Carly Berwick has published stories in Hobart and Bowery Gothic. She has written about art, books, and culture for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, and other places. She lives in New Jersey.
Because of a family matter that she was reluctant to explain to the director of the fellowship, Kirstin arrived in Chiapas a day late, fully aware of the costs: missing the keynote lecture from the UCLA professor who had lived with the Zapatistas for three years; skipping the opening circle where the other artists shared their work on transformative esthetic practices and their concerns about the possible invasive, imperialist, or ethnocentric focus of their work; and ultimately, not having a secure seat in the van for the three-hour ride the next day to the Zapatista collective and their extraordinary political murals. When she arrived at the airport and hailed a cab to the fellowship’s building outside Tuxtla, it was midsummer everywhere. Chiapas was green, overflowing with plantlife that seemed to spring up and out from the ground, and in the air was a fecal barnyard smell that floated above the roadside orchids and blue sage.
An emerging artist still at 41, Kirstin worried about the other fellows, particularly the Europeans whose bios contained the names of Kunsthallen across the continent. Silke Neuringer even had projected a video of a rural Ukrainian solidarity action across the EU parliament building. Don’t talk too much, Kirstin coached herself, remain mysterious. It recently had become clear to her that her artist friends whose interventions and ephemeral installations were bought and shown around the Bay Area had taken one of two strategies toward communication with collectors, curators, and colleagues: drunken uproariousness or enigmatic silence punctured by occasional non sequiturs. Kirstin was attempting to follow the latter approach at this point in her own health journey. She had tried the first method for the prior two decades and had ended up with a string of failed affairs, two cats, and rosacea.
Over the phone the day before Kirstin’s flight, the fellowship director, Klara, suggested she hire a car separately and meet the group at a particular set of coordinates preestablished on a physical map (spotty phone service) and also offered to leave behind Silke, who was pretty chill and didn’t mind the inconvenience. The fellowship center was a renovated stucco single-story house at the edge of the sprawling city. A wooden sign alongside a circular dirt drive read “Casa de Estética Colaborativa.” Someone had draped on the sign’s edges shoelaces and ribbons, on which hung dried chiles and blue flowers.
Kirstin had found Silke sitting at a long wooden table in the backyard, smoking and drawing. Silke had nodded hello and handed her a printout from Klara with Wi-Fi password, breakfast options, and directions about closing screens thoroughly because of the mosquitoes. “There’s beans on the stove,” Silke said, before returning to her notebook.
Now that they were together in the back of a brown Volkswagen Rabbit, with the driver mutely following the map, Kirstin stared at Silke from behind her sunglasses, admiring the smooth slope of her skull under her short-cropped dark hair. She imagined the grainy movies Silke would be composing in her mind as they drove: this shot of a chicken running alongside their car as it jostled past, that shot of a barefoot child staring at them from a doorway as he ground corn with a mortar and pestle.
Kirstin had seen Silke’s films in various small museum shows over the years. They were wordless fusions of documentary and fiction focused on impoverished mothers. Kirstin even wondered if Silke might be sympathetic to her as an impoverished potential mother. She told Silke about her own work in participatory photography, in which she handed out disposable cameras or gave the password to her social accounts to strangers, and her concern that her entire project was based on a flawed premise. Did art that made the artist seem irrelevant to the process actually stem from a desire to be more relevant than anyone else? Was disappearing in the making of the art that nevertheless bore your name actually a gigantic display of performative virtue, the worst kind of egomania because it was disguised as humility?
The thing was, she told Silke now, she both deeply believed in her work and was surprised when anyone else cared—and it seemed highly improbable she was being egomaniacal when she had so few (almost zero really) collectors, investors, or buyers. Silke shrugged. Then Kirstin asked the driver to pull over so she could puke.
“This landscape makes me think of Das Kapital und Die Mutter,” Kirstin told Silke, as she wiped spittle from her face, leaning back once more inside the car. “I loved how you framed the Tibetan woman gathering firewood with the Icelandic singing.”
“Why are we stopping?” Silke said.
Kirstin explained that her constant need to pull over and throw up by the side of the road was not just car sickness.
“It turns out,” said Kristin, “my body reacts to a baby like an invasive pathogen.”
“Unfortunate, but no matter,” said Silke, and then she put her hand briefly on Kirstin’s arm. Kirstin could not tell if “unfortunate” referred to her general state at present or the delay, but the physical gesture helped her consider the former plausible. Touch made one vulnerable; this was true for the toucher as much as the touchee. She had read an interview once with Silke in an experimental film magazine, in which she discussed intentional touch. Silke had even mentioned that she had a process for deciding when to put her hand on someone’s arm or leg, as she knew people who struggled with negotiating inferiority enjoyed this.
Kristin knew she was misleading Silke by omission. She hadn’t mentioned at what point she was in the relationship to a now-hypothetical child. But, from an emotional standpoint, it hardly mattered. Would she feel the hard bottom of loss tomorrow, today, next month? She was far from home, and time had taken on an estuarine quality.
She had told no one about the hope, then the bleeding, the trip to the OB and the procedure, not even her mother, who at 70 was newly liberated from work and was unreachable, on a second or third trip to a decolonized country freshly high on democracy and its cultural debut to the global tourist market. “The time to see it is now!” her mother had texted Kirstin in one of their every-so-often check-ins. And then she left.
Kirstin felt less sure about traveling beyond those nations that had historically been the colonizers; she worried her presence in a once-colonized nation would be a traumatic reminder of the history she represented, a neo-colonial gesture, though she was aware maybe that was just an excuse to stick to Europe. Now, she decided disorientation might help her work out what was left of her. Her body had already escaped her, swelling and then squeezing back down in ways she could not control. What was the Zora Neale Hurston quote? “I feel most colored against a white background?” Like that, but the reverse.
For a year, she had wanted more than anything else the summer fellowship that would allow her to sit with those gorgeous murals of black-haired women in masks. Their dark eyes looked out above red bandanas and bright flags lettered with Revolucion, daring her to find them. She wanted to talk to other smart people about their role as viewers. She wanted to get drunk and swim in the Gulf and wake up with someone new. Then, in the spring, she was surprised by a new side to herself, which she decided she wanted, and figured she could still come, minus the drinking and someone new. She hoped she could do as well on a flight and bus as the pregnant woman in a mural she’d seen online who was carrying white flowers in one hand, a gun in the other—until her own body disagreed with her again. In a way, though, everything had worked out. Here she was, about to find out all she’d once wanted.
It was like Silke had told the interviewer for the film magazine: people learn to find even the most extraordinary circumstances ordinary. That’s what, Silke said, her films offered viewers—the perspective of the person in a strange situation who finds it completely normal. Silke rolled down her window and stuck one long tanned arm out it, moving away from Kirstin.
“I remember your interview in Film Theory Today about techniques in postmodern documentaries,” Kirstin said, hearing her own voice come back to her as an echo as she also cranked the manual handle on her door. Was this a trick of the windows? The air rushed against her swollen fingers at the edge. “We read it in graduate school. You talked about self-justification in interviews and the obligation of the interviewer not to intercede in the speaker’s narrative.”
“Yes,” said Silke. Kirstin felt like she was in one of Silke’s films. Was the driver the subject? Was she? She could only see the back of the driver’s neck, brown, wide and hairless. He must be in his twenties still. He wore a baseball cap that shaded his face, and every now and then muttered some words at the phone perched on his dashboard, which, Kirstin realized,
was in the middle of an hours-long call. One digital minute changed to the next on the screen.
“So you said, I think, that your films are not about maternal sacrifice and devotion? Or they seem to be but are not?”
“They are about the limits of speech.” Silke continued to gaze out the window, at the passing fields, with an occasional bony cow standing and chewing, looking back at them.
The driver hit the phone and swore. “Mierda!” The dead phone toppled off the dashboard.
“Totally,” said Kirstin. “Silence can be tactical. Your silences in the films make them so rich. And of course silence is familiar to you, I remember, having grown up on a hillside in the Alps. Like Heidi.”
“Not like Heidi at all,” Silke clarified. Then Kirstin remembered that the article had dug up some old material about Silke’s family. Her father had been part of the Swiss military, and there were rumors he’d traded secrets with Germans, in exchange for being left alone. At any rate, he was, as the writer put it, a feared presence in the household—providing long family invectives about meal preparation or fitness regimens until Silke was old enough to leave.
Silke turned her head back to Kirstin and once more put her hand on her arm. Kirstin imagined Silke thinking of this deliberate touch as a benediction, an offering to avoid speech. Or did it speak to Silke’s true regard for her, as someone negotiating inferiority? The hand withdrew, and the two women stared out each open window, watching large green leaves in the thickening trees shudder in the wind of the car as it passed. A wooden road sign informed them in handwritten all caps that they had entered Zapatista autonomous territory: “Here the people give the orders. The land belongs to all who work it.”
After five hours of bumping along two-lane highways, stopping by the narrow edge every forty-five minutes or so for Kirstin to throw up, the driver of the Rabbit deposited them at the end of a dirt road, turned around with a back passenger door still open, hopped out to pee in the dirt, returned to his call on the dashboard, and drove off. Silke lit a cigarette and sat on a bleached log, and Kirstin hiked further into the vines and bushes to see if there were signs of the others.
The path was easy to find. It was wide and sandy and dove into a thicket of greenery. As she walked, it became narrower and, after five minutes, she was hemmed in by leaves and a sense of something pricking at her. She slapped her shoulders, and her hand came back with three mosquitos, fat with her own blood. She should have thought better about wearing a cotton tank top and Bermuda shorts. It had seemed appropriate back in town, at the Casa de Estética Colaborativa, where slow fans slapped at the heavy air. Now it felt foolish; her skin glowed, sweaty and pheromonal, a beacon for bugs, swarming and engorged.
It made her think, briefly, of a review she’d once received from a small alt-weekly, back when they came printed as thick records of the dreams of the intelligentsia, shoved into plastic boxes on street corners. The writer, a young man she guessed must be about 15 years younger than she, based on his tiny profile photo, had used the words “swarming” and “engorged” to discuss the participants in the piece, which had involved offering free donuts outside city hall. It wasn’t, in the end, a kind review. The reviewer had mistaken effect for intention (the effect was the swarm; the intention was to display the real-world meaning of “civic input”), and it bothered her still because if one person had been confused, perhaps she didn’t really know what she was doing.
She brushed aside a frond; the wall paintings must be just a bit further. Noted, though, was the absence of traces of the others—no piece of cotton hanging from a twig, no indentation in the plants off the trail, no tissue dropped carelessly from someone’s pocket. The leaves shivered as she passed and made a noise like shush-shush-shush. She quickly stopped short. Before her stood a person in a wool balaclava, which seemed warm for the weather. The person was her height, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt for the band Rancid. (Was the short-sleeve version still in the back of Kirstin’s closet, a relic from the time she’d dated that hard-core drummer, who glowered moodily through his performances to hide his shyness?) She fumbled for words in the face of this silent, featureless presence. The person looked at her, and she imagined what they saw: acres of pale, sweaty, welt-covered skin topped by a nest of tangled brown hair. Kirstin could barely speak Spanish, let alone Tzotzil. She tried Hola, amigo, dónde están las pinturas?
The person replied in accented English, voice cracked and pubescent, like a woman who smoked or a teenage boy. They informed her of three things: the wall paintings were not available for viewing today, the collective was busy with other important matters, and her friends had left already. Kirstin started to protest, words tumbling out: we’ve come all this way, and I’ve been looking forward to regarding your art more than anything. But they had already turned away, merging back into the landscape.
She walked back to Silke and found her still sitting on the bleached log, the cigarette gone. She felt the urge to put her head in the other woman’s lap and cry. Because that was out of the question, Kirstin complained bitterly instead: “They say they are too busy for us, they can’t give even five minutes. I tried to explain that we came all this way. I get the revolution and all, but I mean, we actually want to see their fucking art. Everyone is gone, too.”
Silke took a drag and ground her cigarette into the ground. She looked oddly serene, even triumphant, as if this refusal to be gratified was exactly what she’d come for.
“I guess we have to walk back now,” Silke said.
Kirstin continued to rage as they hiked out the road they had just been driven down. She couldn’t help herself: “It’s all so ridiculous. We actually want to appreciate their work, they could at least give us a glimpse. And we came very far.” She knew as she spoke that she was being the person she despised, wanting someone to perform aesthetics for her so she could feel more connected to what it meant to be alive. But no one could hear her except Silke, who said nothing.
Silke stretched her long stride so that Kirstin had to jog to keep up. Kirstin realized these arguments were going nowhere. The other woman would not be sympathetic; in fact, she seemed to enjoy Kirstin’s perplexity, her confusion, her outrage, as if it confirmed something about people to her, particularly people from the Bay Area who called themselves participatory artists and worked in garden stores and hair salons.
Kirstin wondered about kidnappers. Was this part of Mexico where they were legion? She was in such a state that she felt she would be of little value to anyone who seized her, her body a pulpy mash of insect bites, her mind disinterested in self-preservation. Who would they call for money to free her? She was a childless single woman in her 40s, one parent disappeared off-grid in his RV years ago only to pop up with the occasional collect call two days after a holiday or birthday, the other traveling in Vietnam with her Bay Area women’s collective. They would throw Kirstin in a van, demand her contacts, and her mother’s phone would ring and ring. Her mother would come back weeks later to find an international number and would wonder if it had something to do with the last trip she’d been on, where the tour guide seemed to have taken a shine to her.
Then something more chilling occurred to her. Was this all some kind of experiential art joke? Was she becoming material for one of Silke’s films? She half wondered if Silke was enjoying this, if this was the performance for her. Effort, denial, effort, denial. That was what it meant to be alive. She should confront Silke, call her on her bullshit, her willingness to torment lesser minds. This kind of impassivity was just cruel. Normal people made noises to one another in a kind of mutual social affirmation, even if they didn’t believe them, things like “can’t be far,” “made it through worse,” or even “how are you holding up.” Silke’s refusal to conduct basic routines of etiquette could only be deliberate, as if she were laughing inside. Was this line of thinking paranoid? What she wouldn’t do for a fucking Snickers.
The light from the end of the day became a sliver at the horizon, and Silke somehow produced a flashlight from her belt and shone it before them onto an astonishing array of bugs and frogs, arranged in a funnel, all speeding toward the light. The amphibians hopped out of the way into the roadside sage. The orchids had pulled into themselves for the evening, while the insects hurled themselves into bright oblivion. Kirstin stopped to retch one more time, kneeling in the dark dirt, letting the bugs crowd around her. The smells of shit and puke had given way to coffee and something sweet and mild like fermenting pears. She could just rest here. She moved away from her watery vomit and put her forehead on the earth.
To her surprise, Silke knelt beside her and pulled her hair back as it fell forward around her mouth. Nothing came out. “It is sometimes this way in the beginning,” said Silke.
“I’m not pregnant,” admitted Kirstin between heaves. “I haven’t been since coming here.” Silke’s hand did not move. Kirstin admired Silke’s commitment to her gesture. She could be repulsed or sympathetic; no one would ever know.
Kirstin spoke between retches: “The vomiting is because of the heat and the dust and the country itself and probably also partly the aftermath of this procedure that is still uncomfortable to talk about.” To herself she thought that the feeling was like being scraped out in a particularly cruel and thorough way. She didn’t want to be an object of someone else’s contemplation.
Or, she told Silke, it could also be indigestion. She had bought roadside beef and chicken tamales from a cart outside the Casa last night, forgoing the rice and beans on the stove, and had shoved down one after the other as if she hadn’t eaten for days, which technically she hadn’t.
Silke nodded and touched her arm again. “I know. Let’s go.”
Kirstin felt emptied out, like she was nobody at all. What did she also know? All this ride, she might have shared with Silke the pain before the procedure, the way the cramps felt like a hand squeezing her intestines, and Silke would have said, I know. Now the chance was gone.
As they kept walking, guided by the flashlight and a half moon, she thought about the touch to her arm again. It had felt good, a light electricity. Was it comforting or demeaning because it was meant to comfort, implying she was a person who always needed to be comforted, never the comforter? Maybe even this uncertainty was fundamental to her. Her ability to keep moving when deeply unsure could be her superpower: your weakness is your strength. Where were they going? Who would be there at the end? Did Silke blame her? Without Kirstin’s lateness, she would’ve been in that van with the other artists, back at the Casa, in a nice cool shower, or on her way to it.
In her art, Kirstin made people uncertain as a form of solidarity; they could all feel ambivalent with her. Maybe some of the people who had been enlisted into one of her pieces—who had taken a donut, thinking it was a giveaway by a startup, and then become outraged when they realized it was a giveaway by a conceptual artist—would one day also travel far away, be left alone in a humid desert with a brutally self-assured chain-smoking speed hiker, and be able to come to some similar revelation about themselves, in which case making them uncomfortable in their brief encounter with her art months or years prior had been a kind of therapeutic altruism.
Silke was not cruelly impassive, it struck Kirstin, so much as without judgment. She truly didn’t care about Kirstin. She trained her eyes on where Silke’s crew cut met the delicate hollow at the back of her neck, as if this exposed fragile part might pull her along the rest of the long night before they rejoined the main road. There was nothing to say, and finally, she was silent.
That was when the kidnappers seized them. They were quiet too and armed. It was somewhat as she had imagined. They flashed their weapons, and she and Silke quivered and followed. Yet the van, in real life, was packed with other people. Where had they all come from in the middle of the night? When the van stopped and they were ushered out, it looked like they were in the middle of a city. She wondered that the kidnappers didn’t blindfold them. Perhaps they weren’t important enough or the operation was large enough, with tentacles everywhere, so even if someone ran, made it to a police station, and told them what was in this house, the response would be indifference. There could be many of these houses spread out around the city.
Inside, they slept in a room where each person had just enough space to lie down on the floor. She lay faced against Silke’s back so no one could touch her. The men in the room did not know what to make of Silke, and, at any rate, seemed too depressed themselves to bother. Survival was top of the mind, yet even then, as she drifted into uncomfortable sleep where she dreamed of being eaten by giant frogs, she wondered if she would be able to make art about this. She knew people who staged threat situations, as if real life threat were not enough. She worried about a father and his son across the room; the boy curled into his father as Silke was curled into her.
In the morning, Silke somehow got hold of a phone and reached Klara, and Klara reached someone important, and they were soon pushed back into the van and eventually deposited in the dirt driveway of the Casa. At the wooden table in the backyard, over the remains of an elaborate meal of cheese-soaked orange blossoms and artichokes, Klara told them that their captors had not been organized crime but unofficial representatives of the army, who wanted to remind people from time to time that the Zapatistas remained revolutionaries against the state. The president might be making compromises with leftist terrorists, but there were still men of virtue in the army, their intermediary had told Klara. Their ransom had been some cash and a promise—to tell the story of the time they were jailed for consorting with the doomed cause of the unfortunate.
Kirstin wondered about the others still in the room. How long would they remain? Who could they call? Her mind flitted to ways she might make money in the future to send to them. But to whom? And how? And how much? What she could make was never enough. She was freed, but the van or one like it would show up again, maybe farther north, driven by ruthless torturers or by contractors looking for day laborers, until someone made a monumental and total change for everyone, the kidnappers and the terrorized, the owners and the workers, the men with guns and the boys they had been. Then she knew why she hadn’t seen the paintings.