"American Ships," by Brenda Peynado

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Fiction by Brenda Peynado from our Summer 2015 issue.


When the American ships arrived, they looked like giant white women swimming towards us on the horizon.  American marines shouted orders from the crooks of the ships’ pale elbows, readied guns in the corner of vicious smiles. I was pushing Pablito’s stroller on el Malecón, and the people around me said, Look, what is that? But I knew. I had seen them before, decades ago in the first invasion.  I ran into a restaurant with tables and umbrellas by the sea and called my husband at his office.  I told him to buy all the non-perishable food he could find; I told him to clean out the mercado and prepare for a blockade. I ran home pushing the stroller with my heels kicking up stones from the street.

The ships surged out of the sea like the daughters of Titan, their decks gleaming like mirrors, sailors crawling like ants across the aluminum chests. When they grew airfoil wings, I knew they were not here for merely blockades. They were coming to us. They were coming, I assumed, to quell the civil war already underway on our island, to inform us who was in the right and who was in the wrong, what kind of people we would be, which president among the many contenders we deserved, by which they would mean, the one most like them.

I turned over the pots, the back of the closets, the secret drawers in the desks, everywhere we had hidden our money from the government and Constanza, the maid.  My husband was no longer near a phone, so it would have to be me that prepared us for invasion and not just blockade. The baby left at home with Constanza and the money tucked in a pouch in my bra, I ran through the stampeding crowds. I hunted for guns and bullets from the secret armories of various political associations my husband and I had been a part of, arms hidden in churches and tombs, dug into the backyards, and secreted in our stone monuments of independence, the ones we had used against ourselves.

Then the American ships danced, rolling their hips in the sky like clouds foretelling storms. I got home just as they dropped like bombs out of the sky. Constanza screamed and ducked, and I told her to get inside until my husband came home.  The guns hung over my dress like necklaces. I laid my Pablito in his crib. I unslung the guns from my arms, and I hid them underneath him while he screamed back at the wailing of the American ships, the American planes.  I rocked him to sleep.  My husband came home, his jeep sunken into the ground with the weight of cans and sacks and tins of food. Then we waited.

When the American ships squatted with huge hulking metal legs over our city, they birthed out in a great crying agony a battalion of green soldiers that clung to rope spilling out of their yawning wombs. The soldiers landed in lines on the street, they dropped through roofs, they smashed through windows.  We heard a whistle and then a crash, and one landed in our master bed.  Constanza fell upon him with her metal bucket, bashing the soldier in the face, and I cracked him in the head with the butt of a rifle.  My husband was more clever. He yanked the soldier’s pinky and snapped it right off.  Meanwhile, the soldier had not struggled, not made a peep.

Look, my husband said, holding out the green finger. There was no blood.  The finger was stiff plastic, like the rest of the man, whose face was frozen in a wide-eyed, green grimace.

We pulled off the rest of his fingers, bending and twisting until the molded plastic faded white at the seams and we could snap them off like sausages. Still, he did not move. Outside, the rest of the toy soldiers dropped in lines in the streets and the sidewalk and fell over like rows of dominoes. The sirens from the American ships still wailed overhead.

Constanza began to tell us in a very loud voice about how she would bathe the man in a tub of acid to eat away at his plastic.

Be careful, I told her.  He is dumb and silent, but perhaps not deaf or dead, and he might remember us.  What if something we do wakes him up?

We were sick to our stomachs.  We knew what happened if we remained in anyone’s long memory, after decades of being ruled by people with memories as long as the night.  We decided we’d leave him right where he’d fallen: in the bed, the white sheets crinkled around him like butcher paper underneath a green fish.

We slept that night with the wailing in the sky, all of us in the baby’s room, taking turns watching our prisoner. Or were we prisoners?  When it was my watch, my husband swayed me gently in the rocking chair to wake me.  He placed Pablito at my breast so he could suck while I watched the green man, and then he set to snoring in the rocking chair.

I watched the man, but he looked just like the rest of them outside, limbs frozen into tense positions. Our soldier held his hands flat out in front of him at ninety degree angles from the wrist, like he was breaking down an invisible door, only the palms left from when we had twisted and broken off his fingers.

Pablito, I said when he gave up my breast and started to cry, Pablito, hush.  I smoothed his sparse little hairs from his baby soft head.  Would there be an island for him to grow up in?  Would the ships level the city?  I wanted him to grow strong and brave like me, not like his clever, nimble father, my husband, the man who could dance the two-step faster than anyone, who could unbutton the dress of a lady with long fingers like a piano player’s.  I wanted this son of mine to have a body like the plastic form in our bed, strong and silent because he would know what talking loudly would inscribe in long memories.

I thought I could see the man moving, his mouth closing. I was cold under the fan. Was the soldier warming, was his plastic softening? I put Pablito in the bassinet. I climbed under the covers with the man, but his plastic was unyielding. I thought about how, if he warmed, if he moved, I would kill him. I would slit his throat with a kitchen knife, and thinking this I drifted to sleep. I only woke for a moment, when my husband, stiff from sleeping in the rocking chair, climbed into bed with me.  The plastic man between us, the crashes of soldiers falling on our city and the wailing of birth from the ships was our lullaby.

*

In the morning, we emerged onto the streets.  We stepped around the toy men, but everywhere people were kicking the soldiers while they were down and trying to melt the plastic in boiling water and salt.

We looked up like we were trying to guess the weather. The ships were shrinking.  Someone said, It’s over, they failed, they are going back into the distance.

No, I said.  They are just getting smaller, they’re shrinking and they’re coming down to us.

We scattered to our homes.

When the ships shrank, their white, slim legs shortened. Then they were just the size of small houses. They paraded down the streets, giant white women with skirts shaped like ships. They walked like Pillsbury doughgirls, vulnerable to be eaten and poked and exploded, except that tanks rolled behind them at the ready.  We hid beneath our window sills when the tanks’ scopes swiveled around and pointed at us.

At seeing the American ships walking down our own streets, clearly the vanguard of a long ordeal, suddenly I was more afraid of the man in our bed than I was of his long memory. I could feel it in my stomach, the plastic hardness growing like a dreadful pit. I dragged the man with my husband’s and Constanza’s help into the yard, while the American ships stomped and shook down buildings on another street. I covered the soldier in mango juice and left him in the yard for the ants, our giant carnivorous ants that could eat through walls to get to meat. Certainly, I said, if there’s anything left of a man in that green plastic, the ants will get him.

We ran back inside because the ships and the tanks thumped back onto our street, their marching and rolling leaving divots in the pavement.  They pounded their feet, mangos and coconuts shaking and falling off the trees.  Their eyes were wide and blind and looked up at the sky while their clumsy feet did their damage.

What are they looking for? asked Constanza.

They are afraid of their own shadow, I said.

Then the ships’ jaws unhinged with the sound of gears, and they opened their mouths as if to yawn.  The air crackled with the static of radio, an explosion of white noise.  The crackles popped and settled into words, spewing out the American President’s voice, deep and robotic, with orders we didn’t understand–not the language nor the motives nor the wisdom of the orders.  At hearing their commands, the toy soldiers that had fallen into hotels and beds and businesses and lay in the streets in various positions of war came lurching to life.  Their plastic limbs moved with a fluidity we’d never seen.  They were as fast as snakes; they streamed out of the buildings and into the streets, single file, pointing their guns.  Pockmarked with ants that clung to his honeyed body and uniform still, the soldier in our lawn rose up and looked at his fingerless hands, then joined the march.

Don’t look back, I prayed.

But then Pablito gave a little baby shriek, and our one soldier turned back, head rotating on a swivel, remembering. But he kept marching, his head rotated backwards until the whole line of them turned the corner.

Did it help our sympathies to think that we were fighting against each other before this? That the guns had not lain dormant since the last invasion?  It did not.  Now we aimed them at the tanks, or we vied for the attention of the ships by jumping up and down, hands waving, with signs that indicated they should kill only our enemies.  Half the time, the tanks marching behind the ships aimed for movement, and instead of the enemies, they shot at the people holding up the signs. The other half of the time, the ships listened. Or did not listen, who knew? It could have been random, the dumb fifty-fifty of a coin toss that only seemed to be an intelligent will.

We shot back. I handed guns to our most trusted neighbors, and we hid in ditches and underneath windows sills. We aimed at the tanks and the soldiers, and although they did not bleed, the green plastic was vulnerable to holes.

At night, we slept on the floor underneath the bed to get below the spray of bullets that hailed on the city like a nightly rain. We made a nest with blankets on the tile for Pablito, and we slept around him in a triangle, Constanza, my husband, and I. In the morning, we could see daylight through holes in the concrete walls and the meat Constanza had hung up to dry looked like Swiss cheese, more air than meat, and tasted like gun powder. Usually the holes were chest-level, and we had gotten underneath them in the night.  Once we woke up in a nest of feathers like all the angels had been stripped, but it was just the pillows had exploded. We ate our way through the stock of canned goods my husband had bought that day of the invasion, and we stored the cans flat in a row on the kitchen floor.

Once I held Pablito up above me because he was crying. What a wail he had in him! And the ships were stomping and marching outside. I could hear sirens in the distance of the street, the radio voice of orders echoing in the room, and still my son was louder. Constanza kept the pillows smashed over her ears. So I rocked him above me to calm him down. I told him he was Superman, he had the lungs of a whale, and that is when a bullet whizzed above me. Blood sprouted in a slick line on his forehead.

The bullet had nicked his skin in a perfect line. It had grazed him and then sank into the wall. Constanza prayed in horror. My husband’s eyes narrowed like he was mounting all of his defenses of cleverness. The three of us decided then. We would attack. We would take down an American ship.

We aimed for the commandos with the largest guns, we aimed in the open mouths and radio throats of the ships. The bullets punched holes in the plastic men until they looked like men-shaped sieves. None of this seemed to make any difference. They were strong, the soldiers.  A group of them could lift the ships by the ankles. They could lift a building onto their backs and carry it across the city, never to be seen again, the cement foundation a marker like a tombstone. They could rush into a house at lightning speed. But I remembered how easily those green fingers broke in our hands. They could lift, push, explode, but they would break after bending.

And my husband, he says, We could use this.  We shoot them one way and we shoot them the other way, we shoot them from multiple directions in different places at the same time.  We make them bend, we make them bow, we make them kneel, and finally, they will break.

You are clever, I said, so clever.  I remembered again why we married.

We stationed ourselves: me on the roof of the house, my husband in the window of a building opposite, Constanza the maid, who before this time had never shot a gun in her life, on a third building. Eventually, the wailing turned onto our street.

Devuélvanse a casa! hollered the ships as they marched, tanks behind them, green toy soldiers underfoot.  Collect peace from my hands! broadcast the ships from their nonsensical throats, the voice of the American President.  Beneath them, the soldiers threw grenades that exploded into a shower of worthless pennies that could take out your eyes if you got too close, if you didn’t shut them.

We aimed for the biggest one. American ship, American ship, come crashing down! I sang to Pablito, who I had strapped to my chest. I plugged his little ears with wax. I gave the sign, mirrors flashing with a tiny reflection of the sun towards the roof of the next building.  We shot.

The rifle jumped. The metal of the ship’s hull crumpled one way, caved in another.  We heard the hollow bucking of metal, the screeching of a microphone feedback loop.  In the windows, others could see what was happening, that the ship was falling, was breaking.  Everywhere, shots rang out as others aimed. Pablito, for all his power of voice, was silent, having been used to months of gunshots. The soldiers, rushing this way and that, aiming their guns in every direction, did not know where to storm.

I was laughing at the crumble and crash of the ship. I was laughing. I put the gun down. I told Pablito, This is what Superman does. Pablito cooed and clapped his hands.

Just then, I locked eyes with one of the soldiers, one with no fingers, one that pulled his trigger with the paddle of his palm. Our soldier.

I slid under the lip of the wall just in time. I crawled with Pablito to the stairs in the back.  I flew down the stairs.  I threw Pablito in his crib and hid the gun with the others in his nursery, in a false bottom under his crib mattress and inside the air conditioner above the window.  We had agreed, Constanza and I, that the Americans were not so clever as my husband, and a baby nursery would not be searched.

No sooner had I sat down in the chair of the front room than the marines flicked the door off its hinges.  They streamed around me.  Go, go, go! they said to each other.  They turned over the couches, they gutted the closets, they ripped the stove right out of the wall. The fear prickled on my skin like acid, like ants.

Were you the one?  asked the marine without hands, and his face, when he shoved it into mine, had holes where the ants had eaten him.

Just then Pablito began to cry from the other room.

Please, I said, the baby.

The one in charge said, Go make him quiet.

I rushed to the room, but they hadn’t yet begun to search there.

I held his fat little thighs in the crook of my arm.  The man in charge and my marine entered the room.  I could see they were searching with their eyes for where the guns would be hidden.

If we find anything, my marine said, my silence and my emptiness all those hours will not be enough to hold you.

Two of the marines looked in Pablito’s closet and poked his little clothes with their green fists.  They were close, they were so close.  If I died, Constanza and my husband were too far to save Pablito.  He was still crying, but not as loudly as he was capable.

I pinched one of this fat little thighs where they couldn’t see.  His mouth contorted and opened wider. A shrill wail pierced our ears like an arrow.

They all put their hands over their ears.

Make him be quiet, they said.

I pinched him harder.

Please, I said.  You’re upsetting the baby.  He has done nothing.  I know nothing.

I pinched him on the inside of his belly.  He wailed like a scream, and we all closed our eyes from the sound.

Give him anything, said one.

It’s just a kid, said another.

The commander brought out a melted chocolate bar from his plastic pocket and tried to get Pablito to take it.

I know it is her, said my marine.  He aimed his gun, the cool little circle, at my son’s head.

I remembered the feel of his fat little sausage fingers snapping off in my hands.

I know nothing, I repeated.  Please, my son.

I took a giant bunch of Pablito’s flesh and twisted, hard enough to leave a bruise.

They looked at me with their hands over their ears.  They may have seen a mother, an innocent son with a voice they couldn’t stand to hear.

There’s nothing here, said the marine in charge. Stop antagonizing the baby.

I looked my marine in the face. I knew he could not disobey orders now. Pablito was soft and hot, screaming in my arms.

He grabbed Pablito’s arm.  He whispered to me so his commander could not hear, You forget, I watched you the whole time you thought I was empty, and I know where you break.  He pulled on Pablito’s arm. I remembered the soldier’s strength, how Pablito’s arm would be light as a toothpick.

We heard a voice booming over the city.  It was the American President.  He said, We have tried so hard to be human!

Let the boy go, said the Marine in charge. We’re pulling out.

My soldier warped his green face up into a smile. We always win, he said, you’ll see.

Go! Go! Go! said the soldiers, their green bodies flexed with the tension of leaving. It seemed harder for them to release the things in my house without crushing them than it was for them to strap a whole building to their backs and labor under it.

The marines streamed back into the streets. The city was a sea of green buoying up white ships who radioed the President’s voice saying, Even now you can take peace from our hands, even now we are trying to be human. But the marines had their guns pointed towards the buildings. They were afraid we would storm them now that they were leaving and the end was in sight and they were all in one place. They strapped the crumpled, downed ship to their backs, and she floated on them like a funeral pyre through the city, to the Malecón, and then the clear, turquoise sea.

When the soldiers marched single file back into the wombs of the ships, when the ships grew wings like angels and screamed into the sky, when they dove again into the line of the horizon, disappearing back north like tiny swimmers, I looked at what was left. Green plastic limbs of the soldiers, amputated or shot off and left behind. The bodies of my countrymen on the sidewalk. Buildings disappeared, the geography of the city changed forever. Constanza and my husband still had not returned, but it had been too long. I knew they were dead.

Pablito had stopped crying.  I’m sorry, I told him, I’m so sorry.  But of course he did not yet understand words.

I lifted his shirt to check where I had grabbed and twisted. That’s when I saw it. Instead of red or the blue bloom of a bruise, his skin had sprouted a patch of shiny green.  I ran my fingers over it. He was smooth as plastic in that spot, green as a marine.  The patch was spreading over his belly.

I wanted to wail. I wanted to throw bombs in the streets. As a man, he would be camouflaged like a jungle, he would be hard and rigid, he would be strong, he would carry me on his back.  But oh, how easily, if bent, would he break!

 

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This excerpt is featured content from the

Summer 2015 issue

For ordering information or to find out more about the contents of this issue, click here.

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