Before Eloísa, I was lonely and insecure, and at the start of our relationship it was hard for me to accept the men in her life. Now, I understand how good the situation is for us both.
Eloísa and I met online. After we exchanged messages for a while, she suggested that we meet in person, and she seduced me with her compliments, her silver tongue. What a quiet man like me needs, it turns out, is a woman who can talk.
Eloísa quickly got into the habit of staying at my house. At first she just slept over, but before long her visits were so frequent it was as if we were living together. Our daily routines strengthened my confidence that she would stay. Slowly I believed in her enough to observe her, and then I noticed her moving my things.
I first saw it happen at dinner. Before we ate, she shuffled the cups and silverware around the table as if she were setting up an Ouija board. A few days later I noticed her doing the same with books, with lamps, all the objects that build up around a house. It made me nervous. I knew from experience that women acquire odd habits when they start to cheat. I got uncomfortable in her presence, and began to worry about how little I knew of her life. For instance, I’d never seen her house. She always had some reason why it was better for me not to come over, and I accepted her excuses in order to be polite. I did know her address, which meant I knew she lived in a poor neighborhood far away, but no matter how much I wondered and suffered, I wasn’t brave enough to ask her to tell me more.
One day, finally, I just went. She lived at the edge of the neighborhood, in one of the few residential buildings left on a street full of fast-food restaurants. The air was full of fog and a grease so thick it hid the beggars and prostitutes and stray dogs as they went about their days. Outside her building I buzzed an apartment at random and a child’s voice came through the intercom. I asked him nicely to let me in, and he agreed.
I walked down the hall and found that it ended in a bright courtyard with a pond surrounded by thick conifers, pomegranate bushes, and terra-cotta pots full of flowers. The garden seemed as exotic as Eloisa herself. Maybe I’m wrong not to trust her, I told myself. Maybe she’s just different, but before I could convince myself further I was interrupted by an old woman who appeared in the patio and demanded, “What do you want? What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry. I’m just looking for Eloísa.”
“So why didn’t you buzz her?”
“I don’t know her apartment number.”
“Well, she’s not around, so be a nice boy and get out. We’re all sick of having her strange here.”
I went home. I managed to spend the night next to Eloísa without showing how unsettled I was. The next day, we got ready together, but the second she was dressed I dragged her into the garage. She cried, but I didn’t let it get to me. I grabbed her arm and pushed her into the car. For a long time, we drove in silence, but as we approached her neighborhood, she at last began to talk.
Eloísa’s apartment was the biggest dump I’d ever seen. It was a mess. In a few corners you could see that someone might have tried to organize, but in the way an insane person would: there were clothes in the refrigerator, pots on the sofa, crockery everywhere, canned food piled next to the bathtub. The thought of her living in this mess overwhelmed me with emotion. I couldn’t tell if I was furious or ashamed until a man appeared from her bedroom.
Eloísa said, almost whispering, “Please don’t hurt him. I already explained this to you. I’ll open the door and he’ll leave.”
He went, all right, but his attitude, like he didn’t care in the slightest, disturbed me even more. My legs gave out beneath me and Eloísa knelt at my side. Then she started to clear the apartment’s junk away, and I saw that what she’d told me was true.
The plague of fireflies began several years ago. She didn’t want to call the exterminator. Instead, she turned the building’s communal patio into a garden, thinking the insects would rather light up in nature than in her room. But even when the garden was in bloom the bugs didn’t leave, and this is what happened next: she started to talk to them, and, as if they couldn’t resist her words any more than I could, the fireflies turned into men.
She tried to get to know these people she’d created, but though the firefly-men could speak, they couldn’t have a conversation. If they spoke too much, they fell apart. Their bodies withered on her floor and then rotted. She mourned them every time. She turned into a recluse for a while, locked herself in her apartment to figure out how to get rid of the fireflies, but all she managed to do was wave the bugs toward the open windows and hope that they’d fly away.
Living in silence, unable to come and go as she wanted, was torture. There were times when she got fed up with her own kindness and tore the house apart, which just made the situation worse. She’d go into hysterics and her shrieking filled the house with men. Most of them left when she opened the door, but some stayed. She had to talk to them till they disintegrated. It was a vicious cycle. The insects heard her talking to the men and as the men fell apart, the insects began to transform.
Eloísa decided she’d never speak to a man in person again. Then she met me. Staying at my house makes it easier for her to talk the remaining firefly-men to death when she goes home. She feeds their remains to the street dogs. Every so often we go to her apartment together and she tries to get me to talk to the fireflies. She’s convinced that if I try hard enough I can make a woman. I’m nice to them, but all I can do is get a few bugs to turn into gelatinous heaps that, if you squint, bear some resemblance to the female form.
The truth is, I don’t want to talk to other women. I only go along because I know she wants to feel chosen; she wants to feel special. That’s how women are: if they want to shine, it’s less to trap men than to make other women go dark.
Eloísa likes to claim that she talks to the fireflies in order to make me new friends, but I know that’s not true. I know her eloquence is just a cover for her insecurity. She’ll never say it out loud, but I know she needs to compare me to other men in order to know she’s made a good choice.
After she makes men out of fireflies, she leaves me alone with them. I open beers and we drink together in silence before I let them out the door. Together, we don’t need to prove ourselves. We know that, no matter how dim and intermittent our light, we are complete beings. We are free.
Translated by Lily Meyer
Claudia Ulloa Donoso was born in Lima in 1979. She is the author of the short story collections El pez que aprendió a caminar, Séptima Madrugada, and Pajarito, and has won the Peruvian short story competitions Terminaremos el cuento (1996) and El cuento de las 1,000 palabras (1998). She currently teaches languages in northern Norway.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, DC. She is a recipient of a 2018 Washington, DC Arts and Humanities Fellowship, and her work has appeared in NPR, Electric Literature, Bogotá 39, and more.
The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.