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A Landscape of Claws

By Mónica Ojeda
Translated By Sarah Booker

Sarah Booker's translation of Jawbone, a novel by Ecuadorean writer Mónica Ojeda, is out tomorrow from Coffee House Press. The novel tells the story of Fernanda, a wealthy high school student who is kidnapped and held hostage by her literature teacher, Miss Clara. In the excerpt below, a captive Fernanda struggles to make sense of her abduction.

I’m not going to die, let’s not even talk about that. It was decided. She breathed deeply with the intention of calming herself but only managed to draw in all the snot caused by the cold air. She sighed. That’s how it felt to sleep handcuffed to a table: as if your bones and your flesh were two creatures fighting with open jaws to get at the roofs of each other’s mouths. The elegance she’d imagined the day before had vanished when Miss Clara, instead of talking to her—which is what she had said she’d do—handcuffed her to a table screwed into the ground, went up the spiral staircase, and never returned. Is she asleep, peacefully clutching her pillow, that big sack of shit? Through the windows, she saw the foliage and, farther off, the volcano—now she was sure it wasn’t a mountain and sure she wasn’t Twiggy, but Mia Farrow playing the lead in a B horror movie. The cabin had to be in a forest because she couldn’t make out the sound of a highway or anything else, besides creatures dragging themselves along the ground or swarming in the trees. That natural silence was also the color white, and it made her hair stand on end, above all because yesterday, after shouting for hours into the void, she had been able to confirm that the cabin of her kidnapping was far from any town. Miss Clara, fucking cheap whore, didn’t even bother to stop her from flinging out bestial screams for hours, scrunching up her throat and throwing herself on the table in an effort to grab, with her teeth, a revolver that looked like a firefly in the dead of the night. Only a few animals responded to the shrieking and howling of her shredded voice, and even though it didn’t make any sense, she believed they were also desperate, deprived of a future in their own worlds of chaos, and at least in that, she wasn’t alone.

“Miss Clara had left that revolver there in an obvious attempt to intimidate her.”

Demented slut, she thought. Piece-of-shit crackpot. Why her? Why had she taken her there? To ask her family for money? Had she done it for revenge? Didn’t she know the police would lock her up? Or did she think they would let her off after what she did to her, Fernanda Montero Oliva, daughter of a minister and of a well-known lawyer and pro-life activist? Their faces, hers and her teacher’s, must be all over social media, national and international TV, print and online media . . . What was this crazy bitch thinking when she decided to ruin her life by kidnapping one of her students? she thought. Her heels were pounding the floor because of the cold and her overwhelming need to urinate. She tried to stretch her legs, to stand up, but her knees shook as if her patellae were on the verge of dislocating—the fragility of the body: “True humiliation only exists in the flesh,” her therapist said. She went back to fighting against the table, but it was impossible to lift it off the ground: its legs had dark bases that were screwed into the wood. With each movement she attempted, her wrists rubbed against the metal of the handcuffs, and her skin burned and threatened to bleed. The revolver, completely out of her reach, was aimed at her like her mother’s finger in the nightmares she frequently analyzed with Dr. Aguilar, a.k.a. Interpreter of Dreams, a.k.a. Decoder of Minds, a.k.a. Lacan’s Seminar Z. Miss Clara had left that revolver there in an obvious attempt to intimidate her. Or maybe she just wants to mess with me, she reflected. Nothing could be ruled out, but she had to calm down before her teacher’s intentions became the object of increasingly convoluted fabulations.

Fucking bitch.

Her swollen bladder began to ache like a slashing bolt of lightning. She needed to distract herself, to think of something else. She could think instead about the exploitation fiction comic she had started, but hadn’t finished, with Annelise. It was a project titled Sor Juana: Zombies, Vampires, and Lesbians and featured the poet as the protagonist and was set in a convent of lesbian dominatrix nuns, where, thanks to a Chacmool and an ancestral ritual, a zombie-Nahuatl virus is spreading. The story is narrated from the future by an Arabic researcher at UNAM who, while investigating the true history of the Phoenix of Mexico, found an aleph in a urinal marked out-of-order by a blind, etymology-loving custodian. Thanks to that aleph, the researcher was able to draw connections between his vision and the various historical facts gathered up until then; it was a revelation that allowed him, in turn, to narrate the true history of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She and Annelise had the idea for the comic during a language and literature class. In their comic, the vampires appear in the second chapter through a character physically similar to Miss Clara and based on Sor Gertrudis de San Ildefonso, a Quiteña nun and writer of The Mystic Pearl Hidden in the Conch of Humility—a title they thought sounded sexual when an excited Mister Alan noted it on the board in a class on the writer-nuns of Ecuador. She and Annelise hoped the project would make them famous. Recognition, after all, was the one thing their parents’ money couldn’t buy.

She’s doing it for money, she thought. Nothing is going to happen to me. The sound of her handcuffs reminded her of the jangling of her mother’s bracelets. My parents will pay whatever she asks. Nothing that bad could happen.

“What she said or desired had no importance anymore.”

Her mind quieted as she remembered the comic, the characters, and Annelise’s freckles, but then the door swung open with a bang, and the wind, for a few brief seconds, snapped at her vertebrae. Miss Clara, who she thought was sleeping upstairs, went over to the kitchen countertop and threw a big gray rabbit—perhaps a hare—onto the stone. Its bulging eyes, infused with blood, made Fernanda look away: toward the window, toward the volcano. What if she doesn’t want money? she wondered, wary again. Everything around her started to smell like herbs and sweat, but she kept quiet, her chin pointing toward the light. There was fog behind the windowpanes: a white, curdled thickness, like spit-up. Clarity: the clothing of grace. She felt a particular agitation when an uncontrollable bead of snot trickled across her lips. She thought her body, stripped of cleanliness, bore a baffling resemblance to that of the rabbit on the countertop.

A natural enigma.

A landscape of claws.

She wanted to ask her teacher questions: Why her and not Annelise, Fiorella, Natalia, Ximena, Analía, or anyone else? But something strange stopped her, something like fear, but also like the certainty that sooner or later, she’d find out, and it didn’t make much sense to rush the moment. Meanwhile, she listened, not daring to peel her gaze away from outside, to the sound of the rabbit being skinned. She couldn’t pinpoint the moment when her indignation gave way to that interior trembling twisting up her intestines. Perhaps it was the revolver, the dead animal, the silence: metaphors of uncertainty, enigmatic scenes out of a film by Polanski.

She wiped her mouth on the shoulder of her blouse before saying:

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

Miss Clara stopped what she was doing, and Fernanda heard squawks near the cabin, but there was no movement, no attempt to shorten the distance and free her, at least momentarily, to give her a bucket, or to resolve her need in any way. Now her gaze was glued to the stairs, but she could picture her teacher watching her, like in any normal class, when she lectured them about Ecuadorian, Latin American, or universal literature, jumping around in the textbook or leaving unintelligible scribbles on the board.

The sudden sound of a knife being sharpened, the whack of the blade against flesh, told her that this time, she wouldn’t be getting a “Go to the bathroom, but come right back.” As if she hadn’t said a word, Miss Clara resumed her activity, leaving her an invisible piece of knowledge: what she said or desired had no importance anymore, and it wouldn’t until she, her kidnapper, decided to sit down, look at her, talk to her. Only then would the gift of language—that hedgehog so soft, its barbs so black—be returned to her; only then would she glimpse the intentions lurking behind the night rock her teacher had for a face.

She squeezed her thighs and tensed her vaginal muscles. In Sor Juana: Zombies, Vampires, and Lesbians, Sister Gertrudis seduces the nuns at the convent and turns them into dominatrix vampires, and she does it by whispering poems in Nahuatl into their ears. She dies in chapter eight, when one nun drives a stake into her heart just like Nina Dobrev in The Vampire Diaries. “Lacan was right when he said truth is always structured as fiction,” her therapist had told her one afternoon when they talked about memory. She carefully looked at Miss Clara, disheveled and covered in sweat, cutting open an animal that wouldn’t stop spurting blood. Someone should tell that bitch she needs therapy.

From Jawbone, © 2017 by Mónica Ojeda. Translation © 2021 by Sarah Booker. Used by arrangement with Coffee House Press. All rights reserved.

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Published Feb 7, 2022   Copyright 2022 Mónica Ojeda

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