Litro #154: Cuba | Someone’s Stolen the Cockatiels
Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn
To Susana A. Borges,
to her family.
I’d known from the start that it was going to end well and badly at the same time, because there was something about her that reminded me of my mother, though the weird thing is they hardly look alike at all, but that’s something I’m not going to try to explain. Not any more. The whole thing took just a few seconds, while I made my entrance and settled in the armchair. At first there were people coming in and out, there were the children, too, her children, or rather, the boy and the young woman, as the girl’s already big now and she has these caramel-coloured honey eyes that anybody with any taste would gobble up in a single bite. The boy was at just that moment coming back from a swim and, like a little automaton, he went straight over to the TV set and got hold of the wireless remote control, one of those bloody modern technology things that reminds you so rudely that time has already passed. One of the daughter’s friends, a chubby girl with a friendly face, sat down beside the boy and picked up the other control.
“Robertico,” she said to him, “pause it and say hello to her.”
The boy gave me a kiss practically without looking at me, as focused as he was, and returned to his game. On the table there was an open packet of sweets and I took one. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I put it in my mouth with some desperation, I started to fold up the wrapper, to scrumple it up, I made an accordion, then a little boat, a ball. I got so caught up in the noise of the wrapper that I almost lost track of where I was. Maybe it’s that I still feel a bit reserved when it comes to the children of psychiatrists. I don’t know. The telephone rang and I, instinctively, took advantage of the distraction to look at her, see how she reacted, what she said with her body and the inflection of her voice. I tried to imagine what they were saying on the other end. She paused briefly to tell the girl to deal with me. To look after me.
“You want water or something?” said the girl, breezy as anything.
“No, I’m good,” I answered, trying to seem as natural as possible. But I didn’t lean back onto the backrest, oh no, I kept sitting on the edge of the armchair, ready to run out if necessary.
It was one of those houses where people wander in and out as they please. There were clothes on the sofa, a flip-flop in one corner of the living room. The least of it was that each of the people was getting on with their own life. That was the least of it. You didn’t need to be too bright to realise that the people there were happy, for fuck’s sake, and that made me nervous. They were too white. Too healthy. They moved about with that privileged kind of freedom of people who know something and aren’t telling.
“No, no tea, thanks, I’m a coffee drinker,” I answered the daughter’s chubby friend.
The game was idiotic. A few little characters that turn happy or sad, or laugh like crazy and who have to get the hanging balloons with enough points to pass through the level and progress to the next. Idiocies of the modern world. One of those.
“Yesterday someone stole the cage with the cockatiels,” she told me when she had hung up the phone. “Today we’re in family mourning.”
The daughter’s friend went off to the kitchen and I was glad to hear that she’d put the coffee pot to strain as I hadn’t had any coffee the whole damn day. But I didn’t sit back in my chair in the dining room, where we’d moved in order to work more comfortably, no, I wanted to look straight at her while she read. Her voice became hoarse and I passed her my little flask of water to refresh her throat, but no, she didn’t need it, that’s just what her voice was like, like the voice of an adolescent who’s just woken up. I never returned to that house but days later, going back over that moment, I came to the conclusion that what she wrote couldn’t be understood in any other voice than hers, hoarse, out of tune, a hangover voice. And even though I didn’t pay much attention to that reading, the thing was, I swear it, there was something that so reminded me of my mother. I heard the daughter who was talking on the phone and telling someone about the birds. Such a nuisance. I don’t like caged birds, I was about to say, but it seemed impolite to interrupt her reading. After all, God only knows what kind of luck the creatures had had. Probably they were eaten, or they were chucked out to sell the cage, or they were sold with the cage and everything.
“I like my coffee with a lot of sugar,” she said when she had finished reading the first story, raising the steaming cup that her caramel-eyed daughter had placed in front of her. “If I’m honest, I really like sweet things.”
I looked away. I no longer had the candy wrapper to scrumple up because the daughter had already taken it to the trash when she brought us the coffee. Now the daughter’s friend went back to playing with the boy at the game with the happy little animals.
“I don’t understand this game,” I heard the daughter’s friend say, and the boy teased her.
“I’m going to beat you,” the kid said to her, then he smiled and I saw a small mole in the middle of his chubby cheek, lovely like his mother’s.
The telephone rang again. At this rate we weren’t going to get anywhere, I thought. She was probably talking to some friend or colleague and the tenderness of her manner seemed to confirm my suspicion. She said she was busy, that she’d call back later, and that someone had stolen the cockatiels. She paused to allow the other woman to express her shock at the news. The animals were evidently much loved in this household. She knew I was watching her, there was no way she could have not known. A short time earlier, while we were leaning over the printed sheet of paper, our hands had brushed against each other and I noticed she had short nails, which were wide and set deep in the flesh, with gnarled fingers and you can always tell, without fail, that’s something that indicates a great sexual appetite, according to Nathaniel Altman in his palmistry guide.
“You’re an inveterate romantic,” I said to her. “It’s clear from your stories.”
She smiled, so lovely. I went on talking to her about the dangers of excessive adjective use, of platitudes and set phrases, of the fake sentimentalism, which didn’t apply to her, but she looked at me and something in her eyes changed. It wasn’t a reproach exactly, rather that she bowed her head just a little, in a movement where she tilted her neck forward as though wanting to put her head into the hollow of my thoughts. Her eyes turned blacker still, round, with a depth that was bordering on madness. I tried to focus on the mole on her cheek, so beautiful, but her eyes did not relent, they looked like a feline waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on the bird, that brief second when the defenceless little creature would have no escape.
“Do you want some guava juice?” said the voice that providence had commanded to speak for the benefit of the unfortunate little animal. It was her mother, a woman with very short, completely white hair, with prominent lips and a happy expression on her face. “Fuck,” I shouted to myself, “is it possible that everyone here is happy or what the hell’s wrong with them?”
I nodded, relieved. I drank the juice as if I were putting on an anti-radiation suit, getting into the Batmobile or giving my hand to the hand of a lifeguard from the Titanic. The outside of the glass was grubby and I sucked slowly on my fingers and talked to her about the difference between writing a diary that you expect nobody else to read and writing a story which is, in that sense, the exact opposite. I also told her she ought to make the most of it, to write one thing as though she were writing the other. She was now listening to me with the utmost attention and making notes on the back of the sheet of paper with that doctor’s handwriting that’s impossible to understand.
“I’m going home,” said the daughter’s friend with her bristly hair gathered into a charming little bun. “I’ll be back later to give Robertico his bath.”
“With hot water?” asked the boy, never stopping his game.
“With hot water,” replied the chubby girl, with that emphasis typical of someone who’s just such a good person that the time comes when they start doing favours without even being asked.
The daughter said goodbye to her friend, came over to us and, her hands on her hips, said that she still hadn’t managed to get hold of Jacques le fataliste et son maître, which her hermeneutics professor had advised her to read in French but you could only get this novel of Diderot’s in Spanish, and that what with her French, and university, and to top it all now without those cockatiel things she really was going to go mad. Something I missed in her speech made her little caramel eyes open up wide and the happiest smile I’d ever seen in my life, I mean, there had to have been something funny because she exploded into an uncommon happiness that caused her to laugh compulsively. Then her mother laughed. Then her grandmother, who had just sat down in the living room armchair and had lit a cigar stub. Then, to my own surprise, I laughed myself. I laughed without knowing what the fuck I was laughing at, I roared with laughter and when I was invaded by that neutral kind of calm of feeling completely at home I knew that everything was already lost. I laughed till the girl closed her bedroom door behind her and it was as though an orchestra conductor had said right we’ll go to the coda now and I was the only idiot who hadn’t heard him.
Fortunately she overlooked the incident. She began to read another text, much more poetic than the previous one and dedicated to her inseparable lifelong companion, the sofa in her house.
“Mum!” yelled Robertico, “bring me some water!”
“Roberto Manuel, mum’s busy, you’re just going to have to get up and fetch it yourself,” she said, pausing in her reading but never losing patience, not getting annoyed, or shouting, or any of those things normal mothers do.
At that moment someone appeared at the door. She got up and went to talk to the person who had arrived. I’m guessing she dispatched them politely on the grounds that we were working, because I took advantage of the moment to try to understand her hysterical scribblings, but they proved undecipherable. I couldn’t have said whether they were notes on her texts, on my humble bits of advice or wishing so much that they were notes about me. When at last I gave up I heard her say:
“They were stolen last night. It’s a sign that we need to put a padlock on the garden railings.”
She walked over, apparently smiling with her whole happy forty-something’s body. Her skirt swayed this way and that. When she sat down she folded one leg under the other, as though she were a little girl, and apologised for so many interruptions.
“Mum!”, yelled Robertico, “bring me some water!”
“Robertico, I’ve already told you mum’s busy. What’s wrong with your own little feet? Go fetch it all by yourself, love.”
It was so very sweet. It was. I told her readers are serious things, that it doesn’t do to underestimate their intelligence, there’s no need to explain everything but nor should you reveal these surprises at the end, I mean come on, the sofa in the house? Are you sure that’s what you want to write about? Seriously, if it’s just something to get a laugh out of your friends that’s one thing, but a story is something else, doctor. And yet I thought this time I’ve gone too far, because she focused all the blackness of her round eyes on me once again, as though she were discovering one of those voices I often have in my head and which tell me which way to take a story and which way not to. If she had been a guard dog surprising me in the doctor’s garden stealing the cockatiels I wouldn’t have been more startled by that look of hers. It wasn’t attentiveness so much as a predatory ambush, who do you think you’re fooling with that story? I’m sure that’s what the eyes of an omniscient, all-powerful narrator would look like.
“Mum!” yells Robertico sweetly, such a cute boy, “bring me water!”
“I’ve already said to fetch it yourself.”
She continued—without looking at me now—with those annotations that were unintelligible to me. She wrote a lot. Each second passed like the dry blow of a mortar and I didn’t know which was worse, her gaze or her silence. I even thought that maybe she was writing a story. Perhaps one in which I was the patient, one of those schizophrenics who needs to be interned as soon as possible to prevent their committing some injury against themselves or against humanity. Her hand moved with the certainty of someone who has signed a lot of admission papers.
“Robertico,” she said with her voice that is hoarse but filled with a sweetness so cloying that it made me shiver, “what happened to the water? Weren’t you thirsty? I didn’t see you go to the kitchen.”
“I’m going, mum,” replied Robertico.
She yawned, went on rifling through her papers then set to reading another story. I looked away but what didn’t come in through my eyes came in through my ears instead, because she was whispering, she wasn’t reading out loud, she was whispering the story into my ear on a cloudy evening, the two of us in the half-light of the room and in an instant the fact that she reminded me of my mother no longer bothered me so much, it was as though my aberration had found a happy place to settle in the plot, not a solution to the conflict, I’d say rather another possible reading, a reading that made my very spine straighten up like anything.
“Well?” she took me by surprise.
I told her she had a gift for poetry. I was delighted at there being two female characters. Delighted. She rested the biro on the corner of her mouth, demonstrating that she was weighing up my words, and that made me feel proud. I had the sensation that even the old woman was listening to me between each suck on her cigar stub and the next. Robertico had paused the game with the happy little animals and he had gone to the kitchen to have some water. The only sound to be heard in the whole house was my voice. Nothing could compete with me except for the cockatiels, but they were no longer there, and so I treated myself to telling her there was nothing wrong with being a bit daring and telling things about some matters of the body, that sometimes you need to tell things as though no one was watching, as though one had allowed oneself to be hypnotised and there was no option but to tell it all.
“Have you ever done that?” I asked her.
She shrugged and that meant of course, but that’s something you can’t do without the other person’s consent, I mean, the other person has to give in to it. I knew this already but I wanted to hear it all the same. At that moment the boy approached the table. Final exams, he said. And my mother leaned over my notebook, so that our faces came so close that when I looked towards her I brushed lightly past her lips. This time she did not move away from me with an expression of horror fixed to her face, instead she smiled sweetly, just as she had done before.
“How lovely!” exclaimed the boy looking at us, and even he seemed surprised at his words, because he tipped his little head to one side, blushing.
I did not say anything, but she did.
“Thank you… my love.”
And she opened her arms to him. When their faces approached they accidentally stumbled and they exchanged that clumsy little kiss on their lips. Both of them laughed, still hugging. Then the old woman laughed. Then the girl, who had put her head around the door to hear what that noise was. Then I laughed, too, or perhaps I didn’t, I’ll never know if that was laughter, I mean, it seemed as though I was crying at the same time.