RED RIBBON

by Graham Watkins



-I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't mean to laugh. It's just that, well, you said you had problems with your wife. To me, that's funny. I can't help it, it just is.

-Yeah, yeah, I know. Everybody's problems are different--who's to say who has the worst problem?

-Um. Oh, you could say that. You sure could say that. Yes, I sure as hell did have a problem with my wife. I sure as hell did. I don't think anyone who knows that story would say anything else, by God. But shit, except for her mama and daddy, nobody else knows the fucking story!

-Tell you the story? Man, I never told that story to nobody! And I sure ain't gonna sit here in this damn bar and tell it to you!

-No, wait. It ain't nothing personal. It's just that, well shit, you wouldn't believe it, and I know that. Hell, I sure wouldn't. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.

-Oh, all right--maybe I've just had a few too many of these beers. You get that waitress over there to bring us another one, and I'll tell you. Then you can get a good laugh, and I'll leave, and we'll never see each other again. Shit, it'll give you a good story about this crazy man you met in a bar, right?

-Well, to start with, let me just tell you that I only got back to the States six months ago. For two years, I'd been down in Mexico --way out in the boonies, down south. I'm a highway engineer, you see, and I had a contract to help build a road outside of a town called San Cristobal. When I got that job, I knew it was going to keep me in Mexico for quite a while, but I said, what the fuck? I didn't have anything particularly keeping me here.

-So anyway, to make a long story short, there I am, out there in these mountains, building a road. There was this stretch that was taking up a lot of time--we were having some problems with it, and the grading was only getting us a few hundred feet a day. Man, it was a bitch, I can tell you.

-The section was passing by this tiny little village--San Miguel, it was called, there must be a hundred villages in Mexico called San Miguel--and before this road, the only way to reach San Miguel was by a dirt trail, and then only if you had a horse or a Land-Rover. In the rainy season especially, it was a bitch. A real bitch.

-So there we are, whacking away at this rocky hillside and trying to get a roadbed in, and the villagers from San Miguel used to come down there every day and watch us. We're talking Maya Indians here, a lot of them didn't even speak Spanish, much less English. They were curious about us, about our machines, and they were friendly enough, but they weren't like a lot of Mexican villagers, they weren't trying to sell us anything. You stay down in Mexico for a while and that looks unusual to you.

-Yeah, yeah, I'm getting to it, okay? So like I was saying, every day we're out there working, and every day here's this little cluster of villagers sitting up on the hill, watching us. And right away, I noticed this one girl.

-Oh, man, you should've seen her; she looked so fine sitting up there on a rock I about wrecked my Jeep the first time I saw her. Eyes so big they didn't look real, and this thick black hair that she could sit on. Even in the long dress she always wore, you could tell she had a body that wouldn't quit. But besides her just looking so good, there were two things about her that made me notice her.

-One was, that while everybody else sat in a little group talking among themselves, she was sitting all by herself. Not once did I see an Indian boy come over and talk to her; and that was weird, because she was sure as hell the best looking thing around. And the other thing was that day after day, even though I saw her in different dresses and all, she always wore this wide red ribbon tied tightly around her throat, with the ends trailing down. I never saw any of the other Indian women wearing one, not ever.

-Well, the first couple of days nothing happened; I just looked at her a lot, and I thought she might be looking back at me, too. I was thinking that I would've liked to talk to her, but I couldn't think of an excuse to, and anyway, I wasn't sure she spoke any Spanish--like I said, a lot of the Indians around there didn't.

-But anyway, about our fourth day out there we were all sitting around eating lunch, and I'd brought a lot of stuff down from the camp--I don't really know why--and I saw that she was sitting up there chewing on one single tortilla. Looked real pitiful. So I motioned to her, and she came down right away.

-"You want some lunch?" I asks her in Spanish, really hoping she isn't going to give me a blank look. I mean, it's gonna be tough if I can't talk to her at all.

-"Yes, thank you," she says--in Spanish. And I start getting out some stuff, but she stops me. "No, no." she says. "You've been working hard all morning, I will prepare your food." And she doesn't let me do a thing. I swear to God, she was so attentive that I was wondering if she was going to hand-feed me.

-"So what's your name?" I asks her.

-"Teodora," she tells me. "Teodora Xahil." I kind of expected her to go on talking, so I don't say anything, and she doesn't either. She just fixes the sandwiches, and sets out a drink real neatly, and all that. All the time, she's got this little half- smile on her face, and I swear to God she's the prettiest thing I ever did see.

-It got to looking like I was going to have to do the talking if I was going to find out anything about her at all. So I tossed off a line, asked her why a pretty girl like her didn't have a husband or a boyfriend. She acted real embarrassed then, and I was afraid she was going to run off.

-"They--the young men in San Miguel--don't like me," she tells me finally. "They think I am-- different."

-I looks at her real close. "You are," I tells her. "You're a whole lot prettier than the other women up there!" I waited for a big grin or something, but I didn't get it. "So why do they think you're different?" I asks directly.

-But she just shrugs and looks off over the mountains. "It is just what is said," she tells me. "In our villages, many times what is so is what is said. I try to be like the other maidens, but sometimes I cannot do it."

-So I don't really know any more than I did when I started. I decided to kind of drop it, figuring that their loss is my gain; she wouldn't be down here having lunch with me if she'd had a boyfriend or a husband up in the village.

-I spent my lunchtime talking to her about this and that, and I started to notice that she was a little different from most women, in a way; she almost never said anything except to answer a question, or to ask one--and she never asked questions except when it had to do with something she was going to do for me, like "do you want some more coffee?" Still, you couldn't call her passive--she acted like she was real bright, real enthusiastic about things. I saw her looking at the road-graders and bulldozers, and asked her if she was curious about the machinery--kind of stupid, huh?--but she said yes, and I kind of toured her around, showing her all the stuff and telling her a lot about building roads. I mean, it's what I do for a living, and all; you know how it is, you can go on and on.

-But she really seemed interested. She asked a little question, and when I acted like it was fun for me to answer it--'cause it was --she just flat bombarded me with questions, and after a while I was just staring at her. 'Cause I couldn't even answer them all; her mind--I don't know how to describe it, it turned corners on things. She asked me questions about highway engineering I'd never thought of. And neither had my professors back at school. And she sure succeeded in impressing the hell out of me, but not in making me feel stupid. And I tell you, to this day I'm not sure how she did that!

-When we knocked off for the day, I looked around for her, but she was gone, and I have to tell you, I was disappointed. I had really enjoyed the lunch hour with her, and I was looking forward to seeing her up there the next day.

-I wasn't disappointed. Next morning about ten, she turned up, sitting on the same rock. She saw me looking up at her, and she waved real big, and I--well, I just felt really good about it. When lunchtime came, she came running down the hillside toward me, and we had another nice lunch together.

-So I asked her if she'd like to have dinner with me, said maybe we could drive back into San Cristobel in my Jeep. Her whole face lit up, and she told me she'd just love it, that she'd never been to San Cristobel in her life--never been in a Jeep, either.

-During the afternoon, she left, but before quitting time she was back, wearing what I guess was her nicest dress. After I got cleaned up, we headed out for San Cristobel--it was maybe thirty or forty miles away.

-Her manner during the trip--and the dinner--was exactly the same as it had been the previous day. Though she seemed to be interested in everything, she almost never spoke--it was about impossible to engage her in ordinary conversation. I could ask her a direct question, and she'd give me a direct answer, but she'd never go any further; I was getting her life story in tiny bits and pieces. And only occasionally. Most of the time she acted like she wanted me to talk about myself or my work. And you know that everybody just loves to talk about themselves. So mostly I just yammered on.

-I did find out that she wasn't very happy in San Miguel. Most girls there, by the time they were as old as she was, were already married. It seemed that she was beginning to consider herself an old maid--at twenty! Once again I asked her why not, and she just repeated that everybody there thought she was "different." But I still couldn't get her to tell me any more than that.

-After dinner, I drove out just past the outskirts of the town, and we took a short walk--it was very nice, out there in the mountains in the moonlight. I wasn't real sure how things were done in her village, so I just bit the bullet and treated her like I would've treated a date in the U.S.; after a while, I put my arm around her shoulders, and when she didn't object to that, I tried to kiss her. I was just going to give her a little brotherly peck, see how it went down.

-Well now. I can tell you that I was startled, but that doesn't really give you an idea--I start to give her a peck, and she returns it by throwing her arms around me and kissing me like I've never been kissed before, let me tell you! We really got into it; I'd sure expected some awkward moments--because of different social customs and all that, like I said--but that sure wasn't happening.

-It was like she was somehow tuned right into me, like she was doing exactly what I wanted at every turn. She just smiled at me when I started working my hands inside her clothes, and things went from there. What can I say? It was wonderful, it was great. And her body was even better than I'd thought it was. I came away thinking that the boys in her village had to be lunatics.

There was just one funny thing, though; we were out in those mountains all alone, and I managed to get all her clothes off-- except for that red ribbon around her neck. She just refused, pushed my hands away when I started to untie it. But it seemed like such a little thing, I didn't think anything about it.

-Afterwards--a long time afterwards--I took her back to her house in San Miguel. I would've liked her to spend the night with me, but there was no way of doing that without just about half the camp knowing about it, and I was afraid that would embarrass her. So I didn't mention it. I just kissed her outside her little grass-roof house, and watched her go in. And damn near wrecked the Jeep getting back out; those streets weren't built for cars.

-Well, we sort of fell into a pattern over the next few days; we had lunch together every day, and I took her out every night, spent every minute I could with her. But, of course, we were solving the problems with that stretch of road, and we were beginning to get right far away from Teodora's little village. And I wasn't sure how she felt about things, but I sure didn't want things between us to end.

-So finally I told her that, and she just looked up at me with those huge eyes and asks point blank if I loved her.

-And I suppose I hemmed and hawed for a minute or two, but finally I said yes, I did.

-"And I love you too," she told me. Then she kind of acted like she was waiting for something, but I didn't know what for. I kissed her, and she kissed me back, but she still looked like she was waiting. Like there was something else I was supposed to do, or say.

-Finally she gave it up. "You should come to my home," she declared, and I believe it was the first time she'd ever, since I'd known her, really asked for anything for herself. Even if I had wanted to--and I didn't--there would've been no way to say no.

-The next night, I forced that Jeep up into the village again, and this time I went up to the door. Teodora met me there, and she showed me in. There was a whole swarm of people in that house, and I got introduced to all of them; I couldn't even remember half the names. Her father--who just acted like he was overjoyed to see me, like I was some kind of an old friend of his--sat me down and started loaded me up with some kind of liquor he called "pos." Later, I found out it's made from cane. Anyway, I was not familiar with the stuff, and I proceeded to get royally smashed.

-Next morning, I woke up on a straw mat in that house, and Teodora was bringing me coffee. I had one of the worst hangovers I've ever even dreamed of having; it was unbelievable, I tell you. And I didn't remember a damn thing about the past evening, nothing past the time her father had started serving that liquor.

-And you gotta know it was a real shock when her parents strolled in and all three of them start planning for the wedding! Now, I to this day do not know if I got conned or not. But they were sure all quick to tell me how I'd proposed to her the night before, and how I'd asked her father for her, and how he'd said yes, he'd be delighted to have an American for a son-in-law.

-I started to get angry, tell them that I couldn't have said that, and if I had, it had just been the liquor talking; but I looked at Teodora's face, and the words just wouldn't come out. So finally I said to myself, what the hell. When I'd told her that I loved her, I'd meant it.

-The wedding was a big deal in the village; looked to me like everybody in town was there. We spent our wedding night down in San Cristobal, after the workers on the road had given us a little party too. It wasn't the first time I'd made love with her, but it was the first time we'd spent the night together alone, and you know that makes a difference. But--just like out in the hills, before--she'd do anything I wanted, except for one little thing. The red ribbon; she never took it off. Now, don't suppose that it made any difference to me--but I got to wondering if somehow or another she'd seen the film of Sidney Shelton's "Bloodline," and she had a thing about it somehow. Anyway, I was curious about it, that's all.

-So I asked her, point blank. And she told me that she'd made an oath a long time ago, to some patron saint or another, that she'd always wear the ribbon--and went into a long and complicated story about how red was his color, and it had to be around her neck because the breath of life passed through the neck, and on and on and on. I didn't really listen; if there was a reason, I was satisfied. The ribbon looked kind of cute, especially when she was otherwise naked, and it didn't bother me any.

-Anyway, I was now a married man with responsibilities, and I couldn't live in a tent out on the road site anymore. We found a house we could rent outside of San Cristobal, and we moved into it, and I began commuting to work--more miles every day as the road went on. But I didn't give a shit. I was so happy I didn't care about the road anymore. Teodora, as it turned out, was the very model of the perfect wife in every way. And I couldn't even understand how she was doing it! Hell, I never wanted a wife who was passive; and if I tell you that she never argued with me, that we never fought about anything, it'll sound to you like she was. All I can say is it wasn't like that. Anyway, I had nothing to complain about, nothing at all.

-And our lives went on. I was busy with work, and, since I was going to be leaving Mexico, I had to try to work through the red tape you get buried in when you want to bring somebody back with you. I'd half expected Teodora to argue about leaving--I mean, I was given to understand that she's never been far from San Miguel in her whole life--but she seemed excited and happy. Once again, like with everything else, no problems.

-No problems until one night when I woke up in the middle of the night feeling horny.

-I'd had to be out a little late that day, and I'd been thinking about her all day long, looking forward to making love with her when I got home. But you know how it can be sometimes; things happen, you have to work harder than you thought you would, and you're just too damn tired to do what you really want to do. That's what happened to me that day; I watched her putting the dinner on the table, and I really wanted to jump her then and there, but the body didn't want to move.

-But after I'd slept for a while, I woke up with a second wind. I was snuggled against her backside, and her shoulders were pulled a little away, kind of buried in the pillows. As always, we were both sleeping without clothes--except, of course, for her red ribbon. She'd started out wearing a nightgown, but when I said I liked skin she discarded it. Anyway, I reached my arm over and started playing with her breasts, and usually if I did that she'd roll right over to me. But this time she didn't move.

-I figured she was just sleeping real deeply, and I got a little more aggressive, but still, she was just laying there. I spoke to her; nothing. Finally I raised my head, reached for her face to stroke her cheek, make a last effort to wake her up.

-And when I did, man, I have to tell you, I let out a yell that should've brought up all the dead in the province.

-Her fucking head wasn't there!

-Now, I don't know what anybody else would do in a situation like that. But me, I'm backing away, falling off the bed; I've got two ideas in my head, and I can't do anything right away because they keep fighting with each other. One, there's some kind of crazy killer, probably still in the house, and if I don't watch it, I'm going to end up without my head, too! The other is grief, and horror, and disbelief; some maniac has sneaked into our bedroom and cut off my beautiful wife's head while we were sleeping! Killed her! I wanted to cradle the body, wanted to cry, but I was thinking that if I took time to do it right now, it might be the last thing I ever did. In a way--at that moment--that didn't matter too much. But I wanted to get the son-of-a-bitch, tear him apart a little at a time.

-So I crouched beside the bed, listening. I didn't hear anything, and finally I crawled over and got a machete; we used to keep one leaning against the wall. Then I started searching the house, and I tell you now, if I'd found anybody, he would've been in pieces before I let him go!

-But I didn't. There was nobody there, and nothing had been disturbed at all. The front door was standing a little bit open, but hell, it didn't even have a lock on it! Whoever had done this, I was telling myself, came in just to do it, and then they left. I was figuring that maybe somebody from San Miguel had a grudge against Teodora or maybe her family. Or maybe somebody had decided she was a witch, a bruja--I'd heard a bunch of stories around there about how the villagers sometimes kind of mark somebody as a brujo or bruja, and they often get killed by having their heads chopped off.

-The grief took over then, and I went back to the bedroom; I'm not ashamed to tell you that I cried for quite a while over Teodora's body. I hugged it like I could make it live again that way, and I probably would've kissed her lips--but I couldn't find her head anywhere. I guessed the killer had taken it with him for some reason, and then I got this brilliant idea; if he had, then there should be a trail of blood leading away from my house--maybe I could follow it!

-But even as I started for the door, I realized that wasn't going to work; there was no bloody trail through the house. I was too broken-up to put any of that together then; I just thought about getting the cops, and since we didn't have a phone, that meant going out. So I got dressed, and I took the Jeep, and drove into town. Where I reported that my wife had been murdered.

-In Mexico, the police don't get as excited about such things as they do here, and the first thing I got told was that they'd drop by in the morning and look into it! Well, I wasn't having any of that, and I yelled and screamed until finally, two of them followed me back to the house. I sure do still remember it; I was almost running toward the front door, and these two policia were strolling along behind me.

-That's when Teodora opened the front door and came out, asked what was going on.

-Well. My jaw was about laying on the ground, and the two cops started giggling, started asking me what we'd been smoking. I don't know which emotion was stronger--the embarrassment of having made such a total fool of myself, or the relief of seeing her standing there alive. The relief won out, and I rushed up to hug her, just about ignoring the policemen.

-They were a little irate. I guess maybe if I'd acted more embarrassed, they'd've taken it more as a joke. But I was just so happy at having Teodora back that I didn't give a shit. I apologized all over the place, thanked them for coming anyway, and they finally left; then I went in and told Teodora about the horrible nightmare I had.

-"Come back to bed," she was saying as I drank cup after cup of hot coffee, trying to get myself under control. "You mustn't think about this anymore. Just come back to bed--with me."

-"But it was so Goddamn real!" I kept saying, over and over. "It wasn't like any dream I've ever had!"

-It took her awhile, but finally she got me calmed down and took me back to the bed, where we screwed each other's brains out. I have to tell you, though, it took me a while to get into it; I kept seeing her lying there with her head cut off, and wondering why I'd had a dream like that.

-Of course, after a few days it kind of faded back in the old memory; I hadn't forgotten about it, but I was convinced, naturally, that it had been a nightmare--well, after all, what the fuck else could it have been?--and things just kind of went on from there. I did wake up a few times during the night, and whenever I did, the first thing I'd do is check on her; but nothing was wrong, her head hadn't been cut off, and she woke up at my lightest touch. A little part of me didn't quite let go, though; if I woke up like that, I'd always stroke her cheek or her hair. I don't know, maybe I thought the damn dream was foretelling the future or something.

-It was around that time that I started hearing some rumors that a--a sort of a monster of some kind had been spotted around San Cristobal. Most all the people who lived there seemed to know all about this monster, like it was familiar in their legends--like a werewolf or vampire would be to us. But nobody wanted to talk about it to me, so I didn't find out right away what kind of a thing it was. All I heard was a name--"charcoal-cruncher." It didn't mean shit to me.

-A few days passed, and nothing else happened. I heard some more rumors about this "charcoal-cruncher," but like I said, I didn't pay much attention; like most Americans, I believed that the Indians in that area believed in all kinds of weird superstitions, things that make no sense. So I didn't bother with it.

-It was about a week later, I suppose, that I woke up again in the middle of the night; at first, I did every night, but I had stopped. Then, when I did again, I found myself alone in the bed.

-"Teodora?" I called. There was no answer. I figured she'd gone to the bathroom or something, so I just laid there and waited for a while.

-But she didn't come back. Finally I crawled out of bed and started wandering through the house, calling her name. No answer; the place was silent as the hills. I looked in the bathroom, she wasn't there. Fully awake now, I started searching all over the place. I was just beginning to think that she had to have gone out for some reason when I opened the one little closet we had outside of the bedroom, and there she was.

-Just like before: without her head.

-Well, for a minute I thought my dream had predicted the future, that somebody had crept into the house and killed her. I reeled back from the closet, about to throw up, but I realized that something was very wrong here.

-Yeah, yeah. Sure, there's something very wrong if your wife gets her head cut off. That isn't what I meant. What I meant was that she--her body, I mean--was sitting on the floor of the closet, her arms wrapped around her knees. Just sitting there. Very ordinary, except that there was nothing above the red ribbon.

-My hands were shaking, but I reached down and touched her. She didn't move, but I could see that she was fucking breathing! How the hell could she have been breathing, when she had no head? About that time, it dawned on me that there was no blood to talk about, either; just a little puddle, not even as much as a woman would lose during her period. It was then that I remembered that before--when I'd had what I thought had been a dream--there was only about that much blood on the pillow, too. And no trail through the house, where I'd assumed her head had been carried.

-Well now. What the fuck would you do? There's your wife's body, sitting on the closet floor. It ought to be dead, but it isn't; and her head is gone, nowhere to be found. I didn't know what to do, either; it sure did seem stupid to go after the police again. So I just plunked down in a chair and stared at the body, wondering what the fuck was going on.

-I was still sitting there--I suppose I was kind of dazed--when I heard this thumping noise outside. I was scared, I'll be honest; and I hid behind the door going into the other room, peeked between the hinge side of the door and the facing.

-And I will be Goddamned if Teodora's head didn't come in the front door.

-I couldn't speak, or move, or anything; I just stared. Her head was kind of hopping along the floor, but sometimes it'd stop and kind of turn; her eyes looked like they always did, and she was looking around, like she was afraid of something. Then the head jumped into the closet, and about thirty seconds later she stepped out. All in one piece, and looking perfectly normal except that she had some blood on her neck and chest.

-She looked around again, then got a rag and cleaned up the blood on the floor; she looked really scared herself, like something was after her. I didn't know what to think; I kept watching her, and when she went to the bathroom and I heard the water running, I ran back and jumped into bed, acted like I was sleeping. She came in a minute later and slipped into bed beside me; her neck smelled of soap. In a few minutes, she seemed to be sleeping, but I sure as fuck didn't sleep that night. Not another wink.

-Well, there was no fucking way I could have gone back to that house and slept with her the next night. So I told her I had to work out on the highway a couple of days, and I about ran out of there; I remember that she looked so hurt when I didn't kiss her goodbye. I'd never done that before.

-Of course, I didn't stay out at the highway camp; I came back into town, parked the Jeep around the corner, and sneaked back up to the house. Until way past midnight I was skulking around there, peeking in the windows and all. Trying to find out what was going on.

-Sure enough, about three A.M. she came to the door and peeped out. She didn't see me, and she went back, but she left the door open just a little bit. Nothing else happened for a few minutes; but then the door opened a bit more, and her head came bouncing out. Just like before.

-Feeling like I was in some lunatic nightmare, I followed it down the hill. It hopped along like a top-heavy frog, but it never tipped over; and some of the jumps were very long, maybe five feet up and ten or twelve feet long. It wasn't limited to hopping, though; sometimes it would walk a few steps, so I knew there must've been something like legs under there. But I couldn't see; it was dark, and her hair covered everything like a skirt.

-Now, I had no idea what she--the head, I mean--was up to. I had these wild images that she was going to attack some poor asshole, suck his blood or something. And I wondered what I'd do if she did; go and bash the head with my machete? I mean, it was just bizarre-- not only was I scared shitless of it, but it was still Teodora, sort of. I didn't want to be bashing Teodora with no machete. I felt like I was still in love with her--I know that sounds weird, but I hadn't sorted things out yet.

-Anyway, I followed the head around the outskirts of town, and to make a long story short, she didn't attack anyone. What she did was find a burned-out cooking fire. And she jumped right into the middle of it. The head was tipped over then, and I could hear these grinding sounds.

-Do I have to say I was confused? I had no idea what the hell she was doing. I took a chance that she'd spot me, and I sneaked up really close; what she was doing was eating the burned remains of the firewood!

-Now that, to me, seemed so absolutely crazy that I about jumped out and asked her what the fuck was going on. But I didn't lose it, not then; I just watched. I could see the legs then, too, as she tipped over. There were two that looked a whole lot like frog's legs in fact, and two other little spindly ones that looked like tiny human arms, with little hands at the ends.

-After a while, she quit eating and started hopping back toward the house; every once in a while she'd stop and listen, and she seemed to be careful to avoid any people. Which wasn't all that easy.

-So I followed her back to the house. After she went in, I slipped around to the bathroom, watched through the window.

-Sure enough, a few minutes later she came in, her head back on her neck where it belonged. I saw her take off the ribbon, wash her neck and chest, scrub off all the traces of blood. And--for the first time--I could see why she wore the ribbon. There was a shallow crease all the way around her neck, and even after she washed, it oozed a drop of blood once in a while--that's why the ribbon was red.

-She went to bed then, and I sat in the Jeep all night, wondering what to do now. Dawn came, and I still didn't have any ideas. But finally I decided I had to go and talk to her father, that maybe he'd know something about all this. Foggy as hell from no sleep, I took off for San Miguel.

-Well, the meeting with Teodora's father was no fun; when I got there, he started trying to load me up with liquor again, but I said no. Still, I was having a lot of trouble telling him about what was happening--it just sounded so crazy. But finally I just kind of blurted out what I'd seen.

-I was a little surprised by his reaction; he didn't even act surprised. All he did was hang his head and look embarrassed.

-"You suspected something like this, didn't you?" I asks him.

-He nods. "Yes," he says. "People here had seen a charcoal-cruncher; then, you took Teodora away, and the cruncher is not seen. But it is seen in San Cristobal." He sighed. "One nevers knows about a charcoal-cruncher until she is grown, and mostly, not until she marries. As a child she behaves as any little girl might, as a maiden no one sees her sleeping, no one knows what she does in the night. When Teodora was younger, she had many suitors, but they all went away. Some told me they suspected, but I didn't want to believe. Teodora was always such a good child, such a fine daughter." He looks up at me and he looks real sad. "So now we know," he says, dragging out the words.

-"So what do we do about it?" I asks.

-He wouldn't look at me. "She is a devil, you see," he tells me. "You have to kill her."

-"Kill her?" I asks. "I can't kill her! What am I supposed to do, go start chopping her up with my machete? I don't even have a Goddamn gun!"

-"No," he says, "that isn't how you kill a charcoal-cruncher. You have to wait until her head is out, then fix it so it can't get back on her body." And he explains to me how to do that, tells me that if she can't put her head back on, the head will die in a few hours, and the body in a few days.

-I just sat there shaking my head, and I did take a drink then. "I can't do this," I tells him again. "I just can't--"

-"You have to," he insists. "She is your wife--if she was still in my home, I would do it. She is a devil, you have to kill her!"

-Well, what could I say? Finally I left, and I went down to a store in San Cristobal, and I bought a big ten-pound bag of salt, and, wondering what the fuck I was going to say to Teodora, I went home.

-As soon as I walked in, she jumped on me, hugging me and trying to kiss me, telling me how much she missed me. I couldn't kiss her; how can you kiss a woman you're going to kill? Besides, I was feeling really repulsed by her, I didn't think she was human-- didn't think she was a real woman. So I pushed her away, mumbled something about being tired.

-She went into the bedroom then, and she cried for a long time, didn't come out again until it was time for her to make dinner. That was awkward and painful, I tell you. We ate that meal in absolute silence.

-I ducked the rest of the evening by pretending like I was going on to bed. I laid there, wide awake, my machete under the pillow--I didn't know if maybe she'd attack me or something. But no, she just came to bed and laid with her face turned away. She sobbed for a while, then seemed to go to sleep. I was really afraid she wouldn't do it that night, and I'd have another day of hell to go through.

-But she did. About two, she got up and left the room, and a little later I heard the thump of her head hopping along. I waited awhile, then I got up too. The body was sitting in the closet again, like before.

-And so, I followed her father's instructions. I got the salt, and I started to pour it on her open neck; but before I did, I turned on the lights and looked.

-I swear, I about fainted. I don't know what I expected to see; but what I did see were blood vessels, all kind of pinched off, and an open windpipe. But down in around them were some lumps of flesh that looked funny, and I looked harder.

-That's when I about freaked. It kind of all came together; I was seeing a distorted face in there! It was turned upward, the eyes and nose had grown shut, and the windpipe I'd seen came out of the mouth, folded back on itself like it was turned inside out! There were even some little teeth around it, like baby teeth.

-I was shaking like a leaf, but I understood. The head had tiny legs and arms; the body had a weird little head. She wasn't one woman at all, she was two! Hooked together--most of the time-- like some kind of crazy Siamese twins!

-Well, I couldn't think. I just poured the salt all over the top of the body, just heaped it up so there was a pile of it on the neck. It didn't move, but the windpipe pushed up through the salt and blew some of it out, and all the blood vessels pinched down a lot tighter.

-Then I waited 'till she--her head, I mean, or the other one, or whatever is right to say, shit, I don't know--came back. The head came hopping in--I hid behind the door again--and went to the closet. And a second later came bouncing out again.

-I could see her face; she looked panicked. She bounced into the bedroom, then came back right away. I felt like my legs were rubber, I couldn't move. Then, finally, she saw me.

-There were tears in her eyes, and the head sat there on the floor for a minute mouthing, "why?" But there was no sound; no wind to push the air.

-"Because you're a Goddamn devil!" I shrieked. "A monster, a charcoal-cruncher--"

-Her head shook like she was crying, and there were tears running down her cheeks; but then she got a kind of determined expression on her face. And before I knew what the fuck was happening, she jumped on me.

-Well, I was screaming and flopping around, and trying to get her off, but it was like she had razor claws on those little hands; she tore up my shirt on my shoulder, right beside my neck. Then I felt some sharp pains, and I knew I was bleeding; I still tried to get her off, but something was pushing into my neck, and I couldn't breathe. I fell down in the floor, thinking she was killing me.

-But, about five seconds later, I felt fine. I sat up, moved my eyes all the way to the right. Far as they'd go.

-Her fucking head was attached to me. I had two Goddamn heads!

-"I am sorry, husband," she tells me, and I realize she's using my lungs to speak! She broke off and cried some more. "I beg you-- clean off the salt that I may return to my body. I will die quickly if you do not!"

-I just stared at her out of the corner of my eye, and she was looking back the same way. I couldn't find any words to say.

-So she tells me, "I can only live here for a day, perhaps--if I use your blood, you will die when I come off. So I will not, even if it costs me my life! But I would die within the hour if I had no blood, if I had no air. Please, husband--clean off the salt--!"

-I could not sit there and talk to her head while it was attached to my shoulders; I panicked. I ran to my Jeep, paying no attention to her begging, and took off for San Miguel.

-I was lucky as hell. Nobody saw me until I got to her parents house; I charged in, and I thought they were both going to have heart attacks and die, right then and there.

-"Did I not tell you to leave after putting on the salt?" her father demands when he gets control of himself.

-"No, Goddamn it!" I shouts. "Look at this! What the shit am I going to do?"

-He sat me down and started to talk; Teodora hadn't said anything yet. "There are ways," he says in a low voice, as if she couldn't hear, "to get the head onto a wild animal--then, you can kill the animal, or let it run off to the forest--!"

-"Please, papa!" she cries. "Don't kill me, I don't want to die! Clean off the salt, I'll go far away-- !"

-He looked at her face and his own eyes were brimming up with tears. "We have to kill you," he declares. "We can't let you go off crunching charcoal and frightening people in the night--"

-"And attacking people!" I yell.

-Her father looked back at my face. "Oh, charcoal-crunchers don't attack people," he says. "She hooked onto you so she wouldn't die, that's all."

-So I asks him, what do they do?

-"As I said, they eat charcoal. From campfires and such. And frighten people in the night!"

-"Well," I asks, because it sure seemed logical to me, "Why don't they just collect the charcoal during the day and eat it at home?"

-"Because," Teodora shrieks in my ear, "Then everyone would know what I am!"

-"This is just insane," I'm telling them, looking at Teodora's face. I was thinking the strangest thing then--made no sense at all, just thoughts that ran through my mind. I was married to two women--or was I? I'd only married one. If you marry a woman, do you marry her head or her body? I mean, usually they don't come apart, so it doesn't matter, but--

-Look now, asshole. You asked me to tell the story, at least you could stop laughing and let me finish it!

-That's better. Anyway, I wasn't really understanding what her father was telling me. I kept saying things like, "Well, she isn't human, is she? I mean, she can't have babies, she isn't really your daughter--if she's a devil and all--"

-"No," he tells me. "She can have babies. Lots of times, charcoal-crunchers aren't found until they have babies. It happens."

-"So, Goddamn it, why do we have to fucking kill her?"

-"Because she's a devil! You can't just let devils go on living, you have to kill them!"

-I guess I just groaned. I'd been so happy with Teodora--just a day or two before, I'd started getting the red tape unraveled so I could bring her to the States. And now all this - shit, I didn't know whether I was coming or going. So I says--"

-All right, that does it. When you get to laughing so hard you knock the fucking beer on the floor, well, that does it. I gotta go anyway.

-Yeah, yeah. Told you you'd think I was crazy. Well, so what? I don't give a shit what you think.

-All right, all right. Just let me get my bag here and I'll be--

-No, asshole. Will you quit that stupid giggling! I don't have a head in the bag. Just dinner; I stopped by here on my way home from the supermarket. See? Steaks, potatoes, and a big bag of charcoal.

-Hell no, man, we ain't having no fucking cookout!

******