Marcelo H. Castillo

Rust in the Debt of the Living

My father’s tongue is a black
eel squirming in his mouth
because he bit a branding iron in Mexico.
He was twenty and drunk, he said he pushed it back

into his throat—he meant to say, the men
who loaned him money—
pushed it back into his throat.
In his mouth that night

there must have been a gathering
of brightness that was itself
a golden darkness, brightness
so bright that it was darkness

He said it tasted like liver at first.
The hiss of the iron
turned his throat into a stone.
For weeks his spit was
the rusted color of his truck.

He opens his mouth wide
when he laughs and the glimmer
of his one gold tooth burns out
as his tongue flickers over it.

I see where the iron’s lightning curled
into frozen zodiacs of skin
—zero hush, sizzle and gravy—

When he smokes his Menthols
he passes up globs of phlegm
that writhe on the floor
like giant black beetles.

He opens his mouth
when he’s drunk on Mezcal
and tilts his head back over the chair.
His arms dangle over the sides;
he crosses his feet, and his eyes,
heavy with liquor, roll back into his head.
He looks like a soggy Jesus
or the limp god with a toothpick in his mouth,
with his sweaty shirt unbuttoned as he stares
blankly at the stains on the ceiling, and laughs.
Soon he falls asleep and little green and black beads
begin to drip from the corners of his mouth.

I am possessed by his cancer
tipping closer to the marrow
of his bone each year.

He needs to be asleep for this:
I lick the beads of liquor off and against
the grime and salt of his beard
they taste like car batteries
and the charred hides of spring calf, and liver.

He doesn’t wake up, though I want him to.
He is passed out on the chair short of a resurrection.
I open my eyes and everything
in the room is stained and crawling
and cancerous to the touch.
Soon, even his milk will need to be cut with water.

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a Canto Mundo Fellow and an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan. He was brought to the U.S. undocumented as a child and is currently a “Dreamer.” He has held residencies from the Squaw Writer’s Workshop, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts.