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from the May 2010 issue

from “Such Small Hands”

Everything was different at the zoo. It all started at the zoo: the smell of the zoo, the nervous excitability as we stepped off the minibus.

All that was new: the zoo. All that was violent: the zoo.

And to think that the whole world can be contained in one fang, and that that fang can be seen in an animal’s mouth, and it’s white, and made to sink into flesh, and that the wolf, who is bad in real life, looks good when he’s in his cage…And to sense that they were made for each other, the wolf and the cage, that the wolf has been tamed and his fur has turned yellow in the shade, and the whole forest is contained in his eyes. We were allowed to put our hand almost up to the railing, so we’d be scared and say “What if there were no bars? Can you imagine? Can you?”

The wolf seemed to hear us, to understand our words; he raised his snout and gave us a look full of saliva and wanted to pounce on us.

And the elephants? And the rhinoceroses? And the seals? No, the seals were predictable and silly, nosing the ball around and getting rewarded with little fish; but the elephant was tired of its peanuts and had thick skin, and we had to shout to get him to even turn and notice us. Then he looked up, exhausted, and drank listlessly from a dirty trough, lumbering heavily, as if each movement were cumbersome, each step a tremendous effort, which was why he never won; and we pitied the elephant more than the seal, because he was bigger, and sadder, and more like us.

Marina was uneasy. She had been all morning, since we got up and took our showers. Then, at the peacocks, she stood there transfixed. We were near her and could sense her uneasiness. But at the same time it was as if her uneasiness transformed her, made her radiant and luminous.

“What are you looking at, Marina?”

“The peacocks. They’re so pretty, the peacocks.”

“They are.”

“They’re pretty but they’re not, the way they look around like that, with a thousand eyeballs on their tails.”

Inexplicably, we all edged closer, without meaning to. An inescapable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.

We wanted to ask, “Where are you, Marina?”

And yet she was right there beside us, overflowing, gazing at the peacocks; we knew she was going to speak to us, and we longed for her word. If she’d said, “Surrender now; throw yourselves to the wolf,” we would have done it. If she’d said, “Jump on that peacock and kill it,” we’d have done that, too.

“Tonight we’re going to play a game,” she said.

“What game, Marina?”

“Just a game I know.”

“How do you play?”

“I’ll tell you tonight.”

“Can’t you tell us now?”

“No. Tonight.”

So the rest of the trip was tinged with the anxiety of the wait. The wait was essential. And at lunch we watched them feed the tigers and saw that they were anxious, too, when one man entered from one side while another one distracted them from the other and left enormous slabs of raw meat for them. Behind the cage, as the man was leaving, something cracked, and the tigers fell instantly upon the meat. There were three of them. They coiled around like ivy, their backbones coming together as one at a single lump of flesh and fury that made them resemble a make-believe, three-headed creature devouring the meat. Their snouts covered in blood. They had told us tigers were beautiful; they had lied to us.

On the bus back we tried to sing songs, but we couldn’t stop picturing the tigers’ snouts, the wolf’s fangs, the elephant’s smell, the dolphin’s plasticky skin, the resignation of the monkey, who wanted to be human and couldn’t.

Paddycake, Paddycake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Roll it, pat it, mark it with a B,
Put it in the oven for baby and me

“How does the game go, Marina?”

“I’ll tell you tonight.”

Now it was night. We were in bed; the lights had been turned out. With the lights out we all looked surprisingly alike. The game dangled above us, before we began. Anxious for the game. A secret told twenty times under the covers, fingers crossed: the mystery of the game and the joy of the game as we waited, arms crossed, holding our breath.

“Everybody come here.”

“Where, Marina?”

“Here, to my bed.”

How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tightrope walkers. Desire was a big knife and we were the handle. And nothing happened, really. Night happened, just as the zoo had happened. In the dark, gathered around Marina’s bed, we could see the zoo better than during the day; we saw that what we had felt watching the wolf was bottomless and unfathomable and that we would never understand it: not then, not the next day, not in a year.

She’d never been so distant as she was then, so absent. At the zoo, it was not too late to have said, “We know who you are, Marina; we know your father died in the accident and your mother in the hospital. We know you’re sad and we know you love us.”

But at that moment we had to decide who Marina was to us. The one who invited us to her bed. Our hands and feet were cold. But she was still hot, as if she’d been locked up in the infirmary with just-baked bricks for a long time and was now giving off their stored heat.

“The game is easy, and it lasts for days, because every day a different one of us is the game and every day it’s different.”

The room was still dark but we could hear her voice, boundless as the horizon. We know, now, that we were brave that night, but we didn’t know it then. We know now, too, that we didn’t have to go to her, didn’t have to get out of our beds, didn’t have to feel the cold of the floor tiles, that it would have been easy to take her violence and her magnetism in our hand and crush it. And yet we went.

"It’s easy,” she repeated. Then she lifted her pillow to reveal blush, eyeliner, lipstick.

“Each night, one of you is the doll. I put on her makeup, and she’s the doll. And the rest of us look at her and play with her. She’s a good dolly, and we’re good to her.”

“Where did you get that, Marina?”

“In the infirmary. The teacher left her purse there and I took it.”

Finally someone turned on a light and we saw the expression on her face.

A tiny light, hidden under the sheets so we wouldn’t get caught.

We’re supposed to forget everything, forget it all, pretend it never happened, but the way Marina looked when she taught us the game is something that has to be cherished like a precious stone.

“The doll has to be quiet; she’s not allowed to talk. And she has to be very pale and sweet and wear this dress. She’s like us, but in doll version; she can’t live without us.”

The distances hovered from one to the next, from one neck to the other, from now on doll necks, doll hands, doll eyes and lips.

“Every night we’ll all get to play with the doll and kiss her and tell her our secrets. And she’ll just look at us and listen to us, because she loves us and we love her, too.”

Suddenly she was spent, clammy. She struggled to speak, as if the very idea of the game had overwhelmed her.

“And every night when we go to sleep, we won’t go to sleep. We’ll dress the doll in the doll dress and put makeup on her and play with her. That’s how it’s going to be.”

That’s how it had to be.

That’s how it would be.

At first our eyes would slip in the night, until they adapted to the darkness. We almost couldn’t see the sides of the dressers where our names were written. Slowly we’d forget the cares of the day. We’d forget our times tables and spelling rules, forget the smell and taste of that night’s dinner. Everything would be slow and amber, like stuffy air in a closed-up room. But even if we really wanted to, we’d never rush. Feeling the contact of our nightgowns and the touch of our sheets, we’d pretend to be asleep, as if fatigue had flooded through us all of a sudden. Closing our eyes, we’d compel our bodies to produce the sleep-smell that convinced the adult it was OK for her to go. And we’d lie there like that, motionless, for several minutes. Then, in the dark of night, a strange sound would send the first sign and we’d billow, like skirts in the wind. We’d start to live inside the game, the anxiety of the game. Soon the second sign would come; there would be no doubt now. It could be anything: a whistle, the sound of creaking wood, even silence. And then slowly we’d get out of bed, without even brushing up against each other, and our bodies would feel lighter. Not even then would we feel the cold of the floor tiles, be afraid of the dark. We were the cold, the dark. And so we’d go to Marina’s bed, sleepwalkers, obsessed with one idea: starting the game.

Once we’d gathered around her bed, Marina would finally rise up and someone would turn on a light and put it under the sheets. We’d see her face, and for a moment she’d seem to hesitate. And then she’d say:


No more waiting. She’d just say:


Then our last tie to the day, to the orphanage, would break. To us, that was when the doll’s girl-life ended; an expression of fear, of pain, would cross her face. And when Marina gave the sign, we’d start to undress the chosen girl, thinking trivial thoughts: that we’d never noticed that mole on her shoulder before, that her face leaned comically to one side, that her nightgown had Donald Duck on it and had a frayed hem. But as we undressed her, the chosen girl would become smaller, more compact. She’d lose her smell. That precious, fragile thing, her smell, yes, even that would disappear. Her skin would become coarser, and so would our touch; everything would get a little rougher, a little tougher. To hide our distress we’d make faces, tell jokes. Someone would even sing:

Paddycake, Paddycake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Roll it, pat it, mark it with a B,
Put it in the oven for baby and me

Almost in a whisper, so you could hardly hear it, so you didn’t think about the doll’s tiny body.

“You have to take off all of her clothes.”

“Even her underwear?”

“Even her underwear. And then you have to put this dress on her, because this is the doll’s dress.”

The dress would be blue and coarse and no one would ever know where Marina had gotten it from. It would have a red cat playing with a green ball of yarn embroidered on the front. We would each touch the dress before putting it on the doll, as if we needed to prove that it was real, at least as real as the body of the doll who would be waiting, naked. There would be, truth be told, tremendous mistrust. The doll would wait motionless.

Once she was naked Marina would say:

“Now you have to dress her.”

She’d make a very unhappy face. Her expression would go to pieces in one second. And we’d have to be very aware during that second because that was when we’d discover who the doll really was.

That was something we learned immediately: no two dolls were ever the same.

That was how it had to be.

Some would be heavy and formless, as if constantly searching for a shape that never came, painful, chubby dolls with no message, and no one knew what to do with their spent flesh; others would be as taut as bows, marionettes with wide-open eyes, guilty as criminals; others would be fragile and delicate and we couldn’t do anything to rid them of their delicacy; others would be born dead, impossibly cheap, one arm or leg longer than the other, or hair too coarse, or feet too dirty. Marina would always wait to see them before she put on their makeup.

Still naked, motionless, even before we put her dress on, the doll would await her face. That was when the game’s second door would open, the scary one, because who knows what was behind that closed door. It’s always frightening there. You fear a terrible adventure. And what is to come is unnerving.

You close your eyes.

Then it’s like you’re dreaming.

Actually, you feel like you’re on the verge of entering a dream but then don’t, and then after a while all that remains is that feeling. Then even that fades, and a milky light seeps in through the crack, an anxiety that knows no words, no objects. But when you open your eyes, you see Marina’s face putting on the makeup, bringing your hidden face to the surface. A frightened face. Very slowly, she twists the lipstick up and applies it to the doll’s face. Your lips surrender to the color. Lips that had been so pale, almost transparent in the muted light, grow full, as if filling with blood.

Slowly your limbs sink into a warm sludge. You see the other girls’ faces as if they’d just suddenly appeared out of nowhere. And then your eyes begin to feel tired.

“Close your eyes.”

You close your eyes. You fall. It’s as if you were wearing a mask. You feel the black pencil lining your eyes, emphasizing them. No one speaks, but you know exactly where each girl is and what she feels and that the wind is still blowing in from the window and that it’s cold; you feel the scratchiness of the dress on your skin like a sack and you love the contact, the presence, the feel of black eyeliner gliding across your eyelids. Marina pulls back a little, admiring her work. Then, calmly, she says

“Now you’re a doll.”

And now you’re a doll.

Suddenly, just like that, you’re a doll.

You are passed from one set of hands to the next, from one bed to the next. You’re never alone again. Safe inside the doll you love harder, feel deeper, exist boundlessly, with no moderation. And yet you disregard the sound of girls kissing your cheek. Nothing matters now.

You have to let your arms flop at your sides so the girl will hold them up. You’re frozen there, motionless, skin moist from a warm kiss that means nothing. Then you feel yanking on your dress, greedy hands. The easiest thing is just to think you’re going to die. But that thought, to a doll, has no meaning. You feel it, but in no way does it stir you. Your eyes slowly drain of color until they’re completely vacant. Your temperature drops, your heartbeat slows. You’re not outside of anything, you’re inside; that’s why they can leave their secrets with you. They inch their lips closer to your ear and whisper.

“Dolly, I . . .”

And the doll stiffens, excited, because even if you’re not allowed to tell, you know the secret now.

Sad-armed doll, blue-dress doll, poor fallen thing that knows secrets.

From Las manos pequeñas. Published 2008 by Ed. Anagrama. Copyright Andrés Barba. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2010 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.

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