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“Nuca” © 2024 by delila

 

Maculated tree branches of arylide yellow twist into knots as the river rumbles below our footbridge. When my palm lands on a twig, I can feel my other mouth, the one that likes to talk back, the one hidden beneath my ponytail, recoil with cold.

We walk on slippery rotten wooden boards to stretch our legs after the drive from the city and before we dip into the hot springs. Carme treks ahead of me and has tucked her other face underneath her hoodie. I can hear it screaming in protest through Carme’s long, wavy hair and her jacket’s thickness, through the roaring of the Papallacta river and the thrumming of the rainfall above. Carme’s partner, Anahí, leads our hike and at times stops her quick pace to help her girlfriend through rough patches; last night Anahí trimmed her undercut and now parades her other face to this cloud forest. La otra cara also carries her plump lips and red cheeks, a smile that I’ve memorized, and eyes I can never tell if they’re green or brown. They watch me as I hike along and never blink.

Are we close to the springs yet? Carme asks, and Anahí laughs; her second face joins and pulls its cheeks apart, a slit in her nape cara, like a black hole ripping through spacetime, revealing a row of yellowed teeth and a blackened tongue. Her mouth a burrowing and I still want in. My eyes widen and I slip on a bricked step swathed by flattened barbed wire. The bromelias above stop my fall; they pull my shoulders with their spikey ends and the shedding tree’s moss lifts my jacket and me. The páramo forest gathers its limbs on us and aches to whelm, to hug me, to save me. I look back at Anahí's nuca face and it winks, a blink so slow it feels like an invitation.

My other face chortles through my hair. It coughs up a dark hairball a few meters later.

When we reach the hot springs, Anahí strips; Carme and I watch how her toes break through the pool’s vapor. A nevus lives on her inner thigh, her knees carry scars from our childhood bicycle lessons. Once her body is in, her other face says Qué hijue madre and Anahí giggles, but the other, new, Anahí doesn’t. A lengua dressed as a shadow hangs outside her mouth.

Yeah, she says, nodding, I feel the same way. Qué fue? she asks us. Carme and I look at each other, impressed at how Anahí’s body did not protest the rain as she undressed or when she slowly submerged herself into the volcanic water. She boils and waits, her clavicles poking out amongst bubbles, the mountains around us walling us in.

I want to sink my faces into the hot spring and see which one comes out breathing. I’m hoping it’s mine. But when I do, when I drown her, me, I’m the one who screams. The lava pool stings both sets of eyes. My nostrils burn and ears keep ringing from the bubbling and the droning below. I raise my fingertips and feel my other teeth out and bare, a wicked smile unfolding in my nuca, mi otra boca chomping at my finger.

Ow! I say in response, my other cara now kissing my finger with such tenderness. It likes to hurt and watch me squeal.

Dolo, Carmela says to me, shaking her head. I already tried that. They’re not going anywhere, she says, talking about her own. Just try to relax your nuca, she adds. Carme pets her own nape face and lets the hot spring vapor veil her winged eyeliner and blushed nose, her rosy lip gloss still intact.

I can’t believe you put makeup on yours, Anahí laughs. Carmela’s other face blows a kiss to the forest.

Dude, obviously. What—am I gonna let someone see the other me sín nada? Like, bare me? Carme laughs, too.

Pequeña, Anahí says, drifting towards her girlfriend.

I feel the other me tense up. Please be quiet. Not now.

I don’t ever think you need make-up, Anahí reassures her Carme.

I roll my eyes. I hope the back of my head does, too. But it doesn’t seem to listen to me.

When are we getting puntas, putas? I ask them and later spit out the hot spring water my other mouth swallowed up. It’s like I can’t with her. I can’t with me. Carme and Anahí roll their eyes at me, maybe all sets of eyes, and swim away. Red and purple bikinis plop in blue, murky water.

After, when we’re drying our bodies with our packed cold towels, Carme asks, Why didn’t this work? She smothers the back of her face with a drenched rag.

Carme wonders why we’re haunted by these other versions of us, why they’ve emerged now, why we birthed them together. These faces from foggy mirrors adorned with lipstick kisses, espejos we used for practice before our bodies gravitated towards each other. Pimples galore, eyebrows that met in the middle, breasts in training bras, pierced navels, and a sky’s worth of dread living in the lacunas of us. We only hold on to what we know: nuca caras leave when ready, but an offering occurs before then and legend has it it involves water.

I heard it could work out here in the hot springs, no lo sé, I explain, trying to comb my hair with my fingers, but my otra cara’s teeth keep clacking, out to bite.

I think maybe in El Gran Cañón. That’s what we have left, anyways, Anahí says and embraces Carme, shielding her from an incoming wind. It pushes through treetops, sheds deciduous leaves, and thrusts into the wooden bridge. El viento howls so loud we no longer hear the bubbling of the hot pools or the thunderous river. I cover my ears, but I can still hear my other face when she says Why not me.

 


 

The picnic table almost falls over as we three plop down and perch our elbows on the woven cloth. The Papallacta restaurant that sits on a hill scummed with thick grey fog welcomes bathers after their hot springs swim. Their most popular drinks are puntas, pure sugarcane methanol. Our guts will burn and this way we’ll find some warmth.

We sit and stare at each other. Our eyelashes wet and pointy, eyes red from sulfates, skin wrinkly with salt. We eye the forks and knives below our chins and wonder if the other mouths need food, too. Do they feed or feast. Do they yearn like we do, lick lips and pull at their skin, click teeth at night and leave pools of saliva on our pillows.

I hope the moonshine puntas blind her and end her.

The waitress sees us touching our other faces, our hands reaching to the back of our damp heads. She smiles as she sets down the shot glasses filled to the brim.

Puntas on the house, chicas, she says and winks. I wonder if she does that all day. Serve and wink and beam. How’s las otras caras? she asks us.

We look up at her. Carme’s other face sneezes, her wet hair lifting upwards. I cackle and a little tear strays from my eye, but I don’t feel it fall down my nape.

I’m having a great time, Anahí replies. I actually believe her. The most unbothered Anahí.

So, all three of you? she asks, and I lift my hair, pulling back to reveal my face.

Oye, pero qué brava la tuya, the waitress tells me. How angry my face is, she thinks. I can feel it pouting. Maybe a tongue sticking out. I know from this morning’s mirror its face still beams with baby fat and her braces are on tight. I drew my hair apart and glanced at a cara I haven’t seen in so long, a me I left behind forever ago.

Did the hot springs help with the pain? she asks us. Carme lets out a sigh and shakes her head no; Anahí holds Carme’s hands, intertwining her fingers.

No, but we’re going to El Gran Cañón later, Anahí replies for us. The waitress nods and leaves, scratching the back of her head with her fingernails. We clink our shots and pour them down our throats, the methanol stinging the sides of my lips. My nape mouth retches.

 


 

A paved road links Papallacta and the jungle city of Tena, the house of El Gran Cañón. Women dry cacao beans on the side of the highway and so when Carme lowers her copilot window, a scent of sun-warmed and herbs and fruit bursts in. Beyond the beans, a porraceous wall. Above, a foliage that ebbs and flows. Below, golden lamellas, paths of bugs and dead things that fall from the sky, a forever layered ground. Anahí’s finger twirls the mixtape tape cord that connects to her phone. Old trees listen to our car tunes and hum along.

From the backseat, I watch Anahí’s hand, how the sun has blessed her skin, and how she sometimes extends her fingers to reach for Carme’s thigh. My nuca cara cackles at my want.

Carme sticks her hand out the window and lets the jungle’s exhalation levitate her, her arm a movement, a sine wave. And then, a crash. A winged beast strikes Carme’s open hand. Its skin wings enwrap her palm, and Carme shrieks and jolts her body. The animal ricochets into the car. Anahí hits the brakes, our heads slam forward. Brown wings flap around inside, the creature squeaks and screams. In between my best friend’s shrieks, I grab the animal and cup it in my hand. It rests and breathes, and when I open my hand like a flower, I stare at a murciélago that is so lost.

You’re gonna get rabies, Carme yells from the front seat. I see her eyes through the headrest hole. Her cara nuca says the same thing, Rabiosa, rabiosa, rabiosa.

Toss the bat out the window! Anahí instructs as she lowers the volume and the window to my right. I scoot and lean on the door, the highway bordering the rainforest a dark trail silenced by howling creatures and palpitating canopies. Quick, quick, she urges me. And so I offer the bat the amazonía and it accepts, fluttering its wings into the night.

In the passenger window’s reflection and under the car’s night-light, I see my nape face. Between my long and curly hair, she stares with reddened eyes and her mouth spirals open. Whatever, she says to me, her eyelashes clumped together, almost sealed like a membrane, like a bat’s hands and their webbed fingers. She closes her eyes and I want to disappear.

 


 

Eight glossy eyes watch us from the upper corner. Legs with claws hang to the cabin’s walls and Anahí is in charge of letting us know when the tarantula moves, if it inches closer. Carme already with such care washed the makeup off both of her faces and now sits in our triangle and refuses to drink. Our knees touch, pajamas warm with each other’s bodies.

Tonight is the last night of our road trip. Tomorrow we face El Gran Cañón and hope it saves us from us.

Vodka after brushing my teeth is just nasty, Carme argues. She taps her fingertips on her lips and says, Maybe I should do what you do, babe, and shave my head. It’ll make it easier to use my lip liner, that’s what I know.

Anahí almost falls back with laughter imagining her Carme with an undercut, her long locks draping the peluquería’s tiled floor.

We laugh and drink for tomorrow. I imbibe shots of watermelon Zhumir and imagine the sandy boulders of El Gran Cañón, its green but transparent waters, the shoes people have lost in its depth, sunk, sunk, sunk down into a tunnel no one knows where it ends. I imagine rest, too, from my nuca face and the pain.

Well, if you’re not gonna drink, then we should do something else, I say.

Wait, wanna see a neat trick? Anahí asks me.

Not really, Carme responds for me.

I do, I say. And Anahí hugs me and pulls me close to her cheek, the side of her lips brushing mine. She lifts my chin with her thumb and points up with her other hand. The spider creeps down slowly. When she stands, I collect Anahí’s scent through my nose and lock it in mi memoria.

Carme watches Anahí approach the araña and pleads, No, no, no, nena, no, por favor.

Wait, what is she doing? I ask. Carme shakes her head and places her palms on her eyeballs.

She likes to pet them and kiss them. And then her breath smells like bugs, Carme replies.

They’re not bugs, I correct her, and Carme rolls her eyes.

Anahí sits back down, more of her thigh touching mine. She brings the arachnid closer, its little black hairs poking at her skin.

Mira, she whispers to me, look at this.

Anahí leans in, puckers her lips, and before she lands a kiss on the tarantula that stays still for her, Anahí’s other mouth barks, Comételo! And so Anahí listens and gobbles it and I can’t contain my laughter. The chortle bellows out of me, from my lungs, as if they had never felt that much air in there before. It’s as if my nuca face is breathing, too.

Carme screams and then chokes with laughter. She then really chokes. Her moisturized lips birth a hairy pair of legs. They crawl down her nuca face and her spine, finding safety on her lower back. A leg placed in each dimple.

Get it off me, get it off me! Carme urges her Anahí, and so Anahí leaps forward and cradles her spat out treasure before letting it go. The tarantula limps far away from us, a shadow trinket vanishing into the cabin’s unlit corners.

Guácala! Carme cries, flailing her arms down her back, searching. Babe, I told you not to, she says and pouts.

I love you, my other tells Anahí.

Ya, mi amor, tranqui, Anahí soothes her. No faces hear me.

Anahí grins and turns her body, her spine leaning on Carme’s back. They lift each other’s hairs apart and kiss; their other faces lock in place, lips entangling, black tongues slithering, their other mouths moaning, breaths that sound like thunder, yellowed eyes glazed open. This is when Anahí calls me in and pulls me closer and when I give in, my nuca face says something like Por fín.

We pass out slowly after, I think, a shot glass gripped between my palms, and Anahí’s face buried in my belly, my top tucked beneath my breasts.

 


 

The tip of my tongue runs inside my mouth, tracing bracket scars carved into my sanguineous walls, into my old teenage flesh. I carry paths of pain in me, but they are only memories. I feel sorry for my other me, my other mouth, whose teeth are pulled together and apart through twisting and turning, whose mouth bleeds when she tries to smile.

Then again, fuck her. She’s a scar in the making, an open wound filled with such angst. Today I hope she drowns.

The hungover walk in the morning from our cabin to El Gran Cañón is long. We step down the trail to let the vines unfurl and let us through. They drape behind us, locking us in. Rainforest mud reaches our tibias. Our hands touch things they shouldn’t, like tangerine caterpillars that like to hide underneath holed leaves and pellucid frogs with their cold-blooded organs that sit alongside the wet trail and jump on us when we slip and fall. Big limpid eyeballs sitting on our thighs, gazing.

I can hear it, Carme says and smiles. The waterfall’s loud crashing reaches us, and Anahí begins unzipping her rain jacket and hastening her pace.

You’re gonna fall and hit your head and die! I warn her, but she’s gone.

She always does this, Carme says to me as she stops beneath a tree limb. She looks up to see if anything descends on her and waits for me to catch up. Dolo, she says, you need to stop caring for her so much.

A warning, I think.

That’s my job, she adds.

I don’t—I’m sorry, I was just saying she could hurt herself, I say, my hands prodding each other inside my jacket.

Uh huh, Carme replies. If it wasn’t for her, she says, her index finger pointing at her nape, at her gorgeous nuca face, I would have never known what you two did last night.

What did we do? I ask.

She sighs and walks away, her hiking boots plopping with sticky mud. I follow and wonder if the blemishes on my belly I spotted this morning aren’t really bruises. They’re red and deep, maybe a reaction to an animal bite. Or maybe a forceful outline of a kiss.

We reach the clearing and the downpour echoes so loud I feel like I’m deaf. El Gran Cañón is a hole in our earth. A cave with the sky as an opening. Giant rocks swathed by bright green moss. A lagoon of waves pushed by a falling cascade. And a naked Anahí who slowly climbs down the boulders into the water, her hands steadying her body as her feet brave slimy, wet stones. Carme looks at me and I can tell her eyes ache.

Vamos, she says, and yanks my hand.

My leggings slide down from a boulder into the lake. The stream always takes something from visitors, like a price to pay for its saving. Maybe that’s the offering, old holey leggings. My body vanishes from the neck down and there’s no ground beneath my feet. We kick to stay afloat, our three heads bobbing up and down.

Will this work, should we go in together? Carme asks us.

Anahí smiles and replies, But I don’t want to lose both of your faces, mi amor. She swallows some water and coughs it up.

Can we just do it, please? I ask. Our bodies begin shifting west, into the waterfall, and I feel the slams of the water near me.

Dolores, you go first, Anahí says. I look into her eyes which now look browner than ever, and I let go.

Beneath, I hug my cold bare legs close to my chest and sink. Clods of sand drift next to me, the legs of my best friends still kicking. My other me shouts and ingests all the catarata water. She tries to drown me back, to turn me into a sunken, buried thing, something gone.

I fight by swimming up, I fight for me. Through sediment streams, I see Anahí and Carme dip their heads in and out.

When I come up for air, I know she’s still there, because her teeth are bare and I feel the wind entering her mouth, now my mouth. It’s a wet wind that tastes of soil. And on the surface, through a vision of red, I see them float. Faces effervesce and drift as the waterfall crashes into the cave lake. Eye sockets slowly emptying, eyeballs falling. Darker brows and nostrils. Mandíbulas wide open, squealing. Carme’s nuca lip-glossed cara and Anahí’ two-toned eyes and blackened tongue bubble up and then sink.

They’re gone. They’re free.

Through my wet hair, I face the waterfall, a mighty white light. I hear the girls giggling behind me. I wonder what’s left of me. My face lingers for a while before it dissolves next to me. My straightened teeth not too far away from my splashing arms and lower back. My then-eyes crying for me. It all dematerializes into the canyon’s abyss.

I open my mouth to cry for help, but my brackets stab my inner cheeks.


Editor: Dante Luiz

First Reader: Morgan Braid

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Ana Hurtado is a speculative fiction writer and a Clarion West 2022 alum. Her work has been published by The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionStrange Horizons, and Uncanny Magazine, among others. LeVar Burton read one of her stories for his podcast LeVar Burton Reads. You can find her via her website www.anahurtadowrites.com or on Twitter at @ponciovicario.
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