Cristina Bendek (trans. Fionn Petch)
It was the year of the great blackout. There were noises on the roof. The noises were of things being dragged: wires, pebbles, claws. Every night I would thump the ceiling with a broomstick. The iguana and the rat fighting up there didn’t let me sleep.
.……..Or rather, what kept me awake was the fear of not knowing what was happening, who these two that fought as rat and iguana were, what they were fighting over, and why they were doing it on my roof. The old stories say that men only confront each other physically through their avatars, and avoid their human form so that their powers are not threatened by the weakening forces of gossip. It is an informal rule of combat. Power: that which is obtained through victory, money, land, women, luck.
.……..Shortly before midnight the contest began, and it went on until just before dawn. There were pauses when things fell silent and I could sleep. But when the noises started up again I relit the candles and observed the juddering shadows of my twisted hair, reading them on the walls and ceiling the way you interpret the traces of chocolate left at the bottom of a cup. Meanwhile, I recorded each session in a log.
Thumping sound: 1-1-2-1-1-2
Metallic sound: yes
.……..No squealing. That’s how I knew they were avatars. A rat squeals. I knew it the very first night, the first time the electricity went, because the next day there was no smell of rats. For me, the contest was the creaking sounds and, at the peak of each encounter, the heavy, slow thumps that shook the timbers. The wild beasts, one hot and one cold, wanted blood. During that turbulent phase I had to repeat to myself this is only half way, the fight is not with me, this is only half way, and I sweated with pain.
.……..The dispute ended with a lack of urgency. One spirit slowly abandoned my territory from the north-east, the other from the south, slowly, an hour before sun-up. That was when I took the candles to the desk and wrote the log for the following day. An ashtray and a glass of water on the bedside table. For me, the day would begin later, when the heat damped down the spirits, and the old men were lain out in their boats.
Those days were good for nothing. Not for sleeping. Not for writing. Not for going out. At four in the afternoon the weak April breeze made itself felt again and the somnolence lifted. Blood would have to flow on my roof for the combat to end, the stories said, but my own would not do. Nor would that of a chicken or a lizard. With the first buzz of the crickets the light would go out, like a switch: now you don’t hear it, now you do. The cricket. Now you see it, now you don’t. The light. When it was going to rain it was worse still, the wet bodies of the men seeking power and destroying life as they sought to deliver their own form of justice. The pebbles, the claws on concrete, the long tails against the boards. If it rained I noticed fewer things. I barely lit the candles, just once, if it subsided, and only recorded the zenith, the rat stretched out, the man stretched out.
It was May, a month of no rain, when there are neither mangos nor crabs.
.……..One Tuesday I was going over things in the studio: the creaking, the absence of squealing, the dragging sound. Early that morning, only one spirit had exited, to the south. I retraced the log and repainted the pain. Why do the men confront each other on my roof ? Whose blood is it that will fall? Before the electricity went again, I climbed up to the flat roof and checked once more that there were no animal traces. The story tells that there is no intervening in the contests of the obias, because the shamans are vengeful. But between the heat of the flat roof and the dizziness from my insomnia I invoked the spirit of a great cat, and my imagination disinterred the images of the rat and the iguana, outside the roof, unable to enter, impenetrable even to the breeze. I was dropping with sleep, as I descended the stair the sound of the crickets and the blackout coincided once more.
It was five in the afternoon and a light wind was carrying a taint of corruption. This breeze from the northeast brought a stink of sweat, rotting flesh, metal and acid. I peered out. The shoulder blades of a headless rat were sticking out of its grey and brown pelt, and still-warm blood oozed from the broken neck, a red trail from the limp body described its final journey, the fat stiff tail nibbled away. Just one death. I used a broom to nudge the body onto a dustpan and disposed of it in a black bag.
A short while after returning from the bins I was stunned by the sound of someone yelling. I looked out again. The neighbours emerged onto their porches. Another shout was heard, a different voice this time, and then another. Our eyes sought each other out. Someone fainted, then another. A woman cook was the first to articulate what they had seen: at the foot of the guava tree in the back yard, the head of a man had appeared.
The great blackout came to an end, and now the electricity goes off only intermittently, rather than every night. The decapitated body of the shopkeeper was found in a black bag, a few days after the guava tree discovery. I’m no longer keeping a log, nor do I wake up to jot down the noises. I go out walking at night. The cats chase after me.
The Colombian Edition of The London Magazine is out now and available from our online shop. Published in anticipation of next month’s Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, this issue will be followed by a Spanish language version, out in January 2022, in Colombia and the UK.
Cover image: Ritual (Pescadores), oil on canvas, 100x150cm (Pedro Ruiz, 2010)
Cristina Bendek is an author from the Caribbean. She was born in the island of San Andrés in 1987. In 2018, her first novel, Los cristales de la sal (Salt Crystals) won the National Award Elisa Mújica for novels in Colombia. The book has been translated into Portuguese (Moinhos, 2021), Dutch (Aurora Boreal, 2020) and will come out in English in 2022 with Charco Press, which will also launch the novel in Spanish for the North American readership. Fragments of her work have also appeared in German. Cristina is also a journalist but spends her time researching Caribbean literature and writing.
Fionn Petch was born in Scotland, lived in Mexico City for twelve years, and is now based in Berlin. He translates fiction, poetry and plays from Spanish and French, and also specialises in books and exhibition catalogues on art and architecture. He has curated multidisciplinary exhibitions, including the Citámbulos urban research project, and worked for several film and literature festivals. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the National University of Mexico (UNAM), on the concept of persuasion in early Greek thought. Fionn can be contacted at That Elusive Word Translations.
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