If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Little baby carriage.
Never left alone. At all times. Condemned to being always together at the start of crying. Desperation. For passing the baby from one to the other, he and she, when she took the baby from him and handed it back to him, desperation, returning it, exchanging the child for cries one after the other, ceaselessly every morning, sunny or not, the crying that produced these words.
Little baby carriage.
The little wicker baby carriage covered by a canopy of netting. Every morning, sunny or not. To stop them, the inevitable insects attracted by the sweet smell of bleeding scabs. Welts. And she. Her baby. Hearing the same old song from the entire world. If they don’t take care of him, he will leave them, if they don’t take care of him, he will leave them. And why not? Why not, because always, nothing happened ever, ever, sunny or not. The bath in chamomile. The cries when waking up. Something for the swelling. And the insufferable cries upon cries upon cries beginning all over again. From one to the other, he and she. Powdering him with a special Swiss import. And she taking the baby from him and handing it back. Shielding the child with the finest weave of gauze that could be found. And he handed him back always, always. Little spoons of cough syrup. Crying. Ointment. More crying. Pills. And crying and crying and crying.
And the husband. Gathering up his strength during lulls. Reading the morning newspaper waiting for his breakfast with a slight smile, a very slight smile that did not elude the sadness, the slightest of smiles. Refried beans. Nothing happened, nothing, absolutely nothing, only all those welts, the baby in the little wicker carriage.
Goodbye old woman, he said “old” affectionately. See you tonight.
She kissed him and left. A respite. Resignation. Seeing her hurry off with little birdlike steps until she disappeared at the corner store with its half pints of milk. And she beginning another long walk unknowing, in her own world. A man, at the Palace. The intersecting walkways in front of the National Palace and he lost sight of her. The arrival of morning, sunny or not. And going out. Wrapping him in little quilts, her firstborn, her love, little quilts as green as my little perico, my little parrot, and to the small carriage that already had been used for three generations. Three generations of Sanchezes that included her husband with his thick handlebar mustache, and that fat potbelly that grew and kept on growing. He wasn’t a thinker, no. He worked. Enthusiastic co-workers, with him, constructing a dream that grew, all the while she worrying about the welts, he had the capacity of opening the eyes of a young employee in his office.
And the side streets off the main street, grey and dirty, back to the street, insults and the noise of crowds, from in front, from behind, crossing each blessed street of the perverse city. The odd numbered were avenues. The even numbered, streets. And so it was. A step at a time. Each trip visiting doctors in search of medicine that couldn’t be found. The allergy persisted. And she went on looking for the next small plaque on some inset door. And the same. Nothing. And again and sweating, pushing the baby, the little arms tied to the sides of the carriage, like pushing a black and blue doll fastened snugly, pushing, pulling, pushing, pulling. But if they weren’t strapped down, there would be scratching and scratching until the welts bled. To protect the child from itself. And her own black hair, so admired in better days, had begun to appear uncared for and was turning grey. And she wasn’t even 30-years old yet. And friends in the street. This street so public, so brazen. How is the baby? With dry eyes she explains, they, ignorant of her stopped-up throat, struggling to let pent feelings of anguish escape, of the endless suffering. Let me see him. And lifting the netting, the expression of horror, the chewing of the tongue to hold back nausea at seeing sores ringed in pus. And the comment, what a beautiful quilt he has, or, that’s the most gorgeous color in that quilt, or his hair is so fine. Have you been to see Dr. Lara? Yes. He’s very good, isn’t he? Yes. My husband says that he is the best for children. Yes. When they were young they studied together. Can you believe it? Yes. Since then he hasn’t seen him. Yes. Well, it was nice seeing you. Yes. Yes. Yes. And then quickly she would lose herself among the crowds, doubling back over narrow side streets, over dirty asphalt, one after another after another after another, and like this get through a spell of time and she pushing the carriage along wide avenues, narrow streets, pushing the carriage, bumpity-bumpity, along Avenida del Deseo, bumpity-bumpity until reaching the Calle de la Amargura, bumpity-bumpity, passing by the Church of Saint Carmen, bumpity-bumpity, without ever stopping, without ever giving up, without ever arriving at her destination. Bumpity-bumpity. The baby always trying to inhale a bit of fresh air, his chest rising and falling, rising and falling, the eyes teared and lips of the little mouth, chapped and brittle like pumice stone. And the mother, she continued pushing, ignoring the winter rains and taunts, avoiding demonstrations by students and workers with new demands. She accepted her martyrdom without flaunting it or insisting on it obsessively, she preferred to keep it contained within the silence of her daydreaming.
It was June. She was walking on the street one day when a thunder and lightning storm began to strike the city. Going up Calle de los Suspiros with the rickety carriage, this time to confer with Dr. Godoy, she saw for the first time bright silver streaks between the clouds. How beautiful and how splendidly brilliant, like the finest angel powder shaking loose the northwind’s silences on that blue-white afternoon. And she, her eager eyes following the streaks, saw from them a blazing radiance that was something beautiful, magic, a change, something different to distract her from the worn out carriage that was getting more decrepit day by day and dustier and dustier. How wonderful! The rambling on by the doctor. The blanket, threadbare, the green beginning to fade from the sun. And your husband? Irritable last night. Playing the old Grundig too loud. Medicine, distraction, medicine to calm the child, to keep it from crying, to stop the outpouring of tears … And nevertheless, at times. If the split pea soup was good and hot and the meat free from fat and tender, he would amuse her a little later in the evening. Some gossip from the Palace. About someone like Jack Peurifoy perhaps. Was he still furious with the President? Could it be really? Would he follow through on his threats? Why doesn’t Arbenz tell him to go to hell? Wouldn’t he get along better if he would let his mustache grow? Oh well, her husband always inventing. About land and fruit bowls and threats. And he would smile maliciously as if this was customary with him and then with his pupils dilated he would nuzzle lovingly around the navel. He was a good husband. In spite of the drink. The problems of an allergic son. And would she be hurt, no, she wouldn’t. But that’s men. From the very moment the cathedral clock struck 6:00, they left the office and went into the Madrid Bar shouting, Viva Euzkadi! and then they worked their way home drink by drink. Around seven o’clock he opened the door and would issue fitful whistles summoning her if she hadn’t hurried to meet him, his bad breath with a funereal kiss, the bristle of his beard prickling her lips, the disheveled jacket hanging crooked on the man, tie missing from the middle of his chest. And is dinner ready?
Goodbye old woman, he said “old” affectionately. See you tonight.
In the peaceful sky, puffs of silver powder. As disturbing as vultures that she would share space with. And she watched them grow, growing, like over-sized soap bubbles from a fairy tale. She remembered that she had forgotten to stir the beans. And a faint sound from the carriage. It broke her fantasy. She lifted the netting. The welts were breaking out again. She picked him up, oh my baby, my baby, not a single tear on her stony face. His little arms around her neck, hanging on to her. The little hands, the moistness of the little one’s skin. When she heard that the breathing was normal, she put him back under the green quilt. From far off the clanging of the cathedral clock invaded the stillness charging the senses. It was exactly 4:00 in the afternoon. And she worried she wouldn’t get to the clinic on time, quite a few blocks away, and by foot without a rest. And little by little, above her, the sound of airplanes. A few blocks by foot without a rest. She continued to push the carriage briskly. Her mind raced. Her oldest nephew’s hobby was aviation. He would know about this. No matter what the distance, he could identify any plane. The rumblings stopped. For sure he would become a first-rank pilot and every time she thought about this she trembled. And his influence on her son, her little baby. She should do something to discourage her nephew’s interest in this hobby. And from then on sirens, sirens. A couple at the corner thought it was an ambulance. Three stretcher carriers zigzagged along the sidewalk talking about bombers. But why didn’t she see any smoke in the sky? An accident? She didn’t hear the screams or screeching brakes. Something disastrous? A rescue mission? False alarm? She could envision an ambulance on its way to save another life with a huge red cross centered in a banner fluttering above the street. The baby began to cry and she continued on her way.
The first bomb exploded in the northeast of the city. She stood on tiptoe to see better. Sheet lightning. It couldn’t be rain! And then the earth began to shake and she lost her balance. She yelled out, an earthquake. An earthquake! But then she heard the jocular roar of an airplane.
Because she knew so well all these stories. Like of Xela born at the beginning of the century. Buried alive under cinders from Santa Maria’s leaping eruptions and her mischievous offspring Santiaguito. Her mother had told her this story so many times. Like her father who was very young when he was saved by a real miracle. He was sleeping when the tremors began. An uncle grabbed him from the cradle precisely at the moment when the roof fell in. They quickly set up camp in an open area, desolate, just in time to see Santa Maria erupt and melt the sky. And they left for the city. The little they had salvaged, they threw into an ox cart. And they took turns pulling pulling pulling over the 200 kilometers to the capital. All the oxen had been killed. His house was dead. Like everything else. Covered by a huge wave of ashes. In the capital they built a new house, everyone worked, everyone helped, and when it was finished everyone saw what happened on that famous Christmas eve of 1917 when the gods took out their wrath on the earth in order to wake up the people. It was time to march against Estrada Cabrera. And her parents, yes, they also helped in the cleanup. The same with them in 1944. Another dictator, another revolution. They were as immortal as the parish priest. As immortal as the volcanoes, or old patriarchs bothered by the boisterous noise from an airplane as it gained altitude gleaming whitely between the clouds. It was as constant and recurring as the Katun 8 Ahau. Peurifoy had kept his promise.
The explosions shook everything. Women carrying parasols and men’s tophats tumbled down. A chiclero was seen falling head over heels followed by a little white puppy with long ears. And a shoeshine boy tumbled by leaving behind a stream of centavos spilling from his bag. A wooden leg and a half-eaten melon went by. A set of false teeth followed by a woman, green with embarrassment, who held her hands up to her mouth, tumbled down. A dust cloud, a very fine grey dust, began to cover the whole city and then a second explosion, more to the south. They had scarcely regained their equilibrium from the first when a second threw them to the ground. Bricks fell. Cement buckled and hair on skin stood on end. I lost a pair of Schiaparelli’s with the third explosion. But her husband insisted that As-You-Like-It was not good enough for her. And with the next explosion the ballyhoo of the street stopped and it lifted the carriage off the ground two, three, four centimeters, and it jumped trapping him, threatening her baby with flight. She untied the ribbons that held his little arms in place and with the next explosion, his back, arms, and legs were covered with a fine layer of grey dust and then a piece of bread flying through space hit him in the forehead, an acquaintance tumbled downhill and greeted them on the way down. She grabbed the little one from the carriage and covered him with her sweater, holding him close to her heart. The facade of the corner building fell to the ground, and she, where, where to run, where to hide? The child began to cry at the top of his lungs. The sky blackened with a thick smoke to the northeast and to the south. She felt the welts explode against her skin, the humidity of the pus. And she began to run. She could see that the little carriage with the quilt, perico green, it began to roll downhill, slowly at first and then it began to almost fly, the small carriage that had served so loyally for three generations beginning to move more and more out of reach with each second, moving along Calle de los Suspiros and rebounding to the rhythm of the explosions, going by Avenida de la Libertad without stopping and going further downhill more and more rapidly, another explosion, a two-story house crumbling to its left side, the dense brackish air, lungs weakening, and the little carriage further and further, passing Avenida del Deseo and Avenida de la Esperanza, rolling more rapidly, rolling out-of-control, the fire and blackness mushrooming as far as the horizon. Rolling by Avenida of Vacio and becoming smaller, smaller, rolling, going as before, rolling, goodbye, too far away, now very much smaller, the little family carriage, goodbye, and then it was a bright shiny speck in the distance.
It had taken hours to get home. Hours? Yes, hours. The little one was suffocating, thrashing, sweaty and smelling like pus. The air smarted with smoke and dust and she studied the sky at the entrance of her gloomy patio, the marigolds, the abundance of pink carnations and refulgent begonias, the canaries singing from their cages and the multi-colored parakeets hanging from the corridor ceiling and colas de caballo in each corner ash grey, remembering how she had awakened that morning and discovered the downpour of ash, cinders from the volcano Fuego, that morning in 1944. Now, the woodpecker’s pecking, breaking into a million sounds, her eyes closed anticipating the next explosion. Dust, dust flying up from every corner, the tremors, flowerpots on the ground, broken windows, dust. Very old dust, witness to generations. She saw two rats running from their hole near the second pillar of the corridor and scamper across the patio looking for security somewhere at the base of the rear wall. She saw cockroaches flee from the cracks between tiles and spiders writhing in desperation. The cages swung crazily in all directions, hitting others, the desperate little birds beating their wings frantically, breaking their wings against the cold metal, tearing apart the multi-colored feathers. She ran to the cages, her son in one arm, she opened the doors with her free hand. Fly away! She had seen them hatch. Nestful after nestful after nestful of birds belonging to her grandmother. Then they had arrived there. She had cared for them. They were hers.
She ran to the kitchen for a bottle of milk and returned to the study. A huge mahogany desk rested in the center of the room, the old desk of her grandfather. Dignified. Serene. She threw the chair from the desk out of the way and crawled into the niche under the desk. The child was crying. He was hot and choking. But she felt safe under the desk. She tried to scream but she only heard a mocking silence. Her screams were destroyed by the reverberating echoes of bomb after bomb after bomb, blinding volleys of light in the darkness, ground tremors. She began to pray. Monotonously, in Latin words, their meanings she had never learned. She tried to calm the child. She looked at his face. In her distraction, she had forgotten about his little arms being free. They had itched. He had rubbed his fists against the skin trying to stop the itching. Again the cratered sores, blood running down his cheeks, falling from his chubby chin. She reached for a pair of pencils on the desk. There had been a roll of money in one of the drawers. She tied the pencils together tightly. Far off, another bomb. And she began to wonder about her husband. Was he in his office, second floor and to the right in the Palace? Possibly he would be telling jokes to the other employees, with his jacket off, his shirt half wrinkled. Undoubtedly it would be his last one about Mr. Peurifoy. Or for that matter imitating the face of Mr. “Foster Sucks” after a meeting with Senor Toriello, at the last conference of the Organization of American Colonies. And possibly the ones about the planes would be told later. The first explosion had forced them to the floor. She hoped he hadn’t hurt his hip in the fall. Although the hip injury would reappear along with the expenses connected to the child. And the Minister? What if he also fell? One of his legs was longer than the other. Would he be able to get up again?
Goodbye old woman, he said “old” affectionately. See you tonight.
Nightfall and the bombing did not stop. The electricity went off and neither it nor her husband returned that night. She stayed curled up under the huge desk without succeeding to hush the child with toys, pacifier or songs that she couldn’t get out to sing anyway. His little arms reached for the Mongol No. 2 pencils, his little legs kicking less each time. It rained as soon as it got dark. As usual for June. She was watching the raindrops playing tag on the only unbroken window in the house. The rest of them went with the explosions. The bombs. They had the force of the winter floods, like those swollen rivers she remembered from childhood, cascading from mountains, taking along trees, boulders, cattle, houses, people, chewing up little makeshift peasant houses, chewing up the land, and carving out new channels, leveling hills, breaking up bridges, tearing apart highways and roads, roaring down from besieged mountains, spitting forth their fury, people fleeing in disarray like ants from an upturned anthill in search of a safe place impossible to find. The waters covered everything.
A candle flickered asthmatically in the center of the room. Her only light. The Thunderbolts bolted from holes in the sky and prepared again to streak downward, the sirens did not stop howling, sirens, sirens, and the sporadic rat-tat-tats that followed a single shot. And then the cold and the silence. Would her husband be fighting? After everything was over would they be recognized in the bullet-strewn streets? Quite a while back when Ubico fell from power in 1944 they had beaten her husband on the hip and he got up only because of her help. That June of the past. Where could he be now? Where? How was he? She remembered a classic national joke. When the country declared war against Germany, Churchill went to his atlas to find out where his new ally was located, cigar in hand. He checked and rechecked his maps and nothing. He looked again. Nervously he swept away a little cone of ash that had fallen from his cigar. And there it was. Under the cigar ashes of the great man. The child was thrashing about and began to kick his feet. My child! My child! She began to rock him in her arms. Yes go to sleep, sleep now—the old lullaby slipping out of her mouth between sudden hives of light huge and swarming before deafening blasts sounded that didn’t seem to shock or bother her. What was happening? Ceiling plaster falling all around her. Glass everywhere. From the kitchen she heard distinctly the dear set of dishes she inherited from her mother breaking, that antique and fine porcelain, a rose pattern, breaking one by one, crashing to the floor. The entire house had come under attack. The candle was struggling to keep itself burning, the child’s chest rising, falling, rising, the suffocating dust rising, the last group of rats fleeing from the room. She needed her husband!
It couldn’t be real. She laughed to herself. Another dream, a nightmare. The planes bombed the city, the capital. No. She decided it was a game. Foreign planes arriving to bomb the city. She began to organize everything in her mind. The electricity was off from the bombing and her house began to fall apart, attacked by bomb after bomb. And her husband possibly would not get back. How could he? She decided he was at work when the bombs began to fall. And she would have to endure all this alone. She could. She was strong. Hadn’t she been at the forefront in ’44? And her child, she had a child. And he was covered with welts and he was crying and crying. But it was all a game. And she hid under her grandfather’s desk and spent a sleepless night while the city was being bombarded. And windows shattered and pillars of light struck the ground. Blazes devoured houses, the smoke made it difficult to breathe and the blasts broke pipes and the smell of sewage hovered in the air, brackish water ran through the streets covering bodies of those who had fought machete in hand to the death. People fell into the huge craters that each bomb opened. These enormous craters seemed to go as deep as the earth’s core while the children cried and the mothers struggled to get milk out from under the ruins of the house, like ants. But it was all a game. How long did it take for a bomb to get to the bottom of the earth? It would take the same amount of time as getting to the doors of heaven only at the bottom there was lava. And she continued playing this mental game, composed and trying to decide whether or not she wanted to get out from under the desk to turn on a light. To turn on the switch, press the button. And her husband mumbling under the influence of liquor, is that you? And she had difficulty holding back her annoyance, she couldn’t, and she screamed at him about being late and please brush your teeth and wash behind your ears. He laughed. You are so witty. I can’t ever leave you. And he went from one to the other. Don’t you dare touch me animal! And he slapped her in the face again and that done she made out like her back was sore from washing clothes and mopping and cleaning—the child, the child, those horrible welts that didn’t go away, and the guzzling with his friends, and the cold dinner but what was important to her? That he didn’t eat or the child that cried the entire day, he was inconsiderate, this is what he was, inconsiderate, and he laughed—half laughter and half hearty laughter—and he got good and drunk, flirty—the arms huge and hairy, and she, don’t touch me, and his puffy fingers thrusting between her buttocks and she giving him the line that his shirt collar was dirty and that it was time to wash it, and thinking all the while it would be better to put the light blue shirts in with the white ones, they would last longer, or with the khaki ones perhaps. And a moth flew around and around the light in the corridor, and how she hated bad breath kisses. They almost caused her to get up and turn on the light. The temptation was great. Maybe a bad breath kiss was better than a bomb. And she was hungry. But. And if she did it? The child began to cry. She carefully searched the floor for the pacifier. Those explosions, those explosions that kept up. She laughed. All of this happened because I didn’t turn on the light. She raised her hand. The old hand of a young woman swollen because of the weight of weapons in ’44, swollen from pushing the baby carriage that now no longer existed for going up and down the streets, that continued to be reduced with each explosion because she didn’t dare turn on the light. Her callused fingers had not been prepared for this. But. What was most important? The house needed a good cleaning. The bombs had cleared out the rats and cockroaches. She had been freed from having to clean the filthy bird cages. They had opened up new places in the city where fresh air could descend. Leveled ugly and old buildings and those that were not structurally sound. It was a change. The changes were good she thought. Without them one would be paralyzed, left to think. She felt better. She smiled briefly. Then who was in power? Yes, in complete control, and she laughed a little more, control and more little laughs. Complete control and laughter and more laughter. It was only a question of pushing a button. To re-establish connections, the flow of commands. And an explosion went off in the center of the city, an explosion in the center of the city (but it is only a dream) an explosion (but it is only a dream, she said), in the center of the city an explosion went off (a dream, nothing more) went off an explosion in the center of the city (but it isn’t important, only a dream) in the center of the city there was an explosion.
Translated from the Spanish by Zoë Anglesey.
Arturo Arias, 35 years old, is a Guatemalan living in Mexico. His published work includes: In the City and the Mountains (in Spanish); the novella Ideologies, Literature and Society During the Guatemalan Revolution 1944–1954 which won the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1979 for essays; Itzam Na which won the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1980 for a novella; and the first part of the film script for El Norte. Along with Manlio Argueta of El Salvador, he is a co-editor of the Central American literary magazine, Palo de Fuego published in Mexico.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.