In this story by Michel Nieva, pandemic-era Harlem brings our protagonist back to 2001 protests in Buenos Aires's Plaza de Mayo, a movement whose size has perhaps only ever been rivaled in recent US history by the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was shortly after I’d moved to Harlem, during that first pandemic summer, that I first learned about the war of the species. I’d lost my job, and with all the borders closed I’d ended up stranded in New York. In jest I was telling Nelson that, while the restrictions may have meant I couldn’t go back to Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires had come back to me. But the Buenos Aires that circumstances had placed before me was a city in its most nightmarish form, a spectral Buenos Aires circa 2001 that was so formative to my early adolescence, and which exemplified the period of our greatest economic, social and political crisis, when we went through five presidents in a single month, as the country declared bankruptcy and levels of extreme poverty exceeded fifty percent. I went to school in the afternoon session and was always getting mugged at knifepoint on the walk back home from the metro station. In light of this, I’d made a habit of always wearing my shabbiest clothes, or rather the only ones that were left in my wardrobe, beat-up Topper sneakers full of holes and an enormous, old army jacket I had inherited from an uncle. Because my school was just a few blocks from the Plaza de Mayo, where the anti-government protests were taking place, the police would take one look at my sneakers and stop me every time, asking me for my documents despite the sheer improbability that a twelve-year-old might be leading protests. I remember classes being suspended at least twice a week because of gunshots on the Plaza de Mayo, and the narrow streets of Montserrat, today plagued with banks and luxury hotels, were then a ghetto of squats, unabashed drug dealing, and homeless people. I remember my mother giving me my pocket money in LECOP and patacones, emergency bonds the government had distributed to make up for the shortage of cash; not only was it rare to find a place that accepted them, but those that did refused to give change, so that you had to use each patacón in one go, and not allow a hasty purchase (buying a five-patacón sandwich with a patacón worth ten, for example) to eat away at the few valuable notes you had. In short, it was a period of terrible scarcity, there were shortages of everything everywhere, but I was twelve and I was happy. And suddenly, a part of that distorted memory came back to me in 2020 New York. When I first arrived in Manhattan, I held the unshakeable belief that its skyscrapers and marquees were indestructible and that nothing could stop the flow of people and capital through them. The place was brimming over with wealth and it was inconceivable that the majestic scenery of its high-end neighborhoods and iconic avenues might be disrupted for any reason. And then suddenly the pandemic descended upon us, the rich fled upstate, and the ghostly streets were traversed only by roaring ambulances, joined subsequently by the boiling pot of the Black Lives Matter protests. Supermarkets were stripped of the most basic supplies as if in wartime and the luxury shops on Fifth Avenue were boarded up to deter looters. I was living in Harlem and had lost my job due to the closure of the perfumery where I worked. My home was a room in a boarding house which almost everyone else had abandoned, and the massive protests on 125th Street and Saint Nicholas Ave. were the only time I felt any sense of community or refuge from loneliness during that terrible time, which was precisely when the Buenos Aires I had left behind, and could not go back to because the borders were closed, was suddenly reincarnated in this unforeseen historical moment of a New York that, though unrecognizable to itself, was ominously recognizable in the Buenos Aires of 2001. In the early evenings I would visit the only liquor store still open in the neighborhood, where Nelson, a Mendoza native who had lived undocumented in the city for thirty years, could be found behind the counter. He was the only person with whom I spoke face-to-face during those lonely and unsettling days. I calculated that the money I was saving on monthly metro passes was equivalent to six bottles of bourbon (the cheapest and most effective alcohol, since each bottle was equivalent to four bottles of wine—my drink of choice, but one that in this context was beyond my means), though I quickly lost my grasp of mathematics and began drinking a bottle a day, which meant that I began visiting Nelson daily, and after purchasing my daily dose we’d always stop and chat for a while. As I was saying, I was telling him about the way Buenos Aires was being reincarnated in New York when he simply changed the subject, like he hadn’t been listening to a word I was saying:
“Shall we go bet a few pesos on the rats vs. raccoon bout?”
It appeared, Nelson added, that the rats had all gone crazy because of the quarantine and the sudden disappearance of trash on the streets. They couldn’t understand why their food source had suddenly disappeared and they had begun eating their own young. Nelson explained that they had soon split into two groups: the cannibals, who ate the children of their rivals, and the ones who’d joined up with the raccoons that had swarmed the city to kill the other rats. However, it seemed that the raccoons, unlike the rats, had benefited from the disappearance of humans, since it had allowed them to return from the forests of the north and take definitive control of the deserted streets. At the same time, the rats, knee-deep in their own civil war, were exposed, opening up a via regia that allowed the raccoons to take over sewers and hiding places. The result was that the raccoons ended up betraying their rat allies and engaging them in a bloody war of the species that could be appreciated in all its ugliness in any one of the city’s green spaces.
And, Nelson continued, a Puerto Rican friend of his had not passed up the opportunity to monetize a spectacle that could be witnessed in broad daylight in any New York park, and so had set up a betting ring in which people could put money on either the rats or the raccoons. They gathered every day at around six p.m. in Inwood Hill Park, and the minimum bet was ten dollars.
I didn’t really understand what it was all about, but I was so lonely and desperate that the very idea of being around people excited me, and I agreed to come along.
We brought a bottle of bourbon with us—on Nelson’s tab this time—and entered the park on the hill side, facing the river on 207th Street, which is like entering a small forest and makes you forget you’re in a city. The ground is earth covered by a bed of leaves, and a thick tangle of pine branches forms a kind of mysterious, enchanted tunnel. We walked for a few minutes up a steep path until suddenly, guided by the sound of whispers (no one was shouting because of the illicit nature of the activity), we found them. Some twenty or thirty people were huddled together in a circle, and some bloodcurdling shrieks were emanating from within. We slipped in among the crowd where we saw a swarm of frenzied rats balancing on a larger figure, about three feet in height, which I recognized once it started moving its arms and waist around: sure enough, it was a raccoon, but it was pulsating so violently that it resembled something else, some sort of cybernetic beast that had been created to kill.
I hadn’t quite taken in the situation when a man looked at me and asked, in perfect Spanish:
“Rat or raccoon?”
And so, completely unaware that this was the kind of sacred moment when you pledge your undying allegiance to a team, through thick and thin, I stated my choice:
I gave him ten dollars and let myself get carried away by the spectacle.
With their yellowy incisors, the rats gnawed away at the head and chest of the raccoon which, curiously, was standing upright on two legs like a biped. It slashed them across the middle with its long, sharp claws, leaving their guts hanging in the air, before tossing their disembowelled corpses into the gloomy woods. But the rats were so great in number that they fought back. One managed to bite off the raccoon’s ear, hungrily swallowing it like some prized delicacy. Meanwhile, an uncontrollable flow of blood, black as magma, erupted from the wound and covered the poor animal’s face. But the raccoon used its paw to wipe it off and squeezed the head of the rat, which was still gnawing on the toughest bits of auricular cartilage, with such force and violence that it exploded with a moist crunch of bones and brain. At this point, the crowd watching the spectacle could no longer contain their elation and, brandishing their betting slips in their hands, let out rallying cries which differed depending on the animal they’d put their money on, in a cacophony of languages from which I could only make out Spanish:
Quickly, though, I learned that rat is bera in Hausa and chuot in Vietnamese and krisa in Russian and yordan in Arabic and panya in Swahili and exu in Yoruba. We were a random assortment of immigrants in Harlem, most of us people who’d lost their jobs and had nowhere to return to even if we could or wanted to and with nothing else to do but bet the few notes we had left on the interspecies war that had so violently broken out in the city’s parks.
Which is what we were doing when, abruptly, some deafening sirens boomed out and people started to flee in terror. The curfew that had been decreed to repress the BLM protests had begun, and the gamblers ran off in every direction. Nelson shouted at me:
“Run, boludo, the cops are coming!”
But the fight still wasn’t over and I just had to know who would win, and the raccoon, with a furious, desperate energy, swiped the three or four rats who were still gnawing away at the top of its head with the aim of perforating its cranium and tore them to pieces, one by one. Its head was caked in half-dried, sticky blood and mud, and it let out a chilling roar, a kind of war cry that scared away the only rat that was still standing, surrounded by a pool of exploded rodents that resembled flesh magnolias recently come into bloom.
The raccoon had triumphed.
I took out my now worthless ten-dollar slip and turned around, but Nelson had gone. The sirens were getting louder and I fled down a pronounced slope towards the river, groping about among the rocks in the darkness. I kept going until the noise of the sirens slowly began to fade and the nearby lampposts guided me towards a part of Inwood Hill Park where there had once been a café (now boarded up) and where at every hour of the day there always used to be people playing sports or sitting and chatting on the grass or the benches or taking photos in the direction of the Hudson. But now its new conquerors, the raccoons, had eliminated any trace of that former obstacle. There were hundreds or maybe thousands of them, and they stalked the place like ghosts, suspicious and silent. I walked calmly, relieved at having escaped the patrol cars when suddenly three raccoons, who had already noticed my presence, came menacingly toward me. One of them growled, baring its long, sharp teeth in my direction. It looked at me and its glowing eyes made the pit of my stomach flutter, because all of a sudden I understood something that I couldn’t explain but which I fully understood deep in my guts, and it was that from now on we would all be hooked on the war of the species. We would bet and sometimes we would win, but the compulsion to play, whether we lost or won, would consume every last drop of energy—in our bodies and our minds—that we had left. It was the unmistakeable scent of a war waged according to the law of the mighty, and we had no alternative but to submit to its undisputed rule.
And from now on, everything would be either rat or raccoon.
“La guerra inter-especie” © Michel Nieva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Rahul Bery. All rights reserved.