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from the June 2012 issue

The Christmas Tree

Someone had placed a giant tree in the hotel lobby, a pine made of unrecyclable plastics. We’re in a strange land and Christmas is nearing. We see these things with a particular disdain, a particular apathy of islanders steeped in a system that alternates beauty with politics. Christmas, for us, is nothing more than faint nostalgia, our mothers’ childhoods, the tree in the corner of a color photo from cousins in Miami, the wool purse brought by someone from Russia when the country had a different, more inclusive name.

We’re in a neighboring country and someone put a tree just inside the door to the hotel, let’s call it luxurious. There’s a small girl sitting in front of the tree. She talks to it. She talks to it with a peace that is reminiscent of another measurement for sorrow and guilt. A guilt I want to call my own.

I came to this other island to exorcize my demons. There’s something essentially lazy in that word. I cried for my lack of sorrow more than from anger, more than from knowing that I was to blame. The girl talks to the tree. She asks for things and people, alternating. She says: oh, Santa, I want a house for my dolls, I want a little sister to play with, I want a mom, I want the last Harry Potter book, I want, Santa, I want, I want . . . I want . . .

In this hotel I’ve committed some unforgivable sins and I don’t feel shame for my pain; I feel nothing more than a few movements, a few rich fragments of sound: the girl asking for things, the hand grazing, sliding down my neck igniting a delirium of the body, the need for me to atone, she that I’ve come to atone to . . .

I let Luz’s hand cross my neck, and drift under my shirt to rest on my shoulders, and stay for a while caressing my wounded shoulder, my wounded heart, my wounded back . . . To stay, to caress . . . Only this moment and the girl’s voice that asks and asks in a whisper . . . there is nothing beyond the sense of not inhabiting myself, being without will, just a deep sense that I am not in myself any more than if I was flowing from the voice speaking to the tree, from the hand that holds me here.

When I tried to cross the lobby with my inability to be alive and sad, the girl’s voice, or maybe it was the image of the tree, stopped me. There was a time, before, when I dreamed, pulse racing, of bursting into the rooms that my feet take me across. Then, Luz was no more than a word spoken at random in meetings, supposedly impromptu; then I wasn’t dreaming of her crossing plazas and airports to drink of my impiety, my lack of sorrow. I didn’t think my skin would become worn beneath her hand nor how closely I would listen to the desires of the girl in front of the tree. I didn’t think my mouth would say, by the ocean: listen, Luz, how you speak to me even when you are as silent as the rocks . . .

In this strange land I met Luz and allowed her to caress every shadowed vortex. More, I let myself stay by her side for a whole day and night, and in doing so learned the source of all poems; not Whitman’s, but the ones that left her mouth, returning to me the guilt of pleasure’s mystery. Leaving so that my wicked foot could stop for one moment and I could hear the girl’s prayer, the little girl begging for what she does not yet have.

The tree and the child make clear to me, with certainty, how much I’ve been asking all along. I knew the first time I saw her that our natures were identical, in our habit of not feeling the consequence of any act. I told Luz this. I spoke of my impiety, of my danger; but she insisted on teaching me the origin of every verse from her mouth. She read fragments from photos from the back room of memories of other days . . . my back pleased with her touch, the rock of my heart soft with her saliva.

In this way we invented cycles, cabalistic eternities, doors that opened onto marvelous mornings that lived only in the word. I want to listen to the girl while Luz crosses from one side of the lobby to the other. Hers is the despair, mine the guilt. We both know that we can’t save ourselves from our own corrosion; but we insist on staying to decipher the message of those cycles.

She says I love you in Stonehenge and in Copán and in the salt of the wave in the Caribe where I’ve been waiting for so long . . . and I say in Havana there’s a perfume shop that speaks your name, carved into marble while I seek you in the air upon which I cross the air. When I’ve gathered my scattered self in the lobby of the hotel, I remember, I remember you: I’m the air itself . . . and I see the girl asking for so much that I’m embarrassed. I leave my consciousness scattered; I want to tie myself, some complete piece of self, to the branch of the artificially green pine. I want to be the stain of light that separates each autumn leaf . . . your eyes, eyes from a time when queens gracefully, carelessly, perched in coaches, ready to go . . . one city and another . . . the unchanging order “to the palace, coachmen” . . . eyes like those of the rulers of every room, queens crowned by the magic of being queens . . . the girl in the careless magic of asking blessings from the tree in full light where Luz waits tremulously.

A tree I wanted, a way to be close to the depths of desire. How much I asked for has been given . . . I said, kneeling, turn yourself to gold, and gold, like the light, was made . . . all my desire reduced to the moment in which I feel the urgent need to lift the little girl from the floor, hold her in my arms and close her mouth, let her suckle my breast, in the same way Luz had showed me the way back to wholeness . . . but the tree dulls my step and I leave it, knowing still that Christmas is a strange time for islanders.

© Mabel Cuesta. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Erica Mena. All rights reserved.

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