Gossip, with Headless Body:
2019 Barthelme Prize Honorable Mention

Stanley Delgado

We saw it at the shore of the river, waist-deep in the water, kneeling perfectly still. The first thing everyone said was, Let’s get rid of it? and I held my father’s hand tight.

We had an hour to line up our fruit and string up our meat. It wouldn’t be hard—empty a sack, dump the body in with lime. Send it down the river, attach a note—found at Rio Comalapa. I looked at Mr. Armindaro’s son, the only other kid my age. He stood next to his father, holding a huge green watermelon over his head. The little hairs of his armpits. He yawned, so I yawned.

We circled around the body. It was a man’s. Broad shoulders, chest and belly stretched tight like drumskin. Whoever cut his head off left him his underwear. A body with no head still has a face: nipples become eyes, the bellybutton a mouth— expressionless but hungry.

You know, someone started, I heard Rogelio from Atiquizaya went missing last week.

No, Mr. Villareal said, he went stateside. If anything, it might be Pancho’s kid. Always running around barefoot. Leather jacket like the 13.

Pancho’s kid is mestizo, Ms. Laura said. This body is darkskin. I don’t know any Indians.

Oh, Mr. Nunez said, but I do. Let me check the body for tattoos.

And then everyone started. Names of people from other towns, people we didn’t like. Maybe halfhoping it was someone we owed money to, or another vendor from the next town over. Ms. Olga said who it was didn’t matter—how could she sell beef and porkbones with this body right here?

And so on. How could Mr. Armindaro brag about his juicy red watermelon when the hole at the body’s neck was right there, somehow an even brighter red. The plucked pink chickens looking like limbs. Someone might think the body itself was for sale.

Everyone kept talking and talking, but I just stood there, holding my father’s hand. He hadn’t said anything yet. I brought his hand to my lips because I was too scared to ask him out loud. Where is the head? I whispered into his fingers. I imagined how I would be if I were a braver child. Curiosity would send my feet running. I’d find the man’s head, buried deep in a tree trunk. He would say, Thank you, Menchita, for finding me; I have a quest for you. With the bodiless head’s help I would save my home. El Salvador’s namesake. All machetes melted into spoons and butterknives.

My father finally spoke: Maybe let’s cancel for today. Come back tomorrow for a proper burial. But money would be lost, they said. But the sanctity of a corpse, he said.

While everyone argued, Mr. Armindaro’s son snuck towards the body, cradling the heavy watermelon. No one noticed as he lifted the big green fruit right on top of the body’s neck hole. The neck sunk, but the shoulders kept their new head in place, only for a breath it looked like, then it finally crumpled over and the watermelon cracked in two red halves and the burst sent the body back into the river’s current. When the body was too far gone, someone finally said, Look.