The Burning of Judas Iscariot by Irina Zhorov


“Judas alone among the Apostles intuited the secret divinity and the terrible purpose of Jesus. The Word has lowered himself to be mortal: Judas, the disciple of the Word, could lower himself to the role of informer (the worst transgression dishonor abides) and welcome the fire which cannot be extinguished. The lower order is a mirror of the superior order, the forms of the earth correspond to the forms of the heavens: the stains on the skin are a map of the incorruptible constellation: Judas in some way reflects Jesus. Thus the thirty pieces of silver and the kiss: thus deliberate self-destruction, in order to deserve damnation all the more.”

-“Three Versions of Judas” by Jorge Luis Borges

 

Part I: Home

 

Raul came home to Valparaiso, Chile, to visit, for six months. He arrived in December, on the day that Augusto Pinochet finally died, and walked out of the airport into crowds of people dancing in the streets.  He had nothing with him other than a ticket back to Sweden, where he lived. When I got to Valparaiso some months later, people were still dancing, stomping in the old sea-side bars of the city, sweating against each other until the sun started to peek over the hills that delineate neighborhoods in Valparaiso, singing never again, never again in Chile! and Pinochet is dead, Pinochet is dead!

Raul and I ended up living in the same squat-turned-community-center-and-eatery, a physical locale for a loose conglomerate of people that organized the city’s most rambunctious festivals and ran various circus- and theater-based programs for the kids on the poorer hills. He was in his 40s, usually dressed in clothes he’d pulled from the costume closet that doubled as his bedroom, and thin from the cocaine and partying that he’d thrown himself into upon arrival. He’d drag me down the hills, to the streets that seemed carved by rivers through the mountains, streets draining into the Pacific, and make me stomp along with him. He wasn’t too good with words, couldn’t answer questions directly, but he was good at conveying heart. He loved his country and he missed it when he was in Sweden. Raul was bursting at the seams in Chile, his energy and heartache like Molotovs detonating in the night. And if anyone stood in his way of gulping down Valparaiso while he could, he’d kill them with his shrapnel.

I spent a lot of my time in Valparaiso sitting on the yellow couch in Kabala, a restaurant downtown where Raul worked, sneaking rum and free dinners, entertaining the other regulars. There was Lalo Meneses, Chilean rapper on the outs, underground legend, who also lived in the house with Raul and I, and had successfully seduced the house matron’s baby sister, Angie. There was One Lung Man, who was a break dancer for Lalo. When we met, One Lung had whispered ardently into my ear, “I have resistance, I smoke, and drink and hang out.” I hadn’t looked impressed so he lifted up his shirt to reveal some sparse chest hair and a white scar that ran down his front and whipped around the back of his shoulder. “I was the first in Chile,” he clarified. He was talking about his missing lung. “I compete and I win.” With his naturally dense belly formed into the knots of a six pack he was like the poster One Lung Man. Despite your reduced oxygen capacity you can still have a good time! Philly worked at the restaurant, too; he was Raul’s best friend. The two of them kept the kitchen coked up at all hours. They routinely tapped into the restaurant’s liquor cabinet and once, while on a binge, they emptied Kabala’s entire alcohol stock during off hours and snuck boxes of rum out of there without getting caught. Alejandro provided the cocaine. He’d sit on the yellow couch, too, inquiring in his soft-spoken way just how everyone was doing. Alexi – round faced, nice – sang at Kabala in the evenings, a limited repertoire of songs that nonetheless seemed to consistently please the patrons. Somehow we forged a family unit on that couch, incongruous though our family was.

When Easter rolled around, the house organizers, Chago and Karem, put Raul and I in charge of building Judas Iscariot, to be burned at the plaza. “Is it anti-Semitic?” my dad wondered on the phone. “Wikipedia says it’s a ‘scapegoating ritual,’” I told him. Every year Judas was embodied as a different offender to be set aflame – local politicians, Chilean Church clergy, G.W. Bush. That year we were given instructions to make a generic capitalist. We had a week to do it, so our friends got up from the yellow couch and ascended from the restaurant to the house on the hill to help out. One Lung brought cigarettes. Angie brought wine. Alexi came with beer and a guitar. Raul scoured whatever change he had for more beers and downed the last of the rum without sharing. Others came with healthier contributions and together we built Judas Iscariot.

I sewed the limbs and in my fight with the rickety sewing machine, deep in concentration, Raul cut a piece of my bangs off without my noticing. He ran around the house yowling and then tucked my tuft under the headdress of a small doll he insisted looked just like me. “I will leave her offerings,” he said, cackling.

Though we tried to keep the booze away from him, somehow Raul kept getting drunker and drunker. On our second day of laboring over Judas he finally passed out in his bed. Angie and I bought our own rum and proclaimed the evening a night off from Raul’s exhausting effervescence. We sat around sewing and talking, then descended to the center to watch Lalo perform. As soon as I relaxed on a chair in the dimly lit bar Raul’s body careened into mine from a full run. He had awoken and followed us downtown.

In the morning we trudged to the market to ask for food. “We need it for Judas,” we told them, “we need it for the kids.” The market vendors gave us their mashed and discarded fruits and vegetables. Others gifted us perfectly good fruits in plastic bags. In the evening, we snuck into the main city market – a market that spills out of a giant, yellow Tudor building – just as they were closing all of the doors. We went upstairs to the prepared foods section and one of the cooks – upon seeing Karem – told his chef to fill a giant plastic bag with paella for us. We ate it on the ride home using seashells as utensils, grease coating our fingers.

I went to bed early that night under the open window.  I fell asleep to the hum of the port’s machinations and the seagulls’ errant cries. I slept naked and the dilapidated house slowly crumbled around me in the night so that debris from the window frame blew across my back and littered my bed. Each night the old house wasted away a little more and I awoke to it in the mornings as if to an atrophying lover, tenderly examining the damage.

I don’t remember if I was dreaming or not when Raul burst in. He was a torpedo, a one-man stampede, a diabolical force of nature. He was drunk. Raul sprawled on my bed and started to whine about being hungry. He crawled to the kitchen on all fours and returned with bread and peanut butter. My bed, already speckled with debris from the collapsing walls, filled with bread crumbs. We had gone rat hunting in the house the previous day and I watched in horror as he planted bait in my blankets.

“To your bed,” I hissed. “Leave! Get going! Raul! Right now! Seriously!”

”I’m going, I’m going, leave me be a second…”

I kicked at him. He finally got up, muttered a few motherfuckers at me, and threw a shoe at me before stumbling noisily down the stairs to his room.

He brought me flowers, to apologize, the next morning.

Raul was supposed to use the donated food to cook things to sell at Judas’ burning as a fundraiser for the community center. But he was still howling at the moon when the sun rose. He refused to cook without beer, which we refused to provide. He procured some anyway and we watched clouds of flour shoot out of the kitchen window and heard his cackle ringing from inside. The rest of us worked on Judas in the yard.

We assembled the framework from which to hang him in the plaza, a couple of blocks away, and secured the medal scaffolding with flimsy pieces of wire cable. A chubby girl with Coke-bottle glasses led the neighborhood kids in collecting change from passersby. Alexi and I sewed some of the coins up inside Judas for these same kids to hunt for after Judas went up in flames, and used some of the change to buy more beer. Then we carried him to the plaza one limb at a time and assembled him on the structure we had erected. Judas Iscariot was over twenty feet tall. He had bulging eyes, an overfilled belly of flammable stuffing, a blanket-sized tie that swayed in the breeze. He carried a couple of voluminous sacks on which we had painted dollar signs.

Raul hadn’t stopped drinking in days. By nightfall of that day he was locked in his bedroom, which was so smoky that dense whiteness rolled out in sheets from under the door and dissipated over the hardwood like windblown mountain fog. When I knocked he opened the door just wide enough for me to slip in and wedged it shut behind me with a stick. Whiskey and joints. Alejandro was there with his trans girlfriend and Raul kept talking about how big her breasts were. She played along, moving the jelly boobs around on her chest and Alejandro shifted uncomfortably in his chair and poured me whiskey. Whiskey, joints, nervous conversation.

It was the night of the burning and Raul was in costume: a slapstick Chilean character called La Loca de la Cartera – The Crazy Purse Woman – who would be Judas’ widow-to-be that night. In her original, and most common, incarnation she is a man dressed as a woman, with great big breasts and a shelf butt, that hits people with her purse when she’s mad. I was supposed to play her but Raul got inspired midafternoon and knifed up a foam mattress into a butt and some chunky tits and Alejandro’s girlfriend helped him strap them on and put on a flowing skirt and wig. That’s how I found him in his room, in full costume. Joints and whiskey and joints and rum.

At the plaza, One Lung was spinning. Lalo was practicing his lyrics in a room downstairs and Chago and Karem made rounds from the plaza to the house and back, trying to organize everything and everyone. I put on my coat, a Victorian frock from the house costume closet, and carried over the handful of disfigured empanadas Raul had managed to make that afternoon. Raul was escorted to his hiding place behind the plaza.

Judas towered over the plaza. Kids bounced up and down in anticipation. “We’re gonna burn him down!” said Chago. “Judas is going down! Is there anyone who wants to defend him?” This was Raul’s cue. “Is there anyone at all who wants to defend Judas Iscariot? Anyone? Anyone at all?” The kids shrieked. The air tightened in its briskness as if made of tiny springs. I was marching around Judas with a flaming torch and bare feet and frock coat, the cold stone and the hot fire and this burning feeling of place and memories from a night in the middle of the plaza and that fucking deep blue Valparaiso sky and Chago’s voice, “Anyone at all?”

Raul had fallen asleep in his hiding place. Karem had to shake him before he finally appeared on top of the stairs that led down to Judas, his wig sideways and sprawled across his face, tits askew, a ruffled umbrella like he was arriving for tea time with Oscar Wilde instead of the burning of Judas Iscariot.

The Loca descended into the plaza and I marched with the torch, circling, eyes illuminated by fire. And then he attacked. He was supposed to chase me around comically, gently hit some of the bystanders with his purse, grieve ol’ Judas and entertain the crowd with his shrieking. But he knocked me over and charged into the crowd like a rugby flanker and swung his umbrella so that it almost broke a man’s leg, and the victim limped away hurriedly by the light of the torch. He beat children with the purse like a possessed Mary Poppins. Raul had demonized, something in him had unhinged and was set turbulently afloat upon gallons of whiskey. There was real fear in the audience. Judas as limp capitalist watched over us with the smirk we had painted on, bulging eyes intermittently illuminated by my torch, a seemingly sinister twinkle in his eye as Raul flattened one child after another. Lalo finally chased Raul down, punched him into sedation and eventually he was dragged from the plaza, screaming, “Your mother’s cuuuuuuuunt!” I set Judas Iscariot on fire.

The fire shot up his legs, enveloped Judas for a moment, and extinguished like a flare. Too much paper to simmer. Ashes floated in the center of the plaza, as if a gust of wind had cleared one thousand dusty fireplaces.  Burning rags off the Capitalists’ back fell flaming to the ground and shriveled there. Kids ran up to the heap of ashes and looked for the hot coins, fishing for them with burnt fingers and sticks. The plastic bottoms of their shoes got sticky from the heat.

Afterwards, we brought beers back to the house and passed them behind our backs so Raul would not see. Lalo came and tried to start a fight with someone. Alexi bumbled off to the other room and sat strumming his guitar. Eventually we all switched rooms and others came and toasts were made to me because I was leaving; to Judas, because he was dead; and to everyone else, because we were such good friends and drunk and drinking.

Karem told us to shut it but instead we moved into the music room, cramped and moldy little music room with stapled-up egg cartons and plank wood floors and a drum set. We squished in there and closed the door and filled it up with smoke and stained the plain wood with our wine. Alexi played cuecas and Chago sang, straining his voice and closing his eyes, extending his neck out of his woolen sweater and black leather jacket like a turtle, his long braid lonely in the middle of his otherwise short hair. I danced a Chilean cueca with baby steps around the shaky room and tried to recall the fat woman’s instructions from the one Cueca dance class I took.

We were locked in there forever. I didn’t want to leave because in there it was otherworldly; we could not hear the outside world and it could not hear us and we could levitate in that state of phantasmagoria without what ifs or the past or the future. In there it was all locked eyes and heated arguments. Song. Dance. There was the one teenaged youth; one pessimist, who was me; one optimist, who was Chago; one who was honest; one who was raging; one romantic, who was in us all; one forgiven, who was Raul.

We left the music room when the world was already beginning to glow with the grey light of morning. The door to the upstairs part of the house was locked so I climbed up to the roof and through my window and into my bed and I slept into the afternoon, with the wind and debris on my back.

The next day, people arrived at the eatery demanding lunch, but the kitchen was still a mess, caked with flour, dough, empanada stuffing and unidentifiable spills. “It’s a mess,” I told them, but they insisted, so I warmed up the beans that had sat in the big pot overnight, revived the undercooked rice, washed dishes, tried to mask the mess with decorative touches, clean forks. It turned into a busy afternoon. Soon we were out of food and had to turn people away. Raul woke up and meandered from room to room, exhaling loudly. He looked like a boxer after a fight. I showed him the bruises he had inflicted on me. Then we sat, slowly drinking mate without moving much.

In the early evening we wandered down to the yellow couch in Kabala, grabbed Alexi, and made our way back again, up a steep, long staircase with nice graffiti that took us to a landing with a looking glass over the city. It always smelled like weed on those steps. Couples huddled, whispering and kissing. Laughter echoed dimly. Raul, Alexi and I opened our wine.

Raul is a difficult person, a manchild mess, kind, insatiable. He is needy with women, irresponsible with money, a hyperactive machine in the workplace, one whose escapades get everyone in trouble. I have seen him calm exactly once. It was that night, as he sat on the dingy steps with a ragged halo floating above his unwashed curly hair and lighting up his beautiful, worn face. He sighed and began to talk, to confess, really, narrating the reasons for his ways. His parents died when he was young and, because he had no other family, he was taken in by Philly’s mother. When they were teenagers they were both arrested for dealing weed but managed to hide a stash in the dog house so that when they got out they picked up right where they left off. His first wife was Chilean. While in culinary school Raul practiced all of his gourmet recipes at her family home; her father provided Raul with cocaine in exchange. The kitchen, for Raul, has always been the best place in the world. He has lifted restaurants out of slumps and he has destroyed restaurants with his raiding of their liquor cabinets and he has gotten arrested many times in-between. His wife gave birth to two daughters and then divorced him. Sometimes he sent her child support and sometimes he brought the girls to Kabala to hang out. He met Swedish Lena, at Kabala. She took him to Sweden and after seven years she broke up with him, too. And now he was here, back in Valparaiso, where he belonged.

We were there for hours. When Raul had worn himself out we went to an old bar with booths made of dark wood. We ordered junk food and wine and carved our names in a neat row on the wall behind Raul’s head. We played dominoes. And then it was like always, walking the streets with the wine, running into everyone, sitting on the steps and looking for something. (“What are you always looking for on the street?” Chago asked me once. “The street has everything,” I had said.)

By the time we got home it was morning, full of white, merciless light. I was supposed to leave that morning, to move on to new streets, but it was already 7am and we were just getting home. So we sat around on the couches outside petting stray kittens. Raul finally passed out in my bed, Alexi and I in Raul’s, and at noon Karem opened the door without knocking and burst in proclaiming that it was time to get up and air out the room. I climbed up to my room through the window again and started packing.

I packed and I recovered. I wasn’t sure why I was leaving or where to but I folded clothes diligently, peeked at maps intermittently as my bag filled up. Raul was sad; he put on a full clown suit, his stilts, a preposterous, oversized hat with streamers that kept slipping down on his face, and opened up a clear, plastic umbrella. He wandered up and down the street. Alexi and I stood by, alternately depressed and amused, and took turns running after him when he teetered or struggled with steps or potholes. Then he suddenly snapped out of it. Determined not to see me depart, he changed and ran down to Kabala.

I wandered with Alexi around Valparaiso. The light began to darken at the corners, close in on us. He walked me back to the house. Said, “Chau Princessa.” I picked flowers and set them up all over Raul’s room. Then I left.

 

Part II: Homesick

Four years after I left Chile, Raul and I happened to be on the same continent again – I in Spain, he in Sweden. He told me he was doing well, working, living in a nice place. So I bought a ticket and packed a couple of kilos of cherries to bring him the feel of sun-soaked lands, though it wasn’t quite the sun that he missed.

He picked me up at the train station in Malmo looking like a pirate: checkered chef pants, polka-dotted bandana. He had gained weight, had a little belly that filled out his dirty t-shirt, a moon face. We walked to his house from the station along Malmo’s calm, cobbled streets – streets not built for chaos – past restaurants that he used to work at. We ate the cherries in his bedroom surrounded by urns he had brought back from Cuba that contained secret charms. We went out to a bar.

At the bar, Raul wanted a cigarette. He looked around at the groups of large, blonde men that surrounded us. “Here it’s not like in Chile,” he said, “people won’t just give you a cigarette.” He seemed dejected, as if this small matter exemplified all that was wrong with Sweden and his life there. Raul approached a couple of the groups, got turned down. We went to buy a pack.

“You see,” he kept saying, “You see?”

The next day I visited him at the restaurant where he worked, a steakhouse owned by a man from Valparaiso who seemed to have no interest in running a restaurant but just wanted a venue where he could play his guitar and keyboard along to prerecorded instrumental hits. Raul made me dinner and I sat eating it in the empty dining room as the owner wailed away. Towards supper time the other staff started showing up: a man from Uruguay, another from Valparaiso, a girl from Ecuador. “This is my family here,” Raul told me.

It all seemed so familiar. The owner gave Raul free reign in the restaurant, the kitchen staff was never without wine or joints as they worked, and when the shift was over Raul moved from the kitchen to the bar and stayed there until close. “Those guys are my best friends,” Raul told me. I asked him how long he had worked there. “Three months,” he said.

When we got back to his house, friends showed up; his roommate, also from Valparaiso, a Peruvian, the Chilean and Uruguayo from the restaurant. Raul played us YouTube videos of the 1000 Drum festival that our community center in Valparaiso organized every year. He squealed when Chago flashed across the screen, dancing loosely in a white suit through throngs of drummers and choreographed groups. Raul had his nose pressed up against the computer screen so that it was hard for the rest of us to see and he kept screaming. “That’s in Valparaiso! That’s how we do in Valpo!!! That’s my Valpo!” The videos were of shitty quality. I didn’t want to watch for fear that the poorly captured video would disintegrate my numinous memories. I, too, missed Valpo, missed the gleeful, procellous abandon of those nights, but did not want to force them out of sentimental desperation.  But for Raul, something was better than nothing. My presence reawakened his yearning, the videos triggered his homesickness. His aching fervor bloomed.

We went to watch a soccer match between Argentina and Uruguay at a bar. Our table was by far the loudest in the establishment. Swedish customers glanced nervously in our direction. The Peruvian suddenly leaned over and, in English, said, “I don’t hang out with them very often because I have better things to do.” He was referring to his compatriots. He came to Sweden 17 years ago, a South American hippie with long hair who played music in the streets for tips. He stayed because of the girls, the prettiest in the world, he said. Now he’s an economist. He buys land in Peru every year because eventually he wants to go back there.

Raul had lived in Sweden for over a decade at this point and it struck me as strange that his best friends were co-workers from a job he’d only had for three months. His bedroom looked only partially inhabited. His Swedish, I learned, was not very good. His latest girlfriend left him. “I was too loud, too reckless,” Raul explained, “she was a Swedish country girl.” He was constantly getting shushed, glared at. He seemed exasperated. His most constant complaint was that the Swedish are nice, proper, but cold people, not like South Americans, it’s not like in Valparaiso, it’s not like home. He wanted sun, sweat, loudness all around him, he wanted street life, he wanted more lawlessness, more touching. He wanted Valpo. But when I asked why he didn’t just return there, he strolled sadly on down the still street and explained that the money, the level of living, kept him here. And he wasn’t the only one. He surrounded himself with expatriates that lived in a limbo between impermanence and cushy compromise, between economic comfort and existential discomfort, between a geographic present that was unfulfilling and a past that was imagined, hyped, farcical. Do you have to send much of the money you make to your daughters? I asked. He shrugged noncommittally.

Raul got very drunk that night. I wandered from the party and heard his yowl echoing in the brisk Malmo night, his cackle bouncing like spilled marbles on the clean streets. In the morning, I left.

 

 

 

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