Skip to content
Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the January 2007 issue

from The Book of Words

One. Two. And three. During the first three years of school, we are required to cross our arms if we wish to rest them on our desktops when we aren't writing. Only when we are older, the teachers say, will we be permitted to lay one arm smooth and straight atop the other. When we pray, each hand rests flat against the other, no interlocking of fingers allowed. When it's time for recess, we exit the classroom one behind the other in single file, nice and slow, the teachers say. One. Two. And three. All rapid motions, everything that is sudden or askew, all running, swinging, shoving, lolling and falling, all spinning in circles and jumping, is cut off from us, brought to a place where it is inaccessible to us and left for scrap. Just like bicycles no longer fit for use, all these things twist together in a heap, intertwining to form a mass that can never again be disentangled, and in the end all of it decomposes collectively, as if it had always been of a piece. One.

During recess we crouch in the shade of the big tree-no shouting, children, no fighting-gathering up the firebugs that live at the base of its trunk, filling our hands with them, or else with gravel and grains of sand, and when an airplane flies past overhead, one of us whispers louder than the other: My parents are up there, they're on their way to Alaska, that's my mother's airplane, she's traveling to Rome, today my father's sitting in that plane up there, he's flying far far away, where's he going, really far away, well if you don't even know where he's going then it can't be true, yes it is, my father's even flying across the ocean, well so where's he going. Really far away. That's stupid. No shouting. We're winning, my friend Anna whispers to us, we're winning, she always says that when a tire blows out somewhere outside, the noise it makes sounds like gunfire, sometimes there are many shots in a row. We're winning, she whispers, and then all of us fall silent, waiting to see if we really are winning.

This time we didn't win, my friend Anna says a day later. My mother, she says, climbed over the fence to give the horses something to eat. And one of the horses wasn't really tame yet, it shied away from her and didn't want to eat anything. And when she got closer, it reared up on its hind legs. And then, I ask. Then it came down on its hooves and almost hit my mother in the head, so she tried to run away. But she didn't manage to get back over the fence in time, and then the horse saw she was scared of it and went after her. And if she hadn't been afraid? Then the horse would have remained calm. But it saw that she was afraid. And then it went after her and kicked her and threw itself on top of her with all its might. But horses never kick people, I say. Not if they're tame, Anna says, but this horse was basically still wild. Oh, I say. And then the other horses got carried away as well. They remembered how they used to be wild. And then? Then all the horses ran over my mother. With their hooves. My mother was an Indian, Anna says to me. I don't say anything. She climbed over the fence to feed her horses, she says, and then her very own horses trampled her to death. Just imagine, Anna says to me. I imagine this, and then say to my friend: I think that's a good way for an Indian to die. I think so too, Anna says. Were you there? I ask. No, Anna says. And the horses? They had to shoot them, of course. You heard the shots yourself. Yes, I say, that's true.

A music box is playing: Plume in the summer wind, waywardly swaying, thus heart of womankind everyway bendeth. The music box is on the table with wheels that my mother and father roll into my room in the morning. Flowers and candlelight, and beside the music box are the presents. It's my birthday. One day out of all the days of the year is the day when I was born. One day out of all the days of the year is the first day. Or is it better just to dive right into the concrete and let the first day be the last. Open your eyes, behold the grave and then dive right in and turn to stone. Plume in the summer wind. I am given a silver barrette, a book of faerie tales, letter paper with a watermark and my name in the upper left corner, a soup dish on the bottom of which two girls are playing ball, and a Rose of Jericho, a dried-up thing that becomes a flower when you wet it. Until the dish breaks, the girls will go on playing ball at the bottom of the porcelain. Until water is in sight, the Rose of Jericho will keep rolling through the desert. The dish will not break. When I have spooned up enough soup, the girls begin to play beneath the noodles and greens, and I put my ear to the dish to listen, I want to hear one or the other of them catching the ball. My mother says there's nothing to hear because the ball is suspended in midair between them. And it will never come down? No, my mother says, it's a picture. We are so happy you were born. A picture always remains just as it is.

Saint Difunta Correa1 died of thirst in the desert, but the child drinking at her breast was still alive when the two of them were found. Drinking life from a dead woman, my wet-nurse smoothes the little picture with her index finger, it's odd, when life leaves a body, this makes it heavier rather than lighter. The saint's back, legs and heels press heavily into the sand as she holds the child in her arms, yes, holds it, the dead woman is still holding a living child in her arms, which are already dead, and the third figure in this alliance is the silent sun beating down upon the two of them, the sun that caused the death of the mother. Wherever there is an altar in the sand for this saint who died of thirst, travelers leave bottles of water as offerings, my wet-nurse says. I wonder whether the water can call her back to life. Whether a saint who has been dead so long can drink her life back out of all those sealed bottles. Does a saint even have hands and a mouth. My wet-nurse says she will most assuredly get up again. Yes, but when. When no one comes any longer to leave new offerings, she says. When silence reigns on earth, she won't be able to resist looking to see what is going on, then at the latest she will get up again and drink.

So the story does go on. To the right and left and above and beneath the edges of the picture. Of course, my wet-nurse says. And only as far as the picture extends do things remain as they are. That's right, she says and lets me hold the little card with the image of the Difunta. But all around the picture things remain in motion, I ask, even this story itself which cannot go any farther here in the picture. Naturally, my wet-nurse says. You can see how, she says, for example the sun is moving across the sky. Yes, I say, that's true, that's how you can tell. It would be awful, she says, if the sun were always as high up in the sky as here above the two people in the picture. It would burn everything up. That's true, I say, looking at the bars of light on the floor of my room put there by the sun slipping between the blinds. My wet-nurse takes back the picture of the saint and puts it in her olive-colored bag. Outside it's noon.

I wonder if the sun can wear out. In countries like ours, where it shines day after day all year round, does it get shabby more quickly than elsewhere. In countries like this, where it can see everything at almost every moment except during the night or when, as rarely happens, it is raining, is the sun marked by what it sees. Are the things taking place beneath its rays reflected back at it. So that the sun itself, depending on what it illuminates, appears perfect or disheveled, intact or cold. Is this what sometimes makes it turn white. Or blotchy. All that looking. Probably. While I kneel and get up again and sit down again and then kneel again, performing the roundelay of prayer Sunday after Sunday in the crepuscular church, I am thinking of the Holy Trinity: mother, infant and sun.

Hot, my mother says, pulling me away from the stove. Hot, my father says whenever anyone's making a fire, and he positions himself between me and the fire. Hot, my mother says as she lights the candle to place inside my St. Martin's Day lantern. Star light star bright, first star I see tonight. When the candle's little shade has been drawn all around it like an accordion, I am permitted to take the lantern by its long wooden stick and go outside with it. I wish I may, I wish I might. The shade is made of paper. Am I made of paper too, I ask my mother. My mother laughs and says: Of course not, and calls out to my father that I just asked if I was made of paper, and my father laughs too, comes out of his room into the hallway and strokes my head. Then I go out to the street with my mother and see children coming out of all the other houses with lanterns in their hands; on St. Martin's2 we're all allowed to stay up past midnight and illuminate the dark streets with our lanterns. If I were made of paper, first my dress would catch fire, then my legs, then my arms, then my head, basically all the parts farthest from the center, and only then would my stomach start to burn, and the little pink buttons on top of my heart, and finally the heart itself, the innermost part of me. All these things would turn black and keep flying up into the night as long as they were still smoldering, and only after the air had cooled them down would they return to earth in a rain of ashes. But I am not made of paper, my mother repeats. Nonetheless she pulls me away any time I want to touch fire, saying: Hot.

Eyes, nose, mouth. How often my mother shut her eyes the instant before my index finger hit its mark, how often my father opened his mouth to show me what a mouth is and then closed it around my finger as if he were going to bite, but he didn't bite. If you wanted to play ball with someone's head, only one thing would get in the way: the nose. My father's teeth are very white, and when I probe around inside his dark mouth with my finger, they feel damp and hard. I see a tree and say tree, I smell the cake my mother bakes on Sunday and say cake, I hear a bird twittering in the garden, and my mother says: That's right, a bird. We put the cake into our mouths, it vanishes there, mouth, eyes and nose: holes, the beginnings of paths, no one knows quite where they lead. Stomach, my mother says, but I've never seen my stomach from the inside, at least what I eat comes out again on the other end, but what about the things I put into my eyes, where do they go, are all of them supposed to fit inside my head, even if I were to stack them up the way our housekeeper stacks the laundry, folding it and placing one piece atop the other, there still wouldn't be room, I don't think, and therefore I keep saying all the things as I see them so they'll change course inside my head and go out again through my mouth. Shit, I say later when I see what has become of the cake. That's a filthy word, my mother says, wiping my bottom. Don't say words like that, she says and flushes. But it's something we even ate. That was before, my mother says, and we go back to the other room. So the cake has gotten dirty on its way through my body. You can't look at it that way, my father says, it doesn't have anything to do with you, it's just a matter of the word. I'm not allowed to say it. No, my mother says, words like that should never cross the lips of a young lady. Eyes. Nose. Mouth. So it's precisely the things that are filthy that are supposed to be stacked up and stored in my head and aren't allowed to change course and go out again through my mouth. But, I say, if I see a foot that is dirty and say foot, then that's a filthy word too, isn't it, but my mother says no, the word itself is clean. Aha. It's only the word shit I'm not supposed to say, but now that's really quite enough, my mother says. My father says: time for a walk. The obelisk stands at the eye of the city, on the large square with cars circling around it, since yesterday it's been wearing a wooden skirt, I slide my hand across the white letters on the fence boards, there's a spotlight shining on them, and my father reads aloud: Silence is health.

Maintaining an equilibrium, my father said one day when I came home from school with my hair tousled, by no means depends on the physical strength possessed by you or your opponent, equilibrium is always an equilibrium of the methods you employ. On this occasion my father showed me a maneuver that lets you twist an attacking arm onto your opponent's back before he even knows what's happening and in this way hold and overpower him. Whenever I played shop as a little girl, I always gave my customers play money along with the marbles I was selling instead of requesting payment. I hadn't yet understood that even in buying and selling there is an invisible equilibrium to be upheld, one utterly indifferent to the often shabby appearance of the coins. If all the maneuvers my father has employed while rubbing the holster of his service pistol until it is shiny have served to preserve some equilibrium or other, then this light, invisible weapon assuredly balances out many things whose nature is not immediately apparent to me upon gazing only at his gun or its holster.

But this time we won, my friend Anna says to me in the schoolyard, nudging the ball this way and that with her feet. No one in the whole world plays better than we do. We're the champions. Anna's soccer ball hits a pebble and changes course. Two to one, she says, now it's been proven. She runs after the ball. And that's why they're setting off fireworks now, she shouts, coming to a stop beside the ball, we can hear the firecrackers, but because the brick wall all around our schoolyard is so high and perhaps also because, as always, the sun is shining, we can see neither flowers nor rings of fire nor shooting stars or golden rain in the sky. Maybe they forgot about the sun, Anna says, stepping back at an angle for a running start, then she kicks the ball, shooting it at me, that is, at the goal behind me, which I am guarding, I'm the goalie, and the goal is a bit of grass between an empty milk carton on the right and a stone wastepaper basket on the left, I step to one side of the goal I am guarding, and the ball hurtles into it. If it had struck me, I'd be dead. That isn't fair, Anna says. Plenty of room on a soccer field like this, and as for the grass, the softer the better. Body after body beneath the grass, hands outspread, and above all these hands, mouths and eyes, the ball rolls toward the goal and gently glides into it, we're the champions.

I am sleeping. My grandmother is telling my aunt how she got dizzy that morning. A free-of-charge carousel ride, she says, all the cupboards were dancing around me in a circle, I was seeing stars, and then everything went black. Then I heard the angels singing, my grandmother says. Free of charge. She laughs. My mother says to her brother, my uncle: All the same, I think it's funny she hasn't called. After all, she's our sister. I even told her she could stay with us. And my aunt laughs too and says, oh, you don't even have to be so old to fall, our neighbor fell off the roof of his shed last Sunday, he wanted to look over the edge to see if he'd left his hammer down there, so he bent over, but then his rear end wanted to look too and came sliding down on top of him, and the next thing he knew he was lying on the ground. The neighbor. Well, maybe he'd also had a bit too much to drink, my grandmother says. Quite possible, my aunt says. My uncle says, you've got to remember what she must be going through with such a husband. Well, then let her bring him too, my mother says. My uncle doesn't say anything. None of this makes any sense to me, my mother says. My uncle says to my father, two to one, not bad, eh? And my father replies, we're the champions now. My uncle says, I never thought I'd see the day, and laughs, and my father laughs too, and my aunt says, well, it's true a person shouldn't start drinking in the morning, my grandmother gives no response. I am lying on the floor, asleep. My mother says, how can she sleep like that, on the floor in the middle of the room, and everyone looks at me for a moment, no one says anything, then my mother says, let me go see if dinner's ready. My aunt says, but you definitely shouldn't wash the windows by yourself any more, that ladder really is dangerous. My mother calls out: Dinner is ready. Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored. Your mercies bless, and grant that we may feast in Paradise with Thee.

1 An "unofficial saint," or a "folk saint," Difunta Correa is worshiped as a cult figure throughout Argentina, overwhelmingly by the working classes.

2 A holiday in Europe, particularly in Germany, Saint Martin's is a carnival day held primarily for the benefit of children. On November 11, they take to the streets, and collect sweets as they sing and carry homemade paper lanterns.

Read more from the January 2007 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.