Ceniza: Dead Language
He says hello but the security guard outside McDonald’s, to his surprise, hears buenas tardes and smiles with delight at the gringo. David Bennet strolls into the fast-food chain, cheerfully greeting people in English, knowing they hear him in Spanish. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed gringo startles people but their surprise becomes instantaneous delight when he converses with them about the latest Barcelona win and golazo free kick Messi scored.
Everywhere he goes, everywhere he went, David found that he spoke each language and every local dialect of all the regions in the world. After twelve months, since discovering this ability to speak anyone's native language in English, his passport now reads like a novel. David didn’t question how or why this happened because it was such entertainment for him—plus he didn’t need to learn a single verb.
After backpacking through Europe and Asia, the tail of his journey is wrapping up with a stop in Colombia during carnival season before venturing further south to Argentina and ending in Mexico DF. France, Germany, Switzerland, China, Japan, Thailand, and everywhere between he spoke easily with locals—David speaking and hearing in English, and his friends of the road hearing in their tongue. David loves it because it makes things easier with women and helps when trouble is brewing. Ever since taking a sabbatical from his job twelve months ago, David loved every second of this newfound language skills.
Waiting in line at McDonald’s, chatting with a Barranquillera more mesmerizing than Shakira, the family ahead of him finishes giving their order and steps to the side.
“Here’s my number. If you know any local guides, I'm here until Carnaval’s over.” David grins and hands the mujer a scrap of paper. Winking, he steps up to the counter and smiles at the cashier.
“Hi! How’s it going?” He greets the young woman, Chía, the nametag on her left reads. “I’ll take a quarter pounder with cheese, large fries, and a coke.” David glances over the menu, and satisfied, finishes.
Chía looks at him, horrified, her face contorted like a statue.
“That’s all.” He clarifies and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a fifty thousand peso. Holding it out to the terrified woman, she remains frozen. David leans closer and waves the bill in front of her face. “Hello? Are you ok?”
Chía blinks, her eyes wide and eyebrows creating lines in her forehead. “No one has spoken that language in centuries.” She shudders, swallowing a lump in her throat.
“I’m sorry?” David frowns.
“You speak a language that’s been cleansed from this world.” Chía collects her mandíbula off the floor and shakes loose the cobwebs, seeing things more clearly. “I see you.” Her lips curl and she lowers her gaze.
“I see you, too. But when did Spanish die?” David’s tone rises at the end.
“That’s not Spanish.” Chía punches his order into the terminal and takes his money, quickly returning his change.
“Then?” David pockets the monedas.
“If you really want to know, my shift ends in an hour. Wait for me, there’ll be more things.” She turns away from her station and helps package fries. David steps to the side with his receipt, waiting on his order, shocked by Chía’s reaction, wondering if she's messing with him. She calls out his order sets his tray on the counter, and goes back to her terminal without another word.
Curiosity snatches David like a hand clutching a cat behind its head, so he takes his time eating. When Chía’s shift ends, she waves at him to follow, which he does after dumping his food in the garbage and leaving his tray on top.
“So what do you—” David starts but Chía holds a finger to her lips.
“This is the only time I have to prepare, and I’ve been up since four A.M. Please leave me in peace until we get there. I promise you’ll understand better.” Chía continues walking in the street, fearless of the cars and motos speeding centimeters past her shoulder. A few blocks down, she pulls out her phone and connects her headphones. They catch a bus that barely stops and are lucky to find that the air conditioning is working, as well as two open seats. The bus travels south, collecting riders throughout the coastal city, hopping onto the circunvular for a short while before venturing southwest away from the city out into the campo. Houses and buildings quickly give way to kiosk stands lining both sides of the road, and soon the kiosks fade with the sun, replaced by palms and a million different species of dense fauna. Little by little, the bus empties as it reaches the limit and finally, after close to three hours, they reach the end of the line with the sun shrinking in the sky.
“Here.” Chía gets up and jumps off the bus before it comes to a complete stop. The road became unpaved long ago, and now the path is worn undergrowth with a soul patch between the wheel ruts that have ground the dirt. Up ahead is a turn off that the bus uses to go back to the city, but David and Chía follow it into the woods, the sun disappearing, darkness and shadows cast on them by a treacherous ocean of trees that devour them like a Goliath wave capsizing a vessel. They hike several kilometers into the jungle, the sun now fully beyond the western horizon, and finally come upon a hut with a torch burning out front. Leaves form the conical roof are supported by bamboo bound in a natural cord.
Outside the door, Chía takes off her headphones, wiping her feet and performing some gesture unknown to the developed world. Not quite a sign of the cross but definitely something hypnotic. Above the door, David notices a gigantic bull skull with horns extending three meters. Chía unlatches the door and David steps up on the porch to follow her.
“Wait.” She drives her hand into his chest. David stops, putting his hands in his pockets and sitting at the edge of the porch while she goes inside. When she comes back, she’s got a palm in one hand and a burning bundle of sage in the other. Chía shushes David before he can say anything and she circles him four times, gently brushing the palm across his body and waving the sage around in mystical patterns, smoke trailing the flame hanging beside the door and fading in the black night. While she does this, David feels his shoulders tense and his butt clench.
“Come, come.” Chía invites with her hands. They enter the hut and close the door behind them. Inside, there's no electricity but the poorly lit dwelling is illuminated by several candles. Though it’s much bigger than David thought, there’s only one room other than the main gathering area; a kitchen facing southwest. The main room seems like a hermit or shaman’s workshop, tables placed randomly throughout the massive room and littered with papers, full test tube racks, and bones and skulls. Lining the walls of the entire circular room are rows of shelves extending from just above the dirt floor until the cantilever platform where hammocks sway in a soft breeze. David drinks in the room, squinting to try and identify the hundreds of jars and shadowy objects overflowing from the shelves. A fruity aroma comes from the kitchen, overwhelming the varying sticks of incense scattered on the desks throughout the open, airy room. At the apex of the circular roof, David glances up at a hole where moonlight streams in at an angle.
“Sit.” Chía opens her arms and signals at a hand-woven chair. David smiles, his heart racing, and sits. Chía vanishes through beads that seal the kitchen away and returns with a tray, helping an elderly man draped in a dark poncho and sombrero. She sets the tray on a nearby table and seats the old man in his chair, behind a desk, across from David. Grabbing the tray of drinks, she serves their guest and the old man, saving a wood cup for herself.
Across from him, the old man’s head hangs low, his brusque features hidden. Covering his head is a sombrero volteado, strung using black and beige materials. Holding the wood cup, his hands shake violently, spilling a few drops of the steaming liquid. David takes a wood cup in his hands and lifts it to his lips but the old man jumps, giving David a heart attack, lifting his face so David can see his grey eyes. He slowly shakes his head and reclines back in his chair. David starts to speak but the old man mimics Chía’s gesture from outside. She returns with her drink and a hollowed out block of wood containing burning leaves, the smoke dancing through the hole overheard.
“I said you speak a language that’s been dead for centuries.” Chía drags over a chair.
“Yes, but how do you speak it?” David’s toes tap anxiously.
“We speak it because it was our ancestor’s native tongue. But we are rarely able to speak and understand it. That is unless our ancestors open a door to our world.” Chía nods at the old man and they drink.
“So, what, it’s like dependent on the seasons or moon phase?” He sips the warm liquid and nearly spits it out. “What is this?”
“Fermented corn and fruits.” She takes the old man’s hand in hers. “As for when the portal opens, it’s dependent upon nothing but the spirits. The question, however, remains; how do you know this language?”
David explains that one day about a year ago, he woke up and discovered he could speak anyone's native language, as far as what the person heard, while still speaking English. This draws interest from the old man, the whites of his eyes clearer as he leans toward Chía and whispers in her ear, his eyes fixed on David.
“How did your people’s language die?” David sips, cringing when the warmth touches his tongue.
“We were cleansed.” She leans closer to the old man.
“Cleansed?” David feels a rush of blood in his face, his lips and tongue tingling, nose itching.
“And you have encountered no others who speak our tongue?” Chía puts her arm around the old man.
“You’re the—whoa. This is some strong liquor.” David falls back in his chair.
“First time you’ve tried chicha?” She snickers and sips.
“No, yes. No, i mean. Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve tried it and no, I haven't met anyone else who speaks your language.” David’s head is spinning like he’s riding the Gravitron and he tries to focus on a single object but it’s too dark for his eyes to fixate on a focal point.
“Good.” Chía grins. The fit of vertigo makes the bones above her eyebrows appear as horns, her cheekbones tightening at the edge of her face. David looks to the old man and gasps. The elder no longer sits in his chair but looms over them larger than the statue of Christ the Redeemer guarding Cali.
“Wha—what’s going on?” David sways, his eyes rolling and refocusing constantly. The old man, the now massive figure roars his head back, booming with laughter.
“Things are exactly as they should be.” Chía says, glowing in a red aura. Breathing heavily, panicking, David looks around the room as all the objects from the shelves animate and creep down. Animal skeletons—iguanas, eagles, jaguars, and more—surround them on the floor or scale the walls to the peak of the conical roof, an echo chanting from them that grows like the moon reaching the open hole at the apex.
“Why is an iguana humping that eagle?” David points at the wall to his right, craning his neck at a very uncomfortable angle.
Chía and the old man laugh so violently that the hut and ground shake. “You didn't think you slept one night and divined powers of language, did you?” She leans closer to David, who’s examining his hands like an infant first discovering its appendages. “You were chosen. I don’t know how or why but our ancestors understand more things in heaven than Earth can dream of, and I don’t question what appears before my eyes, for it is. The very nature of what it is, like you and your lack of desire to understand why you speak others’ language, does not appeal to me. It fits neatly in a jar on the shelf.” She glances up at the moon filling the opening in the roof. “Our time grows short.” Chía polishes off her drink.
“Di—did you drug me?” David asks, blinking widely, trying to hold his stare on something, anything that will keep his feet on the ground.
“You’ll find out soon enough.” She looks up at the gigantic old man, his sombrero nearly blotting out the starry sky. He turns toward the wall where the iguana eagle were fucking, David following his gaze, and plucks an egg from beneath the two, decaying skeletons.
“You have seen much,” the old man booms, holding the large egg at his heart. “But you know little.”
Swaying unsteadily, David watches two Chía’s place a metal bucket under his chair. “You and your sister are beautiful, y’know?” He reaches for her but misses and almost tumbles to the ground.
“Te veo pero no te entiendo.” Ella responde.
David doesn’t understand her and frowns. The old man’s head rears back, the sound of his laughter trembling the stars. Reclined in the chair like he’s getting a straight blade shave, David watches the old man shrink to normal size, uncovering the moon as a shimmering, metallic blade flashes before his eyes and draws across his neck.
It doesn’t take long for David’s gargling to silence and give way to the coqui croak of frogs in the dense Colombian jungle.
The old man gently sets the egg in a ceremonious golden cup placed on an ornate table directly below the open apex and fading moon. Chía escorts him to a chair in the shadows and covers him in a blanket before climbing the ladder to his left and resting in a hammock, the egg incubating in the soft ivory of the moon.