six pages long
In some schools, the end of the day was signalled by the welcome chime of a bell; in others it was the scraping back of chairs and a peal of childish voices rushing through the Avé Maria. But in the forgotten, crumbling town of Arbolito, the signal was different.
There was no bell on the schoolhouse roof — shot away by los bandidos ten years before, according to some stories, while children huddled together under their rickety desks below; or taken back by missionaries when they gave up on the mission, throwing their bags of books over their mules and leaving the tiny town to the Devil, to whom, they now realised, the useless place had always belonged, according to others. And maybe the fat schoolmaster knew the Avé Maria, or maybe he did not; but either way his pupils had never heard it coming from his mouth and even less so being put into theirs. No; when the drawer of the teacher’s desk slid scratchily open, when the bottle was held up, swilled around and slammed down onto the piles of books, sending black flies up into the dusty, heavy air and knocking papers onto the floor, then the children knew lessons were over. They would kick back their heavy chairs and burst out of the door. The flare of sunlight would stab their eyes and they would leap happily out into outdoor blindness, while behind them their teacher watched the rainbow dance of dust they left stirring in the doorway, sparkling through the curved glass of the bottle of tequila pressed up against his sweaty face.
Nonetheless, the children did learn to count, up to a point, and make the shapes of letters which in some mysterious way could pin words onto paper. But these things stayed in the brittle books they left behind. Outside, they learned lessons from a thousand more able teachers. Brown lizards taught them how to lift their feet up out of hot sand to stop them being burned; frogs showed them where to find water in the boles of spiny bushes; and the man who came once a month to sell their parents cloth and other useful things taught them how to cheat at cards, and how to blow into the nostrils of his strange jittery horse, which he said was Arabian, and which had one gold tooth.
And they learnt not to go too close to the hut of the Chinaman, whose little daughter sat amongst them in the dark schoolroom in the mornings, and played with them in the bright afternoons and sultry evenings. One day they had seen him sitting so still for so long, with the small girl sitting beside him, that they knew he had turned into rock. But the next day his daughter was with them as usual, and her father was back to being alive again, and none of the children dared to ask what it is like to come from a family of stones. She was just a child like them after all, although she combed her hair straighter than the others and narrowed her eyes more thoughtfully, so they let it pass like children do, knowing that some questions just aren’t worth the asking. But they stayed a safe distance from the little hut, because a man who can turn himself into a stone can probably turn children into pebbles, if he was so minded and if they were careless enough to get too close.
Of course the man and the girl were not from China, but some other faraway place, and indeed he was no more her father than she was his daughter. But to the children the names of countries were as useful as the names of pieces of wind, so they never troubled with any. And in the town it was understood that if anybody crossed the border and settled here — here, of all places — it was more than likely for the avoiding of attention rather than the attracting of it. Their presence caused no trouble and he paid the fee for the girl’s schooling and bought his bread and eggs from the town. So if they needed a reason to be where they were, then it was left for them to know it by themselves.
Sometimes, before school, the children would watch the strange man and the girl pretending to be rocks; and sometimes they would hear them talking in their curious language — lacking the rhythm of the English she normally used, or the music of the Spanish she had learnt from them since her arrival. Once, one of the boys had asked her to say something to him in the language of rocks; but the girl did not know what he was talking about, and told him so, and called him a dumb mule for asking, and a stream of other rude Spanish names, and he had chased her, laughing, three times round the schoolhouse.
So the children grew up into youths knowing everything they needed to know about the world around them, and nothing more. And the girl learnt with them, so that she too could move from foot to foot on burning sand, and count, and cheat at cards, and slice a jalapeño pepper with a knife in each hand, and read and write, and pick up a snake by its rattling tail and break its neck with a whiplash flick, and a host of other things. But she also learnt things that come from sitting like a rock, which none of the others could do, even had they wanted to. When they danced round fires she could kick up as much dust around her ankles as the rest, but where the others would go spinning into the ground, whooping and shrieking, she kept turning and never lost her balance. When they took siesta under the shade of trees, where the others would slouch under a sombrero or loll from a branch, she would sit upright and still. And when they went to the edge of the town and shot pistols at tin pots on a wooden rail, laughing and joking in a way which only pretended not to know what a serious business shooting could be in such a dangerous land, where the others would sometimes hit, she would never miss.
People in that place had never taken much interest in balance, and had never been particularly concerned about posture, so as far as that went they took little notice of the girl. But never missing with a gun was another matter entirely, and she began to attract attention.
Whenever she was shooting with her friends, people would gather and watch. The boys and the girls tried harder and harder to out-shoot her (which they never could), and not a few of their fathers tried too. Then one day she did a thing so strange that it almost passed without her spectators realising what had happened. She shot down seven pots in a blaze of noise so fast that it sounded like a single shot, spun the gun on her finger and dropped it back to her side. And amongst the applause, which made her smile, she heard one boy gasp, “la séptima bala!” — because he had been to school elsewhere, and could count faster than the rest, and he had seen seven pots twitch onto the floor from the girl’s revolver, which he knew could only hold six bullets. And those around slowly woke to what the boy was saying, and took up the call, “The seventh bullet! The seventh bullet!” But the girl heard it differently, and gasped in alarm, and thrust her fist into her mouth. She knew right away that she had done a bad thing; and sure enough, in the little hut, her mentor sprang up from his mat, hearing the voice of a crowd chanting what he had taught as a secret: “The Zen bullet! The Zen bullet!”
The chanting of the crowd rose around her, but the girl stood in the centre with her head down, and knew her teacher (the one who had taught her how to sit like a rock, not the fat schoolmaster who had finally been replaced when he had taken to opening the desk drawer as soon as he saw the children arriving for the first lesson of the morning) was already coming towards her; and he was angry. That was an event in itself, because nobody in the town could remember him speaking anything but quietly, the manner always impeccably polite, the r’s and l’s sometimes slightly wrong. But this time, everyone bit their lips and widened their eyes at the sound, which was both unmistakably the little man’s voice and yet was such a shout as had never been heard by any of them before. He walked up to the girl and knocked the gun out of her hand with a movement so fast that those around her thought she had merely dropped it. Then he gave her an explosion of noise in a language which none save her could understand; but everybody listened. All the time the girl stood before him, bowed forward, her face staring into the dust at his feet. More than a few of the younger children, seeing her stand so motionless in the onslaught of such a terrible scolding, really did think that he had turned her into stone.
At the end of it all he pointed his finger at her head from an inch away and shouted, “I teach you Zen bullet! Not for play! Not for game!” He turned round and stormed off to the hut, to where she would eventually follow him. People who were not in his way shuffled nervously back, and the whole place was so silent that even the horses were careful not to whinny or stamp. The girl stood bowed for a long time after that, as sound and life awkwardly returned to those around her who then quietly left, so that if even a single tear had splashed onto the dusty ground just beyond her toes — which it did not — nobody would have seen it.
Perhaps it was soon afterwards that the oriental man departed, or perhaps years passed before he left his student and went back to his garden of stones in the faraway country from which they had come. The girl stayed behind, and made a life in the little town. She took a room above a corn store, and worked in a shop for the man with a horse he claimed was Arabian. Every morning she woke before the sun was up to sit for an hour like a rock, before anybody else was up to see her doing so. There were always some people who thought she combed her hair too straight, or narrowed her eyes a little too thoughtfully, but by and large she was well-liked and for a while it seemed as if her curious childhood was being gently left behind her.
It is true that strange things are never easily forgotten, but in time few people remembered the odd affair properly, and it became a curious story told with uncertain details. But there was one boy, a boy who had been to school elsewhere, who remembered that the girl had never missed, and he remembered what he had seen and heard, and he wondered about la séptima bala, the seventh bullet.
Every time the bad season came round again and the winds blew the tumbleweed across the plains, chasing before them trouble, as they invariably did, he wondered if he ought not find out what it was the girl had been taught, since such a strange memory weighed heavily on his otherwise uncomplicated mind. He could not chase the thing from his head, and it became something like an obsession.
So one day he finally went up to the old corn store, and up to her room, and asked her to shoot at the battered old pots on the wooden rail; and of course at first she refused. But he said, “Then tell me, what is the seventh bullet?” and she narrowed her eyes in what he took to be a thoughtful manner, and asked him what he meant.
He reminded her of what he had seen all those years ago: seven pots on the floor and a gun with only six chambers. But the girl shook her head and said, “You are mistaken, señor, there was no seventh bullet.”
“Not so!” he replied. “That old Chinaman told you he had taught you Seventh Bullet.”
She sat carefully down on the floor and said slowly, “He was not a Chinaman. He did not teach me Seventh Bullet. He taught me Zen Bullet. That is what I used and that is what you saw and heard.” Then she half closed her eyes, and became like a rock and waited for him to leave her alone.
But he did not go. He watched her for over an hour, doing nothing. Then he said, “You must show me Zen Bullet.”
She opened her eyes and said, “Even if I show you, you will not understand. Don’t ask me this.”
But he insisted. “I want to see it again.”
She remembered the stinging in her eyes when her master had shouted at her, and she shook her head with a small, small movement and said, “No.”
For six years, at the start of the change of the weather, the boy-now-man would come to her room and say exactly the same thing, and she would sit like a rock and wait for him to go away.
The seventh time, however, was enough, and when he said, “I want to see it again,” she responded: “Very well, if you swear on Santa Maria that this is the last time you will ever mention it. To anyone, anywhere.”
And he clenched his fists in triumph and said, “I swear!”
She rose, and found her gun, hidden away in some corner, and filled its six chambers with six gleaming bullets. He jumped up and followed her out, the woman marching through the dust and sand to the edge of town and the old wooden rail. A dozen paces from it she sat abruptly on the ground, placed the gun on her lap, and became like a rock. The man set up the seven rusty pots on the wooden rail, just as he remembered it having been when he saw it the first and only time, years ago, and waited.
He waited a long time. The wind flapped her hair against her face, it filled the folds of her clothes with dust and drove sand up against her. But she just sat as still as a rock, eyes closed. The man watched her, squinting against the abrasive wind. He waited a long time.
And then he saw she had risen, standing feet apart, her shoulders side-on to the rail, her head turned to face it. She lifted the gun in a way that was both strange and precise: up and around and, finally, outstretched. Then she stopped. The gun stopped. They both stopped so still that it seemed to the man that the world had frozen, and the only things left moving in it were the wind and his heart, which thumped six slow times before she pulled the trigger and tore the moment apart.
He rubbed his eyes, and she was already turning away. The gun was down by her side, the air still reeling from a shriek and a blaze of noise so abrupt it had sounded like a single shot. Seven pots lay on the sand, sprung off the rail.
The man shook his head in disbelief. “I want to learn the secret of the Seventh Bullet,” he said.
But she scowled at him as she walked past. “I told you that you would not understand,” she said. “It’s not seventh bullet, it’s Zen bullet. You swore. I showed you. Now leave me alone.”
She left him standing by the rail and walked home, wondering about her master, where he might be now, teaching some other student in some other overlooked place to sit like a rock; to make the ground, and the gun, and the bullet, and the target, into one single unity, and simply to shoot.
When she got in she hid the gun away. But not before she had uncocked the chamber and spun it round, shaking out the five remaining gleaming bullets.
a Beholder project
illustrations by René Carbonell
words by Dave Whiteland
colours by both