They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Girl Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some timeworn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the older crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else. She’d always been you, retard, or you, asshole, or you, devil child, if ever the mother wanted her to come, or to be quiet, or even just to sit still under the table so that she could listen to the women’s maudlin pleas, their sniveling tales of woe, their strife, the aches and pains, their dreams of dead relatives and the spats between those still alive, and money, it was almost always the money, but also their husbands and those whores from the highway, and why do they always walk out on me just when I’ve got my hopes up, they’d sob, what was the point of it all, they’d moan, they might as well be dead, just call it a day, wished they’d never been born, and with the corner of their shawls they’d dry the tears from their faces, which they covered in any case the moment they left the Witch’s kitchen, because they weren’t about to give those bigmouths in town the satisfaction of going around saying how they’d been to see the Witch to plot their revenge against so-and-so, how they’d put a curse on the slut leading their husband astray, because there was always one, always some miserable bitch in town spinning yarns about the girls who, quite innocently, minding their own business, went to the Witch’s for a remedy for indigestion for that dipshit at home clogged up to his nuts on the extra-large bag of chips he ate in one sitting, or a tea to keep tiredness at bay, or an ointment for tummy troubles, or, let’s be honest, just to sit there awhile and lighten the load, let it all out, the pain and sadness that fluttered hopelessly in their throats. Because the Witch listened, and nothing seemed to shock her, and frankly, what would you expect from a woman they say killed her own husband, Manolo Conde no less, and for money, the old fuck’s money, his house and the land, a couple hundred acres of cultivated fields and pastures left to him by his father, or what was left of it after his father had sold it off piece by piece to the leader of the Mill Workers Union so that, from then on, he wouldn’t have to lift a finger, so he could live off his tenants and apparently off his so-called businesses that were always failing, but so vast was the estate that when Don Manolo died there was still a sizable tract of land left over, with a tidy rental value; so tidy, in fact, that the old man’s sons, two fully grown kids, both out of school, sons by his legitimate wife over in Montiel Sosa, rolled into town the moment they heard the news: heart attack, the doctor from Villa told the boys when they showed up at that house in the middle of the sugarcane fields where the vigil was being held, and right there, in front of everyone, they told the Witch that she had until the next day to pack her bags and leave town, that she was mad if she thought they’d let a slut like her get her hands on their father’s assets: the land, the house, that house that, even after all those years, was still unfinished, as lavish and warped as Don Manolo’s dreams, with its elaborate staircase and banisters decked in plaster cherubs, its high ceilings where the bats made their roosts, and, hidden somewhere, or so the story went, the money, a shedload of gold coins that Don Manolo had inherited from his father and never banked, not forgetting the diamond, the diamond ring that no one had ever seen, not even the sons, but that was said to hold a stone so big it looked fake, a bona fide heirloom that had belonged to Don Manolo’s grandmother, a certain Señora Chucita Villagarbosa de los Monteros de Conde, and that by both legal and divine right belonged to the boys’ mother, Don Manolo’s real wife, his legitimate wife in the eyes of God and man alike, not to that slut, that conniving, homicidal upstart the Witch, who swanned around town like an aristocrat when she was nothing but a slut Don Manolo had dragged out of some jungle hellhole for the sole purpose of living out his basest instincts in the privacy of the plains. An evil woman it turned out, because, who knows how, some say with the devil in her ear, she had learned of a herb that grew wild up in the mountains, almost at the summit, among the old ruins that, according to those suits from the government, were the ancient tombs of men who’d once lived up there, the first dwellers, there even before those filthy Spaniards who, from their boats, took one look at all that land spread out before them and said finders keepers, this land belongs to us and to the Kingdom of Castile; and the ancients, the few who were left, had to run for the hills and they lost everything, right down to the stones of their temples, which ended up buried in the mountainside in the hurricane of ’78, after the landslide, after the avalanche of mud that swamped more than a hundred locals from La Matosa and the ruins where those herbs were said to grow, the herbs that the Witch boiled up into an odorless, colorless poison so imperceptible that even the doctor from Villa concluded Manolo had died of a heart attack, but those pigheaded sons of his swore blind that he’d been poisoned, and later everyone blamed the Witch for the sons’ deaths, too, because on the very same day they buried their father, the devil came and took them on the highway, on their way to the cemetery in Villa, heading up the funeral procession; the pair of them died crushed under a stack of metal beams that slid off the truck in front; blood-smeared steel all over the next day’s papers, the whole thing more than a little creepy because no one could explain how such a thing could have happened, how those beams had come loose from the fastening cable and smashed through the windshield, skewering them both, and there was no shortage of people who put two and two together and blamed the Witch, who said the Witch had put a curse on them, that the evil wench had sold her soul to the devil in exchange for special powers, all to hold on to the house and the surrounding land, and it was around then that the Witch locked herself away in the house never to leave again, not by day or night, perhaps for fear the Condes were waiting to take their revenge, or maybe because she was hiding something, a secret she couldn’t let out of her sight, something in the house that she refused to leave unguarded, and she grew thin and pale and just looking her in the eyes sent a chill through you because it was clear she’d gone mad, and it was the women of La Matosa who brought her food in exchange for her help preparing their lotions and potions, concoctions brewed either with the herbs that the Witch grew in her vegetable garden or with the wild plants she sent the women to forage on the mountainside, back when there was still a mountainside to speak of. It was also around that time the locals began seeing the flying creature at night, the one that trailed the men returning home along the dirt tracks between the villages, its talons poised to attack, or perhaps to grab hold of them and fly them off to the gates of hell, its terrible eyes blazing; and it was around then, too, that the rumor about the statue began, a statue that the Witch kept hidden somewhere in that house, probably upstairs, where not a soul was allowed to enter, not even the women who visited her, and where it’s said she fornicated with it behind closed doors, with this statue that was in fact a giant model of the devil, with a long cock as thick as an arm clenching a machete, a hulking cock that, every night without fail, the Witch had her wicked way with, and that’s why she always said she didn’t need a husband, and as it went, after Don Manolo’s death, the old hag never did meet another man, and was it any surprise when all she did was talk shit, call them drunks and deadbeats, a pack of dogs, shameless pigs, over her dead body was one of those parasites entering her house; and the others, the townswomen, were fools for putting up with them, and her eyes would light up as she said all this, and for a second she’d become beautiful again, her hair tousled and her cheeks flushed with excitement, and the women would make the sign of the cross as, out of nowhere, the image of the Witch naked flashed through their minds; the Witch straddling the devil and sinking down onto his grotesque cock, all the way down the shaft, his semen running down her thighs, red like lava, or green and oozing like the strange brews that bubbled away in a cauldron on her stove and that the old sorceress would give them to sip from a spoon, to cure them of their ills; or sometimes black like tar, black like the enormous pupils and matted hair of the creature they discovered one day beneath the kitchen table, hanging off the Witch’s skirt, a girl so silent and sickly that many of the women prayed to themselves that she would die before too long, be put out of her misery; the same little creature who, a while later, was glimpsed sitting cross-legged at the foot of the stairs, an open book on her lap and her lips silently mouthing every word her black eyes read, and the news spread like wildfire, because by evening people all the way in Villa had heard that the Witch’s daughter was still alive, an unexpected turn of events by all accounts, because even deformed runts, the two-headed chickens and the goats with five hooves that might occasionally come out alive, even they croaked in a matter of days, and here was the Witch’s daughter, the Girl, as they began to call her, that creature engendered in secret and shame, growing bigger and more robust with each passing day, until she was so strong she could carry out whatever task the mother dictated: chopping the wood, collecting the water from the well, walking to the market in Villa, eight miles there and eight back, lugging shopping bags and crates, never stopping to rest for a second, and certainly not taking any detour or hanging out with the other girls in town, who, more to the point, weren’t brave enough to speak to her anyway, they didn’t even make fun of her frizzy, matted hair, her tattered dresses, or her massive bare feet, they didn’t tease her, so tall, so ungainly, as spry as any boy and smarter than most, because people eventually caught on that it was the Girl who handled the household expenses and negotiated the rent with the men from the Mill, men just waiting for the day the Witches slipped up so they could be legally evicted, and who took advantage of the fact that there was no paperwork and not a man alive who would come to their defense, but in fact they didn’t need anyone because the Girl, God knows how, had taught herself to manage their finances, and so tight was her hold on the purse strings that she even showed up one day in the kitchen to put a price on the townswomen’s consultations, because the Old Witch—who at the time couldn’t have been older than forty but could have easily passed for sixty, with all those wrinkles, gray hairs, and saggy skin—the Old Witch had lost her marbles and was forgetting to charge for sessions, or she’d simply accept whatever the women offered her: a bar of raw sugar, a pound of chickpeas, a paper cone of rotting lemons, or a worm-ridden chicken—useless crap all of it—but the Girl put a stop to that nonsense, she turned up one day in the kitchen and announced in a throaty voice, unaccustomed as she was to talking, that the gifts the women had gotten used to bringing no longer covered the cost of their consultations and that things couldn’t go on like this. She told them that, starting now, prices would reflect the complexity of the request, the ways and means that the mother would have to employ, and the kind of magic required to pull off the job, because it was hardly the same thing to cure their piles as to make a man fall at their knees or, say, make contact with their dead mother to find out if the old bitch had forgiven them for neglecting her when she was alive, right? No, things were going to change around there, and the women were far from happy about it, plenty of them stopped paying their Friday visits, and if they fell ill they went to that man from Palogacho who seemed to be more effective than the Witch anyway, because people trekked all the way from the capital to see him, famous people from the TV, soccer players, politicians on the campaign trail, but then he didn’t come cheap either, and since most of the women couldn’t even get together the bus fare to Palogacho they were better off telling the Girl: Ah, what the hell, so how’s this work, what happens next, because they only had such-and-such amount, and the Girl Witch would bare those huge teeth of hers and tell them not to worry, if they didn’t have enough they could leave her something by way of a guarantee, those earrings you had on the other morning, for example, or your daughter’s gold holy cross, or, if they must, a dish of lamb tamales, the coffee maker, the radio, a bicycle, she accepted all kinds of household goods, and if they were late there was interest to pay because from one day to the next she also started moneylending, at a rate of 35 percent, sometimes more, and everyone in town said all that conniving was the devil’s work, because who’d ever known a girl that cunning, where else could she get it from, and down at the bar they called it robbery, it was about time they turned that bitch in to the relevant authorities, to the police, time they locked her up for loan-sharking, for preying on the poor, who the hell did she think she was, exploiting the people of La Matosa and the neighboring villages, but when the time came nobody did a thing: who else was going to lend them hard cash in exchange for their sorry belongings, and besides, no one was prepared to make enemies of the Witches, because the truth was they were scared shitless. Even the men avoided walking past the house at night. Everyone knew about the sounds that came from inside there, the moaning and wailing that carried all the way to the dirt track, which, in their minds, was the sound of two witches fornicating with the devil, although others thought it was just the Witch cracking up, because by that point she could barely recognize people she knew and from one minute to the next her eyes would glaze over, and everyone said God was punishing her for being such an evil skank and above all for having birthed that daughter of Satan, because the Witch had always enjoyed keeping the Girl’s father a secret whenever anyone asked, and none of them were any the wiser because no one knew for sure when the daughter had been born. Don Manolo had been dead for years, that much was certain, and there’d been no other man to speak of; she didn’t ever leave the house or go to dances, and in fact, what those women really wanted to know was whether, God forbid, their own husbands had spawned that foul beast of a child, and that’s why they’d get goosebumps when, by way of response, the Witch merely stared at them with a hateful sneer before replying that the Girl was the devil’s child, and God knows she looked it, especially when you compared her to that painting in the church in Villa, to the kid with his head smashed in and the Archangel Michael pinning him to the floor; above all in the eyes and eyebrows, and the women would cross themselves and sometimes, late at night, they even dreamed that the devil was chasing them with his big cock as stiff as a rod and raring to impregnate them, and they’d wake up with tears in their eyes, bellies aching, and the insides of their thighs all wet, and they’d scurry along to Villa to confess to Father Casto, who’d scold them for swallowing that mumbo jumbo; because there were those who laughed it all off, saying the Witch was simply mad and that the Girl had been snatched from a nearby village; and then there were those who said that old Sarajuana, who was already getting on in years, used to tell the story of how a group of men turned up at her cantina one night, young kids not from around there, not from La Matosa, and maybe not even from Villa judging by the way they spoke, and these boys, who were already blind drunk, started bragging about how they’d just come from having fun with some lady in La Matosa, some bitch they say killed her old man and went around playing the enchantress, and Sarajuana pricked up her ears to hear them explain how they’d snuck into the house and beaten the shit out of her, to stop her from moving, the only way they could take turns banging her, because, witch or no witch, she was a tidy piece of ass, and you could tell that underneath it all she wanted it, from the way she squirmed and squealed as they fucked her, and besides, they’re all a bunch of sluts in this dump, they said. And in the bar there was no shortage of drunks who took offense—there never was, as Sarajuana knew well—who got riled up at those outsiders calling La Matosa a dump, and they made a real scene, jumped the fuckers and, right there in the middle of the cantina, kicked the shit out of those boys, although in the end no one pulled out a machete, maybe because they were able to fuck them up with just their bare hands, or maybe because it was too hot to take the dig to heart, and there weren’t any girls in Sarajuana’s to impress that day, not even those squalid sluts who’d come from the coast to sell themselves for a beer; no one, just them and old Sara, who by this point was basically one of the boys, the swarthy-faced kind with their obligatory mustaches and a bottle of beer growing warm in their hand and the hum of the ceiling fan slicing through the thick heat radiating from their bodies, and the cassette player, za-ca-ti-to pal conejo, blaring next to the lit candle, tiernito-verde voy a cortar, beside the picture of San Martín Caballero, pa llevarle al conejito, and the aloe vera tied with a ribbon soaked in holy water, que ya-empiezá desesperar, sí señor, cómo no, and aguardiente to rouse the green-eyed monster, the Witch had explained, to deflect the bad energy back onto the one who deserved it, the one who’d dished it out. That’s why, in the very center of the Witch’s kitchen table, on a plate of sea salt, there was a red apple struck all the way through with a fillet knife, and next to it a white carnation, which, every Friday morning, the women—those women who woke at the crack of dawn to go and see her—would find withered and shriveled, almost rotten, tinged yellow by all the bad vibes they brought into that house, a sort of negative energy that, they believed, built up inside of them when times were tough and that the old girl, with her remedies, could purge them of, a thick yet invisible miasma left floating in the stale air of that musty house, because, well, nobody knew for sure what sparked the Witch’s fear of windows, but by the time the Girl was old enough to rattle around in that gloomy living room, next to the kitchen, where no one ever dared go, by that time the Witch had already bricked up all the windows with her own bare hands—using cinder blocks and cement, timbers and wire mesh—and even the front door, made of dark, almost black oak, the door through which they’d carried away old Don Manolo in his coffin and taken him off to be buried in Villa, even this door had been boarded up with planks of wood and bricks, anything to keep a living soul from entering, so, in other words, access to the house was restricted to a small side door leading into the kitchen from the garden, because the Girl had to get out somehow to collect the water, tend the vegetable patch, and run the errands, and since you couldn’t lock it, the Witch paid a blacksmith to forge a metal gate with solid bars, thicker even than the ones on the prison cells in Villa, or so he boasted; a gate with a fist-size lock and a key that never left the old girl’s bra, it was permanently pressed to her left breast; a gate that, with increasing frequency, the women would find locked, and since they didn’t dare knock, they would wait there until they heard shouting, insults, and ravings coming from the Witch as she smashed furniture against the walls and floor, or so they assumed from the sounds that reached the yard, while the Girl—as, years later, they would relate to the new ladies working the highway—hid clutching a knife, curled up in a ball under the kitchen table, just like back when she was a little girl, back when the whole town assumed and hoped and even prayed that she’d meet an early grave, be put out of her misery, because sooner or later the devil was coming to claim her and the ground would open up and both the Witches would plunge into the abyss, down into the fiery lakes of hell, the Girl because she was possessed and the older one because of all the crimes she’d committed with her witchcraft: for having poisoned Don Manolo and putting a curse on his sons so they’d die in that accident; for making the townsmen sterile and weak with her dark dealings, with her black magic; and, above all, for having plucked so many seeds—rightfully planted there—from the bellies of bad women, dissolving them in the poison that she brewed for anyone who asked and the recipe for which she passed down to the Girl in the days leading up to the landslide of ’78, when the whole region was on lockdown as the hurricane hit the coast with bitter, hellish force, and day after day rumbling storm clouds pumped the sky with water, inundating the fields and rotting everything, drowning the animals that, blindsided by the gale and the thunder, couldn’t escape their pens in time; drowning even some children, the ones no one scooped up quickly enough when the hillside broke away and came crashing down in a tumult of rocks and uprooted oak trees and a black sludge that swamped everything in its path, eventually spilling out onto the coast, but only after having converted two-thirds of the town into a graveyard before the tearful, bloodshot eyes of those who’d survived, thanks to the mango trees that they’d managed to hold on to when the water rushed in, and they’d held on like that for days, clinging to the branches, until the soldiers came and heaved them onto their boats, just as soon as that squall had worn itself out, having already ripped through the sierra, at which point the sun reappeared from behind the gray clouds and the land started to congeal again, and the people, soaked to the bone, their skin covered in lichen like infinitesimal corals, arrived en masse in Villagarbosa, livestock and surviving children in tow, seeking refuge wherever the government would put them: the basement of the town hall, the church vestibule, even the local school suspended classes for weeks to accommodate them; these people and all their crap, their whining and their lists of dead and missing persons, among whom the Witch and her accursed daughter were counted, because nobody had seen hide nor hair of them after the storm. It wasn’t until weeks later that the Girl appeared one morning on the streets of Villa, dressed head to toe in black, her socks as black as the hairs on her legs, as black as her long-sleeved blouse, as black as her skirt and high heels and the veil she clipped with hairpins to the bun of long dark hair perched on the crown of her head, and the sight of her left everyone speechless, whether out of disgust or amusement it was impossible to say, dumbfounded by the ridiculous figure she cut: in the brain-frying heat, here was that weirdo dressed in black, she must be mad, just ridiculous, a real sight, like those cross-­dressers who, every year without fail, showed up at the Villa Carnival, although no one dared laugh in her face because more than a few others had lost loved ones during that time, and on seeing the Girl dressed up like death, on seeing her sunken, solemn gait as she dragged her feet toward the market, they knew the other one had died, the mother, the Old Witch, gone from this world, surely buried in the mire that had swallowed half the town; an ugly death, and yet still better than she deserved, some thought, given the life of sin and simony she’d led; and nobody, not even the women, not even they, the regulars, the Friday callers, had the nerve to ask the bereaved girl what would happen with the business, who would take over the cures, the magic, and it would be years before people started returning to that house among the cane fields, whole years in which La Matosa was slowly dotted once more with shacks and shanties raised on the bones of those who’d been crushed under the hillside; repopulated by outsiders, most of them lured by the promise of work, the construction of the new highway that was to run right through Villa and connect both the port and the capital to the recently discovered oil wells north of town, up in Palogacho, enough work for fondas and food stalls to start cropping up, and in time even cantinas, guesthouses, whorehouses, and strip clubs where the truckers, the traveling tradesmen, and the day laborers would stop to take a moment from the monotony of that road flanked on either side by cane fields, cane and pastures and reeds filling every inch of land for miles and miles, in every direction, from the very edge of the road to the low slopes of the sierra to the west, or running eastward to the coast, to its eternally raging waters; brush and brush and more squat brush covered in vines that grew with rapacious speed during the rainy season and threatened to overwhelm homes and crops alike, and which the men kept at bay with their machetes, stooped at the side of the road, or on the banks of the river, or in the furrowed fields, their feet plunged inside the hot earth, some of them too focused or too proud to pay any mind to the rueful glances thrown their way from afar, from the dirt track; to that black-clad specter who spent her time haunting the remotest parts of town, the plots where crews of new boys—the new recruits, paid peanuts—toiled, smooth-faced and supple as rope, the muscles on their arms, legs, and stomachs wrung out from the grueling labor and the scorching sun and chasing after a rag ball on the local soccer pitch come evening, and their frenzied races to see who would be the first to reach the water pump, the first to dive into the river, the first to find the coin thrown from the riverbank, who could spit the farthest while straddling the trunk of the fig tree suspended over the warm dusk waters, hollering and hooting, toned legs swinging in unison, shoulders all touching in a row, backs lustrous like buffed leather, shiny and dark like the seeds of a tamarind, or creamy like dulce de leche or the tender pulp of a ripe sapodilla. Skin the color of cinnamon, of mahogany and rosewood, skin glistening wet and alive, which, from afar—from that tree trunk several yards away where the Witch spied on them—appeared smooth, taut and firm like the tart flesh of unripened fruit, the most irresistible kind, her favorite, the kind she begged for in silence, focusing the full force of her desire in her piercing black gaze but remaining either hidden in the undergrowth or paralyzed with longing at the edge of the fields, those shopping bags hanging from her arms and her eyes moist from the sheer beauty of all that scintillating flesh, her veil raised in order to see them better, smell them better, taste—in her imagination—the brackish scent of those young men wafting in the air around the plains, carried along by the breeze that made the leaves on the sugarcane fissle, just like the frayed edges of their straw hats, the tips of their colorful handkerchiefs and the flames that lashed through the cane fields, pulverizing the withered December scrub, reducing it to dust; the breeze that, come Holy Innocents, would start to smell of burned caramel, of scorched earth, and that seemed to usher the slow roll of the last trucks loaded up with immense bales of blackened cane, which disappeared in the direction of the Mill under that gray, gray sky, when at last the boys could put away their machetes, not even rinsing them first, and rush to the highway to burn their wages, money earned with the sweat and strain of their aching bodies, and between great glugs of tepid beer pulled from Sarajuana’s ancient fridge that rattled over the tumpa tumpa of the cumbia, y lo primero que pensamos, ya cayó, all of them seated around a plastic table, sabrosa chi­quitita, ya cayó, they would go over the events of the previous weeks, and sometimes they all agreed that they’d glimpsed her in the distance, or one of them might have even bumped into her on some side track, although those kids didn’t know her as the Girl Witch but simply as the Witch, and in their ignorance and youth they confused her with the older one, the Witch, and attributed to her, to the Girl, all those bloodcurdling stories that the townswomen used to tell them when they were kids: stories about La Llorona, the weeping woman who drowned all her offspring in a vile killing spree and was condemned for the rest of eternity to roam the earth as a ghastly apparition with the face of an angry mule and hairy spider legs, lamenting and bewailing her foul sin; or the story of La Niña de Blanco, the ghostly little girl who appears when you disobey your grandmother and slip out of the house at night, who follows you and, when you’re least expecting it, calls your name, making you turn around only to die of shock on seeing her pallid, skeletal face; and in their minds the Witch was a little like that, only infinitely more exciting because she existed in real life, a real flesh-and-blood person who would walk around the Villa market greeting the vendors, not like that hocus-pocus bullshit their bigmouth grandmas and mothers and aunts rattled off, and all to dissuade them from going out, when those boys were only after a good time, when they only wanted to get out of the house and have a laugh, fuck with the drunk dumbasses, and try their luck with the easy girls. Bullshit she’s a witch, they all agreed, the ugly skank just wants some cock, some smart-ass would joke, if the Witch wants to suck me off she can start right here, another would say, clutching his balls, and between the windups, the sniggers, the burps, the thumps on the table, and the laughter, which was really more like yowling, there wasn’t a thug among them who didn’t sit there thinking that with all her land and all her money supposedly stashed away in chests, the sacks of gold coins, the riches, that the Witch from the cane fields could well afford the luxury of paying them for what they gave away free to the girls in town, or to the odd lost sheep asking for it, right? No one knew for sure who was the first to try, the first one to pluck up the courage to head out into the darkness and all the way to that shit tip of a house, taking care not to be seen as he stood before the gate, before the kitchen door that swung open to reveal the figure of a very tall, scraggy woman, a set of keys jangling in her big hands like pale palm leaves, like lunar crabs poking out from the black sleeves of that tunic that seemed, in the darkness, to hover above the ground. And the glistering hot coals firing the cauldron gave off only the faintest of glows but filled the kitchen with the stench of camphor, which lingered for days in the hair of the boys who were brave enough to go there, driven by either ambition or adrenaline, by morbid curiosity or necessity, to fool around with the shadow who would wait for them each night, quivering; they would get it over with as fast as they could before scampering back down the dirt track and through the fields until they reached the highway, back to the safety of Sarajuana’s, where the money that the shadowy figure had slipped into their pocket when at last she’d let them leave would be spent on lukewarm beer. I didn’t even have to look her in the face, one of those thugs would brag to whoever would listen; he hadn’t had to do anything but put up with her wandering hands and let himself be licked by a mouth that was also like a shadow, poking in and out from behind the scratchy, grubby fabric that veiled her face—she only ever lifted it when strictly necessary, and even then only a fraction, never fully revealing herself, a detail for which they were grateful, just as they were grateful for the absolute silence of the whole act, no moaning or sighing, no distractions or words of any sort, just flesh on flesh and a lick of saliva in the murky gloom of that kitchen, or down one of the hallways decorated with images of naked women with their paper eyes scratched out. And once word that the Witch paid for it reached Villa and the rest of the ranches on that side of the river, it turned into quite the procession: a constant pilgrimage of boys and grown men would fight over who got to go in first; and sometimes they’d just turn up to hang out, arriving in pickups, the radio blaring and loaded with crates of beer that they took in through the kitchen before closing the door behind them, and you could hear music pumping, a raucous party, all to the horror of the locals, none more than the few decent women left in town, which by that point had been totally overrun by hookers and tramps who rolled in from God knows where, lured by the trail of banknotes that the oil trucks left in their wake as they made their way down the highway: waifs with no meat on their bones but caked in makeup and who, for the price of a beer, would allow that evening’s partner to slip them a hand, full fingers even, as they danced; chubby girls who looked as though they’d been smeared in lard under the clapped-out ceiling fans and who, after six straight hours of fiesta, no longer knew what was more draining: spending an hour sucking the cock of the man who’d chosen them or pretending that they really were listening to what the boring fuck had to say; and then the veteran girls, who danced alone when nobody picked them out, there in the middle of the dirt dance floor, drunk on cumbia and beer, lost in that amnesiac tumpa tumpa; girls all washed up before their time, carried in from some far-flung dump on the same breeze that whipped up the plastic bags, leaving them wrapped around the sugarcane; women tired of life, women who, from one day to the next, would realize they no longer had it in them to reinvent themselves with every man they met, women who chuckled chipped-tooth chuckles to themselves when they recalled the dreams they’d once had; incidentally, the only women who, spurred on by the whispers and tales the older women would tell down by the river where they washed their clothes or while they waited in line for their subsidized milk, dared to visit the Witch at home, in that hovel hidden among the crops; who dared to rap on the door until the mad shrew, dressed head to toe in black, poked her head out from a half-open door. And once there they would beg for her help, for her to cook up one of her concoctions, the stuff that the women in town harped on about: potions to pin down the men, to really knock them off their feet, and indeed potions to ward the bastards off for good; potions that wiped their own memories, or that directed every drop of their destructive potential at the seed that those bastards had left in the women’s bellies before scuttling back to their trucks; or those other tinctures, stronger still, which they say could purge hearts of the fatuous allure of suicide. Basically, those girls from the highway, not the meddlesome old bags in town, were the only ones the Witch chose to help for free, without charging a peso, which was just as well because most of them could barely earn enough to eat once a day, and plenty of them didn’t own so much as the towels they used to wipe away the bodily fluids of the men who screwed them, although maybe, in the end, she helped those girls from the highway because they weren’t ashamed to be seen going to her house, their tails in the air and their faces left uncovered as they called out, in their husky, smoke-shot voices: Witch, Witchy, open up, you silly wench, it’s me again, back to bust your balls, until the Witch appeared, dressed in her black tunic and that crooked veil, which, even in the full light of day—in that bomb site of a kitchen with the kettle tipped on its side and the grimy, blood-spattered floor—couldn’t hide the swollen bruising on her eyelids, the scabs where her lip and her bushy eyebrows had split; the only women to whom, very occasionally, the witch would profess her own sorrows, perhaps because they understood and knew firsthand the full, brutal force of male vice, and they would even crack jokes and try to tease a smile from her, try to take her mind off the cuts and bruises and make her open up and tell them the names of the bastards who’d attacked her, who’d gotten into her house and turned the place upside down because they were on the rampage looking for money, the treasure the Witch supposedly kept stashed away in her house, the gold coins and the diamond ring that they say was the size of a fist, although the Witch swore blind that it wasn’t true, that there was no treasure, that she lived off the rent from what was left of the estate, a handful of plots dotted around the house and farmed to grow sugarcane by the Mill Workers Union, and you only had to see how she lived, in a pigsty literally brimming with trash and moldy cardboard boxes, trash bags full of papers and old rags and raffia and corncobs and flaky hairballs and dust and empty milk cartons and plastic bottles; crap, nothing but crap, which those thugs trampled on or smashed up in their efforts to open the door to the room upstairs, the bedroom that, for years, since back in her mother’s day, had remained shut, boarded up from the inside by the Old Witch when, in one of her raving outbursts, she propped every piece of the furniture in the room against the solid oak door so that only the full weight and force of seven uniformed police officers—who together constituted Villagarbosa’s long arm of the law—including all two hundred eighty pounds of Captain Rigorito, could finally knock it down, the very same day that the body of the poor Witch appeared floating in the Mill’s irrigation canal. A horrifying sight, people said, because by the time those kids found her, the body was already bloated and her eyes had popped out, her face had been half eaten by some animal and it looked like the crazy bitch, the poor thing, was smiling, horrifying, and, when all’s said and done, a shame, goddamn it, because deep down she was a good egg, always helping them out, and she never charged them or asked for more than a bit of company; and that’s why they—the girls from the highway and the odd stray from the cantinas in Villa—decided to do a little collection, raise enough to give the putrid body of the Witch a worthy burial, but those fuckers from the police department—those heartless mother­fuckers, may they rot in hell, every last one of them—wouldn’t release the body to the women, first because it was evidence and the case was still open, and second because they didn’t have the documents to prove their relation to the victim, which meant they didn’t have any right to bury the body; those useless fucking pigs: what documents were the girls meant to present if no one in the village even knew that crazy bitch’s name, never had; if she herself refused to share it with them, said she didn’t have one, that her mother only ever hissed and pssted to get her attention, or called her retard, asshole, devil child, she’d say, should’ve drowned you at birth, should’ve thrown you to the bottom of the river, damned Witch, damned fool, but it turns out she was right to hide away the way she did, given what those assholes ended up doing to her; poor Witch, poor crank, let’s just hope they catch the fucker or fuckers who slit her throat.