Image © Naomi Binnie 2018
|by Michael Díaz Feito||July 9, 2018|
It was too hot in the banquet hall—like a jungle!—so we were distracted, complaining and searching for the thermostat, and no one saw Tío Kiko give Rita the knife.
It was her twelfth birthday. Kiko stopped her by the buffet table. He asked if she already owned a knife. She didn’t answer, looking down at her sandaled toes, instead, because he scared her. He was giant. Bald, red-faced, and broad-nosed, our only blue-eyed relative. He finished picking from the plastic tray of pyramid-stacked croquetas and clapped his big hands clean of crumbs. He asked her again.
“No,” Rita said.
Kiko exhaled noisily and nodded. He pulled a leatherette case from his pocket, a burgundy sleeve, like the ordinary one from Eckerd that housed Rita’s mother’s new pair of reading glasses. He opened it over his left hand. Something scratched within the case, resisting as Kiko shook it loose.
A brown anole finally scuttled out. It turned in the palm of Kiko’s hand.
“This is a guaxi,” he said.
He pressed his thumb into the lizard’s head. A crescent steel blade extended from its mouth. It grew, with a creaky hiss, to about five inches in length.
“Aquí tienes mi cuchillo,” Kiko said. “Given to me by un santero watusi, un babalao en La Habana, when I was a kid. I gave it to my son when he was your age, and it came back to me when he died. Now I’m giving it to you—to defend yourself from the bad people who want to hurt your family.”
“The bad people?”
“Yes. They want to hurt us. People like that Manena de mierda…”
Fear seized Rita’s breath. She tried to hide it from Kiko. But her voice caught when she said, “Él de la pata larga?”
“Exactly. That evil son of a bitch.”
Rita knew Manena was a killer who hated us. The sobriquet “él de la pata larga” referred to Manena’s notorious and revealing limp, because one of his legs was too long. Or the other was too short. He and Abuelo had been revolutionaries in Cuba, and they had killed batistianos together. But then Manena became a real fidelista. He started torturing and killing people who weren’t batistianos. That ended their friendship.
Manena defected to Miami in the 1980s and became a marimbero, an affiliate of the Colombian cartel and the Colombo crime family. One day Abuelo discovered him dining with his family at Versailles, gluttonously devouring two plates of boliche, and punched him in the nose. As their children cried, their wives screamed, and the waiters tried to separate them, Manena swore to murder Abuelo and our whole family.
These things happened before Rita’s time, and before mine, too, in the red mist of the past.
“He did it,” Kiko said. “You know? He poisoned Abuelo’s cafecito.”
He revealed that Manena’s poison had sent Abuelo into a permanent delirium of hostile geometry. He had witnessed loudly chiming purple spots. He had run from zigzag rays of heat which chased him. And he had forgotten how to talk. It was Manena’s fault Abuelo now needed a fifth of whiskey a day to calm him.
“Ahora dame la manito,” Kiko said.
Rita extended her left hand, and the guaxi leapt onto it. She flinched, but it gripped her fingers to secure itself. It had retracted the steel blade, and now, as the warmth of its pale belly spread to Rita’s hand, the guaxi seemed like just a common anole, the same as any of those clones she and her cousins often caught in Abuela’s backyard, mindless and innocent. It comforted her.
“Thank you, Tío,” she said.
Kiko patted her curly head with a heavy hand and wished her a happy birthday.
It’s scary for a child to feel the force of familial drunkenness, but it can also be exciting. After the birthday cake—sparkler candles, singing, and the secret wish, of course—Rita’s school friends went home and night fell, so she sat at the adults’ table and watched us.
Our plastic chairs popped as we twisted and gesticulated. We argued about politics, sweating and sloshing cool cups of watery whiskey, and we laughed, chain-smoking and sparring with playful but barbed insults. Younger relatives like me were dismissed for the relative weakness of our Spanish, while we rallied to poke holes in the fanaticism of our elders, to mock their hypocrisies with the careful phrasing needed to make them laugh, too. We also hugged and got sentimental, some of us teared up, and Abuela retold the funny story of how Abuelo first wooed her a la cañona.
Rita witnessed the red mist of the past. It emanated from us throughout the party. It stained our individual auras, she would claim years later, and infected our speech, but it connected us. She had only glimpsed it before. Now she admired it in full. It concentrated into a cloud around Abuelo, who sat at the end of the table, impassive with his megalithic head and fixed scowl. He didn’t laugh or listen, because he couldn’t. Instead, silently, he inhaled the cloud through clenched teeth, and exhaled wine-dark tendrils of steam from his nose.
Charged by our exuberance, and initiated into our cult by the gift of the guaxi, Rita nonetheless felt excluded by her age. It all made her nervous. Her heart raced. She reached into the pocket of her dress and held the guaxi for comfort, but when she couldn’t suffer it anymore, she ran off.
She found her little cousins napping on a bench in a dark corner of the hall. Before this birthday, she would have done the same thing, escaping from long family gatherings to sleep in a hidden nook, half-dreaming, glancing through clasped eyelashes, waiting for her parents to wake her and carry her home.
But her cousins, pudgy and curled up together, looked pathetic, like exposed snails. They were so weak. They don’t know about the family, she thought. They don’t know about what happened. Manena could easily cut their throats if he found them, and for a moment she imagined it, acting herself as Manena would. Looking repeatedly left and right, she checked for adults who might spot her creeping there, prepared to take a cruel revenge.
Rita woke her cousins and threatened them with the guaxi. As the blade creakily hissed from its mouth, she lied and said:
“Run or it’ll cut you! I can’t control it!”
The cousins ran screaming to Tía Yoyi, their mother. Rita crouched behind the bench and waited, unsure why she’d done it, and curious about what would happen next. Yoyi waved her children away, dismissing their squeals. She told them not to tattle.
Rita snickered at that. She returned the guaxi to her pocket. But a creaky noise scraped her ears, and her hand stung. Examining it, she found that a very thin and shallow wound, like a paper-cut, traced the lifeline of her palm. She followed it with a slow finger, as Abuela would when palm-reading for the neighbors. The pressure of this reading, however, smeared blood across her little hand.
She looked down at her pocket, afraid to reach into it again. The fabric of her dress rose and fell over the pocket, following the inaudible breath of the guaxi and marking the contours of the creature’s body. She whispered at it.
“Did you do this to me?” she said.
“Yes.” It spoke in her head.
“Because I’m not for play. I’m for serious.”
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t know—”
“No. You messed up. That’s your family! I’m going to cut you every day, and every day deeper, till you fix it. Fix it.”
There was only one way, according to the guaxi, for Rita to save herself. Apologies were useless. She had been bad, threatening her own people, so now she should serve to protect them from the bad people. To be forgiven, she had to kill Manena, él de la pata larga, the enemy who wanted to hurt her family. At the guaxi’s prompting, Rita swore on the blood of her oozing hand to become Manena’s nemesis.
She fell asleep on the bench. Her little cousins, confused by her behavior, monitored her closely, ready to sound an alarm if she woke to terrorize them again. They wondered why she groaned and muttered, why she loosed twitchy kicks in her sleep, and they asked us. We assured them it was normal. My father took the opportunity to tell everyone about my childhood nightmares, which he found comical.
The party continued until the proprietor of the banquet hall kicked us out. An American guy, he refused a drink and shut off the lights. No one got angry, remarkably. We stumbled into the parking lot, shouting effusive and lengthy goodbyes, waking the whole neighborhood. Rita’s parents ushered her, sleepwalking, to their car.
Rita rode her bicycle along Coral Way the next morning. She hunted Manena, él de la pata larga. She counted banyan trees to map her progress. These muscular, tentacled trees are corseted by the cement of the median strip, but they drop ropy aerial roots and flex a continuous canopy over four narrow lanes, where wild traffic competes with them for the shadowy space. Between banyans three and twelve, Rita passed faded pastel storefronts with barred windows, weedy vacant lots embraced by saggy chainlink fencing, glass condominium towers in construction, and a laundromat graced by a colorful mural of marlins.
She turned onto SW 22nd Avenue, as the guaxi directed, and pedaled toward Shenandoah Elementary School. The canopy’s shade disappeared. Her eyes burned in the sudden glare of this brutal stretch of treeless concrete, as if she’d turned her bicycle directly into the sun. She squinted and pedaled faster. Nerves powered her skinny legs. So did shame, because she secretly hoped Manena wouldn’t be at the school and pedaled to fight this hope. I’m not a coward, she thought.
Then her ear itched. Lifting a hand from the handlebars, she explored the inside of the ear with her pinky. A scab, the source of the itch, was embedded in her ear canal. She scratched it. It came loose and fell to the bright sidewalk along which the bicycle swept her. Together, the bicycle, Rita, and the guaxi hacked through the morning’s thickly humid air at high speed.
Her ear still itched. There was another scab. She scratched again, and this black scab flew over her shoulder, falling to the sidewalk that sped past her, beneath her, backward in time. Another scab immediately replaced it. This time she felt it scrape into place, emerging from deeper in the ear canal. She shuddered. The guaxi spoke in her head:
“Stop it. What’re you doing?”
“Huh? I’m itchy, there’s scabs—”
“Not scabs. It’s food I’m saving.”
“These aren’t scabs?”
“Then what the heck are they?”
“Dead flies. Don’t touch.”
Rita frantically picked her ear. The scab she pulled was a patent-shiny blowfly, pill-sized, black with iridescent wings and purple eyes. As soon as she picked it, another fly pushed forward. She retched.
She dug out fly after fly. Their legs broke off and stuck under her fingernail, and the crackle of their dry wings, so exaggerated inside her ear, sent an electric shiver of disgust through her body. She kept pedaling the bicycle, however. Traffic raced by her, launching hot gusts of gasoline wind that rustled the trail of fly carcasses dropped from her ear.
The store of flies was inexhaustible. She screamed in frustration.
“Stop,” the guaxi said. “Now.”
A creaky hiss rose from Rita’s pocket. The blade’s point poked her thigh. It drew a drop of blood which stained her shorts.
She flinched and lost her balance. The bicycle swerved from the sidewalk, dropped onto the road. It almost flung her over the handlebars, but she regained control and jumped the curb again. A pewter car honked at her, and a pick-up truck behind it also honked, although Rita was already out of the road. The driver of the pick-up truck, a white man with a blonde mustache, violently shook a fat middle finger at her as his vehicle roared past.
“Okay, jeez!” Rita said. “Who flips off a kid?”
“You’re not a kid,” the guaxi said. “Turn here.”
Children adapt quickly. They don’t have a choice. Within a few minutes, Rita accepted the discomfort in her ear, effectively forgetting its cause, the blowflies, too. She had more immediate worries, like the approaching school. It was a maze-like mess of beige boxes, concrete, courts and fields, and chainlink fencing. In the distance, however, with its L-shaped wings and two-story central building, the school looked like the upper body of a man reaching for an unwanted hug.
It was a Saturday or Sunday. Public schools were foreign to Rita—her parents had sent her to Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, which was gated and locked on weekends—but she expected to find neighborhood children, unsupervised, playing freely in the courts and fields. Instead, the school was crowded with adults, most of whom held signs in the parking lot and shouted at people entering the main building.
“Early voting,” the guaxi said. It anticipated her question. “Manena is here, campaigning against your family.”
“Where, though? There’s too many people.”
“Look for the limp. Leave the bicycle.”
Rita chained her bicycle to a stop sign. She descended three concrete steps to the parking lot, which was sunken below street level. After parking there, voters rushed from their cars to enter the school without looking at the many campaign workers who waved signs and thrust literature at them.
A woman in an oversized t-shirt printed with the smiling face of a male candidate pressed a flyer into Rita’s hand. It was a photograph on glossy card stock. The candidate posed with his wife and children.
“My god, you’re so pretty!” the woman said. “Give this to your mommy, mami.”
“Throw that trash away,” the guaxi said. “He’s right there.”
A stocky, pug-nosed old man, wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, limped across the lot. He directed an incoming Mercedes to an empty space. The parking maneuver was easy, but he kept an intensely serious expression and gestured directions at the driver as if it were difficult. Then he waited by the car door for the driver, a woman with blood-red cropped hair, gold earrings, and dark lipstick, to get out. He put a pamphlet in front of her face when she did.
“Buenos días, señora,” he said. His voice was high-pitched and raspy. “Por favor, vote en contra al impuesto del centavo.”
That angered the red-haired woman. She berated the old man for being too close to the polling place and harassing voters. Then she retreated into her car, slamming the door shut, and wagged her finger at him in the window. He limped away from the car without visibly reacting to her.
“No, you’re wrong,” Rita said. “That’s not him, right?”
The old man slumped into a gray folding chair beside tailgating campaign workers who congregated to eat pastelitos. He didn’t eat with them. Wincing, he extended a sore leg. That’s the long one, maybe, Rita thought. He also raised a handheld electric fan to his sweaty neck, and the wind from this device flapped his shirt collar. A gold bracelet trembled and glittered on his liver-spotted wrist.
He suddenly adjusted his posture, sitting up straight in the chair, and turned toward Rita. She couldn’t tell if he watched her from behind the dark sunglasses, but her heart pounded. Fear cramped her chest, and she panted, struggling to calm herself.
“He’s seen you,” the guaxi said. “Take me out. Strike before he recognizes you.”
“But how? I don’t know him,” Rita said. “How could he recognize me? And what if it’s not even him?”
The guaxi didn’t answer. Instead, a new voice spoke in Rita’s head. It was high-pitched and raspy, but it was warmer than the guaxi’s voice, more like a human’s, and pleasantly emotional. This voice belonged to Manena, él de la pata larga. He said:
“It’s me, Margarita. Don’t worry. Ven pa’cá.”
The old man’s mouth hadn’t moved. He hadn’t moved. He sat upright as before, with one leg extended, facing Rita. She was surprised that the enemy, the worst of the bad people, inhabited this host, a harmless viejito. He isn’t ugly enough, she thought. But his fatherly voice was in her head, drawing her to him, and now she saw the fiery glow of his eyes in the obsidian lenses of his sunglasses. He stared into her. A weird smile wrapped his square jaw. It’s really him, she thought.
A drop of sweat trickled down Rita’s back, running between her shoulder blades, and she shivered, scared and excited, like when she had to speak in front of her class at school. Don’t be a chicken, she said to herself. He hates our family. She went to him. Manena’s eyes flared as she approached.
“You know my name?” she said.
He spoke in her head again. “Of course, I do. Your grandfather and I were friends. Y felicidades, nena. Happy birthday.”
“Thanks. Don’t call me that, though.”
“O, mujercita! Whatever you say. Pero I know why you found me.”
“No, you don’t. You’re a liar.”
“Oye, I do, I do. Your grandfather and I? In Cuba we were holy terrors, de verdad. We had a lot of fun killing people. He’s a demon, too, sabes? Then our friendship ended…y ya, más nada. Aquí en Miami, we both got old and fat, cagalitroso. Something changed. I forgot most of what happened. Lo mejor de ser viejo es que uno empiece a olvidarse de sí mismo. Anyway, I’m a Christian now. I don’t lie. Have pity on me, nena. En el nombre de Jesucristo. Keep the knife. Don’t hurt me, please. Que Dios te bendiga. Please.”
It was a confusing speech. Some words Rita didn’t understand; some were so familiar it could be her mother or father speaking. And she couldn’t replay Manena’s words, or even rewind them like a cassette tape and decipher the backward squealing gibberish. Is he saying sorry? she thought. No, but he could be. His words fled from her memory, maybe because they never hit the air but only sounded in her head. She was so confused, she forgot to be scared. She was paralyzed. It was somehow soothing. Pins and needles massaged her limbs. Finally, she spoke to the guaxi:
“I can’t do it. I don’t know. I don’t want to.”
The guaxi answered with a creaky hiss. It had already crawled into Rita’s hand, and the blade escaped between her fingers, pulling her arm forward. She couldn’t control it. It slowly pierced Manena’s throat. A red mist spurted from the wound, and the old man screamed.
Rita closed her eyes as the past, bound to oxygen and secretly rushing through her veins as always, at last marked her outside, too. It washed over her curly hair, her clothes, and her skin, which rose in gooseflesh to meet it. Through the shock, or within it, she found one small joy, however. At the next family celebration, she could comfortably join the adults’ table.
***Previously published at tNY Press’s Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (September 2015). Archived here.***
Michael Díaz Feito is a Cuban-American writer from Miami, Florida. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Echo: Critical SF, Danse Macabre du Jour, and Strange Horizons. You can find more of Michael’s writing at michaeldiazfeito.com and follow him on Twitter @diazmikediaz.
Naomi Binnie is a native of Miami, Florida, now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is an academic librarian and amateur artist. You can find her sketches atgnome-bin.tumblr.com. Her twitter is @libnaomi.