This acclaimed short story collection by a groundbreaking voice in contemporary Latin American literature confronts machismo, inequity, and violence.
An undocumented woman answers a job posting only to find herself held hostage, a group of outcasts obsess over boys drowned while surfing, and an unhappy couple finds themselves trapped in a terrifying maze. With scalpel-like precision, Ampuero considers the price paid by those on the margins so that the elite might lounge comfortably, considering themselves safe in their homes.
Simultaneously terrifying and exquisite, Human Sacrifices is “tropical gothic” at its finest—decay and oppression underlie our humid and hostile world, where working-class women and children are consistently the weakest links in a capitalist economy. Against this backdrop of corrosion and rot, these twelves stories contemplate the nature of exploitation and abuse, illuminating the realities of those society consumes for its own pitiless ends
Julito’s mom treated him not like a boy but like a god. The other moms would watch us cry, glance at our skinned knees, send us to wash the scrape with soap, then hit us for fighting—“Little snot-nosed brats”—but Julito’s mom would jump up in a state of panic—“My son, my beautiful boy”—she’d treat his scratch as if it were an amputation, give him a cookie, kiss the wound, and sing to him “Sana sana colita de rana.” The other ladies would say, “Ay, María Teresa, it’s no big deal, kids are made of rubber.” She would respond that Julito wasn’t made of rubber: he was made of chocolate, of sugar, honey, angels’ wings.
They would laugh with tipsiness after having drunk several bottles of Julito’s mom’s good wine.
Since my mom was the only one who drove, she would give the other moms a ride back to their houses at the end of the afternoon, and on the way they would talk about Julito’s mom.
“It’s shameful, the way she’s spoiling that little boy.”
“Well, it’s understandable, she’s an older mother. I was convinced María Teresa would be alone forever, then one day she turned up pregnant. God forgive me, but if I’d known my child was going to turn out like that, I would’ve gotten rid of it.”
“I would’ve kept him. You have to take the child god sends you.”
“God had nothing to do with it! It was the other one who sent the boy.”
“But listen, she keeps that boy neat as a pin. She must spend a fortune on clothes; I never see the little monster wear the same outfit twice. Where does she get the money? And she only puts out the best wine, the best cheese and ham.”
“From the sales. She sells everything. She gives it to us for free because she wants us to like the boy.”
“She never said whose it was, did she?”
“Never: that’s why people make up their own stories, and they aren’t talking about god.”
“That and the fact that María Teresa looks like a witch and her boy keeps getting weirder and weirder.”
“Did you see that nasty shit he has out in the yard?”
“I couldn’t look! It makes me want to vomit.”
As the moms entertained themselves with hands of cards, we tried to make up games that Julito could participate in. It wasn’t easy: Julito didn’t understand anything, he tore up cards, broke the rules, and immediately went crying to his mom that we were leaving him out.
The moms would shout at us without lifting their eyes from their cards—“Play with Julito, dammit!”—and when we complained that he didn’t follow directions they held up their hands with their cigarettes to shut us up.
The only fun thing about Julito was seeing him play with his leeches.
There was a baby pool in the backyard filled with fat black leeches that were Julito’s pets. Our mothers had forbidden us to go in the water no matter how hot a day, but Julito would strip naked and let the leeches stick to his body. Nothing made him happier. He would laugh and clap, and drool would drip down his chin like some translucent insect.
His fearlessness was the only thing that made him better than us.
After a while in the water Julito would stand up and show us his white body covered in black leeches. It was his superhero costume. Maybe because it was the only thing he did that we wouldn’t do, he used the leeches to frighten us. He would pull one of those gross creatures from his nipple or his thigh or his crotch and fling it at us. He loved to watch us run away in terror, disgusted, feeling imaginary leeches all over our bodies, as he posed with outstretched arms under the sun and laughed hysterically, like a god of the underworld.
From the spot where a leech had been sucking on him a trail of blood trickled down his body in slow motion, staining his belly, his monstrous feet.
One day he threw a leech at my face and I felt its needlelike mouth stick immediately to my cheek. I ripped the slimy, disgusting thing off me and without thinking twice I threw it down and stomped on it as hard as I could: red blood stained the sole of my shoe. Julito transformed into a savage beast. He threw himself at me, fully naked, covered in leeches, and began to attack me.
With his gigantic tongue, those thin, black little teeth, he got in my face and shouted the only insults he knew. The sound of his voice, hoarse, guttural, choked with rage, is something I’ll never forget.
“Spawn of Sa-tan. Bas-tard. Spawn of Sa-tan. Bas-tard.”
He came at me with such force that I tripped and fell into the little pool. Immediately the leeches began to unstick from the walls in search of my flesh. The other kids pointed and laughed at me just like they laughed at Julito. Suddenly he was me and I was him. I stood up shakily and launched myself at Julito like a blind, rabid, evil animal.
I wanted only one thing: I wanted to kill him.
Julito sickened us, Julito was dead weight, Julito was stupid and dumb, Julito let his blood be sucked by those nasty creatures, Julito’s mom thought he was made of sugar and honey.
The moms came over and broke up the fight. Mine grabbed me by the hair and screamed at me. She’d been drinking, so she was more violent than normal. She hit me in front of everyone and called me a monster: “I don’t know what to do with you, you little monster.” In contrast, Julito’s mom wrapped him in a towel, patted his corn-colored hair, and kissed him on his huge, veiny head.
In the car I scratched my neck and discovered another leech. Disgusted down to my bones, I threw it out the window and imagined Julito throwing himself under the wheels of the car trying to save it and being flattened and his stinking blood staining the cement for a long time, for all of eternity, and everyone who walked by would tell their kids that this was where the ugliest boy in the world had died.
My mom asked me to tell her what happened, so I told her the truth: “Julito threw a leech at me.”
“Look, I know that kid is like something out of a horror movie, but you have to be nice to him, do you hear me? You have to treat him nice for your mommy. Promise me. If you fight with him, María Teresa is going to be mad at me and then your mommy won’t have anywhere to play cards and she’ll have to stay shut inside the house all the time. You know I’m not happy when I’m at home, don’t you? You know how angry I get if I have to spend all day shut inside the house, don’t you?”
The next time I went to Julito’s house there was no debate over what to play.
I suggested hide-and-seek.
Julito only had two hiding places: behind the door to the guest bathroom and inside a broken refrigerator in the storage room. No one made much of an effort to look for him. He could stay hidden for ages, sometimes we forgot all about him, and when we said goodbye his mom would ask where he was and we’d have to pretend that we’d just started playing.
“I found you, Julito.”
He would clap and squeal with joy and try to give us kisses with his slobbery mouth.
That day he hid in the old refrigerator. We made eye contact. I put my finger over my lips. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone, Julito.
I left him there. Every once in a while we’d shout, “Julito, where are you? Where are you, Julito?” We could hear his nervous little laugh from inside the appliance.
Then we forgot all about him.
It was an incredible afternoon that went on forever. We played soccer, ping-pong, Monopoly, races, video games. We ate cookies and drank Coca-Cola. Julito had all the toys in the world, and he didn’t play with any of them. Everything was gnawed on, drooled on, sticky and half-broken by his twisted hands. We pretended they were our toys and we were privileged, beloved children.
When it came time to leave, Julito’s mom asked us where he was. We told her we were playing hide-and- seek, and she smiled.
“Let’s all look for him,” she said, and she kissed our hands and thanked us for being so kind to her little boy. We paraded through the house, calling out to Julito. His mom shouted that his friends were leaving, that the game was over, that he was the winner, that she’d made his favorite cookies. Julito was nowhere to be found. She searched the whole house, her face getting whiter and whiter, her voice shakier, her body rigid as if someone were pointing a gun at her.
“Julito, my love, come out, you won, come out and we’ll give you a prize.”
The moms opened closets, looked under the beds, in the dirty-clothes hamper; someone went out to the baby pool to see if he was maybe splashing around in there but found only the black leeches stuck to the walls, waiting for some live creature to fall in.
As we were checking behind the curtains in Julito’s room, my mom grabbed me by the arm so hard her nails drew blood. She said I knew where Julito was hidden and I had to tell his mom immediately. I shook my head. “You know where he is, you little bastard, I know you know.”
“I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
“When we get home I’m going to tell your dad to give you a beating.”
I rubbed my head in the spot where the belt buckle had hit me last time. I told her Julito’s two hiding places. When I mentioned the refrigerator she went pale and her eyes opened wider than I ever knew eyes could open. She uttered three words.
“You killed him.”
Right at that moment we heard a scream that sounded like the earth opening up, like the wail of an ambulance, like an explosion, like thunder right on top of us. I don’t know if I imagined it, but the entire house seemed to shake, the lights swung from the ceiling and the glass in the windows cracked. It was a sound like all the beasts of the world howling in unison, like the enraged ocean. A scream like a total eclipse.