Short Little Stories

 

Images of Aída Bortnik from the Bortnik family collection.

The Trunk    

Theirs was a tempestuous love. They had cried entire nights, because of one another. They had hugged and kissed, they had bitten and hit, they had laughed, they had deceived, they had forgiven, they had understood, they had reproached. They had grown together, learning from one another. Together they had endured humiliation, failure, pain, betrayal, happiness, the slow passing of time, the vertiginous passing of life. And one day, when they peered into each other’s mirrors, they discovered that they were already wise enough to smile at the wears of time. They then realized that, finally, they had begun to age.

He would sit out front in the garden, reading the paper and endlessly repairing old watches that he’d later give away. She would tend to the roses and the meals. They did the shopping together. They would carry the grocery bag together, each holding a handle. They always seemed to have something to talk about. She cried a lot at the movies. When hers was used up, she would hold out her hand and he would pass her his white cologne-scented kerchief. He didn’t cry, but he didn’t tease either. They alternated religiously: a romance and then an action flick. Though, lately, he no longer cared for war movies, either.

Their son had died. Their daughter was living in another country. She wrote the letters and he brought them to the post office. They went to the cemetery once a month. She would place the flowers. He would remain standing, his hands clasped behind his back, staring with a gaze that looked only to the past.

They had a trunk full of photographs, some inherited from mothers and grandmothers, solemn or melancholy people (women in long dresses standing beside a vase full of flowers, rehearsing a smile that would survive them, men with walking sticks and romantic hats, eternally defiant). Though they had laughed at them when they were too young to know any better, they now looked upon them with a tenderness uniting those relatives, unknown and faded, with other frivolities in other photographs: vacations, parties, hikes and joys captured forever, ever exposed to the laughter of other ruthless youth whom they no longer had trouble imagining as part of a circle they knew to be endless. She had once spoken about arranging them in an album. But he preferred the disorder and the randomness of the evocations, the insidious sadness, the unexpected blush provided by each night they devoted to the trunk.

When they decided to paint the house, she had a hard time persuading him to hire help. But later they were glad to have met the young man. He didn’t look like their son, nor did that even occur to them, but he was so alone and so quiet and pleasant, that they both knew right away that he missed his family. They needn’t discuss it to both agree: the youngster needed work, but above all, he needed affection. When he finished painting they would come up with something else. 

But he did not finish painting.

He killed her in the kitchen. One blow was enough. She was probably already dead before he split open her skull, because she saw him raise his arm and didn’t even let out a scream. He killed him in the bedroom. But it was more difficult. He was stronger than he appeared.

He was surprised that the trunk wasn’t locked. At first he was confused. He looked for a double bottom: the photographs flew through the air and he was completely surrounded by generations of the family when he finally realized there was no money to be had. He felt deceived and for that reason alone, after savagely searching the rest of the house and finding nothing but some useless watches and a few miserable dollars, he piled up all of the photos and tossed in the match.    

 

Celeste’s Heart

Celeste went to a school that had a double courtyard. Assemblies were held out in front. The one in back was where the Teacher made them stand in line, arms extended out to their sides; no shifting weight onto one leg or bending the other knee; and no talking. The whole hour. And once, for two hours straight. Well, not really for hours. But there were two recesses and four school bells before she let them return to class. And the girls in the other grades, who laughed and played during the first recess almost as usual, didn’t play at all during the second one. Instead, they stood against the walls and just watched them. They watched the straight line of girls spread out in the middle of the courtyard. And no one laughed. And when the Teacher clapped her hands to signal that the punishment had ended, Celeste was the only one who didn’t stretch or complain, nor did she shake out her arm or march in step toward the classroom. When they sat down she began staring at the Teacher the way she would look at new words on the chalkboard, the ones she didn’t understand or know what purpose they served, exactly.

At home, she never said a word about the punishment. Surely, her mother would have sympathized with how difficult it must have been for the poor Teacher to deal with so many disobedient girls. Surely, one of her siblings would have laughed. But the worst part was that, surely, Auntie would have thought it was a good idea. And at some point she would have made them stand in line, the nine of them, with their arms outstretched. So she never said a word about the punishment at home.

That night, when she tucked him in, her little brother asked again, “When will I get to go to school?” But she didn’t laugh that night, nor did she reply at all. She sat down and held him for a while, as she always did when she realized that he was so young and knew so little. And she held him closer because she suddenly imagined him in the middle of the courtyard with his little arm outstretched, his body stiff, feeling cold, angry, and afraid, in a straight line where everyone was as young as him.

And the next time the Teacher got angry with the class, Celeste already knew what she had to do. She did not lift her arm.

The Teacher repeated the command, watching her with a bit of surprise. But Celeste would not raise her arm. The Teacher, almost concerned, approached her and asked what was the matter. And she told her. She told her that her arm hurt afterward. And that all the girls were cold and afraid. And that no one went to school to feel pain, cold, and fear.

Celeste did not hear herself speak, but she saw the look on the Teacher’s face. And it was a strange face, very strange. And her classmates later told her that she spoke loudly, not shouting, but very loudly. As when one recites a poem, one with big words, standing on the podium in the front courtyard. As when people know they are at a solemn event where important things are said, things that happened long ago, but are remembered, because the world changed for the better from that day onward.

And almost everyone began to lower their arms. And then they returned to the classroom. And the Teacher wrote a note with red ink in her notebook. And when her father asked her what she had done and she told him, he looked at her for a long time, as if he did not see her but something else that was deep inside her or beyond her. And then he smiled and signed the note without saying a word. And while she dried the ink, he softly patted her head, as if Celeste’s head were something very, very fragile, that could break under a heavy hand.

That night Celeste almost did not sleep because she felt a strange sensation inside her body. A sensation that had begun when she refused to raise her arm in the middle of the line: the sensation that something was growing inside her chest. It burned a little, but it did not hurt. And she thought that if someone’s legs and arms and all that, could grow, then everything inside had to grow as well. But legs and arms grow without one realizing, evenly and gradually. And the heart must grow like this, in spurts. And it made sense to her: the heart grows when one does something they have never done before, when one learns something new, when one feels something different and better, for the first time. And the strange sensation seemed good to her. And she promised herself that her heart would continue growing and growing and growing.

 

Do You Remember?  
     
Nostalgia: (from the Greek nostos: return; and algos: pain). Sadness caused by the absence of a homeland, or of family and friends. (Syn. see Melancholy) / Sorrow associated with the memory of a significant loss.

One day he awoke and everything was gone. But he hadn’t moved a muscle. He was certain of it. Maybe what happened is that everything just slid away while he had remained absolutely still... No. Storefronts and other things were still there. The same language was still spoken, or at least an almost identical one. The same gestures were still being made, or at least similar ones. And those ever so subtle symbols that were easy to miss, still endured.

He thought to himself, this will pass. And then he remembered, so will I.

He tried to scream out, “Where is everything?!” But he was overwhelmed by shame. Hadn’t the others also experienced the same loss? They were just trying to act dignified. Or whatever you would call that way of pretending that life was still the same life, that people were still the same people, that the world was still the same world.

He adjusted faster than he thought he would. But there were traps. If you exaggerated a movement, for instance, or if you got a little carried away with your tone… something immediately sounded hollow. And the sound was terrifying. You had to be extremely cautious. Extremely cautious.

Sleeping was not easy either, because of the dreams. And no degree of innocence could help. For example, that Marx Brothers film. How do you take precaution against such a harmless image? The film was A Night in Casablanca. Harpo is out on the street, leaning against an immense wall. Chico passes by and calls him over. Harpo gestures that he cannot neglect his responsibility. Chico laughs: “Say, whaddaya think you’re doing? Holding up the building?” He takes Harpo by the arm and tugs him away. The building collapses. The building collapses. The building collapses.  He awoke amidst the terror and tried to laugh. It was a comedy. What’s wrong with dreaming about the punch line of a comedy...? But he could not peel the palm of his hand off the wall. He could not.

His doctor was understanding. His colleagues at work were understanding. His family was understanding. His friends were understanding. With time, he managed. His hand tended, however, to hold up walls, people, situations. It took him a long time to believe that nothing would collapse, because nothing was sturdy enough any longer.

And one day he got tired. He got so very, very tired, that nothing seemed to matter to him: a hollow brick, even if carefully balanced atop another, didn’t reinforce anything but a demolished building. A missing friend didn’t embrace anyone but a ghost. A wavering dignity didn’t dignify anything but an opportune abjection. A memory denied didn’t nurture anything but a dead ideal.

Then he awoke once again. But he was completely awake this time. And he looked around. And without permission or preamble, to the first vaguely familiar face, he asked, without shame or fear, “Do you remember me?” Just as they began to shake their head, they shot back the following question: “Do you remember yourself?”

They hugged each other, crying. And as they began to remember, the world began to deepen, to fill, to solidify.

When you remember… you are brought to tears. Who could ever laugh at having forgotten? 

I’m not laughing. Neither are you. 

So then, who?

Translated by Annette Prekker Levine

Languages

LALT No. 14
Number 14

The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Mariana Enriquez

Dislocating Writing: Latin America Rewrites Estados Unidos

Poetry

Fiction

Essays

Interviews

Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene