Rotten Fruit

Lina Meruane

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

The doorbell assails me with its mechanical ferocity.

A finger outside is intent on waking me up.

I don't know what time it is: the clocks all show different hours.

But the bell doesn't stop buzzing, and I shake off the newspapers that served during the night as improvised blankets. I get up from the chair, my mouth dry and bitter tasting, tripping over plates, forks, and knives. Spoons with jam scattered over the ground, trails of ants harvesting the remains.

I yawn, rub my eyes. I don't know how long I've been locked in here, eating nonstop, pissing sweet, diabetic liters.

Approaching the door, I whisper: Who are you. What's your name.

The bell stops ringing: Open up. Your sister sent me.

Why hasn't she come back? I ask, poking my face out. Did something happen at the hospital? I ask as I open the door.

On the threshold, the Nurse looks at me, intrigued, while I emerge from my lethargy. The sleepiness disperses, and suddenly the memory crystallizes of that last night with my sister, some days ago now.

The telephone had rung that afternoon.

It was urgent.

The Engineer apologized for bothering her during her unpaid leave, but there was an emergency in the Warehouse and they needed her to go in, the afternoon of that day, as the worst day of summer intensified, the fruit packers had begun to menstruate, suddenly, all together, their hormones mysteriously synchronized; they were increasingly distracted from their work, making endless trips to the bathroom and returning with their faces wet and clothes soaked. And the impious sun on the zinc roofs, and the workers complaining about the heat, about their thirst and their sweat, the blood that wouldn't stop flowing between their legs, all those fluids saturated with bacteria that could infect the premises—my sister sighed disgustedly as she listened to the Engineer's story, my hygienic sister who in all those years of successive pregnancies had had almost no chance to experience those discharges—and then, the Engineer explained, he had decided to be firm, and he addressed them over the loudspeaker and threatened to deduct every minute they played hooky in the bathroom, and that's when the situation blew up: one of the workers threw her gloves to the ground and took off her uniform, shouting, that's it, to hell with all this, with that stingy salary, and she got up onto the conveyor belt and started to move through the Warehouse with the pears and peaches, encouraging all the workers to take off their rubber-soled shoes, take off the face masks that suffocated them, and the seasonal workers all raised their heads, stirring, agitated, they stopped mechanically boxing up the fruit and they started to throw it like rocks against the windows; ay, sighed my sister, thinking of the destruction, thinking of what my Father would say if he found out about that mess: and what else happened?, she asked, and the Engineer replied that they jumped onto the conveyor belt and started singing the national anthem, some of them shrieking at full volume, Oh Chile, with your blue skies, as loud as their lungs would let them, and the breezes that blow over you, followed by a string of demands: that they be paid at least minimum wage, that they get chairs, because their knees were destroyed, that ceiling fans be installed so that the nation's breezes could indeed circulate. It was a truly delicate situation, said the Engineer, it was urgent that she come and calm the women.

And Big Sister had hung up the phone, clutched her belly that was in a knot of nerves, and donned her worn-out uniform. Into her purse she threw the calcium and iron and the vitamin concentrates that the General Internist had given her for free, so that she could hold out well-supplied in the Warehouse through the end of negotiations.

My sister had defeated the fruit flies in the Warehouse, and now she also had to defeat the seasonal workers. She told me she would be home as soon as the situation was fixed; right then, a kick from the creature deformed her belly.

Is she still there, in the Warehouse?

The Nurse pushes the door open and makes his way into the room. He tells me no, not anymore, and he asks me what happened to the house—why was it in that state, such a mess? We're standing face to face, and now he examines me with his big black eyes. You look more and more like her every day, he says, incredulous. You're more like her double than her half-sister, it's really something. He says it while lowering his eyes over the buttons of my half-open blouse, but I don't follow his gaze until it reaches my waist. Neither do I need to raise my eyes to see his face, I've already grown to the Nurse's height.

I focus on the droopy bags under his eyes. He has new grey hairs in his sideburns.

Where is my sister?

The Nurse takes a step back:

Your breath stinks. Go take a shower and brush your teeth.

We leave behind the only houses of the only street that leads to the only, giant Warehouse, fenced in and now besieged by military men. The cold gleam of their guns strikes me in the face. There is a terrible silence, in which the usual barking of dogs and effervescent conversation of women going in and out in shifts are notably absent.

The Nurse grabs my elbow to keep me from stopping.

We move away at a slow pace; he smokes as he walks, sunk into his thoughts, and I wait for him to emerge and explain to me what happened with the strike.

Amid puffs of smoke, the Nurse informs me that yes, the strike effectively ended after two days and three nights of protest. The movement was as temporary as the temporary workers. It was put down by the military, who came in after a call from the Engineer, who was in turn obeying the orders in English that came from the foreign bosses: everyone driven by commercial interests. The Nurse tells me that they went forward following a cunning labor strategy that Big Sister designed: a masterstroke in which the unions didn't interfere, he explains: no old labor leaders intervened, none of them, not one, because the seasonal workers aren't unionized, they don't have a contract, and Big Sister knew it, she knew the membership rules and every one of the union leaders; the seasonal workers were alone, incredibly isolated; they'd gradually been left without their men, without their husbands, without the fathers of their offspring, because all of them were unemployed, or drunks, or wandering the streets, and the women couldn't count on them.

And Big Sister knew it: she knew all their complicities and their misfortunes.

Maria told him, the Nurse tells me, that the seasonal workers were asking for improvements that not even she had dared to ask for: payment for overtime, and pay raises in accordance with the exporter's earnings. And not only did they ask, they demanded, they claimed they earned half as much because they weren't men, because they were young, because they were desperate. And that's all true, confesses the Nurse, but that's precisely why they got the job. Isn't it better to earn a miserable pittance, a starvation wage, than to earn nothing at all? Isn't it preferable to be the absolute boss of the house? To have the right to go out, to share with other women, rather than being cooped up for days and nights in the house . . . ?

I distrust his intentions, and those of my sister. Her disquisitions on the company's productive efficiency, the obsession with the perfect sterility of the fruit, with the health of her own body and others', it all makes me want to vomit.

I'm dragging my bag behind me, my notebook inside, saturated with loose words and newspaper clippings: the dead of the newspapers and my poems. He stops to stamp out his cigarette butt at the corner, now close to the square. He lights another one.

What've you got in there that's so heavy? He takes my bag and hangs it over his shoulder, and, starting to walk again, he says, But this doesn't weigh a thing.

It's too heavy, and I'm still feeling nauseous.

Do you feel ok? You're green.

But I know my paleness is yellow. I know that every day is one less. That I'm moving forward slowly, feeling very dizzy: my brain is a soft clod inside my skull. Let him be quiet, I think, let him stop asking me questions. But the Nurse's voice never stops except when he pauses to swallow. He kneels down to tie his shoelace, lights another cigarette, and suddenly, blowing a slow smoke ring, he exclaims, Your sister is so clever! He takes another drag and tells me that Maria had arrived that morning at the Warehouse, where she found the seasonal workers with their legs crossed, their arms crossed, the elastic of their face masks tangled in their hands. As soon as she set foot on the premises and took in the panorama, she knew that soon the fruit would start to rot on the long conveyer belt, stopped now, but that the seasonal workers weren't going to move; they had nothing to lose, nothing but that starvation wage they only received from November to March. And those who have nothing, or almost nothing, Big Sister told the Nurse, are willing to risk it all.

My sister locked herself in the office and consulted the dusty Encyclopedia Britannica. Looking back at history is good for something, the Nurse tells me, taking another deep draw from his cigarette. So Maria had studied the pages painstakingly; she took notes, reflected for a while, and called in the workers one by one. She asked each of them personal questions, took an interest in their domestic struggles, and confided her own; they sighed together, they blew their noses, and when she managed to forge an absolute confidence, Big Sister made her proposal: she told them it was the best she could give them, hopefully they would understand, hopefully they'd agree, and if they didn't accept, everyone would all be out of work, including Big Sister. They were individual offers, made without any real commitment from the Company: strategic measures: candy-coated pills that would only divide them and break the strike. Only the oldest of them understood my sister's elegant maneuver, but that didn't help, because the other seasonal workers had already snatched their shares, their miserable little slices of the pie, and they had already justified it to themselves by repeating the excuses and motives so generously provided by my sister, expert in pesticides.

Big Sister could break up the protest because she understood how exhaustion worked, she understood the workers' need, their impatience, their extreme fragility. And when the most susceptible, the most fearful, the most miserly and greedy of them, accepted the deal and came back to work, the Engineer fired all the others; that charismatic, vociferous minority was immediately replaced by uninformed and inexpert workers.

The Nurse tells me that it was a very delicate operation, which was to become even more complicated, because in the midst of the brawl between the fired workers and the employed ones, among the pears and the green apples that flew more violently than before in the Warehouse, amid the din of dogs growling in confusion, not knowing who to snarl at—it was the seasonal workers who fed them, not those uniformed strangers filling the premises—the military men finally resolved to end the situation by force, and they gunned down the dogs to set an example of what would happen to the workers if they didn't behave; oh, in the middle of all of that, Big Sister went into labor.

She went up the stairs, sweat and apples flying around her, she sat down on the ground and shifted her uniform to expose her belly. She opened her legs, and viscous liquids and clots of blood began to flow prematurely.

The troops found her unconscious in her office.

Then they called him on the phone, the Nurse tells me.

He was the one who picked her up and got her out through the back exit and into the car, and drove her at top speed to the Emergency Room: the ball of meat tangled up in the cord.

translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell