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Second-Place Short Story Contest Winner: “Cardboard Limbs”

They force the children to form a line according to age, with the youngest in the front. They yank kids from behind bushes, pull them form under tables, haul them down from trees, and finally herd them towards the growing line.

Some of the kids in the front can hardly stand by themselves.

They pull each other’s hair.

They pick. They wipe. They eat boogers. Some cry as the sun beats down on the back of their necks and sweat makes its way into their eyes. Hernan watches. Not knowing what to do with his hands he takes them in and out of his pockets, occasionally brushing the hair from his eyes. He recognizes Pedro, the boy who is always dancing, and Brenda, who is always singing Selena songs. Brenda keeps falling, staining her white dress with dirt and grass. He thinks that Brenda’s mother should have picked something cooler for the toddler to wear, observing how her jet-black hair sticks to her forehead. Chato does not help her because he is too busy fiddling with a gold bracelet on his chubby brown wrist.

Hernan wonders if the children in the front have any idea what they are in line for, the older boys and girls in the back have been here many times, but for most it is their first time. His own heart beats so hard he thinks the other children, or worse his father, might be able to see it through his thin blue shirt. He takes deliberate and slow breaths trying to hold back the tears. Hernan scans the crowd for his father’s eyes, avoiding them when he finds them. Nearby, he can hear the sizzling of flesh.

His eyes scan behind him to look for Ricky. He finds him four or five kids down. His heartbeat slows a little. Ricky is wrinkling his brow with his fists clenched. His skin is darker than Hernan’s, his face rounder, his nose wider. Hernan always thought his brother looked like the Aztec warriors on blankets and murals, the ones who hold spears with pyramids and jaguars around them. Their father was always saying Ricky would grow up to be a Marine or a boxer and was always making sure Ricky had a good seat in front of the television when De La Hoya or  Tyson was fighting.

Ricky avoids eye contact with anyone but gives Hernan a quick head nod because he can see fear in the sweat pouring down his younger brother’s forehead. Hernan notices Ricky is wearing his favorite shirt, one he got for his eighth birthday last year. It’s a long sleeve shirt with three aliens on it. One alien looks like a friendly cool but non-threatening guy and he is wearing a baseball hat. The second alien is shirtless with a backward cap and sagging pants. The third is a short fat alien with a scrunched face. The shirt says, “the good, the bad, and the ugly”.

“Where are you going to hit it? I’m gonna try and take his pinche head off.”

Hernan turns and sees a boy he hasn’t met before. The boy looks around, waiting, licking his lips and cracking his knuckles.

“I don’t know,” Hernan responds, turning his back.

The children who are old enough to have been in this line before know that Ricky has impressed the adults before. He is stronger than the boys his age. He is stronger than some of the boys older than him too. The men with dark sunglasses and beer bottles in their hands bring out the creature from the trunk of a white Mustang, its yellow and green fur shimmers defiantly against the swampy colors of the park, demanding the attention of anyone within sight. They gently set it down underneath the Ficus tree were everyone is gathered. The creature stands stoically on its four legs, not daring to move or blink. The men tie a rope around its neck tight enough so that it can’t slip out, and still it does not protest. One of the men throws the other end of the rope over a low hanging branch and pulls so that the creature’s legs suddenly dangle in the air swaying over the children’s heads. Some of the children clap, others cry, some simply observe.



The adults point their beer bottles or plates of carne asada, shouting to specific children in the line between swigs and mouthfuls.

“Andele Chato! Con huevos mijo!”

“Ricky, you got this, aim for the stomach!”

“Jacky, take one of the legs mija!”

One of the men brings out a broomstick handle and places it in the hands of the first girl in line. She is not strong enough to hold it upright, her delicate fingers can hardly grip the old wood and the broomstick falls to the grass. The man helps her pick it up and helps her hold it. He walks her towards the creature crouching behind her with his hands over hers. The creature is lowered to the ground and it watches the humans approach. They give the creature a few gentle whacks, but the girl begins to wail, her bottom lip quivering. She scans the crowd for her mother’s eyes. Some of the children in line laugh.

When it is Chato’s turn the adults must shout to get his attention. For hours he has been trying to take off the gold bracelet with his last name on it. He looks up from his reddened wrist and they place the broomstick in his hand. Chato, hardly looking makes his way to the center. He tilts his head towards the sky and watches the creature sway from side to side, he hesitant to swing. He feels no animosity towards it like some of the other children, he has no interest in the sport.

“You…better… hit… it… before…it… hits…you,” the man holding the rope sings.

But Chato remains fixated on the creature’s eyes, sharing things only the two of them will ever know. The man holding the rope interprets this as the creature being too high, he lowers it almost ground level again.

Chato throws the broomstick aside and runs up to the creature, wrapping his arms around the creature’s neck in an embrace. The man pulls fast on the rope shooting the creature into the sky and Chato onto his ass crying from the shock. His mother runs and scoops him up glaring at the man with the rope as he polishes off his Corona and throws it in the grass. The children point and laugh at Chato and nobody sees the gold bracelet that’s finally come loose shimmering in-between blades of grass.

Hernan is the first in line who does not need assistance. The adults collectively decide that at seven he is now old enough for the blindfold. The man who holds the rope sets the creature down. He walks over and takes a red bandana out of the back pocket of his Dickies. Before he is blindfolded, Hernan’s father threatens him with his eyes, and then covers them with his sunglasses. As his tio ties the bandana over Hernan’s eyes the boy can smell his uncle’s rich breath of Corona’s and Marlboros mingling with the Michael Jordan cologne on his neck that he sometimes let’s Hernan and Ricky spray on themselves. His uncle places the broomstick in his hands and spins him around 3 times.

“Orale cabron, see whatchu got now,” he drunkenly spits out.

Hernan is lost.

“Dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino, porque si lo pierdes, pierdes el camino…” the children sing in unison.

His breathing replaces the breeze. His heartbeat thuds a war drum. All the voices become one, distant and muffled. He focuses on the sound of the rope scraping against the tree, lowering and raising the creature. Pierdes el camino. In the blackness he can hear bottles clinking, kids laughing, meat sizzling on the grill. The metallic ping of somebody’s mom flipping tortillas. Pierdes el camino. Without warning he swings wildly hoping to connect, the creature bobs and weaves. The broomstick does nothing but temporarily displace particles in the air, sending Hernan to the ground face-first into the cool grass. Pierdes el camino.

The children and the adults laugh in unison.

Hernan takes the bandana off and throws it on the ground storming away to the back of the line where nobody congratulates or acknowledges him. His father avoids his gaze. From the back of the line, Hernan can see his brother is fuming.

After a couple good attempts from other children, they put the broomstick in Ricky’s hands. The boys in line behind Ricky groan in desperation knowing that they probably won’t have a turn. From the corner of his eye, Hernan sees his father finish his Corona and light a cigarette.  With the cigarette in his mouth he pushes his Locs onto his forehead and crosses his arms to let Ricky know he is watching.

“Watch out for this one,” he says to anyone who is listening, flexing his bicep and pointing at Ricky. All the children smirk in silence. Hernan stares dumbly and empty.

They spin Ricky around twice as much as anyone else, but it doesn’t seem to faze him.  After they let him go he stands still for a second regaining his equilibrium. Everything and everyone was so silent Hernan thought he heard a fly fart. They lower and raise the creature with so much speed that it bounces when it comes down, it’s insides shaking, making enough noise for Ricky to point his head in the direction of the creature. He takes three and a half steps forward with his leading foot, the way De La Hoya would, closing the gap between the creature and him. He winds back like he was going to throw and overhand right. The rope scrapes against the wood but not fast enough. The creature yelps below the tree. The tip of the broomstick ruptures the creature’s belly sending spicy watermelon and mango suckers into the air.

Joy bursts through the silence. Uncle Lalo walks over and rips the piñata in half shaking all its insides out onto the children. Duvalins, Smarties, Tootsie rolls and plastic whistles rain down on the children’s heads. They break formation. From the back of the line, Hernan runs and attempts to penetrate the pit of hair pulling and finger stepping, biting and punching, but he is unable. He circles around, collecting the treats other children have either missed or chosen to neglect.

Ricky takes a few steps backwards and removes the blindfold, grinning at the chaos. His uncle hands him a limb from the piñata to use as a container for his rewards. The rest of the children use plastic Food 4 Less bags to collect their candy if their mothers provided them or they fold up their shirts to create pockets.

One by one all the children walk up to Ricky displaying their collections. Out of a sign of respect he is allowed to take one or two things from everyone. After filling the severed limb with all the best candy Ricky scans the park for his brother.

He spots Hernan hiding behind a tree far from where the birthday party is being held. He walks over to him but Hernan keeps his eyes on a colony of ants crawling on the roots of the tree. He does not want his brother to see how the tears cut through the dirt on his face, creating valleys down to the sides of his mouth. Ricky looks at his brother’s meek collection of stray sweets consisting mostly of stepped on Tootsie Rolls and crushed Smarties.

“Ricky, ven pa ca my champ. Come here!”

Ricky turns to his father and back to Hernan. He reaches into his own limb and pulls out handful after handful, shoving sweets into his brother’s open hands. The top half of the creature’s smashed head watches from the grass.


Enrique Cervantes on writing “Cardboard Limbs”

I wrote Cardboard Limbs because I wanted to make something seemingly innocent appear sinister, at least initially. I remember as a kid, my heart would race the closer and closer I got to the front of the piñata line. I felt like the dynamics that are at play when a piñata is hoisted from a tree are fun to think about. Who is the strongest? Who gets praised? What gender roles are reinforced? When the candy comes crushing down, it’s straight-up survival of the fittest; hair gets pulled, fingers get stepped on, but some kids also share or assist smaller children, or children with disabilities. I thought the microcosm at play speaks volumes.
Also, since magical realism is a convention I can’t escape, one that is organically woven into my mestizaje, I have fun trying to weave in those elements into a contemporary setting that reflects the current reality of the border region. The piñata is alive and watching. These characters make their way back into the novel I am working on.
Enrique Cervantes received his MFA in creative writing at San Diego State University. He is currently working on a novel that navigates the physical, spiritual, and historic borders that separate the United States from its neighbors to the south.