SCAPEGOATS by April Vázquez

scapegoats

SCAPEGOATS
by April Vázquez

Here’s the way the rain works: it comes down every day for a whole third of the year. June, July, August, September, there isn’t a single day without rain. Sometimes it’s just a loud, violent storm that swoops in, does its bit, and moves on, but as often as not it lingers. Like a cat you’re trying to shoo out the door: it yawns, it scratches, it stretches out its claws, it licks itself. In other words, it takes its time.

Mushrooms sprout in patches of grass, as pale and bulbous as the bellies of toads. Puddles form, then don’t go away. Streets flood. In the malecón the rain water gushes and eddies like river rapids. Drunks fall in and are drowned, washed downstream and beached, eventually, like flotsam on one side of the concrete riverbed. It happens every season, like a human sacrifice in reverse: an offering to make the rain stop.

After a while all the rain starts to make some people a little crazy. That might sound like an excuse, but it isn’t. I’ve been affected by it from the time I was a little girl, the rain-craziness. Every summer, I’d feel myself dragged along by powerful forces, like a werewolf at the full moon. My illness manifested itself así: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, sour stomach, an increasing sense of desperation, and, finally, an overpowering desire to punish someone.

It had better stop raining soon, my grandmother would say grimly, or this child’s going to commit an atrocity.

In those years, my atrocities were generally directed at Brown Bear, whom I used to seek out with shouts of ¡Oso Pardo! ¡Vente, cabrón! after which he would cower under my grandmother’s bed till I dragged him out by the tail. You leave that dog in peace, my grandmother would call, but by then it would be too late.

Do you not want the Wise Men to bring you any presents? They surely won’t unless you behave yourself, my Aunt Lili would observe, her small gray eyes fixed dolefully on me from behind her glasses, but my grandmother didn’t waste her time with threats. Go fetch me my hairbrush, she’d command one of my younger cousins, holding me by the wrist as I squirmed.

Afterward, when Brown Bear went to live in the rancho where he had more space to run around, the cousins themselves became my victims. Lumps sprouted on their tender flesh, bruises bloomed purple and wilted to dull yellow. Their desire to tattle was held in check by my vague but meaningful threats of retribution. Then October would come, the rains would cease, and—poof!—as if by magic, I’d be transformed back into my other self, as good-natured and docile as any child in the colonia. Así, I’d spend the other two-thirds of the year.

Still, like Dr. Jekyll at the beginning of his experiment, I secretly rejoiced in the freedom the rain provided.

When I was older and less prone to inflicting injury—at least in any of its visible forms—I devised new methods. One was to take a single piece of something away from its owner: the yellow plastic half moon from Valentina’s Perfection game, the center of the clock face from Tadeo’s 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, a pink flamingo earring of Zaira’s, the jack of hearts from the deck in the middle drawer of the curio cabinet. I collected these objects in a hollow stump at the top of the hill by the goat farm, where I visited them regularly. No one followed me—I made certain of that by doubling back and making long, circuitous rounds before beginning my trek up the scrubby, mesquite-covered hill. In any case, no one ever went near the goat farm; it stank.

I took a greater pleasure in those things than I’ve ever derived from anything else in my life: the stiffened, sun-faded puzzle piece, the corrugated, yellowish playing card, the broken Perfection piece—two pieces now: a fallen moon, dashed to bits—the blackening flamingo. They were totemistic representations of my cousins, like el retrato de Dorian Gray; the damage I inflicted on them spared their owners. Scapegoats, I thought, not unironically, as I stood amid the stench of the goat farm.

Now that I’m older—I turned nineteen in February—my rain-craziness has taken on a new dimension, though since Sigmund Freud says that sex and aggression are essentially the same thing, maybe it isn’t as different as I think. Maybe I’ve just reverted back to the old violence of my childhood.

My cousin Lupe’s motherlessness was of a respectable kind, her mother having died of a fever two days after she was born. Not like my mother, who took a double-length city bus to the Central one Tuesday and vanished forever. Those buses are joined together by an accordion-like section that brings to mind the flesh of a caterpillar; por eso, and for its length, and its color—in León everything’s green in tribute to yesteryear’s “green-belly” leather tanners—the bus is known as la oruga. The vehicle of my mother’s disappearance is a universal symbol of metamorphosis; not surprisingly, when I think of her now, it’s as an exquisite, kaleidoscopic butterfly. Even her name bears this out: Mari, as if short for mariposa. León in the end was too small for her, too provincial, too monochromatic. She unfurled her wings and got the fuck out.

But this sanctioned, tragic motherlessness of Lupe’s is just one of many ways she’s one-upped me over the years. Another is her face. It’s a face from a painting, like nothing that’s been seen on earth for centuries, a face that doesn’t belong in the present world. Ivory-toned, oval, with a smattering of chocolate freckles that don’t just cross the bridge of her nose but dot even her forehead and chin. Full, pouty mouth, big almond-shaped eyes. It’s those eyes that give Lupe’s face its particular magic: they’re as pale green as the inside of a lime, and as powerful. Like the old man in that story by Edgar Allan Poe, Lupe’s got eyes that could drive you to contemplate murder. Eyes like that, even without a striking face around them, would get a lot of attention, but she also has a body that attracts second—and third, and fourth—glances. At least she did have. Since this pregnancy, she’s taken on a puffy look, as if she’d been left soaking in water for too long. Makes you want to hang her up in the sun, or squeeze her, to wring her out.

Another way Lupe rubs my nose in it is Juan José, her rich husband. Juanjo’s one of these choirboys, looks like he’s never been smudged, all earnestness and big white teeth. He went to the best school in the state—Miraflores, where they put the Pope up when he came to León—then got a job in a swanky law firm that happens to be his father’s. Since they married, Lupe’s been living in the lap of luxury, Colonia Campestre, Calle Estrella. Five fucking bedrooms.

At breakfast I sit in one of these rooms, on the edge of Lupe’s great big four-poster bed. It’s covered with a floral bedspread, purple pensamientos with swabs of darker purple in the centers, like little yawning faces. Yawning, or screaming. ¡Despierta, México! is on the television; three buxom women in heavy make-up are interviewing a singer wearing a cowboy hat with a pattern like a cow’s spots. He blathers on, and they make the appropriate faces—surprised, sympathetic—stopping from time to time to look at one another as if they’ve never heard anything so fascinating in all their lives. Completely nauseating, in short. Also the volume’s too loud; Lupe’s got it turned up to cover the sound of the rain.

“You can go, si quieres,” she tells me with a sideways glance as she picks at her toast.

“No, I’ll wait till you’re finished.” This is where I spend every meal, perched up on the right side of her bed, the door side. I stay close, in case she needs something. Anyway, I’ve already eaten. I always have breakfast with Juanjo before he leaves for work.

“Have you heard his music?” she asks, lifting her chin toward the television. Her licuado has left a thin layer of froth on her upper lip; it glistens there, like sea foam.

The singer has been on the Video Rola countdown every night for weeks. The song that’s popular now is about how he can’t concentrate on his studies because he’s so lovesick; in the previous one he was breaking up with his girlfriend, wishing her luck in life.

“No,” I say. “You?”

She squints at the television set. “I don’t know. Maybe. Is he the one who sings about his daughter?”

“Yeah,” I tell her. There’s a pause, filled by a Gansito commercial and the rain and Lupe chewing, then I say, “He looks a little like Juanjo, doesn’t he?”

“You think so?” she asks, not contradicting me, though we both know he looks nothing like Juanjo.

If Lupe hadn’t had a miscarriage last time, she wouldn’t be on bedrest now. It’s also a factor that she’s carrying twins, one of whom is stronger, and more likely to survive, than the other. When I walk her to the bathroom, I imagine these babies, one bigger than the other, splattered on the white tile of the bathroom floor, their wrinkled flesh like undercooked meat against a backdrop of blood and amniotic fluid. I think Lupe must imagine them too, because she always looks afraid when I reach for her arm. Even more afraid than usual.

She tried to get rid of me, almost from the moment I first offered my services. She doesn’t know I know, but Valentina overheard my grandmother tell her mother.

“Why doesn’t she want Bety there?” my Aunt Lili asked. She was never very bright.

My grandmother didn’t answer, just closed her eyes and massaged the space between her eyebrows, outward toward each side of her head. “It can’t be helped,” she finally said. “There’s no one else.”

Men being what they are, I knew my plan would work: a hand left to rest on his arm at the breakfast table, a wistful gaze that lasts just an instant too long, right in the eyes. The vague suggestion, never put into words, that Lupe hasn’t always been kind to me. The culmination: a towel slipped off after my shower, just at the moment when Juanjo reaches the landing to the second floor. My door more open than closed, a clear view in. Shyness, embarrassment, confusion: Oh! I didn’t know you were—And my naked body etched into his mind, glowing there, indelible.

It isn’t just this, either; it’s also the tincture of hierbas I put in Juanjo’s licuado each morning. I mix in extra vanilla and honey so he can’t taste them, but they’re there, coursing through his bloodstream, working on him, daily. Three weeks already. More—three weeks and two days.

When I go back to Doña Esme, she asks me, “Are you still using the hierbas?”

“Yes.”

“Every day?”

“Yes.”

She makes a snuffling sound as she rakes around in the drawer of her desk. When her hands reemerge, they’re holding a small cellophane packet of something that looks like dried lawn clippings. She undoes the staple with her thumbnail—the nail is thick and yellow, like a rooster’s claw—and empties the contents out into a little square dish. Then she takes a cigarette lighter from the front pocket of her apron and lights the clippings. They curl and blacken, quickly burning down to ashes.

Doña Esme pushes the dish away and reaches for what looks like a sugar bowl of the same ruddy clay. “Put out your tongue,” she commands, taking the lid off and dipping her thumb in. The taste is metallic, pungent, unmistakable, reminiscent of lost teeth and hangnails and childhood injuries, but different too. Goat’s blood; I’ve had it before.

I close my eyes and swallow as Doña Esme chants over me, touching her rough forefinger to my forehead, my lips, my chest. The words are low and indecipherable. They may even be her other language, the one from before the Spanish invaders brought their Christ to these lands and began to burn her people alive for His sake.

“Continua con las hierbas,” she instructs me, shaking the ashes of the burnt clippings into one corner of the dish then back into the same cellophane packaging they came in. She folds it down but doesn’t replace the staple. “Give them to him every morning, like you’ve been doing. And drink this yourself. Put it in a cup of champurrado, hot as you can stand.” She presses the packet into my hand.

“Thursday,” she says with a slow nod, her hand still on mine. “Late in the day.”

The storm is a bone-rattler, with blinding flashes and cataclysmic booms. I sit on the edge of the bed drinking the last of my champurrado, swirling it around with a spoon in the moonlight. The window’s open, and the gauzy curtains blow wildly in the damp wind. I swallow the last drink with my eyes closed, then peer into the cup. The dregs at the bottom look phallic. Or maybe the shape is of a sacrificial dagger, the type a high priest would use before kicking the bodies into a heap at the base of the pyramid because, like me, he wanted only one piece.

The air is staticky, bristling. I stand at the foot of the narrow bed, lift my arms above my head, palms together, and imagine myself as a lightning rod, concentrating all the energy into a single channel, willing it into my body. My face stares at me from the mirror: black eyes, grim, determined mouth; a pale, thin face, triangular as a cat’s. Then a smile unfurls, teeth bared.

It’s nearly midnight. Lupe was asleep hours ago; I listened at the door to her slow, even breathing, her light snores, before I came up. The two creatures inside her leave her exhausted. They’re like a parasitic alien species, living off her body, sapping her strength. She could hardly keep her eyes open, but she waited till Juanjo called. It’s soccer night; his team edged their way into the play-offs by one goal, and he’s been out celebrating. I heard both sides of the conversation, Juanjo shouting drunkenly over the noise.

I know what will happen next: he’ll come in at the garage end of the house, shower, lay out his work clothes. When I hear the bed sigh under his weight, I’ll slip into his bedroom, their bedroom, next door, taking care to close the door behind me, though I know Lupe would never risk the wrought iron spiral staircase.

“Juanjo,” I’ll whisper to his back in the dark. “I’m scared.” Then I’ll sit down on his bed, and he’ll turn toward me, bleary-eyed and confused. “Can I stay in here for a few minutes?”

A few minutes is all it will take.

I like a man with a story behind him. Not one he tells, just one you see hints of: in his tattoos, the roughness of his hands, what all he’s learned about women before he gets to you. I like a man who’s lived, who has the smell of danger about him. Juanjo, en cambio, is as tame as the manatees they let you swim with at Splash.

It wears on him, being in the house with both Lupe and me. He stops making eye contact, starts leaving earlier for work, coming home later. He doesn’t eat breakfast anymore, just gulps down his licuado standing by the sink in his suit. But when I go into his room at night, he doesn’t send me away. Worse: he wants to do it, then he doesn’t want to have done it.

I like a man who knows how to take charge, to bend you to his will, make you want what he wants. A man who doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t vacillate. Shit or get off the pot, my great-aunt Cleotilde used to say.

Still, since Juanjo, I’ve stopped imagining Lupe’s babies dressed like saints in little boxes full of white taffeta. So that’s something.

This is the way the rain stops: all at once, just like it begins. Yesterday I checked the ten-day weather forecast to be sure, but I knew already. It’s like on December twenty-sixth, the feeling that something’s come and gone.

I don’t put the hierbas in Juanjo’s licuado today. In fact, I don’t make the licuado at all. I wake up, breathe in the still, dry air, and roll back over in bed. I can sleep late now. It’s finished.

“I’m leaving,” I announce in the evening. Juanjo’s changing the tire on the BMW; he’s got it jacked up and is loosening the lug nuts. I jump down the garage steps and kick a few times at the spare. I like the springy way my foot bounces back. “Tomorrow,” I add.

Juanjo looks up at me with all his misery stark and undisguised on his face. He’s not bad-looking like this, though a tad yellowish under the fluorescents of the garage. “I’m going to tell Lupe,” he says in a low voice, turning back to the car, “as soon as the babies come.”

“Do what you want,” I say indifferently. Tomorrow night I’ll be back to sleeping in my own bed, and if my grandmother asks—and she will—what I’m doing back there, I’ll just plead differences of opinion. There’s truth to that.

It isn’t till after the forty day post-delivery term has passed that I’m finally called in, as if before a tribunal. Lupe spent it, the cuarentena, with Juanjo’s mother in their great big mansion in the gated Brisas del Lago neighborhood. I imagine it was even a relief to her, though the señora had made some previous remarks about not having time to take care of her sons’ wives. Officious old bitch, she looks down on Lupe because we don’t come from money.

I think my cousin takes it well. She’s sitting on the sofa with one of the babies; Juanjo’s got the other one, holding it as if it might break. He paces back and forth, bouncing the baby a little with each step, though it isn’t crying. Lupe doesn’t move when I come in. She just looks stolidly into my face, then leads with, “I’d rather that no one else found out about this.” And after a pause, she adds, “please, Bety.”

I’m glad to acquiesce. I know what the role requires. It would be useless to explain: It was for you, Lupe, you and the babies, that I put Juanjo up in my stump by the goat farm. I watched him yellow and crack, broke him to pieces, for your sake, for theirs. She wouldn’t understand, and anyway, she needs me to blame. It’s the only way she can forgive Juanjo and get back to her life. And it would be a shame for that big house and all the pretty things in it to be wasted on somebody who couldn’t enjoy them.

So I play the femme fatale. Like Marilyn Monroe said, if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather it be sex than anything else. Así, when Lupe asks me, in a strained voice, “Why?” I don’t snivel or hang my head or ask for forgiveness.

I just shrug, smirk a little for good measure, and ask her right back: “Why not?”


april-vazquezA native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a BA in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an MA in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. April lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she reads, writes, and homeschools her daughters, Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, The Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, The New Plains Review, and others.    

Image credit: Michael Kahl on Unsplash