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from the September 2014 issue

The Witness

He rested in wildflower-whelmed cemeteries in the yards of wooden churches.

—José Antonio Ramos Sucre, “El peregrino de la fe”

When I chanced upon a weblog, whose text was also written out longhand in John Alejandro’s notebook, I discovered how the circumstances surrounding the strange case of María de los Ángeles could be reconstructed, or an idea put forward of what might have happened, by applying the speculative techniques of certain gothic circles devoted to archetypal analysis.

John Alejandro was one of the detectives expelled from the Judicial Police’s technical unit when the oil strike came to an end. He went on to work as a security consultant for a group of private companies for a while, till a talk-show anchor accused him of promoting terrorist activities; he took the precaution of not trying to defend himself, and avoided all contact with his old colleagues despite receiving expressions of solidarity and offers of support. He declined every one. He was a good detective, he knew the ropes: somehow they would be judged complicit in the lie, and would end up detained if not dead, so he would wait just long enough, then pack his suitcases and take off.

He ended up in Kemah, Texas, a small town near Galveston. He started again from scratch, sidestepping all assistance from his fellow countrymen in exile, he didn’t like to think of himself as an expatriate, just that life had delivered him there, to this place, since life moves people around of its own free will, and God moves in mysterious ways. After working as a hotel waiter and helping in the administration of a few small businesses, he finally revealed his sleuthing skills. He had been an excellent investigator; he did a few favors for his boss. Typical things, like exposing the truth about a gold digger, or corroborating what had been perfectly obvious from the start regarding the two-timing wife of a used-car auctioneer. Since then, he’d begun living a kind of semiretirement in that quiet town of fairs and marinas, walloped on occasion by a passing hurricane.

María de los Ángeles was a Venezuelan journalist living in south Houston who disappeared one day, “just like in the story of Little Red Riding Hood.” That’s how Matthew had described the bizarre incident. The old shrimper brought the case up one afternoon while they were sitting at their usual watering hole, where they went to play darts and throw back a Jack Daniel’s or two. His weird story about the fairy tale was all it took to awaken in John Alejandro a kind of primal need to go after something big, track down some intrigue that would help him recover his self-respect; he was tired of solving puerile cases about mundane things. No good could ever come of retiring at thirty, and the dart games, this bar looking out over the marina, a few routine hookers, all spelled a gloomy death.

Immediately, he verified the specifics on the woman who had followed the path of a fairy tale. It was the first enigma to crack, how does a person follow the path of a fairy tale? Yet, come to think of it, isn’t life itself—and its forks in the road—just another story with its plotlines?

“People have always followed the paths of stories: they baptize them with names that are either religious or ideological, they tag them as love, decorate them with adjectives,” he said to a Jungian analyst in an interview at the start of his investigation.

“She chose to follow a very complex archetype,” the woman acknowledged, sporting a fleshiness that was anything but naïve. “Little Red Riding Hood represents a vast symbolic universe. Oedipus, Diana, Gilles de Rais, and Elizabeth Báthory are all there. In Yoruban cosmogony, that’s where you’ll find the mother of Shango.” John Alejandro jotted these things down in his notebook and continued his investigation into archaic archetypes, comparing them to the life of María de los Ángeles, a married woman. The police had eliminated the husband as a suspect, despite his having been their principal focus for a long time. But they weren’t able to gather a single piece of evidence, not even circumstantial. John Alejandro asked to meet with the husband through a journalist who worked in one of the Latin television stations; the journalist was a sociable man, the founder of a network of used-car auctioneers and a partner in a law firm specializing in immigration issues.

María de los Ángeles’s husband sold construction materials in San Antonio. “I don’t see how I can add anything new to what’s in the file,” he said. He was young, gaunt, and remarkably tall, with a swimmer's broad shoulders and the face of a fool, or maybe of a saint, John Alejandro thought. Either a colossal chump or a good ol’ boy. “Maybe if you ask the standard questions, we can sniff out a few new angles.”

The ex-detective, taken off guard, scrutinized the husband’s equine face without revealing his surprise. He hadn’t expected the question. He hadn’t really expected anything. “And what do you think constitutes a standard question?”

“You know, did she have enemies, lovers, receive threats, that kind of stuff.” He poked his jaw out a little further and repeated slowly, “that kind of stuff.”

“Tell me about her routine, what did she do, I’m sure they’ve already asked you this, but I’d like to go over it again.”

“So this is your idea of an exceptional question?” the husband asked, taking on the pious expression of a Christian martyr or maybe more of a mafioso. “She took care of the children. Well, no, no, not really, I mean she supervised the people who took care of the children. She oversaw their activities, made sure they got to karate lessons on time, swimming, French classes, you know, she went to the gym, shopped, met up with a girlfriend for coffee every once in a while.”

“But wasn’t she a journalist?” John Alejandro asked.

He noted the husband stifled an incipient smile.

“She wrote opinion columns for some pamphlet they distribute in Katy.”

“So she did nothing.”

“Does it seem like nothing to you?”

“Tell me about her friends.”

“Another one of your exceptional questions?” he repeated. “She had a few friends from school in Venezuela, two or three contacts on Facebook, or something like that.”

“Were your wife’s friends married?”

“And this is your idea of an exceptional insinuation?” It was all the detective could do to keep himself from spitting in the man’s face. The man whistled. “Look, my wife and I have an open marriage. I didn’t patrol her comings and goings. Our lives were like open books, she knew what I was up to, but preferred to keep her own things to herself. I figured it was better not to know.”

“Since curiosity is what killed the . . . ” he wanted to state for the total idiot, the good ol’ boy, the bonehead. He paused. “Look, curiosity always wins out in these kinds of open affairs. You’re telling me you never cared to know her goings-on, to read, to try and find out?”

“I believe we’re talking about two different things. How about we drop the insinuations. Or better yet, you know, let’s drop the entire conversation.”

The man stood up abruptly, clumsily, and made his way through the dark restaurant, banging tables, leaving behind a wake of scattered chairs like some gangling elephant with a horse’s face. John Alejandro called to the dwarfish waiter to bring him a shot of Jack Daniel’s and the bill. He sat there a while ruminating. He might have been more diplomatic—the meeting could have lasted longer and he might have lucked into some unexpected clue to follow up on, but the fellow was like a vitrine; he showed too much and the truth got lost somewhere among all that stuff; the purloined letter.

The reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s story made him think of María de los Ángeles’s correspondence with her old schoolmates from Venezuela and the “friends” on Facebook. Scattered around the world, most of them spent their time posting on social media sites with their asses glued to their chairs, cursing the bad times, the bad moments, the bad country.

His hotel in San Antonio stood opposite the church of Inmaculado Corazón de María church. He was given a room on an upper floor, it was wintertime, he drew back the curtains and surveyed the great edifice before him, its brown tower, an old building; feeling slightly dizzy, he closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, caught sight of the roiling clouds advancing along the far horizon. Heavy, snow-laden, they spread over the small city that lay crumpled before him like the ruins left after the Battle of the Alamo. The moon swelled in the mantle of fog, and he heard a siren wail in the distance, or a coyote—he couldn’t tell which—that set his heart racing. Trembling, he made his way to the computer, and began randomly surfing, despite being perfectly informed, with state-of-the-art detail, about the mechanics of the virtual universe. Yet John Alejandro was a conservative man. He still recorded things in his notebooks. He placed his pad of paper to one side of the desk, and got started cracking passwords, violating codes, and entering María de los Ángeles’s sites. He came across the typical things, the horizontal tedium in a chaos of novelty, the predictable anarchy of cyberspace: greetings, pageantries, pictures, people flirting, making comments, complicities, sarcasms, political activism, mystical reveries and certain knacks for originality, over and over again like a monotonous image in the mirror, wherein all social media accounts could have been folded into her own. The reiteration made them all so nauseatingly alike.

The coyote bayed again, a howl that rose up from the center of San Antonio, at a time of year when so many people were out walking around, a barbaric yawp that hovered about the towers where the skeletons were kept, the Indian burial mounds, the mass graves; the cemeteries. He exited the social networks with a click, and as he did so, chanced upon an e-mail account; he opened a window, nothing there: an empty blog: María de los Ángeles’s blog. It was titled The Wolf Ate My Grandmother. John Alejandro let out a quick laugh. The woman really did follow the story of Little Red Riding Hood!

“For Christ’s sake, even ‘swallowed’ might’ve been a better choice of words,” he joked. It might make it seem a little less absurd.

He went on talking to himself as he clicked, performing three or four different combinations (binary provisions and that sort of thing) to access the blog’s control panel, where he discovered a clandestine link to a page meant for the account holder’s eyes only. It was some kind of log, with a list of revelations. He went in. One step, then another, and a third, and he left behind the bizarre sound of the coyote howling in San Antonio, in its graveyards. He walked into the labyrinth. Its grid of words and string of horrors brought him back to Kemah feeling completely isolated, his notebook crammed with scrawled script. He should take advantage of his retirement, he thought, and resolved never to leave that town again, not even when ordered to evacuate during a hurricane.




“This is the most interesting game anyone’s ever proposed to me, to be cast inside a story,” she had written.

My grandmother left for Boston years ago, but disappeared. They searched several days for her; she got lost in the woods outside the city, lost in one of its frozen parks. Years ago, when I was still single, I used to visit my grandmother. Years ago, unutterable things happened, things I would never dare transcribe on these pages that nobody will ever read. Now the story has returned to me after watching it mutate outside, moving among the fugitive shadows in the graveyards that are hidden beneath the city’s streets, the parks, the canals, the buildings. I was married to a Great One, a weak offspring of the Great Old Ones, the architects of life, I was married and I forgot everything, once I took part in the rite of the cave . . .

The church had a beautiful cellar where I used to play when I was a little girl, before dwelling in this strange body; I used to play there before the church was built, and before the church was built, there was the cave . . .

Unfastening the angels from this unsuspecting woman was difficult, introducing the devil was child’s play. Children play while holding hands, they form circles and chant as the sun goes down. They’re innocent; they play near the woods, and there are woods in many unforeseen places. It was difficult to detach María de los Ángeles, to introduce the idea of remembrance of the forgotten, the day she went to visit her grandmother in Boston. Children play in the woods along the roadside, children play there now that the wolf has gone; they know that Grandmother has lost her way, they sing verses and say, Grandmother vanished along the shorter path, the shorter path that leads back home, back to the cave, to the place where María de los Ángeles must be given in matrimony to the lowly ancestral beast.

The tale is the following: once upon a time, María de los Ángeles’s grandmother goes out in search of her granddaughter, and takes a shortcut through the woods. The fall turns to winter, and the north to a city in Texas, San Antonio. She is initiated into the rites of the brothers of the cave, and charged with preserving the memory of the graveyard where the Great Old Ones are resting. She undertakes the enterprise as a spiritual exercise of charity, spending the fall in Illinois, the winter in Arkansas, and arrives in Texas holding the hand of a monstrous, hunchbacked creature. She had nourished it through the desert with fresh coyote milk. They followed a different route back through Louisiana in the spring, North Carolina in the summer.

Everyone was convinced that Grandmother, joyful and estranged, barely sentient, had lost her way inside her own mind. According to my sisters, the shortcut through the woods led to the mind’s deeper trails, she hadn’t fallen victim to a predator, but had lost herself along the way, they said. Wrong. I took those same roads a long time ago: the shortcut through Oklahoma and Colorado. The Poplar Trail in Montana; the Evergreen Trail in Colorado. My grandmother is lost in the forest, now that the wolf has gone away.

Years ago, when I went to see my grandmother before sundown, we girls strolled through the woods, we played hide-and-seek behind great dry tree trunks and stole our first kisses, we were restless, joyful girls, all of life’s roads seemed brief and pleasant to us, we were prepared to pay the price to take them, but none extended as far as I did. I saw a small deer in New Mexico as the fall came to a close and decided to follow its tracks in the damp earth. The orange-tinged sky above me spilled into the twilight like blood over the Appalachian woodland. The first time I caught sight of it was in that very landscape. It sped feverishly before me on four legs, thick hair standing high along its back, dancing atop the tree trunks, along the low hills and high cliffs; suddenly it froze in place and fixed me with the burning glare of its blue eyes set on fire, his tongue lolling and fangs biting into the wind, as if to say: just follow the right path, and soon I’ll be in your belly.

Twilight in San Antonio, the decomposing leaves bob along the canal, shop walls bead with sweat, the bars and restaurants lose their solid quality and split into mirrored reflections on the water’s surface. Below the canals, the dead sleep in four graveyards, behind the towers, near the Inmaculado Corazón de María church, in the ruins of the Alamo.

I can see now, as I write, the shadow of the coming night, and I sense the spark of that original afternoon in Boston, when the she-wolf gave birth to the boy who carried my grandmother. Time has passed since then, that boy is now in the storehouse of an abandoned granary lost somewhere in the desert, huffing or puffing, he’s weak, he returned, I know, and now he wants to die in the same place his ancestors went before him. I hear the call, the night is falling, there is nobody following me. My husband’s shadow is witness to these savage encounters in the fallow fields, in the churchyards . . .

I was invited to come out and play . . . to participate, to rewrite the story. Leaving behind these notes, this diary, is part of the game, of life, or of the dream, this legacy of ancestors, of caves; the ancients who erected the graveyard, the pilgrims, the forest prowlers. I’ll deliver the last pages and then set out on the shortcut like my grandmother before me. Nobody who takes an active role in stories returns unscathed. I’m familiar with their ellipses, their silences, the omissions that would terrify anyone capable of deciphering them; I know all the possible endings, I know there’s no alternative for me, I have to write this message, bear witness, follow my calling, cross through winter to reach Kemah in the spring, and wait for the summer, when the fury of the elements in the Gulf reiterates the Caribbean cycle of hurricanes; we believe in freedom blindly, but when we are part of a story, John Alejandro, we cut like a dart straight toward a single end point.

"El testigo" © Israel Centeno. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Valerie Miles. All rights reserved.

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