Policarpa

Translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary

Not being devoured is the most perfect of feelings.
Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life.

—Clarice Lispector, “The Smallest Woman in the World”
(tr. Katrina Dodson)

 

She scratches the ridge of her spine, right where the tag of her uniform is torturing her skin. It feels good. She digs around back there as her coworkers, assembled at the entrance to the superstore, applaud enthusiastically. She claps, too, until she stops to scratch again. She rejoins the daily ritual of customer appreciation just as the crowd begins to disperse. An old man struggling to push his cart along the aisle is the last of the shoppers who got up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the store’s First Saturday discounts. She studies her coworkers’ lips, watching for the exact moment when their welcoming smiles fade, when their supply of celebratory gestures runs out. Her eyes bore into the other two women who started there recently, like her, but they seem to find nothing strange about any of it. Everyone goes back to their workstations.

 

Diana, the cashier assigned to train her at the register, walks up to her. Each woman reads the other’s name on the tag pinned to her chest.

“Hey, Marcela. Let’s get started.”

She likes hearing her name again after so long. But it hasn’t been easy to get used to. She needs to practice every day, saying Marcela, Marcela, Marcela to herself, over and over. Now Diana is saying it, and she likes that. Diana might even become a good friend one day. The two squeeze into a small booth facing one of the registers.

“They’re not that hard to use, but everyone makes mistakes the first few weeks. You might forget the code for a vegetable or something, but you’ll be fine if you’ve worked in retail. What did you do before?”

“I cleaned offices.”

It’s the first thing she thinks of. The only office she knows in Bogotá is the publishing house on the seventh floor of a building on the corner of Eighty-Fifth and Eleventh. She’s only gone there a few times to meet with her editor. They ask every time for photo ID at the entrance, and she takes out the shiny new card with her real name on it, then presses her finger to a machine taught to recognize her prints. One could say she works there, but not cleaning, and not full time. One could say her job is to reveal her identity.

The people at the Agency told her right away not to say anything about her journey (that’s what they call it, which she finds a little strange) for at least the first few months. The advice seems obvious, but she doesn’t know what to say when someone pries into the hidden corners of her past. In the harsh light of the superstore, she scolds herself for improvising and scratches her neck again, where the nylon tag itches her relentlessly. Then she bites off a piece of the dry crust that has covered her lips since she moved to Bogotá.

Diana starts up the register. She punches in a few zeros. The cash drawer pops open and hits their stomachs.

“Why’d you leave that job?”

“Ugh, it was the worst. The hours were long and the pay was awful. The way they exploited us, I almost went nuts.”

“Yeah, well, it’s getting harder and harder to find decent work. Where are you from?”

“I grew up in Teorama, a little town in Norte de Santander. But I’ve been working in Bucaramanga and Bogotá forever.”

She gives the true part of the answer proudly, ignoring the psychologist’s advice. In the first group therapy session the Agency organized, they were told to imagine their journey as a natural transition. Something as inevitable as a snake shedding its skin. That’s how the psychologist put it, adding that prudence was key in the first phase of their return.

The sirs and misses brought into their therapy sessions (accustomed to the symmetry promised by the word comrade, she finds it funny that everyone here is “sir” or “miss”) utter jungle and mountain cautiously, seriously, the words heavy enough to shut down conversations on the spot. Hearing them talk, Marcela feels like a warrior swinging from vines in a wilderness full of predators.

Standing with her hip pressed against Diana’s at the cash register, Marcela thinks that if they grow closer one day and she decides to tell her everything, Diana will ask her about animals, weapons, trees, and danger. And probably about how closely she lived with death. She imagines feeling overwhelmed, unsure how to explain it all. She imagines Diana struggling to understand the shards of the story she reluctantly offers and trying to decide whether or not they could ever be friends.

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In the Health and Beauty department, which she was assigned to so she could familiarize herself with the products, Marcela learns about exfoliation. The first time she sees the word on the bottle of a soapy liquid gleaming with promise, she hunts for a definition on the label. Then she buys one that claims to scour away impurities and applies it with discipline every morning to the raised scar that interrupts her shoulder. She wants to sand down the pinkish mark so the wound won’t reveal as much. Whenever the psychologist talks to them about their journeys in the Agency’s group therapy sessions, Marcela thinks of those impurity-scouring soaps. She imagines them gradually sloughing away her one and only skin.

Since she began working at the superstore, she buys something from Health and Beauty almost every day. Whatever seems new and interesting. Tinted moisturizer, hair-removal kits, neon nail polish and a bottle of acetone, oatmeal facial soap. The jars don’t all fit on the lone shelf in her room.

Since she began working at the superstore, she’s also been having dreams about her dog. In the worst one, a pit viper bites her right on the nose. Marcela witnesses the attack but can’t do anything to stop it. The skin on the little animal’s face slowly dries up and peels away while she’s still alive, until her head is nothing but bones. Marcela tries to save her by collecting every piece of skin, every whisker, that falls to the ground. Her sister helps her attach them again with a glue they pick up at the store, but her sweet little dog dies on them.

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At their third meeting, Marcela’s editor hands her a stack of paper. The first draft of her unfinished manuscript.

“All right, Marcela,” she says. “Let’s see what you think about this part. It’s a transcription of what you’ve told us with a few changes I made for clarity and flow. There’s still a lot of polishing to do and details to fill in. Read it and let me know if it looks good to you, or if you have a problem with any of my cuts or additions.”

Marcela takes the mass of pages and begins to read out loud. The editor follows along on her screen.

At the start Initially, when I started thinking about leaving my departure, I figured I’d write the whole way because I’d heard about people who had gotten out and told their stories and I thought that telling it would help untangle everything that jams up your occupies a person’s head mind at times like that. And I also wanted to have a written record. If I died along the way, I wanted at least to leave my story testimonial behind, so someone out there would get understand who I was and what I went through. You know?

“I’m going to stop you here for a moment, Marcela. I’d like to know if this diary actually exists. It wasn’t clear in our first interview.”

“No. In the end, I didn’t write a word. Imagine keeping notes on a trek like that. But I’ve got the diary right here in my head, clear as day, and I think that’s maybe even better.”

Marcela remembers a novel she hasn’t read but that she’s been told about in detail. It’s about a poet who gets lost in the jungle and leaves behind a long manuscript about the violence and exploitation he witnessed on the rubber plantations of the Amazon. The woman Marcela had been ordered to care for back there had told her everything that happened in the book over the course of a week. She said it was her favorite novel. Whenever she’d beg them to give her something to read, she’d insist on that book. The commander would snap at her, “What do you think this is, a library?” Until Marcela talked to the higher-ups and managed to get her a Marxist pamphlet, a Bible, and a textbook on Colombian geography, which the two of them later read and discussed. “The problem is that novels aren’t made for the jungle,” the woman said to her one day. Marcela hadn’t understood why she was laughing.

“The novel is called The Vortex, miss. I don’t remember the author’s name, but he’s famous. Could you tell me where I can buy a copy?”

The editor promises to get her one. Marcela goes on reading the heavily edited manuscript.

I carried a notebook with me for many years there from the start. I’d draw things in it (I’ve loved to draw, ever since I was a little girl), jot down important dates like birthdays or when I lost someone close to me, start letters to my mom or my sisters, and write poems. I was going to leave it as a keepsake with Erika, my best friend back there, like a sister or something, that’s what she was, but in the end I decided to bring it with me on this last trip adventure. They say It seems Erika deserted, too, but some people say she died in combat in Nariño. That’s something I’ll figure out, now that I’m here. If she’s alive, I’ve got to find her.

So, yeah, All those years, I was dying wanted to send letters to my mom and my sisters. But I never did. The only letter I sent dispatched in all that time was to high command, to request some special medical tests because I was all skin and bones had lost a lot of weight and was getting weaker by the day. That was about four years after I joined, when I was about to turn twenty. The commander told me it was nothing, that I just needed to eat more. But I was eating fine and still losing weight, right, and my legs were always shaky. And So they sent me to Villavicencio, to a house they have for medical treatment, and they ran tests on me and said, like, you have diagnosed me with a thyroid problem. I wrote a lot while I was shut in there. Can you imagine? They’d left me lying there in a city I didn’t know, and my only company was in the care of a woman who barely spoke and only came upstairs to bring me food. There was nothing there but, like, a television and an annoying rooster that crowed nonstop down in the garden. It was terrible.

Back then, I had a little dog. She took a shine to me in a settlement near Miraflores. I loved her to pieces. But then when she’d been with me a year the fighting started up again nearby and we had to break camp. I left her with some folks from Mocuare. It broke my heart to leave her behind, I was a wreck. I even wrote her a letter, I wrote to a few of the dogs from when I was a kid. I swear to God, though, one day I’ll go back for her.

Marcela looks up from the paper but avoids the editor’s eyes. Then she goes on reading.

Being shut in like that for two weeks was what made me so desperate to contact my mother and my sisters Nubia and Zenaida, and say to tell them I was okay, even though it had been a long time since they’d heard from me. I think I wanted them to know I was here, I mean, living in this world, close to them alive. I was always worried that they would get used to the idea I was dead or lost my absence, like happens to so many families who get used to it and that’s that. I didn’t want them to bury me in their minds. I wrote them a really long letter, and I swear I meant to send it to them but then I tore the pages out of my notebook and burned them. I knew there was no way they’d let me we weren’t allowed to contact our families under any circumstances. They’d caught Katy and Edwin, two of my comrades friends from training, early on, and the punishment was rough severe.

Marcela sets the last printed page at the top of the stack of paper on the desk. The editor raises her eyebrows, waiting for her approval.

“It’s fine. You know, I remember when I burned that letter—I remember wanting to mix the ashes in a glass of water and swallow them. But instead I threw them out the window to see if the rooster would eat them and hold onto the memory for me.”

She laughs. The editor does not.

“Was that the first time you lived in a city?”

“Yes, but I barely saw any of it. As soon as I got better, they sent me back to the camp. My dad took me to Cúcuta once when I was little, but I don’t remember it.”

“Perfect. I’m going to add in a few sentences explaining that. Too bad you didn’t keep any of those papers, Marcela. Imagine being able to include reproductions of your words in this book, written in your own hand, to underscore how heroic it was that you were writing from the jungle. So. You approve my edits to this section, Marcela?”

“Yes, miss. I approve.”

“Next week, when the transcript is ready, we’ll go over the details of your forced recruitment. That needs to be a separate chapter and should come before what we reviewed today.”

“I signed up, no one forced me. You can’t change that part.”

“All right. You can tell me all about it next time.”

Night is falling when she steps into the street. Between two buildings she catches sight of the mountain tangled in clouds. A fog of uneasiness settles over her skin, and she doesn’t know where she can go to scrub it off. The editor had told her from the start that they would cut and change much of the original transcription. They’d even made her sign a consent form. But she’d rather not witness the crossing out and cutting and condensing, so she’s decided to keep a few things to herself. She won’t mention her silent devotion to the birds she studied for years, how she deciphered their rituals and migration patterns, drew them in her notebook, invented names for them. Or how she would imagine what they saw from up in the trees when the bombing and the shooting intensified. What must have echoed in their hearts with every explosion. None of that deserves to be crossed out.

Marcela walks a while before catching the bus, to see if she can get some blood flowing through her hips and buttocks and all the other flesh not yet accustomed to her new urban stasis. She begins the hectic march that she’s grown used to by now, keeping an eye out for the buses spewing billows of smog at the sidewalk. She waits for the thick air to make its way up the street in the futile hope of avoiding it. Other times, she breaks the straight line of her steps and twists her path away from the metallic cloud that seeps into everything, trying to avoid contact. She holds her breath for ransom as she tries to keep out the smoke that burns her throat, makes her sneeze, irritates her eyes. Do the birds feel its heat? She figures she’ll eventually be able to ignore these little eruptions, like everyone else who moves through the city looking more or less composed.

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Every so often she finds a moment to stare at the superstore’s white metal and cement ceiling. Her eyes rest on the bareness of its panels, interrupted by metallic cylinders, cables, smoke detectors, and cameras. She likes to look up at it every morning, as if to escape the fiction of buying and selling. To remind herself that everything stacked orderly under the flat roof—the aisles full of strategically lit products, the signs, the applause—is just a fleeting topography of crates and calculations. The artifice of abundance. It amazes her, how the merchandise so effectively veils the crude box that is the warehouse. Looking up has become her ritual.

She works slowly at the cash register. Too slowly, Diana says from time to time, trying to hurry her up. But Marcela pays attention to every detail, scrutinizing each product, studying each package, repeating the names of foods she has never seen before and which she wonders if she might one day be able to buy. Dog treats shaped like bacon, peach-flavored vitamin powder, Band-Aids with cartoon monsters on them, unfamiliar vegetables, cheeses with foreign names, gringo creams and soaps. The universe of commodities, as the Marxist pamphlets say. She is surprised at how little the other cashiers seem to care about the hidden anxieties revealed by the contents of each shopping cart. She doesn’t try to hide the fact that she eavesdrops on the customers’ conversations, and they don’t seem to notice. She stares at them like a young girl studying everything an older one wears and says. With brazen fascination, but also a kind of reverence.

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It had been less than a day since I’d left the camp, and I was beat exhausted. But I couldn’t stop to rest because I was scared shitless afraid they were going to catch me. By that point in the morning, they must have realized I was gone had deserted and you can bet your ass they had probably sent a few of the others after me. I’d left around three, after my shift on watch, in the middle of a crazy heavy storm. I ran for a few hours along a narrow path before I reached a stream that leads to the Nukak Reserve. We’d taken that same path a few days earlier, when they sent us to find food snakes because we were running out of things to eat.

“This part about the snakes isn’t true, miss. Did you add that in? They sent us for fish because we’d been eating nothing but rice for weeks.”

“I wanted to get your approval specifically on that change. I think it’s more impactful this way. Besides, I’ve read accounts of combatants hunting serpents when their camps were running low on food. And you saw dangerous snakes, didn’t you?”

Marcela’s feet hurt. She hasn’t gotten used to the long hours standing still at the register. It feels good to take her shoes off under the desk. Without answering the editor, she begins reading again.

The fighting had been so intense that we’d spent two weeks hungry, nervous, on edge. I remember chatting talking with some of the others about how in the radio interviews they did with people who’d deserted, some of them said that what made them finally decide to run in the end was that their hunger was out of control so severe. It actually worked out well for me that no food was getting through because everyone’s morale was low. The only snag problem was that I didn’t have much to stash away for the trip either. After that first night away from the camp, not long before as the sun was rising rose, I realized I was on top of a ridge and that I had covered traveled some serious a great distance. A shit ton. Much more than I’d thought.

“I have a question about this part. Let’s see if we can get a little more specific. How far do you think you traveled on this first stretch? The more details you can provide, the more realistic it will seem.”

“With the twists and turns and all that, I’d say about six hours.”

“If I show you a map, do you think we can be a bit more precise? We’ll have one at the beginning of the book so we can show your exact route.”

The editor turns her laptop around. Marcela sees her own reflection in its screen before her eyes focus on the image, a photograph of a surface made up of different shades of green, interrupted by brownish gray splotches and white tufts. A brown line snakes haphazardly through the anodyne vegetation of the jungle. Written across it are the words Río Inírida. The erratic river clashes with the simplicity of the landscape: its contours seem too alive, too winding and evasive, against the static image of the flatland.

“Whoa. Now that’s a map . . . look at those colors, everything. It’s a satellite image, right? I can’t recognize anything like that, though.”

“Hold on, I’ll zoom in and show you up close.”

The map gradually reappears on the screen. This time, its greenery is blurred, the river’s curves less urgent. The picture vanishes again and is replaced by an indecipherable array of green and brown splotches.

“Now I really can’t see what’s what. No, wait. I know what that is—military camo, right?”

Marcela laughs. The editor does not.

“I zoomed in too far and the image blurred.”

When the map appears again, Marcela recognizes a few names: Río Inírida, El Retorno, Morichal, Puerto Macaco, El Olvido, La Libertad. Thanks to her friendship with the camp’s radio operator, who was also in charge of the GPS, she always knew the names of the towns, villages, and gullies they passed. It had seemed important to memorize them. She wrote them in her notebooks. But now, on the screen, she sees names she doesn’t know: Sabanas de La Fuga, El Resbalón, Isla El Remolino.

“At that point we were near El Olvido, in the zone controlled by Comandante Danilo and the Thirty-Third Front.”

Her finger grazes the computer screen, and she is surprised by the distortion it produces. She apologizes.

“But to say how many kilometers it was, just like that, I don’t know. I was looking for one of the bigger lakes that form off the Inírida on Nukak land. I heard a special unit of the Omega task force was operating in the area, and I was betting on that. Those might be the lakes, there.”

This time she just points, keeping her finger far from the screen.

“But I really can’t say anything for sure from this map. . . .My eyes were on the ground the whole time, figuring out where to step, looking for paths. How do you think I’m going to be able to tell you what’s what from the air?”

“I’m going to say thirty kilometers. It might be off by a little one way or the other, but at least it gives us an idea.”

Marcela nods. She looks out the window at the mountains, their lines suddenly clearer now that the fog has lifted.

“Sabanas de La Fuga. What a perfect name. Wish I’d known I was running across the plains of escape.”

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Marcela hears the clack of a woman’s high-heeled shoes approaching. A tall man with a dark mustache wearing a suit and tie walks beside her, pushing a full cart that he parks at Marcela’s register. He might be a bodyguard or a driver, or both. He passes Marcela a few artichokes (she’s just learned the code for those), a box of rice with words in a different language on it, and a slimy bag filled with rings of white flesh. She studies the name on the outside: squid. She likes how soft the cool flesh feels and gets an urge to pinch it like she does with the little plastic bubbles of the packing wrap she steals from the storage room, exploding each one between her fingers on the endless bus ride home. The man’s tiny boss watches from a moderate distance as he and Marcela perform the choreography of commerce.

Marcela studies every detail of the minuscule woman. Her hair is dyed a pale blond and is suspended in a lacquered bubble; its solidity and airiness is startling. She wears big rings on her fingers and gold bracelets that jingle with her every movement, amplifying her wealth. A light layer of makeup helps conceal her thin skin and those reddish freckles blonds get. To hide her curiosity (Diana has told her that the customers hate to feel like they’re being inspected), Marcela lowers her gaze every so often to the bar codes. When she looks up again, she studies the woman’s hazel eyes and the way their freckled irises sparkle against their worn, gelatinous beds. She feels a whip crack in her throat. It’s the green of those eyes. She imagines the woman dressed in sweats with the white hair of someone who hasn’t been to the salon in a long time, sitting on a tarp under the trees that grow along the Guaviare, discussing a Marxist pamphlet. Marcela thinks she might vomit, right there in front of the golden mass of that woman standing with her wallet open, ready to pay for her purchases. Right there in front of the woman’s driver, who handles everything.

“Do me a favor, Diana, and ring this ticket up? I don’t feel so good.”

She gives the little door that holds her captive at the register a hard push. An ethereal wave of vomit surges up a tube deep inside her, much deeper than her throat. The old woman manages to catch her profile, the snug blue uniform, the tight bun all the women who work at the superstore are expected to wear. She watches her disappear down the sale aisle.

“What’s wrong with her?”

For a moment the man beside her is transformed from a domestic helper into a bodyguard and turns down the aisle to see where the checkout girl is headed.

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I could have gone on walking, except I risked running into members of the other front, which was trading fire locked in combat with one of the enemy’s army’s mobile units. Maybe they’d already figured out I’d defected, but I knew their orders were to defend against the enemy army above everything else. I heard shots and voices and a couple of army helicopters flying overhead and. So I hid in a shack little cave formed by a few fallen trees. To be honest, Though I wasn’t sure they were looking for me, but I spent the whole afternoon of that first day tucked away in there, not moving, waiting for the sun to go down set so I could take the path to a lake I’d seen on one of our reconnaissance missions. My plan was to swim across it if I could.

“I think we should add something here about food. If you went hungry, if you had to find nourishment in the jungle.”

“In my backpack I had some raw sugar, cooked rice, and two sausages I’d stolen from the kitchen back at camp. The plan was to ration them and eat them later, depending on how hungry I got. On the third day I decided to eat two fat caterpillars I found in the hollow of a tree trunk. No idea what they could have been. They were bright green and covered in bristles. I was worried they might be poisonous and thought to myself, what if I end up with my tongue all paralyzed? But I took a chance and wolfed them down, pretending they were pork rinds. And look at that, I’m here to tell the tale. Actually, they were kinda good.”

“Perfect. I’ll add that in, then, if you don’t mind.”

The editor is taking notes on her computer. Marcela feels a rush of pride at having come up with such a believable lie. She imagines the caterpillars, which she’s never tasted and never will, crunching across the pages of her book forever. And the readers, wrinkled in disgust.

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After the daily ritual of customer appreciation, Marcela goes to see the floor manager, who has called her into his office.

“I’m told this is the third time you’ve left the register in the middle of your shift. I’ll remind you that every absence during working hours must be accompanied by a doctor’s note. If this continues, your absences will be deducted from your paycheck as time not worked. More than three absences is grounds for dismissal. It’s all in your contract. You did read the contract, didn’t you?”

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s true that I’ve stepped away briefly from the register for minor health issues, but I always come back quickly. Don’t worry, sir. It won’t happen again.”

She’s been using the word sir a lot lately. She doesn’t like it, but she uses it. To tame it. Just like she does with her old name.

“It concerns me that you keep leaving the customers hanging with their purchases. Listen, we’ve welcomed you folks in the reintegration program with open arms. It’s part of Carrefour’s social mission and our commitment to peace. And I congratulate you personally on your decision to leave the jungle behind. But I must remind you that here, we work on a schedule, and each employee is responsible for her own discipline as part of her commitment to the company. No one is forcing you to be here, it’s not like back there.”

Marcela scratches near her sternum to interrupt the manager’s gaze, which is fixed on her chest. Before leaving the area where the offices are for the giant warehouse of products on display, she stops to observe a plaque celebrating the employee of the month and a large aerial image of an agricultural field divided by neatly hewn paths. The slogan written across the poster is meant to be inspirational. “Carrefour: At the Crossroads.”

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Right, so anyway, when When it started getting dark, I followed the path a little further until I saw recognized a field where we’d laid mines a few weeks earlier. I’d been in charge of the operation, so I knew the terrain. So I thought to myself, you’re going to blow your legs of f if you that it would be too dangerous to try to cross it in the dark, and I decided to wait until daybreak. I dragged a whole bunch of branches over to the trunk of a tree and spent the whole night there, I mean, what else was I supposed to do. I think I slept a little. At dawn, as I continued on my journey my escape, I saw that a large animal had been killed by one of the mines. It looked like a jaguar, but I couldn’t say for sure because by then it was just meat carrion. It made me so sad, so angry with myself because what did he have to do with the war. I even thought about staying to bury him, but that would have been irresponsible and so I kept going. The path brought me to a big, beautiful lake that I recognized because we’d passed it a few weeks earlier and I remembered thinking how pretty it was. I’d needed to help carry the prisoner in my care person we’d kidnapped when we crossed it coming the other way.

“All right, Marcela. This seems like a good time to remind you that we need more details about your relationship with the kidnapping victims.”

“I told you before that I only saw a few right at the end, around six months before I left. I never wanted anything to do with that.”

“But it’s something people want to read about. People want to know if you got close to any of them. The whole thing about the older woman you cared for has to be in here. Try to give us more details.”

“There was this one political prisoner they brought to the front for a few weeks, but then they moved him to another camp, and later I found out he’d been executed when the fighting started over there. We never spoke. In the end, they ordered me to watch over a woman who was called Doña Helena, or I should say, who is called that, since I figure she’s still alive. She was old already and had been detained for six months by the time they ordered me to look after her. Jenny, who always cared for the detainees, had been wounded in combat. They picked me because I’d been in the unit longer than almost anyone. You have no idea how hard it was for me to accept the assignment. It was a job I’d always tried to avoid.”

“Why?”

“Because I knew it would mess me up to see a detainee suffer up close like that. The others never talked about it, the subject was off-limits, but I knew it wrecked even the toughest ones, even if nobody was willing to admit it.”

“As if you sensed you might realize that you were a captive too.”

“I mean, maybe. But you can’t really compare one thing with the other, since I was the one who was holding the keys, right?”

“Right, but weren’t you following orders too?”

“Anyway, in the end, it was being with her that gave me the push I needed to leave. She was actually the one who convinced me to go.”

“Who was she?”

“They said she was from a family that owned a bunch of factories, but she never wanted to talk to me about any of that. And I never asked. She’d complain to me that her family had already sent piles of cash to pay the tax and she wasn’t being released.

The handler assigned to her before me had been tough on her and threatened to confiscate the notebooks she’d managed to get her hands on. But we were close right from the start. We talked about lots of things, about our families. She told me about her children, I told her about my sisters, we even talked for hours about birds. She was an expert. Ever since I arrived, I’d been drawing the birds I saw in my notebook, so I’d show them to her and she’d tell me what they were called and sometimes even give me their scientific name—their elegant name, I call it. Sometimes she didn’t recognize the birds in my drawings and she’d get really excited and ask me to describe them in more detail. She even told me that I had to make my escape when the big migrations were happening because the birds traveling together could be like a compass for me so I wouldn’t get lost. While I was taking care of her, she turned seventy-two and I made her a cake. I got her pain pills, too, for her arthritis. I think she felt better around me, like she wasn’t so alone, poor thing. In the end, I managed to leave her my radio to remember me by.”

“And she knew you were leaving?”

“We’d started to trust each other more, and I tried to convince her to come with me, but we both knew she wasn’t up to such a rough journey. Especially with the pain she had. She’d say to me, ‘Poli, why are you still here? Scoot, darling.’ I always thought they’d release her before I ran, which is why I had her memorize the names of my sisters and my mom so she could go find them and tell them I was all right, that I was alive, that they should wait for me because I was on my way. But go figure, I was the one who went first, and I didn’t even have time to say good-bye.”

The editor takes notes.

“Do you know if she’s back now?”

“I don’t know. No idea. I hope so. Poor thing.”

She feels an overwhelming urge to tell her editor about the old woman in the superstore but catches herself in time.

“Anyway, none of this goes in. It’s one thing for me to tell you the story like this, but none of it’s going in.”

She keeps reading.

Yeah, of course I’d come across alligators in rivers and swamps a few times and figured there were probably lots of animals in the lake, and tons of snakes too. So I tried not to think about that and while I swam across like a shot as quickly as possible. Somewhere around t There I came across a little river, one of the ones that feed into the Inírida. On the other side, two boys were out grazing their cattle. I didn’t know what to do until I started waving to them, but they ran off in a flash as soon as they saw me. When I crossed the river, I thought I heard the motors of a few boats and that scared the shit out of me. I ran away from the river forever for about an hour until I found a trench cover under another fallen tree. and I stayed there a few hours. and Then it began to pour, and I thought I’d try my luck make the most of it and walk toward where I thought the army was, since I’d figured out taking into account the direction of the helicopters that had just flown over me overhead were going.

|

“Have you decided when you’re going to call your sisters?”

Diana likes to talk to her when they assign them neighboring cash registers.

“I don’t know. This week for sure, I think. But only Zenaida, not Nubia. And not my mom, not yet. I couldn’t call her without talking to Zenaida first.”

They’d recently brought a woman who had fought with the M-19 guerrilla before joining the Ministry of Defense into the therapy sessions at the Agency. Wrapped in the dark fabric of her business suit, the woman told them about her return to Bogotá after years of fighting in Cauca. She had nearly committed suicide when the children she hadn’t been able to raise bombarded her with questions just days after she arrived. But then she dug deep and found the strength not to kill herself. By way of a conclusion, the psychologist wrote on the board, “IMPORTANT: do not contact your family before a reasonable amount of time has gone by.” Marcela had wanted to ask what a reasonable amount of time was but didn’t dare.

“You have to let it go, Marci. It’s been a long time, I’m sure they’ll forgive you. Mothers forgive everything, you know.”

She likes that Diana calls her Marci. It makes her feel young, like when she was in school in Teorama. She gets a sudden urge to tell her everything, like an avalanche. She feels it rise in her throat but holds back.

“Hey, Di. What happened with that bedding set? Is your aunt going to lend you the money for it? I can go with you to pick it out if you want.”

She likes addressing Diana informally, though she senses they’re still a long way from the friendship they’ve been building little by little, in the momentary truces granted to them by the customers and machines.

|

“Marcela, I find myself needing to remind you, again, that this book needs more details about your love life. We have plenty of descriptions of your adventures and how hard it is to cross the jungle, and of the chaos and all that, but it won’t be powerful enough without the emotional aspect. No one’s going to want to read something so dry. Try and remember if there isn’t something you can include. Think hard.”

“Well, I did have a boyfriend there. I’ve never loved anyone as much as I loved him. They recruited him during a raid in Meta, and I helped him learn the ropes. We were together in secret for almost a year before they moved him to a different front because it was against the rules to be with someone in your own unit, and they suspected there was something going on between us. That was in 2006, I haven’t seen him since. Later, I heard he’d been caught and was in jail in Popayán. I haven’t gone to look for him yet, but I’m thinking about it. One day. I mean, I’m not still in love with him, but I do care.”

There’s a silence.

“But don’t put that in. That doesn’t go in. And I’m not sure I want to say anything else about my family, either. Or, I don’t know. That’s something we’d have to negotiate.”

|

Marcela makes a long-distance call from the internet café next to the superstore. The Agency has given her a number where she can supposedly reach her mother. The unfamiliar voice of a young man announces the woman’s absence.

“Hm. I’m calling from Bogotá with an important message for her. Who am I speaking with?”

“I’m her son. Who is this?”

It’s the first time she’s heard the voice of her little brother cradled in words. Rubén was only a year old when she left. On the spur of the moment she can’t think of any name besides her alias to give, but she softens it. Poli. Then she reproaches herself for using it. She explains that she is a friend looking for Zenaida and Nubia.

“They live in Bogotá, but Zenaida has a cell phone. If you want, I can give you the number.”

She writes it down in the new notebook she bought to draw, all over again, the birds she remembers from back there. Before she hangs up, she tells Rubén she hopes to meet him one day.

|

This time she doesn’t tell her editor she’s going to miss their meeting. After work she takes a bus downtown. She doesn’t know the area yet, even though she’s supposed to go twice a month for therapy and to get her stipend from the Agency. She never has time to stroll past the old graffiti-covered walls that catch her eye from the bus. Diana told her once that San Victorino had nice gifts for a good price—cheaper than at the superstore, even with their employee discount. She is startled by the rage she senses behind the shrill honking of cars and buses along Carrera Décima. Overwhelmed by the din of the loudspeakers announcing sales, she steps into the plaza. She has a hard time getting her bearings.

She takes shelter in a clothing store. The name on the awning reads USA Fashion. She tries to recall the secretariat’s communiqués about imperialist capitalism, but the clothes gleaming on their hangers dilute her thinking. After making two rounds of the store, she tries on a few sweaters in royal blue, Zenaida’s favorite color. Did they still wear the same size? Was this still her favorite color? She ends up buying one of them, along with a gold watch for herself and a white onesie with a bear hugging a heart printed on it. In case Nubia and Zenaida have babies or for whenever they do. Or in case some other relative has one in the future. Maybe Diana would decide to have a kid with her new boyfriend.

|

The phone rings. For the first time in her life, she leaves a message. (She’d asked Diana how to leave messages on a cell phone, hoping she would guess what was behind the question.)

“Hi, Zena. It’s Marcela. I’m calling from Bogotá. I live here now, kiddo, for the last three weeks or so. I’m out. I know it’s been a long time but, well, I’d like to see you all again. I’ll try you again later. Bye.”

She wishes she’d left a longer message to explain why she’s not so far away anymore. On the wall across from where she’s waiting for the bus, she makes out some graffiti that reads coke diet, Diet Coke.

|

The old woman’s driver pushes a full shopping cart up to the checkout. That same tie, that same thick mustache he’s worn these last three weeks. Marcela sets the Closed sign on her register and walks quickly toward the employee restroom. She thinks she passes the woman in one of the aisles. She leans over the sink to vomit, but all that comes up is an acidic saliva that takes her three tries to spit out.

That afternoon in group therapy, she works up the nerve to speak for the first time. She describes her frantic sprints down the aisles of the superstore. The psychologist encourages the others to respond. They look at one another, but no one says anything. The psychologist intervenes.

“You’re not the only one who has these experiences, Marcela. They’re a common effect of the post-traumatic stress of war. The visage you think you see isn’t really someone you know.”

The word visage unsettles her. She’s seen it on some of the creams and soaps she bought from the superstore. She thinks about how she’s never used it in a sentence. At the end of the session, Marcela approaches the psychologist to ask about that stress she mentioned, what the symptoms are. To see if maybe she has it.

|

Sunday is the only day she doesn’t have to deal with shopping carts or hear the cash register’s trill echo in her head. No one lines up for the bathroom that early, so she can spend extra time in the shower. She shaves her armpits, then scrubs the scar on her shoulder with a bit of the exfoliant she bought and spreads the rest up toward her neck. She applies a special conditioner formulated to prevent hair loss, twice. She dries off and lets her hair hang loose, the way she wore it back when she left Teorama, even though she suspects more will fall out that way. Still naked, she sweeps up the strands she’s left orphaned around her room during the week. She moves the cardboard boxes where she keeps her clothes to reveal the hair entrenched in the corners. She returns to the thought that one day she’ll have a huge armoire with lots of drawers and a mirror inside one of the doors. An elegant piece made of fine wood like the one she saw on a hacienda she entered with her unit in Meta. She’d stick photos inside the other door (she is unsettled to realize that she has no idea where those photos would come from). She’d hang others on the walls in shiny frames, like the ones her editor has in her office. The psychologist keeps saying that they need to “come up with new dreams,” and Marcela wonders if this is what she means. She has recently begun to identify certain things she lacks.

It’s still early. She dusts off the hot plate she picked up at the pawn shop so she wouldn’t have to share a kitchen with the others in her tenement and notices, again, the fragility of the cardboard box it rests on. As she mops the white tiles, her longing for the leaf-covered dirt floors of her past unsettles her. She repositions the thick pile of manuscript pages engulfing the plastic chair, and her eyes fall on the Agency’s pamphlet about options for finishing high school. She reproaches herself for not having read it. While she straightens the sheets, she thinks that if Diana ends up asking her to go buy that bedding set with her, she might be able to get a quilt or something to mask the austerity of her cot. A nice, warm one to protect her from the cold she can’t seem to chase from her feet. She suppresses her desire for heavy curtains, like the ones that arrogantly hide everything she might strain to glimpse inside the apartments of the oligarchs (the oligarchs controlled by the empire, as the manuals insist). One day, she thinks, she’ll want a television. She has a few minutes left for cleaning, to dust off the books that her editor has been giving her but that she hasn’t had time to read and has nowhere to keep. If she gets a few more, she’ll be able to stack them into a bedside table for her alarm clock.

She still has half an hour, so she decides to walk to the spot they agreed on. She puts on a brand-new pair of silver shoes that she bought at the superstore with her second paycheck, though she suspects she’ll be limping after a few blocks. City shoes are no match for feet forged on dirt paths. She chides herself for wishing she had her rubber boots again.

 

Maybe she should use the diminutive, like she always had, to make things less formal. Zenita, kiddo. A hug? Start off by giving her the gift? Tell her about the book? Promise her that everything will make sense when she reads it?

In the café she orders an herbal tea and sits down at a table facing the door. She blows hard on the liquid in her cup, making little whirlpools. She watches two men in cycling gear and a woman with a girl fresh from the bath come and go. She tries to focus on the game show playing on the tv, but her eyes keep drifting back to the door. She orders a roscón and breaks the pastry into pieces that she eats hastily, to finish before Zenaida arrives. She pulls the plastic sheet from the face of her new watch and folds it into a tiny square.

What if she doesn’t come alone? What if Nubia is with her?

She waits for an hour and a quarter, staking out the door from her seat, alert to every bus that stops nearby. She stares at an old tree across the street and is moved by the way its swollen roots break through the sidewalk, contained and patient but also unruly. Does the tree miss the dirt, or does it go through life ignoring its absence?

She turns back several times as she walks away from the café, hoping that maybe Zenaida had just been delayed and she might catch her heading inside.

That night, Marcela stays up late going through the five approved chapters. On the manuscript’s pages, she marks things she wants to ask her editor to change. But before going to bed she burns them in the shower and scatters the ashes from the window like an offering.

|

When we took off in the army plane that brought me here I couldn’t believe the view. Seeing the trees and the countryside, the mountains, all from above really blew me away and I started thinking about the birds, and how they see the world different from us. The first time I saw my first glimpse of Bogotá was from the air. I was amazed how long the streets looked and how big the city seemed, even from way up high. I was also, I’m not sure how to explain it, I was dying to see up close what they’d always told us about class divisions in Bogotá, about the inequality in big cities. I’d always thought things would seem so clear from the air, but then I realized nothing was easy to understand from up there, you know? It’s hard to explain the feeling I had. Down here, the streets seem to have so little to do with what I saw from up there. It surprises me each time I think about that damn landing my arrival, and by that I mean every day. Then I thought about my sisters, too, and wondered if they were somewhere in that giant maze, had they forgotten me or did they still remember? and whether they still remembered me. I sent them a message from up there, with my mind, to say I was there, to wait for me because I’ll see them in no time flat letting them know that I’d arrived and that we would see each other very soon. Since I moved to Engativá here, I hear lots of planes flying overhead, and the noise scares the crap out of startles me sometimes. Right away, I get, like, an instinct to make a run for the nearest hideout shelter. That’s what it’s like when I’m walking down the street and there’s one of those truck bang things a motor backfires: my reflex is to get ready for an attack and I reach for the rifle I don’t have anymore. And sure, sometimes I hear a bird singing and that brings me right back there, in my memory. I mean, I know these are different birds and that there are less of them here, but at the same time I figure some of them might be the same, that there must be some birds that stop here on their way there, or the other way around. I should find out. Sometimes I think that if I still had my notebook, the one with the drawings, I could compare the birds I drew there with the ones here, but too bad a couple army grunts took it from me when I turned myself in, supposedly because it might contain valuable information. I get so mad when I think about it. But yeah, I miss lots of things from there. The trees, for starters, it’s crazy how much I miss them. I can’t see a single one from the window in my room and that really brings me down and the psychologist tells me I should go explore the city’s beautiful parks. Then there’s my friends, and my dog . . . you have no idea. Of course, there’s plenty I don’t miss too.

“All right. We’re going to need to expand this part a bit to share what you like about the city, what’s surprised you, and also to include a few details about your family situation as it stands now. You said you didn’t visit anyone you knew when you came back.”

“No. But I’ve seen my sisters a few times now, and they’ve told my mother I’m here. I’m even going to move in with Zenaida in a few months.”

“That’s wonderful news. I’m so glad. Why didn’t you say anything about all this?”

“Because I don’t want it going in the book. If you’d like, you can put in that I saw my family, but that’s all. No details.”

“Think about it, Marcela. It’s absolutely crucial to round out the story. Imagine how excited your readers will be. At our next meeting, we’ll need to record the last leg of your escape and what happened when you turned yourself in. The climax of the story. Take your time deciding how you want to narrate the part about your family.”

“This is the climax.”

Silence. Marcela tells her editor that she’ll miss their next meeting, she’s planning to visit her mother in Teorama. They agree to pick up again when she returns. She leaves the office completely sure that she’ll never set foot inside it again, that she’ll never again pass her new ID to the guard in the lobby or try to avoid his pawing when he takes it, that she’ll never again read pages with words crossed out or list her experiences into a tiny recorder that promises to safeguard them all. She knows she won’t be the author of a book. And that she won’t be paid. She is relieved, in advance, that she won’t need to scan the barcode of her own story when someone grabs it from the stands adorning the checkout lines at the superstore.

 

“The person you have dialed is not available. Please leave your message after the beep.”

“Zena, it’s me again. I guess you got tied up the other day and that’s why you couldn’t make it to the café. That’s too bad. It’s okay, though, don’t worry. When I finally get a cell phone, I’ll give you the number so you can call me directly, since I always have to call you from the street and you’ll never reach me that way. Or I’ll give you the address of where I’m living so you can have it and maybe stop by one day, whenever you can. Whenever you like, Zenita. Sundays I’m always there, I’m there all day because that’s my day off. Anytime, sweetie, I’ll be waiting for you.”

She feels strange for having said sweetie. Kiddo would have been better, that’s what she used to call her back in Teorama. She recites her address.

“Okay. I’ll be waiting for you. Talk to you or see you soon, I hope. Bye. Take care, bye.”

She dials again.

“Kiddo, I forgot to say that I work at the Carrefour in La Floresta. Monday to Saturday from seven to four thirty. You can find me there for sure, if you’d rather stop by there. Okay. This time for real. Bye.”

 

After the morning applause, Marcela finds Diana and they walk to the registers together.

“So? I was thinking about you yesterday. Did your sister show up?”

“No, but I left her a message with my address. She’ll come, I know her. This morning I had a feeling that today was maybe the day. But like you said, I have to be patient. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll be able to introduce you to her soon. You’ll love her.”

Diana squeezes her arm encouragingly.

“Whoa, Marcela, you’re pretty built! I don’t know how you stay in that kind of shape. Don’t tell me you’re spending your paychecks at the gym.”

Marcela feels a viscous urge to cry rising in her throat and is relieved Diana can’t tell.

“How was the christening, Di? What did you end up giving your godson?”

“It was awesome. I got him a mobile with wild animals, and Daniel even found someone to cover for him, so he came with me. I introduced him to the whole family.”

“That’s so great. When do I get to meet him?”

Marcela immediately regrets saying this. What if Diana thinks she’s being pushy? They’ve never actually hung out. The women step into their booths under the watchful eyes of their supervisor. He spends his days reprimanding them for chatting.

Marcela’s first customer is an elderly woman accompanied by a young man who helps her empty a small shopping basket.

“You don’t happen to sell books on dream interpretation, do you, hon? I thought I saw one here once.”

Marcela replies that she doesn’t know. The woman tells the young man about her most recent nightmare. She’d woken up one morning and her house was full of red fish. There were so many she could barely walk, so she decided to share them. But just as she was filling a bag to bring to her neighbor, the doorbell rang and there was the neighbor, who had come by to offer her some of the same fish because they’d taken over her apartment too.

“I didn’t know what to do, dear. And to think, abundance is supposed to bring happiness.”

Marcela scans a bag of rice, a few bananas, an enormous bottle of body wash, glass cleaner, and a biography of the president. Nothing really worth noting. She watches as they leave the abundance of the superstore. Her neck cracks when she looks up at the ceiling. She stares at its tubes and pipes as she drops her head to one side, then the other, to get at the pain lodged there. She notices signs of a leak in a far corner. She makes a face at the security camera that’s always trained on her.

 

A woman walks toward her along the center aisle, holding a little boy’s hand. Marcela notices the bright lettering on her low-cut T-shirt: SPECIAL BEAUTY. Underneath, an eagle in flight like something out of a military insignia. She wants to recognize that long black hair, the freckles on those full brown cheeks, those eyes—fearful and happy, happy then fearful, in constant flux the way Zenaida’s always were. She’s thrown off by the woman’s ample body, which is neither as slender or as nimble as she remembers.

Without nausea this time, she tears the name badge from her chest and whips open the door of her booth like when her cash drawer snaps out to spew a customer’s change.

 

 

 

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read next in TLR: Turning Points and Revolution, Lucas Hirsch, “Lament”

 

 

Photo of author Maria Ospina standing in front of a blue walll, taken by Simón Parra.
María Ospina by Simón Parra

María Ospina was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and teaches Latin American culture at Wesleyan University. She has written about memory, violence, and culture in contemporary Colombia. Her stories have appeared in anthologies in Colombia and Italy. Azares del cuerpo, her first book of fiction, has been published in Colombia, Chile, Spain, and Italy. “Policarpa” is part of the collection, Variations on the Body, forthcoming in summer 2021

Heather Cleary’s translations include Betina González’s American Delirium, Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre (nominee, National Book Award for Translated Literature 2018), and Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (finalist, Best Translated Book Award 2013) and The Dark (nominee, National Translation Award 2014). A member of the Cedilla & Co. translation collective and a founding editor of the digital, bilingual Buenos Aires Review, she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.