Six Kinds of Sky: A Collection of Short Fictionby Luis Alberto Urrea
"Home isn't just a place, it is also a language."
Born in Tijuana, the son of an Anglo woman and a Mexican father, Urrea says that "Home isn't just a place, it is also a language." In these six stories—each wandering beneath different kinds of sky, from the thick Mazatlan starry night to the wide open spaces of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota—Urrea
"Home isn't just a place, it is also a language."
Born in Tijuana, the son of an Anglo woman and a Mexican father, Urrea says that "Home isn't just a place, it is also a language." In these six stories—each wandering beneath different kinds of sky, from the thick Mazatlan starry night to the wide open spaces of the Sioux Nation in South Dakota—Urrea maps the spiritual geography of what he calls "home."
"I always thought Luis Urrea was six skies rolled into one (I mean that in a good way), and this book proves that he speaks with a multitude of passionate, powerful and hilarious voices. This book is a beautiful kind of crazy."—Sherman Alexie
"With this new collection of stories, Luis Urrea makes the short list of essential American writers. His glittering landscapes, which warp and ennoble the human spirit, bring to mind the work of Salman Rushdie. I found myself going back and rereading whole passages; Urrea's got a way with words that raises the bar for the rest of us. What a marvel of a book!"—Demetria Martínez
"Urrea goes in for the big picture, and there seems to be no world he cannot capture. He writes with wit and ingenuity, and the stories possess a powerful sense of acceleration. With each story I was transported to an intense and fully imagined world."—Robert Boswell
Luis Urrea is a novelist, essayist and poet. His books have received The American Book Award for non-fiction, 1998, and The Western States Book Award for Poetry, 1994, and The New York Times named his non-fiction Across the Wire a Notable Book of the Year, 1993. Luis lives in Chicago.
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Read an Excerpt
MR. MENDOZA'S PAINTBRUSH
WHEN I REMEMBER my village, I remember the color green. A green that is rich, perhaps too rich, and almost bubbling with humidity and the smell of mangos. I remember heat, the sweet sweat of young girls that collected on my upper lip as we kissed behind the dance stand in the town square. I remember days of nothing and rainstorms, dreaming of making love while walking around the plazuela, admiring Mr. Mendoza's portraits of the mayor and the police chief, and saying dashing things to the girls. They, of course, walked in the opposite direction, followed closely by their unsympathetic aunts, which was only decent. Looking back, I wonder if perhaps saying those dashing things was better than making love.
Mr. Mendoza wielded his paintbrush there for thirty years. I can still remember the old women muttering bad things about him on their way to market. This was nothing extraordinary. The old women muttered bad things about most of us at one time or another, especially when they were on their way to market at dawn, double file, dark shawls pulled tight around their faces, to buy pots of warm milk with the cows' hairs still floating in them. Later in the day, after their cups of coffee with a bit of this hairy milk (strained through an old cloth) and many spoonfuls of sugar, only then did they begin to concede the better points of the populace. Except for Mr. Mendoza.
Mr. Mendoza had taken the controversial position that he was the Graffiti King of All Mexico. But we didn't want a graffiti king.
My village isnamed El Rosario. Perhaps being named after a rosary was what gave us our sense of importance, a sense that we from Rosario were blessed among people, allowed certain dispensations. The name itself came from a Spanish monkor was it a Spanish soldiernamed Bonifacio Rojas who broke his rosary, and the beads cascaded over the ground. Kneeling to pick them up, he said a brief prayer asking the Good Lord to direct him to the beads. Like all good Catholics, he offered the Lord a deal: if you give me my beads back, I will give you a cathedral on the spot. The Good Lord sent down St. Elmo's fire, and directly beneath that, the beads. Bonifacio got a taste of the Lord's wit, however, when he found an endless river of silver directly beneath the beads. It happened in 1655, the third of August. A Saturday.
The church was built, obliterating the ruins of an Indian settlement, and Rosario became the center of the Chametla province. For some reason, the monks who followed Bonifacio took to burying each other in the cathedral's thick adobe walls. Some mysterious element in our soil mummifies monks, and they stood in the walls for five hundred years. Now that the walls are crumbling, though, monks pop out with dry grins about once a year.
When I was young, there was a two-year lull in the gradual revelation of monks. We were certain that the hidden fathers had all been expelled from the walls. A thunderclap proved us wrong.
Our rainy season begins on the sixth of June, without fail. This year, however, the rain was a day late, and the resulting thunderclap that announced the storm was so explosive that windows cracked on our street. Burros on the outskirts burst open their stalls and charged through town throwing kicks right and left. People near the river swore their chickens laid square eggs. The immense frightfulness of this celestial apocalypse was blamed years afterward for gout, diarrhea, birthmarks, drunkenness and those mysterious female aches nobody could define but everyone named "dolencias." There was one other victim of the thunderclapthe remaining church tower split apart and dropped a fat slab of day into the road. In the morning, my cousin Jaime and I were thrilled to find a mummified hand rising from the rubble, one saffron finger aimed at the sky.
"An evangelist," I said.
"Even in death," he said.
We moved around the pile to see the rest of him. We were startled to find a message painted on the monk's chest:
HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?
YOUR POMP OR FLOAT AWAY!
"Mr. Mendoza," I said.
"He's everywhere," Jaime said.
ON THE ROAD that runs north from Escuinapa to my village, there is a sign that says:
ROSARIO POP. 8000
Below that, in Mr. Mendoza's meticulous scrawl:
NO INTELLIGENT LIFE FOR 100 KILOMETERS.
There is a very tall bridge at the edge of town that spans the Baluarte river. Once, my cousin Jaime said, a young man sat on the railing trading friendly insults with his friends. His sweetheart was a gentle girl from a nice family. She was wearing a white blouse that day. She ran up to him to give him a hug, but instead she knocked him from his perch, and he fell, arms and legs thrown open to the wind. They had to hold her back, or she would have joined him. He called her name all the way down, like a lost love letter spinning in the wind. No one ever found the body. They say she left town and married. She had seven sons, and each one was named after her dead lover. Her husband left her. Near this fatal spot on the bridge, Mr. Mendoza suggested that we:
UPEND HYPOCRITES TODAY.
Across town from the bridge, there is a gray whorehouse next to the cemetery. This allows the good citizens of the village to avoid the subjects of death and sex at the same time. On the wall facing the street, the message:
TURN YOUR PRIDE ON ITS BACK
AND COUNT ITS WIGGLY FEET.
On the stone wall that grows out of the cobble street in front of the cemetery, a new announcement appeared:
MENDOZA NEVER SLEPT HERE.
What the hell did he mean by that? There was much debate in our bars over that one. Did Mr. Mendoza mean this literally, that he had never napped between the crumbling stones? Well, so what? Who would?
No, others argued. He meant it philosophicallythat Mr. Mendoza was claiming he'd never die. This was most infuriating. Police Chief Reyes wanted to know, "Who does Mr. Mendoza think he is?"
Mr. Mendoza, skulking outside the door, called in, "I'll tell you! I think I'm Mendoza, that's who! But whoor whatare you!"
His feet could be heard trotting away in the dark.
Mr. Mendoza never wrote obscenities. He was far too moral for that. In fact, he had been known to graffito malefactors as though they were road signs. Once, Mr. Mendoza's epochal paintbrush fell on me.
It was in summer, in the month of August, Bonifacio's month. August is hot in Rosario, so hot that snapping turtles have been cooked by sitting in shallow water. Their green flesh turns gray and peels away to float down the eternal Baluarte. I always intended to follow the Baluarte downstream, for it carried hundreds of interesting items during flood-times, and I was certain that somewhere farther down there was a resting place for it all. The river seemed, at times, to be on a mad shopping spree, taking from the land anything it fancied. Mundane things such as trees, chickens, cows, shot past regularly. But marvelous things floated there, too: a green De Soto with its lights on, a washing machine with a religious statue in it as though the saint were piloting a circular boat, a blond wig that looked like a giant squid, a mysterious star-shaped object barely visible under the surface.
The Baluarte held me in its sway. I swam in it, fished and caught turtles in it. I dreamed of the distant bend in the river where I could find all these floating things collected in neat stacks, and perhaps a galleon full of rubies, and perhaps a damp yet lovely fifteen-year-old girl in a red dress to rescue, and all of it speckled with little gray specks of turtle skin.
Sadly for me, I found out that the river only led to swamps that oozed out to the sea. All those treasures were lost forever, and I had to seek a new kind of magic from my river. Which is precisely where Mr. Mendoza found me, on the banks of the post-magical Baluarte, lying in the mud with Jaime, gazing through a stand of reeds at some new magic.
Girls. We had discovered girls. And a group of these recently discovered creatures was going from the preparatory school's sweltering rooms to the river for a bath. They had their spot, a shielded kink in the river bank that had a natural screen of trees and reeds and a sloping sandy bank. Jaime and I knew that we were about to make one of the greatest discoveries in recent history, and we'd be able to report to the men what we'd found out.
"Wait until they hear about this," I whispered.
"It's a new world," he replied.
We inserted ourselves in the reeds, ignoring the mud soaking our knees. We could barely contain our longing and emotion. When the girls began to strip off their uniforms, revealing slips, then bright white bras and big cotton underpants, I thought I would sob.
"I can't," I said, "believe it."
"History in the making," he said.
The bras came off. They dove in.
"Before us is everything we've always wanted," I said.
"Life itself," he said.
"Oh, you beautiful girls!" I whispered.
"Oh, you girls of my dreams!" said he, and Mr. Mendoza's claws sank into our shoulders.
We were dragged a hundred meters upriver, all the while being berated without mercy: "Tartars!" he shouted. "Peeping Toms! Flesh chasers! Disrespectors of privacy!"
I would have laughed if I had not seen Mr. Mendoza's awful paintbrush standing in a freshly opened can of black paint.
"Oh oh," I said.
"We're finished," said Jaime.
Mr. Mendoza threw me down and sat on me. The man was skinny. He was bony, yet I could not buck him off. I bounced like one of those thunderstruck burros, and he rode me with aplomb.
He attacked Jaime's face, painting:
I AM FILTHY.
He then peeled off Jaime's shirt and adorned his chest with:
I LIVE FOR SEX AND THRILLS.
He then yanked off Jaime's pants and decorated his rump with:
KICK ME HARD.
I was next.
On my face:
On my chest:
MOTHER IS BLUE WITH SHAME.
On my rump:
THIS IS WHAT I AM.
I suddenly realized that the girls from the river had quickly dressed themselves and were giggling at me as I jumped around naked. It was unfair! Then, to make matters worse, Mr. Mendoza proceeded to chase us through town while people laughed at us and called out embarrassing weights and measures.
We plotted our revenge for two weeks, then forgot about it. In fact, Jaime's "I LIVE FOR SEX" made him somewhat of a celebrity, that phrase being very macho. He was often known after that day, as "El Sexi." In fact, years later, he would marry one of the very girls we had been spying on.
There was only one satisfaction for me in the whole sad affair: the utter disappearance of the street of my naked humiliation.
YEARS AFTER BONIFACIO built his church in Rosario, and after he had died and was safely tucked away in the church walls (until 1958, when he fell out on my uncle Jorge), the mines got established as a going concern. Each vein of silver seemed to lead to another. The whole area was a network of ore-bearing arteries.
Tunnels were dug and forgotten as each vein played out and forked off. Often, miners would break through a wall of rock only to find themselves in an abandoned mineshaft going in the other direction. Sometimes they'd find skeletons. Once they swore they'd encountered a giant spider that caught bats in its vast web. Many of these mine shafts filled with seepage from the river, forming underground lagoons that had fat white frogs in them and an albino alligator that floated in the dark water waiting for hapless miners to stumble and fall in.
Some of these tunnels snaked under the village. At times, with a whump, sections of Rosario vanished. Happily, I watched the street Mr. Mendoza had chased me down drop from sight after a quick shudder. A store and six houses dropped as one. I was particularly glad to see Antonia Borrego vanish with a startled look while sitting on her porch yelling insults at me. Her voice rose to a horrified screech that echoed loudly underground as she went down. When she was finally pulled out (by block and tackle, the sow), she was all wrinkled from the smelly water, and her hair was alive with squirming white pollywogs.
After the street vanished, my view of El Yauco was clear and unobstructed. El Yauco is the mountain that stands across the Baluarte from Rosario. The top of it looks like the profile of John F. Kennedy in repose. The only flaw in this geographic wonder is that the nose is upside-down.
Once, when Jaime and I had painfully struggled to the summit to investigate the nose, we found this message:
MOTHER NATURE HAS NO RESPECT FOR YANQUI PRESIDENTS EITHER!
Nothing, though, could prepare us for the furor over his next series of messages. It began with a piglet running through town one Sunday. On its flanks, in perfect cursive script:
Mendoza goes to heaven on Tuesday.
On a fence:
MENDOZA ESCAPES THIS HELLHOLE.
On my father's car:
I'VE HAD ENOUGH!
Rumors flew. For some reason, the arguments were fierce, impassioned, and there were any number of fistfights over Mr. Mendoza's latest. Was he going to kill himself? Was he dying? Was he to be abducted by flying saucers or carried aloft by angels? The people who were convinced the old "MENDOZA NEVER SLEPT HERE" was a strictly philosophical text were convinced he was indeed going to commit suicide. There was a secret that showed in their facesthey were actually hoping he'd kill himself, just to maintain the status quo, just to ensure that everyone died.
Rumors about his health washed through town: cancer, madness (well, we all knew that), demonic possession, the evil eye, a black magic curse that included love potions and slow-acting poisons, and the dreaded syphilis. Some of the local smart alecks called the whorehouse "Heaven," but Mr. Mendoza was far too moral to even go in there, much less advertise it all over town.
I worked in Crispin's bar, taking orders and carrying trays of beer bottles. I heard every theory. The syphilis one really appealed to me because young follows always love the gruesome and lurid, and it sounded so nasty, having to do, as it did, with the nether regions.
"Syphilis makes it fall off," Jaime explained.
I didn't want him to know I wasn't sure which "it" fell off, if it was it, or some other "it." To be macho, you must already know everything, know it so well that you're already bored by the knowledge.
"Yes, I said, wearily, "it certainly does."
"Right off," he marveled.
"To the street," I concluded.
Well, that very night, that night of the Heavenly Theories, Mr. Mendoza came into the bar. The men stopped all their arguing and immediately taunted him: "Oh look! Saint Mendoza is here!" "Hey, Mendoza! Seen any angels lately?" He only smirked. Then, squaring his slender shoulders, he walked, erect, to the bar.
"Boy," he said to me. "A beer."
As I handed him the bottle, I wanted to confess: I will change my ways! I will never peep at girls again!
He turned and faced the crowd and gulped down his beer, emptying the entire bottle without coming up for air. When the last of the foam ran from its mouth, he slammed the horde on the counter and said, "Ah!" Then he belched. Loudly. This greatly offended the gathered men, and they admonished him. But he ignored them, crying out, "What do you think of that! Eh? The belch is the cry of the water-buffalo, the hog. I give it to you because it is the only philosophy you can understand!"
More offended still, the crowd began to mumble.
Mr. Mendoza turned to me and said, "I see there are many wiggly feet present."
"The man's insane," said Crispin.
Mr. Mendoza continued: "Social change and the nipping at complacent buttocks was my calling on earth. Who among you can deny that I and my brush are a perfect marriage? Who among you can hope to do more with a brush than I?"
He pulled the brush from under his coat. Several men shied away.
"I tell you now," he said. "Here is the key to Heaven."
He nodded to me once, and strode toward the door. Just before he passed into the night, he said, "My work is finished."
Excerpted from Six Kinds of Sky by Luis Alberto Urrea. Copyright © 2002 by Luis Alberto Urrea. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Luis Alberto Urrea is author of widely acclaimed novel The Hummingbird's Daughter and 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction for The Devil's Highway. A member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, Luis was born in Tijuana, Mexico to a Mexican father and an American mother. This is his first graphic novel and Young Adult title.
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