A hole for la higuera
Ana Duffy (Queensland University of Technology, Australia)
I should have known when the first symptoms started, but already it made no sense. It even reminded me of that old Cortázar’s story of a man vomiting rabbits. But you can only assume that was not real life; writers have the license to create as many rabbit-vomiting characters as they please; as many spaces in a single point as they please; as many characters whose presence is preceded by butterflies as they please. Writers have the license to scribble new versions of the real world, one over the other. A palimpsest. But my life is not one held by a book marker, and brought to a standstill. My life is real, undrafted and unedited.
I should have known it then.
When the first few letters came, I told no one. The O could have been a ring, the U could have been an unconvincing hook or a staple, but the first A was unquestionably an A, and there was no mistaking the Q. They were relatively small, but they built up in my mouth quickly. At first, they had soft, rounded edges and bending bodies, but later they got bigger and their edges sharpened, poking the roof of my mouth, my cheeks and gums viciously. I had to stop drinking my morning mate because of the risk of swallowing a letter and choking. I could die like my grandfather who choked on a chicken bone that looked like a Y. And maybe it was a Y, too.
I was spitting out so many letters by midday that I had to tell Carlos to please come over and help me to understand or to sweep them out. He acted so casual that it seemed to me he had seen this before. He simply commented on the disproportionate number of Qs and asked if I wouldn’t mind separating all the Js and Ss, because they twist around other letters and make them harder to recognize.
But I could only think of not choking, while making a mental list of possibilities.
Like gargling with bicarb soda.
Or just keep up with the spitting as it came. So I kept on randomly spitting letters in twos and threes and fours, until Carlos said
‘Wait. Try to hold them in a bit, will you?’
‘I’ll try’ I said, and soon after my mouth was so full of letters that I had to spit a big chunk out.
‘A whole paragraph’ said Carlos, skilfully spreading my slobbery chunk of disjointed letters on the floor, oblivious to the slimy bubbles of saliva glazing the unspoken, linguistic pandemonium.
‘Carajo, primo, you’ve spat some damn good stuff here!’
Carlos and I were not cousins-cousins, we were over-the-fence cousins. We grew up so close to each other that somewhere along the line we started to share ancestors. Nothing abnormal in our south of Buenos Aires neighborhood, where whole dynasties are raised within one hundred square meters, and a wooden fence is all it takes for neighboring dynasties to know the limits of their lineage. So, from a pool of tíos and tías and primos, you could pick a few to call your own, and eventually forgot which side of the wooden fence you were on at the time. The dynasties merge, and when, years later, you find yourself in a foreign country where you’ve followed your wooden-fence cousin and you start spitting random letters, you go and call that cousin who is not your cousin-cousin for help.
‘How long have you been spitting them?’ Carlos asked.
‘Early this morning, at seven they were mostly vowels, by ten I even had Ñs, you know, with the wiggly thing hovering on top.’
‘Any numbers?’ Carlos asked, as if he already knew the answer.
‘Not numbers, no.’
He started mumbling something while moving letters backwards and forwards, and joining them into paragraphs that I couldn’t be bothered to read.
‘We need a number,’ he said, ‘to make ends meet. We have something here. You know?’
I could feel my skin tightening; everything face related was hurting; the clenching of my teeth to hold the paragraphs in; the stiffening of my jaws to clench the teeth; the exhaustion of my brain untangling the absurd from the real. Nothing but frothy letters and a well-intentioned cousin who is not a cousin.
I stood up and looked at my hands. The palms of both hands had shapes poking out of their skin with pointy ends and sharp edges.
‘Carlos!’ I said, ‘they keep coming.’
My stretched skin could barely envelope the thumping letters. I looked at my skin. Olive, they call it. I thought of this olive skin, of the many forms I had to fill in when I came to Australia. Complexion: olive. I thought of olives, pitted or otherwise, in a jar, on one of the Coles shelves. Aceitunas, I thought, how much I had loved to eat them back then. I could not eat them here, though. I don’t know why. Maybe because I miss the sound of their name, the salty flesh of the word aceituna pounding into my mouth.
An O came up to my mouth, an oval shape O, the shape of an aceituna.
‘They’re everywhere!’ said Carlos, tracing the shape of a capital Q that was pounding on my thigh. ‘Keep spitting, primo, it will end soon.’
And then it hit me.
‘Carlos, primo’ I asked, ‘how do you know?’
An R and two Fs came out in the same cough.
Carlos turned from the lines he was still putting together to face me.
‘Because it is time,’ he said, ‘which is all I know.’
I could not talk for long; the letters kept coming up and out, and as soon as I tried to sound Ms and Ps, my lips fused and the Os got stuck and the Ts behind them, and only some Is made it through, and I panicked. That fear of having big literary pustules bursting out into what? What is it literary pustules burst into? Semantic shells and splinters? Or I feared my paragraphs would implode, scattering untamed alphabets into my innards. I could not talk to Carlos much, only short, careful sentences at a time. I kept spitting up and Carlos kept the lines going, increasingly pleased, nodding to himself.
‘Time for what, primo?’ I said, in pain.
‘For the truth.’
He looked serious, and the flow of letters seemed to be easing out. His worn-out face, which once looked like the Che’s and earned him a clueless, communist wife and a swift exile, relaxed into that expression that comes from the certainty of revelations, long-awaited ones.
I was spitting the last Es, when he said.
‘I knew it, primo, I did!’
‘What exactly did you know, Carlos?’
‘Come, it is all written here.’
I felt the clattering of a few more letters tumbling into my mouth. I spat them and found they were four numbers instead. Two 6s, a 1 and a 9.
‘And of course’ said Carlos relieved, ‘Elenita was right after all.’
Summertime in Buenos Aires was quite unforgiving when you were not one of those migrating to the coast for a month or two, to Mar del Plata or anywhere along the Municipio de la costa. The heat was solid over the pavement, a mantle of hell to walk through. We rode our bikes, kicked a rag ball in no-one’s land and chased stray dogs, or fed stray dogs and hosed them until they were cool, depending on the mood of the day. But around midday, when Mar del Plata was still 400Ks worth of Route 2 to the south, you knew that was time for siesta.
Bikes and rag balls and stray dogs, the chased and the hosed and fed, were all left to their own devices, and we were doomed for siesta. Siesta, in dark, steaming hot rooms, heavy with tired furniture and an old, rotten stillness. The unfairness of the deferred pleasures of regimented childhood. The tyrannical matriarchs and patriarchs siesta decrees that had little to do with sleeping off your urges for riding or kicking or chasing and escaping the heat, and lots to do with the power and the powerless, the inequalities of the age-system.
Elenita and I were cousins from the same side of the fence, so we could share siestas. We used to muffle our voices to plan out some future revenge. Trying in vain to sleep head to toes, we tickled each other’s feet and sunk our laughter in damp feathery pillows. When Carlos joined the clan of sexless primos, siestas were off-limits because of the wooden fence. Until we found our way.
Carlos put the four numbers in order, the one he had expected. He washed his hands of my saliva and looked at me.
‘Do you remember, primo, the day we dug the hole for your mother’s higuera?’
I was fidgeting with my fingers to untangle what I thought to be a letter and was just the memory of it, like the amputated leg that still hurts. And just in the same way, my mother’s fig tree, her bendita higuera, plummeted like a brick of memories on my unprepared mind.
‘Of course, I do, Carlos. We dug the hole first, and then were sent out for a movie and an ice-cream.’
‘Do you happen to remember the movie?’
‘No, not really.’
‘We didn’t make it to the movie; that’s why, primo. We hid to build the fort.’
It was Elenita’s idea to build a fort. A fort where we could escape siestas and cleanse our dirty thoughts of kissing cousins with decaying sexlessness.
‘I remember the fort, but not all of it, Carlos. How long ago was it, forty years? Forty years is a long time.’
I walked over to the paragraphs spread on the floor, feeling the full weight of Carlos’ eyes on me. Everything in him had aged and he had lost his Guevara looks and charisma, but his dark eyes still retained their strength.
‘Read it’ Carlos said, ‘Elenita was dead right.’
From within a gooey mash of vomited letters, Carlos had managed to pull out a thread of sense, a saliva-drenched revelation.
1966, Buenos Aires, and beyond the wooden fence.
La higuera, a stray higuera that belongs nowhere. An open hole. The burying of the shame.
Because there was a cousin that was not a cousin.
There was a siesta that was not a siesta.
The forbidden shade of shutters.
With bodies of naked sins.
Torn by a wooden fence.
Lost to his name and the name of others.
1966. Carlos’s father had died in February. We were eight years old then, and we became cousins more than ever, the three of us. For Carlos.
The day of the hole, we hid behind the chook pen. We were hiding from the madres and the tías and the solid sadness that was piling up everywhere. We hid the best we could from everything, but from Carlos mother’s words we could not. No one could. Hija de puta her words were saying. ¿Cuánto tiempo? ¿Cuántas veces? Her words, thrown over the fence, landed where the higuera was to be kept waiting for years, a few strides away from its perfectly dug hole.
His mother cried a torrential cry that kept the hole for my mother’s higuera drenched, and always waiting. But we turned twenty and she still cried her torrential cry on the hole for my mother’s higuera that never came, and died on our side of the fence, still in a plastic pot. Carlos left then, with the communist wife and a sudden bag of crushed dreams.
‘Carlos’ I said, ‘I don’t get it.’
‘Read on, please, and you will.’
His voice was bleak and tired. I listened to his waning porteño accent from under the shreds of my own nostalgia. He pointed to the letters on the floor.
Muddy tears, down the boy’s face. With orphan questions and orphan terrors.
An open hole for la higuera. That never crossed the fence.
Or for the betrayal of a summer siesta. That did.
‘Elenita always said, primo, that you had my father’s eyes. Not your father’s eyes, but mine. And she was dead right.’
Carlos swept the letters to a corner and sat.
I put the kettle on. I filled the mate with yerba, up to two thirds. I shook it a bit, to get rid of the powdery bits. Tilted it to get the perfect bezel that makes the yerba go for longer. I poured a little cold water. And I waited.
Carlos audited the whole ritual, nodding.
‘Good’ he said.
And, one at a time, we pursed our olive lips on the bombilla, and drank in silence.
Ana is an emerging writer of fiction, born in Argentina and living in Australia. She is a student at the Queensland University of Technology Masters in Creative Writing Program. Ana recently left her native Spanish behind and started to write in English. She was shortlisted for the Alan Marshall short story Award and Queensland Writers Centre flash fiction Prize. Her latest flash fiction piece will soon appear in the American journal Coffin Bell.