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Literatura en México

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

The Nigth of the Ants (Excerpt. English version)

Aline Pettersson



Sonofabitch!

The impact takes the man by surprise, making him reel back. A spurt of blood stains the leg of his pants as he sees how his attackers flee with his wallet and watch. How they lose themselves among the shadows of the trees, in the distance. Only the sustained murmur of the traffic remains.

At first he tries to follow them. But only for a fraction of a second, because he realizes immediately that this will not be possible. They have severed a large blood vessel. A vein? An artery? The blood wells, soaking the fabric. He wants to cry out, but makes no sound. There is no one to hear him. 

He lifts his hands to his leg and presses hard with his fingers. It has all happened so fast, so unexpectedly. He doesn’t feel pain, just surprise. On the ground now, he unbuttons his pants and lowers them to his knees. He applies pressure, and again, but the blood, indifferent, continues to gush forth. The artery! It must have been the artery. The flow is very heavy. Why, Lord, why was it not the vein?

He leans against the trunk of an ash tree, squeezing his now wet fingers into his thigh, and feels the fullness of the night. The leaves whisper as the breeze moves them, an almost inaudible murmur covered by the noise of the street. Through the trees he sees the silhouetted buildings, the lighted homes. And he is so alone, so isolated, as if he were in the middle of a forest instead of in the park, with help so near and so inaccessible. How many steps away? If he could just begin walking. If he could... But he can’t. The fingers pressing into his thigh are numb now. He removes his hand. Yes, the numbness is only from applying pressure, because the other hand, as it gropes for the opening, is still strong. Still. For how much longer?

But did no one hear the shot? And even if someone had, who would expose himself to another shot? Would he? His oath – he would have to. But would he do it in this gathering darkness? In these times? He would find the courage to offer his help even if the person had not cried out for help. Would he really? Cry out... shout. He’s going to do it. It’s his only hope. The minutes are going by... later, even if he attempts to call out he will no longer have the strength. It must be the artery. Hippocrates. The oath has survived as an empty ritual... survived. Maybe all rituals become empty. What would Hippocrates do? Apply pressure, as he is doing, and suture the wound, if possible. Maybe laying the patient on a bed of marble. He will be on a slab of marble soon enough himself. The eternal marble bed. Where is Hippocrates buried?

They will look through his wallet, count the small amount of money. Examine the credit cards. But they won’t use the cards, not after shooting him. Or perhaps, during this short lapse of time when no one knows yet, they’ll shop frantically. They have only half an hour until 10:00. I only have a half-hour. But their half-hour will end with the security guard locking the doors of the store. Mine will end with my end. No, he doesn’t even have half an hour. Only a few minutes more and it will be too late. Why? Why? All because of idiotic rituals. The Hippocratic oath, the walk. Time never looks back, but I wanted to turn the clock back. Childhood in the park...death in the park. The circular nature of rituals. The security guard locking up the store. And here? Why isn’t he here instead?

All the fingers in the world could not help him now. Not here. The man knows that if he could just get help, all this would be nothing more than a bad dream. A bad dream with a happy ending. Who could know this better than he does? But he is alone, even the barking of the dogs awakened by the shot has died away. The city goes about its routine, deaf to the man who cannot raise himself from the ground. Deaf to the blood which flows from his body without pity. He summons his strength and shouts as his fingers continue their attempts to staunch the flow. The spurt of sound ebbs away among the trees. 

He is going to die. Yes, in a stupid, unnecessary, useless way. But aren’t all deaths like this? Or most? He’s going to die because of an idiotic whim, because of wanting to recapture the past. But time never goes backwards. It follows its course like a river, a river that carries along and casts off those who enter its current. Just like his blood, which courses now outside its natural limits. But time remains within its boundaries, always continuing in the same direction, picking up and dropping off passengers. With no warning, no chance to express my opinion, my stop has been announced.

The man doubles over. With sudden violence, like the impact of the bullet, the pain makes its presence known. The pain that up to now was muffled by surprise and drowned in the coursing blood, leagued with silence, not as an accomplice, but in momentary resignation, has now turned rebellious. It centers itself at the spot where the bullet entered. The body protests this aggression, reacting with more energy than the man. The body knows nothing of explanations and cries out in protest, wanting to sweep the man away with its cry, the man leaning against the trunk of an old ash tree, shuddering in his silence. He wishes, perhaps, to preserve in that silence even a tiny fraction of the strength that flows out of him, hidden in the now naked flow of his blood.

As his hand presses and the blood continues to escape, the man, in the terror of his search, in his urgency to find a way to save himself, looks all around him. Perhaps a passerby will appear any moment now, someone whose mere presence will anchor him once more to the life which retreats from him. I can’t be the only person crossing the park after dark. It’s a park, after all, not a battlefield. Someone has to appear soon. Someone will be walking his dog, someone will have made a date here with his girlfriend, someone will come out for a walk before going to sleep. To sleep... To die...

The palm trees raise their ancient and unruly heads. A few minutes ago it had occurred to him that they would not last much longer. They’re sick, moribund, he had thought. Different from the faraway memories of his childhood. His present age will very soon be distant too, though. Everything will be. The palms will continue slowly to deteriorate. How he would like to see them die of old age, of neglect, sickened by the time which now flees from him. Palm trees that towered so high above him, beckoning his small feet that attempted so many times to climb them. How ugly they are, he had thought, or maybe that’s how I would have seen them then if I had looked with these almost-fifty-year-old eyes. Children look at the world through different eyes. The age of the palms is measured some other way, their temporal dimensions are different. Maybe these trees are the same age as I am, even though they’ve been in the world longer. Pain twists his body. And so close, and so impossible to reach, are the lighted windows silhouetted beyond the trees, on the far side of the street.

All this is also because of that stupid discussion with Elisa. God, they’ve fought so many times. So many. And yet they always come back because they need each other. I need her now. Dammit, I need her, and she’ll never know. She’ll know when it doesn’t matter any more. She’ll go to sleep mad, waiting for the telephone to ring... but it won’t ring. So many quarrels that ended in a truce, a coming together of the ways between two parallel voices, antagonistic and loving.

Elisa with her heightened intuitions, her gaze fixed on some faraway point. Elisa, the woman who has walked with him during a brief interval of the time that today, soon, will be cut short. If only I hadn’t lost my temper that way... He would probably be holding her in his arms now in a reconciliation no less intense for its familiarity. Because the sky is always so much clearer after the storm. Blue, so blue, like the sky which occasionally surprises him in this city of leaden skies. Lead. Lead bullet. If only I had swallowed my pride and given in, just a little. Just a little, she had said so many times. Alfonso, it’s not crazy, let me explain it to you. But he had always refused to make even the most minimal concession. It’s just coincidence, Elisa, don’t deceive yourself. When someone demonstrates it to me, I’ll believe it. Not before. Don’t ask me to toss scientific fact into the wastebasket. Don’t ask me to do that, Elisa. I can’t.

And later, who knows how, the opposite process began. Or, it didn’t exactly begin, they just started to explore other paths. They forgot about words, preferring to read each other’s skin. They immersed themselves in that other language that contains its own explanation. And branches grew, foliage moist with its own sap, with the sweaty dew, with the springs of each of their lives. Springs of life...

Animal instincts, hormonal reactions, synapses, and that’s it. Is that it? That’s not all it is, Alfonso, Elisa had told him; though you might not like to hear this, medical science is still in diapers. Coincidence, you say; but the truth is that you doctors refuse to see what the rest of us mortals feel, believe, perceive. Mortal: that is the only sure thing. Man’s sole, desolate certainty. Death that is here now, half-glimpsed through the shade of the trees. Crouched beneath the enormous leaves of the acanthus, leaves that hid him so many times as a child. Death approaches, dressed in red, drawing a long, flowing red cape behind him. His fingers continue their futile task. He gathers his strength once more to shout. His voice loses itself in the dark air. Loses itself as everything is lost, sooner or later.

Maybe if he weren’t a doctor, if he weren’t so sure of what awaits him... Maybe ignorance is preferable to this inescapable certainty. But Alfonso Vigil cannot forget what he knows to be true, what he has observed and confirmed all his life. Human impotence, human weakness when it comes to solving the enigma of death. Stemming the flow of the hemorrhage. And all the medical equipment, all the scientific instruments which so many times have failed to assure victory. Doctors aren’t God, even though you may think you are, Elisa had said to him. Others had said the same thing to him too. And the stone-faced, “we did everything we could, sir, ma’am. You have our sympathy.” But what was behind that formula, so mechanically repeated? What, behind a certain compulsion to put a proper face on the circumstances, to voice them? Life had gone on for him, at those times. And the bereaved family members, let them take their grief elsewhere, away from him. Besides, I don’t even believe in God. And now, in a very short while, he will be able to confirm that as well. It all ends with the final death rattle. There is no evidence to the contrary. Even though man may search desperately for consolation, for explanations which will transcend common sense. Eternity. The prolonging of earthly time in other dimensions.

And my children? How will Esteban and Ana react? How? Do I really want to know? He knows how coldly (composedly?) he took the death of his own father. No, it wasn’t composure, it was coldness. With the medical evidence in hand, he knew that the end was near, that his father had lived out his time, that this day would eventually arrive, that it had arrived, that it was perfectly reasonable. But his death, is his death reasonable? Hypovolemic shock, the clinic would say. The autopsy will confirm it. Because of course there will be an autopsy. I have never understood the hysterical pleading for exemption from the autopsy. The beloved remains defiled. I suppose it all depends on your point of view. But a corpse is no longer a person. Everything is over when life ceases. Inert matter in the process of decomposition, just like every other thing in this world which was once alive. Only stones conserve their stony dignity, their near-eternity.

And how will they find out? How much later? Who will be the first to know? No, that isn’t important. What matters is for someone to know now, and to help me. I still have time. Ana... How he has loved Ana. He was at her birth - well, it’s true, he was also at Esteban’s. It’s just that with her things have always been easier. It’s easier to get along with a daughter. He has never forgotten the sensation of holding her for the first time. Of seeing her tears cease, her convulsed little face smooth itself, becoming placid in the young arms of her father. Yes, there is a secret well of tenderness in fatherhood. Pa-pa-pa, Ana babbled, and Alfonso’s eyes stung with shameful tears that he tried to conceal. But all the same, he enjoyed those moments, perhaps a little furtively, with an intensity he would not have believed himself capable of. That little conglomeration of cells, that diminutive, clumsy being, half of which came from him. Half of the double-string helix, spiraling and spiraling until it merged with the waves of time and became his daughter.

The man curves into himself with the pain. He passes his free hand over his forehead, his face, his beautiful, thick beard, reddish in color and always well-groomed, though now gone to gray. The beard that always attracted his daughter’s attention when she was a little girl. She would reach out her hands to touch it and then draw them back quickly, surprised by its rough texture. His head leaning over her cradle, letting her touch him with her fingers and then drawing back. How much pleasure her babyish laughter had given him.

Perhaps it was during those early months of Ana’s life that he recovered the ability to be surprised by the world. Being close to his daughter and seeing her wonder at the world and its mysteries. He forgot his profession, all the facts in his head, and fought with his wife for the privilege of Ana’s first smile. He transcended science and believed that he had discovered the first signs of intelligence in his small daughter’s eyes. He believed, as all parents do, that Ana was extraordinary in her incorporation into the world. Afterwards, so many years later, he was surprised to see Elisa so disconcerted by the photo of Elba with Ana in her arms on the night table. Elisa turned away and said nothing, her silence eloquent. Of course, he had other pictures of his daughter as a little girl that were not so strongly reminiscent of his past life. Even so, he was never able to replace the picture. Whoever loves me now must accept my past as well. And Elba is my past.

If someone doesn’t come soon... The seconds tick off like the countdown in the operating room. From one hundred to zero, from everything to- nothing? Smother the anguish, distract the attention, fix it on a single point, hold time fast... Each person’s mini-eternity. Lessen the panic produced by the perception of the edge, hidden, erased. Because when what is known to be true is kept at a distance, it is almost as if it were not known or had been forgotten. Time, perceived in the circular procession of the seasons, flows on, far from us, remote. But here the seasons blend into one another without brusque changes. One day follows the next in the daily routine, in the pleasant, almost unchanging climate. Unchanging for everyone else, unchanging until only a few minutes ago for the man who lies shuddering in the dusk.

Time, which has suddenly become so ominously, so agonizingly present, will continue its journey, always deceiving, but never with the intent to deceive. Because time does nothing more than to continue its course. It is men who, unjustly, cause themselves to be deceived. The inescapable knowledge of our own extinction is what drives us to deny what cannot be denied. And even so... are you sure, Alfonso, that there’s nothing out there? Well, medical evidence... No one has come back to tell the story. And if other dimensions did really exist? And if God really were waiting for us, Alfonso? Go ahead and believe what you want to believe, but no one has ever come back to tell me anything, and in my profession...

Elisa, with her busy hands and her ready laugh and her capacity for joy. Elisa, who lets the hours go by as she ties together the strands of her tapestries. Tying that something that escapes her and that she is determined to hold fast in the warp of her weavings, perhaps driven by the desire to forget the fleeting nature of time. And while her fingers busy themselves, meticulous as a surgeon’s, she listens to him as he tells her his successes, his failures, his projects, his hopes. His words remain captive there, among the threads, until the moment when she will finish the piece that has been woven and unwoven and woven again in search of an unreachable perfection.

The series is going to be called “The Wedding of Iphigenia.” But you’ve never done anything figurative. Well, no, and I’m not going to now either. But I can find inspiration in the subject. Or can’t I? You’ve never even been to Greece. It’s true, I’ve never been, and Iphigenia was never married, but all the same I can invent. Invent? And the landscape? You need to base your work on reality. Yes, on reality, my reality, Alfonso, the one I imagine and dream. And Alfonso would observe her, perhaps a little uncomfortable. At moments like these he’s never sure what her silence means. If she really listens to him or if he’s just talking to the air and Elisa merely agreeing with him while her mind runs free, anchored only by the strands between her fingers which blossom into unexpected spots of color.

If someone doesn’t help me soon, I won’t be at the show. Two months away. Two months – a few minutes?- is the amount of time separating him from the wedding that never took place, from the excitement of hanging the tapestries and toasting to her success. Of turning back time to the night when, by accident, he met her. By accident. Perhaps it is accidents that hold life together. Or let it scatter.

He entered the gallery on that occasion, almost unwillingly, fascinated by the light, the noise, the movement, the laughter. And while the guests conversed, their backs to the weavings, he accepted a drink and wandered around the room, finally beginning a conversation with a tall, slim young woman with high cheekbones and shoulder-length chestnut hair who smiled at him. Alfonso confided his surprise at the tapestries’ strange titles, seeking her complicity, sure that she shared his bewilderment. She agreed that artists were peculiar, with their ways of muddling what was obvious at first glance to anyone else. How complicated people make things! Later, he attempted to escape when he realized his error, but she invited him to the party that was being given for her after the opening.

Liquid strands run between the man’s convulsive fingers. Stains of color spring forth and spread. He has tried several times, unsuccessfully, to stand. And he lifts his voice and shouts again at the distance, at the lighted windows. At life. He must remain calm. I must remain calm. Movement will increase the flow. The flow of life has changed direction. Time curls inward, from the tangled head of the palm tree to its root, to its seed. No, farther back than that. Under the surface of the earth, the thirst of the plant that will never see the light will join with the man’s blood.

...language is superfluous. What is best in us remains inviolate at the deepest level of our being, like the pearl at the bottom of the sea...

Hölderlin

The blush will not leave your cheeks, kindled by your excitement. You cannot believe your good fortune. The murmur of the preparations is a muted, constant, monotonous sound, like the sacred humming of the bees. The untainted recesses of your maiden’s heart cannot contain the marvelous knowledge that all the palace of Mycenae is in movement, readying itself for the journey. Your journey, Iphigenia, your journey. You quiver with emotions you are unable to name. Flooded by a powerful sensation which bathes your skin, your blood, the golden down covering your limbs, you wander through the royal chambers as in a trance, driven by a nameless urgency.

In the distance, you hear the vigorous voice of your mother giving instructions. You watch your servants moving to and fro, carefully extending the folds of your tunics, their fabrics woven by the many hands of the women that love you. Fabrics that you also helped to spin and dye while your thoughts tumbled softly over each other, dreaming of the bright future which is now almost here.

But you have no words... unable to comprehend the tremor which courses through your body, constant as the pressure left by the thread as it runs through your long, tapering fingers, the fingers of a barely nubile princess. The murmur of the female slaves has followed you since the reading of the letter from your beloved father, King Agamemnon, as has the affectionate look of your wet nurse, whose strong arms encircle you until you feel uncomfortable in a way you cannot explain. It is only that the contact of her roughened skin with yours makes you shiver in a new and unaccustomed way.

You catch the gleam of the gold and ivory comb that will smooth the tangled sunshine of your hair; you watch as the oil which will anoint you and purify you on the longed-for day of your hymeneals arcs slowly into an amphora. From your lips springs a song of joy so soft that it loses itself in the childish voices of your sisters. Your gaze goes to them, too young yet to understand the significance of the moment which approaches and which they will not be there to witness. You watch them with a tenderness that is almost maternal, thinking that soon you too will cradle in your arms the fruit of your love, the living incarnation of the beauty you have inherited from Leda and the much sung splendor of your betrothed. 

Because the glories of Achilles know no boundaries, and you, Iphigenia, live blessed by your favored destiny. You remember your mother’s joy as she gave you the good tidings. The house of Atreus’ descendants will be graced by your nuptials with the worthy son of Thetis and Peleus. The gods have been benevolent with you, she told you, as she smoothed your hair, a radiant and loving smile illuminating her face. And her smile was so broad and so generous that it leaped to your own lips. And there it has stayed for many days, with no idea of abandoning them ever. Happy you will be, Iphigenia, very soon, happy you are now as you await the day of the ceremony. As you prepare for the journey, as you dream of the magnificent future awaiting you, a future which only the oxen, unmindful of the coming journey, seem unaware of as they tranquilly ruminate, waiting to be hitched to the wagons.

Your gaze falls on your young brother Orestes who will accompany you and your mother on the journey. Perhaps he is so young that he will not recall the trip later. And it will be you, Iphigenia, who will describe to him how his fresh laughter, like the running water of a brook, gladdened the hours of the journey. Yes, today you watch him as he runs after the doves, watched over by the loving presence of his nurse. You listen to the cooing of the doves that hide themselves among the columns of the palace to whisper of their love, to whisper of yours. Because you would wish to hear of your own love in their song, Iphigenia.

You watch the servants working, untiringly, beneath the shade of the elms that assuage the divine ardors of the sun, completing the last of the cloth that you will wear at your wedding, in your new life. The tender song of the naiads in the fountain fills your soul, blending with your own song. And the delicate aroma of the multitude of flowers infuses the vast array of pinks, golds, corals, magentas, rising from the darkness of the centers to the amphora of the petals where hummingbirds hover, vibrant. Your heart flutters like the rapid beating of the tiny birds’ wings as they seek the nectar of the flowers. Like you, Iphigenia, who also await the nectar of the future. A golden pollen will fill the mild air of your father’s kingdom.

The brilliant blue of the sky crowns the leafy treetops, the dark ridges of the mountains are obscured by an occasional white cloud, blindingly white, white like the foam on the wine-colored sea where your father awaits you. There, before the ranged sailing ships ready to embark in pursuit of the just victory, Agamemnon will take you in his arms and hold you close to his fatherly chest before guiding you to your destiny.

It is not the prospect of future wars, Iphigenia, that fills your head with fevered anticipation. Well you know how men cover themselves with glory on the battlefield while anxious women await their return. How you would wish for the winds to remain calm, perennially calm, avoiding the clash of metal, the tragic flow of blood, preventing, thus, so much pain. Still, your happiness fills every corner of your being in such a way that with the same gesture you use to drive off an impertinent fly you wave away any thoughts which are not in perfect harmony with your desires.

Your eyes follow the lazy aimless drifting of the clouds. You discover in them magnificent herds of sheep and goats grazing in deep cerulean pastures farther away than your imagination will take you. You see the reflection of immense birds that repeat, far away in the heavenly elevations, the silhouettes of the smaller ones that you are familiar with, that flit through the ether.

And you dream, Iphigenia, about the destiny awaiting you at the end of your journey. You are still so young that you would wish to answer the persistent call of your younger sisters, to run with them and join in their childish games. But your life is destined to follow another course.*

Translated by Anne M. Luna

* * *

MULTIMEDIA:

BOOKS BY ALINE PETTERSSON (CNL-INBA)

"Una historia a cuatro manos", in her own voice (UNAM)

Fer y la princesa, kid's novel (Google Books)

"Por el camino de las mujeres" (lecture) (YouTube)

* * *
 
Fuente: *From the book La noche de las hormigas. México, Editorial Alfaguara, 1997.

 

 

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