Plain China

Goat Sucker

by Mark Putterman · New York University
Glen, from Alabama, Saulaman Schlegel · Grand View University

Isabella has a black eye. Jay tells me el chupacabra did it and not to tell Mom because it’d scare her. That’s stupid, I tell him—the goat sucker doesn’t do that. Don’t you remember Dad’s stories? I ask. The goat sucker has matted, grey-brown fur that gathers in gnarled points along the notches in its spine, ivory teeth that wink in dim light. The goat sucker lives in the shadows and strikes only in the night; he kills every time. The goat sucker—Hermanito, Jay interrupts me, baby brother. Shut up and mind your own business.

Most days Isabella comes over just as Jay is getting home from work. Today she’s early and I let her in. She hangs around the living room, poking around, picking up a book and putting it back down in its place, humming under her breath. Her right eye is swollen and the skin around it is loose and purple. I ask her what happened and she smiles and Jay’s car pulls into the driveway before she can answer. I hear him slam the car door and Isabella walks outside to meet him. Her long, flowered dress hangs just above the pebbled driveway and it looks like she’s floating as she walks. I watch from the window as she kisses Jay. He looks at me through the same window and I turn away.

Glad you find my life so interesting, he jokes, when he comes inside. He mock-punches me in the arm and throws himself onto the couch. Isn’t she coming back in? I ask. Jay pulls off his sneakers. His feet are red and swollen from a day of work. Nah, she’s got things, he tells me. What do you mean, things? I ask, but his mind is already somewhere else.

A few minutes later he’s asleep on the couch and the afternoon news is blaring on the television. A weatherman in a blue blazer is standing in front of a map of New Mexico saying that this summer’s drought is now the longest-lasting in state history. Fifty-eight days without a drop of rain. No wonder the ground is so dry it makes you thirsty just looking at it. I turn off the TV, wander back into the yard and find Isabella sitting on the porch. In the dry heat, the wind gathers the red earth up in fistfuls that sprinkle gently back down to the ground. The sun bleeds red through the dust. Isabella looks beautiful and strange and is fingering the hem of her dress. I amble towards her carefully, as if approaching a bird that could vanish into the sky at the slightest false movement. Instead, she wipes her eyes and smiles at me.

Do you believe in monsters? I ask, once I’ve inched my way to the steps beside her. She laughs and tells me that anyone can be a monster on a bad day. She ruffles my hair and says it’s time for her to go; the back of her hand brushes against my forehead. Her face is covered with a layer of red dust through which tears have traced random patterns, the way a river carves valleys in the earth.

 

When my tío woke up the next morning, he found his cabrita, this little thing, two, three weeks old, dead as a dog. Big fleshy wounds in the poor thing’s neck. Her mother was nowhere to be found—el chupacabra must’ve sucked all the blood out of her, too. But you know, it’s better your goat than your son, right? My father nips at my neck with his fingers and I push him away. Nasty chupacabra’s been known to snatch up a little boy or two when he’s desperate. Ha, ha. Hey—my father chuckles and stops the story—I’m not scaring you too much before bed, eh hijito?

Jay is reading in his bed on the other side of the room, acting like he’s too old for these stories. My father chuckles and rubs his dark, stubbly chin with his hand. This is back when he still had his hair, before he started his treatment. I must’ve been seven or eight.

I laugh and tell him it’s okay. I’m tough and his stories don’t scare me anymore. Good,hijo, he tells me. Don’t wanna keep you up all night listening for signs of thechupacabra. But don’t worry too much– before my tío died he gave me his old 9mm; still got it to this day. So don’t worry—no chupacabra’s getting near our house.

 

The next morning Mom makes breakfast while I go out and feed the chickens. Since the drought began, it’s been so dry there’s no grass for them to graze in the yard. The earth is thirsty, as Mami puts it. Anyway, they make easy prey for the goat sucker so I keep them in their coop. I creak the door open and I’m met by the thick, sour smell of feathers, chicken shit, and birdseed. The hens are bucking and squawking and strutting about, putting on a big show; I do a quick count to make sure all thirteen are there. I can’t remember all of their names even though my father and I named them when they were chicks. It was in second grade and I was learning the presidents in class, so my father decided we’d name the chickens after them, to help me remember. Washington is the one with the speckled gray feathers; Lincoln, the skinny one with the big beak; Clinton, the rooster. The rest, I don’t know—I never was any good in history. I spread their feed and gather up the eggs, pulling my shirt out like a pouch to carry them inside. Mami’s got toast and sausage on the table, and she smiles as I arrange the eggs on the counter. She grabs three and cracks them onto the hot skillet. The sound of the hot oil fills the kitchen.

As I walk to the bus stop with my neighbor Mary Anne, she tells me she has a new pair of binoculars her dad got her for her birthday. At recess we climb to the top of the jungle gym and she holds them to her face, turning her head from side to side like a soldier on duty. The elementary school kids are making a big fuss and asking us to move so they can play, but I don’t really notice them because Mary Anne is smiling and telling me she can see our houses from up here, which probably isn’t true but her big grin makes me smile anyway. She passes the binoculars to me and they’ve left little circles around her eyes, which makes me think of Isabella. I look through the binoculars and watch the younger kids playing in the sandbox and the boys chasing a ball in the field, kicking up clouds of dry dust in their tracks that wander into the air and disappear.

 

My father was 23 when he married my mother. She turned 18 the day before their wedding. He was a construction worker; his father’s lineage traced back to the ancients of the Valley of Mexico. Mom would tease him sometimes, call him el jefe de los indios, the Indian chief. Jefe, she would say, why don’t you let all that air out of your chest once in a while? We all know you’re the chief around here. He would laugh and pull her by the wrist towards him, embrace her. She loved him; he used to say she was the most beautiful chiquita he’d ever seen. Now Mom wears his wedding band above her own.

 

The next morning Mom is watching the Saturday morning news when I walk into the family room. The blue blazer weatherman is waving in front of the map again, this time going on about dust devils and wind. Little tornado-shaped doodles cover the map. A storm is coming, hijo, Mom tells me. She tries to draw me onto her lap but I resist. I’m not a kid anymore, Mami, I tell her. She laughs and pinches my cheek as I wriggle away. We spend the day taping the windows shut tight and tying down the furniture on the porch. While Mom cooks dinner, I go out to the chicken coop and give them a little extra feed. Then I close the old wooden door and jam a rock in front of it so the wind won’t open it in the night. The sky is clear and the evening is hot; the air is thick and dry and I can feel it in my throat.

Jay is out with Isabella and isn’t home in time for dinner, but Mom pretends it’s not a big deal so we eat anyway. After, she sits on the couch watching crime dramas on television while I clear the table and stack the dishes in the sink to soak. When I come out of the kitchen, she’s already asleep on the couch. I turn off the television, and now I can hear the wind outside, wheezing and whooshing in the night. Mom’s sweated through her shirt; I turn on the electric fan and point it towards her. The air blows her hair back weakly.

That night, lying in bed in the numbing heat, I count the stick-on stars on my ceiling until sleep takes me.

 

There is an ancient myth that my father used to tell me when I was a boy. As the story goes, the world was created by a great warrior-god who carefully molded the earth out of clay in his supple, worn hands. When his work was complete, he chose to walk the earth himself, to witness the splendor of his creation. To his dismay, he found the planet barren, dry, and lifeless, cracking beneath the hot, unforgiving sun. Seeing his failure, the warrior took his life, cutting his throat with his own blade.

In death, his blood pooled in red puddles and sank into the dirt and from its fertility blossomed all life on earth: man and beast, fish and fowl, the trees, grasses, and flowers.

 

The next morning, after the dust settles, I peek out of my window. The world is still there, and I decide to venture downstairs. Mom is asleep in more or less in the same position as I left her. I unlatch the front door and step outside; a warm breeze tickles my face and stomach through my t-shirt. The earth is dry and cracked and I imagine I’m on the surface of a distant, lifeless planet. When I walk around back I find that the door to the chicken coop has been blown open, but inside they’re all there, social as usual, popping over to their feeding troughs when they see me. When the chickens move over to one side of the pen, I see one of them left behind. A closer look and I find two holes in its neck, as if drilled by a metal instrument. I pick her up by the legs. No blood drains from her wounds.

El chupacabra struck in the night! I call to my mother as I run back into the house. The front door slams behind me and Mom jolts up from the couch. Baby, baby, she says, what is it? She rubs her eyes. It’s el chupacabra, I tell her, out of breath. It killed one of the chickens! She chuckles and strokes my face. Her hand feels cool against my red cheek. Baby, she coos. There is no goat sucker. It’s a silly old folk legend your father told you to scare you. It’s not real. I try not to cry because I know my father would never do that. But it’s killed one of my hens, I explain. I tell her about the wounds, and how there was no blood, but she laughs again and tells me to go wash up before breakfast. You have your father’s imagination, amor, she calls to me as I trudge upstairs, defeated.

As we walk to the bus stop, I tell Mary Anne what happened. She tells me her mother doesn’t let their dog out of the house at night anymore because they’re afraid of what’s out there. The devil’s child, her mother calls it.

 

My mother keeps a framed photograph of my father at her bedside. In it, he’s holding a dusty yellow hard hat in one hand. The other rests casually on his hip. He’s thick and healthy, wearing a faded white t-shirt. In the background is the house he built us, the house that we live in to this day. Jay is five or six, digging in the dirt with a stick in the background. My mother is pregnant with me, wearing a long black dress that bulges around her belly.

When my mother remembers him, this is the man she sees—the strapping, confident, macho man, the provider, el jefe. This, too, is the man I know as my father: the man who built the house I live in, the man who taught me to ride a bike, swing a baseball bat, the man who kept me up thinking of chupacabra stories. But a part of me, the part of me that dreams, knows that this is not my father. In my dreams, he is sick, he is at the end. He is the man who wakes me up in the night, bitter alcohol on his breath, to ask if I know where his car keys are. He is the man who is who-knows-where at dinnertime. He is the man who wears a hat to cover the bald spots left from his treatment. At the very end, he is the man who lacks the strength to leave the couch, who mutters emptily at ballgames on the television and calls to my mother to pour him another drink, who cusses her out when she keeps him waiting.

This is the side of my father I cannot forget in my dreams. In the mornings, I do my best to forget.

 

Jay keeps my father’s pistol under his bed; since our father left, he thinks he’s the man of the house. One night Jay comes home for what seems like the first time in weeks. As he and my mother fight in the kitchen, I sneak into his room and feel under the mattress for the gun. My hand hits cool metal and I draw it out. It’s heavy enough that I have to hold it in both hands. I can hear my mother screaming across the house. A man never hits a woman, you understand, Jay? She says his name the same way she says curse words. I hear Jay’s voice: Dad was a man. They are silent for a moment, and I finger the trigger of the pistol as it lies heavy in Jay’s bed. Your father, God rest his soul, says my mother, was a better man than you, Jay. And he never laid a finger on me, you hear me? Bullshit, says Jay. Get out of my house! my mother screams. Get out.

A door slams and the engine of Jay’s car revs. His headlights shine through the window, and I watch as they fade into two tiny dots.

 

Outside, I lie hidden under the porch, my eyes fixed on the chicken coop. The night’s dry heat draws beads of sweat on my brow and to stay occupied, I dig my hands deeper and deeper into the cool sand beneath me. Time passes—the moon swings in an arch across the sky. Soon my eyes are heavy, and I fight sleep.

A rustling in the distance shakes me from sleep. I rub my eyes, but cannot make anything out of the darkness. The sound grows louder, and I see a shadow dance in the distance. In panic, I search for the pistol in the dirt. My hand hits metal, loosening the knot in my stomach. Now I swear I can make out a pair of beady red eyes, and then the outline of a large, muscular animal. Its tail is thin, its body jagged and spiny. I see a flash of light in the pre-dawn sun. My hands are shaking, but I take the gun and do my best to steady it. I count to three, close my eyes, and pull the trigger.

My mother runs from the house screaming, and Mary Anne’s father rushes out of their house, sprinting over to our property with a shotgun in hand. I’m standing over the dog. He’s bleeding from his stomach, a painful moan coming from his open mouth. His tongue hangs limp on the ground. My mother sees me and starts to cry, stoops over and wraps her arms around me. I look around and see Mary Anne standing at her front door in polka-dot pajamas. She runs out to join us, falls to her knees and cradles the dying animal’s head in her hands. She looks at me with red eyes and I know she will never talk to me again. Mary Anne’s father scoops her up in his arms and strokes her back. No one says a word. As I look down at the ground, watching the blood pour out of the dog and begin to mix with the red, dusty earth, I feel the first drops of rain.

About the Author

Mark Putterman · New York University

Mark Putterman is a senior at New York University, where he studies postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and history. His work is often inspired by folklore, legend, and family histories. Fiction judge Lydia Davis admired this piece for its “imaginative situation, its ease of movement, its plain language, some good detail, and its touching and convincing ending.” “Goat Sucker” first appeared in NYU’s literary journal, West 10th Street. Contact Mark Putterman here.

About the Artist

Saulaman Schlegel · Grand View University

Saulaman Schlegel graduated from Grand View University, with a visual arts degree and concentration in creative writing.Glen, from Alabama originally graced the cover of the Susquehanna Review, which also included with other works by the artist. Saulaman has been creating music, singing in Europe and America, and sculpting, while maintaining painting and employment. View more of Saul's workhere.