Hurricane Season—Fernanda Melchor

[I am reading this 2017 novel in chapters, more or less. I read a chapter or two, write about them, then read on. So far, I have read two.]

27 August 2020
Chapters 1 and 2
The opening chapter is a one-page prologue. A gang of boys in some hot, wet countryside—we don’t know who or where they are—happen upon the upturned, eerily smiling, snake-infested face of someone who has drowned. We don’t know who the dead person is, and don’t know if the body is what the boys where hoping or expecting to find. And after the chapter ends with the smiling face of the corpse, we don’t know that it’s of the young woman whose life is briefly sketched out in Chapter 2. ‘They called her the Witch, the same as her mother,’ and it’s only at the end of the chapter, 20-odd pages further on, that we know she’s dead. ‘Poor Witch, poor crank, let’s just hope they catch the fucker or fuckers who slit her throat.’ I’m guessing that this is the corpse found by the boys, but the only thing we know for sure is that this narrator isn’t in the business of spelling anything out.

The style is chaotic, seeming to match the superstitious, hand-to-mouth lives of the inhabitants of the Mexican village. This is a translation from the Spanish, written in labyrinthine sentences up to a page long, any one of which might range from the matted hair of the old Witch’s daughter when she was a little girl, hiding under the table to the rivalries of the women who seek her mother out for curses against the hussies leading their husbands or potions to kill the ‘seeds’ left in them by some bullying drunk. A landslide in 1978 seems to have emptied the village for a while, and the old Witch doesn’t survive it, but people have come back and her daughter—if that’s who she really is—has taken over. She had already been running things before her mother’s death or disappearance, and her black-clad figure is seen around in a way her mother never was. She had never left the house, and had even bricked up the windows and main door. She had only been in her forties, but her wrinkled face looked 20 years older.

These are ignorant, oppressed lives. The population might be largely Native Americans, because the invading Spanish are mentioned, with their sense of manifest destiny as they pretend the land is theirs for the taking. It’s marginal, subsistence living, and when oil is discovered somewhere nearby it brings the locals no benefits, only men with money in their pockets wanting to throw their weight around. Sex is everywhere. Fernanda Melchor presents feckless men following their animal instincts and women who cope with this in whatever ways they can. The old Witch—despite the narrator never referring to her in any other way, we can make our own minds up about this clever outsider—is suspected of the most terrible crimes. She poisoned her husband before he could sell any more of his land, and cursed the sons who came to claim their inheritance by having metal plates come loose from a truck and skewer them on the way to the funeral. How else could it have happened but through a subtle curse?

No men ever went into the house at that time, but everybody new she slept with the devil in the form of a priapic sculpture nobody has actually ever seen. Maybe her daughter is the outcome of one of these hellish couplings, but after her mother’s death, she seeks satisfaction in a different way. At first, this comes about as a result of young men daring each other to enter this scary-looking woman’s house and offer sex for money. Later, she seems to accept any man who offers himself. The story is that she pays—there must be untold wealth in the house, the villagers all know, and a diamond as big as a fist—so she must want it.

This is how the narrator presents it, but we know not to take anything at face value. We can see that this superstitious, ignorant consensus isn’t fit for any purpose at all, leaving the villagers as marginalised and impoverished as they always have been. They simply accept the plastic waste all around, because it’s just another given from the outside world—the corpse’s face in Chapter 1 emerges from ‘the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road. And they don’t even try to guess who killed the young Witch—some fucker or fuckers, yes, but why? There are multinational corporations in the region—there must be, if there’s oil—and maybe she was seeing things beyond the confines of the local inhabitants’ little lives. Maybe we’ll find out, although it wouldn’t surprise me at all if we never do.

Chapter 3
Well, this is horrible. The narrative voice had previously been reflecting the simple-minded, uneducated consensus of the local population. Now it seems entirely to reflect the chronic fury of the single downtrodden character whose misfortunes we follow in this chapter. She is Yesenia and, unsurprisingly, her story opens with her meeting ‘him’, another unknown character she is ‘immediately offended’ by for even speaking to her…. Also unsurprisingly, we don’t discover what connection either of them has to the Witch until near the end of the chapter. Instead, for page after foul-mouthed page, we get descriptions of the heaped-up injustices she has to suffer while her cousin, the ‘him’ of the opening sentence, is the constant favourite of the grandmother who makes Yesenia’s life a misery.

Most of the chapter, once we’re into flashback mode, has the melodramatic plot of a particularly lurid soap opera. At its heart is the materfamilias, Grandma, who dotes first over her no-good son even after he murders the man whose wife he’s having sex with, and later over a boy who is supposedly his son, but who ‘everybody’ knows, according to the highly partisan narration, is no such thing. She had never blamed her own son for having left without ever sending back the promised money he said he’d be earning, and makes the long and arduous trip to visit him in jail every week for seven years. When he dies, probably of AIDS, she spends all her money on a showy marble monument in the rich people’s part of the cemetery. The resentment of her daughters and granddaughters is palpable. The old woman is the representative of a society in which stubborn, ignorant women are willing agents of the Patriarchy, expecting daughters and granddaughters to do all the work while the boys and men can lord it over them. The grandmother’s daughters leave, to make money as sex workers to the oil-men from the north (according to the grandmother), so all the duties fall on Yesenia.

Is the boy as bad as the narrative would have us believe? There seems to be no reason to doubt it. He’s as feckless as his supposed father ever was, grows up lazy and dishonest, and becomes the object of sheer hatred for Yesenia. The grandmother is abusive to the point of sadism, storing up resentments and surprising her granddaughters with carefully timed punishments. One favourite is for her to wake up any of the three girls with a beating with a wet rope just as they are on the cusp of sleep. Yesenia, no beauty, is always ‘Lagarta’ to the old woman, ‘Lizard,’ a popular term of abuse against women. All she has going for her is her luxuriant, sleek black hair, not like the rough Native hair of all the other girls and women in the family. Guess what the grandmother does with the garden shears when she decides not to believe the evidence Yesenia brings back after being out at night seeking proof of the boy-cousin’s ever more degenerate behaviour.

It’s all like this, with the cousin and his ever more criminal associates routinely referred to as dip-shits, assholes and much worse. And when we’ve had more than enough of it, there’s a plot development. That opening sentence had referred to a moment when Yesenia was making her way from a swim in the canal just as the cousin was going towards it. She hadn’t seen him for three years, after he’d gone off to live with his birth-mother—which had caused the grandmother to suffer first a stroke and, on further news of his betrayals, a crippling fall. There had been something about the way he asked about the water… and Yesenia remembers something after she hears of the discovery of the drowned body. A few days earlier she had seen her cousin going into the Witch’s house, no doubt to participate in one of the orgies that she knew went on in there—and saw him and one of his cronies carrying a black-clad figure out. She reports it to the police, and the cousin is arrested.

Not that it brings Yesenia any joy. One of the infamous family of local gossips gets into the grandmother’s house, despite Yesenia’s clear warning to her younger cousins not to open the door to them, and tells the old woman her grandson is in custody. By the time Yesenia is back from her second or third visit to the police station, the grandmother seems to know who reported the crime. But nobody knows, surely? Maybe not, but ‘Yesenia also knew, as she drowned in the old woman’s furious eyes, that Grandma despised her with every ounce of her being and in that very moment was putting a curse on Yesenia….’ And so on until, in the last lines, ‘Grandma hit Yesenia where it hurt most, dying right there in the arms of her eldest granddaughter.’

I told you it was horrible. If there are any characters in this novel who might ever have had a shred of decency or generosity—and there’s no reason to suppose any of them ever did—they’ve had it beaten out of them. I hope Fernanda Melchor is going to move on from the over-simple idea that a nasty, brutish society produces only nasty, brutish people.

1 September
Chapter 4
The narrative is now in the voice of the stepfather of the useless cousin we heard so much about in Yesenia’s chapter. We’d heard how he, the cousin, had returned to sponge off his mother, and if his stepfather’s version is to believed—again, there’s no reason to doubt it—he’s as bad as Yesenia always said. The cousin has a name now, Luismi, as does the stepfather, Munra, and the mother who is never seen in this chapter, Chabela. She isn’t there during any of the time that Munra is now having to account for—the last few pages are partly written in the language of a police statement—when he was the driver who took Luismi and another man to the Witch’s house that fateful night.

Melchor’s method is to take us a tiny step closer to the centre of the action with each chapter. First, the victim, then the estranged cousin of one of the alleged perpetrators, then the unwitting accomplice. Munra knows nothing, or so he says. ‘Honest, honest, honest to God, he didn’t see a thing, on his mother’s soul, may she rest in peace, he didn’t see a thing; didn’t even know what those fuckers had done to her….’ This is how the chapter opens, and the rest of it makes his version seem plausible enough. I’ll come back to Munra’s story later, because…

…Melchor is moving in from the margins in another way, too. When did I first start to speculate that the reason for the Witch’s death might be to do with events in a wider world than any of the main characters have any idea of? Ah—‘maybe she was seeing things beyond the confines of the local inhabitants’ little lives,’ I suggested at the end of my first entry, and what we’re beginning to see now makes me more certain of that. Firstly, Munra tells whoever is listening that he tried his best to get his no-good stepson to take advantage of the same political campaign he was a part of himself. A presidential candidate had him on his payroll as one of the needy poor that the candidate was helping—culminating in a photo-op leading to a set of huge billboards with him pushing Mura along in the wheelchair he’d just provided for him.

Munra doesn’t tell it like this, of course, either not realising, or not wanting to realise, that he was only being used. For a while, the money was good… but Luismi will have nothing to do with the candidate. We take it that even a low-life like Luismi recognises corruption when he sees it… or, more probably, knows that getting involved in any politics is just too dangerous. However, it later also starts to seem probable that Luismi is being used as well. He urgently needs Munra to do that driving for him and two other men—he tells him there’s a lot of money in it, and Munra says he had assumed it was a legitimate job—and, as the other men no doubt knew, only Luismi would be recognised by any witnesses. Luismi is usually off his head on whatever the current psychosis-inducing drug might be, and doesn’t seem to understand that he’s an accomplice to a murder any more than Munra understood how he had been an accomplice in a propaganda campaign.

One last thing that makes the versions of these marginalised people seem ever more open to reinterpretation: Munra, the one time he had ever been in the Witch’s house, tells us it was blindingly obvious that she was really a man. The face was always veiled, as we know, but Munra says that the hands and voice were dead giveaways…. At this point, less than half-way through the novel, we can only speculate why a man might be posing as the local wise woman in this way. If, that is, Munra hasn’t got this wrong as well. As I’ve said before, Melchor isn’t making any of this easy for us.

What do I need to add about Munra and his story? His wife is, or Munra tells us she is, a prostitute at a well-used brothel, and he suspects that her absence is because she’s on a sex binge with a norteño he sees as a kind of nemesis, Barabbas. It seems more likely, now I stop to think about it, that she’s been taken away so she doesn’t interfere with the plot to abduct and murder the Witch. She is as permanently angry with her useless son as Munra is, but mothers have instincts that might get in the way of the smooth running of somebody’s little plan. And the careful planning of it all is made clearer still by the odd little story of Luismi’s short-term girlfriend. She is Norma, and neither Munra nor his wife could understand why, for the short time she was with Luismi, she was prepared to move into his squalid little hut and on to his stinking mattress. And why was she always so helpful and smiling about the place?

We only start to get it when Munra has to drive her to the hospital—he had been able to afford his beloved van with half the money he received in compensation for the crippling accident he’d had when he’d collided with a truck, with no lights on, was turning in the road ahead—and she is detained for what can only be a miscarriage. The upholstery in the van is a bloody mess, and all Munra and his stepson can do is wait. Luismi seems to think that the baby he thinks he’s having with Norma will be saved, but they hear nothing—except that the girl is only thirteen years old. Munra tries to explain to him that this is illegal, but he isn’t listening… and we might wonder why Luismi, clearly the victim of a cynical set-up, remains free.

I’m guessing it’s part of a plot to blackmail him. He will stay out of prison if he helps a man known as Brando, and another who is, or pretends to be, too wasted to accompany them, to do a little job for them. Better still, there’s money in it for him. Hm. I remember last time I was complaining that nobody in this novel seems to have a shred of decency or honesty. Now I’m thinking that every one of the main characters is some kind of victim. At one level, Melchor’s project to portray not only the disabling effects of ignorance, but the way ignorance is encouraged by those in power. And now I’m wondering if it’s another project of hers to present the realities of the chaos brought about by political corruption from the point of view of the victims. We never know what’s going on because we’re only hearing the story from people who have no idea.

Chapter 5
This is Norma’s chapter. First, the narrative rewinds to when she is kept overnight in hospital, opening with ‘A miracle, my baby boy is nothing short of a miracle…’ which turns out to be the voice of a besotted new mother in the maternity ward. She’s holding up the boy she’s just given birth to despite all her previous miscarriages, and she wants everyone to know that it’s entirely thanks to the frank idolatry she had directed towards the statue of St Jude. The Catholic church has already been presented by this author as just another useless, self-serving branch of the Patriarchy… and the saint’s is the only name we hear before Norma’s own. She is tied to the bed with bandages to prevent her escape, and is subjected to disapproving looks from everyone around because they know what she has done. She’s been told that the no-good shit who left her pregnant has disappeared, a lie that must suit the hard-pressed social worker on the case because it keeps things simple.

Other things, however, offer a genuinely different perspective on what we’ve been told in the previous chapter. Norma, for instance, really is an innocent when she arrives in the town where Luismi picks her up. She is full of an overwhelming sense of guilt, her stepfather—all men are the same, everybody keeps telling her, and he is the one who demonstrates to her what they mean—having convinced her that he would never have touched her if she hadn’t wanted him to. She had made the first move, after all—in fact, it’s the playful kiss of a child who knows kisses mean something, but not the sexual charge they can carry—and she is utterly convinced, deep inside herself, that he is only speaking the truth. Melchor, in Norma’s tortured memories of how the catastrophe happened, has given us a man who is able to present a young girl’s feelings back to her with a raft of different meanings. He’s a manipulative shit, and he’s a brilliantly realised version of how paedophiles operate. Humbert Humbert in Lolita is an astonishing creation, but Norma’s stepfather is more chilling because he is so believable.

Inevitably, when Norma is struck by morning sickness, the effect is harrowing to the point of disgust. Every page has some new take on the revolting aspects of the human body, from the graphic details of what smells bring on the nausea, including the sweaty stink of her brother’s badly-wiped arse, turned towards her as he sleeps next to her in the family’s only bed. What can she do? Tell her mother everything? But she either wouldn’t believe what her husband is supposed to have done, or the horrific truth of it would push her into one of her chronic depressions.

Norma’s is the old story, told with a kind of dour relentlessness. As with all the stories in the book, it’s as though Melchor is determined for the reader to live through intolerable experiences she knows we’ll never have for ourselves. It’s engaging in its resolutely grim-faced way, but how sympathetic are we really to poor Norma, the first character we’ve met with any humanity about her? She had loved her brothers in her way, done her best, at first, to help her mother in her poverty-stricken desperation… but the realities of life, especially of sex in the world she lives in, knocks it out of her. Before she runs away, hoping to reach the coastal beauty spot she remembers going to with her mother before the other children came along, she can’t help wishing they were dead. And by this time, she wishes the same both for herself and for the ‘thing’ inside her. She plans to throw herself from the cliff she can still picture in her mind.

Meeting Luismi, as naïve as she is in his own way and almost as childish, puts a stop to that half-formed plan. She had used all the money she could muster—not enough, it seems—for an overland bus-ride to the coast and that half-remembered cliff. It’s after the driver has dumped her in the middle of nowhere, and she has had to walk through fields to avoid the catcalling car-loads of young men on the road, that Luismi finds her and takes her to the godforsaken village where he now lives with his mother and stepfather. And we get Norma’s take on life with him. Despite his apparent gallantry towards her—he really doesn’t seem to be just another asshole on the make—he isn’t easy to get aroused in bed…. But it isn’t either him or the squalor of his hut that gets to her, it’s the intolerable heat of the day, and that there’s no toilet of any kind.

It’s during one of her secret forays into the main house that she meets the larger-than-life Chabela for the first time. If this were a comedy she would be a comic grotesque, but there’s nothing comic about the rock-solid cynicism that Melchor seems to presenting as the only viable survival strategy for women. No doubt it will kill her in the end—her chain-smoking is the nearest thing in the book to a comic trademark—but her merciless, no-arguments, no-questions-asked common sense is what saves Norma. It’s an unending, foul-mouthed torrent of the maternal advice she never got from her real mother.

It isn’t the first time that Norma has heard that no men are to be trusted and women have no chance if they don’t take things into their own hands. Her mother had said something similar but, alongside the dire warnings of the dangers faced by careless girls, she neglected to explain anything at all about what her daughter needed to avoid. It’s only when the stepfather—ironically, the one her mother says is the only man she has ever trusted—has got Norma pregnant that she realises what her mother had always meant by the ‘mistakes’ she had made. She, Norma, was the first mistake—to be followed by five more as her mother kept convincing herself this was the way to prove her commitment to a man.

And meeting Chabela offers her a way out she had never looked for. She knows all about unwanted pregnancies, and takes her to see the Witch who is so good at sorting out any little difficulties that her girls at the brothel have from time to time. She, the Witch, gives Norma a foul-tasting, fast-acting potion which, when she takes it all alone—Chabela has had a call from Barabbas, and it’s a simple reality for her that she does what the man wants for the night—feels as if it’s ripping out her insides. She buries what comes out from her in the hole that Luismi had discovered in the previous chapter, but whose contents Munra didn’t know about. I suppose it means that if Luismi has put two and two together, he has a motive for taking revenge on the Witch.

Not that anything as explicable as motive counts for anything in this world. I find myself hoping that it’s an assassination by cynical outsiders, not just the latest stupid action by a kid who does nothing but lurch from one self-inflicted disaster to another.

4 September
Chapter 6…
…which is one of the longest, focused on another character who seems peripheral, but is able to give us yet another take on Luismi. That isn’t all he does, of course, any more than Munra and Norah’s viewpoints focused exclusively on the young man whose hands were definitely on the dagger that killed the Witch. Brando is no political fixer manipulating Luismi into a murder, but a low-status member of the same loose gang looking for a way to escape his destiny. And that means money. They gain entry into the Witch’s ramshackle old mansion—they’re regular visitors, and she has a particular soft spot for Luismi—because Brando, like everybody else, knows all about her gold and diamonds. She won’t put up any kind of fight, he’s sure.

The chapter has a framing device. After the event, Brando has been beaten and tortured by the corrupt head of the local police, and has been thrown into an overcrowded holding cell. His welcome takes the form of the dominant one forcing him to give up the Adidas trainers he’s just spent all his money on. Not that it was his money to spend, but the Witch’s. She’d given it to Luismi to buy supplies of coke to fuel her parties, and Brando stole from him because it’s like taking candy from a baby when Luismi is completely off his head. The police chief has no interest in who killed ‘the faggot,’ of course. He just wants to know where the money is. It really, really always is about the money. Of course, there isn’t any. All Brando can give them is his story of how, after they had taken away the already half-dead Witch, he had returned to try to break into the locked room upstairs. It had been impossible—even with a machete he couldn’t get through the door.

Brando’s story, told in flashback like every other in the book, is the most squalid yet. Any hints of sisterly kindness that there might have been in the previous chapter—you had to look for it, but it was definitely there—are forgotten in the would-be macho world of the gang of local losers. It doesn’t work for me. Melchor presents us with a character with absolutely no saving graces. He might not be to blame for rejecting the self-serving Catholicism the local priest foists on his mother, with its taste for ritual, group exorcisms and big donations of money from his poor parishioners. His mother thinks his behaviour is the work of the Devil, but what we recognise is an adolescent with no guidance from either parent, one who masturbates a lot and takes all his cues from boys hardly older than he is.

I’ll spare you the details, presented in the language of the pornography Brando gets his hands on. He is able, by a kind of fluke, to become the toy-boy lover of woman bored to death by her oil company husband, who is always at work anyway. What he doesn’t understand is why he can never reach any sexual climax with her. He pretends to, getting rid of the empty condoms after long sessions of sex, and she’s very happy with someone who can keep going longer than anybody she’s ever known…. And what emerges turns into a wry critique of what can happen to gay boys in the macho culture they find themselves in.

As with Norah and her pregnancy, it isn’t a new story, with Brando so in denial of the truth it never occurs to him for a single moment. Even a one-off sexual act with the unconscious Luismi—he tells himself later that it was probably a dream anyway—doesn’t convince him. And there’s a kind of anti-epiphany he has with Luismi’s secret sugar-daddy, the ‘engineer’ who keeps promising him a job with the oil company that is Luismi’s excuse for never seeking any other work. Luismi has given him up because he thinks he’s found happiness with Norma—he’s just as in denial as Brando—and the engineer latches on to Brando, whose macho act clearly doesn’t fool him for a minute. Brando goes along with it, because it’s there in this gang’s protocols that it’s OK to have sex with sad old gays for money. But, when he understands that the older man wants him, Brando, to be the passive participant, he nuts the man so hard he breaks his nose. Unless the crack he hears was just his glasses, of course.

Enough of that… because Brando’s head is full of such messed-up ideas that his sexual confusion looks merely pathetic by comparison. Does Melchor go too far? I would say so, because he has no redeeming qualities. The theft of that money from his supposed friend put an end to the sad little not-quite-friendship between Luismi and the Witch. We had heard of the Witch’s awful little basement parties, only attended by people with nowhere else to go and who fancied whatever drugs were on offer. Luismi, usually, would sing a little—and, for the first time, we hear about the astonishing delicacy of his voice. ‘Luismi’ is a nickname, after Luis Miguel, one of Mexico’s most famous crooners.

Well, all that’s at an end now, and all Brando can do is congratulate himself on how easy it is to put one over on Luismi, the loser. He’ll easily be able to persuade him to get him to help him steal the Witch’s money, on the promise of a new life somewhere else. This is Brando’s dream, and he has it in his head that he will easily be able to kill Luismi and take all the money, once they’re well away from the city. It’s more fantasy, we think, surely this sad sack couldn’t murder anyone…. Except, for no good reason, he’s the one who bludgeons the Witch’s head so hard he’s sure there’s brain matter seeping out as they carry her away.

It gets worse when he persuades Luismi, after they’ve left almost empty-handed. (Brando has pocketed the only money in the place, consisting of dropped coins and the 200-peso note left by Chabela in payment for Norah’s potion, despite the Witch saying she wanted nothing for it.) Brando has the knife which, whenever they have visited the Witch’s house, symbolically skewers an apple on the table. At the reed-beds by the canal, he forces it into Luismi’s hands, and tells him he should kill the Witch for what she’s done. Luismi is reluctant, but makes a weak stab at her neck. It’s Brando who, clutching Luismi’s hand around the knife with both of his, makes the three deep stabs that kill her.

I said at the start that this is a novel told from the margins, by people well away from the seats of power. What Melchor has actually presented us with is a vision of hell. There’s no hope, because every stratum of this society is rotten. At the margins, there’s only a more impoverished version of the venality and corruption that runs right through it. We don’t have to believe it, of course, any more than we believe Dante’s Inferno, because she’s invented this world in order to make a point. The question is, does she make it well? Or does such a grindingly squalid version of what human life consists of leave us feeling more alienated than sympathetic? In Norma’s chapter, I remember mentioning how difficult it is to sympathise….

Maybe I’m being blind-sided by Brando’s all-round inadequacy as a human being. His is just one ruined life among many. Luismi, he of the angelic voice but rendered almost psychotic by his constant overuse of cheap drugs. His cousin Yesenia, her own psyche turned to poison by the stupid, Patriarchy-driven behaviour of a grandmother who, we hear from Chabela in Norma’s chapter, made her money from prostitution. Munra, a fine figure of a man turned to a useless fool by the manoeuvrings of a mysteriously unlit truck at night. He’s given enough hush-money to keep him quiet, but he spends half of it on the van and the rest of it won’t last long. Norma, perhaps destined to be another Chabela, because what else can you do? And there’s the Witch herself, born male but doing whatever she can to find a grubby, sad little version of happiness against all the odds. All she is in the end is the victim of a petty crook with no imagination, Brando the ‘faggot-killer’ the other prisoners mock.

At the end of the chapter, Luismi is thrown into the cell, totally beaten up, and Brando is delighted to see the only person he’s ever had any feelings for. Yes, he really is this messed-up as he looks at him: ‘Luismi, in the flesh, that cocksucking son of a bitch Luismi, right before Brando’s watering eyes. His. Fuck. Finally to squeeze in his arms.’

5 September
Chapters 7 and 8
These little chapters, each only three pages or so, act as a kind of Gothic epilogue. The narrative, while somehow remaining as claustrophobic as ever, seems to broaden out well beyond the village and the town. It starts close, with the police ransacking the Witch’s house and finally discovering, in an unashamedly Psycho moment, that the only thing to see in the locked room is the body of the Witch’s mother. It’s in such a state of decay that it crumbles before their eyes. They, the police, leave the village and the town. Have they found the gold and diamonds? Or are they so spooked by the sight they just get out of there? Whichever it is, rumours soon circulate that the police chief has shot all the other men so he can keep everything, or that all of them, the chief included, have been ambushed by one of the clans we’ve heard about, tired of their all-round uselessness, killed and decapitated. This seems to be the truth of it, because a set of headless bodies turn up in the final chapter.

Life goes on, as brutishly as ever. Children are told not to go near the Witch’s place, gangs wage internecine wars, and there are rumours that ‘it won’t be long before the marines are sent in to restore order in the region.’ We can all imagine how effective that will be. The rains are late to arrive, and the heat seems to have sent everybody more than a little crazy. The women are on edge, get on with things as best they can without the Witch’s help, and exchanging stories of the unearthly bird-like creature seen circling around, probably containing the Witch’s spirit. After all, we already know that ‘witches never go down without a fight.’ Maybe so, but the house soon contains nothing, ‘no gold or silver or diamonds, or anything more than a searing pain that refuses to go away.’

That’s the end of the first sad little epilogue. The second is more Gothic still, as the ‘Grandfather’ in charge of burying the dead receives a consignment. ‘One by one he counted them all, even those that weren’t in one piece’—and there are plenty of those in this world, including those headless bodies, and that of a woman in so many pieces her remains are wrapped in plastic to stop them ‘sloshing’ around in the ambulance. Most of the bodies seem to be the victims of atrocious crimes of one sort or another…. The old man talks to them, but not before the young men who have delivered them have left. He knows people think he’s crazy—but he also knows how important it is to settle the dead before they can rest. After the living hell these people have been trapped in, he knows that ‘the dead person felt that a voice was guiding them, telling them how things worked, and this seemed to console them.’ Well, it would. It never happened to any of them while they were alive.

And guess what? ‘The sky flashed with lightning,’ as Melchor allows herself, and the reader, this little fantasy of a journey ending safely. The old man asks his charges if they’ve seen it, ‘that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them. That’s the way out of this hole.’ Of course he’s no more than a sad old man, talking to himself. But wouldn’t it be nice?