excerpt from Queen Cocaineby Nuria Amat
recently published by City Lights
translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush
Wilson smoked two cigarettes at once. One hung from his lips and he held the other between his fingers like a pencil. Not wanting to forget what he was reading, he looked up and said he’d spent all day thinking it was nighttime.
So what, I thought. I shook my head but said nothing. I felt a bitter taste in my mouth, and my tongue was dry.
“Why did you search me out from afar,” I tried to ask him. I spoke of the sea and pebbles on the shore. “You didn’t of necessity have to choose me. I’d really rather not know.”
The woman was a sliver of shadow in that darkened light.
“I wasn’t drunk then,” he retorted. “I was sober then.”
The sea surged up against us in front of the house. I looked behind me thinking I might catch sight of something. My watch had stopped just after midnight and was dancing around my wrist. “What’s the time?” I asked.
I went on to ask Wilson to read out loud and cheer us up. That didn’t last long either. The rain was more potent than his words. As time passed, my hunger waned and I stopped thinking about food.
For a while I acted like a lunatic. I couldn’t have cared whether it rained or not. We’d been subjected for days to the fury of the downpour and that noisy, insolent form of rain forced us to have eyes only for the leaden solitude. However, the sea did quieten down. We rarely made contact. It wasn’t a sea for summer dips.
We sat on the bottom step of the porch, by the door. A door with a will of its own. Forever lethargic, it swung whimsically to and fro, oblivious to our entrances and exits. There was no key and anyone could walk in the house and intrude on the time we set aside for love and solitary exchanges. But I never saw anyone walk past our house. Occasionally, and if the bright light on the horizon allowed, we spotted the odd U.S. Navy warship. The land had nothing else to offer and it seemed the sea meekly followed.
The house stood on pillars buried in the sand. It was a small wooden construction, old, rotten, and eaten away by the green slime of the sea. The boards creaked underfoot when we walked over them and through the gaps in between we glimpsed the aimless wandering of spinsterish hens that slept and nested under our bedroom. I was woken at night by the endless groaning of dry wood and grunting of hungry pigs.
While Wilson read seated at one end of the porch, I dangled my legs over the edge at the other. Against the rain. The water from the gutter splashed my bare feet. Life was short and long. I didn’t complain. In a way, this place was a paradise. Nature was rich. But she alone. Despite the huge coast-line, there weren’t any fishermen, and in the end the rain killed off the meager spirits of the people who wanted to devote themselves to something slightly more productive than the simple effort of letting life go by.
I thought the afternoon’s furious downpour might perhaps finish off the mosquitoes. I’d learned to live with them. Irritated by their bites, my body no longer remembered a before. But the water from the gutter rekindled the pain of those wounds. It was both sickness and remedy.
Here they call them long-legs. Millimetric phantoms. Not to be seen. No one could see them.
The woman mentioned the mosquitoes again.
“I open and close my body despite them. Nothing touches me.”
Wilson was still intoxicated by the silence of the sleeping rain. What was going through his mind? He seemed happy and sad. Both states were possible in Bahía Negra.
“Time,” said Wilson, “steals our words. Just look at the old people. Their gaze is lost in the distance for hours. They talk to the world. Like me when I’m lost.”
But Wilson’s head was never still. His face was lined with wrinkles; his hair short and close-cropped. Incipient baldness made him seem younger than he really was.
“When you’re twenty, love is a mute beast. I’m old now.”
That was what was going through Wilson’s mind as he held the book. Fear as well.
The woman was sometimes questioning. At others, she preferred not to know. I could see her speaking to herself. To the sea, sky, rain, to Wilson’s silence.
Now and then she emerged in her pink bikini determined to do battle with the waves. Like a child learning to swim, she took a quick dip near the shore while her hands tried to shield her breasts from the water’s lash.
I lifted my legs to push away the book that was next to me. I didn’t want to swim. I wanted to read but the water from the gutter wet and dirtied the pages.
This sea was an immense cemetery. The schoolmistress had died. So had the mayor and postman.
As there were no graves to speak of these deaths, what people said about them might or might not be true. The rain blurred each and every memory. Nobody thought of eating. Not even Wilson.
“Mona,” said Wilson from the doorway.
“I’m Rat,” I protested.
I turned toward him and spattered his face with the water still on my hands.
He walked barefoot, pigeon-toed. His naked body glinted.
From the doorless door, he now said: “Old Poncho’s dead.”
So yellow fever has also claimed our only neighbor, Poncho the black from El Almejal. If he knows, it’s because he’s been talking to Aida, who lives along the beach. This went through my thoughts before I spoke. But I kept my feet on the steps. My words also betrayed the everyday apathy and destitution.
Once or twice, in absent-minded rather than intrepid vein, an airplane risked taking off in stormy weather only to be felled by the rain. They didn’t kill the postman. He died in a plane accident. They didn’t kill the smuggler either. The schoolmistress could well have been another victim of a biplane accident. Air travel was the only way in or out of this solitary confinement. It was a jungle so dark even the sun tired of the rain and circled reluctantly. When its red disk finally hit the sea, it slept sadly, and lacked the spirit to challenge a night ridden with stars that were happy and excited to jostle in a net crawling with luminous insects. Nothing stirred except the land itself that changed its scenario with every dawn.
I thought of writing a letter to my father. People die here, not knowing how they die. I had never seen such rain.
What was the point of writing letters? A book changes everything. You’re soon elsewhere. Living other words.
I moved away from the guttering and kept my back turned on Wilson.
My journey was an escape. I’d fled. A case of love and hatred. I didn’t intend going back. We watched time pass by. I work. I read. That way, love is simple. As we barely know each other, Wilson lets me be. He says: “You’re too young, not to bear scars, which you do, but to have a past.” He comes from behind and steals a caress. I move away. I’m reading. “That’s you and your Catalan stinginess again,” he says. “And that’s you and your Colombian fatalism and Colombian cigarettes.”
From the porch rail I saw black Aida come out on to her cabin’s small terrace. She wore the dress with yellow and blood-red flowers I’d given her days ago when black Poncho was still alive. “It’s a Spanish dress,” said Aida, pinching together her lips and stiff chin.
The dress bared her shoulders. A generous skirt finished in a flounce down to her calf. It wasn’t a dress to wear on a day of mourning. But so what.
The two pigs still ran loose in front of the house. The sea playfully chased them and they wandered at a loss in the rain.
Wilson’s skin gleamed like one of those large slippery stones on the waterfall in El Almejal. The misty sky also rained down tepid water.
Aida, old Poncho’s wife, is somewhere out there.
I say: “Wilson, your silence hurts more than any lie because I don’t exist in your silence.”
He puts his book down and tells me how once they almost killed him. “I walked stealthily where they had set an ambush for me. Luckily they didn’t see me. I went disguised as someone else. That stoked their fury. They then made several attempts on my life. They didn’t overstretch themselves, or else I’d be dead by now.”
Wilson had described in a newspaper how the Colombian army decided at a particular moment in time to stay on the periphery of the repression of drug traffickers and leave this task to the police, who’d been fumigating the coca and poppy fields ever since with an impact that was contradictory and counterproductive.
In his life as an ordinary citizen, he wrote articles that upset both the army and the guerrilla. I’d always thought that was the reason for our journey to Bahía Negra. Wilson would see no other. However, sooner or later, we must think about moving elsewhere. When and how were irrelevant questions. My love for Wilson has surged again tonight. The silence is so deep I can hear him breathing on the other side of the room. The nighttime light makes him seem older. My old rucksack is hanging from the rafters. I sometimes mistake it for a cluster of bats.
“When people fight over nothing,” he would say, “nobody is in the right. If people really want peace, it’s difficult to support one side or the other. As a person, as a man, as a Colombian, I’ll always be on the side of the people, on the side of the peasant, the ones they always end up killing.”
As we are scared, we go around at night like poachers. We talk silently.
I say we talk about these deaths yet can do nothing about them except make love the whole darned day.
He agrees. Though I exaggerate. It’s all in the mind. He’s seen worse things. Luck’s still on our side.
I say even the newspapers have become gullible. In Spain the newspapers get less interesting by the day.
He says it’s not the same in Colombia. Here it’s quite the opposite.
When I tell him I’ve never heard such perfect Spanish being spoken, he behaves as if he hadn’t heard me. I think I’d like to speak like you, I tell him. He puts out the oil lamp and gets back into bed. Lights a cigarette.
He says: “I’ve been sentenced to death. If they want to kill me, they should tell me when and where and I’ll just go. No need to put themselves out.”
“Why do you look at me like that?’ I’m naked in a corner of the room. I don’t know whether to believe him or not. He says: “Don’t think I’m inventing myself a literary way to die. One doesn’t invent death.”
“Please, Wilson. Speak more softly. I’m afraid of bats, spies, Aida, the voices, the silences. Your quiet rage keeps me awake.”
“Wilson, shut up.”
I pull the sheet over me. It’s hot and the sheet is wet.
“Let them hear me from one end of El Valle, La Boca, or Bahía Negra to the other. Let them hear me.”
“Why say that?” I say.
This afternoon he again sat out on the porch step. He calls me over, still with that loud voice. He says: “My friend, Lucas the journalist, the one we call ‘Skinny,’ is also a man under sentence of death. Many of us men and women and even children are going to die. But if I’m telling you now about skinny Lucas, it’s because we worked together for many years and believed in similar things. We wrote the same things and yet had different enemies. You see what I mean.”
I say nothing.
“Nobody can understand. Nobody can. You never got to meet skinny Lucas. He fled. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. The guerrilla is out to kill Skinny. It’s like that. You can’t explain it. The hunger to kill is the only way to explain this war. They get orders from on high: ‘Rifles at the ready, shoot.’ They fire. And everyone obeys. And who do they obey?”
I say nothing.
“Basically nobody knows. Or will ever know. People kill just because they want to live. To make sure they won’t be the first to die.”
Aida went back into her house. Wilson leaned on the rail. It was broken and could give way any moment. We were always looking at the sea, as if we had nothing else to do all day. There were times when, lost in the rectangle of blue, our eyes forgot words. I never managed to see a merchant ship or oil carrier. It was a fake sea. Not to be trusted. Its name said the opposite of what it seemed. Even the birds avoided it and, from our vantage points, we quietly played ‘find the whale’ between the lines on the horizon.
No place in the whole world was more secret and remote than the beach in El Almejal. It was a coast closed to tourism because the lonely, cruel sea abolished frontiers. Tall, thickly foliaged trees prevented airplanes from landing. The cholo Indians who lived beyond the river and were experts at beheading those powerful trunks moved easily through the hills. They didn’t get on well with the blacks in the village. But they didn’t feel a need to become their enemies either. They were two worlds in the one.
Sometimes, Wilson and I talked about literature. Naturally it was the main topic of our intimate conversation. I liked hearing Wilson speak of what can be and what might have been. Literature distanced us from the territory of death.
So we spent many hours in silence. I was often the one who had to wait to say something. Wilson’s sentences made more sense.
“The novel I’m writing will of course have many pages and will deal with every kind of man and woman known to this day.”
He spoke so loudly I thought black Aida could have heard what we said. He dried his body on the towel he always carried with him and came to sit next to me. I was his entire audience and he liked his declarations to make an impact.
He said: “We inhabit a continent where there’s never been as much misery and desperation as there is now.”
Wilson wanted to convince me that was a significant sentence. He had a perfect Colombian memory. We cast our words into the sea like stones.
I said if the literature of a nation is in decline, it’s because that nation has atrophied and entered a state of decadence.
He asked where I’d got that idea from, but he fundamentally agreed.
He never let me read the pages of his manuscript. I repeated that nobody with anything about them would type on such an ancient machine. But I’d see him sitting in front of his typewriter and feeling relaxed. He’d say the noise of the keys helped develop his plot. He examined words with exquisite care. He read and pronounced each letter as if every sentence initiated a literature.
As a journalist he’d written about the Medellín narco-traffic, Bogotá street kids, Cali prostitutes, young assassins in Sabaneta, but never about his birthplace. As if he’d wanted to erase Bahía Negra from the tremulous map of Colombia. As if Bahía Negra didn’t exist.
He told me again that Aida was back on her terrace.
My eyes turned toward where she stood. I couldn’t see her. The house seemed dead.
I don’t know what I’m doing here either, I thought. Why does he want me?
It had stopped raining and the sand gleamed like an elegant, silvery mat. The wooden veranda was so worn it might give way and crumple like cardboard made soggy by the rain. The woman laughed like a fish.
Wilson said love stories are written before they are lived. “That means,” he said, “our love first existed in the form of a story. I invented you in my head. I spoke of you before you existed.”
“Sounds nice,” I said, “but too literary.”
We laughed again.
But the main question was something else. Why had I gone there?
“What are you inventing?’ he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied.
I was thinking of his small, coffee-bean eyes. Eyes that were always telling another story from the one his words related.
Wilson began to whistle. The sun had completely faded and the fresh darkness loosened our bonds. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
The woman buttoned up her shirt and rolled down her sleeves. Wilson caressed her hair.
Wilson had traveled once to Europe. His destination was Paris. When he landed in Barcelona, he liked the city so much he tried to take it back to Colombia as a souvenir.
“Before you were born,” he said.
His joke made him laugh again. I didn’t think it was funny but laughed all the same. I showed him the palm of my hand.
He said: “Your city is a bit like Medellín, Cali, Cartagena, or Bogotá.
I said that in my opinion it was the city of Bogotá that most recalled Barcelona. “The mountain in the distance, Montserrate, the streets and avenues.”
Wilson went inside and emerged with a can of beer. He took a first sip and spat it out on the floorboards.
Apart from our bedroom, the cabin had only one other room. It was a dark back room overlooking the shadowy jungle. We used it as study and kitchen, but rare was the day when we cooked. To eat we just had to take the path to the village and reach Bahía Negra, where Aunt Irma prepared dinner for us every night.
He complained the beer was warm. “I’m going to get dressed,” he said. And walked back in.
The tepid oily smell from the lamp reached me on the veranda step. The light was so minimal that, on or off, it hardly enabled us to make out the night. We moved the two lamps we owned from one side of the house to the other as if they projected shadows to match our puny dreams. Clouds of insects buzzed around them blackening the air.
I saw old Poncho’s wife come back out on the terrace. She looked at me askance and flashed her white teeth. She immediately retreated into hiding.
Her appearance coincided with one of life’s false moves. “I think I’m going to die. I recognize the signs. What’s important is to keep one’s eyes on the alert.”
“These are attacks of melancholy and nostalgia,” says Wilson from the doorway.
I don’t reply. Words don’t take shape at such moments.
“You can leave when you want,” he says.
He’s not angry. But he knows very well I can’t. Not that I want to. Where would I go?
Seated at the typewriter his fingers hammer out sentences. The way he writes ought to lead me to suspect something strange is happening to his writing, but Wilson says journalists write that way and I believe him. A laptop would be picturesque in a place that doesn’t have a refrigerator.
“You and your Colombian narcissism don’t understand the feeling of being shipwrecked that everything I think creates within me.”
“Your Spanish arrogance makes you forget what the Spaniards did to South America.”
“That’s possible,” I say.
I’m talking to him from the terrace. It’s dark now. Night has brought back our neighbor.
I tell Wilson that Aida is watching us once again. Now she’s waiting for us to walk down to the village as we do every night.
But Wilson has just decided that today we’ll stay at home and cook whatever. He gets up to fill our only saucepan with water. I drag myself across the floorboards, stay hidden behind the door. I don’t intend to budge from there till I find out what’s happening on the other side of the beach.
“So who’s the spy now?’ he asks.
I signal to him to shut up. The black woman intrigues me.
This white woman has forgotten her slippers. It’s stopped raining. The rice is boiling on the gas stove. The waves gently arch. Trees murmur. Insects explode. Night falls.
Black Aida raises her arms to the sky. Is delirious. Has convulsions. The poor woman’s sad because her husband has died. She hums weird tunes. What can she be thinking? She waves her hands in the wind. Thoughts here aren’t as simple as they seem. “I’ll walk over toward her.”
“Don’t,” Wilson says from inside.
Wilson can’t see Aida. He doesn’t know what she’s doing. He’s not aware her hands are beating the air as if she were mad. I retreat slightly. Above all, she mustn’t see me.
Aida will be thinking we’ve taken the path to the village where darkness catches us as we enter Bahía Negra. She can’t imagine Wilson has decided to stay in and write tonight, or that I’m not hungry. Wilson writes very quickly. But his words come slowly when he speaks. They depart his mouth, pursue an order that is not random, though in the end they’re often disrupted by beer. That’s what I’m thinking about as I look outside. About the way his forehead wrinkles when he drinks.
Aida is a young woman, broad-waisted and loose-hipped. Her lips are pink, fleshy, and slightly blood-flecked. Her curly hair can’t be easy to cut. She often wears it plaited or tied with a headscarf. We’ll never agree which of us looks younger. I say I do. She says she does. From what people say, she’s black Poncho’s third wife. Also the blackest. Everybody knows she’s really one of his daughters. She thinks herself lucky because I’ve given her my most beautiful dress as a present. She’s not taken it off since.
She doesn’t answer when you ask her where she’s from. Poncho brought her from the sea. Years ago. People don’t remember how many. Drunk, black Poncho set sail in a merchant ship registered in the port of Buenaventura. They say he went as far as Panama. He didn’t get any farther because a black, particularly a drunken black, can’t switch countries as if they were provinces, and anyway Panama isn’t that remote. He vanished out there for a long time. People don’t remember how long. Half the village totally forgot black Poncho. The other half made no profit or loss by remembering him once in a while. Wilson thinks he must have been in jail because ever since he returned from Panama he’s walked scared of the sun and screwed up like a jailbird. He’s dead now. He went by some other name in Panama. Even he didn’t recognize himself when people called him Poncho or Eustaquio or Jeremías.
One morning black Poncho made an appearance with Aida in black Melquíades’s bar. Much thinner and older than when he left. And not easy to recognize. Minutes before, they’d seen them still as statues under the sun in the middle of the village’s only street. He just had to make his entrance in the bar and be seen drunk for the men finally to decide to greet him. Nobody ever knew how the hell they’d got there. Blacks usually say little. They act deaf to white men’s questioning. Tired of waiting for answer, a white man will opt for the response that best fits the few facts in his possession. But the facts are always wrong. Blacks know that. They remain passive before their interlocutor, laugh as if simple-minded.
Auntie Irma maintains that Poncho, from El Almejal, came in an airplane belonging to gringos involved in smuggling and drug trafficking. But Aunt Irma is also one of them. As if it were an everyday occurrence, she mentioned that they parachuted them down and that they didn’t die, thanks to heaven.
At low tide, the sea hurries to collect its bits and pieces and move a few steps away from the shore. I shall light the other oil lamp in a minute once I’ve discovered what Aida is trying to do with all her nighttime flailing of limbs. Something heavy is hanging round her neck. I can’t make it out clearly. It looks like a key or a rosary crucifix. The breeze plays with her skirt. A come-on from the phantom she’s now invoking. She walks barefoot.
She’s out of her mind, I thought. Or is in despair. Because suddenly I saw her body shake to the sound of a dance of death. I wanted to tell you, Wilson, but you’d have been scared. Besides, you couldn’t have heard me from inside, unless I’d started to shout. I didn’t want to raise my voice. Why so much screaming and waving of headscarves?
For a moment I thought that, beside herself with unhappiness, Aida was going to dive into the sea and disappear between the waves. Which writhe and rage like snakes. And finally drag you deep into the sea. Of that at least I can assure you.
Your look can take in a lot of pages. Aida isn’t a book, though she’s trying to grab my attention as if she were a novel. She walks in and out of her house. Comes back in. Goes out again. Now stoops down. She’s dragging a bulky object. A sack of rice. Perhaps a cargo of contraband. I’d swear it’s something of the sort.
“Sometimes I lose sight of her shadow. And I assume she’s gone behind her cabin to the path by the stream, by the waterfall, because I see her walk back carrying an enormous stone. Why, Wilson? She leaves the stone on the shore and returns to the waterfall. Makes the journey several times. Not even you could carry such a heavy stone.”
“You bet,” he replied.
“Now I can see her returning with a similarly sized stone that she places next to the other. She repeats the journey several times. One stone after another. Big and round.”
“You’ve said that already, but there weren’t so many.”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t count them. Ten or twelve. But I swear I never saw her take a rest.”
She moves quickly. Which is what most intrigues me. She runs across this page, reads every sentence simultaneously, as they all crowd in. Apparently reading and thinking about something else. Not understanding what it says there.
Aida rests her hands on her waist and stops to contemplate each of the white stones she has been depositing on the sand. Some are the size of a turtle’s shell. For the moment, the latter decide to stay in the water. It’s their egg-laying time but Aida is busy delaying them.
“The female stone is for men and the male for women,” Wilson said.
“I know,” I said, but she’s already run back to her cabin and is now emerging, back bent double. She’s dragging that bulky object. Pulling it toward the sea. From where I am I hear the noise the object makes as it bumps down the steps on her porch. Aida drags the sack farther along the beach.
Now the turtles start to emerge from the water. They move sleepily under their stiff shells. Unperturbed by this night of shadows.
I preferred to keep quiet rather than tell you, Wilson. I thought if I moved from the door I’d miss something vital.
After she dragged the sack into the sea, the object began to float on the waves as Aida tried to guide it with her hands. It is low tide and the object stays afloat for some time. Aida sings a lullaby. Perhaps a bolero. I can’t decipher the music. Yes. I also thought it was a dirge.
It was when you thought I’d fallen asleep. I didn’t light the oil lamp. Or switch off the gas stove because the kitchen is your thing. Didn’t speak. Didn’t drink. Or protest this time about the bathroom door, which is always jammed. When I feel my needs suddenly pressing down, I stretch my body out anywhere and act as if I’m asleep. That’s what you thought. You say: “I’ve heard your way of falling asleep is a mild form of playing at suicide.” “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps not.”
I hate the night and every inch of me wants day to break. At night the resonances from real knowledge fail. Several things converge when I’m in darkness. My love for Wilson. My sleep that is too light or too deep. My hunger. My travels. But I don’t want to leave. This is all I have. A nest of words coming into life. I will cheer up. I’ll be the way they say my mother was: amusing and silent. Tomorrow I’ll go for a walk with Aida. I’ll torment her with questions she’ll deflect elsewhere. I’ll say: I saw you last night, Aida. I saw you doing dead things on the beach. What was on your mind? What were you looking for? What were you doing with those smooth stones? What spirits were you invoking?
Wilson says: “Everything is real. Think what you will.”
The object is still floating at low tide. Anyone would think it was a stranded whale. Aida pushes it into the sea. The stones disappeared because Aida decided to put them in the sea as well. I think I should go and help her. The drag of the waves pulls her and prevents her from controlling her movements. Aida lets the object go. Lets it float off and she quickly returns to the shore. Walking with difficulty because her skirt rises above the waves. Now and then she looks over her shoulder. The object no longer belongs to her. The sea is carrying it far away. Content with her efforts, she takes several deep breaths. She too is tired.
Wilson comes up behind me, lighted lamp in one hand and plate of boiled rice in the other. Amid the rice are pieces of turtle meat cooked on the kerosene stove. “I thought you were asleep,” he says. We sit on the floor. An upside-down box serves as our table. I don’t eat. I’m not hungry. The lamp smells of food. The food smells of kerosene. A spoonful is enough for today. If I eat more, I’ll be sick. I chew reluctantly. If I speak, I think less.
I tell Wilson about the scene of the nighttime shipwreck. I tell him it straight, invent nothing. He’s not surprised. He says: “This is the way the dead are usually buried.”
I’d also concluded old Poncho was in the sack. Although I couldn’t believe it.
Wilson said: “I heard her singing. Black women sing their sadness. Blacks are either very intelligent or very devious.”
“Aida moved alone, stealthily. That was what was most strange. What was she hiding from?”
“Life and darkness. Salt and songs,” he said.
Wilson neither liked nor disliked Aida. “She never tells the truth. You can’t trust people who won’t look you in the eye.”
“But,” I protested, “who tells the truth here?”
The appearance of one thing hid another with a very different meaning: it was impossible to guess what lay behind words. He preferred silence.
“We can’t imagine what she’s thinking. That woman is always skulking. She won’t let you into her house. She won’t let anything enter through her window. Besides, I never saw black Poncho dead. Did you?”
He answered neither one way nor the other. His mouth’s full and turtle meat’s lining up on his spoon.
“And what’s more, she’s always searching for strange animals. She scratches at the earth with her nails. She collects bones and amulets.”
For the moment, that was all we said about Aida. After the scene by the sea, she didn’t make an appearance for several days.
NURIA AMAT resides in Barcelona. She frequently contributes to the Spanish press.