“where we are is hell, / And where hell is must we ever be.” —Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
It is one of those mornings when it’s hard for her to get out from under the sheets, as if her body weighed more than usual. Tons weighing down her arms and each of the hairs on her legs. She rubs her right eye with three slow swipes of the hand, her elbow grazing her husband’s back. He barely stirs; his body, sunk into the mattress, hardly reacts. A soft groan. No one likes waking up on a Saturday morning. She rubs her other eye even more slowly. She should go buy bread and other breakfast supplies, but she doesn’t want to, deep down she doesn’t want to. Where has my discipline gone? She coils up in the sheets again. She sticks one foot out and feels the chill of early November. She immediately tucks it back in, enjoying the softness of the fabric. It is cool, but nothing like the cold of the puna; this thought comforts her.
Her eyelids are about to give in and forget the morning. The green glow of the alarm clock beats against her eyes. If her daughter doesn’t wake, there’s no point getting up so early. She sighs and her eyelids stay raised when she realizes that there is a dampness between her legs. I’ve got my period, I always forget when it’s due. She slides carefully out of bed. This time she’ll do what she can to avoid staining the sheets. She knows he hates those stains, but he thinks of it as women’s business and so doesn’t reproach her. He also knows that, on days like this, the cold is not only the cold and an ambulance siren is not just that. She changes her panties and heads quietly for the laundry. Hopefully no one will wake up. She fills a tub with water. It has to be cold, really cold. She submerges the stained panties. A few bubbles rise to the surface. Looking at it doesn’t unnerve her, but she knows she can’t keep on like this, it’s ridiculous. The water is overtaken by a rosy blush at first, but soon after it takes on a truly red tone, bright red. She puts her right arm against her stomach. She holds down the heaving.
With her left hand she strangles the underwear at the bottom of the tub. She holds it under and it almost seems as if it wants to kick. I remember that woman begging me. Saying that life, that if not, that please. They eyed me carefully; I never knew if it was because they were wary or if they looked that way at everyone. This time the panties don’t kick like a market-bought chicken when its throat is slit. She thinks about the weekend lunch and suppresses another bout of retching. She shakes the panties and holds them up to the morning light. Most of the blood has gone, but there’s always a mark left around the edge, like a halo. She should use the bar of soap, but she wants that mark to stay. Blood should never be spilt in vain.
Blackie has woken up and comes now to greet her with his morning merriment. She pats him on the back and searches for a sweet spot on his neck. Blackie wags his tail at her. She feels along his windpipe with increasing pressure. Her fingers sink into the fur. The dog whines as if he can’t get enough air. I squeezed until I could squeeze no longer, that poor woman stopped begging, and they started to trust me. That’s how I was able to find out more. It was my mission. When she releases her grip, the dog moves away, trembling, his ears lowered, eyeing her with suspicion. He tries to come close again but is unsure, wary. He’ll be back; he’ll trust again. Frights are quickly forgotten.
She goes back to the bedroom to get changed. She has to leave the house. Buy the bread, the breakfast supplies, all that. Lunch. The chickens. She would see about them later. Now for the bread. In the distance, ambulance and police sirens clear the way, cutting through the stillness of the Saturday morning. It’s an almost-calculated stridence. The city wouldn’t be the same without that regular alarm clock. He has opened his eyes and watches her moving about the room, getting ready.
“Are you sure?” he asks, suddenly attentive.
“It’s just to buy bread. I’ll be there and back in no time.”
He is doubtful, too. When it all ended and he finally got to see her after two years, they told him the effects would take days, or months, or maybe longer to wear off. They only just managed to get a congratulations and a bonus to go with the discharge from the army. They were told it was the best way to avoid any reprisals—security issues—but also that it wasn’t something to waste time worrying about. She never wanted to give him details about what had happened on her mission (nor could or should she). He didn’t need to know. The same incidents played out over and over and he decided they should leave the country. Time would take care of everything, they had written on the medical report. He would add distance to the equation.
“Really?” he asks, sitting up and making as if to get out of bed. “I think I’ll come with you.”
“Sleep, it’s fine, don’t worry. It’s just bread.”
He wavers, but gives in. He snuggles in while she finishes getting dressed. She looks so fragile, though he knows this apparent fragility is deceiving. No one that fragile would be able to go through what she did. Her body is phenomenal. He loves her. He knows her like no one else. They weathered the separation, what happened to her afterward, starting a life together in a new country, a new language, a new way of life, a daughter. He really wants there to be no problem this time, not to have to worry. Maybe this time will be different. He hopes so.
It’s a short distance to the bakery, only five blocks. She entertains herself watching the pigeons that congregate on one corner. It rained last night, and water that has accumulated in a hole in the road has turned into their own little oasis. She remembers being thirsty. Thirsty, all the time. She could stand the hunger, but thirst squeezed her throat, inflamed her tongue, knocked her out. As she recalls, their water had run out and they kept walking. One comrade was seriously sick, but they kept on. They couldn’t give in. They had to leave him behind. She saw his dulled eyes. He didn’t make any requests; he was resigned. She didn’t say anything either, but in truth she was glad each time one of them died. I had to make an effort not to show it so they wouldn’t notice. My mission didn’t permit me to kill them; I had to collect all possible information but not kill them. What I would have given to do so. That time thirst wouldn’t let up. Her voice was evaporating. And those pigeons bathing, flapping about in the dirty puddle of water. Disgusting things.
In the bakery, she gets the usual. There are lots of people waiting. She can’t stand lines. She hates waiting. She gets the bread rolls, buys a few more things. A foul mood comes over her. She presses the bag of rolls against her chest and hurries out of there. She almost bumps into someone with a coffee in hand. Out in the street, she comes across the pigeons again. This time there are a lot more of them drowning their fleas in the puddle of water. They have no idea what it is to be thirsty. It seems as if with each step, the amount of pigeons grows. She stops and feels, deep within herself, the blood drawing downward. Hot, it trickles down and out. The blood leaves her body and is absorbed, but it is not going to leave another stain. She feels as if the opening of her sex is about to collapse. All so vulnerable, delicate. A fine cloth. A slight pain, as if those cars making headway along the avenue are looking to run her down. The avenue turns into a wild terrain.
All of a sudden, her throat is dry. The thirst, she remembers, the thirst; and that sharp pain. She moves to and fro, trembling in the middle of the street, and some passersby glance at her. It’s a mild day, an autumn morning, early November in the city that seems to push everything out, expelling it like the scream that starts to form in her gut and now advances toward her throat. Her fears clamber into that scream and seem to search for a place among the concert of honking horns, police sirens, and storekeepers’ arguments. Her agitation grows. Her legs want to run a marathon, but her body doesn’t leave the square of the pavement where it’s fixed in place. The blood has stuck her to it. Fear fills her lungs and her legs take on the weight of a semitrailer.
She’s deep in one of those nights. They had passed through hamlet after hamlet so many times over that she had almost lost all sense of time. She was used to getting the same orders and responding to each proclamation with the same answers. The Party. The Revolution. Blood. All of it, together. When they finally came across some caves where they could shelter for the night, she felt the weight of the scream, which writhed in her veins and which she couldn’t let escape. One comrade gave her a sharp slap on the back. It had been her first time. Her baptism by fire. She still remembers it clearly: Finish him off, they ordered. She didn’t want to look at him. She held down the scream. She held down the longing to spray all of them with bullets. To put a bullet in that strangled scream, too.
She loses her color, she’s suspended in air. Air comes out, her back curves a little, the decibels increase and cut through everyone who goes by. The skyscrapers boom. The windowpanes tremble. No one can stop staring at her. She screams. Screams. Does she remember? He was a sergeant, the last one alive after the incursion. It was a surprise attack, so she hadn’t been able to forewarn them. Not that it was her mission to give warnings. It was her job simply to be there, absorbing everything, trying to gain confidences, rising in the ranks, information, more information, all to put a stop to them, until they were vanquished. No one knew how long it would take. But that day was her chance to take a first step. She knew it was the usual tactic. The sergeant’s scorn splattered her much like his blood sprayed her boots after the bullet went through his skull. She thought it could have been her. Her rank was also that of a sergeant. Another comrade gave a congratulatory speech, reminding her that the revolution had to be irrigated with blood. She held back the scream that clambered toward her throat but could not be allowed to escape her body. She wanted to sleep. Not even the cold of the cave could distract her. But the sergeant’s scorn kept her awake.
She was never able to calculate the exact duration of the moment in which the bullet, the blood, and the scream fused. She wanted to shut it down, but her will was worthless. The first time it happened, she tried to, with a stone. She also tried with the soles of her boots but that didn’t have much effect. The scream lived on. She wanted to bruise it inside her. It had known how to conform to the smallest cracks in the terrain, to burrow into those fleeting creases of her anatomy. Maybe if she strangled the bag of rolls, maybe like that. The sergeant’s eyes. There were many more eyes over the years. She doesn’t want to think. And now, finally, the scream is rising to the surface. She hates the scream but it also relieves her. Fear curls up in her body. Cars are zooming past. Her vocal cords drill into her. She wants to vomit up the sergeant’s eyes and all the other eyes along with that scream.
Some people move toward her, not knowing what to do. They surround her, or are the pigeons the ones doing that? A press of pigeons, of people, of buildings, of taxis. The scream goes on, it seems unending, an animal roar that shreds the eardrums. They pulled her from the mission abruptly. Another intelligence group took care of the capture, not the army but the police. It was time for her to go back; there was a general feeling of guilt. Her scream grows ever hoarser, digging into the shame of the military corps and the shame of her bloodied body. She is surrounded, just like the last day of her mission. Again the blood, she likes to feel it come out like that, it cleans her out even as it hurts her. Are we OK here? It’s a police officer. Her face burns. Her throat has cut off the scream. Her body straightens out. She still has the bag of rolls pressed against her chest.
“Sí. Estoy bien.”
She doesn’t care whether the police officer understood. Flanked by the buildings, she arrives home and Blackie greets her. He’s forgotten; he trusts her again. She remembers the dog’s soft, hot neck. Her husband is making coffee. She’d rather not say anything. She leaves the bag of bread rolls on the table and goes to take a shower. He breathes deeply and approaches the bag with a creeping dread. He opens it and sees all the squashed rolls. The coffee machine shrieks. He hoped with all his soul that this time would be different, but no. Time does nothing. Maybe another day. Maybe never.
“El Grito” from the anthology Al fin de la batalla, después del conflicto, la violencia y el terror from Cocodrilo Ediciones. Copyright © 2015 by Claudia Salazar Jiménez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Elizabeth Bryer. All rights reserved.