Manolo's eyes were red and his breath was fiery. He slid too quickly into the game, and bet even more aggressively when his bad luck followed him. He gave the gossip wags something new to savor.
"There goes Manolo. I pity his children." The two women crossed themselves and kissed their thumbs.
Manolo shook a drunken finger at his critics. His moustache gave him a permanent frown and his hat cast a shadow across a face creased with sun wrinkles and darkened by unshaven stubble. Manolo's father was a Spaniard who had defied historical logic and immigrated to only ex-colony that spoke Portuguese.
He confronted the two women.
"I pity your husbands. They married women with voices like crickets."
Their mouths clamped shut.
Manolo had been at the table for three days. Last week, he lost twenty horses. Six cows. One girlfriend. The young miss who served the drinks no longer winked at him. She watched his wealth slowly transfer to Edson: the mill owner's son. She blew stealthy air kisses Edson's way, flapped her apron at Manolo, and frowned.
The gossips shook their heads. Soon Manolo would wager the land and the house. The vice acted swiftly. He was in a rapid spiral that no one dared stop.
"He has no medicine," the women said. "He's a lost cause."
"Nothing to do but run their mouths." Manolo spoke to the ground as if addressing an audience of ants.
Clara was his youngest girl and tugged on his shirt. She always followed him into the gaming room, like a little ghost. Pulling a stool next to her father, she'd stare silently at the cards the drift away to play and run along the river. Hours later she would return to survey the damage. Clara looked like a child from a Victorian painting, with perfect golden ringlets held back by a ribbon. Her lips were naturally red and her cheeks appeared to be rouged. She would grasp the chain that held her father's watch snugly in his vest pocket.
"I'm out," he would say when she returned, throwing her onto his shoulders and carrying her from the smoky room.
"Your little girl brings you an exit, but no luck." The players would laugh at what they had taken.
This night, Clara returned to find him alone in the street.
"Pai, let's go home." She tugged on his hand to lead him. Clara was the youngest of fifteen. Manolo always boasted about his large family.
His wife sighed each time her stomach swelled. "It's God's wish," she would say, as she patched the clothes for the next baby.
Clara and her father stopped in front of the Portuguese's shop. He ran a one-man bakery and pawnshop, while his wife served coffee in the back. Clara gazed at a doll. She had a white, porcelain head and a dress of purple velvet.
The Portuguese plucked her from the display. "She cries tears like a real girl." He turned her upside down and water streamed from her eyes.
Clara watched with amazement. She looked at her father and smiled. She still had what the women called, "All of her milk teeth." They were miniature and evenly spaced.
"Can I? Please."
Her father unfastened his watch and placed it on the counter of the Portuguese's shop. "As long as you share."
Clara sat the doll on her own shoulder and walked holding her father's hand.
When they arrived home,she faced the children. The girls listed their demands. They wanted to construct a family tree. Who was the mother? Who were aunties? Who were the nannies who would prepare the bottles and wash the diapers? It was unfair. Why for her and not the others?
"She's for all of us," Clara said.
The boys smirked with the pleasure of casual threats to come. They could lasso the doll like a young calf. Throw her in the river to see if she could swim. Tie her to a horse to see if she could ride.
"Look what she does." They watched the tears. It stunned them into silence. "She's like a real girl."
They regrouped their concerns. Where did the tears come from? How did she work? The teenagers watched from the porch with bored indifference and smoked tobacco rolled in dried cornhusks. The wall was lined with caged birds that filled the air with song. The children pulled the doll away from Clara.
"We must operate," they said.
They removed the dress and poked at the cloth body filled with sawdust. One brother worked quickly with a hand drill. He removed the head and peered inside.
"She's not real. Just a doll." He turned the head and water ran out of the neck.
Clara grabbed the doll pieces from her brother's hands and ran. She crouched behind the water barrel and made herself as small as possible. She heard them running past her as they searched. She wished hard to be invisible.
Her mother's wail greeted her as she approached the house.
Her father, Crazy Manolo, had removed his hat before his wife, kissed her sweetly, with no anger and no blind fever of resentment. He had said, "It's all gone."
He collapsed in the doorway with his hand over his heart.
Clara buried the doll near the river. She marked the grave with a cross. She said her farewells and recited the only prayer she knew.