When we were kids, my father would load us into the car with a couple of suitcases and a bottle of Chivas Regal. He’d drink the Chivas with his old school buddies just at the moment he arrives in Neiva, the small town in southern Colombia where he was born, a place so hot you’d think someone had doused it with gasoline and put a match to it. My brother Juan and I grew up in the chill of Bogotá, but until we turned sixteen we spent every single one of our vacations in Neiva. We knew that the suffocating heat there unhinges men’s minds.
That’s not a metaphor. During the hottest months, the thermometer settles in at 100 degrees like a nonagenarian in a rocker – no one can make it move. The humidity muddles thought, drowns any desire. Hope there is useless, even immoral. Which is why my father left Neiva when he was twenty-two. My cousin, whom we stayed with on our trips, was only able to leave for a few months, just before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
To get to Neiva, my father would drive his Renault 18 GTX down Colombia’s central mountain chain until he reached a wide valley and the Magdalena, the river that cuts the country in two. Then he’d drive 120 miles along a straight highway through sorghum and rice fields with the steering wheel vibrating in his hands.
We could have taken a plane, but then the trip would have made no sense. Before we reached our destination, we had to look through the windshield and see the white statues of the virgins to whom drivers commended their souls, and the tongues of flame pouring out of the oil fields. We had to hear the defeating howl of the truck horns and feel the penetrating smell of burnt tire rubber from unexpected panic stops.
My cousin would always be waiting for us at the entrance to our grandparents’ big house, which was on top of a hill. The building had a tropical, gothic air: its gardens filled with threatening flowers, its hallways long, and a pack of very old dogs, some blind, wandered everywhere. At the rear of one patio stood a huge wood-burning oven in the shape of a cupola where, at Christmas, chunks of pork were roasted over a slow fire. Dangling over that oven, the bare skull of my grandfather’s first dog dominated the scene.
The oven was torn down to build the modern, luminous building where my cousin now spends his time locked up. During those childhood visits, we would hang around waiting for our cousin to come home from karate practice. He’d walk into the house with his uniform half open, sweated and worn out from karate chops. After a short bath, he’d pick up his wine-red Ibanez electric guitar and play a Megadeth song for us.
For my brother and me, going to Neiva meant leaving behind the mountains, the mist, and the buildings of Bogotá. It meant starting to think about sex, wasting the whole day in a pool until our eyes burned, hunting for lizards, and riding a motorbike shirtless. It meant the promise of the savage world, the illusion of freedom. But above all, it meant seeing our older cousin.
For him, it was just the opposite. When he came to visit us in Bogotá, he breathed smog, walked under skies as dense as mercury, bought posters of his favourite bands, and wore his long hair loose like a real metal-head – two things that were impossible in his hometown, which was, beside being as hot as hell, Colombia’s folk music capital. I remember that during the San Pedro festivals, the girls would dress like peasants with full skirts covered in sequins. The boys wore straw hats with black bands, white trousers, and red scarves around their necks. Couples danced to the honeyed rhythms of sanjuaneros and bambucos. My cousin would put on a t-shirt featuring Eddie the Head from Iron Maiden, while ‘The Number of the Beast’ played on his Walkman. In those days, the people in his neighbourhood nicknamed him ‘Pirate’.
In Neiva at the end of the 80s, finding heavy-metal recordings was like searching for Marlboros in Pyongyang. It was only when he visited Bogotá that my cousin could buy music. At the beginning, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and Cream united us, but very soon our musical education took divergent paths. I got interested in The Clash and The Cure. My cousin followed Black Sabbath and Motörhead and then turned the corner with Metallica and Anthrax. He reached the point of no return with Slayer. This music was played at a dizzying rhythm, totally impossible to follow. Next to Slayer, punk music sounded like Nat King Cole. That was fundamentally what attracted my cousin to metal: the extreme velocity, the rapidity, and the vitality Neiva was lacking. When he was listening to metal he felt like Blackbeard in his ship, navigating under full sail. The lyrics were unimportant, and besides, he could barely translate them using an English-Spanish dictionary.
Alongside Pirate, we wandered up and down the hills of Neiva like alley cats. During the December holidays we bought home fireworks from the streets vendors and rented horror movies. One night we saw The Lost Boys, and then we took a final stroll around the neighbourhood to cool off. Above our heads flew small bats that came out of the almond trees. I thought my cousin had the same shadows under his eyes as Kiefer Sutherland in the movie, and if we weren’t vampires, at least we were pirates.
Years later my parents got divorced and I couldn’t tolerate hot-crazy weather anymore. Life had pushed me and my cousin to different shores some time before that. We no longer had anything in common but I heard once in awhile about his struggles with mental illness. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia after a series of painful breakdowns. During the last one he was found on a blue day, barefoot, walking the dead lawns in the outskirts of his town. The sound of a hundred cicadas were black seeds that caught his mind forever. That and the heavy metal were the soundtrack of his mental condition.
When his family put him away I just couldn’t bring myself to visit Pirate, but those memories in the streets of Neiva and the heat, milk that comes from a cactus or a rubber tree –something living but more than human – lived with me all this time. Almost twenty years.
A few months ago I checked my Facebook account and found his invitation to be friends online. At first, I didn’t recognize his round, almost obese face – the side effect of the antipsychotic drug, olanzapine, my mother says he’s taking. From the Past Comes the Storms, I thought. That was the title of one of his favourite songs by Sepultura. It was weird seeing his name. He signed onto Facebook with his last name first and his first name last, the way you do in the army. I’m sure that it was when he did his obligatory military service that his sanity began to crumble, without his long hair, without any guitar playing, standing guard under a tyrannical sun, besieged by tales about the guerrillas who were attacking nearby towns. The first flowering of paranoia must have begun to take shape during those nights in the battalion barracks, when he was stretched out on his cot, alone with his thoughts.
When he finished military service, he spent a few months doing nothing. That was when metal and marijuana became inseparable. He grew a goatee and hardly ever changed his clothes. His parents thought the blame lay with that ‘satanic’ music and the weed. Later they found out that not taking care of yourself is one of the symptoms of schizophrenia. The early symptoms are visual, olfactory, and auditory hallucinations (what we know as ‘hearing voices’). Incoherence and paranoid delirium usually follow. With him, they did.
My mother told me that in 1998, a few months before the sickness was diagnosed, she invited him to dinner. My cousin had finally decided to go to university, bowing to pressure from his parents. Since they refused to finance his musical career, he elected to study graphic design in Bogotá. He had a secret plan. He wanted to become a great designer for heavy metal album covers. Someone like Vincent Locke, the illustrator who became famous for the jacket of Butchered at Birth, the Cannibal Corpse album that was banned in Germany because of its graphic violence. The illustration shows two skeletons in butcher’s coats cutting up a corpse. In the background there are human fetuses hanging from hooks.
That day, before serving dinner, my mother gave him some guanábana juice, which comes from a fruit whose meat is white and very creamy. My cousin sat there staring at the glass for a long time and then stood up in rage, saying to my mother, ‘Why do you want to make me drink my own semen?’
My brother Juan, who plays bass, sometimes got together with my cousin to practice in my parents’ house. I was living in New Jersey then, and that was in part why it was easy to distance myself from him. Juan told me that on the first afternoons they would share one or two joints, but that my cousin was throttled by anxiety. Before he gave up school and went back to Neiva, he’d gone from smoking once a day to floating in a dense cloud of marijuana, to the point that his parents sent him to a rehab centre.
The marijuana may have been one of the triggers for his sickness. But schizophrenia has complex origins, including neurobiological factors and stress. In the case of my cousin, a tragic event would help to completely unleash the illness.
When he got out of the rehab clinic, he met a girl in Neiva. They started dating, and his life seemed to be going in a new direction. A short time later she became pregnant. A month before giving birth the girl had a heart attack and died. From then on, schizophrenia decided to take up permanent residence in his head. Since then he’s guided by voices, and the chlorine odour from the hospital floor gets into his nose during the worst crises.
I’m ashamed to admit that the day the Facebook invitation arrived, I took a look at my cousin’s profile instead of accepting without any hesitation. Thanks to going over my cousin’s Facebook page, I know he’s still reading Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, which he’d admired so much as a teenager. I know he likes Edvard Munch’s paintings (Munch’s father read him Poe’s stories). I wonder what my cousin sees in pictures like Vampire or Golgotha? If they inspire terror in him or the fascination of seeing that someone has approached his own world of distorted senses? I also know he spends entire nights without sleeping, periods when every three minutes he puts on the video of ‘You Suffer’ by Nepalm Death, a song, according to the Guinness Book of Records, that is the shortest in history (it lasts 1.316 seconds). Also, he repeats, until he’s too tired to go on, the sequence leading up to the goal the Colombia soccer team scored against Germany in the 1990 World Cup (they tied 1-1 that day). On other nights, he simply copies out an incomprehensible string of words, things like scorpion-screwed-tomorrow-white-heart-double.
I accept that people will say I’m heartless, a coward for not accepting his friend invitation, but I’d rather see my cousin standing to attention in an immaculate military pose, making a perfect karate kick while wearing his white uniform, or playing the first chords of ‘Enter Sandman,’ than face those tired, sick eyes, his weak laugh, his trembling hands. That’s what my brother saw when he went to see him in 2007. ‘There are days when there’s nothing wrong with him, he just gets bored,’ he told me. But there are other days when he has sharper attacks and has to be hospitalized. Juan told me that on those dark days, my cousin repeats over and over that he is the reincarnation of Tirofijo, one of the founders of the Colombian guerilla movement FARC, a man many Colombians compare to Satan himself. During those hours, when schizophrenia speaks through him, my cousin also hears the sounds of Anathema, Dismember, Obituary, Dying Fetus, Napalm Death, Venom, Suicidal Tendencies, Bathory, Overkill, Sodom, Testament, Carcass, Cephalic Carnage, Kreator, Nuclear Assault, Voivod, Judas Priest, Helloween, Possessed, Morbid Angel, Exhumed, Enslaved, Massacre, Lamb of God, White Zombie, Dark Tranquility, Autopsy, Immolation, Extreme Noise Terror, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Darkthrone, Grave, Exodus, Necrophagia, Post Mortem, Decapitated, Sacramentum.
Some psychiatrists say that music has therapeutic powers and can even restore fluidity and mental structure for a moment in some patients – music is the opposite of chaos. It may be that heavy metal, the music his parents blamed in part for this entire catastrophe, is the only thing that gives order to my cousin’s worn-out brain. No one knows, except him. And what about me? I imagine I’m just a big, huge rat that abandoned Pirate’s ship.
Photo © kittenkatsu