The Origin of the Species

By Yuri Herrera
Translated by Lisa Dillman

“I won’t be locked up.”

“No.”

“And I won’t be in the crosshairs.”

“That’s right.”

“And I’m going to get a new identity.”

“Yes.”

He turned and eyed the meter and a half of mattress, coils, and nightstand where he’d been rotting since his arrest. More than the cot or the bare liver-spotted bulb dangling from the ceiling, what depressed him most was the fussy little plastic cover protecting the nightstand. From the corner of his eye he saw, once more, the baleful smile Agent Félix wore when no one was looking straight at him—it was as though the man himself disappeared entirely and all that was left were his sharp, pointy canines, glinting in the face of the world’s suffering. But still, he thought, how much more humiliated could he be?

“Let’s go then,” he resolved. “Que será, será.”

Agent Félix ordered him to throw his things together, he’d pick him up in the morning and take him to his new home and from there to his new job. It took him all of a minute to pack, tossing into a bag the three pairs of socks and two T-shirts the agent himself had brought after arresting him. It wasn’t as though he’d had a lot before; what he had was information, but when he gave them that he was left with nothing.

He turned off the light but it took him a long time to fall asleep, thinking and thinking about what name they’d give him, what city they’d move him to, and what it would feel like to feel the sun on his face after having been locked up for so long.

In the morning Agent Félix came to get him.

Only then did he discover that the room where they’d brought him weeks ago, a hood over his head, was in a rundown hotel called Scruples. He took it as a good sign that they didn’t blindfold him. But that was squelched by the sight of his new digs: a building as dilapidated as the other, only sans the sign that had spiffed up the first place’s façade. He was so small-time to them now that they hadn’t even relocated him to another city.

Agent Félix escorted him to his room on the third—and top—floor. It was a room hardly any larger and only nominally lighter than the last. On the bed lay the lifeless body of an enormous animal. He took two steps toward it, but before he could ask a thing, Agent Félix said:

“Get dressed. You don’t want to be late your first day,” and closed the door.

He approached. It was a bear costume, with lifelike claws but a cartoonish head—round, spongy, pink lips grinning idiotically. Sections of fur were gunked with who-knows-what bygone sweets or slime. He felt a rush of adrenaline, urging him: Escape any way you can, but it disappeared as soon as Agent Félix banged on the door: “Today, man!”

He put the costume on. It smelled of dust and sweat—not the kind of sweat that comes of one body tiring itself out with another body but a sweat like the secretion of a thing that squealed. He stuck his head inside the toy head and felt the air grow thick. Rather than fight it, he took a deep breath and walked out. The thing he noticed most when he began walking inside the animal suit was not that he felt ridiculous but that he felt truly safe, in a way that made him very, very sad.

Outside a van was waiting. And inside the van, five seated animals. A panda, a squirrel, a tiger, an elephant, and a duck. In silence. In he climbed. No one said a word on the way. Panda, in the passenger seat, turned to glance at him a couple of times. Panda’s huge head also had red lips, and he too looked happy. Or she. Tiger, behind him, was sniffling every once in a while. When they arrived, Agent Félix opened the door and said:

“Another day in paradise, you little creatures of the Lord.”

He let the others out, but before he could climb down, Agent Félix said:

“Don’t take that suit off all day. You want to eat, you got a zipper up top; you want to piss, you got a zipper down below. And you got not one damn reason to say a word to anyone. Got it?” and stepped out of the van without waiting for a reply and then, with a theatrical expression and that all-canine smile, said: “Run, boy, you’re free.”


It was an enormous adventure park, with swimming pools for the adults and splash pools for the kids, rides for the latter and an open bar for the former, small ball courts, large plasma screens, lawns clipped absurdly short, and canopies for shelter from the sun.

Their main job—his and the others—was to stroll among the tents, help the kids onto rides and make sure they didn’t crack their skulls. But they were also to applaud the mini-guests when they did something cute and to abide being kicked and tugged without complaint.

At one point that morning he looked up and saw his colleagues taking the staggering steps of beasts about to fall; he became excited at the idea of unzipping a zip to break the ban on communication and envisioned an interspecies orgy as a way to get even at the end of the workday: Mr. Panda mounting Mr. Tiger—or, who knows, Ms. Panda on Ms. Tigress—Mr. Elephant and Ms. Squirrel in a sixty-nine largely hindered by evolution, their genitals the only thing out in the open air, just roaring and shrieking and trumpeting. He realized he was touching his cock through the suit and stopped when two kids pointing at him brought his reverie crashing down.

He was saved by the cries of a girl who fell from the parallel bars. The “mascot coordinator” approached and told them to pay more attention, he didn’t want to see any more patrons injured. He walked around with his ears pricked up and his nose on alert for a time, and then went to take a piss.

Outside the mascots’ bathroom he found a heavily made-up and very proper-looking woman swigging from a little bottle of cognac. The woman watched him for a moment, but it was almost by mistake: no sooner had she taken a swig than she stopped paying him any mind and kept drinking. Bear entered the bathroom, unzipped his zip and began to urinate. Suddenly he realized that there was a pair of feet in the stall at the end, in a vertical position. He backed up a bit and spied one father on his knees before another. The one standing glanced over at him, but also just for a split second, halfopening his eyes and then halfclosing them, unconcerned about the animal.


He left the bathroom. The cognac woman was gone. A bit further on was Mr. Duck, or Ms. Duck, smoking through his or her neck as if he or she had contracted emphysema in a pond. Duck inhaled the smoke and then tilted both necks back to blow it out. And said “Aah,” with each exhalation. Bear stood there a few minutes, his enormous arms at his side, watching her. Then went off to attend to the children.

At the end of the day, the “mascot coordinator” took them to a room with wooden benches and said, “Wait here.” Which is what they all did, sitting, panting, keeping quiet. What Bear had fantasized about earlier didn’t even occur to him. These were defeated animals.

Agent Félix arrived. He opened the door and stared at them from the doorway.

“So. Happy? Of course you are!”

In the van, Bear began to thrash inside his suit, legs twitching, skin on fire. He got up and hunched his shoulders, stretched his arms. Mr. Panda, or Ms. Panda, turned his or her head to him, his or her huge, inexpressive black-ringed eyes aimed in his direction.

“If you don’t take it off tonight when you go to sleep, it’s easier to get used to on the second day.”

Then Panda turned back and stared straight ahead.

Agent Félix was unperturbed at this exchange of words. Bear wanted him to turn, to look at him, to tell them off for talking. He couldn’t bear to picture the baleful smile on the other side of his head.

                                      

First published in Desastre Natural. RM, 2014. (Book published on the occasion of the exhibition Desastre Natural by Alberto Baraya & Jonathan Hernández at Casa del Lago, Mexico City, from September 2014 to Febraury 2015)


Yuri Herrera received his BA in Political Science at UNAM, his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso, and his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. His novel Trabajos del reino won the Premio Binacional de Novela Joven 2003 and received the “Otras voces, otros ámbitos” prize for the best novel published in Spain in 2008, and has been translated to French, German, Dutch and Italian. His second novel, Señales que precederán al fin del mundo was finalist of the Rómulo Gallegos Prize and has been translated into those languages too. He published in 2013 La transmigración de los cuerpos, which so far has been translated into German and Italian. He has taught literary theory, creative writing and Latin American literature at the Universidad Iberoamericana, and at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. He is currently an associate professor at the University of Tulane, in New Orleans. In March 2015 the British publishing house AOS published his novel Signs Preceding the End of the World.

Lisa Dillman translates from the Spanish and Catalan and teaches at Emory University in Atlanta. Recent translations include Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature by Christoper Domínguez Michael, Me, Who Dove into the World, by Sabina Berman, and Rain Over Madrid, by Andrés Barba. She co-translated Ed Halfon’s The Polish Boxer (with Daniel Hahn, Anne McLean, Ollie Brock and Thomas Bunstead) and his novel Monastery (with Daniel Hahn). Her translation of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was published by And Other Stories in March 2015 and her translation of his The Transmigration of Bodies is forthcoming in 2016.