the short story project


Aixa de la Cruz | from:Spanish

Famous Blue Raincoat

Translated by : Aixa de la Cruz

Introduction by María Fernanda Ampuero

This is a story with a soundtrack. Or a soundtrack transformed into a story. You can’t tell which. Perhaps it’s a story written by two people: Leonard Cohen and Aixa de la Cruz. While you read the words written by Aixa de la Cruz, you can hear "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen on loop. His death on the 7th of November made an already terrible world much worse. We hear the guitar and then the voice, Cohen’s voice, the voice of our losses, of melancholy over what is and what can never be: the voice in which one curses the world. Both Aixa’s story and Cohen’s song sound like love songs when in fact they are songs of betrayal. Or is it the other way around? The ideas get confused and mixed up: they hate what they admire and love what they have destroyed. A blood pact has been ruined by a woman. A forbidden woman: a friend’s wife. And now that L.C. knows everything, what else does he do but write a letter forgiving his ‘brother’, his ‘killer’, talking about winter in New York and how the recipient of the letter is building a house in the desert. It is in that desert that Aixa de la Cruz looks her betrayer, the lover, the man who has gone as far as he can possibly go to escape the sin of desiring the wife of a loved one, in the eye. The story portrays him reading L.C.’s letter over and over again. But the past is the present and has all the bitterness of a beast of vengeance. There is no escape. In the story, which is a kind of sequel to Cohen’s song, the man who has gone to the desert, a traditional place of atonement, receives a letter from his brother. They’re words that must not under any circumstances fall into the hands of his wife, who never found out. But the desert is a bitch, just like existence. This is all very reminiscent of a verse by Cavafy: “just as you have destroyed your life here, in this small corner of the world, you have ruined it the world over.” It is even more reminiscent of the song that Cohen wrote a thousand times. 

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And you treated my woman to a flake of your life,

And when she came back she was nobody’s wife.

(Leonard Cohen, «Famous Blue Raincoat»)

Inside a lost trailer in the desert, a man holds a letter in his hands. He stares at the sign-off: “Sincerely, L.C.” It’s the kind of phrase one would expect from a business letter. He has read it in one breath, and after so many decisive, calculated sentences, what lingers, surprisingly, is that “Sincerely, L.C.” Anodyne. As impersonal as a death sentence in the mouth of a judge. Its style brutally contrasts with the body of the letter, and yet there is no hint of irony. It is, rather, a last-minute withdrawal. L.C. backs off. L.C. still types badly. There are crossings-out and letters typed over one another. The paper is heavy. It has sucked in the ink, while the type hammers have left deep indentations in the soft material. He runs a fingertip over the sentences, and the relief of the words feels like the relief of a new tattoo. “What do I do with this?” he wonders out loud. He has to get rid of the document before his wife gets back, but there’s no fire in which to burn it. There’s not even a trashcan. A hundred meters away from the trailer, rubble and gravel pile up around their project—a house they are building in which they can grow old far removed from civilization—and, for now, they use the site as landfill. They hide their garbage among that of the workers’ so that they will get rid of it. Emily doesn’t want the car to stink. It’s been over three hours since she went to town to buy groceries. When they are together in the trailer, the lack of space is unbearable, and all he wants is for her to disappear. But then he feels all alone. He looks at the landscape and fools himself into believing that the farthest visible point, that perfect line that sketches infinity, is the horizon. When he remembers that this is impossible, homesickness overwhelms him. But the truth is that he’s only seen the open sea four or five times in his life. This longing can only be a mirage, one of the many that often lead him to boredom and thirst. Since settling in the desert, he dehydrates easily. It’s not that there’s a water shortage. He just forgets to drink. It is as if the alert mechanism for this physiological need has been switched off. He does not notice his dry mouth, his sticky saliva, the cramps in his stomach—none of them. He only remembers that it’s been thirty hours since he last ingested liquid when it is too late to prevent the blurred vision and the cold sweat sliding down his forehead, seconds before he faints. Emily has set up the alarm so that a dinging sound reminds him every two hours that he’s still alive and therefore due to perform certain biological-maintenance obligations. The ding is metallic and similar to the bells used by gentlemen to summon the staff in old films. It is the noise that interrupts him when he’s about to start reading the letter once again. Obediently, and for the first time in hours, he leaves the sheet of paper on the table and goes to the kitchen. As he gets up he senses movement in the skirts that hang from the base of the sleeper-sofa. A few weeks ago they found a trail of small droppings inside the cabinet where they store canned food. They placed traps with rodenticide, and some days later a strong smell of rotting meat alerted them to the corpse of an opossum under the sink. The sharp face of the animal had fixed in a pathetic grimace of pain, capable of inspiring nausea but not guilt or tenderness. He let Emily take care of the remains. They disinfected the area with industrial cleaning products but, even now, if he tries hard enough, he can still detect a mellow smell wafting from the kitchen that wouldn’t be nasty if he didn’t remember where it came from. Atavistic reasoning whispers, “This opossum has come to take revenge,” and he wields a broom with apprehension. He moves back from the sofa and pushes the head of the broom under it. He makes a quick side-to-side movement, and nothing happens. He waits for a while and then moves one step forward, pushing the broom deeper. He repeats the sweeping motion, and, somewhere in the middle, he meets an obstacle. His brain processes the sound, similar to a rattle, before he’s consciously aware of it. He throws the broom down and jumps back in time to dodge the strike of the snake that has emerged through the skirts of the sofa with a theatrical movement, as if they were the curtains of a stage.

They both freeze in a similar gesture, their bodies immobile, their heads upright, their necks stiff. After a short delay he lets out a piercing scream that he doesn’t identify as his own. If anyone heard him from outside they would think it was the cry of a woman, Emily’s cry, although she would never scream about something like this. In any case, the sound proves useful because, once it hears it, the animal coils around itself, adopting an S-shape, and backs up. He wants to run, but there’s something hypnotic in the rhomboid figures that adorn the snake. It’s as if he’s looking close up at a pointillist canvas and is unable to step back and see the whole. He tries to think of a way out of the trailer that doesn’t entail getting close to the reptile or turning his back on it. Slowly, he climbs up on a chair, and from on high he feels safer. His best option is to escape without having to touch the ground. He climbs onto the dining table and then reaches the counter, which communicates with the widest window of his mobile home. Every step has taken him farther from the snake, but the animal remains immobile. Now he has to lose sight of it to jump out of the trailer, and while doing so he feels a cold tingling down his spine. It’s as if he were being pierced by narrow, frozen needles or as if a neurotoxic venom had entered his system. Upon landing on the sand this feeling dissipates.

He’s out of breath, and the oxygen burns his throat. It’s hard to understand why his heart is unleashed just now, with a delayed effect, once the threat is over. He takes a while to recover and acquire full awareness of the boundless expanse of red sand around him. For the first time the landscape seems dangerous. The paralysis of the desert is a disguise, a façade behind which a prehistoric network of tunnels overpopulated by vermin is hidden. He wipes away sweat with his sleeve and remembers that it’s winter in New York, or, rather, that he’s read in L.C.’s letter that it’s winter in New York. Since they moved here he’s lost track of time. The laborers, who do not work on Sundays, remind him by their absence that weeks go by, but the book he’s working on progresses so slowly that the sheets piled up on the desk might as well indicate that everything is on hold. While reading “Sincerely, L.C.” he had wondered if Jane would like it here, and he immediately decided that it was better not to think about it because the one thing he’s doing in the middle of nowhere is learning not to think. He wishes he had his pack of cigarettes. He wishes he had the courage to go back into the trailer and get it. Instead, he approaches the tire tracks left by Emily’s Jeep and sits on the ground, like a castaway with nothing to do but wait to be rescued. It’s already evening, with a sunset as red as the earth, when he hears the sound of a car engine in the distance. He’s decided that the most sensible thing to do is to spend the night at a motel in the village. In the morning they’ll call a professional to take care of the situation.

Emily pulls the car up next to him, raising a cloud of dust that covers him from head to toe. She steps out, laughing, tells him to grab the grocery bags from the trunk, and heads quickly toward the trailer. He has to run after her to explain what’s happened, as he does so striving to remain calm, camouflaging his fear, because he is tired of being made fun of. When they lived in New York she never mentioned her childhood on a ranch in Texas. Now it’s her secret weapon, the origin of the sarcasm with which she greets all his qualms: the thick cream of the raw milk straight from the cow that he withdraws from in disgust; his awkwardness with the workers, who regard him as an idiot crying out to be scammed; and, of course, his fear of animals, not necessarily dangerous ones, such as the foreman’s giant German Shepherd, the cattle that block the roads to town, the ticks whose black heads swell with blood and can be mistaken for moles. Whatever he does, says, or ignores in their new habitat serves her as an excuse to avenge a lifetime’s inferiority complex. Because she never felt comfortable among his circle of friends. She was particularly irritated by those parties hosted by L.C. and Jane, by the writers and artists that attended them with their obscure in-jokes and insidious questions. Tell us, Emily, what do you do? Emily was employed at a printing press. Emily didn’t know about books or music or about the affair between her husband and the hostess of the party. She never knew anything.

Now she states that his proposal to spend the night outside is ridiculous. All the food she’s brought is perishable and will be spoiled if left out of the fridge. He notices her dilated pupils and guesses what’s about to happen: she’s going to take care of the snake herself. “Describe it to me,” she demands, but fear and disgust have clouded his memory. “Color? Flat head? Is its tail stiff at the tip?” He just remembers the effect of its diamond-shaped markings. Emily snorts and returns to the car. From the glove compartment she retrieves a small 6-mm gun she acquired right after leaving New York. It’s very light, and she’s learned to handle it with great precision. Shooting cans in the middle of the desert is one of her new hobbies. Like she always says, their backyard is the perfect shooting range. “Help me find a stick,” she commands. He doesn’t try to dissuade her, because he knows it will be in vain. Nor has he the slightest intention of going into the trailer with her. “If you’re going to do it, you’ll be doing it by yourself.” His wife looks at him with disdain and nods. “Ever since we got here, everything I’ve done I’ve done by myself.” They approach the construction site and, rummaging through the rubble, they find a narrow strip of wood studded with nails. Emily asks him to wait in the car with the engine running in case they need to dash to the nearest hospital. He looks at her through the rearview mirror, the stick in her left hand, the gun in her right. He feels so humiliated he almost breaks down in tears. The image of his wife walking away brings to mind the image of L.C.’s wife walking away, not in the desert but in a train station, long ago, in a past time that looks immemorial, almost another life. It was the only way to forget Jane: changing ecosystems like a threatened species. In the letter, L.C. acknowledges his guts. His guts for having fled. It is a new paradox in the most involuntarily contradictory piece ever written by his old friend. Even the crossings out and the overtyped letters appear to come from the same structural disorder. “Sincerely, L.C.” He leans back in the seat, closes his eyes, and attends to the rhythm of his wristwatch’s second hand, which can be heard clearly in the silence that surrounds him. He starts counting. When the number three hundred and forty-nine is between his lips, a shot is heard. He steps out of the car and runs to the door of the trailer, feeling a blockage just below his Adam’s apple that stops him swallowing. It is likely that he’s dehydrated again. He spits a mouthful of thick saliva onto the sand and shouts out Emily’s name. Although there is no answer, he hears the studs of her boots as she treads heavily on the trailer’s floor. He breathes freely, relieved.

She opens the door with a kick, so strong that the metal panel bounces against the frame several times, fluttering. She hasn’t used her hands because they’re both busy. The left one carries the headless body of the serpent: one and a half meters of scaly mosaics topped by a stump. The right hand wields L.C.’s letter, crumpled and smeared with blood. Frozen at the threshold, still and silent, she looks like the allegorical representation of an abstract concept he’s unable to grasp, waiting to be deciphered. He feels like something hard has just struck him between the eyes. How could I forget it? How could I forget that the letter was in plain sight on the desk? He cannot hold her gaze and bows his head in shame. He thinks that the aridity of this earth never ceases to amaze him. It has already swallowed the saliva he’s just spat, and it will soon swallow the trail of blood that is dripping from the mutilated body of the rattlesnake.

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