Everything was bound to change, I realized, when I started to imagine–and couldn’t stop imagining–that the virulent outbreak of flu was spreading far and wide. My imagination had hit the mark in one sense at least. The winter had lasted longer than usual and the early morning temperature was still stuck at twenty below, even in the first days of March. Anybody who hadn’t already succumbed to bronchitis and a cough was scheduled to do so. But the problem wasn’t just the physical misery that spared nobody; people had gotten so bad-tempered that they made the lead-gray sky look even grayer with faces that reflected the grayness. You couldn’t have found a smile on any passing face, not even by mistake. As kids came out of school, they moved among the silent passengers of the U-Bahn with the sinister docility of grim miniature adults.
O Germany! who could love you in that condition? In similar years–though no winter had been quite so prolonged and so severe–I had floated through the surrounding gloom, buoyed up by the memory of my native sun. Recalling its heat filled me with an angry vigor. I was the one who walked faster on the streets, I was the one who spoke louder when I bought bread. But now my last reserves of energy had been drained away by my sickly fantasy: the whole world was coming down with flu.
The flu of my imagination was not scary and overpowering. It was the flu, nevertheless; headache, body aches, tiredness, sneezing, a nonstop dripping of the nose, shivers, phlegm, and an intermittent cough, a sly cough that made everybody sound alike, regardless of sex or physical build. This flu was, like all its other manifestations, contagious and frankly incurable. Cold medicines and antihistamine tablets couldn’t make a dent in it. The only help was aspirin, and even that didn’t do much. And soon we ran out of it. The pharmacies began closing down, and there was a shortage of the more important drugs. The flu was inoffensive only in appearance. Nobody who caught it could carry on working after two or three weeks; they couldn’t concentrate or even think. They couldn’t carry loads or make the least physical effort, not even a basic movement. Their routine collapsed, however light it might be. Everybody was falling victim, inexorably, to what you might call the appearance of laziness. This is what I was imagining in my effort to fight off the lousy German winter: that humanity was coming to an end without any grandiose, trumpeting announcements, with no fuss at all really, just sliding down into something close to an uncontrollable melancholy. Little by little the end was drawing near, like a fading light, like a slowly dying fire, till nobody would be left and the words THE END could be read upon the surface of the earth.
While I worked on the final touches of my fantasy–I was debating between mass suicides or having people curl up and die, as they tried to cough up the phlegm that was suffocating them–it suddenly struck me that my life was going to change. That winter I hadn’t drugged myself with consoling dreams of the sun, because–elementary, my dear Watson–I would soon be experiencing its warming rays in person, upon my own flesh. My long stay in Europe had drawn to a close. Thirty years, Delmira, thirty years had come and gone for you
Introducing My Family
I was eight years old when I first saw the scene. She was midway between me and the street. I was in the inner patio of the house, perched on an edge of the fountain, mindlessly watching a parade of ants, simply killing time.
The entrance to the patio was on my right. The passageway which led to the main door of the house was closed only at nightfall. Ours was a house where only women lived, if we overlooked the son of one of the granddaughters or the great-granddaughters of the elderly Luz, who now lived with us, if you can call it living when you’re lying faceup in a crib, incontinent, humming away to yourself like some aimless fly, with nobody sparing you a glance, living from one day to the next almost by a miracle. When it got dark, we shut the door tight, but the rest of the time we left it wide open, and anybody who wanted to could come in or go out without a by-your-leave, the way things were usually done in Agustini. At sunset my grandmother herself, with her black shawl over her shoulders, personally checked that the bar was placed across the door.
The shawl business was overdone, a pointless affectation. In our region the weather was extremely hot all year round. There were only two seasons, the rainy and the dry, and if it was really true that it “got chilly” at nightfall, as we used to put it, it’s also true that not even December merited a black shawl, knitted by nuns in remote latitudes for a vastly different climate, because even when it “got chilly,” we were still waving fans to cool ourselves down.
The shawl was the visible sign of her widow’s dignity and of her withdrawal from the world. With the shawl spread over her shoulders, nobody could doubt her grandmotherly purity and seriousness. She was an old phony, but, thanks to the shawl, we were supposed to believe in her chaste antiquity. The phoniness became clear when I did a little math. I was born when my mother was sixteen. She was born when Grandma was the same age. Add on my eight years and you only get forty. She loved to whine that her feet gave her trouble, but I suspect that her continual whining was just one more affectation, like the nighttime shawl, because all day long she traipsed around, coming and going with the obstinate energy of a skinny young woman, without the least sign of pain in either foot. Her problem didn’t go beyond the merely verbal. I never saw her having to lie down for any reason. When I awoke, she was already wide-awake, fully dressed, darting here and there; and when I went to bed, it was the same. The only difference was that by bedtime she had let down her long, partly white hair, so that it could get its combing, and had carefully folded her shawl and placed it like a cat on her lap. The whiteness of her hair was the sole attribute that suggested age. Yet, though it revealed its white streaks, once she had let it down, its length and thickness still had the gleam of youth.
The household followed a clockwork routine. I would curl up in my hammock, while Mama rocked in her chair in front of Grandma. My nanny, Dulce, stood behind Grandma and combed her hair with a variety of combs, starting with the biggest comb with the widest-set teeth. She worked with care, while Grandma spun her tales nonstop. If it was Lent, the tales gave way to endless rosaries, but what generally and best lulled me to sleep were the stories of adventure: of my great-grandfather in the jungle, his brother the tiger hunter, an uncle who was bullet-proof, the rebels who passed through town like an urgent cloud of dust, the statue of the Virgin that had a nest of snakes in the twelve folds of its dress, the picture of the child Jesus which spoke when a pinko general ordered its removal. She rarely repeated her stories, at least not in the same words. When she prayed, the phrases resounded in my ears, scaring me for a variety of reasons, incapable of soothing my fears. It was the stories, all of them involving the family, that stayed with me. They always put me to sleep. It was years before I stayed awake long enough to hear the conclusion of even one of them.
At home only my hair got brushed, as if they felt obliged to pamper me in some way. Otherwise, I was like a child who had wandered into the house by mistake, like the babies of the family of old Luz, who were dumped on us for weeks or months, except that they had abandoned me for much longer. They paid me almost no attention. And not even those tall tales, told by candlelight to keep away the flies–though it attracted moths–were intended for me. So I could do whatever I’d a fancy to, for nobody was keeping an eye on me.
The whole town knew about the presence of those abandoned babies, left with Luz in our house. I’m not sure by what quirk of fate one of the kids turned into a tattletale in the home of the Juarez family, but they said that he still hadn’t lost the stink of pee. And we all believed it was true. I had only to catch a glimpse of him to smell pee, though it wasn’t unusual on a market day for a man to urinate freely against any wall whatsoever, in full view of everybody, without a second thought. So much urination went on, all around, that nobody thought anything of this shameless activity. The stink seemed an inevitable part of life. It rose up spontaneously, with or without the aid of the Juarez’s tattletales.
I know for sure the smell of pee never left the bedroom of old Luz. Her room always smelled the same, whether or not it contained a squawking baby. I was strictly forbidden to enter there. Luz and my nanny, Dulce, slept there. My mother had firmly vetoed my entrance. I think it was the only order she ever gave me, and I obeyed it as far as I could. I’ve never displayed exemplary willpower, and so, without a word to anybody and without any fuss, I popped in now and then to check its condition. Disorder and slovenliness reigned supreme, unlike in other rooms of the house, unlike even in the cupboard under the sink, where we kept, among other things, the tops from broken jars, a fork that didn’t match any set, and the hand of a grandfather clock that nobody could get to stay on the clockface. Even that seemed a model of cleanliness compared to Luz’s room, where her stuff lay in slatternly confusion: a garter, a jar of cream, matches, a discarded price tag, the bedside lamp, a pencil, all higgledy-piggledy, along with a holy picture of the bleeding heart of Jesus, with Jesus himself pointing to it, pulling open his robes to reveal his own insides, like a wounded animal, skinned but miraculously alive, withstanding all the agony we sinners inflict on him.
Dulce, the nanny in charge of me, must have been around thirteen years old at that time. Now that I think about it I realize how young she was, but back then I considered her old. And I knew she was as tough as nails. She was a hard-nosed cop trained by Grandma. She had worked in the house since she was seven years old and had had only one year of schooling. In that time she learned to write numbers on a piece of paper, add, subtract, write her name and all the letters of the alphabet, and read by spelling out the syllables. That, she figured, was enough education. In the house she had learned to knead dough for tamales, and to dry and grind cocoa for the chocolate which Grandma made into little slabs, leaving her fingerprints all over them. She knew how to make a paste for almond milk by peeling the nuts in hot water and then grinding them in a mortar. In recent years they had even initiated her into the mysteries of fire. They now allowed her to stir the caramel paste in the copper saucepan and to watch the jams so that they didn’t stick to the pan or over-cook. She did all this while I was at school, or if school wasn’t in session, while I goofed off or buried myself in a book from Uncle Gustavo’s study, because, for sure, they weren’t teaching me a single damned thing. I felt like a stray kid in the house, while Dulce was their favorite grandchild. If I peeped into the kitchen, while Dulce was deboning a hen for a celebratory supper, she’d no sooner realize I was there than she’d be ordering me out with “You’re gonna knock over a pot,” though there wasn’t a semblance of a pot in sight, only the meat grinder on the corner of the table or maybe the rolling pin or the scissors. “Go on, get outta here, before you burn yourself on the stove,” she’d holler, though the stove was at the far side of the enormous kitchen. Or it was “You’re going to get your clothes dirty,” when my dress was already far dirtier than her spotless apron.
Dulce knew all the culinary secrets of my grandmother, stuff neither I nor my mother knew. She was not the cooking expert, however. That was still old Luz, who’d been top dog in the kitchen for as long as Uncle Gustavo had been alive. Now she was so old that she seemed incapable of motion. When she arrived at the house, her letter of recommendation said: “You can have this old woman. To look at her, you wouldn’t think she was worth a penny, but she does know how to make a stew and to get shirts whiter than anybody I’ve met.” But she was too old to beat the mixture for the meringue pie or put the heated spoon on the cream to make a caramel sauce. She couldn’t even hold it over the fire to get it red-hot. She did only a certain number of things and even today I’m surprised that a woman so slow on her feet that a superficial glance barely detected a sign of life in her could still do them. It was the ancient Luz, now past her hundredth birthday, who killed the turtle, first cutting off its head and then scooping it out of its shell, to make the black stew that only she knew how to cook. It was she who plucked and chopped up the ducks and chickens. She was the one who skinned the live iguanas. Only she made buns stuffed with beans, the best lentil soup in the world, with slices of banana and chunks of spicy pork sausage, and the refried beans which deserved a medal. (Their glorious condition owed much to the addition of vast quantities of corn oil.) Only she made tortilla pockets containing crunchy deep-fried pigskin, and meatballs flavored by a minute pinch of caramel, and almond chicken, and fluffy flan, and flawless chops in red wine, and cheese stuffed with two sauces of different flavors and colors, hollowed out with the point of a knife she never let leave the kitchen, because its edge, filed to a dangerous sharpness, was capable of slicing off your tongue. She could hardly walk a step, but, unlike Grandma, she never complained. She always said she was fine, that she’d never felt better. Sitting on her wooden chair, she spent hours working with her misshapen hands, midway between the sink and the stove, with a saucepan near her right foot and a metal bucket with clean water at her left side. And when she’d finished her labors, she’d clap her hands together, like a small child, with the fingers wide apart, while she chanted songs (with which she should have been calming the current baby, who would inevitably be howling in her room), songs with which she greeted my arrival in the kitchen, in a singsong all her own:
O where is my little Delmira?
Come nearer, my darling, come nearer.
I’ve kisses and cuddles to give you,
And sugar candies to feed you.
The song ended, there followed the obligatory distribution of caramel wrapped in shiny black paper, with a little white cow on it, announced by still other doggerel verses from this woman who shrank more and more each day. If Dulce was present, she’d confiscate my candy “till after dinner,” a till-after that rarely materialized. The candies, I suspect, ended up in Dulce’s own mouth.
Certainly old Luz was sitting there in her chair on the afternoon I’m talking about, but who knows what Dulce was up to, whether preparing something in the kitchen or rushing off on some errand for Grandma, while I was sitting on the rim of the fountain watching the bustle of the ants. Suddenly–I can’t tell you why–I raised my eyes from the fountain and saw her. The door of her room was ajar, so there was enough space for me to inspect her. Behind her, one of the balconies that overlooked the street was half open. The sunset had painted the sky a brilliant pink. The torsos of passersby and Mama’s figure were outlined with vivid sharpness. I could see not just her long, loose hair but every detail of the dress she was wearing, almost as if I could touch her, a flimsy shift of fine linen that stirred in the breeze, clinging to her body like a second skin, a body that was shaking with mild fits of laughter. She was clutching a water jug with a metallic base to her side. Drops of water dripped to the ground.
Her room was built two feet above street level and maybe this was why the breeze was lifting up her light shift, exposing her pretty calves. She was all curves, the way I am nowadays. Both of our bodies are devoid of sharp angles, without being chubby. Whoever designed us–a stumpy god, presumably, because he made us both short–had no knowledge of straight lines. Since I was perched on the rim of the fountain, we were both at the same level. People kept on passing by without stopping to look at her. She raised her shift with her left hand. The sky was now a fiery red, staining the dying day with colors of heat. Inflamed by the hues of the sky, I felt it in my own body when Mama’s right hand emptied the jug over the black triangle of her crotch. She let the vessel drop and wiped the water sliding down her thighs back up to her crotch. She did it again and again. The water seemed to run down in slow motion. Mama was bending forward and then tossing her head back with the grace of a dancer. She was clinging to the balcony rail, and it didn’t seem to bother her that people in the street could see her shameless performance.
My, but she was beautiful! Still, that was no excuse for her to be exposing her nakedness in this scandalous way. Occasional passersby glanced up at her from the corners of their eyes, but they went on their way without raising any hue and cry. I was the only one who was shocked.
I could see the hammock in Mama’s room, a little to one side. It started to sway back and forth. But Mama hadn’t changed her position. Then the door through which I could see her slammed shut in my face. An alarm went off deep in my brain: “There’s somebody with her!”
I ran to find Grandma, because I didn’t know what else to do, and I had to do something. The red of the sky had tinted everything. The whole world was on fire. The ants I had been watching seemed to scurry up the inside of my throat. It was the time of day for the mosquitoes, but I couldn’t hear a single insect sound because everything inside me was buzzing.
I found Grandma in her bedroom, shaking up the mattress, punching it with the energy of a girl. “Grandma, Mama isn’t alone,” I told her. “Hurry up. They’re going to do something horrible to her.”
She ran behind me, still without her shawl over her shoulders, despite the rapid approach of night. She then overtook me, sweeping into Mama’s room like a tornado. The window of the balcony that overlooked the street was still partway open and Mama was stretched in her hammock, her hair down, her shift pulled halfway up, and her legs shiny with water. Her eyelids were half closed. There was nobody with her. Grandma grabbed the pole which we used to gather fruit from the trees in the garden and which Mama kept in her room like some kind of treasure, and started to whack her with it, calling her a filthy bitch, while Mama kept saying, “What’s the matter, Mama? What’s up with you? You’re going to break the pole. It’s for the mangoes. Stop it!”
But Grandma didn’t stop until the pole broke and then she bellowed at her, ‘so you did have somebody in here!”
“What are you talking about? Who did I have in here? I’ve been alone all afternoon with the door shut.”
‘delmira says you had somebody here.”
My mother narrowed her eyes at me. ‘did you see anybody? Why would you want to tell a lie like that?”
“I didn’t see anybody. But I did see the hammock swinging. And somebody slammed the door.”
My answer made her take her eyes off me and she glanced submissively at Grandma.
“It was the wind, Mama. I swear it. Who could I have had in here?”
Grandma now glared at me in fury. It was probably the first time in her life that she had really looked at me.
“You bitch!” she screamed with the full force of her lungs. “I should smash your head open! But I don’t have the energy to waste on you. Did you hear me? You little loser! You misbegotten good-for-nothing! You, you, you ” !” This “you” she howled out, pointing at me, drawing out the vowel, as if she wanted to blow me away. But she didn’t finish the sentence. That “you” was enough to convict me of being the lowest of the low.
She leaned over Mama and covered her with kisses, begging her forgiveness. I stood there like a total fool, saying nothing, motionless, watching them hug, Mama crying, Grandma complaining, talking nonstop, enveloping her daughter in words. It had always been obvious that I stood outside the circle of their love, but it was the first time I saw with total clarity that they had something in common, that they shared a world from which I was completely excluded.
Copyright ” 1999 by Carmen Boullosa. Translation copyright ” 2001 by Geoff Hargreaves. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.