The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
I remember it was almost summer, and I called from my office, between patients, to make the appointment. Paz had recommended a beauty salon that happened to be near my parents’ house. I made an appointment for that very afternoon. I hung up and stared out the window at a cloud that was approaching very slowly. But the white mass was taking too long, so I told the nurse to send in the next one on the list. A tiny Chinese woman came in, pregnant up to her ears. Her body was all swollen belly and the fetus inside. I asked her a few questions, but she barely spoke the language. I’m not sure she understood me. There was no one with her. All I could do was lie her down on the examination table and, in lieu of the pertinent information I always give new mothers, I silently wrote in her chart as I listened to the background music.
That afternoon, when I entered the salon, I was greeted by a very old woman, heavily made up. She crossed my name off in a book as soon as I had given it to her and then hung my jacket on a hanger.
“Would you like coffee?”
The place was not very elegant; there were bottles of polish jumbled on the shelves, and the woman’s mannerisms suddenly seemed old-fashioned. I looked at her hips, so narrow, as I followed her down a hallway to the waxing room. I wondered if she’d had kids, and, if so, how the babies had been able to escape out of that narrow space.
I got undressed in a kind of changing room lit up by a blinking fluorescent light. I left my purse on the bench and hung my clothes from a rack nailed to the wall. The woman with the narrow hips had handed me a robe to put on. I had the same feeling I get when I’m about to enter the operating theater, but this time I wasn’t the one in control. I went into the room. I sat on the white table. It was covered in paper that crunched under my weight. I waited.
Then she appeared. We recognized each other immediately, and we both stared for a long second, recovering from all those sudden memories: her waiting with her friends to beat me up, me trying unsuccessfully to flee between the columns of the schoolyard. I would’ve liked to pretend I was someone else, fake a French accent, like when I met Diego, or run out of there with the excuse that the place didn’t meet my hygiene standards.
But then she called me by my name and said without any trace of aggression, “How have you been?”
After my parents finally decided to move me to another school, I never saw Sonia or her gang again. I finished lower school at a place where I didn’t even have time to make friends. High school was a different story. Later on, I studied medicine five hundred kilometers from home and did my residency another five hundred kilometers away. I got used to not going home very often. My life was elsewhere.
Sonia tied on her smock.
“What are you having done?”
When I remained silent, she said, “It’s your first time here, isn’t it?”
But I was unable to respond. I lay back on the table and stared at her as she began to melt the wax in a bowl. I thought about her past arrogance. I thought about what we’ve become. She left the room and after a minute came back in. I just lay there; I hadn’t moved a millimeter.
“Mari Carmen tells me you asked for underarms and bikini.”
Then she picked up the bowl of melted wax and stirred the thick substance with a wooden stick.
I felt a sudden urge to curse her and throw the wax in her eyes. I didn’t do anything. Finally, I opened my mouth. I answered yes, that those were the parts I wanted to be waxed. I was about to add that I had sensitive skin so she should be careful not to hurt me. I immediately realized that it was too late; the damage had been done all those years ago.
She started working on my right underarm. I could tell that she was pretty embarrassed and didn’t dare look at me. I imagined her with other clients, chatting comfortably about the benefits of massage for weight loss or how to get rid of ingrown hairs, but with me, she didn’t say a word. Maybe she was just concentrating. As she spread the wax, I knew she couldn’t see me, and I took the opportunity to scrutinize her face up close. Those eyes that I remembered full of flames now lacked even a spark. She had a piercing in her bottom lip and another in her eyebrow, and her hair was short with blonde highlights. The more I looked at her, the less I saw of the Sonia who used to punch and kick me every chance she got.
She finished with my underarms more quickly than I’d expected. Her movements were concise. It burned for a second, but then she spread a green gel on my skin that smelled very refreshing and instantly numbed the entire area. Then she moved to my bikini line.
When the time came she asked, “Want me to do more?”
I told her that it wasn’t necessary, that it was enough. She’d made my life miserable in school, but the girl who used to bully me was still in our hometown doing bikini waxes. I smiled slightly as Sonia did her work down below. When it was over, I paid and left without thanking her or the lady with the narrow hips.
The next day, as I was doing a mammogram on a woman with only one breast, my cell phone rang. I’d forgotten to turn the sound off. The woman didn’t say anything, but she seemed annoyed throughout the entire examination. Her skin was soft and brown, and her wrinkles reminded me of my mother when she wears a bathing suit. Before leaving she told me angrily that she knew the cancer was eating her up and that all of us doctors were useless. She said this in front of the nurse. Then she left. I was sure that as soon as she closed the door the nurse would rush to recount the entire scene to the girls in reception.
I looked at my phone as the next patient got undressed.
“Remove everything from the waist down and lie on the table when you’re ready.”
I made her wait a while. The previous patient had shaken me up.
For a second I thought that the call might’ve been from Sonia. I’d given them my cell when I made the appointment. She had access to my number. In the end, it was nothing so dramatic. I looked at the screen. Diego had left me a voicemail. I noticed the patient squirming on the table, and I searched for the cloud from the day before, but the sky was totally clear. The woman faked a cough, but what she really wanted was to get my attention so I’d examine her right away. I could spot her type a mile off. I got up, gave her a cursory examination, and wrote out a prescription for birth control, which was the only reason she’d come.
The following Saturday I met with Paz. We had dinner at a Thai restaurant that had recently opened. The waiter was very cute and smiled non-stop. Paz was mesmerized; she couldn’t stop repeating how great the restaurant was, but to me, it seemed like any other greasy Chinese place, only with a bit of a facelift. I asked Paz how sales were going at the real-estate agency, and she made a face that expressed tragedy. I feigned interest in problems that I wouldn’t lose a moment of sleep over, such as the price of bricks and the fluctuations in the residential market. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I knew it made her feel better to vent. I guess she didn’t have anyone else to talk to about it except her co-workers, who never discussed anything else. Paz, however, never asked me about my practice, for which I was almost thankful.
Throughout the entire dinner, I was tempted to tell her who I’d run into at the beauty salon she’d recommended, but I didn’t. Paz and I had only been friends for three years, and I don’t think she would have understood my shock at seeing Sonia or how brutally the girl she’d been had treated the girl I’d been.
When it came time for dessert, we were full. Paz leaned back in her chair, her long legs stretched out, and stared off into space. She swore she was about to burst and couldn’t eat another bite, but then we shared a green-tea ice cream and accepted the shots the waiter offered us on the house. I was now convinced it was just a Chinese restaurant with green tablecloths. We toasted to summer, our upcoming vacations, my escape from the pregnant women, and Paz’s escape from the Euribor, and, when we clinked our ice cream bowls, Paz asked, “How was your waxing?”
I looked at her, made a gesture that said, Give me a minute, I’m swallowing, and then I told her that it hadn’t been so bad. Paz agreed that Sonia was very professional and was also a super sweet girl, only she didn’t say Sonia, she said the girl with the piercings, and I smiled, changed the subject, and asked for the check.
When I got home, I felt like talking to someone, and I called Diego. He didn’t pick up. I took off my make-up in the bathroom. A little while later my phone rang. It was him.
“What’s going on?” I asked him. “Were you undressing some cardiologist, so you couldn’t answer when I called?”
“I’ve got five of them waiting for me in bed,” he answered.
After joking around for a while, we stopped playing at being adults, and I asked him about the conference. He told me that it was afternoon there and that Boston was full of huge trees. I didn’t know if he meant the university campus where the conference was being held or the rest of the city. He found the talks interesting, and he’d been going out with the American doctors to gorge on gigantic hamburgers and Southern-style fried chicken while they talked about cholesterol and cardiac catheterization. The group from his hospital had presented that morning.
“At first I was nervous, but then I got over it.” He paused. “Because of my English, you know, but then I got over it,” he repeated.
Then he described the places they’d visited with some doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital.
“They offered to show us around,” he said. “We hit it off, and they offered to show us around.”
I didn’t understand why he had to repeat everything. Maybe he was tired. I imagined myself thousands of miles from my apartment, from Paz’s neuroses, from Sonia, now haggard but who in other times had pulled my ponytail until I cried. Suddenly Diego didn’t want to talk any more. He explained that the call was being paid for by the hospital, and he didn’t want to abuse the privilege. Anyway, I could tell I was boring him or he’d rather be watching a basketball game and just didn’t want to be rude.
When I hung up, I got on the internet. I read about Boston on Wikipedia. The city’s economy is based on higher education, research, health, banking, and technology, especially biotech. It has the second-most-important fine-arts museum in the country, a huge estuary, and their basketball team is called the Celtics. I looked at some photos of skyscrapers crowned in white clouds. Then I entered a forum about school bullying, where the victims, parents, and teachers talked about their experiences. They blamed each other or gave terrifying testimonies, but I couldn’t tell which ones were real and which ones had been made up to shock people or as a creative outlet for pent-up cruelty. I got sleepy, turned off the computer, and went to bed.
The next day was Sunday. I’d wasted the morning and was feeling lonely, so I went to lunch at my parents’ house. As I helped my mom with the dishes, I told her that I’d bumped into Sonia nearby. My mother immediately knew who I was talking about.
“She works in a beauty salon,” she said, “the one next to the butcher’s shop.”
I didn’t need details, and I didn’t want her to ask me for any, so I didn’t tell her that I’d been Sonia’s unwitting client. For a second I wanted to ask if she’d seen her on the street or if someone had told her or if she’d gone in for a manicure and come face to face with those piercings. My mother dried the dishes and set them on the kitchen table for me to put into the cupboards.
It started to rain. The drops splashed the window at regular intervals. My mother rushed to close the shutters so that the glass wouldn’t get dirty. I didn’t feel like walking home in the rain, so I decided to stay, at least until the storm let up. I looked out the window. There was no movement, just the dense and silent rain. My parents were in the living room. A movie was about to start, but they changed the channel. I got bored. I didn’t have much to do.
I went into my old room. I opened drawers, most of them empty. My mother had hung her winter clothes in one of the wardrobes, which smelled strongly of mothballs. In the other, among various useless objects, were my old hair straighteners, a badminton racket, a scroll saw wrapped in brown paper. I don’t know why they hadn’t gotten rid of all that junk. Maybe they were hoping I’d take it to my apartment. There was a red folder lying on top of the loose racket strings. It was filled with the articles I’d written for the school paper and some snapshots of parties. I couldn’t bear to think that it was really me under that ridiculous party dress and huge bangs. I suddenly knew I would come across a certain clipping and quickly found it. It was a photo of the fifth-grade class. We’d gone on a field trip to the local newspaper. Sonia looked just like I remembered her, with her hair curled around her ears, smiling defiantly into the camera and putting bunny ears on the girl in front of her. I was in the opposite corner, to the right of the teacher, who had a plump, protective arm around my shoulders. I don’t remember the field trip or who took the picture, just that it was impossible to keep us still and that my parents bought the paper the next day for the sole purpose of cutting out the photo.
I put the yellowed piece of newspaper in my bag and closed the folder. I went to say goodbye to my parents. They were watching two seals diving for food in a frozen ocean. My father was half asleep with his feet resting on the coffee table and one shoe hanging off. My mother got up and walked me out. She asked me how Diego was doing.
“Fine,” I said.
I didn’t mention that he was in Boston. Then I started down the stairs with my eyes fixed on the floor. My mother kept shouting to me over the railing until I was two floors down. I wanted to say Mama, get inside, will you, but I didn’t want the neighbors to know my mother still came out on the landing to say goodbye, like when I was a little girl on my way to school.
Before going back to my apartment, I went into the convenience store that was always open, and the Pakistani owners sold me a bag of ham-flavored potato chips, a pack of gum, and a beer. That was my Sunday dinner. I looked at a few patients’ charts. I was part of a research team at the hospital. We had our patients sign consent forms, we dug around in their medical records, and then we prepared presentations and got invited to conferences and dinners. That’s what’s expected of you when you’re a doctor and your practice bores you.
Two months went by. Diego and I went to Istanbul for a week on vacation. I brought my mother back a thimble with a picture of the Blue Mosque on it. She collected them. Then we went back to our jobs. My research team met frequently. We needed to get a hundred subjects, but we only had around ninety, and the deadline was fast approaching. We were running out of time. There were fewer births than in the spring and the number of patients had decreased too. People tended to neglect their health in summer, just like they did the gym and language classes. Occasionally I remembered Sonia and the wax job because my skin had never been smoother. I went out for drinks with Paz in the evenings. Diego and I started making plans to move in together without a hint of romance, as if it were something that was bound to happen sooner or later, and so, at some point in August, we agreed that I’d rent my apartment and move into his, which had an extra bedroom. Every once in a while we’d go shopping to pick out throw pillows or a toaster.
One day in early September, Sonia walked into my office accompanied by the nurse, and once again I felt like I’d seen a ghost. Her hair was longer, and her highlights were auburn instead of blonde. I gestured to the chair. She sat down. She was calm and didn’t seem surprised. I didn’t look at her right away, instead I searched for a fake chart on my computer and pretended to take notes on a piece of paper. I needed to buy some time to decide how I was going to handle the situation, but then she spoke.
“I said I was your friend and got an appointment with you because I didn’t want to see a stranger.”
I asked the nurse to leave, saying I could handle it on my own. She left, annoyed, muttering something and closing the door loudly behind her.
Sonia got undressed as I looked out the window for some dense cloud that might offer some advice, but all I saw were wispy cirrus clouds, long thin filaments that didn’t mean anything. Sonia lay down on the table. She stared up at the fluorescent light. I’d done this hundreds of times, but I didn’t know where to start the examination. When I asked her what had brought her in, she said her periods were long and painful. I wanted to know how she’d found me, but in this tiny city, there were endless possibilities. I asked her to move to the end of the bed, and I examined her.
“I turn thirty-two today,” she said.
I didn’t say happy birthday. I continued doing what I was doing. I inserted a long device into her and started to look at the images that appeared on the screen.
“Dani and I want to have kids, but as much as we try I can’t get pregnant.”
Then there was a silence.
“I’m all dried up.”
I kept looking with fascination at the curved shapes inside her, black and white, like summer storm clouds about to burst, then I told her I was done, that she could get dressed.
When she reappeared from behind the screen, I asked her a few questions that confirmed my diagnosis. I ordered some blood tests. I didn’t expect them to tell me anything I didn’t already know. Sonia didn’t seem worried, she was just a little sad, and she listened carefully as I explained the possible causes of her infertility. She looked at me and slowly twirled a tarnished ring around her finger. I noticed her nails: ugly, bitten-down, yellowed. Suddenly she seemed like a defenseless specimen, a rare flower, sick from a tumor that deformed her from the inside. I talked to her about surgery, which I could do myself, but my explanation was cold, and the memories of the past began to dissolve little by little.
Before closing her chart, I remembered that we needed subjects for our study, and I asked her if she wanted to participate. I assured her that she wouldn’t have to answer any uncomfortable questions; all that would happen was that a group of gynecologists from the hospital, including me, would look at her medical records. She twirled her ring again. For a second I was afraid she’d refuse. I tried to make her see that it was positive, so many experts following her progress, but all I cared about was getting her to sign. I think that even if I hadn’t explained it she wouldn’t have cared. I handed her the consent form and a pen.
“Where?” she asked.
“Here,” I answered, and I pointed to a blank space where she proceeded to stamp her childlike signature.
When she raised her face from the page her eyes were red, and I quickly dismissed her from the office before she could start to cry, doing the math and determining that Sonia and I were finally even.
The news was brought by Darío, the baker’s son. We knew something had happened as soon as we saw him, standing up on his bike pedals, coming closer under the midday sun. Someone said, “Who could that be? Hey, it’s Darío!” We were sitting on the terrace, exhausted from the hot, still air that had settled in over the last week, and the sea-like hum of the fan was the only thing that could be heard. Across from me, Clara was dozing, her dress rolled up above her bony thighs, and her chest, like a scrawny, embalmed bird, was rising just enough to let a little air in. Next to her sat Mamá, dressed in black despite the sweltering heat wave. Her hair was pulled back with bobby pins and her bun looked like a poorly constructed tower. Farther away sat Gorda Teresa and her husband Jesus. They were both wearing new clothes as they liked to do on national holidays. She is in a sundress and him in a shirt Gorda had sewn for him with leftover fabric. That’s what I was thinking about just before someone, perhaps it was Gorda, spotted the bike on the road. Then Clara said, “Yep, it’s Darío.” We sat up a bit, though not enough to get up from our deck chairs. Mamá crossed herself, and the unease on all our faces was like a bad omen of things to come.
“Hilda, go fix something for the poor thing,” my mother said, with a nod of her head.
I slipped my feet into my sandals and slowly stood up. My bones creaked. Something inside of me seemed to resist the movement, threatening to snap like a dry branch. As I passed in front of the fan, with its light, warm air, I stopped for a minute to let the breeze hit my face and blow through my hair.
As he got closer, I could hear the sound of his tires on the gravel. I was waiting for him at the door, with a glass of lemonade in my hand. Darío stopped a few meters away from the house. He put one foot on the ground and hopped off the bike, which kicked up dust as it fell sideways. “Hi Señora Hilda,” he said from a distance. He was puffy from the heat and his eyes were sunken deep into his face, like two openings made by a blow. He was clutching a brown paper package. The sun was beating down strongly, and though I had sought refuge in the shaded line made by the eaves, I began to feel the wet hair on the back of my neck again, and the ruthless heat rising from the ground.
“What do you have there?” I asked him.
He took a few steps toward me, indecisive. The poor kid wasn’t sure if he should tell me the news first.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that you can get sick this time of day?”
He didn’t have the nerve to come closer, or maybe he didn’t know what to say, because he stood still in the ray of sunlight, straight and solemn like a soldier as the sweat dripped down his face and soaked his T-shirt.
“It’s sweet Christmas bread,” he said, and offered me the package, lifting it with both hands.
I motioned for him to come onto the porch.
“Here, do you want some lemonade?”
He nodded and moved closer with apprehensive steps. He gave me the package and once his hands were free, he wiped his forehead and eyes with outstretched palms and then took the glass. The package was burning hot and I could feel the flattened, sticky bread through the paper.
“Thank your mother,” I said, but I don’t know if he heard me, because the glass was covering his face up to his eyebrows as he swallowed the lemonade with a gulp.
When he finished, he looked up at me and spoke slowly, still out of breath.
“He’s back.” He looked down into the empty glass as if he were waiting for something. Then he rolled his tongue, which I imagined was cool and damp, and seemed to gather courage: “Señor Augusto told my mamá and she didn’t believe him but he said everyone saw him, and that he’s here, alive and kicking. That’s what Augusto told her, and that he’s on his way here, and that it was best to let Señora Luisa know so she doesn’t fall into a swoon.”
“Yes, a swoon,” he said again, and something in his eyes sparkled, the fleeting illusion that something terrible might happen.
“All right, I’ll tell her. Do you want another glass?”
He wavered, and then refused with his head and looked over at the bicycle lying in the road.
“Thank your mother for the bread. And don’t you worry, I’ll let Señora Luisa know.”
This seemed to calm him down. Maybe he was worried I’d drag him up to the terrace and force him to repeat those same words in front of my mother. And then the swoon, a fainting fit, an unrestrained shriek of happiness. Tears, perhaps. Her hands flung to the sky, her eyes blank, her tongue rolled back, stifling her dry throat. She no longer believed in miracles. And there was Darío, like an angel with his hot and rusty metallic wings.
I wasn’t surprised by the news, just as I hadn’t been surprised by the previous news of his faraway death. Maybe it’s because since I was little I had gotten used to imagining him dead, lying inside a coffin, not pale or cold, but as if he were sleeping, his head surrounded by flowers. It started the year they sent my mother to Misericordia Psychiatric Hospital. My sister and I were left in Fabio’s care. Clara was a baby, she doesn’t remember anything. But I remember the cold, and my body shivering under the stiff white sheet. I had to take a bath before I went to sleep, and thought Fabio would let me wash myself, he always stayed in the bathroom. To this day I shower with the radio on to avoid remembering that silence of the water. Afterwards, he’d wrap me in a big towel and dry me off. Sometimes, as I was trying to fall asleep, I’d imagine Fabio dead, with a crown of roses. Sometimes the coffin was the bathtub. Sometimes I was the only one keeping vigil over him.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised. But Clara wept for him violently, exaggerating each rattle of her skeletal chest. She’d tell whoever would listen about the day Fabio had saved her from the collapse in the wood cabin. And who knows how many times I’d heard her say, “My brother was everything to me.” Mamá, silent and proud, restricted herself to dressing in mourning. And to this day, twelve years after that semblance of a funeral from afar, the black and worn-out clothing she had imposed on herself was still her way of showing everyone that she had the deepest, most unforgettable grief. But not me. I didn’t join the women’s chorus of lamenters, Gorda included, and deep down I always believed the only thing my brother wanted was to get away from us, from Mamá especially, and that the whole town thought he was some sort of victor or hero. Now he was turning into something more: a resurrected dead man who had come back full of great adventures and tales of how death had almost, unexpectedly, taken him away.
I stood there in the front entryway watching Darío ride away. I was holding the package with the soft, lumpy bread in one hand. In the other, the boy’s glass. The ice cubes had melted and I took advantage of the wet glass to cool off my forehead and neck. This time he set off down the slope and was barely visible, hidden now behind a cloud of dust. If I had been thinking about something, I don’t remember what it was. Sometimes thinking about a lot at the same time feels like not thinking about anything at all. I just know that I waited there for a long time. I waited, that is, even after there was no trace of the bicycle and the ground had started to settle again, now devoid of any mystery.
The sun didn’t reach the dining room, and the candles flickered on the altar in the cool and moldy darkness. The flames had stained the wall with soot and in the middle of the two black columns hung rosaries, photos of the Virgin, crosses, small bleeding hearts crowned with thorns. Below, on the sideboard, there was a collection of photos of Fabio at almost every age, surrounded by plastic flowers, holy cards, and prayers that relatives and friends had left: He was even more handsome dead than alive. Now we could love him even more. What would he be like now? Old. Maybe wounded, legless, fingerless, with a patch over one eye. Or haggard from the years, toothless, ravaged by the elements and all the lies like an abandoned tin can of peas. I thought of the can and saw myself shooting him in the chest. Three perfectly round holes, my aim spot on like before. The rifle was kept in the mahogany cabinet, right beneath the altar. I just had to turn the key and wait for him at the entrance to the property. After all, no one was expecting him. No one would go out looking for him. I could see it: an old and holey tin can, and through the holes, the memories slipping away, together with the last possibility of any return.
I left the glass in the kitchen, passed by the fan without stopping, climbed the steps with the same slowness with which I had come down, and slumped back into the chair. I slipped off a sandal with one foot, dropping it onto the wooden floor with a thud, then the other. Everyone waited in silence as I took them off.
“They sent us this bread,” I said and began to unwrap the package on my lap.
“Hilda,” said my mother.
Despite the brightness, her face was obscured by the shade.
The hot, smashed bread, wrinkled with cracks, now looked like an exposed brain, a terrible and painful flower.
“They sent us this bread,” I repeated, firmly, “and asked me to come over. The oldest daughter and her husband split up and the guy took everything: the furniture, money, everything. She’s devastated.”
“And what do you have to do with it?”
I shrugged my shoulders:
“They don’t have anyone else.”
Gorda drew in a quick breath as if she was going to say something but Jesus gestured to her to keep quiet. I looked up. In the distance, on the southernmost part of the road, a black figure, still imperceptible to the others, was slowly making its way toward us.
The blinds are pulled down; the old couple who live opposite must be on holiday. Before, the old woman would come out every morning to water the plants on her balcony. The old man would stay inside; he needed a walker to get around. Some days a young girl in a blue jacket would come by, a nurse or a physiotherapist. On Sundays they’d be visited by other elderly couples. They’d sit around a table and play cards until late.
They have a nice balcony; it’s in an ‘L’ shape, wrapped around the building. A lot of plants, an azalea that blooms every spring. They’ve hung a wind chime up at the corner. On windy days you can hear it from a long way away, from the street even. Behind that is a red dreamcatcher with a feather that flutters in the slightest breeze. I imagine it must have been a gift from a grandchild, although I’ve never seen grandchildren in their flat. Maybe the physiotherapist gave it to them.
The flat below the one belonging to the old couple is empty. It takes up the whole floor. They left the blinds up, and you can see that the parquet floor is covered in dust. There’s something long and white lying on the floor in one of the bedrooms. It looks like the holder for a fluorescent light. Pigeons gather on the balcony; the tiles are covered in their shit. There are two nests, one at each end. One of the nests has three little white eggs. You can see them when the pigeon goes out foraging for food.
All you can see of the brown building behind the one where the old couple live is the roof terrace with its cages for drying clothes. Also, a pair of DirecTV antennae pointed at the Sierras. A black shirt is hanging upside down in one of the cages. The shirt cuffs almost touch the ground. There’s no wind, but it still sways a little and occasionally brushes against the rusty mesh of the cage. The flat on the top floor has its blinds pulled down. On the second from top, next to the window, is a white table with an architect’s lamp. They usually leave the light on until late at night. Sometimes I see a hand turning a page or scribbling something. Very occasionally, I see it holding a cigarette. The face is always hidden while the man reads, or works, or studies, or draws. If I met him in the shop downstairs I wouldn’t recognize him.
In the middle of the street, they’re building a pair of apartment blocks, one next to the other. The one closest to me is almost finished. Two men are installing the window frames. Nothing else. A truck came to deliver them yesterday afternoon. Thirty or forty grey-painted iron frames, exactly alike. The builders ran a rope through a pulley and threw it down from the roof. One builder stayed on the top floor while the others went down to the street, tied the first frame to the rope and started to pull. The builder on the top floor watched the metal frame coming up towards him. One of the corners got stuck under the third-floor balcony. The builder pulled on the rope to keep it away from the walls. They started with the frames for the top floors and progressed down the building.
Today the two men in grey shirts started to install the frames, and the air is full of the sound of electric saws and shrieking metal.
It’s five in the afternoon. The builders have left; I can hear their cars driving off into the distance. I like the silence of the flat, how every noise I make reverberates around it. My fingers on the keyboard, the click of the mouse button, a glass when I put it down on the glass table, the back of the chair creaking when I lean back, every footstep. It sounds like an Argentine film from the eighties. They all had dubbed superimposed soundtracks. Sounds added over silence; they never sounded genuine. It’s like I’m moving around in an unreal environment, or underwater, with just the flicking sound of the film for company.
I don’t want to order food. That would mean going downstairs, saying hello to the porter, talking to the delivery boy. I’d have to change out of my pajamas and slippers. I’d rather cook for myself. I put water on to boil and drop some dried pasta into it. The best brand. Before she left Claudia told me which was best at the supermarket.
Always buy these. They’re a little more expensive, but they taste homemade.
I put a couple of cloves of garlic on the table and crush each with the blade of the knife. Again, they make a noise that would be a soundman’s dream.
The telephone rings.
Just a moment, someone wants to speak to you, says a woman’s voice.
Then another voice comes on the line and asks if I am who I am. I say yes, that’s me.
Wait a moment, I’ll put you through, they say.
I wait, and a third voice appears. This one also belongs to a woman. Again, she asks if I am who I am.
You’re a writer? the voice asks.
I say that I am.
The minister of culture wants to speak to you, she says.
Yes, to you.
Can you come to the ministry tomorrow?
Any time in particular?
Any time between nine and twelve would be fine.
I’ll come by tomorrow, I say and hang up.
There’s a new minister. I didn’t know the previous one – he was fired recently – and I don’t know this one either. I call a friend to ask her about him. She doesn’t know him either. Apparently, no one knows who he is. My friend says she’ll try to get some more information, but I don’t hear from her again.
The minister has been called to an urgent meeting. They show me to a sunken chair to wait. Forty-five minutes later he arrives with a lot of files under his arm. He’s sweating, and his shirt is coming out of his trousers. He introduces himself, shows me into his office and tells the woman, whose name is Elsa, to bring me a coffee.
Elsa, a coffee for the young gentleman, he says, and then he looks at me.
You write, don’t you?
A pleasure, the minister says and stretches out his hand. I’ve heard good things about your work.
Thank you, I say.
The minister wants to inject some new energy, to bring in new people and encourage the exchange of ideas. Since his appointment, he has been working on a project called Crossover. He’s bringing together artists from different generations and disciplines to make works between the two of them. He’s setting up pairings. A young painter with an old writer. An old musician with a young actor. He’s looking for established artists from the province and is having them interact with young, promising talents.
You’re a young talent. We’ve suggested that you work with Gripa Castellano, the choreographer.
Then he asks if I know Gripa. She’s one of the artists from the seventies who went into exile in Europe, had some success there and then came back in the mid-eighties. All I know about her is that she’s famous. I suppose that I must have seen her around, but I can’t put a face to her name. It seems that Gripa is going to adopt one of my stories for a ballet. The minister says that Gripa wants to meet me as soon as possible. I need to bring my book with me because when she asked for it at El Ateneo bookshop they didn’t have it.
He gives me the number of Gripa’s assistant. I’m to call her to arrange a meeting.
You’ll get a fee, he says. Two hundred pesos. How does that sound?
That sounds fine.
Have you got your paperwork in order? Can you invoice officially?
Yes, I can.
Great. It’s been a pleasure, says the minister. He stands up and holds out his hand again. Good luck with Gripa. I’ll see you on opening night.
As soon as I’m out of the office, I call the number on the piece of paper he gave me. I say my name and explain that I need to talk to Gripa about the Crossover project.
Chub, is that you? a woman asks. No one has called me Chub in years. It was my nickname at secondary school.
Who is this? I ask.
Angelita Marolier. Don’t you remember me?
I try to scour my memory, but I come up blank. I apologize and say that I don’t.
Angi, Angi Marolier, you must remember. You’ll know me when you see me. Come over right now.
Gripa is rehearsing, but she’s going to take a break soon. Come over and we’ll talk.
Angelita gives me an address on the outskirts of town: a community centre. She tells me that Gripa often sets her pieces in non-traditional spaces and that right now she’s working in a slum. I take the bus, ride it for an hour and a quarter and get out where they tell me to. There’s a eucalyptus tree and a slope. At the bottom of the slope is a river, and the slum is on the other side. A garbage-filled wasteland with a horse and plastic bags occupies the space between the river and the slum. On this side of the river an evangelist chapel sits underneath another eucalyptus tree, and next to it is a breeze-block shed with a zinc roof and a metal sheet for a door. This is the community centre. I knock on the door and am met by a large woman filling out a form.
I’m looking for Gripa, I say.
The woman has no idea what I’m talking about.
The people from the ballet, I say.
Oh, the dancers! Down at the river, she tells me. Come on, I’ll walk you down.
Angelita! shouts the woman from the embankment behind the house. Angelita! The guy you were expecting is here.
I look down. On this side of the river, close to the water, a wooden platform has been built about a metre and a half above ground. On top of it is a circle of people. A crowd of kids from the slum are staring up from below. Someone waves to me to come down.
I walk down the path the woman shows me.
Put your hand on the ground so you won’t fall.
Angelita comes up to meet me. She’s wearing jeans, rubber boots and a hand-knitted sweater that’s a little tight on her. Her hair is loose. She’s about five or six months pregnant. She gives me a hug as though we were old friends. It lasts a little longer than it should. Then she steps back, looks me up and down and says, Chub! You’re so thin. How much weight did you lose?
Ten, twelve kilos, I say automatically, without thinking. Then I’m angry with myself. I’m talking to a stranger. I’ve never seen her before in my life.
I ask her how she knows me, and she says that she was a friend of my brother’s when my brother studied here and that she once came to a party we held on the roof terrace above the flat on Calle Independencia. She can remember the flat’s exact address. It’s true that my brother and I lived there for a few years, but we never had a party on that terrace. You weren’t even allowed onto the terrace in that building.
Gripa is in the middle of a motivational speech. Angelita tells me that she hates to be interrupted at times like this, but it’ll be over in five minutes. We wait at the foot of the stage. The kids from the slum are watching the goings-on on stage very closely, even though nothing’s happening. It’s just a group of people standing in a circle, talking. I can’t hear what they’re saying. The air smells of smoke and putrid mud. A bonfire is burning in the wasteland on the other side of the river. Close to the shore, a cement block sticks out from the water, and iron rebars stick out from it in their turn. A cormorant is sunbathing on the small island, its wings held open to dry.
Angelita tells me that they’re rehearsing a new choreography. Gripa wants to draw inspiration from poverty, which is why they’ve set up the stage there.
But not material poverty, Angelina tells me, spiritual poverty. You know? Inside and out, the two are related. They reflect one another. The slum is a metaphor, you know?
Her face radiates sweetness, and both her hands are on her belly. The wind is blowing her hair around, and from time to time she has to brush a lock out of her eyes.
On opening night we’re going to rent a coach so people feel safe. And there’ll be lights everywhere. Gripa wants to put lamps on each side and spotlights in the river. And one big one, the kind with a moving beam, to light up the slum. We want the effect to be like spies, or fugitives, as though the light was trying to illuminate someone trying to escape. It’s another metaphor. Gripa thought of it. It’s going to look great. We’ll make a staircase with ropes for banisters so people can come down the slope. It’ll be lined with torches.
The circle of people on stage breaks up. The dancers disperse, drink water, stretch their legs and practise different moves. A fat woman in an orange-and-fuchsia tunic with large batik circles comes down the ramp at the side. Her hair is carrot coloured. I expected her to be much smaller, skinny, a dry, frugal former dancer, but I know that this is Gripa. She hugs me and her hug lasts longer than normal too. She smiles.
Good to meet you, she says. It’ll be a pleasure to work with your texts. Did you bring me the book? I couldn’t find it anywhere.
I have. I look for it in my backpack and give it to her.
Gripa flicks through the pages. She reads the title of one of the stories and looks at the cover image.
As soon as I’m done with this I’ll start work on yours, she says and hands the book to Angelita. Then she apologizes.
Thank you for coming, she says. She kisses me again before heading back up to the stage. A dancer helps her up the ramp, and Angelita tells me that Gripa has been having trouble with her left knee for some time now. Then she asks if I need to call a taxi.
I tell her that I don’t; I’ll take the bus home.
Time passes. They finish building the block of flats in the middle of the street. Slowly, people begin to move in. They cover the windows in different coloured curtains. From what I can tell from the balcony, most of them are students. In the first week there was only one light; it came from one of the flats on the ninth floor. A kid was walking around the flat naked. He came out to the balcony to eat. I watched him and wondered how it would feel to sleep alone in a brand-new empty building.
The blinds are still down in the old couple’s flat. No one has come by to water the plants, and they’re drying in their pots.
The architect’s hand still smokes, very occasionally, late at night.
One morning the phone rings. It’s Angelita. She says that they’ve started to rehearse the new ballet, the one based on one of my stories.
Gripa wants you to see it. Can you come by? she asks.
I say that I can. Monday is my day off.
Great. In the basement at the Caraffa Museum. How’s two, two-thirty sound? Tell the guy at the door that Gripa invited you so you can get in without paying.
I have some lunch and go out. I get there at quarter past two. I walk up to the security guard and tell him that I’ve come to see the rehearsal. He tells me to talk to the girl at the desk. The girl doesn’t even know that someone is working in the basement.
I’m new, she says apologetically.
After trying to call her boss, who doesn’t answer, she dials another number and waits. I watch her a little more intensely than one should. The girl starts to get anxious and dials another number.
Are you sure they’re working in the basement? I’m calling and no one’s answering, she says.
Then the museum doors open and a group of nursery-school kids comes in. The boys are wearing coats with blue and white squares; the ones for the girls are pink and white. The teacher is wearing a headband with two antennae finished off with pom-poms that bounce when she moves. The antennae are just like the ones the Chapulín Colorado wore, but green. A couple of mothers have come along to help with the outing. The children form two rows, but when one gets to the staircase he shouts, and they all start to run. The mothers try to calm them down while the teacher with the green antennae comes over to the desk to occupy the attention of the girl at the ticket counter. She has a letter, shows it to the girl and reads a few paragraphs out loud. Meanwhile, the security guard talks on his radio to the other guards and, surrounded by nursery-school children, uses his body to shield a white-marble sculpture. In his light-blue shirt, navy-blue tie and movie-policeman’s cap he looks like a skinny giant standing in the middle of a crowd of ordinary humans who barely come up to his hip. The kids ignore him and stroke the marble with their little hands.
The sculpture is of a naked woman hugging a fish. The kids touch her breast and start saying booby, booby, booby, booby. Then one says vagina, and they all start a chorus of booby, vagina, booby, vagina, booby, vagina, again and again. Then they add bottom and go on. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby with vagina with bottom. Bottom with boobies. Vaginabooby. The mothers scold them, but they’re ignored.
Willy! shouts a short, very blond boy.
Willy with booby with vagina with bottom, the others chorus.
I slip away and head down the stairs to the basement. It’s deserted. You can’t hear the screams of the nursery-school kids any more. I walk down some hallways with concrete walls. Pipes run along the ceiling, gurgling every now and again. Running water.
Angelita? I call, but no one answers.
I come to a lit room with white walls. In the centre is a table covered with paint pots, brushes, pliers and different-sized magnifying glasses. The smell of acetone burns my nostrils. Someone has left a half-finished cup of tea on the table. About a dozen fluorescent lights buzz from the ceiling.
Angelita? I call again.
I go back out into the hallway and walk to the other end, passing a bathroom with a leaky tap, an empty office and a packet of half-eaten biscuits on a table. At the end is a staircase going down. I think I can hear sounds down there. The staircase has landings. I stop at the second to rest, listening. I think I can hear Gripa’s deep voice.
I open a door and find a large empty space with a high ceiling and cement walls. Four large columns hold up the roof. I see people sitting on some chairs in the dark. The only light comes from a corner lined in semi-transparent plastic like a large, plastic aquarium. The dancers are moving around inside.
Gripa is walking among them, leaning on a cane. She’s marking time.
I see Angelita sitting on the chairs. Her profile has changed. She’s fatter. She’s watching events inside the aquarium closely. I tap her on the shoulder, and when I do I realize that she didn’t hear me come in. I might have startled her. But Angelita turns slowly, as though she can’t bear to take her eyes off the dancers. She doesn’t seem surprised.
You came, she says. She waves to me to sit down, then turns back to the lit area. Behind the plastic, the dancers are walking around the stage holding large blocks of wood up high. They’re moving slowly, turning the pieces of wood in their hands, holding them up as though they were an offering. At first, I think they’re naked, but then I realize that they’re wearing flesh-coloured suits. It’s very quiet; the only sound is Gripa’s voice.
One, two, three, four. Good, again. Go back to your places.
The dancers run quickly back and start again. Their strides are long and graceful, their backs arched.
Angelita turns to look at me. Her eyes are full of tears. She smiles.
Isn’t it beautiful? she asks.
I say it is, although I’m not really sure.
What does it feel like? How does it feel to see this and know that you helped to create it, that it came from one of your books?
I don’t know what to say. Blocks of wood don’t feature in any of my stories, neither does a plastic aquarium or half-naked dancers.
Which story did she choose? I ask.
No idea. Gripa lent me your book, but I didn’t have time to read it. She liked it a lot.
But you don’t know which story she adapted?
She didn’t say. All of them I think. Gripa works with sensations.
Oh, I say. I don’t have anything to add.
Angelita turns back to the aquarium. Gripa has stopped the action again. The dancers go back to their places and start over. They repeat what they did before. They cross the stage diagonally, contorting their bodies with blocks of wood raised over their heads.
This is the second part, Angelita explains. The first part is a performance recorded on video projected onto the plastic while the guys dance inside. Would you like to see it?
I tell her that I would, and Angelita rummages in a large leather bag. It takes her a while, but in the end she takes out a small video camera. She turns it on and opens a screen to the side.
It was filmed here, she explains. During the piece it’s going to be projected onto the plastic in the same place where it was filmed so that the spaces match up. The filmed columns will be superimposed over the real ones and won’t look as though they’re projected. The idea is for the dancers to be like ghosts or spectres, you know? The film will interact with the dancers.
I say that I understand; it’s a good idea.
Angelina rewinds the tape and passes me the camera.
You press this button for play and this for stop.
On the small screen of the video camera I see the same rectangular space, the cement and a patch of damp in the corner. A naked bulb is hanging centre stage. There’s only one spotlight. I immediately think it’s a reference to Bacon. I’ve never seen a painting by Bacon in person, I’m only familiar with him from pictures in books, but he’s one of my favourite painters, and I’m glad to see him there.
A dancer comes in from one side. This time there’s no doubt about it: he’s naked. Another dancer comes in from the other side, she’s naked too. They meet in the middle. The man is carrying a shotgun. They both stand very close together, looking at the camera. Then we hear a noise, and a pig appears. Someone has let it in from outside. The aquarium space is closed, and the pig is running around the sides. The pair of dancers stand very still in the centre. The pig is large and black. Suddenly the dancer aims his shotgun and fires. The speaker on Angelita’s camera buzzes. The sound of the shot was very loud. The pig runs around in desperation. The female dancer hugs the man’s back, protecting herself. The dancer shoots again. The pig howls in pain and lets out a high-pitched squeal that overloads the speaker again. The female dancer takes more cartridges from a cloth bag hanging around her neck and passes them to the other dancer, who reloads, aims and fires again. The pig starts to bleed and leaves a trail on the ground. It runs more slowly and bumps into the wall at the back. The outline of its body is pressed against the cement in blood. At one point, it turns to face the two dancers. For the first time, the female dancer screams for real. But the male dancer shoots the pig again in the head, and it falls to the ground. More or less in the centre of the aquarium. Then the female dancer takes a small knife out of her bag and sticks it into the pig’s neck. Blood begins to gush out. The dancer hugs the body and starts to howl in grief. The male dancer stands in a martial pose right behind the dead pig. He doesn’t look at the body. He looks straight ahead with cold eyes. To one side of the screen, eight dancers come in, dressed in black. One is carrying a pneumatic drill. He turns it on and starts to break up the cement floor in the centre of the aquarium, in front of the pig. The drill makes a horrifically loud noise that dominates the scene. The other dancers are carrying shovels. While the drill breaks up the floor, the dancers dig in the soil underneath. It’s a grave. It takes them twenty minutes to finish. Then they all pick up the pig and throw it into the grave. The naked dancer is covered in red. A mixture of blood and tears drips from her hair. The naked male dancer stays in position, completely still. The female dancer screams in heart-wrenching pain. She stretches out her hand. She doesn’t want to be parted from the dead pig, but the first shovel-loads of soil are already dropping on top of it. As they fill in the grave, more dancers come in from the other side. They’re pushing a wheelbarrow of fresh cement. They pour it onto the earth and smooth out the floor. Then they leave. The last to go is the naked male dancer who never looks at the pig or the grave.
Did you like it? Angelita asks when I give back the camera.
I don’t know what to say.
Did they really kill it? I ask.
Yes, of course. We drugged it a little before it came in so it wouldn’t hurt the guys. But still, as you saw, it tried to attack them.
And you buried it there? It’s down there right now? As I ask I peer through the plastic into the centre of the aquarium. The spot where the grave is can be clearly seen. The cement is a different colour, lighter.
It’s down there, Angelita says. It was very important to Gripa that it be real and for the spectator to come to the realization gradually. Ever since we killed the pig, this place has been different. It has another feel; it’s charged.
Are you sure that this is based on my book? I say. There aren’t any pigs in my book.
The pig isn’t a pig. It’s a symbol, Angelita explains.
What does it symbolize?
Something from your book. Gripa read it.
The museum people let you do this? It’s crazy. You’ve buried a pig down there.
Gripa is friends with the director. He loved the idea. He saw immediately how important the burial was. He read your book too. He liked it a lot.
I see, I say.
Inside the aquarium the dancers are still holding the wooden blocks. They’re throwing them in the air. Gripa is encouraging them to throw harder and harder.
Do you want me to call Gripa so you can talk to her? Angelita asks me.
No, don’t worry. I have to go. I’ll come by another day.
We rehearse here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Come by whenever you like.
I leave. From up above I hear the shrill voice of a guide talking to the nursery-school children.
The guard doesn’t look at me as I pass him on my way out.
A week later I see the news in the Arts and Entertainment section in the newspaper. Not a long article. The minister of culture has been fired. The next day a letter appears in The Voice of the Interior. The former minister says that he wasn’t fired, he resigned. I call the ministry. They say that for the moment all activities have been suspended. I ask about the Crossover project specifically, and they say that it’s suspended too.
I call Angelita on her mobile. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. For the moment Gripa has stopped the rehearsals and has started to work on a new ballet that she wants to hold at the airport.
In the arrivals hall? I ask.
No, says Angelita, on the runway. We’re negotiating. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a problem. Let me find out what’s going on with this Crossover thing, and I’ll let you know, she says.
I don’t hear any more about it. I call Angelita again, and a woman’s voice answers. I ask for her, and she says that Angelita is in the hospital; she can’t come to the phone because she’s just had her first baby. For a moment I think that the voice belongs to Gripa.
Gripa, is that you? But she’s hung up.
The Crossover project is definitively suspended. The fees for the work haven’t been paid because the budget for the project was never approved.
I let a couple of months pass and dial Angelita’s number again. A pre-recorded, metallic voice tells me that the number is out of service.
The old couple in the flat opposite never came back from their holidays. They’ve been replaced by a young couple. For a few days, I thought that they were the old couple’s grandchildren because the furniture remained the same. Then, one afternoon, a removals van came and wrapped everything up, even the pots with their dry plants. The next day the new arrivals brought their things. Modern furniture, cream sofas, a steel-and-glass table, a painting with a large green splodge. The guy leaves early every morning in a suit and tie; the girl sleeps in. She gets up and walks around the flat in her nightdress. She reads magazines until the man gets back. At night they watch TV. I see the blue reflection from the screen on the bedroom wall.
The flat below is still empty. There are more and more pigeons.
I learn from the newspaper that Gripa is going to hold her ballet at the airport. There aren’t going to be many performances, and they’ll be at strange hours when there’s no air traffic. I find it hard to get tickets. I send an email to someone I know at the culture section asking if he has any. He doesn’t answer, so I call him. He’s a little thrown because we haven’t spoken in years. He could have lied, but I caught him off-guard. He sends me two tickets. I invite a friend who cancels at the last minute, so I go alone. At the airport a light aircraft is parked in the middle of the runway. In front of it are a hundred folding chairs set out in rows. They have us sit there. The lights go down, and the show starts.
A girl comes running out of the darkness at the back of the runway. She’s carrying a torch. She runs around the plane a couple of times and then lights a pyre in front of a propeller. The fire grows in the darkness. Nothing happens for a while, and we all stare at the fire, expectantly at first, then bored, or moved, or whatever. When it’s almost gone out, the lights come on again. A crowd of dancers in skin-tight black outfits surrounds the plane. Each of them has blocks of wood raised above their heads. A caravan of women covered in dark shrouds comes in from the left. They’re pushing a wheeled cage. Inside the cage is a black pig. I can guess what’s going to happen next. In this version, instead of burying the dead pig, the dancers shove it into a coffin and push it up a ramp into the plane’s hold. Then, either side of the runway, two rows of red lights come on. A pilot appears and gets into the cockpit, starts the engines and points the nose to the north. The dancers escort it until it’s in place, then they move away. The plane accelerates down the runway, takes off and soars into the night. Its roar gradually fades until it’s lost in the wind and the plane has disappeared completely. All that is left on the asphalt is the cage in which they brought the pig, which is empty with its door hanging open. Gripa comes out, waving.
We all stand and applaud.
Incredible the animal that first dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.
—Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra
Rosana arrived on a Sunday around noon. Mauricio was waiting anxiously, already anticipating the sexual encounter that fate had delivered up to him like a gift. He had always been very meticulous in his personal hygiene, but that morning he submitted himself to the full treatment: he trimmed his hair, his nails, his pubes; he shaved, plucked his unibrow, and applied a face mask. He’d spent the previous two weeks on a diet and going to the gym, and when he’d had to drink with his co-workers he’d limited himself to two or three light beers. He also dedicated his entire Saturday to cleaning the house and organizing his collection of CDs and DVDs. He had to impress her.
His cousin Marijó had sent him a message from the capital to ask if he could host one of her dancer friends who would be staying a few days in the city. Mauricio accepted immediately. He thought all dancers were hot.
When the doorbell rang he put on a CD by Alejandro Fernández, smoothed a wrinkle in his polo shirt, and headed to the door. Before opening it he wanted to look at her through the peephole. She wasn’t what he’d expected, her hippie-like appearance struck him as slightly unpleasant, but this small disappointment was made up for by the beauty of her face and the fullness of her breasts, emphasized by the straps of her backpack. Thinking no one was looking, Rosana stuck her hand down her shirt and rearranged her bra. Mauricio opened the door excited by this small act of voyeurism.
They introduced themselves, greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek, and went inside. Rosana dropped her luggage in the middle of the living room and wandered around touching every object she encountered. Sometimes she seemed to sniff the room, like some wild animal on the hunt or looking for a mate. Mauricio moved her backpack out of the way.
“Do you live with your parents?” she asked sticking a finger into an oil painting that hung on the wall. Mauricio didn’t have the nerve to tell her that you shouldn’t touch paintings. It would’ve been impolite.
“No, I live alone.”
“It looks like my grandma’s house. Why do you have so many plants?”
“I don’t know. I like the way they look. According to Feng Shui they balance the room.”
“Feng Shui, what a drag . . .”
Rosana fell onto the sofa, kicked off her huaraches, and put her feet up on the coffee table. Mauricio discreetly studied her toned calves, but the allure was offset by the repulsion he felt toward the soles of her feet, black with dirt and grime.
“Can we put on some different music?” she said lighting an unfiltered cigarette.
Mauricio rushed to open the window and placed an ashtray in front of Rosana.
“You don’t like Alejandro!”
“He makes me want to barf.”
“What do you want to listen to?”
“My iPod’s in my backpack. The side pocket.”
He searched until he found it. He was annoyed by Rosana’s overly familiar manners, but at the same time he supposed it was a sign of someone with liberal ideas, and that made him believe his aims would be easier to achieve.
He connected her iPod to his stereo.
“Put it on shuffle,” she ordered.
The riff of an electric guitar sounded, reminiscent of the nineties.
“Who is this? It sounds familiar . . .” Mauricio had a distant memory of that sound, as distant as his high school years.
Rosana tapped the rhythm with her feet. After a deep puff on her cigarette she ashed in the nearest flowerpot.
“There’s an ashtray right there,” he said with the utmost politeness.
“You like Spanish rock?”
“I prefer English. I mean I can listen to a song or two, but then I get tired of it.”
She didn’t bother to answer him. She continued smoking as if she were alone, completely ignoring Mauricio’s presence.
“I thought dancers weren’t supposed to smoke.”
“Says who? Do you know any?”
“No . . . Well, you.”
“There you go: all the dancers you know smoke.”
She ashed in the flowerpot again.
“Use the ashtray, the dirt’s going to smell later. What are you here for exactly? Marijó didn’t say.”
“I have a show in a week. I’ll be rehearsing till then and after that I’m staying for a seminar with a teacher from Finland.”
“Well you better make time to go out for a beer with me.”
“I’ll let you know . . . What do you do?”
“I studied Communication Sciences. You know it’s a really great career because . . .”
“Peaches!” Rosana interrupted, staring at the fruit bowl on top of the dining table. Without waiting for an answer she lunged at a large, ripe peach.
“They haven’t been washed,” said Mauricio with some annoyance.
She didn’t react to the warning. She took a big bite of the fruit, and almost before she’d finished chewing the first she took a second and a third. The juice ran down her forearm, pooling in the crook of her elbow until finally dripping onto the table. After the fourth bite Rosana began to make use of her other hand, which still held the lit cigarette. The pit rotated agilely between her fingers as her teeth gnawed until they’d extracted every last trace of pulp. It was all over in under a minute.
“It’s my favorite fruit.”
She set the pit in the fruit bowl and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. As she did this her nose passed very close to her armpit. Rosana took a long sniff.
“Shiiiiit, I stink! I really need a bath. Do you have a little bit of milk you could give me?”
Mauricio couldn’t believe what he was witnessing.
Milk, according to Rosana, had a rejuvenating effect on the skin. For this reason she poured almost an entire liter into the full bathtub. So full that, even as skinny as she was, Mauricio thought it would overflow when she got in. He didn’t say anything though, just made a few jokes. He didn’t want to seem pedantic or domineering before he’d reached his goal; afterward he’d find a way to put things in order.
Rosana connected her iPod to the bathroom radio, touched the water to test the temperature, and, unfazed by Mauricio’s presence, removed her shirt. He took her lack of modesty as a provocation, but since it was too soon to give up the game he quickly left the bathroom, not without first throwing an ardent glance at Rosana’s breasts, resting snugly inside her bra.
He sat down at the computer in his bedroom and pretended to work. He couldn’t stand the music blaring at top volume from the bathroom, nor the waste of perfectly good milk, nor Rosana’s barbaric manners, but the promise of sex compensated for all these inconveniences. “She can be filthy,” he thought, “as long as she’s that way in bed too.”
Forty minutes later the music stopped and Rosana walked by Mauricio’s door wrapped in a towel.
The bathroom was a total mess: the floor was soaking wet, there were panties crumpled in a corner, the tub hadn’t been drained and the shampoo dripped from its bottle. Mauricio knew that during the seduction phase there was always a price to be paid, but this was too much: if he didn’t set some limits now, the situation might get out of control.
He picked up her thong and walked directly to Rosana’s room. The door was half open so he assumed she’d finished getting dressed and he went in without knocking.
“Hey, I have to ask you to please . . .”
He couldn’t continue. Rosana was lying on the bed, on her back, wearing only a sweater and a pair of socks. She was reading a magazine that blocked her view of the door and she had headphones on. She didn’t seem to notice the intrusion. Mauricio stared for a few seconds at her densely populated pubis, wild, black as the back of a chimpanzee, and his boldness was replaced by intense lust. He left the room without saying anything else. It wouldn’t do for Rosana to catch him spying on her.
The days passed and Mauricio hadn’t made any progress. Rosana was hardly ever at home and she rejected his invitations to go out at night with the excuse that she had to get up early in the morning. Only sometimes, in the evenings, they had dinner together, something light like a sandwich or a salad and in those few shared moments Mauricio took the opportunity to make his move. She didn’t seem to notice and didn’t respond to his advances.
Her behavior bothered Mauricio more and more. He spent all his time cleaning up her mess in the bathroom, the living room, and especially in the kitchen, where after making breakfast Rosana left everything open, outside the refrigerator, her dirty plates on the table, and to top it off she never bought her own food, not even the milk for her baths (which, fortunately, she didn’t take every day). Also, she never turned off the lights, and more than once she left the faucet running.
He finally gave up. He determined that he’d never get anywhere with her and resigned to put up with her unpleasant presence for the sake of his promise to Marijó. But next time he’d think twice before agreeing to do her any favors.
Things went on like this until finally the day of Rosana’s show arrived. It was a Friday. Mauricio found a ticket on the dining table. It started at seven that evening. Of course he couldn’t think of going, it would be like rewarding her for all her rudeness, but as the day went on he began to change his mind, he wanted to see Rosana’s dancing skills, or rather to confirm her clumsiness. He pictured her dressed as a cavewoman, dancing with her tribe around their fire god. To see her looking ridiculous in some cheap show might somehow make up for all the hassle. And if he still wanted to punish her, he could just say he hadn’t had time to go.
The lights were off when he entered the theatre. He sat in the first empty seat he found, at the back. Even though it was a small venue he’d brought his binoculars so that he wouldn’t miss a single detail.
Rosana was the last dancer in the show. Four companies from different parts of the country went on before her. Mauricio didn’t understand modern dance, so after the second group, yawning, his mind began to wander to the transparent costumes or the probable homosexuality of the male performers. Eventually it was Rosana’s turn. In all the other choreographies there had been at least two dancers, but the program indicated that she would be alone on stage for fifteen minutes.
Somber music began to play, lacking rhythm to Mauricio’s untrained ear, suggestive, he thought, of jungle sounds. Rosana came onto the stage slowly and pausing frequently, crawling, lit up by a single spotlight. Mauricio saw her as a dinosaur. When she got to the center of the stage, Rosana fell to the floor and like a worm agonizing under the sun she dragged herself to the other corner of the stage where she adopted a new way of moving. It was a slow dance, refined, the movements made him think more of a feminine sensuality than an animal brutality. Mauricio started to doubt whether she was a woman imitating beasts or a beast dancing like a woman.
He left the theatre in awe.
That night he had trouble sleeping. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana’s body sheathed in black Lycra as tight as a second nudity. He obsessively replayed the image of her shoulder blades marking the rhythm of her march across the prairie, of her neck outstretched to greet the sun or stars, the serpent’s waist, the breasts of the mythical she-wolf. Rosana was all those animals, and she was also all woman.
From his bed he heard her come home, wash up, enter her bedroom. Two hours later, tormented by the need to caress the body that he imagined covered in feathers or scales, he got up, left his cave, and penetrated Rosana’s lair. He slowly touched her under the sheet, lying behind her in the same position, on his side, breathing on her neck. He slid his hand up her hip, waist, belly, to the base of her bosom. Rosana turned in her bed. The intrusive hand continued its ascent, pausing at her nipples, which rose up, dreaming that they were two hard oaks.
Rosana’s breathing was noticeably agitated. Mauricio, his hand, retraced its path back down to her belly button, where it descended into her dense pubic jungle. Two thighs blocked the entrance like impenetrable walls. There was only one way to overcome the obstacle: their mistress must order them to open. Then they would obediently make way for the visitor, spreading wide before him in a sign of welcome.
Maurico kissed the back of Rosana’s neck, her ear, her cheek, the corner of her mouth.
“You’re so hot,” he whispered.
Rosana began to wake up. The excitation that she’d felt in her dream became a strange heavy bulge squirming against her back.
“Who is it . . .?” she asked with a scratchy voice. She instantly comprehended the situation. “Nooooo, I don’t want to!”
She jumped up, wrapped in the sheets, and turned on the light.
“Turn it off, it hurts my eyes,” said Mauricio covering his face with his forearm.
“No, get out of here! Let me sleep!”
“I liked the way you danced.”
“That’s nice, but leave, please.”
“I want to stay here.”
“Then I’ll go sleep in your room . . . Seriously, I’m really tired, I’m not mad but get out of here now!”
Mauricio reluctantly obeyed.
“Sorry,” he said from the hall. He wasn’t sorry, but he felt like he should say it.
Rosana locked the door.
He awoke with his hand in his underwear. He was embarrassed by what had happened the night before, not for having gotten into Rosana’s bed without her permission, but for having been rejected. The fact that she hadn’t reacted violently, however, told him that her refusal wasn’t definitive. Her will could be broken, if it wasn’t already, and the rejection had been a provocation, the declaration of a challenge. “I should try again,” he thought.
He got up and knocked on her door, half naked. He wanted to make her feel that some trust, some intimacy had been established between them, as a result of their cohabitation. After all, she’d been the first one to be immodest, and she was probably waiting for him to express a similar attitude before taking the next step.
There was no answer from inside her room. For a moment Mauricio was afraid Rosana had left for good, but when he opened the door he saw her things scattered across the floor like always, without rhyme or reason. This time the mess didn’t bother him. Just the opposite, he took it as a manifestation of her wild spirit. Something in him had changed, he felt somehow uncomfortable with his own rigidity, with his need for cleanliness and symmetry, and he had the impression that her messy room was the picture of freedom. He picked up a red thong. It smelled like sweat, urine, enticement.
Rosana didn’t come home all day. After midnight, tired of waiting for her, Mauricio lay down to try to sleep. An hour later she got home. Someone was with her, a male voice spoke in whispers. They went directly into her room.
In the morning Mauricio woke up as Rosana was saying goodbye to the visitor.
“Rosana!” he called from his bed when he heard her passing footsteps.
She opened the door and stuck her head in.
“Who was that?” Mauricio was lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head.
“A friend. I met him yesterday. He’s a dancer too.”
“Hmmm, what a coincidence . . . And what about me?”
“What about you?”
“Me and you, what’s going to happen with us?”
“Nothing? Why should anything happen?”
In one abrupt movement Mauricio pulled aside the sheets covering him. He was naked, his right hand caressing the base of his fully erect penis.
“Look what you do to me. Come here, get naked, you owe it to me.”
He felt Rosana’s gaze on his sex.
“Cover yourself up, you’re a pig! You know what? I think I’d better leave, thank you for your hospitality,” she said turning around and rushing to lock herself in the bathroom. She wanted to leave as quickly as possible but she felt the urgent need to wash up, there was dried semen all over her body. Also, the bath was already filled with warm, milky water. If she hurried, she could be out of the house in an hour.
She’d just submerged herself in the water when she heard Mauricio’s voice on the other side of the door.
“Open up, you left me there talking to myself.”
“Are you dressed yet?”
“No, open up.”
Rosana blasted the music at full volume. It was a song by Los Aterciopelados.
“Open up, goddammit! I just want to talk!” he said giving the door a hard smack.
“I can’t hear you!”
Mauricio felt all his repressed fury from the night before take control of his body. A few violent shoves and the door gave way. Rosana was in the tub, paralyzed with fear.
“You’re a goddam slut!”
“You’re grandma’s a slut, jackass!”
“You stay at my house as long as you want, you make a huge mess, you eat my food, and then, instead of fucking me, you fuck the first moron who crosses your path! Don’t you think that’s the behavior of a true whore!”
“I’d be a whore if I slept with you for letting me stay a few days in your prissy little house. A whore and an idiot!” Rosana was about to stand up, but then she remembered she was naked under the water.
“Well then get the hell out of my goddamn prissy little house right now!”
Mauricio grabbed her by the hair to pull her out of the tub. She leaned forward to ease the pain and as her torso emerged from the water she clawed Mauricio’s forearm with all her ire.
“Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he let her go, pushing her head back at the same time. The base of Rosana’s neck hit the faucet. About to lose her consciousness she reached for something to grab hold of, but the only thing her hands could find was the radio’s power cord.
It took Mauricio a few seconds to notice the accident. He was inspecting the deep gashes that Rosana’s nails had left in his flesh.
He thought of reporting the incident to the police, tell them she’d just had an accident. But of course they’d suspect him, they wouldn’t believe him, and would end up finding the hairs he’d pulled out, the scratches on his arms, his skin under Rosana’s nails. And above all, he didn’t have an alibi . . . That last word echoed a long while in his mind: he realized he was thinking like a criminal.
He didn’t know what to do with the body, he’d never thought he’d find himself in this situation. For the moment it seemed too risky to try to get rid of it. He needed to plan everything very carefully. In the meantime, he couldn’t just leave it floating in his tub.
He let out the water, a pinkish mixture of blood and milk, unplugged the radio, rinsed it off in the sink, and covered the lifeless body with dirt from all his flowerpots, which he carried one by one into the bathroom. Then he replanted all his plants in the tub.
The weight he felt in his soul was heavy. He was sick with fear over the consequences, but sicker still over having taken Rosana’s life. She would never again dance, eat a peach, or incite a man’s lust, and this pained him. It was as if he’d killed the last specimen of an extinct species.
He watered his new garden. As he finished he remembered Rosana’s pubic hair, and by some strange association of ideas he remembered that he’d forgotten to close her eyes.
He wanted to take a bath, all the gardening had left him sweaty and covered in dirt. Given that the tub was occupied, he used the metal washtub he’d bought to keep his beer on ice. He sat there contemplating his plants until the water got cold.
As the effect of the adrenaline wore off, his regret grew deeper. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana. He drank a beer. He ate tuna directly from the can and spent the rest of that Sunday lying on the couch, stoking his guilt. At night he searched for Rosana’s cigarettes. For the first time ever he enjoyed the taste of tobacco. That night he slept fitfully.
In the morning he opened his eyes feeling strange, the world seemed sluggish, unreal, as if he’d awoken inside a dream. His body rejected movement. He would’ve loved to remain in bed, but it was Monday and he couldn’t miss work.
The next two days were strange. Although his mind was elsewhere and he avoided all unnecessary social interaction, Mauricio was nicer to his co-workers, friendlier and more helpful, and he remembered that serial killers were known for being good neighbors, as if their killer’s instinct inspired kindness toward the rest of the human species, to compensate for ridding it of one, or several, of its individuals.
Back at home, when he had to use the bathroom, he tried not to look at the garden. He thought that this would help his memory of the incident fade away. If he maintained an indifference to the past, sooner or later it would cease to exist.
But on the third day, standing over the toilet in his first urination of the morning, he couldn’t help but look at it in the mirror. Try as he might, it was impossible to ignore. How long would the body take to decompose? Would the dirt be able to mask the smell? He was asking himself questions such as these when he saw it.
In the center of the tub a beautiful sunflower had sprouted, still young but with its petals fully open. The bright yellow spot stood out with breathtaking beauty against the green and white background of the plants and shower tiles. It was a proud flower, full of zest, sitting firmly atop its stem like a young person ready to conquer the world.
Mauricio spent the rest of the day analyzing the phenomenon. At first it seemed unreal, but then it occurred to him that in such an incredible situation it wasn’t odd for extraordinary things to happen. Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, he had a revelation.
That night, when he got home, he watered the sunflower with a little bit of milk.
Several weeks full of happiness went by. Mauricio christened his flower, calling her Rosana when he greeted her in the mornings and when, after work, he chatted to her about his day. He’d lost all interest in passing lovers: no one could fulfill him as much as her, this reincarnated woman, animal, and raw nature, so vital that from her death sprouted new life.
His care was as meticulous as an enamored lover’s. He pulled weeds, pruned the other plants so that they wouldn’t invade her space, aerated the dirt every three days and fertilized his flower with nutrients rich in iron and nitrogen. When he wasn’t at home he left rock music playing on the new radio he’d bought especially for her, and once a day he made her fresh-squeezed peach juice, smashing the pulp between his fingers so that Rosana would get the taste of his skin mixed with her favorite fruit.
He no longer worried about interrogations and police statements. How could anyone think that Rosana had died? Her existence transcended the world of the flesh, a direct manifestation of her soul without the encumbrance of a human body. The universe had been altered, its center had shifted to the black center of the sunflower.
Also, there were no signs of police, nothing to indicate that an investigation was underway. Mauricio could not imagine a more happy and peaceful life.
One night he had an upsetting dream. Asleep in his bed, he was awoken by sounds from the bathroom; he got up and without turning on the light, in total darkness, he crept to the bathroom where he could just make out a silhouette standing over the sink. It looked like a woman. He got up the nerve to turn on the light. It was Rosana, naked. A delicate vine grew up her body, giving her the look of a magical forest fairy. From her belly grew the sunflower, yellower and more beautiful than ever.
“You scared me,” he said to her, sighing with relief. “I thought you were someone else.”
Mauricio moved to hug her, but stopped when she threatened him with a straight razor which he hadn’t noticed she was holding in her hand.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, surprised. “You shouldn’t hurt me, I’m the person who takes care of you and feeds you.”
“But I’m the one who gives you life,” she answered, and with a hard swipe she cut off the flower, leaving just a centimeter of stem sticking out of her skin. Drops of sap began to fall, blood red, staining the white tiles between her bare feet.
Mauricio awoke frightened. He sat up. His heart still pounding, he went to the bathroom to urinate and to tell his flower about his dream. As he walked down the dark hall he almost thought he was once again in his nightmare, that’s how vivid and real it had felt, and he opened the bathroom door certain he’d find Rosana standing over the sink. But no. What he found when he turned on the light was even more terrifying.
The sunflower was dying, its stem bent so far that it almost touched the edge of the tub with its petals, previously luscious and glowing, now shriveled like aged skin. Mauricio began to panic, he had to do something, Rosana’s life was in his hands. He couldn’t understand what had happened, he’d watered her, fertilized her, weeded her. Had some parasite gotten her? He straightened the flower, as languid as if she’d gone weeks without water, and when he didn’t see any bugs on her petals or leaves he carefully placed her back into her original curved position, afraid she might break at any minute.
“Please don’t die, you can’t leave me alone,” he repeated over and over, hoping that by some miracle the flower would perk back up, healthy and sweet-smelling.
Suddenly he understood. He’d seen it in his dream, and it was so obvious that he felt stupid.
He took scissors from the cabinet and without flinching he made a long cut on the palm of his left hand. Blood immediately flowed into the wound. Full of hope, Mauricio let it drip onto the dirt around the stem, certain that he was giving Rosana the food she needed.
A pain in his wrist made him turn up his bloody palm, and he saw with horror that the cut on his hand had disappeared, but another, much deeper, spanned the width of his wrist. How was it possible? Was his confused mind showing him hallucinations? And if so, which was reality, the first cut or the second? He didn’t have time to continue contemplating: his wrist began to hemorrhage, and his sudden dizziness made him realize that this was no trick of his mind.
His first instinct was to stick his hand into a plastic bag he found in the trash and tie it around his forearm with dental floss. He thought it would do the trick: once the blood flow had stopped it was just a matter of waiting for the cut in the veins to coagulate, something his body would do naturally.
“Don’t worry, I won’t leave you,” he said to Rosana, sitting on the floor in front of her. “You have to be strong. You have to live.”
He gently caressed her petals, barely touching them. However, in their fragile state, even this gentle contact was too intense and one by one they began to fall off, until the center of the flower was left naked like a black and burnt out sun.
The last thing Mauricio saw before losing consciousness were his fingertips grazing the inside walls of an enormous red balloon with his hand swimming inside.
Seven days later the police arrived at his home to question him about Rosana’s disappearance. The circumstances made him the main suspect.
From outside they smelled the nauseating scent of decomposing flesh, and when there was no answer at the door, the officers forced the lock. The floor was covered in trash, cigarette butts, empty cans, and boxes of food; rats and cockroaches feasted on the waste.
When they discovered Mauricio bled dry leaning over the bathtub garden they immediately deduced the sequence of events: he’d killed, and possibly raped, the girl, after which he proceeded to bury her body in the tub; but panicked that sooner or later the authorities would discover him, he’d taken his own life. A specialized team removed the dirt. In the bottom of the tub, however, they didn’t find anything.
Rosana’s case was never solved. Her belongings were found inside the suspect’s home, but given that she’d stayed there of her own free will, it was not enough evidence to incriminate him.
With respect to Mauricio, his parents were notified and they took care of the funeral arrangements. After the burial, and up till their own deaths, they visited their son’s grave every week, and every week they bent down to uproot the horrible weed that obstinately insisted on growing up on his grave, time and again.
In the early nineties, The Beach of The Dead was little more than a greyish strip at one end of Boca del Rio, Veracruz’ twin city. Its burning sands were covered in spiny scrubs festooned with dead branches and bottles of chlorine that washed up during storms. It wasn’t a very popular or beautiful beach (not that any in Veracruz really fit that description): sometimes – during peak tides or heavy storms – the beach disappeared completely and the waves washed right over the breakwaters and onto the road between the two cities. Local people tended to avoid it: every year dozens of foolhardy souls, from Mexico City mostly, met their deaths in its treacherous waters. Signs hung only a few feet away from the water’s edge forbidding people from swimming while another less literate one read: ‘Danger: poolz’ underneath a lurid drawing of a skull. The powerful current that pushed the river up towards Antón Lizardo Point – home of the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar – burrowed into the breakwaters of The Beach of The Dead, leaving deep rock pools in which a grown man could easily drown.
I was nine when I saw the lights, which glowed like fireflies against the dark sea. The other witness was my brother Julio, who was six and a half. We were digging up the home of a celeste crab with a stick when we noticed a glow in the sky: five bright shining lights hovering over our heads. Then they flew inland, towards the estuary.
“Did you see that?” Julio asked, pointing towards the horizon.
“Of course, I’m not blind.”
“What was it?”
“A spaceship,” I told him.
But when we ran back to the campfire, none of the adults would hear us out. Not even our parents. They refused to listen and shooed us away from the fire and the group sitting around it.
On that Thursday, the eleventh of July, no one was thinking about the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall… the fire and brimstone that was shattering Eastern Europe into pieces seemed a very long way away. Another raid by the Sendero Luminoso? People in the south dying of typhoid and dengue fever? No one cared about any of that: Mexico’s eyes were fixed on the skies, waiting for the miracle that would turn the sun into a ring of fire and reduce the moon to a large black circle. The TV showed nothing but shots of the sky and the crowds waiting for the total eclipse in squares, being careful not to look directly at the sun, just as the news had warned them.
In Mexico City, south of the ring road, Guillermo Arreguín was filming the sky from his balcony. He wasn’t interested so much in the eclipse’s climax as the planets and stars that he’d read would shine far more brightly in the untimely gloom. At the critical moment, Arreguín panned to the right. That was when he filmed the ‘shining object’.
That night, the video was being shown on the 24 Hour News channel. By Saturday the thirteenth, an article in La Prensa was describing it as a ‘solid metal object’ surrounded by ‘silver rings’; but the term ‘extra-terrestrial’ wouldn’t make its triumphant appearance until Friday the nineteenth on the programme ‘So… What do you think?’ whose subject that week was the supposed presence of aliens on Earth (the live debate lasted a record eleven hours and ten minutes). On it, a ufologist (as he insisted on describing himself) called Maussán claimed to have collected fifteen additional recordings made by different people during the eclipse. He stated that the videos had been subjected to tests that proved that the ‘object’ recorded in them was indeed a spaceship.
Thus began the UFO craze in Mexico. That summer I learned everything I needed to know on the subject: abductions, conspiracies, the building of the Great Pyramid, crop circles in the UK… All this fascinating information reached me via two sources: the television (or rather Mr Maussán’s videos of Lights in the Sky) and the tons of comic books I consumed each week. When it came to comics I was sickeningly sentimental: I liked Archie, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck and Condorito and that was it. But the rag I most hankered after at the newspaper kiosk was Semanario de lo Insólito (Amazing Stories Weekly), an anthology of human morbidity, a cult to horror, an uncritical encyclopaedia of doctored photography. Even now, I can recall some of its more eye-catching stories: the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands; the primary school teacher with a third eye at the base of her skull that she used to spy on her pupils; the silhouette of a hanged Judas in the eyes of an ayate basket Virgin Mary; and of course the autopsy of the alien body in the small gringo town of Roswell.
Thanks to all this edifying research I learned at the tender age of nine that the strange light I’d seen on The Beach of The Dead could be nothing else but an interplanetary spaceship crewed by small grey super-intelligent creatures who had managed to circumvent the laws of physics. And that they could well be coming to warn us about a cataclysm that was about to destroy the earth now that the end of the millennium was approaching and people were killing each other and getting involved in stupid wars and spilling oil over poor defenceless pelicans. Maybe they were looking for someone who could understand them, someone to whom they could bequeath their science and secrets. Maybe they were lonely, wandering the cosmos in their plasma and silicon ships on an unending quest to find a welcoming planet, new worlds, new homes and new friends in distant galaxies.
After what we saw on the beach, Julio and I decided that we needed to keep an eye on the sky. Maybe we’d be taken more seriously if we recorded some evidence. The problem was that dad refused to lend us his camera.
“How can you be stupid enough to believe in that rubbish? At your age?” he’d say when he saw us glued to the TV screen trying to decipher the mysterious symbols being left by flying saucers in British wheat fields.
Dad hated Maussán. He couldn’t stand the sight of him, let alone having to hear him repeat his stories over and over again. He threatened to take away the VCR.
“Can’t you see he’s a stoner?”
Poor dad, he just didn’t understand. We felt sorry for him. Mum was different; she and a friend of hers took us back to The Beach of The Dead one night so we could look for the UFO.
There was a full moon and the water reflected the silvery light like a giant mirror. But everything had changed since the last time we were there: the beach was full of people and cars. Dozens of teenage bodies were draped over the breakwaters and piled up around campfires made from the dry scrubs. Their cars packed the sandy parking lot, so close to the shore that the salt water splashed their tires. The murmur of the wind was drowned out by their burping, honking, and Soda Stereo cassettes. Lovers lay on the hoods of their cars, shielding their faces from camera flashes. I saw men from the television setting up steel tripods to film the sky. I saw fat women plowing through the dunes. Whiny little kids with sticky popsicle fingers pointed at the sky asking: “Mummy, when is the UFO coming?”
“This sucks,” Julio exclaimed in disappointment.
Then, without another word, he ran off to play a game of night tag with some other boys. I regarded this as a cowardly betrayal.
A few hours later, I was falling asleep. I went back to my mother and curled up on her lap. Her breath smelled of wine and her fingers of cigarettes. She was talking to her friend about the UFO: apparently lights – red and white ones – could be seen in the distance but I couldn’t keep my eyes open a second longer.
“All this fuss for a narco plane,” said mum.
“But it’s a good excuse for a party,” her friend replied cheerfully.
The first reports of strange aerial activity over the municipalities of Sotavento (Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Alvarado and Tlalixcoyan, among others) date back to 1989. The inhabitants of these rural territories, farmers and ranchers, often saw lights at night. The oldest among them called them witches, everyone else called them light aircraft. They even knew the name of the strip where the planes landed, a stretch of barren scrubland and villainy that was kept under constant surveillance by the army: La Víbora.
It was a plain surrounded by marshes, a natural landing strip. The residents of Tlalixcoyan were used to seeing soldiers on their land: the strip was used by the army for special manoeuvres. So no one was surprised at the end of October, 1991, when gangs of men arrived to clear the scrubland with machetes.
A week later, on the morning of the seventh of November that year, the Army, the Federal Police and a Cessna from Colombia were involved in a bloody skirmish that only just made it past the government censors: members of the 13th Infantry Battalion opened fire on seven federal agents getting out of a King Air in pursuit of a Cessna that had been detected off the Nicaraguan Coast by the US Customs Service. The propeller plane, which was assumed to belong to smugglers, landed on the La Víbora strip at 6:50 in the morning, followed by the federal aircraft. The smugglers, a man and a woman, abandoned it and its cargo of three hundred and fifty-five kilos of cocaine and fled into the undergrowth while two columns of soldiers neutralized the federal agents with a withering burst of fire.
I remember two photos of the incident that appeared in the local newspaper, the Nottiver: in one of them seven men were lying in a row face down on the grass. They were the agents that had been gunned down that Thursday, the seventh of December by elements of the army. Five of them were dressed in dark clothing; the other two were dressed as peasants, although they wore black jackets now dirtied with mud and grass. None of them was wearing shoes.
The second photograph showed someone sitting on the ground with a rifle barrel very close to his face. The man, who was wearing a vest with the Federal Police logo on it, was staring straight into the lens. His tongue was swollen, his lips frozen mid-spasm. He was the only survivor of the massacre.
It was December, or maybe January or February, when I saw those photos in the old newspaper I’d spread out on the floor of the patio to wrap up the dry leaves I’d swept up. It must have been around then – when the north wind blows the leaves from the almond trees – because I had the (daily) chore of clearing the damn things from the patio. I remember seeing the images and reading some of the columns in the crime section spread out on the ground (I also remember asking my mother what ‘rape’ meant that night) but it would be more than a decade before I was able to put the photographs together with the UFO I saw on the beach, a vessel transporting cocaine, not aliens.
The municipal government forbade people from visiting the area during the months following the massacre so I didn’t get back to The Beach of The Dead until late 1992. By then it had lost all its charm. New breakwaters had claimed back more land from the sea and it was swarming with hawkers and tourists: they’d even got rid of the sign with the skull. Years later they renamed it: Beach of The Rings.
I don’t think I ever believed in anything as fervently as I had believed in UFOs. Not the Tooth Fairy or the Headless Horseman (my father told me that he appeared every night at Horn Beach searching for his errant skull, which had been blown off by a cannon) or the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands and especially not Father Christmas or God. It was all your parents, it was all made up by grown-ups.
People who live in the area say that on moonless nights, strange colored lights cross the sky on their way to the plains. But I have no further interest in aliens. That chubby little intergalactic vigilante is no more, just like The Beach of The Dead, and the foolhardy idiots who drowned there.
It was one of those wedding parties that was doomed to failure right from the start: too many deaf great-aunts, friends of the bride’s father who’d only come because they felt they had to and couldn’t wait to get away and children who did nothing but squabble and cry. On top of that, the caterer was serving less wine than had been agreed upon, even though the bride’s father had paid in advance. Márgara had two crises in a row, the first because the food took longer to be served than expected and then because during the first dance she and her brand-new husband were left alone on the dance floor, spinning around until they got dizzy, and no one came to their rescue. Later they found out that her father, who had been supposed to take the groom’s place, was outside on the patio arguing with the manager about the drinks, getting in the waiters’ way as he counted the boxes of wine and champagne over and over again. During the first crisis, Márgara locked herself in the bathroom, and Edith had to go in after her, take her hand and calm her down. Nobody had noticed the problem with the chicken; the wine wasn’t important. This was her night; she should try to enjoy it. Then, once Márgara had calmed down, Edith helped her to redo her make-up, adjusted her tiara and walked her back to the main table. During the second crisis, however, Edith was tired, bored and a little depressed, so she stayed away and let Márgara’s cousins take care of it. She stayed in her chair, tearing petals off the flowers in the centrepiece that she’d put together herself, crushing them between her fingers until she’d rolled them up into dirty, rubbery balls. Márgara had put her at a table with some old schoolfriends of hers, a load of women who Edith barely knew sharing one uninteresting anecdote after another while their husbands talked listlessly about football and cars. When the moment came for the bride and groom to go out for the obligatory round of photographs, Edith had exhausted all possible topics of conversation with her tablemates. Leaving her dessert half finished, she asked the woman sitting next to her to watch her shoes and handbag and walked away barefoot with a glass of wine in her hand. She slipped upstairs to the mezzanine that overlooked the hall. Fobono had set up his audio equipment and speakers behind one of the basketball hoops in the middle of the main stand and was acting as DJ, rocking back in his chair and drinking beer straight from the bottle.
How are you doing, milady? Bored already?
Fed up, Edith said, leaning on the banister next to him. She could see the whole party from there: people shoving their spoons into ice cream, tablecloths covered in crumbs and stains, the children playing on the dance floor, Márgara and Víctor beaming out at everyone, wandering from table to table while the photographer barked instructions. If the madam could move a little to the left; the young man in the red tie is in the shot; boys in front, please, kneeling down.
How long, do you think, before I can leave without upsetting Marga? Edith asked.
Knowing her, Fobono replied, you’ll have to stay until dawn. Or simply accept that she’ll control you for the rest of your life.
That’s true, Edith said, sighing.
Below, Márgara was pulling along the girl trying to hold up her train. Every now and again she adjusted her tiara, doing a bad job of concealing her nerves. A tall, very skinny woman in a yellow dress kissed her on the cheek, and she immediately wiped it with a napkin. Another woman, dressed in pink, whispered something in her ear, and Márgara appeared to get emotional, gave her a long hug and then fluttered her hands at her eyes to dry her tears before they ruined her make-up.
Did you know that one of Marga’s uncles is psychic? Edith said.
A psychic? Really?
What do I know? She never wants to talk about it. I suppose he embarrasses her. He lives in a small town close to Villa Maria. I think he has a radio show or something.
Who would have thought it? Fobono said. Is he any good?
According to Marga he predicted the birth of a two-headed cow and the end of the Gulf War.
No way. Is he here?
He was invited. Marga didn’t want him to come, but her mother insisted, so I suppose he is.
Which one is he? Fobono asked. He got up from his chair and came to stand next to Edith at the banister. He smelled of black cigarettes and sweat.
Fobo, when did you last have a shower? Edith asked.
This is the style now, he said. The girls love it.
You’re disgusting, Edith told him and concentrated on the guests. By the time the photographer and bride and groom had finished their tour of the tables the number of possible candidates had been narrowed down to three. She pointed them out to Fobono.
Option one: the little old man with the carnation buttonhole sitting in front of Víctor’s father. Option two: the gentleman dressed in black at the table next to the bathroom.
Which? Fobono asked, peering down.
The one with the handlebar moustache. He’s wearing a silver tie-pin. He’s spent all night with that girl dressed in red. The one that looks like Mahatma Ghandi except in a dress.
The bald one?
That’s Suarez Masacho, the guys from the tango show, Fobono said. Marga hired them. They’ll be dancing in a minute. They gave me their tape to put on.
Then we can rule out option two. Then there’s option three, the gentleman in the brown suit with wide lapels; the one wearing glasses underneath the other basketball hoop.
It took Fobono a while to locate him.
He’s a good candidate, he said. A little while ago I saw him talking to Marga’s sister, and for the photographs they called him over to stand at the main table.
That must be the guy. Watch me from up here, Edith said. She finished her glass and went back down the stairs, lifting the hem of her dress. At his table, the gentleman in the brown suit was using his spoon to make figures of eight with what was left of his ice cream.
Edith ran across the hall, sat down on the free chair next to him and without even introducing herself asked straight out if he was the psychic uncle.
Are you the psychic uncle? she asked.
The gentleman in the brown suit looked up indifferently, and, still holding his spoon, shook his head.
The psychic is my brother-in-law, he said and pointed at a fat man with a greying beard who was talking to another man a couple of tables away, smoking and laughing. Next to him was a small woman wearing a lot of make-up, who was busy shoving the centrepiece into her handbag.
Which one? The fat guy with the beard? Edith asked.
Yes, that’s the one.
I never would have thought it, Edith said. She waved at Fobono on the balcony to tell him that they’d got the wrong uncle. Then she poured herself another glass of wine, adjusted her dress and walked across the hall, stepping over a bunch of kids playing on the floor.
The psychic uncle wore braces and had the top four buttons of his shirt undone. When he spoke smoke escaped from the side of his mouth and mingled with the beard around his lips.
Edith stood in front of him.
Excuse me, are you the psychic uncle?
In the flesh. A pleasure, said the psychic uncle. What can I do for you?
Nothing, Edith said. I wanted to meet you. I was curious. Márgara is always talking about you. I’m her best friend.
Margarita talking about me? How strange, said the psychic uncle. But I’ve seen stranger things. Well, here I am, you’ve met me, I’m Márgara’s uncle, said the psychic uncle before going silent.
As he spoke he briefly looked Edith in the eyes, but just for a moment. The man the uncle had been talking to took a step back. From his spot on the mezzanine Fobono was giving her the thumbs-up. Edith looked away.
Actually, I’d like to talk to you for a while, she said, twiddling with her hair. I’m a little lost. I don’t know what to do with my life, and I wanted to know if you could give me any tips about my future. I’ll pay, of course.
The psychic uncle started to laugh. He laughed with his whole belly, as though he was having an asthma attack. A thousand little beads of sweat stood out on his chest.
It doesn’t work like that, he said as he reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to dry his neck and forehead. It’s not as though I have a crystal ball or something.
Then how does it work? Edith asked.
I occasionally get visions, but I can’t predict when they’ll come and especially not what they’ll be about. As much as I’d love to have a vision of you, I don’t control these things; it’s beyond my powers. So, it’s been a pleasure. I’m sorry that I can’t help you, said the psychic uncle before turning back to the man.
Edith walked away. From the balcony Fobono was making fun of her, laughing hard, so Edith decided to go back to her table. She sat down with Márgara’s friends from school, joined in the conversation and even pretended to be interested in what they were saying. Then, when the couples went off to dance, she looked after the children who’d fallen asleep on the chairs. When it got late she helped Márgara get changed out of her wedding dress for the honeymoon and went out onto the street with the rest of them to wave off the bride and groom. Later, as she was leaving, she saw the psychic uncle putting something in the trunk of a red Valiant parked half a block away. She walked past him but didn’t say goodbye. The woman who had stolen the centrepiece was waiting in the passenger seat sitting up very straight with her hands crossed on her lap. Two children were sleeping in the back seat.
Edith forgot all about it until one morning, a month and a half later, when she was late and her father’s nurse hadn’t arrived yet, the telephone rang. It was the psychic uncle.
Márgara gave me your number, he said. In fact, I asked for it.
OK, Edith said. What’s wrong? I’m in a bit of a hurry right now.
I had a vision, and you were in it, the psychic uncle said. Behind his voice, on the other end of the line, she could hear the psychic uncle’s children shouting. Edith imagined them fighting on the patio of a house with hens and a lemon tree.
Your question must have settled into my subconscious and then resurfaced, said the psychic uncle. It’s the first time something like that has happened to me.
Edith didn’t know what to say. She’d answered the phone standing next to the hob with her eyes on the kettle. She was making tea for her father. She turned off the hob and sat down.
What happened in the vision? she asked.
You were dressed in white, and it was windy, very windy, said the psychic uncle. You were climbing a large tree, a kind of willow, and the wind was blowing the branches around. Also, there was a windmill with water flowing out of it. A naked man was running around the tree. You fell, and the vision ended before you hit the ground.
What did the man look like? Edith asked.
Dark hair, pale skin. More or less your age.
Roberto, Edith thought without saying anything out loud.
Did he have a mole on his back? she asked.
If he did, I didn’t see it, the psychic uncle answered.
Edith lit a cigarette.
And what does the vision mean? she asked.
I don’t know. I thought I should tell you then you’d be able to interpret it. That’s why I called you. Does it suggest anything?
I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a little girl, said Edith.
Maybe you need some time. If you think of anything let me know, said the psychic uncle, and he gave her his telephone number.
Roberto, Edith said to herself when the psychic uncle had hung up. How long has it been since I heard from him?
For the rest of the day the vision was all Edith could think about: the wind, the tree, the fall, the windmill, the water, Roberto running around naked. She had no idea what it meant, but she couldn’t put it out of her mind. That Sunday she went to visit Márgara to see her new house. She followed her down the hall while Márgara showed her the rooms, television, the tiles she’d chosen for the bathroom and the place where the stairs to the baby’s room and the as yet non-existent top floor would be. Then, as they were talking on the patio next to the pool, Márgara asked her if her uncle had been able to contact her.
What did he want? Márgara asked. He asked me for your number; he said that he needed to speak to you.
I have no idea. He didn’t call me.
The next week the psychic uncle called three more times, always in the morning just before Edith left for the office. He was having more visions. On Tuesday Edith appeared as a marble statue at the bottom of the sea, her mouth gagged with dark algae. On Thursday Edith was naked in the snow, hugging an animal, a wolf maybe. It was eating her stomach, and she was covered in blood. On Friday Edith was in a garden by a spring; her fingers touched the water and then long dark roots stretched out from them, wrapped themselves around her neck and strangled her.
I need to see you, said the psychic uncle. I need to see you soon. They’re driving me crazy. If I’m with you I’ll know what they mean, said the psychic uncle.
Did you see the naked man again? Edith asked.
Not once, said the psychic uncle. You’re always alone.
Edith started to cry.
Stop calling me, she said and hung up.
Two days later, the phone rang in the middle of the night. The psychic uncle had had another vision. He was waiting with the car running and a change of clothes in a leather bag.
Give me your address, he said. I can be there in five hours.
Leave me alone, Edith answered.
It’s important that I see you. Give me your address or I’ll get it from Márgara, the psychic uncle said.
You can’t come to my house, Edith said. Let’s meet in a bar.
It has to be a private, safe place. You and I need to be alone. No one can interrupt us, said the psychic uncle.
I don’t know, do what you like, but don’t you dare come to my house, Edith said and hung up. She turned off the lamp and tried to get back to sleep, but she couldn’t. The tree, the algae, Roberto, the wolf and the roots growing out of her fingertips. She didn’t want to think about it. The sheets were suffocating her. She got up and went to the kitchen, where she stared at the tiles. Her nightshirt was wet with sweat and soon cooled in the kitchen air. She shivered.
I have to get away. I’ll go somewhere where he’ll never find me, she thought.
Her father called her from his bed. It was still dark outside, but he always woke very early. Edith made him breakfast and took it to him.
Who was it who called in the middle of the night? asked her father.
Wrong number, said Edith.
The psychic uncle spoke to her from a service station by the road. He’d had another vision while he was driving. Edith had appeared in the passenger seat. She was looking pale with her chest covered in a bin liner.
The psychic uncle asked Edith if she was OK, if she was feeling strange in any way.
I’m fine, said Edith.
Are you alone? Are the doors locked? he asked.
I’m with my father, Edith said. Everything’s fine, she went on and then looked out of the window. The sun was coming up. The buildings stood out as black rectangles against a luridly orange sky. It was cold. Daytime noises could be heard in the avenue.
The psychic uncle still had a couple more hours ahead of him. He asked Edith to reserve a hotel room for him so he could shower and have a nap. Edith didn’t know any cheap hotels.
Any will do, said the psychic uncle. Whatever seems best to you.
In the end, Edith told him how to get to one close by the airport. It was the hotel Roberto had taken her to when he said that he was on a business trip.
How much is it? the psychic uncle asked.
Edith said that it wasn’t expensive.
I don’t know if I’ll have enough money. I left in a hurry, said the psychic uncle.
Edith didn’t reply. Then, when it was time, she called a taxi, did her make-up in the mirror and checked her hair.
I’m fine, I’m perfect, she told herself before going out. This is nothing; it’ll make a good anecdote. Fobono will laugh like crazy when he hears it.
The psychic uncle was waiting for her on a sofa in the lobby in front of the reception desk. As soon as Edith got out of the taxi he took her arm and dragged her into the hotel. They went up in the lift without saying a word. The psychic uncle stepped back to let her into the room first. The wallpaper was the same as it had been five years ago. It hadn’t changed in thirty years: large orange flowers against a yellow background. The room was small and hot with a mini refrigerator for a nightstand, a television suspended from an iron frame and a window with a view of the back of a varnish and paint factory. Rumbling aeroplanes made the glass shudder three or four times a day.
The psychic uncle pointed to the bed.
Sit down, make yourself comfortable. Give me a minute. I have to go to the bathroom.
Edith lay down. She listened to the water running and the psychic uncle murmuring something on the other side of the door. The psychic uncle came out of the bathroom with a white towel in his hands. He dried his face, the back of his neck and his ears.
That’s better, said the psychic uncle. I needed to freshen up. I haven’t slept. The visions wouldn’t stop.
Has this ever happened to you before? Edith asked.
Never, said the psychic uncle.
I’m scared, Edith said.
I understand, said the psychic uncle, and he sat down on the edge of the bed, his shoulders dropped and his back hunched. Edith sat up.
Stay there. It doesn’t bother me, said the psychic uncle.
What did you see? Am I going to die? Edith asked. She smiled, as though she were trying to apologize for something.
I don’t know, said the psychic uncle. It would be a shame if anything were to happen to you; you’re so pretty. You’re prettier in person than in the visions, he said.
Thank you, said Edith, looking away.
The psychic uncle put his hands together on his lap and closed his eyes. He sat there very still in the hotel room. He was breathing heavily, and his nose began to whistle. His beard was wet, and his body trembled.
Why did you bring me here? Edith asked after a while.
Shh, the psychic uncle said, and he closed his eyes again. Please be quiet.
Edith got up from the bed and took a little bottle of whisky out of the minibar. She poured it into a paper cup.
Are you having one right now? What do you see? she asked.
There was an explosion, said the psychic uncle. Splinters everywhere. Lethal splinters, like spears. There’s a fire. The flames swallow you up. There’s smoke, a lot of smoke. Your flesh burns. You don’t want to get away. Your skin turns black, like burning paper, and it cracks. You can see the flesh underneath.
Edith downed the whisky in one.
Enough. I’m leaving. I don’t want to know any more.
The psychic uncle opened his eyes very wide and stared at her.
You don’t understand, he said. You can’t leave.
Because you can’t, he said and shut his eyes again.
Edith snorted in protest and looked for the remote to turn on the TV. Just then they heard sounds outside, shouting, a group of people running. The explosion came almost immediately afterwards, bursting their eardrums. The windows shattered, and a wooden beam flew in through the window and landed on the bed. Edith screamed in fright.
It’s beginning, said the psychic uncle.
A huge flame leaped up from the paint factory and expanded through the air. Gusts of ether and turpentine burned her eyes. The flames spread to the curtains, the psychic uncle’s beard, the bedspread and the flowers on the wall.
It’s here, said the psychic uncle. He stood up with his eyes closed and the flames all around him.
Edith screamed and banged on the door, which was locked.
Help! Help! Someone help me! she cried.
The fire consumed the psychic uncle. He was very still as he burned, standing ramrod straight with his arms down by his sides.
Edith banged on the door again until she heard someone on the other side tell her to calm down.
Stand to one side, I’m coming in, they said, and Edith pressed herself against the wall. The room was now just a cloud of flaming, translucent gas. Surfaces were turning dark and melting.
Here I come, someone shouted from the hall and kicked the door until it caved in. The psychic uncle opened his eyes, his head was a black bonfire, his beard and hair were nothing but flames. He opened his mouth, tried to scream and made as if to move toward Edith to keep her there, but his legs gave way and he fell to his knees on the carpet in the middle of the fire.
Edith stared at him in horror until someone took her arm and dragged her out of the room. A large cloud of black smoke was billowing in the hall, up against the ceiling. Edith saw people crouched down, their eyes red and their mouths covered in wet towels. Still holding her, the man who had rescued her ran towards the stairs. They leaped down them, and when they got to the lobby they found it was now a large hole open to the sky. A whole wing of the hotel had disappeared.
It was a plane, a wounded woman stammered as she walked through the wreckage. A plane fell on us, she said.
It was the factory, the factory exploded, the man said, still holding Edith by the arm. He was wearing a blue uniform; maybe he was a concierge or a receptionist.
Out, go outside, he shouted at Edith and pushed her through the hole in the wall into the garden. Then he headed back into the smoke.
Edith climbed over the rubble and piles of plaster and ran across the grass and the car park. In the distance, she heard sirens, and behind her, in the hotel, more explosions. Then she felt the heat from the fire.
Edith kept on running.
That night we were having guests for dinner, and Ines had been in a frenzy all week. She hunted down innovative recipes on the internet and buried my desk in sheets of paper as she printed them out. I’m a psychiatrist, so I like order, and I can’t stand it if my space is invaded for no good reason. However, I was reasonable and tried to get Ines to see things from my patients’ perspective. How would you feel if you arrived at a session and found piles of paper all over the office? I knew my persuasive tactics lost their effectiveness the day she stopped being my patient and became my wife, but in the end I managed to get her to pick it all up before the session with my Friday patient, a workaholic beyond repair.
In recent years we’d stopped inviting our friends over as much, so our friends, in turn, had stopped extending invitations or accepting our evermore sporadic ones. Since the twins were born there had been so little time for social interaction. But recently, after the girls turned seven magical years old, we decided it was time to get back in touch with the friends we’d neglected as we focused on the little ones. We started going out more regularly. But we were responsible parents, you could say.
That night we’d invited a couple over; they were a little older than us, but the age difference was hardly noticeable. They didn’t have kids. We’d known them forever. In fact, Ines was some sort of cousin to Eduardo, who’d met his wife Adela at our wedding. Adela had been a classmate of mine at university, and there’d been one episode after a night of partying that we never spoke of again.
Two weeks prior, Adela had called me from the hospital to invite me to dinner with them at their new town house. When I told her, Ines went crazy and thought of nothing other than returning the invitation. I remember that night at Adela and Eduardo’s house, she wouldn’t stop praising the food and the décor. She did it in an exaggerated and awkward way, insisting repeatedly that the colonial-style furniture our friends had picked out looked exactly like the authentic pieces she and I had seen on our honeymoon in Thailand.
During dinner at their house we jumped from topic to topic. At some points Eduardo and I conversed on our own; at another I asked Adela about her cases, and she wanted to know about mine. We liked to exchange funny stories in which our patients came out looking terrible. Then we ended up arguing over what Adela called the feudal privileges of private psychiatry over public. Adela had a sharp and sparkling way of speaking that still strongly attracted me despite all the time that had passed. At points, Eduardo was clearly bored. He looked at the clock on the wall, and you could tell that deep down he wanted us to finish our wine. Ines took the opportunity to get up and go into the kitchen alone, carrying away the dirty plates as if it were her own home. Adela let her do it; she wasn’t even paying attention. Ines seemed more like the maid than my wife.
We didn’t leave until late. Eduardo had perked up, he was excited about showing me his collection of fountain pens. He explained that the new house finally gave him enough space to display them in their custom-built case. His collections didn’t interest me in the slightest. Collecting is something I’d classify as obsessive behavior. I looked at the floor as he showed off a mother-of-pearl inlay, and I noticed one of his shoelaces had come untied, but I didn’t tell him.
At the door, the women kissed goodbye loudly and Eduardo and I exchanged a firm handshake that turned into a half-hearted hug. I thought it had been the final goodbye; however, at the last minute Ines noticed some geraniums, the color of which could barely be made out in the darkness, and I had to turn around and walk back. Adela insisted that Ines should take a cutting, and Ines insisted even more fervently that she shouldn’t trouble herself, but she ended up accepting a branch after making something of a song and dance out of the whole matter. As this was going on I feared that Eduardo would start back up with the pens, but his gaze held only a desire to put his pajamas on and get into his big colonial-style bed.
Ever since that night, Ines has thought of nothing other than Adela and Eduardo’s visit to our house. When we got into the car and started the engine, thinking about the best route home, I saw her sitting there beside me, how she smiled with her eyes wide open but without seeing anything. She looked like a martyr facing the firing squad. With her right hand tightly gripping the geranium. I noticed she’d caught her skirt in the car door without realizing it. We didn’t say a word the whole way home. Ines was in a daze, even though she hadn’t drunk much wine, and I was just driving, trying to think about my patients, whom I’d been increasingly neglecting.
When I parked in front of our house, Ines rested her face on my shoulder, burst into tears, and thanked me several times. At first I was frightened, mentally running through the kinds of psychiatric disorders that could cause such behavior. Then she calmed down, stopped crying, and asked me for permission to invite Eduardo and Adela over for dinner. I agreed, more because I wanted to end the scene than because I liked the idea. She looked at me with her red and excited eyes for a minute then fixed her gaze on the night sky, as before. I sat looking at her profile. I’d forgotten how her curls fell over her forehead. I didn’t want to get out of the car or go anywhere.
The days that followed were smooth as silk. My patients seemed willing to give sanity another try and stopped moaning about their tragedies. Maybe it was because the nights were shorter and they had less time to contemplate suicide. I thought about what would happen if they all got well. I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d be forced to look for new, even more degenerate patients. Or maybe my fame would grow to an international level, and I’d have to start studying English to treat Hollywood celebrities with their delusions of grandeur and depression. As I imagined these things, my appointments flew by.
At the same time, the twins were less annoying because summer was coming and they were playing outside more. Ines assured me that she’d take care of all the dinner preparations, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. For my part, I hadn’t asked any questions or offered to do anything, but she wouldn’t stop insisting all the same. When the office was empty, Ines spent hours with her elbows on the desk, studying websites about serving protocol or how to fold napkins to look like birds. Later she tried to put this into practice with the table linen we kept in the living-room cabinets, but the napkins wouldn’t stand up. Some nights I’d turn off my bedside light, and she’d still be sitting on the other side of the bed typing terms into Google, ten tabs open at the same time. I started to worry she might be going into chat rooms and talking to strangers who were anxious to give her their phone numbers and ask what color panties she had on. She reminded me of a patient who, two years after she thought she’d gotten over her addiction to chat rooms, still believed that the man of her dreams was in there, waiting for her inside her laptop.
The day of the dinner party started off badly. The geranium cutting that Adela had given Ines fell twisted and dead from the vase. When she saw it, Ines had an attack of hysterics, and I had to make her lie down for a few minutes on the couch my patients used. The armrests were worn out. It seemed sad and undignified for a practice of my standing. Ines was convinced that the flower’s death was a bad omen, and I repeated that it wasn’t, but I still couldn’t get her out of there. She insisted on getting a geranium to give to Adela at all costs. I found geraniums absolutely repulsive. Somehow I ended up offering to help, to lend a hand with the cooking as if it were a joint effort, and she started to calm down. I would have preferred to just give her a tranquilizer, but I took the risk and opened Pandora’s box.
My idea of helping was to go downtown, leave the car double parked with the hazards on, and buy something in a deli, but Ines had knives, cutting boards, and gadgets in the kitchen that I knew nothing about, let alone how to use, and she slipped an apron over my head like someone putting a collar on a dog. My suggestion of ready-made food was a disgusting abomination and an insult to our friends. It all embarrassed me a little, the apron and my dirty hands. It reminded me of one of those cooking shows where a housewife with misplaced maternal instincts tries unsuccessfully to teach a bachelor how to peel a potato. Luckily, with all those stupendous gadgets, I didn’t have to do much, and Ines took care of the more difficult or sticky tasks.
In the middle of the ordeal the twins came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. They looked at me and laughed. Their laughter was loud. It sounded like dry leaves that crackle when you step on them. I don’t know if they were laughing at me in the apron or if they were just happy because they were going to spend the night at their aunt’s house.
Ines made some sandwiches, and the girls ate as I lectured them about the importance of getting along. It’s crucial that the girls begin to become aware of their moods and emotions, and I talk to them a lot about it in the hope that it will help them later on. Also, I was tired of making melon balls. The twins listened politely then bit into their sandwiches, looked at each other and laughed, and it sounded like crackling. Ines wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was too busy. She was scrubbing things that immediately got dirty again.
Even though they hadn’t finished their snack, Ines was in a hurry to drop them off at my sister’s house. I took off the apron and went to get dressed. I had to do their hair myself. One of their ponytails leaned to the left, the other one’s ponytail leaned to the right, and since they looked so much alike, my lack of skill was all the more evident. I looked at them in the mirror and patted their ponytails. They ran off. I looked at myself in the mirror and then closed my eyes. I imagined myself somewhere else, somewhere far away, but when I opened my eyes again I was still there. I pulled down the medicine chest and counted to check there wasn’t too much of anything missing. Then I left the house.
I wrangled the twins into the car. At the last minute they’d decided they weren’t going to go, that they wanted to stay with Mom and Dad and that they didn’t want the old people (Eduardo and Adela, they meant) to come over. I thought it was funny, and I felt proud to have shaped such strong personalities with such an ability to assert themselves. I thought of going back in and telling Ines, with a straight face, that, given how the girls were behaving, the best thing to do would be to cancel the dinner. Then I worried she might react too violently and murder her own children. I smiled mischievously.
I drove fast down the highway. The girls didn’t talk. They stared symmetrically at the cars that we passed or that passed us. When we got there, my sister was surprised; she was expecting us an hour later based on what Ines had told her on the phone. She seemed annoyed.
“It’s fine,” she said finally.
She invited me to come in.
“It’s been a long time since we talked,” said my sister. “And I have a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I wondered if she wanted to talk to her brother or to a psychiatrist. I could recommend a few good ones.
“I have to go,” I said. “Ines is waiting for me, and there’s a lot left to do.”
I didn’t apologize. We didn’t agree on a time to pick the twins up the next day either. I wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but before I knew it they’d disappeared, and I supposed they were in some other room antagonizing the cat.
On my way home I took some streets I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t remember my sister’s neighborhood very well at all, and it was starting to get dark. I thought I was going to get lost and that if I got lost I’d be late for dinner and that if I was late for dinner Ines might cry in front of the guests. Still in motion, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and opened the glove box with my right. The GPS wasn’t there. Just packs of Kleenex that no one ever used and several CDs of kids’ music. As I closed the glove box I lost balance and gave the wheel a sharp jerk. It was a miracle I didn’t go up onto the central reservation.
There was no one on the street I could ask for directions. I turned the corner and saw a bar, so I parked and got out of the car. I went in with every intention of asking someone how to get out of the neighborhood, but instead I ordered a glass of wine and sat on a stool at the bar. I looked at my watch and confirmed that I had plenty of time for another glass.
The waiter served me the first of the two glasses I planned on having. His face looked familiar. As I drank, I realized he reminded me of the top student in my class at school, a boy named Ignacio Alcalde, very intelligent and hardworking but marred by an unfortunate tic. With that uncontrollable movement of his mouth, no one could see a future for him in this profession where patients never take their eyes off you and you’re obliged to worry about your appearance. I hadn’t thought about Ignacio for many years, until I arrived, not really knowing how, at that bar and came across that waiter. It could easily be him, the best doctor in the class of ’78, lost and forgotten.
I left my wine half drunk and asked for directions. It scared me to think that Ignacio had ended up there, and I wanted to leave immediately. I asked for the check like I was in a restaurant, and the waiter gave me a strange look, unsure whether I wanted to know how much or if I also wanted a receipt. I paid, and the waiter—or Ignacio—gave me the directions I needed. His voice was deep and gravelly, completely different from the voice I remembered, and I felt relieved. Then I thought about how cigarettes, among other factors, could change the tone of a person’s voice.
I started the car and quickly found my way. I tried to picture the name of the bar in case I ever drove by again in the light of day. I’d sat for a few seconds looking at the lit sign before I went in, but now I was unable to remember it. A gust of wind blew a spiky leaf onto the windshield, and it gleamed with a bluish reflection. My cell phone rang. I moved into fifth and then felt around for my phone in the pocket of my blazer. The spiky leaf disappeared like a butterfly scared off by a puppy. It was a message from Ines. It said where are you, hurry up or we’re going to start without you.
As if unconsciously, I lifted my foot off the accelerator and stopped trying to pass the car in front of me.
A moral romance
The restaurant, which offered simple but excellent fare, was lit by a large artificial moon augmented by some weak recessed lighting in the walls. The owner oversaw proceedings from the till. At one table, oblivious to the comings and goings of the waiters and the other customers, a man and a woman were trying to downplay their excitement at the conversation they were having by occasionally looking out of the window. Down below, the river was dancing, the lights from the homes that lined the shore glinting playfully off the water.
They’d finished their meal and were drinking aropi liquor in little sips. Flugo, a well-built redhead, wore his ugliness well. Otami was tall and stunning: perfectly proportioned blue eyes, short hair the colour of dates, a ravishing nose, beautifully angled upper incisors and a lower lip that wobbled slightly, like a tic, a subconscious effort to right a slight unevenness. A moment before she’d missed the rim of her glass, and some of the liquid had splashed onto her chin. She wiped it away then lowered her eyes and took off her jacket. Flugo tried hard to keep his saliva in check. She stretched out her arms to show off the special features underneath her bracelets. Flugo’s hairy arms only had functional enhancements. He showed them to her. Both were fidgety and irritable, as though something with no discernible odour were cooking between the two of them. The bill was brought to the table, and Otami declared that as she’d invited him out she’d pay. Suddenly they heard an inhuman roar. Flugo’s hair grew redder, and Otami’s back glowed.
A flame emerged from the entrance to the kitchen, right next to the counter where the owner stood at his post. It was already racing up the hiluven screen. With the rapidly spreading flames snapping at their heels, the chef and his assistants ran out as fast as they could while the robotios backed away, ineffectually spitting out their water reserves. New tongues of flame slithered along the floor like fiery snakes. While the owner stepped back, slapping at his cuffs, his customers ran for the exit. Seeing that Flugo was about to use his wrist extinguisher, the man asked him not to come any closer. Flugo looked down at the remains of their meal and the clipboard with the bill. He took out his money pouch and fingered the notes while the bar went up in flames. Otami made a grab for him and tried to pull him away, but her sweaty hands slipped and she went on alone. The owner hesitated like the captain of a ship before heading out the back. Caught between the fire and the night, Otami turned around and called to Flugo until, eventually, he agreed to come out with her. On the esplanade, about fifty metres away, they watched as the fire consumed most of the restaurant and the windows began to crack. Eventually the firefly units arrived. Calmed by this reassuring sight the crowd dispersed, and they were left alone under the stars. Flugo was torn between melancholy and Otami’s gleaming shoulders. They’ve all gone, she said. And none of them paid, Flugo replied. Still clutching the money, he made as if to go back inside. She pressed herself against him. It’s cold, she said. Aroused by her whisper, he realized that now was the time to put an arm around her. They went down to the seafront to look for a taxi before driving to a tall residential icosahedron. In her studio, which, like her, was beautiful and uneven, they rutted like fugitives from the law. All the positions, all the orifices, all the juices. While Otami made an effort to be industrious, Flugo strove to be liberated. He was disoriented, as though he hadn’t yet come to terms with the new horizons opened up by their unexpected escape. He looked down at his uncommonly firm trombon as she begged him to plunge it into her and wondered what to make of the two fingers she’d shoved in his arse. She clung to him tight, making a strange sound, a kind of purr begging for succour or a timid mantra to ward off oblivion. They slept well but not blissfully. In the morning she stroked him but didn’t cling to him like she had the night before; she was distracted. He, however, was trying to concentrate. In this minor difference, Flugo found the room to mill his incredulity into anxiety.
It was a tragedy, he said. What happened to that man was a tragedy, and people… like us… such a good meal… We need to pay for it.
She reminded him that all the covers put together wouldn’t come to anything like what he’d be getting from his insurance. Also, it had been her treat. He said that it wasn’t about the money so much as paying what one should, acting responsibly. Basic human decency. The resulting silence suggested that for him this was no trivial matter. Flugo stifled a yawn. He’d never thought about how important such things were before. He didn’t say that neither had he ever slept with a woman like her before, but it was obvious that he was somewhat flustered by their exertions. She stretched, rubbing against him. The fact that she was able to do two things at once piqued Flugo’s trombon, and they went at it again. By the time they’d finished he was braying while she was pleading, as though she had begun to founder. But then she recovered immediately: she was ephemeral as a dolphin. She kissed him, slapped his arse and sat down on an elegant-but-dirty sofa with a quarnaklo draped over her legs. The night before she’d told him that she didn’t deal very well with confrontation and that she designed persuasive images for neural links. She plugged in to the Panconscious. Flugo was left staring at the only painting in the house, a landscape of very different places: a reed bed, a lake on a high mountain, a hall in a cheap hotel and more. Then he left for work. He was a quality-control officer at a factory that made fluid injectors.
Several days passed before he went back to the restaurant. A pair of cyborgs was guarding some furniture that hadn’t been burned too badly, and a pile of brickling, woodpaste and metal had been placed alongside the two surviving walls. He noticed a fluttering tablecloth; it wasn’t the table that he had sat at with Otami, but the clipboard with the unpaid bill was still there. Flugo blinked, and the board disappeared. However, the boy piling up the objects that were still serviceable was certainly real. Flugo told him that he’d come to pay the bill for that night. The boy told him not to worry, Don Mayome had other things on his mind. Flugo left reluctantly without asking any more questions.
He couldn’t forgive himself for the delay. And yet he could, because to his surprise Otami called him, and they went out together not once but twice, and on both occasions they screwed like lost souls, once on an empty boat. Three fucks usually constitute a relationship, but this time that wasn’t entirely the case. They were tied together but not bonded. They grabbed, bit and stroked each other violently, mixing their breath, saliva, semen and juices, their eyes brimming over. They squeezed at each other greedily, until it hurt, but it was all for naught; neither could actually steal anything from the other’s body, they couldn’t physically merge, which is what they really wanted. When it seemed that they’d squeezed out all the pleasure they could and were finally sated, it only took a moment of contact to, unlike the fire at the restaurant, revive their flames and fury again. Otami was as crazy about Flugo’s trombon and mouth as she was for her own holes and emissions, as he was for every part of her, even her toenails. She revered Flugo’s bulk. She nuzzled her forehead into his chest and stroked his head, mumbling, You give me everything, moaning that if he let her go she’d fly away or drown, and so he would thrust, push, suck and try to reassure her, even though she never seemed to need consolation after the climax. Sex isn’t the only bond; it was more like when they were copulating a bond appeared that couldn’t seem to raise its head otherwise.
Flugo stammered that one must own up to the consequences of their actions. She gave a half-smile and massaged his shins without bothering to say that all they did was go to dinner, but it was probably what she was thinking.
But who will atone for the thoughtlessness, the selfishness of the people who left? he asked.
She glanced at him without irony, pity or the slightest irritation, without even reminding him, once again, that she was the one who was supposed to have paid the bill.
When Flugo went back up the hill the next day, the boy told him that Don Mayome had died. He was his stepson. Flugo bit his lip.
Of course, after a calamity like that, he murmured.
No, sir, he died of something he already had.
What about you…?
I helped him to die, and he left me this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it.
Flugo said that he didn’t think it would be hard. The stepson said that he didn’t understand; it wasn’t that he didn’t know if he could sell it, he simply couldn’t sell it.
Of course, Flugo said, there are unpaid debts.
Telling the boy again that he hadn’t been able to pay that night, he took out his pouch.
The stepson stopped him there: Don’t insult me.
No, no, it’s what I owe.
Sir, you don’t get this business at all.
Flugo considered arguing further but just nodded. He walked down the hill, clutching his side, as though he had a stitch, as though he were trying to climb up a cliff but couldn’t make any headway. One morning, after a sleepy but indulgent encounter, he asked Otami why they never did it at his house. It took her a while to answer: I feel better here. He looked at the only painting on the wall. Today it seemed as though the images had changed: palfreys galloping across the tundra, a morgue, a village in the mist, but it might have been an optical illusion. As usual, for breakfast they had tea, bread and oil and bunaston strips. They ate, and Flugo stopped himself from asking how she knew she felt better there if she’d never been to his house. Otami sat in her work chair looking so languorous, glossy and long legged that it was almost intimidating. Suddenly, he got up and exultantly slapped himself on the forehead. The noise distracted Otami from the Panconscious. She told him to take care, he was liable hurt himself; one needs to know how to handle an excess of endorphins.
At the former restaurant the owner’s stepson had cleared away the rubble. He was saying goodbye to a professional-looking lady, who then got into her autopod and drove away. When he saw Flugo, he sighed, not quite exasperated but certainly weary. He asked Flugo to try to understand that he had things to rebuild. Flugo smiled with a cunning expression he hadn’t seemed capable of. He looked at the three cyborgs struggling with a shipment of various different materials. He told the boy that he was very good at organizing construction teams, partly because he worked alongside them, too. He seemed so enthused that the stepson reluctantly agreed to let him help out. And so, help he did.
Three afternoons a week Flugo parked his patacycle at the dock and went up the hill to work with Mayome’s stepson. He checked budgets, talked to suppliers, negotiated with paralaws, set the ratio for the adobaster mix, struggled in vain to hurry the insurers up and made improvements to plans for a facility that would have to wait. He lifted loads of brickling and helped the boy to manage the money that the prescient Mayome had set aside – two years’ rent – before the boy helped him to die. Flugo asked him what that help had consisted of.
It was just something I used to do, the boy said.
On the mornings following his afternoon at the construction site, Flugo had coffeto and biscuits with cream and jam for breakfast. The other afternoons he patalated home before heading out for consummation with Otami, sometimes after a quiet walk, a quick dinner and a prologue of dirtilthian words. Even with what little we know about Flugo, we can tell that he found this routine unsettling.
Late one night, looking at the painting of different landscapes, he said quietly: I have to do some research.
What, hunny? she asked.
What kind of a job is helping people to die?
Otami was asleep, but he didn’t notice. His monologue went on to reveal that trying to make up for the debts of so many people was wearing him down, except when he was cavorting with Otami. But he wondered whether what was wearing him down was his obsession with whether or not everyone should have paid, or whether his malaise was caused by exhaustion and he’d invented an excuse to avoid the bigger issue. One might say that the work he put in avoiding the issue was beginning to bore him, and it was the fact that he was bored that saddened him. He woke up with Otami licking his ear, and from the oblivion of sleep slipped into the oblivion she had to offer. Like an island rent asunder by an earthquake, Flugo was torn between sadness and satisfaction. Looking away, she put on a T-shirt and gave him a compliment: Hunny, I have so much fun with you. I’ve never had so much fun with anyone. Flugo blinked, his eyes shone.
I had so hoped it would be like this.
She got up and spent almost half a minute hesitating between going to the bathroom and the kitchen, as though she didn’t know what to do first or wasn’t completely in control of herself. Eventually, she decided to sit on the sofa, and the decision pleased her. He lingered in the soft embrace of the duvet. A couple of minutes later he heard Otami’s voice from the kitchen, like a neural advertisement whose soundtrack was the bubbling of the coffeto pot. You shouldn’t tire yourself out like that. What if you end up wearing us out, too?
Like a paradoxical pill, Flugo found the phrase reinvigorating. Three afternoons a week, once he’d finished work at the plant, he committed himself to paying off society’s debt to the restaurant. The remaining nights he recharged his batteries with Otami’s eagerness. Sweaty and chaotic, she squeezed, twisted and pushed him, telling him in a hoarse, cracked voice never to let her go, to seal the deal, to be there with her, but after the climax she was always the first to extricate herself. Outside of the bedroom she never asked him for anything. Neither did she seem to expect any answers. Caught between the dock and the buoy, it seemed that poor confused Flugo was only able to anchor himself when he was putting his back into the work for the stepson. It was his way of overcoming his doubt and bewilderment. This would appear to be a therapeutic story about the different lives a man can lead.
But Flugo never congratulated himself for having discovered such a satisfactory balance between duty and pleasure. One afternoon, when it was time to go home, Mayome’s stepson was cleaning a sink they’d just put in. He said to Flugo: Flugo, you work like a convict.
Flugo wasn’t surprised by the comment. In fact, he replied, I see myself as a researcher.
What are you researching?
We-ell, I’d like to find out how to take ownership of myself.
The boy turned off the tap and dried his hands.
Why? he asked eventually.
Flugo’s face flickered into a smile before returning to its usual earnest state. I don’t know; so I can have a relationship.
The boy also began to look earnest. What kind of relationship?
A relationship like the kind where your breath is interchangeable, said Flugo. The words took him by surprise. The boy, too.
Like a romance? he asked in a quiet voice.
Maybe, said Flugo. One hand washes the other and both wash the face.
That night he was watching the screenatron, trying to consolidate his feelings into a single emotion, when the psyphone rang. It was Otami. With no help from him, her face appeared, looking surprisingly easy to read. Her smoky voice conveyed nothing more than the words themselves: Tomorrow night. Can I come to your house tomorrow night?
Of course, said Flugo.
Grandz, she said. Then we’re doing something new.
Flugo hung up and quickly gave his flat a once-over, but there wasn’t much to do. Everything was neat and tidy. It was a nice flat. The last we heard of Flugo he was in the supermarket buying bunaston strips.
On the silt and pebble-covered floor of the lagoon lay the body of a man. His open eyes seemed to be looking at the sun of a lower, liquid sky. A small black and yellow fish swam along the ridge of his leg, another nibbled at his ear. He had been down there for some time, and his unmoving body had become a part of the watery landscape. His face seemed peaceful, but now and then it was as though his lips curled in an expression of disgust. The seaweed moved with his hair in the gentle current. As long as the mud adhered to it, his body changed slowly; the eyes, which originally had been hollow, pushed out of the swollen face. They had lost their color; they would have seen only blackness. The belly grew to be enormous, and one night the body rose up out of the black mud, the muck covered all trace of where it had lain, and the flesh came into the open as it was propelled by the waves to the shore.
The police commissioner of Flores leaned over the body, his handkerchief pressed to his nose. There were few things which displeased him as much as an unexplained death; his bloodshot eyes slowly searched for some sign of violence. He only found the marks left by the hands of the fishermen who had discovered the corpse and pulled it out of the water, and the fish-bitten face and clenched hands. The commissioner had someone force the fists open: one was empty and the other held a bit of earth and a stone. From its size he judged the body to be that of a foreigner. He raised his head and folded his handkerchief.
Richard Ward, an American, had come to the Petén nine months earlier, and had purchased a piece of land facing the lagoon of ltza, where he built a small cottage. He intended to retire there with his wife Lucy, who was waiting in Wisconsin for news of him. Two weeks before the body was found, Richard Ward had been seen in a shop in Flores, and then he had disappeared. His servant Rafael Colina was taken to the police station, where he was questioned. No result came of this, nor of the search made of his hut, on Ward’s land. They kept him for a few hours, and after administering the customary beating, let him go.
Lucy Ward arrived in Flores one wet Sunday in September. She was stout, with graceful arms and legs. At the police station they gave her the little box containing the ashes: 37, she read on the cover, Sr. R. Ward. A police car took her to the property, where Rafael was expecting her.
She wandered around the terrain, examining the landscape with the questioning expression of someone looking at an abstract painting he fails to understand; then she realized with some surprise that it pleased her. She went into the cottage, looked around, and decided to spend the night there. Later, on her way to sleep, she thought of her husband, and was grateful to him for having found this place. She decided to try living there for a while.
From the outset it was as though the absence of human companionship, an absence which she had dreaded, was compensated for by the feverish life of the plants, the activity of the insects, and the tenuous presence of Rafael. Little by little she became aware of the forest’s tiny miracles, and she learned how to resign herself to the inconveniences: the ever-present ants, the constant sweating, the mosquitoes at twilight and at dawn.
After supper she would go out and sit in the rocking chair and stay listening to the voices of the earth, metallic and hypnotic. During the day she liked to walk among the trees along a narrow path cleared by her husband. She would walk until she was tired, and relax among the vines to breathe in the scent of branches and dead leaves. From time to time she caught a strange butterfly, or gathered flowers whose names she did not know.
One night when rain fell unceasingly, the sound of it on the palm-thatched roof kept her from sleeping and for the first time she was troubled by her husband’s death. Like the rain that was starting to drip into the room, fear began to seep into her consciousness. A heavy drop landed next to her pillow; she got up and pushed the bed into the middle of the room. There were flashes of lightning. As she was finally on her way to falling asleep, by a bolt of lightning she saw Rafael in the doorway, watching her. She blinked her eyes, and considered stretching her arm out to light a match; then she realized with relief that she had been wrong. The face was a stain in the wood. She breathed deeply and sank into sleep.
ln the morning when the sun was high, she opened her eyes and heard Rafael working in the kitchen. The air was sweet with the smell of corn. Needles of sunlight pushed between the slits in the ceiling, a fly buzzed. She made her bed and dressed to go out.
Morning, said Rafael, showing his yellow teeth.
She went to sit on the porch. Rafael put the tray on the small table beside her chair. As he was pouring her coffee, she turned and looked into the distance, saying in a hushed voice:· I’ve been thinking of Don Ricardo.
He stared at her an instant, surprised; then he looked away and lifted his head. Don Ricardo, he said. The light moved on the surface of the lagoon. Lucy raised her cup, and he turned and went into the kitchen.
That morning, instead of taking her walk in the forest, Lucy went to the end of the dock and spread out a towel to sunbathe. She thought of the past; it was empty and vague. Memory dissolved in the heat.
The sun burned her face. She heard Rafael push his rowboat into the water. Sitting up, she saw him row past the dock. I’m going to see if there’s any fish, he told her, continuing to row toward the other bank.
She lay face down, looking at the white flowers under the water; then she shut her eyes in order not to think.
The heat became intense. She plunged into the water and swam back and forth at the end of the dock. Then she came out and let the sun dry her. On her way to the house, she noticed that the door to the hut under the banana plants was open. She glanced behind her — only the still water — and walked rapidly to the door, peering into the dark interior.
There was a large earthenware pot in the corner, resting on some stones that kept it from touching the floor; underneath it were ashes and dead embers. She stopped, astounded, in the middle of the room. In the air, near her face, an enormous toad was staring at her. It opened its mouth, and she saw the glass jar and the cord that suspended it from above. The toad moved, pushing its four toes against the glass. Her fear was transformed into pity. She touched the jar with a fingernail, and the toad raised and lowered its eyelids. The cover had been pierced with a nail. In the bottom of the jar were some blades of grass and a fly. She turned it around and held it close to her face so she could examine the toad’s skin.
From some distance away came a hollow wooden sound. From the doorway she saw the boat in the middle of the lagoon. Rafael was rowing in a standing position, a stroke on the left, then on the right, never taking his eyes off the shore. She felt a trickle down her spine, and she realized that her hair was dripping wet. She went out of the hut, leaving drops of water on the floor where she had stood.
That noon Rafael served her a fish stew. She tasted it without pleasure, and left it almost intact. He asked her if anything was the matter with the food. No, the food was good, but the sun had taken away her appetite. After he had disappeared into his hut to take his siesta, she went to the kitchen and prepared herself a dish of fruit.
She must speak to Rafael. His treatment of the toad was cruel. She thought of the wrinkled skin, the unhappy eyes behind the glass. Sitting on the porch, she looked out over the lagoon and thought of her husband’s ashes.
She rose from the rocking chair and went silently – the afternoon was very still – to the open door of the hut. Rafael, crouching with his back to her, was playing with the toad, which he had taken out of the jar and was poking with a stick. The cornered toad puffed itself out threateningly; above its eyes had appeared pointed black ridges, like horns.
She took a few steps back, and called out loudly: Rafael! He jumped up and stuck his head outside the door.
I’m sorry, she said. I need some lemons. Do you think you could go and buy some?
When Rafael had gone, taking the road to the village, Lucy drew back the bolt and pushed open the door to the hut. The toad was once again in the jar. She unscrewed the top, put the jar on the floor, and urged the toad out of the room with her foot. She bolted the door again and went back to the porch. The sun was getting close to the horizon.
Rafael returned at dusk. There were no lemons, he said as he walked past her, on his way to the hut. Lucy watched him as she rocked in the chair. She saw him open the door and go in. Then suddenly he rushed out again, as if he had been pushed. He looked here and there on the ground, behind the bushes that surrounded the hut, under the banana plants, in the ditch beside the path, and between the stalks of the canebrake. He returned to the hut and searched once more, and after that he stood in the doorway looking out.
What is it? Lucy called. She saw him coming toward her, his head lowered.
Is something wrong?
Somebody went into my house.
The mosquitoes were biting her. Somebody? When?
Rafael glanced behind him. You didn’t see anybody?
There was a full moon, and the air was still. Before supper, Lucy went out and stood on the shore looking at the sky. She knew that her lie had offended Rafael. For a moment she felt like admitting her wrongdoing, but then silence seemed the better course.
The food was on the table. Listlessly she finished all the fish; this was to please him. (Now she felt sorry for him.) In a low voice she begged his pardon. Rafael served himself and said good night. When the candle in his hut no longer burned, she went into her room.
In the night she awoke to feel a weight on her abdomen. She felt it move upward across her chest. It was something cold, it was crawling now on her neck, and it stopped at her mouth.
She could not move: her limbs were heavy. Then she saw the toad, its body swelling …
She threw back the sheet and jumped out of bed. There was a bitter taste in her mouth. She seized a flashlight, ran into the bathroom, and tried to be sick. Letting the water run, she put her head under the tap. Then she sat down on the bathmat and found that she was unable to get up again. In the mirror she saw the flashlight shining.
*This story is taken from: Dust on Her Tongue © Rodrigo Rey Rosa, 1989, 1992; English translation by Paul Bowles, 1989.