Space Invaders


Nona Fernández

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

We don't know if this is a dream or a memory. Sometimes we think it's a memory that seeps into our dreams, a scene that escapes from someone's memory and hides between all of our dirty sheets. It could have been lived already, by us or by others. It could have been staged or even invented, but the more we think about it, the more we believe it is just a dream that has gradually transformed into memory. If there were differences among us, we'd be able to identify where it came from, but on our distracted mattress everything gets mixed up and the truth is that now it doesn't really matter.

First there is me, running down one of the hallways on the second floor of the high school with Riquelme. "Hurry, Zúñiga," he tells me as we go fast and silent down the staircase. We move toward the exit. We're carrying flyers in our bags. A lot of flyers, a big bunch of them that left my hands stained blue from the ink they are printed with. We're supposed to scatter them in front of the building without anyone seeing us. I'm not sure what they say, it seems like it's something about a march, a call for a great march against Pinochet, something never seen before, something never done, something very important, because my big brother asked me to do this and when he did, he said it was a mission only for the brave, and I am a brave man, so I can do this and more. So we escape in the middle of class and leave without the doorman seeing us, and before they ring the bell for the end of the school day, we open our bags and scatter the flyers in front of the school so that everyone will see them as they leave. Parents, guardians, drivers, teachers, neighbors, children young and older will be able to read them from the ground, pick them up and bring the information to their homes. "Hunger March," say the blue letters printed on the mimeograph. The words are repeated on the ground. Many flyers strewn along the street, hunger march on the sidewalk, hunger march near the bus stop, hunger march beside the newspaper kiosk, hunger march next to the phone booth. The mission is being carried out successfully. No one has seen us, so we can return to school triumphant, and when classes are dismissed my brother will see the precision of my work and most likely he'll buy me some collector's cards of the Chilean players in the Spain World Cup.

When we're about to go back into the school, someone honks their horn at us. A red Chevy Chevette is parked on the sidewalk out front. From inside, a man waves at us. It's a man with brown hair, a mustache, and a big nose, wearing a pair of dark glasses that keeps us from seeing his eyes. He smokes a cigarette while he waits, because it seems that he is waiting for someone. I don't know him. I have never seen him. Neither has Donoso, or Fuenzalida, or Bustamante. Riquelme, on the other hand, has. He says the man is González's uncle. A relative or something like that who doubles as a chauffeur. He brings her to school or wherever and later takes her home. Maldonado says he works with González's dad, Don González. Maldonado says his name is Uncle Claudio, and that he is funny, good-natured and that he has let González have a drag from one of his cigarettes. Riquelme tells us that a week ago Uncle Claudio came to her apartment to pick González up after they'd been working on a science project with Acosta and Maldonado. The man sat at Riquelme's dining room table, drinking tea and talking with his grandma for a long time. Riquelme says he is nice, that he promised to take him out for a drive in his red Chevy whenever he wanted. He might also let him smoke from his cigarette. I have never ridden in a red Chevy. Riquelme hasn't either. I had a toy one once, when I used to collect toy cars. It was my favorite, but now I don't know where it is. It got lost. From his car, the red Chevy guy smiles at us; in his hand, he has one of the flyers we've just thrown. Hunger march between González's Uncle Claudio's fingers. Riquelme responds to the greeting with a nod. I do the same, though I don't know the man. I even wave. I have a secret fantasy that he takes me out for a drive in his red Chevy, too.


The game is simple and we have an hour to play. We all know that, so we arrive on time. Our parents go on to the board meeting and we shut ourselves in here, in this dark classroom that belongs to one grade above or one grade below us, but isn't ours. We like to come here at night, though we are not invited. Our parents sit at our desks, respond to the roll call of our names, and discuss things related to us with our teachers. Meanwhile, here, a few meters away, we have taken off our uniforms and come with other clothes, our clothes, real clothes, ready to be real and to play our own game.

The light goes out in the classroom, and then the air thickens. In the midst of a darkness black as night or death, we, the same ones as always, cease to be ourselves. And no one is who they say they are.  We don't wear our names embroidered on the lapel of any frock or shirt. We are other people now. Shadows, quiet little ghosts that pass in silence, reaching our arms and hands out to try to find something. Donoso searches for Maldonado. He touches a shoulder, then a neck, laces his fingers in a mat of tangled hair that he believes is hers. Bustamente encounters an elbow that will lead to someone's right hand, she doesn't know whose, nor does she ask. Fuenzalida's face meets Riquelme's, nose to nose, they breathe at the same time, they take in the smell, the taste, they try one another's saliva. Zúñiga advances into the dark classroom looking for González. Blindly, he touches heads, legs, arms, and would like to call out to her, but names don't work here, roll calls are left outside of the dark room, and González is no longer González, because now she is a little bit of Maldonado and a little bit of Fuenzalida and a little bit of Acosta too. And a tongue comes to meet Zúñiga's mouth. It's a small but very intrusive tongue that could belong to anyone. And someone laughs and someone hides, and someone starts to laugh again, while another sneezes in a corner, and another there up front crashes into the chalkboard. Bustamante's ears burn, she feels like they're going to burst. Donoso bites Maldonado's neck, it seems she can't bear it and she yelps like a cat. Zúñiga laughs because he's ticklish and someone is tickling him, or maybe it's nobody and it's only laughter, pure laughter that overtakes all of us, while the quartz light of a watch on somebody's wrist marks the minutes left before the end. Then we take advantage of the last seconds of the game and so come the embraces, the breathlessness, the squeezing, the tongues that lick and search and that do not speak, because here there are no words or names, we are only one body with many feet and hands and heads, a little Space Invaders martian, an octopus with arms of many shapes here in the dark that plays this game that is about to end.

The light goes on suddenly and the inspector looks at us from the door. We are all very organized, boys on the right side, girls on the left. Some are reading. Others sleep in their chairs, because it's late already and tomorrow we have to get up very early to come back to school and study.  


Our little red toy Chevy moves across the school's courtyard. It passes in front of the statue of the Virgen del Carmen, and takes a turn around the soccer field toward the track. It scatters some bread crumbs, a couple of pebbles, an orange peel. Inside, sitting in the back seats, we look out the window as we smoke a couple of cigarettes. In this dream we are little too, same as this red Chevy, so we can do whatever we want because no one can see us here. We can paint our nails, pull down our socks, loosen our ties, take off our uniforms. If we want, we can even let our hair down and hold hands. The inspector passes by. We see his enormous black shoe. His sole is about to trample us, but the little red Chevy evades him in an incredible maneuver and we save ourselves from being crushed by the inspector's loafer. He doesn't even notice us, from his height he doesn't see us, he can't imagine what we can do down here in the back seat of this red Chevy. In front, González's Uncle Claudio turns the mini steering wheel. He has become little like us. He directs this fantasy that we are all dreaming, he drives this mini car at high speed, avoiding the obstacles of the school courtyard like a real race car driver. In the red Chevy's windshield, held in place by the windshield wipers, is a flyer with blue lettering. "Hunger march," we're able to read, as González's Uncle Claudio smiles at us in the rearview mirror.


We'd never done it before, but we did it. We cross the school fence and leave in a pack. We advance one in front of the other, in a long line, but this time we don't go to our classroom, we go to the street. We spread out, put our right arms on the shoulder of the classmate in front of us to measure the exact space between each one. Our uniforms in order. The last button of the shirt fastened, tie knotted, dark jumper below the knee, blue socks pulled up, pants perfectly ironed, the school insignia embroidered on the chest at the correct height, no loose threads, freshly shined shoes. One step forward, another, and another. We march along, leaving the school behind, getting lost among the buildings, minibuses, cars, street vendors, and beggars. Eyes forward, don't look below the shoulder. Never go backward. Make our way to the city center that receives us. Remain alert to its movements, to its sounds, to the other people who join us as we walk. Suddenly, in the middle of a large avenue, a pair of hands that are not ours begins to applaud to an unfamiliar rhythm. One and two. One and two. Other hands that are not ours join in the clapping. One and two. One and two. And then, not to be outdone, we take our hands off the trustworthy shoulders of the classmates ahead of us and, without knowing how, we're doing it too, one and two, striking a new rhythm that takes over our bodies. Someone yells something, and someone repeats it. Another someone yells the same thing and many others repeat it. We yell what is yelled. We don't really understand what it's about, but we do it. We howl a cry that goes beyond just our mouths, a slogan invented and summoned by others, but made for us. One and two, one and two, the cardiac rhythm to the beat of the echo resounding among the buildings. Everyone applauds, the smell of sweat, of clothing washed with different detergent, of cigarettes, of smoke, of burnt rubber. And the line we form breaks apart. Acosta separates from Bustamante and from Donoso, and around then we lose Fuenzalida and Maldonado, while others cut in between us, many others. New uniforms appear, new insignias, new hairstyles, and the line gets longer, while next to us we see another long line, and another, and yet another. Several columns forming an eternal and perfect square, a block that advances all at once, a single body moving on the board. We are a big piece of a board game, but we still don't know which.


A green phosphorescent hand. Riquelme keeps dreaming of it, he cannot shake it off. This time he sees it on a television screen. The hand advances rapidly on the hunt for some extraterrestrial child. The children run from one side to the other, they flee in fear, but the hand pounces on the first martian back it finds, and at its touch, the martian explodes. The martian body breaks apart into colored lights that disappear from the TV. The scoreboard on the screen adds one hundred points to the score. The brilliant record that González's brother set still isn't broken. That green hand and many other green hands shoot out of an earthly cannon, hunting for more space invaders.

translated from the Spanish by Dana Khromov