El Hueso: Part III of III by Daphne Malfitano

Elena and the sun opened their eyes in unison as if it was her day from the start. Fausto’s head leaned back against the headrest, his eyes were shut and his arms which fore held her tightly as a bud in winter now collapsed to the sides, leaving an exposed bloom. She questioned whether to wake him, but didn’t. Instead she cracked open the truck door and slipped out without disturbing her love.

The cool of night was still upon them, but the unbearable heat crept with the sun ever nearer. Elena passed between two houses, walking noiselessly. The streets still had the nighttime quiet of a ghost town. The morning grew until the sky was a cool gray, this combination of darkness and light a terrible purgatory of Elena’s existence. In the road she awaited the others who slunk out of their nests and greeted her with surprise and embarrassment as though they would prefer she was already gone. Soon the people of El Hueso had congregated, keeping a distance from Elena who stood mid-street, as though she were infected. There were murmurings, but mostly the vigil was held in silence, and Elena turned her back to her people, and faced the road into town. 

The warm desert buzz could already be heard, but soon it was overtaken by a mechanical growl growing in the direction they all looked. The huge cargo truck outsized all landmarks it passed as it charged into the town. It pulled up to their communal silence, and then slowly cleaved it, and came to a stop just beyond the crowd. One final roar, and there was silence. Elena, the furthest now from the truck, felt the pounding of her heart, but nothing else. 

After a treacherous pause the cab doors swung open as one, and from each emerged a man dressed in billowing linen saronged over faded denim. The driver carried a Bowie knife and wore aviator sunglasses, his bald head reflecting the early morning light. The other man was mustachioed and stern, shotgun bent over his left arm. They walked to the rear of the truck, where the driver faced the crowd with a grin.

“Good morning, people of El Hueso! So quickly this month has passed.” He lifted one arm to the crowd, palm upturned. Every man, woman, and child dropped to their knees and bowed their head. Elena, at the rear of the mass, knelt too. 

“What have you got for us this time?” asked the driver. All raised their heads, and Eduardo, who was in the foremost stretch of the crowd, stood.

“It will please you, Sir, a girl. She is eighteen today.”

“Eighteen,” the driver and his companion looked at one another and shifted in place excitedly. “Your generosity will be well rewarded.”

The man with the bald head monkey leapt and grasped the back doors of the truck’s trailer and swung them open one at a time, revealing the cargo. Tank after tank of water, packed from end to end, ceiling to floor. A sight at which the people exhaled and smiled and wept. Elena stood.

“Where is our gift?” asked the driver.

“She is here, Sir!” a man at the back of the group grabbed Elena’s arm and pulled her to the front. She did not fight, but looked at her townspeople’s faces as she passed them. Abuelita was among those in the front, and as Elena passed she struggled to join eyes with her, but her Abuela’s gaze was fixed at the trailer’s surplus. The man who had grabbed her now released her violently, and she fell to the ground at the driver’s boots. Her knee met a jagged rock and turned white.

“You’ve done well…” the driver looked at his prize sprawled before him. “People of El Hueso, you have done well!”

Elena watched her whitened knee bloom red, and droplets of her blood meet the gravel road. The dust blushed, but the thirsty earth sucked the fluid up and in seconds it was gone entirely. The driver laughed, and spun to the truck, and leapt in one great movement into the trailer. He wrapped his fingers around the handle of the nearest tank and tossed it through the mouth of the truck and onto the gravel beside Elena. She started, and the men laughed, and the driver jumped down, crouching between the tank and girl.

“You must be thirsty,” he addressed her, “Yes? Where we are going there is no shortage of water. Or food. Or men. Here,” he drove his Bowie knife into the tank before him, and water spouted up through the gash. A few drops struck Elena’s leg, and the earth drank up the rest.

Behind the houses, in the passenger seat of the red truck up on blocks, Fausto awoke to a scratching at his door. The brown dog moaned and scratched, and Fausto jumped to life, realized he was alone and it was light. He kicked the door open, and ran with the dog at his heels. 

“Here,” said the driver, “drink!”

He set his knife aside and lifted the tank with both his arms, aligning the gash with Elena’s mouth and aggressively tipping it. In the seconds that the water splashed against her face and down her chin, Elena reached for the knife, and before the driver could wrestle it from her, and before the other man could raise the shotgun, and before Fausto could cross the town and reach her, Elena lifted the knife to her throat and pushed and dragged, and the water and the blood billowed as one and the ground drank them up indiscriminately. 

El Hueso: Part II of III by Daphne Malfitano

The five scattered along the single road into town seemed a gruff caravan of The Rapture. Three on horseback each carried lantern and pistol. One rode a vicious looking four-wheeler, headlight blinding any in its path, and dragging behind it a makeshift truck bed carrying a single massive water tank. The fifth man hung off the back of that tank and waved his lantern wildly, yipping and crowing at the rear of the group. As do cuckoos moments before the hour, so too did the people of El Hueso lay in wait just behind their doors. As the yipping and growl of the four-wheeler’s engine began to ring through the dirt roads of their home, those birds popped forth from every door and cheered on their strange parade. 

Elena and Fausto listened to the salutes echoing back at them, and studied each other’s faces, and fastened their fingers. 

“What if they don’t care?” Elena asked.

“They will. It’s their child, too.”

“So am I. They don’t care about that anymore .”

Fausto forbade his fear emerge, and smiled at his love, and gently moved his hand across her face, hovering over her eyes a moment, feeling the soft tip of her nose bump against his palm. 

“I would prefer to die,” Elena added from behind Fausto’s touch. They sat a moment longer, then rose, wordless, and walked together in the direction of the cheers and applause which crescendoed now into the nighttime jungle sounds of victorious beasts bearing down upon a fresh kill.

In the road at the center of town they congregated, candles in hands, as the five lapped the block, fire bursting into the black sky above them. The vehicle with water tank came to a stop, the nucleus amid the rings of town folk staring desirous and joyful. Elena and Fausto fell in between the candle-lit faces of neighbors and cousins, and watched alongside, making believe for a moment they could stay unseen in the crowd.

“If you need it tonight, go to José,” yelled one on horseback to the horde, “they come at dawn for the exchange.”

His horse stamped and spun, and a handful of figures made their way toward the man on the four-wheeler, outreaching buckets, pots, and vessels of varying propriety. José Pumped from the tank into whatever they handed him, and one by one they scurried as territorial rodents back to their holes. 

The crowd thinned, except the five, and also a group of men who lingered nearby, tightening their circle until it was impossible to know their true number. Elena’s face was awash with firelight, watching the men across the road, watching José pump the water, watching the joyful rats grasp their rations with desperation and greed. Fausto squeezed her hand and released it, crossing the road, joining the huddle of boots and hats which made up some rickety congress. He split their congregation and inserted himself amid it. They listened, and shook heads, and looked one at a time across to Elena who was stony Joan of Arc in the fire’s gaze.

Across the road one elder from the huddle barked at Elena, “It’s an honor!” before Fausto could embrace him back into their circle. A hand rested on Elena’s shoulder as she watched the men discuss her fate. Turning slightly she saw Abuelita standing behind her, and in the woman’s free hand, a jug brimming with water. 

“Please, Abuela,” Elena whispered into the darkness. There was no softening, only the crackling in her ears, so she shook free from the touch, walked a few steps in the direction opposite the fire and people, then ran. Her body moved with a magmatic agenda separate from logic, but the desire for that town and its fire to grow small overtook her and whisked her, breathlessly, away. Jerky progress was made, without a single look back, and though the wind cooled, Elena’s face flushed with heat. The air tickled her exposed skin and she ran, feeling the light of town diminish behind her.

Then the glow was back, and nearer. She did not turn, but felt it catching up to her. She ran faster, pushing against the wind, but it was useless. Hooves sounded and light shot her figure against the gravel before her, and though it started huge, her shape shrunk down until it was only the outline of an eighteen year old girl, and finally she stopped running and stood, gasping for breath. 

The man on horseback dismounted. Elena heard his boots hit rock one at a time, but she didn’t look at him even as his silhouette met hers, and his hand closed about her wrist, leading her back to his horse. She mounted it without argument and the two rode back, watching the lights of El Hueso grow. She laid her tired head against his enemy shoulder, and her eyes felt heavy.

Rewound, she was again in the road, dropped off and met by Fausto, Abuelita and the other men, then led by them to a nearby house where light toasted every window. She kicked her shoes on the steps to the door, dirt having gathered during her run, and Fausto held her around both shoulders, guiding her into the house. Inside, the former huddle of men was spread thick across the far side of the living room. The door shut behind them, and everyone stood.

“Will you listen to her?” Fausto addressed the group. Men’s heads shook.  Abuelita lingered by the door, the jug in her arms. 

“Speak,” Fausto urged Elena. She looked finally at the faces of the men around her.

“I won’t go,” she said gently.

“You will kill your people!” shouted one man, jutting his chin up as if gathering spit. Fausto shifted, looking nervously at Elena while silencing the men with his arm.

“Speak,” he whispered in her ear.

“I… Fausto has told you,” she trailed off. The men threw arms up in outrage. One, with single scarred, milky eye, left the house, brushing Elena on his way out. The door whipped shut and some calm was restored by the noise. 

“I have,” said Fausto, “I have told you. I beg- we beg you.”

Sosimo lurked against the wall, eyeing Elena. Two others were having a whisper argument, wielding hats. The fluorescent light buzzed as the midday sun, and Elena felt trapped as ever beneath it. 

“She must go,” said Eduardo, who alone sat. 

“Tío!” cried Fausto. 

“You only think of yourself,” Eduardo said, looking down at his arthritic fingers.

“And you?”

“There is no choice. Where will the water come from? It’s for the survival of this town.”

“Elena was born to this town. This baby- my baby- is your flesh!”

“We have no choice, Fausto,” Eduardo brayed, then put the back of his hand to his forehead regretfully. Silence seared.

Fausto lifted Elena in his arms like a child. Turning to the closed door, he looked at Abuelita who after a moment opened it for them. They crossed the threshold in reverse, back into the safety of the cool night. Elena studied his face, strong and tight, then closed her eyes and lay back in his arms, safe for a moment. In the dark he took them to a red pickup truck up on blocks behind a nest of houses. He opened the passenger door and climbed in, Elena still in his arms. He surrounded her tiny, limp body, and whispered love words in her ear, and there they sat and awaited the morning. 

El Hueso: Part I of III by Daphne Malfitano

They were due back with water that night. In the merciless late afternoon sun Elena threw twigs at the dog who tossed supine in the dirt, a cloud of his own making engulfing him. The back door was open and through the shady screen your eyes could adjust to see Abuelita smoking a cigarette inside. Small puffs of her exhaled smoke escaped the mesh and floated over Elena’s head, then mixed with the dust clouds, together adding to the eternal haze enveloping El Hueso. The screen scratched open a few inches, the butt of Abuelita’s cigarette flew past Elena’s cheek, then the screen slapped shut. The noise drew the dog out of his dirt bath as the twigs had sought to, and the ever-twitching snout rested over the butt only a moment before lapping it up. The sky was drained of color, hanging heavy in its opaque beige-ness, but somehow the sun penetrated and the heaviness of the sky magnified its strength, and it seemed there was no escaping the glare.

The sweat perpetually pooling under the breasts of the women of El Hueso caused a collective itching to appear familiarly at intervals wherever one went. Elena stretched, and scratched, and stood, kicking the rocks out of her sandals. The brown dog, hip bones sharp and pronounced as stumps of amputated wings, followed behind her as she rounded the house. The front yard, lacking grass, was all rocks and two small, side-lain bicycles. The dog panted and made circles around Elena as she crossed the road to where sat three men on plastic folding chairs in the small strip of shade at the side of another shabby house.

Fausto in the center was just older than Elena, and handsome, flanked by two of his grandfather’s generation. He ground the heels of his leather boots into the gravel, and leaned back in his chair, and whistled at the dog who came running. Elena glanced at Fausto, but addressed Sosimo who sat to his left.

“Abuelita says to come in five minutes.” Sosimo nodded his dark, wrinkled head at Elena and took a swig of something brown in the bottle he held balanced against his kneecap. The dog sat panting before Fausto who nudged him with his knuckles while looking at Elena.

“She have any more nopales?” asked Fausto.

“No.”

“Well, maybe tomorrow…” he looked out briefly toward the horizon, then back at Elena. His heavy brown eyes chased hers away, and she turned and took off toward her house.

“It’s your birthday, no?” asked Eduardo, the frailer, grayer elder.

“Tomorrow,” said Elena without looking back. The smallest rocks in her path leapt up at her legs as she crossed them, desperately grasping for her own body’s forty liters of water, begging to be tilled.

When Elena returned Abuelita was behind the house looking into the distance. The light was dwindling but the air remained steamy and stagnant, and there was little relief in the awaited shade. The older woman’s swaddled head oozed sweat which left a trail running between her eyebrows and down the side of her nose.

“I called Sosimo,” said Elena. “They’re going to lose the light.” Abuelita grunted affirmation and turned and disappeared through the back door. Alone, Elena listened to confirm Abuelita’s retreat into the kitchen via the metallic clap of saucepans, and then walked crossways behind the house with the last dying gash of yellow bisecting the horizon, and slid into the cover of a yucca palm. There she waited, wiping beneath her eyes and tossing her coarse mass of reflective hair anxiously. Normally darkness brought anticipation and the buzz of forthcoming relief, but not tonight. 

The road into town was still abandoned despite the innumerable eyes fixed upon it, and Elena told herself to look away, she still had time. These moments of darkening tricked the eye into beholding El Hueso with affection. The low buildings sat as audience to the stage of the massive, multi-hued sky. Small lights flickered within houses, but soon the town fell to shadow and even Elena could be fooled for a moment into thinking this place blessed. Animals dug or twitched in pockets of darkness between external walls and strewn crates, dust popping up around them marking the air as smoke signals from one to another.

Behind Elena came a man-sized darkness passing the house and drawing towards her. It moved quickly through the black, and illuminated windows blinked on and off as it concealed then revealed them, a morse code of nonsense left in its wake. Elena did not hear it until it was on her, and then its arms were around her and its face in her hair, and she released a small, sweet moan and fell into him. 

“It’s still just us,” said Elena.

“Yes. Just us,” repeated Fausto softly into her neck. 

“Will it work?” 

“I don’t know.” He pulled back, glancing in secret at the horizon.

“It has to.”

“It will.” 

Then all at once they were one with the ground, pushing into the gravel and patches of dead grass, perhaps hoping to merge with that gray expanse where no one could find them. They camouflaged into it, and into each other, and above them the sky closed, allowing only a splash of light in the distance, and that splash grew five silhouettes with five tiny sparks of fire which stayed with them after they left the light and the sky locked shut, and they moved slowly but steadily toward the town. 

On the ground, Elena’s legs bent happy and shaking between her tatty cotton skirt, and bits of rock gripped her hair. Fausto gently cradled one of her fuzzy, tan knees and felt the whole world explode through his heart. They could see stars, but what use were stars. The only lights that mattered were the five that traveled ever nearer them, and those they did not see as the spangled sky above their love.

A Bedtime Story by Daphne Malfitano

Even for us, 11pm was an uncharacteristically late dinner hour. I met my parents in the city to celebrate summer’s end, and our own small victories. The Odeon was still bustling, and we sat outside, and drank wine, and toasted to the days and weeks before us. 

This was the year I discovered oysters, the year I became engaged, and later unengaged, the year I fell in love with Brooklyn.

Just after midnight, admiring the heavy, black sky, we paid our bill. The air was daytime warm, and we laughed and walked the two blocks to their apartment without hurry. I see no reason that there should have been fireworks, but I remember it as though there were.

Around the corner, on their block, all was quiet and calm as one would expect of middle night, save for the firetruck’s flashing red lights. There was no siren, scream, radio static, only the incessant spinning of the lights. The tall, old Tribeca buildings were vulnerable in the red glare, awakened from shadow slumber. 

The truck seemed out of place, alone and silent, and flanked only by one young female cop. Then we noticed the spotlight, focused at the top edge of the building adjoining my parents’. A fireman, all helmet, peered over the edge of the five story roof. The factions communicated some non-discovery, and suddenly our eyes made sense of the landscape. There was a body just below the curb, lying very still between two parked cars. It was uncovered, unlit, unattended. Seeking a shortcut between the corner and my family’s front door, I could have tripped over it. 

It was a man’s body. There was a puddle around his head, blacker even than the sky. I knew I was seeing something important, very important, but all I could manage to think was “Why isn’t anyone with him. Why is he alone?”

After 1am the detectives arrived like superhero alter egos, broad shouldered, tightly shorn, immensely well dressed. They emerged from black cars, and I realized it was Saturday night, and they had likely been called away from a benefit dinner, or Sergeant’s wedding. I imagined they were relieved by the early dismissal, or at least pretended to be on the drive over.

They ordered the body covered, and as the white sheet was tossed across the man, before it soaked up the blood pool, I envisioned a closet of perfectly bleached white sheets, seen to by some unappreciated, aproned domestic.

The only glimpse I got of the man’s face was in the flash of the photographer’s light, bouncing off the partly raised sheet, setting the black blood afire, chiseling the features into the puddle of darkness, making it real for a half second. 

My fiancée and I fought endlessly, these days. Drunkenly, and about nothing, we warred. In one of the worst fights he threw my 1920s Underwood typewriter across the kitchen. It was heavy enough that lifting it was difficult, and as it fought gravity I calmly accepted that at the end of its arc it would go through the floor, and likely kill my downstairs neighbor. To my surprise, it didn’t. 

By 3am the scene came to a standstill. The officers were all gone, save one cop at the corner, the firetruck was gone, the lights, the witnesses. Only me, and the body of a person whose name I didn’t know, laid between two cars. Alone with my guilt, and my guilt for my guilt, the only one still holding vigil. I felt obligated to stay, as if my gaze kept him closer to the living world, and once I turned and walked to the train, and rode back to Brooklyn, and took off my shoes, he would be lost forever. 

Drunk blondes in too-tight dresses passed me in the street without noticing the body. I wanted to sit with him until the coroner arrived, and took him away, but they were slow, probably attending another fresh death elsewhere in the city, and finally I had to go home. 

For months after, the dark spot remained just past the curb outside my family’s building. Cars eroded it in their awkward parallel parking. Stilettoed, tardy realtors, and daring toddlers, and businessmen on cellphones walked over it while jaywalking, and it got smaller and smaller as if the earth were drinking up the blood until finally it was gone.