13 Secret Cities is my debut novel from 2014. This year, I will be publishing 9 Lords of Night, its sequel. As a way to celebrate the readership of the novel, I am making the first three chapters of 13 Secret Cities available here on my web site. You can buy the full book below
13 Secret Cities Paperback
13 Secret Cities on Kindle
As you will see, some of the events in 13 Secret Cities seem to mirror events from the past year in American life. I cannot explain how that is, because I wrote the book three years ago. But it's a coincidence many readers have noted, and that may provoke ideas for the reader.
Here is the first part of 13 Secret Cities. Enjoy.
13 SECRET CITIES BY CESAR TORRES
Special excerpt: Chapters 1-3
Chapter 1: BURN: RITES MY FATHER TAUGHT ME
"There are thirteen secret cities, but no one knows where they are." –Arkangel, "Plainsong", The Violet Album, 2008, Reckless Records.
"The city of Chicago is experiencing a renaissance that outpaces all other North American cities. There has never been a better place to live." –Acceptance speech by Mayor Ron Amadeo, inauguration night, 2010.
"The elders of the Illini and Chippewa tribes explained that their people drew their strength from the immense lake they call Michi Gami. This body of water was the source of much fear and superstitious rumor. In their native tongue, they told me how death hovered above the waters, like a cloud. The lake itself was a place of death, and its scent was that of carrion. Where men tread, death stalked in shadows, made of no discernible form." –Louis Jolliet, letter to Terese Chirac, 1674, Chicago History Museum archives.
A glance into the past revealed to me the simplicity of time: The moments of my life were stars, suspended in the vastness of space, and each one shone bright. But between each one, there also existed a vast darkness, a vacuum that threatened to swallow their light forever. My story began with a single point, a single star: The events that happened on October 4, 2013 in Millennium Park.
I followed the crosshatched dome of the pavilion, moving toward the silver wings that cradled the stage. I shoved my way forward, scared to be knocked over by someone bigger than me.
A hiss and a whistle overhead tore through the din of the shouts. I looked up to follow the noise, above me. I turned my head toward the sky. Small objects streamed through the air, headed north, in the same direction I was moving.
The missiles left white trails as they soared. When they reached the stage, I heard the metal clink like empty beer cans. A white cloud bloomed immediately in three spots.
When those of us who could see the stage saw the tear gas swell before us, our screams grew into shrieks.
The protesters who had already gathered by the stage ran immediately away from the cloud. But they weren't quick enough. The white smoke swallowed them up
The hiss continued and the cloud grew. The breeze blew toward the north, but Chicago wind was fickle, and it could turn right around, toward the south, at any moment.
I thought about my parents, and my brother, and it occurred to me that right now, my father was probably still at work, at the Botanical Gardens. My mother was also at her office, and perhaps she was texting my brother as he arrived home from school, just to make sure he made himself a snack while he waited for her and my father to come home. This thought shifted and moved beyond my grasp as I ran, until it was gone.
On my shoulders I wore the shawl my mother had given me the day I moved away to college, and I wrapped it around my mouth and nose to keep the gas out. I fished in my pocket for my petrified moss, a good luck charm from my father that I carried on my keychain.
I pivoted and ran toward the south, away from the stage.
As I ran, I witnessed moments from my short nineteen-year-old life flash before me like water rushing down the side of a mountain. I re-lived the awkward pomp of my first communion, the climbs we made on the hills surrounding my grandmother's lop-sided house in San Miguel, Mexico, and the road trips through San Diego when I was a toddler. I lived through these moments fast. In was the girl with the long face and the auburn eyes, a face I could see with precision, as if I were a camera-man shooting these memories. These visions of the past slid downward, vanishing as soon as it had arrived, gone in microseconds.
And I ran. My legs pumped with fury and speed, but they were untrained and clumsy. I was not an athlete and I had never been fit. And now, the pounds of weight in the backpack on my back forced me to run without grace or agility. Now that tear gas was encroaching on the pavilion, slipping out of the straps could cost me precious seconds.
About two hundred feet in the distance, uniformed police were closing this perimeter, shouting and pummeling, and bellowing through megaphones. I would never make it past them without being beaten down by their weapons and their strength. I let my running stride slow down a bit, enough to shake off my backpack, and to give me some time to think of where else I could run to. If I broke out toward the lake, to the east, I might be able to squeeze onto Columbus Drive and perhaps avoid the dozens of officers around us.
My father had always warned us to avoid the lake, and instead I ran straight toward it.
I found the short concrete wall that lined the perimeter of the pavilion, just about forty feet ahead. I zigzagged my way over to it.
My long legs, which I had always been proud of, catapulted me over the short wall of the perimeter. But my legs were too long, in fact. My shoe caught the edge of the concrete wall. I flipped forward and landed hard on my hands and knees. These awful long legs, I thought. But I looked around me. I could see the southern end of the pavilion, and behind it, the glint of the BP bridge. I wrapped the shawl around my head one more time, though the gas was starting to creep into my eyes and sear them with pain. Other protesters were escaping through this very same route, where the police and SWAT forces were a little thinner.
I realized I was free; I was escaping the pavilion.
Just as I came to standing, I heard the crack of gunshots behind me. One. Then another and another.
I heard new voices, full of anger, surging from the crowd. New gunfire exploded, and this time it sounded very different from the first three pops I heard. Their rhythm was calculated, and precise.
Perhaps it was an automatic weapon.
The bursts grew louder and moved closer to where I stood. Whoever was firing was cutting through the middle of the pavilion.
I kept on running, away from Pritzker, and I spotted an opening of about thirty feet with fewer officers, where I could run through.
I turned around one more time to look behind me through the open patches of clear air inside the white cloud.
The SWAT officers had now joined the police. They wore gas masks lowered over their face and their Kevlar gear protected them like scarab shells. They formed a dark ring around this cloudy oval, and they moved in tight, choking it out. They fired over and over. Their dark figures and hard helmets rendered them genderless, ageless, raceless.
Soon, the thick gas engulfed the black shapes of the SWAT men, too. The whole Pavilion disappeared under the chemical mist.
The screams were beginning to fade a bit, and I realized that the gas might be taking its effect now, silencing the crowd as it burned itself into their eyes and throats.
More gunfire exploded from the white cloud.
In front of me, I could see the street and the snaking structure of the BP Bridge. Hundreds of people ran in every direction, pleading for help that wasn’t going to come.
Though police officers flanked the entrance to the bridge to seal off the area, I spotted an opening I could take. I darted through.
I ran up the curving path of the bridge. By now I had stopped paying attention to the discomfort in my legs and the ache in my throat. I had become a runner. I didn't dare look behind me, though I could hear the cacophony still.
The run over the bridge became a kaleidoscope of fear, my ragged breath, the pointed spikes of sailboats in the marina, and the silvery reflections on the waters of Lake Michigan, where I was headed.
Then I moved toward the exit, relieved. I dashed toward Lake Shore Drive, and I clutched the fossilized moss in my hand.
I felt like a coward. I didn't know how to stay back there in the pavilion and fight, but how could I? Someone was shooting guns in there, and all
I wanted was to run far away from this place. And Edgar. I had no idea what had happened to him. I had a cell phone in my pocket, but my mind could not conceive of picking it up and using it. Instead, my legs did the thinking for me, telling me to go far away from this place.
Before me lay Lake Shore Drive. If I reached its underpass, perhaps I could catch my breath for a few moments and then continue toward the lake. If hiding meant I had to jump into its icy waters, I was ready to do it.
I felt a sigh of relief when I ran down the grassy slope that led to the overpass. I was almost there. The flapping beats of helicopters overhead smothered my hearing. I saw three of them circling overhead, vultures against an orange sky.
Just about a hundred feet until I reached the underpass.
At the bottom of the slope, I tripped again, clumsy and unathletic. My knees stung, but I didn't care. I heard more shouts, more gunfire and a strange whistling sound in the air. I ran again.
Just twenty feet left.
My legs pumped harder, and I could see the cool darkness underneath the hard concrete structure.
Just five more feet.
I turned the corner into the safety of the underpass. I was not about to stop running until I was deep inside its cavern, safe.
I made it.
I ran into the opening and turned the corner.
My body slammed into a hard mass and bounced back, losing balance and falling backward. I looked up. Six SWAT team officers, masked and faceless, stared down at me. The one whom I slammed into didn't hesitate. He brought down the baton with a muscled arm.
The black club swept across my face and connected with my cheekbone. A deep crack sent a sliver of pain down from my right eye and down my back. Then another one. And another one.
This was how my cheekbone shattered in two, and the reason why I eventually went blind in my right eye. The nerve damage in my spine because of the blows I endured was also a direct result of what happened to me in that underpass. When the officer's metal wand made contact with my body, I bit down on my tongue, and blood gushed into my mouth. The baton also flayed open my cheek; I knew the liquid that ran down my cheekbones was not sweat, and it was not tears. I rendered my dignity as I curled up into a ball at the feet of the officers.
The dried moss my father gave me didn't stop the violence, and it never could have prevented that officer from crushing my skull. In my pocket I also carried a travel-size icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which my mother had given to me three months ago, when I had moved from home to the university. She was a little Guadalupe, drenched in gold and red, boldly stepping over the horns of a demon and radiating light. Her eyes implied safety and love, but the protection I was supposed to receive from the icon never came to be. Even as I fell into a dark sleep and went deeper into shock, I remember feeling cheated by these useless objects, and though I don't like to admit this, I hated my mother and father for instilling this false sense of security in me. I hadn't realized how superstitious my parents were until I thought about how a dried piece of moss and a laminated photo of a virgin could be so utterly fucking useless. That was the hateful little thought that crept into my head, even as my vision burst into white stars and the officer fractured my bones. He shouted many words at me, and his other companions shouted too, words filled with hate and revulsion, for me and for the other thousands of people that had gathered at Millennium that day.
By my count, from the moment I lost Edgar until a SWAT officer split my face, four minutes elapsed. That in itself is a lifetime. That four-minute moment became one of the stars in the firmament of my life.
But that's all it was, just a tiny moment. To dwell on my escape would be as if I asked you to stare up at the sky and fixate on only one star or planet and expect you to understand the full scope of the galaxy that contains it. It wouldn't be fair to you, me, to those who perished in Millennium Park, or my story.
There were other moments in my life that had an impact on those four minutes. They were moments made of interdependency, like a spider's web.
Four days before the riots, I had celebrated my nineteenth birthday.
My parents had picked me up at the dorm in Rogers Park. My brother, José María, flipped me his middle finger from the backseat as I got into the station wagon, and we drove downtown. We ate pizza at Uno's, and I blew out nineteen candles on the cake. Afterward, we decided to walk off the meal. We walked east on Ohio Street until we reached an underpass. We crossed its length, and when we emerged, the dark waters of Lake Michigan greeted us.
It was much too late to be walking down the lakefront, but there we were, all four of us -- I, my parents, and my brother -- alone at the eastern edge of the city, where land meets water.
My father, the tallest member of our family, walked up in front, smoking a cigarette, and my mother walked between me and José María, our arms intertwined, her long straight hair brushing her shoulders. We walked north, along the bike path that ran up the shoreline of Lake Michigan. This part of Lake Shore Drive didn't close officially until 11 p.m., but even now, at 10:31, it was deserted. The lake's waves lashed the concrete wall next to our feet, and up on our right, we could see the tops of the cars as they rushed down Lake Shore Drive. The lake remained black tonight.
I dug in my pocket for my cell and pointed my camera toward the water. From up ahead, my father shouted, "Put it away, Clara. No photos."
His voice rumbled, and the sweetness of the chocolate birthday cake I had just eaten earlier tonight rose up to my throat in acid waves. Why do you have to yell at me? I thought. He was always yelling at me. He ignored this expression of rage in my face and squatted down, facing the lake a few feet ahead of us.
I felt a tug on my shoulder and a pat on my arm.
"Put the phone away," my mother whispered. "Do what he says.”
The lights that shone from Navy Pier turned my father's profile into a shadow. He sat down on the concrete and patted the ground for us to join him.
"Birthday girl, right here on my left," he said. I sat cross-legged on the cold surface, and we joined him on the other side. My father offered my mother a cigarette, but she shook her head.
"Not now, Adán," she said. "Let's not stay out here too long. We have be back to the car by around eleven; you know that."
It was important for us to run on time. Not only did I want to get back to the car in the parking lot, I also wanted to get back to the dorm as soon as possible. I wanted to celebrate all night. We had spent all week making big plans for the march at Millennium Park, and Edgar had borrowed an ID to buy beer and celebrate my birthday when I returned to campus.
I hadn't told my parents yet about Edgar. I hadn't even told José María, but then again, I knew what would happen if I told my little brother. He'd be sure to notify my parents, faster than the Internet.
During my first week at the dorms, Edgar had asked to borrow my screwdriver to fix his mini fridge, and that's how I had discovered he lived on my floor, on the other side of the dorm. Over the next few days, he kept cruising through my suite, and I kept on traveling to his. We were both freshmen, and both of us held political change high on our list of values. Now we were inseparable in our dorm, in the dining hall, in the two classes we shared, and in our ways of thinking about change for the world. His face was boyish, his voice was not. We both joined the Occupy Liberation Front on the same day.
The lake pummeled the breakers, and I noticed José María was starting to resemble my father more than ever before as the angles in his face grew sharper and his hair grew out thick, wavy and black.
My mother unfolded her shawl to free up her hands. From her purse she withdrew a small laminated image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which she placed on her lap as she genuflected. She kissed the image of the virgin, and then she put the image away. I couldn't see what my brother was up to behind her, but I could hear him tapping his hands on the concrete, drumming the beat to one of his favorite metal songs.
There we were, like hippies staring at the dim slice of moon through the clouds. Birthdays were starting to become more and more like this, as the lines in my parents' faces grew just a little deeper, and some of their weirdness got...well, weirder.
"In another part of the world, there is a lake where men once built a city," my mother said. "This city floated on top of the water, like a dream. Its towers reached toward the sky, and its architecture reflected the beauty of the natural world. The city’s surfaces were red, blue and gold, like the plumage of jungle birds."
José María leaned over behind my mother's back and twisted his face into a knot. "Here we go again..." he whispered to me. Shush, I mouthed over to him.
"Tenochtitlán," I said, speaking loudly enough to make sure my father heard me, to make sure I had this knowledge etched into my memory. "That's the city Mom's talking about."
Tenochtitlán, or in other words, Mexico City. The place my parents were born. I was born there, too, but I only lived there for year. By the time I could walk, we were living here, in Chicago.
"We probably won't live in Mexico City ever again, but it's good to visit Lake Michigan and remember that we once did," my father said.
My father turned back toward all of us, and his face shone clear, despite the shadows cast by night. His skin was deeply grooved by lines and wrinkles, and his hairline had receded, but his eyes looked young to me. My uncles and cousins had always said that my father's eyes looked defiant. In my experience, his eyes were sometimes gentle, sometimes terrifying. Mostly terrifying.
"In any case," my father said, "before your mother interrupted me, I was going to tell you what you need to do when you come to this lake, Clara. You're nineteen -- almost old enough to be an adult."
"Dad, I work and I vote. I am an adult. I don't like being dismissed," I said.
"Fine," he said. "In this country you're an adult; I'll grant you that. But your adulthood in other terms is still a long time away. So we come here on your birthday to think about this for a minute and to put our hopes in your future."
José María stirred, crossed his skinny arms. "Mom, you always let him go on and on...I mean, are you listening to this?"
"As a general rule, your father's wrong about many things," my mother said, and I could see José María sit up straight from his own sense of validation. "But in this case, you do need to listen. You may not understand everything we're doing as a family, Clara, but it is your responsibility to grasp it. So, sit back and listen. Yes, this means you too, José María."
My father was a strange dude, and that meant he always carried strange stuff with him. He dug in his coat and pulled out a bundle of twigs and leaves.
"Pay special attention, birthday girl," my father said. Using his free hand, he pulled out a lighter from his trousers.
"I bring both of you here because the lake is a place you should respect. It's a place that's beautiful, but my mother always said that certain beautiful things should not be touched, by any means. Lake Michigan has been here longer than you, me, or the men who built this city behind me. And though the lake gives life, the lake also has also dealt out death over the years. Never dive into its waters. Understand?"
I nodded, so that we could just move on. Over the years, I nodded a lot this way. I got good at scurrying past these talks.
"We live about six miles from here," my father continued, "and that's just about the right distance to show our respect for these waters. If our house was any closer and we would be under its threat."
"Actually, that's not really true," José María said. "Clara lives by the lakefront, so she's really just a few hundred yards away from the shore--"
My mother smacked my brother on the back of the head, and he grinned as he shrugged his shoulders and chortled.
But José María was right. The dorms were very close to the water. But I kept my mouth shut. This was not the time for interruptions.
My father lit one end of the bundle of twigs, and it took a moment to catch fire. Soon its flames were leaping up its length as my father held it away from his jean jacket and over the concrete lip. His hand stayed poised over the water. He spoke no words. He just let it burn until the flames caressed the tips of his fingers and the fire lit our faces. He tossed the bundle into the waters, where the darkness swallowed it up in a hiss.
"Clara, you have to promise me you'll always stay away from this lake." My father said.
My father turned toward all three of us.
"So, that's what you do when you come to show respect to the water," my father said. "Learn it."
Another order for me.
I pressed my lips into a flat line. Impatience burned in my gut. I was feeling ready to leave this place. I wanted to be back in my dorm room, cracking open a PBR. I was over this spooky water and the hippie weirdness.
My mother was the first to stand up, and she reconfigured her shawl, adjusting its length and folds bending to suit her will and keep out the wind. She shooed us along the bike path, toward the parking lot. Pretty soon, we were inside the car, the engine running and the heater roaring to life, and on our way to the dorms. I stared out the window at Lake Shore Drive, and the water was blue, very blue now. Its former black appearance was gone.
Our family was not the most normal of families. I had always thought so, but as we walked back from the lakefront to the parking lot, I realized that not a single jogger, cyclist or even cop had crossed our path while we sat on the concrete in front of the lake’s waters. We had spent a half hour at the water's edge without a single interruption, as my father tossed flames into the lake.
Four days later, the Millennium Riot became a reality.
Chapter 2: A PLACE CALLED MICTLÁN
"If I should paint my city in red, would you think that I bathed it in sacrificial blood?" – Sodium Chloride Veritas, "Bleed Like Me”, Meditating on the Medusa, 1995, 5AD Records.
"Nothing about the events that took place on October 4 made sense. For months, we tried to figure out how the riot started and who fired their weapons first. We investigated the question: How could a peaceful march turn so deadly? I was one of the first responders at Millennium Park. I still don't understand the savagery I witnessed." –Interview with Officer Michael Coleridge, Super Cops: How Technology Changed the War on Terror, by Haley Phair, Neo Press, 2016.
"The inequities of life: Parents are the first people to teach their sons and daughters shame." – Internet meme. Point of origin circa January 2011.
I fell into a darkness, something denser and thicker than sleep. When I awoke, pain crept down my back and through my jaw, my face and the top of my head. I was a thick knot of hurt, and each breath I took sent deeper pain coursing down my right leg. I tried to move my arms, but they were stiff, gnarled, determined to fight me.
Someone was dragging me along the ground.
The underpass beneath Lake Shore Drive lay before me, and it shrank away as I moved further away. I was moving swiftly, as if riding a sled.
A person draped in shadow dragged me through grass. If I craned my head toward the sky, I could see his or her head bobbing, like a black bowling ball. We crossed Columbus Drive, and pain ballooned inside me.
All the work I had done to run, to escape the tear gas and the shooting inside Pritzker, was now undone. I was being taken back toward the place where it all started.
We hit a bump on the ground, and my body shook. And then there was worse pain coursing all through my body, in my teeth and inside my guts.
Night was descending, and the orange glow of the streetlights swirled with the sky.
The person carrying me set me down on the ground on my back.
"Listen up!" He shouted into the distance. "No one gets moved until all EMTs move in. Bring the rest and put them here, next to this one. Careful with backs and necks!"
The person got down on his haunches next to me. He kept shouting orders as his gloved hands straightened out my legs beneath me. A hard black helmet and visor kept his face hidden.
Then a strong smell of chemicals and pats on my cheek.
"Stay awake; stay with me," the man in the helmet said. "I'll be right back."
He stood up and ran off into the distance, the letters SWAT glowing on his back as the noise of sirens, shouts and motor vehicles drowned my world out.
The pain in my head had become so intense, I forgot to cry. My pain threshold had always been low, and back then, small bruises and sprains could drive me to tears. But this pain muted me.
The edges of my vision were going fuzzy, and I hoped I could black out, to forget this all, to unfeel it all.
Something loosened beneath me, and warmth dampened my jeans. I had wet myself, or I was bleeding, not sure which. I was now on my right side, in a fetal position, wet, and my head and neck on fire in pain.
In the distance, I could see the turtle-shell shape of Pritzker Pavilion, lit by ambulance lights, and I took a moment to glance at the grass around me.
The sight in front of me made me scream.
Just two feet away from me, a tangle of flesh writhed like a living pile of garbage.
The shape the legs and arms made was sloppy, uneven, asymmetrical. Over the top of the heap, I spotted a portion of a torso and a chunk of parka, then one of its arms folded over on its back like a broken doll. The arm poked sharply through the sleeve of the parka, most likely from the break in the bone. The faces at the top were lifeless.
Something moved along the bottom of the pile.
A portion of a face poked out from under the pile. A man’s boot pinned the face deep inside the heap, but the eye stared out in wide open fear.
The eyes looked female. The cheeks looked swollen, the pupils frozen in terror. Beneath the chin, I saw her brown arm missing its hand, the wound jagged and ringed in black soot.
Then, a grunt from the mound. It was wordless but filled with pain. Inside its notes, I heard deep sorrow and loss.
"Awwwreh," the voice said.
"AWREEH," it repeated, weeping with every syllable. "SAWWW UHM AWREEH."
My eyes danced in circles, looking for someone to help me, someone to help this person. Her mumbles sent a chill down my neck, and I hoped the red lights washing over the metal skeleton of the park meant that ambulances would come help her soon.
The pain in my body grew white-hot. I swept my hand in front of me to touch the mound of people. I didn't know what I could accomplish by doing this, but I could extend my left arm without triggering more pain.
I felt under the brown boot, and I shoved it aside with the heel of my palm. It didn't move. Beneath, the voice continued.
I used all my shoulder strength to shove the work boot, and the leg inside it finally gave way.
Just twenty inches away from me, I saw her full face. Older than mine, female, andher ebony skin slashed to shreds but somehow still recognizable as human. The eyes flat like paper, barely holding on. Her ragged breaths escaped as steam through her matted hair.
"SAWW UHM AWREEH," the woman said.
There was something in her mouth obstructing her words. I put my index and middle finger between her lips and dug around. I found something firm, and I pulled. A chunk of her tongue, which she had bitten through, fell into my palm. The sorrow in the woman's eyes swelled. Now I could hear her words clearly.
"God, I'm sorry. God, I'm SORRY," the woman said, and she stared out at me, but her eyes looked through me. There was no focus there.
She was dying.
"Gaaa--" she said, and the last plume of steam left her lips.
I had never seen a dead body in my life, and I had never been this close to someone so brutally injured.
I screamed, and I tossed the lump of tongue away from me. My eyes were still making contact with the dead woman's, but now I was sure that she had joined the other three or four bodies on top of her in death.
I could see other injured people like me, laid out flat, some groaning, others silent as stone. The helicopters above me screamed dangerously close to the ground, and the words the woman spoke turned in my mind, downward and in circles, like a spiral.
"God, I'm so sorry," she had said.
Sorry for what? I thought. Sorry for... Sorry for all this death? Sorry for joining the march? Sorry for her sins?
I tasted a bitterness in the back of my throat that reminded me of insecticide, and I realized that traces of the tear gas must still be dispersing through the air. My eyes stung, too, and it hurt to blink. Wind whipped around my legs, and I felt coldness in the spot where I had wet myself. My eyes went there now to my gray jeans, and the stain that ran down their leg. There was no shame left in me, just pain, and a new creeping fear.
The woman's eyes had been online for one moment, and then they weren't. Is this what death was? Just like a circuit moving into the open position?
My father had warned me about these horrors, and I could see him now, seated in the living room, smoking his cigarette, reminding my brother José María and I, that "if you give men weapons, they become butchers."
The word “butcher” had felt crass when my father said it, but I thought of it now, as arms poked through piles of bodies and the metal from the blood scented the air. I didn't need to see the other dead people in this field. I had seen enough. The woman before me had no name, and I didn't want her to have one. The redness of her cheeks invaded the skin, and the matted hair, wrapped in blood around her cranium like a cocoon. It was a shade of red filled with chaos.
The massacre around me felt like it had no meaning, and I feared that this was all there would ever be. Pain, sorrow, the woman's sorrow, her sad apology to God, her body a broken pretzel under her.
I felt a stir in my stomach, and I remembered.
When I was a freshman in high school and José María had only entered sixth grade, he yanked me by the hand to the front porch of our house, away from our father’s close eye. José María fished from his backpack one of his treasures — the library books he liked to read. The title, Devil’s Mask: The Richard Speck Story sprawled in red ink over its grey cover. The nonfiction paperback had gone into great details about Richard Speck, who in 1966 entered a hospital in the South Side late at night and committed atrocious things to eight of the student nurses who lived there.
Eight women, raped and tortured and killed, all at the hands of one man. When I had finished that book, I felt sick inside, as if I had swallowed a dozen needles. I slept in my room with the light on for weeks, and each time I remembered the murders, the sharp pains came back to plunge into my midsection.
The needles of pain solidified. Richard Speck had nothing to do with the massacre before me, but I felt something tenebrous, something sick on this wide lawn beneath the Pritzker Pavilion, and it felt just like on those nights I thought of that awful book my brother handed to me.
The woman’s face went slack, and the wind picked up, blowing her hair over her lips.
More voices shouted, and I saw an ambulance creep toward me, driving right over the sidewalk and onto the grass, its red lights dancing like pinwheels. How they whirled.
My vision went grey at the edges, and then I fell into unconsciousness.
My eyes came into focus.
Everything’s gone white and blue.
The halogen lights burst in a wash of blue, and they drew sharp shadows over the bed, the machines at my sides, the food on the tray before me, and the pale flowers at the far end of the room. A television hung from the corner like a single black eye staring into the room. The IV in my arm throbbed, and my lips felt dry as dust.
My mother walked into the room, and I felt relief wash my insides.
As far as I could remember, she had always looked this way: rail thin and her hair pulled behind her as if to say, “Let's do this.” As she took each step into the room and toward my bed, her eyes widened like saucers, and despair distorted her face into long lines. Her hands flew up to her temples, and her tears came down, the droplets braiding themselves into her hair, staining her blouse and beading up on her leather jacket.
I felt my own tears come up, but something was wrong. I felt a throb inside my chest, and I realized it hurt, a lot, a whole fucking lot, to cry. My face was frozen into a mask. Why couldn’t I wince?
My father trailed right behind my mother. He did his best to not let his eyes widen in shock, but I knew by looking at him that whatever had happened to me was a lot to bear.
Every part of my body felt puffy and stiff. I tried moving my arm to prop myself up, but instead, pain greeted me. My parents took places on each side of my bed, their faces hovering over me while machines beeped behind them in a steady rhythm.
"What time is it?" I asked.
“Ten in the morning," my mother said.
She leaned over and kissed my forehead, eclipsing my view of the room. When she pulled away, I could see my father's tears coursing down his face.
Sheinterlaced her hands on mine. I felt the tiny bumps of the rosary beads looped around her wrist as they touched my skin. I couldn't stop staring at my father, though. I had never seen him cry, not like this.
"If it's ten, where's José María?" I said. I really wanted to see my brother.
"José María's at school," my father said.
"But isn't it Saturday?" I said.
"Clara, you've been in the hospital for six days," my mother said.
I looked down at my body in the powder blue sheets. Only my arm poked out. A bruised brown arm. The rest of me lay underneath.
"Pretty soon, your aunts and uncles will be arriving," my mother said. "Your father and I wanted to spend an hour with you alone first."
“Before they take over —” my father said.
“Because they will take over,” my mother said.
“They always take over,” he said.
My mother checked her phone, ran to the door to see if they were here, and once she was satisfied enough, she came back to the bedside.
"Have a seat, Juliana," my father said. "You know my brothers and sisters never arrive on time. Clara, how do you feel?"
I cracked a smile. It's as close as I could get to laughter.
"Like a champ," I said.
My father chuckled and handed my mother a coffee. From my vantage point, my mom and dad looked small to me, like miniatures of themselves.
"Your injuries..." my mother said. "The doctors say your recovery will be slow."
"Juliana, let’s start at the beginning. Clara deserves to know what happened," he said.
My father took shallow breaths, and the wrinkles in his eyes bunched together.
"Dr. Ecker, was just here, before you woke up,” he said. “Whoever did this to you broke three ribs. Punctured lung. You also bled internally. That is what almost killed you. The blows to your head fractured your skull in two places. You’ve suffered a brain injury, and the doctors did their best to work on your left eye. But you may not be able to see out of it again. They have reconstructed your face, and Dr. Ecker assured us their cosmetic surgeon is one of the best."
I raised my left hand to touch my face. The texture of the bandage was soft, feathery. My whole face was a bandage.
This is when the horror movie gets really good, I thought.
José María would like that joke. My parents would not.
"Don't touch it, Clara," my mother said. "The swelling will go down soon. But don't touch it."
"Could have been worse, right?" I said. The face of the woman under the pile of bodies flashed in my mind, and I knew that could have been me, exhaling for the last time on the grass.
My father took out his slender hand from his jean jacket and pointed his index finger at me. His eyes went flat and cold.
"YOU," he said. "You had to go to the march at Millennium. What the fuck where you thinking, Clara? Do you not have a brain up there?"
He tapped the side of his cranium hard enough to make a solid thud. This was a serious matter if he was swearing. He never did so in front of us.
"I was going to tell you," I said.
"When, exactly? At your funeral?"
"I don't even know what happened!" I said.
"The body count right now is at three hundred or so," my mother said.
"Not to mention the thousands of injured," my father said.
"This was the way to make change happen," I said. "I know that, and you know that." It was my turn to push back.
"You think that armed forces gunning down people makes change happen?" my father shouted. "You learned nothing from history, then."
He pulled up a plastic chair, and he propped one leg up on it so I could see it up close. He loomed over the room, his short breaths thickening the air. He tossed his jean jacket over the chair and rolled up his right shirt sleeve. Then he rolled up his pants leg.
I had seen the long scars on his arms and legs before, many times. My father was sixty-three years old, but the strength in his arms and legs gave him the appearance of a man in his forties. The scars bloomed on his skin like dull white veins.
"This is what revolutions bring, Clara. I want you to get a good look at it," he said. "A day doesn't go by where I don't feel pain. Two bullets and a femur fractured in half. And my limp -- you wanted to have a limp, too, didn't you?"
"Adán, calm down," my mother said.
"No, I'm not calming down," he said. He puffed up his chest and my mother sat still as stone. This was their dance. "I thought I could change the world, too.”
“Some would argue you did,” my mother said.
“And look how Tlatelolco turned out. My country went to the dogs. Our country, Juliana."
On October 2 of 1968, my father, together with his older brother Jorge, took the city bus to the plaza of Tlatelolco in Mexico City. That day, many other students also organized to gather at the plaza to protest the repressions of the Mexican government. This was one of several protests that had taken place in Mexico City. That was a year that was filled with civil action and unrest.
Over that afternoon, ten thousand people, most of them students, gathered. What happened next was unclear, but my father told us helicopters had flown over the plaza, and at some point, someone fired flares from a nearby building.
And then gunfire erupted. The army assaulted the plaza, killing hundreds of people. My father had been sitting on the stone steps of the Aztec ruins at the plaza when the shooting started, and he led Jorge and all of those he could to safety, doing his bestto avoid gunfire. As they ran into a nearby apartment building, a bullet shot Jorge clean through the head. Two rounds pulverized my father’s leg.
Jorge’s death turned my father into a gaunt figure over the decades. There was a pain about Jorge that my mother couldn’t describe, and which my father hid from us. To mention Jorge was to summon my father’s strongest silence.
I had heard the stories about Tlatelolco from my mother over the years, because my father refused to talk about them. He only ever raised it as leverage during conversations like this one, where he reminded me of how incompetent I was.
My father's eyes shimmered as he bit down on his lips. He rolled down his pants and sleeves again, and he sat down on the chair. His former magnitude was gone now. He shook his head and sank into the white plastic.
"Your mother has something to say to you," he said.
"So you're going to just disengage from this, Adán?" my mother said. "Sure, yell my ear off in the car about working as a team, and now it's just me that's the harbinger of bad news. Mom plays the good cop."
"This was your idea,” he said. “So here we go, team. You get to tell Clara the big news."
My mother swept my hair back with her fingers. Unhappy with the results, she pulled out a brush from her purse and ran it in strokes away from my face. Each brushstroke hurt my head a little, but I let her go on. Her eyes went very dark, and she never dropped them from mine.
"They're calling the event the Millennium Riot," she said. "The police and the other troops who were there shot the protesters many times. There are rumors that a few of the protesters in the crowd might have shot back, but it's all on shaky cell phone videos, and the country is in chaos, pointing fingers."
"Really?" I said. I felt a sick dread, but also a sense of victory in my heart.
Change. Was it possible?
"I saw a few clips of the start of the riot,” my mother said, “and I had to stop. There was so much gas -- and when the shots started, I kept on thinking, 'She's dead, she's dead.' I had to turn it all off."
"We were very lucky to get you back," my father said. "We had no way of knowing if you were there, buried beneath somebody."
"I escaped the park when the gas canisters hit the stage," I said. "I got pretty far, and then--"
I trailed off. My father had warned me to stay away from the lake, and that's exactly where I had run. My mother's side of the family kept many secrets, and so did my father's. I kept this bit of information from him, at least for now. I couldn't stand to see him lose his temper like he had just moments ago.
"Do you remember who did this to you?" my mother said.
"Men in uniform."
"Not sure. It happened fast. I ran into them, and then I can't remember much after that."
It was true. The dark visors had made the people in uniform anonymous, faceless. And then the baton swung. I did remember the baton.
"I think they were the same people who dragged me back to the pavilion, where they brought the rest of the dead and the injured," I said.
I couldn't keep everything secret. I decided to share this part of the story before my mother had a chance to ask me. "They put me next to a pile of bodies. There was a woman at the bottom and what I saw was horrible--"
"Clara, you don't have to--" said my father.
"It's okay, Clara," my mother said. "Tell us what you saw. The details matter."
I needed a little space, but my mother would be hurt if I told her not to crowd me in with her body. It was better just to get this over with.
"She was the last one alive under that pile of bodies. Until she wasn't."
"So, you saw her die. That's what you're telling me?" my mother said.
We all fell silent for a moment, and my mother tightened her grip on my hand. My father paced around the room, as if he were formulating something long and intricate. He dug in his brown leather bag. He pulled out a petri dish, which I recognized immediately. He handled these often at his job at the Botanical Gardens, and he kept a few at home for odd projects in our back porch. The dish was lined with clear agar, and white spirals coiled around its surface like the trail left by an ice skater. My father pulled out the tray built into the bed, and he placed the disc in front of me, like some sort of present.
"This is a fungal spiral," he said. He traced the white tendrils over the plastic. "They call this little beauty the Yellow-Gill Damsel. Its job is simple. It thrives off of dead things. Dead wood, dead plant matter, but its favorite is dead flesh. This powerful little fungus spreads itself deep in the ground, and when things go to die, it extends tendrils like these."
The tendrils made me want to puke.
"Don't fear it," my father said. "These swirls, Clara -- this is what death looks like, from a microscopic level. What you saw when that woman died was also death, at a macroscopic level. You saw her take her last breath, and out it went, into the air, possibly in little spirals of air, just like the ones here."
"Hurry," my mother said, and she brandished her phone in my father's general direction. "Dolores texted to say she’ll be here within minutes. Clara, be sure to keep your mouth shut when your aunt gets here."
The odor from the petri dish corkscrewed its sweet and musty scent into my nose.
"Thinking about that dead woman is making me sick, Dad," I said. "I wish you would take this thing away."
"That's the whole point, Clara," he said. "I'm afraid I can't. After the riot, the woman that died in front of you, the hospital--I am sure you think morbid events are following you. This very scent is shadowing you.”
"No, I think you're putting morbid thoughts in my head.”
"That's my girl,” my father said. “You don't let anyone push you around."
"Well, I'm pushing this fungus back to you," I said, and I put it back in his bag, which lay on the bed. It took me some time to do this, because my arm still ached, but I did it without his help. When I was done, my father reached inside the bag and placed it back on his lap.
I knew we could go on forever like this, taunting each other.
My father stopped pushing the dish back.
"Do you recall the early hours of the morning of your thirteenth birthday?" he said.
"Not really, no. Well, let me think about it," I said.
I thought hard. I still shared a room with José María back then, and my father had painted the walls bright green so we could have a color that suited us both. I went back to that memory, and a small fragment appeared, like a glint of metal inside a cave.
I remembered waking up in the middle of the night, and I had looked at the clock. José María lay curled into a ball, snoring. It was about 4 a.m. My stomach stirred with hunger pangs, and my mouth was dry. At the far end of the room, a light flickered. Two figures sat in the far end of my bedroom, and they watched me from the corner.
I remember wanting to scream.
My parents, my parents--now I remember. They were there with me.
They sat side by side, lit by the glow of a veladora candle. My father waved at me, smiling, and I felt confusion, shock and fear.
"Go back to bed, Clara; there's still more time to sleep," my father had said. We lived in Little Village, where street noise lasted all night, but I remember that night had actually been quiet.
My mother had wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and tucked me back in bed. I wanted to ask what they were doing here, but I was mute, drowsy, inert.
This was not a happy birthday memory, no sir.
My mother had leaned forward into the soft glow of the candlelight.
"When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls, just remember we're always with you," my mother had said.
She had stood up then, and she crossed the room with an odd grace, as if her feet were being carried by a gust of wind. Her face above mine had calmed my fears a bit. I felt her dry kiss on my forehead, and then I was dissolving into deep sleep again. That cocoon of nothingness that arrives with sleep took over me.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
Surely this had just been a dream.
Today was the first time the memory had sprang back into my hands, like a found object.
"That morning, I had a scary dream,” I said. “I woke up and you two were in the room with me. You tucked me back into bed."
My mother nodded toward my father in silent approval. He looked eager now, excited. If he could, he would have lit a cigarette. He liked to celebrate with smoke.
"It wasn’t a dream. We were actually there with you," my father said. "That night was as important as the day you were born. That night, you survived a rite of passage."
"Come again?" I said.
“A rite of passage,” my mother said.
"It was actually your second rite of passage, Clara,” my father said.
“There’s more than one,” my mom said.
“The first one is birth itself,” my father said. “When a baby is born and arrives into the world alive and breathing, the first rite is complete. The child has survived the emergence from the matter of the universe and exits the womb through the mother.”
“And the second one – oh — this is what you talked about. The night of seeking —” I said.
“So she does remember,” my father said to my mother.
In our family, we began to leave childhood behind at thirteen, but according to my father, true adulthood didn't arrive until the twenty-sixth year.
"José Maria also passed this rite when he was thirteen,” my mother said. “It begins in the middle of the night, when the sun is on the other side of the planet. It's very simple. During that night, a dream arrives. Then the rite begins inside a dream.”
My father nodded, and my mother continued.
"That night, we watched over you while you dreamt. We were there to protect you. That’s what all parents have to do for their children on the thirteenth year. Your dream journey is all your own of course, and no parent can accompany the child inside the dream. We simply wait at the bedside, making sure the children are physically unharmed.
“That night you woke up from sleep — just for a minute or so. An interruption like this is normal, but it was our job to make sure you went back to sleep, to make sure you completed your task."
"Which is...?" I was so damn impatient already.
“The task on the thirteenth year -- is the one where each person goes out and seeks his or her tonal. The search can lead you to many places, many of them very dangerous."
I hadn't heard that word in many years. This word also came back to me, like a message in a bottle.
I remembered the tonal, in stories that my father told me about his mother in Oaxaca, and stories of his uncles’ travels in the jungles of the Yucatán. All the stories led back to the same word: tonal.
The tonal was an animal or symbol that corresponded to each person’s birthday. Some people got the deer, some got water, and some the monkey. There were twenty in total. These had always been the little stories my mother and father told me growing up, but it had been years since they had mentioned tonal in my presence.
“And if I went out to find my tonal, then what was it?” I said. I had always wished for the rabbit.
“That is the problem,” my father said. “You came back without one. Your mother and I never saw one come back to the room with you.”
“Is that like having no soul?” I said.
My father stared out the windows into downtown Chicago and cried in silence.
I tried sitting up. My heart was racing and the aches in my back were roaring back to life.
“Sit back,” my mother said. “You’re not well enough to sit up yet.”
"I want José María here right now," I said. "I'm not liking this conversation."
It was true. José María was nothing close to being what I called a "normal," but at least he could corroborate the utter weirdness in our family. I could surely use his backup now. I needed him here to bring some sanity into the room.
"Timing is not on our side," my father said, "The painkillers they are giving you interfere with your lucidity. Normally, we would explain all this history to you without the intrusion of a single foreign chemical in your body. But your mother and I don't have a lot of time."
"Your father and I--" my mother added.
"We're worried you're headed in a very wrong direction," my father interrupted. "Joining the OLF and going to the protest was only a first step. I'm worried that you carry not just my stubbornness, but also my temper, and maybe even my bad luck. I have to ask you to stop your involvement with the OLF."
"What do you know about OLF?" I said. "You'd rather have me stay complacent and superficial."
"These are the same people that hacked the 911 phone system when the Millennium riot started. That disruption kept ambulances from arriving on time. People died as result. Clara, before you fight me on this, you need to get the whole story--"
"I don't need anything."
"They say that the OLF has put a contract out on the city politicians. This information's coming directly from OLF. Do you think you’re not going to be bring more violence and anarchy about?"
"What does this have to do with the tonal, anyway, Dad? Get to the point."
My father took a seat on the bed. My mother pulled her chair closer to where I lay, her chin almost touching the rail.
"That night," my mother said, "we saw you go into deep sleep to find your tonal, but when you returned, something was different. You looked afraid, stunned. You did not look happy. That’s how we knew you didn’t find it. If you had been successful, you would have told us about your animal over the next day, as all children do during the rite.
“Instead, you brought something else back. As far as your father and I know, no one has ever brought anyone, or anything, back during the journey. It’s unheard of. Finding the tonal happens in the dream, and the rite ends in a child understanding the knowledge of her tonal. While we waited in your room, we saw this other thing that came through. It stared at us through windows. We couldn't make out its size or its shape, except for two eyes that shone like headlights on the highway. The eyes--Clara--they were the size of dinner plates, lit from within. Whatever owned those eyes did not like us, and it fixated on you."
"I don't believe any of this," I said.
"You don't have to," my mother said. "You get to make up your own mind. All you have to do is hear us out."
It had always been this way in our family. Our parents just gave us what they knew and what they believed. But it was up to me and José María to make up our minds. This was the very reason why I still didn't believe in half the tales from the Bible, while they did.
My father dragged out a green disc from his leather bag. It was nothing but a tangle of weeds, coiled like a snail's shell.
"Another fungus?" I said.
"Better," he said.
He drew his finger along its surface.
"We all take the trip to find the tonal," he said. "We take the trip the day we're born, when we are thirteen and when we are twenty-six. On the 26th year we see the tonal and embrace it, whether it’s a rabbit, a crocodile or a jaguar. This is how we become full adults. That’s three trips from birth.
“Your first trip would be akin to this origin point on this piece of lichen. It's where things begin. They say that lichen like this one have access to the mysteries of the universe--sort of like a key--but it's never worked for me. What's important is the shape that you see here. The second trip is further along the edges here, where the texture is still smooth. When you brought back that creature at the age of thirteen, we didn't know what it meant. But I am afraid I have learned it. You are living close, very close, to death and violence, Clara, and I am worried that you are actually enjoying the chaos. I am worried that the lines that you are creating are closely intertwined with something with terrible and cruel intentions. You like blood."
Get off my case.
I'm so offended.
"You're saying I got...contaminated?" I said.
My father shrugged, shook his head.
"Something has to change in order to cleanse you,” he said.
"Your father's proposing that you take drastic measures, Clara," my mother said. Sadness tinted her voice. "He and I both think you need to take your third trip early. Seven years early."
No one spoke for a few moments. The machines at my bedside punctuated time with their chirps.
"Because the thing you brought with you on your thirteenth year--" my mother said, "It was from Mictlán."
Mictlán. That was another word I hadn’t heard in years.
A day of found objects. Will the fun ever stop?
"But I thought it was just an old fairy tale,” I said.
"Old…but a story with legs," my father said. "What we know about Mictlán we know from what my grandparents taught me, and what they learned from their grandparents, and on and on."
"And I only learned it from your father when I married him," my mother said.
"Direct knowledge of Mictlán is forbidden," he said. "And yet, something drew itself to you when you sought your tonal. I suspect you might have visited Mictlán in your thirteenth-year dreams. It’s unusual, but possible. I have lived in anxiety for the past six years, wondering why this happened and where your mother and I went wrong."
Suddenly, I wanted some more hardcore drugs so I could just tune all of this out.
Give me all the drugs, somebody.
But my mom and dad were relentless.
"Cleansing is possible,” my mother said. “Handling this type of creature—tamingthis kind of creature--can only be done by an adult," my mother said. "And you are not an adult yet."
“Far from it,” my father spat. “Immature and obstinate.”
Heat rose in my face, and I clutched the bedsheets with rage. All the years in school, the work I did for social justice, the volunteering, these meant nothing to these people I called my parents. Perfect grades and part-time jobs--they were nothing, nothing, nothing.
But I am adult. So much more adult than you, with your old ideas and creepy ways.
"I don't want to be here anymore," I said. I was not used to talking to my parents in such a terse manner, but my tongue moved faster than my heart. "Get out of the room. And take your new age superstitions with you."
"See, Juliana?" my father said, his voice gathering steam. My mother started gathering her things as he hovered over her. "I told you this was going to happen. Everything we do for these two, they just toss it aside."
My mother had placed my cell phone next to the bed, and I picked it up, oblivious to my parents' departure, texting José María as fast as I could.
"They've gone completely batshit," I texted him.
My mother and father reached the door.
"Clara, we'll be gone for a couple of hours, but we'll be back with the rest of the family. We’ll have more time to talk in the next week or so. Just be ready for the journey. Won’t be easy."
Get the fuck out already.
The door shut, and I let out a huge sigh of relief.
That was perhaps the most awkward moment I had ever lived through.
None of this was fair. My body was broken, and my face hurt even through the veil of painkillers. In all this time, it hadn't occurred to me to look at myself. There, along the bottom row of icons, was the camera app on my phone. If I pointed it at myself, I'd get a glimpse of my bandaged face.
I brought the phone up into the air, and I held it there, my hand shaking. In the end, I didn't have the heart to tap the icon.
I set the phone down on the blanket and resented the lack of clarity in my head. Painkillers and fairy tales--these two things made a deadly combination. Why mess with my head? Why? And my father--shouldn't he have thought better of what he said to me about my thirteenth birthday? Why have me recall a memory that felt so hazy, so fragile? It was just a dream, anyway. Just a dream of my parents with a candle in the room on the day of my birthday.
They couldn't just let it rest. What was their urgency? They couldn't wait till I got out of the hospital.
I wanted to get back up from this bed, to heal, so I could get back to the real world. To learn what exactly took place in Millennium Park and, more importantly, what was next.
No response yet from my brother on my phone, but as I flipped toward the bottom of the inbox, I found dozens and dozens of unread messages.
Messages from members of our chapter of the OLF. Dozens of messages from strangers that knew I had been hospitalized, wishing me well. These people identified me by my screen name, "She-Ra" on the Internet forums and Twitter. I didn't so feel alone. I had a lot to catch up on and lots to plan. For the next few hours, I could forget about my parents and come back to reality, where I could touch solid matter, where action was still needed.
I pieced a few things together. The five thousand protesters at Millennium had pushed the lawn's capacity to the brim, and the use of SWAT and military forces had actually been quite routine. In fact, the deployment had looked very similar to that of the May 2012 NATO protests, also in Chicago. According to reports about the Millennium Riot, gunshots had been fired at 4:54 p.m. The media reports said the first shots came from armed protesters in the center of the pavilion, while Twitter reports and bloggers pointed to the sound in the video clips to put blame on the troops situated on the north side of the park, behind the stage of the pavilion. The rest of it--the thousands of bodies trapped and trampled, the use of force from the SWAT teams and the police--was more or less as I remembered.
The mayor's "sit down and shut up" ordinance from 2012 was already kicking into place. Those who could be identified in the video footage were already seeking damages against any organizations that took part in the protest, while the investigations continued. I forgot to ask my parents if the investigators were trying to reach me, but I figured if that was the case, I would know soon.
I saved several images into my camera roll so I could take a better look. An aerial view of the park: It was a high-resolution image that I could pinch and zoom as I needed. Here I could see the places where the aftermath took place. There, along the southern edge of the Pritzker Pavilion, the first ambulances began to treat the chemical burns form the tear gas, and to provide aid to those who had been shot and injured. There, in the middle, was the worst chaos. And then up on the northern shoulder of the pavilion, a span of grass where the armed troops laid out the bodies of the dead.
I stared at this diagram for some time, and I scrolled back, going back to look at the photos of these piles of the dead. The twisted feet, the broken fingers and the bloody heads were so familiar to me now.
That flat patch of grass was the place where I had been dragged.
This was a path carved out in dead bodies, laid out by troops and armed cops. They had placed me in the same zone as the dead.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
I let go of my phone and it hit the floor with a dull crack. I was breathing fast, and sweating under the hospital gown. I fought back the urge to vomit.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls, my mother had said.
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls, my mother had warned me.
I considered calling my parents now, to tell them to come back. I would eat my words, but seeing them might calm me down. I was scared. My finger lay on the “call” button, but I never tapped it.
There, on the blanket, lay the coiled lichen my father brought with him. I ran my fingers over it, grasping it with both hands like a tiny steering wheel. Its edges were pebbled, like lizard skin. I turned and turned it in my hand, knowing that the repetitive motion might help me bring my breathing back to normal.
As I spun the lichen, a damp taste filled my mouth. It arrived from the front of my tongue, filling my tongue ad my palate with its oily scent. It was a smell unlike any I had known before, though some of its notes were easy to identify. I tasted copper and sulfur, and a sick sweetness like fruit gone bad. It was a taste that reminded me of shit, but perhaps worse. This was the taste of graves and swamps, and the taste of burning human hair. The tighter I gripped the coil, the more intense the smell became.
I retched, and pain exploded in my back and in my head. I tossed the coil of lichen at the hospital curtains. As soon as it was out of contact with my hands, the taste of rotted meat vanished from my mouth.
I was panting again, while my heart sought to explode from my chest.
A nurse showed up at the door.
"Everything all right?" she said. " I thought I heard something."
"You did," I said. "I dropped my phone. Can you get it for me?"
"Thank you," I said as she slid it onto my palm.
Before she could make it out of the room, I was already typing with fury into the phone, scouring through search engines for the word "Mictlán."
Chapter 3: RHINOCEROS
"About the stele that stands at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City: It exists squeezed between the church of Santiago de Tlatelolco, rows of mid-rise apartment buildings, and the ruins of the Aztec empire. The stele pushes itself up from the ground like a magical object, filled with men's words and runes that are readable to those of us who speak Spanish. In this stele, we recognize that this plaza was a place of life, and much death. Mexico's ancient marketplace was once converted into a place of violence during the Tlatelolco Massacre of 1968. Today it flourishes as the home of the twenty-first-century Mexico. It is in this very spot that the masked identity of the Mexican people lies hidden, yet also exposed through the power of language." –Architect Carlo Fuente, Journal of Architecture and Design, Vol. 56, May, 2012. p.89.
"In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost. Once your authority, now your parasitic host. Motherfuckers grab their scepter and pull the trigger." –Arkangel, "Lyra Destroys a Shrunken God", The Violet Album, 2008, Reckless Records.
"She caught the shawl as she spoke, and looked about for the owner. In another moment, the White Queen came running wildly through the wood, with both arms stretched out wide, as if she were flying, and Alice very civilly went to meet her with the shawl." –Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871.
I ran my card through the reader, and I walked up to the platform to wait for my train. The wind whipped my face, and my hair lashed my skin. It felt good.
This is my strange new skin, and it takes some getting used to.
The Loyola stop on the red line was the place that served as my entry point into other parts of the city. It wasn't the prettiest of stations, but the sun came down in fat yellow beams in the late afternoon.
I was free of the hospital, able to breathe the city air. I wore my lucky brown boots and a plaid skirt that matched my vintage blouse. My makeup was a simple gash of black across my eyelash line and a layer of mascara. I could walk now, though many spots across my back and my legs were still tender to the touch.
I sat near the sliding doors. In my mouth, the taste of Edgar's mouthwash.
The Millennium Riot was weeks behind me now, and since then, I had crept up to Edgar's dorm room in the early mornings, when it was still dark out. His roommate slept right through my knocks at his door. Edgar would open the door, his face a moon in the dark of his room, his boxers hanging low on his hips and the thatch of hair on his chest wild like reeds.
Once I was inside his bunk, the sex was short, sweet, pungent. The pain in my back faded away when I came, and I kept my panting short and shallow so we wouldn't wake up his roommate.
I had been visiting his dorm room in this manner for weeks.
In those moments before the sun came up, we didn't talk about what happened at the Millennium Riot. We didn't talk about the media frenzy around us, and we didn't talk about the heightened security around the campus. Edgar was no longer part of our chapter of the OLF, and I didn't press him for details why.
Today had been different, though. When we finished, and he lay in my armpit, sweating, I decided to ask him to talk about what happened. I needed us to talk.
I asked him what he remembered from the Millennium Riot, but when I did, he just stared at me.
"How dare you ask me?" he said. His body stiffened with anger.
He’s trying to simply forget.
It was fine by me. I didn't ask any further. Once was enough today. I left.
I went to my classes later in the morning, then to my job at the library for a couple of hours. At dinnertime, in the dining hall, I ran into Edgar again. He was smiling again.
He looks happy. What a change.
"Maybe we could go to a movie? I can introduce you to my friends in crew," he said. "We can all hang out."
I had no idea where he got this idea that we could start “hanging out”. We no longer socialized anywhere--not in the dorms, not in class. This was new.
"I'd rather not," I said.
"But why? We get together virtually every day. We're always doing that together."
Not as together as you think.
“Oh, that,” I said.
"I'm fine with the way things are right now," I said.
"You mean where you just use me for sex and then you leave me?"
"I don't know how to answer to that."
"I know things haven't been easy since what happened--but we can still be close, Clara."
"It's just sex," I said.
"Just sex," Edgar said, as he finished a glass of soda. He went up to the self-serve machine for a refill. When he was done, he walked past my table – his smile was gone -- and went to sit on the other side of the dining hall, his back turned away from me.
Maybe when he walked away, he called me a whore under his breath, but I knew that in the past two weeks, I had lost interest in what I had imagined to be my infatuation with him. Before the Millennium riot, I had trailed Edgar like a shadow through the lecture halls, the student union and dorm hallways, but now, I could only think about Mictlán and whatever I could learn about it.
I needed to keep some distance from Edgar myself, now that I had pieced together some of the events of the riot.
I had learned that when we got separated as we held hands, Edgar too ran off to find an exit from the rounds that were being fired in the Pritzker Pavilion, and he successfully ran onto the street before the tear gas arrived. Police officers arrested him on the spot, but he was released later that night. He had survived unscathed by the violence. He never visited me in the hospital, and when I returned to campus, I expected to find messages from him.
There were none.
I learned he had quit the Occupy Liberation Front altogether. He removed my name, as well as that of many others in OLF, from his Facebook account. I asked him in the dorm one day how we had lost hand contact and become separated during the riot, but all he said was "You were the one that let go of my hand, Clara."
Those words hurt me, but the further I pressed him to talk, the further away he moved.
Had I been dumped? Or had nothing been there between us in the first place? And why did Edgar think that my morning visits meant so much?
Maybe I really was a whore. I considered this idea for a second, then I laughed to myself. Of course I was not. But I would probably never find out what Edgar really felt for me.
During my return to campus, I had dealt with police interviews and my classwork, as well as short meetings at our OLF chapter. Our attendance was not the same anymore. Besides Edgar, we lost forty other members. I knew fear kept many of us away, but even after what had happened, I wasn't going to give up. In fact, I knew that the Millennium Riot only confirmed for me my path. I had to continue with OLF and the movement.
I ignored my coursework, putting off my reading and skipping discussion sections. I spent my time instead in a corner of the library, deep in a sea of information. In the mornings, I read every news post about the OLF and the Millennium riot investigation.
I read every blog and every tweet, and watched all the videos I could about the riot and its aftermath. I stayed up till four in the morning, reading, absorbing, and reading some more.
The latest death count was 309, and the debate over who shot first was not over. Those protesters who had brought firearms were either dead or in custody, and a federal investigation was underway.
At night, I slept in pain, my back aching and my skin breaking out in a sweat. When I slept, it was only for a couple of hours. I avoided taking too many painkillers. I had always disliked pills, but as a result, I stared out of my room into the orange-black glow of the city lights and cuddled my insomnia. My roommate Morgan slept soundly, as usual. Fog rolled over the bedroom window each night, and the darkness pressed behind it. Winter was approaching.
But I had still wanted and needed sex. The mornings with Edgar helped me start my day; they helped me feel like I was free, like there were no shadows pressing down on me through the sky and no blades of sharp pain running down my spine and inside my skull.
The train stations whizzed past me, and a gush of cold air filled the subway car each time the sliding doors slid open. On the streets below, the police cars saturated traffic. Since the riots, all eyes were on Chicago, and it was now common for anyone to get stopped and searched during all hours of the day.
Thorndale, Bryn Mawr, Berwyn and finally Lawrence. I had arrived at my destination.
I walked down the greasy stairs and turned onto the street. It was much too early for the doors to open, but there, lined up around the corner from the entrance of the Aragon Ballroom, a hundred fans sat with their backs against the wall, checking their phones, complaining about the wind and the cold, anticipating their entrance into the concert hall. The Aragon eclipsed the whole block with its Moorish architecture style and the deep layers of soot and grime that had tarnished it over the years.
As I walked up to the line to look for my brother, I was already regretting my clothing choices. These were the most hardcore Rhinoceros fans, and here I was, caught in the cross hairs of the fashionistas who waited in line. I didn't have any tattoos to speak of, and the indigo of my blouse and the red checkered pattern of my skirt were all wrong for this crowd. It was too late to go back home and change. It was what it was. I walked quickly down the line, avoiding the pressure of the eyes that bore down on me.
Three fourths of the way back in line, I spotted my brother José María. I had been waiting three weeks for this moment, where he and I could see each other alone, away from our parents' house, and I away from campus.
José María smoked a cigarette under his hoodie, letting out big gulps of smoke, one leg kicked out directly in front of him, the other one bent so he could rest his cell phone on top of it in case. He looked up at me with wet, red eyes. He was high already.
"Grab a seat, reina," He said. That's what my father called me when I was a little kid. Queen. Hadn't heard that in a while.
"How much longer till they let us in?" I asked.
"About another hour and a half. This way, we'll be at the very front."
"That's a lot of work just to see some dinosaurs."
"Hey, it's Rhinoceros. Some things are worth lining up for."
Rhinoceros had been playing the Aragon for decades now, and José María had never missed any of their Chicago stops, at least since our parents had allowed him to attend concerts. And that wasn't very long ago—it was barely a year. He was allowed to go if I went with him, and that meant I got to see a lot of shows.
"How much do I owe you?" I said.
"Just gimme thirty," he said.
I handed him three tens. I had ninety minutes, maybe a little more, if we could chat a little inside the Aragon.
"I thought it would take me an eternity to be able to talk to you without Mom and Dad poking in," I said.
"It's no problem; if you want, I can text Dad to turn right around. He just dropped me off thirty minutes ago. He can come hang with us all night," José María said, giggling, threatening to text on his phone.
Oh god, no. Please don't call Dad over here. I'll die.
"Okay, in all seriousness. Let me show you something. Okay?" I said.
I pulled out my phone and brought up all the saved searches I had found online, but also the academic materials I had gathered at the university library since I had been released from the hospital. I found a lot of information, but I organized it as best I could in a folder, because I wasn't really sure if any of it was useful for what I needed. I handed my brother the phone, and he scanned for almost twenty minutes until he handed the phone back to me. He lit up a cigarette and offered me one. I passed.
"So?" I said.
"So what? You know how to Google. Congratulations to you, Stephen Hawking." José María flourished his right hand and took a small bow in my direction. His sleek eyebrows and his hoodie, his thin stubble—they reminded me of a medieval court jester. He would never, ever stop making fun of me, as long as we lived. With a sigh, I turned the phone's screen back in his direction.
"Did Mom and Dad talk to you about their visit to my hospital room?"
"Not really," he said. "Mom stayed up crying every night, and during the whole time you were in the hospital, Dad went up to the attic and reorganized the whole thing. He put every book and tchotchke we have up there into little plastic crates, and he labeled every single one of them. He did this over and over, a real shitload. He did a good job, just like a psycho should, but no, he didn't say anything, either."
"José María, I am still having nightmares about the Millennium Riot. The reporters won't stop calling me, and they show up on campus, looking for those of us who were there. And my face--"
"What about it?"
José María had never been prone to coddle me when it came to my looks. He awaited my answer.
"I don't look the same. Probably never will. Feels ugly.”
"What does your face have to do with any of this?" my brother said.
"Well, you're not going to believe me until I show you, so take a look here, at this image I pulled up on the World Digital Library."
"Ah, you went and dug up the Florentine Codex. Nice!"
José María sat up straight, letting the wall support him. He pulled his hoodie back and spikes of his hair rose into standing, while the longer locks fell back . He grabbed the phone from me.
"The Florentine codex is cool as shit."
"It talks about Mictlán. That's why I wanted to talk to you while it's just the two of us."
"Awww... I thought you came out to see Rhinoceros with me because you recognize a person with great taste. You bitch!"
"Relax, I'm here for the show, too. But you're the only person who obsesses this much about...well, this stuff."
This stuff. Legends of gods, statues bathed in sacrificial blood, deities whose internal organs fell out of their stomachs like a Hannibal Lecter trophy. These were stories of old rituals, superstitious crap.
Three weeks ago, in my hospital bed, my parents had warned me about a place called Mictlán. Up until then, they had never mentioned the word much, except in nighttime tales. Or in some books in their library in our small living room. But that wasn’t enough information.
I had started my searches in the university library. I learned Mictlán was the realm of the dead in the times of the Aztecs, a place ruled by the two lords, the god and goddess of death, blood, and sacrificial tribute. Mictlán was the place where souls were said to travel when they left this world.
In the end I found out almost too much information. It was more I knew what to do with. There was so much of it--archeological evidence, scholarly work, Buzzfeed trash--that by the time I finished my research, I felt like I had not accomplished much at all. And as I stayed up at night in the library reading abstracts, I realized I should have consulted José María in the first place.
"Mictlán is the shiiiiit," he said. "It's supposed to have mountains made of poisonous spikes and rivers swimming with monsters. Hades has nothing on this place. It's about as secret as you can get. After all, you have to kick the can if you want to see it." He laughed, and his laughter infected me with giggles, even though I was the sober one. Each time we looked at each other, we snorted again. When we were done, José María put his finger on the screen.
"That guy right there is the king - Mictlantecuhtli. He's got this sick blade coming right out of his skull face. He's got a wife, too, and together they govern the place. So fucking dope!"
The figure of this god, whose name meant the Lord of Mictlán, showed a reclining figure with a human skull instead of a face made of flesh. His headdress rose into the sky with bird feathers, and a bloody obsidian blade jutted from the nostrils in his skull face.
It really meant nothing to me. José María had moved toward all things Aztec, Olmec, Teotihuacán and Maya since he was a kid, but I had been more interested in history, civics classes and math--the things grounded in tangible reality. I preferred the real world.
Tiananmen Square, the crimes of Pol Pot, the civil rights riots--those were concepts I could operate on. And all through the years, José María lived in his little bubble of mythology books, vampire novels and comics. But that's what made my little brother my little brother. The purveyor of all that was weird.
The image we were both staring at was a page from the Florentine Codex, created in the sixteenth century, and its creator, friar Bernardino de Sahagún, had chronicled the beliefs and habits of the Aztecs during their early conquest. In this particular image, a half dozen men surrounded a woman in a grassy field, while a warrior in headdress brandished a club. In the background, green mountains filled the horizon. Floating shapes like ghosts made of stone floated in the air.
"So, I can't stop thinking about this image, and here's why. That day at the hospital, Mom and Dad said there's something wrong with me. That I have been contaminated by something that happened when I was thirteen. This passage describes a grassy field drenched in death, and for some reason it reminds me the Millennium Riot. Mom and Dad said that I brought something full of death back with me. A creature."
José María whistled. He stretched his legs and the grin on his face lit up from ear to ear.
"Wow...Dad's dealer must have gotten him the really good shit."
"You know Dad doesn't smoke. I am serious. They really said this. This is why I was texting you so much over the past couple of weeks. I wanted to talk to you, to see if they mentioned any of this before."
"All they've talked about is your reconstructive surgery and uncle Teo's divorce. Oh, and Mari's ugly baby. Well, that and the mayor cracking down on OLF after the riots; there's that, too. But they don't mention you that much, not that way."
"Every time I look at this picture, with that warrior and his club—my heart begins to race so fast, I think I'm going to die. If I stare at it too long, I feel that panic of what happened in Millennium Park. Why, José María?"
"Those who make the trip to the city of Mictlán don't come back," my brother said. "That's just the way it works. Maybe you're worried about death, after what happened. Maybe this isn’t so literal. Maybe our parents just want you to get more in touch with our roots."
Roots feel so far away. My Spanish is barely remedial. I don't even know how to pronounce some of the names of the places and things in this research. Touching roots is a sad understatement.
"That's just it,” I said. “Mom and Dad said I have to go on a trip to Mictlán. To reach adulthood. José María, have you ever heard the phrase 'When you step inside the Palace of Skulls'?"
José María considered my words, and he glanced at me sideways, as if I were the one who was high on weed.
"You know, I'm not going to answer that quite yet. Mostly because I think I have heard the phrase, but I can't remember exactly where. But I can help you dig up info on the place. I'll look it up when I get home tonight. Of course, some of the stories conflict, and some details are lost with the people who died in the colonization of the New World. And one more thing--shouldn't you be consulting with some archeologist professor at school? I'm only fifteen, remember?"
"This stuff is so weird that I am embarrassed to bring it up to anyone. All I have done is pull up my own searches. And you are the one that's always reading up on this. You have to help me."
My brother and I had been sitting on the cold pavement for so long, we were going numb. We faced a gray wall that was part of the elevated tracks of the train, and several people had been walking up and down the line, chatting with friends, finding the end of the line or simply killing their boredom with a cigarette. Scalpers orbited the block, too, asking who needed tickets for the show. I was so focused on what my brother was saying that I never noticed the pair of workman's boots stop right next to where we sat.
"After all this time, you fuckers insist on this socialist shit, still?"
The owner of the boots was a short man, packed with muscle, his face taut with tension. He wore a Rhinoceros baseball cap and a flannel shirt.
I knew immediately he was referring to me. I wore an OLF armband on my left shoulder. It was a logo-less design, just white letters on a black background, but unmistakable. The armband usually sparked a lot of conversations around campus, but it didn't occur to me that it would anger someone like this outside the Aragon.
"Hey, we didn't come here to get yelled at," José María said. "We're just hanging out."
"All our taxpayer money gets sunk into doubling up on cops and riot gear, thanks to pieces of shit like the OLF, man. It all starts with the stupid fucks that join in on this shit. Do you really think the OLF is looking out for you?"
I had to say something. I remained seated, though I felt awkward. But I was scared of standing up. What if he started a shoving match, or worse? I remembered the pain I had felt for days inside my bones from being beaten physically. The man in the work boots looked ready to lunge, his thick neck puffed like a cobra.
"Have you looked around this place recently?" I said. "The city is close to being insolvent, and we've got one of the worst murder rates in the country. And our school system's going down the hole and fast. You have faith in the traditional way of doing things, then?"
"This is the same shit I get from all of you fucking hipsters every time I bring this subject up. We wouldn't have this shit if you all you losers just got jobs and we kept illegals from stealing jobs."
José María stood up. I dreaded this moment already.
"You want to watch what you say," he said.
The man in the work boots crossed his arms and laughed in José María's face. He texted on his phone for a second and laughed at us again. "Fucking beaners. I'm sending YOU my damn tax bill next time it arrives."
The man peeled away toward the end of the line, laughing at us as he walked away.
My heart was racing, and the scars inside my cheeks hurt. My back pulsed with electricity.
"I get so angry, and yet I never know the right thing to say," I said.
"Forget it," José María said. "We came here for the show. Look, they are opening the doors. Tell me the rest of what we were talking about inside."
As the line of concertgoers went through the glass doors of the Aragon, I looked over my shoulder to see if I could spot the man in the work boots. He was nowhere to be seen. I felt as if he was somewhere near, watching us. As I handed over my ticket at the door, my hand shook uncontrollably, like the hand of an old person.
"Relax, Clara," José María said off to my left as security searched him. "You look like you've seen a ghost. When we get upstairs, I'll tell you how to get to Mictlán."
Suddenly, the cavernous entrance of the Aragon, with its Spanish motifs, felt like a suffocating tomb. I put my hand on the OLF band on my jacket and considered taking it off, but I knew José María wouldn't let me. I walked through the turnstile. As we joined the hundreds of people in line in the concert hall, I got the distinct sensation that whatever I felt was watching me was not the man in the brown work boots. I was being watched by something or someone feral and dark. I felt an ache come over my joints and face, and it took me several seconds to get my heart rate down through heavy breathing. If I could have bought a beer, I would have.
José María waited for me at the bottom of the double staircase, and we ascended into the dark together.
My brother and I pressed our bodies against cold metal, andhundreds of bodies closed in behind our backs. We had nowhere to go. This space, our little slice of room right by the stage, was going to be ours for a while, and though other conversations surrounded us with noise, I felt like we had the best privacy I could ask for. This was the anonymity of the city, and I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me earlier to hold important meetings in the pit of the Aragon in between acts while surrounded by thousands of people.
José María pulled out his wallet and unfolded an old concert flier. The image at its center showed a gaping maw filled with white teeth. Inside the cavernous mouth, small stalactites shot upward toward the creature's palate. I looked closer and noticed those stalactites were buildings--little skyscrapers. There was a tiny city in that predator's mouth. Above it, in ragged white script, it read "Arkangel: Murderous Tour, 2009" The lower half of the flyer showed stops in North America, Europe and Latin America. José Maria turned it over and drew a single vertical tube. On the tube, he plotted a single black dot, and labeled it "Earth." Above the dot, he plotted thirteen empty circles, evenly spaced. Below, he drew nine more empty circles, pointing downward.
"It works like this," José María said. "These stories go way further back than the Aztecs. The civilizations before, like the Toltecs and the Teotihuacans, were, in my opinion, even wiser and more interesting than the Aztecs. They had notions about what else was out there in the galaxy and how the planets moved. And they had a very detailed religious belief about the universe. In general, it went like this: There are thirteen levels in the overworld and nine levels in the underworld. The numbers sometimes vary, depending on the source, but what you need to know is that there are nine levels in Mictlán, the world of the dead. The end of the journey is the city of Mictlán. Souls travel down through all nine to meet the lords of death. So, when Mom and Dad talked to you, did they get specific about what they meant by 'going there'?"
I shook my head.
"They want me to take a leave of absence from school so they can train me for the trip. There's no way in hell I was going to take time off."
"I see," José María said, resting his chin in the palm of his hand. If he could have used a pipe as a prop, he would have. I had survived all his affectations for years, including this one.
Little Sherlock Holmes. The thought made me want to giggle, but I stopped myself.
"Surely you don't think they actually mean that it's a literal journey. Right? I mean, Mom and Dad believe a lot of stuff, but surely they can't believe in this underworld business?" I said.
"Why not? They believe in Catholic hell, right? And don't they also believe Jesus went zombie and flew up from a cave, leaving behind his Calvin Kleins, right?"
"Mom does, yeah. I guess Dad does, too. Good point," I said.
"And they still take me to mass each week to remind me not to go there. So, if they can believe in that..."
"José María, if only Mom could hear you, she would flip. And she would flip a table on you."
"Well, the issue is not belief," José María said. "As far as I can tell, Mom and Dad believe in what the Catholic Church says, but also all the stuff they told you and me about over the years. You know, all that cosmic shit."
I had stepped through the rites of the Catholic church, just as everyone else in the family did. I was baptized, made my first communion, was confirmed, and so on. But through these years, there were other kinds of trips: voyages to talk to the ocean, cross country drives to visit the California redwoods (but only at night), hikes in snake-covered hills that led up to the cascades in the state of Veracruz. Each time we had made those trips, my father had also performed rites on us. I didn't know what these were when I was a little kid, but my father called them rites. An anointing with sap from the trees, the little packets of amaranth he made us carry for "protection," the emerald beetles he made us hold in our hands in order to connect with the things that lived inside the soil--those little rituals had made José María and me a little different over the years.
I had grown up thinking that my father was simply very close to nature and that my mother had also been a nature lover, but in fact, José María and I had figured out that the truth went much deeper than just a love of trees. It didn't take much more than a glance around my peers to know that most of their parents were not performing rituals of gratitude in the woods. What my parents did with us had never been normal.
That petrified moss my father gave me was still in my pocket, and I felt it now with my hand, like a charm to hold my resentment toward all this superstition. I fingered it while the tech crews did the sound check and set up the stage for Rhinoceros.
I brought out the nugget of moss so José María could see it.
"I cannot believe that of all places in the Aragon, I ended up behind these two shitbags," said a voice behind me. I turned. Four feet behind me, sandwiched between two women in black lipstick, was the man in the brown work boots.
He had no idea we could hear his words. My stomach started to burn. He leaned over to a woman who I presumed might be his girlfriend. "These two..." he said, pointing to my brother and me. "Nothing but socialist pieces of shit. Fucking idiots."
There was no way José María was going to allow us to move from our spot beneath the stage, so I hoped that was the end of the exchange. My gut clenched and I felt anger flush my cheeks, though. I turned back to my brother. He was smiling at me, oblivious to the rage I was sending out with my eyes.
We turned around to ignore them.
"Things get interesting with legends like the one of the city of the dead," he said. "You know, Arkangel's written some good songs about Mictlán."
"I should have known this was coming," I said. "Of course Arkangel wrote about it."
My brother turned over the crusty flyer again so I could look at the ivory city inside the jaw of the invisible monster. He ran his thumb over the logo, tracing its sharp spikes and white lettering.
In the solar system of my little brother's life, there was him, a planet out in elliptical orbit, and at its center, a giant sun called Arkangel: a Norwegian band comprised of four men and one woman. Arkangel always performed in some sort of visor or mask, and they attracted the strangest kind of person to their concerts. From the moment José María heard them on YouTube, his obsession had never stopped.
"It's on an EP, CD-only limited run, I have it at the house. It describes the journey from death as a dance, and it talks about finding the entrance to Mictlán. Mictlán itself is a kingdom, and the song says it’s one of the most secret cities a human can ever find. But the narrator of the song can only get a glimpse of it, though, you know? It's fucking dark in there, but they know they have to get to a temple made of skulls, and this temple is located exactly in the heart of the city."
When you step inside the Palace of the Skulls.
"They seriously made a song about this?" I said.
"Is weed green?"
I clicked my tongue at my brother. More superstition, more coincidence. Electronic Norwegian death metal and too much weed equaled José María Montes.
Nothing but coincidence. This isn't rational. Just take in the info but leave it there. Too wacky. And don't forget he's still high.
"So, that's a nice coincidence and all, but it doesn't add up to much," I said. "That's only a song, and it has nothing to do with the legend. I am sure the band took huge liberties when they wrote it."
José María thought about what I said and nodded.
"You're destroying my little bubble, reina," he said. "Don't mess with Arkangel."
Such a drama queen.
This wasn't really getting me anywhere. My mother's request for me to go to Mictlán was nothing more than the fucked-up kind of stuff that I am sure every person went through with parents.
At least I hoped so.
It was time to abandon this wild goose chase. May as well be now.
"I've decided to just ignore what Dad and Mom told me about this 'trip,'" I said.
"It makes no sense at all, and it's going to keep me from moving on with OLF stuff. What you told me sounds good for a literature class, but I got bigger things to accomplish. Between you and me, what you heard about an act of defiance against the legislators is really happening. And there’s another march in the works. I can't lose time on this spooky stuff. It makes more sense to just get back to the OLF."
"I thought Dad told you to quit OLF."
I wasn't sure if José María was phrasing this as a statement or a question. It made my skin prickle, and the rage that was bubbling in me swelled. In some ways, he was just like my father.
"Dad's not in charge of that decision. He can't stop me from joining the campus chapter, and plus, he can't be there all the time to watch over me the way he'd like to."
"Is it true you guys are looking to target City Hall and the mayor?"
I frowned and crossed my arms, frustrated with José María's naiveté. The ceiling of the Aragon was dotted with tiny lights to give it the appearance of a night sky. How had I never noticed that before?
"Give it up, little brother. You get no info unless you want to get involved with us. The marches are public, you know? And there's plenty of internet groups you can join if you really want to find out."
"Oh, please. I ain't signing up for shit," José María said.
Applause interrupted us as the lights on the stage went dark, and we felt the space around us constrict as people took small steps to get closer to the stage. The sounds of the crowd filled the dome of the Aragon.
"There's still a bunch of other stuff you should know about Mictlán," José María. "But I'll tell you after the show."
Rhinoceros was known to take up to ten minutes to arrive on stage. Tonight was no different. Droning electronic tones filled the air while we waited for their emergence.
José María and I hooked our hands over the safety railing that divided the audience from the stage. Our hands did not resemble each other's, but they did lay bare our history: I wore several rubber bracelets on my right, and a cheap Casio watch on my left. Despite my long arms and legs, I had tiny hands and tiny nails. José María, on the other hand, gripped the steel railing with long talons. His wrist bone jutted out from his arm like a tumor, and the dark hairs on the back of his forearm shone under the powerful blue lights on the stage. Long and intricate designs looped and swirled on the skin of his arms, where he had drawn them using a black gel pen. They were rudimentary, crude images, drawn poorly and with lots of frequency. These were the tattoos my parents would never allow him to have. The primitive and desperate nature of these curling spines, birds and female faces on his skin were out in the open for anyone to see, and I felt an embarrassment for my brother that I could do nothing about. The Arkangel logo he had drawn in the crook of his elbow was now a dull smear. I was so embarrassed for him that I couldn't even tell him to roll down the sleeves of his hoodie.
There was no point in taking any action, because suddenly, music was pouring from the speakers that framed the stage, and the blue lights glowed brighter. We had stood in this crowded spot for two hours, enduring a dismal opening act. Now we finally had the payoff.
Rhinoceros took the stage swiftly, each band member moving with agility despite the fact that all of them were in their mid-fifties by now. The grind of the guitars made my ears ache from the first strum, but the music drenched my bones and my hair with a wave of sound. José María and I shared a love for these shows, and we got lost in the lumbering but sharp sound of the music. The main set lasted seventy minutes, and I don't recall ever lifting my hands off the railing. The air was thick and hard to breathe, but José María and I craned our necks toward the stage, where Cheetah the lead singer crooned their massive hit "Hail to the Chief."
After the main set, the crowd roared for an encore. We chanted and stomped for twenty minutes, until Rhinoceros came back to the stage. Before they started playing again, Cheetah took to the microphone.
"Chicago," he said, and the audience shrieked for almost a full minute. He pursed his lips and continued. "We just want to take a moment to acknowledge the tragedy that took place in Millennium Park just a few weeks ago. We have always loved your city."
The applause and shouting from the crowd went nuclear. It took a full minute for it to get quiet enough for Cheetah to get back to the mic.
"On this visit, we have noticed that the place looks grayer than usual. We feel the sadness and mourning as if we could almost touch it. Too much blood has been shed in this place, and we hope for peace."
The audience applauded.
"Now if only we could bring ourselves together and reject the anarchism that's splitting us apart, man. OLF, and Anonymous, we wouldn't be here today lamenting the graveyard that we created in Pritzker if it wasn't for the bullshit that groups like OLF cause.”
The noise from the audience became pure thunder.
“You know who you are, man,” Cheetah said. “If you're caught up in this shit, stop it. You're the very root of the problem, and you can take yourself out of it. You can prevent more bloodshed."
A series of boos rang throughout the Aragon, but they were few. Other voices cheered.
"If you're going to push for this kind of anarchy," Cheetah said, "just take yourself out of the equation."
"Take yourself out," chanted the crowd, an echo of thousands.
"Yeah, like this fucking traitor up front," shouted someone behind me. I knew the voice. It was the guy with the brown work boots. "We got two little OLFers right here."
I blushed, and José María turned to me, his face pale with fear. The crowd around us had turned to look at us, and the white lights from the stage burned my skin. Now even the band was looking at us.
"Leave the kid alone," someone shouted behind me.
"Traitors," someone else said.
"Anonymous pieces of shit," rang out.
"Fuck you and your kind."
"Terrorists," someone shouted.
José María had nothing to do with this, but now people were shouting names at him, too. The man in the work boots came up close and he tapped my shoulder hard with his index and middle fingers. I turned around and looked into his drunken face. The can of Miller in his hand was too likely to become a weapon if he decided to brandish it or toss it at me.
Suddenly, I felt sick, and a gray shroud clouded my vision. I was remembering hazy images, where I ran down a grassy field and shots rang out in the distance like thunder, and around me people kept on falling on their knees, their hands and backs. I could suddenly remember clearly the woman in the pile of bodies next to me, and the way her breath was there one moment, hot under the chilly air, then gone forever in the next. Her glassy eyes stared at me, pulling me in, tighter and tighter.
I felt out of air.
I was going to suffocate to death, and all the pain in my back and in my face came back, stabbing my insides and making me want to collapse to my knees, right here in front of everyone.
But I wasn't going to cry, and I told myself I was not going to pass out. Pain blasted inside my head, and I wondered if I was finally inheriting my mother's migraines.
"They should have popped you and the rest of them in that park," spat out the man in the work boots. I stood as tall as I could, and I spat the thickest phlegm I could find in my throat right onto his face.
"Fuck you," I said, and then he tossed beer in the air as he took a step toward me. He swung a punch near my ear, but he missed. Around us, the crowd was breaking out into shoving matches, and men and women got swept into a sea of bodies. Others were beginning to shove and taunt, and I knew more punches would be arriving soon. I had been beaten in the face once, and the humiliation of this punch by a stranger brought a sense of dread and rage into my gut.
A gnarled hand pulled me back, and I bucked and kicked away at it, until I saw it was my brother José María. He curled his long arms around my arms, and he literally yanked me out of that pit. He dragged me to the sides, where we could leave the crowd and follow the long hallways that led out to the stairs and eventually the exits.
This took some time, and all I could hear as José María dragged me was "We need to get out, we need to get out."
I glanced one last time at the stage, and it looked like the disturbance had dissipated. Rhinoceros was looping their guitar straps over the shoulders and starting up their encore.
As we bolted down the old stairway and down the long tunnel that led to the exit, I wanted to punch out, to tear away at something, anything. Maybe the T-shirt and merch table. Maybe flip the beer cart. I saw a trash can at the end, and I knew I would kick it as hard as I could. Finally, a target. José María still had me locked into his grip, and I got ready to let out my rage through my feet.
It was a long hallway, and now that Rhinoceros was back on stage, the tiled tunnel was virtually deserted.
At the end of the corridor, a final set of glass doors led to the street. These were plain double doors, just as one might find in a department store or office building. In the dim light of the hall, they gave off a strong reflection, almost like a mirror, and as my brother and I approached, I could see our ourselves in fairly sharp detail. Me in my checkered skirt and with my asymmetrical face, my brother's long frame swimming inside his hoodie and his face taut and pale.
"Stop running," someone shouted from the merch table, but we ignored them.
We ran as fast as we could, and time began to slow around me, my blood beating inside my ears like a drumbeat. It grew louder and louder, and the reflection in the glass doors began to change as we approached. José Maria and I were determined to fly out of here, hand in hand, running
(once, long ago, I ran with Edgar on a field of grass beneath a valley of skyscrapers)
(once, long ago, I had my original face)
and now the image in the glass grew black, like a pool of tar invading its surface. Our reflections grew sharper and more solid inside of it. With each step we took toward the glass, I noticed changes in our skin, too. As the glass grew black and glossy, our reflection in the mirror transformed. My skin had gone from brown skin and dark lashes to a bright crimson, wet and raw. As we approached our mirror images, blood spilled from our lips, as if we had just severed arteries or our skin had burst. My left eye, the one that was no longer working properly, was missing from my face in that black mirror, and the hole that remained showed the frame of the skull bone and a glimpse of raw brain inside. My lips had fallen off, and I could see all my teeth outlined in blood. I looked mutilated and severed. I was a body violated and putrid.
But José María’s reflection looked worse, as his hair fell away in the image and his full lips receded. His skin had gone dark and black, charred like barbecue. His hands dripped with blood, and his neck split open in the image. His skin had holes in it, and beneath these holes, there was nothing but raw flesh.
I screamed as the reflection grew more solid and we ran toward them.
I was not imagining this moment. José María shrieked next to me. He could see this disgusting reflection, too.
"Jesus Christ!" he shouted.
We were running too fast when we had started down the hall, and under normal circumstances, José María and I would have slowed down our gallop in order to pause, and then exited through the doors with caution. But that had not been the case. The dark reflection in front of us had mesmerized us, entranced us, and we had run toward it with magnetic speed, and now, just three feet away from the glass, we were going to crash right into the doors, possibly shattering the glass and cutting ourselves to ribbons, truly becoming the bloody images we saw in its reflection.
I let out a sound that was part cry, part bellow, but all fear.
José María had not let go of my hand, and his grip got tighter as he also braced himself for impact.
When we struck the glass, the first sensation I felt was that of sound rippling through my whole body, making my bones and organs vibrate and my head ring with tones like bells. The surface of the glass had gone soft, like gelatin, and we struck the double doors without a crash. Instead, we moved through the surface and into the darkness of the reflection inside. A symphony of sound enveloped us, and I thought that this was what it might feel like to be a molecule of air inside a violin. In the microseconds where we crossed through the barrier, sound surged so deeply inside my body that I felt my organs melting away, and the tension that had been in my body fade away into a velvety softness.
We fell forward for what fell like hours, and my stomach fluttered as if I had just leapt from the Hancock tower without a parachute. When we landed, we struck hard, dry earth, and small pebbles scraped my cheek.
I was facedown now, and the only thing that felt solid was my brother's hand intertwined in mine.
I looked up. We were in the dark that I had glimpsed in the other side. I couldn't make out anything, because night had taken over here. This was darkness. This was the kind of dark that had terrorized me as a child. This was the same darkness where the boogeyman lived, where Freddy Krueger slashed his film victims, and where my heart and my brain had always told me not to enter.
The symphonic sound I had heard was coming from a place above me, and in the dark, I got the sense that I was standing on some sort of flat surface, like a desert. Wind whipped around me, and I felt very, very cold. In the dark before me, I finally made out a single object as my night vision kicked in. I still couldn't see José María, or the ground, or anything except for the silhouette of the object in front of us. But I felt his hand, and I squeezed.
The object before us was pyramidal in shape, and possibly the size of a skyscraper. It was a triangle of ink set against a dark blue-black sky, and the symphonic sound was coming from its peak.
From the top, something was peering at my brother and me.
The thing itself emitted no light, and so there was nothing to see. But I knew that it occupied the space at the top of that triangular shape, and it was staring down at us.
When I looked at my brother's hand, all I could see was darkness, but the warmth of his skin was real.
José María, I tried to say.
But I had no words. Each time I opened my mouth to speak, no sound came out.
I tried screaming, and all I could hear was the blood beating inside my eardrums and a soft roaring sound, the breathing inside my lungs.
My heart beat too, very fast.
Do not let go, I tried to scream. Though no sound came out, I hoped at least my thoughts would carry across the dark to my brother. His hand tightened, and I propped him up on his feet. I stood shoulder to shoulder with him now. If I let go of his hand, I might lose him forever. There was so much silence here, except for the melancholy music that came from the shape in front of us.
I knew then that the structure in front of us was not a building. It was a mountain. Taller than any mountain I had ever seen. And up there, in the dark, something was making the saddest music I had ever heard in my life. The sound filled me with fear, and as the music grew louder in my ears, I realized that whatever made that sound was staring at us. The sound stirred sorrow in my heart.
I looked at the peak and searched for its eyes. I only saw a wall of onyx.
But it was looking at us.
And as its tones changed, some of them grew long and harsh, like a growl.
Then it grew silent. After a few moments, it began to emit long brassy knells. It was ringing a bell of some sort, and its tones pulsed long into the space around us.
The owner of those sounds was descending down the mountain.
I tried screaming, shouting, whistling, and nothing came out anymore. My vocal cords were gone, or I had done deaf, or worse. But I couldn't be deaf, because the bells and moans were closer now.
The cold air pressed itself against my skin, and I was thankful I could still feel at least that. This darkness was like nothing I had ever seen. It was the world of the blind.
The bells echoed and their infernal sound banged in my eardrums. It felt so loud that it hurt.
I took two deep breaths to think about what to do, but two breaths were all I ever got. The thing that crept down the side of the mountain came down faster, moaning and murmuring, and its sound flooded my ears. Though I was blind, I shut my eyes as it sprinted toward us.
The bells rang through my whole body, making it shake.
I felt something let go inside of me, like a string popping on a guitar, and my eyes flew open.
I wasn't ready to die.