Limbo: A Story of Horror in the Caribbean is a novella in three acts, queering gender and genre in the style of the new Latin American gothic. This dramatized multi-narrative is a twisted Bildungsroman that exposes the untold horrors of a phantom Caribbean town and the collective othering of an intersex child, culminating in their moment of self-discovery, allowing them to finally leave that wretched place behind. Thematically and structurally, the novella dialogues with Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone (tr. Sarah Booker) through its non-linear plot development; questioning of identity, religion, and reality; and the darkness of pleasure derived from violence. Moreover, Better intersperses the novel with intertextual references to horror cinema, literature, and real-life events and characters (Rosemary’s Baby, Stephen King, John Wayne Gacy, among many others). To all this, Better adds traditional horror tropes such as dark forests, monsters (a bicephalic freak), haunting nightmares, and supernatural events, reminiscent of the magical realism of authors such as Gabriel García Márquez. Limbo places readers themselves in a kind of limbo, creating uncertainty about the finality of a web of stories that never pretended to have a beginning or end.
Limbo was published in 2020 by Seix Barral; the Portuguese translation appeared recently with Brazilian publisher Editora Peabiru. The English-language rights are available.
George Henson and Michelle Mirabella
From Limbo: A Story of Horror in the Caribbean
If you’d been a dog,
they would’ve drowned you at birth.
I’m every nightmare you’ve ever had.
I’m your worst dream come true.
I’m everything you ever were afraid of.
THE SISTERS IN DUPLICATE
The house is large. It has high ceilings and a long spiral staircase leading to a second floor with five rooms. The doors are red and numbered with Roman numerals drawn in black paint. There are only two unnumbered rooms, and they’re occupied by The Sisters in Duplicate:
Ninfa and Orfa Kowalska arrived in Ciudad Crisantemo in the late 1940s with their father, a poor Polish peasant who’d already spent some time in Spain. When the inhabitants of Crisantemo learned that the Kowalskis were related to a religious mystic, the one beatified by the Polish pope himself, they welcomed them with a devotion closer to servility than courtesy.
Although it was not until 19** that the Vatican officially printed the diary of Saint María Faustina Kowalska in its Spanish version, many in Ciudad Crisantemo were already aware of the life and work of the nun; also of the visions of heaven and hell that the future saint had during the first years of her life. But it was her terrifying revelations about Limbo that would turn this family of immigrants into intermediaries for the salvation of those little souls who died unbaptized in the unhappy and devastated Crisantemo, and also in the surrounding areas.
More than a haunted house—as many gullible people insist on calling it—the place looks like a gigantic and ruinous pigeon loft. There’s also something birdlike in the two sisters’ countenance, perhaps that’s why they always wear veiled hats that cover half their face.
The Kowalska twins: Orfa was born first; Ninfa came out right after. They were extremely thin with albinism, and must be over seventy years old.
Everyone knows what goes on inside that big house, and no one is shocked. Were it not for them, according to some faithful, the small town would have been sunken in darkness for decades now.
Crisantemo is located north of La Nación. It’s a quiet place, with only a hundred inhabitants, a coastal settlement where immigrants arrived escaping the devastation of the Second World War. The nearest town is three hundred miles away. It was a kind of Babel, where families and people of different nationalities lived together peacefully.
There’s nothing in its architecture worthy of being mentioned; perhaps the church. In a place as desolate as this, it was impossible to miss the enormous cross made from the bones of seafaring birds resting atop the dome, which on certain nights with a full moon make the temple look like the most terrifying of places.
* * *
“When did it die? Age? Sex?” asked Orfa, the one who was born first.
“A few hours ago,” said The Man, handing her a dead child wrapped in onion skin paper.
“It was born today,” said The Woman.
“We’ll take care of everything, rest assured,” said Ninfa.
“We didn’t get to baptize it,” The Man let slip.
“That’s obvious; you’re here for a reason. What name were you planning to give it?”
“We never considered a name,” answered The Woman, whose face was covered with white chiffon.
“Never,” The Man added.
“Don’t cry!” Ninfa ordered The Woman.
“It’s forbidden; doing so hinders the transition of the unbaptized, attachment is the worst thing a human being can develop for someone, only animals deserve such a thing,” added Orfa.
“Agreed?” asked Ninfa.
“Agreed,” said The Man.
“You haven’t told us the sex of the baby.”
“What’s going on? Why don’t you say anything, and why do you look at each other like that?” Orfa asked.
“See for yourselves,” said The Man, who brought both hands to his head and then swallowed a fistful of salt that he took from one of his pockets.
The Sisters unwrapped the small body and brought a candlestick close to the sex of the creature.
“Leave the money and get out,” Orfa said.
“Can we say goodbye to…”
“No,” said The Sisters in Duplicate in chorus.
Orfa ordered the baby to be taken to Room I and asked her sister to rub some pork oil on the little one’s forehead. Ninfa went up the spiral staircase, entered the room and, before placing the child in the cradle, looked again at the genitals of the new houseguest; the image of two insects copulating in mid-air came to her mind, she left the room in silence.
During dinner, The Sisters didn’t talk much. Ninfa stewed a dried wasp honeycomb that Orfa had collected that morning from the leafy calabash tree.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Ninfa.
Her sister ignored her and continued chewing on the stew, picked up a cloth napkin, and took a sip from the glass of boiled tree tomato juice.
“But I’ve heard that almost every time such phenomena occur, it’s the result of a curse, or worse: the product of incest,” she added.
Orfa paused, looked at her annoyed and struck the table forcefully with the palm of her hand, causing the gas lamp to shake. Orfa’s shadow cast on the wall by the light of the wick and other candles scattered about the room grew terrifyingly large.
“It is what it is, period!” she shouted. “Our mission is different here; neither one of us may judge anyone who comes to us. We’ve seen much worse creeping around in the corners of this place; we’ve seen abominations crawl out of the cracks. I don’t know why it shocks you to see two elements together in the same body that perhaps should never have been separated.”
“It’s a monster!”
The Sisters resumed their dinner. A small black shadow slid beneath the table, reached Ninfa’s feet, and then climbed up into her lap.
“Look who’s here today! The restless Biscuit.”
Orfa smiled at the sight of her little cat twiddling with her sister’s blouse.
“You haven’t been home for almost a year. You’re a fidgety boy, look at you, you haven’t changed.”
The animal looked at Ninfa, brought its paw up to the woman’s gaunt cheek, and stroked it. She continued to talk to it like a child:
“Your whiskers are soaked with blood, as usual. Biscuit, Biscuit, don’t stray so far from us, you naughty boy,” Ninfa concluded. Her sister returned from the kitchen with dessert: candied grapefruit peels.
* * *
“Wake up! Get up now!”
As a downpour fell, flashes of lightning lit up Ninfa’s room. When she sat up, she saw her sister at the foot of the bed. Despite the thunder and the wind battering the house, causing it to shake, the cries of a child could be heard clear as a bell. It was fifteen minutes past three in the morning.
“What’s that I hear, Sister?”
“The guest in Room I.”
“Oh, my God! That can’t be, it can’t have woken up, it hasn’t been 24 hours since its death.”
“They brought that devil’s spawn to us alive; they got rid of it like an old piece of junk. I had a feeling that man would only bring misfortune to this city. I knew it from the moment he opened his mouth at that dinner with Father Dixon. I was certain there was something dark around him; his child is proof.
The rain began to subside. The child’s cries grew louder.
“I’ll trade you it for two spools of thread and a silver needle,” said a voice seeping through the cracks in the ceiling in Ninfa’s room.
“This one can’t be yours! Go away!” Orfa shouted.
“Give me its eyes, and I’ll give you a black pearl,” said another, sharper voice.
“I have nothing to give; I just want it to suckle from my teat,” said a third voice.
“Get along!” said The Sisters in chorus. A sound like wings beating against each other could be heard for a few seconds on the roof, and the child’s cry was the only sound that echoed through the house.
* * *
“Rock the cradle so it will go to sleep,” Orfa suggested.
“I don’t think that’s it; it must be hungry.”
They covered it with a fuzzy blanket and went downstairs to the kitchen together to prepare some milk. The newborn was looking into Ninfa’s eyes; the crying stopped, and with its hand it reached out to touch its hostess’s pointy nose.
“You’re a little bastard,” said Ninfa; the child proffered something akin to a smile.
“Here, give it some of this.”
Orfa handed her a bottle of warm milk.
“Did you put a little salt in it?”
“It’s a child, not a puppy.”
The Sisters sat on the threadbare red velvet furniture in the living room. Ninfa put the bottle in the baby’s mouth, and it began to suckle with desperation. At times she looked away from the baby’s face to the imposing portrait of Saint Faustina Kowalska that hung on a wall in the room.
For as long as she could remember the painting had been resting on that wall of the house. She still remembers her father’s stern voice telling her that she should be proud that there was someone close to divine in the family.
“We have to figure out what we’re going to do with that child,” Orfa said bitterly.
“How ironic! We’re certain what to do when they come to our house dead and unbaptized, but this one has got us in check,” said Ninfa as she gazed at the child, now asleep in her arms.
“Let’s wait until morning. We’ll figure out what to do. Now,” Orfa suggested, “let’s go back to bed.”
Translated by George Henson and Michelle Mirabella
Main image: from the cover of the Spanish-language edition of Limbo: Una historia de horror en el Caribe (Seix Barral, 2020)
A 2021-2023 Tulsa Artist Fellow, George Henson is the author of eleven book-length translations, including Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory and Carnival Triptych, all with Deep Vellum Publishing, as well as fellow Cervantes laureate Elena Poniatowska’s short story collection The Heart of the Artichoke. His most recent translation is Abel Posse’s memoir A Long Day in Venice.