“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

I.

Kurt probably did have a point, Ernst thought, as his BMW lost speed on the poorly lit Polish roadway that led to the Ukrainian border. It hadn’t been worth it to come here by car. Not only was the road badly lit, its state of repair also left much to desire. Ernst’s car, pampered by the impeccable German autobahns, bounced and wobbled weirdly from time to time. By Ernst’s calculation, it was only fifteen kilometres to the border.

He was driving to Ukraine, led by a light. A woman’s name – Zoriana, meaning “star” – was that light. He had already exchanged letters with Zoriana for seven months, since March 1996, and had been cultivating serious intentions toward her. And here he was, travelling to see her at last, excited, chewing over the possibility of disappointment. Yet Zoriana’s letters were sensible and smart, and she sometimes responded to what he had written with irony and wit. No tense resistance could be found in her correspondence. Her German was quite decent. Ernst perceived in Zoriana the mother of his children. He thought about this with a warm thrill in his chest.

Of course, Ernst had never been to Ukraine. A year ago, he had not even realized that such a country exists. For him, just like for ninety-five percent of Germans, the immediate neighbour to the east of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary was Russia. And even though the Soviet Union had collapsed five years earlier, the place it had claimed in the minds of West Europeans had now been taken up by Russia. Only through Zoriana had he learned, with astonishment, that there was a language called Ukrainian, spoken by thirty million people. She insisted that Ukrainian was not a dialect of Russian, that it was as far from Russian as Dutch was from German. Ernst had discovered an entire world about which, until then, he had not had the faintest idea.

He learned that many of the things around him that were taken for Russian, were actually Ukrainian: Cossacks in wide trousers, embroidered women’s clothing, soup made from red beets (he had forgotten the name), and even the world’s largest aircraft, Mriya, as well as Serhiy Bubka, whose athletic accomplishments Ernst had long followed.

For his acquaintance with Zoriana, Ernst was indebted to Oksana. Oksana was beautiful and energetic, she loved to dress elegantly, and she was a good mother to her three-year-old daughter. She was the wife of Joerg, a friend from Ernst’s school days. They had married four years earlier, about a year after Oksana had arrived in Heidelberg from Lviv, in order to work on her graduate research at the University Library. She had been awarded a scholarship for young researchers. Their daughter had already been born when Oksana travelled back to Lviv to defend her dissertation.

Joerg was happily married, and Ernst wanted the same for himself. Loneliness bore down on him, he had just turned forty-four, and he wanted children and the comfort of family life. Alongside that, the modest restaurant on the ground floor of their building, a family business, required more attention, and his mother, who had just turned seventy-five, no longer entered it. For Ernst, relationships with women had somehow never worked out. His last girlfriend, to whom he had proposed marriage two years earlier, turned him down, saying that they could date, but she did not want to marry because she had good career prospects in her company. In a year, she could head the department in which she now worked. Her boss would soon retire, and the company director had hinted that, if she did not get married, she could prepare to take his place.

So, once during a visit to Joerg and Oksana, Ernst jokingly asked Oksana if she perhaps had a good-looking and unmarried female friend in Ukraine, one who might know German. The question was, in fact, a serious one, even though Ernst had framed it with a pretend playfulness. Oksana responded with enthusiasm: she did have a friend, from her cohort at university. She was thirty, lived in a small town, and dreamed of a family, but there was no man in sight with whom she could make plans. Did Oksana have a photo? asked Ernst, trying as much as possible to appear neutral. There was a picture, Oksana found it in an album she had brought with her from Lviv. Dark-brown eyes, large and smiling, peered out at Ernst. The woman’s face radiated joy, and a faint trace of flirtatious provocation. This might be her, Ernst thought, feeling his heartbeat quicken. Maybe, if she likes…

Oksana noticed Ernst’s interest, and offered to send a photo of him to Zoriana. She said she would do this herself, he just needed to bring a picture. Two days later, everything had been arranged: Oksana had written to Zoriana that Ernst would like to meet, and that he had serious intentions. About two weeks later, when he had already begun to forget about it, Oksana called to say that Zoriana had sent a letter: she did not mind meeting. Oksana gave Ernst her friend’s address, saying that he could write to her himself.

That evening, Ernst sat down to write a letter. How to begin? Dear Zoriana? No, perhaps something more neutral: “Hello, Zoriana.” And then? But the letter finally emerged. It was natural and friendly, and also … very open. Ernst had an instinct for when honesty was appropriate. This was just such a case. The response came without delay. The correspondence continued, and after ten letters Ernst already knew that this woman had been sent to him by providence.

He lived in an old three-storey building, which belonged to his family, on the market square in a small town in central Germany. The building had been built by Ernst’s great-great-grandfather, and his grandfather had opened a restaurant on the ground floor. The regular patrons of the restaurant were locals, mostly Ernst’s neighbours. In recent years, the number of tourists had grown. Not long ago, the entire business had passed suddenly into Ernst’s hands, and it brought in a decent profit. On the second floor, above the restaurant, was his mother’s apartment, and on the third floor, his bachelor apartment. He dreamed that the light of his Zoriana would begin to shine within those walls.

Ernst smiled while imagining their meeting. He had a feeling that it would not be a disappointment, and his heart brimmed over with love and happiness. He would invite her to his home for Christmas, in order to acquaint her with his world, and he would do everything to satisfy her. They would take trips together, go to concerts in the evenings, and have dinner in Ernst’s favourite Thai restaurant. Perhaps they would even go to the Alps: in one letter Zoriana had confessed that she dreamed of them. And, through their correspondence, it had already become clear, too, that Zoriana was not without practical attributes: she had made several astute observations about the management of the restaurant. And now Ernst was on his way finally to see her, to get acquainted with her, and to learn about Ukraine.

His friend Kurt, the owner of a hair salon across the square, almost directly opposite Ernst’s restaurant, had suggested that Ernst travel by train or rent an old car. But Ernst had not followed his advice. There could be no question of going by train, since Ernst did not know a word of Ukrainian, and renting a car did not seem necessary since, after four years, he had grown quite used to his BMW.

Apart from that, it did seem to him that Kurt had had a point.

II.

A long line of vehicles perambulated toward the border, soon slowing to the point where a quarter of an hour was needed to advance just a few metres. Interruptions in the forward flow sometimes grew especially long, with the column not budging from place for as long as forty minutes. Both ahead and behind Ernst, people got out of cars and buses, smoked, chatted briefly, some looking over with interest at the outsider, but no one tried to make conversation. The darkness was cut only by the headlights, and it was chilly and damp. A drizzle of rain turned into snow. Finally, after two hours of driving at a snail’s pace, Ernst saw the flags, first the Polish, and then behind it, in the distance, the Ukrainian.

But getting to them was tortuously slow. Ernst’s thermos bottle was empty, and the sandwiches he had prepared for the road were finished. But more than hunger, he was fixed on the need to use a restroom, the vicinity of which was uncertain. So he had to meet necessity in simple fashion, by the side of the road. He was not the only one to do this. At close to ten o’clock in the evening, after a period of nearly three hours, during which he had managed to transit a kilometre of road, Ernst stepped out of his car at the building of the Polish passport control. After opening his passport, a Polish border guard with white gloves looked across at him, and then toward his car, with an interest that was more genuinely human than professional. He did not ask a thing, simply put a stamp in the passport and said something in Polish, smiling faintly. He probably had wished Ernst a pleasant journey.

In their last telephone conversation, Zoriana had said that she would come to meet Ernst at the border, together with her cousin, who owned a car. She said that finding the way to her town without help, a one-and-a-half-hour drive, was something their esteemed guest was not likely to manage. But there must be street signs! Ernst had exclaimed with astonishment. At this, Zoriana had only laughed. Now he saw that she was right. They had planned to meet at six o’clock, and it was already almost eleven. A man finally appeared behind the small window of the Ukrainian border post. There were no white gloves on his hands, and he looked inquisitive and unfriendly. Opening Ernst’s passport, he said a few words that Ernst, of course, could not understand. Having not received an answer, the border guard gave him a look that promised nothing positive and, perhaps, he repeated what he had said.

Ernst responded in English. “I don’t understand.”

“So, so?” the guard said with surprise.

Not waiting for a further response, Ernst repeated himself in German, just in case:

“Ich verstehe nicht.”

“Shit,” the guard softly blurted in something vaguely like German, and spat in disgust. Ernst was quite unsettled by this. “Wait here,” the guard grunted in Ukrainian, and went off somewhere.

Naturally, Ernst had not understood, but he remained standing, concluding that the border guard had gone for help. He looked around. The light was dim, and a sort of grey pallor, quite strange to him, lay over everything, stirring up a feeling of terrible despair. Two young men appeared from somewhere in back. They wore leather jackets and track pants with white stripes down the sides, and, openly examining his vehicle, spoke with one another, not looking at him the entire time, as if he were not there. They spat once in a while, and one even kicked the toe of his shoe repeatedly into the rubber of a rear wheel.

“Nice car, eh?” Ernst said in German, addressing them in as friendly a tone as possible, but he received no answer. The men in the track pants crushed cigarette butts under their feet, and ducked into one of the cars that stood further back. Just then, an official came out through the door of a building with Ernst’s passport in his hand. Another, older, official was with him. Seating himself in the passport control booth, the second one looked over at Ernst.

Speaking in Polish, he asked, “What is the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” Ernst said in English.

“Oh, bloody hell,” the official said in Ukrainian. “He doesn’t speak Polish, doesn’t speak Ukrainian. He’s talking something there, but what … who knows?”

“Well, it’s probably German. Can’t you see? He’s German. Tell Yurko to make a good sweep of his “beemer,” what he’s driving there, and then he can go to hell.”

One border guard remained seated in the booth, and the other one went off somewhere with Ernst’s passport, gesturing sideways at the foreigner in a way that was probably meant to encourage him to drive forward, to free up a space in front of the booth for other cars. After all, what more could they want with Ernst?

After five minutes, a customs officer appeared with a German police dog on a leash. He was a heavy-set man who considered Ernst with interest. Asking something, and receiving from Ernst the answer, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” he motioned for the car door to be opened. He said something to the dog, who quickly sniffed through every corner of the vehicle, and afterward stood calmly next to its master. The customs official indicated a bag that lay in the trunk. Ernst opened it, the customs official began to sort through its contents, and, removing one of four packages of coffee, said in Ukrainian:

“You are allowed to bring only 500 grams, and here you have a whole kilogram.”

Ernst did not understand, and so the official demonstrated what he had said with gestures.

“Alright,” Ernst said, since he wanted finally to be on his way.

The customs official confiscated half the coffee and left satisfied, while Ernst received his passport and sat down behind the wheel.

Zoriana had said that she and her cousin would wait for him one hundred metres from the border crossing. But there was no possibility to stop there, and he was forced to travel on in the current of traffic. Ernst came to a stop only when the opportunity arose, parking at the roadside, and he decided to return to the border on foot. He was hopeful that Zoriana and her cousin were still waiting for him, even though it was already past twelve. He stepped into the darkness and, having walked a hundred metres from his car, suddenly heard the sound of its alarm. Without a thought, he rushed back, and, on arriving there, saw a dark silhouette at the car door.

“Stop! Stop! I’ll call the police!” he yelled in German.

The silhouette abandoned the car, and, moments later, the roar of an engine could be heard from a few dozen metres further up. Luckily, Ernst’s car door opened without effort, and, in light cast from the car, he saw on the ground the pick-lock that had been used by the thief. Wrapping it in a napkin, he slipped it into a pocket and sat down behind the wheel. He felt that he should proceed with an undivided focus and deliberation, since the situation had become unusual. It would be impossible to find Zoriana and her cousin here, even if they were somewhere nearby. It was even darker on this side of the border, and the street signs were barely visible and written only in Cyrillic, which it took Ernst time to read. The person who had tried to break into his car might try it again, so it was not worth it to leave the car. He had Zoriana’s home telephone number, but to look for a pay phone just then would have been unwise. Assuming there was even a public telephone here… His pager had been silent, but only for the last little while. It seemed there was no network here, as Zoriana would have already sent him a message. Ernst started the engine, and set off into the night.

After several hundred metres, he saw a road sign, but he would have had to stop in order to read it. The name of Zoriana’s town, it seemed to him, had not been on it, so he decided to drive on to Lviv. Even if there were a shorter road from here to his destination, finding it would be impossible. It was a forty-minute drive from Lviv to Zoriana, but he could always also spend the night in the city. The clock showed half past twelve.

Wet snow fell. The road was even worse than in Poland. His car jolted over the potholes, and Ernst was afraid of damaging it. He drove slowly, and was passed even by Soviet-made “Moskvitch” vehicles. At some point, he noticed that a Volkswagen Passat had been trailing him for a while, even though it would have been able to pass him long ago. Out of caution, Ernst reduced his speed, but the Volkswagen doggedly remained behind him. So, he was being followed, tailed, presumably by the person who had tried to break into his car half an hour earlier. Ernst pressed down on the gas, passed two vehicles, and looked in the mirror. The Passat had also fallen behind.

Forty kilometres remained to Lviv. Ernst had no idea where to go from there, but he was determined to break free from his pursuer. He did not reduce his speed, and increased the distance between himself and the Passat. And then, at some point, Ernst saw a sign that showed the name of Zoriana’s town. The town was thirty kilometres away, and, without hesitating, he circled around, switching to the direction shown by the sign. This road was still more dark and narrow. Looking in the mirror, he did not see his “tail.” The pursuer had evidently lost the trail, having failed to notice where the coveted BMW “7 Series” had turned off at the junction.

Ernst would eventually learn that, here, his car cost as much as an apartment in the centre of Lviv, and that it was an object of delirium for those criminal elements with high ambitions. He was later told that the bosses of serious criminal groups travelled in “beemers.” Higher up in the hierarchy, there were perhaps six hundred Mercedes.

When, after entirely circling the town, an exhausted Ernst finally found the desired address, well known from the exchange of letters – 7 Silver Springs Street – the clock showed a quarter to three. The house lights were on. The door that faced the late-night visitor opened immediately once the doorbell had been pressed, and there appeared in its frame the astonished, brown-eyed, beautiful Zoriana. Her pretty eyes smiled. Standing behind her were her parents, her cousin, and a cat.

III.

Ernst was awakened by the smell of cooking meat and a quiet but intense bustling in the kitchen: frying pans sizzled, dishes occasionally clattered, and water burbled. For breakfast, there were cutlets with fried bread and omelettes, milk-rice kasha with raisins and honey, and crêpes with cottage cheese and jam. Ernst tried to explain that, for breakfast, he usually had sliced bread with cheese, washed down with milk coffee. They immediately brought him sliced bread and cheese and coffee, but they did not forget about the rest. His plate was continually replenished with cutlets, fried bread, crêpes. They discussed the previous night. It turned out that Zoriana and Pavlo – that was the name of her cousin – had waited for him at the border from six until twelve o’clock, and that meant while he had been passing through customs and later looked for them in the dark. The entire time, they had been somewhere close by.

Now, looking into Zoriana’s eyes, Ernst forgot all about the troubles of the previous night. Zoriana was just as he had imagined: she was as if from a dream. They communicated well, and they were never short of things to discuss. The next day was dry, and they decided to take a trip to Lviv. But they left Ernst’s car behind, so as to avoid unwanted attention, and instead took a train in which Ernst felt as if transported back in time. The effect of Lviv, by contrast, was of a different order. Ernst discovered a wondrous world. They ascended the gloomy Citadel, from which they had a beautiful view of the city centre. Ernst took hold of Zoriana’s hand.

“You’re not disappointed?” he asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said, looking into his eyes and smiling, “I’m definitely charmed.”

“Me too,” he said, and, for the first time, he leaned in toward her lovely lips.

From this moment on, they were a couple, and there was no force by which they could have resisted this.

Ernst’s vacation lasted two weeks. He had prepared in advance, bringing with him an official police invitation for Zoriana, and they agreed that she straight away submit an application to the German embassy for a guest visa. Here was the plan: Zoriana receives a visa for one month, Ernst introduces her to his mother and friends, and they celebrate Christmas together. He shows her his surroundings, and if she likes them, she becomes the queen of his world. They would make a home for themselves in Germany. Zoriana liked the plan, and she set about preparing the necessary documents.

The plan was not immediately fulfilled. Zoriana worked at one of the three schools in her town, and her salary was adequate. The embassy would need a certificate from her workplace that confirmed her salary. A small income heightened the risk of suspicion at the German embassy that the applicant did not intend to return home. Similar grounds for suspicion were family status – an unmarried Ukrainian woman. But nothing could be done about this.

The school principal’s suspicion was piqued by Zoriana’s request for a work certificate, and when the principal discovered that her teacher was, more generally, preparing an application for the German embassy, she became upset. Zoriana knew that for her work colleagues, ninety percent of whom were women, the fact that she was collecting documents for a visa would cause a sensation the next day. Finally, after three intense days of rushing around, through which she was accompanied by Ernst, who was astounded by the bureaucratic maze, everything was ready. Having gathered together papers translated and certified by a notary, Ernst and Zoriana sat in the train to Kyiv on Wednesday evening. He did not understand why it had not been possible to mail the documents into the embassy. In order to get a visa for the West, why did one have to endure a 500 kilometre passage to the East?

But the real test awaited them at the embassy. When, at close to eight o’clock in the morning, they finally found themselves near the building, they saw a colossal line, in which they had to stand for three hours. They were among the last to be allowed in that day, with the many people further back having stood in vain. Finally, just before noon, they left the embassy with a slip that gave them the right, after three days, to retrieve the passport with a visa. Or with a refusal. Travelling another 500 kilometres in three days? thought Ernst. Maybe they could ask a friend in Kyiv to pick up the passport? But Zoriana had no friends in the city. Waiting for three days in Kyiv? Also not the best option. So, they wandered around the city, and then boarded the train that evening, arriving in Lviv the next morning.

On Monday of the following week, the couple once again prepared themselves for the road. Return tickets for a sleeping berth cost almost as much as Zoriana’s monthly salary. The trip took the entire night. Travelling with them in the compartment was a tight-lipped middle-aged man in a necktie, and carrying a black briefcase. Throughout the evening, the man watched his neighbours attentively, but said not a word to them.

When, after lunch, they finally retrieved the passport at the embassy, and opened it, instead of a visa they found a stamp of refusal. When they asked for an explanation, the official at the window responded dryly, saying that the consul makes decisions on the basis of the documents submitted by the applicant. The visa section reserves the right not to disclose the reason for a refusal, but if they did not agree with the decision, they had the right, within a week, to submit an application, and then…

Zoriana was distraught, Ernst seething with anger. He asked when they could speak to the consul, and he was given a time – the consul reserved the last workday of each month for citizens. But December had just begun. It should be understood that an inquiry will bring nothing. They walked out into the street and Ernst said:

“Don’t worry, darling. I won’t let them ruin our plans for Christmas. We’ll think of something.”

On the return journey, Ernst quizzed Zoriana: where does one get a passport for international travel, and how long does it take? what happens when a passport has been lost or damaged? and similar things. Zoriana responded, saying that cases where an embassy refuses a visa application from a single, unmarried woman were common. Once they were at home, Ernst asked Zoriana to give him the passport, and he covered a table with old newspapers. Onto the papers, he laid down the passport, opening it to the page with the refusal stamp. Taking an ink bottle from the writing desk, he poured some of its contents over the stamp.

“What are you doing?” Zoriana asked with a burst of laughter.

“I like your reaction,” he said. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll get you a nice, new passport.”

“But, darling, I’ll still have to go back to them for a visa, and they already have a record of my application in their database, not to mention that they also rejected it.”

“Don’t worry, Zori, we’ll manage without them. Tomorrow we’ll request that a new passport be issued. How long will that take?”

“At least one week, and it’s really expensive.

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs. The only problem is that I’ll be back home in five days. But that’s not such a big deal. We still have three weeks until Christmas. We have enough time.”

IV.

The next day, after standing in line for a long time at the migration authority’s passport office, they submitted a request for a new passport, paying a modest penalty for the old, damaged passport that they had included with the application. The couple spent the next four days travelling, as well as visiting with Zoriana’s relatives. On two evenings, they dined by candle light, though not entirely of their own free will. In Ukraine, there were breaks in the power supply. In order to conserve electricity, the supply was simply interrupted, according to a schedule. But these peculiarities cast no shadow at all on Ernst’s happiness. And Zoriana’s family were also delighted with their future son-in-law. The fourteen-year age difference between the betrothed no longer struck Zoriana’s mother as an obstacle.

One evening, Zoriana and Ernst attended a concert by the Lviv philharmonic. The ticket price for the concert was, Ernst declared, absurdly low, and when Zoriana explained that the salary of the musicians barely reached forty dollars a month, he thought he must have heard her wrong. The performance was of a professional calibre, and, on top of that, Ernst discovered Ukrainian composers, being especially moved by Vasyl Barvinskyi.

On the eve of Ernst’s departure, the family decided that their guest’s car would be escorted to the border by Pavlo and his friends. Zoriana’s mother supplied Ernst with a package of road food that suggested her future son-in-law’s trip home could last at least a week. And then they said goodbye. For the first time, Zoriana sat in the car next to Ernst, and he thought with pleasure that her presence would soon become the most important daily attribute of his life.

Zoriana and Pavlo decided to remain at the border until Ernst had crossed it. The line was once again long, and the wait took almost three hours, but they were together.

“I’ll call you as soon as I’ve arrived home,” Ernst said, hugging her as they parted.

And he called the next morning.

A week later, Zoriana received her new passport.

“Terrific!” said Ernst into the telephone. “What do you need to be able to travel to Poland?”

“I’d have to buy a tourist voucher, it’s not expensive. With one of those, I think you can stay for up to a month.”

“Perfect. Get one of those vouchers and, on Friday in a week, use it to travel to the city of Zgorzelec. It’s on the border between Poland and Germany. Its German part is called…”

“Görlitz,” said Zoriana.

“That’s it, sweetheart. You’re very knowledgeable.”

“I’ve been diligently studying the geography and history of your country.”

“I love your diligence.”

“And I … you.”

“Also terrific. You’ll arrive at the station in Zgorzelec. I checked the time table of the Polish railway, there’s a night train from Przemyśl that arrives there. Bring enough things with you for a month…”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Trust me. You know I’m an adventurer, but an honest and sensible one.”

Zoriana laughed and decided to trust her honest and sensible adventurer.

 V.

 Zoriana felt excited as she prepared for the road. Until then, she had crossed the western border just once, and that had only been on a trip to Kraków. Like most pupils of the Soviet schools, she was wary of the border, having a persistent, deeply ingrained feeling that what lies beyond the frontier is hostile. For “homo sovieticus,” this feeling could not be entirely overcome. On the border, in one way or another, you find out who you really are. So, crossing the border is like a litmus test, it reveals your degree of intrinsic freedom. Yet, on the official scale of values used by Soviet people, the grade for “personal freedom” was below zero.

That was roughly how Zoriana felt when she opened her bag in front of the imperious Polish customs officer, with his white gloves. When asked by the border guard about the reason for her visit to Poland, she tried to answer with as much confidence as possible, saying, in Polish, “visiting friends.” No one ever believed such an answer. Ninety-five percent of Ukrainians who travelled to Poland were “shuttles,” a name given to small-scale traders in whisky, cigarettes, and other modestly sized items. The customs official was surprised to discover that there was nothing typical for a “shuttle” in Zoriana’s bag, and he even asked her if this was really all of her baggage.

Just in case the immigration authorities had wished to inquire more concretely about the friends she was intending to visit, Zoriana was prepared to name her father’s relatives, who lived in Kraków. Before Zoriana’s departure, her father had called them and asked that they, if need be, confirm that they were expecting Zoriana as a guest, and guarantee her accommodation for the length of her stay in Poland. But, luckily, she was not asked any questions about this.

The bus was crammed full with the wares of “shuttles,” a portion of which was confiscated by Polish customs officials, who shut their eyes to the fact that thirty-five to forty of the bus passengers were suspiciously stout, dressed in broad coats and long skirts. The officials already knew that, under those coats and skirts, cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whisky had been tied to bodies. But if one of them had tried to frisk the improbably wide bodies of one of these women, an extraordinary fuss would have erupted. So, as was usual, everything had been arranged such that the wolf was satisfied and the sheep left intact.

After customs control, which had eaten up two hours, Zoriana’s bus arrived in Przemyśl, well behind schedule, and it was only through some miracle that she made her train to Zgorzelec. She was full of disparate feelings: uncertainty and fear of the unknown, alternating with excitement, and then joyful euphoria – tomorrow morning, she will see him again! Ernst was the kind of man with whom Zoriana would gladly go anywhere in the world, it made no difference, to the east, to the west, the north, or south. She would have preferred that such a man had been born in her own country, and spoken her own language. But things had turned out differently.

In Zgorzelec, German border police entered the train. Zoriana’s heart almost sprang from her chest. But, because she was getting off on the Polish side of the city, they left her alone, not checking her documents. Stepping down from the train, she saw Ernst’s solitary silhouette. His calm embrace revived her optimism and composure.

“Let’s go, darling,” Ernst said. “I’m not here alone. My friends Otto, Doris, and Kurt are with me. They’re waiting for us in a cafe nearby. Let’s go drink a coffee, and get warm.”

“Friends? What do you have in mind, Ernst?”

“You’ll soon find out, sweetheart.”

The train station was on a hill, and they had to descend to the river to reach the city centre. The river, the Nysa, divided the city into two, and one of its bridges served as the border crossing. On the opposite bank lay the miraculously preserved old city of Görlitz. Here, Germany began.

It was cold, with snow lightly dusting the rooftops of the houses, and smoke billowing from the chimneys. After fifteen minutes, they were down at the river. Zoriana admired the Gothic dome on the opposite bank, near the ancient bridge.

“That’s the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. We can take a look at it today, if you like,” Ernst said.

“I don’t have a visa, and the church is on the German side, isn’t it?”

“It’s on the German side, but Mrs. Vogel doesn’t need a visa,” he said with a laugh.

“Who is Mrs. Vogel?,” asked a bewildered Zoriana. In German, the name Vogel meant bird. “What sort of bird?”

“You’re about to find out,” Ernst replied enigmatically.

They entered the cafe, and were met by a cheerful group, who rose from a table.

“Let me introduce you, Zoriana. This is Otto, my friend from school.

Otto, a slim man with pleasant features and a prominent bald spot, affably gave Zoriana his hand.

“Doris, Otto’s wife, she’s a designer.”

“So nice to meet you.” Zoriana gave her hand to the smiling, red-haired Doris.

“And this is Kurt Vogel, my neighbour, and the owner of a hair salon across from our restaurant.”

“Kurt’s wife is named Beatrice. She’s not here, but this name will be of use to you, darling. Remember: Beatrice Vogel.”

They all had a good laugh, but Zoriana did not understand why.

Ernst ordered them coffee and some toast.

When they had finished lunch, the friends rose from the table. Ernst paid for everyone, and they went out to the square, where their three cars were parked. Otto and Doris got into theirs, Kurt opened the door of his Opel, and Ernst invited Zoriana to take a seat in Kurt’s car. Ernst’s BMW stood next to it.

Together with the general merriment, Zoriana felt a certain unease.

“Zori,” Ernst said, looking into her eyes. “Don’t be worried.”

He brought out a small bag from the rear seat of the car, and opened it.

“We’ll now drive to the border point on the bridge, the German-Polish border. During these few minutes, you’ll need to be Beatrice Vogel. Here’s your passport. You’re Beatrice Vogel, the wife of Kurt Vogel. If they ask you anything, stay silent. Kurt, your ‘husband,’ will speak for you. Here’s a wig. Kurt made a copy of his wife’s hair in his salon, just like in the passport photograph. Put it on!”

Still feeling off balance from what she had heard, Zoriana put on the wig.

She was frightened, but it flashed through her head that this was the one possibility to save her love and future from a dependency on the German embassy.

With his right hand, Kurt adjusted the wig on Zoriana’s head and, taking out a makeup case, put some powder on her cheeks, and brushed shade onto her eyelids.

“All done,” he said. “Overall, it’s even pretty close. Beatrice’s eyes are a bit lighter, but that’s minor. The face is a little more oval. But, yeah, let’s just say that this has improved her a bit,” he said, laughing.

“Zoriana, Otto and Doris will go first, you and Kurt will go after them, and I’ll take up the rear. The border guard will collect our passports. Kurt will hand over his passport, as well as the passport of his wife, Beatrice. I doubt three vehicles with German plates and German passports will attract any extra attention from the border police. They’re just checking. So you don’t have any reason to be upset. You don’t have to do anything, don’t have to say anything. If things head toward a confrontation, just keep quiet, you can pretend that you have a toothache. Kurt will do the talking. Okay, sweetheart?”

“Okay,” Zoriana said, as cheerfully as she could.

Otto and Doris set off, and Ernst got into his car. Kurt started his engine.

About one hundred metres separated them from the border crossing on the bridge. There were only two cars ahead of their motorcade. The border guard greeted them, took their passports, and peered briefly into the interior of each car, amicably remarking that the noble gentlemen were, presumably, on their way back home. “Beatrice Vogel” moved not an eyebrow.

Her self-control astonished even Kurt.

After three minutes, the border guard returned their passports. They drove on.

And after another three minutes, the procession came to a halt in the parking lot of the German Görlitz.

An occasion like this should be celebrated

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Halyna Petrosanyak (1969, Ukraine), poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator, grew up in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains, and now lives in Switzerland. A poem from her 1996 debut collection won Ukraine’s Bu-Ba-Bu prize for the year’s best poem. She has since been awarded the 2007 Hubert Burda Literary Prize for East European Poetry (Austria), and the 2010 Ivan Franko Prize for Literature (Ukraine), and she has held residencies at KulturKontakt (Vienna, 2001), Villa Waldberta (Munich, 2011), the City of Graz (2013), and the Lyrikatelier Biel (2022). In addition to numerous essays and translations, Petrosanyak is the author of four poetry collections, one novel—Villa Anemona (Vydavnytsvo 21, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Don’t Keep Me from Saving the World (Dyskursus, 2019).

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Jeff Kochan is a Canadian-Swiss writer, translator, and academic from Alberta, now living in Switzerland. His poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and translations have appeared in several Canadian literary journals, and his scholarly writings can be found in diverse international academic journals. He has translated into English the Bernese Swiss German poetry and the German postcard stories of, respectively, the Swiss writers Kurt Marti and Franz Hohler. He is currently translating into English portions of Ukrainian historian Zhana Kovba’s 2009 book, Compassion in the Depths of Hell: Conduct of the Local Population in Eastern Galicia during the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” (Kyiv: Dukh i Litera).

Strikurnar by Dánial Hoydal, illustrated by Annika Øyrabo

Strikurnar by Dánial Hoydal, illustrated by Annika Øyrabo

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Dánial Hoydal (1976, Tórshavn) is a Faroese author and translator. He studied rethoric and computer science at university in Keypmannahavn and works as a communication and marketing consultant. In addition to children’s literature, he has written texts for the first Faroese opera, Óðamansgard, and lyrics to Ólavsøkukantatun. He has written a variety of stories and poems that have been published in books and periodicals.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Annika Øyrabo is an illustrator specializing in paper-cut illustrations. She studied at the Danish Design School and the Hochschule Für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Hamburg, Germany.

Strikurnar by Dánial Hoydal, illustrated by Annika Øyrabo

The Lines by Dánial Hoydal, illustrated by Annika Øyrabo

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Dánial Hoydal (1976, Tórshavn) is a Faroese author and translator. He studied rethoric and computer science at university in Keypmannahavn and works as a communication and marketing consultant. In addition to children’s literature, he has written texts for the first Faroese opera, Óðamansgard, and lyrics to Ólavsøkukantatun. He has written a variety of stories and poems that have been published in books and periodicals.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Annika Øyrabo is an illustrator specializing in paper-cut illustrations. She studied at the Danish Design School and the Hochschule Für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Hamburg, Germany.

Acknowledgements for Recrudescence

Acknowledgements for Recrudescence

The excerpts of Dánial Hoydal and Annika Øyrabo’s Strikurnar / The Lines as well as Bárður Oskarsson’s Hilbert, translated by Marita Thomsen, are excerpted courtesy of Bókadeild Føroya Lærarafelags. A special thanks to Yiddish translator Jordan Kutzik for connecting me with the press.

Halyna Petrosanyak’s short story “ПАНІ ФОҐЕЛЬ ВІЗА НЕ ПОТРІБНА” / “Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” appears courtesy of translator Jeff Kochan.

The excerpt of Teendők halálom után / Things To Do After My Death by Hungarian author Miklós Vámos, translated into English by Ági Bori, is excerpted courtesy of the translator.

The short story “ПРЕЗ ЧУМАВОТО” / “Through the Plague” by Yordan Yovkov, translated from the Bulgarian by Teodora Gandeva appears courtesy of the translator.

“Little Fluff,” an excerpt from Catherine Hoffman’s travel memoir Broken Hero, appears courtesy of literary agent Ted Reilly.

The selection of poems by Rimas Uzgiris is excerpted courtesy of the author.

Eva Moreda’s “As Costuras,” translated from the Galician as “Stitches” by Lindsay Semel, appears courtesy of the translator.

The excerpt of The Red Handler by Johan Harstad, translated from the Norwegian by David Smith, appears courtesy of the author, translator, and Chad Post from Open Letter Books

A special thanks to Mark Chester for supplying the photos for this issue.

 

The Red Handler by Johan Harstad, translated from the Norwegian by David Smith

The Red Handler by Johan Harstad, translated from the Norwegian by David Smith

Chapter 1

Rain-soaked streets. One of the town’s lost souls flew past like a leaf in the wind.1 In the old Opel with Haugesund plates sat the Red Handler, private detective. He took a gulp from a flask etched with the words, To my dear husband.2 He envisioned his ex-wife for a brief second, before the liquor flushed the painful memory down the sewers of oblivion.3 He turned on his car stereo. From the speakers flowed the tones of Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations.4 The later recording, the one from the 80s.

The Red Handler closed his eyes as the eminent piano tones played with his ears.

Chapter 2

Suddenly, he heard a sound. He could see nothing. He opened his eyes. That helped.5 Someone was trying to break into a house a little ways down the street.6

The Red Handler burst out of his vehicle. A short chase ensued. Then it was over. Before the thief could protest, the Red Handler had laid him out, smack on the ground.

“Now I’ve got you,” whispered the Red Handler. The thief knew at once the jig was up.7

Chapter 3

 The weather had cleared. The city was safe once more.

The Red Handler lit a cigarette and got back into his car. After the divorce, this was his sole source of pleasure. To smoke in his own car, free from that bitch’s constant sniping.8

He turned up his car stereo full-blast. From it came some sort of rumba melody.9 That’s just how it was sometimes.

 Endnotes

1 My very first thought, when Frode Brandeggen showed up unannounced at my office in Dresden one afternoon in 2013 with the Red Handler manuscripts, was, in all its prosaic terseness, as follows: This is not particularly good. My subsequent thought, I imagine, was a corruption of the first, and went something like this: This is really, really not good. Dutifully—for I am nothing if not dutiful—I leafed through the heap of papers while he waited impatiently by the window, as I wondered why he’d come all this way to meet me, of all people. How had he even managed to find me? He told me about the one novel he’d had published, his subsequent jobs as a trash collector and library attendant, and the literary comeback he was preparing with what he called “a new form.” I eventually asked him to step out for a while and come back toward dusk. Then I began reading. As I mentioned, this was more out of duty than anything else. I’m not an editor, I don’t decide what and what not to publish, I only explain and add context to what others have accepted, what others deem important, canonical, consequential. No one ever asks me: What do you think about this? My sense of duty, therefore, was challenged by the humility I felt before this author, who said he knew my work as an annotator from a long line of scholarly editions now considered classic in Germany. He told me he appreciated what he termed my “ability to read clearly.” So read I did, in the hours he spent wandering Dresden. I read, I read again, and little by little, I was transformed. Since then, night has fallen, and everything has taken on significance. As afternoon turned to evening, above all it was Brandeggen’s fury that stood out to me, the literary obstinance that would keep me returning to these texts time and again, the uncompromising tenor that emerges in spite of what seems, at first glance, to be the reductive language of crime fiction, the comic-strip sense of narrativity. This too is why—now that I’ve agreed to write endnotes to this first edition of Brandeggen’s crime novels, ostensibly because he asked for it, in the papers he left to me—I have to treat Brandeggen’s project with the utmost seriousness, even if that makes me his Sancho Panza. And it has been liberating, so very liberating for my work on this book, to dare, after so long, to step out of my accustomed shadows, to decide for my- self the relevance of these endnotes to the text, to strike my own course and enter nothing but what I deem necessary. I should also add that the conversation that began that evening between me and Brandeggen would last three years. I don’t believe he had many other people to talk to. But talk we did, by telephone, by letter, during my visits to him in Stavanger or, more often, in my welcoming him to Dresden, where he made do with the tiny guest room I’d fitted out in my apartment. Before him, I’d never had any guests. But if I may say so, I don’t believe anyone knew Frode Brandeggen in his last days quite like I did. I say this not to lay claim to any role in his success, should these books move readers as much as they have moved me. I say this, rather, because of the way it foreshadows this man’s terrible loneliness. The anger I find in these books is real, as is the despair that precipitated his dramatic swerve away from his avant-garde beginnings. It may be that that anger can only be grasped within the context of the gulf between his first book and the Red Handler. But the anger, nonetheless, doesn’t give us the whole picture, be- cause Brandeggen also cares all too much about his protagonist. His interest in the Red Handler, his level of concern and sympathy for his character, is genuine. As the author, his emotional stake is palpable, essential. The texts can never fully hide that they are fundamentally about Brandeggen himself, about a man who obviously is deeply troubled, and who, more than opposing crime literature an sich or the book industry’s thirst for profit, is desperately trying to create a world with some semblance of meaning and predictability, where the structures are clear and there is such a thing as sincerity.

2 When, eventually, Frode Brandeggen learned to accept the fate of his 2,322-page debut novel, Conglomeratic Breath (Konglom- eratisk pust), ⁂ from then on forgoing the avant-garde in favor of chiseled-down, commercial crime fiction, he still held out some hope that the world might one day accommodate a more expansive, exploratory mode of literature. In the very first stages of the Red Handler project, Brandeggen wrote a separate novel as both a warm-up to the Red Handler universe and (he hoped) a standalone work in its own right. From what I have gleaned, he never mentioned this work to anyone. The unpublished novel, All of These Loves (Alle disse kjærlighetene, 433 pages in manuscript) deals with the Red Handler’s relationship with his wife Gerd in Haugesund, where the Red Handler—who here seems to have a proper first and last name, though both are crossed out throughout the entire manuscript—works part-time as an electric meter reader. The novel is a passionate account of their intense love and often exemplary marriage that slowly but surely becomes counterproductive, to put it mildly, culminating in a magnificent scene in which the Red Handler persona is born and the protagonist leaves Haugesund for good. There are hints toward the end of the manuscript that the wife leaves the Red Handler for his future nemesis, the Glimmer Man. There is no evidence Brandeggen was ever in a serious relationship himself.

⁂ From the back cover of Conglomeratic Breath: “Imper Akselbladkvist is turning his house upside down in search of something he has lost. But is it really his house? And has he really lost anything? And if so, then what? Himself? Or everyone else? Distended and distracted by existential angst, he ambushes the constituent parts of his life (is it really his life?) through an intense, ruthless, and often heartrendingly intricate exploration of the potential Heidegger-plagiarist level of the self, represented by the distance between two threads of an almost fully disintegrated bedspread that his grandmother (if she is even his grandmother—and for that matter, how do we know she was really all that grand?) bequeathed him. Through more than two thousand pages— free from even the slightest scintilla of what Imper Akselbladkvist calls deformative abominations like punctuation and paragraph, chapters, and other readerly crutches—the author delves further and further into the bedspread, into the threads, into the yearning for his own constitutive fibers, and ultimately, his own text. That is—if we can even call it a text? And is it really a novel? And if it is, how can we know that the novel is his?”

3 Prior to my work on these endnotes, I read out of curiosity Brandeggen’s debut novel, Conglomeratic Breath. Or, I should say, I tried. The publisher, Gyldendal, released the book back in 1992, but when I started asking around, no one could tell me anything about it. There were no reviews, no record of any

readings, no book festival appearances. The editor-in-chief of Gyldendal, Kari Marstein, took me down to the archives, and sure enough, we found a clean copy of the book, along with information about Tord Gusthjem, Brandeggen’s editor. A quick check of the records revealed that Gusthjem was hired in the late summer of 1990 and that the only book he edited through to publication, before leaving the job over two years later, was none other than Conglomeratic Breath. I called him one day to ask him what working with Brandeggen was like, but as soon as I mentioned the title of the book, I was met with silence on the other end. Finally, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it. I broke my back on that book, okay? I’m no longer in publishing.” It was an uncommonly brief conversation. Brief, on the other hand, is the last word you’d use to describe the novel. At a ridiculous 2,322 pages, Conglomeratic Breath has the distinction of being, without question, the longest single-volume novel ever released by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. The number of copies it sold can be counted on one hand. Apart from the twenty-five free copies given to the author, the one in the archives, and the thirty-two distributed to reviewers and booksellers, the remaining print run of 1,600 books was destroyed. This is not very hard to understand. The book is, in short, absolutely unreadable. Normally, I can appreciate books that push back against the reader, the ones that demand real effort, as long as they’re well written. And at times, Conglomeratic Breath seems to fit that bill, as it showcases the author’s exceptional linguistic perceptiveness, his virtuoso ability to navigate between multiple registers in a way that is very likely unparalleled in Norwegian literature. Nevertheless, the novel remains, for this reader, perfectly unreadable. Impenetrable, to an extent that frustration isn’t even the right word. Next to this novel, Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (both of which Brandeggen read several times) look reader-friendly. It begins straightforwardly enough: the protagonist, with the trendy, alienating name of Imper Akselbladkvist, arrives at what he calls his house. He stands on the front steps, fishes for his keys, and enters once he finds them. This takes one hundred fifty pages. From there, it’s full-on disintegration, until our level of disorientation becomes monumental and absolute. There are no paragraphs, no chapters, not even so much as a comma or period; at any given time, the identity of the speaker, when and where we are, what is happening and why, are all anyone’s guess. For instance, Brandeggen devotes large parts of the book to exploring what he calls “the potential Heidegger-plagiarist level of the self,” a notion every bit as perplexing as it sounds, which is made no more comprehensible by the fact that the starting point for these investigations is an old bedspread given to the protagonist by his grandmother. That is, two threads within the bedspread are the starting point, and the distance between them opens up entirely new vistas and a fresh round of investigations that themselves necessitate their own exploration for Akselbladkvist. As the text zooms further and further in, it deliberately and expressly assumes the structure of the Mandelbrot set, a fractal whose edge shows an infinite number of satellites, i.e., small copies of the original Mandelbrot set. To put it another way, soon enough, the reader is so deep into the details and the details of the details’ details that not even the slightest glimmer of textual daylight remains. But then, somewhere around page 700, the text suddenly arrives at a light in the forest, a clearing. The reader’s relief is enormous, almost indescribable, as Brandeggen gives us an unpretentious, affecting account of life on a street in Stavanger in the mid-70s. ⁂ This section becomes a small novel in itself, and a rather conventional one at that. A novel in which love and terror are forever living under the same roof, but the former always wins out in the end. Thematically and linguistically, it recalls the modern Scandinavian tradition of (rather more successful) coming-of- age novels, like Torbjörn Flygt’s Underdog, Beate Grimsrud’s Tiptoeing Past an Axe, Tore Renberg’s The Orheim Company, and Lars Saabye Christensen’s Beatles, even though only the last of these had come out in time to have influenced Brandeggen. It is not hard to imagine his editor pleading with him in vain to publish these 300 pages and scrap everything else. Nor is it hard to understand why the editor had had enough after this book. On page 1,009 the new story abruptly ends and the forest becomes thicker and more impassable than ever. The stitchwork of the text becomes tighter and tighter as Brandeggen weaves in more and more intricacies, setting a new standard for textual resistance and arousing an almost physical reluctance to read any further. As I strain myself to the utmost in order to drag my way through the unreadable, it becomes clear to me that the “novel” inside the novel, with all its rays of light and hope, resembles nothing so much as a nightmare, and that its only purpose is to underscore the impossibility of arriving and remaining in such a place in real life. Reality, Brandeggen seems to be suggesting, is the inexorable other from which we can never escape, where nothing is certain, and where every utterance opens into a chasm of doubt and new questions, which themselves open up even more doubt and even more questions that lead us smack into the Mandelbrot set once more. I gave up on page 1,700, more than six hundred pages away from the finish line, and never have I been more relieved to put down a novel.

⁂ Astra Road in Tjensvoll. A winding street with both detached houses and low-rise apartments.

4 The only musical reference in the Red Handler books (with one exception) is to Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations. This may have been a conscious choice on Brandeggen’s part to emphasize the problem of duration and length vs. quality, which is further complicated by the fact that Gould’s 1955 recording has a length of thirty-eight minutes, while the 1981 recording clocks in at over fifty-one minutes. In other words, a movement opposite to the one Brandeggen took in the Red Handler project.

5 The three sentences dealing with the eyes are easy to dismiss as bland, even silly. But looking past their slapstick absurdity enables us to notice Brandeggen’s critique of crime literature, in which novels often get needlessly prolonged (often by several hundred pages) and the reader’s time wasted by the detective’s failure to look closely and follow up on clues and hunches fast enough. To Brandeggen, the overwhelming majority of crime-fighting heroes were shockingly ineffective, in the sense that they coldly allowed the suspense to idle as the reader is led on— like the dog who follows a biscuit held by its owner as the latter moves further and further away—and were therefore unworthy of the fame they were customarily afforded. To his mind, the profusion of dead ends and suspects quickly became tedious. In these three sentences, on the other hand, the Red Handler a) identifies his problem and chief constraint (his eyes are closed),

  1. takes action and solves the difficulty (he opens his eyes), and
  2. is once again able to do his job in a prompt and exemplary

6 Note the complete absence of a murder mystery in this and several other of the Red Handler novels. Brandeggen consciously chose to break with the established rules of the detective story, laid down by Van Dine and Knox, e.g., at the end of the 1920s. The private detective who only worked on murder cases, he reasoned, restricted the genre and alienated the reader, who presumably would be better able to identify with other types of crime, such as burglary, which deserved to be taken just as seriously given the major impact of these crimes on the lives of their victims. He had often read about families who were forced to relocate in the aftermath of a burglary, regardless of whether their abode had sustained any damage or whether the victims had been at home or not at the time of the break-in, simply because they now regarded their home as forever tainted with insecurity. Brandeggen also scoffed at Van Dine and Knox’s unbending rule that the detective must never solve the crime as a result of blind chance, coincidence, or being at the right place at the right time. On the contrary, this became the Red Handler’s modus operandi, given Brandeggen’s deep interest in coincidence, the collective unconscious, and synchronicity. “Our reality is full of coincidences, or seeming coincidences. Linkages and undercurrents. Why shouldn’t the Red Handler live in the same reality?” Brandeggen wrote in his notes. Again, he believed that reorienting the genre around a greater appreciation of people’s lived reality would be key to the Red Handler’s success.

7 As early as the first Red Handler novel, the style has been perfected. The solution comes before the reader has a chance to get bored. Or, as Brandeggen himself wrote in one of his notebooks, in English (probably because he imagined presenting his concept to international publishers): Crime fiction for the gentleman who loves crime novels, but hates reading.

8 The final reference to the Red Handler’s wife, and one of only a handful to smoking. Brandeggen himself smoked constantly and advocated for the greater social acceptance of double-smoking (inhaling from two cigarettes simultaneously) as something more than a party trick.

9 The one exception to musical references noted above in the footnote about Glenn Gould. A possible nod toward the Saraghina sequence in Fellini’s 8 ½, a film dear to Brandeggen ever since he began frequenting the Stavanger Film Club, where he never missed a screening, yet always missed the chance to socialize with the other members.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Johan Harstad (1979, Stavanger) is a Norwegian novelist, short story writer, playwright, and designer. He published his first work, Herfra blir du bare eldre in 2001. Since then, he has published over nine novels and 6 plays. His works push the boundaries of form, genre, and storytelling, making his work as much about the art of creation as it is about the story.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

David Smith is a translator of Norwegian who holds an MFA in translation from the University of Iowa. He is currently working on a translation of a short story collection by Tarjei Vesaas as well as a novel by Leif Høghaug. 

“As costuras” by Eva Moreda

“As costuras” by Eva Moreda

Mirabamos todas, postas de puntas tras da fiestra, para Sor Elvira Lecumberri subir cara o Polar, o colexio, pola corredoira pina que tiraba desde Agromos, o lugar. Sor Elvira Lecumberri, dicimos, aínda que da última vez que a víramos xa non era Sor: saíra de monxa, deixara Polar, para casar no século. Aló subía con aqueles andares que sempre lle admiráramos, pode ser que algo máis encollida do que estábamos afeitas, ela que era unha muller tan tan alta. Podía ser, podía non ser: xa estaba a se facer noite e custábanos poñernos de puntas, saciadas como estabamos despois da enchenta que sempre se facía en Polar o día antes de empezarmos o curso (porque Sor Dolor, a superiora, era anglófila, e ben que lle gustaban aquelas cerimonias todas: a nós tamén, pero doutro xeito). Fora aquel o segundo ano que non sentara Sor Elvira Lecumberri no medio de nós: pero, matinabamos agora na fiestra, era obvio que un terceiro ano sen ela xa non ía haber. (Na escuridade, a forza de mirar, distinguimos que levaba un chapeu, dos que levaban as señoritas, as nosas irmás máis vellas, por darlle un exemplo, pero non lle dabamos visto se debaixo levaba cofia, e isto aínda que algunha de nós ben teimaba por ver e case sacaba medio corpo da fiestra para fóra: aínda éramos novas e facíamos aquelas cousas; así era daquela o facer de Polar).

Díxonos para o outro día Sor Mártara a Nova cando nos dictaba os horarios: Terceira hora, costura. Preguntamos: Costura? Contestou ela: Iso dixen. Andan vostedes xordas ou que: a ver se lle vou ter que dicir a Sor Priscila que non veña xa máis. (Sor Priscila era unha monxa guapísima que non vivía en Polar: vivía na Coruña cos pais, e unha ou dúas veces ao mes viña tocar o órgano e ensaiarnos. Que faría en Coruña cando non estaba con nós, non lle sabemos). Copiamos, logo, coa man que xa non podiamos nin aguantar o lapis dereito: Costura. Costura, por explicarlle a vostede, era o que ensinaba Sor Elvira Lecumberri cando aínda era monxa: facíanos poñer en parellas, nunca as mesmas, tomarnos as medidas as unhas ás outras, cortarnos a roupa sobre o corpo mesmo: e non eran estas tampouco prendas que puidésemos levar en Polar (só se podía levar o uniforme, o camisón ou nada) nin nas nosas casas, pero colgábamolas nos armarios e aló as tiñamos coma un tesouro; estabamos na idade. O último día de dous cursos para atrás, chegara Sor Elvira Lecumberri e anunciara na aula principal diante de todas que saía de monxa para casar. Case esperabamos que quitase a cofia aló diante nosa, con fruición, pero non o fixo, e menos mal, que axiña nos demos conta de que aquel era un desexo que só podería ter unha cabeza aínda sen formar de todo. Para o curso que seguiu, decidírase que as clases de coser as dese Sor Mártara a Vella, pero non resultou, porque Sor Mártara a Vella chegaba e mandábanos coller puntos como se fose aquilo calcetar. Non pasara nin un mes cando dixo Sor Dolor que se substituían as clases de costura por unha hora máis de aire libre: e así foi. Foi daquela tamén que se soubera con algo de máis fundamento en Polar con quen casara Elvira Lecumberri: fora co director dun xornal, e era este un xornal que algunhas de nós coñeciámonos das nosas casas, porque o empezaran a traer os nosos irmáns máis vellos – os que andaban a estudar para cousas como Notarías, Comercio, Piloto e logo no tempo de leisure escribían poemas – e, cando o traían, os papás rosmaban e dicían: a ver que trapallada traes; moito vos gusta aos mozos facer o que pensades que non queremos que fagades (as mamás non dicían nada, porque andaban a outras cousas). Logo, cando se aburrían, acababan os papás por coller o xornal e lelo. Entón dicían:  Vouvos dicir unha cousa: que a ver se isto do FAX-CIS-MO vai ter o seu aquel. Dicíano así: ben sabiamos algunhas que os papás tan torpes non eran, pero pronunciábano daquel xeito para facer ver que a eles estas modernidades algo vellos os collían xa. A nós, en troques, o FAX-CIS-MO collíanos novas de máis, e sen querer saber se o mundo (non do presente, senón o que ía vir dentro de pouco: o dos nosos irmáns) había ser para nós. Nós estabamos a outras cousas. De tanto oír, porén, o señor aquel convertérase para algunhas de nós nun household name: un señor que de poeta virara en director de xornal: se iso se podía, todo se podía, matinabamos, ou ía poderse axiña. (Mesmo unha rapaza ía poder virar en director de xornal, pensabamos algunhas; outra dicían que nunca tal). Aquel ano anterior, cando volvéramos á casa polo Nadal, algunhas de nós déramos en ler o xornal aquel cando cadraba que os papás ou os irmáns o mercaban. Liamos só para ver se saía o nome de Sor Elvira Lecumberri (agora só Elvira Lecumberri), e algunha vez si: dúas, e as dúas por facer obras de caridade, que era unha cousa que tamén faciamos nós e as mamás. Coincidir niso deixáranos decepcionadas, pero diciamos para dentro: unha vez que se sae ao mundo, haberá que facer de todo. Matinabamos tamén que ás rapazas aquelas ás que lles facía caridade nunca lles diría de medir, de cortar a roupa sobre o propio corpo. Enténdanos ben: nós oiamos do faxcismo como oiamos de tantas outras cousas: vacinas, catastros, confeccións: cousas dos papás, dos irmáns tamén, as que os tiñan. Non nos escapaba, porén, o repoludos e ben guapos que se puxeran algúns dos papás co faxcismo, como se fose a segunda mocidade: peiteaban o pelo para atrás, barbeábanse con tino, mercaban traxes novos. Máis dunha e de dúas ben máis novas ca eles quedábanlles a mirar polas rúas; a nós, se iamos con eles, algo celosas nos poñían tamén aquelas outras mulleres. O mundo vai cambiar, dicían nosos irmáns máis vellos para explicalo: pero os irmáns máis vellos dicían tantas cousas (e moitas, xusto, de cambiar o mundo ou de non cambialo) que non lles faciamos tampouco moito caso.

De volta do Nadal, algo de todo isto leváramos para Polar, pero foi con tanto disimulo que case quedou en nada, porque, de todo o que fose faxcismo, as monxas non querían nin oír falar. Unha vez, anos antes, case lles pecharan o colexio por culpa do fax-cismo e desde entón gardábanse ben. Viñera daquela unha inspectora, ben altiva, ben cinchada cun abrigo escuro que marcaba a cintura. Éramos daquela aínda todas novas e xuntábamonos detrás das portas entreabertas para vela pasar: como ía falar con Sor Dolor, con Sor Mártara a Nova, e mesmo coas que en Polar pouco mandaban: Sor Mártara a Vella, Sor O’Malley, Sor Chinta, Sor Radegunda. Cando ía a inspectora falar con esta última, a Sor Dolor, a Sor Mártara a Nova, poñíanselles grandes os ollos de horror. Sor Radegunda, aínda que estaba paralizada de cintura para abaixo e case todo o tempo o pasaba na celda, estudara de noviña en Hildesheim e gustaba de todo o que cheirase a Alemaña: revistas, linguas antigas, música antiga, mesmo se a nós do que nos daba clase era de matemáticas. Foi a inspectora pola celda de Sor Radegunda, logo, e díxolle de ver as revistas: viunas e nada nos dixera de importancia, pero Sor Dolor, Sor Mártara a Nova, espantaran e dixeran: Aquí en Polar, pola porta adiante, estas cousas non entran máis. Polo menos no que se ve.  Nós, coitadas monxas que somos, só podemos coidarnos das cousas que se ven; do demais, xa se coidará cada un ou cada unha. Quedara entón prohibido, non o faxcismo, porque non había que nomealo, senón, en xeral, moitas cousas que viñesen do século (unhas si e outras non: non había tampouco unha regra fixa, e naquilo demostraron as monxas, por unha vez, tino e intelixencia). E así, cando fora o de Sor Elvira Lecumberri, as monxas nada dixeran, nin para arriba nin para abaixo: só unha vez que lle tiramos algo da lingua a Sor Mártara a Vella, no tempo que aínda daba clases de costura por substituír á outra, dixo: “Cousas así pasan sempre en todos os conventos. Que lle queren: está na idade esa Elvira Lecumberri”.

Na primeira clase de costura do curso que comezaba, fixemos todas por chamar moito a Sor Elvira Lecumberri para que nos axudase con isto, con aquilo (antes case nunca a chamabamos, porque explicaba tan ben as cousas ao comezo da clase que entendiamos á primeira). Todas as veces faciamos por chamala así: Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Xa víramos que volvera con cofia, pero. Sor Elvira Lecumberri isto, Sor Elvira Lecumberri aquilo; axúdeme con este pespunte, faga o favor, Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Ela todo o facía: non cun sorriso, pero é porque xa antes ben pouco sorría (en Polar só sorrían as monxas máis vellas). Daquel facer concluímos que era outra vez monxa: virara así na primeira persoa que coñeciamos na carne que estivera casada e agora xa non. Cando baixabamos a Agromos os domingos despois da misa, mercabamos o xornal aquel (cando chegaba) por ver se dabamos sabido algo máis do home aquel co que estivera casada Sor Elvira Lecumberri: queriamos ver quen era, como era, se Sor Elvira Lecumberri tamén lle tería cortado a roupa enriba da pel como nos mandaba a nós. No xornal non saía nunca nada del, non sendo o nome impreso debaixo da cabeceira: normal, pero servía para dármonos conta de que o señor aquel existir existía. Ao pouco chegou o San Martiño, e foi aquel o primeiro ano, tamén o derradeiro, que en Polar se fixo matanza. Mandáralle Sor Dolor a Sor O’Malley criar un bácoro por fóra da cociña e Sor O’Malley, que era muda e irlandesa, criárao ben e dera non se encariñado, pero logo o día da matanza, sendo Sor O’Malley inexperta, púxose todo perdido e clamou Sor Dolor: Máis disto xa non; claro que non. Para o San Martiño xa cansáramos de mercar o xornal e queriamos saber máis de todo: do señor, da vida conxugal que tiña con Sor Elvira Lecumberri; queriamos ver tamén por que Sor Elvira Lecumberri marchara de canda nós e agora volvía. Queriamos pensar que Sor Elvira Lecumberri voltara por nós, porque, igual ca nós, botaba de menos as clases de costura.

As primeiras semanas estudabamos a Sor Elvira Lecumberri no dining hall e criamos ver que as outras monxas a trataban diferente: con admiración, con algo de condescendencia tamén. Sor Elvira Lecumberri estaba seria e pálida (porque antes tiña un ton de caramelo, tanned, que dicía Sor Dolor, a anglófila; esa cor perdeuna e nunca a recuperou, non sabemos se no matrimonio, se antes ou se despois). Calada non, porque na mesa falar falaba e tamén lle falaban as demais; de que, non sabemos: sempre fora un misterio de que falaban as monxas entre elas, pero queriamos ver que Sor Mártara a Nova lle falaba a Sor Elvira Lecumberri cun aquel de condescendencia, como cando nos dicía a nós ao volvermos o sábado de nos bañar na poza: Isto que querían facer, de bañarse na poza vostedes sóas sen levar os pololos, non o deron feito. Non o van facer e non o deron feito, e por que? Porque non é así, porque non se pode. Espiabamos logo a Sor Elvira Lecumberri fóra da mesa: tomabamos notas do que facía; viamos que baixaba soa a Agromos, que subía, a horas que non eran moi aló (pero saber non sabiamos tampouco como facía antes de marchar, así que). Seguimos anotando; pouco aprendemos. Foi entón cando se nos formou dentro a todas o pensamento de que algo máis tiñamos que facer, algo máis tiñamos que nos esforzar, se queriamos saber algo que pagase a pena sobre Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Pasamos uns días máis a pensar, e decidimos que, para achegármonos a ela, tiñamos que mandar unha soa de nós cunha misión: desde o día que entráramos en Polar, sempre todo o fixéramos xuntas, pero xa empezabamos a entender que algunhas cousas mellor facelas de unha en unha. Despois de pensar algo máis, escollemos unha de nós, á que chamaremos Imogen.  O nome da rapaza – non fará falta que lle digamos – non era de verdade Imogen, pero era polo estilo, e a misión de Imogen era esta: averiguar aquelas cousas todas que queriamos saber da propia boca, do propio corpo, de Sor Elvira Lecumberri.

(Que como era Imogen de cara e de corpo? Debe crernos se lle dicimos que pouco nos lembramos diso: do que nos lembramos, é, por suposto, das cousas que importan. Cando pasou tempo, algunhas de entre nós deron en dicir: Esa Imogen xa sabiamos nós que non. E dicían tamén que Imogen era unha mulier nova que non levaba no colexio tantos anos como levabamos as demais. Pero todo isto foi a posteriori; non lle imos dicir tampouco que tivésemos unha clarividencia que, a aquela idade, non nos correspondía).

Mandamos, logo, a Imogen coa misión; xa era o tempo da Inmaculada e facía ben de frío: había xa tempo que non nos deixaban as monxas ir bañarnos á poza que había ao pé do monte collendo en dirección contraria a Agromos. Dixémoslle a Imogen que ela tiña, primeiro de todo, que sentar con, estar preto de Sor Elvira Lecumberri: igual ca unha sobriña. Da Inmaculada ao solsticio non logo pasou case nada: viamos a Imogen achegarse a Sor Elvira Lecumberri, sobre todo no dining hall; semellábanos que estaba a facer todo o que lle dixéramos, pero aínda non esperabamos nada: a aquelas cousas había que darlles tempo. Isto logo nolo repetía tamén Imogen polas noites no dormitorio se algunha vez mostrabamos máis ansiedade da que tocaba. Chegaron logo as vacacións de Nadal; algo de mágoa si que nos deu, pero igual que nos daba sempre: case non nos afixéramos a Polar despois do verán e xa había que deixalo atrás: sempre en Nadal, case sempre tamén en Semana Santa, menos cando cadraba que marchaban os pais dalgunha a Roma ou Florencia pasar o domingo de Pascua e deixábana quedar no colexio. Daquela vez, porén, non quedou ningunha, e nas casas, soas como estabamos sempre, demos en pensar: e que andará a facer xusto agora Sor Elvira Lecumberri? E que andará a facer: picábanos dentro, en silencio, a pregunta aquela: algunha vez chegamos a poñer a pluma enriba do papel para ver de escribirlle a Imogen e que nos contase, pero ao pouco decidimos cada unha que mellor que non. (Todo, por separado: nas vacacións preferiamos non falarmos moito as unhas coas outras, menos cando por casualidade nos atopabamos entrando ou saíndo de misas, que aquela época do ano era sempre de ir a moitas misas; mesmo entón nada máis que nos diciamos ola, adeus, boa noite, boas festas).

O día que volvemos a Polar, catro de entre nós xuraron que viran a Sor Elvira Lecumberri nas festas (unha na Coruña, dúas en Vigo, unha en Betanzos) e sempre naquelas visións Sor Elvira Lecumberri levaba pantalón e non levaba cofia. Aínda antes de rematar o primeiro almorzo despois da volta concluímos que todo aquilo non quería dicir nada: todas aquelas coincidencias non podían ser outra cousa que os restos de alucinacións que nos viñan cando estabamos soas. Volvemos entón ás nosas tarefas, cos ósos aínda doéndonos da viaxe no Castromil, e seguimos polo segundo term adiante a mirar para Imogen. Imogen, mentres as outras rapazas contaban na mesa das súas visións, quedara mirando, sorrindo de esguello. E logo que?, preguntámoslle. Que? E non sabes que diante das monxas non se pode, non se debe sorrir: iso sabémolo todas desde o día que entramos polo portón adiante. Ela dixo: Pero eu non son coma vós: ando on a mission: xa vos esqueceu? Xiramos  entón a cabeza, vimos na mesa das monxas a Sor Elvira Lecumberri empuxar con delicadeza un biscoito ata o padal mesmo: suspiramos todas á vez, pero é tamén que o primeiro, o segundo día de volver a Polar andabamos sempre ben sensibles. Logo tocou o timbre e fomos para as clases: Sor Chinta, Sor Dolor, Sor Mártara a Nova, Sor Mariacamilla. Aprender non aprendiamos moito en Polar, era verdade, pero só a un estranxeiro ou a unha persoa que non nos entendese se lle ocorrería pensar que estabamos aló para aprender: estabamos para estar en Polar as unhas coas outras.

Pasados os primeiros días de despoi do Nadal, sorprendémonos de ver unha mañá no almorzo a Imogen se xuntar máis do que tocaba con Sor Elvira Lecumberri no dining hall, e logo, para o día seguinte e para o outro, igual. Ti mira ben o que fas, diciámoslle despois a Imogen no dormitorio de todas, con ela sentada enriba da cama coas pernas ao estilo indio, cepillando a cabeleira. Nós non che imos dicir nada, pero se che deixamos ir será tamén para que nos contes logo cousas: ou que? Cando sentas na misa con Sor Elvira Lecumberi, cando che di de ordenarlle a caixa das agullas, que che di? Algo che dirá. Algo che contará. Algo, dicía Imogen, elusiva. Pero estas cousas levan tempo. Naquilo tiñamos que darlle a razón. Así nos tivo varias semanas (que era lista para aquelas cousas, a cabroa dela); logo empezou a nos contar, sempre aos poucos. Mirade, dicíanos no dormitorio, poñendo voz de saber. Mirade que eles dous xa se coñecían de antes por un irmán de Sor Elvira Lecumberri que é poeta e redactor (igual cós nosos, pensabamos admiradas). Ou pensades que o director dun xornal, e dun xornal como ese ademais, ía vir aquí para lle facer as beiras a unha monxa? Un xornal como que, increpábamola as demais, poñéndonos serias. (Por dentro, non deixaba de nos comer a curiosidade: nós, como Sor Elvira Lecumberri, tiñamos irmáns, e algúns deles eran poetas e redactores, pero: como nos ían dar presentado eles a ningún dos seus amigos, se nós estabamos todo o tempo en Polar? Na casa viamos de pasada algún, pero lles escapabamos, porque non estabamos afeitas a estas con xente). Pois un xornal coma ese, coma ese, dicía Imogen. Ese que ides mercar á tenda do Eliseo en Agromos: ou pensades que non vos ven as monxas cando ides? Ben que vos ven, e aína máis: logo queren ir elas detrás, pero se aguantan. Mirade o que vos digo: o país enteiro quere ir detrás, e vai ir. E o país, cando vaia, non dará a volta como deu Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Cando dicía aquilo Imogen, axitábansenos as carnes dentro da blusa, porque sabiamos que cousas coma esa non se podían dicir, nin dentro de Polar nin fóra. Algunha mesmo se atreveu a dicir en voz algo máis alta da que tocaba: Imogen: a ver se  tiras da boca esas porcalladas, Imogen. Sabemos que o teu avó tiña porcos na corte e os mataba coas mans: xente coma el si que se botaría sen vergoña, sen pensar, a todas esas cousas que ese xornal quere traer a este país. Nós temos máis sentidiño. Imogen estiraba as pernas enriba da cama, volvía sorrir: a porca dela, pensabamos entón.

O que máis nos proía, porén, era decatarnos de que Imogen comezara a mudar: máis o viamos canta máis calor caía de enriba e máis medraban os días. Todo era entón roupa máis fina, máis tempo de luz para pensar ou para se dar conta de cousas. Ao contemplar a Imogen, coas mangas máis arremangadas do normal, as meixelas repoludas, a moitas de nós véusenos por separado ao miolo, formándose como se da nada, as palabras: GIOVINEZZA. GIOVINEZZA. PRIMAVERA. DI BELLEZZA.  Saber non sabiamos o que era, ignorantes como éramos das cousas do século, pero logo cando unha vez nos sentamos xuntas a falar das nousas cousas e comparar, vimos que daquela vez se nos ocorrera a todas o mesmo. Puxémonos a buscar e atopamos, e non haberá que dicir que quedamos todas espantadas: marchamos escopetadas poñernos de xeonllos e rezar na capela, porque daquela aínda pensabamos que unha cousa e a outra eran incompatibles (o de rezar, instintivamente, asociabámolo co que era coñecido e o outro co que non: daquela aínda todo o entendiamos en dicotomías). As monxas non poñían reparo ningún, pero sospeitaban tamén. Tanto rezar, dicía algunha cando nos vía marchar sobre a capela (a flamenca non, a outra) ás tres da tarde, ás once da mañá do sábado, despois de cear. Tanto rezar. Por que non estudan, que para iso está aquí? Estuden, que algo terán que facer coa vida o día de mañá (isto último, que as monxas dicían como ao chou, arrepiábanos e confundíanos: nós sabiamos desde había ben de tempo que en Polar palabras como pasado, presente, futuro, non tiñan sentido, pero as monxas, que levaban no colexio desde antes ca nós, nin o cheiraran. nós o que queriamos facer o día de mañá non o sabiamos, pero o que non queriamos facer si: ser monxas).

Ao decatármonos, demos en confiar xa menos en Imogen; como non nos fiabamos xa do que nos puidera traer, empezamos a observar nós mesmas tamén a Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Andabamos aceleradas, porque nunca nos ocorrera de non nos fiar dunha de nós, e ao comezo custábanos decatarnos do que viamos. Espiábamolas pola ventá que daba ao patio, recolocando os percais no baúl, e, léndolles os labios, acabamos por ver que era Imogen e non a monxa a que dicía: Isto aquí, Sor Elvira. E isto acó. Non ve? E Sor Elvira Lecumberri dicía que si, e facía, e logo volvía colocar como o puxera ela antes e logo volvía colocar como dixera Imogen. Imogen pegábase a ela máis do que facía falta; Sor Elvira vacilaba primeiro, como se lle quixese escapar (e isto nos sorprendía), pero despois volvía se xuntar ben con Imogen ata a seguinte vez. Que traes hoxe para nos contar, insistiámoslle de noite a Imogen (porque queriamos tamén que nos contase ela da súa boca), xa mudadas mentres ela cepillaba no cabelo con parsimonia: ela si que non se aceleraba nada e mesmo se encollía de ombros con despego. Entón, algunhas de nós colliamos os cepillos polo puño, con raiba, como para darlle con eles a Imogen unha malleira nas cachas; outras, por detrás, poñíanlles a estas a man no ombreiro, como pra dicir: Pero que: esperemos mellor a oír o que teña que dicir Imogen, que aquí somos todas de crer nas palabras. Imogen tardaba, pero ao cabo falaba sempre, e sempre tiña que dicir bastante. Preguntábamoslle: A ver que diches sabido dese home. Ela suspiraba e dicía: Moitas cousas, porque, sabedes que? Que Sor Elvira Lecumberri, por moito que se lave e se fregue, non pode toller o olor dese home nin das súas cousas de dentro e de enriba dela. Évos sempre así. Foi coas mamás, será con nós. Sen case pensar, contestabámoslle: Tira esas porcalladas da boca, Imogen. (Algo si que queriamos saber máis daquelas cousas, porque estabamos na idade, pero tamén nos repelían). Tira esas porcalladas da boca e cóntanos o que importa de verdade: como se coñeceron, que lle viu a el Sor Elvira Lecumberri, etc. Iso xusto é o que importa, dixo ela. Importa porque o olor dese home – e agora tamén o de Sor Elvira Lecumberri – é o olor do que ten dentro do miolo: agora pensan e ulen os dous igual, e así é como acabaremos ulindo e pensando todas. Acabaredes: é lei de vida. Isto (o “acabaredes”, sobre todo, o C ben explosivo)  espantábanos sempre. Diciámoslle entón, derrotadas: Boh, Imogen. Boh. Deixa xa a misión: xa non fai falta. Esquece a Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Nós tamén hemos esquecer; non somos xa as de hai catro, cinco meses:  esquece. (Por dentro, o pensamento de deixalo sen máis abríanos as carnes, porque éramos mozas e curiosas, pero o máis importante era facer que Imogen esquecese, para que non nos levase con ela polos camiños aqueles). Imogen retrucaba: Como vou esquecer agora que descubrín o máis importante. Vós ídelo descubrir tamén: en realidade, xa o descubristes, pero de todo facedes con tal de non vos decatar. Dígovos unha cousa: así non se pode andar pola vida.

Aquela noite, cada unha na cama súa, pensamos en todo o que acontecera nos meses anteriores e chegamos todas a unha conclusión semellante: que Imogen abrazara o que traía aquel señor que ela nin sequera coñecía porque era unha persoa sen dobrez que entendía as cousas como lle viñan; que o resto das rapazas e tamén Sor Elvira Lecumberri estabamos máis desenvolvidas por dentro, e por iso pechabamos os ollos con medo a todo o que fose máis grande ca nós, e xusto por pechalos estabamos en perigo de que outros nos arrastrasen con eles. (As monxas nin as contabamos: eran xente ben roma). Pensamos tamén que algo había que facer. Agora estabamos todas un pouco máis preto de Sor Elvira Lecumberri, porque a todas nos levaba Imogen de acó para aló polo colexio adiante como ela quería, aínda simple como era. Estarmos niso preto da monxa aquela dábanos algo de consolo, se cadra o único que tivéramos todos aqueles anos en Polar.

Aqueles días empezaba tamén a primavera, que chegara algo antes do normal:  xa o un, o dous, o tres de marzo, andabamos aceleradas, pinchándonos con máis forza ca nunca aquel cantaruxar que nos saíra de ver a Imogen: GIOVINEZZA. GIOVINEZZA. PRIMAVERA. DI BELLEZZA. (Teimabamos en pechar o oído de dentro e non dabamos feito: decatbámonos de que había algunhas cousas que nin sabiamos facer nin iamos aprender xa). Había tamén as cousas de todos os anos: a teima por írmonos, por fin, bañar á poza, despois de xuntar calor, por dentro e por fóra, o inverno todo. Imogen veu connosco se bañar, e pasou que naquelas horas volvemos pensar que era unha de nós. Isto pensabamos cando na poza lle observabamos a carne, igual cá nosa, repetimos unhas cantas veces para dentro mentres cociamos na auga: mesmo aqueles días primeiros de calor, estaba máis que morna e pouco nos aliviaba os calores. Rematou de se bañar, saíu da poza espida, secouse coa toalla ben preto do corpo e sorriu. Acabou aí outra vez o pensar que era coma nós: porque nós, en Polar, todo o faciamos serias, e era ese o xeito que tiñamos de sobrevivir. (En Imogen, mesmo cando non ría ou sorría, había unha alegría que non era nosa: non era a alegría das rapazas de Polar.)

De volta todas en Polar, uns días si que demos tirado para adiante. Tiñamos horror de pensar que era o que habería que facer: porque non podiamos quedar como estabamos, pero facer algo tampouco se nos daba. Cruzámonos un día co señor de Agromos de camiño para as tendas, e nin nos inmutamos: así lle estaban as cousas. Igual poderiamos tirar así varios anos, ata que nos tocase a todas marchar de Polar, se non fose por algo que pasou cando aos catro, cinco días vimos a Imogen saír da aula de costura de Sor Elvira Lecumberri. Foi como se a volvésemos ver espida igual que saía da poza. De alí a un pouco vimos aparecer detrás a Sor Elvira Lecumberri: desta vez non viña pálida, senón encendida. Tiña ademais pinta Sor Elvira Lecumberri de poñerse así de colorada porque Imogen viñese de de quitarlle algo que ela quería moito: o que máis quixese no mundo (que nós non sabiamos tampouco que era). Torcemos a mirada para dentro de nós: nunca tiñamos visto a ninguén acenderse así. Namentres, á porca de Imogen dera en rir: en subindo pola escada cara ao dormitorio, miraba para nós, miraba para Sor Elvira Lecumberri e escachaba coa risa. Apareceu entón Sor Mártara a Nova arriba de todo da escada. A ver que fan aí a apampar, dixo: vaian lavar a cara e as mans, que logo lles toca cear. (Pensamos que nin debeu ver a Sor Elvira Lecumberri: estaba entrenada para vernos só a nós, dicirnos en que andabamos en falta). Obedecemos: fomos nos lavar, tiramos para adiante, volvemos facer as cousas nousas. Para o outro día xa estaba Sor Elvira Lecumberri coma sempre, guiándonos no dar puntadas e irritándose un pouco cando non as dabamos ben (pero que pespuntes me andan a facer, dicía: pero que). Non dabamos feito, porque por dentro andabamos a pensar: Hai xa que facer algo. A ver que vai ser o que poidamos facer. A resposta única que se nos ocorría era: facer o de sempre; seguir co de sempre; ir nos bañar á poza; que as cousas vaian por onde teñen que ir. As monxas algo debían notar. A ver, que se ve que andan algo arrefriadas, algo encollidas, algo conxestionadas, dicían ao vernos pasar polos corredores para o comedor, para o dormitorio, para as duchas comúns. Andan algo conxestionadas e para esas cousas nunca vai ben a auga: mellor será que para o sábado non vaian á poza. Nós botábamonos a tremer: de medo, e as monxas, con iso, envalentonábanse. Pero non ven o calafrío que as acaba de cruzar de abaixo a arriba, que ben vimos como lles chegaba ata a punta do cabelo, dicían: se as vemos estremecer mirando desde o terceiro piso para o patio abaixo. A próxima vez que as vexamos, teremos que mandalas á enfermería con Sor O’Malley, que para iso está. Nós poñíamonos ben dereitas, afoutas, e corriamos polo patio adiante. Mesmo dábamos en pelexar as unhas coas outras, para facer ver que nunca tan fortes estivéramos, mazándonos nas carnes co puño pechado, e así, de paso, botabamos para fóra tamén o que se nos cocía dentro. Non lle teremos que dicir que a Imogen, daquelas veces, nin nos achegábamos: aí estaba soa, a cabroa dela, e sorría e calaba como se nada lle importase.

Chegou logo o sábado; pola mañá tiñamos a hora que lle chamaban de estudo, e case toda a pasamos a mirar da fiestra para fóra (estudo, xa se dará vostede conta era un poñer: moitas liamos novelas ou escribiamos cousas de nós. As que estudaban facíano cunha devoción que non sabiamos de onde colléramos: das monxas non, xa lle dicimos). Fomos xantar cando tocaba e cando rematamos foi como se a luz do día nos tirase para fóra, cara á poza, pero aquilo, se o pensamos ben, era o que pasaba sempre. Baixando pola corredoira pina, miramos para atrás para ver se viña Imogen camiñando connosco: camiñaba, viña, e entón, a cada unha por separado, algo nos pinchaba no corazón, porque se Imogen camiñaba connosco sería que algo aínda era tamén nós. Chegamos ao pé do outeiro, collemos para a poza: xa daquela iamos pensando que igual fora Imogen parte de nós antes, pero non agora (porque en Polar era difícil pensar o presente, logo o pasado, logo o futuro). Así, quecéndonos o sol, chegamos á poza; ao primeiro andamos todas ocupadas a nos espir e a nos admirar de como o sol nos entraba pola pel. Fomos para auga; chapoteamos, mergullamos as cabezas e volvemos saír, como facíamos sempre. Pareceunos tamén que estaba a auga máis quente que de normal. Estabamos, logo, xa todas na auga e vimos que Imogen non; miramos entón para a terraferma e vímola camiñar cara a nós. Alí viña sorrindo, coa pel brillándolle como se a trouxese cuberta de escamas, a cabrona dela. Haberános desculpar, pero: a cabrona dela, aló viña como se fose superior ao resto de nós: e era.

Como lle podemos contar o que pasou? Non lle imos dicir máis que a verdade: que, cando a vimos, aló nos botamos todas enriba dela; unhas enriba e outras debaixo. Non crea que o tiñamos tampouco pensado así: isto foi que de dentro de nós saíu aquela forza primeira que tiñamos dentro e que criamos que non, pero Imogen sabía que si. Tamén lle dicimos que coidamos que aquel día botamos fóra de vez todo o que tiñamos daquilo: xa non cremos que nos volva saír nunca máis.

De volta en Polar, metéronnos as monxas de urxencia a todas no salón de actos; contamos, e as monxas a todo nos dixeron que si: tamén é verdade que outra cousa non ían facer. Mírenme ben, dixo Sor Mártara a Nova ao rematarmos: están seguras de que dixeron todo o que tiñan que dicir? Dixemos, Madre. Como non lle iamos dicir, Madre. Pois será así logo: vaian agora descansar, e, se algunha non dá feito, que vaia canda Sor O’Malley e que lle faga unha cunca de English breakfast tea. Mañá xa pasou todo. Pasou, Madre, dixemos como un eco, e marchamos. Coidamos que no corredor andaba agachada Sor Elvira Lecumberri, mirando para nós. Nin ladeamos a cara para mirala. Aí nos decatamos que o interese que tivéramos por ela perdéramolo todo: estabamos na idade.

Portrait of Eva Moreda

Eva Moreda was born on the northern border between Galicia and Asturias in 1981. She has been active actively publishing novels in Galician since adolescence and is currently a professor of musicology at the University of Glasgow.

Trafika Europe