La Casa Roja: a short story

It is the same the following night and the one after that.  I lie awake in my room; the one at the end of the corridor on the top floor of the Red House.  The bed has iron railings at the foot and head.  They are much rubbed by human hands.  The mattress is unforgiving; the buttons poking into my side and the springs muttering when I move.  The room is a little too cold.  In places, laths show through the decaying plaster like ribs under burned skin.  The cornicing is elegant because the Rincon was once known for opulence.  In the centre of the ceiling an elaborate rose supports a kinked electric cable.  Outside, the distant whistles of traffic policemen are just audible above the cicadas and women laugh as they sweep the courtyard below, their sandals clacking across the tiles.  Lamplight wriggles through the shutters to cast thin lines across the ceiling.  Next to the bed, on the far side, a mahogany commode sits apart from the wall.  One foot is missing and it is supported instead by an uneven column of books.

I am waiting for someone.  I don’t yet know her condition, but I know she is coming and that I am important to stop the darkness infecting her.  I am weak now, and become more so as her time draws near.

Two old women enter the room, their heads shawled and backs bent.  One keeps an angular hand on the door handle as she looks at the broken light bulb, the commode, the rumpled bed.  The other opens the door of a huge armoire that stands central to the bottom wall.  It is empty and the door squeaks because the wood has swollen.   She closes the door and locks it with a key she slips into her pocket.  Neither takes notice of me.  “Si,” one says, and the other nods.  They leave, closing the door behind them.

When dawn comes, I drift off to another world.  I watch cars shunting down the esplanade, beeping their horns.  Taxi drivers holler for business.  Young boys carry paper-wrapped parcels on their shoulders.  A man in a wide grey cap struts along the sidewalk, rolling his shoulders.  He passes the steps where girls gather in the afternoon.  They giggle among themselves after he has gone.  They do not see it, but he has had evil in his soul since the day he was born.  Then I am back, awake, in the cool of my room.

The door is unlocked and I am afraid of who may come since I have little energy to defend myself.  I am relieved when a friend knocks and enters.  He stands by the armoire with a smile on his face.  I have a sense of his kindness and also that he is brave.  I know I can trust him.  We will wait together for what must happen.  We do not talk because there is no need to do so.  At the window, he peers out through the slats, angling himself to see as high and then as low as possible and then he keeps watch while I rest.  Later, when the night is finally too cool for the insects, he looks like he will undress, get into bed, and sleep.  Out of sympathy, I turn my face to the wall, pull the sheets up around me, and lie there listening to his ministrations.  He undoes his watch and places it on the commode, some keys as well.  Braces slip from his shoulders.  He sits on the bed to untie his shoes, pulling off one and then the other.  The trousers slide down his legs and he steps out of them.  He tugs at the door of the armoire, but finding it locked, clicks his tongue and hangs his trousers over the end of the bed.  For the next hour or so he sits on the bed behind me shuffling a deck of cards between his hands.  He is dextrous and skilful.  I stare at the curling, peeling paint, thankful that I am not alone.

In the corridor, the far door clatters open.  Footsteps approach.  My friend pats my shoulder, telling me to be still.  He pulls the bedding out from under the mattress and piles it on me then goes to the door, ready.   He has no time to dress.  Light spills in.  Evil demands the room.  My friend tells them to be gone: Fuera de aqui!  I am alert, as sharp as a spark.  Evil pours in, burling, bustling, bullying.  My friend fights, but they are too many.  I know I should help him but I am afraid.  I lie motionless, hidden by the bedclothes.  I do not breathe.  A knife is unsheathed with a dreadful swish.  There is a scream, No! Paysano!  It stabs home, a sound like chopping a cabbage.  My friend gasps as his essence fades.  I am terrified, knowing this evil is here for me.  My friend tumbles to the floor.  Boots step over his body.  The door slams.  I dare not look.  The sound is too fresh, too close.  My chest thunders.  I wait to be told that I must die also, but they have gone.  I lie unmoving till the dawn and finally, at last, drift off.

I sense movement.  I sense the whores calling for custom by the dockyard.  By the cotton tree, the paper boys dart between the traffic, their broad smiles radiant as they arch away from chrome mirrors, from clawing hands.  They are wonderful to watch.  Many have yet to choose their path.

Then I am awake, once again, in my room.  I lie on my side, looking at the curling paint on the wall.  There are new sheets, stiff with starch.  I force myself upright and walk round the room.  It is not yet fully dark and the lamps have yet to be lit.  My Friend’s watch and clothing are gone but one key remains.  I use it to lock the door feeling the weight of solitude and what must happen.  I listen for movement in the corridor but there is none and I return to bed, exhausted.  This is where I must be, when the birthing comes.  I must save myself for then.

As the temperature cools and the lamps come on, the ladies in the courtyard chink glasses and start to chatter.  Insects buzz at the mesh behind the shutters.  Rats scamper in the roof above me and I follow the creatures with my mind, hearing them shuffle, narrow pawed, along the roof beams.  One stops and eats a cockroach.  Life is beautiful.

Dust falls on my hair, then flakes of plaster.  I am conscious of sawing.  In the ceiling, a blade slices a line through the plaster, jerking up and down.  It disappears for a moment then appears again in a different place, cutting towards the same destination.  I brush the fallings from my head and clamber out of bed, holding on to the sheets like a child.  If this is evil, I have no place to hide.  They will destroy me and gain the soul of an unborn child.

Outside, in the corridor, the far door pushes open to clang against the wall.  Evil advances in numbers towards my room, their boots heavy and certain on the floor boards.  They stop at the door and rattle the handle.  They shove it, two shoulders or more at a time.  I look for places to hide.  Underneath the bed is too obvious.  The armoire cannot open.  I think of opening the shutters but I have no voice.

A triangle of plaster falls on the pillow.  I look up at the ceiling.  A hand appears, beckoning.  I shake my head, not knowing what to do.  In the corridor, evil concentrates its forces.  One of them kicks the door.  The hinges shudder, but hold.  They recede.  The far door clatters again and I know they will soon return.

In the roof, a face appears.  She is indistinct and distant in the darkness but I instinctively know she is a friend, a warrior.  Ven aqui!  Ven aqui! she calls, beckoning with curled fingers.  I shake my head.  It is too high.  She points to the bedstead.  I understand and clamber up.  The bed springs creak.  As I do so there is noise outside in the corridor.  Evil returns.  A key rattles in the lock.  It does not fit so another is tried.  I start to rush.  Placing one set of toes on the rail, I bounce on the mattress to gain momentum.  It is not enough and I fall back, stepping to avoid a fall.  My friend urges me to rush.  There is little time.

In the corridor, the evil ones try a third key, then a fourth.  They rattle the door each time and shout between themselves.

I stand on the pillow, side to the wall, testing the awkwardness of my stance.  Finding balance, I raise one foot and place it on the top rail.  The bedstead tilts.  I look up.  Hands reach down for me.  I know I have only one chance.  I push myself upright and for a second I wobble as the bedstead starts to bend.  Then I stretch up, desperate.  I find fingers, then a wrist.

In the door, a key has found.  It turns.

I am terrified, but my saviour does not abandon me.  She is not alone.  Friends haul me upwards and I scratch with my toes for the dado rail to help my flight.  I reach the cut away plaster and grasp a beam.  Above the ceiling it is dark and cramped.  There is only just enough space to crawl.  I slither sideways.  Hands pull me to safety.  I lie across the roof beams, chest heaving.  As soon as I am safe, evil tumbles into the room below.  They are searching for me, frantic and angry.  They dart under the bed.  They smash the door of the armoire.  They see the hole in the ceiling where I escaped and start to pull the bed away.  We look at one another, knowing one of us has to face them.  I start to move, but hands prevent me.  Esta no es para ti.  Another of us shuffles into position to take my place.  He is lithe and strong and beautiful.  He smiles at me, radiating joy, then slides down through the hole and into my room.  I hear his feet grace the bedstead.  I hear him skip lightly onto the mattress and spin, ready for the fight.  He draws his sword, but too slowly.  There is only one shot and his body slumps, falling over the bedstead to the floor.  I remain still, life pulsing in my ears.

In the room below, evil is sated.  They depart, closing the door.  They do not know how soon the birthing is.  Silence returns.  Exhausted, I sleep in my saviour’s arms. I am conscious of being fumbled through tight spaces.  My shoulders are bruised and my toes painful with cold.  I am weakening by the moment.  My saviour wraps me in blankets.  She tells me they will protect me and that I will know what to do when the time comes.  The two who died gave themselves for my sake.  I am the chosen one.

It is early evening when I am next awake.  I lie on my front in the tight space above the ceiling to my room, looking down through a hole in the plaster.  On the bed, a young girl cries out, her hands holding her swollen belly.  The old women bathe her arms and wipe her brow.  To the side, on the commode, they have bowls of water, towels, and a wooden box containing herbs.  The shutters have been opened and mosquitoes flirt with the candle flames.  The girl screams and tries to turn but her belly and the hands of others prevent her doing so.

“El dolor! Ayudame, Santa Maria, Ayudame!”

She pulls at a cross on a chain round her neck.  One old woman with gnarled fingers caresses her belly, twisting the contents.  The girl bends her knees then straightens them.  Her head turns desperately from side to side.  Her breathe retracts inside her and for a second she is silent.  Then she roars, as wild as a mountain lion, clawing at the mattress.  She begs for the pain to cease.  The sheets are pulled away and there is blood on her thighs, the scarlet vivid.

In the corridor, evil comes once again, summoned by her cries.  I hear their boots stamping up the stairs.  I look to my saviour and she smiles, long hair falling softly along her cheek.  Ya es ora, she says, and I nod.  I know that I will never see her again and that such beauty as this is a rare and precious thing.

We slide down through the hole in the ceiling, first her then me.  She skips from the commode to the armoire, ready to meet the evil as they enter.  I balance on the bedstead and then step down to kneel on the pillow by the girl’s head.  The old women do not see me but the girl does.   At first she pushes me away but I smooth her hair and sing to her until she quietens.  She whimpers softly as she gives herself to me.  I hold her hand as her strength fails.

The door is kicked wide.  Evil enters, ravening for new life.  My saviour greets them, as certain as a snake and fast as a falling hawk.  Her sword cuts swathes through their number.  They stand no chance against her power but once expended, she also must fade away.  She goes with rapture, saluting me as the last vestige of her smile disappears.

We take life.  We give it.  The young girl arches her back and screams as I dive into her body, plunging through the viscera.  My energy returns.  I am as bright as a thousand suns and as strong as the moon.  I find the living being inside her and invade it, pushing it through to light, to sound, to loving hands.  I cry.  The first battle for this child is won.  I am born once again.

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