Flesh for Auction
Certainly the game is rigged.
Don’t let that stop you.
The taxi has crossed the city center, fast and low to the ground like a nuclear warhead, stopped on a no-stop corner and you, despite the static clinging to your skin, paid the driver, got out of the car, and checked the time, all in one movement: your face hardened by the cold, eyes bloodshot, tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth. You walk along the narrow sidewalks of Cusco and think about Guajolote and his gang from the South: they’ll see, those fucking rats, you’ll tear them apart on their own turf. None of that bullshit of here or there. This time they won’t get out ahead of you . . .
You cross a street and contemplate the Incan walls, with their geometrically contained cobblestones, free of cracks, free of error. That fucking Guajolote. He shouldn’t have taken off with the Great Venus of Guanajuato that day that it was almost yours, when it was practically in your hands already. And then to come back like that after years, after selling the package to the Frenchies, just to rub it in your face through his customary little text messages—that asshole. And all this about us all being flesh for auction, that sooner or later we all end up sold to the highest bidder, that one goes this way and the other goes the other, that it all depends on the auctioneer up above, that you shouldn’t get so caught up in it, that Jalisco, you should stop worrying about it. Well, Mo-ther-fuck-er, now you’ll have your Jalisco, you’ll really have him: all fucking pumped up and fully chingón!
You breathe in, still not used to this new Peruvian air. The atmosphere clogs up your lungs, your badly digested breakfast after a sleepless night of flying: that’ll be the goddamn “jet lag.” You advance a few meters and look for the bar where you’re meant to be: what was it called? You head halfway up the block and find a local waiting for his bus at a stop: Morning, pal, I’m looking for a bar called Pututos, Kututus, or something like that. He corrects you: you mean Ukukus, it’s that one right-right there, half a block from here, you see it? He points with one didactic, eloquent finger at a sign that stands out among the rest, shining with neon lights. And you (what an idiot!) smile, embarrassed, and say yes, I see it, you’re very kind, I must be blind to not have seen it at first.
You cross the avenue and arrive at the bar.
At the door you’re received by the VIP guardsman, an enormous orangutan of a man with a bored face who bends down, pats down your ankles, your calves, goes higher and squeezes your ass, your back, your armpits, and says he’s clean to the walkie-talkie he has hanging to the left of his mouth, looking like a suspended scarab beetle. You walk in, look over the place. It’s nice, spacious. It has the classic air of a private party or a conspiracy: few people, dim light, and jazz playing at a low volume. You have it all under control, Jalisco, you whisper, so that you don’t forget it. Months ago the northerners floated the rumor of the year your way: in that bar, in a couple of hours, the most sought-after earspools of the Lord of Sipán would be up for auction. After the bidding, your gang would take care to properly pass “the package” through the airports of Cusco and Paris. You smile and look at your watch: three in the afternoon. Órale, Jalisco, time to get sharp. The time of truth has arrived, and that’s a damn fact.
Now let’s see what’s up.
After auctioning a painting from the Cusco School, a pair of colonial coins, and a Tiahuanaco ceramic piece, the pint-sized auctioneer breathed out. He was ready for the day’s grand finale. Throughout the two hours of auctioning thus far, the bidders had been cautious. Nobody had risked much above the asking price. Despite it being a “black market” auction, the attendees were acting within the constraints of good sensibility: phones on vibrate, laptops disconnected, no earpieces, no drinks, no drugs.
For a few seconds, the gavel was completely abandoned upon the old podium. You took this time to observe the bidders: their faces, their features, all of it seemed to you suspiciously irrelevant. This disturbed you, Jalisco, you didn’t give a shit who they were but you preferred to be among bad dogs, those made up of defined lines and features, not in this symphony of plasticized faces. With that two guys from the North arrived, bringing you the money for the final auction in two small backpacks. You received them unceremoniously, half-opening them one at a time and allowing yourself to be seduced by the wads of dollar bills that, in their careful arrangement, reminded you of the geometric perfection of the Incan walls.
From the bottom of his podium, the auctioneer brought out the vedette of the show: a little crystal box that contained within it two impressive earspools that shone like suns in a miniature universe. Suddenly your fucking phone began to vibrate—who would dare to call right now? It was cold, but you started to sweat; you shouldn’t have checked, but your curiosity couldn’t take it. Discreetly you take out your device and read the text message sent to you by an unknown number: “Those earspools are flesh for auction just like you.” You put away your phone. It had to be Guajolote, who else could it be? He was trying to scare you, Jalisco, but he wouldn’t succeed—his attempt to get you to back out was a fucking waste.
You carefully observe the other bidders—which one of them is the undercover asshole of assholes? Maybe it’s Mustache over there, or the brat in the multicolor knit cap, or that guy, the one in the impeccable three-piece suit, or the toothless old man who appeared to be chewing the air . . . you don’t know who it is, but they had to be out there. You could breathe in and smell the breath of those goddamn southern rats. But it didn’t matter, today you would come out with the upper hand, and you smiled.
The pipsqueak holding the gavel let loose a booming, drunken baritone voice: Ladies and gentlemen, what we’ve all been waiting for: the earspools of the Lord of Sipán. One hundred and thirty grams of Turkish gold inlaid with gems of every color and Spondylus shell. What’s unique about these jewels is that they were the only ones used in a war ritual, and not the ceremonial kind known until now.
Some drew closer, amazed, turning their heads like curious cats.
The auctioneer continued: they elegantly present the fabulous battle of man versus his destiny. A ferocious and terrifying destiny, represented by a zoomorphic deity (part puma and part serpent) frozen in a leap of attack. They’re one hundred twenty millimeters tall, one hundred long, and one hundred ten wide. They were made at least two thousand and five hundred years ago and the minimum bid for this marvel is ten thousand dollars. Who bids more?
And so began the fuckery.
Mustache wasn’t dicking around anymore and he joined the dance smooth and hard, offering fifteen, then twenty, but stopping at thirty thousand. The kid in the knit cap that covered all but his nose and mouth got it to forty thousand. The guy in the perfect suit was irritated and staked his claim with forty-five thousand—anything more is madness, he protested. But it was the geezer who stole the show, toothless and all, slamming everyone else’s snouts shut with eighty thousand big ones. Ó-ra-le, eh, Mex-i-co, now how-do-you-see-it, he said to you, crooning out the words in a tone that hoped to offend but only managed to make you laugh. You had more than that in the bags, but you had to be careful. Ninety thousand dollars and new dentures for my gramps over here so he can chew his daily fucking bread, you joked, confidently, surely the winner. The bidders looked at you as though suddenly you had become the zoomorphic deity on the earspools.
The little auctioneer fully cleared his alcohol-soaked voice, lifted the gavel, and Ninety thousand going once, ninety thousand going twice . . .
Ninety-five thousand, said the snotty-nosed fucker in the knit cap. You looked at him, pissed, but stay calm, Jalisco, you murmured. You couldn’t overstep, you had one hundred thousand in the bag, but bidding everything you had was risky and, beyond that, stupid: Ninety-eight thousand, you said, with a crack in your voice, the world, your balls. You started to sweat, and in that knit-cap-wearing brat you saw Guajolote and his whole asshole crew from the South, ridiculing you for a second time. You imagined the headlines that would come from the sale of the earspools, the astronomic sum that would surely be offered by Sotheby’s in Paris, just as it had been offered for the Venus of Guanajuato in its shining moment. You gulped down dense saliva, thick with humiliation, and lost all sense of reason and time. The only thing that shook you from that imbecilic state was the sound of the final gavel and sold! to Señor Jalisco, congratulations.
That night, in your hotel room, after properly wrapping up “the package,” you took four sleeping pills and laid atop your bed, all properly wrapped up yourself. The next day, a call from reception woke you up: ‘Aló, Señor Jalisco Méndez?
Hello, yes, the one and only, what’s going on?
The police are on their way up to your room.
In the holding room at the Cusco commissary, you checked your phone and saw that that fucker Guajolote had sent you another message: “He who bids badly and too high shits himself before it’s time.” He wasn’t fucking around, and you were sure that he was the asshole who’d let the water flow into this swamp that was about to drown you. But you wouldn’t let him, not this time. You’d be more than prudent—you’d be a badass, a chingón.
Good morning, Señor Méndez, I’m the officer in charge of investigating yesterday’s illegal auction . . .
Forgive me for interrupting, sir, but I will not speak a word until my lawyer arrives. I ask that you allow me to make a couple calls . . .
The policeman was disconcerted, his face bovine and swollen on the right side as though he was chewing on an eternal wad of alfalfa. I don’t understand, but if that’s what you desire, there’s no problem. I’ll have him called; he’s staying in the same hotel that you were.
Now you were the disconcerted one. What the hell was that all about? You thought to demand information, but instead you decided to find out who your supposed lawyer was. Can you bring him here, please?
When he arrived, in the exact moment that he took off his little Panama hat—it was bright that morning—you recognized the giant motherfucker. Leave us alone, officer, thanks for everything, he said to the police in his unmistakable strangled bird voice. The officer nodded with a gesture that was between submissive and attentive: I’ll give you what we agreed on, so that you two can split it as you see fit. A shame that “the package” wasn’t recovered. It would have been better for everyone, he lamented, and left a manila envelope on the table.
What’s all this shit about?
I’ll explain it all, Jalisco, but how are you?
Up to my ears. I’m at the rock-bottom of where I wanted to be.
Why would you ask that? Don’t fuck with me, asshole, you’ve ratted me out and in that envelope you have the cash that they gave Judas in exchange for Christ . . . Cheap flesh for auction, isn’t that right, you fucking asshole?
Don’t get ahead of yourself. This money is for us both.
What? Won’t I be charged for illegally purchasing archaeological goods?
No, Jalisco, and don’t get all worked up, I’m going to explain. I assured the police that I was going to send an efficient collaborator to infiltrate a black market auction, to pretend to purchase the earspools and capture the thief who was selling them. All that was done and here’s the reward: two thousand dollars for you and two thousand for me. He opened the manila envelope, took out his part, and gave you the rest.
You took the cash, but didn’t count it. You were pissed, who did this asshole think he was . . . And the dough paid for the earspools?
I have the money, the police gave it to me yesterday.
Are you going to give it to me?
Depends if you leave the northerners and join us. You’re a good one, Mexico, but you’re on the wrong team.
Why did the police say that the package wasn’t recovered?
Because it wasn’t. You bought a fake and that’s what the authorities have now. The real earspools are now in France, in the hands of our guys there . . .
Suddenly, you began to understand several things: that little auctioneer made the switch under the podium, didn’t he?
That’s right, the auctioneer was one of us, as were all the bidders. Only the guy selling the earspools, you, and the police didn’t know who was who. How about that?
I have to admit that you’re a perfect collection of assholes.
If you come to our side, you’ll get your ninety-eight thousand back, and I’ll offer you ten percent of whatever the earspools sell for in Paris. What do you say, Mexico? Remember that we’re all just flesh for auction. If Jesus Christ was sold for thirty coins, why not a simple fucker like you, too?
For a moment you think back to the scene in the filigree of the Lord of Sipán’s earspools: a man fighting against his harsh and unbearable destiny. Maybe that’s what everything comes to in the end: fighting in the worst circumstances, laying down a bet, and waiting to see what’ll happen. You drop your guard, with nothing else to do. Guajolote’s proposal was like opting for a new life: eyes bloodshot, your tongue newly stuck to the roof of your mouth, rage dissolved into thick saliva.
I accept, you fucking asshole, you tell him, convinced, impulsive like the fighter of the Pre-Colombian filigree before his ferocious destiny. And, from somewhere in the world, you hear the resounding bang of a gavel that leaves you deaf, free of your past, filled by a troubling—but really, homeboy, I mean really, badass—tomorrow.
Translated by Cecilia Weddell
Pedro Novoa (Lima, 1974) has won the Premio Horacio de Novela for Seis metros de soga (Altazor 2012) and the Premio Internacional de Novela Corta Mario Vargas Llosa for Maestra vida (Alfaguara, 2012). He has published Cacería de espejismos (Fondo UCV, 2013), Tu mitad animal (Fondo UCV, 2014), and El aleteo azul de la mariposa (Fondo UCV, 2015). He was a finalist for the Premio Herralde 2014 with the novel La sinfonía de la destrucción (Planeta, 2017). He won first place in CARETAS magazine's Concurso de las 1000 Palabras for the short story "Inmersión," whose English translation ("The Dive," translated by George Henson) was published in The Guardian.
Cecilia Weddell is a doctoral student at the Boston University Editorial Institute, where she is translating the literary journalism of Rosario Castellanos. She is an editorial assistant at Harvard Review and a contributing editor at the translation journal Pusteblume. She can be found online at ceciliaweddell.com.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.