The Claws Come First by Mónica Ibarra Parle
Wasafiri is proud to publish the shortlisted works of the 2021 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. These poems, essays, and short stories detail a range of emotions and experiences, produced by skilled new writers from all over the globe. In this suspenseful short story, Mónica Ibarra Parle incorporates folk tale traditions and magical realism to address the themes of generational trauma and rage.
The 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open until 30 June. You can enter the prize and read more about it here.
Jet pinpricks punctuating the skin between my knuckles. The nubs feel good to run my fingers over, soothing torn skin, and are also easier to hide.
It’s fall, just weeks before my twelfth birthday. But seasons don’t matter a whit in swampy suburbia: the wild outside’s much the same as in summer. Well, maybe not so hot, but just as fiery and fickle. Spitting ice can give way to sweater weather, then shorts and tanks, and back to cold again. The leaves don’t even bother with gold or red, they just go brown and dive from the trees.
Course this fall’s not at all the same for me. The claws keep right on growing, shooting out in ninja moons from my fists. I hide them long as I can, but then Mama catches sight one morning and calls up the doctor. It’s urgent, she says. Her voice a whispered growl, the curlicue cord wrapped round her fist.
An hour later we sit in the waiting room, old washcloths wrapped round my fists, and a layer of masking tape laced too tight. My fingertips go white from lost blood. I stare glumly at the jack-o-lantern by his office door, which has caved it on itself. Its own mouth swallowing the rest of its face.
I don’t dare look any other patients in the eye. What on earth will they think? Are they staring at my clenched fists?
But people round here take pains not to look at each other; we all have our own beefs. When I do chance it, the others are absorbed in fading copies of The Enquirer and People Magazine, or staring at the garish spindle of a fluke late hurricane tracking across the green and blue map of the Caribbean on the Weather Channel. The sound off, you can do nothing but watch it spin over the pinprick islands. A cartoon of devastation.
When I sit on the crinkly paper sheet on his exam table, the doctor takes one look and says, ‘They can’t possibly be claws. Maybe some kind of strange warts?’
I shrivel under his slate eyes; shirk back from his cold dry hands as he prods them with a nail. I can feel my face go prickly and red. Mama watches the door, folds her purse to her chest like someone’ll take it from her.
‘We can try freezing them off.’
His jaw clenches as he jolts the stubs with the liquid nitrogen. The skin around turns purple, numb except for the irritating pressure of his wand. ‘They’ll fall off in a couple days.’ He tweaks my cheek between his thumb and forefinger then peers closer at the golden hairs peppering my chin. ‘Got a bit of down there, too, ey? Has she had her monthly yet?’
I wish he hadn’t taken my claws.
Cars blast around us as we drive home, blaring F150 horns and sunlight like a knife through the glass. I can’t take my eyes from Mama drumming her brown fingers on the wheel to Don Henley’s tinny voice singing about ‘a man with hands as cold as ice’ on the FM radio. White slits pucker between Mama’s knuckles like winking eyes. When she drives she’s too focused on the road to hide them.
The doctor isn’t so cheerful when we’re back a week later. The Weather Channel’s on again, and the hurricane’s turned toward us. We’re dead in the middle of its forecast path. My wrapped fists press in my lap, the claws snagging my corduroy skirt.
The doctor tries again to banish them, now with a bone saw. It makes a god-awful racket, like a rabid mosquito whine pumped in an amp. I grit my teeth, though the pain isn’t heinous. Just a mite more than when Mama used to go at the tangles in my hair with a tight-toothed nit comb. Feels likes like hours as he claims them one by one. When he’s finished he washes his hands.
‘That hair on her chin is coming on too.’
Mama says on the way home that she can’t figure how her claws mostly stay gone. Just a nail file once a week does the trick.
‘Maybe it’s cause you want them.’ Fury’s a deep divot over her nose. ‘But you don’t, do you? You must see how much tougher this makes life.’
Before Dad comes home that night, Mama swaddles my hands in bath towels, but the claws shred terry like it’s a dead leaf. She banishes me to my room, but all that time not using the claws comes with a cost. They ache like the dickens, only feel better when I ribbon my curtains and my bedsheets. By morning, my room’s feathered with curled strips of my clothes.
The ears come next — golden teepees and downy soft grey inside, and with them bursts stereophonic life. It’s a hell of a din at first, a hornet nest of frenzied buzzing and high-pitched squeals. I cower in my room, shredding the pages in all my books while I slowly work to sort the sounds out. That there’s a grackle squawk, there bike chains thunking and pedals squealing as neighbor kids wheel their bikes by our house. My hearing’s so sharp, I can hear their butts sliding up and down vinyl banana seats. A baseball bat clacks on the diamond two blocks away. Snakes and rats sneaking through the bayou weeds, bats whooping from tree to tree. Roy, the ex-Marine neighbor two doors down, listens non-stop to AM talk radio. They’re talking in whisper-shouts now about that hurricane, saying it’ll make landfall in Galveston, maybe tomorrow night.
Mama and Dad are at the kitchen table whispering over their blackened catfish, thinking I’ve gone to bed. I can even hear the scratch-scratch of Dad’s red pen, as he grades calculus exams next to his plate. The etching stops for a minute, and I hear the sandpaper of his big hand covering her soft one.
‘Didn’t you warn her?’
Mama frees her hand with a flick and scrapes her fork and knife as she orders her plate. ‘My Mamá never talked to me. No one had to tell me. Your body changes, and you got to figure it out.’
Dad’s pen thumps down. ‘She’ll be sneaking out next, stalking down into the bayou. Not one of our neighbors would hesitate to shoot a coyote on sight. And they’d be right to. She’ll be after their chickens. You’ve got to have it out.’
Mama says nothing, but her knife gets so loud it puts a fierce urge in me to howl. I pick at the claws, gouging the tender skin between my knuckles, then tear at my ears, and the soft gray, black and gold fur that’s coming out on my belly.
But there’s also something I’ve never felt, something electric and fizzing inside.
I take to wearing my dead grandpa’s fisherman’s cap. It’s got stiff cardboard sides, perfect for hiding the ears underneath. I’ve got a turtleneck on to cover the scruff on my throat, even in this sticky heat.
Outside in the glaring sunlight, Dad’s up on a ladder, plucking crackling leaves from the gutter. He shields his eyes with the flat of his hand, squinting down at me from behind gleaming glasses.
‘That hat’s way too big for you.’
I shrug, weave my hands behind him, so he can’t see the claws are longer, thicker still. They nick the knobbled knots of my spine.
From the bright day, you wouldn’t know hell was headed for us, but the block’s a hive. Everyone’s cleaning their carports to make room for the trucks, filling up plastic tubs with water, sacking leaves to keep them from clogging the drains. Dad’s beat-up wood-paneled Datsun looks forlorn in the driveway.
‘Why don’t you help your mother tape up the windows?’ He nods toward a spool of masking tape on the sill beside him. ‘I’ve still got to prune those big tree branches before the storm comes.’ He points at the Live Oak creeping up over the house. ‘She could use your help, or we’ll never finish.’
Roy’s out there edging his lawn into hospital corners, the back of his neck beet-red under the hot sun. He slips off his camo POW cap, swipes at the sweat sliding down his forehead from his grey crew-cut. His truck’s already parked inside his garage. The cracked Semper Fi sticker on his rusted bumper is the only bright thing in his whole house. Talk radio blasts out his open screen door, crackling panic about stocking up on batteries and canned food, and how the stores are emptying shelves.
The hurricane comes ashore at 7pm. We watch it sweep over us on our black-and-white TV until the power goes out. Sheets of rain slash at the roof, and the windows rattle a tantrum. Water’s sloshing down the street, pooling on the lawns of the houses closest to the bayou, and Mama’s sitting in the big armchair in the living room, her fingers clicking rosary beads. Dad’s at the table, bent over the coiled wires of an electric panel, twizzling the screwdriver in his fist.
I’m pretending I’ve got on a straight-jacket, folding my arms up over my budding chest, to keep from shredding the sofa cushions. That fizzing in me gets louder, more than the storm and the wind and the rain. The eye when it comes is so welcome and silent that I dart out the back door, leaving my hat and clothes in a staticky pile behind me. The air is deathly still, like some minor god has vacuumed up all the life from the planet. The Live Oak tree that looms over our house is hunched as if its spine has snapped. The rose bushes huddle together. The sky’s a yellow-grey, and everything feels like the whole world is gathering itself up.
I zip out across the soft thick Southern grass, soft and spongy on the pads of my claws. Mama’s howling out the back door behind me, but I’m already long gone. And in the quiet, she must hear the fizzing in me — or see it, maybe. Or maybe she feels it too, and there’s this same urging inside her. It’s crackling all over my skin now. Every hair on my pelt standing on end. A circle of clouds curdle around this incredible patch of sky. The moon pops out, casting every leaf and twig and blade in silver. My fur too, silver; all of me as silver and wild as the rest.
A yearning to run, and if I get going fast enough, I can hook my paws over the six-foot fences and hoist myself over, vaulting from yard to yard. Sparks fly out behind me as I run. First the Coats’s house, with their rose trellises and bird baths. Then Roy’s bare yard and his big hell-dog, barking and yanking at its chain. I’m over the fence in a heartbeat and flying down to the bayou. That dog’s too big and slow and earth-bound to follow me. My ears twitch at the water moccasins slithering through the flood waters, and the ants skimming the surface. Ahead of me, the bayou cleaves the world in two, and it calls to me with its clay trails and water and wild. I streak toward it, the wind rushing through my fur, mud in my claws. The water close, so close.
The shot rings out just as my paws hit the soft muddy shore. And then another. I hurtle into the buckthorn and cower, crossing my claws over my head. And oh god, I wish it all away. All of it. And like magic, the fizzing recedes, snuffed out quick as it’d come.
Through the thatch of leaves, Roy watches, alert, shotgun perched on his shoulder. His face’s black under that dark cap. And behind him, Mama, hands at her cheeks, mouth a gaping hole. Her eyes flash gold in the moonlight, her hair wild black curls around her head. The look she gives Roy makes him stumble. The shotgun falls to his hip. His towering bulk sinks like he’s a child’s mud man left out in the rain. The wind picks up again, the trees back to their banshee shaking. The storm’s coming on again, and then it whirls past and on.
Mama snarls as she roots around in the bushes. Her hand twists in my hair and she wrenches me out, wraps a towel tight around my naked body.
‘Leave my girl alone,’ she howls over her shoulder.
She carries me home with a strength I never knew she had. Her eyes gleaming like a flashlight in the dark. I’m sobbing so much her t-shirt’s all slick with snot. All night, the two of us curl up on my bed, and there’s the awful rushing of the storm raging past, deafening even now that my coyote ears have curled back into pink seashells. But try as I might, I can’t feel that fizzing no more.
When we wake the next morning, the power’s back, and the storm has blown over. Mowers and chainsaws grumble as the rubble from the storm is chopped up into chunks small enough to pack away in lawn bags. Soon, you’d never know it ever happened. Dad’s at the kitchen table, making marks on the crisp white pages like his life depends on it.
Mama and I stand in front of the oval mirror in her bathroom. The claws are now just wisps, like baby fingernails. She saws at the softened claws with a nail file. From some angles, I wonder if I can still see that gold glint in Mama’s dark eyes. But it must be a trick of the light. Because her face is drawn and tired, and she’s wearing that waxy mask again. The one that says it’ll be alright. But she won’t look me in the eyes.
The wood santos she prays to stare down at us from every wall, warning us to keep to the right path. I tell her I won’t run out again, but even as I say it, I pray for the fizzing to come back. Because now there’s a yawning ache inside, howling to get out.
Mónica Ibarra Parle was born in the Chihuahuan Desert, which she still considers the home of her heart. For over a century, her family has played hopscotch across the international border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. She grew up shuttling between the bayous of suburban southeast Texas, and her grandparents’ house in Juárez. She now lives in South London with her partner and two kids. She is the Co-Executive Director of Forward Arts Foundation and was formerly Executive Director of First Story. She has two novels in progress The Girl in the Glass House, which was named the Cornerstones Long-List Award for the Bath Novel Award in 2020, and a YA climate-themed adventure novel inspired by Mayan mythology, which was Highly Commended in Faber & Faber’s 2018 FAB Prize.
Cover image: ‘The book of dogs’ by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Via Wikicommons.