All my life I've been told I should be afraid of women like her. But now I need her for thousands of reasons. I need to know what she knows. Know the people she knows. Get inside her. I need to see with her shooter's eyes, eyes for the kill. Learn what she's learned from the earth, from the laws of the earth. Because the earth isn't as we imagine it, an eternal protective mother. It's that, and more. It's also the spilled blood, the orphaned cubs, the old ones abandoned by the herd. That is also the Earth. That is its law.
Without blood there are no births. Without death, there is no return.
You must learn to hunt.
The huntress called me on a Thursday at 2pm.
“I'm going to pick you up for lunch tomorrow.”
It was an order directed at me, beyond the sweet intonation of her voice with which she extended the invitation. Beyond her intentions and mine.
“I'm going to pick you up for lunch tomorrow. Gloria will be with me.”
I made excuses: the children, that it'd better if I arrived by myself, in my car. I wanted to secure my retreat. But she smelled my intention, certain.
“No, the place is already set and we can't change it. It's easier for me to pick you up. Don't worry about anything. I'll get you home safe and sound before your kids even realize you're gone.”
How could I say no?
I need what she has. She needs what I can give her. What I want to give her. She wants to write stories about women who've been mistreated by powerful men. She writes well, forcefully. I want to ensure access to books and words for hundreds of women who don't have a voice. They don't know that the world will remain incomplete if they don't tell the stories that only they can tell. She has the contacts I need to achieve my goal. I deal in the art that she needs to accomplish hers. I do it well, forcefully.
We need each other.
There's no possible escape.
But all my life I was told that I should fear women like her. A businesswoman. Twelve safaris in Africa. A lion huntress. A widow to men whom she pampers and who later die on her, of old age, illnesses, unspeakable ailments produced by substances prescribed by doctors, elephant tranquilizers, so her husband can rest from the terrible stress caused by her power. Always more power. Now that I have some of it, I know the terrible anguish it generates; the payroll, the bills, the companies that sustain themselves from the endless work, the loneliness, the endless meetings, the burning responsibility that is carrying a project that overwhelms you, that is bigger than you and yet only you can see. It rests on a single will: a mother’s unique milk.
Others trust your words, invest in your vision. But only your shoulders carry the weight of that burdensome creature. I know.
I've also begun to take those pills that ensure sleep, disconnection from the obsession.
It's either that, or there's no escape.
I arrive on time for my appointment at quarter to twelve. She picks me up in a champagne-colored sedan. She looks perfectly groomed. Gloria is with her. She looks at me like a lynx. Yes, he has the look of a lynx, of a “big cat” in hunting jargon. Her gaze lies in the brush in wait for her prey.
She gets out of the sedan for a moment to put away some things she has scattered in the back seat of the car; to make room for me. I say, “don't worry” while I help her. Then she opens the trunk and, all of the sudden, I see a shock of red hair. There's something dead in the trunk, I tell myself. Something that was once wild and alive. I pick up some books and bags to help her. I go back to the trunk and look. It's a fox fur.
A fox fur. A fox fur in the car of a woman in her seventies, but who looks like she's in her fifties. A skinned fur in the trunk of a car crossing the rainy avenues of a Caribbean island. It's not fur to wear over an outfit. It's a hunting trophy.
I sit in the back seat.
We talk about children, religion, the importance of discipline, of strict order. She, the huntress, wears a simple cotton suit, her brown hair gathered in a bow, a little make-up, hardly any —eyeliner, foundation, coral lipstick, platform shoes. Around her neck, she wears a gold necklace that holds a pendant; it looks like a horn. Another question the writer won't ask, I tell myself. It's an animal’s claw, another piece of something that was once alive, wearing a hunting trophy around her neck, I tell myself. But I'm not sure. It's better not to be sure.
Gloria, beautiful and disheveled, eternal in her madness, contradicts all of her friend's arguments:
“I don't believe in discipline, religion can be lethal. Those Marist fathers did incredible harm to my children.”
I intervene in the conversation to throw up a smokescreen. I speak and hide. I watch and focus on deciphering what I'm listening to as I continue to comment on day-to-day nonsense... school, husbands, weather.
All my life I've been told to fear women like her, but I can't help but fall under her influence, weigh every one of her words, study the extent of her presence in that car she—of course—is driving. I listen attentively to how she speeds up, I observe her posture, I measure the utterances of her voice. I read what she doesn't say, the depth of her silence. The huntress speaks only what is necessary. Never anything more. She doesn't tell us where we're going. She doesn't tell me who we're going to see, who she wants me to meet. Not yet, but she's going to tell me. I see her drawing up the plan in her mind, outlining her strategy.
We arrive at a restaurant in a well-to-do suburban area of my country. Doesn't matter what the area is called. Every country has one. Even the lost islands of the Caribbean.
In that restaurant there’s a table reserved for us.
“We've come to meet Tensi Llabat,” the huntress explains politely.
“Yes, madam, please come this way,” the waiter says. The hostess recognizes me. There, in that restaurant so distant from my area of action, my sphere of influence, they also recognize me. I'm “the writer” there too. A few years ago, I wouldn't have been anybody. They would have mistaken me for the service staff, for some anonymous diner, out of place, absolutely alien to the closed circle of businessmen and businesswomen, the wives of young businessmen who are used to having lunch on these premises. But here I am, waiting for Tensi Llabat. Tensi Llabat, I like the name; maybe I'll steal it from the woman we're going to meet and use it to christen some literary character, if I manage to write something after this. After this immense project that I’m carrying on my shoulders, which I sometimes feel will make me give in.
To give in... To fall prey to...
I order a glass of wine. Tensi Llabat arrives.
Gloria speaks, the huntress listens. Then she explains to Tensi the reason for our meeting; she tells her about my project, about the need to find people who support me, help me in this endeavor. The country needs it, is asking for names. For money.
I sip my wine while following the conversation; I interrupt and compose a possible story in my mind.
A writer falls under the spell of a powerful woman. The woman is almost thirty years her senior and all that that entails. She's been a widow and in exile. She's raised children who now live abroad, who are lawyers and doctors already living their lives. So many precise shots that have downed foxes, buffalo, large animals. She's been in Africa, seen the savannas, roamed the jungle. She possesses the spirits of all those animals now who live in her gaze.
The Maasai say that when you hunt an animal, its spirit then inhabits you. You become the death of that creature and responsible for its power. You enter into its manhood, womanhood, into the full realization of what it is to be alive. To be alive is to learn to hunt. To be alive is to become responsible for the death of others, for the life of others, to carry the incredible weight of action. Breathing, building, giving birth, stalking, killing, feeding. That is the law.
I'm a mere writer, says the writer of my story to the huntress, a manipulator of symbols. I don't know how to kill. You have to learn, her rival replies. You must kill with precise, accurate shots that do not stain the prey, that do not brutalize it.
They serve the bait (carpaccio, raw meat). I sharpen my gaze, I aim as I tremble. I hit the target.
The huntress looks at me pleased.
The food is taking longer, but goal is achieved. Tensi Llabat assures me that she will find others to join the project and promises me a generous donation.
Then she says:
“I've asked my daughter to bring me something made from ivory now that she's back from the games in South Africa. But she tells me that the law prohibits it. That pendant you're wearing is fabulous.” She touches my mentor's unusual necklace.
“Well, the last time I went to Africa, I came back disappointed,” Gloria interrupts. “Everything I bought there, I saw again at stores in SOHO.”
“This is not ivory,” says the huntress.
“And what is it?” I ask, summoning the courage.
“A lion's claw.”
Translated by Valeria Piña Fonseca
Puerto Rican Mayra Santos-Febres is the author of some 20 books of poetry, fiction, and literary criticism, including the novels Sirena Selena, which was a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize, Our Lady of the Night, Any Wednesday I’m Yours, and, most recently, La amante de Gardel. A Guggenheim fellow, she is the recipient of the Juan Rulfo prize for short story, and Puerto Rico’s National Literature Prize. Currently, Santos-Febres is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, where she directs the creative writing workshop and the Festival of the Word. In May it was announced that she will be a writer-in-residence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center Residency Program in Italy.
A native of Puerto Rico, Valeria Piña Fonseca holds a Master’s in Translation from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus.
In our tenth issue, we question the values of literature and journalism in the post-truth age through the words of Mexican writer Juan Villoro and we explore new territories of digital literature in a dossier curated by Scott Weintraub. We also feature memories of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre told through graphic narrative, new perspectives on the translation of Shakespeare into Spanish with an essay from Braulio Fernández Biggs, and Wayuu literature from the Venezuelan side of the border than runs through their ancestral lands.