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Bellacosa walked carefully over the rotting planks, unsure if this was the shack where he was born. Its roof was missing, and he looked up at the aluminum sky. It hadn’t caved in, so he figured some South Texas zephyr galloped away with it. He stomped down hard and fine orange dust lifted and formed a ghost in his own image, eager to dance or play cards, then sank back down into the cracks. He lit a Herzegovina Flor cigarette and murmured, “Somebody out there isn’t doing their job,” noticing he’d dirtied his authentic, ostrich-knee Wingham dress shoes. He tried to imagine what the place could’ve looked like all those decades ago—where his mother gave birth, what the hustling midwife looked like, where his father stood wringing his hat. The shack was small, as he’d expected. He didn’t know why, but he thought there’d be no floor. The planks surprised him.
He walked out of the threshold as if emerging from quicksand and smoked the rest of the Herzegovina Flor by his old Jeep, admiring the cavity structure on the dry, barren farmland. The sky was different than it appeared from inside, giving the impression time had never changed in the shack, and the rooms where we are born keep giving birth to us forever. The sun was rising. It was a roosterless dawn, in the part of South Texas where no beast yawned.
The old Jeep sped down the even older military surplus road. It had one of those stereos with the knobs and the needle, and quietly a corrido sang to Bellacosa, “Y llegaron Noviembre, y Diciembre, y Enero, Febrero, Marzo, y Abril.”
He was doubtful now that that had been the shack, and as the pavement ended and the old Jeep hit the powdery road Bellacosa slowed down, feeling strangely relieved that his birthplace was still a mystery to him.
A few days prior, when he learned he’d have to make the drive to Calantula County, Bellacosa stopped by the records office for a copy of his birth certificate. His parents had been migrant workers and Bellacosa was the only of their two sons to be born in America, for which he felt grateful. Though he’d always been poorer than his brother, Oswaldo, down in Mexico, he could still cross back and forth without too many problems, and in his line of work this came in handy. Bellacosa was a widower trying to pull himself out of debt, but he never felt that he lacked for anything. He’d learned, unlike many people in South Texas, not to curse God for his problems, for his deep losses. All my grievances and disgraces have been my own, he’d say, and it’s the divine spirit that throws me bones now and then.
Bellacosa arrived at the McMasters property on time, 7:30 a.m. He parked by the doghouse-sized mailbox on the edge of the property, turned off the old Jeep, and waited for the cloud of dust from the road to pass by. Bellacosa knew he’d have to talk to the Aranaña Indian farmer who cared for the land, and he was ready. He had no problem talking to these working Aranaña Indians. A lot of people now did, because of the stigma from the syndicates and shrunken heads, the filtering of animals. But it was all an accident. It wasn’t these people’s faults, these fucking Indians, he thought. After all, I’m a fucking Indian, we are all fucking Indians in the Valley. That’s why we’re here. And what the hell is a Mexican Indian, a mistake. Columbus thought he landed in India somewhere, so that’s what he called all these Mexicans. Fuck Columbus. Fuck the Indians. I’m an Indian, too. Fuck me.
Bellacosa got out of the old Jeep and climbed an embankment of dry ferns onto the property. There were moaning whirlwind pillars and tufts of raisin-eyed, pockmarked chickens clucking around. Before even saying a word to anybody, Bellacosa was already exhausted from the encounter he was about to have. He looked around for the 7900 Rig—what construction people call La Mano de Chango, and what the Americans call “the Claw,” a machine used to dig up large holes in the ground. He spotted the giant yellow bastard out back, moping, wanting to hug the ground like a friendless drunk with its one mechanical claw. It was nearby a tiny green trailer, where the farmer presumably lived, and about fifty feet to its left was a carpet of grain and feathers, boards nailed together like small bleachers, and a short, dry trough. It was the chicken coop, apparently, but the chicken wire that kept it together was missing. Markings on the thirsty ground outlined the coop about twenty-five by twelve feet, and standing on the feathers and grain, waving a denim hat around, was the farmer.
“You’re the one about the machine?” the man yelled at Bellacosa, in his high, singsong, campesino Spanish.
“I am. You Tranquilino?”
“Here to serve you. It’s just that this wind in the middle of the night, it took away the roof and the fences of my chickens. Mire nomás.” Tranquilino sighed. “The ground here is so dry the posts in every corner came off like toothpicks. My wife woke me, she thought the wind would take our little trailer, too. I’m a heavy sleeper since I don’t get much sleep, and when I woke everything was shaking, and the chickens were making a racket like they’re being attacked by coyotes like when I was a boy, y ayayay.”
Tranquilino pointed with his hat to an old black van propped on cinder blocks at the other side of the property, with chicken wire mounted where the doors ought to be, under a mesquite tree hunched like the Hermit in the tarot. Installing the chicken wire was a boy no older than seven dressed like a barefoot basketball player, with taut and rugged features brown like the sun, his small hands pinching and twisting the wire using needle-nose pliers.
“I have my son Matador making a temporary coop out of my old van, where I lived as a bachelor. That pinche van gave me nothing but trouble. Maybe the chickens will have something else to say about it, we are giving it a chance with them.” Tranquilino squinted his eyes as if Bellacosa refracted light, then put his denim hat back on his balding head.
“So you just here for La Mano de Chango? Still runs well. I turn it on once a week and move it so it won’t expire. Just like everything else here expired. After the land expired first. You know, right before you got here I was standing there thinking the chicken coop flying away serves me right. It reminded me that it was me who let this land expire. Doesn’t look like much now, but that is my fault. I let it get this way.” Bellacosa looked around at the bones of the land as he listened to the farmer, and for a moment wondered if it still had running water underground.
“The jefe McMasters instructed me to let the crop die some time back. It was fine by me. To this day he still pays me to look after this land. Mr. McMasters no longer wanted to farm and distribute naturally grown onions since his company makes them now the filtering way much faster. But I could have continued maintaining the land myself without a problem. After all, I’m still living here. I could have found buyers for the onions, because people always want food that is grown organically. But I didn’t bother in those days, and everything died. Now the land has gone bad and nothing will grow. So after my son finishes, and all these chickens are put away, and you get what you came for, I’m gassing the tractor. My family and me will bring this land back to life. It’s what needs to happen.”
Tranquilino motioned Bellacosa to follow him. Bellacosa checked the time. It hadn’t been two hours since his last smoke, but he was on an empty stomach. He plucked out a Herzegovina Flor, offered one to Tranquilino.
“No, gracias,” Tranquilino said, pointing at a pile of bloody, pale leaves on the ground. Thick blood appeared to be slowly trickling away from its center, like organized army ants leaving their nest. Pinching the cigarette with his lips, Bellacosa took a good look: They were bright red ants, yes, the size of sunflower seeds, crawling all over a dead, twisted chicken. The ants were slowly carrying the chicken away.
“They are dragging the dead away like the calaveras del diablo. It is because of these ants my coop flew away, you see. Listen,” Tranquilino said, looking around. “Can you hear all that racket? That’s the company working for McMasters now drilling for something way over beyond that field of mesquite. They are in business with the government, I think. They must be drilling for gases or petroleum for the economy. We have been getting a lot of big ants here, because with the drilling they are driving them away. Now here they are all over this property. You think there is nothing under us but a world of ants now, with all the drilling?”
Bellacosa held the cigarette between two fingers like a pen and carefully surveyed the property. Everywhere he looked, there were veins of army ants draining the land itself of blood from right under them. The dried field where the onions had once grown was cracked, pallid, and tubercular. Through his peripheral vision Bellacosa thought he saw the earth shifting, felt like it was being encircled by an invisible army. It bothered him how confidently the ants carried that dead chicken, and whereas earlier he was confused as to why the farmer hadn’t stopped them, now he understood. Death was the order of the day.
Copyright © 2019 by Fernando A. Flores