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for the week of December 08, 2011

Photophobia

Mauricio Montiel Figueiras

Translated by Jen Hofer

For Juvenal Acosta and Andrei Codrescu

Is that not why ghosts return:
to drink the blood of the living? —J.M. Coetzee

The apocalypse, for him, was an everyday concern–corroborated each morning by the light which pierced his pupils with thousands of pins shot out from a mute atomic explosion the moment his eyelids opened like floodgates to scatter the water of his dreams all over the floor. The pain was so sudden, so brutal, that it forced him to close his eyes again and grope for his dark glasses on the bedside table, his pulse at a gallop and his temples pounding fiercely in prelude to a headache. Once the shades were settled—then, only then–he ventured to blink, to untangle the skein of information which his vigil cast before him. Panting and sweaty, while the phosphenes readapted themselves to the blood-red gloom out of which they had blossomed, he began the work of reacquaintance: there were his legs, joined in a mountain range tangling the sheets into peaks which angled down towards the foot of the bed, and beyond that was the profile of a chair, the dust dancing in a diagonal of sun, particles of matter concentrating around forms which would end up being the bathroom door, the curtains which did not quite cover the only window, the stains on the rug—his sense of smell, with feline keenness, detected equal parts of semen and liquor—left as a legacy by former guests. Little by little, as his eye deciphered that resplendent chaos, converting it into a legible code, he understood that the atomic explosion was simply his mind’s dirty trick, part of a dream which day after day he tried in vain to reconstruct. Little by little, the sense of apocalypse was bursting into the world with its useless cargo; the omens disseminated in the press and on television were nothing compared to the ocular catastrophe to which he had been condemned for all eternity—eternity, he thought, a smile twisting his mouth, another useless word for the great dictionary of human vaguenesses. What was eternity if not the weight of the sun on his naked eyes, the seconds it took him to find his glasses on the night table, the lapse that was necessary before the phosphenes would disappear? Let’s talk about eternity, he thought, addressing an invisible interlocutor; let’s talk about the instantaneous blindness it has been my task to eradicate since time immemorial. Let’s talk about how frustrating it is not to be able to recall the last time one awoke without fear of pain and panic about the light, without the primitive terror brought on by the first solar arrows boring through one’s eyelids. Let’s talk about the dark, that inverse light where our eyes ripen like slow-growing fruits.
That morning, however, he awoke with the sensation that something had happened to the light. At first it was a subtle intuition, a change in the periphery of his visual field inducing dark ruminations, a certain parsimony in the dust attracted by the ray of sun filtering in through the window. Once he had his glasses on and his breath under control, he inhaled vigorously until he thought his lungs would explode; his sense of smell, once again he could confirm it, was a reliable ally: the air was charged with an electric tension which he had only sensed on late afternoons in summer just before a deluge broke. A strange density had slipped into the atmosphere like a swarm of insects; it was, in fact, easy to hear a remote buzzing, a generator–like murmur reminiscent of thousands of elytrons soaring into the distance. He pricked up his ears. There they were as always—as every morning, as every night—the sounds which populated his auditory universe: cockroaches scurrying in the corners of the hotel, the whisper of spiders weaving their webs, the screech of rats looking for food—how many times, he thought, had his hunger impelled him to feed on them?—the mosquito’s transparent song, a butterfly’s rubbing against the glass, the termites’ tireless litany.

Something, however, was missing in this secret world.

Birds.

The birds had hushed, contributing to the strangeness which saturated the air.

And the flies, the flies too seemed to have disappeared in pursuit of new decay.

And the smell: a mixture of ambush and emptiness, of geologic fermentations and virgin asphalt.

And the light: a thick grayish ink that oozed between the curtains and drenched the rug.

And the murmur, the remote elytrons of absence.

He leapt out of bed, his senses sharper than usual. A glance at the magazines and newspapers accumulated on the floor after a two–week confinement confirmed something that the shadows of the night had relegated to the background: the train of the century was running—and would continue running, as far as the rails would allow—towards the abyss to which a humanity run awry was driving it. As headlines and magazine covers were reporting, almost all the cars of that train had been reserved to transport baggage which was both ominous and absurd: biblical commentaries and forecasts, unrehearsed meteorological shows, an increase in the number of suicides, a boom in religious sects, a collective mania. In England, a woman had dressed her children as angels before making them swallow a poison which hadn’t been heard of since the nineteenth century. In Iran, a group of young men had set a mosque on fire as part of a plot to eliminate any trace of the Muslim creed. In Australia, a tsunami known as the Last Wave had left tens of thousands dead. In Egypt, an elderly man had hung himself in his tent across from the pyramid of Cheops with a message “for humankind” hidden in his tunic. In a small American town, organizations for Aryan purity were scheming to get rid of racial minorities “forever.” In the city on the outskirts of which he was staying, an accountant had killed his immediate superior by stabbing him in the eye with a pencil. Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids. The crude drawings of bison and birds and solitary, emaciated silhouettes are now the photographs of a perplexed crowd.

As he went into the bathroom, he felt the air stirring around him as if it were a robe: it was that rarefied, it was that dense. He closed the door behind himself, and once he was safely in the semi-dark, he took off his glasses, leaning into the mirror. What better light than shadow in which to face the reddened gaze of his mornings, the effects of the sun reduced to a constant trickle of tears. He grabbed one of the hundreds of bottles of eye drops strewn about—on the sink and on the toilet, on the floor and in the shower—and dedicated himself to his daily balsam ritual: a cataract for his sick eyes, recommended by an ophthalmologist who had died a couple of months earlier. After his prescribed rubdown, he shaved, washed his face, soaped his groin, armpits and neck, and then rinsed himself. He dressed slowly, enjoying the dark friction of his clothes, which he kept in the bathroom so he could avoid encountering the morning light—years before he had decided that closets were the realm of insects—whistling the jingle from one of his favorite commercials, something about eye drops or maybe blood donations. He combed his hair, put on deodorant, a bit of cologne and his glasses, and he left, ready to challenge the brightness.
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He drew the curtains and the spectacle afforded by the window, though he had intuited it already, still managed to surprise him: it was the spectacle of absence. There were empty cars, doors wide open, in the parking lot and in the middle of the highway which passed in front of the hotel; the few birds—mostly crows, as far as he could see—remained motionless on the electrical and telephone wires; the flies seemed to imitate them, petrified on the gravel and the glass like fossils of an extinct species. The sky was now a kind of hospital for cloudy bellies, heavy with rain, which crept along lazily and allowed the sun’s invasion only with great difficulty. Eternity, he thought, let’s see what they think about this eternity.

He left the room and breathed deeply; it had been years, maybe decades since he had given himself over to the smell of desolation with such pleasure, such indolence. He began to walk through the parking lot, hearing with amplified clarity the crunch of the gravel and the hustle and bustle of the ants, examining the cars one by one. He saw trunks exhibiting their contents with an utter lack of modesty, suitcases and bags with the still-fresh prints of escape, clothes strewn on the floor recalling the installations of certain contemporary artists. He laughed at the idea. Who would have believed, only a century ago, that something so common, so anonymous as clothing, would be elevated to the status of an art object; why that modern zeal to glorify the disposable, the perishable? Before, he thought, art had boiled down to a canvas and a brush, to capturing the battle between light and shadow. Before, the body in all its irregularity was immortalized; today the wrapping counted much more, so much more that the body had disappeared. It was still there, of course, the corpus delicti: shirts and pants, blouses and skirts, shoes and sneakers—a hollow corpse. Before, he thought, immortality dressed differently.
He walked down the middle of the highway, stopping from time to time next to an empty car, letting himself be caressed by the mountain wind which hurried towards the south, when an image whirled into his mind. It was the memory—vague, intertwined with the strands of a dream—of a bustling dawn filled with voices and steps coming from all directions, motors and honking horns and doors opening—the sounds of flight, the music of involuntary exile. This memory was joined by another which planted a new smile on his lips: the cable TV pornography marathons to which he had enjoyed subjecting himself for the past few years. Far from transporting him to the orbit of -onanism—the words belonged to someone he had met in one of the bars he used to frequent before he began to devote his nights to sleep—pornography amused him so much that he had come to think of it as the display which best attested to the ridiculous human parade; nothing was more comfortable than to enter a hotel room—how many had he stayed in these past months? by now he had lost count—lie back on the bed, find the remote control and spread out the banquet of fragile, transitory flesh given over to an obviously fake frenzy. Frenzy?, he thought; frenzy the blood which clambers through veins and arteries, the eyes which shrink from the sun. Frenzy that of the flesh which surrenders itself to the dark, to the fondling of eternity.

The image of three or four bodies moving like pistons in some primary machine accompanied him all the way to the tollbooths lined up perpendicular to the highway, marking the limits of the city which had sheltered him since June, and which had vanished miles ago to make way for a mountainous rural landscape—the end of civilization. The air paid his toll with its persistent whistle; the booths—he had already smelled it—were deserted. He inspected them, however, one after the other. He saw a calendar with the image of a naked woman offering her generous breasts to the spectator along with an icy blue stare. He saw a bodybuilding magazine with its pages ripped, a coffeepot filled to the brim. He saw a radio playing only static, which he decided to leave on; he thought of how lovely it would be to hear the batteries draining as the day declined and he regretted that he could not wait while it happened. Standing in the middle of the highway, his heart and lungs swollen with joy, he immersed himself in the morning’s leaded plateau and felt, for the first time in a long while, that he could eat up—no, drink down the world in great gulps. He then exhaled a sigh which soon became a shout of celebration, a bellow which reverberated in the distance where the city shimmered.

As if in response to the echo which remained hanging in the air, a ray of sunlight pierced the clouds and landed suddenly on a gas station located beyond the tollbooths, encircling it with a misty halo—a revelation in the confines of empty space. Dazzled, his mind become the museum where he had seen an Edward Hopper exhibit one afternoon, he let himself be drawn like a magnet towards the light which seemed to flow from one of Hopper’s most desolate canvases: “Gas,” if his memory didn’t fail him, with its service station attended by a man in a vest, waiting for a car which might save him from paralysis. Keep waiting, he thought as he looked around, maybe someday one of those ghost cars will rescue you. After all, even immortality needs fuel.

Hurried steps—the first sign of human life in several hours—made him turn towards the gas station just as three young men were leaving the attached store carrying cans and cereal boxes. He realized that he was watching a robbery by the way they flung the packages into the trunk of the car which was waiting for them with its motor running—behind the wheel there was a fourth figure—by the look of terror that one of them gave him before shouting a warning at his companions, by the obscene finger that shot from one of the windows as the car sped towards the south, its tires screeching. What a shame, he said to himself, and shook his head as he remembered the man in Hopper’s painting; maybe you’d get lucky the next time. When he got to the gas station, he kicked a box of Corn Flakes and noticed how the ray of sunlight languished, how the darkness gained territory; then, humming the theme song to an old movie, he strolled between the pumps. He saw them as an apt legacy of humanity: monoliths for a future with neither gasoline nor cars, totemic remnants of a culture which had forged its own eclipse. The fugitives’ car merged into the horizon which quickly regained its faded consistency.
The first thing that surprised him when he walked into the self-service store was its tidiness, the almost prophylactic atmosphere which reigned inside. The metal shelves, gleaming beneath buzzing lamps—his sense of smell assured him that all dust had been completely eradicated—displayed their products with an order bordering on monomania, making him think of ads, of the set for a commercial about to be filmed; from one moment to the next a man might burst in, smiling from ear to ear, with a Hopperesque vest and unleashing a string of discounts and promotions.

He wandered between the shelves, searching for some trace of the fugitives—barely even a can of Campbell’s soup which he picked up and put back in its place—when his ear detected a rustling he had previously overlooked: the rubbing of fabric against a metallic surface. He crossed the labyrinth of canned goods and discovered that his imagination had not deceived him this time; standing next to the cash register at the entrance to the store, a man wearing a vest and round wire-rimmed glasses was obsessively cleaning the counter, absorbed in the cloth which traced concentric circles, the stains which he scraped at with a fingernail he then sucked, only to resume his labor. Circles and fingernail, pause, circles and fingernail—and so on until infinity, the inexorable ritual of cleanliness.
In the operating room light of the store, the clerk shone as if they had just finished painting him, as if he had only recently emerged from a fresh canvas. Who, he thought, could have forced the man to clean forever and ever under these surgical lamps? He imagined Hopper’s painting, the empty space the escaped figure would leave, the bewilderment on the face of the spectator who would make the discovery, the newspaper headlines: “Escape in the Art World,” “Hopperesque Creature Flees.” Who would fill that hole, what would the reward be for reporting the figure’s whereabouts?
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He cleared his throat and spoke to the clerk:

“How are you . . . Good morning.”

In the silence that followed, the rubbing of the cloth seemed scandalous. Circles and fingernail, pause, circles and fingernail. The man’s blood flowed with astonishing calm, immutable. Cold blood, he thought, the blood of waiting. No relation whatsoever to the warmth of fear.

“How are you,” he repeated. “How’s everything going? . . . I saw that some guys . . .”

He stopped himself when he noticed the gun resting on the counter, half-hidden by the cash register, and that the man moved only to continue cleaning. Circles and fingernail. Pause. Circles and fingernail.

“Excuse me,” he insisted. “Are you all right?”

Without looking up or interrupting his work, the man finally spoke. His voice was, in fact, sharp—a fingernail tracing circles on glass.

“Take whatever you need,” he said. “I only ask that you don’t make any mess.” He paused and added: “Those fellows did as they were told, and they had knives. I told them that it had taken me hours to arrange the store, that they should take whatever they wanted. Even in shelters you have to eat, they said. I know that, I said, why? We don’t have anything to pay with, they said. I know that, I said, I don’t give a damn, take what you want and get the hell out of here. You aren’t coming with us? they said. I can’t, I said, I haven’t finished cleaning.” Another pause while he brought a fingernail to his mouth and then, between his teeth: “I’ll never finish . . . There’s so much dirt . . .”

“And what do you want that for?” he said, pointing to the gun as he approached the counter.

As if an electrical charge had run through him, the man raised his eyes–two exhausted, reddened spheres where the spectacle of absence was reflected clearly. The rhythm of his blood continued, unchanging.

“What do I want it for . . . ?” he repeated, for himself more than anything. He let go of the cloth and began to caress the butt of the gun like a sleepwalker. “What do you think? To open the door when I finish cleaning . . . What a dumb question.”

“The door . . . ?”

“My brains, all right, so you’ll understand me.” The man snorted and raised a fingernail to his mouth mechanically. “So that I can open them up when I finish with the stains . . . If I finish, that is. There’s so much filth . . .”

The buzzing of the lamps seemed to intensify. The murmur, he thought, the elytrons of absence. Then he said:

“Is it loaded?”

The man spat out a bit of nail which he immediately cleaned off the counter with the palm of his hand. He answered after a few seconds.

“It has two bullets . . . You know, in case something doesn’t work out.” After a pause he continued, in a more confidential tone: “Tell me honestly . . . Which is better: to get ahead of eternity, or to let eternity catch up with us?”

Eternity, he thought, will always find a place in a foolish conversation at the end of civilization. He saw that the man was lowering his eyes again and focusing first on the cloth and then on the gun, as if he were waiting to hear them speak at any moment.

“To get ahead of it, of course,” he said, and a wary irony filtered into his words. “If eternity catches up with us there’s nowhere to run.”

The man smiled, a convulsive grin directed to the gun, a face crisscrossed by fearless blood.

“Yes, you’re right . . . Yesterday was my one-year anniversary here. A year! No one told me that eternity lasted twelve months, that I had been hired to be the last watchman . . . Before, we watchmen guarded a tower in the desert; now we have to tend to dumps like this. The desert’s changed, but the dirt hasn’t, oh no, the dirt’s the same, and it’ll keep on being the same, eh? The invisible enemy . . . Yes, you’re right: now there’s nowhere to run. With so much dirt there’s nothing else to do but get ahead of eternity.”

The man passed a hand across his head and, with a sigh, set about his cleaning again: circles and fingernail, pause, circles and fingernail. When he spoke, his voice had regained its neutral mannequin’s tone. “Take what you like, just don’t mess anything up. I spent hours arranging this pile of trash.” He hesitated, and then added: “Anyway we don’t accept American Express.”
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He said goodbye. Before leaving, he turned to look at the clerk from the doorway and found him more Hopperesque than ever, radiant beneath the surgical glare, prisoner of his own eternity. What very cold blood escapees have, he thought.

“Are you sure everything’s ok?’ he said.

“I’m sure,” the man muttered without removing his gaze from his work. “I have to finish cleaning . . . The only thing you can be certain of is the dirt you have to watch out for.”

“See you soon, then.”

There was no response.

As he walked along the highway he heard the first shot clearly, a blast which fractured the morning’s grey silence. Moments later the second detonation came, and the air carried it towards the distant city. In case something doesn’t work out, he thought. Now I understand why a man might actually want two ounces of prevention.

When he returned to the hotel, the open doors and empty rooms confirmed that he was abandonment’s only guest, the guest of honor at a ceremony which would begin shortly. He explored a few rooms, collecting their emanations and humors, constructing a mental image of their occupants: here a pair of newlyweds or perhaps lovers—the smell of sex was so intense that it almost wove a second carpet—there a woman whose child was sick with diarrhea. The front desk did not offer any further surprises; only the bell on the counter attracted his attention, calling to mind the memory of a navel he had caressed decades or eons before. In front of the pool—if that’s what you could call that narrow rectangle of cloudy water—he amused himself following the trajectory of a rubber duck which the wind moved around at whim like a compass for tracking lost childhood. Then he lay down on one of the beach chairs decayed from disuse and the elements, and let himself be lulled to sleep by the insects’ scurrying, by the whisper of the trees and the humidity of the air, lifting his chin as if to challenge the sun in its futile attempt to dominate the stormy sky.

Noon pulled him gradually out of his drowsiness. Dazed, he looked at the chaises around him and thought of seats readied for a journey with no return; he thought of the Hopper painting “People in the Sun,” which had always disturbed him, and for a moment he believed that he had pried himself from the canvas, that he was one of the figures that the painter had sentenced to immortal stupor in beach chairs. A series of stomach growls sufficed to rid him of his laziness and remind him that he had not eaten—in a manner of speaking—for many hours now. He began to walk towards his room.

He was taking a piece of cheese and some raw meat out of the small fridge when his cell phone rang.

“Yes?” he answered. “Ah, yes . . . How are you. Yes . . . Aha . . . Of course I understand, but . . . Yes, I know that . . . Aha . . . I can imagine it perfectly, but . . . What? No, listen to me . . . Aha . . . No, no . . . Listen to me, listen to me! . . . We’re all in the same boat, I’ve told you that a thousand times . . . No, you listen to me! . . . I’m tired of telling you that we have to be patient! . . . Patient! . . . Do you know what it is to be patient? . . . We’ve been patient for such a very long time, I don’t know . . . What? No, no one is going to die from waiting a little longer! . . . What? Of course not! . . . I swear, I promise, whatever you want . . . Patience, goddammit! . . . Why are you in such a rush? . . . What? Yes . . . You’ll see, you’ll see . . . Just so it’s clear: without patience there is nothing, nothing . . . All right . . . Calm down . . . What? No, calm down . . . See you soon.”

He hung up and took a few swigs from the bottle of whiskey on the night table to wash down his rage and desperation. Ok, he said to himself, take it easy. While he ate lunch, he remembered, not without a certain fury, the calls from all over the world which he had had to answer, to tolerate, over the past few days; all of them, without exception, focused on the same question: when, when? They’re like children, he thought, spoiled children utterly ignorant of the ancestral art of patience. So many years of stoic waiting about to be thrown overboard merely because of their inability to endure a little while longer. As if I weren’t just like them, he thought, as if I had not initiated them on this path made of patient steps. As if my eyes didn’t burn each morning.

To distract himself he took another long swig from the bottle, picked up the remote control and turned on the television; a roar of static fractured the apparent stillness. He turned down the sound and flipped through the local and cable channels. The spectacle of absence repeated itself over and over again: a grey tempest, a cathodic hissing which set his nerves on edge. The few stations which had not yet gone off the air were broadcasting similar images: maps of different cities crowded with symbols indicating the locations of nuclear shelters. Only on CNN did he encounter a space where the real world—a memento of the real world—insinuated itself timidly: a studio inhabited only by screens and consoles which blinked in desolation, waiting for newscasters who had forgotten their papers on the varnished desk in the foreground. Eternity, he thought, who would report the news of eternity, of so many thirsty shadows? He turned off the TV and after making sure that the curtains were drawn, after leafing for the umpteenth time through the magazines and newspapers strewn about the floor, he determined that the best way to kill time was drinking—whiskey, for now. With the half-full bottle in his hand, he tumbled onto the bed. Cheers, he murmured. Cheers and Laus Deo.
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A hangover, barely a soft veil against his temples, woke him hours later; three aspirins and a little cocaine were enough for him to shake it off. Though the late afternoon had already turned into a night as dense as the day, disturbed by flashes of lightning and infused with an oily atmosphere bristling with electricity, he decided to keep his dark glasses on. And now that he had recovered his good mood, thanks to his nap, he turned on the television only to confirm that the world—even on CNN—had dissolved beneath an avalanche of dirty snow. What a way to celebrate the broadcasting apocalypse, he thought, with a great feast of invisibility crowned at the last moment with static. He went to pee, realized he had one last sip of whiskey left, turned off his cell which was ringing insistently, grabbed the only chair in the room and prepared himself to wait in the hallway of the hotel. To wait, he thought, one must know how to wait, like the creatures on Hopper’s chaises, like the men in vests at the borders of civilization; in the end, we’re all just looking out for dirt. He noticed that the wind whipped the doors of the vacant rooms, a noise that had filtered into his nap in the form of fluttering wings. Birds, he thought, that’s why I dreamt a rainstorm of birds. He studied the electrical wires and phone lines; the crows had disappeared without a trace. The highway appeared to vibrate, swaddled in an illumination which seemed to him false, like that of a puppet theater. The city was nothing more than a faraway book in which the storm recorded its scribbles of light.

His watch read eleven forty-three when the blackout occurred. Preceded by a clap of thunder which shook the air, the ground, the entire world, with vertiginous speed the darkness gained more and more territory: first the hotel, which seemed to fall into an endless pit, and after a few seconds the highway, which dragged with it cars and tollbooths alike as it fell. Free of earthly brightness, the sky imposed itself abruptly onto the landscape: a violet-colored belly, swollen, run through with white veins.

Captive to a childish excitement, he got up from his chair and walked through the parking lot until he was able to catch sight of the city which twinkled—which had been twinkling—in the distance which was now conquered by darkness. It’s always good to come home, he thought. Whoever says that in the beginning was the Word is wrong: there is no origin other than the Dark. Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, he hummed, to our cabaret, our cabaret, our cabareeeeet. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the show of darkness; hopefully you will not find it too inconvenient. Children, my dear children, he thought, our wait has ended, it’s time to get drunk. He laughed and, still without giving up his glasses—he had the sense that they sharpened his vision somehow, darkness on darkness—he skipped onto the highway and began to slide down the asphalt to the rhythm of a Viennese waltz which flooded his mind. A little, he said to himself as he danced, just a little more.

It happened moments after midnight fell against the world with its entire weight. The air, before anything else the air: one instant it was whistling and the next it became completely paralyzed. Then the change in the atmosphere, a kind of swift compression, as if enormous hands were wringing it, reducing it to a ball of extraordinary density. Then the earthquake above his head and under his feet, a jolt which united the sky and the earth into one single trembling organ. And then, in the middle of the pristine silence which flowed out in all directions, the light: the most clear, the most beautiful, the sun of suns, its glow stoking the cosmos to its farthest corner. And after that the clamor, an avalanche of sound which buried even the music of the heavens.

Unmoving in the middle of the highway, all his senses aroused to their very limits, his lips twisted into a smile which grew second by second, he closed his eyes. When he opened them he could not avoid the flashing in his memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Nevada desert, the Pacific atolls; the mushroom cloud—slender, gorgeous—which rose up on the horizon as if of its own accord, was the irrefutable proof that humankind was—and would continue to be, as far as the nuclear shelters would allow—the same humankind of long ago. No one, he thought, would have believed that man could make such sublime mushrooms blossom.

As he turned towards the lair which some nights before he had dug in the damp soil at the back of the hotel, he imagined pupils exposed to the apocalypse that he had evaded for centuries, hands covering eyes forced to witness the spectacle of bones through radiographic skin, bottles of eye drops at the moment of dissolution. As he took off his dark glasses, he imagined his children, his beloved progeny, repeating that same gesture all over the world, and he pictured himself walking together with them along highways sown with eyeglasses. He recalled the temperature human blood reached when fear took root and he could do nothing more than cluck his tongue.

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome, he thought, to real live -eternity—a time dedicated to drink. Or was that not why they, ghosts, always returned: to drink the blood of the living few?
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The Drop

Claudia Guillén

Translated by Leah Leone

For Fernando León Guillén

The drop that fell discreetly and hesitantly, careful not to disturb Ana’s rest, had become part of the room’s ambience. As she had been doing every morning for years now, Clara went upstairs to her daughter’s room with a bottle of IV fluid. This time, though, she was accompanied by a young man to whom she spoke incessantly.

“See her, doc? It’s just like I said. My daughter’s been like this for five whole years. She doesn’t move. She just sits there and stares. But that’s not all: every night, sitting just like that, she closes her eyes and doesn’t open them again till the next morning.”

The doctor interrupted her, irritated by Clara’s passive acceptance of her daughter’s illness.

“I’m sorry ma’am, but I cannot understand why you promote your daughter’s vegetative state.”

“What state?” she asked.

“Vegetative, ma’am.” A brief silence gave him just enough time to observe this small woman who seemed weak and wore an ironic expression, and he felt somewhat sorry for her. “Look, what I mean to say is you should do something so that Ana stops sitting there in that chair, not moving, not speaking, as if she were a vegetable.”

Away from her body flew Clara’s two small hands, moving as fast as her mouth.

“Ah, doc, don’t say that, please. You have no idea what we went through to finally figure out the trick with the drop. Don’t look at me like that; you may not believe it, but that drop keeps my Ana alive. Yes, really, that water gives her life.”

Meanwhile, the doctor listened resignedly to the old woman’s story, helping her place the IV on its stand, unaware of how his assistance was making his residency there take on a new reality.

“Listen, one day Ana received a letter that told her her boyfriend was dead. She cried and cried. Her eyes were drained. She wouldn’t eat or come out of her room. She had me and her father, God rest his soul, really worried . . . but we decided not to bother her. Until one day, we didn’t hear her crying or making any noise at all. You can imagine my distress, I ran up the stairs to see what was wrong and when I came into the room, I found her sitting in the corner, watching some water drop from the ceiling. I asked her what she was doing there, but she didn’t answer my questions, even when I shouted at her.

“Then we called a doctor, who said she was in a state of shock because of the loss she’d suffered. Ah, doc, right away we had the leak fixed, just like the doctor told us to. He said that would make her come out of it, but wouldn’t you know, instead of coming out of it, she started dying on us. She aged a lot, and was getting worse every day. Then I remembered how peaceful she looked with the drop. So I ran to her dad’s room to find one of those droppers he used for his medicine and I stood in front of my daughter and I started dripping drops into the bottle.

“Miraculously, almost right away she started getting better, and the age started leaving her skin. For months or maybe years, I don’t even know anymore, doctor, my husband and me took turns with the dropper until one fine day, on my way home from the grocery store, it occurred to me to stop in that store on the corner where all the doctors are.

“First I explained what was wrong with my Ana and they looked at me like I was crazy, and probably just to get me off their backs they said that what I wanted was a drop, and that bottles could hold a lot of them. I knew they were making fun of me, but I didn’t care, especially when one of those guys showed me the little hose that comes out of the bottle that makes the water come out drop by drop.

“I bought ten of those bottles, that now I know are for IV fluid, and I was sure that everything had changed, and it did, doctor, everything changed. I know it’s hard to believe, but from that moment on we could rest: her father, when he was alive, me and, of course, my Ana. If you insist on studying her, go ahead. I’ve already lost count of how many doctors have come, and left as fast as they got here. And don’t think I’m saying that because I have some kind of chip on my shoulder. It’s not that, I’m just sure that you’re gonna get tired of this too, just like all the others doctors—although, you know, I have a good feeling about you. On top of it all, I’ll make you a deal: if in six months you haven’t managed to make my Ana come back, then you’ll knock it off. Because we both know my daughter’s not going to get better.”
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Without looking at him, she turned toward Ana, and winking, said, “Right, honey?”

She left the room while the doctor looked around himself: the old wood floor, the bed and a huge mirror shaped like a full moon, reflecting Ana’s entire body. She was dressed in white, with her curly hair falling over her shoulders, and her discreet beauty, that filled the room, respectful of the sound and movement of the drop.

As time passed, the doctor became more and more familiar with the house. First he set about studying any reaction Ana could have to anything other than the drop. There was nothing. Regardless, he decided that music and literature would be the beginning of a common language with Ana. As for Clara, she believed herself witness to the devotion the doctor showed to her daughter.

One morning, the malicious mother went upstairs to change the IV bottle. Upon entering Ana’s room she found the doctor reading aloud. Without a second thought, she interrupted him mid-sentence and said, “See, doc? I told you you weren’t gonna fix anything; and today the six months that we agreed upon are up.”

Annoyed, the doctor looked up from his book. Seeing him, the old lady realized how far removed she was from the atmosphere that now reigned in the room, and she left like a child caught misbehaving.

She had not yet shut the door when the doctor said to Ana, “See? Your mother is making fun of me. She doesn’t think you hear me, but I know you do.”

Imperturbable, Ana stayed in the same position.

The doctor raised his voice. “Don’t you understand that today is my last day with you and that if you don’t stop with the drop and the silence I won’t be able to keep coming to see you?

At that moment, Ana’s head turned as if she were a doll on a string, and with a hoarse voice said, “Doctor, water evaporates, leaving behind only silence. It neither ages nor dies.”

She immediately returned to the same position in which she had been. The young doctor looked at her disconsolately at first, but a few minutes later a slight smile drew itself across his face. He said nothing else, grabbed his books and put them in a bag. He also unplugged the radio and left the room that had been his home for the last six months.

The next morning, Clara entered the room with two IV bottles. She left them on the table and opened the curtains, whistling. Then, with unusual care, she placed the two bottles on the stand, and said sweetly to the doctor, “Thanks, doc, I knew you were coming back. Now I don’t have to worry: now my Ana’s got someone to keep her company.”

Triumphant, the old lady walked towards the door. At the threshold she turned her head to look at the two inanimate bodies that listened attentively to the drops fall, like strange music from other worlds.

A sample from Eduardo Jimenez Mayo, Chris N. Brown's
Three Messages and a Warning

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