Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Ay, the smell was swept up, stirred, and scrambled into the air when your father slammed the door; I had barely noticed it until he appeared in the doorway and raised his hand over his nose, covering his mouth. He closed his eyes and wheezed to emphasize the suffocating smell in the workshop, then he let out a huff and headed out into the street in search of that corner. But it wasn’t the corner he was looking for, wasn’t the twisted metal from the accident or the blood of the dead. Your father went in search of your hand. The hand you lost, Aitana, somewhere along the avenue. I hoped your father would never find it near the bus stop, wouldn’t rummage through the dumpsters, wouldn’t ask anyone for your hand in the nearby shops. Your hand would stay lost and you wouldn’t have to go away, Aitana. We could keep putting off our goodbye. We were both waiting (especially me, Aitana) for your father to return empty-handed. We spent the hours going over the details of the accident again and again; ay, the accident, Aitana, that unfortunate afternoon you tried to catch a bus that wasn’t going to stop. So careless and inconsiderate, Aitana, you walked right past the line, oblivious to those who’d been waiting for hours: all those construction workers who’d abandoned the hollows of their reinforced concrete buildings early, the secretaries with their heels worn down from waiting, the students in uniforms, the mothers, their babies. But you didn’t see them, Aitana, you sped up to the front unaware of the frustration you were provoking; that’s what the police chief told us that night without looking up at us: you cut in front of those irritable office workers strangled by their ties, yes, you and your skirt swirling around you. Ay, how long and hopeless the lines have become, we’d always say when you got home, almost night by then: the infinite lines, long as the hours spent waiting for a bus to finally arrive so everyone could climb its high steps and find a place on the edge of a seat, and mix in or get mixed up with other passengers, or stand plastered against the doors, breathless. Ay, you’d say, walking in and sitting down to dinner with us: that’s the crushing crisscrossing of the commuters, that’s what the buses are, pieces of shit going around Santiago and puffing out sickening smoke and polluting the air; this city’s public transportation is a piece of shit. That’s exactly what the people left standing in line that afternoon were thinking too; they were asking themselves, what’ll we do if the bus doesn’t stop, but one of them will surely stop, they speculated. But not you, Aitana, you weren’t thinking at all while you pushed past blindly, stumbling; you were starving to death and didn’t notice the others’ frustrations, you were only trying to get close enough to stop the next bus, to cling to it, to flatten yourself against its scrap metal. That’s why you raised your arm and opened your hand (your hand, now missing) like a stop sign, so the bus driver, who by then was charging down the wide avenue, would see you; ay, yes, the police went on, saying that the bus appeared from afar. They explained how it came hurtling down the street, filled with passengers it had picked up at the beginning of its run, and was stubbornly advancing, packed with arms and armpits and bunions; it approached the stop, swaying under the mortal weight of the workers hanging from its sheet metal, those worn-out men waving their hands, greeting the weary line with almost snide smiles, their tattered clothing fluttering in the wind, their shoelaces snapping back and forth, stamping out a wild dance with the buses each speeding up and braking. It’s a real feat, the police sergeant said contritely, for them not to lose their grip and go flying off while the drivers careen around obstacles, barreling down the avenues in furious races, always under pressure to notch tickets, to finish their shift. As the police sergeant reflected on the risks of transportation, I concluded that that must be the reason why you weren’t home, Aitana, why you hadn’t come home yet, no, not even when you knew that by then we’d already have the table set, the stew heated, the bread toasted and retoasted, that we’d be suffering, worrying about your delay; because we always suffered, we suffered, ay, we did suffer when you weren’t here, that’s what you said looking me in the eyes, emphasizing the always with that new university arrogance, yes, you smiled, soaking up the sauce from the pot with the dry bread roll and explaining to us that it was a sickness, that suffering. A sickness? Why would you say that? You swallowed the piece of bread, soggy like a rotten liver, looked at us with superiority, and continued talking, raising the finger of that hand: you two suffer, imagining tragedies that don’t exist. Where’d you get that from? I asked taking away your plate. You wiped your mouth with the back of your hand and, clearing your throat, heightening the tone a bit and changing key, you explained how our conduct, our behavior (especially yours, Mom, especially yours) revealed the symptoms of an acute professional neurosis. That’s what you said and then repeated: you two suffer from an acute professional neurosis brought on by your everyday work. How your words hurt me, how that arrogant inflection drowned us in our ignorance. We were discovering a new daughter, the university girl who had erased our Aitana. We were stunned by that assertive manner you’d taken to using with us now, that masterly insolence honed with the university loans we’d decided to guarantee with our work, Ay, those miserable loans we’re still paying off. Such hard work to have you talk to us about all those things you were learning each day in class, all those words from your mighty university jaw that so energetically sank its teeth into the corncob from our pot. Yes, it was true, we didn’t understand everything you said, but we didn’t care, we were happy to see your hands moving in thin air to the rhythm of your words, your face bright and unscarred. What beautiful, rare words you brought home to us. We’ve only come to understand years later (especially me, especially) that what you said was true: we suffered because we lived with the dead, because we worked day and night with corpses. That was why death clung to us, that’s why the smell of death hung on us, that’s why you’d come into the house and open all the windows. For your benefit I left them open throughout that long winter, so the house wouldn’t smell of it. Of death. But the smell stayed, Aitana, the wind didn’t carry it away. The stench in the workshop grew stronger and upset your father, and the neighbors started to complain. They all complained. They called the police. Ay, Aitana, maybe you were right, your father and I (but me, especially) were sick from suffering. A chronic illness without a cure. Death had deformed our way of looking at life. We only glimpsed the devastation that settled in bags under our clients’ eyes. We noticed the imminent decline in the twisted shoulders of the widows who came held up by someone else’s arms. We perceived the end in the lost look of the orphans who came with their relatives to pay for their parents’ urns. Ay, Aitana, we pitied them, we’d ask ourselves how long they had left after the burial, how much more life, how much money, yes, that’s what we thought about every day in the workroom, in the neighborhood funeral parlor where your father brandished his chisel and polished the coffins. At least he could take a break when the corpses arrived, he’d screw up his face, he’d turn his back and leave the clients and their papers to me: name of the deceased, date of birth, death certificate, signatures on the contract, bills for services rendered, and, after all that, the money in full, no messing with installments. At our parlor we didn’t loan caskets to anyone: no cash, no service. But we always got it, and I would discreetly put the bills in a pocket while handing them a tissue to blow their noses. It was sad, so terribly sad that our happiness should depend on their tragedies, our budget on their losses, our meals on their corpses. But we were happy too, somewhat happy, because from their squeezed-dry wallets came your newfound university joy. I never told you, Aitana, but your joy didn’t make me happy for more than a second. Your smile was a knife sunk deep into my motherhood: happiness was a possession that could be snatched away from us in an instant. And you were so careless, Aitana. So bright but so distracted. Take care of your happiness, and ours, I thought while watching you in the doorway, with your smile, with your backpack full of books. Take good care of that happiness that causes us so much pain, I would think over and over again, trembling behind the door, one eye at the peephole, and then I’d imagine you lifting your university finger to explain how our suffering (mine, Aitana, mine) was a sharp contradiction: a distortion that resides in your head, Mom, a form of neurosis; and leaving me tangled up in your words you’d race out at full speed to the university. What did it matter to me if it was a deformity or a neurosis or simply an obsession, a mother’s sin, the terrible fear of losing you; what did it matter if my suffering had a name in a book I’d never read. In your absence I’d keep asking myself when what happened to everyone else would happen to us. Every time I stared into a pair of vacant eyes I was closing with my hand, I’d start to shake. I’d ask not to be the last to die, but the first. I’d often say mothers aren’t meant to bury their children. How many times did I tell you this while the windows were open? How many days and their nights while the cold froze us to the bone? How long did we stay here, you and I, before the police came back? I don’t remember. I remember nothing, it was like a long, frozen, unending night; a night in which I thought so many things that I ended up not thinking about anything at all, not eating, not sleeping, not even going to the bathroom so as not to separate myself from you. That night I understood why you had never wanted to go in the workroom where your father hammered out the coffins, holding the long nails in his teeth, and I dressed up the corpses; because that was my real job: to push those stiff legs into newly pressed pants, to button up shirts, to knot ties, to adjust the victims’ best suit or dress and then to cover the blemishes on their skin with makeup, to hide the bags under their eyes, the occasional bruises. The dead had to look alive, death had to be elegant when it came time to say farewell, and that’s what we lived for, your father and I (especially me, yes, especially). That long night, staying with you while you rested, I came to realize why you never wanted to be amongst the dead, Aitana, because it was true, death was a contagious disease, death would only drive us crazy in the end (drive me crazy, me, me) and you knew it, you would tell me, your finger accusing me: Mom, you can’t even tell the difference anymore between a corpse and someone still breathing; every smile looks like a death grimace to you, don’t you see? don’t you see? (What are you talking about Aitana, how could I not see the difference?) It’s the chronic distortion in your head. And where exactly in my head is this distortion lodged? I asked out of curiosity, but you didn’t know, you weren’t sure of the exact location, you couldn’t even tell me that morning if the neurosis hurt; you were going to ask your professor that afternoon at the university, take notes and come running home to point out the exact spot on my skull. You were positive that I suffered from an acute neurosis but nothing hurt me but my soul, ay, it was an acute pain throughout my body, my soul hurt intensely during that whole long night of waiting, and even if you don’t believe me, Aitana, it was my soul more than my heart that beat intensely when we heard the knocking at the door. My head never felt a thing, even though you’d insist the problem was there (in my skull, Aitana, in my brain), because I got sick every time you were late, because, unable to sleep, I would go out on the patio in the middle of the night to wait for you to return from your party, I dialed the hospitals while your father pulled the phone away from me: what are you doing woman? Stop dialing those numbers, nothing’s wrong, nothing. Understand? All right, all right, I’m calm now, I’ll sit; let’s turn on the TV a bit while we wait for her, and that’s precisely how I put up with my nerves that night. (It was awful, awful, why didn’t you ever call to check in with us?) The stew got cold while I waited, while we patiently waited so this time when you got home late you wouldn’t find me on the verge of a breakdown; so you wouldn’t accuse me of having a problem in my head; I even slept a little in the chair until we were woken up by those knocks, the door, it has to be Aitana (but I knew it wasn’t, because you had the keys). Who is it? Who could it be? A desperate client? I asked myself this, trying to calm the pounding of my soul, half asleep but at the same time too wide awake; my blind soul wasn’t understanding what the police were doing, standing there, in front of me, my deaf soul couldn’t grasp what the police were saying that night after we finally opened the door and found their moustaches, those inflamed yet solemn brown eyes of the sergeant who identified himself by rank and name first, then asked our names: Mr. and Mrs. García? Yes, yes. then his face became even more serious, and he told us, I don’t know what he told us, what? An accident? I only listened to what your father mechanically repeated to me, you were hit by a bus, a bus? Ay, your father repeated it all to me again when they left, as if he hadn’t understood it either. According to the report, the police officer with the brown eyes told your father, who then told me, you jumped the line at the busstop, and seeing you play dumb, the office workers got angry, tore off their ties, and whipped them at you menacingly; the laborers got angry too and started to insult your mother (but what did I have to do with it, most of all me, with their troubles?), and the secretaries threatened to poke out your eyes with their worn-down heels, and the students grabbed rocks, and the mothers, even the mothers with their crying babies. And you, the sergeant said, though maybe he said and Señorita Aitana García, your father wasn’t sure, but who cared about formalities on that cold night, that Señorita García dodged the threats and the rocks and threw herself into the street: you threw yourself down on the pavement, you tripped (I know, I’m seeing you) falling forward into the open mouth of the driver who saw you too late, slammed on the brakes, but the bus still skidded forward with all its passengers. The driver and all of them rolled over your skirt and a lot of people were injured, Señor, Señora García, I’m sorry, and quite a few died because they were thrown out of the bus by the sudden braking and fell head first, sideways, even feet first with their pants soaked in blood, their shoelaces twisted around their necks, their lips clamped shut and their eyes bulging open, and under them all, under the bus, ay. That’s more or less what they told us that night, what your father had to explain to me again just before dawn: that we had to leave for the morgue right away to claim what was left of your flowered university skirt and your backpack, to identify you among the remains of the other accident victims. That’s what we did in the dim light; combed our hair, washed our faces, dressed ourselves. While your father put on his jacket, I put the lukewarm dinner in the thermos, the disintegrated rice, the mushy carrots, the restewed cabbage and the corn still on the cob I was sure you’d gobble up to satisfy your hunger and lessen the weight of what had happened. We went out, the deserted street still lit by a few dim orangish streetlights. Wait, I whispered to your father, wait just a minute, I’m forgetting something, I told him, and he looked at me taken aback, what are you doing woman, come on, come on, where are you taking that underwear? but he didn’t try to dissuade me because he quickly realized that it was your underwear, it was your food, just in case, just in case, right? and your father nodded with extreme sadness and gripped my hand in his very calloused one, he took it gently, like he hadn’t done in years, he clasped all my fingers together, and like that, like desperate newlyweds, we stopped on the sidewalk as the sun rose to wait for a cab that immediately appeared in the distance, its headlights still on. The driver didn’t ask us for an address because he knew perfectly well where the morgue was; he didn’t say a word while we waited an eternity at the traffic lights, and he didn’t want to charge us for the ride: I’m a father, he said. Your father snapped at me, come on, let’s go, because we were in a hurry to get you out of that darkness full of corridors and rooms. Behind a screen, that’s where your name tag and all your belongings were, there you were, ay, ay, on the stretcher, completely covered by that sheet I wanted to pull off you, but no, they said, just a minute Señora, wait, the young lady is sleeping, don’t wake her, yes, yes, your father might say no, but yes, I heard them clearly, she’s sleeping, let her rest a little, and I sighed with relief, started to cry softly, and even blew my nose using your underwear, but then I contained myself, don’t cry, stop crying, Aitana doesn’t like this racket, she’s going to point her finger at you and she’s going to say you suffer too much, that you’re already imagining a tragedy, you and your deformed head. So I searched my mind for some image of you that would make me laugh, and you know what popped into my mind? your smiling face as a little girl, full of corn kernels where there should have been teeth, you thought you were so funny when you did that, and that memory comforted me, I started to laugh quietly and soon I couldn’t control myself, roaring laughs were bursting from my body because all I could see was that yellow, corn-filled smile, and the more I tried to calm myself the harder it was, and they pulled me out of the room and your father stayed inside with you and the medical examiners while, outside, a nurse put a pill on my tongue and had me swallow it down with a whole glass of water. And I tried not to choke on the pill that slowly eclipsed the laughter and made me sleepy. Those hours in the morgue are clouded in drowsiness, ay, I was so tired but I couldn’t give in, I had to get back to the cold room where you were resting and uncover you, I had to caress your cut and bleeding brow, the only thing I wanted in that moment of intense lethargy was to caress your hand still raised like a stop sign towards the bus driver who saw you, yes, he surely saw you because he managed to brake even if it was too late. I wanted to caress that hand but it had disappeared. They told us that they were still looking for it among the twisted metal and in the bushes, they didn’t know where it was, maybe someone, by mistake, by a terrible mistake, took it or tossed it in the trash, your hand, the hand with the raised finger, the hand that grabbed the corncob, the hand that had stuck yellow kernels of corn where teeth were missing. I knew you’d never be able to rest without your hand, we had to wait for it to turn up, and your father talked the medical examiners into letting us take you home in the meantime. Ay, Aitana, I washed your entire body, I would take care of your wounds, cover the bruises with makeup and we would have time for you to tell me everything, little by little; I’d ask you, Aitana, don’t think I forgot, does it hurt or not? the neurosis? where in the head is this pain located? and you would parrot your professors’ arrogant words, and I’d ask you tell me more about this university life you like so much, this life I’ll never experience, because I’m too old for it and I never had the money, yes we would have time while your hand didn’t turn up, plenty of time; this long night will never end, I’d tell your father every morning when he opened the workshop door and whispered, somewhat uneasily, from the doorway, that it was starting to smell foul, that it would smell bad no matter how much I washed you, that it would stink even with the windows open all the way, but I didn’t pay him any mind when he’d start on how it was necessary to place the lid and nail it shut, how it wasn’t cold enough anymore, how the sun was coming up, how soon the neighbors would complain, how the police would come, how they’d look around the coffins until they found the cause. Come on, come on, your father would say, forgetting for a moment that I’m your mother, that they can’t force me to go against my maternal instinct, because, and what about the hand? I’d ask, did you forget that the hand is missing? Aitana needs her hand to write in her notebook, her hand to stop the bus and come home in the evening, the hand with that finger full of pride, ay, her hand! and your father would screw up his face into that of a beaten dog, he’d throw his hammer on the floor, he’d kick it out of the way, and without telling us goodbye he’d go outside, slamming the door. He’d go out to look for it.
Translated by from the Spanish by Bernadette Walker.
Bernadette Walker studies translation at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Ay is her first published translation. She’s also translating Meruane’s novel Mal de Ojo (Bloody eyes).
Lina Meruane was born in Chile and has published four novels and a host of short stories. Her latest work, Fruta podrida (Rotten fruit, 2007) received a Guggenheim grant and was later awarded the 2006 Best unpublished Novel Prize in Chile. She lives in New York.
Originally published in
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.