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from the April 2018 issue

Things Happen

A retiree from one of Argentina’s state-owned companies finds his garden engulfed by the sea one day in this story from recently rediscovered mid-century writer Sara Gallardo​.


Once upon a time there was a pensioner with a garden in Lanús. He had been head of personnel at a state-owned company.

His garden was the admiration and envy of all Lanús. That’s a zone that, as everyone knows, lacks water two days out of three. The neighborhood writes notes of protest, and the first to sign them has always been the pensioner with the garden.

The usual way was this: the neighbor who most liked complaining would arrive with his document in hand. He would find the pensioner kneeling under the rose bushes, or covering the paths with white pebbles, or passing a rake over a circle of lawn which looked like, let’s say, an emerald. Ant poisons, fertilizers, and tools could be seen in the green shed through a sheet of fiberglass. And there, standing up, almost without taking off his straw hat or wiping the mud from his fingers, the pensioner would add his signature, a single flourish, just as he had signed so often in his days as a director.

One morning he woke up. The smell of his garden was missing. Was it raining? The pleasant drip-drip of water wasn’t sounding against his window either. Uneasy, he went outside. He found himself in the middle of the sea.

A green wave rocked the garden. A strong wind had knocked down the scarecrow.

He fell to the ground. When he regained his strength, he lifted his face. Again, he saw himself navigating in the sea. Once again he fell prostrate to the ground. 

He noticed, one of the times he stood up, that foam was sprinkling the jasmines on his fence, neatly painted white. In desperation, he looked for a tarp he kept in case of hail and tried to cover them. It was difficult. He barged ahead, clinging to the small fence not meant to serve as a railing. He tied the tarp to the rail and to some wooden pickets stuck in the earth. He worked with dedication, with rage.

Dizzy, soaked, he thought of taking a warm shower. But he realized the water in his tank was limited. He would need it for his plants, to drink.

Nonsense. He was dreaming. He threw himself on the bed and closed his eyes.

He dreamed he was in his office, a frequent dream of his. An employee was asking for leave: his wife was dying. Forty-eight hours, he would tell him. The employee left, tears of frustration splashing the lenses of his glasses. Those tears were falling on the face of the personnel director.

No, they weren’t tears. The wind had changed, and there was condensation on the open glass of the window, falling on him in drops.

He sat up. Was it true then? The scene before him seemed to be dancing. Clinging to the walls, he went out.

It was true.

The garden, veering slowly, was changing course. Its prow pointed toward a vast expanse identical to the one surrounding him on all sides.

The rose bushes leaned their chubby cheeks toward him, as if asking for help. He rinsed them with fresh water, sobbing in their ears.

But he was hungry. He went to the pantry. There was instant coffee and several cans of tongue, mackerel, milk powder. He hated all that. They were gifts from his sister, who was married to an employee of a meat-packing firm.

Because, as he had clearly stated the morning she arrived—loaded, breathless, the marks of the bag handles on her hands—before making gifts one should enquire about the tastes of others. He followed the principles of veganism, with occasional exceptions for yogurt and cheese without salt. Yet his sister had left that packet.

Cans. And how helpful they were now. With a groan, he opened one.

How long would this last?

Or maybe he was crazy. Maybe he only thought he was in the sea, while his neighbors were looking over the fence at him with pity. It was easy to imagine their conjectures: so many hours in the sun, dedicated to his plants . . . Or maybe he was in an insane asylum now, hallucinating? Maybe the drops he believed were falling on him were injections?

Whatever the case, there he was. He saw the sea through the windows, green and sparkling now that the sun was up.

The sun! He got up to look at his grass. Bright emerald still, and fresh. But for how long?

Desperation made him burst out in shrieks.

At sunset he took up the newspaper he had been reading the day before. Football, movies, comic strips. How far away everything seemed now. He checked the date. He made an almanac on the last page of a seed catalog.

The only thing left now was to sleep. Night had fallen.

Outside, that murmur. Inside, the rocking motion.

Days, night, mornings followed.

The first to die were the carnations. They trembled, dried up, brown. The roses saw their petals fly over the desert. Then their stalks twisted into spirals. The grass died in patches. All that was left was a bare circle of earth with bits of straw. They eventually flew away too.

The fence, tarp, and jasmines fell heavily in the sea with a crash.

The pensioner attempted to distract himself. He turned on the television. But it transmitted wavy lines that reminded him too much of the surrounding undulations. He went on noting down each day in his almanac. He examined the water tank. He cursed heaven that he lived in West Lanús. The usual lack of water was reflected in the tank three-quarters empty. The terror of thirst started to obsess him.

Looking for some positive side to his situation, he told himself that the weather was steady, and that the waves would lead him somewhere. But then the calm came.

The anxieties of the calm have already been written about too well. The loss of hope for a port, provisions and water running out, the glowing of strange presences, the agony.

Sweat trickled down the pensioner’s bald head in his destroyed garden. He had gathered the white pebbles in two flowerpots, which he kept in the kitchen, but outside, the flowerbed’s design now appeared to him like a laugh without teeth.

On the tenth day of the calm, a loud racket set the garden in motion. The sea rushed forward. There was a collapse.

The end! he thought, clinging to the dry trunk of a shrub. As in a fit, he recalled a television program. The winner, a prodigy of a boy, had said that the ancients believed in a flat world with a waterfall at the edge. The conductor handed him a prize, and everyone laughed at the ancients.

“Here we are!” he thought in despair, dragged with the house and garden into the depths. A circular current held them while the entire sea made the sound of regurgitation.

A monster appeared. It had dripping scales and looked extremely content. Its head brushed the low storm clouds. Limp vegetation hung from its mouth.

The fear was unimaginable. Of the fear he felt, I will only say: it was like being dead: no pulse, on the ground. An image crossed his mind. He had once seen a photo of two trains crashing on the Lanús line. One of them stood vertical.

Tall as a hundred trains, the sea serpent lifted her body into the air, and enjoyed the view of infinite sea. That view made her feel like moving. She didn’t see the chalet, too close and slightly behind: she was sated, too.

Parts of her body rose from the water as she moved away, while others sank into the waves, and the pensioner, his garden, and his house spun in the whirlpools, until he felt the atoms of his self starting to split.

This happened on the thirtieth day of navigation.


***

By that time he had decided to protect the glass of the windows. Any cracks would be serious. The house was his refuge. He closed the shutters and got used to walking around in the dark inside. It was a relief.

Outside the sun bludgeoned the garden. Dressed from head to toe, in a hat and gardening gloves so as not to see his flesh reduced to shreds, he tried to fish. Without a fence, it was a dangerous task. He tied himself to the grass tap and used tinned food as bait. He spent days making hooks.

He discovered that sometimes he did catch something. He promised himself he would eat that, no matter what it was. If a whole day passed without a catch he would open a can. It must be said that all sorts of beings crawled and throbbed in the garden, tossed into it by the waves or arriving by personal initiative. They spared him the effort of fishing. He flung them into a cooking pot. Some gave him terrible skin rashes. Others gave him dyspepsia. Still others had no effect. Fearing for his fuel supply, he cooked several dishes at a time in the oven. He got used to cold soup. But seafood makes you thirsty. What made him most anxious was the decreasing water supply.

One day two seabirds landed on the television antenna. Out of habit he insulted them, waving his arms. Go away from my fields. In the middle of the gesture he stopped. A bird means land.

“Land!” he shouted, sinking to his knees, his voice cracking in a thousand tones.

There was no land in sight. The birds were of an unknown dark-red color. But he didn’t notice it. Seeing that his fuss had scared them off he begged, “Stay!”

He had to watch them move slowly toward the east. He kept his eyes fixed in that direction. A waste of a morning. Better to lack hope than to gain and lose it. He made it into the house, threw himself into bed, and cried. In the afternoon he looked again. He thought he was dying. He wet his head. He saw something like a mountain.

And what if he passed it, in this aimless navigation beyond his control? But it was coming nearer.

At sundown the light grazed until it hit a blackish-red crag, like a blood clot. Foam tossed against the shoals.

No gesture, no human sound came from it. If carefully observed, it seemed to move, like a dead rat covered in flies. Seabirds covered it. Their caws seemed like the voice of that stone.

The pensioner fell on his knees, stretched his arms toward the crag, cried out. He looked for a bed sheet and waved it frantically, begging for help. Nothing.

But, actually, yes. With the sinking of the sun, the crag seemed to be made of enormous faces, just like those he had seen in movies, some of America’s national heroes carved in a mountain. In the movie they had seemed magnificent. But not here. Maybe because of the birds’ droppings or because of the reef fog, those men’s and women’s faces looked as if they had a cold, with runny noses, teary, or dribbling. He screamed until he almost lost his voice, his strength, his life.

When the sun set, he got terrified. Despite his fear of the reef, he shut himself in the house.

What to do now? Not sleep. He looked for some magazines he kept under the bed.

His neighbor on the left in Lanús, a poor thing contented with geraniums in flowerpots, belonged to a Protestant sect. He often chatted him up over the fence, praising his garden, though his real intention was to convert him. Once a month, he would produce a publication from under his arm as he took his leave and say, "Maybe this will keep you entertained."

That was enough to irritate him. But since those who work with fertilizers and phosphates need to have papers at hand, he kept the magazines. He would use them when he had to wrap up waste, satisfied that the neighbor could sometimes see his pages in the rubbish bin.

What to do, tonight? He tried to focus on the humor section. A healthy humor. Nothing about alcoholism or adultery. Almost always something about dogs or cats. Impossible to understand, with that crag the color of a blood clot, those reefs, birds, and faces so close in the night.

He looked out. He tried to see something, to hear the noise from the cliffs. Nothing.

The inconvenience of bad journalism is that while reading it, you think of something else. He had suffered when he retired. What a personnel director he had been! The employee called in sick. I hope you get better, he would say in an unforgettable way. He would send the company doctor. What a doctor he was. They had an agreement. Forty-eight hours. Get better. Or die.

He always liked asking his employees their political affiliation. They swallowed bile. The official badge on the dissidents’ lapels provided him with great entertainment for a while.

The effect of bad journalism: he fell asleep in the armchair. 

A heavy wind began to blow at that hour. The house shook. The sea became a field of waves at play, tossing house, garden, and pensioner about, tumbling them from bed to table, from armchair to door.

He heard the antenna of the television as it tore away, bounced off the roof with a metallic good-bye, disappeared into the air.

A shutter’s corroded hinges collapsed. The windowpane was uncovered. Light entered through it, and he saw the waves, transparent, covering the sky, licking the sides of the house, filtering through the joints of the windows.

He crawled. He looked for a can of insect glue. He smeared it on the window joints, but water entered anyway, stretching the glue into icicles, dripping down their tips.

Five days of wind. Five days without eating, without making notes in his calendar, clinging to a leg of the bed.

He didn’t have the strength to open the door. Trembling, he unsealed a can of sardines. Somehow recovered, he started to make his way outside. He gave a shout.

The garden was a palm underwater. The only part jutting out was on the other side, the part that used to border the Protestant neighbor, a slightly raised section made of brick, where he used to keep clay pots with flowers and flowerbeds. Between the house and that section, the garden looked like a pool crossed by silvery schools of fish.

All around, bare sea stretching toward the horizon. He didn’t have a single tear left. Not a hair remained on his head to yank out. A beard he did have, long and tangled. His electric razor had broken during the first days of navigation.

Does God exist? he wondered. It’s true he had prayed at moments of excessive horror, like the night of the crag. His mother had once taught him how. And in a pamphlet he had read the story of the lost man in the Himalayas who had survived thanks to meat extract and prayers. But what prayers were those? And what meat extract?

Let’s see, what kind of a situation was this? How could a human being ever anticipate a risk like that? He could prove it: no insurance company would have this in its program. 

He had never insured his life. He didn’t think it fair for his sister and brother-in-law to benefit from his death. But if a clause about a similar situation did exist, when he returned, he would . . .

Return!

Would he return?

He covered his ears with his hands and yelled for a long time.

To calm himself he made a plan of action. First of all, he would have to fish through the window. Then, he would write down his story. Good, but he lacked white paper. He looked around the house. Brown paper lined the cupboard drawers and shelves. That was something. With tiny handwriting . . . After all, all this might end one day . . . No. Illusions do harm.

He sat down to write. He wrote the date. “An impeccable employee, Category J4, in the General Direction of Automotive Personnel and Statistics at the Ministry of Internal Revenue between the years 1928 and 1962, with only two absences for family grief in all my years of service, I retired on 24 March of . . .”

A voice spoke hoarsely behind his back.

His pencil fell onto the paper. A stiffness immobilized him from the back of his neck to his heels.

He heard it again, panting, a splash. It said, “My refuge . . .”

He forced himself to turn around. Clinging to the brick border of the raised part of the garden was a man dripping with water, his face transfigured by hope, his hat squashed. His eyes were fixed on the name of the house, written with cursive letters on a sign on the roof. All of a sudden the pensioner remembered it: My Refuge.

Standing on his doorstep unmoving, not a sound in his throat, he looked at him.

The man saw him. His happiness grew. He panted, as if he had arrived swimming. Grabbing hold of the bricks, he hoisted himself up.

With a crunch of putrefaction, the garden yielded under his weight like a moist biscuit. The brick part went down first, dragging the man along with it. Half the garden followed, tipping vertically as it capsized, disappearing into the vortex.

The pensioner sat down on his doorstep. He pulled his knees to his chest, pressed his face against his fists. He sobbed. As he himself defined it afterward, it was a nervous breakdown. Once it was over, he opened his eyes little by little. The garden ended in the middle of what had once been a circle of lawn. Maybe because the brick part was gone, it no longer held water. It emerged sloping toward the house.

That man . . . There was no land, no ship, no lifeboat or log in sight. Where had he come from?

For days and nights, that face transformed by hope, the crunch of the garden as it broke, the disappearance into bubbles remained before his eyes.

He couldn’t eat, fish, or move. He spent his time lying in bed, staring at the roof that mirrored the reflections of the sea.

And the thirst began. He held it off for a time thanks to the melted ice cubes in the refrigerator. He followed these with the toilet water tank. Later he found himself licking the inside of the refrigerator. Later he found himself licking the toilet bowl.

Later, like a madman, dry tongue hanging out like a hide, he found himself running in circles, sticking his lips to a humid bar of iron covered in salt, wiping them with horror, trying to drink seawater and vomiting, slashing an arm to suck his own blood.

Not a single memory or dream or idea in him except that of fresh water to drink. He looked at the clouds like a calf looks at an udder for the morning milking, something set aside for another purpose. What about him? Oh, clouds.

At last it rained. It was night. He burned with fever on the floor of his bedroom. He heard the drops. He thought he was delirious but he crawled outside.

It was raining! Crying, laughing, naked, he let himself get soaked, mouth open. Water ran over his ears, filled his eyes. He licked himself; he squeezed his beard into his mouth. He brought out jars, pans, pots, cans, bottles.

When morning came it was raining, and it carried on raining. The sloping garden let a bittersweet cascade run toward the house, which he didn’t take for granted either. Oh, water. Oh, rain.

There followed a period during which he tried to write down his experiences. It wasn’t easy, but a kind of serenity filled him as he gave those events form. In the beginning he struggled with the words. No sea, serpent, wind, red crag or thirst had ever appeared in the writings he had read or written in his life.

That word, life, stopped him. Was he alive?

Or dead?

He tried to remember ideas he had heard about death. Nothing similar to this. Whereas concerning life . . . It’s true that some days, for instance when he had caught a beautiful fleshy fish after waiting seven or ten hours, he had felt more alive than he had ever been. And when the rain running into his eyes and mouth ended his long thirst, didn’t that feel different from the glass of mineral water a clerk brought to his office every day at 11:10?

Yes, but enough. Enough. Alive or dead, he demanded an explanation. He wanted peace. He needed certainty. Silence. Rest.

The sea in those days was the color of mustard. He had heard about plankton. He hoped it wasn’t plankton, since many said it’s what whales eat.

The color of mustard. A roasted turkey on a white tablecloth. Sauce steaming in the sauceboat. Chestnuts and plums and pine nuts in the filling. Walnuts and almonds in a plate. A cake with a silk ribbon. Cider. It was Christmas. Who, at that table? A woman in a long dress, a girl with braids. In the courtyard the neighbors toasted. He had the right to eat. He reached out his hand, pushing the girl. Something hit his fingers. He had collided against the fiberglass panel that had once sheltered his ant poisons, which had fallen after the great wind.

So they are hallucinations, he told himself. Let’s write. “Between the years 1928 and 1962, only two absences for family mourning, that is, in thirty-four years. The first period of mourning was motivated by the passing of my mother, and the second by that of my wife, fifteen months after our marriage, which had been celebrated during the days of leave in 1935 when the building was closed to clear out rats.”

Looked at attentively, it was the only mistake in his life. A life of order. She . . . to be honest, he didn’t remember her face. On the other side, committing suicide is an infraction of the marital contract. No one had known, luckily.

He went outside to clear his mind.

A line like a streak of tar divided sky from sea on the horizon. It was like the lines that cross accounting books, but with a slight inclination.

Tripping on everything, he thought about turning on the television. No image. But a voice, perhaps female, interrupted by electrical discharges, said incomprehensible things.

“Land!” he yelled for the second time on his trip. “Land!”

His own yelp frightened him. He waited, eyes fixed on the line. It managed to turn into a stripe; the inclination began to seem like a mountain range. He didn’t like the mass of material, shiny as lacquer. He couldn’t wait any longer.

He took a bedsheet and alcohol, went to the roof, and waved a fiery flag until the flames singed his beard. He let it go. A breeze carried it spinning into the sea. He lost his balance and fell in the water. Several tiles fell near him.

He came up, gasping. He couldn’t swim. He paddled madly toward the house. He remembered the man. “My Refuge,” he read between two splashes.

He managed to get a grip, climb up, stretch himself on the pavement. He allowed no time to rest. On his knees, he looked toward the coast.

It was moving away.

It was them moving away. The house. The garden.

Himself.

He roared, hitting the walls, cursed, stamped his feet.

The coast disappeared.

Decisions surface in the morning.

Sitting on a chair in front of the garden, his heart stripped of illusions, he whistled an old tango. He would navigate until the end of time. Without getting upset.

But the flesh is weak. “End of time” made him think, hopeful, of the bad news of the days previous to his voyage. Each country had its own atomic bomb now. It was therefore possible the planet would explode. Oh, let it explode!

But—was he even on the planet? If not, where was he? If so, on which part of it?

He would not get upset now. He went into the house.

He picked up the television. He threw it into the sea.

For a moment he could make it out, recognizable.

Big decisions. During his fall in the water he had seen the house from the outside. He should have imagined it, but never thought about it. A heavy mustache of mollusks and algae surrounded it. Little fish and worms stirred underneath. If that kept growing it would end up sinking him. He got his pruning shears but understood the task was impossible. To prune the edges he would have to get in the water. The lower part was beyond reach anyway. And he didn’t dare to step on the garden, in case it detached.

Very well then. He put the pruning shears away.

Fishing and biography, he decided.

Fishing and Navigation, he smiled bitterly. It was the name of a club at Lake Chascomús. He had gone with other bosses in the company to eat silverside fish there in ’52. He didn’t like silverside, he had said. He didn’t like silverside! He was a vegetarian. A vegetarian! The only thing worse would have been to say he didn’t like fishing or navigation.

So, here we are, for now. He drummed his fingers on the table, as was his habit at the office. Profession: navigator. He smiled, the corners of his mouth pointing down behind the beard. He had got used to running his hands through it, like a patriarch. It was a highly agreeable sensation. He had untangled it, a task difficult to forget, and now combed it every day. Whereas he trimmed the hair on the back of his neck.

He didn’t smell very good, it has to be said. What smell could surprise in that house where washing was abolished from the first day, where fish entered through the window and jumped on the floor, leaving scales? No smell or color could come as a surprise now. Nothing could.

One invigorating exercise for the navigator’s imagination is to mentally paint the abyss below, the depths sheltering mountain ranges; black surroundings, eternal cold. Compared to them, the splashing, the transparency and the light of the surface become pleasant. The precariousness of our suspension is underlined. The disparity of fate becomes obvious when you think of the many bones resting on the sea floor. You begin to meditate on providence, chance, fate.

When watering his garden, how many times had he enjoyed watching the ants struggling in the currents from his hose? Now he thought of them differently. Supposing for a moment a sea god actually existed, the Neptune of the ancients the boy joked about on television, wouldn’t he get the same pleasure directing men and their boats as he had spinning the insects, occasionally saving some because of their beauty or harmlessness, in a momentary good mood? Harmless or beautiful from whose point of view? The gardener’s. But doubtless there were others.

Philosophy germinates from loneliness. And from fear.

Another habit born of solitude is picking one’s nose. He had been prevented from doing it during the years he called normal by the height of the fence, too low to isolate him, and by the fact that his office had been open to anyone with a question. The truly isolated man has all the acts of privacy at his disposal. That is why he elicits mistrust. Since what acts cannot be imagined by fantasy?

They are always the same. Maybe that employee who had broken the onyx inkwell on his desk, hurling the lid to the ceiling—the mark had stayed there forever—or the one who had sent him to hell, apoplectic, and wanted to crush a stamp on his face—luckily there was a bell or that man thrown out on the street with four children to take care of—etcetera—well, maybe when calm in his house he picked his nose every day. Or the young lady who’d called him a worm, a very nervous young lady it’s true, maybe when she was at home she studied her navel just like he did, now that he lived naked . . . Maybe she also counted her toes, individual entities if ever there were any.

While fishing he once saw something like the shadow of a cloud. The sky was clear. What giant had glided through the waters?

Leaving his fishing, he went out to the pavement. He gazed at the caps of foam repeating like meringues on a confectioner’s sheet. He raised his arms and praised the god of the sea.

Thinking about it, he told himself his mother’s God might also allow a god of the sea. A delegate, to express it in trade union terms. Be it what it may, he praised it.

So many things were taken for granted when he lived in West Lanús. So many. Everything, that is.

When the cold comes, water moves to the category of minor things.

Which sea was this he was entering now?

First the fog. Moving across in puffs that made one feel nostalgia for the horizon. It left behind shapes that the wind twirled.

The clouds came down to the water, soup-colored bellies joined to the sea by the falling snow. Snowflakes, snowflakes.

Then ice covered the whole garden. It shone, reflecting the rusty front of the house in its slope.

Hugged by blankets wrapped around his neck, waist and legs, looking for warmth in the bed, stretching his hands toward the fire of his chairs burning on the pavement, he saw his reserves of water turn to ice. Since tiles were missing after he went up on the roof, it was impossible for him to make a shelter. He lined his body with the Salvation Army magazines and adjusted the blankets above him.

He looked like a chrysalis, waiting in its dark shroud to wake as a butterfly in a neighbor’s garden. 

When he slept he certainly didn’t count on waking up as a butterfly. If you can call that sleeping.

He had stuck his head inside a cover his sister had crocheted for a cushion. His breath gave him the illusion of heat. He saw through the pattern of colors.

The worst began with the ice floes. Animals floated by, frozen like cherries in aspic, watching him from inside the crags that slowly cruised near him, colliding with one another, sometimes with a sound.

He sensed he would not last much longer if nothing changed. The idea of rest seemed appropriate. Even welcome.

He noticed that the water outside now reached up to just beneath the windows. It must be the weight of the ice, he reckoned. The house creaked.

With a noise stranger than any other, the remains of the garden broke off, maybe because of the weight of the ice. The pensioner felt the vertigo of the whirlpools before his feet as the garden sunk, floated up again and between two waters went away rocking, like a flat floe.

From then on the door was separated from the sea by the mere pavement.

Countless screeches disturbed him one day. Nose blue with cold, he abandoned himself to what he believed was his final illusion. He lifted the crochet cover. It was a flight of swallows. They were exhausted. They covered the roof. He went out to look at them.

A blow on his shoulder almost knocked him out. The rusty letters had not held the weight of the birds. "My Refuge" bounced over the pavement, could be read one last time between two waves, then disappeared.

The pain, the hanging arm almost dragged him to the bathroom. Something in his shoulder had broken. The clavicle? He knew little about this. He tied his shoulder in strips of pajama.

The swallows had followed him in. Screeching with relief, eyes closed with pleasure, they settled on the wardrobe, on the headboard, in the kitchen.

Only one fish was left. Holding the knife with his left hand, he minced two fillets and placed them on a newspaper. The swallows jumped on it.

He melted ice. They drank.

“Eat. Drink,” he told them. “You are the owners of the house now.”

It brought him joy to see their feathers, their beaks, their little eyes. To save them the unpleasantness of traveling with a corpse, he went outside to die on the pavement.

A wall like a cliff seemed to block the light. A ship next to his house. A battleship with no windows.

Rather, it had windows. A row of portholes as high up as the third floor of a building.

Well, he said. If they want to find me they will. Standing up, he had no more chairs. Stroking his beard, he contemplated the panorama. The ice floes drifted away in flocks. The water had turned light blue. His arm in a sling was numb.

When the swallows woke up, one group fluttered around the house with pirouettes of happiness, went back in again and busied themselves pecking at what was left of the food in the kitchen and in the pots.

The pensioner lifted his eyes to the wall. It irritated him to see it there. Why didn’t it go away? He remembered the flowerpots where he kept the pebbles. He took aim at one of the portholes. At that height, with his left arm and in such pain, impossible.

He got carried away. The pebbles, white as popcorn, bounced off the metal and fell in the water or on the roof of his house. He forgot his concern about the glass in his windows. He squinted. His aim improved.

He laughed. He remembered a day in his early years when, helped by his father, he hit the bull’s eye at an amusement park.

Bull’s-eye. He had hit the center of a porthole. It was a special noise.

A face appeared.


***

​He returned. He did not look back at the house handed over to the passing swallows.

He slept. For hours. He opened his eyes, changed his position, closed his eyes again. They brought him a plate of soup and a spoon. The soup was black, the spoon heavy. Steam would get into his nose. The soup would get down. He worked on his reconstruction.

Wrapped in his beard, he dreamed. Sometimes he dreamed that his house creaked in the ice. Sometimes that his garden brimmed over with gardenias and daisies, and that a neighbor was coming to make him sign a petition addressed to the mayor. Sometimes that the rocking rolled him from door to table.

Then he would open his eyes and notice the sea was moving more than usual. But he was in a cabin with a small lamp in one corner. He closed his eyes again. He went back to sleep.

Later on, curled up on the deck, he looked at the stars.

Once he made out the Southern Cross. He cried.

One day he saw the city of Buenos Aires, wrapped in fog. Chimneys as tall as young girls scattered their smoke messages zigzagging into the fog. A smell of putrefaction, and the city with lit-up buildings was waking, coated in shades of pink. 

Of course he cried. 

From the dock to Constitución he went on foot. He didn’t have a cent.

As for the return by train, it goes without saying: he upset the passengers with his appearance and smell. 

There was no water on his street once again.

There was his house; or rather, the plot where it once stood. Nettles. Very tidy-looking neighbors shut the door on his beard.

The Protestant instead shared with him his potatoes and his tin of sardines. He only ate the potatoes. Issues of the magazine were lined up on the table.

“I’m in charge of the humor section,” the neighbor said.

A torrent of tears flooded the face and beard he had in front of him. He had never seen a face so strange, with wrinkles like those.

He found the pensioner a job in the dining rooms of the Salvation Army. There he had his daily bowl of soup. He still does.


"Things Happen" from Land of Smoke © The Heirs of Sara Gallardo. By arrangement with Pushkin Press. Translation © 2018 by Jessica Sequeira. All rights reserved.

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