Por Isabel Bussy
An exclusive short story on inhabiting that no man’s land that is the emotional and physical space that exists between two languages. It is beautifully described in a stream of consciousness way while being an autobiographical tale of exile, emotional aridity, integration and also how arbitrary languages can be
Hay un territorio muerto y no es el mío. That was the first line to a poem I wrote when I was ten. One of those that received a few applause and pats on the shoulder. I remember I won the award for best fictional piece in Spanish. No one else in my class spoke Spanish.
Next day I didn’t go to school. It was morning and the sky coiled on itself, shaded and razored until it burst with no sound. Hay un territorio muerto y no es el mío. Es de los lobos, es de los granos, es de la espada. I was in the garden when it started raining and I still remember the moistness of orphan leaves lost between my toes as I ran back home. I put the rocks I had found in my box. Categorized them by types like igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Probably words I couldn’t pronounce in any language at the time. ¿Me conoces? Vivimos juntos. Vivimos juntos en territorio invadido. En territorio invadido sin saber de quién. Mama got annoyed I had so many bug bites and she made me some toast with butter. “¿Cuándo vas a aprender a cuidarte sola?”
We used to live in a house framed around trees, tinted only by the light they allowed to pass through each branch and nest. It was wooden and clothed in a dark olive shade until we decided to paint it white, or colorless in itself. Hay mucho hielo, hielo que llegó antes que el agua. Hay mucho viento, viento que llego antes que mí. I sought out to get buckets of paint from the trunk of our 2000 black Jeep Cherokee, one in each hand, and wobbled like a ropewalker back to the house. “Papa, are we going to be done next week?” I stared at him on top of a ladder slanted against the front door. “No, no creo.” “Ahora puedo ver la casa coming back from school!” “Sí, ya no se camufla con el bosque.” “Igual, todo se camufla con el bosque después.” Hay mares y sirenas que llegaron antes que tu voz. Hay rayos y las musas mudas de Dios. We went back inside for dinner. The first and last image of the day was always Mama’s painting. Veered onto a wooden easel it stood having swallowed a dark Prussian blue, layered in crusts through cemented waves. In the center stood an enormous fish. Lips and fins. Eyes and gills. Dios que no quiso cantar nuestras canciones. Dios que no quiso ver como ahogábamos el mar. “Ma, que comemos?” “Empanadas de carne.” “Siempre comemos lo mismo…¿por qué no podemos pedir comida? Mis amigos yankees siempre piden.” I always sat with my back facing the fish. Now I wish I hadn’t. “Hay algunas un poco quemadas. Cuidado que están caliente.” I wish I faced it long enough to remember. I wish I could tell you about its tinges of green and indigo and white. I wish I could say what it looked like in the dark since light does not see for itself. Dios no quiso ver el territorio muerto. Porque hay un territorio muerto, pero alguien dijo que es mío. “Ya no me gustan las empanadas.” “Imposible.” The painting had no lamp, no podium to keep it from vanishing in the dark when the candles were blown out like the rest of us. “Te gustan las empanadas desde chica.” “¿Qué pasa si I don’t like them now?” “Te las comes igual.”
Mama prayed with us every night before going to bed. My brother’s bed lay horizontal to mine following the rim of the wall like an incompetent T. ¿Quién dijo que esto es mío? She would kneel next to our beds and hold our hands. “Hay algo más allá que los está cuidando. Hay algo que siempre los escucha.”. ¿Quién me está cuidando? Modeled by my torso lay Voltaire. A cat, robust and presumptuous, patterned by tints of Persian grey and muddy fur that were hard to see in the dark. He would always have breakfast with Mama, scooping what was left of her buttered toast with his paws and licking them. “¿Estás despierta?” my brother called in the dark. “¿Qué pasó?” “Tengo miedo.” “Es solo lightning.” “Sí, pero there is thunder too.” “Bueno, ven a mi cama.” I started writing to God when I was eight. I left notes under my bed, ripped from my geology notebook. Asked all sorts of questions; if I could ever breathe under water, if I could speak many languages, if I could ever see in the dark. I checked every morning to see if there was any reply. Los muertos ya no están, porque estamos nosotros. Nos estaba cuidando Dios, pero nos comimos el aceite y el escombro. There was no response until after a few weeks: “Solo en tu imaginación – D”. I had asked whether I was able to talk to animals. I wrote many notes after that. Grew into the habit of checking under my pillow anyway. But promised myself I wouldn’t write to Him again, as if concealing a dream from ever seeing daylight.
Hay un territorio muerto y es el mío. That was the first line of a poem I wrote for my Spanish class in Chile. We moved. I was twelve. Everyone in my class knew Spanish. No one commented on my poem. I met my friends during the school tour and I was introduced as the “new American”. I’d spend most of my recess in line for some empanadas fritas and jugo de naranja from the school kiosk. Mid way through the year Mama was called in for a meeting at school. “Señora buenas tardes, me gustaría hablarle sobre la compresión de lectura y gramática de su hija.” Nos arrebataron los shihuahuacos y tornillos. “Lo mismo de siempre supongo.” “Está reprobando castellano, de nuevo. No sabe analizar un libro básico y acumula errores de gramática como caramelos.” “Disculpe, pero mi hija sabe castellano perfectamente, le enseñé yo.” Nos dejaron la lengua al aire, clavada en un tronco talado. “Señora, su hija tiene doce años y escribe ‘que’ como ‘ke’.” Inerte y férrea, hostil y sagrada. Mama got up and left. She was quiet and somber the rest of the day and at night she made me panqueque with dulce de leche. I was sixteen when we read Borges at school. “Es de nuestras tierras, léelo con atención”, Mama said. “No conozco esas tierras. Y son tuyas, no mías.” Mama had a picture of me on a horse in our ranch outside Buenos Aires stuffed in her wallet. “Este fue el primer día que dijiste la palabra ‘caballo’” she said to herself as if to immortalize something in the dark because light only acknowledges shadows. “y dijiste que querías vivir en el campo conmigo cuando seas grande.” She smiled faintly and faithful only to a memory. “No me acuerdo.” We read Borges for a few months. Couldn’t understand much except for his poems about Buenos Aires naming streets that echoed behind words that didn’t know where they came from.
After living almost a decade in Chile I chose my university to be back in the United Sates. Along came the rest of my family who found the fossils of the American dream might be better than our decaying land. La dejaron hasta que se secó como las plumas de un pájaro muerto. I woke up to frigid toes and pale blue skies. I woke up to Mama’s radio and a single sock on my right foot. “Siempre el mismo calcetín del lado derecho. Algún día te voy a pintar.” La dejaron hasta que nuestras lenguas estuvieran solo en cuentos. It smelled like coffee and paint. “No sé por qué es siempre el derecho.” “Bueno y ¿a quién más le vamos a preguntar?” Her hands were stained with dun-colored acrylic and marmalade. “A los duendes. A los que viven en el bosque y te miran desde que naciste.” “Son solo mitos Mama.” “Mitos que este país no tiene y por eso la gente no tiene magia.” She kept the radio on even long after she had gone up and left. As if the echo of it resounding through our corridors would bring her back home. I wondered if I would do the same when I grew up, but it’s been years and I still haven’t turned on the radio. Instead, I got in the car and drove to school.
I saw a few dead cats on the way and more flags than I thought friendly. I remember it in my dreams now, my forest, my land. Highway and mold and a moving sun that found itself reflecting no warmth but just a dimmed weak light. “Avísame cuando llegues”, Mama texted. Passed by more stoplights than dogs and more cops than trash cans. I parked as far away from class as possible and saw another flag. The one I ran through barefoot and the mustiness of dead flowers seeped between my toes. Even now I can’t remember how they would speak to me. I’d get the occasional question on where I am from or why my tongue slurs in a way they haven’t heard before. “Oh it must be so nice to have tropical weather all the time.” “This is probably not spicy enough for you” and more statements of an exhibit seen all too many times. A place where branches found no sun under other branches and I ran under blisters of light. There was a quota of threat almost, in the way they described my skin and eyes and lips, as if what existed without their knowledge existed without their consent. Only loyal to tales of wars where the desert wind would polish their ruins and then return to homeland owning the edge of earth and back. It didn’t exist solely in my mind. I spent most of my days reading in my car or skating in the parking lot. Never paid a parking ticket because I found it stupid it was not part of the extensive tuition. “¿Dónde estás? Vamos a comer milanesas y te estamos esperando”, Mama texted. It existed with its burdens and charms all on its own. She didn’t know I was the only car in the lot with a bright yellow parking boot I was trying to clamp off.
I am almost twenty-four now and living ‘where I am from’. Moved back here a year ago but still have some books over at Mama’s cause they didn’t all fit in the boxes. There was a certain stillness to the wind that strolled around its barks. I used to think I came back to honor something of mine. Un territorio muerto que es mío. It fiddled with the flowers and the fire and the carcasses on the muddy soil. My whole family used to smoke so I tried picking up smoking and quit about four times. Mama always said cooking is some sort of remedy and sent me recipes of empanadas and pastel de papa and milanesas. It wandered blameless under the moon like I would if I had the chance to. Bought a bottle of wine on my way back from la calle and all the ingredients but probably spent more time drinking than cutting up vegetables so I quit. The moon was shaved and shapeless that night. All of which had no reflection for the forest made no impressions of anyone but itself. My therapist said I should look in the mirror three times a day and write down what I see. Unfamiliar, fleeting, and rugged were some of the words on the paper. In rivers and streams I would stare in search for anything of mine I could recognize. As if the contour of my eyes had swallowed what I imagined myself to be and my tongue stripped of any fluent belonging. Poke the water that lay still as if its echo had any comedy to it. I never did want to agree with Heraclitus or any pre-Socratic speech. And hope that when it reverted back to stillness I could see my face. But here I was, staring at the linings around my lips and the thickness of my eyebrows and the only geography I could declare my own. Time budged as usual and I even tried picking up horseback riding for Mama but quit after a few months so I tried reading instead. Night fell under a dead sky, the ones you see peeled of any moon or star, and I laid staring at the ceiling for a while. Skimmed through my library to find my annotations in each book. I fingered my way through Galeano and Juan Rulfo and all of those until I found a marked poem in a book by Borges: “Si para todo hay término y hay tasa y última vez y nunca más y olvido. ¿Quién nos dirá de quién, en esta casa, sin saberlo, ¿nos hemos despedido?” I kept flipping through until I found the poem Fervor de Buenos Aires and a paper dropped from between the pages. Hay un territorio muerto y no es el mío. That was the first line to a poem I wrote when I was ten. There is land but it is not dead. There is land and it is not dead, and it is mine.
Isabel Bussy was born in Argentina but has lived in several countries like Chile, the United States and Germany. She is currently studying medicine and philosophy in Buenos Aires. This is her first story for Perro Negro