Eucalyptus, Dead and Burning in the Sun
Translated from the Spanish by Annaliese Hoehling
He called to tell me he loved me. I already knew he loved me—I was coming to know it—but I never dared to respond. I would always stand frozen with the receiver in my hand, not able to utter a word and knowing that he loved me. He had sent me Death in Venice in a special edition with leather binding and watermarked paper like in a Bible. Only someone who loved me could send me a book like that, a book I fell in love with the first time I read it, in a rundown library, and that I had probably read at least once a year ever since because it had the unique power, that book, of soothing me. Only someone who loved me could have sent it to me, and I’m sure he loved me a lot.
He was always sending me books and one time even gave me a pair of coral earrings, which fascinated me; I’d never seen coral before. They were reddish, and he explained to me, when the package came, that red coral symbolized passion, and passion was what he felt for me. Of course, of all the gifts, I preferred the books, and he knew it. He knew practically all about me—that’s what I felt every time I picked up the phone and heard his voice, faint and yearning for me. He had sent me Death in Venice along with books by Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Quevedo. He sent me La hora de todos y la Fortuna con seso by Quevedo, which I loved. I enjoyed reading it so much that it was the one time I almost said something to him. Almost told him that he, the man who spoke to me by phone from very far away, was my only connection, my bridge to the world. That I needed him desperately, as much as he said he needed me. But at night, when he called, I kept silent, biting my lips. I was dying to thank him for sending me books, so many books I had no way of getting here—that never would have made it to the island.
There had been German books here, at first. Then they were burned. My father built a bonfire of books, books written in a complicated, antique lettering, in German. He burned them like he burned everything that had to do with Germany. Not even the language survived. None of us learned it, me or my brothers. None of us. Except Fausto. We did know, however, the word for “spider.” Spinner. We knew it because it referred to the Association of the Spider, die Spinner. My father used to talk about The Spider very respectfully, even though he never said “The Spider” but always “die Spinner,” pronounced in his Bavarian accent, in a voice that rose from the depths of his nasal passage and then exited from my impetuous father’s nostrils, exited as if the terrible Bavarian accent came from a dragon. Die Spinner was, had been, the only German word that my father would ever utter.
When he became old his senility confused him every now and then, and when he spoke of my mother, of the inerasable memory that my mother had left in his life, he would confusedly call her Vera, not Martina. Vera Huss had been her name until the escape, until the flight from Germany, back in the ’50s, when she changed her name to Martina—more native-sounding, she thought. She was the only plump, white, blond Martina that had ever existed and would ever exist on the island. Besides me, of course. According to my father, I’m a little like her. I don’t know how I could be like her, my mother, Miss Vera Huss, who played the piano day and night, who was a concert pianist in Berlin, who had played for sophisticated people. Later her hands were ruined, her fingers, those special hands people say pianists have—long and thin. We had to wash our clothes in the river, against the rocks, and so her hands were ruined. That’s when I asked (I have always been asking the same thing—my whole life is nothing but the incessant echo of that question): Why did we leave Germany? Why did they leave Germany? At first they wouldn’t answer me. My mother would shrug her shoulders or look off into the distance, to the other side of the river, to the city. She would look at the river with her celestial eyes, almost transparent, eyes like we all had, my brothers and I. Except Fausto. All of my brothers except Fausto, the Dark One. Fausto wasn’t like any of us because he was the Dark One. He was the one who tried to explain to me that if we had stayed, if they, my father and my mother, had stubbornly stayed in Germany, they would have hanged my father. I asked myself—so many times—if he knew, if the man who said he loved me knew about our past, if he knew that my father would have been executed in Germany if he had stayed.
He, the man who called me, knew all about me. But I was afraid. I had a fear that took my breath from me, that nested in my rib cage like a skinny bird with a high-pitched voice—a long and skinny bird like the hands of pianists which, as they say, are very special, like those my mother had, there in Berlin, when she was called Vera Huss and played the piano. Or no—the fear was a spider, die Spinner, weaving its web along the edges of the air in my lungs. It told me, my fear told me, dictated to me, that perhaps the man who declared that he loved me, who called me from very far away, wasn’t coming for me, that he was nothing more than an envoy coming to snatch my father from his wicker chair. Despite his years, the years that had passed since he had arrived from Germany, despite the Argentine passport that came authorized from above, or so said the short and stocky official with his snow-white dentures who delivered to my father the passport, the Argentine document that called him something different. Eugenio, he was called, Eugenio Sterba. My poor father could barely pronounce his own name. His terrible Bavarian accent kept him from pronouncing Eugenio, pronouncing the Spanish “ge” sound of Eugenio because it was burned up, sucked in by his accent, his origins.
I was suspicious, then, of the man who called me. I supposed that, even after all these years, he would come to remove my father from his wicker chair. After the long silence over the years, this man who said he loved me would come—but maybe he didn’t really love me completely. Maybe he would come with a rabid ambition to take my father from his wicker chair where he sat murmuring empty words, words in an affected castellano—poorly translated, I might say—to bring him to justice, to what the man who was calling me believed was justice: a courtroom, a charade, and the gallows. But who could do it? Who could pass judgment on what it’s like to live outside of understanding? The gallows. Yes, the gallows would understand. They line the rope with smooth calf hide, Fausto says, so as not to mar the neck of the condemned. The factory of one John Edgington, in England, sent forty cords of Italian hemp for the three ropes they raised in Nuremberg. The man who was calling me, who loved me, was probably after my father.
I suspected this because whenever one of my brothers answered the phone—anyone besides Fausto, the Dark One—the man always said, ordered: “Noth, get me the girl.” He was the only one who knew: he knew the name Noth, our old last name, the name with which my father had marched in file with his soldiers. “Noth, get me the girl,” he said, ordering—and the bird, the black bird that lived in my chest, or the spider, die Spinner, would suddenly thrash about within in me, causing spasms in my lungs so that I wheezed. I would wheeze, barely able to respond with a hissing, “Yes?”
The man who called me never said a word to Fausto, the Dark One of us. Even though Fausto knew that it was him, the man who’d sent the books and the coral, who called my other brothers “Noth,” but not him, Fausto, because Fausto was the Dark One. My father had made him that way; my father confided in him, had always confided in him, because of his darkness. It was Fausto who came and went from our island to the city, who sold the honey, who brought back the mother-of-pearl barrettes for my mother’s hair, and the inhaler for me. Fausto the Dark One, the son of my father, more the child of my father than any of us, left us here, on the island, among the eucalyptus, dead and burning in the sun. We were left to watch the cheerful Fausto come and go, to and from the city, thanks to the chance darkness of his complexion and his unruly hair, his wooly hair—and us, the Noths, felt more Noth than ever, more Noth than him, at least, corralled on the island like sick and trembling white rats. Get me the girl, Noth, were the words the stranger repeated when any of my brothers, except Fausto, answered the phone.
My father never answered. My father never moved, never got up from his wicker chair. He muttered things, words to himself, or grumbled all day, so that if you passed by him, by the end of the day, you’d think he was buzzing—that he’d been transformed, little by little, into those bees that he’d so laboriously raised, planting flowers for them to live off of: peonies, dahlias, chrysanthemums, and even a border of tea roses that lasted only shortly, that the flood had washed away. He treated the bees like little, genteel, educated companions, whose hive was, in his mind, the product of thoughtful work, a meditation. He treated the bees as intelligent beings. With time, he gave up his interest in beekeeping. With time and the death of my mother. Sometimes, within the buzzing of my father, during his senility, you could hear, I thought I heard, my mother’s name, Vera. He called her; he was always calling my mother.
I did know one story from her life, my mother’s life, one Fausto had told me. Fausto was the most knowledgeable of us, about history, our history, because my father had confided in him, speaking only with him, confiding in him from the beginning because of his darkness. I knew the story about my mother giving up the piano. For my father. It was for the love of my father, Fausto said, for my father who loved her so much that he was jealous of the piano. Of the music. My mother loved him too, I suppose, because she didn’t hesitate, didn’t bat an eye when she had to choose between my father and the piano. What was the piano, after all, my brother asked. A piece of furniture, he answered for himself. But he didn’t ask—my brother didn’t ask himself what my father was, after all, and he didn’t ask himself that because he feared the terse answer he’d respond with, a response that would go something like, “a young officer on the rise.” A pitiful answer. It was obvious that neither the questions nor the answers really mattered to Fausto. Clearly, he was happy. He came and went from the island to the city, selling the honey, meeting people, other boys, girls—while we were left in the shade of the eucalyptus, dead and burning in the sun, trying to shield our skin, like trembling white rats.
He, Fausto, wasn’t naïve. If he’d been in my place, he would have had no illusions about why a man would be calling me from so far away, telling me that he loved me, that he felt passion for me, and that’s what the red coral he sent me meant. He would have had no illusions about the man who knew all about me, like for example that my last name, my real, true name, was Noth, and that I spent my time reading and rereading the books that he sent me, under the eucalyptus, irritated by the relentless sun of this island like a poor white rat while listening to the groaning of my father, buzzing, Vera, Vera, which was the name that my mother used in Berlin, and he called her, tirelessly, because she, her existence, her pale body, was the one link my father had to his life there, to his life in Germany.
She was the one thing that transported him to that life, to that world free of floods and mosquitoes, flies, rattlesnakes, and all the pests on the island where we were hidden, all of us except Fausto, because he was the Dark One. We were all trapped on the island, beyond, outside of, the world. And, anyway, except for my mother—and maybe Fausto, who was chosen by him to pass on our history—we, my other brothers and I, didn’t really matter to him, my father. We were just ghosts passing through this damned island, clearing a path with a machete, slashing at vegetation that closed us in like a prison.
I had told him, after the first of the phone calls from the stranger, that I was going to leave the island. And he, my father, became tense, the shadow of tension fluttering across his face. He told me that it wouldn’t do, that to leave would be to die, and it would bring death to all of us. That my lungs would burst the first time I made love. “Why, Papa? Why are you doing this to me?” I asked. He would have struck me if he could, but he couldn’t move or get up from the wicker chair, and he didn’t have the strength to send for one of my brothers to strike me. Nobody ever could hit me. My brothers, including Fausto even though he was different, never dared to touch me. It was as if I were made of two completely different materials at the same time. As if I were made of delicate china and filthy, smelly clay at the same time, so none of them, not even Fausto, dared to touch me. They didn’t even try to cut off the communication when the man called me from far away, the man who perhaps possessed an unusual sense of justice and would come pursuing the convict that was my father, to carry out, complete, that particular sense of justice of his. Or perhaps he was waiting for me to answer him, to speak to him, because he was in love with me; he could have been desperately in love with me and at the same time hiding the three meters of Italian hemp rope covered with calf hide so it wouldn’t wound the old skin of my father, the man who was carried to bed every night in the arms of one of my brothers.
So I waited for the call. It was time, and I was thinking, and I still heard the crackling voice calling Vera, Vera. And the phone started to ring with its clear bell. My heart started to leap in my chest, and with every leap of my heart my lungs were rasping and deteriorating like the old rocks, the very ancient rocks that were at the point of splitting open. I waited for the man who was calling me to say to my youngest brother the short, cruel, initial phrase: “Noth, get me the girl.” And while I was waiting, I slowly turned the pages of the Tolstoy book that he had sent me—pages, and pages. And, when it was time, I went to the phone and held my breath for a few seconds so that my heart would calm down and quit roaring, so I could stammer, “Yes?” The same “Yes?” as always, plain, high-pitched, which followed the long, interminable silence that had been, that could come to be, our lives. My life.
“Yes?” I stammered, and took a breath that seemed to suck in all the air from the room. My knees trembled, and, slowly, tentatively, I added: “This is Eva Noth. Who’s this?”
Patricia Suárez was born in Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina, and currently lives in Buenos Aires. Her publications include the novels Aparte del principio de la realidad and Completamente solo, and the collections El Abedul y otros cuentos and La Italiana y otros cuentos. She’s won awards such as the Concurso para Jóvenes Narradores Haroldo Conti, the Primer Premio en el Ciclo de Teatro Leído de Argentores, and the Premio del Instituto Nacional de Teatro. Her most recent publication is a collection of poetry, LATE (2003).
Annaliese Hoehling lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she is working toward an MFA in Translation. She’s won two Lily Peter Fellowships for Translation (2002 and 2003), a Walton Fellowship for Translation (2004-05), and is co-founding editor of the University of Arkansas’s journal PASSPORT: The Arkansas Review of Literary Translation. Her translations of Patricia Suárez’s work have appeared in The Literary Review and New Orleans Review. (7/2004)