Translated by: Frances Riddle
Incredible the animal that first dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.
—Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra
Rosana arrived on a Sunday around noon. Mauricio was waiting anxiously, already anticipating the sexual encounter that fate had delivered up to him like a gift. He had always been very meticulous in his personal hygiene, but that morning he submitted himself to the full treatment: he trimmed his hair, his nails, his pubes; he shaved, plucked his unibrow, and applied a face mask. He’d spent the previous two weeks on a diet and going to the gym, and when he’d had to drink with his co-workers he’d limited himself to two or three light beers. He also dedicated his entire Saturday to cleaning the house and organizing his collection of CDs and DVDs. He had to impress her.
His cousin Marijó had sent him a message from the capital to ask if he could host one of her dancer friends who would be staying a few days in the city. Mauricio accepted immediately. He thought all dancers were hot.
When the doorbell rang he put on a CD by Alejandro Fernández, smoothed a wrinkle in his polo shirt, and headed to the door. Before opening it he wanted to look at her through the peephole. She wasn’t what he’d expected, her hippie-like appearance struck him as slightly unpleasant, but this small disappointment was made up for by the beauty of her face and the fullness of her breasts, emphasized by the straps of her backpack. Thinking no one was looking, Rosana stuck her hand down her shirt and rearranged her bra. Mauricio opened the door excited by this small act of voyeurism.
They introduced themselves, greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek, and went inside. Rosana dropped her luggage in the middle of the living room and wandered around touching every object she encountered. Sometimes she seemed to sniff the room, like some wild animal on the hunt or looking for a mate. Mauricio moved her backpack out of the way.
“Do you live with your parents?” she asked sticking a finger into an oil painting that hung on the wall. Mauricio didn’t have the nerve to tell her that you shouldn’t touch paintings. It would’ve been impolite.
“No, I live alone.”
“It looks like my grandma’s house. Why do you have so many plants?”
“I don’t know. I like the way they look. According to Feng Shui they balance the room.”
“Feng Shui, what a drag . . .”
Rosana fell onto the sofa, kicked off her huaraches, and put her feet up on the coffee table. Mauricio discreetly studied her toned calves, but the allure was offset by the repulsion he felt toward the soles of her feet, black with dirt and grime.
“Can we put on some different music?” she said lighting an unfiltered cigarette.
Mauricio rushed to open the window and placed an ashtray in front of Rosana.
“You don’t like Alejandro!”
“He makes me want to barf.”
“What do you want to listen to?”
“My iPod’s in my backpack. The side pocket.”
He searched until he found it. He was annoyed by Rosana’s overly familiar manners, but at the same time he supposed it was a sign of someone with liberal ideas, and that made him believe his aims would be easier to achieve.
He connected her iPod to his stereo.
“Put it on shuffle,” she ordered.
The riff of an electric guitar sounded, reminiscent of the nineties.
“Who is this? It sounds familiar . . .” Mauricio had a distant memory of that sound, as distant as his high school years.
Rosana tapped the rhythm with her feet. After a deep puff on her cigarette she ashed in the nearest flowerpot.
“There’s an ashtray right there,” he said with the utmost politeness.
“You like Spanish rock?”
“I prefer English. I mean I can listen to a song or two, but then I get tired of it.”
She didn’t bother to answer him. She continued smoking as if she were alone, completely ignoring Mauricio’s presence.
“I thought dancers weren’t supposed to smoke.”
“Says who? Do you know any?”
“No . . . Well, you.”
“There you go: all the dancers you know smoke.”
She ashed in the flowerpot again.
“Use the ashtray, the dirt’s going to smell later. What are you here for exactly? Marijó didn’t say.”
“I have a show in a week. I’ll be rehearsing till then and after that I’m staying for a seminar with a teacher from Finland.”
“Well you better make time to go out for a beer with me.”
“I’ll let you know . . . What do you do?”
“I studied Communication Sciences. You know it’s a really great career because . . .”
“Peaches!” Rosana interrupted, staring at the fruit bowl on top of the dining table. Without waiting for an answer she lunged at a large, ripe peach.
“They haven’t been washed,” said Mauricio with some annoyance.
She didn’t react to the warning. She took a big bite of the fruit, and almost before she’d finished chewing the first she took a second and a third. The juice ran down her forearm, pooling in the crook of her elbow until finally dripping onto the table. After the fourth bite Rosana began to make use of her other hand, which still held the lit cigarette. The pit rotated agilely between her fingers as her teeth gnawed until they’d extracted every last trace of pulp. It was all over in under a minute.
“It’s my favorite fruit.”
She set the pit in the fruit bowl and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. As she did this her nose passed very close to her armpit. Rosana took a long sniff.
“Shiiiiit, I stink! I really need a bath. Do you have a little bit of milk you could give me?”
Mauricio couldn’t believe what he was witnessing.
Milk, according to Rosana, had a rejuvenating effect on the skin. For this reason she poured almost an entire liter into the full bathtub. So full that, even as skinny as she was, Mauricio thought it would overflow when she got in. He didn’t say anything though, just made a few jokes. He didn’t want to seem pedantic or domineering before he’d reached his goal; afterward he’d find a way to put things in order.
Rosana connected her iPod to the bathroom radio, touched the water to test the temperature, and, unfazed by Mauricio’s presence, removed her shirt. He took her lack of modesty as a provocation, but since it was too soon to give up the game he quickly left the bathroom, not without first throwing an ardent glance at Rosana’s breasts, resting snugly inside her bra.
He sat down at the computer in his bedroom and pretended to work. He couldn’t stand the music blaring at top volume from the bathroom, nor the waste of perfectly good milk, nor Rosana’s barbaric manners, but the promise of sex compensated for all these inconveniences. “She can be filthy,” he thought, “as long as she’s that way in bed too.”
Forty minutes later the music stopped and Rosana walked by Mauricio’s door wrapped in a towel.
The bathroom was a total mess: the floor was soaking wet, there were panties crumpled in a corner, the tub hadn’t been drained and the shampoo dripped from its bottle. Mauricio knew that during the seduction phase there was always a price to be paid, but this was too much: if he didn’t set some limits now, the situation might get out of control.
He picked up her thong and walked directly to Rosana’s room. The door was half open so he assumed she’d finished getting dressed and he went in without knocking.
“Hey, I have to ask you to please . . .”
He couldn’t continue. Rosana was lying on the bed, on her back, wearing only a sweater and a pair of socks. She was reading a magazine that blocked her view of the door and she had headphones on. She didn’t seem to notice the intrusion. Mauricio stared for a few seconds at her densely populated pubis, wild, black as the back of a chimpanzee, and his boldness was replaced by intense lust. He left the room without saying anything else. It wouldn’t do for Rosana to catch him spying on her.
The days passed and Mauricio hadn’t made any progress. Rosana was hardly ever at home and she rejected his invitations to go out at night with the excuse that she had to get up early in the morning. Only sometimes, in the evenings, they had dinner together, something light like a sandwich or a salad and in those few shared moments Mauricio took the opportunity to make his move. She didn’t seem to notice and didn’t respond to his advances.
Her behavior bothered Mauricio more and more. He spent all his time cleaning up her mess in the bathroom, the living room, and especially in the kitchen, where after making breakfast Rosana left everything open, outside the refrigerator, her dirty plates on the table, and to top it off she never bought her own food, not even the milk for her baths (which, fortunately, she didn’t take every day). Also, she never turned off the lights, and more than once she left the faucet running.
He finally gave up. He determined that he’d never get anywhere with her and resigned to put up with her unpleasant presence for the sake of his promise to Marijó. But next time he’d think twice before agreeing to do her any favors.
Things went on like this until finally the day of Rosana’s show arrived. It was a Friday. Mauricio found a ticket on the dining table. It started at seven that evening. Of course he couldn’t think of going, it would be like rewarding her for all her rudeness, but as the day went on he began to change his mind, he wanted to see Rosana’s dancing skills, or rather to confirm her clumsiness. He pictured her dressed as a cavewoman, dancing with her tribe around their fire god. To see her looking ridiculous in some cheap show might somehow make up for all the hassle. And if he still wanted to punish her, he could just say he hadn’t had time to go.
The lights were off when he entered the theatre. He sat in the first empty seat he found, at the back. Even though it was a small venue he’d brought his binoculars so that he wouldn’t miss a single detail.
Rosana was the last dancer in the show. Four companies from different parts of the country went on before her. Mauricio didn’t understand modern dance, so after the second group, yawning, his mind began to wander to the transparent costumes or the probable homosexuality of the male performers. Eventually it was Rosana’s turn. In all the other choreographies there had been at least two dancers, but the program indicated that she would be alone on stage for fifteen minutes.
Somber music began to play, lacking rhythm to Mauricio’s untrained ear, suggestive, he thought, of jungle sounds. Rosana came onto the stage slowly and pausing frequently, crawling, lit up by a single spotlight. Mauricio saw her as a dinosaur. When she got to the center of the stage, Rosana fell to the floor and like a worm agonizing under the sun she dragged herself to the other corner of the stage where she adopted a new way of moving. It was a slow dance, refined, the movements made him think more of a feminine sensuality than an animal brutality. Mauricio started to doubt whether she was a woman imitating beasts or a beast dancing like a woman.
He left the theatre in awe.
That night he had trouble sleeping. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana’s body sheathed in black Lycra as tight as a second nudity. He obsessively replayed the image of her shoulder blades marking the rhythm of her march across the prairie, of her neck outstretched to greet the sun or stars, the serpent’s waist, the breasts of the mythical she-wolf. Rosana was all those animals, and she was also all woman.
From his bed he heard her come home, wash up, enter her bedroom. Two hours later, tormented by the need to caress the body that he imagined covered in feathers or scales, he got up, left his cave, and penetrated Rosana’s lair. He slowly touched her under the sheet, lying behind her in the same position, on his side, breathing on her neck. He slid his hand up her hip, waist, belly, to the base of her bosom. Rosana turned in her bed. The intrusive hand continued its ascent, pausing at her nipples, which rose up, dreaming that they were two hard oaks.
Rosana’s breathing was noticeably agitated. Mauricio, his hand, retraced its path back down to her belly button, where it descended into her dense pubic jungle. Two thighs blocked the entrance like impenetrable walls. There was only one way to overcome the obstacle: their mistress must order them to open. Then they would obediently make way for the visitor, spreading wide before him in a sign of welcome.
Maurico kissed the back of Rosana’s neck, her ear, her cheek, the corner of her mouth.
“You’re so hot,” he whispered.
Rosana began to wake up. The excitation that she’d felt in her dream became a strange heavy bulge squirming against her back.
“Who is it . . .?” she asked with a scratchy voice. She instantly comprehended the situation. “Nooooo, I don’t want to!”
She jumped up, wrapped in the sheets, and turned on the light.
“Turn it off, it hurts my eyes,” said Mauricio covering his face with his forearm.
“No, get out of here! Let me sleep!”
“I liked the way you danced.”
“That’s nice, but leave, please.”
“I want to stay here.”
“Then I’ll go sleep in your room . . . Seriously, I’m really tired, I’m not mad but get out of here now!”
Mauricio reluctantly obeyed.
“Sorry,” he said from the hall. He wasn’t sorry, but he felt like he should say it.
Rosana locked the door.
He awoke with his hand in his underwear. He was embarrassed by what had happened the night before, not for having gotten into Rosana’s bed without her permission, but for having been rejected. The fact that she hadn’t reacted violently, however, told him that her refusal wasn’t definitive. Her will could be broken, if it wasn’t already, and the rejection had been a provocation, the declaration of a challenge. “I should try again,” he thought.
He got up and knocked on her door, half naked. He wanted to make her feel that some trust, some intimacy had been established between them, as a result of their cohabitation. After all, she’d been the first one to be immodest, and she was probably waiting for him to express a similar attitude before taking the next step.
There was no answer from inside her room. For a moment Mauricio was afraid Rosana had left for good, but when he opened the door he saw her things scattered across the floor like always, without rhyme or reason. This time the mess didn’t bother him. Just the opposite, he took it as a manifestation of her wild spirit. Something in him had changed, he felt somehow uncomfortable with his own rigidity, with his need for cleanliness and symmetry, and he had the impression that her messy room was the picture of freedom. He picked up a red thong. It smelled like sweat, urine, enticement.
Rosana didn’t come home all day. After midnight, tired of waiting for her, Mauricio lay down to try to sleep. An hour later she got home. Someone was with her, a male voice spoke in whispers. They went directly into her room.
In the morning Mauricio woke up as Rosana was saying goodbye to the visitor.
“Rosana!” he called from his bed when he heard her passing footsteps.
She opened the door and stuck her head in.
“Who was that?” Mauricio was lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head.
“A friend. I met him yesterday. He’s a dancer too.”
“Hmmm, what a coincidence . . . And what about me?”
“What about you?”
“Me and you, what’s going to happen with us?”
“Nothing? Why should anything happen?”
In one abrupt movement Mauricio pulled aside the sheets covering him. He was naked, his right hand caressing the base of his fully erect penis.
“Look what you do to me. Come here, get naked, you owe it to me.”
He felt Rosana’s gaze on his sex.
“Cover yourself up, you’re a pig! You know what? I think I’d better leave, thank you for your hospitality,” she said turning around and rushing to lock herself in the bathroom. She wanted to leave as quickly as possible but she felt the urgent need to wash up, there was dried semen all over her body. Also, the bath was already filled with warm, milky water. If she hurried, she could be out of the house in an hour.
She’d just submerged herself in the water when she heard Mauricio’s voice on the other side of the door.
“Open up, you left me there talking to myself.”
“Are you dressed yet?”
“No, open up.”
Rosana blasted the music at full volume. It was a song by Los Aterciopelados.
“Open up, goddammit! I just want to talk!” he said giving the door a hard smack.
“I can’t hear you!”
Mauricio felt all his repressed fury from the night before take control of his body. A few violent shoves and the door gave way. Rosana was in the tub, paralyzed with fear.
“You’re a goddam slut!”
“You’re grandma’s a slut, jackass!”
“You stay at my house as long as you want, you make a huge mess, you eat my food, and then, instead of fucking me, you fuck the first moron who crosses your path! Don’t you think that’s the behavior of a true whore!”
“I’d be a whore if I slept with you for letting me stay a few days in your prissy little house. A whore and an idiot!” Rosana was about to stand up, but then she remembered she was naked under the water.
“Well then get the hell out of my goddamn prissy little house right now!”
Mauricio grabbed her by the hair to pull her out of the tub. She leaned forward to ease the pain and as her torso emerged from the water she clawed Mauricio’s forearm with all her ire.
“Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he let her go, pushing her head back at the same time. The base of Rosana’s neck hit the faucet. About to lose her consciousness she reached for something to grab hold of, but the only thing her hands could find was the radio’s power cord.
It took Mauricio a few seconds to notice the accident. He was inspecting the deep gashes that Rosana’s nails had left in his flesh.
He thought of reporting the incident to the police, tell them she’d just had an accident. But of course they’d suspect him, they wouldn’t believe him, and would end up finding the hairs he’d pulled out, the scratches on his arms, his skin under Rosana’s nails. And above all, he didn’t have an alibi . . . That last word echoed a long while in his mind: he realized he was thinking like a criminal.
He didn’t know what to do with the body, he’d never thought he’d find himself in this situation. For the moment it seemed too risky to try to get rid of it. He needed to plan everything very carefully. In the meantime, he couldn’t just leave it floating in his tub.
He let out the water, a pinkish mixture of blood and milk, unplugged the radio, rinsed it off in the sink, and covered the lifeless body with dirt from all his flowerpots, which he carried one by one into the bathroom. Then he replanted all his plants in the tub.
The weight he felt in his soul was heavy. He was sick with fear over the consequences, but sicker still over having taken Rosana’s life. She would never again dance, eat a peach, or incite a man’s lust, and this pained him. It was as if he’d killed the last specimen of an extinct species.
He watered his new garden. As he finished he remembered Rosana’s pubic hair, and by some strange association of ideas he remembered that he’d forgotten to close her eyes.
He wanted to take a bath, all the gardening had left him sweaty and covered in dirt. Given that the tub was occupied, he used the metal washtub he’d bought to keep his beer on ice. He sat there contemplating his plants until the water got cold.
As the effect of the adrenaline wore off, his regret grew deeper. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana. He drank a beer. He ate tuna directly from the can and spent the rest of that Sunday lying on the couch, stoking his guilt. At night he searched for Rosana’s cigarettes. For the first time ever he enjoyed the taste of tobacco. That night he slept fitfully.
In the morning he opened his eyes feeling strange, the world seemed sluggish, unreal, as if he’d awoken inside a dream. His body rejected movement. He would’ve loved to remain in bed, but it was Monday and he couldn’t miss work.
The next two days were strange. Although his mind was elsewhere and he avoided all unnecessary social interaction, Mauricio was nicer to his co-workers, friendlier and more helpful, and he remembered that serial killers were known for being good neighbors, as if their killer’s instinct inspired kindness toward the rest of the human species, to compensate for ridding it of one, or several, of its individuals.
Back at home, when he had to use the bathroom, he tried not to look at the garden. He thought that this would help his memory of the incident fade away. If he maintained an indifference to the past, sooner or later it would cease to exist.
But on the third day, standing over the toilet in his first urination of the morning, he couldn’t help but look at it in the mirror. Try as he might, it was impossible to ignore. How long would the body take to decompose? Would the dirt be able to mask the smell? He was asking himself questions such as these when he saw it.
In the center of the tub a beautiful sunflower had sprouted, still young but with its petals fully open. The bright yellow spot stood out with breathtaking beauty against the green and white background of the plants and shower tiles. It was a proud flower, full of zest, sitting firmly atop its stem like a young person ready to conquer the world.
Mauricio spent the rest of the day analyzing the phenomenon. At first it seemed unreal, but then it occurred to him that in such an incredible situation it wasn’t odd for extraordinary things to happen. Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, he had a revelation.
That night, when he got home, he watered the sunflower with a little bit of milk.
Several weeks full of happiness went by. Mauricio christened his flower, calling her Rosana when he greeted her in the mornings and when, after work, he chatted to her about his day. He’d lost all interest in passing lovers: no one could fulfill him as much as her, this reincarnated woman, animal, and raw nature, so vital that from her death sprouted new life.
His care was as meticulous as an enamored lover’s. He pulled weeds, pruned the other plants so that they wouldn’t invade her space, aerated the dirt every three days and fertilized his flower with nutrients rich in iron and nitrogen. When he wasn’t at home he left rock music playing on the new radio he’d bought especially for her, and once a day he made her fresh-squeezed peach juice, smashing the pulp between his fingers so that Rosana would get the taste of his skin mixed with her favorite fruit.
He no longer worried about interrogations and police statements. How could anyone think that Rosana had died? Her existence transcended the world of the flesh, a direct manifestation of her soul without the encumbrance of a human body. The universe had been altered, its center had shifted to the black center of the sunflower.
Also, there were no signs of police, nothing to indicate that an investigation was underway. Mauricio could not imagine a more happy and peaceful life.
One night he had an upsetting dream. Asleep in his bed, he was awoken by sounds from the bathroom; he got up and without turning on the light, in total darkness, he crept to the bathroom where he could just make out a silhouette standing over the sink. It looked like a woman. He got up the nerve to turn on the light. It was Rosana, naked. A delicate vine grew up her body, giving her the look of a magical forest fairy. From her belly grew the sunflower, yellower and more beautiful than ever.
“You scared me,” he said to her, sighing with relief. “I thought you were someone else.”
Mauricio moved to hug her, but stopped when she threatened him with a straight razor which he hadn’t noticed she was holding in her hand.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, surprised. “You shouldn’t hurt me, I’m the person who takes care of you and feeds you.”
“But I’m the one who gives you life,” she answered, and with a hard swipe she cut off the flower, leaving just a centimeter of stem sticking out of her skin. Drops of sap began to fall, blood red, staining the white tiles between her bare feet.
Mauricio awoke frightened. He sat up. His heart still pounding, he went to the bathroom to urinate and to tell his flower about his dream. As he walked down the dark hall he almost thought he was once again in his nightmare, that’s how vivid and real it had felt, and he opened the bathroom door certain he’d find Rosana standing over the sink. But no. What he found when he turned on the light was even more terrifying.
The sunflower was dying, its stem bent so far that it almost touched the edge of the tub with its petals, previously luscious and glowing, now shriveled like aged skin. Mauricio began to panic, he had to do something, Rosana’s life was in his hands. He couldn’t understand what had happened, he’d watered her, fertilized her, weeded her. Had some parasite gotten her? He straightened the flower, as languid as if she’d gone weeks without water, and when he didn’t see any bugs on her petals or leaves he carefully placed her back into her original curved position, afraid she might break at any minute.
“Please don’t die, you can’t leave me alone,” he repeated over and over, hoping that by some miracle the flower would perk back up, healthy and sweet-smelling.
Suddenly he understood. He’d seen it in his dream, and it was so obvious that he felt stupid.
He took scissors from the cabinet and without flinching he made a long cut on the palm of his left hand. Blood immediately flowed into the wound. Full of hope, Mauricio let it drip onto the dirt around the stem, certain that he was giving Rosana the food she needed.
A pain in his wrist made him turn up his bloody palm, and he saw with horror that the cut on his hand had disappeared, but another, much deeper, spanned the width of his wrist. How was it possible? Was his confused mind showing him hallucinations? And if so, which was reality, the first cut or the second? He didn’t have time to continue contemplating: his wrist began to hemorrhage, and his sudden dizziness made him realize that this was no trick of his mind.
His first instinct was to stick his hand into a plastic bag he found in the trash and tie it around his forearm with dental floss. He thought it would do the trick: once the blood flow had stopped it was just a matter of waiting for the cut in the veins to coagulate, something his body would do naturally.
“Don’t worry, I won’t leave you,” he said to Rosana, sitting on the floor in front of her. “You have to be strong. You have to live.”
He gently caressed her petals, barely touching them. However, in their fragile state, even this gentle contact was too intense and one by one they began to fall off, until the center of the flower was left naked like a black and burnt out sun.
The last thing Mauricio saw before losing consciousness were his fingertips grazing the inside walls of an enormous red balloon with his hand swimming inside.
Seven days later the police arrived at his home to question him about Rosana’s disappearance. The circumstances made him the main suspect.
From outside they smelled the nauseating scent of decomposing flesh, and when there was no answer at the door, the officers forced the lock. The floor was covered in trash, cigarette butts, empty cans, and boxes of food; rats and cockroaches feasted on the waste.
When they discovered Mauricio bled dry leaning over the bathtub garden they immediately deduced the sequence of events: he’d killed, and possibly raped, the girl, after which he proceeded to bury her body in the tub; but panicked that sooner or later the authorities would discover him, he’d taken his own life. A specialized team removed the dirt. In the bottom of the tub, however, they didn’t find anything.
Rosana’s case was never solved. Her belongings were found inside the suspect’s home, but given that she’d stayed there of her own free will, it was not enough evidence to incriminate him.
With respect to Mauricio, his parents were notified and they took care of the funeral arrangements. After the burial, and up till their own deaths, they visited their son’s grave every week, and every week they bent down to uproot the horrible weed that obstinately insisted on growing up on his grave, time and again.
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