To 2015 - 2016

By Sherry Luo

  1. Untitled
    By Sadea Campbell
Nathan awoke to find himself facing a skull, so close that he was almost kissing its corn-yellow teeth. “Oh, f*****-up ****!” he yelled as he wriggled away, caterpillar-like, in his sleeping bag. He practically swam through the underbrush, or at least tried to; his stroke belonged less to a human and more to an insect writhing in mindless agony. The greater the distance between him and the skull, Nathan thought wildly, the faster he could erase the disturbing memory from his freshly scarred mind. 
After another few seconds of flailing and thrashing on the ground like a spastic breakdancer, Nathan reined in his composure, if only because the sudden adrenaline attack exhausted him and he wasn’t getting anywhere. Calm yourself. It’s just a skeleton. It’s not as if it’s a fresh corpse or anything. He laughed aloud at how he had reacted but cut himself off when his voice cracked from lack of use. Nathan’s laughter, a sound usually saturated with gaiety, felt unnatural to him; amongst the reticent pine soldiers and the reserved elm lords cloaked in their emeralds and chartreuse, his laugh was the awkward squawk of a lowly page who spoke out of turn. Nathan hadn’t talked to anyone ever since he bid farewell to the gracious apricot grower who had given him a ride on his truck bed. Gosh, that must’ve been what? Four days ago?

Nathan crawled closer to the skeleton. With his cocked to the side, Nathan approached it like he would a piece of abstract art, wanting to understand it but hopelessly failing. When he bedded down last night, he must have mistaken it for a misshapen log under the illusory cover of night. And to think I almost sat on it. The skull wore a thick beard of velvety moss, complete with sideburns. Its frozen smile was the keyboard of a harpsichord, with more ebony than ivory keys hanging off its frame. The skeleton’s clothes lay limp with no live flesh to buttress them, their colors weak and thin from exposure to the elements. Its eyes were commensurate to chasmal craters.

The skeleton looked offbeat to Nathan, who was used to seeing perfectly symmetric skeletons with pristine plastic bones wheeled around on stands. This one was shriveled, dried up, as if it had been baked and its succulent marrow sucked out. The rib cage was caved in, the spine serpentine, the fingers bent at torturous angles. Decades old, Nathan wagered. A century, maybe. Old enough that he was more fascinated than worried by its presence.

Suddenly, the skeleton twitched, as if it was waking from a long nap. Nathan stiffened in alarm, but it was merely a family of voles trundling sleepily out of the nest that they had made in the skeleton’s cavities. “Christ,” Nathan muttered.

He packed up his belongings hurriedly, driven more by an underlying unease than anything else. Nathan headed down the slope towards the bottom of the wooded valley, not looking back even once; he was bent on keeping the skeleton out of his thoughts. Easy enough to do, seeing as how the basal cravings of his stomach were taking over his mental faculties. For his breakfast he ate some dried fruit that he washed down with stagnant water. Tough, chewy, and sickly sweet. Food was too generous a term to call what he ate. I‘d give anything for a shower and a hot meal right now. A two week photography trip in the wild bowels of Spain certainly seemed more promising from the insides of a National Geographic magazine. Nathan had hoped that this trip would prove to be a debriefing experience for him, but la majestad of mountain range after mountain range was quickly waning for him. You see one mountain, you’ve seen them all. And all for what? A nice wallpaper for my laptop that I can probably get from Google Images, that’s what.

It was late morning when, after wallowing in these deep thoughts, Nathan came upon a cliffside clearing; the sun shone down on the valley, its beams falling in buttery cascades, melting away the last threads of morning mist that clung to the mountains like stubborn strands of white hair on a green sweater. If Nathan squinted, he could make out a silvery beryl thread of a river weaving its way through the verdure. The view would have been breathtaking to Nathan had he not already taken more than three hundred photos of some variation of it. Still... he couldn’t resist. He turned on his Nikon and swept it across the length of the valley. He toyed with the settings, fiddled with the zoom. Right when he was about to press the shutter button, something caught his eye. At the bottom of the valley stood a steeple, a slim, gray turret that floated like a buoy in the sea of foliage. Nathan couldn’t find a town or a river marked on his map, but their questionable existences mattered little to him. A steeple meant a church, a church meant people, and people meant food and shelter. All of the soreness in Nathan’s muscles, all of the sluggish dregs in his brain, were wiped clean with the beautiful thought of salvation. If I make good time, I can get there by late afternoon, he thought. 

All thoughts of the skeleton were consigned to oblivion.

Anyone, anyone, anyone…” Only spectral echoes came back to meet Nathan, echoes that galloped freely down empty cobblestone paths, up stone walls washed white by the sun, only to evaporate into the ether by their lonesome selves. No birds flaunted their arias or anthems, no cicadas their descants; no wind challenged the suffocating stillness.

God, what’s wrong with the world today? “HELLOOOOO!”

“Please stop yelling. We can hear you from the other side of town,” said a voice behind Nathan. Nathan whipped around, almost bowling over an old man. The shadow cast by the old man’s newsboy cap could not hide sharp flint eyes from which crow’s feet sprouted like cobwebs. His stooped stance made his blue jacket and pants look frumpier than they probably were. Patches of downy nimbus grew on his earlobe like fuzzy, white mildew.

“You speak English really well,” Nathan marveled, relieved. Indeed, the old man had a surprising command of the English language, much better than Nathan's rudimentary Spanish that he limped along with.

“Oh, yes. I have had much time to myself to learn many things. You see, there is not much to do here.” They shook hands; the old man’s felt brick-rough.

“Yeah, I can definitely see that. So where is ‘here’ exactly?”

“This town is called Saba. Although it has been a very long time since anyone called it anything.” The old man licked his sunken lips. Nathan could see that he had one rotting tombstone of a tooth buried in his gray gums.

“And you are…?”

“My name is Amaranto. Amaranto Vasco.”

“That’s cool. I’m Nathan Frye.”

“I see. You are American?”

“Yeah. From Wisconsin, actually.” Idiot. How could you expect him to know what Wisconsin is?

“Wisconsin. I see.” Amaranto nodded in a politely curious manner.

Nathan coughed awkwardly and shoved his hands into his pockets, rocking on the balls of his feet. He felt very self-conscious standing next to Amaranto; every article of clothing he owned (all brand-new, all polyester, and all radioactively neon) was affiliated with some American outdoor sporting brand. He felt like the world’s greatest douchebag next to Amaranto, whose clothes looked like they could be older than Nathan.

“ said ‘we.’  Is there someone else with you?”

“Yes, my wife. Mi esposa. We live over there,” Amaranto said, waving at wherever “there” was.

“Can I meet her?” Nathan wasn't sure if he asked out of curiosity or desperation for human company. Maybe both.

Por supuesto.” Amaranto led Nathan through the desolate town of Saba. The only thing more plentiful than the vampiric weeds that thrived along the roads were the shattered red roof tiles that lay at the mouths of beckoning doorways like shredded carnation petals. Even though the town was completely devoid of living beings, Nathan still had an unearthly sensation of being watched by the scores of empty houses with their square, black, dead irises.

As they walked, Amaranto pointed out the town’s landmarks, most of which were the homes of prominent figures when Saba was still rife with life. The undertaker’s house, the sheriff’s, the priest’s, the mayor’s. “And there, that is where the children went to school,” he said, pointing with a crooked finger at a longish building. Part of its roof was caved in; skeletal rafters eerily jut upward like broken fingers reaching for the sky and the windows were grimly boarded up. Nathan couldn’t imagine children going to school in such a forlorn place as this.

“Were you a teacher here?”

“No, I was a goat herder.”

“Oh. Nevermind.”

They could soon hear the sound of splashing water. Behind the houses where Amaranto and his wife lived (Nathan only assumed so as the house was better taken care of than the others, although not by much) was an old woman washing clothes against a washboard in a wooden basin. Her rhythmic scrubbing sounded oddly soothing to Nathan.

At the sound of their approach, Amaranto’s wife looked up, disgruntled, as if they had caught her in the middle of doing something of the utmost important. When she saw Nathan in his all-American getup, a shadow of suspicion eclipsed her shrewd, beady eyes.

¿Quién es él?” she asked, pointing her chin at Nathan. Amaranto calmly explained everything to his bristling wife in a baritone Spanish spoken so low and smoothly that it sounded like a deep purr to Nathan. He must have convinced his wife of Nathan’s innocence somehow, for she rose, wiped her hands on the front of her dress, and although she didn’t smile, her expression became less gruff.

“I apologize, Nathan,” said Amaranto. “This is my wife Perpetua, but you may call her Peppi.”

Buenas tardes, Peppi,” Nathan said. He offered his hand for her to shake, but she just shuffled past him without a word.

“She is always like that around strangers,” Amaranto said. “You will see that she is actually quite amiable. You will join us for supper, I presume?” Nathan heartily accepted.

They met Peppi inside a building that was large and spacious, sparsely furnished with hand-crafted benches and tables, their craftsmen who knows where. Peppi was already seated with the meal laid out. Nathan was sorely disappointed at the fare, which turned out to be nothing more than oily greens and tubers and bread that was so coarse it tasted as if sand had been kneaded into the dough. Nathan forced himself to swallow everything, thinking of it as exercise for his jaw and esophagus, mustering up all of his willpower to not grimace.

“Tomorrow,” said Amaranto, mushing his food between his gums, “we will have a proper feast. One fit for a guest. ¿Qué crees tú, Peppi?”

Peppi nodded. She stared out the window and chewed somberly.

“That would be nice,” said Nathan. He decided it was time to probe the old man. “So how long have you two lived like this? This town, Saba, it must have been full of people once. What happened here?”

“What happened indeed?” Amaranto chewed for a while longer before responding. “La Guerra Civil Española.

“The Spanish Civil War? What does that have to do with anything?”

“People here left to find work in the cities. One year, two years, everyone gone. More money, better lives; that is why they left. I wanted to leave as well, but Peppi… she refused. Again and again. She was born here, she wants to die here. As for me, it would be nice to see people again, talk to them, live with them. But I cannot leave Peppi here alone. That would kill her. We have been alone together-” he paused. “For a very long time. This town, it used to be alive. The streets were never quiet, never empty. We had tavernas, with the best dancing and the best music.” Amaranto closed his eyes, reminiscing over fleeting days, endless nights.

“We had a daughter once, you know. La plaga took her from us when she was barely nine.”

“What was her name?” Nathan asked.

“Arete. Our sweet, blessed Arete.” replied Amaranto. His voice quavered like a shimmering heat wave.

Basta,” said Peppi brusquely. She rose, cleared the table, and left. Nathan felt as if an apple diseased with maggots was shoved down his throat whole. He had gone too far and he knew it; he shouldn’t have asked about their daughter. His face felt as red as the flesh of a grapefruit from the overwhelming shame.

“I’m sorry. I asked too many questions.”

“No, no, the fault is mine. I rambled. The past upsets her, you see.” Amaranto glanced outside. The length of the shadows against the sunbaked earth surprised him. “Night is fast approaching. It would be best for you to find a place to sleep. The church is probably the most comfortable place. I will take you there.” Even though Nathan could probably find the church on his own, he was glad for the old man’s company. It meant safety and forgiveness.

The inside of the church was as disappointing as the meal Nathan had just eaten. Only two shabby pews were left in the nave of the drafty church. The frescoes on the ceiling were mostly crumbled away, chips of cerulean still stuck stubbornly to the damaged plaster; only the eyes of the Virgin Mary and the word protego seemed to have escaped the ravages of time. Fat, homemade candles gently lit the front of the altar. On the wall glowed the flaky message: Limosna para las almas del purgatorio.

“The priest’s room will be to your liking, I think. I will have Peppi will bring some blankets for you later.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. I have everything I need right here.” Nathan patted his backpack.

“I see then.” Amaranto eyed his backpack with more than a little bit of skepticism as if he could not believe that Nathan’s North Face backpack could hold as much warmth as a scratchy sheet of burlap could. “Well, I will leave you to it. Buenas noches, Nathan. I will see you tomorrow?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow. Buenas noches, Amaranto.” The first thing that Nathan pulled out when Amaranto left was not his sleeping bag, but his Nikon. The dusky lighting in the church made for some decent photos, and he didn’t want to miss this chance. Shot after shot after shot he took, until his battery almost died on him. Nathan planned to explore all of Saba the next day. That night he fell asleep with a peculiar feeling that he could not place until he was on the verge of unconsciousness: contentment. That’s what I needed, a change of scenery. A change…
Nathan awoke to the sound of solid whacking. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he felt refreshed and drained at the same time. He felt stiff, too. That’s weird. I guess I slept on my side for too long.

Behind the church, he found Peppi breaking down a hunk of meat with a cleaver that had a mottled blade speckled with what could be blood, rust, or a combination of both. Up close, the whacking was more of a squelching. Peppi’s cragged, bark-like hands were bloodied crimson from handling offal.

Buenos días, Peppi.”

She grunted. “Cabrito. Para estofado.

Goat. “¿De dónde?” he asked.

She told him how her husband raised a few goats in a paddock outside of Saba. “Ah, entiendo.” He held up his camera. “¿Puedo tomar fotos?” She stared at him. He was afraid that yesterday’s incident would compel her to refuse him. “¿Fotografías?” he asked again. She nodded, perhaps a bit grudgingly. He let out a sigh of relief, glad that the old woman was able to put yesterday behind her.

He knelt and took shots of her bloody hands deftly handling the goat meat; even with the arthritis that was surely tormenting her swollen knuckles, whorled as the knot of a tree, her movements were fluid and practiced, showing the years she spent as the wife of a goat herder. Peppi, her wrinkled cheeks scrunched up in an expression of absolute focus, flipped a steak over, a cyclone of flesh, sinew, and blood. Such movement, what a story!
Amaranto, sitting by a fire, ribbons of orange plasma throwing up skeins of smoke to be torn to tatters by the wind. With a half-whittled block of wood laid across his thighs, the old man stared wistfully past the mountains at wherever “there” was, wishing that he could break his ties with the land. After years of gazing the sun had leeched all color from the top of his newsboy cap.
Peppi, picking laurel, rosemary, tarragon, dill, sage, thyme, fennel, mint, cloves, every imaginable spice or herb from an untamed field. The fumes of the herbs practically seeped through the lens of Nathan’s camera, a vibrant attack on all the unsuspecting senses. Peppi, daintily picking saffron from crocuses, her gnarled fingers smoothly pinching the red tendrils into her lap that unknowingly held thousands of dollars’ worth. The laps of her unstrung leather boots sticking up, tasting the afternoon dust.
Amaranto’s hands, taking a pot of goat stew and a plate of morcilla from Peppi’s. His hands, with rivulets of wrinkles and shadows and as many lines as a contour map, as many liver spots as puddles after a rain. Oftentimes by the end of the day, Nathan’s hands would be stiff as hell from holding his camera up for so long, his back radiating red hot pain from stooping, crouching, kneeling. Every morning he felt it was harder for him to wake up; often his kneecaps throbbed and trembled, threatening to buckle. His bowels seemed more unpredictable, too. It’ll all pass eventually. Hopefully.
Nathan took a long, deep draught of cool water drawn in a crude bucket from the depths Saba’s only well; it tasted more satisfying than any refrigerated, store-bought mineral water. Lately his throat always felt sandpaper-dry, no matter how much water he downed. Just as he was about to drop the bucket back into the well, he stopped.

My reflection. He had expected himself to look rugged (he’d been without a proper shower or shave for nearly two weeks now), but he looked a mess. The bags under his eyes looked like sagging, rotting grapes with their skins primed to slough off. He touched his face with shaking fingers and felt creases in his yellow-tinged, parchment skin that felt as delicate as a brittle winter leaf. Wrinkles? Confusion spiraled into panic. What’s happening to me? He started to hyperventilate, but stopped when he heard and felt an ominous rattling in his lungs, a rattling that sounded like dried seed pods clapping together in the wind. Brown spots, as bountiful as those on a ripe  banana, crawled all over the back of his hands. And his hair. As gray as sooty sleet. He looked old. Ancient.
Nathan realized something was off in his photos as he was browsing through them. Here was a photo of Amaranto on Nathan’s first day in Saba, shouldering a bundle of firewood. Here was one of him yesterday, sweeping the doorways of empty homes with a makeshift broom made of fallen pine needles. In both photos Nathan zoomed in to Amaranto’s face. It appeared healthier, creamier, less like a scale model of the Canón do Sil. His hair, which used to be nothing more than cirrus clouds, was darker, fuller in the more recent photograph. Amaranto’s movements were more spritely, his grin more boyish. Nathan had a feeling that if he looked at photos of Peppi, he would see the same changes in her as well. And he knew that if he looked at his reflection again he’d find his forehead a freshly tilled field with rows of skin ridges.
“Amaranto. I need to speak with you.” Nathan caught Amaranto battling obstinate weeds that had latched to the sides of his home. Nathan tried to look the old man in the face, but Amaranto seemed to be unusually focused in his task. Even with the brim of the newsboy cap obscuring most of Amaranto’s face, Nathan could tell that his camera did not lie to him.

“What is it?”

Nathan opened his mouth, then closed it; he decided to take a less direct approach than what he had originally intended. “Does Saba have a cemetery? ¿Un cementario?

Amaranto paused, his hand still clamped, vice-like, over a weed. “Why do you want to know?” he said, still not looking up.

“I’m curious about the history of this place. Plus, you know, I might get a good photo or two.”

“I see.” Amaranto straightened and pointed north. “You will find the town cemetery there, in a field at the edge of the village. I would accompany you there, but I must find Peppi. I trust you can find your way there on your own.” Without even waiting for a response, Amaranto whisked away around a corner. Nathan could hear the unsettlingly swift pat pat pat of his footsteps.

The cemetery was the largest Nathan had ever seen, with tombstones sprinkled everywhere, adhering to an indiscernible pattern in placement. There was a staleness in the air that rested on Nathan’s tongue like thick pollen. He did not want to linger, but he forced himself to meticulously comb every cluster (cluster? row? column?) of graves, deciphering every lichen-eaten name. “Arete, Arete, where are you?” Nathan muttered under his breath. Rodolfo, Ulises, Emygdia, Sense, Nieve, Zacarias, Arete. Arete! That’s it!
Arete Vasco
7.19.1596 - 12.31.1605
La juventud robada.
That can’t be. That just can’t be. Nathan perused the other graves for another nine-year-old Arete Vasco but knew in his heart that the only Arete here died over four hundred years ago, and her gravestone said it all: the stolen youth.

“So what will you do, child?” Nathan whipped around. Big mistake. He moved too suddenly and twisted his back. Pain had never felt this real, his screams this silent.

Amaranto and Peppi loomed over him, callous giants with new faces, new bodies that were not theirs. “You cannot reclaim what is already lost.”

“Get away from me, you freaks! Monsters! Stay back! Get away!” he hissed through gritted teeth, swatting weakly at them as though their youth hid the fragility of a fly. Nathan stood; he would happily shoulder twice his current pain to escape the couple’s hungry, lustful stares that threatened to engulf him whole. He hobbled, limped, dragged himself into the dark safety of the Spanish pines and underbrush, away from this screwed up fantasy world.

“Goodbye, Nathan. We wish you Godspeed.”

It was only a matter of minutes before Nathan found himself crawling on all fours. He moved and breathed through molasses with all the strength of a desiccated moth. Nathan collapsed with his cheek against a soft mound of black earth; it was like pressing his cheek against a freshly plumped pillow filled with goose down. Through his increasingly hazy vision, he caught a fuzzy glimpse of the burnished valley, the benevolent sun bathing it in a corona of red gold. That’d make a beautiful ph​