By Philip A Suggars
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
“Purity of blood, purity of spirit. One nation united by the river, one nation united under the sun” – Elias Rojas presidential campaign slogan, Buenos Aires 1894.
Alfonso and Marcelo were cold and tired as they shovelled the dirt onto Celia’s small body in the shallow grave. Alfonso dared himself to look down, catching a glimpse of her porcelain fingers and the yellowing heads of the freesias that they had buried with her in the garden. He wanted to cry, but all he felt was an aching numbness in his fingertips.
A sudden play of spotlights above the cloud announced the arrival of an ornithopteron. The monolithic black moth burst through the grey canopy that covered the city and flapped low over their house, bellowing a hunting call so deep it throbbed in Alfonso’s chest.
The limelights around the creature’s saucer eyes played across the nearby terraces and the liquid steel ribbons of its cirri darted downwards, tasting the air. The downdraft from the creature’s colossal wings blew dust and gravel into the eyes of the two men as they ducked into the shadows of Alfonso’s studio.
Alfonso held his breath, terrified that the creature had been attracted by the smell of the stolen lux hidden in Marcelo’s workshop, but it soon flapped away over the curfewed city, back towards its master, Elias Agustin Rojas, on his presidential throne in the Casa Rosada.
After the creature was gone, Marcelo kissed Alfonso on the cheek and pressed the younger man back onto his feet. He rolled up his shirtsleeves and pulled a bent cheroot out of his waistcoat, striking a match along the brickwork of the studio wall.
Alfonso shivered. He wanted to caress Marcelo’s slender arms, to take him to bed and whisper to him to forget about Rojas, his redshirted patrols, his informers and all of his moral proscriptions. He wanted Marcelo to look at him the way that he used to, when they would meet at La Viridita, drink Campari, play backgammon and dance tangos until dawn.
“Do you still love me?” said Alfonso.
Marcelo looked down at the dirt, his face still illuminated in the glow from the departing creature’s searchlights. A spectral smile played on his lips.
“It’s just I’m not sure I can keep doing this,” said Alfonso, “each one that we put in the ground ...”
Marcelo stepped back and tapped the ash from the tip of his cigar. He drew Alfonso to him and kissed him on the lips.
“We start again,” Marcelo whispered. He opened the back door of the house, leaving Alfonso to return to the dark of his studio.
It was always Alfonso’s job to make the faces, the hands and the eyes. He stood in his studio and worked the clay now, his fingers teasing the material, inviting it to tell him what it wanted to be. He remembered the face of each girl that he had sculpted: Agatha with Marcelo’s high cheekbones and his own thin lips; Emily, with his own large eyes and Marcelo’s flat forehead. And of course there had been Celia.
He had tried to impart something unique to each before painting the skin as dark as his own and firing it until it glistened like autumn sunshine.
He paused and pulled two bent letters from his apron pocket then took a half-empty bottle of sweet sherry from beneath the workbench and uncorked it. The sickly raisin-smell of the liquor made his stomach rumble. He laid the letters next to the bottle and took a dirty glass from an overhead shelf. He wiped the glass on his shirttails and filled it.
He had found the envelopes on the front doorstep of the house yesterday and the day before. Other than a roughly scrawled ‘M’ on the front, indicating Alfonso assumed, that they were intended for Marcelo, they were otherwise unmarked.
He picked one up and turned it over, running his clay-stained fingertips across the paper. He pressed it to his nose. A hint of something floral and decayed came from within. He wondered how many more of these Marcelo had received before he had started intercepted them.
He swallowed a glassful of the sherry, licked his lips and refilled the glass, spilling a few sticky drops onto his fingers.
Marcelo’s evasiveness about his past had been something that had excited Alfonso at first, but now it formed a barrier between them as hard as fired clay. The older man carried a weight, a sadness so monumental that it resisted all Alfonso’s attempts to lift it.
He looked up at the faint flickers of light that bled from the blacked out windows of Marcelo’s workshop. The telltale flashes betrayed the older man’s attempts to correct the mechanical problems that had taken their children from them.
Each of their girls had been a wondrous concoction created from ceramics, cobwebs and love. Each one imbued with life, for a time, by a few drops of magical lux, but each had ended as cold and quiet as a stopped watch and each had taken a piece of Alfonso with them when they had been laid to rest.
Alfonso drank another glass of sherry, feeling the cold kiss of the liquor as it ran down his throat. He placed the glass on the table and filled it again.
“Our nation is mortally infected by the mestizo, the pardo, the castizo: each one the result of unchecked miscegenation, each one inferior in all the finer qualities to the native born white Creole or imported Spaniard.” – Agosto Le Bon, Pueblo Enfermo, 1888.
Alfonso woke at midnight, slumped over his workbench. He had been dreaming about the night that he and Marcelo had met. Alfonso rubbed his eyes and remembered how he and his friends had laughed when Elias Rojas had first stood for election. Rojas the country bumpkin: the yokel bank-rolled by the English, as famous for the wells he’d dug to collect the lux as for being the first to harness its life-giving properties.
There had been rumours of course. Stories about how it was the inverts, the indigenes and the mestizos who worked at Rojas’ drilling compound. How the shuffling monsters that he animated tore anyone who resisted him into pieces or tossed them into the wells to drown in the blackness within.
But then, before Rojas had become president, Alfonso had taken little notice of such things. Men with appetites like Alfonso's had merely lurked in the gaps in-between, in the woods around the Bosques de Palermo or the all-male tango practicas at cafes like La Viridita.
Alfonso yawned and slapped his dry lips together. The sherry bottle and the unopened letters sat in front of him. His back crackled as he stretched.
He stuffed the letters back into his apron pocket then collected his latest creations: the face, the palms and the finger joints and placed them on a cooling tray. He carried the tray across the garden and up to the workshop, avoiding the blank doorway of Celia’s room.
He looked at the upturned porcelain face. It had a blank and expectant air, but he already saw how, when rendered motile by the lux, the corners of the mouth would turn up in a smile. He saw the mischief that lay in the eyes, with their irises the colour of autumn oak and flecks of River Plate green. He’d based them on how Marcelo’s had looked that first night in La Viridita. The hands, for their part, were long fingered, strong and capable.
In the workshop she lay on a raised metal bedstead. A child-sized copper skeleton, threaded head to foot with hydraulic veins that would carry the stolen lux to pneumatic muscles and organs. Her torso was replete with tiny pumps powered from intricate gear assemblies that clustered at elbows, knees and hips like bouquets of metal flowers.
Marcelo was bent over her skeleton, head buried in the ribcage as he screwed her cardiac mechanism into place. A metal sphere studded with hydraulic couplings that would circulate the lux throughout the body’s dependent assemblies; the multitude of connecting cables made it resemble a large golden spider.
“These are the best I’ve made, I think,” said Alfonso fitting the eyes into the naked metal of the skull and coaxing the porcelain face over them.
Marcelo grunted and continued his work.
“Wallflower?” said Alfonso.
“Yes,” Marcelo replied his voice echoing metallically from inside the torso.
“I was thinking earlier ...,” continued Alfonso.
“Always a dangerous proposition,” chuckled Marcelo humourlessly.
“We always treat this as an engineering problem, you and I,” Alfonso said, threading the finger joints onto metal knuckles, “alterations to hydraulic organs, lux regulators, that sort of thing, but what if it’s something else?”
“Like what,” replied Marcelo breathing through his nose as he tightened bolts with a spanner.
“What if Rojas is right,” said Alfonso, “what if people like us aren’t supposed to have children? What sort of life will she have?”
Marcelo snorted and emerged from the chassis, his red eyes attesting to how little sleep he’d had that night.
“Do you really believe all that rot?” he said, sadness tempering his irritation. He twisted open a valve in the cardiac chamber, attaching a short length of rubber tubing, “children are children, however they’re made. In any case, I really think I’ve fixed it, this time.”
“You always say that,” whispered Alfonso.
Marcelo connected the rubber tube to the large barrel in the corner of the workshop, then attached a foot pump to a secondary valve on the cardiac mechanism and pumped vigorously. The tube pulsed and glowed with gold as the lux was drawn into the copper heart. From there it would be distributed throughout the body and after a few hours, if they were lucky, their daughter would stir and open her eyes to see the world for the first time.
Alfonso rested his hands on his apron pocket. His thumb toyed with one of the letters. He opened his mouth to speak.
“-Could you be a sweetheart and bring me the spare Dewar flask from downstairs, please?” said Marcelo.
Alfonso paused, then hurried into the hallway. As he did so he heard the sound of footsteps on the gravel driveway outside the house and froze. He peered into the darkness from the hall window. There was a small, hooded figure silhouetted against the leaves of the privet hedge at the front of the house.
Alfonso’s throat felt dry. Since Rojas’ putsch many of the men that he had danced face-to-face with at La Viridita had ended up in the pay of the Department of Moral Hygiene, working as honey-traps or selling names. He slipped down the stairs two at a time, sweat itching under his armpits.
He picked up the small hand-axe they kept in the pantry and stepped into the back garden. Shivering, he unhitched the garden gate and tiptoed onto the gravel path that led past the house and to the hedge beyond.
The dark shape was crouched over the flat granite slab of the doorstep. It cocked its head and sniffed the air in a way that did not seem entirely human. Alfonso shuddered as he watched multiple black tongues unfurling from beneath the creature’s hood and flickering in the air.
The axe slipped from his grasp, clattering onto the gravel path. Startled by the noise the creature fled through a gap in the privet and ran lopsidedly into the road. As it did so, it dropped something that Alfonso recognised as an envelope similar to those in his apron pocket. The figure bent to retrieve it and as it did so Alfonso caught a glimpse of the figure’s face; his knees went weak and his stomach retched drily.
He staggered back to his studio and slumped onto the bench. He uncorked the sherry bottle and took two large swigs. All he could think about was what he had seen beneath the hood. The crow eyes that clustered like bubbles on a pond; the mouths and the tongues that undulated like black seaweed.
“Did you get the flask?” said Marcelo as Alfonso walked into the workshop trembling and ashen faced.
“Please, I can’t go on like this,” said Alfonso. He leaned against the doorframe, pulled the letters from his apron pocket and tossed them in front of Marcelo.
“I need to know who is sending these and why they are hiding outside our house in middle of the night.”
Marcelo picked the letters up off of the floor, settling himself on a stool. He dusted the envelopes down with his cuff and examined them. He exhaled through his teeth and licked his dry lips. His skin looked as pale as paper.
“I … I think we should both have a drink,” he said and ushered the still shaking Alfonso downstairs into the kitchen and sat him at the table. He drew the curtains and lit a lamp, turning the wick down low. The embers of a dying fire still crackled in the grate. Marcelo poured large glasses of port wine for them both, lit a cheroot and settled in the chair opposite. He puffed on the cigar and blew out a stream of smoke.
“So,” said Alfonso.
“So,” repeated Marcelo. He cleared his throat and sipped at his drink. “Once upon a time,” he said and swallowed, “I was a surgeon out in the provinces. I married well, although my heart wasn’t in it. I had a promising career and being an idealistic young thing, used my wife’s money to start a small-pox vaccination programme in Entre Rios among other places.”
Marcelo sipped his drink.
“Very quickly, I ran up against Rojas and his goons. At that time, he was just a plantation owner, with designs on becoming governor, but he’d read all of that bunkum by Van Tué and Le Bon and swallowed it whole. A lot of us did back then, believing that the nation was a chain and that its weakest links should be allowed to break. He wrote to me saying he was a fan of my work, but not of its consequences.”
“So what,” said Alfonso, “has this got to do with us?”
“I’m coming to that,” said Marcelo, “many years earlier I had written some indiscrete letters to a young friend. Rojas had somehow procured them and threatened to make them public unless I immediately stopped the vaccination programme and came to work for him at his compound, outside Paraná.”
“My wife was glad to see me go and while the relief was mutual, the compound was a ghastly place. There wasn’t a patch of grass or flowers, just mud and dirt and rocks and stones. Except of course for the lawn outside the boss’s house. That was a rich green and covered in purple bougainvillaea, roses and tulips. Rojas’ overseers looked after those flowers better than they looked after the wretches in the compound.”
“But why did they need you?” said Alfonso.
“Why indeed,” Marcelo flicked the end of the cigar at the brass ashtray that stood next to the wall.
“Lux is funny stuff, you see. It brings most inorganic matter to life, but if it comes into contact with living tissue for any amount of time … it does odd things. They call it lux-eye, out in the pampas. It’s what happens to you when you work at the wells for too long. Fingers, toes, but mostly eyes grow and multiply. For reasons that no-one fully understands, lux seems to like eyes.”
Marcelo shivered and sipped his drink.
“I worked as the compound’s medic, but I did other things as well,” he said and drained his glass. He cleared his throat.
“What sort of things?” said Alfonso.
“Special projects that Rojas demanded. Amputations, grafts, implants.”
“I was told the subjects were incurable. Terminal cases. And once someone is poisoned, there’s no medical reason why you can’t pump as much lux into them as you like,” he said and threw the butt of the cigar into the fire where it flared into bright red curls of flame.
Alfonso stood up. He stomach swam. He couldn’t believe what Marcelo was telling him. He leaned on the mantelpiece and tried to anchor himself in the rich ash smell of the fire.
“But you ran away, didn’t you?” he said.
“Eventually,” said Marcelo, “after Ignacio died.”
Without looking at Marcelo, Alfonso took his glass from the table and swallowed its contents in a single gulp.
“I saw him the first day I was there. He was part of the drill crew from Tower 12, always picking fights with the overseers. He could drink like an ox and was as stubborn as a mule. The moment I saw him, I knew, and he knew, that we were kindred spirits. He had a young sister, Isabel. A pretty little thing. She was dark as a nut and funny as an egg, as they say in the pampas.”
“One day Ignacio came charging into camp carrying her. She’d been out picking wild maize, stumbled into a rain gully and knocked herself unconscious. Nothing serious, just a minor contusion. I dressed the wound, gave her a lollipop and sent her on her away.”
“The next morning there was a knock on the door of my surgery and there was Isabel. Her eyes were full of mischief. She put her hand to her lips, placed a necklace of bougainvillaea around my neck and ran away. Every morning after that I found chains of tulips or rings of roses woven together and left in front of my door.”
“Ignacio visited the following evening. He’d been given a beating for leaving his crew to go and rescue his sister. He was silent as I put iodine on his cuts and bandaged his wrist and when he left he asked me for a cigarette. He took two, putting one behind his ear and the other in his mouth. As I lit it he whispered, ‘Drill 5. Eight o’clock.’”
“Drill 5 was one of the first that had been erected on the estate. It was a derelict clapboard tower about 30 feet high, with a well as dry as a tomb. I made my way up after dark, the boarded door had already been prised off and replaced to hang from a single nail.”
“Inside, Ignacio was waiting. We drank a bottle of cane liquor together and then made love. Despite the fear of discovery and the squalid surroundings, or perhaps because of them, that evening was the closest I’d ever been to being happy, I think. Until we met.”
He looked up at Alfonso and smiled, but Alfonso ignored him.
“Next thing, Ignacio was shaking me awake. I had a splitting headache and my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. Light was already coming through the slats of the drill tower. My heart was pounding, it was late and of course there was no way that we could walk into camp together. Before Ignacio went ahead, he turned, gave me a brilliant smile and kissed me. That was the last time I saw him alive.”
“I walked back over the brow of the hill and had just returned to my surgery at the edge of the compound when I heard a gunshot. I knew that something terrible had happened, but by the time I got there it was all too late.”
“In the middle of the camp were a group of three or four overseers. The chief was on horseback. Ignacio lay facedown in front of him. He’d been shot here,” said Marcelo tapping the centre of his forehead. His voice assumed a neutral tone, “there was nothing I could do for him. A bullet at that range well…” he swirled an index finger at the back of his head, “nothing is left.”
“The chief was slinging his rifle. ‘You all saw him, he was going to kill me. I had no choice,’ he said and spat on the ground. He repeated it as people began to gather around.”
“It was only then I saw Isabel’s tiny body hanging from the jacaranda tree at the centre of the compound. She was wearing a necklace made of the bougainvillea that she had filched from outside Rojas’ office. The word ‘thief’ had been scrawled on a piece of paper and pinned to her dress.”
“I wasn’t thinking clearly. I fetched a machete and cut Isabel down and carried her to my surgery. I worked in a daze, for hours doing the only thing that I knew how to do, the thing that the camp had taught me to. I applied all the techniques I had learned. I used more lux than I had ever dared, but it was all for naught.”
Marcelo shrugged in the chair and crossed then uncrossed his legs. He ran a finger across his lips and looked at Alfonso.
“I took the machete and another bottle of cane liquor and went and sat behind a tree outside the cantina where the overseers spent most evenings. I waited for the chief to emerge. I wanted to gut him like a rabbit.”
“It was late when he stumbled out and walked around the back of the hut. He leaned on the wall, unbuttoned his trousers and relieved himself. I crept up behind him. I could see his hands were shaking.”
“I pulled out the machete, my hands were shaking too. I’m not sure if it was from the liquor or fear. I grabbed him by the throat and twisted him around to face me. His eyes were as yellow as a dog’s. I waved the machete in his face, but he pushed his throat onto the edge of the blade and pissed all over my shoes.”
“‘Puto,’ he whispered and spat on the ground then he shrugged me off, did up his fly and walked away.”
Alfonso stirred the embers of the fire with a poker. The flames flared up and Marcelo’s eyes flashed orange in the dark.
“So what did you do?” said Alfonso his lips tight.
“Like all cowards,” replied Marcelo, “I ran away. When I got to my surgery, the overseers had ransacked the place and Isabel’s body had gone. I packed what little I had and left. It wasn’t till later I realised what had happened to her.”
Marcelo shifted in the chair and held his hand up to the light.
“I changed my last name and moved to the city. I drank. I tried to forget. After I met you I did, a little. And then two months ago the letters started,” Marcelo covered his mouth and coughed, “and I saw her one night. Standing in the shadows. Outside the house. All alone.”
He picked up the foremost envelope, ran a tobacco-stained fingernail under its flap and tore it open.
A handful of bougainvillaea tumbled out of the envelope. The second letter contained tulips woven into a simple necklace.
Marcelo looked up at Alfonso.
“We should go back upstairs and finish our work,” he said, standing up, “Isabel needs a friend.”
Alfonso’s hands were shaking and he felt nauseous. The port made his head swim. Marcelo looked drawn. Far from providing relief, retelling the events had drained him.
Alfonso opened the back door. He kicked his boots off and stepped out into the darkness, enjoying the bite of the gravel on his feet.
“I’m so sorry, wallflower,” he said and closed the door behind him.
Alfonso had no idea how long he stood in the garden, but it was long enough for his hands and feet to become numb from the cold. The flashes of light that came from beneath the workshop’s blackout curtains transformed the rows of fuchsia bushes into nodding phantoms as Marcelo worked into the dawn.
A sliver of light had crept along the eastern horizon when Alfonso heard him clamber out of the attic window to stand on the flat roof beyond. He was swaying, holding the now empty bottle of port in one hand, naked and luminescent from the lux that he had smeared on himself.
He stood for a second, a smiling golden ghost with arms outstretched. The ornithopteron was on him before he’d even got half way across the roof. It dropped out of nowhere, picked him up like a doll and disappeared into the remains of the night.
“Ya todos somos indígenas” (“We are all indigenes now”) - graffito outside the Casa Rosada, 1897
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Alfonso held the handrail as the ferry rolled in the wash from the river. The sun was high in the sky, but obscured by a thick band of cloud. He looked down at the grey waves as they scudded into the bow then looked back at Buenos Aires, rocking on the horizon over the stern. Ornithopterons patrolled over the city like enormous hungry gulls.
“Where are we going, father?” said the veiled figure that stood at Alfonso’s side. He had christened her Marcela. She had his eyes after all.
“We’re going across the sea, little one,” he said. He took her gloved hand in his and forced a smile.
He remembered how he and Marcelo had planned this escape, how they might slip across the water: first a ferry to Montevideo and then perhaps a packet steamer to Liverpool, then onto Europe. Rumour had it that people were already dancing Tango in Paris.
He could cry for all of them now. For their girls, for himself and his poor, sweet monster, Marcelo. Marcela’s grip on his hand tightened. He had to be here for her now.
He looked back across the deck of the ship and for a moment he glimpsed the familiar hooded figure of another child lurking in the shadows beneath the bridge. Isabel had followed them, like she always did, keeping her distance, yet getting closer every day.
Soon it would be time to introduce her to Marcela, thought Alfonso. Soon, but not quite yet.
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