The Cardboard House
Winter in Barranco has already begun — a peculiar, daft, and fragile winter that might just cleave the sky and let a tip of summer peek through. The mist of this small winter, affairs of the soul, puffs of sea breeze, drizzles of a boat trip from one pier to another, the sonorous flutter of rushing lay-sisters, opaque sounds of Mass, winter newly arrived… Now, off to school with cold hands. Breakfast is a warm ball in the stomach, the hardness of the dining room chair on the buttocks, and the solemn desire in the entire body not to go to school. The frond of a palm tree hovers over a house: flabellate, gently somber, pure, pink, glistening. And now you whistle with the streetcar, boy with closed eyes. You do not understand how one can possibly go to school so early in the morning, especially when there are esplanades and the sea below. But as you walk down the street that traverses almost the entire city, you smell the perfume of distant vegetables in nearby gardens. You think of the lush, wet fields, almost urban behind you, limitless in front of you, between the ash and elder trees, toward the bluish sierra. Barely the outline of the first foothills, the mountains’ eyebrow… And now you pass through the fields surrounded by muBed beehive sounds of fleeting friction over rails and a flourish of athletic though urban gymnastics. Now the sun grinds to golden a mountain peak and an ancient burial mound, a yellow knoll like the sun itself. And you do not want it to be summer, but rather winter vacation, tiny and weak, with no school and no heat.
Beyond the fields: the Sierra; before the fields: a creek lined with alder trees and women washing clothes and children, all the same color of indifferent dirt. It is two o’clock in the afternoon. The sun struggles to free its rays from the branches into which it has fallen captive. The sun — a rare, hard, golden, lanky coleopteran. Father Parish Priest doffs his shovel hat, tilts his head; eleven reflections off a tall silk hat, a top hat — those eleven reflections converge overhead in a round, convex light. Beyond the city: the clear, tender chasm of the sea. The sea can be seen from above, at the risk of slipping down the slope. The cliffs have wrinkles and spotless smooth patches and are livid and jaundiced on their geological, academic foreheads. There, in miniature, are the four ages of the world, the four dimensions of all things, the four cardinal points, everything, everything. One old man… Two old men… Three old men… Three Pierolistas. Three hours of sunshine must be wrested from the night. Oversized garments hang loosely off the body. The smooth cloth is squared, trihedral, falls, grows taut — the cloth: empty within. Bones creak in time with timed gestures, with the rhythmic stretching of hands to the sky of the horizon — the plane that intersects that of the sea to form angle X, last chapter of beginning geometry (first semester) — the sky where Pierola most likely is. The old men’s whiskers slice the sea breeze into fine strips like expensive jelly and infuse it with the scent of guava trees, tobacco from Tumbes, herb-scented handkerchiefs, local concoctions for coughs. A six-colored flag, wafted gently by a high wind not felt from below, suggests the flanks of a Spanish dancer. The Consulate General of Tomesia — a country created by Giraudoux out of a Hungarian plain, two Lima millionaires, several English trees, and the tone of an embroidered Chinese sky. Tomesia: never far from its Consulate General. The ice cream vendor’s cart goes past an old nag dangling its rough, blanched tongue. The poor beast would love to lick the ices in the hidden bucket; elegant and opaque lucuma-flavored ices, just barely chilled; ice creams, ample and pretty like a youthful portrait of Mother sitting beside Father; pineapple-flavored ices that go with red carnations; light and unfamiliar orangeflavored ices. How this cart does sound! The poor thing tears its soul out on the stones. Yet it would not alter its course for anything in the world — its straight course past the walls of the dead-end street, straight into imbecility. O little cart, cross over this lawn kept smooth for you by the water of the fountain. Between things there exist bonds of mutual aid hampered by man. The rumble of the cart’s wheels on the paving stones gladdens the sad waters of the fountain. The mestizo with cheeks the color of blood-soaked earth, his nose sprinkled with tiny, round drops of sweat — the mestizo cart driver does not allow the cart to roll over the lawn of that meager garden. The old men comment: “It’s cold.” “Yesterday?” “A beautiful day!” “Whatever you say, Mengánez…
In the morning, on the sharp edge of dawn, from the casement windows of the towers and in the awkward flight of frightened birds and the soggy bells, the old lay-sisters descend through the fog to their witches’ Sabbath of trees and poles. Black bulks sway to and fro, an infinity of arms, clawed hands, mumbled watchwords… And the city is an oleograph we contemplate, sunken under water: the waves carry things away and alter the orientation of the planes. Lay-sisters who smell of sun and dew; of the dampness of towels left behind bathtubs; of elixirs, eyewash, the devil, sponges; that dry, hollow smell of a soapy, worn, discolored pumice stone… Lay-sisters who smell of dirty clothes, stars, cat fur, lamp oil, sperm… Lay-sisters who smell of weeds, darkness, the litany, flowers for the dead… Limp robes, metallic slippers… The rosary is carried against the breast and makes no sound. At noon the sun shines down liquid and leaden like a yellow splash of water during old-time carnival. The streetcars carry their cargo of hats. Ah, the wind, such joy in this sea of gravity. The Crónica and Comercio newspapers are blown about until the cart threatens to roll backwards into an oblique flight over rails and pole. A tollbooth jumps to safety. The cart is stopped by the repair shop, like a rolling ball in the classroom by the teacher.
The afternoon, for the last time. Now we are crossing the Plazuela de San Francisco accompanied by the clipped tolling of bells for novena. A wall that blocks the towers — beautifully ugly — has, on the other hand, three picture windows of sleepy blue crystal illuminated by glimpses of the facing sky. This street leads to the sea: a sea no one sees, just like in the major ports. It is not today that we cross the Plazuela de San Francisco; it was yesterday while you were telling me how the twilight hurt your eyes. You were chewing on a hedgerow leaf and rubbing the fingernails of one hand against those of the other. I feared hearing your secrets — always sincere — so, to prevent you from speaking, I recalled out loud a distant afternoon that, like in a joke, was a huge fried egg, an embossed sun of brilliant gold almost on the periphery of the rugged and aqueous porcelain sky, a nutritive afternoon that stained gluttonous poets from their foreheads to their noses with sunset hues. Movie houses bleat in their dark and filthy cribs. A turkey vulture, at the top of a flagpole, is a turkey chick — arched blackness and gray beak. An old woman walked aimlessly along the esplanade, then took off dramatically to who knows where. An automobile turned on one headlight, revealing one cone of drizzle. We felt the cold on our eyelids. Yesterday… Bass Street now consoles us with its shadowy alcoves, its pharmaceutical smells of eucalyptus, its medicinal words, its rows of consumptive trees. And there is nobody who isn’t you or I.
Ramón put on his glasses, and his face and legs looked more negroid than ever. He said yes and filled his pockets with his hands. A bright star quivered in the sky; another star trembled closer by. The sky was night blue, with strands of day, with threads of day, feminine, seamstressy. The scissors of wind sounded as in a barbershop, and it was difficult to know if one’s own hair or the Chinese silk of the sky was being cut. With humility Ramón divested himself of hope, the way he would have divested himself of his hat. Life, and he who was beginning to live… One must resign oneself, he said, quoting Schopenhauer, then breathed deeply, as if asleep. I preferred Kempis to Schopenhauer. Nietzsche was a farce. Ramón had not read Nietzsche, but he had heard of the Superman. He knew that Superman was an alias of Firpo. He was beginning to live… Obligatory military service… A possible war… Children, inevitable… Old age… The daily grind… I whispered to him delicately, words of consolation, but I failed to console him; he hunched his shoulders and knit his brow; he rested his elbows on his knees; he was a failure. At sixteen years old!… Oh, to think what had befallen him! He almost cried; a spinster on a bicycle stopped him short. A bright star crackled in the sky; another one was extinguished closer by. A dog, vagrant and mongrel, watched us walking, looking back. I spelled out the words for him with my fingers: “It’s nothing. Don’t be a pest.” We went to Lima. The automobile tires sparked along the sticky asphalt; a flash of golden satin at the end of each block; the telephone poles mirrored one another perfectly; the pigeons were still heralding the morning. We returned to Barranco at night.
This one was an Englishman who fished with a rod. A high, thick nose on his long terra-cotta face; below, the mouth of a priest, drawn and still, the lips sunken; and a cigar from Catacaos; and one shaved hand; and a long, long, long rod… Undoubtedly, this Englishman was like all fishermen, an idiot, yet his legs did not sway; instead, he stood upon that support rail as slippery as moss-covered tiles. What was this Englishman fishing for, a careless lampo or minuscule tramboyos? I think he spent hour after hour fishing for a piece of seaweed with a drop of water on its tail that swelled and then collapsed before he could catch it. A poet? Nothing of the sort: a travel agent from Dawson and Brothers Ltd., but he fished with a rod. And the temptation to push him — and the Catacaos floating — and the rod driven into the sandy bottom like a topmast…
In the bewitched mirror of the rainy street — a drop of milk, the streetlamp’s iridescent globe; a drop of water, the sky above; a drop of blood, one’s self with this foolish joy at winter’s unannounced arrival… I am now that man with no age or race who appears in geography monographs, with ridiculous clothes, a somber face, his arms spread wide as he arranges India ink pastures and charcoal clouds — the engraving’s sparse, ragged landscape. Here is the West; North on that wall; South behind me. That way to Asia. This way, Africa. Everything beyond the sierra or the sea suddenly approaches, meridian by meridian, in a man, upon the brown waters of the causeway. The Turk is the Levant and the Occident, a tightly bound sheaf of latitudes: the face is Spanish; the pants, French; the nose, Roman; the eyes, German; the tie, Belgian; the bales of hay, Russian; the restlessness, Jewish… As we travel to the East, the numbers increase. To the West, they decrease. Dakar or Peking. A haremesque joy as the blue cloth appears through the lattice with its drab edges of black rubber. The fields, with their rash of ancient burial grounds, at the road’s open mouth. Fading light of falling drizzle. Trees with wet birds. There is a reason the earth is round… And these cars, soiled by haste, by pride, by mud… The fig trees make the houses grow in the illusion of muddy and mossy foliage, almost water, almost water, water above, and below, sediments, chlorophyllous and clay, I don’t know… Swallows, grasshoppers. One might even open one’s round, ichthyological eyes. In the water, under water, the lines break up, the reflections are at the mercy of the surface. No, at the mercy of the force that moves it. But it’s the same thing, after all. Asphalt pavement, a fine and fragile mica sheet… A very narrow street widens then contracts from beginning to end like a pharynx so that two vehicles — one cart and a second cart — can continue together side by side. Everything is thus: tremulous, dark, as if on a movie screen.