Laia Jufresa almost certainly doesn’t consider herself a proponent of lo real maravilloso or "marvellous real" (the strand of literature coined by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, and whose main tenet is that the marvellous or extraordinary can be found in everyday life without a writer having to introduce supernatural or magical elements), but “Back to the Land” – a peculiar, unsettling story with its undeniably surreal elements – certainly shares one fundamental quality with lo real maravilloso: the extraction of marvellous, surprising and even jolting elements from realistic, recognizable characters, but without ever tipping into magical realism. Jufresa takes a more or less ordinary setting, a relatable mother-and-daughter relationship, and a coming of age portrait of an initially run-of-the-mill teenage girl, and through her keen sensibility and great powers of observation, she shows the extraordinary and marvellous elements (both sinister and delightful) to their lives. We are invited to marvel at them.
We only learned about the curse three months after Mom had sold our apartment, bought this land, and unceremoniously upped and moved us here. The Land came with a rudimentary house, mature trees that plied us with ripe fruit once a year, a latrine out the back, and a well at the northernmost edge of the plot. Barbed-wire fencing marked out the perimeter of our new world. Mom’s initial plan had been to renovate the house as soon as we got there, but during those first few months, perhaps because at that point the inside wasn’t so different from the outside or perhaps out of pure romanticism, we often slept in the no man’s land that was our backyard.
Soon into our new life, Mom got it into her head that she would study the sky. At night we’d take blankets and pillows out to a clearing in the woods where she would gaze up at the stars trying to match them with the charts in her books, intoning the names of the constellations under her breath like a prayer. Hydra, Fornax, Carina: they became characters in the stories I’d tell myself before falling asleep. Later, the frosty dawn would coerce us back to the house, where Mom would carry me to bed, often beaming with sheer delight.
In the middle of what turned out to be our last night out in the open, Mom began screaming. I woke up screaming in turn, the fear taking hold of my brain before I was even awake. I didn’t see the beast. Mom has always sworn blind that she did. She swears she saw it and that it was a fox. Never mind the fact that no one has ever seen a fox in these parts.
In a single motion, Mom whipped the case off her pillow and bound it around her hand.
“Alcohol,” she said. “Now!” I sprinted back to the house, found the alcohol, then sprinted back to the clearing. The moon was on our side that night. Mom snatched the bottle from me and unscrewed the cap with her teeth. More than the blood, more than the almost contagious fear and pain, it was seeing her open that bottle with her teeth, spit out the cap, then lavishly pour the liquid over the wound that really terrified me—the terror of this new, untamed version of her. But when the alcohol soaked through the material and finally hit her skin, Mom collapsed to her knees. And, for me, sensing she was back among us fragile little humans was a relief.
I felt around for our shoes and put them on both of us as if I were older than my seven years—as if I’d done it many times before. Then Mom stood up and began walking toward the clearing leading to the mud steps that met the road. I followed her. Then I grew angry and stopped where I was. I was getting left behind, which made no sense to the spoiled little girl that I was.
“It’s only a nightmare,” I told her. “Stop so it goes away. Stop walking!” I sobbed. Up until that night my tears had never failed to do the trick, but Mom didn’t so much as turn around.
“Stay there on that step until I come back,” she ordered before stumbling off into the distance with her bandaged left arm pressed to her chest. I stayed there for a few minutes, my eyes shut tight, concentrating on waking up. Then I panicked and dashed up the slippery steps all the way to the road. The pale light of the streetlamp gave me a glimmer of hope, but, as I approached, the image of Mom spread-eagled on the ground under it pouring with sweat was anything but comforting. Her moans and whimpers were quieter now but just as terrible. She tried to smile at me, but her face quaked with the effort. Now she looked too frail, like a thing with broken wings, like those little fallen birds in the woods I often came upon and which guilt always forced me to rescue.
I took charge. When at last a car drove by I flagged it down waving my arms in the air. I can’t remember anything about the driver, only the lights of his car and the feeling of it being my first real adult interaction, but also of registering it as such, even in the middle of such a critical emergency. I clung to Mom and held up her makeshift bandage the whole way because I was embarrassed at the idea of leaving blood on our savior’s backseats. The landscape around here has changed a lot since those days—the road is now lined with houses and properly lit almost all the way into town. But there’s one particular bend in the road that always brings back the memory—not even a memory, really, more like a feeling, a tingle at the back of my neck—of that night and the moment I thought to myself for the first time: she is going to die.
Mom did not die. The man drove us to the clinic in town where kind, now-hazy people looked after us. But she did lose quite a bit of her left hand, and in its place, alongside the scar, grew an almost unhealthy determination. She went to war. I looked on from the trenches, unable to pick sides. Mom kept up her personal battle with the Land for many years, and I fought for both camps.
Slowly but surely, her dream of going back to the land turned sour. She toiled out in the fields under the sun until every bit of her energy was spent. She sewed at night by oil lamp and wouldn’t stop until she had finished whatever it was she was working on, no matter how sloppy her stitching or how many times the needle pricked the remaining fingers of her left hand. She still had her thumb, index, and some of the middle finger, and, a year after the beast had bitten off the rest, Mom had trained herself to do everything with those three digits. It was Mom against the Land; and the Land was armed and determined to win. It threw everything it had at us—floods and mold, frosts and ants—but Mom withstood it all.
The years passed, and Mom grew so resilient that at times we thought the war was over. She bought a goat, a rooster, and six hens. We baked bread and made plum jam, and she taught me to read and write. We sold more and more of our produce in the market, and, with a steady enough income now, were able to install electricity and running water. But even during those periods of peace—when I’d come home from school to a tranquil mother, one who wrote poetry and made cheese on top of everything else—the curse still affected us in subtle but devilish ways.
On first sight our lemons looked wonderful, but inside they were desiccated. It didn’t matter what we did, the lemons clung to their juice, some unknown force sucking them dry just as one of us sliced them open. Lemons were always Mom’s favorite fruit, which is why she never let the matter drop, despite all the apples and plums that thrived on our land. “A lemon a day,” she would drill into me during those early lessons in rural hygiene, “will keep your immune system strong, your armpits nice and fresh.” But we had to buy our lemons, and that drove her insane.
In my last year of elementary school, we bought a pair of rabbits for them to reproduce accordingly. But they only bore two little bunnies, one of which died. As Mom chuckled away at the irony—that laugh of hers that tended to morph seamlessly into tears—I held the dead bunny in my hand and was once again reminded of our curse. I had kidded myself into thinking it was all over, that the Land had forgiven us. But that was the naïve, urban side of me talking, the side I then vowed to give up. I was a child of the Land now, and the Land had a godlike privilege, a cruel but rightful sense of entitlement. It was bigger than us; it had been there long before us. The fox, the lemons, the rabbit, and, later, the rooster, all of them were mere amusements. We were the Land’s servants, its playthings. Pawns on its mighty board, across which we tried in vain to maneuver. I buried the dead bunny and vowed never again to underestimate the Land’s warped sense of humor.
One winter Mom got an overwhelming urge to dance. She’d always danced—as a little girl and right up until she moved us to the Land. I had taken weekly classes, too, back in the city. In no time dancing was the only thing we could talk about, as if, now that the basic commodities were covered, our need for artistic expression had reawakened. This made perfect sense to me, since in school our teacher had explained in no uncertain terms how humans had come to be a sedentary species: we’d gone from nomadic hunter-gatherers to landowning farmer-artists as quickly as we students could turn the pages in our textbooks from one chapter to the next.
By that time we had electricity, a pick-up truck, and a comfortable home, but our life was still decidedly basic. Mom isn’t one to give up on an idea easily, so come spring she announced that we were going to build a dance studio. I was over the moon. I must have been eleven or twelve and had already developed into the feral creature I am today, but sometimes, especially on Sundays, a knot would tighten in my chest and something at once inside and outside of me would squeeze hard, strangling me. A dumb but nonetheless crushing nostalgia. I missed a life I could barely remember—a potential life, the one we’d renounced—and all the things we’d had to sacrifice in order to go back to the land: Mom’s hand, of course, and also a time when she’d worn heels and taught at the university. And then there was the zoo, skate rinks, and, yes, why not, ballet classes. Surely the city kids my age didn’t spend their Sundays gripped with despair. Why would they, when they had cinemas and siblings and paved streets to cycle on.
The prospect of having an empty space entirely devoted to dance became sacred. I drew up the plans. Mom calculated costs. We hired two men who dug the foundations and then began to build. They worked every morning, and gradually the studio began to take shape. Every Saturday, after selling our wares in the market, we would buy more bricks, rebars, and cement. Mom let me travel in the back of the truck with all the building materials. The town ironsmith forged two long barres for us. Once we’d laid the wooden floor we fixed the barres to two opposing mirrored walls. A third wall had a door in it and was painted blue. The fourth wall was missing. We’d used up our budget on the mirrors, and Mom didn’t want to seal the studio with a wall—she wanted to use glass. She wanted to dance with a view. Eventually, the workmen stopped coming and we began using the studio. We knew we’d have to fit the missing glass pane before the rainy season came, but the bugs and bats and drafts weren’t going to stop our wild artistic urges.
We picked up a record player at a flea market and, in a modest private ceremony, gave it pride of place in one corner of the studio. Our dancing became something of a ritual. Mom would choose a record from her small collection in the house and then we’d walk down together to the studio. We got used to going in through the hole where the missing wall should have been. I don’t think we ever used the door. Mom would put on the record and we would twirl freely around the room, not stopping for breath. It wasn’t ballet, it wasn’t anything at all, just pure movement and freedom and trust. We rolled and twirled and jumped and arched and pirouetted until the small needle stopped journeying around its vinyl lake. Then we lay there for a while, all covered in sweat, all full of faith.
One evening, when I was thirteen, Mom and I came back from lunch with some friends on their farm. We were in good spirits, with full bellies and a basket of homemade bread and lemons. (Our friends always gave us a share of their lemons because they knew that ours were cursed.) While I parked the pick-up, which I’d already been driving for a year, Mom turned to me and asked, “May I have this dance?” in her perfect English, which she reserved for that question and one other, “Fancy a cuppa, my dear?”
“Why, darling, I would love some!” I’d reply, despite not having really learned English, because English is for city kids with airports and libraries.
I put away the food from the basket. Mom picked out a record. Then we both changed into our dance clothes—two pairs of old pajamas. Night was falling, and the mosquitoes attacked us the whole half a kilometer from the house to the studio.
“We’ll shake them off dancing,” Mom said. But then one of us turned on the light and our life, the beautiful life we’d taken such pains to build, was over. Just like that.
Our rooster, our handsome old rooster, lay dead—or dying—on the wooden floor. His eyes closed. His spurs torn to shreds. You could see bits of bright pink flesh in open gashes on his feet. The blood on the mirror had dried brown. The floorboards were splattered in it, too, and there was an awful stench. The rooster had escaped from the pen, wandered into the studio, and discovered his reflection in the mirror. Believing his own image to be a rival rooster, he’d attacked it. Over and over again. The explanation slowly dawned on us: the idiot had pecked his reflection to death, blindly waged a war against himself. Upon realizing this, Mom turned a shade I’d never seen, the sort of paleness they talk about in books—the livid greenish-gray of literary invalids. She seemed paralyzed, too, so it was I who had to go up to the bird and then announce, “He’s cold.” Sensing that the scene had set some cogs in the deepest part of Mom’s brain in motion, I added, “It doesn’t mean anything. These things happen.” But neither of us believed that, and those cogs made their final, fatal turn.
Mom made up her mind to save up and buy the glass to seal the studio once and for all. She packed a bag, let them know in the city she’d be needing somewhere to stay, and left. I haven’t seen her since. She writes, of course, but she’s never been back. She doesn’t visit. I’m not even angry any more. I’ve gotten used to it. And, besides, I think the Land had had it in for Mom for a long time. The Land called her, but it was me it really wanted. She was just a necessary evil, a means to an end, as the Land summoned another loyal servant. I’ve accepted my fate, but Mom still feels guilty enough to lie to me. She says she’s saving up her pay from the courses she teaches at her old university, her “alma mater” as she calls it. She says “things just fell into place” when she reached the city. And she says it as if we had somehow been asking for things to fall into place, as if we hadn’t already become the wild women she’d striven to make us. As if we were mere tourists on the Land, city-dwelling rural weekenders, urban dust blown temporarily astray. She can speak for herself.
She also says I should go visit her, and sometimes I think I should. But then harvest comes around, and I can’t just up and leave my land, so the years we don’t see one another mount up. I lie to her, too, in my letters. I tell her I drive to school every day and that this year I’ll be finishing. But, of course, I haven’t been to school in years. My corn, the apples, the hens, they won’t look after themselves. And my produce has to be good come market day. Nice and fresh. A tang to my cheese and a crunch to my cookies, just like Mom taught me. There’s a lot of competition these days, what with so many people moving into the area, new homes springing up like mushrooms, city slickers with their roaring cars and huge antennae on their rooftops. And then there’s my house, which never did get renovated and needs constant repairs.
The studio is still missing a wall, which means a lot of my energy goes into keeping the rain and animals out. It goes without saying that all the hard work is worth it to have such a holy, beautiful place. I take proper care of the studio. There’s not a trace of that foul scene the stupid rooster left behind all those moons ago. Sometimes I wish Mom could see it. A sight to behold, she might say, and she’d be right.
At the corners of both mirrors, chimerical, whitish stains perpetually reflect each other. Some plants have wound their way around the barres, and the green against the rust lends the place dramatic contrasts. As does the faded blue on the wall with the never-used door. The record player still works. I never dance, but sometimes I put on a song, and the studio is still—maybe even more so than before—a temple.
In the middle of the studio I keep a small altar in honor of the Land—my alma mater. And because the Land doesn’t pardon those who neglect it—unlike universities or churches—I take special care of the altar, bringing fresh flowers every three days and lighting a candle each night. And on Saturdays, before Sunday comes back around and its stale air smacks my chest and steals my soul, before that fateful hour when it’s easy to forget who I am and what I’m here for, I see to the special jar on the altar. Once a week, I replace the old formaldehyde with a clean liter. This seems wasteful, I know, but what can I do? The Land dictates the rules of the game, and if I want to keep the curse at bay I had better keep my fingers fresh in their jar. Nice and fresh.