first cow vanishes in the night on a full moon. My godson brings me the news. I
hear no sounds, and my sheep dog, Proteção, doesn’t bark. The heifer was thin;
truthfully her death relieves a burden. She had no market value, so I let the
second cow, however, would have brought a fair price. So I camp in the pasture.
The long, chilly nights with no theft leave me sloppy, and I sleep. I wake when
Proteção licks my face whining and shaking. I know before I count--a third cow
has been taken.
the fourth cow disappears, its shredded body found on the road to the village,
I have to do something drastic. I strum my guitar absently watching the wind
command the grass to dance in my field. Music helps me think. I pause,
forgetting the song my father taught me: B, B7, C minor--it’s gone, but I have
an answer. The only way to fight a monster is with another monster.
* * *
breeze carries the rot and brine scent of the sea. The cattle huddle close to
the house as if they know something else is out there, lurking. Proteção paces
and a high-pitched whistle comes with each of his pants. I'm thankful that
Antoine will collect my goods for market even with the troublesome accounts on
my land, but we are long-time friends.
he is not superstitious.
hefts a bag of wool into the wagon. He tugs the bags to the corner, making room
for my dried meats. “You’re a fool, Bento. A name doesn’t hold that much
will take the supplies to the big island, Sao Jorge, for trade. He usually pays
me with two jars of milk, a box of vegetables, and a bag of wool, but supplies
are short today. Antoine’s word is good. He'll bring the difference tomorrow.
the same, do not call me Bento. I’m a seventh son. I should have been cursed to
become a beast, but my name blesses me from that fate.”
not a beast. It’s an old witch’s tale meant to coax children to behave. Bento
means ‘blessed,’ nothing more. Nobody believes in old curses.”
curse is real.”
waves his hand like he’s pushing away my words. “Bah.”
don’t bother retelling the legend of the seventh son and the conquistador’s
raids in Africa and the curse from the Nganga. Hundreds of years ago my
ancestors chose money over morality. Now every seventh son is cursed to become
a beast, the body of a gorilla and the head of a bore, unless we take the
necessary precautions to avoid the pull of the moon. “Then why don’t I have a
wife? Children? Why do the villagers fear me?”
is your child,” he says and gestures to my godson filling the trough. “The
beasts are a myth--”
we’ve followed the precautions for generations. Because we remind the younger
generations of our mistakes.”
middle islands are protected,” he explains in a bored tone. “Terceira is filled
with Jews and Moors who refused to convert. My own family is Jewish. We’re
Portugal’s dumping ground. And thank goodness, we came out the better for it.”
He makes a face that indicates his distaste for the mainland. “Nobody on this
island can claim pure bloodlines to the conquistadors.”
if a drop of guilt is enough? What if that is all we need?”
shakes his head. “You’re paranoid.”
he doesn’t look at me or offer evidence to the contrary.
wheels the cart away. The squeaks and rattles create a beat that reminds me of
a song. I retire to my porch and strum the chords. Tomé finishes his chores
early and practically vibrates with energy.
he calls to me. He dances around like a puppy testing the stones in a creek for
crossing. “Is that a new song?”
wipes his finger under his nose, leaving a smear of mud. “Will you teach me to
today. The neighbor boy will be wondering where you are. Go run and play.”
shoots off, dust swirling in puffs at his heels before I can finish excusing
him of his duties. The neighbor boy spies at me from the fence. The scent of
rot and urine fill my nostrils until the wind changes and it's gone. The boy is
* * *
of the villagers challenge my request to call me João, the name of my father’s
youngest brother. As usual, the children wrap themselves in their mother’s
aprons when I pass, staring at me from their fabric fortresses. The women
ignore me. The men laugh and shake their heads.
is not blessing enough for you?” Madeira calls.
old woman spits at my feet. “Choose any surname you wish, that is your right,
but change your Christian name? Disrespectful.” She throws her hands in the air
and mutters about curses while I skirt around her.
swing my guitar on my back and retreat behind a mound of hay, but I still hear
their laugher at my public chastising.
dig my palms into my eyes. I’ve asked several neighbors to help keep watch, but
none will risk roaming the pastures with me at night. Others have experienced
disappearances and there is talk that a beast is already in our midst.
and I take shifts through the night. Last night while I slept another attack
plagued our herd. Tomé dragged the mangled calf into the barn. He bent his head
and hunched his shoulders when I discovered him, waiting for his beating. “I
must have fallen asleep,” he offered as an excuse.
boy’s chin wobbled. He fetched a mound of clean cloth. “Will he live?”
I said. I didn’t glance at the boy.
turned away from him and told him to go to the house. No boy this close to
adulthood wishes to have his tears acknowledged. I skipped the punishment.
know what’s next. Next they will run me from my home. I’m the only seventh son
they know. My antics have thrust me into the light. They say I embrace the evil
take a deep breath. My lungs fill with the sweetness of dry hay. Chickens cluck
in the distance at the market. I promised to play a tune at the Holy Ghost
Festa, so I must regain my composure.
I open my eyes a young girl stands before me, staring. “You’re the seventh
son?” she asks.
a servant to a seventh daughter, a bruxa.” She offers me a charm and I take
it. “There are no names mothers can give to protect their daughters from the curse
of becoming a witch." She smiles at the word curse. Witches are tolerated,
in some places revered, not shamed on our island. "She can give you what
in the fabric charm is a symbol I have seen before. I know the seventh
daughter, the bruxa, she mentions. I press her charm to my heart. “Obrigado,”
girl scurries off into the market, frightening the pigs in their pens. They
squeal and knock over a bucket of muck. I hear a familiar laugh. It is Tomé and
the neighbor boy. The air fills with the scent of hot piss. I glare at the boy
and motion for him to leave. I take Tomé by the arm and guide him to the path for
cross my arms and wait for him to go. "Stay away from that boy."
looks confused, but leaves, glancing back and shooting me with hateful
* * *
witch’s house is a hunt made of stones by the springs. Steam rises from the
fissures along the path to her door. The gate and doors are open, which means
anyone may enter. A pot is boiling over a fire a few feet from the house. I
peek into the pot and discover bones and bubbling water.
to join me for dinner?” A woman with a hooknose and a gray shawl tied around
her head chuckles from the window. Her dress is black. As a widow, she will
only wear black. Some say she keeps her gates open so the spirit of her dead
husband may come and go freely. “Or are you the Bento my girl has instructed I
am Bento, although I wish people would stop calling me that so I can fight the
monster on equal ground.”
can’t break a name from your body until first you break it from your spirit.”
She holds a long green glass bottle to me. “Here. This is how you become a
inspect the glass, but don’t take it. She quarks a brow and her lips tilt into
a half smile. She sets the glass on her crooked windowsill and places a weaving
of dried wheat that looks like a cross inside a circle. “And this charm will
hold the blessing of your name until you restore it. Drink half the potion;
carry the charm around your neck. Dissolve the charm into the rest of the
potion. This is all I have, use it wisely. Be sure to drink it all when you’re
You mean after I kill the monster?”
sighs. “Men. Always for blood. And always assuming the world is the way you see
it and nothing will dare change." She grins like she knows some secret I
don't. "Yes, you can kill the monster--" she emphasizes the
words using my Sao Miguel accent that has a hint of English, "that’s one
way to rid it of the curse, but if you can get close enough to the beast all
you need is to cut off the left hand.”
face must show my disbelief, because she shoos me away. “Off with you then.
Don’t waste more of my time. My dinner is burning.”
that's ridiculous. You expect me to believe it?"
you believe there is a beast and you are cursed, why is this solution such a
stretch for you?" She watches me for acknowledgement, but when I don't
move from her home she sighs. "All right. The hand is an offering. The
curse survives because of greed. If you make a sacrifice then it is enough for
the curse to be broken."
water spills over the pot. The old woman scurries out the door, tugging the
gray shawl off her head to wave the smoke away.
take the potions and charm and leave her to her muttering.
* * *
months my fields go untouched, so the remedies sit on the dirt floor of my
man is caught thieving in the next village. Villagers believe he was the one
stealing our livestock. Perhaps I don’t need to use the witch’s spell. I laugh
that I resorted to my superstitious thoughts to explain the mystery.
begin to ask me to play at the market again. Nobody speaks of the monster.
* * *
priest visits a few months later.
you Bento?” he asks me.
people of the village believe you have fallen to the curse of the seventh son.
There are many reports of dead animal carcasses by the shoreline and sightings
of a man-like-beast with a large hairy body and the nose of a wild pig with
horns near your home. They say you’ve visited a bruxa. Is this true?”
I’m not the monster. I never took the witch’s spell. My name protects me--”
your oldest sibling your godparent?” he interrupts.
. .” I choke on my next words. “My oldest brother was feeble and my parents
feared he’d not be able to care for me if they passed. They chose a devoted,
honored family member and were told it would be enough to ward off the curse.”
say your house smells of rotten flesh and pungent odors." He
wrinkles his nose at the words and sniffs the air in confirmation of this
observation. "This is the mark of the beast."
is not me," I repeat. "I want this beast gone. Do you think I would
allow myself to cut into my profits this way?"
priest shakes his head, convinced not to drag me to the village square for now.
“This is a terrible situation. Terrible.” I know in his mind I’m already
guilty. When he leaves, he blesses each blade of grass and rock as he walks
towards the village.
unable to keep from shaking from anger as I stomp to the neighbor's house. I
bang on the door.
Machado opens the door. "Yes, Bento? Is there a problem? Have my sheep
gotten loose again? I will send Little Jorge to fetch them."
wave away his words. "Do you only have five children?"
pauses. "What is this about, Bento? Is this about the monster again?"
He leans against the doorframe and sighs. "We have five last I checked. Or
is this about the market? Little Jorge says you forbid him to play with Tomé. I
thought it was because he getting older and you know. . ." He makes an
uncomfortable swooshing gesture with his hands. "Jorge would never teach
Tomé about things he isn’t ready to learn.”
have five children," I clarify. I shift from one foot to the other. I
regret I must be forward. Jorge may never talk to me again, but I must know.
"Are there any who were. . . lost?"
laughs. "I haven't misplaced them." He makes a show of looking
asked me about the beast and now you're deliberately playing with me. Are you
hiding Little Jorge's place? Is he a seventh son?"
straightens and makes the sign of the cross. "I swear on Mother Mary. I
tell you the truth. He is my fifth child and we have had no others." He
glances into the house to see if his wife is nearby and lowers his voice.
"And only one who was taken from us." His expression loses the
wrinkles from his smile and I'm sorry to have put that dark look on my friend's
leave him and notice when I look back at his house that he doesn't go back into
his home for a long time. His words haunt me all night. I pick at the strings
of my guitar and almost find the melody I remember. The wind carries a hint of
* * *
I spy Tomé with blood on his hands and his shirt is torn. He emerges from the
barn soaking wet and an oat sack wrapped around his middle like a dress.
many attacks from the beast has he hidden from me?
grab the guitar to calm my nerves.
sits with me for a while. “Will you teach me?”
I say. “Go to bed.”
drags his feet over to his bed.
play until morning.
* * *
best way to fight a monster is to become a monster. So I take half the potion
on the next full moon and wear the charm around my neck. I secure the potion on
my belt, cinching it tight.
muscles ache. My fingers curl and cramp. The pain comes in waves. Soon I’m
forced to the ground because my legs bend to impossible angles and can no
longer hold me upright.
I hunt him.
smells are like rivers. They flow from a well of the present and stream out
into the past. As a scent grows older it fades until it’s so faint I can’t
trace it. I go to the latest attack and follow a ribbon of scents. Some are
dead scents, other cows, other predatory animals that came to clean the
carcass, and something other. Something familiar. I know this means something I'm
not ready to admit, but now I know it’s the only answer that makes sense.
find Tomé on the shore at dawn. His fur falls in patches, the same as mine as
we shift. He is relieved to see me. I know this scent, my godson. And it all
becomes clear why Tomé’s parents begged me to take him.
shivers. His clothes are in piled tatters, hanging loose around his waist. “I
don’t know what is happening to me.”
an old curse."
I am not. . . ." He swallows in the words as though they’re hard for him
to say. "I shouldn’t be a monster. I’m not a seventh son."
mother may have lost children.” Or his father may have some he doesn’t know
about. I clear my throat. "It explains why your parents didn't give you
protection when you were born."
thought I was safe. The villagers on my island told them I was cursed. They
said they could smell it on me. I didn’t understand. They couldn’t bear to harm
nod. I show him my knife and explain to him what I must do. His eyes widen to
the size of clamshells, his lips press together, chin high, neck long. He
places his wrist on the rock. Although his hand is steady his body begins to
swift, Uncle,” he says.
proud. I cut once, twice. Blood wells to the surface. He clinches his teeth and
doesn’t cry out. I think of all the times he asked me to teach him guitar and
how he’ll never play now.
draw it out,” he begs.
I say. “This isn’t right.” I lay the knife between us. I gather the potion and
charm, dissolving the charm into the liquid. I say a prayer and offer the
bottle to Tomé.
flinches from me when I hold it to his mouth. “But you cannot!” He scampers
from his seat, holding his bloody wrist to his body. “This is your blessing.
Your name. How will you keep the monster in you away?”
glance at the knife.
eyes narrow. “You can’t mean to. . . You’ll never play again.”
will learn a new way. Perhaps my other hand--”
will never be the same. You’re good, it will take you years.”
can learn together.” I hold the bottle to him. “Please. Don’t draw this out.”
creeps closer to me, still unsure. I bless him in the saint of my namesake. He
drinks. He is now fully my son in spirit.
me. And be swift.” I give him the knife and present my hand. “This island is
too small for beasts.”