Downstairs my dad’s real upset and he says when he gets his hands on those people he’s going to beat the crap out of them. My mom and María Fe are crying and going on about how could something like this have happened. Apparently someone’s stolen Dieguito’s body, his grave has been desiccated or something like that. I’m not allowed to go downstairs myself because they say I’m too small, but I know loads of things and I’m sure they’re going to want me to tell them. I’m scared of being up here. The house smells of dead things, rotten things.
Dieguito had started getting really bored: he wasn’t allowed to play ball and just stayed in bed. My mom was already crying lots even back then, but I think she’s crying even more now. Sometimes he’d escape from his bedroom to play with me, and sometimes he’d lend me his Lego set. He had become nicer, he wasn’t hitting me so much and he even told me secrets. “Guess what, Sebastian,” he said to me one day. “My mom says they’re taking me to a doctor who’s a friend of uncle Luis Carlos and after that we’re going to Disneyworld.” We laughed loads and I asked him to bring me back a Dumbo like the one fatty Arízaga had, but to tell the truth, it really ate at me.
It was so unfair: everything was always just for Dieguito. The trips, the toys, the books with pictures in, all of it for Dieguito! Even the best sweets Pancha used to make, they were for Dieguito, the lemon pie, the custard apple bavarois, all for him! It made me sad seeing such a huge black woman like Pancha crying the way she did. “Young Dieguito’s going to die, kid,” she used to say. “Every time someone goes to the USA, they die. I don’t know what it is they do to people in that country, kid; but they took your granddad there and bam!, he died; they put your auntie Hermiña on a plane and ka-blam! she died, too. I don’t trust those gringos, kid. I’m sure they don’t know how to take care of sick people. As long as they’re here, I can give them their nougat and their hot maize porridge.” And that was right, too, because Pancha really did make very good sweets.
When Dieguito came back he was fat, all puffed up, and he looked like a grown man because his hair had fallen out like Uncle Alejo’s. We had a real laugh pretending that María Fe was Sister Eleanor and Dieguito was Father Nicholas, because now that he was hairless he could imitate him just right. Meanwhile he couldn’t tell us anything about Disneyworld because he said that my mom spent it crying, the whole time, and they’d had to stay in the hotel, but he did remember to bring me a Dumbo, and also a Winnie-the-Pooh, too. It was around that time, more or less, that Dieguito started coughing up blood.
The truth was, he’d come back a proper grown-up, all serious the whole time and never wanting to play. He said he was going to die and he was scared of the dark, so it made him upset whenever it was his turn to put on the blindfold for hide-and-seek. My mom went on crying and my dad shut himself up in his study. He would stay there all day, and only Ceferino was allowed in to take away his bottles.
Pancha went on making Dieguito his special desserts, but she’d also give him horrible medicines she’d prepared herself. “Take this one, Diego, kid!” she would order him. “One of my neighbors, she’s from the north, and she knows all kinds of stuff. She’ll make you better, kid. You’ll be right as rain.”
That was how we started going round to Pancha’s house without our folks knowing. She was really careful and gave the address to Candelario to take us in the lead-gray car, the one we used when we went to Chaclacayo.
Madame Pacheco was a fat lady with thick lips. Outside her house there was a big sign saying she’d studied under “Mandrake” and that she knew the secrets of the sacred Huaringa lakes and of the Shiringa trees and of all the other Something-else-inga stuff I don’t remember. She looked into Dieguito’s eyes, then she ran an egg all the way down his body and then broke it into a glass of water. “They done you a lot of harm, kid,” said the old lady, looking at the greenish yolk. “I’m gonna do what I can, but all the bad stuff’s got a long way in already.” Pancha was right: the gringos had put a spell on Dieguito.
We started going often. One time they made him sweat while Candelario held him over some plants that smelled like those mint candies, another time the lady made him smoke and asked him to try and see the face of whoever had put the evil eye on him in the smoke, and another day she made him throw up this black vomit that she said was almost all the hurt he had inside of him.
When Dieguito started missing school, Candelario took advantage of this to take him round to Madame Pacheco’s in the mornings. At night he’d tell me what they’d done to him and I wouldn’t believe it: they’d rubbed a black cat over his body, another time they’d bathed him in a soup that was just like Jacinta’s cream-of-garlic, and they also made him pray to a stuffed bird. I asked him if he was feeling better and he said yes, he was, “as right as rain.”
One night he told me secretly that Madame had said he was in the last phase of treatment and they needed someone who loved him a lot to do something for him, it had to be someone from the family so Candelario couldn’t be the one to help, but Madame didn’t want anyone to say anything to our folks because it couldn’t be them either and this was why they were telling me. Then he took out a little flask and a razor, showed me a mark they’d made on his arm with an ink pen, and told me that I had to cut myself in just that spot, that it wouldn’t hurt and he’d bring me a bit of cotton ball with rubbing alcohol. I wanted to tell him Uncle Luis Carlos had special injections to do this, but Dieguito paid no attention.
When the little flask was nearly full, he gave me the cotton ball with alcohol and told me to bend my arm and hold it tight. Then he took out some little medallions and dipped them in the blood with their chains and everything, and he told me they were of Sarita, a local saint or something like that. Then each of us put ours on and he told me Madame Pacheco had said these little chains would stop him dying, that I had to never take mine off because my blood would give him strength and that he would be joined to me forever, something like he wasn’t ever going to leave me. “And the blood in the flask?” I asked, but he didn’t know what it was for, that Madame had asked for it and he couldn’t tell me any more than that.
Three days later Dieguito took a turn for the worse, and didn’t get out of bed even to use the bathroom. My mom was crying like crazy at this point and my dad shut himself away with a lot of bottles in his study. Not even Ceferino went in now.
When Dieguito died, I was in language class and Sister Thomas came in to ask us to sing the Oh Mary into thy hands I commend my spirit for Dieguito’s soul. The house was full of flowers and they put me in the clothes I’d worn the day Aunt Teté got married. Dieguito, meanwhile, was in a white box in his First Communion clothes. They were small for him now, but with all the flowers you couldn’t tell. I stood on my tiptoes and saw he had the little medallion round his neck. I wasn’t allowed to go to the cemetery.
My mom hasn’t stopped crying for days now, especially yesterday, a month after the burial, because at daybreak Dieguito’s grave was found desiccated. Candelario and Pancha got scared and told my folks. They’ve been locked up now, I think. I heard the police are looking for Madame Pacheco, and in Ceferino’s newspaper I read something about Dieguito and a black people’s mass or something like that. My father goes on drinking and he says “goddamn” every day.
I love Dieguito a lot, too, but I’m scared of him and I want to be downstairs with all the others. If Pancha were here I’d ask her to bring up a Lima meringue or a rice pudding, but Pancha is in prison and I bet he’s hungry. When he came in the window I was terrified, all black and stinking like he was, but if it weren’t for the little medallion I wouldn’t have hidden him in my closet.
“El Ritual” © Fernando Iwasaki. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2015 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.