Voices of the Water (English version)
Alberto Ruy Sánchez
Men walk along various paths. Whoever follows and compares them will witness the emergence of strange figures. These figures are part of the secret writing that permeates everything and can be perceived in everything: on unfolding wings, on eggshells, in the motion of clouds, in snow, in crystals and petrifications, on frozen waters, on the inside and outside of rocks, plants, animals, men, in the nocturnal sparkle of the stars, on one glass surface rubbed and stuck to another resinous surface, in the arc filings form around a magnet, and in the surprising coincidences of chance. Visible in all these figures is the key to a hidden writing, its grammar, but this visibility does not mean it can be reduced to fixed forms, and it resists being turned into a lasting key. One might say that a universal solvent ―the alchemists' alkahest― had been spilled over men¿s senses. Their desires and thoughts seem to congeal only for a moment or two. Then their premonitions surge, and a moment later everything before their eyes becomes confused once more, as it was before.
The rain suddenly breaks the dry calm of the afternoon. Its thousand voices pursuing and succeeding one another thoroughly drown out all conversation. They simultaneously stop a dogfight and a couple making love outdoors. The windows cry out, the rooftops cry out, the trees howl as their leaves sway, and on the ground water falls on water like one tempest trampling another.
The afternoon had turned to confused music and through it runs a woman like a beam of light rushing into a pool of water. The joy in her face not only makes her more beautiful, it makes one think that this woman isn't worried about getting wet. She runs, but not to get out of the rain; something else calls her. She is like a narrow river that enters a wider river and crosses it almost without mingling.
She makes her way through the rain, passes through it. One might also say she looks down at it, for her hurried steps kick the reflection of the rain she sees on the ground. Now and then a few drops slide past her head, and her hunched shoulders carry them down the length of her back where, following the same course, they enter a deeper riverbed. Then she shudders once or twice, a reminder that even deep inside her it is raining.
The packet of papers she is trying to protect with her arm and hands is a bunch of letters poorly wrapped in a yellow envelope, together with other pages written in the same washed-out, nearly illegible handwriting. She sees his name is abandoning the paper, she can almost see it floating on the water. A small piece remains in her hands: her thumb squeezing a drop of water against the letters and the half-drowned ink seeping from either side. So too the sheets of paper were slipping from the packet, and so from her skin an impatient legion of nanny goats was emerging, hoping to feed on the words imprisoned in those letters.
And now, to clarify what wave it was that moistened her movements, I should explain that before reading the letters, she opened the door with a single turn of the key, looked at the table, and carefully poured paper over wood. In so doing, she rapidly laid down a beach where her impatient glance might finally settle. To one side, four letters written on various kinds of paper. To the other, a more plentiful packet of pages that says on the first page: voices of the water.
First letter. The most yellowed sheet of the paper. The most elated penmanship. No date. At the top, his name, legible only to her.
The December afternoon when we gathered a thin caress of dark earth on the skin of our backs, just a few yards from our braided bodies the lower bank of the cemetery was beginning to be eaten away, as it was every night by the amorous advance of the waves. Five slender crosses revealing submerged graves seemed to scratch at the surface of the water, which, as the day slowly drew to a close, took on the irritated shade of reddened skin. By then the wind was similarly abusing our nakedness. Its chilly whistle hastened us to unravel arms and legs and put an end to the little candescent death to which we offered ourselves.
Before the black line of the horizon could spread itself over the whole of the sea and sky, we gazed at a white sail that was flapping violently in the distance. The shifting crew members were barely distinguishable. The sail seemed to be sinking but would escape from sight only to spring up again from its invisible hiding place, tinted by the advanced twilight. It was an image whose outline shimmered: at first a bright goose feather stuck in the belly of the tide, suddenly it was floating dragon vomit. The white blaze lasted three blinks of an eye. We thought the vessel had gone down following the movement of the night, but as we later learned, it reached ―needle on cloth― the shelter of the dock.
As the cold insisted on sealing our pores, we got dressed. Abandoning the cemetery, we found ourselves surrounded by a thousand luminous specks nibbling at the night ―crab eyes and fugitive phosphorous from the graves. The fragile black veil with its intermittent lights unwittingly illustrated the inconstancy of our emotions: there was something in us, too, mute and blinking, that seemed to have escaped from those graves, moving toward another life. We shivered as if the wind had lodged in our clothes and wanted to deposit its turbulence in our bones and guide our steps.
Embracing one another, we walked until we could no longer see the silhouettes of the graves. We began to wet words in a café-bar in the port. We simulated a boiling waterfall to drive off the intrusive wind and make our bodies' new riverbed our own. A burning sensation slicked our throats. We slid down the drinks ―a two-mouthed skin-flask― as if our swift lubrication were fueling a fire.
Second letter. Various sheets of paper of different sizes. A long stain on the first page. The writing becomes illegible toward the end. The date is written two times, one over the other.
After so many months of silence, I send you at last the long letter you were asking me for. If I began on the previous page by describing to you one of the last moments we spent together, it wasn't to celebrate any eruption of my memory, even as its infectious fluids moisten the sheets you hold in your hand like cheap perfume. I would like to tell you calmly of the chain of accidents and obsessions that, little by little, have cornered me this time. Of course, you might see all this as just a bunch of excuses and justifications for not having written to you sooner. But it is, moreover, an sugar-filled attempt to tell you, almost in your ear and with unavoidable clumsiness, of the songs, bellowings and stampings of a strange force that dances through this kind of confinement. And if I should mention again the last afternoon we spent in the Sète cemetery, by the sea, it is only because that is where the obstinate, haughty sensation that pounds in me to this moment first began to inhabit me.
When I found myself in the knot of our bodies, gently rolling around among dry flowers and gravestones of sand, my eyes were brimming by rage, objects, memories. I shuddered for the first time when I thought how we were, that afternoon in Sète, like something that dies and turns into something else: a parody. I know this isn't very clear, but I can't say it in just a few words because I myself still don't understand what it might mean to have the sensation of acting out a macabre mockery of all I had lived and desired up to that point.
It was as if each minute in time were not succeeding the previous one, but parodying it. As if all things were transforming themselves, laughing at what they had been before. It was like believing that the butterfly learns to fly in order to mock the self-absorbed caterpillar, or that the foam of a wave falling on the sand is the laughter caused by the withdrawal of the previous wave. Ice wants to point out water's clumsiness and steam, its bad temper. An erect penis is the stuck-up laughter at its moment of limpness, while a flaccid penis mocks the stiff one with more expressive mimicry.
Here in Mogador, they say the world was created in bursts of laughter, that it was made by nine gods with three heads each. The nine gods were making fun of each other, as usual, when it occurred to one of them to create a strange thing that was a caricature of its victim. The insulted god responded with a new freak of the other gods. Then one would respond by creating a consumptive cat or a bat-frog that was no longer simply the grotesque portrait of one of the gods but a mockery of the previous caricature as well ―that is, of the previous creation. Suddenly the nine gods were creating strange, stinky plants, dry planets, black holes in the universe, axolotls, viruses, tiny edible dogs. Successive mockeries that have given us the illusion that certain animals derive directly from others or are their lovely evolution, when everyone here knows that man is nothing but a badly made monkey with the ridiculed profile of one of the gods. This scene of the final creation ends, as they tell it, with an explosion of euphoria of which it is known only that laughter interfered with breathing and turned a few faces purple. The three heads of each of the nine gods all began to parody each other, then each of their appendages, and still later, they were laughing down to their most minuscule particles. As the world continued to grow amidst this turbulent confusion, it soon became impossible to distinguish who was imitating whom and where motion began.
Suddenly I could see the farcical kinship between all things, and on occasion, I even find my own skin harboring altered machinery. Something has inhabited me since that night and it is never the same inhabitant. Things happen in me, deteriorating in order to take on forgettable formations. Against my will, I am exposed to the incessant passage of a watery snake with a thousand successive bodies. It shapes me from within, differently every time, and leaves without the slightest pretext, inserting itself, inserting me into any other body whatsoever, penetrating a pair of eyes or a couple of words, spreading itself over the cracks of pavement, racing down lines of sight, compelling me to hold images of myself I had never suspected.
What I wanted to describe to you is this sensation of fluid in a thousand forms, of vast permeability. The passage of time ―and of the world through time― as an endless parody is merely the visible form of this flow, its crudest face.
If I could maintain the same mood, at least while I write, you would receive not several letters but a single, stable one in which I would calmly describe for you the small, trivial incidents which, from that afternoon in the cemetery through this morning, have allowed me to recover what I am now sending you together with these letters.
Third letter. This is the penultimate series of small pages in the first packet. The paper is of two colors. Each character is round and stable like that of a manuscript copied several times over. The date is recent and indicates the passage of more than a month since the previous letter. To look at each page is to experience a state of tranquility that allows one to think of certain landscapes and certain movements. .
Only two or three unsettling dreams still make me feel as I did when I wrote what you've read up to now. I begin again, but with simpler objectives. I think those sensations are fading now. I say this because I am slightly ashamed at the elation of the previous pages.
We said goodbye that night in Sète and the next day I embarked on the Agadir, that was the name of the Moroccan boat that would take me to Mogador. I was dwelling on your image as I boarded, and there in the boat it merged with what I least expected. I need not explain how the gestures of the French from the port contrasted with those of the Arab sailors. I recognized something familiar in them, yet at the same time, very distant. I don't need to explain to you how extremely comforting their gaze, their proximity, the casual manner of their labyrinthine intimacy, were to me.
Dinner was the only thing lacking that night to add to the mood I had carried in me from the cemetery on the beach, the pleasure of the tiny explosions that accompany a strange spice. The subtlest of disturbances entered through my mouth and through my mouth it would leave, finally taking the form of silence. It was dawn when we entered the Gulf of Lions. I was with several other passengers in a sailor¿s cabin, listening to a long tale of transactions and tongue twisters, when I had my first premonition that the phantom of the Gulf ―seasickness― had leapt to my tongue. I don't remember my tongue having ever been so scared. The contractions continued to squeeze my stomach although it no longer held even the idea of a single damp crumb. Even the memory of food had been left afloat on the choppy, open sea. Minute particles lost in the jaws of the waves that seemed to bite us. I tried to reach my place in the boat, assisted somewhat by a sailor who was also on the verge of overflowing.
As I was traveling third-class, we descended six long flights of stairs, far below the boat's waterline. Then he left, just as the smell rising from my passenger compartment hit me. We were close to eighty people in a room full of rows of semi-reclining seats. Obviously there were no windows. A blanket bearing the name of the boat was folded on each seat. It was like a movie theater with neither screen nor emergency exit.
Nearly all the passengers there were Moroccan workers returning home after having worked a long time in France. I thought I was the only one whose tongue was horrified, but when I reached the compartment I realized that I was one of those least harmed. People were running to the only bathroom and never getting there in time. When people did make it, they found the bathroom as overflowing as they themselves were. You had to lie on the floor because the queasiness in your mouth increased when you stood up. Lying on the floor, under and between the seats, it hardly mattered where you put your face. It was so difficult to stay in one place that even the pills and suppositories a doctor gave us refused to stay in our bodies. Some said it was colder than in any blizzard. The cold never relented; nothing gave off warmth, not even for an instant, and since we were right in the prow where the boat took the brunt of the waves, we absorbed the blows of the tormented sea almost directly into our bodies. Nor did the motion ever cease: each blow was the inevitable notification of the next.
Then there was the smell, the greatest cause of the delirium of foodstuffs. Furthermore, I still remember with horror the exceedingly Arab manner in which my companions sang out their troubled self-confidence without inhibition. I can remember in detail the mass of slow and excessive belches that would begin with a dry blast and end with a repeatedly fluid one. No one held back a sound; no one could have.
Several men were crying with their children in the back of the compartment. Two tattooed women were shouting out their prayers, as if wanting to conquer the insistence of the waves with the harshness of their words. Knees and forehead touching the floor, they would lift up their heads and whip them back against the floor. The people watching these women shut their eyes, but even their eyes could not remain in one position for long.
It's hard for me to go on telling you about that night. Imagine that it lasted so many hours that the moment arrived when time no longer mattered. No one could sleep, stay warm or keep from smelling or hearing the clamor of mouths mimicking the sea. We were submerged in that intestinal storm, which seemed to be shaking the sea rather than vice versa. It was an abdominal contraction that stretched frightfully into the world. It was the world stirred up by the turmoil of a few ¿intestinal snakes¿ deposited in the most fragile corner of a boat.
Sleep did not arrive with the night that time: it was more of a generalized faint that came over us. We didn't fall asleep; we practically fell unconscious. The contractions continued. The women praying in Arabic continued hitting the floor and we could feel their blows even in our eyelids with our efforts to keep them closed.
Dawn didn't follow either. Day doesn't follow night in a pit. Rather, it was as if something else had begun: something like the arrival of someone you¿ve been expecting for some time. When I opened my eyes, everyone in the compartment was calm. Who could say how many hours had passed? Everyone knew each other's most primal responses and now glances intertwined in recognition. We had all sung and were now gathering up our grains of voice scattered among the others.
In the back of the room, a circle had formed around a man. Eight or nine people were listening to him. He was moving his arms and the dance of his fingers was so eloquent it almost allowed me to guess a few details of descriptions in Arabic. Now and then the people listening to him would hesitantly utter a word and he would shake his head or nod in approval. I asked someone to explain the story to me and bit by bit I was given the rough outline of a brief sea epic. It concerned a strange boat which our narrator, Ibn Hazam, swore he had seen two years earlier on this same passage after a great storm.
This man had his listeners knitting their brows on the periphery of his tale. If I understood correctly, there was a time when the cities of the Mediterranean expelled everyone who didn't fit the logic laid out by the streets. Citizens would pay sailors to take these people away and throw them into the sea. On occasion, after weeks at sea, since the logic of the ocean was contrary to that of the streets, it would become difficult to distinguish between the people who had been expelled and the crew. And so, one of those boats came to hold only those whom the Arabs called "people without corners." The people living in the ports then began to speak of a boat they referred to crudely as ¿the ship of loons.¿ Ibn Hazam said he had seen the ship emerge from the horizon issuing a shrill, monotonous music. Everyone pressed him for details. I don't know if I understood what he was saying or what I preferred to understand. But certainly I inserted my own images into his. I liked the remote story of the ship.
But in less than an hour the prayers broke loose again in response to the disquieting litany of building waves. Imagine everyone¿s horror when they saw that what they thought was over had begun again. This time the jolting was gentler but the passengers¿ torment and wailing were greater. A woman and her two children tied themselves about the waist with a length of cord so as not to be separated when the boat broke up. A pallid boy came down to the compartment swearing at the top of his voice that he had seen the captain and his assistant very seasick and in tears. The two women began again to whip themselves against the floor in distress and the few men who could still articulate a few words joined them.
Also on board there was a guilt-ridden missionary ―Christian, of course― who wished to give a sermon relating the life of the holy Portuguese nun who, in the midst of a storm, saved the crew of a ship that was carrying thirty women to the Barbary Coast to pay a large ransom for their husbands. He told how they flung a handkerchief full of relics belonging to the holy woman into the sea and that the floating bundle was immediately surrounded by a halo of tranquil water. The halo grew and grew and by the time the bundle reached the horizon, harmony reigned over all the sea and all the sky. And suddenly the sun came out and land was sighted, as if joyfully welcoming the vessel.
The more the missionary sweetened the ending, hoping to instill optimism in the passengers and crew, the more desperate they got. Everyone was talking at the top of their lungs and it was just as well they couldn't hear him, for they might have thrown him into the water, relics and all, to see if it was true.
I lost consciousness more quickly than before, and only remember hearing people shouting insistently that we were becoming the very ship Ibn Hazam had described. I know I thought a good deal about this before my eyes gave out.
I awoke in the ship's infirmary. The sunlight, filtered and refracted through a bottle of serum knocking against the metal window frame, scratched me. I know you can't trust everything you see, but there in the distance was an orange canvas sail and a tall topmast covered with foliage. A clown with bells tangled in his hair was climbing the mast to untie a roasted chicken that hung from its branches. It was the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Ibn Hazam had said, but I saw in addition four goats perched in the tree, grazing on its leaves. The ship was crammed full of people and it was difficult to see what direction it was going to. I wanted to go up on deck to get a better look at it with the others but it was out of my sight in an instant. The last thing I remember is the bright color of a long plank emerging from one end of the ship, which a gluttonous monk and a singing nun supported on their legs as if it were a table. Piles of cherries rolled down the plank, crashing at last into the sea.
The ship's doctor came to calm me down. I found his assurance insulting. He said that it was all my imagination, afire from the weakness of my body, and he left the hospital cabin saying in a loud voice, accompanied by rhetorical, operatic gestures: Oh, great sea endowed with deliria! And he slammed the door after nearly shouting at me: The wind is on the rise ... You must try to live!
Eight other people on the boat had seen the ship. But the nine of us gave very different and even contradictory testimony of what we believed we had witnessed. I can understand that it must have been difficult to believe us at the time. I thought then that while we were indeed all very weak and perhaps inclined to delirium and while the ship might be a phantom, she certainly sails, if only on an imaginary sea that extends to wherever any of us who saw her might be.
Her voyage, suspect and less personal than I imagined at the time, was part of the journey that began for me the afternoon at the cemetery and which, somehow or other, ends as I send you the packet of impossible chronicles of the ship's passage and the voices issuing from it, which you should find together with these letters.
Fourth piece of correspondence. A small sheet of paper dated a day after the other ones.
I¿ve lived this voyage of the things and the people that touch me inside like a confluence, magma, confusion. When I wanted you and I evoked your image, a thousand ghosts came to people this new zone of invocations. The nights on the ship extended the limits of this zone until I lost it in the horizon. Maybe my needing of travel around the ports to collect everything people could tell me about the ship was a way to touch again that lost territory where you reign directly or indirectly. Beyond that I can¿t explain anything. Truth is that when I finished my collection of voices, I felt like the one that draws a circle in the air, and I needed you to read all this to close it.
By arriving to Mogador ―I¿ll tell you later how amazing it was to get into a walled city, magic and non-accessible like you―, I was surprised that so many people talked to me about the ship. With the slightest invitation, they started to say what they knew about her, so I wrote and built each one of the following stories. Almost everybody talked about the crew of the ship. It surprised me that they could know in such detail their lives. But a woman explained it clearly: ¿Here, before we see the ship that you mention, we hear it. The sea wind brings to the shore a strand of noises that let us know she¿s coming close. Those who hear it for the first time got scared; the others run to climb at the top of the fort tower to hear better or they go to the end of the dock. And when far away you can see a little dot, those with good eyes say people on the ship is open mouthed, and that they come shouting to you their lives, their troubles. They all speak at the same time, so stories get all mingled. But like at the end, you hear the story you can hear, and you can hear what you want to hear, we all end up being more or less happy when the ship passes by.¿*
Translated by Mark Schafer
* * *
BOOKS BY ALBERTO RUY SÁNCHEZ (CNL-INBA)
"El jardín de voces", in his own voice (UNAM)
Reading at the PEN American Center (YouTube)
"Luz del desierto". Dramatized reading (20éme edition du Festival des Lettres d'Automne)
|Fuente: * From the book New Writing from Mexico. USA, Northwestern University/TriQuarterly Books, 1992.|