A Man Walks In and Takes Off His Hat: When the Devil Visits Bogotá

Good, soft, and white — like mine,” with pursed lips and head held high. Black! To see my lifeless body amid nine million others as we float up slowly to the surface while carving knives and rifles sink to the bottom. My grandmother is getting restless. One watching the other fly off into a whirling blur and collapse on to the ground. My eyes fall on my one saving grace — the pink-pale skin of my arms. But no one is ever willingly dragged to hell so the terrible boy snaps his mouth shut again and yells at the man in the suit, “No! This one for the snitch, this one for the traitor, this one for the liberal, this one for the copper. She suddenly sees her uncle jumping up and down trying to get her attention on a dirt road of her hometown. Then the man in the suit puts a foot on the boy’s neck, and a hand insides his mouth and he pulls out the tongue like a sword from a stone. “I wonder if there’s going to be something like a second flood, or something.”
“A reckoning.” I say. In a low gravel growl, an almost human sound, repeating her name like an incantation. This was before I knew anything. Looked at a history book, sat in a classroom, stared out from the coast and back into the former colony, and concluded that the devil lived in the details of accent, place, heritage, social class, and color. “Where is she while all this is happening?”
“Well…” Yaneth motions with her head to a corner in the room. Maybe she saw the devil too. That it was just a tongue. Since the knob won’t turn, the boy finally does. And I wonder if Yaneth knows that my grandmother would never have allowed this before her mind began to slip. Then Kelly meets my eyes. I rest my face in my hands and think how my grandmother was barely 18 when La Violencia started, already two years into a decade of savage rural massacres and mutilations; then barely 20 when she married an air force pilot at the beginning of what would become a five decade civil conflict; and barely 32 when that pilot, fighting what would become one of the major guerilla groups in that conflict, fell to earth strapped to a faulty parachute. This is not a story. For the terribly unlucky and terribly helpless in those terrible times. It doesn’t matter what they do to us because we don’t matter enough, because nothing happens when they take and do what they do, and no one comes when it happens. “The gall.” I say. “Ay, ay.” Yaneth shakes her head, “Aish. This wordless motion turns my stomach. “But Yaneth. I remember my mother pushing down crowds and kicking moving cars until she got my sister to the hospital. I think of my grandmother as a child sitting quietly at the dining room table after her father had thrown a plate across the room. He clutches his ears and despite the crimson sound pulsing behind his eyes he still tries to turn the knob. She can hear the dog behind her — the panting and the snarling and the wet gal-foop-gal-foop of its jowls and cheeks flapping against teeth and gums with each stride. “Back when,” Yaneth says, “He’d show up and put things right.” She takes a deep breath and seems suddenly exhausted as she exhales, “Put people in their place.”
“Sometimes,” Kelly speaks slowly, formally, and deferentially as if there is some old and unspoken debt between us, “You just wish he’d come back and do what he used to.”
Kelly is small, skin the color of milk molasses, about an inch shorter than me, and about six months younger. She raises an eyebrow, “Yes. “My mother’s friend’s friend, she saw him and told her how it happened.” Yaneth turns for a moment, to remind my grandmother to swallow,   Ahí, mamá, traga, traga. And even before she has opened her eyes she knows that it is not the wind she feels on her cheeks, nor her own breath she hears so loudly and so clearly. You can’t.”
“Ok, but why would you even chant at all?”
My grandmother shakes gently and reaches for Yaneth’s hand. It is as if the boy has already been tugged out of himself and is only able to watch the scene, from a little distance with the sound turned all the way down. She wraps her arms around his neck like a noose and yells at her son, “Go! “This boy, he picks up the plate, and he throws it!”
“He didn’t!” I say, “Did he?” I imagine myself as a child throwing a plate at my formidable Colombian mother, and I remember the swing, snap, and sting of her leather shoe striking my skin. Witches cannot help themselves, and when they see a pile of needles or a mound of salt, they must count every spindle and every grain. Smashes it all to bits against the wall.”
“No.”
“Yes.”
“Then what?”
“Well then comes a knock at the door.”
“Right away?”
“Right away.”
“Do they answer?”
“No.”
“No?”
“No.” Yaneth raises her eyebrows and turns her head, “Not   they … he. Darker like my maternal aunt’s skin or the burnt-sugar tan of my younger sister’s skin after a day in the sun. I stare at my grandmother as she sucks on her dentures and stares blankly, and I wonder if they know that in this one thing she isn’t one of mine, but one of theirs. And I feel grateful for Yaneth and her loyalty, wherever it may spring from, because I love my grandmother though I know her faults, and I love my country too, though I also know that they are not few, those who have been crushed between its gears. Yaneth wipes drool from my grandmother’s blank face.“I don’t know,” says Kelly. Nothing is expected to happen. So one day,” Yaneth takes a breath, “she brings out his dinner — like always — a humble meal, and she sets it down right in front of him.”
“Uh-huh.” I say, peeling the orange shell from around the white-felt inner skin. She looks at me as if I’m supposed to know what to say next, as if we weren’t the same age, lived in the same country, through the same history. Until little membranes start to give like the white roots of sprawling weeds, and nerves begin to send screaming pulses up the young man’s spine. “This boy, he used to throw these tantrums and yell and scream. “These words are powerful. Come and play, come and play.” Though, of course, if there were absolutely no chance it would work, there would also be no point in playing. It’s difficult to picture this silent woman alone in a room with Yaneth — lively, friendly, arms waving, head thrown back — carcajadas, risas y sonrisas. “And then?” I ask, “The end?”
“Yes.”
Kelly leans on the doorframe and makes a sort of tsking sound with her mouth. She lays her hands on hers and order is instantly restored — walls, meridians, gravity, and laws emerging from the darkness and lining the borders of my grandmother’s new universe. It’s not so hard. I am my grandmother’s granddaughter, I am pale and when I was given the chance to leave, I did. Well, I didn’t quite think it would work. She looks up at Yaneth and whispers sentences that I can’t quite make out at first. Like it’s nothing, and we are no one and it’s all actually true now. The one about the ghost soldier banging his ghost shoes against her airbase bedroom door. She has a little boy, a husband who sometimes finds work in construction sites, and this large extended family that waits with bated breath for her to return for carnivals and bull runs. What?” I expected centuries, many decades at least. So she shakes off whatever power has been holding her back and she throws herself at the man in the suit. He hit his own mother even!” My grandmother hangs on Yaneth’s every word, though I doubt she can understand much of it anymore. He is going to run outside, into the bushes, down the river, and out of town. She raises her hands showing me her palms and outstretched fingers, and then one by one she touches the tip of each digit with the index finger of the opposite hand. I wonder if those little girls saw the devil too. With fangs, and horns, and skin like melting wax. “He was a terrible boy. “The very one.” Yaneth says, “I saw the devil.” While she feeds my grandmother beige slop and the metal spoon makes a plastic thud when it crashes against her dentures. Can you?”
Yaneth pauses and it seems to me like this is something she has never considered before. “Wait.” I have ripped the napkin with my pen. But this is enough for a mother. The gall!” I feel a tightness in my chest. I won’t. “But, what do you mean, Kelly,” I say, using slang and the informal you to try to counter history, social class, and this sinking feeling in my stomach. Yaneth lets go of my grandmother’s forearm for a second to illustrate the motion and this upsets my grandmother greatly. “What do you mean, what do I mean?”
She’s told me how much she hates the rain of the capital, the cold nights, the cold people. She sighs like she has the whole weight of mountain ranges and civil wars bearing down on her shoulders, and I imagine arms and legs bursting out of hollow-pumpkin stomachs. “But his mother, she was good, forgiving. They leap into the air, they twirl around one another. With your sisters made of clay. “Why?” I insist, “Why would you want him back? “Of course,” I nod emphatically, “But tongues are slippery. And that’s how it is,” she looks at me, “They made it true.” Not stories, Lina, histories. “Wait,” I interrupt. I run a finger over the napkin incantation I must never share with anyone, and allow my pen to draw full circles on my skin. The boy tries to scream but it is a difficult thing to do with a man rhythmically tugging on his tongue. “Like,” Yaneth feeds my grandmother another spoonful, “Few years back, my mom’s friend’s friend, she saw him.”
“Wait. “You can’t.” With the look of a woman handing over a lit match and a full gas can. But a few seconds are enough for the young man to kick his way out from under the man in the suit and run to the door. No questions?” I grab more napkins from the dispenser. Like he is trying to start a rusted lawnmower. A frail body, even then, standing between the canon and the fodder before she even knew what I’d done. Then a dip in the field where grass has made it seem even and flat, her foot falls through it, she trips, she begins to fall. She looks over her shoulder only for a moment and only every so often because she doesn’t need to look. “And?”
“That was it.”
“That worked?”
“Yes.”
“It disappeared?”
“When I turned around, it was gone.”
I watch Yaneth help my grandmother into her wheelchair, picture dawn sweeping memories away like witches and demons. A conservative leaning country road built on the edge of a once holy city of the Muisca Confederation of tribes where, I imagine, many little girls must have also ran up and down the weed paths. She briefly loses Yaneth from sight and a thin layer of panic settles on her face. I’ve never seen it, and doubt I ever will. Fingernails then.”
The man can smell the boy’s breath as he pushes him against the wall. She jumps over the fence and runs across the road and pictures her uncle walking to the window, across the room she shares with her siblings. The devil tosses the woman across the room and she lands, unconscious, on top of shards of broken china. The one where the penis was stuck inside the mouth, the testicles inside the mouth, the head tucked like a baby in the wrapped arms of a headless torso, the belly hollowed out like a vase and severed limbs stuck inside it like wilting flowers; the one where the tongue is slipped through a slit in the neck like a very short tie. A saint. His pockets are full of pulled teeth and plucked eyes, and what a mother is willing to forgive has no bearing on the task at hand. Something mercurial and acidic that flows and fills, and then congeals between the spaces of his ear canals and the lock on the door. Right? And after her heart has settled and she has caught her breath, the gasping sound remains. This is the woman who told me that one should always sleep with open scissors beneath one’s pillow to scare off witches, See how they make the sign of the cross when you open them? I try to shake the image of water rising around her — toothless, frail, and wordless. A steady stream of saliva drips from its mouth and steam rises from its nostrils. But I burn like a fuse, like hot oil and red wax. “He used to appear more often, antes que ahora.” This, in the same tone people use when talking about global warming and violence on television.   “I’m not sure about the fingernails.” Yaneth says. You haven’t told us yet about the time you saw the devil.”
Yaneth’s complexion is a more decided mix of races than Kelly’s indigenous-European brand, and I stupidly wish that my own skin would show more of the complications of my own disparate heritage. “Wait.” I say, “Why?”
“What do you mean, ‘Why’?” Yaneth asks patting my grandmother’s hand. A tall man. And besides, how else would one get a grip?”
“Well…” She exhales, “I guess, that is true.” She looks up at the ceiling giving it one final go over before nodding. At least a little.”
“Well,” Yaneth taps her chin. “After how you were born, what a relief.” Every birthday without fail, “You were the ugliest baby I’d ever seen. 15,   Revolution
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“YOU KNOW,” Yaneth says, “I saw the devil once.” Yaneth is my grandmother’s nurse, and she says this as she wipes my grandmother’s chin with a napkin. She nearly falls into the barbwire fence but rights herself by grabbing a hold of the fence posts, then she closes her eyes and tries to catch her breath. Terrible boy. Así sí. “You know, the devil used to appear a lot more often, before.”
Yaneth nods, “Oh yeah, back when. It was a lip like an open book, pages ripped apart, a vertical line made into two horizontal ones and an endless well of red in the middle. My handwriting has devolved into feral scratches while I try to catch up, and Yaneth gently wipes my grandmother’s mouth with a clean napkin, calling her “mami” and “mamá,” looking at her with more tenderness than I’ve ever mustered for anything on this earth. Once, twice, thrice. Of course, Lina, what did you think?”
“And then?”
“He leaves.”
 
I remember standing in hallways and behind doors as a child, secretly listening to adults and news anchors as they named and counted the ways the men in the jungle, in the mountains, and the back alleys, might cut up a body. “I heard it,” she said. He walks in and wipes his forehead with a white handkerchief. But then, of course we haven’t. He feels the sound like squirming pus and swelling eggs in his inner ear, and he screams. She stumbles, and tilts. Oh!  
Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas is the author of Don’t Come Back (21st Century Essays). This would have likely struck her as odd had she not at that moment been possessed by the spirit of all the prey who ever tried to escape the snapping jaw of a predator, and failed. He tries to pull and then to push, and then he bangs his fists on the wood as if someone were waiting for him on the other side. That’s what he’d tell me every night.” She would remember her nights in an air force base in the middle of a jungle and a nascent civil war, watching her husband count invisible cows. Repeat. That he might live after all.”
“He doesn’t.”
“No. My skin shows only one side of this history, and one fraction of all the factions in my veins. He takes a deep breath and says, “Boy, please open your mouth.” And the terrible boy does as he is told. How she goes on and on, isn’t that true Doña Josefina? But the worst hasn’t happened. “If you hit this child,” she said to my mother, “I will pull down your pants and beat you right back.” It is one of my favorite memories of her. I just can’t believe it. “Yes,” Yaneth agrees. He reaches up, tries to scratch out the man’s eyes, and — for a moment — he feels the man’s grip loosen. He yanks, hard. She feels the devil’s hand as if it were inside her own mouth and around her own throat. As Yaneth brushes my grandmother’s hair behind her ear I also recall the time that, from her wheelchair, she tried to beat Yaneth with her cane. Then Yaneth parks the wheelchair next to my grandmother’s chair and sits back down. “In a suit.”
A tall man in a suit. And also, remember to leave a mound of salt by the front door and needles on the windowsill. “Of course!” Yaneth says motioning with the spoon my grandmother follows like a baited hook. He presses one hand against the boy’s forehead to keep the head in place while he digs sharp finger tips into a pink tongue and begins to pull. “Maybe, a little,” she concedes. I feel my face beneath my fingers and want to poke them through my skin like pencils into a ripe plum. In my mind, she is forever sitting on the edge of an unfathomably uncomfortable Louis XVI replica sofa, two or three feet away from where she sits now, where the living room begins. Because it is just the shifting of forces. “Well, what do you mean?”
“Wouldn’t she…” I’m not sure how to phrase it, “Intervene?”
The boy can barely scream, he gags, and gargles and chokes on his own blood. Again. The girl approaches the road. He can only hear the sound of a fly crashing against a windowpane, lentils dripping from the wall, the fabric of the man’s coat stretching around the seams. “Yaneth, Yaneth.” These words have power. From miles and miles away, it sounded like “a silver pen striking the tile floor.” The spirits let her know, she told me, and my mother and aunts can still remember crawling on hands and knees that Sunday afternoon looking for a ghost pen while their father fell from the sky. Did I?” She laughs, but it is tense laughter. Only of course he must have moved, he must have, because he was there, just right there and then here, now, with his hand around the boy’s throat and tossing him to the ground. “No, no, Lina.” Yaneth scoffs. The devil does not wear a hat!”
I scratch out the sentence and start again. Full, and deep, like bubbles of blood about to pop. “Wait, wait, wait…” I say pulling out a pen and a few napkins from the dispenser. When my blisters peel off, I go back to being pink and pale and raw. “See?” She exchanges glances with Yaneth once more. The one where, standing in a yellow shrub garden, she told her very young granddaughters that the homeless man across the street would probably drag them to hell one day. Mmm-hm,” like she’s seen the devil too. Then she opens her eyes and comes face to face with a massive black dog. The man swats the boy’s hands away, kicks his legs out from under him. Every bit I tell you, except the chant.”
I hesitate, “But…”
“Lina,” She stops me. No-no-no-no-no.” In the kitchen, I see Kelly shake her head, “Only to think about it and my little hairs stand up, look, see?” She offers me her forearm as proof. Once, twice, thrice. “What do you mean?” I ask. Yaneth stands up to get the wheelchair and my grandmother follows her with her eyes. And he is going to write his mother a letter from a far-off city where the devil does not appear so often. There are no stains on the man’s suit, no scrapes where he has been struck, no prints where he has been kicked, and no blood on his hands at all, so the boy begins to understand. “Really?” I straighten my back and lean in close. The man does not wait to be invited in, he simply walks in, and removes his hat. The man stands perfectly still and perfectly composed in the middle of the room as a fly hits the glass one last time and collapses on the windowsill. It does not snarl, it does not move. “Well, Lina, here it is then.” Yaneth takes a deep breath and I start pulling out scraps of paper from my pockets and bag, until I find an empty envelope to scribble on. Lentils and rice drip down from the wall and   onto the shattered porcelain on the floor. Devil listen, devil pray. A few seconds, no more. But somewhere in the mesh of white nylon ligaments and red yarn nerves he already knows that he will never leave this room again. And he’s handsome, and dark skinned too.”
I look at Yaneth skeptically, “Are you sure?” I’m looking at her dark, freckled complexion and wonder if she’s not just making devils in her ownimage. “Morning will find them,” she hears him say, “And light will sweep them away.” The girl opens her eyes and finally looks over her shoulder fearing the worst. “Yaneth, really?”
“Yes, and, Lina.” She is speaking quickly, making my grandmother nervously sink further back into her chair, “You can write it all. She recovers her balance and pushes hard against the ground as if it too might be allied with the devil, and then she looks over her shoulder, the dog is still hot at her heels. He is dark skinned and handsome. My grandmother’s maid, Kelly, emerges from the kitchen, beating something in a plastic bowl. The man does not take his eyes off of the boy; he seems immobile and frozen in place, like he’s always been there, like the jungle, always gnawing at the edges of the cities of men. A girl walks through the country roads of Chiriguaná with her best friend. “Are you crazy? Aish Lina!” Yaneth places her hand on her forehead and exhales, “If you had seen it. Light chases away shadows and witches, and I imagine a trail of needles and salt like breadcrumbs back to the devil’s doorstep. But Yaneth understands her perfectly. The handkerchief would make sense.”
He approaches the boy and surveys the damage. Neither of her parents’ favorite child and possibly, as a result, she grew into a hypochondriac and a storyteller. Yaneth barely acknowledges my confusion and carries on with her story. “It’s very hot. “It’s the devil.”
So, because this was the devil — and that is more than reason enough — the boy opens his mouth. He is a man who knows to leave salt on the windowsill and scissors beneath pillows, and he also knows to draw a cross in the devil’s path. Red eyes. The warnings to stay close to the road only push them further and further away. Again. I pause, “Do you mean the actual devil?”
My grandmother doesn’t tell me stories anymore, doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t speak to anyone but Yaneth. Once, twice, thrice. Like how, one day, my grandmother saved me from my mother and her leather shoe insert after I’d done something particularly egregious. “No,” Yaneth says, “I guess you can’t.” She shrugs, “But, what else?”
The girl sprints without a plan. “He’d sit me down and he’d show me his hand and say, ‘That’s how many we have now, Coca. So the girl turns around, and she runs. An apology on pink stationary with little white flowers on the corners, like the ones on his mother’s favorite china, the one he broke against the wall all those years back. It is a story she never told me, but I know it by heart: how she pulled on her own tongue and felt it tug back, as she tried desperately to correct the course of her own history. He hears whispers the instant he places his hand on the doorknob. And who are you to make me?” But the devil does not respond. “And you know what he does?” Yaneth swallows saliva and opens her mouth to remind my grandmother how it’s done. Then she sighs again and repeats that it’s just such a shame the devil doesn’t come around as often as he used to. Hears the pounding of blood in her ear and the wolf-huffing of her lungs. “Why not?”
“Mi mamá,” she crosses herself in memory of her dead mother, “She never mentioned anything about fingernails.”
“But, it’s the devil, doesn’t it seem right? Dominoes, and bread crumbs, and chain-smoker wars — one lighting the next, and the next, and the next. “It was really very scary. “Into the boy’s mouth?”
“Yes.”
“Why?”
The boy’s jaws are locked in place, pried open with invisible jacks as the man slides his hand inside. “Little devil come and play. “Histories, Lina.”
They’ve done this before. “One, two, three,” she counts, “four, five, six, seven. The Chulavitas were named after a single dirt path in Boyaca. “But are you sure?” I insist. I’m sitting across from them, at the kitchen table in my grandmother’s Bogotá apartment. “Because, I think … If it were me, I might resist. Like plumbers reach into clogged gutters, like magicians reach into hats. But then, also, the fizzing taste of rust. My grandmother’s tales were my first literature. Shouldn’t he have long fingernails?”
“Hm…” Yaneth twists her mouth, wants to give this to me, but, “this is a true story,” she says. “We’re nothing to them,” she says, “And their opinion is all that matters, so that’s what we are now.” Nada. She sees it closing the distance as if it were moving toward her and not her toward it. Purple-black! Her uncle has escaped the hell hound. The girl can smell its breath, can feel the dampness of it on her cheeks. He is going to leave the room. My grandmother used to tell me, “Your skin is my skin. “I thought … I don’t know. He grabs the half-torn tongue like a fistful of hair …
“But what about the mother?” I look up at Yaneth. Then the man reaches inside. How much she missed her hometown, her family, and how the heat rises and falls and crushes everything in between. Puddles of food on the floor, mounds of broken porcelain strewn around, and a streak of red sauce across her cheek while the heat of her father’s rage slipped out the window and the heat of a tropical city slipped right back inside. SEPTEMBER 24, 2017

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. “Yes,” Kelly nods. “At least,” Kelly says, “He used to.”
“Like when?” I tap a granadilla fruit on the table cracking its thin-skull orange shell. It is only a moment. Oh but when we are alone, you should see it, Lina! Real often.”
Both Kelly and Yaneth are from the more rural and tropical parts of Colombia, Mompox and Chiriguaná respectively, and it goes without saying that I stand at a great disadvantage in most things magical, being from the temperate-weather Andean capital. I know them by heart. Also, he’s handsome. “Over there,” and I look as if I might actually see a woman standing there. History is what I tell you.”
“He pulls,” Yaneth clarifies, “until the boy is dead.”“The boy is dead.”
“Yes. The boy opens the door.”
“Oh … I see.”
Kelly is frying sweet plantain for lunch, but manages to emerge just at the right moments to punctuate the story with a nod or a sigh, as if to say, Yeah, that sounds right. She practiced telling people she was from Bogotá, she practiced the flat-edged accent of cold, pale Bogotá. Twice as many times, at least, as the times they’ve been told not to. “History!” My grandmother used to correct me, “Not stories, Lina. But he is in a trance, he does not yell, he does not resist, he does not move, he allows the rhythmic motion of the tall man’s tugging. He used to pile needles on the windowsill and explain witches’ uncontrollable need to count every needle and every grain of salt. Knew that it would take quite a bit of practice, patience, and knife, work to get the job done, get it to look right. The girls spin faster and faster until the blood pools in the back of their heads and they see each other grow pale and flat-faced in their improvised centrifuge and finally one of them lets go. Go-go-go!”
“Yes,” Yaneth concedes, “that sounds right,” patting my grandmother on the forearm. The devil does not have to. Oh, how she tells me stories, don’t you Doña Josefina? He kicks the man in the ankle, kicks him in the shins. They do what they like, take what they want. That’s how many I’ve bought you and wait for us back in Mompox for when this is all done.’” This is what she looked like when she spoke of the colonel and how alone he left her in this world: a constant muted panic that outlasted her long years of mourning. “He was a nightmare, this terrible-terrible boy.”
“Like … how terrible?” I ask while Kelly lingers in the doorframe, beating and nodding, “Mmm-hmm. This one, and this one, and this one for the terrible man, terrible woman, terrible child. A half turn and a full stumble, the standing girl remains standing as if my divine grace. “It’s a real shame.”
I start brushing crumbs, pieces of granadilla shell and scrap pieces of torn napkin off the edge of the table and into my hand, but Kelly immediately rushes over, nudges my hand out of the way, and catches the trash in her own palm. That’s true too, right?” I wait for her to consider my point, “Even if the nails aren’t long he must have them, and squeeze hard enough, they’ll break the skin. The girls don’t actually expect it to work. My grandmother — olive green eyes, skin that blisters in the sun, veins as full of blood-thinner as the blood of a mixed heritage she would never admit to. This is not the devil of contracts and compromises, this is the devil of gavels and scales. “There was this thing I used to say, to dare him to appear.”
I’m shocked; I gasp. Right where I would sit after birthdays and Sunday dinners listening to my grandmother tell me about all the ghosts that used to haunt her, and every demon that would — she promised — someday devour me. “That’s it, what must have happened.”
I look up at her, “Then what?”
“Then what what?”
“Then … the end?”
Yaneth pauses, tilts her head back, looking at the ceiling like people glance at dictionaries and tarot decks. Then the girl’s best friend picks up a stick and taps the fence as they walk beside it, and she begin to sing a secret song to a barbwire beat. My grandmother looks up at her, helpless and confused. The boy swallows blood and suddenly, comes back into himself and he begins to squirm and struggle. I struggle to remember my grandmother laughing at all as I stare at her, slumped in a chair with a spine like a melting candle and eyes that skip shallowly over every object in view like pebbles across a black lake. He is going to disappear and he is going to buy stationary in a corner shop in Madrid, in Buenos Aires, in Bogotá. “You see all these people. Before I knew that the tongue is a circular muscle and not a long strip of wet leather sliding down a constricting throat. He’s the devil.”
Kelly pops back out holding a jar and she and Yaneth exchange glances, reminding me how out of the loop I really am. She sees her hands go up instinctively as the ground approaches, but her legs run right under her and propel her forward with the momentum. Sculpted out of the dead, and the dying, and worn down into the blisters of their own feet as they walked the length of fields and roads to work as maids and nurses in a capital still digging itself out of the rubble of riot, rage, and revolt. “What about her?” Yaneth wipes my grandmother’s chin with the metal spoon. It wasn’t the cartels’ innovation, like I first learned, but the Chulavitas during La Violencia of the ’40s and ’50s that in defense of their land and their party first reimagined the body like a set of spare parts to reassemble into grotesque threats and monstrous metaphors of an alienated nation. Only a moment. “Yaneth, Yaneth, Yaneth.” The dog says. I don’t know what it is like being from a place where the heat rises from the earth and descends from the sky, and crushes everything in between and the devil still bothers to shows up every so often. Of course not.”
“It’s the devil, Lina.”
“Yes, I know.” I write “until dead” on my napkin, and retrace the words until they are bold. The one about the day when her husband’s parachute failed to open and he fell full-force into the earth’s. “It’s okay Mamá,” Yaneth says to my grandmother, “in just a minute we’ll go.”
The girl’s uncle is scrawling frantically on the dirt while she runs toward him. “Yes,” Yaneth agrees. No rush at all as he digs his fingernails into the boy’s tongue. But, of course, there’s no use. Once, twice, thrice. “El mismísimo diablo.” My grandmother opens and closes her mouth like a bird in an abandoned nest. But not the color of stop lights and lipstick. She fidgets and whimpers like a restless child; she was a frail, asthmatic little girl. Did you already write that part down?”
The terrible boy opens the door and finds a man in a suit. Lina, that’s very important. She speaks between wheezes, thin and shrill like wind sliding through broken reeds. “Well, you can’t outrun the devil. “Mothers are very forgiving.” I remember the time my younger sister split her bottom lip against the metal corner of a full-force swinging rusty jungle gym. “Really? Forcing her mouth to drop the long coastal vowels, pick up the R’s and hold down the L’s. Just like that? And that takes a long time, and then morning comes. I imagine her in front of a mirror practicing her new accent. My grandmother’s whimpering intensifies as Yaneth attempts to imitate herself as a child, and through a slit in the door, I see Kelly making the sign of the cross again, and again, and again. And for a moment we thought you’d never get normal.”
I pull my sleeves down to my wrists. They do all these things. “Yes, alright. That’s what the boy — because really he still only just a boy — tells himself, between one moment and the next. “A reckoning, that’s what.”
Bogotá is a city of overflow canals, twice daily rain, mudslides, and aisles full of umbrellas; it’s not so hard to imagine it underwater. A cold, burning, solid sound. Or how we get one violencia mixed up with another, get tangled in the mess of severed limbs laid out at our feet. She was grateful that her own skin did not show all of her. “No.”
“No?”
“Just a suit. They hold hands and spin around like a flashing carnival ride, singing faster and faster with each turn. “They never know their place, these people,” she used to say, “always trying to ‘ingualarcele a uno.’ Sit at the table with you, as if they were anything like you, same as you. And in broad daylight too. Must have sung songs and played games while the Spaniards marched up steep Andean paths, while African slaves formed independent Palenque settlements, while a liberal leader was murdered in Bogotá, while their parents sharpened their machetes to the sound of radios reporting how liberals were — that very second — tearing out the beating heart of their beloved country. Just one. He glows white-blue-black, the flickering of cold flames, and with a “tsk” of his tongue the boy’s jaw drops, and he stands there wide-mouthed.