The meteorite retraced its orbit in the solar system for fifteen million years until a passing comet pushed it towards the earth. It took twenty thousand years to collide with the planet, as glaciers melted, mountains formed, and waters receded. Countless life forms went extinct as others fought fiercely, adapted, and populated the earth. When the foreign object finally entered the atmosphere, the force of impact reduced it to a shower of glowing fragments that burned up before reaching the ground. Only the heart of the meteorite was spared from violent disintegration. An igneous ball, one and a half metres wide, hit the ground outside San Borja; its spectacular descent from the sky was witnessed by a married couple who were arguing in their home at five thirty in the morning.
It was totally dark when Ruddy got up to wash the dishes. He tiptoed out of the room so that he wouldn’t wake Dayana, who slept with her mouth open, making little pig-like grunts. He stopped in the hallway to feel the darkness. The crickets chirped in a hysterical chorus; he heard the sleepy neighing of the horses in the distance. Once again he felt his body buzzing with the evil energy. He went into the kitchen and turned on the light. The dirty plates were still sitting on the counter, seething with ants: Ely, the girl, had missed work that day and Dayana hardly ever cleaned at all. Out here in the country, any food left out was devoured by insects in a matter of hours. He had imagined the army of bugs swarming over the dirty plates and the thought was so unsettling that it pulled him from bed. He vigorously scrubbed each dish, pot, and pan. The chore momentarily expelled some of the evil energy that had stored up in his body. He felt triumphant: he had conquered the ants. Captain America, he thought. Then he dried the silverware and put it away. He stretched out an arm to open the cupboard but as he leaned over the counter his belly brushed the edge of the table. The plates cascaded to the floor in a boom that echoed through the house.
He froze, trembling, as he waited for Dayana to catch him in his underwear surrounded by broken dishes. She would probably accuse him of raiding the kitchen in a clandestine search for food. But nothing moved in the darkness. He swept up the mess feeling stupid and guilty, then served himself a glass of Coca-Cola and sat on the couch in the dark living room. He wasn’t tired but he didn’t know what to do.
He’d been sleeping badly ever since the doctor had prescribed the weight-loss pills. It was like his brain was working at a different speed, incapable of blocking out the nagging thoughts or the nighttime noises. He would wake up agitated by a burst of adrenaline, ready to defend himself from some wild animal or masked thief. Unable to fall back asleep, he would surrender to the desperate urge to keep his body in motion. And then there were the headaches that came on like gale-force winds and the incessant internal dialogue, the hideous little voice inside his head that pointed out everything he’d ever done wrong. He hated the pills.
But the pills had saved his life. When he’d gone to see the doctor he weighed over 350 pounds, he had the highest triglyceride levels in all of San Borja, and was certain that he would die of a heart attack before his son Junior started school. Everyone still remembered the death of his father, who was found naked in a motel jacuzzi: his heart had stopped while he was fucking a teenage prostitute. He spent several days in a coma and died without ever recovering consciousness. People joked about it, saying that his father should be an example to us all, that he’d really gone out in style. But Ruddy didn’t want to leave his son Junior without a father. Thanks to the pills, a hundred pounds had melted away in seven months, effortlessly. He didn’t even have to give up beer or barbeque, nothing. A miracle of the Lord, Dayana had said, euphoric, and that night she had put on the red faux-leather boots he liked and they had fucked with frenzy. It had been like when they were dating and they were mad about each other and so desperate that they locked themselves in the bathroom at the karaoke bars. It was Dayana who had taken him to see the Argentine doctor when he passed through San Borja selling the miracle cure for obesity. She was also the one who started calling him Captain America, alarmed by his sudden zealousness. But his wife didn’t know about his nocturnal wanderings, about the nights that the evil energy was so strong he had to sweep the floor or throw himself on the ground to do push-ups until daylight, his heart beating like crazy.
He lay down on the couch and closed his eyes. The clear plastic covering burned his skin every time he turned over; he couldn’t get comfortable. He felt sorry for himself. Here he was, the man of the house, exiled from his own room like a dog, and his wife didn’t even notice. That fucking negra, who does she think she is, he thought, tossing and turning, besieged now by a cloud of mosquitos. He had to be up at six in the morning to get diesel before the smugglers bought up all the fuel to sell at the border. Then he had to meet with the family of that boy whose skull had been crushed by one of his cows. The kid would be better off dead: after that kind of blow to the head he’d spend his life as an idiot or a vegetable. He should never have taken the boy on. Some people are just born under a bad sign; they bring misfortune wherever they go. Dayana didn’t believe in things like that, but he did. The Colla even had a word for these bearers of bad luck. Q’encha. The boy was q’encha. He should’ve known it from the moment his mother dropped him off. He was thirteen, fourteen years old at the most. It was strange, shocking really, that he’d grown up in the country but he couldn’t even carry a bucket of milk. His legs seemed to be made of butter, probably a sign of malnutrition. And he didn’t get along with the animals: the horse squealed and threw him to the ground when he’d tried to ride him. He should have sent the kid back to his mother that very day.
But once again he’d gotten carried away by his desire to prove to those poor bastards that he was kind and generous. The mother brought a hen – almost as skeletal as she was – as a gift. His dad is deceased, said the woman, pointing to the boy with her chin. He didn’t want to hear the tragic and exaggerated story, like so many others he’d been told in an attempt to hustle him for a few pesos. He promised to take care of the boy and he gave her a fifty as an advance. When he turned to leave, the woman approached timidly. My son has a gift, she said. He laughed. Oh, yeah? These paisanos had the wildest imaginations. She gave him a solemn stare: My son can speak to higher beings. He spit to the side and cupped his testicles. As long as he knows how to milk a cow, señora, he’s not going to need to speak to any higher beings here, he told her, and then dismissed her.
Stretched out on the sofa, Ruddy let out a bitter laugh. Gift? What gift? The boy wasn’t even able to dodge a hoof. Félix, his herder, had found the kid half dead in a pool of blood. And now he had to take care of the expenses. Five-hundred pesos: that’s what he planned to offer the mother for the boy’s accident, not a penny more. He scratched his belly and sighed. The day hadn’t even started yet and his head was already boiling over with worries. Dayana, on the other hand, would stay in bed until nine. Then she would spend an hour or two deciding what to wear to her voice lessons in San Borja, while Ely took care of poor little Junior. That was her latest whim: she wanted to sing professionally. She’d had a karaoke machine, with lights and everything, brought in from Santa Cruz so that she could practice at home, even though the damn machine used up all the generator’s energy and caused power outages.
He violently squashed a mosquito on his left leg. Daybreak illuminated the curtains. He should ask Félix to follow Dayana one of these days, to see if she really went where she said she was going. But then he thought better of it. Félix might talk: don Ruddy thinks his wife is cheating on him, I had to follow her around on the motorcycle. He’d rather be dead than gossiped about by all those Cambas. And they’d already done enough talking when Leidy, his ex-wife, took off with that Brazilian and he’d very near killed himself on food and drink. He knew they said he was weak behind his back, that he wasn’t made of the same stuff as his father, that the ranch was going to hell because of him. I’m a fat piece of shit, he thought.
He threw himself to the ground and did forty push-ups. When he was done he felt worn out and sick, about to throw up. But he was still wide awake. He stayed on his knees, frustrated and panting as sweat ran down his chin. He couldn’t get the boy out of his head. A week after his arrival he’d sent for him. The kid appeared in the doorway with his hat in his hand: his face was blank, which was normal for a paisano, but there was no fear in his eyes. Your mother told me that you’re special, he said directly. The boy remained silent, studying him. I’m warning you that I don’t like slackers or big talkers, he continued, and I don’t want to hear that you’re distracting my people with stories of angels and ghosts. The boy responded in a calm, firm voice: but they’re not stories about angels and ghosts. What nerve! Not even the oldest cowhands dared to contradict him. He liked his insolence. What’s your talent then? he asked, amused. Sometimes I talk to people from space, said the boy. He laughed. He had heard the cowhands retell the Indian stories, legends about the Mapinguari, the fetid beast that lived in the forest, but this alien nonsense was new to him. The kid was obviously touched in the head. And what do you talk about, if I may ask, he said mockingly. The boy paused before answering: They say they’re coming. The boy was as crazy as a goat. And how do you know that it’s not your imagination? he asked. Because I have the gift, the boy answered confidently. He smacked the boy on the head; the kid flinched and raised both hands. The next time I hear you talking about your gift I’m going to throw you to the pigs, he threatened. He told himself that he would go speak with the boy’s mother that afternoon and he would explain that her son had some kind of mental illness. But he got busy with chores on the ranch and he forgot. Maybe what happened to the kid was his fault. His eyes were almost knocked out of their sockets but the boy hadn’t died. He shot the cow himself, it was his duty. He’d tried to shoot it between the eyes, but his hands were shaky from lack of sleep. The bullet landed in the cow’s neck. The animal fell on its hind legs, moaning and dragging itself across the ground. A disgrace to make a beast suffer like that. What are you looking at, dammit, he shouted at his employees and killed the cow with two bullets to the head.
Félix told him people were afraid: days before the accident the boy had announced that a ball of fire would come from the sky to take him away. What if he had cursed them? What if they were all cursed now? There’s a Chimán healer who lives nearby, Félix had suggested. Why don’t you call him to lift the curse? There’s no damn curse, he thought, and he decided he’d settle the matter with the boy’s mother and put the rumours to rest once and for all. He was fed up with the whole situation and it worried him.
Still on his knees in the living room, he heard Dayana’s peaceful snores. That fucking negra should be the one sleeping on the couch, not me, he thought. He fumbled for the pack of Marlboros that he hid in the couch cushions. He couldn’t sleep, but at least he could smoke. That was his revenge against Dayana and against the world. No one was going to take that pleasure away from him. Barefoot, he patted the pockets of his shorts, feeling for his lighter. I must have left it in the kitchen, he thought.
Then he saw it: the kitchen door was slowly opening, as if someone pushed it with their fingertips. Ruddy let out a shriek and fell to his knees on the sofa, protecting his head against the imminent attack. He stayed curled in that position for a moment, too terrified to flee or even defend himself. He slowly straightened up, still afraid that the intruder was about to jump out at him. But there was no movement and the house was silent. He cautiously turned on the light in the living room and then in the kitchen. Everything was in its place. The kitchen window was closed tight against the slightest draught. It must have been the cat, he told himself. Of course, it had to have been Lolo. He spat in the sink, relieved. But he immediately remembered that Lolo slept outside.
He put on his slippers and opened the door. He was greeted by the brightness of the emerging day. A flock of parrots flooded the sky; there were hundreds of them, loud and flapping excitedly. He saw them form a spiral over his head and he was certain that the winged multitude was preparing to descend upon him. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the flock was moving away across the sky in a torrent of happy noise. He coughed as he breathed in the morning air, heavy with dew. He saw the cat stretched out on the water tank, lazily licking one of his paws. The animal glanced at him indifferently, as if the food he received everyday didn’t come from him, as if it wouldn’t matter if he, Ruddy, fell dead then and there, crushed by the terror of a door that opened on its own at dawn. He spat onto the wet grass, then closed the door and rested his 250 pounds against it. The fat boy from Bob’s Hamburgers, what a fag. When he was five years old they had selected him out of dozens of obese children to star in the most famous advertisement ever made for Bob’s Hamburgers. In the ad he was trapped between two giant buns, about to be devoured by a huge, gaping mouth. That’s how he felt now, trapped and ready to be swallowed up by some powerful force. He decided to try to sleep another hour until the girl showed up to make breakfast. As he lay down on the sofa a movement caught his eye. The kitchen door was closing on its own. He felt a sharp pain in his testicles and in his stomach. He had to wake Dayana.
Negra! he called out, pierced by fear. He shook her arms.
What’s going on? she asked, squinting at him from the edges of sleep.
You have to come see the kitchen door. It opened and closed by itself.
She let out a deep sigh, stretched her hands towards him, and then turned over in bed.
Negra! Ruddy shrieked.
I’m coming, I’m coming, Dayana responded as she slowly put her weight on her elbows to stand up. She went to bed every night in full makeup to look beautiful for Ruddy even while she slept. She followed him to the kitchen in her transparent baby doll nightgown. She had enormous breasts, sensational, and everything about her was completely out of place there, like an actress who had wandered onto the wrong set. He blurted out everything that had happened that morning.
The door moved on its own, twice, negra, he concluded. What are we going to do?
For the love of God, Ruddy, she responded. Do you hear what you’re saying?
He stared at her, ashamed.
What the hell were you doing washing dishes at four in the morning? she continued.
I couldn’t sleep, Ruddy said defensively. But that’s not the point, negra. I’m telling you that there are some really strange things happening.
It must have been the wind, said Dayana, rubbing her arms to warm them up. She turned around to go back to bed.
There’s something in the house, he said as she walked away.
What could there be in the house? she asked, pausing.
He hesitated a moment before summoning the idea. He had to gather up his courage to even bring it into his thoughts. A presence, he said finally.
Dayana looked at him in disbelief. Don’t be ridiculous, baby, she insisted. It was the cat.
Lolo was outside! he wailed. Grabbing Dayana by the shoulders, he pulled her to the window. He pointed at the cat, who was still scrubbing his paws, just as he had been moments before. You see? he said as he turned to Dayana, hoping she would justify his fears.
Dayana wasn’t looking at the cat, but at the sky. He raised his eyes. Half naked and shivering in the window, they saw the ball of fire descend in the pale morning light. It disappeared in the distance, blazing into the treetops.
What’s wrong with you, Ruddy? Dayana shouted. Are you trying to kill us?
Squirming in his mother’s arms, Junior cried with all the force that his little lungs would allow. Ruddy had fallen asleep at the wheel for a second and the truck had gone off the road. He woke up just in time to avoid crashing into a tajibo tree, but the brusque movement had shaken them up. Dayana adjusted her sequined top and tried to calm the baby. Still bewildered, he angled the truck back onto the dirt road.
Sorry, he blubbered, but his wife didn’t bother to answer. He glanced at Félix in the rearview mirror, anticipating a look of scorn, but his cowhand’s expression was impenetrable. It had been an exhausting day. He and Félix had spent the afternoon looking for three lost cows. They finally found them tangled up in some brambles: freeing them and removing the thorns had taken a few hours under the hot sun. His vision was blurred with exhaustion and every sound was like a knife to his brain. He could have strangled Junior just to make him stop crying. The baby’s screams made it impossible to think. The radio said that the ball of fire he and Dayana had seen that morning was a meteorite. He couldn’t help but remember the boy’s words. He’d spoken of a fire in the sky. It’s a coincidence, Dayana had said, determined to deny all the strange events of the day. Ruddy forced her to go with him, afraid to leave his family alone under these circumstances; his wife obeyed grudgingly. Part of him refused to believe in superstition. But what could explain the kitchen door? It had moved on its own just moments before the meteorite fell. He had to see the boy; he had to speak to his mother as soon as possible. Maybe the boy was already better, these Cambas had a shocking ability to bounce back from even the most serious injuries. But you found a piece of his brain next to the cow, he thought. You don’t bounce back after losing a piece of brain. He stepped on the accelerator and a cloud of dust enveloped the truck. Dayana coughed.
What’s the hurry, baby? she scolded.
It’s right here, don Ruddy, said Félix, pointing to an opening in the trees.
The truck jolted along surrounded by forest. It was getting dark and the night – he could feel it – held a different vibration. The lightning bugs distracted him. Birds with phosphorescent eyes flew low to the ground. Everything was alive and speaking to him. The truck’s headlights lit up a shack with a palm-leaf roof; the light of a kerosene lamp trembled inside.
I’ll stay here with Junior, said Dayana, raising the automatic windows. I don’t like to see sick people.
Good, he thought. That way he could speak freely.
You come with me, he ordered the cowhand, and the man stepped down from the truck. He could smell Félix’s fear: he had always had a bad feeling about the boy. He walked a few steps behind his boss and stopped a short distance from the shack to light a cigarette. They didn’t have to knock: the woman had seen them drive up and was waiting in the doorway. She had on the same faded flowered dress that she’d been wearing when she dropped the boy off a few weeks before. But there was something different about her.
Señora, he said. How’s your son?
He left, the woman said, looking him in the eye. He’s not here.
He heard Félix nervously clear his throat behind him. He didn’t know what to say. He had come to ask questions and now… The flutter of a bird near his ears startled him. He jumped. But there was nothing there, only the night. He was covered in sweat and his nausea was returning in short waves.
What do you mean he left? he insisted.
The woman held his gaze, defiant. She was skinny, but even in the dim moonlight he could see the strength of her muscles, a body used to cutting wood and hauling water from the river. She must have a fearsome will to have survived out here in the country, surrounded by Indians, doing man’s work.
He wasn’t in bed this morning, she said. What do you want me to tell you? He left without saying goodbye.
The mother of the boy spat near his feet, an obvious provocation. In spite of his dizziness and the unbearable pressure in his temples, he felt a sudden urge to laugh. It was a laugh born of fear and of the absurdity of the situation; he repressed it.
Are you trying to tell me that the meteorite…? he began.
Leave, the boy’s mother ordered.
Only then did he notice that the woman’s left hand, hidden behind the doorframe, rested on the barrel of a shotgun. It looked like a 12 gauge, old, he noticed, but capable of ripping open a hole the size of a five peso coin. As if she had read his thoughts, the woman raised the weapon to her emaciated body.
Let’s go, don Ruddy, Félix urged.
He rummaged in his pockets for the small wad of bills that he had brought for the woman. Here, he said, and he handed her the 500 pesos.
She accepted the money without counting it and tucked it under her bra. She didn’t thank him: she stood still in the doorway of the shack, her eyes burning with contempt.
Goodnight, he said.
The woman responded by closing the door in his face. He turned on his heels and caught Félix making the sign of the cross. He decided that first thing in the morning he would tell Dayana to get everything ready to go to San Borja. But it would be better not to upset her now; they still had to return through the dark forest.
Not a word to my wife, he warned Félix.
How’s the boy? Dayana asked when they got in the truck.
He’s better, he said, starting the engine. He’ll be good as new in no time.
Thank God, she said, yawning. Because Junior and me were getting eaten alive by mosquitos.
Dayana leaned back in her seat and settled the baby in her arms. They were quickly lulled to sleep by the sound of the wind and the swaying of the truck as it barrelled through the trees. He watched Félix in the rearview mirror; his eyes were closed and his hands were crossed over his chest, as if he were praying. The cowhand’s fear made the situation even more humiliating: two grown men scared of a widow.
All of a sudden he saw things more clearly. He should have known this would happen. The woman had abandoned her son in the woods. People said that’s what the Cambas did with their sick. The boy would be totally dead by now, a feast for the insects. In a matter of weeks only bones would be left, which the February rains would quickly wash downriver. He considered reporting the woman but decided he’d better not. After all, the boy had been injured on his ranch, a minor, without a work contract. The cops would take advantage of the situation to blackmail him and his name would be in all the papers, surrounded by scandal. Also, he could hardly blame that miserable woman for not wanting to look after the living dead.
He leaned his head out of the window to let the evening breeze alleviate the suffocating heat. The murmur of a thousand insects reached his ears. His body buzzed with the evil energy: it took over him. He was no longer afraid; he was angry. He pressed down on the accelerator. The air filled with a deafening hum and a sudden pain in his chest threw him against the truck’s steering wheel. He saw something beating in the trees, the glowing light dazzled him. The dirt road went out of focus. I’m Captain America, said the little voice inside his head before he lost control of the truck. And then nothing.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2016 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He is Associate Director of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and an editor for The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Frances Riddle is an editor and translator based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her translations, interviews, articles, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Portable Museum, Catch and Release, Asymptote, Palabras Errantes, Berfrois, Ventana Latina, and The Argentina Independent, among others. Her book-length translations are forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press and New Directions.