Three emotions, adrenaline fed, captured just before the kill. Three settings and starting points of different happenings. Strength, jealousy and remorse. Word and image respond with a different setting, a storyline that takes us to certain places, our minds drift off and we see what the feelings tell and show us.
Three stories short, written by Gina Rodriguez, New Jersey, US. Three shoots brief, captured by Pablo Hannon, Manon Wethly, Lisa Lapauw, Lif Theys and Loammi Goetghebeur. The three shoots will be shown in full over the next blogposts. The short stories are here and now for you to read.
The men wore spurs. Their boots pounded the dust out of the cracks between the floorboards. When they approached on the dance floor, Graciela always had this sense of being hounded and corralled. She would grab the front of her dress and hitch it above her short-heeled shoes with one hand, wave her pañuelo with the other, and patter away from her dance partner. Together they carved semi-circles into the studio floor with their feet. Though at times Graciela felt like a flightless chicken being chased, she usually felt a steady thrill around the men in their huaso outfits, their sombreros, ponchos still smelling of the sweet countryside, their spurs clanging to the rhythm of their instructor’s clapping—
These were the sounds she heard in her dreams.
But in reality, there was Ariel. Stealing that rhythm. Ariel. Not huapa. Huapíssima. Hotness like the flaming suns. Totally blinding. Always brilliant, enfolded in the richness of her hand-sewn dresses, hair gorgeous and dark and done up like a huasa, burning Graciela’s eyes.
Aside from cultural celebrations and the occasional competition, the members of the dance school had few opportunities to really show off the cueca. This often made Graciela wonder why Ariel even bothered attending the school. Everyone knew Ariel could devastate with samba, seduce with the tango, make men drool with her salsa, so why was she wasting her time with stiff-hipped, tight-ass Chilean cueca? Every year, Graciela got better at dancing. Every year, Ariel got even better. There was no catching up to her, and there was no chance, no way, that Graciela would ever be asked to perform at their number one expo: the September 18th celebrations.
At least, that used to be true. One year, around early August, Ariel sprained her ankle. She said she fell down some stairs, or tripped over a dog leash, or slipped on a banana peel. Nobody really knew. Graciela did know one thing. If Ariel was hurt badly enough, she wouldn’t be able to dance in September.
That wasn’t why she went to Ariel’s home, though. She was bringing Ariel homemade empanadas, to help her feel better. And maybe she wanted to check on her ankle. So what? When Ariel opened the door to her apartment, and Graciela saw that she had no crutches, no bandages, no hint of swelling, nada, she was more than stunned. Why had Ariel skipped so many classes?
That afternoon, the almighty Ariel, the daughter every woman in the barrio longed for, spilled the dirt to Graciela over un tecito with a side of soda crackers, because of course Ariel had neither sugar nor sweets in her apartment. Ariel confessed, between sips and sighs, that she was pregnant.
“And the father?” Graciela felt like she was in a soap opera, awaiting the dramatic reveal, but the tension snapped when Ariel shrugged one shoulder.
“Outta the picture.”
“Get outta here,” she said, only half-aware of the plan forming in her mind. Escándalo. “I guess you won’t make it for the September—”
“No, I will. I’m having the operation. It won’t be so drastic. I’m only a few weeks in, ¿cachai? So don’t worry. I just…have too much on my mind to go to class. You know, until all this is over.”
“Oh, sure… I get you. No problem.”
In a week and a half, everyone at their dance school knew about it. Everyone had something to say about it. All the tías and tíos were talking about it, too, and Ariel disappeared. She sailed away, jumped down the drain, took a rocket to Mars, Graciela wasn’t sure. What really mattered was this: That September, Graciela performed for the first time ever at the fiesta del dieciocho. It was like touching God.
Ariel stayed gone for more than a year. Graciela nearly forgot all about her. Then the September 18th celebrations came again.
At the local dance hall, the whole neighborhood gathered to celebrate. In the prep room, while the Chile v. Paraguay match was on the crummy TV set and the girls from other dance groups were dressing, Graciela’s friend Lola walked in and said, “Graciela, guess who I just saw?”
“Who? Don Francisco?” Graciela clung to the remote. She was intent on finding something decent on the TV. She’d gotten ready hours ago. Her dress and hair were perfection.
“What—he’s here? No, stop kidding. I’m talking about Ariel.”
Graciela sat up. “She’s here?”
“Yeah, she finally showed her face—”
“Listen, if that bitch touches you, I’ll scratch her eyes out. She left, and that’s her fault, but you’ve worked so hard for this, Graciela—”
“Don’t worry about it,” she interrupted. “It’s just a cueca.”
“Oh, good. That’s the Graciela I know.”
And it was just a cueca. When it was her turn, Graciela strode out arm-in-arm with her partner, a man twenty years her senior. She made sure not to wonder where Ariel might be sitting right now. The spotlights on them helped. It was difficult to see her neighbors crowding around the floor. Instead, once the music began, she followed her partner’s feet, his stomp-stomp. Her handkerchief waved like a flag overhead. Like a white flag, she hoped. Ariel, please say nothing… Tell no one what happened… Of course, Graciela had not practiced each step for nothing. She had not drilled for days and days on end for her technique to shrivel up and break just because Ariel might be watching, observing, dissecting, seething with rage, getting ready to punch her in the jaw with a fistful of angry silver rings— Graciela almost missed a step. Startled, she focused again on her technique and let her partner’s movements guide her, let him pursue.
When it was over, she was sweating but bathed in applause. This was no great feat. Every Chilean had something to say about the cueca, and here she was at the September 18th celebrations, among the sharpest-tongued critics ever, and they were clapping. She wished she could embrace that sound, even bottle it up to take home, to enjoy after those long practice sessions when she would dance alone.
Then the MC came up with a microphone and said, “Now we open up the floor to everyone—let’s have some volunteers!”
No one had told her there would be volunteers. Why hadn’t she been briefed? And why, why, God, was Ariel the only woman with her hand firmly placed in the air, like a spear thrust into the clouds? Until now, Graciela had been able to pretend that she couldn’t see her. Had been able to pretend that Ariel’s was just another face, but now—
She heard Lola’s encouraging voice in her head— That’s the Graciela I know.
Except nobody actually knew her. Nobody knew what she’d done to Ariel.
And no one will ever know it from me.
And so Graciela found herself taking Ariel’s outstretched hand, her palm surprisingly cool, and leading her onto the dance floor. Ariel stood five inches over Graciela, limber and sleek. Graciela smiled, holding her breath, and graciously handed Ariel the pañuelo she herself had embroidered.
Ariel smiled back. “Watch this, puta.”
In a few days’ time, Graciela expected she would recall snippets of Ariel’s footwork, some fragments of her seduction, the way she had made the dance seem less like some hokey piece of baile folclórico and more like its elemental spirit. The singer howled lyrics that there was no way were part of a real cueca—mijita rrrriiica—and the clapping rebounded off the walls.
Until then, she would only remember the end, when Ariel walked off the floor and returned the pañuelo to Graciela, on which she had left the lipsticked impression of her heart-shaped lips.
They were halfway up the mountain, still two days’ walk from the other side, when Astor realized he could no longer recall his mother’s voice. He made the mistake of saying so aloud. His uncle Kay braced himself against a tree and regarded his nephew with something close to a sneer.
“So you believe we should stop?”
“By all means, let’s take a break. We can even go back, if you prefer.”
“Uncle, I only meant—”
“If you want to go back down, I will follow you,” his uncle continued, gesturing in the direction they had come from.
Astor hiked up his pack. “Uncle, I will descend the mountain,” he said. “On the other side.”
His uncle hid his smile with a grunt.
Between them, they carried a lambskin bag cinched tight with a braided rope. A heavy, putrid smell flowed from it. Within, the head of a man slowly rotted.
Astor was only fourteen years old. Almost a week ago, his uncle had come to his home in the middle of the night. The moon had been blotted out, the road into town empty. Hs mother had shaken him awake.
“Astor, your uncle is here. He needs your help—”
Outside, barely lit by the lantern his mother raised, his uncle stood. At his side was Astor’s cousin Guin. Guin was his age, a girl that had once loved to run barefoot, sing loudly in the morning, and peek into the neighbors’ windows to say hello. That night, she was barefoot again, but her feet were dirty with mud. She wore only a torn shift. Her face was blank. Blood ran from the cuts on her face. Blood ran from Uncle Kay’s knuckles. A two-handed axe rested on his shoulder. Astor was suddenly afraid.
“My daughter has been dishonored,” he uncle said, voice so rich with hate it was barely audible. “I come to ask you to do your duty as family—”
Help me kill the man who did this.
Astor packed their supplies and helped his uncle find the proper boots, warm clothes, a whetting stone for his axe. His mother brought out leftovers from the previous night’s supper. Uncle Kay and Guin had walked so far to come here, they ought to eat, she said. But Uncle Kay couldn’t eat. He said he couldn’t stomach another morsel for all the rage that had built in his belly. Guin ate nothing, nor did she sit at the table with them. As he picked at his own food, Astor couldn’t pry his eyes from his uncle’s injured knuckles. He couldn’t help pairing them with his cousin’s bruises. Before dawn, Astor set out with his uncle for the mountain.
They spent five days crossing that mountain. Uncle Kay refused to borrow mules to take them across. No, he had said, we do it with honor. For Astor, the idea of honor lost its shine almost as soon as the blisters started appearing on his feet. By the time they reached the village on the other side, Uncle Kay had sweated so much, a river of salt washed down the front of his tunic. He had Astor ask for directions from the local butcher, directions to find that man who did this to my daughter—
The man his uncle sought was a trader who crossed the mountain regularly and traded among the villages on the other side. He was young, almost handsome, with a neat beard, brown eyes, and a ruddy flush. He was always telling stories and laughing about superstitions. Astor had known his face. He recognized him when he and his uncle found him at the village well. Then Astor watched his uncle beat the man senseless, into what looked like death. And when the blade fell upon his neck, Astor had forgotten who this man was. He had forgotten he had ever known this man as he watched the man’s legs kick back, his fingers twitch, perhaps reflexively, or maybe, as Astor feared, in one last grab at life. The man’s spit had flecked his coarse beard, and then blood surged from his neck, freed. Within minutes, Astor and his uncle had set out for the mountain, and home.
Astor worried about their slow pace up the mountain. He worried about the dead man’s ghost.
At night, they suspended the lambskin bag from a low tree branch. They did not eat or light a fire. This had become an aesthete’s journey, begun as a vendetta by his uncle’s rage, and planned by Astor out of family loyalty. Now it was concluding with silent contemplation. They sat in the dark, blinded and waiting for sleep. With every other breath, Astor picked up the smell of rot.
“Uncle, do you think his god will make him whole again?” Astor asked.
“Why should I waste my time pondering a dead man’s fate?”
“I only wondered if… If his body has been left at home, and we have his head, Uncle—”
“Whether his god will gather the pieces that we have fed to our village’s crows?”
His uncle laughed. “His god will not follow us beyond this mountain. Our gods rule beyond the ridge. Our gods will judge his soul.”
Astor was silent. He didn’t dare ask in which piece this man’s soul might reside.
As the hours wore on and Astor could not sleep for the hunger in his stomach and the smell of death around him, he tried to speak again, and he did not recognize his own sobs. Nor did he recognize his uncle’s voice when he began to sing. At first it sounded like the wind howling in the distance, and then, as Astor remembered the words from his childhood, his uncle’s voice began to sound like his mother’s. He fell asleep holding onto the image of his mother, which bled into his memory of Guin, her color so sapped that she looked as immaterial as a cloud. He remembered again the blood on her face and the dead man’s blood and his uncle’s rage.
When Astor saw the fires moving through the trees, he grabbed his uncle’s shoulder. His uncle found the head in the dark, and together they fled. It was no small thing to take the head of a man, no small thing to come to his village to execute him in the name of honor, Astor thought as they ran. He thought this as they hid behind a stone, his uncle panting and cursing at the cramp in his leg. Shouting filled the forest, and they struck out again uphill, staying low. Arrows whistled into the trees not far away. They ran faster. When an arrow struck his uncle, Astor shoved him to the ground and covered him. His uncle was a much bigger man, and stubborn, but he lay still for Astor. Their breaths were held, held, released. The torches passed them like sparking cinders. When the torches had faded from view, Astor pulled his uncle up, and again they ran.
That night on the mountain, they lost the dead man’s head.
Uncle Kay survived. The arrow had buried itself in the flesh of his shoulder. When they returned to the village, the doctor saw to him. He said Uncle Kay would overcome the infection and fever, but his right arm would never wield an axe again. He and Guin would live with Astor while he recovered.
Meanwhile, Astor discovered that his mother had been busy matchmaking. His wife would be beautiful, a young girl with heavily-lashed, moist eyes. She would have many children, his mother told him. “And you will love them equally.” Astor then remembered the song his uncle had sung on the mountain, the one his mother used to sing. His mother’s words were power. They were as good as destiny written.
When Astor approached his cousin, whose face had begun to heal, he expected her to be grateful. He was looking forward, in fact, to yet another laurel. Instead, Guin said quietly, as she helped to chop that evening’s meat, “Don’t be like my father. He’ll take an axe when only a knife will do.”
A few months later, some passing travelers brought news of a human skull they had found on the mountain. “I suppose he only misplaced his body?” one said, chuckling.
That evening, Astor saw Guin heading toward the mountain, walking barefoot and straight-backed. He knew that she was headed there to find the dead man’s head. Later that night, as he struggled to sleep, he tried to comfort himself with the thought of what they had accomplished. But he kept returning to Guin’s bruised face that night, and the man’s bloody beard. When awoke that morning, he found that his memory was scrubbed clean of everything except the starkest details, the ribbon of blood.
As parents, we will do everything conceivable for the wellbeing of our children.
When the Longevity Project finally made its plans public, my husband and I wept with relief. The first Project ad ran on TV for a full minute, a montage of prepackaged, overdone images – crying babies, smoldering teenagers, laughing geriatrics, pristine businessmen – that were all washed out by a white light. Then a voice, “Time takes from us the things we cherish most. But new scientific breakthroughs have made it easy to hold on. The Longevity Project has at last been approved by the U.S. Government, and is now available nationwide. Speak to your primary care provider now to learn how you can participate in the Longevity Project… The Longevity Project. Never say goodbye again.”
This was why my great-grandparents worked so hard to make their vineyards profitable, why my grandparents expanded the business until its products could compete with the finest wines, why my parents moved their base to the east coast and diversified their interests, and why they let me marry Gary, whose family owned a software company with offices in both California and New York. It boiled down to being omnipresent and so, hopefully, ever-present, so our children would have a guaranteed place in the sun.
But Gary and I had had no children yet. Like many of our friends, we had been waiting on this one thing: The Longevity Project.
Our friends joked about it over cocktails. “Are you drinking the Kool-Aid, too? I hear they’re calling their pills Outlivia,” Don laughed.
His wife Emily, forever puncturing her husband’s humor, snorted. “Each pill – Don told me this – one pill will cost – take a guess. Fifty thousand dollars.”
“It’s a sham.”
“But it’ll work?” my husband asked.
“So they say – ”
In the same way we were already putting aside money for our children’s education – planning to fund every year from kindergarten through the M.B.A. if necessary – we started a fund for the Project. We put off having children for a few more years.
Everyone was doing the same. No one wanted to admit it, but who hadn’t already consulted their doctor, their financial analyst, their therapist, their spiritual counselor, their personal trainer? Who hadn’t already made the initial investment? If we couldn’t participate in the Longevity Project ourselves – the treatments had to start in the womb – then our children would. There was no other choice. What morally upright person does not want to give their child comfort? What morally upright person would let her son die when she had it in her power to save him from death, forever?
When I finally got pregnant, we discovered the Longevity Project did not require pills, at least not initially. First came the injections and the tests. Then, when my daughter was born, the pills. Gary and I had the money ready. We paid up front.
As a child, I used to think I lived in a kind of Eden. When we visited our first vineyards on the West Coast, I could eat grapes from the vines, roll through the dirt with my family’s purebred dogs, climb as many trees as I wanted. All the while, the house was wired to the pulse of the earth, the Internet, the channels of information roiling like the Pacific Ocean on the horizon, the world only a hair’s-breadth away. My parents had given me all this, and now I could give this all to my children.
The children, as children often do, scorned us.
Rachel, the older one, would usually start. “Mom, Dad, when you guys are out of the picture—will we have to learn how to run the business?” She was a doll, a child, internally flawless, cells regenerating seamlessly, perfectly, an endlessly ticking clock. After she reached puberty, we’d swap out her A1 pills for B3 pills. Once she reached twenty-five years of age, we’d switch her to P2 pills, which she’d take for the rest of her life. Forever. She would never physically age beyond that. She would never wilt. She would never die. “Do you really trust Nate and I to keep the family business alive, Mom? The affairs…in order?”
“In perpetua,” Nathaniel, her younger brother, added. He was playing with a toy truck, the most old-school gift we’d been able to convince the nannies would be good for his growth. “Ad nauseum.”
Rachel scoffed. “Go on talking like that, Nate. Then ask me why your classmates keep teasing you.”
They were only children. My children. At times I wished I could see only that, and not the pills, not the money, not the consequences.
On that night, so many years ago, before all the real decisions were made, we’d had a few too many drinks, and Don and Emily had flushed cherry-purple.
“They’ll be like gods,” Don had said, laughing into his wine glass.
“They’ll control the world’s wealth. Its financial resources.” He stabbed the air with his index finger.
“Darling, that won’t be any different than us,” Emily said, at last cracking a smile. “Most people can’t even afford to join the Project. But we are not most people. Why shouldn’t our children get the best of everything?”
“The best, yes, but—” Don threw out his hands, spilling a few drops of wine on the carpet. “But with no turnover? I mean—” He coughed, retracting his arms, rethinking his words. “Not turnover but—”
“They might become monsters, is what you’re saying.” Emily was still smiling, the wine burning in her face. “They’ll have no reason to ever take no for an answer. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s the greatest gift a mother could give them. That thing you said…about turnover…” She let out a sharp laugh. “Hell if I care!”
Gary, my husband, said, “I could live with that.” Then he looked at me, as if to ask, Could you?
One evening, over dinner, as if Rachel had somehow tapped into my memories, she picked up the same thread from that conversation. She stabbed her macaroni and shot her brother a look across the table. “We’ll repopulate the globe,” she said. “Overpopulate it, maybe. All the future generations of our family will live together— Grandkids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids—” I could see she was enjoying thinking it through. Why hadn’t Gary and I thought that far? Maybe we had. Maybe we had, but we had shied away from speaking it. Perhaps we thought that no harm could come from choices made out of love. “What will we do then, if there’s no room for us anymore?”
“It doesn’t have to be like that. If there’s no room, we could build our own countries if we wanted.” Nathaniel reached for another bread roll to sop up his tomato sauce. “Anyway, our children don’t have to be part of the Project.”
Gary and I looked at each other. We would never speak of this, but at that time, I could see that his expression must have mirrored mine. Surprise. An expression not too distant from fear.
Although my parents had raised me on an estate in the northeast, I was always surrounded by echoes of our past out West. Statues of the god Bacchus and his women, the Bacchae, adorned the great fountain at the top of the driveway. His women feasted on petrified grapes and slaked their want with casks of wine. The god himself, more gargoyle than gorgeous figure, howled a watery gush, jaws stretched taut with something like rage, like pleasure. Because for Bacchus there was no death, and thus no afterlife, and so there was no reason to nurture the soul, only sate the body.
After I turned fourteen years old, Daddy started encouraging me to have a glass of red wine at dinner.
“Go on. I won’t tell your mother,” he would say. “This was your Great Grandpappy’s secret. And he lived to be one hundred and four years old.”
I never told Gary my feelings about the Project. These things once said cannot be unsaid, and we had already done things that could not be undone. When he passed, and the children were grown and digging deep the roots that would make our family name a permanent fixture of the world, I bought myself a home in Michigan. Already I could see the people Rachel and Nathaniel would become. Emily and Donald, too, were raising children not unlike them. Born leaders. Born into wealth. Born into immortality.
Before I left the northeast, I came back to the estate again, and walked through the rooms once more. I said farewell to the curtains of the silent dining room, farewell to the dusty mantelpiece, farewell to the staircase, the potted plants, the spiderwebs in the garden. I closed the doors and shut the lights. Because if there was one thing I still had, that my children would not, it was the chance to say goodbye.
Credits for this day in higher spirits: Styling: Lisa Lapauw — Muse: Loammi Goetghebeur — Visagie: Lif Theys for MAC — Concept, photography: Pablo Hannon x Manon Wethly
All Credits for this written triptych: Gina Rodriguez
All Credits for this written triptych: Gina Rodriguez