Literatura en México

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Cinco Décadas de Cuento Mexicano. Antología. Perea, Pitman, Taylor, Tedeschi, Valenzuela

The Confidantes (English version)

Angelina Muñiz-Huberman
Foto: cnipl. INBA

Angelina Muñiz-Huberman

Seated comfortably on the bed, surrounded by cushions that they themselves had embroidered, the confidents weave stories.


Story Number One contains, among other obsessions, the memories of an ocean voyage, the intertwined boundaries between mother and daughter, a solidly based childhood, and some problems with the human body. That¿s why it¿s called:

Arms Need Pillows

¿It all began when I couldn¿t figure out how to place my arms while sleeping. I would wake up at four in the morning. But that had happened throughout my life. So that the disturbing thing was not the fact that I was waking up at four in the morning. No. 

The thoughts kept charging through my mind: as if I hadn¿t rested during my previous hours of sleep. But that wasn¿t unusual either. The doze is always confusing. 

The origin of the strangest conceivable ideas. I was already accustomed to the disconnected and disjointed thoughts: to the recollection of the previous day¿s embarrassing moment: to the insulting word: to the attitude that made me feel ridiculous. 

Also to the well-known rhythm of certain phrases: for example: the advertising of commercial products (¿A very pretty tale to you I¿ll tell/ about a tomato that was turned into a jell¿), that come back again and again: or, perhaps, a refrain of an old song (¿Oh, my love! If the snow slides, what¿ll I do?¿), without being able to remember what comes next. And to keep insisting on it. Then: to start a smooth, clear, perfect debate: on the fall of the Roman Empire.

At the end: to be entertained in drowsy obsessions and in eyes that refuse to close.

But that was all. The body, at least, didn¿t behave as bad: yes it tossed and searched for its position and for the coolness of the sheets to where it hadn¿t pressed its weight and its heat. But that was all. It didn¿t take part of the rotative process of the mind in chaos. It seemed a little clumsy and that its parts stumbling with each other: one leg on a unused fold or a hand smashed by a tight: the eyelashes stuck in a forearm or a hair grazing the lips, and, suddenly, creeping on the tongue. But that was all. It didn¿t bother. It didn¿t hinder. It kept the disturbed mind company.

Everything was fine. Until that early morning when I remembered one of my mother¿s sentences: ¿I don¿t know what to do with my arms while sleeping.¿ It was a sentence that I had heard as a child and that had seemed absurd to me with certain ring of wanting to attract attention. It¿s not possible: arms are not bothersome: they have no trouble in accommodating themselves: one under the pillow: the other falls by its own weight, relaxed, gentle. (The way the fairies sleep). Arms are not bothersome: one of my mother¿s quirks, just to be different from the rest. I thought then. And I continued sleeping calmly.

Until another night when that started to happen to me: me, who didn¿t want to resemble my mother. Little by little: it didn¿t happen the first early morning: nor the second: nor the third one. It wasn¿t at once either: no: no. At the beginning it was the memory of the sentence that, as the other ones that were repeated to me monotonously, would end up being forgotten later. That¿s what I thought. Bad thing is that my arms started to bother me. To bother me intensely. To not knowing what to do with them: how to place them: how to bend them: if place them over the sheets or under them. And then it was the change: it changed from being a mental obsession to become a physical obsession. What to do with a system of muscles, nerves and bones that has become confused and that can¿t find the order: when thinking doesn¿t matter and the skin and the form call for their urgent presence: when how to place arms while sleeping is what has to be solved?

Unable to find the answer, I tossed and turned in bed: and I began to get desperate. 

I remembered: time has gone: the sentences of my childhood come back. The happenings. I get back the images of the trip. Of the great childhood trip. Of the great childhood dream that was to cross the Atlantic ocean. Adventures had begun early for me. First the flight, the helter-skelter of the Spanish civil war: the lost ―that would be forever― of the mother land. And, all of a sudden, to find myself in the middle of the sea. Sea all around the big ship. Forget that the ship is a ship and think, on the contrary, that it is a very big house. From where you can¿t leave: only from one room to another: from one chamber to another. Funny: I remember the ship being desert: there was nobody but me in it. Where were the others? Weren¿t there any more passengers? Wasn¿t there any crew? No: me and no one else. And how was the food ready and on time then? And how was the bed done with neat sheets and an impeccable cover?

For me, it was a ghost ship: where everything was resolved without the presence of human beings. And I enjoyed myself: the wonderful functioning of the invisible. 

When, years later, my mother would tell me about the presence of passengers and their names, the captain and the officers, I couldn¿t believe her: impossible: her imagination had made her see those people. Since she did not like solitude, she invented them. The truth is that there was nobody on the ship: not even my parents.

The sea was the most open of the frontiers: with the sky and a fathomless deepness. Between two mysteries: the ship. The rocking was gentle. The wind tickled. Absolute perfection. What my mother said about the storm, I can¿t believe it either. The trip was idyllic: nobody saw the mast turn round and cause dizziness and vomiting. No: nobody went through that. Again: my mother¿s exaggerating. The sea was what only mattered: the splendid silver sea: the mirror that reflected the static sun and that made the eyes hurt and go blind.

The sea, which seemed like an ice-skating rink if it weren¿t for its gentle ripples, was my first memory of life. A large floating house that doesn¿t seem to move, but which is heading somewhere. With the idea that everything is solved: everything planned: everything foreseen. Therefore, nothing else to do but think and think. The most amusing thing that can happen to a girl is to start thinking. To discover that if nothing is spoken, no one, absolutely no one, can know what one is thinking inside. Which is to say that the secret is totally kept within. That anything at all can occur within: and nobody will discover it. 

Even when one is surrounded by all the people that one can imagine, and that are at one¿s side, almost brushing against you, almost stepping on you, feeling her breath, her odor, they are incapable, every single one of them, of knowing what the girl is thinking. That is one of the great marvels of life. Not only that but today I believe that that is the proof that living is worthwhile: the secret that cannot be violated. (If only it weren¿t for those arms while I sleep.)

And then: from the adventure of thinking about the sea, I drowned into another adventure: the adventure of living in a desert island. Because after the trip on the sea, the ship docked in an island of the Caribbean. And as I remembered, no one but me lived there. Sometimes my parents were there: but most of the time I was alone.

The island was just as marvelous as the ship: it was indeed a large expanse of land and I never saw the sea: I must have lived in the exact center of the island. Once again, what concerns adults was not my concern. During the years that I lived on the island, I ate twice. Once, an orange, and I swallowed a pit and was sure that I was going to die. My mother convinced me that I wouldn¿t die and, actually, I didn¿t. The other time was the best meal that I have eaten in my whole life: one evening on the wooden balcony, with a deep bowl full of rice and beans in front of me. In the years, those two meals sufficed.

I only remember having bathed once. One sunset: before I went to sleep.

When it was too hot: so hot that the bathroom were wide open as well was the door: so the air could come inside a little. I could see the plants of the exuberant garden and far away the thicket of the field and the trees of the hill. Some stars: Venus perhaps: and a certain moon halo. I was in an immense bathtub full of water and I was very happy. By my side, on a nightstand, the light of an oil lamp drew forms on the high ceiling. Until something terrifying happened: through the open window two or three very fast black butterflies came in, as big as ravens, that flew around my head and grazed my cheeks. I couldn¿t even yell and no one was by my side: that¿s a proof that I lived alone in the island, like Robinson. That¿s why I don¿t remember having bathe another time.

I turn around a few more times in bed and the arms cannot find a comfortable spot. Other images appear to me: those of another trip: this time in an airplane. My first trip on a plane. Now in the direction of the mainland: first to Mérida, Yucatán: then to Mexico City. Arriving in Mérida was like entering a strange book: the images were already familiar: those men dressed in white, with short pants, and African hunter hats, what were they doing in the Mérida airport? They were images that came out of books that I had scanned but that I didn¿t expect to find at that moment: and what if we had chosen the wrong country? Suppose my parents had taken the wrong plane? The hunters were behaving normally: everything was in order and there was nothing to be surprised about. Papers, passports, tickets, seals were the right ones. And what if I had gone from Mérida into the jungle?

Thoughts like these are the ones that don¿t let me to accommodate my arms while I sleep.

I start to think that the internal confusion is what disorders my arm¿s position. I feel them long, very long: as if they reached the floor. And heavy, very heavy: like two thousand and twenty pounds each. Slow: senseless: strange. To whom these arms belong? Better said: what are these arms? Superior moving extremities: bending. Articulated. With fingers. With phalanxes. 

With nails at the tips. Weird instruments.

Well, yes, really. From Mérida I could have gone into the jungle. I¿d be a kind of Tarzan. A female Tarzan. Swinging on the tree branches. Leaping from vine to vine.

But coming back to the ways to get to sleep, I could use the old one of counting sheep. The monotonousness would make me sleep and I would forget about the arms. Bad thing is that counting sheep bores me and it doesn¿t make me sleepy. Arms are obsessive. There is no worse obsession than the one of the arms. And I can¿t understand it. Because when I was a little girl I get along with my arms. I liked them. They helped me. They were useful.

They used to be very practical. With a soft skin: with a light hair: some moles well placed. Shoulder, elbow and wrist in a perfect working. And so docile to sleep. What was happening now? As if my arms were not my arms: but rather pieces of wood. 

Stiff. Clumsy. Like pine.

If I didn¿t want to be like my mother and it was her the one that talked about the impossibility of sleeping with the arms on, why does it happen to me right now, when I thought I had forgotten about it? A belated payment? A promise that has to be fulfilled? Simple and easy I have to forget.

Forget what I was taught. To see if my arms go back to their place again.

As I toss and turn in my bed, my arms are only useful to lean on. Also as point of reference. They indicate to me in what position I find myself. I still don¿t know how to place them. Nor what to do with them. Because I can¿t unscrew them and put them aside. They don¿t have screws.

I start thinking why I don¿t want to be like my parents. Almost all children are proud of their parents. When I was a kid I was ashamed on them. What I can¿t understand is why. At first sight they didn¿t look that bad, Even more, they looked great. Good presence. Elegant. Well speaking. Well educated.

Normal behavior. What was the mistake? That every single thing they said, was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to hear. I had the impression that they didn¿t use the right language. There was something between what they said and the world around that didn¿t fit: that neither one nor the others could understand.

They didn¿t realize they provoked a commotion, until what they said could be the opposite for the ears that listened to them. Their words sounded as if said by someone else, but they meant something different. There is no doubt that the apparent same language from Spain and Mexico is not. Because the misunderstandings where indescribable. And I was ashamed on that. So much that I never dared to explain them that situation. For example, they always ignored that ¿chino¿ is not a person from China, as Spanish people believe, but a person with curly hair as it is known in Mexico. It caused more than one misunderstanding and long discussions where my parents, in spite of their curly hair, insisted on not being Chinese.

I relive over and over again these scenes from my childhood and I still can¿t fall asleep. The arms. The heavy arms. Why did my mother ever speak that sentence to me? What to do with the arms while sleeping?

Well, nothing. I¿ve just discovered it. What happens is that the arms need a pillow. Not only the head needs a pillow that privilege for the thinking parts. Also the lifting part needs a support. A little geese feather pillow, with a nice cover, white and laced, for each arm. Yes. No doubt: arms need pillows.¿

And thus the confident brings the story to a close.*

Translated by Seymour Menton

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La burladora de Toledo, novel, in her own voice (UNAM)

The Merchant of Tudela (novela. Google Books)

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Fuente: * From the book Las confidentes. México, Tusquets Editores, 1997



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