The old man sat beside the powder gray embers of the campfire, glancing up at his grandson, whose curious eyes—one blue, one brown—pointed at the trees that stood a hundred feet above the jungle floor. It was an hour past dawn and the evening’s harmonizing insects gave way to the call and response of birds, like classical to jazz, which mixed with the cracked twigs and rustling leaves made by monkeys and groundlings on their morning commute.
“Show me your shoes,” he said. The boy stood before him and his grandfather ran his calloused hands over the shoes, his fingers tracing the zig-zag tear in the toe cap of the right, feeling the holes of the left which had been cut to thread zip-ties through.
“Look at what your shoes have endured, mijo.”
The boy looked down at his shoes. His toes were cold. The man stoked the fire until it caught flame again, then walked beside a stream that snaked past their campsite, bringing back a handful of kindling and a plastic water bottle. The waterlogged sticks billowed smoke and steam, nearly choking the small flame. The boy watched his grandfather.
“Give me your shoe.” The boy slipped off the shoe with the torn cap and handed it to his grandfather, who held it as he continued to feed tiny strips of wood into the morass of smoke.
“We are the color of earth. Wherever you go, you will find our people. You will come upon many who have nice shoes, expensive shoes, who refuse to look at you because you do not have such shoes. These people are not the color of earth, even though they look like you. You must learn to make these people look at you, whatever that takes. I did by staying in Chiapas, you will by leaving.” He fitted the water bottle on a stick and held it over the flames which blackened the underside, bending the ends.
“You will also encounter others who do not look like you. They may be darker, they may be lighter. Their shoes look like your shoes, their feet like your feet. This is how you will know them and them you, for these people are the color of earth as well.” The moisture evaporated from the bottle with a hiss and the paper wrap withered.
“It is these who you must find, the ones who will help force those with the expensive shoes to look at you. Do you understand?” The bottle melted down to the size and color of a banana slug. He removed it from the flames and wiped it over the tear in the shoe, using his finger to spread it evenly over the whole zig-zag before giving it back to the boy.
He got up slowly, then walked toward a dirt trail that was barely discernible through the foliage, motioning for the boy to follow. The boy put his shoe back on and ran to him, taking his hand as they walked across the decaying leaves of the rainforest until the trail emptied at a waterfall. The old man took off his shirt and set it on a rock, then rolled up the legs of his pants. The cool water soothed the scabs on his feet as he stretched his stubby toes with nails that looked like shattered glass. The boy tossed his shoes on the rocks and jumped in, the purple hand-me-down t-shirt clinging to him. The old man pretended to be slipping on the pool’s bank, waving his arms wildly with a goofy smile. The boy swam to the waterfall, standing under the steady current and flexing his biceps as the water streamed across his back, until he submerged again. They sat together again on the bank, their toes just above the waterline. The old man looked at their outstretched legs, the boy’s almost the same length as his.
“You’ve grown so much since we last came here.” The boy smiled and looked at his grandfather, who appeared to him like one of the trees that soared above.
“Don’t forget this, mijo.”
The boy nodded, his smile fading. He jumped back into the water and the old man wondered if he knew as well that this would be their last time walking the jungle together.