4,900 Words

She lay bleeding upon her cartridge belts. She could not stand up. The piercing pain in her stomach would not allow it.

Catalina raised her head, squinting.

A man with a long coat, shiny boots and a small leather case—the kind a doctor might use—approached her. Was that their surgeon? She didn’t want them to cut her open.

The man paused before her, putting on his hat. She recognized him, all the stories hitting her like a jicarazo of icy water at dawn: the Cemetery Man.

Around the campfire, the soldaderas joked about the resurrected and the Cemetery Man. Catalina laughed with them. Well-known fighters like La Güera Carrasco, who loved to shoot her gun at the smallest provocation, or Margarita Neri, who was so infamous that the governor of Tabasco hid in a crate when he heard she was approaching his town, were not afraid of the resurrected. Catalina should not show any fear either. But alone, late at night, she did not laugh. She thought of the resurrected lurching across the battlefield and the Cemetery Man, the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat falling upon a corpse.

Catalina wanted to raise her gun and blow his brains out, but her hands trembled and she was only able to scratch the dirt.

The man smiled.

§

Catalina woke to an annoying scraping noise and a sharp pain in her gut. Her head hurt and she winced.

She lay upon a narrow bed, in the darkness. Light filtered through gashes in some curtains.

Her hands felt numb as she flexed them, sluggish thoughts drifting through her brain. She was alive.

Alive … and where?

She pressed her hands against her belly, feeling the bandages beneath her gown.

The scraping returned, loud and irritating. She turned her head.

The resurrected stood in a cage. They had blown half its skull off but a metal plate had replaced the lost bones. The face was badly mangled, stitched together, and the skin was the colour of milk curds. A few tufts of blond hair adhered in dirty clumps to its head. Its eyes were mismatched, shining bright.

The scraping was the sound of the chains against the floor as the creature moved.

Catalina started breathing fast.

“Easy, easy,” the Cemetery Man said from behind.

Catalina wanted to speak. The words lodged in her throat. She moved her tongue but could produce no sound.

“Calm down,” he said, reaching towards her and placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me, you asshole,” she slurred. “Damn necromancer.”

His face lit up, as though he were mightily amused by her cursing.

“You’re very lucky, do you know that? I’ve saved your life. We wouldn’t want to ruin your stitches, would we?” Catalina gritted her teeth. She did not deign to answer him. He grabbed her arm, tapped at a vein and produced a syringe.

“No,” she said, twitching, but he held her arm firmly and slid the needle into her vein.

“Just a tad of morphine,” he said. “It always helps to make things better.”

He shifted her limbs, like a doll, pulling the covers up.

§

“You’re going to feel much better soon.”

“My head hurts.”

“Why don’t we go to sleep, huh?”

“No,” she said, thinking of the resurrected in the corner of the room, staring at her from its cage. What if it broke out? She would not sleep.

Catalina shook her head, her eyes rolling back.

§

Wild dreams. Bizarre images, as if viewed through smoke and fire. The Cemetery Man’s wide grin as he looked at her, sharp knife in hand. A pressure upon her skull, so she felt it must burst and she opened her mouth to scream. There was no sound.

Catalina shook, contorting in pain.

§

She woke up and vomited, half of the mess falling upon the bed and the other on the floor. Catalina sobbed into the pillow and did not attempt to move. Footsteps. Strong arms pulling her up.

“Come on, girl.”

White, cold tiles against her feet. She saw a chain above her head. They were in the shower. Someone held her up. Someone pulled the chain and cold water rained down on her face.

Catalina shivered as a nurse in a spotless white uniform scrubbed her.

Linen against her skin. Being carried again. She raised her head and saw that the Cemetery Man and a nurse were walking ahead of her. The person carrying her was the tall resurrected she’d seen in the cage.

The resurrected tore soldiers to pieces. They felt no pain. They had no thoughts. They were lumbering, idiotic, murderous machines. She remained perfectly still, not daring to twitch a muscle.

“Set her down.” Covers pulled.

The Cemetery Man brushed the hair from her face. He looked almost kind as he nodded. “Just a little nausea. A side effect from the morphine.”

The damn headache. It didn’t cease. Catalina moaned. She muttered some gibberish that had no relation to real words.

“Damn it,” the man muttered. He drew his syringe.

No more, she wanted to say. Oh, no more.

§

“I want light.”

He had been sitting by her side for a good five minutes, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to speak until now. Her throat felt raw and her body ached. The headache, although receding, was still like a splinter in her skull.

“There you are,” the Cemetery Man said.

He drew the curtains. The tall windows let the morning sunlight in. He sat down next to her once more.

Catalina turned her head, to see if the resurrected was in its cage. It was. She looked away.

“How are you feeling this morning?” “Where are we?” she asked.

“An abandoned typhus sanatorium, now my headquarters.”

“In what town?”

“Barquilla.”

Further than she thought, in the southern portion of the state. An area controlled by the Federales and far from her squadron. They must have travelled by rail. Catalina wondered how the hell she was supposed to make it back to the other soldaderas, wounded as she was, without a horse, nor weapons. The man grinned, as if he could read her thoughts.

“You wouldn’t last long out there.”

He leaned forward and began removing a bandage around her head, slowly taking off the gauze and applying a new one.

“I am Gabriel Mendoza. What’s your name?”

He tossed the dirty gauze in a bowl. Catalina did not reply, her jaw set tight.

“I’ll call you Adelita then,” he said. “Like in the song.

Have you heard it?”

“I know the fucking song,” she said. “My name is Catalina.”

“Cata.”

“Catalina,” she said.

“Surname?”

“Don’t have one.”

“Well, Catalina-Don’t-Have-One. How do you feel?”

“Great.”

“Good. Maybe you’ll have some real food today instead of mush,” he said, gathering his things and heading towards the door.

“Hey,” Catalina yelled, “you’re not leaving me alone with that monster are you?”

“He’s locked up,” Gabriel said with a shrug. Catalina cursed him and the door slammed shut.

She tried not to look at the creature, but she did. It stood very still in its cage. It was even uglier and more malformed than she thought. She saw that half of its left hand was made of metal and there was another metal plate at its neck. She could picture the machine gun making dozens of holes in the poor bastard’s body. Then she thought of Gabriel walking through the battlefield picking the pieces of guts and bone and muscle, sewing them back together and making them walk again.

She pressed her palms against her eyes to stop herself from looking at it.

§

One thing was sure: the Federales ate better than her squadron. It was tortillas with chili on most days for her. Gabriel brought chicken broth. With real chicken in it. Not just yellow, murky water with the faint flavour of chicken.

Catalina dipped her tortilla into the broth and chewed as fast as she could.

“Don’t gorge yourself,” he warned her. “Fuck if I don’t,” she said.

“You’re talking with your mouth open.”

“Leave me alone.”

He laughed. She thought of slamming the bowl of broth onto his face, but she was hungry. Catalina slurped and ate as quickly as she could.

“You’re looking much better today,” he said. “When will I be able to walk?”

“Soon. Don’t be thinking you’ll run off now that those stitches are healing. There are many soldiers downstairs and they’d be itching to shoot a runaway prisoner.”

“Can I sit by the window?”

“No.”

Catalina shrugged, handing him her empty bowl and wiping her mouth with the sleeve of her gown.

§

“Where the hell did he come from?” she asked, staring at the resurrected man.

Poncho, the nurse, had brought her injection that day. Aside from the resurrected man and Gabriel, he was the only other person she’d seen since her arrival. Catalina did not know how many people worked with Gabriel, nor did she know how many Federales patrolled the building.

“Brehob?” he asked her. “Is that its name?”

“Yes. He’s a Canadian mercenary. Joined Villa. Gabriel picked him after a battle and brought him back. He thought he might be useful.”

Once, on the battlefield, she’d seen a resurrected rip another soldadera open and pull her spleen out. Viscera showered the ground. Catalina shot the creature three times, but it didn’t go down until a bullet hit its head. She’d developed a healthy fear of the resurrected since then.

She hated the creature, Brehob. The mangled body and the slack, stupid face, tongue lolling out. The thought of being torn to pieces crossed her mind at least once a day.

“He is disgusting. Ah, damn it,” she muttered, pressing her closed fist against her forehead as it throbbed. “Hurry.”

Poncho slid the needle into place. Catalina thanked God for the morphine. Without it, she feared her head might have split in two. She drifted into the velvet blackness of dreams, punctuated with flashes of red.

She dreamt of blood and the battlefield.

§

“Here. Idle hands belong to the devil,” Gabriel said, dumping a book onto her lap.

Catalina stared at it as though it were a live, dangerous animal.

“You said you were bored.”

“I said I wanted to sit close to the window.”

“This is much better than staring at the sky. You can read and educate yourself.”

“I only went to school ’til I was nine. I was a laundress. Not much reading is required.”

“How did you end up in a squadron?”

“My dad joined the fight. I travelled with him.”

“It seems like a scary proposition.”

“I thought I’d be safer as a camp follower. There’s money to be made from cooking or washing soldier’s uniforms.”

She didn’t say she was skilled with a Mauser since childhood, when she went hunting with her father. She also didn’t say the death of her mother had energized both her and her father, giving them the courage to join the fray. There were soldiers of fortune, of conviction and of circumstance. Catalina fell in the last category. “But you were part of a female squadron. What happened to your father?”

“How’d you get in bed with the Federales, Cemetery Man?” she shot back.

“I really wish we’d go back to necromancer,” he said, shaking his head. “It sounds so much better.”

“I’m being polite. They call you El Zopilote, too.”

He smiled, a bird of prey’s look which seemed very appropriate considering that other nickname.

“How interesting,” he said, pausing and rubbing his chin. “My story is very simple, Catalina. I am a scientist, despite the whisperings of the rabble who may claim otherwise. I was researching several interesting aspects of the human brain and body before the Revolution flared up. The conflict has allowed me to put some of my theories to good use.”

“You’re busy pecking carrion, you mean.” “I am not ashamed of what I do.” “Maybe you should be.”

He patted her head, like one might do with a dog or a small child. She flinched.

“As interesting as this conversation is, I have duties to attend to,” he said, opening the book to a random word. “There are pictures. You might find it amusing.”

Catalina frowned. There were big words in the thick tome.

“Zoology,” she muttered, her finger upon the page.

§

Poncho set down the tray next to her and handed her a napkin.

“Why isn’t the Cemetery Man here today?” she asked.

“He’s busy.”

The resurrected wasn’t there either, though that was not unusual. Gabriel took it with him often. She preferred it that way. There was nothing more bone-chilling than feeling that monstrosity staring at her with stitched-together, mismatched eyes that seemed to know nothing. Flesh should not be made to shuffle upon earth like this again. Flesh should not give rise to such abominations.

“Is he coming at all?” “Maybe later.”

The door swung open. Another man in a nurse’s uniform looked inside, a frantic expression on his face.

“Poncho, come!”

Poncho did not pause to excuse himself. He rushed out, the door banging shut behind him.

Catalina smiled as she realized that in his haste he had not bothered turning the lock. The only time she’d left the room before was when the resurrected carried her to the showers. Not that she had been able to even attempt putting one foot out. But she was feeling much stronger and she had secretly been moving around the room even though Gabriel had warned her she might tear the wound open again.

She’d make some excuse if they found her outside. She’d say she’d had another migraine and went looking for help. They might be upset, but she couldn’t miss this chance to inspect her surroundings.

Catalina padded towards the hallway, barefoot—they’d taken away her boots and clothes, the only thing she wore now was a nightgown. She poked her head out the doorway, fearing Poncho would walk back into the room, but the hallway was empty. If there were soldiers on the second floor where she slept, they were not patrolling that day.

Catalina headed down the hallway, glancing at empty rooms. It was very quiet. Very lonely.

The scream made her heart slam against her chest. It echoed down the hallway, eerie in the stillness of the building. Catalina considered retreating quietly to her room. But what if there was another wounded soldier there? Perhaps someone from her same squadron. Catalina inched forward until she reached a door with opaque, milky-blue glass panels. She heard Gabriel’s irritated voice coming from inside.

“Didn’t I say to gag her? Is it secure this time?”

“Yes, sir.”

One of the glass panels was shattered. Catalina looked in.

A woman had been strapped to a bed, face down. Poncho, the nurse and the resurrected were there. She saw a table with odd tools. The smell of chemicals was thick in the air, mixed with the scent of blood. Gabriel held up a pair of metallic instruments. Something wriggled, caught in the tip of the instruments: an ugly, large, white insect.

“Pull her head up,” Gabriel said.

Poncho obeyed. Gabriel pressed the insect against the back of the woman’s neck and the thing slipped inside, under her skin.

Gagged or not, the woman let out an inhuman howl which forced Catalina to cover her ears. She stepped back, eyes wide. That was when Gabriel raised his head and saw her.

She ran.

Catalina knew running after you’ve had a bullet removed from your gut is not the best course of action, but she did not care. She was not going to let him put that thing inside her.

She reached a wide staircase and rushed down, much to the astonishment of a soldier, who stared at her in confusion. She hit him, slammed him against the wall with a loud crack, then kept running down. As soon as she stepped on the ground floor she heard the shots.

Bang! Bang!

Twice. Shot in the back this time. Catalina fell down.

§

Catalina lay with her cheek pressed against the pillow, naked, as the Cemetery Man took out the bullets. Delicately, with the utmost care.

The bullets fell, clanging, into a metal dish. She fell too, into the black maw of an insect.

“No!”

She jolted up and was surprised to find herself in bed. For a good minute she thought it had all been a nightmare. Then she felt the leather restraints around her wrists.

Catalina arched her back, groaning, feeling a new and fresh ache there.

“You’ve got a knack for getting hurt,” Gabriel said. “Somebody shot me!”

“And you broke a man’s arm.”

She recalled the soldier she’d shoved aside. Too bad.

“You keep monsters in this place. You’re not putting them in me. You’ll have to shoot me again and kill me this time, ’cause I ain’t having that!”

“You’ve already died, you idiot,” Gabriel grumbled, his face hovering close to hers.

She tugged at the leather straps, trying to sink her teeth into his neck, like a wild animal.

“Morphine,” he demanded.

A nurse, stepping from behind him, handed him a syringe, while Poncho tried to hold her legs down. Poncho was strong, but she was stronger, and she kicked and flailed, sending Poncho stumbling back.

“Brehob!” Gabriel yelled.

The resurrected pinned her down. She stared into its face, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, while the needle slipped into her vein.

§

This wheelchair had leather straps at the ankles and legs, though they need not have bothered. Catalina sat quiet, staring at the wall.

“They say you are not eating.” She looked up at him.

Gabriel smiled. “We’ll force feed you, if we must.”

“What have you done to me?”

“Ah, so you speak at last. Would you really like to know?”

“Yes.”

Gabriel reached for the zoology book, flipped through the pages and showed her an illustration.

Cymothoa exigua. A parasitic crustacean which attaches itself to a snapper’s tongue. Eventually it causes the tongue to atrophy and replaces the tongue with its own body. I’ve developed a variation of this parasite. It now resides in your head.”

Catalina wanted to scratch her scalp, fearing she could feel something stir beneath her skin. She controlled herself, her hands closing into fists, resting upon her lap.

“Why?”

“The resurrected are good for cannon fodder. They walk into the battlefield, tear a few soldiers to pieces or serve as shields for us. But they can’t think. They are strong, resistant and stupid. My most recent experiments focus on making them more intelligent. This parasite adheres to the patient’s brain, allowing it to maintain its normal brain functions. It also accelerates your healing process. Think of what that means for a soldier: you always get to come back. Not only come back, but come back better.”

Gabriel leaned down. “You should be grateful.” She bared her teeth at him. “I’ll kill you.”

“You can’t. For the same reason that Brehob will never raise his hand at me. For the same reason I can walk by a field full of resurrected without fear: I made you. I own you.”

He smiled, lifting her chin. His expression was almost fond.

“You’re my best experiment so far,” he said, a note of wonder in his voice.

Catalina wanted to bite his fingers and could not.

She tasted bile in her mouth and swallowed.

§

She observed her body in wonder as it healed very quickly, even faster than the first time she’d been injured. Benefits of her new condition, Gabriel explained.

The parasite in her head gave her splitting headaches. They increased the morphine. A minor drawback, Gabriel said.

She had nightmares. She dreamt her skin split, pus oozed out, the stench of decay hit her nostrils.

Nothing of importance, just bad dreams that disappear with the morning, Gabriel pointed out.

He did not understand—did not even try to understand—what it meant to be her. What it meant to live and die and live again. The only one who might comprehend was Brehob in its cage, with its dull, empty eyes, staring at her.

It knew.

But she turned her head away from it. She did not want to be like Brehob.

§

A man came to visit them. His hair was white and he leaned on a silver-tipped cane. He was small and frail, but Catalina noticed the way Gabriel spoke and moved around him and realized the Cemetery Man was intimidated. They spent some time in front of the resurrected’s cage, then turned their attention to Catalina.

The old man, who until then had not spoken a word, opened his mouth when he saw her.

“What is your name, girl?” the man asked. “Catalina,” she said.

“How are you feeling today?” “Fine.”

“I’ve not seen one who can speak,” the man said with a nod. “Is she the latest one?”

“Yes.” Gabriel said. “She retains all her memories, all her personality. The parasite does subject her to some migraines, some degree of discomfort, but such things are minor. She is our most successful example,” Gabriel said.

“But I hear you haven’t been able to replicate this success.”

Gabriel’s face tensed, his eyes filled with an unpleasant sharpness.

“That is a gross simplification,” Gabriel said. “Armando Girat has also been conducting resurrection experiments. He has successfully produced six intelligent resurrected and assures me more can easily be created.”

“Girat is not a scientist. His work is that of an amateur, a butcher.”

“I have seen his work. It’s comparable to yours, Gabriel. We need better soldiers. Soon Villa’s rabble will find a resurrection formula for themselves. We cannot lose our edge.”

“Villa does not have access to this technology.”

“He’s brought an American to do some research. A Mr. West. I hear good things about him. Bad for us. I think it would be best if your research were combined with Armando’s.”

“I will not consent to such a thing,” Gabriel said. “I know what he’ll do with her. That butcher will cut off her head, steal my parasite and then copy all my work. I’ll be left with nothing.”

She looked at Gabriel, so smooth and composed on all occasions, now turned ugly, brow frowned, an unpleasant grimace cutting his face.

The old man raised the tip of his cane, pressed it against Gabriel’s chest. “I did not ask,” he said. “I’ll have the girl taken back with me. You’ll soon follow, bringing your notes and equipment.”

§

Two soldiers came for her in the morning. Poncho injected the morphine, waited a bit, then undid her restraints.

Catalina lay slack against the bed, like a dead fish. “Let’s get you dressed,” Poncho said, helping her to sit up.

“Hey, we’re running late,” one of the soldiers said.

“It won’t take long,” Poncho muttered. “You think you can drag her around in a nightgown? I’ve got some clothes here.”

“It won’t matter one bit.”

“Dr. Gabriel said—”

“Yeah, well—”

The soldier didn’t have time to complete the sentence. Catalina jumped on top of him, sending him sprawling against the floor and twisting his head in one swift motion.

The other two men stared at her in surprise.

“The doses,” Poncho muttered, his hands fluttering as he took a syringe from his coat pocket. “It must not be enough.”

The soldier raised his gun at her. Catalina did not give him time to even start squeezing the trigger. She grabbed his arm, twisted it back, bones breaking. The soldier hollered, but she slammed his head against the floor, silencing his screams.

She turned and pointed the gun at Poncho.

“You don’t want to die today, do you?” she asked. He shook his head.

“Give me the needle.”

He did. Catalina grabbed it, then hit Poncho on the head with the gun. Poncho blabbered, fell down, and grew silent.

Catalina found the clothes he’d brought for her: a blouse, a skirt and boots. She put them on and took a jacket from one of the soldiers. She also grabbed another gun, a leather holster and a belt.

Dressed and ready, she exited the room. The hallways were empty, just as before. Instead of heading down the main staircase as she’d done the previous time, she moved in the opposite direction: there had to be service stairs. She found them after a little while and hurried down. She came out near the kitchen area and moved towards the stables.

The stables were large but there were only eight horses there. She saddled one horse and spotted a blanket that lay rolled upon a bench.

Catalina had the blanket and was heading back to the horse when a tremendous blow sent her crashing against the floor. She blinked, stunned for a moment, the great outline of Brehob’s body blocking the light.

He picked her up with one hand and Catalina tried to kick him, but her blows seemed to have little impact. He punched her in the face and Catalina tasted blood. “Where do you think you are going?” Gabriel asked.

He was leaning against the stable wall, hands in his pockets.

“Back to my squadron, asshole,” she muttered, spitting blood and saliva.

“I don’t think you’re going anywhere,” he said. Catalina tried to reach for one of the guns, but Brehob twisted her hand and she yelped, feeling the bones crunching.

“Come on, Catalina. It’s not going to happen. All you’re going to manage is to hurt yourself and then I’ll have to put you back together again.”

“Go to hell.”

Brehob squeezed her hand and she felt the bones breaking.

“Stop it!”

“No, you stop it, Catalina! We both know you need me. You need me to take care of you and of your little parasite. You don’t want to be like the resurrected in the battlefield, do you?”

She shook her head.

“Then be a nice girl and stop this.”

Catalina ceased squirming. She held her breath. “Give me her guns,” Gabriel ordered. “Then let her go.”

Brehob ripped off the holster she was wearing and tossed it to Gabriel. Gabriel held one of the guns and shrugged.

“How far do you think you’d have gotten with only this?” he asked, tossing the weapon to the floor, like a piece of rubbish. Who needed weapons when he had the resurrected to do his bidding?

Brehob set her down and Catalina held her mangled hand, wincing.

“I don’t know.”

“Not very far. Come here. Let’s see what kind of damage we’ve made.”

Catalina shuffled forward. He tilted her face up, brushing her lips, his thumb smeared with her blood.

“Nothing too awful,” he muttered, then grabbed her injured hand, looking at the splayed fingers.

As he looked at the broken bones, Catalina raised her good hand and thrust the syringe into his throat. Gabriel opened his eyes wide.

“You can’t hurt me,” he croaked.

“I’m not hurting you. Just a tad of morphine,” she said. “It always helps to make things better.”

She pressed a hand against Gabriel’s mouth to keep him from speaking and giving Brehob a command. He quickly relaxed against her body and she let him slide upon the floor.

Catalina picked up her gun and pointed it at the unconscious doctor. Her hand shook.

She could not kill him. Catalina cursed.

She heard the creature moaning. It sounded eerily like a question.

Catalina looked up at its mangled face. The creature looked back at her with its odd eyes, opening its mouth as if it were to speak, but its tongue formed no words. Just the long moan, the clicking of a tongue.

She felt a pinch in her head. The creature opened its mouth in a wide “O” and all she could think about was that time one of them had killed a soldadera, and the viscera and the blood, and the stench, and how this thing was just the same kind of abomination.

Catalina squeezed the trigger. Brehob stumbled back and lay resting against a bench.

She moved closer and listened as the tongue kept clicking, words never coming and Brehob looked up at her.

“Bye,” she whispered.

She pulled the trigger again, brain matter splattering her.

§

In the days after, when she rode in search of her squadron, she saw Brehob’s face as she went to sleep. She’d killed people before, in battle. One more death was not what kept her up at night.

She thought he was trying to say “please” when she shot him. She thought she’d seen tears in his eyes.

She lay wrapped in her blanket, staring at the stars. Her heavy gun lay next to her good hand. The bad hand was pressed against her chest.

She sensed the little parasite snug inside her skull, and she took a deep breath and she did not know why she’d bothered saying goodbye.

Originally published in This Strange Way of Dying: Stories of Magic, Desire, and the Fantastic (Exile Editions, September 2013).

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the critically-acclaimed author of Signal to Noise—winner of a Copper Cylinder Award, finalist of the British Fantasy, Locus, Sunburst and Aurora awards—and Certain Dark Things, selected as one of NPR’s best books of 2016.  Her latest novel is The Beautiful Ones. She won a World Fantasy Award for her work as an editor.

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