Haunted Passages: Hernán Ortiz
My friend and I were skipping stones near the bodies that floated on the surface. We imagined that if the ripples touched them a hundred times, the bodies would wake up. But if the stones touched them instead, they would stay asleep forever.
Most were thin stones we collected among the undergrowth that surrounded the lake. We were holding them between our thumb and index fingers and throwing them at an angle that made them bounce across the water. Others were flint rocks that we were saving for the bodies that dyed the lake red—broken bodies that, along with the energy of the ripples, needed the spark of life produced by two stones being struck against each other.
We played for hours, wondering if the bodies would stop moving with the oscillating rhythm of the lake and start moving at their own will. Meanwhile, my friend traced with his crutch a series of lines on the ground, tallying how many ripples and stones had touched the bodies.
We were so immersed in the game that we forgot to keep an eye on the dirt road that the spiders—with rifles slung over their shoulders, machetes at their waist, and flags tied around their arms—traversed to dispose of their prey. They wrapped three or four bodies in white mesh, held them at each end, and rocked them back and forth at the edge of the lake, building enough momentum to toss them in. The sudden splash disrupted the other bodies, jumbled limbs flying everywhere: arms on legs, torsos on heads … and the excess of white mesh creating a large cobweb in the lake.
The spiders left when they finished disposing of the bodies, some on black horses, others stomping away in their rubber boots.
We retreated from our hiding place and approached the lake, trying to recognize my parents. Even though they hadn’t been gone for long their faces were blurring.
I was forgetting my parents’ features. Sometimes I remembered them one way and sometimes another. In my head, they went from being unchangeable entities to infinite possibilities of the imagination. However, I still had a few vivid memories of them …
My dad sitting at the dining room table, devouring his plate in big angry gulps, his loud chewing mixing with his heavy breathing, his cheeks deflating in the crushing process. Rather than feeding, he performed: his stomach was the hat of a magician who made rabbits disappear. The show ended when he stood up from his chair, not because his body told him he was full but because the clock told him he was late.
Upon his arrival my dad would hang the rifle on the door hanger, undress from his spider uniform, and shower. Before shutting himself up with my mother in their room, she’d serve him meals on large plates that would leave him satisfied. Other nights, when he’d arrive in a bad mood, he’d slept alone. Those nights my mom would come to my room to tuck me in. Those nights my mom would tell me bedtime stories.
The stories would keep me awake all night, especially the one about a fetus that stole so much blood from his twin brother that he overfed his own organs. My mom said that it was a demon-possessed baby. That Satan possessed the bodies of these babies to pay for the sins of their parents. That these babies were born swollen and abnormal and cried for a few seconds before passing away. My mother told me with total conviction that you couldn’t bury those babies in a cemetery. That these babies, born impure, had to be thrown into the lake.
One night I asked my mom why my dad hadn’t come home.
“He’s silencing the noises,” she said, tucking me in.
My dad had not arrived. The sounds outside were getting louder and louder.
My dad had not arrived and I couldn’t sleep. Mom forbid me from looking outside: only she could put her head between the blinds. “It’s nothing,” she said in a trembling voice, walking me back to my windowless room, wanting to protect me from the invisible threat, but achieving the opposite: I imagined the sound of bullets penetrating my dad’s body and explosions blowing him up into a thousand pieces.
Thinking of my dad as a victim of these violent scenarios, I understood why he carried the rifle. In hindsight, it seems obvious, but if you consider the everyday nature of the weapon, its decorative utility at the door and then on my dad’s shoulder—like a backpack that you carry to school—you’d understand my unawareness of its true purpose.
My mom pulled a spider uniform out of a bag of her old clothes, took off her pajamas, and put the uniform on in front of me. From the top of the closet, she took out a new rifle that she slung over her shoulder and a strap of ammunition crossed her chest like fangs. She took my hand and led me to my room. “Stay here,” she told me, “and do not leave the house without us.” She tapped a blessing onto my forehead before slamming my room door shut. I listened as she opened and closed the front door behind her.
When I got hungry, I went to the kitchen and opened a can of sausages. I returned to my room as gunshots started ripping holes in the wall. I watched night come and go through those holes. I only left my confinement to go to the bathroom, walking blindly through the dark, convincing myself that the bullets would not hurt me if I wasn’t able to see them.
As I got used to the explosions, my ears tuned in to more subtle noises: a knock on the door, the squeal of the pantry opening, a can rolling onto the floor; everyday noises that gave the illusion of my parents arriving home. What I found instead was a child about my age with his mouth full. The child stood with the help of a rusty crutch. With one of his hands, he held a stone and with the other, he gestured something. When I asked him what he meant, he waved his hand, telling me to follow him. When I asked him his name, he closed his mouth with an imaginary zipper.
He turned his back on me—I was struck by the smell of damp earth—and waited for me to put my hands on his shoulders.
He took me out of the house, guiding me down a winding path in the woods. He walked with dexterity, naturally, the crutch integrated into his motor functions like another limb—metallic, rigid, immortal—beneath his arm.
We remained hidden until the spiders ceased firing. We hid behind the scorched walls of the church, between the dusty debris of a collapsed house, inside a hole dug by dynamite. We went to places where the weeds reached our waists and others where the fire swallowed the grass and vomited it out in dark ash. The animal noises got louder as the child used his crutch to pry open space between the branches. I did not ask him where he was taking me because I thought my parents had sent him. That he was their own personal magic carpet and he’d take me back to them.
A spider body was lying in the shade of a distant tree like rotten fruit. Detached limbs, dried blood, burnt grass around him. I let go of the boy’s back to check if it was my mom or dad but he knocked me down, hitting the back of my legs with his crutch. He pointed to his eyes with the long nail of his index finger, telling me to pay attention, and threw a stone towards the body, towards the mined area.
Even from a distance, the explosion knocked us to the ground, our eyes filled with dirt. When everything stopped whistling and spinning, I knew the explosion had not only destroyed the body but also the possibility of recognizing one of my parents. An explanation, a few gestures, would have been enough to stop my attempts at identifying it. However, if the boy had not acted, I would have suffered the same fate: calcined, scattered on the ground, unrecognizable.
In the jungle the spiders shot, burned, and exploded bodies. But at the lake, bodies only came to rest. The abundance of bodies floating under the dazzling reflection of the sun made me feel safe. With the church burned to the ground, I imagined the bodies had gathered here to perform a collective prayer on the lake, a silent plea that would extinguish all the noise. This was the end of our pilgrimage.
We played all afternoon, tallying up each time the ripples or stones touched the bodies. We were just about to see what would happen after the hundredth time, when the spiders came to dispose of their prey.
The new bodies not only unsettled the existing ones but created an excess of stone-trapping, ripple-obstructing white mesh. Nevertheless, my friend and I managed to make them part of our community. To avoid confusion, we named the bodies—Daniel, Gabriel, Ana—and we wrote these names above the tally marks on the ground. Squatting at the side of the lake, my friend used his crutch to grab some of the mesh. He stretched out to reach the farthest one, but in his attempt he dropped his crutch, and it sank.
My friend sank with it. He resurfaced, lifted the mesh over his head, and brought it to the shore. He did the same with a couple more pieces. As he was already in the water, he took the opportunity to organize the newly tossed bodies. After discovering that they were just loose limbs, he tried to form complete bodies, joining arms, legs, torsos, and heads. It was a complex task, so he gestured towards me, inviting me to take a dip in the lake.
Floating next to the bodies allowed me to see them up close. The proximity made the search for my parents easier and the idea of finding them helped me endure the smell of putrefaction.
Since all I remembered about my dad was his thick mustache, I grabbed the head of a man who fit that description and improvised the rest. I put together a pair of muscular arms, a slender torso and short spider legs, attached them to the man’s head, and wrapped the whole body in some mesh my friend handed me.
I found a round face with big eyes and thick eyebrows for my mom, an expression similar to the one she had when telling me bedtime stories. I joined the head to the homely body of a woman and wrapped it in another mesh.
I hugged the bodies of my parents, leaning on them to float while my friend built bodies of men and children who reminded me of my uncles and cousins.
We floated in the stillness of the lake until my friend sank, gesturing farewell. I waited for him. I thought he had gone down to the bottom of the lake to look for his crutch. I wanted to thank him for reuniting me with my parents, but neither he nor his body came back to the surface.
I stayed with my family until it was dark. On the shore, where we tallied the number of ripples and stones that had touched the bodies, I used my finger to write “Mom” and “Dad” on the earth. I continued picking up stones until dawn, skipping them near their bodies, marking ripples beneath their names, ten ripples, twenty ripples, fifty ripples, a hundred.
Hernán Ortiz’s short story collection in Spanish, Indistinguible de la Magia (Penguin Random House, 2016), won the Medellín Short Fiction Award. Other stories appear in Columbia Journal, LF Review, The Barcelona Review, Black Dandy, and The Cafe Irreal. As Co-Founder of Fractal, with Vivi Trujillo, he develops future-facing design and storytelling consultancy when he’s not writing science fiction. Website: hernanortiz.com.