In this translated excerpt from the Spanish-language novel Mayo (May), an older narrator, aware that she is losing her memory, lives alone with her cat, Tiresias. She recounts stories of life and death spanning three generations of a family’s experiences in a small town in the Yucatán, including the story of her mother Mamá Panchita’s own memory loss. Mirroring the condensation on the walls in the house which she lives, the narrator’s “drip” of memories drifts through what had been forgotten and is later remembered in new ways.
Karla Marrufo Huchim
Translated from the Spanish by Allison A. deFreese
Mayo (Part 1)
did you know there’s a word in portuguese that resembles your name?
i’ve forgotten, but it means mementos or memories, like remembering to send greetings to someone, to send a memo. i would remember it if only i could pet the cat, just as i would remember to take out the trash on friday and to close the refrigerator door
the door of my tears,
and all the windows before leaving the house.
there’s so much silence here. have you noticed that? that when you keep quiet, the house gets dirtier so much faster? you’re such a persistent dust. you pass through the doorways and come to rest in the corners kept under lock and key. perhaps that’s why lola can’t stand this place
the room still sweats with warm hypocrisy from when it was a law office
and lola’s right. if we keep going on like this, we could rent it out as a funeral parlor soon. it’s profitable business. people will never stop dying
or growing quiet
or thinking today must be friday.
come here. touch the wall. it’s covered in dark bubbles. so humid! the wood is swelling. i am swelling up, and sometimes i feel myself rolling, floating, rolling—like those days when we’d go to the park, and roll downhill until we were tired, until we landed at the foot of the hill where the grass was peaceful and green. do you remember? we spent so many weekends there at that park! we would arrive with our childish excitement, believing everything was going to be fine; we ate sandwiches and sipped fruit juice while the clowns inflated balloons shaped like dogs
the dogs walking past were shaped like balloons that would later burst—
once blown up to full size and left to expand at the side of the road, the cars never stopping.
but in those days, bubbles were still clear, and everything was fine. we should return to that city again, leave behind this flat landscape for a while.
have you ever noticed how tiresias looks at me? i’ve always wondered what he’s thinking when his little green eyes grow huge as he stares into mine. it reminds me of that movie
what was it called?
the one where they ask whether, instead of us being the ones who make our animals more human, it isn’t actually the opposite way around, and the creatures in our lives are the ones turning us into animals. and later lola brought up that song again, the one about the professor who taught those puppies how to write
he was an animal lover for sure; a regular zoophile, lola said
what a silly song! it makes me laugh,
though my excitement lasts only an instant
as i think about those animals
and how they drift through life with their broken fragments of memory.
only a short time has passed, really, and yet i’ve started mixing things up; things are erasing themselves from my mind. sometimes it occurs to me that the past is a faded beach house, condemned to endure the sand’s relentless daily caresses and the sting of salt swept up by the wind. lola insists i take vitamins, fish juice, capsules filled with algae. she says i should sleep more
have peaceful dreams, and sleep without needles pounding in my temples
for eight, ten hours
a thousand hours . . .
to sleep forever
but a wicked sun keeps visiting my dreams, drawing black holes in front of me
it wakes me up—feeling agitated—every forty minutes.
i saw it on tv. the blonde girl with the small mouth was talking about it: how there is a very dark spot in the middle of a solar flare. you have to see it
we should talk more. a little more. things that happen to us every day stick better when we talk about them, didn’t you know? that’s why names are so important
that handful of letters from the alphabet that stays bound to the heart all our lives.
mamá panchita used to repeat this until she was exhausted
she said names are extremely dangerous; they trace lines leading to our destinies.
i remember the last time, so sad, though it barely lasted a few seconds. we had tied mamá panchita’s hands with a rope, and attached it to the beams in the ceiling, so she would stop
she was only hurting herself; scratching open her own skin in an effort to remember.
her hands restless as kites,
but without the colors
and i felt deeply moved by her dark skin. seeing it touched me in a way that no one else’s skin had ever moved me before. it had a very old scent, the smell of many years, with doubt leaving a deep line between her eyebrows. in a corner of the room, right in front of her, the small altar to our lady of charity was laughing along with five freshly cut sunflowers and the sparkle of a few fake coins. her eyes half-closed, mamá panchita was squinting suspiciously as she looked at the saint; in her pupils she was mustering up the hatred of a thousand questions answered only with whispers. and just as i walked into the room, an unspeakable anger seized me
she was scratching open her skin
who knows what she was looking for under the surface
that’s why she had all those sores on her arms,
that large scar on her face
and her terrifying screams, filled with outrage, made me tremble with anger and then grow quiet because, being there at her side for the last time, i felt incapable of speaking to her
come now, mamá, everything’s going to be fine. when i look into your eyes, there you are—so very much yourself, mother, always you, taking with you the little thread of your name that’s about to break.
nothing. silence. in that quiet corner of the room, i didn’t so much as dare to light the white candles around our lady of charity; we remained still, with our mouths sealed
with our dark hands.
even tiresias is more expressive than that when it comes to giving me looks. that must be why he’s so determined when he scratches me. don’t you see? it’s the same thing backwards. relentless caresses and reverberating silences—and this house hasn’t even had the misfortune of being built by the ocean, and has survived for years even in mamá panchita’s absence
in the absence of your sisters, your father, you, and me
only the bubbles and drops remain
of a rather thick liquid, as if flooded by disappointment, muddied by a sadness that makes everything slippery. no matter how hard i try, it’s impossible to stop walking around between these same drops of music, these same notes, and always this the same smell that comes in the month of may
it’s may again
that comes to fasten itself to the walls of memory, climbing up the walls like a vine, into the memories that are hidden away in every corner, embroidered with the threads of mamá panchita’s name. she was fascinated by fancy paper napkins, by the little drawings on disposable cups, the tiny flowers on plastic cutlery—so many treasures. do you remember? she ate with her hands instead of touching the plastic forks, cleaned her mouth using her sleeves instead of napkins, discretely wiping her fingertips on the edge of the tablecloth—all as a way to keep the beauty of disposable things intact.
you see, i’m still finding her fortune of plastic and paper at the most unexpected moments, in the most unexpected places, and it’s hard for me, because i never know what to do with these disposable objects of hers that have gone untouched and will be thrown out later without anyone even giving them another thought.
do you know how many things die without anyone even so much as thinking of them? i try to do it, to think about every single thing, about every person. . . but there are far too many and i am
it seems to me
much too small. perhaps when you start thinking about things, the things themselves become truly quite sad, too. like the melon this morning. lola brought it over, and it was a really large one, and i had to cut through the rind myself, then scoop out all the seeds from each little square—the hulls of those seeds felt rough to the touch as I removed them; each was unique and alive, and they kept covering my hands as if they were blood from a murder. plus there was no running water in the house
not a single drip or drop
and that meant getting coated in the melon’s round and sweet death, its juice running onto the floor until I ended up crying—holding the knife in my hand—about all the times i hadn’t known how to relish the thought of death.
where are you going? did you know there’s a greek word . . . ?
but i took out the trash on friday and closed all the doors
all of them
although later i opened them all back up again because i needed to let the daylight in and to breathe in the outside world. sometimes when the sun
a spot black as night
starts to draw on the walls and furniture of my room, i force myself to wake up: but it’s no use. my eyes keep me anchored in my sleep. my eyelids stay closed, inwardly, looking for a long time at a universe that lacks the contours daylight draws for us. that’s why i must open the windows and doors, i have to expand this space so the colors don’t stay hidden and so that i, too, may draw myself for one more day. it’s strange: suddenly i find i’m imagining my own funeral among the dark bubbles, in the middle of this ridiculous heat. and i’m afraid
of closed doors and windows
very afraid. i must be lost in the maze of the energy shake and the cereal box. every morning the same routine; it’s so easy to follow that i wind up getting lost. it’s easy to get lost when you go about the day pretending to be free
to have no blood at all.
and you knew that. do you remember when we’d get lost and promise each other we would never go back home? never again return,
to the smoothies or the fish oil or the algae
even though the way home was a straight shot, without any turns. we wanted to escape to the parks with their hills and lakes
do you remember?
to sail as far away from home as one of those balloons that rises in the air until it touches the sky. we were happy runaways watching out of the corner of our eyes, feeling above it all and looking down at those small lives beneath us . . . exactly the way life used to look from the picture window of the italian restaurant. do you remember that place? with its crystal clear windows under the shade of a ceiba tree, where i was waiting for you, hidden away in the restaurant, and imagining the moment when you would arrive? the ceilings of that space were also as high as our sky. sometimes when you arrived, i would imagine you were someone else, a different fellow coming to see me. then we’d escape, filled with foolish fantasies that I cherish to this day
you are so silly, small woman!
you ramble on and on, without holding your tongue; with a warm, sweet venom in your saliva
i am quite small for being such a silly woman
with the eagerness of a schoolgirl and a trembling desire to see you again, i loved waiting for you. and when you triumphantly entered the restaurant, you grinned, confirmed what you suspected, and then kept our game going by hiding a rose behind your back
a forbidden caress
fixing your gaze on my body
later putting the flower in my hands, without saying a word
what a lovely couple
yes, mamá, we do make such a lovely couple, though tiresias may condemn us
with his intensely green gaze and his claws on our skin.
yes, it sounds so pretty, but neither of us had the calling to become martyrs, nor would our deaths be foreshadowed by the ripping open of our awareness that happened, little by little, each day, in an italian restaurant
or by having someone read of a very long will and testament:
the one who dies first, dies best
we didn’t think about death back then, though even in those days we already knew that neither words nor names would ever be on our side. do you remember the letters we wrote each other, the tongue twisters, all the wordplay?
paradise bird white angel cloud heaven dream blood
and what does blood have in common with dreams?
they are connected in the same way that paradise is filled with birds and angels: you must fly to reach paradise, just as there must be blood for a dream to end
and i was laughing then, though i never understood a thing. because to me, you were as bright as the look of hope in a street dog’s eyes.
wait! you would have loved it in the city center yesterday, everyone was there. i walked and walked, past all the shops, among the people and pigeons. it was fascinating. it was strange to get lost in a crowd again. a thousand overlapping colors, the dust in the air, the excited sounds of people in a hurry, with their purchases and their sniveling kids who held ice creams that were melting, sad from the heat. and a man looked at me like no man has looked at me for many years. i felt paralyzed and dry, a scarecrow of a woman. except that i can’t scare anything, not even the pigeons. i couldn’t return his look, because I could tell he was someone who refused to be intimidated. i felt trapped like the queen in a game of chess, alone and vulnerable at the point of defeat. i would like to learn to play chess
to figure my way out of mazes
to fill myself with the power that lives in knives
but no one will tell me how it’s done. i never learned to return a look. i know nothing about revenge. that must be why everything around me ends up dying or getting killed. you know, tiresias spent the night in the carport again. i’m afraid i will forget him, and that he’ll forget about me. i am very afraid that one day we will both forget about each other—that i’ll back out of the carport, but he won’t move; and after that, he’ll never back away or come toward me again; that later i’ll have to wipe up his blood when he’s dead, and gently remove his little red collar from around his neck, and place the drop that was his body
dark as a bubble
into a trash bag that i won’t forget to take out on friday. perhaps after that i will close the doors forever.
go on then. you can leave if you want. there is nothing here anymore. that’s why we are so backwards and rustic, so broken down—at a standstill. we lack the words to communicate, even words that are conspiring against us, and not on our side. sometimes, i sense that a man is watching us, all the time, with a lewd and hateful expression on his face, and that what no one realizes is that, in reality, we are all very much alone in this world, and that no one is capable of forming the shapes of our eyes
of our skin, of our memories
as if there is not a single beautiful thing remaining, and only a little of the bad
that is becoming a little less small everyday
is embedding itself in our hands and feet, with the exact height and width as the shapes of our hearts.
did i tell you? tiresias killed a hummingbird
angel bird heaven paradise
and is tearing it apart now, licking it, bringing it to rest by my feet as an offering of sacrifice. he’s a hunter because he is capable of killing, because that swift flutter of wings makes no difference to him, nor does he care about the pangs of pain that stab the heart as his little muzzle shreds the warm body and throbbing heartbeats of a bird on the verge of taking flight. i also know how to heal wounds just like those, death wounds.
tiresias has killed another hummingbird. nothing ever changes! it would seem he fills his mouth with death so as not to growl at us, when confronted with our vices. we should play again
another paradise another crow another angel another cat another set of
but without the terror of these days that now keep us apart. if we stay quiet, if we talk very quietly, telling each other new secrets, things could be like they were before. look closely . . . if you can just ignore my slurred speech and the way i drag the s’s in every phrase i say—forming them takes such effort—everything will remain exactly the same as it always has been. you only need to make me keep repeating it again and again
she sells seashells she sells seashells she sells seashells
will be the same as always again.
KARLA MARRUFO HUCHIM holds a doctorate in Hispanic-American literature from la Universidad Veracruzana. Her work has been recognized through several prestigious literary awards, including the 2005-2007 National Wilberto Cantón Award in playwriting, the XVI José Díaz Bolio Poetry Prize, and the 2014 National Dolores Castro in narration for her novel Mayo/May (Ayuntamiento de Aguascalientes, 2014). She received a fellowship from the Programa de Estímulo a la Creación y al Desarrollo Artístico en Yucatán, which resulted in the publication of her book Mérida lo invisible/Mérida the Invisible (published under the title Arquitecturas de lo invisible/Archi- tecture of the Invisible in its second printing).
ALLISON A. deFREESE has previously translated works by Luis Chitarroni, Amado Nervo, and other Latin American writers. Her writing and literary translations have appeared in 60 magazines and journals, including Asymptote, Solstice, The New York Quarterly, Quick Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature. An English translation of María Negroni’s book Elegía Joseph Cornell/Elegy for Joseph Cornell is forthcoming in 2020 from Dalkey Archive Press.
This story originally appeared in SAND 21.