Friday, November 20, 2009

"Fox Fires" by Abilio Estévez

Abilio Estévez (Havana, 1954) is a playwright, poet, and novelist residing in Barcelona and one of the most prominent authors in Latin America. He is the author of "Los Palacios Distantes" (published in English as "Distant Palaces"; winner of La Vanguardia's "Best Spanish-Language Novel"), "Tuyo es el Reino" ("Thine is the Kingdom"; Cuban Critics Award) and "El Navegante Dormido", among many others, and has been awarded numerous prizes of prestige in France, Spain, Cuba, and the United States.


You can thank the tomb, the stones in the cracks of the tomb, the man who we may have once met. Since that night, since those nights, I believe in a secret relationship between things. Doesn’t life, like a novel, have a recondite structure? Although it can be thrilling, I maintain that discovering this order doesn’t prove easy. Don’t snicker. I know theory isn’t my strength. In any case, how many years have passed? Many, many years, and certainly you couldn’t describe the house. After some well-concealed indecision, you would invoke the image of some “melancholy mansion” that appeared in those novels we read so long ago (thirty, forty years back), gothic novels that thrilled us then, stories of terror that kept us up until dawn. You would say with your seasoned voice of authority and air of presumptuousness that I know so well: “The mere house and the simple landscape features of the domain, the bleak walls, the vacant eye-like windows, the rank sedges, and a few white trunks of decayed trees…” And I’m convinced that you wouldn’t even realize that it was the House of Usher you busied yourself in describing.

Because we lived in a cemetery, yes, but our house owed nothing to Poe or Lovecraft. Ours was a charmed one, really. Brighter, more joyful and harmonious than any I’ve lived in since. Remember it? Do you really remember it? I’ve always suspected that you know less than you know, and that, most of the time, your memories aren’t real memories—only, I don’t believe you capable of such imagination, either. That house. Inside a cemetery. In the shade of a huge old ceiba (three hundred years old, calculated Father, the positivist). It had a high gable roof with supposedly red tiles that the sun and rain had washed to a withered pink, off-white or almost-yellow, and the edges were a black that both contrasted and matched the walls that were whitewashed every year—for the night of the Day of the Dead, what a party. The rigorously white sides opened into multiple enormous, blue windows with lace curtains of soiled chiffon that gave way to an extra porch, jammed with flowerpots, vagrant ferns, gardenias and jasmines, backed by chairs with powerful rockers and columns that weren’t real columns but wood pilasters scaled by ivy and piscuala, with its flowers of ridiculous red with which my sister and I made necklaces. The house. Extraordinarily cheerful, inside a cemetery that was equally so, strange as it may seem. Indeed, it was the house, its liveliness, that convinced Mother (aided by Chana, of course—our personal orisha). But what’s certain is that Mother was never too convinced she wanted to spend her life in a cemetery. It’s so counterproductive, she complained, feigning gloominess, her skin white and sweat-less, her hair well coiffed. And with all the time we’ll have to spend down there out of obligation, she kept grumbling, each time a little more fervently. Aren’t we tempting destiny? And she would close her eyes, her hand raised, sibylline. Father would take off his blackened Yarey hat , let out a burst of laughter. He would sweat, induced by the heat and the cheer that never abandoned him. He sweated scientifically, from an excess of convictions—a positivist.

I suppose you remember Father. You couldn’t forget him, since for a time you were his accomplice. Anyway, he’s impossible to forget. An intense man of an imposing physique. To him, there existed no other mysteries than dreams. To him, fear could be eradicated only by opening one’s eyes and taking “rightful possession of things”. How seductive—he talked about “things”. And he talked about them with the assuredness of someone in possession of a vast empire. A type of arrogance exists in those that think a lot.

“In reality there are no mysteries, only ignorance,” lectured that sweaty and merry king, spontaneous and positivistic (always with a sunny look on his face), to my sister and me every night, “There’s no mystery a good investigation won’t unravel, and if something scares you, girls, look at it close, observe it in detail, and you’ll see how ridiculous and vain the circumstances are that provoke fear.”

His absence of doubt, his insolence, his philosophy. Those things comprised, you could say, his ideology (an ugly word, right?), and maybe similar logic permitted him to work as a gravedigger—a luxury gravedigger, that is, put in charge of washing, making up, and dressing the dead, leaving them full of colorations, dead that pretended to be alive, satisfied with their silences and slaps of blush in cedar coffins. Only with this idea, this sole vanity, was he impassive until the end of his life. He was fortunate, you’re right. He never let himself be altered by what Mother called “the illegible side of life”. Quite the opposite. Over time, he became an assistant in forensics at the Military Hospital, until they named him General Director of Municipal Cemeteries in Marianao, with housing expenses paid by the city council. There are so many houses, Father would declare resolutely in his party voice, house after house whose windows allow access to the seven seas or show mountains or trees or green valleys (he adored that lachrymose movie by John Ford—there’s no man without contradictions), or open to labyrinths of other houses; blind houses too, that see nothing of the earth, of the earth of the Earth, but in our house alone, the windows let us appreciate a landscape of marble, crosses and flowers that, instead of speaking to us of death, speak of life; what else, tell me, can one ask for?

Mother asked for more, like you might have guessed, asked for other things. Mother, as you know, was on the other side, on the opposite bank from Father, settled in a distinct brand of arrogance. You must agree that no two people were more different—maybe that’s what makes a perfect marriage. That mother of mine so weakstrong, so sensitiveharsh, so dependentindependent, so courageousfearful, without sweat, owner of white handkerchiefs, tissues, and Japanese fans, well-coiffed hair (she had been a kindergarten teacher); at first she refused to live where everyone else would be enjoying themselves or suffering (the shade between the two gerunds distressed her greatly) the eternity of their eternal rest. She insisted—to idle, alive, around human ashes seemed to her so excessively high-handed that it would end up being punished. She never said it that way, it didn’t occur to her to be explicit, although I’m sure that she could murmur (and murmur only) that in reality, ignorance didn’t exist, only enigmas, puzzles, no doubt about it, puzzles; there was no appearance, certainly, that a good look wouldn’t manage to unravel into mystery, and that if something scared us (you’ve got to be sensitive, girls), it constituted irrefutable proof that dark forces existed and were sending us messages.

What strange methods of showing pride! You can be sure, however, that in spite of her reservations, her apprehensions, Mother liked the house the first time she saw it. The cemetery captivated her, too, though she wouldn’t and couldn’t admit it. We saw it in her quiet eyes, kinder than usual, in her look of wisdom, gentle wisdom, the look of someone who has reached a peaceful place, knowing many years back she had done battle with herself. And I ask you this: how wouldn’t the cemetery have captivated her? How couldn’t she admire that lovely yard full of casuarinas, avocado trees and jacaranda, fake poplars and rubber trees, crosses and marble angels, whose silence was always accompanied by a breeze that couldn’t be enjoyed anywhere else but Havana? The problem was when she dealt with “the illegible side”. In those cases, Mother never trusted herself completely.

It was because of this that, days before moving to the cemetery, she made Chana accompany her. I’m talking about the old black woman. Our family’s orisha, the old black woman from the old house on Angel Street, Number 9 (the shores of the river, the Quibú, the foul one). Behind the back of Father, the positivist, Mother counted on Chana for everything. She didn’t take the smallest step without consulting her. Remember Chana? She’s there now, in a tomb of sober granite bought by Mother, but back then there wasn’t an old woman bigger or fatter or blacker in the whole suburb of Zamora, so black she could have just arrived from the Gulf of Guinea. You couldn’t understand her when she spoke of mundane things. Referring to life’s regularities, she employed a garbled Spanish, of clumsy words, pronounced halfway or not at all, words for which she searched hopelessly with ancient, lonesome little eyes of bilious white and huge, careworn hands that she raised toward the heavens. But I remember that when she spoke of “the illegible side” (though, you understand, she didn’t use that phrase), her Spanish acquired a stunning clarity. Clean, bright words, almost pretty, syntactically precise. And I remember her hoarse, old-black-woman’s voice, how it acquired a tone of warmth, intimacy, radiance—even more so when it broke into the songs of the Calabar coast. Chana went around the still-empty house. She smoked tobacco, spreading thick smoke from corner to corner. Every now and then, she stopped, concentrating. She listened, affirmed, denied, smiled, grew angry and puzzled. She made gestures to frighten away invisible figures. Puta, out, puta mala, get out of here! In those moments Mother passed her a gourd filled with aguardiente. Tremulous, so old she could barely stand, she raised the gourd, drank a sip; no, she didn’t drink, really she held a few seconds of drink on her lips, then spat it out with frightening vigor. She shuddered. What little hair she had stood on end, stiffened with the combs of a curling iron. She threw a coconut to the floor with a force that we never imagined possible from her, breaking it. She gathered the pieces, closing eyes that already seemed shut, doing her best to hear. We listened to her whisper, weighing what she heard. Then she took a handful of basil, poppies and white flowers, soaked with cologne, cascarilla pollen that rose like smoke, and went about pounding the walls rhythmic, rhythmic, tac-tac-tac, while she sang indecipherable Calabar songs. Later, much later, she went to the ceiba, dragging her feet, trailing the smoke of tobacco and cascarilla behind her, and there she stayed, caressing the trunk as if it were a human body. Between herself and the tree she seemed to have established a secret bond that she needed. A bond that none of us had the capacity of believing. Unknown, mysterious. Until the sun began to lose itself between rain clouds of red, black-red, velocísimas, way out near faraway Santa Fe.

You smile. I don’t know if I know you well. Or if I know you too well. I’m sure, though, that you’re smiling. I foresee the habitual smile of authority, and behind the smile, the inevitable question—what good was Chana’s ebbó if the dead won’t let your mother sleep?

My sister and I weren’t scared. Or would it be better to say that, yes, we were scared, only the fear wasn’t the fear everyone knows as such, but rather a fright that gave us an immense satisfaction, a fright that startled us, how else can I explain it? For some reason that we never understood, some graves moved us more than others. I don’t mean that some were lovelier than others. I’m not talking about whether the marble shined or not, how expressive or dramatic the statues, or the epitaphs’ smaller or greater charges of passion, sometimes so unabashedly impassioned as to be comical. I’m talking about something that never had to do with architecture, sculpture, or poetry, much less piety, compassion, nostalgia or laughter. I’m talking about something secret, that participated in no physical, affective, or religious order and left my sister and me moved without knowing why. There was, for example, a small, nameless mausoleum without an epitaph by which we couldn’t stop without feeling the urge to cry. Don’t ask for reasons: it was only a small, nameless mausoleum. In the always-open common grave toward the end of the cemetery, where Father and his assistants piled the bones of those without families, there were skulls that provoked our mercy and our ire, our laughter and our circumspection, just like people do, just like people of flesh and bone, I mean. Touching a femur sometimes brought us an imperturbable peace. Other skulls made us sob all afternoon; to caress the yellowing bones seemed to put us in contact with tragedies and melodramas.

There among pantheons and monuments we spent our days and part of the night. There we played. There we studied. There we gradually learned to live. There I fell in love or became enamored (call it what you want) like we only know how during adolescence.

Toward the end of the third street, under the flamboyán, lay the grave of Héctor Aquiles Galiano, born in Havana in 1904 and deceased in the same city in 1925. It was a tomb of polished cement, with an alleged work of embellishment that poorly imitated the pomp of marble, that the passage of time had chipped in various places and in whose fissures grew the highest, greenest ferns in the cemetery. In a medallion inlaid in an iron cross, protected by massive concave crystals, sat the photo of Héctor Aquiles, almost a daguerreotype. He was the most handsome boy in the world. In all the time I’ve lived since then (and this will come as a revelation to you) I’ve done nothing but search for him. To find him has been a goal of mine. To find that handsome man who disappeared from the world so many years before I was born, and in such a terrible way.

I’ve never seen another Héctor like that Héctor, like you. We’ll discuss that now.

There’s never enough time, you know, for such manias. At least, that’s what Mother, the kindergarten teacher, always said, drinking a small cup of strong coffee in a rocking chair on the porch.

I suppose it’s still there, anyway, Héctor’s photograph from 1924: he has dark, wavy hair; skin sepia from the photo, it’s clear he’s white, very white; slanted, dark eyes, voluptuous ones that look at the camera with an air of seduction; his nose is big, of course, and powerful, an invader’s nose, a nose of gold coin—of Héctor and Aquiles; his lips, also large, match his adventurer’s jaw, and they smile with timid hauteur and something of fear. I don’t deny it: it distressed me to think that “he might know”. In that moment, I loved him in the way one loves oneself, how one has always loved oneself, like a man, like a son. I arrive later with a bouquet of wild flowers, those that suit a dead man so alive, so handsome and warrior-like. In the icebox in the kitchen, where Mother places the cups of water that pacify the thirst of the fallen, his cup is the cleanest, the biggest. In the afternoons, when my sister’s gone (they’ve made her take piano classes—why are they reviving the moth-eaten church organ, so she might be a teacher too?), I kiss the photo, I kiss it over and over, and I lie down on top of the grave to await a message—I never know if it will produce something, least of all in a form that I understand. I talk to you however I can. What does it cost me?

I tell him about my short life, my projects, I beg him to Appear, man-son, in my nights, in my dreams; if there’s been other incubuses, why not you? I’ve had many dreams with incubuses and to them I owe the small and vast experience of my romances, I know you don’t want to be an incubus, no way, I know. And the only dream where he appears, he doesn’t appear. Let me explain.

I bathe, perfume my body with Colonia 1800, comb my hair, prepare myself, knowing I’m going to his meeting place, where he awaits me, naked, under the flamboyán. But the dream never moves beyond this ritual of preliminaries. Quickly, I say, there’s no time to lose, it’s going to evaporate, that’s what dreams do! and sure enough, there it ends. I don’t meet with Héctor. I meet the mirror, a mirror bigger and more adorned than any I’ve seen. In it my own body, my adolescent skinniness, my unruly hair, my open eyes, my sweat-soaked nightgown. I’m not going to his meeting place, nor he to mine. He’s not an incubus but a being of waiting.

I don’t want to dramatize it: isn’t that dream the key to all this? It makes you understand, you know? The next morning I describe my frustrations over and over, sprawled on the tomb, same as always. No one, nothing, no response. The obsession of silence. Death and silence, the dead reticent. Silence, silence, and the voices Mother hears—or says she hears. The flamboyán reddens the ground and casts damp shadows, provokes other, less notable nostalgias. Nothing else. So I take advantage and I talk to him about the voices, the voices that Mother hears at night, at dawn. Yes, to Héctor I talked about the voices, I asked him for advice; after all, he was still there, out there, distant, and he should know something, I say.

In that you’re right: Chana’s ebbó had no effect on the voices, in spite of the fact that each Monday we saw her appear (religiously, no other way to put it) with her dark eyes (open, closed, but always dark), her bag of herbs and fruits that she offered to the orishas of the ceiba (and from which Father secretly ate). Mother knew nothing of my desperate romance, which didn’t keep her from talking to the voices every now and then, with weariness or cheerfulness or nostalgia, according to how she felt. They harass me, she exclaimed, they don’t let me live. Meanwhile, from the sidelines, owner of his own kingdom of certainties, Father the positivist dealt with burials, preparing the chapel, planting the flowers, cutting others, pruning trees, planting trees, painting the trunks of the palms, setting up platbands, whitewashing walls, setting rat traps, burning heaps of dead rats and dry leaves, cleaning the dirty marble to make it shine, the marble on which birds shit again and again with that bird-like indifference. He also put up mausoleums and opened up new niches, but he knew nothing of voices, much less such distant ones. Maybe he pretended not to know about them. If he would have gotten the message, he would have felt obligated to mock it, and sometimes he preferred to turn his head, breathe heavily, sing in a low voice, and ignore it. Father wasn’t like other men, you know. At times he could be so subtle that he made you want to understand him, even accompany him on his expert incursions through the pantheons.

Back to the voices. Not even my sister or me heard them. Never. We didn’t hear the voices. We did, however, know Mother heard them. In those shadows that followed meals, when Father lay down on the floor on a coarse blanket, accompanied by a small candle-shaped lamp (the electric lantern dripped false wax), and a book by José Ingenieros, Mother resembled an old-fashioned actress who brought her hands to her head and wandered about the house, directionless, and approached (dramatically) the windows whose dirty chiffon (like in a bad autobiography) flapped in the wind that blew like no other place in Havana. Mother would go mad, fall to the floor, caught up in the midst of her acting. Later, we glimpsed the errant light, a bit more itinerant and intense than that of the fireflies and glowworms, between the graves, between the branches of the rubber tree.

They weren’t fox fires (that privilege was never granted us) but one of many porch lamps. Mother with one of the porch lamps. Mother and her shadow between funeral urns, under the pupil-less eyes of the virgins, searching for words, epitaphs, shadows, possible apparitions that would make her understand, find the secret of the voices, of the messages. I’m not aware of whether she had imagined by herself that the voices contained messages or if Chana had to do with the supposition. We would never know. Chana and Mother must have formed two faces of the same woman. The next morning, my sister and I retraced those paths over and over, not knowing what we were searching for, because we were sure, at least, that the echoes didn’t hang from crosses and trees like the clothes of survivors.

Until one day. Listen closely. One morning we discovered the cracks. No, no, pardon me, we didn’t discover the cracks, we discovered the mysterious relationship between the cracks and the voices, which isn’t the same thing. My sister. Yes, her, she paused at the grave of Héctor Aquiles’ and kneeled, the tomb cracked, decomposing, inundated with weeds and split down the center. At first I didn’t comprehend the intended fervor of that act, then I thought she had discovered my secret and meant to tease me.

“Don’t be an idiot,” she said, irritated, “I’m trying to listen.” She stuck her ear to the crack, and when she straightened up, I saw in her eyes a smile of intelligence. “Well clearly, dear, we’ve got to cover everything up, in those bones one world sneaks into the other. We’ve got to look for stones.”

Although the morning was dark and the river carried the odor of slime, it didn’t rain. We brought the stones from the other side, from that field that my father kept in reserve for when the cemetery needed to grow (cemeteries also need to grow but they don’t let them; covetous, you know) and where there were royal palms, wild daisies, and hills of red earth covered with pumpkin plants that by mistake the scavenger birds pecked at insistently. We collected the stones in the empty sacks of cement stored in the equipment room. We snuck back with the stones and went around covering the cracks one by one, the effort long, time-consuming, painstaking, meticulous. Upon finishing, we were surprised by the monumental silence that had possessed the cemetery, the house, the world. Silence that covered everything, included our cries for help. Voiceless conversations at the dinner table, in afternoon by the front porch chairs. Fruitless movements, quiet, fruitless. One couldn’t hear clocks, slams, dirges, bells chiming, hammers hitting, downpours. No steps. The coldness of night no longer broke the boiling tiles of the roofs after fourteen hours of sun. Windows opened and closed. No trills—the tomeguínes stayed motionless on the branches. Branches didn’t stir, like they used to say. Branches without tomeguínes, without breezes. Because we had discovered the strange relationship between things. The silence provoked constancy. Constancy provoked darkness. Darkness turned off colors and tastes. Suffice to say, we lived long and dark and anodyne days and long and dark and anodyne nights. Trapped in a prison. Father paced from one side to another, having been proved wrong in an important argument. Clearly, he didn’t understand. Mother didn’t, either. We saw her lose herself in the house, a little less actress-like, truly dejected, stealthy, looking at herself furtively in the mirrors, touching her neck with unfamiliarity, tying around her neck the silk handkerchiefs from her time as a teacher. From Chana’s tattered throat escaped no songs from the Calabar. Her hands, they were hands that seemed to ask, what is this? I couldn’t tolerate it, believe me, and I only waited two nights. If you know me like you say, you know that I lack patience. Impatience is one of my most inconvenient virtues. Two nights. I ran to Héctor’s tomb and started pulling away the stones that blinded the cracks. Mother always said that she had heard a scream and saw a light. I’m not prepared to deny it nor affirm it—don’t blame me. In any case, I can assure you that that night I didn’t return home.

Since that night, since those nights, I believe in the secret relationship between things, in an order. Just as in novels. I walked for hours and hours, until weariness set in. You can thank a tomb, then, the stones in the cracks of the tomb of a handsome dead man, who we may have once met.

- Translation by David Iaconangelo and Isabel Perera.