El Charro

Recently, I conducted an interview with the excellent folks over at Circulo Lovecraftiano, at the end of which, they gave me a prompt and asked me to write a short short story using it.  As usual, what I wrote ran considerably longer than what I’m guessing they had in mind.  I thought I’d share the story here:

El Charro

He woke to darkness and the ammoniac odor of disinfectant, which failed to conceal the mingled reek of piss, shit, and blood. The right side of his jaw throbbed; when he eased his tongue towards the teeth there, fireworks of pain signaled that several, maybe all, were broken. He had a confused memory of something swinging toward his face—a chair? How? He had been at dinner with Phoenix and the others at the little fondita, discussing Fuentes and then…

Langan rolled over, the motion filling his jaw with hurt. He exhaled sharply, his breath torturing shattered molars. Tears wet his cheeks, blurred the dim scene in front of him. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. On the floor next to his bunk lay a figure whose white shirt seemed to glow in the dark. A black pool spread around its head in a liquid halo. Phoenix? Although doing so made the entire right side of his head sing with pain, his vision flare white, he pushed himself to sitting, gripping the edge of the bunk with both hands to keep himself from tipping off it.

Two of the four walls around him were rows of metal bars. He was in a jail cell—a first, in this country or any other. The realization was as shocking as the injury to his face, maybe more so. Based on the lack of light to which his eyes were still adjusting, morning was a long distance away. What had happened? With the exception of an elderly couple nearer its front, he, Phoenix, and the rest of the reading group had had the restaurant to themselves. The talk had been lively, mixed with laughter, the food delicious. Though there had been—at one point, they had heard something in the kitchen, a single sound midway between a laugh and a sob. Their conversation (What about Vlad, anyway?) had paused, then, when the utterance was not repeated, resumed. And that was it, until whatever had preceded the chair swinging toward—and presumably, into—his head.

From the floor, the figure in the white shirt groaned, the complaint oddly muffled, as if its mouth were full of half-chewed food. Squinting, Langan leaned forward. The darkness seemed granular, as if it were particles hanging in the air. It was a man—it was Phoenix. With the recognition came awareness that there was something wrong with the lower part of his face, something terribly wrong. His mouth and jaw looked misshapen, as if they had been crushed in a powerful grip. Black liquid—blood shone thickly on them. This was the reason his moan sounded stifled: it had to make its way out through the wreckage of his palate, teeth, tongue, and lips.

Fear clear, pure, and sharp washed through Langan. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Whatever he and Phoenix had been caught up in (where were the others?) it was bad. Why had Phoenix been brought in here and left in this condition? Another wet groan escaped him. Should Langan call for help? The corridors outside the cell appeared empty.

To his left, the cell’s two solid walls met in a corner whose darkness seemed denser, as if the particles of blackness were concentrated there. The form that emerged from it crept towards Phoenix with hands and feet on the floor, in a crab walk that was silent and oddly graceful. Its head was enormous, saucer-shaped, vastly out of proportion to the rest of its spindly body. Langan started, scrambled to the other side of his bunk, striking the wall to which it was anchored, his head flashing with pain. He pressed against the plaster, trying to force himself into it, away from the thing that circled to the other side of Phoenix and lowered its oversized head to his face. There was a lapping sound, like a dog at its water dish. Phoenix moaned, the complaint leaping several octaves to a scream as the lapping was replaced by a series of cracks. Langan’s feet scrambled against the bunk’s nominal blanket, pushing it onto the floor with a thump. The cracking stopped; Phoenix’s screaming dropped to a groan. Oh shit oh shit. The great saucer of a head raised to consider Langan, whose eyes were bulging from the sockets, whose heart was beating so fast his pulse had become a single, panicked thrum.

The creature coughed, a sound like an old man clearing his throat. “Gringo,” it said in a high, reedy voice, “you’re awake. Give me ten pesos.”

What?”

Thin, anemic laughter burst from the creature, and as it shook at its joke, Langan saw that it was a man; albeit, a skinny one, skin and bones with an emphasis on the bones. What he had taken for its flattened head was an enormous hat, a black sombrero. The man was dressed in a black jacket and black jeans, the jacket embroidered in silver designs: the costume of the charro; although he was barefoot. The brim of the sombrero obscured the top half of his face. His mouth was draped by a long, dense mustache that gleamed wetly: With Phoenix’s blood, Langan realized, the horror that had ebbed as he saw he was facing a man surging again. What is this?

They tell me you were speaking about el conde,” the man said.

About…? I’m sorry: my Spanish is not very good.”

The count,” the man said.

Who…?”

The son of the dragon,” the man said, “Vlad Tepes.”

Fuentes’s novel. “Oh,” Langan said. “Yes, we were. I mean, we were discussing a book. By a Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes. Maybe you know him, his work?”

I do not read,” the man said.

Oh.”

What were you saying about this book?”

It’s a sequel to Dracula—by Bram Stoker. About the vampire. It was the last book Fuentes wrote, before his death. In it, Dracula—Vlad moves to Mexico.”

Ah.” With the thumb and index finger of his right hand, the man reached into Phoenix’s mouth. Phoenix gagged, screamed. There was a snap. When the man’s fingers reappeared, they were holding something small and white—a molar. He popped it in his mouth. The tooth rattled against his teeth as he sucked it. Around the molar, he said, “And what does the book say he does after he moves?”

Through trembling lips, Langan said, “He takes away the narrator’s family. Except, the narrator already lost them. He was too self-involved, too blind to see what was happening in front of him.”

Blind.” Something in the way the man said the word raised the hairs on the back of Langan’s neck, stippled his flesh with goosebumps. Without knowing the reason why, he understood that he had just walked onto ice so thin his next breath might drop him to the black water below. But he could not stop talking, had in the extremity of his fear entered what his wife referred to as full-professor mode. “Yes,” he said. “Blindness is one of the book’s central motifs. I’m not sure if Fuentes had bats in mind—because of their association with vampires. Obviously. The narrator fails to register all manner of important details. Dracula himself wears dark glasses, behind which, his eyes are missing.”

Are they?” the man said, and Langan heard the ice beneath his feet creaking.

Yes.”

How do you think the writer, this…Fuentes, arrived at such a detail?”

Before Langan could open his mouth to answer, the man had leapt the distance separating them. Langan cried out, raised his hands in front of him. The man’s face pressed against Langan’s palms, his mustache a wire brush. The copper smell of blood filled Langan’s nostrils, with underneath it, a worse odor, that of meat gone rotten and riddled with maggots. Through the bars of his fingers, Langan saw the hollowed sockets where the charro’s eyes had been. Oh, he thought, oh no.

With a crunch, the man bit down on Phoenix’s molar. “When I was a young man, I took part in the charreada. You know this word? The rodeo, I think you call it. My specialty was the Jineto de Toro, riding the bull. I was not very good. The bull threw me, and then he did a dance on me. My bones…” The man snapped his fingers one two three four five six, a rapid-fire succession of pops. “Sadly, I lived. But I could no longer walk. I had no education, no family to take me in. So, I became a beggar. I sat outside churches and asked for money,” the man lifted his right hand, palm cupped, “¿puedes darme dinero por favor? I might have starved. A tightfisted bunch, the devout. My luck was better with the tourists. ‘Gringo,’ I would say, ‘give me ten pesos,’ and they would, sometimes even more. I could not believe it. On a good day, I did all right for myself. I would pick a place near one of the better hotels and be there before the sun was up. That was how el conde found me. He was on his way back to his room after a night out. I thought he looked drunk. Drunk tourists could be very generous. I asked him for ten pesos. He walked past me, then he stopped, turned around, and came towards me. ‘How would you like something much better than ten pesos?’ he said, ‘Better than one hundred, one thousand pesos?’ What else was I going to say but, ‘Yes, of course.’ I thought I might have to suck his cock, maybe let him fuck me, but I had done worse for less. I was wrong. With one hand, he grabbed my jacket and lifted me up into the air. With the fingers of his other hand,” the man held up his index and middle fingers, “he scooped my right eye from my head and licked it from his fingers. I screamed, oh how I screamed. He took my left eye, and then, in the dark…he made me into this.”

Absurdly, Langan said, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

The man tilted his head. “Gracias. Even for one such as me, there are good manners, eh?” He sprang off the bunk, back into the corner he had emerged from. Although his vision had adjusted to the lack of light, Langan could no longer see the charro. It was as if he had been absorbed by the blackness there. “In time,” his voice continued, “I found my way here. This jail has not been used in many years. There has been talk of replacing it, knocking it down and building something else in its place, but the talk has remained talk. For the moment, it belongs to the beggars. It belonged to the beggars: now it belongs to me.

El conde has not passed this way since the night we met. I have watched for him. Not literally, of course, but in other ways. There is much the two of us have to…discuss. When news reached my ears of a group of diners discussing Vlad Tepes, I thought he had made his return. Apparently, I misunderstood.”

We were just talking about a book.”

Yes.”

Will you let my friend and me go?”

Does the spider release the flies from his web? After all, food is food.”

But this was a mistake, you said so yourself.”

I have made many mistakes.”

Maybe there’s something I could give you?”

You will.”

That’s…” Before he could think better of it, Langan jammed his fingers into his mouth. The teeth in his upper and lower gums were a splintered line whose members shifted as his fingers prodded them, filling his head with pain bright as sunrise. At the back of his lower jaw, he found a molar reasonably whole and reasonably loose. He pinched it at the gumline and pulled. The pain was a furnace white hot. With a rip he felt in his throat, the tooth tore from his jaw. He dropped the molar in his other hand, spat the blood that spilled from the socket onto the floor, and thrust his fingers back into his mouth. The next tooth up was already broken in the gum, and slick with the fresh blood, but he was able to wrench it free, too. Tears poured down his face; snot streamed over his lip. He could feel the sounds he was making vibrating his throat, but could not hear them over the roaring of his blood in his ears. He tried for a third tooth, but his fingers kept sliding off its bloody enamel. Finally, he said, “Here,” and flung the teeth to the floor.

The charro hissed, the train of sibilance rushing over the floor, up the walls, across the ceiling. Langan flinched. For a moment, the sound surrounded him. When at last the charro spoke, it was with such anger, he seemed to be choking: “Freely given?”

What do you think?” Langan spat blood.

Freely given?

Yes,” Langan said, “yes, freely given.”

A pause then, with dull clang, a section of the bars swung out into the corridor—a door, whose outline Langan had failed to notice. “What is this?” he said. “What’s happening?”

There was no answer.

Can I go?”

Nothing.

He looked at the floor, to where his teeth had landed. It was bare. His head a raw, throbbing wound, Langan levered himself off the bunk onto legs so weak they threatened to drop him beside Phoenix. He bent towards the other man, grabbing for his hands. As he lifted them, Phoenix moaned. Still alive. Stepping backward, Langan dragged the man through the puddle of his blood, out of the cell. You weren’t supposed to move someone as grievously injured as this, but what was the alternative? He hauled Phoenix along the corridor, toward what he hoped was an exit.

Behind them, in the darkest corner of the cell, there was the clack and clatter of teeth rolling against teeth, a deep sigh of what might have been pleasure.

For Fiona

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2 thoughts on “El Charro

  1. Thanks for this pithy tale, which makes me think it is time to floss. I enjoyed “El Charro” with gritted teeth and a grin.

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