Highway without an Ox
If we had realized it was a human being, we wouldn’t have stopped the car. We wouldn’t even have slowed down. But our eyes had deceived us into seeing the silhouette of an animal at the side of the road.
From a distance, it looked like an ox. Kind of skinny for an ox, but a handsome specimen, gazing into the solitude of eternity from a curve in the road.
We wanted to join in its contemplation, to be with it, to see what it was seeing. So we got out. We put a hand on its haunch, which turned out not to be a haunch at all, but the broad, bony back of a man on all fours staring off into the depths of the horizon.
He didn’t say a word to us, but we retreated. We kept backing up as we tried to say how sorry we were, that there was no rational reason for our having made such a mistake. We said as much to him. He turned his human face toward us and smiled. His sweet eyes filled up with light. He asked us if we had really taken him for an ox, if we weren’t just pulling his leg, if he was really starting to take on the shape of an ox. Of course, we told him. Otherwise we wouldn’t have stopped the car. We only stopped to look at animals from up close, never humans, much less humans who looked like animals.
He sighed with relief. He relaxed his back muscles. He thanked us for the news. We were the first to say it, that’s why it had been hard for him to believe. He had suspected that his mother had sent us. Every so often she would pay someone to go and try to persuade him to come back home, to leave the side of the road once and for all, to forget about the ox he had run over. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He had already tried. More than ten times, more than 11 times even, he had suspended his mourning and gone back home. But every day, when he passed by that spot, he sensed the missing ox. He looked at the void where the animal no longer stood and couldn’t just go on, even though he himself had stood by the animal in its death throes, and talked with it, and stroked it when it seemed to need it, and closed its eyes, and chased off the birds of prey that wanted to devour it, and buried it, and protected it from the elements, and sowed its tomb with flowers and tears. That was why he had decided to take its place, stand at the curve in the road, and contemplate eternity from there, pretending to be an ox. And he couldn’t quite pull it off. He asked people what they saw when they saw him, and people said they saw a man, a man with his back to them by the side of the road.
He wept in his frustration at not being able to replace the ox with his own person. He felt that his efforts were to no avail, that his will was insufficient to the task. But it had begun to take effect; it had worked with us.
We were moved by his story. And we gave him some advice. We assured him that anyone would take him for an ox. But he had to follow our instructions. He would have to put out the light in his eyes. Take off his clothes (in this country no ox wears clothes). Get himself some horns. (An ox without horns is no ox. He had to have a pair. It was indispensable. And if he didn’t—as indeed he didn’t—he had to get some, preferably those of the ox he wanted to replace.) He agreed. After taking off his clothes, he prepared to dig up his ox to take its horns.
The fourth step was essential: he would have to be castrated. If he weren’t castrated, he would never look like an ox. He could look like any other animal, but not an ox. He raised no objections. He said that if he had to be castrated, he would be. The only problem was that he didn’t have a knife on hand. We didn’t either, just a glass bottle, which we broke to help him along.
We were all pleased with the results. We offered our congratulations: he had taken on a whole new appearance.
We told him that above all he had to darken the light in his eyes if he wanted to look like a genuine ox. We said it over and over again until he promised to do his best to turn it down. Then we got back into the car and went on our way. Full speed ahead. But we kept looking at him in the rearview mirror. He had improved, though his eyes were brighter than ever. It would take him a while to tone them down.
it wasn’t a hallucination. A naked man with scales on his skin was creeping up out of the sewer. Coming to hunt. Cats and dogs. To eat.
The scene didn’t last but a moment. Then the man disappeared. The sewers swallowed him up. He wouldn’t come out again until hunger howled once more.
He wasn’t alone. He had come with his wife and his two children. But they never came up, they were nothing but six bright eyes, canine eyes, that peered out from the darkness below the streets. He was the one who took all the risks. He was the man. He hunted for all of them. And he was good at it. Precise. His prey never eluded him. They weren’t even aware of their moment of death. He came out of the silence and put them to sleep at once, sinking his nails into their consciousness. Then they would eat them, before their flesh had cooled for lack of breathing.
Three times a day you would hear the sound of four jaws grinding animal bones. Dogs were disappearing from houses and cats were no longer seen on roofs.
Distressed, the neighbors begged the local officer to arrest the creature from the sewers who was devouring their pets. And he managed to snare him. He lay in wait behind a shadow and, when the scaly man came out in pursuit of an orange dog, the officer grabbed him and didn’t let him escape no matter how much he kicked and bit. It wasn’t hard. He controlled him like an animal. Then he gave him up to the neighbors so they could do with him as they saw fit. The police department—as they well knew—had no jurisdiction over this kind of case. But the man got away from them. In a flash. In a moment of distraction he slipped from their hands and went back to the sewer. They all heard the family’s jubilation at his return, amplified by the echoing sewers. Then they were terrified. They felt invaded, surrounded by the plague. Astonished, the officer suggested they contact the zoo; they would be better equipped to handle the situation.
The neighbors found that to be a terrific idea. They called right away, but the supervisors refused to take in the scaly specimen. They weren’t interested. They only kept animals there, not men, and certainly not men with families. No matter what they ate. No matter whether they had scales or not. It was animals they wanted. They had once taken in a man and he had been a problem; he made the animals uncomfortable, he. was too demanding . . .
The neighbors had to solve this thing on their own.
They sealed off the sewers. So they couldn’t get out. So the pets would stop disappearing. To get rid of the problem. To suffocate them.
A week later, the moaning ceased, and the smell of lifeless, scaly creatures filled the neighborhood. To counteract the stench, they reopened the drains and covered the bodies with lime.
Weeks later it occurred to them that it might have been easier to convince them to go back where they had come from, or to trap them in a net and throw them into a bog, which is where they had probably come from. But it was much too late: their bones were already turning to dust.
They’d have to keep that in mind for another time.
Translated from the Spanish by Mary Ann Newman.
Mary Ann Newman divides her time between New York and Barcelona and writes about and translates from Catalan, Spanish, and Spanish-American literatures and cultures. Her translations of Quim Monzó, Xavier Rubert de Ventós, and Pedro Lemebel have been published by Ballantine Available Books, Transaction Press, and Grand Street magazine, respectively. She has taught at Williams, Bard, and Middlebury Colleges, and at New York University.
—Claudia Hernández was born in San Salvador in 1975. She has written for a variety of Salvadorian newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Otras cuidades (Other cities), has just been published in El Salvado by Alkima, and her second book, De fronteras (Borders), will be published in 2002. She currently lives in Brooklyn.