“You’re a little shit, Miguel. He’s going to pick you.”
Juan always had a mouth on him, but to say something like that? It was too much. He hadn’t even managed to brush the dust off his shirt before my fist crunched into his lip, sending him down again.
“Stop,” someone shouted. Hands grabbed me from behind, pulling me away from the other boy. Someone knelt by him to make sure he was alright, but I didn’t get a chance to see who it was.
“What were you thinking?” My father spun me around to face him. “Fighting in the middle of the village? And so close to the festival?” He smacked me across the face, rocking my head back.
I managed to keep from crying out, but my hand went to my cheek on reflex. The taste of blood was hot in my mouth, but I was pretty sure it was from the split lip Juan had given me earlier, before I tackled him.
“He said that I’m going to be picked,” I mumbled. The words sounded a bit funny coming from my swollen mouth.
My father looked over to where Juan’s family was pulling him away. He looked back at me and the anger left his face, replaced by a sudden fear. “Let’s go home.”
Home was a little three room hut off the dirt road that ran through the center of the village. We were only eighty miles or so south of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, but there isn’t a map in the world that shows our village on it. The festival makes sure of that.
My father led me inside and shut the wooden board we used for a door behind me. “Sit down,” he said, and pointed to the only chair in the room.
I glanced at the chair. It was his chair, the one he used for drinking. I had never sat in it before.
“Sit,” he repeated, and gave me a little push.
The wood felt hard under my ass. I was used to sitting on soft earth.
“Miguel,” he said and leaned in close. I caught a whiff of tequila on his breath. “I know it’s hard. But the festival, it keeps us safe. You don’t know what it’s like out there.”
It’s supposed to keep us safe, the festival. Back when the conquistadors slaughtered their way across the country, no one from the village was ever harmed. These days the cartel leaves us alone. They don’t even know that we’re here, up in the hills. No one does.
My hands tightened until the knuckles were white. I wanted to hit him. Hit my own father. “What would moth-”
His hand slammed into the side of my head with a dull crack, and sent me sprawling on the floor, legs all tangled up with the chair.
“We don’t talk about that,” he said, and his voice was as dark and cold as I had ever heard it. “We never talk about that, understand? Never.”
I glared at him. He never let me talk about it. After it had happened he hadn’t been sober for a month. Even when he was drunk he refused to speak of it. Not even now, years after. We both knew the rules, my father and me, the same as everyone else in the village. With the festival tonight only a fool would break them.
My blood was hot though, and my anger wouldn’t let my tongue stay still. “She wouldn’t-” his boot caught me in the gut, knocking the words right out of me.
“You are going to stay in your room until the festival,” he said as he looked down at me. “You are going to stay there and you are not going to say another word, even if I have to break your jaw.”
He grabbed me by the ankle and dragged me to the closet where I slept. I tried to fight back as he shoved me in, but he was too big, and the drink gave him strength.
The bar fell into place just outside, and I knew I would not be leaving until he decided I could come out again. This wasn’t the first time this room had been used as a cell.
I sat on the pile of rags where I slept. The only light in the room came from little cracks in the plank my father used as a door. I rested my hand on the clay of the wall, and felt the coolness sink into my skin. My head sagged against the shelf.
The festival would start at moonrise. My father would have to let me out then.
Thinking of it brought the anger back, sharp and hard. I punched the wall, then I did it again. Why weren’t we ever allowed to talk about it, anyway? It didn’t make sense. Everyone knew what it was. Everyone had to be there for it.
It didn’t like us to talk about it though. That had been made clear enough, even for me.
I sat back in the dark and tried to take a deep breath. There was nothing for me to do but wait.
‘By the time my father let me out it was as black outside as a beetle’s belly, and the moon was just beginning to peak over the mountains on the horizon.’
He held a pair of great big sticks in one hand, and he didn’t speak a word as he handed one to me. His eyes told me what he was thinking though. Don’t talk. Don’t make a scene. Don’t break the rules of the festival.
I nodded my understanding. I didn’t want to be chosen any more than anyone else.
The wind sang a mournful dirge as it whipped through the rocks and crags outside the village. We stepped outside into the black of the night.
Stars don’t shine on the night of the festival. The only light came from the little sliver of the moon as it rose, and from the fire the men had started down at the edge of the town.
We started toward it, and as we did the other villagers came out as well. They walked beside us, young and old, and everyone had a big stick in their hands, same as me and my father.
A coyote cried out, somewhere out there in the hills, and I felt a shiver run down my spine. Everyone around me shuffled silently to the hiss-snap of the flames. Between the fire and the moon there was just enough light for me to see Juan, a few paces in front of me, and looking just as scared as I felt.
On the other side of the fire was the tree. I kept my eyes on the dirt as we all jostled into place around the flames. The thing would be hanging from the branches, looking down on all of us. I didn’t want to look, but I could feel its empty eyes on me, goading me to glance up.
When I could take it no longer I let my eyes flick to the thing in the branches.
It was old, the thing up there. Made of dried up sinew and bits of bone all tangled around each other until the whole thing looked like the carcass of some nightmare creature. It had a face on it, all rotten now, but I knew whose face it was. We all did. We didn’t talk about it, but none of us ever forgot.
The wind died away as we all stood there, looking at it, and it looked back at us. Only the fire made a sound and it seemed for a moment like the whole world balanced on the edge of a cliff. The bones of the thing rattled. It was time.
One by one, my neighbors walked around the fire, and beneath the thing that hung from the tree. They waited a moment, and when the thing stayed still they breathed a silent sigh of relief and moved a short distance away.
Juan was a little in front of me, and his eyes met mine through the people between us. I wondered if I looked as wild as he did. As panicked. We had both broken tradition today, and we both wondered if the thing in the tree knew.
The man in front of Juan passed beneath the tree with no sign given. I held my breath as the boy walked after him. It would almost certainly be one of us, him or me.
He stood underneath the tree, and all was still. He glanced at it, and a smile split his face. My stomach sank and he looked back across the fire at me.
The bones in the tree rattled once, and his eyes snapped back to them. No one dared to breath as Juan stared up at the tree, me least of all.
They rattled again.
“No,” shouted Juan, but his voice was lost in a gale of wind that howled down out of the hills.
He had been chosen.
We stepped forward, all of us with our big sticks. Juan had been chosen and the rules of the festival had to be obeyed.
“No,” he screamed again. “It was just the wind.”
It hadn’t just been the wind. The thing in the tree had spoken. It watched us from empty sockets where its eyes had rotted out.
We raised our sticks.
At first, he tried to fight back. There were too many of us, though. Soon the sticks rose and fell in a vicious rhythm, and blood splattered up across our hands and faces. I felt the bile rise in my throat, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t. The rules had to be obeyed.
The fire faded before the morning, and when it was done we returned to our homes. We left the sticks behind with the corpse. In the morning, both would be gone, and the thing in the tree would wear a new face.
I didn’t speak to my father as we shuffled inside and collapsed into our beds. He would drink for the next week or maybe longer, I was sure. He always did after the festival.
In a way, I understood the sadness in him. There wasn’t a night that went by when I didn’t dream of my mother, and the stick smacking into her head over and over, while the thing made of bone looked down from the tree and smiled.
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