‘And You Will Know Us by Our Monsters’, M.L. Clark

Illustrations © 2019 Dr. T. Eratopo

 [ Frog-vulture, © 2019 Dr. T. Eratopo ] Here’s a trick my papá pulled when I was small. Every morning when he walked me up the Candelaría cobblestone to catch my school bus, we passed an old man under the bougainvilleas—clean-pressed shirt, suspenders, rosary beads around his wrist—selling lozenges and chocolates, gums and marshmallow rolls from a leather suitcase on a rough-hewn stump. Some days we would buy, others not, but all days when the bus returned, and my father stood ready to greet me with kisses on all sides, in the old man’s place would be an old woman instead—clean-pressed dress, sturdy shoes, gold cross glinting from the folds of her neck—selling mango slices with a splash of Postobon for added sweetness. Papá would tell me that this was the same person—that some people could transform themselves like this, and more: a sinner, say, by morning, and a saint by night. Just ask the senate, he added with a bitter laugh, as if a child of six understood such things: they made a whole law about it, and called it “peace”. But also, there were people on the streets, he said, who had once been beautiful babies, the lights of their mothers’ eyes—and now look at them, nursing knife wounds with rags and plastic bags on cardboard beds along the underpasses. Such things even a child saw, and knew, and wondered after, but papá’s trick when I was small was to make it look so easy—to be one thing in life, and then another. In practice, though—with him as with so many others—when it came to my own changes, he died before he could see the magic in them, too.

Chicken took over my half of the corner every day around dawn. By five thirty in Parque de Bolívar the night-shift addicts had more or less settled on their benches for an hour or three, and by sun-up the officers in lime and forest-green uniforms were taking café con leche from a passing vendor at their own corner, under the shade of the giant ficus trees. The church fountain was still shut off, and the pigeons more or less at rest around the statue of the Liberator, but inner lights from the Basilica’s first service were visible even from the other side of the park, where Calle 54 turned from fenced-in greenery to a wide promenade of flower stands, and tourist stalls, and me. Well, me and Big Mami, at this hour—Big Mami, who kept to a little stool during working hours, her great, soft barriga dipping low between thick thighs, and who sang sweet and sly in turns to the men walking by, “Oi, muchacho! Ambos! Vamos!” so that even the locals who didn’t stop to pay knew to answer at least with matching grins, “Oi, mamacita, no puedo! Eres demasiado mujer pa’ mí!”

Chicken looked a slender thing even before she took my place at Big Mami’s side, in a crop top and studded jeans that arced just so, midriff, to reveal her treasure trail of coarse dark hair. She didn’t take so well to the tricks who called her boy—for a little thing, she could rain affected fury on the fool who did—but I didn’t mind so much, myself. I took all kinds—the ones looking for something sturdier than they figured their neighbourhood girls would be; the ones who got off on the strange and sometimes told me in their post-coital idiocy, when looking out at the Basilica from the third-floor bedrooms where we took them, that maybe we were children of God put on Earth for just this sort of thing. Then there were the ones curious about their own sexuality as much as anything, and who gave me mournful looks when it didn’t pan out, with a gentle, sorry honey, you’re beautiful, but I can’t after all… as if I cared at all about their disappointment, with a hundred thousand upfront for ever so little work.

And then there were the lonely ones. With the lonely, maybe Big Mami was too much—the ones she hauled off knew themselves too well to be so insecure—but girls like Chicken and me, well, we wouldn’t judge their brokenness, would we? Their disorienting failure to wake up one day as men in full, to have the prettiest of the lot to hold their hand in the streets and dip into their wallets to pay for some new lipstick or perfume while they made a play at feeling used, and while secretly they thrilled at the idea of their girl using their money to make herself all the prettier for them and them alone—to hold, and to love, and to abuse. The lonely were sweeter than you’d think, by and large, spending so much time wondering how it had all gone wrong, this idyllic dream of companionship, while not being above thinking that, after all, what did it matter, really, such a loss of intimacy, when sex was just sex was just sex?

Chicken winked at me as she arrived, and with blue-hued lips pointed to the officer joining the morning squad—Carlos Enrique, baby-faced and shy about looking us in the eye. At first the evasions had been for reasons of faith, but eventually we’d worn him down. We used to tease him—what, you think you’re better than Jesus?—and after that he would talk to us more than he probably ever expected, about his parents and work and his questions to God and the family he had always thought he’d have by now… all this, and more, and to Chicken most of all. It was just talk during the idle promise of the day’s first hours—he from his corner when the other officers were busy; her from her own when the other girls were busy; until she headed upstairs with someone, or he had to pat down an agitated local. But maybe he would buy her jugo or a postre, too—sweets for a sweet, he’d say—so that Chicken would laugh with the rest of us about her novio in the force, and dress sometimes more like the girls she caught him eyeing in the park during overlapping shifts… as if what a man dreams of and hungers for were one and the same. As if it could ever be as easy as that between him and her.

“Cuidate, Gallina,” I’d tell her, when she got too carried away with the illusion. All well and good if it stayed above board, but if ever he took to giving her a try… and if he liked it… there were at least three ways that ended badly for her, with a good little church boy like Carlos Enrique, and all the men on the force who would have his back if ever he needed it. The lonely were some of the sweetest, sure—and some of them, among the worst as well.

But today Chicken wasn’t flirting with her delusion, because she had some other amused spark in her eyes as she neared and pointed him out. “Carlito tiene un amigo pa’ ti.”

I rolled my eyes. Off-duty, girl, can’t you see it’s already been a long night? But it hadn’t been, not really. There were two ways a night could feel eternal, but only one left you with kisses in hand to pay the rent, and Chicken could tell at a glance, from how fresh my get-up still looked, that mine had been the other kind—so she smirked and postured and pouted and told me to just trust her, okay? One more trick, and she promised it’d be worth it.

“Dale, dale,” I sighed. “¿Quién?”

Chicken whistled, and Carlos Enrique looked up from a conversation with one of the other officers. Then—with a furtive glance at me—he waved at a nearby panadería, where a man had been reading his paper and eating buñuelos under a TV blasting the early-morning edition of Noticias Caracol. Carlos’s partners didn’t even seem to notice the signal, and the man took his time folding the paper, patting excess grease from his moustache, and paying his bill with small coins. But I knew him as the target all the same, and sidled a few steps from Big Mami’s stool to give him the courtesy of discretion while we spoke.

Business type, I thought at first—with the tailored blazer, and the spark of glossy black hair, and the heavy creases around his mouth from years of affecting a winsome smile—but then the fact of Carlos Enrique’s introduction, and the edge of a lanyard protruding from his collar, made me think government instead. Government was right. When I took him upstairs he sat on the arm of a wooden chair propped across from the cot, and gestured for me to sit on the bed, facing him. All right, sweetness, I said, and crossed my legs playfully at the edge. Been a long night for you, has it? Some of them liked a little talk first, to get to know you, to make it all seem like a pleasant run-in between acquaintances who’d been apart for some time.

But when he looked me in the eye I saw more than that pretense—he wasn’t interested at all in the rest—and he smiled with evident relief when he saw that I understood this, too.

“Mucho gusto,” he said, holding out a hand to shake. “Soy David—y estoy acá porque venías recomendado por… algunos hombres en mi confianza.”

I laughed, rocking back with both hands pleated over one bare knee. I knew I’d slept with the occasional man in government—though not as many as one might think, here in Centro, where plenty of people looked to avoid being recognized by family and friends—but it was still curiously flattering to be paid a visit on one of their recommendations.

“Un placer, David, pero… pues…. si no quiere ésto…?”

He waved a hand and apologized for the misunderstanding—both in words and, more importantly, with three 50s on the bedside table: the notes themselves more hopeful than the faces on them—Jorge Isaacs’s troubled countenance, his heroine María’s forlorn look—ever seemed. He had, David said, another sort of offer for me: a trip, on the government payroll, to some of the rural communities in Antioquia and Valle del Cauca, to do outreach work sponsored in part by FARC’s somewhat-honestly elected representatives. There, he said, I could help in pueblos where all kinds of women were still suffering in a culture muy machista, but where the once-guerrilla force, with its own brand of gender equality during wartime, was still well situated to make a positive difference in times of relative peace.

“¿Yo?” My laugh got all the merrier—exhaustion creeping in. “Por favor. ¿Por qué?”

David hesitated. Well, he said, it wasn’t just about the outreach work—though my experience would be meaningful in some of the discussions for sure. But no, there was… another factor. A whisper passed recently from tribal to military circles, which the government was now hoping to look into under a less sensational light. Something, he said, that his associates had told him they’d heard me speak of before. Something I had witnessed twice in Bogotá. The reason—or the final straw, at least—for my move to Medellín.

I stopped rocking on the edge of the bed—heart quiet, but arms tingling as if ready to take flight. I tried to remember how many tricks I had told that story to—on a lark, usually, to while away the time between rounds one and two with just the right sort of captive audience. On Sundays in Parque de Bolívar, there was a woman who performed live, frenetic theatre with a smattering of household and commercial objects that looked as if they’d been heaped together by a deranged street-dwelling recycler. In idle moments with the sillier of my clients, I scrounged through my bag of scattered memories with just as much abandon, but never would I have expected them to take those ones seriously. Who ever listens to a whore?

David was watching me as I processed his explanation, though, and clearly something about my expression confirmed for him that his intel had been right after all.

“¿Cuando?” I said.

Now, he replied. We leave now. And oh, mis queridas, he said this with such charm and genuine eagerness that I almost wanted to show him what he could’ve gotten for his downpayment instead—but no. Cuidate, Lupe. Some dreams are better left to other hens.

We took a government car south of the city—the interior all fresh, clean smells: air conditioning, treated leather, new plastic—and the roads around us phased through blue-green mountain vistas, and brick hovels painted with advertisements for Aguila and messages of Biblical redemption, and dust, and fog, and women with babies in the doorways while the men played cards by the road, waiting for clients at their fruit and arepa stands. Over the next few days we made stops at information centres in little community clusters like Caldas and Amaga, La Pintada and Supía, and in the sprawling oasis of Manizales, and in the coffee country around Pereira, and in historic Cartago, “la ciudad del Sol más alegre,” in the department of Valle del Cauca, before lingering in the municipality of El Dovio, near the Chocó border.

I didn’t know any of these places by name until David gave me the bullet points—a rola like me, uprooted to Medellín, doesn’t exactly go wandering the antioqueña countryside, let alone its neighbouring districts—but in all of them there was… kindness. More than I had expected from the more traditional parts of the country, for all that I knew “marica” to still be a contemptuous slur on many local lips. The women at the rec centres and churches fed me like I was one of their children—the language making it easy, in its generic male “hijos”, for well-meaning abuelas to bypass the question of my presentation altogether. The younger people were curious, too, and filled with the kind of bold, guileless questions I knew how to make a game of, while the local girls like me sported… envy, sure, but mostly playfully. While FARC councilwomen facilitated conversations between local advocacy groups and me, and a Venezuelan refugee from the streets of Envigado, and a woman from Comuna Trece who had started her own business to help other women support themselves after fleeing domestic violence, the local girls listened more or less in silence, studiously intent on their phones. But the moment the talks were over, they came over and demanded that I gift them some of the things I was wearing, things they insisted I could always get more of in Medellín but weren’t available in town for their figures. They touched my hair, and the goods, with alternating praise and comparison, including to some girls that they claimed—without express intent to insult—had been made way better. We snarked. We bantered. And sometimes, together, we cried.

And all the while, David’s presence kept my second purpose close to mind—the oddity I was supposed to be on the lookout for, as if I could choose the exact time and place of its next manifestation. As if I had ever had so much control in Bogotá. In the rooms where we stayed—hotels, guest suites, a church when one of our reservations fell through due to flooding—I would lie awake while the others snored in separate beds, and revisit the sounds, the smells, the flickers out the window, hovering for weeks over clay-tile rooftops before the first incident that would eventually make for such foolish stories with my men.

Real smoke, of course, was common enough on the streets of San Cristóbal—refuse burning in concrete squares, burned-out fireworks still jammed in sidewalk cracks, coals from the arepa vendors giving over to the cool night air—but these floating wisps had a restless quality, unmoored from any specific fire but still lingering: fantasmic, alive. Papá had told me often enough that mamá believed in ghosts and witches, and that when they had been young together she had helped him to exorcise his demons most of all. If she hadn’t died so soon, he’d added, she could have taught me how to recognize the difference in their presentations—but no, now it was just the two of us, left to face the mess of them on our own.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t question the flickers at first. Maybe I thought that the strange smoke was just her, the way I felt her presence sometimes when I knelt and prayed and looked up into the painted eyes of the Virgin in the little blue-and-white-tiled grotto at the end of our lane. Okay, maybe not her exactly, that ugly twist of smoke—but an omen from her, at least, because I knew well enough in those same weeks that I was drawing closer to the day when I would undergo my greatest change. No, not in public performance, nor through the needle or the knife, but in papá’s eyes: the day when he would look at me and see a stranger. I carried that impending fate in my throat for months, a hard-stone weight that only grew heavier until the morning when finally, finally, he caught me as I am—and hand in hand, too, with mi hermoso—so that in that moment he lost his son in two ways… while I lost all of him.

For weeks prior, I had seen the glitching smoke, pixellated at its edges like the image on a cracked smartphone, and smelling vaguely of burnt plastic. For weeks, I had taken it for a spectre of doom, but not unkindly—just mamá’s warning, cuidate, mi niña, as she might have said to me if she had been there, and known my soul as well in person as she surely did from up on high. But in that awful moment of transformation, the spectre flexed and contorted out the corner of my eye on the neighbouring building—a writhing, wispy ribbon against a sweep of open blue sky and the yellow-grey band of Bogotá pollution—so that even while I was processing papá’s reaction, I felt a twinned coldness blooming ever so close at hand. No, whatever this was, this wasn’t mamá. This was something that never quite took human form, and yet was bound regardless to the humans to which it was revealed.

He didn’t even shout, my papá, when faced with the stranger in his home. There was a look of anger, sure—hatred, maybe, was closer—and in that first flash of it I feared the violence he might have inflicted upon us, but soon enough disgust won out instead, and with it a shuttering of all familial connection. You could see it in how his hand curled against the door handle, and the shape of his mouth as he turned and walked outside. The words get out, and don’t come back were unnecessary. Pure narrative flourish. I had already witnessed that deadening, a closed door between us that would never open again within this lifetime.

…And at that same moment, there came a birthing. A wrenching crack outside, like a breach in the heavens, but which only I seemed to hear—mi hermoso with his hand on my shoulder, What’s wrong, Lupe, what it is?, but mystified when I told him, Look, just look, it’s right outside! My whole body shaking from the terrible release of having passed through uncertainty into the collapse of all hope of ever again calling that apartment “mi hogar”. My thoughts bewildered, too, by the accompanying realization that if mamá wasn’t behind the apparition then mamá was also gone, forever gone, and I was without any family of my own. Mi hermoso never saw it, never knew what, exactly, I witnessed in that dizzying split-second of processing my destiny, and there was enough for us to do after having been spotted—to wander out, to find a sheltering wall for that torrential night—that he never thought to ask of it again.

Honestly, though, when mi hermoso eventually left me for someone else with better, steadier access to the kind of fix he really wanted, I was glad of it: glad that this one facet of that terrible and formative day was mine and mine alone. With clients later, in the idle minutes between their rounds of play, I would tell the story of the ugly creature that had burst into being out my window right as I was being disowned—like a black-tarred fusion of vulture and toad, with one great, bulging eye and a tongue that lolled from the half-rigid protrusion of its grimacing beak—and sometimes they would laugh and suggest improvements on the tale: What, not even a hat and tie? Sure, okay baby, a hat and tie. And a feather boa and a trilling I’m heeeeeeere? Sure, doll, all of that too. But mostly they would ask, yeah? So what happened to it? Where is it now? And I would tell them, fingers taking a lazy walk down their chests and aging bellies, oh, honey, sweetheart, you’ve seen what my mouth can do to dirty beasts. You think I can’t give some otherworldly nightmare a tongue lashing, and have it pop off, too?

And to think that some of my clients—one of them, at least—had remembered the beast itself, after all the subsequent effort I’d put into a demonstration of my own talents for exorcism. …Probably, though, the client in question hadn’t told David that part of my story, when he’d told him any of it at all.

Although, if he had…

Sometimes I would catch David’s eye from across the stage while the talks went on—and I would smile at him, and he would smile back, politely, warmly, like one plain old professional human being to another—and I would get such a thrill from that basic courtesy that I would think to myself, qué vergüenza, su sexualidad… because maybe if we worked through the whole story together, we could figure out where this new, wildling apparation of smoke and monster was hiding, too. Or at least enjoy the journey to that end…

But then I would remember the second time the creature had appeared, and… well, all easy, laughing language for my clientele aside… I was happy to hold off a third encounter with that monster for as long as I possibly could.

And okay, I guess I did feel bad about the clothes and accessories that girls like me would ask about on tour, once I got over my annoyance at their minor thefts from my purse. I had, it was true, a few clients who gifted well, including I guess the one who recommended me for this whole vacation in the first place. (I texted Chicken daily, to try to express my thanks to her in turn, but only received a response on the first two nights—so I figured a bit of envy had slipped in there, and left her alone to her silly sulking.)

But it was in El Dovio that my sense of shame truly deepened—and with it, a sense that I could only put off my other task for so long. There, in the little grid city nestled between a half-dozen verdant mountain peaks, I met the first girl like me who wasn’t at all impressed with our whole travelling circus of women’s advocates, and when she told us why I couldn’t blame her, either. Jimena was Emberá Katio, one of a clutch of natives who’d left their Catholic-dominated pueblos to work simply, as themselves, on more accommodating farms, and there found new strength in their own community. At question period, Jimena came up to the stage not with praise for our efforts but to ask the group, what, you think we need someone from the city coming and telling us our stories for us? You think we can’t do this advocacy for ourselves? You think we haven’t always had to do just that? Because they were different, her stories and ours, and her girls didn’t appreciate being lumped in with all the rest.

David listened with the impassive face of a man who knew it was his job to take criticism for factors outside his control—a rural indigenous woman had been lined up, I was later told, but there had been complications, and a replacement couldn’t be found in time. But there was also the simple fact that every story was distinct: you start putting any group of people together under the same banner, and of course there will be some who feel erased. We aren’t the banner, our homeless Venezuelan, Ana Paula, tried to explain. We are human beings of equal worth and distinction, who sometimes need the banner just to be treated as such.

Pues, puedes tomar ese malparida contigo cuando vayas,” came Jimena’s plain reply. No banners, no flags. We just want to exist.

And I felt… such a coldness then, from my seat upon the stage: arms like ice, head numb, the old, hard-stone weight rising in my throat. Of course they did. Of course we do. So why… Were we… Was all of this—the government’s initiative, the tour group, the public talks—helping or making things worse?

Taking coffee with the other women after, Soraya from Comuna Trece shared some of the research she’d come across when her grassroots organization had grown to require more administrative dealings with the government. Anti-bullying education sounds so good, right? But you know, sometimes it backfires—like, the kids just learn new ways to bully, and they’re introduced to the concept when maybe it had never occurred to them before. Same across the board, girlies—you wanna tell people how to be better to you, and sometimes all you’re giving them is more ammo to use against you.

Ana Paula disagreed. The real problem, she said, was the attendance figures—how much good could we do if only the women and children and the rare novio or esposo showed up? Where were all the men in the conversation? Afraid they’d be yelled at if they showed up?

Tal vez, I laughed—and reminded them of the one woman in another pueblo who had gotten up to say that women deserved to be beaten sometimes, the way they lash out at their men while their men just have to sit and take it. It took, what, twenty minutes to agree that violence was bad all around, while she whipped out her phone and showed us footage of women hitting men?

But for all our pleasant chatter and debriefing, by the end of lunch Jimena’s words still stung: the reminder in them that I didn’t know shit about this work, really, because I’d been given so little training for it, outside of simply living in the body that I have. So when I took a walk that afternoon and came across her with some of her girls—in sturdy slacks for the task of unloading burlap sacks from a farm truck, with beads in her hair and a thin brush of lipstick under tired eyes—I asked if they needed a hand and she looked me up and down, in my heels and my thigh-high dress, nails lacquered to tomorrow, and she burst into laughter.

“Oi, mira—chica,” she sobered, when she saw the disappointment in my face. “Venga, tras ésto. A las ocho, a la iglesia.”

And I said seguro, I’ll be there, like it made no difference to me either way, but I was nervous like a schoolgirl with her first trick, some silly schoolboy figuring out how to barter for a couple minutes of bliss in the bathroom. There were many churches in El Dovio, but the church was a white-washed beacon in the centre of the town, and that’s where I lingered at 8 o’clock, listening to the last of a service and taking in the quickening shadows of the night.

Well, most of them were shadows, at least. But while I waited for Colombian time to take its course—five minutes after the hour, ten minutes, closing in on fifteen, with one batch of churchgoers filing out and new ones readying to slip in—I saw something in the shadows move—floating, fantasmic—along the neighbouring rooftops, with that telltale glitch along what should have been its wispy edges. And my heart sank in the darkness, for I felt at once the dread that had come with my second visitation, back in Bogotá. The surety that whatever it was, wherever it hailed from, whatever this smoke signalled would not bring me any good.

I think it’s important to mention, though, that what happened the night of that second visitation wasn’t the first time for me. Girls like us, sometimes we forget how many times it’s happened, and if we have to remember one incident in particular, it can be especially confusing to then think, wait, why do I remember this one so vividly, and not these other ones as well? But maybe this incident was a first for me in another sense: the first time when I wasn’t alone while it happened, the first time when it was me and another girl and two clients we figured we’d be safe with because we were seeing them together, because we had each other’s backs. Maybe it was the fact that this time, at least, we felt wise and in control and infinitely capable of handling whatever mierda was thrown our way, whatever slimy pirobos landed in our path. Maybe the shattering of that illusion was what made this one really stick.

But also, I had seen the pixellated smoke for days prior. Mamá, I knew now, wasn’t in that vision, watching me, protecting me, so what did it mean? Another warning? Maybe something with my papá again? By this point I hadn’t seen or heard from him in weeks, and he’d blocked me from WhatsApp. Had he found me by some other means? Was he going to show up in anger, and shame, and maybe finish off the body of the son he’d already lost?

So we were squatting, Maria Fernanda and me, by the creek in Parque Metropolitano San Cristóbal, washing up after it happened, and helping each other with some of the places where dirt and gravel had been ground up into our skin. No one ever tells you about the jokes you can still crack after, the zingers you manage while fixing mascara stains on each other’s bruising faces. There was a hospital nearby, but it didn’t even occur to us to plead for aid. In fact, it was right there, creekside, when it hit me like a slap in the face, my wake-up call: this was always going to be life for girls like us, wasn’t it? And sure, gracias a Dios this wasn’t the time that killed us, but what else did we expect? What else could we? And while I was resigning myself to my circumstances, that’s when it happened again—that terrible crack in the sky.

Maria Fernanda didn’t hear it, though, and she couldn’t see the creature that emerged then from the wisps. In most ways it was the same as the first time for me—a black-tarred vulture-toad with one great, bulging eye and twisted leathery beak—but also, it was bigger than I remembered. And after it emerged, it sat on the upper sandbags along the embankment, and blinked at me, and I shrieked and fell into the water, while Maria Fernanda cast about with confusion, which just made me more confused. Hijueputa, it was ugly. How could she miss it?

Mind you, I never told this part of the story to my clients. Like Soraya said, and like many in the trade knew without uttering a word, why give any would-be predators more ideas about how to be shitty to us on the clock? But this time I didn’t shout at the creature, and I didn’t tell it to leave. I hadn’t the heart, when its hideous appearance matched the heaviness I felt inside, the sudden grey cast over my days to come… and so it didn’t disappear, as it had when I had first shouted from my bedroom window. Instead it followed me, quietly, at a distance, while I found myself panicking just a little more at every subsequent trick, and took to trying to guess from their faces which one would be the one, the one to finally do me in.

Maybe if it had just been the monster, too, I could have managed it—saluted it with my bottles of rum from time to time, and talked at it about all its ugly features, while it blandly sat, and blinked, and looked on at my work—but all the while there was another spectre, too: the silence between me and Maria Fernanda, who didn’t ever seem to want to talk about this open wound binding us; who talked louder or shut down or walked away whenever I so much as tried. And so as days turned to weeks turned to a month without the edge of that hard night softening in my mind’s eye, her steadfast denial and the increasing decay of the abiding creature—its sticky skin flaking, its great eye yellowing, its tongue bloating out the corner of its beak—became unbearable. I couldn’t do it anymore: not the streets of downtown Bogotá, not the faces of all the pent-up men there, not the unspoken fear that my papá’s face would still show up among them, and that his would be the one I would see murder in most of all.

So I told the rotting creature, as I boarded the bus for Medellín, don’t follow me, I don’t want you, I want to leave it all behind and start over somewhere new.

And it didn’t.

Which was… whenever I thought about it—the greasy pixellated smoke, the spontaneous generation, the creature’s grotesqueries of form—still the damnedest thing of all.

So if even a hideous vulture-toad of a demon can take the hint… I would say to my clients, when Big Mami knocked on the door to let us know their hour was through. And the men would laugh and sometimes try to wheedle, yes, but surely you’ll cut a handsome guy like me a little more slack than a toad? “¿No es acoso, cierto? ¿Con este guapo?”

Pillow talk on a bed of knives, mis queridas. But that's the business for you.

Jimena startled me with a hand on my arm when she arrived, but after she realized that I had been staring into the darkness over the rooftops, and that something there had frozen me to my spot upon the church stairs, she only tightened her grip on my elbow.

“¿Lo has visto?” she said urgently. And I blinked, and turned to her. Could she see the strange smoke, too? “Vamos,” she said in way of reply. We had much, elsewhere, to discuss.

But for all the shared tension in our postures then—each with our unasked questions for the other—on the way she also broke into laughter and shook her head, and told me she would never have expected it. Among her girls it had always been assumed to be an indigenous trait, to see the monsters that men had caused the land to birth—and I wasn’t native, was I? No, no, surely not, not for many generations at least. Then again, her girls rarely spoke of these visitations with others, so how could they really know they weren’t unique? The last time word had gotten out, she told me, there had almost been a government inquiry, with all the dangers those things brought to native autonomy, and so the local community had taken great pains to suppress the truth: to say, oh, you know us, that girl was probably borracha when she talked with… with, well, whoever took her seriously enough to call it in.

And that worked, simply claiming she was drunk?

Jimena didn’t dignify my incredulous question with a verbal response. The arched and painted eyebrow said plain enough, oh please, don’t try to deny the stereotype.

So I didn’t, face flushing at my ignorance, and we walked in silence to a little stone grotto for La Virgen de Guadalupe, at the edge of a tiny patch of green where two other girls from Jimena’s farm—one pushing fifty, easily, but with a look that said call me señora just once, I dare you—were already waiting, smoking a joint, behind the cover of two trees.

The second nodded to me, eyes on Jimena. This the girl?

Jimena introduced us—Lupe, Aguas; Briceida, Lupe—and crooked a curious grin my way while speaking to her friends. I figured she just wanted to make up for the shit-show she’s been a part of, try to hang a bit and be one of us girls for an hour, but can you believe it? She sees them too.

Briceida snorted and took a deeper hit. “¡Nanay cucas!” She jerked her head in the direction of the grotto—the apparition of Santa María cowled in starry blue, under an gold-inlaid archway of ragged grey stone—“¿Me dices que ella ve eso?”

It took a few seconds to adjust to the poor lighting of our location, the little clearing illuminated after dark only by a string of Christmas lights in the grotto, and the flicker of four candles at the statue’s base. At first I could not turn my attention from the tranquility of her face, words from a common prayer coming as unbidden as the gestures across my chest—

 [ La Virgen, © 2019 Dr. T. Eratopo ] O Virgen Santísima de Guadalupe, muestra que eres nuestra Madre! Defiéndenos en las tentaciones, consuélanos en las tristezas, y ayúdanos en todas nuestras necesidades! En los peligros, en las enfermedades, en las persecuciones, en las amarguras, en los abandonos, en la hora de nuestra muerte, miranos con ojos compasivos y no te separes jamás de nosotros!

—but then I saw the sticky, half-feathered tail nestled behind the base of La Virgen, and my hand froze just as I moved to kiss my lips to one bent knuckle in mid-prayer.

I turned quickly then, in astonishment to Jimena, who nodded with a smirk at Aguas and Briceida: You see? And the words came tumbling out, more inept than in any lazy recounting for men who lounged awhile in my third-floor cot in Centro. And Aguas listened with pursed lips, then passed me the joint, and told me about the day the creature had first appeared for her—the day her sister was set to be cut, quietly, in deference to the old and long-illegal ways; the day a priest showed up instead and took her away, while the family grieved and raged but could do nothing without risking further encroachment of the law. That powerful confusion in the little girl’s eyes, and Aguas’s own helplessness in watching her sister go. The dawning realization that what her family wanted for them maybe wasn’t always right, and the questions this left about the wishes of the spirits they spoke to, too.

Aguas had also first shouted at the creature—told it to leave them alone, to go away—and it had listened, so respectful a wretch of a thing. But later, years later, when her sister told her what happened next, in the priest’s care, the sky had cracked anew, and that time, agonized by her inability to protect her family, Aguas had accepted the hideous beast as fitting punishment: a reminder of all she hadn’t done and could never do to heal her sister’s wounds.

This one still rots in spells, Briceida added, gesturing at the beast within the grotto, at the feet of Santa María. But sometimes when we sing to it our songs, healing songs, it regains its strength.

Yeah, the strength to haunt us anew, said Jimena, taking the joint from me.

I was struck, though, that all three could see Aguas’s monster, while my astonishment in turn baffled the group. “Pues, si, por supuesto,” said Briceida: the moment Aguas had told them the story of her sister, how could they not see the beast that haunted her? Maybe they couldn’t get near it the same way, maybe it answered best only to her voice, but still, at a distance, there it was, having arisen fiercely from the hurting world itself.

Like a reverse-unicorn, I laughed without meaning to. Laughter was all too often the way I coped, but I frowned apology for it here, and coughed. They didn’t know what I meant by “unicorn”, so I tried to explain a creature drawn to people only with certain traits. It’s like… you can only see it if your wounds are deep enough. It only gets close if you’re really damaged.

Briceida snorted, but not in disagreement. She stared at the manifestation.

Not everyone who’s damaged sees them, though.

Some make the choice not to, Aguas agreed. And I thought of Maria Fernanda, her adamant silence after those terrible minutes when we’d reached for and held each other’s hands across the concrete, and when I’d reminded her that she had to be strong, that she had a kid waiting for her to come home. I supposed that could be true. But did it really help us to see them? What good was the choice not to send them all away? “¿Crees que nos ayudan?” I asked.

And Jimena shrugged, cheekbones fleetingly lightened by the glow of the joint while she inhaled. They exist. That’s enough reason to pay attention, isn’t it?

The very question I’d thought my whole delegation had been asking, too.

In another lifetime, my papá was known only as Hernan Manuel Rodriguez Moreno, or Mani to his maricas and his padres, and when he was fourteen, his papá was gunned down in the streets of Bogotá. No one ever told me why, but when he spoke of mamá helping with his demons, I had always taken them to be figurative, the kind on TV that got fixed with whisky or guaro, and maybe the occasional sacrificial chair or kitchen plate or spousal jaw. Certainly he never gave them form—only told me that that was mamá’s department, seeing all the things he didn’t, or couldn’t: the circles his beer left on the kitchen table, the spots on his collars, how his eyes wandered in the streets even while walking with her, and, sure, the otherworldly figures, too. The way he talked, she’d felt guilty using her “powers” to heal them—sometimes convinced that, yes, Mother and Son wanted her to exorcise these beasts from her amor; at others, convinced that she was trespassing into the priestly arts, and risking her very soul.

I didn’t learn of papá’s death until months after it happened, from a neighbour in the barrio who’d happened to be in Medellín on vacation, but when I did I got to thinking about that first transformation in his life—that moment when he went from awkward, lanky teen to open wound for mamá to try to heal. How could a man who’d lost his father ever abandon his child? Or was it only possible because he had thought of me as a hard loss, too—my body’s changes every bit as abrupt an ending as when his papá’s met with plomo?

Did the sky crack then for him, as a boy faced with the reality of his papá’s death? And if it did, did he tell the beast to leave him, or did it dog him, too, decaying at a steady distance for lack of notice, for years before mamá saw it and tried to expel it in his stead?

I asked more of these questions aloud than I meant to, as we passed around another joint, and as Jimena, Aguas, and Briceida slipped into Chocó, laughing and singing over stories whose words I didn’t know. But eventually Aguas nudged me, and gestured with her lips at the creature in the shadow of La Virgen. “Le gusta sus preguntas,” she said. And sure enough the beast did seem to have a healthier gloss, a sturdier stance in its enclosure, and most of all a few more inches, if its size under my red-eyed sight could still be believed. But whether my speech had anything to do with it, I couldn’t say for certain. The farm girls’ weed was just too good.

David noticed my exhaustion, though, when I returned from my time with the women the tour had overlooked, the women whose stories still were not my own to tell—and their monsters, surely not for me to tattle on. He’d been waiting for me to check in—still in suit and tie, with that immaculate moustache and ready smile—in a tienda downstairs from our rooms, while the rest of the team had already turned in. I smiled, and tucked my hair behind an ear, but saw that all his warmth and seeming friendliness still had but one objective in the end.

“¿Pues?” he said. “¿Qué más?” Any signs of the creature? The smoke?

I set my disappointment to one side as he searched my eyes for hesitation, doubt. Nice try on his part, but I was an actor with a six-night-weekly stage, so I needed only to laugh expansively, and distract him with a gentle, lingering pat on the side of his chest. Oh, you’re so funny, I told him. All you government types—you’re so serious, you take everything around you so seriously too. What, you think I wouldn’t find out about the rumour someone fed to some patsy in the military, off of… off of what, exactly? The word of a drunk girl in the farms? That’s what they dragged you out here for?

“¡Ay, por favor!” I crowed, while the corners of his mouth fell. “Nada, ’mor—hablé con todo, y es nada.” And I cut the air with my free hand before resting it on his arm, and dipping my brow to affect a drunken variation on sobriety: the classic heart-to-heart. “Las mujeres en estos pueblos,” I said gravely, inching closer. “Están haciendo alguna gran broma a costa suya.” And yes, yes, he flinched at my proximity and slid aside—ah well, can’t change them all—but my ploy had already done the trick. I saw gnawing doubt behind his eyes: the fear so easy to switch on, that somewhere, somewhy, women were laughing at him. Laughing at them all.

As I trudged up the stairs with some brief twinge of sadness at his disinterest—silly me, to think so highly of politeness—I wondered if their monsters so very often looked like us.

Chicken still wasn’t answering her texts when I returned, about a week after I had left David to come to the conclusion that he’d been sent on a fool’s errand—you know, all those supposedly useful FARC-sponsored talks on gender equality aside. I didn’t take that kind of evasive shit from my girl, though, so even though the morning in Medellín was already bright and hot, and the shade wherever I went, already full of streetpeople snoozing under ballcaps and burlap sacks by their bags of gathered plastics, papers, cartons, and cuts of scavenged or stripped wires, I busted into her room above a mattress retailer on Avenida del Ferrocarril, and pried her hands from her face and neck when she, moaning, still tried to hide them both away.

“¿Qué piro?” I breathed, when I saw the handprints in recovery upon that delicate skin, that slender outstretched bit of flesh for slaughter. But we both knew the asshole’s name. If it had been any other, mi querida gallina, she could have gone to Carlos Enrique for help. She could have trusted at least one man on the force to have her side and help take him down. But ever was it thus: the loneliest, the sweetest… and the worst, sometimes, too.

It started out well enough, she tried to tell me, without looking me in the eye. He had tears in his eyes. He called me his… his… But the first time he caught another man’s look in the street, the way that stranger looked at him while he was with me… like… like Carlito himself had to be some sort of… of… Oh, it was like the sky cracked, Lupe. He changed so fast. I didn’t… I couldn’t’ve… How could I have ever known?

The pixellated smoke had followed me in the last days of the tour, unappeased by my decision to pay homage to the monster in the Emberá Katio women’s care… and I had been wondering why, what more could it have wanted from me, when I gathered up my girl in my arms and looked out the window, and saw it still, and realized: the sky had not cracked for me again, because the specific illusion to be shattered here had, in fact, been shattered long ago. And after all, last time I’d only told the beast not to follow me, hadn’t I? Never to vanish, no.

So I rested my chin on Chicken’s sweet-smelling dyed-blonde hair, and as her lean, sharpish shoulders heaved with the release of feeling under my stroking hands, over my ready and welcoming chest, I whispered to that patient, fantasmic smoke in the sky beyond her bedroom window: You can come back now. I need you here, with this, for me, for Chicken.

And within seconds my old prince hideous, my dread reverse-unicorn, my long-mouldering, tar-spackled vulture-toad of disillusionment and grief, lumbered sedately up the clay-tiled roof beside ours, and blinked a lazy, long-jaundiced eye right at me.

Waiting for instruction, like any good steed upon entering the field of combat.

And I wondered after I set it loose, after I told it, wander, go, see what you can see, hear what you can hear, do what you need to do for all of us in town, just how big it could possibly get off the stories of other Chickens, other Lupes and Ana Paulas and Sorayas. Even other Maria Fernandas and Hernan Manuels, frankly—if they could be open about their deepest wounds with it, to say nothing of each other. I imagined the beast as it might look in weeks or months after feasting here: gargantuan, its sticky webbed wingprints left on the sides of all El Poblado’s skyscrapers, its fetid drool along the Río Medellín. Growing, consuming, strengthening itself on the turns in our illusions, the harshest transformations in our lives, until at last the size of its grotesquery could no longer be denied.

Would we be known better then by our monsters than our better natures? Perhaps—but ¡ay, ave Maria!, if it’s all one banner or another that we stand to lose ourselves within by standing under… the least that ours could use was a little bite.

© 2019 M.L. Clark

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