Fiction - The Wormwood Collective, Absinthe Literary Review

Tenancingo
a short story by Bart Yavorosky 
  

Rosa Maria Chávez Diaz was twelve when she died in the Gringo’s brothel in the pueblo of Tenancingo in Tlaxcala, Mexico. She arrived on Saturday, wearing her Easter dress and a red ribbon in her hair, and she died on Tuesday before the sun rose.

I hated Rosa. She was useless. She was selfish and refused to learn. She fought until she had no more strength, then she lay on the floor and begged her teachers to kill her.

Rosa was weak. Why the Gringo paid good money for her, I’ll never know. Any fool could see she was a little princess, an apretada, not at all like me.

But this is not my story. It’s Rosa’s.

She was the one with the family and the long hair and a collection of cornhusk dolls.

Not me.

I was born out of Rosa’s screams. Her tears are my blood; her prayers, the air I breathe.

I have no mother and I have no father. I have no grandfather named El Loco, no silly old fart who dances the Jarabe Tapatío with a donkey and drinks beer out of a shoe.

Rosa had all of that and much more.

Rosa is also dead.

That’s another reason I hate her.

~

Rosa stared out of the tinted windows of the Suburban© as it snaked through the mountains, past villages not unlike hers, where children played in fifty-gallon drums filled with water and women washed clothes in streams stained red with clay.

Reyes, the Gringo, sat in the passenger seat, a burlap sack filled with pistachios in his lap. He pried open the nuts with his fingernails and tossed the empty shells on the floor near his feet.

Rosa did not say a word for nearly five hours. She promised her mother that she would be good. She would listen to the Gringo and do as he instructed. “Señor Reyes is a fine man, a great man,” her mother said. “St. Jude has sent him to us.”

Only when her bladder was full, and holding her knees together while reciting the Lord’s Prayer no longer eased her discomfort, only then did Rosa interrupt the silence. Her voice was barely a whisper, and her first words were an apology.

Reyes nodded, and the driver pulled to the side of the road. Both men opened their doors. Reyes stood beside the Suburban© and brushed bits of shell from his lap. The driver unlocked Rosa’s door, took her by the hand and guided her around the vehicle.

The Gringo unzipped his pants, and the driver did the same.

After the driver finished, he lit a cigarette. He was a young man, not more than twenty years old, and he watched Rosa as he pulled on the cigarette.

When the Gringo shook off the last drops of his dribble, the driver took Rosa’s hand and guided her to the door.

Rosa stepped up. She put one foot inside the vehicle, winced, and stepped back down. Her eyes pleaded with the young man to turn away, if nothing more.

“Hurry up!” the Gringo said. He cracked the shell of a pistachio with his teeth and licked the salt off his fingers.

Rosa squatted beside the tire and closed her eyes. 

When she opened them, they had arrived in Tenancingo. The driver guided the Suburban© through the narrow streets. He honked the horn at some children playing soccer, and waved at a few of the vendors busy haggling with women over the price of chickens and tomatillos. In doorways and on stoops men gathered, laughing and shouting, passing bottles from hand to hand. As the Suburban© rolled past, many became quiet. A few nodded. Others ducked inside the buildings, held their breath, and waited for the vehicle to pass.

The driver turned into a dead end street, and pulled up to the entrance of a three-story building. Four men with rifles stood at the entrance. The youngest stepped forward and opened Reyes door. Each of the men greeted him. The oldest asked if he needed anything.

The Gringo busied himself with the end of a cigar and did not respond.

A group of boys, no more than five or six years-old, ran up the street. One of the guards stepped forward and raised his rifle, but the Gringo placed a hand on his shoulder as he fished inside his pocket. He offered each boy a coin and a pat on the head.

The driver took Rosa’s hand and led her inside the building. He passed her to a fat old woman who smelled of onions, and instructed her to cut Rosa’s nails.

Rosa looked out the door at Reyes in his linen shirt and chinos, standing in the sun. One of the guards held a match. There was no breeze, but the guard cupped his hands. The flame burned low as Reyes worked the cigar, rotating it with his fingers.

Rosa waved, her mother had made her promise to thank the Gringo, but inside the building, in the shadows, she could not be seen.

~

Rosa was a stupid girl. Her teachers worked in hourly shifts, two or three at a time, late into the night, but still she failed to learn her lessons.

Many men came to her room, but none left. They sat in the corners of her mind, grinning and dripping sweat. They pressed against her and taunted. They made her thank them for their attention, and they covered her in their filth. 

In the evening, the fat woman poured mescal on a rag and swabbed Rosa. The alcohol burned, but it did not stop the bleeding.

By the third day, welts and bruises covered Rosa’s body. Her throat was swollen. Her hair was wet. A fetid stench filled the room.

When the last lesson had been administered, the fat woman unfastened the leather straps on Rosa’s ankles, then the smaller straps that bound her wrists to the wall.

The fat woman massaged Rosa’s arm with her thumb, raising a vein. She inserted a syringe, and filled her with black tar.

The fat woman carried Rosa from her cell, up a stone staircase, to a storage room. She placed Rosa on a mat and closed the door.

Eyes stared, then blinked. A few heads swiveled. Children, defective and discarded but still human, crowded the room. They listened to the footsteps recede down the hall and echo in the stairwell, then they became animated. A small boy coughed. Two girls whispered. The room pulsed with life.

~

Rosa rested her head on a pillow of red and purple poppies.

Unlike the other children, she did not listen for danger; she did not worry that the bolt would ratchet on the door and the fat woman would call her name.

When she rose in the middle of the night, her body was sore and her mouth was dry.

The other children lay together on their mats. Curled up like a litter of puppies, they twitched and ran and whimpered in their sleep.

Rosa walked to the window. It was no wider than a slat, but a half moon was visible through the bars, and a light breeze caressed her face.

She greeted El Loco. He sat to the left of the window with his back propped against the wall. He extended his hand, and she settled onto the floor beside him. She was tired. She leaned into him and rested her head on his chest. She listened to the beat of his heart.

“What do you want?” he asked. 

Rosa wanted her bed, even if it was only a pallet barely thicker than her mat.

She wanted eggs and chorizo and cilantro.

She wanted to play with her donkey, Isabelle, and she wanted to wade in the cool water of the stream at the edge of her village.

She thought of everything she wanted and when she could think no more, she raised her head and folded her hands in her lap.

El Loco lifted himself from the floor. He kissed his fingertips, touched them to Rosa’s cheek, then walked away.

She didn’t want El Loco to turn. She couldn’t look at his face. She didn’t want to hear him say good-bye.

She wanted him to whistle and to make up a song, to sing about a girl named Rosa and her donkey, Isabelle, and, maybe, a fine prince named Federico.

El Loco’s boots clacked on the cobbles outside. His song washed through the window and under the door, and left a smile on Rosa’s face.

Rosa propped herself against the wall. For the first time in three days, she was happy. She loved El Loco, and she had made her decision.

She hummed El Loco’s tune. A few more hours, she told herself, perhaps less. Rosa chewed on her hair. Soon, she hoped, Death would arrive.

~

Death is a tired old man. He is fat and lazy and travels by public transportation. He has too many responsibilities and too few assistants. He once inspired fear and commanded respect; now he is derided, and his labor is tedious and predictable.

When Death tottered through the door, he nodded at Rosa. He examined the children with a tired, disinterested eye, and settled into the corner, exhausted from his chores. He folded his coat into a pillow and rolled onto his side. His mouth fell open, and dust assaulted his nose. He sneezed and coughed, and nestled deeper into his coat. Before long, his slow, steady breath became a gentle snore.

Rosa waited as the gray pumice of dawn scraped the ink from the sky. Finally impatient, Rosa said, “Señor?” She cleared her throat and raised her voice. “Señor!”

Death yawned. His tongue stretched flat, then curled as his mouth snapped shut. He sat up and blinked. The imprint of his coat creased his cheek.

He heaved himself to a stand and walked to Rosa.

She slumped as best as she could and held her breath.

Death waved away the flies and peered into her face. He extracted a pair of spectacles from his pocket and perched them on his nose. He turned her head from side-to-side, held open her mouth and examined her throat. He poked and prodded, and when he had completed his exam he tickled Rosa’s side. She exploded with laughter.

He said, “Uh-huh,” then folded the arms of the glasses and returned them to their case. From his pocket, he pulled a dog-eared notepad. He moistened his finger, thumbed through the pages and scribbled a note. Securing the pencil to the pad with an elastic band, he returned it to his pocket, folded his jacket and headed to the door.

“Wait!” Rosa said.

Where was he going without her? She demanded an answer.

Poco madura,” he said, and shook his head. He picked no fruit before its time.

She showed him her bruises, her broken cheekbone, the gash on her head where one of her teachers hit her when she tried to bite him.

Death stood at the door. He listened to her argument, and only interrupted when she started to repeat herself.

“You’re not ready,” he said again. He smiled his sad, tired smile and walked away.

Fuck your mother, cabron!” Rosa said. She screamed and spat and chased Death out the door. She pursued him down the steps and into the street. Her curses ricocheted off the buildings. She picked up stones and bottles, and hurled them at his head.

Death stepped lively, though hindered by arthritis and a bunion. He bounded past the fountain, through the square, and ducked into an alley. He had the advantage of familiarity, having spent many years in Tenancingo. He knew its houses and buildings and the tunnels that crisscrossed under its streets, but still he could not outrun Rosa.

When she caught him, she held him by the collar and whacked his nose. She stomped on his glasses and broke his pencil. She tore pages from his notepad and punched him in the stomach.

Bullied and berated, he relented. He picked his hat off the ground, and dabbed at the cut on his cheek with his handkerchief.

He agreed to let Rosa join him, but only on one condition—if I took her place.

~

And that’s how I came to the Gringo’s berreadero.

Rosa lived here three days. I’ve been here for nearly eighteen months, longer than any of the other children.

It has been easier for me. I don’t have flesh or bones. I don’t bleed. Men can fuck me as long as they want, any hole they wish, and I don’t feel any pain.

Death visits occasionally, but I ignore him when he says hello. He is such a slow-witted fool. I enjoy playing tricks. I steal his pencil and hide his glasses. He scolds me, but I never listen.

I try to teach the newcomers when they arrive. I introduce them to the other children and explain our rules. I tell them what they need to know. I cut Rosa’s arm and let the blood puddle on the floor. I show them that it doesn’t hurt. Some listen and learn, most don’t.

Sometimes I get lonely. I find myself wishing El Loco would visit, but I know he won’t. He hates little whores like me. He hates them almost as much as I hate Rosa.

But I do wish he would visit. Maybe just once, so he can sing that song about Rosa and Isabelle and the prince, Federico. I can still whistle the tune, but I forget the words.

  

© 2005 Bart Yavorosky

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