A small painting, Aunt Caquetá’s oil canvas, was slightly off center. But not because of an earthquake, Manuel had simply bumped into it, as he walked through the hallway passing some gas.
– We are already at the free farting phase of this relationship – Malena thought as she vigorously smashed the green plantains to be refried and turned into patacones.
– What will become of us in a year’s time?
Totally oblivious to the whole thing, Manuel took their adventurous cat Néstor into his arms, that loving creature forever bent on amorous expeditions among the neighborhood rooftops.
Only two months earlier, she had rolled her eyes at the sound of Manuel’s first unmasked belch, as he smiled at her with no hint of even the slightest embarrassment, actually hugging her tight in a sign of complicity, before taking out his cell phone and ordering pizza.
– Should we get mushrooms or bell peppers? That’s all he said, grinning.
The problem was that she was seriously perplexed by this kind of intimacy. As she was counting how much was left in her wallet, in a half-hidden corner, Malena found a business card for a couple therapist that had been recommended by her friend Dariela a few months earlier.
– When a couple is at a stage that all veils on “bodily sound production” are removed, there are two possible paths left, Dariela confessed to her after her eighth beer, – either the couple becomes consolidated or it breaks up.
Malena’s first reaction was to let out a big laugh, she felt totally immune to all this. It sounded like tales told by decrepit old men. But immersed in her drunken wisdom, Dariela, insisted on placing her friend smack in the middle of the truth.
– Because there are couples who, from that moment on, tell each other everything, just joke about it, they get looser with their bodies, but without losing their sexiness. You understand what I mean … For others it is the beginning of the end, it turns into the main way to turn two lovers into two bodies that warm up the bed ass against ass.
Malena’s second reaction was a repeat of her first one. She called the waiter and continued her analysis of liberation theology, as if nothing had happened.
But that afternoon, in his Bogota home, amid boxes and parcels, things were quite different.
– Honey, I’m stepping out a second to buy a couple of avocados and a few other things for lunch. Keep an eye on the patacones, otherwise they’ll get charred.
She slipped on her floral print flats and in a flash she reached the threshold and was out of the door.
Manuel tried to call her cell phone several times, the only voice caressing his ear was the metallic voice of the answering service. It was 3 in the afternoon; Malena had not returned.
He had rushed to all the little shops where she used to go shopping. Nothing. He even tried to get information from the people in the neighborhood, from passers-by, but nothing. It was by now 4 o’clock and he had to go back to work to attend the Thursday meetings. He sent a message to his boss, making up that he had a high fever and was hoping to recover soon.
Suddenly the beautiful tangle of streets that formed the Chapinero neighborhood turned into a strangling rope and Manuel, locked in a labyrinth, walked to and fro in a frenzied search for his beloved.
At the corner of the bakery, where they often got a tintico and a pandebono, Manuel fainted. It was 8 pm. The cashier tried to revive him, unsuccessfully, while a co-worker decided to call an ambulance and took his cell phone from his pocket to alert some contacts. An hour later Manuel was again in his Bogota house, lying on his bed. Beside him sat Andrés, a dear childhood friend.
– How do you feel? You almost gave me a heart attack!!
– Malena! Malena has vanished. She went out at 2 PM to buy two stupid things and never came back. I tried to call her and looked for her all over the neighborhood. Disappeared without a trace. She’s missing!
Eyes wide open, Manuel bit his nails and shivered like a baby chick. Manuel’s cry of dismay penetrated Andres’ eyes, as he still tried to find the strength to cheer up his friend.
– Let’s not be alarmists, Manuel. Let’s stay calm and be optimistic, let’s try to call her back…
This time the phone rang. But in vain. He tried calling her a second time and again the answering machine came on. Both their faces froze up.
– Any conjectures about what may have happened?
– Lately our relationship has become tenser, either because it’s getting close to the two of us moving in together, or because of some unfinished business at work, before taking the big leap. I hope she didn’t get cold feet about the whole thing.
– You think that’s possible?
– On the other hand, we haven’t had any serious quarrels and it seems implausible to me that a person like her, who has experienced the pain of her uncle’s disappearance, would leave me without warning, vanish into thin air.
– What, then?
– Well, I have a feeling that she has been kidnapped, stolen, taken against her will. I have a foreboding that it is something serious. Although I have not been able to collect any tangible evidence of that.
His heart was racing, the pain of uncertainty overwhelmed him.
– If this is what you feel, we should file a missing person report and as quickly as possible. That is, right now.
His friend already grabbed his jacket.
That night, the crescent moon lit up the bedroom of his Bogota house and, most of all, the empty side where Malena slept. On the pillow, held in Manuel’s hand, hung a note with the official police report code 0000457892. He repeated those numbers in his head like a mantra. They had told him not to forget those numbers for anything in the world, that the investigation had started from that very moment. That shred was all that was left of her.
That night, sharp thoughts pierced his eyes. He thought he was undergoing a state of metamorphosis. He extended an arm and accidentally hit a bottle on the bedside table, smashing it to the ground. But he did not even notice it, he was already immersed in another dimension, suspended in the void, walking gracefully on a tightrope. Around him the sound of castanets. Then suddenly a shock. The tightrope was now limp and a little creature was pulling it towards it. Little creature! No, it was a giant spider and it was weaving its web suspended from a lichen-covered trunk. At the center of the spiderweb a few drops of dew formed a sumptuous crown like that of a Madonna at the head of a procession. But it was Malena who was in the spiderweb. Malena was trapped in that tangle of sticky, funereal threads. Malena, my love! In the meantime he kept on falling, as the spider had cut the filament that he held on to. Néstor arrived into the bedroom out of breath, avoided the lake of water Manuel had spilled on the floor and curled up on Manuel’s belly. As a mischievous goodnight, he licked his newly discovered navel.
Manuel loved to drive, his pick-up was perfect for Colombia’s dirt roads, full of curves and slopes. It had been three months since the incident. His Chapinero house had remained more or less intact, waiting for the return of those floral-patterned flat shoes. Before Malena’s disappearance, their plan had been to move together the next month and live on their farm, but now Manuel had chosen to extend the rent of the apartment in Bogota for another year, in case Malena returned.
It was a tropical winter morning. The rain beat on the windshield and the clouds were like festoons in the sky. Manuel’s farm was located a few kilometers from Choachí, the bedroom window overlooked a stream with an islet in the center, formed through the accumulation of debris, in which various vultures gathered. The landscape was sublime, at times enchanting, at times grotesque, a mixture that particularly attracted Malena.
The frailejones trees stood out among the cobwebs of clouds. The Spaniards had called these plants by that name because, upon seeing them for the first time in the mist, they had looked like the outlines of friars. These plants are wonderful water reservoirs, a shelter for insects and birds, thus frailejones were Malena’s passion as biologist.
That morning, Manuel was quite dazed, the tintico he had been drinking hadn’t woken him up at all. For some time now, insomnia had become his constant companion. He turned his gaze towards those immense mountains, more than 3000 meters high and the hair of a frailejón turned into hers. Thousands, an infinity of Malena suddenly appeared, rooted to that barren land.
Manuel’s pick-up truck swerved, his life was just seconds away from the precipice.
If I die now, maybe I’ll be closer to you, he barely had time to think. Then he was cool headed enough to swerve and managed to get back on track. In about forty minutes he would arrive at his destination.
The farmhouse was divided into two floors connected by a spiral staircase that looped around an impressive ceiba tree specimen, walking through it you had the feeling of living in its canopy. It was raining so hard that Manuel couldn’t work in the fields. He had just put on his boots and a large poncho. He opted for retiring in a hammock, sheltered by the portico, to contemplate the rain. For a few minutes he felt a beneficial, liberating emptiness, no thought troubled him. This was happening for the first time in a long time. But after half an hour something changed. He glanced at the terraces that housed plane trees, yuca, papaya, passion fruit, flowers and aromatic plants. A silhouette appeared and it was her, Malena, again, calling him to continue working, wearing gloves and marking the contour to build the terraces. The one they had mapped out a couple of years earlier when they started the farm project. The headache, muscle tension, and the feeling of dizziness returned. Manuel was definitely exhausted. As if that wasn’t enough, Malena reappeared, even closer. This time she shook him as he was swinging in the hammock and tapped him on his back with her finger to attract his attention. A skeletal finger. By now she was only flesh and bone, totally unrecognizable. Her beautiful locks were now reduced to scorched and matted hair. Her sweet voice sounded like that of an out of tune piano and her gaze was definitely lost in the void, her pupils yellow and sunken. Go look for me! She screamed like someone possessed. Then she put her hands on her belly and repeated: It’s corroding me! It’s corroding me! I can’t stand it anymore!
Although it was still raining quite heavily, Manuel ran to the driver seat of his pick- up and made up his mind to never return to the farm again. Never again, if not with Malena, one day.
Manuel’s office was located downtown. He was employed by Discasana, a company specializing in accessories for people with mobility disabilities. His schedule had a certain flexibility, he could work remotely on weekends, so that meant that he could get away from the city and devote himself to getting his historic family farm back in shape. When working from remote was extended to week days, except for Thursdays because of on-site meetings required of all personnel, he and Malena had decided to take the leap and move in together in the farm. Now, instead, five years had passed with him being hostage in his Bogota home without any news of her. Manuel was at his desk, reviewing some quotes, when his cell phone rang.
– Malena … we found her!
– Yes, my dear Manuel!
-You want me to come? Really? I can’t believe it! I’ll be right there!
– I’ll text you the address in a message. I’ll be there waiting for you.
It was Amanda, a very close friend of both. She had stayed home that day, recovering from the flu, and had ordered food to be delivered home. The delivery boy noticed on the entry cabinet a fairly yellowed leaflet with Malena’s photo, a succinct description, and the heading ‘MISSING’.
– I think I saw that girl.
– For real? Amanda asked astonished.
– I really think so, but it’s more of a feeling than anything else because, in terms of her features, she looks a lot different compared to that photo. Come with me. I saw her half an hour ago, when I was delivering over there, she was walking in the Ele district.
Amanda initially hesitated, but then let her sixth sense guide her, left the pizza on the table and set out with the young man. In spite of her flu, they took a taxi together, and when Amanda tried to tip him for what he had done, he refused it. Angels are like that.
The Ele was one of the most infamous areas among Bogotá’s slums.
– There she is!
Malena was rummaging through a garbage can, limping and emanating a terrible stench. She was skeletal, yellow, lost. Just as in the vision that Manuel had had on the farm. Despite everything, Amanda recognized her, ran towards her and hugged her lovingly.
Malena, on the other hand, did not recognize her. She could barely squash a few words together, and kept repeating that something was corroding her, corroding her from the inside. She was in a catatonic state. Drugs were leading her to an excruciating, progressive death. The day she went to buy avocados, two blocks from home she had been suddenly grabbed by two arms and thrown inside a car. Once drugged, she was taken to Ele and forced into prostitution. This beautiful piece of ass will do well, was what her kidnappers kept repeating. But in order to withstand that horrible, relentless pace, Malena was heavily drugged. And the drug had begun to erode first her memory, then her language skills and finally her relational and bodily ones. The drugs were in such high doses that for the first two years she had turned into a beautiful automaton, exploited night and day in a makeshift brothel. Starting on the third year, the signs of an inexorable decay had begun to show. In the fourth year, she was already not performing as well as in the beginning. In the fifth year, Malena got a kick in the butt and, like so many others who have gone through the same experience, she was left on the street, abandoned to her own devices, willing to do anything to pay for the drugs.
That is, until the day of the delivery angel. And then, most of all, the angel of the Bogota house.
– Could you pass me that box?
– This one, you mean?
– Yes, sweetie.
Malena said one of her silly things, the two laughed out loud. Manuel had finally calmed down. For two years, after her reappearance, he stood by her side in a long and complex rehabilitation process, an almost miraculous one, until the time when Malena, luckily, managed to free herself from the clutches of the big spider.
A few minutes later, they were loading the remaining boxes into the truck. They still had to disassemble the bed, but a thought came to their mind about taking their leave from the apartment in the best possible way. Manuel took off his shirt. Malena took off the floral-patterned flats. But first they let the cat out.
– See you later, Néstor. Manuel said slyly.
LUCIA CUPERTINO (1986, Polignano a Mare). Writer, cultural anthropologist and translator. After her degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology (University of Bologna), she earned a Masters in Anthropology of the Americas (Complutense University of Madrid) with a thesis on the translation of Nahuatl literary sources. She has been living for many years between Latin America and Italy, with shorter stays in Australia, Germany and Spain, linked to research, educational and agroecology projects. She writes in Italian and Spanish and has published: Mar di Tasman (Isola, Bologna, 2014); the bilingual collection Non ha tetto la mia casa – No tiene techo mi casa (Casa de poesía, San José, 2016, Versante Steep Communalism Award); the origami book Cinco poemas de Lucia Cupertino (Los ablucionistas, Mexico City, 2017). Her poetry and works of fiction have appeared in Italian and international magazines and anthologies. Some of her literary production has been translated into English, Chinese, Spanish, Bengali and Albanian. She is the editor of the poetry anthology 43 poeti per Ayotzinapa. Voci per il Messico e i suoi desaparecidos (Arcoiris, Salerno, 2016, critical mention in the Lilec Literary Translation Award – University of Bologna); MuoviMenti. Segnali da un mondo viandante (Terre d’Ulivi, Lecce, 2016) and Canodromo di Bárbara Belloc (Fili d’Aquilone, Rome, 2018). Jury member for the Trilce Prize 2018, Sydney, in collaboration with the Instituto Cervantes. One of the founding members of the digital literary journal www.lamacchinasognante.com, she uses that space to promote literary and cultural initiatives in Italy and abroad.