Raul was journeying all alone atop La Bestia, the roaring cargo train that dispatched him illicitly across the scorching jungles and frozen plains of his motherland, all the way to the deserted border of his new country, when he noticed there was something terribly wrong with his head.
Other immigrants and police officers, at every stop or halt or sudden spasmodic jerk the train rumbled with, preyed on him, noticed his kindhearted defenselessness and threw rocks at him, sharpened machetes they hid under cloaks and rebozos with pumice stones they found along the way to frighten him and draw an invisible frontier of separation. They pointed their colonial swords at him and grazed them against their own necks to indicate the necklace of blood they would sketch upon his neck if he dared cross this invisible barrier.
The bones of some of the other smuggled-in passengers rattled like maracas not because of the propulsion of the train, but because of their keenness to steal the marble that was forever embedded in his face, winking out with a crystalline twinkle. It must be worth something, he heard the sundown-whispers, thunderous and potent against his ears, traveling from the mountain of bodies that surrounded him all around, bodies that bundled and huddled together at night, interconnecting hands as to not fall off the roof of the train if they dozed off, to fill each other with the cellular heat of their skins.
He evaded them all, but it became increasingly difficult to inoculate himself from these sneaky ploys when some days his head ballooned to the size of an elephant´s paw. Running and hiding, plunging into the wild, green effulgence of the savannah gushing around him at wretched speed during the improvised raids of the police and jumping back into the hot-red, searing vertebras of La Bestia after hours of squatting under pockets of shadow, became arduously challenging as the synapses inside his head fattened. He could hardly balance the swaying of his body because his head tipped him off to one side and his legs tousled up in a knot as they heaved towards the other direction.
His head had always been big. He remembered it clearly. His head had expanded, yes. The inexorable growth of his skull had been towed by the outward flourishing of the rest of his limbs during his adolescence. But gigantic as his cranium had been, it had remained unvarying in its bone structure and fleshed complexity. Even after his original eyeball was scooped out of its socket by his grandmother with a salsa-stirring spoon, and the eyeball was reduced to a mushy hominy of iridescent teardrops and veiny tissues by the marring of her panicked paws, and he had had to toll and endure the tongue-lashing dictations of Father Filomeno and break his back for everlasting months to acquire a new crystal eyeball from the marble maker in town, the muscular nomenclature of his head had remained stable and unshifting.
His head had bobbed uneasily upon his neck throughout this ocular ordeal, but it had not been seized by an evident engorging because or despite of it. But now his skull was stretching, like the beams of a house bloated by dampness. And it was doing so at an astronomically fast rate.
When he wasn´t slaying outlaws in the cellar of his grandmother’s house, pretending to be Toshiro Mifune, the greatest Samurai of all times, hacking and splitting a ransacking ronin warrior´s skull in half with the rusty sugarcane machete he had found among the knickknacks of that forgotten hole, he was swaggering in one of his sister’s white kilts up on the roof, pointing a stick to the sky pretending it was a rifle and professing his hatred for men just as Teresa Bárbara, the protagonist of his dreams, the love of his life alongside her on-screen and off-screen, green-eyed husband, Marciano de los Pumas, had done in his favorite movie, Doña Dragón.
The samurai he yearned to be, and the rebellious, fiery, indigenous woman who challenged the norms of the men-dominated world she inhabited, and that he fervently adored with the passion of a thousand suns, were love affairs Raul could only keep afloat on Sundays, during movie day, when the gypsies came down from the hills on their rackety, chugging clunkers, transporting the tents and the projector with which to set up the matinee function. After Raul had helped his sister with the chores at his grandmother’s house, he ran off to the streets looking for prompt employment, which usually came to him when the owners of the stores commanded him to carry sacks of flour or rice from one storage to the other from sunup to noon. When he was paid his obligatory three pesos, which felt like gold flakes on his hand, he skipped down the cobblestone alleyways, gripped by the knowledge that he had more than enough for the movie entrance fee and a bar of handmade chocolate the Gypsy Nanny sold in paper bags.
By the time the movie showing was over, Raul’s head was a cluttered planet of rot and slopping trash, with carbonated pools of spit that trickled down to his earlobes at the will of his throbbing temples, and pasty prairies of chewing gum twisting the follicles on his nape, and kernels of popcorn sticking out of his turf of hair like fallen asteroids, and maybe even a banana peel crowning the top of his skull. All the components of this wasteland had been flung with superb aim via slingshots and trebuchets by all the urchins and annoyed customers sitting behind him. No matter how much they craned their necks upward or how many levels of bunched up bags of popcorn they added to the cushion of their seat to elevate themselves a couple of inches, it was never enough for the poor devils sitting one row behind Raul to get a good look of the entire frame of the screen.
But the cranial sphere he had had to carry all the way through the misty corridors of childhood and puberty could not compare to the heinousness of the swollen stadium of flesh and neurons and bones that now rested upon his shoulders.
Throughout his journey on top of the echoing, shaking, suntanned roof of La Bestia, the days whizzed by in front of him in a strange mix of terrible slowness and a monstrous cardiac rhythm of shimmying down hot poles to hide from the sniffing police, followed by repeated ascensions back to the cargo train’s roof by diving into the mortal steam of the locomotive and stepping on the hungry jaws of the wheels.
With the consistency of the weeks liquifying in front of his eyes (both the spongy real one and the crystal fake one), and flooded to the brim with these cardiac arrest perils, Raul soon found that the globe of his head was always littered with purplish bumps that jutted out of the surface of his scalp like active volcanoes. Halfway through his journey, his skull seemed to have been woven together more by scars and bruises and dents that shimmered under the morning dew than by a solid film of skin, hair, and bone. The constant bashing of his head against the edges of the rails, the grazing of his scalp with the suspended branches that swooshed by over him whenever he was force to pitch his body forward to dodge the skeleton arms of the deadly trees that seemed to lean over the train as if to purposely sweep away the pest of humans that had climbed upon it without permission, became an inextricable part of his daily routine.
Even when he had to camp out on the outskirts of nameless towns and the hours slipped away from his days in juicy trickles as he roamed unnoticed through unfamiliar streets looking for leftover chicken bones, sashayed in and out of cantinas and coops running around behind flocking hens, even when he stepped out of the treacherous placenta of the train and all its twisted combination of hazards and liabilities, still, whenever he curved his back to pick up a pencil or a penny or something shiny that he had spotted on the floor to trade with the gangs or the police in case he needed to bribe them, he somehow ended up banging his head against a hanging root or one of the copper steps of a side ladder when straightening his body upward again. It appeared as if he was subconsciously drawn to the masochistic mania of compounding his head into a bizarre, cubist shape, by knocking it against all the tridimensional surfaces and edgy structures that happened to exist around him during this crusade. His head kept growing and abstractedly distending to the sides with each passing day: the more he read from the scraps of magazines he had collected from a local dumpster looking for food, to distract himself from the corporeal swaying of that steel animal that carried him reluctantly on his backbone, or the more he daydreamed with the multiple scenarios of how he would feel when he finally found his mother, or watched and replayed the favorite parts of his favorite old time movies inside his mind’s eye, the more information he stored on the back of his brainpan in regards to the intentions of the row of new brown faces that had boarded the train on the last station, the more his head altered in width. This, without counting, of course, how each slammed bump also added to the volume of its girth.
The secret history of the loss of his eyeball began with him back inside the dark membrane of the Sunday movie theater. Every time a close-up of Teresa and Marciano de los Pumas popped on the screen, Raul yearned to stretch his hand like Mr. Elastic all the way to the movie curtain, dip his fingertips beyond the barrier of reality, and caress his and her chin the same way the charro and cowgirl protagonist always did to each other. What he wanted the most was to gouge Marciano’s green mermaid eyes out of his face and transplant them into the metric cavities of his own sockets. He coveted this with such all-consuming idiocy, that he thought it was a good idea to one day ransack the depths of the kitchen cabinet and squeeze a couple of droplets out of the mouth of one of his mother’s cake-baking food coloring droppers and blot out the dull coffee-brown shade of his pupils with the aquarium green tinge of the liquid sloshing inside the container. As soon as the first drop hit his retina, an unmerciful wildfire spread all across the region of his forehead. Just as he had aspired to dip his hand into the movie screen, a dragon had stuck its snout and was slowly blowing an inferno into his eye, excruciatingly devastating all optic nerves and scorching down all the thin veins that bound them together. Raul released a femur-piercing scream that mobilized his grandmother off her stool and propelled her dilapidated legs in a roadrunner spiral down to the kitchen where she found her only grandson weeping teardrops of fire and wailing his head off.
Raul’s grandmother swooped him up by the waist and lurched his enormous head into the running faucet of the kitchen sink, pulling his eyelid open with her free hand so the gush of water could inundate Raul´s crimson-tainted, pounding eye, but his colossal head scarcely fitted inside the hole of the sink, and no matter how much his grandmother twirled Raul over and twisted him as if tightening a wobbly nail with his skull, only a slim trickle out of the torrential stream barely gullied down into the corner of Raul´s eye.
Realizing the futility of her enterprise, and crumbling from within due to the high-screeching yelps cannonballing out of Raul´s swinging uvula, his grandmother planted Raul back on the floor, snagged up a metal spoon from one of the drawers, and scooped Raul´s eye out of its socket to hose and wipe the green tint off with the backyard hosepipe. The bloody wires connecting the eyeball to the inside of Raul´s head snapped for good. His grandmother, never having it made past her second grade Basic Biology turn-of-the-eighteenth-century textbooks, blow-dried the eyeball and then taped back together the remaining hanging optic fibers, sticking the freshly polished eyeball back inside Raul’s socket. The eyeball shrank. And then it melted.
Raul suddenly felt the left side of the world slowly spinning round and round until everything was obliterated by total darkness and he could see nothing but the inside of his head: half his brain sizzling and distributing everyday functions to the rest of his body. Then light flickered out on the left side of Raul´s world and everything went pitch black in a quick streak of color. The melted eyeball oozed out of his socket in thick droplets of runny retina.
Reeling these hushed recollections back to the core of his mind on top of the train and conjuring up the nostalgic mysticism of the life he had left behind made his tummy roll as if a zoo of fretting animals had been unleashed inside him. The worrisome awareness that the massive continent of a head weighing down on his shoulders was, beyond recall, duty-bound to collide sooner or later with a mortal and solid object within his radius of movement that could finally end up throwing him off the train, in spite of how leisurely Raul tried to walk the nervous, metallic skin of La Bestia’s spine, increased with a foreboding throbbing within the list of his many qualms like an undetected cyst.
Then there was the issue of the people on the train who seemed to have warmed up to the freakish allure of the boy with the big head only to take advantage of him and his ridiculous appendage. Some would put their baskets of food or bottled waters on top of the flat surface of his skull when he fell asleep, so they could give their weary arms a respite. Even a geography teacher on board, bolting from the terrors of a dictatorship wolfing down his home country, liked to impart lessons about the fascinating axing of the solar system by using Raul’s head as a model, whether he had enthusiastically volunteered his head to be painted orangey-red with brick chalk to play the part of the sun or not.
But then one night, boiling with the sharp, acidic, glimmer of untarnished stars, heaped upon the unnatural rareness of his head, came the gurgling behind his eye socket. And to the rest of the riders, this incessant warbling proposed a much greater threat to their safety than the perimeters of that buffoon’s head. The brief patches of calm they could barely enjoy during those stretches of quiet when the police or the Narcos weren’t roaming behind bushes or leaping from wagon to wagon disguised as immigrants in their same situation, only to push them off the scaffolding and fall on spiky nets tied by groups of hungry delinquents, were interrupted by these parroting recitations creeping out into the world from the cracks around Raul’s socket. During their shoving, heaping slumber, the passengers dreamt that these gurgles grew ghostly fingers that snaked into their pores and plucked their overripened hearts out of their ribcages. This concoction of susurrated beliefs played the ukulele with the strings of their inner most sensitive fears and toyed with their upmost intricate human vulnerabilities. The crooning of Raul’s socket plunged all of them into a pool of sticky superstition. The mounting horde of passengers riding La Bestia, who had first set their intentions on pillaging the marble attached to Raul’s eye socket, soon exchanged it for an attitude of hatred and odium towards the fatidic gurgling that sprouted out of him and the overnight prophecy of disaster and bad luck it brought with it. Raul’s outlets were leaking with bad omens that would surely taint the fate of their individual voyages. He is bewitched, he is cursed, he will be the ruin of all of us. Raul heard the nocturnal flitting rumors blending with the thunderous breathing of the train. But Raul quickly identified in these new interior voices thrown against him, soaring from one bundle of bodies to the other, the high-pitched fever to cause immediate harm, to exterminate his persona.
Raul deducted that the inside of his skull was cluttered not only with the load of daydreams and frolicking thoughts and pooled in the nightmares a normal post-pubescent urchin like him usually picks up along the way during the stretch and breadth of his day, but it was also congested with the growl of anxieties and the reverberation of revulsion and the utter fear of being discovered and captured coming from the people around him. This jumble of musings soon began to press his already king-size cranium down slowly, weighing his shoulders forward a little bit more with each passing hour, hunkering his spine in an archway until he found himself with his forehead smashed against the sun-heated roof of the train and his butt crack peering out of his raggedy pants, his butthole saluting the sun and the scandalizing women on the ride, staring at him like an ostrich hiding his head beneath a dug-up hole in the warm pasture of an African prairie.
With his head between his legs, watching the world turned upside down, he felt the pang of instantaneous danger lurking in the upturned faces attached to the bodies that had sprung up in fear and disgust at the sight of his ostrich position. They were colluding, conspiring, their lips quaking, more tremulous than ever. He couldn’t hear them, he couldn’t make out or draw out the constellation of their words because now the rumble of La Bestia was inside his brain, making his sodden, sopping brain cells tumble up and down and left to right, but he recognized the tigers of readiness encaged inside their eyes. They were ready to attack.
The memory darted through the jumble of tucked thoughts and pierced the cortex of his brain in a flash. He remembered how, when he had just cleared his debt with the marble-maker and the new crystal eyeball had been plastered onto his face, and he was earning money now for his trip to the new country by doing all sorts of odd jobs around town, on one occasion, while transcribing and jotting down into a secondhand notebook the memoirs of Father Filomeno, who was frail and ill and ready to give up the ghost but dictating to Raul with a destructive incoherence all the trials and tribulations of the martyrdom venture he had endured in this town in order to preserve them for posterity and pass them on to the young priest that would take his place, Raul heard a tiny squeak, a dewdrop of a quiver plopping across his socket. Then he lifted his gaze. Father Filomeno had hurled the covers away and jumped on top of his desk like a schoolboy afraid of a mouse, lifting his skirt and screaming to God almighty for salvation and blocking his glaucoma-invaded eyesight with his forearms at the sight of Raul’s giant head staring back at him with one eyeball rolled backward, the pupil on the wrong side of his face, inside the planet of his cranium, the white showing like a parchment crayoned with little red popping fake veins.
The predicament of his rolling eyeball wasn´t much of an issue for Raul during those days of wandering through town; he would just dip his fingers and fumble his eye until he had spun his left pupil back into its upward position. The real conundrum came one day when he sneezed a snot-riddled cyclone out of his nose and his eye popped out and flew out of his face in an arch, scratching the sky like a meteorite, ultimately falling deep among the boughs and thickets of a nearby bonanza of shrubberies.
Raul had to scavenge for hours for his left optic ball until he was able to retrieve it from the heap of leaves and the swarm of spiders and critters that had pounced out from their holes to claim this hard, tasty snack, his hand bearing a landmark of bites and sword-sharpened prods and stingers. But it was on this occasion when his eyeball rolled out of his reach that he heard his thoughts flow out of his head without him opening his mouth for the first time, and when they had seeped away from his head, there was silence, and he realized that he felt his skull had reduced and a thousand apprehensions had evaporated from his body. He took it as a one-time event and later wasted half his savings for his trip to pay a sketchy doctor on the outskirts of town to superglue the eyeball back into its socket. But it had been worth it. The eyeball had never rolled or splatted out of place, since.
Back on the train, unable to stand back up again and watching his attackers unsheathe machetes and serrated knives as they approached with heavy footsteps, Raul stuck his finger deep into one of his nostrils, twirled the crusted mucus in swirls until he felt the power-charge of a voluptuous tingle. He sneezed as hard as he could. Strings of greenish matter fluttered out of his nose and slapped his chin and gathered in bouquets around his neck. The veins on his temples pulsed with the strain, his face went tomato red. A scant fart toppled up his rectum and made his butthole sting. The machetes came closer. Raul new there was no other option.
He reached for his left eyeball and jerked it off his face, pulling strings of glued skin off with it. A sunflower of excruciating pain bloomed in his belly, but he promptly felt how the overblown slab of dark matter churning on top of his stooped shoulders leaked out and eased the weight crunching his spine. The bundle of thoughts yoking him to the floor straightaway began to dribble out of his socket in a spurt of washed-up splotches of color, followed by a racket of unintelligible voices, a warfare of swearwords and secret thoughts and guarded frustrations and old memorized commercial jingles and upright invented childish poems. Despite the fact that his lips were closed, Raul heard his deep-toned, riddled-with-angst-voice trail off with the wind and cackle and cluck and peep en masse the same way a bunch of hens run around in an extravaganza of feathers and claws as a troop of foxes lurk around their coop.
Once the splotched bubbles faded in flurries and the voices evaporated in puffs, he felt light enough to support his skull and raise his whole body back to a flagpole position. Raul plopped the eyeball back to its socket before the golden recollections and ideas he treasured the most escaped with the rest of the mental litter. As he rose to his feet, he saw that half the population of La Bestia had jumped off the roof. They had fled in frightened delight at the orchestra of choruses and warbled voices and deformed ideas that had echoed around them like bullets.
For the rest of his journey to the new country, he returned to this practice of plucking his eyeball off and smacking it back on his face whenever he felt his head was about to crack off from his neck. He would find a congregation of tall trees in the forest to sneak behind or an old dumpster rooted to an alleyway in one of the many destitute towns the train stopped at. He would remove his eyeball, let the bubbles of old memories and babble of reminiscences pour out of him, and then he would rise, with a melancholy mix whipping in his stomach as he heard and watched his jumble of mental garbage flow away from him. He rubbed the smear of dirt off his forehead and continued skipping down the flagstone road of the main street of the town, slipping behind the cart of one of the hawking vendors and hoping he wasn´t late enough to catapult himself back on the last wagon of La Bestia before it departed or the police running with pitchforks behind him could catch him and convey him to the torture room where they crammed in all the deportees.