The Children's Rebellion

Cristina Peri Rossi

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

Milky Way

On the night that Mauricio first looked to the sky, discovering the notion of the infinite, he felt dizzy and soon fainted. Life would have other emotions in store for him later on, upheld from times of old through tradition, including: first communion, school, masturbation, military service, dominoes, exams, soccer matches, generational conflict, sickness, the interpretation of dreams, the need to find work, inflation, compulsory voting, marriage, chronic sinusitis. But all those pleasures awaited him in some space of time called future; for now, the most immediate was a fainting spell caused by the notion of the infinite.

It had been a day like any other. Mauricio's mother had been tactful enough not to send him to school, making one excuse after another. When Mauricio turned three, she said that he was too small, and although several neighbors disagreed, she had managed to impose her decree. She did everything in her power to keep Mauricio from growing. He was her only child and she had no interest in seeing him mature. Yet, she had found that this was the usual case when mothers were careless, their children stopped being children, they grew up, turning into men who hoped to find lives of their own. It unnerved her to such a degree that all her daily prayers were laden with pleas, entreaties that Mauricio would forever remain a three year old. As she wasn't completely sure of the effectiveness of her words, she consulted a specialist, who assured her that despite the great strides made in medical science during the last several years—particularly during both World Wars and several local conflicts—there still existed no adequate process to keep a child indefinitely at the age of three.

"Then, what good are all those experiments on the blacks, Indians, anarchists, and the rest of those political prisoners?" the mother asked. Although she lacked the exact details, she had some idea of the thousands of animal reserves—buffaloes, Chileans, chimpanzees, Uruguayans, and others—consumed for scientific research in gigantic American laboratories, somewhere in the Nevada desert or Oklahoma.

"Sadly, my good woman, science is slow; it doesn't advance as quickly as we would like," the doctor said.

As for Mauricio's father—who had returned a skeptic after a journey in which he learned that he would never become the president of any State because such presidencies were won by lifetime military careerists and other social climbers—he was of the opinion that medicine was not a science, but rather merely an empirical discipline, thus incapable of preserving those three golden years of Mauricio's life for his entire existence.

"You'll have to content yourself with the third year lasting only 365 days," he assured his wife. "And keep in mind, darling, that for every day that passes, it will be one day fewer of those three years and one day past them," he added, because he liked to introduce his wife to the strict limits of reality.

For him, reality was square; for her, a circumference. They had argued enough about their conceptions of reality before marriage. It had seemed to him that the marriage of someone who saw reality undisputedly as a square to a person for whom reality was undoubtedly a circumference would not end up well. Unless the circle or sphere was plunged within the square, which would produce several areas of overlap while keeping large areas without contact. Or, on the other hand, if the circle were to absorb the square, leaving empty spaces, those without communication, within the sphere. The argument ended when she—at times subject to an extraordinary clarity, despite seeing reality as circumference—told him that the only thing they could expect from such a marriage (such as those of a rhombus and triangle or an octahedron and pyramid) was a distant yet peaceful coexistence, lacking the dubious exaltations of passion. Moreover, such a marriage was intended for procreation, an act for which their bodies had been prepared long before they met—an act of the generals' authorization, the Church's approval, the State's credit, private funding, the official literature, the weight of tradition, and the consensus of the general public. He judged the maneuver of fertilization as one that could be realized without much effort; in this, his square would remain definitively inscribed within the limitless context of other squares parallel to reality. In turn, she thought that, by this act, her circumference would be added to the series of spheres rotating indefinitely in space from the origin of the universe, in a perpetual movement without beginning or end. Mauricio thought that reality did not exist outside our perception of it, and so he refused to represent it under any determinate form. In any case, no one had asked him about his particular vision of reality yet because he was still not of marriageable age.

When his mother could no longer avoid it, Mauricio aged—finally reaching seven—and still she had not sent him to school, making one excuse after the other. One winter it was his tonsils, another it was an outbreak; some months it was anarchism, others the class riots. But she always thought up some reason to keep him home. The other children envied him and threw stones when they saw him in the street, all in an effort to forget that he didn't have to go to school. He acquired his notion of the infinite in an almost spontaneous manner while he contemplated the sky. He saw a myriad of stars shining during nightfall. He sat behind the wrought-iron gate painted white while his mother, illuminated by the garden lamplight, knitted a sky-blue pullover for him. He felt bored; he had already instigated a battle between the snails that lay secluded among the plants, and had studied the routes of ants for a full half hour, watching their comings and goings. He had thrown stones into the well, now full of stagnant water, and he had eaten two or three types of grasses growing at his side, a milky and acrid taste. Then he saw that group of stars shining and began to count. From North to South there were fifteen of them, eight from East to West. However, the second time he counted them he found sixteen from North to South and twelve from East to West. He thought it only an error in his addition, in his own repetition of the stars. He couldn't touch them or separate them, pushing aside those he had already counted. Surely it was in this that he was mistaken. The third time that he counted them, he obtained the following figures: twenty stars from North to South (and a small celestial body of questionable credentials, a star or speck of dust in his eye) and fifteen stars from East to West (although he thought he could distinguish another, tiny, innocent, imprecise, a sixteenth that twinkled between the eighth and ninth stars). He thought it an inconsistency in the firmament.

"Don't worry yourself, Mauricio," his father explained. "However many you can make out, miles upon miles away from them, light-years past, there are many more, invisible to our eyes, but detectable with the appropriate equipment. Telescopes and those sorts of things."

"And behind those ones?"

"More yet, my boy. Behind those stars there are many more, enormous amounts of them."

"And behind them?"

"Still more."

"And behind those final stars?"

"An unfathomable space," his father responded.

Mauricio closed his eyes. He opened them spontaneously, looking at the first layer of stars, then the second, the third. With great effort he could discover hundreds, no thousands of small luminous points that revealed their glittering light in the viscera of space. And this space, the blue, the profound unfathomable space, without beginning or end, never concluding—it could never fit wholly into his retinas. It was then he felt dizzy and fainted.

When he awoke, it seemed to him that space was an invisible entity, so warm and comforting, that surrounded objects, plants, things—the houses, furniture, and animals, the benched, plazas, and pullovers that mothers knit.

"I'm surrounded by space," Mauricio said to his father, satisfied. He was a small cosmic body that trembled as he moved, emitting a golden and heavenly light. Yet, the air around him made up a limitless space, one without frontiers, and he turned according to several unchanging laws, steadfast—secure yet unknown. It was a pleasure to be still in this warm summer night, a serene night, and to know that despite such apparent immobility, he moved about in an imperceptible way and according to a presaged orbit, and with him circled the plants, the ivy leaves green and damp, the glistening garden stones, the white windows with wooden frames, the plushy sofas, and the birds sound asleep in branches above.

His mother would sketch spheres on a sheet of paper. His father always drew squares. He never knew why. The dictionary read: Infinite—That which doesn't have, can never have, an end or conclusion. That which doesn't have. Can never. Have. An end. Or conclusion. He repeated it several times. He decided to test it out. He sat behind the gate at nightfall; the sky was dotted with stars. His mother was knitting a sky-blue pullover for him. He didn't know when she had started or whether she would finish at some point. You couldn't ask questions; you could only look, observing the crawling passage of the yarn from one needle to the other, so slow and imperceptible that its journey could well end up nowhere. The wool came and went, and when it went no one knew if in reality it was coming or going, and when it came, no one knew whether it really wasn't going. He opened his eyes wide and decided to take the inventory of only a small fragment of space. He chose a section that was lightly populated, fearing error and creeping doubts. Nearby his father was reading the newspaper in a white rocking chair. The newspaper had a beginning and end, it wasn't infinite, although many variations could appear within it, in such a way that the text you read wasn't simply one text, but rather by the various combinations employed, diverse texts appeared, different, new—not yet conceived by the editor and not yet fixed by the linotypist. The wool streamed, and if it wasn't streaming, the wool remained fastened in place, celestial and warm. The fringes of spaces should be carefully defined. Once he'd chosen them, he searched for reference points in order to establish the border. One star to the North, solitary, distant, and of an almost-fixed brilliance, could be a set limit. To the right, an empty space establishing a neutral camp, a zone of repose, a stellar relief on which to settle your starship-eyes when you tire of rowing through a universe of twinkling stars. He searched for a boundary to the South, an asset, something to hold onto. He finally discovered what seemed to be the ear of a dog made up of a petite stellar formation—a sculptural ensemble, you might say—which would serve as a reference point. Page four of the newspaper rustled, doubling upon itself as several of its letters spilled onto page ten. As for the left side, he was easily guided by three stars that stood mounted on several below them, raised above the others. They were small, seemingly human.

Once he had marked out the perimeter to be analyzed—the limits precisely fixed, the observation coordinates established—it was necessary to study them carefully while still not fixing his eyes too steadily, for such an effort could bring about the appearance of blurry points, signaling to a habitually imprecise identity, feasibly wrong. Upon the pages of that one text you could read an infinity of other texts by chance, mixing the symbols, the sentences, like the wool in its comings and goings that constructed various dance steps in its movements, the structures of air ever-changing, energy that moved like a serpent, always in multiplied forms. He would begin to count from West to East, as if he followed in the wake of some ship; after he would count from North to South without moving, without turning his head, without closing his eyes.

What kind of information could a text provide if it sufficed to displace, to augment only one part of the sentence, or still less, if it managed to reorder but one of the written symbols so that the message would be another. In the end his mother could be knitting a sweater a net a bag a scarf the wool back and forth, a movement perpetual and pendulum-like, yes, and she had started at one point . . . yes, she had started but no one will ever remember when or how. No one knew when she would end, or what form the wool would assume, after having been successively anchor loop wheel sable and spur.

The Appointment of a New Secretary of the Treasury. Twelve from West to East. The Deportation of Political Prisoners. An Aerial Catastrophe. Fifteen from North to South. Fifteen stars—sure of themselves—shining defiantly in the firmament. The Appointment of Political Prisoners. Aerial Economies. The Catastrophe of the Secretary. What had she wanted to knit in the beginning? In which beginning? At the beginning of the infinite? The first layer seemed definite. Twelve from West to East and fifteen from North to South. The Resignation of the World Chess Federation President. Scandal in the Public Eye. Yet, surely other layers existed below, other layers apparently invisible, hard to detect in the simple and innocent vision of reality.

"If it were a square," she had said before marrying him, and many times afterward, "there would always be the risk of slamming against the walls, of colliding into them. A line launched from any point in the square's interior would inevitably end up crashing into an angle, against a right angle, and no matter how it insists—like the fish trapped within the fishbowl, banging, licking the crystal's cold edge—there would never exist the possibility of transgressing those limits marked by god knows who. The line would return, retreat, commencing the backward march across only to choose some other route, like an arrow launching itself toward other areas, other fields, but one that will always submit to the unfailing rigidity of the sides of the square."

"If it were a circle," he argued, "the entire world would rotate indefinitely, without moving backward or forward, without the notion of progress or delay; the various molecules would mix in a terrible confusion, or simply, the circle's interior points—launched into diaspora—would waltz an unfinished waltz, senseless, lost in space, infinitesimal and floating, well dispersed, well coupled in repugnant concubinage."

By air, global scandal, public federation, chess resignation. As for that second layer, everything was more confused. The forms became increasingly vague—much like how, from a distance, you can make out a white ship that could also be, why not, an island covered in snow, a cloud low in the sky, and an enormous animal lying about (When had she started to knit? When had she decided which way the wool would move, from left to right or right to left?)—and the glow, each time more diffuse. It took a tremendous effort to count the second layer of stars, and he hesitated about whether to continue on with the next or to move back and review his previous calculation. Nine Miners Deceased and Twenty-Three Missing. Several Medium-Intensity Earthquakes Shake Southeastern Iran. It is assumed that the majority of the seven million desaparecidos reported this year—a partial figure, as the reporting of disappearances is prohibited—have been executed, their bodies not found. Prices of Petroleum By-Products on the Rise. In order to maintain professional relations with the Armed Forces, the Department of State momentarily plans to continue offering its assistance in the matter of security and torture. To ravel or to unravel? To lead the wool into a sea of celestial points or go about unthreading the warm strands, drowning them in sea tides? It is assumed that the majority of los desaparecidos increase the by-products of the Department of State. And suddenly the precisely chosen limits, wisely studied, suddenly the limits and the established guides became confused, oscillating, mixing with the others—the solitary and distant star to the North seemed to be surrounded by other stars distant and solitary, or is it that he hadn't seen them before? The empty space, the neutral camp to the right seemed seeded with eyes, the pupils twinkling, the ear of the dog had been cast in a wheel of pivoting points, the hound had yet to bark, and page ten of the newspaper had been lined with stars like letters. They plan for the moment to continue offering assistance in matters of disappearances and torture.

He had completely lost sight of the limits; the first set of stars mingled with the second and the last. If he looked at them—and if he was sure of anything it was that he couldn't stop looking—the stars' silver points bred and multiplied, as if they had always been there, as if they had never moved, several stars untied from the others and each time the neutral space between them contracted, the celestial bodies were won by lust, mounted upon one another, riding. There were so many stars that he felt he saw them not only through his eyes, not only did they flood his pupils and his retinas and irises and eyelashes and the lake of his eyebrows, but suddenly the stars invaded him, penetrating him through his ears, assailing his hearing, filling up his head, his hair, the air in his mouth. He had stars in his fingers and below his fingernails and his pockets were filled with stars and if he took a step his feet would crush the twinkling celestial bodies.

"Circular like a sphere," his mother had said unwaveringly.

"Square like a box," his father answered firmly.

After twenty came twenty-one, and then twenty-two and twenty-three; he had to hurry to count them all, he had to sprint to outrun the stars, to outrun the infinite, to count the infinite. I'll die before I can count them all, he thought, for the stars continued appearing, occupying all of space, filling the air of the heavens and earth. They began to settle in the tree branches and the thicket, in the watchtower and in the lighthouses; the stars that had not yet found a spot in the firmament lowered a bit, sliding down until they penetrated the atmosphere closest to the rooftops—they will take over my room the bed the closet every piece of furniture all three hundred and forty eight, the currency has been devalued by 389% this year, the hens would begin clucking were they to invade the henhouse, the newspaper fills with starry points, "military specialists starve a rat for several days until the animal turns into a carnivore," the wool in its comings and goings, going and coming as it rocks continuously, "then they insert it into the intestine of their victim." And if one were to fall from the tree's highest branch, what would happen? Would it stop shining? Would it lose its light? Could you draw near to it, slowly, touch it? Just as he had never touched his mother's celestial fabric—she didn't like it—just as with the newspaper's letters, seemingly fixed, somehow merged. It was by this method they killed the priest Pablo Gazzardi. And upon falling, would the star pull down the house? His father's rocking chair? Would it crush the garden flowers? Photo: Daniel Gluckmann. Copyright: Le Nouvel Observateur. One thousand two hundred three, one thousand two hundred four, life is short, one night alone wouldn't do it, one thousand two hundred seven, tomorrow they'll be gone, that much is certain, that is tranquility, knowing, knowing that tomorrow they'll be gone, they won't be there, no more, desaparecidos, seven thousand, it's forbidden to speak out about new missing persons, although he wouldn't have the time to count them all and life wasn't long enough, he felt like counting all night long. But at the same time he could bear it because tomorrow they were no more, with the light of dawn the stars would be gone and perhaps they wouldn't return, not every night, not every day, he went tell your mother: "Mama, they aren't there now, they've gone, they won't return, sleep peacefully, knit your wool, read your newspaper. They'll never be back." No more incidents of rats, over a period of days, eating the intestine of . . .

Four thousand eight hundred and fifteen, four thousand eight hundred and sixteen, specialized in, methods of dying, he couldn't get to the right number, some were missing, but in any case. Although now he had to begin to count by 1 A, 2 A . . . tomorrow they'd be no more and he would be able to sleep peacefully.

translated from the Spanish by Megan Berkobien