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The Ortolan

By Reno Evangelista From Issue No. 3

Again. Conchita had asked again. Madamo, the witch, would not survive a third time. She was consulting her hair for a solution, but everywhere she looked she found only split ends. Su hija, su amor, Conchita Dolorosa, had changed in some unnamable, undetectable way; towards Madamo, of all people. A sin in itself for she whose one joy in her thousand-year life was to perceive.

Madamo was the bad kind of magic, the kind that gave you what you wanted. The kind that obeyed.

Her wooden bones creak and her glass eyes go cloudy with fear. Silver hair spins through her hands the way stars streak across the sky, dipping through her wrinkled palms, coiling around her long fingers as though they were pegs. Between the lines, she sees Conchita at a crosswalk, just beside a certain plaza, beneath a certain obelisk, across from a certain church, in that part of town where the beggars have more to gain from digging up stones for worms to eat than in holding out their hands to the worthless light. Conchita is holding a bushel, no, a plastic bag spilling with Thieves’ Hands. Liquid drips from the bottom onto the concrete. No, not yet. The image shakes. Cups of tea on the table in front of the witch are rippling. The drops are falling from the ceiling. Madamo’s hair is heavy with rain and dead men.

Thieves’ Hands was the name Madamo gave to the little claw-flowered roots that grew all around the gold-green creases of her island in that black lake, though that is not what they were called. She owned every grass-mounted dewdrop and every long-dead stone on that floating wedge holding open the crack between the sky and the water. It was her privilege and her right to give them the wrong names.

Here was Sunderweed, spined flower filled with clear pus. Here was Bastrogene, crystal aging green with spite. Here were the dead men, climbing, climbing. Here was Conchita.

Conchita stood in a supermarket line, clutching a bull’s heart, deep scarlet and swollen like a wound. Both hands held it up to the withering glare of fluorescent light. Her checked skirt needed adjusting and her glasses were smudged with oil. The man in front of her was shouting
“Forty-three million! Forty-three million!” into his wristwatch. This was an amount of money. Or an amount of hectares. Or an amount of people who had just suffered excruciating deaths. Or.

Conchita had a look on her face of absolute calm.

Had she been changing even then? thinks Madamo.

This isn’t Conchita. This was Conchita, three months and seven days ago. Madamo had asked for the Heart of a Raging Bull. Madamo had asked for many things, over many days, all of which were now rotting away in her iron stomach. Every now and again, she would burp up flies. This was the way of things: she could not give if she did not receive. Simple, really. Like the rules of a story with an unhappy ending. The strands were running through Madamo’s fingers again, and she was reading the past. The past was easy, it stretched on and on. Braid it, brush it, cut it off. The past was anything you wanted it to be. The present was always moving out of your hands, and the future was still growing, somewhere deep inside.

Madamo’s hair is brittle and coarse. It is gray as a funeral parlor, speckled as sand.

The future comes one strand at a time.

At present, Conchita is walking through the plaza market in the rain. Her white blouse clings to her bra straps. Her plastic bag is filling up. Lines of water blur her vision but she carries on unaffected. She is looking for a sign, a symbol. A man in a light hat bumps into her and she falls into a puddle. He walks right past. She looks up. A scorpion is sitting on a turtle’s back as they move across a flat plane of blue. The rain isn’t enough to cover the smell of hundreds of caged animals. She’s found it. Madamo’s hands tremble. The hairs tremble.

They snap.

Little ghosts come screaming out of them, ricocheting from teacup to teacup, from the witch’s six-legged loveseat to the cabinets filled with shattered china and empty picture frames. They hide in bottles of fermenting tincture, make themselves flat and sandwich themselves between pages in moth eaten books. They dare not touch the hair of Madamo, which cascades from the back of the great gourd of her head and twists and turns and erupts in every direction. The walls are covered in Madamo’s hair. It escapes from the room’s only window and hangs like silver vines down the cliff side, tips resting just above the beach.

Conchita will come soon enough to comb dead men from Madamo’s hair. A child like Conchita, a good and unhappy child, is bound to do as she is told. Madamo did not need the glimmering of her infinite hair to see such a pretty picture. One which repeated so frequently that even the island was beginning to show signs of its memory.

All along the ashen shore, Conchita’s feet lay their imprints side by side with countless others. Other girls, other times. This is what Madamo said, at least. Maybe once upon a time. Back then, there must have been a cleaner rake.

Every day, on her return, Conchita would pull down the dead men, one by one, the metal teeth of the rake scraping against their blank, sunburnt faces. Madamo’s long hair would make a sound like a cat being drowned as the rake ran through. Birds would have been planting their droppings in her tresses, the rake would scrape against those hardened patches to bring them falling in flakes onto Conchita’s own head. She would wince. Every day, Conchita pretended it was snow. It was easy; she had never seen snow.

Madamo had never seen snow either. How could she? There were dead men tugging at her day and night, and girls like Conchita were all she could do to keep them buried in black waters.

Now, you might be wondering about dead men. See, dead men are gray and dead men are brown. Some have bristles and some have knives. They slobber and grasp and mutter and writhe. Dead men are hungry. Dead men climb. Unless they were born in the ground, then they sink. Dead men of the water are always rising up. They want to be seen. They want to be found. No one cares about dead men.

Dead men are pests.

Conchita combs dead men, one by one. It is one of several things she does for Madamo, every day. In exchange, she is granted her heart’s desire. Each day, the last of the dead men drops to the sand and rolls into the lake. The water barely makes a sound. They never get too far up, the dead men.

Conchita rests the rake against a tall stone. She stands beneath the silver lines for a moment, trying to remember something.

Madamo looks at the memory, new hairs gathered in her palms and, in turn, is reminded of something once pulled from her now ghost-crowded bookshelf. An ancient illustration from another world. A little girl with curly hair and rosy cheeks, looking nothing at all like sallow Conchita, standing at the bottom of a jungle with head raised upwards in wonder, light filtering through the leaves as if she were standing at the pulpit of a cathedral. Conchita touches a single hair with a free hand and pulls. Sound of splintering wood. Maybe even pain. Gray flecked with white, swaying toward her as if it were alive. She spins the broken strand around her wrist, once, twice, thrice. Its other end floats along behind her on the beach as she walks back to the footpath, up the hillside, to the tall house of Madamo nestled high above the lake.

Conchita has grown, despite every obstacle. And soon Madamo will lose her. Madamo watches her stand under the ladder of hair. She watches every occurrence, every repetition. Last year. Last month. Yesterday. How could the witch not have noticed? Each iteration, the pause grows longer by a fraction of an instant. Conchita at the bottom, looking up.

“The Ortolan Bunting,” Madamo said, “is a small bird of very, very unusual delicacy. It is prepared in a very, very beautiful fashion. First, the still-living bird is blinded so that it gorges itself until its body becomes fat and feeble. Next, the now-opiated avian is drowned in a vat of fine brandy. Then, it is roasted very, very thoroughly, feathers and all. After the bird is plucked and served, the diners must place a large cloth over their heads and consume their meal in obscurity. The purpose of this veil, well, mi hija, some say it adds to the taste. But you know, I happen to think it is the cruelty which makes it so delicious.” Madamo laughed. Conchita stared.

Madamo would never witness this speech from Conchita’s eyes. She would never see her own long, flat teeth nor her moonish forehead pushing itself against the ceiling of that old drawing room. She would not hear Conchita’s oboe voice asking what else she needed to do. All this day and all future days would be lost, untangled from the auspices of her follicles. Conchita would return with an Ortolan Bunting, this much was certain. Not once had the girl ever failed any of Madamo’s requests. There was no need to threaten her that she would be eaten should she come empty-handed. Madamo had never liked having to fulfill that threat anyway. Live children tasted disgusting.

The children that came before Conchita. Madamo had to rack her soft head to remember them. Small and frail, maybe? Everyone was miniscule in front of Madamo. Conchita was tall for her age, and Madamo was easily twice her height cramped into a chair made for two. Pretty? Not especially. Madamo was no shortsighted godmother, picking flowers off bushes and expecting them to bloom in a vase. What was it that drew her to them? She couldn’t remember, and the hairs that held those kinds of secrets had long been shed.

But there had always been children: faceless, innumerable, and hungry as flies.

Conchita was the very, very last of these, and Madamo had forgotten how to replace her.

The witch tries again. She gathers her tresses and peeks in between has-been and will-be. Snakes on a forest floor. Conchita is there amongst the animals. Their cages cover the walls. Conchita walks between them, snarling snouts and inquisitive claws reaching out from between the thin metal bars. The whole of the store is a narrow corridor that once connected two roads. Now a dead end, screaming beasts of every feather wallpaper over century-old vandalisms. Rain falls in heavy darts on the polymer sheeting stretched across the gap of space between the walls. Shadows of shattered concrete hold up the sheets pregnant with many waters.

The species grow more exotic the deeper Conchita breaches their dilapidated prison. Blue macaws with notches on their beaks where they’ve been snapping at the bars. Cats in strange stripes growing bolder with mange. At the far end of the store is a figure with a heaving belly, made visible between the legs of a worn desk covered in claw marks. A woman is sitting on a wooden desk chair, head resting in folded arms over a seemingly dry and empty aquarium.

Little shimmering lives flicker beneath the glassy vision cupped in Madamo’s hands.

The aquarium is not empty. It is carpeted in scorpions. The woman yawns as Conchita approaches.

“Excuse me?” says Conchita.

“No,” says the woman.

“The Ortolan Bunting.”

The woman raises her head groggily and adjusts back into her chair, stomach sitting in her lap. The wooden board above the scorpion pit shakes with a threat to fall.

“Ayah, which rich puta is showing off now?” The woman cocks her head, inspecting the schoolgirl in all her unguarded solitude.

“Madamo. The witch,” says Conchita.

“Don’t make me laugh, girl,” she pats her belly. “I spent all the first with my mouth open and as a result I gave birth to a child who wouldn’t shut up.”

Conchita lifted the bag up to the table so the woman could see green veins through the cheap plastic.

A moment of silence.

The woman jumps from her chair and grabs the bag out of the girl’s hands. She rips the soft sack open and water floods down her duster dress. Her hands stuff the sprigs in her mouth—leaf, stem, and root. Teeth bared and covered in grassy flecks. Her pregnant body lurches in delight.

After the woman picks the last of the leaves from the cracks in the floor, she takes a wooden box from a nearby shelf and sets it down on the table. A single hole is drilled into its side, through which there is darkness.

“Take it and leave,” she says.

“A bird,” says Conchita. “The Ortolan is a bird.”

“Stupid girl. Is that her type? Well, the witch is never getting any of my children then.”

“Your children are dead,” says Conchita. “I saw them in the lake.”

“Stupid, stupid girl. Your mother must have spent nine months in tears.”

“This child dies too.”

Images run dry in the hands of Madamo. The roof groans with exhaustion. She has never held a vision of the present for so long. She is falling asleep and all of time is folding into sound. Conchita’s black Mary Janes against the concrete floor. Rain slowly dampening into drizzle. In some place of total darkness, the sound of chewing.

Madamo does not dream. As the stones and the sun do not dream. To dream requires one to remember; it is not enough to just bear the weight of memory. Madamo wakes up. She can feel the fog licking at the tips of her long hair. Conchita is coming. It is inevitable now.

Madamo takes a single strand. She begins where it ends.

“Give me strength.”

Conchita’s voice rippling in the language of time. Her eyes rolling into the back of her head. The pinprick of Madamo’s finger at the tip of a new day’s memory. Silver thread like a worm snaking out of a pore in her skin. This is how the memory ends: the girl unable to perceive Madamo’s fingers pulling the wiry mesh of her time out of her like a bucket deep within a well. To feel itself threaded through a wooden needle and shoved deep into the soft clay of Madamo’s skull. The wish only needed to be stated once and Madamo obeyed. A transaction is easily made.

It had never been the same twice. Give me strength. Give me control. Give me resilience. Give me the means to survive. I want another life. I want to start over. I want to be a person greater than I am. Madamo felt that in this way, language was the weakness of children. They felt that the world understood what they had to say, when they themselves did not even understand it. Madamo was made to be obedient, by what curse or whose authority she could no longer put to name or face. Yet she had her freedom. It was her privilege and her right and her single greatest power, to misinterpret.

To be wrong.

“A little sleep,” says Madamo, “and all your problems will be forgotten. Hija.”

But now Conchita had asked Madamo for something she couldn’t twist her way. Twice.

Before that, the dinner. Conchita bringing in Madamo’s dish du jour, the witch’s teeth impaling tender flesh. Before that, the chores. Cleaning, combing, collecting ingredients. For these, a child like Conchita—a rejected, unwanted, no-good child—was perfect. Before that, the bridge made not of mortal hands. Flat-bottomed boats row out in an arced V as Conchita walks across the water through a passage only she can see. Madamo did not make that bridge. Madamo did not ask for all the children who walked through it, looking for new territories to conquer. Beneath it, a forest of free-floating vines bubbles just beneath the surface of the black lake. The fronds wave to and fro like long hair in the harsh mountain gale. Dead men reside in the midst of the vines. Conchita sees them every day whilst walking the bridge, eyes downcast at the water. Enfolded in the mossy coils, there is nothing but dead men. Their houses, their cars, their families.

Before that.

Right at the other end of the single silver line, Conchita is waking up. She is dizzy, disoriented. Her body whines with a weariness that seems out of place. She is seated on a stool with a backing but no arms, blocked on either side by two shelves whose contents seem to have thrown themselves onto the floor in despair. In front of her is a table covered in teacups, different sizes, different designs, different contents. There is almost no light. Someone is smiling down at her.

Every day, Conchita meets Madamo for the first time.

“What a very, very wonderful child.”

Sharp sting, a hair breaking at the needle. Conchita is at the shore. The eldest hairs were always the ones to go, as memory had a tendency to extend itself as time went on. Madamo told Conchita to take one every day to pay the dead men still lying on the beach to come up and cook the Ayam Cemani or the Skin of an Old Stonefish. Two birds: the witch made room for new memories and she was certain to get some pleasure out of the meal.

Dead men are excellent cooks. And cheap.

All it takes is a little memory, which they mistake for life the way the living mistake authority for power. The living, the dead. They climb and they climb. Stay dead, dead men.

Stay dead.

Time passes, Madamo hears the front door open. Two sets of feet walk through and before long the house fills with a mouthwatering scent. Madamo is shaking. It dawns on her that she is starving. She does not lick her lips, she licks her teeth, and her lips press forward and squirm like two fat larvae resting on a split log. She tries to stand but finds her enormous head knocking against the ceiling. Her long spindly legs suddenly feel uncomfortable with her knees pressed against her chest. She reaches out a wrinkled hand and raps gently against the door.

“Conchita. Mi hija…”

The door opens.

“Here, Madamo.”

Conchita is carrying a tray with a thin white blanket draped loosely above it. Madamo looks at the girl. This is my Conchita, she thinks. The girl has a carnivore’s face, red at the cheeks down to the mouth. The black of her eyes writhes under smooth glass like a lake. She lays down the tray balanced atop the teacups and stands directly behind the wooden stool across Madamo.

“Oh very, very good,” says Madamo. She lifts the white sheet to cover her face.

The witch intends to enjoy her last meal.

She has so many of Conchita’s memories now, so many days wiled away, sensations felt. Everything from fear to anger to sorrow to glee. None of the important things though. The girl has an enemy and Madamo does not even know her enemy’s name. Madamo cannot see a thing. The white veil is more opaque than she initially thought. But she wears it imagining that the girl Conchita is looking at her, this girl whom the witch knows everything and nothing about. She is quiet, pensive, and deeply unhappy. Her eyes cast themselves at the carpet depicting war in a distant land and back up at the witch’s flat teeth that with precision peel apart the flesh of a bird that she could have held on a single finger. Conchita is wondering what she should wish for. No. She already knows.


Delicioso, mi amor.

“Everything you asked for is done. They say that means you can grant my wish.”

“Yes, of course. Very, very special children like you only come to me when you are in great need of something. So what will it be? Beauty? Wisdom? How about money?” Madamo can hear the girl’s hair hit the sides of her head as she shakes it. The witch’s smile leaves an engraving in the linen.

“Give me…” says the girl. She pauses.

“Conchita, you know that I love you very—”

“Give me power that is yours alone.”

Again. Conchita had asked again.

Madamo, the witch, stretches her legs sideways across the length of the room and skewers them into the stucco of either wall. Her lumpy head throbs and shudders trying to find a means to grant the wish which she was asked. Long wrinkled hands come to either side of her head. Conchita takes cover behind the chair. Madamo cries out.

Her left hand pulls leftways.

Her right hand pulls rightways.

Something begins to tear, right down the middle.

All the way down the witch.

When Conchita opens her eyes, there will be no chair. No house. No Madamo. On a little rock, not far from the clearing where she will stand, a little bird will be looking for seeds. The bird: small and olive and delicate and delectable. It will be more beautiful than Conchita could have ever dreamed.

She’ll reach out her hand until the bird hops into it. Pretty bird.

Her fingers will close around its soft down.

She’ll bend her head down and take a deep bite.

About Reno Evangelista More From Issue No. 3