An original short story set in Mexico
Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away,
I will go my way to the mountain of myrrh and
to the hill of frankincense.
-Song of Solomon
Summer day of bougainvillea, wild poinsettia and swaying jacarandas – carefree, carefree – a dry wind carried the restless spirit of the future on its back, fanned by strange fires in young Pablo Graf’s head.
He was a mere slip of a youth. He’d drunk two cans of Pacífico and felt slightly befuddled. His best friend, a boy called Omar Sánchez, sat on the bed playing guitar. Pablo picked up the gun – a left-handed .22 rifle his father had given him on his 12th birthday – assuming it was not loaded, and broke the cardinal rule: to assume the opposite. In forgetting this wisdom, Pablo charted his destiny while consuming his friend’s: for the rifle was robed in sudden death. The physical action of the curled forefinger, an effortless gesture – and an eye fills with blood; a hole is registered through the brain.
Do you feel lucky, punk?
Omar gazed at the rifle trained at his chest, and no presentiment crossed his brow. He knew it was Pablo’s gun; he had gone pheasant hunting with him and his old man in the past among the gullies of hills of valleys extending to the great volcano of Popocatépetl. He’d never brought down a thing with it. Now, at this moment, there was no time left on earth for a perturbed expression to appear on the boy’s face, fresh and at ease, tanned by the afternoons of summer.
The rifle discharged, firing a few degrees above the V-sight and jerking on the report. Omar’s heart was left untouched, free to beat a brief second after the bullet tore through his left eye and into his brain. He fell dead upon the bed.
As simple as that.
The air set off an aroma of metallic horror. Pablo stood frozen like a snapshot, cauterized by his action, his mind an ocean of white noise. His eardrums rapidly filled with rushing, hollow winds. It vacuumed off the buildings, gouged away the trees, and staved Pablo’s soul. He heard the rifle go off again, a faint cork popping amidst the turbulence of the storm in his head, that echo of an immutable action bouncing off the wild universe, to an enfeebled present: to reality.
The onslaught of the mental tempest subsided, replaced by a mute chamber. Pablo didn’t know which was worse, the noise or the silence. Now he took in the scene with something approaching sobriety, cold and clear the act – as if he’d turned into an insect that had just flown into the room and was observing details with its weird, refracted vision: a mouth open, tongue lolling out of it stale and grotesque on a landscape of skin; fingers twisted in the strings of the guitar; eye socket springing rivulets of blood, staining the bedspread beneath the rested head.
To say nothing of poor Sánchez, events like this occur in the lives of the cursed, namely young Pablo, the shooter. The cursed amble along the illusory path of free will without the faintest inkling of the monstrous cosmic hand about to be dealt them. They step into a tableau of irredeemable evil as if as a vague actor wandering onto the wrong set. An unhappy deed, the misery of fate, and the guilty stay guilty all their lives. And it’s not from the moment of our first breath that we begin the riddle of our journey to death. It’s from the moment of guilt.
Seven years passed. Pablo roamed listlessly through the numberless menial jobs and pinched, searching faces. They were meaningless stopovers on a stillborn planet… It was only his friend, his only friend, who stayed by his side – in the dark rooms of the city, from cantina to cantina, gliding like a conferring shadow through his waking dreams. Pablo’s anima was ghost; his blood pumped the memory and marrow of Omar, the holy boy. Pablo tried to wear his pale mask of normality, but it was an uncomfortable fit. It became tighter with the wearing. He began to sweat inside it; he hated the suffocating heat of it – and the lie of the mask itself. He crossed over into secret streets, the underworld of derelicts, Jobs and whores – where sex is violence, and everybody knew they were lost and sick, because they were the cursed. They all came from somewhere, and they all ended up in the same place.
That’s his blood shifting in there.
Pablo groaned. He experienced the familiar rollercoaster sensation in his stomach. Self-pity welled in his ribs, and he heaved a sad sigh.
-You know you’re scum, he chided himself wearily, just hunch your shoulders and sink the drink. Down the throat went the cheap headache booze on its nightly rendezvous. The momentary clarity after a good toss followed, and Pablo took in the shambles around him. The God-awful mess everywhere.
-Get a Flecha Roja… split.
Another drink and the walls slid a little to one side. He sensed Omar’s presence, on the fang from Guilt Land. A little chat – although Omar usually did the talking. Pablo might try; the words formed in his brain but rarely issued from his lips. That was enough for Omar – he could read his thoughts, he gave Pablo his thoughts, and it always seemed to Pablo as if he were wandering the long mirrored halls of a dream, even though he knew he wasn’t dreaming.
Omar says: Remember Puerto Angel? We caught a crab, and lit a fire. It made a funny hissing sound when you threw it into the flames. We did it with a carp at the river that time, too. We were cruel! The sea became a creamy green, the wind rose, and red sparks blew off the fire. It was like big old God Himself come to punish us.
He says: I have a ticket on the train for you tonight. Do you know where?
It’s going all the way, Pablo…
Pablo shifted in a drunken half-slumber, knocking over something or other, hearing a smash and pieces of things scattering across the floor. The odor of some foul poison rose to his nostrils. It smelled as if the room itself had been abruptly conveyed to some putrescent corner of Hell. The hallucinatory stench – of rotting, incinerated crab and carp – was spirited away by a hushed breeze, seemingly from nowhere but which came, perhaps, from the same place as his friend.
In the morning he came to and dragged himself out of bed. His head was killing him, otherwise, he was alive. He hadn’t regurgitated in his sleep – to choke and die a merciful death; and yet he abhorred the idea of conscious suicide. He looked around for a cigarette, found one, then hunted for the lighter. He located the Bic and flicked – it angrily sprung into life, shooting the flame past the tip of his nose and into his hair that hung in greasy strips over his forehead singeing the hair ssshht. Tiny gray flakes danced past his eyes. The air stank.
Pablo stared at his hands. They were his hands, nobody else’s hands.
Sure, I’ve made a few mistakes in my time, a few mistakes, a mistake here or there, we all do, all of us. I’ve made a few s-small…
Pablo staggered into the kitchen and saw Raphael de la Luz sitting at the table reading a newspaper. He smelled coffee, walked gingerly past the rent to a half-empty plunger, and poured himself a cup.
Raphael was a relief in stone. His slick black hair was swept back; he wore a red tracksuit and his thin, cold sore lips tightly shut. He bore some resemblance to Rudolph Valentino, or affected to, and could play the part with a good deal of panache, when he felt like it. Raphael was, however, somewhat the opposite of his role model. He possessed no charm. Pablo stared at the back of his head.
-Back from your jog?
-I’ve been back some time, Raphael curtly replied.
Yet hadn’t he always changed his colors, adopted a disguise to suit the occasion, or avoid danger? As a young child, Pablo was a natural talent at hide-and-seek. He knew how to hide. No one ever found him. He was the undisputed king of the block.
Once, he disappeared for half a day. The gang had set no geographical boundaries for the game, and so Pablo stole off through a sewer tunnel on a long journey. The sewer was quiet and wet. The further he went, the hotter it became, but he kept penetrating that tunnel, constantly aware that kids sometimes drowned this way – like when it was on the TV during the Wet Season after a storm and some little runt had got himself drowned like a rat in a flooded sewer.
Kids love sewers.
But it was a nice day, and when he came out the other end, Pablo found himself in just another dreary suburb of the endless, relentless city. He won the game, through, and when he finally reached his house that night, his friends had long since gone home, his parents were furious and beside themselves with fear – for children disappeared in this city with monotonous regularity – and his father thrashed him.
It was worth it. He knew how to hide.
Perhaps he wasn’t reading, either.
She’s in a mood.
Pablo pondered this for a moment, and meandered into a hangover daydream, his mind an anemone blindly sloshing along a sewer, borne by the sea. He was a thousand centuries from home, from meaning, from anything that could be understood.
-Well? Raphael snapped.
Pablo drew a blank. What does she want? Pablo sat at the table opposite Raphael. He crossed his legs and stared out the window at the uniformly gray day. The rain would come in the afternoon, spitting.
She’s often like this; you give a body what it wants but it’s never enough, they got to have it all, strip you of your soul, your flesh. I’m not her mother, I don’t ask questions. She might take me off the streets, take me off the streets, but…
Pablo stubbed his cigarette in an empty ashtray. Raphael slammed down the paper. He shot Pablo a dark look.
-Well? Pablo echoed.
-You got drunk again and trashed my stuff.
Raphael angrily resumed his perusal of the paper, loudly shaking the pages to the Sports section.
Now I know she’s not reading it.
The young-old man pouted, put down the paper and sighed. He knotted his brows into creases of suffering, put on his pained, I won’t forgive you until you blow me look that always filled Pablo with such dangerous revulsion.
If only Raphael knew.
-You destroyed a vase my grandmother gave me. An antique. From Oaxaca. It’s been in the family for 35 years.
-I… I don’t remember.
-That’s beside the point!
Pablo stared at the wall.
Pablo only half-recalled what he’d done: some vague notion, a spontaneous gesture that had made perfect sense at the time.
He narrowed his eyes, finished the coffee.
-How can I make it up to you?
-How can I make it up to you right now?
-I… I’m very tense. You animal. You beast…
-You’re smiling again.
Yes, Raphael was smiling again.
Pablo felt the strange gig descend… How many had it been? And when that… feeling came, there was no telling where it might lead or how it might end.
Raphael forgot his mood.
He rose from the chair.
He was willing to pay.
Omar says: I wade through vapors; the creatures are decaying on the nose – the hybrid I store for my corruption. I’ll make you think your swan is a crow.
The words intoned within his mind.
What’s this? The organ grinds a sideshow circus lament, traverses a divide lying across infertile valleys, seeking the flat delta beside the sea. You see me. I am shallow, diaphanous – you want what I have; you rise and fall, swirl like dry ice. Your lips are cut and dried. I’ll lace your marble veins. Your features are gangrenous. You dissipate… you fade before me…
At some point during these reveries Raphael stopped bellowing in his desperate ecstasies. It was always going to go that way.
She’s paid in full, yeah, paid in full, full, full. You like it like that. You liked it… like… my hands… my hands – cover your tracks. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. It’s only a question of covering one’s tracks….
He smelled something burning. It was the cigarette, boring a smoky hole in the bedding. Strains of mariachi from distant blocks. The moaning, otherworldly cry of a steam whistle sounded by a vendor of baked sweet potatoes, or fried bananas. A police siren. Some cop’s gnarled alien voice on a loudspeaker exhorting immovable lines of traffic to move along, move along. Grimy sink in the room. He splashed water over his face and stared at the faded mirror.
On the make at a cantina that night but getting drunk, stripping himself of desirability with every gulp of the tequila – hard, hot and straight: Pablo the Stripper. Once he started, he could never stop. Never ever stop. He saw the apartment building on a TV news broadcast. Surrounded by cameras and lights and police, a reporter blurted away at the screen while behind him a sheet-covered body was led out on an ambulance stretcher. A foot lolled from out the sheet, stale and grotesque. A red tracksuit, staining the bedspread beneath the rested head…
Raphael was something of a personality. A soap opera actor.
The heat in this place is unbelievable.
He’d hop a Flecha Roja, split. Yet Omar wouldn’t let go of his mind. He bore into it undeviatingly, the way the cigarette had burned through the sheets – the physical action of the curled forefinger.
Pablo ordered another tequila.
A middle-aged tramp stared at him; she was with a drunken trick. She raised an eyebrow at Pablo and cocked her head at the trick, winked, silently mouthed something with her lips. Pablo nodded back, borrowed a pen from the barman. Writing his room number on a napkin he walked over to her, laid the napkin on the table.
She took it. He walked out of the bar.
Omar’s voice – and other voices – flowed in like a flood in a sewer to fill the black hole in Pablo’s head. He couldn’t say a thing. He had no say in it. He was filling up; drowning inside his head. The soft purple buds from the jacarandas of a distant park, borne by the wind, floated aimlessly down from the sky, landing on his prostrate body, settling across his back in an impromptu bouquet.
Pablo lay sprawled on the sidewalk in a catatonic stupor, oblivious to the wail of sirens bearing toward him, the briny stench in his nostrils, the faces of derelicts, Jobs and whores hovering over him, the strains of mariachi from distant blocks, or the cries of steam whistles from vendors of baked sweet potatoes or fried bananas; hollow winds vacuuming off buildings, gouging away trees, faint corks popping amidst storms, the wild universe: wild is the wind of outer space.
For he now lived inside the words of Omar, the ghost’s plaintive smile staved his soul of its inexpiable guilt. They could come… they could all come now. The shelf life of the cursed is a short one. Pablo was like a maggot in the flesh of some forgotten carcass – crawling in it, subsisting on it, dreaming of the day he would fly.
He lay there in silence – carefree, carefree – waiting for the journey to begin.