Friday, September 10, 2010
"After all, what is the body, little bro’. We always go against it. And time is shorter each time. You can't catch up to it for shit. That’s why the best thing is to have a clear conscience. As the poet said: The best way of waiting is to go to the meeting."
--Guillermo Saccomanno, "Zippo."
The rats. I hate the rats. They poke their noses into gaps like puppies. They devour food with the speed of rabbits. That's what they ought to be: dogs or rabbits, but they'd rather be rats prowling around the kitchen. There are so many that they trample one another, like the sorrows of that song that I remember so as not to feel regret later, when nothing’s any use. They struggle past one another, so they don't kill me because I unload upon them, broom in hand, with the strength of both woman and man of the house, of bed, bath, and kitchen.
My house is a dump without a man, a male, a guy, a so-and-so who might do something for me and for it.
"Coffee!" shouts my greatest misfortune from the living room.
How lucky my mother was, how wise she was to die early and spare herself the heartache of a shameless amputee for a son. Why else would she name me Arminda if she didn’t intend to leave me such an inheritance?
Arminda, peace of home.
Arminda without a husband, on the verge of her fifties and with desires that intensify with the woodstove’s heat.
"Coffee!" repeats he who insists on being called my dear brother.
My soul brother, the bad blood who decided to get out of prison and ruin my life at whatever price, like rats after cheese.
A demon that filled his veins with kerosene, because in jail it’s hard being the bitch and in there, he couldn’t be nor deserved to be anything more than that.
A coward with no arms or legs. He doesn’t need them to live when he’s got a sister named Arminda.
A new breed. One whose tongue, to my misfortune, the kerosene didn't destroy.
In jail he promised me: "If you leave me here I'll take my life,” but he's not the type of man that thinks that a promise is a debt. When I came back to see him, his promise was already a threat: "I’ve thought it over, I'm about to take my life."
He used to be a man of threats. Not now. Now he isn’t fooling anybody.
"Freedom for the cripple,” sentenced my captain, and we brought him home in his wheelchair.
Without kerosene in his veins.
Without arms and legs.
Freedom for the cripple, because, like promises, threats get carried out.
"Coffee!" insists my love of loves.
I'm Arminda, harmony.
Arminda, peace of the house.
Arminda, the spinster that can’t even manage to light the woodstove's fire.
What isn’t birthed doesn’t grow. Such is how he recites the book of life, as if they were thinking of him when they wrote it: in the nails of his hands and the bones of his flesh. In his foolish wit.
God, what a rat! Hunger forces them to leave their hiding places and neglect their endangered-animal's intuition. Hunger and a brood to feed. So they ricochet off the cheese when I snap to attention, take command of the broom and split backbones in two.
The backbone. Nothing’s left for the cripple but a spine, thanks to my captain, who stopped me when I wanted to beat him. I considered it, yes, and not only once.
My captain is a good person. He took care of my brother in the street, and favored him in jail.
We're good friends. At times, like now, he comes to see us and ask what we need.
"I don't need anything now."
"Don't start with the same, Arminda."
“What I needed from you I should have looked for in others; but no, I preferred to grow old in the kitchen."
"Don’t play the victim."
"Freedom for the crippled, remember?" I repeat his words by way of answering him.
"He’s free, Arminda, don't complain."
He swears he helps me for old times’ sake. From what could have been and what I, out of cowardice, wouldn’t let happen.
"Without arms and legs."
Doesn’t he see how his words are to my ears what a knife is to meat? What a broom is to rats?"
"Alive. Without kerosene in its veins."
"Free," he says, knowing it hurts me.
Because shared pains hurt less, and because he’s as alone like I am, he repeats those words every day. At the same hour, when he comes to the house under the pretext of inquiring about the cripple. In the kitchen, the place that makes us really free.
Now my captain doesn’t like me much. We're not who we were before, and there are things that can’t be cured.
Before he became captain he wanted to make me his girlfriend, but my brother said he didn’t want stoolies in the house and I had to go on stealing kisses from pillows.
He knows about the kisses. And about my hands on my nipples. About my fingers doing their thing and the tremble of my hips.
"How could I have been such an idiot?"
"Coward is the word," I correct him, and finally I manage to get on his nerves.
"Your language is about errors. Mine is about solutions."
“You damn rat, you’re not telling the story anymore!" I protest, and he looks at me.
The captain would have made me happy, but now there’s not enough luck for a wedding.
If the cripple hadn’t killed the old woman, I’d have been like those magazine blondes, those fine-nailed, fine-footed women that shave their pussy and drive men crazy.
Would my captain like me if I shaved my pussy? Maybe not. Maybe he prefers things old-fashioned style, like they were when he wanted me to mount his horse’s saddle.
So did anyone who saw me; to my captain, I was irresistible as those blondes.
Arminda, with her ass of gold.
Arminda, with her nice tits.
But my brother had to push that old lady. And the old lady had to die; because it’s also been written in the book of life that I must suffer such bad times
The old lady stuff was an accident. An oversight, a new addition to the record of a man born with a knack for crime.
Lucky when he plucked wallets from foreign pockets.
And in moving his lecherous flesh against those multitudes of females.
Fortunate if he were begging money off someone.
And he pulled down the pants of the weak.
“Quiet again?” says my captain, who’s starting to get used to my silence now.
“Talking to myself like a crazy woman.”
“You’re not crazy, Arminda. You just need some time for yourself.”
“Finish with these rats is what I need.”
“All it takes is poison.”
“That won’t do. From you I only want kisses.”
“Arminda, please, let’s change the subject.”
“There’s a last time for everything, right?”
There was a day that, for those who weren’t crippled, came under a bad sign; the old lady falls, cracks her head and dies.
Rats are agile enough to overcome obstacles; not the old lady. Her wheelchair was her mousetrap. She went down the staircase step by step.
That staircase was colossal.
The wheelchair was slow.
Maybe the old lady was dizzy.
Maybe fright’s what got her and not the blow to the head.
He cried when they handcuffed him. And when he said, “if you leave me here I’ll take my life”. Afterward there was no crying, as if the act of thinking things over had dried up his tear ducts. I think he smiled after saying, “I’m about to take my life.”
“Coffee!” shrieks the source of my troubles, the brood that escapes my broom.
I’m the generous one. The one who puts food in his mouth. The one who pays another female to please him, when the cripple gets bored with the magazines with the hairless-pussy blondes. I don’t mean sometimes. I don’t mean kind of. Or maybe. It just is that way, like a shout that gives no margin for possibility: I’m the generous one and that ought to have been my name.
“You’re golden,” my captain consoles me.
Arminda, golden like the Golden Fleece. With my house converted into a dump without a man, a male, a guy, a so-and-so who might do something for me and for it.
Arminda, golden like the magazine blondes; those females that know nothing of rats.
The rats. I hate the rats that screw up my existence. If they were only dogs or rabbits; but no, they’re rats that grow old as my troubles.
My captain insists on poison. He can’t see that to do away with them, I don’t need his good intentions.
“From you I only want kisses,” I remind him. And I put drops of the cure in his cup.
I’ve heard that formula doesn’t fail. That no rat remains living. It’s a tiny little piece of zinc corroded in cleaning acid. A substance that, drop by drop, will break down their blood until it kills them. All in five days or less.
“Can you bring it to my brother?” I ask the captain, my love. “Here goes his pain medicine.”
Once again, he carries out the task of bringing the concoction to he who was once a man of threats but now isn’t fooling anybody. He cares for the brother he never had. For the friend who never made it. For the son he’ll never have. Men are so predictable.
He lifts the cup to his mouth. The rat stops shrieking, drinks.
After all, what is the body, little bro’. We always go against it. And time is shorter each time.
Freedom for the cripple. Not everyone has the right to cling onto life. That’s why it’s best to have a clear conscience.
My poor captain will soon be the loneliest man in the world.
Today’s the fifth day. The bad blood will finish saturating itself with the potion.
I drink from my cup. The best way to wait is to head for the meeting place. Perhaps, soon, there’ll be light for me too.
- Translated by David Iaconangelo and JC Armbruster.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Aida Caridad Bahr Valcárcel ( Holguín, 1958) is a narrator, essayist, and anthologist whose works have been recognized by a large number of honor-bestowing bodies, the 2006 Alejo Carpentier Prize and 2002 Distinction for Cuban Culture being among the most prestigious. She has spoken and served as delegate for literary fairs in over a dozen countries, contributed stories to numerous domestic and international anthologies, edited three compilations of short stories, and published seven books of her own, in addition to having served as a juror for prizes like the Casa de las Américas, Alejo Carpentier, and the National Prize for Literature. After over a decade of positions as linguistic and literary researcher, in 1998 she became director of the publishing house Editorial Oriente and editor of the magazine SiC, both based in Santiago de Cuba, where she lives now.
Through the window she can make out a bit of blue sky. A blue so intense that, looking at it for a while, it begins to turn white, or really, to dissolve wrapped in a halo of mist. She realizes that she’s on the brink of falling and, instinctively, her hands seize the edge of the small table in order to support her body. Hundreds of brilliant points dance madly behind her eyelids. Nausea wraps her; heat overwhelms her. Breathe, slowly, deeply, repeating to herself that it will pass, that a few minutes will bring relief, that when done in the kitchen she will go to the bathroom and take a shower and this exhaustion that oppresses her will dissolve little by little in the water. The same thing had happened other times, but without doubt she knows that this is worse: the vertigo attack had surprised her without a single warning sign, and she had the terrible sensation that her legs were made of rags, only her hands retained strength, only her breathing responded and helped her maintain control of herself. In a few minutes the nausea wanes, her body regains its strength. When she opens her eyes the blue is still there, tender, and nonetheless furious.
She turns on the stream from the faucet and splashes water on her face. It’s a little warm, but it revives her. Looking behind her, it seems as though she sees her mother sitting in the dining room, with that expression of tiredness and bitterness that never erased itself from her face in those final months. If she were still alive everything would be different. Returning from work she would find lunch ready, and the kitchen would be clean, immaculate, instead of the plates, glasses and mugs overflowing the sink, the stains of grease on the tiles.
Shame on you.
The voice has become so real and close that she almost jumps. No, he’s not there, he’d taken a bath and went to sleep; the night before he could hardly sleep because of the girl. She didn’t sleep; her daughter needed her inhaler twice, and then she took her out to the yard, and had to wipe a damp cloth around the whole room.
Mamá, you should move to a house with a concrete roof.
The stupid doctor made stupid suggestions that she knows they can’t follow. Now she can’t even aspire to find a man who has a house and would bring her and her daughter to live with him. She can’t leave her father alone. Oscar isn’t going to return. She looked into his eyes when she sat with him at the funeral, the parlor almost empty, her father dozing on the rocking chair, and Oscar there in the back, alone, so strange in his police uniform, wrapped in a darkness that was almost like fury. When she walked up to him she tried to find the tall, skinny boy with crooked teeth, who would blackmail her into giving up her lunch, or the money mother had given her, with the threat of telling father some silly thing she had done. She was nervous and flustered, while the man in uniform maintained silent composure.
--Are you ok there?
He shrugged without answering. She looked at his chest and his arms under tight fabric. He hadn’t been hungry.
--Do you think you will stay?
Now she realized that her question was really a plea, from fear before the solitude that would follow. He said nothing. She looked into his eyes for a moment and turned her gaze to the floor.
--I may be getting married.
He’d said this later, when an answer was no longer needed, and she hadn’t protested because he left for the train right from the cemetery. He hadn’t brought a suitcase, just a briefcase that he hadn’t opened. Her father hadn’t said anything either. He spent some time sitting in the living room in silence, and came to look for her in the yard where she was playing with her daughter.
--Why don’t you make okra for lunch? I’m craving it.
As though they weren’t about to bury her mother, the woman who shared thirty-five years of her life with him. And then it went on the same, as though nothing had changed, as though she too had retired because of her heart and had all day to make the food that he liked and keep everything clean, impeccable. He wanted to have meatballs, or stuffed peppers, just when her daughter was the most cranky, or she had to stand all day waiting on an indecisive customer. At that moment she remembers the beets. According to the clock on the wall they’d already had 55 minutes, so she turns off the burner and lifts the heavy pot with difficulty into the sink. A jet of water hitting the hot metal lets off a cloud of suffocating steam, and once again she wants to run into the shower to remove the sticky layer that coats her. But she knows that she has to finish cooking first. Her daughter will be home at six-thirty, and at seven her father will come out of his room expecting to see the table ready. The pot has lost pressure and the lid gives way. She puts it to the side and stands looking at the round forms, submerged halfway in a blackish-red liquid, steaming, bloody. Nausea appears as suddenly as the vertigo before. She squeezes her lips and tightens her muscles to contain it. At that moment they start, sharply, the knocks on the door.
At first think she thinks is that it’s Arturo with their daughter. He hardly saw her, and the day that he remembers he has a daughter, instead of bringing her late, he was an hour early in returning her. He must be desperate to go drink with his buddies. The simple idea brings the memory of nights he lay beside her, completely drunk, in a way so vivid that the alcohol-breath returns the nausea she had almost beaten and she has to contract herself again to control the heaves. The knocks repeat, and she realizes they can’t be her ex-husband; he would knock violently, and she would hear the girl babbling, or maybe coughing. Clumsily she takes off her apron and passes it over her face to wipe away a little of the sweat and grease. On her way to the door the knocks come again, soft, restrained, almost timid. She hurries and, even so, when she opens it she sees the back of a man who has begun to leave.
--Yes, what is it…
Her voice shakes and her heart shocks violently as she recognizes the face that has turned towards her. She grips the door and is suspended in a vision that recalls eleven years in one stretch. He smiles and advances the two steps that separate them.
--I thought you weren’t here… I heard about your mother, and, since I’m here for a few days, I wanted to see you. Can I come in?
She moves aside, still stunned by the surprise, unable to react in a definite way before this ghost that had appeared just when she was least prepared for it. He had come in and stood beside the chair, evidently waiting for an invitation to sit, but she can’t find the right words, she can’t even find her voice, and as her legs threaten to fail again, she lets herself fall onto the rocking chair closest to the door. He takes this as permission and sits down without stopping to look at her. Suddenly she remembers her disarray, her disastrous appearance, and this takes her out of her daze. She sits up and becomes self-conscious; her right hand tries to fix the strands of hair falling in her face and the left holds the too-loose neckline of her blouse.
--How did you hear about mamá?
--I ran into Oscar in Havana. He told me that you had gotten divorced and that you have a daughter – there was a brief pause during which he looked at his hands before returning to fix his gaze on her – I come to Holguín every now and then, and sometimes I’ve even walked by the house, but I didn’t want to bother you – another pause in which his gaze circles the room and yard, but then returns, directly this time, to her eyes – How are you?
She doesn’t answer because she’s on the verge of breaking into sobs. From some unknown place in her body, the urgency of tears has sprouted, and her throat floods, her nose gets stuffy and her eyes overflow hopelessly. She sobs a few times before regaining control, breathes deeply and stifles a cough. She doesn’t want to make a scene; doesn’t want to wake her father. He has leaned forward and now takes her hand and moves closer.
--I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to make you feel bad.
She coughs again, clearing her throat. She dries her tears with her free hand and looks at him closely, now that she has him a few centimeters from her face. They are the same features as when he waited for her at the exit of the college, sitting on the garden wall or leaning against his bicycle. Not one line, not one mark to indicate that time had passed since the many times they had danced all night at parties and clubs; many had envied her for monopolizing the best dancer. He didn’t seem fatter or skinnier. He was the same: eyes, nose, full lips, white, brilliant teeth and dark, smooth skin that her father had hated from the first moment.
--I’d kill you before I let you marry a black.
--A man with any black in him is black, and if I catch you with him no one will recognize you, not even your mother.
The memories frighten her and make her move away from him almost brusquely. She straightens in her seat and prays silently that her father is sleeping deeply.
--You are the same, no, you’re more beautiful, more a woman.
They are words she had hoped for without knowing it, words that threaten to shatter her defenses, because now she should let him hold her, support her, and she knows she can’t. She fights to maintain control, but everything has happened so fast. She had forgotten, but no, sometimes a song on the radio, some comment, reminded her of Maikel, a drop of sweetness evoking how in love with her he was, a drop of bitterness at thinking that she didn’t even try to defend their relationship. Too afraid, her face still burned from her father’s slap which put out the cigarette she’d been smoking, hidden in the doorway of the school. She couldn’t forget any of it: the beating her brother took for sneaking out to a party; her mother holding her tightly and them staying that way, while they listened to the blows and screams.
--He’s going to kill him, mamá, he’s going to kill him.
--No, he’ll calm down, he’ll calm down, if we interfere it’ll be worse.
The fear stopped her from enjoying his compliments, his attempts to caress her, even when he had accomplices watching for her father to appear. They might get distracted, and her mother begged her not to seek out disgrace. In the end she told Maikel that she didn’t want anything to do with him; in the end she married Arturo who was white and became an alcoholic; in the end her brother joined the police to get a gun and get out of the house; in the end her mother died of too much to bear and she was alone with her father and, even worse, with her daughter.
The urge to cry had evaporated and all that remains is a great resentment, almost desperation. Maikel continues leaning toward her, drinking her in with his eyes. Eleven years had passed and he seems as in love as before; maybe he never married, maybe he’s lived hoping for her, dreaming of her, idealizing her and wasting the best years of his life without surrendering himself, without forming a family. She hadn’t had luck either, but at least there was a good reason for her failure, to some extent it’s even her fault. Now she places her free hand over his and presses gently.
--Tell me that you’re happy.
He smiles; his teeth and eyes light up his face.
--At this moment I’m very happy.
She shakes her head; actually she’s so moved that her only wish is that he will continue to talk, to say that his memory of her has never faded, that it has been his reason for living. The feeling of anticipation spills from her chest, and the sudden tingling in her sex scares her, but not enough to make her pull her hands back. She knows that she should say something, but is afraid she won’t find the right words, the words to encourage him without compromising herself; she searches desperately for the words while the pressure of their hands gets strong and stronger, and the heat more and more tangible; what breaks the silence is the sharp voice of her father.
--What the hell is he doing here?
She jumps to her feet, snatching her hands from Maikel’s, and he also stands but slowly, with reluctance. She puts herself between the two men and manages to say forcefully:
--He came to offer me condolences for mamá.
But her father has already pushed her aside and is in front of Maikel, who seems unsure of the right response.
--Get out of here, unless you want me to throw you out.
Maikel is silent, not retreating; her father continues gesturing with violence, moving his arms and swiping at his face, as though he were still a young man, and the other an almost-adolescent in love with his daughter. She wants Maikel to confront him, to do something in order to not repeat the eternal scene of humiliation, of Oscar, of her mother, of Arturo himself, when her father pushed him out onto the yard and he lay there while he poured bucket after bucket of water on him. If Maikel didn’t fight back, afterwards he would beat her, insult her; who knew, the fury might last until her daughter came home and he would scream at her that her mother is a bitch, getting felt up by a black before her own mother was cold in the grave.
Her father holds Maikel by his arms and shakes him, pushes him and lifts his arm to deliver the first blow. She can’t see the victim’s face, her father’s body blocks her from knowing whether he intends to defend himself, and without time to think about it she grabs the bronze frame from the side table that holds a photo from her wedding, and throws it at him with all her strength.
The sounds disappear, she doesn’t hear the crunch of skin and bones beneath the force of metal, there’s no moan; her father’s body collapsing slowly until it rests blocking the floor between the table and the chair. She doesn’t see Maikel, doesn’t see anything that isn’t the liquid red that bit by bit is forming a puddle on the tile. She leans towards him and finds that the nausea has returned, that a suffocating fever is rising to her face and she can’t breathe. Everything dissolves around her and the vomit rises in her throat. By instinct she contracts to slow it down, and when she again opens her eyes she is almost frightened to make out the shapes of the beets in the dark broth, while she hears once again the knocks at the door.
Translated by Erica Mena.
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Harold Pinter (2005 Nobel Laureate in Literature) once wrote about a story that I had written for a hypothetical professor of sex, in which I said: Us girls like having our asses smacked. I don’t know how he got his hands on that story, nor how he arrived at the conclusion that I could be talking about girls that I don’t even know, millions of girls who I haven’t even heard speak, millions and billions of girls from the other side of the world which, from my point of few, simply, without being manhandled, want to be smacked. In other words, the affirmation (us girls like having our asses smacked) was somehow, to him, the climax of a long and deep meditation on which I had embarked and had now honorably concluded.
I love him (Harold Pinter, of course, although perhaps my hypothetical sex professor, too. Either way. The point is that I love him.) With all my heart. I think he’s a marvelous man. I only saw him once. He turned and smiled. He looked at me and smiled. Afterward, he boarded a packed bus. He said two or three things to the conductor, positioned himself at the door, and gave me one last look through the window. Then the bus pulled away and I never saw him again.
If religion is the opium of the people, then is sex their cocaine?, I’d joke with Dad, facing off against Lenin’s high-level ideology along the way. The true revolutionary is guided by feelings of love, he’d answer, stealing a quote from Che. Does that mean that every revolutionary likes to fuck? More or less. So love, sex, and socialism are the same thing. Not the way you see it. But Mella and Tina fucked a lot, they made pornos. Actually they took artistic photos. No, they were soft porn, dummy. You’re a smart-aleck. No, I’m a revolutionary. Then he’d get serious, look at his Lieutenant Colonel insignia, and put aside the euphemisms: one day you’ll understand the historic responsibility of the revolution, the greatness of socialism. But isn’t socialism utopian? That’s exactly why it’s so special, why it purifies itself from its contradictions onward, and it places itself beyond sex, appearances, the impossible; can’t you tell? The revolution exists only to find the impossible and we’ve already taken the first step, we only have to perfect it. With sex or without sex? I’d ask to make him explode and start all over again.
When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
and nodding by the fire, take down this book
William Butler Yeats
Nothing I own but wet grass under my naked feet, nothing but night’s sweet breath upon my cheeks, nothing but this bonfire on which I warm my hands, nothing but the cycads song, nothing but the rustling of dry sticks in the fire, nothing but the friendly and distant wink of yonder star perhaps snuffed out by now whose last flash has travelled millions of years so that tonight it reaches me at last.
Who wrote it? we asked her.
The neighbor put the poem down on her thighs, looked towards the bonfire.
An American writer born in Amedford (1922), she said as she took hold of a nearby branch.
She had the look she’d put on during nights of revelation. But you could also suppose that she was being pensive.
It’s a poem, she said, that talks about everything.
About us?, we inquired.
She smiled and slid the branch toward the fire until its dry leaves disappeared beneath it.
It talks about everyone, I mean.
We were attentive. Somehow we believed she’d undress for us. That night was the chance to gaze at her body. But she stayed seated in front of the bonfire, looking at us every so often.
What’s the name of the poem?, I inquired.
NOTHING, she said in a very sweet tone.
And…,someone implored, what’s it about?
Of a boy genius that discovers something.
Why a genius? someone inquired.
She threw the branch into the bonfire. She waited patiently for it to finish burning. Very beautifully. That is, the neighbor was beautiful, although the branch was beautiful too, what was left of it.
Why was Yves Moor less than a year old when he wrote this poem. And why did he write so many novels and books of poems…
We asked questions. We asked how was it possible, how did he do it. Later we’d continue to be amazed, but without making exclamations or comments. We’d limit ourselves to observing her with lust, with boldness.
In reality we had known about Yves Moor for awhile, including the unbeatable translation of his poem by Eliseo Diego. Actually, we hadn’t taken her to that spot on the patio in vain: we had a well-organized plan.
Wouldn’t you like to read a translation of the poem? I asked.
Of course, she assented emotionally, happily, finally someone had come out with a translation of her favorite poem. Finally, our poetry nights were becoming interesting.
But love comes at great cost, said someone, and she suddenly understood that her friends, or rather, we, really weren’t so friendly.
In, I think embarrassed, whispers, we explained to her the requirement: she had to read the poem naked, if she wanted to have it forever. She smiled anyway, pleased by our insignificant proposal.
Anything for Yves, she said assuredly and began to undress.
When she was totally naked, without the least bit of shame, she moved her hips, squeezed her breasts with a disconcerting smile, positioned her thighs at a disturbing angle, and stretched her hand towards us, in search of the poem. Then, hardly even looking at it, she let it fall in the bonfire. Our amazement aroused, she began to recite:
"No tengo nada
nada sino la hierba húmeda bajo mis pies
nada sino el aliento fresco de la noche
sobre mis mejillas
nada sino esta fogata
en la que caliento mis manos
nada sino el crepitar de las ramas secas
en el fuego
nada sino el guiño cómplice y distante
de aquella estrella
acaso ya apagada
cuyo último destello ha viajado millones
para llegar esta noche
Translations by Isabel Perera.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Johan Ramis Moya began writing in 1999, sparked by romantic disillusionment and the death of his father. He received his first literary grant in 2006 for a book of stories titled "Post-History", and that same year won a spot in the short story collection "Internacional Dinosaurio" with "The News." The following year, "National Theater" was also published. In 2008 Johan was a finalist for the Gaceta de Cuba Short Story Prize, one of the island's most prestigious literary prizes, with the story "Anathema of the City". He now studies theology, works in the National Library as the donation coordinator, and is a fan of many English-language writers, including Hemingway, Carver, Bukowski, Pound, and Nabokov, among others.
An ant wishes to reach the other side of the road. The first option for achieving her aim is to venture across a construction zone, where a group of lively workers go from one side to the other as they steal cement, sand, and bricks destined for a tourist hotel. The ant stops and thinks. She says to herself that she does not wish to die beneath a worker’s boot, and pictures her body sprawled on the sand that is collected into sacks with such swiftness, to end up being a fossil stuck to the wall of a proletariat who dreams of having a house like the hotel he builds. The second is to cross a dangerous residential avenue. But neither does she like the idea of being left embedded beneath the wheel of a luxurious automobile of some bourgeoisie capitalist and left to die, like an insignificant ant. A profound existential crisis takes hold of her. It is not the act of dying that distresses her, but the inevitable ideological connotation surrounding the probability of her death.
Translated by David Iaconangelo. Photo from Centro de Formación Literaria Onelio Jorge Cardoso
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Once back on the road I felt alive, full of the emptiness I was devouring on the highway. Forging on without a destination felt delicious; I was cutting through the morning air and the fresh aroma of the dawn rushed over me. I barely pressed the accelerator. The breeze swept the soft down hairs of my arm, draped outside the window. I wasn’t anywhere. Behind me lay the slope of scattered hills, and behind the horizon, beyond the trees, the unstable, restless sea, and my life unraveling down the highway. The asphalt was a sculpture, infinite and flat. Barbara was naked and staring at the road, following the cars and trucks with her eyes. I had left all her miniature hypocritical clothes back in the room. Nothing on the unmade bed, drops of water weeping on the bathroom mirror and wet towels piled on the floor.
“Qué te parece, what do you think about heading straight to… the west?”
My little pet was seated above the glove compartment, her legs stretched out until they touched the windshield glass; the oblique sun of the morning highlighted her round, too perfect breasts, supported by two half moons of shadow. Her flesh of sheer vinyl reflected the light like Greek marble and the oils of so many nudes of the Renaissance. She was the Venus of a vast continent that I wanted to know and possess. A sleek and slippery surface.
“Maybe you’d rather we go to the
“Sabes una cosa? You are enormously lucky, little one, you don’t live preoccupied, confounded by words. Ideas are always limited instruments, brutal objects compared to the porous silence. Ideas deflect you from the road, work on your nerves. Feelings shouldn’t overwhelm you, they ought to flow like the landscape. That’s why you will live forever; stones, marble lasts so long because it doesn’t wear out from thinking. You live in silence, but you are not preoccupied.” I was talking shit like anyone might say to a companion. Her silence compelled me to envelop her in words. They were lies I could believe. The sun approached its zenith, not only lending form and weight to her breasts, but hinting at two nipples of light.
Beethoven. The ninth symphony ran riot through my veins. The clamor occupied and pierced the air, so universal I couldn’t hear the siren of the police car pulling up in the adjacent lane, demanding my attention. The speedometer vacillated between eighty and ninety miles an hour. It pounced upon my eyes like a shadow. All I could think to do was remove my companion from her lookout and seat her by my side before reducing my speed and stopping at the side of the road. The patrol car parked behind us. I was still bewildered, my eyes lost when I glimpsed at myself in the rear view mirror.
“Do you know how fast you were flying?”
“No, officer, but I do now.” I hadn’t paid any attention to my speed until the patrolman caught me flying two inches above the asphalt. I leaned forward to hide the immobile naked body at my side and by the way extract my wallet and present him with my driver’s license and registration. From the corner of my eye I inspected her, naked and indifferent at my side. All of a sudden the auto grew in size, became enormous, only the diminutive doll was of my same reduced stature. Her smallness was my insignificance. Everything else throbbed out of proportion, heavy, completely adult and enormous. Only my companion existed in my reduced dimension; she alone breathed and quivered at my side. Again I bent toward the steering wheel hoping the patrolman would not discover I was traveling with someone, I was sure he noticed how I shrank before his eyes.
I saw myself judged and condemned before the eyes of authority; a ridiculous and dirty old man, traveling more than eighty miles an hour accompanied by an innocent child, unclothed, inert, naked at my side. Though to violate a vinyl doll did not figure in the laws, I had committed a crime. He would laugh at me now, torment the wizened ancient fool before arresting him.
The domineering blue bulk of his uniform expanded as I pressed the steering wheel to keep from trembling. The patrolman leaned into the window, looked at me from on high and his eyes surveyed the interior of the vehicle. The ecstasy of speed had evaporated, and I had collapsed, disappeared into a pothole.
My bladder had joined in the fun and, I couldn’t help it, I had to urinate.
“That’s a great idea,” the patrolman told me with a smile while inclining his head toward the portable woman. “You’ve got it buddy. The next time I go on vacation I’m not taking my wife.”
“She knows everything but says nothing.” I was on the verge of spilling everything, especially now that the officer had looked sympathetically on my decision to travel with a doll of few words and subtle comprehension.
“She’s a real beauty” and he returned my documents. “You shouldn’t endanger her life by speeding. It’s a precious cargo you’ve got there.” He handed me my fine and left. The patrolman didn’t need to worry: although I might die in an accident my woman would survive. Yes, Barbara was a precious cargo.
I grabbed and unscrewed a bottle of Snapple that had been rolling around the floor beneath my feet; I opened my shorts and managed to place my gland inside the neck of the bottle and began to urinate.
“No me mires, you shouldn’t look at me while…” My little pet had turned her head to the left, and was causing difficulties for my penis. “Did you hear what he said? He admired your beauty, and he told me when he takes his next vacation he would leave his wife at home, an obese woman, I’m sure.”
Now I headed down the highway at only forty miles an hour; my left hand held the steering wheel and with the other I grasped the bottle growing lukewarm with my interminable piss.
“I think we will have to buy you a miniskirt and silk blouse… Es culpa mía. You can’t keep traveling naked.
We have slipped into
The abundance of accommodations and the excess of always identical products and the persistent plastic textures and the bright, incandescent lights—everything creates a rapacious void around us. We don’t go anywhere. Everything wheels and changes before our eyes beneath the sun or hides in the porous night, but everything, nonetheless, ends up being the same. Floating above clouds of asphalt. I don’t know where I am, but we are together.
The South is different. There are more dogs running loose without a leash. A trail of abandoned beer bottles lies along the edge of the road, amid the grass and the empty bags, cast off consumer products alongside our monotonous progress.
Two days ago in
Finally a child hurriedly approached, calling the animal, followed by a young couple, and the
“You dirty old man!” exclaimed the wife and took the girl’s hand before shaking her head and moving away muttering.
“The dog could have killed her,” I protested with an aggressive and terrifying smile.
The husband turned his head to reproach the libidinous old man with a gesture. “It’s your fault!” It was my fault because it was my narration.
“The teeth went into her hips, look, they left a mark…” and I rubbed the hip of my companion with my thumb, feeling the imprint of the dog’s teeth on her slobbery flesh.
“Buy yourself another one, old timer.”
How dare he suggest I buy another doll! This is the one I have and want and even love. Lovers are not interchangeable; not everything, my friend, can be bought and sold.
“Maybe you would like to sell me your wife,” I muttered convinced he hadn’t heard the offer.
“Mommy, the Barbie had no clothes, I have an old dress…”
“That’s all right, honey,” and the wife shook her head without stopping; I could read her spiteful silhouette and hear her recriminate the perverted, sexual deviant with the defiled nude in his hands. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Upon returning to the sterile room of the motel, I carefully inspected the curves and extremities of the woman’s body that stared at me now with her enormous eyes. Two small tracks of canine teeth marked her thighs. And her fantasy ring had disappeared, leaving a hollow between her fingers. Yet still she smiled.
“Mi vida, any other woman, under the same circumstances, would be bleeding and complaining…” Her disheveled hair hid part of her face and the golden tangles, still wet with saliva, adhered to her cheeks, her shoulders and enveloped her long neck.
I feel like an imbecile, I admit I am a cretin. So what? I had to accept what happened; I stroked her violated body, recalling my passion for consumed flesh. I recognize the beauty of wrinkles, the wounds of time. Angela. Dorothy. Even the ruin of my own body.
The outspread legs of dead animals, trampled and plastered in the middle of the road turn my stomach whenever I try to avoid them as we drive somewhere. A groundhog yesterday seemed asleep on the double yellow line that divided the road. We drove across a wooded landscape. I imagined that from the vegetation a polished surface shiny from the asphalt would seem to be a peaceful spot to the eyes of a groundhog. The deer, the rabbits and chickens do not see the danger, can’t recognize that automobiles and trucks are predatory enemies. Every day we run across the carcasses of innocent victims, livers, spilled intestines, crushed ribs and blood upon the asphalt. Some corpses are already rugs, pounded sheets, beaten and leathery flesh.
I lift my eyes—we are in another room, another motel—a fresh breeze enters from the window. It is night outside; from the highway the hiss of cars and trucks consorts with us. While I write she remains seated along the edge of the screen, her extended legs concealing various icons at the base of my laptop. We have just bathed together, enjoyed the pleasures of the Jacuzzi. I helped her wash her hair and used the hair drier next to the marble washbasin making her hair luminous and styled. After drying her little body, I stroked her meticulously and my fingers squeaked on her shimmering skin; I finished by spreading an almond lotion across her arms and over her breasts, all down her tattooed back and about her bulky buttocks. Her genitals are a scarcely distinct hump. I spill out and over; I forget everything.
I’m not fooling myself. I know the fragile line between reality and fiction, and I couldn’t care less. Where in the hell is a real woman? Reality? The throbbing bodies of the past that welcomed me between their unenthusiastic arms and the plastic flesh today between my fingers are one and the same thing. My little doll with her eyes always open is as real, as concrete, as alive and true as the women of my past. As full of reality as Juliet, as my aunt Julia. And as empty, as much a part of the nada as I am here.
That the dog bit her naked body was my fault. I had the miniskirt and silk blouse… I didn’t want to dress her, I resisted, but her nakedness began to wear on me. I am in the promised land. A flowery dress, some pointed shoes, with heels that distance her from the ground, and brassieres and black lace panties—so as to reinvent her. I prefer covering her with words: Mientras por competir con tu cabello, oro bruñido el sol relumbra en vano; mientras con menosprecio en medio el llano mire tu blance frente el lirio bello; mientras a cada labio siguen más ojos que al clavel temprano; y mientras triunfa con desdén Lozano del luciente crystal tu gentil cuello; goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente*…Dressed in Spanish is she more my own?
For many days I tried to live in my creation and outside of the world.
- Translated by Al Schaller. Photos--"the author between death and Barbie's thigh"--by Felicia Rosshandler.
* While competing with your tresses the sun shines in vain on burnished gold; while scornfully in the middle of the plain your white brow beholds the lily's hue; while to both your lips, more eyes are drawn than to the first carnations; and while your lovely throat with lush disdain conquors the shimmering glass, Delight throat, locks, lips, and brow…from “Soneto” by Luis de Gongora.
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Ketty Margarita Blanco (Camagüey, 1984) is a poet and narrator. She is a member of the Saíz Brothers Association and a 2005 graduate of the Onelio Jorge Cardoso literary workshop, and has won or received mentions in numerous poetry and short story contests in Cuba and in Spain. Her work has been anthologized in Antología del Certamen Internacional de Cuentos Cortos ART NALÓN LETRAS 2006 and Jornada laboral y otros minicuentos, among others.
Pablo opened his eyes with a smile that disappeared immediately. He had been dreaming again. He stood up; his briefs with the old elastic slipped down, leaving uncovered his white buttocks. With distaste he pulled up his briefs and scratched his head. In front of the pots he found a bit of fried rice in the beginning stages of decomposition. He made his way to the pants hung on the side of the bed and shook out his pockets: six pesos.
The urge to smoke was killing him, a drink would help him start the day, his intestines rumbled in his stomach. On his way out he bought a few cigarettes at the corner café; he got two croquette sandwiches and still managed to talk his way into a drink from the barman.
Optimism overcame him: this time he hadn’t had to do the Cucarachita Martina. He picked out a bench to sit down on. Business was going bad, and looking like that no tourist would approach him.
He gazed at the end of the street. Toward the sea.
He walked up to the malecón and lay down on the wall.
Watching the horizon, waiting for a sign.
Mass of water, with its old defiance.
Twice he had tried to cross it with feeble rafts: the coast guard captured him the first time a few miles from the island; the following attempt, he ran into an American patrol boat (it brought him back).
Close to the coast, that play of lights, edges of what was called paradise.
No one was left for him on the island; he lived with more than one woman, he had no children.
Federico, his best friend, had emigrated four years ago. His letters, and some money he sent, managed to get him out of tight spots in the beginning. But Federico crashed his car on the highway. Since then, each message received was a blow to Pablo, escape seeming more and more remote.
The urge to smoke returned, he turned his head, he approached a passing foreigner. “Could you give me a cigarette?” “Sure…do you speak English?” “Yes, sir…can I help you?”
The foreigner asked about the city, Pablo showed himself helpful and even suggested places to frequent. The tourist gifted him, before departing, a box of cigarettes and ten dollars. Pablo ate lunch in a diner, he could have eaten his fill, but he was a practical man and didn’t let himself be carried away by the temporary abundance.
A girl stopped at his side to buy a soda. At the point of flirting with her, he lowered his eyes and considered himself instead. Pursing his lips, he told himself it wouldn’t work out.
He wandered all afternoon.
That night he retraced his steps back to the Wall of Yearning: he liked calling it that. Always with the sea’s dull grumbling.
He lay down to contemplate the stars, remembered the girl from that afternoon, molded her shape. When he saw her clearly, he lured her toward him, masturbated until he came and, with the air heavy with peace and the noise of the waves, he fell asleep.
At daybreak, he woke up on the malecón wall with a smile on his lips.
It disappears immediately.
- Translated by David Iaconangelo
Monday, January 25, 2010
Mabel Cuesta (Cuba, 1976) received her BA from the University of Havana in 1999. She has published two collections of short stories, Confesiones on line (2003) and Cuaderno de la fiancée (2005). Currently, she is a Ph.D student in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Languages and Literatures at the City University of New York, and teaches at Baruch and Barnard College. She also blogs at http://denuevayorkamatanzas.blogspot.com/.
Now I won’t die without seeing snow; I’ll no longer sing along to Marta Valdés certain the song was written just for me. Neither will I die seeing your face in the rain. You and I both know that there are palaces and castles to discover. But not snow, not Casal’s snow. Paris, New York, snow… and it is the rain that cautions, that warns… the rain says, I can be all things, the precise leaf that heralds spring, the nostalgia of the poet who never went to China or Japan, who never arrived at any Oriental latitude outside Havana or Madrid, places with intent.
Snow is here, on the sidewalk here, the sidewalk that holds welfare, medicare, foodstamps, fastfood, moneyorders and law enforcement. The sidewalk full of snow that is not in the dining room on Mujica St. (a mayor without real importance) when I was young enough to hurt and sing with closed eyes: voy a morir sin ver la nieve; pero te miro cuando llueve* and you are somewhere I can’t yet imagine; tasting something that could be the pleasure of my lips and I persist in the feeling.
I could have told you from that moment: I saw snow in Guadarrama; but you were not in the world. Everything is the same, love has these similarities of action, vocabulary. Nothing would have been if I hadn’t returned to Madrid. History could have changed so many times, so many turns. There wouldn’t be this sorrow, this anguish of the flake, light on my cheek.
Now it’s another time. The snow on the sidewalk holds me to myself. To not giving this gift to Casal, who never asks. I cross the bridges of New York illuminated by your hand and snow reminds me of the privilege of always knowing each other. For you, you know enough of the winter that numbs you, exhausts you, your scarf beside mine; you don’t watch me pass because you come from far away, without questions of water. Jealously you keep me from blocking the view, from making noise in the night. And you stay awake so as to not disturb the passing, not abort the dream, not escape the blow.
I want to read Calvert Casey again, I say all of a sudden. I’d shed my skin just to read him. Read Casey as though separate from Casal. To understand their homesickness, their immense longing. Understand each individual drama without seeming to show too much. All that I lost might exist in that moment, after which I won’t die without having seen white flakes cover my hat. Wearing a hat annoys me. Snow has those unexpected prices. Those strange ways of assuming its shape.
I am the young Gianni, tormented in the town’s summer, when my family won’t let me travel to Rome, following you, loving you until the end of days… I am the old Casey searching for the cheapest apartment in Barcelona; traveling to Ibiza to hide myself from something that has no name.
I have struck a blow. I have left those who loved me. I do it because of Casal and because of Casey, I tell myself. I need to track you through the city’s bus station. To arrive as soon as possible in the west, to cross the river there where it returns to the ground and lose all trace of myself in the sidewalks.
You say that the ground knows that I am here, that I am a ray of light from on high; I believe you with the tenderness that intoxicates me when we are on the bank of the river, supposedly called the Hudson; where we ask Oshún to frighten the demons in your belly, where we make offerings, our hands and heads wet with pestilent water. The same offering I made before, over the metal bridge, asking for us to be allowed to realize that delirium of love in its new body, new city with or without light.
I am the young Gianni when I torment myself: I cannot reach your height, I obscure myself, pure shadow to which I am addicted. I am the passion of McCullers, once again, when I discover you and say that I will love you always, and I die in the middle of that water that could well be made clear at any moment.
Everything in me is a reference. Everything you love without an exact reason is that word you torment yourself with, the coming and going of my conscience, fear of the solitude you could leave me in at any time. Or I could leave you, who knows. We know nothing of ourselves. Nothing that might not be contemplation of the tree we’re looking at. That which will survive us. The wood house that picks up the code of those lights that you see insistently from space or the mirror. Those lights that hold the face of a woman from Versailles and a poor little shepherdess who doesn’t remember the century in which she lives, while the sidewalk is forgotten beneath the frozen white that covers it.
Now I won’t die without seeing snow, so many times I’ve seen it that my young neighbor wouldn’t believe me, Mujica St… he dreams clothes designed by Versace, dreams cars and walks with his girlfriend. I might take pictures for him and soothe him. I might tell him about Casal and see his delirious face while he asks about the exact texture of how it froze. Join myself to Casey in a voyage within your body and heal any tear. To soothe myself, soothing them.
Nothing would be like changing history, returning to my first shape above the ground and not having to search for it in the mirror by candlelight with your voice following. To return there and have the power to change the beginning. To concede the trips necessary for the dead. To not feel this bitter pity for the self that will no longer die desiring the whiteness that covers me; to stretch myself beneath your arm every night, your insistent will to become food or a pure ray of light that jumps spaces and promises unfathomable trips. To know that in the end, all the palaces are there, in the iris of your eye, and kiss it and sleep swept by the rain of the island where you are, vanishing in this useless fear, of the eternal dawn of a death that has already happened many times and that is the exact quantity of that which we don’t know; the exact quantity of those we didn’t know how to forget.
* I will die without seeing snow, but when it rains I see you.
- Translated by Erica Mena.