Fiction – “Love in the Atacama, or The Poetry of Fleas” by Angela Rega
The girl stood in the hot, yellow sand, her top hat tilted forward to shade her eyes. She squinted at the harsh light reflecting off a solitary dune. Her Abuela had told her the Atacama shimmered and sparkled just before it shifted, altering the desert landscape, making it unrecognisable even to the most experienced traveller.
She hoped it wasn’t just one of grandmother’s bedtime stories. Manuelo would pursue her, she knew, and despite the dry heat she shivered at the image of his military buttons glinting in the low sun.
If the sand really shifted like Abuela said, he would not be able to find her.
Whiirrr…sssshhh, the breeze whispered and sand pools formed and twirled around her shins. She wished she spoke the language of the winds and kept her eyes closed because that’s how wishes were made. When the breeze went silent and her shins no longer felt the sting of the sand, she opened her eyes.
The landscape was different, just like Abuela said. It was as if the desert had taken on a new identity.
She turned behind her and saw that her footprints had been erased from the sands. Manuelo would not be able to pursue now. Margarita exhaled. She gazed out across to the point where the sand and sky met in front of her. The sand was a subdued yellow, contrasted against a clear blue sky and it made her feel crisp and clean, like jumping into a bed of freshly washed sheets.
She put her hand in her large pockets and smiled; her three little friends were still there. She adjusted her top hat, picked up her small impressed leather suitcase, whistled her special tune and began to make her way up the slope of a newly formed dune.
Now the Atacama likes to listen to whistled tunes of hope, so it shifted with each footprint so that Manuelo would have at least some difficulty in finding her.
And this became the story of a girl called Margarita – well, that’s not really her name but the sand has shifted and so has this story. Otherwise these would just be the dead words about an insignificant girl that went missing for being a traitor, her whistling bones as difficult to find as a single grain of sand in the desert.
Margarita was never called her by her real name. That’s because when Uncle Fioramante returned from his travels from across the Andes with his battered suitcase of memories of short loves, magic tricks and tunes, he named her Margarita. He said that she looked like a daisy always standing towards the sunshine regardless of season. Abuela used to get upset and say that Margarita wasn’t her name. Her grand-daughter was named after a saint, not a flower, she said, but he insisted and then would sing this little tune to her, thus sealing the name to her blood and bone:
Tiene tres pulgas dentro bolsillo
Una le canta,
Oltra le silbar,
Y la oltra le trae agua fresca
Has three fleas inside her pocket
One sings to her
One whistles to her
And One brings her fresh water to drink.
Now I know it doesn’t sound like much in English, but in Spanish, it does, and this little tune journeyed with her because it didn’t take any space in her small battered suitcase. (If you want to sing it, you’re best to learn how to sing it in Spanish).
The girl named after a flower traipsed up a sandy slope clutching a suitcase, a vial with three fleas sitting in her pocket, and Uncle Fioramante’s top hat perched on her head.
She walked with her head held high and saw a golden apparition scurry down from the border of the cliff. She squinted her eyes to get a better look. Was this a hallucination? No: the desert fox was real. He trotted towards her, his fur almost the same gold as the sand except for the ochre that streaked his long pointed ears. He trotted towards Margarita until he was about 100 metres away from her then sat himself down on his hind legs, cocked his head to one side and said, “Why haven’t I noticed you before?”
“This is my first time here.”
“Ahhh,” he said and wiped away a grain of sand from his eye with his left front paw and then gave his head a shake. “I thought I remembered you, but maybe I’m mistaken. What brings you to the desert? What are you seeking?”
Now Margarita had lived in a small village her whole life and other than between pages 119 to 244 of Uncle Fioramante’s book of Curious Places and Curiouser Cultures (1891), she had not really been anywhere. She felt her spine quiver. A talking desert fox! Still, it was the desert of shifting sands from the world of Abuela’s bedtime stories where anything could happen.
Margarita stood up as tall as a four foot eleven inch girl of a woman could. She took her top hat off, placed it against her chest and gave a deep bow, the way she had seen her Uncle Fioramante do.
“I am Margarita, niece of Fioramante Leal, and I am seeking my self worth.”
The Desert Fox was charmed by her unusual manner and couldn’t help but laugh a little. “Most people travelling far to find self worth find in the end that the journey is not a physical one but an inner one.”
Margarita nodded. It seemed a strange thing to say. Only a long physical journey such as the one she had taken would keep Manuelo away.
“Remember you are now amongst the desert dwellers of the Atacama, where people speak of the past in the present and the future in the past. Are you, Margarita, running away from your past?”
Margarita placed her top hat back on her head, licked her parched lips and didn’t answer. She had such little to have for her very own that keeping thoughts to herself were precious.
“Perhaps,” she said.
“You must be thirsty,” said the Desert Fox.
“Yes, I am, Signor -”
“Call me Khana.”
Khana laughed at her pronunciation of his Aymaran name. When he looked into her eyes, he saw a part of his own desert spirit there – he liked her top hat too. “Maybe I thought I’d seen you in the past, because you are standing on these sands in my present.”
He began to trot along the edge of the slope that had now formed a narrow path to the decline down the other side of the dune and gestured for her to follow.
“Why don’t you wear bowler hats like your fellow desert dwellers?”
“Because Ring Mistresses wear top hats,” Margerita answered.
“I see,” said Khana.
She swallowed. “Where are we going for this drink? Signor er… I mean, Khana.”
Now Margarita laughed, she laughed so hard her top hat fell off her head but she caught it and flipped it back onto her head just like a Ring Mistress should. It had been a long time since she had laughed. “Venezia? You named a bar in the middle of a desert after a city of water?”
“Yes,” said Khana and Margarita noticed that when he smiled his canines were quite sharp and one of them was studded with lapis lazuli. “Desert Dwellers are positive thinkers. We also have a wicked sense of humour.”
They walked down the slope and across the Valley until they reached a little village encircled by rocks. It was a grid of streets of adobe huts with thatched roofs, all as silent as stone. Khana led her down a sandy lane and stopped out in front of a white adobe hut with a bright red door. Etched into the red paint were strange symbols. They gave Margarita a feeling of familiarity like the first time she had seen a book of Uncle Fioramante’s written in Sanskrit. He knocked three times and the door creaked open.
The bar was dark and cool. Khana led her to a corner of the room where a little round table just big enough for two stood on uneven legs. A tablecloth of butcher paper covered the table. On the wall above, written in white chalk on a blackboard was the specialty of the day.
“Pastel de Choclo?” Khana asked.
“Sounds good. I haven’t eaten a real meal in a few days.”
Khana whipped his bushy tail against the table. A skinny waiter with a dumbbell moustache and double-breasted white jacket over his jeans came and took their order.
If you’ve never had Pastel De Choclo, let me tell you, you should. You’ve never tasted anything like a Chilean corn pie baked in an outdoor oven. Tenderised chicken pieces, buttery mince and hard boiled eggs cooked in milk, cumin, basil and raisins sit under a layer of sweet creamed corn sprinkled with white burnt sugar on top.
The smell of the pie emanating from the noisy kitchen made her remember. She leaned forward to Khana.
“My Abuela sold pastel de choclo to visitors to our town. People used to queue up for it; they’d eat from our handbaked clay dishes and dance the Cueca into the evening.” Margarita said.
Khana smiled. He was taken by the way she lit up when she talked of her home and couldn’t understand why she hadn’t been in his present before.
“What happened to your Abuela’s pastel stall?”
Margarita had forgotten about keeping thoughts to herself. “The Government implemented curfews, closed the highway that led our village and people stopped coming. Those that did were interrogated, went missing, some returned, some didn’t. You can’t bake to fill other people’s stomachs when you can’t fill your own.”
Khana put his paw on her soft little hand. It felt right. He said nothing but opened his mouth and let his tongue loll out – it was hot after all. “Let’s eat.”
“I have no money to pay for the pie,” she said, her stomach rumbling.
“Currency is in many different forms, my dear Margarita. You will pay me in other ways.”
And then he lunged over the table and licked her cheek with his long tongue. “Whoops! Sorry!” he said. “Foxes are quite impulsive creatures.”
“So are fleas,” Margarita said, jiggling her pocket to make sure they were all still there.
“Is your Abuela still there?”
Margarita nodded, and a grain of sand got caught in her eye which made her rub and rub.
“It’s okay to cry,” Khana said and he wiped the grain from her eye.
And she did.
Margarita juggled the pocket of her knee-length skirt and pulled out a little jar with the three fleas her cat Hermancito had let her pick from his thick fur as a parting gift: Duna, Victor and Jaramillo.
“Ah! You are ringmaster of a flea circus!”
There was the sound of singing and whistling from the little jar as the fleas sung the rhyme that had fused Margarita’s sinew and bone. (You know it too, you can sing along, if you like).
“Which flea brings you the fresh water?” Khana asked her, wanting the sand to change soon or else he would want to lick her face some more. Once was enough for a first meeting.
“Jaramillo,” she said noticing that Khana’s nose looked slippery and wet. She found it endearing.
“Not a bad skill for a flea to have now that you’ll be staying in the driest place on earth,” Khana said. He smiled and showed his pointy fangs. The lapis lazuli stone glinted and made Margarita laugh. There was a moment when they could have kissed but then there just wouldn’t be a story, would there? Good love stories are just not that easy.
Whooooshhh. The sand swept down the rooftop of the Venezia Bar. It crept through the window, swirling circular patterns as it made its way to curl around Margarita’s ankles like Hermancito had done when he wanted to play.
“Now you shall you pay for your meal with what’s in that suitcase, Margarita,” Khana said.
“You want me to do my act?”
She must have asked that a little too loudly for the sound of clapping and howls of encouragement filled her ears from all four corners of the room – even from the kitchen. She looked around the bar, men in berets with cigars drooping from the corners of their mouths, a table of desert foxes that looked much like Khana except with shorter ears, an aged flamenco dancer with a plastic red rose in her hair that clicked her castanets instead of clapping, and a table of Vicunas with their bowler hats and long plaits, a sea of indigo blue and fushia pink. They all looked at her with hopeful eyes.
Margarita opened her suitcase and pulled out three little cardboard boxes and a neatly folded piece of red felt. On the inside of the suitcase’s lid was a mural with a sign in red that said, “Uncle Fioramante and Margarita’s Travelling Flea Circus.” It sat in a painted sky and clouds of a sunny day. In the left hand corner of the mural, a silver Ferris wheel and in the centre a red and white striped Big Top. A forest of green trees that grew air balloons instead of apples faded into the right.
She unfolded her red felt and placed it on top of the body of the case to make a flat surface and unpacked the three small boxes. Inside the first was a little carousel of winged horses made with dragonfly wings, in the second, a music box with no opening and in the smallest a little canon.
The excited faces around the room made her stomach flip with nerves as she wound the little music box. The she tapped the jar three times and out came Duna, Victor and Jaramillo.
“Now ladies and gentlemen…and Foxes and Vicunas too,” Margarita said. “Please allow me to introduce my fleas: Duno, Victor and Jaramillo.”
There was some applause and the sound of castanets clacking.
“This may seem cruel but for my fleas to perform their heroic acts they do need to be tied to this red silk thread,” Margarita pulled the thread as if by magic out of her long knotted hair. It seemed to move like a little serpent with the help of the desert breeze that came though the two windows, and the audience gasped.
“Don’t worry. No harm will come to them!”
The music box started and the flea circus began.
The desert liked the flea carousel the best, the way it turned round and round and round like the passing of days and nights. The Atacama knew that the passing of time is just movement over its arid landscape and the concepts of time can be easily reversed – you just have to change your way of thinking.
Believe me, the desert wanted to put the past well and truly behind Margarita and the future in front – but time just doesn’t work that way in the Atacama. Just ask any elderly Amaryan if you don’t believe me. When they talk about the future they wave their hands behind their shoulders and say “qhipa uru” meaning future days are back days. But the past – well, that lies in your present. It is in the here and the now.
And there was a moment too, when Margarita let her fleas dance a can-can on the red thread and saw Khana smiling at her so that it almost burnt her retinas and she felt that her past was way behind her. Khana saw his own reflection in her face and knew that it must be a connection of spirit and heart. He wanted to spring from his chair and lick her face many times over, wrap his tail around her soft body and nuzzle his wet nose into the nape of her neck – but he knew that he couldn’t for this wish lay in the unknown future, still behind their backs.
If Margarita was to remain a desert dweller she had to deal with the past that sat in her present and clear the way for the future to become a real and tangible thing – just like a real flea circus.
There was more applause for her final bows. She put the fleas on her arm to feed and walked over to the little table where Khana sat.
“Where are you going?”
Khana stood up on all fours, arched his back and flexed his long ears a couple of times. A feeling of panic jumped into her stomach.
“You will be safe here,” he said, trying to not let his eyes dwell for too long in hers. “We will see each other again, very soon. You will know where to find me.” And with that he nuzzled his wet nose onto her lips and with one quick swipe licked her face clean.
When he reached the red door he turned, shot her a longing look and walked out the red door into the desert. Khana too felt a longing he too had not known – it was beyond love and attachment – he’d had plenty of that before. No, it was more a feeling of lightness that gives you spring in your step and makes your heart flutter as if it has wings. He didn’t want to consume her – he just wanted to be in her presence. But he knew the way of the desert: in terms of the future, little or nothing can be said about it. We just haven’t witnessed it yet.
That night when she lay sleeping in the little stretcher bed under the staircase next to the kitchen in Venezia, the sand blew through the grate of the kitchen window and wrapped her in a blanket to comfort her.
It would be the last night of hidden footprints in the sand.
She had shown Manuelo the flea circus. She had trusted him with the songs of Uncle Fioramante, the interest in curious objects and artifacts of worlds where there was equality for all. She had given him the words and music of Uncle Fioramante’s songs of freedom. She had let Manuelo into all her secrets.
At first, Manuelo didn’t listen. He was too consumed by her twenty year old prettiness to listen to her words. And let’s face it: a young man besotted by a young woman’s looks only feels what’s throbbing between his legs not what is throbbing in her heart. Manuelo did not have a heart that throbbed; it beat very slowly, like a reptile’s.
Until they gave him a uniform with shiny buttons. A job. A sense of pride. How cheap a young man’s loyalty can be. Bought for shiny buttons and polished shoes.
And when he got used to her prettiness, he actually did hear her stories and they came and took Uncle Fioramante in the night. They came when Uncle Fioramante, Margarita and Abuela were sleeping, cuffed his hands behind his back and dragged him out into the back of the black wagon.
Uncle Fioramante didn’t even have time to take his dignity with him and had nothing but the bed sheet Margarita had wrapped around his body and an unfinished song.
Margarita screamed and dropped down onto her knees begging them not to take her Uncle Fioramante away: they should take her. And because Manuelo did have a reptilian heart he made her pay for her sorrow with humiliation and let his fellow soldiers watch and cheer him on like he was some warrior from an epic enjoying the spoils of victory at war.
And it was at that moment of cold blade searing pain deep within her that made the nerves around her spine feel like tiny shards of broken glass cutting into the very core of her spirit that Margarita felt detachment and separation from her body.
Her soul floated to the left hand corner of the ceiling where the pigeons slept and from there she watched Manuelo beat his heavy body into hers. The six soldiers watching jeered on; they saw her body and nothing else. Only Hermancito, her cat, knew where she really was and tilted his head backwards looking up at the quivering air that made the pigeons shift to make some space for her.
It was that moment, the lightness of her soul shimmering just above her aching body that she thought of the poetry of fleas. How they jump so high they can reach the celestial spheres.
It is a lesson to you, I think, too – some poet wrote about the very spiritual nature of fleas – who was it? Ah yes, Pablo Neruda – a spiritual brother of the desert.
Margarita had tried to keep life light ever since.
She had not seen Khana for five days. Each night, the memories of the betrayal become more real. Each night when she tucked herself into the single bed under the staircase and fell asleep to the sound of the chink of plates and crockery being put away, the rape became heavier and heavier. In her dream, she couldn’t detach from her body. She woke feeling like dry bricks weighed on her chest, abdomen and legs. She sat up and leaned her back against the wall and tried to cough away the feeling of sand stuck in her throat. Manuelo was in her present, in front of her face making her heavy and soon she would not be able to get her fleas to perform. The memory of the way he felt inside her made her spasm into tightness and caused her lower back to twinge.
Margarita stood up but her legs were still shaking. She opened the red door and noticed that its symbols had changed. She walked a straight line and the desert allowed her: this time it did not cover her footprints. Although the Atacama puts the past in the present, she is still kind. She did not cover Margarita’s footprints so she could find her way back.
She walked outside the village walls and back up the slope she had come down that day when she first met Khana. She reached the summit and saw that below lay a valley of geological formations of ochres and reds. She recognized the one her Abuela called The Three Marias that had been in what was called The Valley of the Moon.
“I know you’re here, Manuelo.” She screamed and the desert carried her words so they echoed across the valley.
He emerged from behind a tall rock of black red that lay directly in front of her. She listened to the fabric of his pants rubbing together as he walked towards her. “Traitor and Whore,” he said and his lips unfurled into a smile of very small teeth. “Francesca, the whore that enjoyed herself while her Uncle screamed like a stuck pig when we hacked his hands off.”
Margarita wanted to block her ears but knew she had to hear what he had to say.
“We made him play a guitar with nothing but the stumps of his wrists,” Manuelo said.
Now, like I told you, the desert changed and so did this story. Her old name, Francesca, has no power over her because she is Margarita and this is not another story of a girl that became whistling bones in a desert, impossible to find like a single sand grain of the desert. This is the story of girl who became a Ring Mistress of her own Circus. She put her hand in her pocket and with her index finger managed to undo the lid of her jar.
Now Duno, Victor and Jaramillo had not eaten for three days. Margarita had been so distracted with the heaviness of her past; she had forgotten to feed them. They jumped high into the desert sky, landing on Manuelo’s body and sucked him dry. She watched her fleas gorge themselves on his blood, feed on his body. His body twitched and he moaned and Margarita stood frozen like one of the stone sculptures, waiting for the moment his smell, his voice, his flesh and blood were sucked out of him.
She fell to her knees and began to dig. She dug with her bare hands. She felt the sand stick between the grooves where skin and fingernail meet and plunged his bones deep into the sand. She pushed them down into the desert sand until she was up to her armpits in it. In his jacket pocket, she found her Uncle’s unfinished song. She opened the jar for Duno, Victor and Jaramillo to hop back inside and placed her Uncle’s unfinished song there.
It would be another song for them to learn to sing.
Margarita turned around and readjusted her top hat. There was a deep satisfaction of burying the memory bones of Manuelo sucked dry by her three little fleas. Her chest felt light, making it easy to breathe again.
Whoosshh. The desert began and she knew it was best to close her eyes. Remember? That’s how the best wishes are made. She felt the sand move across the landscape, exfoliate her legs and kiss her face with promise of a new destiny.
Now let’s remember, the desert is a harsh landscape and does not make love stories easy. But the desert loves Margarita because she has learnt the gift of lightness and she knew what it was to be tied down to weight. Her past now in front of her was the day she met Khana, the smiling desert fox with the very long ears and lapis studded tooth that licked her face.
She knew where to find him.
The landscape had shifted to that day when she first met him and he was sitting at the top of the sand cliff. And smiling.
“What are you seeking?”
“You, in my present, now that my past is buried and gone.”
Burying Manuelo’s bones has made her confident.
He licked her face and pounced playfully on top of her. He did not place his whole body weight on hers when he pounced.
“I want love as light as sand,” she said to him.
Khana nodded his head. “Love in the Atacama.”
Margarita nodded, looked boldly into Khana’s eyes and noticed the glint of his lapis studded tooth – he was smiling. They laughed and raced down the slope to the Valley, fell into the soft sands and made love in the sacred emptiness of the Valley of Moon. And they reached the celestial spheres our spiritual brother Neruda spoke about. Did you taste that pastel de choclo? That flavour of olives and raisins melting on your tongue as one. That’s what their love tasted like.
The love feels light, like sunrise and instead of pain, Margarita feels her ovaries tingle.
So, I leave you with love of a desert fox and Ring Mistress. I don’t know how long the love lasts and that doesn’t really matter. Sometimes love tastes better when it’s short and sweet but that future is way behind them right now.
The wind tickles the sand which starts to shift again coating their bodies in a golden blanket of their love. Their laughter echoes across the Valley and the desert shifts to move onto the next story of Atacaman love. It might involve Khana and Margarita or another girl lost in the desert.
It might involve you.
Remember to tread lightly.
Be bold and travel light.
About the Author
A graduate of Clarion South 2009, Angela Rega’s short stories have appeared in Cabinet des Fees, Drollerie Press, Fablecroft and Ticonderoga Publications. A belly-dancing school librarian, Angie is a lover of folklore, fairy tales, furry creatures and dark chocolate.
She is currently working on a YA novel. In more adventurous days, she lived in Chile teaching English and belly-dancing.