Carmela

Posted on February 23, 2016

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Published in Dual Coast Review, February 2016, a shortstory in the mode of Mexican leyendas populares.

 

Robert Joe Stout

Curled like a stray cat in the sand around the fire’s dead ashes Pedro Cesar twitched and grunted, simultaneously trying to emerge from the dream and sink into it, deeply, forgetfully, forever. Or was it a dream? He clutched the stiff, dirty pelt he had thrown over him as a cover and tried to rise. A shadow darkened the open doorway. Pedro Cesar cried out—the scream beat against his eyes, blinding him; through the darkness he heard a voice whisper Carmela, Carmela. The cry died in his throat. The voice was his and Carmela lay on the floor, bleeding and screaming.

He rushed to help her. She screamed him away, teeth moist and jagged like a wolf’s. The child had become twisted during labor and its foot was lodged beside its head in her uterus. It could not expand enough to emit him and she’d cut the fetus out with a knife. Again Pedro Cesar approached, his jaw slack and cheek jerking; Carmela drew herself upward, her head back, her long hair matted and plastered against her face, and howled in anguish and hatred, cursing him and all men and the instruments of torture and pleasure by which they bred—and bled—their human cows.

The hand he extended to help her, she caught in her teeth. He spun away, crying deep in his chest, plunged through the door and ran through the hot afternoon dust screaming for help.

The old women who came revived Carmela long enough to mutter rites and wave their hands over her expiring body. One toothless crone, obesely toadlike, lit a tallow candle and moistened her fingers in Carmela’s blood. From her mouth she drew a blob of spit and rolled it in the dust and kneaded it into the blood to make a little cake that she placed on the dying woman’s lips. Then she dropped it onto the spluttering candle.

The flame wavered, vanished. The toadlike woman tilted her head and screeched—one sharp, glottal call—and the flame quivered to life again. A sharp, hot wind swept across Pedro Cesar’s face. He whirled, trying to catch the spirit but it had vanished. Carmela! he murmured. She was gone. Only her body, torn and lifeless, remained.

Later a priest came to mutter, monotonously, over the hole into which they’d dumped the two corpses. Newly ordained and bitter, a Mexican of Spanish origins, he complained of aching feet and the lack of wine and insisted that he be paid in whatever the campesinos could gather: chickens, caña, adobe bricks. Through the confessional, a wicker made of corn stalks, he counseled Pedro Cesar to abstain from fornication and pray to the Virgin and reminded him that The Father in His Infinite Wisdom was infallible and Carmela, having paid on earth for her sins, would become His handmaiden in Heaven.

Unable to sleep and afraid to be alone, Pedro Cesar swilled himself into blubbering insanity and slept the night face down in his own puke on the floor of the cantina in which he’d been drinking. Just as night was receding and dawn beginning he awakened, sick, guilt-ridden and angry, and staggered outside. A coyote was howling. The sky, though cloudless, seemed ominously electric. Pedro he heard a voice whisper mi amor. Suddenly Carmela was in front of him, her hand outstretched, her head tilted and laughter in her eyes.

“Ay! mi querida!” Pedro Cesar cried out. The coyote’s howl crescendoed; Carmela’s smile lengthened into fangs; the head she flung sideways was gray and tufted; her teeth ripped at his wrist.

“Carmela! Carmela!”

         Slowly he pushed himself above the slime he’d vomited on the packed cantina floor. His shirt, sticky with sweat, clung to his ribs. Birds were singing. He stumbled to his feet. Ven! Ven! A voice—Carmela’s, beside him—whispered. Instinctively, wanting her, he followed, clutching at the wind as though it were garment she wore.

The hole they’d dug had been opened. Not by shovels—even in his stupor Pedro Cesar could see that some frail, angry thing had clawed its way out from within. Carmela! he screamed. Ahr-mail-yah! a voice, far away, answered. He slumped to his knees in the soft dirt, quivering and repeating her name. Ahr-mail-yah! Ahr-mail-yah! the wind flung gusts of moist soil across his face. Pedro Cesar sagged back, his mouth open. Dry weeds behind him began to whisper then, wind-struck, to cackle. He twisted to face whatever was there, hands thrust upward. Shadows burst across him: wolves with huge slavering fangs; he ducked, cringing and slid halfway into the open grave.

Pale, pre-dawn light framed the shape of the old toadlike crone. Her face and shoulders were wrapped in a dirty gray shawl; her eyes were like quivering beetles within her wide, warted cheeks. Cackling laughter wrestled into the folds of skin hiding her throat. She bent forward. “In life,” her thick voice accused, “you were her burden. Now in death she is yours.”

“Ay! viejita! I meant no badness. I did only what other men do!”

“Like them you walk through slime!” Ponderously, a huge, dinosaurian aggressor, she pressed her bare foot against his face and shoved him into the grave.

Earth toppled around him. He tried to push himself up but his arms failed him. A chorus of toad voices hooted and cursed. Slowly he rolled over. The grave—the pit—seemed to have flattened. The toad curses sharpened into humanlike cadences. He opened his eyes. It was fully morning and he was lying beside the road.

“Qué despierta, pendejo!” Slop water sloshed his neck and shoulders.

“Whores!” he cried out, blinking and choking as he twisted to face his tormentors. The toadlike old one was not among them. These were younger village women, friends of Carmela’s: Gina, Pedro Cesar’s sister, was with them. “Chingada!” he whispered under his breath, “qué no me molesta.”

         Twice, stumbling along behind them, he had to stop, writhing, his stomach still trying to disgorge the last of his night’s debauching. A pig snuffling in the dust beside the road crooked its head to glare at him. It had dug a portion of a butchered skull bone and noisily was cracking it between its teeth. “Beast devil, eat your own kind!” Pedro Cesar cursed as he stumbled past. The women he’d been following now were almost to the graveyard where Carmela had been buried. He held back, hunched, frowning, waiting for their cries of alarm.

“Come, pendejo,” they called coldly. Still talking, shuffling their feet, nodding, they threw twisted zinnias and bluish-gray wildflowers on the slightly sunken grave. Pedro Cesar edged closer. Through the slow, dry swirling that rocked his brain he could see that it was no different than it had been the day before. Nothing had tried to claw out of it. The only trace of the dream in the dust beside the grave was the dried, bird-pecked skin of a toad.

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