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from the November 2017 issue

House Taken Over

A family must learn to adapt when their house takes on a life of its own in this playful homage to Julio Cortázar by Mexican author Yuri Herrera, winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.

&°°° couldn’t be happier. @°°° couldn’t be happier. The twins *~ and #~ couldn’t be happier. Roanoke, the dog, was less enthusiastic, but agreed to lie in a corner of the laundry room, which elegantly hollowed out a spot as he circled half a dozen times until finding the ideal position.

When the sun really beat down, the windows would darken and the temperature cooled. When the traffic outside was very loud, white noise was released to eclipse it. When it rained, the roof seemed to interpret the drops, amplifying or silencing them until they didn’t sound threatening.

One day when *~ and #~ were running around the house, *~ tripped over his shoelaces and fell. Before his forehead could hit the corner of a table and tear his skin or knock him out, the table moved a few inches back and *~ hit his hands just hard enough for him to learn his lesson but not so hard that he hurt himself. From that point on if the children didn’t tie their shoelaces immediately after putting on their shoes, the shoes would remain sort of suctioned to the floor. The house was learning.

It absorbed odors, cleaned up spills, modulated the light to favor a person when they looked in the mirror.

One night &°°° awoke to the noise of someone attempting to open one of the living room windows: she could make out the sound of the sash being moved. She shook @°°°’s shoulder and in a very soft voice told him that someone was in the house. They got up, &°°° went to check on the twins, and @°°° went to check on Roanoke. Roanoke usually leapt up to give warning at the slightest sound in the night, so something must have happened to him. But @°°° found him curled up in his corner, the wall bulging out over him protectively. On smelling @°°°, Roanoke raised his snout for a moment and wagged his tail in recognition, but showed no sign of wanting to get up. Then &°°° came to tell him that the twins were fine. And they went to peek into the living room.

The intruder had managed to open the window and was attempting to climb in. @°°° ran stealthily to the kitchen and tried to grab a knife from the wooden block where they were kept but was unable to budge it even an inch, not that one or any of the other knives. Terrified, from there he saw &°°° standing in the living room doorway and the man’s body halfway inside the house and said to himself, “the house doesn’t know how to determine what’s important.” Just then he heard a loud crack and watched as three steel tentacles emerged from outside the window, beneath the pane, and in a flash reached into the house, seized the intruder, squeezed until his bones cracked, and hurled him back out.

The house knew how to determine what was important.

They began to grasp the implications of the house’s learning ability on the day that *~ jammed a pencil into one of #~’s legs. &°°° was quick to treat the wound and @°°° took off his belt to give *~ an educational lash, just one so that *~ would not forget that what he’d done was wrong, but on his taking a step toward the offending twin, the floor tiles moved and @°°° fell to the ground. Still not comprehending what had happened he stood once more, and again the floor tiles brought him down. &°°° tried to approach from the other side but the moving floor would not allow her to do so. Roanoke, on the other hand, walked calmly between them, sat down beside *~, licked his face, and lay down with no fanfare.

The next thing that happened was when @°°° saw a fly lollygagging around his head. He tried to shoo it with a swipe of the hand but the fly buzzed even more aggressively around him. So @°°° stood up to clap it between his palms, and no sooner had he opened his arms to gather speed when he heard the crash of dishes breaking behind him. He walked to the kitchen and saw that all of the glasses had shattered on the floor, as if they’d been pushed from inside the cupboard.

Next came the door. &°°° returned from the street, furious for any or all of the multiple reasons why whatever it was that the world was becoming might infuriate a person. The unbreathable air, the unbreathable people, the distance, the dead birds, the living cockroaches, the lists she was making of all this on her way home. &°°° slammed the door on entering and the moment she slammed it the roof tiles rattled as obviously as the obvious rattling of a roof might be; but it was not seismic: it was quaking with rage. &°°° backed up, while calling @°°°, #¬, and *~, opened the door, took a step backward, out of the house, and as soon as she had done so the door closed and the roof stopped rattling. &°°° remained standing there at the door for a few seconds, then tried to open it but the door would not give. She banged it and shoved it while motherfuckering aloud, with no luck. Defeated, she sat down on the ground and looked at her shoes crossed below the ankle, thinking not about them or about the house but about how tired and how tired and how very very tired she was. And from thinking so much about her tiredness, her breathing slowed and her body relaxed and suddenly but with no foofaraw the lock clicked open at the door, which &°°° walked through and closed gently.

From then on they began to tiptoe around the house, taking only baby steps, and if there was some other argument brewing they kept quiet about it, swallowing their anger until it passed. Around that time they also began to take detours before coming back, or went out on any old pretext and returned much later, all so as not to be ill-judged.

One day when the four of them were out on the street, they came across a beggar. @°°° tossed him a coin and the beggar said Thank you sir, nobody’s given me anything today, today of all days, and @°°° said What’s so special about today and the beggar said It’s my birthday sir and @°°° said Ah, and the four of them continued walking, but suddenly @°°° stopped and said I have an idea. The idea had come to him because he now spent a good deal of his day thinking about how to behave in order to control the house’s reactions. He took the entire family to a cake shop, they bought a cake and went back to where the beggar was. Here, this is for you, @°°° said, handing it to him with a spoon. Then they sang happy birthday and began to clap rhythmically, the twins jumping up and down with each clap, Eat it, Eat it. Such a racket was made that more people gathered around the beggar, and everyone clapped, took photos of him there on the ground eating his cake and then showed them to one another.

They returned home happy and self-satisfied, almost as though they had eaten the cake themselves, and didn’t have any trouble opening the door. They walked in, sat down in the living room in silence, happy to have found the way to come and go with no trouble. They looked at the walls, the ceiling, the furniture, and then they looked at each other in pride.

Roanoke decided then that he wanted to go out to pee. He walked to the door and as #~ got up to open it, the door opened on its own, Roanoke went out, and the door closed on its own. The others were stunned for a moment, then laughed and went to look out the window. Roanoke had finished peeing and was taking advantage of the afternoon, living large: he sniffed a bush, he gazed at the power lines, he chewed on one paw. &°°° said I’m going to get him in, and turned the doorknob but the doorknob wouldn’t budge @°°° tried it too, even #~ and *~ tried it, but no luck. They went to the back door but couldn’t open it either, or the windows.

Outside, Roanoke had flipped himself belly-up on the grass and was scratching his back with primeval glee. So high-quality were those windows that Roanoke couldn’t hear the racket made by &°°° and @°°° and #~ and *~, desperately hurling furniture against the glass.

"Casa tomada" © 2017  by Yuri Herrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.

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