The Taste of Light
For the psychologist Fidel,
for giving us the seed of this story,
with his existence.
Her name may be Svieta, 11 years old, but she may look older. One of those typical girl-women of the tropics. From a poor family, a neighborhood on the outskirts, a broiler. Naughty, sure of herself, she may enjoy music, she may be a student. She may dream of Prince Charming, like all girls her age, but she’s more afraid that others will know about her dreams. That’s why, she’ll turn her body into her best toy. Transgressor. She’ll drive older men mad then leave them, with money, with a car, with power and prestige. One will leave her, and spite will cause her to take revenge against one of her classmates. Against the youngest, the most defenseless, the most… and the least.
Of course, the instant she imagines him, she’ll know who the perfect victim will be… and she’ll feel naughty, abusive, for just thinking about it. But knowing at the same time she’ll do it anyway…
“Careful coming up, Héctor. My father built the stairs, and the steps aren’t really even… watch your guitar and that corner… Well, here we are; yeah, it's small, but it's my room… Let me turn on the light…”
The smell; old wood, fumigation spray, cooking oil used over and over. The rough, poorly-planed handrail, alive, each step with its own creaking sound. That humidity common to all closed spaces that makes your skin crawl. His voice, more rasping than ever, spilling unnecessary words.
“Svieta, you know, I don’t… well, turn it on if you want. But calm down. Your voice sounds nervous… surely…?”
The floor is smooth and at the same time uneven. Masons careless with the level? Or recycled, warped tiles. The walls rough, as if unfinished. Built by the family, perhaps? Her breath close, and labored by the brief but steep climb.
“Anyway, you wanna sleep with me or you wanna stay a virgin forever?”
His voice still panting, cracking, between furious and reluctant. And her rabid smell of nubile female, strengthened by the sweat from the effort, perfuming the tiny room with her promise.
“Well, I… yeah, I do.”
Emotion, jumpiness. A heart beating like the bass drums in Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra. Palms moist with sweat. Lots of things to say, without words. Heat on the skin. Is this what blushing is? Blessed darkness. What is darkness? Absence of light, what is light? The absence of darkness. Easy.
“I thought so. So shut up and get started. Right now. Besides; I’m gonna hold you to that. I'm not going to turn any lights on. And this broiler’s pitch black. It's gonna be weird. In the dark, and me shaking like a…”
His sarcasm sounds like distant windows being hit by hail. Bedspread yanked to the floor, that exposes the smell of sweat, ancient and delicious, unmistakably hers, penetrating sheets and pillows.
To interrupt her when you already know there’s nothing to interrupt, that she’ll not pronounce THAT word:
“Don’t say it, please…”
Time, stopped. In the distance, the roar of a truck. Grease in the air; some neighbor in the tenement frying pork to render lard. Two arguing. Havana in the background.
“Stop with the self-pity now, Héctor. Call a spade a spade. You want me to say you’re blind? Well, I don’t want to. This is life. Without lube. Blind, blind and blind, boy…
It would be different if she were delicate like a flower, shy like they say adolescents should be, well-behaved, demure, almost a little girl. If her voice trembled just uttering the word sex, with the shudder of innocence uneasy with sin. If her laughter were almost hushed, like scales on the harp, her brief, light step, as if attempting to go unnoticed…
But she’s rebellious, she doesn’t want, doesn’t know how, isn’t able to go unnoticed. Venous and fickle like the gust of wind during Lent, that tousles your hair in all directions and fills the air with dust. Vehement, never contained or self-censored. Natural, spontaneous. She laughs, becomes angry, is saddened by angular, piercing silences, hard to swallow like fish bones.
In her fits of rage she can flourish in shouts that strangely break and strangle her slightly rasping voice, she turns into blows against the concrete with her trumpet case, explodes in kicks against flower boxes. But she’s quick to forgive, and then her laughter floats back over the murmur of others. Free, hers.
Svieta doesn’t belong to the men who come looking for her in those modern cars that screech to a halt and whose supercharged motors start with muted sighs, leaving behind a smell of burned rubber, real leather, unleaded gas, and expensive air freshener. Or to the others, the ones who ride motorcycles that shriek when they backfire, to those who smell of denim and hair gel and smoke Populares wrapped in plastic film, that crackles when squeezed with hands eager to wrap themselves around my Svieta.
Her odor is bittersweetsalty? Uniquely hers. It flowers from beneath her skirt like waves of heat radiate from a candle. It must be those waves that make her so desirable. Jealous men (and even more jealous women) claim that she goes around with everyone. That she's a whore, a jinetera, selfish, and that I’m a cuckboy, a tarrúo
Tarrúo. It sounds slimy, dirty, stupid… cornea. Whore. They say that God told Eve, when he expelled her and Adam from paradise: You shall be like him when whore ceases to be a bad word. There’s a long way to go, then.
Svieta is alive, and she likes to have a good time. I just wish it was always with me and never with others. I don’t want to be left out, like when they share light. Light?
I wouldn’t even care so much if she were really what they say she is. But I know that behind the superficial and worldly Svieta, there’s another one, invisible, echoing and fragrant, the one only I know. The one who enjoys be-bop and Dixieland, during those crazy improvisation sessions whenever I invite her to my house. The one who smells like bitter orange in the mornings, the one whose kisses leave the taste of mango on my cheeks. The one who showed me what was burning red, placing my hand on her hair, in the sun.
Svieta and Héctor. I like the hum of our names together. It reminds me of the flow of tiny shells inside the rainstick that my mother gave me. The river locked inside a piece of wood.
I don’t know if I love her. I wouldn’t even know how to tell her. How to explain what I feel, to tell someone who sees, without images. To tell her that the world smells like roses and rings like silver bells when she’s next to me? Or that I want so, so much to be with her… my first time, because they say it’s the one you never forget…
Her skin is a torch that burns through cloth. Your hands, like a clumsy octopus, hesitating at zippers and buttons. Her hands, soft, graceful felines, burning caresses on his face.
“Héctor… has anyone ever told you how adorable you are?” Your golden hair, really blue eyes. It's a shame that…
“Say it: they’re useless. Well, you can’t see them now either. Pretty… that doesn’t mean anything to…”
“And has anyone ever told you that you talk too much… and don’t do enough?”
Her fingers in your mouth, forcing you to suck on them, followed by her tongue, seeking companionship with yours, anxious, bold yet at the same time timid.
“Svieta, I… I don’t know… I didn’t imagine it like this, so fast… we should, I dunno…”
The music of a stupid and obsessive song by Enrique Iglesias, blocks or millennia away. Someone’s burning freshly cut grass, probably in the tenement in the back.
“Imagine I'm one of those electric guitars you always wanted… a Fender, a Kramer...”
“A seven-string Ibanez, like Steve Vai's?”
“The one he used on Sex and Religion… what a kickass album, huh?”
“Yeah ... Svieta, you're my sex and my religion, and I'm not sure this is right…”
A fortissimo of the myocardium on the thoracic patch, confusion, fear of what may happen and what may not happen. Sweaty hands. Feeling and smelling it. Fear of caressing her. Panic at not doing it.
“So what you said the other day was a lie? That you needed me more than what…”
“…than the air I breathe.”
“Well, take a deep breath of me, Héctor. Touch me, make music with me… Let me feel the calluses on your fingers. Your hands… Strong, with long fingers, as if they had a life of their own. The hands of a musician.”
Her skin a distant rhythm. Joe Satriani and Ingwie Malmsteen building chord by chord their sweet mango taste beneath the sun. Saltybittersweet. Her hands, tempting you. A hardness pressing against your pants insistently. It wants to explode, like the nights when you think of her and then clean the eruption of burning snow, afraid that your mother may see it.
“I want to play a concert on the strings of your skin, Svieta.”
“And a poet too. Too bad you don’t… fuck, forget it, Héctor. Just touch me.”
Her taste: sea, cumin, coconut water. Her soft flesh flan between your lips. Her breasts, perfect cones, hard and sweet like ripe mangos, melting under your tongue and on your teeth.
“Svieta, are you sure… you want to? Now, like this?”
“For God’s sake, Héctor, just shut up… don’t stop… your mouth, like that, lower, do I gross you out? I'm sweaty, I should’ve taken a shower…”
Secret tastes. The most sour and salty inside the sweetest. Ancient odor, soft touch, woven texture of soft hair-like spirals. Moisture on moisture. Heat on the outside and more heat on the inside. Biting gently, gulping, licking.
“I like… your sweat... I like everything... about you…”
“Like that, don’t stop...”
A Morse telegraph made flesh and flickering beneath your tongue, trembling in your whole mouth.
“Ay… Héctor, ay…”
Light? Nothing. To me the sun is nothing more than a high, far-off heat. If they’re really strong, I sense other lights like a gust of wind like when a bird or a bat passes by. It's not the animal itself, but I know it's there. Shadows must be something like that, or so I’ve been told. Like the hole left in the earth when a stone is removed. An impression, a trace, not the stone itself.
There was a time when I used to read a lot. My mother spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars buying me as many books as she could. In Braille, of course. With practice, I got really fast. My hands read quick. I even participated in exhibitions and that kind of stuff. But one day I got tired. The world they were talking about in those stories wasn’t mine. It was all colors, shapes, silhouettes, lights, shadows. There was no point in trying to imagine a reality I could never understand.
Then I discovered music. For years now the only Braille I read is my sheet music in relief. Lingua franca, without letters. Languages are made for people who use their eyes more than anything else. Not even the ear can compete. There aren’t enough words for smells, tastes, textures. I can’t imagine what dogs’ language is like, because they feel the world mostly through their noses? Maybe it would be easier for me to speak that language than a human one.
I was born this way, and my mother says it's both good and bad at the same time. Good because I never knew light, so I can’t miss it. I just know it's hot, and darkness is cold. In a tropical country, darkness should be better, but everyone talks about light a lot. What’s worse, that there’s no way to explain things to me if I can’t distinguish them? Colors, for example. Red is the sun, on my face, or Svieta's hair in the sun, after a while. It’s a warm color. The rest, I dunno. How do you explain to a deaf person what Django Reinhardt's guitar is, playing sadly between his three fingers, in his serious jazz? Or the rhythmic laughter of Satriani and his viola in Surfing with the Alien? You can’t.
When I was little, I desperately wanted it. I listened to cartoons, movies, and I groped about, but without bumping into the furniture, until I was able to touch the TV screen, searching. The only thing I felt was my hair stand on end. But not the taste of colors, or the texture of light.
Over time, I’ve stopped caring. It's not like I lost something. But every once in a while I still wonder if there’s a way to translate light into smells, sounds, tastes…
Her legs opening up for you are a polished conch, a language of taste and touch, without words. Her hands clamoring, warmer than ever. Her tongue in your ear, her feet like hooks around your back. Friction.
“Svieta… I like the smell… of your pleasure. And the taste…”
“C’mon, undo your zipper already. Here, like this… I want all of you inside me... right now...”
Her hands, her moisture, her complacent magnet turning you into a docile iron filing in her magnetic field. Like two little pieces of plastic from those children's construction games, that don’t require eyes to be assembled.
“Svieta, Svieta, you're… so soft...”
“Shut up and move... oh shit… like that… you’re so big… and you kept it… all to yourself…”
Forget the words. Neither they nor the light is Svieta. Let yourself be carried away, sucked in by hands and legs that flow to themselves. In the distance, choirs of thousands of whistles. A cosmic gasp. Skin burns, exceeds, flies away. Weird arithmetic. No longer two. One plus one is one. Bridge between two continents of flesh. Piston, cylinder. Pumping. Sloshing sounds. On the tip of your fingers, itching. Rigid heels in your kidneys. In your mouth, slippery, more mango taste, and Svieta who never ...
“Svieta... Svieta... SVIEEEETA!”
“Ay, yes, yes… fuck, Carl... FUCK, I LOOOVE YOU, HÉCTOR!”
Explosion. Fall. That so familiar feeling of lonely nights, but a thousand times stronger. Like the flow from a tube of paste when you squeeze it between your hands. But also being the tube. Emptying. It hurts. All together. Aaaaaah.
Stand back. After pouring all the toothpaste into the sink your mother always comes in to scold you. Nothing good lasts. Wanting to be very, very far…
“Héctor, let me explain, or you'll believe that I…”
“Leave me alone. I know everything. About the Carlos with the Jawa and that chick from the CUJAE he left you for…”
“Héctor, I… you've always been my friend. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just… If you knew, why?”
“Maybe because, besides blind, I’m a chump… Or I was.”
“Wait, where are you going? Watch out for the…!”
“Don’t worry. I know the way. Besides, I don’t need light. Hey...”
“Yeah? Look, this doesn’t have to mean that you and me... can, I dunno… okay?”
“Yeah, I know. You and me, nothing. Clear as day. Thanks for everything. That’s what you say, right?”
“Thanks? Thanks and that's it? Like that, as if I were a whore, or a rubber that you use and throw away? I… fuck, I thought it was going to be different with you! You should kiss my feet, fill me with gold for being nice enough to be with you! Ungrateful! Fucking asshole, blind piece of shit!”
“I love you too, Svieta… So long.”
You think it's never going to be the same afterwards, and it's true. But only in part. Not the way I thought. It’s strange; terrible and good at the same time. Too many sensations: heat, moisture, trembling, the emptying, all at once. Moreover, I don’t know how they can resist seeing each other at that moment.
They say those of us who are blind from birth are insensitive, with expressionless faces, cold. It could be true. It could be because we’ve never seen on other faces the expressions that go with laughter, sadness, pain. It might be that we feel more inside, without light.
Sometimes my mother still insists on reading me poetry, heartbroken because I don’t touch my pile of perforated pages anymore. Most poetry seems silly to me. Worse still, foreign. Metaphors, similes, in short, images. A strange word for someone who’s blind. If it were sounds or even echoes, maybe. But not like that.
Sometimes, when we talk like we used to, she asks me if I feel okay, but she doesn’t believe me when I say yes. Once, out of boredom, I made up an inadvertent metaphor for her. I told her that my books in Braille were just colanders filled with wholes through which the world’s meaning that she and others with eyes knew escaped. That I wouldn’t read again until I found a book that talked about the taste of light, the texture of color, the smell of shadow.
Then Svieta came along. An obsession? That strange afternoon in her broiler, her certainty, her fear, her spite, her hatred. I thought I was in love with her, that I needed her more than anything in the world. That's why, even knowing that she was using me to rub another guy in that Carlos-with-the-Jawa-cycle’s face, I said yes.
Now I don’t know anymore. I sense her in the hallways at school, but she avoids me. Her smell, that scent I still remember at night, in my bed, licking me like a cat, is now just a shadow, beneath a stranger one, like medicine. What’s happened? I dunno if I like this new situation, or if I prefer the one before, when she didn’t know I existed, and I could dream about her. I dunno know if I love her, if I loved her…
But I do know that that afternoon, in the broiler, her kisses were the taste of light. Her absence, her contempt, her ignoring me later, is the sound of shadow. I don’t know if I like being able to distinguish them now, or if I’ prefer going on not knowing, like before, and dreaming about her.
I asked my mother, and she told me that Svieta in Russian means light. Of course...
He may be blind from birth, his name Héctor. Blond, with blue eyes, handsome like an elf, a young Norse god or an angel with clipped wings, his father's son, born in a golden cradle, raised by a divorced mother full of guilt complexes, attentive to his slightest whim. He may look soft, fragile, timid, innocent, but he may have the unusual strength of those who resist everything without changing. He may not know a woman, no world other than his own, and music. He may not know light and darkness, but he may want to understand them. And she may be nearby at the right moment, a woman, experienced, adorable, the response, going to battle with the whole world, and ignoring him. Svieta. He may desire her, may always try to be near her skin and her laughter, like all men, curious, even believing he’s in love. But, unlike the others, he may not do anything.. Just wait, knowing that she may be meant to clarify the mystery for him, to reveal to him the taste of light… somehow.
So, he may spend an afternoon, between the dust and the darkness, in her broiler. And then he, still curious, no longer know what he feels for her. Except for a strange unease due to her absence.
Lost, she may follow him down the hallways from a distance, and not mind people looking at her, surprised at seeing the roles reversed. She may always carry a Naphazoline bottle around, constantly spraying one, two, three drops into her nose, so the bitter-salty fragrance of her tears doesn’t betray her to his sensitive pituitary, when he has no choice but to walk by her, always quiet, always looking at him. Waiting. She may try to catch a glimpse on his impenetrable face of being blind from birth. A smile, a grimace of disgust ... something to know that she still exists for him.
A gesture, a word. Something. Anything.
April 20, 2000
Translated by George Henson
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.
George Henson is a literary translator and lecturer of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. He is the translator of Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna, as well as fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke. His translations have appeared in a variety of literary venues, including The Literary Review, Bomb, The Buenos Aires Review, The Kenyon Review, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today, where he is a contributing editor. He is also the Translation Editor for Latin American Literature Today.