A Raven on the Snow by Patricio Pron

Carolyn Salas

Carolyn Salas. Breakups #1, 2014, painted resin. Courtesy of the artist.

Translated by Kathleen Heil

That winter the city was full of ravens. They usually gathered in the parks, where they could be found in little groups of three or four, inspecting their surroundings with a wicked stare. If they noticed something shiny in the snow—a wrapper or a scrap of paper—they’d land on it, grabbing it with their beaks, and then spit it out in contempt. Sometimes the ravens would fight over the object, thereby sharing the confusion and disappointment their find created. Then, still united in some way by their defeat, they’d move away from each other slightly before going after the object again with little hops that were both ridiculous and threatening.

He became obsessed with the ravens as soon as he noticed them on the campus of the university he attended. Around town, people were speculating as to why the ravens—which normally arrive in the summer—had arrived so early, and he began taking part in these discussions, usually by pretending to be a disinterested bystander, enjoying his beer while eavesdropping on the polemicists at the bar, or by acting as if he were evaluating the quality of a certain pencil in a store in order to overhear the employees’ conversations, but sometimes he’d also speak up, as if he—who came from a city with no ravens at all, from a country in which ravens were only mythical creatures like Simurgh or the bird who told the tale of the end of the world—had something to say about the matter. He’d lean forward on the table—as though this afforded him some kind of authority, or were a necessary requirement in order to be better understood, like those insufferable speakers who spend the whole time clearing their throats—and would explain his findings, which were generally limited to things that his audience, having grown up in a city with ravens, already knew; but he, with the innocence of someone who finds everything about his surroundings unfamiliar (the innocence of the ethnologist who can only comprehend that which he names), considered these remarks revelatory and crucial.

In the weeks following the ravens’ arrival he neglected his schoolwork in order to spend more time observing them. He’d sit in a park wearing a coat over every sweater he owned, taking  notes while studying the birds’ movements. Sometimes when one got too close he’d kick the air in a way that, inevitably, didn’t scare the bird at all; with a hop, it would move away a few steps, resuming its watch after a reasonable interval. His notebook was full of entries, but they were practically illegible since he wrote with his gloves on and shivered the whole time.

During that time he also met a woman. She was the roommate of a friend, and he was able to see her regularly in those days, often finding her at the kitchen table in the house she shared with his friend, her nose buried in one of her medical textbooks, the illustrations of which, to him, resembled the maps of a war-torn country. He found it hard to believe that all this was inside him; he’d somehow convinced himself that his body was something compact: a slab of pink flesh that shivered when cold and let loose certain smells, and that shuddered with bitterness when he remembered certain events, when something from the country he’d left behind came back to haunt him. He told her once that he didn’t think he was made of such things, that for him the stomach and lungs were imaginary. She looked at him and asked what he thought he was made of, and he told her he thought he was made entirely of flesh, with an organ somewhere that was the organ of recollection; then he added that, if he could get rid of it, if there were an operation that could remove a patient’s memory—not to destroy it but to preserve it as a memento and lesson for others—he would happily undergo the procedure, provided that his memory were kept someplace where he could access it once or twice a year, in order to look back on everything that’d happened to him and thereby reaffirm his conviction that whatever happened from that point on would surely be better than what had come before.

After this exchange she seemed to let her guard down around him, and began to put up with his hanging around the house and looking over her shoulder to see what she was studying before stepping back with an incredulous whistle. Their shared incredulity—that he couldn’t believe what she studied, and she couldn’t believe his doubt—was, he assumed, what created a bond between them and justified his peeking over her shoulder, even though it was also possible that what connected them was something else altogether, because he gradually began to spend less and less time looking at the diagrams, glancing at them for just a second or two before lingering on her hair (which was so curly it looked more like a deep-sea coral reef than actual hair), the curve of her ears, the color of her skin. This sort of thing happens all the time.

They had dinner together a few times with his friend, who completely ignored what was going on. Each time he tried to bring up the ravens, neither his friend nor the roommate seemed interested in the topic. The only thing she said—and perhaps she was just trying to be polite and keep the conversation going—was that they didn’t have ravens in her country, and before moving here she had only ever seen them in pictures and didn’t think they were any bigger than regular birds, so when she saw them in person for the first time, at a distance, in a park, she thought they were chickens that had escaped from someone’s coop. “People don’t keep chicken coops behind their houses in this country,” the friend explained. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they flew off with somebody’s child one day,” he chimed in. They thought he meant this as a joke and laughed accordingly. But he was serious: he wondered why the others weren’t capable of understanding the threat looming over the town, why they didn’t realize that the ravens had arrived with the intention of staying for good, that they monitored everything, and had closed the door on a past without ravens in order to bring about something that had been inevitable since the beginning of time and must have been written somewhere, a forced coexistence that illustrated the uselessness of human attempts to rise above nature.

Something else happened. A few days later, when she noticed him peeking over her shoulder, she set aside her books and invited him to have tea with her in the sunroom. He watched her pour the water into the white teapot, her small but steady fingers holding it carefully, and asked her if she minded him bringing up the ravens again. A car passed slowly in front of the house and the two ravens in the street reluctantly moved out of its way. On the only wall that wasn’t made of glass hung a poster for a children’s movie about ghosts. He asked her if she thought that, since the ghosts of white people are white, the ghosts of black people must be black. She sat down beside him and said, her face serious, that she was certain this was the case. “Well,” he joked as she poured their tea, “if it is, then they must be harmless, since nobody can see a black ghost at night.” But she explained, without the slightest hint of a smile, that black ghosts appear only during the day. Then she told him that, when she was just a teenager, her family married her off to a rich man from her village. She didn’t hate her husband for having purchased her by lavishing gifts on her family, she said, but she didn’t love him for it, either. One day, her husband went to the ocean to fish and left her in charge of the house. The coast was a few hours drive from the village, so he left in the morning and came back that evening with fish to grill and a half-drunk bottle of liquor, along with another he’d emptied while lying on the beach, exhausted from swimming, waiting for the fish to bite. The second bottle had seawater in it. The husband was in a good mood, and that night they ate the fish and drank what was left of the liquor and then went to bed. The husband had a bad dream early on; he mumbled things she didn’t pay any attention to until finally he was quiet. In the morning when she returned from the market she saw that he still wasn’t up, and when she went to the bedroom she found him lying there, dead. She explained that in her country, the newly widowed must sit on the floor during the funeral and are not to move from their spot for three days. He asked her why, and she said it was because their bodies had to warm the ground that would soon receive their husbands. As a result, their relatives must feed, clean, and comfort the women, taking turns in their duties, but on the first day, at a moment when she found herself alone, the ghost of her husband appeared to her and said that on the night of his death he’d heard the voice of a woman asking him to set her free. He didn’t know who this woman was or what she was referring to, but he knew he wouldn’t have any peace in the other world until he set her free, whoever she was. The ghost was black and shivered, as if the other world were an icy wilderness. On the second day, the ghost appeared to her again and said he still didn’t know the identity of the woman he had been holding captive. On the third day he appeared yet again and said he’d finally figured out who she was: a siren who, because she was still young and didn’t know about the watchful eyes of men, had accidentally fallen into the bottle with the seawater he’d brought home; and it was necessary to free her from the bottle so that he could rest. The ghost’s skin was darker than it had been in life, as if, in the other world, a blazing sun beat down upon the dead. She wondered what she was supposed to do. For a second she thought she should grab the bottle and smash it against some rocks until there was nothing left but pieces of glass so tiny it would be impossible for her husband to have any peace, but her husband hadn’t treated her that terribly, after all. On the fourth day, when she was finally able to get up, she took the bus to the coast and brought the bottle with her, cradling it in her arms like a child whose sleep she didn’t want to disturb, the child she’d hoped her husband would give her so she would never be alone again. The sea was choppy when she arrived. She walked to the water’s edge, taking care not to let the waves touch her, and dumped the contents of the bottle into the ocean. Then she flung the bottle in and took the bus back to town. A few days later she gathered up all her belongings, and, taking advantage of the money her husband had left her, moved to Germany before her family could marry her off again. 

He asked her if her husband’s ghost had ever come back to haunt her. First she nodded and then said yes, adding that it only happened once, and that time she asked him what the other world was like. The husband’s ghost thought for a second and then said it was like the bones inside a fish. “When you look at a fish you can’t imagine it has bones, but if you open it you understand that without bones the fish couldn’t hold its flesh together—that’s what the other world is like,” he said.

He stared at her for a while after she had finished telling her story. Outside, the ravens were still scouring the area, although the sun had already set. She smiled at him, but he wasn’t sure if her smile confirmed the story’s resolution or if it was the impetuous smile of someone caught pulling another person’s leg. She narrowed her eyes gently without taking them off him and laid her hand on his, the way a raven, after a short flight, drops onto the snow.

Patricio Pron is the author of four story collections, a book of essays, and five novels, most recently My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing In The Rain, translated by Mara Faye Lethem. His short stories have been published in the US in The Paris Review, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Granta, Zoetrope, A Public Space, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Chicago Review, among others. He currently lives and works as a freelance writer and literary critic in Madrid.

Kathleen Heil is a writer and translator. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Review, Quarterly West, Diagram, Subtropics, The Atlas Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere.

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