Image credit: Wesley Reese - "Untitled Sculpture"

“Hey, it looks like the monsoons are here.”


A torrential downpour crashed down upon Panama from the depths of the heavens like transparent daggers threatening the land, all the way from the outlying streets down to Vía España. The murky water accumulated aimlessly along the asphalt borders, subconsciously fearing the pull of the drainage systems. The far-off breathing of the city—a parade of rumblings—was left hanging in the steam from the sidewalks, on the nape of the palm trees, on the bodies huddled below the awnings.


Visceral light, tawny as raindrops enveloped in the dusty air .... Muriel woke up. It was twelve in the afternoon. The open shutters swayed back and forth, tapping out a reluctant rhythm. The sheets weighed heavily upon his body. Slender shadows darted out from the table legs and silence muted his cough. Ana was already gone. Perhaps she would return in the afternoon, soaked to the bone, to saunter around in her housedress.


Muriel stretched out his arms and rested his hands atop his head. In almost no time, green flies began alighting on the grey map of his torso and the smell of his armpits overpowered the air. Emptiness: there was nothing to observe but the distant hills carved out by the dark knife of the day. Not a bird, not a single omen, only time entangled in a web of electric lines. Sluggish, he played around with the nonsensical musicality of his country’s jitanjáforas, those seemingly invented words that exist solely for their rhythmic beauty. The nation was full of them; they were the feet it rested upon:


          Alanje, Guararé, Macaracas, Arraiján, Chiriquí.

          Sambu, Chitré, Penonomé.

          Chicán, Cocolí, Portogandí … the country’s place names were a rhythmic defense.


When it stopped raining, Muriel woke up with a drenched forehead. He went to the closet to look for his shoes. He found them covered with a green grime, just like his books, which had become soggy and hard to read. On a plate, ice cubes languished. He pressed them firmly against his neck until his cough returned. Near the windows, the marbled plants had begun to recover, their arms wide open, speckled with red. Along with the plants and the sun, the dull hum of the city was coming back to life. Avenida Central’s paralyzing pulse, the route of divergent life, shooting through the delicate leaves that fell upon the newsstands of Santa Ana, drowning in a lemon-lime snow cone, hands on both banks of the Canal Zone, endlessly wearing down everyone’s nerves. With each bead of sweat, the din set Muriel’s head spinning.


At that very moment, Muriel felt an itch on his ass. Scratching it only made it worse. It was something more ... a lump that seemed independent from the rest of his body. A thirst for magic—or perhaps for medicine—made him jump out of bed. Who knows what tropical gargoyles might be poised to attack, born of flesh and blood, but like all others, stony in their spirit with a permanent sneer? There was daylight outside, daytime when darkness and oblivion were concealed in a light-hearted grimace. He would have to wait for night to think clearly, to feel the light and to infuse it with a beat. At nighttime, there was permanence: dances like the cumbia reigned, the tamborito folk music, the beat of verdant drinks, the incessant clinking of glasses, all of it replaced the never-ending traffic that circulated indifferently during the day. At night, interspersed with goodbyes, time existed.


Damn humidity! His fingers slipped over the swollen welt on his ass. It was impossible to rub or scratch it. And it grew. It grew into a medallion of puss until it exploded. Muriel got undressed and, with his back to the window, strained to see his reflection. Even the lightest of scratches would have enraged it and threatened to burst it open even more. Yellow and violet petals, a rod-like stamen of pollen, a bulbous stem: a flawless orchid of abandoned symmetry had been born, indifferent to the terrain on which it had sprouted.


An orchid was coming out of his ass! He felt like the landscape was sucking him in with sharp teeth, sinking its roots into the soil of his skin, pounding his head against the rocks until his eyes became a blind precipice.


But there were more practical problems to attend to. How was he going to put on his pants? Wouldn’t the flower be squashed to pieces? A jolt ran from the stem of the orchid throughout the entire length of his nervous system, graphing the flower’s life to that of his own. He didn’t have any other choice but to cut a small hole in the back of his pants so that the orchid could sprout forth and bloom in front of everyone. He was not in the least ashamed to go out in public dressed in such a way: prestige comes in all shapes and sizes. Since Carnaval was just a few months away, maybe people would mistake his dress for a sign of the festivities to come; perhaps they’d take it as a sartorial statement of joy. The fact is that the orchid sauntered with a comical sway before the blank stares at the Indian bazaars and among the stiff skirts and purple blouses of the blacks down in the Caledonia District who stared with the unblinking eyes of a serpent. The flower’s elegance did not fade despite the hours and hours he spent strolling through the heat of the day. In Coco Pelao’s cantina, Muriel wet the flower with coconut water and although its colors changed somewhat, it perked up jubilantly. But when its petals started cupping his ass, they kicked him out and sent him in the direction of Happyland. That night, Muriel danced like never before; the orchid bounced to the beat, its sap ran down his heels, it rose up to his chest, it dropped him to his knees, it excited him to the verge of passionate tears. From the root of the orchid came shrieking, tense waves like a litany. Chimbombó, my god! Chimbombó!.


          Chimbombó! Oh noble mulatto, suture my wounds,      

          join my hands.

          Oh Erendoró! Mend my womb, halt the hours,

          grant me a future.

          Let me weep Chimbombó, stem my laughter

          hasten my spirit,

          grant me peace.

          Allow me to speak in Spanish.

          Great Alambó!

          Silence the rhythm so that I may re-invent myself, 

          infuse my lungs,

          fill the floodgates with earth and flowers,

          don’t trade me for the moon, build bridges with my nails,

          strip me of this starry tattoo.



For some time, the orchid moaned on like this, and everyone—bawdy sailors, tourists, mulattas with their bouncing bosoms—they all admired the flower’s wistful beauty, its ticklish movements, and its colors that changed with each new song. The orchid was a treasure planted—at that moment, anyhow—in the greenhouse of his ass! On the other hand .... If this one had sprouted, why shouldn’t it germinate others, unique orchids in infinite variations? Orchids that could be put on ice and shipped by plane to thousands of cities where they’d wind up in the hands of women who still faithfully believed in courteous gestures.


Muriel took off running, huffing and puffing, from Happyland and didn’t stop until he reached his house. Ana wasn’t home yet. It didn’t matter. He undressed quickly, grabbed his sharpest knife, and with one fell swoop he severed the orchid and placed it in a vase with a little water. Almost immediately, a green lump began to form on his tailbone.


The first harvest! Twenty dollars each! There was nothing else to do but wait, stretched out in his bed where, between twelve and two each afternoon, a new one would bloom. Maybe they’d multiply exponentially—forty, eighty, one-hundred dollars a day.


And then, without warning, from the very place where he’d hacked off the flower, a prickly and splintery stake erupted. Muriel wasn’t able to scream; with a splitting crack, the stake tore through his legs, spilling blood forth, skewering his entrails, devouring his nerves, slowly yet deliberately splintering his very soul. Silence, emptiness. And there, in the light of dawn, Muriel lay split in half, impaled, his arms splayed out in opposite directions. In the almost dry vase, the petals of the withered orchid reflected a swell of light in Muriel’s dead eyes.


Outside, between the prepositions, Panama hung from its own teeth. Pro Mundi Beneficio.

—Mira, ve: ya empezó el invierno.


De las espaldas del cielo caía sobre Panamá un torrente de filos claros que escurrían, de la tierra herida en las calles adyacentes, a la Vía España. En la frontera de asfalto las aguas turbias se arrinconaban desorientadas, temiendo sin conciencia la succión del drenaje. Respiración lejana de la ciudad, marcha de rumores, quedaba suspendida en el vapor de las aceras, en el occipucio de las palmas, en los cuerpos estacionados bajos los toldos.


Luz visceral, amarilla como la lluvia al abrazar el polvo. Muriel despertó, eran las doce del día. Las ventanas abiertas se mecían hasta formar una esdrújula reticente; las sábanas caían pesadas sobre su cuerpo. Sombra corta de las patas de la mesa, y el silencio dominaba la tos del hombre. Ana ya no estaba; quizá volvería en la tarde, mojada, a pasearse en su cáscara floja.


Muriel extendió los brazos y colocó sus manos sobre la cabeza. Entre los minutos, moscas verdes visitaban el mapa gris de su torso, y los sobacos vencían al aire. Vacío: sólo observaba las lejanas colinas, recortadas por la navaja oscura del día. Ni un pájaro, ni un presagio. Únicamente tiempo enredado en la maraña de electricidad. Jugaba con lentitud a la jitanjáfora: el país estaba poblado de ellas, eran como sus pies ...


          Alanje, Guararé, Macaracas, Arraiján, Chiriquí.

          Sambu, Chitré, Penonomé ...

          Chicán, Cocolí, Portogandí ... Ese ritmo era una defensa.       


Cuando escampó, Muriel se levantó con la frente empapada. Fue al closet a buscar sus zapatos; estaban cubiertos de un limo verde, igual que sus libros, reblandecidos, resistiéndose a que se les leyera. En un plato, quedaban cubos de hielo agonizantes; los colocó sobre su pescuezo, y apretó duro, hasta que le volvió la tos. Cerca de las ventanas, las plantas jaspeadas volvían a hincharse, sus brazos abiertos picoteados de rojo. Con ellas, renacían el sol y el lento pulular: diástole paralítica de la Avenida Central, línea de la vida divergente, disparada por la hojas frágiles sobre los kioskos de Santa Ana, ahogada en un raspado de limón, manos en las dos orillas de la Zona del Canal, estirando los nervios hasta no alcanzarse. Los murmullos tornaban a la cabeza de Muriel con el cuentagotas del sudor.


En ese momento, sintió Muriel la comezón en la rabadilla. Rascarla, la acrecentaba. Era algo más... una bola que parecía cobrar autonomía del resto del cuerpo. Una sed de magia, o de medicina, le hizo saltar de la cama, ¡quién sabe qué gárgolas tropicales podrían invadirlo todo, fabricadas de carne, pero, como las otras, pétreas en su espíritu y su risa permanente! Era el día, el día que en una mueca alegre reservaba la tiniebla y la cancelación. Habría que esperar la noche para reconquistar los testimonios, para sentir la luz y derramarla con ritmo. En la noche estaba la permanencia: la cumbia fijaba, el tamborito, copa de latidos vertiente, el eco incesante de los vasos, eliminaban el tránsito sin fin que en silencio corría durante el sol. En la noche, había tiempo entre los adioses.


¡Maldita humedad! Los dedos le resbalaban sobre la hinchazón, no era posible apresarla y rascarla. Y crecía, crecía hasta estallar, medallón de poros líquidos. Muriel se desnudó completamente, y con la nuca torcida, fue a reflejarse de espaldas al cristal. Ya no era posible rascar sin ultrajes, y al segundo, sin quebrar: los pétalos de amarillo y violeta, el metal informe del polen, el tallo bulboso: había nacido una orquídea, perfecta, de abandonada simetría lánguida en su indiferencia al terreno de germinación.


Orquídeas en la rabadilla. Sentía que el paisaje lo mamaba con dientes de alfiler, hundiendo las raíces del suelo en su piel, amasando su cerebro contra la roca hasta hacer de sus ojos un risco ciego.


Pero había problemas prácticos a los cuales atender. ¿Cómo ponerse los pantalones? ¿La flor, convertida en pasta? Del tallo de la orquídea al centro de sus nervios corría un dictado que soldaba la vida de la flor a la suya propia. No tuvo más remedio que recortar un círculo en la parte trasera del pantalón, para que la orquídea brotara públicamente por él. Así decorado, no tuvo empacho en salir a la calle: hay formas del prestigio que lo abarcan todo. A varios meses del Carnaval, quizá se le confundió con una condición suspensiva; acaso, se le consideró una nueva modalidad de la alegría. El hecho es que la orquídea paseó, en un vaivén gracioso, ante la mirada blanca de los bazares hindúes, entre las faldas tensas y las blusas moradas de los negros de Caledonia, sin más furia que el ojo de una serpiente. Horas y horas, en un paseo caluroso que no parecía mermar la fresca galanura de la flor. En la cantina del Coco Pelao, Muriel la roció de pipa; la flor cambió de colores, pero se esponjó gozosa, sus pétalos abrazaron las nalgas del hombre, lo sacaron de la cantina, lo empujaron hasta la puerta del Happyland. Esa noche, bailó Muriel como nunca; la orquídea marcaba el son, sus savias corrían hasta los talones del danzarín, subían al plexo, lo arrastraban de rodillas, lo agitaban en un llanto seco y rabioso. De la raíz de la orquídea salían chillando ondas tensas como una letanía:¡Chimbombó! ¡Chimbombó!


          ¡Chimbombó! cierra mis heridas, junta mis manos,

          erendoró, cicatriza mi vagina, detén las horas,

          dame un porvenir,

          dame una lágrima Chimbombó, detén mi risa,

          apresura mi fantasma,

          hazme la quietud,

          déjame hablar español,


          mata el ritmo para que me cree, une mis pulmones,

          llena de tierra y flores las esclusas,

          no me vendas por la luna, haz de mis uñas puentes,

          quítame el tatuaje de estrellas.



Así gemía la orquídea, y todos—marineros verdes, turistas, mulatas de conos rebotantes—admiraban la belleza triste de la flor, sus movimientos de cosquilla, sus cambios de color con cada pieza musical. ¡La orquídea era un tesoro, plantado hoy en el invernadero de su rabadilla, pero ...! Si ésta había florecido, ¿por qué no podrían germinar más, y más, únicas, en mutaciones sin límite? Orquídeas que saldrían congeladas, en avión, a las mil ciudades donde aún quedara una mujer con fe en las insinuaciones corteses.


Muriel salió corriendo del Happyland, jadeante, sin parar hasta su casa. Ana no había regresado. Poco importaba. Rápidamente, se desnudó y tomó la navaja; sin vacilación cortó de un tajo la orquídea y la plantó en un vaso de agua. Del hueso apenas brotaba un muñón verde.


¡Primera de la cosecha, a veinte dólares cada una! No le quedaba sino esperar, tendido en la cama, a que diariamente, entre doce y dos, floreciera una nueva. Acaso nacerían multiplicadas—cuarenta, ochenta, cien dólares diarios.


Y entonces, sin aviso, del lugar exacto en que la flor había sido cercenada, brotó una estaca ríspida y astillosa. Muriel ya no pudo gritar; con un chasquido desgarrante, la estaca irrumpió entre sus piernas y ya aceitada de sangre, corrió, rajante, por las entrañas del hombre, devorando sus nervios, lenta y ciega, quebrando en cristales el corazón. Ya no hablar, ya no describir. Y allí amaneció Muriel, partido por la mitad, empalado, sus brazos crispados en dos direcciones. Los pétalos de la orquídea marchita en el vaso seco, reflejaban en los ojos muertos de Muriel un lento oleaje de luz.


Afuera, entre las preposiciones, Panamá se colgaba de los dientes a su propio ser. Pro Mundi Beneficio.

"Letanía de la orquídea", LOS DÍAS ENMASCARADOS © 1954. Carlos Fuentes and Heirs of Carlos Fuentes

Translator's Note

“Litany of the Orchid” is arguably one of Carlos Fuentes’ (1928-2012) least known short stories and perhaps understandably so. At first glance, it bears little resemblance both in tone and style to such seminal works as La región más transparente (1958; Where the Air is Clear) and La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; The Death of Artemio Cruz). Instead, “Litany of the Orchid” appears to be a strangely hermetic text that delves gratuitously into the fantastic with an exuberance in word selection that seems over-the-top in Spanish (and consequently in the English translation as well). The neo-baroque vocabulary, flamboyant descriptions, and stylized prose come across as a parody of the Modernists or, at best, as the early attempt of a young writer who had yet to find his voice. Perhaps that is why this story has not received a significant amount of critical attention and, by extension, why it has yet to be translated and anthologized. Upon a first reading, it might be dismissed as an irrelevant story that wantonly delves into a peculiar world and lexicon. The opposite is true however; in typical Fuentes’ fashion, he has purposefully deceived us.

Simply put, the esoteric language serves to camouflage the unfolding of an allegory. To decipher the story’s purpose, it is necessary to situate it within its collection: Los días enmascarados (1954; The Masked Days) – Fuentes’ first volume of writing. The twenty-six-year-old Fuentes tackles the theme of vengeance in each of the six stories, in particular the vengeance that is the result of betraying one’s environs. For example, the most widely known story from the collection – “Chac Mool” – relates the ensuing wrath of an anthropomorphic deity after the protagonist desecrates a pre-Colombian relic, albeit one bought in a tacky tourist market. In each story, then, a character fails to pay sufficient homage to a greater-than-life force and in the end succumbs to the wrath of the gods. Similarly, in “Litany of the Orchid” Muriel’s orchid stands as an uncanny metaphor for the Panama Canal. Once the allegory is decoded – a feat made purposefully more difficult by Fuentes’ stylized language – the story’s hermetic message becomes clear: Muriel has attempted to exploit his native culture and must pay the price. The cautionary tale and polemic of the Panama Canal may seem trite today, but for Fuentes the story likely had special significance. As the son of a diplomat, he was born in Panama (not Mexico) and, even though he only spent his first months there, he returned often during the 1950s when his father was ambassador.

Jeffrey C. Barnett


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