Rebeca Murga (La Habana, Cuba, 1973) is professor at the "Félix Varela" Pedagogical University in Santa Clara, with a masters in "the communicative approach" to teaching languages and literature. She has won numerous awards in national and provincial contests for narrative and criticism, and in 2005 won the international award for crime fiction at Semana Negra in Gijón. Her publications include three short story collections, the novel Historias al margen and the book of literary journalism El esclavo y la palabra. She also blogs (in Spanish) at Diez Negritos.
"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.