Have you ever seen out in the country at midday an electric bulb aglow? I have seen one. It is one of life’s bad memories.
—Juan Emar, Miltín 1934
There was a time when I often gazed at the factory chimneys. Each morning they were the same height and their colour resembled zinzolin, a kind of purple that, lacklustre as it is, blended with the red of daybreak. Those details were important to me: they let me know that between night and day nothing had changed. The rain, for example, had not made one chimney grow taller than the other or effaced or discoloured the enamel. It soothed me to note that the black clouds that rose from the chimneys, though unrelenting, would never darken the rest of the sky; the smoke billowed and it seemed to me that I was watching a giant’s fingers as he twirled his hair.
On those occasions I spent hours waiting for the blind man to wake. Between the white eyes of sleep and the white eyes of waking I learned to distinguish a rift: the sun hastened the contours of the chimneys and shortly after his hands began to shake as if they were drowning in the light; after this, now with his whole body shaking and his eyes rolled back, he groped his way towards where I was watching him and, with a couple of blows to my head, cried:
“Open your eyes, Lázaro! With no energy there’s no voice, and with no voice there’s no appetite…”
And when that happened, the streets were already teeming with the same diligence. The blind man gave the order to go outside and not long after he was crying out, “Have a story told, any story!” He left out nothing that the other traffickers in stories thought to say. People passed by, avoiding his voice; the women, especially, sidestepped him and wrinkled their noses as if they were afraid of getting them wet. But there was always someone who, lured by the words cast by that hoarse and almost violent voice, dropped a coin into our little tin and inclined his or her head to listen more closely. Perhaps owing to his blindness, if the blind man said he remembered, the people believed; and if officials overlooked the fact that he dared spout the lies that came out his mouth, it was because in those times, when stories were forbidden, his were ensconced in the impunity of his useless eyes, which were never taken for anything but harmless and devoid of all authority.
This was how we lived: a little here and a little there. When we amassed enough water, we moved south, never north. There, the factories sprouted; the dogs snarled and problems piled up. In the south, by contrast, there was still space enough for solitude. But because the blind man migrated often and we had to return regularly, we secured a basement where we could shelter while we took turns to stock up on more ampoules. All I had to do was shake the tin whenever I noted interest on the face of someone who had heard “Forty-millilitre coins; forty-millilitre coins…” And, as I said earlier, if, with a little good fortune, someone dropped us a coin, the blind man rolled his eyes back and remembered the years when there was plenty of water and mankind reproduced; when factories had not been invented and all the things that people say used to happen did indeed come to pass as naturally as nowadays they do not.
Sometimes, however, someone would arrive wanting to buy another kind of story.
Thereupon the blind man would lower his voice and squeeze my arm.
The man seemed nervous and bit his lip. A longing to be injected with one of our story-filled ampoules had brought him here. I was used to recognising such customers because, since I had been living with the blind man, I had seen that they came in several shapes and sizes. Some, such as this one, peered at us from behind a pair of glasses with transparent frames; these were almost always shy and had sallow skin. Others wore blue tracksuits and dyed their hair white. Their preferences may have often coincided, but they were usually strict in terms of the stories they wanted to experience and the time they had to spare. This was why we went down to the basement. There, next to a small makeshift pallet, the blind man opened the case and exhibited the titles of the ampoules, which were often numerous and came in many sizes. Along the length of the ampoule plastic you could read the name of the story and, if it was selected, I moistened a little cotton ball with disinfectant and rubbed the nape of the person’s neck before guiding the blind man’s hand, and he sunk the needle into the flesh and injected the colours.
When we reached the basement alongside the shy young man with the glasses, the blind man said what he always did:
“A one-hour ampoule of story costs half a litre; a two-hour ampoule costs one.”
You could see the man had been through this before because his mouth tightened and he replied:
“I’ll give you a litre and a half if you get me what I want.”
Once more I felt the blind man grab my arm, and the scraping of his shoes on the steps turned protracted and rough.
“Indeed, indeed,” the blind man chewed the offer over. “A litre and a half is a fair amount. Tell me what story.”
“What I’m after isn’t exactly a story,” the shy young man lowered his voice so much that for a moment I thought he had begun to swallow his words, “but a name: Felisberto Hernández.”
“Felisberto,” murmured the blind man while picking at his mole-specked head; “a strange harvest, no doubt about it, but the distiller will know how to get hold of it if we give him some time.”
“But it’s vital that I experience it today!”
“That makes it tricky.” The blind man hastened to feel out the space before him with his crutch until the edge of the wood caught me in the ribs. “You heard, nephew,” he let three coins drop into my hand, “be precise with what you stipulate and make sure it’s top notch.”
He made me repeat the name three times and then I ran to the distillery. I often went in there with the blind man; beforehand, we had to cross a little room with walls covered in labelled vials that were full of cloudy water; inside them floated objects that I could not always identify. All of it was under the care of a fat woman who picked at her fingernails and had a decisive character. Yet she would get nervous whenever anyone asked after the distiller, even though such a thing was not out of the ordinary; she would shake her head and make strange faces, as if she were putting up a struggle against words that refused to come out her mouth. If this kept up a long time, she would press a blue button; if a short time, a red one. At that moment the distiller would appear. He was a man with a beautiful moustache who often made apologies, which you could see was because he held the blind man in high esteem. He would take us to a small room where there were two couches, and the pair would sit down to drink a bottle full of the liquid on the walls while they waited for the operator to arrive with a selection of ampoules. The blind man would take a whiff and rejoice; later, sniffing the sample of ampoules, he would say yes to one story, no to another, and one by one the distiller would fill our case, which we would then hide in the basement.
Now I was knocking at the distillery door with both hands; I banged at it until one of the operators stuck his face out the window:
“What do you want?” He was a wide man pitted with smallpox scars and visibly in a hurry.
“The blind man sent me,” I replied; “with an emergency.”
Clearly the blind man was important to them because they let me in right away. The fat woman looked me head to toe and, after listening patiently, pressed the red button. I stood there, unsure of what to say. Her jaw wiggled a good while but, finally, words managed to escape her:
“Wait for him in the other room.”
I ducked under a curtain; it was the first time I had been in there. Behind the curtain there were several alembics dripping stories, and almost at once it occurred to me that it was like watching a group of obese people sweating in a gymnasium. Every now and then an operator with rubber gloves inspected the alembics; he sniffed the filter and later went out of the room carrying a little tray of vials filled with different colours. I heard his heels pecking at the roof. Several iron pipes descended from the ceiling, and the noise that travelled down them went around in a spiral that was like a sluggish digestion tract.
Soon I sensed that someone brushed against the curtain. The folds of the red fabric softened. I saw the bristles of a moustache.
“This will take some time,” said the distiller. “In the first place, it is a tricky item of fermentation. Add to that the whole matter of the tank. We have to search the storehouse, process the dyes, etcetera.”
I suspected the fat woman had munched on my thoughts while I was in that room; if not, I was at a loss as to explain how the distiller knew I had come for such a rare ampoule. I lamented thinking unkind things about her and being found out, but above all I was distressed to think our sale would not proceed and the distiller was saying rushed things as if he wanted me gone. The coins were bulky in my hand and damp; I clenched them and, as if in affinity, my eyes caught their dampness. It was two days since I had eaten and I had got my hopes up.
“The blind man knows these things take days,” said the distiller, convinced he was making a fair statement.
I couldn’t contain myself any longer: my hands found my face and I started to sob.
“Don’t cry, boy,” he said in pity, “there are always alternatives when you’re young.”
My tears were salty and without thinking I licked them from my hands. I realised I was doing something depraved and hurried to tell him:
“I’ll end up eating myself.”
I immediately dried my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt and realised my words would free me from my predicament, as if in saying them I had slyly tugged on a small girl’s plaits.
“Look,” said the distiller, “here’s your alternative: you just have to take another story to the blind man. It wouldn’t be so hard.”
I cleaned my face.
“Might you have a similar story?” I asked, slurping my snot and coming back to my senses.
The distiller stroked his moustache:
“Take another Uruguayan,” he said after a while. “I have several.”
It was the first time I had heard that word.
Together we went to the ampoule draw that said ‘Uruguay’. There were many stories there but I, thinking about the profit I stood to make, turned my gaze to where the remainders were piled and took the first I saw.
The Uruguayan story I chose had a solid sea-green colour. I switched the original label for another that said something very different. Now, along the length of the ampoule it read, ‘Unknown’. I felt fortunate to have found a way to proceed with the sale and keep, for myself, a couple of coins of such large denomination. I was so elated by my windfall—by my skulduggery, as much as anything—that I started to realise my enthusiasm may have spread to the blind man. Perhaps he had not expected me to return with good news or perhaps he was simply happy for the interruption to the long talk I had left them to.
“If times were different, I would have been a musician, too,” the shy young man with the glasses was saying as I went down to the basement.
“And I a spy!” the blind man retorted.
I pulled on the sleeve of his lab coat and he turned his head, searching me out in the air as if he were following a scent.
“Uncle,” I said.
“Ah,” the blind man was swift to interrupt, “the ampoule…”
We lay down a pillow with a clean slip for our customer. I rubbed the nape of his neck with bunched fabric soaked in antiseptic until his skin went red from the heat, and after a while the blind man jabbed him with the syringe. I watched as the level of injectable liquid, which the blind man had drawn from the broken ampoule, lowered until the barrel was dry. Not even a drop was left; then the shy young man crinkled his forehead and rested the left side of his face against the fabric.
That’s how he fell asleep.
This piece was translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer. It appears in full in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.
Carlos Yushimito has published, among others, the story collections Lessons for a Boy Who Arrived Late (2011) and Forests Have Their Own Doors (2013). Included in anthologies across nine countries, several of his stories have been translated into English, Portuguese, Italian, and French.
Elizabeth Bryer’s first full-length translation, Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Americas Prize–winning debut Blood of the Dawn, is out with Deep Vellum (North America). In 2017 she is the recipient of a PEN/Heim grant to translate Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests.