The Misunderstood Curse of Diego Villarreal – Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers

      The earthquake that hit Mendoza, Argentina at 5:38 in the morning registered an 8.2 on the Richter scale and shook the Villarreal house long before Diego’s parents began to stir. The multi-colored men that Diego had arranged on his bedroom floor flew through the air in a rainbow of acrobatic nonsense. Their hard, plastic faces looked down on the boy almost pleading, Look at me, Diego. Watch me fly! Some smiled as they somersaulted through the air while others flew in fierce concentration, butting heads with the more optimistic flyers. Yet for a brief moment, the men hung weightless in the air, before they crashed to the floor. And this was the last thing the five-year old boy saw before he blacked out.

     His parents, both professors of poetry at the local university, never woke before 7:00 a.m., and, upon waking, they first made superior love, each and everyday. Afterwards, Diego’s father would walk into the kitchen to make his wife a cup of coffee, humming Bach’s Minuet in G Major as he drew the kettle to a boil. Placing the cup on the bedside table next to his wife, he would bury his nose in her thick brown hair and inhale deeply. He would then take a long, hot shower. It was a ritual as complete as it was exact, and he never strayed from his routine.

      Although Diego was always the first to wake in the Villarreal household, he knew never to bother his parents before he heard the whistle of the kettle, and, even then, only rarely would he walk into the kitchen to wrap his thin arms around the loose cloth of his father’s robe. It wasn’t that he did not desire his father’s company or that his father didn’t enjoy his. Hearing his father humming in the kitchen, Diego often found himself providing a quiet harmony to his father’s melody, yet he simply lacked the desire to get off his bedroom floor while he worked on his fanciful creations.

      And so it was, just before the earthquake struck that Diego sat cross-legged on his bedroom floor humming along with his father while he arranged a troupe of plastic, robotic-looking men with his 5000 piece interlocking, modeling set. Some of the toy men Diego created were all one color – brilliant blues, deep oranges, or rich purples. Others wore a strange, yet compelling mix of colors. The boy, even at five-years old, had a natural gift of knowing how to juxtapose complimentary colors, so that no man was too hideous to look at. One man raised an umbrella overhead, while another balanced a tray of water glasses. One even held an enormous phone in the palm of his yellow hand. Another clutched a leash in his green palm. Diego had yet to build the green dog that was to complete the set.

      On blank paper stickers, Diego had drawn faces, impressive details of determination, of surprise, conceit even, and placed them on his multi-colored men moments before the quake. So at the precise instant when the tectonic plates slammed up against the southern slope of the Andes Mountains, the faces of his multi-colored men matched the temperament of each flyer. The troupe’s unexpected flight was simply a thing of beauty in the face of a sheer natural disaster. The magnitude of the colliding earth and free-flying men rendered a picture so rich, it would be almost impossible to recreate.

      In that fraction of a second, Diego was mesmerized by streaks of light that followed the multi-colored men like comets. He couldn’t help but stare at the bright tails of light, evidencing the men’s exact flight paths. If only he had the presence of mind to wave back to his flying men, to greet them in their unexpected flight, or perhaps take a picture of their absurd aerial movements, he wouldn’t have been so tormented in the coming years. But that, of course, was impossible. There simply wasn’t enough time.

      For reasons not completely understood, the young boy’s life was spared. As the earth shook beneath their apartment building, Diego’s mattress flew up and landed on top of him, protecting both him and his multi-colored men as the building collapsed three floors to the ground. In an act of unpredictable fate, Diego and his men landed atop the canopied bed of his first floor neighbor who was bedridden with Dengue Fever. She never felt a thing as she died- neither the quake itself nor her new bedfellows. The woman’s billowing sheets caught the young boy and his colorful troupe much like large parachutes that catch trapeze artists falling from great heights above the circus floor.

      This moment of miraculous intervention was in complete contrast to how his parents lived out their last moments. In their deepest sleep, the couple was lofted out of their bedroom window like a pair of shuttlecocks only to land on the buckling sidewalk below. The naked couple did, however, land atop one another – her long leg wrapped around his broken neck – as though their last moments on this earth were immortalized in the act of making love. Just as Diego emerged from the calm sheets and confused rubble, a quick-thinking neighbor covered the entangled couple with a blanket before the poor boy could witness his parents in such a farcical position. Diego was then rushed to the hospital in one ambulance, his dead parents in another. Later, under the fluorescent lights of the emergency room, it was discovered the young boy had lost his ability to speak, and whether it was an anatomical issue or a psychological one, no one really knew.

      When he was released from the hospital, Diego was sent to live with his father’s brother. At first, his uncle welcomed the boy with open arms but soon found Diego’s aphonic and occasionally violent behavior became too high a cost for his aunt’s frail condition, so Diego was sent to live with other, equally less-forgiving, members of the Villarreal family. They, too, couldn’t care for him. The poor boy was handed off so many times, he lived in a constant state of anxiety during which he became obsessed with one thing: recreating the glorious, though ultimately horrific, scene of his multi-colored men flying through the air as the earthquake ripped his family apart.

      Initially, Diego used the donated action figures sent from America, but the second-hand toys with their scratched robotic uniforms, missing space boots and faulty laser beams were too restrictive, too postured. Manufactured in tight, prefabricated positions, no movement was left for the boy’s fertile imagination.

      Even at a young age, Diego understood the pathetic nature of these second-hand toys – sent by clueless, but well-meaning women in America. He knew they were merely unwanted items found in the corners of other children’s closets or housed in large Hefty garbage bags waiting to be sent to local thrift stores. He imagined how the women shook their heads as CNN revealed the earthquake’s damage, thankful such an earthquake hadn’t struck the Tri-state region. Or how they feigned horror over the damage, while sipping large glasses of an Argentinian Malbec, never once seeing the irony of where the grapes were harvested and the epicenter of the earthquake that played out before them on their flat-screen televisions. He knew these women were incapable of making such a connection. The catastrophe was too foreign and too many thousands of miles away.

                                                                     * * *

      As Diego’s reenactments failed him, he started to pull the heads off the donated toys, biting their ready-made limbs and swallowing them so he could defecate them hours later, only to watch the soiled toys swirl down the toilet with nothing more than limited satisfaction.

      Diego wanted to scream at the toys and the whole Villarreal family, but he couldn’t. His voice, much like his parents, had simply abandoned him. So he did the only thing he could. He hurled the little green army men donning those ludicrous stiff, green parachutes through the window into the river that ran below his grandmother’s house, refusing to give the soldiers in their ready-made battle stances a fighting chance. To him, the river smelled like sex, reminding him of how his parents’ bedroom smelled each morning when his father opened the door. And so, beautiful as the river was, he despised it. When he looked down at the river, Diego saw that some of the toy soldiers bobbed back up to the surface, wearing looks of consternation as though they were drifting downriver on a dangerous mission. Others wore idiotic expressions of carelessness, as though they were on a leisurely summer rafting trip. Those less fortunate took shelter amongst the inevitable tangle of roots where they rotted away with no one to witness their demise.

      Eventually, Diego’s entire extended family had had enough of the disturbed child and sent him to live alone on the streets, a family shame that would eventually haunt the remaining Villarreal line for generations to come. Together they called the boy El Maldito, The Curse, which was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy, affecting the family in the manifestation of one dreaded occurrence after another. Unrecoverable reversals of fortune, habitual infidelity, gruesome sexually transmitted diseases and grotesque deaths were all blamed on him. As they handed the cautionary tale of El Maldito down the Villarreal line for generations to come, they found no eligible man or woman in Argentina would agree to marry into the family for fear of the contracting the curse.

      On the streets, Diego wandered the alleyways, slept under the eaves of churches, and fed off spoiled food thrown in dumpsters. He even learned to smoke the buds of discarded cigarettes, tricking his mind into feeling warm. Diego grew independent but was starved both for proper nutrition and, perhaps, more importantly, the ability to create the scene that lived now only in his mind. So if there was a curse, it was this: the child’s disturbing inability to reconstruct the scene of the multi-colored men as they sailed through the air with the accuracy that he had witnessed so many years before.

      And then as with the earthquake that struck five years before, everything changed again.

      It was a bright April morning when something caught the attention of Irena Reyes, a wealthy patron of the Mendoza Arts Council while she was having coffee with another potential donor. It was neither the light of the early sun over the city’s famous basilica nor the juggler who tossed various flaming objects high into the sky that grabbed her attention. It was something else, something smaller. Looking past the coiffed hair of her guest that sat across the table, Irena Reyes saw a young boy roaming the street. Having lost her own son in the earthquake five years earlier, she grabbed at her throat and gasped.

      She couldn’t take her eyes of the boy. She had seen him before – not Diego exactly – but all the girls and boys orphaned by the great quake. There were over two hundred of them, catapulted out onto the streets. Some wandered the streets in great packs, searching for scraps of food like starving wolves. Others resorted to a life of the more solitary hunter. Diego was one such street orphan; he was always alone.

      Irena held up her hand to stop her friend mid-sentence. Rude as it was, she couldn’t help herself. She watched Diego force his thin arm down a drainpipe. What he intended to gather from the sewer system she could not possibly imagine. Whatever it was, Irena watched him promptly stuff it into his mouth. She watched him chew with great care, stopping only to watch a pair of brightly colored scarlet macaws fly overhead. The two mates flew wing to wing, making husky squeaks to one another. It was as if time stopped. Together Diego and Irena both marveled at the color of the birds’ flight feathers, the dark red and metallic gold iridescence and how they shone against the bright blue sky. Irena turned her eyes back to the boy and saw how he froze in place, looking both terrified and mesmerized at the same time, as if he were in a trance. He awoke quickly, folded his chin into his chest and looked back down towards the drainpipe as the birds shat down upon his head.

      Irena Reyes had seen enough, an epiphany really. Taking but a fraction of a second – nearly the same amount of time that Diego had witnessed his multi-colored men hanging in the air of his bedroom five years before – she made her decision. This decision, of course, was not a complete serendipity, given that her own son died in the terrible earthquake. But it was time. For five hideous years shad been bound by grief, and now was freed. She would rescue the young boy and become a mother once again.

      Leaving her guest to fend for the bill, Irena got up and marched across the street. She approached the boy with such fierce determination it was unclear to him as to whether she intended to hug or kill him. Soon it became evident. Like a lioness protecting her pride, Irena Reyes gathered the dirty boy by the neck- not with her teeth, but by her arms – and brought him tight to her chest. She whispered in Diego’s ear, You will never have to worry again, my son.

                                                                       * * *

     Diego was a difficult child, there was no disputing it. For weeks, he sat in his new room at the Reyes’ household, never once coming out for a meal. He refused to sleep in his bed, insisting on curling up on the floor in the corner of the room. Day and night, he banged on the wall with his fists. Irena had no idea what he wanted but remained patient. She knew she had the rest of her life. And then one day, for no apparent reason, Diego came out of his room, walked out of the house and got in the car. He still did not say a word. Not knowing what else to do, Irena Reyes got in and drove the mute boy around the city. He seemed indifferent to the sites she chose and neither nodded his head nor shook it when she asked if a specific place pleased him. Finally, she got tired and drove him to her husband’s dance studio. Diego got out, and walked straight in the door.

      In the famous ballet studio, the boy found himself staring slack-jawed at the dancers, not with lust, but with an unspoken desire. He began to bark in loud, throaty fits like a beagle that had its voice box removed. The women held still. He barked again. They made faces at one another and turned away from the boy so that they could continue with their exercises. He barked again.

      Irena thought of intervening, but her husband Ignacio Reyes waved her off. Esperate, he mouthed to her from the far corner of the studio. And without warning, Diego fell to the floor. He rolled back and forth, shaking his head as the women practiced their plies above him. Irena Reyes wondered if he might be having an epileptic fit, but soon dismissed the idea when he got up and walked over to the far corner of the studio. Diego untied the colorful scarves from the studio’s barre and twirled them into unique configurations, much like a balloon artist at a street fair. He then ran around the studio, jumping high into the air and sliding along on the studio floor, while the luminescent scarves trailed behind him.

      The ballerinas tried not to stare, but how could they not? They had never experienced such an intrusion during their formal practice. Together they watched Diego in the wall-length mirror. Some tittered. Some whispered to one another. And some looked to Ignacio Reyes for intervention. But, one by one, each dancer found herself wrapped in one of the scarves and began following the boy’s silent but wild gesticulations. Without so much as a word, they understood Diego’s choreography perfectly. They skipped. They danced. And they slid along the floor with the scarves billowing behind them, just as the boy had just done moments before.

      Diego barked again when he saw how the sheer fabric caught the late-afternoon sunlight bouncing off the studio’s mirrors. When the light was at just the right angle and the women leapt high enough into the air, the trail of light that followed them was indeed exquisite. But it was, of course, more than that. The light carried the weight and intensity of luminescent exactitude in which Diego had only seen once before.

     When they finished, the dancers could not help but applaud, not for themselves, but for Diego. Irena Reyes and her husband ran to the boy. They held Diego in their arms, and it was the first time the boy smiled in a very long time. Diego didn’t say a word but held onto the necks of his new parents and barked with delight. Together, they laughed. Together, they cried. They danced in circles, never wanting to let go. When they finally did, they noticed the dancers were gone, so they put him down, shut off the studio lights and went home.

      That day, a decision was made not to enroll the boy in any of the local schools, public or private. None were good enough for their new son. They began Diego’s education solely within the studio walls. Diego learned math through the musical beats that accompanied the intricate dance numbers. He learned Latin and German from the opera records that bounced of the studio walls before the dancers arrived and after they left. Irena Reyes taught him how to write musical scores and each dancer took turns teaching him to read on their limited breaks. And with his adopted father, the famous choreographer Ignacio Reyes, Diego really began to understand the world.

      As Diego grew older, he and his father created a new form of entertainment based on Diego’s visions, combining the serenity of classical ballet and the intensity of modern dance. They travelled to old European cities where Ignacio took Diego to fine restaurants, cultivating his taste for exceptional food and rare wines. At museums and libraries, Ignacio taught Diego not only about the history of ballet but also the appreciation of the female body. Ignacio Reyes also taught Diego the prowess of becoming a man and paid for his son’s first encounter with a woman. And despite the fact that he never spoke a word again in his life, Diego did become an exceptional lover, like both his fathers. Though he never became a great poet like his father on the Villarreal line, the love of art was clearly in his blood. And eventually Diego Villarreal Reyes became a world famous choreographer in his own right, carrying on the legacy of his adopted father, well after Ignacio Reyes died a premature death from blindness and insanity brought on by an overworked pituitary gland.

     In the years after Ignacio’s death, Diego tried again and again to reproduce the glorious scene of his multi-colored men flying through the air in the form of dance, but somehow, it never came to fruition, even in the most famous classical dance halls around the world. Like the donated toys sent to him after the great earthquake, the formal stages were too limiting, too fabricated, and, perhaps, a little too flat. It wasn’t until he was approached by an old student of his father’s who had become the choreographer of a famous, inventive modern dance troupe that combined the arts of the circus, street performance and ballet, that Diego realized how to properly affect the image of his own cursed vision; the image that had consumed and clouded his mind ever since the earthquake of his youth. It was as though he had been saved yet again. It took forty-nine years for Diego to discover that he wasn’t incapable of recreating the scene of his multi-colored men flying through the air; he just needed the advantage of time.

      On opening day of the production El Maldito, sonorous music floated high above the dark stage, combining the right balance of mystical and ethereal horror that had haunted his youth. A single light from the top of the tent shone down on a small boy who was sitting cross-legged on his bedroom floor, playing with his plastic interlocking toys. Without warning, the theatre shook in violent fits. The music stopped and thirty floodlights lit upon an equal number of acrobats dressed in an array of colored, skin-tight, hooded unitards. Tied by invisible lines they simultaneously dropped from the rafters and hung in the air. Fantastic sweeps of colored fabric trailed through the air behind the suspended men. The boy, sitting in his stripped pajamas, looked up and smiled to them, and they smiled back. The boy pulled out a camera and held it to his eye. In the flash, the acrobats fell to the floor, with the long tails of fabric falling on top of them. Their fall was as fantastic as the loud crashing noise that followed. And then the theatre went completely dark.

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