Exciting News About La Chusa
I’m excited, humbled, and honored to announce that my short story, La Chusa, won first place (seriously, I’m still in awe!) in the 2014 Denver Woman’s Press Club’s Unknown Writers’ Contest (fiction category).
This was the third time I’ve entered this contest and it’s so cool to reflect on my prior entries and see just how much I’ve grown as a writer. This is truly a great contest. I especially appreciated the encouraging and constructive comments from industry professionals on my work.
Please enjoy La Chusa!
I used to call them Temporaries. The students who would come and go like fireflies dotting the night sky, there one moment and gone the next. Uprooted for their families who migrated to find work or visit relatives. I learned quickly to keep them at a distance, to not get attached, but that changed when Julieta came to my classroom. Now I’m haunted by the sound of beating wings.
She appeared at the tail end of an Indian summer, the heat suffocating and unrelenting. It made everything wilt. The fractal posters, laminated seating charts, even the chalk seemed dank.
Julieta got to my classroom early. She wore a white cotton dress with red and yellow embroidery around the edges. Her raven hair fell to the middle of her back and her skin was flawless. Terrible as it might sound, I remember thinking that the boys would like her, that maybe I could leverage her to get them to behave. Ha.
“Julieta Palomo? I’m Ms. Stone. It’s nice to meet you. How is your first day going?“ The first step with Temporaries was to pinpoint how much English they understood. Then I’d worry about math.
She nodded. No words. Great.
“Here is your textbook, libro. Make sure you write your name, nombre, on the inside page.” I opened the book and pointed to the lengthy list of prior owners. She wouldn’t look at me, which made it impossible to know if she comprehended.
I led her to a desk at the back of the classroom, the last one available. “You can sit here, next to Sofia. I will talk to you more during class to see where you are with the material. Does that sound okay to you? Comprendes?”
“Yes, Miss,” Julieta whispered, lifting her eyes to meet mine. They were golden with large pupils, more like a bird’s than a human’s. She cocked her head to one side and stared through me, into me.
Then I felt the feathers. Hundreds of them, searching my skin and fanning hot air into my face. Startled, I dropped her textbook with a loud thump. I kneeled to retrieve it and noticed her feet, squeezed into tiny ballet flats. The skin around her ankles was so dry, almost like scales.
I stood up quickly and handed her the book, relieved when she slid into her designated seat. And even more relieved when the other seventh graders filed into the classroom, the girls chattering and the boys throwing crumpled pieces of paper at each other. It was easier to deny what I’d seen, experienced, facing the normal chaos.
After the bell rang, I held two fingers in the air, my signal for everyone to pay attention. It worked about half the time. “All right, settle down. Silencio.” More important than voice level was confidence. Like horses, preteens could sense fear. “Before we dive into fun-fractions and dandy-decimals, we have a new student. Julieta Palomo. I expect everyone to make her feel welcome.”
Julieta swept her strange yellow eyes over her peers. I watched how the students reacted. Saw the way that Sofia and the other Hispanic students glanced fearfully at her before whispering hushed words to each other, words I could barely make out. La Chusa.
The next couple weeks with Julieta passed as they would with any Temporary. It became clear that she spoke proficient English, but less clear why she so often refused to answer my questions. I assumed she didn’t see the point in learning math. Most students don’t, especially when they’ve been forced to learn harsher life lessons. Then all I can do is be kind, be someone they can trust.
“So, what’s the next step?” I asked Julieta. Despite my one-on-one support, she still struggled with long multiplication and was way behind the rest of the class.
In lieu of a response, she scribbled a row of numbers in her notebook.
“That’s right. Good job!” That was the only time I ever saw Julieta smile. She had dimples and her teeth were pearly white. She almost could’ve passed for a normal girl.
“Miss,” Eric said, and then louder waving his hand in the air, “Miss.” The students were always extra antsy when there was a full moon.
“Julieta, keep up the good work. If you get stumped, why don’t you ask Sofia?” I suggested, even though it was pointless. Julieta and the other students mixed like oil and water, swirling around each other in an impressive pattern of avoidance.
I moved across the room to help Eric and the boy he usually worked with. It felt like another dimension, as if they somehow took up less space than Julieta.
“How do you do number twenty?” Eric shouted. He had so much energy his freckles practically bounced off his face.
“I’m not letting you off that easy. What did we talk about today?”
“Ratios,” Mateo grunted. He had a cherub face with skin the same shade as Julieta’s. “But these are, like, two decimals. How do we compare those?”
“Remember last week when we talked about converting decimals to fractions?” I hinted.
“Oh, I know how to do it,” Eric said, bobbing his head up and down.
Confident they were on the right track, I snuck away. I preferred coaching, occasionally pinch-hitting, and letting the kids figure out the rest on their own.
At the end of class, Julieta disappeared without a word. This alone wasn’t uncommon, but that day she left a feather in her seat. A few inches long and with thick gold and black stripes. Curious, I twirled it between my fingers, touching the fringe near the quill. It was covered with something dark and crusty. Blood.
“Miss,” Mateo said, his voice quiet. He stood at my side, tugging on the straps of his backpack, his eyes locked on the feather in my hand.
I cleared my throat, my mouth bone dry. “Hey Mateo. What can I do for you?”
He didn’t answer right away, just rocked back and forth. “Miss, don’t touch Julieta, okay?”
Chills ran up and down my spine. “That’s not very nice. Why would you say that?”
He shrugged. “Cuz she’s La Chusa.”
“Mateo, what does that mean?”
Julieta didn’t attend school for three weeks. When she returned, her face was different, rounder, and there were tan streaks around her eyes, like she hadn’t applied sunscreen evenly.
Mateo’s warning lingered in my mind, but everyone deserves a chance. I smiled at Julieta and tapped her desk as I walked by. “Welcome back, Julieta. We missed you.” It was important to let students, especially Temporaries, know their absences hadn’t gone unnoticed. To let them know I cared.
Julieta opened her textbook without a word and started where she left off. I helped her as much as I could during class and, as the days went by, she progressed to long division, and then to the following unit.
God, how hopeful I’d been. Math was a unique subject for Temporaries, numbers being the same in every language, and I’d deluded myself into thinking it could be the gateway to success in other subjects. But sometimes there are other obstacles, ones not of this world.
Julieta had only been back a week when I found another feather on her desk, identical to the first one. It made no sense, but I knew in my gut that she wouldn’t be in class the next day.
I called Mateo as he was leaving with Eric. “Mateo, can you come here for a minute?”
“Yes, Miss?” he asked, approaching my desk, nervous.
“Do you know why Julieta leaves feathers behind?”
“As a warning.”
He fidgeted with his shirtsleeve. “To not whistle for death, that’s what my nana says.”
Julieta was gone for a month. It was cold outside, fresh snow blanketing the ground, the next time I saw her. What struck me first was her face. The markings around her eyes were more prominent, and her nose was crooked as if it’d been broken and poorly set. Then, how clumsy and labored her movements were, like she was chained to some invisible burden.
Before, she’d work for the entire period, or at least pretend to work. But now she sat listless, distracted by the window. “Julieta, how about you work on number ten?” I prodded during one of my rounds. “I’ll be back to check.”
“Yes, Miss.” Her voice had changed too. It was deeper, richer. She winced when she flexed her fingers to pick up her pencil.
I never saw proof of my suspicions, welts or bruises, but it was the only thing that made sense of her transformation. Back then, I lived in a rational world and couldn’t accept the supernatural. When I finally did, it would be too late.
Another feather, another absence, and I finally saw the trend. Julieta always disappeared when there was a full moon.
The last time I saw her was after Thanksgiving break. She could barely walk. Her back was bent at an awkward angle and her legs were trembling. Her once beautiful hair was cropped jaggedly at her ears and her face was lined with dark streaks. She was unrecognizable except for her yellow eyes.
Alarmed, I knelt by her desk, glad that we were alone in the classroom. “Julieta, are you okay? Did something happen? Do you need to see the nurse? La enfermera?”
“Miss, I’m scared,” she whispered, her breathing shaky.
“Who are you afraid of?” Silly me. I should’ve asked what.
She looked out the window, but didn’t answer. The moon was visible in the clear blue sky, only a thumbnail missing. “It will happen soon. I don’t have a choice.”
“Julieta, listen to me. You always have a choice. I can help you.”
She turned her gaze to me, laying my soul bare with her owlish eyes. In that moment, I knew she was far wiser than I’d ever be. What had she been exposed to in her short life? “No, Miss. You can’t help. But you are kind. Thank you.”
I hugged her. She was thin, brittle, and smelled earthy like clay and cocoa. She wrapped her arms around me, enclosing me in a sensation of feathers. I heard them rustling in my ears and felt them tickle my skin. That’s when I knew La Chusa was real. But she was also a little girl who needed my help.
“Julieta, let me help you. Please.”
“It’s too late. No one can help me.”
I dipped my chin so she wouldn’t see the tears rolling down my cheeks. Who could be so horrible to a child? “You might think that, but it’s never too late. There are people who can protect you. Let me call them.”
“Okay, Miss. But tomorrow. I can’t today.”
I wiped tears from my eyes and spoke with feigned authority. “No. It has to be today. It’s my obligation as a teacher. I care about you, Julieta. And other people care too.”
She nodded and fell unnaturally still, a sense of peace washing over her. I hurried to my desk and dialed the number for Child Protection Services, but before anyone answered, I was consumed in a swirling mass of feathers.
I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. Fearing for my life, I stumbled toward the window, opening the latch with clumsy fingers.
Then the terror stopped, and Julieta was gone. The window stood open, a breeze scattering loose-leaf paper through the classroom. Stuck to the siding was a blood-encrusted feather.
Sometimes it’s the Temporaries, the people who barely graze our lives, that stay with us forever. Julietta visits me every night in my dreams. In all of them, the moonlight reaches for her and transforms her into an owl. I speak to her, shout her name, but she never answers. Somehow, I know that when she does, it’ll be as she’s carrying my soul to the next life.