A Halloween treat and a very disturbing story. Seriously, it involves baby mutilation. Not my usual romance.
In Emilia’s dream, someone in a tower holds a baby. A brand new white baby. Painfully blue eyes look up with complete trust. He knows he will not fall. He’s weak, new, and undoubtedly male, but he’s safe and so pale.
The hands, which look so dark and brown against that new white flesh, tickle the baby’s ankle. The baby laughs. The big hand wraps around a tiny fat ankle and bends the chubby pink leg behind the baby’s back. He fusses. Blue eyes squint. He whines tiny and cute. The hand twists, folding the fat unformed bulb that will become the baby’s knee. Twists too far. The baby arches, curls, tries to pull his foot away from his back. He blurts annoyed squalls. Farther still. The baby cries.
Farther. New bone cracks.
The baby screams.
A knife glints against the baby’s breast and a bright bubble of blood appears over the new heart.
Emilia wakes, startled but soundless. She’s in the backseat of her grandfather’s car, head tipped back on the rich leather. It’s a North American car imported to Chile by a cargo freighter as Grandfather would remind her proudly. Her heart thuds in her ears and she looks around. Her father dozes beside her, her mother stares forward in the front seat, looking at the darkness of the Chilean countryside. Grandfather drives, she can see his soft brown hands on the wheel. Everyone in the car ought to hear the pulsing of her heart, but no one does.
She wants to tell her nightmare, to hear comforting words, but even at nearly nine she will not allow herself that weakness. Her right hand still makes a tight fist, thinking it holds a knife. Her left arm still curls as if cradling a new baby – her cousin, Vicente, she knows when she’s awake.
To shake the dream, Emilia stretches her arms and leans forward to thrust her head between her grandfather and her mother. She smells strong coffee and catches the glow of her mother’s Blackberry in her pocket.
Mother puts her hand on Emilia’s head and strokes her braided hair. Says nothing.
Grandfather whispers without taking his hands from the wheel. “Is that my curious little snake?”
Emilia smiles and hisses at him.
“Go to sleep, Lia.” Mother glances over her shoulder at Emilia’s father. There’s no judgment, merely observation. Around Grandfather, Mother always looks at Papi the way a woman might watch over a bird with a broken wing in a household of cats. “Lean on Papi.”
Emilia shakes her head and looks out the window. “I’m awake. Is this the place of gulls, yet?”
“No.” Grandfather points to the window on his left. “We have to go into those mountains for that.”
Emilia presses her face to the car window and stares out into the darkness.
The Chilean countryside is vastly different than her city home in Santiago. There is an eerie absence of life. No noise and no people. Nothing living that does not understand the dark and hiding. No light except the stars and the moon and in the distance the dark mass of mountains and snow rolling along the sky. She always thought the sky was black, the blackest black, but now she knows the only true darkness in the world is those mountains.
“Is that where the copper mines are, grandfather?”
Her mother speaks without patience. “Yes, and you know that. Be still and—”
“It is. The oldest and greatest of the Vidal family mines.” Grandfather interrupts his daughter. “The one you’ll inherit.”
Mother says nothing, watching Grandfather. The look of a sparrow watching an old hawk, waiting for him to dive and eat her young.
Grandfather doesn’t notice or, rather, he notices but is not bothered enough to let it interrupt him. “You’ll see it tomorrow. My grandfather burrowed into the earth and found the richest deposit of ore in all of Chile. He never mined half of it, because he was clever.”
“Copper dries up.” Emilia nods. “But people always want a bigger better roof over their heads.”
“Good girl.” Grandfather and Mother both say. All three of them smile but do not laugh.
The road jostles the American car and Papi snorts and groggily blinks awake. Mother turns and smiles, but Emilia frowns. It’s better when he’s asleep. She regrets thinking this because it’s unkind and Papi is nothing but kindness.
Papi gives her a goofy smile and tugs her hair, as if she is not nearly nine. His voice is large and laughing, “Hey, pretty girl. Still awake?”
There had been something special when it was only Grandfather, Mother, and herself in the stillness and the dark. Papi could not tolerate the stillness.
“No, Papi, I’m dreaming.” She points out the window. “I’m a snake swimming in the mountains.”
Grandfather, Mother, and Papi all laugh at this. Not because it’s funny, Emilia knows. Papi laughs because his daughter has said something silly in her serious way. Grandfather and Mother laugh so that Papi is not alone in his amusement.
Then Papi tickles her and Emilia is the one laughing alone, joyful. The darkness of the mountains, the knife in her dreams vanish into the warmth of her father’s big brown fingers.
In Emilia’s dreams, she knows how to press the needle into the baby’s ear, how to angle it so that it pierces the flesh but does not bend on the bone of its skull. She tugs the ear high and tall so that it will be sharp and attentive. It must hear the slightest rustling, because he will not see well.
The foot has grown through the baby’s chest and its toes wrinkle and clench as it squirms and whines. So much noise. Such a loud baby.
When the ears are stitched to the baby’s small head, blood trickles down the curves and into the canal. Emilia takes a moment to twist the baby’s neck. Soon its head will be able to turn entirely around, but for now she’s only trained it about halfway.
She cleans the blood from its ears, hushes and soothes the baby. She feds it cat’s milk in a bottle which the baby holds with its foot to its mouth. When the baby calms again, she gently lays him on the wooden table and takes out her scissors.
Emilia takes the bottle away and pinches the baby’s tongue. It’s older now. Old enough to punch, but still tiny and weak. She uses the scissors to fork the tongue and the blood gushes over her fingers and the blade.
She cleans the scissors and feeds the baby a balm to heal its split tongue. Then the goat meat in mushed chunks to sustain it. Then the special herbs and bone-powder to make it grow strong.
The baby calms again and sleeps on her shoulder.
The eye-lids will be last. They must be glued with the proper balm. When she is finished, those blue eyes will be clouded and her servant will see only what she wants it to see. But that’s not for today. For today, she sings the baby ancient songs and massages its neck.
Emilia wakes and stares trembling at the ceiling. She is alone in the hotel room in a bed large enough for two adults.
“Papi…” She whimpers in the darkness, so cold and so empty in this place without sky scrapers and street lamps. She badly wants his arms, his big voice calling her ‘pretty girl,’ and his goofy smile. But she will not call for him because Mother might come and Emilia does not want anyone to know she’s afraid of the dark.
Even though she’s alone and there is no one to see, Emilia buries her face in the pillow when she cries. She doesn’t sleep anymore, though she stops crying soon. She listens to the darkness, feels it getting closer, prickling at her skin. Soon, the sun breaks over the horizon and gray light spills into the room that hundreds of strangers have called their own. Emilia rises and opens her suitcase. Papi insisted on packing her favorite long-sleeve shirt. It has a mermaid on it, and Emilia thinks it’s too silly to wear around Grandfather, but she puts it on anyway because it comforts her. She puts the thick black sweater over it then sits by the window to watch the sun rise.
She will see the copper mine today. One that she will inherit. She tries to make her hair like her mother’s bun.
She knows it’s Papi because he knocks softly and then carefully creaks the door open. “Hey, Pretty Girl, you’re awake?”
She badly wanted his voice a few hours ago, but now the nickname irritates her. She hopes he will not call her that at the copper mine.
“Well, it’s morning, Papi. Why would I be sleeping?” She smiles at him graciously, her mother’s smile. Her father recoils.
They have breakfast with Uncle Dominic and his wife. The woman’s name was Anna Dominguez, and she was from the warm coastlands of Chile where the people were white and the natives were few. The Vidal family came from the far south where the people were brown and had always owned the land.
Anna holds her baby as if he will fly away if she lets him go for an instant. Everyone is polite to her, but Emilia knows Anna doesn’t belong. Mother and Grandfather look at her the way wolves look at Chihuahuas. Papi sits by Anna and as Grandfather and Mother and Uncle talk about the business, the buildings, the mines, they talk about babies. Anna worries that Vicente is only seven days old and shouldn’t be out in this cold. Papi assures her he will be safe.
Emilia sits very still and watches the newborn boy’s sleepy blue eyes.
Grandfather drives to the mine with Uncle Dominic and his wife. While Papi drives, Mother ‘voices concerns’ in her quiet hiss. “If that bitch thinks just because her baby has a prick he’s going to get any part of the business…”
“Trust your father.” Papi knows how to calm her. “He put you in charge, didn’t he?”
Mother nods. “Dominic is weak and his wife is weak and their son will be weak.”
Papi raises his eyes the way he always does when Mother talks about weakness and power. “Your father will see that. He’s not going to trust his business to anyone but the best.”
This conversation would mean nothing to Emilia if it happened in Santiago. In Santiago, she was top of her class, she aced her tests, she had ribbons and trophies. But as she walks through the copper mine with her hair in its tight bun, she cannot help but watch the baby.
They don’t go back to the hotel. Grandfather leads them higher up the mountain. He’s left his American car at the mine and he’s driving a giant chipped truck. A trailer laden with two ATVs drags behind, chattering along, threatening to come undone and crash into Papi’s little car.
“Where’s he taking us?” Papi grumbles. “It’s past lunch time. Emilia must be starving. And Anna shouldn’t be out this soon after giving birth.”
Mother tense and unpleasant says, “maybe there’s a restaurant on the mountain.”
Papi knows better than to respond. But he looks back at Emilia and raises his eyes trying to get her to conspiratorially agree with him.
Emilia looks out of the window at the mountains. She knows they are going to the Place of the Gulls, like Grandfather said. The world is alive with green foliage and patches of the whitest snow she has ever seen. The darkness hides under the snow, under the earth. It coils around unmined ore, shielding the shine of the copper from the sun.
The road ends. Or rather the road turns into a dirt trail after a large picnic area. There is a railing around the cliff and snow. It’s cold as a refrigerator here. Santiago never felt this cold. Emilia put on her coat, which was meant for light rain and black and sleek as her grandfather’s fur lined coat. She stands beside her mother looking down at the valleys of Chile, trying to find the snaking road they traveled on. She can hear the cry of seabirds, but she sees none.
“It’s too cold.” Uncle’s wife complains as she climbs down from the truck, clutching Vicente as if he is a life-jacket and she is drowning.
“Stop worrying, darling,” Uncle says. What he means is stop being weak in front of the family.
“Let me hold the baby, Anna. Rest.” Mother can be gentle, but Mother can also pretend to be gentle. Anna doesn’t know the difference and shares her burden with another woman. Vicente cries.
The sound annoys and frightens Emilia. So much like her dreams… Determined not to feel the cold, she walks to her grandfather’s side. She points out to the valley and the highways. “Someone should build a proper road over this mountain. Then a big hotel with a ski resort right here.”
“Clever,” Grandfather says. “They’ve tried. I stop them.”
Emilia looks up at his clean-shaven face, studies the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. She waits for him to tell her why it’s not in the mine’s best interest for there to be a road and a hotel. Or maybe it’s in Chile’s best interest. Maybe a road would be a straight path into Argentina. She is not as ignorant, as easily blinded by Argentinian footballer’s smiles and handsome faces, as naïve as other girls her age.
Grandfather doesn’t explain anything. “Get on the ATV.”
Emilia goes to the ATV her father and Uncle drove off the trailer. They ease the second one down and Grandfather sits on the first. Uncle straddles the second.
Mother sits on the ATV behind Uncle cradling Vicente.
Papi kisses Mother’s cheek then says to Grandfather. “Anything else, sir?”
“No,” Grandfather waves at Anna sitting in the back of the car. She looks weak and drained and cold. “Take her back to the hotel.”
Anna sits up and looks for her baby. “But I thought I was going, too.”
“You’re tired.” Grandfather’s gentleness is more convincing than Mother’s. “Go rest at the hotel. Vicente will be fine.”
Anna stood, staggered a little, reaching her arms helplessly. “Then let me have Vicente.”
“Get back in the car, darling.” Uncle says. “You need rest.”
Anna cries because Mother will not surrender the baby. “Please, don’t make me, Dominic. He’s only seven days old. We should both be at home. The doctor said—”
“Anna. Don’t fight me.” Uncle shows the family hardness. “Get back in the car.”
Papi takes Anna by the shoulder and pushes her gently to the car. His kindness is real and he whispers softly to Anna. She is soothed and sits in the back, heartsick.
Papi says, “Come on, Lia. You sit up front.”
Emilia glares at him. She is not weak like her uncle’s wife. She wants to go on the ATV. But she thinks about the darkness hiding in the mountain, the cry of the baby and longs to sit in the car with her father and sing silly American songs and make goofy faces as they drive away. The cloud of those dreams would stop and she could hear her little cousin cry without trembling. Everything would be better if she got into the car and drove away from the mountain and that dirty road leading into its heart.
“Get behind me, Emilia.” Grandfather commands.
And she obeys.
The road is impassable at the end of the world. More than just ending, the dirt trail turns into a wall of rock and thick trees and snow. No person could get through.
Grandfather stops the ATV at the edge of the stone wall and Emilia sees the wall was once taller. Over time, it has crumbled, but there are still strange things etched into the stone.
There are nuggets of raw copper at the base, left like an offering.
Vicente fusses and squalls from hunger and cold. Uncle stays on his ATV and stares straight ahead at the stone, his face as stoic as the natural barricade. Grandfather unpacks sandwiches from a cooler strapped to the ATV. Mother takes one without asking.
“You know, Lia, I’m not the oldest of my father’s sons.” Grandfather hands her a bottle of pop. “Dominic, come have a sandwich.”
“No, thank you.”
Emilia drinks her pop and waits to hear more. She thought she knew the Vidal’s history, but her Grandfather had always been the oldest in the histories she knew. “What happened to your older brother? Did he get sick?”
Grandfather smiles. “He was lost when he was only seven days old.”
Emilia casts her eyes over to her cousin, Vicente. So small, so weak. “How did he die?”
“He didn’t.” Grandfather drinks his pop and watches over her shoulder.
The forest crawls behind her, but it is impolite to turn her back on her Grandfather and he wants to watch the forest.
“I said he was lost,” Grandfather says. “Eat your sandwich.”
Emilia takes several large bites obediently. She was not used to Grandfather talking in riddles or euphemisms.
“Have you heard of the Brujo chilote, my little snake?”
Emilia snorts. “Witches and monsters in baby stories.”
Her grandfather smiles, pleased. “That’s not so. They are very real.”
Emilia leans away without meaning too, narrowing her eyes. She looks to her mother for support, another explanation of Grandfather’s ridiculous claim. The Brujo Chilote are the sort of thing Papi would talk about before he laughed and pretended to eat her belly.
Mother watches the forest with a mouse’s eyes, ready to bolt.
Emilia returns her gaze to Grandfather. This is a test. To see if she is gullible? To see how much she trusts him? She says nothing, but continues eating her sandwich.
Grandfather goes on. “The Brujo chilote bought my older brother from my grandfather. Sold for good fortune, protection.”
Vicente cries and Emilia’s stomach turns with the memory of a knife and needle.
“He was turned into an invunche.” Grandfather finishes his sandwich and sips his pop.
Emilia does not know what that means. She senses there’s a weight to the word, a summoning power, as if it should conjure images of frightening stories from her childhood. But in Santiago, the monsters were tiny figures on a television screen and Emilia had always changed the channel.
Emilia hears her mother swear and Grandfather dips his head to indicate for her to look toward the wilderness.
The invunche crouches on the stone, perched on one foot and steadied by two long arms. The other foot curls and uncurls from its chest where its heart ought to be. If it had once been human, it is no longer. Thick with muscles and hair, it sways, never still, always listening and tasting the air with its forked tongue. The head floats over its massive hairy shoulders as though the thick cord of its neck is only a string, tenuously attaching the weird and inhuman face to the rest of the contorted body. The eyes are white, seeming to see nothing until they fall on Emilia. The lips, the only truly untouched thing about the monster, smile.
Emilia does not scream when the thing launches into the air and lands before her. But she also does not run. The invunche, invited by her grandfather to steal his kin, sways on one foot and his great arms reach toward Emilia, capture her by her waist, lift her onto its back where she sees its other leg was once broken and deformed and sewn through the monster’s chest.
Her mother shouts not for Emilia, not in fear, but in betrayal. “You said it wanted the baby.”
Uncle Dominic also shouts. “You told me if it was your child you wouldn’t argue.”
“Hush.” Grandfather does not shout.
The invunche carries her into the trees where no human thing could have passed. No human that contorted should smell so animal. No animal that malformed should move so quickly. Nothing that quick should be able to hold her so tightly.
Emilia never screams, but she punches. Its eyes depress under her fists like warm jelly. The bone of its heavy jaw hurts her knuckles. The beast laughs, without human words, but with human understanding of her … weakness.
Enraged, Emilia bites the invunche’s ear, tearing at the white stitching holding the withered thing to its bald scalp. It howls with pain and its hand gropes for her neck to pull her off. She spits in its ear canal, then at last, finds her scream. It is a weapon.
The invunche finds the back of her neck and yanks her away from its body. She grabs its hairy arm and bites until the howling echoes in her mind and the blood washes into her eyes.
“Now, Matteo.” The soft voice comes from above, higher in the trees, from the very sky. “Put her down.”
The monster growls, seething with pain and rage, swaying in the vines. It wrenches its arm to hurl her to the ground. Emilia tightens her grip.
“Gently. In her place.”
The invunche hops from vine to tree, moving back the way they came until it lands on the stone once more. It grunts unhappily and drops Emilia before the stone.
Emilia wipes its blood from her eyes and spits at it. She knows vulgar words to say, but Grandfather is there still watching. So, Emilia returns to his side and glares at the beast.
Mother puts her hand on Emilia’s shoulder. Grandfather holds Vicente and Uncle Dominic sits on the ATV which still chugs softly in the night. They all stare at the invunche. The beast cannot find stillness. It can balance as if God designed it to exist on the trunk of one leg, but its shoulders sway, its head bobs, its eyes float in its skull.
The Vidals’ thoughts all share the same theme. If I were a boy, if I were the eldest, if I had been chosen…
The invunche’s head swivels around and stares above. There is a darkness moving in the shadows, something shaped like a person, but too soft, too ethereal. Uncle rises unable to remain seated in the presence of something so awful and powerful.
“Your granddaughter is very brave, Espen.” The voice from the other world speaks to Grandfather.
“Thank you, sir. Yes, she is.”
Emilia has never heard her grandfather call someone ‘sir’.
The shadow sinks down and perches upon the invunche’s back. The body of the thin man fits perfectly in the divot of the beasts’ back where the deformed leg curls as if built to support its master. Without any verbal command, the invunche crawls from the stone and leans towards Emilia’s mother.
“The eldest. You took great care she was female.”
Mother shivers but does not look away from the darkness. Grandfather says nothing.
The invunche sinks lower and the faceless shadow considers Emilia. The shape has eyes like fire and angels and ice. “And she made certain her eldest was female.”
None of the Vidals speak.
“But someone made a mistake.” A thin finger, wrinkled and stained black, grazes Vicente’s cheek.
“Anna lied.” Dominic admits.
The shadow does not care, but reaches for the baby.
“What are you going to do to Vicente?” Emilia demands.
Her mother puts her hand on her shoulder. But Emilia can still taste the blood of the invunche in her mouth and she’s not afraid of her mother.
“Why, I’ll feed him cat’s milk, goat flesh – unless man is available. I’ll raise him to be strong and obedient and carry me in unreal places like this.” The black fingers wave dismissively down the mountain at all of Chile, at all the world.
Those eyes, all the light and life of the world swirling in the blackness of the hood, twinkle at her. “But, I’m going to start by breaking his leg.”
Emilia remembers her dream and the darkness drenches her bones. “You’re evil.”
“Perhaps I’m only necessary. Your family knows that.”
Grandfather holds out the baby, transferring life and ownership and fate of the newborn to the darkness. Before the withered black hands can take the tiny body of her cousin, Emilia grabs Vicente.
“Emilia!” Her grandfather’s shout should freeze her blood.
Instead, she bolts, knocks Uncle aside, straddles his ATV, and turns the machine down the dirt road. She steers one-handed, cradling the newborn the way his mother did. She needed to fly down the road, get off the mountain, get away from the darkness, and the chill in her bones, and the fear in her heart.
Vicente squalls, a sound familiar from her dreams and inevitable. Something grunts and slathers close behind the ATV, something that lopes on three feet, and carries a shadow on its back.
Emilia feels the darkness in her mind. A twinge. A promise of strength, power. She could be like Papi, all kindness, but she would not be as weak. She could protect the weak. So many lives she could touch, improve, strengthen. The Brujo Chilote would make it so. But only if she would surrender that miserable squalling brat half frozen in her arms, unable to hold up its own head.
Emilia nuzzles her cheek, wind-blasted from her flight down the mountain, against her cousin’s head. The softness of his hair and the force of his wail warm her face.
Lightening from the cloudless sky strikes a tree and fiery branches tumble into the road. The conflagration surrounds the ATV at once, too fast, too neat to be natural.
Emilia wonders if there’s a way to steer the ATV through the fire, to jump the branches, to land unharmed on the other side. Then the invunche is in front of her, not behind.
It emerges from the fire, the hairs on its head and neck burning. Two fists swing over its head, slam down on the hood of the ATV and the machine cracks, jolts, and stops.
Emilia half-falls half-throws herself off the ATV, keeping the invunche on the other side of the hissing machine, keeping Vicente supported and safe. The creature puts its hands on the seat and for a moment, Emilia thinks it will hurl the machine into the fire. Instead, it launches itself over and lands before Emilia.
She steps back away from the invunche as the darkness between the flames draws forth and sits on the monster’s back. Vicente wails as if he will never stop crying. There is no way through the fire, no way away from the beast, no way to protect the infant screaming in her ear.
Except to kill him.
Emilia shifts one hand to Vicente’s neck, so fragile. Not unlike the chicken bones she snaps with an easy twist. Better for him to die than have another monster like that in the world.
The invunche snarls and sags left to right, as if it needs movement to breathe. The darkness watches her and it waits. Her hand twitches to snap the infant’s neck. Her fingers refuse to obey her command. She steels herself to try again.
The darkness slides off the invunche. A foot touches the earth.
The fire is gone and Emilia is in the dream. She’s walking down the corridor holding Vicente who cannot breathe for his gasping cries. The Brujo Chilote must ride the invunche because her world is too thin to support the realness of that shadowy thing. How does she know that? How did she survive the shattering of her world, the fall into someplace stronger?
Vicente calms as she walks toward the tower. She sees the wooden table, the knife, the needle. She turns to see through the cast window to all the worlds.
The voice is soft behind her. “I need more than an assistant. I need an heir.”
Emilia looks out at the new world. She can see the gulls now, carrion birds feeding on whatever world they chose. The mountain looks down on other places not as real as this tower and she understands the power the Brujo Chilote have over all those worlds.
She cuddles Vicente close. “You tricked me.”
“I’ve waited for you.”
Emilia looks down at Vicente. Brand new, so pale. Painfully blue eyes. Trusting her not to drop him, or let his head fall.
She tickles his foot and Vicente gurgles and laughs.
“Someone must take my place.” The shadow touches Emilia’s shoulder and she becomes aware of the thinness of life. There is devastation in the place of the gulls, held away from her fragile home by little more than a crumbling stone. From this height, she could change the world, reshape it in her image. She can control it.
Emilia grips Vicente’s tiny fat foot then his unformed knee. She bends his chubby leg, far. Farther. Too far.
New bone cracks.
Emilia holds out her hand. “Give me the needle.”
“That comes later.” The knife appears in her hand. “His heart.”
The bubble of red becomes a line, the line becomes a river, then a valley of blood. The dark fingers swim inside the blood while Emilia holds the shaking baby steady. The shadow withdraws the tiny heart. Emilia cuts deeper, finds Vicente’s foot, pulls it through.
The shadow hands her the balm and Emilia heals the wound.
“Now open your mouth.”
Emilia obeys. Fingers touch her chin and her mouth opens wider than possible, until it is not her throat opening but some deep passage into her soul.
The tiny, still beating heart drops inside.