Our showcase this week is a short story by Raquel Rivas Rojas, a writer who masterfully stretches the limits of language to catalogue what is left of life in the aftermath of an atrocity.
“Inventory for After the War” by Raquel Rivas Rojas
For Gina Saraceni
To fight against death in the open air, in the midst of the ruins of a war that has just ended or that continues somewhere else.
The noises of the far-off war that advances or that retreats.
The animals that surround us. Birds of prey, wild dogs, rats, winged insects. Caymans in the rivers. Venomous snakes under the stones and the sticks.
Rags. Old cloths are used on top of one another. The oldest cloths disintegrate and fall apart by themselves, into pieces. The loose strips are lifted at times in the breeze.
The smell of burning. Always and everything smells of burning. Until it rains. Then it smells of soaked ashes and running blood.
The earth roads. Dusty or muddy. Walking on them is always torture. They don’t seem to lead anywhere. And yet, sometimes, a ruin is crossed by on the way.
Bare feet. Nobody has shoes any more. There are some thick rags left that are tied with other rags. And then, always and without fail, bare feet.
The absence of desire beside the surprising and sudden shock of desire.
Hunger. Guts filled with air. The air that circulates round the empty guts producing an uprooted pain. A pain that starts in the gums and ends in the anus. A pain that is prolonged outside as you urinate three drops and expel droppings as hard as stone.
Hair, nails, teeth. Having nothing to cut them with or to wash them.
Treasures. The objects found in the battlefields and midst the ruins are kept. Life is walking from one battlefield to another, following the vultures to rake the land and find the treasures.
Deals. One day we will exchange the treasures. A bullet for a tin of tuna. A golden medal for a kilo of black beans. One day all the treasures are going to become food.
Bonfires. The fires that we make and the ones that others have made. Funereal burial mounds in which we burn fear and roast animals that we eat almost raw. We feed the bonfires at night so that it never stops smelling of burning.
Water. Rain water or river water. It always tastes of blood. Wells. Ravines. Torrential downpours. Never, never, the sea.
Fear. Fear is dissolved along the roads while we look into the distance and see nobody. In the nights the fear grows, even though you manage to sleep in a ditch out of reach of the beasts and men. But fear never goes. Unless it grows and becomes terror. Terror is a fear that inundates.
Pauses. Refuges that we seize from the ruins. The shadows of the trees. The days without sun. That moment in which the sun hides itself but there is still light.
Dreams. Dreams are about the sea. With enormous waves that grow without ever breaking. But, above all, dreams are about interminable banquets. Sweet and salty foods. Soft drinks and alcohol. Fruit juices and coconut water.
Ruins. Between the roads and the devastated battlefields there are ruins. Farms, houses, churches. At times a big house. They smell of burning and they guard their treasures. Rags, sheets of paper, very occasionally a whole book, broken pieces of lamps that look like jewels, empty tins, lighters, unstruck matches, candles. Never anything that could be eaten. One day the treasures will be exchanged for food. Only take what can be carried. The rest has to be buried. The roads are circular and it’s possible to pass by the same ruins again. Then, perhaps, it will be possible to unearth the treasures.
Ghosts. The wandering souls of those that died in the war. But also of those that are dying now on the roads because the hunger is great. They appear in the middle of the road and they accompany us for a bit. Then they go. In silence just as they came. Taking away the little hope we have left.
Traces. Traces have to be left. Traces that the other searchers will not be able to decipher. Never leave a trace directly on top of where a treasure has been buried. The traces point elsewhere. They say: I was here; here I saved something for the next time; do you remember where it is? Or they say: remember; this is not the first time you’re treading on these ruins. Or they say: you came back; you’re walking in circles. There’s nobody here anymore, change direction. The traces also serve not to go back.
Weapons. A club as hard as a stone. A knife found in a bloodied chest. A sharpened machete that is whetted at the riverside with a smooth stone. Stones with which the aim can be practised. Nails. Teeth.
Repetitions. After a while, everything happens again and it’s necessary to find the way of breaking the circle. Not following on the same dusty or muddy road. Not stepping once more into the threshold of that burnt house, because from far away can be seen a trace left a while ago.
Atrocities. There are those that play with the edge of death. They feed on screams. They prefer not to kill. But they invoke death in each cut.
Walking. At once a flight and a search. It only appears that the walking is without aim. In reality, walking is to survive, to fight against death. To stay is to die. To allow yourself to be reached by those who come behind is a form of suicide. To reach those who are ahead is a risk it’s not worth taking. All those who want to survive walk at the same rhythm. Followers who know themselves to be followed. Until the day of the exchange of the treasures comes.
Voices. When they are heard, they are always altered by rage. They are never whispers. They are cries of terror or shrieks on anguish.
The horizon. In some place, further on from the battlefields and the ruins of the war, there will be a square in the open air where we will all be arriving. Some will arrive so laden that they will hardly be able to move and they will sit on the edges. Those who are lighter will go walking amongst the piles of things that those that arrived before have brought. Those who don’t have anything other than their naked body will occupy the centre. That is where the strongest will arrive to look for them: their body will be the only treasure that they will have to offer the best bidder.
The children. They are in the centre of the square, surrounded by those that have nothing to offer other than their naked body. Nobody touches them. For now.
Translated from the Spanish by Catherine Boyle
Raquel Rivas Rojas is a writer, translator and blogger. An independent scholar, she has a Ph.D. in Latin American Cultural Studies from King’s College London, and she was Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at Simón Bolívar University, Caracas, until 2008. She is the author of Bulla y buchiplumeo. Masificación cultural y recepción letrada en la Venezuela Gomecista (2002), Narrar en dictadura (2011), El patio del vecino (2013) and Muerte en el Guaire (2016). She lives in Edinburgh and maintains two blogs: Notas para Eliza and Cuentos de la Caldera Este.
Catherine Boyle is a professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at King’s College London. She has published widely on Latin American culture, theatre and performance. She is a translator of Latin American theatre and poetry, and her most recent research is on the meeting places of translation and cultural history. From 2008 to 2012 she was the Principal Investigator on Out of the Wings: Spanish and Spanish American Theatres in Translation. In 2009, along with Sue Dunderdale and Karen Morash, Catherine created the Head for Heights Theatre Company, dedicated to the performance of theatre from cultural extremes and marginality.
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