By Liliana Colanzi
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Liliana Colanzi (Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 1981) studied a degree at the UPSA in Bolivia and a master’s at the University of Cambridge. She has worked as a journalist at El Deber, El Nuevo Día and Número Uno and her stories have been included in several magazines. She has also published an anthology of Bolivian non-fiction (Aguilar, 2009) and the novels Vacaciones permanentes (El Cuervo, 2010) and La ola (Montacerdos, 2014). Currently she is completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Cornell University in New York.
* * *
The Wave returned during one of the fiercest winters on the East Coast. That year seven students committed suicide between November and April: four threw themselves into gullies from the bridges of Ithaca, the rest turned to the blurry dream of drugs. It was my second year at Cornell and there were still three or four more to go, or maybe five or six. But it was all the same. In Ithaca all the days merged into the same day.
The Wave always arrived the same way: without any warning. Couples fought, psychopaths waited in alleyways, the youngest students let themselves be dragged down by the voices whispering spirals in their ears. What did they say? You’ll never be good enough for this place. You’ll be the shame of your family. That kind of thing. The city was possessed by a strange vibration. In the mornings I’d put on astronaut boots to go shovel the snow piling up like one castle above another, so that the mailman could reach my door. From the porch I could see the Wave embracing the city with its long pale arms. The whiteness refracted all visions, amplifying the voices of the dead and the tracks of the deer migrating toward the false safety of the forest. The old Dream had returned to visit me several nights, images of hell I won’t say a single word more about. I cried every day. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, I could hardly get out of bed.
The Wave had arrived and I, who had spent the last few years going from one country to another fleeing from it —as if it were possible to hide from its icy embrace— stopped in front of the mirror to remind myself for the last time that reality is the reflection in the glass and not what hides behind it. This is me, I told myself. I’m still on this side of things, refining my senses. I’m just overwhelmed by the imminent feeling of something I have already lived through many times.
And I sat down to wait.
Do you feel anything out of the ordinary?, asked the doctor from the university insurance agency, who’d been assigned the task of recording the persistence of melancholy among students.
I don’t know what you’re talking about, I said.
That morning the shrillness of thousands of terrified birds flying over the roof of my house had awoken me. How they screamed! When I ran to look for them, shivering in my damp slippers, all that remained were fine ash-gray spirals mottling the snow. The Wave had taken them too.
But how could I tell the others about the Wave? At Cornell nobody believes in anything. Many hours are wasted discussing ideas, theorizing the ethic and aesthetic, speedwalking to avoid the flash of others’ looks, organizing symposiums and colloquiums, but they wouldn’t recognize an angel if it blew in their face. That’s how they are. The Wave arrives on campus at night on tiptoe and sweeps away seven students, and the only thing they can think of is to fill your pockets with Trazodone or give you a lamp with ultraviolet light.
And despite everything, I sincerely believe there must be a way to keep the Wave at bay. Sometimes I sense a spark-like glimpse into that mystery, before immediately losing it once again in the darkness. Once —just once— I was on the point of brushing against it. It had to do with the antenna and I’m going to tell it to you as I remember it. It happened during the first days of the suicide season. I felt lonely and missed my house, the house of my childhood. I sat down to write.
When I arrived in Ithaca, before learning about Rancière and Lyotard and the tribulations of the ethic and aesthetic, I naïvely believed that literary studies served to maintain the antenna receptive. And so some nights, after reading one or two hundred pages on a subject that didn’t interest me, I still had energy left to attempt to write something that was mine. The story I wanted to write was going to be about the achachairú, which sounds like the name of a monster but is actually the name of the most delicious fruit in the world: on the outside it’s a violent orange and inside it’s pulpy, white, sweet, slightly acid, and for some incomprehensible reason grows only in Santa Cruz. I wanted to be able to say something about that fruit, something so powerful and definite that it was capable of returning me home. In my story there were achachairuses, but also a boy and a girl, and parents and siblings and a childhood far away in a country house that no longer existed outside my story, and there was hate and pain, and the agony of happiness and the cold of death itself. I remained sitting there until very late trying to tune into the imaginary conflicts of those imaginary characters fighting to reach me.
At some point I felt hungry and went in search of a glass of milk. I sat next to the window watching how the light snow fell, disintegrating before it touched the frozen earth where the seeds and larvae slept hidden. Suddenly I had a very strange feeling: I saw myself traveling in the direction opposite that of the snow, toward the clouds, contemplating from above my own figure with elbows leaning on the window sill that winter night.
From up there, suspended in the darkness and silence, I could understand the attempts of that being below —myself— to reach something that exceeded me, like a solitary antenna straining to tune into a faraway and unknown music. My antenna was open, twinkling, calling, and I could see the characters in my stories as what they really were: beings who in their turn were fighting blindly to reach me from all directions. I saw them walking, losing themselves, living: committed to their own affairs even when I wasn’t there to write them. They descended my antenna while I, distracted with other thoughts, drank the glass of cold milk on an even colder night in November or December, when the Wave still did nothing but caress us.
Every now and then some of the figures —a man with a mustache that read the newspaper, a teenager smoking outside a building, a woman dressed in red who fogged up the window with her alcoholic breath— sensed my presence and stopped to notice me with a mixture of longing and astonishment. They were as afraid of me as I was of the Wave, and that discovery was enough to bring me back to the chair and the glass of milk by the window, to the body that breathed and thought and was once again mine, and I began to laugh with the relief of someone who has been handed her entire life and something more.
I wanted to talk with the creatures and tell them not to worry or something like that, but I knew that they couldn’t hear me over the tumult of their own fictitious lives. I went to sleep swept along by the murmur of the tiny figures, prepared to give them all my attention after I’d rested. But the next day the voices of the creatures escaped me, their outlines had faded, the words were ruined the moment I wrote them: there was no way to find those beings or discover who they were.
During the night my antenna had ceased to pick up their signal.
They no longer belonged to me.
When I was small and the Wave found me at night, I would run to get into my parents’ bed. They slept on an enormous mattress with a lot of pillows and I could slide myself between the two without waking them. Falling asleep and seeing what was hidden in the darkness beyond vision frightened me. The Wave lived there too, on the limits of sleep, and had the faces of a kaleidoscope of horror. The static of the television, which remained turned on until the break of day, whirred and flickered like a shield designed to protect me. I lay without moving in that immense bed with the very different smells of Mama and Papa to either side of me, divided. If the Wave comes, I thought, my parents are going to hold me tight. If I said anything at all one of the two would open their eyes. And you, what are you doing here?, they would ask me, dazed, and pass me the small pillow, mine.
My father slept on his back, wearing only boxers. His hairy paunch rose and fell to the rhythm of the peaceful cascade of his snores, and that rhythm of his snores in the bedroom as I watched the nuclear radiance of the television screen was the sweetest thing on earth. I was sure he didn’t experience that infinite loneliness of a deranged and purposeless universe. Although I still couldn’t give it a name, That, the other thing, was reserved for failed beings like myself.
Papa was different. Papa was a murderer. He’d killed a man years before meeting Mama, when he was young and a foreigner and worked as a photographer in a town on the border with Brazil. It was a stupid accident. One night while he was closing the studio, his best friend went to look for him. He was a known fighter and womanizer, a real man of the world, and Papa revered him. The guy tried to sell him a stolen gun and Papa, who didn’t know anything about firearms, pulled the trigger without meaning to: his friend died on the way to the hospital.
After that I’m not really sure what happened.
I learned all this the day Papa was arrested in connection with the robbery. Mama told me as the pile of papers burned in an improvised bonfire on the patio; the remnants of burnt paper traveled in little swirls, carried off by the wind. Mama swore that the police were going to raid the house at any moment and wanted to unburden herself of any trace of our family history. Her figure against the fire, embracing herself and cursing God, was so beautiful that it did me harm.
To sum things up: the police never raided our house, the robbery trial never got off the ground, and my father returned in the early morning without giving explanations. Mama never mentioned the subject again. But, miraculously, I began to improve. I remained still in the darkness of my room, attentive to the regular beating of my own heart. My father killed somebody, I thought every night, struck by the enormity of that secret. I am the daughter of a murderer, I repeated, immersed in a new feeling that came close to consolation or happiness.
And I fell asleep immediately.
Years later I began my flight.
It was Christmas Eve and Papa fell asleep after the first glass of wine. At the start he’d seemed to be in good spirits. Mama had passed the afternoon at the beauty salon, and from his chair Papa followed her with astonished eyes, as if seeing her for the first time.
Does it look good?, asked Mama, touching her hair, aware she was splendid with her high heels and new hairstyle.
And who is she?, Papa whispered to me.
Your wife, I said.
Mama remained unmoving. We looked at each other, illuminated by the fireworks that tore open the sky.
Why are you crying?, asked Papa into my ear.
Papa, I begged.
She’s a pretty woman, Papa insisted. Tell her not to cry. Let’s drink a toast.
That’s enough, said Mama, and went inside.
On the patio the air smelled of gunpowder and rain. I caught a mosquito with my hand: its blood exploded. Papa looked at the table with the pig, the corn salad and the tray of sweets, and frowned like a small, sulking child.
This is a party, isn’t it? Where’s the music? Why isn’t anyone dancing?
A suffocating heat overwhelmed me.
A toast to those who…, Papa managed to say, his cup held up, before his head collapsed onto his chest in the middle of the phrase.
It was hard for us to carry him to his room, undress him and get him settled into bed. We tried to finish dinner, but didn’t have anything to talk about, or maybe we wanted to avoid saying things that brought us back to the new version of Papa. Together we cleared the table, stored what was left of the pig and turned off the lights of the Christmas tree —a big and expensive tree in a house where there were no children or gifts— and went to sleep before midnight.
A while later some shrieking noises made their way into my dreams. They were like the howling of a dog being hanged by the neck in its final moments on this planet. It was an obscene sound, capable of poisoning you with its pure loneliness. Asleep, I thought I was fighting once again with the old Dream. But that wasn’t it. Awake, I was still myself and the howling continued, tumbling over into the adjacent room.
I found Papa sprawled on the ground, halfway between bed and bedroom, thrashing blindly in a puddle of his own piss.
Teresa, Teresa, my love, he cried, and began to shriek and writhe again.
Mama was already on top of him.
Do you know any Teresa?, she asked me.
No, I told her, and it was true.
The contorted face of Papa, delivered over to terror with no dignity whatsoever, revealed all the grief of our journey through this world: he couldn’t tell us what he was seeing and Mama and I couldn’t do anything to prevent our helplessness. I remember the fury rising through my stomach, flooding my lungs, fighting to get out. My father wasn’t a murderer: he was hardly a man, just a coward and a traitor.
While I mopped up the piss Mama got Papa under the shower; he continued sleeping and babbling. The next day he woke up calm. He was obedient and slightly bewildered, touched by grace. He didn’t remember a thing. However, something bad must have gotten into me that night, because that was when I first started to feel that my body wasn’t well planted on this earth. And what if the law of gravity were to somehow reverse and end up launching us into space? And what if a meteorite were to fall on the planet? I wasn’t interested in getting close to any mystery. I wanted to dig my heels into this horrible world because I couldn’t bear the the idea of any other.
Shortly afterward, afraid of the Wave and of myself, I began my flight.
The call arrived during a storm so spectacular that, for the first time in many years, the university canceled classes. You ended up losing consciousness of all civilization, of all borders beyond that blinding whiteness. Afternoon merged with night, the angels descended sobbing from the sky and I awaited the arrival of a messiah, but the only thing that came that afternoon was Mama’s call. At times like that you spent days hoping for something to happen, anything. I can’t say it surprised me. It almost made me happy to hear her voice charged with resentment.
Your father fell again. A blow to the head, she informed me.
Is it serious?
He’s still alive.
There’s no need to be sarcastic, I said, but Mama had already hung up.
I bought the ticket immediately. The airline agent warned me that all flights were delayed because of the storm. In the airplane I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t the turbulence that kept me awake. It was the certainty that if my father didn’t manage to have a dignified death, I would be condemned to live a miserable life. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Thirty-six hours later, and still without being able to believe it completely, I’d landed in Santa Cruz and a taxi was bringing me to my parents’ house. It had just rained and the humidity came away like hot fog fom the pavement. The driver that picked me up in the early morning drove a recycled Toyota, a kind of collage of different cars that showed its copper and aluminum innards. The taxi driver was a talkative type. He was up to date with all the news. He talked to me about the recent tsunami in Japan, the melting of the Illimani, the boa constrictor that had been found in Beni with a human leg inside.
The world’s one serious thing after another, isn’t it, miss?, he said, looking at me through the rearview mirror, a small half-detached piece of glass around which was wound a rosary.
My father had asked to die at home. Years before he’d bought a mausoleum in the Garden of Memories, a funeral monument with granite tombstones on which our names were written, the dates of our births adjoined to a dash pointing to the uncertain moment of our deaths.
Where you live, is it the same? asked the taxi driver.
What?, I said, distracted.
Life, what else.
When it’s hot here, it’s cold there, and when it’s cold here, it’s hot there, I said to get him off my back.
The taxi driver didn’t give up.
I’ve never left Bolivia, he said. But thanks to the Sputnik I know the entire country.
The fleet I worked for.
When he was sixteen he’d gotten a girl from his town pregnant. Her father was the driver of the Sputnik and helped him find work in the same company. He nearly always drove the night shift. From Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, from Cochabamba to La Paz, from La Paz to Oruro, and so on. In the towns he got women; sometimes he shared them with the other driver on shift.
Sorry for telling you all this, the taxi driver said, but that’s life on the road.
One day, setting off from Sorata to a town whose name I don’t remember, a mixed-race woman requested that he let her travel without paying.
The mixed-race planted herself in front of the passengers. The majority ate oranges, slept, passed wind or watched a Jackie Chan film. She introduced herself. Her name was Rosa Damiana Cuajira. Nobody paid any attention apart from an elderly man, an old yatiri carrying an open bag of coca on his knees.
Her story was simple and at the same time extraordinary. She was the daughter of a miner. Her father got leave to work in a copper mine in Chile, in Atacama, but she had to stay with her mother and brothers on the border, in a place so forgotten it didn’t have a name. She’d been a llama shepherdess all her life. One day her mother fell ill. At some point she just couldn’t get out of bed. Rosa Damiana went to look for the healer who lived on the other side of the mountain, but when she arrived the healer’s old wife told her they had just buried him.
When the girl got back, her mother was lying in her berth in the same position she’d left her, breathing with her mouth open. Mama, she called to her, but her mother no longer heard her. She prepared lunch for her brothers, shut away the llamas in the stable and ran to look for her father on the other side of the desert.
She crossed the border electrified by fear that the Chileans would find her. She’d heard all kinds of stories about them. Some were true. For example, that they’d hidden explosives under the ground. It was enough to step on one for your body to explode in a jet of blood and entrails.
What else was there in the desert? Rosa Damiana didn’t know. She was twelve years old and wanted to find her father before the darkness reached her. She walked until the Andean sun obscured her vision. Finally she sat at the foot of a hill to rest and contemplate the solitude of God. She knew it was the end. She couldn’t walk any more, her feet were frozen. The last lights burned behind the outlines of things. A group of cacti grew near the hill, their arms with eight points stretching toward the sky. Rosa Damiana pulled off a piece of one of them. She ate all that she could, suffocating on her own vomit, and begged to die.
When she opened her eyes she thought she’d been resurrected in a shining place. It was still night —she could tell because of the presence of the moon— but her view picked up the most remote lines on the horizon with the precision of a fox. Her body gleamed with millions of particles of light. Alongside her vomit, the cacti had transformed into small men with little hats. Rosa Damiana spoke with them for a long time. They were kind and laughed a lot, and Rosa Damiana doubled over laughing with them. She couldn’t understand why she’d been so sad before. Now she felt not cold but a pleasant heat that filled her with energy. Her body was light and serene.
Rosa Damiana looked at the liquid sky and recognized the Guardians. Some were friendly figures, old men with long beards and a benevolent gaze. There were also unsettling creatures, lizards with multiple eyes that spat their tongues out at her. The girl threw herself on her back onto the earth. Where am I? she asked, bewildered. The shapes of the stars danced before her eyes. Rosa Damiana didn’t know how long she stayed like that. Little by little she began to remember who she was and what had brought her to the desert.
She got up, gave a brief bow to the little green men, who tipped their small eight-point hats to her in turn, and continued on her way. The desert, the mountains, the rocks, the inside of her all glowed. She left behind a hill that ended in a large salt plain. She remembered that long ago all that land had been an immense expanse of water inhabited by beings that now slept, preserved beneath the dust. Rosa Damiana felt in her bones the cry of all those forgotten creatures and knew, reached by revelation, that in the early morning she’d find her father and that her mother wouldn’t die because the earth still hadn’t laid claim to her. She knew the day and form of her own death, and the date was also revealed to her that the planet and universe and all things existing within it would be destroyed by a tremendous explosion that even now —as I, with my antenna lit, imagine or summon or recompose the story of a taxi driver, attentive to the presence of the Wave, which every so often strokes the back of my neck with its long fingers— follows its trajectory of thousands of millions of years, hungry and insatiable until all is darkness within more darkness. It was a terrible and beautiful vision, and Rosa Damiana shuddered with pity and joy.
Shortly afterward the fleet arrived in Sorata and Rosa Damiana got down immediately amidst the confusion of travelers and vendors. The driver, intuiting that he’d been witness to something important that escaped him, sought her out with his gaze. He asked the bus boy sitting near the yatiri, but the boy —a half idiot, clarified the taxi driver, or maybe I just thought it— was too busy entertaining himself with a cell phone game to have seen anything.
I could have given him a good beating right then and there, he said. I could have killed him if I’d wanted to. But instead of that I looked for the bottle of singani and got drunk.
The story of the mixed-race got into his head. It didn’t leave him in peace. Sometimes he had doubts. Is it true? he asked himself over and over again. There were so many charlatans.
I’m a practical man, miss, said the taxi driver. When work ends, I sleep immediately. I don’t even dream. I’m not one of those people who stay awake turning things over. That’s always seemed like something women do, no offense. But that time…
That time was different. He’d lot his taste for travel. He still continued to chase women between one town and another, but it wasn’t the same. Everything seemed dirty, ordinary, unreal. He spent entire nights looking at his wife and his children, who were growing up so fast —the five of them slept in the same room— and occasionally asked himself what those strangers were doing in his house. He didn’t feel anything special for them. They could have been replaced and it would have been the same to him. He began to look for the face of Rosa Damiana in every traveler that boarded his fleet, and asked for her in the towns he passed through. Nobody seemed to know her. He came to think that everything had been a dream, or worse still, that he was part of one of the dreams Rosa Damiana had abandoned in the desert. He began to drink more than usual.
One day he fell asleep at the wheel while they crossed the Chapare. The Sputnik ricocheted five times before coming to rest hanging suspended in a gully. Before fainting, an enormous clarity pervaded him. The last thing he saw was the bus boy. His eyes pierced through him completely until both became one. Then everything went dark. In total five passengers died in the accident, among them two boys. He spent a period in the hospital and another in San Sebastián, but the prison was so overcrowded they let him out before his time was up. Then he bought his own taxi, that insect in which they were now moving through the semidarkness of the fourth ring of that city to which I had promised myself never to return.
That’s how the period of travels ended for me, miss, he told me with the calmness of someone who has just thrown off his body.
The humidity of the tropics had given way to a transparent and fragile early morning. The vendors came up to the road with their carts overflowing with mangos, watermelons and oranges. I thought that the first thing I wanted to do when I got home —and I realized the word “home” had come to me without any effort— was to taste the refreshing acidity of an achachairú, though the season had likely already passed. The taxi driver turned on the radio. Contrary to all expectations, it worked. “I want to be a victor in life and love,” sang Los Iracundos at that strange hour, and the taxi driver’s whistling carried the rhythm while the air bristled with the nearness of day.
And why did you want to find her?, I asked him.
Who?, he said, distracted.
The man shrugged. “With my bag on my shoulder I cross the city, one more of those that yearn…”, shouted the radio. Rosa Damiana lost herself in the distance in a metallic fog. Or perhaps it was the ocean. My father navigated beyond good and evil, submerged in the great mystery. His body still breathed, but he had likely already abandoned this world with all his secrets.
The taxi driver turned to look at me.
I wanted to know if she’d bewitched me, he said with a little embarrassment.
He apologized immediately:
Don’t pay any attention to me. Only Indians believe in those things. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Maybe the taxi driver added something else, but that’s something I’ll never know. There, beneath the golden light, was the house of my childhood. The clouds that peeled away in tears. The long journey. The old Dream. The Wave suspended on the horizon, at the beginning and end of all things, waiting. My worn-out heart, shivering, trembling with love.