2016 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest Winner
September 12, 2016
Sep 12, 2016
18 Min read time
2016 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest Winner selected by Jennifer Egan.
Artwork: Scott Sherrill-Mix
This was not an easy choice, but I selected “Trumpeteers,” this year’s Aura Estrada Short Story Contest winner, for its daring and precision. There is a rich and vivid sense of place, a wealth of local texture; an array of striking characters delineated with economy; and lots of deep, latent history that animates the story even without our knowing its details. My favorite thing about “Trumpeteers,” though, is its air of strangeness and mystery. Some of this mystery derives from the author’s elegant use of first-person-plural narration to suggest both a particular set of siblings and a whole community grappling with tremendous forces—human, meteorological, and divine.
—Jennifer Egan, contest judge
It’s summer when the tide goes out in King’s Bay, and by winter it still hasn’t rolled all the way back in. In that first day the marsh stays mostly mud, a thick, gelatinous muck with summer sea reeds shooting out in blinding green waves. Only backwoods countryfolk talk like nothing’s the matter, let the soup suck up their lures the way it used to suck up the rocks we’d hurl into it when we were younger and dumber and bored out of our minds. And maybe at the beginning they were bored out of their minds too, all still lining up at Carrie Bridge, same as the painting of the Last Supper hanging in the Sunday-school room at Pastor Adolfo’s Church of God of Prophecy, if Jesus and them all wore rubber boots and pants and underwear while eating flesh and drinking blood. Soon the Georgia sun has baked the topmost layer, made it look like the brownies Titi Cándi brought for the potluck two potlucks ago, the ones she’d made with baking soda and not sugar. The fishermen still go out, still in their rubber slickers, sweating enough you’d think they’d’ve brought the tide back in. They’ve got bowie knives tucked into belts with plastic snap-buckles, shovels slung over their shoulders to dig. The crust cracks, gives under the blade of the shovel, oozes out in a way that lets us split a ten since it doesn’t dribble out looking like pudding the way Primito swore it would. We waste time standing around watching them, the fishermen, bouncing pebbles across the heat-frozen rind of our newly retired marsh. There’s nothing else we can do.
Titi Cándi is convinced it’s the END TIMES, all caps, by that first summer Sunday, and when she drives us to church she makes sure to slow down on the bridge, just like the people in front of us have and just like the people behind us will, to sign the cross, before she picks up the gold-plated one she wears and kisses it like she’s Catholic—except we’re all a bunch of jean skirt–wearing Pentecostals. Dios llama, she warbles, puedes oir las trompetas. And we say, No, Titi, that’s the car behind us, ’cause we haven’t moved an inch for at least five minutes.
Everyone can talk to God, but not everyone has a direct line. Everyone’s got postcards, but not everyone can call direct.
But as soon as the pulpit is visible, Pastor Adolfo of the Church of God of Prophecy says, It is the End Times!
There are sweat stains under the arms of the long, billowing sleeves that he must’ve worn for effect. He has had since Wednesday to prepare this hellfire and brimstone sermon, and it works: a shiver runs through the congregation like a pep-rally wave except for us, and Titi, she howls from the front pew, wide hands fanning out near her face, and says, te lo dije! ’cause she had dije, like a million times over before we got here. And it’s not that we don’t believe them, or haven’t considered it, but Titi thinks it’s the END TIMES if she so much as sees Pastor’s daughter, Cuca, coloring her fingernails in with Sharpie during service. Cuca is weird. Cuca is deep in her Evanescence phase, watches her father with a mixture of admiration and trepidation that we know she wants to mask as indifference. We don’t like her. Primito is unaffected, handless arm tucked under his other. He is dozing. Primito doesn’t believe in much, but he does believe in sleep. We find comfort in that, because yeah, the tide going out is weird, but that first week we’re convinced it’s anything but the End Times the way Titi is certain it is.
Everyone, according to Titi, can talk to God, but not everyone has a direct line. Everyone’s got postcards, she says, but not everyone can call direct. Titi’s been blessed, this is how she knows. She talks to God every night, and He talks back, and sometimes, when we badger her, she tells us what He says. His Magic 8 Ball answers tickle us. Did Jesus eat his fill of olives in the garden? we’ve asked Titi, and she said He said, No. For Jesus is not selfish. Did he really drink wine? we’ve pressed. No, she said He said, it was grape juice. Is it the End Times? we ask that Sunday night and Titi’s mouth is a gathering of wrinkles. God’s divine will, she says. Where’s Mami? we ask. She turns off the light.
In the second week, locked in our bedroom and cutting our split ends in secret, we whisper to one another.
—Maybe it’s science.
—No doubt it’s the moon.
Our nods rustle. We never paid enough attention in biology or geology or any -ology to be sure, but science was a good enough reason for the tide being gone.
By the third week, we’ve started referring to the marsh as a person.
—Can you blame her for leaving?
We want to play mud rocks, but there is no mud for the rocks to sink into.
—She’s playing a permanent game of chicken, hopping the rails.
We hoot, we holler.
—She’s never coming back.
This we all agree on, solemn.
By the fourth week state news catches wind of what’s happening in King’s Bay. They roll into our town in herds of two and three, muscling the local newscasters out from beside the bridge with their sleek hair, their in-season suits. Traffic on Carrie Bridge bloats, and whenever we see Primito, he says the traffic’s worse up north. School starts in the middle of that fourth week, or tries, but the bus gets snared in that choked-up traffic and we’re left idling dead center on the bridge. There’s only one paved road to get us to the one high school in the Bay, and when we twist around in our seats we can see the other wagons with all the rest of us, all not-wanting to go to school.
The fishermen are still lined up too, still in their rubber suits. They become clearer and clearer as we inch forward, anchors swirling around them with mics, cameramen carrying equipment like boom boxes. Sometimes we watch ’80s movies when Titi isn’t home. We imagine what they must be saying, dub them with our theories.
—It’s the End Times! Then again in Titi’s voice, God told me!
—The END TIMES, we boom, arms up to conduct an orchestra, to catch lightning.
—That’s not funny, Cuca says. She’s slouched two seats behind us tying knots in a length of black ribbon. Casting a spell, probably, and she gets her own seat to do it. We’re not the only ones who don’t like her. She’s wearing three pairs of wristbands up both wrists, white tape peeking from underneath, is wearing clothes too hot for our summer, too hot for the seat over the wheel. She looks like she hasn’t slept since last fall. We glance at one another, guilty even though we don’t want to be.
—What do you know about funny? we say eventually. Cuca doesn’t make eye contact, but her hands still. We’ve won.
A group of boys flock toward her seat, backpacks clipping other students’ faces.
—Look! they shout. Look!
Outside the fishermen are still lined up. The news anchors are still lined up. Their mouths are dropping open, snapping shut. They look like ventriloquist dummies. One of the fishermen is holding up something bloody pink, something slimy, something hanging in strips of scales and tattered flesh and then we see his fingers tucked into the lip of what was once a fish. Is this how Jesus fed hundreds, we wonder.
The boys laugh uproariously, their bodies caging over Cuca, who sinks until she disappears from view. We get up. Someone has unlatched the emergency exit and it’s buzzing buzzing. Then we see him, Pastor Adolfo, with wild bed head, cutting into the shot of the camera. His arms are up, leading the trumpets. His arms are up, catching light.
We still can’t hear him when the emergency exit door swings open. We don’t even need to dub him.
—End times! he’s shouting. You, untoward generation, you generation of vipers!
We sink in our seats too.
No one is laughing when King’s Bay enters a drought. With the tide gone, even the moisture in the air is in short supply. The skeeters are dazed, and the gnats have moved on, but no one complains about that. Boys are tramping out into the caked-over plain that has overtaken what was once marshland, are taking pictures with the withering corpses of gators, and we see the girls at school liking these pictures on Instagram. A question materializes on the evening news ticker one night, a tweet, the word DROUGHT? in capital letters from @News4KingsBay. We are in the dining room when we see it while Titi is still in the kitchen.
—Titi, what do you know about droughts?
—Our Lord wills them, she says. Then: there was one once when I was a little girl. On the island.
We each get symmetrical mounds of rice. The exact same measurement of red beans.
—What did your town do?
—Survived, she says, but we say, no, no. We say, What did your town do to deserve it?
We are sent to our room without dinner.
The drought is announced as an official state of emergency, but our water pressure remains the same, even though Titi begins to fill buckets, bottles. She drags us to Walmart to buy cases of water, though most of them she gives to the Church of God of Prophecy. They close the community pool indefinitely. We make fun of Cuca on the bus, say, you never have to worry about water because clearly you don’t use it. She never responds.
It isn’t until King’s Bay begins rationing water that we realize how serious it is. First we only lose one day of water a week. On Fridays the water town-wide is cut off. Then it’s two days. Wednesdays and Fridays. Wednesday service is canceled. Then it’s Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Monday service is canceled, but Pastor Adolfo schedules a lock-in for the weekend. We are left with Sundays. We are left with Thursdays. The rest of the week our sinks are corroded with a white mineral crust. We are bathing with bottled water measured out in plastic cups. We are catching suds in our mouths, just in case. Titi knows how to make rice with less water, beans with less water. When school cancels our football schedule, we hear some Baptist kids say, Maybe it is the End Times.
—Pastor, Primito tells us at the lock-in, has started digging a hole in his backyard.
—He’s going to kill us, we say, and laugh and laugh, but deep down we wonder.
We all sit in the pews closer together than normal. There are candles lit around the walls, and it’s hot in the room, hotter with the AC cut off, all of us breathing the same recycled air. We’re all sweating, and some of the sweat is cold, and we are too close to Cuca, who smells plain, like flour. Her thigh is pressed close, and her hands are upturned in her lap. She has two wristbands on each wrist tonight, and her brown skin is bee-stung, fish-innards pink at the edges.
—My flock, Pastor Adolfo begins. Today he has disciplined his voice to be quiet, severe. The Lord our Father will soon call upon each of us, and we must be ready to abandon this Gomorrah of a town to ascend into the Kingdom of Heaven and join Him.
He pauses, and it’s quiet, but we lean our heads together anyway. We ask one another, do you think He remembers all of our names?
Titi pinches each of our wrists, hard.
—But first, we must be prepared, Pastor says.
We smile at one another, teasing.
—You have all been baptized in the waters of Christ, but it is time for us to be reborn anew for the second coming. It is time we wash away the sins of this world, for they are plenty.
—Amen! Titi says, hand swiping through the air. We grasp for it and pull it down, kiss the back of Titi’s hand again and again and she lets us. She doesn’t see how hot our cheeks get.
—Tomorrow, my flock, let us be baptized.
On our drive home we see the fishermen loitering on Carrie. They are helping a bunch of boys from the school—the ones who ride our bus and work at the mom-and-pops—to haul an alligator over the lip of the bridge. It doesn’t look all that alive, but its mouth is roped shut anyway. There are divots in its ancient skin, rotted clear out. We see the thud of it hitting the pitch as we drive by, and we’re not sure if it’s the impact that makes it twist or its desperation. We think of The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, we think about how handsome Yul Brynner was. We think of Cuca with her length of ribbon and don’t admit to one another how our armpits prickle. When we get home we ask Titi to ask God, Should we shave our legs beforehand?
We don’t get dinner. She claims we’re fasting. When the 11 o’clock news is telling King’s Bay to boil our water, we hear the sound of her chewing in the living room, and catch her with a package of saltines in her lap.
We remember our first baptism, but only barely. We remember crying, and we remember the sting of the water in our earlobes, inflamed and red in pictures Titi kept after Mami had pricked our baby-young skin with sewing needles. Our ears have long since healed shut, but we can feel the nub of scars when we rub them.
‘Men and brethren, what shall we do? What shall we do to be saved? What shall we do, save repent?’
The hole Pastor Adolfo has dug in his backyard is shallow and craggy. There are mounds of dirt ringing the pit, and camping stakes are driven into a blue tarp liner that disappears under the water being funneled in with a giant hose.
We are all dressed in white except Cuca, whose only white garment is the punky leather belt around her wide hips with the rows of white plastic studs. If Pastor Adolfo minds, he doesn’t show it. When we slide off our slippers, she unties her boots, laces hissing free from their double-knotted bows. We line up our shoes and socks, our keys and phones, at the lip of the makeshift pond alongside the rest of the congregation’s, an open mouth full of crooked teeth, and the gap of Cuca’s boots.
And then it is a conveyor belt of baptisms. Titi wades in first, Pastor Adolfo’s hands tight around hers. In the water she is smaller, but squatter, and her skirts billow up around her waist in bruised petals. We can see her shins from where we stand, her calves swollen frogthroat white against the blue tarp beneath her feet. We imagine the purple veins in her ankles, behind her knees. Her eyes have been closed since Pastor Adolfo led her to the water.
—Yet God has said to observe all things whatsoever he commanded you! he shouts. We grasp hands. It is hot and there is a hum of bugs brushing our ankles. There are mosquitoes nipping the water.
—Be ye pricked in your wicked hearts! Like Peter, and Matthew, and the sons of Zebedee, and the rest of the apostles, who watched their Lord bear the stripes of their wickedness, only to rise again, an holy lamb without spot or blemish before God. Men and brethren, what shall we do? What shall we do to be saved? What shall we do, save repent?
Titi weeps. She murmurs her sins into Pastor Adolfo’s ear and then he is dipping her beneath the water, and we think of swing dancers. She’s dunked three times, and when she emerges, she is weeping.
—I heard Him speak! Las trompetas!
—Amen! someone shouts.
People go one by one, and not once does Pastor Adolfo falter. We hang back. The water gets murkier. We step forward, but Pastor Adolfo calls out for his daughter, and she steps over our shadow with her head down. We look at each other, hold on tighter.
—Let us be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of our sins. And, lo, his presences shall abide with you always, even unto the end of the world.
When Pastor Adolfo asks for her sins, Cuca stares up at him and we shift from foot to foot, we scratch our ankles, before she says, I don’t want to tell you, and then he’s forcing her beneath the water, one two three, and when she comes back up, we see the water caught in her open mouth, expect it to pour out like red red wine from a little clear cup. She coughs, she sputters, the water mostly spit, and wipes at her running mascara. Titi grasps her arms to help her from the baptismal pit, but her hands are shaking, and Cuca slips free, falls into her father.
—Titi! we say all at once, because Titi is vomiting into the dirt, and it’s speckled with the crackers she’d eaten last night. More than half the congregation is shitting, and Pastor Adolfo is shouting something about purging, about sinning, about ridding our bodies of unholiness, and Cuca is the only one of us moving, grabbing a phone someone tossed in the grass. We wonder if she’s calling God, but then she’s vomiting too. She’s shitting as well, and we are alone and unblessed in the middle of Pastor’s backyard, and when we grab the phone we see it’s just a dispatcher on the other line.
In the hospital we hear things like, Jose is critical, and know they’re talking about Primito. We give them names, they tell us thank you. They say things like Vibrio vulnificus, and when we ask what? they say bacteria. They say the water is teeming with it, that we’re not the only ones. Pastor Adolfo doesn’t listen. He’s still damp from the chest down, tells us it’s God’s divine will, that it was in His plan when they tell us all the names of those who didn’t make it, the shorter list of those still holding on. We learn that Cuca’s name is Refugia, we learn that she’d swallowed a lot of the water, that the bacteria had crept into wounds on her wrists, but, they say, she’s young, she’ll make it. We are certain Pastor Adolfo doesn’t realize that he is crying.
They will not let us see Titi. They let us stand outside her door instead and our fingerprints smear across the thick panel of glass. She is frail, they say over our shoulders, and we’ve always known that she is old because Titi, she’s Mami’s Titi too, but we never paid attention except to the wrinkles on her face. And they say to us, we need to pump her stomach. They say, we want to make sure. They say, we need more time. Eventually they herd us from the door. We tell them please save her when what we want to say is save her first, don’t let her die because it is easier to be mad at people who leave on their own, and we know she doesn’t want to leave on her own.
When Pastor is allowed to visit Refugia, our hands join, and he looks at us, unsaved, and tells the waiting room we’re all family under Christ, and maybe they pity us, because they don’t say a word when he opens his arms and beckons, and are just as silent when we follow.
In the room, Refugia looks like a generator. Fat and thin tubes stick out of her arms like bendy straws. Her skin is ugly old bruise colored, green and yellow, lips cracked and dry as the marsh. There is gauze napkin folded and taped onto each of her eyes.
—M’ja, Pastor Adolfo says.
—Hello? She says back.
We don’t know where to look first. Pastor Adolfo touches her hand, so we do too. He turns her wrists over and they’re thin. The blood coming through the gauze looks orange, looks yellow. They need to be replaced and when they are, we see them. Shiny open wounds, the shape of the Catholics’ Santa Maria. The skin looks pulled and eaten where they were stitched shut. We look at one another, and then at Pastor Adolfo.
—Estigmas, we say.
—No, Pastor Adolfo says.
But we know it’s true. We need Titi’s Magic 8 Ball answers. We need Titi.
We grasp Refugia’s weak hands.
—It’s a miracle, it’s a blessing, we say.
Pastor Adolfo tries to pry our hands free.
—No, no, he says, but we only hold on tighter.
—Please bless us, please bless us, we beg. Refugia’s head is tilted toward us, but we know she isn’t looking. Please bless us, we beg again. The tide creeps back into town, inch by crawling inch.
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September 12, 2016
18 Min read time