Mula-sem-cabeça

Published by Lucas Dale on

Moonlight bled through the window and dust swirled through the room, nebulous shapes billowing in the air. Sofia watched the curtains flutter and licked her finger—the movement was just a breeze. The fantasma wasn’t here, not yet. The room was sparse, paint peeling from the walls, and a double bed lay in the centre. Marks on the floorboards suggested other furniture had been recently moved, or perhaps repossessed.

A stab of pity as Sofia glanced at the man snoring on the bed. Widowed only weeks before, he didn’t deserve this. No one did.

Sofia checked her equipment as she crept through the rest of the flat. Bone and brazilwood charms rattled on her wrists and ankles, for strength and protection; two agulhos at her hip, iron for repulsion and silver for offense; and a bar of dark chocolate for courage. The bathroom was quiet. The kitchen lay silent, too, steeped in the waxy glow of light pollution. Sofia could risk a nibble.

Paper wrinkled as she unwrapped the chocolate. Sofia breathed in the scent of eighty-percent dark, the best kind.

A laugh.

Shrill and high-pitched, it echoed through her head with a roil of nausea. With a curse Sofia pocketed the chocolate and darted back into the bedroom. She drew an agulho from its holster, a thick needle the size of her forearm. Iron instead of silver. There was no use agitating a fantasma prematurely, as Thiago always said.

Sofia’s heart hammered and her eyes darted around. No stench, no movement, nothing. Where was it? The man slept undisturbed, a pool of dribble on his pillow. He would stay that way until the drugs wore off, a small mercy.

The laugh burst through the air again and Sofia spun, but she saw nothing. The laugh echoed from all directions, an attempt to confuse her. An attempt that was working, damnit! No, keep your cool. Sofia had to stay calm.

Wait.

Sofia’s eyes widened. She couldn’t hear any snoring. Swallowing the cry on her lips, Sofia turned back to the bed. Sweat beaded the man’s forehead and his breathing was shallow, strained. There! An intent on his chest. A weight.

“Show yourself,” Sofia hissed. She brandished the agulho in front of her and the metal warmed beneath her skin.

Bingo.

Like glass being coloured in, the fantasma materialised. Humanoid in figure, its skin was stretched over spindly bones, its arms too long and its legs too short as it sat on the man’s chest. Yellowed claws tipped its hands and when it turned its head its body didn’t move. Red eyes, because of course it had red eyes, and mouth full of jagged teeth. Wire-brush hair.

A pisadeira.

Sofia swore.

The pisadeira giggled, a twisting sound too high to crawl out of its mouth. It tilted its head.

A breath escaped Sofia’s lips. She could do this; she had to prove herself to Thiago. Sofia tightened her grip on the agulho, her hand curling around the hot metal with her little finger towards its tip…

Oh fuck! She forgot her gloves!

The pisadeira attacked. It vaulted on its arms and lunged at Sofia with charred black feet, shrieking in rage. Sofia dived to the floor and pain jolted up her shoulder. Shit! No gloves. No problem. Sofia scrambled to her feet just as the pisadeira crashed into the wall, its feet splintering the brick, and Sofia charged with her agulho poised flat in front of her.

The pisadeira scrambled away from the iron with a screech. Rolling her shoulder, Sofia backed the pisadeira into a corner.

“Ana Maria de Santos,” Sofia said. “You were born 5th June 1956, two blocks away from here.”

The pisadeira hissed at her but Sofia pushed forwards. The iron hummed in her grip, the metal growing hotter with each step she took, and she gritted her teeth. Bear the pain.

“You married Eduardo de Santos on 7th November 1979.” Sofia nodded at the sleeping man. “Do you remember him?”

A horrid scream that could have been laughter, could have been crying. Sofia winced. Light bubbled across the pisadeira’s skin, the scent of woodsmoke.

“He remembers you.” The iron was almost touching the pisadeira and Sofia bit her lip against the pain as it seared her palm. Damn gloves. She should be used to it by now. “I remember you.”

Sofia pushed her will into those last words, swelling them with all she knew of who the pisadeira had once been. The living defined themselves; the dead were formed from the collective memories of those they left behind, then warped by the legends and fantasies of everyone else. Monsters did not exist by their own power.

A rush of light and a sound like breaking glass, and the pisadeira was gone. Only the scent of woodsmoke lingered. Sofia slipped the agulho back into its holster, the metal cool once again, and glared the red strip across her right palm. Every. Fucking. Time.

“You did well,” said a voice.

Thiago stood in the doorway and Sofia shoved her palm in his face, her nostrils flared.

“Does this look like ‘well’ to you?” she demanded. “It hurts!”

“That would have hurt more.” Thiago brushed past her and ran his hand along the hole in the wall. Plaster showered onto the floor. “Maybe now you’ll remember your gloves.”

Sofia snorted. At thirty-two, Thiago wasn’t a man for platitudes. He stood broad-shouldered and thickly muscled, with a gruff voice and an even gruffer fashion sense.

“Come on.” Thiago checked his watch. “We’ve still got one more job tonight.”

“Aren’t we going to fix it?” Sofia said with a glance at the hole. The flat didn’t seem as if it could afford redecorating.

Thiago shook his head. “We’re caçadores, not handymen.”

“Yeah, and HQ pays us just to kill things that are already dead,” Sofia said. “Nothing more than glorified hitmen, aren’t we?”

A sigh and Thiago took out his wallet. “Will this be enough?” He held up two fifties.

“Thanks.” Sofia flashed him a grin and snatched the notes, placing them next to the bed. The man rolled over in his sleep and started snoring again.

Sofia swept out of the flat and Thiago trailed after her, a frown on his face. Orange streetlights glanced off black and white cobblestones and a motorbike roared in the distance, but there wasn’t anyone else out in this part of the city. The air hung thick with humidity. Sofia let Thiago push ahead, following him to their next destination. A car shot past them, music wailing in its wake.

“I don’t have enough money to fix everything fantasmas break,” Thiago said.

“Oh.” Sofia nodded to herself. “I see. That’s your problem, huh?”

“Come on, that’s not what I meant.” Thiago rolled his eyes. “That’s not fair on me.”

“True,” Sofia said, “but I don’t get paid until the end of the month.”

She knew they couldn’t fix everything, but the sight of that man sleeping alone in a bed made for two upset her more than she cared to admit. Sofia had been a caçadora for a month now, and she’d seen a lot of dead people. The paradox was strong; to exorcise a fantasma you had to acknowledge its life, but the more you fought the more numb you became. Sofia knew Thiago was a good person, but he’d been fighting for an awfully long time.

“There she is,” Thiago said.

Sofia glanced to where a woman huddled across the street, curling beneath a dingy streetlamp. Dirt caked her skin and matted her hair, a tattered dress the only thing covering her frail body. As Sofia approached she curled her nose at the stench, of sweat and unwashed body.

Sofia caught her breath. Only powerful fantasma had scents other than woodsmoke, their existences more concrete than their lesser brethren. Sofia glanced at the agulhos poking out of the holster at Thiago’s hip: iron, silver and gold. She had no idea what the gold did.

“Teresa.” Thiago knelt gently, his voice soft. As if the fantasma was an old friend.

Teresa looked up at his voice, her eyes shadowed with exhaustion. Lines creased her skin but Sofia couldn’t tell how old she was, nor how old she was supposed to be. Threadbare as her dress was, Sofia could still see the hints of pink flowers. Her brows creased. Was Teresa really a fantasma?

“Yes?” Teresa blinked, her voice hoarse. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Teresa,” Thiago said. “Needle Man.”

Teresa’s eyes brightened in recognition. “Needle Man.” She held out her hand and Thiago grasped it in his. “So nice to see you.”

“I’ve brought you a new friend.” Thiago smiled.

Thiago gestured and Sofia came over, schooling her face into a smile. Who was this woman? Was she someone Thiago had known in life? No, it couldn’t be. Sofia swallowed. Teresa had that faint buzzing about her, a warm crackling that spoke of her age. She was ancient, perhaps even old enough to be encantada.

“A girl.” The corners of Teresa’s eyes creased and she made a gurgling sound in happiness. “It’s been so long since I… I’ve been…”

Teresa cupped Sofia’s cheek with a trembling hand, her touch warm. Sofia shivered and an inexplicable sadness welled through her, a grief twisting deep in her gut. Tears pricked her eyes.

“I’m Sofia.” Sofia placed her hand over Teresa’s. “It’s an honour to meet you.”

“Sofia.” Teresa shuddered forwards. “What a beautiful name. Such frizzy hair.”

The streetlamp flickered and a breeze gusted down the street, a sharp chill against Sofia’s nape. Clouds drifted across the moon.

Thiago’s watch beeped. “It’s time.”

Time? For what?

Teresa glanced at him and frowned. “Who are you?”

Sofia’s eyes widened in understanding. Dementia, or at least the fantasma equivalent of it. If Teresa was truly as old as Sofia suspected, it was no wonder.

“It’s me.” Thiago smiled sadly. “Needle Man.”

“Have you met Sofia?” Teresa took Sofia’s hand and ushered her towards him. “She has such frizzy hair.”

Thiago stood. “Step away, Sofia.”

“But—”

“Now,” Thiago warned.

Sofia stood back up and Teresa’s hand fell into her lap. Her face fell and she curled over, hitting the floor with her elbows.

“Sad.” Teresa tugged at her hair and her eyes widened. “Don’t go.”

Sofia’s heart twisted. “Thiago…”

“Not yet.” He held his arm in front of her.

A flash of irritation. “Thiago, she—”

Teresa opened her mouth but before she could speak a howl burst from her lips, octaves cutting into one another. Sofia clapped her hands to her ears and stumbled backwards from the sound. Thiago stood his ground, his expression grim.

Teresa’s body buckled and grew, her skin bubbling and her bones snapping. The howling deepened and Sofia couldn’t watch, couldn’t breathe, until the howl cut off like a gunshot and Sofia jumped. The thing that had once been Teresa stood several heads taller than Sofia, and as she watched in horror, black pelt melted across its skin. Its limbs clicked into place. Its muscles rippled.

A mule, sleek black and completely headless.

Thiago hauled Sofia to the side as the mule reared and flames spewed from its neck, raging into the shape of a burning skull. An iron bridle affixed its mouth, the metal red-hot, and the mule stamped with iron horseshoes, the sound exploding through the air.

“Mula-sem-cabeça,” Sofia breathed.

“You know the legend,” Thiago said.

Of course Sofia did: a woman cursed by God for sleeping with a priest, the mula-sem-cabeça transformed into a monster and rampaged through seven parishes each night, tormented without rest. It didn’t matter whether the story was true. It didn’t matter whether there was or wasn’t a God; people believed the legend, and that was what the truth became.

The mula lowered its head at them and pawed its hoof. Heat licked at Sofia’s skin.

Thiago slipped the silver agulho from his holster and twirled it in his fingers.

“Just watch me on this one,” he said.

Thiago sprinted to the side and the mula charged at him, barrelling straight past Sofia. Thiago skidded under its torso; a swift upwards motion with the agulho; the mula collapsed. The whole fight had lasted seconds.

Sofia’s whole body shook. This was the gap between her and Thiago, the difference in skill. Thiago hadn’t hesitated, even though moments before that beast had been a woman, her touch so warm…

Thiago flicked his agulho and blood splattered off the silver, a deep crimson. He holstered it again.

“You okay?” he asked.

Sofia nodded. “I’m good.” She knew what the legend said happened next. Only by drawing blood could the transformation be broken.

The flames spluttered out of existence and the mula shrank back in on itself until Teresa lay in the street, naked and covered in a sheen of sweat. Her chest heaved. Asleep.

“What do we do now?” Sofia said.

Thiago stooped to pick Teresa up. She looked so small in his arms, so much younger than she had before.

“Follow me,” Thiago said.

They walked in silence. The night felt so much more empty, even though they were still in the middle of the city. So much colder.

Thiago led the way to a small church, a sorry thing of faded German architecture. A fence wrapped in an overgrown graveyard, the stones smothered by brambles, and a Sofia had to hold her breath as she batted through a cloud of midges. Shadows brushed the church and moonlight traced lines of silver along the path.

Thiago set Teresa down on a small plot by the back of the church, hidden in the shade of a scraggly brazilwood. Sofia squinted to read the gravestone:


TERESA CARVALHO

1672 – 1709

DESCANSE EM PAZ

Sofia glanced at Teresa’s sleeping form. Rest in peace. Even that had been taken from her. A fantasma had no memories of their life and passed on once that part of them was restored. An encantada was shackled to this world forever.

“Is it true?” Sofia said. “The legend.”

“I don’t know.” Thiago sighed. “It doesn’t matter. That’s how people remember her.”

Sofia locked her jaw. “That’s how men remember her.”

It wasn’t fair. Even if Teresa had slept with a priest, it took two people to have sex. The priest should have been punished, too.

“She’s already dead.” Tiago removed a piece of cloth from his bag. “There’s nothing more we can do for her.”

He placed the cloth over her and Sofia realised it was a dress, a creamy white with pink flowers patterned onto it.

“How often does she transform?” Sofia said.

“Every week.”

“And you buy her a new dress each time?” Sofia smiled. “That must cost a lot of money.”

Thiago was silent for a moment. “I guess it does.”


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