Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"The Forests of the Night" by Félix Lizárraga

Félix Lizárraga has published the science-fiction novel Beatrice (David Award, 1981), and the poetry books Busca del Unicornio (La Puerta de Papel, 1991), A la manera de Arcimboldo (Editions Deleatur, 1999) and Los panes y los peces (Colección Strumento, 2001). His poems, stories, and essays have been featured in several magazines and anthologies, including Nuevos narradores cubanos (Siruela, 2000), and Island of My Hunger (City Lights Books, 2007). Prometeo Theater Group of Miami has staged his plays Farsa maravillosa del Gato con Botas and Matías y el aviador. He lives in Miami since 1994.

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"And the forests will echo with laughter"

- Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

“The place is sealed. Don’t you see the seal?” said a soft-spoken girl, peering from the next door.

“He doesn’t live here anymore?”

The girl studied him intently from the parapet of her door; he could feel her scrutiny although he couldn’t see her eyes, since her face could barely be guessed in the weak, rusty light of the hallway, coming from a solitary bulb in a wire cage.

“You’re Elio, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Come in," said the girl, backing up a step.

“No, I just came by to drop this off. It’s a shirt he lent me.”

“Come on in," repeated the girl, her tone identical, as if she hadn’t heard him, “He left something for you.”

The living room was longish and ended on a small balcony, closed now, as was the window. Curtains and china knickknacks softened the ambiance, lending it something of their own fragility. There were no mirrors.

“Sit down.”

On the tape player a deep, ardent voice was whispering something in English that the girl hurriedly cut off.

“Isn’t that Eliseo?”

“Would you like some tea? It’s already made.”

The question was rhetorical, because the girl was already in the kitchen. Her faded blue robe and hair messily scooped up in a bun didn’t lessen her attractiveness, but a curious mix of aloofness and fatigue made her look perhaps a bit older than her years. In no time she brought in cups on saucers filled with steaming amber-colored tea.

“Do you like it sweet, or you want less sugar? Two teaspoons OK?”

The girl put four heaping spoonfuls in her own tea.

“I like it really sweet. Too bad there’s no lemon.”

“That’s all right.”

“I don’t have any coffee, my aunt didn’t buy any. Is it OK like that?”

The girl sipped at it slowly, carefully. When she sat down the robe hugged her hips, revealing her to be not as stick-skinny as she had seemed. Her hands, when serving the sugar, pressing a button, or holding a china saucer, displayed that minute, slightly artificial daintiness emblematic of femininity, and at the same time the absent air of someone going through the motions of a formal ceremony.

“You’re gonna burn your mouth.”

“I’m kind of in a hurry.”

The girl gazed at him with the vacant eyes of someone interrupted in the middle of a complicated, intense operation. She placed her cup on the coffee table, almost on the edge, and rose gracefully from her chair in a long, liquid movement. Returning, she placed in his hands a small, shapeless packet that seemed to contain something hard and irregular to the touch. It was wrapped in coarse paper and tied with a piece of cord that also enclosed an envelope. She went back to her chair but did not sit down; she put her hands on the back of the chair and looked at him from behind it.

“He left this for you.”

The envelope was sealed; it bore only his name, typewritten.

“Did he go out of town?”

The girl shook her head.

“He’s dead.”

It was said with the same dainty remoteness with which she had offered sugar.

“But…”

The girl slid back into her chair and took up her cup again with both hands, leaving the saucer on the table.

“But… how did it happen?”

“Nine days ago. Killed himself.”

“Oh.”

The girl sipped again at her tea and said without looking at him:

“You’re crumpling up the envelope.”

“When did it happen?”

“Last Sunday.”

“Sunday? But, I saw him that Saturday… We were drinking together.”

“Sunday afternoon, he gave me this. That was the last I saw of him. Monday night, I came in with my key and found him,” said the girl in summary.

“And you saw him Saturday, for sure.”

II

His hand meets his hand, blurrily reflected in the glass. It pushes the door, and the dense cooled air, suffused with cigarette smoke, engulfs him, welcomes him. The burnished wood of the bar supporting his elbows murkily reflects the sparse reddish light.

“Two sangrias, Pepe,” says the less fat, less bald of the two bartenders as he approaches him, wearing a black bowtie. He orders a cubanito and sees in the long mirror running behind the line of festively labeled bottles his own face and a triangular slice of his chest, cut out in the thick gloom like one of those busts of Roman emperors. He touches his damp hair, and it is then that he notices where the gaze is coming from, the eyes he has sensed watching him from the moment he came in—at the other end of the bar, a stranger, a young man in a white linen shirt. Some homo, he thinks, and returns to the statue of himself in the smoky mirror, while Barbra Streisand’s voice asserts something in celestially high notes, blending deliciously with the spiciness, the thick darkness of the tomato juice on his tongue, the rum’s warmth going down his throat and spreading slowly, like an octopus stretching awake.

“Do you like sangria?” says somebody to his left. At close quarters, the fabric of the shirt is not linen, not even white, but some light color, maybe green.

“It’s not sangria, it’s a cubanito,” comes the clipped reply. The fat, walrus-faced bartender comes toward the man in the light-colored shirt.

“I couldn’t say hi before, dude. Why didn’t you bring Solángel?”

“I haven’t seen her in days.”

“But you guys live next door to each other.”

“That’s life.”

“You haven’t changed, dude. Want another one?”

“Sure, Pepe. I only come here for Pepe’s sangrias… You don’t come here often.”

He briefly explains the prologue to his presence—she, the girl he was meeting tonight, who didn’t come, or was too late; the rain trapping him under the portals; the bar, happened upon and accepted as a haven. A cigarette pack taps his arm lightly.

“Thanks, I don’t smoke.”

“I’ll say what all smokers say: you’re smart.”

“But they all keep on smoking.”

“Always,” says the other, his teeth flashing in the gloom as he exhales the smoke.

“It’s like doctors, those eternal demagogues who tell us to do what they don’t. But everything’s bad for you, some way or another.”

“No, not everything.”

“What isn’t? Tobacco, chocolate, sex—alone or in company?”

“Exercise, for example.”

“You say that because obviously you do it. But what about muscle sprains? Cardiac hypertrophy? Same thing with culture, like reading. Nose in a book, blind as a hook. You can laugh, but it’s true.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic.”

“Why’s that pessimistic? And even if it were, so what? It’s better than being like all those dim-witted, smiley optimists.”

“You must not enjoy life much, if you feel that way.”

The other laughs, another flash of teeth.

“Who says? I talk like that precisely because I enjoy life. But don’t tell me that rum’s not bad for you. And you drink it.”

“I drink sometimes, carefully.”

“All that means is that you’re poisoning yourself carefully. Of course pleasures aren’t as bad for you as duties. Why are you laughing? At least pleasures are honest, they warn us. Duties claim to be pure health, and then they do their silent damage and you only notice it in the long run, when no penicillin can help.”

III

The girl was looking at him.

“I studied with him. In art school.”

“In his same class?”

“No, I was a year behind him. And I never finished… It had been a long time since we had seen each other.”

IV

“Well, I swear I didn’t recognize you,” he says again, while the other clicks the switch ineffectually in an attempt to turn the lights on.

“Shit, now I remember. I blew a fuse this afternoon.”

“I’ll take care of it. Where do you keep them?”

“Usually in the bathroom.”

“What do you mean, the bathroom?”

“The cabinet.”

The flare of the match reveals a sink shaped like some sort of antique bowl. The mirror glares opaquely, its silvered backing worn away.

“You won’t find any.”

“You’ve checked?”

“Of course. See for yourself.”

“Here’s one. Look, there are more.”

“Those are blown.”

“You’re right. Why do you keep them?”

“I don’t know. I always keep the blown-out fuses with the good ones.”

“That’s why there’s so many… And none of them’s any good.”

“Forget it. I’ll light the big candle in the living room.”

The candle sputters and then begins to burn placidly, the mirrors multiply its twilight gleam. It’s a sort of shapeless tower, a stalagmite created from the wax of a thousand molten candles of mixed hues, mostly yellows and reds, with two wicks. A huge bovine skull with truncated horns serves as a candlestick. The living room is so sparsely furnished that it feels enormous.

“Let me open the balcony, or the window.”

Unbuttoning his shirt, he lies back on some kind of chaise, big and curvy and comfortable, covered in threadbare plush.

“Uncork the bottle, will you? Or turn on the tape player. Good thing it works on batteries.”

While he smacks the bottom of the bottle to pop out the cork, on the tape someone mutters in a time-worn, emotional voice:

“He goes beyond the poem, he achieves… the very presence of the tiger… Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright… In the forests of the night…”

The other leaves the glasses on the floor and hurries to click off the tape.

“What was that?”

“It was Eliseo, the poet. That was the only time I ever spoke with him, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to secretly record him. Wanna hear some Deep Purple?”

“Sure.”

The other looks a little embarrassed, for the first time. Ian Gillan’s acid voice bursts in at a gallop.

Black night! Black night!

The other grabs a glass and sits on the floor, on something that once upon a time was a cushion.

“I’ve sold too much of the furniture, as you might have noticed.”

So bright… Black night!

“You live by yourself?”

“My father left the country years ago, my mom lives with my grandmother, my sister got married…”

“Your old man was a painter too, right?”

“And a ceramist. That’s the kiln over there, in that room, the workshop. Too bad there’s no juice. I make stuff in the kiln sometimes. But I’d rather paint. Why didn’t you finish school?”

“How’d you know I didn’t finish?”

“Somebody told me, I think.”

“It was the year after you graduated. They caught us cheating in the exams. They expelled three of us: Mauro, Kindelán, and me.”

“Kindelán was the black guy, wasn’t he? He wasn’t very bright. But which one was Mauro?”

“Don’t you remember? The guy with dark hair, who used to lift weights with me and Blachito, Bladimir… He was always after Lucy, before she was your girl.”

“Right.”

“What about Lucy? You guys still together?”

“When they sent me to Oriente, it was this big drama. She would write me every day. When I came back we stayed together for a while, but finally we split. She got married, had a daughter, got fat… Interesting thing is, their daughter is actually mine. But let’s not talk about that.”

“I didn’t remember you at first. When you mentioned Lucy, then it came back. Everybody in school was in love with Lucy, one by one, and never got anywhere. Mauro was crazy about her, poor guy. Me too, to a point. It wasn’t that she was pretty, there were prettier girls in school, and she was kind of skinny. But there was something about her.”

“You wouldn’t recognize her if you saw her now.”

“She’s that fat?”

“Well, there’s that, but that’s not all. It’s her personality, her eyes. She’s a different person, now… I painted her a little while ago, from memory, trying to remember what she was like.”

“Do you have the canvas here?”

“Yeah, in the workshop.”

“Let me see it.”

“With no lights?”

“Come on, let me see it.”

It’s Lucy, even in the quivering half-light of the candle: it’s Lucy, her slim shoulders even narrower in the oval frame, her way of cocking her head, her long eyelids, one hand hiding or caressing or pointing to her cleavage; even the shades of blue she is painted in are somehow Lucy, in a mysterious, covet, but unmistakable way.

“Let me see the other ones.”

“No, no, enough. By candlelight, they’ll all look like La Tours.”

He sees one that looks like a dying crab under a blood-red moon, but barely has time for a glimpse before the other throws a drop cloth over it.

“There’ll be time to look at them. Let’s go.”

The golden gleam of one ceramic figurine among the rest draws his attention. It’s a statuette in glazed clay of an adolescent boy, the elongated legs trotting or dancing, then suddenly wider in the torso, the arms raised as if in triumph, minutely detailed even in the hair mussed by a breeze, but faceless, with only a blind, smooth, shiny surface where the face should be.

“Why no face?”

“It’s the Sun.”

“But why no face?”

“It’s the Sun.”

Repeats the other, with a smile and a shrug, looking privately amused, as he almost always does.

“Let’s go, it’s a sin to look at the Sun at night.”

V

“And you saw him last Saturday, you say.”

“Yes, we were drinking together.”

“Here, at his place?”

“No, in a bar… And later at his place.”

“Did he say something, anything, some hint he was gonna do that?”

“No, nothing. I just can’t believe it.”

VI

“It’s so hot in here now.”

“It’s the rum.”

“Rum? What rum? We’ve barely drunk a drop.”

“We almost finished the bottle.”

“So open the other one.”

“You wanna kill yourself tonight?”

“I don’t kick off that easy.”

He finishes taking off his shirt without getting up from the big plush couch.

“I still can’t believe you remembered me, buddy.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know, man. You were Lucy’s boyfriend, and you had this reputation as a brainiac, a good painter, I don’t know. I wasn’t even especially a hardass, I was just some guy.”

“What about all the times we played volleyball? Don’t you remember? Always against each other, of course—your year against my year.”

“Shit, of course I remember. You always hit the best spikes.”

“Hell, no.”

“Shit yeah. I’d be sweating like crazy trying to intercept your spikes.”

“See, you’re already drunk.”

“You’re the one who’s drunk. Look out, you’re gonna spill your drink all over yourself.”

“Shhh, let me listen for a moment. That song…”

“That’s Deep Purple, right?”

Crimson joy.”

“What do you mean, King Crimson? That’s Deep Purple, man.”

“Shit yeah, but they say something in the song that sounds like crimson joy… No, it’s crimson skies.”

"Marmalade skies."

“Hey, you speak English.”

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!"

“Shh.”

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!"

“C’mon, let me hear this.”

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!"

VII

“And... How...?”

The girl did not need him to finish the hanging question. She put her cup on the saucer and stared at it, slowly intertwining her fingers, as if she were searching for her reflection trapped in the amber of the tea.

“In the bathtub… With his clothes on…”

“In his clothes?”

“Yes… He had a black shirt on. I’d never seen that shirt before.”

VIII

Sweet child in time...

The candle is still lit between the broken horns, its crystalline drops thickening the stalagmite, red and golden, golden and gleaming like the faceless statuette, burning in double flame. The dripping wax has started to fill up the deep, hollow sockets.

You better close your eyes...

He has closed his eyes, but is not sleeping. Ian Gillan’s voice starts to implore in crescendo, like the endless, burning fuse, soaked in rum, of a bomb strapped to us. He does not open his eyes, not even when he feels the fuse burning in his navel. The cold shiver of surprise is not really surprise—it is the dual surprise of not being surprised. His body is there but isn’t, the navel on which the flame of a tongue has descended is not his navel. Ian Gillan’s chant trembles, panics, it is Ian Gillan who is receiving that wet burn, Ian Gillan who slowly bites into that flesh. Nothing moves, nothing exists in the whole night, except for Gillan’s voice.

Oh Lord, I beg Your help...

It proceeds, mounting, pressing, sputtering, it grinds the words until it empties them like cracked skulls, it peels them bit by bit like a shell. Ian Gillan’s voice rises naked, erect, a pure scream, golden, blazing, crystalline.

IX

“Are you all right?” asked the girl.

“Read it later, at home, you don’t have to read it here”

The girl’s voice trembled imperceptibly, her eyes wide, her hand in mid-gesture as if to keep him from tearing open the envelope, but it was too late. The thin sheet of paper, carefully folded, was typewritten.


X

I hope that this letter finds you well. I… well, I won’t be here. It’s not normal for the dead to write letters; I imagine that receiving one will be somewhat uncomfortable. In any case, I feel I owe you this letter. I want to assure you that you have had nothing to do with this death, despite appearances to the contrary.

The ways of Eros are inscrutable, and I don’t really know why, perhaps three years ago, it was precisely you, or your body (was I looking for you in your body, was I looking for your body in you?), your body among other bodies or you among all the others burrowed into my flesh like a shiver. Now, from the abyss of death, it seems even more obscure to me. The worst part is that it wasn’t even really about you; the most painful thing was not your innocence, your indifference or your unawareness, but the fact that what I was searching for was not you, or your body, but something that seemed to have escaped from me and taken refuge in your otherness; my own otherness (to give it a name) was stalking me, crouched inside you, waiting for me in the contour of your chest or of your hands, your way of moving your head or blocking a spike shot. That is why I chose not to approach you then—perhaps. All that is certain is that I didn’t do it…

But I am overburdening you with this letter that you won’t understand, that barely concerns you, that is addressed to you only in appearance. Even in death I can only reach my hand out to myself, Socrates finding Socrates on his doorstep, Judas’s steps tending only to Judas. In the end, what better way to prove to you that you have had no part in this death, that it is only mine?

In a way, I have misled you. You thought you were giving something of yourself, when in actuality you were only giving back what, unbeknownst to you, you had taken from me; something I had, without your knowledge, without meaning to, deposited in you. You thought you were making a gift, when you were really paying a debt. But (as Hadrian would have said), “No caress goes as deep as the soul.”

Of all the gods, I am the most arcane.

I am the Moon, the Nile; at night

The Sun, emitting names and light,

Descends to my manse, concealed from your domain.

As when the steed and black bull meet

Our eyes lock first; then by degrees

Forehead and forehead brush, converge

And we are one, submerged in golden dusk.

Apex and nadir fuse

Peak is pit; soma is soma; we

The soul conjoined that rules eternity.

The two-backed beast issues its purest

Orders, duly writ by Thoth the Scribe.

Bright burns the Tyger's eye within the forest.

In any case, the debt is settled. Forgive me for having dragged you into this.

Burn this letter.

- Osiris

XI

In the inner rooms, where the girl had disappeared with some vague excuse, nothing could be heard behind the blue curtain. The two packages (his and the other’s) seemed to weigh next to nothing, he took them with him down the stairs, where the darkness brought back to his memory the fuzzy awakening, the candle almost gone, the molten wax staring at him from the skull’s sockets like weird, bulbous, many-faceted eyes; the shock of finding himself naked next to that other sleeping body, the alarmed, imprecise memory of the night’s events, the silent flight into the ashen dawn revealing that he had put on the other’s light-colored shirt.

XII

The same stairs he now climbs, perceiving, with secret terror, the uncoiling of his flesh in the shadow, while he knocks at the door.

- Translated by Elizabeth Bell and Félix Lizárraga

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