Saturday, December 26, 2015

My 2015 Reading Retrospective

Once again, I have compiled a list of the best books I read this past year. As usual, these books were not necessarily published in 2015, just ones I happened to read this year.

Of the 61 titles I read, here were my favorites:

Things Fall Apart by China Achebe - Yes, this book has become staple reading in high school and college classes. Yes, it exemplifies the theme of postcolonialism in literature. (It's the story of the encroachment of white European society on an Ibo village.) But it's so much more than that. Achebe taps into something ancient and universal with his depiction of a man struggling to stay true to his traditional way of life in the face of a shifting world.

Lighthead by Terrance Hayes - Hayes' poems are brilliant, beautifully-written, possessed of clarity and originality of phrase. But what really stuck with me after reading this book was the way in which he brings the reader into the African-American community. I got to experience that sense of heritage and solidarity, despite the color of my own skin. He made his story into our story-- a rare and impressive feat for any writer.

Disgrace JM Coetzee - Coetzee, a Pulitzer and Booker Prize winning author, is not known for writing chipper works, so be warned-- this book is a devastating look at race and gender politics in post-apartheid South Africa. This is not a long book, but it's dense, weighty, intense; it's also difficult to summarize, as there are so many small plots, character interactions and themes spinning through it. At its core is David, a university professor. After engaging in a series of risky affairs, he is fired from his job and retreats to his lesbian daughter's farm in the country where he takes a job cleaning up euthanized animals. A powerful meditation on the ways in which human beings hurt each other and other living creatures.

Perfume: Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind - I picked up this book after coming across the film with Ben Whishaw and Alan Rickman. At its heart, this book is a psychological horror novel centered around an intensely creepy, repugnant and yet fascinating serial killer, like Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman. But this story brings some interesting new twists to the genre, blending magical realism and historical fiction into a heady concoction. Its killer is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan born into 18th century France. Grenouille has a unique gift: the most sensitive nose in all of creation. Delightfully bizarre, morbidly funny, and gorgeously written-- don't miss it.

Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman - a collection of short stories, tracing the history of a particular house and its various inhabitants for 200 years. Flawless and sublime.

Alabama Moon by Watt Key - I'm a sucker for Southern-fried literature, as well as for tales about the Underdog Who Makes Good. This book satisfies on both fronts. It's the story of a ten-year-old boy named Moon, whose mentally-ill father raised him off the grid. Moon knows everything about how to survive in the wilderness, but virtually nothing about regular society. When Moon's father dies, Moon has to adapt fast when he encounters a series of law enforcement officials, boys' homes, foster care and all the treacheries associated therewith. I was so happy when Moon found his forever home-- you will be, too.

The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell - One long poem drawing upon Kinnell's experiences protesting the Vietnam War and participating in the Civil Rights movement-- but, like all good poems and anti-war poems in particular, this book is really about life and death. It starts with the birth of Kennell's daughter, (one of the most beautiful descriptions of birth I've ever read), then traces his journey through the hellfires of modern life. "The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible" is now one of my favorite pieces of writing.

Redeployment by Phil Klay - Oh my God, read this book. Seriously, just read it. A collection of short stories about American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, this book is immediate and important. It shows the war of now-- what war has become in the age of the Internet and constant media. Perhaps to underscore this, the book often feels more like documentary than storytelling, giving a comprehensive view of the soldiers' experiences—soldiers in the middle of the shit, frightened, exhilarated, lost, depressed, confused, dying, surviving. It shows them coming home on leave. It shows them years after the fact. It shows how people wear their wounds, both interior and exterior, how they deal with being both the recipient of death as well as the cause of it. The language is spare and brutal. One story, in particular, I liked because it was written almost entirely in acronyms, which of course, is how the military divorces its actions from reality and creates its own insular little world.

It should be noted, the misogyny in this book is a little hard to take. It's undoubtedly real, war being the most masculine of pastimes, so there's the machismo posturing one would expect from young enlistees, sorting women neatly into "hot or not" boxes. The female characters exist only on the peripheries: girlfriends back home, wives, prostitutes, only the occasional female soldier or contractor, Iraqi war widows.

It's been said that all war films are really pro-war. This is not the case with literature, and with Redployment in particular.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt - How did it take me so long to read this book? Seriously, HOW? I don't know, but I'm so glad that I finally did read it. It's a mark of how much I love a book when I follow my husband and friends around, reading passages aloud to them, to the point of being totally obnoxious. This was just such a book, now one of my all-time favorites.

For those who are unfamiliar with this book, it's McCourt's memoirs about his childhood in Ireland during the Great Depression. After I read it, I perused other readers' reviews on Goodreads, and so many of them were talking about how bleak this book is. Of course it is-- it's about poverty and disease. But am I the only one who found this book uproariously funny? I was raised Catholic, so I found pretty much any scene dealing with nuns or priests to be hilarious. Also, I'm Mexican, which, as a Colombian friend once pointed out to me, "You Mexicans are just like the Irish, except you have better food." While I didn't experience this level of poverty personally, I was partially raised by a large extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles who were this poor, so McCourt's descriptions and some of the situations struck my funny bone in that painful, I'm-laughing-because-it's-so-true sort of way.

Also, the phrase, "as sure as God made little apples!" has become a permanent addition to my lexicon.

Sinners Welcome by Mary Karr - I was skeptical when I picked up this collection of poems by Karr, who is better known for her memoirs and essays. She converted to Catholicism later in life, and I thought, Really? What more can be said on that subject? I was pleasantly surprised. Karr's poems are searing, insightful, lyrical, expansive, honest, and yes, manage to bring a fresh perspective to Catholicism and Christianity in general. She has poems about the assumption of the virgin and the nativity which, when told from a 21st century mother, do take on new life.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - This is the tale of a golem and a jinni who, through no fault of their own, immigrate to New York in 1899. There was nothing about this book I didn't love: magic, supernatural creatures, folklore, historical backdrops, and coming to America. Perfect.

Happy New Year, everyone! I can't wait to see what books and authors I'll meet in 2016.

If you liked this post, be sure to check out my reading retrospectives for 2014 and 2013.

I am now on Patreon. Be sure to check out my work there-- your support would be much appreciated!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Back to being indies.

With great regret, Coyote and I will no longer be publishing with Kensington Gore. Ultimately, all parties agreed that our books were not a good fit for them.

Of course, this is very disappointing news. We’d had high hopes that signing with a publisher would mean good things for our work.

For now, though, it appears that we’re back to being true-blue indies.

We are pleased to say that there will be minimal interruptions in having the books available. Books I and II are still on Amazon as e-books. They are also available through Smashwords, which distributes to Barnes & Noble and other major retail outlets. 

Here are the links to purchase:

The Order of the Four Sons - Amazon, Smashwords

Carcosa - Amazon, Smashwords

Coyote and I are working to make the books available in paperback as soon as possible.

We are also pleased to say that we will continue to work with the fabulous cover artist, Erin Kelso, for the remainder of the series.

Books III and IV are already written. We will keep our readership posted on their release dates.

We wish all the folks at Kensington Gore the best of luck, and are grateful they believed in us. We are also grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow as authors.

In the meantime, we appreciate the patience of our readers while we manage the transition.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Housebound for the Holidays

So this is my view for the foreseeable future. I'll spare you all the gory details, but I had to have foot surgery on Thursday. The doc says I'm looking at 6-8 weeks of recovery time.  I have to keep the foot elevated and immobile as much as possible. I've spent the last few weeks rushing around like a mad woman, trying to get things in order for my long convalescence. I think I mostly succeeded.

The good news is, I have plenty of books, visitors, shows in my Netflix queue, and writing and craft projects to keep me busy. I'll also be working from home, because my company is awesome like that.

Also, there's this:

Unlimited lap time for the fur beasts.

Happy holidays, everybody! I hope you're as blessed as I am.

Don't forget to check out my holiday tales: The Ice Dragon and The Winter Prince.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Carcosa Cover Art and Release Date

So this was a much faster turnaround than I expected, but I am happy to announce that Carcosa, (Order of the Four Sons, Book II) will be released on Dec. 4. If you loved Book I, Book II has more guns, more monsters and more magic.

I have two excerpts of Book II up here and here.

I didn't think it was possible for the cover art to be more beautiful than Book I. But somehow, our cover artist, Erin Kelso, managed to outdo herself:

Do you love Erin as much as I do? If so, you'll be ecstatic to know that our publisher, Kensington Gore, has poster versions of the cover art in the works, some of which will probably be prizes for some lucky readers. I know I can't wait for my walls to be adorned with all things O4S!

Look for Books III and IV to be released in 2016.

Once again, thank you to Graeme Parker at Kensington Gore for making this all possible. Thanks to Erin for bowling me over with the gorgeousness of your art.

And thanks to readers, old and new. Your support means the world to us.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Carcosa: An Undeleted Scene

I've spent the past two weeks basically living and breathing O4S-- well, more than usual. The publisher had sent us the edits for Carcosa (The Order of the Four Sons, Book II) to look over and gave us the opportunity to make some more edits of our own. We're working with the illustrator on the cover art and it's coming along beautifully. (Hint: it has Bathory!) 

Last night, Coyote and I finished doing our hand-written edits (because we're old-school that way). I just got them all plugged into the Word doc and sent them back to the publisher. 

Hopefully, Book II will release sometime in December. 

To celebrate, I thought I'd share with you all an undeleted scene-- Coyote and I had written a lot more of Clayton and Alyssa's backstory for Book II and ended up cutting most of it. Here is a section we decided to put back in, as it becomes important later for Books V-VI. 

Enjoy, and Happy Halloween, everybody! 

New excerpt from Carcosa

The man was dressed sensibly for hiking: sturdy boots, combat trousers and a light jacket. Black-haired, slim and lithe, he moved with great purpose, his strides long and quick. Overhead, the autumn sky was pale gray. A sudden, sharp wind gusted some pebbles across the trail in front of him and he paused, frowning.
After a moment, he resumed walking. All around him, the grass and trees were almost fiercely vibrant against the leaden sky. The dampness of the air enhanced the pine scent of the forest, and along the trail, clumps of yellow and purple wildflowers remained, clinging stubbornly on in the wake of an Indian summer.
But the man was not here to take in the scenery. He quickened his pace, now moving at a jog until he reached a valley. A stream had appeared to his left, snaking down out of the mountains, running parallel to the path. The stream grew wide in the lower country, its banks lush and dark. Up ahead, he spotted a cluster of water birches. Their leaves had just started to turn gold, dappling the surface of the water.
The girl was sitting in the loose circle the trees made on the riverbank, her back to the trail. Nearby, her horse was nibbling at a patch of short grass. As the man drew near, he saw that she held a gold leaf by its stem, twirling it. Without turning around, she asked, “You don’t ride?”
“Not today.” He settled himself down on the ground beside her, legs crossed, palms resting on his knees.
She did not turn her head, but he could sense that she was regarding him, all the same. She tossed the leaf away. “You’re wasting your time.”
“We’ll see.” Taking a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket, he shook one out and offered it to her. She made no move to take it. “Go on. I know you smoke.”
“Not my brand.”
He took one for himself and lit up. “You know why I’m here-- to offer you a place in Starry Wisdom.” With a small flourish, a business card appeared in his hand. He passed it to her.
She examined it. “Uh-huh.”
“An apprenticeship.”
“Not interested.”
“You don’t belong with them.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I know there’s never been anyone like you before.”
She said nothing.
When he spoke again, his voice was low and emphatic. “You’ve never been given a choice. Not once. You were born into the Order, Alyssa, but you don’t have to stay with them. You’re a rare, precious thing. It’s not for them to limit you. And that is exactly what they’re doing. That’s all they’ve ever done. How long can you go on like this? You’re so strong. A fighter. You don’t wait for opportunities, you make them. And in this, you’ve always been like us. You have to see that.”
“I don’t want to talk to you. Go away.”
“I don’t think you really mean that. If you did, you wouldn’t be here.”
For the first time, she glanced at him. Then quickly looked away again, blushing.
He grinned, perfectly aware of how handsome he was. Just as she would be aware, whether anyone had ever told her or not, of the traditional relationship in Starry Wisdom between master and pupil. For a moment, he fingered the filter of his cigarette, letting his gaze roam over her form. She shrank from him further, huddled up in her jacket, which concealed from him her body but not that face, that hair and skin. Still grinning, he brought the filter to his lips and inhaled luxuriantly. “Your Order talks a big game. Their traditions, their big ideals, Ma’at. But has that been your experience? Would you say they’ve treated you justly and compassionately? Of course not. They have no respect for you or your potential, except for how it benefits them.”
Drawing her knees up, she wrapped her arms around them. “That’s not true.”
He arched an eyebrow, amused. “Isn’t it?”
“Not all of them.”
“Oh, think you’ve found a good one? It can happen, I suppose. Still, they’ll never give you what I can give you.” He leaned forward. “Freedom.”
An edge came into her voice. “You’re asking me to turn traitor.”
“No, I’m asking you to be true to yourself. I’ve never been inside the Oracles’ sanitarium, but I’ve read reports on the conditions of the place. It’s disgusting. We’ve never treated Oracles that way. We’ve always recognized the value of their gifts. If you stay with the Order, all they will do is use you, just as they’ve always used you. You will live and die as their servant.”
“But that’s not how it would be in Starry Wisdom.”
“With us, you would never be a servant. You would gain power for yourself, to use however you choose.”
Hugging herself even tighter, she rested her chin on her knees. “What if I say no?”
He shrugged. “If you say no, then you say no.”
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”
“You’re not gonna break out the chloroform and the tranquilizer darts? Bag me, tag me, drag me off?”
“No. Though I’m sure some of my colleagues are planning just such a stunt.”
“But you’re, like, above it?”
“Would it benefit me anything? I don’t think so. And I have every faith in your ability to avoid such an eventuality because I have faith in you. Can you honestly say the same about anyone here—your classmates? Your teachers? Your parents?”
“I have a new family.”
“Are you referring to the director? Or that professor of yours-- what’s his name? The Slav?”
Her face darkened.
The man pretended to search his memory. “Oh, yes. Arcady Petrovic. He’s what, thirty? Having an affair with a fifteen-year-old student.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What’s not to know? Here you are, a beautiful, vulnerable young girl. And here he is, an older man, an authority figure—”
“It’s not like that!”
After a polite pause, the man said kindly, “Of course it isn’t. Perhaps we should discuss your foster father instead.”
“I see what you’re doing. It’s not working.”
“What am I doing?”
“Trying to discredit them. But you can’t. You don’t know them like I do.”
“I’m just making observations. If I had a way of truly discrediting them, trust me, now would be the time.”
“But you can’t.”
“I’m sure they both mean well. One man who gets to enjoy seeing you in his bed. And then the director, who, besides filling a void in his personal life, has found himself one hell of a resource. I’m sure you’re aware that since he took you out of the Dormitory, his security detail has increased. And around the Academy-- arranging this conversation was certainly a challenge. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure his motivations were purely altruistic. But once you were out… well, Director Grabowski is an intelligent man and a tactician. He knows what he’s got. And so do I.”
“No.” She shook her head vehemently. “That’s not true. It isn’t.”
“I think we both know that it is.”
“Clayton adopted me.”
“Yes, he did. And now you feel indebted to him. So when he asks you to do something, as he eventually will, you won’t hesitate. Oh, I know what you’re going to say. I’m sure he would never deliberately put you in harm’s way. But there will always be the greater good. That is a priority that will always take precedence for him—even over you.”
“And I’m sure your intentions are nothing but pure.”
“No, my intentions are quite selfish. I just happen to be honest about it.”
“You’re saying Clayton isn’t honest?”
“I think there are points where Clayton isn’t honest with himself—”
“Director Grabowski, please,” she corrected. “I can call him Clayton. Not you.”
That caught the man off-guard. For a moment, he gaped at her. Then he threw back his head and laughed. “See? You sound like one of us.”
“I already told you, I’m not interested.”
“Fair enough. And when you’ve finish training here, what then?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“I just hope the choice remains yours.”
She did not reply.
“They’ll want you as an assassin, of course. They won’t call it that, it’ll be some kind of field work. But make no mistake. You’ll be encouraged to take classes to help you be as versatile in as many environments as possible, stealth, infiltration, tactics, combat magic...” He paused, as though contemplating. Then: “What about the Terminus?”
She stiffened. “What about it?”
“The Order has never found a way to evade it.”
For the first time, she turned to him. “And Starry Wisdom has?”
“The Order wouldn’t think it was important. We would. And we have resources the Order does not.”
She closed her eyes. “So you haven’t found a way either.”
“There’s never been a case like yours before. A fully cognizant Oracle—”
“Blah, blah, blah,” she rested her chin on her knees again. “I’ve heard it all before.”
“No, you haven’t. Because I’m telling you, such a thing is possible. You’re an Oracle and a mage. You could undergo the rite.”
She sneered. “Who wants to live forever? Not me.”
“Is that how you really feel, or is that resignation I’m hearing?”
“Death is inevitable. You have a death in your future. Would you like to hear it? The date? The means?”
He waved his hand, still holding the cigarette. “Irrelevant. There’s only one thing that is truly uncertain in the world and that’s the future. It’s one thing to say you don’t fear death now, at age fifteen. It’s another to hear that tick-tock approaching. Forever is a very long time.”
“I have your card.”
“You do.” He stood to go, then paused. Lightly, he touched her shoulder. “In all the world’s history, perhaps in any world’s history, there has never been anyone like you, Alyssa Calderon. And rest assured, all of us understand your value as a resource, whatever we may say. But ultimately, the Order views you in terms of how you benefit them and their view of the world. I view you in terms of how you could benefit yourself. Just bear that in mind. In the end, it does make a difference.”
She stared out into the distance, his card still held loosely in her fingers. She did not turn to watch him leave, but his voice floated back to her, easy and unconcerned.
“Don’t worry. Everyone says no at first.”

* * *

Afterwards, the only person she told about the man’s offer was Arcady. Arcady held her while she talked. He lent her his lighter so she could burn the business card.
Not that it mattered. Just knowing the man’s name, Kang Han, was sufficient. If she wanted to reach him, she could. And he would come.
All the same, she watched the flames eat through the expensive stock, the embossed ink.
She was just starting to feel calm again when Arcady said she should tell Clayton.
They argued. It took a lot to convince Arcady not to pick up the phone and call the Director’s office right then and there. But if Clayton found out-- at best, she’d be pulled out of the Academy. At worst, Clayton might take it as a shot fired. She knew he was perfectly capable of starting a war.
A war. Over her.
She wasn’t about to let that happen.
Reluctantly, Arcady acquiesced.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Short Story: La Tutayegua

I'm back from vacation. Turns out, the haunted Rose Hall is a total fabrication, but that's not to say I didn't come away from Montego Bay uninspired. I'm hoping to have a new short story for you soon for the Halloween season. In the meantime, I realized that I had never posted "La Tutayegua" in its entirety on this blog before.

Here it is. You can also download a copy on Smashwords, here.

Enjoy, and may the Great Pumpkin bring you lots of goodies!

La Tuteyegua
for Eric

My best friend has always been my cousin, Elena. But we have different grandfathers, so that makes us only half-cousins. Elena and I are the oldest. Elena’s two years older than me. She’s only got her little brother, Marcos. I got two little brothers, Alex and Christian, and then I got my baby sister, Veronica. Then there are two more sets of cousins, making fourteen kids in all in the family.

I don’t really think of us as having a family tree, but more like those dark purple morning glory vines that grow on the back fence, tangled, their trumpet flowers choking out even the chain link, with Grandma Tata having been married five times. That’s how come we kids all look so different, even more different than you’d think cousins would be. My grandpa was Irish—the only white man Grandma Tata ever got married to, and out of all us kids, somehow I ended up the blackest. Chongo, Grandma Tata calls me. Monkey. Like a Puerto Rican.

Now Elena is real pretty. She’s Grandma Tata’s favorite. Elena’s grandfather was from Mexico City and handsome like a movie star. He had French and Spanish blood, and was Grandma Tata’s second husband. She keeps a framed picture of him on the wall. He was very white, with brown hair. The way she sighs when she looks at that picture, I don’t know why they got divorced. Elena looks just like him, with her delicate bones, soft chestnut hair, and skin so white she seems to glow.

Nobody had to tell Elena and me—we always knew we had a strange family. And not just because of Grandma Tata either.

We all live on the West Side, at the top of a big hill. Grandma Tata says this is because when she was born here, Great-Great Grandma Jovita buried the afterbirth in the garden, so our blood is bound to the soil. Grandma Tata lives in the tiniest house, a little shotgun shack. Next door to her, is Great-Grandma Nimfa. We live across the street, and Elena and her mom live on the corner. My two uncles live in the neighborhood too, one on Jarboe Street, and the other on Mercier.

See, ours was one of the first Mexican families to come to the West Side, back in 1918. Great-Great Grandma Jovita came here with her sister, Rosaura. They were the ones that raised Grandma Tata. They were witches and read fortunes for money. Then, once they got the house built – the house that Great-Grandma Nimfa lives in now – they planted a big garden. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, the West Side was more like farmland, with people growing corn, and keeping chickens and cows and even pigs. A lot of people worked down in the Bottoms, in the stockyards, where they could buy their animals. My mom says the whistles in the Bottoms still blew until just a few years ago signaling the beginning and the end of the workday for the workers, and the cement staircases that were built into the sides of the hill so people could walk down to the yards and the meat-packing plants are still there, though now they’re covered in spray paint and chalk graffiti: Aztec art, skulls, the West Side Kings.

After they’d been here a few years, Jovita and Rosaura grew an arbor of grapes to make homemade wine. They also brewed beer and bathtub gin. The hidden places are still there in Grandma Nimfa’s house, in the cupboards and closets, where they used to hide the bottles.

My parents’ house is like that, too, only our family didn’t live there back then. It used to be a store. You can tell by how the roof isn’t like the roof on a normal house—it’s just squared off and tarred on top instead of shingled. And instead of just secret compartments, it has secret rooms—three of them. There’s one in the closet in my brothers’ room, one in the closet in the hallway, and then there’s one big room hidden in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom—there’s woodwork along the wall, so if you know where to slip your fingers, the whole wall just slides back on a track, like a patio door.

We don’t keep anything in those rooms now. Elena and I looked in the room behind the hall closet once. We didn’t go inside. I don’t know why, but those hidden rooms always seemed scary. It was just a bare linoleum floor, and an old plaster light fixture in the ceiling, and the air was stale.

The last time my dad got arrested, he hid in one of those rooms.

It was two summers ago, and very hot. The police came early—they liked to come early because they knew my dad would still be sleeping off the bender from the night before. They knew the patterns of Esteban Morales as well as if they lived in the house with us: for a few weeks or even a month after my dad would get out of prison, he’d be fine. He’d find a job and work on the house, all the time yelling about how he’d changed and things were going to be different now because he’d gotten clean in prison.

And he’d be an early riser.

As soon as he stopped being an early riser, that’s when you knew. And the police knew it too. They’d watch our house when he was home, just waiting for him to screw up.

So the cops banged on the door early that morning. I crept down the hallway to listen to them talking to my mom through the screen door.

“—didn’t come home last night,” I heard her say.

“We saw him come home last night, Mrs. Morales,” one of them said.

The front door opened and shut. They were in the house.

Then I heard a soft noise that made me jump. The closet door was open a bit and I saw my dad. He’d moved the panel back just enough so I could see a bit of his face, and he put his finger to his lips. He pointed at the hamper. I nodded, and he moved back and replaced the panel, so you couldn’t even tell he was there. I dumped the hamper out on the floor of the closet. Then I went downstairs.

There were two cops in the living room. My mother stood with Veronica on her hip and wouldn’t look at them. “All I know is, I ain’t seen him.”

“Why do you cover up for him?” the officer asked. He walked around, looking at the empty shelf, the worn-out couch. “I mean, where’s your TV, huh? I bet he already hocked it for coke, didn’t he? What else has he stolen from you and your kids?”

The other cop glanced down at me. For a heart-stopping moment, our eyes met and I thought maybe they were going ask me questions, too. But they didn’t.

Instead, they let my mom go upstairs and wake up Alex and Christian, and the five of us waited downstairs while the police searched the house, looking for my father. But they didn’t find him—just a pile of dirty towels.

As soon as they left, I ran out the door, in my bare feet and pajamas, to Elena’s house.

Elena’s mom, Aunt Tere, was getting ready for work. She found me a change of clothes and a pair of chanclas and sent Elena and me to take Marcos down to Grandma Nimfa’s. Grandma Nimfa took care of Marcos while Aunt Tere was at work. She took care of Elena and me too, but we mostly played outside.

When we came in, she was cooking breakfast. The usual: eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, chili and tortillas. Enough for her, Marcos, Aunt Tere, Grandma Tata, my mom, my brothers, and anybody else who might wander in. The screen door at Grandma Nimfa’s banged open and shut all day long, with Grandma hollering at everybody to keep the goddamn gate closed.

After we ate, Elena and I went riding our bikes. We were allowed to go around the block, but we weren’t supposed to go further than that—so of course, we went all over, explored everything. We went down to Southwest Boulevard, up Kansas Avenue to Argentine. We were friends with the Peregrino kids who lived down in the West Bluff projects off 23rd who would usually come ride with us a while, maybe play some kickball over at Observation Park. We’d go up 17th. The roads were built narrow around them old neighborhoods because streetcars used to come through there. The houses leaned in close to one another. In some places, there were just foundations where fires had taken out whole rows, leaving nothing but the basement and crumbling stone stairs leading up to nowhere, grown over with weeds and tall grass. The old Switzer school stood empty along West Pennway, its windows boarded up. My dad went there when he was a kid, but not Elena’s mom—Elena’s mom got a scholarship to a girl’s Catholic school over in Brookside.

Sometimes, we’d take our bikes up Beardsley Road. We loved to go up to Crown Center or to the River Market. At the Market, there was an old fruit vendor who was friends with our Great-Grandpa Jose who would give us free pears and fistfuls of cherries we carried bunched in our shirts, shedding stems and pits as we ate them, getting our hands all sticky. But our favorite place to explore was the West Bottoms-- the trains and the railroad tracks, the old buildings, the riverside.

That day, Elena and I coasted our bikes down the hill on Holly Street to Beardsley, always shady even on the sunniest days, the steep limestone bluff rising along one side, spotted with trees and brush until, dozens of feet above our heads, the highway straddled the barrio, I-70 and I-35 branching out into Kansas. But we didn’t even hear the buzz of the traffic—we’d lived with the noise in our ears our whole lives, like the rap and Mexican music blaring from drug dealers’ boomboxes.

It was starting to get late. The sun was setting behind the smokestacks, and the grind of the cicadas drowned out even the cars rushing by on the overpass. The place where the Missouri and Kansas Rivers met, usually brown, reflected the sunset colors, firework colors, candy colors, red, pink, orange, yellow. As usual, Elena rode a little bit ahead of me, her brown ponytail bouncing against her shoulder blades. Being two years older, she was always taller and sturdier. I’d always be skinny. Even when Dad wasn’t around, my mom wasn’t much of a cook. If we got fed, it was because of Grandma Nimfa and Aunt Tere.

I remember Elena was wearing a white Mexican blouse, very bright in the dim light. I remember it had red and purple embroidery around the collar. The other girls in the neighborhood made fun of her when she wore things like that, made fun of her for being so white. But they were just jealous because she was pretty and spoke better Spanish than anybody.

Elena turned off Beardsley to go into the Bottoms.

It was under the 12th Street Bridge that we saw her.

We’d heard the stories all our lives. Not just from other kids, either. Grownups swore up and down that they’d seen her—La Tutayegua, the old folks whispered. The Horse Lady.

Some said she was a girl who loved horses. One day, while she was out riding, she and her horse were swept away in a flash flood. Others said she worked with her family in the stockyards, rounding up horses for auction, and got trampled to death. Either way, now she haunts the riverbend and the Bottoms with the body of a young girl and the head of a mare. People even say they’d seen her on the steep staircases that zigzag crazily up and down the hillside.

We’d gotten off our bikes to walk them along under the bridge and there she was-- in the shadows, back along the side of the bluff, staring at us.

Her head was black, blacker than the shadows around her, blacker than anything you can imagine, with a long, slender muzzle and a black mane, her eyes bright red. Even though it was summer, the air around her seemed cold, so cold I expected us to see steam coming out of her nostrils, but she was as still as if she’d been painted there. Her body was a woman’s body—or was it more like a girl’s? She was only about as tall as Elena, thin, wearing a long, old-fashioned blue dress, so faded it was almost gray. From underneath it, a pair of heavy hooves peeked out.

When we saw her, we froze, too scared to move.

I don’t know how long we stood there until at last La Tutayegua lowered her head and took a step back. Her hooves made no sound against the soft earth as she faded against the wall, the little red flowers on her dress we hadn’t noticed before standing out against the damp concrete embankment. The last thing we saw was her red eyes hanging in the air before they, too, faded out.

Then we turned and ran, not even thinking for several hundred yards that we ought to get on our bikes. But when we did, we pedaled harder than we ever had before in our lives.

By the time we got back to our street, we discovered goose bumps had broken out all over our skin, and we were shaking all over, even though we were soaked with sweat from the hard ride. The streetlights were coming on.

We skidded to a halt in front of Grandma Tata’s house, and sat balanced on our bikes, panting.

What stopped us was the sight of my dad running up the sidewalk towards us, wild-eyed. A pair of police officers was chasing him. They’d hidden their car around the corner and waited for him to come out of the house.

One of the cops tackled him to the ground. My dad howled as the cop put his knee in his back to handcuff him. He tried to buck him off. “Get your motherfuckin’ knee out of my motherfuckin’ back, you motherfucker!”

When he was sure my dad couldn’t move, the cop sat back, swiping his arm across his brow. Raising his eyes to mine, I saw that it was the same cop who’d come to the house that morning.

So they took my dad away again. It was always someplace far away, where we couldn’t go visit—we never had a car, and even if we did, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the gas to Jefferson City, Springfield, even Leavenworth.

But it didn’t matter. For a while, things were all right. My mom was always a good worker. She saved some money, got us a new TV. Living with Esteban Morales was like living in the path of a storm. You knew that sooner or later everything was going to get blown to bits. But then he’d be gone and we’d forget for a while. We’d forget what it was like for him to wake us up in the middle of the night and send us out to go door to door, begging the neighbors for money and cigarettes, even in the winter. We would forget what it was like to have him distract store clerks so we could shoplift stuff for him. We would forget what it would be like to have the phone shut off, the lights, water and gas shut off, because he took everything. My brothers and me, we would forget what it was like to see him go crazy and start beating on our mom when she had nothing left to give him, the screams and the tears and the bruises. The holes in the walls, the broken screen door.

Or maybe it wasn’t that we’d forget so much as that we wouldn’t say anything, because even when he wasn’t home, we’d hide our stuff, find other places to stay. Alex found the key to the circuit box, which was on the wall behind the refrigerator in the kitchen. That’s where he hid his money—birthday money, Christmas money. By the time he was seven, he was going around the neighborhood with a weed whacker, doing yard work, raking lawns, bagging leaves.

And worst of all, we’d shrink from police cars, because we knew that the cops were eyeing us because we were Esteban Morales’ sons.

I would go stay at Elena’s house whenever I could. Aunt Tere would let me stay, sometimes for days. They’d make me up a place on the floor next to Elena’s bed. I even had my own toothbrush and changes of clothes there.

But I would always go back home. Because I had my mother, and my brothers and my sister.

This past fall, Elena turned eleven. In December, she got her period. Nobody told me. I just knew. I knew by the way she got up quietly in the middle of watching cartoons after school and went to the bathroom. When she came back, her face was different. When I went into the bathroom after her, I saw the pink wrapper in the trashcan.

Over the next few days, she was very quiet. I saw her hugging herself when she thought I wasn’t looking.

A few days later, Grandma Tata decided it was time to give her Jovita’s things.

She took Elena and me into the back room at Grandma Nimfa’s house. The room had been a bedroom once—and there was still a bed with a faded green polyester bedspread, mostly buried now with junk, the nightstands with old gold lamps. Grandma Tata had to stand on a chair to reach the shelf in the closet, and took down an old wooden box. There was all kinds of strange stuff inside: a bull’s horn, a railroad spike, stones, shells, charms, bowls, and something that looked to me like a tiny molcajete, except smooth instead of grainy. There were also two decks of cards tied with ribbons, one large and one small.

None of it was for me, of course. I was too young, and a boy. But later that evening, Elena let me look through the box with her as we sat in her room. There was a pack of Hostess cupcakes between us.

“What are these?” I asked, picking up the smaller deck of cards. They all had brightly colored pictures on them, and words in Spanish. I could read most of them, but not all.

“Lotería cards,” she said, licking chocolate icing off her fingers. “It’s a game.”

“Can you teach me how to play?”

“Well, there’s no board. And these cards are really old, see?” she held one up carefully. The edges were soft, creased with age.

“Can they tell my fortune like the other cards?”

“Yeah, I suppose,” she agreed and laid one down with a bright red figure on it. “The little devil,” she teased. “That’s you, all right.”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Shut up.”

“All right, all right,” she giggled. Putting the card back in the deck, she re-shuffled it. Then she began to lay them out for real. “The ladle,” she said. “The house that has the least. The arrows-- danger from above. The pear—he that waits, despairs. And the heron—the other side of the river, my sandy river bank, where sits my heron.”


“That’s what it says. See? ‘Al otro lado del río—’”

“Yeah, but what does that mean?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.” Flipping over another card, she read, “The hand. La mano del criminal.” For a minute, neither of us said anything.

“Is that it?”

“No,” she whispered, and drew the last card.

La calvera. The skull.

Swiftly, Elena swept the cards away. “It doesn’t mean anything, Daniel. They’re not real fortune cards anyway.” She retied the ribbon around the deck and handed them to me. “Here. You take them.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want ‘em.”

“I think you should have them. Something of Jovita’s.”

“Nah.” I held up my hands, but still she held them out.

“We share everything,” she said. “Don’t we?”

So I took them. I looked at them many times—so many times I probably have all the cards memorized now, with all their little riddles. La sirena. La sandía. El camarón.

But I couldn’t help but feel sad. I could already feel her starting to slip away. I was the only one who knew her favorite thing was a little piece of rose quartz as round and perfect as a marble that she carried around in her pocket. She was the only one who knew I had once stolen a library book, Animalia, because I loved the pictures. We used to sit together and look at it, trying to spot everything that started with D, everything that started with E. But when Grandma Tata gave her the box of magic things, she added her piece of rose quartz in with the other stones. And as the weeks went by, she had less and less time for me. She spent more time with Grandma Tata, or with Grandma Nimfa, learning to cook and garden and mix up herbs. And of course, she had her homework. Elena was always a good student—much better than me.

And then one day, Aunt Tere decided to take Elena to work with her. Aunt Tere was a secretary during the day, but made extra money at night cleaning offices. The man who ran the cleaning crews agreed to let her bring Elena along and would pay her under the table.

            That March, I turned nine. And we found out my dad was coming home.  

After two years, he would just be there, like nothing had happened. His hair freshly combed, his shirt pressed, his cowboy boots spit-shined. This time, he had a new tattoo on his left arm: La Anima Sola, beautiful even in her chains, brown-haired, bare-armed and white, surrounded by fire.

Weeks went by and he stayed clean. He got a job driving a forklift at a warehouse over on the Kansas side somewhere. “Increible,” Grandma Tata says. “As soon as he hits the streets, that man lands a good job, a car, and anything else he puts his mind to. He’s got the devil’s own luck.”

And all the while, the police cruised the neighborhood, watching.

I wasn’t surprised when I came home one afternoon and found him passed out on the couch in his underwear.

By summer, he’d sold the TV, our bikes, even Alex’s weed whacker. When my mom got her tax refund, he wanted her to sign the check over to him. She said no. So he beat her so bad, I thought he was going to kill her.

So the night that he woke me up and told me I was going to work with him, I said okay.

We walked over to a house on Jefferson where nobody was home. We went around the side of the house. He boosted me up so I could climb in through the window. I was so skinny, it was easy—easy for him to lift me, easy for me to shimmy through.

When I got inside, of course, it was dark. The house was nice and cool, air conditioned. I felt my way around until my eyes adjusted, then I found the back door so I could let him in.

We didn’t turn on any lights. While he went into the bedroom, I went to the kitchen. I found a package of Chips Ahoy cookies in the cabinet. Sitting on the countertop, I swung my legs and ate my way through most of the pack while my dad went through their drawers and closets. I don’t know how long we were there-- maybe half an hour, maybe a little longer, when a flash of light illuminated the living room.

Headlights. The people who lived there were home.

“Danny!” my father bellowed. “Danny, get out!”

I jumped up and started to run towards the back door, but the driveway curved around the side of the house—they’d see us, for sure. So I turned back towards the window where we’d come in. At least, I thought it was the window where we’d come in.

I ran headlong into the glass, smashing it. It cut me all up. But the worst of it was when the broken pane above fell down on me.


And then—what can I tell you about what came next? I can scarcely remember. I must’ve passed out between the house on Jefferson and here.

All I know now is, I’m lying here in the dark, on a dusty floor. The air is very stuffy and stale.

On the other side of the wall, I can hear my parents fighting. My father doesn’t want to take me to the hospital, even though I’m all cut open. My mother is screaming at him. The police could be here any minute and what are they going to tell them? I hear the rustling of clothes—my father changing his shirt to hide the blood.

My hands are very wet and sticky and I’m afraid to move them. I think I’m holding my guts in—a thought so scary my body goes stiff when I think it, and it hurts so much that I can’t even cry, and all I can do is draw in these shallow little breaths, and it’s like the world gets a little darker every time my heart beats.

I shut my eyes tight and try not to think about it, try not to think about my parents fighting, about the police who are coming. I try not to think of Alex and Christian and Veronica, who must be in their beds, listening to them fight. Wondering where I am.

I try to think of good things. Grandma Nimfa’s garden and tortillas. Midnight Mass. Riding my bike. Setting off M-80s in the park. Pictures in a book. Elena.

As I lay there in the dark, I hear the policemen knock on the door downstairs, and I realize suddenly that I am no longer hot. It’s gotten very cold.

I open my eyes. Standing next to me is La Tutayegua, but this time, her dress—it looks brand new! The cloth is velvety and dark, with a lacy white collar, the little flowers fresh and red as strawberries. And her head isn’t black, but chestnut, the mane rich and glossy. She is looking down at me with soft brown eyes, no taller than Elena.

Suddenly, I don’t hurt anymore, not at all, and I stand up. I realize we are the same height—when were Elena and I ever the same height?

Behind her, the wall opens up and I see a beautiful clear river. On the opposite shore is a sandy bank, and a bird swoops low overhead that I know must be a heron. I know good things are waiting for me there. I have but to take her hand and step through the wall.

And I know that the police won’t find this hidden room—they didn’t in Great-Great Grandma Jovita’s time. They won’t in my father’s time.

But when my parents slide back the panel, they won’t find me there either.

All they will find is a little bit of blood, and in the middle of the floor, three lotería cards: Death, the Lady, and the Heart.

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