Nariño, 2013

 

The Armadillo Man is watching her. She can tell by how quickly he lowers his face when she abruptly turns towards her bedroom window. He’s sitting in his usual spot, on the white plastic chair beneath the grapefruit tree, walking stick leaning against his knee, hands folded in his lap. She raises her arms and jumps up and down, letting the towel drop. The wind sways the grapefruits above his head; his eyes stay resolutely fixed to the ground. She spins around, does jumping jacks, turns and bends over so that her hands lay flat on the floor. She wiggles her rear end and begins writing the alphabet in the air with it, spelling one letter at a time in long, lazy arcs. She gives him a good show – the best she has to offer.

Later that morning they go for a walk. They take shortcuts by crossing through people’s yards, stepping over the collapsed portions of walls blown apart by grenades. They cut directly through abandoned houses, walking around shattered glass, splintered furniture, and piles of cigarette butts. There are never any light bulbs or electric cables, no taps in the sinks or handles on the toilets. She leaves the doors cracked open for stray cats.

In Hortensia’s old garden, they find the body of a drowned chicken in the fishpond. He surprises her by handing over his walking stick and getting down on his knees. He fishes the body out with his bare hands and tosses it into a nearby bush. When he stands up again (slowly but still surely), the knees of his blue jeans have transformed into muddy brown eyes staring mournfully back at her.

‘What should we do with it?’ she says, circling the bush warily. The water drips from its feathers and runs down the leaves of the bush, forming tiny rivers in the dirt below.

‘Leave it,’ he says. ‘The other chickens will eat it.’

‘What!’

‘You haven’t seen them? Even the chicks will join in.’ He shakes his wrists up and down, splattering water on her shirt. ‘Pick the bones clean,’ he adds.

‘That’s disgusting!’

‘Why?’

‘Is that what you want to happen to you?’ Her voice keeps rising, getting more high-pitched.

‘What I want,’ he says, ‘is nobody’s business.’

She keeps looking at the bush. If it wasn’t for the chicken’s swollen claws and cloudy eyes, it could just as easily be sleeping.

‘Or if you’d like,’ he says, ‘we could dig a hole.’

‘That’s stupid.’ She’s already walking away. So he leaves it there, propped up on the shelf of branches, where, she hopes, the beetles and ants will get to it first.

 

*

 

She dreams about sitting in church. On the ceiling are dozens of arms and legs, layers deep, sticking out like prickles on a cactus. As she stands and walks down the aisle, they keep brushing lightly against her hair: the wrists and heels, elbows and toes. As she approaches the door she begins to stumble: looking down, she sees fingers growing out of the floor, springing up between the tiles like weeds. The air is filled with smoke and smells like rotten eggs. Something thick and squishy is lolling around in her mouth, but no matter how hard she pushes it against her teeth with her tongue, she can’t spit it out.

When she opens her eyes in the dark bedroom, her pillow is on the floor. For a second she thinks she can still smell rotten eggs, that the dream is a memory that never ended, an event that’s still taking place, but she’s able to take a deep breath and swallow hard before the pounding of her heart gets any worse. The sky outside her window is dark blue, and somewhere inside the room a cricket is singing. She picks up the pillow, flips it over to its cool side, and pulls her knees as close to her chin as possible.

 

*

 

When she’s not taking him on walks or completing basic household chores, the main part of Sofía’s job is accompanying the Armadillo Man on daily house calls.

Three months ago, a few days after she and her aunt had returned from the morgue, he had knocked on their door and said, ‘You know, now that I’m a retired man, I’ve been thinking I could use some help.’ It only took the first few hours for her to realize that he didn’t actually need a caretaker, that he didn’t need any help, period – from her or anyone. But she’s never brought it up, neither to him nor to her aunt, so every evening the same ritual takes place: he gives her some crumpled brown bills in the kitchen, and she walks next door to press the money into her aunt’s hands.

That morning they go see Pastora. Her mustard-colored house looks bright against the rolling fields stretched behind it, the land brown from the government fumigations. Even the bananas in the front yard hang black and heavy, the large leaves wilted and discolored. In the kitchen Pastora bustles busily about, serving them overcooked rice mashed with white bread and sugar. Sofía manages a few bites before sculpting the mush into a smooth white mountain in the middle of her plate, making it look as though she’s eaten more than she really has. Pastora and the Armadillo Man talk for hours, with Pastora saying things like ‘the taxes the guerrillas charged were much less’ and ‘dressing dead civilians in rebel uniforms – shameless, utterly shameless.’ In his unmistakable Bogotá accent, with its calm, straightforward steadiness, the Armadillo Man mostly responds with things like ‘animals, animals,’ or ‘that’s how it goes – they’ll just keep going.’

Sofía drinks her coffee in silence. She flips her arms over every few minutes, studying the different patterns the scratchy tablecloth has pushed into her skin. Every once in a while she sneaks a glance at the Armadillo Man’s hands – even after three months as his caretaker and sixteen years as his next-door neighbor, it still feels like an act she needs to get away with. Something sneaky, undercover. The skin on his hands morphs into different colors: patches of red in some places, brownish yellow in others. There’s a bloated purple bump near his ring finger, engorged like a mini head. On his face the skin is white and flakey, like a tree trunk covered in lichens, with the patches in the middle parting in opposite directions, as if his face is trying to peel itself open.

‘Six months and nothing,’ Pastora says loudly. ‘Not a word about a ransom. Not for the husband, nor for the son.’ She thumps her hand against the table, rattling the cups. ‘Not even a note. Eugenia is going out of her mind.’

‘I guess he didn’t have a deal with the cartels after all,’ the Armadillo Man says.

‘Don’t you mean the guerrillas?’

‘Maybe,’ he says. ‘Or I could mean the army. Or the paramilitaries. Does it make a difference?’ He places his hands on the table, palms facing upward, as though offering her something invisible.

It still shocks her sometimes, looking at him that directly, in a room like Pastora’s kitchen where plenty of light trickles in through the high windows. She keeps forgetting that he’s not an old man. His eyes are watery but clearly belong to someone her uncle’s age (or how old her uncle would have been), and the morning light as it hits his face makes his gray eyebrows turn white. She slurps the last of her coffee and wonders (not for the first time) if there’s a scar somewhere, a pair of faded red blemishes or a single dark puckered hole, where the jungle parasite first entered his body. How would it have happened? It would have been five years ago: the Armadillo Man, who back then would have just been the Professor, a teacher originally from Bogotá, who’d been teaching at the town’s high school for years. Marching through the jungle, men with rifles and camouflage pants walking steadily beside him. Black rubber boots with yellow bottoms. A metal collar around his neck, attached to a chain. Once the Professor, now the Armadillo Man.

At what point had he realized what was happening to him? Did he figure it out for himself, or did the guards point it out? What part of his flesh had begun to rot away first?

‘It was the Necktie cut that they used,’ Pastora says, brushing her fingers lightly across her throat. ‘Heads off. Genitals in mouth.’

‘That’s not the Necktie,’ the Armadillo Man says. ‘That’s the Monkey. The Necktie is when they pull the tongue through the jaw. And not all of them had their genitals in their mouths, just one.’

‘You can’t pull out a tongue with a chainsaw,’ Pastora says.

The two of them suddenly look at Sofía, as if only just remembering her presence.

‘So nice to see there are still young people left in this town,’ Pastora says in a voice that sounds more angry than glad, and Sofía puts the coffee cup in her lap and uses her index finger to lick up the last grains of sugar.

 

*

 

Next is a winding road up the mountain to Ramiro. His house is the one with a corrugated tin roof and a giant plastic tub sitting on top to capture rainwater. When they reach the front yard there’s a goat tied to a stick bleating menacingly. It has the bushiest white eyebrows she’s ever seen. She stops in her tracks until the Armadillo Man says, ‘That’s enough, David.’ When Ramiro comes out of the house to greet them, she thinks, David?

Ramiro’s back garden is filled with dead cornstalks and yucca plants. The narrow trunks of two papaya trees reach skyward, their leaves hanging limp on top. They walk on the path through the cornstalks, following Ramiro until he leads them to a field of coca bushes, the leaves browning and dry. Beside her, the Armadillo Man’s breath sounds a little ragged, but when she offers him her forearm he shakes his head.

‘See this one?’ Ramiro says, pausing and kneeling beside a bush. He uses his machete to point at the roots, where there are still some green leaves left. ‘Still alive and fighting.’ His grin is a shelf of fuzzy yellow teeth. ‘That’s a personal trick of mine – if you cut off the tops just after they’ve been sprayed, the roots don’t die. That way, the bush can regrow. How about that?’

‘Amazing,’ she says, scratching her arm. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that Yaison, twenty minutes away, does the same thing. She glances at the Armadillo Man, who’s looking expressionlessly around the field, blinking slowly, sweat glistening in the cracks in his forehead. Ramiro pulls off the greenest leaves and sticks them behind the elastic band of his sweatpants.

On the walk back, Ramiro uses his machete again to point out several lines of holes in the dirt, several inches deep, surrounded by empty shell casings. ‘American helicopters!’ he says, sounding almost happy, as if flattered that they even bothered. At his house he takes them on a tour of his botanical garden: bromeliads and orchids, ficuses and ferns. The pots are lined against every wall space available, so she can’t walk anywhere without a branch brushing against her arm or face. Ten years ago, she thinks, this house would have been perfect for playing Tarzan. When as a six-year-old girl she played with her uncle, she would crawl around on her hands and knees, the jungle canopy overhead, monkeys whooping and jaguars growling in the distance. Her uncle always played the part of Cheetah the chimp, dragging his knuckles on the living room floor as she leapt from couch to chair, beating her fists against her chest. She swallows and roughly pushes a bougainvillea vine away from her face.

At one point Ramiro takes her aside, pulls the leaf off a nearby plant, and tells her to rub it against the yellowing bruises on her upper arm, faint stains left over from the last time her aunt pinched her. ‘It’s also a cure for AIDS,’ he says, pressing a handful of leaves into her palm.

As soon as he’s out of earshot, she says in a low voice to the Armadillo Man, ‘I have AIDS?’

He covers his mouth with his hands as though cupping his laughter. A warm feeling spreads through her chest like spilt water, and she takes a deep breath.

Ramiro puts the coca leaves into a brown paper bag. ‘Five minutes without boiling over,’ he says, handing it to the Armadillo Man, who passes him some bills in return. ‘That’ll take care of any aches and pains!’ He winks at Sofía, who smiles stiffly back.

‘Bye, David,’ she says to the goat.

As they walk down the hill he says, ‘Oh my, my.’

‘Why oh my, my?’

‘Every human being has to make his own mistakes,’ he says. He suddenly sounds impatient, striking his walking stick forcefully against the ground, so she doesn’t speak again until they’re back in town.

Their last visit of the day is to the municipal building in the town center, where they’re greeted at the door by Márquez, the ex-sacristan. Márquez is from a Venezuelan border town. He speaks with a stutter and always stares directly at Sofía’s chest when saying hello. It makes her uncomfortable enough to not feel bad about being rude to him and abruptly charging into the building without offering him a cheek to kiss first.

For the past two months the mayor has let people use the first floor of the building as a church space, until the archbishop in Bogotá sends funds to clear away the last of the rubble and rebuild. ‘It’s going to happen soon,’ Márquez says, his voice cracking with a squeaky enthusiasm that Sofía finds profoundly irritating. ‘I really think he means it this time – I do!’ The Armadillo Man nods and flips through important-looking papers while she wanders around the room.

The rickety metal tables are covered with remains salvaged three months ago from the debris: fragments of Jesus and Virgin Mary statues, a dirty silver chalice. Splintered wooden boards are stacked against the walls. She looks at everything closely but doesn’t touch. Three months since they lined everybody up in the church plaza. Three months since she and her aunt visited the morgue. And this is still all that’s left. The longer she looks at everything, the harder her heart pounds, until she has to wrap her arms tightly around herself, as if afraid of losing her balance.

 

*

 

The next morning at breakfast her aunt says, ‘Be careful.’

‘What?’

‘You know.’ Her aunt stirs her coffee rapidly, the spoon clinking against the glass, the liquid transformed into a whirlpool. Sofía watches carefully to see if any liquid sloshes over the side, but it never does. ‘He’s a man.’

‘He’s the Armadillo Man.’

‘Still a man,’ her aunt says. ‘And don’t call him that. It’s disrespectful.’

‘But he came up with it himself. He says that being called “Professor” makes him feel old.’

‘Shouldn’t you be eating your breakfast instead of talking back?’

Sofía looks down at the rapidly cooling arepa on her plate. She slowly picks it up and stuffs it into her mouth whole, barely chewing, holding her breath to keep the nausea from rising. When she smiles at her aunt, all that shows is a mass of white corn mush.

‘Don’t be an idiot,’ her aunt says. ‘I know you’ve barely been eating. God knows he’s been a help – your uncle would have surely appreciated it.’ Sofía looks away. Her aunt’s eyes have filled with tears, but with a shaky breath she’s able to keep talking: ‘—but all I’m saying is pay attention to how he looks at you. And God help us if you end up catching what he has.’

She spits out the blob of unchewed food into her palm. When she swallows, a lump of warm saliva burrows down her throat, pushing down the sentence, Scars aren’t catching.

 

*

 

When she wakes that night, sweating and shaking, the disembodied arms and legs are still brushing against her forehead, as lightly as Ramiro’s leaves, flitting at her hair like birds. She gets out of bed and heads to the window. She can see over the shrapnel-pocked wall into his yard: the back porch and potted geraniums, the grapefruit tree and empty soap dishes filled with water for stray cats. The white plastic chair is sitting in the same spot, empty. The door is shut and no lights are on, so if she didn’t know any better, it would look like nobody was home. She stands as close to the window as possible, pressing her bare skin against the glass.

 

*

 

The bruises don’t fade, but the leaves cause a prickly red rash to appear. ‘Maybe I didn’t rub it in hard enough,’ she says in the kitchen the next morning as she shows him her arm. He doesn’t touch her as he looks, but all of a sudden she’s conscious of the sweat stains in her armpits, of how she’s holding her arm in the same position as Rose in the Titanic drawing scene. He drinks coffee at the table and listens to the radio as she washes the dishes. When she bends over to open the cupboard beneath the sink, she wonders how high her shirt rises on her back. She arches her spine slightly, feeling her hip bones push up against her jeans. It makes her stomach feel quivery, as if she’s drunk too much coffee. She almost starts swaying her butt, spelling out the letter A, but stops at the very last second, quickly reaching for the rags. When she stands up she tries to make out his reflection in the kitchen window, but in the glass he just looks like a ghostly blur.

That day they go somewhere new: a house with metal sheets for walls, nearly a fifty-minute walk down the main road. The inside of the house smells like a mixture of must and salt and has a dirt floor. The furniture is four plastic chairs spaced evenly around a wooden table with a scratched surface. Each chair is occupied by a small child: three girls, and a boy with a shaved head. None of them can be more than ten years old. They swing their legs back and forth, staring at Sofía and Armadillo Man, as though they’ve been sitting there all morning just watching the door, awaiting their arrival. Their flip-flops are repaired with gray plastic threads she recognizes from sacks of flour.

He surprises her by insisting on doing the cooking himself, untying the knots of the plastic bags they’ve brought along. ‘Talk to the children,’ he says, slicing the plantains rapidly. As he drops the yellow circles into the spitting hot oil, she kneels next to a girl cradling a gnawed corncob in her arms like a baby.

‘What a pretty doll!’ she says, lightly touching the girl’s hair. Even from high up she can see the silver specks of lice eggs clinging to the roots.

The girl says, ‘It’s a piece of corn.’

Thankfully he cooks fast. She helps him spoon the food out evenly onto a stack of cracked plates that still have ancient grains of rice clinging to them. When the Armadillo Man passes her a plate, she quickly shakes her head, pressing her lips together.

‘Don’t worry, it’s not for you,’ he says. ‘This way.’ He jerks his head towards the scratched-up wooden door behind her, hanging halfway off its hinges. While the children eat, she follows him into a dark bedroom, where the musty smell is so pungent she nearly stops breathing.

‘Lunch, Gregorio,’ the Armadillo Man says, and in the bed what she thought was a bunched-up pile of sheets begins to stir. It’s a man dressed only in shorts, propped up on a pillow, both arms ending in shiny pink stumps.

‘Here,’ the Armadillo Man says, patting the edge of the mattress.

She spoons the rice into Gregorio’s mouth while the Armadillo Man hovers nearby, chatting cheerfully about that morning’s news. The government is offering a cow and barbed wire to everyone who uproots their coca bushes and plants lulo trees instead, and the Soldier-for-a-Day program will soon be coming to town, so children can go and get camouflage makeup painted on their faces. Every once in a while he reaches out to brush off the grains of rice that have fallen on the sheet. Gregorio’s face, chest, arms, and legs are covered in raw red sores shaped like cockroaches, some of which are bleeding. She alternates between holding her breath and breathing through her front teeth, which makes a faint whistling sound she prays no one can hear.

‘Anything else, Gregorio?’ the Armadillo Man says when the plate is empty.

Gregorio opens and closes his mouth. ‘No,’ he finally whispers.

When they walk out the door (‘see you next week,’ he tells the children, who don’t look up from the last grains of rice they’re shoveling into their mouths), she can’t help herself. She takes a deep breath and rubs her hands up and down her arms, as if suddenly chilled despite the bright sunlight.

‘Do you want to know what happened?’ he says after a few minutes.

‘No.’ It’s true too. She couldn’t be less interested.

While they are walking along in silence she amuses herself by picturing the second half of Armadillo Man’s story. One image follows another in her head, almost comfortingly, like images from a bedtime story, or a soap opera on TV. The Armadillo Man, escaping his kidnappers by throwing himself off a cliff. Crouching in a riverbank hole for days before deciding that his only way out of the jungle was following the river. Meeting illegal loggers who helped lead him back to town, how Dr. Ortiz barely managed to save the last of his skin from falling off his face. Her uncle had told her the story, waving his cigarette around as if painting pictures in the air with the smoke; he not only made it seem as if it had happened to him personally, but as if he’d enjoyed it.

‘That Professor,’ her uncle had said, flicking the ash of his Marlboro into the grass. ‘He’s seen it all. Lived through it too.’

She knows they’re getting close to town when they pass a row of recently abandoned houses, the ones with no roof tiles or windows, the street crisscrossed with mossy electric cables. On one of the house walls, someone’s spray-painted the initials of the local paramilitary group in black capital letters. On another wall, the letters are separated by two painted hands with claw-like fingernails, each cupping a skull. Underneath the hands it says, in death we are all equal.

 

*

 

That night in the dream she’s able to spit it out. She’s made it as far as the church door, her hand hovering over the wooden handle, when it falls from her mouth and hits the tiles with a squelch. The air is still smoky and sulfurous but she’s able to see what it is without kneeling. A man’s finger, the dark knuckle hair flattened by her spit, nail bitten, a crescent of black dirt beneath the yellow nail, skin the color of egg white.

She stays in bed for a long time that morning, neither awake nor asleep. Her aunt enters the room without knocking. ‘Go away,’ she says without raising her head. ‘I think I have a worm.’

The things you come up with.’ Her aunt opens the curtains with a quick flick. ‘If you actually ate something besides coffee you’d feel fine.’

‘I mean it. My asshole is burning.’

‘My God, Sofía!’ Her aunt’s earrings, enormous silver hoops, swing back and forth as she shakes her head.

‘I can feel it down there. Poking around.’

‘Then I guess we’ll have to take you to Dr. Ortiz and have him take a look.’

‘Good luck with that.’ Ortiz was one of the lucky ones. Instead of getting him in the church, they’d left him on his doorstep, wrists tied behind his back with a shoelace and a slice in his torso from the base of the neck to the belly button.

The way her aunt’s face crumples, it makes her wonder for a second if she had really forgotten – or if she hadn’t wanted to remember.

‘Okay, okay,’ Sofia says. She uses her hand to steady herself against the mattress as she swings her feet onto the icy floor.

In the kitchen, she stares at her wavering reflection in the cup of coffee before slowly walking over to the sink and pouring it down the drain. Her tongue is fat and hot in her mouth, squished behind her teeth. Her aunt remains seated, calmly peeling an orange with her sharp fingernails.

When she picks up the bucket of cleaning supplies, her aunt says, without looking up, ‘Make sure you get rid of that ass-face before you head over there.’

‘This is my normal face,’ Sofía says. ‘Is my normal face an ass-face?’ She pulls the mop roughly away from its resting place against the wall.

‘Oh, Sofía,’ her aunt says, placing the last of the orange segments on the plate as Sofía heads toward the door. ‘Try asking yourself sometime – are you acting in a way that would make your uncle proud?’

The harder she presses her lips together, the less chance there will be of it all coming out. Spilling everywhere. Splattering.

 

*

 

Instead of following the usual route to the Armadillo Man’s door, she keeps walking down the mountainside until the grass becomes knee-high. When she comes to a wooden bench she sits down heavily, letting the bucket drop and roll across the dirt. Her uncle built the bench as a place to sit and sharpen his machete before heading into the forest below to clear away the underbrush. When she was little, she used to sit with him in the evenings as the sun set, and he’d point out the fireflies. There used to be hundreds of them before the pesticide sprayings, they would light up the dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. ‘Do you think they’re more like stars?’ he once said, gesturing expansively at them, as if he could sweep them all up in the palm of his hand. ‘Or Christmas tree lights?’

‘They’re like the eyes of angels!’ she’d answered. ‘Or the lights of alien spacecrafts!’ Her uncle had stared at her for a moment, before beginning to reverently applaud, as if awed by the scope of her imagination.

If he were here to ask her now, she knows exactly what she’d say. They’re bugs, Uncle. It’s silly to pretend that they could be anything else.

When she sits here now, what she sees are the lines of people draping over the mountain as they walk the winding trails. Pulling wagons, pushing wheelbarrows. Mattresses balanced on heads, cows and pigs in tow. Horse carts moving at a fast clip, people clutching baskets with legs dangling over the rims, entire families crowded onto a single motorcycle. Heading out, moving forward.

She exhales. The smell of rotten eggs is back, filling the back of her throat. She turns her face away from the bench and vomits up a thin stream of brown liquid – it’s always brown first thing in the morning, but by evening it will be pale, transparent, the color of nothing. She wipes her mouth off with the back of her wrist. ‘There, there,’ she says. Wraps her arms around her ribcage, pulls herself close into a hug.

When she finally feels it, she doesn’t need to open her eyes to know what it is. Scratchy and rough, like the back of a new sponge. The Armadillo Man’s hand, resting on her forearm. She opens her eyes and looks at him. He looks right back, the peeling skin beneath his eyes trembling.

‘Let’s go,’ he says.

 

*

 

She’s never sat in his living room before. Mopped and dusted it, yes, pushing a broom beneath the couch and running a wet rag over the windowsills, wiping the dust from the fogged-up frames of his university diploma and teaching certificate from Bogotá. Until now, though, she’d never actually dared to lower herself into the leather armchair, the cushions sighing beneath her as they release high-pitched exhales of air.

He brings her a mug of steaming hot water from the kitchen. Without his stick he walks stiffly, swinging his knee as though it is an axe chopping the air. When she brings the mug close to her face, she sees dark green coca leaves swirling at the bottom.

‘Have you had any lunch?’ he says, lowering himself into the plastic white chair. ‘If you’re not careful, the wind’s going to blow you away any day now.’

‘You sound like my aunt,’ she says, in a voice that’s meaner than she intended. The curtains are wide open; anybody walking by in the street could look through the window and see them, stop and stare. She has a crazy, shaky feeling inside her chest, as though she’s swallowed a tiny animal that’s now frantically dancing around. She checks the water in the mug to make sure her hand isn’t trembling.

He reaches for the brown paper bag sitting on the table, slowly turns it upside down, and pours out the remaining leaves. ‘You know,’ he says, picking up a leaf and twirling it around, ‘when I was in the jungle, I used to count these.’

‘The jungle?’ It takes her a second for to figure out what he’s referring to: the Armadillo Man, who back then was the Professor. A chain around his neck and rubber boots on his feet, a tiny speck in an ocean of green.

He holds the leaf between his index finger and thumb. ‘I’d start with the ones on the ground, the brown ones. Then I’d move on to the tree branches, the green ones. Last of all would be yellow – there were never that many yellow ones.’ He brings the leaf to his face and touches it to his lips, as if smoking it.

‘That sounds . . . awful,’ she says. She almost says boring, but manages not to.

‘Oh, you know,’ he says. ‘It could have been worse. They never blindfolded me.’ He lowers his hand back to the table. ‘You’d always hear things – stories and rumors from the guards. Apparently there was an American prisoner in another camp somewhere. He started talking to the trees as if they were people.’ He stares at the leaf for a moment, before slowing closing his fingers over it.

‘I’m glad you escaped,’ she says, saying the words carefully, as if they’re water she’s afraid of spilling.

He makes a fist, and she hears the leaf crunching.

‘You’re not going to believe this from an old man like me,’ he says, ‘but I’ve been very fortunate. And so have you.’

His face is close enough for her to touch, if that’s what she wanted. If she asked him about that night – the time he watched her through the window – what would he say? Did he even care? Remember, even?

‘I’m going to Cali,’ she says abruptly. ‘As soon as my aunt lets me.

He looks at her.

‘I’ll work in a house there,’ she says. ‘I’ll be good at it – don’t you think?’ She can picture it too, like something that’s already happened. Her sandals in the hallway, propped up beside the door. A brand new washing machine and a shiny modern kitchen. Giant TV screens to dust, DVD films to organize, shelves of brand new American toys. She’ll do the dishes every evening, the ones stacked in the sink and crusted over with lentils and rice; she’ll scrub them clean with bright yellow gloves and sponges that are constantly replaced. She’ll sweep the floors, punch the pillows to fluff them up, take out the garbage and cook food from places like America or Italy, recipes she’s only ever seen on TV soap operas.

She can’t wait.

‘Sofía,’ the Armadillo Man says in a careful-sounding voice, as though afraid his words might break something, ‘you’re good at more than just that.’

‘Like what?’ She abruptly pulls her hands into her lap.

He whispers something, mouth barely moving, so she has to lean across the table in order to hear him.

‘Teach,’ he’s saying. ‘You could be a teacher.’
She stares at him like it’s the stupidest thing she’s heard in her life. ‘Professor—’ she says, and it’s only when she says the words out loud that she realizes it’s the first time she’s called him that, since he escaped. ‘—I can’t even read.’

He looks down at the leaf pieces in his hand, the shredded fragments. ‘I could teach you.’

She shakes her head.

‘I could marry a narco trafficker,’ she says. ‘Or an army general. Which do you think my aunt would prefer?’

His lips twitch strangely and it takes her a second to realize that he’s trembling. The cracks in his face look deeper and darker than ever. He leans forward and sprinkles the leaf pieces on top of her head.

‘Well,’ he says. ‘A crown for your wedding day. You say what you think at the moment you think it, don’t you?’

‘My aunt says it’s because I never helped out at the altar when I was young.’ She can feel the leaf pieces resting lightly on her hair, trembling like insects clinging to grass stalks.

‘You mean,’ he says, ‘you’re not young now?’

She slips her foot out of her sandal and places her bare foot on top of his leg, near his inner thigh. He stares at it.

‘You’re not old,’ she says. ‘Not really.’

He doesn’t answer.

She blows her nose on her shirt, a loud honking noise. ‘You’re the same age as my uncle,’ she says. ‘Do you remember my uncle?’

He looks at her. She starts coughing so hard it almost turns into a gag.

‘I keep thinking I can feel the pieces,’ she says when she is finally able to speak, ‘in my mouth.’

She presses her fingers against her lips.

‘Everyone was splattered,’ she says. ‘Everywhere.’

She wants to tell him that in the morgue three months ago, her first thought was At least chainsaws make burials easy. The laughter came out of her in a high-pitched burst, and both her aunt and the mortician turned slowly towards her, half bewildered, half appalled. Why couldn’t people just disappear? Vanish into thin air, leaving nothing behind but shoes in a hallway, shirts in a closet, a dusty framed photograph on a bedside table? Wasn’t it better to not have an explanation, a clear cohesive picture of what happened? Nothing like what the morgue had. Not at all.

He stands up abruptly, pushing the chair back behind him so hard it topples over. Her foot slides off his leg and smacks loudly against the tiled floor.

‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘the best way to cook a chicken?’

Her hands move down from her face and begin squeezing the T-shirt cloth in front of her chest, her fists tightening into balls.

‘The trick is,’ he says, ‘to cook it in the oven. No more than an hour and twenty minutes, exactly. It’s not as fast as frying, but worth it.’ He’s heading into the kitchen; he’s opening the pantry door. He takes out three onions, a carrot as long as a witch’s finger, garlic cloves with wispy skins, leafy stalks of celery. ‘You can cook it by itself, if you want,’ he says, opening a drawer and taking out a knife and a cutting board, ‘but you look like you need some vegetables. Vegetables and gravy.’

She’s still twisting the cloth of her T-shirt, as though wringing an animal’s neck. He opens a cupboard, reaches down into a cloth sack, pulls out a handful of small yellow potatoes. ‘Fresh herbs also makes a big difference. I bet that your aunt grows some in her garden, doesn’t she? Do you recognize these from Ramiro’s?’

He’s moved to the windowsill now, is pointing at a row of small black plastic pots. Her hands are still clenching her shirt but her knuckles are no longer white. She shakes her head, nose dripping all over her chin and chest, but she doesn’t make a move to wipe it off, and he doesn’t offer her a kitchen rag.

It takes hours but she waits for him. She lets him take his time and do it the way he wants to: properly and slowly. She doesn’t ask him questions like, ‘Are you done yet?’ or ‘Is it ready?’ Instead she’s patient, even as the house fills with a rich, salty smell and the sky outside the window darkens. She doesn’t move or stir from her chair while he wipes off the counters and sweeps the floor, stiffly yet steadily. He makes a salad in a wooden bowl with lettuce leaves and olives from a dusty jar. She doesn’t act annoyed or confused when he lays out a tablecloth, or when he warms the plates and cutlery in the oven just before serving. He cuts off an enormous slab of meat, right from the center of the chicken, before passing her the plate.

‘Here,’ he says, watching her take the first bite. He was right about removing the aluminum foil for the last ten minutes. The chicken skin is evenly browned and perfectly crisp, the meat so moist it almost feels like liquid in her mouth. She takes one bite, then another. He sits there watching, his hands folded on the table, fingers interlinked. She only opens her mouth a crack at first; then slowly but surely her bites get bigger, lips opening wide. Grease drips down her chin and stains her shirt but she keeps raising and lowering her fork. Her mouth fills with juices; she can barely move her tongue. She swallows.

It’s even better than what he promised. Better than what she could have ever imagined.

 

‘Armadillo Man’ is excerpted from The Lucky Ones, published by Faber

Photograph © Pedro Szekely

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