The Suitcase

A photograph of broken, rusted old trucks

by Sarah Eckstine

The Suitcase

for the children of Cambodia

Donna Obeid

     She is seven years old, and every night, she comes to the mountain.
     In one hand she holds her pick, in the other, the old rice bag. A circle of light beams from the lamp she has strapped to her head. Beneath the headlamp, she wears a blue beach hat, her favorite thing, faded and frayed. Her legs are tumors on sticks. Her toes are tarred black. On one foot, there’s a sandal too big. On the other foot, a sandal too small.
     For miles in either direction, there is the oily smoke and stench and other circles of light, all of them silently searching through the mountain. Some of the children dress as if for winter with boots and flannel caps and scarves wrapped around their faces, only their eyes showing like two white wolves inside. Some of the children work in teams with hammers and rope. Some of the younger children give up searching and find burrows to sleep in. Occasionally, a cry comes from out of the mountain when there’s something good, but most often, the cry comes when one of the sleeping children has been found, crushed.
Giant flies circle and stick to her as she sifts through broken glass and plastic pieces, syringes, and wire. She finds a square piece of plaid green cloth and a purple straw and quickly puts them both in her rice bag. She sucks hard on a bleeding finger.
     When the bulldozer arrives, its mechanical body churning and grinding and puffing, hundreds of headlamps shift like stars towards it. Chivy has learned not to stand in front of the bulldozer, as the other children do, but rather off to the side and higher up. There she can study the junk for a single instant before it is pushed off.
     The bulldozer holds out its metal tongue with everything it’s collected that day. It is in that moment, on this night, that she first sees the suitcase. Yellow and shiny, like the skin of a mango, and big, as far as she can tell. She licks her cracked lips and tries not to get too excited. It could be nothing, she reminds herself.
     But as the great tongue turns over and the junk topples out, she sees the suitcase is even bigger and shinier than it first appeared. It is so big that it falls not forward with the other junk but spins on its own axis, tumbling off the bulldozer and down where she stands, striking one of its corners on the mound before cartwheeling down the ravine.
     She scrambles after the suitcase, sure that the other children have seen it and are chasing after it too. The ravine is steep and twice she nearly falls, tripping over her own feet, but she clings to what she can, steadying herself, and at last comes to the bottom where the suitcase has nested itself into a soft pile of plastic bags, lying right side up.
     She stands looking at the suitcase and its brass number lock. She forgets about her hunger and her dead mother and the new baby with its balloon belly and all the days of dross that came before this one. She feels now only the drum of her heart, thunderous, like it will come out of her chest. The gods have sent her something good!
     She fears the others will hear the beating of her heart and will come down into the ravine and take the suitcase away from her. She looks up the side of the ravine, expecting to see someone, but there is no one else. She lifts the handle and tugs, carrying the suitcase away, not back up the ravine but along the bottom ridge of it, remaining quiet and hidden.
     She runs and runs, pausing only to snatch a long, dirty cabbages leaf, a half-eaten bun filled with lotus bean, a watermelon rind with some flesh still upon it. Then she makes her legs run faster to the other side of the dump. In the white morning light, she sees the red rag tied to a stick and fort of flags beneath it.
     She peeks into the fort and sees her older sister, Jhumpa, and the tiny mound that is their baby brother without a name. Chivy calls out and Jhumpa opens her eyes and raises the head that balances upon a fishbone spine. Jhumpa is ten years old with two long braids, hunched shoulders and a distracted, dollish gaze. She sniffs an amber-colored bottle of glue all day. Sometimes at night, she speaks of leaving the dump and going to the city, the place they’d never been before, the place with many people and buildings with red flashing lights. There, she said, you could wear fancy dresses and eat a bowl of fish curry and rice.
     Jhumpa sees the suitcase and sits up for the first time in days. “What is it?” she asks, running her fingers along the smooth yellow box then upon the wooden handle and metal latch.
     “Something good,” Chivy smiles.
     The sun rises higher in the sky, turning the garbage to gold. Everything looks the same, but everything is different now. They dance around the suitcase. They use it as a chair, then as a table upon which they feast on the half lotus bun and the cabbage leaf and the dirty flesh of the watermelon.
     Chivy gives the baby the purple straw and sets the baby beside the suitcase. Then she turns away from him. She does not want the day to be spoiled by his crying or his milky eyes. But not a moment later, she hears a loud click! – the baby has somehow, impossibly, turned the right numbers and opened the suitcase.
     Inside, Chivy and Jhumpa find another world.
     A blue wig, a white negligee with lace around the neck and hem, a comb with a broken handle, a circle of glass, a vial of clear liquid and a pink tube. All of it kept inside lavender lining neatly puckered around the top and bottom edges. They have never seen such clean and beautiful things in one place before.
     The girls giggle with delight at their treasures. Inside the circle of glass, they look at themselves for the first time. Jhumpa’s hair is straight and silky, even though it hadn’t seen a comb in years. Her younger sister has tight, tangled wild hair, and both have high cheekbones, thirst-blistered lips, sun-bitten noses. But their dark eyes are bright and interested, filled with hope.
     Jhumpa takes off the shirt she’s been wearing most of her life and puts on the white negligee and blue wig, skipping around barefooted, without caring about the glass shards or feces. Chivy runs the hairbrush through her matted hair before she holds the pink tube up to her nose. No smell comes from it.  Just as she sees that the tube could be uncapped, Jhumpa snatches it away from her, and twists it in such a way that something red spirals out. Jhumpa somehow knows exactly what to do: she holds the mirror in front of her face, expertly coloring her cheeks and her lips with the red.
     “Don’t I look pretty?” Jhumpa asks but Chivy liked her face better before.
     While Jhumpa sits adjusting the wig and admiring herself in the mirror, Chivy takes the last tiny thing out of the suitcase. At first, she thinks the clear liquid in the vial must be water, but when she opens the cap and smells the liquid, she knows that it is not water at all, but something else. Far from the mountain, she’s sure there’s a place of meadows speckled with poppies and butterflies; beyond them, even further, there is innocent milkweed, opening their tiny pink blossoms for the caterpillar to suckle. Chivy thinks this is what that place must smell like, but before she can breathe it in again, Jhumpa takes the vial and holds it up to her nose. Then, instead of saving the liquid as Chivy had hoped she would, Jhumpa pours all of it down her neck and laughs.
     Chivy tries not to show her anger. It is the first time in a long time that Chivy can remember seeing Jhumpa happy. The baby without a name crawls into the suitcase and coos.
     “Let’s take it to the city and give it away,” Jhumpa suddenly says in her blue wig and red-painted face.
     Chivy stares at her sister. But rather than talk anymore about it, Jhumpa shuts the baby inside, and carries the suitcase away. Chivy follows her sister through the paths of the dump and down the long street of starving dogs and blind beggars that lead into the city. Jhumpa carries the suitcase in the white negligee with her spine very straight and her chin pointed up, walking still barefooted as she always did, but in a different way, a way that Chivy hadn’t seen her walk before. Jhumpa is almost floating.
     In the city, motorcycles whiz past them, one after the next, leaving trails of thick dust. “Look out!” Chivy says and takes Jhumpa’s hand before she can be hit.
     At the bus depot, there’s a pile of suitcases ready to be loaded and this is where Jhumpa sets the yellow suitcase down and walks away.
     Chivy follows, feeling slightly less alive. She glances at her sister’s face, but it is impossible to tell what she is thinking beneath the blue wig and lipstick. Jhumpa leads them around the corner, into another street. They pass a vendor’s cart and Chivy breathes in the steam of the sweet lotus buns, trying to fill her stomach with the smell.
     “Look,” Jhumpa says and point to the place she’d spoken of so many times before, the building with the flashing red lights. A thin woman in a black negligee and high heels leans inside the doorway. She looks out into the street and smiles, her eyes lit like a cat’s.
     “Wait here,” Jhumpa says. “Don’t move until I come out.”
     Chivy turns around, trying to find the way from which they came. She feels little and lonesome, overwhelmed by the noise of the motorcycles and the vendor carts and all the people. “I don’t like it here. Let’s go back, Jhumpa. Let’s go back to the mountain.”
     But Jhumpa is no longer at her side. Jhumpa is at the doorway of the building with the flashing red lights, speaking with the woman in the black negligee.
     Chivy watches as the woman smooths the blue wig on her sister’s head with long black fingernails. Then the door opens and closes and Jhumpa is gone inside.
     “Jhumpa!” Chivy calls out in the street and her sister’s name seems like a strange word upon her tongue. “Jhumpa! Jhumpa!”
     Chivy sits down on the curb, waiting for her sister to come back out. A taxi pulls up and a tall man in a suit goes into the building. An Indian man, two old men in long black robes go into the building. By the time the sky turns the color of blood, Chivy counts thirty-three men that have come and gone from the building.
     A hand comes and places a tin plate of rice and fish curry beside her. Chivy eats it in heaping handfuls, licking the grease from between her fingers, saving the half Japanese plum on top for last so she can suck on it the whole night. But she has eaten too quickly and suddenly feels sick. She lies her head upon the ground, waiting and waiting. She closes her eyes and wishes she’d never found the suitcase, that they never put the baby without a name inside, that they’d never come here.
     She wakes to the sound of the street cleaner’s broom. She stands up, dazed and dizzy, then throws up at her feet. Chivy looks up and down the street for any sign of her sister. Then she crosses the street and stands at the door of the building with the flashing red lights and pounds and pounds, begging to be let in.

Originally from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Donna Obeid holds a BA in English with an Honor’s Concentration in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and an MA and MFA from American University. Her stories and poems have appeared in Carve Magazine, Detroit Metropolitan Woman, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Malibu Times, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council sponsored poetry anthology, and elsewhere.

Sarah Eckstine is a photographer from Western Maryland who received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Illinois State University. Her work has been exhibited in the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts annual photography exhibition where she received the 2nd Place Juror’s Award in 2021, New York Center for Photographic Arts, Midwest Center for Photography, as well as many shows on MICA’s campus, including a two-person collaborative show “Knock Me Down,” MICA’s Juried Undergraduate Show 2017 and 2018, and a solo show “Crosses Across America” in 2020. She has been published in Shots Magazine, Bullshit Lit, Able Zine, fifth wheel press, and Soft Lightning Studio.