When the Past Hangs Around Your Neck
To Jorge Payá, for his good ideas
Stretched out on the beach, Lyuba removes her bikini top, nestles into the warm sand, and feels a prick. It’s a shell that sparkles in the sun. It looks very old. Without much thought, she tosses it aside and closes her eyelids, which glow with red light. Beside her, Jan steels himself for the test that will decide his fate. He’s crazy for Lyuba but doesn’t dare tell her. Soon he’ll have to return home, so he should either speak now or forever hold his peace. He picks up the shell, studies it. Through the little windows time has opened he sees a logarithmic spiral, the kind that rotates and expands from an infinitesimal point. He decides to set the shell on Lyuba’s belly button. If it balances for more than two minutes he’ll ask her to marry him. If it falls off he’ll return to his homeland, move away from the girl like that infinite spiral moves away from its center. As he lifts his hand, he notices that Lyuba has a strange belly button. It’s an outie. Nothing will balance there. Above, a peregrine falcon draws wider and wider circles in the sky.
Forty years earlier, a young woman lurks in the brush. It’s night, and this rainy June the vegetation seems fuller than usual. She carries an apple in her pocket, the only food she has to eat. If she searches under night’s cover she might find something else—the Germans must be asleep at their surveillance posts. Hunger is stronger than fear and, besides, she has legs made for running. She looks up at the sky, sees a miracle of floating parachutes, like beautiful pregnant kites. She crouches, watching them. Shots fire in the distance. The girl runs, hides, stumbles and falls face down on a soldier who looks asleep, but with his eyes open and almost transparent, eyes that look towards the sky as if asking a question. He’s not German, the Germans don’t wear this uniform. Taking care not get blood on her, she checks his pockets, finds a medal, some foreign coins, an iridescent shell, a photograph. She hides the money and throws the shell towards the sea. All of a sudden, giant hands seize her by the neck, a German soldier, he rips the coins away, repeating furiously, “Dollar! Dollar!” As she walks with her hands behind her head, she realizes: if she’d thrown away the coins instead of the shell it would have saved her life.
Almost two centuries before, a girl strolls along this beach. She thinks about her father, a man to whom nothing matters as much as money, and about her mother who shamelessly deceives him. Between her mother’s furious freedom and her father’s greed, the girl prefers her. She hates this Godforsaken place, this depraved town where nobody has dreams. Winter has sunk its teeth into the gray sea. The girl jumps, gathers her petticoat away from the lace of the waves, faint salt lines appear on her boots. She picks up a shell, toying with it on the way home. In the living room, by the fire, her mother seems to float atop the evening sadness. She wears a new dress, her hair upswept, cheeks burning. The girl decides to surprise her with a gift, and slips the shell inside her purse. As she does so, her hand grazes a piece of paper. She balls it up in her fist, waits smiling for the woman to caress her. But the girl bores her mother. The woman finds the shell, holds it up between two fingers, muttering, who put this crap here, she gives her daughter a shove and rushes off. Later, between the sheets, the girl reads the promissory note her mother signed to a moneylender. She tiptoes out of bed, leaves the note open on her father’s table. In the morning, cocooned in her blankets, she smiles, listening to the screams.
Centuries ago, also in Normandy, a crowd advances. The plague has been declared, and prophets sell salvation, threatening the stake. Desperate, mothers toss their newborns into the sea, as if the rocking waves offer a fate less tortuous than life. Warrior maidens promise to save them, and, though nobody believes them, they follow them still, in the end faith nourishes. Some move towards an unknown destination. Others retreat with the wagons carrying the deceased, and when they are exhausted, abandon them on the side of the road, without time to close the eyes of the dead. All tremble but for a little girl who smiles, jogs behind the crowd. She doesn’t have a family, at least not one she remembers. Her sole possessions are the clothes on her back and a shell she picked up on the beach. She does cartwheels for coins, which are tossed with hostile words that don’t bother her because she’s deaf. The blows yes, the blows hurt. That’s how she lost her hearing, and she has vowed to get revenge. The next time they strike me, she says, the next time. The occasion arises as a soldier pushes a young woman towards the stake. The girl cartwheels, extends her hand towards the soldier, and, irritated by the crowd’s silence and the cries of the condemned, he strikes her in the face, then rips off the shell hanging from her neck. The girl spits out a tooth. After dark, she chooses a live coal among the sleeping embers, creeps over to the hay cart where the soldier is snoring. A little while later, the town is burning, the soldier howls, his long hair in flames.
It’s freezing as night falls two hundred thousand years ago. Next to the bonfires, in the distance, the tribe swarms about, it’s hungry, it devours itself. There’s no hunting this winter, no fishing either, the grass can’t pierce the ice. The blackened forest seems dead, snow immediately covers the animals’ tracks between the giants trees. A female has fallen behind her group, can no longer keep up. And there’s no time to get to the cave where she could lie down on the furs. She’s alone on the beach and her belly is heavy. Her fear has been growing for a while now. Fear and urgency. How can she survive surrounded by ice? What will she do by herself until the heat arrives? The sea is a limitless field of ice that you can walk across. The rhythmic pains in her belly force her to squat. She’s never given birth, and begins to salivate, the mess that will flow from her might be her salvation. She also knows this won’t be easy. But blood, there is lots of blood between her legs, blood always comes first—thick, red, hot, nutritious blood. She howls, grabs ahold of her knees, pushes and roars, the effort breaks her. When she is exhausted, when she can’t go on any longer, finally something tumbles out. The female examines the sticky mess, poking at it, finding its scent. She opens her maw over the tempting body, about to lick the blood. How easy it would be to pounce on this defenseless, warm meal now beginning to whine, hunger overwhelms her and saliva floods her throat. Suddenly, on the snow covering the beach, a glimmer catches her eye. It’s a sparkling shell. For a second, it distracts her from her greed. The moon has risen, illuminating the shell’s iridescence. The female, so weary, feels an unfamiliar emotion awaken somewhere inside her body. Everything shines in the pale light, and in the strange silence the sky is a celebration of stars. She closes her jaws, clenches her teeth, restrains herself. With the flint she carries on her hip, she pierces the shell, gestures vaguely for good luck, ties the talisman around her daughter’s neck.
When the world was a boundless blue ocean, when all life existed underwater and the land was no more than bare rock, the first gastropods emerged and crawled onto the beaches. This was more than 500 million years ago. Maybe the patient sea salt allowed these creatures to accumulate their beautiful layers, maybe fate’s meticulous hand carved them, drawing expanding spirals on their shells. Beautiful, but defenseless, they bounced on the wild waves, fizzled in the foam, floated. Thus, pushed by the sea, a shell came ashore. There were hardly any clouds, the emergent land floated south, and Europe was a newborn island on whose beach the mollusk landed, it began to squirm, replicate itself, to expand its spirals until it became whirlpools, hurricanes, galaxies.
About the Translator
Rachel Ballenger is a writer and translator from the San Francisco Bay Area. She was educated at UC Berkeley. Among other outlets, her work appears in Your Impossible Voice, Gulf Coast and the Los Angeles Review of Books. An excerpt from her novel Take My Life won the Inprint Joan & Stanford Alexander Prize.