Josefina Huq (RMIT University, Australia)
When he gets up from his hammock his bones hurt. He is very old, and this is why his bones hurt. And thinking about his death, which should be soon I guess, makes his bones hurt even more intensely. Regardless of his immense consciousness of the passing of time, and how one must savour every precious thing in this life, he looks over to his wife, sleeping like a dead cow with her tongue hanging out, and cannot appreciate one thing about her.
It takes him back to the memory of when they met, which wasn’t very romantic, but cute in a young and efficient way. They wanted children and ate the same things. She worked in the administration department of the brothel he attended. Once they realised these facts about their love they were married the next weekend. The ceremony was over by three o’clock that afternoon in order to take their first siesta as man and wife.
Now their children are dead, or probably off fighting a war, and they have done nothing but grown old. They are quite poor, and in the years since their children have left or died they have not made themselves useful in any way, especially ways in which to make money to eat. Luckily, they live in one of those towns that are sleepy and hot and humid and have an endless supply of plantains, which are different to bananas because they are not as sweet. More like potatoes, actually.
In this town there is also a district full of people even more poor than they are. In this place are colourful and eccentric characters, having fun at all hours of the day, stewing in their diseases and mixed-raced whorehouses and loud music. The old couple envy them from time to time, with some of that time being delegated to judging them.
Despite all of this everyone goes about their daily lives with utter consistency, patience, and a quick-witted humour. Everyone in the town, actually, is quite good at being funny and peppering their conversations with ignored jokes. They are all wise and hilarious, but mostly poor and bitter about how life and time keeps going on while they sit on stoops and dream about going to the open-air cinema which this town definitely has.
The man wakes up again, but on a different day. This day is more special than the one that came before because he realises, once again, that he is poor, and reminds his wife. She is mad about this but probably still loves him despite his age and how hungry he always looks. The day is also distinct because he shaves his face without looking in the mirror; either because he is too poor to own a mirror, has sold it for corn long ago, or has never needed one. Maybe because he does it often and is very good at it, the way a lot of old men are good at things they’ve been doing always in their long, long lives.
It rains very suddenly and everyone is surprised and scared by this frequent occurrence. The old man goes to see the doctor, who says it’s been raining for ten years, and then to the dentist, who states that it only rains on days when the open-air cinema attempts to show a film. Finally, instead of wrapping up what should have been a long day of work to provide food for his wife, who might also be dying faster than him, he ends his rounds of boredom by visiting the town lawyer.
The lawyer is always snarky and in cahoots with the mayor, and they both hate the government.
When the old man walks in, the lawyer’s arms are raised to the sky as he finishes up his daily cursing of the government:
‘I am poor and all my corn goes to you, government!’
At the sight of the old man he lowers his hands to his desk, which is a chicken cage full of pens, mouldy feathers, and documents from twenty years ago.
‘One day, Saturnino, they will hear you and make you eat corn until you die.’
His taciturn eyes look up at the old man.
‘My mother hears you from her grave, pastor.’
Oh yes, the old man is also pretty religious, but it’s unknown whether he had anything to do with the church. It is rumoured, as many things are in this town, that he spent every second devoted to God, until God, suddenly and mercilessly, ate one of his sons. Whether this is literal or symbolic is unclear.
‘I have changed my mind, make the deal.’ The old man says.
‘But father, the postman has already scattered the newspapers and pensioners’ cheques into the river.’
‘Saturnino, I am much too old for this, I am dying you know.’
‘Old friend, death is a welcome release from this place.’
‘In any case, the postman is dead.’
‘What makes you so sure, padre?’
There are festivities outside, even with the uncanny amount of rain and wind punishing the town. Firecrackers light up the uneven pavements, dirt and muck rise up into the thick, humid air. Citizens from the poor district have begun to fill the streets, dripping with the mud that has undoubtedly rolled down and settled into their neighbourhood. Music which is rhythmic and sad enter through the windows of Saturnino’s combination home-office.
‘How else would you explain their joy?’
At this moment Saturnino’s wife enters in from a wooden door behind his desk-cage. She is panting and her ankles are swollen from housework.
‘My love, it has finally happened’ She beams.
‘Woman, can’t you see me working?’
She puts a hand on her child-bearing hips and looks to the old man, his old man hat clutched between his hands.
‘Sorry, your holiest.’
She bows and turns to go back to her room dedicated to ironing the whole town’s white linen shirts. This is clever because they only wear white linen shirts to go to court, and with her husband’s power and profession he can make them go to court as many times as he’d like.
As she walks away she yells back at her husband:
‘Saturnino, you can convince me of your work when our toilets are full of corn.’
Josefina Huq is a creative writer and PhD candidate based in Melbourne. She is interested in crafting short stories about place, home, memory, nostalgia, and anything else that might make you upset. Her research attempts to justify this as a good thing. She is currently a member of the non/fictionLab research centre at RMIT University and was recently a 2019 Hot Desk fellow at the Wheeler Centre.