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Karen Gonzalez-Videla

 

Karen Gonzalez-Videla is an Argentinian immigrant living in Florida. You can usually find her somewhere in nature, hiding among the animals and plants. Her writing has been featured in PANK, Menacing Hedge, Paranoid Tree, and other places. You can find her on Twitter at @Gv12Karen or on her website at https://kgonzalezvidela.carrd.co/.

La Mujer del Lodo


     “¿Por qué no podemos ir allá, mamá?” the boy says. His eyes tilt to the left and land for less than a second on the rusted metal gate. Beyond it lies an overgrown field, an ocean of dirt and weeds. The gate has been there for as long as the boy can remember. He has lived in this town since the age of three and any recollection of the place he used to live in before is gone. He knows the name, as well as some of the details, but only because his mother has shared them during plenty of their family dinners.  


     The boy has never seen anyone go near the gate. Not his mother, not his father, not the dogs. Even his uncle, despite being a gardener, refuses to remove the rotten bushes around it. This year, the stench is unbearable, but the boy doesn’t care. He turned eight years old last month and has not gotten even a peek of what lives beyond the rusted door. I wonder what’s out there, he thinks. He tries to imagine it but can think of nothing. It feels impossible to picture something you’ve never experienced, something you’ve never had a glimpse of.  


     The boy’s mother sighs. “Ya te lo dije mil veces, Sebastián,” she says. “Ahí no se puede.”  


     Sebastián pauses, unsure whether to question his mother any further. He decides to push a little more. “Is it because of that woman?”


     His mother raises an eyebrow. “En español, Sebastián.” She grabs onto his hand and walks forward, pushing him away from the gate. 


     “¿Cómo es que la llaman?” the boy says. 


     His mother purses her lips. She grabs onto Sebastián’s hand even harder and looks around to make sure no one can hear them. “La mujer del lodo,” she whispers. 


     Sebastián has heard of her before, how she wears no clothes, how she walks around naked but for the mud oozing from her body. He’s heard of the way her voice comes out in chokes, of the way dirt pools inside her mouth and doesn’t let her speak. 


     “¿Por qué le tienen miedo, mamá?”


     The boy’s mother stops walking. She looks at him straight in the eyes. “¿Pero que pregunta tan boba es esa?”


***

 

      The boy sits in the back of his fifth-grade language arts class. He is ten years old and has still not gone beyond the rusted metal gate. He has thought about it plenty of times but has somehow always pushed it off. Perhaps the town’s superstitions about la mujer del lodo have finally gotten to him. He has dreamt about her, her mud-stained hair brushing against his skin and giving him goosebumps. Or perhaps he has simply not found the time. He thinks about what it would feel like to see this woman, to pay her a visit. 

 

     "Sebastián,” the teacher says. She taps her fingers against the chalkboard. “What did I just say?” 


     The boy looks at her, stupefied. He has drifted off into thought and has lost everything she has said in the past five minutes. This tends to happen to him, especially during Mrs. Stuart’s long review sessions. 


     “It doesn’t matter how well you think you know this concept,” Mrs. Stuart says, “I still want you to listen.” She tightens her ponytail and grabs the name chart sitting on her desk. At the top, she writes: Subtract two points from Sebastián’s participation grade. 


     The boy sighs. He wishes Mrs. Stuart was like Mr. Terry, lenient and so disorganized that she wouldn’t even have bothered to print out a name chart. But she organizes her classroom on the daily, separating blue pens from black pens, grading quizzes before the end of the school day, and making sure not one drop of dirt remains on her desk. 


     “Don’t let this happen again,” she says, placing the name chart back down. “Or I will have to call home.” 


     “He really should pay attention in language arts class,” someone says. “He doesn’t even pronounce things right.” A few classmates “oooooooo” behind the boy’s back. Everyone laughs. Mrs. Stuart doesn’t say anything. 


     Sebastián tries to listen, but after some minutes, the notes in his notebook turn into sketches. The first drawing is a simple one: a field of grass with romerillo plants growing throughout it. The second one adds a few overgrown reeds towards the back, tilted as if hit by the wind. The third one is just a few grackles, standing on the reeds. Their beaks are half-open, in protest. Although these first three sketches are good, it’s the fourth one that finishes it all off: 


     A rusted metal gate, staring straight into the boy’s eyes. 


     Mrs. Stuart gasps. “Sebastián!” she says. Her face reddens; her eyes bulge out. “Don’t you ever draw that again. Ever.” She bends over the desk and points a finger at the boy. “Do you understand me?” 


     Sebastián gives a startled nod. He watches as Mrs. Stuart tears his sketch into pieces and throws it in the trash.  


***


      On his twelfth birthday, the boy asks for a journal. The school counselor has told him that it can help with the bullying. He’s not sure how, since the bullies at school tend to get quite physical, but he’s willing to take her word on it. 


     “Thanks, mamá,” he says. The journal sits on his hands, its fake leather cover folding at the touch. 


     His mother sighs. “De nada, amor.” She doesn’t try to correct him anymore, to tell him to speak in Spanish like she used to. Although thank you and gracias are the same to Sebastián, they sound too different to her. 


     That night, after the cake and the three different feliz cumpleaños songs his family has developed over the years, Sebastián heads to his room. He grabs a pen from his desk and sits with his new journal in bed. 


     Dear diary, he writes. The kids at school made fun of me again. They say I look only eight, even though I just turned twelve. They also say I can’t pronounce the word “cookie” right – apparently, I’m saying the “oo” sound wrong. I don’t understand why they care so much. It’s not like they invented the word anyways. 


     The boy laughs. He’s only been journaling for a few minutes, and he already loves it. He makes a mental note to tell this to the school counselor. 


     Papá says I should learn some sort of martial arts to defend myself, but I know he’s just joking. He couldn’t afford to pay for classes, even if he wanted to. It doesn’t matter anyways, because Mamá doesn’t like fighting, and I don’t think she would be happy with it. I should probably just forget about it. The bullies will leave me alone eventually. No one can go that much time hating on someone for mispronouncing the word “cookie.” 


     The boy keeps writing, on and on until the words cover the page. Soon, they’re no longer words, but scribbles. Beautiful scribbles. They leave the constricting college ruled lines and waltz all over the paper. It is the most beautiful dance the boy has ever seen. 


     Sebastián lets go of the pen and looks at his creation. 


     He frowns. 


     On the page lies a woman. Her hair is unbrushed. Her body is covered in mud. She looks at the boy through the dirt piling around her eyelids. She stretches her arms towards him. She opens her mouth and lets out a choke that sounds too much like “Sebastián.” 


***


     It is a chilly autumn morning, and the boy is already fourteen years old. The leaves have yellowed, and a few have fallen from the trees. The air feels crisp, and the sun shines in the cloudless sky. This is usually the boy’s favorite season, but this year the bullies have claimed it as their own. He had hoped they would have left him alone by now, but they seem to have picked him for eternity. He feels branded, as if no matter what he does or how he behaves, he will always be “that foreign boy,” the one people make fun of. 


     One of the bullies smirks. “Aw, come on, you spooky cookie, don’t run!” he says. He wears his coat halfway, leaving his upper arms exposed. 


     “Yeah!” the bully next to him shouts. He tucks some blond hair strands behind his ear. “Don’t tell us you got your feelings hurt.” He rubs his eyes in mockery. 


     Sebastián is tired. He has dealt with these bullies for years and they never go away. He considers confronting them, telling them to get out of his life and do something more meaningful with theirs. But just as he thinks this, the bullies lean down and grab a few pebbles from the ground. They look at each other and grin. 


     When Sebastián realizes what they’re about to do, his eyes open in shock. He’s been beaten up by bullies at school, but never like this. It has always been with fists. He cannot even imagine what being hit with pebbles must feel like. 


     “What is it, spooky cookie?” Halfway-coat says. “Scared of a little rock?”


     Sebastián isn’t scared of the rocks. Sebastián is scared of the boy holding them. He swallows back tears and thinks of what to do: he can stay here and wait for the sound of rock to hit muscle, to hit bone, or he can run. 


     He chooses to run. 


     The bullies run after him. They scream behind his back things he would rather not think about, things that remind him he is an outsider, a stranger to this town. He clenches his fist. He has more memories here than in any other place, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Some people will never, ever, accept him. 


     Sebastián stops running. His fist goes limp. He thinks about crying, about screaming, about giving it all up in one go. 


     But he doesn’t. 


     Because in front of him lies a rusted metal gate. 


     An unpleasant odor emanates from it, the same one he smelled back when he was eight. 


     “Stop!” the bullies shout in unison. 


     Sebastián looks behind him. The two boys have dropped the pebbles. They’ve let go of their sneers and are filled with terror. “You need to stop!” they say. 


     But Sebastián will not stop. He places his hands on the gate and pushes himself upwards. He rests his right foot on it and then his left, stepping on the metal bars until his whole body is off from the ground.

 
     The bullies keep screaming. “Dude! We were just joking!” They wave their arms, begging him to come back. 


     Sebastián smiles. This is the first time he has seen these bullies scared, and he doesn’t want it to stop. He flips himself over to the other side of the gate and jumps. His feet land with a gentle thump. 


     The bullies’ faces turn pale. “It’s okay! We’ll stop! Just come back!” they say. Their foreheads drip with sweat. Their fingers tremble. 


     Sebastián cackles. He refuses to fall for these jerks’ pranks, for their insults. He has done it for far too long. 


     He turns around and walks into the weed-packed field. 


     He steps over rotten plant sprouts and resting reptiles, over fallen branches and strange looking shapes. After a while, he can’t even hear the screaming bullies anymore. He wishes he could, to enjoy their despair a bit longer. To relish in it, to savor it like a piece of freshly dripped caramel on an otherwise tasteless cake. 


     Sebastián smirks. Jerks, he thinks. All this time I’ve been afraid of jerks. Useless, worthless jerks. 
He continues to walk among the weeds, places one foot in front of the other without looking back. He remembers then all the times that he avoided this place. He remembers all the times that he wanted to explore it but didn’t. He wishes to go back and tell everyone that he has walked through it. That he, and no one else but he, dared.  


     When Sebastián takes the next step, his foot catches on a branch. He lands with hands and knees against the ground. 


     “Ow,” he says. A few thorns imbed into his skin. He bites his lip in pain. 


     Thank God they didn’t see that, he thinks as he brushes the dirt off his pants. He can’t have anything ruin his moment, make him look weaker than he truly feels.  


     He stands, ignoring the blood on his knees. He decides that he has proven himself enough for one day. With a smile, he prepares to walk back home. 


     That’s when he feels it: a drop. 


     Not a raindrop. Not a dew drop. 


     A mud drop.


     Sebastián freezes. Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as a few more drops land on him. They pile on each other until they form a swollen mound on his shoulder. 


     Sebastián knows, even without looking, who stands behind him. He has thought of this moment ever since he was a child. He has tried to prepare for it, because deep down he has always known that being here, in this place, at this hour, was only a matter of time.  


     He hears a choking sound. 


     He looks up. 


     La mujer del lodo gurgles. “Sebastián,” she says. 


    The boy stops breathing. He remembers everything his mother has told him: to stay away from that gate, to stay away from this woman. He remembers the times people have reacted with fear, at his drawings, at his questions. He wonders if he should have listened. If now is his time to go. To die. 


     La mujer stretches her arms towards him. She rests both hands on his shoulders and chokes out his name over and over again: “Sebastián. Sebastián. Sebastián.” 


     The boy thinks about running. He thinks about climbing out through the gate and never looking back. 


     But la mujer’s eyes rest on his. Like crystal balls, they show him the truth: not the future, not the past, but simply the truth. 


     La verdad. 


     Sebastián and la mujer are not that different. They have never belonged here, and not for lack of trying. They are nothing but shadows. Remnants. 


     Sebastián caresses la mujer’s cheek. “I’m sorry,” he says. 


     And then, with a tear in his eye, “Lo siento. Lo siento, lo siento, lo siento.” 


     Sebastián and la mujer become one.