Liliana Heer

Review 75


Liliana Heer

Translated by Jessica E. Powell

She sews the hymen of the prisoners’ girlfriend

He was a Traveling Salesman. She, a Seamstress, but it could have been the other way around: she could have traveled while he sewed.
(Let’s leave it like that).
She sews, he travels, leaving in the morning with his samples in a suitcase and returning in the evening with the orders and a story about some incident or another from his day. She half-listens, not because she isn’t interested; the silence she’s kept throughout the day and the to and fro of the scissors continue of their own accord. Does he notice? It seems likely, his manner of speech varies, takes detours. When she looks at him, he scales back, synthesizes, simplifies; if she’s turned away from him, bent over something or looking out the window, he feels he must provide explanations, elaborations, even lies. Sometimes, copying is his only alternative. He has three or four strategies.  Appropriating his friends’ anecdotes doesn’t appeal to him. Not that he’s done this; he’s never even tried simply changing the details of some exploit to make it sound more familiar. He has always thought that an imitator ages prematurely.
He aims for something else. Like one who keeps a diary, fervently making note of what he wishes had happened, his intention is to transform the routine into something memorable. To this end he began reading everything he could find though he doesn’t merely read but rather alters the plots, introduces variations. He is not intimidated by his own ignorance; to the contrary, he avoids models in the same way that, as a boy, he distanced himself from the Ten Commandments. This approach colors his language. Sharp lines, creamy backdrops, flashes of light. New plasma or a return to melodrama?  When God wills he kills the sorcerer, the Salesman says, becoming bolder in his alchemy, putting incomplete stories in everyday people’s mouths. He contends that the brevity of his contact prevents  him from following up. Essays spout from his mouth. Master of the experimental. First he twists, then stretches, trying to discover the tone that will leave her astonished. It’s not easy to conquer the heart of a woman who has been witness to countless crimes.

She has a classical vision, the enchantment of isolation, she seeks the bas-reliefs between touching water and untying hail. Her fingers touch the blessedness of the body: black sugar for the rip. In the severity of stillness, vibrations and answers ferment. If they call your name, flee, she repeats instinctively. The fragile eardrum, attuned to the resonance. A courtesan with the ears of a lynx. Superstition and licentiousness. State of alert. Her memory stores up each sentence and alongside each one: small islands, damp trails of expression. There is time yet to choose or to reject. What enters and what leaves is within her control.
She was a Guard at the district prison, that’s where they met. She has a face that elicits memories in one disposed to forget. The sewing began later. Art of flight. The swallows return to being swallows even though winter approaches. Saffron cakes on earth and in heaven.
She prefers not to look at the Salesman while he talks, thus ensuring the drift. A slow surprise floats by night in the room, the silver fish flutters, unaffected by the scattered pins on the table.

He grows bolder as he speaks, he exerts himself with sudden immersions, he traces curves, attacks, explores. His words tend to unleash Nirvanas. He takes two or three steps towards her as if both wanting and not wanting to approach her. He doesn’t need to touch her, his body a few scant centimeters away has the same eloquence as his voice. Brow-knit, panting, he has managed to escape the blood debt and to reconstruct the savage health of Claudel. Smell of cows and human flesh.

Although the Seamstress spends most of her day inside the house, it doesn’t mean she’s imprisoned. In the afternoons she visits her Guardian: the prison Warden. She only has to cross the street to see him. These outings are not  clandestine, they have an obligatory flavor, feeding the frontier of a lustful power, without a doubt repeatedly carrying the cry of a deceived animal to the Salesman’s ear.

The window she looks out of is opaque. The core of the balance of contrast multiplies. The panes are cloudy and the blinds are usually drawn. Parallel and gloomy kingdom. No curtains veil the inmates’ imaginations, the tiny windows of their cells face the house.

The Warden also crosses the street to see her. He does this when, distracted by the radio, she forgets her duties, but never if the Salesman is at home. He has a key but he knocks with his cane. They have always disagreed on the matter of locks. Upon entering he reproaches her for having left the door unlocked. It is a scene that repeats itself because she disobeys; she is no longer the Girl whom he can admonish according to his whims. When she sees him brandish the cane, she takes it away and threatens to strike him. A caricature. Oftentimes they laugh when they are alone together. A bit of fuel for the fire.

The Guardian takes his leave with gestures as the Salesman does with words. She doesn’t seem like one woman but rather two. This is the key to understanding something: once the hill is achieved the sandy sides begin to roll away. None of them speaks of the pardon.

(It all began before).
The Girl had soft hands that did not know how to write but that filled notebooks with lines. How he first became fond of her is a question the Guardian still asks himself.
The first time she appeared in his office, she slipped a hand into his pocket, looking for coins. Her fingers, too small to lift out the watch, yanked. They were alone. He doesn’t remember hitting her, nor does he recall the Girl’s cry. He believes that he never saw her cry. Perhaps the day of the watch he beat her until he realized that she would not cry.

Her memory is more precise. They had removed her red meats in the prison Clinic. Without preamble. Open your mouth, and they opened it for her. She cried because they were going to cut out her tongue. It has grown back, she thought, touching it with her fingers.
Choking, blood, silence. They took her to the Guardian’s office, believing her to be mute. A trick, he said, and sat her on his lap. Later, he gave her a notebook: Do it like this, and he pressed her hand on the pencil.
The Girl was not going to cry even if he hit her. He did hit her when he saw that she had drawn on the desk. He did it again supposing that he’d gone deaf. What did he want? She should have asked him but her teeth remained clenched.

While the short-haired Girl played in the prison yard throwing stones at butterflies, the Guardian contemplated old age. Fatherhood is a corrective operation. All muscles at the ready. Discipline. Rigor. isolation. Punishment.
He pinched her nipples until they were black and blue. Endless, nauseating little bites. The ever greater wounds gave off an ever sweeter smell. Later, a little lamp made of blue glass and other gifts came along to console her.
It was all normal for the Girl. Neither antipathy nor malice. Caressing that voluminous belly, she became accustomed to saying: Where could it be, where could the little worm be?

An arbitrary docility, sharply pointed, similar to the Guardian’s behavior. After the agitation and the biting, what to do? (The fallen name is called oblivion). She also learned to say: Fragile happiness, it devours our lives.

Saturdays at noon he bathed her. The water still hot, the bubbles, fingers furrowed like nuts, bright red cheeks, bellybutton. Her skin, pure silk. Upon scrubbing, the scabs fall away.
In an instant, the Girl’s body is agitated by the intoxication of hate. If it’s intense, ardor takes flight.

She grew as quickly as she could, despite and because of a precociousness lacking in creed or patina of bloodline. By means of intuition she thought things without knowing how to think. It was very easy to feel from the beginning on, and more and more, until arriving at the limit.
A minor task: prevent, hide, disguise. Splinters of bone swim in her veins. Tempus destruendi: A sense of calm, to belong to someone, to be forbidden. No one could beat her. In the prison workshops, they avoided her. She gave away what had been given to her to buy trust. The sign of the cross when the Guardian appeared.

(Let’s start over).
Four years after becoming guardian of his murdered lover’s daughter, the Warden sat the Girl upon his knee, intent on bringing her out of the silence she had kept ever since having had her tonsils removed. The Clinic provided first and final aid, to which the Warden could attest since he himself had been witness, four years earlier, to the forceful extraction of a frail creature with eyes identical to those of her agonizing mother. For this reason, the two men responded in completely opposite ways; while for the murderous husband the Girl became the living shadow of the dead woman, the Warden received her joyously as one who accepts a miracle.

It must have been a hunch and not a certainty, the certainty didn’t come until they brought her to his office; he didn’t know who had been charged with her care up until then, but whomever it was had obviously taken greater pains to neglect her. Malnourished and mute, dirty, poorly dressed and bruised, her fist in her mouth, dry, sunken eyes.
The Guardian sat her on his lap, not knowing what to give her so that she would forget, and it was he who forgot, not the Girl. He forgot that she was a child and began to do to her what he had done to the mother. He even began to believe that her brain didn’t receive certain signals, that it distorted stimuli. This happens with sudden deafness, he told himself, and he hit her hard, taking his time; it was what he always did although that time it wasn’t his unbridled instinct at work. He suspected something more elemental, a challenge, he couldn’t believe that the Girl didn’t cry and would never cry again, ever since as punishment for crying they removed her red meats, as they called them in the Clinic, and tossed them in the chicken coop, ever since they threatened to cut out her tongue. The business with the tongue was not a figment of the Guardian’s imagination; the Girl talked in her sleep, pressing up against his body like a little monkey who, fleeing a storm, clings to the trunk of the tallest tree; covered in an icy sweat, she repeated three words, always the same: Not my tongue, not my tongue.

She continued having nightmares long after he had moved her to one of the houses in the prison complex, a comfortable distance away. He had only to cross the street, although it must not have been comfortable after all,  because he ended up moving in with her so as to spy on her every movement, to be sure no one took her away or that she wouldn’t escape with the stable-master with whom she spent hours among the smell of urine and bales of hay.
Her nightmares continued, she couldn’t change that, or suppress them, the way she had suppressed her cries and whimpers; everything that was within her control, she did. She stopped climbing up on the stool as she was discovered making faces in the mirror, she saw the Guardian and abruptly changed activities; from that day on, instead of the tongue and pawing fingers, as if the Guardian hid a little animal between his legs, she would unzip his fly and ask: Where could it be, where could the little worm be?

A black line delineates the plot, three canals cleave it.
The temptation exists, the silken clot, magnetized and rocky, it exists although it serves no purpose. Outlines, delicate, or else too thick, wet drapery, scarlet cloud. On this line (neither experience nor luster) any action is happenstance, swing, folly, subrisio onis.

The Salesman’s eyes fall upon a brochure. The train  advances and he distracts himself by reading an advertisement for a play. He’s never seen one but certainly he could begin to avail himself of some tricks, he thinks. In the advertisement, there are two figures and a warning: Enough with explanations, the dialogue is but one sound among many others, the actors tell a visual story. He’ll try out this idea with the Seamstress when he gets home. His success depends on the radio program, if she’s listening she’s numb to everything else, she argues: The musicians are playing for me.

He is received in silence. Three or four brush-strokes and he locates the protagonist. He describes the way a waiter behind the bar in a restaurant gargled with red wine. He lingers over the liquid going down, coming back up, going down again, and on the protests of the patrons that still ring in his head, and he says: An uproar just like the August Riot.
(He is alluding to the night when a group of prisoners, barricaded in the kitchen, threw punches, banged metal against metal, bowls against bars).
The Salesman wavers between diving into the riot and continuing to describe how the owner of the restaurant pushed the waiter out the door. His cries were lost in the uproar, one could see only his outstretched arms, his tense neck, and a grimace on the man’s face as he slammed the door and said in a loud voice: The people need a show. These people need a show and they’ll get one. If any old nutcase can cause such a commotion, all I have to say is: Come back, come back and gargle at the bar.

The Seamstress, surprised by the story’s turn of events, looked spontaneously at the Salesman. He keeps talking, without a trace of intimidation. He tells how everyone around him had left. He had hesitated; the owner suddenly moved the tables away from him and left him in the center of the restaurant, making him a part of the show.

Aware of the brevity of these scenes, fearing that the Salesman will leave the story unfinished, the woman holds her breath. Motionless, like when she heard him moaning in his cell until, between moans, he had said her name. Then, in an angle of the ceiling of the adjoining wall, she and the shadow of her body moved as if he were penetrating her. It makes her want to move with the frenzy of that time, feel the same excitement, but she refrains. She needs to find out where the restaurant is, to go with the Guardian. He is always eager to show-off, to be seen together. Often he lets out a reproach: I’m of no use to you anymore.
She is sure he would go as long as he was unaware of the motive; which is to say she should trick him into going. She does not wish to control the Salesman’s movements, she wants to release him from the role of prisoner, make a show of his loquacity because in front of the Guardian he clams up as if he were afraid of losing his red meats.

Perhaps everyone is two people and not one, or more than two.
The characters begin to expand, to live double lives, to await, hooded, the apparition of something unknown.
Beyond any pretension, the story has no beginning, nor end.
Neither what it’s called nor whom it’s about, at most what was said or done.
An illusion: follow the sequence, the vibratum of the voice.
The gold returns to the depths, and there it rots.

This fragment from the novel Neón was published in Review 75 Argentine Writing and Arts, Literature and Arts of the Americas, November 2007.

The Spanish version of the fragment was published in Revista Archivos del Sur, # 79, November 2007