The Seller of Heads

“The Seller of Heads” (El vendedor de cabezas)

By Esther Díaz Llanillo, translated by Manuel Martínez

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

Forthcoming late 2016 or early 2017 from Cubanabooks Press

The store wasn’t very big. In the translucent window under a multicolored awning the colors of the rainbow, the owner displayed a variety of heads. At the entrance there was a sign where customers could read: “MINORS PROHIBITED”

            There were heads for every taste. An ample selection for women offered them long blond hair, with stylish curls, green or blue eyes and pale skin animated only by rosy cheeks. These were Nordic heads that were much sought after at the time. They could also choose African heads with nappy hair over polished black faces highlighted by beautiful pupils like black buttons. It was possible to see others that were Asian with angled eyes and straight hair that fell like a black cascade over the clean yellow of the face. And there were Arab faces with curly hair and deep almond-eyed gazes. There were too, characteristically Latin faces, Slavic or Hindu; each one with a special touch of strange perfection.

            As for the masculine ones, there were some with short high and tights destined for military men. There were those with long copious hair suitable for musicians, poets, and bohemians; with a languid, amorous expression for suitors. There were ones with strong chins useful for bosses, boxers or businessmen. In short, a great variety ready to satisfy any whim of desire.

            It wasn’t necessary that the head be compatible with the appearance of the individual who wore it. In this sense there was complete liberty to choose. A person who possessed a body with white skin, almost 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 would occur more frequently when it was carnival season; when sales would increase.

            The influence exerted by those changes on the personalities of the wearers, as well as the impression they made on others, was noteworthy. In this way, a timid professor of philosophy chose one with a surly expression in order to instill respect in his students. A movie star, into her fifties, ventured to choose one with wild blonde hair, young eyes and seductive lips, able to meet the requirements of the most demanding magazine covers. And what can be said of those with disfiguring scars, undesired bald crowns or, contrarily, too hairy when baldness, as a style choice, was preferred? There in the window a diversity of heads was on offer, ready to cater to any taste or expectation.

            So much so that they could even be made to order. To accomplish this, the person ordering needed to have an interview with the owner and give a photo or a drawing with the desired characteristics. Of course, the price was higher.

            Once the head was purchased, the store offered to their clients, if they so desired, the removal of their current head and the placement of the new one 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 at, and admire, the prolific exhibit on the other side of the windows glass. Among these was Elvira. One day she made up her mind to go in, with the intention of asking the owner about his products and the particularities of their purchase. While they talked she observed him carefully. He had a withered face, thinning hair, eyes that were much too small and set near a beak of a nose. Nevertheless, the conversation permitted her to appreciate an amiable soul, learned and possessing of an interesting personality.

            He looked at her through think lenses with an watery gaze submerged in faraway distances. “He is incapable of rude intentions,” she thought. His lips were no more than a thin line, made only to draw out a pleasant smile, never to laugh, she was able to confirm. The scarceness of hair, underneath which could be seen the innocence of the cranium, made her feel more compassion than attraction.

            His head offered no advantage to his attractive personality. “Why don’t you change yours for another one?” suggested Elvira with a certain discontent 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. As a consequence of the sort of relationship they had already started, she decided to pose the question.

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

            “I’m satisfied with mine.” He affirmed with conviction.

            “I understand.” she responded, let down.

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

            “Everyone who comes here buys and changes. Wouldn’t you like to be the owner of a lovely head like this one?” And she took into her hands one with a young and masculine face, short black lustrous hair, perfectly styled, eyes of the same color and a direct gaze and thick lips that seemed voluptuous to her.

            She thought that she perceived a touch of melancholy hitting her through the thick lenses, from the distant landscape of his eyes.

            “I can’t do that,” he answered.

            “Look at how many and how beautiful they are here. Choose one! But, why not?

            “Because I am the one that creates them.”

            “What do you mean by that?”

            “That I imagine them with my own head.”

            “As simple as that? By only thinking of them?”

            “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 how I have thought of them. It is a task that inspires me and that 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 change yours for one to my liking, would you do it…?” at this point she dared to speak intimately to him.

            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 it.

            After their having lived through so many experiences, leaving them drained, some time later during an unforeseen night, she got up surrounded by shadows. Leaving him alone in the soft bed, she set off toward the place where the now shuttered store stood. She went in and, feeling her way, opened the wardrobe that housed only, for many years, in a fine hatbox, the 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. He who, years ago, had been a prosperous seller of heads.