Rosa woke up long before Jose, the old one-eyed rooster, began his morning crows. Today was January 17th, the Feast of St. Anthony the Abbot. For years, she’d watched her brother Daniel take his pet turtle out of its cage, wipe its shell carefully with oil until it shined, and put it into a new shoe box lined with fresh newspaper and straw. Then Daniel and Papa drove off to town in the truck and didn’t come home until supper time. Daniel always came back with a pocket full of candy, a head full of stories, and a stomach ache. This year, Papa had promised Rosa that she could bring an animal of her choice to the church in Mexico City to be blessed by the Padre.
“Any animal?” Rosa asked.
“Any animal that will fit in the truck,” her father replied, laughing.
Rosa’s mind raced. Which animal should she bring? Their farm held many animals, and Rosa loved them all.
The clatter of pots, and pans in the kitchen reminded Rosa that she had chores to do, Feast or no Feast. The golden light in the sky grew brighter as she jogged down the muddy path to the hen house. As she reached the bend just past the vegetable patch, she heard a thin, high-pitched wail.
Rosa stopped. The wail came again, louder this time. It seemed to come from behind the big bougainvillea that grew against the side of the tool shed. Rosa crouched low and pushed the branches out of her way. She squinted into the shadows; her nose twitched at the familiar stink of damp, unwashed fur that filled the close space.
“Cesar! Are you in there?”
She was answered by a low growl, followed by a shrill squeal. The bush began to shake. Something dashed past Rosa and out into the vegetable garden, followed by something larger covered in twigs and dead leaves. It knocked Rosa hard against the stone wall and she fell into the tangled branches.
A grey cat zigzagged around the cabbages and squash, trying to evade the dog that snapped at its heels.
“Cesar!” Rosa shouted. “Leave it alone!” She picked up a stone and threw it as hard as she could. It struck Cesar on his left flank. Cesar spun around with a snarl, ears back. The cat dashed up the nearest tree and disappeared.
“Ha!” Rosa said, dusting herself off. “That shows you, you big bully.” She picked up the basket that she had dropped and started down the path again towards the hen house. Cesar, however, continued to growl softly. He stood in her way, hunched and shivering on the path, tail tight against his legs. Startled, Rosa took a step back; Cesar took a step forward, growling a little louder. She tried to walk around him but Cesar sidled to the left and right, blocking her way each time. He wouldn’t let her down the path to the henhouse.
“Get out of my way, Cesar,” she said, trying to sound like Papa. He was the only one Cesar obeyed. She stamped her foot, but Cesar only took a step closer.
Cesar was not a large dog. When he held himself erect, which was rare, his head barely reached mid-thigh. One ear was torn and scarred from an old fight, and his black eyes were always runny. His coat, the color of butterscotch, was ragged, and matted with dirt. Once, Rosa had tried to brush him clean, but he snapped at her hands so furiously, she gave up.
“That dog was born mean,” Abuela said. And privately, Rosa agreed with her grandmother. In the winter, when the farm dogs huddled together beneath the house for warmth, Cesar crept into a dark corner by himself. He attacked any dog that went near him.
“Cesar’s a tough old thing,” Papa said when Rosa repeated Abuela’s comment. “He’s had a tough, hard life. But he’s a good farm dog and I know I can trust him.”
Rosa wondered if Papa would still trust Cesar if he saw what was going on. Cesar had never acted this way before. He might not be a large dog, but watching him stand there with the ruff around his neck raised and his teeth starting to show made Rosa’s heart beat in her throat. Rosa bent down and scooped up a handful of loose pebbles.
“Get away from me, Cesar!” she cried, tossing the pebbles at his face. Cesar yelped and ducked, but some of pebbles hit him anyway. He scampered off the path and back under the bougainvillea bush. Rosa ran the rest of the way to the chicken coop.
She scattered the feed for the chickens and gathered the eggs. Only nine today! Were the hens hiding their eggs? Outside, Rosa found a small, freshly dug hole beneath the wire mesh. It opened onto a path that led into the woods behind the farm. From where she stood, Rosa could just make out broken eggshells on the other side of the fence.
“Coyotes!” Rosa breathed. She was about to run back to the house when movement made her look towards the rabbit hutch.
The wooden hutch lay shattered on the ground. The rabbits were nowhere in sight.
Something scurried through the tall grass and squeezed beneath the fence. It was fast, dark, and just about the same size as Tomas the rabbit.
Rosa ran to the gate in the fence that opened out to the woods. “Tomas! Tomas!” she called. Something raced across the ground in front of her feet and darted under the brambles. Rosa crawled under them as well. In the shadows, she could just make out the dark, quivering shape of Tomas, huddled against the roots.
Rosa gently scooped Tomas up and, holding him firmly, backed out from the brambles.
She never saw the thing in the shadows until it sprang at her, smashing against her left shoulder, making her tumble over and over. The air was filled with a thick, musky odor and something growled in her ear. Rosa screamed and tried to push the coyote off her, but she was pinned beneath its full weight. Sharp, wet teeth snapped at her face and throat. Rosa screamed again and closed her eyes.
Then, the weight was gone.
Rosa heard deep-throated growls that turned into higher pitched screams of fury as the branches of the bush beside her thrashed as though it had come alive and was trying to tear itself out of the ground. Almost as quickly as they began, the sounds stopped. Silence filled the woods as yellow leaves fluttered to ground.
“Rosa! Rosa!” Papa shouted, as he and Daniel came running down the path from the farm.
Rosa started to tell them about the coyote, but Papa gestured for silence. Slowly, he walked around the bush. A minute later, he called out to them.
Rosa and Daniel hurried over to where their father stood, a few yards deeper in the woods. At his feet was the coyote that had attacked Rosa, its body now broken and still.
Nearby, Cesar crouched, panting, beside a fallen tree trunk. Patches of fur had been ripped off his neck and back. His front leg was bloody. But his ears were high, and his eyes bright. Filled with gratitude, Rosa started towards him eagerly. Cesar backed away quickly and snapped at her outstretched hand.
“Never mind,” Papa said gently, lifting a tearful Rosa. “Cesar will be Cesar. He’s a tough old thing. But he’s a good dog.” Over his shoulder, Rosa saw Cesar’s head lift at the sound of Papa’s words. His tail wagged; just a little. Then the moment was gone, and Cesar hunched back down again on the ground and licked his leg.
Rosa had an idea.
“Papa, can I still pick any animal to be blessed at St. Anthony the Abbott’s Feast?”
“Of course, Rosa.”
“Then I pick Cesar.”
Daniel stared at her, then started to laugh.
“Even if you could get Cesar to go in the truck, you know he’d try to bite the Padre when he sprinkled holy water on him! Why not Tomas?”
Rosa looked down at Tomas’ sleek black fur, then back at Cesar. Leaves and twigs were still tangled in his coat. She thought about how nobody ever tried to brush him except herself, and what happened when she did. She remembered the look in his eye when he tried to keep her from going to the hen house.
“Cesar is the one I want to bring.”
The trip to Mexico City did not take long. Even so, when the truck pulled up to St. Agnes, there was already a long line winding around the church. Everyone was dressed in their best, and so were the animals. Dogs, cats, birds, goats, pigs, mice, lizards, chickens, all were brushed, combed, or polished. Many had ribbons, kerchiefs or flowers tied around necks, horns or tails. Rosa had never seen so many colors in one spot. She felt very plain in her clean white Sunday dress.
Then, the tall, bronze doors opened, and Padre Salvatore came out. He walked along the line, chanting and sprinkling holy water over the animals. As he came closer, Cesar huddled behind Rosa’s legs, shaking. She knelt down and stroked his brittle fur. She could feel his bones beneath her fingers, and deeper down, the rapid beat of his heart. This time, Cesar did not growl or snap at her, so she stayed where she was, with her hand on his back until Padre Salvatore came up to them.
“And who is this, my child?” Padre Salvatore asked.
“This is Cesar, ” Rosa said.
And then, because she was keenly aware of how mean and skinny and dirty Cesar must look to the Padre, she added, “He’s a tough old dog. But I know he’s a very good dog. And I think he needs a blessing from you so that God can tell him that too.”
Padre Salvatore nodded solemnly at her words and shook the holy water over Cesar’s head and shoulders.
Cesar’s tail wagged: once, twice.
The writer told a short story which included a strong opening, an interesting situation, realistic dialogue, and a relatable main character. The simple story is told with clear focus as it works its way toward the outcome.
—Kimberly Wills Holt, 2011 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge