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from Firefly

by Severo Sarduy

translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried


So No One Will Know I’m Afraid

Wait, who is that guy with the big head? Firefly? My god, I thought he’d be more developed, not so skinny. I had imagined him sort of like a tiny Greek athlete with clear glass eyes and gold nipples.

I find him like this, all of a shocking sudden, squatting on his clay chamber pot, the pale gray one with two handles, atop a dark green cistern in the shade of a royal poinciana collapsing from the weight of the cockatoos. The first thing I see is his oversized head. And his eyes are so Chinese, he might as well not have any. A bald Chinaman. When he spreads his little arms, his chest is really scrawny: a spidery map of bones

Instead of getting off the pot, he holds tight to both handles and lets himself slide down the cistern, and the basin shatters into more bits of ceramic than you’d find in a Julian Schnabel self-portrait. The cheeks of Firefly’s bottom are two purple splotches when he dashes across the various blues of the floor tiles, screaming at the top of his lungs.

The three aunts are in such a tizzy from his descent you would think they’d seen a polka-dotted bear cub riding a chariot down a steep brambly slope.

The aunts: all in shining silk. There must be some baptism to attend, or a small parish celebration. They gleam so in the noonday sun that you have to squint to look at them. That isn’t all: crocodile-leather high heels with red platforms and over their shoulders see-through handbags like round canteens for a thirsty outing.

The make-up is simple: a bit of powdered eggshell does it, plus a purple touch of Mercurochrome on the lips. Yes, it must be a catechism klatch, or maybe the arrival from the mother country of some buff parish priest whose photograph they’ve seen, the longed-for replacement of the insipid confessor of bilious believers his predecessor turned into after half a century of evangelizing against the tide.

And when I say against the tide I’m understating it: futile were the supplications that efficaciously unleashed sonorous downpours, futile the holy water dispensed right and left that instantly healed cankers and ulcers and even the cattle’s aphthous fever, and futile too the Hail Mary mediations that worked wonders for soured engagements or serial infidelities. The catechumens always returned to their venerable orishas, hidden on the top shelf of their armoires—the inheritance, along with the cinnamon skin and thick lips, of some Maroon ancestor if not of a great-grandfather who, being from Africa itself, was respected in the neighborhood as a man black by birth.

Let’s get back to the three dazzling women. The hairdo merits special attention: piled high of course, but in successive silvery waves that whipped the crown into a veritable ocean of white-caps. Haughty, necks erect, and so much hair spray not a wisp could budge. The three heads, turned in unison to watch Firefly’s chamber-pot slide, were like burnished sculptures made of mother-of-pearl and aluminum: goddesses, no doubt; fairies, not likely; how about philanthropic ladies who assist the underprivileged, or famous but honest actresses. The giveaway was the lack of eye makeup or even a beauty spot above the lip. And if they smoked, it was on the sly.

But on to Firefly, who, though reflected in others and at times deformed by them, is the true subject of this pack of lies. Why did he launch himself down the cistern on that “fecal sled”? Let’s see . . .

For me, he felt his aunts’ gaze riddling him from the trenches of their eyes, the blinding sheen of their silks like silvery headlamps, their index fingers bejeweled with dazzling amethysts pointing, “Look at him! Look at him! Shitting in the cistern!” He was a tiny defecating Saint Sebastian, pierced by an arrow in the midst of his misdeed, the ass-shitting butt of their joke, a helpless stench.

It was his first fright. The stare: a pricking of pins dipped in curare that kept on sticking him, crucifying him, petrifying him alive up there on his double throne.

He pressed his arms against his sides as if he were having his picture taken. He felt paralyzed. He wanted to sink into the cistern for good, to drown amid frogs and water worms, to descend to the iridescent green sediment in the depths, and then, crossing through the clay bottom, to bury himself in the crust of mineral earth, ferruginous and cold, and there remain, curled up, a sandy fetus or a rusty mummy: prenatal and posthumous at the same time.

Nailed to the cistern was a wooden lid he could not raise. So then he wanted to fly, to nest in the reddish branches amid the muteness of bustling birds and the stridency of cockatoos, protected by the broad yellow-veined leaves; a coiled boa would defend the trunk. But the defecation dragged him down, robbing something of his very essence. It tied him to the cistern; he was sewn to the earth. It was that double dead end that made him opt for the diagonal chamber-pot descent.

The three glittering women, now that they saw him running across the floor from one blue tile to another like a crazed bishop, heading toward his mother, who by now was waiting with open arms at the end of the hallway (she was yelling something but no one could make out what), turned to one another and reached their right hands down and forward in a wave, as if to indicate a nosedive or the pecking of a sandpiper. [Note] Then they raised their hands to the heavens and shook them along with their heads, as if saying, “No!”

Firefly’s mother was in a room set aside for weaving, at a spinning wheel beside a loom with skeins of colored yarn on spindles; strands of every color hung there, ready to be woven into a rug.

As he calmed down, the melon-head made up for his first phobia by producing his first eloquence: “Millimeter, decimeter, and centimeter!” he exclaimed.

Hearing him, the mother of that orthophonic issue could but cross herself. “Who,” she scolded him, shaking him by the shoulders and fixing him with a ferocious glare, “taught you those barbarities?”

She wiped his bottom with a sponge soaked in vinegar.

She sat him in a little wicker chair. (A milky and bluish light, which showed up the dust in the air from the velvet upholstery, entered through the thick panes of the mullioned window to the left of the chair.)

She made him drink a mug of hot chocolate.

Silently, Firefly watched the open carts go by in the street. The horses’ yellow excrement soiled the cobblestones; the clop of their hooves filtered through the window and into the room. He spied, perhaps in the distance like a toy, the train to the provinces climbing the black wooded hills and staining the blue morning air with compact puffs of coal dust and smoke.

The mother continued spinning. The wheel seemed to turn by itself.

What drove it, in reality, was a tabby cat playing with an invisible mouse. Or maybe with the spirit of one of the rodents people exterminated daily. The city was so infested with them that by night it was all theirs. They materialized at dusk in slow processions of shining eyes, as if drawn by the odor of the sea. They would not leave until dawn, dragging to the depths of the sewers the repugnant bits of all they had gained in the laborious night of incessant, abject gnawing.

Each family kept a rat potion of its own invention (the beasts were invulnerable to store-bought ones, immune to all known poisons), which they spread among the armoires and under the beds before retiring and kept in the pantry alongside bunches of onions hanging from the rafters, whole hams for Christmas Eve, copper frying pans, and one or more seven-armed Toledo lamps, vestiges of a nearby antique dealer gone bankrupt or a long-past fire in some synagogue.



It did not end there. A few days later, as tends to happen among these drifting islands—hollow rafts, borne by their own weight—the sky grew ugly. Yes, Tiepoloesque nimbuses, silvery gray with golden trim, began to roll in, whipped up on rising, spinning whirlwinds from the east. Gusts from the north, sly and freezing, whistled around corners and snatched up wedding bonnets with their hummingbird brims and bunches of varnished cherries. From the west came a downdraft, sweet and bluish like the smoke from a Partagás Culebra, carrying the scent of dense, freshly cut tobacco leaves, wrinkled and leathery and thickly veined. From the south, finally, a strange and to all appearances enemy rumbling, whose provenance and meaning no one could decode, reached the city. It was a distant choral murmur filled with muffled stridencies and mute clamors, as if from the grayish vault of the sky condemned angels were falling with heartrending shrieks. Or even closer: as if children were being slaughtered under a ceiba tree.

People nailed shut their doors and windows and shrouded their mirrors with black cloths when the screams of the souls reached their ears, because only an incorporeal and tortured army could give rise to such an interminable wail.

“It’s the innocent children murdered by the Inquisition,” they said, “back to demand justice. Their bodies are mangled but those are the voices they had in life, for the voice is all that remains intact after death.”

“What innocents, what horseshit!” Making his first appearance in this story, throwing open the door of the living room, only to slam it shut with a bang that nearly shatters the windowpanes, is the father of the melon-headed chatterbox. “This is hurricane season!”

The storm that soon materialized gave rise to the fragile fast-talker’s second phobia. And his most shrewd “performance.”

It all began with a big party; island parties are sad and tumultuous. The women wore pants (they had started the day haggard and short-tempered, drinking highballs and reading their horoscopes), plush kerchiefs on their heads and on their feet big wooden clogs like stilts to keep them high and dry.

Neighborhood bands were blowing. What reigned was the sort of disorder, the sort of dirty-undershirt impudence that happens on days of national mourning or general strike. Without the least hint of shame, the drunks sitting on street corners opened bottles of beer in full view (which they later tossed into the storm sewer) and guzzled them with a queasy grimace and in one long swill (taunting hand in the air, all lit up) to keep them from getting warm.

The old blacks had carried their flimsy little domino tables into the street to escape the stale dank heat that sticks to your skin between gusts. Straddling unsteady chairs, they banged their tiles down with such fury that it seemed they would sink the whole board. They cursed, swearing they would have a white woman; they spit on the ground; they drank alarmingly long gulps of harsh rum while awaiting a fresh breeze. Every hour, they tuned into the weather report from the observatory. On the radio, a meteorologist priest offered contradictory indications of the tempest’s trajectory. Firefly, needless to say, interpreted for his sister (the only one accomplished at deciphering the boy) the cleric’s convoluted predictions, which, while both cautious and learned, avoided with precise paraphrases any possible mishap.

“The hurricane’s path,” the priest asserted in a metallic voice made for the big-time microphone as well as the pulpit’s echo, “traces a spiral opening up from its origin. Before it peters out it will head north, like migrating birds after the thaw. The danger lies in the voracious calm of the vortex, that innermost silence that announces the second lashing. Of course,” he concluded modestly, “no hurricane travels on rails, so regarding the time of arrival . . .”

The sister, best known as “the Galician mouse” because that is how she dressed up for burials or when they were alone at home or to alleviate the no less funereal boredom of school assemblies and carnival celebrations, followed every detail of Firefly’s hand signals with her questioning eyes, while the adults, gigantic puppets in clean clothes with brusque gestures and grating voices, drank endless cups of linden-flower or basil or peppermint tea to appease the anticipated nervous collapse.

At noon, grave and furrow-browed, the family and those close to them gathered in the weaving room, near the window whose panes had disappeared under a striped black-and-white convolution, crucified with tape and court plaster against the winds. On the great mahogany cabinet they tuned in the station of the observatory. Listening to the cleric’s gongoristic dispatches, they made conflicting calculations to deduce the possible hour of the disaster.

The sister tiptoed close and touched Firefly affectionately on the shoulder, seeking an explanation with the deference of a dog putting his paw on his master’s thigh and nudging with his head in pursuit of a lump of sugar.

“Bats,” the melon-head then whispered into her ear, lingering on the sound with the gravity of one who has found the solution to an enigma. “Bats flew by.” They looked at each other then with astonishment.

Both paled.

They heard on the roof, light as acrobatic cats, new blasts of air.

In one holy amen the hurricane blew in like an Aeolus possessed. The sea turned wild and the crests of the waves soared as if spewing great wads of spit against the colonial façades on the far side of the street. Birds screeched, flying low to the ground. The palm trees began to bend until their crowns touched the roofing tiles.

Holding the circular shutter of the oxeye that usually ventilated the room open just a crack (they never opened the window, nor do I think they could have: the heavy sliding bolts were merely a decorative whim of affected architects), each by turn contemplated and conveyed to the rest, openmouthed and dying for news, the windswept panorama that surrounded them.

One by one they climbed a folding stepladder and used all their strength to hold the shutter tight and keep a devastating gust from slipping in and sweeping away the paintings, the faded map with Gothic letters and a single continent, and the central spiderlike copper chandelier strewn with the stubs—soft stalactites—of old tapers.

People were still in the street. The raconteur on the perch with a stiff-as-a-board disparaging style critical of everything was one of the aunts; the other two, from below, punctuated her lapidary phrases with cunning adjectives and empty sneers, which they wielded like amulets against fear.

An entire family was fleeing under a glossy white waterproof tablecloth. Arms open wide, the father held two corners of the protective rectangle aloft. The tablecloth shivered furiously, as if shaken by choleric titans; the crying progeny huddled underneath. They banged on every door they found, pleading for shelter.

An aunt, from below, sarcastically: “As if they hadn’t had plenty of warning about the calamity! As if the silverware hadn’t started turning green three days ago and the dogs hadn’t lost their appetite and sense of direction! Well, since they paid no heed, let the wind carry them off!”

The other, farther up, after a moment of silence: “Nothing, nothing’s happening and that’s the worst of it. An insufferable calm . . .” Then it was Firefly’s turn to be the reporter. And it was not that he was already privy to the objective—in reality, sarcastic and vile—world of adults; no, more that he had his own eloquence, his own precision, for moments like this. Such a mature child for his age! The proof: an inured Rosicrucian who once ran into him in the street touched his forehead and exclaimed, “Here shines a light, the light of intelligence!”

So the melon-head climbed laboriously up the stepladder. His sister seemed to hold him up with her gaze. He reached the lookout. Under the rain, the city was like a weaving with diagonal stripes and all the colors pulverized, glued onto a white cardboard backing.

Little did his supposed fluency serve him. It turns out that sometimes, faced with what has to be said, words seem to soften and hang, flaccid and dripping saliva like the tongues of the hanged. What Firefly saw through the oxeye, as they say, had no name. He opened and closed his mouth like a harpooned porgy, trying to convey the scene to the inquiring chorus. But nothing came out. I’ll try to say it myself, in the most neutral way I can to avoid any possible humiliation of that speechless boy.

The wind blew with such force it sliced off the eaves. Roofing tiles flew by, red stains, like pomegranate seeds in the gray of the rain; they smashed against the plinths and the ceramic façades. Hail beat against the big swathed window with a raucous metallic rat-a-tat, minuscule tin drums.

That much Firefly was able to recount—in his own way of course, and in a stuttering stammering fashion—to the gathering that longed fervently for cleverness and received his words with a thousand mocking sniggers. What he could not recount is what happened next: how one of the roofing sheets first opened up like the blade of a jackknife, and then slid down and took off, a leaf of zinc that flipped halfway in the air and shone like a silver dagger before diving straight down like a bolt of lightning . . . and slicing off the head of a black man running with a suitcase in his hand.

In the illusions of the circus (Firefly had gone to a matinee performance of the Santos y Artigas), the head cut off at a drum roll settled imperturbably back on the neck of the plump albino woman who undertook this remarkable exploit daily; that of the black man under the hailstorm fell smiling onto the suitcase that the decapitated body continued to hold.

Firefly tried to speak, but could not. His right hand rose and fell, again and again, like someone chopping down a tree. He had become mechanized, a windup toy, voiceless.

Then he felt something not only invade him icily through his feet, tying all his nerves in knots, but mix in with his very body, spilling out all over, like a shroud of sweat and cold.

He looked away from the blood-spattered circus, but it was too late: his legs trembled, his teeth chattered like castanets, he stared off into space like someone cross-eyed or hallucinating, hearing voices. The stepladder itself began to wobble, as if a benign earthquake were shaking the foundations of the house, rather than a hurricane its rooftop.

Seeing him like that, so stricken and mute, his face mottled with streaks spreading like angry little snakes, the family, as always when faced with a defenseless rara avis, redoubled its cruelty.

The aunts launched into a derogatory dance—because a little boy must not go soft—and the cackling cripples, like deboned Graces, parodied his vacillations and silence by mamboing in unison while emitting chortles, cachinnations, and stuttering shrieks.

The father kept repeating, “For the love of God, for the love of God!” yanking on the tip of a Havana with his teeth and draining compulsive cups of cognac.

The mother worked the empty spinning wheel and began to sway senselessly in a rocker piled with cushions, the haunt of parturient she-cats. The sister took him by the arm to help him climb down the last steps. She whispered in his ear, affectionately, “How about some linden-flower tea? Or the Golden Book of Animals to take your mind off it?”

The butt of the adults’ ridicule gave no answer. He fled sobbing to the kitchen, hunched over, hiding his face.

Once in the kitchen, using the cloth for drying the porcelain, he wiped away two big tears. The buffeting winds were barely audible in there, but the brass pots hanging from the wooden rafters tinkled.

He counted the members of the family.

He prepared cups of linden-flower tea. For all, except himself.

He sprinkled them generously with rat poison.

With the utmost care, he laid them on a tray.



“So no one will know I’m afraid.”


Note: “The sandpiper dies blind,” says Gustavo Guerrero. A fisherman from Laguna de la Restinga, on Margarita Island in Venezuela, once told him their eyelids get scorched from all that pecking in salt water. [return]

 

Severo Sarduy (1937–1993) was a Cuban poet, author, playwright, and literary critic, considered one of the best prose artists of the twentieth century. In 1972, he was awarded the Prix Médicis for his novel Cobra. He pursued a variety of interests: in addition to publishing six highly acclaimed novels, he published several volumes of poetry, essays, and plays. He also painted, hosted a radio program, and, as editor at Editions du Seuil, introduced contemporary Latin American fiction to European readers. He was a leading intellectual in the Cuban Revolution.

Mark Fried is the translator of Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Voices of Time: A Life in Stories, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, We Say No: Chronicles 1963–1991, and Walking Words. He is also the translator of the historical collection Echoes of the Mexican-American War and works by Emilia Ferreiro (Past and Present of the Verb to Read and to Write: Essays on Literacy), José Ignacio López Vigil, Oscar Ugarteche, and Rafael Barajas Durán. For permission to reprint Mark Fried’s translations, contact Susan Bergholz Literary Services. (4/2013)


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