Lenka had to buy a suckling pig. That was her main mission that day. The problem was that everyone else in La Paz also had to buy a suckling pig for their Christmas eve dinners. So the pork butcher had carcasses stacked up to Gabriel’s shoulder. The pigs were all facing the same direction, making a wall of floppy pink ears, smashed snouts, and fleshy eyelids pinched shut. A few of the pigs had plump purple tongues protruding. Their pink skin looked grotesquely human. Blood pooled in the cobblestone cracks and ran down the street for half a block.
Across the street from the butcher a live crèche filled an open storefront, complete with a live lamb and costumed people, including an actual newborn. The infant nursed at the Virgin Mary’s breast while a few dozen pedestrians gawked, whispering among themselves. A sign said that the display had been organized by the Maria Santa orphanage. Gabriel didn’t know what to make of it. He tried to read the other onlookers, but he got nothing from them. Lenka was busy vying for the attention of the butcher.
Once she had paid for her pig, the butcher wrapped it in plastic, cinched the plastic at the top, so that the blood would not spill, and handed it to Gabriel.
Gabriel slung it over his shoulder and they set off for her car, which was parked, unfortunately, all the way back at his hotel, half a mile down the steep hill.
By the time they had made it to the bottom of Sagaranaga, he was perspiring, panting and doing everything in his power to avoid letting his distress show.
“Do you want me to carry it for a while?” she said.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead and switched the pig to the other shoulder. “No, I’ve got it.” He wasn’t going to make her carry the pig.
Once they were back at her car, he put the pig on the backseat and got in the front.
They said very little as she drove through the narrow streets. Her entire family would have returned after their Sunday morning Mass. They would all be there, dressed to the nines, eating changa de pollo. Officially, he would be there to help carry the pig, but she’d clearly engineered the situation so that she could show him around to her family and collect reviews.
“What about Luis?” he said, as they edged through stop-and-go traffic. Her ex-husband lived there, too, along with his new wife, and would also be at the house.
“What do you mean?”
“Is there going to be some testosterone thing? Muscle flexing and so on?”
“That’s not for you? You are not a muscle person, is that right?”
“Well, as an only child, I never had childhood training in fisticuffs. Is Luis macho?”
“Luis?!” This was a hoot, evidently. “Of course he’s macho! He’s Bolivian!”
“Right. Well, if it looks like he’s going to clock me, I’ll deck him with the pig. I just want to be clear with you about that.”
“Be my guest, please. I’d love it.”
She took out her phone, called the house and asked her mother if she had cleared enough space in the refrigerator yet for the pig. A pause. “Because we’re almost there!” she said. She hung up, plonked the phone down onto the floor.
They parked directly in front of the house in San Pedro. With the pig slung over his shoulder, he followed her to the door, into the claustrophobia-inducing foyer. Low-ceilinged rooms and hallways, devoid of windows or any decorations, ran off in every direction like a plaster dungeon decorated in the mid-seventies. Sickly light seeped from tired fixtures in the ceiling. Cheap parquet hardwood tiles covered the floor throughout, except for the linoleum kitchen at the far end of the hallway. The house was redolent of simmering chicken stock and potatoes, old rags. Queerly small icons of saints and of the Virgin Mary dangled from nails planted in the hallway walls. Gabriel, taking it all in as swiftly as possible, followed her through to the capacious kitchen. On the far side, through another doorway, the family were scattered around a massive sitting room, chatting animatedly, laughing and drinking tea, while children scattered on the floor, playing with toy cars, and the men pretended not to stare at a soccer game on a small television in the corner.
On the floor of the kitchen, a robust woman with iron-wool hair and a grape-colored polyester suit knelt in front of the refrigerator, digging around. In that position, her posterior stretched the threads in the seam of her pants almost to the breaking point. Cartons of milk and packages of cheese, along with one of the refrigerator’s wire shelves and a number of cellophane bags of vegetables, littered the floor around her. On the old white stove a huge battered vat of chicken soup bubbled gently.
“Damn it, you’re here already?” the woman huffed, turning around. This was Lenka’s mother, Gabriel supposed. Lenka had told him that her name was Mirabel. There was only a passing family resemblance. The woman had a face like a tuber, eyes like wet flakes of siltstone.
She shuffled out of the way and Gabriel attempted to cram the piglet into the refrigerator. It was too long-bodied, though, and the spine too stiff to bend. The three of them stood back, surveying the situation: food scattered on the floor in front of the gaping refrigerator, its door propped open by the stiff pig, wrapped in heavy plastic, its two dainty hoofed feet dangling out. Dark brown blood dribbled through the cinched end of the plastic onto the yellow linoleum.
“What an impressive swine!” said a man’s voice in brassy baritone, like he was speaking through a trombone. This was Luis, Gabriel knew.
Gabriel turned around and found a stocky battler, with a scar from where he’d had a harelip crudely sewn up. Though he was as thick and brutish as an Incan foot soldier, his eyes had a bright and even playful twinkle as he squinted at Gabriel. Despite his burliness, the man’s resemblance to Ernesto was evident, particularly in his conspiratorial glint. He squeezed Gabriel’s hand hard, and shook it once, firmly. “A pleasure!” The voice was uncanny. The depth surpassed something that would seem manly and came off almost inhuman; it reminded Gabriel of groaning bison at Yellowstone when his mother took him there as a child.
The two men had barely broached the niceties when Ernesto, Lenka and Luis’s son, materialized. Luis picked him up, kissed him and asked if he knew Gabriel. Ernesto nodded and mumbled, “Yes, Gabriel is a friend of my Mami.”
Luis smirked and, much to Gabriel’s surprise, handed the boy, who seemed too old to be passed around like that, over to him.
Gabriel had seen Ernesto several times since their first meeting in Plaza Murillo, mainly at Pollo Copacabana for fried chicken after school, but he had never held him. He didn’t quite know what to do with him now and found himself gripping him by the ribcage. He felt embarrassed, further embarrassed by the fact that he was embarrassed – as only a gringo should be – but Ernesto and Luis didn’t seem to notice. Ernesto just slung an arm around Gabriel’s neck. Ernesto was heavy, too, and Gabriel realized he couldn’t hold him like that for long. He hoisted him up to get a better grip, and said, “How are you, kid?”
Ernesto beamed and pointed at his beaming face, and Gabriel kissed him on the cheek and then plopped him down on the ground. He looked back at Luis, who patted him on the shoulder firmly, winked. He indicated Lenka with his ogre’s chin – she was bent over the refrigerator with her mother now – and whispered, “Good luck. She’s fucking insane.”
“Oh?” Gabriel said.
She glanced over her shoulder at her ex-husband. “What’d you say?”
“Nothing!” Luis replied, and winked at Gabriel again. The madness of such a union, that they had somehow come to believe that they were well-suited for each other, required a special kind of shared craziness.
Luis took two steps over to the refrigerator, brushing his ex-wife aside, and reached in, pulled the pig out by the hoofs. “Should I break its spine?” he suggested helpfully, addressing his former mother-in-law. “If I do that, it will fit, right?”
“How?” Mirabel said.
He ripped open the plastic and pulled the pig out, set its damp body down on the nearby kitchen table, dropped the bloodied plastic onto the floor, turned, and yanked open a thin metal drawer nearby. He snatched up a rusty claw hammer from a mess of metal tools inside, shoved the drawer closed.
“Here,” he said. “I’ll break it here.” He tapped the pig once in the center of the spine and then swung hard and fast. A direct hit! The bone cracked. There was a small dent in the flesh.
He hit it again, just as hard. This time the hammer left a deep imprint slightly beside the spinal column, but close enough that the outer edges of the spine were clearly visible through the stretched skin. He hit it again, even harder. This one landed directly on the spine. The skin split, exposing a mixture of gristle and crushed bone beneath, a crunchy and gelatinous substance like the half-frozen yogurt at the back of the refrigerator.
“That’s it,” Luis said. He put the greasy tipped hammer down on the table.
Clutching both front quarters with one hand and both hindquarters with the other, he lifted the carcass and pulled the two sides together until the remaining bone fragments in the spine buckled and cracked noisily. He stopped only once the pig was doubled completely over. The gash at its back had split another inch on either side, exposing tender flesh, pink as the inside of a baby’s mouth. Once the pig’s snout was lodged neatly between its stiff hindquarters, he brought the animal back and pushed it into the refrigerator, swung the door shut.
Mirabel applauded, and said,. “Very good, Luis!”
“That’s impressive,” Gabriel said, because it was impressive.
Lenka shot him a short, dissatisfied look. “Come. I want you to meet the rest.” She led the way into the next room, while Luis and Mirabel remained behind to clean up the mess.
Excerpt courtesy of Mariner Paperback Original. Get the book when it’s released in April 2011. Read an interview with Mountford in our online-only section.