Written by Luisana Cortez.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
I cannot detach my cousin Ramona from the memories of my flesh. Through the darkness, she surfaces, baring the sun-lit mesh of my childhood: crooked teeth, feral eyes, my lumping chest, the curvature of a rib cage. I blink, and just as the familiar strain of the desert heat hits my eyes, she appears, looming over the ranch of our summers together like she is the sun itself, always present and gazing down at me. As usual, she is enraged. Her jaw is unhinged and gaping, exactly as I remember it in my last glimpse of her. Such is the poignancy of a scrawny, brown girl, barely past her twelfth year. Such was my life, short and feeble from the weight of Ramona.
Under the comfortable shade of a honey mesquite tree, I used to watch her lurk around the ranch while I sniffled and wrought weeds in my fingers. I was shy, withdrawn, a senseless child scurrying below the undergrowth and away from the sunlight that blanketed everything else. I didn’t own a physical body, not as a five-year-old or a thirteen-year-old and definitely not now, but only a listless head that peered behind silent trees to observe what moved and bristled. I don’t blame myself for that anymore. When you’re a kid, that which you fear tends to disproportion itself and adjust to your level of unease. And to me, Ramona towered over the trees and sprouted more spines than the cacti dotting the land, a stinger hovering over her head as she crawled through the fields. Head of a child, scorpion appendages, the underbelly of a snake. An alebrije in all of its iridescent, multi-colored monstrosity. Through the haze of the perpetual sun rays, her eyes would flick over to meet mine and rarely lowered, even as she brushed past and ran and trampled over shrubs with our throng of cousins that surrounded her like moths to lamplight. This was the custom: a silent, shared gaze between an apparition of a girl-child and a monstrous body with unrelenting eyes.
Each sunny family gathering, we would observe each other from afar, but only when we stepped outside the shack that all separate families shared. Something about the rustle of plants and the yellow sky above our heads made us turn to each other and scour for something in our faces. Through the years, I began to notice a familiarity with animals in her that manifested itself in various forms. She loved meandering into the animal enclosures — they were off-limits and therefore largely alluring to her — and would nuzzle against the sheep’s wool until their flies rested comfortably on her face. She’d yank at the dogs’ tails, sometimes pulling off strands of fur in her needle-like fingers, and they would turn to blink at her without so much of a yelp, like adults humoring the absurdity of a child. Her fingers would dip into the pigs’ slop and she would lap it up, grey drool dripping off her thin, red lips, as the other children watched in silent awe. Sometimes, when her face would shine particularly devilish at me as she rushed past, I would wake up that night to a rancid scent permeating the room the children shared to find her shit settling into the dirt under the opened window.
Ramona also liked to sneer. She’d be scampering around, playing tag, shoving giggling children with a slight push of her hooves, and abruptly turn her head to me, the white of her eyes flashing over her purpled skin, her mud-dirtied teeth enveloping the rest of her face as her lips curled.
I never smiled back.
My seventh summer in the ranch, a rusty nail pierced through the skin of my shoulder when I tripped and skinned my arm against the wooden door of the outhouse. After I unknowingly yanked it out, I finished peeing and shambled out of the outhouse to creep under the shade of my honey mesquite tree. Out of shock from the fall, I felt no pain. I had not noticed the wound or the blood dripping down my arm until I felt a finger pressing down on it, slightly burying itself into the hole. I let out a faint gasp, not even able to find my voice in that moment of searing pain, when a grinning Ramona appeared from behind me. I followed her eyes and glanced down at my arm, suddenly becoming aware of the texture, the breath, the sense of my body. A tiny, but chunky flap of flesh dangled off of the opening where the (or Ramona’s?) nail had dragged through the skin. Ramona did not look as menacing as usual as she stared at my open wound, but I could see her yellow throat constricting and throbbing as it suppressed something under its folds of flesh. Her stinger sent some leaves floating above our heads as it brushed softly against the branches of my tree. The fear consumed me as I watched Ramona suppressing laughter, or a yell, or a plea for help, I didn’t know. After a second, I succumbed to my fright and fled into the house.
Two years later, I witnessed blood again. The children had wandered off into the animal enclosures and I had followed suit, a few yards behind, not seeing Ramona but expecting her to be leading the pack as usual. When the crowd of children drifted apart as they scuttled among the animals, Ramona was nowhere to be seen. I turned away, instantly uninterested, only to catch her squatting alone, her underwear around her ankles, when I crossed the side of the shack. Part of me felt compelled to turn away and break our gaze out of shame, before I noticed the red dribble flowing from between her legs. She stretched out a smile, and for the first time in all of our years as cousins, spoke to me:
“Hey.” She lifted a hand smeared with blood. “Look.”
Her monstrous self became more poignant our eleventh year. Everything had seemed common up until the point when the kids were called inside for supper, the smell of pozole thick in the air. Instinctively, I followed the others scampering into the house from the rear end, when I noticed Ramona facing away from us near the outhouse that stood rather far from the house. She was talking to something behind it, something taller than her. Her shoulders were squared as she craned her neck upwards, and I could see the side of her cheek lifting and lowering rapidly as she spoke. Her stinger coiled behind her warily. I could hear the goats stirring in their enclosure and the bustle of life inside the house, but I could not hear her. When Ramona turned, her gaze landed on me, impervious and unafraid, a glint of concern in her dark, furrowed forehead. She looked like a child.
My thirteenth and last year, Ramona arrived at the ranch bearing a cast on her left leg. As she sat in a lone rocking chair on the porch, I gawked at her, amazed at her newfound solitude and lull. She was humming an unknown, tilting tune that flared in the air like an imperceptible, pretty insect, her long arms and talons dragging on the wooden floor. Ramona’s eyes didn’t lower away from me as she rocked. Instead, they thrummed once, twice, three times before they began to enlarge, red veins like scraggly branches and her irises pitch black even against the haze of sunlight. Her shrill voice, the slow clawing of the wood, the far-off sound of children at play, every noise pulsed, deafening against my body. The shade under my honey mesquite tree suddenly felt crushing. She smiled tentatively, aware of the surge of senses around me, and gestured for me to approach her. I didn’t want to move, but I crept forward anyways.
As I shuffled quietly unto the porch, she lifted her broken leg and repeated, exactly as she had done four years ago, “Hey, look.”
Her wiggling toes, mossy and polished pink, peeked out of the cast. I could tell from the smell that she was developing a fungus under the plaster. She smiled or sneered or grinned, I couldn’t tell, but her gums showed, child-like and monstrous all the same. The fear throbbed down my spine like a long centipede burrowing through my skin. Again, I surrendered to it, and my feet took me away into the consoling shade of my honey mesquite tree.
Ramona was standing beside my cot, shaking me awake, when I woke up in my cot on the last night of my last year. And I looked into her face. Her skin, blazed dark red from the faint desert moonlight streaming into the room, tough like avocado skin. There were circles engraved under her bulbous eyes, too deep for a child her age. Her rusty lips trembled as she stared back at me. She looked smaller than usual. That was the second time she appeared as a child to me, her edges blurring into something more ghost-like, less penetrative than her usual monstrous self.
“Please come with me,” she whispered.
With that, she glided out of the room.
Our other cousins stirred in their sleep in their own cots. Afraid that they would awake from the growing thunder of my heart, I hesitated to follow. I could hear the ranch simmering with noises outside. At night, Ramona appeared more of a ghost than she did during the day. I could imagine what awaited: slices of her taking form as luminous scales, exoskeletons, the jaw of a rabid dog. Her slipping out of her brown skin, her head as a ram skull. Through the darkness of the room, my imaginings disproportioned themselves like her body had always done.
Before she had stepped out through the opened door of the room, Ramona took one silent look at me, as if she did not doubt I would follow her. For a second, the dread, the pain, the sense of being nothing more than a pathetic kid fell silent, folded on itself, discarded. In front of me, looking for once like just my cousin, just a thirteen-year-old girl, was what I searched for all those years in her eyes. I wanted to follow her, and I did.
Miles away from the ranch, after hours of walking and the first traces of the sunrise appearing above us, we came across the thing she wanted to show me. I don’t know, even know, if it was a reflection of Ramona. Or a slice of me, amplified with the palpable, inescapable desert air. It had no definite form. Its nostrils flared, but it had no nose. It had thousands of eyes, but it was blind. All hues colored its flesh, its husk, its shell. As it picked me up and gnawed through my bones, I felt the warm, yellow feel of having to surrender again, but in a new form. I accepted it, even as slabs of my meat fell to the ground, even as I felt my skull crack open. Before I was drained down into its throat, I caught one last glimpse of her. Ramona, standing frigid in front of the thing she had taken me to, her jaw unhinged and gaping, just a scrawny, brown, fleshy child.
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