(Translated from Spanish by Hector Duarte Jr.)
A giddy, naughty joy tightens my stomach. I am returning to Bolivia after countless years away. Just when everything starts looking and feeling different enough I feel like a stranger, War-Rayo calls to meet up at the old spot. A café in front of the bail bonds office at sunset—just like old times.
He arrives and I start to sweat like a middle school girl with her crush. I don’t want to sweat because it brings on that strange sweet and sour smell. The humidity doesn’t assuage my fears. I tighten the motorcycle gloves I bought at Cachivachis, (still in the same spot), so they highlight my well-manicured nails. He needs to see me beautiful, clean, Zen-like, and happy to be back.
War-Rayo crosses the road with giant steps in his military boots. He stands there until I stand. Grabbing my shoulders with a hard squeeze, he pulls me in for what feels less like a hug and more an act of possession. I feel the testosterone swishing around his skin and bones. I scratch my nose—God damn nerves.
In a past life, War-Rayo was known as Octavio. Then he started reading up on Quantum Physics and someone told him that carrying around a skewed eight inside your temporal personality just meant a vicious cycle of repeated history. Someone told him the new name—binary and electric—tied him molecularly to his origins and imagination, and then he would then turn into his true self. For me, the new name invokes tenderness, a nostalgic longing for moments passed, an antiquated absence I can’t quite identify. Right then, I Love You, Baby pipes through a cackling speaker, warming my cerebral cortex.
War-Rayo pushes back to get a better look at me.
“You’re identical,” he says.
I smile, feeling guilty for not refuting him.
“You look identical,” I say in turn.
He takes the last swig of my drink without worry of contamination (he must heavily immunized); he stretches and looks around at the café walls, cracks what he thinks is a clever joke about the service.
We walk without rush out of the neighborhoods and out to the surrounding bypasses. The forests have changed to a pale white. Just one green spot reflects any hint of chlorophyll. From afar it’s a romantic image but the closer I get, the more visible its atrociousness: mounds that won’t die because they’re in the direct light of the stifling heat.
War-Rayo is doing well working for Programa Mar Total, Rehabilitación del Litoral, a new eco-organization. Local families should be living along the coasts and it’s his duty to be sure only locals stay there; not foreigners or secessionists. Some people would give their left arm to relocate to these areas, he says. They think it’s soft sands and fresh breezes. They don’t know those waters are contaminated. He says they can be saved. They only thing that matters to them is empire expansion. The water is ours. Well, his. I haven’t been local for a while. I am a post-
“The last 500 years have been worth it” is posted on walls, bus stops, trains; everywhere. Even some teenagers neck. They don’t do tattoos, per say, but they mark themselves the old school way: a piece of metal and Drago’s Blood or some other resin. The results are lack-luster blurred images, knotty bumps over the skin that eventually scar into histories of pain.
You came back.
I spit out the line I’ve rehearsed so many times: I returned to see my brother. I know they didn’t give him custody of my son, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in contact. I am here thanks to an extraordinary authority.
Despite sounding totally natural, there is a glimmer of suspicion over his brown eyes, the pupils of which are heavily dilated from the constant exposure to the seedy underbelly.
My son belongs to the empire. I stutter thinking about how much I want to see him. It’s a completely normal reaction, right?
They never intervened for the kid, War-Rayo explains after a silence that could fill an ocean. Las Mamitas thought it best to leave him with four arms for convenience’s sake. The deaths of the other babies can be contributed to the Occidental doctors dying to fix what they saw as a genetic problem, but was really only a superficial problem. He is doing well, is being educated. You won’t be able to see him.
I pretend to cry. I’m not looking to move him just get his guard down some.
War-Rayo strokes my hair. Deep down there might be some love left. What kind of love fights through five hundred years of such fantasy?
He says I can see my brother. He’s back on his feet after they put him in charge of the underground cultural zones, where they are attempting to make coca again after the Chinese sent that plague. How come I didn’t hear anything living in China so long?
I didn’t know anything, I stutter.
I live in a subterranean villa. One of those buildings sealed like spaceships or the tall industrial buildings in comic books. I’m trying to distract him.
I glance at my gloved hand and adjust the leather tightly around my thumb where the skin is most vulnerable. I have one week to complete the mission before the mass comes up the shoulder and takes over my neck, rots the stitching, the stench creeps out, and I’m discovered. One week.
Seriously, I insist, keeping my eyes locked on his, blocking my own memories or feuds in case War-Rayo picked up any mind reading lessons from Las Mamitas. I closed the door of perception but sometimes, like today, I still pick up aural tones and the sacred splendor of ajayu. The halo surrounding War-Rayo is violet but I can’t be sure if it’s because of incorruptible vibration. I know high-ranked guerillas are trained inside laboratories combining photosynthesis and molecular structures before encryption. Being read is a huge risk these days. I’ve figured out ways of encrypting myself. Not even the deepest love can dig out what’s wrapped down to the core like a viper.
If he does dig around my brain he’ll find the image of a pregnant woman stitching up her torn left nipple. It’s an image he knows well, one that points to his culpability, that preserves the last string of communication between our previous personalities.
He doesn’t look for it. He relaxes and picks up a fistful of a mutant flower that by some miracle still shows traces of color. A lily without pistils is a desperate creature.
Welcome, he smiles.
I cautiously smile back. Some of my still untamed facial muscles still contract at the cheeks when I’m caught in even the smallest stimulant-objective quandaries. My objective is clear. I subtly crush the small flower to avoid any contact with it from setting off the pus in my hand.
As we approach the medicinal caverns the bleak forests dissipate. We come to the edge of a cliff and start our descent. There used to be a thermal fountain there, where there were many laughs brought out by my brother’s antics, his fun antics, when he used to say that every single act was registered in the history of his holographic. The act he most liked to play out was dunking my underwater and saying my name three times. The acoustics of the water made my name and his laughter sound epic in my head. It almost blew my eardrums.
Three dogs stare at the heavens and howl at the moon.
They’re blind, War-Rayo says. But they’re more useful that way, more focused.
I look at what they howl at. A wake of vultures like black sand and terrible in its abundance hovers over us. Not us, me—my hand. They are hungry and looking for a real meal.
Let’s hurry, I tell War-Rayo. Although I’m not sure our speed, even human, will be enough to make it safe so everything goes as planned.
We jump into the hollow and the dogs come around to lick me crotch to hand, hand to crotch. War-Rayo keeps the dogs at bay with his belt. They back off then follow us sheepishly the rest of the way. We’re a herd lacking reciprocated confidence.
I don’t dare look up. It’s not necessary with their huge bulbous shadows gliding across the ground.
I will be all his, I whisper with malice, but later. Tomorrow.
Giovanna Rivero was born in Bolivia in 1972. She had published the short story collections Contraluna (2005), Sangre Dulce/SweetBlood (English-Spanish translation published by La Hoguera 2006). She has published the children’s story collections La Dueña de Nuestros Sueños (2002, 2014) and Niñas y Detectives (Bartleby 2009) and the novels Las Camaleones (2001), Tukzon, historiales colaterales (2008), and 98 Segundos sin Sombra (Caballo de Troya 2014).
She won The National Story prize awarded by Presencia Literaria in 1993, the Santa Cruz National Literary prize for her collection Las Bestias (1996), and The Franz Tamayo National story prize in 2006.
In the fall of 2004, she participated in Iowa University’s International Writing Program. She received her doctorate in Creative Writing at the University of Florida in 2014. In 2011, she was selected as one of Latin America’s 25 best kept secrets at Guadalajara’s International Festival of the Book. She is also a chronicler.