'To Need, the Women Say'

Short Story Contest: First place winner

'To Need, the Women Say'
Illustration by Jason Stout

Open a window and you can hear them cry outside – my mother is mad and sweeping – get those damn roosters out of the house. On TV it is snowing somewhere in the world, cars buried in bright cold light. Sir sleeps ducked under my chair, the others weaving between the broom and my mother's legs. She kicks and they scatter, crying, shaking their feathers like a wet dog fresh from the creek. My father sleeps.

In the evenings I have started bringing the birds inside to keep their balding necks from the dogs, though they're louder at night than drunk men, knocking over kitchen pans and crowing hours before dawn. Whoever said roosters cry just to herald the morning never met one; for all I can tell they scream until they die.

Soap and smoked meat on her skin, my mother sweeps the layers of loose dirt from the packed floor. He only ate three bites today, she sweeps her pile out the door. What she just cooked and how much my father ate of it is all she talks about, and when she's said all of that she says what she's cooking next. Chicken fried. I throw the roosters outside, but they wander back in, sleep by my feet while she cooks, the TV still snowing, someone digging for their front door, throwing the white into white air.

This is how it started:

Doctors come out to the cane fields to draw blood and press tongues. Press the veins in wrists and watch the clock. The sick men are dismissed from work. In their beds at night the men are pissing the sheets. In the morning beside their wives or someone younger than their wives, they are not waking up.

The day he was cut from work my father came home drunk with a bird. Gripping the matte-eyed rooster by its ankles. My father's mouth seemed to take up half of his face, big stained teeth looking proud not to have diminished with the rest of his body, hollowed by illness. Spent his last paycheck on a scrawny fighting bird; nervous, smiling, bastard.

He's a good investment, he said, he comes from a winning father. Our other birds can't win for shit. And I've never seen a cock before with manners, my father untied his feet, threw the bird down. Bows whenever you get close, touches his beak to the ground.

Call him Sir, laughed my father.

We watched as he greeted us all with this strange courtesy, even the dog. Sir – quiet when my father grabbed him by the foot, pinned his body to the floor, and showed me how to measure the wings. The heart beating my hand like a hand beating a drum.

Sir runs with me to my English class, I kick him along. All of the women want to get away: to Manchester to see the football games, to Miami to see sisters with good jobs and perfume. I would like to go too, but now I just am trying to stay out of the house as much as I can.

We take turns going around the classroom, the women squeezed into the tiny desks, laughing and drawing pictures in the corners of their notebooks, they are kids again in school. The sun finds its hard way through the windows. "Please answer the following questions in English:" the teacher writes everything on the chalkboard and we copy into our crowded notebooks. "How are you? What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you? What do you like?"

Let's practice speaking, the blushing teacher nods her head as she talks. It is hard for us, saying the words out loud. Many of the women whisper. I smile in the back row, Sir tied to the leg of my desk. I try to make the words smooth but usually it feels like I've put too much food into my mouth at once and I have to spend minutes chewing to get it down.

"I am, fine. My name is, Wendy, Juana Chevez Gutierrez." The most familiar words of my own name sound unexpected behind the English words.

"I am, from, Chichigalpa, Nicaragua." This is where we say we are from, all of us, the exhausted city 10 kilometers away, you can find on any map. La Isla de las Viudas, we do not say, our little houses clustered in the sea of sugarcane, island of widows.  

"I have, sixteen, years, old."

In this language I cannot remember how to say what I like.

"I like, the chicken?"

Perfect, the teacher tells me. She says this every time we speak, I think because she wants to encourage us and also because she doesn't know many Spanish words. Today she will teach us important verbs. The teacher wants to know which ones, to us, are important. To want, to eat, to buy, to walk, to need, the women say.

Everyone in La Isla de las Viudas wants something, and they will describe every damn inch – as though enough adjectives will remind you that you are in possession of the exact object of their longing, and have an extra you've been meaning to give away just in the next room. This is what people do here, sit around talking about what they would have, if only. If only less sun and more money and better women. To love becomes the same as to want, to need.

They will tell you they love watermelon when you are cradling a fat one back from the market.

Men in the street proclaim their love to passing women, propose marriage to the girl walking away from them, haven't even seen her face yet, just her ass.

Riding the bus back to Chichigalpa last month, I sat behind a woman with a smiling infant; so beautiful, I told her, I love those eyes; and the mother passed him over the seat, and the baby laughed and grabbed my face for the whole two hour ride. Green streaking the window by our sides.

My mother loves my father to eat.

My father needs his birds to win.

Today, I don't know what I want.

The teacher says it is called "being fired" in English.

Under a fire, she says, in the heat, the flame, like being burned until you're gone, there's nothing left. Sometimes they also say, "losing your job." I lost my job.

Where do people think the jobs go? the women ask.

Right, says the teacher, I don't know, maybe they burned up too, she laughs, the women gripping their pencils.

My father stopped getting out of bed. He never sleeps, he lays in bed hoping sleep will find him, my mother confesses. This is why she keeps the house dark. This is what happens the doctor says, the kidneys are a filter, the kidneys seize, the blood is contaminated. The men must drink water. The men must wear a mask over their faces. The men must rest. My father is supposed to live without so much salt, cigarettes, meat, rum. The doctor told him, don't make the body work so hard; that is what the body does, I want to say.

To strengthen his wings, I throw Sir high into the air. Make him sprint for his food. Push my fingers to the back of his throat to get down garlic, gunpowder, the vitamins the doctor brings for my father. He fights himself in front of the mirror until I'm afraid it'll break. He sleeps under my chair, his feathers gleam in the TV light.

The young teacher smiles until she's red, and tells us to break into pairs and ask each other questions in English. Maria Ingenio turns her little desk around to face me.

I want to ask Doña Maria, in her tight plastic shoes, if she can smell her father's body in her own. Not using his old laundry soap, but when you are running and you woke too late to bathe, a smell you want to cover at first, but then grip and hold close like a wriggling child you're scared to drop.

She says, "You, first."

"How, are you?" I ask the question we know best.

"I am, fine. And you?" Maria scratches her thumbnail into the names carved in the desk. Hearts, initials, insults scratched in tiny slanted cursive, Ramón G eat shit.

"I am fine." One day, when I am nine or ten, I think about this for a long time, how everyone says fine, when really they are more, or usually, less. My mother touches my hair when I ask her this; we are all breathing, aren't we, she tells me, stretching her arm from my head, up.

"How is, your, mother?" We have just learned what to call people in our family.

"She is, fine."

"How is, your, father?" The notebook page is crowded with words, I could interrogate Maria about every cousin, every cousin's granddaughter.

"He is, no, here," Maria frowns into her hands, "you know?" She has forgotten the word for dead.

I ask the question I want to know, not on the list. "You remember. You father." She looks at me, the confusion opens up her face. Do you remember your father?

Maria looks around the classroom, rests her eyes on the doorway. "He like, car. He want. Like fish in the beach. I am little, he have, fish, big, my mother to, cook. Fry. And. He like, to wear, blue. Color the sky." She scratches her arm, her nails leaving white tracks from her shoulder, down, looks over from the open door to scrutinize my features.

"But the, face, no." The waxed desk pale with reflected light. Maria squints. "No."

Approaching thunder like a cough worsening from the chest, today I go to the fights. Reheat last night's meal and drop Sir in front of the tall mirror leaning against the wall, watch him slam against himself. The sky an unbroken gray, spitting a light rain. Thought the wet season was through. Scrape some beans and eggs from the skillet, I won't be able to cross the river to the city if I don't beat the storm.

Gripping Sir by his feet, I lift him overhead like a flag. The bloated river comes to my hips, so I've taken off my pants to cross. I try to tug my shirt over my ass, dotted yellow with flowers. Brush the water from my thighs, tug jeans up over wet legs. Faint bells on the air and distant bird song, distant firecrackers. The road to the city one long stretch of mud.

The south end of Chichigalpa butts up against the river and its fields, and miles of cane worker houses are clustered along the trail of brown water as though it's a source. Just past the gates of the refinery – the clean palm-lined walkway from the gate to the doors must be five miles long; is this the way to heaven, the men laugh – is the church and behind the church, the wood-paneled fighting ring. Between the church and the fight, women are lined up behind their grills, shining hair, silver tongs. They yell enchilada, empanada, banano, my love, banano.

The bleachers are packed tight with men, squeezing their plastic cups of rum. I knot a blade to each leg quick so Sir won't kick and cut me. The big man from Candelaria is preening his bird, fluffing his feathers. I do the same. My father has said, like preparing a man for his wedding. The feathers so soft, the wings so tense with life, I think maybe I love this game. Sir will look regal when he loses. There is a photo of my grandfather in his casket this way, ironed suit, hair slicked to the side.

To begin the betting each bird parades around the ring, the announcer shouting his weight and measurements. The men yell for me to bend over. The men laugh. One woman trying to make herself smaller on a small man's lap.

When I throw Sir into the air I close my eyes and listen for the softness of the birds colliding, imagine clouds hitting, or pillows, put my hand to my stomach and think of how sometimes a body with another body is as comfortable as a body in bed.

Sir keeps trying to swallow from his neck, gasping from the gash like he's got a new mouth. I stitch his throat. Huge eyes in his naked head. The sun has burned off the clouds and grandmothers scrape rakes down the street, building mountains of chip bags and mud. I wrap Sir in a towel and start walking.

Families walk toward the sun, away from the river. At first I think an exodus. Heading to the sea or the States. A town emptied out, taking up the whole two-lane highway, so a rushing bus has no choice but to stop – the women's faces blocked by armloads of flowers, shouldering thick blankets, too hot for this place. Men on their motorbikes, bottles of rum bigger than my fat cousin when she was born. Grandmothers in the back, slow and scowling, umbrellas tucked under their arms. Young girls in the bed of somebody's borrowed truck, draped over the casket like garlands, lips glossed hot pink, blue around their eyes like shining bruises. The man's portrait propped up like he can watch it all.

I don't know if he will live, I carry Sir into the house; my mother stirring beans doesn't look up. Pretty cousins in their church dresses smiling on the wall. Wet smoke on the air from the cane, quick-burned and ready to cut.

The night never cools.

Sir bald and tired below the flickering TV.

Behind the flowered curtain, my father tries to sleep.

My mother dipping sheets into the cement sink. I keep waiting for her to say death. If it will sound like coughing or sighing when she says it.

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