A piece that will bring you face to face with the anxieties of childhood, with a dollop of the sticky sweetness of dulce de leche. It is a gorgeous treat that has been brought exclusively for Asymptote readers in translation by the Miguel Angel Asturias National Literature Prize for lifetime achievement winner, David Unger.
Finn is under the bed, perhaps the safest place in the world. The boy feels he has nothing to fear and yet, there he is, under the bed in the waning half-light. First he lies face down in back near the headboard. He finds a hair curler under the bed and spins it. He’s happy because sometimes the curler spins in a circle and other times it veers to the right or left.
There’s dust under the bed, a fine layer of dust. Finisberto imagines that his finger is a crayon and he draws the outline of a doll. He thinks it’s a good drawing. He turns on his back, counting the bed slats above him. He can hear someone calling his name from far off. It’s the calm voice of his grandmother, soft and sweet. “Fiiinnnn.” He likes the smell of his grandmother’s hands. Sometimes he grabs one of them and run it over his cheeks while watching television.
Her voice edges closer, dangerously close. Finn scrunches himself at the farthest corner under the bed and closes his eyes. He recognizes her steps on the carpet, the rhythm of her pace on the bare floor. He stifles his laughter. His grandma will think he’s lost; she’ll sit on the corner of the bed and shout out his name, pleading with God to make him appear. And then Finn will stick his hand out from under the fringes of the bedcover making believe it´s a cat´s claw hunting for his grandmother´s ankles.
This time, however, he has to be more imaginative: his grandmother already knows the cat-under-the-bed trick. This time he’ll pretend to be a spider climbing up her leg. Grandma will sit at the edge of the bed and call out to St. Kahn D. Cane, the patron of lost boys.
But what Finn had hoped for doesn’t happen. The half-light disappears all at once when the grandmother raises the fringe of the bedcover. Her voice isn’t sweet and calming any more. He comes face to face with a woman demanding that he come out immediately. Finn senses something isn’t quite right. Maybe his grandma is angry…He’s frightened for a second and a bit humiliated since he’s the master of surprises and hiding places, and his grandma has found him right away.
“Let’s go, Finisbestro. Come out right now. For the love of God.”
Grandma’s voice is not sweet, but sharp and curt like the voice of a school principal. Finn crawls out and looks at her face. He’s expecting the usual caress, but this time she grabs his wrist roughly and scolds him: “Look how dirty you are. Didn’t I tell you that Grandpa is coming today?”
Now the boy remembers. Grandma had told him that Grandpa would be visiting. He lives far away now and rarely visits. But Finn doesn’t enjoy his visits; Grandpa’s always grumpy. He seems to bark instead of speak and this scares him. He is tall, stern and has thick eyebrows.
Every time he comes, he calls Finn over and inspects him to make sure his nails are cut, his hair neat and his clothes clean and pressed. If his shoes are scuffed, he has to bring out the shoeshine box and polish his shoes right in front of him.
“If your shoes aren’t like a mirror for me to shave, then I won’t give you chocolates. You have to earn them. A man has to act responsibly.”
Finn stops listening to Grandpa the moment he starts scolding him. He imagines strange shapes forming in the air. His grandfather scares him. Actually he terrifies him and makes him shudder.
Grandma tells him to go wash up. There’s no time to heat the water so he’ll have to take a cold bath. His nanny will help him. Then his grandma disappears again, in a huff, probably on the way to cook in the kitchen. Every time Grandpa comes, he insists that Grandma cook him a special meal. She rushes back and forth, plucking chickens, making sauces, marinating meats and making coffee the only way she knows he likes it. And if Finn comes too near, she barksthat she’s too busy and will have more time for him once Grandpa leaves.
Finn doesn’t like his grandpa. One day he heard his parents talking about Grandma and Grandpa’s divorce and when he left the house. The older kids in school say the word Divorce almost in a whisper. It was a word that Finn didn’t really understand. Later he understood that that the unspeakable word meant that Grandpa wouldn’t be coming back and Grandma would be very sad. Finn didn’t respect anyone who had made his Grandma suffer, even if it had happened a long time ago. No, he would never like him. Never, even if he brought him Christmas gifts.
Finn feels the first scoopfuls of cold water pouring over his body, from his head to buttocks. He springs back. Finn wants his grandmother to bathe him, for her to be kind to him again, as always.
It’s lunchtime and Finn is brought to the table. He notices the expensive flatware, the fine linen, and the crystal goblets. Everyone’s standing around the table waiting for Grandpa to sit so that they themselves can sit down.
But there’s something strange…a dark silence floats in the dining room. Finn’s mother lowers her gaze, looks down, worried. His father doesn’t seem present. His aunts have come for this special occasion, but maintain their usual parrot faces. Grandpa nods for everyone to sit down and starts talking about the war. But there’s something strange—a different kind of silence now. Finn’s really bored by his Grandpa’s war conversation. A stew of white meat and fresh vegetables, mashed potatoes and newly baked bread is served. Everything smells good. Finn’s mood changes when the dulce de leche is served and he can forget about Grandpa. When the meal is over, Grandpa says it’s time to sip cognac and smoke cigarettes in the living room. Relieved, everyone gets up and follows him. It’s Finn’s naptime, but instead of going to his bedroom, he sneaks out into the yard. He prefers playing to sleeping and looks all over for the cat. He likes playing with Newton, but somehow he can’t find him. Then he goes into the courtyard to play with the baby chicks and with Cuca and Tintin, his pet rabbits.
Finn is an only child and often bored. The only boy around is Luis, the cook’s son, but he doesn’t like him very much ever since he stole some of his candies. Since then they’ve been deadly enemies.
Finn picks up a stick from the ground and brandishes it like a cutlass. He charges at the raspberry bushes until leaves, white petals and unripe berries are flying all over. He sees Luis, wearing the hand-me-down shorts that Finn has outgrown, standing by the courtyard gate. Luis calls to him, but Finn responds simply by tightening his grip around the stick.
“Did your Grandpa bring you chocolates?” he asks.
Finn shrugs, pretending not to care about the other boy. He’d prefer to be under his Grandma’s bed, playing hide-and-seek, surprising her with his new trick of pretending to be a spider and have her happy again.
“Did you know that your Grandma cooked your rabbits for lunch?” the cook’s son now says.
Finn turns red, tightens his fists. His Grandma would never do this. Never. He comes up to Luis and hits him a few times with the stick. The younger boy wails, and the whole family comes out to the courtyard to see what’s going on. They look for Finiberto, but they can’t find him anywhere. They look for him in the courtyard and out back, but don’t find him. The stick is next to the rabbit cage; the wire door is wide open. They’re all upset—Finn’s discovered what happened to Cuca and Tintin. Grandpa had insisted he wanted rabbit for lunch, but there weren’t any in the grocery store. Grandma cooked Finn´s rabbits thinking she could buy him others with white hair and red eyes the next day, before he discovered they were gone.
They look for Finn on the road into town and then back at the house. Grandma goes into the bedroom, looking for him under the bed, saying in her typically sweet voice that he’s been a naughty boy. Finn doesn’t appear. They call out his name, at first worried and then angry. They stop looking for him and call the police.
But Finn is now a wild lion. A wild and solitary lion that has climbed the loquat tree in the backyard. The crouching lion perches on one of the highest branches, waiting to pounce and eat this prey, a creature resembling a rabbit, perhaps Grandma.
Translated from the Spanish by David Unger
Valeria Cerezo (b. 1979, Guatemala) is a writer, photographer, and screenwriter. She earned her Communications degree in Rafael Landívar University, and completed a one-year editorial reading program in Cálamo&Cran, Madrid. Her work appeared in the Cuerpos anthology (F&G Editores, 2015). She was shortlisted for the 2016 BAM Letras award with her short-story collection La muerte de Darling (F&G Editores, 2016); shortlisted for the 2017 BAM Letras award with her novel La flor oscura (F&G Editores, 2017); winner of the 2015 Mario Monteforte Short Story Prize with her story La raíz (Revista Contrapoder, year 4, No. 177, 2016). She has written and published several articles, documentaries, and stories about culture, cuisine, and traveling.
David Unger, a Guatemalan writer, is the author of five novels, including The Mastermind (Akashic Books, 2016). He has translated Rigoberta Menchú, Silvia Molina, Ernesto Cardenal, and many other authors. In 2014, he received Guatemala’s 2014 Miguel Angel Asturias National Literature Prize for lifetime achievement. He lives in the United States.
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