Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
The blinds are pulled down; the old couple who live opposite must be on holiday. Before, the old woman would come out every morning to water the plants on her balcony. The old man would stay inside; he needed a walker to get around. Some days a young girl in a blue jacket would come by, a nurse or a physiotherapist. On Sundays they’d be visited by other elderly couples. They’d sit around a table and play cards until late.
They have a nice balcony; it’s in an ‘L’ shape, wrapped around the building. A lot of plants, an azalea that blooms every spring. They’ve hung a wind chime up at the corner. On windy days you can hear it from a long way away, from the street even. Behind that is a red dreamcatcher with a feather that flutters in the slightest breeze. I imagine it must have been a gift from a grandchild, although I’ve never seen grandchildren in their flat. Maybe the physiotherapist gave it to them.
The flat below the one belonging to the old couple is empty. It takes up the whole floor. They left the blinds up, and you can see that the parquet floor is covered in dust. There’s something long and white lying on the floor in one of the bedrooms. It looks like the holder for a fluorescent light. Pigeons gather on the balcony; the tiles are covered in their shit. There are two nests, one at each end. One of the nests has three little white eggs. You can see them when the pigeon goes out foraging for food.
All you can see of the brown building behind the one where the old couple live is the roof terrace with its cages for drying clothes. Also, a pair of DirecTV antennae pointed at the Sierras. A black shirt is hanging upside down in one of the cages. The shirt cuffs almost touch the ground. There’s no wind, but it still sways a little and occasionally brushes against the rusty mesh of the cage. The flat on the top floor has its blinds pulled down. On the second from top, next to the window, is a white table with an architect’s lamp. They usually leave the light on until late at night. Sometimes I see a hand turning a page or scribbling something. Very occasionally, I see it holding a cigarette. The face is always hidden while the man reads, or works, or studies, or draws. If I met him in the shop downstairs I wouldn’t recognize him.
In the middle of the street, they’re building a pair of apartment blocks, one next to the other. The one closest to me is almost finished. Two men are installing the window frames. Nothing else. A truck came to deliver them yesterday afternoon. Thirty or forty grey-painted iron frames, exactly alike. The builders ran a rope through a pulley and threw it down from the roof. One builder stayed on the top floor while the others went down to the street, tied the first frame to the rope and started to pull. The builder on the top floor watched the metal frame coming up towards him. One of the corners got stuck under the third-floor balcony. The builder pulled on the rope to keep it away from the walls. They started with the frames for the top floors and progressed down the building.
Today the two men in grey shirts started to install the frames, and the air is full of the sound of electric saws and shrieking metal.
It’s five in the afternoon. The builders have left; I can hear their cars driving off into the distance. I like the silence of the flat, how every noise I make reverberates around it. My fingers on the keyboard, the click of the mouse button, a glass when I put it down on the glass table, the back of the chair creaking when I lean back, every footstep. It sounds like an Argentine film from the eighties. They all had dubbed superimposed soundtracks. Sounds added over silence; they never sounded genuine. It’s like I’m moving around in an unreal environment, or underwater, with just the flicking sound of the film for company.
I don’t want to order food. That would mean going downstairs, saying hello to the porter, talking to the delivery boy. I’d have to change out of my pajamas and slippers. I’d rather cook for myself. I put water on to boil and drop some dried pasta into it. The best brand. Before she left Claudia told me which was best at the supermarket.
Always buy these. They’re a little more expensive, but they taste homemade.
I put a couple of cloves of garlic on the table and crush each with the blade of the knife. Again, they make a noise that would be a soundman’s dream.
The telephone rings.
Just a moment, someone wants to speak to you, says a woman’s voice.
Then another voice comes on the line and asks if I am who I am. I say yes, that’s me.
Wait a moment, I’ll put you through, they say.
I wait, and a third voice appears. This one also belongs to a woman. Again, she asks if I am who I am.
You’re a writer? the voice asks.
I say that I am.
The minister of culture wants to speak to you, she says.
Yes, to you.
Can you come to the ministry tomorrow?
Any time in particular?
Any time between nine and twelve would be fine.
I’ll come by tomorrow, I say and hang up.
There’s a new minister. I didn’t know the previous one – he was fired recently – and I don’t know this one either. I call a friend to ask her about him. She doesn’t know him either. Apparently, no one knows who he is. My friend says she’ll try to get some more information, but I don’t hear from her again.
The minister has been called to an urgent meeting. They show me to a sunken chair to wait. Forty-five minutes later he arrives with a lot of files under his arm. He’s sweating, and his shirt is coming out of his trousers. He introduces himself, shows me into his office and tells the woman, whose name is Elsa, to bring me a coffee.
Elsa, a coffee for the young gentleman, he says, and then he looks at me.
You write, don’t you?
A pleasure, the minister says and stretches out his hand. I’ve heard good things about your work.
Thank you, I say.
The minister wants to inject some new energy, to bring in new people and encourage the exchange of ideas. Since his appointment, he has been working on a project called Crossover. He’s bringing together artists from different generations and disciplines to make works between the two of them. He’s setting up pairings. A young painter with an old writer. An old musician with a young actor. He’s looking for established artists from the province and is having them interact with young, promising talents.
You’re a young talent. We’ve suggested that you work with Gripa Castellano, the choreographer.
Then he asks if I know Gripa. She’s one of the artists from the seventies who went into exile in Europe, had some success there and then came back in the mid-eighties. All I know about her is that she’s famous. I suppose that I must have seen her around, but I can’t put a face to her name. It seems that Gripa is going to adopt one of my stories for a ballet. The minister says that Gripa wants to meet me as soon as possible. I need to bring my book with me because when she asked for it at El Ateneo bookshop they didn’t have it.
He gives me the number of Gripa’s assistant. I’m to call her to arrange a meeting.
You’ll get a fee, he says. Two hundred pesos. How does that sound?
That sounds fine.
Have you got your paperwork in order? Can you invoice officially?
Yes, I can.
Great. It’s been a pleasure, says the minister. He stands up and holds out his hand again. Good luck with Gripa. I’ll see you on opening night.
As soon as I’m out of the office, I call the number on the piece of paper he gave me. I say my name and explain that I need to talk to Gripa about the Crossover project.
Chub, is that you? a woman asks. No one has called me Chub in years. It was my nickname at secondary school.
Who is this? I ask.
Angelita Marolier. Don’t you remember me?
I try to scour my memory, but I come up blank. I apologize and say that I don’t.
Angi, Angi Marolier, you must remember. You’ll know me when you see me. Come over right now.
Gripa is rehearsing, but she’s going to take a break soon. Come over and we’ll talk.
Angelita gives me an address on the outskirts of town: a community centre. She tells me that Gripa often sets her pieces in non-traditional spaces and that right now she’s working in a slum. I take the bus, ride it for an hour and a quarter and get out where they tell me to. There’s a eucalyptus tree and a slope. At the bottom of the slope is a river, and the slum is on the other side. A garbage-filled wasteland with a horse and plastic bags occupies the space between the river and the slum. On this side of the river an evangelist chapel sits underneath another eucalyptus tree, and next to it is a breeze-block shed with a zinc roof and a metal sheet for a door. This is the community centre. I knock on the door and am met by a large woman filling out a form.
I’m looking for Gripa, I say.
The woman has no idea what I’m talking about.
The people from the ballet, I say.
Oh, the dancers! Down at the river, she tells me. Come on, I’ll walk you down.
Angelita! shouts the woman from the embankment behind the house. Angelita! The guy you were expecting is here.
I look down. On this side of the river, close to the water, a wooden platform has been built about a metre and a half above ground. On top of it is a circle of people. A crowd of kids from the slum are staring up from below. Someone waves to me to come down.
I walk down the path the woman shows me.
Put your hand on the ground so you won’t fall.
Angelita comes up to meet me. She’s wearing jeans, rubber boots and a hand-knitted sweater that’s a little tight on her. Her hair is loose. She’s about five or six months pregnant. She gives me a hug as though we were old friends. It lasts a little longer than it should. Then she steps back, looks me up and down and says, Chub! You’re so thin. How much weight did you lose?
Ten, twelve kilos, I say automatically, without thinking. Then I’m angry with myself. I’m talking to a stranger. I’ve never seen her before in my life.
I ask her how she knows me, and she says that she was a friend of my brother’s when my brother studied here and that she once came to a party we held on the roof terrace above the flat on Calle Independencia. She can remember the flat’s exact address. It’s true that my brother and I lived there for a few years, but we never had a party on that terrace. You weren’t even allowed onto the terrace in that building.
Gripa is in the middle of a motivational speech. Angelita tells me that she hates to be interrupted at times like this, but it’ll be over in five minutes. We wait at the foot of the stage. The kids from the slum are watching the goings-on on stage very closely, even though nothing’s happening. It’s just a group of people standing in a circle, talking. I can’t hear what they’re saying. The air smells of smoke and putrid mud. A bonfire is burning in the wasteland on the other side of the river. Close to the shore, a cement block sticks out from the water, and iron rebars stick out from it in their turn. A cormorant is sunbathing on the small island, its wings held open to dry.
Angelita tells me that they’re rehearsing a new choreography. Gripa wants to draw inspiration from poverty, which is why they’ve set up the stage there.
But not material poverty, Angelina tells me, spiritual poverty. You know? Inside and out, the two are related. They reflect one another. The slum is a metaphor, you know?
Her face radiates sweetness, and both her hands are on her belly. The wind is blowing her hair around, and from time to time she has to brush a lock out of her eyes.
On opening night we’re going to rent a coach so people feel safe. And there’ll be lights everywhere. Gripa wants to put lamps on each side and spotlights in the river. And one big one, the kind with a moving beam, to light up the slum. We want the effect to be like spies, or fugitives, as though the light was trying to illuminate someone trying to escape. It’s another metaphor. Gripa thought of it. It’s going to look great. We’ll make a staircase with ropes for banisters so people can come down the slope. It’ll be lined with torches.
The circle of people on stage breaks up. The dancers disperse, drink water, stretch their legs and practise different moves. A fat woman in an orange-and-fuchsia tunic with large batik circles comes down the ramp at the side. Her hair is carrot coloured. I expected her to be much smaller, skinny, a dry, frugal former dancer, but I know that this is Gripa. She hugs me and her hug lasts longer than normal too. She smiles.
Good to meet you, she says. It’ll be a pleasure to work with your texts. Did you bring me the book? I couldn’t find it anywhere.
I have. I look for it in my backpack and give it to her.
Gripa flicks through the pages. She reads the title of one of the stories and looks at the cover image.
As soon as I’m done with this I’ll start work on yours, she says and hands the book to Angelita. Then she apologizes.
Thank you for coming, she says. She kisses me again before heading back up to the stage. A dancer helps her up the ramp, and Angelita tells me that Gripa has been having trouble with her left knee for some time now. Then she asks if I need to call a taxi.
I tell her that I don’t; I’ll take the bus home.
Time passes. They finish building the block of flats in the middle of the street. Slowly, people begin to move in. They cover the windows in different coloured curtains. From what I can tell from the balcony, most of them are students. In the first week there was only one light; it came from one of the flats on the ninth floor. A kid was walking around the flat naked. He came out to the balcony to eat. I watched him and wondered how it would feel to sleep alone in a brand-new empty building.
The blinds are still down in the old couple’s flat. No one has come by to water the plants, and they’re drying in their pots.
The architect’s hand still smokes, very occasionally, late at night.
One morning the phone rings. It’s Angelita. She says that they’ve started to rehearse the new ballet, the one based on one of my stories.
Gripa wants you to see it. Can you come by? she asks.
I say that I can. Monday is my day off.
Great. In the basement at the Caraffa Museum. How’s two, two-thirty sound? Tell the guy at the door that Gripa invited you so you can get in without paying.
I have some lunch and go out. I get there at quarter past two. I walk up to the security guard and tell him that I’ve come to see the rehearsal. He tells me to talk to the girl at the desk. The girl doesn’t even know that someone is working in the basement.
I’m new, she says apologetically.
After trying to call her boss, who doesn’t answer, she dials another number and waits. I watch her a little more intensely than one should. The girl starts to get anxious and dials another number.
Are you sure they’re working in the basement? I’m calling and no one’s answering, she says.
Then the museum doors open and a group of nursery-school kids comes in. The boys are wearing coats with blue and white squares; the ones for the girls are pink and white. The teacher is wearing a headband with two antennae finished off with pom-poms that bounce when she moves. The antennae are just like the ones the Chapulín Colorado wore, but green. A couple of mothers have come along to help with the outing. The children form two rows, but when one gets to the staircase he shouts, and they all start to run. The mothers try to calm them down while the teacher with the green antennae comes over to the desk to occupy the attention of the girl at the ticket counter. She has a letter, shows it to the girl and reads a few paragraphs out loud. Meanwhile, the security guard talks on his radio to the other guards and, surrounded by nursery-school children, uses his body to shield a white-marble sculpture. In his light-blue shirt, navy-blue tie and movie-policeman’s cap he looks like a skinny giant standing in the middle of a crowd of ordinary humans who barely come up to his hip. The kids ignore him and stroke the marble with their little hands.
The sculpture is of a naked woman hugging a fish. The kids touch her breast and start saying booby, booby, booby, booby. Then one says vagina, and they all start a chorus of booby, vagina, booby, vagina, booby, vagina, again and again. Then they add bottom and go on. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby, vagina, bottom. Booby with vagina with bottom. Bottom with boobies. Vaginabooby. The mothers scold them, but they’re ignored.
Willy! shouts a short, very blond boy.
Willy with booby with vagina with bottom, the others chorus.
I slip away and head down the stairs to the basement. It’s deserted. You can’t hear the screams of the nursery-school kids any more. I walk down some hallways with concrete walls. Pipes run along the ceiling, gurgling every now and again. Running water.
Angelita? I call, but no one answers.
I come to a lit room with white walls. In the centre is a table covered with paint pots, brushes, pliers and different-sized magnifying glasses. The smell of acetone burns my nostrils. Someone has left a half-finished cup of tea on the table. About a dozen fluorescent lights buzz from the ceiling.
Angelita? I call again.
I go back out into the hallway and walk to the other end, passing a bathroom with a leaky tap, an empty office and a packet of half-eaten biscuits on a table. At the end is a staircase going down. I think I can hear sounds down there. The staircase has landings. I stop at the second to rest, listening. I think I can hear Gripa’s deep voice.
I open a door and find a large empty space with a high ceiling and cement walls. Four large columns hold up the roof. I see people sitting on some chairs in the dark. The only light comes from a corner lined in semi-transparent plastic like a large, plastic aquarium. The dancers are moving around inside.
Gripa is walking among them, leaning on a cane. She’s marking time.
I see Angelita sitting on the chairs. Her profile has changed. She’s fatter. She’s watching events inside the aquarium closely. I tap her on the shoulder, and when I do I realize that she didn’t hear me come in. I might have startled her. But Angelita turns slowly, as though she can’t bear to take her eyes off the dancers. She doesn’t seem surprised.
You came, she says. She waves to me to sit down, then turns back to the lit area. Behind the plastic, the dancers are walking around the stage holding large blocks of wood up high. They’re moving slowly, turning the pieces of wood in their hands, holding them up as though they were an offering. At first, I think they’re naked, but then I realize that they’re wearing flesh-coloured suits. It’s very quiet; the only sound is Gripa’s voice.
One, two, three, four. Good, again. Go back to your places.
The dancers run quickly back and start again. Their strides are long and graceful, their backs arched.
Angelita turns to look at me. Her eyes are full of tears. She smiles.
Isn’t it beautiful? she asks.
I say it is, although I’m not really sure.
What does it feel like? How does it feel to see this and know that you helped to create it, that it came from one of your books?
I don’t know what to say. Blocks of wood don’t feature in any of my stories, neither does a plastic aquarium or half-naked dancers.
Which story did she choose? I ask.
No idea. Gripa lent me your book, but I didn’t have time to read it. She liked it a lot.
But you don’t know which story she adapted?
She didn’t say. All of them I think. Gripa works with sensations.
Oh, I say. I don’t have anything to add.
Angelita turns back to the aquarium. Gripa has stopped the action again. The dancers go back to their places and start over. They repeat what they did before. They cross the stage diagonally, contorting their bodies with blocks of wood raised over their heads.
This is the second part, Angelita explains. The first part is a performance recorded on video projected onto the plastic while the guys dance inside. Would you like to see it?
I tell her that I would, and Angelita rummages in a large leather bag. It takes her a while, but in the end she takes out a small video camera. She turns it on and opens a screen to the side.
It was filmed here, she explains. During the piece it’s going to be projected onto the plastic in the same place where it was filmed so that the spaces match up. The filmed columns will be superimposed over the real ones and won’t look as though they’re projected. The idea is for the dancers to be like ghosts or spectres, you know? The film will interact with the dancers.
I say that I understand; it’s a good idea.
Angelina rewinds the tape and passes me the camera.
You press this button for play and this for stop.
On the small screen of the video camera I see the same rectangular space, the cement and a patch of damp in the corner. A naked bulb is hanging centre stage. There’s only one spotlight. I immediately think it’s a reference to Bacon. I’ve never seen a painting by Bacon in person, I’m only familiar with him from pictures in books, but he’s one of my favourite painters, and I’m glad to see him there.
A dancer comes in from one side. This time there’s no doubt about it: he’s naked. Another dancer comes in from the other side, she’s naked too. They meet in the middle. The man is carrying a shotgun. They both stand very close together, looking at the camera. Then we hear a noise, and a pig appears. Someone has let it in from outside. The aquarium space is closed, and the pig is running around the sides. The pair of dancers stand very still in the centre. The pig is large and black. Suddenly the dancer aims his shotgun and fires. The speaker on Angelita’s camera buzzes. The sound of the shot was very loud. The pig runs around in desperation. The female dancer hugs the man’s back, protecting herself. The dancer shoots again. The pig howls in pain and lets out a high-pitched squeal that overloads the speaker again. The female dancer takes more cartridges from a cloth bag hanging around her neck and passes them to the other dancer, who reloads, aims and fires again. The pig starts to bleed and leaves a trail on the ground. It runs more slowly and bumps into the wall at the back. The outline of its body is pressed against the cement in blood. At one point, it turns to face the two dancers. For the first time, the female dancer screams for real. But the male dancer shoots the pig again in the head, and it falls to the ground. More or less in the centre of the aquarium. Then the female dancer takes a small knife out of her bag and sticks it into the pig’s neck. Blood begins to gush out. The dancer hugs the body and starts to howl in grief. The male dancer stands in a martial pose right behind the dead pig. He doesn’t look at the body. He looks straight ahead with cold eyes. To one side of the screen, eight dancers come in, dressed in black. One is carrying a pneumatic drill. He turns it on and starts to break up the cement floor in the centre of the aquarium, in front of the pig. The drill makes a horrifically loud noise that dominates the scene. The other dancers are carrying shovels. While the drill breaks up the floor, the dancers dig in the soil underneath. It’s a grave. It takes them twenty minutes to finish. Then they all pick up the pig and throw it into the grave. The naked dancer is covered in red. A mixture of blood and tears drips from her hair. The naked male dancer stays in position, completely still. The female dancer screams in heart-wrenching pain. She stretches out her hand. She doesn’t want to be parted from the dead pig, but the first shovel-loads of soil are already dropping on top of it. As they fill in the grave, more dancers come in from the other side. They’re pushing a wheelbarrow of fresh cement. They pour it onto the earth and smooth out the floor. Then they leave. The last to go is the naked male dancer who never looks at the pig or the grave.
Did you like it? Angelita asks when I give back the camera.
I don’t know what to say.
Did they really kill it? I ask.
Yes, of course. We drugged it a little before it came in so it wouldn’t hurt the guys. But still, as you saw, it tried to attack them.
And you buried it there? It’s down there right now? As I ask I peer through the plastic into the centre of the aquarium. The spot where the grave is can be clearly seen. The cement is a different colour, lighter.
It’s down there, Angelita says. It was very important to Gripa that it be real and for the spectator to come to the realization gradually. Ever since we killed the pig, this place has been different. It has another feel; it’s charged.
Are you sure that this is based on my book? I say. There aren’t any pigs in my book.
The pig isn’t a pig. It’s a symbol, Angelita explains.
What does it symbolize?
Something from your book. Gripa read it.
The museum people let you do this? It’s crazy. You’ve buried a pig down there.
Gripa is friends with the director. He loved the idea. He saw immediately how important the burial was. He read your book too. He liked it a lot.
I see, I say.
Inside the aquarium the dancers are still holding the wooden blocks. They’re throwing them in the air. Gripa is encouraging them to throw harder and harder.
Do you want me to call Gripa so you can talk to her? Angelita asks me.
No, don’t worry. I have to go. I’ll come by another day.
We rehearse here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Come by whenever you like.
I leave. From up above I hear the shrill voice of a guide talking to the nursery-school children.
The guard doesn’t look at me as I pass him on my way out.
A week later I see the news in the Arts and Entertainment section in the newspaper. Not a long article. The minister of culture has been fired. The next day a letter appears in The Voice of the Interior. The former minister says that he wasn’t fired, he resigned. I call the ministry. They say that for the moment all activities have been suspended. I ask about the Crossover project specifically, and they say that it’s suspended too.
I call Angelita on her mobile. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. For the moment Gripa has stopped the rehearsals and has started to work on a new ballet that she wants to hold at the airport.
In the arrivals hall? I ask.
No, says Angelita, on the runway. We’re negotiating. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a problem. Let me find out what’s going on with this Crossover thing, and I’ll let you know, she says.
I don’t hear any more about it. I call Angelita again, and a woman’s voice answers. I ask for her, and she says that Angelita is in the hospital; she can’t come to the phone because she’s just had her first baby. For a moment I think that the voice belongs to Gripa.
Gripa, is that you? But she’s hung up.
The Crossover project is definitively suspended. The fees for the work haven’t been paid because the budget for the project was never approved.
I let a couple of months pass and dial Angelita’s number again. A pre-recorded, metallic voice tells me that the number is out of service.
The old couple in the flat opposite never came back from their holidays. They’ve been replaced by a young couple. For a few days, I thought that they were the old couple’s grandchildren because the furniture remained the same. Then, one afternoon, a removals van came and wrapped everything up, even the pots with their dry plants. The next day the new arrivals brought their things. Modern furniture, cream sofas, a steel-and-glass table, a painting with a large green splodge. The guy leaves early every morning in a suit and tie; the girl sleeps in. She gets up and walks around the flat in her nightdress. She reads magazines until the man gets back. At night they watch TV. I see the blue reflection from the screen on the bedroom wall.
The flat below is still empty. There are more and more pigeons.
I learn from the newspaper that Gripa is going to hold her ballet at the airport. There aren’t going to be many performances, and they’ll be at strange hours when there’s no air traffic. I find it hard to get tickets. I send an email to someone I know at the culture section asking if he has any. He doesn’t answer, so I call him. He’s a little thrown because we haven’t spoken in years. He could have lied, but I caught him off-guard. He sends me two tickets. I invite a friend who cancels at the last minute, so I go alone. At the airport a light aircraft is parked in the middle of the runway. In front of it are a hundred folding chairs set out in rows. They have us sit there. The lights go down, and the show starts.
A girl comes running out of the darkness at the back of the runway. She’s carrying a torch. She runs around the plane a couple of times and then lights a pyre in front of a propeller. The fire grows in the darkness. Nothing happens for a while, and we all stare at the fire, expectantly at first, then bored, or moved, or whatever. When it’s almost gone out, the lights come on again. A crowd of dancers in skin-tight black outfits surrounds the plane. Each of them has blocks of wood raised above their heads. A caravan of women covered in dark shrouds comes in from the left. They’re pushing a wheeled cage. Inside the cage is a black pig. I can guess what’s going to happen next. In this version, instead of burying the dead pig, the dancers shove it into a coffin and push it up a ramp into the plane’s hold. Then, either side of the runway, two rows of red lights come on. A pilot appears and gets into the cockpit, starts the engines and points the nose to the north. The dancers escort it until it’s in place, then they move away. The plane accelerates down the runway, takes off and soars into the night. Its roar gradually fades until it’s lost in the wind and the plane has disappeared completely. All that is left on the asphalt is the cage in which they brought the pig, which is empty with its door hanging open. Gripa comes out, waving.
We all stand and applaud.
“I’m a romantic, you brutes, and I adore Nizar Qabbani!”
This was Karim’s only reply to people’s accusations and taunts. And it was on the basis of this reply that the camp residents had added the epithet “the Romantic” to his name. Whenever I saw Karim the Romantic coming back to the camp along the same road other people used, I’d shout from a distance, “Hey, Karim, get off the road! People will get mad and hurt you.”
As a result, Karim found routes of his own back to his house in the camp. It was a solution he and other camp residents seemed to have resigned themselves to. If somebody from the camp happened to lose his way and went down Karim’s paths by mistake, he would yell out a warning from a distance, shouting, “Hey there boy, this is Karim the Romantic, bather of the dead. Get away! Get away!” This was his way of avoiding people’s disgust and fearful reaction to him.
Other times, either out of forgetfulness, or because he was just fed up with the situation, Karim would join us on our paths, and when that happened, people would go berserk. Frightened, they would yell at him and chase him from some ways off. Then Karim would scurry away, cursing the camp, his relatives, dead bodies and Palestine, and threatening them with a grisly fate.
At this point, scared to death and not knowing what to do, people would consult with each other: Should they make peace with Karim to keep him from mutilating their and their relatives’ corpses? Or should they complaint to the police? People knew Karim was the only person who washed corpses at the city hospital, and that next of kin weren’t allowed to come in when he was working, which gave Karim quite a winning card in the camp residents’ war against him. After all, nobody knew exactly what Karim did with the dead bodies he washed. Did he steal parts from them as rumor had it? Did he stuff their orifices with foreign objects as a creative way of insulting them? Did he spit on them, slap them, kick them, stab them? Whatever the case, Karim left people at the mercy of their imaginations, and the suspicions his threats had planted in their heads.
The horror stories revolving around Karim started with a rumor set loose by a young man from the camp who’d been undergoing treatment at the hospital. He told somebody, “I saw him carrying a human head down the hospital corridors, and people were running away from him!”
“You saw him with your own eyes?”
A few days after the rumor started, Karim the Romantic boarded the camp’s yellow Ford transit with a black plastic bag full of unidentified objects slung over his shoulder. Only the Lord Himself and Karim knew what was in there. Well, it so happened that one of the passengers was the guy who’d seen Karim with the human head. The minute Karim stepped on, the fellow let out a scream so loud that it shook the vehicle. “I swear I saw him holding somebody’s head!” he wailed. At that, everybody on board, the driver included, jumped out of their seats and scrambled off the van. They ran up to a traffic policeman and brought him back to the vehicle, pointing at Karim, who sat there alone, bewildered over what had happened. The policeman was as confused and frightened as everybody else.
Nobody in the camp liked Karim or wanted to talk to him because, simply put, he was a scary person. He lived in the camp with his wife and three children, but the windows to his house were closed most of the time, and his kids played alone in a back yard surrounded by a concrete wall. The rumors about Karim had evolved to the point where, as the story went, he would cut certain parts out of the bodies he washed and sell them to the Jews. The war against him had reached epic proportions, since introduction of the word “Jews” into the mix made the rumor that much more sensitive and added new tensions.
Intrigued by Karim’s drama with dead bodies and the people of the camp, I decided to walk down the paths he took and knock on his door. I wanted to find out what was really going on with him and write about it.
“Hi Karim,” I said to him one day. “I sympathize with your plight. And I love Nizar Qabbani just like you do. I’d like us to walk together and talk. And I’d like to write about you.”
“You’re crazy, then. Why would you want to go against everybody else? I stink, I’ve got human body parts in my pockets, and you’ll probably get sick if you come too close. Isn’t that what the rumors say? You’re better off going with the crowd.”
I’d been spurned. I saw Karim move away and stand by the side of the road, where an ambulance picked him up every morning to take him to the hospital. He’d tried to get there by taxi, but all the taxi drivers had refused to pick him up.
But one evening, much to the neighbors’ astonishment, I knocked on Karim’s door laden with a cardboard box full of books by Nizar Qabbani. I heard a woman say to her neighbor, “That man must trade in corpses with him. See the box in his hands?”
Karim opened the door and awkwardly welcomed me inside.
“Hello, sir,” he began. “What can I do for you?”
I opened the box while Karim looked on, and out spilled Nizar’s books. Beside himself with delight, he ushered me all the way inside and called his children and his wife. The family, likewise delighted with the books, insisted that I have dinner with them. I ended up spending the entire night as Karim’s honored guest. He lavished me with fruits, helba, mixed nuts and tea, while I lavished him with anecdotes and stories about Nizar and his life. I also read him some poems he’d never read before. I saw tears in Karim’s eyes.
Then suddenly he hugged me. “Sir,” he said, “would it make any sense for somebody who loves Nizar to cut parts out of people’s dead bodies and sell them, or walk around holding a human head?”
“Of course not, Karim,” I said, “it wouldn’t make any sense at all. I was never convinced of those rumors in the first place. If I had been, I wouldn’t be spending the evening at your house.”
As I got ready to leave Karim’s house the next morning, he saw me to the door. Happy and at ease, he embraced me and whispered in my ear, “Rest assured, sir: I’ll show her the utmost respect. I’ll wash her well, and I’ll recite poems by Nizar that I love over her.”
“Who is that you’re going to respect and wash, dear Karim? I don’t understand.”
“Your wonderful corpse, sir!”
I held an unusually long reed in my hand and I dipped it as deep as I could into the river. It fell in and disappeared in front of me. I took my feet out of the water and stepped back a little, gripped by a powerful fear, which I recognized by the trembling of my hands. The river swallowing me up was a fear that had been with me ever since I heard Nanny Fanida’s story. She always retold the tale of a beautiful girl who just wanted to sleep for a little while in the river but drowned. Every time I saw the river when it was calm I would remember what my nanny had said: the river was at its most dangerous when it enticed you to sleep in its embrace.
I couldn’t play with the other children in our village, not when they tormented my beautiful friend every time they saw her. It was a sad day when I saw them fighting to be the one to seize hold of the ladybird. She had curled up her body until neither her head nor legs were visible. I rushed over to them and told them to let her go but they refused.
After that awkward day, I used to go out into the woods next to our house. The trees covered a large area and their thin twigs sprouted fresh shoots – I had never seen anything like them. I felt I was searching for that ladybird to prevent the village children from kicking her around every day. I really loved that tiny insect. I collected several of them in a big glass jar and put them on my balcony; I even brought them other insects to eat.
Now, I had made myself new friends of many different colours: red, yellow, orange – I liked the colour orange the most. I shut myself away with them in the boring evening hours that went by so slowly. Every evening, my father would put on his reading glasses and endeavour to keep them fixed on the tip of his nose. Then he would slowly peruse the newspapers, which used to arrive late in our village. He let out the most vitriolic curses and insults, followed by a loud grunt, which my mother always received with her usual composure. She had been doing embroidery for a long time and, in the next room, had built up several piles of headscarves – all the same colour but with different designs. (She did want some different colours but could not go into town to get them.)
I can still remember the clock striking eight, because I knew that after the eighth chime, my mother would call Nanny Fanida to put me to bed. I used to brush my teeth at four minutes to eight then rinse my mouth out with a handful of the sentences that my nanny used to repeat in those minutes before the clock struck eight, with its chimes that hammered in my chest every day. Once, I hid empty notebooks in my bedclothes, because I had begun to hate eight o’clock, the official time that announced the end of my childhood world around the house. I turned on the light and waited a while until any rustling had ended. Then, I got out my coloured pencils and began to draw pictures of my friend on the beautiful notebook. But, straightaway, my nanny came in to tell me that if I did not go to sleep she would lose her job. She put me back in bed at five past eight. That was the only time that I had the light on in my room past eight o’clock – for five minutes, or maybe a little more…
A few days later I put on my orange jacket with black spots, which I had gone to buy with my nanny in town. I loved that colour and I loved the way my friends wore it. My friends had got used to my balcony and had started to go away for a little while and come back, as if they knew it was their home. I got used to letting them climb up my finger and fly off on their little wings which helped them rise to the highest heights. They became closer to me once I had started to dress and even act like them. I would repeat this little song to them with all the kindness I could muster:
Laisse-moi compter tes vies sur tes ailes
Toi qui n’as jamais vu ta colère dis-moi
Dis-moi comment faire comme toi 1
The next night I couldn’t sleep, despite the darkness and constant chiming of hours. I could still hear the words of the children echoing loudly in my head. I could hear their laughs as they saw me wearing that jacket: “Ladybird … Ladybird … Ladybird.”
My mother did not notice me. She just stole glances at my father as she sewed her napkins, which had become so plentiful I could no longer count them; I don’t think my mother could either.
It was eight o’clock when my husband shouted for me at the top of his voice. I didn’t want to answer him at that precise moment. I took my feet out from under the covers to combat the anxiety attacks that I slipped into whenever the clock struck eight. I hoped that I would not see him until the heart palpitations had subsided and I had finished the subsequent rituals. I have got used to these secret rituals. Now, I even do them without realising. Sometimes Nanny Fanida would appear to me, holding her pink towel to dry and rub my body. She would say in her soft voice: “Your body is getting bigger. You have become a beautiful young woman.”
But my father saw the insects flying about on the balcony. That was the moment he changed his usual evening routine. He went up to my room to discover the glass jar where those beautiful creatures were living. He shouted in the nanny’s face, “The daughter of the best family in the village is breeding these stupid insects…”
My nanny swallowed her words so far down that I thought she might never speak again. He called the gardener and told him to burn the insects so that they would never again come back to the house. Then he settled his reading glasses on their usual place and sank into his newspapers. But the gardener did not burn my friends, he just put them back in the fields. “They are all of our friends,” he told me, “because they eat the insects that destroy our crops. I put them back in the fields.”
A few days later Nanny Fanida felt giddy and almost fainted. So, I called her over so I could surprise her with a ladybird; I had drawn them in many different ways. The orange colours shone out in the night and eased my moments of fear in the overwhelming darkness. Little by little the colour returned to Nanny Fanida and she was no longer faint. She tried to make up excuses to prevent my mother coming up to my room.
My husband was waiting for me, wondering where I was, as he put his black gloves on the bedside table. He had just come back from hunting, which had been a serious hobby of his for a while. He would go out at the same time in the afternoon, wearing the same clothes, with the same friends who talked about the same wealth that their fathers had managed to accumulate through devoted hard-work, unceasing perseverance, and honest toil. They smoked black cigarettes, wore black hats and put black glasses over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Then they would hunt beautiful animals. They had no need to eat them and, most of the time, they hunted them only to discard their bodies on a piece of wasteland. They competed with each other, speaking in well-rehearsed words with tightly drawn lips.
My husband stroked my stomach with total calm. His well-trimmed moustache trembled a little. That was the sign that let me know he wanted something. His manner was calm, emotionless. I longed to be able to scream or laugh so loud that the neighbours would hear me. But my husband was as precise as the American watch that he hadn’t stopped talking about since he visited the USA. He would treat me every evening to the same, repeated stories that had helped him discover the world that lay far beyond our eyes. That was his prelude to the heated rituals of cold nights.
I curled up into a ball… In my belly, there were some rumblings around my intestines. I wished that I could bring my beautiful insects from my little old room. They were still there. My father had left them on the wall after I had begged him not to make them leave the room. He gave a humdrum laugh and said, “OK, I’ll leave them, seeing as you are the only daughter we have. But we will remember your silliness and laugh about it some evening.” Then he laughed heartily; my mother also laughed with well-trained effort and she pulled her mouth into a little smile. My father complimented her and the way she had raised me.
I could not avert my eyes from his strong forearms. He hid his own beautiful eyes because he was too shy to look a woman in the face. One day, I began to insist that he looked straight at me when he was talking to me. His eyes were enchanting; I hoped that they would never blink. At that moment, I felt confused about everything. The world was spinning around me. I rushed into my room and grabbed a piece of paper to draw those eyes. He was very close to my friends. He looked like me, even if I was far removed from him.
That night, I could not sleep. My husband saw my anxiety and, with his usual calmness, tried to absorb all the emotions I had bottled up inside me. But it was him I saw with me. I retraced the map of his rough arms, until I felt I was touching him. That day I followed him. He was running between the trees. When he saw me, he was confused. He said to me: “What does the lady command?”
I gave him a look of passion and he looked down at the ground, shyly. I grabbed his arm and placed my hand on his lips. I felt the violence hidden within him – something ready to explode inside. I began to run my lips along his and he did not resist. He grabbed me with all the force that I craved and enveloped me in his strong arms until I melted. That was the only moment that I have ever felt that I truly existed on the face of this small earth. His embrace was strange. I had never felt any like it in real life before, I had only dreamed of it. I said to myself: “What matters is that I have experienced this feeling, even if it was only for a minute.” Afterwards, he looked at me with fear, as if he had kissed me without knowing it. I put my hands on his lips and intimated to him not to speak. I had only been with him for a few minutes, but those minutes would never disappear.
I took my cold feet out of the depths of the river and laughed, then screamed. Everyday, I go back to my house and, once sleep has caressed my husband’s eyelids, for a while I curl up into a ball.
Tommy’s cousin Gabe. Tommy’s distant cousin Gabe from Stillwater, Minnesota. Tommy’s cousin Gabe, related to my husband through divorce and remarriage, in lieu of actual blood, who arrives on my front porch at dinnertime with a duffel bag and fanny pack. Industrial-sized.
Gabe. Two hungry blue eyes, trapped in a giant body. Infinite, knowing eyes of an orca whale. This is Gabe.
Sea monster son of Vickie, the housewife, and Gary, the unemployed architect. Grandson of Lillith, the secretary, and Chester, the inventor of the lightning rod.
Gabe, clinically depressed, he announces at the table after Tommy gets up to go check his e-mail, and not taking his Paxil.
Tommy’s cousin Gabe, who admits to falling in love with married women only, who has flown out to Los Angeles this time to deliver a hardbound copy of The Celestine Prophecy to a married woman he knows in Calabasas.
Strawberry blond, 275-pound Gabe, whose job it is to run employee vacation and incentive programs for Buy Rite International Corporation. Gabe, who can, on any given weekend, fly down to Fort Worth in order to tell several people (always women and usually married) that they have just won a free weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas.
Gabe, who tells me (and my husband’s currently empty dining room chair) that he gives all the women he loves a copy of The Celestine Prophecy. Laurie, Molly, Susan.
GABE EDWARD ARTHUR KAKE. Twenty-four years of age. Recent graduate of a Lutheran university, which he attended over the dead, severely diabetic body of his Catholic father, Gary, the unemployed architect. With undergrad friends from around the globe who were all deported last year, leaving him with absolutely “zero” people.
Gabe, who will be the first to admit he has a problem with Pop-Tarts sometimes, and who asks me, did I know, was I aware, that after he gives out trips to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco to these married women he knows are married (that he has read about in the personnel files), after they scream and laugh and he gets, quote, “a free hug,” after he asks these selfsame women out for a celebratory drink or dinner and they say no, they are engaged, betrothed, previously committed, whatever! After that did I know that then, stranded in these very foreign American places, did I know that he, Gabe, always goes back to his second-class hotel with no toaster in sight and eats raw Pop-Tarts and turns on the water of the sink full-blast so nobody can hear him crying? Did I know that? Could I guess?
“No, Gabe,” I say. “I couldn’t have guessed.”
Gabe: moving from topic to topic without changing tone, taking a breath, or blinking, who has had more than just one psychic dream come true in his life, and who, more than anything, wants an Irish setter, because they were described in the Dog Fancier’s book he got free from a friend at work as being full of abounding love, even if there is no one there to receive it.
Gabe, who tells me all of the above while Tommy is still conveniently in his office, MIA. And who tells me, in addition to all of this, that every single untouchable married woman in his life, the Lauries Mollys Susans, he has just now, this very second, realized, remind him of me.
Gabe tells me he is aware that I am married and that I am also thirty-six. “The age difference would be a problem, wouldn’t it?” he asks, and I answer him in all seriousness over the sound of Tommy washing his hands in the bathroom.
Gabe, who follows me through the house after dinner while I sweep. Who trails out into the driveway after me when I take out the recycling. Who puts his pistachio shells down the garbage disposal even though I tell him, “Gabe, please don’t put your pistachio shells down the garbage disposal.”
Gabe, who would climb into a woman and live there forever like a castaway if she’d let him. Gabe, who has scurvy, practically, from his desire for these pirate-fantasy women he cannot touch.
“I guess I’ll take this as a compliment, Gabe,” I say, when I turn around and find him four inches from me as I finish the dishes.
“Do so,” he says quietly. And then winks.
Porous, soft, almost albino Gabe. Who leaves his advice books about women on the coffee table for me to find after he unpacks. Like Maxim’s Pocket Book of Women, and WOMEN: The Unauthorized Guide, which when I do find them, and of course, open them once Tommy and I are in the bedroom, advise men to speak in a lower register to women because it reminds them of their father’s authority, and to speak in rhythmic tones to women because it lulls them into feeling comforted and protected, and quote, “ready for anything.”
“There’s someone I want to show you to, okay?” Tommy whispers after we hear the squish of Gabe in the living room, lowering himself onto the blow-up mattress, and as he points the webcam toward my side of the bed, I roll my eyes at him before I pull off my shirt.
“You better do it fast.”
Gabe: in the house for eight days so far. Who eats entire bags of sesame sticks covered with Italian dressing and calls this dinner. Who says even though we’ve met him only once before, that Tommy and me, we feel like his only family.
“We should introduce him to Summer,” Tommy says. “Remember? That girl with the e-tutorial for virgins?”
But God knows he’d fall in love with her. He’d fall in love with a woman in a Crisco commercial. He’d send her fan letter after fan letter: “When you picked up the corncob that way, I found you beautiful.”
Gabe, reviled by his own body. Gabe, who looks unlived, whose skin is pale, fetal-looking. Whose skin has the milky quality of having been tom from the womb too soon. Gabe, who barely has palm lines, whose eyes trace my silhouette at the sink as he picks gum off the lining of his ski jacket with a butter knife. Gum that got stuck there when he went alone to see Unleashed at the 22-plex because we had to go to one of Tommy’s parties and couldn’t take him.
And finally, Gabe. Who is sitting in the living room with all the lights off when I come home from work on the afternoon of Day 9, cradling my sixty-pound pit bull in his lap.
“How’s it going, Gabe,” I ask, and when he hears my voice, he looks up and smiles beatifically.
And this is when Gabe tells me about “recently,” when he was just sitting at his desk inside Buy Rite corporate headquarters. How he was just sitting there, in his cubby, when he, quote, “hit a wall.” Literally. And his hand popped straight through the particleboard in a geometric circle. Perfectly round.
And at that precise moment, he had to get away from Laurie, typing away in the cubby right next to him. Married Laurie. Wife of somebody else. Laurie, who owns one shepherd mix and one full-bred shepherd, and who, if he’s honest with himself, is actually the one who gave Gabe the idea about the Irish setter and the Dog Fancier’s book too, in fact, when she and the husband invited him over that one great year on Super Bowl Sunday.
Laurie, who was diagnosed recently with both breast and ovarian malignancies. Laurie, who is getting radiation here in Calabasas, by the way, where she is currently staying with her cousin Molly, and her cousin Susan. Cousins and next-door neighbors, he adds. Both already married.
“Calabasas?” I say, before it occurs to me. “Oh.”
“But it wasn’t stalking her to come here,” Gabe assures me. “Not by a long shot.” They worked together at the Buy Rite. She was sick and it was obvious. Before he punched a hole in it, their cubbies used to share a common wall.
Gabe sighs and nuzzles the dog, who lathers him with her tongue from chin to forehead. “If you hear someone throwing up in the women’s bathroom,” he says, “and you can recognize from the sound of the retching who it is, shouldn’t you go in? Following someone you love to the bathroom isn’t inappropriate. In a perfect, evolving world like the one in The Celestine Prophecy, this kind of service would be called ‘friendship slash concern.’”
“People don’t get fired because they walk into the women’s room, though.”
Gabe pushes the dog from his lap and his shoulders droop. “It was just an e-mail to a few people on the sales floor,” he says. “If someone cares whether or not you die, I don’t see the problem with letting several key individuals know about it, do you?”
“Wow, Gabe,” I say, staring across the coffee table at him without blinking. “A group e-mail.”
“I know,” Gabe sighs, bowing his head. “Do you think I could get a free hug?”
Gabe, in my living room with a swirl of black dog hair on the pocket of his button-down.
Gabe, who promises, as our arms jerk uncomfortably around each other, that on his next visit he will definitely give me a copy of The Celestine Prophecy, or have one of Laurie’s cousins from Calabasas drop it by. Either one.
Gabe, who leaves on Day 10 while Tommy is doing errands, requesting a ride to LAX five and a half hours before the departure of his plane. Who we will not hear from him again until we receive his family’s Christmas letter two months later. “Gabe got fired from Buy Rite for some reason,” it says, “and Gary has to get his leg amputated in April from the diabetes. His attitude is positive and he wants to start playing golf.”
Gabe, who tells me at curbside check-in that he may try for an accounting position at Fingerhut, a company that sells women’s clothing patterns throughout the Midwest. Gabe, who I wish I could tell, before he departs this less than clean Nissan, that Tommy, he never leaves the house to do errands without his laptop, not anymore. Gabe, who makes me think:
Why are we put here if not to live in torment?
Who makes me wonder: How can our gods bear to watch us do it?
God, up there in the Sunroom, the Universe Room. God, up there on the Bridge. God, just a kid in wayfarer sandals who likes it dirty. A horny kid in front of a blurry screen, aiming His viewfinder down at us ants.
Gabe, who makes me want to cry out to whoever’s in charge, like Isaiah did or something, with a voice lifted up to every mountain rough place, across every fertile valley and desert highway, every scarred, uneven plain, to the east and to the west, to starboard, port and aft, up and down this barren concourse of strangers.
And consider: every ticketed passenger dragging a secret suitcase, each daughter of Egypt and son of Israel traveling first-class, business, or otherwise. Calling all of them by name: every lifestyle enthusiast and compulsive masturbator.
I am Begging. Please.
Mon dieu. Dios mio.
To the Chief of Operations. The One who has measured the waters and marked off the heavens, supposedly, with the hollow of His fucking hand.
Won’t somebody, somewhere. Someone human, anywhere?
Won’t some person who is not already married or dying ever love this naked Gabe?
Incredible the animal that first dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.
—Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra
Rosana arrived on a Sunday around noon. Mauricio was waiting anxiously, already anticipating the sexual encounter that fate had delivered up to him like a gift. He had always been very meticulous in his personal hygiene, but that morning he submitted himself to the full treatment: he trimmed his hair, his nails, his pubes; he shaved, plucked his unibrow, and applied a face mask. He’d spent the previous two weeks on a diet and going to the gym, and when he’d had to drink with his co-workers he’d limited himself to two or three light beers. He also dedicated his entire Saturday to cleaning the house and organizing his collection of CDs and DVDs. He had to impress her.
His cousin Marijó had sent him a message from the capital to ask if he could host one of her dancer friends who would be staying a few days in the city. Mauricio accepted immediately. He thought all dancers were hot.
When the doorbell rang he put on a CD by Alejandro Fernández, smoothed a wrinkle in his polo shirt, and headed to the door. Before opening it he wanted to look at her through the peephole. She wasn’t what he’d expected, her hippie-like appearance struck him as slightly unpleasant, but this small disappointment was made up for by the beauty of her face and the fullness of her breasts, emphasized by the straps of her backpack. Thinking no one was looking, Rosana stuck her hand down her shirt and rearranged her bra. Mauricio opened the door excited by this small act of voyeurism.
They introduced themselves, greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek, and went inside. Rosana dropped her luggage in the middle of the living room and wandered around touching every object she encountered. Sometimes she seemed to sniff the room, like some wild animal on the hunt or looking for a mate. Mauricio moved her backpack out of the way.
“Do you live with your parents?” she asked sticking a finger into an oil painting that hung on the wall. Mauricio didn’t have the nerve to tell her that you shouldn’t touch paintings. It would’ve been impolite.
“No, I live alone.”
“It looks like my grandma’s house. Why do you have so many plants?”
“I don’t know. I like the way they look. According to Feng Shui they balance the room.”
“Feng Shui, what a drag . . .”
Rosana fell onto the sofa, kicked off her huaraches, and put her feet up on the coffee table. Mauricio discreetly studied her toned calves, but the allure was offset by the repulsion he felt toward the soles of her feet, black with dirt and grime.
“Can we put on some different music?” she said lighting an unfiltered cigarette.
Mauricio rushed to open the window and placed an ashtray in front of Rosana.
“You don’t like Alejandro!”
“He makes me want to barf.”
“What do you want to listen to?”
“My iPod’s in my backpack. The side pocket.”
He searched until he found it. He was annoyed by Rosana’s overly familiar manners, but at the same time he supposed it was a sign of someone with liberal ideas, and that made him believe his aims would be easier to achieve.
He connected her iPod to his stereo.
“Put it on shuffle,” she ordered.
The riff of an electric guitar sounded, reminiscent of the nineties.
“Who is this? It sounds familiar . . .” Mauricio had a distant memory of that sound, as distant as his high school years.
Rosana tapped the rhythm with her feet. After a deep puff on her cigarette she ashed in the nearest flowerpot.
“There’s an ashtray right there,” he said with the utmost politeness.
“You like Spanish rock?”
“I prefer English. I mean I can listen to a song or two, but then I get tired of it.”
She didn’t bother to answer him. She continued smoking as if she were alone, completely ignoring Mauricio’s presence.
“I thought dancers weren’t supposed to smoke.”
“Says who? Do you know any?”
“No . . . Well, you.”
“There you go: all the dancers you know smoke.”
She ashed in the flowerpot again.
“Use the ashtray, the dirt’s going to smell later. What are you here for exactly? Marijó didn’t say.”
“I have a show in a week. I’ll be rehearsing till then and after that I’m staying for a seminar with a teacher from Finland.”
“Well you better make time to go out for a beer with me.”
“I’ll let you know . . . What do you do?”
“I studied Communication Sciences. You know it’s a really great career because . . .”
“Peaches!” Rosana interrupted, staring at the fruit bowl on top of the dining table. Without waiting for an answer she lunged at a large, ripe peach.
“They haven’t been washed,” said Mauricio with some annoyance.
She didn’t react to the warning. She took a big bite of the fruit, and almost before she’d finished chewing the first she took a second and a third. The juice ran down her forearm, pooling in the crook of her elbow until finally dripping onto the table. After the fourth bite Rosana began to make use of her other hand, which still held the lit cigarette. The pit rotated agilely between her fingers as her teeth gnawed until they’d extracted every last trace of pulp. It was all over in under a minute.
“It’s my favorite fruit.”
She set the pit in the fruit bowl and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. As she did this her nose passed very close to her armpit. Rosana took a long sniff.
“Shiiiiit, I stink! I really need a bath. Do you have a little bit of milk you could give me?”
Mauricio couldn’t believe what he was witnessing.
Milk, according to Rosana, had a rejuvenating effect on the skin. For this reason she poured almost an entire liter into the full bathtub. So full that, even as skinny as she was, Mauricio thought it would overflow when she got in. He didn’t say anything though, just made a few jokes. He didn’t want to seem pedantic or domineering before he’d reached his goal; afterward he’d find a way to put things in order.
Rosana connected her iPod to the bathroom radio, touched the water to test the temperature, and, unfazed by Mauricio’s presence, removed her shirt. He took her lack of modesty as a provocation, but since it was too soon to give up the game he quickly left the bathroom, not without first throwing an ardent glance at Rosana’s breasts, resting snugly inside her bra.
He sat down at the computer in his bedroom and pretended to work. He couldn’t stand the music blaring at top volume from the bathroom, nor the waste of perfectly good milk, nor Rosana’s barbaric manners, but the promise of sex compensated for all these inconveniences. “She can be filthy,” he thought, “as long as she’s that way in bed too.”
Forty minutes later the music stopped and Rosana walked by Mauricio’s door wrapped in a towel.
The bathroom was a total mess: the floor was soaking wet, there were panties crumpled in a corner, the tub hadn’t been drained and the shampoo dripped from its bottle. Mauricio knew that during the seduction phase there was always a price to be paid, but this was too much: if he didn’t set some limits now, the situation might get out of control.
He picked up her thong and walked directly to Rosana’s room. The door was half open so he assumed she’d finished getting dressed and he went in without knocking.
“Hey, I have to ask you to please . . .”
He couldn’t continue. Rosana was lying on the bed, on her back, wearing only a sweater and a pair of socks. She was reading a magazine that blocked her view of the door and she had headphones on. She didn’t seem to notice the intrusion. Mauricio stared for a few seconds at her densely populated pubis, wild, black as the back of a chimpanzee, and his boldness was replaced by intense lust. He left the room without saying anything else. It wouldn’t do for Rosana to catch him spying on her.
The days passed and Mauricio hadn’t made any progress. Rosana was hardly ever at home and she rejected his invitations to go out at night with the excuse that she had to get up early in the morning. Only sometimes, in the evenings, they had dinner together, something light like a sandwich or a salad and in those few shared moments Mauricio took the opportunity to make his move. She didn’t seem to notice and didn’t respond to his advances.
Her behavior bothered Mauricio more and more. He spent all his time cleaning up her mess in the bathroom, the living room, and especially in the kitchen, where after making breakfast Rosana left everything open, outside the refrigerator, her dirty plates on the table, and to top it off she never bought her own food, not even the milk for her baths (which, fortunately, she didn’t take every day). Also, she never turned off the lights, and more than once she left the faucet running.
He finally gave up. He determined that he’d never get anywhere with her and resigned to put up with her unpleasant presence for the sake of his promise to Marijó. But next time he’d think twice before agreeing to do her any favors.
Things went on like this until finally the day of Rosana’s show arrived. It was a Friday. Mauricio found a ticket on the dining table. It started at seven that evening. Of course he couldn’t think of going, it would be like rewarding her for all her rudeness, but as the day went on he began to change his mind, he wanted to see Rosana’s dancing skills, or rather to confirm her clumsiness. He pictured her dressed as a cavewoman, dancing with her tribe around their fire god. To see her looking ridiculous in some cheap show might somehow make up for all the hassle. And if he still wanted to punish her, he could just say he hadn’t had time to go.
The lights were off when he entered the theatre. He sat in the first empty seat he found, at the back. Even though it was a small venue he’d brought his binoculars so that he wouldn’t miss a single detail.
Rosana was the last dancer in the show. Four companies from different parts of the country went on before her. Mauricio didn’t understand modern dance, so after the second group, yawning, his mind began to wander to the transparent costumes or the probable homosexuality of the male performers. Eventually it was Rosana’s turn. In all the other choreographies there had been at least two dancers, but the program indicated that she would be alone on stage for fifteen minutes.
Somber music began to play, lacking rhythm to Mauricio’s untrained ear, suggestive, he thought, of jungle sounds. Rosana came onto the stage slowly and pausing frequently, crawling, lit up by a single spotlight. Mauricio saw her as a dinosaur. When she got to the center of the stage, Rosana fell to the floor and like a worm agonizing under the sun she dragged herself to the other corner of the stage where she adopted a new way of moving. It was a slow dance, refined, the movements made him think more of a feminine sensuality than an animal brutality. Mauricio started to doubt whether she was a woman imitating beasts or a beast dancing like a woman.
He left the theatre in awe.
That night he had trouble sleeping. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana’s body sheathed in black Lycra as tight as a second nudity. He obsessively replayed the image of her shoulder blades marking the rhythm of her march across the prairie, of her neck outstretched to greet the sun or stars, the serpent’s waist, the breasts of the mythical she-wolf. Rosana was all those animals, and she was also all woman.
From his bed he heard her come home, wash up, enter her bedroom. Two hours later, tormented by the need to caress the body that he imagined covered in feathers or scales, he got up, left his cave, and penetrated Rosana’s lair. He slowly touched her under the sheet, lying behind her in the same position, on his side, breathing on her neck. He slid his hand up her hip, waist, belly, to the base of her bosom. Rosana turned in her bed. The intrusive hand continued its ascent, pausing at her nipples, which rose up, dreaming that they were two hard oaks.
Rosana’s breathing was noticeably agitated. Mauricio, his hand, retraced its path back down to her belly button, where it descended into her dense pubic jungle. Two thighs blocked the entrance like impenetrable walls. There was only one way to overcome the obstacle: their mistress must order them to open. Then they would obediently make way for the visitor, spreading wide before him in a sign of welcome.
Maurico kissed the back of Rosana’s neck, her ear, her cheek, the corner of her mouth.
“You’re so hot,” he whispered.
Rosana began to wake up. The excitation that she’d felt in her dream became a strange heavy bulge squirming against her back.
“Who is it . . .?” she asked with a scratchy voice. She instantly comprehended the situation. “Nooooo, I don’t want to!”
She jumped up, wrapped in the sheets, and turned on the light.
“Turn it off, it hurts my eyes,” said Mauricio covering his face with his forearm.
“No, get out of here! Let me sleep!”
“I liked the way you danced.”
“That’s nice, but leave, please.”
“I want to stay here.”
“Then I’ll go sleep in your room . . . Seriously, I’m really tired, I’m not mad but get out of here now!”
Mauricio reluctantly obeyed.
“Sorry,” he said from the hall. He wasn’t sorry, but he felt like he should say it.
Rosana locked the door.
He awoke with his hand in his underwear. He was embarrassed by what had happened the night before, not for having gotten into Rosana’s bed without her permission, but for having been rejected. The fact that she hadn’t reacted violently, however, told him that her refusal wasn’t definitive. Her will could be broken, if it wasn’t already, and the rejection had been a provocation, the declaration of a challenge. “I should try again,” he thought.
He got up and knocked on her door, half naked. He wanted to make her feel that some trust, some intimacy had been established between them, as a result of their cohabitation. After all, she’d been the first one to be immodest, and she was probably waiting for him to express a similar attitude before taking the next step.
There was no answer from inside her room. For a moment Mauricio was afraid Rosana had left for good, but when he opened the door he saw her things scattered across the floor like always, without rhyme or reason. This time the mess didn’t bother him. Just the opposite, he took it as a manifestation of her wild spirit. Something in him had changed, he felt somehow uncomfortable with his own rigidity, with his need for cleanliness and symmetry, and he had the impression that her messy room was the picture of freedom. He picked up a red thong. It smelled like sweat, urine, enticement.
Rosana didn’t come home all day. After midnight, tired of waiting for her, Mauricio lay down to try to sleep. An hour later she got home. Someone was with her, a male voice spoke in whispers. They went directly into her room.
In the morning Mauricio woke up as Rosana was saying goodbye to the visitor.
“Rosana!” he called from his bed when he heard her passing footsteps.
She opened the door and stuck her head in.
“Who was that?” Mauricio was lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head.
“A friend. I met him yesterday. He’s a dancer too.”
“Hmmm, what a coincidence . . . And what about me?”
“What about you?”
“Me and you, what’s going to happen with us?”
“Nothing? Why should anything happen?”
In one abrupt movement Mauricio pulled aside the sheets covering him. He was naked, his right hand caressing the base of his fully erect penis.
“Look what you do to me. Come here, get naked, you owe it to me.”
He felt Rosana’s gaze on his sex.
“Cover yourself up, you’re a pig! You know what? I think I’d better leave, thank you for your hospitality,” she said turning around and rushing to lock herself in the bathroom. She wanted to leave as quickly as possible but she felt the urgent need to wash up, there was dried semen all over her body. Also, the bath was already filled with warm, milky water. If she hurried, she could be out of the house in an hour.
She’d just submerged herself in the water when she heard Mauricio’s voice on the other side of the door.
“Open up, you left me there talking to myself.”
“Are you dressed yet?”
“No, open up.”
Rosana blasted the music at full volume. It was a song by Los Aterciopelados.
“Open up, goddammit! I just want to talk!” he said giving the door a hard smack.
“I can’t hear you!”
Mauricio felt all his repressed fury from the night before take control of his body. A few violent shoves and the door gave way. Rosana was in the tub, paralyzed with fear.
“You’re a goddam slut!”
“You’re grandma’s a slut, jackass!”
“You stay at my house as long as you want, you make a huge mess, you eat my food, and then, instead of fucking me, you fuck the first moron who crosses your path! Don’t you think that’s the behavior of a true whore!”
“I’d be a whore if I slept with you for letting me stay a few days in your prissy little house. A whore and an idiot!” Rosana was about to stand up, but then she remembered she was naked under the water.
“Well then get the hell out of my goddamn prissy little house right now!”
Mauricio grabbed her by the hair to pull her out of the tub. She leaned forward to ease the pain and as her torso emerged from the water she clawed Mauricio’s forearm with all her ire.
“Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he let her go, pushing her head back at the same time. The base of Rosana’s neck hit the faucet. About to lose her consciousness she reached for something to grab hold of, but the only thing her hands could find was the radio’s power cord.
It took Mauricio a few seconds to notice the accident. He was inspecting the deep gashes that Rosana’s nails had left in his flesh.
He thought of reporting the incident to the police, tell them she’d just had an accident. But of course they’d suspect him, they wouldn’t believe him, and would end up finding the hairs he’d pulled out, the scratches on his arms, his skin under Rosana’s nails. And above all, he didn’t have an alibi . . . That last word echoed a long while in his mind: he realized he was thinking like a criminal.
He didn’t know what to do with the body, he’d never thought he’d find himself in this situation. For the moment it seemed too risky to try to get rid of it. He needed to plan everything very carefully. In the meantime, he couldn’t just leave it floating in his tub.
He let out the water, a pinkish mixture of blood and milk, unplugged the radio, rinsed it off in the sink, and covered the lifeless body with dirt from all his flowerpots, which he carried one by one into the bathroom. Then he replanted all his plants in the tub.
The weight he felt in his soul was heavy. He was sick with fear over the consequences, but sicker still over having taken Rosana’s life. She would never again dance, eat a peach, or incite a man’s lust, and this pained him. It was as if he’d killed the last specimen of an extinct species.
He watered his new garden. As he finished he remembered Rosana’s pubic hair, and by some strange association of ideas he remembered that he’d forgotten to close her eyes.
He wanted to take a bath, all the gardening had left him sweaty and covered in dirt. Given that the tub was occupied, he used the metal washtub he’d bought to keep his beer on ice. He sat there contemplating his plants until the water got cold.
As the effect of the adrenaline wore off, his regret grew deeper. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana. He drank a beer. He ate tuna directly from the can and spent the rest of that Sunday lying on the couch, stoking his guilt. At night he searched for Rosana’s cigarettes. For the first time ever he enjoyed the taste of tobacco. That night he slept fitfully.
In the morning he opened his eyes feeling strange, the world seemed sluggish, unreal, as if he’d awoken inside a dream. His body rejected movement. He would’ve loved to remain in bed, but it was Monday and he couldn’t miss work.
The next two days were strange. Although his mind was elsewhere and he avoided all unnecessary social interaction, Mauricio was nicer to his co-workers, friendlier and more helpful, and he remembered that serial killers were known for being good neighbors, as if their killer’s instinct inspired kindness toward the rest of the human species, to compensate for ridding it of one, or several, of its individuals.
Back at home, when he had to use the bathroom, he tried not to look at the garden. He thought that this would help his memory of the incident fade away. If he maintained an indifference to the past, sooner or later it would cease to exist.
But on the third day, standing over the toilet in his first urination of the morning, he couldn’t help but look at it in the mirror. Try as he might, it was impossible to ignore. How long would the body take to decompose? Would the dirt be able to mask the smell? He was asking himself questions such as these when he saw it.
In the center of the tub a beautiful sunflower had sprouted, still young but with its petals fully open. The bright yellow spot stood out with breathtaking beauty against the green and white background of the plants and shower tiles. It was a proud flower, full of zest, sitting firmly atop its stem like a young person ready to conquer the world.
Mauricio spent the rest of the day analyzing the phenomenon. At first it seemed unreal, but then it occurred to him that in such an incredible situation it wasn’t odd for extraordinary things to happen. Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, he had a revelation.
That night, when he got home, he watered the sunflower with a little bit of milk.
Several weeks full of happiness went by. Mauricio christened his flower, calling her Rosana when he greeted her in the mornings and when, after work, he chatted to her about his day. He’d lost all interest in passing lovers: no one could fulfill him as much as her, this reincarnated woman, animal, and raw nature, so vital that from her death sprouted new life.
His care was as meticulous as an enamored lover’s. He pulled weeds, pruned the other plants so that they wouldn’t invade her space, aerated the dirt every three days and fertilized his flower with nutrients rich in iron and nitrogen. When he wasn’t at home he left rock music playing on the new radio he’d bought especially for her, and once a day he made her fresh-squeezed peach juice, smashing the pulp between his fingers so that Rosana would get the taste of his skin mixed with her favorite fruit.
He no longer worried about interrogations and police statements. How could anyone think that Rosana had died? Her existence transcended the world of the flesh, a direct manifestation of her soul without the encumbrance of a human body. The universe had been altered, its center had shifted to the black center of the sunflower.
Also, there were no signs of police, nothing to indicate that an investigation was underway. Mauricio could not imagine a more happy and peaceful life.
One night he had an upsetting dream. Asleep in his bed, he was awoken by sounds from the bathroom; he got up and without turning on the light, in total darkness, he crept to the bathroom where he could just make out a silhouette standing over the sink. It looked like a woman. He got up the nerve to turn on the light. It was Rosana, naked. A delicate vine grew up her body, giving her the look of a magical forest fairy. From her belly grew the sunflower, yellower and more beautiful than ever.
“You scared me,” he said to her, sighing with relief. “I thought you were someone else.”
Mauricio moved to hug her, but stopped when she threatened him with a straight razor which he hadn’t noticed she was holding in her hand.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, surprised. “You shouldn’t hurt me, I’m the person who takes care of you and feeds you.”
“But I’m the one who gives you life,” she answered, and with a hard swipe she cut off the flower, leaving just a centimeter of stem sticking out of her skin. Drops of sap began to fall, blood red, staining the white tiles between her bare feet.
Mauricio awoke frightened. He sat up. His heart still pounding, he went to the bathroom to urinate and to tell his flower about his dream. As he walked down the dark hall he almost thought he was once again in his nightmare, that’s how vivid and real it had felt, and he opened the bathroom door certain he’d find Rosana standing over the sink. But no. What he found when he turned on the light was even more terrifying.
The sunflower was dying, its stem bent so far that it almost touched the edge of the tub with its petals, previously luscious and glowing, now shriveled like aged skin. Mauricio began to panic, he had to do something, Rosana’s life was in his hands. He couldn’t understand what had happened, he’d watered her, fertilized her, weeded her. Had some parasite gotten her? He straightened the flower, as languid as if she’d gone weeks without water, and when he didn’t see any bugs on her petals or leaves he carefully placed her back into her original curved position, afraid she might break at any minute.
“Please don’t die, you can’t leave me alone,” he repeated over and over, hoping that by some miracle the flower would perk back up, healthy and sweet-smelling.
Suddenly he understood. He’d seen it in his dream, and it was so obvious that he felt stupid.
He took scissors from the cabinet and without flinching he made a long cut on the palm of his left hand. Blood immediately flowed into the wound. Full of hope, Mauricio let it drip onto the dirt around the stem, certain that he was giving Rosana the food she needed.
A pain in his wrist made him turn up his bloody palm, and he saw with horror that the cut on his hand had disappeared, but another, much deeper, spanned the width of his wrist. How was it possible? Was his confused mind showing him hallucinations? And if so, which was reality, the first cut or the second? He didn’t have time to continue contemplating: his wrist began to hemorrhage, and his sudden dizziness made him realize that this was no trick of his mind.
His first instinct was to stick his hand into a plastic bag he found in the trash and tie it around his forearm with dental floss. He thought it would do the trick: once the blood flow had stopped it was just a matter of waiting for the cut in the veins to coagulate, something his body would do naturally.
“Don’t worry, I won’t leave you,” he said to Rosana, sitting on the floor in front of her. “You have to be strong. You have to live.”
He gently caressed her petals, barely touching them. However, in their fragile state, even this gentle contact was too intense and one by one they began to fall off, until the center of the flower was left naked like a black and burnt out sun.
The last thing Mauricio saw before losing consciousness were his fingertips grazing the inside walls of an enormous red balloon with his hand swimming inside.
Seven days later the police arrived at his home to question him about Rosana’s disappearance. The circumstances made him the main suspect.
From outside they smelled the nauseating scent of decomposing flesh, and when there was no answer at the door, the officers forced the lock. The floor was covered in trash, cigarette butts, empty cans, and boxes of food; rats and cockroaches feasted on the waste.
When they discovered Mauricio bled dry leaning over the bathtub garden they immediately deduced the sequence of events: he’d killed, and possibly raped, the girl, after which he proceeded to bury her body in the tub; but panicked that sooner or later the authorities would discover him, he’d taken his own life. A specialized team removed the dirt. In the bottom of the tub, however, they didn’t find anything.
Rosana’s case was never solved. Her belongings were found inside the suspect’s home, but given that she’d stayed there of her own free will, it was not enough evidence to incriminate him.
With respect to Mauricio, his parents were notified and they took care of the funeral arrangements. After the burial, and up till their own deaths, they visited their son’s grave every week, and every week they bent down to uproot the horrible weed that obstinately insisted on growing up on his grave, time and again.
We didn’t stay long at the bar. After we got Melanie’s text, I had the feeling that each of us wanted the other to finish their drink so we could take off for one of our houses. I could tell from the way we skipped from one topic of conversation to another, cutting them short and getting them over with in turn, so that having exhausted them all, we could then get up and go.
Less than half an hour later, we were outside in front of the entrance to the bar. Charlotte suggested we avoid going by the bar where she thought Melanie and Reema were. We walked for a while, went into the Métro, and headed for her house. It was as if we had agreed on it ahead of time; neither of us asked where we were going. We both knew we were going to her place. Perhaps that was what subconsciously made me talk about the poster I had seen through her apartment window the first time I took her home – or when I followed her there.
— Is the poster of The Double Life of Veronique still there?
— How do you know about that?… Ahh, from when you followed me.
— But you didn’t say the film’s name. You just said it was a film you liked.
— Could be. I don’t remember.
— You did. I like the film too, even though it may not be one of my top ten or twenty.
— Really? So what’s your favourite?
I didn’t want the conversation to turn from us to films I liked. Now wasn’t the right time for that. I’d started our conversation with a nod to the poster. Perhaps what made me ask about it was the knowledge that I would be in her house in a few minutes’ time. The intent of the question wasn’t to talk about film, but about her apartment, about her, about the place where we were heading to spend the night together alone – or so I hoped and expected.
— My favourite film doesn’t matter now. Let’s talk about you.
— Yes, it does. Who do you like?
— Mmm. Ingmar Bergman comes to mind. I just saw Persona.
— I’m not a big fan of it.
— Why not? Whatever, let’s talk about something else. Something you like.
I wanted us to change the subject, which was more suited to mid-afternoon at a café than shortly before midnight in an almost empty train as we headed to her house for me to fuck her, at last. I couldn’t come up with anything to ask her, so we were silent for a while until she said we were getting out at the next stop and would then walk a little. She said the stop was Père Lachaise, and I replied that I knew it well. We fell silent again. The train stopped and off we got.
I remembered the way perfectly, as if I had followed her two days, not two weeks, earlier. Now I was walking next to her, not tailing her like a detective in some noir film. Walking along, I knew she would offer me another drink as the overture to a long night. I also knew that her friend, who had been in the apartment that evening, was now in a bar with another friend, and that she knew that Charlotte and I would go back to their apartment together. She would arrange to spend the night elsewhere, at Reema’s perhaps.
We went into the building. I followed her up the dark, narrow staircase. Charlotte apologized that the bulb had blown and not been changed. She opened the door to her apartment and turned the living room light on. I followed her inside, and my glance immediately fell on the poster by the window. I remarked that there was something familiar about the house. She giggled – the giggle of a happy woman getting ready for a fuck. She laughed while picking things up off the floor. Skilfully using her ankles, she slipped off her shoes and left them where they fell in the middle of the living room.
By this time, any remark would have made her laugh. She was relaxed and feeling good – m-zah-zah-ah, as we say in Palestine. Charlotte was in high spirits right then for reasons other than the alcohol. I asked her why she picked things up off the floor but left her shoes. She turned back and picked them up as if they had been there when we walked in, laughing as she did so. I sat down on a chair opposite the bookcase and started checking out the contents. Charlotte came back into the living room with two glasses and a corkscrew. She came over, took a bottle of wine off one of the lower shelves, and asked me to open it.
I took the corkscrew and the bottle over to the table. She came over and set down the two glasses, then went back to the bookshelves. I poured us each a glass of wine, moved back to the bookcase, and stood behind the blonde woman. Stretching out my hand to offer her a glass of wine, I took a short sniff of her hair, then inhaled deeply after burying my nose in the golden curls. I asked her to tell me about her library, about the books and films she liked on the shelves before us. I didn’t want to seem like the kind of guy who, as soon as he gets into a woman’s house, grabs hold of his penis and drags her off to the bedroom.
I noticed she had taken off her coat, her heavy sweater, and the thick scarf in which her face had been hidden. She was standing next to me. The top buttons of her thin blouse were undone and the edge of her bra was visible. I could see she had small breasts, wide apart and firm on her chest. With her elbow resting on her hand, she held her glass close to her mouth as if she were sniffing the wine. She took a sip.
— This is a complete set of Tarkovsky’s films. Do you know him?
— Sure. I really like him.
— Those are novels by Kafka, poems by Brecht … and by Darwish. I’m telling you the things I like. Those are on my shelves. Those shelves are Melanie’s. You’ll find books about film, copies of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, and films as well. She’s got more than me naturally.
— But the Kafka novels are yours?
— Yes. One’s missing: The Trial. I’ve forgotten whom I lent it to. I still haven’t read it. I’ll have to buy a copy.
— I saw you once in the café taking your laptop out of a cloth bag with a picture of Kafka on it.
— No. My bag’s the one hanging on the door. Here. It shows the name of the bookshop where I bought it – Le Comptoir de Mao in the neighbouring quarter.
— But I saw Kafka.
— Perhaps you’re confusing me with another woman.
— There isn’t another woman at the café I’d confuse you with. But I’m sure about the picture of Kafka. I saw it on the bag.
— It wasn’t me. Anyway, you didn’t tell me what you were doing in the café, tapping away the whole time at your laptop. We haven’t talked about that. Not yet.
— I write.
— You write? What?
— I don’t know. I started a diary. I started writing it a while ago, after I finished a script that I couldn’t find anyone to produce.
— Mmm, a script? When will you tell me the story?
— Tell you the story! In a while.
— No, not in a while.
— Tell me, Charlotte, you definitely don’t have a bag with Kafka’s picture on it?
— No, definitely. Unless you know a different Charlotte. The diary you’re writing at the café, am I in it? Always on your own, sitting opposite me and writing your diary. You steal glances at me. You ask me my name. That’s all there is to it?
— I don’t know, but… yeah, there you were in front of me. I’m writing and there’s a beautiful woman sitting opposite. What do you expect me to write about, if not her? Abu Ammar?
— Who’s he?
— Yasser Arafat (I said it again the French way), president…
— I know who he is, or his kufiyah anyhow. So that’s why you were sneaking looks at me. What have you written? I want to read it.
— It’s written in Arabic, but I can translate some for you. Later.
— The Charlotte in the text might have a bag with Kafka on it.
— Sorry? Oh yes, maybe. But why him? Actually, I didn’t make much of a distinction between the two of you. I didn’t pay it much attention.
— She’s me then?
— She’s not you. Besides, her name might not even be Charlotte.
— Why don’t you come to the café anymore? You stopped after the first time we talked, when you brought me back here.
— Not at all. I went every day after our chat. It was you who didn’t go. I didn’t know you were in the south with your friend. I thought you didn’t want to see me after I’d followed you and our talk.
— But I was only gone for a few days. Then I was there every day as usual, working on my laptop.
— I didn’t know. Never mind.
— I want you to tell me what you wrote about me.
— Not about you!
— It doesn’t matter.
— Okay. I’ll give you a taste.
— No, don’t do it from memory. Read it as it’s written.
I didn’t really want to read what I’d written about her to her face. It was good that she didn’t insist or drag the subject out. It came to an end with her last sentence. Then she made for the bottle of wine on the low table to pour herself another glass and ask me whether I’d like one too. She brought the bottle over and poured me one. The bottle had to be empty before we climbed into her bed.
We cut short our conversation. It seemed detached in time and space from our situation and from what we’d come to do. It had been a necessary introduction to what was coming so that our intentions wouldn’t be too obvious to each other although, if they had been, that would have simplified matters.
The three of us – she, I, and the half-empty bottle – went back to the table and chairs. We sat opposite each other, looking into each other’s eyes. Her eyes were teary, drowsy, tremulous, affected by more than the wine and sangria. I looked at them, at her nervous lips and her pristine neck, whose pure whiteness extended to the expanse of her chest. We looked, chatted, and drank.
In front of me, Charlotte was ripe and ready for us to fuck, ready for the moment that had been the first thing we’d thought of when we read Melanie’s text together at the bar. We’d smiled at each other then, in the knowledge that in an hour or two we’d be here, like this, our eyes dripping with desire.
We used to jump, Lydia and I, as high and as often as we could, hands high over our heads, wearing colourful dresses, our knees pulled up, our feet in stout shoes we were allowed to keep on while jumping, though they sometimes came loose and fell off. Down there at the harbour where a few boats bobbed on the water behind the high fences and the no-entry signs, only four or five boats, perhaps because it wasn’t really a harbour, just brown water bordering an endless expanse of concrete where a circus set up its tents and trailers and stalls during the summer months. And a trampoline, a big trampoline we could jump on for fifty pfennigs, Lydia and I.
Lydia peered through the telescope someone had installed by the water, near a fence, long before our time, when there were still cranes and ships and sheds and box cars, and she peered through other telescopes too wherever and whenever we found them. It didn’t make sense to me, why she loved looking through a dark tube that made the world look a lot smaller and only showed a tiny piece of it, but maybe the reason I didn’t like it was because Lydia loved it, because for once I wanted to dislike something that she liked, even if it was only looking through a telescope. I didn’t understand what she could see, what anyone could see, for that matter; all I ever saw was green, and by the time I figured out how to hold the telescope and angle it, the lens snapped shut and it all went black.
Lydia always behaved as if she was the only person who could see what she saw, as if no one else could see it, as if the telescope through which she peered was not any old telescope you could throw a coin into but one made especially for her, to be operated by her alone. She never skipped a telescope on our rambles and expeditions, not the one on the viewing tower in the forest nearby, nor the one on the observation deck at the airport. Each time she would step up onto the tiny steel platform in the same stout shoes, summer or winter, grab the handles left and right that always stained her fingers red, and haul herself up.
There came a time when Lydia no longer liked these things, though neither she nor I knew why; not the telescopes, not the jumping, not the candyfloss we used to pull off in pink or white wads that left a sugary coating on our teeth, not even the summer sky, high above us, with its clouds and the occasional seagulls and jet trails, this sky Lydia had always loved because it changed colour every time we looked up. Before, we had been happy just to lie on that concrete expanse near the boats and look up at the sky, where the other children’s kites flew among the fluffy clouds and the seagulls, kites which they got from the circus folk and which, as soon as the wind changed, came crashing down on the concrete near our heads, their noses pointing down like arrows in flight. We called this summer sky our sky, because we liked the way it allowed us to fly kites, chasing them higher and higher to meet the sky, and because it changed colour from one moment to the next.
On her sixteenth birthday, Lydia stopped wearing the dresses her mother bought for us and never touched them again. Lydia’s mother used to order these dresses with the little bit of money she had to spare, out of catalogues left in hallways in spring and autumn; she would leaf through them for days, weeks, marking pages whenever something took her fancy, putting paper clips on anything she thought would look pretty on Lydia and on me.
Two years later, Lydia packed her bags, the two small holdalls she had, taking only the bare essentials – two books, two notebooks, a photo, and just a few clothes. She had given her mother and me plenty of notice of her new life and described it the way she saw it. She knew it already, before it had so much as begun; she had even started to fit out what would soon be her new room, filling it in her mind with furniture and rugs that would be different to her mother’s. She’d wear gloves all year round, Lydia had said, gloves of palest leather, and she’d buy her clothes in London, only in London, no other city in the world would do. We let her talk, Lydia’s mother and I, without believing a word of it, because Lydia often talked about things she seemed to forget as soon as they were out of her mouth, things that never happened in the end, at least not the way Lydia described them or imagined them. Maybe we didn’t want to believe her because we didn’t want our life to be a life without Lydia. Lydia used to say to me, when we are old, you and I, really old, we will still have each other, or we’ll have each other again, and nothing will bother us any more, not autumn, not winter, not our white hair. We will have each other; she said it again two months before she disappeared, leaving me behind wondering when.
Lydia’s mother spent a lot of time sitting on a chair by the window, a chair Lydia and I had painted white the previous summer, because that summer we’d painted all of Lydia’s mother’s furniture white. Lydia’s mother let us do it, because she always gave Lydia permission for her projects, and so, after Lydia had left, she sat by the window on this particular white chair, the only one on which Lydia had painted a stripe and two pale pink roses on top of the white, using a stencil she made herself. She never took her coat off now, the old check one that didn’t go with her skirt, the same coat Lydia had always wanted to hide or burn; she kept her gloves on too and clung to her coat with one hand as if this piece of cloth could hold her in place.
We waited, Lydia’s mother and I, and it took a long time for us to grasp that Lydia was gone, that she had let the door close behind her, had floated down the stairs, up the street to the bus stop, wearing her woolly hat and her dark jacket, holding the two bags and the ticket she had saved so long for, away to the airport and onto a plane Lydia’s mother and I did not want to watch taking off. But we imagined all that as we sat by the window on the white chairs, and during the days and the weeks that followed, imagining Lydia rushing with her two bags to the observation deck in the last few minutes before her flight was called to take one more look through the telescope, grabbing the handles left and right one last time.
Now there’s this postcard on my bed, and beside it a key on a ribbon, a bright red ribbon, an address in London, and Lydia’s kiss, also bright red, with which she stamped all her letters, and beside that the PIN code you have to key in if you want her door to open, and six words in her typical style, more catchphrase than letter: Come to see – autumn and me.
It takes some time for me to phone her, perhaps because I find myself thinking, too often, that she never came to see us, not even for a day, not even to see her mother, that every summer she came up with excuses that weren’t really excuses; and because I still find myself thinking, too often, how she didn’t just pretend that we weren’t right for her any more but actually made me think that we, the two of us, had never been right, that it had never really existed, me and her, not the clothes from the catalogues, nor the place we called the harbour, nor the circus that set up a trampoline and handed out kites, nor the telescopes for Lydia to look through. So I’m relieved, now, when all I get is the answering machine, Lydia’s voice repeating in English the number I just dialled, and I say something in a weak, faltering voice, something beginning with: Hi, Lydia. So… A stupid, meaningless So that doesn’t preface anything, and later, a few hours later, Lydia rings back and says: Are you OK? You sound really weird.
She meets me at the airport, smiles her big wide smile and doesn’t stop, puts her arm around my shoulder and doesn’t take it away, not even later, on the train or on the escalator, in her entrance hall beside all the letter boxes, or in the little lift that takes us up once its black scissor gate has closed. She lets me open the door, using the key she sent me, the one with the red ribbon, and stands beside me, studying my hands as I turn the key in the lock, looking as if she had been longing for this moment, waiting for it to arrive.
Her apartment is painted white, a white bordering on cream; the bedlinen is white, the towels in the bathroom and kitchen are white. Lydia says she can’t bear any other colour, not on the furniture or on the walls. She has put a single photo up on the wall with two pins, over the sink in the kitchen, next to the white tiles; it’s one Lydia’s mother took of Lydia and me back then, with no heads. The picture isn’t of us; it’s of our new dresses on us, the fabric with its pattern full of flowers, tiny flowers. Even without the heads you can tell who’s who straight away, if only by how we hold our hands, each in her own way. My hands are clenched; it looks like I want to hide them, pull them back. Lydia’s hands are open, moving even while she stands still. Lydia says: Do you remember – those catalogues? She tries to smile but it looks like she’s angry still. Pretty little dresses, Lydia’s mother used to call them, and Lydia called them that too, though in a very different tone, and I’m quite sure that Lydia’s mother, when she was taking that photo, did not want Lydia’s face to be in it, nor the look in her eyes, just the dresses, which fit us for more than one summer and which we wore with skinny plastic belts and grey cardigans. In one corner, in thick pencil, Lydia has written: Lydia and Vicki – beautiful, even with no heads.
She walks around the apartment, makes coffee, says: Do you still take it that way? Then she says she has a ring for me, a ring she designed herself, just for me, in pale blue, because blue was my colour, blue like the blue of the sky back then, that blue that never stopped changing, it was exactly that blue – did I remember? I slip the ring over my finger, wondering how she managed, after all these years, to design a ring for me, to craft it here under her little white lamp, with her little pliers, a ring wrought of wires and stones I can see through, and I like it immediately because it has my blue, and it fits straight away, and Lydia says, it looks lovely, the ring, on you, on your finger. And she studies my hands as only she can, her eyes a little smaller than usual, her head to one side, her hands on her hips.
Lydia looks the way she looks because she doesn’t eat, because she suppresses her hunger, because she puts cotton wool soaked in herbal tea into her mouth if I don’t stop her. Her little fridge is empty, almost entirely empty – a bottle of juice, long past its sell-by date, and a gel mask Lydia puts on her eyelids in the mornings, when she drinks her de-caffeinated coffee in her white bathrobe, her wet hair in a white towel turban, her feet in white towelling slippers with her varnished white toenails peeking out. When she sits like this in the mornings, across from me, by this sash window, which has white glazing bars and which Lydia opens after every third, fourth cigarette, then I cannot help thinking that we will not see old age, the two of us, at least not the way Lydia envisaged it back then, shortly before she left: herself and myself, old and stooped, holding on, holding on to each other. Later, at intervals throughout the day, it is that one sentence that keeps coming back into my head: We will not see old age.
I find myself thinking it again when we leave the apartment and Lydia goes charging from one shop to the other, from one coffee shop to the next, in and out, the entrance bell announcing us, then her loud hello-o-o with the long, fading O the way only Lydia can say it, this hello-o-o that seems part invitation, part challenge, but also part threat, as if everyone else were only there to amuse her. We will not see old age, I think, perhaps because Lydia does not seem the sort of person who grows old, who sooner or later looks old, who allows wrinkles to appear in her face; I am thinking this now, as I watch her walk diagonally across the floor of this shop, with her Jackie O sunglasses, that strand of highlighted hair stuck to her forehead, that little black suit with the skirt cut just below the knee but still showing enough leg to make me feel slightly sick, perhaps because her legs are the way they are, and those shoes with the high heels and the straps around her bony ankles that divide Lydia’s legs into a top and a bottom part.
Back then, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when we had each other every day, every hour, it never bothered me when people took Lydia and me for a couple. I liked the fact that people thought I could be with someone like Lydia, that Lydia would want someone like me. It amused us to spread rumours and lies and stories, and we laughed when other people believed us, when they whispered and giggled behind our backs and pointed at us. But now it bothers me, for the first time, that people might take us for a couple; it bothers me in all the cafés and all the shops, every time Lydia opens a door and the entrance bell rings and people turn to look at us, at Lydia and me.
We go for a cup of tea, which is served in a silver teapot, with scones that Lydia doesn’t even touch. Later we take a walk through a big park, because I insist on it, and Lydia looks bored there, with no people, no shops. Leaves flutter down, yellow and brown autumn leaves. There’s a leaf in your hair, I say, d’you want me to get it? Lydia nods, I pick the leaf out of her hair, a little red one; I show it to her, then it flutters to the ground at our feet. A boy wearing one of those short, dark coats children wear here is running across the grass, this lush, bright green grass, holding a line in his hand. His kite is flying in a colourless sky, way up high, like the kites we used to see back then, when we lay on the concrete at the harbour, our arms crossed behind our heads. Lydia stands still, looking up at this pink kite; a gust of wind catches it, and it pulls and drags the boy, who grows smaller and smaller, running faster and faster, and we stand like that for a while until Lydia says, it looks like it wants to lift him up and away.
When Dad’s eyelids drop like a guillotine she pulls the car door shut with a click. He turns his gaze to the road, and from her shady spot in the backseat she can only see his right arm and leg, a small patch of cheek. Dad’s sunglasses lie on the dashboard, glinting at Kore like black stars. The AC hums quietly. The car smells new.
As he backs out of the yard, she turns towards the window in time to wave to her mother who is standing down on the flagstones outside the house, watching them leave. The car stops, gears are shifted. Then they’re on their way.
Five weeks, that’s the plan.
It’s the same every summer, time is split into two big blocks. The first has disappeared already, now it’s the middle of July and starting to get darker, you can see it in the corners, in the crowns of the trees, and the grass has deepened in colour, swapped its light June getup for a deeper dark green shag.
Five weeks. Kore sinks back in the seat and tries to loosen the belt, but it’s stuck. Along the roadside the midsummer flowers have lost their blossoms, only the empty stalks stick up. They had been pink, white, purple. When she and Mum had decorated the Midsummer pole there had been loads of them, they had picked an armful and then stayed up really late, until one thirty.
The car slows down a little when they reach the top of the slope. The dry sound of the blinker. Then they turn onto the highway. When the speedometer needle sweeps past seventy Dad pushes a button that locks all the doors.
The date had approached like a sharp hilltop with an unknown, and yet known, far side. Then the hour. Tick, tock. And then she had glimpsed the car up by the road. He never had to call for her. She would come anyway, as if pulled towards a black magnet, though her feet hardly moved. All morning she had wandered around from room to room with the open bag. But it didn’t matter what she packed. Everything was already there. A new toothbrush instead of the matted one she had at home, pink rainwear instead of the green ones hanging on the hook in the hallway, lots of comic books in the chest of drawers. And toys. A drawing pad. Even small tubes of oil paint that she got for Christmas. Everything you could imagine needing was at her Dad’s, everything.
And at the same time nothing.
He was always late and she always sat waiting, in the hallway, her hands clenched around the bag’s handles. Katja had been preparing dinner in the kitchen at the time. Susanna would be over later, they would sit on the veranda behind the house, light a mosquito coil, drink wine and gossip. Kore’s body had felt empty when she thought about it, that everything would be as usual here. Except her. If she weren’t waiting for Dad just then, she’d have taken out her craft kit and put it on the kitchen table, then listened to cassettes and made something out of paper balls, glue and sequins. And afterwards she and Mum would have watched Disney Afternoon and drunk fizzy drinks and then there would be Fort Boyard. But only if Mum had had time to finish the cleaning, otherwise she would do that first.
“I wonder if you’ll find any snails this year?” Katja had said, taking a packet of prawns out of the freezer, “And you’ve hardly had any time to ride your nice new bike, have you? I’m sure that chain doesn’t wobble at all.”
Kore had nodded and gripped the handles of the backpack again. Up there at the roadside the wind gently nudged the rowans. Still no car. The hallway was dim.
On the wall next to the front door were the faded chalk marks Kore had made when she was three. After Mum had finally found a forgotten bit of the same wallpaper in the attic and pasted it over, it had only taken a few days before Kore had drawn a new crude chalk picture in black and red on the exact same spot, “Apparently there was meant to be a drawing there,” Katja would say with a laugh.
The rustling in the kitchen had stopped. When Kore looked that way Katja had avoided her eyes and started fumbling with the knot of the plastic bag again. Kore had looked back outside and then she saw the car arrive. Emerge from nothing. She got up right away and put on her backpack.
“Call me if there’s anything,” her mum had said, giving Kore a hug. “My little sweetie pie.”
Have a great time, she had said. Haveagreathaveagreathavgrttme.
“Kore,” says her dad.
He looks at her in the rear-view mirror. Far behind them the house is already gone.
“Let’s go to the toy shop,” he says. “And you can choose whatever you want.”
The cool air inside the car gives her legs goosebumps, from her sneakers all the way up to her patterned cycling shorts. Her thighs stick to the cream-coloured leather seat covers. She feels a little cold but doesn’t say anything. Her voice has crawled deep inside her and hidden away, like a hard pea somewhere in her body.
Dad drives quickly through a changing landscape, the car moves almost soundlessly at seventy miles an hour. He glances over his shoulder at every car he glides past. The tip of Kore’s nose happens to touch the window pane, she wipes it carefully with her sleeve so as not to leave a mark. Outside she can see the invisible animals, the seven that have been with her since she was little, following them along the roadside. Titus, Babel, Bollo Sé, Mitko, Masha, Ivrahim and Long-fingers. Titus is running ahead, so beautiful. His pearly black eyes are gleaming. The others have to work to keep up with him, to make it over the tree stumps, through the thickets and across the dikes. Mitko flies sometimes, it’s easier that way. Ivrahim keeps his distance from the rest. Beyond the tilled fields on either side there’s nothing but miles of game fencing. And behind that bushy forest. She knows there are other, bigger animals in there among the trees. So far they haven’t made an appearance. But they are there.
The road descends, the sun flickers between the tree trunks. Here and there she glimpses houses, fewer of them the further down they get. Then the world becomes desolate and empty. They drive past an unattended petrol station, a collapsed barn. Some bare trunks against the burnt grass of the area. Everything is falling, gaping emptily in the void. Then the car reaches the muddy bottom, rounds a bend and the town spreads out in front of them. A roundabout with a large iron figure in the middle, behind which chimneys shoot straight up into the thick cloud cover. The manholes are steaming. Next to the bus station a teenager sits hunched on a railing.
A minute later the car stops, and with a single step her dad is outside. Kore steps onto the pavement and follows him towards the shop. Out of the corner of her eye she notices that the animals have stealthily hidden behind one of the rear wheels.
When they’re back outside Kore is holding a thin bag, and in it lies the doll. A light blue dress, rustling frills. There had been so many of them in there, in the end she took only one. Her hands look sooty in the weak light.
The animals get into the car with her this time, crowding around her feet on the mat. Now they are in her father’s land and live under her father’s laws. Their eyes wander.
Everything is quiet and peaceful in the villa quarter at Ektjärn, the sun smooth like a tongue above the roofs. No one is out mowing the lawn, the trampolines are abandoned. An auburn cat sits grooming itself on the front steps of one of the houses. It breaks off mid-movement as they drive past. Kore sees the car reflected in every window they pass. An egg-shaped, shiny stone. And in the middle of the stone – her face.
Once Dad has parked and let her into the house, she sits down in the armchair in the living room. Then he fetches the presents. She gets one after the other, until her lap is full of small figures and boxes inside boxes and hair accessories and colourful bracelets. The objects come from all over the world, her dad travels a lot with work, to various conferences and institutions. He travels to places where people speak like birds, have gold teeth and gaping mouths. He’s been to New York, Singapore and Madrid. Istanbul and Lima. Sydney, once. She holds a small lacquered box up to her nose and takes in the smell of the other life Dad leads, when she isn’t there.
Kore thanks him and thanks him some more, gets yet another present, and then, when she can hardly take it anymore, he stops and jiggles a slender piece of jewellery out of a red box in the pocket of his suit jacket and lays it out across his hand, and it glitters and from the very end of the necklace hangs a little silver heart.
“This is a grown-up present, really,” he says. “But I want you to have it. My little queen.”
Kore looks at the necklace that seems to run and trickle even though it’s lying perfectly still in her father’s hands. As he puts it around her neck she hears his voice behind her.
“The jeweller I got it from told me that the heart of whoever you give the necklace to is yours for ever.”
He laughs a little. The light from the living room lamp is making her giddy, its tiny electric strands whirl through the air and descend towards her. Straight at her black, absorbent pupils.
“Promise me, Kore?”
His voice seems to grow more distant, as if floating somewhere above her. That you’re mine for ever. She moves her lips but no sound passes them, she wants to say no but can’t, it sounds almost like he’s crying now, and the specks of light from the lamp steal into her eyes one by one, they’re pulled towards the earth and her face. In her stomach the black ball aches, digs down deeper into her flesh. On her second try, her answer is audible but no louder than a whisper. A final utterance before her voice shuts down.
Here at Dad’s house her room is in the basement, below the staircase. At night it creaks as if someone were walking down there. That does happen sometimes, when Dad’s on his way to his study, which is further along the hall. She never goes there, though. She stays on the other side. Her room here is bigger than the one at home, light blue and mauve – she got to choose the wallpaper herself. The floor is covered in soft carpet so that she won’t feel cold, and the windows are shut tight. Otherwise the snow might crack them in winter, Dad has said. But she knows that it’s to stop her from escaping.
If only she had a sister, she thinks, then everything would be different. In the room next door, a sister, like Snow-White had her Rose-Red, someone who would dare to raise her hand to any attackers and cry Stop! They could read stories to each other when they couldn’t get to sleep, tap messages through the wall using a secret code. And her sister could help her with Dad, so that he wouldn’t get sad.
After they have said goodnight that first night, Kore lies with the duvet pulled up to her chin and looks at the posters he has put up. A purple galaxy on one of them, two bunnies on the other. In the middle, a portrait of herself. Dad says it really resembles her, but when she tries to look at the picture all she can see is a small aching ball where her face ought to be. A shining black stone.
Kore. Daddy’s little queen.
The next morning Dad is happy, he sits at the kitchen table reading the newspaper with her at his side. The room smells of coffee. The latest hits are playing on the radio, and Kore makes drawing after drawing and shows them to him, they’re all for him, full of suns and animals and their houses. Then they play cards, a game for grown-ups.
“You come from a long line of poker players,” he says and lays out a three of a kind. “My dad taught me when I was six.”
He enjoys teaching her things, and she listens carefully and nods all the time, her face is glowing and after a while she can’t resist fooling around, trying to make him laugh by hiding cards up her sleeve, and it works because he laughs and says she is a card shark like his cousin Robert, who bought his house with the money he had won playing cards.
“He’s a real clever one,” says her dad.
Dad likes it when people are good at doing sums in their heads, so he tests her on the times table, she has practiced so much at school that she knows it by heart, even the most difficult number which her dad says is eight times seven. But then she accidentally knocks over a glass, sees it roll over the edge of the table and onto the floor in slow motion. Three big shards and lots of small ones, they spread everywhere. She doesn’t move. He gets up and fetches the broom from the cupboard. He says that he isn’t angry, but she knows the card game is over.
They eat lunch in growing silence. The bigger it gets, the harder it is to break. She forgets to chew, just sits there with the fork in her hand. In her leaden mouth, her tongue is an immovable slug. Then she notices the photo of the dogs on the wall behind him, next to the barometer. She says what were your dogs called again Dad. She asks although she already knows. Zeus and Argos, and then he had Medea who died before she was five. He points at the photo and says that one is Zeus, who didn’t obey anyone but me, a rare black breed, smart and loyal, but he’s been dead for a long time. Argos was good too, but none was like Zeus.
“He never betrayed me,” says Dad, “not even when we crossed the fresh bear tracks in Porsön and he got the shivers, not even then did he run away, although he was shaking all over.”
Kore immediately asks about bears. Then about shivering and foaming.
Once they’ve eaten Dad shows her how to make a fire in the big fireplace downstairs. First he tears strips out of yesterday’s paper, then he makes a rectangle out of the thinnest sticks of kindling he can find, stacks them carefully on top of each other. And then he lights it.
Now everything that happened before is forgotten, because Dad loves the fire. He loves blowing on it and watching the flames eat into the wood, he loves the way the wood groans, and the black smoke that emerges when a living thing starts burning. He loves putting his hands almost close enough for them to catch fire, too. But Dad never gets burnt. He can nudge a burning piece of firewood, move his finger through the flame of a candle as if he were immortal.
At times like this he’ll occasionally take her out. This is my daughter, she’s finally arrived, he’ll tell all the neighbours they meet. Look how pretty she is. Look at her eyes, so like mine.
At other times she will feel, even before she goes into the kitchen in the morning, that it – something – has happened again. The small animals will feel it too. Titus’s ears will go tense and his eyes restless, the others will press against her legs, seeking shelter from the unknown being that at any moment might turn around with the face of a predator and a mouth full of teeth. Just seeing his back is enough, she can feel it in the air, the vibrations of his distorted blood circulation.
But it can also happen suddenly. Even if she is close by. Sometimes she knows why. If something breaks or if she forgets herself and says something about Mum. She has taught herself the signs, even the smallest ones. A facial twitch. The change in his voice. Sometimes it can be mended. If she’s quick. But each eruption only barely hides the promise of an even greater rage.
She imagines a butterfly-like man with a black cloak and antennae slowly descending from the ceiling towards Dad’s body as he sits reading the paper. When Dad feels the antennae on the nape of his neck and turns around, his eyes are filled with a dark dust from an evil star, and it’s this dust that turns her dad into the subterranean other. Into a heaviness that methodically sucks the oxygen from the house. She tries walking silently on the tips of her toes. The silver necklace hangs around her neck like a snare. The coldness of the metal numbs her skin.
She thinks about her promise.
After the Friday movie that night she can’t get away. A half-empty glass in hand, he turns to her with moist lips. His heavy breathing is machine-like, and the air around him pulsates when he fixes his eyes on her. A trembling mouse before the snake.
Why do you even come here, he starts chanting.
He looks at her from deep down, as if his gaze has slipped below the surface of his eyes. This is before he starts crying. That comes later, and it’s the worst. To begin with he hid his rage, let it grow in silence, a dough silently brimming over the edge. She had been focusing on the film, had probably sensed that something was tightening inside him, but not that it would happen so quickly. He must have started drinking earlier in the day. She hadn’t been paying enough attention.
His voice closes like a hand around her neck, intense, cruel, heavy. Why do you come here when you don’t even care. You just want presents, you don’t love me. I just give, and give, and you take. You’re not my princess anymore. You’re just as cold as her. She can’t speak. Sits on the edge of the armchair with all of her muscles tensed up.
The animals pull and drag at her, the whites of their eyes restless and gleaming, but she can’t move. She is caught in his gaze. Her father’s eyes are shiny and his cheeks oily, his mouth wet from saliva.
Kore’s lungs shrink inside her, she’s only exhaling now, nothing wants to go back inside.
“Are you too posh,” he slurs, setting his glass clumsily down on the table, “too posh to speak to your dad?”
For a moment his eyes lose focus, waver towards the dark window as a car drives past in the street. She is freed. The animals get her to her feet and drag her towards the staircase.
“Go on, get out of here!” he says and starts sobbing. “Just do it, leave me here alone … bloody scumbag …”
She doesn’t run, just walks quickly down the stairs. Remembers that her toothbrush is still upstairs. One single time doesn’t matter, that’s what Mum says. But Kore doesn’t want to think about her now, she turns the key and sits down on the bed to comfort her animals. Pets their fur slowly until they’ve stopped trembling. Long-fingers climbs up her arm and falls asleep on her shoulder. The others yawn and pile up on the blanket next to her, even Ivrahim. But Kore can’t sleep.
If she had a sister they would sit whimpering with their arms around one another. But when you’re alone, crying doesn’t help. The tiny pea has shot up in her throat like a choking lump she can’t get rid of, even though she keeps swallowing until her mouth goes dry. Her eyes on the lock of the door, she squeezes the key in her fist. But he’s got one too. In case there’s a fire. She listens for steps on the stairs, but he isn’t coming after her. After maybe twenty minutes she hears the front door slam shut. A bin falls over as he backs the car out. Then everything is quiet.
By half past eleven or so the next day she’s the meanest child in Norrbotten. It’s true. She’s sitting, sticky-fingered, at the kitchen table. Her dad is straight across from her in a dressing gown, just out of bed, his large body heavier than usual.
A viscous sour smell hovers in the air around him like a halo. Kore looks down at the table. Two halves of a pomegranate lie in front of her. They’re all around the house, placed in bowls, like bait. The heavy, meaty food in the fridge is hard to swallow, so this morning she took a piece of fruit. Cut it in two with a big knife from the second drawer. To begin with it didn’t taste any good, but she got used to it. The juice looks like blood on her hands and on the teaspoon she uses to scoop out the fruit. The pits are ruby-red like gemstones, they crackle as she chews. On the middle of her tongue lies a compressed mass that has grown to fill her mouth completely. She wants to go and spit it out in the sink. But she doesn’t. Because just then he enters the kitchen. Next to her on the table lies an old Bamse magazine that she brought up from the basement. It’s always the hardest thing, coming back upstairs. You never know what to expect. She doesn’t dare leaf through the magazine with her sticky hands. Still, it’s best not to move now. She is the meanest child in Norrbotten, deserting her own dad. Why doesn’t she say anything when he’s speaking to her? Finally she swallows down the sharp mass of seeds.
That day she and the animals keep to the basement. They are scared, don’t dare go upstairs with her, say there are other animals in the house that he let inside last night. Animals bigger than them, and older, and more dangerous. Her dad is mowing the lawn outside, she hears the distant sound of the mower through the narrow basement window just beneath the ceiling. The summer light gleams between the window slats. Just one week ago she was with Mum.
Kore sits with the animals on her lap and one on her shoulder, on the big corner sofa upholstered in grainy, dully shining black leather. On the shelf beside her his video tapes are lined up, she has watched almost all of them. Dad doesn’t like cartoons, so he usually translates the dialogue for her so that they can watch his films instead, but it’s hard to catch anything but the sharp sounds of echoing shots, the dark blood slowly covering the floor, the long nail digging into the wound until it dislodges a silver bullet, and the screams of the man as his steaming heart is torn right out of his chest.
Mum calls every Tuesday and Friday. The long piercing signals make Kore jump to her feet and start running. But when she picks up the voice is far away and scratchy. The little ball has begun aching more and more in her stomach again, and Kore has difficulty concentrating. She doesn’t answer Mum’s questions properly, and asks none of her own. Her ankles feel naked and cold up there. Only Titus and Masha have gone upstairs with her, though they stopped at the top step, now they’re crouching there, waiting for her to come back. Her dad is nowhere to be seen, the house holds its breath. Perhaps he’s standing with his back to an adjoining wall, listening.
“I miss you so much, my little sweetie,” says Katja.
Kore watches the slow dance of the dust motes in the ray of light from the kitchen window, without saying anything in reply. Soon they hang up.
That evening there is a party in the back garden with its dark vegetation and metallic lamps stuck into anything trying to live there, into tree trunks and into the ground. Taxi after taxi comes and drops people off: no one drives their own cars, everyone is going to drink and toast with her dad, together they raise their glasses towards the sky. A long table is set leading to a big fire into which he sticks small, flayed bodies, the sparks swirl around them like burning eyes in the night. The guests laugh and eat, with fatty, gleaming fingers and lips they shout for more between bites. And her dad chats and gurgles and drinks. Stands at the fire as if he were inside it. One eye an extinguisher, the other a lighter. He looks one by one at his guests until they start moving like waves. And when they break on Kore they grab at her with their fingers and the smell of meat steams at her neck, but she backs away, straight through an opening in the hawthorn hedge. On the other side of it the air is cool. There’s a little nook there, an arbour. She climbs into the neighbour’s old hammock and lies down, rocks it gently so that it won’t squeak. She brushes away the first mosquito that lands, but not the second.
Outside the sky is blue and the sun shines white in the clouds. Her dad tells her to lie down on the sofa in the living room. A stranger is standing next to him, a man he knows, a colleague named Kenneth. Dad pulls up her shirt and unbuttons her trousers for the man to examine her. His hands sink into her tummy in two places simultaneously. She’s ill again, in the end she had to say it. But the pain hides from the eyes of others. When Dad’s around it goes unnoticed, like everything else to do with her. She shakes her head when the man asks her if it hurts here, or here, or there. Kenneth moves his hands every time she says no. Dad’s mouth is tense.
“I’ve taken her everywhere over the years. Done an ultrasound, a gastroscopy.”
His colleague doesn’t notice the ball, doesn’t feel anything. It’s too small to be discovered. Impenetrable now, shiny, wet and black. They pull her trousers a bit further down to check the bottom of her tummy, exposing a few downy wisps of hair on her sex. Their eyes are immediately drawn there. A moist snake slithers through Kore’s insides, her hands break out into a cold sweat. Tense as a board, she clenches her jaws to be able to take the wave upon wave of shame breaking over her. But her dad and the other man seem relieved. The pressing on her tummy stops. Something premenstrual, probably. Puberty. Would have thought her too young, but anyway. They clumsily pull down her shirt again and shake hands. Kore pulls up her trousers and slips away.
As soon as she is out of the room she doubles over.
She has arranged all her presents on the shelf in her room. There’s nowhere to put the doll, so she holds it against her chest while looking around in indecision. Its blond hair is long as a grownup’s. Its eyes roll back into its head when she looks at it. She rests it like a baby on her arm and tries to catch hold of the eyelids, tries to close them. A shadow towers in the doorway. He is standing there, half visible. Between the wooden window slats, the sun is low and blinding. Almost gone. A glass hangs in his fingers, reflecting the light like amber.
“Do you have any milk for it,” he says with a smile.
Slowly her face slides off her, down into the abyss. There it continues to fall.
As soon as he’s gone, she hides the doll under some blankets in the wardrobe. Back in her room, she starts looking for her animals. Gets down on her knees and searches under the bed, raises the coverlet. Her eyes flit around the room, she runs into the hallway, to the room where the films are, to the bathroom, back to her own room. She can’t find them. Just the looks of the plastic animals on the shelf, so ingratiating with their painted-on smiles and synthetic fur. She touches her own face. Beneath the smooth layer of rubber it feels bumpy, like fuse-dried particles of coal directly on her skull.
She rubs and rubs.
That evening everything accelerates quickly and infinitely slowly at the same time. She knows it’s already too late. The blood fruit, the verbal agreement and Dad’s crying, swollen face.
“After all, it’s not like I’ve raped you,” he says after a pause.
She doesn’t know why he says it, where it comes from. So that idea is there, inside him? That look? Suddenly she can feel it, she feels nothing else anymore. And he said it in his own defense. As if to say that if he had actually done it she would have had the law on her side. It would have been possible to examine her, there would be traces. But no one can find the black ball, it’s invisible to everyone.
She flees like a hare, as she always does. Down the hole, down underground.
She wakes up in the night to find herself standing still in the middle of her dark room. She is trying to catch something. A sound she heard. A distant, cold sound, like metal against china. Against teeth. She’s heard it before, but doesn’t know where it comes from. The room is filled with tentative shadows that shrink and grow. She walks slowly to the door, follows the walls of the hallway. The open toilet door is an oblong, gaping hole of darkness, she continues past it, onwards, like a sleepwalker, mechanically, her eyes blurred, as if she were under water. Or inside the earth. She can feel the weight of the soil, feel it pressing against the walls and the roof. Faint clammy sounds are all that are heard when she raises her night-sweaty feet from the floor: she knows exactly where to step so the floorboards won’t creak. As if she’s woken up in the night a thousand times before, heard a sound and gotten up to check what it was. Right in front of her is the door to the study, now near, now far away. It pulsates to and fro. A streak of light falls out, the door is ajar, it’s usually always locked. She gets a glimpse of him inside, big and heavy, bent over something. And then she’s right there near him. The sight of his back makes the air harder to breathe, a heavy, wet sheet tightens around her chest, and the air she inhales is suddenly cold, as if she’s eaten a throat lozenge, she tries not to breathe in the air too noisily, the least sound will make him turn around and stare at her with shining eyes, chemically green in the thick darkness. His broad back is just meters away from her now, he’s wearing his doctor’s coat, rocking from side to side as if laughing, his elbows jut out to the side every now and then. He is stooped over something, she can’t see what. He is wearing white plastic gloves, and next to him lies a white tray of metal implements. There are tongs, pliers, scalpels – he moves quicker, drops one tool, takes another – the used ones are bloody and now Kore’s feet are moving towards him of their own accord, slowly, as if against the current.
And then she sees what is lying in front of him on the table.
She sees it. She sees.
She presses her hands against her mouth so as not to scream, but her knees bend and wobble at the sight of the pleading eyes radiating towards her from the table, those eyes that will never refuse, never speak out, never say no, just yes, yes, yes, do what you want with me! She sees the childlike, little look in those eyes, entreating, pitiful, pathetic. And she backs out of the room, step by step, shh, quiet, quiet, doesn’t let go of her mouth, the eyes, those eyes, the worst of all eyes. In the hallway she turns around and runs away, doesn’t care about being heard any more, she just has to get out of there, get back to her room in time, but it’s already far too late.
Where courage comes from, no one knows.
But eventually it comes.
Early in the morning she quietly calls the animals, tries one last time. This time they appear, the ones that are left. Just two have survived. Titus’s gaze is empty as she strokes his back with her index finger. He seems unharmed. Ivrahim has gone blind in both eyes, as if someone has scorched him with a white-hot poker. Kore lifts them gently into her backpack and steals away. She passes all the houses, only one neighbor is awake. On his way from the mailbox he hesitantly raises his hand to greet her. At the bus stop she mechanically takes out her money. For seven kronor she gets a ticket. When she gets off at the station in her mother’s town she goes straight to the phone booth, lets three more kronor drop, and then she dials the number for home.
“Are you sure?” her mum asks, when they’re sitting in the car.
But Kore says nothing. How can anyone be sure.
Later everything is quiet, not a sound is heard from her father’s realm. He doesn’t demand that she return, doesn’t send anyone to collect her. But every night she waits. To see someone outside the window, a long finger extended towards her, digging into her flesh, digging until it pulls out her steaming heart and breaks it open like a piece of fruit.
In her memories of him, all his power has drained away. If she closes her eyes she can see him, sees him sitting in his house at night. The lamp switched off, the only light touching him the light that falls in through the windows from the street lamps outside.
His eyes are dry. Because when you’re alone, crying doesn’t help. The cylindrical glass. Always meticulous about coasters to prevent ring-shaped stains on his coffee table from Switzerland. She remembers him buying it, how proud he was. He wanted everything he bought afterwards to match it. The rounded two-seaters in the colour of a dark-green avocado skin, the paintings in beige, dark brown, a similar green hue and a few wine-red splashes. Handed-down silver candlesticks on the walls. He never lit them, worried about getting spots of wax on the clear wooden floor.
She can picture him sitting there all by himself. Sitting there looking at nothing. The street light in his eye, his speckled, cloudy eye.
Then for a long time she tries to pretend that he doesn’t exist. Tries to forget the basement, his turned back, his stealthy car. That all those things never existed and belong to one of the thousands of evil stories that flow out of every book she touches. Because all the books she reads are about him, all the films. He still has that power. And sometimes she thinks she can see him driving past in his silvery car. She always feels totally cold, as if she’s been immersed in dark water. The moment when it seeps through her clothes. Sometimes she thinks he’s spying on her. That his tearful rage has changed into a fixation. That he’s become psychotic, delirious and wild-eyed, drives around in his car searching day and night all the way across the border into brighter lands. That he has started behaving strangely even among others, started showing other people who he really is. Missed the board meetings and finally lost his position at the clinic. And at night his neighbours can now see a strange greenish glow emanating from his basement window. Poisonous vapours steaming from every crack. The basement rebuilt as a laboratory.
And there he sits.
Night after night, chanting incantations to draw her towards him. To bind her. His eyes have become black hollows. From the blackness comes a sickly light. And then the little black ball inside her starts aching, wakes from its slumber and answers. Yes, Dad! I’m coming! Steam rises from the ball and right through her body, unobstructed, as if her flesh were a screen full of holes. Rises up to her eyes so that all she can see is mist. Inside it, a land of shadows emerges, with mud eyes and beasts of prey and tree crowns forming a black ceiling above her head. She did promise him. The ball remains, and inside the ball her father, a condensed, stunted version in which the essential is magnified, engraved and forever unchanging.
Whenever everything else is moving away, his face hovers in front of her. It is the only thing she can see. As if he has been sitting behind her all this time, in the dark. Waiting for her to stop running and turn around, to finally understand that he will never leave. That she is, and forever will remain, his little queen. He is not someone you leave, but someone you come to. And he will stand up and take her, fill her with the old.
With childhood again.
And so it came to be that she created her own kingdom, one more desolate than his. She is alone there. And though her kingdom may be new, it is also ancient. Because someone lived here a long time ago. The traces lie hidden in the moss. They have continually sunk deeper, become one of the treasures of the layers of soil.
This kingdom is the first and only landscape she has got to know. Her father’s face. There she stays. Waiting for the least twitch or tension, so that she can seek shelter in time.
She can see her footprints in the furrows along his face in which round tears used to drown all life. Now the ground is dried out, and the tracks in the dry clay have cracked. She finds her way into the eyebrows, but they offer no protection from the sun. Her feet sink into his cheeks like in quicksand.
The most secure place is at the tip of his cheekbone, at the edge of the forest on his temple. That’s how it used to be, and that’s how it is now. Some days she considers letting herself drop, when the silence inside is too resounding. But the height is dizzying. So instead she decides on the opposite, a journey within. The black ear hole.
Should I call out? she wonders for a moment, but finds it safest to enter first, down the hollow that leads deep inside, behind the mask where she’s been living until now. So she jumps. Inside the ear canal her steps echo like drops in a cavern. She continues inwards, but slips – glides downwards, downwards, until all light has vanished.
She starts to hear a terrifying sound, dull, rhythmical. Its strength increases as she reaches the edge of the throat. The wind beats against her, softer across her back, more intensely on its way back up. She squats down and tries to climb down his tracheal rings, but with just half her body below the ledge a cough jumbles everything, and she falls headlong.
She falls, falls further.
Life is now just a fall.
She lands with a thud on an elastic membrane. In the middle there is a tightly laced opening, and in the stomach below her acid is splashing. Down here the sound is louder, and she knows where to go. With her back to the wall, she starts pushing her arms into the softness. At first there is resistance, then the wall gives way. Maybe he knows. Maybe he can feel her now. For a long time she crawls through the tissue, the sound is dulled, the flesh is shaking. Then she feels her fingers pass through, into something else. An empty space. She grabs hold of the edges and pulls her body through.
The ear-splitting beats are slung at her.
And there it is. The machine. Blackened red, convulsive. Dad’s heart. She had always imagined it to be so much smaller, hardly visible to the naked eye. But she was wrong. It’s gigantic.
She tries to squeeze her leg inside it, but the muscle beats violently, repelling her. So she takes a run-up and jumps straight at it, her legs and arms outstretched. Fastens onto it with a sucking sound, forces her face straight through the muscle wall – and, like magic, her body slips through.
On the inside everything is quiet.
There is no wind, since no wind exists here. Is this it. Is there only this darkness here.
But then something comes floating towards her. A body, a small one. Sleeping. Swaddled in cloth, it drifts closer.
It is a child.
Is it me? she thinks. Is that me floating in your heart?
She wants to recognize herself in the child’s face. But its features are so plain that she forgets them in the blink of an eye. Like a picture in a frame before you replace it with your own.
After that, she tries to write a letter to him, but she just sounds and expresses herself like a small child, doesn’t know what she wants to say. Or how she wants him to respond. After all, she is the one who left. She glues a dried flower to it, a light blue forget-me-not. But she doesn’t send the letter. It sounds too helpless, too pleading. Something else is needed.
As the years pass, she starts dreaming of becoming tall and terrifying. Cool, patient, powerful. And she dreams of the day when he’ll finally come begging. She won’t even react when he enters, but will finish writing her very long sentence instead, calmly put away her pen and look at him with an expressionless face.
Only this, after his long journey to catch a glimpse of his lost child. Yes? And he will tremble before her, he’ll be anxious, but at the same time filled with wonder at her transformation. From a ten-year-old slip of a child with tear-heavy eyelashes to this being – so collected, so dangerous. With calm eyes she will watch him put forward his request for reconciliation, and she will let him finish speaking without interruption, then say with a honey-coated voice:
“For people like you there is no mercy.”
This “people like you” has been carefully thought out, since it shows that she knows him to be of a certain type – someone who always cared more about himself than his own child. This single sentence would make him understand, regret. And then the dust would vanish, the thicket of thorns around his house would dry up and scatter in the wind. Everything would be different.
It had to end like this.
But time passes. And he doesn’t come.
Nothing is as it should be.
Finally she goes to him, in secret, disguised. This time she goes there alone, in a borrowed car that can accelerate quickly. He has a new position at a clinic in one of the grey tower blocks in the centre of town. But the town looks different now. Like any other town, with a mall and a car park and a pond with a fountain in the middle. No one cares about her, or even recognizes her. She pulls off her cap and looks around in the pale afternoon light.
The trip reveals two things: He has acquired a new car and a new family. A new wife and a little daughter. Kore hardly looks at him, in fact, for as soon as she notices the new child that he lifts out of the car seat in the back and goes into the toy shop hand-in-hand with, she doesn’t have eyes for anyone else. The girl – small and light-haired with corkscrew curls and blinking eyes – doesn’t look like Kore at all. Like a dirty old man she stands hidden, staring at the sweet child. The child whom she, at the first opportunity, will catch in a black sack and carry into the forest. Cut her hair off. Drown her in some pool. And when the search party finds the dead little girl, she will be all pale and covered in mud, her locks straightened into ugly tangles.
But that would also be wrong, since Dad would cry and raise his hands to the heavens. And he would hold the dead child in his arms and gently rock her as if she were just sleeping, but her dark blue eyes would be staring blindly straight ahead.
Kore, squatting behind a stump or an uprooted tree, would see everything, and she would know that doing this had not made anything better, since now he would grieve his beloved child forever, the child who never betrayed him. And when Kore then looks down at her own hands, they are covered in grey, slimy scales, earth-spattered, with rough claws instead of nails.
She opens her mouth to shout, but no sound emerges. A reptilian click in her throat, that’s all. Once the new wife has gone to do some errands and her dad drives away with the child, Kore follows the car out of town, to his domain. The river is steel-grey, lifeless, empty. Then she is back at his house, just look how easy it was. He is waiting for her in the drive, as if he has known all along.
“Now, come and say hello,” he says immediately, as she watchfully steps out of the car.
He waves his hand gently, and she follows him, as she always has done. Then he shows her inside, where her little sister sits playing with Kore’s old toys. The black plastic horse, the doll, the wheel, the bracelets, the boxes. The marbles, the puzzle and the other animals.
“Now she’s finally here,” Dad calls out, loud enough for the girl to jump.
Kore asks him to stop, says that he’s scaring her, but he just laughs it off. Then they stand watching as the child places her plastic animals in a ring around her, at perfect angles. The animals look at the girl with frightened plastic eyes, until she gets angry and kicks them over. Dad takes Kore into the living room and offers her juice – she would rather have coffee, but he doesn’t care about that.
He hasn’t changed at all.
And as she sits there, on the very edge of the sofa, glancing at the nursery, her fingers clutched tightly at the glass so that he can see that she still bites her nails, just like before, he opens his mouth to speak.
And he says: When I was born my dad planted a tree that would grow in step with me, so that when I died the tree could be chopped down for the growth rings to be counted, and I would get to see how many years of my life I had lived happily. For trees only grow then, that’s what my dad told me.
“Is the tree still there?” asks Kore.
But then his face disappears into a black hole that sucks everything towards it, a vacuum mouth tearing at her clothes, tearing at her skin. With his hole of a face, he starts growing, turns a bluish grey, swells up towards the ceiling until his neck gets bent into a corner of the room. He squeezes her out of the room, she has to run to get away, to avoid getting sucked back into the hole. Something moves up through her throat, something burning, a small black ball that’s sucked out of her body and disappears, as she grabs hold of the door frame just in time and manages to pull herself out of the room. She throws open the front door and is outside.
On her way to the car she does see the tree, standing in the shade of the house. A pitiful sort of plant, she had never noticed it before. It has a sickly pale trunk and strangely dark-red flowers. And from the tree comes a quiet whistling, it follows her into the car and lies down on the rubber mat beneath her feet, like an animal that has been lost for a long time but has finally found its way home.
*Editor of translation: Alex Fleming
In the early nineties, The Beach of The Dead was little more than a greyish strip at one end of Boca del Rio, Veracruz’ twin city. Its burning sands were covered in spiny scrubs festooned with dead branches and bottles of chlorine that washed up during storms. It wasn’t a very popular or beautiful beach (not that any in Veracruz really fit that description): sometimes – during peak tides or heavy storms – the beach disappeared completely and the waves washed right over the breakwaters and onto the road between the two cities. Local people tended to avoid it: every year dozens of foolhardy souls, from Mexico City mostly, met their deaths in its treacherous waters. Signs hung only a few feet away from the water’s edge forbidding people from swimming while another less literate one read: ‘Danger: poolz’ underneath a lurid drawing of a skull. The powerful current that pushed the river up towards Antón Lizardo Point – home of the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar – burrowed into the breakwaters of The Beach of The Dead, leaving deep rock pools in which a grown man could easily drown.
I was nine when I saw the lights, which glowed like fireflies against the dark sea. The other witness was my brother Julio, who was six and a half. We were digging up the home of a celeste crab with a stick when we noticed a glow in the sky: five bright shining lights hovering over our heads. Then they flew inland, towards the estuary.
“Did you see that?” Julio asked, pointing towards the horizon.
“Of course, I’m not blind.”
“What was it?”
“A spaceship,” I told him.
But when we ran back to the campfire, none of the adults would hear us out. Not even our parents. They refused to listen and shooed us away from the fire and the group sitting around it.
On that Thursday, the eleventh of July, no one was thinking about the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall… the fire and brimstone that was shattering Eastern Europe into pieces seemed a very long way away. Another raid by the Sendero Luminoso? People in the south dying of typhoid and dengue fever? No one cared about any of that: Mexico’s eyes were fixed on the skies, waiting for the miracle that would turn the sun into a ring of fire and reduce the moon to a large black circle. The TV showed nothing but shots of the sky and the crowds waiting for the total eclipse in squares, being careful not to look directly at the sun, just as the news had warned them.
In Mexico City, south of the ring road, Guillermo Arreguín was filming the sky from his balcony. He wasn’t interested so much in the eclipse’s climax as the planets and stars that he’d read would shine far more brightly in the untimely gloom. At the critical moment, Arreguín panned to the right. That was when he filmed the ‘shining object’.
That night, the video was being shown on the 24 Hour News channel. By Saturday the thirteenth, an article in La Prensa was describing it as a ‘solid metal object’ surrounded by ‘silver rings’; but the term ‘extra-terrestrial’ wouldn’t make its triumphant appearance until Friday the nineteenth on the programme ‘So… What do you think?’ whose subject that week was the supposed presence of aliens on Earth (the live debate lasted a record eleven hours and ten minutes). On it, a ufologist (as he insisted on describing himself) called Maussán claimed to have collected fifteen additional recordings made by different people during the eclipse. He stated that the videos had been subjected to tests that proved that the ‘object’ recorded in them was indeed a spaceship.
Thus began the UFO craze in Mexico. That summer I learned everything I needed to know on the subject: abductions, conspiracies, the building of the Great Pyramid, crop circles in the UK… All this fascinating information reached me via two sources: the television (or rather Mr Maussán’s videos of Lights in the Sky) and the tons of comic books I consumed each week. When it came to comics I was sickeningly sentimental: I liked Archie, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck and Condorito and that was it. But the rag I most hankered after at the newspaper kiosk was Semanario de lo Insólito (Amazing Stories Weekly), an anthology of human morbidity, a cult to horror, an uncritical encyclopaedia of doctored photography. Even now, I can recall some of its more eye-catching stories: the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands; the primary school teacher with a third eye at the base of her skull that she used to spy on her pupils; the silhouette of a hanged Judas in the eyes of an ayate basket Virgin Mary; and of course the autopsy of the alien body in the small gringo town of Roswell.
Thanks to all this edifying research I learned at the tender age of nine that the strange light I’d seen on The Beach of The Dead could be nothing else but an interplanetary spaceship crewed by small grey super-intelligent creatures who had managed to circumvent the laws of physics. And that they could well be coming to warn us about a cataclysm that was about to destroy the earth now that the end of the millennium was approaching and people were killing each other and getting involved in stupid wars and spilling oil over poor defenceless pelicans. Maybe they were looking for someone who could understand them, someone to whom they could bequeath their science and secrets. Maybe they were lonely, wandering the cosmos in their plasma and silicon ships on an unending quest to find a welcoming planet, new worlds, new homes and new friends in distant galaxies.
After what we saw on the beach, Julio and I decided that we needed to keep an eye on the sky. Maybe we’d be taken more seriously if we recorded some evidence. The problem was that dad refused to lend us his camera.
“How can you be stupid enough to believe in that rubbish? At your age?” he’d say when he saw us glued to the TV screen trying to decipher the mysterious symbols being left by flying saucers in British wheat fields.
Dad hated Maussán. He couldn’t stand the sight of him, let alone having to hear him repeat his stories over and over again. He threatened to take away the VCR.
“Can’t you see he’s a stoner?”
Poor dad, he just didn’t understand. We felt sorry for him. Mum was different; she and a friend of hers took us back to The Beach of The Dead one night so we could look for the UFO.
There was a full moon and the water reflected the silvery light like a giant mirror. But everything had changed since the last time we were there: the beach was full of people and cars. Dozens of teenage bodies were draped over the breakwaters and piled up around campfires made from the dry scrubs. Their cars packed the sandy parking lot, so close to the shore that the salt water splashed their tires. The murmur of the wind was drowned out by their burping, honking, and Soda Stereo cassettes. Lovers lay on the hoods of their cars, shielding their faces from camera flashes. I saw men from the television setting up steel tripods to film the sky. I saw fat women plowing through the dunes. Whiny little kids with sticky popsicle fingers pointed at the sky asking: “Mummy, when is the UFO coming?”
“This sucks,” Julio exclaimed in disappointment.
Then, without another word, he ran off to play a game of night tag with some other boys. I regarded this as a cowardly betrayal.
A few hours later, I was falling asleep. I went back to my mother and curled up on her lap. Her breath smelled of wine and her fingers of cigarettes. She was talking to her friend about the UFO: apparently lights – red and white ones – could be seen in the distance but I couldn’t keep my eyes open a second longer.
“All this fuss for a narco plane,” said mum.
“But it’s a good excuse for a party,” her friend replied cheerfully.
The first reports of strange aerial activity over the municipalities of Sotavento (Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Alvarado and Tlalixcoyan, among others) date back to 1989. The inhabitants of these rural territories, farmers and ranchers, often saw lights at night. The oldest among them called them witches, everyone else called them light aircraft. They even knew the name of the strip where the planes landed, a stretch of barren scrubland and villainy that was kept under constant surveillance by the army: La Víbora.
It was a plain surrounded by marshes, a natural landing strip. The residents of Tlalixcoyan were used to seeing soldiers on their land: the strip was used by the army for special manoeuvres. So no one was surprised at the end of October, 1991, when gangs of men arrived to clear the scrubland with machetes.
A week later, on the morning of the seventh of November that year, the Army, the Federal Police and a Cessna from Colombia were involved in a bloody skirmish that only just made it past the government censors: members of the 13th Infantry Battalion opened fire on seven federal agents getting out of a King Air in pursuit of a Cessna that had been detected off the Nicaraguan Coast by the US Customs Service. The propeller plane, which was assumed to belong to smugglers, landed on the La Víbora strip at 6:50 in the morning, followed by the federal aircraft. The smugglers, a man and a woman, abandoned it and its cargo of three hundred and fifty-five kilos of cocaine and fled into the undergrowth while two columns of soldiers neutralized the federal agents with a withering burst of fire.
I remember two photos of the incident that appeared in the local newspaper, the Nottiver: in one of them seven men were lying in a row face down on the grass. They were the agents that had been gunned down that Thursday, the seventh of December by elements of the army. Five of them were dressed in dark clothing; the other two were dressed as peasants, although they wore black jackets now dirtied with mud and grass. None of them was wearing shoes.
The second photograph showed someone sitting on the ground with a rifle barrel very close to his face. The man, who was wearing a vest with the Federal Police logo on it, was staring straight into the lens. His tongue was swollen, his lips frozen mid-spasm. He was the only survivor of the massacre.
It was December, or maybe January or February, when I saw those photos in the old newspaper I’d spread out on the floor of the patio to wrap up the dry leaves I’d swept up. It must have been around then – when the north wind blows the leaves from the almond trees – because I had the (daily) chore of clearing the damn things from the patio. I remember seeing the images and reading some of the columns in the crime section spread out on the ground (I also remember asking my mother what ‘rape’ meant that night) but it would be more than a decade before I was able to put the photographs together with the UFO I saw on the beach, a vessel transporting cocaine, not aliens.
The municipal government forbade people from visiting the area during the months following the massacre so I didn’t get back to The Beach of The Dead until late 1992. By then it had lost all its charm. New breakwaters had claimed back more land from the sea and it was swarming with hawkers and tourists: they’d even got rid of the sign with the skull. Years later they renamed it: Beach of The Rings.
I don’t think I ever believed in anything as fervently as I had believed in UFOs. Not the Tooth Fairy or the Headless Horseman (my father told me that he appeared every night at Horn Beach searching for his errant skull, which had been blown off by a cannon) or the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands and especially not Father Christmas or God. It was all your parents, it was all made up by grown-ups.
People who live in the area say that on moonless nights, strange colored lights cross the sky on their way to the plains. But I have no further interest in aliens. That chubby little intergalactic vigilante is no more, just like The Beach of The Dead, and the foolhardy idiots who drowned there.