Fiction: Birthday Candles
By Marcos Rosales
Little Maria saw one from the front porch. It was after dinner and before the birthday candles and she'd been playing I Spy with some of our younger cousins, squinting out into the cornfields with the sun long past down. It was quiet then. She heard it right away and then she saw it and she hauled our cousins inside before they could. Now a wind was starting to catch on, and we couldn't tell if it was just one or more out there in the dark. It was late fall, the cold just barely getting on. They'd come early this year.
The adults knew what to do. Gathered everyone together and turned off all the lights until it was just candles with us in the living room. One of the older cousins was playing patty cake with the kids, trying to keep them smiling, a few of our aunts and grandmas were holding their rosaries muttering and praying, and Tío Martin was counting heads and hushing our aunts and our grandmas because Tío Jesús had gone out to check on the animals earlier tonight and he still wasn't back. The wind was crude and whistling. It rattled our curtains sometimes. Those were drawn tighter than life.
Wasn't long before the rifles came out. Tía Rosa was handing them out to the men and women right after they got the volunteering out of the way of which there were not many candidates. We had no torches this time, that was the tricky thing. They were still in the shed. They'd come early this year, some of the women were wailing, oh, oh why did they come early this year? On tonight, of all nights? The kids were starting to notice, their smiles starting to fall. Tío Martin shushed everyone and told the géntes to get ready, they were going out now.
We had a picket fence round the backyard and first thing they checked was if any'd gotten through. The lamp was still on back there, hard white light. All the tables and balloons and things were still up. Dishes of birría and bowls of pozóle cold and flat. Once they'd made sure none of the fence boards were damaged or broken the volunteers went out through the side hatch, silent with grim faces. A lot of boys my age were going this time. I went last year and I held no confidence for this one. Earlier in the night I had stood practicing with my cousin Antonio's rifle, took it unloaded to great abuelita's tea set, and I found I could not settle my aim on any one thing. The wood stock of the rifle was heavy and cold to a numbing degree. My hands were shaking.
It became a matter of what to do very quickly. A lot of the older men and women always stayed inside with the kids and so did most of the girls but few boys did. I stayed downstairs for a little bit and listened to the adults pray with the children in the living room. Went upstairs, tried some of the rooms but most were either trying to sleep or trying anything to keep from sleep at all. A few girls were trying to play charades in the hall but they had to whisper everything. It always went like this. Everyone trying to make noise without making any. No one wanted to hear anything coming from the outside.
I was getting some chicken from the fridge and I wasn't hungry in the slightest and I heard the first few shots. You could hear them soft and peppering and fleeting in the distance and it almost sounded like July. Soft and fleeting was good, because it meant they were far away. They were the only sounds you could possibly hear of the act being carried out. I went to the window, close as I could possibly be and I cracked a sliver of the blinds open. There was the shadow of the barn in the deep blue of night and the corn husks like cricket shells sifting and weightless far as the eye could see. You could not see muzzle flash or rustling in the ferns but you could hear the faint peppering, and every now and then a distant yell. It was strange. I was almost trying to find one of the signs, trying to see some hooded figure in the dusk or hear that which I had heard last year. I did not manage to get many back then. I mostly held my rifle and aimed at shapes in the dark. But I had a torch then. Maybe this was almost better. Torchlight made shadows. Brought every last detail to light to imprint themselves on your mind. One of their faces I still saw sometimes when it was late in bed and I had too much to eat beforehand. He was coming out of the dark green leaves and he was hobbling on one leg or another and his limbs seemed heavy as swamp trunks. His nose had been gnawed until it was two gaping holes and one of his eyes was milky and half shut. His hair was black and oily and rotting in clumps and when he saw me something came groaning up out of his throat, like ships through berg water and I had never heard anything like it before. I did not scream and I did not move and I just stood there dumb and staring as he came for me with those pulsing, live eyes. They were not dull or vacant as I'd been told and told and told they'd be. There was some intense, violent thing in them even as their bearer shuffled and plodded toward me. There was something alive.
One of my uncles got him before he could get me. Nice and clean, right through the head like they told me to. There was no blood. There was not much of anything left. He made the symbol of the cross and told me to get moving as he went on ahead but I stood there for some time after. Something cold grew in me the longer I looked.
A cousin of mine brought me away from the window. They wanted me for one of their seances. I left my chicken on the countertop.
The night went on. The volunteers were still not back and we decided to do the business of the birthday cake for the sake of doing something. Great abuelita was still asleep when we crept into her room, the birthday candles the only source of light and casting looming light bulb shapes over the space. The girls led the singing just like they'd been practicing, low and soft so as not to disturb la matriarca. I mouthed the words like I always did and if anyone noticed they did not tell me. I could not look at great abuelita's face for very long. The shadows creased the wrinkles on her face and she seemed very hooded and ominous where she slept, tucked beneath woolen covers ancient as her. I was almost glad she was asleep for she never said much when she wasn't. It was a lot of smiling and nodding and saying things she couldn't possibly hope to discern and you were often left wondering what would happen when she wouldn't wake up at all. But there was something almost normal in that, maybe. Almost. Somehow standing here in the dark and singing to a sleeping ghost felt stranger than everything else that had happened tonight so far. As if some spell had overtaken the house, our hearts. I almost wanted to leave.
There was a loud crashing downstairs and the singing immediately ceased. Hushed whispers, hurried steps downstairs. What happened to the birthday cake I don't think I'll ever know. Someone was throwing themselves against the front door. We could hear cousin Antonio's voice calling out and you could tell his mouth was bleeding. Some of the older girls ushered the children away immediately and the aunts and uncles were already arguing amongst themselves, wondering what to do. We did not know if he had been marked and we had no way of knowing that didn't involve letting him in. I heard all of this as I watched the door shudder and groan against its hinges, Antonio's voice growing hoarser and his words slurring. Fine, he kept saying, he was fine he promised they did not get him they did not touch him please mother of God just let him in. Tío Jorge was telling the rest of them to find a rifle somewhere when the banging stopped. It was silent for a forever time. There seemed almost nothing behind the door. Then the knob began to twist, turn in jagged movements, and there was a sound like scraping on wood. Something was beginning to groan.
The children were not permitted to be in the living room for the rest of the night. They were tucked in bed and they were very miserable because of the business with the cake but they were never very disruptive. The rest of us were left to perform our prior machinations in the halls or the toilet or wherever there was space just not in the living room. He was still groaning out there.
I spent some time in great abuelita's room. With no light and no candle it was like there was nothing there, and you were in a room with nothing and you could stay as long as you liked. I rested my back against the wall and it worked for some time. But every now and then great abuelita would breathe a little louder or shift beneath the sheets and it would be ruined until you could get into that space again. I could have been angry. The night seemed to keep most of that for itself. It was long and unending and I wanted desperately to sleep for some of it. I wondered if I would be able to sleep at all for the rest of my life. I wondered how long that would be.
It was very early morning; at least, it had to be. I passed some of my cousins sitting in the hall, aimless chatter amongst them. The men were resting their backs against the walls and looking at photographs in their hands or smoking their cigars or something or other. Some of the older women were rocking themselves in the kitchen chairs, still clutching their crosses. They were mostly silent. Everyone was so preoccupied they did not notice as I slipped out into the backyard. The light was still on out there and I did not know how someone hadn't managed to take care of that yet. The sky was a little brighter. The stars were almost gone.
I didn't see Tío Martin sitting there among the tables until he turned to look at me. He had his rifle stuck in the dirt. He was wearing a hunters cap and I could not see his eyes under it. His breaths were labored and haggard. His overalls were stained in something dark.
He asked me how everyone was doing inside. I said they were hanging in there. He asked if I had a cigarette and I did not. He looked up at the sky for a moment and he was very tired. He rubbed the back of his neck and I could see the shadows of his grimace. They'd gotten to the barn, he said. That's where he and the volunteers had found most of them. They would have to burn the remains in the morning. But there were still many more.
I asked him where everyone else was. He just kept looking at the sky. The grip on his rifle was ice tight, trembling. I asked him if he was okay and he said yes immediately, in a way that told you he was not wounded. He said, almost to himself now, that there were still many more. He did not understand it. There were many more and they had not the bullets to satiate them. They had not the men. They had taken all the men and they wanted more.
It was silent after. I did not know what else to say. We just stayed there in the backyard. Then he took his cap off, rubbed the sweat off his brow and sighed. It was a hard, grueling business, he said, again to himself. It was like it was getting harder with each year. He asked if great abuelita liked the cake. I told him yes. He seemed to like that.
He got up with his rifle in hand. He told me to round up the children.
Marcos Rosales is an aspiring writer currently living in Peoria, Illinois. His favorite pastimes range from petting dogs, reorganizing his bookshelves in the evenings, and spending mornings before work writing out dreams he had the night before.