Translation by Megan Berkobien
So I stayed here, waiting, on Third Avenue between Seventh and Fourth, after circling around the adjacent streets some. I didn’t like the idea of living out in the open. It’s absurd, I know, but our attachment to certain places remains intact. Especially to those spots that bring back happy memories. For me, the corner where J.G. Melon’s once stood—the world’s best burger, according to some—is one of those places. Ian asked me to marry him here, just a few hours before the blackout. We had ordered two beiconburguers and two sides of fries. We had plans. Ian had seen a little house for rent at a good price in Brooklyn, right next to another occupied by a Mexican family of fourteen. We hadn’t ruled out having kids—Ian liked them a lot—and we had even spoken about it seriously. It’s strange; I still get sad thinking about these things, now long past. I quickly push the negative thoughts aside and tell myself: if there’s nothing you can do, it’s only a waste of time.
It wouldn’t be so far-fetched if Ian were to return. I think others have. He has more reason than most, after all. I’m a good reason. Or at least I was, a while before the blackout. The image of his tearful eyes has yet to fade. No one will ever look at me like you do, I told him, before the sentence took on a much more macabre sense. I first started thinking of us being reunited a few months ago, but I’ve resigned myself to losing faith. Less and less remains each time. Such a reunion is impossible when you can’t see one another, when communication is reduced to a series of sighs and gasps. We are forced to live in a world of invisible shadows, where you can only sense others and they can only sense you. It’s true that, from the moment we learned to do it, we listened amongst ourselves, though our sounds have limited range. Only the most fortunate manage to groan. As for the rest, we gasp for air, or we let out something like a sigh or—and if you’re like most, as far as I know—we merely breathe a bit heavier than we did before. That’s why our language proves chaotic, disturbing, a dramatic return to the beginning. But really, you never get used to it.
It’s not that I’m trying to be an optimist despite everything, but something tells me that Ian is one of those presences around me at all hours, in this once-so-special place. The overgrowth swallows the machines and the walls have begun to shed in flakes. The floor has opened up into huge gaps where the vegetation explodes. And the roof, now destroyed by leaks. One day, the high-rise apartments will collapse upon the people below and everything will be reduced to rubble. In the streets, where the vehicles came to a halt, nothing more than rusted frameworks remain. The asphalt is almost invisible beneath the earth and grass. Even trees born in the middle of Third Avenue have begun to grow.
What remains is an unbearable truth: our only role in the city, the world is avoiding this advance.
I still hear gasps, but now not all the time, like in the beginning. Nor do I hear the others dragging themselves, stealthily, through the undergrowth, as they once did over broken glass. Sometimes it feels like I’m crossing someone’s path, that there’s a being quite near that can sense me as I sense him, but that’s when I endeavor to stay still, expecting, observing the creeping streets. Sometimes I hear him continue on his way and other times I think they’re all a figment of my imagination. Uncertainty follows me at all hours.
In the beginning I heard them everywhere, but, little by little, they disappeared. The others filled me with terror. Then, perhaps, I got used to them. Resignation is sad and silent. It wasn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that the city no longer belonged to us.
I’m not really sure how it could have happened. It was sudden, one rainy night. The city that never slept was caught in an instant, like enormous gears now jammed. As if someone had managed to hit the world’s light switch.
The cars let out smoke for a few hours more, their windshield wipers moving back and forth, creating a macabre rhythm. The traffic lights continued changing from red to green, green to yellow, yellow to red, in an absurd sequence. Walk. Don’t walk. No one follows the rules. Clocks marked time for a while more in a place where no one needed them. There were horns set off by the weight of some motionless body. There were sirens howling in the deserted streets, ovens that finished their cooking, electrical appliances carrying out their programmed schedules, assembly lines making products that, even before being made, were already useless, planes that continued flying, underground trains that followed their interminable routes, full of slumped-over cadavers.
An inattentive observer might get the impression that the city keeps living. But it’s all a mirage. As for how long it took, everything fell silent in barely two days. All the fuel deposits ran out, no one wound up the old devices; there was no one to recharge the batteries. When the electrical centers began to give, like giants, one after the other, the world was no longer of our making.
Little by little, the sirens fell silent, then the motors, the gunshots, the music, the alarms: the clatter. The last heartbeat of mechanical life was followed by desolate silence.
I’ve always been here, that awful stillness seemed to say.
It wasn’t pleasant finding out that things weren’t as we had always been told. We, poor creatures anchored to four walls, had no means to the mobility so often attributed to incorporeal beings. Nor were we so agile in our movements: more than four stairs proved an insuperable obstacle. We were, then, doomed to wander through empty terrain, which in a city like this can become a real inconvenience. And if our pilgrimage—through streets now so different from before—proves grueling, I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who remain trapped in tall apartment buildings, or perhaps in a basement somewhere or atop the Empire State. If I hadn’t known that the city quickly filled with wolves, I would have thought that they were the ones howling at the moon from sunset until well into dawn.
But the wolves were the ones that took everything over. You could say that they were now the city’s true inhabitants. Their arrival was almost immediate, following the rats and insects. In those first few days, it wasn’t unusual to be walking and stumble into a car invaded by rodents greatly roused by the abundance of food. And, at first, the rats had reason to lament our disappearance (we had provided them with so much food, so much amusement…) but they quickly learned to use it to their advantage. Although the insects were the luckiest. As the ferocious resistance that we had so often opposed the insects was now nonexistent, they devastated everything. I reckon that the seven million volumes in the NYPL were reduced to dust in only seven days. And vultures nested in the stairways.
But, what does a mountain of books matter when compared to the iron bridges, the concrete masses, the skyscrapers hurdled into the void? We heard them fall piece by piece, one by one. First the glass gave way, then the iron and cemented frames. The entire city began to corrode. The rusty gangrene penetrated everything, even spreading to stone. The noise returned for a while: that of the collapsing of structures at one point erected by men, so self-fulfilled. By day, wind and foliage. By night, wolves howling at the moon.
And we, the ghosts, terrified, listening.
I hear Ian’s voice whispering in my ear: we shouldn’t have done it; we should’ve never been so arrogant. Raising the city upon a block of stone, who thought that up?
We’re at our table at J. G. Melon’s. He’s wearing a new jacket, the one I got him for his last birthday. Our rare hamburgers languish on the table, next to the fries. Across the counter, the waiter winds an old clock while consulting the exact time on his cell phone. On the other side of the glass the taxis buzz by at high speeds, moving toward the city center. Their passengers unaware that they’ll wind up rat food. The traffic lights flood the night with their cycle of lights now green, now yellow, now red. Only a bit longer until the reign of silence begins.
The rain has begun to fall.
“What are you thinking about, if you don’t mind me asking? You’re being quiet.”
I’m too overwhelmed to answer.
I hear gasping and sighing close to my ear. I don’t understand what they’re saying, but their voices are as clear as the conversation one table over.
I ask myself why he doesn’t hear them. Why only me. I feel somewhat panicked about surviving, about ending up alone. I don’t want to be different.
Ian smiles, happy about our future plans. He doesn’t know that only an abyss awaits us.
I hear the first howl in the distance. They’re coming.
The rain stops falling.
I want to tell him: Don’t leave me, please. Stay with me.
He gets up to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t hear the howling. The gasping either.
I say, I implore: If something happens and we have to part, I’ll be here waiting for you.
He walks away laughing, as if I’m joking.
On her website, Care Santos writes that her fiction is dominated by two women. When one reads Santos’ work, it is not difficult to notice both sides of Care’s personality shining through; her stories are robed in a language both lyrical and distressing, creating tales that haunt in their tragedy and provide relief in their realistic portraits of modern life. Her most recent novel, Desig de xocolata, has topped best-seller lists and is currently being translated into several languages. Los que rugen, her latest short story collection, is a work divided into two parts: Ellos, a set of tales that trace the parallel lives of those now lost and their footprints that remain, and Nosotros, stories of the living who have their own closeted ghosts. The stories within prove that Care is one of the most inspired and witty—if not, at times, gruesome in her humor—female writers to emerge from Spain in the past decade.
Megan Berkobien is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from the same university, where she founded the school’s undergraduate translation journal, Canon Translation Review. She spent a year as assistant editor for the online magazine Asymptote as well some time as editorial intern at Words Without Borders. Working from Spanish and Catalan, she has published translations in Words Without Borders, BODY, Palabras Errantes, Asymptote, and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation. Her first book-length translation—Cristina Peri Rossi’s radiant novella Strange Flying Objects—is forthcoming from Ox and Pigeon in 2015.