For Yoyi, for unspoken reasons that she knows.
For Virgen, super-mother-in-law.
Sorry for borrowing and adulterating the image of your home,
which was mine for 4 years.
January. The 2:34pm sun enters the house unimpeded through the back window, barely held up by a clumsy piece of carpentry. The big rusted nails split through the wood. Only a sheet of nylon prevents the rain from pouring inside.
Underneath, on an improvised bookcase of boards and bricks, tomes that no one has read for decades sit and rot. Verne. Salgari. Sabatini. Dumas. Louisa May Alcott. El Tesoro de la Juventud.
Laden-down coat stands sway in the wind like retired birds of prey. Leather jackets for the winter, a uniform from the National Literacy Campaign, a blue suit from El Corte Inglés from the fifties. The smell of naphthalene breaks up the moths’ party. The back room. A Russian air conditioning unit that’s known better times, taken apart. An antediluvian bicycle, from the same place, also in pieces. Two-inch pipes, nickel steel, several meters. A homemade ventilator, with palettes cut from a sheet of duralumin. Bricks. Blocks of siporex. Granite baseboards. A typewriter that looks like it’s been run over by a tank regiment.
Between rays of dusty, cold light, a framed portrait. Family photo: Tall man, pug-nosed, hair slicked back with brilliantine, blue suit, surprised face. Woman in mechanic’s overalls, bandana tied over her blonde hair, aquiline nose. She smiles, amused: she pretends to threaten the man with a hammer, but she hugs him at the same time. Girl, 7 years old, absorbed in a picture book. Mix of the man and the woman: curly hair and narrow nose.
In front of the old servant’s room, now demoted to junk, a small bathroom with neither bathtub nor bidet. Dampness and dust on the tiles. No towels, no soap. A scummy shaving razor, forgotten. On the wall, markings made in pencil: So-and-So. What’s Her Name. Iron Maiden. Scorpions live and loud. A wrinkled condom behind the cracked toilet, without a cover. A plastic cup with three cockroaches floating in the dregs of the rum. Cigarette butts, lots.
The hallway. A corbel over the building’s long ventilation shaft. A steel handrail with decades of rust. Clotheslines made of wire and string, a grotesque passageway for the sparrows. The birds nest high, tenaciously tearing apart the skin of the walls to bare their red brick bones.
Another room. The bed, double. The right side is sunken-in: the left, hardly.
The dresser: jewelry hooks with shiny trinkets, cosmetics, perfumes (almost all in refilled bottles). A mirror with photos stuck on.
A blond woman with a narrow nose in a graduation cap. A pug-nosed man with slicked back hair in a thick jacket: Moscow, Red Square. St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background, unmistakable.
The man, among many, in a big conference room. In front, at the podium, Che gives a speech.
The woman and the man: him in a blue suit, her dressed up like a nuptial meringue. The lace can’t quite conceal her swollen belly. The couples smiles as if happiness were obligatory.
The man, older; gray hair, no longer slicked back. Wide smile, smoking jacket. In front of a roulette wheel, stopped forever. Behind, in neon: Hotel-Casino Excalibur. Las Vegas.
A metal bookshelf. Film theory. Copies of Le Cahiers du Cinéma. Martí. Marx. Latin American poetry.
On the walls (the paint is beginning to peel):
A young Titón, filming Memories of Underdevelopment.
Papier mâché, shot to shit: cane, dress shoes, and bowler hat, a souvenir from a national meeting of Cineclubs.
A photo, colored by hand in a studio: a girl with a narrow nose and curls feigned through an extremely complex hairstyle. High heels. A hoop skirt. Pamela hat and lace parasol. Behind, a cement heart with the number 15 in red. Her, serious, resigned to the kitsch.
In another photo, very different: jeans like a second skin. Pointy Robin Hood boots. The hint of breasts under a black t-shirt with the KISS masks. Curls down to her shoulders, free. She sits on the knees of the pug-nosed man with slicked-back hair. It’s hard to recognize him; some mischievous soul painted his face white, with a black star covering one eye: Paul Stanley, the Diabolical Faggot. He clearly doesn’t like it.
The room is gray. Everything is covered in an invisible layer of dust. The kind that builds up in spaces where nobody lives. Even though they clean them often.
The bathroom in between. Big, with a bidet and a tub. On the old sink, shampoo, deodorant, several shaving razors. The only window opens onto the hallway. It has no glass, but rather a poorly affixed sheet of cardboard. Above (old house, about five meters high) a metal 55-gallon water-tank. It rests on top of two parallel sections of 2-inch nickel-steel pipe, chafing. As if someone often hung off them, using them as a crude gymnasium.
In the little space in front of the bathroom, against the wall, the axis of a railroad hand cart with its wheels attached. Improvised barbells. And two homemade dumbbells, shiny with use.
The last room. Dog and ram skulls, painted red, hanging from chains like macabre mobiles. Posters, hard rock, heavy (mostly KISS), trash, black, and doom metal, attempt to cover up the deteriorating paint. Harley-Davidsons shedding their chrome. Comic book heroes: Judge Dredd, Lobo, Sláine. Clippings from ballet magazines. A Barbra Streisand poster. Another of Woody Allen. Another from the musical The Pirate Movie. And a lot of photos.
The girl with other girls. Pressed up against some boys (mostly with long hair). The girl, the woman, and the man. Many, many photos of the girl with the man. Two or three of the man alone, curly hair no longer slicked back, gone gray, leaning against big cars, in front of big houses.
Under the cracked glass top of a little dresser, more photos. Of the girl with a boy. Long-haired, blonde, well-built. Peppered with acne, sullen. Green eyes with the attraction of the abyss. In others he’s alone. Shirtless, with his hair in a bun, exercising his muscles with the hand cart axle. Fixing the bathroom window, hammer raised, nails in his mouth. With a bass guitar in his hands, on a little black-and-white poster, along with four other longhairs. A headline: CASTRARSIS in concert - Patio de María - Saturday, October 16, 8:30pm.
To the left of the little dresser, a lone nightstand with a very obvious ring of dust.
On the wall, in front, the mirror: a crack almost from top to bottom, oblique, violent. Beneath, a broken lamp. The base was round.
The stereo system, in a corner, devoid of cassettes. They lie scattered on the floor, like Lilliputians swept away by the hand of a giant.
The closet, surrounded by a barrier of men’s and women’s boots and sneakers, all heavily used. The door, kicked in from the outside, hangs from its semi-detached hinges.
A little library. Fantasy, horror, mystery. A couple of leather-bound tomes with strange symbols on their spines. All on the floor.
A bureau. Before, it must have almost disappeared under weeks of piled-up dirty clothes. Now it’s clean, its cargo spread over the floor.
The bed: three quarters, the mattress dented, leaning against the wall. Above the headboard, in the only un-postered section of the wall, strokes of red oil paint. Pentagrams in circles. Hebrew letters. The tetragrammaton. The abracadabra. A crude Sabbath goat (in the style of Eliphas Levi). In small handwriting: I am human because you are here. That is why I love you like no one loved before or will love after. Because the magic of your presence is the only thing that keeps my beast sated and asleep. Your absence would set it loose, furious and wounded...and not even beasts know how much harm they can do when they feel themselves wounded.
Between the pillows, a stuffed bear, dirty for years. The top cover is a mass at the feet of the bed. Wrapped up in its folds, a shoebox, still wrapped in paper from the store. Only one of the shoes is inside. Red, high heel. Expensive. Also a photo and several papers, torn into pieces.
The torn-up photo shows the girl with another boy, holding hands, somewhere that looks like a hotel lobby, smiling, happy and furtive at once. This boy also has long hair, glasses, he’s fat and a little older than the girl. The slick photo stock shines like new. One of the torn-up papers has official stamps, one from Cuba and one from a European country. Another stamp is like a little book with the distinctive red-and-yellow of Spain. The third looks like a letter. The paper has the letterhead of the Hotel-Casino Excalibur.
There’s another photo, intact: the man with a wide nose and curly hair, now fat with gray hair and glasses, embraces the long-haired girl. It’s dated from a week ago and marked with a number.
The dining room. Austere: table with four chairs, ornamental sideboard with bottles of fine liquor refilled with colored water (there are 7 and there should be 10). A little table for the telephone.
On the dining table, a backpack and a case for the bass guitar. Closed. On the wall, three stains of color spread toward the floor.
On the floor, a frosting of broken glass. Picture frames and the face of a blonde woman with a narrow nose, broken into pieces. The other high-heeled shoe, red and expensive, trampled. Two of the chairs, flipped-over quadrupeds. A human skull, the bone spotted with fat drops of wax, fragmented as if by an explosion, the chain from which it hung twisted like steel intestines. The telephone, a dead crab, amputated from its cable. In the middle of the rotary dial is a number. The same number marked on the intact photo in the shoebox.
In the colorful mess on the floor, prints from boots and bare feet circle around the table. Toward the kitchen.
The kitchen, small. Westinghouse refrigerator overturned in the corner, pouring out water from its half-open door. A wooden box: broken, its contents scattered. Carpentry tools: hand saw, drill, brush. No hammer. Broken plates, together with the cutlery from the fallen dish rack. A wooden knife block almost on the edge of the Formica table. There are openings for six knives. But only five blades. The biggest is missing.
The living room, classic: sofa and two armchairs with threadbare upholstery. Bare walls, a couple of small tables, kitsch landscapes.
On one of the armchairs, two narrow cuts run across the vinyl. On the wall, next to the closed door (with a key on a skull-shaped key-ring hanging from the lock), a new dent, as if from the impact of some heavy object.
A little table in the middle of the room, legs up. The vase, fallen on its side, still rocks back and forth slowly, spilling its soil. Plastic roses, scattered on the floor.
A little Daewoo TV on a three-legged table. Unconnected. The box that once held it is open on an old Caribe, placed carefully on the floor, on the other side of the balcony door.
On the doorframe, at eye level, the insides of the cream-colored wood show through the skin of the brown paint. The protruding splinter, long, sharp, bends toward the floor like a monstrous fingernail. On one of the door leaves there are three newly broken blinds.
On the floor, a few thick red drops begin to coagulate. Ten centimeters away is the sixth knife. Shining like a fish out of water, unblemished.
There is no more blood on the floor (which needs a good sweep) of the small balcony. There are pieces of whitewash, dust from damp bricks, defeated plaster. Scarce; the majority fell toward the outside. Through the V-shaped gap, almost in the center of the handrail, you can see Calle San Lázaro, three stories below.
Surrounded by debris, on the asphalt, face-up, brains mingling with blonde hair in an exotic red-and-yellow flower, is he. Another large wound on the forehead. An expression between angry, frustrated, and amazed.
Five meters above, left leg trapped and twisted at an anatomically impossible angle between the two branches that halted the descent (the tree: Cuban oak, Tabeiuya pentaphyla), hanging, is she. Unconscious, bleeding from the nose and mouth, but alive. With fingers on both hands stiffened still around the hammer, sticky and red.
The echoes of the twofold scream begin to fade. Blocks away, an older woman with a narrow nose and gray hair that was once blonde lifts her head all of a sudden, with ineffable presentiment.
The typical nosey neighbors begin to arrive and congregate among commentaries and suppositions, not knowing yet what happened.
A red Tico from Havanautos has come to a stop on the corner. The driver, a fat boy with long hair and glasses, is getting out. He carries a bag on his shoulder and a bouquet of roses in his hand. His mouth opens, he blinks.
Two black boinas from the Special Brigade cross the street. One speaks into his walkie-talkie.
It’s 2:34pm on a January day, and it’s still early for the siren that rings out far and wide to come from the police car, not to mention the ambulance.
January 19, 1999
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Born José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in Havana, Cuba, in 1969, Yoss assumed his pen name in 1988, when he won the Premio David in the science-fiction category for Timshel. Since then, he has gone on to become one of Cuba's most iconic literary figures—as the author of more than twenty acclaimed books, as a champion of science fiction through his workshops in Cuba and around the world, and as the lead singer of the heavy metal band Tenaz. Restless Books has translated two of his novels into English: A Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande. A third, Condomnaut, is forthcoming.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.