Materia

AINHOA SANTOS GOICOECHEA
Sebastian .png

Illustration by Lucy Nox

1

 

IT STARTS with you.

 

With a body. 

With a body like all other bodies: water and dirt and light shaped into the image of God. 

With a body like Matti’s body, which was large and clay-coloured and, like any other body, had lungs to smoke with, and hands that could hold a drum, and two legs that carried him for half a century, caving only slightly after Maduro’s second win, when Matti looked at the bucket he’d pissed in and saw blood.

“It could be many things, even if it doesn’t hurt,” the doctor told him several weeks later. “With your age, we suspect a kidney stone, in which case it will pass on its own. But if the blood doesn’t go away, or you start to develop lumps on your lower back, it might be more serious. Try to get your hands on some Fentanyl.”

 

Matti nodded and thanked the doctor before turning the rusty door handle to leave hospital clinic. “Fentanyl…” he thought, starting his two-hour trip back to his ranchito in the slums. “I must look rich!” He scoffed, then noted that the doctor had not once suggested he come back if things got worse. Then again, what for? “Nothing to do about a lump anyway,” Matti thought, his legs marching swiftly as they were known to.

 

2

 

DR. GUTIERREZ'S body was thin and paler than most, a bald spot already revealing itself despite his relative youth. As the man with the bloody urine left his consultation room, Dr. Gutierrez rubbed the place where his scalp felt newly bare. “Stress,” he thought, “that’s probably it. Increased hair-loss due to stress as a result of–” 

 

Knock knock knock. “Doctor?”

 

It often happened that Dr. Gutierrez would forget how many patients he’d treated in a day, especially when he had shifts at the public hospital on top of his private clinic. You got the worst of it at the hospital. And the least to work with. Every day a machine broke, some drug ran out, the water was cut off. Again. It had gotten better before the elections, if only briefly, with drugs returning to their shelves almost over-night: cisplatin, bevacizumab, tamoxifen. Beautiful. Like poetry. But after Maduro’s latest victory (huzza!), everything went nuclear again. Bare shelves, cabinets, pharmacies. Welcome back, wasteland.

 

Dr. Gutierrez had never seen war but, during night shifts, he felt like a soldier. Flat on his back, head pounding, eyes bloodshot with visions of bodies: a young girl with a red rash on her back, crying because it hurt to lie down; a raisin-like man holding his wrist, praying for a cast that wouldn’t come; a big man, strong like a brick, holding a cup of muddy urine. But on nights like those, he mostly saw his wife. Her lovely body: rounder than his, darker than his, the lumps on her breasts growing larger, redder. 

 

Anywhere else, he would be able to save her. Dr. Gutierrez was sure of it. Chile. Bolivia. Colombia. If they saved for just a few more months, they could escape. He knew it. Go somewhere with creams for rashes, and water for casts, and enough drugs and machines and electricity to kill cancer. “In Colombia, she lives,” Dr. Gutierrez thought. “In the US. In Brazil. Anywhere else, she lives.” And that was the thought that would lull him to sleep most nights. Just a few more months of bodies. She could wait. She had to wait.

 

3

 

YANIRE'S BODY could not wait. Sitting in the bus, she could feel her guts shriveling inside her, and wondered if she would be sick right then and there. It had become harder and harder to keep what little she managed to eat inside her, and it was a small miracle that she was able to hold it as long as she did, all the way to the mountains on the outskirts of Caracas, through the heat and the curving roads. 

 

It was the smell of dried blood that did it though. As soon as the heavy air of the shaman’s ranchito enveloped her, Yanire knew her body would collapse – and indeed it caved. Folding onto the floor, a young girl held her hair back as she sprayed the uneven brick wall of the hut with yellow, half-digested vomit.

 

Yanire heard the rustle of the shaman’s boar teeth necklace as he approached her but, if you were to ask her how she found herself lying down on that old fridge-turned-table, she would not know what to tell you. She only knew that, suddenly, she was facing a hot zinc roof, and that the old man was praying. Writhing. Then speaking in tongues as the young girl handed him a candle. He unbuttoned Yanire’s shirt, and she watched as he dripped hot wax on the lumps of her chest. Yanire stiffened, pursed her lips, closed her eyes – but she did not cry. She stood back up and she did not cry. She buttoned up her shirt, paid the shaman, agreed half-heartedly to go on some pilgrimage, got on the bus, and she still did not cry. Instead, guilt-striken, she thought of her husband. 

 

He was a beautiful man, Yanire thought. Perhaps not physically, but mentally. Spiritually. He was a smart, beautiful man with a smart, beautiful job and smart, beautiful drugs to feed her. Were they not beautiful, those drugs? Were they not enough? The bus rattled on but gave no answers, and so Yanire thought about whether she should hide her betrayal. About her husband’s dreams of crossing borders. About empty beds. Cisplatin. Bevacizumab. Tamoxifen. Hot wax on skin, and that round, silly bald spot on her husband’s head, so obvious to onlookers now, so round and silly on his new passport photo, which made her think of breast scans. Of breast scans that cost a fortune. Which made her think of pain. Pain like a shot. Like lighting. Of How pain had pried her mouth open last night, and of how she thought she’d crack, physically break as she screamed. Alone. And She thought of drugs that wouldn’t come. That made her sick. Of vomit, and of her husband, her smart and beautiful husband, cursing at the top of his lungs, blasting this country to hell, kicking their bathroom wall so hard it split, a jagged zig-zag line breaking into existence. She stared at it whenever she showered now, and in its darkness saw her body reflected.

 

If you had asked Yanire how she felt on that bus back home, she would have admitted it: yes, she was afraid. Sick. Guilty. But despite it all, Yanire did not cry. Not there, anyway, nor when she changed buses, nor when she got home, or started dinner, or hugged her husband after he arrived back from the clinic. She did not cry when they ate together, staring at the bags under each other’s eyes. But she did cry. Later, in bed, her husband’s arms wrapped around her torso – because she realised she was not nauseous anymore. Suddenly, she felt airy again. Lighter than she’d felt in months.

 

And for that, Yanire cried. She held onto her husband, and cried.

 

4

 

SEBASTIAN MORA'S body was a party, was materia, was slender yet muscular materia.

 

Or that’s what he went around telling people, anyway. That his body could house spirits, kind and healing, if a little bloody. 

 

“You know, that Viking Pantheon, eh?!”

 

Chatter. Grunts. The clinking of glass.

 

“But good as any doctor nowadays!”

 

Laughter. Cheers. Aguardiente.

 

In truth, not many of his friends were listening. It was hard to be heard in those noisy, amber evenings, when a dozen or more gathered amidst candles in Sebastian’s miniscule backyard. He would stare at their shadows in the dark sometimes and think of them as an entity, singular, many-bodied.

 

“Our motherland is in flux, ya hear? You can see that very clearly,” Sebastian continued, his boar teeth necklace clinking as he swayed through the crowd, “Think back-hey! Think back to a few years ago. I had, what, a dozen patients per day? Twenty? Twenty on a good day, yeah?” Those who were listening agreed, calling out, nodding. “But today, friends, d’you know how many people I cured today? Eh? Ha! Tell ‘em, Eyca!”

 

And so his apprentice grinned, beaming with pride, and said “Forty-six! Bless Maria Lionza!”

 

Around the yard, happy drunks danced, clapped, echoed the blessing, and Sebastian smiled. He savoured the number. 

 

That was forty-six bodies. Forty-six believers. Forty-six gifts, Sebastian thought, of hope.

 

5

 

JUANJO'S BODY swayed as he walked, his flaccid tummy bouncing to the rhythm of his angry steps in the night. “Pendejo…” he muttered under his breath, and pinched his arm. “Fucking stop hanging at Mora’s place, you piece of shit. You drunk piece of shit. You–” Then he tripped on a jutting stone, and his train of thought was replaced by a singular “Fuck!” 

 

But in any case, he was right. He had to stop hanging at Mora’s place. He knew that. But facts were facts: that bastard had the best aguardiente for miles, and his caravan to Sorte would attract the region’s most powerful healers in a few weeks’ time. Not that it mattered, really. It’s not like Juanjo’s father would ever agree to pilgrimage with them, that stubborn mule – in fact, he’d probably be furious his son even asked! Stomping home, Juanjo could already hear the fit his father would throw in their ranchito, just down from Mora’s: raving about how liars displeased Maria Lionza, how Juanjo would never channel the spirits of the great Indian Pantheon, how those who befriend swindlers make for bad materia. 

 

“Stubborn sonofabitch…” It’s not like his father’s own prayers were working, and couldn’t he see Juanjo was just trying to help him? Unlike that stupid fucking doctor – “Fentanyl… Ha! Asshole.” – They were all assholes, at least as far as Juanjo cared. So it had to be Mora. Or not. But someone like him, maybe. Another healer who could… 

 

“Ah, but he’s too proud,” Juanjo thought. “Too fuckin’ proud.” But even in his drunken state, Juanjo had to wonder: was it pride or conviction that guided his father? Stubbornness or truth? If nothing else, Juanjo knew he was right about one thing: Mora was a piece of shit, a platanero who used Maria Lionza’s good name to prey on the sick, the desperate, on ignorant kids like Eyca – an ass-kissing brat, sure, but Juanjo pitied her. She’d never learn to summon spirits from a fraud like Mora. She’d just become a rotten liar herself. “Papi should’ve been her teacher,” he thought, “Would’ve set her on the right path.” Like me, he wanted to add. But he couldn’t. Of course he couldn’t. 

 

It was at that moment that Juanjo realised he had never stopped pinching his arm. Even after he tripped, his fingers had found the same patch of skin again and clung to it. And it hurt. Letting go, Juanjo wondered why he had pressed so hard for so long. He could picture the bruise that would surely bloom come the morning. But his thoughts were slippery that night. Instead of sticking firm they looped, around and around, in a drunken dance. And so as he walked, Juanjo told himself, “Stop hanging at Mora’s place, stop, stop hanging at…” 

 

Who knows? Maybe that would do the trick. Maybe he had angered Maria Lionza. Maybe, if he stopped, his prayers would finally work. Maybe his father would stop pissing blood.

 

6

 

IN THE blur of her Sorte memories, Eyca saw bodies. Bodies straight. Bodies bent. Bodies strong, wet, drifting. It was like people had multiplied that year, doubled or tripled so that every inch of the candlelit mountain had someone standing there, drinking or drumming or chanting Fuerza! Fuerza! Fuerza! It was a sound like crashing waves in Eyca’s mind, one that rose and fell and dissipated into the ebbs and flows of bodies. Afterwards, Eyca wished she could remember each one. That she could call the bodies by name, see how they walked, talked, smoked, danced – but her memory could only retain so many visions:

 

Seb’s crouching body, bull-like, his hand slit dripping red because Viking spirits are bloody like that, because they make your body drip over other bodies. Sick bodies. On the ground. On an oracle made of chalk, one she drew and specifically over 

that lady’s body, the one who puked in their ranchito weeks ago. “A pretty body,” Eyca thought whenever she came to mind. Thinner now. And better, she assumed, better. Better thanks to Seb. A smile and a flash and 

some other bodies, some other memories, something like drums, something like dance, something like a crowd forming, shifting, disbanding. Different bodies. Paler than most. Eyes wider. Drier, often, except for 

the one who was sat down sobbing, face in hands revealing a bald spot. It was the contrasts Sorte provided that struck Eyca the most, the utter despair of one body against the utter power of another. Tears against a bonfire. Sobs drowned by crackling flames. And next to the flames, suddenly,

Juanjo’s body drumming, and 

Eyca’s own body next to his, unsure of how she’d arrived there. She recalled wrapping dark hair around her fingers, her nostrils flaring like a dog’s as she breathed in his scent. In her mind, the image is clear: Juanjo’s muscles flexing, his flesh bouncing off-beat to the drums, a certain intoxication running through her body and making her tremble – something about the beat, something about the sweat, something about the hot coals, candela, burning just mere feet before her. And then, out of the darkness,

Matti. Matti’s body. Larger and stronger and lighter than ever. A cheer and he twists. A beat and he jumps. One thousand eyes fixed on the man who is more than himself now, more than one, an Indian spirit working through him as his body dances on fire. 

 

But Matti didn’t feel the flames. Eyca knew that; everyone did. His body, after all, was materia. 

 

Just like all other bodies, just like yours.

Ainhoa Santos Goicoechea (pronounced "I-know-ah") is a culturally confused Creative Writing postgraduate student from the Basque Country, Spain. She currently studies at the University of Oxford, and is progressively establishing a houseplant jungle back home.