A story by Jesús Gardea, translated by Nora Carr
The sky is still cloudy. A bird passes by, tracing a black line across it. Yesterday’s snow extends as far as I can see. Its frozen brightness invades the room, upsetting things. I close the book I’ve been reading and bring my hands up to the lamp. The gentle warmth from the light bulb feels good—outside it no longer seems quite so bleak. I pull my hands away from the lamp and put them into my jacket pockets. I go into the kitchen—I feel hungry and I want some coffee. I light one of the burners on the stove to heat it up, then look around for the bread. Yesterday Nebde left. Our crumbs are still on the table; her folds are still in the tablecloth. She said that she wanted to leave before the snow. I said yes, that that would be best, but the sobs were already pounding in my chest. She picked her plate up from the table and went to look out the window. She stood there for a long time, her gaze following the gray plain and the road that leads to the train station. I sat watching her, imagining the bare shape of her body. Eventually she returned to the table.
“Bueno,” she said. “What are you going to do?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I looked out through the window above her head, at a sky even more leaden and menacing now than before.
“The snow won’t wait,” I warned her, and pretended, with perfect indifference, to play with my fork.
I hear the coffee boiling in the pot and take it off the heat, but leave the burner lit. I pour myself a cup, take what bread I can find and sit down at the table, in the same place as yesterday afternoon. And then I see Nebde again, see her eyes.
“Even if it starts snowing,” she said, “I’ll still make it. You don’t need to take everything so literally.”
I stood the fork up on the table. The sobs were wild inside of me, pounding to get out with such force that I clenched my jaw and pressed my eyelids together until everything hurt, but I couldn’t help it—the tears started pouring out. Nebde knew what was happening but she didn’t interrupt. I don’t know how long I stayed like that, but when I lifted my face—the riverbeds of my eyes dry and burning—Nebde wasn’t at the table. I tried to listen for her in the bedroom but heard nothing except the tick-tock of the alarm clock (hers) that she should have taken along with her other things. And like a cool breeze, like a breath of air, the hope that she hadn’t left yet rose up inside of me and I ran, knocking over the chair, to the bedroom. But there was no one. Some photographs, six or seven the size of postcards, were spread out over the bed. They were all of me, all of them recent. I picked them up as if they were playing cards and put them in the drawer of the nightstand: I’d had them taken in the next town over, on a Sunday, at the market, just to please her. Back in the kitchen, the stove is slowly warming up, filling the room with the smell of gas. The air closest to the burner is light blue from the effect of the flame that illuminates and expands it, making me think of pure dusk in pure dawn—earth and sky, nothing more; one facing the other, alone in the world. I take big gulps of coffee, scalding my tongue. Nebde’s eyes were the color of honey, her shadowy eyelashes were like a forest—looking at them was like looking at the world askance; you could save it from its heavy everydayness, praise it, lay it in the hands of God himself. But Nebde had no idea.
“You just love me for my body,” she would say. “For the twilight revels I prepare inside myself for you, in your honor.”
And I would say:
“No, Nebde, you’re wrong.”
I break the bread in half and begin to eat. It’s stale. I couldn’t put up with either the sound or the sight of the clock, so I opened the drawer again and put it in along with the photos. Then I threw myself on the bed. I heard myself crying again, but at first as if it wasn’t me—it was a crowd in which I was lost, calling out for someone. Face up, so drowned in sobs that I turned onto my side, facing the window, facing the sullen sky. It was underneath a different sky that I had met Nebde years ago, in her house one morning in July. She opened the door for me, she was barefoot and her feet were slender and white, as if they had been formed by some painter of saints. She invited me in and I entered. In the shade, her wheaten hair was just as blinding as it was out in the street, under the sun. I didn’t understand it then completely, but this dazzling brightness was going to stay with me forever, in my blood, in my spine, nourishing me—Nebde was like a wheat-field of ripe, sunny stalks. When we would talk in the evening, in the morning, there was nothing I could do, behind the sound of my voice, but look at her: cradled, rocked by a divine and tender wind, the same wind that had blown me towards her. But then I couldn’t even lie on my side, there was no air—some ferocious, greedy animal was stealing it from me. I stood up and opened the window, trying to breathe. The cutting blade of winter entered my chest, dealing a death blow to my sapped strength—a strength that had been wasted in tears. Enemy tears, raised against Nebde. I wrestled with the blade inside of me for a while longer, then closed the window. I had to look for Nebde and find her, there in the bedroom. I remembered the photos. Taking them out from the little drawer, I spread them out again over the bed. Nebde had told me, sweet and shadowy: neither the distance nor the duplicity of a camera will make me forget your eyes; I’m there too in these photos of you—loved, cradled, like you say. The bread stuck in my throat and I poured myself more coffee. The summer that I met Nebde was the beginning of my real summers. I can still see her walking across the red floor of her house. She’s speaking. The white walls reflect her voice, welcoming us. Slowly a light begins to break through a sky that’s been cloudy for years—happiness. As I’m chewing the hardened bread, softening it with sips of coffee, I look out the kitchen window at the sky, a leaden sheet, pale with the reflection of the snow. Nebde must just be getting there. Now she’ll breathe in the winter far away from me. This winter. Nebde, in her house, telling me that she’s going to lend me a book so that I can read it and tell her what I think. Going over to a shelf. I’m watching how she takes down a small book, how she then hands it to me, smiling. We’re walking back towards the door, the summer singing inside me with all its strength. Nebde alongside me, silent: we’re both walking across the red floor, lit up by an uncommon clarity. Yesterday at this time she was with me. We were reading under the covers. The lamplight shining across the mess of her hair, I put my book aside and looked at her. Feeling my gaze, she looked at me in turn, smiled: “I’m only awake for you, just like in the beginning,” she said. And then, in a voice where tigers and doves were falling in love:
“But you always awaken within me first, long before the sun rises in the world.”
I dig into the second half of the bread, pour more coffee into my cup—cold coffee that tastes to me like dirt, like loneliness, like dry wheat, like sunderings. I realize that I continue—despite Nebde’s absence—in my daily habits, as if nothing had happened: getting up after an hour or two of reading—Nebde’s curled up again, asleep—getting dressed, having coffee and bread for breakfast, and starting work. Nothing happened? Yes. Everything: she’s not here, ay! Not here. So? Until just yesterday we had had a harmless winter, cruelly bare but full of sunlight. Beautiful. Nebde and I went for walks after dinner. Nebde would wear a short, fuzzy jacket; me, an old sweater. We would cross the field in front of the house, all the way to the neighboring field, bordered by tall poplars, sleepy and absent. Nebde would take my hand and squeeze it. And I looked for her eyes to tell her how much I loved her. The path was long, lonely. When the shadows of the trees veiled us, Nebde moved closer to me, trembling as if over her bundled body a sudden north wind had blown like over summer wheat. The exertion, the high brilliance of the evening, Nebde’s occasional touch, quickened my pulse, awakening my appetite for pleasure.
“Let’s go back,” I asked her, stopping.
“Sí,” she agreed.
But the day before yesterday she added the part about the twilight revels.
“There’s no reason to think that it’s like that,” I said quietly.
We went back. Nebde walking under dense clouds. The light that one morning had joined us together so deeply in her house had been eclipsed. But not for me. Nebde was quiet the rest of the evening. We didn’t make love. And at night, she broke the silence to tell me only this:
“The provisions are getting low—the bread. There’s barely even a crumb left.”
The night was bitter. I didn’t sleep. Day broke: I had returned, I was in the desert again, as I was before I found Nebde. It was then that I understood, although not very clearly, that the only salvation possible for me—no, not for me: for that exceptional morning in July when Nebde revealed to me a single rose within my solitude—lay in clinging to my work, to my habits. The bread and the coffee were finished. The photos seemed insufficient. Another trace, other drawers, I thought. Nothing: Nebde had stripped the house bare. It started to snow. Extreme weakness had hollowed me out. I lifted the covers of the bed and got in, still in my clothes. It was snowing; the wind was blowing. The bedroom sank into an early twilight that reached to the very edges of my soul, even further than my ruined heart. The wind, wrapped in the whitest feathers, lashed at the windowpanes with rage, rooting around the cracks with its snout. My pretensions from earlier—of clinging to my work in order to combat the pain of Nebde’s absence—were forgotten; my broken will abandoned itself to utter devastation. Outside, the storm worsened, and before I fell asleep I started to sob. I woke up in the middle of the night—either the middle of the night or the frigid and phosphorescent nucleus of the dark: the snow had stopped, as had the wind. The first thing I thought of was Nebde’s strange behavior the other morning: Nebde, with the light on as if she had already been awake for some time, as if she hadn’t said anything to me and as if nothing had happened the night nor the evening before, took her book from the nightstand and started to read. I looked at her. And she said that thing about the sun in the world. Upon remembering this, I pushed back the covers and leapt to the window. I breathed in the cold that was seeping in from the snowy field until I couldn’t stand it anymore, breathed in all of its enormous silence. And I began to repeat, as a refrain, as a good-luck charm: before the sun… before the sun… before the sun… As I stood before the window, I heard the song of springtime erupt inside of me, a song of high fresh grass among the ruins, and found myself, a moment later, immersed in the smell of Nebde’s perfume. I had had her little book with me for one week. I read it badly: her invisible presence sabotaged the text. Every page, every underlined sentence, was a sign. I saw myself again in the house of white walls, with the red floor, found once more, receiving—from within Nebde’s honeyed eyes—grace. The scent of Nebde was the light that lives in flowers, in the evening. I went back to bed. I undressed. I lay down. A stalk of wheat, I murmured.
A knock at the door. I look at the time: it’s past noon. I’ve been working for four hours. The gas heater wards off the cold, which, over the course of the morning, has intensified. In any case I haven’t taken off my jacket, or my old sweater, as if I were expecting to have to go outside at any moment. The coffee and bread from early this morning seem far away in time. Another knock at the door. The knuckled gunshots against the wood resonate magnificently, turning my house into a cathedral of wide, deserted naves. I resist getting up, trying to deny the learned impulse of manners. But the knocking continues. There’s no escape. I have to go. Reluctantly, I move away from the page I’ve been working on, patting the typewriter like a beloved pet: be right back, I say. On my way through the kitchen to open the door I again notice the folds that Nebde made in the tablecloth: like the lines left by wind or waves upon sand. Nebde is part of my world—I think—and my world is rich in beaches. I open the door. It’s my neighbor, whose existence I had forgotten about, bundled up—a woolen cap and rubber boots; he’s also wearing gloves: well, one, on his left hand. With the right, frozen and bare, he greets me and takes a step inside.
“Qué hay?” I ask him, and my tone is curt. The man enters and shuts the door behind him. The warmth of the kitchen draws out a gentle smile across his face hardened by the elements, by the cold. The snow stuck to his boots dissolves, gets the floor wet. He realizes this and is about to say something, but I stop him:
“Don’t worry about it, I’m not expecting anyone,” I say, and invite him into my room, where it’s even warmer. But he doesn’t accept, and right away he says, “I came to see if you can help me.”
My neighbor is more or less my size, but older. Other than me there’s no one else he can turn to besides the guy who works at the train station. Mine and the neighbor’s houses are the only ones for several miles around; the station attendant lives there and maybe doesn’t even remember that we exist: when he saw Nebde yesterday afternoon passing through his little realm, he must have thought her a beautiful harbinger of the storm.
“My doves,” he says heavily. “Their shed came down under the weight of the snow, with the force of the wind. I can hear them crying, trapped inside.”
The man is standing in a puddle of water, his jaws trembling after telling me of his misfortune. The sudden tremor—I don’t know what it’s from: nerves or suffering.
“I need,” he continues, “to clear away the debris—three, four different beams, heavy ones; on my own I’d never be able to.”
Without saying anything, I go to my room for a scarf and some gloves, then come back to my neighbor and say, “Okay, vamos.”
The snow is higher than our ankles; he tells me to step where he steps so that I don’t make a soup of my shoes and get too cold. The tracks my neighbor’s boots make in the snow are wide and as deep as trenches. I step easily into and out of his footprints as he walks ahead along a different path than the one he took in coming. A long curl of steam breaks away from his mouth when he talks. I think of a locomotive; I’m like an empty carriage, dragging along slowly.
“We’ll go around this way, because over there,” he says, motioning towards the other path, blackened by his boots, not very far over, “the ground is soft and rutted, even though the path is shorter. I almost broke my leg earlier and didn’t even make it to your house.”
The scarf covering my nose and mouth smells overwhelmingly of Nebde, in those moments when, alone together, she would softly open herself to me. Again I feel sadness begin to threaten. I look to the side at the white plain, at the poplars of our evening walks, burned by the icy wind; so alone, as I am now. “Nebde,” I murmur, the trees still in my eyes, reflected in my soul. The sound escapes through my thick scarf. My neighbor hears me and stops. Steaming, touching his cap for no reason, he turns to look at me and ask what happened, what I bumped into. He’s actually worried. I uncover my mouth to answer him. Between the two of us our breath forms a large, fleeting cloud.
“Vecino,” I say, “it’s just that I’m worried about your birds. Of the eight, how many do you think are still alive?”
The man slides his bottom lip up over the top one, presenting it whole, bright red, to the cold and the gray sky.
“Hopefully all of them,” he says, his lips making the sound of a bubble popping as they separate. And he starts walking again, in strides, his arms out in the air for balance. I follow him. But now I’m not covering my mouth with the scarf. I’m not paying much attention to where I step and end up making a path parallel to the one my neighbor has made for me. “Nebde,” I say again, and stop.
We reach the patio of my neighbor’s house; no wall around it, one with the plain. There’s a shapeless pile of wood, dark and moist, that here and there pierces the layer of snow that covers it. We approach the pile cautiously, inhaling the vapor of our own breath. We approach as if we wanted to take death’s skilled work with the doves by surprise. It’s like we’re walking along the blade-edge of silence; I hear how my heart echoes in the static air and have the sudden intuition that it’s calling for Nebde. My neighbor stops in front of the fallen shed, waits for me to get there and says, almost in a whisper, “The wind pushed it from behind, like a bully pushing over a weaker boy.”
Then he bends down and leans on a pipe thrust between two beams, putting the whole weight of his body into it; the opposite side starts to come slowly down towards the ground; wood and nails grinding; the beam that’s piled on top of the lower one gives way, cracking reluctantly, but the man is red now with exertion, he can’t push any further and gives up.
“You see?” he says, short of breath.
I ask him where exactly the doves were.
“Where they’ve always been,” he says. “In their nest, in the part below that beam I just moved.”
I look up at the sky. Pale now, very pale. You can feel the sun fighting, in the open space above us, to tear through the canopy of clouds. The fierce whiteness of the snow is dazzling. When the sun emerges at last it will blind us for sure. I squat down. I want to hear if the doves are making any noise, if they’re crying, like he said. While I’m doing this he leaves and comes back with a beam that he sticks into the snow next to me. Standing up now I tell him that there isn’t even a coo there in the debris, nothing; but I take the beam anyway and push: one of them could be mortally wounded, I think; just for that one… The neighbor motions that I should put the lever in the same spot he does. The mute suffering that feeds his efforts causes his face to crumple, steals all the warmth from his movements. I look up again at the sky. Then I look again at the man as he leans against the pipe, pressing down. And I ask: just one, just one dove. Between my hands, the beam is no longer so cold. It’s warm, like Nebde’s body. The dove is trembling, unhurt, in his hands, a red smear along one of its wings. The man touches its tiny gray head, his eyes filling up with all the tenderness in the world. At our feet are six doves, all dead; their blood hasn’t even stained the snow: it’s frozen in their little beaks. One is missing—the best of the eight, he says. Maybe he was on the look-out and flew away, braving the wind. Within the confines of the plain, the snow, touched by the rays of a triumphant sun, lights up the air, making it vibrate. From the horizon, a wave of brilliant light reaches us. The dove that survived glows in my neighbor’s hands like a lantern. The wave leaves us and shatters against the whitewashed walls of the house; then it flows back, surrounding us once more before disappearing into the plain. Blinded as we are, my neighbor and I walk back to his house; I stopped being able to feel my toes a while ago. His happiness is obvious: he’s cradling the bird, cooing at it as if he were its mate. I hear other sounds before entering the warm half-light: ice crystals collapsing, the swirl of water freeing itself. My neighbor offers me a seat by a small heater like my own. I take my shoes off immediately and, removing the scarf from my neck, wrap up my feet in it. The man puts the dove in a cardboard box and sits down with the box on his knees. He sees me wrapping up my feet and says, “What you just did is dangerous.”
I look at him out of the corner of my eye, not at his face but at his boots, which he still has on. Then I close my eyes and think of Nebde’s house. It was a Sunday. I began it, like all my other days, crushed by an old sadness. I had breakfast and went over to her house. There was some reason why I went there. The morning was beautiful, clear blue space, wide open like a ballroom. A manly breath swelled within me as never before; up in the summer sky, someone was singing for me. I began to breathe in the trees: all the trees of the summer and all the others that I had seen and loved even before my own life. I breathed in all the grass on earth and who knows how many centuries of bright sunlight. A Sunday. A day of God. And when I got to Nebde, rivers of warm sap began to flow up from my hands at the sight of her. Nebde said good morning, and smiled. I open my eyes. I see my neighbor is looking at me, stroking the dove.
“The sudden dilation of the arteries,” he says, “damages them. It’s better to get rid of the chill by rubbing them.”
We’re surrounded by the light coming in from outside, inundating the house like water in a sinking ship. The flames inside the heater grow pale, their glory fading. The room’s plastered walls light up, as white as linen hanging in the sun’s glare. My neighbor is in his own world, amused, happy; he is a man gazing at the splendor of fireworks in the center of town.
“I don’t know what you think about it,” he says, “but in recent years we’ve had a lot of winters that end like this, with a huge burst of sun. After tomorrow, in a week, you’ll see that I’m right: the snow and the cold are over now. It’s like God wants shorter and shorter winters for us. He sees the sadness of our hearts—our angel hearts of summer.”
The warmth returns to my feet. I move my toes. I look at the sky through the window, flooded with light—clear blue, comforting.
“You look better now,” says my neighbor. “The look you had before, when I came over, is disappearing—she left, didn’t she?” he adds, looking at me directly.
“You saw her?” I ask. Behind his gaze he keeps a winter that has been forgotten by God; a few old trees, deformed by such never-ending solitude and barrenness. When he answers, it’s as if his six dead doves were answering:
“I met her on the road. But she didn’t look upset, I can tell you that.”
I unwrap the scarf from my feet and start putting on my shoes. Its colors, its stripes are strangely vivid. It looks new. Sucking on his teeth, my neighbor follows my movements with curiosity as I lace up my shoes.
“Women—” he starts to stay.
But I don’t let him finish. I cut him off. I stop him from rising up against the light that surrounds us and which, somewhere, is opening doors.
“No. Don’t talk about women. Not about Nebde.”
The man looks at me. In his wide-open eyes I see the old trees again.
Sadness pins me to my seat. Sadness for him, for myself, for I don’t know how many others. The heater is floating like a buoy in the middle of the bright room. The dove in its box is flying in its sleep beneath his tender hands.
“I understand,” I say, and each word tears me to pieces, “but no, not about Nebde.”
I get up with difficulty, fold the scarf across my chest, and move towards the door. I open it. Again the blinding light. The light doesn’t fit inside the morning, nor over the earth, fragrant with damp, with sun. In the doorway, I can just make out my neighbor’s agreement:
“No. And not about anyone. You’re right.”
I stop and turn around. My neighbor is sitting at the bottom of a well of light, the dove still between his hands, again like a lantern. He’s smiling with weariness.
“She’s coming back,” I say. “Adiós…”