A short story inspired by In a Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
And I Never Saw Her Again
We were all in complete agreement that crime must be transformed, like so many cops, I too gave up on fighting crime. Like so many thousands of cops, I too found crime in San Judas boring. No one was capable of creating an intriguing crime scene, of spending time making sure the bodies were perfectly arranged, and their fingers touched without touching. Killing was only the product of commercial transactions, and not even the DEA was interested in the bodies of small dealers and boatmen.
I was kicked out of my office by Coronel Suarez two months ago, when the DEA said we had to have a storage room for all the evidence we were collecting. The room was full in two weeks, and by now the humidity has probably absorbed the cocaine, transforming it into some kind of cookie dough. So I soaked in a pile of evidence waiting for something exciting to come. Then Some Agent Brown sent a memorandum to the Ministry suggesting we watched every show there was on drug trafficking. We got bored. Always the story of a DEA agent sending local men to die fighting a drug kingpin. We knew shows made the business look way more exciting than what it actually is.
We watched shows where the evidence was misleading, crime incredibly complex, and mystery a given. There was something exciting about detectives chasing clues to solve an indecipherable case. That was the beauty of crime. The police station degenerated into a cafe and sometimes into a bar. Rodriguez was the one that always said we were paid to drink coffee, talk, and stare at a screen. It still seems impossible to me that anyone, no matter how much he watched, could have watched every cop show in the world. There must be so many of them, and I don’t mean every single show, just the good ones. Enough so you could spend twenty-four hours a day watching. And that’s not to mention the bad ones, since there must be more bad ones than good ones… because there’s always more bad ones than good ones.
Life in San Judas was humid. Not only humid because of the raw sewage that flowed through the city as a river, or the constant weight hurricanes bring in October. It was just always humid, everything was moist, a kind of moisture you have to feel to understand. My love for Marcela was covered in layers of sweat that separated our bodies when they rubbed each other. The city —a swamp— sweated the same murders every day. Two men killed in Espiritu Santo by El Capo, and two men in Los Triangulos killed in revenge by the men of El Patron. Always the same. One day the victims —if we dare call them victims— were Juan Perez and Roberto Gonzales, the next Pedro ‘El Mono’ Rodriguez and his brother, and then another Juan Perez.
I blame some of this humidity on the decaying bodies we haven’t found, the ones floating in the river, rotting in the municipal landfill, and feeding the forests that so many gringos are coming to see. I didn’t even know why we kept files for every murder, why we took pictures or pretended we cared. Yes, every picture of every crime sweated the tears of a mother and every body was another piece in the puzzle. But in the collection of unsolved crimes that took over my desk every piece looked the same. In every file, the humidity reacted with the chemicals of the photos, and created special places for creatures to grow. I swear, opening a file was like going into the jungle without a machete. The day I woke up and noticed my skin was dry, I knew something was going to happen.
That day, I saw Maria for the first time in years. My mother said her neighbor told her Maria left town to become a nun. If only God knew what she was up to when she was around. We grew up in the same barrio and the day I turned eleven and saw her wearing that orange dress I decided she was going to be my girl. Don’t you remember me? I’m your buddy. Don’t you recognize me? We visited the convent six hours after the body was found. When she opened the gate I knew it was her. I saw her through the window of my truck but decided to wait for her reaction.
That morning, while I was tying up my shoelaces I knew something was going to happen. The air was dry, as if the weight of life had left my house, as if that space was cleared for something else to take it and then I started sweating a new kind of sweat. Sour sweat. It was one of those things one thinks one feels but isn’t sure, one of those coincidences that are more product of imagination than of nature. On any other day I would have ignored a premonition like this, but when Marcela told me she also felt the dryness of the air I knew something had to happen.
The body had “The Brightest Petal” tattooed on his left arm. We found him in the forest of Achipe, near the coast, resting in fetal position with a knife in his right hand. When Rodriguez called, he said it was a suicide. It was six in the morning and I was halfway through my cup of coffee. Half-asleep I argued with Marcela, I’d rather drink my coffee without sugar but she insisted in adding those sour sweetening drops my mom used for diabetes. For a moment I saw Maria in the kitchen asking me if I wanted another cup of coffee. Of course but only if you drink it with me and leave those clothes for later. I imagined her pouring more coffee in my mug, smiling, and telling me her plans for the day. Marcela didn’t even listen to me. She was obsessed with the visit of Cardenal Monsenor San Casimiro, who was coming to San Judas for our patron’s festivities, and was more interested in his arrival than breakfast. When Rodriguez called I left in a rush, I was glad not to finish my coffee, and to stop watching Manzanita on TV. San Casimiro left the country five years ago and that morning it seemed Marcela didn’t remember the scandal that made him go into exile, we called him Manzanita — little apple.
I knew it was a special day not because of Manzanita, but because of Rodriguez’s call. Maybe this was the first murder of a serial killer or perhaps the body had a message directed to me, a message only I could understand. The weather felt different and my determination to find an interesting crime made me believe it had to be this one. When I read “The Brightest Petal”, I realized I had no idea what it meant. But my gut told me there was something with this body, something I didn’t see. There were no signs of El Capo, or El Patron, and by ten we had already found our daily bodies in Los Triangulos and Espiritu Santo. A mystery.
His name was Matthew, un gringo who was probably living the adventure of his life. I could see him ruining our landscape, taking pictures from the plane before he landed, thinking he was moving to paradise. Oh, stupid gringos who come all the way here to die. Why would someone kill himself under those trees, why on the day I had that strange feeling, the day Marcela ruined my coffee, and I encountered Maria? I knew there was something we were missing. First because of what happened while I tied my shoes. Because the body was positioned in between thorned trees covered with acacias. Because there were hormigas cachuditas — which are worst than other ants because of their horns— near the knife in his right hand. They walked slowly, looking for a wound to enter the flesh. It was their quietness that made me suspect of them. But I certain we were missing something mainly because Rodriguez was always wrong.
Maria recognized me as soon as I got out of the truck. I could see it in her eyes. She knew I knew things her Convent should not know. And I returned her stare with a smile. She asked me about my life, and I about her’s. We could have talked until two or three in the morning, about things that had happened to us, the books we’d read, and the shows we’d watched but we couldn’t. I imagined her stories of escaping the convent to meet a lover behind the train station of the closest town, her eyes bright with tales of passion. And I listened. Only listened.
It was not suicide. He had a knife in his right hand and his own blood was on the knife but the deepest wound, the one that took his life and that the ants were looking for, was made by some sort of sword. It penetrated his neck and travelled through his head towards his eyes. Well, I got it all right. When I knew it was not a suicide I was reminded of the dry emptiness. It’s not that it came back all of a sudden, it never left, but because of my superstition it made sense to think about it when I discovered the wound. Isn’t that what real detectives do? Rodriguez came at ten with new information. The victim’s wife was missing and there was blood in his house. I had to finish looking at the ants, I was afraid of what they were hiding. Did they know the man? Did they hear anything? Blood followed their path and we followed them to the closest gated community.
Las Hills is not part of San Judas. There everything is climate controlled, and in English, some would think those are the reasons why people in Las Hills seem so happy. All the houses looked the same, but behind one of those monotonous perfect looking facades we found blood in the living room. Matthew’s mother-in-law waited outside. It seemed to her that one of the two was having problems. A week ago when Matt and Rose visited, when she opened the door she knew they weren’t sleeping together. Her daughter Rose carried more weight than usually on her shoulders, and her face too was weighted down with the hardships of marriage.
Matthew definitely thought he was in paradise. In the living room a collection of orchids, jewelry, and swords was on display. Three chandeliers attached to the high ceiling made the jewels shine. The second floor had a terrace dining area and the kitchen. And the last floor was a bedroom with a 360 view, from there you could see the Caribbean and the whole of San Judas. Matthew was a successful banker, he retired at 28, and moved to San Judas because of the good weather. Rose accepted coming here only because her mother moved to Las Hills a few years before. Rose never bothered anyone, not even Matthew. After her capoeira class, she spent the rest of the day in the garden, taking care of the orchids. And in the past few months all she cared about were her plants and leaving San Judas. But she didn’t have the courage to tell her husband.
What would have happened if Maria and I were married? I’m sure we wouldn’t live in Las Hills. Would she too be obsessed with gardening? Would she kill me just like Rose killed her husband? If I’ve learned something watching serials is that the women that go missing are always guilty. Would she run away to a convent in Mexico after killing me? What if she left because she didn’t understand how I loved her? Poor Matthew. What an idiot to marry her.
The bedroom was a mess with clothes all over the place, some blood on a pillow and broken windows. I imagined Matthew and Rose in bed, sleeping side by side before waking up at eleven on a Saturday morning. Rose complained she didn’t sleep well. Matthew had been sleep talking and that kept her awake. He ignored her, as if speaking in one’s sleep were nothing! I saw them as if through a window, one of them with his eyes open and the other with her eyes shut, but both looking out. I heard a noise in the bathroom. It was Rodriguez saying there was blood in the elevator and a shoe by the back door that led to the forest where the body was found.I tried to convince myself there was nothing strange. Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking it was a different kind of crime, to think that day I was real a detective.
I couldn’t ask Maria why she left for a convent in Mexico. I couldn’t do more than look at her in the same way we used to look at each other when we were 14. So we shook hands — her’s was sweaty like always— and I asked her what people usually ask. Then I asked if she knew where the woman was. She told me I should call her Sor Maria and directed me to the main building of the Convent. Nine years after I decided she was going to be my girlfriend I fell in love with her. We wrote letters and on dark days we escaped before sunset to Playa Negra talking of travelling together beyond the sea. Her eyes still looked the same and I thought of asking if she’d come to Playa Negra with me like the day it rained with sun and she gave me her last letter. Everything looked so natural, as always when one does not know the truth. That was the day she said goodbye and left me rotting in San Judas. I thought of writing her back but how could I if it was raining and I didn’t know her address…. now she was Sor Maria from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Convent.
I entered the building, there was a painting of the Trinity. In the dining room there was a picture of Cardenal Manzanita standing next to the Pope. A woman sat in front of the picture crying. She was Rose. Two nuns prevented me from talking directly to her. They said Mother Superior Caridad Rosario ordered them not to let me in. I inquired why. They told me Rose had arrived at four in the morning and didn’t say anything more than a Dios Te Salve Maria when she met Mother Superior. In the kitchen three nuns watched Manzanita’s sermon on TV, while other prepared the main hall for Manzanita’s afternoon tea. In the prayer room across the hall all the fine ladies of San Judas were already there, waiting for Manzanita to arrive. To the left of the Trinity there was a corridor that led, not to paradise, but to more paintings of heaven. I guess the nuns had nothing else to do but paint.
Maria asked me to follow her. For a moment I thought she too wanted to go to Playa Negra. She took me to Mother Superior Caridad Rosario’s office and left. Mother Superior greeted me with blessings. “With all the respect I deserve, please listen.” She talked about the Trinity and how Mary followed the messenger of God, then that she had just returned from Rome where she arranged Monsenor’s visit to the convent, she talked of the importance of silence and obedience in the church and drank black coffee without sugar just like I like it. I interrupted and asked about Rose. I asked if I could take her with me for questioning. She said it was God’s will to have Rose in his home and that we shouldn’t intervene in divine matters. “If you don’t follow my advice, there will be enough evidence for a trial for murder against Rose, but not enough evidence to convict her. She will refuse to talk. She will be convicted. She will take it to the court of appeals, and one day when she’s wearing a beautiful dress she will receive the verdict saying she is not guilty.”
Someone knocked on the door. It was Manzanita. He was fatter than when he left San Judas. He walked towards me and extended his hand. I’ll always have a clear memory of that meeting because it went on so simply. The nun next to me suggested I kneel and kiss his ring. He smelled of incense, and the ring reminded me of the jewelry in Matthew’s house. I kissed his ring and looked up. He looked more powerful than before. “Son, you know what to do.” Then he recited the Angelus in Latin and left.
Mother Superior stayed behind. She told me it was better for me to go home and rest. I objected, insisting I had to take Rose with me. “Even His Excellency agrees. You should go and follow the example of Our Lady.” I listened carefully, and felt the dryness of the air once again. Determined to take Rose to the police station I left the room but Mother Superior called me. “Son, you forgot this.” She gave me a book. It was a copy of Selected Poems of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and a note from Maria that said only: “I’m leaving with the Cardenal to Rome. See you soon in Playa Negra.”
I walked across the hall where all the ladies were laughing with the Cardenal. I looked all over the convent for Rose. She wasn’t there. I called Rodriguez, told him what happened and asked him to join me in the Convent. Filled with a strange sense of relief, he responded: “There is no mystery, Jaime.”
Months later, while watching TV in the office, I finished reading the book Mother Superior gave me. Its pages were already soft and turning yellow from the humidity. On page three the word ‘the’ was highlighted, on page 195 ‘brightest’, and in the index ‘petal’. I was writing this on a post-it right when the phone rang. They found two bodies in Espiritu Santo and two more in Los Triangulos.