by Leah Velez


short fiction

She swallowed the cow to catch the goat, She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat, She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider; That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly; I don't know why she swallowed that fly...

Right before I met you, the boys had been banging on the bathroom door. “Araceli,” they said, “quit crying and let Donnie piss,” but I didn’t move. My brother didn’t have to pee. I knew he didn't. And even if he did, he don't need a toilet. Boys can go anywhere. Bathtub, by a tree, by a dumpster. My cousin Joey went in an empty pop bottle once when his dad was taking too long. If Donnie wants to be like him so much, he can stick it there too, for all I care.

I’d locked myself in because after school the boys had followed me home, barking. I told Joey to control his dogs, Gioaquino, and he said, “Don’t call me that,” and I told them all to “Fuck off,” and one of his friends said, “You’d like that, huh,” and then another one said, “Yeah mami, I’ll be gentle,” then my brother Donnie said, “That’s not funny, that’s my sister,” but Joey said, “Shut up turd,” and Donnie just did.

So I ran here and locked the door, even though it’s haunted. Donnie said they were just playing, but I didn't want to hear it, so I started rhyming.

Etwas damn cold muffin, fool miffed in a poo.
Wee lad Temeni pilgrim, tea asquint no timbu.
Behave phlegm slum sloth sikat plenty fed;
Akoprem profoundly fanned soot then blue mend.

Ma says my rhymes are a waste of time and talent. She said it to Grandma before Grandma fell and left us. “She ain’t a baby no more,” Ma said, “Quit filling her head with that mess.” But I like it. Words, sounds, no meanings, I don’t know. It doesn't feel like a waste to me. I know that doesn’t make sense, but if I sing, nothing bad can happen. That’s what Grandma used to say, at least. And she was right, because Joey’s crew said, “Let’s go” after only one more verse.

I hate how cold it gets in here. There’s no radiator, and even before what happened, Ma liked to keep the bathroom door closed so we didn't let our nasty into the rest of the house. “You’re a Chicagoan, Celi,” Uncle Mo always says, “You’ll get used to it.” But I don’t know about that. When somebody leaves the window open to clear the steam, you can see your breath-flakes. The minute before I met you, I was trying to take my mind off Grandma and everything else by watching them swirl. By making the bathroom into a snow-globe one hot huff at a time.

And that’s when I heard you. A light scraping, and the crinkle of plastic. I started wiping wiping, super quiet so I could listen. You sounded too big to be a mouse, and usually I would have been afraid, but I decided whatever you were couldn’t be worse than outside, and definitely not worse than what already happened in here. I started singing so you wouldn’t hear me ease the cabinet open. And that's when I saw you. Exactly like the stories Grandma told about the brave tinies of Lilliput who slung their ropes and together grounded that giant man who thought he could do whatever he wanted.

Only you were crying. Knees to your chest, arms wrapped around them. Scraggly hair squirting from your faded green hoodie like a Pelon tamarindo, Pelo Rico like the wrapper says, but with white strands mixed in, too.

I started whispering to you, but you wouldn’t say nothing. I thought maybe you spoke another language. I didn't know Lilliputian, but Mr. Torres taught us how to count in Turkish, and French, and Greek. I don't know why. Counting from one to ten in another language is the most useless thing. They’re the only words you can use your fingers for. I tried the Arabic, Urdu, and Bosnian curse words my classmates are always saying, but you only cried more. “I didn’t mean it,” I said. I tried Spanish, Tagalog, Polish. “Te amo,” I said. “Mahal kita,” I said. “Kocham cie,” I said. Still nothing. So I thought maybe you were just cold. I put my ear to the door, and when the coast was clear, wockleteeflockletee, pickletipockletee I ran to the living room to grab my blanket and pillow. I’m sorry I shook out the dust. I didn't mean to scare you. Your eyes got as wide as your whole face and you ducked behind the toilet paper again. I winced and lay down, right where Grandma fell, “Sorry, Grandma,” I said, but right when I placed my palm on the floor, I knew she didn't mind. I wiggled my fingers inside the cabinet, and after a few minutes, you took my pinky in your wrinkled hand, remember, and I told you rhymes until you could breathe again. I wiped your tears with the corner of my blanket, your eyes too big for your face, then you and me exchanged blinks for a long time, and I knew we were going to be good friends.

I’m looking at the bulb over the mirror. That buzzing. How you must have hated it. Every time we came in, that sound. That day was the first time I noticed it. As you crouched in the crease of that buzzing light through the cabinet door, the whites of your eyes vibrated along, and when you turned your head, the brown sparkled amber. I remember I was distracted by the noise from downstairs, and got up to look through the window in the shower and saw the boys making a line of ice balls to throw. Even though I figured I’d get one later, I knew they’d be there a while, and that made me feel a little better. I remember noticing that you had mud on your pants and holes in the elbows of your sweater. Lilliput must be so far away. I wondered about your adventures, and was about to ask you, but then I thought how hungry you must be.

On the count of three, I ran to put chicken nuggets and pizza rolls in the microwave and hoped the beeping wouldn't call the boys upstairs. It didn’t, and when I returned, breathless, I set the snacks in front of you, but you backed away. I told you I wouldn’t look. That I’d turn around. But you still wouldn’t eat nothing. “Look,” I showed you. “This is how.” “The steam will warm you,” I promised. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. I’d made some for me, too. I told you that you looked like a Fran. Did you mind that I named you?

I like that I can still see Grandma on the tub. Well, her blood anyway. Ma scrubbed and scrubbed, but couldn't get her out. I tried to show you. To make my arms a chair. To lift you and bring you closer. You didn’t like that. “Oh oh,” I said. “Whamlam famalam boomcram whatajam. You’re okay, you’re okay.”

I wish I could still tell you things. Like how we don't have a TV no more because Ma threw it out the back window after she caught Joey watching Faces of Death with his friends. She said, “You want to watch that sick shit, you can’t do it in front of my kids.” There is still glass and plastic glitter on the concrete. I’d try to show you, if you were here. Right there, next to the dryer in the back yard. I know you would hide, but I’d tell you how pretty it looks in the sunshine. Especially with the ice. All different colors.

I wish I could tell you how I taught Karla to shoot arrows from a quiver today. I can almost see you raising your bushy eyebrows so the crinkles on your forehead zigzag. No no, don’t get excited, I would tell you. It wasn’t a real quiver, it was a celery bag I found on the playground. Well, next to the playground. Okay, okay, it was next to the dumpster behind the cafeteria. Kindergarten made ants on a log today. That would make you smile. I just know it. If you were still here, I’d tell you how Karla and I shot stick arrows at the fourth graders. They’re not supposed to use our jungle gym because they’re too big. I’d tell you how the arrows weren’t enough, so we clotheslined them when they came up the stairs, and when they climbed the slide instead, we slung them down. “You Are Not Worthy,” we yelled as they slid into the woodchips. I wish you could have seen how their breath broke as their stomachs hit the slide, and how the static made their hair stand when we pushed their heads into the plastic sides. I think you would be proud.

Except Karla invited Mimi and Tamara over, even though we hate Mimi and Tamara. I whispered that to Karla, but she said I was being judgmental, whatever that is, so I said, fine, Mimi could be Athena, and Tamara could be Paris because she looked the most like a boy and Karla laughed, and we were all going to play, but then Mr. Torres wanted me to put my name on my picture, and when I got back, they were playing without me, even though it was my game. Ma would say that’s what I get. Tamara does though. Look like a boy. She’s the only one with short hair. I wasn’t trying to be mean. Okay, maybe I was. Anyways it don’t matter, because when I got back they said Artemis, that was me, had died in a freak accident with a charmed deer, and the gods had ruled that I could never come back to life, so I should lie there and be dead, or find something else to do.

I wish you were here so you could blink that slow blink, and reach out for my knee. You would have known what to do. Anyways, I said I didn't see why they couldn't come to Hades and bring me back, and Karla said, “Sorry,” and giggled. Mimi said it’s because I’m conceited. “Am not,” I said. But she said, “Are too, are too,” and Mimi said that I don't even know what that means, and I don’t, but I said I knew she was but what am I. Only then they saw Joey’s stupid friends across the playground and they got even more giggly, and Mimi shared her Creamsicle Lipsmackers with Karla and Tamara, and while they wiped it across their puckers they laughed about Kayla wanting to juice one of the boys in the alley, and I’m not sure what that is, but it might be why Ma said before that I can’t go over to Karla’s house no more.

I bet it’s nice in there. Walls around you, close and narrow, a door so no one can see you cry. To be close to people, but where they can’t see you, and even if they could, at least they’re alone, not with a bunch of people that make them act like they don’t know who you are.

Am I talking too much? You usually had your hand on your chin like you were listening, but maybe you always were just waiting for me to leave and turn out the light so you could be without that awful buzzing. Or so you could eat? I remember when I went to get grape juice that day, I was so worried you were going to run off, but when I returned and you had nugget dust around your mouth, I started jumping. You curled into a ball and covered your head with both arms, so I stopped, but I was so proud.

When Ma and Uncle Mo got home that day, I lay my blanket over you, and you picked up my hand with both of your tiny ones and kissed it. I had always wanted to know what that felt like. Like a princess. You thought that I was being kind, that I knew you were cold, that I was trying to make you comfortable. But I wasn't thinking about any of that. I wish I had been. But I’m terrible. I was thinking how if I covered you with it, and if Ma or her brother or his kid or Donnie opened the cabinet, they couldn't see you, and that way you could stay my secret.

Which you weren’t. Not even then you weren’t.

When Uncle Mo brought home dinner, I snuck rotisserie chicken and arroz con gondules into a napkin and stuffed it in my pocket. I excused myself as the grains and pea-beans tumbled out and the dead bird’s limp skin greased my fleece pajamas.

Joey laughed at me. “Damn cuz, pooping again?” he said.

“Don't you never make fun of a girl for going to the bathroom,” Uncle Mo said, real serious. “They got lady things to worry about. Stuff you don't understand,” he said, and I wondered did he know about you?

Uncle Mo went back to his opera records and Joey said, “What I will never understand is that ass. How something so small can be so funky. All them farts, stanking up the house.”

Donnie laughed.

Ma yelled for them to cut it out as I opened the bathroom door a sliver, squeezed in, and shut it, but I forgot to lock it—if only I could have remembered that one easy thing, that one thing I always, always do, but I couldn’t even do that right—and Donnie opened the door and snuck in after me. I thought he was going to say sorry, or talk to me, or something, but then he went right to you.

How could he have known? Did Uncle Mo tell him? Maybe Donnie wasn't downstairs with the rest of the boys when they were making the ice balls? Maybe he had come up to check on me and heard us talking? Maybe he was there for me after all, even though he couldn't show it? Or maybe you’d been here a while, and he knew before me? Maybe you didn’t come for me. Maybe you were here for him? Everyone always likes Donnie more than me. It’s not like I can’t see why. He gets along with everyone. And people always say, “He’s so cute.” I guess he is, but no one ever says that about me. Anyway, he put his hand out, and you did this bow and walked right towards him, and I started to feel all kinds of things, but before I had time to be mad at Donnie, or at you for betraying me, Joey barged in.

“What are you freaks doing,” he said, then saw you, and started laughing. “Who the hell is that,” he said.

“Her name is Fran,” I said.

You pulled your hood up over your head like a baby who thinks the world will disappear if they don't see it. I wish I’d said something different. Not that you understood English, but you must have understood that this wasn't enough to protect you. That I was scared. That I wasn't the mighty Lilliputian you’d hoped I’d be.

“What up, old lady,” he said.

I told him to shut his facehole, but of course he didn’t.

“Which one, dork?” he said.

“All of them,” I said, and then he shoved my head out of the way with his palm, and too late, I noticed he had his other arm around his back. Ice-cold slush slid down my back, and he pulled my jeans open so the water would drip all the way down.

Joey started poking you all over, “Tickle tickle,” he said, poking his fingers in your face, your stomach, your arms and legs, and Donnie looked at him, but he didn’t do anything, why doesn't he ever do anything, and that’s when you began screaming, no-no-nonononono, your first words and they were all the same one, and it still didn't tell me what language was yours. It didn't stop. Joey made Donnie help him pull you out of the cabinet. And shoved more ice from his pocket down your sweater. “Ha ha ha,” he said, “look at her squirm. Look at her wrinkled red face,” he said.

And that’s when you began to shrink.

I didn’t believe it at first.

I said over and over to please please please let you alone. You held the pipes and cabinet doors with your whole self, but by then, I was sure. There was less and less of you. My back against the wall, I trickled to the floor and stared at you, my ever tinier old lady friend, and you were shaking so hard.

Don’t go, I said with my eyes. Through the blanket, yours were smaller by the second. I wanted to hold your hand, tell you it was going to be alright. Don’t worry, I thought to you, and hoped you’d hear me over the jeering. It will be over soon, and you’ll be okay because I’ll be here.

Only it wasn’t and you weren’t.

Ma opened the bathroom door, and everything stopped so quickly you were flung inside and still you were shrinking, shrinking.

“We don’t play in here,” Ma said, scary quiet.

She didn't see you. I don't think she saw you, at first, because she sent the boys to their room and sat on the toilet with her head in her hands.

I hoped she wouldn’t stay long. She has things to do, I thought as loudly as I could. She’s going to get tired. She has work in the morning. But she began to hum an aria from one of Uncle Mo’s records, and I got a pit in my stomach like I was a giant rotting peach.

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly, I don't know why she swallowed that fly, I guess she’ll die.

Ma started rocking, and the tank pinged against the wall. She wiped her face, and I didn't know what to do.

“Come here Celi,” she said, but I shook my head. I didn't want to stop looking at you. You needed me, and you were leaving, and I couldn’t even say goodbye because she was here.

“Chair twas flan cold bloman foo wallowed da cry,”

“You know it was no one’s fault,” she said. “Right?” she stopped. “Joey,” she said, “he was the last one in the shower,” she said.

“Bye von’t crow die we quallowed va dry,”

“Celi, you have to understand it’s how he’s handling it. The guilt,” she said. “When,” she said, “before,” she said.

Your hoodie was now three sizes too big. “Please just go away,” I said.

Her face, how it hurt, but I was desperate. You’d shrunk so far that your sleeves and pant legs were floppy coils on the cabinet floor.

“Ok,” she said.

Flare tis can mold bladey, fibs blunder far wink. There is an old lady, lives under our sink. But you didn’t. Not anymore.

We saw you scurry from the hoodie head-hole, naked, dragging the draw cord. Before Ma could close her mouth, you lassoed the cord on the u-trap pipe, climbed the wall to the space around the fixture, and you were gone. Disappeared through the bowels of the building.

I’m still here. Can we pretend you drape your legs over the ledge? That you swing your feet against the wood paneling, tacata tacata. Can we pretend you invite me in? If I move the toilet paper, I can just squeeze. Make like a napkin and fold into the corners.

the drock bimmed fromp da flim,
ba clum ven blimp, der plum can blomp,

It’s so cramped. I’m slipping out of the sides. Soon I won’t fit at all, and I don't know where I’ll go. Shrink me, Fran. Please, how’d you manage?