Excerpt

The Bitch

Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman

November 2, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Pilar Quintana's The Bitch, translated by Lisa Dillman. Quintana is a Colombian author and was named one of the most promising young writers of Latin America in 2007. The first of Quintana’s work to be translated into English, The Bitch is a 2020 National Book Awards Translated Literature Finalist and has won the prestigious Colombian Biblioteca de Narrativa Prize. Dillman lives in Georgia, U.S., where she translates Spanish, Catalan, and Latin American writers and teaches at Emory.

“I found her there this morning, paws up,” said Doña Elodia pointing to the spot on the beach where trash brought in or churned up by the sea collected: branches, plastic bags, bottles.

“Poisoned?”

“I think so.”

“What’d you do? Bury her?”

Doña Elodia nodded: “The grandkids.”

“Up in the cemetery?”

“No, right here on the beach.”

Plenty of town dogs died by poison. Some people said folks killed them on purpose but Damaris couldn’t believe anybody would do such a thing and thought they ate the rat bait people put out by mistake, or maybe they actually ate the rats, which would be easy to catch after they were poisoned.

“I’m sorry,” said Damaris.

Doña Elodia just nodded. She’d had that old girl a long time, a black dog that spent all day lying around Doña Elodia’s beach restaurant and following her everywhere: to church, her daughter-in-law’s, the store, the pier … She must have been very sad but it didn’t show. Setting down one puppy―which she’d just fed with a syringe that she filled from a cup of milk―Doña Elodia picked up another. There were ten in all, and so tiny their eyes hadn’t even opened.

“Born six days ago,” she said. “They’re not going to survive.”

Doña Elodia had been old for as long as Damaris could remember, wore thick-lens glasses that made her eyes look buggy, and was fat from the waist down. A woman of few words who moved slow and kept her cool even on the busiest days at the restaurant, when drunks and kids were charging around the outdoor tables. You could tell she was anxious now, though.

“Why don’t you give them away?” asked Damaris.

“Somebody took one, but nobody wants pups this young.”

Since it was low season, the restaurant had no tables set out on the sand, no music, no tourists, nothing; just empty space that looked enormous, and Doña Elodia on a bench with ten puppies in a cardboard box. Damaris looked them over carefully and made her choice.

“Can I have that one?” she asked.

Doña Elodia set the puppy she’d just fed back in the box, picked up the one Damaris had pointed to—gray fur, floppy ears—and looked behind it.

“It’s a girl,” she said.

*

When tide was out, the beach was massive—a vast expanse of black sand that looked more like mud. When it was in, the water covered the beach completely and the waves brought in twigs, branches, seeds, and dead leaves from the jungle and then churned them all up with people’s trash. Damaris was on her way back from visiting her aunt in the next town, which was higher up, on solid ground, and out past the military airport; it was also more modern, with cinder-block hotels and restaurants. She’d stopped at Doña Elodia’s out of curiosity after seeing her with the puppies and was now going back to her own place, at the opposite end of the beach. With nowhere to put the puppy, she carried her against her bosom. The tiny dog fit in her hands, smelled of milk, and made Damaris long desperately to hold her tight and cry.

Damaris’s town was one long packed-sand road with houses on either side. All of the houses were rundown, raised up on stilts, and had wood-plank walls and roofs black with mold. Damaris was a little afraid of how Rogelio would react when he saw the dog. He didn’t like dogs and only kept them so they’d bark and protect the property. At this point, he had three: Danger, Mosco, and Olivo.

When tide was out, the beach was massive—a vast expanse of black sand that looked more like mud.

Danger, the oldest, looked like one of those labs the soldiers used for sniffing boats and tourists’ suitcases, except his head was big and square like the pitbulls at Hotel Pacífico Real in the next town along. His mother had belonged to the late Josué, a man who had actually liked dogs. Josué also kept them so they’d bark, but he showed them affection too, and trained them to go hunting with him.

According to Rogelio, one day while he was visiting the late Josué, a puppy not two months old broke away from the litter and started barking at him. That, he decided, was the dog for him. The late Josué gave him the dog and Rogelio named him “Danger”—in English. Danger grew up to fulfill the promise of his name, becoming a ferocious and possessive animal. When Rogelio talked about him he seemed to feel respect and admiration, but he never treated him well and was always scaring him, shouting “Gyaaa!” and raising a hand so the dog would remember all the times Rogelio had hit him.

You could tell Mosco had had a hard life as a puppy. He was all small and scrawny and trembly. One day he showed up on the property, and since Danger accepted him, he stayed. When he arrived he had a wound on his tail, and a few days later it got infected. By the time Damaris and Rogelio took any notice of it, the wound was full of maggots and Damaris thought she saw a mosca―a fully formed fly―flutter out of it.

“Did you see that?!” she cried.

Rogelio hadn’t seen anything, and when Damaris told him he laughed out loud and said they’d finally found a name for the beast.

“Sit still, Mosco, you son of a bitch,” he ordered.

He grabbed the end of the dog’s tail, raised his machete, and before Damaris realized what he was doing lopped it off in one go. Mosco took off howling, and Damaris stared at Rogelio in horror. The maggot-ridden tail still in one hand, Rogelio shrugged his shoulders and said he’d only done it to put a stop to the infection. But Damaris always thought he’d enjoyed it.

The youngest dog, Olivo, was the son of Danger and the chocolate lab next door, which the neighbors claimed was purebred. He looked like his father, though his fur was longer and grayer. Olivo was the least friendly of the three. None of them went near Rogelio and they were all wary around people, but Olivo wouldn’t even approach anybody and was so distrustful that he wouldn’t eat if there were people in sight. Damaris knew that it was because Rogelio, when they were eating, would sometimes creep up to them before they realized and whip them with a thin guadua reed that he kept specifically for this purpose. Sometimes he did it if they’d done something wrong and sometimes just because, just for the pleasure of beating them. Plus Olivo couldn’t be trusted: he bit before barking, and from behind.

Damaris told herself things would be different with this dog. This one was hers and she wouldn’t let Rogelio do any of those things, wouldn’t even let him give the dog dirty looks.

She’d made it to Don Jaime’s shop and showed him the puppy.

“What a tiny little thing,” he said.

He grabbed the end of the dog’s tail, raised his machete, and before Damaris realized what he was doing lopped it off in one go.

Don Jaime’s shop had only one counter and one wall but it was so well stocked you could find anything from food to nails and screws there. Don Jaime was from upcountry, had moved to town with nothing back when they were building the naval base and gotten together with a local, a black woman even poorer than him. There were people who said he’d prospered because of his witchcraft, but Damaris thought it was because he was a good man, hardworking too.

That day he gave her a week’s vegetables, bread for the next day’s breakfast, and a bag of powdered milk and a syringe to feed the puppy, all on credit. He even let her have a cardboard box.

*

Rogelio was a muscular man, big and black, and his expression made it look like he was always mad. When Damaris got back home with the dog, he was outside cleaning the trimmer’s motor. He didn’t even say hello.

“Another dog?” he asked. “Don’t think I’m going to take care of it.”

“You see anybody asking you for anything?” she retorted, and headed straight past him to the shack.

The syringe didn’t work. Damaris’s arm was strong but clumsy, and her fingers as fat as the rest of her. Every time she pressed the plunger, it went all the way down and the little squirt of milk shot out the dog’s mouth and dribbled everywhere. Since the puppy didn’t yet know how to lick, she couldn’t put milk in a bowl for her, and the only baby bottles they sold in town were for humans―too big. Don Jaime suggested an eyedropper and Damaris gave it a go, but if she had to feed her drop by drop, the dog would never fill her belly. Then Damaris thought of soaking bread in milk and letting the puppy suck at it. That turned out to be the solution: she devoured the whole thing.

The shack where they lived wasn’t down on the beach but up on a jungle bluff where white people from the city had big beautiful weekend homes with gardens, paved walkways, and swimming pools. To get from there to town, first you went down a long steep set of steps that had to be scraped often to get the slime off so they wouldn’t be slippery. Then you had to cross the cove, a wide inlet where the seawater flowed as fast as a river, filling and emptying with the tides.

Those days high tide was in the morning, so in order to buy the puppy’s bread Damaris had to get up first thing, take the paddle from the shack, walk down all the steps with it over her shoulder, push the canoe out from the embarcadero, set it in the water, paddle to the other side, tie it to a palm tree, carry the paddle to one of the fishermen’s houses by the cove, ask the fisherman or his wife or his kids to keep an eye on it for her, listen to them complain or gossip about the neighbors, and walk halfway across town to Don Jaime’s shop. And the same again on the way back. Every day. Even in the rain.

During the daytime, Damaris carried the little dog around inside her brassiere, between her big soft breasts, to keep her nice and warm. At night she put her in the cardboard box Don Jaime had given her, with a hot-water bottle and the T-shirt she’d worn that day, so the dog wouldn’t miss her smell.

The shack where they lived was made of wood and in bad shape. When a storm hit, the whole place shook in the thunder and rocked in the wind, water leaked through the roof and came in through the gaps between wall slats, everything got cold and damp, and the puppy would whimper. Damaris and Rogelio had slept in separate rooms for ages, so on those nights she leaped quickly out of bed, before he had time to say or do anything. She’d take the dog from the box and stay there in the dark with her, petting her, scared to death of the explosions of lightning and the fury of the wind, feeling tiny—smaller and less significant to the world than a grain of sand in the sea—until the puppy stopped whimpering.

Damaris would pet her during the daytime, too, in the afternoon, once she’d done her morning chores and had lunch, when she sat on a plastic chair to watch her telenovelas with the pup in her lap. If he was there, Rogelio would watch her run her fingers down the dog’s back, but he didn’t do anything or say anything.

*

Luzmila, on the other hand, did make comments the day she came to visit, despite the fact that Damaris at no point carried the dog around in her brassiere, instead keeping her in the box as long as she could. Unlike Rogelio, Luzmila didn’t hurt animals, but she did revile them and was the type of person who saw the negative side to everything and spent all day criticizing others.

During the daytime, Damaris carried the little dog around inside her brassiere, between her big soft breasts, to keep her nice and warm.

Most of the time, the puppy just slept. When she woke up, Damaris would feed her and put her out on the grass to do her business. During the time Luzmila was there she woke up twice, and both times Damaris fed her and stuck her out on the grass, which was soaking because it had rained all night long and all morning too. Damaris would have preferred that Luzmila not meet the dog, not even know she had one, but she wasn’t going to let her pup go hungry or soil herself. The sky and sea were one solid gray stain and the air so damp that a fish could have lived out of water. Damaris wanted to dry the puppy’s paws with a towel and rub her body with her hands to warm the little girl up before setting her back in the box, but she stopped herself since Luzmila kept staring at her with those evil eyes of hers.

“You’re going to kill that animal, you keep touching it so much,” she said.

Damaris was hurt by the comment, but she kept quiet. It wasn’t worth a fight. Then, wearing her disgusted face, Luzmila asked what the dog’s name was, and Damaris had to tell her: Chirli. They were first cousins and had been raised together since birth, so they knew everything about one another.

“Chirli, like the beauty queen?” Luzmila laughed. “Isn’t that what you were going to name your daughter?”

Damaris had been unable to have children. She and Rogelio got together when she was eighteen, and when she’d been with him for two years people started saying “Where are the babies?” and “Sure taking your time.” They were doing nothing to prevent a pregnancy so Damaris started drinking infusions made from mountain herbs―María and Espíritu Santo—that people said were very good for fertility.

Back then they lived in town, in a rented apartment, and she would walk up to gather the herbs on the bluff without asking permission from the property owners. Though it felt a little dishonest, she considered it her business and no one else’s. She prepared and drank the infusions secretly, while Rogelio was out fishing or hunting.

He began to suspect Damaris was up to something and one day trailed her like an animal he was hunting, without her realizing. When Rogelio saw the herbs he thought they were for witchcraft and confronted her, furious.

“What are you doing with this shit?!” he asked. “What are you up to?”

It was drizzling outside. They were deep in the jungle, in an ugly spot where the trees had been felled for electricity cables to get through. The rotting trunks, still standing, looked like untended graves in a cemetery. Rogelio was in swamp boots but she, barefoot, had mud-covered feet. Damaris hung her head and, in a quiet voice, told him the truth. He stood in silence for a spell.

“I’m your husband,” he said finally, “you’re not in this alone.”

From then on, they gathered the herbs together, made the infusions together, and at night argued over what names they’d give their children. Since they couldn’t agree on any, not a single one, they decided that he would choose the boys’ and she the girls’. They wanted four, ideally two of each. But two more years went by and then they had to tell anyone who asked that she just wasn’t getting pregnant. People started to avoid the topic and Aunt Gilma suggested Damaris go see Santos.

Aunt Gilma had told her about a woman who was thirty-eight, far older than her, who’d managed to get pregnant.

Though it was a man’s name, Santos was not a man but the daughter of a black woman from Chocó and an indigenous man from lower San Juan. She knew herbs, and could heal by touch—rubbing people’s bodies—and by secrets—invoking words and prayers. She tried a little of everything on Damaris and when it all failed said the problem must be her husband, and to bring him in. Though it was clear he was uneasy about the whole thing, Rogelio drank all the potions, accepted all the prayers, and put up with all of Santos’s rubbing. But the longer they went without her getting pregnant the more reluctant he became, and one day he announced he wasn’t going back. Damaris took this as a personal attack and stopped speaking to him.

Though they continued to live together, and to sleep in the same bed, they went three months without speaking. Then one night, Rogelio came home a little drunk and told her that he wanted a child too, he just didn’t want the pressure of Santos and her goddam herbs and prayers and rubs. But he was there for her, and if Damaris wanted, they could keep trying. The room they shared at the time was the storeroom of a big house that had long since stopped being the nicest in town. It was in a sorry state now, full of termites and grime, and their room was so narrow it hardly fit the bed, their old box TV, and a two-burner gas cooktop. But it did have a window overlooking the sea.

Damaris stood a while at the window just feeling the rust-smelling breeze on her face. When Rogelio finished getting undressed and climbed into bed, she closed the window, lay down next to him, and began to stroke him. That night they had sex without fretting about children or anything else, and from then on they didn’t talk about it anymore—though sometimes when she heard about an acquaintance getting pregnant or a child born in town, Damaris cried silent tears, scrunching up her eyes and fists, after he fell asleep.

When Damaris turned thirty they were doing a little better and had moved to a slightly larger room in the same house. She was working at one of the houses up on the bluff—Señora Rosa’s place—which meant she earned a fixed salary, and Rogelio went out fishing on what people called “wind-and-tides”—boats that spent days on end at high sea and could carry tons of fish. On one trip, Rogelio and his partner caught three grouper, loads of sierra, and found an entire shoal of red snapper they could take—almost a ton and a half in total—so they each made loads of cash. Though he wanted to use it to buy a new drift net and a huge four-speaker sound system, Damaris had been wondering for some time how to say she hadn’t stopped hoping for a child and wanted to try again, no matter what sacrifices they had to make.

Aunt Gilma had told her about a woman who was thirty-eight, far older than her, who’d managed to get pregnant, and now, with the assistance of a jaibaná—an indigenous doctor who was famous in the next town—had a beautiful baby. His consultations weren’t cheap, but with the money they’d saved they could start treatment. And then they’d see. The night Rogelio announced that he was going to Buenaventura the next day to buy the stereo, Damaris cried.

“I don’t want a stereo,” she said, “I want a baby.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman. Excerpted with the permission of World Editions. Copyright © 2020 by Pilar Quintana.




More Story
Ken Bonert: The Regional Is Universal First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers,...