The Head Trade

("El vendedor de cabezas")

By Esther Díaz Llanillo, translated by Manuel Martínez

From About Spirits and Other Mysteries/Sobre espíritus y otros misterios

Published May 2022 by Cubanabooks Press


The store wasn’t very big. In the translucent window, under a multicolored awning like a rainbow, the owner displayed a variety of heads. At the entrance was a sign proclaiming: “NO MINORS!”

Anyone could find a head to their taste. The ample selection for women included one with long blond hair, stylish curls, green or blue eyes, and pale skin enlivened with rosy cheeks—Nordic heads were popular at the time. They could also choose African heads with nappy hair over faces black as shoe polish, highlighted by beautiful pupils like black buttons. You could find others that were Asian, with angled eyes and straight hair falling like a black cascade over the clean yellowish facial tones. And there were Arab faces with curly hair and deep almond-eyed gazes. There also were faces with Latin, Slavic, and Hindu features; each displayed a special touch of strange perfection.

As for the masculine heads, there were some that displayed short, severe hair cuts, destined for military men. Others had long copious hair suitable for musicians, poets, and bohemians; some sporting a languid, amorous expression for the occasional ladies’ man. Others had strong chins, useful for head supervisors, boxers, or businessmen. In short, there was enough variety to satisfy any whim or desire.

And the head didn’t necessarily have to be compatible with the general appearance of the buyer. In this regard customers had complete freedom of choice. A person with white skin, even an albino, was free to choose an ostentatious African head. Likewise, a person with an intensely black body could very well top it off with a pale head. This occurred more frequently during carnival season, when sales would skyrocket.

The influence exerted by such changes on the wearers’ personalities, as well as the impression they made on others, was noteworthy. Thus, a timid professor of philosophy chose one with a surly expression in order to instill respect in his students. A movie star, now in her fifties, risked one with wild blonde hair, young eyes, and seductive lips, able to meet the requirements of the most demanding magazine covers. Not to mention people with disfiguring scars, undesired bald patches or, contrarily, too much hair when they preferred to go bald as a fashion statement. There in the window a diversity of heads was on offer; the store was ready to cater to any taste or expectation.

Heads could even be made to order. To accomplish this, the client had an interview with the owner and gave him a photo or a drawing showing the desired characteristics. Of course, the price was higher in those cases.

Once a client had purchased their new head, they had the option of the store removing their current head and installing the new one—all for a modest price. The substituted one was returned to the buyers inside a big hatbox just in case they changed their minds in the future and wanted to use the original again.

Frequently people who were passing by the store would stop to look, admiring the prolific exhibit on the other side of the window glass. Elvira was one of them. One day she screwed up the courage to go in, meaning to ask the owner about his products and how one went about buying them. While they talked she watched him carefully. He had a withered face, thinning hair, eyes that were much too small and too near his beak of a nose. Nevertheless, their conversation led her to recognize that he was a fount of knowledge, an amiable soul with an interesting personality.

He looked at her through thick lenses, with a watery gaze submerged in faraway distances. “He’s not a man to make a pass at a girl,” she thought. His lips were no more than a thin line, made only to draw out a pleasant smile, but never to laugh, as she later confirmed. The scarceness of hair, underneath which could be seen the innocence of his cranium, made her feel more compassion than attraction.

He had an attractive personality, but his head didn’t add anything to the package. “Why doesn’t he exchange his own head for another one?” Elvira asked herself with a certain sense of frustration after a few days of daily conversation with him, since stopping by the store on her way home from work had become a habit for her. She had decided to pose the question to him since by now they had started getting to know each other.

“There are lovely heads here.” And she looked around making a wide gesture with her hand. “You’ve never been interested in getting a different one? A good many people do it.”

“I’m satisfied with my own,” he affirmed with conviction.

“I understand,” she responded disappointedly.

With the passing of some months, as their friendship grew, she understood that she could not live without his company, so she brought it up again.

“Everyone who comes here decides on a new model. Wouldn’t you like to be the owner of a lovely head like this one?” And she picked up one with a young and masculine face, lustrous and perfectly styled short black hair, dark eyes with a direct gaze, and thick lips that seemed voluptuous to her.

She thought she could make out a hint of melancholy behind his thick lenses, emanating from the distant landscape of his eyes.

“I can’t do that,” he answered.

“Look at how many there are here and how beautiful they are. Choose one! Why wouldn’t you?”

“Because I am the one who creates them all.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“That I imagine them inside my own head.”

“As simple as that? You think them into being?”

“Just like that. Each morning, before opening the store, I sit at this table, where you are now resting your hands, and I begin to imagine them with determined characteristics until they appear before me completely and exactly as I’ve imagined them. It is a task that inspires me and gives me pleasure.”

“How interesting! I never would have believed it. If it weren’t you telling me this…”

“I am very observant. I devote myself to analyzing the people around me and to discovering their desires, their frustrations, their needs, and also their fantasies. My greatest hope is to make others happy. I want to be able to please them.”

“And you? Do you feel happy all alone among so many heads?”

He did not respond.

“And if I were to ask you…? If I were to ask you at this very moment to make me happy and exchange yours for one to my liking, would you do it…?” And now she dared to speak to him as though they were on intimate terms.

He still didn’t answer, submerged in his contradictions.

She then took the beautiful and masculine head that she had already shown him and gave it to him with determination.

“I’ll close the shop,” he concluded as he accepted the head.

Some years later, after they had gone through so many things together, in an unforeseen move she stood up in the shadowy room, left him alone in their soft bed, and set off toward the boarded-up store. She went in and, feeling her way, opened the wardrobe that for many years had only held—in a fine hatbox—his original head. She took it out of its container with utmost care, transfixed by a strange feeling of longing. An unexpected ray of moonlight revealed it to her: illuminated in its ugliness, intelligent and sensitive. The head with whom she could talk for hours without feeling bored, and—above all things—the one that possessed the rare gift of creation.

Without thinking twice, she put it back in the hatbox, which she carried gently as she resolutely made her way toward the bedroom where he was still sleeping, blissfully unaware of what awaited him (of all people), who long ago had been so successful in the head trade.