ankle bone on ankle bone each time she hoisted me up with a swing of her hips to keep me from sliding down.
We could have tumbled inside of our apartment, her feet, her ankles, the insides of her thighs all perfectly dry, and my body limp, asleep, not at all tensed with nightmares of drowning on land, of twenty-foot waves sending every woman, every child, every bearded man out to sea.
We could have fallen asleep, my head resting on her arm, and not dreamt about the ocean swirling around our heads before sucking us down to the ocean floor, her raft shattered into pieces that drifted further and further apart before sinking, each piece zigzagging and somersaulting down to the ocean floor like so many jagged and soggy bits of ash.
We could have slept soundly then, her desire to float to another world just a false rumor, a fading dream.
I could have told her I was taking her some place special, letting lies spill from between my teeth, knowing and really believing no god would punish such a lie.
I could have told her it was a surprise, that she’d have to keep her eyes shut tight, as I hoisted her onto my back, her legs wrapped around my waist and hooked at the ankle as I made for the place where my raft sat underneath a mound of palm fronds.
I could have told no one. I could have had she not been so afraid of the sea.
I could have told her she would be safe with me, that I would never let the sea take her as I wrangled her onto the raft, her nails leaving red half-moons on my shoulders and the tops of my arms.
I could have tied her to me and to the metal barrels that kept us aloft and sent us bobbing away from our home, from Cuba.
I could have lied and left and fled with her terror in my arms and released it into the sky for the seagulls to swallow.
I could have been the kind of child a mother can’t leave before I had to become the kind of child that didn’t care about being left.
I could have been a swimmer, fearless, confident in my body’s buoyancy, in the strength of my arms to propel me forward, my legs rudder-like, as the shore inched further and further away.
I could have forgotten the day the undertow sucked me under, upended me, sent me somersaulting, and spit me out, but not before taking my swimsuit and filling my mouth with sand.
I could have listened when my mother told me to stay at the shoreline as she turned onto her stomach, her brown back to the sky, her toes burrowing into the sand. Instead of wading in, I could have sat at her side, knowing waves that large are pulled towards the earth by a force greater than that of a five-year-old’s legs.
So many men could have snuck into the place where those young men slept, resting, dreaming of the next morning when they would take the train and then the island, this world. Given the chance, I would have taken the knife that I knew so well, its blade sharp from the whetting stone, its handle sculpted to the curves of my palms. I could have let it slip into the hollow of his throat, into the place where men love to kiss their women, where a pulse can be seen beating steadily, supplying sleeping eyes, parted lips, sprawled legs, limp hands with oxygen, letting the knife slip deeper into that delicate place, interrupting the flow of blood, his eager dreams, his cruel intentions.
They would have shot me for it, but I could have let his blood spill onto the backs of my hands, warm with promise.
They could have fought back, those harassed Tainos, instead of meeting the boats wide-eyed and smiling, instead of welcoming the Spaniards with bared necks and opened hands. They could have fought, crawling along the ground in the night, sinking their fingertips into the dirt, their feet splayed and soft to disperse any sounds as those Spaniards slept, their sick, pale legs glowing in the moonlight like fleshy beacons, leading the way to their guns, to their rising and falling backs, to their soft bellies.
Those brave Tainos, they could have set fire to their feet, to their blankets, to their dark, creaking ships, lurching offshore like drunken demons.
They could have stopped it all from happening.
They could have changed the world.