Guiding the Ivy

Hebe Uhart

Illustration by Michela Caputo

Here I am arranging the plants so they don't disturb one another, pruning them and ridding them of ants. It pleases me to watch them grow with so little. They're sensible and adapt to their receptacles. If the pots are small the plants shrink, if given space they grow bigger. They're different from people: some people, with a mean disposition, acquire a stature that masks their true nature; others, with a big heart and ability, can end up trampled upon and overcome by the weight of life. This is what I think about as I water and transplant, this and the different personalities of each plant.

I have one plant that's tolerant to sunlight, tough, as if from the desert, which takes in only the green it needs to survive. Another is a large, attractive, insignificant ivy that doesn't have the slightest claim to originality because it looks like any old ivy you can buy anywhere, with its iridescent green. But I have another ivy, a uniform green, which has gotten smaller. It seems to say, "Iridescence is not for me." It responds by growing very slowly, shaded and sure in its caution. This is the plant I love the most. Every now and then I guide it. I understand where it wants to go and it understands where I want to guide it. Sometimes I call the iridescent ivy "stupid" because it forms into pointless arabesques. And the desert plant I respect for its robustness, but sometimes I think it's ugly. It seems ugly when I see it through the eyes of others, when someone stops over for a visit. In general I like them all. For example, there's a type of small, wild daisy known as the red bug flower. I don't know which criteria are used to distinguish it from the daisy.

Sometimes I look at my garden as if it were someone else's and I discover two flaws: one, that few plants hang gracefully, with the right verdure and sinuous movements. My plants are motionless, stumpy, lodged in their pots. The second flaw is that I have a lot of small flowerpots, varying in size, instead of ones that are large, solid, well-made and well-designed. It's because I kept putting off the task of, shall we say, lightening my burden and if I use the same expression—lightening the burden, or tidying up—when referring to my plants, it has something malicious to it. For as long as possible I put off using the malice needed to survive, ignoring it in myself and in others. I associate malice with the mundane, with the ability to immediately make out whether a plant is a red bug flower or a daisy, whether a stone is precious or worthless. I associate (or used to associate) malice with the choice to be disrespectful, according to certain objectives which no longer surprise me: the way I treat people—lots of people—grudges, the repetition of people and situations. Anyway, replacing wonder with a detective spirit has tainted me with malice, too.

But some things still amaze me. About four or five years ago I prayed to God (or to the gods) not to let me become drastic, scornful. I would say, "Dear Lord, don't let me become like the mother in that play Las de Barranco." That woman's life was a perpetual witches' sabbath. She poked her nose into the business of everyone around her. She lived her life through them, so her real wishes weren't clear; her only pleasure was shrewdness. Before I became a little bit like the Barranco mother I was horrified by that archetype, but once it became part of me I felt more comfortable: the comfort of letting go and forgetting when there's so much to remember that you don't want to look back.

Nowadays, I think one way in the morning and another in the afternoon. My decisions don't last longer than an hour and they lack the sense of euphoria that used to accompany them. Now I make a decision out of necessity, when I have no other choice. That's why I trivialize my thoughts and decisions. My thoughts used to beguile me, I loved what I thought. Now I think what I want, but what I want gets mixed up with what I should and I've lost the ability to cry. I have to distract myself a lot from what I want and what I should, or I'm simply in a state of limbo where I suffer a bit: some setbacks (whose effect can be foreseen), small frustrations (susceptible to being analyzed and rectified). I discovered the part of invention that needs and duties have—and I respect them, period, without much commitment, because they organize life. If I cry it's more often against my will. I have to distract myself from what I want and what I should, I only allow a few tears to well up.

My feelings toward people have also changed. What used to be hate—sometimes for very elaborate ideological reasons—is now only a stomachache, boredom now translates into a headache. I've lost the immediacy that makes interaction with children easy and even though I know could regain it with three short races and two funny faces, I don't want to because I envy everything they do: run, swim, play, long for so much and ask endlessly. Lately I've spent a great deal of time criticizing the manners of children in Buenos Aires with whomever, especially with taxi drivers. In general we agree: by all means, the children here are rude. But it's such a sad consensus that no conversation can develop from there.

I now believe that the reason behind the witch hunts was not because they flew through the air on broomsticks, or because of their covens. Rather, it was because they chopped up bones, they ground up brains. They also soaked pigs' ears and used the broth to shine the floors. Perhaps someone might slip and fall—this being an extremely ulterior motive; they didn't give it much importance. That's how witches would kill three birds with one stone, and that was their power. They reconstructed thoughts by ruminating on them, they cooked them and also cooked time to obtain the same product in different forms. For example, the cat: the witch has no ancestors, or husband or children. The cat represents all these for her, with the cat she negates death. The witch works like the Jivaros to reconstruct an order of the half-alive. That's why she soaks, boils and mixes perfumes with foul substances: it's to rescue the foul substances from oblivion. She revives them for those who want to forget them in the name of charm, esthetics and living beings. No, those women were not punished because they could overcome distances. They were punished because they schemed to alter the immediacy of feelings, decisions, and beings that life sustains with its own rules. And a witch does not retreat when confronted with the cross, as they say, because it's an inanimate object. She retreats from the Easter lamb.


Now that I am a bit of a witch I can see my rude streak. I eat directly from the pot, very quickly—or I do the opposite, I go to a restaurant where everyone painstakingly chews each bite six times in the name of health and I find pleasure in chewing, as if we were horses. I fall in love with old slippers. I throw too much water on the plants after cleaning the balcony so that mud drips from the pots, (thus dirtying that which has been washed—I negate time, since I have to clean again). I cook a lot, because I take pleasure in the raw becoming cooked. And I wholly reject ecological arguments, if the planet self-destructs in two hundred years I'd like to rise from the grave to watch the show. I exchange impressions with my other witchy friends and our conversation is confined to fleeting words, stories of our various obsessions, mutual tests of witchcraft, to perfect them; for example, learning to kill three birds with one stone—not necessarily to do evil, but rather to beat time, to pick our battles wisely, not go around flogging dead horses when a dead horse can't even take you for a ride.

But it wasn't always like this, it wasn't like this. Before I thought about letting go and killing two birds with one stone I suffered for two years as I had never before suffered in my life. One morning I cried with the same intensity for two different reasons.

I understood what happens to those who die and those who leave. They come back in dreams and say, "I'm here, but I'm not here. I'm here but I'm leaving," and I say to them, "Stay a little longer," but they give no explanation. If they stay it's as if they were withdrawn, somewhere else, and they look at me like distant visitors. In that realm of oblivion where they've gone they have other professions and have changed the way they are. And everything we've argued and spoken about, eaten and laughed about becomes part of oblivion and I don't want to meet new people or see my friends. As soon as I start talking to someone it's me who sends them to the realm of oblivion, before they have time to leave or die.


I wake up and sense that I'm alive, morning comes. My head is blank; nothing to do, nothing to think. I'm not about to stay in bed smoking with no ideas in my head. Suddenly, I'm overcome with extremely good intentions unrelated to anything in particular: I shower, comb my hair, heat up water. I wake up and my good intentions surge. It's a day in March and the sunlight shines evenly, the little birds toil, they flit from here to there. I am going to work, too. I know what I'll do: I'm going to guide the ivy, but not with an ordinary string, I'll tie it with vegetable string. There it is, secure against the wall. I remove the dead leaves from the ivy and everything else in sight. You could say that I have a dead leaf-removing fit, but the expression isn't right because it's a calm fit; still, I wouldn't dare stop until I've removed the last ant and the last ailing leaf. I stack all those small flowerpots; they'll go to other homes, maybe with other plants. A plane flies by high overhead and suddenly I'm filled with such joy and peace by performing this task that I do it even more slowly, so as not to finish. I'd like someone to come find me like this, in the morning. But everyone is absorbed in other, different jobs—perhaps they're suffering or complaining or coming down with the flu—it doesn't matter, it'll pass and at some point they'll experience some sort of happiness like I'm feeling now. I feel so humbled and so kind at the same time that I could thank someone, although I don't know who. I look over my garden and I'm hungry, I deserve a peach. I turn on the radio and hear them talking about the troy ounce. I don't know what it is, nor do I care. Giddy up, beautiful life.

translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy



Read the original in Spanish

Read translator’s note

Hebe Uhart (b. 1936, Moreno) is one of Argentina's finest storytellers. Her collected works, Relatos Reunidos, were published by Alfaguara in 2010, winning an award at the 2011 Buenos Aires Book Fair. Her latest collection of travel essays, Visto y Oído, was published by Adriana Hidalgo in 2012. She lives in Buenos Aires.

Maureen Shaughnessy (b. 1979, Oregon) is an editor-at-large at Asymptote. She has translated stories by Hebe Uhart, Norah Lange, Margarita García Robayo and Luis Nuño. Her translations have been published by World Literature Today, Words Without Borders and Asymptote, and are forthcoming by The Antioch Review and InTranslation. She lives in Bariloche, Argentina.


'Guiding the Ivy' is one of Uhart's more complex stories. It starts with our narrator describing the personalities of her houseplants, a meditation on their qualities, but unravels into a stream of consciousness on her thoughts about growing older, becoming hardened by old age and losing the sense of awe bestowed upon us by youth.

She references the play Las de Barranco, written by Gregorio de Laferrère in 1908. It is a classic Argentine tragicomedy in which the mother, Doña María del Barranco, an overbearing widow, tries to marry off her three daughters to wealthy men staying at her boardinghouse. Doña María is an archetypical character in Rioplatense drama.

Rioplatense Spanish is spattered with vivid dialectical challenges for the translator, as it often makes use of words in Lunfardo, a slang from low-income neighborhoods in Buenos Aires originating at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Lunfardo and tango music are deeply entwined. This story includes the idiomatic phrases "to pick our battles wisely" and "not go around flogging dead horses". The literal translation of these phrases from Lunfardo is roughly, "don't waste gunpowder on a chimango", a bird of prey unfit for eating, and "don't overestimate the value of a whistle".

I personally fell in love with Uhart's work through the sense of humor in her stories: discrete and subtle, yet her characters say and think the strangest things, making them more believable and endearing. They are eccentric, childlike. Uhart pays attention to the way real people speak, setting aside what the characters say and focusing on how they say it, how they move when they walk or how they remain still. The result is always an intimate portrait of these peculiar beings.

Although 'Guiding the Ivy' delves into deep themes, the ending is upbeat. We are left with the beauty of engaging in a solitary activity such as spending time with one's houseplants.


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