Angelita Flores lay flat on her belly among a heap of decaying corpses. It was all that remained of the village. All the people that her husband Francisco had grown up with continued even in death to form an impregnable wall around her, a cordon sanitaire, made up now of obscenely intertwined limbs and loops of spilled intestine.
The bodies, feeding flies all day and now far into the night, had slumped across her in such a way as miraculously to shield her from the first barrage of machine-gun fire and then, later, from the bursts that sporadically followed, laid down by the looting soldiers for insurance sake. Sun-shriveled men who would never have dreamt of touching her, who used to take off their caps in greeting the elegant young profesora from the city, now pinioned her from her hips down in a variety of stiff embraces that even her husband would never have attempted.
Angelita had gotten used to the humming of the flies and to the croak of gases released from collapsing bowels. But now the night began to fill with new noises, sounds that she could not place--the rapid beating of some sort of wings, and the drone and buzz of a horde of creatures that slowly began arriving and settling off to her right at the edge of the hecatomb closest to where she lay.
At first she thought they must be carrion birds attracted by the smell of blood and feces, but the chirr was too grating and the wingbeat too swift for sounds made by birds. Then she thought they were helicopters, but no lights accompanied their arrival. The full moon alone, it seemed, was all the beacon they needed to guide them to a landing. To see who had come she would have to lift her unencumbered chest above a horizon formed by bodies piled two and three deep. But terror kept her sandwiched to the ground, her right cheek plastered to the sticky, blood-clotted earth. The sun had barely risen when, in five minutes flat, an ordinary village square was transformed into a massive open-air grave.
Were these the soldiers returning to finish what they had started? she wondered. Were they now going to pour gasoline over the dead as they had done earlier to the houses?
A horror of dying swept over her--a biological reflex, nothing more. The dread of dying made no more sense to her than that. Death by bullet, death by fire--after all, what difference would it make? Often throughout the long day and night she had wished she could be joined to all the others, beyond pain. Singled out for some reason by fate, she had been denied the swift extinction that would have united her with Francisco.
The sounds that emerged from the growing flock of visitors were a strange mix--like the crackling of burning tinder, the croaking of frogs, and the humming of a field full of crickets. Snatches of human speech seemed also to rocket out of the din, then die before she could decode them. As hard as Angelita tried to listen, the pounding of her own still-living blood against her eardrums garbled the sounds these visitors uttered. And then there was that stabbing pain, deafening in its own way as it rose ever more mercilessly from some inaccessible spot down in her twisted left leg. She could not even be sure if she actually was hearing voices or if her own tortured brain was the source of those dimly perceived, strangely accented words.
It could only be biological, she thought, that mindless voice in her that insisted on her staying alive. It was the voice of the unborn child who, ignorant of what lay beyond, still managed to turn and now and then kick and flail at her womb. The child of her murdered husband, the son Paquito and she had awaited with joy and trembling, the magic boy (or girl? "Or girl, of course," Francisco would smile reassuringly), the bond of blood that would have linked her at last to the generations of Paco's village. In obedience to that pestering voice, for many hours she had argued with herself that she must try to go on living.
But more and more that urgent little voice began to fill her with a searing sense of shame and self-loathing. To bear her child seemed almost too self-centered a reason to cling to life. But to live to bear witness was not. To bear witness was cause enough to try to survive. She had been spared, Angelita convinced herself, for that one reason alone. She alone out of hundreds of innocent people ... a teacher, one who could speak so that others would listen. In order to survive, she told herself, she must steel her jangled nerves and still the throbbing in her ears.
Soon, Angelita could hear distinct words and phrases leap out over the hubbub that formed behind her. Guerrilleros! she thought. The possibility filled her with nausea. On reflection, however, even a rescue by the guerrillas, those Liberators of the Countryside who had only a month ago murdered her Francisco, appeared preferable to being doused with gasoline. But how could these be some passing band of guerrillas? ... The voices she heard were exchanges of greetings, as if many of the visitors had arrived singly and were gathering here to meet old friends. Besides, the names they used to address each other--for names they must have been--were not at all Spanish, even though the words of greeting were. The names she heard clearly--like Malpighia, Balzvuv, Abaddon--had a distinctly foreign sound to them.
Foreigners.... Amnesty International! flashed through Angelita's mind. Or Americas Watch, or the Red Cross! she thought. They had somehow got word of the massacre and sent a commission to investigate. Representatives from a broad spectrum of nations. Arriving, every one of them, by some strange craft built by the Norteamericanos. Angelita felt some feeble stirrings of hope. As soon as she could be sure she was not hallucinating, she would cry out and let them know that there was a survivor.
They would wish to hear from her own parched lips what had happened, but the story disclosed by the moon needed little augmentation. The guerrillas--no, the soldiers, rather--the government soldiers came at dawn, when the villagers were still in bed, and ordered everyone by bullhorn to dress quickly and gather out in the square. The operation was intended "to neutralize the influence of the guerrillas," the loudspeaker boomed. And when they had all crowded into the large open square, the promised neutralization began. Angelita's fragmented impression was that as the first rays of sun cut through the mist on the distant hills, over a dozen tanks charged in from every direction, snapping spines and crushing faces under their treads. Those not plowed under by the tanks were mulched by machine-guns as they screamed and lurched about in frantic efforts at escape.
As Angelita recalled in flashes all that had happened, a metallic voice rang out above the noise at her back: "Take your places! Come to attention! We will attend to business first. Business first! Stay away from the dead! Our Leader pays us a very special compliment tonight. He sends us a most distinguished emissary who has a vital message for us--for us all. You will therefore show His Eminence that we are not, Phlogistor, a bunch of country bumpkins"--and here a thud and a high-pitched yelp interrupted the speaker--"but as sophisticated and disciplined a regional chapter as any in Latin America."
Angelita lay increasingly bewildered, aware not so much of what was said as of the speaker's accent--a local one like that of one of the district's half-educated latifundistas, or landowners, yet a good deal raspier than normal.
Angelita hoped that she had not been mistaken. Who else could these men be but members of a mixed local and international investigatory commission? As such they would largely hold themselves above petty bias, and stand deaf to the propaganda mills of either murderous party. They would report to the world at large the fate of an innocent village caught in the alternating grip of two warring factions, self-proclaimed "benefactors" whose uninvited concern for the people's welfare had led to the present scene of total annihilation.
She would tell the commissioners how the guerrillas first descended to make an "emergency appropriation" of grain supplies and how, before leaving, they treated several sick children with shots of penicillin as a token of fraternal solicitude in the never-ceasing struggle against the common enemy. She would then describe how the government, alerted that the villagers had invited medical help from the common enemy, sent soldiers to shoot those unfortunate children who had been incurably inoculated with rebel points of view.
She would tell further how her husband, out of his interest in agronomy, had seeded his acreage with a new, high-quality-protein maize; how the peasants floated rumors about "seed of the devil" and would have run him out of the village if he had not been a hometown boy; and how the guerrillas, smelling a government plot to genetically alter the political outlook of the people, accused Francisco of technotreachery, laid waste to the entire resultant crop, and then responded to his mildly voiced objections with an ideologically corrective bullet through the brain--but not without building, as a token of fraternal regard, a community soccer court on a portion of the despoiled acreage, so that the government, hearing that the village had defiantly agreed to become a public-works showcase for the enemy, this morning resorted to emergency surgery to prevent infection of the entire body politic.
"Welcome, O great Balzvuv," continued the same gravel-throated speaker, "to our humble province. We are unworthy to receive Your Eminence, but we have got up what we could to make you feel most welcome, given our limited resources. Although the present carnage may not much impress Your Eminence, we beg you to understand that given our sparse and scattered host population--"
"Enough, Anafidos! Do not presume the lieutenants of the Great One too high and mighty to mingle with their troops out in the provinces. How else is esprit de corps to be maintained throughout a worldwide organization such as ours if not through constant communication between Headquarters and even the remotest principalities?"
"Your Excellency is too kind," replied Anafidos. "And now, Sire, it is my great pleasure to introduce my council of ministers: Afasion, who oversees all cultural affairs, including education and propaganda; Kataklesios, in charge of religious affairs; Bellonides, chief of military operations, to whom we are particularly indebted for making possible tonight's--"
"A pleasure, I'm sure!" Balzvuv interrupted. "But we have all met before. After the collapse of the dam that buried Los Portales some forty years ago. Remember? I see before me your excellent Minister of Economics, whom I had the honor of congratulating back then, with a personal commendation from our Leader, for a job superbly engineered. But for now, gentlemen, business presses. For the moment, let us defer the social niceties...."
Blinking at the flies in her face, Angelita struggled against the weight of the dead on her back. She slipped her arms beneath her breast for leverage and slowly lifted her head out of the gore. The pain in her leg stung even more sharply as she moved, but she persisted in raising the upper half of her body. The arrogance she detected in His Eminence's voice sounded shamefully familiar to Angelita, a grotesquely overblown, mocking reminder of her own silent revulsion when Francisco first introduced her to the people of his village. This village that had never completely accepted her--and that perhaps she herself could never have fully accepted. Pangs of guilt over her ambivalence now stung her far worse than the flies.
Newly married, she had come out here less than a year ago, leaving home in the capital with mixed feelings. She had given up a good job in publishing to follow an idealistic husband. Francisco had vowed to use his scientific training to relieve the misery of the peasants of his village. The benefits he would bring would in no time spread from village to village, province to province ... Paco and she had been students at the university together. "What good is an expensive education," he used to say, "that has no practical application?" Sometimes she would think he was taunting her for the lack of immediate utility of her concentration in the humanities, but Paco loved literature at least as much as he loved the sciences.
Angelita bit her sand-caked lower lip. Perhaps, she thought, if her common sense had not yielded to love, they would both be alive right now, bound up safely, in an apartment back in the city, in the familiar tangle and dense sweet odor of each other's living limbs.
Paquito had left a part of his dream, anyway, in her care, in the uncomfortable nest of her flattened, twisted body. In her womb, in a sea of fear, paddled a blind and battered orphan, now the sole inheritor of Paco's vision of a bright and boundless future. It was the glow of that innocent vision that had caused her to fall in love with him in the first place. Those ideas of his! At first they would provoke her sarcasm; next they had excited her desire; finally they had ignited in her a depth of crazy passion for Francisco--of the sort she used to make fun of when fellow budding feminists would admit falling victim to such incredible emotional catastrophes.
Angelita was determined, then, to cooperate with fate. To survive.
Meanwhile, His Eminence continued strident against the night: "It is with a sense of great urgency that we lieutenants have for several months now been fanning out over the farthest corners of the earth. We have been arranging special meetings with thousands of chapters just like yours to advise the entire brotherhood of drastic changes in policy, approved at the highest level, that will affect your daily modus operandi."
Why on earth, Angelita wondered, was there as yet virtually no mention of this field of corpses festering right under their noses? Were all these visiting dignitaries, these champions of human rights, no more than some jaded collection of salaried bureaucrats? Did tragedies such as these serve mainly as occasions for business meetings? At last Angelita found the courage to raise her head above the topmost jeans-clad limb that had been blocking the view. To do so meant slightly shifting the web of bodies sprawled on top of her, a risky maneuver that she decided she had to chance. As she looked to her right, the light of the full moon revealed a horrifying cluster of figures barely ten paces away. A scene so impossible, a grouping so repulsive, that for many seconds she believed that her sick soul had conspired with moondust to deceive her eyes.
Angelita saw flies.
Not just more of the flies that crawled all over her even as she gaped--but giant flies. Flies the size of men. Glowing green in the moonlight, they looked so fantastically bloated she could not see how they could ever get off the ground. Most were seated on their shadowy abdomens in close-packed, fidgety assembly. They all faced the speaker, a fly towering over them in height who stood raised on his four back legs as he addressed them. The huddled flies, unable to sit still, shuffled about, scratched their bristly faces with their forelegs, or flapped prismatic wings that struck blue-green sparks from the rays of the moon. Their enormous eyes glinting like galaxies of rubies, they seemed to squirm under the spell cast by the eyes of the speaker, twin diamonds that flashed out over them in ever-shifting constellations of color.
Great as was Angelita's disgust, she continued squinting before her in numb fascination. Propped up on her right elbow, her right cheek against the pulpy haunch of a woman whose face she fortunately could not see, she stared from left to right, from the restless gathering to the speaker, who stretched his iridescent wings the way a man might raise a finger when making a point.
"You have done well, my colleagues," the emissary continued, "in engineering war and famine, not to mention the countless smaller catastrophes that you regularly inject into the lives of our tractable hosts."
"Hear, hear!" gritted the voices of attentive listeners.
"I look out now over this field of sweet-smelling death, and I take pleasure in your ability to cooperate in such relatively large collective ventures.... No, do not underrate yourselves simply because you work far from some prestigious urban center! Your Leader ranks the ruins you effect in the provinces exactly on a par with the misery wrought by your counterparts in the great metropolises. You have reason to be proud of your record. I gaze upon this splendid feast laid out in my honor, and I marvel at the increased efficiency with which we have learned to manipulate our hosts."
Feast? Angelita mouthed. Feast?
"Begging your pardon, O great Balzvuv," a razor-like voice scraped out above the background drone, "I'm glad you appreciate the cook-out we prepared in honor of Your Honor, and since some of us here haven't fed much since the last full moon, I'm thinking I'm expressing the feelings of a lot of the brothers if I make a suggestion that first we fill our barriguitas and then we feast on all the new-fangled policies Your Honor wants to lay on us. After all, Sire, the mind works better when the stomach--"
"Quiet, Phlogistor! You're the biggest bellied of us all," an indignant voice replied, the voice that had earlier reminded Angelita of one of the region's most prominent land barons. After a short scuffle and a muted exchange of invective, quiet returned and the emissary continued his address as if nothing had happened.
"But ask yourselves one question, dear brothers. How long can our race afford the galloping rate of progress to which we have attained?"
The pause that followed this rhetorical question filled with an irritable buzzing. Angelita shook her head in disbelief. Involuntary shudders racked her body as she pictured the full horror of a swarm of monster flies descending on the mounds of the dead. It seemed impossible that worse could happen than had already come to pass. Delirious visions of flight passed in rapid, frantic succession through her mind. How soon would the party begin? she wondered. As if her life might depend on it, Angelita paid close attention to the speaker. He alone was in charge of the pace at which the night's events would unfold. She prayed that his penchant for Ciceronian rhetoric and his addiction to verbal embroidery would tie them all up in such a Penelope's web of oratory that she would have ample time to devise a strategy for escape.
"Think! There are scarcely one hundred of you, and yet this field is stacked with over four hundred succulent corpses. What extravagance, gentlemen! Aside from myself, now, how many of you can do gastronomical justice to more than one full-sized host at a sitting? ... No, I do not at all intend to sound ungrateful! Lavish banquets have, after all, been the traditional mode of welcome extended to messengers sent by the Great One. But is it not a shame to think that most of this exorbitant feast will feed creatures far inferior to ourselves?"
"Many of the tidbits are very small, Sire, and scrawny from the recent drought," a meek voice blatted respectfully out of the crowd.
"You miss the point!" replied the emissary. "Try to understand. For several centuries we have been increasing production, at dizzying rates, without any regard for the future. Our hosts have become so adept at mutual slaughter, and we in turn have become so fat and prosperous, that we have failed to ask ourselves if there is a price tag on all this easy living."
"Begging your pardon, Sire," a voice came out of the assembly, "but Your Eminence seems to think that our success is something we ought to be ashamed of."
"Again, you fail to permit me to get to my point."
"All them words and he's still not made his point?" sneered a voice Angelita recognized as Phlogistor's. Despite her pain and mental confusion, distinct personalities had emerged for her out of this skulk of swollen scavengers. Even the emissary himself--long-winded, pompous, affecting the Castilian thethear--sounded uncannily like one of her professors in the Faculdad de letras at the university.
Practised speaker that he was, blithely ignoring hecklers, the emissary went on with his harangue: "The time has come, good brothers, to adjust our production to our needs. Our Leader bids me to tell you that all those gratuitous acts of instigation, incitation, excitation, and temptation, of which we have up to now been so proud, will lead to our self-destruction if we leave unchecked and unregulated all our naturally expansive tendencies."
The sounds of insucked breath were succeeded by a hectic babble. Then the emissary raised his wings in a commanding gesture and the throng lapsed again into grudging silence.
"Qui stat, caveat ne cadat: let him that standeth take heed lest he fall! We must now take lessons from our hosts--yes, the creatures we feed on. We must learn from our hosts the principles of scientific herd-management."
"Order!" yelled the land-baron voice against a cacophany of protest. Angelita could hear Balzvuv now only in fragments.
"Although we ourselves taught them the joys of reckless waste and profl ... they have been quicker than we to apprec ... disastrous consequences of such ... unrestrained policy. If our host organisms do not restr ... intertribal massacre, nuclear terrorism ... then soon they shall completely exterminate each other--and then where will we be?"
Balzvuv flashed his kaleidoscopic eyes at the assembly of wing-flapping mutterers. Angelita listened ... and at the same time tried to wriggle out from under the petrifying, putrifying remains that pinned her legs to the ground. It was extremely difficult to move in such a way as to dislodge the gruesome ballast in a gradual and inconspicuous manner. Besides, her left leg responded to each inch of advance with twinges of teeth-gritting pain.
"... succinctly, brothers, we have followed our inborn instincts all too well, and now, if we wish to ... nay, even survive--we must encompass our ends through a total reversal of strategy!"
"By heaven, Kataklesios, he wants us all to become priests and sell Bibles!" shouted Phlogistor to an accompanying burst of guffaws.
Angelita found that if she yanked up from the hip and at the same time clenched her teeth, the torment of freeing the left leg became more endurable.
"... must come to understand, Phlogistor, that the Good One in heaven, who made ... to rule over the earth, provided us with free will, which means ... rather than continue as slaves to habit. In short ... sent by our Leader to advise you that, in his infallible opinion, the Good One on ... subjecting our kind to a most severe test of the moral and intellectual qualities ... foresight and cunning ... He endowed us with."
Out of the rising commotion a skeptical voice barked forth: "Does it not strike Your ... as paradoxical, O great ... that at the height of our global prosperity we should be concerned ... imminent catastrophe?"
Angelita paid only fitful attention to the rasping speech of the flies. Herself faced with "imminent catastrophe," she learned quickly to cope with higher and higher levels of pain. Stifling well-warranted screams, at last she pulled her left leg out from the clutch of stiffening limbs. A major achievement. Laboriously won. Angelita was so elated at this milestone of progress that she feared, surely, a thousand red eyes were now observing her! So she kept still for an endless-seeming minute, paying feverishly close attention to Balzvuv's impeccable lecture-hall Castilian.
"... races which have learned to cope with paradox, with which ... Creator is now testing our ultimate worth, are the races destined to survive." (Angelita hoped he would distract them long enough for her to tunnel out from under the log-jam of the dead.) "The human ... whose unparalleled prosperity now threatens, paradoxically, ... biosphere, is making every effort on the ecological front to edge back from the brink of ... You ... aware of our duty to help them protect our common environment. But we have deliberately avoided till now the next logical ... Distasteful though ... we must now assume active responsibility for their conduct on the political front. In short, my ... those violent ... we have always promoted in their political behavior we must now--horribile dictu--actively discourage!"
Consternation. Accusations of blasphemy, altruism, and treason.
Angelita pulled her dress back from her leg. The sticky, skimpy material tore away from her moonlit flesh like a bandage. Her left leg, like the rest of her body, was mottled with whorls of black blood. Inching down with her left hand toward the source of the pain at mid-calf, her probing fingers stung the clotted lips of a wound. It was inflamed, and she knew it must already be infested with maggots. It took only hours in this climate for larvae to hatch in an untreated wound. Slowly, out of sight behind the barricade of the dead, she crossed herself. Seeing in her mind's eye Paquito's encouraging smile, she burst out into silent tears, then quickly blinked them away.
As she struggled now to free her other leg, the voice of Balzvuv, thundering above surges of indignation, ripped through her mind like a saw: "If we do not begin to cut back, good Bellonides, on the level of mortality produced by ... envy, greed, and power-lust we foster in our hosts, they must eventually die out and we ... bereft of the only host we can feed on."
"I protest!" rumbled a firm, somewhat scholarly voice. "Since the end of the great plagues that up to three centuries ago ... our strongest competitors in human death-production, we've had the field largely to ourselves. In the present century, at long last, the scale of deaths due to the wars we've inspired matches the scale ... due to the plagues of those earlier centuries."
"The point, Afasion! The point!" spiny mandibles snapped.
"The point, brothers ... now that we have at last ... power of our bacterial competitors and viral rivals, the great Balzvuv presumes to ask us to desist from the full exploitation of our ... indeed ... to deliberately lower our rate of production!"
Angelita had no way of guessing how long the "business" part of the meeting would go on. She knew, however, that Balzvuv would not allow himself to be hurried. He would not permit the longed-for "banquet" to begin until he was satisfied that his whole pack of vermin had come to understand, whether they liked it or not, the radical change that had been decreed in their age-old practices. Angelita's state of mind prevented her from following the thread of his argument, but she assumed that the extremity of the new "official position" (wasn't she out of her mind even to imagine she was hearing these things?) would spark a good deal of time-consuming protest among the grumbling, grousing horde.
Grinding her pelvis into the gummy earth to work her right leg loose from the crush, she now formed the only plan of escape that she thought had even the slightest possibility of succeeding.
"... true, indeed, Afasion, that since 1700 we have produced one hundred million dead by war alone. Granted also that over ninety percent of those carcasses have come ... this glorious century alone. But follow this trend to its conclusion, dear colleague. Nota bene! ... asymptotic curve! And what, pray, may be the good of such hard-won insight if ... no practical application?"
If she played dead, she would surely wind up in the bowels of one of those creatures, her warm blood marking her as the choicest morsel in the plaza. The better plan was to crawl slowly away, weaving a path through the twisting lanes that chance had sown between the clusters of the dead. If she could retreat along a course roughly parallel to the huddle of flies, she could circle out well past them and creep into the full-grown cornfield that began about twenty meters to the rear of Balzvuv.
"... handwriting is on the wall for all to see who are not willfully blind. If our rate of production goes on as irresponsibly as at present," droned Balzvuv, "in a few short years a grand extinction ... that will leave us ... to feed on but our own mutual recriminations. Given our alimentary limitations, hominivorous creatures as we are..."
If, thought Angelita, she managed to get as far as the edge of the field of slaughter, she would then have to cross ten meters out in the open before reaching the sanctuary of the cornstalks. And from there ... it was thirty kilometers to the nearest small town with a hospital. If she could crawl or limp along, it might take her a day and a half. But who knew how far gangrene could creep by then? ... One goal at a time, she told herself. Right now she must not think beyond that field of corn.
"Brothers," intoned Balzvuv, "our ancient microbial rivals were almost as short-sighted as we ... when they gluttonously devoured up to half our common global food supply in a succession of magnificent plagues that ... our boundless admiration and envy."
Angelita started to haul herself back over the lowest layer of the dead, clawing blindly for purchase at sagging breast or cold crotch without letting herself think of the dead now as anything more than a series of impediments, insensate objects merely mimicking human form. She pulled herself over each hurdle on her right side, her useless left leg dragging free, yet throbbing with pain high up into her thigh as she moved. She heard, sporadically, the increasingly irritable exhortations of Balzvuv. The cocksure, unyielding, challenging rhythms of his speech assured her that the vermin had not ceased reeling from the ideological shock he had administered. If they still stood glaring in anger and frustration at Balzvuv, then they must not yet have detected--even with the enormous peripheral vision that flies must have--her own little snail-like, tortured efforts at escape....
"... sluggards must learn, therefore, from bacilli and from viruses--to parasitize ... in such a way that our hosts continue to multiply at a rate guaranteeing us a perpetual source of ... is what most of the plague microbes did--and is now what even the AIDS virus is learning to do--by mutating to far less devastating ... Perhaps they went too far in maintaining so low a current profile. I don't know ... devious and shrewd. But what a shame it is, my brothers, ... go to school to our one-time deadliest rivals, and now even to our hosts, whose love of mutual slaughter does not exclude an awakened ecological conscience! Pride notwithstanding, however..."
Angelita dragged herself through the tortuous avenues of the dead, their paving-stones made of snapped arms, broken legs, cloven skulls. As she advanced, she tried to convince herself that this moonlit face here was not that of old Pedro Molinas who wanted to learn how to read, and that that perfect oval whose eyes now questioned the stars had nothing to do with the bright little Juanita who already at age twelve subversively dreamed of high school. Their individuality was an illusion. They were nothing but food for flies.
Angelita suddenly realized, as though it were the most obvious thought in the world, that she had no business paddling through a lake of spilled blood, no business scrambling over mounds of butchered flesh. She had no business straining like this merely to keep alive. Angelita knew, very simply, what she kept on managing to forget. She knew that she did not want to live ... but she thought instantly of the duty she owed to that burgeoning life, that tiny citizen-to-be that sprouted inside her. She thought of the duty she owed to a slaughtered, well-meaning husband, a man for whom she would have instantly bartered her soul, to nurture that incipient little citizen. She thought, too, of the duty to give birth that she owed just as much to this suspicious village of the enveloping dead that had suffered her alien presence because of her husband, and that had suffered, fatally suffered, her strange-thinking husband back among them--bad seed who had planted only death.
But her duty did not end there at all. Angelita nearly fainted with sudden insight. No, all the greater was the duty she owed to the heroically struggling guerrillas to contribute a son to the unending fight of the People for the boon of Justice. But greater by far was her duty--was it not?--to the country's embattled militia to fortify the national defense with a bright and shiny, handsome new sword. Todo por la Patria.
Angelita did not want to live ... but she knew, of course, that she must have gone insane. To go crazy was to see giant flies and to hear them make intelligible speeches in an atmosphere of parliamentary decorum. The past month of unrelenting grief for Francisco--her beloved eternal optimist who had lived only to eradicate poverty, to fatten the decomposing bodies that now lay strewn all about her--had driven her to the edge of endurance. The events of this morning had tumbled her into the abyss. With profoundest pity, however, everyone would point out to her--her dead neighbors, the guerrillas, the soldiers, and the President--that she was not insane, that in fact she was only depressed--terribly and profoundly depressed. The diagnosis would be Post-Traumatic Shock Syndrome. The prognosis would be smilingly optimistic.
Nearing the edge of the circle of stinking flesh, she could no longer hear distinct words from the gaggle of predators. Angelita now had before her an unobstructed view of the cornfield. A person walking could reach it in ten long strides. She looked up at the sky to see if a cloud might be wafting toward the moon, but the sky was clear and brilliant with stars and the moon aimed its beam directly upon her. Off to the left loomed the huge winged back of Balzvuv, and the brood of seething insects in front of him shifted about and flapped wings like jackals shrugging at a leash. Angelita clawed at the earth and heaved herself forward.
Suddenly the invisible leash, the collar maintained by Balzvuv, snapped apart. In an instant the sky swarmed with whirring, buzzing, graceless bags of blackness, like a group of rowdies soaring out of a schoolroom at the bell.
The drone in the sky now quickened into a manymouthed shriek, like the squeal of chalk on slate. A piercing cry cracked like lightning in the air just above her. At one moment the cornstalks stood over her in silver serenity, arching their welcoming leaves toward her painfully shuffling body. The next moment the cornfield was swiftly receding and spinning and lurching below her. Thorny talons cut into her waist through her thin cotton dress. A foul-smelling liquid oozed down on her forehead, and the body of her captor emitted a deep thrumming sound, like a hideous purr, shooting her through with vibrations. The wind knocked out of her, Angelita gasped for breath.
Only seconds had elapsed when the empty air in front of her suddenly ballooned into the shape of a giant fly. The creature that clasped her and spun her wildly about could not shake its tenacious shadow, soar and swoop as it tried.
"Set her down, Phlogistor!" commanded the enormous black insect.
"I saw her first, Your Honor. She's mine, Sire! Leave me be!"
About a dozen of the fascinated creatures now hove into view on all sides of Balzvuv, keeping a respectful distance. Phlogistor flopped her through the air like a ragdoll. The moonlit earth tumbled all around her. Two things alone remained steady for Angelita: the pains that shot up from her wrenched left leg, and the squadron of flies that enmeshed her. Skillfully, they defied every feint used by Phlogistor to evade them.
"I have no wish to prevent you from feasting, Phlogistor. That is not why I mob you and demand the live female's release."
"Your Eminence wishes to punish me by denying me my pleasure. I have worked as hard as any of my--"
"Nonsense, Phlogistor! It's just that I catch you infringing the most ancient rule of the brotherhood. Since when do we ever directly take the life of a host? Our pride lies in inciting them to destroy each other."
"Don't play innocent, Phlogistor!" scolded the land-baron voice of Anafidos, his dark head invisible behind the hummingbird blur of Balzvuv's ghostly wings. "At the fall of pagan Rome we were all charter signatories to the Gehenna Convention. Time and dispersion have not weakened those solemn commitments."
"In defying the Gehenna Convention, Phlogistor, you defy the Holy Creator Himself," added Balzvuv.
"Leave me be, Sire!" Phlogistor peeled off into another futile dive. Angelita screamed as a razor-sharp claw cut into her side. "The great Balzvuv claims to respect the ways of the provinces. Well, it's our custom to bend the rules a little when we see fit and no one'll know the difference.... Besides, this tidbit already has the smell of death upon it. As Your Honor can plainly see--"
"You test my patience, you ignorant cateto! Have you not been hearing what I've taken such pains to explain to all your brothers?"
Angelita remained conscious despite agonizing pain. She took no interest in the petty quibbling of the flies, but she knew she had become the focus of an explosive mid-air conflict. She wanted only to be let loose, dropped--no matter where or from what height. Phlogistor, unsuccessful in his aerial maneuvers, for the moment stilled his bone-cracking lurches and dives.
"Obey His Eminence, pig!" roared Anafidos.
"Think, Phlogistor, of the future," said Balzvuv, dramatically softening his tone. "This female's bulging abdomen is already planted with the coming generation. In a mere hundred years the fruit of her womb shall become in number equal to all that dead colony below, of whom most were so wastefully destroyed, as everyone agrees. Do not--"
"Dios mio, let me go!" Angelita cried out as, defiantly, Phlogistor's barbs tore deeper into her flesh.
"Do not thoughtlessly capitulate," Balzvuv calmly resumed, "to the mere impulse of the moment. Think of this creature, instead, as incubator of a bumper crop to come!"
"But she'll be dead within twenty-four hours anyway!" Phlogistor whined. His great gut vibrated irregularly, like an engine threatening to stall, against Angelita's neck.
"Leave that to me to decide!" boomed Balzvuv.
Angelita's forehead burned where the liquid had dribbled from Phlogistor's slavering jaws. She understood, without amazement, that it was the first step in the process of being digested.
"Let her go, you stubborn fool!" shouted Anafidos.
"Just as you say," buzzed Phlogistor.
And suddenly Angelita was falling....
When she regained consciousness, she gazed up into the worried eyes of a man in a green smock. His craggy face was pitted from ancient acne, and his thinning hair curved stiffly back from his brow. A plastic tag on his pocket identified him as Doctor Morales. Behind him drooped the flaking yellow plaster of a rain-rotted wall and low ceiling.
"A peasant picked you up unconscious along the road about twenty-five kilometers from here," he explained, anticipating her question. "He reported the whole unspeakable ... incident ... involving the village to the authorities. You're very lucky to have escaped a--a total massacre."
Angelita shrugged her shoulders.
"You're also lucky about your leg. In my judgment it will not need amputation."
"I am unworthy of your skill, Doctor." Angelita brought her bandaged hands up to cover her stinging eyes. With her thumbs she felt her bandaged forehead.
"You are covered with cuts and abrasions. Your forehead, however, seems to have suffered some sort of chemical burns. You must have gone through hell," murmured the doctor.
"You seem very tired," said Angelita.
"Tired. Like me," she whispered.
"Tired? Of course you are tired!"
Suddenly there appeared from over her left shoulder a neatly pressed, starched military uniform filled with a deeply tanned man with mustachios. His cheeks were shaved smooth and as plump as a cherub's. "Colonel Santiago, Señora," said the doctor.
"Good evening, Señora," said the colonel.
To Angelita another officer had looked equally dapper, the one who had roused the village by bullhorn. His uniform, too, had looked as crisp as fresh currency, the buttons gleaming like newly minted coins in the sun's first light. Unable to look into the colonel's face, Angelita stared at a gold epaulet instead.
"I'm terribly sorry for the tragedy you have endured."
"I would like to be left alone," said Angelita.
"I do not wish to upset you, my dear. I have only a few brief questions to ask you, and then I shall leave you to your rest."
Angelita thrust an unbandaged finger into her protruding stomach, pressing it in as far as strength permitted. She had been feeling no movement in there. The corners of her lips flickered with the beginning of a smile.
"Could you say, Señora, about how many guerrillas there were?" The colonel riffled a little notebook impatiently with his thumb.
She answered reluctantly. "I don't know. Maybe fifty, sixty soldiers."
"Guerrillas, you mean," said the colonel.
The doctor nodded at her, prompting her in an exaggerated way.
"Guerrillas," Angelita agreed. "Yes, guerrillas."
"Very good. And how were they equipped? Do you remember?"
"I don't know. First they ran us down with tanks, a lot of tanks, and then--"
"Armored personnel carriers. Not tanks, Señora," the kindly colonel smiled patiently. "Our guerrillas do not own tanks."
"Of course. Armored personnel carriers. Over a dozen." Angelita stared at the absurd little hump her stomach made in the center of the crisp, clean bedsheet. "And then they finished off the rest with machine guns."
That was all she had to say. The colonel did not prod her for more. She watched as the satisfied colonel finished scribbling and slipped his pad back into his inner jacket pocket.
"You are very lucky indeed," exclaimed the officer, stroking his superbly tended mustache. "And Doctor Morales tells me that your baby will also survive."
Angelita looked in horror from uniform to uniform. Her throat went dry; her stomach contracted violently. She gagged repeatedly. Nothing came up.
"I want an abortion," she said quietly. She said it on sudden impulse, but with a profound sense of conviction.
"An abortion!" shrilled the doctor.
"An abortion," she repeated. The ultimate meaning of all that suffering ... now it was all very clear to her.
"Señora, this is a very Catholic country."
"She is depressed," said the colonel.
"You are depressed, Señora," said Doctor Morales.
"Of course I am depressed."
"Ah, you see?" said the doctor.
"Because I was raped by a guerrilla. Six months ago. My husband and I were not planning to have children, you see, for quite some ... so I am carrying the seed of a devil."
"A guerrilla!" exclaimed the colonel.
"Yes. A filthy, stinking, drunken pig of a guerrilla. Would you like a graphic description of my degradation, Colonel? Very well. He dragged me behind the house while his friends held my husb--"
"Spare us the details, Señora," said the colonel, holding up his hand.
"A guerrilla," mumbled the doctor, repeatedly shaking his head.
"You heard what she said," grunted Colonel Santiago. "I see nothing contrary to the dictates of the Holy Church in aborting the spawn of a devil."
"Yes, sir. But, sir, she is six months--"
"The Holy Mother herself will be in your debt, Doctor Morales. I guarantee it."
"Thank you, sir. I'm glad you think so, sir."
"I personally authorize the operation, Doctor. We must not permit the fiends of hell to make hatcheries of our decent women!"
"I fully agree," Doctor Morales nodded vigorously.
"Thank you, Colonel. Thank you, Doctor. I knew you would understand."
Angelita uttered a long, rasping sigh. She was sure that Francisco, whom she had loved more than her life, would also have understood. Would have understood infinitely better. And would approve. "What good is an expensive education," he would say, "that has no practical application?"
© Daniel Pearlman 1995, 2001
"The Heart of the Overchild" was first published in Dan's collection The Final Dream and other Fictions (Permeable Press).
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