I hated how Margarita cracked her knuckles when it was her turn to play the piano. She knew the sound of cracked nuts when she laced her fingers together and twisted them triggered a slight nervous twitch I wasn’t able to conceal. But it wasn’t only to bother me that she popped her joints like snail shells underfoot; in fact, she meant it as a reminder of how much happier both of us were outdoors and not underneath that roof.
But to maintain the serene course of things, Margarita and I had to play the piano when Miss Chevalier told us to. Really, I was the one who had to play. My mother dropped Candelaria and me off at around four in the afternoon, and came to pick us up two hours later, rushing to make it back home in time to cook dinner for Papá. That’s why I always let Candelaria go first, so I could go straight out and play in the garden with Margarita. Later, I would wash my hands and obey the old woman’s instructions; simple scales, or at times a fugue so that my fingers, which were still growing, “could find the sound in their bones.” I was seven years old then and Margarita was nine; but she had started a lot earlier with her pianist father; so every time Miss Chevalier wanted to encourage my sister and me, she would ask Margarita to play for us. At first my sister would sneak out to frolic with the cat; but after a while she’d tire of pursuing its indifference, and come back to sit on the chair next to me. After that, the old woman would ask us not to move, not to make a single sound, and she’d take her place beside her niece. Watching how Margarita’s fingers moved over the keys, the fingernails bitten and outlined with earth, Miss Chevalier would let out a sigh that sounded more like the exhalation of her soul, and her head would tilt to one side.
She’d say: “Bach. Concerto in F minor. Allegro.”
And though her little shoes didn’t even touch the floor, Margarita would play, as if the words uttered by the old woman were a secret code that only they could decipher and now used to illuminate the world.
“Vité,” she said again, in code.
And each time it took a little under nine minutes to finish the piece.
But in the vertigo of her bouncing fingers, like raindrops plunking against the earth, I felt absorbed by time, and it always seemed to draw out a little longer. I would close my eyes and see her in the garden again, spinning around and around on an invisible axis centered on her heels and her little salmon-colored dress, the plump, pale arms fixed to the torso. The fingers playing the keys, devoid of any other authority beyond her own desire, and the folds of that fragile fabric lifting as if it were a horseless carousel, sprinkled with a cascade of tense, unconstrained black-and-white keys, and before my very eyes, the swirling little dress, the hands and the body, all opened like a blossom and morphed into the umbrella sheltering us from a world that would engulf us.
For me, they were the lessons given to a boy who always arrived late. The crippled boy, who nevertheless followed the music hobblingly, clumsily, unable to catch its rhythm, its controlled movement, or ascertain the proper strength with which each key should be struck. But how I enjoyed hearing it, like when it would rain and the particles of a cloudburst played on the leaves and the branches and the earth that concealed us. Margarita produced music with that piano with a sort of despotic unconcern, as if the world had gone deaf and the only sound that remained was that of a voice trapped within its own chords. As if unspoken words were vibrating there, and in that spasm, that shiver of not wanting to say something, it was possible to resist the urge to release the sound; as if to avoid falling on my ears, it clung tightly to the wood with both hands.
And Miss Chevalier knew it, too; there was something sad in the way she let her hand fall upon her cheek when she heard her niece playing; something that made me consider how difficult it must be for her to cultivate a talent that was being lost like the final climax at the end of a concert; as if this form of sound that each tap of Margarita’s fingers was able to capture and then set free merely confirmed the flight instinct of an animal that couldn’t be arrested. Like a butterfly without the window, fluttering its wings in the wind while they begin disintegrating in mid-air.
And though Miss Chevalier loved the music, they both knew she would never be able to capture it.
We watched how her expression turned hard again in the languorous green that opened her eyes, which always led to her voicing the same phrase:
“You’ll never be like Gould.”
But that was just an opinion, like so many others.
The third time we saw each other, Margarita had already caught all sorts of new insects, a nervous collection gathered in shoe boxes and glass jars that we hid in the roots of the almond tree in case Miss Chevalier ever decided to invade our sanctuary. Now we could take them out whenever we needed them and put their springiness to the test, or their resistance to fire or salt or some other liquid or corrosive material that occurred to us, to see how many different ways, tidy or otherwise, we could find to leave them still. Sometimes we would contrive quick trials in which a snail naturally had to be punished for being so slow. Or some moth, for eating a piece of Margarita’s dress. Or a bee for trying to sting us, vengefully, as it buzzed around the inside of a plastic container. Exerting cruelty on the insects never made me feel sadness or remorse, though it never ceased to amaze me how perverse and ingenious the inventory of activities that a small and sweet child like Margarita was able to improvise. We got used to classifying the insects according to their ability to resist pain, maybe because they were so tiny and silent. I guess it was rather like pulling the eyelashes off a body. That degree of pain wasn’t high enough to impress us at that age, and in hindsight, I don’t think it ever was. It was as if the insects’ bodes weren’t real: at most they were accidents, segments, extensions of earth pulled from the earth. And little more. They were often far away from us; they’d get lost and end up like an invisible simulacrum of life. Whenever something went wrong, what we felt was akin to disgust, I mean, something akin to discomfort; little more than a shiver up the spine: a grub squished by accident prompted a curled nostril; a snail emptied of its viscous liquid, under the scab of its extirpated shell, barely incited a minor squeamishness.
None of it ever seemed strange to me. After all, she was the first girl I’d ever known who wasn’t a relative. And a girl could be however she wanted, even cruel.
The only person I ever told about my garden escapades was Marino, a schoolmate who had a perpetual piece of snot clogging one of his nostrils. I ran into him one morning in the market when my mother was selecting a chicken whose neck had been slit and bled out, and they were plucking the feathers after having scalded it in boiling water a moment earlier. Marino wouldn’t stop going on about his recent trip into the city, where his father’s family had an apartment that looked out over the sea; oh, how fun, I told him, but it couldn’t be compared with what Margarita and I had been up to in Miss Chevalier’s yard, and I spilling everything to him. Afterward, Marino stared at me pensively, wiped his brow and retorted categorically:
“Must be because she’s deaf.”
I wasn’t really old enough yet to grasp the notion of the absence of sound, much less the sort of distance that a handicap can occasion between people; but acting out on his revelation, I submerged myself one night in the still water of the bathtub and waited there a long time, a minute that seemed interminable, struggling to understand what Margarita’s world must feel like, a world without sound, and sound without a world. I thrashed around before I finished, rescuing my head from the bathwater. And finally back in the real world, I felt as though I could breathe again, the world had swelled anew, and I was hearing everything differently.
The following day, Margarita didn’t point me toward the yard, as was her custom. She must have sensed something odd straightaway, I could tell she was acting differently toward me and wanted me to know as much. There was curiosity in my gaze, perhaps in excess, which must have tipped her off to the fact that I now knew what it was she had never wished to tell me herself.
That day she took out a little magnetic board that wiped itself clean every time she pulled a panel at the bottom. That’s how she started writing to me, partly by accident, and partly because I had obliged her to it. We carried the board outside with us, together with the instruments of torture, and every time she wanted something she would write it out on the top panel with a lead-tip pencil. This awkward handwriting obliged my eyes to replicate the sounds as she wrote them down and thereby imitate her voice. I don’t know whether it had anything to do with our games, but by the end of the third week, I had come up with a peculiar way of listening to her, as if these crooked letters that looked as if they were sunk in ribbons of mercury, could somehow permeate my ears through my eyes, taking on whimsical meanings that slanted as she wrote them out, each one of the letters tilting like a new tonality, a small symptom of how her voice had penetrated my own body.
I remember as if it were yesterday the first thing she said about my method:
“Gregory, you are a perfect fool.”
Then she wrote:
“I don’t ever want to see you again, not even if you bring me your mother’s waxing kit.”
But she did see me again. I fetched her my mother’s waxing kit and we spent the rest of the summer playing with one of her favorite materials in the art of insect torture: hair removal wax. It worked like this: first we heated the wax in a small aluminum recipient. Once it became a hot liquid, we harvested it very carefully and with it, we smothered any body we found in the yard. That’s how we built a miniature wax museum collection, with all kinds of tiny fauna. Margarita continued perfecting the process, showing a true talent for arresting movement. She would smear the bug just enough for it to continue moving forward, and we would watch as it progressively began slowing down till it stood perfectly calm, fighting the friction of the wax before it turned into a statue.
It’s amazing the things that can amuse children at that age. It’s all we needed to keep us entertained. We were happy.
"Lecciones para un niño que llega tarde" © Carlos Yushimito. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 Valerie Miles. All rights reserved.
This is the second of a three installments of Carlos Yushimito's short story "Lessons for a Boy Who Arrived Late." The third installment will appear in a future issue of Words without Borders. Read the first installment here.