Quotidian Blues


My sister is sitting
on the bank of a ploughed field,
catching the last grains like fish.
The black earth is agitated,
spattering poisonous salt
throwing foam beneath the blackthorn bush.

I go up to her, bent and old,
sobbing, so she pities me,
“Look, I’m cold, I’ll die.”
And she answers me,
“You were never alive,
you haven’t been born.”

I cry to her,
“Look at the clouds in the sky!
Here comes a storm!”
She furrows her brow,
doesn’t move,
watching the minnows of corn.


On the twelfth day   

On the twelfth day I met the one
who had talked to me.
He lay ill, wrapped in the Milky Way like a blanket.
He didn’t surprise me by this,
but he was not how I had imagined.
He washed down the medicine, with difficulty holding the glass,
whilst his other hand groped about in a silver dish,
then he handed a button to me and said:
Here’s the ocean—take it and show it to people.

Just then rained a meteorite shower,
it soaked me from crown to hem,
and the button dissolved like a handful of salt.
You know, of course, it is happiness,
When an ocean splashes in the lap of your dress.


Blok Capsule 

Here is my body, weighty, a simple protein,
going through customs, but through the window it’s all the same:
the night, the gloom of the station, the street and the street light,
the slow border guard in a white shirt, oh god,
here’s my bag, I’m trembling like a creature,
what if he discovers that under my skin
hidden in a box is Alexander Blok,
asleep like a puppy covered with a sack.

Go away, border guard, I’m still young,
if you don’t believe me, I’ll repaint my name,
a capsule of Blok is active in me
I’m starting to be confused by my pseudonym.
You should know, border guard, all my chatter
will be short, like a shot of adrenaline,
will be underground, fanciful, like water
with a smell of the north, with the tang of Ukraine.


A Dead Cat

I walked along the pavement and saw a dead cat in the gutter.
A woman drew near with a broom and scoop.
She shovelled the corpse into a bag and said:
“It’s my cat, I’m going to bury it.”

But then I went into a coat shop,
and soon forgot about the cat.

Light music was playing in the store.
A dead man wore a scarf and coat.
I said to the shop assistant:
“Give me a broom and scoop.
It’s my cat, I’m going to bury it.”
He replied:
“It’s not a cat, it’s a plastic dummy.
Please leave our shop.”

Then watching me go, he pointed a finger
and said something to another shop assistant.

I returned home.
Entering the lift I saw a pool of blood.
I got to the tenth floor with difficulty.
I felt bad.
I went out.
But coming towards me was my neighbour with a cloth and bucket.
I said to her:
“There’s blood there. A cat died there.
I’m going to bury it.”

She answered:
“It’s not blood. It’s just that I spilt tomato sauce.
I’m going to wash the lift.”
Then watching me go, she pointed a finger
and said something to another neighbour.

I went into my apartment.
I looked into the mirror and saw a dead cat.
It’s my cat.
I’m going to bury it.


Quiet is the molten night

Quiet is the molten night
on the steppes of Eastern Ukraine
you can’t surpass it, can’t overcome,
can’t fly up to the middle.

But a rock tears itself away
floats off, like a lonely sail
flows down in the mist of the sea
to find in a distant land

a house, that blooms on the boulders,
grows and reaches above,
all the while a liquid moon
seeps down from the tiled roof.


Like the word “flowerbed” 

I’m constantly rushing somewhere, for my troubles.
So today I went for bread and saw something white
flash past my feet and dart under a table in the summer café.
I follow the white thing. Suddenly I think it’s a rabbit.
I sit and wait, like the fool at the station,
twisting the menu in my hands, I order a beer.
And from under the table this white thing leapt out,
bounced like a ball and turned into a bird.
But I didn’t leave the café,
I sat at the table, leafed through the menu.
And on the last page in this book
next to the prices for Italian pizza
are three faint and roughly drawn arrows
“right,” “left” and “ahead.”
Under the “right” arrow it says “how you live,”
under the “left” arrow it says “how you die.”
Why did I sit at the table? Why did I stay looking at this menu?
Why did I come into this café at all?
I would choose the arrow “ahead,” but the inscription below is erased.
And for a long time that white bird flew over me,
as if I needed it, as if it was somehow interested in me.
Then it suddenly sat on the pavement not far from the night club,
and turned into something in bloom, like the word “flowerbed.”


Get lost

I approached
that is
I stood alongside
Russian literature
but she is proud
not paying attention

and I position myself
not giving way
clicking my heel on the asphalt
counting the crows

and suddenly she condescended
turned her gaze
saying what are you here for?
what do you need from me?
don’t stand alongside
fuck off from me
get lost

I tell myself to fuck off
and stand further off
not giving way
clicking my heel on the asphalt
counting the crows
in my memory
tying knots


I see almost nothing

my arms became branches
my legs lengthened like roots
I don’t know what to do now
how will I go to work
how will I open the green umbrella
how will I strike the keyboard
I see almost nothing
except the birds
sitting in the palms of my hands




Сидит сестра моя
на берегу вспаханного поля,
как рыбку, ловит последние зёрна.
Чернозём волнуется,
брызжет отравленной солью,
выбрасывает пену под куст тёрна.

Подхожу к ней, старая и кривая,
рыдаю, чтоб вызвать жалость.
– Видишь, мне холодно, я умираю.
А она мне:
– Ты не жила ещё,
не рождалась.
Кричу ей:
— Сейчас будет буря!

Взгляни, заволокло небо!
Она брови хмурит,
не двигается,
глядит на мальков хлеба.


на двенадцатый день

А на двенадцатый день я встретила того
кто со мной говорил.
Он лежал больной в млечный путь завернут как в одеяло.
Не то, чтобы он этим меня удивил,
но я не таким его себе представляла.
Он запивал лекарство с трудом удерживая стакан,
другой рукой что-то нащупывая на серебряном блюде,
потом протянул мне пуговицу и сказал:
Вот океан – возьми и покажи его людям.
В этот момент пошел метеоритный дождь,
и я промокла от макушки до платья,
а пуговица растворилась как горстка соли.
Знаете, наверно, это и есть счастье,
когда океан плещется в твоем подоле.


Капсула Блока

Вот мое тело, важный, простой белок,
едет через таможню, а за окном все то же:
ночь, привокзальный морок, улица и фонарь,
медленный пограничник в белой рубашке, боже,
вот моя сумка, я трепещу как тварь,
вдруг обнаружит, что у меня под кожей
спрятан в коробке сам Александр Блок,
спит как щенок, прихлопнув себя рогожей.

Уйди, пограничник, я еще молода,
если не веришь, я перекрашу имя,
капсула Блока действует на меня
я начинаю путаться в псевдониме.
Знай, пограничник, вся моя болтовня,
будет короткой, как выброс адреналина,
будет подземной, вычурной, как вода
с запахом севера, с привкусом украины.


Мертвая кошка

Я шла по тротуару и увидела на обочине мертвую кошку.
К ней приближалась женщина с лопаткой и веником.
Она сгребла труп в пакет и сказала:
— Это моя кошка, я буду ее хоронить.

Но я шла в магазин верхней одежды,
поэтому вскоре забыла про кошку.

В зале играла легкая музыка.
И стоял мертвый человек в пальто и шарфе.
Я сказала продавцу-консультанту:
— Дайте мне веник и лопатку.
Это моя кошка, я буду ее хоронить.
Он ответил:
— Это не кошка, а пластмассовый человек,
выйди из нашего магазина.

Потом он смотрел мне в след, показывал пальцем
и что-то говорил другому продавцу-консультанту.

Я вернулась домой.
Зашла в лифт и увидела лужу крови.
Я с трудом доехала до десятого этажа.
Мне было плохо.
Я вышла.
А навстречу мне соседка с тряпкой и ведром.
Я сказала ей:
— Там кровь. Там умерла кошка.
Я буду ее хоронить.

Она мне ответила:
— Это не кровь. Я только что пролила томатный сок.
Иду мыть лифт.

Потом она смотрел мне в след, показывала пальцем
и что-то говорила другой соседке.

Я вошла в свою квартиру.
Посмотрела в зеркало и увидела мертвую кошку.
Это моя кошка.
Я буду ее хоронить.


Тиха расплавленная ночь

Тиха расплавленная ночь
в степи восточной Украины,
не превзойти, не превозмочь,
не долететь до середины.

Но отрывается скала,
плывет, как парус одинокий
в тумане моря и стекла,
чтобы найти в стране далекой

дом, что цветет на валунах,
растет и делается выше,
покуда жидкая луна
стекает с черепичной крыши.


Похожее на слово “клумба”

Я постоянно куда-то бегу, у меня заботы.
Вот и сегодня пошла за хлебом, вижу белое что-то
под ногами мелькнуло и юркнуло в летнее кафе под столик.
Я — за этим белым, думаю, а вдруг это кролик.
Сижу и жду, как дурочка на вокзале,
покрутила в руках меню, пиво себе заказала.
А это белое из-под стола взметнулось,
как мячик подпрыгнуло и птицею обернулось.
А я из кафе уходить не стала,
сидела за столиком, меню листала.
И в этой книге на последней странице
рядом с ценами на итальянскую пиццу
три стрелочки “прямо”, “налево”, “направо”
нарисованы неотчётливо и коряво.
Под стрелкой “направо” написано — “как бы жизнь”,
под стрелкой “налево” — “как бы смерть”.
Зачем я села за столик? Зачем стала это меню смотреть?
Зачем вообще я в это кафе припёрлась?
Я бы выбрала стрелку “прямо”, но под ней надпись стёрлась.
А та птица белая ещё долго надо мной летала,
будто я ей нужна, словно я чем-то её заинтересовала.
А потом вдруг села на тротуар недалеко от ночного клуба,
и превратилась во что-то цветущее, похожее на слово “клумба”.


Иди отсюда

это я значит
к русской литературе
стала рядом
а она гордая
вниманния не обращает
а я стою себе такая
с места не двигаюсь
каблуком об асфальт постукиваю
ворон считаю

и вдруг она снизошла
взор обратила
че говорит пристала?
че тебе от меня надо?
не стой рядом
отвали от меня
иди отсюда

сама говорю отвали
и стою себе дальше
с места не двигаюсь
каблуком об асфальт постукиваю
ворон считаю
узелки на память


Я почти ничего не вижу

мои руки стали ветвями
мои ноги длинны как корни
я не знаю что теперь делать
как я пойду на работу
как открою зеленый зонтик
как ударю по клавиатуре
я почти ничего не вижу
кроме птиц
на ладонях сидящих


Translator’s Note

In translating these poems from Ganna Shevchenko’s first poetry collection, Домохозяйкин блюз, I wanted to retain their freshness and apparent simplicity. The spirit of the book is vital, with a fairy tale or dreamlike quality to some poems. I wanted to convey Shevchenko’s distinct, lively voice and—as the poet Arkady Shytpel commented in his 2016 review in Novyy Mir— the “strangeness and charm” of these poems.

I translated the title of the collection (literally Housewife’s/ Househusband’s Blues), as Quotidian Blues to convey the sense of lived experience, banality, the everyday. The connotations of the word “housewife” in English seemed too limited.

As much as possible, I have followed the structure of each poem. Rather than duplicating rhyme schemes, I have used half-rhyme, internal rhyme and consonant rhyme to preserve the formal integrity of each stanza in relation to the whole poem.

In Shevchenko’s poems, ordinary situations become fantastic as she meets with a dead cat, a dead poet (Charles Bukowski), her sister who tells her she doesn’t exist, someone “wrapped in the Milky Way as if in a blanket,” a bird which “turned into something in bloom, like the word “flowerbed.”

The poet Marina Galina in her preface to the book, describes some of the poems as “dark like the Ukrainian night with shining, terrifying stars, glowing through the cherry orchard close to the house.” This quotation is from Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), whose literary works form the basis of modern Ukrainian literature.

Shevchenko was asked in an interview in 2015 whether she was a Slavophile or a Westerner. She replied, “Actually I’m a transcendentalist. Like Henry Thoreau, who wrote Life in the Woods. If there was the hypothetical opportunity, I would be living right now somewhere on the outskirts of civilisation, in a hut on chicken legs, with my backside to the city, facing the woods.”


Special guest judge, Carolyn L. Tipton

“Anne Gutt has brought alive for us the strange and magical world of Russian poet Ganna Shevchenko. Though the collection of poems is titled ‘Quotidian Blues,’ the poet’s vision is anything but ordinary; she, herself, says she ‘see[s] almost nothing / except the birds / sitting in the palms of [her] hands.’ Through Anne Gutt, we enter a wonderland where the poet, following a white rabbit, goes into a café where, ‘next to the prices for Italian pizza / are three faint and roughly drawn arrows / “right,” “left” and “ahead.” / Under the “right” arrow it says “how you live,” / under the “left” arrow it says “how you die.” / … / I would choose the arrow “ahead,” but the inscription below is erased.’ We leave these poems with our minds slightly altered. It is Gutt’s particular skill to render this fantastical world in lucid English; the odd images come through with clarity; no ‘translation murkiness’ adheres to them. Moreover, the translator has given us English poems which, like the original poems, are musical, but whose music is subtle, and thus, more pleasing to most English readers; for example, rather than giving us full rhyme, she has used half-rhyme and assonance. I am so grateful to Anne Gutt for producing poems which feel as if they have been written in English, but which bring us not only a foreign world, but a quirky and original perception of this world.”

-Dr. Carolyn L. Tipton is a poet, translator, and teacher. She has been awarded both an N.E.H. and an N.E.A. Her first book of translations of the poetry of Rafael Alberti, To Painting (Northwestern University Press), won the National Translation Award. It was also a finalist for the PEN West Award in Literary Translation and was selected by Poet Laureate Robert Hass for Poet’s Choice. Her latest translation of Alberti, Returnings: Poems of Love and Distance (White Pine Press), is the recipient of the Cliff Becker Translation Prize.


Anne Gutt

Anne Gutt is a poet and artist living in the UK, working under the heteronym seekers of lice. She has books in many public collections, including ten in the collection of Artists’ Books at the Tate, London. She learnt Russian in order to read Russian poetry in the original. She is currently translating the poetry of Nina Iskrenko (1951-1995).

Photo by Franck Skyscape

Ganna ShevchenkoGanna Shevchenko is a poet and prose writer, born in Yenakiyevo, Donetsk, Ukraine. Her work has appeared in many literary journals in Russia, including Arion, Interpoezia, New Youth, People’s Friendship, October, and Siberian Lights, and in anthologies of poetry and prose. She won the International Contest of Contemporary Drama from the Belarus Free Theatre in 2010 for her play Iron, and was a finalist for the Moscow Account poetry prize in 2012 with Quotidian Blues; her novel Deep Miner (2015) was on the longlist for the Российская национальная премия (“National Bestseller” award). She has published three books, Cranes (2009), Quotidian Blues (2012), and The Inhabitant of the Crossroads (2015), and Window, Wind (2017). She is also a member of the Writers’ Union of Moscow.

  Photo by Andrey Tarasov


“Tell your father not to stay out there in the chill; it’ll make him sick.”

Actually, it was warm on the patio. The sun already hung low in the sky, but it was still two hours until dark. And the fence around the house shielded don Antonio Nemiña from the winds loaded with dust and dry leaves, bringing more warmth, not coolness.

“Tell him to come in. It’s cold,” his mother repeated.

Ignacio had just come home from the movies. On Sundays, he always went to the movies. It didn’t surprise him to see his old man there, seated in his rocker at the far end of the patio, smoking a cigar. But it must have surprised his mother. She didn’t know how to express why it worried her, so resorted to the excuse that it was chilly. She couldn’t say that directly to her husband because they had not spoken for years. If they wanted to communicate, even if they were in the same room, facing each other, they sent the message through one of their children. And now, that meant only Ignacio.

“Didn’t you hear me?”

Don Antonio didn’t even turn to look at them on the other end of the patio. His face empty of expression, he contemplated the smoke that came out of his mouth in thick ropes to become tangled between the branches of the tamarind. The gray at his pale temples shone with ruddy afternoon light. Seeing him like that, Ignacio felt the hatred he’d harbored in recent days ebb. Instead, he now pitied his father.

“Come inside yourself, Mamá. He must want to sit there.”

“He’s going to get sick. And then you’ll be left with all the work.”

“Leave him alone. You and I will go in. I want a coffee.”

If they wanted to communicate, even if they were in the same room, facing each other, they sent the message through one of their children. And now, that meant only Ignacio.

She had aged too. Pride and rancor had managed to keep her young for years, but now even those passions were beginning to decline. Ignacio took her arm and led her to the living room. He left her seated on the sofa and went to make the coffee. On the way to the kitchen he glanced at the photo of his sister hanging on the wall. It was from her wedding. She was alone, wearing her wedding gown, but alone, her hand resting on a marble pillar. Their parents hadn’t wanted her to marry the guy, resisted to the very end. In that, they had been in complete agreement. So, they had asked for a photo of Marina by herself, not with that mestizo. And so, she didn’t visit them. She had made her own life. She’d had the courage Ignacio lacked. You couldn’t tell that in this portrait—so sweet, even smiling, her fair complexion, her honey-colored eyes full of light.

Ignacio wondered what she would think if she found out what had happened here. She had always loved her father a lot. And he had loved her.

The kitchen smelled like canned fruit. He turned on the gas and lit the burner with a wooden match. The room was already gathering gloom and the ring of blue flames dispelled it a bit.

While he was making the coffee, his mind returned to the furniture store, to his father and the girl. Bibiana had the habit of spitting on the ground. She did it constantly: when she had the feeling that something was stuck in her throat, when she smelled something strange, when she heard dirty talk or thought of something nasty. He heard a dry hack and there it was: a gob of white spittle that she then squelched with her foot.

She’d made a bad impression on Ignacio the moment she came to ask for work at the store. She seemed vulgar, aggressive and dangerous. He was disgusted by her thick silver eye shadow, her smoker’s voice, the pride with which she bared her cleavage and flaunted her breasts. But he didn’t dare say anything because his father had looked at her with pleasure and Ignacio already knew: once he’d decided about something or someone, any word to the contrary only aroused his anger. For her part, Bibiana also took Ignacio’s measure, kept looking him up and down with her poisonous cat eyes until it was obvious that they’d never be friends. She took two steps out the front door and sent the first spittle to the sidewalk. Don Antonio didn’t say anything. As if he was going to say anything when, thanks to this act, she turned her back to him for an instant and he could get a good long look at her butt. The decision was made then. What followed was a formality: the supposedly careful reading of the job application, his comments on certain points, the admonition about the mistakes her predecessor had made—tardiness, sloppy dress—for which he’d been fired. Finally, while Ignacio attended to a woman who came in to ask if they still made Philco televisions, his father explained the job to Bibiana and came to an agreement about what he would pay her.

*     *     *

All this had happened before ten in the morning, almost six months ago. When the girl went to eat at three in the afternoon, don Antonio was already in the best mood Ignacio had seen him in for years. He and his wife avoided each other as much as possible. They slept in separate rooms and ate at different times. Perhaps with the goal of making the solitude he must feel less obvious, don Antonio had developed the habit of taking his afternoon meal at the furniture store. At four p.m. on the dot, when the employee returned, he shut himself in the small office at the back and spread his newspaper, the Galician Mail, on his desk so he could read it while he dipped slice after slice of black bread in olive oil. He closed the store at eight and walked home. Always in silence, always sealed up in himself, as if the punishment of not talking that he’d imposed on his wife had extended to include the whole world. He didn’t complain. He seemed to have accepted his fate: to be married for forty years to a woman he didn’t love; to live in a small city without plazas or trees, buried among dry hills, a place whose people he disdained; to communicate only through letters with the few relatives that he had sprinkled around the world. One day a week—Sunday—he closed the furniture store early and shut himself in his office to smoke a cigar and drink two bottles of wine. Never more, never less. He sat in there alone. Once in a while, Ignacio saw him leave around ten at night, and walk to his house: an enormous figure, solid and at the same time ghostly, elusive, as if it weren’t his father but a blurred memory of his father.

When he heard the water begin to boil, he walked back to the door and turned on the kitchen light before shutting off the stove. He poured the coffee, put two porcelain cups on a tray and carried it to the living room. His mother waited for him with the same suffering face as before. She raised her legs to the footstool and began to massage them. It wasn’t that they hurt, she said; it was a habit she’d picked up, nothing more.

“Have there been problems at the store?” she asked Ignacio.


“Then what’s bothering your father?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just yesterday he was happy.”

“The employee left,” he was going to say, but he thought that wouldn’t comfort his mother. She’d have more questions. And he didn’t want to answer more questions. He’d come from the movies, his only vice and the only thing that made him happy. His father hadn’t let him go to the university. He didn’t read, didn’t participate in any sports, had no friends or girlfriend—when he was young his father had forbidden him to associate with the town’s children—they’re not our kind, he said. Ignacio only went to the movies. And whenever he really liked a film, he would think about it for hours, review the scenes that moved or excited him, even after he was home, alone in his room. So, he kept quiet now. In the dusk, he put the tray with the coffee on the side table by the sofa where his mother sat and remained standing, as if awaiting an order or permission to leave.

“Turn on the light, son.” Still the suffering voice, the shushing of her rough hands kneading her white legs through wool stockings.

The light dazzled them a little, at first. He sat in the smaller armchair, resigned. He stared again at the photo of his sister. What if he had talked to her by phone and told her? It would do the old man good to talk to her, if his shame wasn’t too strong. No. Surely, he’d refuse.

“Hasn’t Marina called, Mamá?”

“You think she’s going to call? Only if she needs something from your father.”

Ignacio let a deep, weary sigh escape. Sometimes he missed his sister a lot. He envied her. Of all who had inhabited this house, she seemed to be the only one who was truly alive. He remembered the day when his father discovered she was engaged to “that guy.” It was also on a Sunday, like today. In those days, they had Sunday breakfast together: his father and mother, Antonio his older brother, Marina and him. Antonio had a hangover, as he always did after his weekend drinking bouts, and that had put the old man in a bitter mood. Besides, someone at the furniture store had already told him about Marina, although he still hadn’t confirmed it; he thought she would deny it if he asked. But it didn’t turn out that way. The maid had finished serving the hot chocolate when the phone rang. Marina jumped from her seat and went to answer it, but don Antonio stopped her. He answered it. Rudely. Then she couldn’t stand it anymore.

“They’re calling for me,” she told him. “Give me the phone.”

Her father ignored her.

He stood staring her in the eye, defiant. She, equally defiant, said, to end it: “It’s my fiancé.”

Ignacio escaped his anger. He always escaped because don Antonio didn’t think it was worth the trouble to get mad at him.

Then everything exploded. Her father restrained himself with her because he loved her very much. He only threatened to put a bullet in her boyfriend. But he used his fists on Antonio for not taking better care of his sister. And likewise, her mother. Ignacio escaped his anger. He always escaped because don Antonio didn’t think it was worth the trouble to get mad at him. He was useless, nothing more than a shadow.

“Turn on the television for me, son?”

“Yes, Mamá.”

Ignacio obeyed, knowing that after a few minutes he would have to get up again to turn it off. It was Sunday and there was nothing on that his mother liked, just sports and a musical program. She already knew that. Why then did she bother with it? He wanted to think about the movie he’d just seen, a story set in the Amazon jungle, about a black man who escapes from the Cayena prison and after walking forever and overcoming all kind of dangers, is captured by some savages who offer him a beautiful woman.

“The woman selling egg bread hasn’t come?” his mother asked, pensive.

Ignacio didn’t answer.

“And we don’t have a single slice left, do we?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you go see if at least there’s a bit? I really feel like having some.”

Ignacio went to the kitchen. From the living room, his mother called: “If you don’t find anything, bring me some fig cookies, please, son.”

Through the window, he looked toward the patio. Although it was now dark, he could still make out everything: the tamarind, the pomegranate, the two fig trees with the hammock hanging between them. Don Antonio was no longer smoking, but he still sat there, immobile. Ignacio envisioned a high waterfall, surrounded by tropical trees. The black man fell, caught by the current. He lost consciousness. The savages found him shortly afterwards, downstream.

In the living room his mother was watching a baseball game, although it was evident she was thinking of something else and what happened on the screen didn’t matter to her.

“Thanks, son.”

Ignacio felt sad looking at her. But also a certain satisfaction, because in the end, in spite of his father and two dead sons and everything else, there she was: healthy. Sustained by her manias.

Next to the photo of Marina hung a small one of Antonio. He couldn’t handle it, thought Ignacio. Antonio had been the chosen one since he was small. His father expected a lot from him. Because of that, of the three of them who survived to grow up, Antonio was the one who hated his father the most. That’s why he got drunk so much and squandered his money on whores. He suffered, but in the midst of his suffering he took satisfaction in frustrating the expectations don Antonio had forced on him. Then he was shot to death in a bar brawl. It was then, immediately after the burial, that the two old folks stopped talking to each other. In silence, with a deaf, unending rancor, they blamed each other for Antonio’s death. His father had driven him to vices with his punishments and hardness; his mother had spoiled him rotten with so much pampering.

“Just yesterday he seemed very happy.”

“Yes, Mamá.” This fixation of hers bothered him. Why worry about someone you no longer care about?

“It isn’t about some woman? At his age!”

“I don’t think so, Mamá.”

“He’s a dirty old man.”

Yes. As soon as Bibiana began to work for him, don Antonio had given her the eye. Even though at first, she had wanted to flirt with Ignacio. But Ignacio disliked her. It repulsed him to watch her spit. Since she couldn’t do it there, on the floor of the store, she went out to the street or to the bathroom. Besides her odor, the odor of her body… Ignacio felt like it lingered, clinging to his nostrils. At night he woke suddenly, throwing aside sheets soaked with sweat, and felt like Bibiana was there, spying on him, lying in wait in the darkness, naked and oozing lust. She lifted her arms as if they were wings and released the odor of her body, the odor Ignacio carried with him like an infection. And perhaps, yes, his father was a dirty old man. He began to talk to her, to give her privileges Ignacio didn’t have. He gave her authority. If anything didn’t go well, it was Ignacio’s fault, not hers. Bibiana made the best sales, attracted clients. The furniture store became those two: don Antonio and Bibiana.

“Close the door, son. Mosquitoes will get in.”

Ignacio obeyed. He got up to close the door and on the way turned on the outside passage light. From there he could see the obstinate figure of his father.

“Is he still there?”


“I think you know something and don’t want to tell me.”

Why, whenever he thought of her, did he see her spitting? Or hear her saying “yeah.” She said “yeah” instead of “yes.”

“No. I don’t know anything.”

“Do you have an employee at the furniture store?”

“No. We’re alone.”

It was true. What a relief not to have to lie. Why, whenever he thought of her, did he see her spitting? Or hear her saying “yeah.” She said “yeah” instead of “yes.” A half answer that to Ignacio meant it was not a real affirmation, as if she didn’t want to promise anything. It was all the same to his father, but to him it was disgusting. “Yeah.”

They began to make him feel like he was in the way. So finally, one afternoon, Ignacio decided to leave them alone. The next day he realized his father hadn’t wasted the opportunity. He saw it in his eyes, in the way he passed by Ignacio, practically pushing him, without saying excuse me. Bibiana came late and wasn’t reprimanded. Ignacio began to leave them alone more and more often. He walked through the city, that horrible city. He climbed the steep streets, heavy with heat. Not a single tree along the road, not a single bench to sit down on. Almost no one walked the sidewalks. Suddenly a door opened to a long patio, full of dark sweaty people: shirtless men holding cans of beer, women who danced and laughed around tubs full of wet clothing, children who urinated in any corner, among panting dogs.

Ignacio reached the highest hill and then turned, hoping to see an agreeable landscape, if one of those gusts of wind didn’t arrive to throw fistfuls of dust in his eyes. But he only saw the city spreading from the little valley to climb the nearby hills with its factories and miserable houses. Only downtown was dabbed with notable bits of color: the orange towers of the church, the banana trees and jacarandas that tried to give the hotels a touch of the exotic, the fruit trees that still grew in the orchards of some older houses. And the movie theatre: a tall building like a giant shoebox painted yellow.

Only downtown was dabbed with notable bits of color: the orange towers of the church, the banana trees and jacarandas that tried to give the hotels a touch of the exotic, the fruit trees that still grew in the orchards of some older houses.

There, one afternoon when things between Bibiana and the old man seemed certain and don Antonio had realized that Ignacio knew everything, he saw her. He saw Bibiana. With a boy her age. They were leaning against a wooden arch covered with withered flowers, leftover from the last religious fiesta. The smelly gusts of wind brought dust that muffled everything and was everywhere like a plague from God, but in spite of that, the two young people looked as fresh and free as if they had been on a beach or in a meadow or in some equally beautiful place and not that atrocious city. It was too late for Ignacio to take another street. Bibiana, cornered against the arch’s post, had sensed him. She raked him with a look so intense it made her companion turn also. And she stuck out her tongue, as if she were going to spit, but she didn’t do it. That time she didn’t do it. She only wet her lips a second before clinging to the boy who had her wedged in that corner. An evil smile sketched across her face, a smile of defiance, of triumph. A gust of wind came. Ignacio walked on and didn’t see them anymore.

He thought again with pleasure of the movie he’d enjoyed this afternoon.

“I’m going to bed, son. Help me.”

At last, he thought. Ignacio got up and shut off the TV, offered his mother his arm.

“Who knows how late he plans to stay out there,” his mother said. “Take him a blanket.”

They went down the passage loud with the noise of insects. At the end of it was his mother’s room: a big room with high ceilings. Her door opened, creaking.

While he waited for her to get a blanket from the wardrobe, Ignacio looked at the bureau covered with family portraits, including one of his youngest brother, the fourth child, who had died soon after he was born; the recliner nearby, the rosary hanging on the headboard of the bed. He thought again about his brother Antonio. Perhaps he would have been satisfied to see his father like this. To see him at last with his head hanging, sucking his balls, alone. Yes, if Antonio could see them from whereever he was, if his soul wandered around the house, he would be satisfied. He would be able to rest in peace.

“Until tomorrow, son. May God and the Virgin tend your sleep.”

Ignacio kissed her crossed fingers and closed the door after him. He went to the patio with the blanket. He was going to lay it across his father’s legs, but the old man’s hairy hand grabbed his arm. He grabbed it forcefully, as if Ignacio were a child again and he could hurt him and make him cry. He looked at Ignacio with eyes brimming with bitterness and spit on the ground. Something he’d never done before: he spit on the ground. The spittle of his rancor was lost in the darkness of the night. Then he got to his feet and walked toward his bedroom on the other side of the house.

Ignacio felt a rush of cool wind and thought, with pleasure, of the Amazon.



—Dile a tu padre que no esté en el fresco: le va a hacer daño.

En realidad hacía calor en el patio. El sol ya estaba bajando, pero aún faltarían por lo menos dos horas para que se ocultara. Y las bardas de la casa protegían a don Antonio Nemiña de los ventarrones, que venían cargados de polvo y hojas secas, pero no traían frío sino más sofoco.

—Dile que se meta. Hace frío —repitió su madre.

Ignacio venía de la calle, del cine. Los domingos iba al cine. No le sorprendió ver al viejo ahí, al fondo del patio, fumándose un puro sentado en su mecedora. Pero a su madre sí debió de sorprenderle y no sabía cómo expresar que estaba preocupada. Por eso había recurrido a aquello de que hacía fresco. No se lo decía directamente a su marido porque ella y él hacía años no se hablaban. Si querían comunicarse algo se lo mandaban decir por medio de los hijos, aunque estuvieran uno enfrente del otro.

—¿No me oyes?

Don Antonio ni siquiera se volvía a mirarlos. Con el rostro vacío de expresión, contemplaba el humo que salía de su boca en gruesos cordones para ir a enredarse entre las ramas de un tamarindo. Las canas de sus sienes brillaban con la luz de la tarde, rojizas. Al verlo, Ignacio sintió que se desvanecía el odio que le había tenido en los últimos días. Le dio lástima.

—Métete tú, mamá. Él ha de querer estar ahí.

—Se va a poner malo. Y te va a dejar a ti todo el trabajo.

—Déjalo. Vámonos adentro tú y yo. Quiero un café.

Ella también se veía envejecida. El orgullo y el rencor habían logrado mantenerla joven durante muchos años, pero ahora hasta eso comenzaba a declinar. Ignacio la tomó del brazo y la condujo a la sala. La dejó sentada en el sofá y fue por el café. Al pasar hacia la cocina echó una mirada a la fotografía de su hermana, que colgaba en la pared. Era de su boda. Estaba sola, vestida de novia pero sola, con la mano apoyada en una columna de mármol. Sus padres no habían querido que se casara; se resistieron hasta lo último. En eso sí estuvieron de acuerdo. Por eso habían pedido para la casa una foto donde Marina estuviera sola, no con el mestizo ese. Y por eso ella no los visitaba. Había hecho su vida. Había tenido el coraje que a Ignacio le faltó. Quién la viera en ese retrato: tan dulce, sonriendo apenas, con sus ojos color miel llenos de luz.

Mientras ponía el café, Ignacio se preguntó qué pensaría ella si se enterara de lo que había pasado acá. Siempre quiso mucho a su padre. Y él a ella.

Abrió la llave del gas y luego, con un cerillo de madera, encendió el quemador. Las llamas azules salieron por los orificios iluminando un poco la habitación ya en penumbra. Olía a frutas en conserva.

Su mente volvió a la mueblería, a su padre y a la muchacha. Bibiana tenía la costumbre de escupir al suelo. Lo hacía constantemente: cuando le venía la sensación de que algo se le había adherido en la garganta, cuando le llegaba algún olor extraño, cuando oía hablar de algo sucio o pensaba en ello. Se oía un chasquido y ahí estaba: un copo de espuma blanca que luego ella misma aplastaba con el pie.

Desde que llegó a pedir trabajo a la mueblería le causó mala impresión a Ignacio; le pareció vulgar, agresiva, peligrosa. Le disgustaron sus párpados pintados de plateado, su voz de fumadora y el orgullo con que sacaba el pecho luciendo sus tetas. Pero no se atrevió a decir nada porque su padre la había mirado con complacencia y ya lo conocía: una vez que se hacía una idea de algo o de alguien, cualquier palabra en contra despertaba su ira. Por su parte, Bibiana también lo midió a él; se le quedó viendo de arriba abajo con sus ojos de gata envenenada y con eso tuvo para saber que nunca serían amigos. Dio dos pasos en dirección a la puerta de la calle y aventó el primer salivazo a la banqueta. Don Antonio no le dijo nada. Cómo le iba a decir algo si fue gracias a ese acto que ella le dio la espalda, un instante, y él pudo mirarle el culo. La decisión estaba tomada. Fue mero formalismo lo que siguió después: la lectura supuestamente cuidadosa de la solicitud de empleo, los comentarios sobre algunos puntos, la advertencia sobre los errores que había cometido su antecesor—impuntualidad, descuido en su presentación— y por los cuales había sido despedido. Finalmente, mientras Ignacio atendía a una mujer que llegó a preguntar si todavía se fabricaban televisores Philco, su padre le explicó a Bibiana en qué consistiría su trabajo y se puso de acuerdo con ella respecto a cuánto le iba a pagar.

Todo esto sucedió antes de las diez de la mañana, hacía casi seis meses. Para cuando la muchacha salió a comer, a las tres de la tarde, don Antonio ya estaba de un buen humor que no se le había visto en años. Él y su mujer se evitaban lo más posible. Dormían en habitaciones separadas y comían a distintas horas. Quizá con el fin de hacer menos obvia la soledad que pudiera sentir, don Antonio había dado en tomar en la mueblería su comida de la tarde. A las cuatro en punto, en cuanto volvía el empleado, se encerraba en el pequeño despacho del fondo y extendía en el escritorio el Correo Galego para estar leyendo mientras sopeaba en aceite de olivo rebanada tras rebanada de pan negro. Cerraba pasadas las ocho de la noche y se iba caminando a su casa. Siempre en silencio, siempre encerrado en sí mismo, como si el castigo de no hablarle que le había impuesto a su mujer se hubiera extendido a todo el mundo. No se quejaba. Parecía haber aceptado su suerte: estar casado desde hacía cuarenta años con esa mujer a la que no amaba, vivir en una pequeña ciudad sin plazas ni árboles perdida entre cerros áridos, comunicarse ya sólo a través de cartas con los escasos parientes y amigos que tenía regados por el mundo. Un día a la semana —los domingos— cerraba temprano la mueblería y se encerraba en su despacho a fumarse un puro y a beberse dos botellas de vino. Nunca más, nunca menos. Se encerraba solo. Alguna vez, Ignacio lo vio salir, ya como a las diez de la noche, y tomar el camino de su casa: una figura enorme, sólida y al mismo tiempo fantasmal, inasible, como si no fuera su padre sino un recuerdo borroso de su padre.

Cuando oyó que el agua comenzaba a hervir, dio unos pasos hacia la puerta y encendió la luz de la cocina. Luego apagó la estufa. Sirvió el café, puso las dos tazas de porcelana en una charola, y volvió a la sala. Su madre lo estaba esperando con la misma cara de sufrimiento de hacía rato. Subió las piernas al taburete y comenzó a darse masaje sola. No era que le dolieran, decía; era una maña que se había cogido, nada más.

—¿Ha habido problemas en la mueblería? —le preguntó a Ignacio.


—Entonces, ¿qué le pasa a tu padre?

—No sé.

—Todavía ayer estaba muy contento.

“La empleada se ha marchado”, iba a decir Ignacio, pero pensó que eso no tranquilizaría a su madre. Haría más preguntas. Y él no quería contestar preguntas. Venía del cine, que era su único vicio y la única cosa que lo hacía feliz. Su padre no lo dejó ir a la Universidad. No leía, no practicaba ningún deporte, no tenía novia ni amigos —su padre le prohibió desde niño que hiciera amistad con los muchachos del pueblo—. Sólo iba al cine. Y cada vez que le gustaba mucho una película, se ponía a pensar en ella durante horas, a revivir en su mente las escenas que lo habían conmovido o excitado, aun ya en su casa, solo en su cuarto. Por eso se quedó callado. En la penumbra, puso la charola con el café en la mesita que había a un lado del sofá donde estaba su madre y permaneció de pie, como si esperara una orden o el permiso para retirarse.

—Enciende la luz, hijo—otra vez la voz de sufrimiento, el rumor de las manos rugosas sobando las piernas sobre las medias de lana.

La luz lo deslumbró un poco, al principio. Se sentó en el sillón más chico, resignado. Volvió a mirar la foto de su hermana. ¿Y si le hablaba por teléfono y le contaba? Al viejo le haría bien hablar con ella, si no era más fuerte su vergüenza. No, seguramente no lo haría.

—¿No ha llamado Marina, mamá?

—¿Tú crees que va a llamar? Sólo que necesitara algo de tu padre.

Ignacio dejó escapar un suspiro hondo, viejo. A veces la extrañaba mucho. La envidiaba. Le parecía el único ser vivo que había habitado alguna vez esa casa. Recordó el día cuando su padre descubrió que andaba de novia con aquél. Era domingo también, como ahora. En esa época, los domingos desayunaban todos juntos: su padre, su madre, Antonio el hermano mayor, Marina y él. Antonio andaba crudo, como siempre después de sus borracheras del viernes y el sábado, y eso había puesto de mal humor al viejo. Además ya le habían contado en la mueblería lo de Marina, aunque todavía no lo confirmaba; pensaba que ella iba a negarlo si la interrogaba. Pero no fue así. La criada acababa de servir el chocolate cuando sonó el teléfono. Marina saltó en su silla y fue a contestar. Pero don Antonio la detuvo: contestó él. De mal modo. Entonces ella no se aguantó más.

—Me hablan a mí —le dijo—. Dame el teléfono.

Su padre no le hizo caso. Se le quedó viendo a los ojos, desafiante. Entonces ella, igual de desafiante, le dijo para terminar:

—Es mi novio.

Ahí explotó todo. Su padre se contuvo con ella porque la quería mucho. Sólo la amenazó con meterle un tiro al muchacho. Pero a Antonio se le fue a golpes por no cuidar bien a su hermana. Y a su madre. Ignacio escapó de su ira. Él siempre escapaba porque a don Antonio ni siquiera le parecía que valiera la pena enojarse con él. Era un inútil nada más, una sombra.

—¿Me enciendes la televisión, hijo?

—Sí, mamá —Ignacio obedeció, sabiendo que después de unos minutos tendría que volver a levantarse para apagar el aparato. Era domingo y no había nada que le gustara a su madre: sólo deportes y un programa musical. Ya lo sabía. ¿Por qué entonces lo molestaba? Él quería pensar en la película que había visto: una historia en la selva del Amazonas, acerca de un negro que escapaba de la cárcel de Cayena y, después de caminar mucho y sortear toda clase de peligros, era capturado por unos salvajes que le ofrecían una mujer hermosa.

—No ha venido la señora del pan de huevo —dijo su madre, pensativa.

Ignacio no le contestó.

—Y ya no nos queda ni una pieza, ¿verdad?

—Creo que no.

—¿Por qué no vas a ver si hay por lo menos un pedazo? Tengo mucho antojo.

Ignacio caminó hacia la cocina. Desde la sala, su madre le gritó:

—Si no encuentras nada, tráeme unas galletas de higo. Por favor, hijo.

Por la ventana miró hacia el patio. Aunque ya estaba oscuro, todavía alcanzaba a distinguirse todo: el tamarindo, el granado, las dos higueras con la hamaca amarrada de una a otra. Don Antonio ya no fumaba pero seguía ahí, inmóvil. Ignacio pensó en una cascada muy alta, rodeada de árboles tropicales. El negro caía arrastrado por la corriente. Perdía el sentido. Los salvajes lo encontraban poco después, río abajo.

En la sala, su madre miraba un partido de béisbol, aunque era evidente que estaba pensando en otra cosa y no le importaba lo que sucediera en la pantalla.

—Gracias, hijo.

Ignacio sintió tristeza al verla. Y también cierta satisfacción porque finalmente, a pesar de su padre y de los dos hijos muertos y de todo, ahí estaba: sana. Apoyada en sus manías.

Junto al retrato de Marina, más pequeño, colgaba uno de Antonio. Ése sí que no pudo, pensó Ignacio. Antonio había sido el hijo predilecto, cuando niño. Su padre esperaba mucho de él. Por eso, de los tres que llegaron a grandes, fue el que más llegó a odiarlo. Por eso se emborrachaba tanto y se gastaba el dinero con mujeres públicas. Sufría, pero en medio de ese sufrimiento le quedaba la satisfacción de ver frustradas las esperanzas que don Antonio había puesto en él. Hasta que lo mataron a balazos en una cantina. Fue entonces, inmediatamente después del entierro, cuando los dos viejos dejaron de hablarse. En silencio, con un rencor sordo e infinito, se culpaban uno al otro por la muerte de Antonio. Que porque el padre lo había orillado al vicio con sus castigos y su dureza; que porque la madre lo había echado a perder de tanto solaparlo.

—Todavía ayer se veía muy contento.

—Sí, mamá —le molestaba esa actitud de ella. ¿Por qué preocuparse por alguien a quien ya no quiere uno?

—¿No será cosa de alguna mujer? ¡A su edad…!

—No creo, mamá.

—Es un viejo sucio.

*     *     *

Sí, desde que Bibiana entró a trabajar, don Antonio le echó el ojo. Y eso que ella primero había querido coquetear con Ignacio. Pero a él le desagradó: le daba asco verla escupir. Como no podía hacerlo ahí, en el piso de la mueblería, se salía a la calle o iba al baño. Además su olor, el olor de su cuerpo… Ignacio sentía que se le había quedado metido en la nariz. En las noches despertaba de pronto, aventaba a un lado las sábanas empapadas de sudor, y le parecía que Bibiana estaba ahí mirándolo, acechando en la oscuridad, desnuda y ahíta de lujuria. Levantaba los brazos como si fueran alas y dejaba salir el olor de su cuerpo, que Ignacio llevaba consigo como una infección. Y tal vez sí, su padre era un viejo sucio. Empezó a hablarle, a darle privilegios que Ignacio no tenía. Le dio poder. Si algo salía mal era culpa de él, de Ignacio, no de ella. Bibiana hacía las mejores ventas, atraía a los clientes. La mueblería era ellos dos: don Antonio y ella.

—Cierra la puerta, hijo. Se van a meter los zancudos.

Ignacio obedeció. Se levantó a cerrar la puerta y de paso encendió la luz del corredor. Desde ahí se veía, obstinada, la figura de su padre.

—¿Ahí está todavía?


—Se me hace que tú sabes algo y no me quieres decir.

—No. No sé nada.

—¿Tienen empleada en la mueblería?

—No. Estamos solos.

Era verdad. Qué alivio no tener que decir una mentira. ¿Por qué cada vez que la recordaba la veía escupiendo? O la oía diciendo “ei”. Decía “ei” en lugar de “sí”: una respuesta a medias, que a Ignacio le parecía no era una verdadera afirmación, como de alguien que no quiere comprometerse. A su padre le daba lo mismo, pero a él le disgustaba. Ei. Empezaron a hacerlo sentir que estorbaba. Por eso, finalmente, Ignacio decidió dejarlos solos una tarde. Al día siguiente se dio cuenta de que su padre no había desaprovechado la oportunidad. Se lo vio en la mirada, en la forma como pasaba junto a él casi empujándolo, sin decir Con permiso. Bibiana llegó tarde y no fue reprendida. Ignacio empezó a dejarlos más y más tiempo solos. Se iba a caminar por la ciudad, esa ciudad tan horrible. Subía las calles empinadas, humeantes de calor. Ni un solo árbol en el camino, ni una banca donde sentarse. Casi nadie andaba por las banquetas. De pronto alguna puerta se abría a un patio largo, lleno de gente acalorada: hombres sin camisa, mujeres que bailoteaban y se reían alrededor de los lavaderos colmados de ropa mojada, niños que orinaban en cualquier lado, entre perros jadeantes. Ignacio llegaba así a lo alto de los cerros y entonces se volvía, esperando ver algún paisaje agradable, si no venía alguno de esos ventarrones que le aventaban a los ojos puñados de tierra. Pero sólo veía la ciudad extendiéndose desde el pequeño valle hasta cubrir de fábricas y casas miserables todos los cerros vecinos. Únicamente hacia el centro destacaban algunas notas de color: las torres anaranjadas de la iglesia, los platanares y las jacarandas que trataban de dar a los hoteles un toque de exotismo, los distintos árboles que crecían todavía en los huertos de algunas casas viejas. Y el cine: un edificio alto como una gran caja de zapatos pintada de amarillo.

Allá, una tarde cuando ya las cosas entre Bibiana y el viejo parecían muy seguras y don Antonio se había dado cuenta de que Ignacio sabía todo, la vio. Vio a Bibiana. Con un muchacho de su edad. Estaban recargados contra un arco de madera cubierto de flores marchitas, rastro de la última fiesta religiosa. El aironazo traía embozadas de polvo que se metían por todos lados como una plaga del Cielo, y sin embargo los dos jóvenes se veían frescos y libres igual que si hubieran estado en una playa o en un prado o en cualquier lugar igualmente bello y no en esa atroz ciudad. Era demasiado tarde para que Ignacio tomara otro camino. Bibiana, arrinconada contra el poste del arco, lo había sentido. Lo barrió con una mirada tan fuerte que hizo que su acompañante se volviera también. Y sacó la lengua como si fuera a escupir, pero no lo hizo. Esa vez no lo hizo. Sólo se mojó los labios, un segundo, antes de aferrarse al cuerpo que la tenía atrincherada en ese rincón. En su cara se dibujó una sonrisa mala, de desafío, de triunfo. Vino el viento, otra vez. Ignacio no los vio más.

Pensó otra vez, con placer, en la película que había disfrutado esa tarde.

—Ya me voy a acostar, hijo. Ayúdame.

Ignacio se levantó y le ofreció el brazo a su madre. Por fin, pensó.

—Quién sabe hasta qué horas pensará quedarse ahí —le dijo ella—. Llévale una manta.

Salieron al corredor lleno de ruidos de insectos. Al fondo se encontraba la recámara de la madre: una habitación muy grande, de paredes altas. La puerta de madera rechinó al abrirse.

Mientras esperaba a que su madre abriera el ropero y sacara la manta, Ignacio observó la cómoda cubierta de retratos de familia, incluyendo uno de su hermano más pequeño, el cuarto de la familia, que había muerto casi recién nacido; el reclinatorio, el rosario colgado en la cabecera de la cama. Pensó otra vez en su hermano Antonio. Quizá él se habría sentido satisfecho de ver así a su padre. De verlo por fin con la cabeza doblada, mordiéndose los huevos, solo. Sí, si Antonio podía verlos desde algún lado, si su alma andaba rondando la casa, estaría satisfecho: ya podría descansar en paz.

—Hasta mañana, hijo. Que Dios y la Virgen cuiden tu sueño.

Ignacio besó los dedos en cruz y cerró la puerta tras de sí. Cruzó el patio con la manta. Iba a ponérsela a su padre en las piernas, pero el viejo le cogió el brazo con su mano velluda. Lo apretó con fuerza, como si Ignacio fuera otra vez un niño y él pudiera lastimarlo y hacerlo llorar. Lo miró con ojos brillantes de rencor y escupió al suelo. Lo que nunca había hecho: escupió al suelo. La espuma de su rencor se perdió en la oscuridad de la noche. Luego se puso de pie y echó a andar hacia su habitación, en el otro extremo de la casa.

Antonio sintió un golpe de viento fresco y pensó, con placer, en el Amazonas.


Translator’s Note

Agustín Cadena’s English is excellent and our working relationship is a pleasure: I send him a penultimate draft of a story and he sends me copious praise. (Well, he’s a Mexican gentleman, after all.) His critical comments and notes follow, and are always pertinent. I revise one more time and we’re good to go.

I have translated sixteen and published twelve of Agustín’s stories. Translating a writer more than once or twice results in familiarity with such things as vocabulary, style, syntax, and subject matter. Translating “Domingo” (Sunday) felt familiar, but with a density of tone new to me. It is older than the other stories I’ve translated. Agustín’s comment: “I don’t write like that anymore.”

Still, I was confident I’d captured the story’s essence. Here was a bitter old man living in a dry, featureless town, unable to forgive or forget, who’d kept his children from fulfilling their lives. The first response from Agustín was effusive. Then he gave it to his partner to read—English is the language they share—and discovered she didn’t get an aspect of the story that a Mexican reader would have understood immediately.

In the beginning, we learn the old man is don Antonio Nemiña, a surname Mexican readers would recognize as Galician. Galicians weren’t among the conquistadores or even 18th and 19th century immigrants. They arrived mostly in the 20th century, missing several hundred years of integrating and acquiring local blood along the way. When don Antonio calls his daughter’s boyfriend a mestizo, the Mexican reader already knows that don Antonio considers himself above the people among whom he lives.

Don Antonio smokes cigars, drinks wine, and eats black bread with olive oil. The people of the town smoke cigarettes, drink beer, and eat tortillas. He owns a furniture store, a business typical of Galician immigrants in Mexico, and reads the Galician Mail, a newspaper only available by subscription. He came here in hopes of a better life, but in isolating himself and his family, destroys any chance of that.

Rereading the story with that information, I thought of retired Americans I met in San Miguel de Allende long ago. They had lived there for years and never learned Spanish, associated only with other ex-pat Americans, and had no Mexican friends. That’s another version of this story.

It needed light touches. I don’t like to resort to footnotes. Although I’ve used “stealth glosses” when they fit snugly, “Nemiña, whose name was Galician,” was not acceptable. I added beer to the Mexican family we see briefly, hoping that will recall the contrast of don Antonio’s wine; emphasized the family’s fair complexion and amplified why Ignacio is forbidden to make friends with children of the town. “It’s enough,” Agustín decided. I agree. But it still may be a story that resonates in a way for the Mexican reader that we who are not Mexican cannot fully access.


Patricia Dubrava

Patricia Dubrava chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts, where she also taught Spanish, and currently teaches writing at the University of Denver. She has two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. Recent translation publications include flash fiction by Agustín Cadena in Café Irreal, 2013 – 2015 and stories in Mexico City Lit, Fiction Attic, and Numéro Cinq in 2016. Dubrava also translates Mónica Lavín and blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com

Agustín CadenaAgustín Cadena was born in Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, México, and teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator, Cadena has won numerous national prizes for fiction and poetry. His 26 books include collections of short fiction, essays and poetry, novels and young adult novels, most recently Fieras adentro, 2015. His work has been translated into English, Italian and Hungarian. His recent publication is Dibujos a lápiz (Pencil Sketches) a collection of flash fiction, 2016. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com

Photo by Roberto Garza

Janin Cycle

The Fetus of the Dream

Dream fetuses.
And in the fetus dream,
like a growing amplified silence—
like ivy around nothing:

I dreamed last night.
I dreamed of wet ivy—
wet like water
and rapidly growing—
water that smells like old wine
in the deepest treasure beneath the earth,
where the spider danced the figure of its intelligence in the air.
I don’t know if I’m drunk or crazy.
In my head, he calls perpetually:

“Oh no, son!
We haven’t reached the garden.
We sank in shit.”

My wounded soul talks like this.
You don’t know what my unwounded soul would say.
This soul rises on the farthest bank of the sky
in the early evening.

Now that I write this,
it is sunset.
On the white expanse of the page
the lines dissolve in grey.
On the flying shadow of my hand
the sun descends.
I will dream—
dream of wet ivy everywhere.


The Fetus of the Text

Breathing on the window
between a frozen without and a hot within.
The glass does not permit light to pass with this breath
It colors with this breath.
Have you seen white days? The sun no longer gives light. It splashes white.
Just as white,
the window turns into a page for writing a name
for writing with fingertips on this fire within.

You have written something between without and within.
On the unseen glass a name is seen.
You have written something that can be read from without and within.
From without it reads backwards.
What happens when reading a text written on breath?
Little by little, breaths go away and take your text.
Ambiguity goes away and the text is lost in lucidity.


The Fetus of the Marginalia

I don’t inscribe marginalia
with my body
on your soul.



جنین خواب

خوابْ جنینْ می‌دید
و در جنینْ خوابْ همچون
سکونِ مشدّدِ رویایی بود همچون
پیچکی دورِ هیچ :

-‌ خوابْ دی‌شب دیدم
خوابِ یک پیچکِ خیس تر
مثلِ آب
و بسیار رویان
که بوی شراب کهنه می‌داد
در دنج‌ترین گنجِ زیرِ زمین
آنجا که عنکبوت در هوا نقشِ نبوغِ خویش را رقصیده بود .
سرم به سنگ خورده یا مستم
که در سرم یکی مدام صدا می‌زند :
« وای ! نه ! پسرم ،
ما به باغ نرسیدیم
ما به گه فرو رفتیم … »

و حالا که این را نوشتم
غروب بود و
خطوط در خاکستری تار می‌شدند
و بر پهنه‌ی سفید کاغذ
و سایه‌ی پرنده‌ی دستم
شب می‌شد
و من خواب خواهم دید
خوابِ یک پیچکِ خیسِ در‌همه‌جایی .


جنين متن

ها و ها كردن‌هايِ رويِ شيشه‌ها
ميانِ درونِ گر گرفته و بيرونِ يخ‌زده
شيشه ديگر گذرگاهِ نور نيست با اين ها
با اين ها رنگ مي‌گيرد
روز هاي سفيد را ديده‌اي ، انگار آفتاب نور نمي‌دهد ديگر ، سفيد مي‌پاشد
– همان قدر سفيد
صفحه‌اي مي‌شود براي نوشتنِ اسمي
با نوكِ انگشت
بر اين ها، آتشِ درون، نوشتن :

تو در ميانِ درون و بيرون نوشته‌اي.
شيشه، چون نامرئي است، مي‌شود جايي كه نامي را روي نامرئي مرئي كني
و نامرئي ‌ها هميشه با جاودان ‌ها هم‌پايه‌اند.
چيزي نوشته‌اي که هم از درون خواندنی‌ست و هم از بيرون
ولی از بيرون بر‌عكس خوانده مي‌شود.
در خواندنِ متن نوشته شده روي ها چه اتّفاقي مي‌افتد . ها كم‌كم مي‌رود ، متنِ تو را با خود مي‌برد. ابهام مي‌رود، متن گم مي‌شود در وضوح.


جنین حاشیه

با تنم
بر تنت
چه حاشیه‌ها که نخواهم نوشت


Translator’s Note: The Poems of Kayvan Tahmasebian

Born in the year of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Kayvan Tahmasebian has lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, reformist political unrests, and over two decades of sanctions. The poems in the Janin cycle bear witness to each of these political upheavals. Together, they have shaped the author’s aesthetic response to the state of emergency that has become a norm for his generation within Iran, across the Middle East, and around the world.

Initiated in 2007 and now nearing completion, the Janin cycle consists of a series of mostly prose poems centered on the concept of janin (the Persian word for “fetus,” derived from the Arabic root that associates “concealment” and “genie”). These fetuses are people (historical and imaginary), objects, places and ideas. Moving between the “poetry of ideas” and the “idea of the poem,” the poems call on the reader to grasp poetic experience by absorbing the original idea in its most in-formed, fragmentary and unborn state. These poetic fetuses resemble poetic fragments that have either been aborted by the flow of history, or which are yet to be fully born. Like fetuses, the Janin poems abound in potentialities. Formally, they resist the hardening of language that accompanies birth. Seeking freedom from the restrictions of verse conventions, the Janin poems also resist conventional versification even as they engage with classical norm.

Poetic experiments in prose are rare in Persian modernism, but not unprecedented in Persian literature. In fact, prose poetry is a major part of the Persian classical mystic literature, as witnessed by the provocative poetics of Ruzbihan Baqli (12th century), Ahmad Ghazali (11th century), Attar of Nishapur (12th century), Rumi (13th century), and Shams Tabrizi (13th century). The prose poems of modernist French authors such as Francis Ponge and Edmond Jabès, whom Tahmasebian translated into Persian, have also influenced his literary experimentations. His translations of Ponge were published alongside three of his Janin poems in the 2007 volume of Jong Pardis, an important yearly anthology of Isfahani poetry that has helped to define Iranian literary modernism.

The Janin poems turn the act of reading into a form of poetic creation that balances thought and image. By proposing poetry as a commentary on creation, the complete Janin cycle serves as a prolegomenon to the author’s second major poem cycle, “Marginalia,” which consists of literary-critical fragments delivered in poetic language. Whereas the Janin cycle bears witness to a cyclical statement of emergency, “Marginalia” follows Walter Benjamin in seeking to restore poetry to its ideational substance and critical prose to its figurative origins.

Rebecca GouldRebecca Gould is a writer, critic, and scholar of the literatures of the Caucasus. She is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literature of the Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016), and the translator of Prose of the Mountains, by Aleksandre Qazbegi (Central European University Press, 2015), and After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2015).



Kayvan TahmasebianKayvan Tahmasebian is an Iranian poet, translator, and literary critic based in Isfahan. He is the author of Isfahan’s Mold (Sadeqia dar Bayat Esfahan, 2016), on the fiction of the short story writer Bahram Sadeqi, and a forthcoming volume on the Iranian modernist poet Bijan Elahi.