White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Dan Mancilla
Dan Mancilla lives Kalamazoo, Michigan where he’s working towards his PhD in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. Dan's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such publications as: Bayou, The Chicago Tribune, Barrelhouse, The Malahat Review, Slice, The Dos Passos Review, The Pinch, Front Porch, and Specs Journal. “Solista” is an adapted chapter from his novel, The Deathmask of El Gaucho.

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Solista

Dan Mancilla

The eyes of the girl were different colors. Her left was a milky green, the right black as pitch. Earl’s mother once told him women with two different colored eyes weren’t to be trusted, that they were brujas. After the girl’s first apparition Earl borrowed Jack Juarez’s spyglass and watched her from his bedroom window. The room, once a third floor back porch, had been converted to a family room during the day and Earl’s bedroom at night. And while it became unbearable to sleep on the lumpy sofa bed at times, in the extremes of Chicago’s summers and winters, it was the greatest place on earth for the last three mornings because it afforded an excellent view of Señor Faustino’s house across the alley. From his bedroom Earl enjoyed an uncorrupted glimpse of the girl. She lingered on Faustino’s rooftop amongst the chickens profoundly, terribly naked.

Old man Faustino raised gamecocks for the local fights and kept them in cages on the flat roof of his building where they would coo like children starved

for love when hungry and puff their chests and hiss like lonely men in taverns if pigeons flew near. Until three days ago, until she showed up, rising with the dawn, Earl had forgotten about the roosters. But now, for the three mornings she’d emerged on the roof to feed them, the birds and the vision of the girl consumed Earl Atlas. She wore a white gown that she didn’t close. The white looked dull compared to her pristine skin. It reminded Earl of watching dogs with white coats run in the snow. She would bend to feed the birds and her breasts would sway like pendulums. He couldn’t make out the details which were important to boys his age, like the cup size of those breasts or their shape and firmness, but none of that mattered. After she finished, the girl stood there facing Earl’s house with her legs slightly parted, her robe open. With rays of morning shooting through her she would pull two of the roosters from their cages, hold them by their legs, and flap them as if she were trying to use them for wings. A haze of feathers would float around her, passing through the rays her body emitted.

 

His name was Señor Faustino, but he was known as the Chicken Man or El Taxeo to the neighborhood.


Breeding gamecocks was only a hobby for the old man. He spent most of his time trying to bring animals to life in another manner, stuffing various beasts at the taxidermy shop that Earl Atlas and his mother lived above. They’d been renting a flat from Señor Faustino for eight years, ever since Earl’s father, a firefighter, had died in the line of duty. Señor Faustino gave Earl Atlas free reign to explore the wondrous and horrible creatures in his shop. And Earl spent much of his childhood on safaris to the heart of darkest Africa, snaring marlin from the shark infested waters of the Bermuda Triangle, and wrestling grizzlies in the Yukon and Klondike territories. Besides Jack Juarez, the old man was really the only animate friend Earl had.

“Earl, you down here, boy?” Señor Faustino said. He set a box on his work bench and pulled a chain that came out of a snake’s head, where its slithering tongue would have been, to turn on the light in his workshop. He searched his workbench for a razor blade and listened for the boy. It was a rainy Saturday and he expected to see Earl crawling between the legs of the grizzly or laying his head

inside the crocodile’s open mouth, daring it to strike at him. If he wasn’t in school, Earl was either in the shop or out with the Juarez boy who the old man didn’t think much of. With the rain he had been sure that Earl would be in the shop. He peered his head through the beaded curtain that separated his work area from a dusty and dark showroom. “If you’re down here I could use a hand. Got a new shipment from Turner Glass.” He waited a moment then went back to the package and slit it open with a razor and plunged both hands into the box. The cheerful sound of a slot machine paying out coin filled the room as he dug his hands in deeper. If the boy was hiding somewhere in the shop, he did like to play tricks on the old man, surely he’d come out once he heard the noise. Sure enough, a hand materialized through the beads and parted the curtain. Earl Atlas jumped through the threshold growling and snarling, wearing a cast for a mold of a wolf’s head as a hat. He removed the mask after the old man feigned surprise. The boy was getting older, he’d be thirteen in a month and his displays of affection toward the old man had changed into playing tricks on him rather than simply hugging him or allowing him to tussle his hair.


“Eyes?” the boy asked.

“I just picked them up.”

“Cool.” Earl scooped out two handfuls from the box, making the same slot machine sound as the old man had and came up with a pile of glass eyes of every shape and size imaginable from robotic, soulless looking fish eyes, to the disturbingly soulful and sentient elk and moose eyes that seemed to follow the boy’s every move. In eight years of spending afternoons in the shop with Señor Faustino the boy had learned all the aspects of taxidermy from the initial gutting of the kill to the tanning to choosing the correct wood to mount the subject on. Of it all, Earl had been most fascinated with the eyes. He could spend hours in the shop quietly sorting them in groups based on their evil or benign quality rather than species. He would arrange pairs of eyes, malevolent and benevolent, on the black tiled floor of the shop until it looked as if a miniature forest of nocturnal predators peered out of the darkness. The old man never asked why he’d been drawn to the eyes above everything else. Most boys, he’d assumed, would have reveled in the disembowelment of the subjects or the

reconstruction of claws or fangs when necessary. The old man considered it a private matter between Earl and whatever he searched for in the reflections of those eyes for hours at a time.

“You got the model D’s this time for the deer?” Earl asked.

“The C’s were off.”

“You mean the pupils?”

“The pupils. Yes. These catch the light better, no?”

Earl held an eye to the snake light and studied it as if he were a diamond merchant inspecting new stones. “These are better,” he said. He wished that he and the girl could have been on opposite sides of the alley so the sun rising off the lake would catch her eyes. He knew that they would have been brilliant in the morning like the model F’s under the 100 watt snake light.

“Would you put those into the jars for me?” The boy began unscrewing ball jars.

They rarely spoke to one another outside of the shop besides the occasional encounter at the bus


stop or when Earl’s mother called Señor Faustino to stop a leaky faucet or repair a light fixture. And when they were together in the shop they were just as unlikely to speak of what they’d been doing out in the world. Earl had assumed that the old man would have no interest in the touchdowns he scored in the football games at recess because he’d been born in another country where the sport wasn’t played. “Football where I come from is soccer.” And the old man didn’t want to bore the boy with the banalities of his life.

“Get me a raccoon, the one standing on his hind legs,” the old man said and searched his pockets for cigarettes. Earl wiped his hands together over the box from Turner Glass and the eyes that had stuck to his sweaty hands plinked back into the shipment. “A museum in Australia wants a North American raccoon. Imagine, a place on the other side of the world getting hold of me. Another continent.”

Earl wondered if the old man was more excited that one of his creations would be traveling to a far off land or that he’d sold an animal. Earl couldn’t remember the last customer he saw in the shop. Even in late autumn when the hunters would return

from Wisconsin and Michigan, from outposts with names like St. Germain and Haymaker, with bucks strapped to the hoods of their cars, few came to see the old man. He had asked Earl once if he’d want to take over the business after he passed on. He was an old man with no sons of his own. He told him maybe, but Earl knew he’d never take over the shop. He’d been spending less and less time there. When he was a young boy, Earl loved the shop, a dark place to hide in, a quiet musky place to live out adventures. Now he found himself longing to be outside. He wanted to be on the old man’s rooftop in the early morning, feeling the girl’s golden hair blow across his face. Naked, light air.

He’d never really studied this particular raccoon before. Earl could remember hundreds of stuffed raccoons—raccoons mounted on tree stumps, on rocks, one perched on a trash can even. They all had been unremarkable. When he was younger it was, naturally, the mountain lions and vipers and bears that fascinated him. Their ferocity and power had captivated him as much as their foreignness. One could find raccoons knocking over garbage cans in the alley, after all. Yet Earl Atlas


noticed something different about this raccoon. It stood on its hinds, baring sharp yellow teeth at him, teeth that Earl could tell would sink into his hand if he put it too close. A purple tongue seemed to hiss at him. This raccoon possessed a force that none of the other animals had. The beady eyes that peered out from its mask were wet with a life that the best of Turner Glass’s collection could never duplicate. Earl extended a finger to touch one of the eyes, but pulled back. He brought the raccoon to the old man who wrapped it in butcher’s paper and packed it with sawdust in a crate.

The old man pulled a pack of Lucky’s from his shirt pocket and shook free the last cigarette. The cigarette was broken. The old man sighed and crumpled the cigarette and pack and tossed them on his work bench. “I need to get cigarettes from the house.” He was probably going to see her, Earl thought. Why not? If it were him he wouldn’t have left her alone. He would have locked her away in an empty cage when she finished feeding the roosters.

Earl felt the words come up. They were not the words he’d planned on speaking. “The naked girl who feeds the chickens every morning, what’s her

name?” was what he’d wanted to ask the old man. Instead, he asked Señor Faustino about the chickens. “Why are you growing all them chickens?” he asked even though he knew that they were for the cockfights that took place on Saturday nights in the empty garage behind Dinkle’s bakery, cockfights that everyone in the neighborhood pretended didn’t exist.

“In eight years you never ask me about the chickens. Now you have interest?”

“I guess so. Just curious.”

“Curious. Yes.” The old man uncrumpled the pack of Lucky’s and salvaged the broken cigarette, pulled off the ruined filter and lit the tip. “Sometimes we make things out to be more mysterious than they are.”

“I just wondered about all the roosters.”

“Just the roosters?”

“Forget it. I was just asking. I’ll finish sorting the eyes.” He hated when the old man treated him like a child, when he lectured him. It was something Earl noticed the old man doing more and more now. It


seemed the older Earl got the more the old man treated him like a little boy.

“You know the roosters are for the fights.”

“Yeah.”

“And that seems strange? Old fashioned?”

“I don’t—”

“It’s okay. I’d think the same. Do you know why I hold those fights?”

“To make money. Guys bet on them.”

“I make enough to buy their feed, but that’s not why. Fighting for money is no reason to fight, boy.”

“So why do you raise them?”

The old man spit out the broken cigarette. “I need my Lucky’s.” He tapped the mold of the wolf’s head Earl had tried to frighten him with. “We can get started on this when I get back. I’ll lay out some gloves and an apron if you’d like.”

“Don’t bother,” Earl said. He pocketed a green lynx eye and the black eye of a boa constrictor and

left the old man.

 

Jack Juarez met Earl at the shop on a Saturday afternoon to claim payback for the spyglass. The old man was across the alley, in the darkness of his house taking his usual siesta. It was a secret that the old man had closely guarded, but Earl knew where to find the key. In the mouth of a lion carved into the transom of the door to the taxidermy shop, the old man had dug out a niche for spare keys to the shop and to his home. Earl balanced on Jack’s shoulders. The arrangement was awkward and inefficient, Earl was twice Jack’s size, but Earl didn’t want Jack to know the exact location of the keys. He felt he owed that much to the old man.

“Watch your step, shitbird!” Jack Juarez yelled. Earl’s shoes dug deep into Jack’s shoulders.

Earl felt the teeth of the keys with the tips of his fingers. They were dull and worn. He could feel Jack falter beneath him. Earl popped the keys in his crates of sawdust and dry ice. Earl imagined that there had been a time when men with waxed


mustaches in three piece suits sporting monocles and fine Elgin watches on gold chains came into the store to examine the old man’s work before settling on him to mount the rhinoceros or the lion’s head they’d brought back from safari. Earl imagined these customers when he’d stumble on a dusty old lion or gazelle somewhere in the back of the shop, ancient relics from one of his imaginary adventurer’s safaris. It was the same way he imagined what the neighborhood had been like years ago—women in hats and hoop skirts, gas lamps, carriages and cobblestones—whenever he looked down to see the pavement crack open like a broken scab to reveal abandoned streetcar tracks.

“What about this?” Earl wiped away the dust on the head of a mountain gorilla whose left upper fang was missing.” Jack appraised the old trophy.

“It’s just a head. Where’s the rest of it? Besides, it’s got no soul.”

Earl looked into beady black eyes of the ape. The old man must have stuffed him long ago; Earl didn’t recognize the eyes from Turner Glass’s catalogue. They were fine, the eyes, they weren’t

lacking in what Jack called soul. Earl stared at it longer. It wasn’t soul that the ape was lacking. Life was what Jack should have said instead of soul. There was no life in the thing. Or not enough, at the very least, to suspend the disbelief. Maybe it was the comical look of the thing, missing one of its ferocious fangs, or perhaps the old man had simply not put all his energies, all his powers into bringing the animal to life. Whatever it was, it most certainly was dead.

Earl had misread his friend. He had assumed that Jack would only want something ferocious, something exotic and monstrous. But that wasn’t enough. There needed to be life, “soul” as his friend had said.

“What’s in here?” Jack asked and opened the box to answer his own question.

“You don’t want that. It’s just a raccoon, man. The old man’s shipping it to Australia on a steamer.”

“They got steamers that go to Australia from Chicago?” Jack pulled the raccoon from the crate,


unwrapped it, and brushed away the saw dust, delicately and deliberately like an archeologist unearthing a find.

“They fly it to California first. Hey, I think he’s got a wolf head you could have.”

“This has soul, E. This one I have to have.”

“It’s just a raccoon,” Earl said. Jack dusted off the animal and set it on the work bench. Both boys examined the old man’s craftsmanship.

“This is the thing, E. Check out those fangs, man. That’s real. Look close. You can see him twitch. Ready to pounce.” Jack leaned in, face to face with the raccoon, reached his hands out to the animal’s snarling mouth then pulled back. “That thing’s alive in there, it’s there in those teeth, man. You feel it, Earl?” Earl Atlas saw it now. He hadn’t really seen it before. He’d only paid attention to the eyes, model 3F’s. He thought that’s where the life of the thing had come from, but now he saw it was the mouth, the fangs, the rows of sharpened yellow slivers of teeth open and ready to snap shut, the purple tongue hissing silently at them. “You never think of

raccoons being tough, being bad. But those teeth. I want it.”

“The old man just sold that thing. To a museum.”

“We had a deal. You don’t Indian give, Earl. Come on. You gave me your word. How’s that spyglass working out for you? You getting an eyeful of hairy bush every night?”

“He sold it to a museum, Jack.”

“So stick another one in the box. I saw six other raccoons in here.”

“I don’t know.”

“Neither will anyone. They’ll be a million miles away from here. And it would probably cost them more to ship it back than they paid for it. Nobody will care about a rodent.”

“Fine.” Earl took down a raccoon of similar size from a shelf, dusted it off and placed it in the box. The two boys took Jack’s trophy to the showroom and sat it down in-between a panther and a jackal. There in the shadows of the showroom the raccoon


was easily more imposing than the other beasts. Both boys could feel its hot breath, see it twitch. They saw saliva glisten on the purple tongue.

“This thing’s way better than my spyglass,” Jack said. Despite the visions of the girl Earl could look forward to every morning, he knew Jack was right about the animal as they lay on their stomachs on the floor of the showroom, staring at the raccoon. And he was glad to be there with his friend looking into the eyes of the raccoon instead of being alone in his bedroom looking into the eyes of the naked girl at that moment, though he wasn’t sure which frightened him more.

“Dare you to stick your hand in its mouth,” Earl said.

“For what?”

“You chicken?”

“Fine.” Jack poked a finger into the raccoon’s mouth for a fraction of a second. “There.”

“That was weak, man.”

“Fine. You do it, Big E. Do it for real. For ten seconds.”

“For what?” Jack pulled two quarters from his pocket.

“Half a dollar, but I count.”

“Okay.” Earl slid the edge of his hand into the raccoon’s mouth until its back teeth touched his skin. Jack counted slow. He counted Mississippis. Earl felt the teeth tighten on him, felt hot breath on his hand, moisture from the tongue. Ten Mississippi and Earl snatched his hand from the raccoon’s jaw, it snagged on a fang, imbedded itself into the meat of his hand. The pain washed over Earl, up his hand into his shoulder and spine, and yet he didn’t flinch, he didn’t make a sound. He pulled his hand out and quickly closed it around the wound. If Jack were to see the tooth missing from the raccoon’s mouth he might decide that the animal no longer had soul. Earl didn’t want to go through the complex process of finding another animal for his fickle friend. Earl put his hand to his mouth, removed the raccoon’s tooth with his own teeth, and pocketed it between his cheek and gum and licked away blood from the wound. It tasted brassy like the key to the shop had.

“Pay up sucker,” Earl said and opened his uninjured hand.


“That was more like nine and three quarters, man.” Earl said nothing. He held out his hand and relied on his mass, something that he was becoming increasingly aware of, to persuade his friend to give him the money. Jack slapped the two dingy quarters into Earl’s hand. Earl’s other hand throbbed. He wondered if the raccoon’s teeth had been coated in some type of poison. Maybe the old man had substituted the raccoon’s canines with a pit viper’s fangs.

That night, before going to bed—Earl had been going to sleep earlier and earlier to wake up for the girl—he emptied his pockets and placed the keys, the rotten wood of the shop’s molding, the raccoon’s tooth, and his fifty cents beside green and black eyes on his night stand.

 

She appeared again the next morning. Earl wondered if she would as it was Sunday. A day of rest and obligation. It was overcast and dark, he could scarcely make her out even with the spyglass, and all that instrument seemed to do was add to the distortion. He saw her parts in a different light. He still appreciated her full and exposed breasts, but

one seemed to hang lower. She could have been off balance. The pitch of the old man’s roof could have been askew. Her belly button was an outie. This he’d never paid attention to before; it was another sign that she may be a witch according to his mother’s theories on the female anatomy. Her slender shoulders and neck, rice paper stretched over tendons, were not delicate, not those of a china doll, but sinewy and strained like a carnival strongman’s. There was no sun to backlight her, no breeze to halo her hair.

They only sat in the last three rows of pews at Mass. On Easter and Midnight Mass at Christmas or in the dead of July with the cathedral nearly empty they’d always sit in the back. When he was a very small boy Earl longed to sit in front to look on the fresco behind the altar up close. Until he was eight years old he’d thought the cosmology depicted in the fresco had been limited to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph for they were all he could see from the last three rows of pews. It wasn’t until the third grade when he made his first communion that Earl saw the fresco for what it was. A Knight of Columbus escorting the children in their white communion gowns had scolded Earl and twisted his arm for not


crossing himself after Father Kinski placed the host on his tongue. And it wasn’t until he returned to his pew to kneel and pray that Earl noticed how awful the wafer tasted. It was stale. It was flesh. Body of Christ. It made him wretch. Seeing the fresco up close had entranced Earl. Mary and Christ and Joseph were enormous, bigger than he’d imagined. The halos above their heads had been painted in gold leaf. And there were details he’d never imagined before. Orders of saints and angels, clouds and stars and planets all orbited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And above them all the wisps of God or the Holy Ghost ascended out of the mural, out of the cathedral and into the unknown void of actual heavens. So now when Earl sat in the back with his mother he didn’t mind as much as he had when he was younger, he could fill in the fresco with memories of each short trip to receive communion. And at each Mass he would look over a different section of the painting, fill in more details. He’d seen it up close hundreds of times now and each time he saw something new. But each time he returned to his pew he was sure he had forgotten something.

Returning to his pew after communion that

Sunday, “doing the perp walk” as Jack Juarez liked to call it, another image appeared to Earl. There in the vestibule Earl saw Señor Faustino lighting a candle. He caught up with the old man after Mass. “I didn’t know you went to this Mass.”

“I don’t. I go the German Mass Saturday.”

“You speak German?”

“No. I started going when they switched from saying Mass in Latin to English. For the first time in a very long time it made me feel like a foreigner. So now I go to the German Mass. It’s not the same as the Latin, but it’s not English.” The old man pointed over Earl’s shoulder. “Now you should go. You must never keep a lady waiting.” Earl turned around.

“Lady? Mom?”

“You can’t keep them waiting, boy. Keep them happy and you keep yourself happy. Keep them happy and you keep things simple.”

“Who are you keeping waiting?”

“Just the waitress who’s going to take my order at the S&G.” The old man waived to Earl’s mother


and walked to the S&G diner across the street.

 

“No way. There’s no way a raccoon could beat an alligator in a fight.”

“Why not?” Jack Juarez asked Earl Atlas. The boys were in Earl’s bedroom sorting through each other’s stacks of comic books, searching for possible trade material. The girl had appeared to Earl five more mornings in a row. Every day of school that week he’d marveled about it to Jack until, finally, Jack insisted he see the girl or Earl return the spyglass.

“Where would they fight?”

“I don’t know, in the forest or swamp. Wherever the hell they all live,” said Jack.

“It’d be a swamp and the alligator would munch it. Do raccoons even swim?”

“Okay. On land, Big E. Which would you take, the raccoon—my raccoon or an alligator?”

“Yeah. Maybe the raccoon would win then. If there were lots of trees to jump from.”

“Maybe? Come on.”

“Aren’t you tired? To see her we have to get up early. When it’s still dark.”

“Wind your alarm.”

“My mom will hear and think I’m up to no good for setting my alarm to go off at five on a Saturday morning. She’d come in here and see the naked girl and the spyglass and that would be the end of everything.”

“You go to bed, E. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed at nine-thirty on a Friday night. I’m no baby, man.”

“Just turn the TV down so I can sleep.” Jack scooped up an armful of comics and sat down in the Atlas’s old and worn arm chair. Earl pulled out his bed, threw a pillow over his face, and tried to sleep as Jack rustled comic books and hummed tunes of commercials.

Earl dreamed that they had been playing kickball at recess. He was up. Jack was on second, taking a big lead. The lunch lady with the cigarette breath was pitching, putting a big backspin on the


ball, making it hard to kick line drives, getting everyone to pop up in the infield. They had been playing-four-fouls-and-you’re-out rules and Earl was down to his last pitch. The ball came in slow. Earl ran three steps and met the ball with the toe of his shoe. The rubber ping of the ball echoed as it rocketed out of the infield, over the left fielder’s head, back to the fence. The shot had enough power. It was only a question of altitude. Jack, as reckless in Earl’s dreams as he was in real life, broke for home on contact, not waiting to see if the ball would be caught, not worrying about getting doubled up. Earl ran down to first and watched the ball. It had a chance. The only person at their school who’d kicked a ball over the fence had been a sixth grader named Tony Shavone two years before. Shavone had failed the third grade twice and had the advantage of two more years of growing when he had kicked his home run. Earl rounded second, still watching the ball, the outfielders all chasing after it. The ball came down to earth, hit the top of the fence, and popped on the jagged barbs of the exposed chain link. Earl pumped his fist and trotted home. Jack high fived him. Then the lunch lady with the cigarette breath called him out and

sent him to the Principal’s office for destroying school property.

The television was still on, now broadcasting snow, when he woke up. Jack slept in the chair under a blanket of comics. It was ten minutes to five; the naked girl would soon emerge to feed the roosters. Earl threw a sofa cushion on the floor and cranked the dial on the TV. Snow, test patterns, a bible thumper. Earl snapped off the television. The sky to the east lightened. He went to the window with the spyglass. Jack still slept, snoring under his comics. Earl waited for her. He watched the sun rise; rays of light broke across the alley and through the rooster cages, but the girl did not appear. Earl sat at the window for another three hours waiting until the smell of Bisquick and bacon woke Jack.

“Why didn’t you get me up, man?”

“She didn’t come out today.”

“Yeah, sure. Just for that, for screwing me over, E, I want my spyglass back.”

“Fine, I’m done with it anyway.” Earl knew he’d ruined it, he was sure that the girl had seen Jack or


heard his ripsaw snores. Earl’s mother called the boys to breakfast. She had made silver dollar pancakes and bacon that was still chewy—just how Earl liked it. He ate and ate that morning. There wasn’t enough food to fill him.

 

Earl told his mother that he was going to play basketball with Jack at the park that evening. She gave him a suspicious look when she saw him dressed in chinos and a shirt with a collar instead of her son’s usual weekend uniform of denim and t-shirts but said nothing other than the usual “be home when the street lights come on.” There were more people at church than he’d thought there’d be. There were Poles and there were Mexicans and Columbians who had been moving into the neighborhood for nearly as long as the Poles had. And there were Germans who had lived in the neighborhood before all of them. He was his mother’s son, so Earl sat in the last row of pews and looked at the faces. Old faces, immigrant faces, mostly female faces, most covered in babushkas or mantillas, nearly all in black.

There were a few males, only very old men,

ancient men who made the babushkas seem middle aged, and very young boys who clung to their mothers like ripe fruit sagging tree limbs.

In the vestibule Father Kinski gave four altar boys instructions. They were boys Earl had never seen in the neighborhood before. They were lanky boys with pale skin and dark raccoon rings around their eyes. They had the disheveled, stunned look of refugees. Earl had seen the same look in the children from Medellin and Gdansk who had been led by social workers to the Principal’s office on their first days of school. Perfunctory notes hummed from the colossal pipe organ in the choir loft. One of the altar boys ignited the incense in his censer and last minute stragglers tiptoed around Father Kinski to find their seats. The old man, his wrinkled suit hanging off him as if he were wearing a giant prune, genuflected and took a seat a two rows in front of Earl. He was not alone.

She was draped in black—a black shawl, a black potato sack dress that touched her ankles, black Frankenstein shoes like all the old women wore. Her golden hair hid in a bun beneath her scarf. She unraveled a rosary—a cheap, green plastic


affair—and worked her fingers around the beads before the procession began. Earl watched her fingers glide over the beads; her hands moved effortlessly just as they did when she sprinkled feed for the roosters. She finished praying and sat back on the pew. They sat without speaking or even looking at one another. Earl pantomimed his way through Mass. Language had no bearing on his actions. It was sleepwalking; it was a dream. He devoted his conscious energies to watching the girl. He knew it was her under those black shrouds. It had to be. In the dull light of the cathedral, covered in black, she was a negative of herself. To be sure, he jumped ahead when the rows let out to receive communion, two people behind the old man and her. He thought he would be able to confirm that it was her by the lingering scent of coconut and lilac that he was sure she would smell of, but the girl’s scent, a scent he’d dreamed of every night, was obscured by incense and schnitzel.

Father Kinski was aided in distributing the Eucharist by a young priest, an exile from Krakow. The young priest stood to Father Kinski’s right. Earl calculated which man would serve her communion the way he or Jack might calculate who would be

counted out in “my mother told me” when choosing teams for kickball and smiled when he saw that the young priest would serve her. Off to the side he would be able to look upon her face. When the time came she leaned her head back. Earl bumped into the babushka in front of him when the girl presented her tongue to the young priest. It was wet and tinged purple. It was small, a stiletto compared to her plump lips and apple cheeks. The young priest showed her the wafer, told her that it was the body of Christ, she told him amen. In Polish or Latin, Spanish, German, or English, he did not know which language they conversed. The young priest lay the wafer on her outstretched tongue and Earl could feel it, the stale wheat turned to flesh, react to her wet, worm tongue, transubstantiating into her taste buds, into her veins, her blood, her heart.

Earl was back in his pew, not quite sure how he’d gotten there, not remembering how the stale wafer aftertaste in his mouth came to be, when he realized that had been the first time he hadn’t paid the fresco any mind. It was as if the colors weren’t as vibrant anymore, the images no longer as grand. The mystery was gone.

 


He followed them out the church after Mass. They parted without speaking. The old man walked to the S&G diner across the street and the girl walked home. Earl lingered across from the diner long enough to see the old man sit at a booth and unfold a menu. He watched the girl walk home down Southport and even in those Frankenstein shoes, with the weight of those black shrouds she wore, the girl floated down the street the way paper bags did when they caught a breeze. He waited another few minutes, then ran home, up the rotting back porch stairs to his room, and searched his dresser drawer. Socks, underwear, glass eyes of various animals, the raccoon’s tooth, the old man’s spare keys.

The old man’s house was wrapped in green shingles, the walls, the back porch, everywhere but the flat roof that was covered in pitch. The shingles were old and buckling. Earl peeled the corner of one off as he debated what to do. He’d wait for a sign, he told himself. He waited to hear a rooster crow, to see a raccoon dart across the alley, church bells to ring. Nothing came to him. Finally he heard a car honk three times and figured that would have to do. He slid the key into the door and let himself into the old man’s home. It was small and neatly kept.

Plastic covered chairs and a sofa. Lace doilies draped the plastic. The house smelled like the taxidermy shop but there were no stuffed animals. He walked upstairs, tiptoed up the stairs and down the hallway. He found one bedroom, a tiny room with a twin bed made up with simple white sheets, a mahogany bureau with a pen knife and pipe tobacco on it, bare walls save for a palm frond crucifix over the bed. He saw no hair pins, braziers, or tubes of lipstick—items Earl Atlas had been sure decorated all women’s bedrooms. He heard footsteps on the rooftop.

Earl climbed out the hallway window onto the fire escape. He climbed it high enough to peer his head over the rooftop. Roosters squawked and crowed and clucked. Feathers floated and swirled. The zoo smell of rooster shit and corn feed was what he’d expected the roof to stink of, and it did, but Earl thought he could smell lilac and coconut. There was a small shanty fitted with mismatched window panes across from the rooster cages. It was unlit, but he could see a form move about inside.

“Earl,” the old man said, not surprised, not angry. Earl looked down the fire escape. The old


man waived up to him. “Come down here, boy.” Earl looked back to the shanty. “Earl, it’s okay. I’d like to speak to you.” Earl looked into the shanty one last time and climbed down. The old man led him into the house and set him down at the kitchen table, poured him a glass of warm 7up. Earl noticed all the dust on the bottle.

“I was just gonna check on the—”

“It’s all right, boy. Last week you asked me why I kept those birds.” The old man sat across from Earl and poured himself a warm 7up.

First, he made a point of explaining that he was not a backwards peasant from the old country, that his provincial look was simply a result of sun and age. “I was successful and handsome when I was young. I played guitar in a mambo orchestra in Miami when I was seventeen, dated a set of twins my first year in Chicago, purchased a revolver and a new Buick in the following year.” He explained that he had been born in the capital of his homeland and lived there until he had saved enough money to bribe a dock foreman to stow him aboard a steamer bound for Miami. He crossed the ocean when he was fifteen and never returned to his country.

Señor Faustino told Earl the story he’d never told anyone before, not any of the other boys in the yards; not the women he had slept with and lay next to in the darkness as they shared their histories; not the men, especially not those men, who bought his gamecocks and expected to be entertained as if they were investing in a race horse.

He had no fear of being called crazy. That was not why the old man kept what went on that day a secret. He knew, he told Earl, that if he explained what he had witnessed that it would have never happened, it would become a fairy tale, an invention. So he remained silent because it did happen. “But I’m an old man now. I have no wife. No son. When I die, my story will die with me. But that’s not why I’m telling you this, boy. You have your own stories, your own secrets. Keep them secret, boy. Keep them close, Earl. They’re lock picks to your soul and burglars would have you hand them over. Keep your mysteries.”

The old man explained how he had been hired to work on the docks for his size, not his strength. He was small and double-jointed. He could escape from shackles and unlock doors through their mail slots.


He used these talents on the docks. He was paid to squeeze between the pillars of crates and palates that formed a canyon around the docks and worm through their mazes searching for life.

The occasional shipment of oranges or beer or cheese would break open sending food deep into the canyons. The rats would take care of the crumbs until the dogs arrived. Those ravenous packs of dogs who roamed the capital would circle the train yards and the docks, knowing that their patience would pay off. The lithe feral dogs had little difficulty navigating the canyons in search of meals. They knew the system, understood to eat only enough to stop the hunger. It was the newly freed dogs who caused so much trouble. The ones who hadn’t learned the rules of survival. These lost house pets, still discernible by pedigree, reluctantly joined the packs, always staying a safe distance from their feral cousins.

Once the wild dogs had eaten their fill and moved on, snarling at the house pets on their way, the new dogs of the pack would make their way deep into the canyons following the scent of sugar or beats or potatoes; their sense of smell, a tool that

no amount of domestication had been able to completely suppress, now came back to them in full and pulled them rather than led them to the food with the undeniable power of a black hole. And they ate. And they ate. Gorged themselves as if they would never see another meal. Gorged themselves into a prison.

The howling was so pitiful that it discouraged the dock workers; the cries of the lost dogs trapped between pillars of crates made the men sad and lazy, so the docks and the yards employed boys, lithe as the wild dogs, to take care of the house pets who were stupid with content. The meanest or the strongest or the smartest or even the sweetest boys were not hired to scare or bully or outwit or coax the dogs out. The quiet boys who stood back and watched everything always made the best dog catchers. These were patient boys who knew when it was appropriate to be mean or forceful or gentle or clever. The foremen would give these boys a sack of bacon, a coil of rope, and an ice pick. And the boys were trusted to know when to use each item.

A shipment of Rock Hens, pullets from Canada


had arrived in the capital, which, despite the city’s importance, lacked in plump and tender fowl. There had been a drought that year and had somehow hardened the local rancher’s chickens as much as it did the baked ground. All the local chickens were stringy and tough and ate like jackrabbit. Crate after crate of poultry came out of the belly of an ocean liner that day. A manifest had the count at 300 crates, but there were many more than that. And with so many chickens packed in their prisons, flying around the shipping yards at the end of a crane’s boom, it was inevitable that there would be losses. Chickens would break through a loose slat and after the initial explorer took the first step into the air the rest would follow all hurling themselves to the ground where they would explode like giant, bloody snowballs. That is how the men who had seen snow before described it. Occasionally an entire crate would break free from its tether and slam to the ground with a cloud of feathers haloing it.

It was one of these lost crates that crashed between the canyons of palates shortly before the lunch whistle. And the pullets that survived—many did, as the towers of lumber broke the fall—were

stupid and frightened. Their fear shouted out to the packs of dogs who arrived with the knowledge that a feast awaited them. Once the dogs arrived, the yard filled with death squawks of chickens. This went on through the morning and into the afternoon.

The feral dogs, efficient and quick, snapped off the heads of the birds in sharp chomps when given the opportunity. Then they would rend apart the birds to eat the best of the meat—the thighs and breasts, and especially the organs, savory gizzards and hearts. The house dogs picked at claws and eyes and chests and beaks, and ate the scavenged carcasses until their bellies swelled, until they trapped themselves deep inside the canyons.

That evening he went in on hands and knees. Sometimes the canyons were wide enough to walk through in a twisted crouch, but the towers that the chickens lay between leaned together supporting each others’ weight like a house of cards and left only enough space for the boy to crawl through. Blood and feathers and shit covered him as he closed on the massacre. Every now and then a dog of indeterminate breed would run past him, on its way to buffet. He let them run. Better to catch them all at once, he figured.


He crawled deeper into the maze, following the most loud and desperate whines. He came upon it in an open alcove where sunlight penetrated the canyon walls. The dog, a bull terrier, was clearly new to the streets, new to the feeling of hunger, and it did not like it. The dog came from a breed of fighters but he had never been trained to fight; he was never kicked or sprayed with icy water to get him to bare his teeth. He was no guard dog either, though his mere presence in the window of his master’s townhouse—his robust shoulders and bulldog jaw—were enough to deter any potential thief. This fighting dog was a common house pet who licked his master’s face when he came home from work, who was walked on a leash through the park, and around whose neck a name tag jingled.

Normally the boy would be content to set a trail of bacon for the dog to follow out, but he saw the glint of sunlight from the dog’s neck. The dog had a tag. House dogs with name tags were prized among the boys who crawled the canyons, as their return would often garner a generous reward. The trick was to make off with the dog before the foreman saw them as he would take them, claiming “official company business” and collect the money himself.

He hesitated for a moment. The dog was of a fighting breed. But the animal looked up at the boy as he approached, gristle and blood on its muzzle, with such sad and lonely eyes that the boy knew the animal was harmless, at least to him. The dog had not gorged itself enough so that it would stay trapped. But he knew it would if it continued to feast on the exposed birds, feeding from the inside out like an infestation. He held out a greasy pork hoof as bait for the dog. Even holding it inches from his nose the boy could not smell the pork, only the smell of chicken blood and chicken shit. The dog, with it’s formidable sense of smell blocked as well, by hunger and hunting, did not notice the boy’s entreaty and went on disemboweling the pullet.

He stroked the dog’s flank. He could tell it was new to the street as there was still a layer of fat that covered the dog’s powerful muscles. The boy presented the hoof to the dog who considered it for a moment before inching closer to it. The dog was now close enough for the boy to read the tag, still petting the dog’s flank he leaned close to look for an address, but there was none, only a name: Solista. The boy clucked and called to the dog in a whisper as he crawled backward, still holding the hoof. “Ah,


pobrecito, Solisito. Vamos aqui.” The two made eye contact, the boy’s gray eyes peered deep into the frightened, anxious eyes of the dog, into soulful eyes that reminded him of the hungry children who roamed the capital begging for table scraps. The boy coaxed the reluctant dog back through the maze of crates and palates into an opening the size of a small courtyard. He stroked the dog’s ears, wiped blood and feathers from its muzzle and fed him pork hooves and bacon.

He saw its shadow first. It was late in the afternoon and the sun shot through the canyons in bands, striping the miniature wooden metropolis in light. It was not a pullet that cast the shadow above him. It was not a female. And not a bird of prey. The rooster could have been a turkey it was so large, muscular not fat, even the boy could tell that from twenty feet below the bird. The cock swooped down upon the dog. It descended with purpose, gradually, under its own power. He saw the bird’s sharpened talons, the sun glinted off their ivory sheen, and recognized the bird as a gamecock. And shackled to its ankles a pair of spurs made out of copper wire and slivers of razor.

It swept down upon the bull terrier, strafing it with its spurs. The boy tried to shoe the rooster with a plank of wood, but the rooster dodged him, flew into the air, and dove down on the boy, slashing his face with a spur from ear to mouth. The boy retreated and watched. He remembered that there was no wind that day, not a trace of wind. There were no gusts to propel the rooster, this flightless bird, hundreds of feet in the air, but the bird did fly. Up then down. A dive-bombing the bull terrier. And the dog’s blood boiled and it fought back, snapping at the rooster. The dog knocked the bird off balance with a bite on the breast. The rooster rolled to the ground. The boy watched the bull terrier’s bear trap jaws clamp down on the meat of the bird’s chest. The bird shrieked and gouged the muzzle of the dog with a beak sharpened to a razor point. The beak imbedded itself deep into the dog’s muscled neck and the two animals were locked together. And the boy watched. Maybe, he explained to Earl, he could have separated them and saved the dog. And maybe he had enough courage deep inside of his slender body to confront the oppressive rooster and the tenacious pit bull. Maybe. But he did nothing. He leaned back against a


crate, held an ice pick out in front of him with one hand, and pressed the canvas meat sack to his wound with the other and he watched. He knew that the war he witnessed was unnatural, his mother would have made him shut his eyes and pray Benediction. But his mother had died two summers before. The boy watched, frozen in place. He dared not move because he knew that if he did move, make a sound, the strange battle might end. The rooster, the bull terrier, the dock, him, the whole world would vanish. So he watched.

He witnessed the magnificent and terrifying rooster spread its wings and felt a sadness wash over him, for impressive as it was, the bird was still cursed with the ignorant dinosaur eyes that all chickens had. He watched the rooster flap its wings with the might of a thousand condors. And the two animals locked in gruesome union took flight. Four feet, ten feet, rising above the cloud of battle, twenty, thirty feet, above the mountains of crates into the windless sky. Higher and higher. Still higher the two combatants ascended until they were pebbles in the sky.

Copyright© Dan Mancilla. White Whale Review, issue 4.1

 


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