(This story came to me in a dream this morning, so I just wrote it down)
The Unmarked Woman
In one year the transformation was complete.
One year from then to now
One year from that to this
That man once had the power but with his curse he had given it to her
Let no one see you
That you should never leave this place
That you should be mine as long as I live
One year was all it took
to bring his little kingdom down.
El Baguetti was what they liked to call a “tribal chieftain”. It was their way of trivializing the “natives”, of painting them with the same broad brush they had used to brainwash their own people about who was inferior and who was the light of progress. Of course they had their own “nobles” and “lords” but didn’t see it the same way, didn’t see it was the same thing, didn’t see they were just as stratified, just as bureaucratic, just as hierarchical as the “locals” in the places they had conquered and owned and now couldn’t shake off when it was convenient for them. Chickens that came home to roost and while roosting made a mess of everything, demanding recompense, seeking revenge. El Baguetti was a “warlord” in their eyes and in the headlines of their news. To the people around him, he was just a made man, self-made in many ways, a man with power, a man who commanded respect. He had come, he had seen and he had conquered. What was so different about that? Why not call him Mister President?
Because of his outrageous use of violence? Because of his undeniable “social media savvy”? Because he knew how to use a fucking computer? Who did he think he was? A damn savage, that’s what. He had spies, he had informants, he used blackmail, he used torture, he was a bad guy, a seriously bad guy who did what all the bad guys did and as bound to pay for it in the end but not until he’d made everybody else as miserable as he possibly could. Must have been something about his childhood, and the ways his parents had treated him. Must have been something about his makeup, about the psychology, that maybe he was bullied as a child growing up on a heap of garbage in the middle of fucking nowhere. Most likely he’d been a failure, a loser, a weakling who needed to compensate for the incredibly tiny penis that hung from his otherwise impressive body. There had to be an explanation, an easy way to understand, to pigeonhole, to put him in his place. Or maybe he was just an asshole.
Maybe he was just an asshole who liked to boss people around and built his organization the old-fashioned way, by manipulating people and events as he found them, by making decisions that turned out to be right, by “surrounding himself” with talented minions, the best and the brightest as far as “those people” went. He could have been a CEO if given the proper circumstances, the right milieu, a bonafide education and a much lighter skin tone.
His main weapon was fuel. Fuel for the fire, as he called it. There were a few varieties. Literal fuel itself was one, and he cornered the market on that in his region, one source at a time, using thugs and connections to control one market after another, until everyone in the area had to come to him, had to buy from him, and in this way he secured their money, their loyalty, their sons and daughters worked for him, he became the big boss man. It wasn’t enough. Money was good and power was good but down at the root of it all the man needed fuel, and that was the only truth about him that mattered. Another fuel was simply the fact of using people, of having them at his disposal. He loved to burn right through them, and so he took one man and set him against another, then another man and yet another, and soon he had a whole company full of dependents hanging on his every word, busily attempting to decipher his whims and wants and wisps of will. He was the CEO in fact, of this organization that went by many names, some in the various local languages, and then others in all the languages of the world as his influence spread and his name became known.
El Baguetti was the name he was most known by in the end. It was an insult, a joke, a demeaning way of saying he was not an equal, not a real man, not a “world leader”, not a “force to be reckoned with”, but a lout, a creep, a jerk, an evil son of a bitch who deserved only one thing and that was to get the very same that he gave – a brutal, miserable and torturous death, the slower and more vicious the better. If they had simply blown him up that would have been too easy. He would have “gotten off lightly”. He had so enraged the world that nothing would be too bad to do to him, the cruel bastard. And it was true he had murdered. And it was true he had tortured. He had raped and enslaved. He had stolen and destroyed many lives. He was certain to die and of course he knew that. He wasn’t a fool. He was a man, and a man, every man, knows that he is going to die, and some men don’t mind taking as many with them as he can, because what the fuck, who gives a shit, it’s just life, it’s just people, and life sucks, people suck, just look what they do, just look what they’ve done.
“I grew up on a garbage heap,” he told her during one of the many long nights of her seemingly endless captivity. “You think I give a shit?”
She could have said the same thing, and at a later time she would have said exactly that. One year later she would have said exactly that, but on the first night, the night her first life came to a halt, she said nothing. She was too utterly terrified to say a single word.
She understood she had been marked. She had been seen, identified and selected. All of her life, from her happy suburban childhood in southern Indiana to her bustling college days at NYU, to her assignments overseas helping – as she saw it – feed the hungry people of the world, she had never known how she appeared, she had never seen herself as she was seen. She didn’t give a thought to what she wore. They were clothes, comfortable and fitting the occasion. She wore makeup, of course, but not very much, just enough to get by, to not stand out as one of those women who are making some sort of statement by NOT wearing makeup, which marked them just as much as those who did. A little bit of lipstick, something to highlight her lashes, which her mother had always made a fuss over. Those baby blue eyes stood out so well against the thick lush black of the lashes. She wore her brown hair medium length in a simple cut, a hint of bangs. She preferred dark colors, pea greens, denim blues, deerskin brown, but not real deer, nothing made of actual animals, never any fur despite the cold bleak winters of her youth. Her parents were conservative but solid, not mean of course but principled. They simply didn’t believe that anyone had a right to take any life, fetal or otherwise. And they kept some guns in the house just in case although they didn’t hunt and the only real valuables for miles around were in the jewelry store on main street.
Her name was Karen, Karen Folde, and she fit right in to where she was. She fit right in in high school, working on the newspaper, writing copy for the yearbook. She was pretty enough and smart enough and fit right on in. She had a boyfriend who took her to the senior prom but they only made out and didn’t go any further. It didn’t feel right. Not that she was “saving herself” or anything like that, but was determined to meet “the right guy” and do things the right way. It was no big deal. In college she was serious and her dedication was admired by her teachers and her fellow students, who looked to her to show the way and lead by example. She was a genuine leader, an excellent example and she did very well, well enough to land an impressive gig with the United Nations and get dispatched to various sites around the world where she could do good things for children in need.
This was when she first stood out, when she first became noticeable and noticed. She had a sense of that, of course. She had to learn the languages and in some places the customs were different enough that she felt lost and had to figure out what would be appropriate to wear, what would be allowed to say, where she could go, as a woman, of course because her compatriot men could seemingly go anywhere, do anything, and say whatever they liked. They didn’t have to wear particular robes or lower their gaze or stuff like that. But hey, when in Rome, they all said knowingly. She did her best to accommodate, adapt and adjust, but still she was marked. Those big baby blues said a lot, especially the way they stood out given those thick lush lashes.
It was her eyes that gave her away to one of El Baguetti’s spies, who’d been told he wanted a particular kind of fuel, a Western woman, a white woman, a non-governmental agency woman who would make for a decent little attention-getter. He had plans for her. He would use her. She herself was nothing, not Karen Folde, not from Indiana, not with parents, not with friends or even a potential boyfriend back home whom she’d kept on hold, kept waiting while she made up her mind if he was the “right guy” or not. She’d needed some time to think about that and time was up. She was captured. She was caught. It was over.
Everything about the next few days was more than a nightmare. It was everything bad. Blindfolded, tossed into a truck, knocked all around, beaten, bruised, kidnapped, raped, she had no idea where she was, who they were, all these men, or even El Baguetti, when they finally dumped her onto the floor in front of his makeshift throne and took off the blindfold and she could see him face to face, she had no idea who he was. Nobody seemed to know what he looked like. His nicknames were legendary but photos were rare. And he didn’t tell her who he was. He didn’t say much. He looked down at her, at her arms still tied behind her back and her ankles bound together, her outfit soiled and ripped, her pretty face battered and one big blue eye swollen shut, and he said,
“I grew up on a garbage heap.”
All she knew was that she was possibly worth something to this man, otherwise why had they not simply killed her. He was obviously the boss. She wondered if it mattered to him that she had already been raped, that they hadn’t delivered her all fresh and pure and virginal and all. Then she realized they already assumed she was a whore, being from where she was, the decadent civilization they despised so much. She was already impure from birth, and he later told her so. He lectured her in all sorts of matters, after he had had her cleaned up and bathed and dressed in fresh robes and this time raped her personally while mentioning that if she didn’t do exactly what he wanted he would slit her throat as readily as the fruit he was peeling at the time. She kept her eye on the blade he wielded, yearning only to grab it herself and in her dreams, or nightmares, all she ever did was slit all their throats as readily as he peeled that pomegranate or whatever the fuck it was.
They gave her just enough food and just enough water but over the next several days El Baguetti didn’t seem to know what to do with her. He might have discovered that she wasn’t worth very much money. Or maybe he’d demanded a ransom and been simply refused. Or maybe he had other priorities but it was only a few days, and maybe he just wasn’t that “into her” but one morning he decided he’d had enough of her presence, was bored with her company, or maybe she just wasn’t “the right one”, yet at the same time he never gave away anything once he possessed it, so his curse made sense in his own stupid way. He towered over her as she cowered shivering on the little cot he’d tied her to and uttered these words in some form of incantation, like he was a wizard or something. I’m telling you, this guy was full of himself. Power had gone to his head. He was a madman and was beginning to think he was a god. He said, and I fucking quote:
Let no one see you
That you should never leave this place
That you should be mine as long as I live
And it worked. She became invisible, like a ghost. She was still the same, still the same Karen Folde, had the same shape, the same size but she no longer had a body, no longer had a look. She could not be seen. She had become an unmarked woman, the only way a woman can be unmarked. Without a physical body, there was nothing to hold her down, and after he left her alone again she simply passed through her bonds and rose to her feet. She could walk on the ground, somehow, but she could not pass through walls, she’d be stopped by any barrier but she could go about the compound completely unseen. It was amazing. Nobody noticed her. Nobody grabbed her. Nobody saw her. But they could hear her. Somehow she could be heard. When she spoke, people were startled and turned their heads in her direction, then shook their heads as if they must have been dreaming. She determined to remain quiet and all she wanted at that point as to get the fuck out of there, so she walked through the rooms and down the hallways and through the open doors (she was unable to open any that were closed) and finally, after waiting for someone to go outside she went outside behind them and down the path and to the front gate but there she could go no further. Even when the gate was opened, she could not pass. She was stuck. She was trapped. She hadn’t been killed, she knew that. She was still alive and still a hostage but one without form, without substance, without a body.
If only that were true. She still did have a body, still a face, only it was shielded from their view, from everybody’s sight, but in time she discovered that although she did not need food and did not need drink, she still had certain bodily functions. In short, she was pregnant. This was in no way possible, of course, but it was true. Likewise impossible but true, there was one person who knew she was there, one besides El Baguetti, of course. He still saw her plain as day but paid little attention to her. He only grunted and groaned when he became aware of her presence. He was done with her, wanted nothing further to do with her, and acted as if she had already been dispatched to whatever next world he imagined there was.
He had some kind of imagination about that, because he had developed a sort of theology, as all mad men eventually do. His was a mishmash of local flavors, ancient screeds and mystical ramblings, and it involved bloodshed and manliness and an end to everything at some point when certain conditions would be fulfilled. He ranted on and on about this crap to his followers who wrote it all down and disseminated the nonsense as if it were gospel, which it was, because it was the very definition of “gospel”, the ravings of some disciples of some lunatic who somehow knew the core root truth of everything despite being an ignorant peasant who had grown up on a fucking garbage heap. Karen Folde listened to his ramblings from time to time when she became bored of trying to find a crack or a fissure in the defenses of the compound that would allow her formless form to slip through and get away. What she would do after that was anybody’s guess but first things first, she told herself, first things first.
It was another enslaved woman who could see her. This woman had a name that Karen could not easily pronounce, but somehow sounded like “Bob”, so she called her that and thought of her as that. Bob looked right at her and told her, one day when they were alone and Bob was doing some laundry,
“How is it they do not kill you? They don’t feed you. They don’t fuck you. They don’t make you do any work. Why don’t they just fucking kill you?”
Karen was shocked that Bob was not only looking at her and saying those things but also using the word “fuck” because she knew that the women around there were not allowed to.
“You can see me?” she asked.
“Of course I can see you” said Bob, “you’re standing right in front of me. Blocking the sunlight too, god damn it. It’s cold in your shadow.”
“Sorry,” Karen said, moving out of the way. “Is that better?”
“Better,” Bob snorted. “Better would be dead, don’t you think?”
“They rape you,” Karen said and Bob snorted again. Karen would come to find that Bob snorted a lot. She had a lot of contempt for things, for everyone, for life. She was not that different from El Baguetti. He was making her become like him. He had a knack for that. It was one of his “leadership qualities”.
“So why don’t they kill you?” Bob asked again.
“They can’t see me,” Karen told her. Bob didn’t believe her, but Karen proved it to her, and once she did, Bob became her friend and ally. It was Bob who told Karen she was pregnant. Karen couldn’t feel it, didn’t know it. She was unable to even see herself. Bob was sly and figured out how to manage things so that she could speak with Karen and no one would suspect. She put on an act of a crazy woman and it proved to be useful to her. Men began to avoid her. Other women too. She had more time to herself. It was a good thing she was useful, could do a lot of work and do it well. El Baguetti in particular liked a stew she knew how to make, that nobody could prepare quite the way that she could.
“This is why they don’t kill me,” Bob told Karen. “They like my fucking stew.”
Karen moved in with Bob and slept on the floor in her room. It was not uncomfortable. Having no body had its perks. Bob wanted her to sleep on the cot, she was concerned about the baby, but Karen wouldn’t hear of it.
“What if someone saw you on the floor?” she said. She was always worrying about getting found out. Bob did not understand her.
“Who the fuck cares where I sleep?” she snorted, but kept to her cot anyway. It was better than the floor.
The long slow days went by like this. She followed Bob around and they had many interesting conversations. Karen told her all about growing up in Indiana and going to college in New York City. Bob told her all about growing up in a tiny desert village surrounded by goats and grain. Bob explained the various mysteries of El Baguetti’s made-up religion, and Karen explained why organizations like the one she’d worked for felt it was their business to go around the world interfering in other people’s lives, “making things better” when for all that Bob could see things would be even better if they were all just “left the fuck alone”.
“Your people only want to give because they want to take,” Bob said. “First they take, and then they give. They take one thousand and they give back one. Then they take another one thousand. This is how it works. You are the one who comes around handing out the one, after the takers have gone.”
Karen began to see Bob had a point.
“El Baguetti, he is a taker too,” Bob said, “only he does not give back. You will see that his days are strictly numbered. Your people know how to play the game. El Baguetti does not even know it is one.”
Karen wanted to know precisely how many days El Baguetti had left. One day, when he passed through the room she happened to be in at the time, she asked him out loud.
“How many days do you have left?” she said.
He stopped and stared at her.
“What did you say? You dare speak to me?”
“How many days?” she repeated. “Or do you think it’s going to go on like this forever.”
“Fuck if I know,” he said.
“They’re coming to get you,” she told him and he reached out to strike her, to wipe whatever that look was off her disgusting face, but his hand passed right through it. El Baguetti could not believe his eyes. He punched her right in the face. His fist flew right past her, made no contact. She laughed at him.
“Fuck you,” she said, and laughed again.
“What the fuck is this shit?” he roared, then took a deep breath, and stormed out of the room. She decided to follow him.
She followed him everywhere he went and there was nothing he could do about it. Not a damn thing. She would only take a break at night, when he was sleeping, and then she went to visit Bob and they stayed up talking all night. This was going to be great, they agreed. He was already half bonkers. Now they were totally going to fuck with the bugger, drive him right out of his fucking gourd. All Karen had to do was provoke him. She could whisper into his ear so that no one else could hear it and he would have to react, either jump up or shout and smack at himself like there was a mosquito bothering him. It didn’t matter as long as he did something. And that’s what happened the first few times, but El Baguetti, as we have mentioned before, was not a fool. He was CEO material. You could have easily called him Mister President. He was the “tribal chieftain” of what had become a sort of country, one without officially recognized borders, but one that was beginning to be drawn on maps, discussed on the news, called by even more names in more languages around the world.
He changed tactics. He began to listen to what she had to say, and late at night he would keep her in his room by talking back to her. When the baby was born, popped out of nowhere or so it seemed, this little pale baby with big blue eyes and incredibly thick eyelashes, he even assigned Bob to mother it just to keep up appearances. He could otherwise not explain how it was that a baby was being held by an invisible woman in his bedroom.
El Baguetti listened because he was running out of ideas. He had talked and talked and talked so much that even he no longer had any idea what all his ideas had been. He needed the people around him to remind him of the mythology and all its details. Who was going to attack whom and where? And then what forces were going to be set in motion? And what were the laws that men had to obey in order to properly bring about this ultimate battle? And who could kill who and how? It had all become like a big epic movie, a major motion picture that might win Academy Awards but no one could really keep straight. There was a cast of millions, a clash of civilizations, too many heroes and too many villains. There were forces for good and forces for evil and both sides thought it was all about them.
Bob planted the seed in Karen, and Karen planted the seed in El Baguetti, that he would never survive by taking alone, that it was time to give back. The enemy, in Bob’s formulation, gave back one for a thousand, but he could do better, El Baguetti was better. He could show them how it ought to be done. He could give back a million for every one that he took. He could truly become the god he always wanted to be. He could liberate everyone, free the whole world. All he had to do was turn it all inside out. Instead of killing, give life. Instead of burning, grow. Instead of destroying, build.
“How can I do it?” El Baguetti asked her. He wanted to now. He wanted to change. All that his power had done was bring down the wrath of the bombs and, soon, traitors. He could see it all coming his way. It was obvious, now, as Karen described it from Bob, that his days were strictly and severely numbered. It was only a matter of time. He was losing, he would lose. The only chance El Baguetti would have was a radical shift.
“Can it even be done?” he wondered out loud. He paced around his bedroom all night. He couldn’t sleep any longer, convinced that assassins would come, that the number of his days was down to the last. He began to have extravagant ideas. He would distribute all of the wealth that he had piled up, in one big giant feast-like celebration. He would declare a new holiday. Make it so fucking holy. Everyone in the kingdom would have to be there and he would give them all presents. He saw himself dressed up in the finest of robes, handing out favors, loving and being loved by all of his people. It would be glorious, magnificent. They would call him new names, beneficent ones. No longer a figure of pure evil he would become the light of the world. El Baguetti would be handing out bread to the masses, enough for them all. No one would ever again have to grow up on a garbage heap. He would see to it. He would personally guarantee it. As a natural born leader, he would make it all happen.
Karen encouraged him. Egged on by Bob, she convinced him that his plan would succeed, knowing very well that his closest associates would turn on him instantly. He had given them power. They would keep it no matter the cost. Hadn’t he trained them too well? Didn’t they also have “leadership qualities”?
It was exactly what happened. Karen wanted to wait until it was exactly one year, one year to the day when he had ruined her life, and she ruined his. He gave the big speech to his most loyal associates, and just as if he was Julius fucking Caesar, they slit his throat open like whatever that fruit was, and Karen didn’t even have to get a hold of the blade.