Bella Altamirano entered the shop called El Descanso, owned by Rosa Quintero, her best friend. She greeted Rosa with a kiss that the shopkeeper returned automatically while wrapping up some herbs in newspaper and counting out the money a young girl was paying for them. Before putting the coins in her till, she lifted her head and offered Bella a smile. Inside the small windowless room, the air always smelled like diesel and carried the hum—more of a fly-buzz in truth—of the small generator that powered the refrigerator and a lone low-wattage bulb that hung from the ceiling. When Bella came in, Rosa was behind the worn counter of her store—a slab of battered plywood placed across cases displaying all of her merchandise, clean and orderly, protected by translucent glass stained by dozens of fingerprints.
Bella did not return the smile. She asked for a package of oatmeal and a can of powdered milk.
“What’s eating you?” her friend asked.
“Nothing, just that I used up all my Quaker and I need some more to make soup.” As she talked, she opened a straw bag for Rosa to put her requests inside.
“Listen, girl, haven’t I know you since we were both six years old?” Rosa put the groceries into the bag and noted them in a ledger that included Bella’s tab.
“No, don’t write it down, I’m going to pay cash.”
“Now you’re really worrying me. There’s something you’re hiding, but it’s braying louder than a donkey tied up in a canyon.”
“It’s nothing,” Bella said, eyes glued to the floor.
“Your scar is turning purple,” Rose replied gently.
Bella barely smiled, put the bag on the floor, and leaned toward Rosa.
“Can you believe I forget it’s there?” she said while trying to see it out of the corner of her eye. As she did so, the scar lost the color Rosa had described.
Rosa rested her forearm on the counter, leaning toward Bella too.
“Is it Salém?” Rosa lowered her voice still further. “Do you think he might do something to you? Disappear you like the other women?”
“No, Rosa, Salém has been making threats for years, you know that better than anyone, but he’s not going to dare touch me. One of his disguises is that he’s a protector of women. How can he attack me or, worse, make me disappear? No, the disappearances aren’t his work.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because women are one of his best businesses, and if there’s one thing Salém knows how to do is bet on the winning horse. Does he help mistreated women out of Christian charity? Go check out his foundation’s books. If he takes care of you, he collects from you too.”
“Girl, take it easy. It’s one thing to jump the first hurdle and another to finish the race.”
The two women grew quiet. During the silent interval accompanied only by the buzz of the generator, Rosa opened the refrigerator and took out two orange sodas. She uncapped them and started to drink from one while offering the other to her friend. The thin film of frost disappeared as soon as the bottles came in contact with the muggy atmosphere of the store. In the shadowy room, with her friend at her side, Bella recovered some of her ease and the illusion that everything could be as it had been before. But it was just an imperfect remnant, really, moments like this one in which she managed to forget about her scar. She had learned it was not necessary to disguise it with mother-of-pearl creams or musk rose oils, which in any case didn’t work as advertised, nor to try to cover it with endless layers of makeup which didn’t hide it but did stain her clothes. Nor did she part her hair to one side or straighten it to drop like a waterfall over her cheek. Well, sometimes out of habit she did the latter, but it was no longer a tyrannical duty that pushed her to try to be the person she remembered. The wound, which had turned pink on scarring over and flamboyantly decorated her otherwise harmonious face, was the mark left by the only romantic relationship Bella was known to have had. The scar seemed to lead its own life: sometimes it was the trace that a beach crab leaves on the wet sand, but when she was angry it expanded and its hue turned toward violet. Then her face looked like that of a broken and poorly mended doll. It was impossible to look at her without staring at the wound.
There were very few people who would dare to ask her how she got the scar on her cheek, because the stories of its origin that circulated had cemented the fear and respect Bella commanded in Poso Wells. Still, some truth could be sifted from the overlaps in the various versions one heard. These said that when Bella met Oswaldo Yerovi at the age of seventeen, she thought that life in this violent place was not only possible but maybe worth living. Then, after some years of peaceful cohabitation, not without joy and the birth of two children, her partner began to turn moody, to flare up without anything to justify his behavior. That was when Yerovi was said to have met Chicho Salém, who brought the young man to work with him at Bastión Popular, where Yerovi was also said to have a second family and home. Bella didn’t trust the rumor mill. For her, seeing was believing, so one day she left her children with a cousin and shadowed Yerovi for twenty-four hours. That was enough. First, in the morning, she followed him to a clearing where, protected by the bodies of some stripped cars, she managed to get close to the group of men who greeted her mate and, confident they could not be overheard, discussed their plans for the coming night. On the ground, spread on a dirty red cloth, she could see wallets, credit cards, cell phones, watches, and jewelry. Since the men took no care to lower their voices, she could hear all they said while drinking from a bottle that went from hand to hand.“The scar seemed to lead its own life: sometimes it was the trace that a beach crab leaves on the wet sand, but when she was angry it expanded and its hue turned toward violet.”
“When those sonsofbitches are hung over, it doesn’t even take any force,” one said.
“Like taking candy from a baby,” the one alongside him agreed.
“Old Salém opened the doors of paradise.”
“Home of the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Bella could see four gold teeth when this man smiled.
She went on listening behind the carcasses of stripped automobiles for a good while, but nothing got any more specific and her husband didn’t say anything, only drank one beer after another while sitting in a chair outside the main circle formed by the other men.
“So, everybody meet here at 11:30. Yerovi, don’t forget your piece, now that you’ve got enough to buy one. If you don’t bring it, don’t get on the truck, because where we found you, we can find a hundred more. And be ready for anything. This is for real men. Remember, once you show what you’re made of, Salém will start to think higher of you.”
Yerovi nodded but still didn’t say anything. He emptied the bottle in his hand and then stood up and left. Bella didn’t want to follow him through an unknown neighborhood so she decided instead, knowing what she now knew, to have recourse to a relative who used his car as a taxi at night. They agreed to meet around eleven at an intersection not far from the lot where she’d overheard Yerovi and the others. What Bella saw that night shattered her life. She would never forget the chuckles of her husband and the others, could never wipe out the sight of the flock of vultures gliding over the city, widening their circle and then diving to grab their prey. At about five a.m., after she saw them carry out holdups in several parts of town, the pickup in which her husband was riding slowed and then came to a stop. Bella could see three bodies on the ground: two men and a woman, all without helmets, who’d been thrown from a motorcycle and landed some yards away from her. They looked like marionettes idly discarded: their legs and arms at strange angles, the girl’s hips out of line with her torso. All three were bleeding, their faces distorted with pain. The accident must have just happened, minutes before. When the seven men sprang down from the bed of the truck, they took whatever they could find: phones, jackets, shoes, and watches. They didn’t hesitate to lift up the bodies in search of wallets, as if these were not people but sacks of potatoes. Bella was surprised not only by their voracity but by the methodical way they went about their search. Her man’s skill at this task made her nauseous, but she held on. The group abandoned the two men and concentrated their attention on the woman, beginning to strip her. They pulled at her pants, but her crumpled bones complicated the operation. Now they had ripped open her blouse, and her breasts covered in blood and debris were exposed to the night, looking like recently butchered meat. Bella began pounding desperately on the horn of the taxi, interrupting the group’s laughter, until the driver grabbed her by the shoulders and slapped her.
“Are you trying to get us killed? Cut it out! Are you crazy?”
He grabbed her hands next, trying to stop her, but Bella kept flailing and repeating her blasts on the horn. Lights began going on in houses up and down the street. Her cousin drove off and, in the rearview mirror, Bella could see that the pickup was following them.
“Duck down. I’m going to try to get away from those bastards. If they catch us, we’re dead.”
This time Bella did as her cousin said, while he made sudden turns for what seemed like hours. Finally, on a busy street, she got out and took a bus. When she reached Wells, Yerovi still hadn’t arrived. Midway through the morning, he showed up drunk. The children were already at school, and Bella had all his things packed in a box which she’d tied with a rope. When he tripped on his way to the bed, he kicked at it.
“Bella, honey, take these off for me,” he said, pointing to his shoes.
His words were slurred, but his tone was friendly. Bella was surprised by the tenderness in his request. That friendliness had disappeared from the house months ago.
“Oswaldo, there are two ways to do this.” She took a breath and held her voice steady. “You can go peacefully, or things can get violent, but one way or the other you’re leaving.”
“What?” Yerovi said, while trying to get comfortable on the bed and looking at her out of unfocused eyes.
“You’re going, I said.”
“Where? What are you talking about? I’m tired, let me sleep.”
“A lot of work?”
“Yeah, a lot. But—” he reached out his arm. “We haven’t been together for a long time, have we? C’mere.” His hand fell. “Bella, come on, undress.”
The woman did not manage to get to the outhouse. Her body bent in two in the yard, vomiting up everything in her stomach. She splashed water on her face from a basin and went back in the house. Yerovi was snoring on the bed. A ray of sunshine fell like a whip across his face. Bella went to the kitchen and found a long meat knife that she stuck in her waistband. The bedroom reeked of aguardiente. She came to the bed and felt in the man’s pockets and the folds of his clothes. No pistol. She got a glass of water and threw it on his face.
He sat up, shocked and angry.
“Are you nuts? What the fuck are you doing?”
His eyes were red. He kept on shouting, rubbing his eyes, and shaking his head from side to side.
“I told you, you’re leaving.” Bella pointed at the box on the floor. “There’s your stuff.”
Yerovi stood up and walked toward Bella. Passing the window, he saw a group of women outside, looking his way.
“Fucking vultures! Get out of here. You want something to gossip about? Is that what you want?” He stuck half his body out the window while screaming like he’d gone crazy himself. Then he turned around and headed back toward Bella, who hadn’t moved or said another word.
“That’s what it’s about? Those busybodies came flocking around with the story that I’ve got another woman? Who are you going to believe, them or me?”
Bella still kept quiet. Yerovi sat down and put his head between his hands, elbows resting on the table they used for meals. He seemed to have forgotten about her. When he looked up, his voice had changed.
“Bella, we’re getting out of here. I can’t stand this place.” He looked at her with tears in his eyes. “We can’t go on this way. We can’t do anything, we can’t even screw without everybody knowing, it’s like living with our insides hanging out. I’m not an animal.”
“Really?” Bella felt she was collapsing, she wanted to hug her husband, to tell him it had all been a bad dream, but then she remembered the girl. “How long did you think it would take me to find out?”
“It’s nothing, Bella. You’re my wife. I’ll get rid of her tomorrow morning, first thing, but listen to me, let’s get out of here.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
Yerovi looked at her differently. He stood up, came over to her, took her by the shoulders.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not talking about any woman, Oswaldo. Last night I followed you—” she looked him in the eyes. “I followed you all night long, and I want you to leave this house and never come back.”
This is the point where things get confused. Some people say that Bella, before he could react, pulled the knife from her waist and, closing her eyes to find the courage to use it, cut off one of his ears and blinded him in the left eye.
Others say that Yerovi grabbed a bottle from the table where he’d been resting his elbows minutes before. He smashed it so as to have a weapon to kill his wife to keep her from reporting what she had seen, and it was then, before Bella could get the knife out in front of her, that he sank the sharp edge of the broken bottle in her cheek and left her branded with the mark.
Facts. The truth is always somewhere above, below, or to the side of the facts. The truth is that only when the light was dim, or in the shadows of a darkened room, or just at dawn when everything still appeared in silhouette, did Bella continue to be beautiful in fact as well as name. That was the only truth.
From Poso Wells. Used with permission of City Lights Publishers. Copyright © 2018 by Gabriela Alemán. English translation copyright © 2018 by Dick Cluster.