Shoal

Nicolás Poblete

Traducido por: Claire Hirsch


Obra artística por Mary Beth Shaw

Evacuation Plan. That’s what it says on the map attached to the wall in each of these rooms. The evacuation plan is the drawing of the labyrinthine interior of this facility, which provides the key to escaping in case the misfortunes inside it are more dangerous than those taking place on the outside, in the city, and for which it will be imperative to know how to escape.

      The maid reminds me that she is not a maid, she is “Norma,” the nurse. She explains that this room is not a “suite” in a hotel; it is 302, patient in rehab. She observes me with the same face with which she has undoubtedly looked at hundreds of people, many in situations similar to mine. I don’t know her but I can see in her expression, in her gestures, the repetitive movements, the utter lack of interest with which she spells out her instructions and turns me into a case number. Norma looks at me with quiet contempt but professional assertiveness, because for her it’s no secret how I ended up here, in this very room, 302.

         Who arranged this room for me? When are the visiting hours? 

         I cannot ask too many questions, I don’t want to remember… flashes from the park, me sprawled out in the blackberry bushes, the thorns scratching my legs, a dog licking my ear, except at that moment it wasn’t a dog but an enormous terrifying animal, rows of fangs, foaming and slobbering all over my face. A black beast emerging from nowhere, with sharp claws and a pointy tail, just like those pictures of the devil. And the empty bottle I used trying to defend myself only further inflamed the monstrous wolf or whatever it was (it was changing constantly, camouflaging itself, changing disguises every instant). The empty bottle was useless, it struck a couple of hollow and clumsy blows without even making a dent in the animal’s coat and then slipped out of my hand right there among the brambles. My head was burning, it was sore and damp, and my fingernails were dirty and stained with dried blood. Where were the others? They had left me all alone! Who knows how long I’d been lying there, abandoned in the park, and then unexpectedly the beast shrank. Suddenly it appeared to crouch down, getting ready to attack me; it coiled itself even tighter as if to spring, yet it didn’t, I lost sight of the demon. In a matter of seconds the animal vanished, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. 

         My memory may be a tangle of wires, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t remember certain things,  it doesn’t mean that this is the only place I’ve ever been, it certainly doesn’t block out  memories of  other places. 

         Epilepsy. 

         I must retrace my steps. More steps, as many as possible. Forgiveness. I think I understand that concept, since in the dream (except I don’t know if it was in that fog, or just upon awakening, or if it was a strange vision that came to me after lunch as I tried to take a nap), in a suspended state I could just make out my mother’s face, and my father’s, deformed faces, reminiscent of faded photos. And as though someone had whispered in my ear, I understood that they were two people from the past. And that they had known each other for a long time before I came on the scene; long before I was born, they already knew each other. And they have loved me, yes, I have to admit it, in spite of everything. But they cannot do anything for me now, they cannot protect me any more than this clinic can, with the Evacuation Plan and the warning it carries. They don’t hold a candle to Norma. They haven’t the power to do any more than your mother is doing, Cris, and they don’t know who I am now, never really knew me. I am grown up, it’s true enough, that’s a coincidence, I think.

Unable to return to my bed, peering out the window at the street, the tops of the trees in the park illuminated by the streetlamps, the sky already nearly light. And my eyes dilated, as if only they were witnessing the start of the day. Early, porous light, like mist pressing up against the windowpane.  Day still unwilling, violently agitated elements still not totally prepared to return to their diurnal positions.

My father talking on the telephone. When my mother called, “dinner’s ready!” and my father failed to respond, a deadly silence… there on the chair, sitting, although awkwardly, in front of the neatly hung-up telephone, as if he had fallen asleep in the chair, waiting for a call, his head tipped to one side. And my mother leaned over and touched his shoulder, and my father slumped to one side and fell on his back on the carpet. And before going into the kitchen and turning on the faucet to drink some water, to get ice from the freezer to make ice water, suddenly my throat drier than ever, dehydration throughout my entire body; before all that my father there. On the floor the contrast between the beard, like a patch of uniform, blue-black fabric, and his forehead, extremely white. It never occurred to you to ask me about any of that, did it? Avoiding any sort of “heavy” or “disagreeable” topic you once told me, in the Chinese restaurant, that it was better to be an optimist, that to be “negative” didn’t accomplish anything. And the way your friends laughed when I came right back with, “An optimist is someone who hasn’t experienced anything serious yet.”

         They laughed and you laughed, too, and they told you I was very nice, I had a sense of humor and was ironic, a great asset. Then I withdrew to the kitchen, and on the main counter, off to one side, there was the dish that was being passed around and that we put there with the other waitresses, to have something to snack on between coming and going, and right there I gulped down a piece of sea bass that was floating in a pool of soy sauce. I swallowed another piece, standing there, and Lavinia, the Sunday girl, looked at me with disgust, because it was obvious that the plate was there for grabbing something on the run, not for stopping and settling in to eat, as if I were actually paying for the dish. And when I walked out, after quickly washing my hands and with the taste of fish still lingering in my mouth, your friends were still laughing and they called me over to their table and asked if I were free the following weekend. And I told them yes, and looking at you, Cris, I remarked, “Cris thinks that because the sun has five billion years left before everything evaporates, that means there’s still hope, that means it’s impossible to be depressed.”

         Now that really impressed them and they laughed even louder, like hyenas, and left a big fat tip, and with that I thanked them, dishing out fistfuls of Chinese cookies to each one. Fortune cookies. 

         My father. For him everything was a matter of time. 

It’s a matter of time, like a coup d’état, like an epileptic seizure.

After that episode with the telephone, the table set for lunch. And the following day my mother removed my father’s place setting from the head of the table, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, like someone invited to dinner letting you know they can’t come. Just like that: one less.

         And, then, “aneurism.”

         You can speculate all you want, my father would say, but suddenly, it happens.

         Unexpected because, I now know, time is equivalent to being conscious. Like during that one and only epileptic seizure, without consciousness, that is, without time, without memory. Does that mean without a soul? Learning to pick up the thread again, entering the dream and continuing like a novel with a bookmark in the middle, at the beginning of the chapter. Why remember. It is necessary to remember, that day, tearing out into the street and my father after me, the sun almost setting, but still waves of heat, like messages, on the roof of a car. On the asphalt. Jogging the memory. EPILEPSY.

As seen through a telescope, the three of us at the table, eating, my father scolding me, “disciplining” was his word, for swallowing without chewing, for eating slowly or with my mouth open, “young lady.” For complaining about the taste of the chicken, for splattering the soup or spilling the water on the tablecloth, for not looking him in the eye when he spoke to me, or for not paying attention to my mother when she ordered me to wash my hands before sitting at the table. For speaking too loudly or for crying, implying that it was all his fault, and, “Now that I won’t tolerate”; my tears trying to say that he was an ogre, that he was a demon, and “Do you think I’m going to feel guilty seeing those tears?” And my mother in silence, with the occasional, “All right, let the girl be, she’s just a child.” Eleven, twelve years old? And only that one time I rebelled. I’d knocked the glass of juice over onto the table, and my father, hurling the piece of bread he was about to dunk in his soup shouted, “Are you an idiot or are you doing it on purpose?!” And, inspired by his idea, I take the pitcher of juice by the handle and deliberately pour some on the table, soaking the napkins, watching the juice meander between my cutlery and my mother’s, the orange liquid bypassing the basket of bread. My father gets up, furious, and I take off running, a little chubby for my age, and my hair still long, long until that age, “young lady,” I bolt, and my father grabs me at the front door, I’m only a few steps out into the street, and he catches me by the hair and drags me back and shakes me like an animal, and I fall down onto by back and twist around like a cat, screaming until I can yell no more, and a curious sensation of my eyes swelling up, my teeth chattering, my teeth like castanets, and I feel a kick on the side of my head, near my temple, and something in my mouth, like foam, like drool, a bitter taste. And that’s the last thing I know, and the next thing I remember is a caress, a hand on my face, a white space, morning, a spacious and bright place, someone ordering me to breathe, to look, my eyes rolling in my head until they are able to focus. On one side a poster on the wall with the figure of a man, all his insides detailed: bones, organs, arteries, nerves. Red and blue veins branching out all over the diagram. And then, back home again. Hearing voices, my parents whispering together, as though in secret. I hear, “neurosurgery.” And from then on, extreme care: “You have to be careful… epileptic seizure.”

         “Like a coup d’état,” my father would say. “You can speculate all you want. And suddenly it happens,” he’d repeat. “That’s why I built that pantry myself,” he’d say looking toward the kitchen with the outsized pantry full of cans, preserves, bags of rice and pasta. 

Epilepsy. It might never happen again, or it could be tomorrow. You can speculate all you want. And suddenly it happens. Like a nocturnal mosquito reconnoitering your body. You don’t see it coming, you don’t see it leave, you only notice the swollen, red skin where it attached itself to suck blood; what remains is the itch. You don’t realize it’s been there until it’s too late, and it has already feasted on your blood. Why remember.

Nicolás Poblete

Nicolás Poblete was born in Santiago de Chile where he is a professor and a prolific writer. He also contributes to scholarly publications with book reviews as a part of his productive career. He has received a number of honors and awards, including fellowships for his writing as well as teaching awards.

Claire Hirsch

Claire Hirsch was born in Boston and studied at Tufts University. She has translated several pieces of Dr. Poblete’s work, most recently the bilingual publication of En la Isla/On the Island.