Gustavo Barahona-Lopez

Grandfather’s Chickens

There was something about going to Mexico that made my imagination run wild. Was it the bright splashes of yellow or blue or green on each house and storefront that would crumple conspicuously? Or maybe the subtle smell of corn and lye? Whatever it was, to me it meant freedom. I could go around town without parental supervision. And if I was lucky, I would have a few pesos in my pocket too. Back home my father insisted on keeping the windows and blinds closed at all times, as if the blinds could keep out the pain of the world. But in Mexico he was a man transformed. In Mexico, he had a permanent sparkle in his eye, which was otherwise only visible when he was singing corridos. He was close to his kin and his smile knew it. After a red-eye flight and hours of road traveled in kilometers, all it took for us to become adjusted to our new surroundings was a quick nap on mattresses laid on the floor.

I loved my grandparent’s ranch because it was full of horses, cows, goats, and therefore, endless possibilities. Most of all I liked to play with the chickens. I ‘invented’ a rudimentary trap using wooden crates, a stick, and twine. Each afternoon I would tie the twine to a stick and use it to prop-up part of the crate. Then I would put dried corn under the crate and hide away so the chickens would come and eat. When only one chicken was in the crate, I would pull the twine and capture the unsuspecting bird. On one particularly ambitious day, I caught twenty chickens. My grandfather was not amused.

To avoid additional avian imprisonment, my grandmother gave me a small baby chick of my own to care for. He was a beautiful black-feathered bird that looked so vulnerable I could hardly comprehend it. I fed Shadow and kept him warm indoors until he was big enough to protect himself from the dangers of our enclosed backyard. Shadow relished the freedom and quickly became adept at hunting insects and digging for worms. Still, nothing gave me quite as much pleasure as Shadow pecking at dried corn in my palms.

A month and a half into our Mexico stay, my father decided he wanted to move a number of rocks from one end of the backyard to the other. For hours I toiled with only an uncomfortable red cap as protection from the hot sun. The work was slow. Since these rocks had not been moved in years, each time I flipped one of them, dozens of insects scrambled for darkness. I would sometimes catch some of the insects and Shadow would eat them gratefully.

Under one rather large stone, I found a scorpion. I immediately grabbed for a shovel and cut the scorpion in two, separating the body from the stinger. “Danger averted,” I thought. Poking at the stinger with a stick, I wondered how something so small could pack such a dangerous venom. When I looked back at the scorpion’s body, it looked like that of any other bug. Without thinking twice, I used the shovel to toss the scorpion’s body in Shadow’s direction and continued working.

That evening, Shadow started to move more slowly. When I went to feed him corn, he still ate. However, the pokes of his beak on my bare skin did not hurt as much as usual. When Shadow started closing white eyelids, I knew something was wrong. I covered Shadow in a towel and held him on my lap. My mom noticed that I would not look up from my lap and asked “¿Que pasa m’ijo?”, “What is happening son?”. Softly, not really wanting her to hear, I said “I found a scorpion under a rock and I gave it to Shadow”, then louder and with more urgency, “Not the stinger though, just the body so Shadow is going to be O.K. right mom, RIGHT!?” “Ay m’ijo” my mom said with a knowing look. She sat down on the couch next to me and put her arm around me. From then on, the room was blurry.

My aunt and uncle came over when they heard what happened and they stayed with me as Shadow’s breaths grew shallow. By midnight, it was over. “How could I have done this?”, I thought, “How could I be so stupid?” My internal critic had no answer for me that day. I buried Shadow in the backyard that had been his home. Next to a handwritten “Shadow”, I placed a single candle with the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe hoping she could lead him to heaven. I put my hands together unevenly as if to pray but I could only muster one word, “Perdóname”*.

*Forgive Me

Gustavo Barahona-Lopez is a poet and educator from the San Francisco Bay Area. In his writing, Barahona-López draws from his experience growing up in a Mexican immigrant household. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Rattle’s Poets Respond, PALABRITAS, Cutthroat journal, Puerto del Sol, The Acentos Review, among other publications. When Barahona-López is not teaching you can find him re-discovering the world with his son.

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