Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.

Omar Esparza


The Drummer by Fillia

“Is this Mateo.”

“Who is this?”

At first I was met with silence, then he continued asking questions.

I insisted. “I’m sorry, who is this? I’ve received several phone calls.”

He ignored the question again and kept examining me. It was invasive, but the timbre of his voice was so puzzling I couldn’t help but respond.

It was decided that Santos should be the singularity to which the heavens were chained, the inexhaustible void sucking everything in. I couldn’t tell you why or how. Perhaps it was perverse curiosity. Perhaps it was much simpler than that. I was bored, or cherished the attention.

I neglected everything. And, when I wasn’t speaking to him, I was dissecting his words. I’ve come to know them better than my own. (I couldn’t tell you what we discussed. Generally, he asked questions. Generally, I answered—honest without a thought. My questions went unrequited.)

Still, I wouldn’t say we were intimate. I was obsessed. Of course I’m partly to blame. I could’ve hung up when he first called. Yet, I had to pick up. Otherwise he would’ve kept calling, or worse. There was no escaping my little destiny: to be free of Santos, I had to solve him, to find Ariadne’s string buried in his scant syllables.

I began recording our conversations. There was an immediate change in the nature and tone of our exchanges. All the same, the phone kept ringing, morning and night. It was apparent he was bound to me, too.

“Santos, if you want my help, ask. When have I denied you?”

His voice ebbed. “I have a few days to live. I have one wish. In the context of this wish, the repute you’ve gained in your field has reached me. You must turn my bowels into violin strings and my teeth into tuning-pegs.”

“You wish to be buried with a violin?”


“I don’t understand.”

“You’ll be greatly rewarded.”

“I don’t want money.” I grew nervous. “What happens if I do deny you?”

“I’ll do what I must, as will you. Think of your daughter. Have faith in me as I have faith in—”

I hung up. My curiosity retreated. I couldn’t help him. I wouldn’t risk my daughter. The phone rang again. I ripped the chord from the wall.

Eyes began shadowing me. Strange figures lingered, I could feel them, but then disappeared when I looked. I was certain he was watching. The scope of Santos’ reach dawned on me. I was exiled from my own skin. At the price of my most sacred possession, my father’s violin, I made arrangements my daughter and me to cross the Great River.

We’re in the metal stomach of a trailer. The darkness reeks of sickness. My daughter’s breathing is fading. I’m weeping because she won’t survive the journey.

The 18-wheeler lurches—we roll in our filth. It lurches again—women and children scream. Yet, I’m strangely comforted. We grind to a halt. The trailer hisses and settles. We hear the driver argue with voices, then gunshots fired. We huddle together and pray.

The doors unbolt. Armed wraiths herd us out. I carry my daughter in my arms. Her heart barely beats.

They blindfold and tie us in a single line. “Where is Mateo?”

No one responds.

“Where is Mateo?”

“There’s no such person here. For the love of God, let us live.”

The wraiths shoot the voice, point-blank, then continue down the line, shooting one after the other. I realize my daughter will die before I can save her.

“I am Mateo. Help her!”

I awoke in my house. My head was swollen from where they bashed me. The phone was buzzing.

It was Santos. His voice was sawdust. “Save her.”
I arrived at the morgue. I was escorted by Santos’ men to a metal room that stung of chemicals. They pulled Santos from an icy safe. I jumped back because the corpse was headless. I’ve never killed a man before; yet, I couldn’t help feeling I’d done this to him.

I ran my fingers over his chest. The dead flesh split beneath my strokes. “How long has it been?”

But the body spoke for itself. “Two days.”

“Give me three.”

As I prepared for the procedure, I discovered an interesting fact. In all of history, there’s been one other instance of musical transubstantiation. In the steppes of Mongolia, millennia before metal, the Duu Khooloi made it a sacrament to convert their departed into percussion instruments in a rite of passage called the Combat of Fire, Chuurqin. In it, warriors were tasked to wrestle a man-sized flame using nothing but their body and cunning. If the contender prevailed, they earned a hero’s welcome in the feast-hall of his ancestors. Otherwise, the ashes were swept into a drum crafted by the doomed competitor beforehand. The drum kept rhythm in future festivals—a memento of the inevitability of conquest.

The sun’s gaping eyes covered Sinaloa’s in a rosy halo. I made my way to the morgue. Unusually hungry, I stepped into a café. I craved sopa de marisco. I bathed in the fish’s living spirit and swallowed it whole.

As I walked the streets, I recalled a forgotten memory: the holocaust of a lamb. The hot viscus was set on the operating table, exorcised of its filth, and cleansed in numbing water to help it tighten into rope. Five or so casings were braided into tresses of catgut, then the transfigured bowels taken away, destined to be the voices of mediocre souls. The ritual is still alchemy to me. In the end, it may be necromancy: the violin’s voice will always be the bawling of a helpless lamb.

The morgue came into view. I was taken to Santos. I gazed at the stump of my faceless master, took a scalpel, and inscribed a symphony into his stomach.


About the Writer:
Omar Esparza was born in Houston, Texas. After an early exposure to Western classics, he pursued a degree in philosophy at St. John’s College. He has been published in The Grout and Hot Metal Ridge. He is currently working on his second book, Paratexts. He is currently a teacher at Great Hearts Academies in Arizona.

Image: The Drummer by Fillia (1904-1936). Oil on canvas. No size specified. 1927. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.