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Authentic Zombies of the Caribbean

For many Latin American families, Disney World represents the embodiment of desire and illusion. The journey to Paradise is offered as a prize in an infinite (because they reproduce and reappear) number of contests. To reach Paradise is a sign of prosperity, the result of a stroke of good luck, the promise of rich relatives, the impossible fantasy of the poor.

In the real world, Disney World is a vast, beautiful amusement park. For those who don’t expect or imagine anything more, it’s a realm of pleasure. Adults know this; children don’t. That’s why, after a certain age, they find it disappointing.

And so, after a few days at Disney World, Gonzalo Ramos was tired and a little bit sad. A few years earlier, he would have been able to sustain the illusion. Now, everywhere he looked he saw shows and performances, whereas he had expected to find the Thing Itself. The people in costumes looked like people in costumes; the cartoon figures looked like cartoon figures. His big sister Ximena was just old enough to stifle his expectations. Ximena, like her parents, was fascinated by the craftsmanship and perfection of the robots’ movements or the holograms of crocodiles, ghosts, or pirates. Gonzalo, on the other hand, had gone there to see and touch crocodiles, ghosts, or pirates.

The Ramos family was staying at a hotel in Miami Beach. They rented a car. And every day, both coming and going, they got lost in the maze of highways between Miami and Orlando. At first Gonzalo’s parents argued. His mother navigated, consulting the map. After a while she discovered that she had directed them to the wrong road. His father exploded with rage, snatching the map out of her hands and spreading it perilously across the steering wheel. But even when his father chose the highway entrances and exits, they got lost anyway. Toward the end of their stay, more relaxed, they were able to laugh at their own disorientation, and the ordeal of selecting a route became a family joke.

How hot it was! The lines for each attraction were endless; after a whole day at Disney World, the exhausted Ramos family, had seen more sweaty backs than anything else. Many people were astonishingly fat. The Ramoses joked among themselves about some of those bulky shapes they saw waddling slowly through the park and downing gigantic portions of food. But they also felt vaguely threatened by those enormous, practically neckless, blonde men and women, their pale eyes embedded in their faces like raisins in cookie dough; tall, immense, and distant, sheltered in their fortresses of fat. The Ramoses felt fragile and small by comparison.

There were just three days of vacation left. The Ramos family was eager to return home and begin telling everyone about their adventures. They had decided not to return to Disney World, not because they had explored all of it, but because they understood that doing so would be an impossible, useless mission.

On the outskirts of Miami they found plenty of other amusements for the whole family. They went to Seaquarium to see the dolphins and killer whales, and they visited Monkey Jungle, where people walk through a cage-like corridor while the animals make faces at them from outside. At Jungle Island there were brightly-colored parrots that looked painted. One night they cheered their team on in a strange joust between medieval knights. They visited Everglades National Park and the Wax Museum, and just when it seemed like there were no more attractions left before it was time to board the plane, Gonzalo discovered an announcement that said:

A voodoo extravaganza for the whole family
Featuring genuine Caribbean zombies!
Cost: $20 adults
$10 children under 14
Baron Samedí’s Café

It also indicated the hours and the address: a place outside Miami. Gonzalo’s parents laughed a little and remarked how times had changed: something that in the old days had been scary for grownups was now entertainment for children.

The show started at 7 PM. They set out very early, calculating the time it would take them to get lost and reorient themselves within the concrete labyrinths. But they managed to arrive just in time for the first performance.

Baron Samedi’s Café was adorned with Magical Signs. In order to reach the entrance, you had to walk across a circle of stones and pass by a hanged goat and two black chickens that dangled upside down by their feet. Of course, the animals were made of plastic.

There was none of the usual carpeting on the floor of Baron Samedí’s Café. The floor was bare so that the waitresses could roll around on skates as they served. In back was a small stage with amplifiers on either side. An unusual odor, hard to identify, floated above that mixture of aromas (basically plastic and room deodorizer) that the Ramoses called “the USA smell.” Just as in Disney World, there were tourists from all over the globe, especially families with children.

They had barely taken their seats when the curtain rose and a tall black man, dressed in a suit and dark glasses, walked over to the microphone. He looked dangerous and nasty. He began to recite in a very strange English accent, so different from the precise, predictable language Miss Atwell taught the kids at school.

I am Baron Samedí,
Baron Death, Baron de la Cruz.
I am the Master of the Tomb,
I am a servant of Ogún.

Papa explained that his strange accent came from what must certainly have been his native language, Creole, that mixture of French and African languages spoken in Haiti and the other French islands of the Caribbean. He also told them that the emcee was tossing in many arbitrary elements of the voodoo religion.

The end is the beginning,
the beginning is the end.
I am the servant of the Serpent.
I am the servant of Damballah.

It was odd to hear those words coming from the lips of such an ordinarily-dressed man. At first Gonzalo was surprised that Baron Samedí wasn’t more dramatically fitted out for the occasion, with sequins or gold lamé. Or body paint. But then he began to realize that the Baron was more frightening in a suit and tie—it was scarier than a costume.

I am a servant of the Invisible Ones,
but others serve me.
My slaves, my zombies, I summon you:
Bring your drums and come here.

Two men and a woman appeared onstage, carrying two small drums and another that was so large it had to be pushed along. The men moved slowly. There was something very strange in their dark, vacant stares. Their eyelids were painted white, and their pupils were enormous. They began playing the drums in a style that was hard to understand, as though they were pounding randomly, without rhythm, like little children. The sound was really annoying, and the amplifiers made it thunder throughout the café.

A waitress on skates brought them four glasses of ice water.

“If I had known, I wouldn’t have come,” said Gonzalo’s mother, covering her ears. “This is worse than a disco. I’m too old for such loud noise.”

“I don’t like those men’s eyes,” said Mr. Ramos. “They look like they’re on drugs.”

“They might be contact lenses, Papa,” Ximena said.

Above the din, the emcee’s voice could be heard:

“A warm welcome to our Brazilian friends,
brothers in Ogún and Orisha,
brothers in macumba and candomblé.”

A spotlight suddenly focused on a table where, in fact, there was a group of Brazilians who expressed their thanks in Portuguese.

Meanwhile, the Ramos family ordered a pizza Margherita with extra cheese, Seven-Up for Gonzalo, Coke for Ximena, and Diet Coke for his mother. They tried to talk softly so as not to disturb the actors.

“A warm welcome to our Argentine friends,
brothers in the pact with Mandinga,
brothers in the werewolf and the Salamanca rites.”

The Ramos family was a little startled when the spotlight landed on them because Baron Samedí had no way of knowing where they were from, unless the waitress was Latina and had recognized their accent, as Ximena suggested. Papa promised to tell them afterwards why the emcee had said what he did and exactly what the Salamanca rites were all about.

Baron Samedí went on to recognize his Swedish friends and his Japanese friends. Ximena asked her father if Duvalier, the long-time dictator of Haiti, had been like the Argentine dictator Videla. He thought it over and said not exactly, that he looked more like Pinochet with those sunglasses.

Then, obeying an order from Baron Samedí, the three zombies came forward and began performing certain acts to prove they were entirely the slaves of the Master of Cemeteries and that they were really dead.

The children had already seen some of those tricks on TV and at the circus. The zombies walked barefoot over burning coals; they pricked themselves with needles and stabbed themselves with knives without drawing blood. They placed the lit end of a cigarette on their tongues. And they ate disgusting things, like pieces of glass and a lemon with its peel still on.

Gonzalo’s mother was annoyed. She thought the show was horrible, and she wanted to leave. But just then (to Gonzalo and Ximena’s delight), they brought the pizza, golden brown, fragrant, and delicious.

Right after that, Baron Samedí started to play a strange, violent rhythm (but at least it was music and not just noise) on the big drum, the one with red feet and a human face, which he called Mama Drum.

A very young woman came onstage, dancing faster and faster to the beat of the drum, until she spun completely out of control. The girl, who at first had been singing a single phrase over and over again, suddenly threw back her head. Her facial expression changed; saliva ran down the side of her twisted mouth, and her gestures grew wild.

Baron Samedí explained that she was possessed by Iron Ogún, the Spirit of War and Metals, the Bloody General. The possessed woman began to display her abnormal strength. It was truly astonishing to see such a thin young girl lift a café table with one hand and then hoist one of the Japanese tourists (who was laughing like crazy, no doubt from embarrassment), into the air, chair and all.

“How did they do that trick?” Gonzalo wondered.

“It’s all set up beforehand,” Mama said. “They must have tied the chair to the ceiling with invisible cord or something like that.”

The next act was unexpected and dreadful. While the drums, played by the zombies, broke all the laws of music and the eardrums of the audience, Baron Samedí came back onstage with a black pig, whose feet were tied, and slit its throat before everyone’s eyes.

The animal writhed and squealed as the blood collected in a metal bowl. The Swedish tourists got up and left. The rest of the audience muttered quietly, their faces revealing fascination and revulsion. Many of them began to stand up. It was unbelievable that this was happening in the United States. There was talk of filing a report with the authorities, of lawsuits.

Baron Samedí called for a volunteer to be initiated in the Voodoo ritual. One of the Brazilian women came forward, and the man wet her lips with the pig’s blood.

Gonzalo and Ximena’s parents wanted to leave, too, but Ximena convinced them to stay: after all, didn’t tons of pigs get killed every day for spareribs?

Meanwhile, the skating waitress collected their plates and took their orders for the next course. They tried speaking to her in Spanish, but she pretended not to understand. Papa ordered a malted milk for dessert, and Mama asked for apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The kids shared a banana split.

A zombie woman came onstage, moving clumsily and carrying a screaming baby. She held it high above her head, her arms extended.

“If that’s a real baby, I’m not staying one minute more,” Mama said.

But it turned out to be a doll, and the crying was a recording. They bathed the “baby” in the black pig’s blood, and the Brazilian woman began to dance around very gracefully. No one could tell if she was possessed, too, of if she was just pretending to be.

The assistants removed the pig’s body from the stage. The zombies began moving forward once more. Off to one side, by the microphone, in a whisper that sounded like a scream—thanks to the good sound equipment—Baron Samedí continued talking.

“These men are no longer men, but they are not true zombies, either.” He was like a magician who explains one of his tricks, showing how what seemed to be magic is nothing more than sleight-of-hand.

“These men were punished by the Society of the Night, because the night belongs not to men, but to the Invisible Ones. These men were given a magic powder that made them appear dead, and like dead men they were buried. And like zombies they were dug up and forced to eat the Bread of Forgetfulness, and now they are my slaves. No one fears the zombies! Everyone fears becoming one!”

As he spoke, the false Dead Ones did an awkward tap dance, their arms hanging limply by their sides, their faces expressionless.

Next Baron Samedí announced that he would now show everyone a genuine example of the Living Dead. He asked the audience how you could be sure a person is truly dead. Gonzalo answered that you could tell by his heartbeat. Other tables suggested that it had to do with breathing and brain activity.

But the Baron said that there was just one way to prove without a doubt what not even the shiny EEG flatline could guarantee: whatever is dead, rots.

Then that unusual smell they had noticed when they first entered the café grew stronger. And a genuine Living Dead person appeared onstage. He wore a bathing suit in order to show those parts of his body that really looked rotten. He was missing tufts of hair, and certain parts of his scalp were covered with greenish moss.

The emcee invited the audience to come onstage in order to inspect the Living Dead man close up, and many people did. They brought mirrors in order to see if the cadaver would fog them, and a doctor even showed up with a stethoscope. They returned to their seats, giggling nervously.

Mama’s vanilla ice cream melted in its dish. The kids, on the other hand, hungrily devoured their banana split.

The show ended with a trial, a genuine trial by the Society of the Night, the Society of Animals, the fearsome Bizango.

Baron Samedí, sweating heavily (there seemed to be a problem with the air conditioning), his black suit wrinkled and his tie askew, invoked the new spell.

All will be judged.
Only the Guilty One will be punished.
The Innocent Child
Will not be condemned.

With the assistance of the possessed girl, who now appeared quite tranquil and normal, he began mixing some powders and liquids in clear glasses.

“And now,” said the Baron, “let the Innocent Child come forward.”

Before his parents could protest, the Baron dragged Gonzalo onto the stage. Amid magical formulas and drumbeats, he invited Gonzalo to taste a thick, green liquid from one glass and then a red one from another.

Gonzalo was very calm, even amused. The only thing he didn’t like was being referred to as “the Innocent Child.” He could already imagine Ximena’s teasing. He hoped she wouldn’t tell anyone else about it.

First he tried the green liquid and wrinkled his nose. It was awful, very bitter. Then he tasted the red liquid, which was pretty good. And he announced to the audience, in his best English, which made his parents proud:

“This green one is horrible, and the red one is pretty sweet. It tastes like Coke without the bubbles.”

Baron Samedí interrupted.

“The Society of Bizango can be as sweet as honey or as bitter as pain. But it only punishes the Guilty. Let the Innocent Child return to his table. Now, let the Guilty One come forward.”

A fat, red-faced, drunken man, obviously American, was pushed toward the stage, to the hysterical laughter of the women who shared his table. He was the caricature of the Guilty Party, a vile combination of gluttony, avarice, lust, and corruption. But most of all, a terrific actor.

He sampled the green and red liquids from the very same glasses Gonzalo had left on the little table and which no one else had touched. But he didn’t get to say what they tasted like. His transformation began immediately.

It all happened so suddenly that it was impossible to figure out which came first: the hair sprouting all over his body, replacing his clothing, or the way his face grew long and narrow, forming a snout, while his eyes drifted apart. A long tail peeked out from behind him; his hair grew longer and thicker, and horns emerged from his forehead, until what had been a man was now crouched down on all fours. He no longer had hands or feet, but rather cloven hooves, and he bleated like a goat, like the big, fat goat he had become.

Gonzalo had witnessed transformations like this in plenty of movies: with clever makeup and special effects, these days they could do anything. But it was quite different to see a man turn into a goat right there before his eyes. A long, astonished silence surrounded the animal’s desperate bleating.

Suddenly a member of the audience stood up. He, too, was black, and immense power seemed to spring from his body.

“Baron Samedí, Bokor, Priest of Evil, I challenge you,” he shouted. “This man did not belong to you. You had no rights over him. I, Hungan, the Priest of Goodness, challenge you.”

“Good is Evil; the Beginning is the End,” Baron Samedí howled in response, his words thundering through the amplifiers and deafening the public.

“If you do not release this man, I will trap your Precious Soul in a bottle for all eternity. I will turn you into the Living Dead!”

No one could explain what happened next because now the rivals were no longer speaking English, but rather Creole or French, or some African language, and together with their invocations of the gods and their magical words, smoke and multicolored fog filled the place. Just as everyone expected, the goat became a man again and stumbled back to his table.

The curtain fell abruptly, and the show was over. Of course, no one was disappointed, although from the comments overheard in the parking lot, many people thought the show had been too violent for children, especially the unfortunate spectacle of killing a pig on stage.

Back home in Buenos Aires, Gonzalo talked more about Disney World than about the voodoo performance, which nonetheless came back to him constantly in nightmares. Sometimes he and Ximena discussed the things they had seen but hadn’t dared describe to others because they seemed really unbelievable.

Besides (and this really was a secret), ever since drinking the green and red liquids, each time he found himself in a very bad mood, Gonzalo’s right foot turned into a hoof covered with thick, long, black hair.

Because not even a child is altogether innocent.

About the Author

Ana María Shua is the author of novels, short stories, and microfiction. She has received many awards, both national and international, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her books have been translated into fourteen languages. In the United States, her novels Death As a Side Effect and The Weight of Temptation were translated by Andrea Labinger and published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Andrea G. Labinger has published numerous translations of Latin American fiction. Gesell Dome, her translation of Guillermo Saccomanno’s noir novel Cámara Gesell (Open Letter, 2016), won a PEN/Heim Translation Award and was long-listed for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ Firecracker Award. Her most recent translation is Saccomanno’s 77 (Open Letter, 2019).