A journalist, sitting in a bar amongst colleagues, tells the story she had to write just a few hours before; the tragedy of a street girl – the carnival queen of a poor neighborhood – and its peculiar consequences. The story is filtered by the point of view of the journalist's sister, whose personal history is implicitly related to the cheap carnival queen's fate. "The Red Ribbon" creates a fine tension between the social and the individual through the silences and the gestures of the characters. It also raises a question: What moral stance do we assume when we write a story without really knowing what happened?
Natalia was late arriving at the bar, but she brought us a story, which we all accepted as a kind of safe conduct. This time my sister didn’t apologize for the hour; she knew she’d been enjoying our indulgence for a couple of hours already. When all is said and done we’re newspaper people, and waiting is never an issue at the corner bar. She sat down and started to talk, a very unusual thing because normally she listens to Gabriel, whose great intelligence fills the room. I really like to listen to her. I don’t know what it is about the cold, tenuous timbre of her voice that numbs me. But this time her voice wasn’t serene; she’d just left the paper and was still thrumming with the urgency of ink and midnight. They’ve arrested a man, she blurted out, and her anxiety made us ask if he was innocent. But her reply was almost an apology: I just don’t know, she said, and she interlaced her fingers with Gabriel’s.
She laid out the only precise facts in her possession: Rebeca was dead; it was as true as the fact that she’d been chosen as the Carnival Queen. Natalia had seen photographs of both events. Then we could reconstruct a shabby carnival with a parade outside the city, lost amid the dunes and the garbage; a carnival Rebeca had never had a chance to star in because she had been murdered first. Natalia told us about her fleeting reign, and from her telling we intuited an indigenous village that was dreadfully poor, one that, like the girl herself, was headed inexorably toward dissolution. Gabriel kissed Natalia on the head a second before my sister let go of his hand and said, not without a bit of suspense: No one could have guessed the fate that lay in store for the Queen, especially not the day they’d chosen her.
The day of the competition she had looked radiant, her hair loose and straight, her laughter easy, and a red carnation fixed to the waistband of the little red shorts that hugged her conspicuous hips. Rebeca was fourteen, but she had not been a little girl for a long time. Maybe she’d had no childhood at all and had been born straight into adult life, I thought, while Natalia explained how, as the experts had told her, the girl came from a native culture that had always been concupiscent. We tried to unpack what the experts had meant by concupiscent, and we translated it thus: a nomadic Amazonian tribe, hunters and weavers, in which carnal virtues are cardinal virtues. It was still very abstract. A maternal breast accompanied by feminine song, where the pleasures of the body are instilled in girls from a very early age. A time and space narrated orally, said Natalia, where lust and pleasure weren’t sins but rather something natural, vital. Her explanation carried us to Heaven for a few seconds and then right away to Hell, when this same ecosystem came to be recreated in the city, where freedom becomes a yoke and leads to the oldest meat-grinder of them all. Poverty can grind everything: the indigenous girls give themselves for paltry sums of money, from unthinkable ages, on the urban fringes. And how much is a paltry sum? I asked. Natalia answered without poetry: It’s two pesos.
Her exhausted voice made me think of snow, the pain of my frozen skin, and the disappearance of the ice as it turned to water. In La Paz. Unlike Rebeca, I had left childhood behind at a late age, when I went to study with my sister in La Paz. It’s true that I wasn’t exactly a child; mine had been, really, a childish, small-town adolescence that I suffered like an illness. Seventeen years old is a little late for a city girl but not for a provincial kid, too coddled and in too much of a hurry to jump. I can’t say I spread my wings like chicks when they’re ready to fly. Mine would not be a flight favored by the winds, an effortless soaring. Caution is one thing I never had, especially not in those days, when any precaution would have been an affront to my lustrous freedom. Mine would be a ferocious headlong flight, straight down; a violent jump into the unknown, gliding low over the entire city and straight through everything I was dying not just to see but to try. Yes, I owe my demons to no one. And although Natalia sometimes blames herself for having brought me to that place the truth is the decision was mine alone. The only thing I could accuse her of, when I’ve wished I was dead, is of saving me, of having grabbed the snow off the roof of a car and put it on my cheeks to keep me from fainting. The snow and her voice growing fainter: What’s wrong, honey? What have they done to you? What am I going to tell Dad and Mom? And me: Nothing, you’re not going to tell them anything. Swear to me.
Natalia went on: Rebeca had been picked up by a taxi driver who promised to give her a ride. All this was heard from the mouth of another girl, Angélica, witness to the last moment Rebeca was seen alive. Both girls had wanted to get into the car, but Angélica didn’t go because you could see her belly was pretty far along and the taxi driver didn’t want her. Pregnant? someone—I don’t remember who—asked, as if they couldn’t believe it. I looked instinctively away. Natalia assented: Yes, and the taxi driver didn’t want her, even though just days before he had. He was a regular of the Pampa. And what did he look like? we demanded. Fat, said Natalia. Actually more pot-bellied than fat. Big, big and old. Angélica had been precise: Like a grandpa, and white like the taxi. Almost tender. He paid more than two coins, surely, because the girls fought a little over who would go, and he always brought them back with an ice-cream. But that afternoon or night—it was around seven and it was still light outside—he chose the Queen because she was prettier. Rebeca wasn’t just prettier, blurted the photographer who was with Natalia, she was the heart of a very red and juicy watermelon. In forty-degree heat, added Gabriel.
Gabriel was avoiding me the way you change sidewalks to keep from having to greet someone you know has seen you but you want to evade. Out of the corner of his eyes he followed the movements of my hands, and he marked my comments with stamps of silence that no one noticed but Natalia and me. Ever since I was a little girl he’d seen me as a spoiled creature, a snot-nosed kid who inspired both irritation and tenderness in him. I must have been four, maybe five years old, and already Gabriel was coming over to pick Natalia up. They weren’t a couple yet, but it was as natural for them to be together then as now. Gabriel came over in the afternoon, telling jokes with the poisonous depth of his humor. Natalia slapped my hands on the sly: Stop picking your nose, dirty girl! But I couldn’t resist, and I stuck my finger up my nose as far as I could. My sister’s favorite pastime was catching me, and mine was savoring that forbidden and shameful habit. Gabriel had no way of knowing because Natalia would never sell me out, but I didn’t know that then. There were many things I didn’t know, among them the power of language. He came over at siesta time while I was playing, sitting on the veranda floor, absorbed in my own world. Hey, Booger, he said, and when I saw his eyes on my fingertips I started to cry. Natalia couldn’t keep a secret. Mean, mean, you’re so mean, I yelled. Gabriel didn’t understand, and my sister, doubled over in laughter: It was just a term of endearment, silly, not because you pick your nose.
Someone asked again about Rebeca, wanting to do a psychological examination. Natalia let us theorize. How to describe without flattening with the bluntness of an adjective? Happy and extroverted, we said, she wouldn’t have been crowned otherwise. But we agreed that happiness can come in different forms. There is a bodily happiness that translates into an electric, sometimes aggressive temperament, one that’s nevertheless exhausted by the effort of living; or there’s a more rational happiness, routinely corrupted, which is more determining than destiny and which we vaguely refer to as optimism. We agreed that Rebeca’s happiness must have been a little intransigent. That is, it existed in spite of everything, and everything in her life was already horror. In which case we were dealing with an inconsistent happiness, and then who knows—the extroverted part of Rebeca’s character could be a mask, a defense. It seemed more appropriate for someone of her age to have a timid temperament, cheerful and sensitive to the unexpected. For her, the unexpected could have been almost anything, down to the most insignificant matter: a new dress, a table with a tablecloth, hot water, going to school, or a gift that she didn’t have to give herself for in return. We fell silent.
Natalia said no one missed Rebeca until the police found her in a bush beside the road. No one noticed she was gone because Rebeca was like a cat, said her grandmother, she always left and she also always came back. “Rebeca liked to travel,” Angélica said. She liked to get lost. Who doesn’t like to get lost every once in a while? I thought, bent double by the cold of the air conditioning. That’s why she had her cans of Hercules glue in her bag, and they took her far away. Rebeca didn’t look like a queen any more when they identified her at the morgue, now without her little shorts or the red carnation, without her smooth hair that was by then in a tangle. She was covered with a burlap sack that must have once contained potatoes. Her grandmother had passed her hands ritually over Rebeca’s body without crying for her. She surely held that death didn’t need explanations, and no matter that the sergeant went to such pains for a declaration of suffocation and strangulation, given that rape couldn’t be claimed. Angélica told Natalia that the skin of her friend’s body was sticky with glue, the same kind as in the cans but in large quantities, and because of that they could barely distinguish her tattoos: a heart, a lizard, a star. The flesh is sad, I whispered. Mallarmé’s poem is so true.
Gabriel was hoping Natalia would spot his signal to change the subject when the story took this lurid turn. But our absolute silence urged her on. Journalism can be an immunological disease, he’d said apologetically. Sometimes it’s easy to immunize yourself, Natalia added sarcastically, but other times, other times you’re just infected. Natalia couldn’t help but spar with Gabriel, although hers were insignificant victories: having the last word in a conversation, closing with an ingenious turn of phrase, or being, in general, much more attractive and charming than him. Suddenly, I noticed she was very tired. She hadn’t slept well recently, and Gabriel, consequently, hadn’t either. In her continued insomnia she tried to reconstruct Rebeca’s murder in her head, but she couldn’t do it. He, who at first had kept her company, in the end asked her to give it up. Go to sleep, go to sleep, woman. Gabriel laughed. We all laughed, including Natalia, who by that time was freezing, too.
They were opening a couple more bottles of beer, and I took the opportunity to escape to the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet, relieved by the warm and suffocating microclimate of the restroom, a place the bar’s artificial winter didn’t reach. Only a race like ours was capable of that kind of scientific, perhaps morbid curiosity with which we could talk about a rape, a death, and not lose our appetites. I pinched my cheeks before the mirror after splashing water on my face. Natalia was strong when it came to those kinds of stories. If anyone knew that it was me. There she’d been, carrying me on her back, practically dragging me to the bus stop—because we had no money—and then bringing my fever down with wet rags and muttering between prayers: Crazy, fucking crazy people… God save you… God save you, María… I went back to the table.
Judging by what they were explaining when I sat down—in terms of the timescale of a formal investigation—very little had occurred between the discovery of Rebeca’s body and when the police had to come to the gates of the community to arrest the guilty man. Fifteen hours, tops, said Natalia. And the use of the verb wasn’t accidental: the police really “had” to come because the community was not prepared to wait for the “formal” and “investigative” processes to take place. Fifteen hours and no more in a country where justice can take an age. But, of course, said Natalia, the time is never perfect for the condemned… Nor was it for me. It was the passage of the hours, said the doctors, that gave the events their tragic course. Hours that Natalia hasn’t been able to forget because she lost the sense of time, and it was Gabriel who made her leave the room, who got a taxi and dragged us both to the hospital. Me, faded, lost, rigid; and my washed-out and trembling sister, with her eyes empty from exhaustion and the horror of blood.
At three in the morning we were the only ones left in the bar. The photographer opened his mouth in a kind of epilogue: Accustomed as we are to this shit, he said, it’s not the time that should surprise anyone but the way the women found the supposed murderer. But it didn’t get anyone’s attention. Some witnesses—women who didn’t want to be identified—had told Natalia how they’d been sitting on the crumbling curb when they saw a boy at the edge of their territory. He was freshly bathed, his shirt tucked into his pants, and a chopping-board in his hands. Not a word passed between them; they were guided by their experience, and they’d looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes like birds. The boy had even smiled at them before asking after Rebeca. And the women had replied all together in a violent uproar that soon became a pack of wolves and was joined by the drunken men, blind from alcohol and in the mood to thrash someone. Natalia abridged the story, condensing the drama: They hanged him from a lamppost, and the yellow light shone on him as if it were the spotlight in a theater. The rest was, effectively, theatrical: men, women, and children surrounded the crucified man, exorcising their fury just as they did in Carnival, only now they didn’t dance, they beat that body with rocks, sticks, and belts, in the name of the dead Queen.
Gabriel told us that the when the police had taken the boy down he was already half dead, his head and body battered, and his clothing in shreds. Natalia added a sentimental detail: Angélica still had the wooden chopping-board that he had brought as a gift for Rebeca, for her grandmother’s kitchen. He was a carpenter, she explained, eighteen years old and 1.7 meters tall. In his statement he admitted he had paid for Rebeca two times before. When they were together Gabriel and Natalia looked like a couple of TV presenters. Their union was perfect. There was a reason they had brought three children into the world. Three, in the absence of one. And, during each pregnancy, my sister and her guilty eyes looked at me as if they wanted to avoid inflicting pain on me, even though I made sure to tell her not to worry, I was still happy for her.
A clock beats in the heart of a newspaper, said Natalia. She said this, looking drawn, as closing time overtook her, that night she’d written about a murderer without really believing any of it. He could have just been a boy passing by, she’d told her editor, but I don’t know, she admitted to us. In her face there was a cloud of remorse, very much in spite of a certain resignation she put into her words. She had all the clearances: Isaac Chingano, Saúl Rosales, Roque Pando, Juan Bustos, Juana Nomine, the D.A., the detective, the cacique, the grandmother. Everyone she’d consulted had told her the case was closed, the community had passed judgment; justice had been served because they’d caught the guilty man. How could they not welcome someone who can calm things down? asked Gabriel, someone who reassures them and lets them go on living? Someone who saves you, I thought, the way Natalia had always saved me; the way she wanted to now, as she tried to convince him to let her be my womb.
They finally turned off the air conditioning, and when they did a silence settled in the room, almost with an echo. I had the feeling that a spotlight had been turned on in a shadowy room. Then Gabriel asked: But how did they know it was him? What reason did they give? And Natalia replied with a bitter grimace: They knew because they tied a red ribbon around Rebeca’s left foot so she would bring the murderer. The boy was the first to come around asking for her.
And what did you do? I demanded unfairly, as if my sister had to solve everything.
I wrote about it, Natalia apologized, the best I could.
*Image: Peter Kaaden via Vectroave