GOWANUS Spring 2002

Desmodus Rufus

by Viviana O’Connell
translated by Mariana Regalado

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Then God said, "Let us make man in our image and our likeness, and let him rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the Earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them.

The trees appeared irregular with silvery tops, their dark trunks thin and wrinkled. They were lined up a few centimeters from the edge of the lane. The flat leaves had uneven edges in which the green bled into dark yellow or even brown. 

“What do you need them for?” I asked almost innocently.

“We need them, period,” said Alasia.  And, knowing an explanation would be provided when she was ready to give one,  I kept quiet and just watched.

Alasia and Gracia took the leaves between their index and little fingers in a ritual of uncertain origin. It occurred to me that the scene would have been a perfect fit for a bad dream in a low-budget film. It was so unreal,  it was hard for me to believe what I was seeing. 

Both of them tend to read mystical histories, both are imaginative but they rarely put into practice their mental machinations. Sometimes they surprise me, but less so each time. I've become used to their ways.

Our group is very heterogeneous. It began as a way for us to discuss mythology, the occult, witchcraft, spiritualism--anything that was outside the ordinary that crossed our paths. At first we just exchanged greetings, then we engaged each other in brief  conversations and finally, before we knew it, our Friday afternoon sessions had begun.

It was not accidental that we chose Friday, the day of Aphrodite/ Venus who spent her life entangled in love affairs that drove her lame husband Hephaestus/Vulcan crazy, consuming him in the fires of his own jealousy.  She could give birth to none but an Eros/Cupid (depending on whether one prefers his Greek or Roman name) to assist her in her rather single-minded work. So it was fortuitous that our little group should begin to meet under the influence of the goddess of sensuality.

Choosing the hour for our meetings was not easy and led to weeks of telephone calls among us. Any initiate knows that the time clocks chronicle is an illusion. Real time cannot be measured by them, because each creature has its own way of measuring it.  After agreeing that clocks don't measure anything, we nevertheless decided that for practical purposes,  for the sake of organization and convenience, we would use them. We decided that twilight was the best time of the day: when Helios gathers himself up over the land and shadows are born--not forgetting that at night, when the way between Yesod and Malhut is closed, illusion takes front stage and time does strange things.

Having overcome the problems of conflicting schedules and the inevitable arguments that arose, we agreed upon the hour of 7:30 for our Friday gathering.  At first we chose one or another of the downtown bars, but because of the endless interruptions by young men and people who know the "Soothsayer," we decided to find a more appropriate venue. ( One of our group had become something of a local celebrity as an astrologer and prophetess after a fifteen- minute television appearance; since then we called her the Soothsayer.)

She had recently received an order of books from the United Sates, so we decided to adjourn to her house. As soon as we saw the place we realized it was perfect for our purposes. It was an old manor house in the nineteenth century style that can still be seen in the La Florida neighborhood a hundred meters from the Parana river, whose brown waters you could see running among the trees, some of which were  as old or older than the house. Some were so thick that even  four of us together could not get our arms around them.  The two-storey mansion was in the French style, like most of houses of that age,  with a balcony that faced the brown river nearby, just across the street. In wintertime we had a view of the garden through the large windows of the east room, the one with a marble fireplace, our favorite room.

In this carefully chosen setting and at the precise hour we had chosen for our gathering, we told tales of the supernatural, forecast our horoscopes and birth charts,  read ancient manuscripts--most  of such obvious fraudulence that we had trouble getting into the right mood.

The meetings got more interesting after Aglae joined us. I never asked her age. Sometimes it seemed that she was well past seventy, other times its scarcely seemed credible that she had reached forty. Her experience in spiritualism and witchcraft provided us with fresh motivation just when all meetings were becoming a monotonous routine. From the beginning she managed to excite  our natural inclination toward the esoteric. I cannot recall now who it was introduced her to our gatherings, or if she just simply appeared. Parts of the house and its windows moved on their on without any kind of trickery involved during the sessions when Aglae was present. Her commanding personality extended itself like a blanket over us who were so fragile and excitable. On rainy days especially the storms seemed to belong to her. And the truth is she wasn't very impressive to look at. Brown hair, brown eyes, even her skin  a lighter shade of the same color.  She seemed like a Naiad spit up by the Parana river, sole witness to that house and the garden there of our encounters.

And now here were Alasia and Gracia collecting rare plants. Because the trees were in fact very rare, a species of myrsinaceae that doesn’t belong to the climate in our part of the world. And tjusto the strangeness of the trees you had to add the ridiculous ceremony. 

At the moment I watched them, my face absent of malice or other emotions, I remembered an episode from the week before.  A summer Saturday morning, the kind that causes one to curse the city, the traffic, and the people teeming in and out of the stores of the business center, I decided to visit Alasia, who lived in the area.  She seemed disquieted on opening the door and finding me there, but  she let me in without more ceremony.  What surprised me was to see Gracia on such an unlikely day and time.  But if I had decided to make an unexpected visit on any old day, why not Gracia.  In the living room smoking a black cigarette there was a man, forty-something, with a broad back and a hard chin - who looked pretty stupid to me.  He spent the whole visit talking passionately about his personal life and how marvelous he was.  I left thinking that I wouldn't have imagined them picking such a mediocre companion.

But that was not the first time.  The first time I saw them from a car, sitting in a bar with a forty-something man similar to the one I would see a month later in Alasia's apartment.  At first I thought I was mistaken, but the second time confirmed the first.  What could two intelligent, creative and cultured women be doing with these types?  Was it some trick of the Friday goddess Aphrodite?

I couldn't stand it any longer and I asked a bit shamefully, “What are the leaves for?”

“For a potion,” answered Gracia with irritation, “And forget  what you see and hear.  Are we ready?”

There was nothing for me to do but observe from a distance.  Could this thing with the forty-something men have something to do with some sexual predilection?  Did they share them in some swapping game? I erased the notion from my head quickly.  Even though they were both very unique, their inclinations didn't go there.

They took a white kerchief and wrapped the leaves in it.  They looked both ways up the street.  Having been there only a short time, I became aware that nobody had passed by whole time the ritual lasted, even though it was usually a busy street.  Time seemed suspended.

“Let's go,” they said, and I started moving without asking any questions.

A few days later I was killing time watching television when an AVISO came on.  They asked the community to call certain telephone numbers if they knew anything about the whereabouts of a man named Oscar Torres.  Though I had only seen him once, I was sure that it was the same man who had been at Alasia's house.  Even the date of disappearance coincided with the date I had seen him, and I was sure of it.  That same morning I had bought a birthday gift for my mother for the celebration that evening.  Despite the coincidences, I kept quiet.

On Friday I went to our gathering with more expectations than ever.  With my senses on alert I carefully observed my friends.  If I hadn't been so alert I would not have noticed certain details.

Our gathering began as always, with coffee and unimportant conversation between us.  Aglae looked like an old woman burdened with ailments.  On seeing her slow walk, I thought she must die soon.  Perhaps that was the reason for her zeal for spiritualism, she must want to be sure of what awaited her on the other side of the threshold.  She had brought a rare book of witchcraft, its pages yellow and crumpled with use and age.  She read us one page.  At that moment I understood what was happening.  Time unfolded itself.  Half of us stayed with an Aglae who seemed real as she read, filling in the space with meaningless words, while the other half of the group withdrew into another plane.  I don't know if I should say plane, frontier or dimension.  I don't know what to call it.  I felt my muscles go numb and I couldn't understand the words.  Or that was their meaning, no meaning.  I was sure that the action was occurring in the other place.  I blocked my ears and forced my muscles, completely sure that no one would notice my movements.  Half the group would not notice because of the enchantment of the words and the other half would not notice because they were not present.  I passed through the french doors and the breeze from the river brushed my face.  Then I saw them.

Not the femunculus they had left in their place, but the others.  Aglae drank from a worked cup and a diffused luminosity surrounded her body.  The missing forty-something was sitting at the foot of a tree, and appeared unconscious.  Then I couldn't see him any more.   The rest surrounded her in a tight circle.  A monotonous chant rose from the group.  Something in Aglae was transformed.  Her damaged body straightened up and her hair flowed in soft waves that the best hairdresser couldn't have managed.  The ceremony ended and the circle began to come apart.  I almost didn't make it back so as not to be discovered.

Alasia looked at me and smiled, maybe she had seen me.  What relationship existed between the gathered leaves, the forty-something men,  and today's ceremony.  I decided to continue the game until I could gather more facts. Aglae passed my side with a agile, feline step.  Her skin was shiny and seemed less wrinkled.
Everything seemed normal for the next two weeks.  Soon they summoned me to a new harvest.  Would they start to include me in their secret ceremonies?  As usual they refused to give me any explanations.  When I heard about another disappearance on the news, I began to worry seriously.  I was an involuntary accomplice to homicide.  Nevertheless my curiosity  and my need to be accepted by the group were stronger than my caution.

That Friday we wore costumes to the gathering.  We wanted to create a magic atmosphere compatible with the ritual we were developing.  Mediaeval masks hid our faces.  The Venice carnival was transplanted to that little corner of America, instead of a canal we had a brown river.  The masks liberated us as they had liberated Venetians for centuries.

Aglae came close.  Was it an illusion or was her neck really free of wrinkles.  Under the mask I could see her smooth face.  She stroked my hair and whispered in my ear: “It's time for you to join our group, we need just one more for it to be perfect.”

I was initiated amidst laughter and frolicking. The colorful masks and the decorated costumes jumped out among the trees.  The brown river and the cloudy fall night were the perfect setting for the ceremony.

Now we are nine, which constitutes the perfect number for the practice.  The police are absolutely disconcerted by the disappearances.  As we are very careful we now move around the country when we go hunting.  We don't go back to the same place.  We've perfected our technique, the younger and more charming of us  attract them and the others trap them.  We know which are the easiest prey.  We don't care if they are married.  What woman can lament the loss of such fickle beings.  We only choose those who deserve it by their own merit, personal vengeance is voided/ rejected. In any case,  I fear that soon we will have to abandon our refuge by the brown river.  Our neighbors and friends have begun to ask questions.  Despite all the miraculous creams and plastic surgeries we invent, 15 years without aging is making for talk.  We were thinking that the best way to disappear would be a shipwreck.  Nobody will be surprised if we decide to sail on the river that so attracts us. 

I think our next destination will be Italy, and why not Venice.  Though people are curious everywhere, I think that the hunt will be easier with so many tourists around. 

We set out on a ship called the Desmodus Rufus which clearly was not by accident.  For us all symbols are important.  The captain who walks on the deck is very agreeable and young.  We are also accompanied by two sailors whose strong arms have well defined muscles.  One has a tatoo on his back of a dragon, and the other has a mermaid wrapped around his right arm.   I'm not sure why, but I like the themes they chose to decorate themselves with. I think we can finish the voyage without suffering any privations.

(Viviana O'Connell is a member of various literary oganizations in the city of Rosario, including the Irish Society of Argentina and el Quinqué. She has won a number of literary prizes, including one for her novel Un Hombre Honorable (An Honorable Man). She was a finalist in the prestigious "Semana Negra" award (Spain) in 1999. Ms. O'Connell edits The Shamrock.)