Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Sleeping Beauties

Translated by Megan McDowell.

Despair is a form of certainty,
certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it;
despair is a confident memory of the future.
Rebecca Solnit

Motionless. Sunk in oblivion.

They were there but not there entirely, heads bent and lips parted. A narcotic respiration seeped from their pale mouths, and that was their only movement, chests inflating imperceptibly. Their arms, their shoulders, their necks grown thin. They were living cadavers arranged in lines, surrounded by women who had come to identify them. Identify them. They were not bodies wrapped in thick black garbage bags, or covered in bloody and crackling newspaper, faded by the sun. They did not seem like the destroyed bodies of the thousands of refugees who appeared onscreen like an alarm, day and night. They were young, vigorous, healthy, brown, black, pale, stretched out now on cots under white sheets so clean they shone when the hall’s curtains were opened, the ironed, starched curtains. Stiff like eyelids.

*

Through the openings in the cloth, still flocks of birds watched them.

*

They, the migrant children, were wrapped in shadow and the restless clucking of their mothers, who prayed softly so as not to wake them. They let them sleep, those children who no longer belonged to any one mother, but to them all. And the mothers wanted them to wake up, but did not want to be the ones to wake them.

*

The birds began to peck at the windows, the sound threatening to revive the children. Those damned, uniform birds wouldn’t leave them in peace—what could they want? The mothers thought about birds, and also about the police who were all around, circling them. In their imaginations they went on feeling a tapping, a pecking. Because the nurses on duty appeared and then silence reigned. According to the nurses, pecking or no the children were not going to wake up, and the mothers knew that it was true. They had tried at first to break the children out of their stupor. They had shaken them, demanded they stop playing dead, said they didn’t think this game was funny at all, not with everything else that was going on. Everything else, they sighed anxiously. But then they had yelled at the children. They’d made threats. They had begged the children to open their mouths and swallow one spoonful of soup. The soup dribbled out between their lips. They hopelessly lost weight, the children and their mothers.

*

Once upon a time there was a letter, the letter: the troubled gaze of the boy who reads it, the bewildered voice of the girl who translates, the mother who covers her mouth to keep a cry full of teeth from escaping. And from the father lets fly a string of curses. Children’s feet thunder toward some corner of the houses where they live, until they all fall into a catatonic apathy. On mattresses.

*

One of the boys ran to the bed and lay down with his back to his father, who could only stammer some words of comfort between puffs on his yellowish cigarette. The letter was deporting them despite their every effort, deporting all three of them. The father saw his son curl up on the blanket, and as he approached he could see the body releasing its tension; he knew his son was starting to act out the same swoon as the neighbors’ eldest. He called his son by his given name and by the name he had given himself in that country, but the boy didn’t move. The father raised his voice, shouted, insulted the boy in the only language he knew. It was the language his son had renounced some days earlier as they awaited the letter that should have given them asylum, but was now rejecting them. He wanted to punish his son, and then, too late, he regretted it.

And his wife, who never raised her voice, no longer raised her eyes to look at him. No matter how much as her husband apologised for what he’d done, how much as he rubbed his hands together as though pulling off the skin, so dark. Remove the while knuckles one by one. His son was a chicken. His people were bold, hardworking, strapping, friendly and a bit spiteful but not cowardly. His people didn’t complain about the over-stuffed boat on the open sea, they didn’t blame themselves for throwing others into the ocean and leaving them to the sharks, they didn’t talk about the coast guard and their maltreatment, didn’t think back to the massacres they had left behind, the civil war, the attacks in the night. The children buried by starvation and malaria. The repeated rapes. Everything that could happen to them had already happened in the country of catastrophe. Their people had borne everything, and now here was his son, stupefied on the mattress with the sheets balled up in his hands. Because of a letter.

The son, already thirteen, accused his father of uprooting him from that parched earth where not even worms could live and promising a future that never really arrived, a destiny that was now expelling them. And perhaps it was true that he hadn’t done the paperwork right, but he scarcely wrote in his own language—how could he be expected to express himself in another one that he hadn’t had time enough to learn? His son accused him with eyes blacker than ire, eyes now eyelids, and the father was overcome by rage. He lifted the dingy flowered sheet that the mother had thrown over the boy, and yanked up the shirt of that chicken pretending to have fainted. He began to kick him in the ribs, in the head, between the eyes and his mother’s screams. The eyelids had barely fluttered on his bruised son’s face, just barely, and the father thought that the boy wasn’t such a coward after all. “He took it without flinching,” he said, surprised and trembling all over, to his wife, who was still howling and fearing the worst. His wife hugged the boy and murmured through teeth and tears that he was letting himself die. Like all the rest.

*

There was another child, a girl who had stopped talking before she lost consciousness. First she said she didn’t understand the words that issued from her parents’ mouths—they were indecipherable noise. After the parents’ irritating drone, the daughter went profoundly deaf. She could see them gesticulate as if through a thick pane of glass: they raised their arms, moved their hands. As if they were asking for help, only it was the girl who was trapped in a fishbowl of dark water and terror.

*

Two girls who were cousins had fallen into that coma that was not a coma, one after the other. The second went to visit the first, lay down beside her motionless body to murmur into her ear and beg her not to leave her alone. The cousin’s warm body. The soporific whisper of her breathing, the contagion of sleep. The two of them remained in the same position, their faces turned toward the same wall, and the sleeping beauties’ black locks slowly spreading out.

*

Above the sky, the birds. They were stopped in the air, paused. No one knew why they didn’t follow their migratory route.

*

Maybe because they hadn’t left a trail of crumbs; the refugees wanted to erase forever the trail they had struck out on. They had no intention of going back. They couldn’t return to their countries. There had never been the possibility of return. They didn’t know that the birds counted on those crumbs; they were the ones tasked with eating the trail.

*

Caught in the ambush deportation, now there were hordes of sleeping youth. They were picked up in ambulances, dead weight. In the hospitals, their socks were pulled off and their feet tickled with a feather or the edge of a fingernail. Their knees and ankles were hit with little hammers and their legs responded: there was no cerebral damage. X-rays showed no disorder. Their blood gave no clues. They let themselves be injected, let feeding tubes be inserted without anaesthesia. There was no need to note the details of each one; the descriptions were always the same. They had all been struck by the letter sending them back to hell. All together, in a single file.

*

But the backtrack was on hold: the parents couldn’t abandon their children, and their children couldn’t get out of bed. No one could carry them. The doctors made their rounds, lifted the children’s eyelids, saw the dilated pupils contract at the light. They couldn’t turn them loose or cast them off, couldn’t get them out of limbo. They weren’t faking, the hospital directors said to each other, exasperated by the crowds filling their beds. Psychiatrists came in and out, determined to solve the enigma. Rumours spread that it must be an epidemic, some malignant virus they’d brought from their countries and that would soon sink the entire country into a deep sleep. Whatever it was, they wouldn’t get away with it, said the immigration officials, in private meetings, at bars, off duty, during training sessions, at target practice. The lawyers denounced a systematic child abuse that the government had the duty to fix, but the government stayed silent, awaiting the appropriate reports.

*

And the mothers. The mothers neither came nor went. They had made the public hallways into an encampment, and the bathrooms into a laundry where they washed the diapers of their incontinent children. They also washed themselves there, part by part, between gasps of cold water, expelling air in one of the languages of the Babelian hospital. In the afternoons they brushed their children’s hair, smoothed the sheets with the patience of pregnant woman. And at night. At night the children slept, slept, and they, their mothers, couldn’t sleep. But they weren’t the ones who watched in the darkness; it was the night that watched over them with its enormous eyes. The blue night, its blue birds.

*

Hanging in the air, hundreds of birds with their outstretched wings hid the moon and the last purple sun of the dusk. The parks full of feathers. The trees, of nests. The nests, of eggs that would soon start to crack from within. And so passed the days the months the years and the heart of each child went on beating at a constant rate, steady, steady, a sleeping spindle spinning. Time passed silkily. Respiration went slack, blood pressure lowered, the distended faces took on a new childishness, seeming to go backward in time.

*

The mothers would have liked to undo that peace with a kiss. Those kisses, full of an acidic, lactic smell. The bird shit filled the streets with a layer of acidity.

*

The protocol: stop by to see the children morning and night, but the doctors, resigned, replaced one or another visit with pastries in the cafeteria. The nurses, always dieting, did their exercise routines among the sleepers, who now numbered in the hundreds in contiguous halls and on consecutive floors, equally crowded, in all the hospitals. The beds held not one but two bodies, lying in opposite directions. Beside each head was a pair of sleeping feet, covered in socks whose colours didn’t always match. Feet, head, arms, lungs that the country had to take in because it was one thing to deport living bodies, and another to expel unconscious children.

*

They’re children, the mothers cried out, because some of them were already approaching adulthood. They’re innocent, repeated the right-thinking contingent of the press, in danger of extinction. They’re refugees, declared the representatives of some NGO. They’re just immigrants, they’re undocumented, they’re illegal, and their parents are too, and they’re using up all the blood in the hospitals. It was a war of names hurled at the speed of rage.

*

Another way of not being: to not understand what was happening around you, or to not pay attention. Or to pay attention only to the immediate, the inexplicable. Why they were like that. How long they could they last. Were they going to die in their sleep? These were the questions of the insomniac mothers, who were gradually assimilating the hospital’s languages, while the nurses also learned to say something, a continuous stream of Patois Tagalog Yoruba Mapudungun Totonaco Otomí. And the fathers, or the opportunistic lawyers, got lost in mazes.

*

The fathers, the ones where were left, snuck into the hospitals in case one of those journalists was a cop. You couldn’t trust anyone. And perhaps that’s why the nurses stayed after their shifts to talk to the mothers, bearing fast food, water, aspirin, and tampons that now the mothers learned how to use. They gave them these things and others that they shouldn’t share with visitors, especially ones who weren’t paying for services. The nurses had children and a bit of compassion, but above all they had orders to make sure that the mothers didn’t give any pernicious reports to the journalists, and that the journalists, who also passed through the halls regularly, playing dumb, bringing potato chips, bottles of soda, ibuprofen, didn’t take advantage of their turned backs to take unauthorized, sensational photographs.

*

Deportations were declared temporarily halted.

The mothers breathed a sigh of relief, hugged the nurses, the doctors, the husbands who had become strangers; they hugged each other, danced together, swung round and gargled in delight, kissed each other, kissed the children, who were growing old, even though it was forbidden: it could sicken them.

Not a muscle moved on the sleepers.

Not a flutter of lashes when they were sent to their houses with precise hygiene instructions.

A terrible bird flu was looming. Birds fell from the sky and from branches, eggs rotted in nests, and the old migrant children, so docile, so fragile, so crammed together in those halls that stunk of urine, could catch it. It was the government’s responsibility to avert that possibility if it was the last thing they did, and it was the last thing they did before they were defeated in the next elections: they made the children citizens.

*

The father who had kicked his son now approached him, bowed his head, and thanked him for his sacrifice. He didn’t dare touch him. Only the mother, another old woman, would do that. She crouched down and  picked up the envelope that someone had just pushed under the door. She opened it and read the letter, translated it, speaking to the man who was her son. His ribs were no longer broken. Just a scar on his eyebrow from something he would never remember. He moved his tongue slightly inside his mouth, and its tip emerged to wet his lips. Lightly. Like a nervous bird.

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