A Soul Wrapped in Cardboard
Copyright 2022 by Annelise Wallie
of Boquete, Panama by the author.
never actually saw
the object I will describe.
mean I won’t do a good job. I have a solid idea of what it
looks like, though I’ll never see it in person.
won’t see me - it’s blind.
started in December. Downtown Boquete bustles with preparations for
the January flower festival.
chips to the speckle-tongued orchids, push wheelbarrows, spread mulch
around the tulips, petunias, impatiens.
Feria de los
Flores is a big deal, a week of local coffee handpicked by
shawls, leather bracelets, Latin music, and wooden quetzal bowls;
large enough to pull international tourists, hikers, sightseers,
bikers. The town is spooned into the bowl of the valley, Bajo
Boquete. (Bajo is Spanish for low.).
his neighborhood, is one taxi mile south in Alto
the left of el Texaco. (Tourists call it “el
even after hearing the local pronunciation, “el TexACO.”)
quiet sprawl of
streets, encroaching like anthill trails. Sidewalks lined up to the
small, Panamanian-style houses. Windows are barred, the concrete
block walls splashed with paint.
#49 has a
statue of Buddha in the front yard. The family that rented the house
for six months covered Buddha’s face with green plastic leaves
from the dollar store.
street, waters her lilies with a green can.
dead-ends at a fenced park. A woman in shorts, hair the color of
spilled ink, pushes her baby toward the swings. A couple rests their
bare arms against the metal fence. ("Fence" is cerca in
Spanish; but cerca also means “near.”) They listen
to the canyon roar.
lessened now - in March, when the rains come, it will bubble angry as
a steam engine over the rocks. Until then, it lingers through the
canyon, a lazy leopard yawning in the heat.
house is across
from the park.
black, the gate locked. Hedges screen the front door. The bamboo
trees are round like coffee mugs, topped with yellowy-green spear
leaves. I can't see the fountain, gurgling behind the rectangular
shrub - but I know it is there.
the evening dies,
toads bump their heads from the splashes to burp. Moths scribble
around the street lamps.
house has a
sloped red roof. A white building, hardly bigger than an outhouse,
and flanked with windows, attaches to the garage. Flowers encircle
his yard: candy-pink hibiscus, rhododendrons that la abuela
planted, amaryllis, sansevieria like green-gold zebras, and
with a branch exactly the height of a man, is where Mateo does
paned in glass strips. Each pane unfolds like mantis wings when he
cranks the lever.
can describe, in
detail, the inside of his studio. Long afternoons of pencil dust,
stepping on beetle shells, layering paint into the textured canvas,
and fingering acrylic out of brushes into the sink drain has seared
the studio's personality behind my eyelids. I could return to the
damp concrete in my dreams, if I wanted to.
wooden table sits
ponderously in the center. Plastic cups sprawl with rulers and
brushes: riggers, sables, flats. Papers scatter the table. Napkins
sketched with scenes, ripped cardboard with a delicately-daubed beach
scene, and the backs of envelopes filled with floral anatomy:
stamens, pistils, petals, leaves.
stands in the center of the table.
glass mixes with green. One dead amaryllis hangs from the vase, the
neck bent at a V. Months of sucking at the dusty vase, the stem is
shriveled. Limp petals are darkened to the color of dried blood.
painting is as fresh as the true flower is dead.
everything Mateo needs. His beach scenes, the commissioned magnolia
blossom, a bird of paradise. His quetzales and his
hummingbirds. The eyes glint beady enough to swoop off the canvas.
in labor with twelve jammed drawers, is probably where he keeps it.
The drawers smell of dust and cedar shavings. Watercolor
pastel sheets in gray and black, exacto knives, daubs of erasers,
tubes, luscious oils and kinky watercolor - the drawers reach out
wooden fingers and Mateo hands them paint tubes.
last time those
interlocking windows were cleaned - it must have been two years ago
splashed them with
soap from my bucket while Mateo vacuumed beetle shells off the
concrete. Dust and fly wings sluiced off.
jovencita,” Mateo winked at me when I emptied my bucket.
snack of papaya
from the kitchen, and a March breeze flurried a handful of sand
against the newly-baptized glass.
is stashed behind his white cabinet. He never told me outright, but I
guessed he painted it for an old girlfriend. Maybe two, three years
before he met me? I never could wheedle the information out of him.
The macaws have no wings - will they ever fly? - and on the opposite
wall, a Gnabe girl in a blue dress stares off the canvas. Her dress
used to be green - Mateo changed his mind. Beside her, a mare and
colt gaze outward in exquisite airbrush.
where Mateo stores it now. He's so private, I doubt he ever showed it
to la abuela. He never needed to hide it from me,
even when I
popped over in the middle of his sketching.
trusted me - I
saw that trust soft in his eyes, every afternoon. Mateo knew, beyond
the shadow of a duda, that he could flip his
and lay it down on the table. I would beg him to show me - but I
would put my hand in gasoline before I would touch his sketchpad sin
last time I saw
it, the closed sketchpad was on his table.
sturdy and durable - the sketchpad is bound with a wire spiral. Mateo
used expensive chalk pencils - kilometers out of his meager budget,
but softly sensuous against the toothy paper, in colors of succulent
yellow, cerulean, the magenta of perfect lips.
picture was on his iPhone. He would lay the iPhone there, pick up
pencils, shading into the faint pencil guidelines.
crouched on the broken stool, his jeans ripped where the cell phone
pushed through his pocket. Tennis shoes resting on the table shelf,
elbows propped on the table.
plays Stuck On
You from the iPad, wireless earbuds wedged in his ears as he
colors. He smears the pastel into the pitted paper with a tapered
fingers, and how gently he cradled the dying tanager, smacked by the
grill of his Honda. I suppose Mateo must remember the color of my
eyes (he teased they were "golden"), my white skin after it
developed a tan, or my faded pink shorts that ended awkwardly at my
own eyes are
colored like Orion, wrinkled by crow’s feet - the only betrayal
of his age. I used to think that's why I hurried, frantic, in
everything from washing dishes to grocery shopping. I was running a
marathon, but I could never catch up to him. A sixteen-year head
start Mateo neither wanted, nor could do anything about.
When he snapped the reference photo, I was scowling at one of his
jokes. My arms are crossed. I’m slouched in a wicker chair that
stabs a bone of bamboo into my appendix. My hair is swooped up, but
the ponytail is helpless to control my platoon of frizz. My eyes are
slitted - That isn’t funny
say to the picture taker.
his basketball jersey that day. He missed basketball practice when I
came over. (“Go play, it’s almost three,” I’d
urged him. He had grinned, pretended to get up. "How could I
play baloncesto when you're leaving in a month?")
never saw the
portrait, but I did see his reference picture. I’m wearing a
clover green T-shirt with plastic drinking cups. The caption, Proceed
to Party, is sprinkled with Saint Patrick clovers. It was my
favorite T-shirt. My lips twist at the memory.
would have done
an excellent job on the drawing. Every confession I shared, he added
details. Strokes for my flyaway frizz, shading my arms, softening
skin, deepening the flesh tones. I picture his fingers smearing
pastel in that precise shade of green for my shirt. Coloring each
shamrock in mint, aqua, white, yellow. Shading the folds. Detailing
my neckline, the sewed threads. Sculpting my cheekbones in light
cream, my lips a faded sunset, my hair the color of baled hay.
me the final piece of yourself," he said without looking up from
his sketch. "I will finish the last detalle."
I told him my
brother slit his own throat, when I joked about having endless
friends, when I whispered about the cat, when I choked and my lips
died on the memories. My details became his. He sharpened his pencils
and wiped his fingers on paper towels until the toads had stopped
burping and the fountain hushed, when la abuela was
sleeping and the dogs only barked at the coatimundis.
have el retrato before you get on your plane.”
believed him - I
stared into his eyes and knew if one man could sketch a soul, it
would be Mateo. A man with his own soul cracked with eight different
fissures, like mine.
when I carried
my luggage onto the bee-yellow Spirit plane, and pushed my backpack
into the overhead compartment, it held only my crumpled clothes, my
passport, and my watercolor pan set. When I scrubbed the tears off my
face in the Florida airport with jazz belting from the speakers, my
summer tan had already faded from bloodless cheeks. The eyes Mateo
called "golden" stared back from the mirrors like dull
still remember the
sunset when the plane took off: a glorious, sickening red.
in his studio. Pencils scattered. Perhaps he stashed it in the table
drawers, or nestled it in tissue paper, sandwiched in cardboard. I
hope the edges don't curl with mold during the October rains.
am not blind, but
I never saw my soul.
the portrait is blind.
never drew my
Wallie was born and raised in Northeast Ohio. She grew up
journaling, reading every novel in the library, and entering
poetry contests. At nineteen she flew to Boquete, Panama for six
months. A year later she returned to Panama to sharpen her Spanish
skills. Annelise then moved to San Antonio, Texas to work for
Pearson Accelerated Pathways. She currently lives in San Antonio with
two sisters and a garden of sunflowers.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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