Mariposa was not the name her parents had given her. She did not remember the name she had been given; she was hardly sure she had parents anymore.
The first time she had taken Roberto into her mouth he had staggered back at the sensation, gasped wide and murmured that she kissed with the tongue of a butterfly. It had been nothing more than a playful nickname at first. Now she chafed at it, though she was careful never to let him know; it was not safe to let him know these things, and she clutched her rebellion to her, the only weapon she had in the solitude of his cracked-paint apartment.
His apartment. She could not count the hours she had spent gazing through the filth that streaked the windows of the walkup in which Roberto kept her; she could not count the days and weeks and months that had passed since that quiet desperate morning when she first made up her mind that she must one day break the window and fly away, escape to the sunlight through the choking smog above the polluted city streets.
Once, she thought Roberto might have loved her. “Mariposa,” he had whispered in the darkness, so many months ago, “Mariposa querida, your lips and your tongue are so sweet, the best I have ever had. Estás virgen y puta en una alma bella…I have never known another like you.”
They met for the first time when she was seventeen. Her mother had warned her about men like him — older men, men with slick hair and ready smiles, men who looked at gorditas like her as though they were supermodels fresh from the pages of Cosmopolitan. But Roberto’s skin was clear and brown, and his teeth were white and straight when he smiled at her in that tilt-headed way that seemed to say he breathed for her alone. He wore crisp blue jeans and a clean white tee-shirt to her mother’s house. No fancy expensive suit, no rings on his fingers — he looked nothing like the zorrero he had turned out to be.
Once, she thought Roberto might have loved her, but, too late, she learned that she had been wrong. His clothing might have been clean, his smile bright, but there were no depths to which he would not sink.
It had been months. Years, maybe, since Roberto had taken her away, told her he loved her, convinced her to break with her parents and leave home to be with him. Now there was no telephone. The door was kept locked from the outside, except for those times he came, alone or with others, the slumming white boys and the uncut renes who came looking for a change of pace. The door was locked, and the windows painted shut. If there was a fire she would die alone, unheard, another puta dead, no big loss. She almost wished the place would burn down; the moment of freedom might be worth the dying.
But she could not find it within herself to die. Could not find the strength to set the fire, to break the glass and slash her wrists, to leap to her death streaming surrender behind her in jagged red contrails. She could not quit like that, could not hand her soul to el diablo, no matter how hard it would be to earn her way to Heaven if she ever got out of this place.
A week ago, Roberto had thrown her a dress and taken her from the apartment, whispering in her ear the whole way down the stairs. Whispering that she would be quiet, that she would be a good little tacoñera and maybe he would give her something nice. Whispering that he could get more money from the white boys if he pierced her tongue. Whispering that a sound from her would bring a bullet from him, that he would shoot her dead in the street like the bitch she was. He had shown her the gun, held it in front of her face and pressed it up against the side of her head so hard she could not keep her head straight. He whispered, and she believed every word.
A week ago, she had gone squinting into the harsh city sunlight, dressed like the fiercely obedient little tacoñera she was and following Roberto, always mindful of his gun and his whispered threats. She had followed him to a run-down shop, sat obediently in the piercing chair and watched the tattoo-scarred white man with the shaved head as he dipped his instruments in alcohol to sterilize them.
She wanted to scream out, wanted to tell him that she did not want this thing he sought to give her, but Roberto was there, and he had the gun; despite the discomfort of the pincers with which the tattooed man held her tongue — despite the exquisite sharpness of the pain that came — she made no sound as the bar slid into her tongue, as the tattooed man slid the cap over the bottom and gave her a cup of mouthwash to rinse with and spit.
And then she was back in the apartment. Roberto’s present for her was his permission for her to suck him off. The tattooed man told her not to touch her tongue, not to take out the post, or her tongue would get infected. Almost, she wanted it to get infected. Maybe an infection would kill her, and she could argue her case before God that there was no choice, no free will, not after Roberto had brought her here.
But she could not die here. To quit on life — even this life — would be to quit on God, and even though she was convinced God could not see into this place, she could not forsake Him like that. She could not die here, in this filthy room, with scabs on her knees and the dress she had been given lying unwashed.
She worked at her laundry with her mouth closed, her swollen tongue throbbing. The tattooed man had told her the swelling would last only a week. Of course, he had also warned her only to eat soft foods, and not to smoke or to do oral sex with her boyfriend. As if Roberto was all she had to worry about.
She could not die with the bitter-salt taste of strangers in her mouth.
But the swelling and the pain had gotten worse, not better. She had stayed away from the mirror, for fear of what she might see, but once the dress Roberto had thrown her was clean again, the wrenching, throbbing ache in her mouth left her no choice but to look. Maybe Roberto would pay for a doctor. Maybe she could tell the doctor what was happening to her — maybe she would be safe in the hospital if Roberto pulled out his gun.
The light in the bathroom was out, but even in the dim light that came from the hallway she could see that things were not right.
Her tongue was swollen huge, crazed with ridges, and as black as Roberto’s heart.
It could not be so. Tongues did not turn black. She ran it out as best she could, though she nearly choked with the pain of her teeth grazing against the gleaming silver of the ball on the end of the post. It was still black.
Frantic and dizzy, she staggered backward from the mirror and out into the hallway. Her tongue was black, and Roberto would kill her if she took the post out. Her tongue was black, and she was quite sure that she would die if she left the post in.
The balls brushed her teeth again as she tried to pull her tongue back into her mouth, and she screamed with pain so white and intense it was all she could do to stay conscious. She sagged to the floor, sobbing.
And then, as she lay there, her body curled around the pain, her hands wet with her tears and clutched to her face to stop the gabble of noises that came from her throat, she felt the strangest sensation. Her tongue twitched.
She had thought there was no more pain left in her, that the brush of her tongue against her teeth was the worst it could get. She was wrong. She moaned with the new assault, prayed to God for it to stop.
But her tongue twitched again. Again. Still again. Dear God, yet again.
Through it all — through the pain, the twitching, the prayers she could not find breath to voice — she felt something stranger, something even more alarming. A splitting, a cracking, a pulsing sensation of push that blurred her vision with fresh tears at its strength and its fury, that forced closed her eyelids and finally, mercifully, bore her with one last great gasp into the blessing of consciouslessness.
When she came back to herself, it was to a merciful dulling of the pain; for a moment she allowed herself to think that it all had been a dream.
Except it could not be a dream, because there was another sensation there, too, in her mouth. A flickering patter of something batting against her teeth, sending little jolts of electric-white pain through her mangled tongue.
For a second — just a second — she wondered if she had gone insane, or died from the pain. Maybe a cockroach had crawled between her lips while she was unconscious.
She thought of biting down, crunching the roach or whatever it was between her teeth, and the thought of the crunch and the bitter gush made her retch, rolling to her side and opening her mouth wide in anticipation of a flood of vomit that never came.
Instead, two things dropped out, hit the battered floor. The first, the post that the tattooed man had put into her tongue, pinged on the floorboards and rolled away. The second was, for a moment, unidentifiable.
And then she watched, her mouth still open, thoughts of strangers’ cocks and cockroaches gone from her mind, even the pain itself miraculously forgotten as the butterfly spread its wings, waved them slowly once, twice in the pale, weak patch of sunlight that struggled its way through the window.
The pain hit her again, a wave that threatened to once more carry away her consciousness. Mariposa fought it off, stared at the miracle before her for a moment until the rush of blood filled her mouth and she staggered to her feet and made her way into the bathroom. There, she spat blood into the sink and looked into the mirror. She was pale and sweaty and flush-cheeked, her hair stringing to her scalp.
She opened her mouth and dared look inside.
Her tongue was gone, in its place a torn, ragged shell that was beyond healing, beyond a doctor’s repair. Her tongue, her butterfly tongue that had so enraptured Roberto — that had led Roberto to first keep her here and then whore out her mouth — was gone.
Roberto would kill her, she was sure. If the loss of blood didn’t kill her first.
She stifled a sob — of pain, of relief? she could not say — and staggered back into the other room. Blood dribbled from her mouth, down her chin. For a moment she did not even notice.
The butterfly was gone.
She searched for it, frantic with self-preservation. The butterfly was gone. Roberto would think she ripped out the post herself and he would kill her. He would never believe her, even if she found a way to tell him. She hardly believed her. She could feel the barrel of the gun against her skull again, could hear his low, hoarse voice whispering in her ear.
Finally she saw it, fluttering amongst the hideous flowers of the thin drapes, battering against the painted-shut window. It wanted to get out. She was a dead woman if it disappeared.
She was a dead woman, even if it stayed.
Her blood was hot and thick on her lips as she moved toward the window.
Roberto had named her Butterfly, for the pleasure she had brought him. She had loved the name, once.
Her bare elbow smashed against the glass once, twice. She barely felt the new pain, so focused was she on the butterfly. It tapped its way down the window, toward the hole. Its wings were golden, and it gleamed in the sunlight as it tentatively, so tentatively, fluttered through.
Roberto would kill her. Sería su muerte, and she would go before God unconfessed of all her sins.
But the butterfly’s golden wings bore it toward the sun, and she could not help but rejoice.