Translation Tuesday: Excerpt from Formaldehyde by Carla Faesler

​"There is a human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar."

This glimpse into a new work by Carla Faesler offers an intriguing portrait of a married couple’s life and the spectre of their daughter, memories of a deceased mother, and a heart preserved in a jar. This excerpt seems to almost represent a cross-section of the story, focusing on one particular, seemingly normal day, yet with flickers of the past as well as into the future. The ending leaves us unsettled, but wanting more—we’ve become witness to a family’s mysterious secret, and we won’t be let go just yet. 

Excerpt from Formaldehyde

“The heart, if it could think, would stop.”

—Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

Febe, Larca’s mother, swallows her pills in the morning. Her circulatory system pumps the pharmaceuticals in minutes. Only then can she cook breakfast. When the effect peaks, she’s finishing her second cup of coffee. Larca walks to school hand in hand with Celso, her father, while Febe, engrossed like a hen, perches in her armchair, purveying a section of foliage out the window, a bit of sky, the fraction of a lamp post, to wonder how her husband, after dropping off their daughter, can walk to the hardware store and hoist the storefront’s heavy curtain under the constant watch of the guards. The physical force flushes red Celso’s face, supplied with blood by a network of fine veins. Then Febe, pallid, stands to fix her hair and slip something on in time for her husband to come home. Once he’s climbed the stairs, they greet one another with the warmth of a hand resting on a shoulder or the idle motion of clothes settling. Immediately then, two mannequins long out of fashion go down the white wood stairs. They drive to the market to buy food, and they check up on grandma’s house, which is really the house of Cristina, Celso’s dead mother, where everything remains unchanged thanks to Aurora who, despite her ponderous age, has held to her thrifty ways. They leave behind some groceries and the daily request that she resist the cloisters that have her walled in, consumed. It’s not that there are ghosts, with the family legend there would be enough dead to populate a country, it’s Aurora who frightens herself, the terrible appearance of her varicose veins, her wearied insides burdening her with the notion that she won’t ever disappear.

Each time that they visit the house of grandma Cristina, who was Febe’s stepmom, they come away with some random object, whether it materializes in their vision or they’re led to it by the residual memories of a disquieting dream. Today it’s a set of twelve embroidered napkins once as white as they’re now yellowed, once as clean and starched as they’re now damp and limp in Celso’s hands.

“My mother used to set them out when someone special came over for dinner.”

​“I remember those dinners: do you remember me at those dinners?”

“My memories are calcifications in an atrophied muscle.”

​Febe thinks back to her second dinner at her then-fiancé’s parents’ house. And once more her confusion is a yarn of doubts or a strip of film that whirs, ignites, and burns, consumes the image. That night, she remembers: at first there were seven people. And by the end there were eight. It’s not that Febe failed to notice someone’s arrival, she was alert, hoping to make an impression on her future in-laws, fiancé, and guests. So it was odd but she held her tongue. She felt it would have been too brash to speak up, as if she could sabotage the path she’d worn out of her own stilted, stifling house. It’s just, when the seven guests—she counted them by name and by topic of conversation—stood from the table for coffee and digestives, there were eight of them seated there. She counted three times at least to be sure it wasn’t the effect of the wine or the thrill of her favorite dress, but there was undoubtedly an extra person. And much that she strained for the rest of the party, she never identified who among those present had sprouted suddenly like a fleshy bud in a body’s familiar texture. Who of them was the person of a sudden presence that apparently went unnoticed? But as much as these recollections, murky, wave through Febe, she’s attentive to what happens around her. Febe’s eyes—like a lens—seek, find, focus, film, and edit.

“Listen, isn’t it time to take the heart already?”

“Look, not yet, no.”

​“Yes, I’m bringing it.”

​“What can we possibly do with it, there’s nowhere to put it.”

​“For it to disappear, we have to take it home.”

​“And if we destroy it, then what?”

​“It’s already destroyed us.”

​“And if we try again?”

“We need to try to gather ourselves back up.”

​“At those dinners my parents used to talk to their guests about the heart. These napkins smell like those conversations.”

​“A quick cycle with chlorine and they’ll be fine. Maybe.”

​In the car, on the way back, her thighs bear the vessel draped in purple velvet. Febe lifts the cloth slightly and warns, now that her husband has stopped at the first light, that the liquid is jostling the viscera. She sways into one of her moments, nothing or no one concerning her then. As always she comes back.

​“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”

​“It’s impossible to know. We already know.”

​“I’ll put it in the study, on the third shelf.”

​“Sounds good, just don’t uncover it.”

​“The jar is warm.”

​“Your hands are cold.”

​“And if there were still a little life in it?”

Once home, Celso walks around the car and opens the door for Febe who, setting foot on the sidewalk, leads the procession.

“Go ahead, put it quickly where you like, wherever it can take its place and keep quiet.”

Her husband in tow, Febe climbs the stairs as if she held a newborn in her arms, as if home from the hospital. Now in the study, she makes her way between the table, the spaceship wasps and chairs.

“So, how’s it look, how about there? Yes I’m taking off the velvet Celso, I want it to be visible.”

​“Okay, it’s up to you. Perfect, it’s perfect there. Here, do you want a Campari?”

​“I like Campari, I think it’s the color.”

​“You know they dye it with red cochineal bugs? A scourge of the prickly pear. Used it in pre-Hispanic times to color murals, urns, fabrics, codices, and plenty else.”

​“You don’t say? Well now I like it even better.”

​They close the door behind them, unconscious of their hurry to leave the room. They close the door without thinking twice about the small keyhole Larca will one day spy through, blocked slightly, imperceptibly. The winter sun and the habitual waft of dust remain inside there, but a vibration thins and the atmosphere is new.

​There is a human heart the size of a fist inside of a jar. On the bookcase, for anyone to see, with every bit the brilliance of madness.

Color of the underside of a snake, infected eye cells, a glass bottle puffed with smoke. The hue lights like iris, like full spectra, even brighter if one only considers the cement this bit of flesh, out of place among the living, should be buried beneath. Its fate: to beat another pulse. For now, Larca’s veins will be the only warm flow, in dreams, to retrace tissues laminated by time.

After dinner, Febe and Celso have another look. She takes the jar and places it on a different shelf, stepping back to see. Unconvinced, she returns it to the third. He, from the door, taking a breather, makes himself a wall.

​“It’s perfect there. Now come on, let’s go to bed.”

​“Are you planning on reading?”

“For a little while, yes. Did you finish your book?”

“Not yet. Almost. Let me turn out the light.”

​“Shut it off, come on.”

“I feel the same as when Larca was a baby and she’d finally gone to sleep. We’d close the door to her room so carefully. A piece of me would stay inside with her, like she’d made me one with her breathing.”

“Well yeah. In a way there is someone there. Is that what you mean?”

​“No need to make noise, she won’t wake up.”


​“Who else?”

​“Yeah. Yes of course.”

​In their room they get ready for sleep. Dark now, each lights a lamp on his or her side of the bed and gets into the resultant bright bubble revealing only their hands, their books, and their mouths. Febe is the first to shut hers off, and darkness swallows her with a click. After twenty minutes or so Celso notices he’s been overtaken in his reading by the insomnia of his book. Almost without moving he grabs it and leaves it on his night stand. The same with his glasses. Then he guides his hand towards the switch and disappears by the same click, like a specter’s quiet laugh.

​For a while now Larca’s father’s chest has been an empty container. He inherited a hardware store, a matter that doesn’t interest him in the least, and a heart that fascinates and weighs on him equally. Asleep, his ribs expand with his breath to a thickness as clean as an empty tool shed, so as he lies there and his daughter watches him quietly at the foot of the bed, a clang of hammers is heard, bolts and nails turning, rolling, and falling noisily against one side when he tosses and turns half asleep, half anxious, completely afloat inside the weightless capsule of his sadness.

Translated from the Spanish by Adam Greenberg

Carla Faesler’s poetry has often challenged genre descriptions, not only in the form of prose poetry but also as visual and conceptual art. She has written four books of poetry, Mixcóatl (1996), No tú sino la Piedra (1999), Anábasis maqueta (2003), and Catábasis Exvoto (2010), as well as the novel Formol (2014). She was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura Gilberto Owen for Anábasis maqueta. Carla Faesler was born in Mexico City, where she currently lives. Sections of Catábasis Exvoto have appeared in translation by Karen Lepri in journals such as Gulf Coast and Aufgabe. 

Adam Greenberg is a recent graduate of Brown University’s MFA in creative writing. His poetry has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in Poor Claudia, Yalobusha Review, and the Brooklyn Review. He lives in Boston, MA where he teaches classes in writing and literature. 

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