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When my mother burned the bife acebolado, she blamed it on the magical prankster Saci. When the frying pan crashed to the ceramic floor, splattering grease and freckling her legs with burns, she blamed it on Saci.
He was a mischief-maker, that Saci. Just when the coyote pack was making its way south along the river, the red-capped mulatto opened Mr. Sanje’s gate and let the calves out. My brother Paolo and I were swimming against the river flow when the calves’ heads came twirling by.
Dad never blamed Saci. He was American. Mom was from Brazil. She knew about the one-legged trickster. Like a leprechaun she told Dad, but more sinister. Didn’t he believe in leprechauns either?
Now we have a crack in our new ceramic floor in our new yellow ranch house on Valley View Drive. And Dad took the cast iron frying pan and flung it over the backyard fence, knocking the trashcan to its side. Mom crossed herself and whispered, “Curse that Saci.”
At that, changing my school skirt for Paolo’s old gym shorts, I ran out the front door into a haze of yellow. Half the yards on Valley View were covered in straw to keep the sod moist. The new trees were dwarfed by endless sky. There was nowhere to run but down the valley to El Río Perezos—more a creek now since New Mexico’s Water Management put in the irrigation system up north a ways.
I was sure that was where Paolo had run off too. He was three years older, in high school, and didn’t like me tagging along anymore. The girls at the new Arena Blanca Middle School said he was fantastico-gorgeous, and sublime. When I asked what “sublime” meant they said, “Does it matter?” He was my brother; I went home and looked it up in Mom’s American Heritage Dictionary. The tissue pages stuck at the edges, and I slid a finger between “st” and “su.”
Sublime: Beauty so excellent as to inspire awe. Paolo’s skin was dusky sienna like mine, but his body was sleek, like mine would never be. And his hazel-brown eyes looked deeper, darker—because he had the longer lashes, Mom said.
My mom used to say that dad was the “best-looking boy” at the MRS Logistica branch in her small town. He was mining for railroad improvements when he lost his leg and one eye. That was six months after they’d started dating. She was already pregnant with Paolo, and six years later Dad took her out of Brazil to the States. I wondered if she blamed Saci for the blast that took his leg.
“Hey, Ana, wanna come over?” It was Dylan and Enrique, sitting up on Mr. Sanje’s fence. Mr. Sanje wouldn’t like it. I didn’t either, not the way they spread their legs so wide, right around the fence post. Humpin’ it, the Texan girl Callie said. I didn’t know about that. If my mother heard the things the American girls said, she’d be putting wax in my ears.
“C’mon,” Dylan said. He rode the post like a stick horse. I wished that old prankster Saci would dust-devil him right down. Dylan whooped again, bouncing so hard that the gate slammed. He yelped at the sudden bang, and pulled his hand snug to his chest.
I couldn’t keep my grin down. “Thank you, Saci,” I said, running the rest of the way to the river.
The grass turned greener at the riverbank, and the approaching shade of junipers already cooled the air. I stopped at the heap of clothes, Paolo’s clothes: black shoes, black khakis, black shirt, and shiny black and red boxers, all dumped for his swim.
The boys swam naked because the water’s current stirred up the muddy bottom making anything below the surface invisible. I wasn’t allowed to swim when the boys were at the river. Mom said men had no modesty. She’d squirm when Dad reached around her to the faucet to wash his hands, his hips a little higher than hers, the fake leg always making him grab for the counter.
I glanced back at the house, gathered up Paolo’s clothes, then peered through the trees at him. The minute he saw me, he dove under in the deeper part of the river then popped up flinging his shining black hair. Water streamed down his chest, and I wondered what the Arena Blanca Middle School girls would think. I wondered if I should invite them to swim.
When he went under again, I stuffed the clothes under the sedges.
When he came up, I was already knee-deep down the bank. “Do you think Saci might be worse than Mom says? Can he cause real accidents?” I asked Paolo. “Like the calves’ heads?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said.
Clinging to a low limb, I let my lower body drift with the gentle current. “Dylan and Enrique were trespassing again, on Mr. Sanje’s farm.”
“Stay away from them.” He swam down river a few feet. What would he do if a wave came, a tidal wave, and the water all rushed out, and he’d be standing there like an idiot boy hiding his privates? Stay away from them—as if I’d go near.
“It’s just sometimes things happen, just when…just when I’d want them to, a little mischief. Just…”
“There’s no such thing as a Saci. Don’t be an idiot.”
For a second he lay back, and his penis popped up in full view. I twisted away, turning my back to him. It was a shivery thing, and I felt my cheeks flush despite the cold water.
When I turned back, he wasn’t floating anymore. He was staring past me, looking hard and serious.
I turned again. Sunlight waved through the trees, the river igniting wherever water hit rock or tree limb. The bank was lined with trees and brush. Beyond that, open sun.
I didn’t see anything, but Paolo grabbed the tamarisk roots to pull himself up the bank. I knew he was still afraid of the calves’ heads, but that was a month ago.
“Turn around,” he snapped, climbing out naked. Didn’t he know I’d already seen him?
“Just wait a sec.” His feet smacked up the muddy bank, and then I heard only his breathing and the river’s wet breath. The mud bottom drifted under my feet. Maybe it was Dylan.
I closed my eyes and waited.
Saci, the mulatto prankster had holes in his hands and hopped on one leg. Sometimes I dreamed that he slept in the shed out in back of our house, rake handles through the holes in his palms. And when Mom pulled the shades, he’d hobble in the unlocked doors. I’d hear his single hop-step down the hall to my bedroom, and in the lighted crack of my half-closed door, I’d see Dad’s saw blade. I’d wake up and throw pillows at my door until it closed.
“Paolo?” I whispered, because something weird rippled through my stomach. Like the nightmares. I didn’t want him to see me scared, but when he jumped back in with a whooshing splash, I nearly peed.
“Where’s my clothes?” he yelled at me.
Oh, yeah, I had hidden his clothes. I wished now I hadn’t because his face was not sublime glaring at me now.
“Saci?” I suggested.
“Get my fuckin’ clothes.” He’d never swore like that in front of me.
“Don’t be…” I backed up.
Then he grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the bank. My toes scraped rock.
“Ow, Paolo.” Reaching up for the roots to help me, I saw the scarred, purplish-red bark of the tamarisk. Like the beef mom had burned in the fry pan. How she’d burned it just after Dad had come in from the yard yelling about the chicken wire.
Paolo shoved my rear, making me fall chest-flat on the grass above.
I looked up at the wisp of cloud in the flat blue sky and wished it would twirl down into a dust devil, twirl down with Saci and stir up the river and twist Paolo down to the shifting bottom. His brown legs would go pale in the darker water, his fingers like ten drowning people, scrambling for the surface.
Standing I looked around us, nervously. Paolo looked small with the water up to his rib cage. No, I didn’t really want anything to happen to him. Not really. Besides, Saci was only a prankster, banging fence gates, burning dinners.
“Why’d Dad throw away the frying pan?” I asked.
I expected, “Idiot,” but Paolo didn’t say anything. He stared at me. And his face was sublime again and I thought of the middle-school girls kissing him.
“It wasn’t Dad, remember?” he said. “He was just scraping the burnt onion off, and Saci ripped it from his hands and flung it.” Paolo grinned. “Didn’t you see?”
“What scared you?”
He frowned, confused.
“Just now, when you looked down the river and got out.”
“Thought I saw something. Smoke.”
“Would you get my clothes already?”
I glanced over where they lay tucked under the sedges. What if it was me who called Saci? When Paolo scared me, floating on his back like that. When he grabbed my arm. What if I’d called Saci, and he was waiting past the tamarisk to get Paolo?
“You’re safe in the water, you know. They lose their power in water,” I told him.
His face was serious again. “I know.”
I didn’t get his clothes. I sat cross-legged in the grass and looked back at him. “Ana, will you get my clothes?”
“You know what the girls say at my school?”
Paolo’s dark eyes looked up under those long lashes. They narrowed on me, suspicious.
I couldn’t tell him. He’d strut around, cocksure. He already acted like he owned the world, stealing the last tortilla at dinner, scooping up my favorite strawberries, daring me to resist. He’d come with his lazy walk across the school’s new paved lot, ignoring the girls’ whispers. Put his arm around me casually, like he was the best brother and they should all be jealous.
He swam over to the bank, grinning. “What do they say?”
“That most men have three legs, but you and Dad only have two.” Paolo ran both hands down his sides, to his legs. I almost grinned that he had to confirm the two that held him steady. Then he got the meaning.
He shoved a great heap of water at me. “Get the fuckin’ pants.”
I glanced up river. Was there smoke? Smoke from Saci’s clay and reed pipe? Standing, I backed away. “No. No you have to stay there. It’s safer there.”
As I kept backing away, he stood, hands on his hips. His lips were soft and parted. The girls would want to kiss him with that look. I wondered how Dad looked when he saw his leg missing. If that’s when Mom gave the marriage kiss.
“Saci ran off with it,” Mom once said about Dad’s leg. “Maybe Saci found his leg and is looking to patch his palms now. Watch your hands when you reach for the cookie jar. Watch your hands when you’re touching what you’re not to touch.”
What weren’t we to touch? I wondered then. The Virgin Mary made of shells on her dresser? The vase etched with barefoot maidens, high out of reach on the cabinets?
No, I learned quickly what she meant. When I told the American girls at school about the holes in Saci’s palms, they said it was because he kept poking “it” against his hand, and now it just slid right through.
And one of those girls at Arena Blanca Middle School was going to touch Paolo and he was going to touch her. Then he’d lose a leg or a hand, and they’d marry. And all the Saci pranks would begin. A smashed white plate, laundered work jeans tossed out the door, the chicken wire gnarled in the shed, shoes left out in the rain. Paolo would curse the girl, and the girl would curse Saci, whose bad magic would set another thing wrong.
As soon as I was out of Paolo’s sight, I ran for home. He’d have no problem climbing out for his clothes once I was gone. The sun was orange now on the horizon, and the dry yellow fields were burnished. From my bedroom window, I watched for Paolo. He’d have to walk home through fire, I thought, and I wished I hadn’t called on Saci at the river.
I don’t know what I’d have done if a pipe-smoking mulatto boy appeared at his side. I guess I’d have run out to him. I guess I’d have begged Saci to let Paolo keep his hands. Because he needed them to finish carving his bed frame and the box he was making for Mom’s garnet necklace.
Dad was out at the fence, dumping the wheelbarrow to fill the low spots in the yard. He’d scoop handfuls of gold-nugget grass seed from the bag at his feet, then gently fling it. His hand moved in a slow current, nothing like the tidal strength when he threw Mom’s frying pan.
I knew he had no right to fling that pan away. If I wished hard enough I was sure I could summon Saci in a great dust storm. I’d seen Mom wish, seen her wish hard.
The sun dipped below the trees, and shadows slid down the window glass. Paolo turned back, ran a hand through his wet, tangled hair, and hugged his arms. Then he looked straight at my window.
Iron pots rattled on the stove. I smelled onion. The pot rattled louder, and I could hear Mom sighing, knew her foot pattern on the broken ceramic floor. Now she was flinging a dishtowel over her shoulder, now looking out the window at them.
The seed bag draped over Dad’s arm kept slipping as he tried to manage the wheelbarrow, gold seed flecking his shoe. He’d hobble and catch himself on the barrow handle. And Paolo stood there, hands on his hips again, staring out toward the river.
I heard my mom’s hand on the screen door latch; the door clicked.
I waited, watching the seed bag start to flop, watching Dad wobble and grab for the barrow. His unbalanced weight stumbled at it, jarring it, and the barrow upended sharply, knocking Paolo’s elbow hard enough that he shrieked.
“Curse that Saci,” I heard Mom say. And the door latched closed.
Rubbing his elbow, Paolo fixed his eyes on my bedroom window, though I knew it was too dark inside for him to see me. Then he righted the wheelbarrow and picked up the seed bag.
Dad looked back at the house too. Like we were to blame. Always. For the broken hinge on the fence post, for the flat tire on Dad’s Toyota, for too little rain and too much rain, and the sun’s slow rise when work had to be done. Saci was a mulatto boy, I wanted to tell them. But they’d only say, He had a mother.
While I put out the stained white dinner plates, Paolo strutted a circle around the table before sitting down. Then he slid the cutting board by his plate, taking three warm tortillas. That left Dad’s two and Mom’s one. And he grinned at me. One of the schoolgirls would fall for that smile and let his smooth brown hands run up under her blouse.
Could I take back the curse I put out for Saci? Did Mom take it back when Dad nuzzled his dirt-streaked face on her neck, leaning like that on her hip? What was he whispering? I glanced at Paolo but he was just piling beef strips in the tortilla, his careful fingers lining them with pointless precision. I couldn’t take my eyes from his hands, as if in reaching for the next beef strip he might find one finger missing, two.
And my own hands—the ones that had hid his clothes, the ones that wouldn’t eat the tortilla he flopped back to my plate—I kept them tucked between my knees, afraid to look at them, praying that when I did, I’d find no holes.
Patricia J. Esposito is author of Beside the Darker Shore and has published numerous works in anthologies, such as Crossing Over, Blurring the Line, Apparitions, Clarify, Queer Fish 2, and Distorted, and magazines, including Scarlet Literary Magazine, Annapurna, Rose and Thorn, Wicked Hollow, Karamu, and Midnight Street. She has received honorable mentions in “year’s best” collections and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Long-time married to the “boy-next-door,” Patricia has two daughters and works as a copy editor, when she’s not off chasing the muse or her Golden Retriever.