Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

— Virginia Woolf

Stephanie Dickinson

August 22, 2016

FICTION

 

 

CUIDAD JAUREZ. 1917. Before I crossed the Rio Grande half of me had already vanished. My hands were a mess of cow pox, my lips welted with horsefly bites. I was that big-headed girl in the milk barn trying to nurse her baby girl. People said I was slow-witted and couldn’t raise a wee one. The baby snatcher that stole her took her to Monterrey. And there was all the milk that my baby would have drunk, making my chest swell and my nipples crack, until I had to squeeze out the watery gruel. When I stood over the trough with a jelly jar of human milk, I tried some. It tasted sweet. I wasn’t afraid of Mexico. Its yawning nostrils and ocher wind crying, “Death to the Rich.” I wasn’t afraid of campesinos torching Spanish factories. I knew they sent out buyers to find infants in El Norte, men strong as horses who ate their chili stew in a street cafe manned by women missing fingers. When I came for my pinto beans, I'd see a nick or a scar on a hand, and I wanted to ask how it happened. Thin girls frying tortillas in the bread line looked tame as sheep, but famished, their eyes flat-out black suns, their stomachs rumbling with jaguar hunger. Sometimes when I reached for corn bread I would try to touch their hand, but they always drew far away, as though it was the deer of the moon I was trying to comfort. I'm not bad—you can see that, can't you? I buy the day-old hard rolls and sell them to the mud huts. I keep one eye watching my shoulder—my great-aunt with her singed arms from a burnout, her eyes of blue stones, lashes like glass splinters. Provincial, she is all things gnashing and flowing with lava, she, the seller of my daughter, all things chaotic. Poncho Villa’s cast shadow knows her. From the bodies in the graves stubbed out or left cut into pieces by rebels, ghosts pick up the pole-axe, hammer, and puntilla. They stab until the mahogany earth bleeds, slowly. The deep dirt is bone. I keep following the white scent of my baby through this land where guts nailed to trees are told to walk.

 

 

Big-Headed Anna Walks Across the Border and Becomes the Blue Virgin

 

PACHUCA DE SOTO, 1917. The half-ton pickup trucks ride the dust toward Pachuca de Soto, and when one stops for me, the bed jiggling, full of squawking chickens and the girls who tend them, I climb in. I tell them I walked from Texas searching for the half of me that has been stolen. I show them my feet to prove my journey. Still the girls do not believe these soles without calluses or blisters could have trod the Valley of Mexico. Its volcano axis. Am I not the big-headed Blue Virgin, daughter of the old god Teotihuacan, the one prophesied to return to the scorched land? The girls with long black braids touch my head; they use their palms, the tips of their fingers. A hen, brown and forgotten, settles in my lap, I stroke the clucking from her feathers, and she rewards me with a lapful of warm russet eggs. Wrists against my ears, the chicken girls say they hear messages from heaven and the serpent world, doves roosting in my ear lobes, manna snakes sunning in the hollow of my breastbone. I tell them I am a chicken-tending girl like them, the knots they fondle my great-aunt left on my body, her raised cane thrashing me. Into the hen house with you and the one who put a brat in your belly. Sleep with the droppings on the roost. Wash each blood-speckled egg with your vile tongue. Nine months later, after my baby was taken, I left for Mexico. I am still sacred, the girls insist. My skin next to theirs looks blue, etched by purple tributaries that carry the forgotten rituals. Friend to the silky anteater and the giant leopard moth, Blue Virgin, listen. The first people (mud people, the conquistadors called them) are still dying of the influenza, the shivering and coughing. You are the big-headed deity prayed for by their parched lips. The Blue Virgin appears barefoot. Not a mark on them, a braided girl says. She’ll turn the brackish waters fresh, another mouths. Coyotes yowling from the deserted haciendas cower before her. Fires set by lightning, she quiets. The extinct lakes Texcoco, Zumpango rise from the earth at her beckoning. She’ll will the breeze to sift through the heat-walking mesquite, the clouds to float three-headed birds. The hen’s agony of watching death with her unblinking golden eye ends. No longer fodder for the kit fox’s supper. I wait for the girls to laugh. Their words fill my head until there is little room left.

 

 

Big-Headed Anna Wades Across the Rio Grande with Help of the Brown Madonna

 

NUEVO LAREDO 1919. Like a herd of prayers a whole caravan of them thundering over the roadway, half-ton beasts tusked with headlights, noiseless, as they rattled over the desolation. More donkeys pulled wagons of pickers from the fields of charred thorns to the tomato vineyards of El Norte. They passed me as I tramped south into the land of revolution, of one-eyed dictators, who mashed pear avocados with the brains of horses. They would bring bullets and rifles and dynamite death on their return south. Nothing stopped the great metal beasts, unfurling their long red tongues down dirt roads, licking up starving people of the mud huts, ravenous for those who will sweat pinpricks of scarlet, grind their own meat to gristle. There’s the Rio Grande, where intestines of thirsty cattle blackened the water. Brown Madonna, Lady of the Guadalupe, you appeared in the swift current in your maroon robes, your heart showing its blue proof of unquenchable burning. You led me to dry riverbank and down the road into the marketplace where the sellers of watermelon drinks turned their noses up at me. They did not see your gaze traveling up and down the blankets, your dark eyes huge and solemn as churches. Looking for what? Brown lady, they would not sell me a night’s warmth for the peso I clutched. I crawled into a bakery oven after the loaves had been taken out. Still warm inside, I slept. Comforted by the smoke in your perfume, the sounds of the journey, you told me I was made by the old gods, my mammoth’s jaw scrapped with a warrior’s obsidian blade, the songs of heartbreak my lullaby. My head was a gingerbread house in the distance of the wandering soul. My head was flan. Sponge cake. Three kinds of milk. My head was tested by a snake, who shape-changed and was sometimes half-bird, half- woman, who never carried off children, but sometimes clutched in her talons wicked adults.

 

 

Big-Headed Anna Gives Comfort to her Hitchhiker

 

POPOCATÉPETL. 1919. The gringo cabecilla’s bitten the brown girl everywhere and called it kissing. From under the brim of my hat, I saw the white devil’s blue-green serpent eyes, while I washed the taste of him off her in the water trough, the privies’ stopped up with dirty papers like bloated water lilies. He’d taken her from her thatched roof hut, threw money at her father, promised the girl work in his hacienda of stuccoed walls and flowering vines. She was his dusky camellia, his inner courtyard. The girl Silvia pointed to the kiss bruises, the green-toad funny shape of them. Shivering, she said she could feel the other women who had been touched by him, those he had consumed, this pure girl carried the unclean man’s child in her belly. The half-ton pickup dropped us on the shore of an extinct lake, spunky brown water dripping from secret creek. Rocks like bronze shields reflected the Silvia’s small head and my own wheel head, our eyes glazed over like an armadillo vanished into its past. This was the land of charred and blistered chiles, shaving brush trees, passion fruit dances, and Xolos, the seed pearls of its paw nails left to chip.  Lye soap, the girl still runs like sandpaper over herself, but she can't scrub off his mouth—that place where the sacred hairless dog was brought down and put in a cooking dish. She trusted the dimples in my cheeks even when I wasn’t smiling. Wait, I told her. You’re not alone. I left the United States that stole my baby, that said I was too simple to raise it, that my mind was an unfit womb, and then they neutered me. They wanted me for the work farm, to give them my back-breaking labor for nothing. I rode the rails south. I will care for you and your baby. White vultures, gringos. Montezuma saw the pale ones as dead gods returned to life. The adventurer Cortés he believed to be Quetzacoatl, the god who fled Mexico years before on a raft of snakes and vowed to return. The god did not return only the raft of snakes.

 

 

Big-Headed Anna Eating Fire in Mexico City

 

MEXICO CITY 1920. I cut pictures out of Holy Day calendars and Mass cards and save hundreds of pairs of Our Lady's sinless eyes. I honor the Brown Madonna, able to withstand unquenchable scorching, who appears to her followers wearing a gun belt. A Zapatista. I followed my feet down the riverbank into the swimming city of the fish.  The Lady joined me in the current, like the Jesus Lizard she could walk on water. How can I live, brown mother, I have no one. I am told there is work in the slaughterhouses with the horses. The Brown Madonna caresses the innocent girls who hold the knives, although not liking what they have to do. To stab the horses not yet dead, to hear the last whiney and neighing. To gaze into the amber eyes of butchered light. To smell the saliva of grass. Then the dismembering—turds hard as emeralds, the hunger in its guts, intestines painted in shit and blood. We horse-stabbing girls stroll between the donkey carts and wagons, selling tortillas and shreds of mare meat. I try being one of the horse-girls, but I can no more run the withered stallion through with a knife then amputate my own hand. I set him free. How can I live, brown mother, I have no one. She shows me how to drink flames. How to exhale plumes of fire. Come hither, camels, who once roamed the Valley of Mexico. Tail bone and coccyx. Hoof. Ventricle. Gall bladder. I pour the raw fuel between my lips. “Drink. That is my body,” says the brontosaurus, “a million years have I fermented.” Yes, nods the asteroid of 1.5 billion years ago who sucked a third of molten Mexico into space where it froze. I strike the match. The Lady loves me; she won't allow my tongue to turn green or my gums to blacken. Sightseers fill my begging tin. I gulp down more fuel. Breathe out a peacock's tail of red fanning halos of blue. When I swallow fire, I become a purring cat, a long purple dress, I hold burning between my lips—at 120 degrees snow is falling, and I walk before it goes dark inside me, I am a spindly tree, a high ceiling, the moon, blue and huge as a fat rabbit, a platter, and the trail my bare feet drag cocooned in ice. I will smite every horse with astonishment, says Zechariah 12:1-3. I will smite his rider with madness. Like a torch of fire in a sheath. My dreams are pale tangerine or lemon depending on how the sun shines.

 

 

Stephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Hotel Amerika, Mudfish, Weber Studies, Fjords, Water-Stone Review, Gargoyle, Rhino, Stone Canoe, Westerly, and New Stories from the South, among others. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her recent novel Love Highway, based on the 2006 Jennifer Moore murder. Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, was released in 2013 by New Michigan Press. Her work has received multiple distinguished story citations in the Pushcart Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and Best American Mysteries

 

The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.

—Cervantes, Don Quixote

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