NEA Literature Fellowships

Jennifer Clement

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2012 - Prose)

Excerpt from Prayers for the Unusual

My mother whistles a soft bird song. Her mouth is so close she sprays my neck with her whistle-spit. I can smell beer on her breath. Now we make you ugly, she says. In the mirror I watch her move the piece of charcoal across my face to make me look dirty. It's a nasty life, she whispers.           

My first memory is of my mother as she holds an old, cracked mirror to my face. I must have been about six years old. The crack makes my face look as if it is broken into two pieces. The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl. My name is Ladydi Garcia Martinez I have always made myself ugly. As a child my mother used to dress me up as a boy and call me Lalo. She said, I told everyone a boy was born but any decision is a lose lose decision. If I am a boy then the narcos will want me to work for them and they don't ask if you want to or not. If I am a girl then I am going to be "stolen."  All narcos have to do is hear that there is a pretty girl around and they sweep onto your property in black escalades and carry you off. So, as I said, the best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.           

On television I watch soap operas and sitcoms and see girls getting pretty, combing their hair and braiding it with pretty colored bows or older girls in mini skirts and tight t-shirts but this does not happen in my house. My mother says things like, Maybe I need to knock out your teeth, your smile is too damn perfect and bright. As I've grown older I rub a yellow or black marker over the white enamel so that my teeth look rotten. My mother says there is nothing more disgusting than a dirty mouth.

Don't you ever tell anyone about these secrets, my mother has always said. No man should ever find out how pretty you are.           

It was Paula's mother who had the brilliant idea of digging holes. They live across the field from us and have their own small house and field of papaya trees. She had this idea about five years ago.           

My mother says that the State of Guerrero is turning into a rabbit warren with young girls hiding all over the place in holes in the ground.           

As soon as someone hears the sound of an SUV approaching or sees that black dot in the distance or two or three black dots, all the young girls in the area run to our holes, get in and cover the opening with a dried grasses and palm fronds.           

This is the state of Guerrero: the hottest place in the world. A land of rubber plants, snakes, iguanas and scorpions, the blond, transparent scorpions that you cannot see and that can kill you. Guerrero that has more spiders than any place in the world I'm sure, and ants. Red ants that can make your arm swell up and look like a leg. My mother says, This is where we are proud to be the angriest and meanest people in the world.           

When I was born, my mother announced that a boy had been born. She told this to her neighbors and people in the market. His name is Lalo, she said, and thank God a boy was born!  Yes, thank God and the Virgin Mary, everyone would answer even though no one was fooled. Around here only boys are born and some of them turn into girls around the age of eleven, or just into puberty, and then these boys have to turn into ugly girls who sometimes have to hide in holes in the ground. This may sound funny, or just a little sad, but it is pure terror. It is terror just the way that rabbits feel terror when they see a stray hungry dog in the field that cannot close his mouth and its tongue already tastes their fur. The rabbit fiercely stomps its back leg and this danger warning travels through the ground and alerts all the other rabbits in the warren. In our area a warning is impossible since we all live fields apart. We are always on the lookout, though, and try to learn to hear things that are very far away. My mother bends her head down and closes her eyes and I can almost see her ears stand up a little as she concentrates on listening for an engine or the disturbed sounds that birds and small animals make when a car approaches.           

You see no one has ever come back. Every girl who has been stolen has never returned or, even sent a letter, my mother says, not even a letter. Every girl except for Paula. Paula returned. She came back one year ago after she'd been kidnapped for two years. She just walked down the highway, up the dirt, gravel path to her house and into her room and lay down in her bed that was still covered with a few stuffed animals. She walked slowly looking down as if she were following a row of stones straight to her home. My mother said, Nah, she was not following stones, that girl just smelled her way home to her mother. Paula never spoke a word about what happened to her. We have no idea. What we do know is that Paula's mother feeds her from a bottle, gives her a milk bottle, actually sits her on her lap and gives her a bottle and Paula must be at least fifteen by now since I'm fourteen. Her mother also feeds her Gerber baby foods and feeds her straight into her mouth with a small white plastic spoon that she must have kept from an OXXO coffee she bought in Acapulco.           

At the time my mother said, Did you see that? Did you see Paula's clothes? No, why? They were blue, navy blue, and you know what that means, right? She was blue, all in blue; navy blue, Jesus, Mary's son and Son of God, and the angels in heaven protect us all.           

No, I didn't know what that meant and my mother did not want to say but I did find out later. Navy blue is what you have to wear in prison. Now I wonder how do you get stolen from a small hut in the countryside by a narco with a shaved head and with a machine gun in one hand and a gray grenade in his back pocket and then end up in jail? What about that life?

Because of the blue clothes, thinking about Paula in jail, and knowing that she gets fed like a baby, I always watch out for her. I want to talk to her. She never leaves her house now but we were always best friends, along with Maria and Consuelo. I want to talk to Paula and make her laugh and remember how we used to go to church on Sundays dressed up like boys and that my name was Lalo and her name was Paulo. I want to remind her of the times we used to look at the soap opera magazines together because Paula loved to look at the pretty clothes the television stars wear. I also want to know what happened to her. She's been home for a year and I still don't know. What we all do know is that she was always the prettiest girl in these parts of Guerrero and you don't want to be a pretty girl in Mexico. So, of course, the word was out. People said Paula was even prettier than the girls from Acapulco, which is a big compliment, as anything that is glamorous or special has to come from Acapulco. Paula's mother tried to hide her beauty and even dressed her in dresses stuffed with rags to make her look fat but everyone knew that three kilometers outside the town of Chilpancingo, and two hours from the port of Acapulco, there was a girl living on a small property with her mother and three chickens who was more beautiful than Jennifer Lopez. It was just a matter of time.

Jennifer Clement is the author of the memoir Widow Basquiat (A True Story Based on Lies (Canongate, 2003), which was a finalist for the UK's Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Poison That Fascinates (Canongate, 2009). She is also the author of several books of poetry: The Next Stranger, Newton's Sailor, Lady of the Broom and Jennifer Clement: New and Selected Poems (Shearsman Books, 2008). Clement is the recipient of the Canongate Prize and a MacDowell fellowship, and her essays have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. She is a member of Mexico's prestigious Sistema Nacional de Creadores. In 1997, she and her sister, Barbara Sibley, founded the San Miguel Poetry Week. Currently, Clement is the president of PEN Mexico.

Photo by Jennifer Clement

Author's Statement

The NEA has always represented excellence to me. Therefore, to be among the writers who are NEA fellows is a great honor. At this moment in my career, this award fills me with a mixture of humility, hope and, above all, renewed courage.