To celebrate its fast-approaching release, we have quite a substantial excerpt from Leopoldo Gout‘s gripping new tale of possession: Piñata! Due to be published by Tor Nightfire in North America and in the UK, on March 14th, it has been described as “A Head Full of Ghosts meets Mexican Gothic.” Check out the full synopsis:
They were worshiped by our ancestors.
Now they are forgotten.
Soon, they’ll make us remember.
It was supposed to be the perfect summer.
Carmen Sanchez is back in Mexico, supervising the renovation of an ancient abbey. Her daughters Izel and Luna, too young to be left alone in New York, join her in what Carmen hopes is a chance for them to connect with their roots.
Then, an accident at the worksite unearths a stash of rare, centuries-old artifacts. The disaster costs Carmen her job, cutting the family trip short.
But something malevolent and unexplainable follows them home to New York, stalking the Sanchez family and heralding a coming catastrophe. And it may already be too late to escape what’s been awakened…
Now, on with the excerpt…!
Thunder claps from above with a violence that could rupture the very heavens. It is like the booming strokes of an immense teponaxtle drum resounding in an endless funerary procession. People say the ancient gods are trampling and crashing against the new celestial firmament above, trying to smash their way back into the world. But their old temples are hardly more than rubble, their displaced priests fighting over crumbs among the wreckage, and the believers—the ones still able to walk—are begging for food with outstretched, soiled hands. Tenochtitlán, like the Aztec empire of which it was the crown jewel, is in ruins. News of the city’s destruction—the subjugation of its people, the massacres, the futility of resistance—reaches the borders of Nahua territory.
When the storm ends, the worst part is the absolute drowning silence; the silence of graves, of the defeated gods, of the broken musical instruments, of the mute poets. The tlatolli and the cuicatl, the poems, stories, and songs that preserved traditions, memory, art, beauty, and magic have all disappeared. A small town by the name of Coicoshan has already been decimated. Many of its citizens died in combat with the invaders, but most of them were killed by disease.
And then, suddenly, noise. A sound so loud it bursts the eardrum. The town has been breached by soldiers, friars, and bureaucrats of the Crown. The air is unbearable. The warriors were captured, most of them executed, and survivors are locked in makeshift jails, bound by shackles on their feet, hands, and necks. This vile wind is decimating the population. Most of its current inhabitants are new arrivals, refugees escaping from famine and the new caciques, both Spanish and native collaborators, in their own territories. Only a few of them actually know the name of this town that, as a last resort, they’ve turned into their home.
The friars—miraculously immune to the contagious diseases killing the locals, as if the divine protection they spoke of is really achievable— are officiating mass in Latin. The locals don’t understand a word, but are forced to attend nonetheless. With most of the material riches already aboard ships back to the Old World—galleons filled with gold, jewels, and artifacts—the only thing left to exploit are the people and the lands themselves. The friars often show up at Nahua homes alongside soldiers without warning, taking children away to be saved through knowledge of a God that hates them.
Several friars force a dozen or so children between five and twelve, still young enough to be indoctrinated, to recite the Ave María again and again. Whenever a child makes a mistake or refuses to sing, they are struck with branches. Welts mark their hands, backs, and necks. The children are shown the Nahua ritual relics of their ancestors— statuettes, masks, weapons—and are told by the holy men that they are the devil’s work.
From a table overflowing with sacred objects looted from temples and homes, Friar Melquiades chose a round clay pot covered in feathers and animal hide. He rotated the object in his hands before tearing open a small opening he found near the bottom of it. He recoiled from the tanned flesh he now held at arm’s length, as a look of disgust contorted his face. It was filled with bits of flesh, cartilage, and dried organs. The origins of the viscera weren’t clear, human or animal both were equally likely to the friar. It seemed to him a work of the Adversary himself—Satan must have had a deep hold on the people of this land, driving them to do such perverse things. The pot had a clay ring on the top, through which he strung a length of rope. He asked one of the solders to tie the other end to a fencepost. He held on to the other end of the rope, raising the object five feet from the ground. Another friar, Simón, handed a stick to a younger child. They had piñatas in Spain just the same as they had in this godless land, but the friars knew that context would make all the difference.
“Tell them to strike it,” Melquiades said to the interpreter, “and whoever breaks it gets a prize.”
The other friars snickered, amused by the child’s realization of what he was being asked to do.
“Tell him it’s a game.”
“Tlapalxoktli,” the boy said anxiously.
The child turned to the clergymen, wide-eyed, then turned back to the rest of the children. Not daring to look at the pot, he grit his teeth as his shoulders heaved and began to cry. Melquiades pushed him toward the pot, trying to make him hold the stick. The interpreter followed suit, yelling and telling him in Nahuatl to strike it. The children shrieked.
“I can’t. I shouldn’t. It’s an offering. It can’t just be spilled,” the boy holding the stick repeated, again and again.
The interpreter translated. The friar slapped the boy’s head and called another child, older than the first, forcing the stick into his hands. “Hit it, dammit, or I’ll have you beaten dead right here,” Melquiades yelled in his ear.
The boy swung and connected with the pot, immediately dropping the stick, hoping that he had fulfilled the request. But the friar contin- ued to shout, and grabbed the stick from the ground, shoving it back into the boy’s hands, pressing firmly so he wouldn’t drop it again. The boy hit the pot once more, weeping between shallow, shaking breaths. He shut his eyes tight, but Melquiades guided his hand, rendering him unable to stop. Suddenly, with a final strike, the pot, the piñata, cracked and broke. Flesh, entrails, and a deep burgundy syrup of coagulated blood poured from the shattered base of the piñata. The shrieks of the children grew louder, watching and wailing in their hopelessness. Their ancestral ceremonies were very similar, cracking the pot at the feet of the god as an offering to Huitzilopochtli, but even the children knew that their old ways were being perverted by the friars. These conquerors made them waste the offerings, spilling them to the ground in the process of forgetting.
It was the end of the world and the end of the gods. These men would see that the gods died along with the priests.
Melquiades turned back to the group, the interpreter relaying his words to the frantic children, “Soon I’ll make you see the error, the disgusting nature, of your old misguided ways. No god worth any worship would ask for this . . . filth,” he kicked a piece of flesh around in the dirt. “You’ll find that God doesn’t ask for blood and viscera, none of these barbaric offerings your ancestors gave.”
Melquiades grabbed another offering pot and set it up again using the fencepost, “The Almighty only wants your soul. You, boy, come here. It’s your turn. Destroy this awful piece of idolatry.”
Father Simón pushed the young boy forth, but he refused to break the pot. He wouldn’t even hold the stick, still stained with the blood of the last offering jar. Melquiades, fed up with these heathens refusing the call to repent, hit the child to the ground and kicked him in the ribs. The interpreter tried to intervene, but the friar pushed him away and he fell, rolling across the ground. Melquiades continued kicking, the rest of the missionaries only restraining the shouting children as they all watched. The screams died down as the children became stunned by their inability to stop any of this, rapt in the horror their lives had become. Only the thud of Melquiades’s foot against the boy’s side and his grunt with every kick could be heard until the boy stopped moving entirely. Blood was dripping down his ears and he remained motionless, an example made. A girl freed herself from the friars as they all stood shocked by the brutality on display. She fell to her knees by her dead brother, shaking him and calling his name only for a moment before she was dragged to her feet by the man who’d just beaten him to death.
“Don’t worry, child. The dogs will eat him, so he will finally be of some use. He’ll return to the arms of one of your horrid gods,” said Melquiades.
“Tie her up,” Father Simón instructed.
“Her name is Ketzali, Father. She’s quite the troublemaker,” the interpreter said.
Ketzali leaped away from him as he tried to hold her down. There were more “piñatas” on the table awaiting the same fate as the first. She grabbed a tlapalxoktli and ran, cradling it in her arms. The friars, caught unaware, tried to catch up with her.
“Catch that little bitch! Soldiers, soldiers, she’s getting away!” Melquiades yelled.
Ketzali slipped between the guards, running into what had once been a temple whose sacred stones were now being torn away to construct the halls of an abbey. She darted through the corridors, listening past her heartbeat for the steps of approaching clergymen, searching for an exit or hiding place. Hugging walls and narrowly avoiding being seen, she finally found the entrance to a small open crawl space between two chambers under construction.
Sliding herself and the tlapalxoktli underneath a rudimentary tower of shelves, she lay still in the dirt, panting and waiting. Eventually the sound of footsteps coming from the corridors faded away. They assumed she had already made an escape. Thinking it was the right moment, she left the tlapalxoktli behind in its hiding place and sprinted through the doors of the abbey and into the fields.
“There she is!” a soldier yelled.
He ran after her, followed closely by another soldier, but she was already far across the field and nearly in the tree line. They gave up, exhausted and ill-equipped to chase a small Nahua girl through the forests. Soon, Melquiades caught up with them, equally out of breath.
“What do you think you’re doing? Look for her! If one Indian escapes, it’ll set a precedent for everyone else,” he said. “They’ll start making for the trees just like her!”
The soldiers composed themselves and kept running after Ketzali as Melquiades headed back to the abbey, cursing his luck. He entered his cell-like room and closed the door. Sweating profusely after their fruitless chase and looking to get someair, he began to remove his robe when he felt a slight breeze.
“Would you mind knocking?” he started, assuming someone had opened his door, but when he turned nobody was there.
In fact, where the door had been there was only an impossibly dark shadow. The light of the candles in Melquiades’s room seemed to skip that section of the wall. He now wrapped his robe tightly around himself as the air in the room turned frigid, a kind of cold he had not felt since the oceanic voyage to this land. As he pulled the fabric to his body, his hand involuntarily began to wrap itself around the cross hanging from his neck and he muttered a prayer.
“H-hello? Who is there?” he stammered.
A terribly pale face, skeletal and eyeless, emerged from the shadow. Near skinless, what flesh it maintained hung tattered and decaying from its visage like ribbons. It’s body unrevealed, the face drew nearer to the friar as its neck extended farther and farther.
Melquiades stepped back horrified, his breath catching in his throat as he attempted to appeal to the Lord for protection. Onlyinches from his own, the face grinned, opening cracks in the diseased flesh and revealing black and jagged teeth. In the flickering candlelight they shone like the obsidian daggers he had seen soldiers take from the native warriors. Its breath smelled like the mass graves the soldiers had piled them in.
Gagging from the stench, Melquiades opened his mouth to scream for help from a guard or an angel, but only blood sputtered forth. Releasing the cross on his neck, he now clutched at his stomach and solar plexus, tearing at the robes as he felt something under the fabric ripping at him. Lifting his frock, the shadow cast by the faint candlelight showed a jagged mass moving under his skin. He was being shred from the inside. Choking Gagging on blood, he sucked in a stuttering, choked breath and tried again to scream for help when pirul branches, just like the ones he used to hit the children, erupted from his mouth tearing apart his lips and esophagus, shredding his trachea before bursting through his heart, lungs, and intestines as his rib cage split open.
The friar fell to his knees, convulsing as a tree grew from within him, gore dripping from its leaves and berries. Only blood spewed from his lips, his last noise not a scream but a desperate gurgle as he beheld what he assumed to be the face of the devil himself sinking back into the darkness from which it came, leaving him to bleed out in the silence of his windowless room.
Carmen kept an eye on Luna’s bright orange backpack, almost larger than the eleven-year-old herself, as it bounced between stands in the market. Luna stopped to talk to almost every fruit and vegetable vendor she could find. Asking for samples and counting her pocket change out loud in Spanish, she’d retrace her steps to buy trinkets and produce from this and that vendor after being sure she found a good price. She would come back to her mother, Carmen, and older sister, Izel, and breathlessly report on which vendor had the nicest produce, and what price she’d gotten on a pepper that another vendor wanted to charge her ten pesos more for, and why she chose the papaya in her hands over another, before stuffing the haul into her bag and running ahead. Luna would spare no detail as to who was the kindest vendor, the one with the most reason- able prices, the one with the highest quality products, how to know if a mamey was sweet and tender, and which mangos to choose.
Carmen knew her youngest daughter had been anticipating this trip for months—improving her Spanish and learning about Tulancingo from her room back in New York through Wikipedia pages and Google Street View tours of the town—but was shocked to see her little girl so seemingly acclimated. Looking around, even the vendors of the market were entertained by the excitable little girl attempting to haggle in slightly American-accented Spanish. They didn’t even seem to mind how harsh of a lowballer she was.
Behind them though, Izel dragged her feet, avoiding the eyes of men, children, and women alike, but mostly the men. As a sixteen-year-old, feeling like everyone was staring at her was hard enough, but knowing they actually were was almost hellish. A couple of the men sitting on produce boxes around the market even dared to wink or blow her a kiss when Carmen wasn’t looking.
“Son unos brutos todos,” she said, her Spanish dripping with her American accent, hoping to be heard, thinking it would discourage them. The effect was quite the opposite: the men felt seen, recognized, as if they’d achieved something by eliciting a reaction; they persisted and grew bolder, shouting at her back in Spanish to come over and chat. “Just ignore them, Izel,” Carmen said, turning her head without taking her eyes off Luna, “You know how men in the cities are. They’re the same here as they are in New York—maybe a little bolder at the markets around here, but the same. You can’t give them a reaction.”
“But they’re so fucking annoying.”
“Hey! Language! Believe me, Izel, I understand how it feels, but don’t let them ruin your time. That’s letting them win, you know?”
“Men are pigs no matter what language they squeal in, huh?”
Carmen laughed a little bit, “Unfortunately, yes. I know you’re in a bad mood, but at least don’t swear like that around Luna too much, alright?”
Luna, young enough and too far from earshot to be a part of the conver- sation, was simply thrilled to be in charge of the groceries, piling onions, green tomatoes, parsley, cilantro, and serrano peppers into her backpack. That night they were planning on having dinner with Father Verón. He was the caretaker of the abbey Carmen was renovating for an architectural project and had been the one to welcome them at the airport. For a man of the cloth, he was a surprisingly fun guest to have around the house. A competent chef as well, he’d taught Luna how to make Mexican dishes and lent her some books about Mexican culture and history.
Even though Carmen told Izel to ignore the men, she watched everyone around them in her peripheral vision. As much as she wanted her advice to be all a woman needed in the world, Carmen was acutely aware of the humming, imminent danger that lurked in the background for a woman and two girls in a foreign land. She knew Hidalgo was one of the safer states in Mexico, but living in America for so long had unavoidably altered her perception of the country. So often the only headlines to make it across the border were the horror stories: exchange students ransomed, people found beheaded, the police and the army colluding with cartels, unmarked mass graves—stories of a lawless and brutal land. Even when she tried to think ofTulancingo’s relative safety, it reminded her it was only relatively safe.
On their way down to the municipal market they had passed through a busy plaza where Carmen had seen all the flyers. Covering nearly every surface were the same DIY advertisements found anywhere. People were offering English tutoring, rooms and apartments for rent, music lessons. But among them she began to notice the faces. Pictures of women and girls, pulled from their social media pages and family photo albums, stapled or taped among the cacophony of ads. Eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch pleas for help stapled to every telephone pole. Appeals to God glued to electrical boxes; appeals to the authorities were long abandoned. At first, Carmen didn’t give them a second glance, but there were so many: on the streets, inside the market, on the light posts. Finally, she relented to her morbid curiosity and began to read them.
Mariana Saldívar Escobar, sixteen years old, medium skin, black hair, disappeared on July 8 in Progreso district. She was wearing a white blouse and black skirt. She’s a student at Preparatoria Técnica 21. Call if you have any leads.
Esther Ángulo Sáenz, left her home on December 5. She’s fourteen years old and a student at Santa María. She was last seen wearing a yellow dress. Help us find her.
María del Refugio Ramos. Light skin, black, straight, long hair. She has a beauty mark on her right cheek. Last seen wearing a black Adidas sweatshirt and jeans. She works at the fabric shop, Esponda. Reward: 50,000 pesos.
Her eyes began to look straight through the ads and shot from one faded face poking through the clutter to the next. There was a nauseating curiosity that made her unable to keep herself from scanning every post for the same faces. She continually checked ahead of her to make sure her girls hadn’t noticed the posters and that, more important, they were still where she could see them. There were so many—she could tell by the worn paper that several of them had been there for a long time, while others couldn’t be more than a few days old. Carmen wondered whether the yellowed, rain-smeared, sun-bleached ones had been left up because their subjects were found, or the families had finally given up. She almost jumped when she noticed Luna looking at her and tried to feign interest in a traditional dress on the other side of the window a flyer had been taped to.
“Those girls are lost, huh?” Luna asked.
“Um,” she hesitated, unsure of how much a girl Luna’s age should know about the world and its dangers, “I’m not sure, maybe they’re the graduating class from their high school,” she replied. Heat rose in her chest at how stupid a deflection that had been.
“I can read.”
“I know.” Carmen realized there was no question of how much Luna should know. She was clearly old enough to understand, even if not entirely conscious, what it meant for a girl to be missing, the inherent risks of womanhood. The terribly uncomfortable time was dawning when Carmen would have to tell her how to avoid those risks.
Carmen tried to the push it all from her mind—the flyers, Luna’s comment—but now, in the market, she kept a hawk’s eye on her youngest daughter as she walked on ahead of her and Izel. Knowing Luna’s curiosity often led her to rush off on her own, Carmen was greatly comforted by her purchase of the gaudy, safety orange backpack flagging Luna’s presence in the crowds.
Every now and then, as they walked through the stalls, a vendor interrupted and cut them off, showcasing some mamey, apple, or peach.
“Here, try this!”
“No, thank you, no,” Izel replied, recoiling from the offered produce and its seller. Even when they had lived in New York City she’d never experienced such aggressive salesmanship from street vendors. She had difficulty grasping how people in a market dared to invade her personal bubble, wasting her time to offer her products she had no interest in. A smile crept across Carmen’s face as she watched her daughter grapple with the social conventions of a new place. She’d been excited to expose her daughters to the culture she’d grown up in, even if it made them a bit uncomfortable at times.
“Don’t be rude, try it. It doesn’t bite,” Carmen said.
“What? I don’t know what that is! What if I’m allergic or something? Is it even washed properly? The knife looks so dirty.”
“When did you become such a hypochondriac?”
“Okay, I have everything on Father Verón’s list,” said Luna, adjusting her backpack on her shoulder and rejoining her family. “I’m only missing the huitlacoche. I know it has to be around here somewhere.”
“I don’t know. You’re the little expert, Luna,” Izel replied without taking her eyes off the phone in her hands and, within nearly the same breath, asked, “Mom, do you have a portable charger? My phone is dying.”
Carmen gave her a look and said, “You know I don’t. Maybe you can let it die for a whole hour or so, though. I know you miss your friends back home and all, but you could at least try experiencing your first time in Mexico with the rest of us.”
Izel sighed and looked up into the sky, pointing her nose to the sun as she slipped her phone back into her pocket. It dinged and she immediately took it back out and looked at the notification.
“Father Verón comes for dinner all the time. I guess he doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” Izel said quietly.
“That’s not nice. He’s fond of us, he likes having dinner with us and, yes, I imagine he leads a lonely life. That’s the life of a priest,” said Carmen. “At least I think it is.”
“My phone is at seven percent. I need a charger.” “Let it die. It’ll be for the best, for all of us.”
“There it is!” yelled Luna, running ahead toward another stall. “What?” answered Carmen, startled. “Luna don’t run off so far ahead!”
“Huitlacoche,” she called back from in front of a stand that had basketfuls of the corn fungus. Carmen pulled Izel along to keep up.
“What are we going to do with that?” asked Izel, grimacing with disgust.
“Tamales! But we can make them into quesadillas, tacos, or stuffing for some chicken breasts. So many possibilities!”
“I’ll eat something else. Not interested in deformed, rotten corn,” and upon seeing a basket full of reddish crickets, Izel stepped back, more fearful than nauseated. “What the fuck is that?”
“Language!” Carmen yelled.
“Mom, look at those things. Are they alive?”
The old vendor standing behind the baskets laughed, “They’re fried chapulines. They’re not alive. They’re snacks to some around here!”
“What? Snacks? For whom? For the toads and lizards?”
While Luna was having an actual fit of laughter, the old lady working the stand pinched a couple of crickets with her bony fingers and offered them to her, so she put on a brave face and crunched into them with little hesitation. Her scrunched-up face soon broke into a big smile and she turned to Carmen and Izel.
“You guys should try them too! They’re tasty!”
The old woman held another pinch of chapulines out to them. “No thank you, señora,” said Carmen, as Izel pushed her hands forward as to protect herself from the fried creatures while she looked somewhere else.
“I thought you told me to be polite. Try them, Mom, come on,” said Izel with a sly grin.
“Yeah, Mom, try one!”
“No, thank you. Not today,” said Carmen with a nervous smile.
Meanwhile, Luna was still laughing and asking the vendor where the chapulines came from and how to cook them.
“How did I end up with a bug-eating alien for a sister?” Izel asked her mom.
“Sometimes I wonder how the two of you ended up so different from each other too.”
They watched Luna discuss the prices of the chapulines and the huitlacoche with the old woman, holding out bills and coins and stuffing the fungus and bugs into her bag.
“We’ve got everything,” Luna announced, proud. “Thank God. Can we just leave now?” said Izel.
“Maybe we could buy a portable charger for your beloved phone,” suggested Luna.
“That would make this agony worth it.”
“They have electronics and stuff in that aisle, I think.”
They looked through one of the aisles and reached a stand selling toys and piñatas. The three of them stopped to look at the dizzying variety of piñatas of different shapes and sizes.
“Come on in, come on in. We have Frozen, Spider-Man, and Trump. We also have donkeys and all the classics.”
“Thanks, but we’re just browsing,” said Carmen.
“For your birthday, for your party, for your name day, for any celebration.”
“No, thank you.”
Luna looked at them in wonder, one by one, from the rudimentary reproductions of Disney characters and Pokémon to the classic round colorful piñatas with seven spiky cones.
“Mom, I didn’t know piñatas came in so many different shapes,” said Luna.
“They sure do. These are the traditional Spanish-Catholic ones,” Carmen drew upon the depths of her early Catholic childhood and the memories of her mother, “If I’m remembering correctly, the seven points are supposed to be the sevendeadly sins, so it’s like you’re smashing apart your sin or something like that. Some of them are still made with a clay potinside.”
“Why?” asked Izel. “That sounds dangerous. Shards of ceramic flying everywhere, mixed in with the candy and stuff.”
“That’s just the way it was around here. Nothing more normal than having one or two kids end up slightly concussed when you break a piñata at a party, huh? Barbarous Mexico, right?” she said, deepening her voice and raising her eyebrows.
“It’s still a terrible idea.”
Carmen thought Izel might catch her ironic name-dropping of the John Kenneth Turner classic in this context, but moved right along after her joke flopped. “Well, lucky for you kids, now they’re made almost entirely out of papier-mâché rather than just a thin layer of it on top of hard clay.”
“They’re very pretty,” said Izel, putting her hand inside one to feel the clay pot.
“Take one for the little one, señora,” the shopkeeper said.
Carmen shook her head and waved her hand.
“There’s no way they have the rights to copy Donald Duck,” said Izel, pointing at a fun-house knockoff of the beloved Disney character hanging from the ceiling.
Carmen sneered at her with a look that said, stop it with the stupid questions. “Are you really that invested in Disney’s copyrights?”
“This is so unfair, Mom,” Izel said, as Luna ran back and forth. “How come?”
“This is heaven for Luna. Everything excites her. I don’t care about this. What I care about is theater and I can’t do that here.”
“You’ll be able to enroll in theater next school year. I know it was important for you to go with Tina, Halley, and everyone else to that camp, but this trip is important too.”
When they eventually went on their way, Luna kept turning around to look at the stand, while the vendor yelled that he’d give them a good price. “Come on, take whichever you like!”
They found a cluster of electronics stands where people sold phones, radios, video game consoles, and every type of accessory, most of them knockoffs of usual American name brands. Here you could get the cheapest charger if you didn’t mind it lasting only a few months, even a few weeks. The vendor didn’t look at them once during the transaction, his eyes were glued to a screen at another stall where someone was playing a violent video game. Izel finally smiled upon seeing the battery icon on her phone turn green.
“Girls, speaking of piñatas. I forgot to tell you that we were invited to a party tomorrow. One of the worker’s little boys is turning ten and I think we should go. We’ll have lots of fun, maybe you’ll even smile and enjoy yourself, Izel.”
“Invited us? What do you mean? They invited you, not us,” answered Izel, the sudden smile now completely wiped from her face.
“No, the three of us have to go. How am I supposed to go to a children’s party by myself?”
“This is for you, for your job, and you want to drag us there.”
“There will be a piñata. The food will probably be delicious, and you’ll get to meet some of the local kids.”
“I don’t care. Take Luna. She would love to eat mushroom cake, and fungus cookies, and slime treats, and insects, and larvae, and whatever else they feed the guests.”
“Izel, stop it. You’re coming, and that’s that.”
“It’ll be my first Mexican party, the first authentic piñata I’ll get to break,” said Luna enthusiastically.
“How lucky,” said Izel, typing faster and faster on her phone. “Keep this attitude up and by the end of this trip, I’ll use you as a piñata, Izel,” said Carmen.
“Great parenting, Mom,”
They didn’t talk for the rest of the walk back home. Once in the kitchen, Luna took out the groceries from her backpack, asking how to prepare some of the things they bought as Izel shut herself in her room. Carmen was disappointed, but knew Izel was just being a teenager. She wasn’t a kid anymore like Luna, who had yet to exit her tweens. To Izel, the idea of going to a party full of strange kids sounded absolutely abhorrent, mortifying even. In the best-case scenario, they would go unnoticed, but that was unlikely.
Izel was right, Carmen was using the kids a bit. The first weeks at the abbey construction site she was overseeing hadn’t gone entirely without incident. Ever since she’d arrived, the workers looked at her with distrust, like an ignorant foreigner who wanted things done her way and, of course, they were less than thrilled to be taking orders from a woman. From day one, she’d made every kind of effort to create some amiability, but nothing ever seemed to pay off. Her being invited to a family birthday was important. It was a chance to turn her reputation around, to be seen as a person and part of their community and not as some upstart boss, an Americanized hag, here simply to exploit them.
A wave of anxiety turned Carmen’s stomach over as she began to question the decision to take the girls with her. Her mind was stuck in the plaza reading those flyers: the phone numbers and descriptions of girls written by parents begging to see their daughters again. Bringing the girls to Mexico with her felt like a mistake, but there hadn’t been a choice. She couldn’t ask her mother, Alma, to take care of the girls for such a long time, she worked nights at Saint Francis hospital and often ended up having to cover her coworkers’ shifts for extra cash or just to be nice. Her mother was of the traditional mindset that a family should all live under one roof and,while Carmen wasn’t happy that her mother was still working, the cost of living was too high for Carmen to support three people all on her own, even after the move upstate to Newburgh. Leaving the girls behind with Alma would have just been too much, not that she’d have admitted it. Her mother always tried her damnedest to not act her age and would have insisted on it being no bother, making a big unconvincing show of how she actually wanted Carmen to leave the girls with her. I’ll finally get some time to talk with the girls without their mom listening in!
But Carmen knew Alma was tired, too tired to handle Izel and Luna for more than a few days. As seventy grew ever nearer, the deepening lines on Alma’s face marked a body which could simply no longer keep up with the spirit within.
The girls’ father, Fernando, had been a good and attentive dad for the most part when he had been around, but that hadn’t been the case for a while now. Even after the initial breakup, he had at least looked after the girls when Carmen needed him to. Once he found a new girlfriend, though, he decided he wanted a fresh start, to begin another life without any of the baggage of his last. “Baggage” was the term he had used. She knew he hadn’t considered the weight that word carried when he said it, but when Carmen heard it, the final embers of her affections for him were stamped out. She realized he had always been a man with the capacity to close his heart almost at will. It was warm inside and the doors were wide, but she saw firsthand how easily they were slammed shut. Izel and Luna. Baggage. She sometimes wondered if the new woman even knew Fernando already had children. Last she had heard, a mutual friend had mentioned he was on the West Coast now. So, where she went the girls did too.
“Luna, honey, I’m going to lie down for a moment, okay? Can you put away the groceries?”
“Yes, Mommy,” she replied, setting down her pencil. She had been drawing little piñatas in her journal. Carmen glanced at them as she passed the table, all different colors and sizes, some were shaped like animals but others had human faces. Luna hadn’t exactly mastered the art of rendering humans yet. The faces looked to be in pain.
Carmen left the door to her room slightly ajar and fell on the bed listening to Luna open and close the cupboards in the kitchen. Warm air blew through a gap in the windows. She turned on the bed to look out at the vast landscape of empty, undeveloped land—one of the more arid pockets of Tulancingo. Almost nothing can grow here with the sandstorms, she thought as she imagined the wind dragging dust and everything else from one side of the moor to the other. She worried about the mistakes she was making with the girls, unpleasant truths she’d let slip and the accidental lessons she’d taught them too young. Being a mother is about making mistakes, there was no doubt about this, and being a single mother often felt like playing Russian roulette, having to pick the lesser of two evils. On the one hand, she always wanted to look strong and independent, to lead by example and never show her fear of the world, but on the other, she worried they’d become too independent, so headstrong that they wouldn’t consider the outside world’s dangers, imagining life as a walk in the park. Mielsobre hojuelas, as the Spaniards
Carmen saw a lot of herself in her daughters, recognized her own small gestures and moods. The strong will bordering on insolence her mother, Alma, always chided her for had taken root in Izel while Luna was full of the near-blinding optimism she’d had as a younger woman. How could she not blame herself for passing along those traits? It was inevitable, of course; the lessons imparted on children are often taught subconsciously, in her passing remarks and unconsidered actions. But when she thought of the unnecessary conflicts and the blindsiding disappointments sure to visit her daughters as they had done with her, she wished they could have a slate clean of her own idiosyncrasies. They were already too sheltered in America, not entirely used to keeping their head on a constant swivel. Izel was smart enough and had spent at least some of her teenage years in the city before the move, but even that was pretty safe. Throughout their trip to Mexico, a country sadly infamous for alarming levels of femicide and general crime, she never lost sight of them. How could she not be afraid after seeing the news and what people post on Facebook and Twitter? It wasn’t that bad here—or so she was told. Not too many criminals, only the wind blowing the dust back and forth and maybe ghosts longing for a better time, when this was a fabulous pre-Columbian city or when the region had a booming agriculture economy and the abbey was still an abbey.
Izel was sometimes difficult, but who wasn’t at that age? She never got herself in trouble. With all the drugs readily accessible at her school, she’d never tried anything—well, if she had, nothing had ever happened—and she didn’t get involved with bad boys. She didn’t even have a boyfriend. So, as rude and hurtful as she could be sometimes, Carmen couldn’t be so harsh, strict, or short-tempered with her because, really, she was a good kid. After all, being there with her instead of at the beach or theater camp with her friends must feel like a big sacrifice at Izel’s age. She couldn’t pile more responsibilities on her, at least not during that summer. In a few years, Izel would be headed off to college and Carmen would barely get to see her. She thought about how this was, with any luck, their last or second-to-last trip together and felt immense sadness. It was like losing something very dear to her. Losing that intimacy—conflicts, fights, and tantrums included—would be painful.
Someone knocked on the bedroom door. “Come in,” she said without getting up. It was Izel.
“Mom, I’m sorry. I know I was being a little bit mean to you earlier.
I don’t want you to think I hate being here with you or anything.”
“It’s all right, sweetheart. Don’t worry. I was your age once too. I know a trip with your mom and little sister isn’t a sixteen-year-old’s idea of a great summer. I’m sorry you couldn’t go to theater camp with your friends, and I know it feels like the end of the world to be missing out, but I promise I’m trying to make this trip fun for you too.
“Thanks, Mom. I love you,” Izel looked at the ceiling and sighed, “And I’ll go to the stupid piñata party.”
Carmen smiled, “Thank you very much.”
Carmen stretched out on the bed as Izel closed the door, returning to her room. Brief moments like this one made her feelshe wasn’t doing too bad of a job raising the girls after all. She closed her eyes and fell asleep for a while.
Leopoldo Gout’s Piñata is due to be published by Tor Nightfire in North America and in the UK, on March 14th.