la guadaña amorosa
by Samir Sirk Morató
I was thirteen years old when Daniel “Ardilla” Peña and Sonia Peña asked us to cure the germinating lovesickness of Martín Green. Ardilla was Martín's lifelong best friend, but he had just produced a colicky baby with Sonia, so he couldn't tend to his friend for longer than a few days. Ardilla was just shy of twenty-three and eons away from good handwriting, but abuela and I could read his note well enough:
Martín was bedridden beneath a love enchantment. Because of his wife and baby, Ardilla could not take care of Martín. He needed us to step in. Could we come right away?
Though the handwriting was Ardilla's, I sensed Sonia's presence in the correct spelling of “enchantment,” the pointed mention of a wife and baby, and the bloody fingerprint on the paper's edge. But her strange one-sided hatred of Martín carried concern now. That stirred my curiosity. If Sonia was worried about Martín, something was very wrong.
Let's go, mija, Abuela said.
It was early summer then, and the brittle outlines of the desert softened beneath evening yucca blooms and fine combs of cholla spines. Abuela bundled me onto her horse with grave urgency. She packed her satchel with a sage bundle, a candle, a novena card, a rosary, and a scarlet Santa Muerte figurine before handing it to me, then leaping onto our horse. We trotted off in a tizzy. A half chewed sunflower seed still stuck in my cheek. I spat its shell into the dusty road as we set off.
Though I longed to step into abuela's boots in every way possible, and I duplicated her twin braids, spells, voluminous shawls, and gruff, tobacco-stained ways of wording, I did not understand the stress that gnarled abuela's time-tanned hands. Some girl had enchanted Martín. So what? That concept seemed sweeter to me than the tin of bonbons abuela had packed in her skirt pockets; the perfume of it bathed my nose and excited my imagination.
A secret sliver of me wished that I had cast the love spell instead. If Martín Green loved me, it would mean endless trinkets, stupid bromas, piggyback rides on a broad back, and pounds of Mexican wedding cookies at our union. I wouldn't need to share him and his nice lashes with the rest of the kids in the pueblo; I wouldn't need to turn in early like a little girl or obey older Señoras. As Mrs. Gata Constanza Green, I'd know my magic was strong and my husband was kind and I'd get to wear an old wedding ring the way abuela did.
But Martín always laughed and ruffled my hair when I sat on his shoulders and I proclaimed that I was grown, and I couldn't do more than purify rooms, beg Santa Muerte for guidance, and bless herbs, so it was some other, older girl who had slipped the snare around Martín's ankle.
As our nag kicked up piñon dust, I toyed with the cracker jack ring hung around my neck. I loathed that we were on our way to vanquish a dusk-soft spell that did not need vanquishing. Any small envies I carried drowned beneath my fondness for Martín. Now that the veil of grief had lifted from his shy face and deft, clay golden hands, he seemed ready for love. But we were about to steal it from him. That was no way to repay the generosity of someone I adored.
Why are we going to ruin this spell? Martín should be happy someone shot one at him. He's got no family. He's lucky a girl wants him this bad. Ardilla acts like he's dying.
Because he is, mija.
Abuela jammed her ancient, crimson cowboy boots into the stirrups. The nag's crooked back swayed, as did the junipers cloaking us. My own red boots, now a size too small, squeezed my feet. I chewed at my lip and vowed to keep telling abuela they fit. No other pair in the zapatería right now looked as similar to hers.
He can't be dying. It's just a love spell.
Abuela shook her head.
You're too young to understand how agonizing love can be, especially in the hands of a lonely bruja. Power in empty hands makes tears the choice from love, which makes it poison. This is not one of your schoolyard crushes, Gata. But you're about to learn.
We rode until the gnarled woods turned to brush, to sunset-streaked sand and the fallen leftovers of barbed wire fence crushed into sagebrush, until the lechusas called from the mountains and the Green's adobe hut came into view. It squatted on the desolate ground, laid low by pain. Even when Señora Green had been alive a year ago, the house had always looked that way. The sagging barbed wire fences and chicken scratch scabs around it caked the house in a lonely sort of leprosy. Nothing but the Greens had grown here. I thanked Niña Dorada that the house abuela and I had radiated hope from its slanted stoop and garden, that our footsteps gave the adobe a heartbeat instead of haunting its walls. More than anything, I felt sad for Martín.
Ardilla waited for us in the yard. He flew to us the instant abuela's toe touched the ground. His twisting hands fluttered around him. Sweat pinned a loose curl to his forehead. It stained all the crevices of his shirt too. Fascinated fear pricked me. I had never seen a man so aged by his own wetness. Whatever spell had Martín in its grips was squeezing his life juice out for the desert to drink.
I'm glad you're here, doña. Martín is doing poorly.
Did you do as I asked? Do you know who cast their eye on him?
Ardilla shook his head. No. I wish I did. But--
Martín wasn't close to many people. Ardilla swept a wet curl off his forehead. Not besides me.
What a lie! I was close to Ardilla! All of us pueblo brats were. Maybe Ardilla was too out of his mind to realize he was being self-centered. Something about the way he tucked his hair back reminded me of the many ways hands arrowed and looped between Martín and Ardilla when they were drunk on warm beers and talking so close it verged on conspiracy, but I couldn't place what. I just knew that Sonia would have hated it. Tension continued wringing my guts.
Do you know who did it? Ardilla rasped. Do you have any idea, doña?
He continued juddering around her until he saw me watching, then hooked his thumbs into his belt loops and tried to straighten. I almost told him not to puke. The close presence of his friend and the distant beacon of his family stretched him across coals. Abuela hmm'd.
I have an inkling. He's close to Trina Sanchez, isn't he?
Ardilla looked as if she had named a bug. I didn't know why she was mentioning Trina either. Trina Sanchez barely held space in my mind. She was a twiggy loner with a big bust, a sun-stained migrant grape and cherry harvester that cycled through with the seasons, always living in shacks outside of town and tending to a reclusive grandmother who spoke no Spanish. Trina was a clumsy girl with thin, piercing eyes and sandpaper palms. We all knew Martín; none of us knew Trina.
His mother hired her. Sure. He worked near her. That's it. But that kind of woman… can't love.
Ardilla looked like he wanted to spit out a word that he couldn't. Not in my presence. Abuela restrained a flex of her jaw and cast the bonbons from her pocket into my awaiting palms.
So we have nothing then. Come, mija. We must try and work.
Ardilla loped behind us as I loaded Abuela's bags upon my back. He wanted to grasp us in his terrified talons, but we were Martín's sole help and his wife needed him. That made halting us unbearable. Out here, there was only him, Martín, and the hot wind. Martín's cracked doorstep had not felt another tender foot for years beyond his mother's, or maybe Ardilla's. Ardilla licked his lips as Abuela and I strode towards the door.
Are you really going to take your granddaughter in? A child shouldn't see someone like this.
She won't be a child much longer. Abuela swept her skirts around her with finality. Dignity. As a curandera and a woman, she'll have to learn how to deal with these things. With me, she can take it.
Ardilla shuddered. My heart trembled in trepidation as he fell away, leaving us to march into Martín's tiny home.
Take care of him! Ardilla called, small and far away.
The adobe walls funneled us through a paltry living room, then to two closed bedroom doors. I smelled prickly pear, sickly cloying and sweet, outside the first one before we even stopped there. The fragrance turned my stomach. Abuela cast me a look to exorcise my fidgeting.
Whatever you see, no matter what happens, you must behave. Be strong. Be good. Loving skins us all, especially when it's malformed. Don't humiliate Martín while he is in great pain. We have all been fools like this.
I imitated her even tone, but I didn't understand. In her eyes, I saw that she knew I didn't. But I was here today to learn. Abuela knocked on the door. It creaked open. Together, we entered.
Martín Green was gigantic, a teenage farmer meant for wrestling disobedient burros and slinging six-foot ristras over his shoulders without them brushing the sand – a man in my eyes, back then – but when I saw him that day, he was a fallen pillar. A huffing, sweating boy that lay crumpled in sheets. He took up such little space horizontally.
Abuela limped to his bedside, her heels clacking. Martín's hazy pupils followed her. His shirt lay open across his breast. An expanse of bruises littered his collar in bright, swollen knots. Stiff, vertical needles swayed on Martín's chest with every one of his ragged inhales. I couldn't understand. Had he fallen into a cactus patch? Were those chest hairs?
You're in trouble today, Martín. Abuela palmed his forehead. Your father's good looks may be the death of you.
Martín chuckled. The sound emerged wet: the sound of skinned nopal petals squishing together. His breathing seesawed. As I watched, another needle popped through his skin. Again, the smell of sweet, rotten prickly pear clogged the room. My guts twisted. I fumbled to unpack abuela's bags and set up the Niña Roja altar for her on Martín's barren nightstand.
Nothing new there.
Abuela's hand drifted to his trembling wrist. She pinched his pulse between her fingers, frowning. I wished the sage smoke I spread around the room would stop clouding my vision. In another sense, I was grateful. The purified curtain it cast around me kept me from seeing the tall boy who bought me candies and glass bottle sodas laid low the way he was.
Martín, do you know who cast this on you?
Martín closed his eyes. His gurgled breathing continued. I finished my cleansing prayer and hurried to put Niña Roja and candles on the new altar.
Yeah. I do. Lied to Ardilla about that. Didn't want him to get in a fight or nothing. Sonia's stressed enough.
Who bewitched you?
Can't tell you.
This is a serious spell. Abuela pointed to his chest. It's not just taken root in your body, it's blooming. The Peñas should've sent for me a week ago. If you don't tell me who did this, you may die. Is your tongue tied?
Not by magic.
As I unpacked the bonbons for Niña Roja, I struggled not to ogle Martín. Agony stifled every heave of his chest. It toyed with the twitching joints of his fingers. How could the boy who did not cry at being spurred by a rooster or turning his ankle in a topo's hole look this way now? His diminished presence was a crime against nature.
Trina did this, Martín confessed. Was partially an accident. She didn't mean to cast something this mean.
I bit on the surprise between my teeth. It tasted of copper. Abuela's expression stayed unchanged.
Don't hurt Trina. Please. We grew up together. She and her grandma always stayed with us during the harvest season. Trinita helped me bury mamá. I helped her feed her grandma. We shared wages and secrets and chicle ever since we were seven. I love her.
His sigh was a rustle of rain-soaked cholla rattling together. Tears glossed his lashes.
I don't want the town to punish Trina. She's got no one now. It'd kill her. Don't hurt her, doña. I'm begging you.
Gata, start praying, Abuela commanded.
I swallowed my fragile trepidation, took the rosary and novena into my hands, then slid to my knees. My overalls did not cushion my bones from the floor. Martín quivered now, sinking deeper into the bed.
Oh Niña Roja, I murmured, my elegant, lovely Sister, you hold the powers of passion and hatred in your heart, and death and deliverance in your hands...
Abuela assessed Martín.
If you succumbed to this spell, it would save your life, she said. All you need to do is confess your love to Trina and have it reciprocated. Obviously, she'd accept your confession. Then your lungs would clear. Why die instead of marrying and producing children with her? Is she married? Is it because she's an immigrant? A migrant? I know how your mamita felt about those.
Prayer and sticky breathing rattled against the adobe walls. I climbed to the next rosary bead. Monsoon season came and went before Martín whispered a reply.
I don't want to say it while Gatita's in here. I don't want her to think of me differently.
I faltered in my second prayer. Tears threatened to ruin my vision. Martín was everyone's gentle, goofy favorite. I owed him all my summer entertainment. He was the pueblo's primo. If he confessed to murder right now, I wouldn't adore him any less. I did not want whatever horrible power I had over him that made him look so small, so scared. Abuela's glare was unneeded.
I won't think differently of you, Martín. I promise. I fumbled with my rosary, pulse whining in my ears, hot and urgent. I promise on the cracker jack ring you gave me last summer.
That ring stuck like a burr between my shirt and overalls. It burned against me. Martín lingered in his silence longer than a drought before he spoke, tender and fragile.
I don't love women the way Trina wants me to love her.
Abruptly, I thought of Ardilla and Martín loading bags of feed into their boss' truck together, both slick with evaporating sweat and laughter, their dark eyes and dark hair brimming with sunlight, only four years between them. Sonia had watched from the soda fountain stairs then, a distant shadow. It had taken years for her to get closer. Abuela took Martín's quavering hand.
She didn't know. What's done is already done. Trina's the only person I have left. I won't hurt her.
You'll hurt her and Daniel alike if you die.
That's a price we'll all need to pay. Martín heaved. They'll bury me before I do what Ardilla did. I'm not marrying someone to hide; I'm not making another Sonia out of anyone. My mamá didn't. I won't either. I'd be worse than dead if I did that.
My gasp broke my third prayer to Niña Roja. The candle extinguished. No one had offended her into abandoning Martín, but there was nothing more she could do. In his last soaking breath, Martín bloomed. A riot of blossoms exploded from his mouth in an incoming tide, then his cleft throat: yellow prickly pear blossoms, tall-stemmed sotols, pink wildfires of cholla, globs of scarlet gilia. They mounted higher than Sierra Blanca then kept climbing.
Martín's breast split across his heart to free the next flood of flowers. Bone-white fleabane, fat-and-bruise-colored feather dalea, enamel-shiny white peppergrass, vein blue penstemon, and tender-flesh globe mallow all burst from his body, all covered in a filmy shroud of birth, cloaked Martín's bed. They swayed in the wind of his final breath, beautiful, fresh, and glimmering with bloody life. Offal stench blended into their perfume.
I could not cry, or shield my eyes, or clean the blood flecks from Niña Roja or my cheeks. I didn't have time to. The desert blossoms when watered – never slowly, never gently, always after a passionate downpour – and it had done the same here, too. My sole blessing was that I couldn't see Martín beneath all he had grown. Love, in its truest form, was fertile soil.
Abuela wiped my face. When my shock came down from the high, high tower of flowers, she held me while I sobbed.
Cherry season had failed to come this year. So had the rain. The land stayed as hard as the shriveled fruits on orchard trees. It bore elk ivory and brown grass at the sky as dry pits peered from slits in desiccated cherry skin. Abuela warned me not to be hasty, but I still crept out of my room at the witch hour and took off for the low skeletons of the orchard.
The loose ends of Martín's death all became candle wicks in my belly, burning from every fray, forcing me to walk. I threaded through coyote song and centipede-laden rocks to reach the cherry trees. All the while, I prayed to the Niña Negra figurine in my pocket for vengeance and counted off prayers on my rosary. The sixth prayer hallowed my lungs as the orchard came into sight. Trina Sanchez would explain her crimes to me even if it killed her.
I found Trina sprawled in a thistle patch on the outskirts of the orchard, her hair tangled around her neck, her torn shirt around her shoulders. When I saw the moonbeam sliding off her stung, sunburned nape, I slowed. My anger curdled into fear. She looked no more alive than the round headstone beneath her hands.
Minutes or hours passed through the thistle murmurs around us. I wasn't sure which. The thistles towered above us at Martín's height. Trina spoke about the time I realized I couldn't.
This is no place for a little cat.
Hearing Martín's nickname for me in Trina's mouth reignited my ire.
I'm not a little cat, or a girl. I'm a woman and a witch. But not like you. I clenched my fists. You murderer.
Trina arched, a snake trying to step from the ground on feet it did not have, before her weight fell on the headstone again. She twisted to face me. I loathed the tear tracks I saw on her cheeks as much as the lacerations on her skin and the purple petals tangled in her hair. I would not feel sorry for her. How could she grieve like this after murdering Martín? She was no self-flagellating saint.
I know that Martín's death is my fault. I'm sorry for it. I'll be sorry for the rest of my life.
Sweat beaded on the rosary in my hand. I was ready to pray my seventh prayer to the Niña Negra in my pocket, ready to chew black licorice for her and beg for Trina's expulsion from the pueblo at the end of a pitchfork or exorcism, but when I looked at crumpled Trina I could not do it. Not for Martín or abuela.
How did you mess up this badly? I thought you loved him!
Prove it. I bet you know nothing about him.
Sonia's proud voice echoed through my head, describing Ardilla's favorite candies and little gestures to conceal the pathetic emptiness under her collection of baubles. Despite Martín's rambling, I bet that Trina was the same. If she really loved and knew him, she couldn't have done this. I sucked air through my teeth to cool the flush plaguing my face.
Trina studied me from where she lay. As weak as grief kept her, it did not sap the corded muscle from her arms, or vanish the hard pears of her calves. All of Trina's softnesses beyond her breasts stayed tucked away under bars of overworked flesh. She had a body meant for caging itself. If Trina wanted to break me against a trunk of a cherry tree she could. She glared at me. I glared back at her. Inside, I trembled. On the outside, I stood tall. Constanzas were always supposed to stand tall.
Trina's gaze broke. Its shattered halves slid into the thistle and vanished from sight. She wrapped her arms around the headstone in a hollow cradle.
Martín isn't even cool yet, but you're already asking for his innards. Are you vultures ever satisfied?
Before I could explode, Trina began whispering.
Because I love Martín Green, I know that until he was sixteen, he had nightmares unless I slept on the floor next to him and held his hand. I know he worried that his violent conception had tainted him, so he was always kind, even when he didn’t want to be. Martín bandaged my scrapes for years but never mocked me for tripping. He held me behind the cholla while I cried over my grandmother’s worsening mind, or the attention drawn to my horrible, ripening body. He sent me letters when I was traveling. He encouraged my brujería. He taught me how to defend myself.
Trina’s splintered nails combed at her locks. I fought the horrible confusion thrashing in my heart. Now Señora Green’s shape hung heavy in there too, moaning in pain from the invisible wounds in her mind, casting worried, hateful looks at any outsiders who dared to enter her home. Trina’s unseen abuela writhed in her shadow.
Together, Martín and I held our rage deep inside of us so neither of us destroyed our ill, broken old women. We whispered about our guilty longing to let their languages die in revenge for the ways they hurt us. We unearthed each other’s ugliest roots. That’s what love is, Gata Constanza. Love was me nursing Señora Green for Martín while she cursed me. Love was Martín comforting me when he couldn’t bear me. Love is a merciless yoke you choose to carry.
I did not want to look at Trina. She knew what Martín looked like naked, but I hadn’t, and she had undressed Martín in front of me. All of these bleeding secrets shamed me. Trina’s lips curled back, showing her daffodil teeth. Her self-evisceration reeked of victory. The headstone crouched beneath her in silent judgement.
You may be a witch, but you're no woman.
By now, I gripped Niña Negra in one hand and my plastic ring in the other. I held on for dear life.
This still doesn’t make sense. You were all Martín had and he said he was all you had, the way my abuela is all I have. You don't kill people you love like that by accident! You’re lying about something!
Yelling doesn't change what happened. You're still too young and wrapped in a homeland that cares for parts of you to fully understand how I loved Martín. Trina's voice dropped to a stinging mutter. You haven't felt a thousand embers under your skin when someone's eyes light on you. You know nothing of being the last pine cone under a blighted tree, waiting for wildfire hands to open you, to caress you into a different shape so you can take root. Love like that is desperate. It breaks. It tears. It binds.
Trina tipped her chin up at me and rested it on the headstone, the hunger in her destroying her all the while.
The blooms told me you prayed to Niña Roja. I bet you know little of the things she oversees beyond love in a trinket ring.
My face flushed with tears and humiliation. I didn't know which was hotter. All that Trina alluded to sounded filthy and forbidden. They felt even more so because of my partial understanding. The shame that my ignorance fueled raged above my fury, then far above Trina, who stayed shattered on the earth. Her sorrow kept her so low I couldn't even spit on her. She looked girlish to me – even younger than Martín. But all those sordid words had still sprung from her lips. Confusion wracked me.
You should've told your flowers to stop when Martín mentioned... men. Or were you going to force him to marry you anyway?
Trina's howled laugh made me trip backward. I bristled in terror. Trina smashed a fist into the carpet of thistle heads around her, spiking lacy sprawls of cuts into her hand.
If Martín had confessed that to me, I would have let him go. I would've eaten my heart and let the flowers bind us as siblings. He would have lived. But my flowers need to hear words in my ears to stop, and Martín's mother had him convinced that all other people do is steal. That they could give, but no one else could, so they needed to guard themselves. I was stupid. I believed Martín thought I was different.
Trina pointed a broken finger at me.
Your people instilled that fear in her when they drove her tribe into school tombs and onto broken bits of land. When they took from her even as they planted Martín in her. I bet your abuela didn't tell you that. You do work with death.
My people! All I knew was that "my people" spoke Spanish; that my people made bridges of their bodies. Uncertainty twisted my nerves. Abuela had never mentioned such hereditary intricacies to me. But she would never keep such a thing secret. Would she? My trust in her turned me inside out.
At least my grandmother is here! I cried, frightened of Trina's accusations, frightened of my inability to call her a liar. Where's yours, huh?
Trina cupped the headstone. All at once, her wild gaze sobered. It looked like a dark joke had fallen on her shoulders. The moon bled onto us.
My grandmother is dead. An unwilling smile yanked at Trina's mouth. If she could see me now she would feel vindicated. I worked myself raw at orchards, vineyards, and altars to feed us, but whenever I cursed or consecrated anything, she always said the same thing. 'Oni mo jiu-kachi azami no hana.' Even a devil is pretty at eighteen.
I thought of the rough, leering men that worked the orchards, and how developed Trina Sanchez had been as long as I'd known of her. I thought of Señora Green resentfully supping on out-of-season poppies and yarrow to soothe the unseen sickness in her, and the strength it took to heal a beloved who hated you. In that moment I saw Sonia in Trina's face, and how far away the men they loved stood, even when they were together. Against my will, I convulsed in pity.
When Trina rose from the ground with immense effort, no longer broken onto her belly, I clutched Niña Negra close and hung back. I did not want to learn more about love from Trina. Nor did I want to hurt her. Even if I despised her.
Are you going to die too?
Trina's wretched expression and raw, grief-eaten body scared me. What if she died before Martín's funeral? What if she didn't come at all? I couldn't bear the idea of the Peñas attending Martín's wake while looking seventy miles away. At least Trina's love would keep her on the canyon rim between Martín and us. At least she would stand next to me there.
Trina pushed back a stream of her hair. Her fingers left bloody streaks on her temple. The moon dressed her wounds.
No. I want to die, but I won't. It would be a waste of Martín's memory. He wouldn't have me in death anyway. I must carry him with me. Trina smiled, almost alive. I'll see you when the cholla blooms, little cat. Don't look for me.
Before I could say that I knew Martín would have her, even if it wasn't the way she wanted to have him – because all of the tender desert blooms proved it, because I knew what love looked like, even if I wasn't grown myself – Trina was gone. The dead orchard took her shape and broke it into pieces of lonesome, scattered light. Then there was only me, Niña Negra, and the moon-kissed thistles, whispering the last secrets among themselves that I didn't understand.
I was no longer thirteen.
Samir Sirk Morató is a mestize scientist and artist. Their recent field season in New Mexico made a big impression on them. Some of Samir’s work can be found in The Hellebore Issue #5, Catapult Magazine, and The Sandy River Review 2020 edition. They are on Twitter @bolivibird and on Instagram @spicycloaca.
I Migrated to the US to Escape a Demon
by Javier Loustaunau
People have asked me a bunch of times why an industrial engineer like myself would move to the USA and become a custodian. I think life is just more predictable here, the laws seem a lot more settled. When I say the law is looser in Mexico, I’m not just talking about bribing your way out of a parking ticket. The laws of physics, metaphysics, reality… they seem less predictable. You might stop at an amazing restaurant late at night while drunk and then never find it again after you sober up. People all over are getting “limpias” or aura cleanses to break streaks of bad luck. Don't even get me started on stories about Smurf dolls that bite children, which seems really funny until you are alone with one.
That is the way these urban legends work I guess, they all seem really funny when you first hear them but then when you are alone they are creepy as hell. That is in part why I moved… I was spending too much time alone, creeped out while working overnights, praying under my breath. Our country is very catholic, even if the government is not supposed to be. That's me, engineer on the outside, a dozen candles with saints and the Virgin Mary burning inside me. We are surrounded by progress yet we continue to see the devil in all aspects of our lives. He makes food spoil by tasting it if you leave it unattended. He dances with gorgeous young women at parties until they realize he has one foot like a goat and another like a rooster. He shows up as a huge dog and trashes your business. Most stories are mischievous and end with him being scared off by prayer, these stories are ultimately empowering to believers.
One day I heard a story I really did not like, especially since it took place on the highway from Los Mochis to Topolobampo which I drove through alone at night for work. Back then I worked at the oil refinery. I mostly ran around fixing leaks and sensor errors. I was fresh out of college and really grateful to instantly get a job in my field which would likely set me up for life with a series of small and evenly spread out promotions. In a few years I would be a supervisor, then in a few years a daytime supervisor, and finally I would have my own office and working nights would be a distant memory. But I never made it to my first promotion, because of that god damned road and a scary story.
I had been at a party which was kinda low key, nobody had brought beer, we were really just snacking and drinking soft drinks and telling scary stories. Then somebody asked me, “You take the road to Topo, don't you, to the refinery? I heard a really scary story about that road.” And they told me the story, about a ghostly baby that appears in the seat next to you and tries to get you to look at it’s teeth, but if you do it will lunge for your throat, so you have to ignore it while it repeatedly says “mira mis dientitos.” “Look at my little teeth.” My friend laughed. All my friends laughed. I pretended to, but deep inside I was actually really angry. I knew a seed had been planted in my head and now my drives to work would be really creepy.
For the next few weeks I would feel my chest tightening on my way to work, driving at night with banda or corridos playing. I could no longer nap at work, and after my morning drive it would take me a while to really relax. Sleeping during the day is weird, you listen to so much traffic, so many honks and car alarms. Dogs bark more, birds chirp. But it was usually the sound of children playing that would wake me up from a dead sleep. I could not make out what they would say but I was primed to hear the voice of a kid next to me, insisting I look at him. I was a wreck for a while, and I drank a lot of coffee to make sure my car did not end up a wreck, too.
Finally one night I’m on my way to work around 11:30 to start at midnight. There is a whole lot of nothing along that part of the road, just dried brush, billboards and occasional exits to farms or small towns. Then I felt the presence before I even heard it, my whole body just kind of cramped up and I felt an intense chill. There was also a smell, it smelled like fireworks, mold and earth. It was not pungent enough to make it hard to breathe, but it was certainly menacing. And then I heard the voice, childlike and casual saying, “Señor, mira mis dientitos.” “Sir, please look at my teeth.” It was the moment I had been dreading for the last month, suddenly every muscle in my body contracted and ached all at once.
It could not be real though, obviously I was just super tired, super primed, super obsessed with this one event so my mind was playing tricks on me. But then again, a little louder I heard, “Sir, please, look at my teeth.” I wheezed as all the air escaped me, and I fought to catch my breath but my lungs took a second to respond. It was actually happening after all that time dreading it, but I was not about to acknowledge it. I ignored the voice and kept driving. That is when I realized that my music had turned off, I went to raise the volume but for some reason it was not playing. I turned the knob all the way and nothing happened. “Sir, don't ignore me, all I want is for you to look at me.” I was alone with that thing in silence, so I kept my eyes forward and watched the road.
“Sir, please why are you ignoring me?” it said, sounding more desperate, more frustrated, more like a child who needed help. “Sir, please!” I continued to ignore it, the drive was short and I knew I would make it to the parking lot if I could hold out 15 more minutes. “Sir, look at me! I promise I don’t bite…” There was a hint of malice in that last statement, I could almost hear a smirk. Involuntarily, my peripheral vision turned just a little, just to confirm that it was smugly toying with me, and then my vision darted back to the road. I had seen a shape, black and gray, like something burnt and buried and dug up again. I saw no eyes, no reflections, just darkness. But it was not an object, not a corpse, it was swelling and deflating in big breaths and its arms had been moving when I caught that glimpse. I felt light headed, my hands swerved a little but I quickly righted them and fixed the steering wheel in their tight grip. I wanted to cry I was so scared, and so angry that this was happening to me, that this possibility had even been planted in my head in the first place. But I did not sob or scream, I started to pray.
“Padre nuestro, que estáas en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre.” As I muttered under my breath the presence grew more agitated, with more urgency in its voice. “Señor, mira mis dientes!” it cried. “Señor… señor… stop praying and fucking look at me!” it growled. Between each phrase it yelled at me, I could hear it’s teeth snapping shut, like a trap that opened to spit curses and closed again. “Señor, you rude piece of shit, you won’t even fucking look at me, shut the fuck up and look at me!” I kept praying and fought the urge to have my vision stray into the seat next to me… but it did, I did not want it to happen but I was seeing so much agitated movement, I could not avoid looking. It was small, but not baby small. It’s limbs were gaunt, not chubby and cherubic. It was coiled like a cat about to pounce. Its features were all gray but it reflected no light so the shadows on it were extremely harsh. Its eyes were just two bottomless holes and finally it’s teeth, the one god damned thing I should have never looked at, were terrifying. Lip less, snarling, framed by swollen and infected gums, they were impossible to miss. Two rows of pointy yellow fangs, with the occasional normal looking tooth in between. They were sharp and deadly, and they were coming at me. I freaked out, I swerved and my car started to spin. I can't explain the physics of it but somehow the thing that was in the air coming for me ended up flying sideways into the back seat, and my car flew off the road.
When I awoke I was being pulled out of my upside down vehicle, radio at full blast. I flailed my arms and fought the paramedics who yelled at me to calm down, that I was OK. I mean obviously I was not OK, I ended up in the hospital with a concussion. The police showed up and told me I had fallen asleep at the wheel, and I did not argue with them. My friends and family visited and asked me what happened, so I also told them I had fallen asleep at the wheel. I had no interest in telling people the truth. I had no interest in telling myself the truth. I did not want to think about what happened or plant that seed in anyone else's head. I spent a few extra days at home recovering, working up the courage to go back to work. Then I got a Mexpost from the insurance adjusters. It was a box and an envelope… I opened the envelope first and there was a letter that said, “We were able to recover the following from your car: your registration, a pair of broken sunglasses, one thermos, one rosary, 4 air fresheners, 1 broken animal tooth charm.”
I did not know what they meant by an animal tooth charm. I did not want to know. I never opened the box. Instead I submitted my two weeks’ notice and decided to get far away, I went to live with an aunt and uncle across the border. Finding work on a tourist visa was hard. Keeping a low profile when that visa expired was harder. Becoming a US citizen was extra hard. But it was all predictable, a series of milestones on a long straight road. It was the furthest thing from the dark road to Topolobampo with its sudden twists and unexpected turns. I only travel that road in dreams now, and I’ve heard the voice next to me a few times… but it only gets so far as the word Señor and I wake up with my heart pounding. I remind myself that stuff like that does not happen here, I say a prayer, and I try to go back to sleep.
Javier Loustaunau was born in Los Mochis, Sinaloa where he lived until his 21st birthday. Shortly after 9/11 he decided to move to the US to work for a while, taking a break in his studies as a biochemical engineer. Instead he worked his way up from restaurants to banking, from banking to operations and is now a data analyst in the HRIS and Insurance field. He is a published author of poetry and prose, specializing in short scary fiction. You can find his work on the NoSleep podcast and in the anthology Monsters We Forgot.
"Beast of Cabo Rojo"
1st Place Extra Fiction Contest
Attack of Las Quetas
by Toni Margarita Plummer
The dermatologist lifts the gown as she needs to, checking my limbs, my stomach, my back. Her hands are pleasantly cool, and she speaks intermittently of the various marks and spots on my body.
“This is fine.”
“I’m not worried about this.”
When she is finished, I sit up on the crinkly tissue paper and pull the gown closed over my chest. Dr. Baer is attractive, with blond hair, fair skin, and a wide face that needs no makeup. I detect a very slight accent. Maybe Eastern European. She hardly smiles, and I wonder if she thinks Americans like me smile too much.
I first met her two years ago, when I felt something buried in my right palm. She numbed my hand, dug out the mass while I looked away, and stitched me up. When I returned later to have the stitches removed, the nurse praised the perfectly even sutures. Now Dr. Baer has opened up her own office.
“If you come back this month, we’re giving facials half off with all skin cancer screenings.”
I am used to getting my facials done at a salon under the 7 train where a woman threads my eyebrows in quick, heated licks and squeezes the pores on my nose until I want to curse, all for $20 and a tip. Rather than ask the price of the discounted facial, I say, “That’s okay.”
“Just call if you change your mind.” Dr. Baer zeroes in on my face. “I see some extractions I could make.”
I nod politely, sure I will not call. The word “extraction” takes me back to geology class, where we learned about removing things from the ground, usually valuable things.
“What about these?” She catches me off-guard, her hand moving to my neck. “Have you thought of removing them?”
My hand follows hers, finding the familiar nubs. It had not occurred to me to ever ask a doctor about my longtime skin malady.
“Insurance wouldn’t cover it because it’s cosmetic, but I could remove them for $100. I’d freeze them off. You have a lot so we could do it over two visits.”
I have not been keeping up with my neck situation, and the idea of having someone else take care of it is appealing. I agree, and she finally smiles.
I don’t remember when they first appeared. But one day I must have noticed them. Then I noticed the necks of my great aunts, which were spotted with dark pouches of skin, some quite plump and shiny like rubber. Las tías were sedentary women, keeping to the shade during family parties, sometimes erupting into cackles over a joke in Spanish I did not understand. I spoke little to them, my mother serving as the link between generations by handing me clothes they had crocheted for my dolls and telling me to say gracias.
Mamá’s neck was also afflicted, but I learned she had a way of dealing with it. She began sitting me down at the kitchen table every several months. She would pull out a long, dark hair from her hairbrush and make a slipknot. I’d tip my head back, exposing my neck like a supplicant of Dracula, and she would slip the hair-lasso over one of the little sacs and pull until it stung. I was always happy to feel that sting. It meant she’d caught one. She’d pull more hairs from the brush and tie up the rest, whichever ones were not too small and close to the skin. And then she’d take the scissors and snip the ends of the hairs so they wouldn’t hang so long. Out in public, I would cover my neck, and over a few days the strangled sacs would harden, go dark. It was easy then to pinch them off. Sometimes I would drive my nail through their centers and feel them come apart like earth.
Some might call them skin tags. A date I had in college called them growths. You could even call them tumors, technically. But I always preferred my mother’s word for them—las quetas. Short for etiquetas de la piel. I led a mostly English life, but that was one of the words I did not translate.
I accepted las quetas as my inheritance, like my dark, straight hair and long eyelashes. They were passed down through generations of women. Women of Mexican extraction.
Mamá did not want me to move out. She thought I should live with her until I got married, whenever that might be, like my engaged brother was. But I was eager to be out on my own. In my new apartment, I tried to do what my mother did and tend to my quetas like weeds in a garden. But I did not know how to do a slipknot. Foolishly, I double-knotted my ties, an inferior method. The hairs came undone before I even got in the shower. Most of las quetas were impossible for me to grab hold of in the first place, because of the incompatible angle of my hands and neck. I’d stand in front of the mirror, frustrated at another failed attempt, longing for Mamá’s hands at the same time I cursed this trait. I was reluctant to ask her for help. The ritual tying of las quetas was never scheduled. It was just something that happened when we were both home at night. She would gather her supplies and beckon me, “Míramos tus quetas.” And the reason I was not home at night anymore was because I had chosen to leave, against her wishes.
The proliferation of las quetas weighed on me. I would find myself tugging on them. They itched. I considered simply cutting them with scissors. But when I raised the blades to my skin, I imagined a fount of blood pouring out my neck, saw myself passed out on the floor, my unsympathetic landlord standing over my body and telling himself he would keep my deposit.
My brother’s wedding was in a few months, and he had cruelly informed me that las quetas could not count as my anonymous plus one. So Dr. Baer’s offer was well-timed. That is what I thought at first.
For the first round of cryotherapy, Dr. Baer approaches me with a pressurized metal can. She aims the little straw pointing out of it like a gun. “Ready?”
She said we were freezing them, but it burns. It burns like hell. I am grateful I won’t have to endure the scorching of them all in one visit. My neck on fire, my mind turns to thrift. There doesn’t seem to be much technique involved. I try to sneak glances at the lettering on the can. Is this something I can buy myself and enlist a twisted friend to wield?
“All right. You’re all set. You can make the next appointment a few weeks from today.”
“Will there be scaring?” It’s a silly question coming after the fact, but I can’t help myself.
“There shouldn’t be. But if there is, I can take care of that too.”
Back in the waiting room, I see myself in the mirror. The red-hot riot of my neck. Mamá’s tying was a gentle smothering by comparison. This is something different. It is chemical warfare. It is cigarette burns. My neck is inflamed, but the result is the same. Over a few days, las quetas harden and fall off. A smooth neck is within reach.
The second visit begins like the first. It is no less painful, and I find it hard to believe there are still so many left.
Finally Dr. Baer steps back. “One more to go.” She hands me a mirror and points at the brown spot just below my collarbone.
“Is that one of them?” I ask, feeling the familiar bump. The skin is slightly raised there, the spot shaped like a cameo. It is nothing like the ones on my neck. There is no stalk, nothing to pull.
Dr. Baer nods, her blue eyes boring into mine.
I imagine how the burn will feel there, on my chest, but I also think of that mark missing. It’s the mark I see in the mirror every day, in pictures of myself. For it to disappear… “No thank you, I need to keep that one.”
She watches me, and I instinctively finger my remaining queta, protective.
At last she sighs, as though she is the one who has been getting her neck singed the past fifteen minutes, and sets the can back on the counter. “You’re all done.”
I know my future sister-in-law’s favorite color is red, but a red bridesmaid dress strikes me as tacky. Make it red tulle on red satin, and you have something unholy.
The dresses are sleeveless, so we wear tulle shawls to cover our bare shoulders during the church ceremony. In the church restroom, I remove the itchy fabric, glad to be free of it. But my relief vanishes when I see my neck has broken out in some kind of rash. It must be the cheap fabric of the shawl. We’re about to take group photos, so I have but little choice to redon the offensive garment. A rashy neck would not be tolerated.
We arrive at the reception hall for cocktail hour, and my neck is flaming. I don’t want to remove the shawl though. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I flee to the restroom, certain I am breaking out in hives. There I see it’s worse than I feared. I am bright red, and not just that, but I see something small, something brown on my neck. It can’t be, I think. They were all gone. But it’s there, and as I watch it, it grows.
I think I must be seeing things. But la queta is there, and it is becoming too big to be imagined. Panicked, I run into a stall and sit on the toilet seat. Someone knocks on the door.
“Estás bien?” My eardrums are pounding with blood, and I can’t even make out the voice.
“Sí! I’m fine!” I am not fine, but what can I say? I nuked my quetas and now they are returning to exact revenge?
La queta continues to balloon. I can feel it. I will die here, I know. I will die a virgin sitting on a toilet in an unbecoming dress. La queta will grow until it absorbs me, the lesser lifeform.
But the stall door bursts open. There stand las tías, and by their faces I can tell they mean business. Without hesitation, one punctures the giant queta with her crochet needle while another ropes it with a loop of yarn and the rest of the women yank. I think I am going to pass out from terror when there is a deafening pop and blood splatters us all. Grasping my neck, I look down to see the severed queta lying on the floor.
My mother steps out from behind las tías and looks at it on the tile. “There is more than one way to skin a cat.”
“How did you know?” I ask, gasping, incredulous.
Tia Meche, the eldest, scoffs. “Mi’ja, tú eres una de nosotras. No necesitas decir nada.”
Mamá pulls me out of the stall and holds my hands out to the sides. “At least the blood blends in with your dress.” Las tías start to cackle.
Toni Margarita Plummer was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and white father. She is the author of the story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe, won Honorable Mention for the 2019 Reynolds Price Prize in Fiction given by the Center for Women Writers, and was a finalist for the inaugural Tomas Rivera Book Prize. A Macondo Fellow and graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC, she is a contributor to the anthologies East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte and Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity. Plummer lives in the Hudson Valley.
Extra Extra Fiction!
Of the 2019 contest's two honorary mentions, the judge Ernest Hogan said:
"My Many Faces by Venetia Sjogren provides a snapshot of a Latinx identity crisis, and Nous Somme Dans Une Texte by David Vela presents a Latinx in Paris, a fish out of water, as are we all. The both deserve their honorable mentions."
Check out the rest of the judges thoughts on the contest at La Bloga at Hogan's column Chicanonautica, for all things Latinoid and Science Fiction.
My Many Faces