Hunger’s Pace

By ANA MARÍA FUSTER LAVÍN

Translated by RICARDO ALBERTO MALDONADO

 

“Hunger. It’s like an animal trapped inside you, Thomas thought.” —James Dashner

The flavor of those eyes continued to dance in her mouth as she savored the aftertaste with little smacks of her tongue. Just before dawn, she lifted up her gaze toward the infinite, making out only the light that was deep blue and amber. Everything is relative to day, to night, to colors, and to sustenance. When you are hungry, your steps assume an ashen color as if in a dream of incineration—somber, grayish, full of pain. We’ve all been hungry, we are hunger, yet she was alone. Especially after that early morning when nature exploded into wind and rain, leaving her home battered. That morning, three of her kittens, her only companions, drowned in her basement.

She wandered out in the early hours, searching for the meal that would sustain her another day. This kind of pain is burdened with loneliness, like the steps of a ghost. Specifically, the ghost of her mother. She used that word, mother, for the memory of that first woman whose scent carried her to nearby alleys searching for cats whose eyes she’d devour before they could scamper away from her little hands. Only then could she prolong her eternal existence in a city everybody quits, either by dying or by moving to another city, another country. An island that begins to disappear. Nobody knows how many disappeared, died, left. And she was on her own and needed to eat. She always came back; it was the only way she could keep her mother’s scent, and with it the memory of the moment when her mother rescued her from the trash heap to carry her home in her arms. Until she found a new mother, she’d conjure the old one—smell her and savor her death.

And it is memories that unlock the two worlds: the silent and the living.

One early morning just a few weeks before meeting the man and woman dressed in blue uniforms, she had fallen asleep in a narrow corner of her balcony, so worn out that she’d forgotten to secure the door, which the wind opened. The owner of both the salon near the plaza in Santurce and the old run-down house was collecting two dead cats from the home’s entrance, when she noticed the slight body of a girl and approached it. Since acquiring the property more than ten years ago, she had never seen anybody in the house. She had heard it lay abandoned for two decades; she had heard all kinds of tales. Climbing up the three stone steps leading to the entrance, she wondered if it would be prudent to enter. She sensed a fragrance of flowers, and something she could not recognize mingled with the humidity and rotten wood. 

The hairdresser felt terrible guilt for that time she had spit at a homeless man who panhandled at the Sagrado train station, and that time she cut off the water on the old couple living in the apartment she rented so that they would move out, so she could offer it to her lover who had just arrived from Santo Domingo. The old woman’s death was her fault, since she was bedridden, and the water shortage finished her off, gangrened her limbs until she was poisoned by her own blood. To make things worse, the poor husband had committed suicide. She tried to quiet the throbbing of her guilt; after the hurricane, all she wanted was to sell everything and go back to her country. 

She turned to go back to her business, but the fragrance took hold of her so strongly that she failed to notice that the smell had soured into an unbearable stench. Just then she pushed open the door. Someone grabbed her by the foot, and she fell inside. Mother! The door closed.

Soon after midnight, a soft pelting of small sounds becomes a chorus to serenade her nightmares or to wake her before she is seized by this eternal world, where the Lady in Gray snubs mortality. Or so read one of the last tales her mother told her before she died. When this happens, the other side loses its bridge to ordinary life. The girl understood that if she was on the streets too long during the day, she would turn to ash. And so she spent two decades shipwrecked in the world of silence, that quiet interval between the living and the ones who aren’t dead either, like the eye of a hurricane, or the fine thread between voices and nothing. Her abandonment meant that her wings were damaged as soon as they emerged, like those of her foster mother, or the enormous wings of her mother, the Lady in Gray. To ease her hunger, all she had to do was venture out and search for eyes and blood. The small sounds guided her step by step toward the outside world. A caress of ashes felt like morning dew when starvation clouded her sight.

It was five in the morning when one of the youngest employees of the parking lot by the plaza finally decided to go home. He stumbled along, having lost a bet and drunk nearly a full flask of chichaíto in one gulp. Mo-ther! He listened. But looking back, he saw no one. “Shit, I drank too much,” he said. As he got to his car: “Damn, this street’s had no power since the hurricane.” Mo-ther! He looked back as he tried to open his car door. “Well, how old are you? You’re too young to be here!” The girl rushed at his leg; he lost his balance and then fell on the sidewalk, lying unconscious. Moooo-tther! The girl, smiling, touched his face. The smell of blood provoked a cackle. She heard steps and rapidly crawled under the car, pulling the young man by the foot. Whoever it was kept on walking, but not before taking a piss close to where they hid. The girl bit into the man’s neck and began to suckle. When she was satisfied, she kissed his cheek and, with a quick movement of her index finger, dislodged his right eye, devouring the veins and flesh hanging like noodles until a soft and pallid circumference remained. She did the same with the left eye. Then she put the eyes in the front pocket of her threadbare dress and crawled with swift delight toward home.

Twenty years since the first mother that she remembered lay exhausted, giving up her last breath, dying while sustaining the girl with her own body. At least with that mother she was able to mature from baby to child, but after her death, the girl’s growth stunted. Sitting on the edge of the bed, by the mummified remains of a woman in a dress, she stroked the figure’s forehead, her hair, while sucking on her finger until she lulled herself to sleep. That mother had raised her for close to five years, after finding her among waste, cats, and the bodies of three itinerants, the day after some heartless bastard had killed and mutilated them. She called 911, held the girl in her arms, and took her to the ruined house in Santurce. She spent five lovely years with that mother, with whom she never had to worry about finding a meal, or toys, or new friends. It was the Lady in Gray who had given her a new life just as she was dying from hunger, but at the same time she had condemned the girl, once again, to a life of perpetual hunger, of all the hungers that blind ordinary people. Such misery lacks map or timetable. 

She woke, but it was twilight on the other side. She couldn’t go out just yet, so she walked back to her living room.

A downpour of black butterflies swayed in a zigzag across a crevice high on the wall. “Flyyyy, little bbblack flies, fly with mmmy hannnndssss,” she crooned, greeting them with her hands, playing hopscotch. She laughed when the smallest kitten spun and spun around her legs. “Leap, my girl. / Leap, my love. You came into my life. / You stole my heart.” She smilingly hummed the songs her third mother sang to her. 

When she grew tired of this game, she again stood in front of the mirror, making faces and playing with her image on the ancient, cracked surface. “Is it me, she who looks at me?” she said, her voice now breaking from wanting to speak to the young girl she was convinced lived on the other side. “Play with me. Your eyes are me.” She grabbed a small box and placed it between her legs to sit on. She grabbed a small ball from the floor and lobbed it toward the girl in the mirror, who smiled like her and lobbed it back. When the girl stood, she heard the mirror murmur, Stay with me, always. “I hunger.” A blue bridge she hoped to cross one morning, to go on a walk, holding her mother’s hand. To play with the girl in the mirror in the park, to get on the swing set, legs dancing toward clouds. “No hunger for me, not ever,” she smiled, showing five eyes on the tips of each finger of her right hand while extending her left. The girl took the eyes in her mouth and headed toward the closed door, grabbing a paper bag in which, upon opening, she discovered a stunned pigeon. Smiling, she tore off its head and drank its blood. Then she threw it in the bag, lobbed it toward her darkened bedroom and came back to the mirror. “I hunger, but today eat dreams watching. Play outside tonight. Commme.” With me, you may dream toward the calendar’s end. And without eyes you will find the way. “No, you bad, I no play with you. I hunger. I sleep now.”

Agent Pérez had just finished reviewing the report by Castillo, the prosecutor assigned to remove the body: a twenty-one-year-old man, under the apparent influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, an employee at the private parking lot by the shopping plaza. Although the lawyer noted that the death was caused by the assault, Castillo was resistant to this explanation and made an example of the victim: “Mornings in Santurce, as you might expect.” The police officer knew they meant to get the case over and done with. But it didn’t make sense, any sensible person would say. The body of the deceased was drained of all blood, and his eyes were gouged out; his car wasn’t stolen, nor his cell phone, nor his wallet.

Pérez had spent more than fifteen years investigating the area, due to the percentage of missing people in those few blocks by the plaza. Just a week ago, the plaza’s hairdresser was reported missing by her employee, but neighbors said that, after the hurricane, she’d promised to go back to Santo Domingo immediately, without even saying goodbye to her scoundrel of a son who’d emptied out her business safe. The Ortiz Gutiérrez triplets had also been kidnapped more than two years ago; they were barely eight months old when they were taken. Incredibly, Pablito had been abducted at dawn, while Luna and Petra not until a week later. Nobody knew what happened to them—the same with Laura Suárez, who had gone to Pérez’s daughters’ school and went missing five years ago. Laura, they said, murdered her friend Mariana, who had been under psychiatric care. Nothing was proven; it was ruled a suicide. The thing was, one week Laura was at the plaza with her friends, and then she was never seen again. A girl named Natalia saw her last, walking to her car parked in Alto del Cabro. Several pets had also disappeared in the area, as he had seen on a Facebook page for missing animals. 

—Come, Agent López said, let’s go on a round through Alto del Cabro. 

—You drive today, he told his female partner. 

They got into the patrol car. Agent Pérez fixed his eyes on poles, sidewalks, houses, buildings busy with commerce or abandoned. Blight had struck the barrio like an epidemic. Especially after Hurricane María, it had been so thoroughly deserted that one would be surprised at the sight of a couple holding hands, or by some retiree reading the newspaper on a balcony, or by the usual aroma of fried pork chops, roasted chicken, or other food wafting from nearby cafés.

—How strange. You used to see so much more life here: stray dogs peeing on patrol car tires, pigeons shitting on you, or…

—Oh, stop, his partner laughed.

—Park here, Pérez said, noticing a young woman locking the entrance to the hairdressing salon while pinning a FOR SALE sign on it.

—Don’t give up.

—No, we’re going to solve this already. I have a feeling. Stay in the patrol car.

Pérez got out of the car and, while smoking a cigarette in front of the salon, let his gaze wander to the urban horizon. An old cat quickened its pace when it crossed Pérez’s path, so he lost sight of the animal as it entered the perimeter of the ruined house. Pérez followed, sensing, at that moment, an uncanny aroma of flowers, and he unthinkingly walked up the steps leading to the narrow balcony and the front door. “It’s ajar, of course—that’s how the cat went in,” he thought to himself, allowing his impulse to enter the house gather strength, even though he didn’t have a court order. The floors creaked under him, and an assortment of scents took hold of him, as did his detective’s intuition. He found a door jammed closed with cushions on the floor, from where the masked scent of rot emanated. Still, with his gun and a flashlight in his hands, he walked toward the floral fragrance—it intensified. At the end of the living room, he saw an enormous sofa in tatters, some boxes, and an ancient mirror blurred by a crack. In spite of the dim light, he noticed a silhouette reflected in it.

—Stand up and identify yourself, Pérez’s voice thundered.

The cat he’d seen rushed under the sofa. Nobody answered back, but he knew he wasn’t alone. A movement on the sofa, as he was about to fire, came from a young girl not more than four or five years old, exceedingly pale, who had been sleeping as if embedded in the cushionless sofa, wrapped in an old quilt. She now held onto another small cat, which ran and hid itself as Pérez came close. He noted that the girl was weak, and as he looked at her surroundings and inhaled the assortment of scents, he felt an immense loneliness. As is protocol with minors, he proceeded to carry her to the patrol car. He carried her like a baby—she was breathing, but faintly. Just before they reached the doorstep, the girl opened her eyes with difficulty and whispered, Motttther? The sad cry made Pérez shudder to the brink of collapse, but he held himself upright. He figured the light would bother her pallid eyes, so white they seemed to lack pupils, and he covered her face with his sunglasses and a handkerchief, wrapping her tightly with the quilt.

—López, call for backup, at least another patrol car, and call the Department of the Family.

—But…

—Do it now. Take care of the child while I go back and take another look. It’s getting dark, and the house has no power. Call, I told you, now, he said as he went back into the wooden structure.

Mootttther!

On the other side of walls and the night, we discover that new sights illuminate, fill out our destiny with an embrace; then, you enter a passage with mirrors of sand and clocks; you especially discover this when you can’t go out in daylight. That’s how the girl felt in the arms of the female police officer, who, pressed against her, kissed her forehead and lay her to rest between her thighs. A mother or new friend made her feel stronger. If she were the right one, at least she’d find a companion, protection, and sustenance for a while. She breathed in deeply the warmth of the woman she believed would be her new mother. She waited a few minutes, wanting to be a normal girl. A normal girl perhaps twenty years old, maybe more, even though her body was permanently condemned to its current state. To go around adopting new mothers, new friends, always on the hunt, avoiding being captured by human incomprehension. It was a magical kingdom for the adults of her species, but a sentence for a girl as small as she. At least until she found others like her or the Lady in Gray. Thinking of all this, feeling that she liked this woman, with her scent of green tea and fresh herbs, who patted her hair as if with a world of tenderness, she could erase fifteen years of solitude, thinking too of the girl in the mirror, who was her friend, but who sometimes made her misbehave, or told her stories she didn’t understand but which scared her, as if there were something more terrifying than her actual life. A lifelong infant who fed on blood, raw flesh, and eyes. 

—Mottther!

—Little one, everything’s going to be all right, she said, murmuring a lullaby after having called the precinct.

—Mother! Beautiful eyes, eyes of mother. Play with me, the girl said, touching the agent’s hands.

—I am not your mother, but soon we’ll find good people to help you heal and take care of you. What’s your name?

Would you condemn the seagull for soaring over oceans? Would you condemn the serpent for seizing the seagull’s eggs from its nest? Nature is incorruptible. The embrace of that woman and her tender words led the girl, momentarily, to happiness. But they could also lead her to another place, like a hospital, and the girl in the mirror had said never to let that happen, because there your blood would be drawn to find out who you were, and they would torture you until death. Nature determines when we are afraid, when are hungry, and hope lasts only as long as a rainbow, whose beauty dissipates until it disappears.

She nestled her head between the woman’s thighs, hiding her tears, thinking how she would escape without causing major trouble. The aroma between the woman’s legs awakened her appetite. Breathing in strongly, a buffet of blood clots, of blood, roused her hunger. Her nails grew thicker as she revived. She tried to bite the pubic area, but the woman stood up and asked what she was doing. With a feline leap, the girl embraced her. 

—Mother! Don’t leave me, she whispered into her ear, her voice more adult now. She felt so hungry that she rubbed her nose by the woman’s neck, readying to feed.

—Don’t worry, little one. They’ll help you. I’ll help you.

They embraced fiercely, weeping at the tenderness, fear, and hopelessness.

Pérez resumed his walk through the old wooden house, snapping pictures with his phone: the mirror, the furniture, two wooden boxes, used toys. He noticed a room at the end of the hallway. Walking in, he found a body lying on the bed—a woman, dead for a long time, which would be technically confirmed by forensic scientists, if they’d only arrive. Her mother? But what delirious terror is this? he thought as he snapped pictures. Why are they taking so long? Where is the backup? He looked at the screen, but he had no signal inside the house. At least López won’t see this. And we saved that poor creature.

Picking up and reading the front page of a small diary he had stepped on while walking out of the room, Pérez almost screamed, It can’t be! It belongs to Laura Suárez, but if she… Was she here after saying goodbye to the other children, to Natalia? He realized that night had come, but he couldn’t stop turning pages. This is insanity—what’s written here is like a horror flick, but this girl cannot be a monster. How is it that Laura was here for longer than a year? What happened to her? Pérez had a premonition, so he ran toward the sealed room. He pulled away the cushions from in front of the door, broke the lock. It smelled of death, waste, and humidity. He found trash, women’s clothes, some old cell phones, toys, a box with empty trash bags smeared with what could be blood, like the ones used for serum or blood donation (he remembered when the Red Cross was robbed years ago). He tore open a suitcase, where he found two small bags the sizes of two young children. Were they for the triplets? He kept on looking for the third among the dozen  dead cats and some other small animals. Too much death. 

A sweet essence took hold Pérez so strongly that he sneezed. He heard steps behind him, steps of numerous people. He turned but saw no one. Was that the backup? He heard the laugh of a woman, but saw no one, the sound coming from the mirror. He looked at his watch and realized it was almost midnight. How did he lose track of time? López! He hurried out of the house. The agents requested never came, nor the prosecutor, nor the Department of the Family… and there was his patrol car. As he drew near it, he saw no one. He opened the car door: no one. Only the empty quilt where the girl had been and the strong scent of flowers. 

 

[Purchase Issue 16 here.]

 

Ana María Fuster Lavín a Puerto Rican writer, editor, proofreader, and cultural commentator. She is the author of a dozen books, including the story collections Verdades Caprichosas, winner of the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature Prize, and Réquiem, winner of the PEN Club of Puerto Rico Prize. Her poetry collection El Libro de las Sombras also won a prize from the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature. Most recently, she published the novella Mariposas Negras.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He is the translator of Dinapiera Di Donato’s Collateral (National Poetry Series) and the recipient of poetry fellowships from Queer|Art|Mentorship, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and CantoMundo. He is managing director at the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center.

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