The Short Story

The butterflies were beginning to form a paste. They blew across the miles of motorway in white and yellow garlands, before becoming part of the dying carpet on our windscreen. Every so often, my father would flick the wiper, and our view of the road would become clear again, frilled by single wings whipping back and forth in the air.

We were both feeling frail, though he was frailer. Until that day we had been trapped in our hotel room under thick fever dreams. Little pyramids winked and receded in the darkness behind my eyes. The butterflies were not helping. When I tried to look beyond them, all I could see was endless grey underpass and overpass, the road twisting round itself in much the same motion as the butterflies before they hit the screen. On either side was the dark green jungle, hacked back but ten foot high at its edge. Every so often, there would be a car, or several cars, and a police van. We were going too fast to tell if they were being searched or just shaken down.

I could see the white bones of my father’s knuckles pressing up through the tanned skin of his hands. They were bald from wrist to finger from his habit of rubbing his crossed thumbs over one another’s backs. We had gone away in order to give him the chance to rest – I was up to little enough at home. I knew he blamed me for insisting we eat the fried crickets, but I still thought it must have been some locally-made ice. The sickness had come upon us suddenly. I remembered being in the National museum, surrounded by clay totems with hungry smiles. I looked at the quetzal headdress given to Cortez, gleaming in the low light and wider than the wingspan of the bird itself, and felt my stomach contract into my lungs. Only then did I realise it wasn’t just disorientation.

The road was straight from now until the coast and we did not turn off for any of the names on the signs to ruined cities. We arrived in the blue dusk, led up to the hotel by soft lighted spheres placed in the sand. The bar was closing as we arrived and there was no food except stale nachos, but they made me a margarita to take to bed. My father went straight into the cabana to collapse, but I stayed outside on the balcony drinking and swatting myself. I hadn’t realised the sea was going to be so close. The lime juice was so sharp it made me wince with pleasure. Too tired to read, but wakeful from doing nothing, I watched a little light getting larger and larger, until another one appeared alongside it and they became headlights, before turning again into a single still beam.

I saw a tall man get out from the far side of the car and stand in the full glare, as it crept forward. His features were erased by the light. The window wound down just enough and a woman’s hand emerged from the darkness of the car to make hieratic gestures at him. My fascination broke when the door began to open and I realised they would turn and see me staring. They would in fact have seen my door closing quite suddenly, but in that moment I was like an ostrich or a child, and felt it enough to be out of their line of vision. I shut myself up in the white fortress of the mosquito netting and let my sleep transform the whirring of the fan into giant winged insects just beyond the curtain.

The next morning on the main verandah, my father had not been up to coping with the eggs. He’d put a forkful into his mouth, expecting the blandness of home, and had to return to bed. After his feat of yesterday, I could hardly begrudge him. The sea was bright and birds that looked a little like crows were hopping interestedly among the dunes. A man with dreadlocks in his beard was playing a little wooden harp while two tanned babies danced naked in the sand. The white-liveried hotel staff stood at the perimeter, looking out at him. I had risen late like I always did and the only other visitor was towards the corner of the deck, with his back to me. The waiters were trying not to pounce on our plates before we had finished.

“¡Pensaba que era una novia joven, pero es la hija!”

“¡Él pensaba era el hijo!”

“Que divertido”

They looked at me and tried to work out if I was genuinely annoyed. I raised an eyebrow and pushed my plate away, so as to give them an excuse to leave.

Before the doors to the kitchen had finished swinging shut, I heard them burst out laughing. The other guest turned round and, as he walked over to me, I recognised his gait from the night before. Up close, he was around my age, but had started to get lines in his forehead from squinting too much in sunlight. I expected him to sound American.

“Sorry about that. I get a version of it everywhere we stay”

“So where is your wife?”

“Girlfriend. She’s resting. Heat doesn’t agree with her.”

“Wasn’t Mexico rather a strange choice, then?”

“It was my choice and she said she’d cope with it. Where’s your father?”

“Also resting. We’ve- he’s not been well”. The boy was handsome enough that I regretted conjuring any sickbed visions of myself.

“That’s a shame. I’m going to walk off my breakfast. I notice you don’t have a book. If you don’t have anything else to do you’re welcome to come with me.”

“My book is in the cabana, but I’ll come anyway.”

The difficulty with meeting your own countrymen on holiday is they always feel compelled to needle you a bit to find out if they’d associate with you at home. I shucked off both shoes around the side of the verandah so I could enjoy the sand barefoot. The beach-guards looked at me as if I might start playing the harp as well. We walked out a long way, past several decades worth of experimental beach furniture, changing every few paces as the hotels changed. Some of these had entire squadrons of women doing yoga, often watched by the beach crusties, despite the fact there were women wearing far fewer clothes in the sea behind them.

We walked out to the point where the hotels ended and the rocks began. A giant lattice of driftwood had been washed in from the mangroves and six pelicans rested on it, staring mutely. My feet were in the surf, arches cushioned by the sand in a way they never were by shoes. I was confused and then delighted to find the water warm, thinking at first that my fever had returned. The seaweed lay in piles, almost black and thick as hair ribbons. We were exchanging travel stories. Both of us had been impressed by the Cathedral in Mexico City, covered with carved skulls, as if the paganism had crept up from the blood-rich soil of the temple below it. He had made it down to Xochimilco, to float among the waterways and observe the flowered boats full of singing families. I asked him if he had done all this alone.

“What part of London are you from?”

“Let’s not try to work out if we know each other. We probably do.”

“I haven’t even told you my name.”

“Then give me a false one, a nom de soleil.”

He spluttered and then thought for a minute. I found it odd his shirt collar and sleeves were done all the way up in this heat.

“Alexander”

“That must be your middle name, otherwise you would have said Alex.”

“You can’t trace someone by their middle name.”

“So you admit it? I’ll tell you my mine in exchange.”

We ambled back to the hotel, dodging crusties as we went. The period of my life when I would consider wearing chakra jewellery was over. I had believed enough nonsense in my early teens to last out a lifetime. My father was still lying in a fever-fug in our room. He always took a long time to incubate his illnesses and a long time to get over them. He was perfectly lucid, but not as irritable as he might be. Stretched out there in his striped pyjamas, he looked like a colonial relic and I felt sorry for him. By the time he had the chance to travel, he no longer had the constitution. He felt sorry for me, because I could not drive, and would be confined to the hotel. I told him there was someone who might be able to help with that. He went back to sleep, satisfied I would not keep prodding him and trying to anticipate his recovery.

The fish at supper was so fresh it was hard to tell whether it was twitching from the citric acid or its recent capture. “Alexander” was at his table again, but his girlfriend was probably still getting ready and I doubted she would be pleased to find me sitting in her place when she arrived. I was expecting large statement jewellery and a laser cut pastel ensemble. I looked up several times during the meal, but she did not materialise.

He must have felt my eyes on his back, as he came over bearing another margarita for me. I tried not to interpret this as a pointed reference to my behaviour the night before. I finally worked up to asking him about the girlfriend, saying I had not seen her and couldn’t be sure she was real. Instead of explaining her absence, he told me she had been his godmother, but had always lived abroad.

“She used to send us over cases of Tokaji. My parents loathed the stuff, but I got a taste for it and wrote back one year to thank her. I think I was hoping for a twenty-first birthday present, to make up for all the birthdays she’d missed. Instead Oriana came and took me out to dinner on one of her return trips. I went to visit her in the mountains, and it sort of went from there. My parents say she’s hardly aged since she knew them. My mother begged her for her doctor’s name, but she just said it was just a good diet and a contented life. I think that annoyed her more than us going off together. They’ve decided it’s educational and a Good Thing for me to see the world before I start work. It’s amazing what people can overlook when they choose to.”

“Oriana, hmm?”

“Fuck. Oh well. You’ve got a name without a face and a face without a name.”

“You are really paranoid. I promise I’m not that desperate to know your identity.”

“I know.” Half an expression passed over his face, before he settled it back into a placid mask.

“Want to go see a cenote tomorrow?”

“She really isn’t coming out of the room, is she?”

“No. I’ll meet you here at noon.”

“Alexander” was a better driver than I’d anticipated, a lot of people get reckless when they go abroad, but he stayed steady even as we got onto the dirt roads. We listened to a Sonic Youth CD he said belonged to her. We got out of his car into radiant heat; I put up the umbrella I’d brought with me as a parasol. He looked at me and laughed.

“I burn easily.”

“Sorry, next to Oriana, you look tanned.”

I decided I could not expect delicacy from someone who probably spent all his emotional energy trying to make his girlfriend feel young. He had mentioned on the first day that she would never let him see her passport, in case he read its date of birth.

They had rigged up an open carriage to a silver railway track, pulled by soft grey donkeys. I went over to pet one, mainly for the opportunity to turn my back on him. I pulled my hand back, its fur was alive with ticks. The men took our pesos and loaded us into the carriage. It was hard to tell if the boredom had made them taciturn or if it was that they mainly spoke Maya. I had read that outside the cities, some people still practised a form of the old religion, but those I asked denied any knowledge of it.

We were rushing along the track too quickly for the larger flies to settle on us, and as we went, “Alexander” took up again the thread of yesterday. He told me that on the way to our hotel, he had made a visit to Ek Balam, deep in the jungle. Oriana waited and slept coiled under a blanket in the back seat. There a giant ziggurat rose above the canopy, decorated with statues of winged figures. No one now knew if they were shamans, angels, or something else entirely. In the centre of the pyramid was a mouth ringed round with teeth, to represent the jaguar god it had been built to feed. He told me he stood at the top, looking out over the treetops and down to the bottom, wondering how long the fall would seem to one of the sacrifices thrown from the top.

“Longer, certainly, than it must look to those stood by the bottom waiting their turn,” I said.

“Do you think they realised it was vile?”

“Probably. But they also thought they were redeeming the price the gods had paid to keep the world going. If you truly believed some things were necessary for the continuation of life, you could do a lot of evil.”

“That sounds about right.”

Apparently, we had arrived at the pool. As the man led us wordlessly into the brush, I felt a moment of fear. Beyond the silver track I could see no indications of human presence in the forest. It passed not long after I saw the giant crater in the earth. Vines spilled over the lip and out of view. A flimsy rope bridge connected the rim to a steel ladder leading down onto a wooden jetty. The man had tactfully retreated. Probably another case of mistaken husband.

Inside the cenote, light became blue-green and rippled over the white walls, making it look as if the stalactites were still liquid and changing by the second. Most unexpected of all, there were bats towards the back of the cave, swooping over the water. They had made their homes in the rock.

I was used to intriguing boys by seeming older than I was, but now I would have to make myself an ingénue, for the sake of contrast:

“We’re inside a fallen star.”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Depends on what it is.”

“Be serious. It’s about Oriana. Have you noticed any pattern… to what I’ve told you about her… condition?”

“Yes… but you can hardly be saying what I think you’re saying?”

“I am.”

“You know I don’t believe you, right? No one sane could.”

“There is no evidence I would be permitted to show you that is worth seeing. Besides, it

doesn’t matter to me whether you believe me or not.”

“I don’t, but I will behave as if I do, since we’re on holiday. You seem pretty harmless for

a lunatic.”

“Thank you.”

The water was clear and we had left our clothes on the jetty. He had striations along his forearms, hips and neck, some newer and pinker than others. I pointed at a web of them, but didn’t quite make contact.

“Do you… like… that?”

“Sometimes.”

I suppose that was why I liked him: he had a better idea than most men ever will

of what it is to be owned by someone else.

The circle of sunlight above us was blinding from our vantage point. I doubted that Oriana was shrinking from the same light, back in her room. She was probably having lunch on the deck and laughing at the con she had pulled off. I envied him the intensity of seeing all these places with the belief he would never enjoy them in the day again. She must be going to tell him soon, you can’t make someone that promise and string it out indefinitely. There was something very compelling about his innocence and the knowledge I couldn’t do anything to help him. Perhaps he talked to me because he thought the same thing about me for different reasons.

I had neglected to eat anything before our excursion, not knowing what activities it might entail. During the car ride back to the hotel, I put the contortions of the gut I was feeling down to this fact. As I was washing the residue of the day off my overheated skin, I found myself pitying “Alexander” in his too-neat chinos and sunbleached hair, kitted out in someone else’s fantasy. I doubled over and gasped, then rolled my eyes at myself, thinking this must be some poorly repressed emotion. Then I started vomiting bile, clear and acrid. When it stopped for long enough, I forced on the clothes I could find on the floor and dragged myself into the bed. I would have a short siesta. I was supposed to meet him again after sunset.

*

Several times, I’m not sure how many, I managed to get out of bed to go and prepare myself. Each time sent me running back to the bathroom or the bed. I was not even capable of closing the door to the balcony. None of this was made easier by the need to attempt creeping through the room, as my father was lying looking pained in the other bed. Eventually I would simply lift my head and feel determined, while already falling back into the fever dream. Sandfeel. The pelicans scoring their own breasts with their beaks, lattice vibrating with the music as they played themselves like gory violins. I could feel the vibrations in the sands. The warm sands hardening into a shining black blade. Ojalá. Ojalá was the name of the blade. Her white hand held it as she scored the earth, drawing more dark blood from sand and soil. Enough to feed a diving god or a jaguar. The jaguar that stalked the room would feed on him instead of me, I would be spared another cycle. The light reflected from its black fur.The sands glimmered, refracted into little insects. I was being fed on by the insects, I must draw down the netting.

I sat bolt upright.

The figure silhouetted against the open door drew itself up and turned to me. It must be him, he must have wondered where I was. It was too tall to be him. Dark against the moonlight, I could not see a face. I waited for my eyes to adjust but there was only deeper blackness. I held what I thought must be its gaze and slowly pulled the bright white netting loose around me like a bride. We waited like that until the little holes of the canopy fizzled back into the static of my dream.

My father and I would be safest as effigies. I lay pretending to be one until the afternoon of the next day, when I reached out for water and touched the lamp instead and knew that it was real.

I washed the fever from my hair and tried to eat some crumbly salted crackers I found in a suitcase. My throat was still raw and tight, but I managed. A note from “Alexander” had been put under the door to the cabana stairs, expressing the hope I would be able to join him that evening. They would be leaving soon.

*

That evening, we cradled huge balloon glasses of cognac and sat in a rattan orb that had been left on the beach. He was attentive, but seemed to sense my embarrassment and did not bring up my sickness more than was necessary. In return, I did not mention my delusions. He had brought a heavy blanket from their room. The side we were sitting under was wool, and the other was dark fur, short and rather coarse. It smelt faintly of unidentified creature. If I had known anything about astronomy, I suspect the constellations would have looked foreign to me. I dismissed asking about them as excessive and chose to test him instead.

“If you are telling the truth, I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’d take me with you?”

“She would never agree to it, it takes so much out of her even to help me. Besides, I’ve

had to leave behind everyone I’ve ever known. You have your father.”

“You came here to disappear, didn’t you?”

“It would be too complicated to maintain a lie. I will be in no state to leave the house during their lifetimes. It’s a good thing I won’t know how to find you. She said she would tell them that I drowned.”

His mouth did have the cast I imagined a man might wear when he is resolved to cut off the foot that keeps him in a trap, because otherwise he will starve to death.

“You know, you might as well. Since you won’t have self-control for about a century.”

“I would – but I’d like to remember myself as exercising that self-control, I think. I’ll take a kiss as proof of that.”

Maybe my capacity for illness repulsed him. I felt my youth seething in my veins, the only one I’d ever have.

“What you mean is you’ll enjoy remembering the girl you turned down on the beach from time-to-time, when I am just a hank of hair and some greying bones, in among

five hundred other anonymous dead.”

“You sound like you’d prefer my version of you too.”

“I suppose, though I’ll still be anonymous to you”

“How does it go, I used to know this by heart when I was at school “The love where Death has set his seal/ Nor age can chill, nor rival steal,/ Nor falsehood disavow…”

“The falsehood, as you put it, is yours, but I’ll kiss you anyway, you pretentious bastard.”

I still wonder if she saw. She probably sanctioned everything, letting him have a little leash.

*

My father had recovered enough the next morning to sit with me at breakfast, poking the eggs cautiously. He was asking about my new friend and when he would get to meet this nice young man. It was then they carried the body in from off the beach.

***

Leon Craig has had short stories published in Oxford’s Notes Magazine and the Oxford ‘Failed Novelists’ Anthology. Her story ‘Mute Canticle’ was recently shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2016 and her short story ‘Unicorn Steak’ is forthcoming in Litro. She is a native Londoner and especially interested in the early Middle Ages, queer themes and 19th century contes cruels. Leon is currently working on a short story collection called ‘Spiteful Tales’. Follow her @Leon_C_C Leon is the fourth recipient of the TSS International Young Writers’ Award.


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