Tio Pablo is waiting for me in the market square of Madre de Dios. His rubber lips part to gold-plated teeth. His serpent tongue flicks a line of spit across his stubbled cheek and when he pulls me close to kiss, he smells of coca leaves and liquor.
‘You’re to stay with me’, he says, before telling me to call him Tio, or uncle.
‘Any family of Miguel’s is family of mine.’
Tio flings my bag on his back with the strength of a man half his age. I feel in my pocket for mother’s rosary.
‘You can pay me later. For now, they need you at work.’
Tio leads me through the snaking streets, past the port busy with boats that take away the bullion. I try to ignore the young women in tight Lycra tops and mini-skirts, who hiss at me through red lips split by rotten teeth.
There’s no sun in the basement bar and in the dark, I can’t spot the Virgin Mary.
That night after I have brushed away the bottles and the bodies of miners who think they can buy me like beer, I walk back through the same streets now empty of the hissing women. I creep up the stairs, pull off my tight top, and skirt, climb into the bed and reach for my rosary.
I wake to a door opening, a beam of light across my bed, blinding, a familiar smell, and for a second, I think I’m back home. Until Tio staggers in.
‘I’ve come to take payment, Maria.’ His words wobble with drink and desire. I clutch my rosary tighter, shaking too.
‘Madre’, I whisper, unsure if I’m calling for my mother or the virgin. Pablo laughs. ‘She can’t help you now. That’s why you’re here, Maria.’
His hand is on my mouth, metal smell. The rosary slips from my fingers onto the floor. I hear it smash, see beads rolling towards the golden dawn.
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