[Fiction] Spellbound, by Fernanda Melchor | Harper's Magazine

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From the novel Hurricane Season, which will be published this month by New Directions.

They say she never really died, because witches don’t go without a fight. They say that, at the last minute, just before those kids stabbed her, she transformed herself into something else: a lizard or a rabbit, which scurried away and took cover in the heart of the bush. Or into the giant raptor that appeared in the sky in the days following the murder: a great beast that swept in circles above the crops and then perched on the branches of the trees to peer at the people below with its red eyes, as if wanting to open its beak and speak to them.

They say there was no shortage of people who entered that house looking for the treasure after her death. The moment they heard whose body had been found floating in the irrigation canal, they raced with shovels and picks and sledgehammers to demolish the walls and dig holes like trenches in the floor looking for hidden doors, for secret rooms. Rigorito’s men were the first to show up; on the chief’s orders they even broke down the door to the room at the end of the hallway, the room belonging to the Old Witch that had remained locked ever since she’d disappeared years earlier. They say that neither Rigorito nor his men could stand the spectacle awaiting them there: the black mummy of the Old Witch lying supine in the middle of the solid oak bed, the corpse that began to flake and crumble right before their eyes, ending up a heap of bone and hair. They say those pussies skipped town, never to return; although some people claim that’s not true, that what really happened was that Rigorito and his men did in fact discover the famous treasure hidden in the Old Witch’s room—gold and silver coins, priceless jewels, and that ring with a rock so big anyone would assume it was glass—and that they swiped the lot before taking off in Villa’s sole police car. They say that, at some point after driving through Matacocuite, greed made Rigorito lose his senses and he decided to kill his men so that he wouldn’t have to share the bounty. They say he told them to hand over their guns and then shot each one in the back; they say he cut off their heads narco-style to throw the authorities off the scent and then sped off with all that money to an unknown destination. But others say that’s impossible and that Rigorito’s men killed him first, six against one; probably what happened was that those policemen came face-to-face with the first of the Raza Nueva crew making their way down from the north, sweeping up the mess that the Grupo Sombra left behind at the oil fields, and that they were the ones who knocked off those officers and probably also the chief himself, whose body will turn up before long at the scene of some shootout, perhaps also mutilated, showing signs of torture and bearing cardboard signs with messages for Cuco Barrabás and the other members of the Grupo Sombra clan.

They say the place is hot, that it won’t be long before they send in the marines to restore order in the region. They say the heat’s driven the locals crazy, that it’s not normal—May and not a single drop of rain—and that hurricane season’s coming hard, that it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies; maimed bodies; rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town. Men killed in shootouts and car crashes and revenge killings between opposing clans; rapes, suicides, “crimes of passion,” as the journalists call them. Like that twelve-year-old kid who killed his girlfriend in a jealous rage on discovering that she was pregnant with his father’s baby, down in San Pedro Potrillo. Or the farmer who shot his son when they were out hunting and told the police he’d mistaken him for a badger, even though everyone knew the father had his eyes on the son’s wife—he’d even been creeping around with her behind the kid’s back. Or that headcase from Palogacho, the one who said her children weren’t her children, that they were vampires out to suck her blood, which is why she bashed those kiddies to death with planks of wood that she wrenched from the table, and with the wardrobe doors, and even the television set. Or that other miserable bitch who suffocated her little girl, jealous of all the attention the husband gave her, so she just took a blanket and held it over the girl’s face until she stopped breathing. Or those bastards from Matadepita who raped and killed four waitresses and whom the judge let off because the witness never showed, the one who’d accused them. They say he was bumped off for being a snitch, and those cunts are still out there, like nothing ever happened . . .

They say that’s why the women are on edge, especially in La Matosa. They say that, come evening, the women gather on their porches to smoke filterless cigarettes and cradle their youngest babes in their arms, blowing their peppery breath over those tender crowns to shoo away the mosquitoes, basking in what little breeze reaches them from the river, when at last the town settles into silence and you can just about make out the music coming from the highway brothels in the distance, the rumble of the trucks as they make their way to the oil fields, the baying of dogs calling to one another like wolves from one side of the plain to the other; the time of evening when the women sit around telling stories with one eye on the sky, looking out for that strange white bird that perches on the tallest trees and watches them with a look that seems to want to tell them something. That they mustn’t go inside the Witch’s house, probably; that they mustn’t walk past or peek through the yawning holes that now stud its walls. A look warning them not to let their children go searching for that treasure, not to dream of going down there with their friends to rummage through those tumbledown rooms or to see who’s got the balls to enter the room upstairs at the back and touch the stain left by the Old Witch’s corpse on the filthy mattress. To tell their children how others have run screaming from that place, faint from the stench that lingers inside, terror-stricken by the vision of a shadow that peels itself off the walls and chases you out of there. To respect the dead silence of that house, the pain of the miserable souls who once lived there. That’s what the women in town say: there is no treasure in there, no gold or silver or diamonds or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.

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