- Brenda Salinas Baker
Our Beauty, Our Virtue
RUNNER-UP FICTION WINNER
Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.
When our tribe won or lost a battle we gathered around a bonfire. After the address, there were dances and revelry. I was young when I saw the old foreigner slumped in front of fire gazing into its flames with her raven eyes. The war widow was always in the periphery. I wondered if skin leathered by the sun could better withstand heat. Perhaps she would teach me her toughness. Fearing my shawl might catch fire by sitting so close to the flames, I stood behind her and examined her fine gray hair, tinged violet in the light. She spoke without looking at me, revealing the truth behind a story I had heard a million times.
“I was born into a tribe of scholars during the Thousand Year War. The men my grandmothers grew in their bellies were sent to the battlefields for slaughter. My father survived the carnage and thought himself sage. My brother Benji played in the marshes with me. We twisted fly lures out of feathers to fish from the riverbanks where our mother washed. We sucked the sting out of mosquito bites. We cracked cheat codes to Super Mario 64. We repeated rhymes to classify snakes. Black yellow red, soon you’ll be dead.
I spun stories like threads. Benji thought of ways to make them better. He taught me to read and write before I started school. He continued reading aloud and taking my dictation until we were grown. When Benji left for war college, I searched for a new audience. The women walking to the well shushed me, preferring their circular tales of fallen women and philandering men. My father remarked on my calligraphy and tasked me with his correspondence. My mother encouraged me to recite the epic war poetry of our tribe for my father’s general friends.
The TLDR on the Thousand Year War: In the before times, the nine tribes signed a series of allyship treaties so that when a chief trespassed onto another territory, they fell into warfare like dominos. I never understood the motivations for the continued violence. Questions are considered unpatriotic in my culture. Elders spoke of the tribes surrounding us with scorn. I learned the other tribes were each in their own way savage and ruthless peoples. Whenever I mumbled my words or spoke with my mouth full, my mother would say, ‘You sound like a barbarian,’ and I knew it was the very worst thing.
After two years in war college, Benji came back hardened. He was to become an officer at the front. I read him a story I had written about a bunny hibernating in a den. I had hidden my fear for him in the lines, but Benji was busy polishing his boots. I knew how brothers returned from battle dusty-eyed. Their bodies would recoil when dabbed with balm. I asked Benji if he was scared.
‘It’s not a soldier’s place to be scared,’ he said, ‘He follows orders and serves his tribe with honor.’
My father was proud. When I folded my face into my mother’s skirts with worry, she put my palms together in prayer. A week before Benji was due at the front, an aura appeared in my mirror. It beckoned me. I heard a cracking voice as if on a distant radio frequency. ‘Daughters: bring your art degrees and your sewing kits, your tap shoes and your guitars, your seedlings and your stories. You will build a tower in my name.’ I was mesmerized. The purple light tapped on the glass. ‘Do you have doubts, my child?’
I had never been allowed a question before. ‘Yes. What is this tower? And why do you want me to build it? And how? Also, who are you?’
‘You will know when I settle in your heart. You have been called to build a city in a tower with daughters from the other nine tribes. You will learn a wordless language. Men moved by your mission will lay down their weapons to settle in peace.’
‘Will you protect my brother?’
‘You will save him and all the others.’
‘How can I leave my mother for so long?’
‘Take the best of her with you. I will slow down time.’
‘How am I to work with barbarians?’
‘Retire that term. Trust you will look into their eyes and know truth. It is time for you to leave.’
I packed a change of clothes, an extra pair of sandals, a toothbrush and my Discman. I left my family a note on the fridge. ‘Saving world—bbl.’
Careful to not make noise, I bit down on an electric torch as I tied a blanket to the seat of my bicycle, a teal three-speeder Benji had given me as a goodbye—he had skinned the leather tassels on the handlebars himself. He had exchanged strong words with my father, who thought an unwed woman should not hold a mechanical beast between her legs. I had taught myself to ride it, proud of my scrapes and bruises. Following the aura’s instructions, I traveled for six hours. Some of the others traveled for days. We arrived by the moon’s midnight to the Shinar valley. We looked at one another’s faces and we knew. We burned an effigy to the aura and we saw it dance in the sky with pleasure. We examined one another’s foreign faces, tracing features with our fingers. We wanted to speak but our languages sounded garbled to one another. We found new ways to tell our stories.
When Femi first heard the war trumpet, she told her father she wanted to enlist. ‘Silly child, we fight to defend your beauty and your virtue. We can’t defile you in a trench.’ The sounds Femi’s mouth made when she spoke were like two birds chirping, so she told us the story through a dance. She beat her palms on the ground and rubbed dirt across her arms and chest. The circular lines she made with her body became jagged and tense. Finally, she seized her throat and lay in stillness. We nodded because we knew what she meant.
When Vera was a girl, she cut off her own bangs with a knife. Her mother slapped her and asked why she would do such a thing. Vera had lived a solitary life even when she was surrounded. Inside her heart, she now explained to us in a sand drawing, had once lived a creature who shook her skin-cage with sadness. As a teenager, Vera thought the only way to free the creature was to destroy its cage.
She showed us the scars where she’d traced her father’s shaving razors across her hips. In the supply room of the school, she closed her eyes while a pimply boy jabbed at her vulva with a dry finger and then two and three. She mimicked the moans she learned from pornography waiting for it to feel good.
One day, she told us, she opened her eyes, and the boy’s finger was a dick. And that’s how it happened.
Vera caressed her protruding belly. We asked her if she was scared to give birth.
‘There’s no future for children born out of wedlock in my tribe. Girls have no dowries, but at least they live. Without an influential father to secure a post for them, bastard boys become cannon fodder.’
We joined our hands in a circle and prayed for a baby girl.
Maia and Talia were twins. They told us their story through a harmony of notes. Their father refused to have them married off. ‘Such a shame to separate a set,’ he said. As a young doctor, he completed a trauma surgery fellowship at Johns Hopkins. He was so skilled at removing shrapnel, enemy combatants brought him their wounded, for whom he charged double. The men whose flesh was torn into ribbons almost always lived. Maia and Talia had swept the floor of the clinic and fed the wounded men soup. They sanitized their father’s instruments and kept inventory of the bandages they rolled.
They fell in love many times. When Maia asked her father to fund her medical education, he said he had taught her enough to be a nurse.
‘You could study to be a midwife. Or a dentist.’
Maia asked their father who would take over his practice when he retired.
‘I will drop dead in this clinic,’ he said.
Thinking he could cure his own mortality, he declined to answer: ‘And what comes next?’
Talia was a poet. Whispering verses into broken ears, she had convinced a hundred men to defect.
Maia explained desertion was the best preventative medicine. When Talia’s treason was discovered, it threatened to destroy her father’s name. The night before her military trial, the aura had appeared in their mirror.
Sura was our botanist. Scorched earth campaigns had destroyed the fields where her family foraged. Her village had become a food desert, and her father now worked at a gas station where no fruits were sold. Their farmhouse was under foreclosure. Sura designed our garden. When we needed water, we offered our grief to the aura and watched it rain.
Teresa was our chef. She dropped out of culinary school when her student loans had become too costly. As we brainstormed our building plans, Teresa fed us dishes made out of nettles and berries. When she cracked gnats in the fire, they tasted just like popcorn.
Xi had taken a correspondence course in architecture. She drew the tower’s initial design: a series of circular prisms reaching towards the sky. Back in her home tribe, Xi was praised for her ability to draw and redraw lines on battle maps. She handed the paper to Sura, who painted the surrounding landscape in verdant hues. War cartography had also been Sura’s responsibility, and they recognized one another’s work. Our city was a cone with a circular ramp at its center. There were dormitories, classrooms and a hospital. The rooms had removable partitions that rendered the structure endlessly adaptable.
Natalie told us her story through mixed media. Her family worked in low-cost construction. She had been the forewoman on a few sites. She was obsessed with natural building practices, but she couldn’t crack a contract on her own. ‘You can’t get funding without a portfolio, and you can’t build a portfolio without funding.’ We were Natalie’s last chance.
Binta was a traveler. She told us her story through small clay statues. She had read every book in her village library and taken the oral history of all the elders in her tribe. She longed to see new sights, but it was unsafe for women to travel. Her chief had instilled a curfew. The aura had promised her safe passage. Binta’s brain could take a large problem and break it up in bits, managing people and materials. Xi’s modular design meant the tower could be assembled piece by piece.
Every night, we asked the aura for the materials we needed. It would provide when we agreed. We molded bricks and hardened them with fire. We used bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar. We didn’t always receive exactly what we imagined, but it was enough to improvise. Sometimes it seemed like the aura’s direction was an improvement on our own, and we grew to welcome the collaboration.
Our bodies were too tired for our minds to feel grief. Weeks passed. We took turns shedding tears of exhaustion. We formed a circle around the crier until she finished. Even as we built our new home, we were homesick for the ones we left behind. We missed our mothers and we missed our men. We shared the small things we’d never noticed. We played music on my Discman. When my mother’s memory weighed on my heart, I repeated what the aura had said about bringing the best of her. We made each floor a tribute to our tribes.
We sacrificed and we built. Femi and I developed sign language to help us coordinate commands. Stop. Go. Lift. Higher. As the tower got taller, we found we could understand each other better. On the third floor we made a discovery. By placing our hand atop another’s heart, we could absorb her memories.
When the sixth floor was finished, we could laugh or cry in unison with a look. The aura spoke through us. We found our language above words.
Soon even Maia and Talia stopped using their spoken tongue with one another. Our bodies ached and our backs peeled in the sun. We took turns nursing Vera’s baby. We prayed for more hands. When we were nearly finished building, we started imagining our future. We measured the resources required to survive in peace. We hadn’t seen the aura for six days—its last shipment had been cleaning supplies.
Some of us imagined welcoming our families and friends to our city. We were sure our fathers, brothers and boyfriends would hit it off once they surrendered their foreign tongues. Others thought it safer to scale slowly. We wondered if our tribes were looking for us. We voted to not make decisions until we reached unanimity. I sensed shaping a society would be even more exhausting than erecting a tower.
We were sweeping the last of the debris from our cylindrical city when we found a man at the very top. Natalie was peeling the plastic from the skylights when she felt a gust of wind on her back. She was on the ninth floor which was shaped like a dome. Xi had designed it so that when the sun rose and set, the reflection glittered on the materials like diamonds. Natalie looked behind her and saw a man sitting behind a desk none of us had built. It had been so long since we had seen a man—where did he come from? Natalie thought of scenarios as she ran down the ramp calling us. We gathered together in front of the glass that encased him. We spoke without moving our mouths.
‘Do you recognize him?’ Natalie said
‘I’ve never seen him before,’ Binta said.
‘Might He be God?’ Sura asked.
‘He’s not my God,’ Femi said.
‘Mine neither,’ I agreed.
‘What’s on his desk?’ Talia asked.
We saw a bundle of red candles wrapped in black ribbon and a crystal ashtray with a violet center. The man’s skin was pale and his hair reminded me of a winter willow. A small log burned between his cracked lips and he licked up its black smoke. Later, when catalogs finally came to my village, I would recognize the garment he was wearing as a pinstripe suit.
‘Did any of you build this office?’ Xi asked, ‘ It wasn’t in my blueprint.’
‘Forget the room. How did this guy find out about our tower?’ I said.
‘How did he get up here without us noticing? If he wanted to join us, he should have asked,’ Maia said.
‘Do we have laws against trespassing?’ Teresa asked.
“Not yet. We should vote on them. Let’s ignore him until he tells us what he wants,” Sura said.
‘Why are we acting so scared? Let’s ask him to leave,’ Vera said.
‘I move that we kill him,’ Femi suggested.
No, we voted. No killing. We talked until we reached consensus. Vera’s baby was crying and our feet were getting tired. We told ourselves he was a minor inconvenience. We hadn’t sacrificed so much for anything less than we imagined. Vera tapped on the glass.
The man opened the door. When he spoke with his snake-tongue, we all heard our own languages. It had been so long since we heard the sounds of home. The man tapped at the sundial on his wrist. His candles smelled like death.
‘Ladies, ladies, calm your histrionics.’
We were all like, ‘What? We’re not even talking.’
The man waved a stack of papers in his hand. ‘It’s come to our attention that you did not get the necessary permits to build this little art project. Under section 311.A of the jurisdiction, any and all structures not built to code must be immediately razed.’ The scented candles on the desk were called dynamite.
‘This land doesn’t belong to anybody. We claimed it with our sweat.’ Natalie said.
‘That’s where you are wrong, sweetheart.’ The man passed out business cards that said Mr. Logic Man in embossed gold. ‘I’m curious, were you actually planning on living in this trash heap?’
We began to notice the tower’s odd angles, the plaster we’d used to smooth over its faults. We had planned on making improvements, but the man’s criticism planted seeds of doubt.
‘You don’t have a warrant. Please leave,’ Binta said.
‘You should be thanking me. Look at how thin and haggard you’ve become. What man would want you now? You can’t raise a baby in this setting. This building is a death trap. What will you do when you’re attacked?’
‘We’ll fight back!’ Femi said.
The man laughed. ‘You sound just like your fathers.’
‘First of all, getting attacked isn’t a fair assumption. And if we are under threat, we’ll take a vote like always,’ Xi said.
‘Are you kidding me? It took you two hours to talk to me.You’re not capable of governing yourselves.’
At that moment, Talia noticed the purple in the man’s ashtray. He had trapped the aura in the glass and dissected it like a butterfly. We could see it stretch and strain. A thought passed through our shared minds. Natalie distracted the man while Talia reached. A scuffle ensued and the man’s hands burned Talia’s skin like acid. She screamed and dropped the glass—the aura shattered into a million pieces. Teresa gathered the glitter dust in her apron and we tumbled downstairs. Natalie told the man we’d be back tomorrow. Teresa fed us dinner while Maia treated Talia’s arm. We tried to put the aura back together, but our rituals could not revive it.
The next day, we returned to the man’s office. We opened our mouths. Our vocal cords had grown lazy. When we explained the wombs and the wars, our words came out tangled.
The man showed us pictures of our aging parents and the gravestones of our brothers and friends. ‘Did you think time would wait for you? The wars haven’t ended.’
‘We will teach men to surrender their weapons. We can save future generations,’ Sura said.
Later, in our 360 feedback review, the man would tell us we had not been strategic enough in our pitch.
‘You should have appealed to my better angels. Maybe used a deck,’ he would say.
‘Would it have helped?’ We would ask.
‘Probably not, but next time, it might.’
Before our defeat, I explained how our shared language would lead to peace.
The man nodded and said ‘I hear you, I hear you.’
‘Why do you keep saying that? Is there something wrong with your ears?’ Maia took out her otoscope.
The man laughed and touched her shoulders. He mounted a giant paper pad on Sura’s easel. He pointed at red charts and figures. ‘I appreciate the optics of peace, ladies, I really do. Nobody likes to see blood and guts on the evening news. But what would your tribes do without war? As you can clearly see here, economic productivity is up one million percent.’ When Xi asked him to define his axes, the man said he would not tolerate disrespect.
Femi took her blowgun from her holster and lodged a dart in the man’s forehead —a flesh wound. We couldn’t help laughing. The man had clearly never seen himself bleed before.
‘Next time, I will poison it with a frog,’ Femi said.
The man called us hostile. He called us aggressive. As he wiped himself with a monogrammed handkerchief, he said ‘This is going on your permanent record.’
After no deliberation, he told us the decision had been made above his pay grade. ‘Rules are rules.’ The man separated us and seduced us in our own languages. He said our families would forgive us. He promised us safety in good homes and good men. He scrambled our shared frequency. We were unable to coordinate a defense. He whispered discord into our ears, and we thought of the smells and tastes of our childhoods. Really, we did not like eating nettles.
The daughters of the nine tribes were dismantled with empty promises. The man gave Binta a television, Talia a boob job. Sura, he said, would be remembered as a saint. Maia inherited her father’s clinic. Xi received a diploma. The man wrote Natalie a letter of recommendation. He promised us our daughters’ lives would be better than our own. He renamed Vera’s baby Patience and we forgot what we had named her. I think it was a coo and a dance. As we scattered, loneliness weighed on our hearts.
We resented each other for not understanding. We couldn’t agree on anything, least of all how to agree.
I am ashamed to admit it. The man broke me with a promise of fame. He said, ‘Scribe: generations will know your tale.’ He pointed at Xi and posed: ‘Artist: behold your God.’ Before the man followed protocol, he apologized if our feelings were hurt. He yelled at us. Didn’t we see how our tears were making him feel?
Only Femi resisted until the very end. She rebuffed his offers of military rank. Her war dance seemed to say, ‘I refuse to be your female exception.’ She made crude gestures with her hands and finally, she charged at him. From the beginning we knew the fight was futile. The man was twice her size. Femi kicked his knees and sliced his thighs with a knife, but it only fueled his strength. He killed her and that is where the word femicide comes from. I will never forget the sad chirping sounds she made as she died.
When we demanded a trial, the man said she had misinterpreted his intentions and that we would understand it all one day. I prayed he was right and I hoped he was wrong. Finally, when we couldn’t take it any longer, the man detonated our beloved tower. He said he hoped we learned our lesson and we did.
Our souls scattered with the blast, furious and heavy. We yelled at each other in our own tongues. If you had just! If you had only! We sounded like a mob of bleeding monkeys, each lashing out in her own language. We returned to our warring tribes dirty and defeated.
When I released our tale, it was repeated and resold. Flattened into nine verses in your book. The story you know is not the story I told. We were no longer a we but an amorphous they. Elders wrapped their moralities around our tale. They said we were defiant and doomed. A cautionary tale. They married me to a sweet man destined to die.
Child, you are my last rebellion. I will not wrap my story with a bow. Please remember us. Before our loss there was our triumph. Femi’s fierceness, Vera’s warmth, Maia and Talia’s sisterhood. There was Sura’s garden, Tersa’s talent and Xi’s vision. There was Natalie’s boldness and Binta’s mind. These gifts are now yours.
The light has not entirely left me, though it wanes. I pray for the day the daughters of the nine tribes will reunite, whether in this world or the next. I think of Vera’s baby often. Patience must be a woman. I have a habit of tapping mirrors. I still search for the aura in the night sky. Sometimes I see a glimmer of purple in a girl’s eyes.”
The old woman turned around to face me. I thanked her and I walked around the fire until I found my friends.
Brenda Salinas Baker is an MFA student at The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. Her fiction has appeared in The Coachella Review and Solstice Literary Magazine. She was a finalist for the Breakwater Review 2021 Fiction Contest. She is a Mexican immigrant.