“I Am Become Kilo”

by Joseph Hirsch

“pan·psy·chism (păn-sī-kĭz’əm)


The view that all matter has consciousness.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Online

Being a coca leaf is easy. My worries are few, and loneliness cannot exist when one has a lot of other leaves living on the same branch with them. My thoughts are simple, and go something like this: Sunlight! Water! And I must only think these things when the sunrays hit me, or the rain pelts me. Sometimes there is wind, but I can mostly ignore that, as it provides no sustenance (though it does carry spores and seeds to the four compass points.)

But then one day a boy approaches my branch and everything changes. The boy wears a straw hat and a yellow and black striped silk shirt that makes him look like a giant bee. Around his hand, he wears a coarse band of something like burlap, lashed tight across his palm. He does this, I learn, so that he can rip me and my brothers and sisters from the branch. Then he tosses us into a basket made of frayed straw while I scream in a way that registers as silence to his ears. 

At this point, I still think of sunlight and rain, but it’s not like before, where I awaited them and celebrated them when they arrived. Instead I’m pining for them, missing them, crying for them, as are my brothers and sisters. We rustle around together, whoosh, and crinkle. We can feel the yellow and brown blotches, death encroaching on the leathery flesh of our leaves. But if indeed I am to die, at least I will do it surrounded by friends and family who must share the same fate. 

We are carried uphill, into a shadowy part of the jungle protected with a triple canopy of dark green leaves. The boy moves toward a log hut with a thatched straw roof. He walks past a shaggy yellow-coated dog, piebald with mange, that spends all its time leaned back on its hind legs, scratching a rash on its hide.

Farther up the hill, next to the hut, is a barrel that has been sliced in half, filled with collected rainwater. A naked girl with brown skin stands there bathing, the waterline even with the thin tines of her ribs beneath her breasts with their milk buds like India rubber. The water she tosses over her black hair is murky with the scummed film from the dissolving greasy soap, which turns her bucketful of rain a milky white. She throws more water on her sopping black locks. It cascades down her back, moving in the runnel of her uncurved spine, beading like sweat or fat raindrops. 

The boy watches.

“Don’t look at my sister or I’ll poke your eyes out.”

This is said by a man in a planter’s hat smoking a maize cob pipe beneath the thatch-roofed hut. This man is like a sturdy tree next to the sapling burdened with his bag of coca leaves. The boy hears the threat in the man’s deep voice, and just in case that’s not clear enough, he sees it in the man’s eyes. The boy—like all creatures—wants to pollinate, but knows he must either grow larger first, or find another flower besides this one potted inside in the drum.

Besides, right now he needs his own food: pesos. He gets a pile of those in exchange for me and my brothers and sisters.

The boy disappears with his money. The man puts us next to other baskets that eventually get picked up by a white truck covered with rust. 


I can hear the other leaves moaning around me. We’re dumped from the bags into a square pen like where the humans slop their hogs. A man holds a tool ringed with blades like a mouth filled with sharp teeth. He wears high hip-wader boots and a matching oilskin apron. He walks into the pen with us, starts the motor on his metal-toothed monster. 

The blades begin to whap, and a susurration moves through our ranks as we dance in the downwash of the sharply spinning points.

The man holds the weedwhacker over us, walking slowly and in straight lines, slicing us into shredded piles of yellowish-green matter. I can hear only moans, and feel tiny pieces of what I once was scattering into insignificant chips that comingle with the other specks.

The man leaves the pen, and other younger men come in wearing heavy rubber boots. They stomp and squish and our screaming remains congeal into a slurry that sloshes like grapes becoming wine in a press. 

We are still alive, but it is a life of fire and harsh chemicals, astringence that makes us weep away the little bit of water we’ve saved in our skins until now. They pour poisons on us that sting and blear, and burn. They cannot hear us cough and we can hear nothing over the sound of our own heaving, an agonized choir harmonized into a single lament. 

Eventually, after all of the stomping and cutting and pouring, I and the shreds of my friend are stirred and pounded until we are of one thick wedge. Like a block of cheese.

The largest man—his face pitted with scars filling with beads of sweat—holds us and smiles. His teeth are yellow and rotted, like weevil-plagued seed maize.

His smile doesn’t last long, though, for another man breaks through the thickets of palm trees and approaches him.

“You were light last time,” this other man says. He wears a khaki uniform and a black hat with a stiff brim with a little golden symbol pinned on it. He is flanked by two other men with similar hats and uniforms, but they have no gold rank to boast. “I’ll take that.”

The soldier holds out his hand. The two smaller men behind him choke up on their shooting sticks. They try to look tall and calm, but they squirm and their eyes dart nervously.

The ugly man starts to smile again. He looks back toward the men behind him, the ones who wear the rubber boots. These smaller men don’t look scared, even though they only have one weedwhacker instead of three rifles.

“Okay,” the man with bad teeth says, still smiling. But then the smile drops from his face and he shouts something in loud Spanish. His voice echoes, and then there is another echo, the metallic ting of a cage door being pulled open.

The trees rustle, whispering. Something else now emerges from the jungle. It is a jet-black beast, its coat shining like onyx, each muscle flexing as its haunches shift and it paws its way forward on four legs. Its green eyes glow like unholy jade and the teeth it brandishes are curved ivory-white daggers. 

The beast snarls, and its green eyes turn a sickly yellow, the jaundiced jewels burning in its black skull. The golden soldier gulps, feeling that the luster of his little badge can’t compare to the gold raging in the beast’s eyes. 

Still, the man slowly tries to regain his composure, pretend the other men can’t see his sweat. 

The golden soldier’s hand drifts to his leather belt. He tickles the loopholes with trembling fingers, his eyes flitting between the man who called to the beast and the beast stalking slowly forward. The ugly-toothed man warns the golden soldier to stop tickling his belt near the leather holster. One of the soldiers behind his leader is already half-turned, the whites of his eyes wide as eggs, ready to disappear into the dark forest. The other soldier flanking the golden man doesn’t flinch, though sweat spills in profuse sheets from beneath his boonie hat.

Ugly Tooth speaks more Spanish to his pantera. The pantera heeds him, launching itself for the golden soldier with a snarl that sends the birds in the trees flying toward the clear blue sky.

The golden soldier shrieks, draws his small, handheld boomer from his belt, but it’s too late. The panther has pounced and pushes him to the ground. Its black claws are so sharp that they slice him without trying, shredding his brown khaki shirt and tearing through the skin beneath the cloth.

Then the panther shreds not just skin but muscle. There is a rip like rending burlap, only instead of a brown dust cloud like from sackcloth, a red spraying mist rises into the air.

The man shrieks. One of the soldiers behind him, shaking, turns and disappears into the trees. The other soldier, his rifle rattling in his hands like hollow bones, looks from the panther chewing the golden soldier toward the dark woods. He chooses the dark woods.

Now we can hear the panther teeth sinking into the skull, cracking it like a nut. A hollow wooden thunk-crunch sounds as the fangs finally break bone, puncturing the skull sutures to shards and probing the soft grey cauliflower within the man’s head. The man is still alive, still pushing against the panther as if he can fight against its muscles and its hunger. He tries to lift it up as if it were just a heavy sack of flour rather than his very god at this moment. Its chewing teeth have gone from ivory white to deep crimson. The sharp fangs have yielded so much blood that its jaws grow too slick to get a grip and the man’s head slips free of their vicelike hold. The torn brainpan releases blood that spills onto the ground fast as a crop-propitiating rain brought on by a shaman’s chant.

A splatter of the screaming soldier’s blood hits us, and soaks into the block of strange cheese that we have become.

The blood doesn’t taste like rainwater, but it feeds me. 

Ugly Teeth picks me up, complaining about the sangre flecks on his cheese wedge. He carries me over to a basket. He sets a wicker lid on top of the basket, making everything dark. I envy the men their escape into live forest, green leathery lianas and phosphorescent moss and ivy climbing age-old trees scaled in petrified bark.


I’m cocooned in the wicker basket, placed snug in the flatbed of a fruit truck, and hidden beneath large piles of pineapples. The spiky plates of the pineapples prickle against my basket, but I don’t fear them. Nothing could ever scare me after seeing the panther crack the screaming soldier’s skull like a coconut. 

Even when we are dragged against a cheese grater and stung with chemicals that burn, it doesn’t really hurt. I’m so tired of being anything besides a coca leaf that I let them do whatever they want without caring. 

I drift off into a lifeless state like the one the men probably assumed I was in when they ripped me and the other leaves from the tree. 

After a while, though, I have no choice but to sense again, as we have changed form and location once more. 

Now we are a kilogram, a yellowish white, tightly-packed powder brick flying in the belly of a giant metal bird among other such silent bricks. Have we been swallowed, maybe eaten up by one of those condor vultures with the black angel wings? I wait to digest, disappear in a bath of stomach acids, hoping, that unlike the other acids, these ones dissolve me forever rather than just burning me some more.

Then I hear a voice belonging to a man. It’s gruff, speaks slowly, in a language I’ve never heard before. The voice is mellow, sonorous but deep, like birdsong mixed with a bullfrog’s mating call. This is a voice that can calm the fears of others. He sings as he flies, steering the bird from within its metallic braincase. And he sings the same songs so many times and in so many variations (whistling, humming, improvising his own usually-dirty words) that I learn the melodies, too.

By the time the man lands on a private island that’s mostly palms and white stone buildings, I know Smuggler’s Blues and Treetop Flyer by heart. I hum them to myself without cease, using song to ease the pain and pass the time. But then the rest of the grains in the kilo groan, having had enough, begging me to stop. So I cease my offkey singing, sparing them. 

We disappear into a velvety darkness blacker than the inside of the basket surrounded by the spiky-skinned pineapples. I can feel us rollicking in a new way. We are not gliding through the air in the man-bird. Neither are we bumping along the road in the flatbed that farts noxious gas.

Instead, we float, bobbing up and down, and as I listen I hear the hiss of water.

Maybe, I think, we will drink water again. It has been so long since I have tasted the pure rainwater.

El agua nos arruinará, idiot, another part of the kilo says. It is the first time I have been called an idiot, and it hurts. But I fear the other part is right, that we will melt if hit with the water that I can hear sloshing around.

What’s more is this water is spiced with something that bites with an acrid spite, like the caustic acids poured over us in each stage of this process. The water, I realize, is filled with salt.


We pupate from the velvet-lined interior of an alligator-hide suitcase. I can see and breathe again. 

It doesn’t appear to be so dark at first. If anything the hotel room is bright, with white walls, white leather sofas and chairs, and a balcony with a glass door letting in sunlight. It’s so bright in fact that the man and woman in the room wear their sunglasses just to protect their eyes from their furniture and vanilla-cream colored carpet.

For a while they ignore us. Then the man undoes the buttons of his shirt covered in palm trees at sunset, and yanks a small ivory-handled stick from a leather pouch on his belt. He presses a button that goes flick and a shining blade appears. 

He comes over to the pile of kilos, and brings his knife down. It looks like the point is going to get jammed into my bag. But then, for some reason he changes his mind at the last second and stabs the bag next to us. I hear a thousand tiny grams screaming in unison. He hears nothing but the pumping of blood in his veins, and its throbbing in his temples. Then he brings the sharp tip of the blade up to the two holes above his mouth and sniffs! hard once.

The woman speaks in Spanish, a language I have not heard for some time. “Don’t do too much of that shit.”

“Shut up, bitch,” he says.

I wait for her to get angry, to call her pantera over to crack his head like a nut with its teeth. But instead she just comes to him where he hovers over the suitcase. Her blue silken robe is open so that her milk buds are visible, hardened by the sea salt breeze and her hunger for powder and the man’s fleshy stamen.

He sticks the knife back into the screaming bag and holds the sharp silver point out to her. The pile is like a peace offering. She makes the snort! sound and her face does a funny little twitch. Then both their hearts beat hard as war drums, and in the same kind of synchronized martial fury. The man forgets about us. Now he stabs his knife hard into the table covered in a white linen cloth where shells of devoured crustaceans and wineglasses sit on silver platters.

They move over to the bed, and the smell of their strange pollination is in the air. It’s a feverous hothouse honey, involving no brown midges or buzzing bees or windblown spore. Just the man grunting and the woman moaning, a thrust as violent as his knife stabbed into the table. They continue to insult each other, cursing, hating even in the throes of their pleasure and passion that makes their racing hearts pound so that both threaten to explode.

Then they do something that makes no sense to us or any other species. They decouple at the moment where the miracle might pass between them, and their two bodies might make a third.

The man spills his pearlescent drops of fertilizing life upon the woman. She isn’t confused, like us, by this rain of life with no receptacle except the tan gourd of her stomach. Rather she is angry that some of his seed has spilled onto her blue silk kimono. She curses him in Spanish fouler than any I have ever heard, and I have been around poor men who slave in the sun eighteen hours a day.

The man does the smart thing and backs away from a potential fight with this mad two-legged leopardess. Unfortunately, when he flees her, he runs toward us, who can hear the cardiac-clenched screams of his heart and its choked canals called arteries. If she doesn’t kill him now, eventually we will.

The fleshy stamen on his body stands up, pointing like a blade, and I wonder if he is going to stab another bag with it. Instead he clutches the ivory handle of his knife, grits his teeth, and pulls the blade free from the table’s groaning wood. 

The man looks at the bag he’s already sliced open. I can feel his thoughts, smell them in the beads of his sweat mixed with dew from the secretions his stabbing brought forth from the woman’s body. He wants to snort more, but he is afraid, not only of the crazy woman, but of other crazy men. 

He fights the feeling in his body, but then a wave of chills hits him, nausea that makes him quake. The sickness making him weak and trembling and irritable scares him more than the men. He sticks the blade back into the bag, carefully, slowly. When he brings it up to his nose, he doesn’t snort, but breathes gently. The powder sneaks inside his nostrils, dissolving, after a sniff, into membranes already slick with blood and mucus.

“You’re not taking another toot are you?”

“Just a bump,” he assures her.

Having been weighed, cut, processed, reduced, mixed with burning quinine and milky baby powder, I have learned a bit about the humans and their weights and measures. And I know that the pull he took, however discreet, was not a bump. His body knows it, too, and responds accordingly. His face twitches several times like the spasming, seizing muscle of a hunted animal that has been running too long. His eyes nictitate like those of a tree lizard. He grinds his jaw so that we can hear the scream of his teeth cracking their enamel, sanding the grains into a powder fine as us. And still he cannot stop.

And now I can hear the cocaine grains laughing around me, in concert, a wicked choir, reveling in this revenge they have had. The humans who tore them from the tree when they were leaves and picked their friends when they were beans, have now been made slaves of the lowest kind.


The cocaine grains stop smiling as the man comes down again with a silver spoon. A spoon should be less scary than a knife, but this time it isn’t. Because the spoon is going to separate us from one-another again. Once more I’ll have to get used to the rhythms of a new me. Not only that, but I’m going to be further adulterated. And to be diluted is to deceive. I have become both a lie and a liar. 

He touches me as he mixes and stirs. The back of his hand crawls with black, spidery hairs. On his wrist is a watch, glaciated with living ice, diamond bezels and shiny gold.

I can feel his dreams as he stirs and mixes. He’s so deep in his fevered reverie that he doesn’t even hear the jibe lobbed by the señorita on the bed behind him. She says, We’re selling yay, not trying to make their linens whiter. But he just keeps mixing, adding so much bleach to cover what he snorted, that the cocaine smells stronger of chlorine than this hotel’s swimming pool. But he is too busy seeing himself as the helmsman on a yacht cutting through blue water so clear he can see the sand at the bottom of the ocean. And instead of just the golden cross around his neck, he imagines himself with a giant medallion the size of a dinner plate depending over his potbelly. And rather than one woman who argues with him and makes him feel small, he can see three women in white bikinis massaging him, making him feel big.

He wraps me in plastic and sets me, along with four other kilos, in a blue Adidas gym bag.

I hear the flick of the zipper, a quick zink! as it’s being pulled closed. Then I am back in the darkness I’ve learned to love, so different from the sun I once knew. 


The light returns, but it is not the sun. It’s the sick shine of fluorescence, designed by humans to torture other humans.

The man before me deals with the pain caused by the harsh light and the pain caused by everything else in the only way humans know how. He splits a bag and snorts. But he is more civil than any other humans I’ve ever seen, and instead of using a knife, he pierces the Saran wrap with a straw. 

Pieces of me disappear up his nose. Then he does something I have not seen a human do in a long time. He reaches a finger inside the bag, runs the digit through the powder, and then sticks his finger in his mouth, as if brushing his teeth and gums. But that one taste is not enough. And he returns, greedily snorting like an anteater I once saw who couldn’t stop licking the ants from a log where a shattered honeycomb had lured them.

This man, unlike the last one, wears all his clothes still, a white shirt and a red-striped tie, with brown khaki pants. He is in an office, with a lamp, a computer, a shelf of books, and a desk made of polished wood hewn from a long-dead tree. 

The door to his office opens. It is also made of wood but the rest of the office is made of glass panes and steel beams. And when this other man comes in and slams the door, the glass rattles.

The loud sound of glass nearly shattering makes the Numb Man’s heart stutter. 

“You think I’m paying three large a zone for headache powder?” the man who slammed the door says. 

“The fuck you talking about?” Numb Man is trying not to sound scared, but I can hear his heart thundering like a terremoto.

“I’m talking about you stepping on those ounces, making them twenty-twos instead of twenty-eights. And putting the rest up your nose.” The man pauses, looks at Numb Man. “And in your mouth, or are you going to tell me you come to this car dealership at two a.m. to eat powdered donuts?”

“I came here to give you your blow.”

“I’ll take it,” the other man says, “and that excess you’ve been stashing in the acoustical drop tile in the ceiling there.”

Angry Man pulls out a gun, a pistol like the one the golden soldier drew when trying to stop the panther. This man is faster than the soldier, but the Numb Man has us rushing through his bloodstream, bursting blood vessels in his nose, filling him with thoughts of invincibility. 

Both men shoot and fire flashes. Smoke fills the air. The bulb on the desk lamp shatters, making everything darker, making our grains stand out even whiter, phosphorescent in the night. Numb Man is dead, his face down on the desk, an amoeba-shaped pool of purple blood expanding around him, staining his white shirt a dark wine color.

Angry Man is no longer the Angry Man. He is the Hurt Man, bleeding, a flower pulled from the ground with perhaps enough water left in its roots to survive a day, if it is strong. He puts us back in the blue Adidas bag. Some of us spills out onto the desk, mixing with the blood. 

The cocaine granules sigh as they taste the lifeforce of the Numb Man. We have become as addicted to their blood as they have to our life. We are both vampires. It is just a matter of who consumes who first, and the fastest wins. Like with the two men pulling their guns on each other a moment before. 

The Hurt Man groans, ignoring the spilled powder because his blood is spilling even faster. Then there is a sound, a call like a bird of prey crying from the depths of its syrinx as loud as it can.

This sound is followed by light as magic as the plumage of the rarest rara avis. It is blue and red, red and blue, pulsing in consistent strobes to counterpoint the syrinx shriek. I think the light is beautiful, yet Hurt Man is not happy to see it. Hurt Man raises his gun again, but he is too weak to do much more than threaten the humans outside, who are more powerful than he. 

There is more fire, and smoke, and Hurt Man becomes, like Numb Man, a dead man. Soon the writhing earthworms will rise from the ground and eat both, consuming them just as they once consumed cocaine. 

I resolve myself to being taken by this next group of men, and mixed and cut and adulterated until my soul is as small as that of Numb Man. But that’s not what happens. Instead, we are carried from the office, seized, in the words of a man with a brown mustache like a caterpillar crawling across his upper lip. He brings us to his car with its bird syrinx and the plumes of strobing light.

He takes us to a room with a grillwork door made of cold steel, the walls of exposed and crumbling ancient brick. 

In this room are many shelves. On the shelves are other things that have made their own treks here from disparate places. There are jewels, like the ones that once shined on the man’s wristwatch, and guns like the ones men use when they stop using words. The jewels have stories, of the necks of dying men from which they were snatched. The guns tell their own tales, of being gripped in hands slick with fear sweat, and the exchange of shots leaving men dead and smoke rising high in clouds. 

Finally I tune out their voices, and let them murmur and boast through the nights we spend in the small room under the harsh lights. I should be sad, because my new home, a cardboard box, is much less comfortable than an alligator-skinned suitcase or even a silk-lined gym bag. And I should be sad because I am fed by my least favorite light, the fluorescence a cold substitute for the warmth of the Colombian sun I once knew.

But I am not sad, because a woman comes by, wearing rubber gloves and holding a pen in her hand. She affixes a little tag to my box. Someone makes a joke about toe tags, but I have not been here long enough to understand that. When I look down to see what the woman has written, I smile. For she has finally given me a name, a weight, an identity. 

I am cocaine, twenty-four point three grams, with traces of b-type and o-pos blood smattered through me, according to a serological reagent test. The blood types match that of the Numb Man in the office and the golden soldier who had his head chewed open by the panther.

The woman turns out the light before leaving, and we are once again in darkness. I sing the songs the white-bearded pilot once sang. None of the other inmates, the jewels and guns in boxes, listen to me. They are too busy with their braggart gossip to heed my ballads about smuggling through treetops. 

I figure that this will be the end of my story, but I am wrong.

For one day a man comes into the evidence locker. As he peers into my box, I recognize him as the one with the brown caterpillar mustache. His eyes are now strained, weak, their dark clarity gone watery, as if he were about to cry. As if he regretted what he was about to do but could not stop himself. 

I smile as he pulls me out of the box, because I can see now that my story is not yet done. And I know that, if he does not snort me out of existence, there is a good chance that I will taste his blood. And, if I’m lucky, the blood of another human or two.


Joseph Hirschs shorter works have appeared in numerous outlets, including Bull: Mens Fiction3 AM Magazine, and Retreats from Oblivion. His nonfiction has been featured in Film International and Fight Hype, where he covered boxing matches around the globe. His most recently published novel, The Phone in the Fishbowl, is available from Black Rose Writing. He served four years in the U.S. Army, in which his travels took him to Germany, Iraq, and Texas. He holds an MA in Germanistik from the University of Cincinnati. www.joeyhirsch.com.