Writing by Flora Leask Arizpe. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
When I met Rocio Quinta again, I was sat at the bar of El Mago’s taqueria and had brought out one of my celebratory, slim cigars. I can only smoke them out of the house now, because the one time I did Gabi almost beat me with a Jesus candle. They create a foul-smelling miasma, but I love them for it. El Mago himself brought me an ashtray and smiled at me in that way he does with four missing teeth. I nodded back at him and ordered four servings of tacos al pastor. Well – they don’t call me Fatty Sanchez for nothing, and El Mago’s tacos are good enough to die of a heart attack early for. And I swear Gabi’s been feeding me less, concerned about the health of her old dad, leaving me hungrier than ever and therefore more willing to put money in El Mago’s pocket for some good food. Anyway – Rocio, you wanted to know. Rocio - well I can’t say where I was exactly in Mexico City, in which branch of El Mago’s I was, because I had just conducted a very successful business deal and had a load off my back. Being a businessman in Mexico City - importing and exporting, that sort of thing - sometimes means you don’t disclose the location of your business, see. I was in a good mood and had just ordered four tacos al pastor from El Mago himself, and that’s all you need to know. Then Chio walks in, all hurriedly, looking like a wet rat whose found itself under a spotlight. She had a shifty look about her, and I know shifty looks, especially the look of someone who has gotten mixed up in something that they never intended to. Shifty, but beautiful as always. Chio - Rocio Quinta – is a beauty. A real beauty of the traditional kind, with legs that go on forever. And dark hair, dark eyes, eyes that cut into you rather than look at you, shred men into little pieces. None of my three daughters are half as beautiful of her, but for that I’m grateful. Imagine the trouble! Well, I call Rocio over and ask her what secret thing she’s up to, why she’s been out in the rain like that.
“Not now, Fatty, I’m busy”, she says, exactly like that. I like how she calls you by your name straight away, personable as anything: “Not now, Fatty.” Well, I ask her what she’s in a taqueria for if not for a few tacos, and she shrugs her shoulders and sits down, but still has an occupied kind of look about her, checking over her shoulder every two minutes.
“I’ll stay if you buy me a drink. I’m in need of something stronger than beer, thanks”. I order her some tequila and she settled down next to me.
When did I first meet Chio? Well, that’s a story for another day. All you need to know is that she is a great storyteller, and a jack-of-all-trades. Her work is figuring out things, being a bit of a detective, following all sorts of strange leads. I don’t know how she has the money to sustain herself, but maybe her mystery jobs pay well – they are often of a very strange and unique nature. She is in the trade of ‘figuring out’ she says, and I don’t ask any more questions, because she tells me the crazy stories of the things that she has seen and done and that’s enough. She is good company also, she listens well, and remembers your situation.
The tacos come, and she doesn’t say a word, but I don’t rush her. I know she’s probably dead hungry and you can’t say a word of sense when you’re really hungry like that. She eats like a man does, it’s a real sight to see – food everywhere, licking the grease from her fingers – but if I was that pretty I’d do whatever I liked in public too. We tuck in, and afterwards both smoke a cigarette in silence.
“Theres a lousy, slimy, university-type after me, Fatty”, she suddenly breaks the contemplative, digestive silence. I looked at her with a bit of worry in my heart, but Chio never lets a man look worried for her for too long. She glowered at my concern like some demon of wrath, and then turned to glower at a passer-by who had been staring at her too long. She is really scary when she looks at you like that, as I said, eyes that can shred a man into pulled pork.
“A really lousy, bow-tie wearing, glasses-wearing, smart boy. He thinks I’ve stolen his big ideas but really I’ve just done in six months what it has taken him years. It’s not my fault he’s bad at his job. And I may have taken some of his money too.”
She says all this without taking her eyes off the doorframe, as if some spectacled little nerd is going to rush in with a chainsaw, I don’t know. She looks up at me and laughs a little of a sudden. “Don’t look so glum, Fatty! I could beat that man in a fight if I were blind and pregnant. I almost had to, in Bulgaria. Order some more food and I’ll tell you how it happened.”
When Chio looks at me I feel a little like the young man I used to be, although I know that’s not what she’s seeing. If I was young I probably still wouldn’t get much more than a kiss because I’m not Chio’s type. She only likes men that look like women and women that look like men. Besides, she keeps it all well under wraps, doesn’t tell me what’s happening in her love life. I guess theres no real reason why she should.
What do you think I did? I ordered more tacos, another tequila, and a cup of hot coffee for us both. When you get the opportunity to hear Chio talk you shut up and listen, however long it takes.
“How’s Gabi? And Lorena, and Sandra?” she asked, picking at her teeth carefully with a toothpick,
“My capable daughters are looking after their old dad beautifully. Although Lori has just had another kid, so I have another set of nappies to change,” I joked a little, touched that Chio had remembered their names.
“And the ex-wife? Is she still a pain?”
“A bigger pain in my backside than the wrong size trousers.” I replied cheerfully. Maria Fernanda would always be the bane of my life, and I hers, but at least on that we agreed.
The second plate of tacos arrived, and Chio nodded at El Mago, who nodded back respectfully, then raised his eyebrows at me questioningly. I shrugged. Chio began to eat again, but slower this time. Lighting a cigarette, she would eat a mouthful and then smoke for a bit, a practice that revolted even me. The tacos of El Mago were a delicacy, and to see her deaden each bite with smoke was like heresy.
“This is the story of the lost language of Behi Ahara. Have you heard of the place?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Well, I’d be very surprised if you had. You know my Greek friend Papachristodoulopoulos?”
“No need for sarcasm, Fatty. Papachristodoulopoulos a good friend of mine, a good client, but a terrible psychiatrist.”
“He is, truly. One of his clients pays him with cocaine and rides in her Maserati. Anyway, he tells me all about his clients’ funniest problems. That’s a terrible psychiatrist.”
“That is a terrible psychiatrist.”
“Wel,l he has this client who is a big hypochondriac, like, phones him every day big hypochondriac. She brings her little daughter in every so often to see if she can get her diagnosed with one thing or another. She really insists that her daughter is as messed up as can be, when in reality Papachristodoulopoulos says she is a very normal little girl. Normal, that is – apart from the talking in her sleep.”
“What’s so not-normal about talking in your sleep? Maria Fernanda used to do that too. Although she was a bit crazy, so it doesn’t really help the argument. Also, can we just call this Papachristopo – Papa guy, I don’t know, Papachristo?”
“Papachristo it is. Well, what was so not-normal about this little girl, let’s call her… Nina, what was so not normal about the sleep talking was that she was repeating the same word over and over again, like some kind of zombie.” She paused for a minute while El Mago passed by, as if he was listening in or something. I’m sure El Mago had much more pressing matters to attend to than the lost language of some place.
“What was the word?”
She paused a second, her eyes glittering with mischief.
“It was real weird Fatty. The word was ‘nunoddemuro’. She was repeating it over and over again in her sleep, ever since she was three.”
“Noo-nod-de-moo-ro.” I spelled the word out thoughtfully. Maybe it reminded me of something, maybe it didn’t. “That is a not-normal word. Maybe her mum was right to be worried. Or maybe it was just gibberish? Kid language?”
“Well, that’s what Papachristo thinks. But he gave me the word because I like puzzles and those kinds of things. I actually got my doctorate in myths and languages, did you know. Esoteric stuff mainly. Not just a pretty face.”
Chio batted her eyelashes at me suggestively. If I’d been able to blush, I would have at that moment.
“Well, this word sticks in my brain like a real ear-worm, wriggling about when I’m not thinking of anything else. I felt like I had heard it before. I could have forgotten all about it and avoided this mess, perhaps there another world where I do, but where ‘d be the fun in that?” She sipped her tequila methodically and nodded in approval at the taste. “Fatty Sanchez, will you order me some fries with chilli and lime?”
I sighed and did as she asked. When one wanted to hear a story from Chio, one had to pay for it. Between the business success earlier and the tequila, I was in good spirits. Besides, when she looked you in the eyes and called you your full name like that, you were powerless.
“And then what? How does the nuno-word get you chased by some guy?”
“Well, after a long, and rather boring to everyone else, month of online research I managed to find a rather interesting guy, can you guess what his name was?”
I sighed and brought out a second cigar. “No, how would I know what his name was? Mickey mouse?”
“No, his name was Nuno DeMuror.”
“Yes, in fact I came across this guy completely by accident. And then I saw his name, and I was like ‘what kind of a name is Nuno?’ And then I saw the second part of it and I knew I had a lead. Nuno DeMuror. I was looking at old genealogy websites and then I found him and we had a good call about where his second name could have come from. We decided to meet up the next day in Parque Lincoln and discuss.”
“What kinda guy was little Nuno, then?”
“He was just my type, you know. But don’t look at me like that, Fatty – he had a wife. She came along too, just to be sure. Long, scruffy, dark-haired; a well-looked after, comfortable-life softness about him. She was very jealous, but of course I wouldn’t touch him.”
“Not with her around you wouldn’t touch him.”
“I wouldn’t dare, Fatty. Well it turned out that he was also very interested in genealogy. You would be with a name like Nuno – it was an old family name. He said he had traced it to somewhere in Eastern Europe. He said ‘a little further than Bulgaria but not as far as Turkey’”.
“As far as I’m aware, there is no such place.”
“He said there was. He said it was a place called Behi Ahara.”
“So naturally I go to Eastern Europe and try to find this place.”
“Naturally. But isn’t that an expensive trip and for not much return? For what? To find out little Nina’s gibberish for a hypochondriac mother?”
Rocio drew back, and looked at me reproachfully. I had obviously gone too far, but in truth was just trying to imagine what Rocio’s life must be like. I mean, you imagine it. Somehow, she has money and she’s young and she’s beautiful. And she’s capable, level-headed, you know? She can go wherever she wants, at any time. Tell me you aren’t jealous.
“You are too much of a businessman, Fatty. And you doubt women’s intuition. We know what something is worth without understanding why, and that is intuition. Sometimes things are worth following because they excite you, even if they’ll be a massive drain on your wallet or your heart or whatever. It doesn’t all have to be about the maths.”
“Doesn’t hurt that you have the money to say that. Somehow.” I felt bad saying it, but it was true – as someone who had experienced poverty myself I felt strongly about the issue. That being said, I also believe that you don’t have to disclose where your money comes from – that’s your business, along with whoever’s paying. Like that economist said about an invisible hand – I take it to mean that money passes through a stream of invisible people and no-one has to know the details.
Anyway. Back to Eastern Europe.
I had to apologise to Chio by ordering her another tequila, which she accepted graciously and with a mean smile.
“Back to Eastern Europe. I stepped off from the airplane, it was so cold, Fatty. I don’t know if you’ve ever been but it’s not my cup of tea. I stepped into Sofia International, from MEX. Horrible flight. Way too long. I stopped caring about the mystery half-way through I was so miserable. I thought to myself that nunoddemuro and everything else could go to la chingada. But, stepping out into that cold air, I smelled adventure. And little did I know that the whole time I was under the watchful eye of nunodemuro herself.”
I sat and waited. There was no explaining this one until Chio decided to clarify. She went on, eating fry after fry.
“Nuno had some family thereabouts who looked after me for a while. They set me straight – a couple with a beautiful little kid, Ivan he was called. I made enquiry after enquiry there, asking about Behi Ahara. Either people didn’t know or they didn’t want to tell me, no one was as friendly there as here, Fatty. They were often snooty about the way I went about my ways, or too curious. I hate that. Especially the men, trying to ‘look after’ me, trying to control my movements. I gave them the slip, of course. But there was this one guy, in a tiny little bar in Sofia, who became a little too interested in me after I asked about Behi Ahara.”
“The smart boy?” “The smart boy himself. His name was Professor Kaprow, and his interest was way above and beyond the normal kind. I caught him slipping something into my drink that night, the lousy son-of-a-“
“What a pendejo.”
“Absolutely. I saw it and I didn’t say anything at first, I wanted to see what it was that he wanted so bad. But then he caught on that I had caught on and left soon after that. The weasel. Well, when I got home I did some research and saw that he was a Professor in ancient Eastern European Civilisations. But following his internet trail I also discovered that my new friend was a total fraud. I’ll explain later”
Chio laughed, but her eyes flashed as she did so, injecting the laugh with scorn. I would hate to be on that side of her, cold, disrespectful.
“Professor Kaprow, from then on, kept a very close eye on me. I was being followed by him, and that meant two things: the first was that there was something valuable about Behi Ahara. Could have been to him personally, or something bigger. Two: despite not knowing much, I was getting close to the truth.
I was in a book shop a couple of months later, still not feeling like I knew anything and still being tailed by this creep when I hit the jackpot. I have come to realise, Fatty, that everything can fall through these days apart from books. If all else fails, if you are having trouble of any kind – financial, romantic, whatever – a good bookshop will remedy that. You may not find the answer you were first looking for, but an answer you will find.”
El Mago’s was quiet by now, filled with only a few lonely men, like I would have been had Rocio not come to sit with me. I was glad of her company in the darkening hours.
“I found one of Kaprow’s books in English – something I should have tracked down long before. And, right there in the index, Behi Ahara under B. I nearly cried at how obvious it was. I found a warm corner in the shop and began to read. Behi Ahara is now forgotten by most people who live in the area, and if not forgotten, it has been pivoted from a nation of history to a nation of myth. Kaprow is the only quote-on-quote ‘qualified’ person who actually believes in it, and everyone makes fun of him for it, like how scientists can’t admit that they really all think aliens are out there because they’ll get bullied out of their job. But the little shit is right, Behi Ahara did exist, once.”
“It’s so annoying when the smart-ass is right.”
“Absolutely. Well, not only was the whole story of Behi Ahara there, but nunoddemuro herself, the moon goddess of the nation. Turns out these people, who lived somewhere in-between Bulgaria and Turkey, Kaprow calls them Behians, were pantheists, sort of. They believed that everything had it’s god or goddess, or godet.”
“Godet? Like that play?.”
“No, godet was the name of the Behian’s child-gods. They existed, immortal, in a state of childhood. Or that was how Kaprow described it.”
“He sounds like an ass. But there we are – Nunoddemuro, la luna herself. Now I understand why you said she was watching you.” “You’re quick, Fatty. And so were the Christians, when they found out what a wild bunch of heathens were living next door to them. And the Muslims. The people of this religion were not in a good place, neighbour-wise.”
“They must have been destroyed. Or converted.”
“Both, Fatty. Utterly and completely annihilated just because they had their own, unique ideas of the world. It was a respectful religion, you can imagine it, everything being respected because it was connected to its own holy thing. According to Kaprow, Nunoddemuro was like a parent-figure god, along with the sun, Talungon, or God of the One Terrible Face.”
“What did Nunoddemuro mean?”
“Something like: Goddess of Thirty Faces – an allusion to the lunar cycle, I guess. The gods, goddesses, and godets were all in a state of constant flux, forever changing their shape and form – like how the rock-god became the knife-goddess when the edge was sharpened. Only Talungon and Nunoddemuro were completely separate individual gods, two parents looking after their multitudinous, infinite children with a mild gaze. All absolute heathen rubbish that the big religions next door could not allow to survive.”
“Not if our holy father who art in heaven had anything to do with it.” I crossed myself out of habit.
“Well, now I had my answer – or part of it. All down to Kaprow’s lousy book. I knew the meaning of Noddemuro, that’s for sure, but not how it suddenly appeared in a little girl’s head in Mexico City, a good eleven thousand kilometres away. After that, more questions enveloped me quicker than an April shower. As it was getting late, I paid for the book and was on my way back to Nuno’s family house. The walk back I was accompanied by two of my new friends, the moon and – can you guess – Professor Lousy Kaprow.”
“What did he want from you?”
“Well Fatty, he wanted to pay me off, that’s what he wanted. Although we didn’t start off on a very good footing. First off – he got a black eye. Then, wham! I get a bloody nose. We cool off for a second, and I shout all the standard stuff: ‘why are you following me, jerk, loser, pendejo, stay away if you know what’s good for you!’. Unlucky for me, he is not alone. Some guy has me from behind, gives me a real good slug on the ear, and the next thing I know I wake up in Kaprow’s car.”
My fatherly instincts made me wince as Rocio playfully described her fight. I was obviously soothed by the knowledge that she made it out in one piece enough to get back to Mexico City, and I knew she could hold herself in a fight but damn. One of these days she’s going to get into a fight she can’t wriggle out of. She kept eating fries and sipping tequila all cool-like, but I wonder if she really is ok under that exterior. Rocio Quinta has something ungraspable about her, you know, in flux, like the gods and goddesses of the Behians – or it could be that I’m just an old man with old views of women, and don’t understand things like I used to.
“At this point I clocked that Kaprow thought I was a lot more knowledgable than I really was. I played along, pretended I was too – I wanted to see how much he would pay, since it became apparent to him that I wasn’t scared off by a few knocks. He was really close to me, I smelled his rank breath and felt not a jolt of fear, but just disgust at this guy who thought he could bully himself into success. It was success he wanted and was desperate for. That’s how he made his money, by bullying and intimidating people with more knowledge than him. Then he’d write lousy books about it and that’s how he got his professorship. He thought I was compiling some dictionary about the lost language of Behi Ahara because he had overheard me mentioning Nunoddemuro in that tiny bar in Sofia. I told him so what if I was, and how much he would pay for it, hundreds and hundreds of pages filled with lost words. I even gave him a few examples.”
“Hrulnt: the feeling of derision you get when you go to a man’s house and it’s filthy. Or peekaw: someone with rancid breath.”
“I bet your Professor loved that one.”
“Yeah I got a kick out of it. Literally and figuratively.” Rocio grinned. “He gave me a nice sum of money for the dictionary, the stupid man. Ten thousand Bulgarian lev, for something that didn’t exist. Roughly one million and four hundred pesos.”
“That explains why he’s out for your blood. He followed you to el D.F?”
“Yes, and it probably cost him more than the money he gave me in the first place. He’s really out to get me Fatty. Funny thing is, I have been thinking of writing a dictionary of Behian language. Because – get this, the language isn’t really lost.”
I sipped my tequila. “What do you mean it isn’t really lost? Are some of the Behians still alive?
“No, no – they’re long gone. The Christians and Muslims made sure of that. You’ll never guess, Fatty. This is really the best, and most interesting part of the story coming up; the part that explains how that little girl knew the word in the first place.”
“Go on, Rocio.” It was getting darker and darker in El Mago’s taqueria. El Mago was standing close by, smoking thoughtfully. I couldn’t tell if he was listening or not.
“I’ll tell you because of all this lovely food and drink you’ve been giving me. You’re a good friend, Fatty, a good guy. Now, the Behians had an incredibly interesting language. Not only was the grammar totally different from anything you’ve ever heard or seen, but they threw their words, as a part of it. The language, I mean. By throwing certain words they meant different things, like how in some Chinese languages different tones mean different things, you get me? They all learned to do it from birth and became very skilled at it throughout their lives. Well, the Behians were under attack, and under threat of extinction really. They weren’t very fierce warriors, more mystics and philosophers, so it must have been a massacre. When they knew that the end was near for them, their nation, their culture, their religion – all of it, you know – they thought that maybe their language didn’t need to be lost too. Through their language part of them would remain, and in a way it worked. The last night of the attack, when they knew all was lost, the government – there wasn’t a monarchy – decreed that every citizen should stand in the main square of the main city that could. There, under the blessing of Nunoddemuro, they performed a ‘cry’ - a mass throwing of words. Every person took a different word in the language and projected it as far as they could, aiming them in all directions, at the stars too. It was like a volcanic eruption of language – the collected energy and velocity was so great that they broke the sound barrier, no noise was emitted. It apparently took one hundred years for the words to stop moving, as they raced through the atmosphere and around the word. By that time, the words were so quiet that they passed into people’s ears unheard. All over the word, spanning continents and seas, people heard – without hearing – the lost language of Behi Ahara. And the rest is history: people began to find them embedded in their minds, cropping up in their vocabulary and mind speech without understanding how. And some people were unaffected, of course, left without a share of this secret knowledge. The people who became aware of the words, like that little girl, found foreign words constantly on the tip of their tongues. And that is the legacy of Behi Ahara. The lost language that isn’t really lost. The Behians were all slaughtered after that night.”
I leaned back in my chair. “What a story. So creating a dictionary of these words would be very, very, difficult, but not impossible?”
“Very, very, very, difficult, Fatty. And lucrative, for those who have been trying to do it for years. People like Kaprow would pay good money to be the one to finally do it.”
“Worth a trip to Mexico City, then.”
“Yes, if the payout was good. I, however, have not collected enough of these words to make it worthwhile, which is why I’m in the shit with Kaprow.”
“That, and stealing his money.”
“Well, yes. And that.”
Rocio paused and looked at her watch.
“Thanks for the food. I should probably be off.”
“Will you be collecting more words? You can’t just leave it like that, surely?”
“Leave what like what, Fatty?”
“The story! Chio, doesn’t it bother you now you know all of this?”
“Who’s to say? Maybe I’ll keep trying to track down the words. Maybe not. If I come across enough then I will. But it’s tiring enough trying to avoid Kaprow, for now, anyway. Hopefully he’ll get bored and go back to Bulgaria soon.”
“Hopefully”, I echoed doubtfully.
Rocio stood up, and I did too. We kissed goodbye, and she loped off into the night, leaving me with the bill and a thousand unanswered questions. And that was the second time I met Rocio Quinta. Or was it the third? An old man like me finds it hard to remember. Anyway, I hope you found what you were looking for. Goodnight, goodnight. Until next time, old friend.