approx 3000 words, ~20 min read time
They call them Hueseros–the old men and women who linger at the fringes of the city, lurking around the shabby half-brick houses with asbestos ceilings, where the rule of law ends and a wildness springs forth from the ground. From bones to minds, curses and omens, and everything in-between the Hueseros are rumored to heal it.
On the road to St. Bernabé there is a gorge, a man-made indentation that goes deep into the hill, and there at the bottom lives Izel el Huesero; said to have eyes the color of a smoked mirror and a smile made of sharpened ribs, not teeth.
They say that Izel el Huesero is not a man to be looked for unless the injury is dire. And even then, it’s better to be dead than in the debt of this particular Huesero.
Lisandro knows the rumors but he presses on, undeterred.
He cannot live this way and if the whole world has abandoned him, here at least is a Huesero who will not. Lisandro is a wealthy man, or wealthy enough, anyhow, even if he isn’t rich enough to bend everyone to his whims. But this Izel will do what he asks, surely. There is always enough money, enough promises and enough lies that can be made.
So, Lisandro climbs down the set of stairs that lead down into the gorge, where a handful of houses of half-brick, half-plastic threaten to collapse at the merest gust of wind. The streets down here are labyrinthine.
The scent is pungent, no garbage trucks venture this way and black plastic bags litter every corner with trash torn open by mangy dogs. In all ways, this fragment of a place has been left to rot on its own, surrounded by high-rises that plunge it deeper into darkness. Here is a place that resists modernization with tooth, claw and the casual neglect of its neighbors. There will be nothing new birthed in these streets.
Not as long as Izel the Huesero makes this his home.
Lisandro carries a tote bag with a SUPERAMA logo on the side, bright green and filled with 500 peso bills. His black sweatshirt and Adidas sweatpants hide the hardened patches of dried blood.
Lisandro does not look wealthy like this: crawling through the gorge’s narrow streets, smelling of vomit and blood, greasy ash-blond hair plastered to one side. His vanity cannot bear mirrors right now, which is just as well.
A Huesero does not care for looks as long as there is payment involved.
As the streets narrow even further, the sky disappears under the overlapping metal and asbestos roofs. The rusted pole lamps barely illuminate the streets that are more potholes than asphalt.
There is no sidewalk, and Lisandro struggles to find his footing as he follows the directions whispered to him over one too many whiskeys at a posh bar in la Condesa.
There is no door at the Huesero’s, so he raps on the wooden frame instead. A flimsy plastic bag stuck together with brown tape makes for a poor defense against the elements but when Lisandro steps inside the sounds of the outdoors, siren wails and dog howls, disappear. An invisible line between the outside and inside, delineating this place as sacred.
The packed earth floor serves as a filling between their bodies and the void. The exposed bricks surrounding the bare insides, with not even careless plaster slathered on to help serve as a mock facade of a home. No windows, only the flickering light of veladoras with the name of too many forgotten saints.
The occasional pop of a burnt-out candle and the thick coppery scent of dried blood are his only companions. Lisandro feels the smell stick to the back of his throat and he gags.
There is a rattling laughter from the furthermost corner, where the shadows coalesce together to form the Huesero sitting on dirt a cloth of black. “Aren’t you a little lost, mirrey?”
It is easier not to answer at all, to stare Izel down and make sure he understands Lisandro means business. “I see,” Izel says. “Get some cafe de olla, pass me one too. Tell me, why have you come all the way here?”
“I need you to help me. You’re the only one who can.” Lisandro cringes at the thought of sitting on the floor, of touching the cracked clay pots steaming on the wooden plank serving as a table. But Lisandro does it anyway, will swallow his pride this once. It is not as if his pride is worth anything if he is dead.
“Don’t you know we skin mirreyes alive down here and feed them to the dogs?”
He must swallow it or die. The huesero watches him, then cracks a smile.
Lisandro’s world unraveled on a sunny Thursday afternoon, within the confines of the director’s pristine office. The red letters announcing his expulsion sear into Lisandro’s skin like a brand of shame, forever a reminder of his failure and the utter severing of his life’s purpose. That he is being given this notice can only mean one thing: someone in their group talked. The secrecy they had sworn had not meant anything at all if there Lisandro stood, carrying all the guilt.
Even if it had been his idea to go down to the university’s morgue after hours, with four bottles of tequila and a bag of weed. None of those objects had been Lisandro’s.
“I do not understand,” Lisandro says, crumpling the paper where he tightens his fingers. “This is some sort of … test? A joke, Doctor Cruz.”
“I assure you, Mr.Corte-Real, it is far from a joke. It is a decision we have all carefully deliberated over.” Doctor Cruz leans forward to rest his elbow on the mahogany desk that is filled to the brim with files and graded exams. An academic, a doctor but Lisandro only sees him as a judge, jury and executioner.
Lisandro opens his mouth to speak: “Sergio,” he pleads, ignoring the way Doctor Cruz’s eyes narrow, how he sits back on his chair, trying to draw more physical distance between them. Lisandro’s pocket is heavy with cash. “There must be something we can do about this. A way to fix it.” He digs in deep and places a wad of bills the desk next to the files upon files of student admission records and grades.
“Not everything is about throwing money at problems.” But Lisandro sees the way Cruz’s eyes linger on the money one moment too long for his words to be wholly sincere. His conscience wins, he pushes the stack towards Lisandro urging him to take it back. “ Human lives cannot be measured in those terms and until you understand that… then, well. The board and I are confident in our decision.” Doctor Cruz remains unmoved betraying Lisandro’s previous memories of the supportive mentor who would not discard his unorthodox ideas, who would offer flattery to soothe an ego bruised by poor grades. He takes a deep breath, “You mutilated a corpse donated to the UNAM for medical research, playing around as if –“ he stops, Lisandro watches his eyes dull with the memory of the photos taken by the police, it reeks of his father’s constant disapproval “-and then you punched a fellow student who tried to stop you.”
Lisandro’s pockets feel empty, even with the fold of bills tucked back inside. His father lied, money does not fix everything.
“Go home, Lisandro. You’re not suited to hold human lives in your hands.”
Lisandro drinks too much. Remembers his first year in medical school when everyone would pile into the nearest bar and throw back shots of tequila until that memory and this moment seemed to stretch into eternity. A tangled vine of present-past-present that is unbreakable.
He feels like that now. Loose-limbed and predatory, stumbling down an alley paved so smoothly it glows under the dim light. Overhead, two buildings seem to bend giving the impression of a concrete mouth, swallowing the light behind trashcan teeth.
In the middle of the alley this world ends and a new opens up; a cardboard box with damp edges is spat out by the shifting pavement. The overpowering stench of rotten meat crawls its way down Lisandro’s throat; he can taste the mushy texture and maggots, he swears he can hear how meat sounds. It croons and trills, soothing the knee-jerk terror of watching the world ripple and bend and buckle under the pressure of the uncanny. Lisandro waits for the world to slow its spinning before giving into the curiosity.
A small, ordinary cardboard box, the kind often sold at bakery stores, often filled in his memories with pan dulce or tartas de miel. Lisandro leans down, pulling the flap open.
A heart sits square in the center, pericardial sac peeled off to leave behind arterial bright red, open atriums releasing an arrhythmic singing with each pulse. It smells of copper and ten-year-old rust, breathing the night air with hungry, hungry gulps.
The street is empty.
Lisandro closes the flap and tucks the box beneath his arm, an idea taking root.
Behind Lisandro the alley closes up, the two buildings shifting back together as if the passage between had been a brief respite in time. A yawn before the universe started marching on again.
Lisandro had been hesitant about renting his first floor apartment, much preferring a penthouse with a view, but the rent had been cheap for a two-storey space and the proximity to campus allowed him to sleep in. Besides, he had thought that proximity to school would count in his favor, a sign of devotion.
Had he known back then what he does now, that he is unsuited to save human lives and no amount of ass-kissing would make a difference, he wouldn’t have bothered.
Crammed in the small service elevator that links his apartment to its private basement, Lisandro feels the thrumming of the heart in the cardboard box. Steady, soothing, slow.
What is he going to do with a heart and just a heart? No matter how extraordinary of an organ it seems to be, continuing to pump despite being unconnected to the rest of its meat and bone housing.
But is this not the opportunity of a lifetime? Whoever left it, whoever lost it no longer had a claim. This heart, with its beating, breathing, living core is either a scientific miracle or an anomaly that could revolutionize the world.
Human lives can be measured and weighed in the palm of his hand. Doctor Sergio Cruz would eat his words. Lisandro would make sure of it.
The heart is given a center place on a wooden table in the basement. The organ roots itself in place, spidery veins and arteries taking hold of the surface. The hay-yellow color of the table leeches out from where the veins nestle, turning it a dull rust-red.
Over time Lisandro brings back black bags of various shapes. Long and thick. Narrow and brittle. Cartilage tossed into a plate-like peanuts, then pressed and reshaped to resemble ears and a nose.
Tendons and muscles — connected through careful stitches, then plastered down onto bone. Sometimes, if the bones are not the right shape or they are broken, Lisandro will do what he can with hot metal and barbed wire.
The bags pile up, empty.
“A Coyote gave me these, so they better take.” In the absence of company, he has begun speaking to the heart and its various pieces. Normally, Coyotes are border dwellers, crossing back and forth beneath wire fences and over cement walls. For the right of passage, they expect a toll to be paid. Those who cannot pay are discarded halfway in that no man’s land.
The heart, in its center place at the table, waits. Surrounded by metal and bones, sinew and tendons, muscle and fat.
It pulses and reaches towards the nearest rib, pulmonary veins pulling around towards itself all the torn cartilage, and muscle, the brittle bones with tendrils of spongy marrow, the ligaments sliding back in place.. It even draws in the shattered pieces of mirrors Lisandro has discarded, slots them next to each organ. They’re all useless, his face looks wrong.
This is not magic, Lisandro thinks, it is technology. Nanowhatever-they-call-them. Science that has been left discarded and his for the taking.
It is neither science nor for the taking.
An inert body lies across a rusty-colored table. The skin is of a matching shade, and between the carved ribs a steady thrum threatens to break out like springtime marigolds, blooming brightly between meat and wood.
It becomes they taking their first breath on a stormy late night which would seem trite and passe if not for the bone shattering intensity of the sky calling down to the earth.
They unhinge their jaw to gasp for air, claw at their ribs until a sluggish trail of days-old blood runs down the side.
Then they find their voice: a rising wail meant to tear down the sky.
Lisandro tries to drown it. To him this abomination will remain an object stripped of life and sentience and freedom. This is not what he had wanted. Holds its misshapen head inside the bucket, fascinated by its lack of self-preservation until air runs out.
Burning does not take, the charred skin peels off to reveal fresh, smooth baby skin devoid of any imperfection. The more Lisandro burns, the more the crimson sickly texture of its initial skin gives way.
Lastly, he tries dismemberment, except the cleaver gets stuck on the first blow. The heart trembles and hums then tendrils wrap themselves around the handle of the cleaver and pull it inward, metal assimilated to flesh.
It looks at its creator, a ring of purple and red delineating the eye socket. Eyes smooth like obsidian, reflecting Lisandro’s face back at him.
Smoke trails down their face.
They open their jaw wide enough to swallow an entire skull, scream until Lisandro feels the void surging up to meet him.
It has to die. They have to die, though Lisandro still refuses to think of the thing birthed in his basement as anything but that: thing. Object. Abomination.
And yet — would proof of its existence not put his name in books? Would it not prove once and for all that life is something he can and should hold in his hands?
Doctor Cruz does not take his call, but Lisandro leaves a voice message that betrays his excitement and desperation.
‘Sergio, Sergio – I need to show you a miracle.’
The halls leading towards Sergio’s office are silent, the hour too late for the bustling student body that trails up and down from lecture to lecture. The morgue is at the right far end, the faculty’s lounge and personal offices on the far left.
The light is still on in Sergio’s office, the wooden door swings open at Lisandro’s impatient touch.
The word miracle twists inside him, eagerly taking root with the promise for more.
Sergio’s stoic face greets Lisandro, still unmoved at Lisandro’s excitement.
He feels an odd sense of calm descend as he takes in Sergio’s body splayed out on the chair. The doctor’s ribs have been punched in, bits of torn clothing, bone and tendons mixed together in red and white.
Visible, even in the darkness is Doctor Cruz’s heart, faintly beating, pumping air and blood down the leftovers of his shirt and dress slacks.
Behind Sergio, a human shape perches on the top of the plush chair, feet gripping the edge as one hand reaches into Doctor Cruz’s open chest. “The heart is everything,” they say, and their mouth widens, an open knife wound from ear to ear.
“You!” Lisandro had, among all the pieces the Coyotes gave him, not brought vocal chords. It – they – shouldn’t be able to speak.
“Me.” The monster agrees affably, as they swallow the heart and thrum in pleasure. Burnt, strangled, drowned, quartered– they remember the little deaths inflicted on their person spelling out a violent rejection; they will take everyone Lisandro knows, “you. I will swallow you whole.”
A promise, not a threat, as they leave Lisandro to the sound of approaching police sirens.
What is a miracle if not an act so great as to incite madness? To Lisandro crime becomes permissible as he flees with little dignity across the city. From his parent’s penthouse in Polanco where the police gather the scattered limbs of his family, to the crudely crafted homes that are barely hospitable. He preaches of his miracle once on a neon-lit street corner before a few passersby that speed up at the sight of his unkempt self. Time crunching between consciousness and crime; Lisandro mourns the absence of time. In every shadow, in every face he sees the miracle that won’t die, won’t end, and won’t stop torturing him towards the end of the world.
“So now you see why I’ve come to you.” Lisandro shifts, feeling his legs numb, pins and needles contesting with the gravel and dust. He runs a hand through his hair — even if there is nothing he can do to fix his appearance at this stage.
Izel el Huesero inclines his head slightly, the shadows falling over the gaunt, stark lines of his collarbone and shoulders. “I do.”
He brings the clay pot to his mouth and spits inside, ignoring the look of utter revolt Lisandro gives him. His own coffee pot sits untouched. “Then fix it, money is no object make them see.”
“Ah, mirrey.” Izel scratches at his chest, harder and harder the fingernails gouging deep furrows in the flesh, furrows deep enough to see the heart beneath.
Lisandro knows that particular heart. He hears its call — a lone ba-dum that picks up speed replacing the silence of this half-finished brick structure.
“Didn’t you want to see a miracle?”
The sound grows deeper and louder. Hundreds of hearts beating in unison, held together by a membrane of flesh that is vaguely human-shaped.
I am the Heart-Eater, the Smoking Mirror, Tezcatlipoca. You put me together and now—
Lisandro feels the void rushing up to meet him at last, madness taking root in the sockets where his eyes dissolved — his heart half-eaten but living still, a miracle to behold.
Tania Chen is a Chinese-Mexican queer writer. Their work has been published in Unfettered Hexes by Neon Hemlock, Strange Horizons, Pleiades Magazine, and Baffling. They are a first reader for Strange Horizons and Nightmare Magazine and a graduate of the Clarion West Novella Bootcamp workshop of January/Feb 2021.
Author of “Heart-Eater”
Monstrosity is subjective. It isn’t always the raw beating heart you find that is the true horror. My hope is that everyone who reads it enjoys the ride feels the horror and goes to look up more Aztec mythology! And that they not only remember it but this feel inspired to go out and write. Inspiring others is the best feeling, almost as good as being punched in the feels by a great story.
First of all, this story would not be here without Cat Rambo Academy classes. Many of them have given me tips on how to not just craft the story from a small idea but how to edit. Additionally, this story would also not be here were it not for Jordan Shively and Evan J Petersen who helped me edit several times and tighten up the loose ends.
According to my submission sheet, this story has been sent out around 13 times before finally finding a home.
I’ll be doing a reading with Neon Hemlock over at their Instagram in late July!