A Man Walks In and Takes Off His Hat: When the Devil Visits Colombia




This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15,  Revolution

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“YOU KNOW,” Yaneth says, “I saw the devil once.” Yaneth is my grandmother’s nurse, and she says this as she wipes my grandmother’s chin with a napkin.

I’m sitting across from them, at the kitchen table in my grandmother’s Bogotá apartment. Right where I would sit after birthdays and Sunday dinners listening to my grandmother tell me about all the ghosts that used to haunt her, and every demon that would — she promised — someday devour me.
I pause, “Do you mean the actual devil?”

My grandmother doesn’t tell me stories anymore, doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t speak to anyone but Yaneth. Oh but when we are alone, you should see it, Lina! How she goes on and on, isn’t that true Doña Josefina? I’ve never seen it, and doubt I ever will. It’s difficult to picture this silent woman alone in a room with Yaneth — lively, friendly, arms waving, head thrown back — carcajadas, risas y sonrisas. I struggle to remember my grandmother laughing at all as I stare at her, slumped in a chair with a spine like a melting candle and eyes that skip shallowly over every object in view like pebbles across a black lake. Oh, how she tells me stories, don’t you Doña Josefina?

“The very one.” Yaneth says, “I saw the devil.” While she feeds my grandmother beige slop and the metal spoon makes a plastic thud when it crashes against her dentures. “El mismísimo diablo.” My grandmother opens and closes her mouth like a bird in an abandoned nest.

“Really?” I straighten my back and lean in close.

My grandmother’s maid, Kelly, emerges from the kitchen, beating something in a plastic bowl. “You know, the devil used to appear a lot more often, before.”

Yaneth nods, “Oh yeah, back when. Real often.”

Both Kelly and Yaneth are from the more rural and tropical parts of Colombia, Mompox and Chiriguaná respectively, and it goes without saying that I stand at a great disadvantage in most things magical, being from the temperate-weather Andean capital. I don’t know what it is like being from a place where the heat rises from the earth and descends from the sky, and crushes everything in between and the devil still bothers to shows up every so often. “At least,” Kelly says, “He used to.”

“Like when?” I tap a granadilla fruit on the table cracking its thin-skull orange shell.

“Like,” Yaneth feeds my grandmother another spoonful, “Few years back, my mom’s friend’s friend, she saw him.”

“Wait. What?” I expected centuries, many decades at least.

Yaneth barely acknowledges my confusion and carries on with her story. “My mother’s friend’s friend, she saw him and told her how it happened.” Yaneth turns for a moment, to remind my grandmother to swallow, Ahí, mamá, traga, traga. Así sí. “He was a nightmare, this terrible-terrible boy.”

“Like … how terrible?” I ask while Kelly lingers in the doorframe, beating and nodding, “Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hm,” like she’s seen the devil too.

“This boy, he used to throw these tantrums and yell and scream. Terrible boy. He hit his own mother even!” My grandmother hangs on Yaneth’s every word, though I doubt she can understand much of it anymore. “But his mother, she was good, forgiving. A saint. So one day,” Yaneth takes a breath, “she brings out his dinner — like always — a humble meal, and she sets it down right in front of him.”

“Uh-huh.” I say, peeling the orange shell from around the white-felt inner skin.

“And you know what he does?” Yaneth swallows saliva and opens her mouth to remind my grandmother how it’s done. “This boy, he picks up the plate, and he throws it!”

“He didn’t!” I say, “Did he?” I imagine myself as a child throwing a plate at my formidable Colombian mother, and I remember the swing, snap, and sting of her leather shoe striking my skin.

“The gall.” I say.

“Yes,” Yaneth agrees. “He was a terrible boy. Smashes it all to bits against the wall.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Then what?”

“Well then comes a knock at the door.”

“Right away?”

Right away.”

“Do they answer?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.” Yaneth raises her eyebrows and turns her head, “Not they … he. The boy opens the door.”

“Oh … I see.”

Kelly is frying sweet plantain for lunch, but manages to emerge just at the right moments to punctuate the story with a nod or a sigh, as if to say, Yeah, that sounds right.

“Wait, wait, wait…” I say pulling out a pen and a few napkins from the dispenser.

A tall man.

“In a suit.”

A tall man in a suit. With fangs, and horns, and skin like melting wax.

“No.”

“No?”

“Just a suit. And he’s handsome, and dark skinned too.”

I look at Yaneth skeptically, “Are you sure?” I’m looking at her dark, freckled complexion and wonder if she’s not just making devils in her ownimage.

She raises an eyebrow, “Yes. Also, he’s handsome. Did you already write that part down?”

The terrible boy opens the door and finds a man in a suit. He is dark skinned and handsome.  The man does not wait to be invited in, he simply walks in, and removes his hat.

“No, no, Lina.” Yaneth scoffs. “Are you crazy? The devil does not wear a hat!”
I scratch out the sentence and start again.

He walks in and wipes his forehead with a white handkerchief.

“Yes,” Yaneth agrees. “It’s very hot. The handkerchief would make sense.”

He approaches the boy and surveys the damage. Lentils and rice drip down from the wall and  onto the shattered porcelain on the floor. He takes a deep breath and says, “Boy, please open your mouth.” And the terrible boy does as he is told.

“Wait,” I interrupt. “Really? Just like that? No questions?” I grab more napkins from the dispenser.

“Of course!” Yaneth says motioning with the spoon my grandmother follows like a baited hook. “It’s the devil.”

So, because this was the devil — and that is more than reason enough — the boy opens his mouth.

“But are you sure?” I insist. “Because, I think … If it were me, I might resist. At least a little.”

“Well,” Yaneth taps her chin. “Maybe, a little,” she concedes.

But no one is ever willingly dragged to hell so the terrible boy snaps his mouth shut again and yells at the man in the suit, “No! I won’t. And who are you to make me?” But the devil does not respond. The devil does not have to. He glows white-blue-black, the flickering of cold flames, and with a “tsk” of his tongue the boy’s jaw drops, and he stands there wide-mouthed. Then the man reaches inside.

“Wait.” I have ripped the napkin with my pen. “Into the boy’s mouth?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The boy’s jaws are locked in place, pried open with invisible jacks as the man slides his hand inside. Like plumbers reach into clogged gutters, like magicians reach into hats. No rush at all as he digs his fingernails into the boy’s tongue.

 “I’m not sure about the fingernails.” Yaneth says.

“Why not?”

Mi mamá,” she crosses herself in memory of her dead mother, “She never mentioned anything about fingernails.”

“But, it’s the devil, doesn’t it seem right? Shouldn’t he have long fingernails?”

“Hm…” Yaneth twists her mouth, wants to give this to me, but, “this is a true story,” she says.

“Of course,” I nod emphatically, “But tongues are slippery. That’s true too, right?” I wait for her to consider my point, “Even if the nails aren’t long he must have them, and squeeze hard enough, they’ll break the skin. Right? And besides, how else would one get a grip?”

“Well…” She exhales, “I guess, that is true.” She looks up at the ceiling giving it one final go over before nodding. “Yes, alright. Fingernails then.”

The man can smell the boy’s breath as he pushes him against the wall. He presses one hand against the boy’s forehead to keep the head in place while he digs sharp finger tips into a pink tongue and begins to pull. He yanks, hard. Once, twice, thrice. Like he is trying to start a rusted lawnmower. Once, twice, thrice. Until little membranes start to give like the white roots of sprawling weeds, and nerves begin to send screaming pulses up the young man’s spine. The boy tries to scream but it is a difficult thing to do with a man rhythmically tugging on his tongue. Once, twice, thrice. But he is in a trance, he does not yell, he does not resist, he does not move, he allows the rhythmic motion of the tall man’s tugging. Once, twice, thrice. Again. Again. Repeat. It is as if the boy has already been tugged out of himself and is only able to watch the scene, from a little distance with the sound turned all the way down. He can only hear the sound of a fly crashing against a windowpane, lentils dripping from the wall, the fabric of the man’s coat stretching around the seams. But then, also, the fizzing taste of rust.

The boy swallows blood and suddenly, comes back into himself and he begins to squirm and struggle. He kicks the man in the ankle, kicks him in the shins. He reaches up, tries to scratch out the man’s eyes, and — for a moment — he feels the man’s grip loosen. Only a moment. Because it is just the shifting of forces. The man swats the boy’s hands away, kicks his legs out from under him. He grabs the half-torn tongue like a fistful of hair …

“But what about the mother?” I look up at Yaneth.

“What about her?” Yaneth wipes my grandmother’s chin with the metal spoon.

“Where is she while all this is happening?”

“Well…” Yaneth motions with her head to a corner in the room. “Over there,” and I look as if I might actually see a woman standing there.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well, what do you mean?”

“Wouldn’t she…” I’m not sure how to phrase it, “Intervene?”

The boy can barely scream, he gags, and gargles and chokes on his own blood. But this is enough for a mother. She feels the devil’s hand as if it were inside her own mouth and around her own throat.

So she shakes off whatever power has been holding her back and she throws herself at the man in the suit. She wraps her arms around his neck like a noose and yells at her son, “Go! Go-go-go!”

“Yes,” Yaneth concedes, “that sounds right,” patting my grandmother on the forearm. “Mothers are very forgiving.” I remember the time my younger sister split her bottom lip against the metal corner of a full-force swinging rusty jungle gym. It was a lip like an open book, pages ripped apart, a vertical line made into two horizontal ones and an endless well of red in the middle. I remember my mother pushing down crowds and kicking moving cars until she got my sister to the hospital. Like how, one day, my grandmother saved me from my mother and her leather shoe insert after I’d done something particularly egregious. “If you hit this child,” she said to my mother, “I will pull down your pants and beat you right back.” It is one of my favorite memories of her. A frail body, even then, standing between the canon and the fodder before she even knew what I’d done. As Yaneth brushes my grandmother’s hair behind her ear I also recall the time that, from her wheelchair, she tried to beat Yaneth with her cane.

It is only a moment. A few seconds, no more. But a few seconds are enough for the young man to kick his way out from under the man in the suit and run to the door. He is going to leave the room. He is going to run outside, into the bushes, down the river, and out of town. He is going to disappear and he is going to buy stationary in a corner shop in Madrid, in Buenos Aires, in Bogotá. And he is going to write his mother a letter from a far-off city where the devil does not appear so often. An apology on pink stationary with little white flowers on the corners, like the ones on his mother’s favorite china, the one he broke against the wall all those years back. That’s what the boy — because really he still only just a boy — tells himself, between one moment and the next. But somewhere in the mesh of white nylon ligaments and red yarn nerves he already knows that he will never leave this room again.

He hears whispers the instant he places his hand on the doorknob. A cold, burning, solid sound. Something mercurial and acidic that flows and fills, and then congeals between the spaces of his ear canals and the lock on the door. He feels the sound like squirming pus and swelling eggs in his inner ear, and he screams. He clutches his ears and despite the crimson sound pulsing behind his eyes he still tries to turn the knob. But, of course, there’s no use. He tries to pull and then to push, and then he bangs his fists on the wood as if someone were waiting for him on the other side. Since the knob won’t turn, the boy finally does. The man stands perfectly still and perfectly composed in the middle of the room as a fly hits the glass one last time and collapses on the windowsill.

There are no stains on the man’s suit, no scrapes where he has been struck, no prints where he has been kicked, and no blood on his hands at all, so the boy begins to understand. This is not the devil of contracts and compromises, this is the devil of gavels and scales. His pockets are full of pulled teeth and plucked eyes, and what a mother is willing to forgive has no bearing on the task at hand. The devil tosses the woman across the room and she lands, unconscious, on top of shards of broken china. The man does not take his eyes off of the boy; he seems immobile and frozen in place, like he’s always been there, like the jungle, always gnawing at the edges of the cities of men. Only of course he must have moved, he must have, because he was there, just right there and then here, now, with his hand around the boy’s throat and tossing him to the ground. Then the man in the suit puts a foot on the boy’s neck, and a hand insides his mouth and he pulls out the tongue like a sword from a stone.

My handwriting has devolved into feral scratches while I try to catch up, and Yaneth gently wipes my grandmother’s mouth with a clean napkin, calling her “mami” and “mamá,” looking at her with more tenderness than I’ve ever mustered for anything on this earth. And I wonder if Yaneth knows that my grandmother would never have allowed this before her mind began to slip. “They never know their place, these people,” she used to say, “always trying to ‘ingualarcele a uno.’ Sit at the table with you, as if they were anything like you, same as you. The gall!” I feel a tightness in my chest.

“That’s it, what must have happened.”

I look up at her, “Then what?”

“Then what what?”

“Then … the end?”

Yaneth pauses, tilts her head back, looking at the ceiling like people glance at dictionaries and tarot decks. “History!” My grandmother used to correct me, “Not stories, Lina. History is what I tell you.

“He pulls,” Yaneth clarifies, “until the boy is dead.”

“The boy is dead.”

“Yes. Of course, Lina, what did you think?”

“And then?”

“He leaves.”

 

I remember standing in hallways and behind doors as a child, secretly listening to adults and news anchors as they named and counted the ways the men in the jungle, in the mountains, and the back alleys, might cut up a body. The one where the penis was stuck inside the mouth, the testicles inside the mouth, the head tucked like a baby in the wrapped arms of a headless torso, the belly hollowed out like a vase and severed limbs stuck inside it like wilting flowers; the one where the tongue is slipped through a slit in the neck like a very short tie. This one for the snitch, this one for the traitor, this one for the liberal, this one for the copper. This one, and this one, and this one for the terrible man, terrible woman, terrible child. For the terribly unlucky and terribly helpless in those terrible times.

This was before I knew anything. Before I knew that the tongue is a circular muscle and not a long strip of wet leather sliding down a constricting throat. Knew that it would take quite a bit of practice, patience, and knife-work to get the job done, get it to look right. Or how we get one violencia mixed up with another, get tangled in the mess of severed limbs laid out at our feet. It wasn’t the cartels’ innovation, like I first learned, but the Chulavitas during La Violencia of the ’40s and ’50s that in defense of their land and their party first reimagined the body like a set of spare parts to reassemble into grotesque threats and monstrous metaphors of an alienated nation.

I rest my face in my hands and think how my grandmother was barely 18 when La Violencia started, already two years into a decade of savage rural massacres and mutilations; then barely 20 when she married an air force pilot at the beginning of what would become a five decade civil conflict; and barely 32 when that pilot, fighting what would become one of the major guerilla groups in that conflict, fell to earth strapped to a faulty parachute. Dominoes, and bread crumbs, and chain-smoker wars — one lighting the next, and the next, and the next. I feel my face beneath my fingers and want to poke them through my skin like pencils into a ripe plum. “I thought … I don’t know. That it was just a tongue. That he might live after all.”

“He doesn’t.”

“No. Of course not.”

“It’s the devil, Lina.”

“Yes, I know.” I write “until dead” on my napkin, and retrace the words until they are bold.

“And then?” I ask, “The end?”

“Yes.”

Kelly leans on the doorframe and makes a sort of tsking sound with her mouth. “See?” She exchanges glances with Yaneth once more. “He used to appear more often, antes que ahora.” This, in the same tone people use when talking about global warming and violence on television.

“It’s a real shame.”

I start brushing crumbs, pieces of granadilla shell and scrap pieces of torn napkin off the edge of the table and into my hand, but Kelly immediately rushes over, nudges my hand out of the way, and catches the trash in her own palm. This wordless motion turns my stomach.

“But, what do you mean, Kelly,” I say, using slang and the informal you to try to counter history, social class, and this sinking feeling in my stomach.

“What do you mean, what do I mean?”

She’s told me how much she hates the rain of the capital, the cold nights, the cold people. How much she missed her hometown, her family, and how the heat rises and falls and crushes everything in between. Then she sighs again and repeats that it’s just such a shame the devil doesn’t come around as often as he used to.

“Why?” I insist, “Why would you want him back? He’s the devil.”

Kelly pops back out holding a jar and she and Yaneth exchange glances, reminding me how out of the loop I really am. I stare at my grandmother as she sucks on her dentures and stares blankly, and I wonder if they know that in this one thing she isn’t one of mine, but one of theirs.

“Back when,” Yaneth says, “He’d show up and put things right.” She takes a deep breath and seems suddenly exhausted as she exhales, “Put people in their place.”

“Sometimes,” Kelly speaks slowly, formally, and deferentially as if there is some old and unspoken debt between us, “You just wish he’d come back and do what he used to.”

Kelly is small, skin the color of milk molasses, about an inch shorter than me, and about six months younger. She has a little boy, a husband who sometimes finds work in construction sites, and this large extended family that waits with bated breath for her to return for carnivals and bull runs.

“You see all these people. They do all these things. They do what they like, take what they want. And in broad daylight too. Like it’s nothing, and we are no one and it’s all actually true now. It doesn’t matter what they do to us because we don’t matter enough, because nothing happens when they take and do what they do, and no one comes when it happens. And that’s how it is,” she looks at me, “They made it true.” Not stories, Lina, histories. She sighs like she has the whole weight of mountain ranges and civil wars bearing down on her shoulders, and I imagine arms and legs bursting out of hollow-pumpkin stomachs. Then Kelly meets my eyes. “We’re nothing to them,” she says, “And their opinion is all that matters, so that’s what we are now.” Nada. She looks at me as if I’m supposed to know what to say next, as if we weren’t the same age, lived in the same country, through the same history. But then, of course we haven’t. I am my grandmother’s granddaughter, I am pale and when I was given the chance to leave, I did.

Yaneth wipes drool from my grandmother’s blank face.“I don’t know,” says Kelly. “I wonder if there’s going to be something like a second flood, or something.”

“A reckoning.” I say.

“Yes,” Kelly nods. “A reckoning, that’s what.”

Bogotá is a city of overflow canals, twice daily rain, mudslides, and aisles full of umbrellas; it’s not so hard to imagine it underwater. To see my lifeless body amid nine million others as we float up slowly to the surface while carving knives and rifles sink to the bottom. It’s not so hard. My grandmother — olive green eyes, skin that blisters in the sun, veins as full of blood-thinner as the blood of a mixed heritage she would never admit to. I try to shake the image of water rising around her — toothless, frail, and wordless.

“But Yaneth. You haven’t told us yet about the time you saw the devil.”

Yaneth’s complexion is a more decided mix of races than Kelly’s indigenous-European brand, and I stupidly wish that my own skin would show more of the complications of my own disparate heritage. Darker like my maternal aunt’s skin or the burnt-sugar tan of my younger sister’s skin after a day in the sun. But I burn like a fuse, like hot oil and red wax. My skin shows only one side of this history, and one fraction of all the factions in my veins. When my blisters peel off, I go back to being pink and pale and raw. My grandmother used to tell me, “Your skin is my skin. Good, soft, and white — like mine,” with pursed lips and head held high. “After how you were born, what a relief.” Every birthday without fail, “You were the ugliest baby I’d ever seen. Black! Purple-black! And for a moment we thought you’d never get normal.”

I pull my sleeves down to my wrists. “Well, Lina, here it is then.” Yaneth takes a deep breath and I start pulling out scraps of paper from my pockets and bag, until I find an empty envelope to scribble on. “There was this thing I used to say, to dare him to appear.”

I’m shocked; I gasp. This is the woman who told me that one should always sleep with open scissors beneath one’s pillow to scare off witches, See how they make the sign of the cross when you open them? Oh! And also, remember to leave a mound of salt by the front door and needles on the windowsill. Lina, that’s very important. Witches cannot help themselves, and when they see a pile of needles or a mound of salt, they must count every spindle and every grain. And that takes a long time, and then morning comes. Light chases away shadows and witches, and I imagine a trail of needles and salt like breadcrumbs back to the devil’s doorstep.
I just can’t believe it.

“Yaneth, really?”

“Yes, and, Lina.” She is speaking quickly, making my grandmother nervously sink further back into her chair, “You can write it all. Every bit I tell you, except the chant.”

I hesitate, “But…”

“Lina,” She stops me. “You can’t.” With the look of a woman handing over a lit match and a full gas can. “These words are powerful. You can’t.”

“Ok, but why would you even chant at all?”

My grandmother shakes gently and reaches for Yaneth’s hand. “Ay, ay.” Yaneth shakes her head, “Aish. Well, I didn’t quite think it would work. Did I?” She laughs, but it is tense laughter. This is not a story.

A girl walks through the country roads of Chiriguaná with her best friend. They leap into the air, they twirl around one another. The warnings to stay close to the road only push them further and further away.

My grandmother is getting restless. She fidgets and whimpers like a restless child; she was a frail, asthmatic little girl. Neither of her parents’ favorite child and possibly, as a result, she grew into a hypochondriac and a storyteller.

Then the girl’s best friend picks up a stick and taps the fence as they walk beside it, and she begin to sing a secret song to a barbwire beat.

My grandmother’s tales were my first literature. I know them by heart. The one about the ghost soldier banging his ghost shoes against her airbase bedroom door. The one where, standing in a yellow shrub garden, she told her very young granddaughters that the homeless man across the street would probably drag them to hell one day. The one about the day when her husband’s parachute failed to open and he fell full-force into the earth’s. “I heard it,” she said. From miles and miles away, it sounded like “a silver pen striking the tile floor.” The spirits let her know, she told me, and my mother and aunts can still remember crawling on hands and knees that Sunday afternoon looking for a ghost pen while their father fell from the sky.
“Histories, Lina.”

They’ve done this before. Twice as many times, at least, as the times they’ve been told not to. They hold hands and spin around like a flashing carnival ride, singing faster and faster with each turn.

Maybe she saw the devil too. Looked at a history book, sat in a classroom, stared out from the coast and back into the former colony, and concluded that the devil lived in the details of accent, place, heritage, social class, and color. She was grateful that her own skin did not show all of her. She practiced telling people she was from Bogotá, she practiced the flat-edged accent of cold, pale Bogotá. Forcing her mouth to drop the long coastal vowels, pick up the R’s and hold down the L’s.

Nothing is expected to happen. The girls don’t actually expect it to work. “Little devil come and play. With your sisters made of clay. Devil listen, devil pray. Come and play, come and play.” Though, of course, if there were absolutely no chance it would work, there would also be no point in playing.

My grandmother’s whimpering intensifies as Yaneth attempts to imitate herself as a child, and through a slit in the door, I see Kelly making the sign of the cross again, and again, and again.

The girls spin faster and faster until the blood pools in the back of their heads and they see each other grow pale and flat-faced in their improvised centrifuge and finally one of them lets go. One watching the other fly off into a whirling blur and collapse on to the ground.

A half turn and a full stumble, the standing girl remains standing as if my divine grace. She stumbles, and tilts. She nearly falls into the barbwire fence but rights herself by grabbing a hold of the fence posts, then she closes her eyes and tries to catch her breath. Hears the pounding of blood in her ear and the wolf-huffing of her lungs. And after her heart has settled and she has caught her breath, the gasping sound remains. And even before she has opened her eyes she knows that it is not the wind she feels on her cheeks, nor her own breath she hears so loudly and so clearly. Then she opens her eyes and comes face to face with a massive black dog.

The Chulavitas were named after a single dirt path in Boyaca. Just one. A conservative leaning country road built on the edge of a once holy city of the Muisca Confederation of tribes where, I imagine, many little girls must have also ran up and down the weed paths. Must have sung songs and played games while the Spaniards marched up steep Andean paths, while African slaves formed independent Palenque settlements, while a liberal leader was murdered in Bogotá, while their parents sharpened their machetes to the sound of radios reporting how liberals were — that very second — tearing out the beating heart of their beloved country.

Red eyes. But not the color of stop lights and lipstick. Full, and deep, like bubbles of blood about to pop. It does not snarl, it does not move. A steady stream of saliva drips from its mouth and steam rises from its nostrils. The girl can smell its breath, can feel the dampness of it on her cheeks. “Yaneth, Yaneth, Yaneth.” The dog says. “Yaneth, Yaneth.” These words have power. In a low gravel growl, an almost human sound, repeating her name like an incantation.

I wonder if those little girls saw the devil too. Sculpted out of the dead, and the dying, and worn down into the blisters of their own feet as they walked the length of fields and roads to work as maids and nurses in a capital still digging itself out of the rubble of riot, rage, and revolt.

So the girl turns around, and she runs.

“Wait.” I say, “Why?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why’?” Yaneth asks patting my grandmother’s hand.

“Well, you can’t outrun the devil. Can you?”

Yaneth pauses and it seems to me like this is something she has never considered before. My grandmother looks up at her, helpless and confused. And I feel grateful for Yaneth and her loyalty, wherever it may spring from, because I love my grandmother though I know her faults, and I love my country too, though I also know that they are not few, those who have been crushed between its gears.

“No,” Yaneth says, “I guess you can’t.” She shrugs, “But, what else?”

The girl sprints without a plan. She looks over her shoulder only for a moment and only every so often because she doesn’t need to look. She can hear the dog behind her — the panting and the snarling and the wet gal-foop-gal-foop of its jowls and cheeks flapping against teeth and gums with each stride. Then a dip in the field where grass has made it seem even and flat, her foot falls through it, she trips, she begins to fall. She sees her hands go up instinctively as the ground approaches, but her legs run right under her and propel her forward with the momentum. She recovers her balance and pushes hard against the ground as if it too might be allied with the devil, and then she looks over her shoulder, the dog is still hot at her heels. She suddenly sees her uncle jumping up and down trying to get her attention on a dirt road of her hometown.

Yaneth lets go of my grandmother’s forearm for a second to illustrate the motion and this upsets my grandmother greatly. She looks up at Yaneth and whispers sentences that I can’t quite make out at first. She speaks between wheezes, thin and shrill like wind sliding through broken reeds. But Yaneth understands her perfectly. She lays her hands on hers and order is instantly restored — walls, meridians, gravity, and laws emerging from the darkness and lining the borders of my grandmother’s new universe. “It’s okay Mamá,” Yaneth says to my grandmother, “in just a minute we’ll go.”

The girl’s uncle is scrawling frantically on the dirt while she runs toward him. This would have likely struck her as odd had she not at that moment been possessed by the spirit of all the prey who ever tried to escape the snapping jaw of a predator, and failed.

Yaneth stands up to get the wheelchair and my grandmother follows her with her eyes. She briefly loses Yaneth from sight and a thin layer of panic settles on her face. In my mind, she is forever sitting on the edge of an unfathomably uncomfortable Louis XVI replica sofa, two or three feet away from where she sits now, where the living room begins. She raises her hands showing me her palms and outstretched fingers, and then one by one she touches the tip of each digit with the index finger of the opposite hand. “One, two, three,” she counts, “four, five, six, seven. That’s what he’d tell me every night.” She would remember her nights in an air force base in the middle of a jungle and a nascent civil war, watching her husband count invisible cows. “He’d sit me down and he’d show me his hand and say, ‘That’s how many we have now, Coca. That’s how many I’ve bought you and wait for us back in Mompox for when this is all done.’” This is what she looked like when she spoke of the colonel and how alone he left her in this world: a constant muted panic that outlasted her long years of mourning.

Then Yaneth parks the wheelchair next to my grandmother’s chair and sits back down.

The girl approaches the road. She sees it closing the distance as if it were moving toward her and not her toward it. She jumps over the fence and runs across the road and pictures her uncle walking to the window, across the room she shares with her siblings. He used to pile needles on the windowsill and explain witches’ uncontrollable need to count every needle and every grain of salt. “Morning will find them,” she hears him say, “And light will sweep them away.” The girl opens her eyes and finally looks over her shoulder fearing the worst.

“It was really very scary. Aish Lina!” Yaneth places her hand on her forehead and exhales, “If you had seen it. No-no-no-no-no.” In the kitchen, I see Kelly shake her head, “Only to think about it and my little hairs stand up, look, see?” She offers me her forearm as proof.

But the worst hasn’t happened. Her uncle has escaped the hell hound. He is a man who knows to leave salt on the windowsill and scissors beneath pillows, and he also knows to draw a cross in the devil’s path.

“And?”

“That was it.”

“That worked?”

“Yes.”

“It disappeared?”

“When I turned around, it was gone.”

I watch Yaneth help my grandmother into her wheelchair, picture dawn sweeping memories away like witches and demons. I think of my grandmother as a child sitting quietly at the dining room table after her father had thrown a plate across the room. Puddles of food on the floor, mounds of broken porcelain strewn around, and a streak of red sauce across her cheek while the heat of her father’s rage slipped out the window and the heat of a tropical city slipped right back inside.

I imagine her in front of a mirror practicing her new accent. It is a story she never told me, but I know it by heart: how she pulled on her own tongue and felt it tug back, as she tried desperately to correct the course of her own history. My eyes fall on my one saving grace — the pink-pale skin of my arms. I run a finger over the napkin incantation I must never share with anyone, and allow my pen to draw full circles on my skin.

 

Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas is the author of Don’t Come Back (21st Century Essays).


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