“The Strangler Fig” by Jennifer D. Munro
We’d never spoken until today, except for the day she named me long ago in a backstage hallway; she had crouched to tie her shoe, and roadies bumped the black-haired backup singer as if she didn’t exist. Only I saw her. I snapped her: click. Her head snapped up at the sound. Click, she mimicked the camera’s voice, a voice I throw. She worked an air shutter. I shuddered, newly baptized as Click.
Then, when I developed into her shadow, I became Click the Tick. I was in two places at once. I followed her career, and flashed it ahead of her at the same time. With my photos, I made Kiara, and she made me.
Click the Tick, her tongue castanets. Click the Tick, her fingers snap. Click the Tick, her heels on tile. Not only do I cling tight; I measure time, her second hand. I count.
But we don’t talk to each other. One does not expect conversation from one’s deity. One expects lightning bolts. And Kiara delivered, turning me with one syllable from ordinary Thomas, nerd with a telephoto, to Click: best of the celluloid infantry. A man worthy enough to have a nickname. Loners are never called anything but what’s on their birth certificates, called out in medical waiting rooms and at airport gates. Until they become unhinged and acquire a pet name. Unabomber. Killer Clown. Jack the Ripper. When they see their new moniker hit the papers, they know they’ve become somebody, important enough for re-christening.
I can’t forgive her when she disappears like this. Every year, the same time, up in a puff of smoke. Before she vanishes, she starts to cover herself up like a virgin fundamentalist, and her voice starts to crack. I could never pinpoint the date’s significance—not her birthday, not the solstice, not the anniversary of her Mexican grandmother’s death—but I’ve learned that tomorrow marks the beginning of the annual Huichol pilgrimage to Xapa, the Tree That Rains. The villagers have begun to file out in droves, heading for the peyote ceremony to get fried in the name of extinct gods.
Before her annual evanescence, Kiara refuses interviews or performances, claiming laryngitis. She hides behind sunglasses, scarves, and baggy dresses; the baby bump rumors start. She takes a new lover. Then she goes underground, untraceable. She reemerges a few weeks later looking fresh and young, bikini-clad and gorgeous, her voice sliding up and down the range of a piano as easily as hands do. The rags crow that she’s gone under the knife. These know-it-alls know nada. I know every crease of her flesh better than my own (no one wants to look at me, including myself). I am her microscope. No knife, no injection, but…something.
Flawless, like last year around this time, at the gala benefit—for cancer, or animals, or animals with cancer, who gives a rip, we just care about the gowns and gams—Mi ácaro, my tick, she mouthed silently to me and blew a kiss. Then turned away, into the microphones of the yakking interviewers.
But I don’t hear. I only see. Freeze-frames parade through my head, as if I look at a contact sheet instead of at the chaotic mob. First: Her sandaled toes peek out through the cracked-open limo door. No nail color, ever. We glimpse her long, sepia leg—no stockings, always bare skin, one of her trademarks. Then: a pause. We intuit the whole of her, complete entity in the dark and cool interior. We stare, yearning, as funereal congregations gaze upon the coffin, knowing what’s inside. We sense the pearled and powdered beauty beneath the mahogany slab.
Then comes the heel, ankle, calf, nudging open high skirt slit, my life’s meaning thrust through a stage curtain. So like her tongue through her lips, taking her time, teasing. Then knee, thigh. A hand. A twist at her waist, unseen. Then Kiara.. We receive the whole of her, but we never get enough. Not even with the backless dress, tease of drapery and miracle of architecture cascading from threads at her shoulders, offering us the entirety of her spine. Each vertebra, count them, fulcrum of her grace. The wisp of cloth waterfalls beneath her sacrum, sacred seat of her soul, god-made indentation for a man’s palm to guide her—but no man will. This she proffers to us, so much more profound a revelation than pedestrian cleavage heaving along the catwalk.
Amidst the perfume and hairspray and sweat, her natural fragrance shimmers: nutmeg and mango and oak-barreled whiskey. Chocolate and chili. All simmered into the essence of her skin.
Most paps don’t work the red carpet. After all, the paparazzi get top dollar for the shot of stars with their clothes off, not their makeup on. We want the wrinkle, the wart, not the de la Renta. But Click’ll get the candid of her that everyone wants (Kiara checking, over her shoulder in the limo’s reflection, the transition from skin to silk just at the swell of her tailbone, a mere millisecond). All the other hacks with single lens reflex stand in the same place, with the same equipment. But blind.
Just a few weeks before that, I caught her on an icicled balcony in the middle of godforsaken nowhere, 1000mm and F2.8 all the way through, grainy but solid gold, unmistakably her despite the sunglasses, ushanka, and white mink coat swaddling her up past her chin. The tabloid editors say Christ, Click, how’d you know? How’d you get the shot?
She’d sprinkled none of her usual clues for me to follow. She cuddled with a new lover (cropped out), descendent of some Svalbardian prince, or so he claimed. His Highness soon disappeared, though his absence never hit the U.S. papers—we don’t care much for the fate of jaundiced, bottom-runged nobility. An alleged accident on the way to his hunting lodge. It seems that his Stolichnaya-fond majesty had always been careless near crevasses. Poor out-of-the-frame prince, wedged into his gorge of snow like a pallid lemon slice. Shaken like an ice cube, his dentures chatter and clatter in that great martini glass in the sky. But who knows if that’s really how he met his maker, since the body was never found?
Then Kiara lost me again, as I knew she would. I’m sure she, too, was shaken when the photo hit the checkout stands, and she realized I’d tracked her without the calculated hints she left for me throughout the rest of the year. I’d sniffed her out despite no phone bills left in her garbage, listing calls to her next destination. She knew I’d cropped out the only evidence that paired her with the wan prince.
Along with the digital shots I take for the pimps who sell my work to the highest bidder, I shoot film—high and low speed, 35 mm and 4×5, color and b/w, long and short exposures—for my experiments. I pondered Prince Icechip’s frozen image under my Agfa Lupe. Why him? Anodyne, disinherited scion won’t be missed. No thorough inquiry. Lost himself on the rocks. A shrug, case closed. Still, a poor specimen. Kiara has slipped, skittering over the edge with an elbow called time at her back.
She resurfaced in L.A. for the gala, once again looking as if she’d bedded Father Time, nudging back his hands. So gentle, turning over this mythic, snoring bed partner without waking him, so that he doesn’t know he’s rolled back the clock in his sleep. Dark in her new tan, even her eyes seemed darker, the whites tinted, like her image had steeped too long in fixer bath. Stiletto-heeled starlets, starving over salads and suffering under the knife, clutch skinny soy lattes by her poolside, begging for her secret. She confesses with that impish, ever modest smile, that she’s blessed by her genetics. A little relaxation, a little amarosa, and food of the soul, a recipe passed down from her ancestors—and here she pauses over her enchilada, smothered in m?lé, the traditional dark sauce that Latina grandmothers take three days to make with a hundred secret ingredients—all work wonders for an overworked girl. She could say goddess. Say star. But she says girl, as if she were still a waitress in Cleveland who had need of a surname and a phone book listing.
She knows I’m there, watching through my telephoto, her shadow at noontime, underfoot but unseen.
But not today. She doesn’t know I’ve finally tracked her to this filthy Mexican town. So this is where she goes when she ditches me every year.
I wait in the cemetery, City of the Dead. La Ciudad de los Muertos, I say out loud, killing the time, but I make a hash of it, as usual. I cannot master my own tongue, much less her adopted one. The words are clear in my head, but they tumble out of my mouth like scree down a talus of shale, all clatter and squawk.
My telephoto points across the small bay to her house, perched on a rock outcropping at the north end. Behind me, the graveyard’s haphazard, angled headstones look as if they erupt from the mounded earth, not as if human hands lodged them there. The jungle creeps nearly to the ocean here, and the strange trees that lurk around the graves creak and groan as the branches rub together. Strangler Figs, requiring sacrificial host trees of a different species to wrap themselves around. I had asked my hotel proprietress about the peculiar, tentacled trunks. The host tree eventually dies, mummified in the arms of the Strangler.
The Stranglers’ dry leaves whisper in the sibilant wind. Crones chattering, clicking their tongues, tsk tsking. They scuff their gnarled toes, shy and tall ladies wallflowered behind me, waiting to be asked to dance. They skulk and scuttle. But when I turn to face them, they haven’t moved. Their canopy blends together, like schoolgirls holding hands overhead, singing “Ring Around the Rosy”. A massive Strangler towers over the others, most likely the mother of all the other trees, sending out vines that snake down doomed host trees; the aerial roots encircle the helpless tree and fuse together to become daughter Stranglers. I lean against a coarse, latticed trunk; my hand comes away sticky with a dark pus. Wasps cluster around the bitter fruit.
Hummingbirds levitate near low bushes, pollinating as they suck up oleander dew that would kill a man three thousand times their size, click click clicking, mocking me as I wait for her. Even before dawn like this, the hot pumice air grinds me down. A dry scraping hasps at my ankle, a skeletal caress. The roots form into fleshless hands, winding around my Achilles heel and up my shin.
I start awake, kicking. I must have dozed standing-up, leaning against a Strangler. A small branch snags my sleeve, and another scratches down my collar. A prehistoric-looking beast, the size of a newborn baby, crawls over my foot. It hisses at me, frantic pulse visible in its corded neck, then thrashes away through the underbrush. Just an iguana, mistaking me for a tree in my khakis and camo vest. I swipe at the prickles left by its thick hide and move to the tideline, washing him away with the sting of salt water.
It makes its ungainly way up the shore of Moth Bay, Bahia de Polilla. I follow it in my viewfinder until it disappears beneath the sudden onyx of her skirts close in my sights.
Covered up like a Biblical virgin, all Jackie O shades and glimmering veils and robes, she’s still somehow ripe with curves and supple secrets under the shapeless drapery. She moves between me and the burial ground and rasps, “Ácaro,” the first word she’s said out loud to me since that fateful day backstage two decades ago. Her voice seems abraded by incinerated bones, as brittle as the papery husk of dead moth’s wings. Nothing like her usual velvet butterfly voice. She mimes pulling a swollen acarid from her scalp and flicking it away. But she can’t get rid of me so easily. Such careless removal leaves the tick partly-embedded and contaminates the host. Ticks require gasoline and fire. Only hellish conflagration removes us.
I snap her: click. She grabs my camera. I don’t resist her. We’re never this close, and I smell her skin, though I’ve barely noticed the dank, whale breath smell of this Mexican town that the few off-season tourists gripe about. Fingers under their noses, they flee north, where the sand is infested with fleas, but they prefer bites to this unholy stench.
Sucking waves lick at our feet, leaving green-tinged foam on the hissing sand. Seaweed litters the dingy shore in gnat-plagued mounds. A crow-like bird caws on the sodden mass, a masticated-looking clump. Three turkey buzzards peck at a fish carcass—the fishermen here gut their dorado and huachinango immediately and dump the carrion on the sand. The buzzards pause to look up at her, then return to their grisly work. Their beaks click click click on dorsal bone.
The smell of her overpowers the ocean brine and decomposing sea plants, the fetid jungle and mulching cemetery. But instead of wanting to pinch my nose, I yearn to chew her odor like cud. Beneath the yeast of her lurks a spice that tingles on the tongue.
She pops open the catch and yanks out the film, then shoves it all back at me. Her fingers brush my hands. I’m never privileged to touch her. But I’ve seen the goose bumps that rise on her lovers’ skin. Hers isn’t the warm maggot touch I would expect in this tropical germ whorehouse, but is the icy touch of a princess asleep for centuries on her crystal pallet. My sense of her is always only of sight. So today, with smell and touch, I’m satiated, as with the sex I only have with her photo collage and my own hand, a decoupage tryst.
“You shouldn’t have followed me here.” Her voice grates like a rusted lock.
I don’t mind that she’s destroyed my morning’s work. It’s not like I could sell these photos of her looking like a war widow, unrecognizable in her weeds. I stuff the exposed negs into the darkness of my bag, where I’ll save them for my experiments later.
She whirls around and creeps back up the inlet, returning to her casa on the jagged bluff. The thatch-roofed, adobe manor lords it over the tiny, high peninsula of cragged black rock. She moves slowly, as if she aches. Her black form climbs the steps, past the terraced gardens, past the pool, past the large palapa with its umbrellas and lounge chairs (where her latest man-boy, whom she ignores, dozes).
I follow her with the telephoto, one eye shut to all around me, the other eye open only to her in the crosshairs. She looks like a scarab, an injured beetle that continues to limp along, making its crushed way toward its final destination despite being one of eight legs away from death. She crests the top step and passes behind the cratered walls surrounding the house. Rows of arches form the walls—like skeletal eye sockets stacked in catacombs. The skulled arches are too small for a man but let in the breeze. And mosquitoes. And celluloid, an almost impossible shot from daylight into darkness. Almost.
Dingy stucco, grimed with dust and time, slathers the strange walls. A domed and thatched roof rises behind it. Support beams at haphazard intervals thrust up through the dark straw and pierce the sky, hinting of heads speared on dungeon gates.
As she disappears, she doesn’t even glance my way. I am shut out, like a lens cap blotting my sight of her. I imagine her standing in the mottled darkness of her temple that I was never meant to see. If I could manage a complete picture of her behind this bank of blank eyes, I imagine it would look much like the pieced-together collage of her on my bedroom wall. But instead of being assembled from chopped-up film squares, she would be dissected by these gaping ovals.
The malicious sun breaks behind me and washes her out.
Her boy stirs; she’s called to him. He lifts his designer sunglasses.
Kiara’s voice. How could a planet, a nation, a man, help but fall under its spell? She flirts with octaves as she toys with lovers like this palomino colt, foolish braying boy with his golden skin, sun-bleached hair, and nothing between his mule ears.
Sad to think that—unlike the Stradivarius, whose song remains ever beautiful through the centuries, deepening with time into mournful eloquence—the human voice must weaken and falter, soundtrack to the lines and sags that must eventually mar our skin. Unlike the strings of that fabled instrument, our vocal cords cannot be replaced. Not an ageless instrument composed of wood, but mortal, with sinews and synapses that rot and atrophy.
The boy, dressed in a skimpy Speedo that doesn’t bother with his rump, stands up and crosses over to the pocked wall. Straight-spined, no shame or hard work to weigh him down, he left a trail of brags about his famous mistress, all too easy to follow. Who knows how old this preening donkey is? Twenty? Thirty? Hard to tell now that I’ve passed forty and then some, and she’s not far behind me though she still looks just beyond jailbait. Youth all looks the same to me now, bland, like this new crop of bare-bellied hoochie girl singers who can’t touch Kiara’s talent or beauty; you can’t tell them apart except for the Kool-aid streaks in their hair that I want to yank. So easy for me to pollute their images with the shots I manufacture, their disgrace smeared across the checkout stands.
The boy, this spoiled pony, kneels in front of the cat-holed wall. Kiara’s panicked, grown careless to allow his unbridled mouth. He reaches through an opening, his scapula flexing as his arm disappears up to his shoulder. The other hand reaches between his own legs. I know he paws under the folds of her shrouds as she stands on the other side. Thinking he fondles a creature who looks like the poster in his gym locker. She hasn’t wholly given herself to him, yet. She makes them all wait, until they have little sense left when the time comes. Their last glimpse of her must paralyze them.
This little display is for me. Not you, she’s saying to me. Never you.
I cap the telephoto; she sees my eye blink closed.
The boy’s hand drops free. Even from here, I see his fingers rise to his nose, see the snap of his head, turning away, the hand snapping in the other direction away from his face.
Put it in your mouth, I say out loud, but he kneels beside the pool and splashes it in the water, then dries it on a towel, rubbing until it’s well past dry.
Developing film has been almost impossible in this sun-drenched town. Dust, salt-laden air, and Cancer’s Tropic light all leach through door seams and window cracks, infiltrating even inner rooms, like the ants and cockroaches. I can’t darken even the back bedroom or bathroom, but I manage to stuff myself into a closet and feed the negs into the metal roller. I cap the lid on the canister and move my wrists, not rapid like a bartender’s, but smooth like a dancer’s, to agitate the developer evenly over the film. The solution is not one I purchase over a counter, but my own concocted recipe. It’s taken a great deal of experimentation and patience to perfect the formula.
I’ve done this so often that I don’t need a timer’s beep to let me know when to rinse and fix. Trapped in darkness with the fumes, I don’t need a red light to illuminate my task. The rattle of coat hangers at my back startles me, as if a cold hand taps me on the shoulder. I snap on the light, unsurprised by what I can already make out in the celluloid coils. Her image isn’t there, of course, no residual ghost of her in her Bride of the Dead costume. Even the murky dawn light flashed her out, like a nuclear bomb would disintegrate a real person.
But the others are there. Auras of faces, mouths open, all of them, a hideous Munch canvas of tortured souls in each tiny square. I can see them even in miniature like this, though at first it was only in large blowups that I recognized the pixel-masses for what they were. Some of them I’ve come to recognize. Like old friends, they’re there whenever I take such a picture. There: a jaundiced smudge that coalesces into an ignoble desperate for a tipple. Her new palomino pony will be here soon (but not soon enough for me), oh so surprised, faint at first behind the others, but staining deeper with time. The distorted shapes and splotches gel into discernible features. If I overlay an old shot of a lover’s face (irrelevant mugs cropped out but saved, as I hoard everything she touches), I make a perfect match. Of course they’ve followed her here, too. They are always with her. Like me.
You might call me a stalker—obsessed, dangerous—except that it’s my job to follow her. She is my life’s blood, my income, my career.
Not psychotic. Symbiotic. She needs me as well. My lens raises her to mythic heights of beauty. She is my creation.
There are many of my kind, a dime a dozen making their bread and butter exposing the cellulite and transgressions of gods who should be perfect. The business of our pack is to smear the unbesmirched. To mar what is sacred.
But there is only one Kiara, posed on her holy pedestal. My eidolon. Only one of my kind can destroy her, burn her image, and turn her to ash in the public mind’s eye. But she knows I never will. To smash my idol would be to destroy myself.
On my bedroom wall back home I had assembled her graven image. Craven, distorted collage: breast, hipbone, elbow, knuckle, snapshots in skewed angles captured through windows and doors. I staple gunned pieces of her to the plaster. It took me years to acquire the surreal whole, every inch of her, nude, life-size. Four walls: front, back, both her sides. I see her through a fly’s eyes, compound images multiplied densely and divided into myriad squares—right side up, of course. I studied it as I fell asleep and awoke. Not my bedroom, but my laboratory, my own psyche pinned to the plaster.
In the hazy state of half-sleep, I started to see things.
Another face. Not hers.
My own jealousy, I thought, of the men who’d been inside her, while I’m perennially outside, always her surface: skin, curl of hair, lay of a dress. To touch her nostril or earlobe would be enough, but they’ve been inside the chalice of her. Don’t say the vulgar word you’re thinking, the clinical word. This she does not have. What she has is holy.
If I stood back and looked, as at a museum painting, they weren’t there. Only as I looked away, or fell asleep, did I see them. Like the Rorschach images burned into the eyelids when you close your eyes after staring into the sun. Like the green flash as the sun sets on the horizon that you’re never sure you’ve actually seen. Glaring magenta screams behind my Kiara.
I began to test new methods. Infrared lenses. Sun filters at dusk. Noontime ASA film at midnight. A flash at noon. Millisecond or 32-minute exposures. Pinpoint cameras and coated lenses. Dodging and push processing. Half-developing negatives. Reciprocity effects and reticulation. I’ve never tried completely exposing the film like this, leaving not a trace of her latent image. But the trapped lovers remain, unwilling ghosts nattering at her back. More clear than I’ve ever seen them.
Maybe it’s this place and not the process. The graveyard sulked behind her.
Long ago, I gave her a photo of herself. A gift left outside her dressing room, shared with other nameless backup singers, a black and white she could use to promote herself, still plain Kara Grealy. I included a caption: Kara’s Chiaroscuro. Love, Click. I heard her asking someone for a dictionary. I gave her the negative, too, one of the few no-nos in my line of work. I’d like that negative back, because I know what I’d see behind her: nothing. Just my Kiara. No stains.
Then she disappeared. Poof. I hit the bottle. She reemerged a year later as simply Kiara. So you see, I named her, too. Exotic creature, her own fabulous tapestry woven from the frayed threads of her mixed and murky lineage. Her name needed no further appellation. Like Jesus. Mary. Lucifer.
She was suddenly fluent in the language of the Mexican grandmother she now claimed—a woman she’d never met, a country she’d never visited, until summoned to her deathbed, or so goes her most famous ballad. I dried myself out, bought a Spanish translation dictionary, hired a tutor, worked diligently, but words don’t roll easy on my tongue. Some I can manage. Photo: foto. Film: membrana. Naked: en carne. Same as meat: carne, my line of business. Sin tu, without you, a sin. But I stumble over words. Speech is not my method of communicating. I lip read better than I talk. I smell a false trail more easily than I can recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
Like the m?lé of her adopted country, she took a hundred separate ingredients and used her secret, inherited recipe, boiling them down into one dish—her new identity. I backed it all up. I documented her made-up truths, turned her lies into reality. The fame that had eluded her until then exploded like a supernova.
Year by year, she’s grown darker—though her skin is still smooth and unlined—easily explained by sun worship, though modern actresses have given up this pagan ritual in our cancer-riddled times. But I know that she draws her curtains to el sol and casts her devotion to the moon. Her skin can only be the pigment of her grandmother calling from the distant past.
I want to be part of the fabric. Not apart.
Not what I am, a bedbug on the linen, despised irritant.
Not what I am, always witness, never in the frame.
Not what I am, one of the mongrel pack who chase her, like the hundreds of stray dogs that crowd the pitted streets of Moth Bay. All descended from just a few lost pets long ago, the hotel proprietress, a transplanted gringo, told me. Like the townspeople themselves, all descended from just two ancestors: a Huichol priestess and the first Catholic priest to land on this shore, a man of the cloth who disrobed to lie with her. I see hints of Kiara when I look at the villagers. They won’t talk to me, even when I stutter out an hola at the mercado. Secretive, as tight knit as the jungle trees. They say it was the women who saved the town from slaughter when the conquerors invaded. The white men simply disappeared, one by one.
The Moth Bay dogs ceaselessly hump each other, copulating though they’re nothing but sacks of ribs and mange, as if they had no choice but to mate, a last ditch effort at immortality. A spastic, robotic rutting lacking in joy—like me and my hand and my photo collage. The proprietress warned me the townsfolk will set out poisoned meat tonight, as they do every year at this time, a ritual cleansing before the pilgrimage and influx of tourists. Tomorrow, before dawn, a noose of dead dogs will be tossed into the ocean. Tied tail to neck, tail to neck, in a distended necklace of bloated corpses, surreal killick that anchors this town to a medieval notion of purging its incestuous plague. The lariat of carrion will rock gently beneath the surface, so easy to tangle an ankle and be sucked down to doom. The water will turn filthy with jellyfish, feeding on the swollen bait. But no matter what the town does to eradicate the dogs, the proprietress says, they return and multiply, a virus. They reincarnate themselves, refusing to be exterminated.
Like them, we paparazzi exist on the margins, fighting each other over scraps of humanity. We’re punched and kicked, flipped off, wished dead. The masses spit on us but buy the snaps we take, starving for more. We hound the perimeters, hated, but without us, the fiction falls apart.
The spool of film crackles in my hand. I stumble from the closet and bump into Malele, the maid’s toddler. She follows me everywhere. Malele’s dress is dirty, her upper lip encrusted with dried snot. Her mother trails me through the house, sweeping after me, making me uneasy. She leaves cleanliness in her wake, silent except for the flap flap of her rubber slippers and the swish swish of her broom.
Malele and I have been teaching each other the names of colors. We point to the deadly oleander: pink. To the sleeping grass that snaps its leaves shut when touched: verde. To the prickly guanabana fruit that looks like an angry blowfish: green. To the bumblebee drowned in the pool: negro. To the poisonous angel’s trumpet flower: amarillo. We argue over the ocean’s color: Azul, she says. No, not blue, gray. To my hair: blanco. It turned white overnight, when I saw the faces—not from horror, but with terror that we would grow further apart as I aged while Kiara remained unchanged. A gecko click, click, clicks at us: brown. Malele stomps upon it with her bare foot. It scampers away, leaving its tail, and she runs after it. I pick up the gecko tail and carry it outside, flinging it onto the sand, where the rich insect life will make short work of it. The gecko will grow another tail, a nifty trick of rebirth.
A hammock stretches itself between two coconut trees. Erosion of the beach has exposed the skirted black roots of the trees, shameful like a widow’s slip showing. A bulbous, black termite nest hangs in one, a malignant tumor. The termites’ tunneled tracks scar the tree from the inside out, an old man’s raised and scabbed veins, but the termites shy from light and won’t cross the whitewashed trunks. I shed my many-pocketed vest and lie in the hammock. She’ll know I’m no longer watching, the third eye closed. A skinny horse nearby strips a banana tree of its leaves, its grinding molars audible even over the constant, hammering waves. The harsh sun blotches the back of my eyelids. Inside the coconut trunk, the termites’ busy drone lulls me into siesta.
Kiara approaches me on the beach, scarab skirts crackling around her. A mantilla, flowing from a tortoise shell comb, falls over her shoulders. She peels back her webbed veil, peels back the skin of her lovely face, revealing a travesty of decay. My Canon has captured the slivered hints of her deterioration just before her annual donning of full vestments. Her nose, earlobe, the corner of her lips: rotting like a leper.
She climbs into the hammock and tucks the gecko tail behind her ear, a flower that grows reptilian limbs. The ocean froths behind her, beating its fists against the pebbles and shells, which chatter and clatter with each grasping wave. Her long nails tap, a beetling click click click. Castanets of my soul. Scrape scratch tease the inside of my skin, palms and shins inflamed with her inside me. She crouches over me, her back to me, astride me, so graceful the hammock doesn’t rock. I take the mantilla from her hair and begin to comb. She tips her head back, her black hair brushing my chest, scampering ants tickling. Her wet hair drips. Dark water stains my nipples, leaves tracks down my belly, pools in my navel. Her hair oozes, pungent unguent, an urgent seeping. Smell of damp mulch, a gold-bearing alluvial soil. Black secretion, amnion seething, leaching weeping coils in my fist, dripping ink tattooing my hide. Black dye. No, Malele points, shrieking. Roja. Sangre drips down my cheek. I poke out my tongue to lick, to taste the brine of her, but feel a tickling instead.
I thrash awake, nearly tossing myself from the hammock, and pluck a dying termite from my lips. Termites live only one day, long enough to mate and destroy. It’s nearly sunset, and my fingers cramp around the cold black lens that I’m never without. A moth click click clicks against a porch light, hurling itself against the impostor moon.
Seaweed pops and sizzles, cooked by the sun and now cooling. While I’ve slept, I’ve lost my shade. My pasty skin is now red—outlined by the white shape of the camera on my chest—my body too used to scuttling in the night, covered by vests and baggy pants, layered with pockets and pouches—to hide things in, to hide myself behind, to secrete. I’m sure the hammock ropes indent my back like a chessboard.
I am a game board. Play me.
Kiara moves down the beach, real now, still in her nun’s garb. Beside her, the flaxen pony frolics in white briefs (aptly named in his case). He ignores her, running to retrieve a child’s ball and dancing in the waves. With them, an old woman. They creep toward the graveyard. The green strobe flashes as the sun sets.
I will not follow. I’m tired.
When I was young, I chased butterflies. Caught them in nets, spread and pinned them, displayed them in boxes. Good practice for what I do now—study, capture, still the moving subject, frame. Only to find they were all just moths, every last one of them common pests. Their identity mattered, though their outward beauty hadn’t changed. Like a candid of a has-been or of a beautiful nobody—worthless. Now here I am, burned out in the cloying heat of Moth Bay. Poetic justice. Full circle. God has a sense of humor.
A rusted pickup jounces along the hard-crusted beach. Its tires pass over a dead gull fanned out in the sand, pressing feathers and bones beneath tread marks, leaving a trace of shocked shape. The creaking, squeaking truck crawls past, crunching the seaweed. Camarones! Camarones! An old man in the pickup bed squawks through a loud speaker that amplifies and strangles his words. Translucent and veined shrimp dangle from strings stretched across a high bed frame. They dance with the lurching truck, synchronized like sickly chorus girls lifting their skirts, spindly legs tapping together. Their exoskeletons brush each other, click click click. Dust and flies chase their ghostly, fetal bodies, but each heaving bounce keeps them from settling, skittish. The old man gives me the once over, leering recognition in his eyes. A look that all of the townspeople seem to give me.
Tough day for business. Besides the stench, no one can swim because of the dark tide, an influx of toxic seaweed. Like the riptides, no signs announce the danger, no newspaper articles, no lifeguards. But there is Kiara, a dark silhouette, unmistakable to me, cleaving the dark water, a kelpie drawing the unaware to their own doom. Lemmings, the early tourists will dive in if they see another swimmer, assuming their safety.
She seals her way back to her promontory. She thinks I’ll pace her on the beach, like the iguana paralleling her on the sand, its flailing gait leaving thrashed tracks. But I sit tight.
She climbs out of the water up onto the rocks at her crown of land. Even at dusk I see that she’s lost her nun’s habit and is naked, her lithe body haloed in the crepuscular light. She emits her own corona. She disappears behind the apertured wall.
I heave myself out of my webbed cradle and turn the other way and walk South towards the City of the Dead. I leave my camera in the rope net.
I’m used to working at night, but the darkness here is complete; no refracting neon brightens the sky like a hippie god. La luna, gorged on light, hoists its full belly over the top of the towering Strangler Figs and washes the jungle in a pale glow. The arms of the enveloping Stranglers shroud the slivered ghosts of the host trees.
I touch the smooth bark of a host sapling no higher than myself but with much better posture. A gust rattles its bleached leaves, sending a shudder down its shimmering, golden trunk. Quite a lovely tree, really. Just behind it, a Strangler Fig reaches with murderous arms to hug its trembling limbs. Long roots have just begun to unfurl themselves from the canopy to coil around its outflung branches, grafting themselves around the slender trunk and knotting themselves together in a callused embrace.
I break off a branch of the palomino sapling with a vicious snap. Dark sap flows from the wound. I taste it, bitter, and feel a mercury shock in my veins, a paprika tingle on my lips, a rancid-meat nausea in my belly. The over-arching canopy stirs, setting off a dry whispering of leaves. A bird caterwauls.
“The sap dries up too soon,” she says from behind me. I’m not surprised that she’s there; I smelled her, her earlier scent of rotting mulch now gone beneath her usual complex myrrh. Her familiar velvet voice violins down my spine, with no trace of her earlier clawed tones. “They’re not strong enough to survive.” She points to an anemic stalk nearby that’s caught in the maws of a giant Strangler Fig. Wooden bangles click, click, click on her smooth arm. Gone are her vestments. Dark nipples tinge her white halter top, as does the triangle of dark hair beneath her tiny, white shorts. She looks younger than the day I first saw her.
The thick Strangler hide wraps itself around the pallid host tree and soon will completely shroud the pus-colored torso and all of its blanched leaves, joining itself down the middle in a long scar. “This one can’t take the heat. A transplant too used to the cold.”
“Maybe he just needs a vodka martini.” I emphasize the he. She smiles at me, not startled that I’m flitting near the truth. She wants me to know. She must. She wanted me to follow this time.
She places her hand reverently on the Strangler. “Gracias, Abuela,” she murmurs. She strokes a knobby protuberance on the sallow trunk in the Strangler’s grasp. The tree crackles, leaking out a meager black sap that she catches in a clay bowl. She licks her finger, and the clock of her face ticks backwards.
I would stand here forever, voluntarily, to feed her needs, to be inside her like that. No, I would kneel.
“I can give you what they can’t,” I say, too close to begging. I have what they lack: patience, endurance, persistence, desire. A knack for camouflage and standing still. And no other need but her.
“A daughter,” she says. “But it requires a strong will. As the years pass, it takes more and more to sustain me. These have no stamina. To have a child, it would take an exceptionally hardy—”
I interrupt her, afraid she’ll say specimen, not man. “There’s truth in the power of a man who chooses his fate willingly for the one he loves.” I don’t use the word sacrifice, for I have nothing to lose.
She’s known all along it would be me.
We are moral equals. Or should I say immoral equals. Stopping at nothing to freeze time. We belong together.
She points to a tombstone wedged into the rooted knees of the largest Strangler Fig. There’s no sign of its original host tree, long since sealed completely within its massive trunk. “My great-grandmother,” she says. “Bisabuela.” She’s looking at the tree, not at the grave.
She steps towards me. She takes another lick of the black sap from her bowl, and then she kisses me, tasting of acrid electricity. My knees almost buckle, but I hold myself up as she backs me toward the bisabuela tree. She slides her shorts down and presses against me, reaching for my fly.
Out of nowhere the iguana appears at my feet, its thick hide identical to the tree’s bark, and it winds its way around my ankles; I can’t distinguish between its tail and the roots. “Grandmother looked just like me on the day she passed over and passed on the gift. Though some call it a curse. My own mother refused it. Fled to a new country. These souls, they’re hollow, but heavy. I’m tired, too, Click.” Her bracelets echo my name as her hand slides up and down, a friction, a fissure broken open.
I’m naked. Inside her. I can’t tell where the tree behind me ends and Kiara, enveloping me, begins.
To be like this, always.
I picture the relief.
I stand in one place, for all eternity, welcomed into the bosom of her family, waiting for her to come to me for her sustenance, knowing someday I’ll be wrapped in her arms forever. No longer scurrying after her, a rat sniffing her scraps. My boughs forever extend out to her in eternal welcome. My obvolute fingers caress her as she strokes me. She needs me as never before, to nourish her. Me, the key ingredient to her m?lé—spectral treacle. She stands with her chattering sisters, the azul beach framed behind her. Tourists spy her under the protective canopy. Look! they cry. Kiara! Kiara, who had retired and gone underground in search of peace, quiet, family.
She graciously poses for them, still looking like a girl of twenty, standing against a tree, a babe cradled in her arms. The infant looks up at the swaying branches as at a cooing father. The tourists snap her picture.
There I am. At last.
I’m in the frame.
Like the others, my mouth will be open. Not in horror, but in joy.
About the Author
Jennifer D. Munro grew up in Hawaii as a fourth generation islander but now makes her home in Seattle. Her grandfather slept through the bombing of Pearl Harbor outside his bedroom window, but she’s an insomniac who writes when she can’t sleep. She is an Assam tea addict who can’t handle liquor well, but she gives it her best shot. She breaks cars and computers with astonishing frequency.
Her work has appeared in more than fifty publications, including Best American Erotica 2008 and 2004, four volumes of Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, Thou Shalt Not: Stories of Dark Crime and Horror, and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image. Her short story collection is entitled The Erotica Writer’s Husband.
She can be found online at http://www.munrojd.com.