THE PAINTER OF CHURCHES
On the warm spring evening when El Poquito arrived in San Miguel, slowly leading his burro down Sonora Road, and quietly announced himself as a painter of churches, none of us knew where he had come from. Indeed, he seemed to materialize from a twilight haze like the unexpected manifestation of a mirage. In one moment, none of us had ever heard of him or even imagined him, but in the next, he passed before us, diminutive, thin, arthritically gnarled, his thick gray beard and white mustache denoting his advanced age, his shaggy antique burro following at the same shuffling pace.
Before El Poquito so suddenly appeared, we’d been watching a sunset fade over the Mogollon Mountains, sitting on the front stoop of the Martinez grocery, elderly Alejandro Borrego, Ted Wilson, George Mendoza, and I, and then, not to our pleasure, Pacheco had come stumbling, or rather, weaving up Sonora Road, returning home to bedevil his wife from his semi-reserved stool at The Buffalo Bar. Three years before, Pacheco had been occasionally employed by Robert Mondragon as a painter’s assistant. What that meant is that Robert allowed Pacheco to carry his ladder, unfold and refold his tarps, and clean up after whatever work Robert happened to be doing, but Robert also had the good sense never to allow Pacheco to wield a brush or apply a single drop of wet paint to any wall in the village. Unfortunately, fumes from the lead paint used in those days finally crippled Robert to a point where the county authorities had been forced to remove him to the state’s mental institution, and when they did, Pacheco tried to set up for himself. To her regret, Doña Dolores had then hired Pacheco to paint her house a pleasing shade of pink with the pitiful result that Pacheco, unable to mix colors properly, left two thirds of the house shaded in a variety of pinks ranging from hot to pale before Doña Dolores fired him; that left the final third of her home, her porch and gallery, colored the same peeling yellow that she had so desperately wanted to be covered over. Following his failure as a house painter, Pacheco collected welfare, grew fat, and employed himself by leaning against the walls of The Buffalo’s facade when not actually inside nursing a beer on one of the establishment’s stools. Twice during that time, Deputy Placencio had arrested him for domestic abuse, and while we never talked about it, none of us liked being around him because in or out of his cups, Pacheco behaved like a bully and spoke in an abrasive manner.
Thus it was that when El Poquito appeared and came shuffling by with his burro, Pacheco, who had stopped to perch himself on the stoop where a stanchion held him up, couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
“Hey, Viejo, hey El Poquioto!” he barked, instantly proclaiming his supposed superiority while belittling the old man by labeling him “Little Bit.”
The old man stopped, turned slowly, and looked at Pacheco with an even gaze.
“You speak to me, Señor?” he asked, his voice so quiet that we had to strain to hear him.
“Where you come from? What you doing in San Miguel?” Pacheco gruffly demanded.
“Pay him no attention,” Alejandro said to the old man. “He’s drunk. Shut up, Pacheco; you’re being offensive. Who the hell are you to ask questions of strangers?”
“Perdón, Señor,” the old man said, making Alejandro a slight bow, “but I am not offended. I go to seek Padre Romero, because I am a painter of churches.”
In response to that quiet announcement, Pacheco exploded into raucous laughter and made a spectacle of himself by slapping his knee and nearly rolling off the stoop. “A painter of churches!” he roared. “You are giving me the laughs, El Poquito! You are too feeble to hold a brush, and if you try to climb a ladder, you was fall on your head and crack your cabeza!” Pacheco might have said more, but George had heard enough, launched out, and delivered a swift kick to Pacheco’s butt cheek where it spread across the boards of the stoop. The kick wasn’t much, but Pacheco got the point and shut up, and when he did, El Poquito tipped his hat to George, turned back to the road, resumed his shuffle, and led his burro toward the rectory, a modest adobe, which stood where it had always stood, beside the walls of San Miguel’s little church. Before the burro had moved far beyond us, Pacheco once more began laughing at the old man and casting aspersions in his direction, but before he could say much, Alejandro spoke to him sharply and managed to send him to his long suffering wife with a flea in his ear.
Later that evening, I happened to run into Father Romero as he returned from taking a supper with Tío and Tía Duarte where they lived at the top of Sonora road. After a few moments of conversation regarding union politics at the mine and Notre Dame’s prospects for the coming football season, I asked our priest if he’d had a visit from El Poquito, and he said that he had.
“He called himself a painter of churches,” I said, registering a restrained sense of wonder.
“Yes,” said Father Romero, “that is what he also told me. He said that he underwrites his own work—how, I have no idea—and asked if he could paint a mural of our Savior’s nativity, not a large one, on the interior east wall of our church. He then produced a sketch showing me the program that he intends to follow with outlines of the figures and animals he would include, and after some discussion, I gave him my permission to proceed. I gather that his burro carries his paints, his possessions, and whatever equipment he needs, and according to what he told me, he has painted group subjects several times in the past so that he works with a fixed number of pre-positioned figures and with colors already determined.”
“Where do you suppose he comes from?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t say,” Father Romero replied. “He mentioned doing recent work in Chamberino and La Union Viejo, north of El Paso, but he didn’t say a word about where he’s started out. He did show me a wooden Santo that he’d painted, and he’d done such a fine job that his artistry in creating the Santo finally sold me on letting him do the mural.”
Rather than places of origin, Chamberino and La Union Viejo, farming settlements along the Rio Grande, sounded to me like temporary way stations on the road to somewhere else. My single sighting of El Poquito suggested to me that he’d come almost directly from Mexico, from a town or village in Chihuahua, from somewhere south of Palomas. His clothes, his partially chewed straw hat—something to which I imagined his burro had contributed--and his huaraches, worn without socks, all spoke to me of old Mexico rather than anything a regional Dollar Store might have to offer, and his demeanor when he stopped before us struck me as the attitude that an imaginary peon might have adopted for speaking to the patrón of a hacienda or a captain of rural police in the dangerous years surrounding the Mexican Revolution. If El Poquito was a painter of churches, I couldn’t help wondering where he’d learned his trade and what stimulus had prompted him to find San Miguel.
On the following morning when I saw him enter the church for mass, I also wondered where he’d slept, but that question I quickly answered when, upon leaving the church and heading for home, I walked around the rectory on a path that led toward my house and saw El Poquito feeding his burro where he’d tied the animal to a post beside Father Romero’s wood shed. Apparently, he’d slept the night in the wood shed, and over an open fire located a safe distance from the shed, he’d also begun to cook his breakfast in an iron skillet.
“Señor,” he called when he saw me, “con su permiso, Señor. Un momento, por favor.”
I stopped and waited while he shuffled toward me, and there, without preamble, he made his pitch.
“For the painting of churches, Señor, it is necessary to have the faces. I paint the Navidad for the church of San Miguel. Permit your face to be one of Los Reys; I will make you to be a good king, and you will only need to give ten dollars Americano for me to incorporate you into the pintura. I make the regrets, Señor, but I must ask, to make the support for my food and the pigments. This is agreeable to you, that you will permit me to paint your face into the pintura?”
I hesitated but only for a moment because El Poquito seemed so sincere and so humble in his approach that I didn’t have the heart to dissuade him.
“I will agree,” I said. “When do you wish me to return to the church.”
“Si posible, today,” he said, “after you have broken your fast.”
“Once more, agreed,” I said, and went my way home, breakfasted with Clare, returned to the church around eight o’clock, and found El Poquito waiting.
Standing on a stool while I posed in a kneeling position, El Poquito immediately dropped all resemblance to the old man who we’d seen in the street. Quickly, he sketched in the outlines of my face with a joint of charcoal, and then working with astonishing speed and a broad palate, he painted onto the wall in less than two hours what I found to be a fair likeness of my features. The remainder of my kneeling form he also sketched in charcoal but said that he would only complete the figure after all of the other faces had been painted, adding robes, a turban, and gifts of gold which suggested to me that he’d tapped me for his rendering of Melchior, the supposed Persian king who had visited the Christ child.
I returned home after the session, but on the following morning, to satisfy my curiosity, I watched as Alejandro entered the church to pose, he later told me, as the Magi Gaspar, and on the next morning, Ted Wilson showed up to fulfill the trio by posing as Balthasar. And then, on successive days thereafter, an entire stream of our villagers, children and women as well as men, went in, one by one, so that El Poquito could flesh out the faces for the assembly of humanity he wished to include in his program.
In the meantime, Pacheco, usually returning from The Buffalo in the afternoon and having nothing better to do, plopped himself on a low adobe wall across from the church, and then made a nuisance of himself by laughing at the sitters and throwing them insults as they emerged from the entrance after their sessions. The most biting of his remarks he saved for El Poquito, suggesting that he ground his pigments with his tongue, thickened his colors with the burro’s manure, and tainted his work with the gasses he passed from eating too many beans. El Poquito never rose to the bait; instead, he ignored the ignoramus, tipped his hat to others that he met in front of the church, rounded the corner, and disappeared into Father Romero’s wood shed, emerging only to cook his meals, feed his burro, and go back to work on the following morning. When and where he shopped for his food and other necessaries, I have no idea because I never saw him do it, but that he should have been well able, I have no doubt; across the four week period he spent composing his work and applying paint to stucco, he must have included thirty or forty faces in his composition. At ten dollars a head, that amount of money could buy a lot of tortillas, beans, chili, and apples which were the only things I ever saw him eat. Fodder for the burro he seemed to gather himself, sometimes taking the animal to pasture in the country after he’d completed his labors for the day.
Thus the work continued, none of us getting a look at it because El Poquito, kept it draped during mass and vespers, the only services for which Father Romero opened the church. For all other church functions, while El Poquito worked in solitude, Father Romero opened his house, meeting there with his altar society, servers, and the conformation class in the tiny front room of the rectory. As I remember, once El Poquito completed work on the faces he intended to include, he then required more than a month to fill in the remainder of the mural.
“He tells me that he’s working on the manger, the animals, the robes and clothing of the assembly, and such things as surrounding hills, trees, and sky,” Father Romero told me when I inquired. “I don’t want to say that he’s secretive about what he is doing, but when he’s working, he doesn’t like to be disturbed, so I’ve made it my policy to leave him in peace.”
“Very wise,” I said. “When do you imagine that we’ll see the completed work?”
“When he completes it,” Father Romero said, showing me a witty grin.
If anything, throughout that last month while El Poquito tried to work away in silence, Pacheco became even more objectionable. On more than one occasion, for example, even as El Poquito entered the church to begin work in the morning, Pacheco seemed already on hand, stopping on his way down to The Buffalo to hurl a few insults even before he went to put away his first beer.
“Dung grinder,” I once heard him shout at El Poquito, “stand on your beast and refresh the porch colors of that bruja, Doña Dolores, why don’tcha!”
Naturally, El Poquito paid Pacheco no attention so that Pacheo, thrown out of The Buffalo by early afternoon, returned both tipsy and more belligerent than ever, sat once more on the wall, and hurled insults at everyone who passed until Big Billy Ojinaga offered to black his eye in order to shut him up. Whether or not El Poquito noticed any of that, I doubt because at the time the painter of churches was still inside, working placidly on his wall.
Finally, about a week after Labor Day, El Poquito announced to Father Romero that he had completed his work, that the painting was finished, that Father Romero might unveil the mural following vespers that evening. In so far as I know, Father Romero made no special announcement about the unveiling, but nevertheless, word got around with the result that by six o’clock, San Miguel’s little church was packed to the point of standing room only, Pacheco, sitting on the wall across the street, barely able to remain upright, scoffing and spitting, being the only holdout.
Following the service, I fully expected El Poquito to step forward and remove the drape with which he’d covered his mural, but when I looked around, I couldn’t see him anywhere, and that was when Father Romero offered a brief prayer of thanks for the painter’s dedication and then stepped forward and removed the drape from the painting.
Immediately, the little church resonated with a chorus of admiration as the assembled parishioners registered their approval, pretty Alicia Ramos recognizing her face as the model for Mary, Henry Jordan recognizing his likeness in the features of Joseph, Alejandro, Ted, and I finding ourselves represented in the Magi, Helen Dominguez, Betsy Smith, Ellen Stiles, and Lorinda Ortiz seeing themselves cast as angels, Chuy and Ed Sepulvada, Hank Means, Rick Vinigoni, Rumaldo Benevidiz and several others locating their images in the faces of the shepherds, and a few others entering the work as enlightened worshipers. In fact, while no one would have mistaken El Poquito for Michelangelo, we all thought that he’d done a creditable job considering both his attractive design and the brilliant colors he had used. And then, beginning with a chuckle and a few giggles, the congregation burst into a crescendo of wild laughter when they discovered amid the surrounding cows, goats, sheep, lambs, chickens, and assorted birds, Pacheco’s unmistakable face worked artistically and with feeling onto the head of the painted scene’s lone jackass.
Possibly, Pacheco found himself mystified when everyone laughed at him upon exiting the church that evening, but because he never deigned to attend either mass or vespers, he may have remained mystified for several days thereafter. Eventually, someone must have enlightened him about his sudden artistic celebrity, but by that time, El Poquito had passed beyond his grasp, old Tía Duarte revealing the fact that shortly before the parish assembled for vespers on the evening Father Romero revealed the painting, she had glimpsed the painter of churches leading his burro quietly up Sonora Road and away from the village. Where he went, none of us have ever known.
Phillip Parotti has published numerous short stories and essays in literary magazines as well as three historical novels about The Trojan War. His most recent novel, Splinter on the Tide, will be published by CASEMATE in 2021. Now retired, he lives in New Mexico where he continues to write and work as a printmaker.
A splashing noise overhead. I look up. One long, thin branch is swaying in the canopy. I can’t see the monkey but a dusty fistful of leaf litter is twisting slowly down through the air to earth. The swaying of the branch slowly subsides as I continue to stare, but nothing appears. The noontime glare, busting in here and there through the dark foliage, is working against me. I try to shield my eyes but it is no good.
I spin around in fright. A red-faced man in his fifties steps past me and continues on ahead without a word. He’s wearing white socks pulled half-way up his shins, white runners and a grey t-shirt darkened by a wedge of sweat between the shoulder blades. I watch the determined swing of his arms as he speeds away from me along the track deeper into the forest. I try to decide whether this man is enjoying the exertion, or suffering merely to prove some point to himself, or because the doctor recommended it. I usually don’t think about other people in this way, but, despite my careful planning, despite having so diligently reserved the day to hike, and despite the fact that I generally adore being outdoors in nature, I am having a miserable time here in Tijuca Forest. And I guess I am wondering if other people are feeling the same.
Another splash. This time I catch sight of a brown shape slipping behind a thick, creeper-clad trunk. A larger area of the canopy is rocking now, bobbing gently down and up, down and up, like the calm swells of water against a harbour wall. This movement eventually tires itself out and I am left, again, staring at the motionless canopy, the tangled vines, shards of sunlight, tufts of epiphyte hooked into crooks and along the outstretched arms of the trees, the brutal ubiquity of green. This rainforest is beautiful, I suppose, but to me today it looks like a desert, a barren desert choked with vegetation. Today, for some unknown reason, there is no blood running in my veins.
I start at the sound of a twig cracking and look around, expecting to see another red-faced man appear at my shoulder. But I am alone. A buzzing noise grows louder and a large, fat, black insect zooms past and blunders onwards, losing itself among the shadowed trees.
I need to move on.
An hour later I am still on the same track. My last burst of movement has left me overheated and sweating piteously. I pull off my t-shirt and collapse on the ground, propping my back up against the trunk of a tree. Almost immediately I begin to feel the nipping of tiny ants. I check to make sure they are not the stinging red ants, and when I see that they are black I ignore them. A few bites is a small price to pay for this moment of relaxation.
I don’t feel any more enthusiastic about where I am or what I’m doing, but the sense of dread has diminished substantially. I’m just walking in the forest, what more ordinary thing to do on a Saturday afternoon? Just walking. Looking at plants. Watching out for wildlife. And if that’s not good enough, well, it’s good for my health, my wellbeing…
I haven’t come across anyone else since the red-faced man who gave me a fright. But I know that the sense of isolation and solitude I have here is mostly illusory. Every now and then I hear shouts in the near distance, probably from the hordes at, or on their way to, one of the many waterfalls in the park. I am after all still technically in the city.
Suddenly a single, loud bang snaps and echoes through the forest. I freeze. Birds squawk and flap. A few seconds pass. I look up. The canopy is swaying but this time it could be the wind. I realise my whole body is tensed, every muscle and tendon pulled to attention. I allow myself to relax. Some fool with a firecracker probably. I ignore the nagging and inconvenient fact that this park is notorious for armed robbery. In any case, turning back won’t change anything. And in this city you just need to trust your luck sometimes, or else you’ll go mad.
When, about ten minutes later, I notice a coin-sized blob of what is clearly fresh blood on a leaf I am less surprised than I should be. I’ve seen blood on the streets before. Rarely so fresh, however. But people injure themselves all the time.
On a parallel track, my mind begins to probe warily at news reports I have read of gangs that cut across Tijuca Forest from north to south, or vice versa, avoiding the roads and thereby the authorities, and thus managing to rob people at gunpoint with virtually complete impunity. Numerous favelas back onto this forest and so it is easy for them to disappear into gang-controlled territory with their loot before even a half-hearted attempt to track them down can be made. The police do not like to go into the forest for gunfights. It is far too risky.
An inspection reveals that this blob is one link in a short chain of bloody droplets. This calms me. If the person began to bleed and stopped bleeding it can’t be too serious, especially if, at the end of the trail of blood, there is no corpse sprawled across the path, which there isn’t.
And this makes perfect sense to me. Nothing too bad ever happens. That’s what I’ve always noticed. It often seems like something really bad will happen, but it rarely actually does. I was once in a bus crash and my life did not flash before my eyes. No, I knew quite well as the bus flipped over onto its side and I sailed into the air that everything was going to be alright. And except for a minor cut sustained by an overweight little boy my friend landed on, this was true. And I’m sure that, along with his tears, the boy left a couple of harmless drops of blood on the roadside too. No harm done.
And if, worst case scenario, someone really was shot here, the shooters will have fled far away by now. And if there are thieves I will give them everything I have and they will leave me alone.
I feel almost buoyant now, marching at speed through the forest. Something has lifted my earlier sluggishness and I feel that I could walk like this for hours without rest, the forward motion being reward enough itself for the effort. My muscles are happy to be straining. The heat no longer bothers me. I skip over puddles and use small trees to swing and propel myself forward, at ever greater and greater speed. The trees are my friends now, big, knobbly, venerable giants. They remind me of benign elephants and I pat them on their rough hides as I pass, greeting them individually. When I snatch a glance up at the canopy, it has all the beauty of the shattered sunlight ─ trapped and shining ─ that is seen through a stained-glass window. A high, green vegetable dome. I would stop to gaze, only my movement is such a joy to me.
When the man steps out from behind a tree and points a gun at me, my first thought is: nothing too bad will happen.
I am too confused and his Portuguese too heavily favela for me to understand what he wants. I offer him all my money. He doesn’t want it. He leads me off the track and through the undergrowth. He doesn’t direct me from behind, gun pointed at my back. I follow him willingly. The idea of doing anything else would be utter absurdity.
We arrive in a clearing where the red-faced man is seated holding his arm and cursing. In a circle around him is a band of men holding pistols and assault rifles. He is calling them idiots.
“Bunch of morons!”
The men are neither offended nor sympathetic. They look mildly irritated, as if one of them might shoot the man dead at any moment. The same look the vendors of Lapa have when faced with rude, drunken tourists.
Another man approaches me. He smiles at me and makes a gesture. I realise I still have my money in my hand and that he is telling me to put it away. By the time all this has registered with me, he is opening a sports bag and exhibiting its contents to me to prove his point.
“We don’t need money.”
The bag is stuffed full with cash.
“You need to get this guy out of here, he’s a problem for us.”
“Okay,” I say.
“What’s your name?”
One of the other men laughs. They say something about me being a gringo.
“We know who you are. We know who he is too. It’s not hard to find people in this city. He was shot in a robbery. And you found him. This is what you tell the police. We could kill you both now but we won’t so don’t let us down.”
“Bloody idiots!” The old man groans in pain.
“Take him and go.”
I approach the old man. For some reason I expect him to lash out at me, but he takes my arm gratefully and says, “This really hurts.”
He is topless and his grey t-shirt is bound around his injured arm.
“It’s not that serious,” he says, “I saw before they put the t-shirt on, it’s not too bad. But it hurts like hell.”
The man who ambushed me leads us back to the track. He tells us to turn back the way we came and head for the road that way. I protest that it would be quicker if we continued straight ahead.
“That’s the whole point,” the old man interrupts before the man has to answer.
“Go,” the man says. “If you come back this way we’ll shoot you both.”
When we finally arrive at the road, we are both exhausted, but the old man has held up well enough. I was afraid that he might go into shock or collapse but it seems like the wound really isn’t that bad. We sit down on a roadside bank, not caring that it’s muddy and wet. Some birds are singing, some are squawking. I catch a flash of what I think is a toucan and almost point it out to the old man, but realise he most likely couldn’t give a crap about such things at this moment.
I wonder what happened that the old man was shot. I’m burning to ask but feel it would be impolite. Mostly we walked in silence and when we spoke it was about football, the weather and other such things. I got the clear impression that any mention of what was happening would not be welcome. Though he did say one thing in this regard: that the men were part of a gang of drug dealers that had been driven out of their favela and were hiding out in the forest to avoid both the police and rival gangs.
I’m wondering too why they just didn’t kill us, or at least him. Pity maybe. Fear of the police’s wrath. Possibly some other strange motive I can’t even guess at. What I do know is that if it had been securely to their advantage to kill us, we would both be dead already.
But mostly I guess I reason that they didn’t kill us because, well, nothing too bad ever really happens, that’s just the way the world is, gratifyingly boring and massively humdrum. But at least this day turned out to be interesting enough.
We wait for a car to appear to take us out of this mess. With a shock I notice that my arm is covered in blood. His blood obviously, but still.
I look over at my charge. He’s wincing but he seems okay.
Overhead, a splashing in the canopy. I look up. And, finally, I see a monkey. Perched on a bough directly above us, it is bent over staring straight down at us, its curious, orangey-brown eyes shining in the half-light of the forest. It has a black beard and two furry, black bumps like horns on the top of its head. This is what has been stalking me all day in the forest, this hairy, inquisitive, atavistic humanoid.
I notice then that this is not the only monkey, but that a whole silent troop is riveted in the trees above us, staring down at two blood-stained intruders. I am entranced. I think that I can smell their fur, their tart animal odours. In my mind, their eyes are wide with wonder or excitement, spellbound by all the blood.
The whoosh of a nearby engine breaks the silence as a car hurtles around the corner towards us, and the monkeys, startled, turn their backs in one movement, and, like a receding wave, disappear back into the treetops. When the car comes to halt beside us I am still staring at the now empty branches, which are still swaying, as if moved by some noiseless and unholy wind.
Dermot O'Sullivan is an Irish writer whose work has been published in various journals including The Honest Ulsterman, Causeway/Cabhsair, The Dalhousie Review and Fence. He currently lives in Brazil, where he recently had his first full-length play produced.
MEMORIES BOTTLED UP
A quaint little store was faintly lit from the inside, and next to the white door, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars,” was inked in a smooth, loopy hand. Pushing open the door, a girl stepped inside the wooden walls and studied her surroundings.
The warm, illuminated room contained a stout rosewood stool and black shelves, upon which a round, frosted white bottle stood stark against the other grey, dusty ones littered across the shelves. Walking closer, she stretched her hand out to touch the bottle then swiftly picked it up and tugged the cork out of its opening with a pop. Peering inside the bottle, her eyes widened with delight. Mysterious lights floated around inside the bottle, their glow illuminating her face. Wafting out of the bottle was the scent of a crisp autumn breeze paired with the musky fragrance of fallen leaves, and spread across the bottom of the bottle was a layer of fine, white sand. All of a sudden, she heard a strange noise in the distance, almost like waves splashing on a shore. She looked up from the bottle and gasped in shock. She was not in the shop anymore.
Her feet sank into silky sand as she looked up and stared at the ebony black sky, littered with tiny flecks of light. She walked closer to the water, the shining white moon casting a faint light over the beach, brightening the shore with its luminance. Reflecting off the tides, a trail of silver moonlight lit up the crashing waves breaking a few hundred yards out. Across the seashore, scarlet maple leaves were carelessly strewn, and a slightly chilled gust swept over her, blowing back her long chestnut hair.
She shivered, but not from the cold. Sighing soundlessly, she settled down into the shallow ocean waves rippling around her, allowing small swells of seawater to lap at her legs as she contemplated the horizon before her. A tear slipped down her cheek as she recalled the memory of her parents bringing her to the beach near her village. Images of frolicking in the sand, laughing with her father, and collecting seashells with her mother flooded her mind. Shaking with the memories she had attempted to bottle up for too long, she buried her face in her palms, quietly weeping, her teardrops collecting in the ocean.
Consumed by her memories, she did not notice the petite yet bright orbs of light steadily nearing her. They surrounded her, bobbing peacefully as if mourning alongside her. She looked up, blinking at the fairylike spirits. Floating in the warm fall air, they seemed almost like tiny fireflies, flitting from one place to another. Watching them gleam amidst the moonbeams, she wondered if they were magical beings sent to comfort her. She drew a shaky breath, the fireflies’ brilliance reflected in her eyes. She closed her eyes, mentally trapping the memories of her parents back into the hidden place from where they had come, though the aroma of autumn lingered in the air.
Cecilia Yang is a high school freshman from the Harker School in San Jose, California. She passes the time with her nose buried in a book. While she has been writing in nearly all the genres, fantasy is fondly her favorite. When she is not reading or writing, she can be found drawing or dancing to the city’s sounds.
MAUL IT OVER
I can't hear you, but I know what you're saying. My Nonna taught me how to read lips. She refused to wear a hearing aid. She said she'd earned her right not to listen to people's shit. I was sitting on the floor watching F Troop. I thought the leading actor, Ken Berry, was cute. I was eating Twizzlers and cracking them like little whips. My Grandma with a broom in one hand and my Twizzlers in the other swooshed me away.
"These Twizzlers are for everyone," said gesturing over her shoulder and out the back door. My 4 cousins were out there. I decided to stay inside with Nonna. We poured over her photo albums. I liked the books of her youth, the ones that death had filtered out everyone but her. The black and white photos already unearthed their ghostly quality. Nonna made up for the confiscated Twizzlers and shuffled a few Vienna Fingers to me. I made a production of eating them, which is probably why she kept giving them to me. But really, I didn't care for them. I was waiting for the cookies to run out for Grandma to go shopping. I've been waiting for 4 months. Didn't she eat them all? I think I did. I spied Grandma reaching for a brand new package of Vienna Fingers. It wasn't quantity that was in question. It was quality. Nonna liked these old things. As we ate our cookies with our tall glasses of Milk, mine was in the Fred Flintstone cup, she would turn down the volume and teach me how to read lips. I realized it was also reading body language and facial description. It even extends to self-expression in clothes. Nonna had a hard time with the clothes. She said as far as she could tell, everyone was crazy these days. When I looked at the fashion in her old photos, I was inclined to agree. Clothes didn't scream back then like they did know.
"How long did it take you to learn to read lips?"
"Over time, it became a necessity, " she shouted.
I giggled low so she wouldn't hear me. But she couldn't miss my grimace like Smedley, the dog. My Grandma ushered me to the back porch to sweep. If I was going to linger in the house, then I was going to be helpful. The broom was taller than me. I wrestled and wrangled with it. With some luck, I might actually sweep up some dust. I doubted it. Grandma cleaned Nonna's house every Wednesday. I looked out one of the many windows on the screened-in porch where my cousins played Blade Jumper again. Grandpop, who lay in the front bedroom dying rather noisily at intervals, had enough of Nonna's wrath in his good days. Back then, there was apparently an abundance of mud being tracked in from his work boots down by Sweetgum Rail. Rather than have the same argument, again and again, Grandpop took an old rusty maul and buried it in the top concrete step to the right side edge. While dulled from time and use, it was still a menacing feature to pass going in and out of the house, mostly since there weren't' any rails. The steps were also tall. I guess Grandpop had made them suit his 6' frame. Little guys like me (six years old) found it scary to navigate. Grandma spent half her sentences yelling warnings at my cousins, which they did not heed. They played Blade Jumpers. Each one would take turns running up the steps then turning to make the jump. To date, no one had been hurt, unless you counted bruised egos and bottoms of my cousins.
I leaned out the back door to taunt my cousins ripe in the heat. My sweeping or shimmy across the back porch had caused the little braided rug to scrunch. With the broom in my right hand, I could not catch myself. My left hand, lazy by nature, never could catch or throw with any accuracy. My left arm buckled under all 44 pounds of me.
My right side, my best side, had taken the brunt of the fall. At least, that was what I always imagined me saying to a big Hollywood director. How did one know if they had a good side? I was about to learn. My right cheek with enough force fell on the rusty maul ending with a gouge in my right ear. The pain shot from my mouth to the side of my head.
When I came to, I was in Sweetgum County hospital. The gash that remained unseen to me was wrapped thickly, and done by professional hands that had wound more than a thousand injuries in her day. When I tried to imagine her, I pictured a nurse with dark blonde hair, a smile, and a macaroni bracelet painted in poster paints with all the colors that it gave off a purple-black hue. It was the token from a small child, smaller than me because, by my age, you knew of the flaking of poster paints. It was the bracelet of a capable mom. My bandages greatly exceeded the actual real estate of the wound. A small opening at the mouth allowed me to drink my meals. I was probably going to lose weight. I didn't see how that was possible. Grandma wouldn't stop holding my hand. Nonna was at home, blaming Grandpop from the distance of the living room to his bedroom. Grandpop's stopped dying for a day or two until Grandma brought me back on Wednesday. I was surprised the maul hadn't killed me. And I swore I was never going to go out that door again.
Grandma had called Grandpa to relieve the maul and reset the steps without the blade of death. Technically, I didn't die, but all my cousins felt the need to provide a funeral march near the fallen steps. They laid bare with the lilting guttural sound only children could give to the terror. It was a big send-off, once Grandpa was done with the demolishing, they danced in the early twilight with the sparklers that Grandma had dispatched a week early. Moving about the yard in early dusk singing the death knell to the "Death Maul" When I was able to take the bandages off, a week later, Grandma and Nonna were the capable hands to do it. Grandma unwrapped, and Nonna held up the mirror. They felt it was best for all of us to just take it in to see what it was for what it was. The scar was red and angry and ended in a deep narrow cavity that was my ear. Grandma assured me the scar would fade. I had been lucky. I didn't lose my eye. I was thankful because being down an eye would probably hamper lip reading. But down an eye would mean playing pirate all the time. Apparently, they didn't make ear patches. Oh well, that didn't sound cool anyway. I asked Nonna to twist the mirror. I was looking for my best angle, and I was amused by the shirk in my face caused by a severed dimple. I looked long into the hand mirror. Nonna's gnarled hand delivered a small tremor.
Leah Sackett's debut book of short stories was published with REaDLips Press in August of 2020. Her story The Family Blend was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, where she earned her MFA. Her short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self.