“The Mandrill’s Smile” – Fiction by Michael Díaz Feito

Mandrill – Franz Marc, 1913

Jealousy & paranoia possess a married couple in “The Mandrill’s Smile,” Michael Díaz Feito‘s demonically dysfunctional short fiction from our Winter 2019 issue.

{ X }

PRESSURE IN THE NIGHT. There was a foreign presence, a stuttering breath in the drywall and a pulse in the warm carpet, and then the shock of shattered glass: A window broke in the bedroom upstairs where Lily slept. Helio jumped, rising from a jumble of half-conscious worries and from the couch where he’d been dozing off, bathed in the muted TV’s blue light. What’s his name, the monkey. He crossed the living room of the small townhouse in three paces, crouched by the staircase, and listened for another suspicious sound, or for his wife’s reaction.

Quiet. Nothing moved in the darkness at the top of the stairs. Helio knew that nothing without knowing and climbed toward it. He joined it and couldn’t see his legs or his feet in it. With each step, he felt weaker, like his knees might give, and his heart drummed faster, because he was so scared of it. The monkey wants to hurt our marriage. His hands tightened into fists. Sweat pooled on his back. It was hotter upstairs.

Helio’s eyes adjusted. Shards of glass glittered on the bedroom’s carpeted floor, and the night, jaundiced by a single streetlight, pressed through the broken window, as did the fronds of a royal palm. Lily wasn’t in their bed. She wasn’t in the room. But there was something else. A crib composed of bamboo slats rocked beside the bed. It shook because a shadowy baby shivered and kicked within it. The baby was a dense oval of darkness, and it seemed featureless, except for a curled upper lip, which exposed broad, flat, gleaming teeth.

It disgusted Helio. It wasn’t his baby. He retched and hid his face, afraid to look again, and dropped to his knees. His body went slack, releasing tension in spasms as he began to understand what he didn’t understand. Yes, it was a home invasion. The offender was demonic. It violently mocked him with those big teeth. And Lily, wherever she hid, had invited it. Why would she do this. Helio sobbed and pleaded with the bedroom.

A noise boomed outside. It moved closer. Soon it rustled the palm fronds, then the window’s shattered glass, and then the bedsheets. It became like a law-giving voice, which could have been the smiling baby’s, reverberating from the crib. Where your wife is, it seemed to say. I am that I am. Who she’s with. We are that we are. Do you?

{ X }

A flourish of bells announced an urgent email that arrived when Lily left for work in the morning. The couch whined as Helio rolled over and, wincing from a sore neck, groped for his phone. It should always be in hand. But it lay under the couch where it had slipped, released late in the night when his hand, upheld for insomniac scrolling and refreshing feeds, had reluctantly opened with sleep. He wiped away lagañas and squinted at the screen.

His employer had sent the email without a subject, so Helio’s gut tensed with dread. A typically curt message prefaced the PDF attachment:

See client language. Clean up and add to SB. Need today now.

Lily’s mug, refilled and steaming, sat on the coffee table beside Helio. Like most mornings, happy or not, she had left it there for him to finish. A little gesture of affection as they passed each other across opposite schedules. It’s a temporary distance, he thought. Debts to pay. He took a sip of her dark coffee and locked his phone, putting off the attachment and work until the caffeine hit.

He tasted blood first. Rust in the coffee. The hot sting of the cut came next. He spit into the mug, hooked a finger behind his lip, and picked out glass. Holding Lily’s mug out as if it were dangerously alive, he then ran to the kitchen and dumped the contents into the sink. Slivers of glass, rose- and amber-stained by blood and coffee, gleamed as the steel sink drained.

Dumbfounded, Helio stared at these sharp pieces of tinted light. A feeling of having been here before—and very recently—overtook him. A foreign pressure, a pulse in the drywall. The glass and the teeth. The monkey wants blood. His wounded lip hummed in sympathy with this odd feeling.

Another round of bells broke the spell. Now it came from Lily’s phone, however, which he found vibrating, abandoned on the pale Formica countertop. She’d likely forgotten it. Why would she do this? There were six text messages from her coworker. No, her accomplice. It was an American name Helio recognized but could not match to a face, having never met the successful man. Nonetheless, he imagined a white man with straight hair and the kind of easily smooth skin that provoked his hatred.

He read the texts.

{ X }

They’re laughing at you. It was raining when Helio faced his work. Unbathed and still undressed, he sat with his laptop at the kitchen table. In his headphones, Manitas de Plata scraped gypsy arpeggios, violent red and melancholy, and beyond the laptop’s bright screen, outside the window and along the broad street of the suburban gated community, palm trees of every kind—coconuts, royals, sabals, dates—thrashed in the afternoon downpour. Lizards took shelter in the window shutters.

The PDF had held the legislative desires of a new client, the Defense of Religious Liberty Network. Helio edited their desires into an amendment to Senate Bill 45, which would go to committee in Tallahassee the next day. He cut and pasted from the Florida Statutes, striking old language to be eliminated and coloring it red, and typed the client’s words in green text, underlined. When it was done, he would forward the amendment to their senator’s personal email, and within 24 hours, stream live video of her introducing it.

The next change surprised him, however. He hesitated before typing it. Provoked by a sudden electric sensation, he looked over his shoulder. He removed his headphones and checked the room for something hidden and omniscient, in which he now briefly believed, because the proposed text seemed too familiar—and too fitting. It reflected the wild jealousy of that morning. He shuddered. It was wrong. But resistance, calling his employer and saying no, was unthinkable.

The solid drone of the rain grew louder. It divided into a choir of different tones, as if to soothe Helio and whisper reassurance. Debts to pay. I am that I am. Lily will stop. Then his uneasy feelings passed, and he wrote the following as instructed by the monkey, quoting Article 324 of the Napoleonic Code of 1810 and its influential Islamic descendant, Article 188 of the Ottoman Penal Code of 1858:

Section 6. Section 782.03, Florida Statutes, is amended to read:

782.03 Excusable homicide.–

(1) Homicide is excusable when committed by accident and misfortune in doing any lawful act by lawful means with usual ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent, or by accident and misfortune in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, without any dangerous weapon being used and not done in a cruel or unusual manner.

(2) In the case of adultery, homicide committed upon the wife or female unlawful, as well as upon her accomplice, at the moment when they have been caught in the fact, either in the house where the husband and wife dwell or in an unlawful bed, is excusable.

{ X }

   “So he failed the test,” Lily said, “relapsed, fucked up.” She spoke to her car, which was parked behind the bank where she worked on US 1 and SW 152nd Street. She was exhausted by the 9-to-5 day, and her feet were sore from standing throughout it, and she had skipped lunch to answer emails and finish paperwork, so she had been slumped in the car—watching the rain and eating baby carrots from a Ziploc bag, steadying her nerves for the heavy traffic of the commute home and emptying herself with sighs—when it had become possessed by a demon and told her about Helio’s conspiracy.

Now the unnamed demon of the car spoke again via the satellite radio. It responded that Helio had indeed given in to animal instinct, despite Lily’s charitable effort to reform him over the years. It was a stilted voice, foreign but not hesitant, and a harsh rasp in the speakers demon-strated the typical disdain that the disembodied hold for the fleshly.

“Don’t call it that,” Lily said. “It isn’t animal instinct. It’s sick jealousy. Don’t shift the blame.” She loved animals. She aspired to be as honest as them. She even kept a Saint Francis of Assisi prayer card in her wallet, wedged between the debit and credit cards, because of the hopeful picture of birds praying around the tonsured mendicant.

The demon continued, “He’s guilty of so much. He’d corrupt your laws, in coordination with Christian fanatics and NRA megadonors, just because the monkey has convinced him that you’re cuckolding him, or leaving your coffee out for that American, too. Justice has slept. Will you wake it up? Think of your friends. Think of what your friends will think.”

Me cago en la mierda,” Lily said. “Pero like don’t I do enough already? I’ve got to go buy gas and take my mother to the pharmacy and pick up the groceries and pay my dental bills and…and wake up justice. Okay, fine. I’ll fix it.”

The rain stopped as she finally pulled up to the house. Putting off the predictable fight with Helio for another moment, she crossed the driveway to check the mail, and the sun revealed itself. Humidity clung to her like a torn web, because her air-conditioned skin quickly heated outside the car. She got the urge to peel away layers. She slipped out of her shoes and stretched her bare feet on the wet pavement.

What did you expect? To come home to an easy smile? The mailbox was empty. Near it, however, was a new pothole, sunk like a deep pore in the otherwise perfect street. It held rainwater and reflected a pale sun and a green sky. This puddle sky was eerily familiar. It was like the evening sky of August 23, 1992, which had enthralled her as a kid. She had feared and understood that sky, and the birds fleeing across it, because it was the harbinger of Hurricane Andrew’s wrath. It was a communicative sky, and it had changed the city. Years before she knew him, little Helio had admired it, too. They shared that. It bundled them together at the waist, along with binding memories of bulldozed places, of embarrassing sunburns and mosquito bites, of uprooted mahoganies and ficus, of polluted beaches and battered windshields, and of the dead dogs and people whom their children—if they had had children—would never know. They wouldn’t have children.

Wake it up. A ripple in the puddle broke the reflection. It then swelled into a mass of iridescent wavelets. Cresting left to right, each shined a separate image. Together their sequence formed a hypnotic set of instructions, or a sentence. This process repeated, and Lily closely tracked it. A fair enough judgment for Helio. She had to enforce it.

The lights were off inside the house and the blinds were shut. The sudden dimness, in contrast with the newly bright outside, meant Lily couldn’t see clearly until her eyes adjusted, so she felt her way through the living room to the staircase. She called up to announce herself, but there was no response from her husband. Shifting from black to blue, the darkness of the second-floor landing came into focus. It was colder upstairs. The AC unit roared through the slats of the hall closet door.

Helio was in their bed. He had pulled the comforter over his head. He was hiding from her, but by the contours of the swathing fabric, detectable as a chain of darker pools in the gloom, Lily saw him. No peaks for the nose or chin, and no puffs of exhalation, so she determined that he lay prone, face burrowed in the pillow, which was not unusual when he felt ashamed. His lumpy shape seemed to quiver with tension. She kept a safe distance.

“Sleeping already?” she said. “Or you never got up? Well, you won’t hear my speech, I guess. I’ll give it anyway. Maybe you’ll get it this time. So, you found my phone—”

Her own scream interrupted her. It forced itself from her body, spiked to a sustained screech, and fell to a rumbly wheeze. In response, Helio twitched and kicked against the sheets. As Lily screamed again, the window by the bed exploded, knocking apart the plastic blinds and letting in the pastel light of the evening, and the royal palm reached through it to raise dewy fronds to the ceiling, where they hovered expectantly, hungrily. Then on command, when Lily’s breath scraped a final husky note, the bed began to digest Helio’s extremities. His shape shrunk beneath the comforter. His limbs shortened and plumped, and his head and torso, whining together, concentrated into one fat oval.

Wake it up. Their car alarm went off in the driveway. The demon of the car honked in approval of Lily’s enforcement. With this signal, her throat clenched, so that her vocal folds guillotined and suppressed a third scream, and it was over. Maybe now she could rest. Uncork a rioja and watch TV, a nature documentary. Regain her phone and levity in return. Text friends and laugh with them. Prepare for the next work day. But first she uncovered Helio, lifted his squirming body from the bed, stabilized his neck with a soft hand, cradled his scoliotic back, and kissed his head in a spiral terminating at the fontanel to seed a changed soul.

For a moment, while Lily set him in the crib by the broken window and went to change into cozier clothes, the baby laughed, flashing broad teeth in thanks. Then the branches of the royal palm dropped and eagerly gripped the crib. It extracted the monkey’s corruption from her house.

{ X }

MICHAEL DÍAZ FEITO is a Cuban-American writer from Miami, Florida. His recent work has appeared in Big Echo: Critical SFThe Operating System, and Strange Horizons. You can find more of Michael’s work at michaeldiazfeito.com and follow him on Twitter @diazmikediaz.

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