Elena’s world was divided into four parts. To the east were the mountains, where an endless war was raging. To the south spread a salt-encrusted marsh, thick with the refuse of the past. To the west, under an arrogant sun that never set, was the world of the capital, the urban splendor of art and poetry and politics. To the north was the desert of the sea, and beyond the sea, the American dreamscape of concrete and hope.
When Elena looked to the east, she saw columns of black smoke and flashes of multi-colored lights, thunderous and beautiful. Toward those lights the young men of the town went on horseback, by bicycle, and on foot. Once, early in the morning, she’d seen a tall, lanky boy on a unicycle with an old hunting rifle slung across his shoulder. On another occasion she watched a group of schoolboys stepping briskly along, singing revolutionary anthems. Most, however, passed by the truckload. They went to prove their valor before bullets and bombs, join the ruckus, feed the fires of rebellion. Those who returned came back without legs or arms. Many were missing an eye or blinded altogether or horribly disfigured by a grenade or riddled with shrapnel scars or bearing deep psychic wounds that never healed. A large number were never heard from again. That was what happened to her two brothers, Eugenio and Fermín, who went to the war with great enthusiasm, screaming out, Viva fulano! and Viva mengano! carrying rusted weapons they’d found behind sacks of potatoes in the larder of the ancestral family home. The town soon emptied of able young men, and the only ones to be seen on the streets were the crippled, the cross-eyed, the transvestites, the dim-witted, and the cowards, who made believe they were dim-witted so no one would blame them for not fighting.
Twelve months after her two brothers marched off, a man came to the house dressed in military fatigues. He had a funerary look in his eyes and a stern, thin mustache across his upper lip. He brought with him two small boxes containing the remains of the two brothers. He expressed his condolences to the family and added that Eugenio and Fermín had died heroically in service of the cause. Elena’s mother Cándida crossed herself, Elena’s father Fermín José stared at the man and asked how, and the man repeated, Heroically, in the service of the cause. What cause? Fermín José asked, and the man answered, The fight against oppression. Oppression, Fermín José said. They’d never felt oppressed, except by the summer heat and the autumn rains. The man stayed for coffee and then went back to the war. Cándida murmured a prayer, and Fermín José returned to the back of the house where the sun never shined and where, when he wasn’t at work distilling the milky firewater that he sold at five pesos a bottle to the broken veterans, he played a chess game with himself that had started the day his two sons went off to war.
Soon after the man’s departure, Elena took to writing verses. They were simple décimas at first, filled with flowers and trees and Pipo the Pig and Cantaclaro the Rooster and a benevolent God and ecstatic angels, all the things her mother loved and Elena thought she loved as well. Then in one poem Elena recited to her mother, a cat devoured a frog, and in another a god forced his disciples to eat his son’s flesh and drink his blood. Cándida went to Fermín José and said, The plague of death has come down from the mountains and infected our daughter. Without looking up from the complex geometries of the chess game, Fermín José responded, That girl has been infected with something more terminal than death.
And what is that? Cándida asked.
Poetry, Fermín José said, moving a black rook and checking himself.
I’ll not have any of that awfulness in the house, Cándida said.
In response to her mother’s reaction, Elena, who was not rebellious so much as determined, went to the town plaza and recited her poems to the veterans, who huddled in a group at the far end drinking her father’s firewater. The war survivors spied her lustily as she spoke, and whispered dirty things among themselves. When she was done, they clapped enthusiastically, no matter that they didn’t understand a word she was saying. For them it was enough that she stood before them like an apparition from the life they might have led had they never gone to war, never been wounded, never taken up the vile Piedra Negra firewater that turned them into bumbling fools who moaned with need and were led to masturbate behind the bushes of the plaza because no woman, except now Elena with her poems, would have anything to do with their broken bodies and fetid souls.
Elena was grateful for the audience, and tried to write poems that might make them tolerate their condition, but she found she couldn’t control her writing. It burst out of her in spasms of language, as if a voice came to her that needed to be fed and freed and heard. Once the voice awoke, oracular and familiar at once, all she could do to silence it (and she had to silence it, incandescent as it was) was to put what it said down on paper and say the words out loud in the form of something called poetry because she didn’t know what else to call it. She broke up the décimas and stopped counting syllables. The voice didn’t come to her in such an orderly way but in fits and starts, as did her own voice, at times jagged like broken glass, other times soothing as honey. Any pattern she tried to impose on it seemed dishonest.
Elena’s mother spent her time in the kitchen, cooking corn-meal and okra, her favorite dish, or sitting in her rocking chair and speaking to herself about the golden days of her youth when the war was just beginning and all you heard from the mountains was a faint series of pops like the sound firecrackers make. Her father Fermín José was involved in his interminable game of chess, announcing his moves in the secret language of the game, or else engaged in the alchemies that produced his coveted firewater. Elena’s best friend, Begonia Guzmán, the daughter of the town dentist, preferred to play with dolls or do embroidery in the company of her mother and aunts, rather than attempt to decipher the convolutions of Elena’s poetry. Your poems make me want to throttle my dog, Begonia would say. They make me want to run to the marshes and smear myself with mud.
And so Elena wrote to herself, filling dozens of school notebooks with her poetry and hiding them behind the dresser, where her mother wouldn’t find them. During a lull in the war, a troupe of itinerant poets came to Piedra Negra. They arrived in a caravan of old American cars painted red and yellow, followed by a school bus with megaphones on the roof. The poets, fifteen or twenty of them, were dressed in blue jeans and paisley vests. The men wore long hair tied in ponytails, and some of the women had shaved heads. From their ears dangled long metal earrings, and around their necks hung layers of bead necklaces and studded leather chokers. They all seemed in a constant state of agitation, like hyperactive rodents. As soon as they arrived in Piedra Negra, they gathered in the plaza in front of the old church, which was slowly crumbling since the last priest abandoned the parish and escaped with a local woman to the United States. The poets played guitars and tambourines, and recited poems in praise of the new people’s government, skipping around each other and the audience of drunk veterans and doing exotic dances with no music. They challenged each other to impromptu poetry matches, bursting with raucous laughter or wild lamentations and generally disturbing the languorous provincial habits of the town.
The troupe was led by Daniel Arcilla, the great poet of the time, whose work was translated into twenty-three languages and whose extraordinary poetic gifts were matched only by his personality—magnetic, combative, and arrogant. His poetry was memorized by children and recited in school assemblies. Lovers blurted out lines to each other in moments of ardor, and orators laced their speeches with his words. He was the Bard, a force of nature, a national treasure. His poems were hard as weapons and soft as feathers. When he stepped out of the school bus, he broke out into a spontaneous ode to Piedra Negra, praising its streets, its fragrant flowers and women, the courage of its men who’d fought so fiercely in war, and the healthful qualities of its firewater. The poem made the veterans weep with love for their town and pine for their lost limbs. Dr. Gómez the dentist, who fancied himself the town’s poet laureate, abandoned his patients to their toothaches; the whores of the bordello urged their clients to hurry up and finish so they, too, could listen to the poets and catch the attention of Daniel Arcilla, who, rumor had it, was as good with his penis as he was with his pen. Even the mayor, a dour and circumspect man, closed the schools and declared a civic holiday, allowing schoolchildren and municipal employees time off to participate in the festivities.
The revelry went on for several days. There were on-going poetry readings in front of the ruins of the old police station, workshops led by several members of the troupe in the dental offices of Dr. Gómez, and daily lectures on the luminous history of island poetry in the sitting room of the bordello. On the third day flyers appeared all over Piedra Negra announcing a national poetry contest to be judged by the Bard himself. Daniel Arcilla stayed inside the bus during the day and came out in the late afternoon as the sunlight turned the walls of the houses the color of whiskey. Tall and massive with graying hair, he spoke in a baritone voice that could make metal tremble and rose petals vibrate sympathetically. Arcilla’s poetry, though never vulgar, was rife with allusions to sex, and his recitals had a disturbing effect on the women of the town. Tormented by erotic fantasies the likes of which they had never before experienced, they neglected their wifely duties. Almost overnight Piedra Negra became a town of slatterns. Meals went uncooked, houses uncleaned, and laundry unwashed. After a week a group of men led by a now-repentant mayor met in secret and began to plot ways of ridding themselves of the poets. One suggested poisoning the poets’ food with asafetida so that they would suffer severe intestinal distress. Another, an ingenuous cobbler, suggested sending Doña Juana María Arce de la Masa, one of the grand dames of the town, to recite one of her endless diatribes on the virtues of sexual abstinence. One man, an old cantankerous Spaniard, suggested castrating the male poets. In the end nothing came of the meeting, and the men went home to wait for their wives to abandon their foolishness. Poetry was a plague, and as such, there was nothing to do but wait for it to run its course.
To Elena it seemed as if the town had been invaded by creatures from another planet. She was drawn to the poets and their free ways and their ability to turn small things—a pot of flowers, a mud puddle, a lizard sunning itself atop a banana leaf, a mole on a young girl’s cheek—into something like a treasure. She liked how they dressed and how free they were with their affections, walking arm in arm or sitting on park benches with legs on one another’s lap. She listened to their declamations from a distance, standing on the far edge of the square, sensing that she had found her calling and met her tribe. When she saw one of the flyers announcing the poetry contest, she went home and began preparing her manuscript, working and reworking the poems day and night until she grew exhausted and her face acquired the look of a Madagascan lemur. She then tied the poems together with a red ribbon and waited for the right moment to hand them to Daniel Arcilla. On the seventh day, as the poets readied to leave the town, the Bard appeared for the last time on the steps of the bus. Resplendent in a white, newly starched guayabera, wearing dark glasses and smoking a perfectly rolled cigar, he was the embodiment of creole masculinity. The women swooned, and the men grumbled.
Elena, thin and dark and furtive, walked slowly toward Daniel Arcilla, holding the sheaf of poems before her. He blew a thick puff of smoke upward and looked down at her.
And what is this? he asked, smiling like a shark.
Poems for the contest, she said.
How charming, for the contest, he said, taking the manuscript from her and passing it behind him to his assistant, a woman in glasses who seemed troubled and overworked. And how is it that we haven’t met before? he said to Elena.
Elena hesitated, moved her head slowly from side to side, and was about to turn away without responding, when the voice came from deep inside her, bursting past her shyness.
Because an army of ants are crawling over the fried eggs my mother made for lunch and no one ate. Because there is a gulf of deep water between truth and misery. Because the rooster has died and the hens are alive, clucking for love, and the deep trough of the valley is filling with young men, and all the battles of the world have gotten together to conspire against sleep. Because there is a white sheet hanging from the clothesline by the banana trees, and the sun is going down, and a lone egret is flying in slow motion across the reddening sky.
Daniel Arcilla strained to maintain his smile. He brought the cigar to his mouth, blew out more smoke, and nodded. He took Elena’s poems back from his assistant and went inside the bus.
Not long after the poets left, the war flared up again and slid down the mountains and into the plains. The bomb blasts shook the windows and made Elena’s sternum rattle. She imagined bodies flying apart like cheap dolls and the heads of both her brothers hurtling into the dark sea or sinking in the briny marsh. Every day convoys of trucks laden with young men barreled past the house, making great grinding noises with their gears and sputtering vile-smelling exhaust from their tailpipes. Often the young men waved and whistled and she waved back, with a mixture of dread and excitement in her heart. Part of her wanted to be in those trucks, part wanted to warn them that death was waiting for them at the end of the road. Over the mountains she saw a cloud made of the spirits of the dead that kept out the sun; sometimes, when the wind blew backward, Piedra Negra filled with the stench of hell. Those boys were beautiful in their masculine exuberance. Pobrecitos, she would think, then she went inside to do the many chores she took on after an unexplainable melancholia befell Cándida.
At first Elena and Fermín José thought Cándida’s deep sadness was a temporary thing brought on by news of the death of her two sons. But her condition worsened through the winter and into the following summer, and finally Fermín José was convinced by several neighbors to consult the two town doctors, neither of whom was able to diagnose the ailment. Fermín José then decided to take his wife to Eulalia la Santa, a cousin of his who had a reputation as a healer.
Eulalia lived on the edge of the marsh beyond any road in a rambling plantation-style house her father had built with money he made as a white slaver and smuggler. To reach the house, the family had to go on a full day’s mule ride. Fermín José rented three strong mules from a local farmer. He and the nearly catatonic Cándida rode one, Elena the other. The third mule was packed with provisions for Eulalia, including twelve bottles of firewater, for the drink clarified her vision and helped her with the healing arts. They followed the path through a thicket of nettles that stretched for several kilometers, forded a river that ran shallow and glassy like quicksilver, passed rock-strewn fields where singular royal palms grew and semi-wild cattle grazed, and entered a mahogany forest so thick they were enveloped in a humid gloom that made Elena feel like she was drowning. By the time they reached the clearing that led to Eulalia’s house, the sun was setting and the mosquitoes were out, clouds of them, bloodthirsty and relentless. The last kilometer was the most excruciating. There were so many insects that slapping was useless. They got into any exposed orifice, making it difficult to breathe or speak. They bit through the thick burlap covers Fermín José threw over them, and they made Elena’s mule shake its head and buck with discomfort.
Eulalia’s house had once been the handsomest in the marsh, but the place hadn’t been painted in decades. Termites had gotten into the wood. Vines twirled around the railings of the front porch, and the roof sagged over the entry like a half-closed eyelid. Elena said to her father that it looked like elves lived in the house. Fermín José responded that the only elf was Eulalia and she was completely crazy, but he’d seen her heal people so sick they were on the edge of doom.
They were standing before the front door, which was fully open, when they heard a voice calling out from the inside, Fermincito, Fermincito, you’re the one who’s crazy.
Eulalia stood up from a rocker in the middle of the living room and waddled over to where the three of them stood. She threw her arms around Fermín José saying, Fermincito el loco, Fermincito el loco. He was a foot taller than his cousin and had to bend over in order to kiss her on the temple. It was one of the few times Elena noticed him be affectionate with anyone other than her mother.
Eulalia had a round face free of the marks of age, and were it not that she was missing most of her teeth, she would have appeared not a day over fifty. She was partially blind and deaf in one ear. When she saw Elena, she called her an angel in disguise. I can see your wings, she said. I can see them. You have to learn to use them. Eulalia embraced Cándida, and she let out an ¡Ay! which contained both surprise and alarm. Your soul is dying.
Cándida let out a sigh and allowed herself to be led into the living room, where the three women waited for Fermín to unload the provisions. Eulalia asked for one of the bottles of firewater, uncorked it, and took a long swig, her rubbery lips wrapping around the bottle’s mouth like a child’s around a pacifier. She cackled and began to talk in a language none of them had heard before.
Elle es sufragia d’melancolia pusilanimis, contra naturam, contra humanitam. Elle es menester cart spiritus mundi in saecula saeculorum forever. Je ne sais pas the origen, potomoochto, suis soy sauce humaine, campana bell tin-tin ablutions. The valuation es excepcional, yén-ye-re holofernes caught in blood, cold blood, sang froid. Bontemps ago, Oggún comence dominer notre vie, notre révellier, notre dormir, our dreams, nuestras pesadillas. Le cache de penser interdit, le cache de penser abolié crece to become plasta cerebral, comme la merde de les vaques. Oggún y Ochún no mix et impliqué la muerte de uno de los dos. Solo sé que no sé nada. La mort est peripatetique, comme un oiseau de plummes negres, un cuervo chantajero, a blackmailing crow, crown, town, frown. Gavariu pravdu. La guerre est la mortification de notre chair. Gavariu pravdu, todo verdad, todo ilusión.
Dumbfounded by her babble, Fermín José opened a bottle of firewater and took a long drink, thus violating a rule he had imposed on himself never to partake of his own product. The drink enabled him to begin to unravel some of Eulalia’s ramblings. He passed the bottle to Elena, who handed it to Cándida without drinking any of it. Cándida took a sip but was so revolted by the taste that she gagged on it. Her face turned red, and her eyes bulged. She began to sweat profusely and then vomited the only food she’d had that day, boiled yucca and dried beef.
Drink more, Eulalia said, drink more. It is stallion urine, meado de semental cuadralbo. It will liberate you. You’ll want to shit on your mother-in-law’s tomb and have sex with ten men at once and lick the asshole of a cane cutter. Eulalia laughed and slapped her thigh repeatedly, as if she were beating a drum, a skinny drum that had lost all its tensile strength but gained the ability to accompany the truth, her truth, which wasn’t always taut.
Fermín was stupefied, thinking the cure was worse than the disease. Elena, who had never been with a man, let alone ten, was intrigued. Cándida sat back and closed her eyes, her breath heavy and uneven, her face pale and clammy. The light of dusk had all but disappeared, leaving only gloom behind, and Eulalia lit a kerosene lamp that stood on the floor by her rocker. She walked over to where Cándida was sitting, soundly asleep, and looked down at her.
Fermincito, she said. Your drink is magic. Her soul is revived and growing again. I got to clean the vomit. I got to wash her face with cologne. Tomorrow she wakes up refreshed, just like her old self, dense but alive.
The morning smelled of brine and rotting vegetation. Cándida had come out of her near-catatonia and prepared coffee country style, using a cloth funnel and letting the boiling water drip over the coarse grounds. She sweetened it with molasses and gave a tin cup to Elena. Fermín José went out to the chicken coop and came back with some eggs, which he fried and served with boiled plantains and lard crackers. Before leaving the kitchen to prepare for the trip home, he said, I learned two things in this house, to fry eggs and make firewater.
Cándida followed him with a spring in her step Elena had never seen before. She was left alone in the kitchen, and as she ate she noticed a print nailed to the wall across from her. She stopped eating and got closer. It depicted a group of young women and girls, princesses apparently, being painted by a court painter with long hair and a red cross sewn on his vest. In the righthand corner a small boy was kicking a dog. One of the girls, the third figure from the right, looked surprisingly like herself. Elena was startled and felt the flame of recognition in her heart. Someone had painted her image a long time ago, before she was born. She put her hand to her cheek and brought it down to her lips as if to prove to herself that she was the person she was, there in Eulalia’s kitchen eating eggs, and not someone depicted in an old painting.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. Elena heard Eulalia’s voice behind her. Tu sois belle et sois triste. Ochin krasnaya dievushka. Ti-lin, ti-lin. Pantoun pan elenicus. Do you like the painting? It is yours, sobrinita.
Little niece, Elena thought. Why was she calling her that?
Eulalia walked over to the wall in her duck-like way, and Elena noticed she was barefoot. Her feet were thick and gnarled like tree roots and her yellow toenails curled inward. Out of her emanated a smell of dried fish and nutmeg. She pulled down the print, rolled it up, and tied it with string.
Don Diego, he was a good friend of my father. He would come to the house once a week and have me sit on his lap. He liked to tickle me. There was always something hard between his legs. He was a sodomite and traveled with three monkeys. Eulalia cackled and stuck out her tongue, which had a hairy mole on the tip.
The whole trip back, sitting on the mule, Elena thought about the print, the ladies in waiting, the boy kicking the dog, and the young woman who looked so much like her. She did not know what a sodomite was. The word sounded final and irreversible and biblical, and she didn’t dare ask her parents for its definition. Eulalia used words that had no meaning but sounded as if they did. What stuck with her most strongly, however, was that Eulalia had called her little niece. Could it be that Eulalia and her father were brother and sister?
When they got home a group of twenty men were waiting on the front porch. They’d come to buy their daily allotment of firewater, and finding no one in the house, they’d stayed put, lacking the will and the fuel to wander back to the plaza. Fermín José had enough bottles in reserve to satisfy the group, but there were increasing numbers of veterans crowding the plaza. As a result, he was getting rich from the misfortunes of others without meaning to. Fearing another run the next day, he set to work immediately, firing up the alembic still he’d set up in the back room by the kitchen.
Fermín José gave Elena the seemingly easy job of extracting the juice from sugarcane stalks by pushing them through the rollers of a small electric mill. The juice was collected in wooden buckets, then set aside to ferment before it was distilled through the alembic. It was a far from perfect operation, and the firewater produced had a mealy consistency and a rancid aftertaste that he deadened with wormwood and almond oil. What it lacked in refinement was more than offset by its cost and by its remarkable power to turn the strongest of men into mental slugs. As a result, Fermín José had a steady clientele composed originally of unemployed cane cutters and, more recently, the wounded war veterans who congregated around the plaza.
The job he gave Elena was not as easy or as safe as it might first seem. The steel rollers were grooved and fit tightly one against the other, made especially that way so that the cane went in round and juicy on one side and came out flat and dry on the other. It was an old mill without any of the modern safety features, and the only way to turn it off was by pulling the electric cord from the wall socket. At first Elena heeded Fermín Angel’s warning to let go of the stalk as soon as it was firmly trapped by the rollers, but as the afternoon wore on, she began to think of the print Eulalia had given her and of poems she might write about it. It was then that she diverted her attention for a moment and held onto the cane stalk a few seconds too long. Her left hand was trapped along with the stalk and passed through to the thumb before Fermín José, hearing her screams, pulled the plug and stopped the machine. The cane juice ran pink that day, but that did not stop him from selling the resulting liquor, calling it virgin firewater and charging twice the usual price. Elena healed from the accident in a few months, but she was left with only the thumb and half of her index and middle fingers of her left hand. From then on the townspeople called her La Manquita.
Fermín José had been in the distilling business for a long time, and his daughter’s accident did not deter him at all. On the contrary. In time he had perfected the art of making firewater to a degree previously unknown in Piedra Negra. Besides the cane cutters and the disabled war veterans, his clients included peasants who had left the mountains when the war broke out and settled in shacks on the edges of the marsh. The firewater had a repellent effect on mosquitoes and other insects, and otherwise made life bearable by the stagnant waters and unhealthy stench. A minor French writer who passed through the town on the way to join the rebels had likened Piedra Negran firewater to absinthe, both in taste and effect, a statement that made the town fathers so proud they reproduced it on a billboard at the town’s entrance. The reality was quite different. It smelled like horse sweat and tasted, one imagines, just like it. Reputed to cause hangovers of cataclysmic proportions, the liquor left the drinkers stranded in a catatonic malaise that lasted for days. Elena tried it once, when her father left her in charge of the still so he could make a chess move. She filled a glass to the brim and drank the firewater quickly, in a single gulp. The liquor had not been named in vain. First, she thought her esophagus had caught on fire; then it seemed as if there was a cat trying to claw its way out of her stomach. Finally her eyesight blurred, and an electric current shot through her brain, making her see visions of dancing dogs and singing snakes and huge galleons entering an infinite harbor. When the effects of the firewater subsided, she lay on the floor against the wall like a rag doll with Cantaclaro the Rooster perched on her knee and crowing loudly as if dawn had returned at midday. The experience made Elena vow never to drink alcohol again, a vow she kept until the day of her death.
Among the men who came to buy firewater, there appeared a young man by the name of Pedro Garcés, recently returned from the war with one and a half legs. His nerves had been compromised, and he suffered severe pains up and down his ruined limb that only firewater alleviated. Pedrito, for that is what they called him to distinguish him from his father, was a squalid creature, barely twenty years old, whose ragged poverty had entered his soul. Many confused it for purity of spirit, but Pedrito was no St. Francis. He lied and cheated with impunity and was rumored to have sex with animals. He said little and thought less, and when he wasn’t at the smithy helping his father, whom they called Pedro el Cruel for the way he treated his son, he spent his time in the plaza, seated on one of the benches alongside the other veterans, watching the passersby, and, in the late afternoon, after he’d drunk enough firewater to settle his nerves and dull his pain, playing Spanish tute in the bodega owned by Jacobo el Polaco. Pedrito’s one evident quality was that he was a superior card player, and for that reason other players tolerated him, despite his character failings, his pestilent flatulence, and his sick-dog attitude.
The first time Elena saw him, it had rained heavily. Pedrito had bought two bottles of firewater and lingered outside the front porch verandah looking like a nearly drowned bird. A wave of pity came over her, and she asked him if he was hungry. Pedrito, who never let his timidity get in the way of a handout, nodded yes. Elena went inside and came out with a plate of cornmeal and okra. The okra was slimy and bitter tasting, but he forced it down and smiled afterward. When he was done, Elena took the plate and came out with an additional bottle of firewater. For your friends, she told him. He thanked her quietly and put the extra bottle under his arm.
In the plaza he shared the liquor with his friends and told them how La Manquita had taken a liking to him and he was going to take advantage of that as far as he could. Who knows, he said in his drunkenness, maybe she needs a good fuck. His friends laughed and said he probably couldn’t get it up so not to even bother. Pedrito felt challenged. He unbuttoned his pants and pulled out his penis, and when his friends saw its majestic proportions, they stopped laughing. Pedrito tugged at it, and the thing awakened. He tugged a few more times, and the penis shot out a thick gob of semen that landed on a bush five feet away and stuck there, slowly dripping down from branch to branch. No one said anything. He wiped his hand on the park bench, buttoned up his fly, and went across to the steps of the abandoned church, where he sat and drank the rest of his liquor.
The next day Pedrito was at Elena’s door at nine in the morning, but Elena had already left for school, and so he waited through the morning doldrums and the searing heat of the early afternoon until she returned. She asked him what he was doing there, the day’s batch of liquor wouldn’t be ready until five, and he said, I was waiting for you. Me? she said and gave a quick, nervous laugh. He stared at her with his large eyes the color of the sea where it deepens. He was a lowly drunk with half a leg, but he was lighter skinned than she. That might not have counted for much anywhere else, but in Piedra Negra skin color trumped everything. Besides, she too was a cripple. They called her La Manquita, didn’t they? Elena went inside and came back with a bottle of firewater and offered it to Pedrito for free.
What time do you leave for school in the morning? he asked her.
Seven-thirty, she said.
I will be here then.
Pedrito kept his promise that morning and on subsequent ones, dressed in a clean shirt and pants he had stolen from his father. He disguised his limp as well as his wooden leg would allow and walked with Elena to school, a habit that allowed him to tell her about his experiences in the mountains and how it was that a flying piece of metal from an exploding mine had cut off his foot above the ankle. The fellow next to him was not so lucky. They had to gather him up with a shovel. Elena was both horrified and excited by his stories, and as the days passed, he told her many things about the war—how it was like a dream that changes without reason in the blink of an eye. One moment things are peaceful, he said. The hillsides are filled with light. The birds are singing, the breeze moves the tree branches back and forth, and the world smells fresh and new like a baby, like paradise. Then, without warning, the earth explodes next to you. Bullets whiz by. They don’t sound like they do in the movies. They drill the air, slice it open, and when they hit flesh, they make a dull thump like a hard punch. The wounded scream and clutch the ground, but if a man is hit by a fifty-caliber bullet, he just drops to the ground like a sack of flesh. Not a sound comes out of him. Like a big papaya splitting open and the insides spilling out. It can drive you crazy to hear that sound. You want to hide but there’s nowhere to hide. All around there are things that can kill you—bullets, cannons, shrapnel. Falling branches will kill you. Wood splinters from trees hit by shells will fly out in all directions. They can kill you. Concussion grenades will kill you or make you deaf. Men on your side will become confused and fire at you. They call that friendly fire. It will kill you just as well as the unfriendly sort. If you’re a coward, the only thing you can do is curl up into a ball, shit in your pants, and wait for death. Death liberates you from everything—the bullets, the fire, the shrapnel, the smoke. Death liberates you from itself. No one dies twice.
Elena loved the talk of war. She wanted to be in it, surrounded by the death and the carnage. She’d seen the neighbor slaughter and butcher a pig in the back yard. There was nothing to it. Guts have a clean, fulsome quality to them, and flesh glistens like a red jewel. Those morning walks with Pedrito became the highlight of her day, and by the time she got to school, her armpits were damp and she was trembling with youthful desire. She began to feel more than just pity for Pedrito, poor lame Pedrito with the blue eyes and war-torn spirit.
I have seen, Pedrito told Elena, a man’s head fall to the grass next to me with a smile on his lips. And you know why he was smiling, Elena?
Why? Elena asked.
Because he didn’t have to die again.
Pedrito abandoned his shyness once and for all and took hold of Elena’s hand as they walked. His strange method of seduction was working, and he began to embellish his descriptions.
I also saw a burst of gunfire tear my best friend open. And you know what he did?
Elena held her breath.
He bent over and calmly started picking up his entrails and draping them over his shoulders like a necklace; then he turned back and walked to the rear. I gave him twenty paces. He went twenty-five before dropping. Our captain said, That’s a courageous man. I thought, That’s a liberated man, but I didn’t say it. You don’t dare ever to speak over your commanding officer. In the midst of battle he can pull out his pistol and shoot you.
Tell me more, Elena said, and Pedrito told her.
War leaves soldiers with only one wish—to survive. There comes a moment in the soldier’s life, and it comes very early, when everything that passes before him is a function of coming out of the battle alive so that he can enter another. You’re given a weapon and told to go into the battlefield and kill the enemy, who also has a weapon and who has been told the same thing.
What if you refuse to kill?
To refuse to kill is to die. If the enemy doesn’t do it, your commanding officer will, without a second thought. I’ve seen it happen. Some men go crazy. They have to be tied up and sent to the rear, and you never hear from them again. Some spend all their free time masturbating. Others sit and stare at nothing. When the order comes, they enter the battle, and if they come back, they sit and stare again. And there’s another group, those who like to kill. They’re the dangerous ones because they won’t just kill the enemy, they’ll kill you because they’re bored or because you said something they didn’t like or because you’re in the way.
In the way of what? she asked.
Of their killing, he said, and then he did the bravest thing he’d done since returning from the war. He kissed her, not in a lustful way, but gently, aware his seduction should take its proper course. He was not just after her but a limitless supply of her father’s firewater.
After that it was only a matter of time before Elena asked Pedrito to stay for dinner. He came in a borrowed suit that was too large for him, and he had to pull up his sleeves to keep them from dipping into the food. He had cut his hair, trimmed his fingernails, and smelled sweet as a flower. He was so changed in appearance that neither Fermín José nor Cándida could recognize him as the broken, emaciated creature who bought firewater from them. Pedrito barely touched his food. He was nervous and in need of a drink and was relieved that there was little conversation. Fermín José wanted to get back to his chess game, and Cándida was on the verge of one of her catatonic periods, and both left the table as soon as they were done eating, leaving the cleanup to Elena. Pedrito tried to help, but as soon as he picked up his plate, his hands started shaking. Elena noticed and took the plate from him, returning from the kitchen with a bottle of firewater. Pedrito took a long swig straight from the bottle and sat back down.
I lost half my leg, he said. Now I’m a cripple, and once a cripple, always a cripple. Better if I had died.
Don’t speak that way. I’m a cripple, too, she said, forcing a smile and showing him her mangled left hand.
He took another drink.
The only thing I can do is work for my father in the smithy. He used to beat me, but not anymore. I stood up to him when he had the belt in his hand. I told him if he hit me again, I’d kill him. He knew I would, so he stopped. He grumbles now, calls me names under his breath. They call him Pedro el Cruel but never to his face.
There was a Spanish king in the fourteenth century who was called that, Elena said. Sometimes he was called Pedro el Justiciero.
I know nothing of those things that are beyond me, Pedrito said, speaking in the stilted airs of Piedra Negra that had gone out of use after the literacy campaign. But I tell you well, if tell I might: my father, God damn him, is a son of a bitch. My mother ran away because of him, and I’ve never seen her since I was eight years old. In truth, there is none as cruel as he, el cabrón puto. I shit on his mother, and I shit on his mother’s mother.
Elena had never heard a man speak that way about his own flesh and blood, but she didn’t hold it against him. She knew Pedrito didn’t do it to be vulgar but because the only way he knew how to speak was like a soldier, who has no hairs on his tongue. Her heart once again filled with pity. She got up from the table, went to the back of the house, and returned with two bottles of firewater.
By that point Pedrito had convinced himself he would marry Elena. It was not so much love that led him to that conclusion as the recognition of an opportunity that would never again cross his path. He thanked his future wife and left the house. When he turned the corner and could not be seen, he opened one of the bottles and took a chug. He walked vigorously down the empty street until he reached the plaza, where he found two fellow veterans with whom he shared the second bottle. By the time they were done, Pedrito could see nothing in front of him except visions of cantankerous demons and raging orangutans.
The next day, as had become his habit, he accompanied Elena to school; then, instead of waiting for her by the school gate, he went to her house and spoke to her parents, declaring his undying love for their daughter and asking for her hand in marriage. Cándida blushed with alarm. Fermín José, annoyed by the interruption of his chess game, said, She’s a child, and you’re a cripple.
With all due respect due you, Señor Blanco, who makes the best firewater in all of Piedra Negra, and who is one of the outstanding citizens of the town, said Pedrito in the mellifluous Piedra Negran speech. Insofar as Elena’s age is concerned, if I may be so bold as to suggest, a seventeen-year-old female human being, sir, is every bit a woman. Why, my own mother bore me when she was fifteen and was a fine mother to me until the day she had to depart for other worlds in order to escape my father’s ire. And forgive me if I underline the fact that your daughter Elena is as mature as a ripe guava, which when you bite into it is sweet and tender.
Your mother passed away? Cándida asked.
Pedrito nodded. His mother passed the town limits and went away. She was as good as dead. He went on to his next point.
I lost my leg in war, proving my courage. You may ask any of my companions on the day I was wounded at your leisure and pleasure.
He didn’t say that they would have a hard time finding any of his companions sober enough to speak cogently. He continued: Your daughter Elena herself is missing most of her left hand—the result of an accident, I’ve been told—and even though we are both without part of our anatomy, nothing will prevent us from producing whole, healthy children who will bring blessings upon you both in your old age, by the grace of God.
How will you support her? Fermín José asked him, his mind on the chessboard.
I have worked hard all my life, until it was my fate to be wounded. Presently I work for my father at his shop, but I am quite willing, once Elena and I are betrothed, to work for you. You can barely keep up with demand for firewater as it is, your product is so popular. Between us we can double production. That will free Elena to continue her studies without distraction.
Fermín José, who wanted nothing more than to get back to a complex series of positional moves in his game, assented to the proposal. Cándida objected, claiming it was Elena whose approval Pedrito needed, not theirs. The days when parents dictated over their children were long past. In this new age parents counted for nothing.
I have no doubt she will consent, Pedrito said. I saw it in her eyes yesterday, and the skies of Piedra Negra were illumined by the recognition.
Pedrito waited all day on the front porch for Elena to come home. He was already beginning to shake, when he saw her turn the corner and wave to him with her stumpy hand. When she was in front of him, smiling and filled with the ferret-like energy of a young poet, he used all his fortitude to control his delirium tremens and said that he had asked her parents for her hand (he refrained from saying her good hand) in marriage and now he was asking her.
But you are a drunk, Pedrito, she said, smiling.
Not any longer, he said, and even as he said it, he was fantasizing about the copious amounts of firewater he would have access to. He could feel sweat trickling down the sides of his face and the muscles in his back twitching involuntarily. He reached for the verandah and held on.
Elena pulled an aluminum folding chair toward him so he could sit down. He refused it.
Marry me, he said, trying to control the nausea that threatened to turn him inside out.
Poets reason in mysterious ways. The idea of marrying a man, let alone a man as broken as Pedrito, had not occurred to Elena. She saw him leaning against the world, she saw him bathed in sweat, his face, shaved for once, glistening with the light of the afternoon sun. She saw how he’d once been handsome and full of promise, excelling at school, playing baseball in the fields of Piedra Negra. She saw he could have been a hero, had his military career not been cut short by that stray piece of shrapnel, or how he might have made it to the capital, riding a victorious tank garlanded with banners and flags, and made great speeches to the adoring hordes and become the leader the country needed. There was Pedrito bent over, heaving under her, a string of bile dripping from his mouth. The word No fluttered in her mind, as did the words, Get away from me, you worthless drunk. The word that came out of her lips, however, was Yes.
She put her hand on his nape until his convulsions stopped, helped him off the folding chair, and led him inside. Then she sat him on the sofa and wiped his face with a damp washcloth sprinkled with lavender cologne.
That same night Pedrito moved into the room at the back of the house where the firewater was produced, and for a week he didn’t taste a drop of alcohol, controlling his withdrawal with superhuman effort and helping Fermín José tirelessly, spelling him every couple of hours so that he could make another chess move. Pedrito slept on an old cot he had brought back from the war, and for entertainment he listened to Elena’s poetry until sleep took hold of him. Eventually, as was to be expected, Pedrito succumbed to his urges and had a small drink of firewater. Once he started, he couldn’t stop. He drank through the rest of the day and night. The next morning he resorted to his old habits, taking as many bottles of the firewater as he could carry to the park and sharing them with his friends. Elena found Pedrito there, sleeping under an acacia tree and smelling like an outhouse. Without saying a word, she shook him awake and took him home, making him walk three steps ahead of her, he stank so badly. With the help of her father and mother, she cleaned him up and dragged him to the larder, which was a safe distance from the distillery room, and locked him in. The first night he screamed and cursed like a demon, damning her and all her ancestors to hell. He kicked the door, he slammed his body against the wall. In the morning the cursing stopped, but the screaming went on without respite. Cándida was ready to call the insane asylum on the outskirts of town and have him carted off. Fermín José took to his chess game with greater fervor than ever. Elena remained convinced that the only way to cure Pedrito was to keep him locked up until the day of the wedding, which was to coincide with her birthday two months later.
On the third and fourth day all they heard was whimpering and the sounds of flatulence. On the fifth day the room was silent. Elena opened the door and found Pedrito naked in a corner, curled in the fetal position. His clothes were scattered all over the pantry, and his wooden leg lay across the room by a sack of rotting potatoes. He had smeared himself with feces, and his mouth was permanently open in the attitude of a scream, but no sound came out of him. His penis stretched from his groin like a blind snake, a large, thick, irresistible snake resting on his thigh. None of the filth deterred her fascination with that resting beast. She wanted to take it in her hand and stroke it, put it inside and have it fill her. She desired that enormous piece of lolling flesh more than anything in the world. And to herself she said Yes, and Yes again and again. She washed him and brought him clean clothes and left a plate of food and a plastic container of water, as she had done every day since the ordeal of his withdrawal began. Finally, on the eve of the wedding, she brought him a suit, a bowtie, and black shoes that she took from her father’s armoire. On the wedding day Pedrito stood, straight and sober, before the municipal notary public of Piedra Negra and pronounced his vows to Elena with the voice of a man transformed.