Wednesday, October 21, 2009
"Anathema to the City" by Johan Moya Ramis
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.
There’s an explanation for the bloodstained axe and corpse. You want to hear it. If not, what did you bring me here for? You shouldn’t worry about me being sincere, as I won’t omit anything. To your question if I’m the owner of the axe. My answer is yes, I am. Before I begin I want you to know that my status as a suspect doesn’t bother me, since in the end it’s a universal constant to which we’re all subjected. But don’t be confused, I’m not a criminal in the strict sense of the word. A criminal is blinded by a fixed idea until he carries it out, and that’s not my case. By the way, can you tell me what time it is….? Thanks.
I can start by saying that the origin of the axe was the city, you know. The city is a labyrinth where a man loses himself. Since I was a boy I walked through it and always felt a certain panic or suspicion of panic. No one can foretell what will occur upon turning a corner. Haven’t you ever walked down a deserted or packed street at whatever hour? It’s a disquieting sensation. I remember the afternoon when I bumped into that one individual. I was nine years old, coming home from school earlier than usual. I came by him on a narrow and empty street. I passed by his side and left him behind. Then I heard his steps stop for an instant only to hear them start up again. I crossed the street and he did the same. He started to follow me. I didn’t dare look back. The sound of his steps at my back weighed on my chest. When I sensed that he was almost touching my shoulder I took off running. You know what my persecutor did then? Laughed, I still remember his guffaw and the terrible voice that yelled one word: “Coward!” He repeated it again and again, until my escape put him out of earshot. I wanted to find a policeman but couldn’t track one down. I walked home disconcerted. Arriving there, I vomited and lost consciousness. Was I really a coward? That day I understood that in the city everything is foreseen and adjusted; the occasional barbarity doesn’t manage to disturb its harmony.
On the other hand was the contradiction of the news. Since I was a boy the newscast marked life in our home, time paused at home when the music announcing it was heard. It was the signal for us to march into the living room, listen and watch. It exasperated me then. On the news it was said that in the city everything was well. That it was a beautiful place. The television cameras always displayed people with wide smiles. All of them optimistic, evidently euphoric. I argued about that with my family, but at home it was prohibited to talk during the newscast, much less contradict the ideology of the city. For them the city was beautiful in all ways and capacities, although as I grew up I realized that my family’s opinions were only a pose. In their heart of hearts they hated the city, but at the same time they feared it and would not come out against it, and in the midst of that fear they swung toward dark doctrines and lies.
Don’t get impatient, if I relate everything to you it’s so you have a complete perspective on the issue of the bloodstained axe in my backpack that interests you so much.
It was at age fifteen that I began to consider the axe. Where did the idea come from? Well, from literature, you know. Literature and music kept me safe from the city. Although I knew that it was a false peace. Because I had the suspicion that someday the city’s dead zone would end up swallowing me to make me pay for my rebellion, and the proof of this is that I’m here. Anyway, I was saying that it was literature, a Russian novel, don’t ask me which, I don’t really retain names. My memory only picks up scenes, melodies, sounds and intensities. In that novel a young man decides to go against the oppression of the city, be above its permanent state, rise above the rules that consume him. You can’t imagine how that moved me when I read it, although I recall that at the end my hero lost his flavor upon seeing him regretful of his sublime work at the feet of a prostitute. Many say that it was love or remorse that brought my disillusioned idol to that state. But it was the city, it is the city, that eats its denizens alive without them even realizing it. You don’t think it’s like this? Look, I’ll illustrate it for you.
In pre-university I met a girl, her name is one of the few my memory has retained. A philosopher said that beyond brute existence, we owe the numerous forces that give the world physiognomy to misfortune, and it’s true. Thanks to an incurable memory I never forgot that name. Jane, her name was Jane. I nicknamed her Baby Jane, like that song from the ‘80’s. Although she never knew that I called her as such. She was a pretty girl. I remember the day that I left a poem in her place in class. She looked at the sheet like I was some kind of weird bug and let out a dumb laugh. That was her most cordial way of making fun of what had nothing to do with her. One day I asked her out and she accepted. While we walked in silence, I wanted to say profound, definitive things to her. But the sound of a car horn interrupted my train of thought. It was a modern car, metallic red. A young, handsome guy stuck his head out the car window and called to her tenderly by a name that I didn’t recognize. She turned around. Her face was illuminated. I understood that I had been a second hand alternative. She excused herself with feigned amiability and got in the car. Upon their exit, the wheel passed through a puddle and splashed me. They laughed. I looked around me and felt that the whole city was talking about me: the streets, the buildings, the houses, the people, the people…everything acquired a haughty shade of bullshit. Ah! the city…
You might think that this story is irrelevant, an exaggeration of a romantic disillusionment. If everything had concluded there, I would agree with you, but no. There was more.
Afterward I started to walk with no fixed direction, my steps labored, without a single understanding, just slight short-circuits of reflections, trying to divorce mind from body, while my head wandered in the midst of balancing probabilities. Like, for example, enumerating the times that I could have changed the course of my life and put myself on a path toward big material acquisitions, including a metallic red car. How many opportunities did I have? Many. Not in keeping with the moral of the city, but I had them and refused them. My decision had been something else: the arts, the construction of stories, bad nights, literary gatherings, fleeting romances, going to the movies like a madman and living other people’s stories. But at that instant, my choice was hurting, and that wasn’t the worst of it. The city is a confusion that hides its own chaos in a dirty game, and we are its fundamental pieces. But I still didn’t understand when in my wandering I came upon the metallic red car in the parking lot of one of those fancy restaurants. Yes, the city can become a Russian roulette, the irony of destiny made circumstance. It was already night. Upon seeing it I suspected that I was trapped in an alley without an exit, an image that is almost always the premeditated justification for acts of unfortunate boldness.
The park was dimly lit. The façade of the restaurant was made of stained glass that let you observe the interior from the street. I saw them. She was smiling and lifting a cup to her lips and the guy with the car watched her, convinced that everything was well. He leaned toward her and kissed her, kissed those lips that still drove me mad. I was there for a while, observing them. Then they got up to leave. Instinctively I retreated to a dark street, without questioning the contempt that had begun to ferment in my chest.
They left in the direction of the parking lot. I thought then of the axe. I thirsted for the axe. The idea of it became necessary, but it was only an idea, my backpack was empty. You can never tell what a man is willing to give up for the courage to trample every moral convention. In my head there was a voice, a voice without a body, the voice of the city that geometrized its labyrinth to envelop me in its nets. But first I should demonstrate my involvement in the sudden apotheosis.
Four guys appeared. As they passed scarcely meters away from the site where I had hidden without announcing my presence, I saw their profiles. They went at top speed in the direction of the park. Armed. They surrounded the couple just as they entered the car. It all happened quickly. Struggle, white arms, a breathless cry drowned out. The car pulled away with the four inside. He and she were left lying on the ground. He didn’t move, but she…she still did. Her hands trembled, her mouth opened and tried to articulate a scream that never made it beyond a brief moan. I looked in the interior of the restaurant. No one had noticed. The neighborhood was silent, aristocratic, for those who live behind closed doors. Ah! the ideology of the city. I felt defeated by the thought of undertaking any effort at getting help. I retreated down that same street. Already distant from that place, I felt calmer and more miserable. My conscience, you say? A conscience is the contemplating of the going and coming of what can’t be resolved. Besides, the spirit of the city had closed itself over my throat. You understand? It was afterward that I started to go around with the axe in my backpack. I don’t know if I did it out of fear or bravery, you never know if you need to be real coward to annihilate someone or if you’re brave if you’re above all moral convention. Two feelings rocked within me, one: that I could be the white man of hostile happenings in any situation, hour or place, and the other: by just touching lightly upon the idea of the axe I felt like a valiant braggart that could embrace the threat and flee toward danger. The only conclusion possible was that my fight wasn’t against flesh and blood but against the city authorities.
At age twenty I began living alone. My new apartment had the essentials: a sofa, an armchair, a table, a table chair, a bed, everything else set aside for my books and music, and in a spot on the wall, a shelf appropriate for only the axe. I wanted to eschew the television but I couldn’t, all because of the damn habit of listening to the newscasts. It was a kind of irresistible addiction. But I think I’ve managed to subvert its effect, I’ve really done it. I pay less attention to what they say than what they don’t say. I learned to read and interpret between the lines of what the anchors announce. You’d be surprised if I told you what I often ended up with. Don’t rush, we’re just getting where you want to go. Can you tell me the time, please? Pardon me for insisting, but it’s important. You’ll see.
It was on a rainy day that I met the girl. For the past week the city was gray with so much rain it resembled London, except for the suffocating heat. These are days where people feel the city’s oppressive weight and remain trapped in the ambiguous shape of its architecture. Long ago it was said the city was walled in, but the walls are still there. No one sees them, but people suffer them. Days where women examine the blade of knives and observe the neck or testicles of their husbands. Where the idea of tripping the impertinent elderly down stairs is born. Without suspecting it, everyone becomes trapped in the net that justifies the crime.
Night had almost fallen when I bumped into the girl. It was a chance encounter, or at least I considered it as such then. It caught my attention that we were the only ones walking in the rain as if it didn’t exist. She came from the opposite direction. We had drawn close to one another when a stray dog emerged from a doorway to bark at her and attempted to bite her. The girl, with speed and strength unusual for someone of her constitution, raised the dog by the scruff of its neck and threw it against the closest wall. The animal emitted a choked whine, then convulsed for a few seconds and stopped moving. The girl calmly contemplated the product of her work then directed a distrustful gaze toward me, but I said nothing. I passed by her side without looking and went on my way. I hadn’t gone two blocks when I realized that someone was coming up at a short distance behind me. I gripped the handle of the axe in my backpack and glanced back with discretion. It was the girl. I couldn’t help but be surprised but neither could I be sure that she was tailing me. I took a detour and went into a bar. I occupied a table facing the entrance and waited. The girl paused in the place’s doorway, looked inside. She entered and positioned herself in front of the table that I occupied. We regarded one another for a few moments, each of us studying the other. She was pretty. She wore a short flower-print dress. She had curly black hair that fell freely upon her shoulders, thick eyebrows and indescribable eyes, neither hope nor fear in them, only a bestial enthusiasm, like someone who has found something they have long awaited without hope.
“Can I sit down?” she asked.
I assented with a gesture of my hand. Never before had anything similar happened to me. I didn’t consider myself the type capable of attracting the attention of a woman in such a direct way. On the other hand, it was my pride against effusion. No emotion. The girl took a seat in front of me, her gestures free of annoyance or hesitation.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said.
“You tense up when you’re closely followed,” she said.
I looked at her and she smiled. It was an inexpressive smile, a line that her face could alter on command.
“You know why I busted up that dog?” she said without further delay.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“If you want to say why, it’s okay by me,” I answered.
“But would you like to hear it?” she said.
“What difference does it make if I listen or not? You killed a dog, that’s it.”
“You know why what you think interests me?” she said.
“I don’t have the faintest idea.”
“I’ve seen you before, from far away,” she said.
“You don’t say.”
“Yes, you used to pass in front of my school, wandering, always with that axe and your books on your back.
“I didn’t know you all had ever noticed me.”
“Now you see, you’re not as ghostly as you’d like, right?”
“Right,” I said. Her presence had already started to unsettle me. Suddenly I wanted to get rid of her. Although I felt curious. She was something special, of that there was no doubt.
“And so,” she said in a whisper, “Are you interested in knowing why I killed the animal?”
“It’s all the same to me,” I said.
“Ah, indifference,” she said. “I suppose you’re one of those that thinks a man should only listen to himself, forge words for his own silence and be consistent with his conscience. Am I wrong?”
“Acceptable, your point of view.”
“But in the end we can’t help but succumb to the impatience of dialogue, prostitute the individuality of the soul by speaking with others. What a pathetic necessity!”
I recall how her words impacted me.
She smiled and brushed back a lock of hair that fell before her eyes. The gesture caused a capsize in my chest. I sensed it was time to go.
She leaned forward slowly with the least regard for her shirt’s neckline, shortening the distance that separated us and in a very low voice said: “I know your secret.”
My face must have managed a pretty unpleasant sneer, since the girl withdrew. She wasn’t frightened, there was satisfaction in the back of her eyes. Above all at seeing that my hand had gone slowly, instinctively, toward my backpack.
In that moment I thought…or rather, I tried to think where I would go with all this. The girl was there, imperturbable.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “It’s safe with me.”
I got up, ready to march out. Then she took my hand firmly.
“I killed the dog to get your attention,” she said. There was a certain supplication in her words.
I should have gone. I suspected that the girl was full of indifference toward everything. She was weary. And weariness can end up being the ruin of time and life. Then the unexpected happened. She stood up and drew her body to mine like only a woman knows how and kissed me. Tell me, is there such a thing as a life that isn’t pervaded with acted-out mistakes? Is there such a thing as a clear, transparent life, without embarrassing roots, without made-up motives, without myths springing from desires? No, and neither is mine exempt. I recall how I suffered from the same weakening as all men when they’re encircled by the flesh of a woman. We went to my home and spent the night there.
What happened then? Well, the following morning I thought to rid myself of her, see her no more, but she invited me to “walk around the city”. The expression on her lips sounded romantic, but I knew the weight behind her words. To walk through the city arm in arm with her meant being aware of the trick of existing in the other and led away by it. Once again the city closed in around me, and soon it would consume me in its entrails.
During our walk we entered a church. It was empty. We took a seat on a bench near the altar. She raised her eyes to the crucified Christ that hung near the roof.
“Do you believe in God?” she asked.
“No,” I told her.
She turned her eyes to me. “There was a period in my life in which I was a devout follower. But now, no…now, no,” she said.
“I found the devil more attractive.”
I couldn’t help but smile. She did too.
“Then,” she went on, “I ended up feeling disdain and pity for both of them.”
“That’s something I’ve never heard before.”
“Have you ever wondered why God is so colorless, so stupidly picturesque? Why he lacks interest, vigor and relevance and seems to us so little like that which is hanging up there?” she said and gestured toward the suffering crucifixee.
“No, that question has never occurred to me.”
“The answer is very simple. God is no more than the product of our own fears in midst of our searching, a crutch for our inconsolable souls. And all because we’re sick with hope.”
“Very poetic on your part,” I said. “And the Devil?”
“The Devil’s case is different. He’s the garbage man of our existence. We’ve assigned him evil and perseverance, two of our dominant attributes, we’ve used up our time making him as real as possible; our efforts have been consumed in shaping his image—ridiculous, intelligent, ironic, and above all, miserable. Man recognizes too much of himself in him to feel love and devotion. I think that of those existing, the devil must be the most unhappy of all creatures.”
“Interesting, your point of view,” I answered.
“Really?” she said and leaned her head on my shoulder.
“You know what the most terrible part is?” she said.
“That I’ve never been able to stop believing.”
“In God or the Devil?”
“In either of them,” she said. Then she went silent and lay her head on my chest.
An old woman entered the temple, shot us a look of reproof, then occupied the bench on the opposite side, produced a rosary and began to pray, every once in a while looking at us. I raised my eyes in the Christ’s direction. His eyes reflected a statuesque agony, the blood that descended from the crown of thorns seemed coagulated in time. Crucified Christ, taken down from the Calvary, spread and displayed for everyone like a circus monkey. And all that to save man from his misery. Yes, I believe that since Adam, all of man’s efforts have been to modify the existential misery of individual men. And the evolution of that idea is realized in the spirit of the city. The girl lifted her head from my chest and looked me in the eyes.
“What do you think about me?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “I can’t think anything.”
She shifted her gaze. I think that she was waiting to hear something that I didn’t say.
“And you from me?” I asked.
“I think that you’re a lonely person and I sense that you’re very proud of it, but it’s a false pride. A solitary man isn’t someone who abandons all contact with men, but someone who suffers in the midst of them.”
“Interesting theory about me.”
We stayed silent again for a bit and afterwards left the church. We walked slowly, without saying anything. She was anchored to my arm and I didn’t dare to look her in the eyes. There was a moment in which she stopped and blocked my path with her body.
“You know what I appreciate most about life.”
I shook my head.
“Yes, death. Doesn’t it seem attractive?
“Sometimes I think of it, but I’ve never worried about defining it. It simply inhabits us.”
“It’s more than that,” she said. “Death is exact, it never fails, it’s deprived of all fallacy, it lacks the hypocritical mysteries that sustain life. That’s why life inspires more fear than death. You can hasten your death, but not postpone it. It’s what separates two worlds. Simply something fascinating.”
There was a strange light in her eyes when she finished talking. She watched me in anticipation of some kind of comment, but I said nothing.
Thus the day passed, upon nightfall I realized that I didn’t want to separate myself from her. Ah, yearning for another! The most truthful cunning of the city. The girl knew it and traced her intentions toward me. We spent that night together, then another and another. The days passed. During them I lived indescribable experiences, I think to have brushed up against happiness, purity; I forgot my backpack, forgot the city. But even vivid emotions repeated over and over wear themselves out in their own excesses.
Can you tell me what time it is again? Thanks. Don’t get irritated, we’re getting now to the end of it all.
One morning we woke up in each other’s arms, as was our habit. She stuck out her lips and kissed me slowly for a long time. Then she drew her mouth back a scant few centimeters from mine and said: “I need your help.”
“My help with what?” Her words aroused a shudder that traveled through my entire body.
“Help me die,” she said.
I moved her body apart from mine. I don’t think it was an excess of sentimentalism. But I admit that I couldn’t help but feel a certain sensation of emotional catastrophe at her request.
“Can I ask you why you want to die?”
“Because life is out of style, it’s outdated, like the moon, tuberculosis or romanticism. It’s nothing more than an illness, a misfortune. Help me die.”
“I’m sorry. I’m no murderer.”
“I know. You’re an executioner. That’s why you carry in your backpack what will make me free.”
I jumped up off the bed and started to get dressed.
“You’re wrong. I’m nothing, I’m not trying to be anything. You’ve gotten the wrong idea of me.”
“And the axe?! What do you carry it around with you for? For intimidation?! Being that way, you’re nothing more than a coward!”
That word again. I felt a demon dissolving in my veins at a slow boil. Again the spirit of the city appeared and took me by the neck.
“That was all you wanted from me?” I said. “Everything that happened between us was just to get here?”
“No, you moron!” she screamed, “It was out of pity, because of your hyena sadness. Because your depressing presence in this city makes the brothels and churches break out into whispers. Your errant Viking pose moved me. That was all, but now it’s over.”
“Get out,” I said.
She finished dressing. Then at the door she yelled: “Asshole!”
And she went off crying.
I have no words to describe the state in which all of that left me. To involve ourselves emotionally with others is to sin against the peace that solitude offers us. Before the girl I was alone, but I didn’t feel lonely. Now she had left me and it was terrible. I felt like I was going to begin to live like a point on a circumference. Time didn’t matter, or how fast or slow it made its rounds, if it advanced or went backwards, either way I was always going to end up at the same place from which I had departed. Someone said that all beings have their place in nature, man is the only one that continues being a wandering creature, lost in life, unheard-of in creation. I agree. I assumed my previous routine, but it was different, I was marked by something inexplicable. I walked the streets full of fury. I sharpened the axe every morning and kept it close. The weight of the city was overwhelming; I felt that its invisible walls and its gnawed architecture murmured things behind my back. The rumors of the streets climbed to my window and shook my body. I listened to the newscasts and the premonition that something was going to happen was latent.
Yesterday night, I was wandering as I always do. At the intersection of a narrow and dimly lit street, like the one at that park, I realized immediately that someone was following me. I quickened my step, but the person kept at my back. That oppression began in my chest. Then a hand clutched at my shoulder as a disguised voice said: “Coward.” There remained nothing else left to do. After so many years the moment had arrived. I gripped the axe and spun around. It was a clean blow, to the front. The crunch of broken bone still rings in my head. The person collapsed, there were no convulsions nor spasms. The sickly light of a street lamp revealed the face of my persecutor. It was her, the girl. I cried, I cried although it might not be any use saying it. I stuck the bloodstained axe in my backpack and went. The rest, you already know.
What time is it?...It’s eight pm! Ah, listen, listen! You don’t hear it? It’s the music of the newscast. Isn’t it beautiful? Let’s go watch television and listen to the news, I guarantee you that you’ll find the origin and banality of all crime there, in the quiet of the city.
- Translated by David Iaconangelo.