Notes from Childhood

Norah Lange

Artwork by Miko Yu

We had made big hats out of paper and the five of us stood before the mirror, each absorbed by the reflection of her own face, contemplating the effect of shadow over our eyes, the changing glimmer taken on by the light from the window as it fell on our hair against the newspaper.

The door opened suddenly, and a gust of air caused the hats to teeter on our heads.

One of my sisters said,

"The first one who loses her hat will die before the others..."

Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die.

Slowly, a dreadful fear crept through me. A perilous draft whipped through the open door, one that could strip me of my hat. I thought of Irene, of Marta, of Georgina, of Susana, of myself, and while I looked at them out of the corner of my eye, smiling along, a death at the age of twenty came to rest on each of my sisters' faces; a death young and perfect, with a single flower on the pillow.

The wind shook the great paper triangles without actually knocking them off our heads.

Georgina, her eyes engrossed in some horrific vision similar to my own, blurted suddenly,

"I don't like these games," and moving away from the mirror, she took off the hat, crumpled it up and threw it on the floor.

For a time, that row of heads in front of the mirror conjured up sad and likely images, faces veiled forever, and I felt it would have been better to have waited until the wind had made its choice, to make us all sweeter, kinder, to the sister who should die first.

*   *   *   *

Sometimes Susana and I would ask each other,

"What is the most tragic thing?" Something that has nothing to do with family, or with someone leaving, or someone dying? What would be the saddest thing for everyone, unrelated to people?

Susana remained pensive and then enumerated an army of dead animals, floods, a bolt of lightning striking a tree. We thought of many things. Mine were simpler. I imagined squabs on the ground, cows dead and left by the wayside, an eagle grabbing a lamb, a serpent coiled around a horse, tightening its grip until it strangled it.

I always associated sorrow with horses. They seemed to me so decent, so resigned, so silent. When I tried to imagine an animal wracked with pain I thought neither of dogs or cats, nor of cows or rabbits. I always saw a horse.

One night when we had talked a great deal, I went to bed thinking about my father's dapple-gray, who would bow so my father could mount him more easily. Someone had mentioned a book whose protagonist sinks into a marsh with no hope of rescue, and the final image is her hand quivering like a leaf over the mud. I thought immediately of a horse, a white horse being submerged little by little into this shifting, sticky bog, until only his head remained above the surface, his forlorn mouth, his nose and eyes huge and sad because they were filling with unrelenting supple wet earth.

When Susana asked me again, "What is the most sorrowful thing?" I said looking at her as if sharing some sad bit of news,

"A white horse, sinking into a swamp."

*   *   *   *

Across from our villa there were several houses and a shack whose crumbling adobe walls, filled with patches, could barely keep it standing. To this shack there arrived one day a married couple so beset with poverty that when they took up residence there, they hadn't even a place to sit until my mother sent them over some clothing, food, and two wicker rocking chairs. The woman rarely stepped out of the shack; when she did, we would glimpse her from afar, hunched over, shoulders always covered by an old kerchief. We later found out she'd caught tuberculosis and that her husband scarcely managed to scrape together a few cents doing odd carpentry jobs.

One afternoon we learned that Andrea was dying, and when word got around she had passed away, we saw her husband knocking at the garden gate. We assumed he wanted help for the burial or some flowers, but he had only come to ask for a safety pin to fasten the collar of his shirt. He thought it indecent to hold a vigil for his wife with his throat exposed and this was the only alteration of his wardrobe he could afford, given his wife's death.

It seemed terrible to us that he had asked for nothing more than a safety pin.

When my father went to see him, he found the man alone in the room, standing over the body that he himself had wrapped in a sheet and laid out in the casket. Two plain candles lit up the headboard. Their light filtered out to the street through the dilapidated window and filled with dust.

Very early the next morning, we heard the banging of a hammer. It was the man from the shack nailing up the coffin. We pictured him alone in the room, working as always, a few nails held between his lips while he fixed the lid over the wretched body he knew so well.

Before noon, a cart from the municipality arrived and took the coffin away.

I don't believe that any other instance of poverty has ever affected me as much since.

*   *   *   *

Sometimes we discussed the possibility of dying from heat or cold. I maintained that only the cold could kill me, but if my sisters asked me for an explanation I was unable to provide one.

After much practice, I trained myself to feel complete indifference when the heat became unbearable and, regarding the cold, so well was I able to hide the shivering that overcame us on our way back from a stroll that my sisters would often to say to me,

"You never get cold."

At the times that I could feel my teeth about to start chattering, simply raising one arm, making any gesture, or imagining myself in a risky situation, sufficed for the shudders to cease, even if the cold enveloped me with equal intensity.

On summer days I had different tricks. While the others complained of the heat, I refrained from making any comments and was even able to shut them out, sure that my indifference was more effective.

On dedicating myself, one very hot afternoon, to discovering procedures that would offer me relief, I found one that produced an immediate and prolonged effect: wiping a cotton ball against a plaster wall.

When the heat sapped us of any desire to move and we were overcome by that peculiar lassitude of the siesta, I would remain calm while I rubbed an imaginary piece of cotton against a rough wall.

The effect was immediate. Shiver after shiver ran up and down my body, the skin on my arms became prickly and a cool tingling sensation shot up my back until it lingered on the nape of my neck.

*   *   *   *

Leaning over the last trunks, her eyes sore from so much crying, Mother checked the locks and packed some forgotten item into one of them. We watched her comings and goings, waiting for the moment when she was engrossed in something to slip out to the garden. When we saw her stop at the table with a mass of papers in her hands, we exchanged nods and a few moments later met on the poplar path that skirted the estate.

"Let's start by the gate," announced Irene.

The shadows cast by the tree trunks stretched out at intervals along the ground, barely leaving room for our own much smaller and thinner ones.

Already by the gate we let Irene advance a few meters ahead of us. Marta was behind her, followed by Georgina, Susana and me, all of us frightened by the darkness, by the eerie shapes crafted by moonlight between the branches.

It was the last night we would spend in Mendoza and we had each felt a tender yearning to bid farewell, one by one, to the familiar trees that we would see no more.

Irene's figure merged with the tree trunks and her head drew momentarily closer to them. Not far behind her, we did the same; we kissed the rough bark of a branch, the fresh and moist sweetness of a leaf grazing against our face. Sometimes we had to stand on our tiptoes to reach a distant branch. Other times we tried to make sure an especially raspy trunk did not scratch our lips.

When we got back home, none of us dared to speak and we went to our rooms in silence.

Once in bed, it seemed to me that the farewell must have lasted a good time, and from that night on I understood the peculiar voluptuousness of farewells. Whenever I imagined myself on the eve of a long absence, I would examine my surroundings with great care, the tender gestures, the words I would say if I were to leave one day. I suspected nothing could attain the slow and murmured tone of sadness that envelops farewells, and by prolonging them indefinitely I could compel them to return, so they could start again, on that bend in the train that suddenly presents us with the same window, like a tacking boat that once again brings us closer to the person on the bow. By anticipating my farewell to someone, I took care that the scenes would be repeated, that the embraces would never end, that the unsuspected and extraordinary moment would emerge to regain someone's mouth, to say goodbye in a tone already habituated to sorrow.

How is it possible—I used to ask myself —for someone to elude that feeling by failing to confront the sorrow that ensues after a day, a night, when things acquire greater depth, when one feels like someone better, more self-reliant?

As I kissed the trees of Mendoza, I was well on my way to this fervor that farewells always provoked in me; but that night, when we went to bed, without exchanging a single word, we did not suspect that fifteen years later we would repeat the same ritual with the old trees on Tronador Street.

*   *   *   *

Six months after we had arrived in Buenos Aires, Mother decided to hire a governess rather than send us to school.

One afternoon, a lady in mourning assembled us in the hall. Quite serious and shy, we recited, at her request, the rivers of Russia, the borders of Spain, the character of the Eskimos, the utility of the hypotenuse, the worst habits of domestic animals. Although she seemed satisfied, the governess said to us in a condescending tone,

"That's all very well, but it's obvious that you have had foreign teachers. Undoubtedly you know nothing of our country."

We tried to object: San Martin, Belgrano, Moreno...but she interrupted us,

"When I say you know nothing, I'm referring to our language. You do not know it thoroughly. I will teach it to you. To learn Spanish, it is not only essential to know its proverbs, but also to practice them. This is an exclusive theory of my own, as I believe proverbs constitute the foundation of language. Do you know any Spanish proverbs?

Irene muttered something about "where there's smoke...", but Señora López cut her short with the flash of a pair of spectacles that appeared to be made for two people.

"Let's see," she said with enthusiasm. "You, Marta, come to the piano and try to move it."

Marta got up reluctantly and leaned against it, as she never liked to make an effort in vain.

"Can't do it? Is it heavy? Let me see, dear, you try it," she instructed Georgina, while maintaining an exacting attitude. Georgina approached timidly.

"You neither? Alright. The five of you, please, try to move it."

Crowded together against one side of the piano, with supreme effort, we managed to push it a few centimeters.

"Magnificent!" exclaimed the professor. "The proverbial equivalent is the phrase 'There is strength in numbers'. Marta couldn't move it. Nor could Georgina; the five of you together were successful. Very good. Let's move on to another subject."

"It has to be moved back into place," Irene objected, before the irate gaze of Marta and the indifference of the governess, who was already working out further practical experiments.

"I would like you, dear child, to place on the table all the vases in this hall," she commanded, addressing Irene who, convinced that the governess would request from her an effort as demanding as the previous, piled most of the vases into her arms. As she approached the table, certain she had won the game, two of them slipped and shattered against the floor.

"Very good!" Señora López exclaimed once again before our astonished eyes. "If she had made two trips she would not have broken any of them. This means—remember it well—'Grasp all, lose all.' Would you be so kind as to copy it into your notebooks?"

After quickly writing it down, we assumed we would be free, because it was already past four o'clock, tea time. But the governess left the room and when she returned she started to dictate to us hurriedly, one page after another. It was six in the afternoon when she stood up, seeming well satisfied, while we looked at her as if she represented nothing more than the absence of food.

"You are hungry, am I right? I know that through my fault we have put off tea time, but I'm doing it for your own good. Before I go, do me the favor of noting: 'Better late than never'."

When Mother found out about the moving of the piano, the breaking of the vases, the hour at which we took our tea, she showed little enthusiasm for this pedagogical system. Señora López, not the least bit surprised that she was being dismissed, bid us farewell, one by one, with utmost kindness, but, before leaving, she shook the ten pesos that Mother had just given her and exclaimed cheerfully,

"A bird in hand is worth two in the bush."

translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy