The skyscraper was the third-tallest building in the city and from the highest floor you could look down on the backs of birds gliding on air. One muggy August afternoon Rolo Torres tried to parachute from the fiftieth floor. The chute stayed shut and he landed face first in a refuse pile.
“At least we don’t have to dig a hole to bury the dumb shit,” said the mayor.
The building had stood empty for a decade, pockmarked by bullet holes, paint peeling in the sun, flaking away like a layer of skin, and a posse of graffiti artists had looped their messages in cartoon writing on the back of the building: libertad, torre de mierda, cojones, viva la revolución, and a fresco of soldiers in silhouette marching to Hell.
Surrounded as it was by low-rises, the monolith took on the aura of a bully. With its six hundred eyes it watched the world, and its shadow moved like the hands of a clock, blotting out the surrounding bodegas and wastelands and cinder block houses for minutes at a time. Over that decade the glass had fallen out the windows or been smashed by stray birds and bats till the building’s eyes were hollows. And with the glass gone, the wind lassoed its ghost-whistles around and through the skyscraper’s neck, shooting in and out of its arteries and whooshing down its lungs.
Some winter days the building would sway like a dancer. And when it did, the mayor, perched on a balcony sixty floors up, would cry, “It’s gonna fall!” and his wife would tell him to shut the hell up because he was the mayor and he was supposed to be a leader but he was yellow as a streak of lemon and he knew it and his wife knew it and his kids knew it and when he died it was with the whimper of a wounded dog and he soiled his pants in front of his enemies, which by the end was everyone including his wife.
And it is these same damnificados, twenty years on, who crawl out of the darkness one balmy midnight, a raggedy army of beards and grime, heading for the tower. They come from Agua Suja and Minhas and Fellahin and Bordello. They come from Sanguinosa and Blutig and Oameni Morti, cardboard cities and shantytowns on the hills, where the rain makes rivers of mud, where houses slide away. And they drag fraying baskets and polythene bags, soot-stained blankets, coats of crinoline and fake fur. A woman in her fifties pushes a wheelbarrow which carries a three-legged dog. And from out of a nook comes a cripple named Nacho, heaving his wasted body on bandaged crutches, his quick eyes scanning the streets for trouble. Krunk! Trouble! A four-hundred-pound Chinaman emerges foot first from a hole in a wall, kicking down the bricks. Another damnificado. He looks both ways and slings a scarred wooden club over his shoulder.
Some of the damnificados have wrapped their faces in cloths, like lepers, only eyes visible, and their steps are padded as a panther’s because many have no shoes to walk in, just rags binding their feet. And others move barefoot, hunched and furtive, two by two, shifting in the shadows for safety.
Slowly and silently they converge on the tower block. And a cat spies them from its roof of corrugated iron and narrows its eyes and purrs its approval. There’s nothing like a midnight rumpus to stir a cat. The distant music of sirens droops further and further into oblivion, and then there is no sound save the scampering of mice on stone.
The silence is broken by the roar of a bus as it swings its rump around a corner. A great gouge of smoke bursts out of its exhaust and then the bus convulses to a stop and two filthy, lanky teenagers exit, blond, wiry, carbon copies each of the other, each jumping the final step. Twin damnificados, men of the scarecrow army.
“Wo ist der Grosse? Where is that big bastard?” says the one.
“The tower or the Chinaman?” asks the other.
“Der Turm. Who’s the Chinaman?”
“You’ll know him when you see him. He’s massive. He once killed an ox.”
“Who hasn’t killed an ox?”
“He strangled it with his bare hands.”
Nacho the cripple turns a corner, sees the monolith and stops, thinking this is just as it was foretold all those years ago in Zerbera. He feels the damnificados around him, hears their breathing, recognizes the smells—a musky anthology of old food, sweat, piss, trash. Re-cognizes. Knows again, because he has dreamed of this time and this place. He crabs across the street, out of the shadow. Jaywalks with the wooden muletas under his arms, his lame leg dragging. Knows he is the first and has to be the first. Passes a gateway where Torre de Torres was inscribed on a plaque until the graffiti artists chiseled it down to rey de reyes. King of kings.
“That’s him. He’s a bear.”
“He’s an elephant.”
“He’s a Chinaman.”
“He’s a bear.”
Then the woman with the dog in the wheelbarrow. The wheel squeaks. She curses the world for her bad luck. Broken wheelbarrow, broken dog. It lies asleep, lulled by the journey from Sanguinosa, its long pale head tipped over the side.
The damnificados cross over. They stand ready. They gaze up at the towering monolith. Babel in black. Streaked concrete. Home from home. They surround it, milling. They wait. They glance at one another. Somewhere a clock chimes twelve.
“We wait for Nacho. He’ll give the word.”
Nacho approaches. The doorway is boarded up, a criss-cross of wood hammered in with nails. He motions to the Chinaman, says something low. The Chinaman walks to the door and clasps his club in two hands. He swings once and a board explodes with a crack like a gunshot. Nails jump. With a final kick, it caves in. A small cheer goes up.
A woman’s voice: “Now it’s ours.”
Nacho is overtaken by his army of damnificados. They approach the door and then they hear it. They stop. At first it’s a whine but then it drops an octave and then another until it’s a low growl. No one moves. The growl comes again. In the doorway, in the darkness, a shape shifts.
“It’s a dog.”
They make out movements in the gloom. The creature begins to pace the dusty atrium behind the door. Growls low again. Moves forward. Then a shaft of moonlight breaks open the darkness, zeroing in on the splintered boards as the animal comes closer, bares its fangs. The damnificados stare. Something wrong. A breach of nature. The beast has two heads.
There is a gasp and they shrink back. Dozens cross themselves and start to pray. A woman covers her son’s eyes. The Chinaman, breathing heavily from breaking the door, stops panting and stares, a ghostly look in his eyes.
The animal lets out an unworldly howl from its double throat, both mouths stretched wide, two rows of fangs visible in each. The army does not move. The moon shimmies behind a veil of clouds, throwing a blanket of darkness over them all.
One of the damnificados turns to Nacho.
“It’s a sign from God. We can’t go in.”
Another: “God? That thing came from hell. We need a priest.”
A man in a raincoat stained black with oil turns and looks around. “We don’t need a priest. We need a gun. Let’s kill it.”
Again the animal howls into the night, its jaws upraised. The beast is mangy but strong. Its heads move in unison, emanating from the same short, wiry neck.
Raincoat says to the Chinaman, “Beat it. Club it. Make it die.”
The Chinaman does not move.
The woman with the wheelbarrow says, “We don’t kill dogs. They are us.”
“We have no choice,” says Raincoat. “How do we get into the tower?”
“You call that a dog?” says another.
Nacho moves forward. He squints at the beast, and says in a whisper, “You’re right. It isn’t a dog. It’s a wolf.”
“It can’t be a wolf,” says Wheelbarrow. “Wolves don’t live in cities.”
“These do,” says Nacho.
Raincoat turns to Nacho. “So it’s a wolf. Then we kill it.”
Nacho says, “It isn’t it. It’s them. There are more.”
“How do you know?”
Behind the wolf there is movement, a gathering.
“Because it was calling for help.”
A dozen other wolves pad into view. They are one-headed, sleek, ears erect, cold-eyed. They stare at the army as the army stares at them.
“We have guns,” says one of the veiled damnificados. “We can fire warning shots.”
Nacho shakes his dishevelled head. “You fire a gun, all hell breaks loose. They’ll tear our throats out.”
“We have to take the building. Let’s kill them,” says Raincoat. “Then we roast them.”
Nobody moves. The two-headed wolf stares at Nacho. Nacho turns away and speaks.
“Build fires. There’s debris everywhere, wood and paper. Build a fire every ten meters around the tower. Where are the twins?”
Hans and Dieter move forward.
“Come with me. We need your father’s truck.”
All around the tower is a river of debris and mud and newspapers, cardboard boxes turning to pulp, smashed wooden crates. Half the damnificados stand on guard facing the door, weapons in hand—razors, cobra-neck flickknives, rifles from World War II, pistolas that look like water guns, clubs, hunks of metal, sticks, stones, bottles. The others half walk among the trash and pick out the flammables. Children squat, heads low, fingers exploring. A woman from a shantytown called Mundanzas pulls down her veil and says to Wheelbarrow,
“Why don’t you take the dog out and let us use that wheelbarrow for wood?”
“Why don’t you stick the wood where the sun don’t shine?”
In groups they make piles of debris. One man finds a can of kerosene and moves to each pile and pours a little. In their fear they keep watching the doorway where the wolves mill and mingle. Then the damnificados ignite the piles with matches and lighters. Soon there is a circle of small fires surrounding the tower, and the wolves retreat into the shadows, and a few of the elders are reminded of the legend of Las Bestias de la Luz Perpetua, from an earlier time before sixty-story towers were erected in the heart of the city.
An hour passes. Children hide behind their parents’ legs, peeping out and disappearing again, and the damnificados stand or sit or squat, waiting, while the flames make heroes of them, as flames always do. Their filth is gone in flamelight, their rags too. Their hunger. In the flickering, crackling light, they become ancient warriors, as still as marble gods.
A flatbed truck pulls up, and Nacho and the twins get out of the cab. Hans is carrying a heavy plastic bag. He puts it on a makeshift table of plywood and Nacho pulls out a mortar and pestle and a smaller bag. He and Dieter begin crushing white pills. Hans pulls out thin slabs of meat the size of a man’s hand from the bigger bag and they thumb the powder into the meat, kneading it, folding and unfolding the raw steak.
When it is done, Dieter and Hans carry the meat in piles toward the door of the monolith. They toss the pieces into the doorway and the steak lands, slap, slap, slap.
Ten minutes pass before the first of the wolves slinks into view. It noses the meat, nuzzles it, raises its head. Some kind of offering. It does a full turn, a slow circle, breathing heavily. Suddenly it lurches its head downward. It tears at the meat with its incisors, and soon the other wolves follow. Hans and Dieter look at each other. The last wolf to appear is the two-headed beast. It takes its share.
Raincoat turns to Nacho, “What is this? Feeding time? We should be killing them, not feeding them.”
The wolves have dragged the meat into the darkness, and as they tear into it, there is the sound of thrashing and the scraping of claws on stone.
Nacho nods to the twins.
Thirty minutes pass. The twins and the Chinaman move forward, fifteen, ten, five feet from the splintered door. Silence. Hans steps in. He disappears for a few seconds, then comes out.
“It worked,” he says. “They’re all asleep.”
“Good,” says Nacho. “Then we have to move fast. The drugs will only last for another hour or two.”
The twins and some of the others go in gingerly, with the Chinaman close behind wielding his club, and they load the sleeping wolves onto the bed of the truck. They draw straws for the two-headed monster and the Chinaman loses and picks up the animal by its belly, so its heads drag at his feet. He throws the beast onto the pile.
Hans and Dieter get into the truck and Hans drives it away. He will keep driving until he reaches the outskirts of the city, where the woods are deep and rain-soaked, where a wolf can hide and run and live and die.
*Image by Claudia Dextre
*This first chapter belongs to the book Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson. The complete novel was published by PM Press
Posted: January 5, 2016 at 10:48 pm