From Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda
Jawbone, a translation of Mónica Ojeda's novel Mandíbula (Candaya, 2018), is the latest project from translator Sarah Booker. As of November 2018, English language rights for the novel are available.
She opened her eyelids and in rushed all the shadows of the breaking day. They were voluminous stains—“Opacity is the spirit of objects,” her therapist said—that allowed her to make out some battered furniture and, farther away, a phantomized body scrubbing the floor with a hobbit mop. “Shit,” she spat onto the wood against which the uglier side of her Twiggy-face-of-1966 face was pressed. “Shit,” and her voice sounded like a Saturday night, black and white cartoon. She pictured herself where she was, on the floor, but with Twiggy’s face, which was actually hers except for the English model’s classic-duck-colored eyebrows; rubber-ducky-eyebrows that didn’t look anything like the un-plucked burnt straw over her own eyes. Even though she couldn’t see herself, she knew the exact shape her body was lying in and the hardly graceful expression she must be making in that brief moment of lucidity. That complete consciousness of her image gave her a false sense of control, but it didn’t entirely calm her, because, unfortunately, self-awareness didn’t make anyone a Wonder Woman, which is what she needed to be in order to free herself from the ropes that bound her hands and legs, just like the most glamorous actresses in her favorite thrillers.
According to Hollywood, 90% of kidnappings have a happy ending, she thought, surprised that her mind did not assume a more serious attitude in a moment like that.
I’m tied up. That statement sounded so unbelievable in her head! Until then, “being tied” had been a metaphor without substance. “My hands are tied,” her mother tended to say with her free hands. Now, however, thanks to the unknown space and pain in her extremities, she was sure that something very bad was happening to her; something similar to what would happen in the movies that she sometimes watched in order to listen, as she touched herself, to a voice like Johnny Depp’s saying: “With this candle, I will light your way into darkness”—according to her therapist, that horniness accompanying her since she was six years old, when she began to masturbate on top of the toilet seat while repeating lines from movies, was a response to a precocious sexual behavior that they should explore together. She always imagined violence as the great crashing of waves that engulfed the rocks until bursting against the flesh of something living, but never as this theater of shadows nor as the stillness interrupted by the steps of a hunched silhouette. In class, the English teacher had made them read a poem that was just as dark and confusing. She still memorized two lines that, suddenly, in that possible cabin or bunker of creaking wood, began to make sense:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column.
Her eyes had to be that now: sunlight on a broken column—the broken column was, of course, the place of her kidnapping; an unknown and arachnid space that looked like the back of her house. She had mistakenly opened her eyes without thinking about how difficult it would be to make out that shadowy rectangle and the kidnapper that cleaned it like any old housewife. She didn’t want to have think about useless matters, but she was already outside herself, in the snarled mess of the unknown, forced to confront what she could not figure out. Looking at the things of the world, the darkness and the light weaving themselves together only to unravel again, the accumulation of that which exists and occupies a place within her friend Anne’s histrionic composition of the drag-queen God—what would she say when she found out about her disappearance? And Fiore? And Natalia? And Analía? And Xime?—; everything in her eyes burning more than any fever was always an accident. She didn’t want to see and hurt herself with the things of the world, but how bad was the situation she found herself in? The answer suggested a new inconvenience: an upwelling in the depths of her throat.
The floor-scrubbing figure stopped and looked at her, or that’s what she believed she did, though with the backlighting she couldn’t see anything more than a figure that looked like the night.
“If you’re awake, sit up.”
Fernanda, with the right side of her face pressed against the wood, let out a short, involuntary burst of laughter that she quickly regretted when she heard herself and was able to compare the sound of her instincts to a weasel’s cry. Every second that passed she understood better what was happening and her anxiety rose and spread throughout the dimly-lit space as if it were scaling the air. She tried to sit up, but her limited movement was that of a fish convulsing under its own fears. That last failure forced her to recognize the pathetic state of her body that was now worming its way around and it prompted a burst of laughter that she was unable to control.
“What are you laughing at?” asked, though without real interest, the living shadow as she rung out the hobbit mop in the silhouette of a bucket.
Fernanda gathered all her will power to hold back the toothy laughter that was threatening to burst forth and, when she finally regained control over herself, ashamed of the little control she had over her reactions, she remembered that she had been picturing herself on the floor wearing an electric blue dress, like a modern version of a kidnapped Twiggy, top-model-always-diva even in extreme situations, and not the school uniform that she was actually wearing: hot, wrinkled, and smelling of softener.
Disappointment took the form of a plaid skirt and white blouse stained with ketchup.
“Sorry, Miss Clara. It’s just that I can’t move.”
The body leaned the mop against a wall and, wiping her hands on the aspiring nun’s clothing, she walked toward her, emerging from the sharp shadows into the bright light that revealed the pink flesh of a plucked pelican. Fernanda maintained her fixed gaze on her teacher’s oviparous face as if that instance of scrutiny in which she could see some purple veins, never before identified, under her cheeks, were vital. Don’t those cocks only reside between legs?, she wondered as hands that were too long lifted her up from the floor into a sitting position. But for all that she tried to take advantage of the proximity of the Latin Madame Bovary, she couldn’t see any fumbled word in her gestures. There were people who thought with their faces and it was enough to learn how to read their forehead muscles in order to know what inundations were coming, but not just anyone had the ability to elucidate messages of the flesh. Fernanda believed that Miss Clara spoke a primitive facial language; a language that was sometimes inaccessible, sometimes naked like a paramo or desert. She did not dare say anything when the teacher moved away and the shadows shifted. Like that, seated, she could stretch out her legs tied with a green rope—the same one they used at school to skip rope during gym classes—and see the spotless moccasins that Charo, her nanny, had washed the day before. At the back of the room two big windows occupied the top part of the wall, allowing her to see exuberant foliage and a mountain or a volcano with a snowy summit that told her she was outside of her hometown.
“Where are we?”
But that wasn’t the most important question: Why did you kidnap me, Miss Clara?, she should have said, why have you tied me up and taken me out of the city of puddles of fetid water, fucking-son-of-a-bitch-whore? Huh, fucking bitch? Instead, she endured the silence with the resignation of someone upon whom the roof is falling in and began to cry. Not because she was scared, but because yet again her body was doing senseless things and she couldn’t handle that much chaos destroying her consciousness. Her self-awareness had cracked and now she was a stranger she could picture from the outside but not from the inside. Shaking, she watched with hatred her professor’s body move around like a leafless branch as she mopped the floor. Locks of long black hair grazed her wide jawbone—the only feature of that normal face that was out of the ordinary. Sometimes, when she smiled, Miss Clara looked like a shark or a lizard. A face like that, her therapist said, was discrete in its aggressiveness.
“I want to go home.”
Fernanda waited for some response that would alleviate her anxiety but Miss Clara López Valvarde, thirty years old, five-foot-five, 125 pounds, hair hanging to her tits, arthropod eyes, and the voice of a bird at six in the morning, ignored her like she did in class when she would ask how long until the bell rang and she could go out to recess, sit on the ground with her legs open, say obscene words, or watch the things of the world—which, at school, were always smaller and more miserable than anywhere else. She should have asked: how long will I be here, stupid, bleeding-assed bitch? But the important questions didn’t well from her guts with the same ease as the tears and the ire shredding her molars that were so different from those of Miss Clara and those that Francis Bacon, the only artist she remembered from her art appreciation class, painted and that, moreover, made her think of old terror movies with the furious set of teeth of Jack Nicholson, Michael Rooker, and Christopher Lee. Grinding teeth and jawbones: that force held in her bones did not inhabit her mouth; crying like she was doing, with shame and anger, was just like getting naked in the snow of Miss Clara’s mind. Or almost.
She swept her eyes over the place where she was locked up and confirmed that the cabin was small and gloomy; the ideal home for the worm she now was, the lair where she would have to learn to devertebrate herself in order to survive. Suddenly, the cold began to shake her hands and she understood that being outside of Guayaquil meant floating within a suspended emptiness in which she could not project herself. That emptiness, moreover, was suspended in Miss Clara’s breath and lacked a future. And what if the super whore took me out of the country, she wondered, though she quickly discounted that possibility—it couldn’t be that easy to take an adolescent without documents, totally knocked out, and tied up, abroad. Then she tried to recognize the mountain or volcano she saw through the window, but her knowledge of terrestrial humps in her flea-of-a-South-America-country could be reduced to a few grandiose names and small images included in her geography book. The coast with ochre shores, the heat, and a river running with the drama of mascara on a teary cheek, was all that her body identified as her home, even though she hated it more than any other landscape. “The port is an elephant skin,” said a poem that Miss Clara had made them read in class and that everyone used to make airplanes that crashed against the big blackboard. What she saw through the window, however, was a different beast. Damned piece of earth in the clouds, she thought while toughening herself up like a rock, and then she looked at her teacher with all the disdain she had been forced to stifle under her eyelids.
“You’ll be screwed for this.”
The silhouette stopped mopping and, for a few seconds, looked like a piece of contemporary art in the middle of the living room. Fernanda patiently waited for a reaction that would kick off the dialogue, a voice that would destabilize the silence, but no word came. Instead, Miss Clara crossed the shadows and walked out the door that, upon opening, swallowed up all the afternoon glow and lit up the cabin’s interior. Fernanda heard water splashing against something hard, the noise of the wind tangling the trees and steps that got louder, but before the light disappeared again, she saw a revolver shining like a cranium in the center of the long table.
And her rage recoiled.
“No,” Miss Clara said when she was once again a shadow. “You are the one who will be screwed, now.”
Fernanda saw her approach and closed her eyes. That branch-like body was doing something behind her own. A vaporous breath spilled over her neck as she felt the ropes loosen around her wrists. The pain of freedom reached her with a coolness that ran up her arms at the precise moment that she was able to let them fall to either side of her body. She tried to untie the rope that was wrapped around her ankles, but her hands responded stiffly and clumsily, much like a rusty machine. The exterior, meanwhile, expanded, painfully dilating her eyes. Why? She wondered when the rope yielded and she was able to separate her legs until her school skirt spread out like a fan. Why the hell am I here?
Before her, Miss Clara looked at her with the authority given by the revolver behind her.
But liberated-Fernanda stayed still. She knew it didn’t make sense to refuse, but she couldn’t help but react in the same way as when Miss Clara or Mister Alan or Miss Ángela sent her out of class and she, without moving from her seat, looked them in the eyes hoping they would dare touch her because she knew they would never do it. That security, now that she had been kidnapped, no longer existed. For the first time she wasn’t invincible or, better said, for the first time she was aware of her own vulnerability. Her mind felt like a boat filling up with water, but the sinking could be a new way of thinking.
“Stand up. Don’t make me say it again.”
Obey. Her chest was a rodent fleeing down the drains during the day. It was still uncomfortable to bend her fingers, but this time she could press them into the floor and clumsily stand up. She avoided looking at the revolver that lay behind her teacher. Maybe, she thought, if I don’t look at it she’ll believe I haven’t noticed.
But Miss Clara signaled the chair on the other side of the table with her chin.
“You and I are going to talk about what you did.”
Translated by Sarah Booker