It was on Sunday afternoon, after Simon Valencia’s family had returned from church, that the town finally discovered El Chato’s body. El Chato hadn’t missed a day of mass since he’d moved back to the town after over a decade of fighting Guerrilleros in the mountains and jungles of Colombia. Upon returning, he was missing one leg, three fingers, and a whole mind. People said he had been a troublemaker, robbed some stores and almost killed his older brother in a drunken fight. So, his father, with few options and even fewer savings, had lied about his son’s age and sent him off to serve in the army at fifteen—to become a man. At thirty-three, El Chato had stepped on a landmine, and over time everyone in the town had come to recognize the tap of his cane as he limped to church every Sunday and back from the bar every Friday night.
After church, Simon’s family prepared lunch. The smell of spices boiling in water wafted through the house and into the backyard, where the Valencia family grew some crops and kept a small fenced-in plot for their chickens.
Simon followed his father out the back door and toward the clucking and stopped walking, leaving some space between them. He watched his father’s tanned, broad arm pluck a frantic blur from the ground.
Simon closed his eyes.
The crack of chicken necks echoed in his dreams every week after the Sunday killing.
He followed his father and the dead animal that swung from his rolled-up sleeves, mouth agape and blue eyes closed, to the tree stump. It lay beyond the sheets that his mother had once put out to dry. She’d left them there, no doubt to conceal the stump from their white brick house and his two younger sisters, Sofia and Rosario, whose curious shadows were visible from the window. Simon looked down at the bloodied ax in his hands and couldn’t recall if it had been handed to him or if he had picked it up on the way. He was tall for his age, but his father still towered over him and blocked the afternoon sun with his wide-brimmed sombrero. Church bells tolled in the distance as his father flung the chicken on the rippled surface of the stump. He dutifully handed his father the ax and his eyes escaped the gore beside him and landed on his father’s face. He tried to memorize the expressions—the furrowed brow against the heat, the clenched teeth, the inscrutable eyes—so that he could imitate them later. His job was to stand and hold the ax every time his father needed both hands to pluck and skin the corpse, and to discard the leftover pieces after his father was finished. Now that Simon was nearing thirteen, he would soon be the one to crack the animal’s spine and wield the ax, as his father never failed to remind him. He brought it up as if it was a gift he was saving, winking and laughing.
“You’re getting strong, my son,” he would say, and squeeze Simon’s skinny arms, “ready to crack a chicken’s neck—maybe even a man’s. Crrrk!” he’d say, followed by a harsh, guttural laugh. “I’ll teach you everything. To be a man like me. Look!” slapping his own biceps, “A real man.”
After they were done, Simon delivered the skinned carcass to his mother. He stooped down next to the stump and let the remains, feathered strings of skin and fat, plop from his red fingers into a bucket. He took it to the side of the house where a group of mutts, attracted by the smell of blood, licked it all up. Then, he washed his hands with a splash of water from a basin and walked to the front of the house where his father rocked on a chair next to the open front door. A glass in one hand and a bottle in the other. Inside, Simon could hear the pressure cooker whistling and his mom’s radio that blared news about a burial site they had just discovered in a cave somewhere near the Amazon with the bodies of sixteen missing children. Sad new victims of la guerrilla, the reporter was saying, all under eighteen.
When his father saw him, he stood up and went inside. After a few seconds, he emerged with another cup and, handing it to Simon, signaled for him to take a seat in the chair next to his. Father was always exceptionally cheerful after the killing. He took a sip and began telling Simon how proud he was of him, his only boy.
Simon brought the glass to his nose and sniffed. The smell burned his insides.
His father continued, “In life, there are two things for a man to love, Simon. Just two things, you hear? Good. The first is women—above all else, love women, son. You understand? Good, good. And the second—”
His father tapped the bottle in his hand and drank straight from the mouth even though the glass in his hand was still full. He smiled wide and jabbed Simon in the ribs, looking at him and the full cup in his hands.
Simon brought it to his lips and his throat tightened at the smell. He held his breath and took a sip, and just as an unfortunate gag escaped from his innermost being, Señor Guarnizo came running down their street, holding his hat to keep it from flying off his balding head. He was still wearing his church pants but had taken off the shirt and jacket and now stood before the two of them, droplets of sweat pooling at the edges of his weak mustache.
He lurched forward with hands on his knees to catch his breath before looking up with wide eyes, “Don Leonardo, El Chato was found dead in his home. Looks like a suicide, shot right through the head. There’s blood everywhere, a real brave death,” he waved his hands wide over his head, and to Simon’s horror continued to describe the scene in detail for some minutes. Soft brains sprinkled with gritty cranium stained the floor.
“Officer Pepe said to call you and see if you were available—they already took most of the body away, but he requested a few men help clean up.” Panting and wide-eyed, he waited for a response.
Smiling at this call for manhood, Papa sipped the rest of his glass before telling Simon to run in and grab his shoes. Simon felt his cheeks turn cold, and as he searched for an excuse that he knew he couldn’t find, his mama called his name from the kitchen. Simon felt a wave of relief wash over him. He jumped up, mumbled goodbye to Señor Guarnizo, and ran inside, following the aroma of warmth that flowed from his mother’s freckled bosom.
She embraced him when he walked into the kitchen before handing him a peeler and a bucket of potatoes. “Help me here, baby.”
He grabbed a potato and let the skin plop into the sink. He watched the two men outside the window become smaller and smaller, walking briskly to El Chato’s house.
His mother leaned over him to stare.
“Where’s your papa off to now?” She asked.
Simon told his mother about El Chato’s suicide, but didn’t tell her about the blood.
She shook her head, grabbing a potato and another peeler and moving to stand next to him over the sink. “Lunch is almost ready,” looking at her watch. Then after a moment, she added, “If Chato wanted hell he didn’t have to kill himself—he was going there anyway.”
She left and came back a second later with Soledad, Simon’s youngest sister. She rocked and kissed her, and then began breastfeeding her while Simon continued to peel.
Her scorn toward El Chato surprised Simon. His father always spoke well of him, and admired his service in the army and functional, religious devotion to the bottle. El Chato was known to have murdered over twenty guerrilleros—but he didn’t just shoot them. He tortured them.
The stories circulated through the town, and Simon’s friends idolized him, arguing over who would get to be El Chato when they reenacted scenes of guerrilleros being violently murdered. And if their mothers hadn’t sent for them to go back home when the sun had set, they sat in a circle and recited the tales they’d heard about El Chato’s time in the army in as much gory detail as they could think up, their whispers more terrifying than those of the blackness around them. In one story, El Chato tied one guerrillero up and left him flopping around like a fish while he passed a lawnmower over the body. In another one, he forced a guerrillero to swallow glass. In a third, he tied one to a tree and sawed its head off—while the guerrillero was still alive. Legend was, he still had the head, preserved in a glass jar under his bed. He told people it helped him sleep at night.
An hour passed and then two. Sofia and Rosario had been crying and pulling at their mother’s apron, complaining that they were hungry. But nobody could eat without father, and Simon did his best to distract them by putting on a show for them with their dolls. His mother walked back from her bedroom, exhaustion in her eyes. She had just spent an hour putting Soledad to sleep.
The table had been set for almost two hours. As he held a doll in each hand, his sisters absorbed by the doll show, heavy steps trudged up the porch steps. Finally, after almost three hours, their father had returned.
They watched him walk through the door holding a bulky object wrapped in a sheet under his arm. He glanced at Simon and the dolls in his hands and scowled. “What the fuck are you doing?”
He smelled of sweat and alcohol, and Simon knew he’d been to the bar. And there was something else, a smell Simon couldn’t identify. It was the smell of the color gray, of wet stone, of mold. It reminded Simon of the smell of his grandmother’s ancient doll collection—it was the smell of decaying time.
Simon let the dolls drop to the floor.
“I’m starving,” Father said and let the sheet under his arm drop to the floor, revealing a dusty, green orb. He took care to place it gently before them, on the middle of the dinner table. It made a light, clinking sound. There was a second of silence between the delicate echo of glass and his mother’s glass-shattering scream. Soledad, awakened by the noise, began crying in the other room.
There, on the counter, with its swollen eyes wide open and a curved mustache, was a head.
It was The Head, Simon realized, guardian of El Chato’s dreams and nightmares, keeping watch for years from underneath his bed from the thickness of its dusty, eternal orb. Simon could feel his mouth hanging open as he stared at what he’d always imagined was a made-up story. There it was before him, its features disfigured and magnified by the liquid and thick glass, its sun-damaged forehead, the scaly yellow cheeks, and the thick, black lips. It was a boy, just some years older than him.
His mother’s face was pale. She began to speak, but his father spoke over her, ordering Simon to pray over the food. He nodded and closed his eyes, thankful not to have to look at the thing anymore.
Simon prayed over his sisters’ whimpers, speaking slowly, hoping to give his mother time to compose herself. “Amen,” he said, but nobody repeated after him.
Father began slurping his soup.
“Dios mío, Leonardo—where did that—what did you just put on my table?” his mother’s voice shook.
Father scowled and threw his hand back toward his ear dismissively, as if flinging her anger away. “El Chato died today,” he said. “I found The Head. Nobody wanted to keep it, so I did.” He looked at it and the corner of his mouth turned upward slightly, and then hearing Soledad’s cries for the first time, said “Can you get your damned baby, please?”
His wife slammed the table and let her chair scoot back across the clay tiles as loudly as she could. She disappeared behind her bedroom door, letting it close as loudly as she could.
Simon sat and stared at his soup, which had cooled and the grease was congealing into little perfect circles on the surface. His father finished eating and stood up. Simon watched him wipe the sweat and grease off his face with a rag as he walked out the front door, leaving it open behind him. He heard the creak of his rocking chair on the porch, then the radio, then a lighter. He smelled cigarette smoke and then made out the distinctly familiar crrrk of the seal being broken off a bottle through the open window, and knew it was time to put his sisters to bed. He coaxed them into eating some of their soup and carried them into their shared bed, praying over them. Just as he was about to step out, he heard footsteps in the hall. He paused and listened.
His father picked up the head from the table, letting the glass echo on the wood, and carried it into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
The house was still. Something inside him felt uneasy. He couldn’t go back to his own bed, so he crawled into the sheets with his sisters and fell asleep beside them.
He awoke the next morning to Soledad’s cries coming from his parent’s room. Outside, the sun was beginning to rise. After a minute, the crying intensified and then there was a loud thud. A door creaked open and then someone ran into a chair in the living room. He listened. Whispered swearing gave way to hushed sobs. The front door slammed. Next to him, his sisters stirred. He waited until they were snoring again and then slipped out. The air was chilly for an August morning. He peered into his parents’ bedroom, where they shared a bed next to a small crib for Soledad. It was empty.
He tiptoed into the living room and froze at the sight of his mother sobbing at the dining table. Next to her was The Head, blending more and more into the landscape of their home.
It watched Simon. In the light of day, Simon could see that its features seemed to have changed. It looked older. The day before it had been the head of a boy, but now it was clearly the head of a middle-aged man, with dark circles under its eyes and wrinkled sun spots on its cheeks. Its expression, the way the guerrillero had looked in the last moment of his life with his body tied to a tree and El Chato with a saw to his throat, wasn’t one of fear, despite the wide eyes and arched eyebrows. Rather, it was pride, the way his chin stuck up and the corners of his mouth turned inwards. The ears had a pinkish color—a real lively color, like if The Head had stepped out in the cold of the previous night and come back in the morning. Simon marveled at the thought that El Chato had really killed this man with a saw.
A part of him longed to stick his head upright against the glass and taunt it, mock it, shout insults at it just to see what it would do. A loud sob brought him back.
“Mama?” He asked hesitantly. “Mama, what’s wrong?”
He stared around the room.
“Where’s papa?” The quiet of the house was eerie. “Mama, where’s Sole?” He asked. “Mama, did Papa take Sole somewhere? Mama?”
Her sobbing became louder, and he looked around the room frantically in case he’d missed her the first time he looked and she was simply crawling around some corner of the room. He ran back into his parent’s room again and looked inside the crib. The stuffed cow that Sole slept with was sitting upright in a corner, grinning. He yanked the sheet off his parent’s bed. There was a bit of blood smeared across them. He ran back out and, crying, embraced his soft, melting mother.
“Mama? Mama? What happened mama?”
“Sole’s gone to Heaven,” she managed and began sobbing again. “Your—I–I rolled over her in bed while we were sleeping,” she said and cried loudly on Simon’s shoulder. “Papa’s taken her to be buried now.”
Simon felt his face hot and as the tears dropped, he looked to The Head once more. It seemed to frown at him. Men don’t cry. He wiped his tears and pulled away from his mother’s warmth. He walked into the kitchen and opened Father’s cupboard, extricating the bottle and two glasses. He brought one to his mother, and though she hated it when his father drank, she took the glass from him without protesting and they drank together.
After some hours, Father came back. His footsteps lifted Simon’s head from the table where he’d fallen asleep. His mom was making lunch in the kitchen and his sisters, unaware of what had occurred, could be heard playing in their room, away from The Head. Father sat next to him at the table. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and despite just having buried his daughter, his face was dry and composed. He hadn’t cried, Simon knew, and he hoped that his own eyes weren’t swollen and red. His father grabbed the bottle from the table and served himself while his mother walked past them and into her room, emerging with the broom. She began sweeping the floor. As she got closer, Simon noticed that one of her eyes was swollen. He thought it was from crying, but then realized that a bruise had begun to form around the corners, black and yellow. He let the thought that he’d been keeping on the edge of his mind creep in. Sole always sleeps in her crib.
He looked at his father, sitting next to him, drinking and smoking and staring at The Head. Sometime while Simon hadn’t been looking, The Head had aged even more. It was that of an older man, with a bald spot at the top of his head and white-blue hair. The smell was so intense now that even through the cigarette smoke there was that scent of ashes and dried up dirt.
Simon was about to comment on The Head’s morphing appearance to his father when, without looking up from the floor she was sweeping, mother hissed, “Don’t smoke in my house, Leonardo, please.”
He ignored her, letting the ashes fall directly on the table.
This was too much. She looked up at him now and threw the broom to the side, the sound of it devastatingly loud against the floor. She narrowed her eyes and said, “I said stop smoking, and get this—this head that’s on my table out of my fucking house, please.”
Before Simon could see it coming, his father’s hand struck her across the face.
“Are you going to keep disrespecting me today?” he screamed.
His mother began sobbing again. Simon had seen his father strike his mother many times before, but there was something different about her today. She lurched forward toward the broom and swung it across his father’s face, but he caught it and ripped it from her arms.
Beside them, The Head was laughing. Simon could see its thin, levitating hair shaking in the blue pond of its existence. Water bubbles popped out of its orange mouth, black and bloody.
Simon realized that The Head was that of El Chato, whom he’d observed many times from his pew in church. It laughed and urged father on, blood pouring out of his mouth.
Father threw himself on his mother, cursing and screaming—Simon saw this last scene from the corner of his eye because he was already halfway out the back door, running toward the stump. He found what he was looking for and when he returned, his mother was on the floor barely moving now. His father was still screaming. Simon looked at El Chato on the table. It urged him on.
Simon swung the axe over his head.
A head rolled across the floor.