Jungle Planet
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Jungle Planet

Even on cable TV, it was the animals she loved. She had a neat, black, remote control as small as a candy bar, and she could find all the numbers in the dark.

They reserved television for the long, stifling afternoons. She and Lola liked to watch on the sofa together, the old woman snoozing upright by her side. Her father didn't want the lights on in the house during the day; it was a waste of power. Any day now, the men from the electric company would come to cut the wires, and her beloved beasts would be gone. Neither could they make too much noise. So they would sit together in the semi-darkness of the sala until twilight stole across the room and the evening news blared over the neighbors' sets, slipping past the shuttered windows and the door with its three locks.

She knew what number on the TV screen the volume could be set to before her father noticed. Smiling and with hardly a word, she and Lola would watch the animals.

Sometimes the screen was blue, and the dark shadow of a finned and rotund creature slipped through invisible water. Sometimes a vista of lazy yellow greeted her eyes, a savannah far off in Africa, with a big cat standing to one side and swiveling its head, about to gaze at her with mild annoyance. One afternoon when Papa was asleep and Lola was snoring gently, the little girl turned the TV on to a hell of screaming men and rapid explosions. Her heart pumped wildly for a few crazy seconds before she could find the remote control and squeeze the right buttons. All at once, there was a swelling silence and nothing but green. The blurry image came into focus, and she saw that it was a forest leaf so clear and perfect that she could see the network of tiny veins along its spine. As she watched, a small drop of crystal-clear water formed at its tip and quietly fell, round as a pearl.

By twilight, her mother would return, smelling of heat and the train. She would be cross and sticky and not nice to kiss. Papa never cooked; it was Lola's duty to do so, though the vegetables slipped through her gnarled fingers and tumbled in the dust. The four of them would sit at the table and eat without talking. The food was apportioned according to a tacit plan: if there was pork or chicken, the parents had it; the grandmother insisted on her rice and monggo beans; and the little girl fished out and swallowed the [End Page 109] saluyot the chicken was cooked with because she could not stand the taste of flesh. She remembered the days when her parents would paddle her for refusing food, for gently pushing slivers of meat off the edge of the table and subsisting on a few onions or leaves. You don't realize how many children out there cannot eat this way, they would say, the grandmother gathering her leavings.

They had given up and suppers were now uneventful. The meal over, her father would leave the table to put on his uniform and take the bicycle, which they kept in the living room during the day for fear of thieves. Her mother would collapse in the darkness of the bedroom. The child would take the dishes over to the sink and carefully whisk the rice grains and stray monggo beans off the table, collecting them in her palm to deposit in the trash. She and her grandmother would then do the dishes and fill the drums with the next day's water supply. Sometimes the water gave out before they were done, and a week might pass before they could wash again.

There was no school because three girls had died. One morning the old janitor had found Sandra from the third grade stiff and cold in one of the lavatory stalls. Two months later, it was Marijoy. The teachers called a meeting. These squatters, someone hissed, and the teachers clucked their tongues to express their horror. At the other...



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