Cornerstones Literary Consultancy Prize 2020
THE GLASS GIRL by Mónica Parle
Chihuahua, North Mexico
They found the landowner’s body on top of a butte.
Suré, a hand on the neighboring Hacienda Cortés, turned up the corpse while searching for a prized heifer. She’d bolted on his watch. One minute the heifer had been in the paddock, next she was gone. Quick as silver.
He’d gone out at dusk, the oat pail thudding at his thigh. For weeks, she’d backed away anytime he approached the corral. Her tail went up over her flank and twitched like a snake’s rattle. She’d lie down, stand up again, up and down, up and down, for hours. The blacks of her eyes rolled round in the whites, her mouth festered with froth.
But not tonight. She lowed and nosed her muzzle through the slats. Her dark eyes soft and calm as he stroked her. He coaxed her back from the gate, and it creaked as he leant his weight to swing it wide.
Then dust devils spun out across the vast flats. Dozens of them, like tiny tornados, cut crooked lines on the plains. He stopped, watching them zig and zag, by turns fleeing each other or clustering close. Their fickleness unsettled him. A shame all that fury couldn’t be put to some use. If only they could pierce the clouds and pluck water for the soil. The last thing this land needed was more dust and no rain.
But the clouds hustled away like buffalo across the darkening sky. They herded out over the Sierras, where his wife’s kin lived in huts carved in cliffs. He thought of his son, then. How the boy’s foot folded sideways, his leg twisted and twig thin, just a knot of a knee. He wouldn’t walk without a crutch, never mind run.
“Good for nothing,” Suré’s mother-in-law had said. “Like his father.”
Every day since, her words were a red handprint on Suré’s face. His woman said her mother was wrong, but she couldn’t look him in the eye after that. And it must be Suré’s fault, his bad blood made flesh. Tears filled Suré’s eyes, and he closed them tight against the stinging sand. Helplessness swelled, making it hard to breathe. They were right, he knew in his gut. His only worth was what he brought back from the harvest: a couple limp sacks of dried beans and corn and the handful of centavos left after his debts to the patrón were paid. There was nothing to do now but work. Best get on with the task at hand.
But by then it was too late: the heifer was gone. He spun round. There was no sign of her in the fields. Where could she have got to so quickly? He wheeled round again, kicking over the pail. Precious oats shot across the cracked earth. There’d be no prints. Without rain, the ground was bone.
He staggered up the gravel path toward the big house, but no, that’d be a mistake. The patrón would have Suré’s head for this, even if the heifer hadn’t been right for some time. There’d been talk of putting her down last year, after she’d killed her newborn calf, but the patrón wouldn’t hear of it. Everyone knew livestock was more precious to him than near anything—only the land itself meant more, and the Rebels had been thieving from his stock all year. His temper ran hotter than a cattle brand, ever since the first Rebel raids in June. Men had been fired just for looking twice at him, and he’d been known to wallop workers with his spurs with no warning. He’d spare no switch now.
The curse swam into Suré’s thoughts: “Good for nothing.” He shook his head to knock it out. Pull yourself together. Find her, and put it right.
Maybe she’d gone back to the corral. She must be hungry, and the oats were laid out like a platter.
“Please, please, please,” he whispered as he ran back.
It was empty, apart from a black-throated sparrow scratching at the feed. He flew at the thing, waving his arms like a fiend. He’d kill it if he could catch it. Something had to pay for the heifer’s escape. But as soon as he stopped, the devil came back. It mocked him, hopping from foot to foot and eying him with its black eyes. Suré was useless as a scarecrow, hung out to tatter in a field.
The light was going. The cordillera that hemmed the hacienda was outlined in orange. Everything on this side was in shadow, like the world outside was on fire. He sank to the earth and covered his sweaty face with his hands. He could confess. Give up, and they’d have mercy. But there was that man a year back, who’d been caught squatting on the patrón’s land. They’d dragged him behind a horse until he was dead.
The other cattle were in the side field. She could have crossed the rocky creek bed that divided them, even lumbering slow as she was. He skirted the water tank and came across a thicket of Rarámuri women washing the patrón’s dinner dishes in troughs. Up to their elbows in suds, the talavera plates thunked as they stacked them up. He supposed they might have seen the heifer, but better to pretend nothing was wrong than raise an alarm.
Coming up over the creek bed, he could just make out the herd’s black shadows on the far side. The cooling air smelt of dust and burning mesquite from the chimenea on the big house’s veranda. He plodded toward the inky blots.
The corrientes took no notice of him, their heads dipped to the sparse grass, but he steered well clear of them, particularly the long curved horns of the bull. They eyed him warily, judging his grit, and he moved back. Even after all these years working the harvest here, he didn’t trust those hulking beasts. They were liable to get spooked on a night like this, with the wind howling in fits and starts, and dust swirling thick as a bedsheet.
He tripped along the rocky slope. Hard to imagine a pregnant heifer could pick her way up there, so he wouldn’t climb. There was no moon or stars, and he stumbled again and again on the loose stones. Worse, Don Carbajal’s land was hatched with dry creeks and steep ravines. Dying at the bottom would do no good for him or the heifer. He should go back to the bunkhouse to wait for enough light to set off again.
It was well past midnight by the time he got back. The electric lights in the big house had been put out, and the chimenea lisped smoke. There were no lanterns in the workers’ thatched huts. No one knew the heifer was missing yet, or every worker would be out hunting for her. Small mercies. He crossed himself, like the black-robed priests who came to his village when he was a boy. Not having their words, he prayed their gestures held sway.
In the bunkhouse, thirty other native men slept on the dirt floor. Sleep would not come tonight, so he sat in the opening that stood in for a door. Wind slipped through the adobe walls, and the cold clawed at him. He pulled his worn poncho tighter. Behind him, the men moaned, restless in their sleep. He tried to shut it out, but he couldn’t. Their eery chorus made him think of the men fighting and bleeding out in mountain passes after all over Mexico. Death would come to all of them soon. Him before most, if he didn’t find that heifer. He stared blindly out into the night, praying dawn would deliver him.
He could run.
Night like this, he wouldn’t get far, but if he set off first thing in the morning, he could make it to the foothills of the Sierras by sundown. The heifer and her calf would be left to their fates, and the other Rarámuri workers theirs. But at least he’d be safe. He cried then, yearning for the cramped quarters carved in the rock, his woman’s warm flesh, and sleep without bad dreams.
But it would be impossible: even if he could make it off the hacienda without being seen by the patrón, there were Federal soldiers all across the plains and Pancho Villa’s Rebels in the Sierras above. Word was that Villa and his Division were winning, but both sides were losing men. They’d force him to join up with a rifle pointed at his chest. Then he’d just die in some other hacendado’s field.
And if he did get as far as the village, his woman was sure to slam her door if he arrived with nothing to show for himself.
“Good for nothing,” he whispered. He’d promised he would not fail her this time. Not again. His only hope was in hunting down that heifer.
Light whispered at the horizon. Suré’s stomach ached, maybe from fear or hunger, he didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter. Soon, everyone would know the heifer was gone. He had to go now.
Still no sign of her in the field behind the bunkhouse, or in the back pastures running up to the mountain range. No way she could have skirted the narrow paths between the bunkhouse, the huts, and the big house without being seen, but he searched the herds there all the same. His eyes ached for that spotted, caramel coat, short horns, and that black like a blindfold over her eyes. There was the road to the patrón’s mine, but they’d put a cattle grid at that gate, so the heifer couldn’t have gone that way.
He squinted up at the horizon. Sun would be up soon. Already pans and plates were rattling in the huts. Workers were waking, breaking their fasts. Someone else would check the corral. And that’d be the death of him.
Then his eyes lit on the orchard’s gate. The lock lay broken in the dirt, and the gate listed, ajar. No one had any business in there, not since the droughts a few years back. The clogged acequias now only dribbled water this far from the tank, and the patrón had left for dead everything in these plots. Insects scratched just off the path in the tangled brush. There was another gate at the end, and he followed it into fallow corn fields. Here and there, a few lone sun-burnt stalks twitched, and the hissing of wasted husks harried him like a curse.
You will not find her, the fields rasped.
In the last field by the mine road, dead bean pods crackled. They split apart in the wind, scattering like ash ahead of him.
His insides twisted like a hangman’s knot. That heifer was not on this land. He tracked back the way he’d come, through the orchards and out across the grazing fields. Up ahead was a split-rail fence made of kinked mesquite. It marked the edge of the Hacienda Cortes. It gave out toward the ragged faces of the Sierras, back toward home. He stood there longer than he should, searching the crags at the top of the cordillera, trying to pick out the faraway cliff where his woman and his son lived.
Would they be awake yet? Would they mourn him when he was gone?
“Good for nothing.”
All day he’d passed open gate after open gate, but he hadn’t taken his chances to run. Now he’d waited too long. They’d be looking for him. He will never make it off this land.
He shook the fence with all his might. The jolt knocked a wooden stake free, and it clunked to the dirt. He went to check it out. Something had smashed through a panel in the fence.
And oh god. Oh god.
His stomach leapt to his throat. A single hoof print. Just one, in the silt beyond the gap. It was enough to give him hope.
He shielded his eyes from the sun and scanned the neighbor’s fields. A hundred yards away, a flat-topped mesa rose up against the brightening sky. Buzzards circled the top, diving down and soaring back up. Stalking their prey.
The mesa’s sides were steep and jagged, a plateau striped with a hundred different layers of rock. The trail up twisted, doubling back on itself and wending round. It would take hours to walk up, but he could maybe climb it. He had to get there before the patrón. His fingers clung to the rocky outcrops, and his huaraches slipped with a spray of stones. They hailed like gunfire to the ground. Don’t look down. Look up. But dark sickle-like bodies wheeled in tighter and tighter loops overhead.
Please let her be alive. God, please tell me they’re just waiting for her to die.
He threw hand over hand, foot over foot, inch by inch up the rock face. A grip came loose below his left hand. He clung with the right, those fingers slipping and aching, and had to swing himself, once, twice, three times before he caught a hand hold. More rocks clattered down. Finally, the top was in sight, and he lurched toward it. His fingers dug into the edge, and he hoisted himself up onto his belly.
The buzzards scattered. But there was no sign at all of that heifer. Nothing but the smell of death. And a black thing spiking up from the earth. Some kind of stubby, rotting stalk of flesh. He reeled away, covering his mouth with his bandana. Whatever the foul thing was, he couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear one more damn thing. He should be a thousand miles from here. Damn him for not leaving at first light, and to hell with everything else.
Maybe he could still make it. He whirled to look back at the Hacienda Cortés. It was crawling with workers now, fanning out from the paddock and searching every damn field. A dark figure was at the broken fence, peering up at the mesa. With the sun behind him like this, Suré stuck out like a black obelisk against the pale sky. The figure turned back, shouting. He watched, heart like a stone in his throat, as three horsemen set off this way. A snake of sand writhed behind them.
A buzzard plunged down, settling on the stalk, tearing with its beak. It made a sickening, sinewy sound, and panic reared up in Suré’s guts. It was definitely flesh, and then it was unmistakable: a human arm half-buried in the sand. Its hand was a rotting purple plum.
Impulse kicked in. Run. He lurched to the edge of the mesa and dove over the side. He slammed into the rock face, pitched head over heels, and then landed in a heap on the desert floor. Every inch of his skin was flayed from the fall, searing like someone had lit a match to him.
But he staggered to his feet and tore off across open ground, fists coiled, arms pumping, legs reeling. Every inch of him on fire, but he would not stop. For now, Suré could never stop.
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