Glendaliz Camacho



Glendaliz Camacho was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC. She studied at Fordham University and has held editorial positions in publishing - previously with a literary agency and presently at a prestigious academic publisher. Her writing has appeared in DTM Magazine, Miami New Times, and Whistling Shade, among others. Glendaliz is currently at work on a novel and short-story collection.

The Baca

Thanks JBH

Mama wakes me up for school, and I dress quickly, trying not to give too much thought to the hems of my school pants that are a good four inches shorter than they should be. My classmates laugh that I can keep my pants dry in a flood. I have just enough time left to take a sip of Mama’s coffee before leaving, it’ll kill your hunger and hold you ‘til mediodia, she says.

The oldest kids in the neighborhood lead the walk to school with the younger ones behind them and the littlest ones bringing up the rear. All the kids, about fifty or sixty of them, empty out of the town into the street, like a herd. The school is more than two miles away. I always walk last in the group of older kids. I’m a year younger than the rest of them because I got skipped a grade when we moved here from Santo Domingo, which doesn’t help my popularity. “Look at the capitaleño, he thinks he’s a genius,” Diego always says. 

The tough mornings are when the older ones, like Diego, wake up late and run all the way, which means the rest of us have to run all the way too. Since I’m short and hefty every time we’re late all I hear is, run gordo or we’re gonna leave you behind gordo. I end up getting to school with my uniform shirt soaked through with sweat and out of breath which gives my classmates extra ammunition against me. Even Professora Diaz flares her nostrils at me when I get to school in that state.

The stampede of students has already run through town this morning, probably because Diego was up late last night sweet-talking Flor Arias and didn’t get up on time. Flor is the most beautiful girl I’ve seen, even counting the ones in the capital, and there are real beauties there. There isn’t anyone with the same caramel skin and eyes so big she doesn’t so much as blink as fan her eyelashes at you. Anyway, I’m already later than everyone else since I have no friends to knock on my door or call me through the window.

I’m running down the main road by myself now but something isn’t right. Something makes me stop. There’s an uneasy silence around me. Every palm leaf is still and the earth seems to be holding its breath. I hear it, a galloping sound accompanied by yells and whoops and hollers. The same pack of kids that ran to school earlier are rushing back, right towards me. Only now, there are adults in the crowd as well. Professora Diaz is panting and wild-eyed. The sixth grade teacher, an older thin man with a tuft of white hair on his head, pushes one of the kids out of his way so he can run faster.

I spot a classmate in the crowd as he races past me. “What’s happening?” I shout at him, cupping my hands around my mouth so he can hear me above the noise.

He slows down but doesn’t stop. “Don’t ask bruto. Just run.”  He’s puffing hard and the only thing he can get out is, “Someone saw un baca loose in the schoolyard.”

“A what?” I start to jog alongside him. Is he mispronouncing vaca? No, that can’t be, no one would run from a cow.

Un baca, idiota!” he yells.

A baca must be some sort of animal I’ve never heard of. Maybe something particular to Montecristi because I never heard that word back in Santo Domingo. I spring into a full run anyway but soon I’m too winded. Thank God, my house is within sight.

I run onto the front porch of my house as the wave of students sweep past me. I hurtle myself through the door and slam it behind me. “¡Muchacho!” I catch Mama by surprise as she’s in the yard with a customer and a fluttering chicken in her grip.  The house smells of garlic and sautéed onions. I bend over to catch my breath. Mama abandons the chicken and rushes inside with the customer, an older woman from the barrio, and sits me down in a kitchen chair. My side is cramping from the run.

“What happened to you? Why are you home so early?”

“There was…un baca…in the school,” I pant. “Everyone ran home.” I leave out the part about my not having actually gotten to the school. The doña’s eyes widen like two round pesos. She grabs her purse from the couch and hastily excuses herself. She nervously yells behind her shoulder that she’s forgotten something or other at her house and will be back later. The door bangs closed behind her before she finishes the sentence.

“What the hell is a baca?” Mama knits her eyebrows in confusion. “You better not be lying to me or…”

“I’m not lying!”

Bueno, after lunch, I’m going to Professora Diaz’s house,” she eyes me suspiciously, to see if the threat of a conversation with my teacher will coax anything else out. But it doesn’t.

After stuffing myself with white rice, beans, and chicken I sit in the patio to read a comic. Mama announces (her church purse in hand) that she’s going to see Professora Diaz. I finish three comics by the time the door opens again. Mama is unusually pale. She sits down on a worn chair and wrings her hands in her lap.

“What did she tell you?”

Mama takes a pañuelo from her purse and wipes the sweat off her rosy forehead. She twists and untwists the handkerchief several times in her hands before answering.

“She told me a baca is an animal that a vodou priest prepares so that it can do evil to someone. It could be a person that’s been changed into an animal, something like that. Whatever it is, it’s dangerous.” She warns me to be careful with the Haitianos living on the outskirts of town.

The hairs on my arms stand on end, even in this relentless Caribbean heat. “What’s going to happen? Who’s going to get rid of it?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “The director isn’t answering the door at his house and none of the teachers want to return. We’ll have to see tomorrow.”

Since no one is going back to school today, I leave Mama sweeping the front porch and take a walk down the street. The adults I pass are murmuring amongst themselves about what should be done. Housewives lean over their fences whispering to each other, men are gathered at street corners – some with rifles in their hands, others only armed with cigarettes.

Diego and some of the other boys are on the corner across the street from Flor’s house. She’s watching them from her window, her long brown hair covers her bony, tan shoulders. I walk into the road, my eyes on her lips as she laughs, when I trip over a large rock that marks third base during beisbol games. I fall so hard I taste the dust I kick up. As I brush myself off, Flor is walking off the front porch of her house and my mouth goes dry. “I think I felt that from my house, gordito,” she smiles. 

The laughter coming from the other boys interrupts me from answering. Diego is the loudest as usual. “You should’ve stayed in your Mama’s kitchen, gordo.”

Flor crosses her arms. “It’s so easy to laugh at him. But if he were bigger than you, you wouldn’t even say pio.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “Don’t worry about…”

“What are you talking about? He is bigger than me!” A new round of laughter erupts. “And just so you know, I’m not afraid of even the devil,” Diego brags, slapping his chest.

“Is that why you were one of the first to run out of the school today? I’d hate to see how fast you’d run if you saw the devil. You’d probably come off the ground,” she laughs again.

One of the other boys snickers as he’s about to bite into a peeled mango. Diego gives him a cocotazo on the back of the head, sending the mango flying and the boy muttering under his breath as he tries to catch it before it hits the dusty street. “What? I’ll go back to the school right now.” Diego’s pale cheeks are flushed and sweat beads on his brow.

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” the mango boy interrupts, wiping the fruit on his white undershirt. “My uncle told me that one time a man in his town lost everything - his family, his house, his business, because someone put a baca after him.” But Diego is already storming down the street in the direction of the school.

By the time we are halfway back to the school, most of the kids in our town are following Diego too. Flor is walking silently next to me. Her eyes are glued to the back of Diego’s blonde head. “Why did I even say anything?” she curses softly. I’m not sure if she really wants me to answer so I don’t. “Earlier when that whole thing happened in school, all the girls kept asking me where Diego was and he didn’t even wait for me. I was kind of embarrassed. So I just wanted to embarrass him in front of his friends a little, but now…” Her dark, perfect eyebrows shift closer together in thought.

“He’ll be fine. Mala hierba…” I start to repeat the refran about bad weeds never dying then think better of it and start to apologize but Flor laughs so hard she has to wipe tears away from the corners of her eyes. I feel less nervous and laugh too.

“I don’t know but I like him.” She shrugs her shoulders. Even though I know I have no chance in the world with a girl like Flor, it still makes my heart sink to hear she likes someone else, especially Diego. “My abuela says trying to understand why men act the way they do is like trying to understand why a dog chases its tail or licks its balls. It’s not worth the trouble of breaking your head about it. Sometimes it’s just enough to know that’s what they do.”

I’m preparing to say something smart about how having good reasons for what we do is what separates us from dogs but some of her friends catch up to us and carry her off. We are all near the front of the school which looks ominous now, so empty and silent in the afternoon. Everyone is nervously darting about and I make my way to the front of the crowd. Diego has picked up a thick branch along the way and is swinging it like he’s warming up for a game. It’s a lot of show since he doesn’t even know what kind of animal is in there or if that bat will end up cracked on his own head, but of course there are a group of girls clucking around him. Sometimes I think they’re as mindless as the chickens Mama raises in our backyard.

“Maybe you should check from the windows first,” one boy suggests.

Diego rubs the five hairs on his chin and unhinges the school gate that no one bothered to lock earlier. Everyone presses against the gate like a single wave. Diego creeps up to the closest window and dips his head inside. He makes a hand signal to tell us he sees nothing. He repeats this with all the windows until he’s back where he started. “Maybe, it left,” one of the kids says. “Nah, it’s gotta be hiding,” says another. Everyone begins stealing glimpses around them, in the coconut tree that hangs over us from inside the yard, down the road, behind themselves, thinking the baca could be anywhere. “I didn’t see anything,” Diego calls out, shrugging his lean shoulders. He adjusts his grip on the branch and opens the main door.

“What if there’s nothing?” one girl asks.

“Back to school tomorrow then.” Everyone groans.

“Who was the one that saw it?” someone else asks.

As everyone turns to each other to say, fulano told me or I heard it from so-and-so, a noise comes from inside the school. It’s a clipped shout that evolves into panicked wails. We hear the sound of furniture being pushed, chairs clanging into each other, and wood cracking. Some of the kids take off running back home and others are crouched, too nosy or scared to leave but getting ready just in case. Diego lets out another terrible yell, one of those where you run out of breath before you’re done screaming. There’s a movement in the crowd and Flor emerges, her eyes as large as an untamed horse’s. She runs through the front yard towards the building, her brown hair flapping behind her. Before I can talk myself out of it, I run after her. She reaches the side entrance first and I see her gasp and cover her mouth with her long, delicate fingers before darting inside.

As I approach, I hear Diego yell at Flor not to come any closer. I’m wheezing by the time I reach the doorway. Flor is trying to approach Diego but he’s wildly flailing one half of the tree branch and stumbling around. There are thin streams of blood everywhere, on the floor, the desks, dotted on his gray t-shirt, and smeared on his white arms. His eyes and part of his forehead are covered by his free hand. “Is it still here?” he cries out.

We look around us frantically. “I don’t see anything,” Flor answers, looking at me. I don’t want to see whatever bloodied Diego up either. I can’t even tell where he’s been cut and I’m not sure why he’s covering his eyes. I just want to take Flor out of here. Diego finally stops moving and when Flor lowers his hand we both jump back. Diego’s eyelids and forehead are cut so badly, in some places it appears tattered like old clothing, as if something has pecked at him furiously. The blood streaming from his forehead makes it almost impossible for him to see.  His thin frame shakes with pitiful sobs. “We have to take you to the clinica,” Flor insists. She quickly takes Diego’s shirt off and wraps it around his eyes. By the strained look on her face, I can tell she’s fighting through her disgust. It makes me love her even more.

“Let’s go, gordito.” She leads Diego by the elbow, her purple camisole streaked with crimson.

“What did the baca look like?” I ask as I hold the door open for them.

No se. I hardly got a good look before it flew at me. It was just…feathers and talons. Una fiera.” His voice breaks a little.

“Was it big?”

Coño, I told you! I didn’t get a good look. Don’t you see my eyes?”

“Don’t get agitated.” Flor rubs his arm.

Maldito gordo, coño,” Diego mutters as they’re met in the school yard by some of the boys. Everyone gasps audibly when they see him and surge forward to get a closer look. A few of the girls begin to cry. One of the boys says he’ll give Diego a ride to the clinica on his pasola. As they speed off, Flor stands there looking down at her stained hands and shirt. “Now what?” one of the girls asks. Everyone mills about; there are still a good thirty kids here.

“We can’t leave that thing loose,” Flor whispers to me.

“But didn’t you see what it did to Diego? It must’ve been as big as him,” I hiss back.

No, no creo,” she strokes her chin. “If it was big it would have hurt him more. Bacas are usually small animals…dogs, cats, chickens, like that. He said it had talons…” Her words drift away and she looks behind her at the school. She begins walking back towards it.

“Wait, wait.” I grab her by the arm. Even her elbow is soft. “I’ll go in.”

“Ay gordito, since when do you have balls?” She wrests away her arm.

“Since when do you?!” I yell, pointing at her crotch. Flor narrows her eyes at me and I know she’s going to curse me out. “Wait, wait. Just stay outside and watch. In case it leaves…Or if any of those little kids try to come in.”

She hesitates a moment. “Fine. But I didn’t ask you to go in there.”

“I know.” I can’t let her to go in the school and get hurt, even if she won’t pay me any mind tomorrow, even if she still likes Diego and visits him everyday afterschool until he returns, even if she wishes it were me instead of him that got hurt. I just can’t.

I open the entrance door we just left from and look behind me at Flor. She nods. “I’ll be right here, gordito. But don’t do anything stupid.” My heart is pounding. I step into the classroom where Diego’s blood warns me away. I look everywhere, the ceiling, and the corners, underneath the desks. I tip-toe to the next classroom. Mama always says I step softly for my size and that’s why I’m so good at sneaking up on the chickens in the yard.

I peek into the classroom through a tiny window and see it. Right by the teacher’s desk. It’s a mass of black, shiny feathers that quiver spastically. I swallow hard. The baca has its back to me but from what I see it does look like a chicken except it’s the largest one I’ve ever seen! It jerks about instead of stepping, like it’s sick. The talons on it are massive and make scraping noises on the cement floor that force goose bump to rise on my arms.

Carefully, so slowly that I can barely see myself move, I turn the knob on the door and slide in the room. The baca makes a guttural noise, like a growl and I almost lose control of my bowels. If it turns around, I’m still within arm’s reach of the door. I’ll slam it behind me and run, I swear to God. But it doesn’t turn around. I step closer. Mama’s never seen anyone as quick as me, she said. Not when she was a girl on her family’s farm. Not even when things were good and we lived in the city, when we could still afford to buy chickens instead of raising them. Before my father left us.

If I’m patient for the right moment and keep myself quiet, I can get close enough. I’m too far from the door to turn back now. Sin miedo, Mama said when she showed me how to reach under its rear and grab the chicken by its legs with one hand. No fear. I learned how on my first try.

I’m close enough to smell the baca. It has an odor like meat that is beginning to spoil. I try to inhale even more slowly. It’s stock-still but the feathers twitch individually. I’m hypnotized by the motion and blink quickly to shake the feeling.

In one sure movement, I sweep underneath and grab the legs. It lets out an enraged squawk and I can barely hold on, the legs are so much larger than a normal bird. The baca flaps its wings and the smell is putrid. It makes me a little light-headed but I can’t let go. I get a glimpse of its head, glowing red eyes, and a misshapen beak. I grab hold of it and bring the baca to my chest. It writhes like a snake, taking all my strength to keep my grip. I pull down on the neck and bend it up quick. It snaps. The wings flutter and I let go.

Flor bursts into the class in time to see it fluttering uncontrollably. “Jesusantisimo! Get away from it!”

Leaning against a window, I struggle for air. “It’s dead.”

We watch it together until it goes limp. Flor turns to look at me, still shaken. Slowly, a smile appears on her bow-shaped lips. “Abelardo…” Her words evaporate even though her lips get closer. Her mouth puckers against my cheek, her hair brushes mine. She embraces me and I know tomorrow I won’t be walking last.

August 2010