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.
Write this. We have burned all their
Write this. We have burned all their
villages and the people in them
Write this. We have adopted their
customs and their manner of dress
—Michael Palmer, “Sun”
“I first came here 20 years ago,” I answered softly as I pretended not to notice his intense blue gaze. He didn’t believe me. That’s what I assumed—that he didn’t believe me; so I went on to tell him I’d arrived on the back of a grey donkey with a bit of food and a couple of notebooks. He put a blade of grass between his teeth and said nothing. The hint of a smile between his lips. The sky as blue as his eyes. The wind.
“And you’ve been dressing like a man ever since?”
I remembered how he had taken me: violently. A stray longing in each hand. A private fury. His fingers like can openers in my mouth. How long I had gone without seeing an artifact like that! I remembered the smell of his sweat, vaguely carnivorous. And the bitter taste of his cheeks. Still bent over the river and still pretending not to see his intense blue gaze, I told him it was better to live alone as a man. He didn’t ask me why I said that. He picked up his small leather satchel and started to leave. I counted his steps without turning to look at him. When he got to number 23, he hesitated. He turned around.
“Will you wait for me?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, still bent over the river water. I put my hand in the current and pulled out a smooth, round stone. I held it in front of me as if it were a mirror. Then I slipped it into the righthand pocket of my trousers. I thought I wanted to remember that afternoon. I thought the stone was in place of the stranger.
I never knew why I had mentioned that figure—20 years. I also didn’t know what it was he’d made me promise to wait for.
Before choosing my destiny, I had read about them. A strange book, half history and half legend. A book from a library in the city. I read it immoderately, as I used to do in those days. With the moistened tip of my index finger perpetually poised to turn the page, I forgot to eat. I only stopped occasionally to get a drink of water, but I never actually drank it; as soon as I put the rim of the glass to my lips, I would become distracted again. Something urgent called to me from across the room, and I answered the call. Before closing the book, I had already made up my mind: I would leave that place—that kitchen, that library, that city. I would become someone else. One of them. It’s difficult to explain why one does the things one does. But everything happened just like it does in books: I left that place, and, almost without a plan, I showed up in a small village where they needed men. I put on my new clothes and committed myself to a life of celibacy. And they, who were so few, bowed their heads when I passed.
The stranger showed up in front of my door one day at around noon. He didn’t arrive, as I once had, on the back of a donkey, but on the battered seat of a military vehicle. A mud-spattered windshield. Four thick tires. A torn canvas roof. The letters on the door made no sense to me, but the words he spoke to me did. He asked me for water, and, since I didn’t move, he opened his canteen and turned it upside down.
“Do you understand me?” he repeated, with growing exasperation, “I need water.”
I hadn’t seen anyone like him for a long time. His gestures, so childlike, so unnecessary, moved me. He seemed to be afraid of dying.
“Where are you from?” I asked him, trying to make him feel less uncomfortable as he stood there in the doorway. Perhaps I was already trying to dissuade him, to distract him. I’ve never known how to get rid of people. When he gave a start, which he attempted to conceal, I realized that he couldn’t see me well. My house, like all mountain houses, was small and dark. Later, he would refer to it as “the shack.” Cool in the summer, warm in the winter. That’s why our houses are that way.
“So you’re a woman,” he whispered in a tone expressing both surprise and amusement. His body was blocking the sun, so I couldn’t see him well either. I didn’t know how to answer. Then he crossed the threshold. A long and voluminous stride. I was very slow to react.
He talked about the war. When he finished gulping down the water, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and sat down at the table. He asked for food. He asked for more.
“What’s that?” he asked when he heard the sound of the bells.
“A mass,” I said as I set a plate with pieces of meat in front of him. “Part of a funeral,” I murmured later.
He ate the same way he had drunk a few minutes earlier: Eagerly. Voraciously. He ate the food with his hands and he lifted it to his mouth without turning to look at anything else. Then he chewed and swallowed noisily. Then he sucked his fingers clean.
When he’d had his fill, he began to talk. He lit a pipe and talked, without stopping, about the war. The words flowed from his mouth just as the food had entered it a few moments earlier: in a deluge. He told about the years of his life. He saw the adolescent he had been, thoughtful and serene. He heard gunshots, the echo of gunshots. He felt thirst. A relentless sun once more wrinkled his skin, blinded his eyes, dried his lips. He swallowed dirt. He desperately craved the taste of salt on his tongue. He allowed himself to be hypnotized by color of fire. He walked for entire nights, climbing hills and descending them again, soaked with urine and with fear. He shot. He closed his eyes and shot. Many times.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” he said. And then, without waiting for a reply, he continued. The cold. The filth. The smell of rotting flesh. Death. He relived it all again. A small body beneath the infinite, maddening sky.
“You’re never more vulnerable than when you’re under the sky,” he insisted.
I offered him some liquor because he seemed to need it. The noise of the bottle touching the wood broke his concentration. He looked at me again. He must have been wondering who I was, what I was doing here, where we actually were, but he didn’t ask any questions. He drank the liquor in small sips. After a while, he fell asleep with his head on the table.
Every forest always has another forest inside of it. The one on the inside is the mythical, enchanted forest found in fairy tales. Living in the outside forest, however, is not easy. Life in the mountains requires effort, discipline, sacrifice. Above all, you need to have good hands. And it never hurts to have a level head on your shoulders, one that’s accustomed to solitude. You need to cut down trees, plant seeds, use frigid water from the rivers. There can be fires. There are bears, and eagles, and other frightening animals. Sometimes, toward the end of winter, everything is covered with snow. And you have to walk on the snow, keep moving forward. Sometimes it’s good to be able to recognize the sound of a breaking branch. It’s good to walk, slowly, on the dry leaves. Sometimes you take a deep breath. Sometimes everything stops. But more than anything else, there’s work in the forest, lots of work. Fairy tales rarely mention that.
“And you can do all that by yourself?” he asked me later.
I told him the truth: I told him no. That I couldn’t do all that by myself. And my answer seemed to satisfy him.
“Do the local men come to help you?”
“As often as I help them,” I told him, defiantly. Or it seemed to me that my tone of voice was defiant.
He returned to that topic many times, each time from a different angle, as if he couldn’t find the best way to ask what he wanted to ask.
“Every forest always has another forest inside of it,” I murmured when he got out of bed and went to the window, and stood there with an attitude of expectation. He stayed that way, very still, for a long time. When he turned around to look at me, I lowered my eyes. Then I covered my shoulders with the blanket. Then I said:
“You shouldn’t be here.”
Why does someone grab a pair of notebooks, take a long trip on a dilapidated hulk of a bus, get off in a distant province, and then travel on the back of a donkey for days and days in order to reach, if they possibly can, the remotest spot imaginable? I don’t know. Why does someone choose a forest? I can’t answer that either. There is the green, of course. The abundance of greens that are the color green. You have to learn how to see. There’s the fresh air and the sky, this sky-blue sky. The solitude of the sky. No one is ever more defenseless than when they know they are alone under the sky. The possibility of remaining silent for hours at a time, days at a time, months at a time. The possibility of forgetting how to write. The possibility of not speaking. There are the extended, callused, dry, brutal hands that can take up instruments to cut, plant, plow. There is the voice: deep. The echo, also deep. The possibility of saying, “We have burned all the villages. We have burned all the villages and the people in them. We have adopted their customs and their way of dress.” The laughter inside the church walls during the rites. The slow walking down the aisle, the shaking of hands, the endless bowing of heads. There is the crying of babies being born: a deep echo. Another. There is the beginning: the oldest forest. The forest inside the forest. That promise. Listen to this: there is the inescapable fact that we have burned all the villages and the people in them.
You can’t live in the forest without having a theory of the forest. During burials, when I join the funeral procession, and later, when I look inside the coffin at the dead person’s face, it’s impossible to avoid wondering if it’s worth it. If all of this is worth it. The problem, as always, is the children and the old people. The problem is always the most vulnerable ones. The ones who, one fine day, abandon the yoke and run as fast as they can among the trees, looking for a little light. Sometimes it gets so dark under the trees. And so cold. The problem is the ones who lose their minds. You stand there looking at the dark pathways, and you wonder about the taste of liquor in the mouth of the man who shovels dirt over all that. The forest means: somewhere beyond, everything is in flames. There is a moth that flutters in the air. The blade of the instrument has severed the leg. The snow is falling. The nature of snow is to fall. There was snow before; there will be snow afterwards. The forest will survive all of that. All of this. In front of the falling house, the illuminated face. An idol. The nature of houses is to fall. The noise of the axe. Soon we will disappear. There is an urgent need to go to the tree. The amputated leg. The trail of blood on the snow. A pair of footprints.
I told him I hadn’t been in a city for many years. The last one I saw was the one I’d left behind. Remembering its lights made me blink rapidly. Then I laughed.
“Show me your hands,” he ordered, instead of asking. “Do you see that?” he asked derisively, pointing at my splinters and my broken nails, “You could never live in the city looking like that.”
His presumption annoyed me, especially since it was false. It bothered me that he thought I might want to return. That I would be interested in going back to all that. A woman with red hands. A Carpathian mountain woman. So I turned away from him and continued chopping the fire wood into smaller and smaller pieces. I could hear my own breathing. My inhaling and exhaling. I concentrated on my wrist movement. I had to be taut and perfect, without vacillating. The shifting of my weight from one leg to the other. The vertical length of my arms. My back. Soon I settled into a familiar rhythm. My body inside its own choreography. My body inside the forest within.
“You shouldn’t have come back,” I whispered, my voice barely audible against the clamor of my agitated breathing. “Why did you?”
“People migrate; it’s natural,” he answered, also with his back turned.
While it was happening, while all of this was taking place, I imagined the bodies engulfed in flames. Those visions interrupted my dreams. They interrupted my waking hours as well. They interrupted my theory of the forest.
“They never learned our language,” said some, in an attempt at self-justification. And all of this inside the church.
“They looked down on our dances,” argued others, as the bells rang softly.
“Did you notice that they never bow their heads?”
The forest is always expanding.
People kept asking the same questions. Offering the same justifications. It didn’t matter that others spoke of connecting rivers. Any attempt to explain the context, the vital importance of context for the dissemination of our language, fell on deaf ears. There is something larger. Would we understand ourselves without others who don’t understand us? There is something that contains us. These types of questions always provoked a general irritation. Widespread grumbling.
Within the church, one heard: “We burned their villages.” It was a deep echo, a very soft voice. “We burned the people in them. We adopted their customs. Their way of dress.”
I looked down and found my hands, orphaned, on my lap.
All around me, the word brutish. Touch this.
Civilization is always expanding, and so is barbarism. Between them is the forest: I know. The green. The sky. The snow, which falls. The funeral bells. The blood, the footprint. There is a man in the forest who is a woman. There is a woman. A forest.
I don’t know if they did it for me, but I’ve always wondered about it. It’s not easy to guess other people’s intentions. Three more had died: two girls and a boy. There were so few of us. Scarcity leads to strange behavior. The darkness under the trees. Being an outsider. Inhabiting a foreign realm. Panic is a disease; that’s clear. They kept touching the children’s foreheads just to make sure the fever would end with them. They tried to decipher their last words. It was a mother who pointed her finger. Panic is a disease, which is a drama. Her crying was a sharp instrument that cut me in two. I had lived among them, in fact, for many years. I had served them well. They had the kind of cautious affection for me that one feels toward someone who, because she arrived late, has lost forever the mystery of the cause. But they didn’t view me with suspicion. They bowed their heads when I passed. They sought my opinion. When I broke a leg, they took care of my farm. One summer, they pulled me out of the well I had fallen into. They gave me three lambs, which later became seven, and then 15. Eventually, they became wool and, also, chunks of meat on pewter plates. We ate together. We swallowed in unison. We weren’t intimidated by the gleam of each other’s teeth or by the weight of our hands on the wooden table. At this table we studied their dress and their customs in my notebooks. It was here that we leafed through the books and saw the pictures. It was here that we planned the fires.
I’ve spoken their language for as long as I can remember. Don’t ask me why someone chooses a forest. I don’t have an answer.
Finally, he said, he had remembered. He said he’d seen me, a long time ago, months or maybe even years before my departure. He recognized the notebooks, he said. The black covers. Their unusual size. The hands that held them firmly.
“Do you remember that?” he asked.
Naturally, I answered that I didn’t. That didn’t make him stop. He said he had been there, on the opposite sidewalk, standing in the drizzle, while I waited, with the notebooks pressed against my chest, for the bus that would take me far away.
“Now I remember that day perfectly,” he assured me.
Of course, I shook my head vigorously at this. I must have looked at him with enormous eyes because suddenly he burst out in wild laughter. A bird that flies. I started to laugh without knowing exactly why. This kind of laughter, which soon turns to hilarity, usually leaves me feeling desolate. There’s a moment in every story when it’s possible to suddenly see what will happen next. I saw it then and there, in the middle of a story invented by a stranger to create a context for a moment that never existed. Inside my desolation. After the laughter.
That’s why I kept silent.
Because of this: Outside, the snow would soon be falling again, silently. Little by little, the footsteps would become audible. The rest would happen in a flurry: The struggle, the bladed instrument in the air, its irrevocable fall. The body parts. The trickle of blood. The footprints.
He had said, before his wild fit of laughter, that he was like a person who tells a story only to have the privilege, or the power—this he also said— to introduce a foreign element into it. Something that doesn’t quite fit.
I saw him then. I used my hands to expose his face. I saw him absolutely.
“The last day, the day of the drizzle— it didn’t exist,” I murmured.
It was only then that he kept silent.
It’s difficult to explain how one can remain still under the snow for so long. Difficult to say: These are my knees, this is your torso, your thigh; these are your fingers. These are the eyes you looked at me with. People migrate; it’s natural. It’s always difficult to describe what an axe does. Difficult to witness the outstretched finger of the mother and difficult to hear her howling on the other side of the window and difficult to break in two, very slowly, when one understands the verdict. It’s difficult to remain still, with fists clenched, and be a witness to the facts. The branch that rustles. The bird. It is difficult to be under the sky.
When I secretly murmured the word Carpathian, I was able to see a forest, a blue sky, and falling snow. I was a little girl then. That’s the truth.
Translated from Spanish by Alex Ross.
Alex Ross’s published translations include short fiction by Mexican author Felipe Garrido and numerous books on art. His translation of Roberto Arlt’s play La Isla Desierta (The Desert Isle) won first prize at the 2009 Midwest Translation Festival in St. Paul, Minnesota, where it was performed. He lives in Brooklyn.
Cristina Rivera Garza is the author of four novels, three volumes of short stories, two books of poetry, and a collection of essays. Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most renowned living author, has described Rivera Garza’s first novel, Nadie Me Verá Llorar (No One Will See Me Cry), as “one of the most beautiful and disturbing novels ever written in Mexico.” Rivera Garza has been the recipient of several awards for her creative work, including the Anna Seghers Prize in 2005 and the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize in 2001 and 2009. She lives in Tijuana and San Diego, and currently teaches in the MFA Program in Writing at UC San Diego.
This issue of First Proof is funded, in part, by Amazon, the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation, and the Thanksgiving Fund.
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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.