Read The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories Online

Authors: Jeff VanderMeer

Tags: #fantasy, #short story, #anthology

The Compass of His Bones and Other Stories (8 page)

Just as he thought he might go mad before he had a chance to die, a tiny, wet hand slipped into his left palm, the grasp tight but
. Soft, like the hand of a person without the need for redemption, bare of wrinkles, of lines.

"Mark?" he said. "Mark?" As he said his son's name, the panic bubbled over and washed away from him. He clutched the hand tight, even though he knew it was not his son. Could not be his son. Sounds grew unfocused and distant. Fists beat down upon him, but it was like rain against a windowpane, while inside the dreamer sleeps. There was only the very real warmth of the hand in his. drawing the bone-deep fatigue from his body, his mind. He wondered why he had struggled against the children. Opening up before him were memories of Mark and Julie, of long stretches of sun-warmed Midwestern wheat and his relief, his calm as he drove on the highway that cut through them.

Let go
, the woman said.

And he did.

Snow was falling from the black sky when he found
La Siesta De La Muerte
. It coated the streets, softened the sounds of the night, so that there was only the muffled echo of Bing Crosby—somewhere—singing "White Christmas."

MacDiarmid had rediscovered his Santa suit. Despite its ragged condition, he did not feel the chill. The thick belt clinked against his M-16. His boots scrunched in the snow. He liked the sound in the absence of so many other sounds. The echo of Bing's voice stayed with him. He hummed the song to himself as he walked.

La Siesta De La Muerte
was just another squat, single-story building among the others. The sign above the door was weathered and ancient. The blond GI he had shot guarded the door. MacDiarmid said,
I'm expected.

The GI nodded solemnly, the doors swung open and light flooded the snow. But MacDiarmid looked away—to examine the torn outline of the city: the vast patches where
blotted out even the night, combat aircraft caught in the blackness as if it were tar; the light splashed like Van Gogh oils against the sky where helicopters battled; the clap of missile and mortar explosions.

A moment before, he had felt calm. Now he was shy, almost scared, but he turned back anyway, to face
La Siesta De La Muerte
. It did not surprise him to see, through the doorway, another world, the building opening up into daylight and far vistas. He saw a fallow wheat field that stretched to the horizon. It had been plowed with deep furrows. Men stood silent and still along the rows. Many of them wore Santa suits. They stood straight against the brittle wind that made their clothes whip against their sides. As MacDiarmid walked through the doorway, he smelled the pungent tang of freshly-excavated dirt; he could taste the moist heat of the soil on his tongue. The men, some of whom he recognized from other campaigns, turned to stare at him. Beside each man were corpses, many of women and children.

Then she was at his side, guiding him, and he dared not look at her. Her hands were cold and wrinkled. Where her hands touched him, he had no feeling.

Come, soldier
, she said.
Bury the dead.

He began to weep, great shuddering sobs, but still the woman whom he could not face held his arm and murmured to him. He did not want her comfort—it shamed him beyond measure—but he had no strength to fight her. And no desire.

Bury your dead
, she whispered in his ear, and released him into the wheat fields, to join all the other lost and silent figures burying themselves and their pasts.


The only sounds inside the prison are the drip of water, the weeping of prisoners, and the
of keys on Gabriel de Anda’s belt as he limps through his 2:00 A.M. rounds of the third floor. The prison walls glow with green phosphorescence and, from far below, Gabriel can hear the ocean crashing against the rocks. A storm builds out in the Gulf, where sargasso clings to drowned sailors and does not allow them to sink into the formless dark of deep waters. Gabriel feels the storm in the pressure of air pushing against his face and it makes him wary.

He has been a guard at the prison for so long that he can see it in his mind like a slowly turning, dark-glittering jewel. The Indians call the prison “Where Death Walks Blind of Justice.” It is a block of badly mortared concrete, surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences, and jungle. Resembling nothing less than the head of a tortured, anguished beast at sleep, a twenty-four-hour lamp at the front entrance its solitary eye, it hunkers three stories tall, with tiny barred windows checkering a brackish, badly lit interior where bare bulbs shine down on graffiti, guard, and prisoner alike. No one has ever escaped, for the prison, its foundations rotting, dominates the top of a cliff on the eastern coast of that country known more for its general, El Toreador, than for its given name, a name once Indian, then Spanish, but now forgotten.

Gabriel’s rumpled uniform scratches his back and fits poorly at the crotch. He shuffles over the filthy catwalk that leads from one side of the third floor to the other. Muttering to himself, he fights the urge to spit over the side into the central courtyard, where the secret police hose down the violent prisoners. His gimp leg throbs.

When only twenty-two, Gabriel was visiting Merida, Mexico, his brother Pedro driving and jabbering about some girl he knew in Mexico City “with thighs like heaven; no, better than heaven.” Enraptured, Pedro took a curve too quickly and careened into oncoming traffic. Gabriel remembers only a high-pitched scream and the pain that shattered his left leg, the bone breaking in two places.

It gave him a limp. It gave him grist to chew as he navigates the catwalk. The janitors haven’t cleaned the catwalk from the last food riot. Dark, scattered lumps form an obstacle course, exude the stench of rotted fruit and flesh. What sweet relief it would be to press his face up to one of the outer windows; then he would see, framed by moonlight, the breakers far below tumbling against a black sand beach. The first refreshing hint of summer gales might touch his face in forgiveness, but afterward, he would only have to return to the catwalk and the last prisoner, Roberto D’Souza.

Roberto D’Souza has been held for five days and nights, charged with aiding the guerrillas who live in the northern mountains and call themselves Zapata. Gabriel has nothing but contempt for the rebels. If not for them, rationing would be less severe and goods would be more plentiful in the stores.

Gabriel’s pace quickens, for he can leave once he has checked on D’Souza. He can drive the twenty miles to his small house outside Carbajal, the capital, and to his wife Sessina. She has worked late hours setting up window displays and may still be awake, perhaps even have supper waiting for him: huevos rancheros with hot tamales. His stomach rumbles thinking about it.

But first, D’Souza.

D’Souza sits in the corner farthest from the bars and the only window, his knees drawn up tight against his chest. Gabriel sneezes from the stench of shit and piss, wonders yet again if it is necessary to deny political prisoners a chamber pot. Why haven’t the janitors at least hosed down the cell?

None of the cells have their own illumination and so Gabriel shines his flashlight on D’Souza. D’Souza’s back is crisscrossed with red and black. Where whole, the skin appears yellow. The spine juts, each bone distinct, below a ragged mop of black hair.

As the light hits him, D’Souza flinches, hides his head, and tries to disappear into a wall pitted from years of abuse. Gabriel flinches too, despite himself. He must remember that this man is an enemy of the state, a guerilla, a terrorist.

“Number 255,” Gabriel says, to confirm and then leave, limping, for home.

No answer.

“Your name, please,” Gabriel says.

D’Souza does not stir, but when his voice comes, it has a wiry strength, a determination ill matched to the wasted body.

“Roberto Almada D’Souza.”

“Good evening to you, Roberto.”

“Is it? A good evening?”

“The sky is clear outside, as you could see if you looked. The waves are still low. Tomorrow, though . . . ”

“I don’t need to see. I can smell it. I can taste it. Rotted wood and salt and the last breaths of lost lovers. Can’t you feel it?

Unfolding his long arms and legs, D’Souza rises with gangly imprecision. He is shrouded in shadow shot through with flashes of skin as he turns toward Gabriel, who cannot see his eyes.

D’Souza says, “I have children. A father who is blind. How can I feed them from in here?”

“My father is dead.”

In the coffin, his father still wore the shabby black blazer and gray trousers from his days in prison, looking like an actor trapped in an old black-and-white movie.

“Should I feel sorry for you?” D’Souza says after a swift scrutiny of Gabriel’s face.

“Tell them what they need to know and they will let you go.”

A frustrated sigh. “I cannot tell them what I do not know.”

“Everyone is innocent here,” Gabriel says.

“Everyone except for you.”

“It’s a living.”

“Is it?”

“Good night,” Gabriel says and turns to leave.

“Would you take a message to my wife?” The faltering timbre of D’Souza’s voice, the anticipation, the hope, sends a tremor down Gabriel’s spine, even as he faces the prisoner.


“My wife’s name is Maria. Maria D’Souza. She lives in Carbajal, in the projects. Please. It is not very far. She is tall and thin and has hair as long and thick as the silk of angels. Please. Her name is Maria. Tell her where I am. Tell her I think of her. Tell her to visit my father and let him know where I am. Her name is Maria.”

Inside of Gabriel, something comes loose. A lurching nausea, a dislocation. It will pass, he tells himself. It has always passed before, no matter how they plead — which is not often because most times they just sit and stare at the walls.

But he says only, “No. I cannot.”



D’Souza comes swiftly to the front of the cell, silent, his white, white skin stretched over his scarecrow frame, mottled by moonlight and shadow. His hands around the bars are gray and splashed with a violet color that would be red by any other light. D’Souza has burning pink flesh instead of fingernails. His face is a welter of dried blood and yellowing bruises. An apparition from the Night of All Saints, a carnival figure, but too grim for a clown. D’Souza stares at Gabriel, and Gabriel, transfixed, stares back, wondering at the passing resemblance to his brother Pedro, the drawn cheekbones, the fiery black eyes, the anger that pins him, helpless: a priest hearing a confession, a vessel to be filled.

“Do you know what they have done to me?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Gabriel is not a member of the secret police, but he has at times come to a cell at the wrong time and seen things that have made him retrace his steps while thinking desperately about the current football scores and his country’s chances of making it to the World Cup.
A door left open. A shriek, abruptly cut off. Blood under the fingernails.

D’Souza’s hand snakes out from between the bars. He clutches Gabriel’s wrist so hard it throbs. Gabriel smells the blood and filth on D’Souza, feels the sticky cool softness of D’Souza’s nail-less thumb against his palm. He struggles, wrenches away from that touch, backpedals out of reach, confronted with a rage accumulated not over years but days.

“I must shit where I eat and I eat nothing because what they feed me is less than nothing. They come at all hours, without warning, with electric cattle prods. They beat me. They have torn my fingernails out. They have attached electric wires — ”

“Shut up!”

“ — to my scrotum and stuck needles up my penis. They have tried to make me confess to crimes I haven’t committed, never committed . . . . They are tireless and well fed and confident, and I am none of these things. I was a painter before they took me. Now I am nothing.”

“I said to shut up!”

But Gabriel does not pull out his nightstick or walk away from the cell. His lack of action mystifies him. He cannot understand why he finds it so difficult to breathe.

D’Souza loses his balance, slides slowly down the bars, into the darkness of the floor.

“Take a message to my wife or do not take a message to my wife . . . ”

And then, in a self-mocking tone: “It truly does not matter. I have dreamed of flying to her myself, you know. Flying over this country of El Toreador. My arms are like wings and I can feel the wind cool against my face. All the stars are out and there are no clouds. Such a clear, clean darkness. It seems almost a miracle, such clarity . . . Below me I can make out the shapes of banana plantations and textile factories. I can tell the green of the rainforest from that of the pampas. I see the ruins of the Maya and the shapes of mountains, distant . . . and yet when I wake I am still here, in my cell, and I know I am lost.”

D’Souza looks up at Gabriel, the whites of his eyes gleaming through the broken mask of his face and says, “My wife’s name is Maria D’Souza. When I have died, you must tell her so she can come for my body.”

By the time Gabriel has stumbled back along the third-floor catwalk, ducking the swinging light bulbs, and down to the second floor and finally the first; by the time he has passed through the endless security checkpoints in the first floor administrative offices where the secret police lounge, still wearing sunglasses; by the time he has lit a cigarette and limped through the rain-slicked parking lot to his beat-up VW, he has managed to distance himself from D’Souza and think of other things. The car, for instance, which was a present from Pedro, now a used-car salesman in Mexico City, perhaps not where he wanted to be at fifty, but happy. It is like the shedding of some insidious skin, this thinking of other things.

The car crankily shifts into gear and Gabriel turns on the headlights. He backs out under the glare of the moth-smothered lamppost and drives past the outer ring of guard stations, waving at his friend Alberto, who is good for a game of pool or poker on the weekends.

The road is bumpy and ill marked, but as Gabriel speeds down it he reaches an exhausted calm; his shoulders relax and he slides back in the seat, slouching but comfortable. Mottled shadows broken by glints of water reflect the stars. There is no traffic at this hour, the bright murals and billboards depicting El Toreador muted, rendered indistinct by a night littered with broken street lamps.

Magnified by the hush of surrounding trees, the silence is unbroken, except for the chugging huff of Gabriel’s VW, the even sound of which reminds him of an old Mickey Mouse alarm clock; the ticking had more than once lulled him to sleep, wedged between three brothers on a small bed. His father had been alive then, and they had been poor, although well-off compared to some families, until he’d been caught selling drugs to supplement their income. A thin, short man in a shabby black blazer and gray trousers too baggy for his legs; eyes that had once reflected laughter become as flat and gray as slate; shoeless feet a flurry of scars from working hard labor in the quarries. Mother had had to find work in a clothes factory, making bright cotton designer shirts that would be shipped off to the United States, to be sold in shopping malls with names like “Oaks” and “Shady Brook.”

The silence, then, and the space, which allows Gabriel to pretend that nothing surrounds him, that the road passes through an infinite bubble encompassing the sky, and within that bubble he is the only person alive; that once he passes through the silence and space, washed clean by it, when he is home, he enters his second life.

Glancing at the stars, Gabriel gets a crumpled feeling in his chest. Once, he had dreamed of flying as a career: a commercial pilot or a member of the air force, like his grandfather. His grandfather — Ricardo Jesus de Anda — whose hands were so soft and supple it was difficult to remember that he was a hard man who had spent many nights in his MiG defending the country’s borders from attack. Before the coup, his grandfather shot down three F—15s in four hours over Honduras and they gave him a medal. The next day he was at Gabriel’s house, laughing, holding a beer, and looking at the ground in embarrassment while Gabriel’s mother detailed his exploits. And Gabriel had thought, What could it possibly be like to fly at such a speed, no longer bound by the earth, curving the air with the violence of your passage?

Gabriel’s leg begins to throb and he remembers D’Souza saying, “When I have died . . . ”

He stops thinking and stares ahead at the road. Soon he pulls into the gravel driveway of his four-room house. It forms part of a state-sponsored housing project, not much different from the relocation sites made available to Indian tribes uprooted from the mountains. His house is constructed of unpainted concrete, single-story, with the gracelessness of a building block. As the VW comes to a stop, Gabriel blinks his headlights three times before turning them off, so that if Sessina is awake she will not mistake him for the police.

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