Poor Things

Rita uncoiled a length of twine and looked up at the cloudless April sky. The days were getting warmer and longer, but she still needed a light sweater out in the garden. She held one end of the string and the spool in the other, pulled the garden shears from the back pocket of her jeans, and cut the string flush against the spool. She felt around inside the plastic bag from the Mega-Mart for the small hand-mirror. She pulled the string through the pink plastic handle and joined the two ends. She rolled a small knot with her thumb and index finger, then climbed up to the third step of the ladder leaning against the back gate to hang the mirror on a scraggly peach tree, one in a row of several fruit trees lining the cyclone fence. The branch bowed with the weight of the mirror, and for a second, Rita squeezed her eyes shut against the blinding sun glinting off the mirror.

Picking up the spool, shears, and plastic bag, Rita surveyed her backyard. Every peach, pomegranate, pecan, and mandarin orange tree was like a gaudy Tannenbaum festooned with mirrors and CD disks, shiny crystal beads strung with fishing line like Mardi Gras necklaces.

This would work. She’d read about it online. This was supposed to keep the raptors from invading her property—again. The flashes and shimmers of objects littering the backyard would fend them off and keep them circling high overhead.

Her rooster, Rocky, scratched at the ground next to her black rubber garden boots. She’d never wanted him. He was an accidental rooster. She had purchased four chicks at the feed store. The clerk said they had been sexed. No males. Soon enough, her suspicions were confirmed. She patted Rocky’s head. He was clumsy and awkward, with a disproportionately small head and large-breasted body on spindly legs. The golden-laced chickens bullied him at the scratch trough and when she scattered cooked rice or treated them to halved grapes or watermelon. Lucy, the Rhode Island Red, was the real ruler of the roost. She squabbled and squawked and pecked at his face at the trough. He never fought back. The spurs on his legs were useless, like extra toes he’d never use. But he was somehow beautiful, formidable even, with tail feathers so dark blue, they shimmered like black oil. Motionless, he stared at Rita through the black bead eye of his profile. He trailed behind the gaggle of the smallest of the brood, the ones at the bottom of the pecking order—three dappled Sussex hens—to the shade of the mesquite. Otro pobrecito, thought Rita, shaking her head. She decided she would worry most about him when the hawks returned.

She looked out in the distance at the trucks, earthmovers and cranes. Concrete columns stretched up and up, thirty feet into the sky, marring the horizon and impeding her view of the Carrizo-lined river.

In those infrequent lulls, when the machines weren’t going at full throttle, in the distance, she could hear the tinny din of a Spanish-language radio station and the men’s voices, one distinct from the next. They arrived early in the morning, the trucks pulling up slowly. When they departed at 4:00 in the afternoon, the trucks screeched and kicked up gravel and dust. Even when they were packing up at the end of the day, the men shouted to each other over the phantom cacophony and chaos.

Maybe all the noise and commotion of the trucks and the men had scared the predators right out of their normal river routes and on to other victims. The understory of the canopy of willows and mesquite trees by the river offered protection from the hawks. But Rita had noted the rookeries of egrets and heron were less populated over the last several weeks. And the erection of the border wall had certainly had an effect on the people of Pobrecito, who had signed petitions, scheduled town hall meetings, and developed a kind of collective hope that their efforts could bring about a change.

Rita wasn’t born in Pobrecito, but had lived here long enough to know that it took a lot for the pobrecitos to pull together. She had seen it happen only once before over the years.

The first time they had come together was after the first murder: Elena. After the funeral, they convened in the small community center next to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. The usual back-slapping career politicians postured and held forth and called for swift justice. Each speaker was rotund, mustachioed, and under-dressed for the funeral in their ample guayaberas. She knew each man only by his undignified nickname. Even their campaign signs didn’t include their real first names: “Vote! Wawi Sanchez for Justice of the Peace,” “Chilo Villarreal for Mayor,” and “El Moco Rodriguez for County Commissioner.”

Rita had been hungover when she arrived at the funeral mass. Because she was an outsider, a teacher, and considered attractive, the people of the town treated her like a celebrity—maybe a second-rate one, a telenovela extra—not the fair-skinned, hazel-eyed blondes of the myopic studio system that corruptly monopolized the industry.

The news of the murder had sent Rita straight to the cabinet under her kitchen sink where behind the dish soap, Brillo pads and Ajax, she kept bottles of booze—rum, tequila, gin, brandy and bourbon, a few bottles of a cheap wine she liked. She liked having a surplus of bottles. Full and unopened, they looked like giant glittering gems. But soon enough, they stared back at her, half-empty and horrible at their places on her nightstand or the coffee table, or on the ledge of the tub. The night she heard about the murder, she sat on the kitchen floor and finished off a bottle of Malbec right down to that familiar empty ugliness.

When she entered the church the next morning, the smell of incense, bad breath and cheap perfume made her swoon. She knew she had to walk all the way to the steps before the altar to pay her respects, to see the faces of Elena’s parents and the little brother, Betito, who didn’t betray his emotions.  And then she would have to stand before the casket. She would have to look into Elena’s face. Elena. Her student. Her favorite student, if she was going to be honest about it. She was a good writer and capable of succeeding in college—qualities so rare among the pobrecitos. Rita encouraged her to plan for that eventuality, for scholarships and homesickness and working twice as hard as the other students from better high schools.

There they were. Rita had come to expect to see the cadre of Maria Magdalenas at most public occasions. They were a group of busy-bodies, known not for being reformed women of ill repute like their namesake, but for their ability to cry. They were fixtures at every funeral, wedding, baptism and First Holy Communion. Their job was to weep melodramatically, almost as if on cue. They instinctively synchronized whimpers and wails and choreographed and conducted the rest of the churchgoers and made each event suitably dramatic, even at the happy occasion of a quinceañera.

The quinceañera. Elena’s quinceañera. Rita hadn’t wanted to attend. Out of the cocoon of the classroom, there were no rules. She wasn’t in charge. She would be in her civilian clothes, not her usual conservative uniform of black polyester pants and floral print blouses. She looked forward to her Saturday nights after a long week at the school and a long day of working in the garden, cleaning house or grading. She’d lie on the couch and channel-surf and drink. Sometimes, after a couple of drinks, she called QVC to order clothes and make-up featured on the shopping channel. There weren’t many clothing stores in Pobrecito. The small mall in the center of town housed a chiropractor’s office, an arcade, a hobby shop, and a single department store. Rita had been a clotheshorse before moving to Pobrecito. She was obsessed with clothes and accumulating shoes and boots and lingerie. She’d awaken the next day with the phone on her chest trying to recall the conversation of the night before with the QVC operator.

There would be booze at the quinceañera. This was Pobrecito, Texas. Beer and tequila were as ubiquitous as water at family gatherings—even baptismal or First Holy Communion receptions. But she would not imbibe in front of the students. As far as they were concerned she was a teetotaler who didn’t know the difference between añejo and reposado.

In the community center next to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church where Father Tom, the Polish priest with a penchant for Dr. Pepper, had blessed her during a solemn mass with the priest’s incongruous homily and message to the young girl about the fifteenth birthday being the threshold to womanhood. How this debut was a sign to society that she was ready to be married and wouldn’t any young man want to be with her. “Not ‘wit’ ju,” he said, making air quotes, “you know ‘wit’ ju,” his hyper-awareness of his poor English tripping his tongue.

People in the pews fidgeted. Here and there an old woman would conspicuously and exaggeratedly shake her head, and the men would look down at their hands on their laps.

Elena dissembled, smiling and nodding at the priest. Families invest as much money and effort for a quinceañera as they do for a wedding. But Elena’s was simple. Her parents were modest people—her mother a homemaker and seamstress, her father a truck driver. They had been migrant workers, too, just like Rita and her family. But Rita never shared that part of her life with anyone.

Elena’s mother had made the quinceañera dress herself—a baby pink sateen with tulle overlay and tiny white rose embellishments all over the bodice. Elena was every bit the princess in that dress with her shoulder-length hair in loose curls, a tiny rhinestone clip to hold back her bangs.

Rita had always thought that Elena admired her and that she did well in English class because she wanted to please her teacher. When Elena saw her at the reception in the community center, her face lit up. She ran toward Rita and hugged her tightly.

Rita sat at a table with Fr. Tom and Doña Delia. That was an odd pairing. Delia operated a small beauty shop out of the front room of her house, but she was also a curandera and customers either went to her for a haircut or a cure—for evil eye, to ward off gossip, to make a wayward mate return. The loud music meant Rita didn’t have to talk to anybody. She gave her back to the priest and the curandera and watched the kids dancing and gyrating unabashedly to the nasty reggaeton songs she despised. Still, the misogynistic lyrics and repetitive melodies were somehow easier for her to handle than small talk.

Ardilla and Araña approached the table. She had never been their teacher, didn’t know if the two had ever even gone to high school, but they were always around, whizzing past on a skateboard—even Araña. She wanted to be invisible. Araña was shy, but Ardilla was talkative and tended to stand in your personal space. They were cousins, each one abandoned by his mother. One sister had met a man in the cotton fields of Cotulla, Texas. Ardilla went to live with his grandmother, Chela. The other sister had abandoned Araña. The story Rita had heard at Delia’s was that he had been a blue baby and his mother left him because her new man did not want to take in a boy who would have such special needs and require potentially expensive medical care. Little did he know, the baby would live beyond adolescence—even without any therapies or curative interventions. His legs were withered. He walked on his hands and knees, dragging the dead weight of the legs behind him. He wore kneepads and wrestler’s gloves. The unsightly legs were always covered by his frayed, faded jeans. She’d heard his feet were gnarled, all long toes fused together and resembling a larger version of the pointy claw-like feet of a spider.

The two boys joined the young people on the dance floor. Araña remained on the fringes of the space and bobbed his head in time with the music. Ardilla danced wildly and waved him over. The other kids did, too. Rita smiled in spite of herself.

When the dance evolved into the expected quinceañera rituals of the father-daughter dance, the presentation of the last doll, and the exchanging of the little-girl flats for a pair of high heels, Rita took her leave without saying goodbye to anyone. She could see Elena and her father dancing. For such a shy, quiet man, Mr. Perez certainly could dance. Elena beamed at him. Rita could see they were both smiling and crying at once.

The next time she saw Elena, she was in the casket in front of the church altar. She was wearing the same baby pink sateen dress with the tulle overlay and tiny white roses embroidered all over the bodice.

Rita had pulled the grunting weight of the chicken tractor underneath the gnarled mesquite tree that seemed to be taking a bow. In its shade, the chickens would be safe from the red-tailed hawks.

She hadn’t wanted to move it, but three days ago, when she had stepped out into the cool afternoon, she saw something red. In that split second, the flash of color was pleasing. Red and white were the school colors at Pobrecito High School. She refused to wear the apple red school polo shirt teachers were required to wear on pep rally days. When the state cut the funding for athletic programs, she didn’t have to fight that battle anymore. She was always on the outside—more pobre than any other pobrecito.

Red. She recognized her reaction to the color and her surprise at her own wistful response to it. But then, just feet from the backdoor a hawk pecked in spastic, apoplectic, head-jerking motions at what had been Nutmeg, the shyest chicken—a golden-laced Wyandotte. The hawk seemed enormous, like a grown man, a giant, a murderer, hunched over its small, young cannibalized victim. But it was a female bird. Rita knew that. Startled, Rita felt her breath go out of her body, and a sinking hollowness replaced it. Impulsively, she ran out, clapped her hands, then waved them wildly in front of her and screamed, “Get out of here!” The hawk stared back, unmoving, its eyes penetrating and knowing. Rita felt that it could see inside her pounding heart. She looked away to see another hawk perched on the cyclone fence that separated her property from the dirt levee and, just beyond, the banks of the river, the men and their cranes, trucks, and earthmovers. That hawk seemed smaller, somehow dumber. That was the male, thought Rita. She always felt stronger around someone dumb. She grabbed a rake leaning against the back wall of her house. She heard a beating of wings and both hawks flew straight up like helicopters into the still, golden air. Rita focused on the red tails flared like fans. The hawks extended their wings, gliding in stone silence until it hurt her eyes to keep looking, keep trying to see or understand what had just devastated her small world.

Nutmeg’s small fist-sized head lay bloodied in the compost bed. The hens liked to forage there and peck at strawberry hulls or egg shells or other scraps she scraped off her plate or skillet. Nutmeg was easy prey there for the hawk that must have pulled her body out of the bed, perhaps to carry the bloodied body away. Instead the hawk gutted her there. The spray of bloody, muddy feathers and then the sight of three more hawks flying overhead told Rita that they had been complicit in the murder and they would be back.

The flash of red. The school colors of Pobrecito High School. Rita had arrived on campus early on that day—like every other day. The color red was everywhere—the lockers, accent walls, dusty school pennants. And there. There in her classroom. Smears on the floor that led to the body of the young girl. The good girl. The favorite. Slumped in the corner.

The small garden statue of St. Francis holding out a bowl that Rita filled with water for the house finches, sparrows, blue jays, and cardinals watched as Rita dug a hole next to the other tiny graves marked with river stones. He had been a mute witness to Nutmeg’s attack, but also to the many funerals of other creatures Rita had lost over the years since she’d first moved to Pobrecito. She thought that Jesus and all his saints were deaf and insensible to her old petitions, but she sometimes felt like talking to the statue. Besides the chickens, he was her sole companion while she labored at the many hoop-housed garden beds of vegetables. She fretted over the beds of tomato plants, collard greens, lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, green beans, radishes, and all types of herbs. The hawks weren’t the least interested in the large heirloom tomatoes, their conspicuous color and size peeking out from their metal cages and tangles of sticky stems and leaves.

The hole was deep and the width of the shoebox where she put the parts of Nutmeg the hawks had left behind. Scavenging for them was a grisly business. She had taken to putting a kitchen cloth in each tiny sepulcher. Her father had started that practice in the apple orchards of Michigan where Rita had traveled for years as a child and teen with her parents and sister. One day, she found a tiny white mewling kitten. Day after day, he was underfoot. Rita’s sister was mentally disabled. She had never been diagnosed, but might be considered severely autistic. She was mute and couldn’t do much for herself. She didn’t help in the fields, but spent her time sitting, rocking back and forth, in their father’s truck. Rita let her play with the kitten while she returned to her place in the cucumber fields. Cucumbers were covered in hair-fine thorns. They didn’t hurt or penetrate the skin, but she hated that work. At the end of the day, Rita and her parents returned to the truck. Rita could see Marina rocking back and forth. Rita opened the door to take her kitten. “Where is my kitty, Marina?” She moved Marina’s feet roughly to search the floor. She pulled at her sister’s big, doughy body, pulled her out of the truck. Marina fell to the ground, a dog’s howl coming from her mouth as their mother ran to the girl. On the seat of the truck where Marina had been sitting was the white kitten. In that large dimple where Marina had been sitting, the kitten lay as if curled up and sleeping. With the lightest finger-grip, Rita lifted him up. His head fell slack, a dribble of bright red blood marred the pure whiteness of his fur.

Rita’s father went along with her mother’s plan to bury the kitten after nightfall. Furtively, worried the patrón would see him, he labored to dig the hole next to an apple tree. Rita watched from the truck as he took his blue bandana from his back pocket to wipe the sweat on his face and the back of his neck. But, instead he shook it out over the kitten and gently placed it in the hole. Rita cried. Marina laughed into the air and rocked.

Rita gently dropped the shoebox with Nutmeg’s remains wrapped in a kitchen towel in the hole by St. Francis. She moved the dirt with her hands and filled the hole. She took a river rock from the small mound of them by the statue. The graves of a baby mourning dove that had fallen from the nest during a storm, an ant-filled crow she’d found under the nogal one morning, and a small stray dog someone had run over down the street from her house, all dotted the small space.

Rita saw a flash of baby pink—the rose bush by the statue. That pink. Like the pink sateen. She hadn’t expected such emotion at the girl’s casket. She turned to face the family sitting in the front pew. Mr. Perez looked straight ahead, his lips quivering. Mrs. Perez in a black dress stared straight ahead. She looked dead herself, and then she slumped down in the pew like a sack of flour. Rita’s impulse was to look away. To run away. She pitched forward before the casket and landed at the feet of the statue of San Martín de Porres. Where was his broom? That is all she remembered. That and coming to and seeing the faces of the pobrecitos— of Betito—somehow impassive and compassionate at once—Ardilla, his narrow face and his buck teeth, and Araña closest in eye-level to Rita because he was on his hands and knees.

Rita turned on the hose, wet her hands and wiped them on her jeans. She filled the large waterer for the chickens. They were unwieldy contraptions, but they had to be filled daily.

She looked across the way at the men and the trucks and the first part of what would be the wall to separate two countries. Then she saw Ardilla and Araña. She hadn’t seen them out here in a long time, since the first arrival of those trucks weeks before. Ardilla carried his fishing gear and Araña followed close behind. Pobrecito, thought Rita. He moved like a human metronome walking on his hands, dragging the dead legs behind him. She heard the shouts of men. Laughter. She could see Ardilla drop his gear and lunge at one of the men. The other men surrounded Araña. Rita screamed at them to stop. They must have heard her faintly, seen the glittering objects hanging on the trees. The men got in their trucks and sped away leaving Ardilla and Araña to a momentary freedom by the river where they would fish as they always had before.

At this safe distance, there alone in her garden, Rita felt the breath go right out of her body. She didn’t run to the kitchen cabinet to her stash of alcohol. Sober, staring out into the expanse of what she could see of the land and the river and two of Elena’s friends, she sobbed and let herself cry. She recalled the sight of them among the other pallbearers at the funeral. How had Araña managed it? It was just a matter of course for the pobrecitos to include him in the solemn procession. The men, some dressed in guayaberas, others in polyester, plaid, outdated sport coats, held the handles on the sides of the casket down low as if together they carried a heavy suitcase. In that configuration, Araña could join them in shouldering the weight. She noted his denim jacket and thought that might be his Sunday best. Las Maria Magdalenas looked on, shaking their heads, pressing balled up tissues to their open eyes, and muttering, “Pobrecito.”

Rita shuddered and sniffed. She searched the face of St. Francis, straightened up, and then wiped her eyes roughly with the back of her hand. She looked up to see six hawks flying overhead in a circle. She swore under her breath, never taking her eyes off them, her heart pounding. She looked around searchingly. The hens were in the shade of the mesquite by the chicken tractor. Rocky would be there, too, watching through those fixed black beads.

The hawks seemed to disappear and then would reappear again. She could hear the screeches of a mockingbird protecting her nest of fledglings from their silent threats. She moved the hose from one waterer to the next one, never moving her skyward gaze. She rubbed the back of her neck and closed her eyes to rest them.

The beating and rustle of feathers was all she heard before the shriek. Rita fell backwards against the small, scraggly peach tree. She could feel the blood, warm and feather-light on her lip, the cold muddy water pooling around her bottom and her legs. The sight of Elena sitting in a puddle of dark red blood in the corner of the empty classroom flashed in her mind. Her own reflection in the pink hand mirror came in and out of view as it dangled before her on its string. She saw over and again the deep gouge across her cheek. She pulled the mirror and its noose slipped off the tree. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them to see the rooster stretching up. His legs looked longer by inches. He beat his wings and crowed. She could see the blood on his spur.


Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons