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Serafín / Mark Rogers



It started with the tortillas.


Paulina takes the half stack from the refrigerator and sees black spots of mold. She lifts one tortilla after another—the whole stack is sour.


How can I make enchiladas without tortillas?


She tosses the tortillas in the garbage and grabs her purse from the bed. She says to her young son, Luis, “Finish your homework. I’ll be back in a minute.”


Luis looks up with a nod and then dips back into his workbook. Their puppy Cheeto sleeps on Luis’ bare feet.


The tortilleria is three blocks away and Paulina keeps in the shade as much as possible. As hot as it is, she can feel a breeze from the ocean, which she catches a glimpse of when crossing the street. She passes an open-air taqueria grilling chicken, an abarrotes receiving a delivery of Tecate beer, a dry cleaner with traffic cones in the street, in a mostly futile attempt to secure the parking space in front of his business. When she enters the small tortilleria, a squat woman behind the counter says it will be a five-minute wait—the taqueria has wiped them out.


There’s no place to sit in the tortilleria so Paulina walks outside. She glimpses movement in the vacant lot next to the store. Another step and she sees a skeletal brown horse behind a wire fence. Ribs corrugated under loose skin. Hooves cracked. Hard ulcers sticking out on its forelegs. Paulina watches the horse nose a battered metal cooking pot. The pot rolls on its side, empty of water.


A voice behind Paulina says, “You like horses?”


She turns and sees a small, skinny man. His dirty feet are in flip-flops and his smile shows missing teeth.


The man says, “His name is Serafín.”


Paulina says, “He needs water.”


“Today’s his last day,” says the man. “Tomorrow he gets a bullet in the head. Then it’s off to the butcher.”


The horse sways its head from side to side and the little man says, “Maybe we won’t need a bullet.”


Paulina watches the horse take a few steps toward the fence then pause, exhausted. For a moment, Paulina stares in silence.


Life is hard. It shouldn’t be like this.


“Is the horse sick?” asks Paulina.


“No,” says the man with a shrug. “The owner doesn’t want to pay anymore. He wants the whole thing done.”


For Paulina, there’s never enough money at the end of the month. It’s been a struggle ever since her husband ran away two years ago. But she says it anyway:

“How much to buy him?”


***


Paulina and Luis walk to the granero to buy a garbage bag of alfalfa. Then it’s off to the OXXO on the corner, where they purchase a 20-liter garrafon of water. Luis groans carrying the plastic jug, but there’s an excitement in his groans—an anticipation.


We’re getting a horse.


Paulina feeds handfuls of yellow alfalfa through the fence to Serafín, who nibbles with intent. Luis clambers over the fence and brings the metal pot to the edge of the fence, where he pours it full again and again through the spaces in the wire.


Paulina reaches her fingers through the fence and caresses the greasy, dusty fur of Serafín’s muzzle. Serafín ignores the caress—this is survival, this alfalfa and water—so huge it fills the horse’s brain with a single thought: Life. There is no room in Serafín’s brain to acknowledge Paulina and Luis. Maybe later.


The skinny guy with the dirty feet watches Paulina rummage in the garbage bag for another handful of alfalfa.


“So,” he says. “You have a horse now. That’s a good thing, right?”


Paulina stares at him for a long moment, then says, “I don’t know.”


“Are you going to give him a new name?”


“I like Serafín.”


The skinny guy smiles. “I guess it’s you that’s the angel.”


Paulina waits for it. It won’t take long. Here it comes.


“Can you give me some money for tortillas?” asks the skinny man. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

Paulina hands over a 20 peso note.


The skinny man’s fingers grasp the note like it’s Aladdin’s lamp. With a jerk of his head, he sets off at a quick walk, almost running.


Paulina says to her son, “That isn’t the walk of a man going to get tortillas.”

Luis nods.


“Let’s watch.” says Paulina. “I want to see what he buys.”


The man runs past the tortilleria.


Paulina and Luis watch the man duck into a store that’s little more than a shack. They wait and it isn’t a full minute before the little guy comes out with a bottle in his hand, the cheapest clear alcohol. He sees Paulina and darts back inside the store. Not much good that will do him.


“You were right,” says Luis.


Paulina laughs. “The little cabron can’t think straight.”


***


The owner comes near sundown. He parks his gleaming Ford Ranger at the curb and takes his time climbing down. There are a million like him: white shirt, black mustache, some extra beef around the belly. He takes his shades off and tucks them in his shirt pocket.


Paulina and Luis stand close together, smart enough not to speak the first word.

The man looks at Serafín and shakes his head. He says to Paulina, “Are you sure?”

“It depends. How much are you asking?”


“I bought him for my daughter,” says the man. “She begged me for a horse. Once she got it she lost interest. The way she tells it, she has no time for a horse. All day she’s got her nose in TikTok.”


Paulina waits, silent, until the man says, “I want it done. The butcher offered me twelve hundred pesos. You want the horse, give me fifteen hundred.”


“Would you take twelve?”


The man shakes his head. “Fifteen.”


Paulina reaches into the pocket of her jeans and hands him the full amount.


The man takes his time folding his cash into his wallet. He walks to his truck and comes back with a notebook. He ruffles its pages and Paulina glimpses a penciled sketch of a naked woman with torpedo tits. The man finds what he’s looking for—a contract. He tears it out and hands it to Paulina.


She stares at the contract; a record of the sale.


I now own a horse and I don’t know anything about horses.


***


Now comes the hard part.


It’s one thing to feed a horse through a wire fence. It’s another thing altogether to lead him three blocks down a city street.


Serafín’s bridle is made of scraps of rope tied to a five-foot lead. Paulina takes the lead in her hand as Luis opens the gate to the lot. The skinny guy never returned to help.


Paulina steps closer to Serafín. Gives him a tentative pat on the neck.


Don’t run. Please don’t run.


“Luis,” says Paulina. “Walk in front of us. Clear the way if you can.”


Luis nods and steps out into the street.


Paulina pulls on the lead and Serafín stands firm.


She pulls harder and Serafín plants his hooves.


“Let’s go,” says Paulina, yanking on the lead, feigning confidence.


The horse lifts one hoof and then another and begins clopping along with Paulina pulling the lead taut. Over the broken sidewalk and into the street, walking past parked cars, keeping to the side as much as possible. Luis looks back and grins over his shoulder.


Paulina whispers to Serafín. “Only three blocks. Then you’ll be home.”


Some people stop and stare. Others hardly notice. It’s not that uncommon to see a horse on the street, coming back from the beach, where they give rides all day in the hot sun.


 As they make their way down the first block and through the intersection, Paulina notices Serafín favors his left hind leg.


He won’t run. I don’t think he can run.


A dog growls and yips from behind a chain link fence. Serafín raises his head and for a moment the lead is pulled tight in Paulina’s hand. Then they’re past and the dog stops barking. The lead goes slack, relaxed.


At the second crossroads, Serafín halts in his tracks. Luis stands with both hands out, stopping traffic best he can. An impatient taxi driver honks his horn as he surges around Luis. Serafín shakes his head and his greasy mane stays rigid with the movement.


A tug on the lead and Serafín walks again. Paulina sees their tiny yellow casita halfway up the block.


We’re doing this.


Luis trots ahead to open the gate. Maybe Luis means something to Serafín. A beacon of some kind. He follows the boy into the yard and Paulina holds tight to the lead as Luis doubles back to secure the gate.


There’s no backyard to speak of—only a tiny cement area with a washing machine and a potted red cap cactus. No room for a horse. Instead, Paulina stands in the front yard with the lead in her hand as Luis hands her a coil of nylon rope. The other end is tied to a cinderblock. An old man watches from the sidewalk then shuffles away.


Luis opens the front door to the house and the puppy Cheeto comes through the door, sniffing the air. He’s curious about Serafín but is smart enough to keep his distance.


Paulina and Luis carry a bale of alfalfa over to where Serafín is tied. With a garden hose, they fill a plastic trough full of water. Serafín alternates between ripping at the alfalfa and drinking deep from the trough.


Paulina smiles. “Now it’s time to spoil him.”


***


The first night Serafín continues eating and drinking. The horse probably imagines it has entered paradise. Throughout the evening, Paulina steps out of the front door into the moonlight to stare at Serafín. During one of these moments of observation, Luis comes to stand beside her.


“He’s awfully dirty,” says Luis.


Paulina nods. “Filthy. Tomorrow, when you’re home from school, we’ll give him a bath. Now go to bed.”


It’s past midnight when Paulina once again goes out to the yard. The bale of alfalfa is in scraps and the water trough is empty. As she refills the trough with the garden hose, she stares into the eyes of Serafín, who stares back at her, with an even stronger, more intentful gaze.


She steps closer and says in low tones, “Are you happy here?”


Serafín dips his muzzle to the trough but doesn’t drink.


***


In the morning, with Luis out the door, Paulina walks over to where Serafín stands. There’s a fluff of feathers near his front hooves—a dead sparrow. Paulina stares down at the bird, which is unmarked.


Why?


She goes around to the side of the house and comes back with a long-handled dustpan and broom. Cheeto watches from the front step as Paulina sweeps the dead bird into the dustpan and deposits it in the blue plastic trashcan in the front yard, near the gate.


A female neighbor—Dolores—stands near the low rock wall that separates their properties. She says, friendly enough, “So, you’re a vaquera now.”


Paulina smiles, “I’m afraid to ride him.”


“If you have extra shit, give me some for my garden.”


“You can have all you want.”


Dolores takes a few steps toward her house and comes back with a plastic bucket. “I’m serious. Can you put it on the wall when it’s full?”


Paulina takes the bucket from Dolores. “No problem mija. You’re doing me a favor.”


***


Soapy water sluices down Serafín’s flanks. Paulina and Luis set to with wet rags, scrubbing away at Serafín’s filthy hide.


“Don’t get behind him,” says Paulina. “Horses kick when you’re behind.”


Dead hair, burrs, mud—it all comes washing down. Serafín tolerates the bath until Paulina begins brushing his tangled mane. Then he snorts and throws his head from side to side. Paulina persists and when she and Luis are done, Serafín shines in the afternoon sun.

Cheeto has conquered his fear of horses and plays here and there in the wet dirt.


“Now it’s time for his sores,” says Paulina.


She’s purchased unguent from the granero. This she rubs into the ulcers on Serafín’s fetlocks, which she then wraps in gauze.


“What’s that,” says Luis, pointing at the rock wall.


For a moment, Paulina doesn’t know herself. She steps closer and sees a black ball being pushed along the earth at the base of the wall. A closer look and she realizes it’s an immobilized tarantula being pushed along by a red-and-black wasp—a tarantula hawk.

“Luis,” she says. “Go inside. Get the bleach from the kitchen.”


“What?”


“Just do it.”


She grabs the broom from where it lays against the wall.


I’ve never seen a tarantula hawk here, in the city. Only in the frontera.


She remembers her cousin being stung by one, and the boy screaming and screaming until he passed out from the pain.


Luis returns with the liter bottle of bleach.


“What is it?” he asks.


“It’s a tarantula hawk,” says Paulina. “They sting a tarantula. But it doesn’t die. It’s paralyzed. They bring the tarantula into a nest and when the wasp’s eggs hatch the larvae eat the tarantula while it’s still alive.”


“What are we going to do?”


“Give me the bleach.”


The wasp is intent on pushing the tarantula toward a crack in the wall and never sees the waterfall of bleach raining down. In a panic, its wings doused and burning, the wasp is defenseless against the bristles of the broom ripping it apart.


Paulina steps back and sees three more red-and-black wasps flitting from place to place over the rock wall, looking for a crack to build a nest.


Paulina waves her hand. “Keep Cheeto away.”


The sting of the tarantula hawk is a terrible thing, but the wasps are easy to kill. A swat with the broom to knock them down and then a thrust with the stabbing bristles.


Paulina scans the yard until she’s sure there are no more of the creatures.


Why are they here? They shouldn’t be here. They’ve never been here.


***


The next morning, Paulina places a bucket of horseshit on the rock wall. She looks over at Serafín. His rib bones still stick out. But there’s a slight gloss to his coat, and the horse is not as swaybacked as he was.


If he gets stronger, maybe I can ride him. I could pick Luis up at school and we would ride home together.


She walks over and pats the horse on the neck. Does it even notice the caress? It gives no sign that it does.


***


It must have been around sundown when Luis looks up from his homework and says, “Where’s Cheeto?”


They find him outside, crammed into a space between the plastic garbage can and the front gate. His body is stiff and when they pull him free there’s something blue in his mouth—a bright blue gel oozing out from between clenched teeth.


Luis turns and runs, harsh sobs expelled from his body. It’s too much for him, this anguish. Paulina sobs too, as she lifts the puppy from the ground.


Too much. Death comes so fast.


She places the puppy on the lid of the garbage can and hurries back into the house. She needs to finish this before she can comfort her son.


She returns with a plastic garbage bag and places Cheeto inside, ties it tight.

What now? What now? What now?


She turns and sees Serafín looking at her with one large brown implacable eye.


***


They bury poor Cheeto in a corner of the front yard, far from Serafín. They don’t need an expert to tell them the cause of death. Poison. How the puppy got it, they don’t know. Maybe someone threw it into the yard. Maybe the poison found itself into the yard by accident. Poor Cheeto is dead and Luis isn’t mollified by burying him in the ground. The boy cries in his bedroom and even asleep his breathing is that of a boy sobbing.


There’s only one bottle of alcohol in the house—a bottle of mezcal that dates back two years, left behind by Paulina’s husband and Luis’ father. Paulina takes it down from the cabinet and pours some onto a spoon. She kisses it with her lips, hoping the spirit will change what’s in her mind.


After three spoonfuls, she goes out into the yard, out into the dark. She stands in front of Serafín and confronts his huge eyes with her own.


Are you an angel? Are you of this world?


***


It’s pitch black when Paulina awakens in a panic.


What is it?


She shrugs into a robe and slips her feet into sandals. Pads down the hall to her son’s bedroom.


She snaps on the light and sees his lips are blue. He’s breathing, but barely. She pulls him to a sitting position and his eyes open half-mast, unseeing. His breathing is rapid and shallow; his skin clammy. Luis has never had this problem before, but Paulina knows what is happening—her sister was allergic to shellfish and prone to anaphylactic attacks.


Without pausing to get dressed, she gathers Luis in her arms—struggling under his weight. She snatches her purse from the living room then it’s out the door, staggering toward the street.


Serafín stands in the darkness, tied to his cinderblock, motionless.


At this time of night, there’s little traffic—usually only trucks and taxis. And that’s what’s coming down the road now—a dented and dirty white taxi.


Paulina steps out into the street. The taxi will either stop or run her down—there are no other choices.


When the taxi brakes, she hustles over. The driver know trouble when he sees it and is already out of his vehicle, opening the back door and helping Paulina get Luis into the backseat. She climbs in after him.


The driver gets behind the wheel. “The hospital?”


There’s no time. The hospital is too far.


“No,” says Paulina. “Doctor Leon. Down the street.”


“I know where,” says the driver.


***


Some things work. Epinephrine is one of them.


The doctor injects Luis with the drug and in seconds his breathing becomes less labored.

The doctor gestures to Paulina, who stands in the corner of the treatment room. “You did the right thing,” he says. “You did well.”


Paulina lets out a deep breath.


The doctor busies himself preparing an IV treatment. When Luis is hooked up, the doctor looks at his watch. “I want him here for the next hour. We’ll get him stabilized.” The doctor takes out a pen and a prescription pad. Scribbles a few lines and a signature. “This is a prescription for an EpiPen. You can fill it at Similares.”


Paulina takes the slip of paper.


“Was Luis stung by an insect?” asks the doctor. “Did he eat anything out of the usual?”

Paulina shakes her head.


“You’re going to have to schedule him for a series of tests,” says the doctor. “The boy’s allergic to something. We need to find out what it is.”


The hour passes. Luis is fascinated by the IV tube in his arm. He’s not a boy in love with suffering and he smiles at his mother. “I feel stupid in my pajamas.”


The doctor—sleepy himself—finally says, “You can go.”


Paulina and Luis walk out to the street. The sky is still dark without a trace of dawn light. It takes a few minutes, but a taxi comes along. This time Paulina and Luis bundle into the backseat without drama, only weariness.


When they reach their casita, Paulina leans forward over the front seat and says, “Keep driving.”


***


The taxi drives the ten blocks to the beach and hooks left on Mar Adriatico. It stops in front of a condo tower ten stories high.


“We’re coming here?” says Luis. “We never come here.”


By now there’s a bit of warm gray light in the sky. Paulina pays the driver. She feels vulnerable, wearing her robe. Luis looks mortified in his thin pajamas.


Paulina presses the intercom and seconds later a female voice says. “Yes?”


Paulina leans into the intercom. “It’s me. Paulina. We have to come up.”


***


The condo is on the seventh floor, with a wall of glass overlooking the Atlantic. The surfaces

of the interior are black metal, glass, and polished, off-white tile. A bleary-eyed woman sits at the dining room table, hunched over a mug of Nescafe.


Paulina stands near the window, looking down at Rosarito’s beach. A man on horseback leads a string of five ponies across the sand.


“It’s only for a day, no more than that,” says Paulina.


The woman shakes her head. “I haven’t seen you in a year and you show up like this?”


A gray-haired, chubby gringo comes out of the bedroom, in a white T-shirt, flannel gym shorts, and flip-flops with a flame design. “Hey babe. What’s going on?”


The woman says, “My sister needs to leave her son with us, just for the day.”

“What?” says the man. “Their house burn down?”


“It’s not like that,” says Paulina.


The man looks at Paulina’s robe, at Luis’ pajamas. “And I thought I was casual.”


***


This third taxi ride in five hours finally brings her home to their yellow casita. The sun is up now—bright.


Is it the heat making me dizzy?


Paulina walks by Serafín, only giving him a glance. Then it’s into the house, to change out of her robe and flimsy sandals into jeans, a red T-shirt, and Nike knockoffs.

She walks out into the yard, takes a circuitous route around the horse until she’s standing in front of him. Serafín lifts his head and stares back, without emotion in his eyes. They might as well be made of glass.


Paulina says, “You bring death.”


***


One call then another. Then another. On the fifth call, she finally connects with a man who provides horseback rides on the beach.


The man arrives at the casita in a pickup pulling an empty horse trailer. He wears leather boots and a straw fedora with a sweat-stained band.


This is Mexico, and it’s important to make a deal, even if in your heart you’re willing to give the item away. The price for Serafín bounces up and down until it finally settles on 500 pesos, a third of what Paulina paid.


“It’s not easy having a horse,” says the man as he hands over a 500-peso bill. “Especially in the city.”


Paulina holds her breath, watching Serafín being led to the back of the horse trailer, being coaxed forward at first and when that doesn’t work, being slapped hard on his rump. That gets him clattering inside. The man throws the bolt to secure the gate, gives a halfwave to Paulina, and gets behind the wheel.


Paulina sees Serafín’s brown eye staring at her between the slats of the trailer.


The Angel of Death.


***


Time passes.  A week. Then a month.


Paulina learns from her neighbors that they too have seen an infestation of tarantula hawks. It seems to be a familiar occurrence every ten years or so. Much the way some years see a prevalence of frogs, or earwigs, or jackrabbits.


A sullen teenager in the neighborhood is discovered to be a poisoner of dogs. He’s so sullen, so bereft, that he escapes a beating and is instead forced into a routine of counseling.


Luis goes through a series of tests by a specialist in allergies to determine what caused his anaphylaxis. Three trips by bus to Tijuana, with Paulina by his side. None of the usual triggers are found: peanuts, red meat, pollen, latex.


When Luis is out of the room, Paulina asks the specialist, “Can emotional stress cause an anaphylactic attack?”


The specialist nods. “Idiopathic Anaphylaxis. It’s rare but possible. I wouldn’t rule it out. Was there undue stress before the attack?”


The death of Cheeto. I thought my son’s heart would break.


***


It’s another month before Paulina can bring herself to go down to the beach. The sun is setting and people are flowing toward the parking lot, leaving behind a scattering of families cooking meat on grills, and homeless sitting outside their makeshift tents at the edge of the beach near the cudweed. Reggaeton blasts from the beachside nightclubs, which are open all day, selling morning margaritas, afternoon beers, and evening shots of tequila and mezcal.


Paulina trudges across the sand, toward the line of horses—a dozen animals, including a tiny Shetland pony.


She sees the man who bought Serafín. He watches her approach.


“Is he still alive?” says Paulina.


The man glances over his shoulder. “He’s out now. With a rider.”


They wait in silence. Maybe ten minutes pass before Paulina sees a trio of horses and riders plodding across the sand. Three girls. The heaviest of them rides Serafín. The girl has her phone out, taking one last selfie before the man helps her dismount.


Serafín stares at Paulina. Or maybe the woman is just in the horse’s line of vision. There’s no hint of memory.


She looks down at Serafín’s fetlocks and sees the ulcers are worse than ever. Before the ulcers were dry—they now ooze blood and pus. The saddle obscures some of the bones arching out on the horse’s sides. He’s not as dirty as he was when Paulina first saw him. But there’s even less light in his eyes and even less gloss to his coat.


“Why are you here?” asks the man.


“I want to ride him.”


The man looks up at the evening sky. “You have time for a short ride. One hundred pesos.”


Paulina stares at the man and he reconsiders. “First ride, no charge. But only the first one.”

Paulina grips the pommel of the saddle; gets her left foot in the stirrup.


I don’t want his help. I don’t want his help.


She arches her right leg over the saddle—there’s a second when it seems she won’t make it—then an extra burst of effort gets her over and up into the saddle.


The man says, “Do you want me to lead him?”


Paulina shakes her head and digs her heels into Serafín’s side. He sets off at a dull clop.

They pass stragglers on the beach. Most ignore the horse and rider, but the littlest of the children look up with a kind of awe, as though there’s magic passing by.


The horse’s legs go up and down. No joy. No life.


The sun is setting now. Half an orange sphere at the horizon line.


Paulina leans over Serafín’s neck. She can smell the rot coming from his ears, his mouth.


She says, in a voice just loud enough for Serafín to hear, “I’m sorry.... I’m sorry… I’m sorry.”



/


MARK ROGERS is a writer and artist whose literary heroes include Charles Bukowski, Willy Vlautin, and Charles Portis. He lives in Baja California, Mexico with his Sinaloa-born wife, Sofia. His award-winning travel journalism for USA Today and other media outlets has brought him to 56 countries. His crime novels have been published in the U.S. and UK. Uppercut, his memoir of moving to Mexico, is published by Cowboy Jamboree Press. NeoText publishes his Tijuana Novels series and Gray Hunter series. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary magazines.

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