The striped tunic
The roar of water flowing over dark pebbles mutes the sound of my steps. I run on the river’s shallow edge, one foot sinking while the other barely surfaces just to sink again in a circular race with no beginning or end. Now I know the fear and the fear knows me.
The serpent river turns, hissing, all while the deep green water runs under me, and I glide. Inside, my blood rivers run, pulsating, fear gushing through my arteries, veins, capillary deltas and brain barriers, flooding me,
A hollow past runs behind me, what happened vanishes, and the only thing that remains is restlessness, or the uncertain color of dusk coming down to touch the river’s edge. How hard to move forward when my past keeps on dying.
One step crushes against the pebbles, water splashes, another step seeks grounding, but the slime dressing the rocks causes me to wobble. I look for a branch to hold on to, but the brush is far, far in the shadows, away from the edge of the river. Ahead of me lies the water path, supine, taking my steps like a virgin.
I am running through you,
I am running away from you.
The air feels thick, miasmatic, a dripping curtain of particles bathing my face, my chest, embalming my urge to flee, and with every step I sink, and with every step I rise, through the thickness.
A dirt path descends from the surrounding hills, through the brush, kneeling by the river’s edge. The lunar light accentuates a boulder as the shallow water licks the pebbles at the edge.
I step into the dirt path leaving behind an uncertain trace.
Let the river carry my scent, let it swallow it.
Dry land now.
Dodging tree branches and shadows, I follow the dirt path, undulating, ascending, covering my before without offering a clear after. I climb a hill and see the streetlights of a perched village announcing life.
The path delivers me to an open plaza flanked by two sycamore trees and a dozen solitary café chairs. I turn my face away from the faces that turn my way, not in shame, but in fear that my wet appearance may ignite their fantasies,
or thoughts and opinions about where I come from, why I stand erect and wet, what my next step will be, or whether I will approach and touch them, kiss them, violate their purple spaces, consume their air.
I stand breathing a shallow air and setting my eyesight low, like a mule, or like another creature ruminating life. I know what happened, I think I know, but my body projects a dejected image, not luminous or enlightened, but the image of dilapidated life,
and the faces turn away from me.
Maybe my face, maybe the acrid smell emanating from my body, or the striped tunic that wraps me, perhaps the absence that stains me.
They turn their faces.
I close my eyes and try to ignore everything around me, but the roar of the river carving deep into the gorge betrays me. The river gargles on the trace I left behind, spitting my scent as white foam over the rocks.
An old woman, bent, carrying a load of groceries in plastic bags, passes close to me. She struggles under the weight of her bounty, limping on her right leg. A few steps later, she stops and turns to look at me.
That question. No answer for that question. Not at this moment.
I ignore her. I need not take notice of anyone.
And the river roars.
Three different paths radiate away from the spot where I stand erect as before, three different destinies,
One of them ascends to the top of the village, another turns quickly to the left and falls away behind a stone wall, and the third disappears into blue shadows,
enter them, the shadows,
Seeking cover from illumination I penetrate the blue path. Several wooden doors and a few small wooden windows interrupt the stone walls that surround the path. Locked, all of them. I follow the path deeper into the shadows.
A sliver of light cuts vertically as a door opens to my right. The opening frames the face of a severely bearded man, a long grave face.
I trespass the threshold and find myself inside a room as dark as the path outside. The unknown man stares at me with the expression of,
Dirt on the floor, empty bottles, one gas lamp nervous in a corner, the rest, I do not know. The air is damp and I smell moist earth. I sit on the floor and feel my wet tunic wrapped against my skin. Words filter through the thickness of his beard,
they stumble down and vanish in the lost corners of the room.
—What’re you saying?
The man shuffles through the room and disappears behind a curtain made of strings. I hear him thrashing around and mumbling incessantly. He then comes back into the room, his hands holding what appears to be raw meat. He breaks a piece of it and hands it to me.
—What is it?
I bite into a cold and glandular substance,
He laughs a jagged laugh, mumbles some more, and laughs again. The words sound like the chirp of a wounded bird, perhaps a language of his own. He moves around the room kicking dark objects I cannot recognize. He then brings a tin flask and holds it right in front of my face.
—Here, here, here.
His eyes stare at me, nailing me, brutally. That is all I can see of his face, the rest is covered under the thickness of his beard. He may be an old man, or a young man, but a man of a clear decrepitude. I consider stepping out of the room and returning to the path outside,
people looking for me.
I accept the flask and swallow some of its content. A rancid wine burns my throat.
—Blood of Christ!
He grabs the flask away from me and takes a mouthful. His eyes soften and he starts again his chirping mumble and laughter. Ignoring me, he sits on the dirty ground and starts to rock back and forth while taking sips from the flask. I sit in silence. I look at him and look at the door wondering what keeps me from bolting out,
out of here, there is a river.
All at once he stops mumbling and rocking. For a moment he appears to have died. Not a chirp. His presence deflates and his bearded face turns vacuous. His body becomes tense while he pulls his arms towards his chest. A loud scream, a death scream breaks the silence. His limbs then start twitching violently, shaking and vibrating. He falls to the ground scattering the detritus of that glandular substance and the flask of acrid wine all over the room. He rolls and stretches his back, I fear he will break his spine. And in a second or two, he becomes as peaceful as an angel, blood coming out of the corner of his mouth, urine pooling around his recumbent body.
Available from Spuyten Duyvil September 15 2017
Jorge Armenteros was born in 1961 in Havana, Cuba, two years after the revolution led by Fidel Castro. He pursued an MFA in creative writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduated in 2012. He has written four novels since the MFA program. The Book of I is the first novel to be shared with the public. The second novel, Air, was recently published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. Jorge resides in the South of France. And when there is a free minute in the day, he practices the violin. Coincidentally, the violin is the subject of his fourth novel.
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