Main Jakarta

Jakarta

In a chaotic city, the latest in a line of viruses advances as a man recounts the fated steps that led him to be confined in a room with his lover while catastrophe looms. As he takes inventory of the city's ills, a strange stone distorts reality, offering brief glimpses of the deserted territories of his memory. A sports game that beguiles the city with near-religious significance, the hugely popular gambling systems rigged by the Department of Chaos and Gaming, an upbringing in schools that disappeared classmates even if the plagues didn't—everything holds significance and nothing gives answers in the vision realm of his own making.
The turbulent and sweeping world of Jakarta erupts with engrossing new dystopias and magnetic prose to provide a portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.
Language: english
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JAKARTA





First English-language edition published 2019

Copyright © 2016 by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano

c/o Indent Literary Agency, www.indentagency.com

Translation © 2019 by Thomas Bunstead





Book design by Rachel Holscher


Author photograph © Valentina Siniego Benenati

Translator photograph © Carlotta Luke

First published in Spanish as Yakarta in 2016. This edition is under license from Editorial Sexto Piso, Mexico (www.sextopiso.mx).

Coffee House Press books are available to the trade through our primary distributor, Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, cbsd.com or (800) 283-3572. For personal orders, catalogs, or other information, write to info@coffeehousepress.org.

Coffee House Press is a nonprofit literary publishing house. Support from private foundations, corporate giving programs, government programs, and generous individuals helps make the publication of our books possible. We gratefully acknowledge their support in detail in the back of this book.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Names: Márquez Tizano, Rodrigo, 1984– author. | Bunstead, Thomas, translator.

Title: Jakarta / Rodrigo Márquez Tizano ; translated by Thomas Bunstead.

Other titles: Yakarta. English

Description: First English-language edition. | Minneapolis : Coffee House Press, 2019.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018060440 (print) | LCCN 2018061648 (ebook) | ISBN 9781566895712 (ebook) | ISBN 9781566895637 (trade paper) Classification: LCC PQ7298.423.A7614 (ebook) | LCC PQ7298.423.A7614 Y3513 2019 (print) | DDC 863/.7—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2018060440

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

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For Paula





Thought I heard a dog barking. It’s possible. The simplest basic units develop into the richest natural patterns.

DONALD BARTHELME





JAKARTA





1.


I’m going to meet up with the boys. I’m going searching in the tunnels. I have no choice: the stone has spoken. The stone is opaque and smooth to the touch, like the tongues of the dogs we used to find on the way out to Arroyo Muerto. Day after day, Clara sets herself before it, and it responds with a pink, spreading glow, which little by little begins to illuminate the insides of the animals. Clara’s forehead becomes a prism, the light expands, and so do the distended beasts. All are alike inside: all are cavernous. The light rises from the surface of the stone in spindling pink tines, usually breaking off in four directions. They are luminous stalactites, they plunge into the four corners of our room, a room with next to nothing in it: a vase, a dog, a couple of coins. On the peeling walls, red and blue flecks of paint. I had a teacher in fifth grade, a nun with a wrinkled face, wrinkles of the kind you only ever see on nuns (or on receipts, I think, or in regions prone to earthquakes). She taught geography—of a sort. Everywhere had been discovered by then, and in the absence of new lands to discuss she would get diverted into talk of the soul. Or, put another way: she would call out countries, and we had to name the capitals. And from there she would start talking about the afterlife, going into long and winding descriptions of what happens to suicides when they get suspended.





2.


All the great poxes, choleras, fevers, and plagues, as with all significant outbreaks of dysentery, tuberculosis, and malaria, have been transmitted by insects. One body decays, another moves in: thus the demolition begins. It’s one of the possible paths. A malfunction is all it takes, or, we could perhaps say, an oversight. Once it has begun, there isn’t any way to stop it, no turning back. In the first several months the Department of Hygiene, Social Services, and Public Wellbeing insisted rats were to blame, but in fact it was their parasites we humans were susceptible to. True, bitches carrying the disease turned aggressive, began biting the ankles of unsuspecting strangers. And their original victims were children—that, too, is true. The hours they spent playing down at the foreshore made them easy targets: they chased vermin, they rooted around in mounds of trash and beer crates, under rocks. On our long reconnaissance hikes, in radio contact with ĦQ throughout, we began to come across dozens of child cadavers littering the shore: lodged between boulders or half buried in the sands, and all of them stinking to high heaven. They took less time than the rats to die and less still to decompose. I could not stop thinking of all the similarities—from a certain distance, and with my senses perhaps dulled by the hazmat suit, plus the warping effect of panic—between these carcasses and those of the roadkill dogs I used to go out gathering with my schoolmates. Morgan would check for a pulse and stick to filling in the forms. I wrote on labels in marker, attaching them to the big toes, or, if they no longer had big toes, to the least ill-preserved extremities. Sometimes the job was that of a gravedigger: drear mechanics in hi-vis hazmat suits. A shit job, the salary a pittance, less! All of which did nothing to prevent us from carrying out our duties with the indolence common to all subalterns, natural to all of those to whom the shit jobs fall. Nor were we authorized to pick up the bodies: as soon as we spotted them, we were just to radio back. The guys taking the calls would then fill out further reams of paperwork, complete with sections, subsections, and fields concerning a panoply of specifications, some technical, others not so technical, but all necessary before the Ministry of Public Affairs would agree to send an inspection team. Once one of their experts had come and confirmed the Ź-Bug and not, say, a common cold as cause of death, we were authorized to call the Civil Registrar, who in turn sent an ambulance to transport the body to the labs. This was the method we piloted. Would it have been more effective to comb the foreshore, just filling up crates with bodies? Maybe at the start. But some kind of order had to be imposed, even among those mountains of garbage and meat. Without order, survival becomes a tricky business indeed. In those early days, another group of operatives was subcontracted, more as a precaution than out of any worry about the amount of overtime we were doing. Some parents, fearing the worst, handed over their offsprings’ passwords in advance, while others, perhaps not the parents but their neighbors, jammed the phone lines to complain about the unbearable stench given off by other people’s children—a reek comparable only to that of the tidal marshes in high summer. But the phone calls soon abated, the army evacuated the city, and we went down into the tunnels. Then we were given some respect—either that or written off as godforsaken, beyond saving, no hope for us apart from that of being struck down by the Ź-Bug. Thus it began, if begin it ever did: we entered the earth, and the disease was left to self-propagate in silence. The parasites came from within, lapping at the infected rat until its insides turned liquid, collapsing those furred little cadavers before going off in search of other rats, or men.





3.


The ball strikes very slightly over the line: out of bounds. A few inches at most, but I know. No need for a replay. Over the years these things become second nature. The scorching trajectory of the ball is very clear to me, and the speedometer nestled in the lower corner of my screen reads 745 kilometers per hour. After a play made up of twelve straight shots and twenty carambolas (side wall > front wall > floor), the red team is announced the winner. An outcome nobody expected, least of all the red team, only recently promoted to the first division and generally seen as tending to wilt in the final third. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to drop the ball short, a little feather shot, forcing the opposition to break formation and come to the front of the Vakapý court to return it. But instead, a rocket of a shot came in from the red forward’s aħaka, and though the Yagwatý blues may have been able to guess where the ball would wind up, or at least the forward’s intention when he swiveled his body and planted his standing leg at a forty-five-degree angle, my opponent wasn’t. So he presses CHALLENGE, calling for the replay: the sequence, featuring Plaýer#56148, comes buzzing down the line from the Upper Curumbý Data Center. The bookmaker hub signs off on the request, and within a fraction of a second we’re seeing all the available angles at a variety of different playback speeds. And it was, indeed, above the luminous strip that marks out-of-bounds on the front wall, though by a bare two millimeters: a UV test is ordered simultaneously, they switch the lights, and you can clearly see where the ball (daubed as always in UV paint) left a mark. Then the match stats flash up, cascading in no apparent order down the right-hand side of the screen. Beneath that is my account, constantly going up and down according to the slew of simultaneous bets I’ve got on different facets of different games happening in all the different stadia. With this miss, a little bump in my Cređits. I’m holding my own, at least, if not exactly sweeping the board; this small triumph is more a stay of execution than anything, postponing the inevitable defeat. Any time you’re deep in the Vakapý (which is every time you play), it’s like a rope is coiled around your neck, and the deeper you go, the tighter the rope becomes, tighter and tighter until there’s nothing for it but to get up and walk across that taut strip: dire straits. And that’s exactly where I find myself, may as well give it a go. Grandma’s advice to my brothers and me was always to economize our efforts by looking at only the stats from the last twenty matches. After all, she pointed out, though the life expectancy of the plaýers varies from developer to developer, they rarely last more than thirty matches, and that’s in a pinch—they need to get on a winning streak pretty quick, otherwise they just get junked, stripped, parts reused. She was right, at least on the mechanics side of things: in those days it was all two-stroke carburetors rather than the multipoint fuel-injection systems we now see, or the øilsteâm currently used for calibration. Nowadays any plaýer with a decent set of implants, plus regular servicing of course, can go for ten years plus. All of which aside, the numbers are and always have been king, regardless of the quality of the kit. Grandma herself was constantly saying as much. It goes without saying that when she died she was heavily in debt to the Department of Chaos and Gaming. Since then, a percentage of anything I earn has gone toward paying off each of Grandma’s disastrous calls.





4.


Clara stands before the stone; I watch. She has sleep in her eyes, thick, pasty gobs of it all around her eyes, in fact. The next thing to come into focus is a fan, slowly revolving above our heads, churning the warm air in the room. Tick … tick … tick. The vase on the table, the coins scattered around it, the superimposed, semitransparent dog. But it is the stone that draws the eye. It’s well known that rheum crystallizes more quickly the farther it spreads from the tear duct. So chemistry dictates. Dust, dead skin cells: these things we slough off, and rarely does the process happen in reverse. Once we’re up and running, the business of the day underway, we don’t really think about it. This ocular rheum expels things the body refuses. Studies have been carried out to establish a link between sleep cycles and the body’s secretions at night, but there’s been little success in divining the content of dreams on the basis of these apparent physical concomitants. Sometimes it takes hours for the rheum to be wiped off, for any number of reasons—embarrassment, negligence, lack of hygiene. Helguera used to keep a collection of these crusty-sticky gobbets beneath his desk. They came in all shapes and sizes, a suspended catalog of dark, hardened scree. Birdface Helguera and his stalactite collection. Tiny Zermeño and his repertoire of naked bodies. Morgan, Morgan, Morgan: when you joined us together, what were you joining together? These are the thoughts playing inside my head. I am but a link in a chain, or the vaguest approximation of a link in a chain: one foot still in dream, and one here, where I watch Clara with the stone. A pulse of light. Another. Clara, utterly drained, bends forward over her skinny knees. She stays like that for a number of minutes before suddenly lifting her head up once more. Again, the images start to form.





5.


Our high school was part of a religious charity responsible for numerous educational institutions—boarding schools as well as high schools—across the state. Apart from giving us an education, the school did work on behalf of those described by our ancient headmistress, with such inimitable sweetness, as the most needy. I once asked Grandma, Needy in what way? Needy for lots of things, she said. Food, clothing, a roof over their heads. Everyone needs something. Even us? Especially us. I was struck by the matter-of-factness of her reply, the brusque echo of suddenly finding out: we, too, were poor. Morning after morning, from the moment my alarm went off and throughout my walk past the dockyards to school, I would ruminate over her words, each syllable sonorous but also somehow profane: Especially us. Over and over they resounded against the cobbles of the seawall, a soft, sibilant rumble, mixing with the slap slap of my sandals all the way from the weather vane and past the little crowd of hollow-cheeked bums straining to hear the tinny Vakapý reports or talk show reruns on a miniscule radio, clutching themselves for warmth, cowering together as though bound for the slaughterhouse, gazing out to sea, out at the pier with plants inching through the cracks, plants of every color, like some kind of reflection of the people of this land, spurts of unruly sargassum flattened by salt and wind and having never needed any invitation to come and settle along this coast—but none of that really registered, my mind so entirely consumed by Grandma’s unexplained and yet conclusive words that I could think of nothing else, until sure enough my path took me into the schoolyard, past the tetherball posts, past heads slick with hair gel and, as a wave of antiseptic-soap smell washed over me, into the mildewed school building, a great ramshackle edifice that some upright priest and his acolytes had filled with abacuses, desks, many wastepaper baskets, benches, paddles for doling out reprimands, more desks, all child-sized and vandalized with a combination of child-safe scissors, compasses, and felt-tip pen: messages, threats, nicknames, declarations of love, declarations of hate, equations, defunct or foreign systems of measurement, all also countless, all overlapping and obscuring but simultaneously underscoring one another, and further messages, and further equations, desks upon desks and children upon children, until eventually, in the fullness of time, this agglomeration came to be known by the name of the school. A school full of the needy. On it went in my thoughts: thoughts of why only some people are defined thus when, without exception, everyone is composed of needs, we are all utterly and completely at the mercy of our needs, and there is nothing to be gained from isolating or singling any of them out, far from it, in fact, each need is integrated into society’s very warp and weft, to the point that society can even be thought of as little more than a network of ramified needs, distributed and organized in the same way skeletal or muscular networks are distributed and organized; consider (I considered) the fact that parts of the skeleton and parts of the muscular complex may be independently distinguishable as objects of anatomical study, according to the function of each, the areas they occupy, their greater or lesser subcutaneous depth, plus whatever tissues comprise them—all true—but they justify their existence only in the overall functioning of the body: well, the same surely goes for this or that particular need, want, or desire. They aren’t caused by other people, and still less by any thing, being anterior to our species, as well, therefore, to the effects that accompany our existence. Such needs have the capacity to render one another void, and may, at any moment, even if recently acquired, work against and ultimately displace those formerly assumed to be the only, ultimate, essential needs. The nuns, meanwhile, themselves arranged according to height and complexion, watched us line up along the patio also according to stature, raising their battered hurricane lamps to inspect the length of our hair, the sewing jobs done on buttons, the shine of any shoes we may be lucky enough to have on our feet, always checking our appearances before matins—like carrion birds that, long before they do anything about the visible portion of their own needs, are able to calculate the remaining life in the unfortunate creatures they will in due course devour.





6.


This city has two great enemies: Vakapý, and the industry that surrounds it. It is largely accepted that the two are synonymous, that they spring from the same source and are in every practical sense indivisible, and that it would therefore be ridiculous to understand them as distinct, even when the alliance owes more to pure chance than any real balance between performance, results, and profits. Some predicted a loss of interest when the Department of Chaos and Gaming forced the main teams, the very wealthy and money-spinning ones, to switch their centers of operation to the capital in a difficult-to-argue-with effort to “regularize the tax situation and sweep away the gangsterism that has sullied popular culture and the intangible heritage of our nation.” The result turned out to be quite the opposite: removing the money from those far-flung betting hives cut out whole swathes of middle men, making it easier to bypass the tariffs (sometimes just kickbacks) imposed by the government and their enforcers, and easier, therefore, to go on squandering our well-earned Cređits. Which is simply to say that the money, which we were bound to lose anyway, began to be lost in a more organized way.





7.


Clara sometimes asks about my time in the Ź-Brigađe, questioning both dosages and methodology. She poses the question and then gazes off at nothing, at the stone, down at her belly. She glances past me as though I’m not there, or as though in fact I’m nothing but a reflection of myself, or some glimmering, guttering series of images. I know the emptiness is something else. Muscle, cartilage, phlegm, blood. Something that fills us at times, without our ever belonging to it, and certainly without it ever belonging to us. That which rots when the body ceases to function. And then I search around in my pockets and come up with four pieces of metal, which makes six altogether if we add them to the two on the table, the ones next to the Chinese vase that may not in fact be Chinese (no dragons on it, no golden cats, not even any ideograms that would qualify it as Chinese), right, it may not be, except that everything’s made in China nowadays, so very likely the vase was too. On the vase, a dog. Or, rather: one is unthinkable lest the image of the other overlaps it. Everything depends on something else, says Clara, rolling her head in slow circles. And in turn, on something else.





8.


Anyone who’s ever set foot in a Vakapý stadium knows that what the fans really get off on are the stats. The implications and ruptures, the chance to give yourself entirely to unpredictability, to pour body and mind into an order composed of unforeseeable confluences and divergences; moves, plays, stats. So here it is, dearest larvae of mine: the Vakapý stadium as such no longer exists, but Vakapý will never die. It’ll outlive us all, just like the Bug. It was around long before us and will be around long after we’re gone. Money has a similarly never-ending quality, an immortal aspect even, in its deferred promises: so sweet, and at the same time so dissonant. That was certainly how it sounded on the track that separated the stands from the court, across which the crowd roared out their speculations, bandying about sums that would never become the reality of cash in their pockets but that reverberated off the court’s trio of walls regardless, over the heads of the multitude, over the mantle of smoke that lay above their heads, over crumpled slips and cocktails held aloft. Thus money: little more than a knock-on effect, a necessary evil in adding extra spice to the vices associated with unforeseeable chance. The ultimate explanation for Vakapý’s astonishing and long-lasting appeal lies in random probability distributions and patterns that, for all their (considerable) susceptibility to statistical analysis, can never be foretold with any precision. Though different both in nature and provenance, the plaýers and the gamblers have become fully interdependent, the upshot being a kind of resistance to that irremediable, wearisome will to improve, the throat-gnawing need to always get better in some way. Progress is a word much used in Atlantika, and its presence in our motto and on the town crest is no coincidence. It undergirds bridges, rivers, and ports, even the seas, just as it runs through sermons and so many elegant speeches, lends its neat little trochee to the ancestral rite of the inauguration of public works, because men of vision know to align themselves with the certainty evinced by progress, by godsends, Cređits from heaven, and the kind of blessings we are obviously due, rather than with the mean past, which, by dint of being the past—or having taken place under another administration—no one wants to think about anymore: to lay that foundation stone with one eye on the horizon, to cut the inaugural ribbon like a person cleaving two worlds, to pose for the photo with all the glad-ragged VIPS and their Botoxed ladies who will occupy the tabloid pages for days on end, nobody bothering to mention that the cement was shoddily laid, roof joists were loose, the sleepers and steel frames used for wing x of pavilion y were little more than figments of some con man’s imagination, or that the cardiology team was still waiting at the border for the work permits to come through, or that—never mind, I hereby announce, fellow citizens, with heart and mind fixed unerringly on the tremendous service these facilities will provide for generations to come, as I unveil the all-new Hospital of Progress, the unprecedented Progress Avenue, the state-of-the-art Progress Boulevard, the highly progressive Progress Quarter. And flash go all the cameras. Progress also, of course, figures prominently in the deed poll as one of our most popular male names. After Juan, Progress is the most popular name for boys. Truly, truly, this is the land of Vakapý and all its attendant wretchedness. And don’t just take my word for it: ask the first person you meet in the street around here (chances are he’ll answer to Juan Progreso Pérez). He’ll back me up: Vakapý first, worry about dinner later. Thus has it always been: even in times of famine or plague, even when the Ź-Bug was at its most virulent, never would a weekend pass without all the Vakapý stadia along the coast, from Las Huertas to San Martín Jagua, full to the rafters. Each of the principal cities had its own team, comprised of the galaxy of journeyman foreign plaýers who were always the main attraction. Inside the stadium things worked differently: when a match merited it, whether because the plaýers were superstars or rivalries were sufficiently intense, entire towns would mobilize, traveling in rented buses or in great processions of smaller vehicles, clogging all B-roads and earthen tracks as yet unfamiliar with the technology of cobblestones, so the pride of these far-flung places made its way to the stadium in question, the scene of the showdown, no matter the distance, no matter the cost. They say it’s about identity. The world being what it now is, though, identity is just about the last thing your average gambler cares about. Or they care about it if they can use it in the game as part of a double bluff. The only thing left to identify with is the numbers. In spite of everything, the odd illegal field still exists, in remote corners of the country, listing into the sea in some cases, all of them out of reach of league officials. Low-level betting takes place in these semiderelict locales, nothing more than loose change—a question, more than anything, of some people not wanting the game’s beginnings to be forgotten altogether. And even in the beginning it was very clear: what goes up must come down, and sooner or later everyone loses. That is the game, that is its defining contour: an arc. And that is not progress. Anyone who says they play to win only feeds the beast, the incontestable nature of which is loss.





9.


I remember starting back to school one year after the winter vacation. The stone remembers it too. During vacation one of the novices hanged herself in the school chapel. We heard about it through Zermeño: Zermeño had a little business stealing copies of the local newspaper from his father’s barbershop and then selling the Page Threes to other children at recess. His own little racket. Everyone had one. Mine consisted of making myself as inconspicuous as the cracks in the walls, whereas Zermeño peddled previously perused pornography, an unintended consequence of which was that we were sometimes apprised of happenings in the world. The paper in question was printed on stock so cheap that when you held it up to the light the words, classifieds, and nude females on either side would intermingle. For my part, Mondays meant handing over most of the money I’d stolen out of Grandma’s purse during the weekend. In exchange I got the results from all the games and the plaýer trading cards that usually came with the Sunday paper. I remember it well: it was the start of a new year but the end of the holidays, that difficult contradiction to which we gradually had to become accustomed. The bell had barely gone for the first lesson of term, Zermeño took out the paper with the article about the novice’s suicide, and a knot of children gathered. The article was one of the many that told of the near-daily hangings in Atlantika; at a time before the Ź-Bug came, and for want of anything exciting to relate, these always occupied column inch after column inch. Suicides, obituaries, and the weather on the Atlantik seaboard: therein the pith and marrow of our new journalism. Zermeño gave a hurried, nasal reading to the gathered kids, but there wasn’t a picture of the young woman’s corpse. The article did have a picture of the chapel exterior, a black mourning ribbon over the entrance, the school crest, the traffic posts along the pavement, a policeman smoking his fourth cigarette of the morning—but not the novice, not even the coffin. The photo would have been taken early one Saturday morning, or just before midday. It always seemed strange to me that the photographer didn’t bother getting a close-up of the body. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that we readers prefer a corpse over stones every time.





10.


The Bug. , B, Ć, and so on: every twenty or thirty years, it comes back. At times it stays away for as long as half a century, at others, outbreaks occur every half decade. It takes many, many different forms, which is why in this city it has never been properly dealt with. There’s just one thing we know for sure: our destiny is not to be avoided. And, it should also be understood, it is a destiny not so much concerned with damaging us as with leaving us utterly confounded. The stone sucks the light from the room. In the last few days its behavior has changed, throbbing with a deep blackish light that seems to signal a new life brewing inside it. The nun would have come up with all manner of names for such an entity: spirit, substance, essence, psyche, psyches, awareness, sensation, will, intelligence, imagination, memory, conscience, comprehension, understanding, inner life. I believe it is anything but: it’s the dregs, the overspill; it’s all that nobody wants. Clara doesn’t believe in those kinds of superstitions either. But she now suspects that, if the stone did come into existence with such an intangible, fragile entity inside it, it isn’t there anymore. If it had any physical reality, and could therefore have been made available to buy or sell on some kind of market, someone would have acquired it long ago. Now she thinks she’s found something: the first discovery to suggest all the effort has been worth it. I agree but say nothing. She, however, along with the stone, seems convinced. The true treasures, she says, are never things you look for; either they come to you or they don’t, or maybe you convince yourself that they’re going to come and then a day arrives when you happen upon a jewelry box or a sepia scroll marked with a cross: a signal, or something you at least take as a signal, that allows you to dream of better times, better climes, only eventually, after so long at the bottom of the pile, to end up feeling it’s better to give up all hope, to come round to loss as your standard setting, to believe that the treasure will arrive only by sheer fluke and at a time of its choosing, which in turn means that it, as well as any hope for it, must be securely stowed away, for it is ultimately easier to take responsibility for one’s own frustration, to become accustomed to the frustration, or at least to deal with it in the same way you might deal with some known quantity (like the metric system, like an electricity transformer), than to let yourself be trampled by certainty, the utter crushing certainty that there’s nothing inside the box apart from nothing—a million tiny bits of nothing. Anything but that. And Clara—dear Clara—is nearly nothing, for all that she may still be in one piece—just about. How battered her body looks. Surely she can’t go on much longer. She bares her teeth, and not in a smile: and what teeth, so white, so even! They are all the more eye-catching given the weight she’s lost. The little that remains of her emaciated arms seems but one more facet in the inventory of objects in the room: stone, bra, vase, dog, flesh, coins. All present and correct. Time, or the sequence of intervals otherwise known as time, is no longer of much use to her: for her, all time is deposited in the stone. My time and her own. Has the stone grown over the course of the days? Clara has been shrinking, that much is clear, and in comparing the two of them it is possible to say, Yes: there’s no way she can go on much longer, her abandonment to the mineral world is well advanced, whereas the stone is like a bouncing child of about three. Aside from the stone, all that remains of Clara is her hunger. The blotches on her hands; the dull, lusterless hair; the odd string of saliva at the corner of her mouth. It is today: she does not say this in words, simply shakes her head. We use words now only for things that aren’t truly urgent.





11.


The government trotted out the line, “Vakapý: a tradition of innovation.” According to this mantra, endorsed by those for whom Vakapý, betting, and all denizens of Atlantika comprise a fundamental trinity, our town is the very crucible for the clash—and eventual fusion—of three strands of Vakapý history: the Vakapý of the natives, who long before the arrival of the first settlers were playing a kind of ritualistic hipball (the ball itself usually a shrunken human head, by and large that of some vanquished foe, placed inside rubber casing, and the aim being to shoot it through the seven side-on hoops in the walled temple-cum-stadium); the Albýno Vakapý, an underground version in which the plaýers had to roll their balls along a sloping sidewall on the way to hitting a jack; and finally, that of the invaders, which, with its use of paddles and curved, wicker basket-gloves (not so dissimilar to our modern-day aħaka), has roots most clearly in the leisure pursuits of Numidian tribes. The rules, ways of winning, and materials, the use or otherwise of a wall or a slope, are, however, secondary in importance. In these pastimes, as with any of the ways in which we choose to squander our time on planet earth, the important thing is and has always been the chance to win money in wagers.





12.


Morgan spoke not a single word for a long time—six weeks, two months. A sadness that had knocked him sideways. Nor was this just his usual crestfallen attitude to the world, far from it. Not the crooked, yellow teeth; not the distinctive sound he used to make when sucking his bifurcate tongue against his palate, the click that disguised and revealed his spleen—I don’t mean these things, but another kind of silence, one issuing out of some faraway place, a future-contaminated place, verging on the adult. A solid silence, corpulent even, with physical qualities and a tenor that varied according to the distribution of the desks: sometimes all it took was being seated near Morgan to feel that desolate charge, more akin to the disfiguring effects gravity can have on certain materials, like us, or like a colony of rats or mound of trash—anything at all—than to the absence of sound. It was, I am certain, a form of resistance. Of quelling the outside noise. Out of all our classes, an hour of national history was the best bet for disappearing completely. Our teacher, a grizzled priest, miser, and drinker rolled into one, always came in reeking of pastis. The few words he deigned to speak in class tended to come out as grunts. He had a fishhook for a right hand. Morgan claimed he sustained the injury in the War of 910, long before any of us was born, during a brutal crackdown on the Faith: all icons and scriptures, anything deemed to play a part in fomenting it, were destroyed. The temples were closed down, and the ensuing, all-encompassing dust cloud swallowed every single chalice, cincture, and hunk of consecrated bread in the land. In spite of the danger, men of faith flocked to town squares to be blessed by priests who went around disguised as agave farmers. Precisely one month after the initial order had been given, new ones were issued, and by the time the sun came up next morning, the renegade priests had all been relieved of a limb. It went down as the Night of the One-Handed Cocoons and was the start of a little over a decade of hostilities between army and church. Thousands upon thousands died. Any time Grandma drank (cognac her poison), she’d weep and tell us of the terrible atrocities committed: how the Spaŵn Tanks were shut down, too, how you’d come across dead soldiers in fields on a daily basis, how blood flowed through the streets, not to mention the sharp increase in infections; the young larvae were hidden away in basements to learn the catechism by the light of a few votive candles, but the true light continued to illuminate them: our radiant Lady of the Chrysaliđs. The youngsters studied scripture and memorized the Canticle of the Caterpillar; our Recuźant great-great-grandparents ferried the priests to these underground prayer rooms like contraband, risking their lives in the process, but what kind of life would it be anyway, one’s soul in perpetual darkness? A soul that never transforms, never emerges from its cocoon, a dormant, untapped soul. In order that life could at least be a project of self-liberation, and though people had to hide away like poachers and night thieves, instruction in the arts of the Spirit continued. Just like in the olden days, when the true faith could be proclaimed only in the Katacombz. The novices hurried to enter the Order of the Lepidoptz, becoming the Padres who went out to preach in the moonlit agave fields with guns at their hips. Their fervor was great, and they defended the faith with all the dignity of true believers: they’d sooner fall with pupae spilling from their fists than forsake the chance to inculcate. The maimed priests were later dubbed the Martyrs of Saint Źirconium, though their elevation was, and still is, a matter of some controversy. Sometimes I wonder how utterly rotten Grandma would feel if she could see how the ranks of the Magnetiźed have swelled, glorified ragpickers shuffling around in their maize-colored shawls, rooting for scrap metal with their long grabbers and clanking metal detectors. Logically enough, for the priest who taught our history lessons—Fish Hook to us—military discipline and religious formation went hand in hand. Just as unsurprising was the inability of any of our teachers to quell talk of the novice who hanged herself. The week began—as every week did—with readings from the Settlerz Scripture. But the ancient nun, ringing the bell at the end of recess, and without bothering to consult the parent body, felt the need to do something about the images that had been incubating in our minds over the winter, that conflagration fueled by the holidays and tabloid newspapers.





13.


It’s important to follow instructions. Sometimes the numbers freeze momentarily, but if you discońńect without first hitting PAUSE, there’s a chance they’ll stay planted in front of your retina for hours, or even days. Static statistics, numb numbers, signifying the square root of nothing—like the old clocks outside the Brigađe barracks or the unmoving chrome timepieces on the refinery ovens at the mill. Visual details of the Vakapý matches that are incredibly hard to shake, or fragments of visual details: the floorboards, the baskets, marks left by the ball, bits of bodies. I sometimes wonder whether this residual mosaic is generated on the basis of any predetermined order, some glitch in the memory that nonetheless obeys certain laws, or whether it’s purely random. Each gambler has a dedicated drone-camera in the stadium that they personally control; obviously the shots you choose give a sense of your personal take on the game, what aspects you set store by, and even your conception of space itself. You will also never be presented with any images you did not previously select from among the thousands comprising the match—for all that such a selection may have been unconscious. But even so, among the many different things that may cause the Sýstem to freeze, only a few very specific ones will get stuck like this, will really refuse to budge. Take today: the last shot I saw was of a portion of one of the plaýers’ arms, possibly the hydraulic elbow, as the final point of the match was being played. It was a Super Close Up, everything in Hyperdetail™, and the ball was just on the verge of being slung out of the midfielder’s aħaka, so it looked ever so slightly squashed. I remember, or seem to remember, the play in question: the position of the plaýer’s knee in respect to the rest of his body, the V-formation of his team around him. The stoop to gather the ball, the hurling of the ball back at the wall. So why an elbow? Maybe I focus on that only now because the image has stuck inside my vision, because it happens to be within reach—maybe all it’s really good for is dazzling my sight and dragging my memory down alleys just as blind. I have also at times imagined, due to the similarities between so many of the images you see in Playback, that the games and the ways in which the gamblers can participate—the two indispensable, interdependent pillars of Vakapý—are the slightest variations on one single, far, far longer game, a game previously watched from a variety of different angles, and that if it has any point, it’s the fueling of a process of infinite recreation. I think this, and a second later forget it. I forget it because I have to remember it—fleetingly—the next time I cońńect. The floating images gradually dissipate, breaking up into less nuanced blocks and lines, then simply a succession of dots, and I eventually feel the ciliary muscles loosen and, finally, am able to blink. The audio takes longer to fall in line with itself: I hear faint voices, the murmurs from the other gamblers. They’re going absolutely nowhere, my gambler brethren. In spite of government recommendations, the average session goes on for 336 hours. (I imagine the poor bastard who had to do the counting started to feel pretty sorry for himself at about hour 14.) A crypt-like darkness comes down, obscuring the passageway in which I find myself, while another out-of-kilter frequency comes trickling in: the rebounds, the sound of the plaýers’ footfalls as they dash this way and that across the synthetic wood boards of the court, the time-out advertisements, the unmistakable jingle of the Department of Chaos and Gaming. Then I know it’ll be only a few minutes before the world rights itself again.





14.


She never mentioned the novice, but then again she didn’t need to. She said: Jakarta. And we replied: Indonesia. This was a way of giving the rest of the syllabus short shrift, but there were other consequences: we were divested of our names, for a start, and eased into—in a way, reconciled with—the disappointment of knowing there was a world out there, a fully fledged outside reality, but the only contact we were ever going to have with it was this call-and-response memory game concerning its national jurisdictions and capital cities. It’s good to know nice and early if you’re going to amount to fuck all. Doubly so to be under no illusions: truly, this is all you’re good for. The best thing is to really understand, really and truly: your own innate mediocrity is something you will never overcome. The only danger is to fling yourself over the precipice into what some choose to call hopefulness, others, enthusiasm. There was nothing to distinguish our fourth-grade studies from a politics of pure despair: any enthusiasm we encountered, any upbeat individual, we learned to shun as though it were the Ź-Bug incarnate. And yet the school harbored one dangerous agent of magical thinking: our carpentry teacher. He drifted around the workshop inspecting our work, smiling indulgently at our efforts. Any bit of sanding, chiseling, or sawing, anything at all, no matter how cack-handed, and he’d clap his hands and do a little jig: You’ve got talent, he would lie. It’d be a tragedy to let it go to waste. Double lie. The job you’re learning in here is worthy of respect, a way of being somebody in the world. Double, quadruple, endless lies. Know what Saint Lacewing’s father did for a job? Can anybody guess? Another jig. A chill ran down my spine at the sight of his dismal capering, while the boy next to me at the workbench, Fatty Muñoz—pure unleavened mass, all jowls and threadbare clothing—watched me blanch to the point of transparency, though he didn’t dare say a word either. I looked at him in turn. How ridiculous he appeared in those moments, how deflated, just like everyone else in class: recoiling but also visibly shrinking, even him seeming somewhat diminished—as though slipping away through the black hole of childhood, into which everything subsides from time to time. Poor Fatty M., his big, benumbed ass, his chubby, useless hands gripping tools he would never wield with anything but utmost ineptitude. In my mind our carpentry teacher was worthy of all the contempt you could muster, the lowest of any low-life I’d ever encountered, certainly the most cruel: there was nothing to be gained by praising Fatty M. like this, letting him suspect he might one day be somebody when the opposite was true; the only thing he was ever going to become was a fuckup—a fucking fiasco of a fuckup, a fat one at that—and then what was our inspirational worker of wood going to do? I’ll tell you what: shrug, and assure Fatty Fuckup Muñoz that it was his fault alone he hadn’t realized his colossal potential. It’s no good having all the right ingredients—which you did, kid, you surely did—if you don’t then follow the instructions. Meanwhile the air grew increasingly stale in that cramped workshop, more a shed than anything, barely enough oxygen to go round. There we sat, protective goggles, overalls, planes gripped in faithful hands, gouges, hammers, chisels, wood saws of many kinds, triangles—and that piece of wood in the vice, the one that had been there since the beginning of time, trapped between the rusty jaws, pinned there eons before with dark, labyrinthine rings. My thoughts would drift away to the game, to the Vakapý plaýers cutting elegant diagonals across the court. To loveliest Zulaýma. To really going far—away. Images that alleviated the cramped, clamped sensations. Go on, son, keep on sawing. That’s it, nice and steady now. Do it like you’re singing to the wood. Hear that? Hear the way it sings back? Who’s to say, one day they could be naming streets after you.





15.


I pick my way through the morass of cables and gaming stations, latter begetting former. Vestiges of the last game still hang pixel-like in my vision and echo disconcertingly in my ears. The identikit stations are like cramped cubbyholes, no bigger than the antique postage stamps from before the most recent Bug, or even the really tiny ones from the epidemic before that: no ventilation, barely space to breathe, though as I come past I am able to make out the labored or agitated breathing of gamblers of all different physical conditions and ages (so much for the official under-fourteen ban) keeping time with the constantly updated personalized betting offers. There, ensconced in headsets, they see themselves as exceptionally well qualified to judge the odds, deeply versed, measured in all that they do, dons among mere fans, when plainly they’re the same scum as the rest of us, parasites supping on Vakapý for anything resembling a thrill, needles dangling from forearms. It’s a pretty disgusting exercise: I have to clamber directly over some of them, and my hands and legs become coated in their slather. I have to find my way out somehow and mustn’t so much as look at those headsets, must avoid getting sucked back into the Vakapý maze once more. Another of the gamblers calls out his discońńect balance, trying to get away—he’s into hour twenty-five—but something keeps him there, stuck in the limbo, forever nearly about to win. I carefully pick my way through them, forcing myself not to stop, orienting myself by the huddled, panting bodies. I don’t know what’s got them so excited—a sudden bump in the Cređit allocation, perhaps, or some botched attempt to keep the ball in play, both of which, after all, could be ways of describing life itself, or survival at least. I keep my eye on the halogen bulb beyond the door grate at the far end, light that marks a kind of outer limit to this zone. I push my way to the exit and just before I go out cast a final glance back across at my allies in idleness. I feel for them, I really do.





16.


When the Department of Hygiene, Social Services, and Public Wellbeing announced that the quarantine was over, we were lost. We handed in the hazmat suits, and in exchange, they gave us a city that wasn’t ours. The roads began teeming with vehicles and people once more, and it was all downhill from there. Immigrants took the place of the dead, and those who had survived the ravages of the Ź-Bug went and signed on for the paltry welfare stamps again. And back to life creaked the city, its many moving parts: the old ladies back to the bingo halls, the gamblers to their gaming stations, the rapists to the public parks; all the highways and byways were reopened, along with the churches and the whorehouses; and you could get all essential household items in the supermarkets once more (at three times the former price). But the newly established order had no place for us. We left the Ź-Brigađe, but in many ways it did not leave us; the only reason I stopped exterminating rats was because they disappeared. Otherwise I imagine I’d have stayed underground, eager for Kovac the Albýno’s every command. In the end, with nothing better to do, I started hanging around down at the docks. Then Clara appeared.





17.


Any luck? says Señora Albýno#2460, and immediately repeats herself, which means there’s no way of avoiding the question: Any luck? No luck. Well, there is: the same as ever. But that isn’t luck, I think, it’s custom, or habit, it’s the same old. I see, she says, I see, not batting an eyelid as she glances up at my Cređit balance on her screen. She goes back to shuffling a stack of the trashy “education” comics on the counter; the counter itself has a green sheet of glass atop it, with a five-directioned crack that has been mended with numerous layers of Scotch tape. This has been Señora Albýno#2460’s establishment for as long as I can remember. The walls in the stationary store have grown old, they’re mildewed and fissured, but not her. The place is even legitimate: between the retention files, the starved-looking ranks of teddy bears, the drooping helium balloons, and a sparse stock of cellophane, certificates, bookmarks, and various kinds of paper organized by color and thickness, a framed license has pride of place on the back wall, the writing in four different colors, the inspection stamps numerous. I stand and stare at Señora Albýno#2460’s hands, which make short work of the comic strips intended to teach our youth about history and social issues, sorting through them hypnotically: a cascade of the brash, reductive illustrations, glimpses of sideburns, sashes, flags, tricornes. To one side of the counter is a bench and sitting on it a man with an aquiline, flaring nose, the hair on top of his head partially shaved and a toupee sown into the skin of his temples. He looks a bit like one of our nation’s famous sons to me—an impression supported by the rapier-swift movements of Señora Albýno#2460’s hands, her deft and dexterous gesticulations, which seem, like a clairvoyant’s, to have conjured this haggard dignitary of our great and noble country, a country always ready to honor misery when it sees it. He’s at the front of the queue, a queue that will eventually stretch half the way round the block. Gaming centers are not in short supply: three to every one citizen of voting/gambling age, the latest government numbers suggest. This particular gaming center, for example, is considered one of the upmarket ones, though the state of the walls and ceiling, and of the carpets, never apparently introduced to a vacuum cleaner, suggests otherwise. The man awaits instructions, rubbing the back of his hand against his chin, a stiff and imploring gesture—a result of his condition. The obvious question is why, now that I’ve discońńected, I’m still hanging around. Señora Albýno#2460 gives him a sidelong squint, followed by a nod. One more nod: that’s his signal. The man jumps up, places his ID on the counter, and hurries past as though she doesn’t exist. He pulls open the door, goes through, and swings it softly shut behind him. Señora Albýno#2460’s sight lingers momentarily on the back of the shop. A thick pair of glasses, the frames imitation tortoiseshell, perch on the squashed protuberance of her nose. She keeps just one eye on the ID; I’m not sure what the other one is looking at. The interruption seems to take an age, and eventually the gaze of her wayward pupil returns to the papers. At the top of the pile is one that reads “Natural Disasters” and features a list of the most significant catastrophes to befall the country in recent times. Señora Albýno#2460 looks at me—half looks at me. I read somewhere that Albýno optic nerves are more knotted than our own, the wiring back there more complicated, and that this, according to the antiabolitionists at least, has something to do with the congenital deceitfulness they attribute to her kind. By which I mean: at the back of most people’s heads, the optic nerves reach to the respective opposite side of the brain, whereas in the case of the Albýnos all is an untidy crisscrossing and tangling and even, in places, fusing. The upshot being this ocular drift, plus all the bodily grace of marionettes with broken spindles, though it does also mean they’re able to swivel each eye independently, 180 degrees horizontally and 90 degrees up or down. So it goes—none among our academic geniuses, let alone our representatives in parliament, have come anywhere near dispelling prejudices that sprang up almost as soon as the first settlers arrived, bringing the Albýnos with them in shackles. They made pacts with historically oppressed indigenous tribes, which in turn, at the urgings of a monk who had been living among them for some time, agreed to replace the crab eyes with which they traditionally decorated their good-luck charms with Albýno eyes instead; to gods old and new alike, they now began bringing talismans made of pigmentless flesh. Some people still believe that these neural connections, which mean in well-lit places that they can see only a reduced color spectrum, also account for certain behaviors. Strange how something so obvious can be the cause of such disagreement: it’s possible to glimpse, through their pinkish retinas, the accumulation of nerves beyond. I stand, stare, picture Señora Albýno#2460 as a complex system of fibers: not an easy fit for the comic-didactic schema laid out in our country. She goes on painstakingly filling in registration forms. Another man comes in off the street, identical to the last guy. He’s at the front of the queue now. I ask Señora Albýno#2460 for my ID back. Please, I say. First you gotta do my hair, she says absently—absent as a ghost—First you gotta do my hair, and I know she won’t take no for an answer, and anyway I can’t say no because in the time it takes for me to think how long I’ll need to drag a comb through her disgusting locks—quite a long time, not so much dithering as stuck in the headlights of my own growing anguish, my growing unease at being separated from Clara and from the stone—she has produced a comb, plus a couple of hair slides and hair bands for good measure. May as well get on with it: I reach over, starting out with a center part—her hair is so thin it’s difficult to hold without it tearing. I picture a diadem extending outward from the center, like a flower composed of nerves, the perfect do, and with this in mind split each half into three subsections, start plaiting a la Roumanian, with sections from either side of the head crossing the center. Seven or eight cross-folds, bringing in sections from occipital and parietal, always folding over-under, always keeping the hair taut as I fold in the different tranches, so much so that strands start coming away in my hands—strands at first, then entire tufts. My hands, my clothes, and all about us on the floor, hair of whitest white, strewn like a lot of straw, like we’re in a stable, the problem certainly being my zeal once I’ve committed to the task, my urge to construct a perfectly knot-free diadem, perfectly limned, a crown of braids in honor of the owner of gaming center #2460, fully accredited by the Department of Chaos and Gaming, who now takes up a small beveled hand mirror, nodding: she likes. Nice, she says, nice, and I have to agree: in spite of the missing clumps, I’ve done an OK job, the finishing touch being the colorful hair ties. She goes on nodding, and the next toupeed gambler comes forward, sets down his ID, hurries past, like we’re both ghosts! Pulls open the door, goes in, shuts it noiselessly behind him. As for me, I don’t even say goodbye: I grab my ID and go outside, brushing the hair from my clothes. Outside, the wind is up, part of the usual din in the street. And I was wrong: the queue reaches all the way along this side of the block, to the corner, past the corner, and snakes away down a side street. It’s anybody’s guess where it ends.





18.


Then I met her. That could be a beginning too. Like: I was walking along the beach when … Oh, such an artless declarative, but sufficiently discreet as to avoid false hopes! Plus I don’t actually remember the details: was it Clara who walked up to me, or the other way round? Plus what does it matter. The first thing was me following her footprints: sunk fairly deep, clean edges. A regular sequence of regular footprints. What I needed now—the only thing I needed—was to set eyes on the feet that had left these marks. They came from the sea, or ended in it. It’s clear to me now, looking back, that the true beginning of our stone-quest lay with those footprints in the sand. Within days of finding one another we were doing the usual: killing time, her talking about her, me talking about me, general pointless nattering, sex, walks along the esplanade, visits to the uninhabited local cinema. The authorities had dispatched the Ź-Bug, but there were still Department of Hygiene warnings in force; you were expected to wear masks in public places, and physical contact was a big nono. In any case Clara never liked to be touched in public, though she did like Westerns. In her view, all the stories ever told, past, present, and future, could be boiled down to the conflict between the land and human will. A single pasture, or a thousand head of livestock: all you needed for narrative conflict, right there. White sombrero versus black sombrero. Even the Bible, she said, was just a question of warring sombreros. Her views were far from ideological, they were based in her own authentic interest, if I can put it like that. She had a way of asking questions, and answering them, that enabled the conversation to flow, that gave it a rhythm, dragging out her vowels and dropping so many consonants that any link between them was all but decimated, leaving each of the syllables effectively autonomous, vying for a foothold as actual parts of speech. She’d say sombrero and the eeeee would get jammed before it even really emerged, rattling around somewhere in her digestive tract: a trapped vowel, struggling to make it out from the mire of warmish body fluids or sticky cells, snagged perhaps on a secret flap inside some tubular organ or other, there it would stay, right theeeeere, theeeeero, sombreeeeero, milled or milling around or ground down or just stuck inside the inner workings of her stomach, or the workings of the formation of her words, before finally, eventually surfacing, crossing the threshold of her palate. Only then did the subsequent syllable get to embark on its journey toward articulation. She and I saw each other under strict conditions but with a certain amount of frequency. And then one day she found the stone. I took them both back to my place, stone and girl, gripped by sudden fears. And for a while thereafter there was no time for Vakapý, or time down at the docks. It was these two and nothing else: my life became an exercise in deciphering what it was that joined them. And then one day the images began. Perfection. I didn’t need money because money represented an obstacle in my new task, my new life’s work. More than just an inconvenience, money became something utterly not worth going after, given that the more a person makes, the greater one’s gains, the more acute the possibility of losing it all becomes, an acuteness that quickly transforms into worry. So I gave up all my winnings as lost, and the only thing I now spent any effort on was establishing whether Clara, in the stillness of her trances, intensely subsumed in the stone visions, was still breathing. On rare occasions when the room became so crammed with the images that it felt like the roof would squash us from above, I slipped out and diluted my brain for a little while with the distraction of some Vakapý. Sometimes I don’t even need to see the ball in flight. The sound is enough. Enough just to plug in, hear the welcome jingle, the faintest whiff of a game. You lose yourself in any case. Whatever happens, the Sýstem wins. It’s the Sýstem, you see.





19.


Though the city stagnates, and any possible works are safely buried under endless red tape, it’s still a place you never fully get a handle on. There is perpetual haze, which the light does little to dissipate: the polluted air and seawater meld to become one single salty airborne solution. That’s often how it is at sunrise, and how it stays until sunset—it’s often pretty impossible to distinguish the coming or going of that astral body. The wind and the constant metallic clatter of the extractors, day and night, are further disorienting factors, filling heads and chests with the sickly stink of deep-fat fryers and cream cakes. I make my way south down Avenida Almirante Ruíz-Cuevas. It’s the longest way home: it takes you down past the docks, you hop onto 14 de Octubre, and that goes all the way to the north side. The docks tend to be deserted at this hour. A group of boys is standing at the railings—on which people have attached a thousand of the little “love locks”—throwing turtle shells out into the bay. They’re drinking and joking, and the intermingled sound of clinking glass and strident, cawing laughter carries on the onshore wind. I guess the love platitudes are the butt of their jokes, messages on padlocks worn and rusted by the salty air, promises made by lovers standing before these marshes in former times. Though it could just as well be nerves, that they’ve heard of another dead peer and it’s dawned on them they probably won’t be far behind. Out beyond the rocky headland you can just make out the half-submerged ruins of the shipyard. Looming, soot-encrusted former warehouses and slips, and dykes whose flooded sluices now host massive flotillas of seaweed and Atlanti-Kola bottles that in turn host flocks of migrating birds. Beyond that, a whole lot of nothing. Solitary wooden planks float about where once, at the beginning of the last century, wood was worked with unparalleled mastery, until an explosion took place—a huge series of explosions—at the tripping of a naval minefield at a nearby base. All the old sea dogs claim it was for the best: business was on the slide, they say, following the influx of contractors from the east and their bargain-basement production costs. The sector was badly in need of diversification and, luckily, along came the Ź-Bug to finish that job. Neither are there any signs of life in the old huts that the sailors built while awaiting the reconstruction of the docks, at which time they weren’t really sailors anymore, but mere tenders of storm lamps, hunkering in futile bunkers, though later on it was they who gave the Fishing Federation its heft, made it a force, versed as they were in the impossible-to-budge Atlantikan sedentaryism, the peculiar forcefulness of those who have run aground inside this slow unfolding of disease and tropics, tropics and disease. The huts, for all their lovely estuary views, appear void of lighting. Rows of identical barred windows, “For Rent” boards, and not a single sign of life, no shadows moving behind curtains or curtains twitching, no one stealing furtive looks at anything. The old Merchant Marine College overlooks this section of the docks (known locally as the Bazaar, since you used to be able to buy and sell just about anything there, especially if you were interested in doing so duty-free), its activities having long since transferred to Puerto Lombardo. Morgan’s father, an ensign with bad eyes who never actually went to sea, used to teach maritime law to second-year students at the college. When it declared bankruptcy and closed its doors, following a vigorous, devastating audit that uncovered a slew of tax-avoiding irregularities—to the tune of eleven million Cređits—Morgan’s father, rather than let it get to him or decide to walk the plank, or indeed just find a job at another maritime institution, took his redundancy as a sign: finally it was a chance for him to realize his dreams by weighing anchor and heading out across the seas. He bid farewell to his loved one, promising he’d return within the year, and adding that he planned to bring back chests full of precious stones and other goodies. He boarded a Malaysian freighter and was never seen in these waters again. He did, though, send Morgan regular postcard updates on his adventures—though they always took months to gain postal service clearance. The messages read like the captain’s log of some legendary corsair, and the last one to make it through was sent from somewhere in deepest Cambodia, where it seemed he had set up as a trader in fabrics and textiles. Every time we broke up for vacation, Morgan announced that his father was about to send him a ticket, any day now, so he could go and visit the palace he was due to inherit, though our vacations always turned out exactly the same: an endless mire of boredom, sand, and sun. Days went by, the seasons turned, and the early hints of summer would once more remind Morgan of his presumptive Eastern expedition. Then a year came when he didn’t mention it, and none of us could bring ourselves to either.





20.


We’d clear away our carpentry tools and drag ourselves back to our normal classroom, fingers bristling with splinters and sweaters covered in sawdust. Each and every particle trapped in the weave of the polyester seemed to cry out Indonesia, and something in each of us called back in unison: Jakarta. In my mind it was a deserted city made of glass, suspended in the clouds. Or a metropolis all of gold, nestled in a snow-covered valley. The palace of Ming the Merciless: Jakarta, Destroyer of Men. That was before. Now all I get in the images the stone gives me are extreme close-ups of the nun’s wrinkles, the high ceilings and the damp spots in the corners, my schoolmates stuck clammily to their high-varnish desk seats. I think of those who felt the call and abandoned this city, of Fatty Muñoz, his shoulders like our pambazo bread—reddish and puffy—from so many beatings, of el Chino Okawa and his army of pet bedbugs, of Morgan and his grimaces, of Zermeño, Sparky, Birdface Helguera, whereabouts unknown: we assumed he had either been made prisoner to an olive-colored uniform and buzz cut, or was banging his head against the padded walls of a different kind of institution, eyes like that of a sated young calf. I think of all who quit the city when the quarantine came down. Of those scattered along the shore, stomachs distended and crawling with maggots, tongues sticking out at bizarre angles. But more than anything I think of those who remain, those who stayed on: forget about streets being named after them; the only thing they’ve gotten is older. Apart from the dockside esplanade, this city is split up into a million minor byways, each lasting no more than a couple of blocks before the roots of some palm tree tear up the sidewalk anyway, so really we could call them by whatever fucking name we want … It’s just organization. Say we start low, one of our many flyblown squares, or some avenue no one really goes down. Even better: a central reservation. The problem being that even these are taken, former health secretaries and safe-seat members of parliament whose contribution in combatting the Ź-Bug took the form of writing out checks from their sterilized fortieth-story sanctums, complete with balconies, a long, long way up, is what I’m trying to say, and meanwhile where were we? In the shitty bowels. No, to get a street named after you around here you either need to have a half-decent Vakapý career behind you, or to have pushed pens in some office with great distinction. Of the exterminators, surprise, surprise: no sign. Not even an anonymous statue to commemorate all that went on, not one.





21.


Farther along the coast, beyond the ravines, the sky glows with a dirty light, like halogen lamps about to give up the ghost. There’re the sailing clubs, then you come to Cabo Frío, then the beaches. That was where I first saw Clara, seemingly recently emerged from the Atlantik, wending her way between palm trees. Where Calle Ruiz-Cuevas meets Avenida Doctor Narváez, it breaks off in ten different directions. One of those thoroughfares, Calle 14 de Octubre, splits off into Matuk-Bayram, and that, as you approach the old mill, becomes Talabarteros, which in turn leads to the Old Town, former ceremonial center of the city and the place where conspirators hid away to do their conspiring, also once the location of the gallows and the place where the heads of criminals and infidels were mounted on stakes—entertainment for the non-criminals and non-infidels—as well as the Źocalo, the huge square bounded on each side by pointed archways evocative of colonial times, a spirit otherwise scoured away by centuries of storms and pillaging. Nowadays the Źocalo is occupied by the tents of hundreds if not thousands of protestors and lined with government offices, gaming centers, drinking joints and oyster bars alike, phone booths, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Chrysaliđs, with its metal pilings that, according to the Institute of Capture, Processing, and Information Access, sink a little over twelve centimeters into the littoral alluvium each year, and, out in the middle of the square, the city’s flag, the raising and lowering of which take place according to a strict schedule carried out by a group of consecrated conscripts, with all the power their military garb suggests—a group whose labors never reach an end, who raise and lower and neatly fold that flag seemingly nonstop, and who march about the square to the turning of the shadow of the flagpole. I think sometimes of the people who should be here—it’s like they never were, like the sole historical inhabitants are those you see now, the protestors, the street vendors and their children, the endless line of the unemployed whose proficiencies are written in marker on pieces of cardboard, the displaced persons with their tents and signs. Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart anyway now; perhaps in this roiling mass of bodies they’d just blend in. They came down from Cordillera Hill because there was no place for them anywhere else. Some decided to stay on after the Ź-Bug passed and by now can’t even remember what they’re doing here. Naturally the Atlantika state of being, the inelegant civility that marks us out, starts to become their way of being also. It would take more than half an hour to walk the full circumference of the Źocalo, so I decide to pick my way directly through the tents instead. From among the canvas sheets hands reach up, trying to rob anything they can, a phone, a scrap of clothing. I quicken my step, though the terrain stays much the same. Perhaps it’s the energy of this old center, its old and new and frenetic vibrations, that explains the fragmentariness of the adjacent streets, the way they endlessly fork and overlap and sometimes come to an abrupt dead-end only to pick up again a few blocks farther on, and in particular the constant and illogical name changes of what are essentially different portions of the same street. An occupational hazard for those of us in the Ź-Brigađe, this unplanned city plan, the aleatory arterial interlocking of the city. We ended up learning to navigate by the sound of the wind and of the extractors, to always have a sense of where we were in relation to the coast and to simply retrace our steps according to that.





22.


Clara, she trembles. I can hardly take my eyes off her. When the fan bursts into life, she falls still, and vice versa, so that by the time a session ends there is a lag between them of nearly half a minute. Then the images suddenly stop—or, in fact, I think they stay precisely where they are, available to her if she wants to call on them, but the moment the link is broken between her and the pink light I cease to see them. After these months of watching, I can now predict exactly when it’s about to happen. The static makes the hairs on her forearms stand up while simultaneously she begins to tremble, at moments so vigorously that her ponytail comes out and eventually the hair on her head hangs loose at her shoulders while a puddle of sweat begins to form around her feet on the lino. The undulating light from the stone ceases; the images freeze. Clara, between me and the stone, gets up and looks admiringly at the bones. And at the vase, and the coins. The dog. She lets me do her hair again. It’s lost its former luster and is beginning to fall out in clumps. This is a job I relish: I begin rationalizing the mussed and tangled locks (though naturally the occasional strand does come away). I proceed as follows: first of all I split the whole head of hair in two with a clean line down the center. Take one thin section and cross it onto the other side, then bring a section from the other side back across, bring the first section over that, repeat. Don’t pull too hard, but also leave out as few strands as possible. Repeat until you come to the faded tips, and finish it off with the tortoiseshell brooch. A handful of loose hair will end up scattered by your feet. All of it, today’s hair and yesterday’s and the hair from the day before, will eventually join together with the grime we bring in on our shoes, grains of sand, and the sleep we rub from our eyes, and make one of those little forgotten clumps of fuzz that go tumbling across the Ĺĺano, the great inland plain. The stone is bigger now. About the size of a six-year-old child. Clara does not know whether it fell from the sky or washed up from the Atlantik. Her idea is that it could have been an instrument, or one facet of a larger instrument, belonging to the true native inhabitants of this place, true children of the gođs, or maybe even belonging to the Albýnos. And because its function wasn’t immediately obvious, she at first interpreted it as part of some fractured symbol: one fragment of a larger, no longer fully available code. I thought she had to be crazy, for all that she was able to demonstrate, through various tests, that it drowned out all sound and the wind itself. That discovery did shake me, above all because though you can live with the noise of this city—or rather, though you have to live with it, by it, have eventually to become it—and though nobody around here actually very much wants to be alive anymore, for once that ambient din came to a halt, and for the first time in as long as either of us could remember we were able to clear our heads. This room has been a space of silence ever since. The stone fulfills two functions, as proof of the overall deterioration, the damage and decline, but also as holder for all our energies—not so much our hopes; we long since gave those up. This was why, or how, Clara tuned in to the stone—about two months ago now. Then we knew it wasn’t just for protection; it was also a message: it had chosen us—or whoever sent it had, whether native inhabitants or Albýnos—and not the other way around.





23.


Then the nun would say: Guyana. And someone would always fall for it and think she meant French Guiana. And the rest of us, idiots that we were, would respond with a sharp intake of breath. Oh, those wrinkles. She’d talk and we’d have no option but to listen, trying to make sense of the sounds that filtered out through the cracks in her face. The soul, she said, is composed of a material that will never degrade: it is housed inside the body but in no way does it belong to the body. Nor does the soul expire in concert with the body, except in the case of suicide. With suicide, the soul stays trapped within this slab of flesh, this greasy wad of meat—and what, children, what is meat without any soul? I’ll tell you: hamburgers. Nothing but hamburgers. And thereafter the meat rots and the soul leaves it behind, but slowly, oh so slowly, falling dim over the eons, like all the many unmoving things.





24.


Groups of the Magnetiźed stream past with heads lowered, minds on their supplications, what it is they will ask for today. They are on their way to the old Anguĵa court. I don’t know in detail what rites they observe or the articles of their faith. To me they all seem alike; I feel like they all hail from the same faraway location, some place human in scale and utterly governed by superstition. Their Ministerź cast mistrustful looks at my bare wrists, this being their attitude to any who fail to display their symbols. To them all Vakapýists are offensive in the eyes of god (their god). All who lay bets, all who drink, all who absent themselves from the consecrated fields in and around the Anguĵa without permission: any who have refused the blessings of magnetiźation. Which makes it strange, to say the least, that they should have chosen the hull of the old Anguĵa as their gathering place. One article of their faith I do know about, though it’s said that rather than converts they seek allies, is that Albýnos are not allowed to join. A cult with neither novices nor a catechism for them to learn. A hint of this new faith’s mercantile roots can be discerned in its practices, which posit the congregation as the clientele. They function more like affiliates than as members of a religion: stakeholders in their own benightedness. While the adults congregate before the homily loudspeakers formerly used by the Mirasol Corporation to promote its wares, the young cluster together like leeches at the approach of any outsider. Their faces are snot encrusted, their ill-shaped clothes hang off their shriveled bodies. They try to foist bracelets on me of all colors and sizes, they want me to buy their prayer books, their little knapped magnetic stones, knives, daggers, necklaces, ring pulls. The Anguĵa rears up behind them, victim of its former glories. I have never seen it except for in its current state, the walls inches thick in bird shit, top to bottom. By the time I was old enough to start going along to matches, the Department of Chaos and Gaming had set in motion the new Vakapý plan and the very first gaming stations were sending gamblers into ecstasies. The place fell into disuse until the Magnetiźed decided to start congregating there. As boys we used to see the results in Helguera’s newspapers, and the images of the plaýers, striding about the courts or with wreaths and massive champagne bottles after a win, gave us the idea of the Anguĵa as the embassy of some other world, irrefutable proof that a different reality was possible, far removed from the one we inhabited with its constant school fundraisers and constant empty stomachs. In those days we still believed we deserved to be lucky, and that one day we surely would be. The Anguĵa, while completely out of reach, nonetheless seemed to offer a kind of exemption from normal Atlantika life; we’d never get there ourselves, but it was still of this earth, still somehow at hand. Whereas Grandma used to go regularly during the Anguĵa’s golden era. When her first husband died she developed a liking for the game and became a devoted follower, hardly ever missing a Sunday match; the dead man had seen it as a vice, not befitting churchgoing Chrysaliđs, partly in fact because he hailed originally from the Sierra, where Vakapý inspires nothing like the mania it does here. Look now, Grandma, it’s your pupa here: see what’s become of the paragon of our Atlantikan ways, this crumbling and forgotten edifice, lit by the putrid glow of a city that itself endures only thanks to the wholesale submission of its inhabitants to the founding principles: seclusion, indifference, and a stubborn get-powerful-quick mentality.





25.


It happened two months ago. I came back after two nights straight at the gaming station. It’s like that when you’re on a roll, and even—sometimes especially—when you aren’t. In closed matches there can be over a thousand bets laid, and that’s before you take into account those from other divisions. The key is to pick matches with the maximum amount of data to study, and then, of course, it’s down to your ability to judge and interpret the possible fallout of each play. Not everyone’s got it. The smallest movement, down to the flick of a plaýer’s wrist, can generate a further series of digits that affect the bets, and can in turn themselves be betted on. The modern game no longer has human bookmakers; computers have stepped in to calculate the odds—a computer, in fact, originally developed by the War Institute to analyze ballistics trajectories but that has wound up as the sole administrator of the impulses and bad luck of your average Atlantikan betting addict. You need very little in order to gather and send out the data that will then be aggregated and classified via the hundreds of thousands of cables and wires running from the official franchises, all the tens of thousands of stationery stores, taverns, and kiosks. So it must be, according to Vakapý competition laws: any establishment with a properly calibrated gaming station and a banking terminal has the right to register bettors and become an official partner in the Department of Chaos and Gaming syndicate. Vakapý is an easy game to learn, hence the appeal, hence the huge number of addicts. At certain intervals two numbers are assigned: 10 for the favorites, who then play in blue, and 9 for the challengers, who get put in red. In the rare cases when each side comes into a match on an identical winning or losing run, and on equal points in the league, the kits are assigned according to whichever team’s name comes first in the alphabet. The odds are announced a few minutes before the start whistle and constantly update on the basis of bets placed and the ever-changing in-game stats: shots, service, sacks, activity zones, ground pickups, number of errors per game, shots from plaýers’ stronger or weaker hands, average velocities, carambolas, use of the walls: minute by minute, every variant reduced to chains of numbers whose sole function is to prolong the deep pleasure people take in throwing away their money, whether they be first-timers struggling to keep up with the plays or inveterate high rollers laying everything on the line, one last time, again. There are nearly 750 different kinds of plays you can bet on but no limit to the number of calls you can make at any given point, which makes it a rare thing indeed for any person to sit down to a game—even someone who “doesn’t really care for it,” or the supposed “take it or leave it” types—and not stay put for days or even weeks, and furthermore usually have not a single Cređit to their name by the end. I came back to the room late in the day after a particularly punishing stint and found Clara taking a rest on the mattress, under a thin sheet through which her prone, sweating form could be seen. At that time Clara could still find rest after her sessions with the stone. Her bones still had some flesh on them, and she sheened with the recent discovery of the stone’s capacity to keep out noise, a scintillance that ran over her shoulders and down to the tips of her fingers, less restive and claw-like than they later became. She spent long hours trying to decipher her incipient enthrallment to the stone, to understand its properties and the way it behaved, and would later subside onto the mattress with a low groan. The springs of the mattress would barely register her arrival. The evening in question unfortunately found me in a good mood. Señora Albýno#2460 had treated me well—no sexual favors, there hadn’t even been any touching of hair, but she’d looked after me all the same, lifting the heavy cloud that had installed itself after a succession of woeful bets. When I came in Clara got up and returned to her task. I apologized for having been gone so long but she barely seemed to hear. My mind had been full of Señora Albýno#2460—how sad her pink eyes made me, how bleak her absence of melanin always seemed to me—but in an instant the stone honed in on me and emptied my mind of all thoughts. I quietly crossed the room and crouched down beside Clara. Within a couple of seconds I couldn’t move. And a short while later—I couldn’t say how long precisely—I began to see them: they were tiny and made their way across an area whose edges were faint and stippled, like the tracings on a map. No taller than my pinkie finger, just like el Chino Okawa’s pet bedbugs. A building appeared, half transparent as well. I rubbed my eyes, could I be dreaming: the plan of a building, some place containing a massive trash heap, possibly, or a Vakapý court or a factory, or all three at once, superimposed; the framework, pillars, and concrete pilings with netting around them, the skeleton of the original building indistinguishable from the one, or ones, that would eventually replace it. The contours overlapped without blocking each other out, and above them stood another phantasmagorical edifice, directly atop the blackened, red-brick walls (red as the driven snow). And to one side, infinitesimal, the boys—walking around, all puppy fat and prepubescence. While the vision lasted I was able to zoom in and out on any detail I chose by dint of some oiled cogs presented to me on a kind of crane spar. But I still found it impossible to date the footage and its conjectural perspectives. The summer before the novice? A couple before, or even the one after? Our faces were intermittently visible, and as the vision grew darker in color and the contrast increased I was gradually able to tell the boys apart—at first they were little more than blurry, shifting shadows, all much alike, little more than hasty lines strewn across overexposed graph paper, a cluster of whites, or even some kind of white boat docked in between the zinc tiles, the contours of the building, or its foundations. But it was them. So small, so fragile. I watched for a long time as they wandered around looking lost. Then, in single file, they turned and went inside the factory. Clara studied me, or she looked through my flesh, supervising or inspecting the levels, brightness and contrast. And everything bathed in pinkest light.





26.


Today the Anguĵa counts as one more ghostly presence in our architecture of abeyance. Its sturdy, rectilinear facade is divided up by columns, at the center of which is a loose semicircle of transparent vitroblocks bearing the building’s name, written in fluoride—still discernible in spite of the layers of graffiti, the ingrained soot and mud, and the great forest of bindweed that has grown up after so many decades of neglect. The west stand, once decorated with enormous protruding concrete disks, steel, and double-paned glass, has been demolished. There was a time when the circular structure functioned as a rotating cocktail bar, split into three parts, each of which turned in opposite directions; nowadays all that remains of the machine at the center of the gaping hole is its exposed terminal and a rotor blade from a family car, corroded and completely stripped of functional parts, semiconcealed behind a trio of wire fences erected by the police in a long-ago effort to stop people from coming in. Some of the greatest, most brutal Vakapý matches ever took place in the Anguĵa, but now its crumbling walls give sanctuary to the Magnetiźed. I don’t know when they first arrived, but it would have been a similar story to all the other places they have colonized over time. The government does nothing, adjudging them a minor threat at most: they’re on the electoral roll, they don’t cause trouble, they keep themselves to themselves. It has been the same in all the many cinemas and theaters, which, having stood empty, become the homes for multifarious factions unresistant to occasionally being gathered up by government forces and bused to polling booths. Faith, after all, is a natural filler for multiuse venues. The only one with a greater capacity than the Anguĵa is the old mill. The geometric designs, with the xolo-monsters and Anubis-like dogs eating their own tails, seem directly inspired by Mayan and Egyptian iconography, though now these have been torn down and replaced by welded brass effigies depicting the miracles of magnetiźation. Only one or two people still alive in the neighborhood around the Anguĵa can recall its heyday. It’s one of dozens of ruins whose hulking forms, half-destroyed or half-built, stud the shoreline, and a place where people apparently used to flock on a daily basis, from the great and the good to those who aspired to greatness or goodness, and everyone in between: in the VIP boxes, they called out their bets with the same vulgar ferocity as everyone else in the stadium, the only difference, except for their smart outfits and the hideous plastic surgery of the wives and girlfriends, being that they were intent on losing not only their own money but also that of the people they were supposed to represent in the corridors of power—the clerks, delegates and subdelegates, boxers with cosmetic reconstructions, impresarios, builders, stars of screen and big top spread out below them, and those below them also, the anonymous tourist class, a dark sea of heads, hunters of favorable odds all—taxpayers all—writhing like fish in the whorls of steam rising from the sweating, polyester-clad bodies. Such were the scenes in the Anguĵa. And because cement, whatever pretty designs one may wish to embellish it with, will never lose its binding, synthetic properties—will never stop being cement—the Anguĵa has been able to serve as both sports field and temple, and could just as well be a prison or an anonymous, multipurpose events space. It has never been fully demolished for the same reason no one is ever going to properly restore it. In this city nothing ever materializes in full, just as nothing ever truly goes away. What would be the point of rebuilding something destined only to remain half-finished, whose completion dates are bound to enter the twilight of endless deferment? No one was ever willing to take on the lease, thus the cement structure fit itself to the combined flows of time passing and generalized indifference. So it goes, and to oppose it would require a kind of responsibility-taking simply not part of our makeup. It sounds harsh, but isn’t really: the moment cement dries, we in turn fit ourselves to whatever shapes it’s been made into. Hence why in Atlantika we always choose to live among ruins rather than face the immeasurable trepidation of open spaces.





27.


The heat makes us see things. Things that aren’t there, and never were. Like: the pinkie finger of a small boy whose body I found in a pile of trash, when we were out gathering the infected corpses one day. A fraction. The tiniest portion. A pinkie finger, among all that death—emphatic, categorical, large-scale death. What gives it such weight?





28.


This city has two great enemies: its inhabitants and the viruses they transport. Though the constant wind drives people out of their minds, and also carries viruses around, in no way can it be said to represent an evil in itself, for all its unpredictably and indeed the unpredictable effect it has on different people’s temperaments. It springs up in some faraway location and brings sudden atmospheric changes, a panoply of electric charges, abrasions, and erosions. People say that the viruses would have no reason to exist if it weren’t for humans, that they originate in our bodies and survive thanks to processes of intradermal decomposition, or through other cellular mechanisms they latch onto and finally begin to drive. Or if it weren’t for the brain: that they arise in the brain of the person who fails to understand the parasitical paradise that is the body. The slightest chink and it begins—a sneeze, an itch, a damp patch; anything can be like a red carpet for devastating infecting agents like the Ź. And this city has always been a gateway to the continent for such bugs. The Albýnos were the worst offenders. The chroniclers from the times they first hove into view—as slaves on the invaders’ boats—speak of a virus that decimated the populace; the natives, whose dark bodies would be painted shades of copper and violet, were alarmed at these vivid white arrivals and made it clear they were not in need of new neighbors, thank you very much. The virus, AKA the Á-Bug, AKA the invaders’ greatest weapon; their smartest move was to simply wait for it to spread behind the enemy stockades. Really the damage was done the moment their pigmentless captives set foot on our beaches: vitamin-deficient and glowering, carrying their own shackles and reeking of rat piss, awash with cankers and ulcers. Even the little subcutaneous nicks, even these were enough once they had made their pact with the tropical heat and its consommé of diphtherias, brackish water, and humidity—oh, treacherous humidity. These little microarmies, too, jumped down from the ships and waded through the warm shallows, abandoning the snowy expanses of their hosts and seeking refuge in the virgin expanses of us. Then all the invaders had to do was wait. We could look at how closely packed together the native dwellings were, though the custom of maintaining a strict bathing regimen, whether in good health or otherwise, was certainly also bad news: much as the mestizos nowadays love to trumpet the virtues of regular ablutions, these supposedly hygienic practices were in fact the perfect opportunity for the Bug to spread. We read about it in The Short Account of the Catastrophe at San Jacinto Itzcuintlán by Don Bernardo Giménez de Ademuz, one of Fish Hook’s absolute favorites and the man whose face adorns our fifty CRĐ bill: “Very many lost their lives and those who did avoid the full mortal Fury of the Illnesse were left as cripples and placed inside colonies alone, removed from human Contact for Tens of Years.” It was the Á-Bug that laid the natives low, but the conquistadors went home as heroes all the same. Those who stayed on, the idiots who fell for some local beauty, or for the climate, or, worse, were transfixed by an old-world idea of prosperity, may have eventually become wealthy in these latitudes but mostly ended up losing it all anyway. So it went, a story or history (as you prefer) that began in the same way any entity covered in pustules is a beginning, and in a place where dead and rotting bodies soon stretched as far as the eye could see. Like this story. Like all stories. Johnny or Juan “Progress” knows what I mean: Ź-brigađiers gathering bodies among the rocks. Men with plumed helmets having their wicked way with them. An all-too-heady mixture of fear, shamanism, and a lively trade in trinkets and precious metals.





29.


Clara takes me by the hand. I feel like we’ve been here before, many times. Like I talk about it, and then it happens again: like it happens while simultaneously I am talking about it. Her hands are bundles of stripped wire, the protruding veins a clear representation of what little energy remains in the battered resistor of her. It’s today, then. Look, she says, her voice wavering: Pay attention. The vase is made of china, not thousands of years old but rather mass manufactured at some point, and later exchanged for a rice bowl; the dog is a dog with short legs, small, low to the ground, so insignificant as to barely be worth thinking about. And that, I think, makes it more dangerous: a beggar for affection. Its belly almost drags on the ground, like the very lowest of creatures. The coins on the table and those inside the pocket could be omitted but something makes them shine, like brilliant points of light on the wooden tabletop. Then Clara’s gums, red on black; her small white teeth; and after that her trembling hands. And I look. I look carefully. They seem welded together, the lines: no more stippling now, now we’re seeing a far clearer picture. A burst of blinding light comes from the stone, directly onto Clara’s forehead. It seems to make her skin duller than before, to add depth to the lines of her crow’s feet and furrowed brow, all the blemishes and marks that fossilize old looks and expressions. Vulture light. The disappearance of the world, according to the stone, or according to our interpretation of its message, will be unremarkable in every way, a mere matter of processes—slow, rather orderly processes, one part of which is us agonizingly waiting our turn. I see myself leave the house, but the house as part of a spatial realm only, not temporal: so clear, so seemingly concrete. It is no easy thing to see yourself and in the same instant to be asking: Is it really me walking along like that, all knock-kneed, like I’ve spent too long riding horses? It seems so genuinely ridiculous that I don’t even feel I can take issue with the way I’ve been rendered, the thin head of hair on the projected me as he goes down the street—as I go down the street—in the direction of the docks, on my way to see if it’s possible to find the final hiding place of my former comrades.





30.


From Morgan’s notebook:


“On Lachtman’s observations:

In the British Kaffraria the dead were left in the open air to be devoured by wolves, birds of prey, and insects. (Barrow, London, 1797)

In Hyrcania, street dogs would pick the flesh from the bones of the dead.

The Bactrians thought it acceptable to feed the infirm and the aged to the dogs. Hence mounds of bones rather than tombs have been uncovered in Bahl.

Zoroastrianism holds that bodies become contaminated when they die. When the body rots, that is an entry point for demons wishing to access the world of the living. To ward off such invasions they practiced excarnation: they built circular, raised structures known as Towers of Silence and placed dead bodies at the highest points, to be exposed to carrion birds. Once the birds, along with the elements, had scoured the bones, the bones would be taken out into the desert.

The Callatiae consumed the bodies of their dead parents. The Persian King Darius I asked a Greek attendant at his court for what price his people would eat their fathers’ dead bodies. He answered that there was no price for which they would commit such a vile act. Darius then summoned the Callatiae and asked how much they would need to agree to burn their forebears’ bodies on a pyre. The Callatiae cried aloud, saying such a thing would be sacrilege.”





31.


I am going to meet up with the boys. I am going to try and find them. The stone tells me I must. First thing is to establish the exact stops, one by one, avoid any possibility of going wrong: really know the stops. I’ve memorized the numbers. But I’m not going from here—not in the slightest. In the vision-images, it seems like I am, but that’s only the turbulence of Clara’s mind. For all that the stone may seem like a lens or a portal, it is only a stone—hence the impossibility of resisting its commands. Everything before this journey that I’m now undertaking on foot is, or seems to be, part of an alien existence. Or at any rate like a beginning, but somehow tacked on, incompatible with this current moment—a period of time with the obvious whiff of fabrication, more a premonition than my actual history. This is the effect the stone has, breaking everything down and realigning it. The images solidify with surprising clarity, and not on the wall anymore but in midair: together they comprise the merest breach, a miniscule aperture, the tiniest rupture in the prehistoric physiognomy of the mineral. And what will happen, I ask. But nobody answers. Clara takes a deep breath, and she and the stone join in a long, slow exhalation. Her hands tremble, or seem to tremble. The heat makes us see things that aren’t there.





32.


There are few surviving manuscripts that describe the native inhabitants and the adversities they faced. And these live in the vaults of the National Library. The west wing of the Palace of Congress bears a mural—fruit of a memorial project organized many years ago by the Department for Education and the National Office for Artistic Creations. The idea was to commemorate the painful chapters in our history, events that, according to an undersecretary in the Tourism Department, “saw us sift out, like gold prospectors, all the weakness inherent in these peoples.” Unsurprisingly the project was plagued by friction among the union members who toiled (on double pay) to complete the noble work—they did not in fact complete it. While the bureaucrats and filing clerks accused the artists both of laziness and of trying to alter the historical accounts, the artists claimed censorship. The result: half-finished murals, later reworked as collages, daubed with religious messages and graffitied cocks: “Hardly was it possible to sow grain, given the great dearth even of seeds after so many bad harvests … And the tribes that paid us tribute were found to be so stubborn and so fond of their unruly ways, so attached even to the endless hunger and hardships that afflicted them, that our karaý-guazú was obliged to delve into the grain stores for foodstuffs put aside in former years, yet when the stores were examined they were found empty, for the terrible weevil worm had got there first … Yay foreign barbarians came from the North and razed all in their path, and fire fell from the sky and men’s bodies were full of cankers … As our persecution continued and as winter came on we, too, set out on a journey to colder lands … The young men were charged with transporting the stone and did work tirelessly in this for the pursuers were swift and traveled without effects … By and by the elderly were left behind, and the sick and womenfolk also, as all of these were like a heavy weight around the necks of the stone-bearers … And our hearts pounded, like the rubber from the trees, and the dwelling places were left bare of people and in the land we came to the plants gave off rank malodorousness and the fruits were not good to eat, but there was nothing else, so eat them we did, and our distress was great, we had no fur