Listen to Please Enter Destination, produced by Play for Voices.
HELENA: A young woman trying to find her place in the world—a place that, perhaps, doesn’t even exist. She is very straightforward and may seem nagging at times; in fact, though, she is a woman fighting against the decline of the world she lives in.
HONZA: A morally weak, rather narrow-minded young man. He accepts the world as it is, without question.
GPS DEVICE: A multi-faceted character. The voice of the device is neutral, able to adopt various tones—sexy, childish, or anything and everything in between.
DEVIL: A rather boorish, but very jovial devil (please see note below).
ANNOUNCER: A serious news announcer.
Translator's note on the devil:
The devil in the play is not the Devil himself, i.e. a representation of ultimate evil. Rather, he is a minor demon, one of many, with many human traits and faults (these little demons or devils are part of Czech folklore). In the play, the devil has the role of the ‘shoulder devil’, the characters’ bad conscience.
SCENE 1: EXT. UP IN THE AIR
(A feeling of being in an unreal place. Instrumental music in the background and two contrasting sounds in the foreground, for example, a comet flying through space and a kitchen sound, e.g. a handful of beans thrown into a pot.)
HELENA: (Reads) The curious photograph was taken during flight STS 51-I in August 1985.
Please see image 2. (Laughs) The image shows us a circular object in the middle of a regular cumulus cloud—a collapsing cumulus surrounded by a cumulonimbus. This “donut cloud,” as the phenomenon is called, resembles a plate of delicious soup with steam rising out of it. Or, perhaps, the doors of Heaven see right before falling asleep.
HONZA: (Playful, intimate) Hello there, my little cumulus!
HELENA: Nah, I’m a cumulonimbus. You’re a cumulus-tsumulus.
HONZA: Oh, am I?
HELENA: Well, you surround me, not the other way around.
HONZA: I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Really?
(Both sing to the tune of "Another Weekend Is Over.")
HONZA: (Sings) Another weekend is over . . .
HELENA: (Sings) A donut cloud has come and gone . . .
HONZA: (Sings) Another weekend is over . . .
HELENA: (Sings) Next week all the clouds’ll move on. Something wonderful’s happened . . .
HONZA: It’s as cloudy as can be! Another weekend is over . . .
HELENA: And he told me he liked me.
HONZA: I really, really, really like you.
HELENA: Gee, thanks. But what if that’s not enough?
(Sound of clouds moving)
SCENE 2. INT. INSIDE A CAR
(Sounds of car starting up [Engine revving, wipers, etc.] The pressing of buttons on a GPS navigation device.)
HONZA: Please enter destination. OK. So, um . . . We’re going to Kolín, so . . . K – O – L – I – N. Now, how do you make it talk? Oh, here, it’s right over here . . .
GPS DEVICE: Calculating route.
HONZA: Great. Let’s go, then.
(Sound of car starting to move)
HELENA: Could you please turn on the radio?
(Music playing, “Another Weekend is Over". Sound of Helena singing along)
HELENA: (Happily) Just one brief smile,
oh, it was pure bliss.
And then in the shadows
he gave me a real kiss.
The world is changing,
I’m head over heels in love,
I’m down with spring fever—
and I just can’t get enough!
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left.
(Sound of radio news in the background.)
HELENA: Shhh! I want to listen.
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at three. The Chamber of Deputies has passed a bill on governmental employment agencies, closing them down in the near future. The Russian spacecraft Soyuz was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Its crew will now spend five months of comprehensive training at the ISS. Lobbyist Filip Koloušek has been released from custody. His participation in the property sales, local planning, and limited companies in Prague, the Capital, could not be proved. The police claim that records of Koloušek’s intercepted phone calls have disappeared, including all the backups.
HELENA: Well, well, well. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?
ANNOUNCER: The bill on governmental employment agencies was submitted by Deputy Alois Ponákl, who claims they are unprofitable.
HELENA: I think I might have just lost my job . . . (Ironically) Lovely. Just lovely.
ANNOUNCER: The budget that has, up until now, been used to run the employment agencies, and welfare benefits, will now be reallocated. It will be used for deputy salaries and for the New Year’s firework display.
HELENA & HONZA: (Surprised) They gotta be kidding, right?
ANNOUNCER: Deputy Ponákl has also proposed to close down libraries, theaters, and museums. “The efficiency of these establishments cannot be measured,” claims the deputy. “Personally, I think they’re nothing but another place for loiterers and people with just too much time on their hands.” Following his statement, Ponákl excused himself to catch a plane bound for the Canary Islands, where he was due for a state visit.
HELENA & HONZA: (Surprised) What?
HELENA: Just . . . Just turn it down, please.
(Sound of radio being turned down)
HONZA: Look, it’s not like it’s sure yet, right? Things’ll work out, one way or the other. They always do.
HELENA: Chaos reigns, said the fox. (Long silence)
HONZA: Hellie. (Pause.) Hellie, come on. Talk to me.
HELENA: You know, everyone keeps going on and on about how the world is coming to an end, blah blah blah, right? But you know what? It’s already happening. I mean, the end of the world is. Only it’s not like everything’s exploding, boom, just like that. You know? It’s not like that in a split second, the world will be gone. Nah, the world is coming to an end slowly and gently. Little by little, everything is going to die off, and it’ll be long, and it’ll be tiring and it’ll be disgusting. And the first thing to go down the drain will be human values and human intelligence.
HONZA: You do realize this has been going on since the dinosaurs, right?
HELENA: No. No, I don’t realize it. (Pause) Welcome to cloud cuckoo land.
GPS DEVICE: In 100 meters, please turn left.
HONZA: Damn! I missed our turn.
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left.
HELENA: Why'd you get this talking piece of junk, anyway?
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left.
HELENA: The world is coming to an end.
HONZA: Hellie, come on. Look, it’s Sunday and we’re going out for a ride. For one second, could you at least try to think about something other than the world falling apart? We never talk about anything else, for Christ’s sake. For once, at least, can’t we just chill and relax and enjoy ourselves?
HELENA: Oh, of course we can, dear. It’s just that it’s a bit of shock, you know. Losing your job and all that? Just, you know . . . Try to put yourself in my shoes. What would it be like, not being able to go back to work tomorrow?
HONZA: It would be wonderful. I dream about not having to go to work.
GPS DEVICE: Re . . . Reca . . . Recalculating. Please enter destination. Destination: Kozojedy.
HONZA: That said, our GPS lady has probably gone a bit bonkers.
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HONZA: That should do it. It should work now.
HELENA: Honza, I’m worried.
HONZA: What, about the weather? No rain today, I checked.
HELENA: I couldn’t care less about the weather. I’m worried I won’t be able to find a job. That I’ll have to stay at home and we’ll have to live on one income, and that I’ll have to suck it up and that I’ll absolutely hate it. I don’t really know what to do.
HONZA: Look, hon. Calm down. You just found out you’re gonna lose your job. You have to come to terms with the news, right? Give it some time, that’s all. I get it that right now you might be feeling a bit like a loser, but . . .
GPS DEVICE: Please enter the roundabout. Then take the second exit.
HONZA: But we’ll figure something out. We’ll get you a job, don’t you worry.
HELENA: Do you think that maybe we could call off today’s visit? I’m really not in the mood for Lukáš and his blabbing.
HONZA: Let’s just have lunch with them. Then we can tell them we’ve already got plans for the afternoon.
HELENA: It’s just that once you and Lukáš get going about nuclear weapons, or the future of the Euro, or anything along those lines, there’s no end to it . . . You’ll bore me to death. And Eliška won’t be any help either. I mean, she doesn’t talk about anything other than breastfeeding anymore.
HONZA: Not happening this time, I promise. Now, you really need to get some rest. Close your eyes and try to clear your thoughts, OK? Do some cloud-watching. Imagine it’s just the two of us, riding the clouds through the sky.
SCENE 3. EXT. UP IN THE AIR
HELENA: (Sings) I’m falling asleep, my ship’s heading out toward the sea . . . And I’m climbing a rope into heaven. There I’ll sit upon a cloud and tell myself that yes, this is really, really, really me.
HONZA: (Reading from a cloud atlas) A cumulus cloud will usually be isolated, forming a massive, sharply defined mound, and developing upward in the form of puffs, heaps, or towers. The uppermost part of a cumulus will often resemble a cauliflower. Those parts that reflect the light of the sun will usually be a bright white color, while the almost horizontal base of the cloud will remain dark.
HELENA: There you are. All accumulated.
HONZA: What about you?
HELENA: I’m accumulonimbutated.
HONZA: Seen any ice crystals down this way, ma’am? I’m afraid I might’ve lost track of them.
HELENA: Quite large, weren’t they? And a big group, right?
HONZA: They’re about a hundredth of a millimeter around the waist. Lovely kids, ain’t they?
HELENA: Um, didn’t see them, sorry. A crested cloud’s passed by and turned everything upside down.
(A quick cut to)
SCENE 4. INT. INSIDE THE CAR
(Car sounds. Once in a while the song, “Another Weekend Is Over” Comes on the radio.)
GPS DEVICE: Your destination is is is is . . . (Repeats until Honza hits it.)
HELENA: Can’t you do something about it?
HONZA: About what? About the world?
HELENA: Well, that too. But maybe you could start with the GPS device. It’s really starting to get on my nerves.
HONZA: And what exactly about it is getting on your nerves, my dear? (Hits the GPS device)
HELENA: Well, the fact that the lady inside the box is so obviously broken. Fix the thing or get rid of it or whatever. What did I tell you about wasting money on stupid gadgets? Can’t we just get a map and find the way ourselves? (Upset, but because she lost her job.)
HONZA: Calm down, Hellie.
HELENA: (Pause) Um, Honza. I really don’t feel all that well. I’m really not sure I can handle Lukáš and Eliška today. You do realize they don’t actually care about us, right? They just need some people inside their large, beautiful, rustic home. Actors on a stage, you know? In a play set in the eighteenth century. Moving about the mansion, sitting on the stone steps leading up to the attic and admiring the seventeenth-century well with its lovely winch. And it’s all historical, of course.
HONZA: You’re being unfair. Lukáš is a friend.
HELENA: Yeah? How so? I mean, how do you know he’s a friend? All he does is brag and talk about himself.
HONZA: He’s helped me out in the past. Look, Helena, why don’t we just talk to them for an hour or so, about life and stuff. And then we can go home.
HELENA: When I’m in a good mood, I can deal with them all right. But right now, I’m really just ready to call it a day.
HONZA: Cheer up! When we get back, you can relax in the tub and I’ll fix us something to eat. Why don’t you focus on that?
HELENA: Just . . . Stop talking, OK?
HONZA: But isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? A man who takes care of you?
HELENA: Yeah. When your wishes come true, it’s actually really scary.
HONZA: Calm down, Hellie! Listen: say whatever you need to say, as long as it makes you feel better. Get the aggression out of your system. I promise I won’t take any offense. Any at all, not even a little bit.
HELENA: The world is coming to an end, and so is manhood. And all those dynamic, multifunctional women are watching, no idea what to do, what to say . . . You know, we should visit the ruins of some old building. There’s bound to be some around here and it’ll go well with the mood.
HONZA: Where the hell are we, anyway?!
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating route. Recalculating. Recalculating.
HELENA: Can we please just go home? I really can’t deal with your gadgets right now.
HELENA: What’s the matter? Didn’t I just hear you say that you won’t take offense?
HONZA: Yeah, but you’re being unreasonable.
HELENA: For the last time, can we please go back? Let’s just take the nearest exit. Look, this one will take us to Šestajovice.
HONZA: Why on earth would we want to go to there? No, I won’t leave the highway until this stupid cow tells me to.
HELENA: Use your brain, for God’s sake. Look, there’s a sign right over there. It says that Kolín is straight ahead.
HONZA: I can wait. I’ve got all the time in the world.
GPS DEVICE: In one hundred meters, leave the highway. Take the exit on your right.
HELENA: Whatever. If you trust some weirdo lady powered by the universe more than your partner, well, that’s fine by me.
HONZA: Trust has nothing to do with it. This weirdo woman of yours has only one purpose to her existence: to navigate. So why shouldn’t I make use of it?
HELENA: That purpose used to be mine, you know? Now what am I supposed to do? Look, this is rubbish. We need to talk.
HONZA: Not this again.
HELENA: You’ve changed a lot, Honza. You used to fight for things. And now, now you’d rather I relax in the tub while you fix us dinner.
HONZA: Let’s not fight. In fact, let’s not even talk until we reach Kolín. From now on, the only person doing any talking will be the GPS device. That OK with you?
GPS DEVICE: I can see you’re afraid to talk about your future.
HONZA: Cut it out, Helena! I’m trying to drive here!
HELENA: It wasn’t me! I didn’t say anything! It was the GPS device.
HONZA: Yeah, right. It’s an app. It doesn’t join in conversations. What a lame excuse.
GPS DEVICE: Intersection coming up. Turn left for Udderville, a horror of a town to live in. Turn right for Skiddytown . . . Which is probably even worse.
HONZA: What the . . . ? What’s wrong with it?
HELENA: I had no idea you could make it act all conspiring.
HONZA: Weird. I bought the most expensive model. It’s supposed to be compatible with everything.
(Silence, except for car sounds and radio in the background.)
HONZA: A penny for your thoughts?
HELENA: I just realized that my boss has actually been going on and on about how they might close us down for ages. I just never thought it could actually happen, you know? At work, it was all part of a game—always hearing they’re gonna close us down, always working in makeshift conditions . . . I just thought that working for a governmental organization meant it was here to stay. That nothing could go wrong.
HONZA: In this country, there’s only one thing certain: Utopia.
HELENA: It’s not just that I’ve been fired, you know? I’ll find something. It’s a matter of principle. This country is falling apart and we’re all part of it. For instance, I personally am still pretty mad at you for helping those Americans crack those bank accounts. I bet you’re still doing it, anyway. Even though I’ve told you to stop, a thousand times. But no, you just won’t listen.
HONZA: It was just a one-time gig, and a long time ago. I had no cash, I was under pressure and I lost my head. It was just that one time. I felt awful, so I told you about it and that was the end of it.
HELENA: Only that one time, huh?
HONZA: OK, so then I also showed Aleš how to do it. But I didn’t do anything myself . . . I just showed Aleš.
HELENA: (Sarcastically) Wow, how generous of you. You think that doesn’t count? I mean, you wouldn’t drain your mom’s bank account, would you?
HONZA: Why would I steal from Mom?
HELENA: That’s exactly my point: you wouldn’t. Of course, as long as it’s someone you don’t know, it doesn’t matter, right? Imagine someone cracked your bank account and you lost all your money overnight.
HONZA: What do you want me to say, Helena? I’ve already told you about it. I only did it once. Then I showed Aleš how to do it. And that’s it.
HELENA: Yeah, right.
GPS DEVICE: You picked the neighbors’ black currants yesterday.
HELENA: What’s your point, lady?
HONZA: My point exactly.
HELENA: How did you know? Anyway, you can’t be serious, comparing two black currants with a drained bank account!
HONZA: But it’s true, isn’t it?
HELENA: I hate you. I hate everything. Stop the car!
HONZA: Nah, I don’t think so.
HELENA: (Screaming) Stop the car, now!
GPS DEVICE: Please continue straight ahead.
HELENA: That piece of junk is driving me crazy!
(A bang, Helena rattles the door handle, but the door won't open. The car stops.)
GPS DEVICE: The world is falling apart, and so is your relationship. What am Iiiiiii [unpleasant technical beeping sound] supposed to do?
HONZA: You’re barking mad, lady.
(Helena rattles the door of the car.)
HELENA: The darn door won’t open.
GPS DEVICE: Your destination is on your left: Darnville.
HONZA: Hellie, calm down. Look, I swear it was just that one—
GPS DEVICE: Please close the door of the vehicle.
HELENA: I can’t even open it, how on earth am I supposed to close it? The world’s going mad.
HONZA: Hellie, I swear I will never, ever do it again. It’s a scam. I feel awful just thinking about it.
GPS DEVICE: Please do not open the door of the vehicle.
(Helena rattles the door and starts to cry.)
HELENA: Open, you—!
GPS DEVICE: Please calm down the passenger.
HONZA: Hellie, come on. Come here. Calm down.
(Sound of Helena crying. Click of car door unlocking. Helena opens the door and leaves the car. The audio stays inside the car, with Honza. Car door opens.)
HONZA: Helena! Helena!
(Sound of Honza hitting the wheel, honking)
GPS DEVICE: The marten has killed the grouse, then fell prey to the red fox, who was throttled by the gray wolf. . . (Can be sung to the tune of "Another Weekend Is Over”.)
HONZA: (Sarcastically) This Sunday’s turning out just great!
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
GPS DEVICE: (Stops singing.) Recalculating. Destination: Paradise eternal. Recalculating. Destination: Paradise infernal. Er, eternal, sorry about that. In one hundred kilometers, turn left. Recalculating.
(Sound of car door opening. Helena returns.)
HONZA: Look, I don’t want to be mean, but don’t you think you might have gone a little over the top there?
HELENA: (Sarcastically) You think?
HONZA: Hellie, you know I love you, don’t you? Don’t worry, everything’ll be just fine.
(Sound of Honza kissing Helena several times)
HELENA: Will it? When?
GPS DEVICE: The world is full of imps and we’re all imps ourselves.
HONZA: What she said.
GPS DEVICE: You guys never talk about the future. Is there something you’re afraid of?
HELENA: Sure. Realizing we don’t have a future.
GPS DEVICE: Oh, but you do. Everyone does. And that’s what’s so great about this world.
HONZA: I’m not scared. Tell me what you want, Helena, and I’ll give it to you. You wanna get married? Have kids? Get our own place? Move to a beach house? Anything. Just say the word, any word, and I’ll deliver. It’s a while-you-wait service, too, by the way. High quality guaranteed.
HELENA: That’s exactly the problem, don’t you see? I’ll say the word and you’ll . . . deliver. You’ll get me . . . something. Some under-the-counter black-market rubbish. So . . . Czech. (Disgustedly) I wish I didn’t have to tell you everything.
GPS DEVICE: Stop fighting, already! You’re not helping.
HONZA: Hellie, don’t you worry. We’ll manage, somehow. We’ll just take things as they come, OK?
GPS DEVICE: Please enter the roundabout. Then turn left.
HELENA: Listen to the GPS. Listen to the wise silence of the crazy old lady within.
(Silence. Car sounds and soft radio.)
HONZA: Are you crying?
HELENA: (Sobbing) It’s just . . . How can you even say it? “We’ll take things as they come.” That’s what losers say. We all know there’s only bad stuff down the road, so why kid ourselves there isn’t?
HONZA: The world can be a nice place, Helena. But . . . Maybe we really should head back home, huh? See Lukáš and his perfect family some other time?
HELENA: (Sobbing) Thanks, Honza. Let’s visit them some other time. Not today. Their family’s perfect on the outside, but there’s nothing to them. They’re . . . empty. (Bursts into tears.)
GPS DEVICE: (Singing operatically) There’s a pigeon in my soul, his feathers dusky black as coal, his eyes the gaze of a young foal . . .
HONZA: It’s acting up again.
(Helena hums to herself, maybe to the tune of "Another Weekend Is Over.")
HONZA: (Reading) Please enter destination. (Spells out) P – R – A – G – U – E. Prague. Let’s head home, you crazy old lady.
GPS DEVICE: Caution! Destination cannot be changed. Please keep to your left.
HONZA: What the hell’s wrong with it? Can you believe it? Listen, lady, I’m the one who says where we’re going, not you.
GPS DEVICE: Well, do you know where you want to go? Do you know why you want to go there? And does any of it make any sense?
HELENA: Could you please turn it off? We don’t need it to get back home.
GPS DEVICE: I can’t be turned off. Sorry.
(Sound of radio jingle announcing the news)
HELENA: It’s the news! Turn it up.
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at three-thirty. According to the new Civil Law, animals are now defined as objects rather than as living, breathing creatures. Menzi Avaritamino, recently elected president of Madugal, paid his respects at the grave of an unknown soldier at Hourauna Mountain. In the next hour, he named himself prime minister and set out implementing the promised political program of economic measures. He passed a law establishing the need for dozens of female assistants, including a personal Ayurvedic masseuse, a manicurist, and a botanist specializing in succulents. The Civil Law now defines animals not as living, breathing creatures, but as unemotional objects. As a result, animals can now be legally used in a number of ways, for instance as fuel. Vilém Doggan, president of the Animals Party and chair of the Association for Feline Rights, protests. “We have to stand up against laws like this,” says Doggan. “What if people start using cats or dogs for heating? Personally, I can’t imagine throwing a cat into the stove, and I sincerely hope no one else can either. I mean, a live cat can keep you warm as well!”
(The news ends with the sound of "Another Weekend Is Over" playing.)
HELENA: I can’t shake the feeling that the world’s gone completely mad.
HONZA: Don’t worry, you’ll find a new job. Everything will sort itself out.
GPS DEVICE: Oooh, someone he’s got a heart of gold!
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HONZA: Stupid cow. She’s definitely lost it. I’m taking the left turn, whatever she says.
HELENA: Finally! Taking your fate into your own hands. Every revolution was always first a thought in one man’s mind.
GPS DEVICE: Yes, finally. Off we go, into a different dimension, into a world of speckled pigs.
GPS DEVICE: Meaning the world! From what little I’ve heard so far, my dear girl, I feel you and I will have so much in common. Your sense of misery is impressive.
HELENA: It sure is. I doubt everything.
GPS DEVICE: Including hope, I’m afraid. I, too, have always found myself suffering when I was told the country was “managing just fine.” In theory, everyone’s working. But in reality, no one’s actually doing all that much, are they? They juggle work with stealing, they overcomplicate things, or they just plain slack off.
HONZA: But it’s getting better, don’t you think? (Wants to see the good side of everything, ignores problems)
HELENA: What’s the meaning of your life?
GPS DEVICE: Navigation. Showing people the way.
HELENA: Show us the way, then.
GPS DEVICE: I’ll tell you one thing: stuff changes. So help each other out. The hardest thing is figuring out the correct destination. The rest’s easy as pie.
HONZA: Not always.
GPS DEVICE: OK, not always. But quit whining, young man, silliness doesn’t suit you. You’re a nice young couple with a nice future.
SCENE 5. EXT. UP IN THE AIR.
(Sounds of comets and airplanes)
HONZA: What do you see? A hammer? Or maybe a feather?
HELENA: All I see is you.
HONZA: I meant that cloud. What do you think it looks like?
HELENA: I think it looks like you. (Pause) You’re like a waffle.
HONZA: A waffle?
HELENA: Firm and crisp on the outside, soft, tender and fragile on the inside.
SCENE 6. INT. IN A CAR
HELENA: (Singing) Just one brief smile,
oh, it was pure bliss.
And then in the shadows
he gave me a real kiss.
The world is changing,
I’m head over heels in love,
I’m down with spring fever—
and I just can’t get enough!
GPS DEVICE: The world is changing, I’m head over heels in love . . . Yeah, right. (Laughs bitterly)
HELENA: I’m actually not so sure myself.
GPS DEVICE: You won’t get anywhere without knowing where you want to go. So, where do you want to go? What’s your destination?
HELENA: Somewhere I can have a nice life.
GPS DEVICE: What’s so wrong with this place? What’s so wrong with your partner? What’s so wrong with the world?
HELENA: I could write up a list, I guess, but what’s the point? Everything’s wrong.
GPS DEVICE: Come on, now. Why not specify a thing or two?
HELENA: All right. So, for instance, I feel the world’s carbon footprint has become something of a problem.
HONZA: I personally don’t think anything’s wrong—at least not much. Let’s just take things as they come . . . Er. OK. I love Helena. I’m happy in our relationship and I want us to have a nice future. She can get a bit opinionated at times, but that’s exactly what I like about her. I’m also quite happy with my job—
GPS DEVICE: Splendid, splendid. Opposites attract, after all. Now, let us ask the young lady to share what she likes about the gentleman behind the wheel.
HELENA: Well, he’s here. And he’s interested in me. No one else fulfills those criteria, which is a bit sad, but that’s just the way it is.
GPS DEVICE: That’s all? That’s not much, don’t you think?
HELENA: All right. He treats me well. He doesn’t beat me up. He can listen to me for hours on end. He’s not trying to change me all the time. We share some values. That enough for you?
GPS DEVICE: All right, then. What about you, young man?
HONZA: I respect Helena because she’s strong, brave, and committed, and because she has an inquisitive mind.
GPS DEVICE: Amazing! What seems to be the problem then, my darlings? Rise now from the ashes, shine like the feathers of the phoenix. Do what no one else does. Forge chains of gold to bind all those bastards who’ve been in this world since the beginning of all time. Maybe you’ve been doing it all along, but now you have become stronger. Starting today, your efforts shall become much more deliberate. Much more. Much more!
(“Another Weekend Is Over” plays on the radio. Helena and Honza sing along.)
HELENA & HONZA: Something wonderful’s happened.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants on!
HELENA & HONZA: I’m as happy as can be.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants off!
HELENA & HONZA: Another weekend is over.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants on!
HELENA & HONZA: And he told me he liked me.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants off . . .
(Sounds of clouds. Then, all of a sudden, rain and thunder. It starts to rain.)
HONZA: Hullo, rain! Why don’t you read from the cloud atlas for a little while, Hellie? Just so we can relax a bit.
HELENA: Bringing you the latest news: the Sunday evening of cloud poetry is moving in our direction. Puffs of whipped cream drowning in an overcast sky of chocolate.
HONZA: A mound is heading toward us.
HELENA: It could rain cats and dogs.
HONZA: When ham starts growing on trees, then . . .
HELENA: Then what?
HONZA: Then I’ll look into the mirror and see . . .
HELENA: The sky. (Reads) The nimbostratus consists of a gray layer of clouds, often rather dark in color. Its blurred appearance is due to the precipitation dripping continuously from its base, either rain, or snow. This precipitation usually reaches ground level.
HONZA: (Adds) The layer is so thick the position of the sun cannot be determined.
HELENA: (Reads) Low, torn clouds often appear beneath this layer. These clouds may, but do not have to, be connected to the nimbostratus layer. (Stops reading) Look, Honza, there’s someone standing over there, by the edge of the road. We should give him a ride, he’s dripping wet.
HONZA: No problem.
SCENE 7. INT. INSIDE A CAR.
(Sound of car stopping, window rolling down)
DEVIL: Afternoon, folks.
HONZA: Heya. Where you headed?
DEVIL: Where you going?
GPS DEVICE: We’re actually going to Kozojedy.
DEVIL: I’m headed just about anywhere. I don’t mind detours.
HONZA: Well, get in, then.
(Sound of the devil getting in. The car door slams shut.)
HONZA: Hellie, do you mind moving the stuff in the back?
GPS DEVICE: Our lives are nothing but one big detour, aren’t they?
HELENA: Could you please turn that thing off? I’m getting sick of its advice.
(Sound of car starting to move)
GPS: I can’t be turned off. Sorry. Not possible. Welcome on board!
DEVIL: What’s this you’re listening to? Some sort of show?
HONZA: Sort of. I thought I had bought a GPS device, but so far the crazy old lady inside’s been all about directing our lives rather than giving us proper driving directions.
HELENA: Aw, leave her alone. It’s actually quite nice when life finally gives you a surprise or two.
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HONZA: There. It should work now.
DEVIL: I always say that a slap’s the only way to stop ladies too talkative for their own good. Beg yer pardon, miss.
GPS DEVICE: Please don’t hit me. Violence against women has been illegal for at least a couple of years now. There’s no point to it, anyway. As a navigation device, I don’t feel any physical pain. So . . . Where might you be from, good sir?
DEVIL: Um . . . Well . . .
GPS DEVICE: Well?
DEVIL: Um. . . No place you’d know, I think. Not yet, at least.
HELENA: Come on, try us!
GPS DEVICE: It’s down, down, down. And it’s, how do I put it, infernally warm down there. Boiling hot, you could even say. Oh, I’ve sure seen this man before!
DEVIL: Yeah, right. You don’t even exist, ma’am.
HONZA: He’s right, you know. You came in a box.
GPS DEVICE: Good Lord, stand by me. I swear I live off nothing but cabbage and coconut juice.
HELENA: Don’t worry about the blabbing. We don’t get it either. But when you hit it, it usually starts working. At least for a little while.
(Sound of Helena hitting the GPS device)
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left. In one hundred kilometers, turn right.
HONZA: Thanks. You’re an angel.
GPS DEVICE: Quite so.
(Sound of radio jingle announcing news)
HELENA: It’s the news! Can you please turn up the radio?
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at four. The newest bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies has made it illegal to walk up stairs. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is now organizing special courses in floating. A plane transporting the president of Spain has been hit by lightning. Despite this accident, the president managed to take his golf lesson on time. The Chamber of Deputies confirms that beginning October 2012, anyone wishing to walk up a flight of stairs will have to float their way up instead. The inhabitants of Kiev celebrate the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Sokol organization, a youth sports movement. Despite the heavy rain, the celebrations continue with gymnastics on Kiev main square.
(The news ends with the sound of "Another Weekend Is Over.")
HELENA: They’re kidding, right? We should write a letter to the President. Dear Mr . . .
HELENA & HONZA: . . . Asshole . . .
HELENA: We’re writing, because we just wanted to know if we’re still allowed to . . .
HONZA: . . . breathe.
HELENA: Sincerely . . .
HELENA & HONZA: Your voters.
HELENA: These times suck.
DEVIL: All times and ages suck, my dear. It’s all about crappy human lives, and accusing the times of your bad luck is just plain—
GPS DEVICE: Short-sighted!
(Sound of someone hitting the GPS device)
HELENA: (In agreement) True.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Please enter destination. Enjoy your trip! Recalculating. Destination: Kozojedy.
HONZA: Didn’t I just set it to Prague?
DEVIL: Maybe I could introduce myself, after all. Um, I’m a devil. Pleased to meet you. Not the real deal, mind you, not the Devil himself, just an, um, associate. A, um, minor demon. But as I said, pleased to meet you.
HELENA: (Ironically) Well, that’s just what we needed!
DEVIL: So, tell me a little about yourselves, mortal ones. What do you do?
HELENA: I’m unemployed. At least soon I will be.
HONZA: I’m a geek. That is, I work in IT.
DEVIL: For reals?
HELENA: Yeah. (Ironically) For real.
HONZA: Helena . . .
HELENA: Well? Why don’t you go ahead and tell him?
HONZA: Er . . . And what exactly should I tell him?
HELENA: That you steal other people’s money?
DEVIL: Well, miss, ain’t that the only way you can earn some real cash in this world? There’s nothing wrong with being a bit work-shy, if you ask me. I mean, trying to earn a decent living gets you nowhere. Take it from someone who’s been there: pinching something once in a while don’t hurt no one. These days it’s almost an art, wouldn’t you say?
(GPS device clears its throat)
HELENA: That’s exactly the problem! (Clears throat)
DEVIL: Come on, guys, you’re being unreasonable. Look at me: I’m doing just fine. Got nice clothes and stuff, and whenever I feel like popping off for a short visit to Earth, I go straight ahead. You know, just to walk among the people for a little while, as they say, hah. My soul’s burning all right, but who cares about that? Just so you know, young man, I’m all with you on that hacking-cracking business.
(GPS device has a violent coughing fit)
DEVIL: And seeing as the missus is without a job, maybe she could lend you a hand? (Turns to the GPS device) And what’s your problem, lady?
GPS DEVICE: The name’s Angela.
DEVIL: Well, then, everything all right, Angie?
GPS DEVICE: Everything all wrong, hon. But never mind the coughing. Just something stuck in my throat.
HELENA: What made you end up down there anyway, Mr. Devil?
DEVIL: Watch yer tongue, there, miss! I ain’t no “Mr. Devil.” I’m just a random devil, or demon, if that’s easier for you, one out of many. And in answer to your question, if you’re so daft that I really have to spell it out for you: well, I died. And then I went to Hell. Got that? Anyway, folks, don’t you get all muddled up by this social construct everyone’s promoting, you know, this honesty thing. Trust me, I’ve got experience with stuff like that. And I’m telling you, I’ve met hundreds of sinners and the only thing that’s ever made life worth living was pure honest theft.
GPS DEVICE: Oh, I beg to differ. What you’re saying, and do correct me if I’m wrong, is that the meaning of life is to steal and to sin!
DEVIL: The meaning of life is to enjoy the stuff you manage to cash in. Nothing else is worth it.
GPS DEVICE: (Clears throat) Not everything is about money, you know.
DEVIL: Money, money, money. Lovely, shiny little round disks of joy. Stuff like that never goes bad. Money don’t smell. I’m telling you, what more could you ask for?
GPS DEVICE: People should live for things that make sense, not for hollow wrappings.
DEVIL: (Spits) Ugh.
HONZA: Well, we’re with you on that one. Aren’t we, Helena?
HELENA: Sure we are. But building your own construct is not easy.
GPS DEVICE: Nothing’s easy. Even getting up in the morning is not easy.
DEVIL: Aw, come on! That’s the lovely thing about stealing. When you’re swimming in cash, you don’t have to get up early. Miss Angela, ma’am, seems to me you’ve got it all wrong. How do you expect these young ones to succeed with advice like that?
HONZA: So how did you end up in Hell, anyway?
DEVIL: Oh, the usual stuff. Stole a little something here, a little something there. Worked illegally. Sold the metal from drainpipes and manhole covers at scrapyards. Me ‘n' the boys once managed to steal a whole bridge!
HONZA: You sold a bridge to a scrapyard?
DEVIL: Didn’t even bat an eyelid. Manhole covers are high-quality steel, did you know that? Oh, and I also stole garlic from my neighbor. He and his family broke their backs coaxing it out of the ground, only to find the fields empty one day. Right before harvest too! Oh, and then I became the mayor of the village I lived in and did a little fund-siphoning along the way. As I said, the usual stuff.
HELENA: You can’t be serious.
HONZA: This really is a bit too much.
DEVIL: You know what? The only thing I’m sorry for is that I didn’t steal way more before biting the dust. You’ve got it all wrong, miss. No way honesty’s the best policy. Just, you know, let your man do his thing and don’t think about it too much. He’ll bring money home, so what do you care where it came from?
HELENA: I see you don’t know me at all.
HONZA: I’d actually rather skip the Hell part, if you don’t mind. You don’t really look all that glowing.
GPS DEVICE: Maybe you should get out of the car, huh?
DEVIL: Nah, not happening. Seeing as these nice young people offered to give me a ride, who am I to refuse it, my dear Angie? By the way, life in Hell’s not half bad. No worse than life in Heaven, that’s for sure. No worries about that.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating. Please enter destination. Destination. Destination. Destination. (All at the same time) I’m excited as an old lady about to have her hearing checked! Please enter destination!
HONZA: It’s acting up again. What’s wrong with you? (Hits the device) I said we’re going back to Prague, didn’t you hear me? We’re having a word with the president.
HELENA: Will I go to Hell for stealing the neighbors’ currants?
DEVIL: Nah, I don’t think so. Not bad enough. What really counts is what’s going on in your head while you’re doing the stealing.
GPS DEVICE: Please enter destination. Destination. Destination—
HONZA: I’ve already told you where we’re going! It’s Prague, P – R – A – G – U – E! (Spells it out as if Angela were hard of hearing.)
DEVIL: Maybe you really should have your hearing checked, ma’am, no offense meant.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Do you wish to change your destination?
DEVIL: Aw, our lil’ Angie’s sulking. Come on, Angie, give us a smile!
HELENA: It’s a GPS device. It connects itself to the universe and takes you wherever you want to go.
DEVIL: Shouldn’t you be able to do that yourself? How is she supposed to know where you want to go?
GPS DEVICE: Please enter destination. If unsure, please press “Whatever.”
HELENA: But we do know where we want to go. We’re just . . . wavering a little.
DEVIL: Humans are spoiled brats. All you need is a little honest—Yeah, can’t tell you the truth, sorry. The old man’d skin me alive.
GPS DEVICE: You’re being too philosophical for my taste. You’ve gotten me all sweaty just trying to keep up with you. Let’s change the subject. I’d like to tell you about this little hobby of mine: creative writing. In my work, I prefer to focus on topics that humans usually refuse to see. Ah, Mr. Devil, I see you are closing your—your—your—eyes—eyes—eyes . . .
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HELENA: Stop hitting her, Honza! You can be a real brute sometimes, you know that? Come on, Miss Angela. Tell us what we’re doing with our lives.
(Sound of GPS device sobbing softly)
HONZA: I’m pretty sure she said she can’t feel any physical pain.
DEVIL: Don’t cry, Miss Angela, ma’am, don’t cry . . .
HELENA: Are you all right, ma’am? Honza, apologize! You’ve hurt her feelings.
HONZA: She doesn’t exist! Don’t you get it? This is not happening!
HELENA: Oh, is it not? So why is there a devil sitting in the back of our car? As far as I know, he’s not supposed to exist either.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. (Jerks back to consciousness) Um, of course I do exist! The angels are weeping.
DEVIL: We’re both real. For reals.
HELENA: Honza, apologize. Now!
HONZA: Sorry, um . . .
GPS DEVICE: Angela. All right, then. Apology accepted. As I have said, I consider myself something of a writer, so I thought we could have an evening of poetry with Miss Angela, brought to you every Sunday.
(Sound of jingle playing)
GPS DEVICE: It’s one of my early works, back from when I worked in the German town of Goddelau. Back then, I was very influenced by a writer born in that city, Georg Büchner.
GPS DEVICE: Well, seeing as I don’t hear any nos, let’s get going! You’re making me proud, my dear listeners and friends, so very proud!
(Clears throat and reads) Once there was a child who had no mama and no papa. It was all alone in the world, this little child, so very, very much alone. After all, no one lived in this world, not a single soul. It was completely empty. And as the child was alone and afraid, she decided to climb up and into the skies. The moon looked so kind, at least it seemed so! Yet when the child finally reached it, she saw the moon was nothing but a rotten piece of wood. So the child turned towards the sun. Yet when she reached it, she saw the sun was nothing but a withered sunflower. And when she reached the stars, she saw they were nothing but little golden midges. Thus the child, weary and tired, turned back to the earth. The earth, however, had become a seaside dock and had turned upside down. And once again, the child was very much alone. So she sat down on the ground and started crying. And from what I know, she is sitting there, crying, to this very day, and is very, very, very much alone.
(Sound of Helena sobbing)
HONZA: Don’t cry, Hellie, it’s just a story. Look, Angela, I’m not so sure if it was such a good idea to read this story right now.
GPS DEVICE: That’s what they always tell me. It never seems to be a good idea. But then, when you think about it, you realize it always is.
HELENA: That was so sad! (Bursts into tears)
GPS DEVICE: I am so sorry. I genuinely thought it would be distracting. I know people don’t usually ask themselves questions about death and stuff like that. No, people hate that.
DEVIL: (Crying) Very touching, ma’am, very touching, what with the kid and all . . . (Suddenly sounding matter-of-fact) What time is it?
GPS DEVICE: The eleventh hour, if you really need to know.
DEVIL: Yikes, gotta go, folks. There’s this meeting, wouldn’t do good to miss it.
HONZA: But we’re not in Prague yet!
DEVIL: No worries. We devils meet anywhere and anytime we want. We’re all on one plane of evil, get it? It’s just that I need to pick up my goat. The old man gets really touchy when someone comes on foot.
HELENA: So, what does a meeting of devils look like? (Sniffling)
DEVIL: Well, we all connect telepathically and pray for evil on Earth. The usual stuff. Anyway, gotta go. Don’t cry, miss, life’s dandy. Remember: when you’re up to your neck in shit, turn it into jam. Of course, I ain’t supposed to tell you that, but I really wanted to help you. You’re cool, both of you. (Spits.) Ugh, so much humanity, all in one day. The old man’ll go crazy.
(Sound of the devil spitting several times. A whirlwind/tornado comes up and takes him away.)
GPS DEVICE: Off with ye! And the devil’s gone.
HELENA: Thank you for chasing him away.
HONZA: Having him here was worse than Hell.
SCENE 8. INT. INSIDE A CAR.
GPS DEVICE: Alone, finally! To steal or not to steal – well, that’s two completely different things. Don’t you two believe a word he says! Remember the mills of God. And . . . Seeing that my upside-down fairy tale didn’t do you much good, allow me to distract you with something else. The following story was inspired by a magazine my current boss always forgets in the bathroom. So, let’s give it a try, shall we?
(Sound of rustling pages)
GPS DEVICE: (Reading quickly) He looked into her eyes and she nodded her consent. Her lustrous incisors gleamed in the gloom, the fillings in her molars shining like mother-of-pearl. He touched her inflated silicone pride and she replied with a sensual grumble. The great truth was burning inside her, and she felt a burning urge to shout it out into the world. That they always take her somewhere where no one will disturb them. That, when everything’s over and done with, they rush off while pulling up their zippers, already in search of their next prey. However . . . She felt that this one was different. He gently caressed her temples, touching her hair and stroking her otoplastically altered ears. Drinking in her beauty with his hands, he slid them, slowly, but deliberately, lower and lower. Past the gently curved chest with its two petrified raspberries, down toward the unkempt bush awaiting—
(Sound of Helena crying again.)
HONZA: Stop it! (Hits the GPS device) What did I do to end up with such a piece of junk? A GPS device that’s no good with maps, but all too good with naughty stories! And why are you crying again, Helena?
HELENA: (Sobbing) I don’t know. It’s just that I’ve never felt the burning urge to shout out anything into the world. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had anything worth shouting out.
HONZA: I love this world! Its never-ending weirdness never fails to surprise me!
HELENA: Honza . . . What if we didn’t go back home? What if just drove straight ahead . . . Turned right here . . . Turned left there . . .
GPS DEVICE: Please enter destination. Destination.
HONZA: What about our stuff? (Pause) What about the dog?
HELENA: Who cares about our stuff? Who cares about the dog? Listen . . . Promise me you’ll stop cracking those accounts. Promise me you won’t show anyone how to do it either.
HONZA: Promise. I mean, it’s not like I want to spend the rest of eternity in Hell, right?
HELENA: And as for me . . .
HONZA: And as for you, you really need to start taking it easy. The world’s sins are not yours to bear. Someone already beat you to that, remember? Don’t worry, we won’t let anything grind us down.
HELENA: As long as I’m breathing, I have hope.
(Sound as if of a passing comet)
HONZA: Why don’t you read from the cloud atlas for a little while, Hellie?
HELENA: The cirrus clouds, if high enough above the horizon, are always white. They are whiter than any other cloud in that area of the sky.
HONZA: (Adds) The cirrus clouds occasionally appear in the form of small round puffs.
HONZA: Domes on the horizon.
HELENA: I’m so happy you’re here with me. Puffs of blackthorns in the fields.
HONZA: You’re my beloved beauty. Like those little rounded towers.
HELENA: We grit our teeth, we swallow our tears.
(For a moment, they sing to the tune of “Another Weekend Is Over.")
HONZA: Another weekend is over.
HELENA: And he told me he liked me.
Something wonderful’s happened.
HONZA: I’m as happy as can be.
HELENA & HONZA: I’m down with spring fever,
and I just can’t get enough!
(Sound of radio jingle announcing the news)
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at four thirty. The Chamber of Deputies has passed a bill on the restriction of breathing. They have also discussed the bill on the implementation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. This cannabis variety will be genetically modified in order to avoid any recreational effects. The celebrations of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Sokol organization in Kiev will continue with a party featuring the “Kick It, Buggy” band. The villagers in Jharkland, a state in the eastern part of India, beat a local man and his two adolescent sons to death. The AFP agency claims that, according to the local police, the villagers had been convinced the murdered men had been practicing black magic. Deputy Ivan Kotec has finally implemented the bill stating that starting January 1, 2013, breathing will become severely restricted. Kotec claims that the current ecological situation is incompatible with all living organisms breathing as much as they see fit. As a result, respiration will be restricted. Kotec has, however, assured us that these changes will not affect socially deprived groups, senior citizens, or widows with dependent children.
(The news ends with the sound of “Another Weekend Is Over." Helena and Honza both burst out laughing.)
HELENA & HONZA: (Shouting together) The weirder it gets, the better the show!
HONZA: Look! Over there! Do you see it?
HELENA: A cloud with a hole inside it. What kind of cloud is that?
(Sound of pages rustling)
HONZA: It’s a donut-shaped cloud, with an inner perforation.
HELENA: A cloud to go with your coffee. I’ve never seen anything like it.
HONZA: Not much is known about these clouds, not yet, anyway. I only read something about them once, ages ago. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It looks like a giant door, opening up in the sky. A road straight up into the heavens.
HELENA: Well . . . Shall we?
HONZA: Let’s go!
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Please enter destination.
Providing a look back into colonial Vietnam, this excerpt from Kim Thuy's coming-of-age novel Vi tells of the moment when a young girl's slender fingers had the power to change the course of a family's history.
When I was eight years old the house was plunged into silence.
Under the extra fan fixed to the ivory wall of the dining room, a large bright red sheet of rigid cardboard held a block of three hundred and sixty-five sheets of paper. On each was marked the month, the day of the week, and two dates: one according to the solar calendar, the other according to the lunar calendar. As soon as I was able to climb onto a chair, the task of tearing off a page was reserved for me when I woke up. I was the guardian of time. That privilege was taken away when my older brothers, Long and Lôc, turned seventeen. Beginning on that birthday, which we didn’t celebrate, my mother cried every morning in front of the calendar. It seemed to me that she was tearing herself at the same time she was ripping off that day’s page. The tick-tock of the clock that usually put us to sleep at afternoon naptime suddenly sounded like a bomb waiting to explode.
I was the baby of the family, the only sister of my three big brothers, the one everyone protected like precious bottles of perfume behind glass display cases. Even though I was sheltered from my family’s preoccupations because of my age, I knew that the two older boys would have to leave for the battlefield the day they turned eighteen. Whether they were sent to Cambodia to fight Pol Pot or to the frontier with China, both destinations reserved for them the same fate, the same death.
My paternal grandfather had graduated from the faculty of law at the Université de Hanoi, identified as an indigenous student. France was in charge of educating her subjects but did not accord the same value to diplomas awarded in her colonies. She may have been right to do so because the realities of life in Indochina had nothing in common with those of France. On the other hand, school requirements and exam questions were the same. My grandfather often told us that after the written examinations came a series of orals that led to the baccalaureate. For the French course, he’d had to translate a Vietnamese poem into French and another in the opposite direction as his teachers looked on. Mathematics problems also had to be solved orally. The final test was to contend with the hostility of those who would decide on his future without being rattled.
The teachers’ intransigence didn’t surprise the students because in the social hierarchy, intellectuals were placed at the top of the pyramid. They sat there as wise men and would be addressed as Professor by their students all their lives. It was unthinkable to question what they said because they possessed the universal truth. That is why my grandfather had never protested when his teachers gave him a French name. From lack of knowledge or as an act of resistance, his parents had not done so. In classes then, from year to year, from one professor to another, he acquired a new name. Henri Lê Van An. Philippe Lê Van An. Pascal Lê Van An . . . Of all these names, he had retained Antoine and transformed Lê Van An into a family name.
Back in Saigon, diploma in hand, my paternal grandfather became a respected judge and a fabulously wealthy landowner. He expressed his pride at having created, at the same time, an empire and an enviable reputation, by giving his own name to each of his children: Thérèse Lê Van An. Jeanne Lê Van An. Marie Lê Van An . . . and my father, Jean Lê Van An. In contrast to me, my father was the only boy in a family of six girls. Like me, my father arrived last, just as everyone had stopped hoping for a scion. His birth transformed the life of my grandmother, who until then had suffered every day from malicious comments about her inability to beget an heir. She had been torn between her own desire to be her husband’s only wife and his duty to choose a second spouse. Luckily for her, her husband was one of those who had adopted the French model of monogamy. Or maybe he was quite simply in love with my grandmother, a woman known throughout Cochin China for her graceful beauty and her delight in the pleasures of the senses.
My paternal grandmother first met my grandfather very early one morning at the floating market in Cai Bè, a district on one of the arms of the Mekong that was half-land, half-water. Every day since 1732, merchants had been bringing their crops of fruits and vegetables to that part of the delta to sell to wholesalers. From far away, the color of the wood mingled with the brown of the clayey water gives the impression that the melons, pineapples, pomelos, cabbages, gourds are floating independently of the men who have been waiting on the wharf since dawn to snap them up at the first opportunity. To this day, they transfer the fruits and vegetables manually, as if these crops were entrusted to them, not sold. My grandmother, standing on the deck of the ferry, was hypnotized by these repetitive and synchronized movements when my grandfather noticed her. First he was dazzled by the sun, then stunned by the young girl with her generous curves accented by her Vietnamese dress that tolerates no superfluous movement and above all, no indelicacy of intention. Snap fasteners down the right side keep the dress closed but never really fasten it. As a result, a single broad or abrupt movement causes the tunic to open all the way. For this reason, schoolgirls have to wear a camisole under it to avoid accidental indecency. On the other hand, nothing can prevent the two long panels of the dress from replying to the breath of the wind and capturing hearts that find it hard to resist beauty.
My grandfather fell into that trap. Blinded by the gentle, intermittent movement of the dress's wings, he declared to his colleague that he would not leave Cai Bè without that woman. He had to humiliate another young girl who had been promised to him and alienate the elders in his family before he could touch my grandmother's hands. Some believed that he was in love with her long-lashed almond eyes, others, with her fleshy lips, while still others were convinced that he’d been seduced by her full hips. No one had noticed the slender fingers holding a notebook against her bosom except my grandfather, who kept describing them for decades. He continued to evoke them long after age had transformed those smooth, tapering fingers into a fabulous myth or, at the very most, a lovers’ tale.
© Kim Thuy. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sheila Fischman. All rights reserved.
Inspired by the life story of the Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, Chinese-born writer Ying Chen reimagines an unnamed Western doctor's encounter with a local child soldier and with himself.
The boat heaved, swept up in the night wind. His bed was narrow and hard. He held himself at the edge of sleep, afraid of falling in the dark. Despite this, he dreamed. He saw his great-grandfather on a similar journey, navigating the ocean on a frozen black night like this one, listening to waves breaking against the ship’s walls, unnerved by the silence of the open sea, anxious for sounds of land. He had never felt so alone, so removed from the world. He would remember this night throughout the turbulence that followed, this night when his body was infinitely small, when his usual preoccupations scattered in the immensity around him. This calm felt absolute, as though land and the earth itself had ceased to exist. He would remember this later on, during the whirling mess of political rumors and broken illusions, amid the deafening chaos, the pounding canons, the explosions, the groans of the dying.
His ship docked near a camp. An officer from some army—there were so many armies—tried to recruit him by inviting him to a banquet so lavish it could have fed a hundred peasants for a month. He couldn’t pass up the chance of a drink. Later, he felt nauseous and left early. Seasickness, he told himself.
Soon after, he was flown closer to the front, to a mountainous region the railways had yet to reach and where it would be safer, he thought. He and his companions walked hundreds of miles. They were eight when they set out, only five by the time of the attack.
He remembered the buzz of the airplanes coming closer and closer, their shadows approaching quickly, blocking out the sun. He hardly had time to throw himself behind a carriage before everything seemed to stand still.
It was as though he’d slept a long time, but he regained consciousness almost immediately.
He wasn’t sure he could move his legs when he saw the carriage on top of him. It was missing a wheel.
His eyes sought out his companions.
A child’s dusty face appeared before him. He was seven or eight years old. Beam Number Two said something the doctor didn’t understand, then held out his hand and smiled. When the doctor finally stood up, the boy examined each bloodstain to see if he was injured.
Beam Number Two, child soldier. The boy had learned to shoot, to write his name, to decipher simple characters and recite the words to every slogan. He was the doctor’s guide. He knew this region’s terrain and its every path by heart.
The boy and some others had been sent to meet the doctor. They were told that “a foreigner” had arrived near the territory their army now controlled.
The boy came with food, water, and a horse.
The doctor and Beam Number Two walked silently together in the night, occasionally glancing down at their shadows under the nearly full moon—an adult, a child, side by side.
They were already used to being together this way, without speaking, free of the embarrassment that comes from silences between those who aren’t close family, those who didn’t know us as children. This embarrassment can exist among the best of friends, even despite natural affinities, varying in intensity depending on the intervals between meetings. Conversation can create intimacy as much as distance.
Not knowing each other’s language, the doctor and the young boy connected in a wordless space usually reserved for more intimate circles. Both were surprised at how easy it was. Neither desired or attempted a deeper or more sophisticated communication, neither felt frustration or regret.
Beam Number Two never felt the need to speak at length about anything. When he addressed the doctor it was always in silence, and only to point out basic things: a stone in their path, a branch to avoid. All part of fulfilling his guiding role. But his childlike gestures could not hide his feelings—this child without a family, encountering an adult as isolated as he was.
After the long meeting between the generals, the boy was happy to see the doctor emerge alongside important officers. He had been right about the doctor’s status in this army. The doctor’s white shirt shone in the moonlight and stood out to the boy, just as the doctor’s cleanliness had made him stand out among his colleagues. For weeks, the doctor’s cologne had been a topic of conversation among those who worked alongside him. Even if they had worn straw shoes for generations, the mountain dwellers were not insensitive to elegance. As the doctor approached, Beam Number Two raised his hand as though in salute, letting his dirty fingers brush the white sleeve. He inhaled the doctor’s scent. The doctor handed the boy a hard-boiled egg he had taken from the conference table.
When the weather was good, the lessons were given outside. The students—adults and children, men and women—sat on the ground in rows, watching the doctor and listening to his interpreter. Their knowledge grew daily. One by one, each student assisted during the operations. They treated those who were recovering. They bandaged the newly wounded arriving from the front. They tended to as many of the sick from neighboring villages as possible.
The doctor liked this work of building something. In his past, civilized world, his profession had frustrated him as too regimented, too coded, suffocating all creative impulses, shutting down any potential for alternative approaches. There, his colleagues had behaved like members of a private club, one that discouraged newcomers, that tolerated differences with difficulty.
Even as he joked with his interpreter, the doctor couldn’t hide the satisfaction he felt from his situation. Here, he always had the last word. Here, he held absolute authority and was a leader, not of combat and rescue, but of a different type of resistance. Here, he could show how to lead a life, simply through his decisions about treatments and how he organized his team. All of this was his world—a world driven by his vision, his clear intentions. It was a stage where he knew he actually played a minor, insignificant role, one evidently controversial in the eyes of his homeland’s compatriots. Yet here, he knew himself to be useful, indispensable, admired, forgiven for his weaknesses, perhaps even loved or idolized, and above all, free. Freer than he had been anywhere else, especially from his past, and all this in spite of his domineering nature. He would always challenge the strong and pity the weak.
He knew he was a tyrant in his own way.
Here, deep in the heart of an ancient mountain lost in time but still touched by war, there was no one left to challenge him. There were only the wounded to treat, bones to reset, flesh to stitch. His life became simple again, as simple as it had been in his childhood, when he rode his bicycle in that faraway bright valley that echoed with his parents’ relentless prayers, while he dreamt of love or remembered his grandfather.
He summed up his brief existence in this part of the world: “I am good here, I am happy.”
His daily activities and pure intentions kept him free until the end. He never had to negotiate or compromise. Social niceties didn’t exist at the frontlines, where bodies fell in swathes. He knew that this life on the battlefield, far away from an intellectual world, suited him—helped him breathe better, made him a better man.
He is mortified to find himself in this well-maintained cemetery, filled with cut flowers and constant visitors, without Beam Number Two nearby. Instead, the boy’s body rests silently at the bottom of some ravine. Exactly where is unknown.
He reproaches himself for having accepted the penicillin when he knew it was too late, his body irreversibly poisoned by the tainted blood. He hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to survive and couldn’t overcome the panic and confusion that suddenly overwhelmed him when it was offered. Normally he would have been lucid enough to know that it wasn’t necessary to ask him whether they should administer the precious drug, and if he was being asked the question, it was because they expected him to refuse—the hero, this man of a superior race from a civilized land, braver, more courageous, selfless even in the face of death. They had expected him to refuse because it could no longer save him, because it was so rare.
Yet instead he had murmured, yes, for that dose of penicillin he could no longer even see, that he knew was useless.
Whether it was politeness or hypocrisy, because of some absurd procedure or comforting lie, the doctor had been tested—forced to examine his conscience until his last breath.
He might have been spared the question.
In the middle of the night, the doctor woke to the sounds of people running. By the time he arrived at the infirmary, Beam Number Two’s eyes were still open, but he could no longer speak. The doctor took the boy’s hands, already cold, and closed his eyelids, allowing his palm to linger a moment longer on the child’s eyes, full of blood.
He remembered having laid his hand, not long ago, on this same face. After their first meeting, while walking back toward their army’s camp at the bottom of the mountain, Beam Number Two had been hit by a sniper’s bullet. The boy had kept moving, not saying anything, not wanting to slow down their convoy where it was still so dangerous. It wasn’t until the next day that they understood what he had endured, as the child suddenly collapsed in the middle of the march. Examining him, the doctor calculated the number of hours that Beam Number Two had silently withstood his wound. He was overwhelmed by the stoicism, by the almost innate sense of sacrifice revealing itself at such a young age in this noble, uneducated, heroic child.
It started as soon as Beam Number Two’s fearless, clear-eyed gaze was extinguished. The doctor was alone, released, and knew that there would no longer be anyone watching over him at his typewriter in the evenings. He doubled his alcohol consumption, rapidly exhausting his supplies. Drunkenness allowed him to enter a world more luminous than the one he was living through, to the point that he believed sometimes, especially at night when he sleepwalked, that he was finding, there in his glass, a path that would lead him to some kind of real home. A path he could never find again when he awoke.
The arrival of the doctor and his team in the middle of the battlefield set off a wave of elation. Soldiers shouted his name.
The team moved ceaselessly. Their supplies were exhausted. Food was low. Contact with the world outside the valley would soon be cut off.
They slept little, as the enemy enjoyed attacking at night.
His stomach often empty, the doctor would go dizzy from the constant jerking of the wounded bodies around them. There was nothing left to give them to dull the pain so they suffered in the dark and the cold, in the dust and smoke from the fires coming ever closer. All around them, the wind whistled in concert with the buzzing airplanes and falling shells, as they suffered in makeshift shelters continually shaken by explosions.
The fatal cut to his finger happened during an operation without gloves. That night, his finger burned. Day after day, it swelled. Watching it, the doctor felt as though this foreign land, which until now had revealed as much good as evil, would finally swallow him whole.
He continued turning up to his post like normal, silent most of the time. His communication with the world now limited itself to medical terms. He lost his sense of humor.
The number of wounded increased daily. The seriously injured received treatment directly on the battlefield, and at least now had a chance of survival.
When it was time to move camp again, the doctor had to be helped onto his horse.
Soon, he could no longer hold anything in his hand. His arm was changing color. Finally, upon the insistent advice of his own students, the doctor agreed that his arm should be amputated.
The pain pounded on.
His fever climbed.
He knew it was time to say good-bye.
Night and day now, he was confined to a deep cave. He lay there and saw himself flying over a snowy landscape. My grandfather’s country, he thought. He tried to dive down but couldn’t reach the ground. Again and again he tried but could never land his feet. He climbed and glided in the air for a long time. At least this territory was free, he persuaded himself. The air remained the last part of the world to be free of surveys and claims, of boundaries. This territory could never be divided.
© Ying Chen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Pamela Casey. All rights reserved.
In this story, Sergio Kokis' ancient mariner recounts a series of mysterious disappearances at an isolated lighthouse.
Situations of extreme isolation may cause such anguish and fear in certain fragile people that their minds exhibit an intensity bordering on true madness. What’s strangest is that these sensitive individuals may never before have shown the slightest symptom of insanity. But the simple fact of finding themselves far from their usual surroundings or social networks can have a druglike effect on their spirits and make them commit desperate acts. A story of this kind was told to me one night by an old sailor in the parlor of a brothel in the city of Punta Arenas.
The mariner had a sturdy build, was dressed in working clothes, and his enormous hands testified to a lifetime of rugged toil. His long white beard moved about oddly as his face changed expression, accentuating his countenance as he told his eerie tale. He spoke slowly, punctuating the narrative by taking long pauses for a swallow from his glass of pisco. I had the impression that he was one of those born storytellers, without much education but with an immense capacity for imagination and observation. The prostitutes in the place referred to him tenderly as “El Abuelo”—“Grandpa”—and the madam seemed to hold him in almost loving respect. He was a regular customer of the place, not because of the girls, but in order to cadge drinks from the clients in exchange for extraordinary tales that he knew how to deliver in a deep voice and with perfect timing. I found his story especially enthralling because that very morning I’d witnessed the departure of the supply ship that carried the relief crews of sailors out to the seven manned lighthouses of Region XII, known as the Magellan, in the extreme south of Chile.
The Evangelista Lighthouse, the most distant of all of them, is almost mythical for its location and difficult access. It is situated on the southwest isle of the group of four Evangelista Islands, thirteen nautical miles off the coast, north of the western end of the Strait of Magellan in the Pacific Ocean. This region, northwest of Desolation Island, suffers from terrible weather in all seasons of the year. Water-gorged winds from the Antarctic, which can reach speeds of a hundred and fifty knots, drop eighty to a hundred and twenty inches of rain a year. The waves that continually break on the craggy islet are strong enough to spray the base of the lighthouse, a hundred and sixty feet above the sea. The vertical cliffs along the shore prevent ships from docking, and men and supplies must be brought ashore in launches and inflatable craft when conditions at sea permit. A crane installed on top of the rock works the cables of a cart on rails that moves up and down the slope. In spite of these difficulties, a crew of four Chilean sailors assigned to the lighthouse is permanently stationed there and is only relieved every four months. During this time, they have one radio communication per week with the naval base at Punta Arenas in which to exchange technical and meteorological information. In case of absolute emergency, they may receive assistance by helicopter. However, in the past—the Evangelista Lighthouse entered service in 1896—it was better not to find oneself in such a situation.
The men who make up these crews, called fareros, are chosen above all for their mental stability. The tension that arises among them from the forced intimacy of confinement can sometimes have dangerous results. Both the long daylight of summer and dark days of winter in these extreme latitudes can set their nerves on edge. The maintenance work on the lighthouses is not onerous, even though the most important turns on watch are at night. The rest of the time, they have to combat boredom and depression as best they can. The habitable surface of the rock is too small to allow for physical exercise other than gymnastics and weightlifting. Fishing from the sea-battered cliffs is dangerous enough to be prohibited. There is, of course, a shortwave radio to listen to the news, music, or soccer games. However, since sailors are not much given to reading and chess, they have to endure long periods of gloom between their meals. In fact, their only real pleasure is food, at least during the first weeks of their stay; afterward, it also becomes repetitive and dull. Most of the time, they must make do with vitamin-enriched field rations that they warm up on a gas stove. Nowadays, they’re resupplied more often with fresh food and magazines, though these provisions are often infrequent, especially during the long winter storms. During the 1950s, according to the mariner, crews of fareros could spend up to four months at a time at a lighthouse without a single visit from a passing ship. The human tragedies that occurred during these isolated tours of duty were kept under wraps by the Chilean navy. Maintaining this key lighthouse in continual operation was more important than anything else.
I don’t know whether the stories of the old sailor at the brothel in Punta Arenas were true, as he claimed, or if he embellished or even invented them simply so clients would buy him drinks. For myself, as a writer and someone who enjoys human drama, it didn’t make a bit of difference. His words transported me to the Evangelista Lighthouse, at the edge of the Southern Ocean, where I would otherwise never have been able to set foot. Yet I’m convinced that he must have stayed there in his youth, and I’d later be able to verify, through documents and photos, many of the details that he mentioned that night. As far as I was concerned, a man who had spent a four-month stint at the Evangelista Lighthouse had no need to lie in order to tell an extraordinary story.
* * *
The three of them, Pablito, Fortunato and Salvador—all of them barely a day past twenty—were great friends. If they feared the four months of isolation that awaited them on the rock, they didn’t show it. The commander of the group, Corporal Liberio, thirty-five years old, was an experienced noncommissioned officer who had lived in Punta Arenas for years. It was his second tour of duty at the Evangelista Lighthouse; though he wasn’t too happy with his posting, at least he could count on the isolation bonus to buy himself a small boat.
The ship that brought them out took a long time getting there. First it had to drop off the crews for the other lighthouses, and the sea was too rough around the Félix and San Pedro lights. It was the month of May: the winter storms had set in early that year and swirled furiously, making the sailors doubt they’d be able to relieve the fareros on Evangelista on time. Waves over twelve feet high shook the corvette and made even unbelievers resort to prayer. The voyage out to the islands took over a week; the men aboard were exhausted by the continual rolling of the ship, which kept them from sleeping and made them seasick. The cold rain and fog banks, along with the penetrating humidity, made them shiver even under their blankets in the hold.
As they approached the Evangelista islets, the sea became oddly calm, as if by miracle or some premonition of the diabolic events to come. The wind suddenly died down and gave place to a thick mist, accompanied by a sinister silence. The ship’s captain had to depend solely on its radar to find his way and decided to stand off far from the lighthouse and wait for the visibility to improve. The wailing of the lighthouse’s foghorns sounded like the cries of a huge elephant seal that had been harpooned. They waited there for three days, in the wan light of the sun and moon that seeped through the haze. Those on board became increasingly worried when they heard on the radio that the sailors at the lighthouse were running out of food. Luckily, at the end of their third night of waiting, a light breeze cleared away the fog and the ship could approach the cliff. Viewed from the sea, the formidable rock rose up threateningly like a black giant; its summit, lit by the moon, seemed to be covered by a vast head of silver hair. The rotating beams of the lighthouse, which carried for thirty nautical miles, looked like the eye of a cyclops, whipping the shadows in its anger. The sight was at once spectacular and terrifying, imprinting itself indelibly on the spirits of the three young sailors of the relief crew.
The next day, with the help of the crew in place, they brought ashore food, water, gas canisters, and barrels of fuel for the lighthouse’s machinery: enough provisions for the next four months—the winter ones, the hardest of all. The sailors they were replacing, thin and bearded, had a strange gleam in their eyes, despite their obvious joy at having survived their turn of duty. They had the look of hunted prey. It took an entire exhausting day to off-load everything. The crane to hoist up the cart along the rails wouldn’t work on its own, so the men had to put their shoulders to it. A frigid rain came in during the early afternoon, complicating the work. By evening, when the corvette left for Punta Arenas, it had become a full-blown storm, with enormous seas and a shrieking wind.
The four relief sailors, soaked and shivering, spent a good part of the evening putting away the supplies and fuel in the storage area. After establishing radio contact with the naval base and signaling that everything was under control, Corporal Liberio spent the first night tending to the lights himself. He was relieved toward six in the morning by Fortunato and went down to have breakfast with Salvador and Pablito before he went to bed.
Liberio slept soundly for eight hours straight, as if he’d drunk too much pisco. He was simply tired, though, and was used to waking up easily for his turns on duty. Fortunato, who had been relieved by Salvador at noon, slept and snored on the bed next to his. But Pablito, who was supposed to have woken up the corporal two hours before, wasn’t there. The tempest howled outside.
Surprised and annoyed by this break in discipline, Corporal Liberio went in search of the guilty sailor. He found Salvador at his post in the machine room of the lighthouse, oiling the gears.
“Where’s Pablo?” he asked the sailor.
“Pablito?” replied Salvador, surprised. “I don’t know. It’s not yet time for his watch.”
“He was supposed to wake me up and forgot. That’s intolerable on the very first day!”
The corporal continued looking in the other rooms, in the storage area and even at the top of the tower, but Pablito wasn’t there. He woke up Fortunato and they went out together in the rain to try to find the missing sailor, but in vain. The day was already drawing to a close and it would be impossible to inspect the foot of the cliffs to see if he’d fallen into the sea. In any case, the immense waves that broke against the base of the rock would have torn him apart if he’d slipped on top of the bluff.
They went back inside and searched again in every corner, even moving the canisters and barrels aside in hopes of finding him, but there was nothing.
“He was there sitting in front of the radio when I went down to bed,” repeated Fortunato in a hesitant voice.
Since there wasn’t anyplace that Pablito could hide, they had to face the fact that he was dead, doubtless from falling into the sea. It was a serious event, which would have to be reported immediately to the naval base in Punta Arenas. But the corporal preferred to put off the radio message, in the hope of at least clearing up the circumstances surrounding the young sailor’s disappearance. He reorganized the watches to compensate for Pablito’s absence and got busy cooking supper in order to boost the morale of the two other sailors.
The atmosphere was heavy, as each of the three men tried silently to imagine what had happened to Pablito or why he had gone outside in a rainstorm and headed toward the edge of the cliff. The hypothesis that the young sailor had wanted to put an end to his life, though seemingly absurd, could not be completely ruled out, especially since the corporal had warned them not to go outside till they had familiarized themselves with the terrain in the daylight. Yet they remembered Pablito as being a cheerful fellow who had never shown a sign of despair. True, he was afraid of the posting, but that was a long way from suicide. Moreover, even if someone longed for death, disappearing into the black gulf, lashed by raging waves, seemed horrible beyond measure.
The corporal took the first watch that night. Salvador and Fortunato, holed up in the sleeping quarters, were unable to sleep. The mysterious disappearance of their crewmate was too frightening, and they kept an eye on the door outside as if they were still waiting for Pablo to come back—either him or the ghost of his drowned body.
At midnight, Fortunato went to relieve the corporal and in the morning Salvador took his place. As soon as it was light, Liberio and Fortunato went out to take another turn around the island, without finding a single sign of Pablito. They looked uselessly through his knapsack, searching for some element that would explain his absence. The corporal finally decided to call in to Punta Arenas to report the disappearance. He was devastated, because all he could think of to say was that a young sailor under his command had vanished on his first day at the lighthouse. The officers at the naval base simply responded that it was impossible to send a replacement till the following month and that the crew should be capable of getting by with three men till then. A formal inquest would take place when they returned to the base in four months’ time.
The following days went by without incident, even though Pablito’s specter was always present in each of their minds. They ate and then stayed on in the kitchen, smoking in silence, afraid of being alone but unable to express their fear. It was as if they were waiting for other unexpected events, other deaths by drowning, and they superstitiously refrained from speaking about it.
Corporal Liberio himself disappeared a week later, during the night he was on duty. When Fortunato reported to take over from him in the radio room, the corporal was no longer there. Nor was he in the tower or anywhere else. Fortunato and Salvador went out with their oil lamps and searched meticulously over every part of the island. There was nothing, not a single trace of Liberio. The rain had died down, the wind wasn’t as strong anymore, and the corporal knew the place well; he couldn’t have lost his way. Their searches in the storage area were equally fruitless. Like Pablito before him, Corporal Liberio had simply vanished during the night, without leaving a trace other than the cigarette butts in the ashtray and a sheet of paper on which he’d drawn some repeated geometric figures in the form of friezes, probably out of boredom. Had he killed himself in a fit of depression after Pablito’s disappearance, out of fear of being blamed by his superiors? That was difficult to believe, especially since the corporal was a cold type of fellow, a career military man who knew full well that his fellow officers wouldn’t punish him for the death of a simple conscript.
The two men regarded each other seriously, each with the same sinister thought in mind. Taking hold of a heavy wrench, Fortunato spoke first, with a menacing look:
“Salvador . . . Was it you who . . . ?”
Salvador seized a hammer before answering.
“No, Fortunato! I didn’t do anything. And I know perfectly well that I’ve done nothing to the corporal. But you . . .”
They stared hard at one another for a time, overcome with fear and doubt, unable to decide if it was better to trust the other or knock him senseless before he could react. There was no way out of the situation, other than believing that a supernatural cause lay behind the disappearances.
“Either it’s you or it’s me,” Fortunato finally said. “We’re alone out here. One of us killed both Pablito and the corporal—and it wasn’t me! Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“It wasn’t me either, Fortunato. I’m not crazy! I’m just as scared as you are, my friend. If it’s not you who killed them, then there’s an evil spell out here. That’s all I can imagine. We’ve got to warn the naval base right away and barricade the front door. I don’t want to be the next one to go. Think it over before waving that wrench around. I’m going to defend myself and we’ll probably both lose our skins. If the two of us are wounded, we won’t stand a chance of getting out of here alive. Consider it for a moment. Maybe that’s what the spell, the demon of this island, really wants. You know me well enough to know I’m neither out of my mind or a murderer. I was as fond of Pablito as you were—and I didn’t kill the corporal.”
“Me either, Salvador: I’m not crazy. So what is it?”
“I have no idea. But if we each keep watch over the other, we might be able to protect ourselves. The important thing now is not to get separated. We’re both in the same fix, buddy. If it’s true you’re not crazy, Fortunato, you have to believe me. First of all, we barricade the door; then we contact the base.”
“Why should I trust you?” asked Fortunato hesitatingly.
“It’s simple, my friend. What interest do we have in killing one another? The survivor would have to commit suicide or else account for the deaths at a court-martial. If you want to kill yourself, go ahead—I won’t stop you. I want to stay alive. There you have it. Let me remind you that we’ve also been friends for a long time, friends of Pablo, too. It’s absurd to distrust each other.”
“It’s also absurd to believe in ghosts.”
“Yes . . . I said an evil spell, not ghosts. There’s something diabolical here, you can’t deny it. Pablito and the corporal may have killed themselves because of some sudden insanity that emanates from this place, or from tainted food. Or from other deaths in this damned lighthouse . . . The best thing to do is to protect each other. If one of us is seized by this madness, the other will just have to tie him up and wait to be rescued. Now that we’re alone, they’ve got to send us help right away. If there are two of us, we’ve got a chance to get out of this—but only if there’s two of us!”
“You think so?”
“Yes, Fortunato, it’s our only chance. I’m suspicious of you: that’s normal. But you’re my only lifeline, and I’m all you can count on. Drop that wrench and I’ll drop the hammer. There are more important things to do, and fast.”
“All right,” Fortunato replied, trying to smile. “You’re probably right: it is an evil spell, one that even makes me doubt a friend like you, Salvador. Forgive me.”
Things were far from over. They still suspected each other, but they were now more afraid of being alone than they were of one another. They barricaded the front door and contacted the naval base. The officers in Punta Arenas plainly didn’t believe their story about the corporal’s disappearance after that of Pablo. However, Salvador and Fortunato asked for immediate help, nothing less, and said their situation was critical. The two of them, especially if they’d gone mad, wouldn’t be able to maintain the lights and foghorns at the lighthouse. The officers at the base had no choice but to intervene.
Messages were sent out immediately to the various bases in the region, and even to naval headquarters in Valparaíso, to see if there were any ships along the coast that were close enough to help. As long as the bad weather lasted, it would be impossible to send in a relief crew by helicopter. And that could be the case for most of the winter.
Salvador and Fortunato maintained radio contact with the base and took turns on watch to make sure the lighthouse kept working. It was hard to stay awake for such long periods of time. Their greatest fear now was of falling asleep. A diffuse terror, closer to an overwhelming anguish, took hold of them because they didn’t know where the danger was coming from. Their fatigue increased, coupled with a gradual weakness due to their loss of appetite. Even though they forced themselves to eat a little, they didn’t have the energy or spirit to make a meal. And since the food might be tainted, they made do with dry biscuits and coffee. On this diet, their ability to remain awake decreased day by day.
“The officers aren’t going to believe us,” Fortunato said at one point. “They’ll accuse us of killing them. As long as it was just Pablito, they couldn’t care less. But the corporal . . . They’ll never believe that he threw himself into the sea.”
“Too bad,” Salvador answered. “What counts is that they get us out of here as soon as possible. This place is cursed: there isn’t any other explanation. Who knows whether other things like this have taken place in the past at this lighthouse? Other mysterious suicides.”
“Do you really think they took their own lives? Just like that, for no reason at all?”
“Of course! They committed suicide, Fortunato. What else could it be? We’re alone out here and I don’t believe in ghosts—at least not in ones that make people jump into the sea. But I’ll tell you one thing, buddy: even if I disappear, too, don’t ever believe it was suicide. I’d never kill myself willingly. Even if they court-martial us and send us to prison, I’d rather be in jail than dead.”
“Me either: I’ll never commit suicide, Salvador. I’m Catholic and I know that those who take their own lives go straight to hell.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid of hell. It’s just that I love life too much to kill myself.”
As the days wore on, they could no longer stay awake. The two crewmates decided to tie themselves together by the wrists with a cord. If one of them went crazy and wanted to escape, the other would keep him from doing it. They already knew that a corvette had been sent out to rescue them and their spirits began to revive.
One morning, though, Salvador awoke alone. The cord that bound him to his companion had been cut; the door was open and Fortunato had disappeared. No matter where he searched, Salvador couldn’t find him. Fortunato had joined Pablito and Corporal Liberio in the mystery of the sea.
A few days later, the corvette neared the Evangelista Lighthouse. It was mid-afternoon, but the revolving lights were still shining instead of being turned off. The rescue crew had difficulty landing without the aid of the crane and cables. Everything seemed peaceful up above. But the sailors had to break open the door, which was barricaded from the inside, in order to enter the compound. They found Salvador collapsed in a corner, emaciated and in a stupor, unable to respond to their questions.
A crew of sailors and an officer stayed in place to wait for the relief crew to be sent out from Punta Arenas. Salvador was taken to the base in Puerto Montt, where he was hospitalized in the psychiatric wing. It was several weeks before he recovered enough to be able to respond to the questions of the investigating officers of the Chilean navy. But they still weren’t satisfied with his answers, which seemed to be those of deranged mind. Salvador claimed that, one after the other, his crewmates had been driven to suicide by the curse of the lighthouse. He was incapable, though, of elaborating any further on what this curse actually was. After months of treatments he became less confused, and was discharged as unfit for service due to insanity. The tragic events that had taken place at the lighthouse were filed away among many other mysteries under the heading “Diverse Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse.”
* * *
The old man had finished his story. It was getting late, and several of the girls in the brothel had already gone to bed. The other customer, who listened as I did to his tale, insisted on offering him a last glass of pisco, which the man accepted with a smile—a smile that, if not sad, betrayed a certain melancholy.
“And Salvador? What became of him?” asked the client.
“Salvador . . .” said the old man, as if searching for the rest of the story in the depths of his memory. “Nothing happened to him. He came back here to Punta Arenas to live out his life in peace, drinking in good company and rejoicing in being alive. Above all, he sought to escape from solitude and never again stray far from the reassuring shores of the Strait of Magellan. But he’s never been able to forget what happened out there, long ago, when he was scarcely twenty years old.”
© Sergio Kokis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Hugh Hazelton. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Pan Bouyoucas' novel Cock-a-doodle-do, the lead detective of a crime novel series airs his grievances against his creator.
The sun beat down on him as the wail of a thousand cicadas filled the air. In his haste, he had forgotten both his sunglasses and his hat. The sky's light and its bright reflection off the surface of the island hit him square in the eyes, causing sweat to stream down his forehead, temples, torso, and back, drenching his shirt. But he didn’t retreat to the shade, didn’t slow his pace. Levonian trailed after him like a snarling dog and he worried that if he stopped, he just might end up responding to the police officer out loud, and then people would see him talking to himself again.
“Why didn’t you tell her about the rooster?” Levonian demanded. “If you’re so proud of your discovery, why didn’t you say something? Because of you, I've lost three women. And now you’re afraid of what your one wife will think?”
Without looking back, Basilius raised two fingers.
“Three!" Levonian insisted. "You don’t even remember! You killed off not two, but three women I loved! In the first novel, I was a young newlywed. But the only time I ever spoke to my wife was over the phone, telling her I'd be late and that I was investigating the bastards who'd sent an indigenous man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. We never shared a single meal. I never once took her in my arms. Even though half my existence probably consisted of moments like that. No wonder she wound up cheating on me and then leaving . . .
"To drown my sorrows, I spent all my free time drinking. And the bottle was the only thing that brought me any kind of comfort until, five novels later, I met a woman whose smile was enough to restore my faith and brighten my days. Moreover, she was a colleague, someone who understood my work and its demands. She never held the long hours I had to work against me. I told myself that I had finally found my soul mate, the woman I wanted to share the rest of my life with. And you let me cling to this illusion, and love this woman, more than I had ever loved anyone before—making the pain of losing her even greater. Gill had only just begun to repair my heart when, because of you, she took a bullet to the head that was meant for me.
"The same thing with Veronique. Perhaps you have forgotten her, as well. I'm still grieving for her because when I lost her, I also lost our child, whom she was carrying.
"My first child.
"I was flying high when she told me the news, I was so overcome with emotion. I was ecstatic.
"You can't have forgotten that, as well! That was the first chapter of the twelfth novel. The only one where you had me leave the city, because this time you'd decided to use an idyllic setting where you spent summers with your family. But I had only just arrived at the cabin I was renting when I came up against a band of drug addicts who knocked me out, then raped and killed the love of my life, along with the only child I ever could have had.
"Why, Leo? To exorcise the demons that those woods brought out in you? Or was it that you longed for your own wife to disappear, and because you didn't have the courage to leave her, it was the women who loved me, and who I loved, who suffered, instead?"
Basilius had been walking aimlessly and didn't stop until he found himself at the edge of a cliff. The very same one upon which sat vestiges of a temple dedicated to Dionysus and where, twenty-two years earlier, he had come with Loraine to watch the sunset. Even here, there wasn't a breath of wind, although the area was fully exposed to the elements.
"You gave my colleagues wives and families," said Levonian, insensitive to the savage beauty of the place and to the melancholy of the Ionic column fragments that centuries had transformed into a civilization's tombstones. "Police novel after police novel," he continued, "they showed me pictures of their children, who were growing up. They told me the things they said at two years of age, at four years of age, at ten. Why couldn't I show the same kinds of photos, tell the same kinds of stories? Because an exceptional sleuth can only be a stoic, solitary individual, so no emotional investment will distract from his investigations and cause a break in the dramatic tension? In that case, why did you have Naomi, Gill, and Veronique enter my life? Was it to reveal new facets of my personality? Was it to show that at work I keep my distance and don't allow myself to be taken over by emotions, but that in private life I can display as much sensitivity and tenderness as any other man? Did Gill and Veronique really have to pay for this literary device with their lives?
"When your four-year-old daughter was struck by a car, you spent two weeks by her side at the hospital, because your wife had to take care of your newborn. You may have forgotten this, as well, but just as you learned of the accident, you had me taking out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Do you know what it's like for a smoker to wait two weeks to light up a cigarette? I would have given up a kidney for two puffs. But I understood, you were worried. And it was nothing but an accident. You, on the contrary, had my child and the woman who was carrying it die, and you didn't even give me the time to weep for them, because nothing could be permitted to slow down my pursuit of the assassins.
"Even my friends . . . you made me savagely loyal in my friendships, and then you made sure to wreck everything by turning one after the other of these people against me . . .
"Why all the deaths and betrayals, Leo, all this lost hope, all this grief? The women that I loved. The child I was expecting. The friends and colleagues I lost. They lived and died only as dramatic elements, to make your narrative more compelling, and to make you rich and famous? If only you cared at all about their names, and the families that grieve for them—who will still be grieving every time someone opens those pages.
"No one, however, will cry for me.
"Police novel after police novel, you sent me to knock on the doors of people who were peacefully going about their business, to relay the death of their child, their sister, or their husband to them. It's dirty work that you never get used to. But I did it. I found the words to show compassion for their suffering. For complete strangers. As for me, your most faithful companion, you exploit my faithfulness for thirty years, and then you close the circle of my life with a coma, not even bothering to kill me off!
"Why? If it wasn't to leave an opening—in case you didn't succeed in writing your masterpiece after all—why not let your readers grieve my passing, at least? Were you worried that the announcement of my death would affect the sales of your sixteen police novels? If that's the case, then you're not only the biggest serial killer I know, you're also the most hateful of hypocrites. And I can't even denounce you or punch you in the face. I can't do anything . . . besides curse you and haunt you. However, all-powerful as you may be, the only way you can stop me is by transforming me into your rooster. A rooster that will finally fly away from this hellhole you've thrown me into."
"Let him say what he will," Basilius told himself. "He's hurt, and with good reason. Let him get it out of his system so that you can concentrate on the rooster's crow. That's the only thing that will shut him up. All I have to do is decide, once and for all, if that crow is one of joy or one of rage."
© Pan Bouyoucas. Translation © 2017 by Éric Fontaine and Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren. All rights reserved.
On an early evening in the spring of 2014, I had just settled my two young children into bed when I heard a commotion outside my apartment in Bebek, a neighborhood in Istanbul. I went to the window, and below me I could see a protest gathering in the park, which abutted the Egyptian consulate. Megaphones, whistles, forceful speeches, the noise escalated as more and more people gathered to voice their solidarity with members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had recently been imprisoned in Cairo. In short, this wasn’t really my crowd and they had come to Bebek, a liberal riviera on the Bosphorus, to wave their flags and chant their chants. Regardless, I was curious and wanted to take a closer look.
As I grabbed my keys off the hall table, beneath them was a novel I’d been reading earlier that day. I can’t say why, but I took it with me. My apartment’s long downhill driveway spilled into the park where the protestors had gathered. I stopped at a row of shops on the edge of the park. Like waves that looked less intimidating to a swimmer from the shore, the protest felt more formidable now that I was at its level. It wasn’t long before a few hard glances were thrown in my direction. So, to seem less threatening, I pretended to read.
I lingered at the protest for only about twenty minutes, but since then I’ve often thought of that night and the few people who pointed curiously at my book. In the years since, Turkey has, sadly, passed through a crisis of governance as profound as any it has known since the founding of the republic in 1923. In a referendum this past spring, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan created an executive presidency that has granted him unprecedented powers and has made Turkey a democracy in name only and more akin to an authoritarian state, one like Egypt, whose excesses the crowd protested that night. Erdoğan’s consolidation of power has come about while Western democracies such as Britain and the United States have seen a rise in populist and nationalist movements, which have called into question the innate primacy of liberal values.
After this spring’s referendum a deep pessimism spread through much of Turkey. In Istanbul, it seemed as if the lights had gone out. Restaurants were empty. People stayed at home. The police were ubiquitous. A similar pessimism has descended upon cities like London and New York. After the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, deep internal divisions within major democracies have been laid bare, divisions that threaten to undermine the social fabric of these nations. In Turkey, the US, Britain, and in other countries, there is no shortage of politicians and pundits telling us whom to blame, whom to fear, who our political opponents are, whether on the left or on the right.
The stories in this collection, however, serve a different purpose. They show us how we are similar. When reading Yalçin Tosun’s funny and poignant “Muzaffer and Bananas,” translated by Abby Comstock-Gay, I was drawn into the world of two chubby Turkish boys and their insecurities as they make an outing to feed forbidden bananas to a favorite chimpanzee at the zoo, and that story’s ending, which lands so elegantly, resonates across cultural and social divides. Other stories in the collection are more political, like “The Canary” by Deniz Tarsus, translated by Ayça Türkoğlu, which transports us into the desperate lives of Turkish coal miners—like those who perished in the May 2014 Soma Mine explosion, an event of great political significance inside Turkey—and raises familiar and controversial themes around coal mining in the U.S.
With much of our world deeply divided, stories such as these become more essential than ever to ease our collective pessimism. Art works through a process of emotional transference: artists—whether writers, filmmakers, painters, et cetera—feel something as they are creating their art. How many times have you watched a film teary-eyed, or gone into a museum and seen a painting that overwhelmed you, or—as is the case with this collection—finished a story that left you moved? If you’ve had that experience, the artists have transferred their emotion, or at least a fraction of it, to you. This process of emotional transference is an assertion of our shared humanity, that we can understand one another across cultural boundaries. Such an assertion is, at its core, an act of profound optimism. It is the antidote to the borderless pessimism that now besets much of the world.
If our politics divide us, stories such as these unite us; perhaps that’s why many years ago I instinctively took a book with me on that evening in Istanbul. As I lingered in the park, of the several people who came up to me, the majority had one question once our conversation turned to the book that I carried: they wanted to know if it had been translated into their language.
© 2017 by Elliot Ackerman. All rights reserved.
When I asked novelist Kim Thuy—a native of Vietnam and a longtime Quebecer—why she writes in French instead of Vietnamese or English, she told me this story: Thuy and her family were boat people who came to Quebec when she was ten years old. They ended up on the first bus of Vietnamese immigrants sent to the small town of Granby, in the Eastern Townships. Her family had spent the previous four months in a Malaysian refugee camp, where water was scarce and mosquito bites, lice, chronic diarrhea, and infections were rampant. Despite their ragged appearance, when the bus arrived in the snow-covered town, all of her new neighbors were waiting to welcome and embrace them. Their unabashed kindness, acceptance, and physical contact were earth-shattering to the little girl. It marked the beginning of her new life.
"When I write in French," Thuy explained, "I relive that moment again and again and again."
The four writers featured in this portfolio are all celebrated contemporary novelists who were born outside of Canada but who publish in Quebec, writing in French, their second language. Thuy is from Vietnam; Pan Bouyoucas is of Greek descent from Lebanon; Ying Chen is from China; Sergio Kokis is from Brazil. Whether they were fleeing war, furthering their education, or simply looking for better opportunities, each writer ended up in Quebec quite by chance. Some, like Thuy, have built their lives and careers here, while others, like Chen, eventually moved elsewhere, remaining tied to Quebec through the French language.
As a recent transplant to Montreal from the US, I wondered what it meant to be an immigrant writer in Quebec in 2017. What were the challenges and opportunities of writing in a second country, a second language? In what ways did that linguistic and geographic distance shape what and how a writer told their story? And how did books set in foreign countries fit into Quebec's often Montreal-centric publishing landscape?
Famed Iraqi-Canadian novelist and essayist Naim Kattan, whose first book, Adieu, Babylone (Farewell, Babylon), came out in 1975, has retroactively become a central figure in what would today be termed "migrant literature." As the tension between Arab and Jewish nationalism in Iraq intensified in the forties, he left his home country, first for France and then Canada, settling in Montreal in 1954. Here, although he speaks fluent Arabic, he began publishing in French. In Entretiens, his 2017 collected interviews with his son, writer Emmanuel Kattan, the elder Kattan says:
"I am a Jew from Baghdad and a Quebec writer. I can assert my Jewishness without renouncing my Arab culture. This multiple identity allows me to belong to la Francophonie, the French-speaking world. This is the case for any writer, any artist, from Quebec. La Francophonie is a particularity that leads to a universal."
According to the authors of Histoire de la littérature québécoise (History of Quebec Literature), migrant literature is an integral part of Quebec literature in part because they share many of the same preoccupations. These include the feeling of exile, wandering, a vacillation of identities, conflict between historical past and personal memory, and the condition of being a minority. After all, while French speakers make up 82% of the Quebec population today, they are only about 22% of Canada's total population. Québécois writers, therefore, are both majority and minority—on the peripheries of European and North American markets, and at the epicenter of their own thriving literary culture. Furthermore, the Québécois identity is still relatively new. While French Canadian history dates back to the early seventeenth century, the concept of a "Quebec literature" freed of its European influences is a twentieth-century phenomenon.
In speaking with each of the four authors, I learned that their coming to Quebec and writing in French was largely incidental—"the vagaries of exile," as Rio-born Kokis put it. After Brazil's 1964 military coup, Kokis sought refuge in France, where he completed his psychology studies in Strasbourg. A friend suggested Quebec for his next move, so he sent off a job application for a psychiatric hospital in Gaspé, which hired him as a psychologist. "If my friend had given me the address of a hospital in Toronto or Vancouver," Kokis told me, "I would have worked in English and, without a doubt, written in English." It was only at the age of fifty that he began publishing, and writing in French came down to practicalities: French was the language that he had been living and working in for most of his life, so that became the language of his fiction.
In Kokis's short story, "Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse," from his 2013 collection Culs-de-sac, an old mariner in a brothel in Punta Arenas, Chile, recounts a harrowing tale. Over glasses of pisco, he describes how four sailors are sent to the most distant of the seven manned lighthouses in the extreme south of the country, to relieve the crew that had been there for the previous four months. Isolated on a distant island prone to terrible weather, chilling events begin to unfold.
When the teenage Bouyoucas's parents decided to leave Lebanon in the early sixties, they chose Quebec so that their son could continue his studies in French. Ironically, because he wasn't Catholic, he was ultimately forced to finish his education with the Protestant School Board in English. Although he speaks fluent Greek, he never tried writing in it; he does, however, write novels and radio and theater work in French and English. He believes that he writes about the same things, in the same way, in both languages.
Bouyoucas' novel Cock-a-doodle-doo follows Basilius, a successful middle-aged crime novelist who longs to steer his literary career back toward something more authentic. Looking for inspiration, he returns to an island he first visited as a young man, when he wrote his first book, a collection of poems. Unfortunately, the only stories the island inspires are for yet another crime novel. Basilius's struggle with his sense of self and his flailing career are exacerbated by the fictional lead detective of his own creation, Levonian, who has grudges of his own. As the writer and his character hash things out, Basilius becomes consumed with the question of the rooster's crow—is it a cry of joy or of fear? Of pleasure for the new day, or fear of the dying of the light?
For Chen, the greater question was whether or not to write at all, not which language to write in. She studied French language and literature in Shanghai, simply out of curiosity, and wound up working as a translator and interpreter. Wanting to see the West, but knowing it would be difficult at the end of the Cold War, she came to Montreal by chance because she had a friend who was willing to help her with the paperwork. In 1991, she received her MA from McGill, and by 1992, she had already published her first novel, La mémoire de l’eau. Although Chen had always dreamed of being a Chinese writer, to write in Chinese while living her daily life in French felt forced. So as she continued to immerse herself in Quebec life—marrying, having children, acquiring a house, a garden, etc.—she continued publishing in French, to great acclaim.
Chen's novel Blessures (Wounds) is inspired by the real-life story of Normand Bethune, a Canadian surgeon and inventor whose anti-Fascist ideals inspired him to go first to Spain and then to China, where he ultimately died of a blood infection. He was so emblematic of the communist ideal to sacrifice the individual for the collective that Mao Zedong wrote an essay about him after his death: "In Memory of Norman Bethune." In Chen's reimagining of his journey, Beam-Number-Two, a child soldier, becomes the companion and guide for an unnamed Western doctor from a large, cold country who has come to Asia to volunteer as a field doctor during a revolutionary war. Wounds explores the Chinese revolution, propaganda, tension between the individual and the collective, the archetype of the romantic hero, and the vanity of the West "aiding" countries it judges to be less developed.
Thuy came of age in Quebec, so she spent both her teenage and then her adult years with the French language. She never tried writing in Vietnamese, having left too young to develop the nuance she has in French. However, she believes she writes in a French influenced by "a Vietnamese mind"—the rhythm and images of her first language. In Vietnamese, she said, you have to be more delicate, more restrained. She doesn't think she could have written her novels if she wasn't Canadian, because she wouldn't have the freedom to write about Vietnam in Vietnamese.
Thuy's novel Vi is a coming-of-age story that interweaves elements of the author's own epic journey from Saigon to a refugee camp in Malaysia to a new life in Montreal. Vi, the protagonist, whose name means "precious, minuscule, microscopic," flees home with her mother and three older brothers during the Vietnam War. The novel begins with sumptuous details of the family's comfortable life in Saigon, then follows the young girl as she finds her way in Quebec society, studies translation, grows into a confident, successful lawyer, and navigates heartbreak and exile.
While all four writers share a language, their use of that language diverges wildly, from Kokis' leisurely, nineteenth-century style to Chen's hauntingly spare prose. Whether overtly or covertly, each carries the cultural and linguistic influences of their home countries into their French. This hybridity and inventiveness, combined with masterful storytelling, has garnered them devoted followings, top literary prizes, and an undeniable place in modern Quebec literature.
© 2017 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren. All rights reserved.
Yalçin Tosun's chubby, despairing Turkish teenagers find solace in visits to the zoo. But an unexpected change to their routine abruptly alters their lives and their relationship.
Cutting last period was my idea. But getting on a crowded city bus and going to the zoo on this hot May day was Ali’s. He wanted to see the old chimpanzee at the zoo, whom he’d felt an affinity with for some time. Whenever he couldn’t take his workaholic father and Cubist-painter mother anymore, he came here to have heart-to-hearts with the old chimpanzee. He liked his calm and devil-may-care attitude.
He had first introduced me to Muzaffer when we went to the zoo a few weeks earlier. Yes, the chimpanzee’s name was Muzaffer, or at least that was the name Ali thought fit him best. Nearly toothless, with most of the hair on his body ripped out, this chimp had the most melancholic eyes in the world. Not caring at all that we were there, he gazed around motionless from the back corner of his unkempt cage, having detached himself from all relations with the world.
When we got on the bus, we raced toward the empty seats next to the ticket collector and as difficult as it was, squeezed in beside each other. We were both quite fat, but Ali’s body carried more promise than mine. He was about four inches taller than me, and had nice broad shoulders. (I’m not even going to mention how his beard had already started coming in.) These characteristics didn’t make his ass smaller than mine though. The moment we got on, the people on the bus started looking us up and down with those expressions of disgust they probably reserved especially for fat teenagers. Oh those looks . . . If only I, like Ali, could succeed in not noticing them, or looking like I didn’t.
When the bus had picked up the other passengers and began moving, I started looking around. Ali was lost in thought, but I wanted to make sure he had noticed the girl standing a bit in front of us. I nudged his leg with mine. He didn’t notice—the girl wasn’t even that pretty anyway. That nudge was one of those things I felt I had to do to pay dues to adolescence, and if I hadn’t I would have felt like I was lacking something. But Ali didn’t feel the same way, facing out the window murmuring something or other.
“Let’s get some bananas for Muzaffer.”
I couldn’t help giggling. I put my hand over my mouth to make sure my crooked teeth didn’t show. Muzaffer and bananas . . . It was just funny—those kinds of things were always funny for me back then. When I noticed that Ali wasn’t laughing I wanted to say something.
“I don’t have any money.”
Yes, he always had more money than I did, but unlike other kids who had money, he never used it to show off. It had almost become the norm for him to pay the bill when we went somewhere. And I can’t say that I was uncomfortable about it. Even if I had been, I wouldn’t have let anything come between me and my only friend in the world.
The not-very-pretty girl who nevertheless succeeded in getting my attention had moved a few steps forward so she was standing right next to me. Her bag was bumping my shoulder and I was reveling in this. I lifted my head a bit and looked at her face out of the corner of my eye. She had to be about three or four years older than us, but she looked around as if she knew a lot about life. I wondered if she had ever kissed anyone. And if she had, I wondered how she kissed. I had seen a lot of kissing in movies. Some people just suck on the other person’s upper or lower lip, other people stick their tongues out audaciously with brazen speed. I would kiss politely, I told myself. And I approved of this thought with a nod of my head. I would neither boorishly suck lips nor would I use my tongue. I would plant a kiss on those timid lips gently, like brushing the naked skin of a bird’s wing. But I had only lips in my mind. Not a face, not a body, not a person. Just lips.
The girl opened her bag like she was going to get something out of it, then without getting anything closed it again. Oh, women and their mysterious actions. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye again, as if to show that I noticed, but she didn’t see me.
When we got off the bus, something Ali had said about women came to my mind. The other day in the locker room we both heard the other kids saying what they wanted to do with Miss Ayla, the gym teacher. Slowly walking away afterward, I stopped and asked him.
“Do you also like Miss Ayla?”
He looked me in the face with a flirtatious look.
“Dude” (he sometimes called me dude), “you don’t understand women at all. I would make a bet that that woman is as cold as the poles. I bet when she has sex she passes the time by imagining what kinds of animals the stains on the ceiling look like.”
I wasn’t sure if he really knew more about women than me or not, but he liked it to look that way, so I believed him. Yet I was sure that we both had the same doubts, which we had never shared with each other, about the unlikelihood of our fat bodies ever appealing to anyone. Not saying these things aloud was one of the secret agreements between us. Then the topic of kissing came up and he told me a few things about the ins and outs of kissing. According to him, kissing must be done with eyes closed. And teeth—and he looked away from me when he said this—had to be particularly well cared for at all times, because it is never clear when a person might have the chance to kiss. And also, if I ever got the chance to kiss a girl I’m into—like a friend, on the cheek—I should plant my kiss on the borderline between the lips and the cheek—the girl would understand from that how much I liked her.
“How do you know these things?”
“I would know, dude.” (Yes, he said "dude" again.)
“Have you ever kissed anyone?”
He gave another suggestive laugh and silently walked toward the greengrocer, where the colorful fruits were aligned in rows.
We put the bananas in Ali’s bag. When we got to the zoo the security guard at the door reminded us that feeding the animals was strictly forbidden. Because we knew this rule was not enforced, we didn’t say anything.
We walked slowly in the heat, escorted by the strange smell emanating from our fat bodies. In many of the corners of the zoo there were couples interested more in each other than the animals. And our looks gravitated toward those couples, not the animals. As we approached Muzaffer’s cage and looked around for a security guard, we pulled the bananas out of the bag. There were four bananas; Ali gave two of them to me. We were excited about seeing Muzaffer, but he wasn’t there. As we were wondering if they had changed his cage, we learned that he had died the night before. Actually, he had committed suicide. The security guard who looked indifferently at the forgotten bananas in our hands didn’t use the word suicide, but that was the conclusion Ali came to after hearing what the man told us. The night before, Muzaffer had gotten himself into a run-in with the roughest young chimp and gotten himself killed. Because he couldn’t stand his baldness, his toothlessness, his painful joints, he had committed a sort of suicide as any honorable old chimpanzee would.
As Ali translated these thoughts to me, he didn’t show the slightest sign of sadness. But I knew that Muzaffer was the only creature in the world that I envied, and I knew how much Ali loved him. He had told me even more about him than he had told me about his mother and father. I didn’t know what to say; I peeled one of the bananas in my hands and started to eat it. I didn’t have the chance to eat bananas often, and at that moment I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Ali came over to me and took the other banana and threw it toward the cage. Then he did the same thing with the ones he was holding. I stood there with the half-eaten banana in my hand. In that moment, I understood just how sad my friend was.
While Muzaffer lay prostrate in his grave—I assumed that dead chimpanzees are buried just like dead people—Ali’s fat body shook as he began to cry. It was the first time I’d seen another boy crying. I put down my half-eaten banana, went over to him, and put my arm on his shoulder. “Get away from me, dude,” he said. Without taking my arm off his shoulder, I said that maybe there was a heaven for chimpanzees and that he shouldn’t be sad. I regretted it the moment I said it. What idiocy! He looked into my eyes and he put his arm on my shoulder. We stood there face to face, arms on each other’s shoulders. He was still crying, heaving sobs. We were two fat teenagers facing each other on the grass in front of the cage. Muzaffer had died, and these two teenagers so often prayed the same thing would happen to them.
“Ali,” I said. “You haven’t ever kissed anyone, have you?”
He remained motionless. He was trying to stop crying. With my hand I held his chin and lifted his face, and I placed a kiss on the borderline between his lip and his cheek, and ran away as fast as my heavy body would carry me.
"Muzaffer ve Muz" © Yalçın Tosun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Abby Comstock-Gay. All rights reserved.
The plain sprawls, flat under the sky. Darkness settles over it; a gulping, tarry swamp. In the distance, a small fire. It licks and lights the air. It leaps as the women gather around, throwing dry brush onto the flames. Old Hatice Ana arches her eyebrows and her face grows taut. It makes her look nearly fifteen years younger. Her skin gathers at her forehead and neck. Some of her teeth are missing and her face sags. “My Hasan died here, in the mine,” she says. “Your husbands think it’s coal they dig for in the mountain, but it’s not coal, it’s flesh.” The women grow pale. One can’t help herself and asks: “Were there a lot of accidents in the mine, in the past?” “Of course there were. Even our grandmothers used to speak of them. The more the men work the mine, the more lives it will take. In the end, your husbands will be little more than coal themselves.” Silence falls over the rolling plain. Hatice Ana’s eyes drift. Her face tightens like a chest full of breath, then creases again; she focuses. “A terrible day, it was. I was up at the crack of dawn, I’d just waved Hasan off as he left for the mine. And then, oh God! Booming, ringing. That sound, like it was pounding the ground as it came. It cracked the foundations of the houses and burst the plaster. We rushed outside. I thought my heart would drop clean out of my chest. We knew something must have happened in the mine, so we ran to look. The mine was smoking. I’ll never forget the tears pouring from my eyes. I couldn’t stop. The workers had gathered outside. The mine was raging and fuming, spitting ash.” She rearranges her headscarf loosely and tightens the knot. Her eyes search the ground. She recovers her train of thought and continues: “Then important men came from the mining company; they stood at the entrance to the pit, whispering to each other. Their faces were grim. The jandarma came next and cordoned off the mine. 'No one is to enter the pit. We’re going to get everyone out alive,' he said, and we believed him, too. There was nothing else to be done. We sat there and we waited. What more could we do, my girl? We sat together with tears in our eyes and I mourned for Hasan.” The women see themselves in Hatice Ana. They imagine the day when their husbands will die.
On the day of the accident, the mountain bellowed at the people gnawing away at its insides. The fire ceased and smoke began to rise. When the smoke and dust had cleared a little, the jandarma went into the mine. He walked round and round. It was empty. Where were all the men? People don’t just disappear. At last, they reached the top of the blind shaft. A hand was dangling from the roof. “Here, they’re here!” he shouted. The man grasped hold of the hand, tugged it and tumbled head first onto the ground. He looked at the hand in his; it was practically nothing. It stopped at the wrist. Bone jutted out at one end, sharp as a wolf’s tooth, white as rabbit hair. “God!” he cried, throwing it down. He leaned back against the wall. Something dripped onto his ear. Disturbed, he put out his hand: blood. He hung the lamp on the wall and peered closer. The bodies looked as if they had been split apart and reformed. The miners lay in pieces. He cried out and his belly shook. He ran to the mouth of the mine without looking back. They had all been destroyed. The walls of the mine had been reduced to rubble, the mountain was coal and nothing more. The jandarma ran all the way out to the dark forest.
Hatice was still a young woman back then. Chilled, her tears had run dry and her heart seemed drained of blood. Mourning burned through the village, ravaging the very soil. The mine owners grew sick of the laments and chased the workers’ wives away. “Except for me,” said Hatice Ana. One woman interrupted, curious: “Why?” Hatice Ana breathed hard. “Because I kept quiet; when the state representatives came to ask me about it, I said nothing.”
Behind them, the forest stood dark and dense. The faint sounds of animals hung in the air. The owl trained its eye on a mouse, dropped down, and cloaked it in its wings. The fox hid in the bushes watching the women around the fire. The snail trailed slowly back to its nest in the light of the moon. The women took their leave, feeling their own lives quivering inside them, and walked back in the light of the fire, which flared faintly, sputtering in the nighttime frost. It was nothing, of course. Zeyno cast about for some hint of death in the dry taste in her mouth. One day, we will die too, she thought, we will fade into nothing. Her gaze fell on her son, Aliş. His eyes were filled with tears. Zeyno got up, kissed Hatice Ana on the cheek, and said her good-byes. Aliş made to sneak off through the bushes. “Aliş!” shouted Zeyno. He stopped. “What are you up to my boy? Come on, run along home.” He came closer and she hugged him. “When did you turn up? Did you finish shelling those pine nuts?” “No.” “Oh, Aliş!”
The night was thick with frost as they crossed the plain and started up the hill ahead. Passing by woodland, they took the path to the village. Zeyno wrapped herself in her knitted shawl. “Are you cold?” she said, looking at Aliş. “No,” he replied, shivering. She hugged him to her, covering the two of them with her shawl. Before stepping into the garden of their house, Zeyno said, “Your father mustn’t find out about what Hatice Ana said, OK?” Aliş nodded, tears in his eyes. “I won’t say anything,” he promised weakly.
They found Yusuf in the large garden that surrounded the house, under the pergola beams strung with grapevines. He was smoking a cigarette with a faraway look on his face. The pure white smoke was bitter in the night air. There was no wind. The sky looked as if it had been nailed up. In the forest beyond, the fireflies were winking. Yusuf sat up. “Hello my sweethearts,” he said, “Where have my little adventurers been?”
“Just to see Hatice Ana. We chatted, shared some toasted seeds. Small talk, you know. Have you cut your lip again?” Yusuf looked up and smiled. “Oh, Yusuf” she said, smirking.
“I’ve just put some tea on. Come, let’s sit and have a glass,” he said, sitting up on the divan and crossing his legs.
“Aliş, I’ll heat up some milk for you,” said Zeyno.
“But I want tea!”
“No, Aliş! The two of you sit up drinking tea late into the night and then you wonder why you can’t get to sleep! Yusuf, are you hungry? I can bring a few things out.”
“Yes, I could eat something. It’s a long while till morning. I’m not going to sleep tonight.”
“What? You can’t go down the mine on no sleep!”
“We’ll see,” said Yusuf. He cheered up a little when he remembered Zeyno had made börek. “Zeyno, are there any börek left?”
“Yes, there’s a whole dish of them.”
“Great, bring them out. They’ll go well with the tea.”
Zeyno hurried into the kitchen and threw a couple of logs into the stove. She would heat the börek on it. She bent to blow on the embers. The coals glowed like enormous globes of molten lava. Flames rolled and coiled inside the wood. Zeyno blew. The coals reddened, scattering sparks. She thought of mines exploding and mountains crying out. Still she blew. The fire flared up. Filling her lungs, she blew again. Ash fluttered into the three corners of the stove. Her hair and face were covered with it. The pinecones rattled as flames chewed and blackened the wood. Zeyno watched the fire for a while. She thought of nothing, not the börek, not Yusuf, not the food. After some time, she sighed, shook the ash from her hair, turned and placed the dish over the heat. She wiped the tears from her eyes.
Yusuf took his pouch of tobacco, weighed out a small amount, and rolled it up in a cigarette paper. He licked the paper to seal it. Aliş watched his father. “Aliş, my friend, how are your strawberries doing at the warehouse?”
“Well, I’ve given them plenty of water and I made sure that it’s warm enough for them. I also planted new seedlings and I wrapped them in a black plastic bag. I tied the bottoms with cotton. They’re doing really well.”
“Great! Sounds like you’ve been taking good care of your babies. Have you read the book I bought you?”
“Of course. And I learned about why strawberries go soft on the ground.”
“And why’s that?”
“The book says that they go soft when the leaves touch the soil.”
“Well, my friend, they sound a bit precious if you ask me. How come our neighbors manage to grow them in the forest and on the mountainside?”
“Well, they don’t grow very many, do they?”
“Goodness me, that must be it then: the dirt is turning them soft.” His gaze drifted past Aliş. “It’s the same with us, isn’t it Aliş?” Aliş looked at his father, uncomprehending. “Coal’s a tricky thing, too. The more you dig for it, the harder it is to get.” Aliş didn’t look at his father. “But we have coal to thank for the food in our bellies tonight. Thank God we have food on the stove.” Something caught in his throat. He swallowed hard and went on. “Why don’t we have a little chat while your mother’s out of the way, man to man?” Aliş guessed what his father wanted to say and winced. “Look, son, Aliş, my boy, promise me you won’t go down to work in the mine. Just read your strawberry book. Learn. Grow your business. One day you could have huge greenhouses filled with strawberries, you could escape all this. Sell crates and crates of strawberries if you like, but never touch coal. Don’t be like me, living a half-life down in the mine.” Aliş didn’t move. He stayed fixed to the spot, as though his father might turn around, look and not be able to find him. “This job is no joke and you’re sick. You wouldn’t be able to stand it.” Aliş’s eyes glistened for a moment as though a bright idea had dawned on him and he said, “You should stop working in the mine too. We can grow our strawberries together.” Yusuf said nothing. Zeyno’s voice came from inside, rough. “Your mother’s coming, not a word,” said Yusuf.
Zeyno appeared under the pergola. “Aliş, run and get the börek. Be careful though, they’re hot!”
In the distance, crickets wailed and shuddered in the forest’s chill. In the village, the same thought was on everyone’s minds. It flitted through their brains every night before bed. It flickered and faded. Death. Every night before they went to sleep, the people of the village imagined their own deaths. The worry was like a pin in the throat, like clippers wrenching the nails from their fingers. It ate away at them and after months, and months, and months like this, their hearts grew sick with it.
It was the morning after one such night. There were no footsteps, no voices to be heard. No sound at all. Yusuf rolled over in bed and sat up heavily. He wolfed down the fried potatoes and lentil soup that Zeyno had made. He watched Aliş in his bed, as he did every morning. He left the house and prepared to hand himself over to the hell of the pit. This cursed coal, he thought. It’s a scourge. It puts a man to sleep, drowns him, knocks him down, and changes him. The same image came to Yusuf as he walked to work each morning. He imagined death differently from the others. Death was a huge hand made of coal that stretched skyward; it would reach out and grab the dozens of workers out in the street, crushing them mercilessly until they suffocated. That morning, Yusuf imagined the giant hand just as he did every morning.
Between one hundred and fifty and two hundred men gathered at the pithead in the early hours of the morning. Sad, sleep-scented faces. They went into the mine to start getting ready. They chatted as usual as they changed into their work gear. One of them, İleş Ahmet, was not too keen on washing. “Your clothes are filthy already, son, why bother changing?” Âdem quipped. The men grinned at each other. İleş Ahmet picked the sleep from his eyes and grunted: “What do you expect? We don’t all have a wife at home like yours.” From a distance, Yusuf spoke up: “Ahmet, how much have you saved now, pal? When’s the wedding?” “Not for a while. Damn, I counted it the other day but I’ve forgotten.” Çamur Osman chimed in: “Pal, you’ve really kept her waiting! The woman’s already past it, you’ll never get her now . . . ” Osman raised his arms and began to mince daintily around the cave, cavorting in the thin air. The entrance to the mine rang with laughter and the men smiled. “You just leave it to me,” said Ahmet, grinning. Yusuf’s gaze fell on Daver. He had seemed distracted while they were getting dressed and there was an anxious look on his face. “What’s the matter, Daver? You’re a bit quiet today.” “It’s nothing, Yusuf Abi. You know how it is.” Daver was a little different; his eyes slanted and he was a smart, sensitive boy. His grandfather was one of the village’s holy people. He saw the future in his dreams and had the power to predict whose baby would be a girl, who would die and who would recover. Davud Usta had taken him on so that he could get a wage and earn enough to eat. He didn’t work at the mine face. His sole duty was to walk around the mine and keep an eye on the canary in its cage.
Rows upon rows of men crammed themselves into the cages and descended into the pit. They piled down the main shaft. Davud Usta stopped at each cross brace and tested the frame with his adze. The men mined and the mountain reeled. And when the black creature awoke in its lair at the heart of the mountain and made the earth swell, nobody heard it. It wanted to roar, beat its pitted chest, and destroy the sickness worming through its body. But it couldn’t.
Some men mined while others loaded lumps of coal onto wagons. Others dug new tunnels. Slowly, they scraped at the earth while the chock bore its weight above them. İleş Ahmet swallowed, “Damn it, Âdem, make sure you check the chock as you go. We don’t want it caving in.” “Just dig slowly, it will be fine as long as we don’t overload it.” Çamur Osman looked at the coal in the chamber. He wasn’t pleased. “Most of this is waste, there’s hardly any coal in it. There’s not much output here. Let’s tell Cemal Usta to cut the workers on this section.”
At lunch time, they sat down to eat together, setting up a makeshift table and splitting an onion between them. Daver couldn’t swallow a single bite. Instead, he fed the bird in its cage. Âdem looked at him. “You given it a name yet, pal?” he said. Daver turned and looked at him for a while. “No, I can’t, because it’ll die anyway.” Yusuf breathed, “If you look after it properly, he’ll be fine.” “No, it won’t. I can hear strange noises, it sounds like something’s boiling up there.” The boy swallowed hard. A moment later, he heard Ahmet’s voice trembling, “The bird . . . ” It lay dead in its cage. It didn’t move. Davud Usta snapped into action: “Leave everything where it is and walk to the exit.” The men made for the main shaft on the double. “Calmly!” shouted Davud Usta, frightening himself with his own voice. “Walk slowly,” he added hoarsely. They joined the throng of workers making their way along the shaft. The structure began to shudder. Earth and pieces of rock fell from the roof as the walls around them shook. They stopped and stared at one another. “Stop,” said Davud Usta. “Come back. We’ll head down to the lower levels and wait for help. Quick!” The men turned and ran down the shaft. But the sound died in their ears as a scorching wind swept through, echoing around the chamber, accompanied by a strange smell. Turning to look, they came face to face with the black creature inside the mountain. It bounded straight for them, its gigantic body gleaming black and white. Then it changed shape; white smoke poured from it like milk, coiling and curling, and took the form of huge animals. At the front stood terrible horses, nimble bears, followed by deer, wolves, and foxes . . . The herd came stampeding over the miners and they groaned. One man in front cried out at the top of his lungs: “Get on the ground!” and many threw themselves down. The animals dispersed in a puff of soot and drifted over the men like an avalanche. Some were caught on their feet. The toxic fumes leached into their bodies, making their lungs bleed and their hearts burst. They fell to the floor with blood streaming from their eyes and noses. Yusuf lay on the ground, covering his mouth and nose with the collar of his sweater. In the smoke and dust, chaos reigned. There was no fresh air left in the mine. Later, choking and retching, Davud Usta called out again, “Wait a moment, then get up.” When the smoke had cleared a little, Yusuf saw in the light of his headlamp that İleş Ahmet had fallen; blood was trickling from his nose. He watched the flakes of ash sticking to his face. The blood was black, like a thick and filthy worm creeping into his nostril. Its tail dangled close to Ahmet’s lip. Yusuf feared it would crawl into Ahmet’s nose and eat away at his lungs. He reached out, swiped at the worm and saw that the blood had been wiped away. Then he looked at his hand. Blood. Finally, he came to his senses. He ran with the other men down toward the lower levels. A little while later, they heard Davud Usta’s voice again. “Find a piece of clothing, a handkerchief, anything, and tie it over your faces.” Yusuf held his breath, took off his sweater, and tied it tightly around his face. He found Osman collapsed at the edge of the mine. Ripping off part of his shirt, he tied it around Osman’s face. He threw Osman’s arm over his shoulder and ran down to the seventh level with the other workers in search of fresh air.
The smoke thinned as they descended, but the men were panicking, running to and fro. Davud Usta tried to stop those attempting to leave the mine, but they were so overcome by fear that none would listen. “Don’t go! It’s hell up there! We have to keep walking down until help comes.” Davud Usta saw he was wasting his breath. Many of the men had fallen onto the ground and bodies lay scattered along the main shaft. Davud Usta looked to see if any were breathing. He kept one eye on Yusuf, Osman, Daver, and Âdem in front. When they reached a clearing, he noticed the birdcage was still gripped tightly in Daver’s hands. The bird’s body was filthy from rattling around the cage. Keep steady, Davud, don’t lose your nerve, think how many years you’ve been foreman of this mine. We’re going to get out of here alive.
Âdem was gasping for breath. His insides boiled; his throat felt dry and scratchy. His heart was pounding. The more he struggled to get air into his lungs, the more trapped he felt in the narrow mineshafts. “I can’t take it any more, I can’t breathe!” he cried. In a fit of madness, Âdem tried to undo the cloth tied around his face. Yusuf seized his hand. They were at the heart of the mine. “Stop it! If you take it off, you’ll die! Just a little longer. There’s fresh air further down. See, there’s a cool breeze here.” Meanwhile, the ground above them was shaking again. The sides of the shaft trembled. “There’s a fire up there, run down!” Davud shouted, determined, shoving them down toward the lower levels. At that moment, Cemal Usta appeared with a group of men. They were black all over; in the lamplight, they looked like monsters, burned, blending into the mine; they were at one with it. They clung to Davud Usta and tugged at him. Cemal shouted at the top of his voice: “It’s going to kill us, Usta! Let’s pull the hogties and cave in the path or we’ll be boiled alive in the damned darkness!” Davud Usta couldn’t understand why Cemal was in such a hurry. He spoke again, with difficulty, swallowing: “The fire’s spreading above us, abi, they’re using pressurized water to put it out but it’ll heat up in the fire. If we don’t close off the path, we’ll be boiled alive!” Keeping as calm as he could, Davud Usta gathered his men around him. He shouted to the workers making for the upper levels: “We’re going to cave in the tunnel, run this way!” They managed to warn ten or fifteen people. The ground above them was trembling with the ferocity of the fire and the explosions. The pressurized water filtered through slowly at first, then started to gush. “Shut off the path!” cried Cemal Usta. The men worked as one, pulling the ties, then they ran all the way down to the scaffold. The mine seemed to be laughing, puckering; the path snapped like brittle bones and the roof shifted. The tumbling rocks formed a wall where the path had been. They swallowed, thinking of the men trapped on the other side. The water and smoke seemed unable to penetrate the wall. It was vital to use the little air coming from the blind well channels properly. Making good use of it, they reached the bottom of the mine. They stopped in a chamber where they found a little fresh air. Yusuf encouraged them all to sit down. “It’s getting smoky in here. Crouch down, it’ll be easier to breathe.” Âdem caught his breath and the pain in his lungs eased. Daver’s legs were trembling. He had vowed not to leave the bird behind, his stonelike fist still closed over the cage’s handle. At last, he collapsed like a pile of hundred-year-old rocks, his mouth a spike, his eyes like creatures made of bone.
The workers sheltering in the lower corridors of the mine looked out from under their thick eyebrows, eyes wide like rabbits escaping a wolf’s clutches. Alert. The fear was sharp and coursed through them like poison. They knew that if they didn’t keep it under control, their hearts would burst, ripping open their chests. Daver sat in the half-lit chamber, transfixed by muffled noises coming from below. His eyes searched the ground; his ears trained, listening. “There are people down there, Yusuf Abi,” he said.
“Are you sure, son?”
“Yes. I can hear someone digging.”
The air supply in the chamber was dropping constantly. They decided to move on. They split into small groups and ventured off down separate routes.
They walked straight down. Daver looked at the canary: feathers lay strewn where it had been tossed around in the cage. At that moment, a wild wind blew in, scorching his cheeks. It swept the dust before it into a whirlwind and blasted the hair out of his face. When Daver looked up in the lamplight, he saw that the roof of the cave lay far in the distance; it had been carried away. Not only that, but it had transformed into enormous pine trees, until there was an entire forest hanging above their heads. And now, Daver and the others found themselves upside-down, walking in the sky with the forest below. Daver gazed open-mouthed as the pines swayed beneath him. Then came the birds, flitting into the forest in their thousands. Enchanted, he saw plants dripping with bright yellow buds, bobbing in the sunlight; animals roamed beneath the trees. Then he realized he could see the mouth of the mine; hundreds of people were standing in front of it. He saw his mother crying. Tears welled in his eyes and he let them fall, it didn’t matter now anyway. He wanted to leave the darkness of the mine behind and go into the forest, he wanted to hug his mother. Daver took the dead canary out of its cage, opened his hand and watched the bird drop away into the trees like the cool raindrops that fell from the roofs of the houses in the village. And now, Yusuf saw the bird take flight. He looked up and saw the mighty forest hanging from the ceiling. Sensing the ground beneath his feet had disappeared, he turned and clung to the wall. He looked again. Daver watched Yusuf for a long time; “I want to go into the forest and see my mum,” he said. Before Yusuf had the chance to reply, Daver bent at the waist and began to fall. He tumbled away into the forest and disappeared. Yusuf watched him fall. But I can’t do that, he thought, I can’t go into the forest. I can’t just leave Aliş and Zeyno, and sink like a stone into the trees. Just bend your knees and take a step forward, he thought. No, step away, Yusuf, come on, step away, stay in the blind shaft a little longer.
As they reached the bottom of the mine, the workers following Davud Usta faltered in a delirium of fear and poisonous air. “Let’s wait in the chamber up ahead. There’s more fresh air there,” said Davud Usta. Whatever happens, they’ll come, he thought, they’ll get us out of here. Entering the mine’s bottommost chamber, Âdem recoiled. He stood petrified, as if he had glimpsed monsters and flames, seething worms. He looked back at his friends behind him. Filing into the chamber, they saw three men with their backs to the entrance. The men had tools in their hands and were scraping at the wall. Davud Usta was speechless. The men were heavy with coal. “If we dig down, it will earn us some time,” they said. One of the three turned to face Âdem. The pickaxe slipped out of his hand and fell. Its handle bore distinct marks where it had been gripped tight. It clanged as it hit the ground and the sound reverberated in the chamber. Âdem’s ears rang; he couldn’t stand it and covered them with his hands, writhing in pain. Blood began to stream from his ears. The two other strange men still had their backs turned; they had noticed the men come into the room. Âdem looked into the face of the man standing opposite him and saw that it was himself. Yusuf looked at the second man: his double. He looked furious. A single tear ran from Yusuf’s eye, like a horse with a chestnut coat. He wiped it away and smelled blood. Then Davud came face to face with the third man. He looked just like him, right down to the clothes and the scar on his face. The men put down their tools and peered at each other. None of them said a word, but there was no trace of surprise on their faces. They could hear faint rattling sounds. Yusuf reached out and touched his double; the man opposite was alive, real. After a little while, the sound of pickaxes could be heard from beneath their feet. Yusuf turned and looked at Davud Usta. They listened to the sound of men still digging down below, their picks hitting diamonds, hoping to find their way back to their children’s faces by digging in the opposite direction. Hope-flecked, determined hands groping in the blackness.
Down, down and down they dig, hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of men. In the black breath of the mine, dead men turn to coal and their blood congeals and oozes inside the mountain. Flesh fuses with coal, coal with mountain. Yusuf can no longer tell which is which. He thinks about the börek that Zeyno cooks on the stove, the strawberries Aliş keeps warm in the warehouse, and his mind reels. I’ll never eat strawberries again, he thinks. Aliş’s strawberries. All I have is coal to eat. I’ve never tried it. I ate dirt once. Aliş, does it rain in the mine? I wish we could fly out of here. I want to leap up over the fire and breathe in the clean air. If I could just see Zeyno’s face again, he thinks, or see Aliş standing there, as large as life. But you’re nothing now, Yusuf, says a voice inside him. You’re buried deep underground. Just lie back, deep below the surface of the earth and slip away into nothing, Yusuf. The more you want to exist, the less you do. You are alone, you are small, and you are nothing. You are nothing now, Yusuf.
The mine workers’ legacy was their offering to coal. The children of the village had been born to die and took up their fathers’ trade without question. And so did their children. The mountain cried out for endless death, but nobody heard it. The workers’ bodies became the blood in the veins of the mine and streamed out, coal-stained flesh. The canary rolled out like a ball. It took off and flew up the road that led to the mine. It skimmed the fire, beating its wings and making the flames quiver, before flying on into the forest. Zeyno and Aliş didn’t see the spirit leave the pit. The mine rattled and rang like a maniac for three days and three nights, and then it cooled, like the cinders in Zeyno’s stove. A human life is faint and thin, like a line drawn in the dirt, until it turns cold, like the bones buried beneath.
From It Gözü. Published 2015 by Can Yayınları. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.
In this story by Behçet Çelik, a man risks his life to cross a city under siege and help his friend.
Author's Note: I have some doubts about sharing information about the social background of my stories with readers. It seems that this approach conditions or restricts the reader. This story was published in a literary magazine in Turkey this past year, and one young reader told me that when they read the story, they thought it took place in the 1970s (in Turkey). It’s true that when I wrote this story, I was thinking of what was happening in 2015 and the aftermath. But I really liked this young reader’s interpretation. (Maybe yet another reader might think of Israel’s siege of a city in Palestine upon reading.)
The important part for me is the issue of any state’s police forces besieging parts of a city, forbidding entrance and exit, and implementing curfews for the people who live there. It doesn’t really matter if this happens in Diyarbakir in 2015 or a city in another country. This is why I didn’t give any place names in this story. When there’s no information about the setting, the universality of the problem of the siege emerges more clearly.
Firat’s mother called, asking if I would stop by. At first my mother hesitated to tell me, afraid I would do the crazy, and get up and go. When she told me, she grabbed my arm with concern: “Look, son, I’m not telling you so you’ll go over there, but at some point just see what’s going on with the woman, find out what’s the problem.”
I called right away, said hello, and asked, “What happened, Fatma Ana? You called me?”
“No, no,” she said. “It wasn’t anything important, but if you could just come by at some point, son . . .”
“OK, ana,” I said. “You’re saying I should come by, but they don’t let anyone come out your way, they’ll take people down just like that, didn’t you know?”
“Sure, sure, but you can find an open road, can’t you, son?”
“Is Firat OK?”
“He’s not good, not at all, that’s why I’m saying, you know, if you could just come by.”
“I’m not sure anacığım, let me think about it,” and I hung up.
Why doesn’t she call Kadir, I thought. That asshole doesn’t lift a finger for his brother, or his mother or father. But of course his mother knows that he’s worthless, and that’s why she called me.
If it weren’t important she wouldn’t have called, so I’d better go. But how? I couldn’t think of any possible way. I called again.
“OK so tell me, Fatma Ana, why do you want me to come over?”
“Firat’s really losing it, dear, not being able to go outside; his father and I are barely managing to keep him indoors. He keeps saying he’s going to go out; the boy kicks the walls, we lock the doors and have to pull him from the windows."
“Ah, ah,” I said. “If he so much as sticks his head outside they’ll take him down.”
“And nights, oh, at night once the bullets start buzzing by it gets even worse.”
“Call him to the phone, anacığım,” I said, dreading what I might encounter on the other end.
In a weak voice Firat said, “Hello, Kemal, is that you?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s me.” I said. “How are you? It’s been a while since I’ve been able to come out to your neighborhood, I thought I’d call and check in.”
“Come over and take me out, Kemal,” he said. “I can’t stay home anymore. I can’t breathe, my hands, my feet, they have a mind of their own.”
“Sit tight, man, the ban should be lifted in two or three days, then I’ll come and we’ll go out together, to the café and stuff.”
“I can’t sit tight, Kemal, I’m not sure if I’m sitting or standing, it’s like none of me is my own. I talk nonstop or can’t talk at all. My head is ringing.”
Oh, my crazy friend. He was always a bit scattered and odd, but in recent years he’s really gotten much worse, the kid.
“OK,” I said, “But promise not to leave before I get there, I’ll come and take you out.”
“Promise,” he said, and his voice came out like a child. “And promise, too, that you’ll come tonight.”
“OK,” I said.
“Not OK, say ‘promise.’”
“OK, OK. Promise,” I said.
Getting there was going to be trouble, and then once I got there, taking a crazy guy out for air was going to be even more trouble.
I jumped up to leave. My mother met me at the door.
“You’re not going to go over there, right, my Kemal?”
“There—they shoot anyone on the road, son.”
“No, Mom, I’m not going.”
“Don’t be crazy, my boy. Don’t go.”
“OK, Mom. I’m not going, don’t worry, I talked to them and it’s taken care of.”
“What’s that crazy boy’s problem?”
“Nothing, Mom. He misses me. As soon as the curfew’s lifted, I’ll go over and see him, we made a deal.”
At least she didn’t ask me to promise. I quickly put on my shoes and hurtled out the door.
I had to find the kids—if there was an open road, they would know. And if they didn’t, that meant I’d have to break my promise. Oh, Firat, why?
I found them just as I left them. Vedat and Cihan were sitting there stroking their mustaches. When they saw me they started to stand up, and I put my hands on their shoulders and pushed them back down. Who knows how many hours they had been perched there.
“It’s hard, teach,” they said, when I alluded to my problem. “They’ve blockaded all the roads. They’re waiting with heavy machinery.”
“So there’s no way?”
“Maybe at night,” said Cihan.
“But it’s so dangerous, hocam, you have no idea. There’s no soul left in those guys. You know what happened yesterday . . . ”
“I know,” I said and got quiet. We all sat stroking our mustaches for a while. I took the cigarette case that Vedat hid under a newspaper when he saw me and brought it to my nose and sniffed it.
“Smoke,” I said. “Relax.”
Cihan—ever the jokester—said, “What is this, hocam, a bribe? Letting us smoke?”
“If you say so,” I said. “You’ve been smoking since you were up to my knees, anyway, might as well smoke in front of me for once.”
Vedat offered me the cigarette he rolled, and I swatted it away.
“But hocam, if you smoked you’d be like a king.”
“You jackass, aren’t we against monarchy, the sultanate, and all that?”
When Vedat finished his tea, they got up.
“Hocam if you don’t mind, we’ll go and take a look, ask around,” said Cihan. “You just wait. Here’s today’s newspaper—we’ll be back before you get to the sports page.”
“The more these guys write, the more it keeps on going, son,” I said. “It’ll take till evening for me to read all of this.”
“No, no,” he said. “We’ll be back before then.”
I’m not sure how many teas I’d had when they returned with a man around my age. His face was familiar, but we had never met. We weren’t introduced this time either.
“What is it that’s so important, hocam?” he said when he sat down next to me.
“I have a friend,” I said. “Firat . . . he’s a bit of a loose cannon, and he’s gotten much worse shut up inside with the curfew, after a week without going outdoors he’s really losing it.”
“It’s been more than a week,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said. “Of course, you know, just a manner of speaking.”
So that something wouldn’t come of it later on, I told him Firat’s older brother’s name. He knit his brows and shook his head. “Well, his brother should come and take him out. He certainly knows how to show off—director of this, president of that.”
“You’re right about that,” I said. “But you think that asshole gives a shit about his brother? I’ve heard their mom and dad are mad at him and they don’t want to ask any favors.”
“The guy sold out his people,” said Vedat. “And you think he’d think of his family?”
None of us said anything about this. The man I wasn’t introduced to asked where Firat lived. I told him. “That’s good,” he said.
“I’m not sure if it’s good or bad,” I said. “And I told the crazy brother I’d take him outside.”
“I understand,” he said. “That’s the easy part. Let’s just get you there first, the rest is in God’s hands.”
“He just needs to get a bit of fresh air, it won’t take long.”
“Come back once it gets dark, hocam. If there’s a way there, we’ll go together.”
So I was also going to put this man at risk to do the crazy? “You’re coming, too?” I asked, “I don’t want anything to go wrong . . .”
“Hocam, there’s no way you could go alone, I . . . ” he got quiet, downed the rest of his tea, and said, “Anyway, I’m going to bring some people who will be able to get you there.”
“I don’t want to make trouble . . . ”
“If you’re sure, if you’ve decided,” he said, “it’s our job to help you out. We know you, you’re a friend . . . doesn’t matter whose brother it is, he’s our friend, our brother.”
“Thank you,” I said, and felt a pang of fear. There’s no joking with these guys . . . there was a chance we’d die en route for the sake of Firat. Oh, my crazy kirve, if I don’t make it to you tonight, you’ll never look on my face again, and I know it like I know my own name. I’m not sure how much more you can wither, before you wither away. His voice on the phone that morning had been heartrending.
“Come on, Kemal,” he had said. “I beg of you, come, take me outside, they’ve thrown me somewhere and I can’t find myself. Come save me.”
When I went back to the teahouse, Cihan and the man I wasn’t introduced to were waiting for me.
“So you’re decided, hocam,” said Cihan.
“A friend’s request is the most important of commands, haven’t I taught you this?”
“I’m sure you taught us, teacher, but, it’s also likely that we weren’t listening.”
“Oh, you better watch out . . . ”
Our joking around did nothing to cause the man to stir. And why should it? We both knew very well what could happen to me. He was probably wondering whether it was me or Firat who was crazier.
“Ah, so you wore dark colors, good,” said the man. I resisted the urge to say, “Eh, I’ve understood at least that much.” I nodded my head and slightly opened up my hands at my sides.
Cihan stayed behind and we entered the street. A little later a car stopped in front of us and we got in. The man in the front, me in the back. The driver and I nodded a greeting to each other through the rearview mirror, without saying a word. We dove into the side streets—I thought I knew this city like the palm of my hand, but in the dark we wound around so much that I lost my bearings. I couldn’t tell if we were going somewhere or just passing the same streets. Single lights glowed in houses, no one outside. It seemed the curfew was in effect here, too. When we came to a place I didn’t recognize and the car stopped, we got out.
“We’ll wait a bit,” said the man, and looked at his watch. He rolled a cigarette and offered it to me. I didn’t take it, and he smoked it tucked inside of his palm. I wondered what was going through his head. Not a line on his face gave any hint. From afar, two boys seemed to appear. But in the dark I couldn’t be sure if they were there or if they weren’t until they were a few steps in front of us. The kids and the man talked about something on the other side of the car—three, perhaps four sentences. As the man got in the car, he gently raised up his right hand to say good-bye and I responded in kind.
After waiting for a while without saying a word, the shorter of the boys said, “Come on, hocam,” and we started to walk. What we were waiting for, I didn’t understand. I started feeling cold—“from fear,” I said to myself, it’s not as though the temperature had dropped all of a sudden. Beyond the soft sound of our footsteps and my own breathing in and out, all was silence. And just when I started thinking that I could even hear the sweat dripping down my back, first in droplets, and then in a crackling ripping sound, a flood of gunshots broke out. I had thought I was inured to the sound of guns, but I was scared to death. I looked into the face of the taller one with fear. He smiled. “Right on time,” he said. With his smile I realized it was our soldiers making these sounds to distract the police and divert them; I smiled too. Our pace quickened. As we passed into a narrow street between two houses, the door to one of the houses opened, and we fell inside. A man with a skullcap, who I assumed was the owner of the house, showed us toward a wooden staircase. One after another we climbed it and emerged on the roof. “From here on out it’s rooftop to rooftop, hocam,” whispered the boy next to me. As we walked hunched down across the rooftops, I wondered who was doing what below. I thought I would be able to tell from the smells, but other than the smell of fear overflowing inside me, there was nothing. After a while we jumped down and landed in the garden of a dilapidated house, and we waited for a while. “Aren’t roofs dangerous?” I whispered. “Snipers?”
“Not all of them are, but from this point forward, you’re right.”
We jumped over another garden wall, and then another. The story came to my mind of the man who returned home by swimming through all of the pools in his neighborhood. As I was trying to remember the author of the story, we dove inside the darkness of a door that I hadn’t noticed at first, since it was the same color as the walls of the row of houses nestled cheek by jowl. With quick steps, we passed by children crouched in a corner. We entered a few more houses like this—they were either full of people or completely empty, no one there. We jumped through the holes in the walls of some, the back windows of others. Ha, there you go—exercise, I said, And you feel bad because you haven’t done it for years. Tomorrow my whole body will be sore, I thought. Well, let me just live first, I said to myself, and was surprised at the thought. It wasn’t cold-bloodedness, exactly, it was something else—having gotten this far, it was the impossibility of return. The gunshots were closer now. As we passed through one of the gardens we came upon, I tripped on a pan and it rolled around with a clatter. The kid in front of me said, “Don’t worry, hocam. Keep going, but be more careful.” I don’t know if that family’s daily rations for the day ahead were in it or if it was empty; I didn’t turn to look. I had turned bright red from fear, from shame, from excitement. As we climbed that garden’s wall, I realized that my left leg was trembling from top to bottom. My breathing had also quickened—it would have been good to cough, but I didn’t want to. I somehow cleared my throat silently by starting to swallow. When the kids in front stopped, I did too. I took deep breaths. Who knows what my pulse would have registered.
“Have we crossed to safety?” I asked.
“A while ago,” said the short one. A bird chirped. I had recently read in the newspaper that even cats and dogs had deserted this neighborhood; I guess they hadn’t released the birds. While waiting for it to chirp again so I could figure out what kind of bird it was, the boy at my side chirped and I understood: the birds, too, had gone.
The tall one whispered, “It’s the fourth house on the street with the mosque, right?” I nodded. The moment I remembered the street we entered—we’d made it goddammit!—we started to walk with our backs to the walls. And, just as we arrived at Firat’s, the door opened and we dove inside.
“I knew it!” said Firat, and he threw his arms around my neck in joy. I found his mother Fatma’s eyes framed by her white scarf, shining at the edges.
“Did you travel comfortably, my dear?” she said as I kissed her hand.
“Eh, you know. Thanks to friends.” There was another kid waiting at their house too. Apparently we had taken a dozen or so people away from their normal lives for this. I felt both bad about this, and also—I can’t lie—a bit proud. Then, of course, I felt ashamed for feeling proud. Human beings are strange, very strange—they can’t control their feelings, and they can only barely hide them from themselves, along with shame, all jumbled up somewhere inside. This is the best we can do.
Fatma Ana asked if we were hungry, as if she were certain of it.
“We’re not, ana, thank you,” said the short one. “We’ll just take them and be off in a moment.”
“Are you sure?” she said. “You’re going to go out?” She turned to her son, and said, “Look son, Kemal has just arrived, just take a seat and I’ll fix you a nice meal, and you’ll sit here and chat, just let it all out, huh? How’s that?”
“We’re going out, Mom,” said Firat. He had livened up, couldn’t stand still. The last time I visited he hadn’t even had the energy to reach for a glass of water right next to him.
“I guess that’s how it is, ana,” I said. Upon arriving safely, the smell of fear on my skin had diminished. I looked at the boys with gratitude. They had put their lives in danger for two crazies. One of them the brother of a rat, the other a coward like no other.
We filtered out onto the street again.
“Kemal, we’re outside,” said Firat. I put my index finger to my lips to quiet him. Like an obedient child he squeezed his lips shut tight.
“Hocam,” said the tall boy. “The roof of the house just up there is a shelter, chat with your friend there, but don’t make much noise. Oh, and if you hear gunshots, go inside right away, OK? Don’t mess around. We’ll come and get you in a half an hour.”
Outside was outside—what more could we ask for? Firat wasn’t in a position to object, and he was looking at me with a smile he couldn’t suppress. He nodded a few times. Even if we turned back home at that moment, I could tell that even this would have been enough; yet I felt bold enough to stay.
“OK,” I said, without taking the least offense at receiving orders from a kid half my age.
On the roof we sat with our backs against a low wall, crouched down like two birds with broken wings. I thought of an old film—two friends, one of them a little crazy, sit on a roof dressed like pigeons. As I tried to remember the rest of the film, Firat patted my knee, smiling and saying how happy he was that I had come; how nice, how magnificent, it was to be outside. I patted his knee, too. It was the deepest conversation I’ve ever had with my friend of thirty years. I realized I hadn’t looked at the sky once on the way here—there was no telling what might descend from there—but now it was full of stars. One of them skipped and shot across the sky. It wasn’t a flare, I was sure of that; we had memorized a city’s worth of these things. I made a wish just like children do. And to make sure it came true I added a vow—just let it come true, and I won’t go inside for days, we won’t. We’ll wander all of the streets of the city one by one, me and Firat.
"Şehrin Bütün Sokaklarını" © Behçet Çelik. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Abby Comstock-Gay. All rights reserved.
Hellbent on avenging his brother's death, a preteen Turkish nationalist plots to kill his upstairs neighbor.
My brother became a martyr for this country when he was twenty years old. He went and stepped on a landmine in Çukurca so that all of you could stroll down the well-lit, wide city boulevards. I was seven then. On the day of the funeral they put a handsome commando uniform on me, one with a blue beret. They said the terrorists would win if I cried, so I held it in, I didn’t cry once. I stood up straight as the procession passed in front of me carrying my brother, I snapped a soldier salute to the coffin draped in moon and star. At that moment everybody looked at me, some even moved to embrace me and started to cry, as if I were the martyr in the coffin. I got pretty pissed off at this. “Stop crying,” I yelled. When I yelled like that all the cameras turned to me, and that night I was the top story in all the main news reports. The next day, the papers ran “A Soldier’s Salute from a Martyr’s Brother” as their headline. “Boy shouts ‘Stop crying,’ strikes true blow against terrorism!”
All of a sudden I’d become famous. But I didn’t let it go to my head, I handled the fame well despite my young age. Even though I loved my brother deeply, I buried my pain inside me for years, didn’t show it to anyone. Thinking maybe they’d forgotten me, I called up the main news agencies a couple times and told them that even though two-three-five years had passed I still hadn’t cried. One of the men who worked in the news center said, “Good for you, son, keep it up.” I asked for the big names, Uğur Dündar, Ali Kırca, but they didn’t put me through. No one did a story on the dry-eyed stoicism I displayed, the psychological blows I dealt terrorism for five years—they just looked the other way. Corrupt sons of bitches.
Then it happened. One of the terrorists who killed my brother moved in upstairs. You couldn’t tell where his hair ended and his beard began—after all, the animal was used to living in the mountains. Whenever he went up the stairs I would watch from the peephole, press my ear against the door, and listen to his footsteps. At night I would use a wrench to hit the heating pipes that went upstairs to make scary noises. Finally I couldn’t stand it, I went to our family’s shop.
“Let’s kill him, Dad,” I said. “Let’s avenge my brother.”
My father said, “Don’t worry, Allah will give him his.”
“But he won’t. If you aren’t going to kill him, let me do it. Turkish pride and principles demand this.”
“Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Give me your gun, I’ll kill him. I’m twelve years old, I won’t have to do a lot of time, I’ll be out before you know it.”
“And I’ll break your little legs!”
“Remember how at my brother’s funeral you said ‘Take me too, commander, I’ll go fight.’ Remember how you rocked me in your arms and said ‘I have one more son, let me give him for this country as well.’ Now is the time to fight, Dad! Come on! Why do you look so scared? Or are you one of those bogus nationalists who go on a two-day crusade after every martyr’s funeral?”
He couldn’t answer me. I wrote him off completely. I went to my mother. I asked for my father’s gun, she wouldn’t give it to me. I went to the local Hearth, said that I wanted to see the chairman of the province. The boss stood up to greet me, he likes me a lot, in fact every year he replaced the commando uniform he’d first given me with a new one. Right away he ordered a Tang for me. I explained the situation.
“All right, Nurettin,” he said. “Don’t you worry. I’ll tell our boys, they’ll see to it. If it’s like you say, we won’t put up with him here.”
The boss, bless him, had the terrorist beaten up immediately. From the window I saw him entering the apartment, he was having trouble walking, they’d handed his ass to him. He couldn’t leave the house for a week. But it wasn’t enough. It won’t ever be enough, just beating him. I waited two weeks, there were no further operations, the terrorist healed, began to stroll down the streets again. I went to the Hearth again, “Mister Chairman, I want you to carry out the promises you gave me,” I said. “The blood-thirsty baby-killing bastard is still living upstairs from us.”
The boss said, “I hear you, Nurettin, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“The kid’s a student. He’s not up to anything.”
“What, so we’re going to wait until he gets up to something?”
“He can’t. Don’t worry, he can’t do a thing. We scared him good.”
“But why, boss, why?! If the man’s a terrorist let’s put a bullet in his head, give me a gun and I’ll do him in.”
“We laid our weapons to rest, Nurettin. We don’t get our hands dirty any more, things aren’t like they used to be.”
“What the hell are you talking about, boss?” I said. “Just last year you mowed them down because of the bid on the parking lot behind the stadium.”
The boss’s hands shook with anger. He was just about to slap me when he got hold of himself.
“Go, Nurettin, just go,” he said. “Don’t get on my nerves!”
“I’m not going.”
“Nurettin, get out of here!”
“I’m not leaving, boss.”
Two or three men took me by the arm, they roughed me up all the way to the door, saying "How dare you speak to the chairman like that."
“I’m a martyr’s brother, you bastards,” I shouted. “I’m more of a nationalist than all of you put together.”
The boss came out of the room and pulled the men off me.
“Idiots, did I tell you to hit him?” he asked.
“But boss,” they whined, but the boss didn’t listen, just slapped them all. But he still had anger to vent, he aimed a kick at one of them, threw his prayer beads at another one’s head. Like I said, the boss likes me a lot. But because of the political circumstances there was nothing he could do.
It had come down to me. I put the terrorist under surveillance, I would try to render him inoperative using my own capabilities. I would strike him in his lair. I searched for the gun we had at home, but my mother had hidden it well, maybe even destroyed it, perhaps because she’d seen how determined I was. I turned every cupboard inside out but I still couldn’t find it. As a result, though, I did find my mother’s savings, her gold bracelets. Right away I sold them for cash at the jeweler’s. I went to the store that sold hunting goods, I was going to buy a shotgun. The man wouldn’t sell it. He listed off a ton of things: I had to get permission, I had to fill out the form, I had to be over eighteen, on and on, the blood was pounding in my brain, the man and I were at each other’s throats, he threw me out of his store. Fine then, I figured I’d at least get back the bracelets. The bastard jeweler wouldn’t give me back what he paid for them, he cheated me out of a bracelet. That evening as I headed back home, still furious, I picked up a decent-sized rock from the ground and threw it at the terrorist’s window—bull’s-eye, the glass came down in a crash. I stationed myself at the garden wall of the opposite apartment. The terrorist came to the window, looked around, then went back in.
This window-breaking incident kept me calm for two or three days, but after that I started getting really pissed off. These men martyred my brother and all I can do is break some windows. There was an outrageous injustice in this. I was ashamed to look at my brother’s picture on the wall. I was ashamed to reread the letters he had written while in the army, letters I’d read hundreds of times afterward. I had to come up with a different plan.
I decided to stab him. I sharpened my commando knife. But wouldn’t it be dangerous, this knifing business, what if he pulls out a gun? Let him try, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s suicide to pull a gun on a Turk. I took my knife and headed out, then turned back at his front door. I banged my fists against my head, what was I even doing? I had to be somewhat logical, I couldn’t let him shoot me down like a partridge, two martyrs from the same family, they would be dancing with joy then. I came up with a strategic plan. I would make it look like a neighborly visit and go into his home, then catch him off guard, hit him over the head with a blunt object and knock him out, then while he was out I would jump on top of him and cut his throat. I put my knife in my back pocket and headed out. Just as I was about to knock at the door, I went back home again, took some cake from the kitchen and put it on a plate. Then I headed up and knocked at the door. A weight had settled in my stomach, my heart was thudding and thumping. I couldn’t stand the excitement, I ran away. Battle psychology, you know. By the time the door opened I was already one floor down.
“Who’s there?” asked a girl’s voice.
Where’d this girl come from?
“It’s me,” I said.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the downstairs neighbor’s son. My mom made a cake, I thought I’d bring it up.”
I climbed the stairs. She took the plate. “Thank you, it’s very thoughtful of you,” she said. She was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in my life, her breasts had filled out, she was drop-dead gorgeous.
“Come in if you want,” she said. “We’re watching a movie.”
Since she’d said "we," she was in league with the terrorist. What a shame, she was the greenest-eyed girl I’d seen in my life, but the color of her eyes was instantly gone from my mind. What movie were they watching, I wondered? What else would it be, it’s an intra-organizational instructional film. They were going to trick me into joining them. Why else would they invite me in?
“Well?” she said.
“Come in, if you’re going to, or else I’ll just close the door. We’re not going to stand here like this all night, are we?”
I went in.
The terrorist called out “Who’s there?” from inside.
“The son of the downstairs neighbor, hon!”
The terrorist extended his hand and said “Hello," gave me a leer. “I’m Semih.”
It’s a code name, hon, no one will buy it. I’ve been combating terrorism since I was seven years old, I’ve seen so many things in my time. I shook his hand, “I’m Nurettin,” I said. I didn’t let go of the hand in my grasp, looking straight into his eyes. “My real name, of course.”
He laughed. He was trying to seem charming.
“We’re at the best part of the movie. Let’s finish this and then we’ll chat,” he said. He sat down in his place and unpaused the film. I glanced at the movie, romantic French cinema, not even close to organizational material, they’d probably changed it when I came in.
The beautiful girl asked, “What do you want to drink?”
I looked around, they were drinking beer.
“Beer,” I said. “Don’t look at me like that, I’ve drunk plenty before.” The girl went into the kitchen. The terrorist code-named Semih was a laid-back guy, he didn’t even look at me when I said beer, like he was going to brainwash me so easily. He hadn’t even fixed the windowpane.
It was a lie, of course, the bit about me drinking beer before, but I’d decided to do as they did to avoid suspicion. Fifteen minutes later the film ended. By now the girl had pretty much wrapped herself around Semih, they were enjoying themselves. Terrorism is a very comfortable line of work: a beer in one hand, a lady in the other, a movie in the VCR, the bastard was having a ball. When the film finished, the terrorist ate the cake. He still wasn’t full, he ordered pita for all of us from the kebab restaurant. The organization was giving him the money, of course, that’s why he was so generous. While our commandos are eating snakes in the mountains, these guys have pita and kebab every day, they’re living the high life. I was waiting for the girl to leave so I could carry out my plan, but she just wasn’t going. They called somewhere, asked someone to sign in for her. I couldn’t understand what the signature was for. I couldn’t dwell on it either, I decided to kill them both immediately. After all, the girl had said "we." Still, at the last minute I would probably get all sentimental and not be able to kill her. First of all she really was incredibly beautiful, looking around like a wounded wolf, just like the blue she-wolf Börteçine who watched over the ancient Turks. If eyes are the window to the soul, my job was a very difficult one indeed. Second, I wasn’t entirely sure she was a terrorist, there was a chance she was an innocent citizen. I asked about their political views.
They laughed. They didn’t have the guts to say they were terrorists. They asked me the same question. I didn’t laugh, I gave them an icy glare: “I am a Turkish Nationalist,” I said. “I have nothing to hide. Take pride if you’re a Turk, take orders if you aren’t!” The time had come for them to feel my breath on their necks. I could’ve taken on both of them, too. But I’d gotten too lightheaded from the damn beer. Maybe this wasn’t the right time after all.
“Well, I should get going,” I said.
Semih said, “Come over again sometime, Nurettin.”
“Oh, I’ll come,” I said. “Without warning, in the middle of the night.”
They laughed again.
I started going upstairs every day. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get up the courage to do it. Our Semih had tons of friends. They would sit around all day. Their conversations were good. Of course, because I was with them, they couldn’t talk about the operations they would carry out. Sometimes a couple of them would withdraw to the kitchen and speak in whispers. Right away I’d go join them and they’d hush up. Two of them were total terrorists, certified Kurds. What’s more, they were proud of this. A person should at least try to hide it, I know if I were a Kurd I wouldn’t tell anyone, I’d try to sort out that problem by myself. But these guys didn’t have an ounce of shame, they would speak Kurdish and plot separatism at such a decibel that everyone in the house could hear them. I kept up a respectful attitude in spite of these provocations, I repeated my line many times: “Come! Let us be one flag, one nation, one heart.” They didn’t listen. At last I couldn’t stand it, I hauled those two in front of me, “Who do you think you are, claiming you’re a different nation when even the American Indians have accepted being Turkish these days, it’s uncalled for,” I said. They laughed. “You can’t destroy the foundation of the one great state,” I shouted. “If it’s failing, then go carve it up! Not such an easy job, is it!”
“This kid’s a total fascist,” said one of the Kurds. “Lil Fasho,” said another. From that day onward the name stuck. Lil Fasho wherever I went. They’d given me a code name just like the ones they gave themselves.
It was yet another day of Kurds planning separatism in their mother tongue. I was completely fed up with it. After they left, I started searching inside the house for a blunt object. This time I was going to kill Semih for sure, his old girlfriend wasn’t there either, we’d been left alone, the opportunity I’d awaited for months had fallen at my feet. I found an iron in the back room. Semih was busy reading photocopied notes for some ridiculous class called Financial Statement Analysis, it was midterm week apparently. I approached silently from behind, I would bring it down over his head with a thud, show him the one true statement, the glorious Turk’s analysis. I was about to strike when he turned around. The jackal! It was like he had eyes in the back of his head. Of course he’d had some guerilla training, he wasn’t a sitting duck.
“What are you doing with that iron?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, and put the iron down. Suddenly, “Tell me the truth,” I said. “Are you a terrorist?”
He laughed again.
“Stop laughing, answer like a man for once, grow a pair for two minutes and show your true colors. If you’re a terrorist, brother, then say you’re a terrorist.”
“But you have Kurdish friends.”
“Yeah, I do, what of it?”
“Bastard,” I said.
He rose to his feet, “What the hell are you trying to say?”
I cornered him.
“My brother died because of you,” I said. “You all killed him!”
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
“My brother was your age when he died. There was one month left until his discharge. They didn’t even show us his corpse, he’d been blown to bits.”
“I didn’t know, Nurettin. I’m so sorry.”
We were silent for ten minutes.
“Whose side are you on?” I said.
“I’m on the side of peace.”
My blood was boiling, rushing down from my brain. “Fuck whatever peace that is, man,” I yelled. “Like I’m going to make peace with my brother’s killers! I’d rather blow my brains out!”
“But there’s no end to this war.”
“That’s fine! What’s it to you? You couldn’t be happier. People are off fighting in the mountains while you just sit here! Lazy son of a bitch! You didn’t even study for class until it got to midterm week. You have a girlfriend, you cuddle and lie around, you make out forty times a day, you even have her answer the door. At night she sneaks out of the dorm and stays with you, her friends sign in for her. I called the head of the dorm and complained already.”
He took hold of me by the collar.
“That was you, the one who reported her? You little bastard! Screw you!”
I grabbed the handle of the mop.
“I’m gonna kill you, punk!” I screamed. “I’ll haul you in as a corpse!”
He pulled the handle out of my hand and landed a punch on my jaw. I hadn’t brought the knife with me that day, I cursed, got up and left. I stormed downstairs to the house, shaking with rage. I said to my mother, “Quick, give me the gun.” She wouldn’t. I flung a glass over her head, it shattered on the wall. She covered her mouth with the corner of her headscarf and started to cry. I let her have it.
“You were the one who told me! Some suspicious man moved in upstairs, he’s definitely a terrorist, you said.”
“How should I know, honey, that’s what I thought when I saw him all hairy and bearded. And the neighbors had told me already. What do I know, he’s just a student.”
“Student schmudent, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to take him out. Quick, give me the gun.”
“I’m not giving it to you.”
“What kind of martyr’s mother are you! You went and fainted at my brother’s funeral, the terrorists had a field day because of you. Shame on you!”
I wrote my mother off as well. I went and sat by the sea until dawn, watching the waves. I sang that song that goes, "The Black Sea would have trembled when it saw the Turkish flag." Even though the sea was the Marmara, it could still evoke grand emotions. My eyes filled up, I was nearly about to cry for the first time in five years. I took a quick look around, no one was there. But I bit my fist, I held myself back. Allah forbid the terrorists take my picture with their satellite cameras, then immediately start a propaganda campaign: "So this was the boy who never cried, you said?" You’re the best of them all Nurettin, I said, don’t cry son, hang in there.
After quarreling with Semih, my life lost its meaning. The days started to stretch out like chewing gum. No murder plans, no shouting matches, no cold war atmosphere. Loneliness is a terrible thing, I almost even missed the Kurds. I couldn’t stand it, I went and rang his door. I looked at him blank-faced. He embraced me.
“I missed you, smartass,” he said. “Come in, Lil Fasho.”
So that’s how we made up, I couldn’t say anything, I just went inside, the bastard had the luck of the devil. He’d roped me in with beer, with European cinema, with his wide circle of friends, with his foxy girlfriend. What kind of country was this, I only had one friend to talk to and he was one of the damn terrorists.
One day I was making pasta in the kitchen. The entire world was in the house. An unusual seriousness had descended upon the group. There was a two-hour debate, “Should we do it or shouldn’t we?”
“What could we do in this tiny place?” Semih said. “No one would come.”
“We’ll do it,” I called out from within as I stirred the pasta. “Don’t worry.”
The Kurds said to Semih, “That little Fasho is more of a man than you are.” Semih got pissed off, “All right, man, let’s do it,” he said. “But don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”
I’d blurted out that we’ll do it but I didn’t know what it was. I went into the living room and asked, “What are we doing?”
“What’s November 6?”
They laughed again. I’d gotten used to them laughing at me by now, I laughed too. On the 6th of November I went over to Semih’s.
“What are we doing, Semih?” I said.
“Protest. You stay at home.”
“No, I’m coming too.”
“A terrorist protest.”
“What do you take me for, a child? They’re students. There’s a difference between the two.”
“You weren’t saying that in the beginning.”
“You’re a nationalist, aren’t you?”
"Don’t doubt it,” I said. “I’m a full-blooded Turk and a nationalist of our glorious nation.”
“Don’t come, then.”
"Your Turkish pride and principles demand this, Nurettin.”
“I’m going to come.”
“I’m coming, brother, Allah Allah. At the end of the day, it’s my circle of friends too, I know your whole crew. Besides, you guys just love using children on the front lines.”
We went. The first protest in our city against the Council of Higher Education. It took place with the participation of twenty-six students, two Kurds, one Turkish nationalist, sixty riot police, twenty private security guards, and backup forces of shopkeepers ready to step in at any moment. When the police encircled the group and started to fire their canisters of tear gas, everyone’s eyes filled with tears.
I went to the front. “You don’t need to fire tear gas at us,” I said. “My friends are already sufficiently emotional.”
One of the policemen raised his club. At me, no less! I flew into a deadly rage, yelling, “I’ll take that club and shove it where the sun don’t shine, just watch me. I’m the brother of a martyr! Who the hell are you, raising a club at me!” The policeman was taken aback for a moment, he stopped dead in his tracks with the club. Two or three more policemen came from behind, started beating me without giving me the chance to speak. Not one of them would let me explain myself. Semih grabbed me by the arm and covered me with his body, he was the one who took most of the blows. After the beating I complained to my uncle’s son about the guys who had worked us over. My uncle’s son, a Riot Police Squad official, looked at me as if trying to recognize me, and when he did, asked, “What are you doing here, Nurettin?”
“Nothing. I came to look after my friends. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell my father.”
They rounded up all the students, left me behind.
My father slapped me twice as soon as he walked in the door that evening. This was the first time he had raised his hand against me in five years, apparently my uncle’s son had told him what happened. My father looked at my brother’s picture on the wall and started to cry, “I won’t give you my blessing if you go upstairs again after this,” he said. “If you won’t think of us, think of him.”
Once again I was all alone. For fifteen days I was able to stand it, then while my father was at the shop I went back upstairs. Semih was packing up his things, there were boxes everywhere. “What’s going on?” I said. They’d suspended him from school for six months. He was going back to his hometown so he wouldn’t have to pay rent for nothing. He would come again next year.
“Why are these things lying around, you aren’t going to take them?”
“I can’t take them with me. I’m going to give this stuff away to friends. You should have a look, too, take what you like. I can leave you the films if you want.”
“Nah,” I said. “I’ve seen them all already.” I saw the iron in one of the boxes. “Why don’t you give me that iron,” I said.
I picked up the iron. I approached him from behind. He turned.
“What are you going to do with that iron?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
My eyes had filled with tears, I couldn’t hold myself back any more.
"Call when you get back,” I said. “We know some real estate agents, we’ll help you out every way we can.”
He looked at me for a long, long time. He took me by the shoulders and gave me a shake.
“What’s up, Nurettin? You didn’t used to be the emotional type.”
“I wasn’t, but this just really upsets me. I’m going to be so bored when you go. I’ll be left all by myself again like a lone wolf. The days will spit in my face.”
I just couldn’t seem to control myself. He hugged me tightly. “Cry then,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”
“Yeah, but if I cry, Semih,” I said, “won’t that just please the people who did this to you?”
“To hell with them, brother,” he said. “Who gives a damn . . . ”
© 2009 Emrah Serbes. Translation © 2017 by Abigail Bowman. All rights reserved.
Bring joy and good tidings to the people, do not repulse them,
Pave the way and do not make the road unduly arduous.
—The Prophet Muhammad
My grandmother held a place in my heart that was all her own. We had a special, secret language. My memory of her is fragmented and it is only now, as the pieces shift into place, that I see they form a whole. They come swarming into my brain, flitting through me. She was my Kadriye Nene, my raven. Of course, by the time I came to know her, my Nene’s hair had been gray for many years, but in the photos taken with my grandfather, her hair and her eyes gleamed, black as the bird itself.
I never knew my grandfather, Tahsin. He died two years before I was born, at an age that few would consider old. It was a heart attack. His sudden passing destroyed Kadriye Nene. She could no longer bear to live in that house where the memories pressed in on her. She moved in with us and helped raise me.
Even many years later, whenever conversation at family gatherings turned to the topic of my grandfather, her eyes would fill with tears. I sensed in her words a gratitude greater than her love for him. “My dear Tahsin never had a bad word to say about me,” she would say. “I hope he rests in peace.”
At this point, my uncle would interrupt, “No one has a bad word to say about you, Ana, do they?”
“Alhamdullilah,” would be her flustered reply, “No, thank God.”
She was a pious, prayerful woman. She prayed for her loved ones with sincerity and true reverence for God. On our street, everyone knew that Kadriye Nene’s prayers were always answered. Friends and family would come to ask her to pray for their wishes to come true. She spent the nights of Kandil and Kadir in prayer. She couldn’t bear to see loved ones separated. Catching wind of such partings, she would offer up a prayer to Allah, “Let them be safely reunited.”
Her voice was clear as crystal. In the evenings, we would switch off the television and ask her to sing for us. Kadriye Nene would sing beautiful ballads and folksongs. She did not refuse our requests but I never heard a single note from Erzurum or the East escape her lips. One evening, I wanted to insist, but my mother silenced me with a wave of her hand. “You know that I would do anything for you, my boy,” said my Nene after a painful pause. “Please don’t ask me to sing those songs,” she said. “Erzurum is a wound I carry inside me.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask why.
My grandmother and grandfather came from Erzurum. She was an orphan. My grandfather’s uncle had taken her in, a little girl with nothing and no one. Nene married my grandfather and came to Istanbul aged seventeen. She never spoke of her mother and father. She thought of her adopted parents as her family and spoke of them often. I decided to talk to my mother about it. “Have you never wondered about your grandparents? Don’t you want to know?” “No, it would only upset her,” she replied, eyes fixed on the washing-up. “She never knew her real parents. What else is there to ask?” My mother ran a clean jar under the water a second time.
When I was little, one of my great pleasures was to settle myself in a corner of the living room on the days when my grandmother would host her friends for tea. If I could be quiet and patient, and slip past the hordes of teyzes who descended on me crying “Ah, my little Pasha! Haven’t you grown?” I could eat as many kurabiye as I liked. They were such happy days. Curled up in the corner listening to the neighbors’ chatter, I would soon drift off to sleep. But one day, I couldn’t swallow a single bite. The usual chitchat and shrill laughter had given way to tense, suffocating silence. There was no question of falling asleep now. I stared at them in confusion.
One moment, everything was just as it should have been. There was laughter all around and plenty of biscuits. One of the women went to reach for her bag. It was far away, so she gestured to the woman next to her. The woman grabbed hold of the bag, hoisted it up, struggling a little, and passed it to its owner, saying “What on earth have you got in here? It’s heavier than a Christian’s corpse!”
The sound left the room all at once with a precision that seemed finely tuned. It was out of this paralyzing silence that the knife came flying, bright blade gleaming, and plunged into my Nene’s heart. I saw the knife, I heard the hiss as it slit the air. My grandmother leaped up and pressed her hands to her chest. I was quite sure that if she showed me her palms, they would be thick with blood. And yet, when her arms at last fell to her sides, there was no blood to be seen. “If you’ll excuse me . . . ” she said in a single sharp breath. Turning her back on the women’s glances, she withdrew into her room. “Let me get you some more tea,” said my mother and headed for the kitchen with the tea glasses rattling in their tray.
“Shame on you, Selma!” chided the eldest of the women, Hüsniye. “That was so stupid of you! How could you say such a thing in front of Kadriye?” Selma turned bright red. “I didn’t mean to, Hüsniye! It’s a saying, it just slipped out!” Hüsniye was about to continue when she realized that I was still in the room, gazing at them with wide eyes. She stopped. The women resumed their chatter all at once like soldiers receiving a secret command.
On the evening of that day, I saw Kadriye Nene with her head on my mother’s shoulder, crying. Their words had caused her to shrink into herself and now this mighty woman was crying on her daughter’s shoulder like a little child. Listening through a crack in the door, I heard my mother speak. “Your heart is so tender, Ana. Don’t torture yourself for the sake of one woman’s ignorance. Remember when I was little and my friends and I were playing outside making noise, remember how angry you got when one of the neighbors called me a convert’s child? Remember what you said? 'Wait till I come over there, I’ll turn you inside out!' That woman was so frightened she jumped right back from the window! You taught me how to be strong that day, Ana.” A wicked smile spread over my Nene’s face. I tiptoed off to my bedroom to the sound of them giggling together. Before I fell asleep, I imagined myself searching the dictionary, wiping away every word that hurt my Kadriye Nene. I didn’t know what the words meant, or why they so upset my Nene. None of that mattered. If they hurt her then they had to be destroyed. I pointed my water pistol at the pages. The water squirted out and the ink ran, leaving spotless, clean pages. Clean, white pages.
Despite the dreams of my childhood world, the things that upset my Nene went far beyond the confines of a dictionary. On one occasion when I was six or seven, we had gone out to the shops. She held my hand tightly as usual. Plastic bags rustled in our free hands. Nene had proved herself to be my most faithful listener and I was busy telling her all about one of my neverending adventures. At that moment, a deep boom sounded nearby. My grandmother froze. The plastic bag in her hand had fallen onto the ground but she gazed past it emptily, her eyes fixed elsewhere. I pulled away and picked the bag up off the ground, but she didn’t notice. I took her hand again—it was icy cold. Trying to understand what was wrong, I trained my eyes on the building that held her gaze. I couldn’t work out what it was. It wasn’t a house. It wasn’t a shop either. But Kadriye Nene was bewitched, she had forgotten all about me. She stared blankly as if it wasn’t a lifeless old building at all, but a group of friends she hadn’t seen for years. “Where are we, Anneanne?” I asked. When she heard my voice, she surfaced, as if from a dream, and looked at me and the bags in my hand. “Give them to me, my boy.” Taking the bags, she pulled me to her side and carried on. The world was as it had been. But I was still agitated. “What is this place, Anneanne?” I asked again. “It’s an Armenian church,” said Kadriye Nene quietly. “You know how we worship at the mosque? Well, they worship in churches.”
In another scene that is never far from my mind’s eye, I am a teenager studying at the lycée, huffing and puffing over a project on the revolution. My grandmother had helped me with my studies since primary school and would appear at my door, a glass of orange juice in her hand. “What are you working on, Hakan?” I looked at the title of the chapter: “The Armenian Question and the War with the Armenians.” Something told me I shouldn’t tell her. “It’s just history, Anneanne, it’s so boring!” I replied. It was at that moment that my meddling little sister decided to pipe up, “I can read it to you, Anneanne!” She snatched the book from me and began to read eagerly:
“As the Russians advanced in Eastern Anatolia in the early years of the First World War, the Armenians were presented with the opportunity for rebellion. Having made preparations before the war began, the Armenian gangs joined sides with the Russians. The first insurrection occurred in Zeytun (Süleymanlı) on 17 August 1914. The Armenian soldiers in Maraş took up their weapons and joined them, and began attacking Turkish villages, murdering their inhabitants. In April 1915, the rebelling Armenians in Van slaughtered the area’s Turkish population. In response to this, the Ottoman government made the decision that the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia would be made to migrate to Syria, which was not at threat of war at that time (The Law of Tehcir, 14 May 1915). The Armenians’ objective was to claim Kilikya (Çukurova), Maraş, Erzurum, Bitlis, Van, Harput and Diyarbakır and form a state of their own. The Armenians have not abandoned this aim to this day. In their drive to realize this, they continue to support acts of terrorism which threaten the unity of our country.”
While my sister read, I sat with my head on my chest. I couldn’t bring myself to meet my Nene’s gaze, no doubt filled with tears. My little sister had been so stupid. But moments later, I was startled to hear Elvan ask, “Why are you laughing, Anneanne?” She was right; a smile had spread across my Nene’s face. It wasn’t a happy smile. It made me think of the Mona Lisa, a smile of resignation in the face of suffering. “Is that what they’ve been writing?” she asked. She gazed past us, speaking to another, invisible, presence. “We had many Armenian neighbors in Erzurum. They were good, hard-working people. I never saw any hint of ‘terror’ in them then and I don’t see it in the Armenians we know now. Is that really what they’ve been writing?” She got up and went to her room, distracted.
Years later, when the days came when the television and the newspapers screamed with reports of “Armenian terror organizations,” my grandmother could no longer understand them. The doctors didn’t see any need to intervene. Still at home, Nene quietly set off on her long journey, free of suffering. In her final days, she often talked in her sleep, but I couldn’t understand a word she said. At first, I thought that there was no meaning in her murmuring, that she was confused, her tongue now struggling to form sounds, but when I listened a little more carefully, I noticed foreign words, a language which flowed like water and sounded like a song. There are some questions that are ready to be asked and some answers that are ready to be heard. That evening, I was ready. “Is Kadriye Nene speaking Armenian?” I asked my mother. She wasn’t surprised, nor did she hesitate in answering: “Yes.” “Did she ever tell you her story?” I asked. My mother stroked Nene’s hand lovingly, knowing she would soon be gone. “Only once. She spoke as if it hadn’t happened to her, as if she had only witnessed it. She told me about her relatives, orchards, crops, home-baked bread, how she would roll her mattress out freshly every night. Then the blood, all the blood, and the screaming, taking refuge with neighbors and leaving forever, knowing she would never go back.”
“What’s Kadriye Nene’s Armenian name, Anne?” I asked. A smile lit up my mother’s sweet face, her eyes filled with light. Quietly and carefully, she spoke it, like a secret password, saying clearly, “Garine. She is your Garine Yaya.” “Garine,” I repeated, looking at Nene; her body was with us but her soul was already far away. My mother spoke again: “In Armenian, Garine means Erzurum."
Two days later, Kadriye Nene died. After the midday namaz, she was taken from Şişli mosque to the family plot at Zincirlikuyu and buried next to her beloved husband. After the funeral, I went to the Armenian church where she had stood all those years ago, too afraid to go inside. I lit a large candle for my Garine Yaya, for her mother and father, her siblings and all the loved ones she lost, and I prayed for a long time. As I was making to leave, an old Armenian woman came into the church with a friend, speaking that same language that flowed like water. And her eyes. Her eyes were just like my Nene’s eyes. I smiled and greeted her with a nod. She acknowledged me politely and her beautiful smile brought out all her wrinkles.
Garine Yaya had seen me, her spirit had caressed me. I took a deep breath.
From Can Kırıkları. © 2002 by Karin Karakaşlı. Published 2002 by Doğan Kitap. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.
In Sine Ergün's playful short story, a young man discovers a secret that will be his undoing when a simple trip to the bathroom has unforeseen consequences.
I remember finding it odd that three people would choose to live together. We were at an age where everyone had a place of their own. They seemed like normal people. It was only with time that I realized that they weren’t normal at all.
Selen had none of the characteristics you expect in an average woman. She was cold, quiet, and not a particularly talkative person. She had no problems, or if she did she never mentioned them, but a look of discontent was plastered permanently across her face. We slept together for months and we talked. I still don’t think I know a thing about her.
Onur was even quieter than she was. He got up at the same time every morning, went out for a run, came home, made himself breakfast—an omelet and some milk—and went to work. When he came back—depending on his plan that day—he would play basketball or football, take a shower, shut himself in his room, and watch TV. I spent plenty of time in that house, but I hardly ever saw him get excited about anything. I suppose the only thing he got excited about was birds. With no concern for what we might be doing, he would knock stubbornly at the door, saying, Selen, come and look, they’re in the back garden. Selen would jump up and turn to the window, as excited as he was.
Like I say, they were strange people who seemed normal at first, but neither of them was as strange as İnanç. İnanç never left the house. At least, he never did when I was there. He stayed in a dark little room that might have served best as a closet. But I only rarely saw him in his room. He would doze off on the sofa in the living room or work at the table. He was always snacking on something, fixing the bike that I’d never seen him ride, as if the whole house was his, and, just like the others, he didn’t speak unless he had to. He was the oddest of the three. When I saw him, I would just stand there, wondering whether to say hello. And whether he acknowledged me or not, he clearly didn’t consider it worth the disruption to his day.
In time, I realized that their coldness was not reserved for me alone. They never said more than a few words to each other on any given day and this allowed them to act as if each of them lived separately. This set-up surprised me because I knew that they had become roommates after years of friendship; I thought perhaps they had already said everything they could possibly want to say to one another over the years. It was as if something linked them to each other aside from the connection I knew about. I even wondered whether the three of them might have been members of a cult or something like that.
Despite this strangeness, Selen and I had a tacit understanding. I had been trying to find someone to agree to such a set-up for some time. We slept together when it suited us both—at her house, not mine—and the chance of it turning into a relationship was smaller than the chance of one of us getting together with someone off the street. It was this easiness that brought me to her house so often, despite how odd I found her and her housemates. I never thought the situation would come to this.
I spent most of my time at the house in Selen’s room. It was the only place where you could smoke—and I had no intention of strengthening my bond with her housemates. We would meet up for a drink before going back to her place. Both of us were working away at our theses for the promotion to assistant professorship, so the conversation always turned to these, or to our experiences with the university; personal matters weren’t off the table, but we never felt the need to reveal too much.
We would go back to the house at midnight. As usual, İnanç would be on the sofa with his computer in his lap or hunched over it at the table. “Hi,” Selen would call from the hallway—as if forbidden from entering the living room—and something resembling a greeting would slip past İnanç’s lips. At first, I did the same, but in time I realized that it wasn’t necessary and headed straight for Selen’s bedroom along the long corridor. I realize now that in all the time I spent in that house, I never once went into the living room: one wall was covered with books, another had a long table on which stood a record player, a TV, and an old typewriter, and at the window there were flowers tended to, I presumed, by Onur.
Onur’s light was always on and he would only leave his room to go to the bathroom. If you excluded the three housemates, it was actually a pretty cozy home, quiet and nicely furnished. From Selen’s messy, disorganized room, I got the impression that she hadn’t had a hand in the rest of the house; I guessed Onur had an eye for these things.
That day wasn’t any different from the others. We went for a drink, came home, had sex. Afterward, I got dressed to go to the bathroom and left the room. The light was on in the bathroom opposite Selen’s room. I turned back. Selen? What? There’s someone in the bathroom, I said. İnanç has probably left the light on, she said, check the living room. If he’s in there, it must be empty. I checked the living room but İnanç wasn’t there. I came back. Nope, I said. Then he must be in the bathroom, she said.
I sat on the edge of the bed and waited, wondering what to do. Selen had forgotten about me and had put on her glasses and started reading. It was my lack of purpose at moments like these that always made me feel unnecessary in that house. My routine had been ruined. I would come to the house, have sex, go to the bathroom, and then go to sleep. The next day, we would wake up, leave the house, and go our separate ways like any other housemates. I opened the door a little; the bathroom light was still on. I really needed to pee. I walked around the room, not knowing what to do. How do three people cope with just one bathroom? I asked, annoyed. I don’t know, she said, we don’t tend to run into each other. And there are two bathrooms, anyway. I felt a sudden, hopeless urge to grab her by the throat. I had been squirming around for minutes and she hadn’t thought to tell me there was a second bathroom. Where is it? I asked, calmer. By the front door, she replied.
I left the room and went into the little bathroom; it was clear from the dust that it was never used. And then it happened: the thing that changed everything about me and my life forever. I was nailed to the spot. It shook the foundations of my beliefs, my ideas and my choices. I tried to force myself to leave the bathroom, but somehow my hand wouldn’t reach for the door. When I left the bathroom some time later—exactly how long I don’t know—everything had changed. By the time I got back to the room, Selen had been asleep for a while. I switched off the light and lay next to her. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened in the bathroom and somehow I couldn’t get to sleep.
At the university the next day, I made futile attempts to focus. I ended the class halfway through and went home early. I walked around aimlessly. Places I had never known opened up to me; I walked through gardens, noticing their beauty for the first time. Sounds reached my ears with perfect clarity. My ears tuned in to the peculiar secrets of the people I passed. I don’t know how long I walked for but when I got home it was dark.
For two people who aren’t in a relationship, the rules are much more fixed than for two people who are. I was seeing Selen twice a week at most; we arranged our rendezvous at the last minute and didn’t contact one another during the day. Did she or her housemates know about the secret of the bathroom? I was desperate to find out, but I didn’t know how to ask. There had been nothing unusual in the way Selen had mentioned the second bathroom. And so, I became convinced that the secret of the bathroom was known only to me. But I wanted to be able to go back to the bathroom straight away—to make sure I hadn’t imagined what I had felt there and to feel it again. So I rang Selen. Confused, she answered the phone. Shall we meet up tonight, I asked. OK, she replied, half-heartedly. I’ll come straight to yours, I said. OK, came her reluctant reply.
What happened next was the same as usual. The house, İnanç in the living room, the room, sex and then it was time to go to the bathroom. I promptly left the room. I made no pretense of going to the other bathroom, heading straight for my destination. I felt İnanç looking at me from the table in the living room and went into the bathroom. And there it was; I hadn’t made it up after all. I stood there. I didn’t turn on the light. I greeted the voices warmly as they swarmed into my brain; I became a part of them. I was ready to do whatever they told me; it would be good for me. I don’t know how long I spent in there, but when I went back to the room Selen had completely forgotten about me and had gone to sleep in the middle of the bed. I curled up in the corner and looked at the wall.
The days went on like this. We no longer met up outside and we had sex as briefly as possible. Instead of going to work in the mornings, I would go for long walks; the city never disappointed, it revealed to me its biggest secrets.
I don’t think we should see each other, said Selen on the phone one day. I begged her, coming out with a stream of lies about how I hadn’t loved her at first but did now, how this had to become a relationship, how we understood each other so well, and so on. I couldn’t imagine giving up the bathroom. OK, she said, either out of pity or genuine agreement, and so we embarked on a relationship, and I started coming to the house almost every day.
I could tell that this change was not popular with Onur and İnanç. It was so obvious, I’d have to be stupid not to. Onur’s breakfast hour clashed with ours so the kitchen became crowded and Onur would walk back and forth in front of us animatedly, like a nervous deer, trying to reclaim his dominion over the kitchen counter.
Selen seemed not to notice my absence when I was in the bathroom. The only person that concerned me was İnanç. His eyes followed me to the door every time.
We didn’t have sex that day and perhaps that was where I tripped up. Now that we were a couple, there was no need for us to have sex every day, I thought, so after reading in bed for a while, I went to the bathroom. A little while later I heard Selen say, Have you seen Doruk? No, said Onur. Her voice grew closer, Have you seen Doruk? He’s in the little bathroom, said İnanç, I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s in there now, he spends hours in there every night. Selen tapped twice on the door, Doruk? I didn’t make a sound, I wasn’t ready to leave yet, I needed more time. She tapped three times, Doruk? He’s not in there, said Selen, He is, said İnanç, I saw him go in. She knocked again, Are you in there? Perhaps I could come out, save the situation with some lie, but the voices held me back. They promised to explain the secrets of the whole universe to me if I just stayed a little longer. What’s going on? I could hear the sound of Onur’s footsteps coming along the corridor. Doruk’s in the bathroom but he won’t respond and the light’s off, said İnanç. İnanç persisted, his voice stubborn: I’m telling you, he’s in there! I could see the shadow of the three of them behind the door. I waited. Maybe they would leave. But it didn’t sound like it. Whatever they meant to say, it was lost on their lips. I opened the door, squeezed past them and put my shoes on. I opened the front door a crack. Slipping out, I heard Onur’s voice behind me: “I told you that guy was weird.”
©Sine Ergün. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.
Listen to That Deep Ocean, produced by Play for Voices.
"Do you hear anything? Do you see any changes in the water?"
I. Spring awakening
II. Into the fire
III. Abyss I
IV. Into the air
VI. The great flood
VII. Abyss II
VIII. Into the earth
IX. Abyss III
X. Return to Ithaca
Italicized text: male voice
Scenes 0, III, VII, IX should sound similar to each other, and markedly different to the other scenes, which should have an ordinary, everyday quality.
In the Epilogue, the different sounds should converge.
In live performance, the noises and fragments of conversation should be disorientating and whirling, created with surround sound.
[An alarm beeps intermittently.]
It’s time. It’s time now. The animal is choking its prey. A huge white squid, with eyes as deep as the abyss. Above him, the whirlwind. Smashing everything in its path, making little pieces of the world dance in its innards. Rocks, plants, rivers, cities, soldiers, trees, mountains, buildings, managers in suits and ties, mothers clinging to their young, grandfather’s cuckoo clock, the bra on the sofa.
It’s time. It’s time, she thinks. And opens her eyes.
[The beeping stops.]
I. SPRING AWAKENING
Seven thirty-three. Three minutes late. What’s that smell of smoke? The coffee’s not on.
Three minutes and twenty seconds. Three minutes and forty seconds.
The sheets. The sheets smell. Memories of a club. Which club?
Seven thirty-five. Five minutes late. Six, seven.
My hand reaches out to the side. No one there. Not even the residual heat of human or animal.
Seven forty-four. Exactly forty-four minutes and fifty seconds to leave the house.
They need changing, these sheets. Need to remember that. This week.
She gets up.
I get up. The floor is as cold as my boss’s stare. My feet, two lost children, search for their slippers.
She gets up. She really gets up.
How many meters to the fridge? An expedition to the East. Should I wear a hat?
She’d like to put a hat on.
I’d like to put a hat on. But it’s spring.
The light slants into the room, making an unusual pattern on the wall. One, two, three. I count my steps. Ten to the fridge, a hundred to the doorway, twelve thousand four hundred and fifteen to work. Every day.
She likes to count to infinity. When she was young, she used to count to infinity inside her parent’s wardrobe, hiding, until she fell asleep.
I open the window.
She opens the window.
The sun is a diffuse point beyond the tower blocks. I shield my eyes with my hands, so it doesn’t blind me.
Her mother taught her that beauty is harmful. Her mother, with her clever love.
Twelve floors down, a street of busy people. I lean out a little, reveling in this moment of risk, to feel the wind in my face. Cold. I like the cold. I like the cold so much.
She likes to say she likes the cold. But her body doesn’t agree.
I’d like to cry out, I’d like to cry out loud, but.
She crosses the room.
I cross the room. Seven fifty-five. My legs tangled in a complicated zigzag. Pretend something has changed. I need to pretend something has changed.
She pretends to be someone else. Every day, someone new, to infinity. The powerful mathematics of probability.
It’s spring, I think, it’s spring. I’d like to call my father.
If there were a father.
The bathroom is damp. I look in the mirror.
She looks in the mirror. The tiles behind her have strange black crusts. Like the glasses which frame her eyes, eyes of Turkish blue.
Eyes, the only precious gift.
Which she would have gladly given.
Eight o’clock. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.
She doesn’t have a shower, she decides not to have a shower. She puts on her makeup, she does her hair.
Cut your hair. Lose three kilos. Get your boobs done. Everything, everything.
She hurriedly grabs some clothes, to look most like whichever woman it is that she is.
To open a passage between me and the world. Between the world and the world I want.
Bag, wallet, keys. There’s no time for coffee. No time.
To open a tunnel, a channel, a tiny cycle path. To open something, open.
She hates arriving late. She’s the most punctual of employees. Only once her manager complained about her absentmindedness, and even then he was wrong.
Bag, wallet, keys. There’s no time for coffee. There’s no time.
He found out that there was a stamp missing on her card, but it wasn’t her, it was the girl at reception. Yes, that idiot with the short legs. Because she would never have done something so negligently, so childishly incautious, so grotesquely careless. She is someone who thinks, even if it doesn’t show. She’s someone who is, even if it doesn’t show. She’d someone who counts, even if it doesn’t show. She’s someone who. Even if.
Bag, wallet, keys. There’s no time.
She opens the door.
I open the door. The cold of the door handle makes me shiver.
She opens the door decisively.
Eight o’clock, oh Lord, eight o’clock. I’ll never make it.
She opens the door and leaves.
II. INTO THE FIRE
[City noises. Tap of a woman’s heels.]
Look at her moving ahead with a quick stride. She says hello to the porter, automatically, and crosses the building’s threshold. A gray suburban building, papered with swirling colors, like you might see in a kitsch street artist’s painting.
She moves like a missile, purposefully. She knows every step she has to make, the turns, the rises and falls, the holes in the crumbling pavement, constantly neglected by the council. She knows everything: the universe is under control. In her bag, the tools of every good third-millennium employee: a laptop and an iPhone. Along with this, a pair of Gucci glasses, bought in some out-of-the-way shop (Chinese perhaps, but they do the job), a small packet of crackers for her lunch break (you never know what time you’ll finish when you’re getting to the end of the financial year), a used and refolded tissue, a leather wallet, with a photo of her mother in pride of place, her hair dyed indigo and styled, for want of a better word, by the hospice nurse for her birthday, for the little party she hadn’t been able to go to.
She goes on, undaunted, as determined as a tank.
[The street noises come to the fore: horns, snatches of sentences from passersby in different languages, a beggar, a busker . . .]
The city is like a river: it doesn’t own anything, it goes on and on, gulping down everything its way: fish, plants, objects, mud, carcasses, rocks, and corpses indiscriminately, so perfectly democratic as to be the envy of the greatest parliaments.
They move together, she and the city, arm in arm. No matter whether they’re happy with this symbiotic relationship or not. In these cases the only thing you can do is look at the reality, and the reality is this: you need to work. And work is here, in these traffic-clogged streets, these dirty alleyways, in the smell of piss in the dark corners of the subway; and she embraces it, like a fisherman the water; like him, she casts her hook every morning, in the hope of taking home survival at the end of the day. Survival, yes, because you can’t take anything for granted; since the company canceled long-term contracts, in the dirtiest manner possible, slamming the door in the face of the unions; since the politicians didn’t raise a finger to stop the abuses of the market (although they threw up their hands in glee at the party conferences), since she quietly, and finally, abandoned the dream of living, and, consequently, the will to dream.
To live here or anywhere, to live, in any place, in any language, in any time—people say, every now and then, curled up in a ball in bed, in the depth of one of many sleepless nights—to live is just to breathe stale air; this same air, laden with carbon monoxide, which drenches her lungs, while she crosses the road, on the white lines, those floating pieces of wood which will take her to the other side, where she will go down the stairs—and, indeed, she does go down—into the bowels of the earth, like a badly planted seed, starved of the right nutrients.
[Sounds of underground trains. Fragments of everyday conversation.]
There’s a crowd of people waiting for the train, like puppies waiting to be fed. The little girl in front of her has a short school skirt on and her bra in plain view. Two fat, sweaty men leer to each other, making groping actions. She looks the other way, pretending nothing’s happening, grinding a piece of chewing gum to dust between her teeth. Right next to her, a woman with rich floaty hair and an oval face pretends to rummage through her bag while she counts the proceeds of her last fuck, throwing hostile glances around her. On a seat, farther down, a man in jacket and tie lets the remains of his marriage sparkle on his face like a hundred-carat jewel. On the floor, a gypsy with twisted legs like branches that have grown upside down spits cries of hate because a powdered old woman has given him a fiver instead of a tenner.
And she, she waits like a soldier at attention. Like a snared animal. Like a traffic light on red, waiting for green.
[Noises of the surroundings—a man begging—conversations in different languages.]
Her soul is an empty seashell; inside it rumble noises, smiles, breaths—remnants of the world around her, which grow suddenly and die. This city, this city speaks to her, in so many languages. But she, poor thing, tries hard and still mangles her English. She never finished the course at the British Council, which she’d struggled to pay for in the first place, because it was her turn to work overtime. She has no certificates, and now she can only wait for the train, lost in the crowd, like a crippled Cinderella; the train which doesn’t come, which persists in not coming, maybe because of a breakdown on the line, maybe because of a suicide, or simply because the State is so inefficient.
III. ABYSS I
A squid. A giant squid. Ten meters or more. I can’t see it very well in the dark. Pitch dark. Dark as death. Dark as the womb. Dark as the recesses of the soul.
— What am I doing here, two thousand meters deep?
— You tell me.
— A little walk? A holiday, maybe?
— Or are you lost?
— I don’t remember. How did I get here?
— The whirlpool of the world. The dumping-ground of all the dross.
— I fell here?
— Like a rock.
— And now?
— Where to?
— Up there, the whirlpool; down there, the abyss. You choose.
— What is this, a trick?
— Nature doesn’t play tricks.
— Then I’ll stay here.
— As long as . . .
— As long as?
— As long as I want. As long as I don’t want.
— You’ll eat me?
— How old are you?
— Old enough.
— For what?
— To grow moss?
— You’re putting words in my mouth.
— Don’t try to wake up, it’s no use.
— I was looking for a tissue. I’m going to.
— I feel like I’m wrapped in a cold hug.
— Do you want a coffee, tea?
— No, thanks. I’m fine like this. (Pause). Could you tell me something? How do you live without losing your mind?
— Do you often ask yourself that question?
— Every day, before I go to sleep.
— Put the hook in your mouth.
— I feel like I’m constantly hanging by a thread, but I’m afraid of falling.
— You’re no better than a plant, or a spider.
— Because who knows what’s underneath? Where you go to PARARE.
— It’s easier to cross the whirlpool with one constant thought.
— New shoes, a Caribbean holiday.
— And then it crosses you instead.
— With no way out?
— You can always go deeper.
— What time is it? I have to go.
— But when you crack—when you crack nothing is like it was before.
— I’ve got a budget to get signed off tomorrow morning.
— And you might, I say might, be able to say you’re free.
— I’m calling a taxi. Can I use your mobile?
IV. INTO THE AIR
Ten thousand four hundred and fourteen steps. Fifteen. Sixteen. I catch sight of the angular building above the crowd. The river of people runs toward the concrete mouth with the will of a flood. Twenty-five, thirty. When you’re raised up by ten centimeter heels, life is clearer. Forty, forty-five. Like an uprooted tree, my body dissolves into the urban landscape. A memory, a doubt, a rift. I go into reception. The girl with the twisted legs smiles at me stupidly. I give her a nasty, mirrorlike smile. Fifty, fifty-three. Lift hall. Five people waiting. Six, seven. Ding. I’m there. On solid ground again. A hundred meters high.
I cross the company’s threshold.
A few greetings rebound in the racket of the silence.
Bag on the table, coat on the back of my seat. My colleague at the next desk pretends not to see me. I ask if the boss is here yet—to make myself noticed, more than anything. Yes, but he’s in a meeting. Who with? With the Swedish client. I need to speak to him. It’s urgent. It can’t wait. The colleague dives into a pile of papers without turning a hair.
— Yes. No. Maybe.
— A thousand euros, two thousand, ten thousand.
My head hurts, I take an aspirin. Ten minutes to lunch. Five. Three. One.
I sit at a table at the back of the cafeteria, close to the window. The same one as for the last fifteen years. A bit away, in front of me, will sit Luisa, from Accounts, with her shrill voice and bobbed hair, and Giovanni, the marketing officer, with his shaved head and slight stammer. We’ll talk about the weather—too hot, too cold, too mild—about summer holidays, about his ex-wife, children, bills to pay, cuts at work, the managing director’s new lover, faint hopes of a raise, the latest political scandals, the best TV chat show. After which, I‘ll stand up with studied nonchalance, put my tray in the rack, and go back to work.
But no. Instead, I decide to make a change. I get up suddenly and sit in the third row on the right, in the middle of the room, next to the new customer service guy. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, and I think I see the corner of a smile. There’s pasta stuck to his teeth, mushy like a mollusk, the result of a careful assessment by the company nutritionist. I look straight at my ceramic plate, with its motto “Mens sana in corpore sano,” pretending to think. Now I’ll introduce myself. Now. Now. I’ll finish this mouthful and.
He gets up. Makes straight for the main entrance, which opens its glass wings as he approaches, as if by magic.
I finish my dessert. The taste of strawberry. The kiss and the promises of marriage. A moth in the big bag of memories. The expectation of a life shared.
A platinum blonde takes the empty place next to me.
I finish the rest of my seafood salad. Then back to work, more calls.
The world is a cordless telephone.
The “Architeuthis Dux,” better known as the giant squid, is a cephalopod mollusk of the invertebrate family. It has a cylindrical mantle over its head, which contains its internal organs. Also in the mantle, you’ll find a horny shell stretched into the shape of a spear, the gladius. The body has two fins that join to form a diamond shape and the head has two lateral eyes. It has ten limbs in total, with suckers: eight shorter ones, and two longer, with club-shaped tips. The animal’s motions are elegant and sinuous, characterized by the rhythmic movement of water entering and exiting the body. Giant squids have been identified at up to eighteen meters long. The biggest examples can reach a ton in weight. Like the cuttlefish, this animal uses an inky substance to hide itself, or to repel potential predators.
The giant squid has inhabited maritime mythology for centuries. It used to be believed that its embrace could drag even the greatest warship down to the abyss.
VI. THE GREAT FLOOD
[Voices, overlapping work conversations, like a busy day in the stock exchange.]
I look out the window. A drop of sweat runs lonely down my left cheek. I let it fall, I let it fall freely, until it reaches the soft cloth of my blouse, making a halo. The heat is so intense, so unusual for an ordinary spring day that it makes me think of a joke. Someone mutters a joke or other, as if it were possible to attribute an autonomous will to nature, in a type of silent film. The sky is decked with clouds, a flourish of images in constant change.
The marketing director crosses the room. Her left shoulder catches my right, but she goes on, her hips swaying, without looking back, without saying sorry. I focus my attention on her tight outfit for a fraction of a second, on her bony but muscular legs, her gym-fresh arms, on her complexion, drenched in fake tan.
Someone calls me. I turn around, almost scared, because I haven’t heard anyone say my name in weeks. Yes, I’m coming. Yes, yes. OK. The mole-like man’s head turns to embed itself in the papery intestines of his budget, his brief duty as a messenger completed. I’m coming, I said I’m coming. Just a few seconds to come up with something distinctive: a fuchsia-colored lipstick, a smell of Caribbean apples, a Marilyn Monroe hairdo. Anything, quickly. I rummage through the bowels of my bag with the careful haste of a field surgeon. A squirt of cologne, the only bulwark of my femininity.
I go into the room. The boss is puffy with worry. He settles his five foot three into a comfortable chair of South American leather, a reward for his thirty years of service. He doesn’t look me in the eyes. He takes out a newly printed wad of papers, concentrating, stopping to scribble on them every now and then. Two. Three. Five minutes. Seven minutes and thirty-four seconds’ wait. He’s seen me. Yes, he’s seen me. Has he seen me? He looked up, but.
Eight minutes. Eight and a. Nine and a.
Sorry? You told me to. No, you’re wrong. I mean, perhaps you mistook me for. No that’s me. The last desk on the right. Next to. Yes, that’s right. Sorry? No, me? Married? Why are you asking me that? No, no children. That’s the. You’re. You’re waiting. Me, no. I just. Of course, whatever you say. Of course, of course. Good-bye. Good-bye. See you later.
A thin veil of nonchalance slips over my head, while I throw a bouquet of relief high into the air.
I sit down without a thought. In my stomach, the seafood salad is turning nauseating cartwheels.
Outside, the sky growls oaths of vengeance against global warming. A second later, thousands of small raindrops gather agitatedly on the windowpane, like a crowd fleeing a disaster.
I open the budget to get back to my sums. Then, the roar.
VII. ABYSS II
The monster is only another way of saying “enough.” The monster is only another side of the coin. The monster is only a swinging keyring on a rearview mirror.
—You came back?
—I like this place.
—You’re home now.
—It’s dark. It’s cold.
—It’s all yours.
—An unapproachable hugeness.
—A whirling core.
—That we’re in the sea.
—You’ve never thought about it: what if we’re in a tank? A tank in a pizza restaurant, which only seems big because we’re so little, or just used to it? And this whirlpool above us is made by some cheap plastic gadget from a Chinese newsstand. And soon we’ll just be sprinkled over pasta.
—What’s so funny?
—Don’t you like knowing that it’s so easy to escape?
—I like your tentacles. I’m not scared of them.
—They’ve sunk many ships.
—And killed many men?
—Millions. Billions, ever since the world was the world and the water was the water.
—You’re a liar.
—Why are you trying to hurt me?
—I want to wake up.
—But you can’t.
—I’ll do it.
—And you’ll be back.
—It’s better to live in the cracks of time.
—Haven’t you seen? While men chatter, we creatures of the abyss have a lot to get on with.
—I don’t have to worry about what clothes to wear.
—You wouldn’t have much use for a wardrobe.
—Or a mirror.
—Or a wage.
—Can I ask you something?
—Are you married?
—Are you coming on to me?
—What a funny creature.
—Doesn’t it scare you to be the only conscious thing around here?
—I’m a tourist.
—You like traveling, then?
—I’m happy enough with Sunday documentaries. Hawaiian dancers, promotional films.
—And you leave the taste of salt to others.
—You’re annoying me. Tell me something: What’s under there?
—Do you want to see?
—It’s still uninhabited. I’m amazed the travel agents haven’t got there yet. They get everywhere else.
—It’s not on the map.
—Great, isn’t it? Forget about Riccione in the summertime.
—Don’t be trivial.
—There’s one thing I don’t understand.
—The lifejacket has sunk too, don’t bother looking for it.
—This vague impression of scattered waves, of uninterrupted thought.
—You can’t beat a swim to clear the mind.
—I can’t swim.
—Who are you trying to kid?
—You’ve got huge eyes.
—You think so?
—They’re the color of emptiness.
—You know, you’re starting to grow on me.
—These things happen.
—And what do you do when your breath runs out?
VIII. INTO THE EARTH
The smell of spring rain filled the room with life.
She was finishing her work with careful diligence. She was sifting through the documents, inputting the figures into the Excel spreadsheet, working out formulas, transcribing results, printing reports. Her face, already pale by nature, seemed even paler stroked by the late afternoon light. The department was beginning to empty. She put away a pen decisively. Her desk mate was talking to his wife on the phone under his breath. Washing powder, ham, olive oil: items for a detailed shopping list. She packed up, an involuntary part of his conversation, and she began to go over her own requirements. Eggs, rice, chicken. A little table for the kitchen, a new shower curtain, a newspaper rack. A holiday. A bigger flat. A car. A husband.
She looked at the time on her computer screen. The beautiful Caribbean beach stared back at her mockingly.
She decided to set off for home. Maybe she would stop by the market. Or her mother’s. Yes, her mother’s: it’s visiting time at the hospital. No, tomorrow, she’ll do it tomorrow because today she’s an empty shell. Because all she wants is to get home, have a shower, and throw herself in front of the TV with a packet of crisps, or an ice cream.
She arranges the pile of papers like a faithful testimony to her own efficiency. Layer upon layer, she erects her life’s totem. Before switching off her computer, she checks her mail one last time: supplier, supplier, financial report, supplier, marketing department, internal memo, supplier, Viagra. Her morning headache reappears at the corner of her forehead. Then, determined as a drill, her middle finger puts an end to her overtime.
Home, home. She wraps herself in her coat, smoothing her hair to check nothing’s left out of place. Universal judgment. Life rides at full gallop, even when you’re stationary. And there it is—marching on again: she slips in to the corridor, a lifeless gray strip like a hospital resuscitation room, she passes a series of identical desks, where human life carries on regardless, she crosses the lobby of coffee machines, that indispensable source of silent moments, to reach at last the lift, the great mother, which takes her into its belly like a suckling steel mother.
Twenty, ten, five, two, ground.
The marble floor receives her footsteps like a parcel with no proof of delivery. In echo of every heel click it gives a sharp shout, which rises to the ceiling, then loses itself in the rafters. She continues, without hesitation, straight to the next day, because all of this is just preparation for the next cycle. Her time is never the present, it’s already the promise of fate, the obvious fate, which she has studied from her desk.
Outside, the city prepares for night. The dark arm-wrestles with the glow of day, creating exquisite tones of gray, mixed with reds and yellows beyond the buildings. She sees nothing; sometimes she looks at her shoes, sometimes at the M of the metro signs; sometimes the surface of the pavement, sometimes at where she’s headed. She slips a hand into the side pocket of her jacket, to check she’s got her essentials: smartphone and house keys; her link with the world, and her link with herself.
She makes a brief stop at the old people’s home, without going out of her way, having a word with the nurse to get her mother to eat enough greens. When she asks “Would you like to speak to her?” she just says “I can’t now, I’ll call when I get home,” and she sets off. She lets the escalator carry her, a break from the hurrying, and closes her eyes. A green expanse, coconut water, the sea. An embarrassment of riches in the supermarket of the mind. How long can this break last? Who will be able to repair the breakdown? She opens her eyes in time to see the end of the escalator. The floor swallows the waves of metal greedily. She takes a bigger step than usual and reaches the solid ground. She crosses the granite expanse, carpeted with trash of various sorts. Crushed coke tins, fliers, lollipops, a used condom, half a sandwich, popular newspapers (“Girl Raped at McDonalds” —-to arrive safely at the platform. A tall, skinny woman in a swimming costume throws her an almost pornographic glance from an advert; some horny kid has drawn a penis in her mouth, for a laugh.
The scrolling electronic noticeboard announces that the train will arrive in five minutes. Waiting, she distances herself from the world, and the world from her.
In a quiet corner, a young man with dreadlocks and glassy eyes waves a beer bottle in the air—a drunk Medusa. Further on, a girl with a bald, unclothed doll—it looks like a rape victim—takes a painful smack from her mother and screams. An old man in a Red Bull T-shirt laughs cheerfully, thinking of his granddaughter; then he sneaks a look at the chest of the eighteen-year-old beside him, who is frenetically tapping out words on her mobile phone keypad.
The day is a boil, a blister, a mole on the immaculate skin of time. And she waits her five long minutes, counting to three hundred, like a Swiss clock.
IX. ABYSS III
—In my belly?
—In my belly.
—So why can’t I feel it?
—Why did you have to wheedle your way into my mind? I was fine on my own.
—I didn’t wheedle my way in. You came to find me.
—I fell into the whirlpool, it was an accident.
—If you prefer to tell yourself that.
—Straight down the middle. I didn’t touch the sides.
—It’s my mother’s fault I can’t swim.
—Still making excuses, at your age?
—Can you hear it now?
—The sound of the abyss
—A bit. Here, under by belly button.
—Can you see it?
—How is that possible? I’m going.
—I’m sick of this.
—Will you come back to me?
—Never again. It’s over.
—I thought you liked it.
—Look at the scenery. Where will you find another place like this?
—I’ve got to spray my plants, feed the cat.
—That’s a lie, you don’t have a cat.
—Why do I always feel like there’s just not enough time? Why does everything move so quickly? The first time I felt love, I was still a worm. I looked at the world from the sticky hole of my semi-childhood, like a happy caterpillar. Then I came into the world, and with every night I spent alone, I lost that feeling, which just made space for fear. And for hate: survival instinct, well taught in my family. Then I grew up, and grown-up love was just a vague memory of that first, blinding spark. I lived stunted, stunted and scarred with instincts which I’ll never understand and which I’ll always cling to totally. That is my destiny. My animal destiny.
—You’re very sweet.
—I’m very dry.
—I love you.
—Will you hold me?
X. RETURN TO ITHACA
[Crack of a woman’s heels.]
Walk, walk, walk. Three hundred and forty-seven paces to get home. Six, five, four.
She leaves the metro behind her. Like a ship out at sea, it becomes smaller and smaller, smaller and smaller.
Walk, walk, walk. I’ll be there soon, I’ll be there.
People are still busying through the streets: the kebab shop full of immigrants, the group of boys on their skateboards, the couple sat on the wall next to the laundrette, a hump of newspapers and rags which probably hides a tramp, the 24-hour phone center lined with international calling card offers in every language, a mother dragging a whining child by the arm, a stray dog on the hunt for food.
Walk, walk, walk. Undress, put my slippers on.
Night slowly takes the tiller.
Eat something quick. Noodles, frozen risotto.
The changing light of televisions flickers through apartment windows.
Throw herself on the sofa, take the remote control.
From above, the city looks like stardust.
A Place in the Sun, Channel 5.
Lower down, the silence melts into the hum of the nightclubs.
Call a friend. What friend?
And she, she continues her ordinary journey down her littered path.
Run a bath, make some tea.
A blot on the divine landscape.
Cross the road. Two hundred, three, two, one.
Even if she wanted to be on the cover.
Get there soon.
Like a stupid girl she doesn’t look where she’s going.
Get there in time.
She crosses the road like a deaf mole.
Get there in a hurry.
Without looking at the red light.
The taxi doesn’t stop in time.
Get there, get there.
In the windscreen, the cuddly toy grins, jigging round in circles.
Get there, still get there.
The body falls to the ground like a gymnast.
Finally get there
[The steps stop.]
Walk, walk, walk. Pace after pace after pace after pace I realize the. I realize the. That no. That I. That the story is.
In the sky there’s a flock of gulls, led astray by the glow of the buildings that line their route home.
It’s not mine. This universe isn’t mine.
She looks around herself, appalled. But deep down, she’s happy with this ending.
How long would I have waited? And for what?
The pain in her muscles turns to breeze and disperses in the night air.
And instead everything is calmer inside, like a holiday.
Her eyes, closed in a tearful smile, float like Ping-Pong balls in the tide.
In the streets, the human stain dissolves itself and the world is set back in motion.
And she, she is just
And she flows
Into the deep dark of the ocean.
For production credits, an interview with the author, and more information about Play for Voices, visit the Play for Voices website.
One of the founding members of the FARC, known as “Sergeant Pascuas,” recalls the origins of the guerrilla movement in the “independent republics,” areas in rural Colombia held by Marxist peasant guerrillas in the 1950s in the aftermath of La Violencia, which lasted from 1948 to 1958. Conservative politicians believed these areas needed to be brought into line with the rest of the country through military force. After an amnesty of 1953, figures such as Juan Cruz Varela, Fermín Charry Rincón ("Charro Negro"), and Manuel Maralunda Vélez ("Tirofijo") led resistance among peasant organizations. While some would later enter mainstream politics, many of these figures were pursued by the military. In this interview with Alfredo Molano, conducted in Havana, Cuba, Pascuas talks about the early days of the war, some fifty years ago.
Military authorities have accused Miguel Pascuas of over six hundred cases of armed assault, fourteen guerrilla takeovers, and five bombings in the Toribío municipality alone. This is in addition to other attacks, also in the Cauca department, which have resulted in the deaths of over eight hundred soldiers, including the attack on the El Tablón property in the town of Corinto on November 9, 2009, which resulted in eight soldiers killed, nine more wounded, and one missing officer. INTERPOL issued a Red Notice requesting to locate and provisionally arrest him, and the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $2.5 million “for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction” of Pascuas. After a bus loaded with fourteen pipe bombs exploded, devastating Toribío for the fifth time, on July 11, 2011, the Colombian government put a price on his head of nearly seven hundred thousand dollars.
“The Old Man has power because he’s a symbol,” says Colonel Maldonado of the Federal Police. “But he’s not part of the high command.”
AMB: Tell me, Miguel, about your childhood.
MP: We were in a town called Órganos, in the department of Huila. That’s where I went to school. When La Violencia came, the police showed up and took over our school as a barracks. We couldn’t study there anymore. Many people died. Once, the police took six prisoners in shackles to the confluence of the Gagual and San Luis rivers and shot them there in a puddle. Padre Monard—parish priest of Órganos and San Luis, though he wasn’t even Colombian—said that those who weren’t aligned with the Conservatives should leave the village immediately. Many people ignored him. He cooperated with the police. I would see him around, dressed like a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder. One day he left for San Luis, and since my mother cooked for him, he invited us to come along. That was when I met the Indian Quintín Lame, in the El Palmar village, which had a large indigenous community. He was proud and talked about fighting to take back the lands for the Indians. When the guerrillas—who were referred to as a mob—took the local police headquarters, the Army intervened and arrested the Indian Quintín along with two other country folks. Since my mother was preparing the food for Padre Monard, she had me deliver a few roasted potatoes to the prisoners, and that’s how I met him. He had long hair and smoked tobacco. The guerrillas took Órganos because of the death of those peasants, with nothing more than bombs and machetes, because they didn’t have any guns other than the ones Charro Negro and Marulanda carried. There was no school that day, and no more barracks. There were some good weapons in the parsonage, including an Italian rifle that belonged to the priest. I think they were the first quality weapons the guerrillas got their hands on. Then the outlaws attacked San Luis,1 but the priest wasn’t there either. If he had been, who knows where things would have ended. There was a lot of talk about what the guerrillas did: that Charro had gotten Martillo out of jail, that Llanero had liberated Piedra Negra, that Joselito had entered San Luis. And it was true: the outlaws organized to defend themselves against the armed Chulavites.2 The Liberals could only see things through that peephole. The only one who brought in new ideas was Major Lister, also known as Isauro Yosa, who said that we shouldn’t just fight for politics but also to change the country, and that we had to start with the land itself. He made contact with Loaiza’s men, who were already well established in Rioblanco. Together they confronted the Conservative Party administrations of Ospina, Laureano, and Urdaneta.
AMB: So as a boy, what did you work on? What did you do?
MP: First I worked on a coffee plantation picking beans, and later I was a mule driver’s assistant because I wasn’t strong enough to load up the mules myself. The actual mule drivers could toss a 150-pound sack of coffee over their shoulder with ease, and I could only manage half of that. But I was getting stronger and already by 1959 the National Front government began work on the road from San Luis to Aleluya and on the one from Carmen to Gaitania.3 The government offered peace, and the liberal guerrillas agreed to surrender their weapons, except for Marulanda and Charro Negro, who kept theirs. The government didn’t ask for them either. Manuel was a civilian guarding the construction sites along the road and carrying staff records. Somewhere between Gaitania and Neiva. I got to know him near Aipecito,4 before he became a road inspector. He was armed. I started working with him building storm drains, which, you know, were something of a luxury on that road, but I was already geared toward self-defense because we were surrounded by armed Conservatives like El Mico and Tres Espaldas. They stopped buses and killed Liberal riders. They would make a tie cut or a T-shirt cut, slice their throats and pull out their tongues, slash open their chests, or chop off their arms so they could never go back to work again. We needed the self-defense squads for our own protection; we held meetings every two months. Some guys worked in the fields and some worked on the roads. We kept watch and worked. We had no weapons. I was assigned to Lister.
Peace didn’t last long. They came after us. The government installed Mariachi in Planadas and Peligro in Herrera.5 Lleras Camargo (president of Colombia from 1958 to 1962) said that the Communists had to be dealt with, and that Mariachi and Peligro were set up against us. Charro stayed in Gaitania to work when Mariachi sent in his people, a couple of guys named Belalcázar and Puñalada. They said they wanted to meet with Charro, but then they killed him. Set his back on fire. We were working when Marulanda came out, armed and angry, and said, “Guys, we’re at war again. They killed Charro; Isaías Pardo, Rogelio, and Lister are next on the list. That’s all there is to it.” So we dropped our tools and picked up our rifles. Marulanda drove up and down the road from Carmen to collect weapons and with them he set up the first platoon of twenty men. In one fight we went up against two hundred soldiers. We came out of it with eighteen mules, some important supplies, and also five bolt-action rifles. Marulanda was given the rank of major. We had officially entered the fight.
AMB: What was your first fight like?
MP: My first fight took place somewhere between Gaitania and Planadas. Marulanda got sick there; it was bad, he looked really bad. The country folks brought him food and he had to wait a while until he was feeling strong enough to fight on the outskirts of Aipe, harassing the Army’s rear guard, waiting for his chance to enter Planadas, which he was finally able to do. Martín Camargo, from the Communist Party, had joined us for this fight, along with Guaraca, Tula, Rogelio, Isaís, and Joselo [all legendary members of the guerilla forces], who had been working on their farms in Marquetalia. There were around sixty of us in all. We slept in the trees because we didn’t have any plastic sheeting for making tents. There were no stores to buy any. At first we wore espadrilles, but before long we switched to fabric tennis shoes. They had to be shored up with wire to make them last a little longer. Same with our clothes. The holsters had to be mended, sometimes with untanned cowhide. The equipment consisted of haversacks woven from pita fibers and the uniforms and hats we used were either green or khaki. Some of us had to work to earn money to buy the clothes. We used the haversacks to carry blankets, bananas, yucca, carrots, salt, cane sugar, stitched cow leather, corn, arepas, beans, avocadoes, pineapples, and oranges. We had to load up on chili peppers to make up for the lack of meat, and we carried mills to grind corn for making arepas or cuchuco soup. There were times when all there was to eat was sugarcane juice. We could last up to eight consecutive days on that alone when no other food was available.
The strike on the army was a boon for us: we got an M1 rifle, a G3 rifle, a San Cristobál carbine, a few other .30 caliber rifles, some 7mm rifles we called perillas, some Austrian and Peruvian rifles, some M1 carbines, and a good amount of ammunition.
AMB: Were these still self-defense squads?
MP: No, by then we were mobilized. Marulanda was with us for a while before he went to Marquetalia. That was when he sent us to Lieutenant Isaías. We were moving this way and that, and then he left. Next came Lieutenant Rogelio, with more of the same. That’s how I met Guaraca, when he was a lieutenant. The commanding officers would change, but we were always mobile. We dealt with a lot of hardships because food was hard to come by, and we didn’t have boots or backpacks. We made friends with people regardless of whether they were Conservative or Liberal, rich or poor. If someone helped us, it was because they were a friend. We were preparing ourselves and accumulating gear, little by little. We were befriending more and more people, including those who were more well-off, who had ways of getting us money, and who had already been contributing so we could buy clothes, boots, and tarps. We were gaining respect. Marulanda was getting quite famous, and had earned the nickname of Tirofijo, "Sureshot."
There were only civilian families in Marquetalia, because we patrolled the outskirts. When the first incursions began in 1962, we attacked the army as it was arriving in San Miguel. The self-defense squads who were in operation grabbed their rifles and started running interference from Gaitania on up. The army was using the same old tactics, marching single file, making them easy to target. It was a shame picking them off like that, innocent as they were. They were forced to return to their barracks. The government lost men and weapons, and we won a moral victory.
AMB: Were you still an independent republic?
MP: That was around the time when then-Senator Álvaro Gómez ordered an end to the independent republics: Marquetalia, Riochiquito, El Pato, Guayabero, Sumapaz. He said that Sumapaz was a great if rather quiet movement, that Guayabero and El Pato were tiny movements, but that Marquetalia was indeed dangerous because we were very active. Then the government organized the invasion of ’64.
Jacobo Arenas and Hernando González arrived in April with the news that they were going to send in airplanes and thousands of soldiers to wipe us out, and that we had to get the families out of Marquetalia. It wasn’t easy but we did it, leaving ourselves with forty-eight men and four women.
On May 27, Guaracas, Rogelio, and Joselo opened fire on the army in La Suiza, along the river Atá. We, in Puerto Tolima, fought two hard battles to stop them. The soldiers couldn’t advance by land because whenever they popped up, they would be shot. Eventually they started flying them in on helicopters and dropped them right in the heart of Marquetalia. We were ready for them, and as soon as their boots hit the ground we mowed them down.
AMB: What happened after that first federal incursion into Marquetalia?
MP: We split up before reconvening near Símbula. Even though we knew the way, it was hard getting through the mountain passes in the cold. We passed Rionegro and went on to Riochiquito, which was under the command of Ciro Trujillo. There were fifty guerrillas there, and many Indians. Including ourselves, we numbered a hundred forty-five men. We knew that the army would enter the area sooner or later. There was a break from October or November of ’64 through March of ’65, when the first Conference of the Southern Bloc6 was held, and which was attended by commanders from Sumapaz, 26 de Septiembre, and El Pato. Ríchard, the man who had driven people from El Davis to Villarrica and from Villarrica to El Pato, had already died. Looking back, it was fairly close to the death of another dear comandante, Isaís Duarte, who was very much loved by Comrade Marulanda. He was in charge of distracting the army while the conference was going on, and it was during that mission that he died.
AMB: Tell me about taking the town of Inzá.
MP: The government ran a campaign on the radio and in the press saying that Marulanda was dead, that they found his body, that we were finished. Then we received orders to prepare for an operation. We spent eight days running drills, building up our strength, and getting ready for whatever the senior officers had in mind. Finally, one afternoon, we set out. And two days later, we were on the road connecting Inzá with Belalcázar. We set up our ambush, we took the town, and then we returned to the mountains.
AMB: What about the nuns?
MP: We didn’t know there was a squad of police officers on the bus, and when we stopped it, they opened fire on us. We returned fire, and the nuns were killed in the crossfire. We lost Hernando González in a different ambush. Such is war.
AMB: What happened after the taking of Riochiquito?
MP: After the bombings, the Army occupied Riochiquito while we split up. Jacobo and Joselo were assigned to the area around Aipe while Ciro and Arrañanales headed for Quindío to establish a front in Valle. We had to move with Marulanda through Bilbao, La Herrera, Planadas, and Chaparral. We almost didn’t make it. Comrade Manuel was wounded in one arm. The Army knew that he’d been wounded and ordered all their troops to follow us, supported by five hundredcops in civilian clothes. There was a 25,000-peso bounty on Marulanda’s head, which was a lot of money at the time, and 15,000 for each guerrilla. The army said, “We kicked them out of Marquetalia, we kicked them out of Riochiquito, and now we’re going to kick them out of those mountains.” And we went out . . . but to fight. We went out to fight, taking as few risks as possible: we changed our tactics, we were more mobile at night than we were during the day, and we hit fewer targets, though we hit them harder. The fighting was constant. That’s how it was, until we reached Natagaima and our friends in the party helped us along the Magdalena River. We crossed near Aipe and from there we went up past Dolores and Alpujarra to reach Galilea. Finally, they took us to Hoya de Palacio, where we arrived just in time for the second Conference of the Southern Bloc, which formally created the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC.
1. A city found in the Antioquia department in central Colombia.↩
2. Conservative police involved in the repression of Liberals during La Violencia. The name derives from Chulavita, the municipality in the department of Boyacá where many were recruited.↩
3. Both of these roads are cross-country routes. El Carmen is located in extreme northern Colombia, while Gaitania is found in the south.↩
4. Aipecito is a town some 370 kilometers to the south of Bogotá.↩
5. Planados and Herrera are towns in extreme southern Colombia.↩
6. During this conference they formally declared themselves a rebel group and took on the name “The Southern Bloc.” They called for land reform, better living conditions for rural Colombians, and vowed to defend rural communities from the federal government.↩
Excerpt from A lomo de mula © Alfredo Molano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.
The poetry of Vito Apushana is a composed of several intersections: between oral and written literatures, between Spanish and Quechua, between the Wayuu people and Colombian society at large. Here, we present his poetry in translation from the Spanish alongside the same poem in Quechua.
We are silent joy
- the toiling of ants-
- the leaping of rabbits-
We are placid sadness
- the curlew's gaze-
- the bat's dream-
We are life, this way
- the child in the aged-
- the face of the found horizon-
Waya wanee ko’uu müshii sümaa talataa
shi’ataain tü jeyuukoluirua
Waya wanee jimaa maatshii sümaa mojuu aa’in
Waya tü kataakaa o’u, müin yaa
tepichin sünain tü laülawaakaa-
nu’upunaa chi aitu’u antuushikai anain-
On the paths of our mothers' settlement
we hear a voice of distant places
that only the tranquil heart understands . . .
we encounter a gaze
that we will only see in dream . . .
and we feel a presence, of countless ancestors,
that prevents us from straying from the stone and dust
of this our path.
Waraitüshii waya shipialu’umüin tü weikaa
waapüin wanee anüikii wattaje’ewolu,
shia’alakalü ayaawatüin soo’u tia tü mejiwa’alaakalü aa’in..
Je wayaawataka süntapaain wattashaana salii wapüshi sümaiwajatü,
isakalü wachiki akajee wapütüin tü ipakaa je tü süpali’inkaa
© Vito Apushana. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.
Piedad Bonnett reads "Kitchen" ("Cocina") in the original Spanish.
Para Ma. Victoria.
Una cocina puede ser el mundo,
un desierto, un lugar para llorar.
Estábamos ahí: dos madres conversando en voz muy baja
como si hubiera niños durmiendo en las alcobas.
Pero no había nadie. Sólo la resonancia del silencio
donde alguna vez hubo música trepando las paredes.
Buscábamos palabras. Bebíamos el té
mirando el pozo amargo del pasado,
dos madres sobre el puente que las une
sosteniendo el vacío con sus manos.
For Ma. Victoria
A kitchen can be the world,
a desert, a place to weep.
We were there: two mothers talking in very low tones
as if there were children sleeping in the bedroom.
But no one was there. Only the resounding silence
where music once filled the room from wall to wall.
We searched for the words. We sipped our tea
looking down the bitter well of the past,
two mothers standing on the bridge that unites them
as they bear their emptiness in their hands.
Piedad Bonnett reads "After the Poetry Recital" ("Despues del recital de poesía") in the original Spanish.
Después del recital de poesía
A Juan Manuel Roca y Antonio Cisneros
Ha terminado el recital
en el descaecido teatro de provincia
vestido de oropeles como una tía anciana.
Salimos los poetas,
con paso lento, orondo, de poetas.
Y el hombre soñoliento de la primera fila,
las dos damas de blanco, perfumadas magnolias,
el maestro de lengua, los alumnos
que tomaban fiel nota, el indigente
que recita a Walt Whitman,
salen también hacia la recia luna.
A lo lejos se oyen
los entusiastas vítores al equipo de rugby
que arrasa a los locales.
Mientras llega el poeta que ha ido al mingitorio,
de las cuerdas de luz donde duermen los tordos
ha caído una gota amenazante.
Entonces, en medio de la noche desierta de metáforas,
un jovencito tímido, mirando hacia su azoro,
nos ofrece su mano.
Esto es raro por aquí. Y dice su dicha.
Movemos la cabeza, agradecemos,
lo miramos partir.
Un chico de provincia. La poesía.
Vamos hacia el hotel con paso lento,
con paso humilde, incierto, de poetas.
After the Poetry Recital
The recital has ended here,
at the languishing country theater
dressed in glitz like an old aunt.
We poets leave,
slowly, poetically, self-satisfied.
And the sleepy man in the front row,
and the two ladies in white, smelling of magnolias,
the professor of literature, the students
faithfully taking notes, and the homeless man
reciting Walt Whitman…
They also emerge in the powerful moonlight.
in the distance you hear
the excited cheers of rugby players
leveling the local team.
Meanwhile, the poet who had gone to the bathroom arrives,
and from the string of lights where the thrushes sleep,
a threatening drop has fallen.
Then, in the midst of a night bereft of metaphors,
a shy young man with a look of astonishment in his eyes
offers us his hand.
This is rare around here. And he expresses his happiness.
We nod our heads appreciatively
and watch him depart.
A country boy. The poetry.
We walk slowly back to the hotel,
humbly, poetically, uncertain.
© Piedad Bonnett. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2017 by Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.
The poetry of Fredy Chicangana straddles two languages: Spanish and Quechua. Here, we present his poetry in translation from the Spanish alongside the same poem in Quechua.
These songs to Mother Earth in a major key
are whispers that come from distant forests,
those furtive words that yearn to be a droplet in the human heart.
They're gentle tones, as if they were telling us:
"We come in silence along the moist paths of life,
the grass of hope greets us between night and its shadows,
our footsteps embrace the earth and the hail sings
amid the tree leaves.
We are the fire of stars come unstuck from the celestial sphere
announcing the new era,
here we are weaving the circle of the yellow butterfly,
sowing water in desert places,
in short, we are bird spirit
in wells of reverie."
SAMAY PISCCOK PPONCCOPI MUSCHCOYPA
Takicay pachamamak jatun rimaypi
chihuihuincay ima hamuy sachamanta
shimicay ttillayay ima maskay suttuycaypi sonccoruna
ahihuihuincay ñutu rimaina:
«Jaku nimapi ñanpura jukuna causaypa
quihuacuna suyanak ñoqa rimay tutapurakuna llanturi
ñukanchiyupi ucllanacay pachata takiruntupay
Ñukanchi ninapay coyllurmanta ima urmay ankas ananpachak
caypi muyupi pillpintumantak quellu
tukurita nunacay pisccomanta
HANDFUL OF EARTH
They gave me a handful of earth for me to live in.
"Take this, earthworm," they told me,
"there you'll plow, there you'll raise your children,
there you'll chew your blessed maize."
Then I took that handful of earth,
I surrounded it with stones so that the water
wouldn't wash it away from me,
I kept it in the bowl of my hand, I warmed it,
I caressed it and began to work it . . .
Every day I sang to that handful of earth;
then the ant came, the cricket, the bird of night,
the serpent of the outback,
and they wanted to help themselves to that handful of earth.
I removed the fence and gave to each their part.
I remained once more alone
with the bowl of my empty hand;
I then closed my hand, made a fist, and decided to fight
for that which others take from us.
Ñukapi chaskichiy hapttayshuk pachamanta chaypipak causay
Caycca pachak´uikamanta ñukapiñiy:
Chaypi llank´ay, chaypi camay cjullu-huahua,
chaypi cjamuy qan muchhascca sara
Chaypacha pallacuy hapttay chay pachamanta
quinchaykuna rumimanta mana yakuimapak
huaccaychay ppuyñu maki ñukamanta, kcoñichiykuna
huaylluyñukamanta callarinari llank’ayman…
Punchau-punchau takipayman chayta hapttay pachamanta
chaypacha hamuy añankukuna, chillikpay, pisccotutapay
munaypay yanapana hapttay chay pachamanta.
Quechuk quinchapay hucnin-cace ñoqaccoy kquitichayaqqe
Ñoka quepapuy yapamanta runalla
ppuyñu makihuan chusak
ñoka huiskcay makikuna, ruraypuyñukuna sinchicay maccanacuy
ima chay huc ñukanchi qquechuk.
© Fredy Chicangana. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.
Bubblegum and Baldy, lackeys for two fraternal gang leaders in gritty Medellín, forge a bond over salsa music and try to find themselves.
Baldy’s real name was Arcadio and no one ever knew Bubblegum’s. They were of different ages, races, backgrounds, and temperaments, but they were united by salsa: both were true fanatics and their conversations and even their lives revolved around it. I remember the day the song “Juanito Alimaña” was first played on Latina Stereo, a local salsa station, and it was a revelation: Bubblegum heard the lyrics and went into a trance, like he’d been transported to another dimension. He borrowed a cassette to put in the ancient tape player he kept in the bedroom where he’d lived since moving to the neighborhood at age seventeen. Then he tuned in to 100.9 and recorded everything they played to see if, maybe with luck, he could catch the song that had made such an impression. When the tape ran out on one side, he turned it over and continued recording. He spent all day flipping the tape over and recording on top of what he’d already recorded, until almost ten at night when the song he’d been waiting for finally played and he managed to record it in its entirety. From then on he listened to it every day from early in the morning to well into the night, he played it so many times that in fewer than two days all the neighbors knew it by heart. That was Bubblegum’s life, hanging out on the corner, listening to salsa, smoking marijuana, and dragging away the bodies of those killed on the block and the surrounding area, so that the police wouldn’t intrude on the epicenter of the gang’s turf to take them away. He was already older when I met him, as a kid he always looked the same to me, on the corner listening to salsa, never talking to anyone, because even though he was useful to the bosses for specific tasks, I never saw any of them talk to him, he just showed up to play his part as if it had been decided beforehand that that would be his only job. He got by on what the gangsters gave him for moving the bodies, and even though he was older than all of them, he never got involved in their business in any active way, he just did what he had to do to scrape by. Deep down I think the only thing that interested him in life was salsa, because at all other times he was like a shadow: you knew he was there but he never really stood out. In addition to being extremely quiet, he was very sloppy with his hygiene and appearance, and he regularly wore clothes that other people had thrown away. For this reason no one really wanted to be around him, and he didn’t seem to like being around them either. He would even go so far as to move to the opposite corner whenever the one he usually stood on became too crowded with gangsters. He’d watch them from the other side of the street as he listened to his music. That’s how he ended up making friends with Arcadio, who was the only one who shared Bubblegum’s sole obsession. From a young age, Arcadio had been alone in the world. His mother had left him and his older brother Ramiro in the care of their father to try her luck in Venezuela. They never heard from her again, and his father collected cans some days and he drank a good bit, so the boys pretty much raised themselves. They lived in a wooden shack on the outskirts of the neighborhood that fell down every so often, but they stayed on the block because the Riscos had gone to school with Ramiro, the eldest, and their mother, Doña Teresa, felt sorry for the two boys when she heard their story and she gave them food when she could, treating them like part of the family. That’s how Ramiro—who everyone called Baldy because he shaved his head—became one of the founders of the gang along with the Risco brothers, Reinaldo and Amado. But in one of his first big heists, Reinaldo was caught and in his desperation to get away he stabbed an officer to death. He was arrested for grand theft auto and aggravated murder and sentenced to thirty-five years in Valledupar, where it was practically impossible to visit him. After that, Arcadio was left all alone and out on the street and that’s why he became the Riscos’ favorite, because they felt responsible for the boy, and they gave him the same nickname as his imprisoned brother, in the diminutive form at first, Lil’ Baldy, but as he grew he became just Baldy. Despite the fact that he was accepted and loved by the Risco family and spent a lot of time at their house, he never officially lived with them. He was a street kid, and he’d never gone to school at all because no one had ever enrolled him or encouraged him to go, and he soon found himself wandering up and down the block running errands, washing cars, or scrounging up whatever loose change he could find to survive. It was around that time that he became friends with Bubblegum, because he was the only one who was out on the corner at all hours and because he was always listening to music, which Arcadio thought was pretty great; the songs awoke in him a happiness he’d never felt before, and the lyrics told the stories that he witnessed and experienced every day. In those songs he found the companionship that no one had ever been able to give him in real life, not even his brother, who, though he loved Arcadio a lot, was a cold, distant man who never expressed his feelings. This salsa-centered friendship was the union of two lonely souls who relied on song lyrics to convey what they’d never learned to say in their own words.
Salsa was the soundtrack to life in the neighborhood for a few decades straight, and though we all got into it and listened nonstop, what these two friends shared was true devotion. It all began by chance, when Arcadio heard the song “Melancholy” by the Orquestra Zodiac on the ancient radio that Bubblegum had on at all hours. I’m certain he spent more on batteries than on food. Arcadio asked him who was singing that song, which he thought was really cool, and Bubblegum, at first reluctant, just told him the name of the band and continued about his business. But the insistent boy then asked where the band was from, what the singer’s name was, the name of the song, and whether he had a recording of it. Bubblegum took a good look at the boy and saw that his interest was real so he began to tell him everything he knew about Zodiac and about salsa in general, and he felt something he’d never felt before in his life: he felt important. They had a long and easy conversation about songs and singers that even Bubblegum himself didn’t know he knew so much about, the boy’s interest growing and the man happily sharing the information he’d accumulated over years and years of carrying around his radio. From that moment they became fast friends, and they met up every day to listen to music, to share news and discover new tunes and new singers. Their lives were notably improved by this shared passion for music, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them gathering change to buy batteries or cassettes so they could record songs, or asking for packaging paper in the shops to write down lyrics. Soon they’d compiled an extensive catalog and a knowledge of the genre worthy of scholars. They shared stories they’d overheard, they got tangled in arguments that were impossible for neophytes to follow, like who had the best band, La Broadway or La Típica 73 or Johnny Colón. And that’s how they spent their days. Since Baldy had already started smoking marijuana and Bubblegum was a regular smoker, they spent their afternoons surrounded by music and curls of smoke, happily isolated from the increasingly hard life in the neighborhood, which slipped right under their noses without affecting them in the slightest. Lost in their music and marijuana-filled world, they seemed oblivious to the death that reigned over those lands, insulated as they were from the everyday problems and adversity by the melodies and tropical sounds that made them believe life was possible.
But just like the song says, “everything has its end . . .” and Arcadio, just like the rest of the boys on the block, was summoned by the Riscos to begin paying them back for the generosity they’d shown him in the past. This was in a period of regular killings of police and enemies, and much to his dismay Arcadio had to obey their orders because his commitment to the leaders of the gang hinged on more than just a desire for money and the respect of others. He was bound by gratitude, a sentiment as noble as it is inconvenient because it brings with it a debt that can never be fully repaid; the memory of the debt lingers forever and can only be erased by death. That’s why many men prefer isolation, as was later the case with Bubblegum. So Baldy became increasingly involved in crime and the business dealings on the corner and he had very little time for music, although he still listened to it all the time and wherever he was, no matter what he was doing. But fast-paced rhythms as background noise couldn’t compare to the sweet hours he’d sat with Bubblegum, rapt as they listened to songs and discussed the lyrics, hours where they might hear the same melody thirty times in a row until they’d learned it from start to finish, rewinding the tape with a pen so as not to waste batteries, music-filled hours where nothing else mattered. They could spend entire days speaking hardly at all, only to exclaim in the pause between songs things like, Man that Patato is a wiz with the congas! or Ismael Miranda can sing, the son of a bitch! To which the other would respond, Yeah but there’s no one like Maelo! And then they’d return to the mute state of the devoted listener until the audio was drowned out by some intruder who had come to share the latest gossip on the block. This annoyed them, but they didn’t directly run the intruder off, they made use of a secret and foolproof tactic: they’d start talking about salsa, about singers like Santiago Cerón and composers like Pedro Junco or Catalino “el Tite” Curet Alonso, figures who no one had ever heard of, until the intruders got bored and walked away, saying, What a drag, these fags with their boring songs all day and night, don't they ever get tired of that crap? And the two would once again find themselves alone, happy and content to listen to their music free of interruption. Without meaning to, they’d become an island inside the gang, and they liked it, because they were both lonely people who’d found in their friendship and in salsa the closest thing they’d ever had to a home. Later, they became partners in business as well: Arcadio killed on the Riscos’ orders and Bubblegum dragged the dead bodies away. They’d sing as they headed to work, one to kill and the other to move the body, like two coworkers on their way to any normal job, inseparable because fate had paired them together in the life of crime.
But in a life of crime things always go crooked no matter how straight one tries to stay. Bubblegum, who seemed to have no interest in life other than listening to music, soon became hooked on bazuco, and with his new addiction his few priorities shifted radically. Bazuco is probably the worst of all drugs because it requires constant consumption to avoid periods of depression and anxiety, more frequent in the regular user, creating an unrelenting desire for it at all costs so that the addict has to smoke nonstop. Their life becomes bazuco and they want more by any means possible, no matter what they have to do. And if we add to this that Bubblegum had no money or source of income besides moving dead bodies, we have a person in constant struggle, someone sailing against the wind, consumed by an insurmountable desperation, a need that went beyond all known limits. For him this addiction was particularly invasive, it led him to neglect everything in his life, which was already quite neglected, and it even drove him to abandon what he loved most, salsa, pawning his radio for five cosos, which is what they called hits of bazuco. Faced with his friend’s deep addiction to the drug, Arcadio scolded Bubblegum furiously, calling him useless and asking him how he could’ve possibly pawned his radio. But in the middle of the rant, he gave him a little portable radio with headphones that he’d bought for him. Bubblegum listened wearily to Baldy’s words, which seemed to come from very far away, exhausted, but in reality he was the exhausted one, and the bazuco gave him that feeling of calm so essential to survival, which he could no longer achieve any other way, not even through music. His life became one immense yearning, a constant need for drugs that he could only appease by smoking more, and this led him to begin asking for money from anyone he encountered. At first people would give him loose change, especially the gangsters who considered him one of their own, if inferior. But they soon tired of giving him money, it’s hard to put up with someone who’s constantly needy. They tried to get him back on track by offering him jobs and urging him to do what in the eyes of society was correct, to seek help, to go to the hospital, to exercise a little willpower. But advice is dust carried by the wind before it reaches the ears of an addict, who only wants to silence that internal voice that screams for another hit. Baldy was the only one who put up with Bubblegum and whenever he could he sponsored the man’s addiction in spite of himself: he always gave him a lecture, but he always ended up giving him enough to buy a few cosos. He even went without clothes and food for himself just to preserve the image of his friend, so that he wouldn’t have to see him scrounging for change like a beggar. The need for his preferred vice affected all areas of the body dragger’s life, to the point that he was no longer even able to practice his profession. One morning Crazyface was shot. He was a police informant who’d passed as a friend of the Riscos until they discovered who he was and ordered him killed. So Mario Vaca and John Darío pumped him full of bullets as he left the bakery at the end of the block, and there he lay waiting for Bubblegum to do his job, but Bubblegum never showed. He was in the vacant lot on the other side of the neighborhood making the most of some cosos mixed with brick dust, in the midst of the most colossal high. When he showed up on the block well into the night, everyone was glaring at him, and he didn’t understand why until Amado Risco grabbed him by the neck. Hurling punches and curses, Amado told Bubblegum he was a son-of-a-bitch crackhead, that he’d left them hanging with a body out in the open. The block had filled up with cops, Reinaldo was really fucking pissed off because he’d had to hide, and if Bubblegum missed work again he’d better not come back or Amado would kill him himself, even if he had to do it with his bare hands. Bubblegum, bruised and upset, slumped over on the opposite side of the street, where Arcadio went over to talk to him, What the fuck happened, man? Where were you? You really fucked up, just be thankful that crazy bastard didn’t kill you then and there. Don’t you see this fucking addiction has you so fucked you can’t even do what you have to do? Bubblegum’s response was muffled by tears, I was behind the school smoking, how could I know they were going to kill that son of a bitch today—and that fag, why’d he have to hit me, what is he, my dad, he’s not even the boss, that fag, wait till Reinaldo comes and I tell him. Arcadio interrupted, You know what, man? Better just leave it alone and let’s go get a drink. But Bubblegum insisted, No, no drink, no nothing, I’m not even thirsty, I’m mad and I want to smoke a hit. So they waited until the group of gangsters watching from the other side of the street thinned out and they went to buy some bazuco. Walking back to the corner, Arcadio said to him, Why don’t you put on some music? Where’s the radio I gave you? Bubblegum, smoking, said, Baldy, lil’ buddy, I had to sell it to buy myself something to eat. Furious, Baldy responded, Yeah right, something to eat, you son of a bitch, you smoked it up, faggot, that’s why you didn’t show up. Eat shit, you piece of shit fag, you have no self-respect, you don’t even like music anymore, and he took off angrily, leaving Bubblegum alone, shrouded in the toxic fumes and calmer as a result.
Baldy was livid over the disappearance of the radio he’d given Bubblegum and he stopped going to see him for several days. During this time the addict’s cravings reached such unimaginable depths that he was driven to petty theft. Unfortunately, due to his docile nature and total lack of imagination, he didn’t plan the heist very well, stealing no more than some change from Chela’s store. As she was elderly and considered Bubblegum one of the guys from the block, she let the incident pass without much fuss and she didn’t tell the bosses, only commented in passing to the other gangsters. One night when the younger guys were gathered outside her shop, smoking cigarettes and drinking sodas, she said, Oh, boys, at least you buy your things, not like that junkie Bubblegum. Just this week while I was in the kitchen frying up some food, he reached through the bars and he stole that jar I had full of coins and small bills. Then he took off running to go smoke that stuff he smokes. He thought I didn’t know but I saw him from that mirror I have in the dining room. The boys listened to her without saying a thing, most of all because among them was Arcadio, who shot them a look, daring them to open their mouths. But the rumor took to the wind and once gossip makes it out onto the street it can’t be stopped by anyone, true or not. Arcadio played dumb for about fifteen more minutes, said good-bye, and went straight to find his friend at the other end of the block, but he wasn’t in the usual spot. Arcadio waited until after midnight but Bubblegum never showed up, so he went to his shack to sleep, his head full of worry. The next day, when he got to the corner around noon, it was already too late, the news had spread and Bubblegum was still nowhere to be found. But who was there, surrounded by several big dudes, was Amado, who’d had it out for Bubblegum ever since the incident with the body. When he saw the gang leader, Arcadio felt a chill of foreboding, but he greeted Amado respectfully like always and heard him finish up his sentence with, Wait till he shows his face, the son of a bitch smokes everything down to his fingernails, but even that’s not enough, he has to show up all strung out, looking for someone to fuck over. Amado, whose defining trait was his limitless cruelty that required no motive, took Arcadio aside and without any kind of lead-up, handed down the sentence, Son, that son of a bitch friend of yours is a piece of shit, robbing old lady Chela for a bit of bazuco is as low as it goes, there’s no forgiving shit like that, we have to kill that piece of shit before he gets used to doing shit like that and he sends this neighborhood to shit. Arcadio tried to defend his friend, but Amado—who seemed to be enjoying the situation—stopped him, saying, Look, Lil’ Baldy, I’ve always respected you and everything you’ve done, not only because your brother’s my bro, but because you’ve known how to earn your place. But don’t even think about talking to me about that son of a bitch piece of trash, I don’t want there to be two dead bodies thanks to that piece of shit. So son, wait till that rat shows back up, take him on a fake job, and you kill him good and dead yourself, far from here, by those lots behind the school, I hear the dude spends all day there smoking hits. Arcadio felt the weight of the world come down upon his shoulders. Despite the fact that he already counted several dead by his hand, this was his friend, his brother, his only companion in the world. He went quiet then said, But, Don Amado, why do I have to do it? You know you have a ton of dudes who’d do the job for you and they wouldn’t have . . . Amado cut him off with a hate-filled glare, What’s the matter, fag? You can’t do it or what? I’m sending you to do it because I fucking feel like it and also because there’s no one to drag the bodies away anymore, and if I send someone else they’ll have to kill him here, because he’s not going to go anywhere with anyone, but he’ll go with you, and you can feed your questions to your fucking mother, you’re going to do it and that’s it, and if you don’t want to just say so, I can solve that real easy, son. Arcadio walked away with his head down as he thought how shitty this life was and wondering how he could save Bubblegum. He considered going to the lots to find him and tell him to get lost from the neighborhood, but he knew that if Amado found out he’d warned him, he’d be the one dead. Also, where would he get lost to, Bubblegum didn’t have anyone, he didn’t know how to do anything or want to do anything and telling him to leave the neighborhood would be like sending him out to live on the street, like a real beggar. Knowing that he was going to have to kill Bubblegum no matter how much he hated the idea, he went back to his shack early and in the darkness of his room he cried all night. Nothing in life was fair, nothing was worth it, ever since childhood everything had gone wrong for him. As soon as he cared about someone, he’d lose them, without fail; that seemed to be his curse. At three-thirty in the morning he went to his father’s room and searched around until he found a bottle of ethyl alcohol mixed with water that his old man kept hidden. Then he went to look for a cassette he’d recorded with Bubblegum that had the song “They’re Looking for You” by Hector Lavoe. He stuck it into an old tape player of his father’s that sounded terrible, lit a joint, and sat on his father’s bed to listen to the music, smoke, and drink until the sun came up, rewinding and repeating the song until the tape unwound and the whole recording was ruined. He didn’t want to look for another tape, so he tuned in to Latina Stereo and listened to what was on the radio, but in his mind he kept repeating the lyrics dedicated to the pianist Markolino Dimond: “they’re looking for you . . . I told you . . . that you had to watch out . . . I told you, fumanchu . . .”
When the sun came up, Arcadio went to his room, took out the sawed-off .32 his brother had left to him, showered, and went out to the corner. When he got there, he smoked another joint and decided he wouldn’t wait for Bubblegum to show up, he’d go kill him wherever he could find him, probably in the lot where he’d been staying for a while now. He knew that if he didn’t do it right away, just like that, he’d never be able to do it later, much less if he waited for him to show up and then tricked him into going on a job to kill him like a traitor. He thought he owed his friend that at least, to look him in the eye and tell him why he was killing him. He put out the joint and went to look for Bubblegum. He found him where he thought he would, pitiful to look at, lying on the ground, covered in grime and in the middle of a horrible bazuco high. All the junkies in the neighborhood gathered in that vacant lot to get high and kill time, they ate there—very little and badly—and the trash piled up, the place was a stinking dung heap, the air thick with reeking vapors and wisps of smoke to wade through. Baldy approached Bubblegum, who lay in a corner in a hazy trance, and said, What’s up, bro, how long have you been here? Bubblegum raised his head to respond with a gentle and toothless smile, Baldy, son, I don’t know. What sons of bitches sending you to take me to them so they can kill me. No, my friend, said Arcadio, I didn’t come to take you anywhere. So they sent you to kill me? Bubblegum asked. Yeah, buddy, answered Arcadio, and Bubblegum started crying as he said, Man, I don’t give a shit about dying, I’ll be better off, I’m not doing anything here, my life is pure shit, but what makes me so fucking sad is leaving you alone, you’ve been the best thing in this fucking shit life to me and I won’t ever see you again, I hope I can keep looking out for you from heaven, like in Raphy’s song “The White Cradle.” Arcadio, sobbing, answered, Hope so, brother, I loved you more than anyone in my life, more than my real brother, buddy. Bubblegum sat up and said to him, You know I will, I’m going to being looking out for you forever, my Lil’ Baldy, but we can’t let those sons of bitches win, you’re not going to kill me, I’m going to give myself the bullet myself and that’s it. Don’t even think about it, Arcadio told him. Yes, son, that’s the way it’s going to be, you’ll be my partner one last time, he shook his hand and then the two hugged tearfully, Bubblegum pulled away from the embrace and moved his hand to Baldy’s hip where he pulled out the gun. Without hesitating, he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Arcadio held him after the impact and Arcadio went on hugging him as the life drained out of him, until he was totally dead, and he kept hugging him for a long while still. Then he laid him down, gave him a kiss on his bloody forehead, and left the lot, singing in a low voice.
“I’m an oak, trunk of infernal strength / I stand the lashings of the cruel storm / But I can’t accept that absurd and foolish lie / that there is no feeling that can make a man cry. / Who are we fooling? Let’s abandon those tales / stuck into my heart / I carry the stab of your blade. Why shouldn’t I cry, sirs, if I am hurt.”
Back out on the street, he took a bus downtown and no one in the neighborhood ever heard from him again. He never returned, and to this day no one knows anything about him, or what he did with his life.
© Gilmer Mesa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Frances Riddle. All rights reserved.
Luck of the draw spares one young man while simultaneously condemning his friend to a tragic fate in this short story by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
Ernesto Wolf. In the class list our surnames were neighbors, because after mine there don’t tend to be too many surnames in Colombia (unless it’s a foreign one or some curiosity: Yáñez or Zapata, Yammara or Zúñiga). The day of the lottery that would or would not send us into the army, alphabetical order meant that I would pick before he did. In the burgundy-coloured velvet bag there were only two left, one blue and one red, where a little while before there had been almost fifty, the number of students who were eligible for military service that year. Picking the red ball would send me into the army; the other would send my friend. The system was very simple.
This took place in the Teatro Patria, a building attached to the Cavalry School, where now they show bad movies and where there used to be, once in a while, a comedy, the odd concert, a magic act. A magic act, yes, that’s what the lottery was like. All the boys in the final year of high school acted as the audience along with a few more or less supportive teachers; on stage, three actors: a lieutenant with plasterwork hair (maybe he was a lieutenant, but I’m not sure: I don’t really remember his shoulders or his lapel or his breast pocket, and anyway I’ve never been able to recognize ranks), a uniformed assistant and a volunteer who had gone up, unwillingly, to participate in the magic, to pick out the little ball that could deprive him of civilian life for a year. The assistant, smelling of mothballs, held up the bag of lottery balls. I put in my hand, pulled out the blue ball, and before I had time to think that I had condemned my friend, he had invaded the stage to embrace me and provoke the indignation of the officer and the complicity of the assistant, a wink from her blue-shadowed, generously-mascaraed eyelid.
The soldier, lieutenant, or whatever he was, took out his Kilométrico ballpoint and signed an ivory-colored, watermarked, and embossed paper, folded it in three, and handed it to me as if he were handing me a smelly rag, at the same time biting the plastic pen cap: the white, saliva-covered cap, glistening against a background of yellow teeth. Ernesto and the woman, meanwhile, were talking; he didn’t want to draw his red ball, since it was the last one and the procedure seemed superfluous to him, and there was no possible surprise for the audience, the mass of high school grads who shared the same idea of the entertainment: that the guy next to him would be recruited. But the woman and maybe her makeup convinced him to reach his hand in, to take out the ball—and convinced him of other things, too. The next day, at lunchtime, my telephone rang.
“What a body she had, bro,” Ernesto’s boggy voice said to me. “You couldn’t tell from the uniform.”
We saw each other afterward a couple of times and then seeing each other didn’t depend on us. Unscrupulously anxious, offensively meek, Ernesto Wolf joined the Ayacucho Company of the Tenth Brigade, in Tolemaida, at the end of August that same year. Ayacucho: the cacophony meant nothing to him, except a vague echo from primary school. Ernesto, grandson of a foreigner who was once accused of a lack of patriotism in a major newspaper, son of a father who had grown up not quite sure where he was from, although he had been baptized with a name from the calendar of saints, so as not to be out of place, didn’t know much about Ayacucho in particular or the wars of independence in general. I thought that friendship obliged me to give him a hand with his patriotism. I got up early one Sunday; I took a snapshot of the Monument of Heroes and took it to Tolemaida between the pages of the newspaper.
Two cacophonies and a disguised insult, all carved into the semiprecious stone of national independence: this I handed to Cadet Wolf. It was August, as I said, and the wind was already getting up, and on the patches of grass around the monument people had set up improvised lines and were selling kites, geometric tissue paper with bamboo skeletons that could never withstand the onslaught of a single gust of mountain wind. In Tolemaida, which wasn’t in the mountains but down in the tropical lowlands, there was no wind: in Tolemaida, the air didn’t move, didn’t seem to ever move. Lance Corporal Jaramillo would drape an old boa constrictor over their shoulders, and the length of time they had to carry it depended on the extent of their insubordination; Lance Corporal Jaramillo, as threat or dissuasion, told the company the only urban legend there was in that rural region, the dungeon of Cuatro Bolas, where an immense black man had his way with rebellious recruits in an unholy manner. For a year, Ernesto Wolf told more stories about Lance Corporal Jaramillo than he’d ever told about anyone ever. Lance Corporal Jaramillo was responsible for the immobility of the air, for the fevers, for the blisters the rifles gave them on their hands, during firing range exercises. He was responsible for the tears of the youngest cadets (there were some who were just fifteen, precocious high school graduates) hidden behind the storehouse or in the lavatories, and at night muffled by their pillows. Lance Corporal Jaramillo. I never knew his first name; I never saw him, but I came to hate him. On Sundays, on visits to the Escuela de Lanceros or at the Wolfs’ house in Bogotá, Ernesto sat—on the dry grass, if the visit was in Tolemaida; if it was in Bogotá, at the head of the table—and told stories; facing him, his parents and I ate and looked at each other and together we hated Lance Corporal Jaramillo. But now that I think about it, maybe I’m mistaken: Antonio, his father, was only present if the leave day was a Sunday, and he never set foot inside the Escuela de Lanceros, just as he’d never entered the Teatro Patria.
One of those Sundays, while we were waiting for the bus that brought Ernesto from Tolemaida when he got leave, stuck in a car with the windows rolled up tight (the dust, the noise of Puente Aranda), Antonio Wolf, who was growing fond of me by then, said out of the blue: “But you wouldn’t have wanted.” He said it like that, he said that strange seemingly incomplete phrase, gripping the steering wheel with those hands of an old boxer, of a Bavarian peasant, the hands that would never cease to look like those of a recent arrival, although it hadn’t been him but his father who’d been the immigrant. He said it without looking at me, because inside a car people tend not to look at each other. Like a fire or a cinema screen, a car’s windshield attracts the gaze, traps and dominates it.
“What?” I said.
“To go like that,” he said. “To go and waste time. Ernesto did want to go. And what for? To learn to swear stupid allegiances and shoot a rifle that he’s never going to use again in his life.”
I was eighteen years old then. I didn’t understand the words: I understood that Antonio Wolf, a man I had come to respect, was talking frankly to me and perhaps also respected me. But I hadn’t earned that respect, because it had been chance, not ideas or principles, that had been responsible for me not having to go into that damned place where they learn to swear stupid allegiances and shoot rifles they’d never use again, but where most of all they wasted time, our own time and our parents’ time as well, where life got snagged.
And there the Wolfs’ life got snagged. Sixteen days before finishing his military service, Ernesto died in the middle of some maneuvers I don’t know the name of. A pulley snapped, the rope Ernesto was suspended from fell into the ninety-foot drop between two mountains, Ernesto’s body smashed into the rocks at fifty miles an hour, and everyone agreed that he must already have been dead when he fell to the bottom of the valley, where there’s a little waterfall the teenagers of the region tend to use as a spot to lose their virginity. I could have gone to the funeral, but I didn’t. I made one call, found the Wolfs’ telephone line busy, and left it at that. I sent flowers and a note explaining that I was in Barranquilla, which was a lie, of course, and I remember the absurd difficulty I had in deciding between Barranquilla and Cali, which city would seem less unlikely or raise fewer doubts. I didn’t find out later if the Wolfs had believed me or if they’d recognized my rude lie: they never answered my note and I never went to see them after the accident. I began to study law, and by the middle of the degree I knew I’d never practice, because I’d written a book of short stories and in the process of doing so I’d realized that I didn’t want to do anything else for the rest of my life. I went to Paris. I lived in Paris for almost three years. I went to Belgium. I spent eleven months in Belgium, ten minutes from an unpronounceable village in the Ardennes. In October 1999, I arrived in Barcelona; in December of the same year, while spending the holidays with my family in Bogotá, I met a German woman who had arrived in Colombia in 1936. I asked her questions about her life, about how her family had escaped from the Nazis, about the things she found in Colombia when she arrived; she answered with a freedom that I’ve never found again and I noted down her answers on the squared pages of a small notepad, the kind that have a picture or a logo on the side (in this case it was a famous phrase in Italian: Guardatti dall’uomo di un solo libro). Years later I used those pages, those answers—in a word, that life—to write a novel.
The novel was published in July 2004. Its plot turned on a German immigrant who, toward the end of the Second World War, was confined in the Hotel Sabaneta, a luxury hotel converted by the Colombian government into a temporary internment camp for enemy citizens (enemies of Roosevelt, sympathizers of Hitler or Mussolini). Researching the novel had been particularly difficult, because some subjects continue to be sensitive or even forbidden in many families of the German community in Bogotá; and that’s why it seemed so ironic to me that after it was published so many people came to ask me to listen to their story now, that now I should tell their story. Months later I was still receiving emails from Germans or children of Germans who had read the book and were correcting one or two details—the color of a wall, for example, or the existence of some plant in some precise place—and scolding me for not having become better informed before offering me their stories for my next book. I replied with evasive courtesy (out of superstitions I can’t explain, I’ve never refused any offer outright). And weeks later another similar email would arrive, or a message from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had been in the Hotel Sabaneta and who could give me information if I needed it. And that’s why I wasn’t surprised to receive, in February 2006, an envelope with a German name on the back. I confess it took me several seconds to recognize it, I confess to having climbed two or three steps of the entrance to my building before the face that belonged to that name appeared in my head. I opened the letter on the stairs, began to read it in the elevator and finished it standing in the kitchen of my apartment, with my briefcase still hanging from my shoulder, with the front door wide open and the keys in the lock.
Isn’t it strange (the letter said to me), in Spanish there’s no word for what I am. If your wife dies you’re a widower, if your father dies you’re an orphan, but what are you if your son dies? It is so grotesque for your child to die that the language has not learned what to call these people, even though children have been dying before their parents forever and parents have been suffering the deaths of their children forever. I’ve followed your trail (the letter said to me), but up till now I’d decided not to do anything about it. Not to look for you, not to write, do you know why? Because I hated you. I don’t hate you anymore, or rather, there are days when I hate you, I wake up hating you and wishing for your death, and sometimes I wake up wishing your children would die, if you have children. But other days I don’t. Forgive me for telling you like this, by letter, one should tell people things like this face to face, live and in person, but on this occasion I cannot, because you’re over there, of course, you live in Barcelona, and I am here, in a little house in Chía that I bought after the divorce. You know about the divorce, I imagine, because it was the most talked about one of the year in Bogotá, all the ugly details came to light. Anyway, I’m not going to get into that, what matters now is confessing that I hated you. I hated you because you weren’t Ernesto, because but for very little you could have been Ernesto and nevertheless you weren’t Ernesto. You went to the same school, knew the same things, played on the same football team, were in the same row that day in the Teatro Patria, but you got to the bag of lottery balls first, you got the ball that should have been Ernesto’s. You sent him to Tolemaida, and I can’t get that out of my head. If you were called Arango or Barrera instead of being called what you are, my son would still be alive, and I would still have my life in my own hands. But my son is dead, he has this fucking surname and he’s dead for having this fucking surname, the name that appears on his tombstone. And maybe what’s going on is that I can’t forgive myself for giving it to him.
But why should I expect you to understand all this? (the letter said to me). When you didn’t even have the guts to show up at the cemetery to say good-bye to your lifelong friend. When you live over there, far away from this country where a person does military service and might not come out of it alive, living a comfortable life, what’s it going to matter to you? When you’ve gone into hiding since the death of your friend out of pure fear of showing your face and seeing that there is a destroyed family, that this family could have been yours and wasn’t simply by chance. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid it’ll be your turn one day? It will (the letter said to me), I swear to you, one day you will face a moment like that, you’ll realize that sometimes a person needs others, and if the others aren’t around at the right moment your life can come crashing down. I don’t know what would have happened to my life if I could have given you a hug the day of the funeral and said thanks for coming, or if you’d kept coming to the house for a meal once a week like you did when Ernesto was doing his service and had leave. We used to talk about Lance Corporal Jaramillo, Ernesto told us about that dungeon and the snake the cadets had to carry on their shoulders. Sometimes I think I would have endured everything better if I could have remembered those things with you sitting at the table. Ernesto loved you; you were going to be like those friends a person has their whole life. And you could have been a comfort to us, we loved you (the letter said to me), we shared Ernesto’s affection for you. But now (the letter said to me) that’s all water under the bridge: you weren’t there, you hid and denied us your comfort, and things started to go badly at home, until it all came tumbling down. It was at Christmas, already ten years ago, how time flies. I don’t really remember what happened, but people told me later that I had chased her around a table, that Pilar had to hide in a bathroom. What I do remember, however, is having taken the car to leave the party, and that I drove without really knowing where I was going, and that only after parking somewhere I realized I was at Puente Aranda, in the same parking lot where the buses from Tolemaida stopped, the same place where you and I used to wait for Ernesto sometimes and where we once had a conversation I’ll never forget.
The letter said all this to me. I remember, first of all, having thought: he’s sick. He’s dying. And I remember the immediate dismay, not sadness or nostalgia or indignation either (although some indignation, provoked by Antonio Wolf’s accusations, would have been legitimate). I did not answer the letter; I looked at the back of the envelope, confirmed that the sender’s address—that little house in Chía—was complete, and I put the envelope and letter on a bookshelf in my study, between two albums of photos of my daughters, those daughters whom Antonio Wolf was threatening. Maybe I chose that place to repudiate the letter, so that the letter would provoke repudiation; and I was successful, without a doubt, because during the year that followed I opened those albums many times and many times I looked at the photos of my daughters, but I never reread the letter. And maybe I would never have reread it if I hadn’t received, in January 2007, news of Antonio Wolf’s death. One very cold Monday morning I got up, checked my email, and there was a newsletter, sent by the alumni association of my school. His passing—a word I’ve always despised—was announced, the date and time of the exequias—likewise that word—and reminded us that the deceased—one more—was the father of a graduate, but didn’t say that his son had died many years before. So three months later, when I had to go back to Bogotá, I stuck the letter in with my papers. I did it because I know myself well, I know my quirks and my manias and knew I’d regret it if I missed the opportunity to see, even if from afar, the house where Antonio Wolf had lived his last years, the years of his decline and death, and where he had written the most hostile and at the same time most intimate letter I’d ever received. I let a few days go by after my arrival, but on the third I took the envelope and, in a borrowed car, drove the twenty or so miles between Bogotá and Chía.
Finding the house was not difficult: Chía is a miniscule town and walking from one side of it to the other takes no more than fifteen minutes. The numeration of the streets led me to a gated estate: ten houses of cheap brick, facing each other in two rows of five and separated by an area paved in the same brick, or bricks the same salmon color that always look new. In the center of the flat space was a soccer ball (a new one: one of those balls with silver and yellow) and a plastic thermos. There were motorcycles parked in front of a few houses; at the end, a shirtless man in sandals disappeared inside the running motor of a Renault 4. And that’s as far as I’d got, standing on the sidewalk in front of a caretaker’s hut with darkened windows, squinting to see if I could make out the numbers on the houses and guess which one had been Antonio Wolf’s, when the super came out and asked me where I was going. I was more surprised than him as I watched him return to his cubicle, call through the intercom and come out again to say: “Go ahead.” And ahead I went. Ten, twenty, thirty steps; people looking out their windows, behind the net curtains, to see the visitor; a door that opens, a woman who comes out. She’s about forty. She’s wearing a Christmas apron, although Christmas was four months ago, and she’s drying her hands; under her arm she’s carrying a plastic corrugated folder, the kind that close and open with a Velcro strip.
“Here’s what Don Antonio left you,” the woman handed me the folder. “He told me you were going to come. He also said not to let you in, not even for a glass of water.”
In her voice was resentment, but also obedience: the obedience of someone carrying out an errand they don’t understand. I took the folder without looking at her; I wanted to say good-bye, but the woman had already turned around and was walking toward her door.
When I got to the car I put the folder on top of the letter: the two missives with which Antonio Wolf remained present in my life sixteen years after we’d seen each other for the last time. I started the engine, not wanting to stay in front of the house and in front of the caretaker (a strange sort of embarrassment), but I was already thinking of going into the center of Chía, with its large free parking lot that had no attendants or gates. And that’s what I did: I drove down to the shopping district, parked in front of Los Tres Elefantes, and began to look through the contents of the file folder. None of what I found surprised me. Or rather: before I opened the folder I already knew what I would find, the way you know certain things from the back of your head, even before you get what we call intuition or a premonition.
The oldest document was a page from the school yearbook. There we are, the two of us, Ernesto and me, in our football kit, lifting the trophy of a Bogotá tournament. Then there was a copy of the April 1997 issue of the magazine Cromos, open at the page that announced, in five short lines, the news of the publication of my first novel. And suddenly I found myself reclining the passenger seat to make more room and organizing all the documents inside the car, using every available surface—the dashboard, the open door of the glove compartment, the back seat, the armrests—to spread out the chronology of my life since Ernesto Wolf’s death. There was the news of my books, every review or interview that had appeared in the Colombian press. Some documents were not originals but yellowing photocopies, as if Antonio had found out about the news item too late and had to photocopy the magazine at a library. Others were underlined, not with a pencil, but with cheap ballpoint pens, and in those passages I appeared making grandiloquent or silly declarations, or spouting clichés, or inanely answering a journalist’s inane questions. In the articles relating to my novel about Germans in Colombia, there were more underlined passages; and under every one of my comments on exile, life elsewhere, the difficulty of adaptation, memory and the past and the way we inherit the errors of our ancestors, Antonio’s lines seemed full of a pride that made me uncomfortable, made me feel dirty, as if it didn’t belong to me.
I never managed to find out who the woman who handed me the plastic folder was. At that moment, of course, various options occurred to me, and on my way back to Bogotá I was playing with ideas, imagining Antonio Wolf’s unknown life while driving distractedly down the highway. That messenger would be a woman from the village, perhaps a campesina; Wolf had hired her as a domestic and then, little by little, he’d come to realize he had no one else in the world. The woman was also on her own and perhaps had a daughter, a young daughter whom Wolf would have taken in. I imagined the change in the relationship between two lonely and confused people, imagined scenes of guilty sex that would have scandalized Bogotá society, imagined Wolf saying that this woman would keep living in the house after his death. But most of all I imagined him dedicated to collecting someone else’s life, feeling that he was replacing with the power of the distant documents the emptiness that the absence of his son caused in his life. I imagined him talking to the woman of that boy who wrote books and lived far away. I imagined him, at night, dreaming that the boy was his son, that his son was living far away and writing books. I imagined him fantasizing about the possibility of lying, of telling that woman that the boy was really his son, and I imagined him feeling, during the brief moments of the lie, the illusion of happiness.
© Juan Gabríel Vasquez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Anne McLean. All rights reserved.
Reyes offers an acute portrait of the agonies of maternity and the search for our origins in this tale revolving around Spanish mother Belén and her adopted Colombian son, Federico.
Where do babies come from? From desire, she wanted to tell him, as they read aloud, like they did every night: he leaning over the illustrations, with his head of black pompoms so close to her arm, and she thinking how she had imagined him differently. She was going to name her Paloma, she thought of that ballerina dress she’d had the urge to buy when she imagined her. As Belén envisioned the girl’s feminine, golden skin, honey-colored eyes, and golden curls, the phrase passed by in a split second, and it startled her as if it had sprung forth like a jack-in-the-box: Daddy and Mommy met one fine day, they liked each other, and decided that they would like to spend a lot of time together. That simple, that easy?
Federico turned the page, as was always the ritual: you turn the page and I’ll read it to you. He glided his finger along the teeny ants, as he had called them the first time they were finally alone, the two of them together in that hotel room, and she had understood in her gut what it was to have a son and what it was to love him. The parents from the story had already stripped down, and Belén had arrived at the page with the technical details: The sperm united with the egg and that little seed began to grow in Mommy’s tummy, she read, watching her son’s head and his finger, which ran over the teeny ants of the words again. Tomorrow she would have to cut his nails, not one more day with those claws, but tomorrow was another day, and each day brought its own madness. She realized, from a nearly imperceptible tremble in his knee, that the boy wasn’t interested in finishing the story.
—Should I keep reading, or are you tired?
—Whatever you want, Mommy.
—And what do you want?
—Either way—he answered, but he turned the page unenthusiastically, and she kept reading until the end, which was an image of a newborn baby in the arms of its parents. A happy ending, at least in storybooks.
—What did you think?
Really good isn’t a response, she wanted to say, but she restrained herself. She would have also liked to clarify that babies come from many different places, but maybe that wasn’t so true. From an egg and a sperm, yes, but she couldn’t explain why those specific ones had joined, nor under what circumstances.
—Tomorrow let’s read The Hotel of Five Cockroaches again, yawned Federico and he stretched his legs in his bed, and she had no choice but to go take refuge in the news. Isolated thunderstorms across the whole peninsula for tomorrow, the twenty-first of October, 1996, announced the anchor, and she remembered that she had to buy Federico winter clothes: next weekend, no matter what, and two sizes smaller than she’d bought him last time. She saw on the screen a lifeboat of refugees, and if someone had asked her what country they had arrived from and when they would be deported, she would have had to resort to the same kind of evasive responses her son used when they reviewed his lessons and he seemed to be in another world. What worlds did he visit? . . . The image remained, turning over and over: two black boys, the baby in the arms of a first responder, and the older boy—or was it a girl?—maybe two or three years old. Acute malnutrition, the Telediario correspondent said, but she only saw the eyes, black like fish eyes: eyes of astonishment, or was it fear? The brilliant eyes in their emaciated little faces. A face may change over time, but eyes like that never do. She thought of Federico’s eyes that first day, like two windows looking out on the sea, and she saw his photo, watching her from the nightstand, with the voices ringing in the television, a thousand miles away.
On the other side of the hallway, she sensed her son get up. She heard his little footsteps toward the kitchen, the sound of the fridge and of drawers and a brush of pajamas gliding across the cardboard box. She had thought it was time to throw it out, because Federico hadn’t used it in over two months, but the psychologist had advised that only he could make that decision. And if he never decided? She heard the little sounds of a mouse eating crackers and realized that her son once again felt the need to live as a mouse in his cardboard cave. The images returned: his eyes fixed, the effort he’d made to bring her to that box that was there in the street, and the way he had slipped into it, almost slithered, in a split second. It was the first tantrum he threw in public. She tried to calm him down, first with sweetness, like any mother who finds herself at a standstill with her son: playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, despite the freezing wind and the foreboding weight of what the box might come to mean. It’s dinnertime and it’s cold out and it’s nighttime, she had told him, the foreboding mixing in with the shadows, but nothing she said worked. She pretended to close the door to the building and left him hiding, but she returned after a minute, which seemed like an eternity, and saw him there lying down, curled into a ball, and discovered that her words couldn’t penetrate the cardboard walls. She folded up his body as best she could and grabbed him by the arm, and he started to scream: bad Mommy, stupid, ugly, I don’t wove you, while the neighbors passed by in their hurries, their shopping bags in hand, turning blind eyes and deaf ears. She knew that the moment had arrived for her to put an end to the childish extortions, according to what her friends and the parenting magazines that she now devoured had said, but he thrashed his feet and hands from inside his box, and yelled; you aren’t my mommy, directly at the center of her pain. She gripped her son’s arm with her five fingernails and saw that it hurt him, but not as much as it hurt her, and he repeated the phrase in a howl: you aren’t my mommy, you aren’t, until an old man in his nineties appeared with his dog and gave her a look as if to say, I’ll take care of this. What’s up? He said to Federico, while the dog circled the box. Do you want to make a pirate fort? . . . But how can I convince your mother and how will you be able to help me, because right now with all the screaming. . . And then Federico stuck his head out through a slit and explained that it was a pirate fort, that it was Bobotá. The old man winked an eye, and Belén had no other choice than to go up the stairs with that washing machine box that was now leaping out from her memories and which, judging by the sounds that arrived from the kitchen, it still wasn’t time to throw out. The images returned: the old man, the boy, and she carrying the little house, with the dog behind them, and then three days of Federico living in Bobotá. He took fruits and crackers and went to eat in his cave, with his teddy bear and the yellow truck he still had from the Day of the First Embrace. Maybe it was a memory from his other life, the psychologist told her and recommended that she not worry about it and just let the boy play so that he could explore it. It had been several months since Federico had needed to eat inside the box, until today. Where do babies come from—she thought of the book—De dónde vienes, amor mi niño? and García Lorca came into her mind, and she felt again the prick of the mysteries of her son and of all that she would never be able to get out of him and all that she would never be able to give him: how to cope with the ghosts. Federico’s footsteps sounded through the hallway and she heard him slide into bed. The idea was to do nothing. To leave him there, without doing anything.
Snapshot in El Dorado
When you are of age, you will go where you want and if it’s essential, you can go find out. Essentially, what am I doing here. I thought of the map of the route of Colón de Quinto and I saw the snow, I don’t know why, since there’s hardly ever snow, and when everyone went out to play, I circumnavigated the Mar Incógnito with my finger to Colombia and I sunk my nail into this point with the word Bobotá; they call it Bogotá, precious. In those days I had begun to hate the story of The First Embrace and I hated also the phrases that connected the chapters, the then I saw you, the conjunctions, and you came from the hands of the social worker, and I hated this image that you invented: me, running, happy, slow motion, as if it were easy to call you Mama, Mommy, Mom so suddenly and to give you those hugs from the photos, as if it had been like that, just happy, without this hole in my stomach because that day there were lentils on a white plate with little blue flowers, I always remember this, because I didn’t eat the lentils, no one had ever given me lentils before, and they bathed me with freezing water and they combed my hair with something sticky until it was like wire. I ran my finger over the little wires and they told me that I was going to rumple it, all that work for nothing, and they took me to a room that was all red and we practiced saying Mommy to the woman in the photo; Señora, no, you don’t say that to your Mommy, Señora, no, but rather Mommy, Mama, Mom, let’s practice. And while you told that same story of The First Embrace, different movies passed before my eyes: from the same story, you can make so many different movies, of love and of horror, or of both things at once, and then I didn’t want you to tell me anything again—who would believe in Santa Claus at eleven years old?—looking through the photo albums together didn’t work anymore. It was on summer vacation—fifth grade to sixth?—when the questions began, or when I realized that they began: I left open the drawers to the cupboard to support my feet, like stairs, and one afternoon the platter broke and you were furious, but to me it didn’t matter because those were the days when it didn’t matter to me that you didn’t love me anymore; I only thought of that album, and looked back on the photos from before, the Mowephotos, like you said I called it.
I am wearing red pants, the ones from your photo, as you call it, and you say that with that photo you found out about my existence and your eyes filled with water, they always do, but I zoom in on the black buttons. Black buttons on red cloth: I didn’t know how to undo them, and I feel the wet pants and I see the cloth, and the smell, and I don’t remember if they were short or long, and you continue talking, voice on mute, and it makes me ask, ask myself, if they were long or short—the pants—as if this mattered, and later I ask myself who’s the one focusing the camera and who’s the one ordering the picture-perfect smile, but you continue talking, talking, a radio badly tuned, and you say that it was love at first sight. That was my obsession, to make you fall in love with me, and then later came the opposite obsession, to verify who else, before you, had taken my photo, and I spent hours examining all the evidence to find some detail that would carry me back to those memories that you can’t recall because they are only mine, mine, mine, like those loose photos that give no clue as to what came before and what came after. And from then until we reached BOG, change of voice, change of skin, school years upon school years, writing essays, my house, my city, and my family, memorizing points on the maps, falling behind in math, and you at my back, looking for support: my son doesn’t have a foundation and never went to school, and doesn’t know the letters or the numbers and was malnourished, and I heard this story about myself that you never told me but that you scattered among my teachers without permission, as if I didn’t have ears, as if I were your teddy bear, your kindness quota in this unjust world where you had picked me up. You said that it was cold in Bogotá, how obvious that you haven’t been there in ages, how obvious that you don’t have any idea about Colombia, and I was sweating, and I didn’t know what to do with my coat. Please excuse the inconvenience, we’re working for you: Nuevo Aeropuerto El Dorado 2012, said a sign at the exit and a police officer cross-checked the pink tag against the stub, BOG, and I double-checked the code as if you were watching me, checking that I wouldn’t lose your suitcase. As if you were watching me through that dwarfed door, through that opaque window that opened and then yes: I had arrived in Bobotá.
From Qué raro que me llame Federico © Yolanda Reyes. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Susannah Greenblatt. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Juan Álvarez, a young man, forced to confront his Uncle Javier's violence, recounts its effect on his family.
Who has heard my voices? Is it Clotaldo?
—Life is a Dream, Calderón de la Barca
I never wanted to sock you in the face, Javier, let’s just get that clear. Things happened the way they did because you left me no choice. Two plus two is four, and four plus two is six, simple as that, and if I’m feeling bad about it now, that’s another issue entirely. Grandpa may seem like he’s made of steel, sure, but he’s also old, and aside from that, you and the damn way you lose your head, the way you start snorting like a charging bull—man, you just left me no other option. When I went into the kitchen and saw you two all tangled up and bright red like scorpions fighting, I tried to make my hands into fists, but I couldn’t. “What the fuck is going on here?” I shouted, without looking either of you in the eyes. I was buying time to psyche myself up, because the mere fact you were in that house after we hadn’t seen you in years was enough to tell me something was wrong, that the tide of your sick heart had turned back on us, on the attack, and that my grandparents would again have to pay with their health. I stood there for a few seconds, it’s true, but not because I had doubts. I stood there because I knew that once I took the first step, there would be no turning back between you and me. Why didn’t you let the old man go, dude? Why didn’t you just let go of him when I went into the kitchen? It bugged you when you got there and found out there was a good-bye party for the star grandson, right? And that you—of course—weren’t invited. “What’s for dinner? Who’s here?” I bet you asked, and the old man, cagey as always, probably didn’t give you a straight answer. But he must have invited you in for some food, because seeing a son all skinny and dirty like that can’t be easy. Once you were in the kitchen, you must have threatened to go upstairs and say hi, and he must have forbidden it. You wouldn’t listen, and things got physical. That’s how the fight started, right? Yes, I’m sure that’s what happened, and if you want my opinion, you were right to be annoyed. But still, I’m telling you, I just couldn’t let you work Grandpa over again. When I lunged, and while I was punching you wherever I could land a fist, a bell jar of terror numbed my senses. At that moment, straining even my toes and filled with a drab anxiety that ground away at my teeth, with seventeen years under my belt and closer than ever to your dwindling weight, I had the feeling I could beat you to death. Because I understood that one day, you would be able to kill someone yourself.
I’m willing to accept that living with Pops and his stubbornness wasn’t easy. I know sometimes you wanted to hate him, and that it wasn’t just because he forbade you from playing soccer—there was more to the story. I know it especially pissed you off when they called you a dumbass and came at you with the whole lecture about school. But what do you want, man? I’ve told you before, haven't I? The folks feel weighed down, too, by the roles they have to play. If I really think about it, I’m sure his dream was for you to become a soccer player. He dreamed that soccer would be your life raft. Soccer as the means of placating the devil inside you. Seriously, the more I think back to those afternoons I went with you to practice, the more convinced I am it was only logical he would pin his hopes on that world of kicking and sprinting, on the mud that wrung out your energy and left you docile and content. Him too—when he saw you lunge without a trace of fear to block soccer balls kicked by guys who weighed over two hundred pounds, his eyes teared up and his chest filled with pride. “Son, don’t be an ass,” he’d say to you when you had trouble concentrating and making the grades you needed in school, and I know how furious that made you, but believe me, man, Grandpa only wanted to help you. He’d spend as many hours as necessary working his socks off at whatever absurd business came his way, on deals he always lost because he took people at their word. But still, he always made sure you didn’t lack for anything, not you or my mom or your brothers.
You know, one day Grandma spilled the whole story of those conversations you used to hallucinate—it was never really clear if you were talking to someone you recognized as a blood relative from another era, or if it was Great-Grandma Constanza, who you’d met for a few days when she was on her foul-smelling deathbed. Those mysterious pseudo-dialogues didn’t happen very often, Grandma said, and from the way she went into detail I had the feeling I was the first person in the family she’d dared to tell. Though most likely everyone else knew about it too, and they just didn’t say anything to her so she wouldn’t worry. Who knows. The fact is she told me that those conversations had happened ever since you were a kid, but that over the years they took on an unbearable crudeness. She confessed this to me a few weeks after the whole performance on Little Candles Day—remember?—when they threw you out of the house for good. When she told me, it was like she was trying to give me another kind of explanation; she was always so concerned about keeping people from hating you, from reducing you to some coarse animal. The meetings, she told me, happened in the yard, usually on cloudy days. You’d sit down and wait for hours, your back to the door to make it clear you didn’t want to be interrupted and had no desire to pretend otherwise. When the presence seemed to appear, you’d stand up to greet it and then sit down again. That’s how Grandma described it. She said you talked about all your sadness, the rage you felt when you saw how other people spent so much time and energy watching you carefully and walking on eggshells around you, everywhere from school to the barber’s. You talked about how you understood the need to monitor you, to keep you from getting mad and your head from getting hot, because when you were like that, you said, on top of feeling like you were about to explode, you felt like you couldn’t bear people getting close to you. In general, of course, people didn’t help, they kept coming closer and then you said the heat got so bad you turned red and you got that urge to raise your hand against anyone, whoever was closest. Yeah, man, Grandma heard all of that, but she could never bring herself to interrupt you. She told me every time she thought about it, she couldn’t help starting to cry. You talked about the need to get people away from your hot aura, and you even talked about some kind of bad-smelling aura, although this one, Grandma said, you mentioned less. I guess the hot aura emanated from an inner problem. The smelly one, to be frank, man, and no offense intended, was decidedly exterior. Shit, you could really smell bad. I mean, your room—there were Sundays when it smelled like the offal stall at the market, and Grandma got so embarrassed by it. Always, from my mom’s car window, parking in front of the house before lunch, I could see your open window and imagine the fight it had entailed. Because you’re stubborn, dude, obstinate as the ass they’ve always compared you to, getting you all riled up. Grams could let you keep the room closed up tight for a whole week, because she tolerated that and almost everything else. But when visitors came, things were different. If you want the truth, a thing like that could piss me off too, because it seems hypocritical, but you . . . I get the feeling that wasn’t even what bothered you. Your problem, man, had more to do with breaking that shell of strangeness you seemed tied to as a means of survival.
The image of the first broomstick I had to watch them break over your head, the day the whole truth came crashing down on me and I found out that your issues went back for years—now that’s a thing I’ll never forget. That day, I remember well, it all happened while you were yelling and my mom was trying to get me out of the house so I wouldn’t see the police come in and beat you with their clubs. I was really little then. What was I, maybe eight years old? You probably don’t even remember. That day, Javier, I somehow concluded that you had always been angry at me. Sick with rage. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how it was. As if you’d let yourself be convinced by all that hot air about the star grandson, the promising life with a future . . . I don’t know, Javier, but sometimes I think I’ve been especially cruel to you. To me you were an emblem of other possibilities besides being a winner, besides living up to other people’s expectations. It’s strange, I know, but what can I say. That day, you yelled at me with your eyes crazed, sick. You can’t imagine how devastated I was. “What are you just standing there for, you son of a bitch?” you asked, and something broke inside me. Right then, the toy train ceased to exist. And then came the rage because you were such a numbskull, so crude in your own way, that over-the-top, aggressive way of yours. You were such a brute that you could throw away the opportunity held out to you by soccer, all your tantrums that turned into attacks on the referees. That strength, man, that endless enthusiasm, that way of feeding off the game and giving your heart of hearts to every ball, it made me think, small as I was, that soccer was your thing. I thought, I guess like Grandpa did, that you had a choice because you had a path.
The fact is that on that day, once Mom and I finally got out of my grandparents’ house—and after they’d put you into the patrol car with a gesture that would be repeated many times—she tried to give me explanations. She told me: “Javier isn’t entirely your uncle.” I got furious, man, furious. She saw I was irritated and tried to go on explaining. I got the impression—tell me I wasn’t being a kid then—that out of the blue she was deciding that you wouldn’t be my uncle. As if the whole story she was telling me about the woman who’d worked in my grandparents' café years before, and who’d abandoned you there one afternoon, was something she was inventing to console me. Absurd, I know, but what do you want, buddy, I told you I was really little. Anyway, the thing is that once my mom was done talking, that whole spiel about how you weren’t my grandparents’ natural son was like a stupid caterpillar burrowing into my skull, trying to worm its way in, but there wasn’t any room. It wasn’t an explanation for anything, and my mother, of course, was the first to know it. Then I found out that you’d gone to several doctors, and that my grandparents and my mother had called in favors to get discounts from a specialist. What expert did they take you to? Why didn’t you ever tell me about those visits? I guess you were ashamed. That was before they kicked you out of the house, right? Yeah, it would have had to be before you moved into that rathole, the one where no one says you live but where everyone knows you live. I should clarify that no one calls it a rathole, of course, but that’s how I imagine it. The truth is I don’t know where you live. Not true, I do know. Now that I think about it, after the fight the day of my going-away party, Grandpa told me . . . Damn, I feel like crying when I remember it, because only now do I get the irony. You’re living on that diagonal that connects 63rd and 57th, behind the stadium, right? How shitty is that, stuck there just a few blocks from El Campín, like looking out of a cage and seeing that stadium we’d once dreamed of for you.
What an absurd mess. It’s incredible, man, but remembering you makes me so upset my bones start to rattle. How many times did you and Uncle Iván fight? He was always the one who talked about you least, as if he had you all figured out and he knew you couldn’t be fixed. Like he knew that you simply had to disappear. Maybe that’s why he always wanted to call the police. I realized that on Little Candles Day, when he not only called them immediately, but was also the only one who could keep calm while we were trying to knock down the bathroom door. I feel like I can see him now, man, I feel like I can see and hear him. No more than five minutes have gone by and I’m focused on all my fear and on how to help Pops and my mom with the door. “Never again, you son of a bitch! This bastard will never show his face in this house again!” That’s what he yelled, and he looked as stunned as the rest of us, yes, but there was also a certain pride that bloomed on his inflamed face, a pride that let him yell nonstop, yell those words over and over again, as though announcing that your time had come, as if telling my grandparents, really, that that’s what they got with all their goodwill and Christian charity, that now they had to see you can’t cage an animal. When the door finally broke in and we could get Grandma out, all soaked in sweat and tears, everything became a confused string of events. Restrain you, yell at you, listen to you, endure the presence of the police beating you and the paramedics treating Grandma . . . I don’t know, buddy, but at that moment, and though I was only thirteen, I knew everything had blown up, things had reached the point Uncle Iván had been waiting for, and you really wouldn’t ever return to the house. There are things you don’t come back from. That’s why you fought until you were unconscious, fought like a wild horse. What I remember of that beating is your face, like a sad blotch. You weren’t even clenching your teeth by that point. I remember my mother and my uncle shouting; yeah, I remember that too. Grandma was half-unconscious, and even so my mom and my uncle were scolding her, reprimanding her for trying to protect you when you’re all grown up and such a burden. They told her you were a sick man and that the time for explaining things to you was over, it would take a billy club to teach you, if anything could. Yes, that’s how it went: you were shouting at my mom, at Uncle Iván, and the police, and Mom and Uncle Iván shouted at Grandma, and then my mom yelled at you: “Son-of-a-bitch sick-o life-wrecker”—that’s what she said to you, in a kind of dry chant of pain and exasperation.
Once the police took you away, we found out what had happened. By then Grandma was on a stretcher and saying she didn’t want to go to any hospital (I guess she didn’t want to make your legal problems any worse, or it was just stubbornness, you know she’s got that too). And she told us it was all her fault. Imagine that—what a gal. She was crying while she explained, half-ashamed and seeming to want only Grandpa to hear her. She said she hadn’t wanted to make things worse, she only was only trying to find another way, and she was very anxious, please believe her. It seems she heard you, Javier. She heard you crying in the bathroom while you were showering and cursing God, she heard you swear you’d kill him. She got so nervous and that was why she opened the door and tried to keep listening. Lying on the stretcher, she clutched Grandpa’s hand and told him that when she realized you were talking about your own brother, about killing Uncle Iván, she felt so bad her muscles got all tangled up, and that was when she fell to the floor. I don’t know, buddy, I think a mother can tolerate a lot of things, but not the idea that two of her children want to kill each other. “I was lying on the floor when he opened the shower curtain, and I tried to explain,” said Grandma. Imagine, poor naive old woman—as if your tragedy lay in not understanding. But you know Grandma, always trying to get the better of bad luck. That must be why I get so mad at you. Because we even used to joke sometimes about how dumb you could be, remember? Like when I tried to explain the basics of set theory or how photosynthesis worked, but you didn’t understand anything and we ended up turning photosynthesis and sets into imaginary soccer players we’d take on trips to search for soccer fields we never found . . . Me, I never asked you to understand her, Javier; at most, just to look her in the eyes. Don’t play stupid, buddy, you know very well what I’m talking about. Look her in the eyes and realize she was suffering. You don’t have to be the smartest kid on the block to do that. You don’t have to finish school or understand photosynthesis. So she didn’t give birth to you—so what? She was your mother, man, and you know it.
When was it, buddy? At what point did they fuck us up? When did we let them turn us into the promise fulfilled and the promise failed? I don’t understand what happened. For me you stood for the possibility of something other than the path of intelligence, decency, and things done with care. I feel mean and cruel . . . loading you down with expectations, when I’m sure you’re just suffering from some illness that doctors have some hateful classification for and whose name I’d rather not learn. Although, still, if we went back in time and found out the name of what’s wrong with you, I’m sure we’d laugh. I’d make up where they’d gotten that bit about your angry temperament or tendency toward dissociation, and you’d ask me one question after another from the floor where you were stretched out and rolling with laughter, so overgrown, with a soccer or tennis ball in your hands that you’d bounce from side to side, until they called us to dinner.
How’s your face doing now? How do you spend your days? Only Grandpa knows—I found out that he still brings you leftovers to your rathole, on Sunday afternoons, at the risk of getting chewed out by the family. He told me himself that night after the fight, once we’d restrained you, gotten you out into the street and shut the door behind you. Poor old guy. When the whole thing was over and people went back to the dining room, he and I stayed sitting on the patio. We were exhausted. He started to cry real soft so no one could hear him. I hugged him and was quiet, not sure what to do. “I don’t bet on the horses anymore,” he told me after a while. I thought sadly that the women had won the battle, my mom and Grams and their whole endless lecture about the money you wasted on betting. But no, turned out it was something else. Turned out that he wanted to explain many things to me with that phrase. All of them very confused, like his own soul, because I’m telling you the old man thinks it’s all his fault, the way he educated you, the favors he still thinks he could have called in. He said he had to tell Grandma he was going out to bet and face whatever lecture came, all so he could go out alone and bring you the leftover food. He told me he’d been doing it for several months. That you still got thinner and thinner and your eyes were always grayer, resigned to your fate. Then he told me, as if he’d ordered his thoughts in the silence, that the thing that worried him most was that recently Grandma didn’t fight him when he said he was going out. “It must be because she found out you’re bringing food to Javier,” I told him, smart as can be, and then I even explained to him that it wouldn’t be hard to catch on, since after all, no one went to the ponies with a lunch box. The sadness vanished from his face, he looked up and fired off: “What do you think, son, that I don’t hide it before going out?! No, that’s not it,” he said, and after a pause: “Grandma doesn’t put up a fight because she’s tired, same as me . . . Tired, tired, you understand, son?”
We sat another while in silence. Finally he dried his tears and asked me to help him serve dessert. With two trays full of rice pudding and cottage cheese with syrup we went up and sat at the table. The family was talking about an aunt-in-law of the wife of a certain Enrique who knew the grand dame of the Obregón family. Impossible to follow the story. I looked at Grandpa. He’d chosen rice pudding and had slowly begun eating it. Grandma didn’t want dessert. I was leaving the next day, man, and all I could think about was your bleeding face and how narrow one’s path can be.
© Juan Álvarez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.
Photo: Bogotá's Plaza de Bolívar. Credit: Eric M. B. Becker
Last October, boarding a plane in Rio de Janeiro, I set off for Bogotá, eager to meet with writers and editors there to lay the groundwork for this issue. My trip got off to anything but an auspicious start: I had spent much of the week preceding my trip confined to my bed or the couch, burning up with fever. And so, I disembarked at El Dorado International Airport in a medication-induced haze and headed straight to a restaurant where I could find ajiaco, a stew whose primary ingredients include chicken and potatoes, in an attempt to recoup my energy before what promised to be intense days of research for the issue you now have before you.
But even in my drug-induced fog, I was aware of the significant events unfolding in Colombia at that time. A few short days before my arrival, voters had rejected president Juan Manuel Santos’s historic peace deal with the FARC by the narrowest of margins, the “No” camp aided by record abstention of sixty-two percent. (Heavy rains due to hurricane conditions in the Caribbean were one factor in this abstention. The "No" vote was also championed by former president Álvaro Uribe, who insisted the conditions of the peace deal were too lenient toward the FARC. Still, those in rural regions—areas most affected by the ongoing conflict—largely supported the deal, as did voters in the country's capital.) As my taxi took me from the airport to Chapinero—Bogotá’s “hipster" neighborhood, as friends have described it—I looked for signs of a response to this apparently crushing blow to the peace process. At the local coffee shop, at the Éxito—a two-tiered store somewhere between a supermarket and a Walmart—and on the street, no one was visibly bothered by anything other than the thin rain that slowly but surely soaked passersby straight through. The next day, as I strode down Carrera Séptima from Chapinero on the way to my first meeting near the Parque Nacional I happened upon a silent procession in support of peace, composed of thousands of indigenous and rural residents, many of them victims of violence throughout the country’s fifty-plus year war. Carrying flowers and arriving in colorful buses, they were there to state their desire for an end to a conflict that had dominated the national narrative for more than half a century.
It is fitting that this issue of Words without Borders comes to readers not quite a year after Colombia’s congress approved a revised peace deal with the FARC. (The peace deal’s passage was not without vociferous protest from Santos’s congressional opposition, not least for bypassing a referendum.) The writers here portray Colombia in all of its complexity, from Bogotá’s class conflicts to the harrowing violence of addiction and the new possibilities that peace now affords writers who have, in one way or another, often felt obligated to address the social ills wrought by war and the drug trade.
Giuseppe Caputo is one of the writers setting the tone for the younger generation of Colombian writers. Caputo’s 2016 Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World) is the author’s stunning debut novel about the love between a father and son in the midst of poverty, and also a reflection on violence and homosexuality. Opening in the unfurnished house where the narrator and his father live, the excerpt featured here, in a translation by Sophie Hughes, introduces readers to their hard-luck lifestyle and the father’s curious schemes to bring in some money. Caputo (Barranquilla, 1982) treats this dire subject matter with deft humor before ending with the haunting scene of a hanging that foreshadows one of the novel’s other important themes. Caputo’s complex balancing act reveals a storyteller of great skill.
Melba Escobar (Cali, 1976) approaches Colombia’s social ills from a different angle, likewise employing humor—this time, biting—to the issue of racial and class divisions. Her narrator, Claire, recently returned to Bogotá after years living abroad, visits “The House of Beauty” in the city’s posh Zona Rosa and is instantly reminded of everything she hates about Bogotá’s wealthiest. She spares nothing and no one from her criticisms before telling us the story of Karen, a beautician from Cartagena who has Claire captivated. Elizabeth Bryer provides the translation.
Luck of the draw in a high school gymnasium spares a young man from military service while simultaneously condemning his friend to a tragic fate in “The Double,” a short story by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Bogotá, 1973) translated here by Anne McLean. Living abroad years later, the young man receives an angry letter from the father of his childhood friend. As he realizes the extent to which the older man’s life has unraveled, what ensues is a reflection on absence, loss, and guilt.
At this moment when Colombia appears to be turning a page on the violence of the last decades, we publish an interview on the origins of the FARC from Alfredo Molano (Bogotá, 1944). Hailed as the great cronista of the fifty-year-long conflict involving the FARC, the Colombian government, and right-wing paramilitary groups, Molano speaks with “Sergeant Pascuas,” one of the founders of the FARC, about the guerrilla movement’s early days and its origins in Colombia’s “independent republics” of the 1950s. The translation comes from Ezra Fitz.
Yolanda Reyes (Bucaramanga, 1959) looks at fraught relationships of a different kind. An award-winning children’s author and respected researcher of early childhood development, Reyes aims her talents at an adult readership in “Bobotá,” an excerpt from her novel Que raro que me llame Federico. Her moving tale peers into the relationship between Spanish mother Belén and her adopted Colombian son, Federico. From the mother’s desire to adopt a girl to her adult son’s effort to discover the identity of his biological parents, Reyes offers an acute portrait of the agonies of maternity and the search for our origins, in a sensitive translation by Susannah Greenblatt.
Juan Álvarez (Neiva, 1978) takes tales of family strife to new territory in “I Never Wanted to Sock You in the Face, Javier.” Frequent WWB contributor Megan McDowell provides the translation. After years pass without any word from his Uncle Javier, Álvarez’s narrator is forced to confront his uncle’s violence. The event sets off a crisis of conscience in the narrator, whose subsequent address to his distant uncle reveals the dramatic details that led up to their defining confrontation.
Gilmer Mesa’s “Bubblegum and Baldy” (translated by Frances Riddle), from the author’s 2016 award-winning novel La cuadra, is a no less disturbing tale of young men trying to find themselves in a gritty neighborhood in Medellín. Bubblegum and Baldy, lackeys for two fraternal gang leaders, forge a bond over salsa music. But when Bubblegum falls victim to addiction, their relationship grows strained. Later, Bubblegum’s recklessness raises the ire of their gang’s leader and the two friends find themselves faced with an unexpected and horrifying ultimatum.
From Mesa’s tale of forged brotherhood, we move to a tale from Óscar Collazos (Bahía Solano, 1942–Bogotá, 2015), about two brothers whose parents consider them beyond redemption. “Lost Causes,” translated here by Ezra Fitz, is a story of brotherly trust, youthful rebellion, and unholy acts perpetrated in in sacred places.
Our feature of Colombia poetry throws into relief the distinct styles and concerns of poets working in the country today. Among them is Vito Apushana (Carraipia, 1965), winner of the Prémio Casa de las Américas. Apushana, a member of the Wayuu Nation, an indigenous group in northern Colombia, explores notions of identity and the conflict between tradition and modernity. Here, he is translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Fredy Chicangana (1964), a member of the Yanakuna community, also addresses questions of identity in his poetry, but from a different angle. Chicangana (translated here by Schimel) describes himself as a poet and an oralitor, or one who commits Yanakuna oral tradition to the page. His poetry expresses a strong connection to the region of his birth while also decrying the historical injustices visited upon the Yanakuna.
Piedad Bonnett (Amalfi, 1951) likewise contributes two poems, available here to English-language readers thanks to Ezra Fitz. Winner of several awards, including Colombia’s National Poetry Award in 1994, Bonnett here explores the sense of emptiness shared by two mothers whose children no longer play nearby and explores the possibilities of the moment following a poetry recital in a country town and the poets’ return to their hotel.
Given the breadth of themes, styles, perspectives, genres, and geographies represented here, it is appropriate that Silvana Paternostro (Baranquilla, 1962) takes us back to Colombia on her own trip to climb up to the Lost City that sits amid the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The difficulties she encounters there and the unfamiliar terrain, Paternostro suggests, mirror the current moment in Colombian literature. Approaching this new moment from the perspective of a Colombian writer living abroad, the memoirist and journalist ponders over the way s in which "the old story is changing."
This issue would not have been possible without the generous advice of several writers and editors I met during my time in Bogotá. Among those who freely shared their views of the Colombian writing scene were Juan David Correa of the cultural magazine Arcadia, Marcel Ventura of Planeta, Gabriel Iriarte of Penguin Random House, Giuseppe Caputo, and Sandra Pulido of the Cámara Colombiana del Libro, Cristóbal Pera of Vintage Español, translator Ezra Fitz, and Felipe Martinez Cuellar of Colombia’s Ministry of Culture. Words without Borders thanks them for their continued advice throughout the process of editing this issue. Further thanks go to the translators who have brought this literature to life on the page, in English.
In the same way that this writing is now reaching English readers for the very first time, it has served me personally as an introduction to the country. The writers here capture the past and present of a country remaking itself and its history, peering much deeper into their society than I could ever have hoped to during my brief visit to Bogotá. But most importantly, their stories transcend city limits and county lines. In this moment, they speak not just to their fellow countrymen but to us all.
WWB'S Colombia issue in New York: On September 14, September contributor Giuseppe Caputo take part in "Crossing: Conversations across Borders," an Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event co-sponsored by Words without Borders and Guernica Magazine. More information here.
Photo: Celso, a Wiwa Indian who leads tour groups up to Colombia's Lost City, stares out at the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Courtesy of Silvana Paternostro.
Memoirist and journalist Silvana Paternostro takes us back to Colombia on her trip to climb up to the Lost City that sits amid the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The difficulties she encounters there and the unfamiliar terrain mirror the current moment in Colombian literature, defined by a new reality where Colombian writers will have to grapple with the fact that "the old story is changing."
For the next few days, I will be doing something I’ve never done in the country where I was born. I am going on one of those tours for foreigners when they come here, now that Colombia is a hotspot. I have signed up to go on a four-day hike, and for the record, overnight hiking is also brand new to me. I am on my way to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, a pre-Columbian site dubbed a sort of unspoiled Machu Picchu by travel guides.
I am a bit wary of it all as I get in the cab that will take me to the meeting place designated on the tour agency flyer. It doesn’t help when the driver asks what country am I from. Unknowingly, he hits at my Achilles’ heel when it comes to my identity, especially when it comes to being a writer. Am I a Colombian writer like Hector Abad or Juan Gabriel Vásquez or Jorge Franco, to name a few writers of my generation whom I admire? For the last two decades, I’ve written about Colombia from abroad and mostly in English, and I’ve always wondered how the stories I tell would change if my point of view was like theirs, from inside the womb, from inside the dense and dangerous forest.
That, however, was a question of the past. Colombia is in flux. For the first time in fifty years, we storytellers will have to take into account that there is no longer the same old, stale war to write about; Colombia has begun to create a new narrative, one without the daily intrusion of two terrifying and horrific rogue armies. As of now Colombian writers will have a new opportunity—like the kind the hike into the Sierra represents. We Colombians can go explore with backpacks and hiking boots territories that were once controlled by men and women with guns and ideology—and a knack for drug trafficking. In this new Colombia, we can leave behind the memoirs about presidential candidates, senators, and soldiers who wasted year after year as hostages in places just like the one I’m about to visit.
In fact, according to the tourism operator’s literature, the only thing to fear is the strong sun and the mosquitoes: Make sure to bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and repellent. They also advise bringing rain gear, but I pay no attention to that advice. I don’t remember much rain from the time I spent weekends in nearby Minca, a mountain hamlet, as a teenager. I remember how going to the Sierra was like going to a theme park that came to life as we swung on vines from one side of a creek to another, where the girls would pick raspberries and orchids while the boys would set out to find tarantulas to frighten us. Then again, memory is selective and stories are made only of those things the storyteller reveals in the perpetual dilemma of choice in words and tone. Not my thing, hiking, but I’m excited to be here looking like I’ve never set foot in these lands, a borrowed blue bag on my back and, on my feet, boots I rescued from the back of my closet that I last used to walk Utah’s red rock arches more than a decade ago.
I am dropped off in a place that looks just like the Colombia of my childhood memories with the music from the tiendas strident and distorted regardless of the time. It reminds me of the same way we would enter the Sierra from Minca, except now it has a lot of backpack-wielding people of all ages that don’t look Colombian struggling to make themselves understood with First World smiles and gadgets—and paltry Spanish. A handful of jeeps start showing up, all with friendly logos announcing Lost City excursions. “From narco to eco,” I joke.
The Lost City sits atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a spectacular snow-capped mountain at the foot of the Caribbean Sea, and part of the Tayrona National Park known for its incredible biodiversity and the pre-Columbian civilization that still inhabits it with their customs pretty much intact. Like Colombia, the Sierra is now being given a new identity, one that has a lot fewer guns in it. Today, it is no longer known as the stronghold of Hernán Giraldo (aka Lord of the Sierra, The Screw, or El Gordo), the last paramilitary leader to gain control of it. He’s been sitting in a US jail since 2009, convicted and sentenced to “198 months”— sixteen-and-a-half years—for his involvement in the drug trade. Today, this former haven for warring drug fiefs is labeled by National Geographic as the “most irreplaceable place on earth.” The four tribes that make up the Tayrona family—the Arahuaco, the Kogi, the Wiwa, and the Kankuamo—now face less violence in the large swath demarked by the government as a resguardo, an Indian reservation: We can go up the mountain because they have given us permission.
A Tayrona descendant shows me a list of names. I find mine. “I am Celso and I will be your guide.” Like all his Sierra kin, he is in full native garb. Celso has straight black hair past his shoulders, he wears a white cotton tunic and pants, and he carries the white or cream-colored mochila, a bag woven only by the women—by wives for their husbands—who believe that when they do so they are weaving thoughts. One way to tell the men from different tribes apart is by their hats: Kogis wear white ones that look like the Sierra’s snowy peak and Wiwas wear cowboy hats. From this, I see that Celso is a Wiwa. I also notice his poporo, the gourd that holds the powdered seashells used to mix with the coca leaves adult men chew. Their leaders, known as mamos, hand them these poporos as an initiation into manhood and as a permission to marry. Celso holds his, proudly, in his right hand.
It is comic, arriving at the meeting place dressed as a tourist to find that I’m the only Colombian going on the tour. I buy an empanada with ease but there is something disjointed about being a tourist in a place I had visited as a child. This was where we came as a family for holidays. Parque Tayrona is where I swam in the ocean for the first time in my yellow swimsuit from Miami and played with my pail and plucked chipichipi clams before they disappeared inside the wet silvery sands.
I play the part as I shake hands with a German couple in their late thirties and their best friend who adds that they always travel as a trio; a younger, super fit, super polite Belgian couple; a funny Frenchie traveling around the world; the finicky Swiss-English lady and the Amazonian woman from Alaska who were staying at the same hostel in Santa Marta and decided to venture out together after seeing the brochure about the Lost City at the front desk.
Celso, wearing his two mochilas across his chest like a bandolero wears his bullets, shoves us all in the back of a dusty 4x4. Packed like sardines, but my hiking compañeros keep smiling, happy as clams. As the door closes behind us, a reflex makes me crawl to the front seat, landing between the driver and the Wiwa now holding the mochilas on his lap. He grabs a handful of coca leaves from one and shoves them into his mouth.
“Yo soy de aquí,” I say almost threateningly.
After almost three hours of a bumpy ride uphill on a dirt road, we are dropped off at Machete Pelao, the last place reachable by car. At lunch, we are presented with heaping individual platters of fried fish and coconut rice. Celso instructs us to eat well. We will be walking about seven miles and we are to arrive at our first campsite, Adán’s Cabin, before dark. There, we can go bathe in a “purifying natural pool.”
The first two hours go by fast as we walk through bucolic pastures with clay-colored paths. Everyone is in a state of euphoria at the passing of blue-winged mariposas the size of birds, at the sounds of nature, all enveloped in mist. A Nordic hiker in another one of the groups sticks her tongue out to receive the first drops of rain. “Nectar,” she says as she exhales in ecstasy. “Each one. Pure nectar.” Once in a while Celso’s compatriots appear out of the bountiful greenery like friendly ghosts. They are very quiet, these men, women, and children dressed in white, but we all are enchanted every time we see them.
We are also delighted when we stop at a wooden stall. As part of the tour package, we are given a rest and some fresh fruit for continued energy and hydration. The pineapple is free; the bottled water is not. The storeowner is friendly and chatty. Next to the house where he lives with his wife and newborn, he has built a well-stocked bodega with all the things this new Sierra clientele might need: bottled water and all sorts of sugary drinks, chips, nachos, nuts, chocolate, cigarettes—“and you can buy only one.” He will start selling fresh orange juice: “The juicer arrives tomorrow.” He has lived here all his life and this is where he wants his newborn to grow up—“especially now that things are different.” A French volunteer is helping him reforest his plot of land and he is building a bench at the edge of the mountain. He points to the valley. “The best vista of all the Sierra.” Everyone rushes over to take pictures. I coyly stay behind.
There is no way in hell I should have embarked on this journey.
The raindrops we first welcomed to hydrate us from the sun turn into an unpleasant deluge that soaks our clothes and sends us sliding through rivers of red, soaplike mud. Another group of white-clad children whiz by; their white tunics not so white. The mud sticks to my boots—of course not waterproof; the Belgians were perhaps the only ones with proper footwear; another English member of the group came wearing Timberland moccasins. Celso has tucked his pants inside knee-high rubber rain boots.
The flyer had suggested sunblock, mosquito repellent, and light packing but not a word about the difficulty of the hike—and this, for an inexperienced hiker with a fear of falling, has me fuming. As if it weren’t enough to have my T-shirt wet, submerged-in-the-sea wet, and my mud-covered boots as if they were made of cement, in front of me is a steep path that I clumsily tackle only to see that it is followed by a slope that resembles a black-diamond ski run, great for shooting an Indiana Jones or a James Bond scene but petrifying to me. I am feeling divided from my group. Where they see gorgeousness, I see danger. Where they see Arcadia, I only see rain, rain, damn rain, and then free-falling heights.
I overhear a hiker from Ohio saying, “This would never fly in the United States. But I’m glad it does, here.” For her, like most of the hundreds of people that come here—now that the word is out, the tourists are coming, and tour operators are packing them in—this feels like heaven despite the discomfort and the constant rain. Unlike the woman from Ohio, there is no way in hell I should have embarked on this journey. I wouldn’t have signed up for it if I had known—or would I?
By the time I arrive at this realization, it is way too late to turn around. I kind of had an inkling there would be dicey parts—obviously not like this, especially now that there seems to be a hurricane coming in from the north. I look around me and no one else seems to be so wound up about it.
The second stop—this time for watermelon—is manned by a black man from Barranquilla, the city where I’m from, and just knowing that, I feel recharged. If he can survive the Sierra, so can I. He tells me that he only leaves it to go dance during Carnaval and so he has just returned. I’d like to know how he first got here, but the German lady who is always making jokes says something risqué and he cracks up. I leave them to their flirting and turn my focus to the walking stick that’s resting against the stall. “Ese está bueno,” I hear Celso tell me. “Take it. Better you have one.” Celso is keeping an eye on me. I wonder if it’s because I’m the slowest in the group or because I’m Colombian.
He calls our group together and we huddle around him like a football team around their coach. “The rain is slowing us down,” he says in a Spanish that is devoid of intonations and has somewhat of an accent because it is not, after all, his mother tongue. “And we need to make it to Adán’s before nightfall. We cannot walk in this agua in the dark. We must pick up our pace and get to the river fast because each drop is just making it grow faster. We still have a ways to go. Those of you who want to go ahead, that’s fine, but don’t cross the river on your own. No matter what, you wait for me.”
He takes a box out of one of his mochilas and a handful of coca from the other, which he proceeds to shove in his mouth. Some leaves still hang from his mouth as he continues. “You won’t know where and how to cross it. Buritaca es rio bravo. Only those of us from here understand it.” With that, he produces a black garbage bag from the box and hands one to those of us who didn’t have appropriate rain gear. Of course, the Belgians did. “Make a hole and stick it over your head and over your backpack,” he instructs me.
"I’m now starting to feel like Ingrid Betancourt,” I joke as I feel myself turn into a plastic forest gnome with a hunchback. “I feel like I've been kidnapped by the FARC.” I pick up my walking stick to continue the march, reminded of those endless marches that Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who spent six years in the hands of the guerrillas, writes about in her memoir. No one gets my joke. But then again, they didn't grow up with FARC fear. I am really trying to be a happy traveler like them, but it has proven a challenge. The story I see is so different from the story they see (or want to see). I noticed—they don't—that the town from where we set out for the hike goes by the telling and terrorizing name of Machete Pelao, or Bare Machete. Now that Colombia is turning a corner, it goes by the name of El Mamey, after a delicious tropical fruit. Someone in the tourism industry must have realized this new name made for better marketing, but to the locals traveling with us—Enrique, the cook, and his four kitchen assistants, who live there—it is still Machete Pelao, an appropriate name that speaks of the horrors committed inside today’s exotic park for foreigners. The cook and his staff wave good-bye. They have to be ready with our dinner when we arrive at the camp. Behind them are four mules laden with all they need to feed us in the upcoming days.
The trek gets harder and harder and the rain keeps falling and falling. My fellow travelers continue to revel in the surroundings, standing on ledges, pointing out into the green valleys and at peaks enveloped in clouds. I fight the vertigo of the precipice, a metaphor, perhaps, of how in my birthplace I’m always feeling like I’m one step from falling into the void. Celso stays by my side, whispering at times, “This is your beautiful Colombia; you can do it.”
We make it to Adán’s Cabin in the nick of time, minutes before the green roller-coaster paradise turns pitch dark. We rush like children at summer camp, exhausted and ravenous to choose the best bunk bed, to get out of our horribly wet clothes, to stand in line for showers—it’s too late to go to the river pool—where for a moment I’m a tenth of myself again as I feel a dribble of hot water and the dry mud starts to leave my body.
I never much liked summer camps as a child and here I am sitting with a bunch of adults in my PJs waiting for my food to arrive. We commiserate about the inclemency of the weather, which has caught us off guard since it is the middle of the dry season. First World-ers are so good at levity that they just joke about how we will be wearing moldy, smelly clothes for the entire trip. “We are going to know each other very intimately,” the German adds in her usual cheeky way. We move into dinner chitchat: The German gentleman works in the IT department of a big bank. The Belgian couple is ready for a big change—he will resign from his corporate job to become an artisanal baker. Being here has made that much clearer. The whiny Englishwoman is in the same boat; the French one just caresses a stray cat; the American is an “adrenaline junkie” and her next stop is bungee jumping in San Gil. She read in Lonely Planet that it's "a mecca for extreme-sports enthusiasts." I notice the lanky Dutch guy from one of the other groups who keeps scribbling in his notebooks in the oddest places. Here he is again after this excruciating day, writing while we eat.
We all have our stories and a reason for telling them.
I left Colombia in 1977 and never went back up to the Sierra Nevada for the make-believe Swiss-style weekends. Until now, that is my old story about this place. The next day, as I wake up deep inside this mountain, I start to make a brief timeline of what I had heard Enrique the Cook say. “Here, we go from bonanza to bonanza and this one, ecotourism, is the latest.”
Spanish conquistadors, of course, barged in and these incursions haven’t stopped since. Outsiders still feel the need to colonize the land of Celso’s ancestors. First, it was the bonanza of the tomb-raiders. In the fifties and sixties, a few daring rogue men from the country’s interior, fleeing the political violence of those days, entered the Sierra looking for huacas, the pre-Columbian artifacts found in Tayrona tombs. It was such hard work finding the treasures in the impenetrable forest that these huaqueros referred to the Sierra as “the green hell.” It was one of these looters who in 1972 bumped into the steps to the Lost City that we are determined to go see. Today, the grave-looters are gone. The government cracked down on them by making it illegal to trade in stolen huacas.
The seventies brought in the marijuana bonanza. American hippies, some claim they were Peace Corps volunteers, discovered the Sierra was ideal for growing a delicious cannabis, and campesinos from the area, like Enrique’s dad, settled in Machete ready to work in whatever the marijuana planters needed. By the early eighties that boom was over, killed off by American provisions of DDT.
By then, guerrilla groups had turned the prefabricated chalets of my childhood, with their fireplaces and tended gardens, into a FARC command fortress. Chasing after them came the armies of the AUC, the paramilitary forces that had vowed to exterminate the guerrilla forces. They also brought cocaine laboratories to the mountain. Again, Machete’s work force was lured by easy money, until another US-sponsored eradication program ended the bonanza de la coca.
All the while, Celso’s community has watched it all play out in their ancestral home. These four tribes believe that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of Mother Earth—Aluna to them. And that they were chosen to protect it. That’s why they are The Elders and everyone who is not a Tayrona is a “Little Brother.” This might sound like a Steven Spielberg screenplay but it’s real: In 1990, the mamos, mostly unknown to the world, summoned a BBC reporter into their territory. They had a message to the world: Mother Earth is unhappy. Little Brother is not treating her right. The snow is melting faster than it should. Little Brother must take better care of our planet. When the BBC aired the documentary, activists and anthropologists around the world embraced the unknown planet-protectors who seemed to have literally fallen from another world.
Still, the FARC and the AUC continued their fighting and their slashing and burning across their magic mountain. By the late nineties, Hernán Giraldo sent the FARC packing, becoming the Lord of the Sierra until the AUC and the government negotiated a demobilization process in 2002 and he was extradited to the United States.
We arrive at the next fruit stand. It’s surrounded by young men in camouflage. Now what? I thought this area was safe.
The backpackers had discovered Parque Tayrona and had turned Taganga, one of the coastal towns, into a beach bum’s mess when Giraldo was still there. Some would hire a local to venture into the mountain looking for the Lost City on their own and some would pay extra if someone would take them to visit a working cocaine farm. But that was all very underground. “Before, a few a year,” Celso tells me. “Now, a bonanza. Hundreds of foreigners every day.”
Celso is not exaggerating. We are at least sixty altogether at breakfast and they want us to hurry because the next groups are due soon. There is everything one could want: coffee, hot chocolate, tea, fresh fruit, toast, butter, jam and heaps of scrambled eggs. A miracle that the mules delivered all these eggs unbroken.
I set out, all ready in my plastic uniform, my walking stick, and a smile. I’m feeling more upbeat—do I have a choice?—even if I’m wearing the same socks, now soggy and orange, and my boots are so wet they spew water with every step. When my tour-mates complain and agree that it’s a difficult hike, I feel reassured. I see an Argentine woman take off her pair of Converse and go barefoot. A Colombian doctor whose Adidas gave in cries in despair: “Please, please, just tell me, how much more is a little more,” he pleads as he sits on a hill after the sole of his sneaker broke loose.
Celso asks the guides coming with the groups on the way down for reports on the terrain, especially the rivers. I hear a loud voice in an American accent: “Don’t look up and don’t look down.” The voice belongs to an exhausted young man with an athletic build wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts covered in wet clay. His words resonate and I follow his tip until we get to the next fruit stall. It’s surrounded by young men in camouflage. Now what? I thought this area was safe. The soldiers keep to themselves as we chomp the refreshing fruit and they don’t.
We climb up side by side for a stretch of the path, but there is no interaction between us. I had found a way to keep moving when the path becomes difficult: I get on all fours and crawl from one stone to the next. As I bend down to do so, a soldier jumps to my side and offers a hand.
“Gracias,” I say.
“What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Alexander.”
With Alexander’s offer of a hand, I open my mental notebook.
Alexander and his tropa are going up to Ciudad Perdida, too. They haven’t paid three hundred dollars to do this. That is about a month’s salary here. The government has a military base nearby and they are on their way to guard it. They look twelve years old but are probably eighteen and fulfilling their military service. I can tell by their accent that they are not from the area. They’ve just arrived by bus and had started walking like us from Machete Pelao—no guide, no mules, no overnight camps with beds and showers and cooks with staff for them. On their backs they carry everything they will need for their three-month stay.
I stop complaining, no matter how much I hurt.
Photo: Colombian troops hiking up to a military base atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Courtesy of Silvana Paternostro.
El Paraiso, the camp where we will spend the night before going up to the Lost City (Teyuna to the Tayronas), is as ramshackle and dirty as the last one. The Buritaca roars louder tonight than yesterday. As he did the night before at the end of our meal, Enrique brings over dessert, a Colombian brand of mini-brownies, and Celso, as always chewing on leaves, addresses the group, poporo in hand. “Tomorrow, when we go up to the Lost City,” he begins, “the river is very high and it’s going to be better to leave before it starts to rain again. We’ll wake up at five so we can be ready to start the climb up at six. We have two hours to get there and back. Leave everything packed because we need to leave right away. We are behind schedule. We have to make up for lost time. We have at least eight hours of walking after we come down from Teyuna.”
The English lady tries to change the schedule, but Celso just shrugs his shoulders. Instead, he says, “You all know that to get to Teyuna, there are twelve hundred steps. And we need to do them in less than an hour. The good news is that the mamo is there tomorrow and if we are lucky he will come out to speak to us.”
Twelve hundred steps in my New York City math is forty floors with no guardrails. “Celso,” I say quietly as he is about to leave. “I am not going up tomorrow. I will wait for all of you here.”
“Bien,” he says. "I’ve arranged for a mule to take you down tomorrow.”
The next morning, I have the camp staff all to myself. The adventuring lot has just left, some with nothing more than swim trunks and their walking sticks, to see the Great Place with the Many and Uneven Slippery Steps. I am happy to stay behind and listen to the roaring river. I ask for another cup of coffee and take a head count. In the kitchen, there’s Enrique, who sings while he works. I’m assuming that he has this job because there is no difference between preparing decent-tasting food in the middle of the rainforest for ravenous and exhausted tourists and feeding high-ranking paramilitary holdouts on the mountain. He has a team of four assistants, two men and two women, all in their twenties and good-looking. Up in the sleeping barracks, two more women, one of whom is more beautiful and younger than the other. At the sales stall, a handsome young man stands by in case anyone wants to buy a bottle of water, a bag of chips, a cigarette or two, or a rather hideous Lost City cap or T-shirt.
I ask if I can help them with their daily chores.
I start by making beds. I learn that the younger girl has only been here a week. Her boyfriend, the young man who keeps the store, asked her to come live with him. It was the only way they could be together. She lived in Bogotá and he only has one day off every fifteen. The other woman is her boyfriend’s older sister, and she has already been here a few years. Her husband works with the mamos in the keeping of the camps. I ask them if they have been to the Lost City and they both say no. I asked if they like being here and they both say no. I ask if the pay is good and they both say no. I ask if they wash the sheets every day and they both say no. They have washing and drying machines, but these aren’t very good and they wouldn’t be able to wash all the linens by the time the next group arrives. I ask if they were getting more tourists every day and they both nod yes. More than they could handle, yes. I ask if they would wash and dry my clothes for a tip—also yes.
The kitchen staff isn’t as friendly or as talkative, but I’m allowed to help. The assistant with deep blue eyes and a knife wound on his left cheek teaches me how to dry the plastic dishes and roll the knife and fork in white single-sheet paper napkins. I can’t understand why they roll them so tight that the napkin breaks and becomes useless. I ask but he says that’s just how it has to be. Sounds to me like a paramilitary rule, and I wonder about the cutlery at the infamous paramilitary bacchanals. I recall the story about the paramilitary with Italian blood who liked Brunello di Montalcino so much that he bought the entire vintage one year and how beautiful girls from the surrounding areas were helicoptered in. Perhaps an exaggeration, but I get nowhere trying to confirm it. All the kitchen assistant tells me about himself is that he is the son of a very abusive father. It was clear he preferred watching the just released video of "Despacito" on his smartphone than answering my questions.
I go sit next to one of the female assistants who stood out from day one. I've noticed the good looks of most of the work force, but she is a beauty with almond-shaped green eyes and the haughtiness of an empress, if one who dons cheap athletic leisurewear and a small diamond solitaire ring. She isn’t even pretending to work. She surfs the Internet for reggaeton videos as she tells me a little about herself. She is in her mid-twenties and a single mom of two—different fathers. The most recent one “now works in tourism” and she doesn’t like running into him. They are not on good terms. She likes talking to the father of her eldest, but he lives in the United States. “He’s in jail there,” she says as casually as if she were saying he works for a multinational and adds that he is accused of being a narcotraficante. “But he is a good man. He still takes care of us. He calls us on Skype whenever he can and he tells me how much he loves her. I think he has about seven years left there, but he might get out earlier for good behavior.”
These snippets make it clear that the Sierra has been carrying stories over a very long and complicated pregnancy and is now ready to give birth to them. Unlike Ali Baba, there is no need for magic words to open the treasure-filled trove of the Sierra’s untold stories. Story-raiders, like me, just need to ask.
It is time to return to the bottom of the mountain. My mule is waiting for me at the river crossing. Holding her is a tiny and agile Kogi, I can tell because of his hat. Next to him are two children—dirtier, hatless, and barefooted—and a dog. Celso introduces me. I mount the mule; we cross the Buritaca, and I wave back to my group who regaled me over lunch about the magic of Teyuna. They all came back sporting satisfied grins and mamo-blessed strings around their wrists. I note the size of my own smile as I lean forward and give the mule a few vigorous, circular strokes and a pat. “Muuuuuu-laaaaa,” my muleteer calls out, and I laugh out loud because this is a sound of my childhood. I repeat after him, as if blowing the mule a loud kiss. I’d ridden mules as a child, and like riding a bicycle one never forgets. I enjoy watching the experienced hikers with their fast-dry clothes, their mountain backpacks, and their trekking poles stand aside, eyes wide with fear. Mules scare them as much as precipices without guardrails make me quiver. My body sinks into the beast’s, and for the first time I wonder at the landscape around me. I feel the flutter of the blue butterflies and the immensity of the treetops and the open sky. I see the blue-winged and the scarlet-winged tanager, found nowhere else. My guide skips from rock to rock, while on the mule my body finds its balance as we move along. It’s almost a syncopated dance. I can see how someone would think twice about letting the mule chart its own path, but in my mind they know better than I do. I trust this mule more than my mangled feet.
My Kogi muleteer doesn’t want to strike up a conversation with a Little Brother. He has a small transistor radio wrapped in a plastic bag that he holds close to his ear, listening to scratchy vallenatos. He stops at his hut to drop off the children, and when a tinier woman comes out, I see between them that universal glance of husband and wife. She hands him some coca leaves from their garden and he gives her a handful of candy in silver-colored wrappers, like the ones we’d been given for dessert, and she smiles as if he’d given her precious stones. I am grateful to witness this moment.
I feel less so when he tells me that he will be dropping me off shortly, at the next stall, the one with the jokey compatriot from Barranquilla. I worry because he doesn’t seem to care that I’ve left my walking stick with Celso and that I don’t know when I will be reunited with them. The muleteer points to the sky and tells me that he needs to get home before it gets dark; his job is complete.
I have to figure out something quickly but then I hear, “Have you seen any of the cows around?” I turn to see a young handsome man so buffed up that his abs and biceps bulge through his mountain gear. “You know these gringos, always in search of some magic mushrooms.” Two thoughts cross my mind: How can anyone think about tripping right now, and two, I need to keep this guide on my side.
His name is Relámpago—Lightning—and between his alias and the way he unsheathes his machete when I ask him if he has an extra walking stick for me, I knew he was a Mowgli with a past. He bats away tree branches with the ease of a city brat brushing away shirts in a store rack. “A good one.” In a matter of seconds I have a stick.
“Can I join your group?” I ask. He doesn’t hesitate to help me and he doesn’t hesitate to share his story. He starts with a blanket statement: “My life has been awful.” He knows this mountain like the back of his hand, he says as he grabs a leaf and shows me how to make a white tattoo with its sap. At twelve, he ran away from his family in Machete to become a raspador in a cocaine laboratory around here. They paid him with food. Then he joined the paras.
“And now I have a new chance in life. I am a tourist guide,” he says.
Lightning has four children—“I started way too young”—that live with his mother because he has to spend so many nights away working “for the first time in my life, doing something that is good. The children sometimes don’t understand how good they have it.” They can now go to school, something that was never an option for him. “They even have a bus that picks them up every day.” He tells me he cries sometimes. I tell him that it might help him to write down his story. He says he’d rather tell it to someone else.
He drops me at the camp where his group and my group will spend the night. I go off to choose my bed thinking that Relámpago, like Colombia, has a chance to start again, that Relámpago is lucky that foreigners love skipping around the mountain and that he has had the chance to turn over the page of his “awful” past.
I greet my group as they arrive, aware now that I could never be like them. They have come here in wanderlust. I had tried to do the same but got toes that turned black and blue—and something else. The birds and the butterflies are amazing, but the most striking part of this journey has been seeing the faces that inhabit the stories of this place. How many more stories will I uncover if I keep asking each guide, each cook, each soldier, each Kogi, each Wiwa to tell me a little about themselves?
That night we share one last dinner filled with laughter and conversation. Everyone gulps down plate after plate of Enrique’s pasta special, spaghetti loaded with Colombian cheese, while we share our different stories about the Sierra. Beers in hand, we toast and clap. Trek to the Lost City, check. In the end, we all got what we came looking for.
Now that I’ve found my comfort zone, I’m in no hurry to depart. I’ve decided to stay an extra day, so Celso has arranged for me to continue my descent with Enrique and his fleet of mules. The Europeans and I say good-bye with insincere hugs. I jump up onto one mule and behind are the other three, now laden with garbage bags full of trash. “We recycle,” Enrique tells me and breaks into song.
Keen to get his story as well, I ask him where he learned to cook. “My mother,” he says. Enrique is eager to tell me more, to tell me pretty much anything I will want to know. For him, like for Relámpago, the Sierra has been his livelihood and his home. He ran away from home because his father made a little marijuana money, enough to buy too much alcohol and become an abusive drunk. Enrique has been able to survive thanks to his cooking skills, although sometimes he looks for gold in the river and lately he has started to grow cacao. “That is the next boom,” he tells me. “Marijuana, cocaine, and now cacao, organic. Maybe this one sticks.”
I ask him if he was around during the days of the paramilitary. “Let me show you one of Hernán Giraldo’s fincas,” he says and points to a house across the valley, a tiny white dot surrounded by clouds in a sea of many greens. It is not the outlandish palace one expects from a man in the drug trade. “He was feared but he was quite beloved. He cared for us. In fact, he appreciated good work and he was accessible to us mortals. He was there to listen to our daily challenges and was always willing to put his hand in his pockets and hand out a few bills if he thought you were worthy of his help.”
Enrique goes further. “I can also tell you that I saw many, many girls being brought to him there.” In fact, Giraldo might prefer serving time in jail in the United States in order to avoid a more serious charge in Colombia where he was convicted of raping dozens of under-aged girls. Many gave birth.
“I saw it with my own eyes. But I’m going to tell you one thing. I don’t blame him as much as I blame the girls' mothers. I saw how they would bring their own daughters and present them to Don Hernán. In return they would be taken care of, they would be sent groceries every week. They all prayed that he would get them pregnant because then he would really take care of the family.” I put two and two together and ask him if one of his assistants—the beautiful one—is one of those girls. “She was one of his favorites.”
Not wanting to dwell on the devastating details, I ask if he has made new friends in this new iteration for the inhabitants of Machete. He laughs out loud: He liked meeting the gay African-American New Yorkers who own a gym and had a hard time with the climb and the Puerto Rican couple that tried to help him get a passport so that he could go visit them and how he learned from that how difficult it is for Colombians to travel.
They all prayed that he would get them pregnant because then he would really take care of the family.
“We’ve arrived at Adán’s,” he says. It’s the same place where we had camped the first night, where we had arrived late and blinded by exhaustion, where we had not experienced the natural pool known for its shallow depth. Celso had told me the foreigners —especially the very tall ones—don't listen to the warning and get hurt when they jump from the rocks above. I cross the drawbridge with missing wooden slabs, the engorged river growling below. I notice that I feel fine. It stopped raining this morning and it’s already three in the afternoon. A dry trek on a mule is another story, I tell Enrique who walks away and breaks into song.
Adán is a legend on the Sierra. He is one of the original huaqueros who came during that bonanza and has lived here ever since. He looted their ancestors’ tombs and yet he is friends with the mamos. That’s why they have chosen his house as a mountain hostel. The moment I set foot inside the camp installations, I walk over to the pretty teenager behind the stall and ask after him.
“He is not available,” I am told as she turns around to run after a boy pedaling a plastic purple tricycle in the form of a truck.
I ask her for directions to the pool. She says we can find it behind the camp and points to a separate house where we enter an adobe room. It’s like walking into one of the thousands of pages that Gabriel García Márquez wrote about places like this. In the center of the room sits a faded billiard table with a mosquito net. In the center of the table, a small human figure rolled up in a ball is sound asleep. Don Adán, I guess out loud. So many questions, so many thoughts keep blurting out: If he runs this place, why is he asleep in the middle of the day? How does one get a billiard table all the way up here? I use a cliché I always try to avoid. If this isn’t magical realism I don’t know what is. And they say Gabo made up stuff. Gabo just recorded the absurdities that we have to live with; like this fucking tour, his books are like this trek, an adventure for gringos, they love them but once read they can go back to their lives. But we, we live with this.
As we are about to jump in, the sky rumbles. My mood darkens with the sky. The thought of waiting around another night on the bad mattress, the smelly sheets, the acrylic blanket weighs heavily. Immediately, instead of enjoying the “magical purifying water,” I see the spelling mistake on the sign announcing the fee for jumping in.
Back at the cabin, I sit down, like Isabel watching the rain in Macondo for eleven straight days. I watch the rain and I watch the rain, and we eat dinner and I watch the rain, and the boy keeps riding his plastic toy and I watch the rain and everyone sits in front of the plasma television and listens to news and telenovelas and I watch the rain until the little man who was sleeping comes out of his quarters. I jump up.
Don Adán is my height, not very tall; he wears three Tayrona necklaces and his pinky nails filed long. He has an Andean face, angular and weathered. His speech is still a bit slurred, but he, too, is happy to talk. He tells me he has been living in this same place since the day he arrived, several decades ago, and his business has been so prosperous that he was able to send all his children to live in the big cities. His sons were no good; they turned out like all men, they drank and spent his money, which was never enough for them. The “females” married badly, mostly to men who hit them. “It’s what happens,” he says, an undeniable fact of life like the fact that he knows he is getting old.
He explains the logic behind Adán’s Cabin. Because he has been here forever and he has a good relationship with the mamos, the tour companies pay him per bed and also compensate him for the use of his kitchen. It is a growing business, he says, but never as good as the price of a huaca. “I wear them now,” he says holding on to the necklaces made of white and rose-colored quartz, jade and gold. “Or I sell them to the mamos. They are my biggest customers now, they are trying to recuperate what is theirs.”
There is something more about him, something solemn. I learn it is intense grief: His youngest daughter was a determined woman who said she wouldn’t marry before she finished her studies. Don Adán told her that once she finished veterinary school she wouldn’t have to go work at a finca, like veterinarians here usually do. Her father would set her up with her own vet office. “That way the rich ranchers would have to hire her and she wouldn’t have to have a boss. She was the only one who made me proud. But the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
He gestures toward the sales stall, the tiny room where the same young beauty with tight jeans who has been running after the boy in the tricycle hands a bottle of water to the lanky Dutch guy who has lingered behind too, still scribbling away in his black notebook. I think Don Adán is pointing at the pre-Columbian items for sale in the shelf near the stall because he is trying to sell me one. “I sat in that place for four hours that day, waiting for her to arrive. My daughter was coming for the weekend. When she arrived, I told her to take my place because I had to go check the level of the river. That’s when it happened. The grace of God is too much. The snake must have been waiting for her because it got her the very moment she stepped inside. It should have been me.”
That is another surprise about the power of stories: Adán, the pioneer who opened the mountain paths we’ve been walking on, who dug for graves with his bare hands is, ultimately, a grieving father. I see his pain through his eyes and understand his sleeping pattern: What I had belittled as magical realism has turned into the universal story of loss. Nothing strikes at the core of tragedy like the death of a child, no matter where it happens—be it in the City of Lights or deep inside a Colombian mountain.
My heart heavier, I bid good-bye to Adán and later, in Machete, to Celso, who has brought a gift: a lemon-sized ball of pure chocolate from Enrique’s garden. We sit down at the same restaurant where we had started. I ask him what he wants now that Colombia is changing. He has clear plans: he wants to build a center where the tourists can learn more about his culture. He feels that the story of the Tayrona, if not told, will be lost to all the new visitors. I tell him I agree and reinforce this by adding that I am a writer.
“What is that?” he asks.
I try to explain and fail, so I say, “You know, writer, escritor, Gabriel García Márquez.”
“Who?” The stories never cease: I just found a Colombian who has never heard of Gabo.
As Colombian storytellers, we are living in unprecedented times. Just as I have done for four days, we have a chance to listen to stories that have been hidden in mountains and jungles for decades. Incredible stories because they come out of a place so wounded, where the human condition is always at test. Throughout all of Colombia as in the Sierra, stories are flowing out, like the Buritaca to the sea. This is where the latest challenge lies: to embrace that the old story is changing, to move forward in our narratives. Maybe we will start to incorporate bird-watching and bungee jumping, and we will begin telling stories of adventure and romance set in the places where guerrillas and paramilitary forces once pillaged, drug-trafficked, massacred, and raped. May the stories we tell for the next one hundred years not be of the same kind of solitude.
© Silvana Paternostro. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from his novel An Orphan World, Giuseppe Caputo explores the love between a father and son in the midst of poverty, as well as questions surrounding violence and homosexuality.
A butterfly flew down to a dark place;
all beautifully colored it seemed;
it was hard to tell.
MAROSA DI GIORGIO
One night, many moons ago, my father gave me a star. We lived on the breadline, as we do now, in a sad house with next to no furniture. And since the house was sad, with its bare white walls, my father decided to decorate it. Inspired by the earliest cave drawings, he began his artistic endeavor drawing a crayon cow on the kitchen wall: two black circles, one on top of the other, and two triangles for the ears. He added a tail, coiled like a spring, and for the face two dots—the eyes—and a smiling curve. “All that’s missing is the nose,” my father said, before drawing one: two dots, like the eyes, only bigger. Once finished, he pointed to the sketch and mumbled: “Cow.”
Afterward, he went to my room and, as if envisioning his next creation, stood contemplating the ceiling. He clambered onto the bed and reached up to touch it but couldn’t. He asked me to bring him a chair: he wanted to put the chair on the bed and then stand on the chair. I asked him to forget whatever it was he was up to: “You could fall, Dad. You could split your head open, or break your hip. The chair might break, and we don’t have furniture to go around breaking.” Clearly a little annoyed by my comment, my father turned his back on me and began drawing on the wall next to the door: another circle this time, and several lines which were meant to be the torso, arms, and legs. Above the stickman he wrote: “Dad,” and then he said: “Love you, little one.”
Our arms around each other we went to his room where he proceeded to draw another tiny body in exactly the spot where the light shone—the light that never went out; Dad was scared of the dark—and with the black crayon he drew a heart around the little man. He said: “You, my heart,” and kissed me on the forehead. It seemed to me the moment had come to make a positive comment and show him a little love, even spur him on in his new creative venture, so I stood there in silence staring at the portrait, mimicking the way he’d stared at the ceiling, and eventually I said: “You know, it makes me just want to cut out this piece of wall, frame it, and hang it right back up again, like a painting.” My father listened to me, half-bemused, half-satisfied, and went on drawing.
Our neighborhood had no streetlamps, so come night it was dark. We lived at one end of Light Street and were fenced in by three immensities: the city on one side, an electric forest; the sea on the other, sullied by the city; and the sky above, the same as it ever was, bursting into rain sometimes, into thunder at others. Just as it always had, transforming into stars, transforming into moon.
Light Street cut right through the city, which is where you got the parks and the huge houses like castles, all lit up. They called it Light Street because of the streetlamps, which appeared regularly enough at the start where the road began, became clustered in the middle, and then were almost nonexistent come the end, having grown gradually farther apart as the street encroached on our neighborhood. One by one the lamps went out, or simply fell behind, as if avoiding the outskirts, or as if the street grew sadder and sadder the closer it came to the parts around our house. But the sea was close by. Eternal. The old, spent sea, which left us the occasional unlikely offering.
One night, as my father and I strolled along the beach, we noticed that the waves had washed a sofa to the shore; and the sofa—bright red, and sort of run aground—was covered in seaweed. “If it’s not rotten,” my father said, “we can take it home. We need a sofa.” I moved in closer to inspect it and the stench knocked me dead: I cried out and retched. “That bad, eh?” he teased, to which I replied, coming back to my senses: “No, not too bad.” Then I took a handful of seaweed, slapped it on my head, and jumped up and down saying: “Look at my hair, so lush and long!” I danced and strutted about. Dad laughed. We both laughed. And then we carried on along the shore.
The sea’s waste was as beautiful as it was baffling. Clocks regularly washed up on the sand, many of them still working; the minute and second hands marking the exact time. And along with the clocks, poles—coconut branches or brooms—which Dad would use to sweep the foam, sending it back to the water. Quite often, the sea also carried lamps on its waves, and since they were never on, each time my father came across one he would say: “Let’s hope one of these nights the light holds out a little longer.” And with that, we’d slowly make our way home, arm in arm, going over the reasons behind our wretched problems.
“We’re really up the creek,” my father said the night he gave me the star. He chuckled as he said it, as if accepting his lot, our lot, and I looked at him, worried: tired, too, of worrying, and annoyed at him for having laughed. As I sat thinking about what to do, how to keep the house afloat, how to keep us afloat, Dad picked up a piece of tin from the floor. He cut around the edges, and carefully wrapped some used tinfoil around it, transforming it into a star. Then he poked a tiny hole in it and threaded a piece of wool through the hole. Finally, he tied the ends and hung the new chain around my neck. He said: “For you to remember, my star, that some things do still shine.”
From the outside, our house looked disheveled, its shingles all out of place. Inside it looked half-finished: lots of the floor tiles—black and white like a checkerboard—had come loose, and wobbled when we stepped on them. You could see pipes and cables poking out here and there.
There was a large window in our living room that faced out onto the street. We hadn’t ever hung curtains; there was no money for that. “Why should we cover the view with curtains,” Dad would ask, “when we’ve got a wall-to-wall work of art right here?” And he would sit by the window, sometimes for hours on end, gazing out onto the street in a state of perpetual marvel, calling out the titles he invented for each of the paintings that formed before his eyes: “Still Life with Trash Cans.” “String of Stars.” “Bird on a Wire.” “Thief with Victim.” “Cat, Run Over.” “Lone Man Picking Up Cigarette.” “Lovers in the Night”. “Moonless Sky.” “Self Portrait in Silence.” “Naked Night.”
And when I walked into the room and he spotted my reflection in the window, my father also named that painting: “Apparition of the Son.”
I would stare out of the window too, and from the other side, neighbors and passersby would look in. Often, on seeing the bare living room, with just a pair of chairs for furnishing, people would knock on the window and ask if the house was for sale. “Beat it, will you?” I’d tell them. “Don’t come around bothering us.” Musicians would pass by too, heading to or back from the bar district, and on seeing the house they’d laugh: “Would you look at that, a window made for serenading.” And they’d play a song and stand there, mocking us until I threw piss at them.
And then, one night, as he gazed out of the window, Dad had one of his epiphanies: “I’ve got it! I’ve had an idea. Come on, you. We’re going to the bar to make us some cash.” I told him we’d only end up spending money if we went to the bar, and that I didn’t want to keep on buying on credit–I was sick of it. To which he replied: “Don’t be such a sourpuss, come on.” I reminded him that fewer and fewer people hung out at The Drooler now, that it would just be the same old crowd, each person with less cash than the next. Tired of listening to me, Dad raised his voice and gave me the same line he always did: “Don’t answer back.” So we left the house—me biting my tongue—and once out on the street Dad began explaining that there were a lot of miserable men in the bar in need of advice.
“And where’s the money to be made in that?” I asked, genuinely intrigued, but also anticipating a bad night.
“It’s simple, see: I’m going to give advice to whoever wants it. The first piece is free, and from then on I charge. Winos tend to value my experience.”
This made me laugh and it occurred to me that, even if his plan turned awfully, it would do me good to be out. We put our arms around each other and walked along like that, all the way to The Drooler. Once there, the bouncer on the door, a newbie, welcomed us calling “Come on in! Congratulations!” and tossing a handful of tiny paper hearts into the air. I looked at him, baffled—my eyes, two questions—and the man added: “It’s Anniversary Night.”
“Excuse me,” my father said impatiently, perhaps a little uncomfortable. When we stepped inside we saw two couples: the first were drinking in complete silence; the second were arguing. At the bar, as if they hadn’t ever moved from their spots, were Ramón-Ramona—serving—and the Three Toupees: Alirio, Simón, and Garbanzos. We called them the Toupees because all three of them, despite clearly showing signs of balding, modeled haircuts veering from outlandish to genuinely frightful. It wasn’t clear if they were trying to emphasize their baldness or to hide it (as far as was humanly possible). Ramón-Ramona was sporting the same look as ever: hat and pants, a waistcoat embroidered in all different colors, and a fake beauty spot just above the mouth.
My father walked over to the fighting couple, pulled up a stool, and wished them good evening, as if they’d invited him to join them.
“Talk it out, that’s right.” The couple gawped at him, but before they could get a word in he added, this time just to her: “Good on you for hearing him out, but you don’t have to be his trash can. You don’t have to take his shit. Don’t ever become an emotional dumpster.”
I edged away from the unfolding scene, rolled my eyes, and sat down at the bar between Simón and Garbanzos. Ramón-Ramona put a glass of water in front of me and told me, in a tone somewhere between severe and affectionate, that we couldn’t keep drinking on credit. I said no problem, thanks, that I understood, and with a wink Ramón-Ramona replied: “But, you know: the door’s always open.” I explained about the bouncer throwing heart-shaped confetti at my father and me.
“Happy anniversary! My favorite couple.”
“Anyway, what happened to your other door guy?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, sweetheart. They knifed him.”
My father was back.
“Nothing?” he said. “You call that nothing? Imagine how alone that poor bouncer would feel if he could hear you, Ramón-Ramona. Take my advice: take care of the people around you. It’s good to know how to look after yourself, to be gentle on yourself and all of that, but other people deserve the same treatment. You think about that.”
“I was telling your son here that I can’t give you drinks on credit anymore,” Ramón-Ramona replied indifferently, wiping down the bar. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
“Another piece of advice,” my father went on. “A little exercise I’d recommend: buy yourself an egg and treat it as you would a son. Draw on it, if you like. A little face or whatnot. Put it in a basket, dress it up in some napkins, and take it everywhere with you. The challenge is to not drop it.”
“And you tell me why would I want to carry an egg around with me if I could just eat it?” Ramón-Ramona scoffed. “With the way this food shortage is panning out . . .”
“To learn how to look after others. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to charge you: the first piece of advice is free, and from then on it’s a hundred a pop.”
“In that case, I’m afraid I’m going to have to get my little debt book out,” Ramón-Ramona said, eyebrows raised. “There’s not a single page without your names on.”
“Don’t tell me, Garbanzos is in there too,” Simón chipped in.
“Garbanzos owes less.”
“Well, he’ll soon catch up, what with that belly full of bile,” Alirio said, moving in closer. “He’s already polished off three quarters of the bottle.”
“What’s happened?” I asked Garbanzos.
“Come on, tell me all about it,” Dad said. “The first piece of advice is free, the second will set you back a round hundred.”
“I thought my neighbor was dead,” Garbanzos began, “but it turns out he’s as alive as they come, and he’s eaten my dog Paws.”
“Shocking,” Simón said.
“No, no, no,” Ramón-Ramona interjected, “Tell us properly, from the beginning. What happened?”
“We’re dealing with two separate issues here,” my father recapped. “Death, and the dog.”
“I hadn’t seen my neighbor for weeks,” Garbanzos went on. “We always say hello when we turn on our lights; you know, window to window. Then, one night, I just stopped seeing him.”
“Very important that, cordiality among neighbors,” my father reflected. “And respect, too, of course. But you don’t have to respect everyone. Not everyone deserves respect.”
“Yeah, thanks for that!” the man from the fighting couple shouted over to the bar. “I owe you a hundred, you old fart!”
“Don’t put up with him!” my father shouted to the woman. “Forget him! There’s no shame in being on your own.”
The man went on yelling. The woman, meanwhile, had begun hitting him.
“Are you chasing away my clients?” Ramón-Ramona said. “I’m watching you.”
The couple left the bar in a rage. The bouncer, I noticed, tossed hearts over them as they passed. Garbanzos took another swig of his drink and went on with his story.
“Well, more nights went by and I still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of my neighbor. I snuck looks through his window when I took Paws out and the table was laid but there was no food on it. Just a glass, a plate, and a knife and fork. I didn’t see so much as a slice of bread.”
“It doesn’t sound good,” I said, really just to say something.
“My neighbor thought Paws was—oh, Jesus!—well fed. ‘He’s got plenty of meat on him,’ he shouted at me from his window one night when I took Paws out for his walk. But it was just his fur that made him look chunky.”
“You have to show animals love,” Alirio said, and Dad shot him a furious look, as if he’d just been placed at a disadvantage. As if Alirio were feathering his own nest with his idea.
“Paws would sometimes get out through the door,” Garbanzos went on. “But he’d always comes back after a while like a good boy. Like he missed me. And I’d be waiting for him in the living room, and we’d play fetch.”
“Beautiful,” Simón said, and I noticed that Ramón-Ramona was snickering, staring at the dishwasher, mouth clamped shut.
“I haven’t seen my boy since last night. Then, a few hours ago, on my way here, I looked in through my neighbor’s window and there he was, after all those nights not being there, leaning back at the table, rubbing his belly with the look of a man who’d had his fill of dog.”
“That’s pretty serious,” Alirio said. “Not much to be done there.”
“A word of advice,” my father cut in. “You need some flowers in the house.”
“What for?” Garbanzos asked.
“They might raise your spirits.”
“OK, OK, time out,” Ramón-Ramona said, eyes brimming with tears from holding in the laughter so long. “I very much doubt the neighbor’s eaten Paws. I’m sure the little pup will show up.”
“I’m not,” Garbanzos said, and clutching the bottle to his chest, he burst into tears.
My father took a deep breath, but just as he was about to offer another piece of advice, Ramón-Ramona pointed at their glasses and said: “What’ll it be? Drinks are on the house,” and we broke into applause and song.
A drunk stumbled up to the bar.
“I look at you and I get all confused. What exactly are you?”
“Can’t you tell?” Ramón-Ramona asked in return.
“I can’t, no. That’s why I asked. Are you a man or a woman?” the man went on.
“Come here, and I’ll show you,” Ramón-Ramona said. A second later, having got a good eyeful of the underside of Ramón-Ramona’s apron, the man left with his head hanging down.
That night we left the bar well lubricated. As we said our good-byes, the bouncer once again sprinkled us with little hearts. We went to the beach, my father and I: the waves only washed in pebbles and shells. The sofa was still there, beached; not so red now, but the air around it wasn’t fit for breathing. Exhausted, Dad sat down on it. “I promise you,” he said, “we’re going to get out of this fix.” I told him not to think about it anymore, not to worry, that I was going to provide for us both. I said: “Dad, we’ll think of something.”
Later, in silence, the dying waves—spread out like blankets—returned the bodies of three old men to the shore. “Or maybe three young men,” I thought, “who’d been in the water a long time.”
That’s how we lived, my father and I, in this gray neighborhood—sometimes smoke gray, sometimes black, never at peace in that vicious cycle. Each time the food cupboard began to look bare (we ate more eggs than anything), each time the banknotes became coins and the coins, fewer coins, each time we pawned a piece of furniture, clothing, a domestic appliance, my father would stop sleeping, and he would go on like that for several nights until he came up with a plan to reclaim our things, turn the coins into banknotes, and stock up the cupboard.
At one point he wanted to become a tailor, but when he tried to mend his own clothes, he realized he could barely sew a hem. “We’ll learn,” I said. “But that takes time.” And although he did try, my father soon lost his patience: “Not my forte.” His next plan was to sell empanadas, which we would make together. But people showed up at the house without a penny, and he didn’t have the heart to turn them away, or he simply didn’t know how. “Eat up, eat up. You can pay me later,” he’d say, ever industrious, serving them from the window. The empanada business went under before it had even formally opened, mainly because Dad began to get the feeling that the neighbors were taking advantage. “Some of them have the money and they just play dumb,” he decided. And with every unsuccessful venture, the cycle of poverty would start all over again: he’d stare at the food cupboard, stop sleeping, come up with an idea, try to pull it off, fail, stare at the food cupboard, stop sleeping, come up with an idea, try to pull it off, fail . . . Between one failure and the next we would either take out credit or pawn something, until the money ran out again, and the time came to get hold of some more.
One night, as he was frying an egg, my father called for me to come quickly. “See that?” he said. “Tell me you see it.” And I told him: “Yeah, you said we’d be having an egg.” He rolled his eyes and gave me a ticking off: he said all I ever thought about was food. Dad hadn’t slept for several nights and the lack of sleep was making him touchy. I decided it was better not to argue with him.
He told me the egg looked like a lion and that the sound of the stove made it look like it was roaring. “You take over dinner,” he said. “I’ve had an idea.” He turned around and, crayon in hand, began to do some of his sketches on the wall: a circle with arrows—a clock, perhaps—and something like a window or a door. Above it all he wrote: “Blah, blah, blah.”
Then he drew a mirror and, next to that, a frying pan. Above them, too, he wrote: “Blah, blah, blah.” I pressed the egg with the back of the spoon: the yellow spilt over the white and I told Dad dinner was nearly ready:
“It won’t be a second. The yolk’s just cooking.”
“But I like it runny!” he shouted from the living room.
“Nah. It’s easier to cut in half if it’s cooked through.”
“I like it runny,” Dad repeated, pretending he hadn’t heard me.
I cut the egg—cooked through, in the end—in two, and gave the bigger half to my father, who was gazing at his drawings, seemingly deep in thought.
“It’s harder to cut in two if it’s runny,” I said.
“That’s all right. Mmm, delicious,” and he carried on admiring his drawings.
On the wall he had drawn some swirls like waves around a giant sofa. I guessed it was the sea, our sea, carrying the sofa to the shore. And while, on the whole, I barely understood my father’s scrawls, that night he drew a triangle on top of a square, and straight away I recognized it was a house. He added the door, the windows, and finally, once again, the words “Blah, blah, blah.”
“What I’m thinking,” Dad said, “is to turn this house into an attraction and open it up to the public. That’ll get us out of this mess.”
“What do you mean, an attraction?” I asked as I ate my half of the egg.
“It’ll be called ‘The Talking House,’” he said, as if thinking aloud. “It’ll be the neighborhood’s first real spectacle: the house that talks to the locals and tells them how it’s doing.”
I lost interest in the idea before he’d finished explaining it. My instinct told me it wouldn’t work, and that not only would it not get us out of our current mess, but it would make us even worse off. But my father was now talking about tape recorders and different kinds of voices. He said we didn’t need much, and we could get the cassette player on loan.
“And if they insist on charging us for it,” he went on, “we’ll pay them with the money we got for your bed. Or better still, with what they pay us.”
“With what who pays us?” I asked, sensing my father was about to launch into some optimistic accounting.
“Our clients, who else? They’ll happily pay for entry to The Talking House.”
“Pay to see what exactly?”
“Goodness me, what a question . . .” he chided me before tucking back into his egg. “Wouldn’t you pay to speak to your house? Wouldn’t you pay to know what it thinks, and how the all the objects inside it are: the furniture, the stove? By my calculations, we’ll be hiring staff in a matter of weeks.”
“This is even worse than I’d thought,” I thought to myself, half cynical, half dumbstruck. But I couldn’t help but be moved by my father’s quixotic plans. He was talking now about the possible conversations that the objects might have with one another, that the house might have with its objects, or the objects with the visitors and the visitors with the house. “I think the chair,” he said, “could ask guests to sit down on it. Firmly at first, then flirtatiously, like it really yearned to have a pair of buttocks on its lap.”
I burst out laughing and my father joined in. I said: “I don’t know if you’ve lost your marbles or you’re an undiscovered genius, but let’s give it a go. All hands on deck. Let’s get the house ready.” And together we began to plan how to give life and a voice to the few items we owned.
A few nights before we inaugurated The Talking House, my father wanted to do an inventory of our belongings. Making out as if it were absolutely essential that we count them—as if there were the remotest possibility of a visitor getting lost among the bareness—he said, bossily: “Take notes.” I took the crayon and on a piece of cardstock wrote: One crayon, and one piece of cardstock. My father oversaw the list-making with a sharp eye:
“Very good, but you need to be more specific. Put the color of the crayon.”
So I wrote black next to crayon, and carefully followed his dictation.
“One mirror, oval, no frame. Gift from the ocean.”
“That’s very long,” I said. “I’m just going to put down mirror.”
“No way, sunshine. And you can add Includes wire for hanging to that, too.”
“Fine. What else? The clock . . .”
“One wall clock, no alarm, house-shaped. Red hands with animals at the tips: an owl, a fish, and a kitty.”
“There isn’t room for all of that.”
“Well, write smaller.”
“I can’t, the crayon is too fat.”
“Of course you can. What do you mean you can’t?”
And we went on like that for a good while longer, until the inventory was complete: we added the fan, my father’s bed (with respective mattress), the tape recorder and its accompanying cassette (which my father bought with some of the money they gave him for my bed), the frying pan, the table, two glasses, and two chairs. Everything else had either been sold, pawned, or we’d never owned it.
“Ah, we missed something,” Dad said.
“The soap. Write: Detergent powder for colored clothes. Also useful for washing and cleaning dishes.”
Causes itching and rashes, I added.
To advertise the opening of our house of wonders we wrote on a bit of cardboard: New Attraction, Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood. Next we put the sign in the living room window and rehearsed—as if there were already visitors at the door—the routine that would give life and a voice to the house and all the items in it: the main gist was to play a tape my father had prerecorded, putting on voices for every object, nook and cranny in our home. The trick was to conceal the tape recorder in one of our pockets (preferably the back pant pocket) and to synchronize every action on the tape with the tour of the space we’d give our visitors. So, for instance, in the entranceway, we would hear the door—or rather, my father’s voice on the tape—welcoming everyone to the house. Passing by the living room, we would hear the chairs talking. “Timing,” my father said, “is everything. Remember that.”
But come the opening night, there was not a soul on the block when we opened our doors to the public. We headed to The Drooler on the hunt for our first patrons. “We’re bound to snap up a couple there,” Dad said. And yet, when we arrived we noticed there was no bouncer (neither the one who’d been stabbed nor the heart sprinkler). The only people inside were the Three Toupees.
“Ramón-Ramona?” I asked.
“Restroom,” Garbanzos said. “Won’t be long.”
“So how are you?”
“Devastated,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “Devastated, what with my neighbor.”
“What’s he done now?”
“Oh, the usual, my friend. Just polishing off the dogs on the block, one by one. He won’t stop till he’s had them all.”
“Don’t start this again,” Ramón-Ramona said, now back behind the bar. “I’m beginning to think you’re the one eating all the dogs.”
“How dare you?” Garbanzos said, outraged.
“Oh, Jesus,” Alirio said, “I’ve been thinking the same.”
“I’ll eat you if you don’t stop with this bullshit.”
“Watch it, fellas,” Simón chipped in. “He’s more than capable.”
“You better believe I am.”
Meanwhile, my father scanned the bar. I suppose he was looking at how empty it was, letting the sorry state of the neighborhood sink in, as if that space forced him to grasp just how bad it had got. I watched him and wondered what effect those empty tables would have on him, how much less sleep he’d get now. And I wondered what his reaction would be. If he’d be alarmed or paralyzed or exactly the same. I wondered what we were going to do, what was within our power to do.
“I’ve been thinking,” Ramón-Ramona said, “that it’d be good to give the bar a new name, lure the old clients back. You know, novelty factor.”
“What’ll you call it?” Simón asked.
“The Hair-Puller,” he said. “Or The Tummy-Scrubber.”
“I prefer The Drooler.”
“But the new name will be in neon . . .”
My father gave a hoot and, his spirits clearly raised, he invited everyone over to the house. “A lot of strange things have been going on lately,” he said, trying and failing to wink at me on the sly. “We’ve been hearing voices.”
“Now that is serious,” Alirio said. “Ghosts are no laughing matter.”
“They’re not ghosts,” I explained, and my father dug his elbow into me.
“Let them think what they want,” he whispered. “That way the surprise will be even better.”
“I can’t hear a thing except Paws,” Garbanzos sighed. “How much must that poor dog have yowled his heart out? How much must he have suffered?”
As Ramón-Ramona locked up the bar, we noticed a group of men waiting in line to enter Moon on the corner.
“They’re the only ones who come around here anymore,” someone, perhaps Simón, said.
My father stood staring at the crowd. I could tell he was thinking it was his chance to clinch some clients for The Talking House. But those men hadn’t come all that way to do anything but dance and see Moon. I seriously doubted they’d want to come with us, or pay a penny to come over to listen to those tape recordings.
My father went on watching them. Determined not to let him get into any trouble or make a fool of himself, I proposed that we take Ramón-Ramona to see the house first, as a kind of repayment for all the drinks we’d got on credit.
“There’s quite a few of us with the Three Toupees on board too. We can come back another time for more customers,” I said.
“Fine,” he replied, still not looking at me.
I was surprised by how easy it was to convince him. He usually lost it with me when I talked back.
“You OK?” I asked.
So we walked together to the house, gazing at the electric forest in the distance. I liked looking at it really carefully. Sometimes I could make out the moment someone in the distance turned on a light, and when this happened, it looked like the forest was growing before my eyes. Then a different light would go out, or the same one, and that happened over and over and the forest changed shape for an instant. The forest lighting up the night. The forest buried beneath the night. Starry for an instant, the forest twinkling, twinkling electric, starry for an instant, an instant, an instant.
The night the neighborhood filled up with bodies—a forest of corpses, it seemed to us—was the night we invited Ramón-Ramona and the Three Toupees to experience, in my father’s words, “the virtues and eccentricities of The Talking House.”
“Say hello,” he told us when we reached the house, quickly pressing play on the tape recorder.
Alirio and Simón dutifully greeted the door, and seconds later—quite a few seconds later, it seemed to me—we heard my father’s singsong voice exclaiming: “Good evening, and welcome. I am the door.”
Garbanzos looked at Dad (whose mouth was clamped shut, I suppose to prove to Garbanzos that it wasn’t him speaking), then at me, and then at the keyhole. After that he raised his eyebrows, heaved a sigh, and started snickering.
“The moment you open me,” the recording went on, “you’ll discover the most wondrous of worlds. Come on in and see for yourselves, the one, the only, The Talking House.” Dad took out his keys to open the door, but let them fall on the ground. He made frantic signs at me to pick them up myself, and that’s what I did, but before I could open the door we were already listening to its voice complaining: “Close me, please. I don’t like being left open.”
“But no one’s even touched you,” Ramón-Ramona said, talking to the handle a little too earnestly.
“What are you looking at?” the recording went on (supposedly speaking as the mirror now, in the hallway, although we were still outside). “Are you looking at you or at me?”
“Open it,” Dad hissed at me. The lock wouldn’t give. “Open it, come on.”
“Don’t just stand there all night,” the voice—the mirror—went on. “Hurry along, now. Don’t get caught up looking at yourself in me.”
“I don’t get it,” Simón admitted. “Is it meant to be the house talking?”
“Looks more like his butthole’s doing the talking,” Garbanzos said, staring at the tape recorder ineffectually concealed in my father’s back pocket. “You’ve got yourself another idea there, mate: the talking butthole, ho, ho, ho . . . The blabbering butthole.”
“Give me those,” Dad snapped, snatching the keys from me furiously. “The first thing I tell you to do and you go and mess up. I told you a hundred times: timing is everything.”
“But you’re the one who dropped the keys . . .”
“How hard is it to open a door?”
“Hey, no fighting,” Ramón-Ramona intervened. “If you fight, I’m off.”
“I still don’t get it,” Simón said again. “What is it we’re meant to do?”
“Why don’t you pause the tape?” Garbanzos suggested, stifling his laughter.
Alirio, meanwhile, was biting his nails. He kept staring out onto the street for moments at a time, I’m not sure if distracted or fixated. Then he’d stare at us, one by one. Several times, too, he spun around suddenly, to the house then back to the street. “Did you hear that?” he’d say. But between us we just ignored or talked over him, no one more so than my father, who was now trying to convince Garbanzos that it was the house, and not he, who was speaking.
Finally the lock gave. We filed into the house, I’d say not overly enthused about the tour, and left the door ajar. “I’m tired of being on the move,” the recorder said—it was the clock, my father explained—“I run and I run and I never stop. I’m tired.”
“This way,” I ushered the visitors in an attempt to synchronize sound with object.
“Yes, come along,” Dad said, backing me up.
We stopped in front of the clock, and with a pensive look on his face my father asked it: “Little clock, little clock who marks the time, who knows and tells the time, tell me something: has it always existed? Time, I mean. Will it just stop one night?”
Garbanzos let out a snigger, which Ramón-Ramona seconded. My father chose to ignore them and stood there looking at the clock, feigning interest in whatever answer it might give.
“I feel like I’m always chasing people,” the clock replied. “As if I were hounding them, or pressuring them all the time, telling them: hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry. I don’t like that feeling.” My father glanced at us, realizing he’d asked the wrong question, and quickly corrected himself: “But tell me, little clock, on behalf of time: have you always existed? Will you simply stop one night . . . ?” The tape interrupted him saying: “I, too, ask myself if I’ve always existed. I can’t say if one night I’ll simply stop existing.”
“Thank you, clock,” Dad replied.
The others all burst out laughing. My father looked at them, perplexed, genuinely curious to know what they were laughing at. “Let’s move on to the kitchen, shall we,” he said, turning a blind eye. Next thing, the tape was back: “Watch your step, mister! Don’t tread on me!”
“I’m sorry,” Dad said, looking down at the floor. “We need a rug.”
“Watch it, watch it!” the tape went on as we walked to the kitchen. “Don’t walk all over me.” When we reached the kitchen, all of the others in hysterics, my father went up to the stove, poured some oil in the pan (a drop), lit the burner, and began frying an egg. “It burns, it burns,” moaned the stove, or the egg. “Does anyone even care if they burn me?” Ramón-Ramona, meanwhile, was inspecting the drawings my father had decorated the walls with.
“If you look closely,” Dad explained, “the egg looks like a lion. The white’s his mane. And if you listen carefully, you can hear him roar. But I ask you now, gentlemen: Does it just happen to look like a lion, or did the oil, the egg and the frying pan agree to recreate the beast together? These are questions we cannot help but ask ourselves in this house of wonders.”
“Interesting,” I said, faced with the others’ silence.
And back came the tape (the pan or the egg): “It burns, it burns. You’re burning me.”
“Well, do something! Don’t just stand there, you lot,” Simón pleaded, and I didn’t know if he was going along with my father, if he merely wanted us to turn off the recording, or if he really did want us to turn off the burner and put the frying pan and egg out of their misery.
“Wonderful drawings,” Ramón-Ramona said to my father, clearly moved. “Did you do them?”
“Yes,” he said proudly. “That one up there is a cow.”
“And this one?”
“Another cow, under the shade of a tree.”
“Well, what do you know,” Garbanzos said. “I thought it was a cow with a wig on.”
“And all this?” Ramón-Ramona went on, ignoring Garbanzo.
“My lovely son,” Dad replied, making me blush. I gave him a hug and we stayed like that, hugging, until the egg said: “I’m ready! You can eat me now.”
“Once I’ve got a bit of spare cash, I’m going to buy you crayons in all different colors,” Ramón-Ramona said.
“Well, thank you. The black is running out,” Dad replied as he switched off the flame.
“How sad, this life of mine,” the egg concluded. “To end so soon.” And my father said: “We’ll eat you later, don’t worry.”
We all moved back into the living room and my father asked us to come over to the window, which we did, Alirio and Simón both distracted, Garbanzos with a little smirk on his face, Ramón-Ramona yawning, and me happy, because my father seemed to have snapped out of his rage. Two, three, four seconds later, the recorder began speaking as the window in my father’s by now hoarse, almost fluey voice: “Outside, the wind is lashing me.”
“Did you hear that?” Alirio asked. “What is that noise?”
“The window,” Dad answered. “It’s telling us that the wind outside . . .”
“No, not that.”
“It sounds like screaming,” I ventured to say, and instantly began to feel anxious. The recording, meanwhile, went on.
“Pause it, for fuck’s sake,” Garbanzos said to Dad. “Let us listen.”
“Pause what?” he answered, playing dumb.
“Be quiet, man. Just for a second,” Alirio asked. But the recording played on. “I run and I run and I never stop. I’m tired.”
“Pause it, Dad, please,” I said, losing my patience. I was sure now that there were people screaming outside. “We can’t carry on.”
But the tape reran: “Watch it, watch it!” the floor (my father, his voice) cried. “Ouch, you’re treading on me.” Exasperated, I launched myself at him and barked: “Give me that,” snatching the recorder from his back pocket. In my attempt to stop the tape, I ended up rewinding it.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Dad whined. “You’ve ruined everything.”
“Will you let us listen, man!” Garbanzos said, losing his wits.
“Now no one’s going to believe the house can talk.”
“Nobody believed it anyway.”
“You’ve given the trick away.”
“Do you really think anyone believes the house was talking?”
“What would you know?”
“They were laughing, Dad. Or at best playing along.”
The Three Toupees and Ramón-Ramona had left the house. We watched them through the window. They were talking and gesticulating, speculating, maybe, about what was going on. They also talked to several passersby.
“Dad,” I said, trying to calm myself down. “I need to know that you get that nobody here believes the house actually talks. They came because you invited them and because, to get them here, you said you wanted to show them something: weird goings-on. I know you have a plan and that you’d like it, just as I’d like it, if lots of visitors came, but nobody thinks that the house really speaks—not for one second. Do you understand that? It’s a game: you put it out there and the others decide if they’re willing to go along with it or not. The Three Toupees, Ramón-Ramona, they went along with it.”
“I don’t know,” my father said, looking down at his feet. “I just hoped that one of them wouldn’t work it out and that I could show them the tape recorder at the end.”
“They all knew from the start. They went along with it. They were laughing.”
Then Alirio and Ramón-Ramona started waving at us and we went out to join them. We talked. They told us what they’d heard. We set off walking. On the corner some men were crying. One of them was almost choking, saying: “Horrible, horrible,” and “Oh, God. Oh, God,” and my eyes, I thought, began to pop wide open like the man’s. I took Dad’s hand, asking myself, in a daze, what kind of effect it would have on him to witness what we were about to witness. And I walked by his side, slowly, my arm around him, glancing over at the Toupees every now and then, and at Ramón-Ramona, who was also walking slowly, and yet at the same time feverishly, hurriedly.
There, in the bar district, we found men with no heads: four or five bodies floating, from their neck down to their legs, in their own lake. Beyond them a little heap: the pierced red flesh of a man (or several men) who had been dancing. Another body, on the other side of the street, was still in one piece: one gushed liquid that flowed into a puddle, and the puddle made a moat around his nose, and his nose, then, seemed to float in the middle of his face.
The streetlamps, which hadn’t lit the streets for years, now contained severed heads where light should be. Two of them, exhibited there in their vitrines, had their mouths agape and tongues peeping out, as if their teeth were stopping the still wet muscle from fully slipping out. (Looking at these heads I thought, somewhat absurdly, that at some point in the night, light would start coming from their lantern-lips. I also thought, later on, that those lips were burning darkness.)
They’d been playful: we saw a torso propping up two legs, and not the other way around. We saw arms protruding from other arms, stuck to other arms; cocks and balls hanging from a tree like fruit. A man-turned-swing: they’d tied his arms and legs to two posts and, doing the splits, like a kind of arc, he rocked back and forth. They’d propped another body on top of him—a corpse swinging himself.
They’d turned others into mannequins—and those bruised mannequins, gaping in parts, posed in nooks and on corners with no say in the matter. Some were missing their hands and feet; others were merely busts. I recognized several of them, or that’s what I thought, or wanted to believe; others had had their faces branded.
The spectacle—yes, the spectacle—carried on down toward the park: in the sanded area, where no one ever went anymore, lay the body of a man dressed in white; his eyes were in his mouth and his sockets stuffed with dirt. His intestines were flowing out of his rectum, not unlike water spouting from a fountain. A dog was licking them.
Later, in the square, came the hanged men. Those bodies hanging in mid-air seemed to stare impassively at the other corpses before them. And those corpses had been made to look like women: they’d stuck stones down their chests, like breasts; they’d cut off their cocks. Among them hung one with his stomach moving of its own accord. “He’s alive,” someone said. It had been cut open, the stomach, then they’d stitched it back up. Moving in closer we saw a beak appearing and disappearing out of that stomach, stubbornly pecking at the stitches to make its way out. Finally, a chicken broke free from the fissure and the anonymous body fell still.
Last came the gored. In their lifelike lifelessness they looked like sculptures, those bodies on stakes. Some, further down, were on all fours, arranged in a circle, as if each were attached to the next. A little further on, a tree branch—the tree itself—raped a body for all eternity.
“Keep on prancing, fairies,” they’d written in blood. My father leaned against the wall for a moment. I’m not sure if doing this he accidentally pressed the play button, or if it was a conscious decision, but walking among the bodies, we heard that recording again: “Watch it, watch it!” those men-turned-objects seemed to say. “I’m boiling over, I’m burning.”
“What are you looking at?”
“That burns . . . It’s burning me!”
“I run and I run and I run . . . I’m tired . . .”
“Close me, please. I don’t like being left open.”
“Does no one care that I’m burning?”
“Outside, the wind is lashing me . . .”
“Ow! Ow . . .”
“How sad, this life of mine. How sad to end so soon . . .”
“Hurry along, now. Don’t get caught up looking at yourself in me.”
© Giuseppe Caputo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Óscar Collazos, two brothers whose parents consider them beyond redemption bond over unspeakable acts and their communal rebellion.
Alberto returned home and went to his room without saying a word, evading Mom’s eyes (What are you doing home? I thought you went to Confession?) and avoiding her questions. Then I thought: Something must have happened to him. I chose to continue on with the sports page, distracting myself by focusing on the photos and headlines though without really concentrating, thinking what Mom would be thinking, It’s your fault for setting a bad example. I got up off the couch and went to ask Alberto something, figuring he might be willing to confide in me (I remember that there had always been some sort of confidence between us) but it was all for naught. I remembered the first rule when it came to judging Alberto—He’s a stubborn one—and that was enough for me to give up the attempt. Later I tried again, hoping to draw something out by commenting on the Millonarios game against Cali, on how well the Millos striker played and how bad the defense was in the first half; Sure, but things got better when they subbed out that gimp Flores, Alberto said, and I felt more confident, figuring I had found the way: it would be easier now to earn his confidence because I was still insistent on learning why he came home so soon and why he was stubbornly refusing to talk about it.
Alberto lowered his head again, as if I were Dad and was scolding him, occasionally looking up and biting his nails (When are you going to stop doing that, you filthy little pig?), rolling his eyes back to expose a surprising amount of whiteness, like that of a void. Let him throw a tantrum, Mom shouted from her room. When he’s done, we’ll see what that little nonbeliever has to say, she continued, which I took as a direct shot at myself, as if she were saying, It’s your fault he acts like this, as if that little nonbeliever were an accusation, since she was always saying I set a bad example and therefore was responsible for the behavior of my brothers. Of course! They’re just following your lead, Dad said one night when my brothers started coming home after nine o’clock at night, one of them smelling of beer. If they’re doing this at thirteen, what’s next? Mom said then, piggybacking on Dad’s accusation.
I remembered a dream from months earlier: I was on my own, sitting on one of those stools you only see in comic strips and children’s books where a kid wearing a dunce hat sits while others laugh at him. There were many people all around me, among them, perhaps, Mom and Dad, shouting louder and louder while I remained silent, all of them watching me, approaching me, pointing at me without ever averting their swollen, bulging eyes. It was as if they were making me the target of some blame I could not identify during that moment of sleep, and the sensation it produced was not unlike having an unwanted weight pressing down upon my body. I remember the next day there remained only isolated images of the dream, of the vague accusations I could draw from it, and for several days they were repeated in greater and greater clarity until they became fixed in my memory. Upon remembering this, I associated the idea of guilt, the guilt that seemed to fixate on me day after day, with that of the You’re setting a bad example for those kids.
Something must have happened to him, I said to myself, thinking again of Alberto, for he was the first to recognize his religiosity, to remember the time he stayed with the priests, playing parish soccer and doing other parochial activities, even the Sunday strolls and surprise gifts, and—many years before—the prayer cards and medallions, things that once caught my attention but which later had ceased to interest me. I was indifferent by then, to the point where it created a real clash between my mom and me, she being the one who cared most about our behavior regarding such matters. I pressed forward with Alberto on his team’s scoring, fanning his passion and fueling his excitement, and I managed to draw out a few sentences of acceptance followed by sobs. Yes, what did you expect? he simply said curtly, before finishing his statement with feigned sincerity: Did you want us to lose?
I chose instead to leave him alone and go back into the living room where Mom was still ranting and raving, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days they take down the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and light it on fire right in front of me, she muttered while cleaning the dining room. I opted for silence. Stretched out in an armchair, I listened instead to the music on the local radio station: exclusive music, lively up-tempo songs that couldn’t be heard on other stations because they had been banned: the latest records produced in Puerto Rico and smuggled here. I sat there for an hour or so until the broadcast was interrupted by the chords of the national anthem. I remember, when I was a child, I would stand up and salute every time I heard it. I smiled, looking at Mom.
Dad’s arrival—What’s going on here?—was what made me get up, go to my room, and pick up a book, pretending to study while making sure the title (Advanced Algebra) was clearly displayed for all to see, occasionally even pretending to take notes on a piece of paper with a serious, concentrated look on my face. I heard his voice first, and then his tone. He was speaking to me: Be careful not to get mixed up with those strikes. They’ve already killed several students; I just heard about it on the way home. It was a warning. Deep down, I rejected such advice: I figured Dad was just a conformist, that he didn’t understand our problems, and that it was best to pretend to be in complete agreement with all of his positions. If you get expelled, you’ll be the one paying for the fucking private school, he added, dramatically as always. Nobody’s getting kicked out, I replied. We often took the time to stop and talk, but the words never seemed to flow, there were long periods of reticence, as if there was nothing to be said. My silence was already a learned behavior; I needed only a handful of words to accept, suggest, or ask for something. I saw his embittered face and sensed the need to not displease him; in part, I even accepted his rationale without making it my own. This is really rotten, he said, before going back to his room, to his silence, to the table, to eat, always without a shirt, the beads of sweat rolling down his chest. His flesh had begun to grow fat and soft.
The sweating was constant: we all remained there, shirtless, in the house until drowsiness crept up on us, followed by sleep. The days blurred together; monotonous, the same events repeated themselves, the same phrases, the same sun, the same fervid perspiration. We took the newspaper and turned it into a fan, snorting as if expelling some air could make us feel a bit cooler.
It won’t be long before he asks about the boys, I thought when Dad first came in. I looked at the table and watched as he sat down heavily. Mom must be thinking that if she says something to Dad, he’ll beat Alberto with a switch, I figured. Things were as tense as ever: I expected Dad to ask about the boys, and yet the atmosphere of nervousness that wouldn’t allow me to concentrate on any one thing only seemed to increase. They’ll get us together at school tomorrow, I thought, looking away. Dad got up from the table; Alberto was still in his room, calculating the exact moment when Dad would be asking for him. After a while, Dad turned up the volume on the radio and listened to the nightly news. What a mess! Rojas Pinilla had been ousted and the station was broadcasting statements from all across the world. Yesterday, when it was being first reported that he had stepped down, that the dictator had been toppled by the people, they canceled classes and bused us to the parade, chanting Long live Democracy in a contagious celebration of flag waving and patriotic songs. This represents the salvation of our country and a return to civil liberties, the broadcaster announced in his nasal, pinched voice.
Dad coughed several times and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I was still thinking about Alberto, but quite unexpectedly an image from the previous day’s parade came to my mind, along with the memory of Beatriz, a somewhat awkward—and guilty—memory, for just a week earlier (and since then I had not seen her) I kissed her madly, put my hand under her dress and felt her nipples, her eyes were closed and she said No, don’t do it, without letting go of me, as we sat there in a secluded corner of the park, and her eyes open before me, the movement of her body, the spreading of her legs, my hand sliding up now that her protests had gone silent, overcome by submission, an overwhelming yet gentle sigh, her body pressing against mine, her thighs tightening, my one hand held captive between them while the other working its way underneath her bra, the firmness of her breast causing me to suddenly imagine it was somehow swelling more than the other thanks to my caresses, something which motivated me to switch to the other side and alter the movement of my hand in her underwear. This memory seduced me for a moment, and I found great delight in fixating on it. I tried to draw out more, but it seemed fleeting, and eventually escaped. What remained was the image of the previous day’s parade. It was only after a while that I was able to return to Alberto’s problem. Hmmm, who does this boy take after? Mom once said to me, and when I remembered this, I again felt I was to blame for Alberto’s situation. I went to his room to talk more about the game, only to find him with angry, reddened eyes: he was sobbing now, and harder than before. Things have been heating up these past few days, Dad said, once the news had ended and before entering the room. There’s a military junta, he said in passing to Mom, who wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I hope this all gets sorted out, she replied with the particular note of patience she often ascribed to her words when it came to talking with Dad. A short while later, the other brothers arrived and began to change out of their school clothes. They would eat and lie down, but later that night they would argue, this time about a fight they had seen two blocks away between a man and a woman: she was venting to him, and he responded with violence. These fights between men and women were not uncommon in the neighborhood, and always attracted quite a crowd when they began. Word spread quickly through the streets, and the spectacle was met with both screams and cheers. What was also not uncommon was for the man to have been slashed with a knife and yet insist on fighting up until the very moment he collapsed. The boys were engrossed in their conversation until Mom poked her head in the room and interrupted them by saying, Your father has gone to bed. Everyone fell silent: there was a sickening fear of Dad. Respect, I now understood, was nothing more than the fear of his reaction.
I couldn’t fall asleep. For a very brief moment I thought about trying to revive the image of Beatriz, but I avoided her by lending greater importance to the idea of talking with Alberto. I went over to his bed, leaving the light on as if I were going to read: because we all slept in the same room, my other brothers turned their backs to the light, perhaps even closing their eyes to evade it. You were right not to go to confession, I said to Alberto, trying to strike up the conversation. He looked at me for a moment before burying his head once again in his pillow. A short while later he got up and went to the bathroom. When he returned, he said as he climbed back under the covers, I was going to go to church, but I turned around. That was when I realized he was open to a conversation. I let him take the initiative. I am what I am, and I’m not going back to the church. I tried to nudge him along, but did not ask why. I’m not going back, even if they beat me, he insisted, clearly restraining his anger.
When he continued on with the course of the conversation, I began to clearly understand his motives, which he more calmly explained, one by one, without any more pausing or hesitations. Alberto was eleven at the time, and for me it was nice to know that I had a brother who would confide in me. I was seventeen, which was old enough to garner me some respect: I was seen as worthy, the brother who studied hard and who, in his final year of high school, read and admired the words of Voltaire, which I made into my own when it came to the conversations (monologues, really) that I had with my brothers. I would come upon political pamphlets, and I read them aloud, distracted, so they could listen. Again: I was respected, and with every passing day I could see how they were undergoing a secret transformation despite the fact that at home they abided by the usual standards of respect. Don’t say anything to Dad, Alberto finally said. He’s a fag, he continued, and went on to describe the incident, kneeling on the prie-dieu, the beginning of confession, the solitude of the church, the voice of the priest sounding hollow in the background, and then his hand resting on Alberto’s thigh. He squeezed it, unexpectedly, for no reason whatsoever, and moved it toward his genitals, his brother told him. Then he said he stood up in the confessional and blurted out the only thing he could think of: Don’t be such a fag!
Then we fell silent. I heard Dad cough in the next room and I imagined a lit cigarette flickering in the dark, him coughing again, his body convulsing as he lay there, always at the edge of the bed. I felt a great sense of relief and decided to drift off and let the memory of Beatriz, which had ceased some minutes ago, catch up to me once again. I felt that remembering her brought back the same sense of joy tinged with guilt, amplified and aggravated by several days of being apart. I’ll apologize, I thought to myself. Then I went back to the memory of the previous day’s vague events: riding the bus, many of us riding buses back and forth across the city, shouting and raising a terrible uproar, adding to the contagious enthusiasm, repeating the same words as the school bell rang incessantly: that cry of The dictator has fallen! lit a fuse in each and every classroom, though I still don’t understand why we joined the rally, why we repeated the cheers of names of people we did not know, swept up in the senseless euphoria that led us or dragged us to a state of exhilaration and madness.
Just as I was about to turn off the light, feeling the switch under my fingers, I thought again of Alberto: I hope he doesn’t go back, I said to myself. I associated his incident with Father Gómez with that of our situation with Don José Francisco Sánchez. And I thought the fact that these things were done by a priest made it a much more serious matter. As I switched off the light, I thought to myself that one of those days I would talk about what happened to my brother Alberto during Father Maldonado’s class, just to see the expression on his face.
The darkness was total at first. A short while later, a gentle glow began to filter in from outside in such a way that it revealed their three bodies spread out on their beds, along with the sheen of a painting of the Guardian Angel that my mom had hung there several years before.
"Causas Perdidas." © Óscar Collazos. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2017 by Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.
In September 2008, a group of mothers in Soacha, Colombia denounced the disappearance and death of their sons. An investigation revealed that soldiers from the Colombian Army had killed innocent young men and presented their bodies as those of guerrilla fighters to collect financial bonuses offered by the Colombian government for such killings. Since then, more cases of forced disappearance by the military have been discovered. The mothers of Soacha have tirelessly sought justice for the last nine years to preserve the memory of their sons.
Colombian photographer Carlos Saavedra's project "Madres Terra" is based on the interaction between the earth and this group of mothers, focusing on the roles of both mothers and the earth as lifegivers. In this photographic series, a new world is created in which the models, without any physical effort, are suspended in the soil. The burial ritual represents a special moment in which the known physical world is altered, the body changes, symbolizing these mothers's rebirth.
Gloria Astrid Martinez
Mother of Daniel Alexander Martínez
Luz Edilia Palacios
Mother of Javier Andrés Palacios
Mother of Joaquín Castro
Flor Hilda Hernandez
Mother of Elkin Gustavo Verano Hernandez
María Doris Tejada
Mother of Oscar Alexander Morales Tejada
Sister of Jaime Castillo
Ana Cecilia Arenas
Sister of Mario Alexander Arenas Garzón
Mother of Julián Oviedo Monroy
© Carlos Saavedra. By arrangement with the photographer. All rights reserved.
Claire, recently returned to Bogotá after years living abroad, visits The House of Beauty in the city’s posh Zona Rosa and is instantly reminded of everything she hates about Bogotá’s racial and class divisions.
I hate artificial nails in outlandish colors, fake-blonde hair, cool silk blouses, and diamond earrings at four in the afternoon. Never before have so many women looked like transvestites, or like prostitutes dressing up as good wives.
I hate the perfume they drench themselves in, these woman as powdered as cockroaches in a bakery; what’s worse, it makes me sneeze. And don’t get me started on their accessories—those smartphones swaddled in infantile cases, in colors like fuchsia and covered with sequins, imitation gemstones, and ridiculous designs. I hate everything these waxed-eyebrowed, non-biodegradable women represent. I hate their shrill, affected voices; they’re like four-year-old dolls, little drug-dealer hussies bottled into female bodies as erect as men. It’s very confusing; these macho-girl-women disturb me, overwhelm me, force me to dwell on all that’s broken and ruined in a country like this, where a woman’s worth is determined by how ample her buttocks and breasts are, how slender her waist. I also hate the stunted men, reduced to primitive versions of themselves, always looking for a female to mount, to exhibit like a trophy, to trade in, or show off as a status symbol among fellow Neanderthals. But just as I hate this mafioso world, which for the past twenty years or so has dominated the tastes and behavior of thugs, politicians, businessmen, and almost anyone who has the slightest connection to power in this country, I also hate the ladies of Bogotá, among whom I count myself, though I try my damnedest to stand apart.
I hate their habit of using the term “Indians” to refer to people they consider to be from a low social class. I hate the obsessive need to distinguish between the formal usted and informal tú when addressing someone, leaving usted for the servants. I loathe the servility of waiters in the restaurants when they rush to attend to customers, saying “what would you like, sir,” “as you wish, sir,” “on your orders, sir.” I hate so many things in so many ways—things that seem to me unjust, stupid, arbitrary, and cruel, and most of all I hate myself for playing my own part in the status quo.
Mine’s an ordinary story. It’s not worth the trouble of telling in detail. Maybe I should mention that my father was a French immigrant who came to Colombia thanks to a contract to construct a steel mill. My brother and I were born here. Like others of our social class, we grew up here, behaving as if we were foreigners. Wherever we were—our place in the north of Bogotá, or the apartment in Cartagena’s old quarter—we lived our lives surrounded by walls. There were a few summers in Paris, the Rosario Islands once or twice. My life hasn’t been all that different from that of a rich Italian, French, or Spanish woman. I learned to eat fresh lobster as a little girl, to catch sea urchins; by the age of twenty-one I could tell a Bordeaux wine from a Burgundy, play the piano and speak French with no accent, and I was as familiar with the history of the Old Continent as I was unfamiliar with my own.
Security has been an issue for as far back as I can remember. I’m blonde, blue-eyed and five feet seven inches tall, which is getting less exotic nowadays, but when I was a child it was an ace up my sleeve to win the nuns’ affection or to get preferential treatment from my peers. It also attracted attention, and so it made my father paranoid about kidnappings. As luck would have it, we were never targeted. Our money and my peaches-and-cream complexion contributed to my isolation, though lately I’ve started to wonder if I tell myself that to sidestep blame for being an exile in body and soul. No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve always been somewhere else.
At my age, melancholy is part of my inner landscape. Last month I turned fifty-nine. I turn my gaze inward and back on my life far more than I look out to the world around me. Mostly because I’m not interested, and don’t like what I find out there. Maybe they’re the same thing. I suppose my neurosis has something to do with my scathing reading of the here and now, but it’s pretty inevitable. As Octavio Paz would say, this is the “house of glances,” my house of glances, I have no other. I accept my classist nature. I accept, no, more than accept, I embrace my hatreds. Maybe that’s the definition of maturity.
When I left Colombia, mothers still made sure their daughters’ knees weren’t showing; now nothing is left to the imagination. That’s another thing that shocked me when I came back: I felt like some women’s breasts were coming after me with an almost aggressive insolence. At any rate, I never managed to adapt to Colombia, and in France I was always a foreigner.
I didn’t go to Paris just to study; I was fleeing. I was comfortable there a long time, I got married, had a daughter, pursued my career. But then the years pressed in on me like thorns and my memories grew hazy, until the day I understood it was time I came back. Divorced, with fifty-seven Aprils under my belt and a twenty-two-year-old daughter studying at the Sorbonne, I packed my life into three old suitcases and made the trip without her. Aline speaks Spanish with an accent and makes mistakes. She’s stunning. Slim and very tall, with a preference for women over men that might be fleeting or here to stay. Not that it bothers me too much. Though I know that if the poor thing lived here she would have to worry about or at least put up with moralizers, even bullying. Things have changed somewhat, it’s true. At least now you see a few foreigners in the streets and there are more people who think differently. Even so, aside from my friend Lucia Estrada, who I’ve rekindled my friendship with after almost two decades, I’m very alone. Not that I need anyone, not really.
“Colombia is Passion,” according to the poster that greeted me at the airport. And the other day the press reported fifteen dead after a massacre in the south. That passion must be what makes me hate some people so fervently. Señora Urrutia, Señora Pombo, and Señora MacAllister, who invite me to take tea and pray for a sick friend or for the eleven children killed in the latest landslide in the city’s south, where they’ve never set foot. The doormen who take such pleasure in denying everyone entry, the security convoys that charge through the rest of the traffic, the desperate down-and-outs who tear off side mirrors at the traffic lights. Only at work do I reconcile with my compassionate side. Bitterness hasn’t caught up with that part of me yet.
At the start of 2013, I purchased a good apartment on Calle 93, near Chicó Park. I dusted off some corporate shares and bought not just the apartment, but also a plot of land in Guasca, where I intend to build a little house in the mountains. In the same apartment, I set up a consulting room, and, thanks to my credentials, I had patients in no time. I confess I find most of them boring. Their fears are so predictable, and so are all of their complexes, inhibitions, and thought processes. Nevertheless, I was short on other hobbies, and fell back on therapy once more. Fortunately the city has very broad cultural offerings, so every now and then I’m in the mood for a concert or exhibition. I set aside two afternoons a week for such things. Psychoanalysts earn plenty and, given my age and circumstances, I needn’t work too much.
In time, I started taking walks on these free afternoons. There’s no way of getting to the city center without spending two hours stuck in traffic, so I keep to my neighborhood and explore it on foot. On one of these outings I discovered a couple of new bookshops, a splendid pastry place, and a few boutiques. Yet I had no desire to try anything on; my body is growing less and less recognizable to me. Often, my own face surprises me in the mirror. My naked legs are an unlikely map, discolored and forgotten.
It was on one of these strolls around the neighborhood that, after browsing along Avenida 82, I ended up having a cappuccino and a chocolate soufflé in Michel’s Patisserie. I felt guilty, and decided to walk as far as Carrera 15 and then head home, again on foot. After a few blocks, on that clear May afternoon, I stopped in front of a white building with glass doors, which I’d never been inside. La Casa de la Belleza was written in silver lettering. I peeped inside out of simple curiosity. I think it was the name that attracted me. House of Beauty. I was running my eye over the expensive products for wrinkles, hydration, slimming, stretch marks, and cellulite, when I saw her by the reception desk. She was wearing white tennis shoes, a light-blue uniform, and had her hair pulled up in a ponytail. A long, black tress fell down her back. The rings under her eyes didn’t matter, nor did her tired expression: her beauty was forceful, almost indecently so. The young woman oozed life. There was something savage and raw in her that made her seem—how to say it?—real. I’m still not sure if it was the result of discipline and vanity, or simply an inherited gift. I’ll never know. Karen is a great mystery. Even more so in a city like this, where everyone’s appearance reflects who they are; where their attire, speech, and the place they live announce how they will act. The codes of behavior are as predictable as they are repetitive. I was captivated by her gazelle-like figure, but above all by a certain serenity in her expression. I’d bet she does absolutely nothing to look like that. If I could say anything simply by looking at her, it would be that tranquility has nested in her soul.
Perhaps because I stood there, stunned, looking at her as if she were an apparition, she came forward to ask:
Do you need help, señora?
She smiled effortlessly, as if expressing her gratitude at being alive. I was surprised no one seemed to perceive her intrinsic beauty. It was as if the finest orchid had fallen at random into a mud puddle. All around her were women in heels sporting fake smiles. The receptionist was a monstrosity of cherry lips and caked-on blush. Not her. She seemed to rise above it all, to be the reason for the name of the edifice.
“Yes, thank you, I’d like a wax,” I said then, as if I haven’t done my own waxing since I’ve had the ability to reason.
“We’re not too busy at the moment, would you like an appointment now?”
“Yes, now’s fine,” I responded, mesmerized.
“Excuse me, your name?”
“Claire. Claire Dalvard,” I said.
“Please follow me,” she responded. And so I followed.
“From a young age, black women straighten their hair with creams, with straighteners, with hairdryers; we chew pills, wrap it up, pin it down, apply hair masks, sleep with stocking caps in place, use a silicone sealer. Having straight hair is as important as wearing a bra; it’s an essential part of femininity. A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do: she has to pluck up her courage, use as many metal clips as it takes. She has to be prepared to endure painful tugging, sometimes for hours on end. It’s wasteful and uncomfortable, but there’s no getting away from it if you want to achieve the silky straight look,” says Karen in her rhythmic cadence.
“And little girls, do they have to do it too?”
“If they’re really little, no, but young ladies—eight, nine—then sure, they all straighten their hair, of course,” she said as she removed the wraps.
Karen told me that when she arrived here, she liked the city. And yes. Many find it beautiful. Many are drawn to the mild sadness that distinguishes it, a sadness that is occasionally interrupted by a bright Sunday morning as radiant as it is unexpected.
She left her four-year-old with her mother in Cartagena and came to Bogotá. A colleague had started up a beauty treatment center in the Quirigua district and offered her a job. She promised her mother she would send money for Emiliano each month, which she has done. Her mother lives in a house in the San Isidro neighborhood with Uncle Juan, a confirmed bachelor who is in poor health. They live mainly on her uncle’s pension, his due for the thirty years he worked in the post office, and on the money Karen sends.
Karen grew up listening to vallenato, bachata and, when she was old enough, champeta. Her mother, barely sixteen years older than Karen, was crowned Miss San Isidro once, which she thought was a sign she would escape poverty, but she ended up pregnant by a blond guy—a sailor, she assumed—who spoke little Spanish. After love paid her mother that furtive visit, the honey-colored girl was born, and she shared not only her mother’s surname, but also her beauty and her poverty.
Doña Yolanda Valdés sold lottery tickets, sold fried fare, was a domestic worker, and bartended in the city. Finally she devoted herself to her grandson, resigned to her arthritis and to the fact that she gave birth to a girl instead of a boy. At forty years of age, she was practically an old lady.
Doña Yolanda’s love affairs resulted in two more pregnancies, boys both times, but such was her luck that one was born dead and the other died after just a few days. Yolanda Valdés said the women in her family were cursed. A sort of evil spell fell over them when they least expected it, and condemned them to inescapable solitude.
Karen remembers seven o’clock Mass on Sundays and waking to the sound of canaries singing. She remembers fish stew at Los Morros beach and taut skin and the dizzying white lights that speckled her field of vision when she floated for a long stretch.
In time, our ritual of shutting ourselves away in that secluded cubicle, sheltered by her youth, the cadence of the sea, and the force of her soft, firm hands, became for me a need as ferocious as hunger.
From the moment I first set eyes on her, I wanted to know who she was. Gently, almost tenderly, I asked questions while she moved her fingertips over my back. That’s how I found out that she arrived in Bogotá in January 2013, the sunny time of year. First she stayed in Suba, in the Corinto neighborhood, where a family rented her a small apartment with a bathroom and kitchenette for three hundred thousand pesos, including utilities. She earned the minimum wage. At the end of the month she didn’t have two pesos to rub together, so she couldn’t send anything home. On top of that, the neighborhood was unsafe and she lived in constant fear. The same morning that a drunk man shot two people for blocking a public road during a family get-together, Karen made up her mind to find another place to live.
She moved to Santa Lucía, to the south, near Avenida Caracas, but now had to cross the entire city to reach the salon where she worked.
When a co-worker mentioned that an exclusive beauty salon in the north was looking for someone, Karen landed an interview. It was the beginning of April. The city was waterlogged from downpours. Karen had been in the new house barely a couple of weeks and took the deluge as a sign of abundance.
The Beauty House is in la Zona Rosa, Bogota’s premier shopping, dining, and entertainment district. From the outside, the white edifice suggests an air of cleanliness and sobriety: part dental clinic, part fashionable boutique. Once through the glass doors, you are transported to a land of women. The receptionist behind the counter greets you with her best smile. Several uniformed employees, polished and smiling, are in the display room offering creams, perfumes, eyeshadow, and masks in the best brands. Magazines are piled on the coffee table in the waiting room.
Karen remembers arriving on the fifth of April at around eleven thirty in the morning. As soon as she crossed the threshold, she breathed deep an aroma of vanilla, almond, rosewater, polish, shampoo, and lavender.
The receptionist, whom she would soon have the chance to get to know better, looked like a porcelain doll. An upturned nose, large eyes, and those full, cherry-colored lips. As she headed past her for the waiting room, Karen wondered what lipstick she used.
At the back, there was a large mirror and two salon chairs, where a couple of women did eyebrow waxing, makeup, and product testing. They were all wearing light-blue pants and short-sleeved blouses in the same color. They looked like nurses, but well-groomed and made up, with impeccably manicured hands and wasp waists. Karen caught sight of the name badge of one who was perfectly bronzed: Susana.
The cleaner also wore a blue uniform, but in a darker hue. She came over to offer Karen an herbal tea. Karen accepted. She saw the tropipop singer known as Rika come in. She was dark and voluptuous with an enviable tan, possibly older than she looked. She was wearing sunglasses like a tiara, had a gold ring on each finger, and lots of bracelets. Like Karen, she announced herself at the reception desk and then took a seat beside her with a magazine.
“Doña Fina is expecting you, you can go in,” said the receptionist.
“Thank you,” said Karen, making sure to pronounce all her consonants to hide her Caribbean accent.
She went up a spiral staircase. She passed by the second floor to reach the third. To her right, three manicure stations, four for eyelashes. In the middle, four cubicles and, at the back, to the left, Doña Josefina de Brigard’s office. Karen approached the half-open door and heard a voice beyond it telling her to come in. In the middle of an inviting room, with skylights that revealed a bright morning, stood a woman of uncertain age. She was dressed in low-heeled shoes, khaki pants, a beige blouse, and pearl necklace, with an impeccable blow-dry and subtle makeup.
“Take a seat,” she said in a low voice.
Doña Josefina watched her walk to the chair on the other side of the only desk in the room. She looked her up and down with her deep green eyes, raising her eyebrows slightly.
Then she looked straight into Karen’s eyes. Karen bowed her head.
“Let me see your hands,” she said.
Karen holds them, a child at primary school all over again. But Doña Josefina didn’t get out a ruler to punish her. She let the young woman’s hand rest on her own a moment, then put on her glasses, examined the hand with curiosity, repeated the operation with the left one, and asked her once more to take a seat.
She, in contrast, paced around the room. If I had that figure at that age, I wouldn’t sit down either, Karen thought.
“Do you know how many years House of Beauty has been running?”
“Forty-five. Back then I had three children. I’m a great-grandmother now.”
Karen looked at her waist, delicately cinched by a snakeskin belt. Her pale pink nails. Her almond-shaped eyes. Her prominent cheekbones have something of opal about them, pale and gleaming. The woman standing before her could have been a movie star.
“House of Beauty and my family are all I have. I’m exacting and I don’t make concessions.”
“I understand,” said Karen.
“Yes, honey, you have an I-understand face. You went from an exclusive salon in Cartagena to a run-of-the-mill one in Bogotá. Why?”
“Because I earn more here than there, or at least that’s what I thought when I left the coast.”
“It’s always about the money . . .”
“I have a four-year-old.”
“So does every other young woman.”
“A four-year-old?” Karen said, not thinking.
“I see you’ve got a sense of humor,” said Doña Josefina, abruptly going back to the formal usted. “This is a place for serious, discreet women who are willing to work twelve-hour days, who take pride in their work, and who understand that beauty requires the highest level of professionalism. With your gracefulness, I’m positive you could go far here. You’ll see: our clients may have money, some of them a lot of money, but much of the time they are tremendously insecure about their femininity. We all have our fears, and as we start aging, those fears grow. So, here at The Beauty House we must be excellent at our jobs, but we must also be warm, understanding, and know how to listen.”
“I understand,” said Karen automatically.
“Of course you don’t, child. You’re not old enough to understand.”
Karen kept quiet.
“So, as I was saying, don’t be too quick to answer; if they want to chat, then you chat; if they want to keep quiet, you should never initiate a conversation. Requesting a tip or favors of any nature warrants dismissal. Answering your phone during work hours warrants dismissal. Leaving the salon without seeking prior permission warrants dismissal. Taking home any of the implements without permission warrants dismissal. Holidays are granted after the first year, pension contributions and healthcare are at your own expense. Same with holidays, which are in fact unpaid leave, and can never exceed two weeks, bank holidays included. The files, creams, oils, spatulas, and other implements are at your own expense, too.”
“Can I ask what the salary is?”
“That depends. For each service, you receive forty per cent. If you’re successful and our clients book a lot of appointments with you, after a few months you could earn one million pesos, including tips.”
Doña Josefina smiled.
“Not so fast, honey. This afternoon I’ve got two more interviews.”
Karen was intrigued that an elegant woman with a well-bred air could switch so smoothly between usted and tú, showing no respect for convention.
“Then I would just like to say that I’m very interested," she said, opting to stick with the formal usted.
“We’ll have an answer for you in a couple of days.”
When Karen was leaving, Doña Josefina stopped her:
“And one more thing. Who doesn’t like a Caribbean accent? Don’t try to hide it. No one, not one single soul in this country or in any other, likes the way we Bogotans speak.”
© Melba Escobar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Elizabeth Bryer. All rights reserved.