Fiction - Spring 2016

Under the Lid

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Amid the the terrors of Pinochet’s Chile, a scornful witch exacts her haunting revenge

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By Idra Novey

February 29, 2016


 

Now that Gustavo had crossed the parking lot, there was no denying what was nailed to the front door. It was indeed a headless chicken. Waiting for him at the only entrance to the upholstery factory he’d inherited from his father was a bloody-feathered messenger of revenge. Twenty feet away, his employees were all cowering by the dumpster.

I told you there’d be problems if you fired her, his floor manager, Luis, said. If you hire a woman who’s involved with black magic, you just have to wait until she leaves on her own.

I waited 10 years, Gustavo said. She was never going to leave.

His father had been the one who’d hired Mirla and joked that the old witch would likely outlast Pinochet. When Gustavo took over the factory, Mirla was already 60 and so nearsighted that she couldn’t catch even the most basic error in a weave. He’d bought her a magnifying glass, and she’d made a point of staring at him through it whenever he passed her desk, the lens exaggerating the menace in her eye.

For a decade, he’d ignored this daily act of hostility. But it was now 1987, and like everyone in the country, he was getting restless. His daughter was marching in every protest. Along the walled-in homes he passed on the way to the factory, the new graffiti was red and said NOW NOW NOW. In the factory, the only place where he had any control, the ancient witch he’d inherited kept falling asleep, snoring over the rolls of fabric at her station.

I see you straining, was how he put it the day before, when he called Mirla into his office to let her go. As he told her about the generous pension she’d receive, she kept her old face still as a glass of water. He thought she was taking the news well, was maybe even relieved, until she leaned forward and told him he’d been a naïve, pimply little fool his entire life. When you were a boy, she told him, I watched you float along behind your father through the factory and I knew. You’d never see more than the most obvious consequences of anything.

Gustavo had responded with the controlled, wary smile all Chileans of his generation mastered at an early age. He resorted to that same clenched smile now as he approached the door, ignoring Luis and the other workers pleading with him not to get any closer. Only another bruja, they said, could counter Mirla’s curse and take the chicken down.

But Gustavo went right up to the hacked-open neck of it, to where the rusted nail passed through its throat. Another year, he would’ve had the restraint to step back and oblige his employees. But his daughter was risking her life in every protest and he was barely speaking to his wife and before he could think it through, he grabbed the limp dead thing by its leathery feet and tore it off the door.

He heard his employees gasping in horror behind him, but it was too late. He was already in motion. With one resolute flick of his arm, he sent the chicken arcing over the parking lot, blood-caked feathers falling in its wake. To see that awful headless animal aloft, to know he was the one who’d hurled it, felt glorious. It felt like every true thing he’d never yelled, ugly in the air.

And then, just as swiftly, it was over. The chicken fell with a splat on the pavement near his Mercedes, spraying bits of cartilage and intestines over the hood. Maria Paz, his secretary of many years, began to weep.

I don’t know what that was about, Luis said, but if you don’t call in another bruja right now, none of us is ever going back into that factory.

And so their appeals to the brujas of the region began. The first two Luis tried didn’t answer. The third refused to come. While Luis returned to the pay phone at the end of the lot to try to reach a fourth, lesser-known witch, the wind picked up, swirling the loose bloody feathers closer. Gustavo fisted his hands in his coat pockets. Before long, the damn feathers were going to blow into their faces and poor Maria Paz would surely faint. She would collapse on the concrete and cut her head open. They’d have to call an ambulance, which would mean a police report—and who knew what government lists his daughter’s name might be on by now.

Gustavo cleared his throat to say something—anything—when Luis shouted, listo! A witch was on her way. She was the sister of his aunt’s old neighbor or someone Luis knew even less than that, but what did it matter? If there were credentials in the field of counter-curses, Gustavo had no idea what they might be.

Twenty minutes later, their salvation arrived. Her name was Rosario, and she smelled of marijuana. She looked no older than 25 and possibly pregnant. Gustavo offered her his best counterfeit smile as he paid for her cab. I’m so glad you could come, he said, and on such short notice.

I’m here for them. She motioned to his workers.

Well, I’m still grateful.

Rosario nodded, surveying the feathers blowing around and Gustavo’s well-cut coat and the traces of intestines shriveling up on the hood of his Mercedes. A million pesos, she said. The cost of several root canals or a questionable secondhand car.

With the meekness of the damned, Gustavo pulled out the blank check he kept folded in his wallet and asked for her last name.

After that, it seemed Rosario Fernandez was going to leave him out of it. She’d exited the cab with a dented copper pot swinging on a chain over her shoulder like the strap of a purse. For several minutes, she took her time lighting whatever was inside it. Once she got the pot smoking, she began to swing it in circles and make her way around the parking lot, murmuring counter-curses under her breath or maybe the alphabet, the smoke fading in halos behind her.

When she reached Gustavo’s car, she stopped and motioned for him to approach. You need to brush those scraps into the pot yourself, she said, and he mutely obeyed. What other choice was there? He had to get everyone back inside. If he’d been born into another family, in another country, he might have become an astronomer, he liked to think. A man who approached a window knowing about the stars instead of the cost per yard of the curtains. All he’d ever done was feed yarn into looms, and now 30 of his employees were waiting for him to scrape the last globules of intestines off his car with his fingernails.

And what you threw, Rosario said, place it here, in this bag.

Slow with self-pity, Gustavo plodded across the parking lot to what remained of the chicken, praying this would be the end of it—although the end of what exactly he wasn’t sure. What he did know was that he would never tell his wife or daughter about any of it, not about the fear on his workers’ faces after Rosario left, or how carefully they avoided his gaze, as if he were an agent with the government’s sinister Central Nacional de Informaciones.

Okay, vamos, back to work he said, not intending to imitate his father’s clipped way of delivering orders, but there it was. Maria Paz, let’s get some coffee going, yes? Please?


On his drive home for lunch, Gustavo told himself that the events of that morning were meaningless. Only the uneducated believed in curses and black magic. He’d done nothing wrong. He had kept his father’s employee on until she was 70 years old and so blind she could barely find her desk.

Yesterday, after firing Mirla, he’d arrived home for lunch feeling triumphant. The maid had prepared fish stew, as she always did on Tuesdays, and his glasses kept steaming as he told his wife, Fran, about finally letting the old witch go. He’d waited for Fran to roll her eyes as he recited Mirla’s insults, but she hadn’t. His wife had looked at him with pity; who the pity was for, himself or Mirla, he couldn’t tell and didn’t ask. Of their 18 years of marriage, 16 had passed under the lid of the dictatorship. Unasked questions between them had come to feel necessary, even natural.

Eventually, Fran had inquired if he thought their daughter had gone to any of her literature classes that week at the university. Gustavo said he had no idea.

The truth was that he’d talked to his only child all her life as he would’ve talked to a son, and they were paying wildly for it now. Elena had become a fearless loudmouth and, he suspected, an increasingly visible leader in the escalating protests for the vote. She told him so little now, but enough to know she hadn’t gone to any classes since the Monday before last. She still trusted him like no other daughter he knew, and as with any beautiful intimacy, there was someone who was aware of it but not included. That was Fran.

As for the lunch awaiting him today, it would undoubtedly and most unfortunately be pastel de choclo. Wednesday was the only weekday Elena joined them, and it was her favorite dish. The pie was mostly ground corn and sautéed onions, but their maid liked to add chunks of chicken. Lots of chicken.

When Gustavo arrived late and bewildered, Elena and Fran were already arguing at the table. Elena’s hair looked particularly dirty, her bangs hanging in greasy clumps over her eyes. She was as delicately boned and pretty as her mother but didn’t care about her appearance. Across from her, Fran in her impeccable makeup and coral lipstick was pleading. But why do you have to spend the night at your friend’s house again? Why can’t you just come home?

Because it’s easier if I don’t, Elena said.

Easier than what?

Easier than this futile conversation, for example. Elena stuck her fork deep into the pie. And because I’m not going to spend the rest of my life living in a dictatorship.

Oh, and you really think you and your friends are going to make it end any sooner? Do you ever stop and think about Juan Manuel’s parents, waking up every day and not knowing if he—

But nobody’s been shot from a car in months.

Months! Well, that’s certainly reassuring, don’t you think, Gustavo?

Papi, Elena reached over for his hand. Why are you staring at your pie like that? You okay?


That night, without Elena in the house, Gustavo and his wife carried on with their separate rituals. Fran took her sleeping pills early. Gustavo wandered in and out of his daughter’s empty room, worrying over her belongings as if they were the beads of a rosary. He read the titles on her bed stand, which were never the books she was supposed to be reading for her classes. There were poems by some woman named Pizarnik. Under that lay a little beat-up book called Howl. He opened it. Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas! one page began.

He’d done fairly well in English but couldn’t fathom even a single possible meaning for the sentence. His daughter never read anything now he could discuss with her the way he had when she was in high school. How he’d loved those evening hours at the kitchen table, discussing the renegade essays she was writing in secret for her literature teacher. It was no surprise to me, she wrote at 16, that Maria Luisa Bombal’s protagonist gets lost in her own woods. Isn’t that what Chilean society asks women to do with their adult lives?

The following year, the teacher was fired and the school wouldn’t tell them why. Elena had been devastated and Fran furious with Gustavo for all of it, but especially for what Fran perceived as Elena’s new determination to find more conversations like the ones she’d had with her teacher. You’ve given her a hunger for the company of people who don’t know how to keep their opinions to themselves, Fran said, for risk takers who end up shot in ditches. Gustavo told his wife it was just a few essays, and didn’t they want Elena to have the experience, at least once, of being able to speak freely with a teacher? He hadn’t thought, at the time, about his daughter marching two years later at the front of dozens of protests, of her picture in the files of every CNI agent in the region. Imagining it, his knees locked, and he had to sit down on the bed.

It was then, outside Elena’s window, that he saw her—Mirla. The old witch was standing in their front yard. In the faint glow from the streetlights, the blade of a butcher’s knife glinted in her hands. She was mouthing something as she passed the heavy handle back and forth between her palms. Naïve, her lips said, pimply little fool.


Thursday morning, Maria Paz was the only one at the factory who looked up at him when he
arrived and offered a hello. If the dye was off for any of the new yarns, no one came to tell him. No one came in to his office to quit either. They just kept working, filling the mill with the usual deafening CLICK click click CLICK click click of the looms. His father had told him he would stop hearing it eventually, which wasn’t true, but Gustavo no longer minded the rhythmic way the deafening noise blasted all day through the factory. It was familiar now. He built his thoughts around it, and was considering whether he should just let everyone get a little more obliterated by it, too, and just hide out in his office for a while, when Fran called. Elena had come home and curled up like a caterpillar on the living room rug and refused to speak.

Put her on the phone, he said.

She blew out of here when I entered, Fran said. I knocked on her door, but she just wants to be left alone. Why don’t you just come home a little early for lunch and talk to her then?

CLICK click click CLICK click click. Gustavo stared at the invoices on his desk and felt himself aging.

A century of a minute passed.

Then a second minute that felt even longer—a millennium—after which Gustavo shot up from his desk and ducked out through the loading dock to get some air. The plot of grass out back wasn’t very large, but there was a jacaranda tree his father had planted and Gustavo had added a bench beneath it. The spot was at its loveliest in the spring, and breathing in the scent of the petals speckling the grass, he told himself Elena was probably just unraveling from the stress of all the protests, that last night he hadn’t seen anything outside her window but his own paranoia. Mirla’s attempt to curse him and the factory were meaningless. He didn’t believe in brujería. He didn’t even believe in God. All he really believed in was his daughter, and she was mortal.

At this most horrible of facts, he lowered his head and found a pair of scorpions crawling over his shoe. A coincidence. He’d never seen scorpions under this tree before, but that was no reason to assign any significance to the appearance of them now.

With his other shoe, he flicked the two scorpions off into the grass and then fled from beneath the tree as if it were burning. And then fled his father’s factory, racing home well over the speed limit, pressing the pedal down even harder as he passed the walls where the red NOWs were already gone. Within a day, the general had sent his teams to paint over them and with such thoroughness, it was impossible to glimpse even a shadow of where the letters had been. The blankness was so sudden and total, it produced in Gustavo a rush of numbness.

But he couldn’t get into a slump today. He had to arrive home ready to console his daughter. He just needed to get home, be in the same room with her, and everything else would recede into the background. He pressed his foot down on the gas until the engine shuddered in resistance.


Elena was still shut up in her room when he arrived and didn’t answer when he knocked. Mi amor, Gustavo said through the door, I’m turning the doorknob, so you know. Elena yanked the bedcovers up around her shoulders when he entered and turned her face to the wall. Her copies of Howl and Pizarnik he’d skimmed last night were now scattered across the floor with a half-dozen other books, as if she’d hurled them. Gustavo stared at the back of his daughter’s head, her tangled hair, trying to decide what to ask that wouldn’t offend her or shut her down even more, when he noticed a finger-width bruise on her neck.

My God. Elena.

It’s not what you think, she said, still facing the wall. It was just Vicente.

Whose uncle was killed in the Stadium?

They just found out it wasn’t in the Stadium. Someone saw him taken in one of the helicopters. He got dropped, she said.

Into the ocean?

Elena nodded. Vicente had just found out, and then I went and did something so careless. I could get us all killed. She flung her arm out, exposing another darker bruise on her wrist.

Gustavo dropped to his knees and reached for her arm, but she pulled it away and assured him it looked worse than it was. She and Vicente had been in his basement working on a flyer when she realized she’d accidentally thrown out an earlier version, and at the university, where they knew the CNI was going through the garbage. Vicente had gotten so angry and panicked that he slammed her against the wall and started to choke her, shouting that arrogant, entitled rich girls like her couldn’t be trusted with anything.

I don’t think I blacked out for more than a few seconds, she said. I remember coming out of it and apologizing again. The whole night was just … complicated. She rolled over toward the wall again, making it impossible to tell if this was the whole story or the first significant lie between them.

Already on his knees, Gustavo did not push her to say more. He just leaned closer, rested his head against hers on the pillow, though everything in him wanted to rage. To punch in a wall. Break his own useless head. So many nights he’d come into this bedroom worrying about the men patrolling the streets. But not about the ones who drove his daughter home. Not the ones she marched beside. The old bruja was right. He’d been floating, aware of nothing beyond the most obvious uncertainties.

Determined not to look out the window, he rested his eyes on Elena’s dresser, the web of necklaces hanging from the posts, and noticed a pendant he hadn’t seen there before. It was a feathered thing, shaped vaguely like the head of a chicken. He didn’t want to pull away from Elena, but he had to know if it was really there. He rushed over to the dresser and stuck his hand out, touched the feathers, the little metal beak, the dreadful plastic beads of its eyes. All of it dangling in front of him, inexorable.

Where did you get this horrible thing?

You mean my creepy chicken? Elena tipped her head back against the pillow. It’s papier-mâché. An old woman was selling them on a blanket by the artisan fair. I thought it was cool.

Pack your things, Gustavo ordered. We’re going north.


Maybe it was the surprise of it. Or because Gustavo so rarely demanded anything of his family and they were curious, but Fran and Elena didn’t put up much of a fight about the trip. Maybe, without knowing it, they’d been aching for it also, to get in their car and drive away from their lives. Fran even mashed up some avocados with grapeseed oil for them to dip crackers in as they had done on their trips to the beaches in the north when Elena was a child.

And the factory? Fran asked as she opened the sleeve of crackers. Can you just not show up tomorrow morning?

I can, he said.

And if he couldn’t, if he returned to find all his employees gone, all the looms silent as on a Sunday, so be it. He’d read somewhere that a woman’s biggest fear was infertility and a man’s to be a failure. But it was so much more unbearable than that. A woman could have a child and still fear she was the mother of no one. A man could own a factory and a fancy vehicle and still fear he had achieved nothing. Except to have raised one brilliant daughter. But was it an achievement if he hadn’t prepared her for the fury she might face when she made a mistake, for the people who would resent her intelligence and try to reduce her—and they would—to what her father owned, that he might become an excuse for someone to throw her against a wall and cut off the oxygen to her brain?

For now, at least, she was safe in their car. They had her for a whole four days, or maybe they could stay longer. He hadn’t called to make a reservation but hoped, as it was early spring, there would be any number of cabins available. The beaches in the north didn’t really fill up until the summer—or so he assumed. It was entirely possible he would be wrong about this, too.

As they merged onto the highway, he stared at the widening road before them with the reverence of the desperate entering a prayer tent. Stars and cacti had begun to poke out of the dark. At some point in the kilometers and kilometers of nothing between Los Vilos and Tongoy, an old woman appeared in the road ahead with a butcher’s knife. He kept his foot resolute on the gas, waiting for her to vanish.

But the old woman did not. She remained there, hovering with her heavy knife, judging him as he drove on through her.


Idra Novey is a fiction writer, poet, and translator. Her most recent book is the novel Ways to Disappear.


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