The day after they killed the Beast, Juanita’s papa and Uncle Miguel cut off its head and stuck it up on the fence, to make sure everyone knew. Juanita’s mama decided to stay indoors – she refused even to look at the Beast’s head, because she said it would bring bad luck to the baby growing inside her. The men laughed at her, but even Juanita could see that this was one of the times her mama wouldn’t give way.
She also forbade the younger kids from looking at the Beast, but of course, they wouldn’t obey. Juanita’s older sisters – the two of them who weren’t married – usually did exactly as mama asked even though they had their own reasons, but they were visiting Aunt Conchita in the big city and were away. Her three younger brothers went along with the men, of course, chattering as excitedly as sparrows, and she went along too, to make sure they wouldn’t get run over in the street or something.
Juanita was thirteen or fourteen, her mama wasn’t quite sure which. She was cursed, though, her mama had told her many times – cursed with good looks. This was not desirable for a barrio girl, because of the undue attention it drew. So her mama yelled at her every day, kept her inside as much as possible, cut her hair herself, ragged and short, and gave her only old and patched dresses to wear, and no shoes. The family mostly couldn’t afford shoes anyway.
By the time they reached the fence, of course, there was quite a crowd, and some reporters from the papers as well, with their cameras flashing at Miguel and papa, and when Miguel held up the Beast’s head on a hook the cameras flashed most of all. The head hung on the hook, broken and defeated, the dead eyes white and milky, and Carlito – the eldest of Juanita's younger brothers – took a stick and poked it through the cheek of the Beast and held it away from the jaw so that the reporters could photograph the big sharp teeth. In the brilliant sunlight the Beast’s head looked very small and some of the people mocked at it. But Juanita remembered how they had been scared of it when it had walked the night, and she was silent.
After the Beast’s head hung on the fence, and the reporters had taken their photos, they came to talk to papa and Miguel. Juanita was close enough to hear what they were saying – papa described how the Beast had been trapped in a walled courtyard and they had isolated it there and killed it. And the reporters had nodded, half-listening (Juanita could tell by how they kept looking at their watches) and after that they had gone back to their cars and driven out of the barrio.
Afterwards, papa and Miguel had decided to get drunk. Juanita had seen how they were when they drank, so she tried to go away for a while, but mama put her to washing dishes and she was in the next room hearing them talk as they drank. By and by, as she had known would happen, the voices grew louder and the words slurred, and they began boasting about how they had killed the Beast. Each of them said nobody had the cojones to do what they had done, and they were heroes, and they deserved more respect.
“You should go to the church and confess your sin of pride to the padre,” mama said, bustling in and out, but the men paid no attention. At last Uncle Miguel got up and went away, next door, to his house and family, and mama sat down with a sigh, her belly swelling over her stick-thin legs. Papa sat at the table and drank.
“He went away because of you,” said Papa suddenly. “You don’t want me to talk to my friends.”
“You talk to him all the time.” Mama’s voice was as colourless as her face and eyes. “All the time of the day, you spend with your friends.”
“That’s my business, not yours.” Juanita was listening to all this from the kitchen. She knew it would only get worse, and began scrubbing the dishes with single-minded intensity.
“Your business,” mama was saying, “would be to get a job. When did you last have a regular job?”
“It’s not my fault there’s no opening for truck drivers right now.”
“How do you know? Did you even try to look for an opening? All you’re good for is to drink the devil’s brew and get me with child. I can’t cope any more. Do you hear? I can’t cope any more.”
“The church says it’s our duty to have children.”
“Since when were you such a follower of the church? So many other things the church says which you don’t follow. I know what you do!”
“What?” Papa’s voice was ugly and threatening. “What do you know?”
Juanita quietly put away the last spoons and sneaked out of the kitchen on silent bare feet. Outside in the street the sun glared down, but there was a cold knot in the pit of her stomach because of the fight developing at home. No matter how often it happened, and it happened more and more frequently these days, she never got used to it – or to what happened afterwards.
Carlito and the other two, Miguel (named after Uncle Miguel) and Chico, were nowhere to be seen. She had been given the responsibility of looking after them. Since they weren’t playing in the yard across the street, she thought she knew where they would be, and went down to the fence where papa and Uncle Miguel had hung the Beast’s head. Sure enough, they were there, all three of them, along with several of their friends, all chattering and poking at the Beast’s head with sticks. They ignored her completely when she told them to go home. After watching them for a while, she suddenly felt completely tired of them and wanted to go as far off as possible. She couldn’t go home – not now, not with the fight, when her mama would be looking to work off her anger on a convenient target even as papa shouted and got to work with his hands. So she wandered away through the barrio, coming almost by accident to the yard where the Beast had been killed. The body of the Beast was no longer there. She had no idea what had happened to it.
A few teenage boys were standing around, peering into the yard and talking. She knew one or two of them by sight, and nodded to them while trying to walk past. But they glanced at each other and the biggest of them, whom she thought was called Roberto, stepped into her path.
“Your father killed the Beast, here, wasn’t it?”
“Yes...he says.” Juanita tried to get past but Roberto, if that was his name, moved to block her. “Please let me go,” she said.
“Where are you going? It’s just a few questions. Answer them and you can go. Is it true that the big universities are sending scientists to study the Beast, and they’ll pay big money for information?”
“How should I know? Some reporters came, but they didn’t look too interested.”
“Look here,” Roberto said, reaching out and grabbing her by the upper arm, his wrist and forearm pressing against Juanita’s breast. “You can’t just say you don’t know. He’s your papa, isn’t he? And the whole barrio says there’s a lot of money to be had from the university.”
“But I don’t know.” Juanita didn’t wriggle to get away because she knew that would just make him hold her tighter. “I don’t know anything about it. He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Let her go, Roberto,” one of the others, whom she didn’t know, said. “She’s not worth it anyway.”
Roberto dropped her arm, reluctantly. Juanita could feel the marks of his fingers smarting on her upper arm, and knew from experience that there would be bruises. “We’ll talk to you later,” Roberto said threateningly, walking back to his friends.
It was evening when Juanita came back home. She knew there would be trouble but there would be trouble anyway after her parents’ fight. There always was. On the way she passed the wire fence on which the Beast’s head still hung. Some people had gathered in the cooling air of the evening and were talking at the tops of their voices. She saw her papa among them, talking and gesturing angrily, and tried to walk past quickly, but she couldn’t help hearing what they were saying.
“It was just a harmless creature,” someone yelled, “and you killed it. Beast indeed!”
“It was just some kind of large dog or something with skin disease,” someone else said.
“Harmless? Then why were you all hiding under your beds when you heard it howling? Now it’s dead you can show how brave you all were.” Papa was shouting at the top of his voice. “Just because you all are jealous of me, that’s why.”
“If it was that deadly, how come only the two of you killed it?”
“Because we’re brave, that’s why. As for what it was – let the university say.”
“The university? When are they coming? And what about the money they’ll be paying? You planning to keep it all to yourself are you?”
“What money?” Juanita could hear her papa yelling all the way as she walked quickly home, his voice thick with anger. “What money are you all talking about?” Yes, it was bad. It was one of the worst. She told herself she should run away. But run where, to whom? All she knew was the barrio and the barrio was full of people like Roberto who felt her breasts and undressed her with their eyes.
Her mama was waiting, and met her with a slap that made her eyes water. She blinked the tears back and kept her face quite expressionless, so her mama hit her again.
That night Juanita lay in bed trembling, listening to her papa move around in the next room. Her mama was in the back room with the boys, but Juanita was in the room she shared with the sisters who were off visiting Aunt Conchita, so she was alone.
She listened to papa moving around, and thought about the Beast suddenly, and thought how frightened the Beast must have been, when papa and Uncle Miguel had trapped it and attacked it with their sticks and machetes. She felt like the Beast now, trapped and helpless, listening to papa move around and mutter drunkenly, and for the first time she felt intensely sorry for the Beast. But the Beast was dead and had escaped. There was no escape for her.
With a soft creak, the door of her room swung slowly open.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12