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The Extinction of Rhinos in Mexico:
9 Tales of Life and Death

Our wedding took place just as a thunderstorm spread over the afternoon like a dark owl swooping down from the high ridges above the old reservoir. However, by the time we walked out the doors of the church, man and wife, the downpour had already spent itself. Dripping tatters of clouds still hung low and gray, like exhausted threats, their cold tears gushing down the streets, and steam was floating up like spirits from the hot cobblestones in the crystal sunlight. The tempest had swept away the summer heat, leaving us a clean, lovely coolness.

For my bridal gift, he gave me a delicate silver rosary, which I keep with me day and night. My present to my husband Justino was the hat that he wears to this day. It has a flat crown and the two small tassels at the back of the broad brim. It is of the dense, flexible straw from Michoacán, very durable. I tell you, I spent some money on that hat, but it was worth it to see how handsome he looked in it, and how proud. When I gave it to him he favored me with a smile, blessed as he was with strong, straight teeth. During our honeymoon my beloved brought stars to me by means of a brass tube with special glass lenses. That gadget had been handed down in his family for eight generations.

Soon after we were married we rented a decent little place and presently I noticed the signs that I would soon be carrying a sweet burden. One day not long after I told Justino, he cradled the tube for stars and stepped aboard a Yellow Arrow bus, riding it for hours, all the way to Mexico, the Federal District. Have you ever looked through such a brass tube? How rare! I was sorry to see the thing go. In the capital, he used it to borrow money from the national pawn shop, the one run by the Church since before the revolutions. 

With the loan he set down the first payment on a used automobile that he painted the turquoise green of the local taxis. Driving long hours each day, Justino earned a good amount. We were doing well, starting to pay off the loan, and even buying some things for when the baby came. While we had some cash, I urged him to pay the fee for joining the taxi syndicate, and pay the tax to use the waiting stations along the zócalo, but you see, in those days there was no hospital here. All I needed was his sisters or a midwife, but Justino wouldn't hear of it. He had been to school and believed in modern ways, so he spent the money instead to send me to the clinic in Querétaro to have our first child, baptized as Carlos Maria. Justino told me not to worry about the drivers union, that he had a friend at the town hall.

There's a hole in the roof of this little room where I sleep and my casita has no toilet, but not far from here is a thicket, near the dusty football fields, so I make sure to visit there each dawn and dusk when there's nobody about. My room is not much bigger than this vivid wool blanket I sleep on, is it? I spread the blanket over straw, which softens the swept, hard dirt floor. You can see how well I've smoothed this by carefully pulling out all the sharp rocks. One day soon I will repair that hole in the roof, but look, it's not worth the pain now because the raining season doesn't come until May or June, and well, there is no electricity in this colonia, so at night when there's only the noise of the feral dogs fighting near the slaughterhouse and the lonesome complaints of the big trucks grinding off along the road to Querétaro, I often light some copál, a bit of romero, and resinous ocote wood in a tin can and lie on my back as the smoldering makes the air sweet and dreamy. It pleases me then to rest and gaze up at the bright little stars and recall the pretty colors I have seen during the day and the conversations I have had with people and think about the things I would do if I had a daughter to help me and the things I could teach her. That hole is like my television, you understand me?

When I realized for certain that I was pregnant again this last time, me, with two grown sons and the other one almost a man, I didn't leave my bed for three or four days. I became so sad that I began to think someone had given me the evil eye. So when Isabela, a neighbor in the colonia, poked her head in one day to see what had passed with me, I sent her to bring the curandero.

So this healer told me I was going to have a baby. I said to him I know that already, now what about the evil eye? Well, then he found a black woolly caterpillar under my pallet. He told me this meant someone didn't like me. He cooked a tea, which he had me drink while he crushed the caterpillar and put it in a plastic sack, and then he put that in the little pouch he wore slung over his shoulder.

—You will feel better by this night, he said. 

For his services he charged me four new pesos, which doesn't sound as bad as four thousand, which it would have been under the old money. Unfortunately, as the curandero left, he found that many black caterpillars were in my house.

—A lot of people don't like you, he said.


I could not imagine. I mind my own business and gossip not very much.

—That I cannot say, he told me. But the signs are evident. 

Well, I could not afford any more help. You don't want to owe such a man too much, so I paid him what I had, the two thousand old pesos and one hundred seventy new centavos which I had been intending to use to buy tortillas and a votive candle or two. He let the rest go on credit, and what do you know, just as he had said, I felt better by that evening. 

Next morning I got rid of the other caterpillars myself. 

Oh how Justino cursed me when I told him we were to have a new child. Accused me of being unfaithful. I saw Justino even less as I swelled with his new child because he no longer wanted to have me. Or couldn't. Naturally, he blamed me, saying that I was uglier than ever, that even the pulque no longer improved me, no matter how much of it he drank. It's true that I'm not so young anymore, a shorty shaped like a gourd, and I'm missing my share of teeth, but I bore him three sons, for all the good it's done any of us. Still, no matter what, I keep my silvering hair clean and well brushed, though its length runs down to my waist. I plait it neatly in back, holding it with a hair clasp of pretty plastic the color of the shiny green parrots I saw once in cages at the Tuesday market across from mounds of strawberries and mangos, between a leather goods stand from León and the lady frying gorditas. And so Justino came to me drunk one night. That's when we made another child. He just doesn't remember.

During the time I was with child, I sat brushing my hair one day, and my shoulder was aching terribly, because I have a bit of arthritis. Presently a greenish bird flew past the door. It flew so rapidly that I could not honestly tell you without a doubt if it was the same kind of parrot I had seen in the market or not, but the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that it was, and this one was free, wasn't it? No longer trapped in a cage, and it was then that the thought—these free green wings are a sign from the Virgin—she made me pregnant to give me a girl. A girl who could brush my hair, a girl whose lovely black hair I could brush and braid, tying in blossoms and ribbons. With that thought I began to anticipate the day of arrival.

My belly had grown as big and heavy as a watermelon by that lucky day I went out searching for firewood to sell and ended up finding a rattlesnake. What happened was that I went out into the campo just after sunrise, as usual, as usual. Well sometimes I gather young cactus and shave the spines off and sell them for nopalitos, but many women from the campo do this. Better if it's the season for tunas, the sweet red pears that grow on the cactus. Those sell better, and you can sit almost anywhere in town and unload them all sooner or later. It works best if you display the fruits by making a little pyramid of them on a nice cloth tortilla napkin, like those I sew. Most days you can earn a few centavos and if nothing else, you can always eat the red fruits yourself if they don't sell. You understand me?

That day, however, I was gathering firewood, because although it was late spring, on the high plains of Guanajuato the nights get cold enough, and many people in town will still buy firewood. Firewood pays better than cactus. Whenever I could, I got dead branches still on the trees, for with my belly I couldn't bend down and had to kneel to get anything off the ground.

By midmorning I had my armload of wood, but still it remained necessary that I walk all that way down into town. That took until near siesta, because with my added burden I had to rest many times on the way down the steep cobbled road.

I walked through the center, past the police station and the town hall, past the zócalo with its ornate central bandstand and thick, square-clipped trees. You could hear the bells of the narrow-spired parish church tolling. Tolling. Tolling...Right over in front of the church is where Justino and I lost our luck.

On that particular day long ago, we needed a kilo of tortillas, so I had ventured out, carrying our second son, Alonso Jesús, swaddled in my rebozo, while Carlos, who had just started to walk, held my hand. You could hear the parish bells ringing that day too. The men of the taxi syndicate had driven slowly down the steep hill to the square in solemn procession, their cars creeping along, decorated with flowers and images of the Virgin. They all parked in front of the great parish church, where they raised open the hoods of the taxis for their car motors to be blessed by the priest. The curious northamericans who are always in the square gathered to watch this pageant. As my boys and I passed through the crowd the priest was finishing, and I crossed myself, touching the silver rosary Justino had given me. But when all the taxis had been sprinkled with holy water, and the priest retired into the church, the drivers did not disperse. Instead, they stayed to talk. The more they talked, the louder and more forceful their voices grew. 

My heart squeezed when I saw Justino's taxi crawl up the crowded street into the square. I wanted to warn him, because he was still not licensed with the syndicate, and his friend no longer had the job at the town hall. The traffic was so bad Justino had no choice, nowhere to turn, but was funneled onto the street where all the syndicate drivers were waiting.

I stood there with my children in the middle of those tall, mostly old and rich northamericans. I watched as all the drivers argued with Justino at once. Carlos recognized his papá and called to him, but Justino could not hear our child through all the angry voices. His frightened passengers opened their doors and hurried away. I looked around and saw two police, but they were watching the event with amusement. Nevertheless, I went over to them.

—Please help the man, I said. He is my husband. These are our children.

—Patience, the young one told me. He is learning a lesson.

—No harm will come to him, the older one said.  

The drivers made Justino get out. They rocked the car, then lifted it onto its side, breaking off the door mirror. Justino looked on and I knew what it meant to him, and to me. I was afraid of what he might do next. I tried to go to him, but arms swept me back.

Another unlicensed taxi had the misfortune to wander into the square. For a little while the angry men forgot Justino as they began corralling that other unlucky taxi. Soon it was on its side as well, the owner negotiating. 

With everyone intent on the second cab, Justino saw his chance. He pushed on the roof of his taxi with all his might. It teetered, then bounced hard down onto the wheels. 

The noise made the syndicate drivers recall him. Justino jumped back into our car and started to drive away, but they caught the machine, surging around it, so many men that it could not even budge, though you could hear my husband gas the engine. The drivers dragged Justino out of the window. He was pleading, near tears, in front of the whole town it seemed to me. Little Alonso began crying, and then Carlos. 

The men pushed the car all the way over, like a tortoise on its back. When the roof of the car crumpled, you could see Justino give up inside of himself. Two drivers came forward to set the leaking gasoline on fire, but that's when the police stepped in. During the scattering of the crowd, I lost sight of Justino.

Even after things returned to normal, I stood there, my baby on my hip, my other son clasping my hand in fear. I stood there after all the taxi drivers went to work. I stood there after the tourists and retired Americans lost interest and returned to their park benches, their newspapers, their feeding of the pigeons. I remained before the grand church and our ruined car, too worried to even pray. After a while the boss of the police station came out of the town hall on the other side of the square to supervise the tow truck that came. The boss was handsome in his uniform, like a television star. He smiled and chatted with the northamericans as they would stroll past. The truck driver and several policemen lifted the wreck and shoved it right side up. They hitched the crane to the bumper of Justino's taxi and then the truck drove away with it.

Ah, but I was speaking of much more recent events. Look, tourists don't buy much firewood, so I continued alone down past the zócalo, carrying my armload door to door in the colonia Saint John of God, where live some local people who have some prosperous little businesses. In fact, I sold my entire bundle to Antonio, the old carpenter with his shop on Charity Street, just as he was locking up for siesta. He gave me six thousand of the old pesos. Now there's a gentleman.

Unfortunately, right around the corner, I had the bad luck to run into some hoodlums. These boys were about the age of my son Esteban, and every bit as mean. On the side street called Sad Indian they cornered me, taunting.

—You all go on out of here, I said, waving them away.

Oh they laughed, for how could I frighten them in my condition? Very rapidly they were grabbing me and pawing my apron pocket, tearing it as they stole the pesos I had just earned. They threw me down and ran away before anyone could see what happened.

Well, I had to sit down in a doorway for some minutes with my hand on my forehead to shed a tear. I was shaking. By Our Lady, I tell you I was weary, yet at that time there was nothing at my house to eat, so what choice did I have? I started talking to some women at the permanent market. They gave me a tamarind soda to drink from a clear plastic bag with a straw. When I felt better they said to me where a produce truck was leaving from the market. Thus I caught a ride in back of a rancho pickup out to the old train station, which stands surrounded by very tall, longleafed eucalyptus trees with smooth peeling bark. From there I picked my way in the gravel along the thick ties and iron rails of track, past the green cultivated fields and up into the rocky hills, searching for more wood. 

I had found not so many sticks when I heard the rattle. I stood still as death until I could spy Mr. Viper coiled, waiting for me there at the base of an ancient, dying cactus three times my height and twice my girth. I dropped my sticks and with both hands grabbed up a rock big as a your skull. With this I smashed Mr. Viper's brains out and learned then, thanks be to God, that I'd killed Mrs. Viper. And what do you think? She was in my condition!

It took me the rest of the day to regress to my little house with my prize, but once home I skinned my snake and that night cooked it over a fire in my comal with a little bit of lard and some chilis I picked from a neighbor's garden in exchange for the skin and rattles. How tasty the meat was!  

The next morning I didn't have far to go to sell the eggs of the viper. The brand new penitentiary is on the upper road into town. A guard there is the son of a woman I know in the colonia called Saint Anthony. I was able to sell the eggs for a good price to some inmates who know how to use them for making concoctions and potions that they sell to the guards.

As I left the prison, the world seemed suddenly to hold promise. You know, walking to the bus stop, I noticed some bugambilia growing up next to a train-rail telephone pole. Now I never remembered seeing the plant there before, and I had been there many times. Nevertheless, there it was, like a volcano of magenta. The sun seemed to show from inside the color, and it was as if my thirsty eyes were drinking in that color. That's the only way I know how to say it. I picked a small sprig of this happiness to put in my hair. With the thousands I had earned I might do all sorts of things.  

I caught one of the thousand-peso buses down the steep cobbled stone road to town and paid a visit to the Virgin of Peace, better known as the Virgin of the Miracles. At her altar, in the smooth dimness beneath the high ceiling of the immense sanctuary, I lit two candles to thank her. The thick, cool paving stone at Our Lady's feet is worn to a hollow like a kind, open palm and varnished from the knees of her generations of supplicants. Do you know that her skin is the most beautiful cream color?

—A thousand thanks for your mercy and for this bounty, I said to her.

I dropped two thousand-peso coins through the slot of the box to assist my prayer that I would bear forth a daughter to share my joys and sorrows and to care for me in my old age. Listen, this Virgin is powerful. Once I had neither food nor money for many days and prayed to her for tortillas. No candles or offering, just my poor prayer. I swear it to you, perhaps two hours later she made me find one of the shiny new peso coins on the adoquín flagstones of Canal Street near the corner of the zócalo. These new monies are odd, don't you think, that small copper surrounded by a ring of lightweight silver metal? Some say it is worth only one damned peso, but I know for a fact that it buys the same as a thousand. Look, you know how many other folks should have seen that coin in the street before me? So I had tortillas that day. Well if that's not a miracle, who can say what is?

I left the old Spanish church feeling joyous and wanting to share my good fortune, so I splurged—a whole six and a half pesos for a jar of sweet burned milk. Of course, it's not truly burned, but is the gooey, cooked and sugared milk of a goat. Then at the new central of the autobuses near the slaughterhouse, I caught a camión of the Silver Horseshoe line going to Dolores Hidalgo. It was tricky getting up into the bus with my round belly. It wasn't long until my day. As my own parents are dead, I wanted to visit Justino's family, bringing them the caramelized milk and discussing with them arrangements for the birthing.

The driver, he was a good man, you could see that from the fact that he had his boy working with him, and from the sequined picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe that he had posted above the green waving fringe that ran along the top of the windshield, which had white markings on it near the door. Justino once explained to me that those soap painted letters spell the major destinations. My husband can read, because when he was a boy he attended school for five complete years before he had to quit to help his father in the fields. 

As I stepped aboard this tidy bus, I noticed a blondie from the north, reading some magazine. I sat next to her, because I am curious, I admit it, and not too shy. She looked over and smiled as I sat down. 

I smiled too, so I'm certain she noticed my missing teeth. But what made me a little ashamed was my grimy checkered rayon blouse and well, my red skirt is so old that you can't wash the stains from it anymore, and my knee socks are modest, but not at all fashionable. My shoes which are false leather have all but quit functioning. Even my apron was dirty. Ah, but the sandy-haired young woman was wearing faded Levis with holes in them, and her hair resembled a bird nest, you know?

The autobus began, lurching out onto the boulevard between the tall, dust powdered pine trees, and we went driving past a young mother holding one child by the hand and another tucked on her hip. In front of a truck repair shop, we eased over one of the bumps in the road that slows all the trucks because it's shaped like a cement log.  Out my window I saw two campesinos trudging into town, loaded with their rustic wares, who paused to look at us and dream briefly of riding. As we accelerated noisily, smoke streaming from the tailpipe, the bus driver's son worked his way back to me, paper money crisply folded between each of his fingers on one hand. I told him my destination. It cost me three thousand old pesos, seventy-five new centavos. I handed him the coins and he gave me change and the thin paper ticket and then he ambled and swayed with the vehicle, back up front to sit by the door across from his father the driver. They had a radio and it was playing a friendly accordion polka.

—Blondie, I said to the northamerican, you like to read? She looked at me. Being a blonde, her eyes ought to be blue or green, but I saw they were brown.

—Forgive me, my Spanish is not very good, she said. Another time, for a favor?

Her pronunciation was poor, but I wanted to talk, so I understood her.

—Ay, but your Spanish is excellent, I told her more slowly. Listen, my daughter, what I said was, you like to read, true?

She got it that time and looked at her magazine, which had a yellow-gold border and a picture of some bird on the cover. I saw it was not a fashion magazine nor cartoon novela.

—Yes, said the blondie. This magazine is called — she pronounced it carefully — "Geographic National."

—Ah. How many children have you?

She smiled at me the way nuns do.

—I have no children.

—What a pity. You were sick?

—No, she said, still smiling. Already I am not married. I am not prepared for children. How many do you have?

—Three, I said, and now this one. I was embarrassed for her. You know, by her age my first two were almost fully grown. Not prepared? Perhaps for some reason she could not attract a man.  

We rode a while without speaking. Our camión made several more stops. She was peering out her window at the countryside more than she was reading her magazine. Sneaking a little look sideways, I could see it had color pictures throughout. She noticed me.

—Would it please you to look at this? she asked.

I grinned and she handed it to me. The pages were very slick and had a strangely new fragrance. I touched the smooth little black marks.  

—It's in English? I asked.

—Yes. Can you read English? 

—A little bit, I said. (Although you and I know that I can't even read Spanish.)

Carefully turning the pages, I saw wondrous, vivid pictures of tiny cows and monkeys and birds and some strange little people with yellowed skin and slanted eyes, and later some pictures of odd little gray creatures with two curved horns rising from their snouts. Have you ever seen such a thing?

She pointed to the small strange-horned animals in the magazine. The horns both curved upwards instead of out to the sides.

—That is a...(she paged through a small book) a "rhinocerous."  

—I've never seen one.

—Oh, they live far away. In Africa.

—Ah. I nodded. (Perhaps it also was north.)

—They are a...(again she looked in her little book) "species endangered."

—Yes. What does that signify?

—They will become extinct if people do not stop killing them.  


—No more left. Totally all dead.  


—Because people kill them for the horns. To make a powder with the horns.

—For a remedy?

—Well, not in reality. Many men believe it increases their potency.

Both of us looked at my belly. I covered my mouth with my hand as we shared a laugh.

The bus went along and presently came to a stop at a vineyard. The blondie got up, saying this was her stop. I handed the magazine back to her.

—Until then, she said. She pronounced it in the shortened local manner. I smiled.  

—See, your Spanish improves already. May you go well, my daughter.

She smiled and nodded. From her expression I don't think she had understood all of what I said. But just as she was at the door, she stopped, then walked back to give to me the magazine as a gift. I remember now that she smelled as vanilla.

That bus rumbled on along the rolling pavement in the warm sun, the mountains of Guanajuato in the far mist of the western horizon. We drove past haciendas and scattered villages and rocky plowed ejidos outlined by generations of low, snaking stone fences, and children playing outside plastered cinder block country buildings with walls decorated by announcements freshly painted in rainbow colors, and we were making many stops for women carrying brightly checkered woven plastic shopping bags with handles, while here and there dusty, sun-baked campesinos stepped aboard, only a few with the mustaches these days, most of the men no more than scarecrows or phantoms with bright eyes, wearing tired clothes with sweated and wornout straw hats. 

Presently a young woman about the age of my last son boarded the bus. She was wearing handsome spiked high heels, as even the nice girls do in these times. The way she was dressed up and lip-penciled, I thought: Here is a nice girl going into town, into Dolores to shop or visit her grandmother and go to Mass, or perhaps going for a job which pays well. Her happiness brightened the bus, and then behind her came her father, likewise festive and bounding up the steps, wearing a fine-quality straw hat from Michoacán. 

No, not her father.

His eyes changed when he saw me, but he's a man, so he did not flinch when his puta, not knowing who I was, chose the seats right in front of me. They sat down side by side, Justino by the window, and the bus started again. My husband paid the boy for both their fares, then leaned over to her and whispered something in her ear. Her head bowed for a moment. Even from where I sat I could smell the mezcal on his breath.

We rode a few miles and then his woman let her right hand hang down over the seat rail, almost touching the floor. Before I realized what was occurring, she gave my ankle a vicious pinch.

That was all, nothing more, but well, I'm ashamed to tell you a fury overtook me. And so I yanked the black tresses of that slut in my callused fingers, and we got into it right there on the bus. Justino tried to push between us, but it took the driver hollering and his son threatening and then the hard braking to throw us apart.

The driver and his son ejected all three of us from the bus outside a solitary little grocery and drove away with a belch of black exhaust.

—Now look what you've done, Justino said.

—Her. It is her fault, I told him. My blouse was torn.

—You fat, toothless cow is what his woman she said to me. 

—At least I'm not a disgraced cunt like you.

—Bitch, who are you to call me that? 

—A mother, I said. A decent mother and wife.

—He loves me.

I slapped her. She turned expectantly to my husband. Justino stared at me with muddy, bloodshot eyes. Where was the man I married? I don't know why, but suddenly I felt sad and wanted to touch his face with tenderness. I reached out my hand to do so, but at that very moment his sweetie let out a shriek. As if it would stop her shrieking, Justino made a fist and hit my cheekbone. I staggered back. She slapped and pinched me. He boxed me in the ear and I sprawled into the dirt. I struggled to rise and he knocked me back down again. I tasted dirt and iron. He brought his shoe down on my back and I screamed. He kicked me, kicked again, right in my swollen belly. I swear his foot felt like a hammer with a machete blade on it. That's the only way I know how to say it. When he walked away I scarcely even felt that bitch yanking and tearing at me.

I vomited and, well, I suppose I must have passed out, because next thing I knew I opened my eyes and saw the shattered jar of caramelized milk, my gift to his sisters. Flies were skittling over the shards of glass, feasting on the sweet stickiness. That goat Justino and his whore were nowhere to be seen.  

I staggered to my feet, which took some time. You can imagine it was not easy, that far with child. Drooling blood, I found I'd sacrificed an extra tooth for my unborn baby. Believe me, they had almost completely torn off my clothes, my hair was undone and tangled, and my magenta bugambilia had disappeared somewhere in the wind. 

With my hands I shook and brushed my matted hair to at least remove some of the dirt. I had many pains. My left brow and cheek. My lips. My back. Between my legs. A sharp one, deep inside me. My anger grew with each new knifing hurt that made itself known to me.  

Doing the best I could, I tried to reorder my hair. I realized then that my silver rosary was gone. What luck, I found it in the dust over by some old dog turds. The links of the delicate chain had been broken. I gathered as many beads as I could find. I felt for my money. It was still there, hidden in my undergarments. Well, at least they had not robbed me. I gathered the tatters of my clothes, and picked up my magazine, the gift of the blondie. A few pages were creased, others torn. With my hand I tried to brush away the tiny gravels, but they left impressions in the slick paper.

I caught the next bus. They pass often on the road to Dolores. The camión let me off at the dirt side road, and I began the painful trek out to the rancho where my inlaws live. 

By and by, from behind a willow along the trickling creek, Justino stepped forth. 

I stopped walking. It hurt me just to breathe. I stared at him. 

The mezcal had all been pissed out, I could see that from the guilt on his face. Already it was gnawing at his heart. He said nothing, for what could be said? I was such a mess that he began crying, tears streaking the dust on his handsome dark face. I noticed then that he, too, had aged.  

I led the way, limping and bleeding up the road to his father's house so his family would see. I wouldn't let him help me. Not even touch me. So Justino followed, hat clutched in his hands.   

Justino's mother had taken sick long ago when he was just a little boy and she had gone to bed, never to recover. That woman took thirteen years to die. It fell to Justino's three older sisters to care for their mother and to help Justino's father farm and to raise Justino. By the time the mother breathed her last, the daughters were too old to find husbands, so here they remained, living as they had lived their entire childless lives.

Several barking curs announced our arrival. Refugia stood up. Over the clothes line onto which she was clipping damp, clean shirts and pants she saw us straggling up the road. She ran into the stone house. By the time I made it inside the cactus fence, Ermelinda and Ignacia were coming out with their younger sister. Ignacia took one look at me, then turned to her brother and waited.

—I did this, he said.

Ermelinda went out to the fields. In a little while she returned with their father tramping across the furrows, over to where I stood. I was not caring to sit down just yet. Believe me, the father of Justino may be ancient but he still has much force. The old man looked me over and turned on his son.

I watched the entire time Justino's father was beating him. His father is a painstaking man.

* * *

From the moment she was born after a day and a half of struggle, my little one cried. She had a lovely shock of black hair, but her precious face and eyes she kept squinched up all the time from hurt and crying. The poor creature was broken, her tiny hands clenched tight, so tight, and one fragile leg twisted up behind her unnaturally. She already had suffered her lot on this earth. I thought that if only I could get her to relax her grip, she might know a little bit of serenity. To distract her, I told her tales from my magazine, the one given me by the blondie.

—See these tiny yellow people with slanted eyes? Smaller than you. And they never grow any larger, I explained. 

She needed so much care there was not even time to pray, so I looped my broken silver rosary around her little wrist and tied it on. It was necessary to pinch my nipple to dribble the milk into her tiny squalling mouth. Her need to swallow was all that interrupted her cries, which in reality were simply one long wail. Neighbors and relatives dropped by and brought food, but no one could stay. They left me alone with my daughter most of the time. It was not their fault. No one could stand it in the whole colonia. I think that such grief makes people think of their own lives too much. You understand me? 

Each night I lay with her in my little room on my bed of straw in the incense of copál, romero and ocote, and I showed her my stars through the hole in the roof, warming her with my own flesh.  

—You take any star you want, I told my daughter. Several even, if you wish.

By the furtive light of a little fire I showed her picture after picture and told to her a lifetime of stories from my magazine.

One moment she was crying, then she paused to take breath. And then the silence of the stars filled my home. My baby's tiny fists let go at last, seven days into this hard world. With my pointing finger I stroked her miniature palms into relaxation and smoothed her aged brow to peace. Her baby eyes opened as if for one good look at everything without the pain. I saw then clearly her eyes for the only and last time, and they were a lovely green. Even through my tears I couldn't stop telling her stories. I pointed at the magazine.

—Look, Esmeralda. Here is the rhinoceros. These are little rats with horns on their noses who run around and cause much grief for people. They are in danger of becoming extinct. If I see one, I will step on it for you. Honestly, I don't care if they die out altogether. Oh how I hope they do.  

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"Stephen Blackburn, the author, brings great sensitivity to his portraits of Los Angeles nannies, Louisana cooks, lonely loners, Vietnam veterans, ambitious Boy Scouts, and Mexican women. People misperceive, take chances, make poor choices, find the courage to try something new, and fail again. The litany of personal tales of woe afflicting these fine folks ranges from betrayal, crime, and poverty to indecision, drug abuse, and abusive employers in this Steinbeckian collection.

...This collection of short stories certainly deserves a wider audience of readers - especially in community college classrooms and adult education centers. The costs of ignorance - emotional, physical, and financial - become extraordinarily clear in this compelling work."
—Eric H. Roth, Amazon.com

"The vivid characters who people Blackburn's 9 Tales of Life and Death refused to be contained within the confines of their short stories."
—Devorah Fox, Gulfscapes magazine


"I stumbled across Blackburn by chance a couple of years ago. I was not impressed by my initial read. In fact, I naively labeled it dark and nothing more. In my mind. After a few months had passed, I started thinking again about that woman in the title story. The recollection was powerful. And I had to read it again. That is strong writing. He is certainly a great talent, and these stories are not forgettable.

A read worth taking a chance on. Definitely."
Johnathan N. Kabol, Amazon.com

"Blackburn's truest skills as a craftsman lie in his third person narratives and believable dialog, which carries his stories rapidly forward. There's no vacuousness in any of these stories; rather than an abstract presentation of a moment in time, each work is an entire event, leaving the reader with a sense of satisfaction uncommon in short story collections."
—Sareda Milosz, Atencion San Miguel