by Patrick H. Torres
I was traded for a pickup truck with no air conditioning and a rusted hood that made my diaper red when my mother set me on top of it to change me. She passed me over to a man named Cesar and his wife Thea. That's how Cesar told me it went when he sat me on his lap, while he smoked his cigars, while the lamplight made his shadow long on the wall and his eyes like slick black slits. His favorite story was about his ancestor, a Spanish conqueror with a saber hanging from his waist.
"He was in line for the throne," Cesar would tell me. Running his thumb along my temple wiping my hair behind my ears. "He was one of the conquistadores, who came to Mexico. But he didn't want to hurt the Indios, like the other Spanish men. When his commander kidnapped Chautemoc, he drew his saber and cut the commander across his chest. He tried to help Chautemoc escape. The other soldiers overpowered him and killed him, in front of the Indios. They didn't know though, that he had been in love with a young Aztec woman, a princess who was carrying his baby." The story went on to say that when the surviving Aztecs eventually fled the Spanish. The boy's mother died in the escape, but the boy lived. Cesar would hold my face when he got to this part. He'd lock his blue eyes with my dark ones and touch my forehead to his. His skin had become loose, age and work made flesh peel off the bone. But around his eyes you could see how poorly his skin, his mask, fit. Behind the lids, just around the whites of his eyes, was oily black. "The first King of Mexico." He'd hold my arm out, trace the vein from my heart to my palm and then curl my hand into a fist. "Tu sangre es la misma."
I met my grandfather in a home. His name was Antonio, and he was Cesar’s brother. The staff thought he had dementia. He talked to people who weren’t there, had restless fits of violence in his sleep. They told me this, the first time I went to see him, before I saw him. He was the only brown thing in a white room. The other patients talked and played board games, card games, anything to keep talking and moving and not stopping. My grandfather was in a corner, writing furiously rocking back and forth as he did.
He had a visitor, the staff told him when they escorted me to him. We locked eyes, and we knew we were kin. The staff left us alone. His name was Antonio he told me. He held my hand with his weathered warm hands.
“I want to know about my real family,” I told him.
He thumped his book on the table. This is the story of our family, he said in Spanish. I reached for the book, and he swatted my hand. First, he said, let me tell you mine.
Cesar and my grandfather, Antonio, were born to parents who brought them to Texas before the revolution, sensing the unrest in the countries poor. Cesar's father's intention was never to stay. Five years into the war, five years into forming his budding cotton empire, Cesar's father tried to make peace with the Rebels who looked like they would inevitably take control over Mexico. Cesar's father began a correspondence with an old friend who had taken allegiance with Zapata. Cesar's father offered to bankroll the Rebel's as an act of contrition. His compadre returned his letters and agreed to arrange a meeting so that the leaders could meet their new benefactor, and so that they could find a place for him in their new government. Cesar's mother and father left their land and their two sons with a nanny they had hired whose family picked the cotton on the property. They lived on the hacienda with Cesar's family, in separate wings. The nanny was a young woman. Her name was Anna. The boys were expected to help around the property, patching fence line, loading the cotton onto trucks so they could haul it away to the gin, bringing the pickers water from the well just as they would if their parents were there to praise them for doing it. They even brought water to Anna’s lame brother Marco who picked little cotton but came out to the field regardless.
Marco was oddly shaped. One side of his body was muscled and taunt from his toes up to his eyebrows. His other side was skinny, the bones jutted out against loose brown skin that hung on like clothes on a line blowing in the wind. They thought he was stillborn. He came out dead they said. They had dug his grave and placed him in. Before they closed the dirt around the child's corpse, his mother saw a shooting star. She said it landed in the hole with him, his soul coming down from the cosmos. They believed in Indio things and were not waiting for heaven anyway so she may have lied. But he lived and grew lopsidedly into adolescence. He worked in the field, though his family didn't ever ask for him to help.
Antonio and Cesar would wait for him to limp over to the truck after every other picker had drunk their fill. In silence Cesar would watch while Marco would drink, water dribbling down one side of his face onto the clothes. He'd lean over towards his good side to try and get as much as he could. Some would always come out.
"Que te vaya bien," Antonio said, putting his hand on Marco's shoulder.
Anna's brother would make deep nasal noises like laughter but sounding closer to a donkey's cry. One side of his mouth would curl up into a smile while the other stayed completely unaffected. His bad eye usually drifted, watching the spirits go by.
Anna's family didn't go to mass. They didn't wear crucifixes. No bibles, no shrines to the Virgin Mary, no baptized foreheads. No guilt when she took Antonio's virginity, mounting him the night his father left to meet the rebels, pinning him down by pressing her hands into his chest, taking the lead or the blame. In the warmth of the bed, after she had made Antonio a man in his father's house, she drew on Antonio's chest. First, she made an X, then an arrow bisecting it. And then an eye, half-closed over the middle.
"Ahora, ya estas despierto," she said. She slipped out of bed, and past Cesar's room before Antonio woke. Her bare feet were barely audible padding against the tile floor.
Four Monday trips to the gin with truckloads of cotton had passed since the brothers had seen their parents. No letters had been sent or messages relayed, and they began to fear the worst. After a week they prayed to the angels and saints for divine intercession, to guide their parents home in safety. After three, their candles were burning out, and their hope followed suit. Antonio turned to Ana to confide in. She told him to hold onto hope, that she knew someone who could help, a curandera, a witch doctor, a healer who could help bring his parents home.
The next day, the brothers watched as the woman snapped side to side, her hands out reaching out for something. She waved her hand until she grabbed onto something neither boy could see. She held her closed fist, walking to the other side of the room, her callused feet scratching the tile as she walked. She grabbed a chicken with her free hand, and with the other appeared to jam the nothing she had grabbed before into the bird. The chicken screeched and began knocking its head into the wall, faster and faster with every passing blow until the pops of a snare drum would be too slow to match it.
"Espedate," the woman said to the boys or to the chicken or to whatever she had grabbed out of the air. She had her eyes fixed on the bird. Then the chicken laid down in its cage that the woman had left open and fell silent. She lit two candles, deep red in color, and gave the boys a sack of herbs from her jars.
"Las llamas son el espíritu de tus padres. Váyanse y cuida los velas con tu vida. Yo voy hacer todo mas que necesitas hacer." The woman led the boys out the door by the hand. She squeezed them and let them go back to their truck.
Antonio held the candles while Cesar drove the truck back to the rancho.
"Do you think she's telling the truth?" Cesar asked his brother, whose eyes were locked on the flames that reflected and danced in his brown eyes.
"Tenemos que creer que si."
Cesar slept that night in his bed, while Antonio piled pillows and blankets in the living room. The candles on the table in front of him. Antonio had fallen asleep, watching the candles, hoping his parents were on their way home. Ana's cries woke him up. Marco was limping down the hallway, dragging Ana. His strong side was pulling the weak side and Anna. He grabbed Antonio, waking him up, his grip too strong but with no intent to harm.
"Ven." Marco croaked out. "Ayudo."
Cesar came running down the hallway, pulling a shirt on as he came. He ran for Marco with his arms extended ready to pull him off.
"Dejalo" Antonio yelled at his brother.
Marco loosened his grip. He put his arm around Anna, and whispered, "Quedate." Both of his eyes, even the one that darted to and fro, was set on Anna's. She nodded, shaking. Marco touched her face and she turned away from him.
The three of them left on foot, Antonio and Cesar bringing the candles with them, lighting the way.
"Where are we going?" Cesar said, struggling to keep pace with the other two. Marco's bad leg was dragging behind him and he still was leading the group.
Antonio slowed to let his brother catch up. "Vamos," he said to his brother softly.
Cesar's sped up but stayed behind his brother, not daring to spearhead the group or stand too close to Marco. The fire of the candle had grown, and even in the wind, it did not waver. The three climbed up the winding dirt road, spiraling up the black mountain on the edge of Antonio and Cesar's parent's property. At the base of the mountain were the edges of the cotton fields. Where the dirt became rock just out of reach from the cotton fields was a cave with rock guarding its inner workings.
"Lleva las velas. No miras abajo." Marcos wasn't wheezing anymore. "Y tus padres van a volvera. Mueve la piedra y pon las velas adentro."
Antonio was running to catch Marco through the cotton fields. Cesar was behind him, losing sight of him.
“Where are you?” Cesar cried out.
Antonio turned back to find his brother
"Ven a mi voz. Voy a ayudar."
Cesar could hear voices in the field, weeping, whispering. The wind brushing the spinas of the cotton plants against his skin. Cesar closed his eyes. He listened closely for his brother’s voice, paring its direction, taking slow steps towards where he thought the voice was coming from. He was nearing the end. Antonio’s voice was growing louder.
Mijo, ayuda me, another voice, a woman’s voice, his mother’s voice called from the field. Cesar spun around.
“Ama,” he said softly.
“Cesar,” the voice cried out.
Marco moaned, “Mentiras,” but Cesar was running into the field calling for his mother.
"Ama!" Cesar was in the thick of the field, using his free hand to move the plants around. Antonio tired to run after him, but Marco held him by the shirt keeping him from following. “Juntos,” said Marco. The two walked back in to the field together.
Cesar, saw a blanket laying in the field, something was underneath it. He ran to the mound, calling for his mother. He knelt next to the blanket, looking for his mother’s face. The roots of the plants sprung from the ground, latching themselves around his legs. He screamed.
Antonio and Marco marched towards Cesar’s cries. When they found him, the earth had begun swallowing his lower legs, burying them up to his ankles. The spinas from the cotton plants were wrapped around his body sliding like snakes around him, cutting gashes into his skin, spirals of blood starting from his thorny crown down to his legs, flaying the flesh. Cesar’s eyes had gone black and through him, something spoke. Antonio could not remember what it said through his brother.
Falling stars lit up the sky for a moment. Antonio's shirt had become heavy and wet, moving in the excitement. He could see the mark Ana made weeks ago again. It was scarred into him, raising out of him. He and Marco could hear voices now coming from the fields. Some were chanting, some speaking, Spanish and Nauhi and languages more ancient, and more sacred. They were growing louder. They were drawn by the mark. Antonio took off his shirt and beat his chest, screaming. The symbol grew and began to glow. A beacon, a call to arms. The people came pushing through the field, brushing off the thorns, walking through the earth trying to swallow them. They encircled Antonio, Marco, Cesar’s mangled body and whoever inhabited it.
Someone, a King so it goes, held his hand above Antonio's mark; the Eye of Ollin. Antonio's star, that thing that animates him and all life on this world, grew into a blazing blinding light. The light pressed outward Antonio’s bones became visible, the roots of his hair inside his head could all be seen like shadows on his skin. Where his heart should be was only the Eye.
The king guided Antonio's hand into Cesar's body's Chest, the body growled and spit and shook its head in all directions. Antonio could feel the star inside the body, the king closed Antonio's finger's around it and pulled on his arm slowly.
Then, when he could feel it almost out, as the chanting grew louder, Cesar's body said in Cesar's voice "No dejes que me lleven." But then taken over again, Cesar’s thorny crown grew onto Antonio’s arm, piercing it as it spiraled up further, inching towards his chest.
“Dejame salvarte,” he cried out before ripping his hand out. The body fell in front of him. Cesar’s star was covered in the same thorns that covered his body, a bloody rosebud attached the thorns at the bottom. The King placed his hands on Antonio’s shoulders, the people of the fields grabbing the shoulders in front of them. Antonio ripped the thorns off the star with all his might. Marco kneeled before the king, and the people let out a yell, a cheer. The king took the thorns from Antonio and jammed them into Marcos body. Marco twisted and shook and the thorns emerged from his skin breaking the surface and blood leaking out from the edges of the wounds. The king closed his eye, jamming his thumb into the mark. The light that would come from Marco’s mark shone out through his eyes and his ears, his mouth vomiting light. Then the king snapped his neck. The people lifted him away, moving him back into the endless, passing him from person to person further into the field, disappearing in the bodies, his ancestors delighting in his return.
Patrick Torres is an MFA student at Texas State University. He is from San Antonio, Texas. This story is about family and heritage.