In this short lyric piece by Alejandro Zambra, a bed sheet is a blank canvas and a record of family history.
It was before my dad set the house on fire. Fifteen or twenty days before.
There was a closet full of sheets, almost all of them white with red thread at the seams, Italian red. And one light blue set that was mine, patterned with blue letters or treble clefs.
My mother, from the window, her back to me, facing a white sheet; fifteen or twenty days before, back, facing a white sheet. She wasn’t crying. She was standing there, simply, waiting for the sheet to dry.
It was a lightless day. She turned around and came closer to the window and began to look at me, to imitate my face looking at her, until a smile started. But then she didn’t come inside. She went back to her place, facing the sheet.
A sheet drying in the wind on a windless day. A canvas, a kind of scene. The scene continues until the audience understands that there will be no second scene.
I’m the one who starts the round of applause. I used to work doing voiceovers, but I got the ax. Now I’m the guy who starts the applause.
My job is to give closed slaps, closed applause. My job is to close my hands, bring them forcibly together, with force. My job is to seek out silences and fill them.
I’ll clap you—in the face! they used to say to me, sometimes, in jest.
Close the door from outside, they’d say, but as a joke.
Go see if it’s raining on the corner.
Long before, years before, my father had to rush home for an emergency; his wife was about to give birth to me.
But it’s a clean image, new and false. As it should be. Children pretend to be wounded in the climbing vines.
Once upon a time there was a white sheet drying in the sun. But it was a sunless day. It’s a very long story.
There is no second sheet. The sheet lengthens out, unfolds, but there is no other sheet inside.
Once upon a time there was a sheet around a white body.
Once upon a time there was a sheet that stained.
It seems they wrapped someone up. I don’t remember well, I was a little out of it.
“Don’t pose,” they say, but it’s hard not to pose. Even in dreams. Sometimes one fakes nightmares. Wake up with a shout, a shout of one’s own. Even aware that there’s no call to shout, accept someone’s tired embrace and keep quiet.
Don’t dream, don’t pose, fall asleep bit by bit. That’s how it’s said, bit by bit.
Once upon a time there was a sheet drying bit by bit.
Days before my dad set the house on fire, there was a sheet drying bit by bit.
I’m not going to open the window. Stop asking. It doesn’t open.
In love or in error, they sleep together.
The body grows or contracts during a night of sleep. The face loses and finds its features with the touch of the pillow.
Careful, your body could split in two.
Turn off the color bars and go back to sleep.
In the dream the cars went right past.
The ghosts left us with the table set.
Once upon a time there was a bulk and a sheet.
“Historia de una sábana” © Alejandro Zambra. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.