by Deysi Aguilar
The breeze brushed coldly against my bruised cheek.
Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. If I focused hard enough on the deep echoes of my feet hitting the red dirt, the bruises did not scream so loudly. My own remedy. Learned from experience. I was not too upset when I was summoned to leave the house. Even though the vast emptiness of the campaña was intimidating, it was better than being in that house. The campaña was a friendly unknown, it was safe. But still, how would I explain the script on my body? It played a scene everyone was far too scared to watch. I could see people looking at me from the corners of their eyes, wondering. What has happened to this boy?
Sometimes, I could get away with leaving for the full two hours that it took to walk to town. I had to hurry. Papá’s itch for his caña dulce grew eerie by that time. Caña dulce. He never even bothered to give me a nickname. Why would he? His one true love was his sweet liquor. Making me leave Mamá alone with him when the wolf came out was cruel. When I was gone, I imagined her in a dark corner. His heavy shadow looming over her. Roaring at her. Telling her that the house was not clean enough or that she did not cook a meal to his liking.
When I got back home I left his caña on top of the table and went straight to my room. I laid quietly on my bed reading my book. The slightest noise might’ve startled the wolf, jostled him right out from beneath my father’s familiar sweating skin. I could hear Mamá bickering with him. The muffled noises sounded like scraping metal and made my heart heavy. I never understood why she did it. When she criticized him it gave him ammunition. I could hear their voices clearly as they approached my room. Then, quickly, he barged in.
“Leave him.” She threw her voice, almost wanting to hurt him with it. But it was too late and despair filled her face.
“Anda a comprarme más caña!” I could hear the wolf tearing through his throat.
The overbearing smell of alcohol hit my face.
“It’s cold, Papá, and it’s late.” He snapped his jaws and with a quick swift motion, he lunged toward me and pinned me down.
“Te dije que te vayas…ahora.”
He snarled and walked away.
Mamá stood there, eyes empty.
She couldn’t save me. I got up and wiped the slobber from my cheeks. Never mind that my last pair of shoes had been torn apart from working on the granja during the day.
I would make that trip barefoot.
The almacén was six miles away. It had not rained in weeks, which turned the dirt into concrete. There was nothing left but dust, cracks on the ground, and a melancholy emptiness in the air. The sharp rocks cut against my feet like knives. Every once in a while, I could find relief on a small patch of grass. But, time; it kept moving. I had to do the same.
Finally, I reached the almacén where the owner, Francisco, had become accustomed to my beaten face. Francisco kept his store open overnight. We were in the middle of empty space. This was the perfect place for the truck drivers who traveled during the night to make their pit stops. Tonight, there was no one there. Just him and me. Seeing my bleeding feet, he became startled.
“Que pasa, Enrique? What are you doing here?”
I stopped in the middle of the almacén. “Mi Papá…es un lobo...” I responded.
He creased his eyes and his mouth hung open. Was he stunned? Confused? Or was he surprised that I had brought to life the truth about my father? Not once had I ever accused him. I had never revealed his secret. But I was tired. My body hung lifelessly on my weak frame. I could feel the warm tears form in my eyes. Soon, they turned into a river traveling down my face and onto my filthy shirt. Francisco rushed to my side and kneeled on the floor on one knee to comfort me. What could he do at that point? I had to get the caña back or the wolf would attack.
“No llores, Enrique.”
I appreciated his words. He had always been one of the nicer bystanders. Francisco would give me food when he thought I was too weak, and he would clean up my cuts and bruises when they were very noticeable. He would let me join in on games of dominoes that the older men played in front of his ...store. Papá did not like him so much. On the rare occasion that we went into the almacén together, he would bad-mouth Francisco.
“Ese hombre, estupido, imbécil, he’s not fit to run a store. I could tear him apart if I wanted to,” he had once said.
I thought he was doing okay. On his bravest days, he would water down the caña. He would give me a wink and whisper, “Don’t tell anyone.”
This night was different. Francisco disappeared into the back of the store. When he came back he had a damp cloth, bandages, and a pair of slippers in his hands.
He signaled me over. “Come here. These are a little big, but I will get you new ones later.”
He picked me up and sat me down on a chair near the front of the almacén. As I wiped my tears, he wiped the dirt and filth off my feet. Then, he carefully slid the slippers on me.
“Since I am giving you this, you have to do something for me.” He looked up at me.
“What do you want?” I started to become concerned. Maybe I should not have trusted him so easily.
“You have to go back home, get your mother, and come back here.”
I stared at him in disbelief, “I can’t.”
“You have to, Enrique. Tienes que ser valiente.”
This seemed impossible to do. How would we get away from the wolf? He would never willingly let us leave. Especially Mamá. He watched her every move. I would catch him sometimes, sitting on our small couch. His eyes followed her every step. His caña dulce in one hand and both of his eyes on her. How had she lived this way for so long? Maybe he had not always had the wolf inside him.
In my heart, I knew Francisco was right. Forget the caña. I had to go get Mamá and come back. In a panicked hurry, I went to the house as quickly as I could. My feet were more sore than they had been before. Stopping had made the pain worse, but I had to get back to my mother.
As I got closer and closer to home, regret sat heavy in the pit of my stomach. Could we actually do this? I shook the feeling away as I held on to Francisco’s words, “Tienes que ser valiente.” I arrived home out of breath. I crouched down so that I would not be seen from the windows. I entered through the back door and found Mamá in the kitchen, she looked up at me with a forced smile. Her eyes, red from crying or from being hit, I was never sure.
“Where is he?” I whispered, my voice shaking.
She raised her pointer finger to her lips. “Shh. He’s in our room, durmiendo,”
He must have knocked himself out from all of the caña dulce that he had consumed. This was the perfect opportunity. I sat next to her and tried to speak but she jumped up, alarmed and wide eyed. She looked at me, head to toe.
“Donde esta la caña?” Her voice was a shaky whisper now.
“Vamonos, Mami.” I begged. My hands trying to grab onto her.
“How could you not bring it?” She was on her feet now, searching through our cabinets for something to give him when he woke up.
There was nothing. Why would there be?
I tried to tell her again. “Mami, vamos!”
We were wasting time. Any minute now he would come into the kitchen and demand more liquor. We had to go. She looked at me, reality seemed to come to her gradually. But it came, nonetheless.
“Francisco said we could go to the almacén,” I told her. She needed to know we had a plan.
She nodded and put her hands on my shoulders. “Stay put.”
My heart pounded harder. We were going to leave. She went into the living room and grabbed her bag. I could hear a faint shuffle where the wolf was. We had to move fast. She came back to me and we headed out the door. We had experienced so much misery in this place, I stopped for a moment to look around. I should’ve never looked back.
The wolf stood in the doorway, blocking us from escaping. The smell of caña reeking from his matted fur. He looked down at us with yellow eyes, “a donde se van?” he said in a low growl. He leaned forward, snout pointed directly at us, large shoulders rotating on their hinges, raising its thin lips and revealing knife-like teeth, stalking us.
“Rapido, rapido, hijito!” my mother yelled at me to get out of the house. Into the darkness, where the unknown had shown me more compassion than anyone I had ever encountered. I stood frozen.
The wolf jumped at my mother. He grabbed her by the neck and pushed her onto a chair in the kitchen. She tried to fight him but she was unsuccessful. His weight was too much for the now small structure that was her body.
I would sometimes look at old pictures of my mother and father. Papá held Mamá lovingly. They smiled in those pictures; I wish I remembered Mami’s full rosy cheeks.
Somehow, Mamá freed herself of him and she tried to run to me. She tried to grab my arm and pull me out the door. But again, she failed. The wolf slowly made his way towards me. I tried to run but before I could, he had me. He held on to me tightly, and abruptly I was outside. Pain ran through my body like a metal rod. I felt a heaviness in my heart, but I had never felt so light. I hurt everywhere. And then nowhere. I was on the ground. I was sure of it.
I could hear Mami in the background screaming. “No! How could…” Her voice sounded smaller. And then I heard nothing.
I looked up at the stars, how beautiful they were. I enjoyed that part of when Papá would send me into the almacén. The stars were peaceful. They all seemed to be exactly where they should be.
Large ghostly clouds filled the sky. I felt faint drops on my face, it had not rained in weeks. Perhaps the air would fill with some type of cheer. All at once, the drops fell faster and all over. Soon, I could no longer feel them on my face.
A dark figure approached my body.
“Pa…pá?” the word put up a fight to leave me.
He surveyed the damage. The familiar bloodshot eyes, the eyes that looked at me calmly or even kindly between fits of rage, the yellow eyes of the wolf: they were the same.
Deysi Aguilar is an Assistant Dean at Hofstra University. Deysi and her family immigrated to Brentwood, NY, from Paraguay, South America in 1997. She is an alumni of Hofstra University where she earned her BA in English and Psychology in 2013 and her MFA in Creative Writing in 2018.
Notes from the author
Think through the above story with us, and, if moved, share your thoughts with us and other readers in the comments below.
Caña Dulce came to me over the course of one night. At that time, the way I would write my stories was by blasting Vivaldi's "Winter" on my headphones and letting my mind lead me wherever it wanted to go. It's funny that a song about winter led me to a description of the dry and hot campaña of Paraguay. I was born in Paraguay but I did not grown up there, we moved to New York when I was 7 years old. This left me with a yearning for my country and the family we left behind. I wanted to do Paraguay justice, I wanted to respect it and show the love that I feel for the stories that my Abuelo told me whenever I would go visit. The stories that stuck with me were those of the seven cursed brother in Guarani mythology. I learned about the Pombero, the “man of the night” who haunts the outskirts of the cities, Jasy Jatere and his magical staff, and as I did more research on my own, Luison. Caña Dulce draws inspiration from Luison who is a wolf-like creature, the seventh and most cursed of the brothers and the guardian of death. The stories about the seven cursed children of Tau and Kerana are frightening but they don't scare me, they inspire me. They remind me of times when my Abuelo who spoke Guarani (the native language of Paraguay) went out of his way to speak to me in Spanish so that I knew details about these stories that no one else could tell. In my Abuelo's life, this was not folklore, it was not mythology. Abuelo saw shadows in the night, he heard his cattle mooing and running away from something he could not explain. He heard the Pombero whistle. I will forever be grateful for the stories that he left me.
I feel compelled to write these stories because there exist no written records of Guarani mythology. Paraguay is unique in that it is a bilingual country, where Spanish and Guarani (a native language) are both the official languages of the country. Like Greek and Roman mythology, Latin American countries also have their own stories of creation. These stories shape the way everyday people live their lives and continue to be an important part of their culture.