short story finalist
Courtesy K.C. Sinclair

Short Story Contest Finalist: ‘Palabras Muertas’


Above: K.C. Sinclair's story was inspired by a series of true events at the Blackwell School in Marfa.

Stephen Graham Jones, guest judge for the 2015 Texas Observer Short Story Contest, told us that he’s always on the lookout for stories with “a fast start and a real ending.” This year we received dozens of stories with fast starts and dozens more with real endings, but we also saw plenty of fiction that provides both. Narrowing the field was a difficult task. In the end, Jones’ call for “a voice that makes me want to hear more, keep turning the pages” made the decisions for us.

Today we present the first of this year’s voice-driven contest finalists, K.C. Sinclair’s “Palabras Muertas,” a story based on a real event in Marfa.

Look for the rest of our story contest finalists to appear in this space throughout September, leading up to the publication of the winning story in the Observer’s annual October Books Issue. — David Duhr

They buried our words in our fifth year at the Redford School. We spent the night choosing our word to kill, to bury alive under the dirt we would later play on, scratch our names into. Some of us chose ugly words such as borracho or martillo. Some of us chose words that were hard to say — esmeriladora, agradecido, sollozamos. Rodolfo wrote down recreo because his Rs always softened to English Ws and we had started to call him Wudy. Others were braver, writing down inglés, maestra, reglas, país. Some worked from immediate events. That morning, Mariana fought with her mother about bringing her dog to school. She wrote the word madre, making herself an orphan. Samuel ate rice for breakfast for the second consecutive week and gave it up to the coffin. Gerardo wrote down Inés. Inés didn’t understand why.

We walked to school, holding our words in pockets, in sweaty fists, in lockets. We knew we were to lose them. We knew we didn’t have a choice. The teachers told us it was this or starve in México. Teachers who had never starved talking to children who had. They knew we would not risk it.

Rodolfo put his word in first. Recreo. He’d never play ball again. The playground rusted for him. The dirt of the yard made him cough. He spent the rest of his years sitting on the cool steps of the school building listening to us laugh.

Mariana put her mother in the coffin. When she went home, she found the woman a wraith, the love out of her eyes. This would cause Mariana to grow up hard and lonely.

Borracho went in the box and we suddenly had a thirst for something. Martillo fell in like a pile of bricks. Inés watched as Gerardo folded up her name and threw it on top of the pile. He was crying and suddenly she realized he was so, so beautiful. But she had murdered bonita, craving instead to hear inteligente or talentosa or valiente. She killed the word for herself, but she suddenly needed it for him.

The teachers said a prayer in English that didn’t sound right. They turned red as they shoveled dirt over the box. As they struggled with the earth that was so dry to them, so heavy, we tried to whisper our words, test the power of the teachers’ dark magic. Nothing came out. We said the words for each other. Mariana cried and Rodolfo said, “Madwe, madwe, madwe.” Inés took Gerardo’s hand. She pleaded, “Inés, Inés.” He just shook his head and said, “Bonita.”


Life went on without our words. We grew without mothers and rice and countries. Then, one day, someone spoke up. “Let’s dig them out. Let’s get our words.” The teachers had gone home long ago. Someone found the word for tools and we gathered the shovels. We had worked that day. The idea of shoveling in the dusky heat didn’t appeal to our now creaky backs and achy hands. But we wanted our words. We stood around the pile in new uniforms and with new scars and folds and creases on our skin. Rodolfo started to dig. Mariana died years before, but he wanted to find her mother. A grandmother for his children. Inés furiously threw her shovel into the pile as Gerardo watched, his heart hardened by war and the world. She would bring him out, make him say her name. Some of us dug with our hands, brown dirt forcing itself under our fingernails.

When we reached the box, there was a pause. We all, once again, thought of our words. What would they sound like after all these years? Would they recognize us? Would they blame us for their sacrifice? Samuel unearthed the small coffin. His long, bony arms. Years without rice.

The coffin was smaller than we remembered. We wondered how this tiny box could hold all our words, the hinges on which our lives had bent. Inés raised her shovel up high and let it crash down on the old wood. Again, we waited.

A breeze picked up on the prairie and cooled the melting sun. Some of us took off our hats and fanned ourselves. Some shifted feet and thought of all the things to do before dark. Then, a word emerged. Borracho stumbled out, took flight on the wind. We said it, “Borracho,” and laughed at this word being buried. Martillo busted through. We reached up and caught it on our tongues. Then, madre, arroz, they all came back. They circled us like monarchs. They gave us besos. They made us bonita. Gerardo called Inés, but she was busy chasing fortuna. We thought all the words had come out, flown back into our lips and our memories. Then came país and we all knelt down to feel the earth.

K.C. Sinclair on the writing of “Palabras Muertas”:

In Hector Galán’s 2015 documentary, The Children of Giant, the director tells the story of Marfa residents during the filming of the Texas classic in 1955. Galán explores how the themes present in Giant, especially that of racism toward the Mexican-American community, were and continue to be present in the town itself. One example is the true story of a seventh grade teacher at the Blackwell School, a segregated school for over 600 Mexican-American students, who designed a funeral for their Spanish language. Students were asked to write words on slips of paper, place them in a box, and the box was buried under the school’s flagpole. “Palabras Muertas” was inspired by these events.