Juan Gómez Bárcena
Translated by Andrea Rosenberg
You go to the window to watch the Neighbor leave. He’s accompanied by two men. They’re wearing hats pulled down tight over their ears and a sort of kerchief or scarf that leaves only their eyes exposed. But you recognize them anyway: you’ve seen them many times under this very window, carrying their portfolios and their leather briefcases. They look like they’re in a hurry, and the Neighbor is practically dragging his leg as he limps along. You watch them head down the street toward the river.
From the other side of the wall, the voice of the Girl again. She switches from world capitals to multiplication tables, where she seems more self-assured and more mechanical, and from there to the right and left tributaries of the Danube, and finally to a long recitation of Great Moments in the Labor Struggle. She rattles off the publication date of the Communist Manifesto. The martyrs of Chicago. The Odessa uprising. The Winter Palace. A pause, and in that pause, the sound of the door. Guadalajara. Stalingrad. Berlin. The Korean War. Another sound, this time in the hall. It’s the Wife. You’d recognize the tapping of her heels anywhere. She stops on the other side of the door, as if she were about to come in. But why would she, when you’ve still got water, and food, and cigarettes, and the bucket almost untouched—there’s still a while to go before another of those endless days finally comes to an end. That’s when you hear the Girl stop reciting. Or, rather, you stop hearing her, because the sound of water has filled everything. The water, again, lapping at the cold, white surface. The Wife’s sigh. Her clothing coming loose, garment by garment, almost reluctantly, in pauses pervaded by steam and tile. Her bare feet padding toward the water. You hear it all with a new, almost terrifying precision that soars above the sounds issuing from the other side of the window. You realize that the bathroom door must be open. And why wouldn’t it be, since yours is, as usual, closed? You press your ear to the wood to confirm that the Wife has started her bath—her heels ring on the ceramic for a moment, her hands gripping the edges of the tub with a noise like a cephalopod sucker or an amphibian. And then, just as you’re about to hear the rest, all the damp and heat of her body, the voices start. A rising chant. Fevered cheering that seems to come from across the river, with whistles, clapping, and shouts of approval. You attempt to unplait the voices that arrive woven into a uniform murmur, waves that surge and ebb. Voices calling for resignations, voices calling for calm, voices calling for international assistance, voices calling for weapons. They all want the same thing: a country free of Russians and a Russia free of Soviets. That’s what they repeat in a frenzied ovation, and there are so many mouths, and they are shouting so loudly in all directions, that you have no doubt they’ll achieve their aim. Underneath the repeated words, you hear many others that do not repeat. You hear a little boy whose molars are aching. You hear a taxi driver who is honking his horn and the crowd that isn’t moving aside. You hear a dozen radio broadcasts reporting live in different languages and one that is stubbornly repeating the same military fanfare. You hear the ripping sound of a pair of hands tearing up a Party membership card and the swish of scissors slicing through a flag’s hammer and sickle. You hear a soldier loading his weapon. You hear the rustle of a man taking advantage of the crush of the crowd to brush his lover’s waist. You hear seventeen lighters lighting seventeen cigarettes in different spots around Bem Square. You hear one voice that’s cursing God and nine others praying to Him. You hear the poems that a student is reading from a rooftop or a dais. You hear an agent of the secret police who’s asking if it’s time to intervene yet and his sergeant who doesn’t answer or answers with a gesture. You can hear everything. Everything but the Wife’s body. And so you’ve reached out your hand to grasp the door handle, the door handle that seemed all this time like it would burn you but doesn’t.
You open the door.
And then there she is. First her hand, resting on the edge of the tub. A hand that from time to time moves, seems to vibrate, maybe trembles.
A hand shaken by the touch of a thought or a nightmare. The hair loose, tumbling softly. The motionless profile of her face. The closed eyes. You look at those eyes and realize she’s crying. Crying soundlessly. And it’s strange, maybe even impossible, because though you seem to hear the fragile breeze of her respiration, even hear her pulse, muffled through the water, you cannot make out her weeping. Maybe she’s not crying. How could you even discern her tears from here? You see her crying because you think she should be crying. Maybe she’s simply taking a bath, while out on the street everybody is shouting and demanding things you don’t understand.
Slowly she rises from the water, suddenly presenting you with the sight of her naked body. She offers herself to you as if glimpsed through the fog of a dream. A heat spreading through the steam and the hallway: the warmth of her body. And then, when you see her, you suddenly realize that the Wife is no longer the Wife. She’s not that girl who once opened the door to you. She is a woman. A woman who’s gotten her first wrinkles and maybe even her first gray hairs. A woman who is afraid. A woman who cries or who perhaps does not cry. Who has needed all those trays, all those newspapers, that endless ferrying of buckets, to become what she is now. Because you never looked at her—at least not till this moment. You accepted her mugs, her bowls, her basins of water, but you didn’t look at her. You saw her fossilized smile, a smile made of fatigue and time. And now yes, you look at her, now you see her as the woman she’s become, and you even seem to see the man you’ve become. A succession of images and thoughts that flit past in the time it takes for her to reach out her hand and grab the towel. The instant between that movement and the insignificant movement of lifting her face to look at you. Suddenly, her gaze.
And with that gaze, no movement at all. The Wife bears up under the weight of your eyes, her face utterly motionless. As if all her focus were on the other movements: wrapping the towel around herself, drying her hair, shaking first one foot and then the other. She looks at you for a period that seems neither long nor short but simply incomprehensible, almost mineral, like the passing of geological eras. And her gaze, too, seems to be made of stone, looking at you without seeing, without expression, without judgment, and even so it still doesn’t shift away, it remains fixed on you while she dresses slowly, while she adjusts her bra unhurriedly, untrembling, while she pulls up her skirt and almost blindly her hands gather up the garments scattered across the floor. She looks at you as if you were the one made of stone. Perhaps with a hint of curiosity, of the sort aroused by a mute’s first spoken word, even if it is an unforgivable curse or insult that is forgiven all the same. That is how she looks at you during this instant that doesn’t last, this during in which time runs aground, and which nevertheless comes to an end—she slips on her other shoe, turns out the light, and moves off down the hallway without looking back, as if you didn’t exist or as if it were only now that you had begun to exist.
She disappears. And yet she is still there before you, still standing and still naked in the empty bathroom. She is young again. Five, ten, maybe even fifteen years ago. You see her just as she was when you first arrived at the house—though you feel as if no time had gone by, as if that first day had never ended. She is still naked, but she’s no longer standing in the bathroom door. The door isn’t even there yet. Only the steam from the tub or something akin to the steam from the tub remains, plumes of mist rising from the frozen earth. And she is lying on the snow. She is naked and she is also, most certainly, dead. You picture her like that, eternalized in the act of opening her mouth, fossilized by the frost. She’s not alone. All around her are other bodies, women who are naked and dead like her, heaped up on the snow. Suddenly, a sound. A cart approaches, rocking back and forth: two men in prison uniforms are laboriously pushing it. They stop, glance at each other, and walk over to the first body, leaning on their walking sticks. Rising from their mouths is the heat of their breathing, in quick puffs that dissipate in the air. They bend over and start lifting the corpses. Except they’re not corpses—that’s what they’ve been taught. You have to call them shit, dolls, garbage, scarecrows. If anyone messes up and says the word deceased, the word victim, the soldiers flog him with their whips. So that’s what they’re doing now: picking up scarecrows. Later they’ll drink a dish of mud and call it water; they’ll chew a patty of black clay and call it bread. Because they’ve learned that surviving means, above all, knowing the right name for things. They know, for example, that organizing a shirt means stealing it; that you should avoid the prisoners with a green triangle sewn on their uniform but that the ones with a pink triangle or a yellow star are easy to take advantage of; that being chosen in the selections means becoming a scarecrow yourself; that you have to sleep on top of your bowl and spoon to keep others from organizing them in the night; that working in the Kanada section extends your life and shoveling coal shortens it. What they’re doing now has a name too. It’s called cleaning the field, and you have to do it quickly, before the kapo comes over. They’ve also been around long enough to learn the word kapo.
The prisoners—because wearing a striped uniform means being a prisoner, in this language and in every language on earth—start dragging the garbage toward the cart. Each of them takes his own load, just as the soldiers have taught them: all they have to do is place the handle of their walking stick under the chin—the chin of a scarecrow—and pull, pull hard. The heels cut shallow furrows in the snow, which sometimes becomes tinged pink. The dolls seem faintly blue when they’re still lying on the snow, and white when they load them one by one onto the cart. They do it carefully, with something that is akin to consideration or respect, or that maybe is just exhaustion. Five, ten, twelve, twenty scarecrows arranged the way you pile up railroad ties: one going one direction and the next going the other way. Making the most of the space. Those men know what they’re doing, and the cargo seems infinitely light in their hands—forty, maybe thirty-five kilos each. As if they really were stuffed with straw. It’s not a lovely sight: the dolls are broken and dirty, and the men try not to look at them. There’s one that looks like an old woman—with coarse, wrinkled skin—and another that looks like a little girl and a third that’s pregnant like a Russian matryoshka, and also a doll that seems to be missing pieces or to have extras: blotches like dried blood gleam against her white skin. They’re all ugly. They’re all smeared with crusts of mire and ice and have shaved heads. The men lift them as quickly as they can, and when they hoist them into the air, the emaciated arms dangle heavily, slack as a disjointed marionette.
Only the Wife’s body seems unblemished. Only hers seems, in fact, like a body, and one of the prisoners stops short just as it’s her turn. She has her head shaved too and is glowing like plaster, but she doesn’t look like a doll. She is a woman. A beautiful woman, in that contradictory and unbearable way that a corpse can be beautiful. She looks like an actress, a model, a ballerina, with long, sculpted legs hanging in the air: a young bride delivered into her groom’s arms, and the groom hesitating to step over the threshold. Her body is fleshy, inviting, with no cuts on the feet or splatters of mud. Against her white skin, only her nipples stand out, quite red and quite hard, like berries shining in the frost. Seeing her up close, it turns out she’s not the Wife. She can’t be, of course, but even so it’s easy to confuse them. You could say she is the Wife if time were able to run backward. The Wife if, rather than taking a bath, she’d instead expired in the snow. She doesn’t seem to have worn wooden clogs either, or wielded a shovel, or endured a single lash on her back. She’s simply dead, and the prisoner, still hesitant, lifts her into the air. Maybe he thinks she’s too pretty to be a doll, a piece of garbage, a scarecrow. Maybe he’s calculating whether he can load her on top of the others or if doing so will cause the pile to collapse. His uncertainty is almost touching. And she is practically a girl still, with unmarred hands made for embroidering tablecloths or grasping fountain pens. She was young and beautiful in some very distant place, in Greece or Norway, in Spain or Yugoslavia, in France or Russia or Italy, and now there she is, nestled in a stranger’s arms, as if waiting to continue her journey. She must have been a virgin still. And it’s inevitable to imagine the immense effort it required to care for and feed that body for so many years, all her life covering it in dresses and blankets, nightgowns, skirts, stockings, shawls, garters, bracelets, underskirts; warm baths in the tub and Sundays with rouge and perfume. Her mother wrapping her daughter day after day like a gift so that one day she’d find a good husband who’d unhook the clasp of her bra, like a boy tugging on a piñata’s rope. And later discovering that the only thing men wanted was to take her from her village—and maybe that was her very first journey—and pile her into a too-small cart the way you pile logs. Hers is a story that cannot be told, that must not be told, because it ceases to make sense. How could they understand it, those anonymous boys who became men while dreaming of undressing her with their hands, who hid one night below her window to peer in at her in the darkness and catch a glimpse of a breast, a thigh, an ankle, any minuscule portion of her flesh laid bare. Now she’s there, held indifferently aloft, with the secret of her beauty revealed at last and ultimately useless. That nakedness preserved for so long for nobody, now transformed into garbage that everyone avoids looking at or touching. A useless thing that only perplexes the prisoner, who’s wondering whether to pack the cart a little tighter or make a second trip. He, too, is very young. Sixteen, at most seventeen years old, weighing forty-five or a maximum of fifty kilos. Perhaps he, too, is a virgin. This could be the first time he’s touched a naked woman. Maybe he feels disgust or maybe he’s aroused—who knows. Because it’s the first time he’s touched a naked woman, and maybe it’s also the first time he’s touched a dead body. Or maybe he isn’t thinking, isn’t feeling anything. A moment of hesitation, and then a sudden decision: they’ve got to fit in the cart, all twenty-three of them. Let’s cram them in as best we can, or the kapo will punish us for the delay.
Image: “Bricks, Budapest” by Marina Salles
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