The Magic Box
By Anna Lidia Vega Serova, translated from the Spanish by David Unger
May 2, 2005
Her parents were naked, one on top of the other. Their eyes were closed, their faces contorted; they were breathing loudly and moaning. She watched them for a few moments, terrified; then she walked quietly back to her cot and covered her face with the pillow.
The noise woke her up.
She thought something bad was happening to her parents. She got up and walked barefoot to the curtain dividing the room in two. Her parents were naked, one on top of the other. Their eyes were closed, their faces contorted; they were breathing loudly and moaning. She watched them for a few moments, terrified; then she walked quietly back to her cot and covered her face with the pillow.
When she woke up again, Orlando was sleeping alone in bed as he did each and every morning. She studied his face and found nothing to suggest that what she had seen the night before had been more than a bad dream. She got dressed, somewhat bewildered, and went to the café next door.
Brígida had already finished cleaning up and was setting the Magic Box back in its place.
She smiled at her daughter. “How are you this morning?”
She gave no indication that anything had happened.
“Mommy,” Verónica asked, “are you okay?”
“Of course,” she answered, a bit surprised. “Why do you ask?”
“I thought Well, I heard some noises. Oe maybe I just dreamt it”
Brígida went on smiling, though her expression hardened. She understood right away what had happened and flushed in embarrassment.
“I’m sure you dreamt it,” she said, more affectionately than usual.
Veronica grabbed it. She had no idea you could deceive the Box just by opening it and stealing luck.
Then, for the first time, she took the key looped around her neck and opened the Magic Box. She pulled out a doll dressed as a gypsy and gave it to her daughter.
“Here, it’s yours.”
Astonished, Veronica grabbed it. She had no idea you could deceive the Box just by opening it and stealing luck.
“Can I go to the park?” she asked, somewhat surprised.
“Of course,” her mother said.
Verónica examined the doll in the park—not really a park, more like a dusty spot with a few crumbling benches and a smattering of sickly trees.
“I’m going to call you Esmeralda” she announced.
She undressed the doll, discovering underneath a sexless, rigid plastic body.
“Hi,” someone said to her.
She looked up. A man who sometimes came to the café stood in front of her.
“Hi,” she answered, looking back down at Esmeralda.
“Beautiful day.” The man sat next to her. “Do you like dolls?”
“Yes. I got her from the Magic Box.”
“You’re so lucky. It isn’t easy to get something from the Box.”
Veronica said nothing. She had dressed Esmeralda and was now busy braiding her shiny, black hair.
He touched Veronica’s neck with his fingertips then brought them slowly down to her chest softly pinching
her tiny nipples.
“Her hair’s pretty.” He stroked the young girl’s hair. “And her skin is white, so white.” He touched Veronica’s neck with his fingertips then brought them slowly down to her chest softly pinching her tiny nipples. “Your skin is wonderful.”
“You like her?” she asked, staring into his eyes.
“A lot.” He continued stroking her softly.
“Here, you can have her.” She threw Esmeralda into his lap and ran off.
“Where’s your doll, Veronica? What’ve you done with her?”
Brígida’s face was hard like a ping-pong ball.
“She ran off, mommy. She found a prince in the park, fell in love and ran away with him to his enchanted castle”
Brígida took a deep breath and served Doña Maite her hot chocolate.
“Mommy,” Veronica began the next morning, “I didn’t sleep well. I think I had more bad dreams.”
She happily eyed the Magic Box.
Brígida narrowed her eyes. Maybe it was true or maybe her daughter was trying to deceive her just to get another gift. She needed to talk it over with Orlando.
“Do you want another doll?”
Veronica nodded hopefully.
“Promise not to lose her?”
The man wasn’t in the park. Veronica played a bit with her new possession, this time a blonde with blue eyes. She grew bored and hurried home.
“Would you like anything else, Don Ignacio?” Brígida asked, setting down his cup.
“No, thank you.” The man felt someone staring at his back and turned around. “Hello,” he said. “That’s a pretty doll.”
Verónica clutched the new doll against her chest.
“Say hello,” her mother ordered.
“May I hold her?” He tried to take the doll.
“Verónica!” Brígida’s voice commanded. “She’s a bit timid,” her mother explained.
Her daughter obeyed.
“That’s a pretty doll,” the man repeated. “Such pretty hair and soft, white skin.”
“Do you like her?” Veronica asked. “Want to keep her?”
“Oh, no,” he replied, trying to give the doll back.
“I want you to have her.” She hid her hands behind her back and went down the hallway to the room where her father was snoring under the tangle of sheets.
“Why’d you do that?” There was no warmth in Brígida’s eyes. “Don Ignacio was really confused when he left.”
“I want another doll,” the girl answered, knitting her brow. “A new one.”
“I can’t give you a new doll every time you lose one or give it away. We’ll go broke.”
Verónica stared stubbornly at her feet.
“Fine,” Brígida said, softening her tone, “but this is the last time.”
The little girl sighed, relieved.
“Hello,” said the man as he sat down on the bench. “What a pretty doll.”
Esmeralda had fire-red hair and green eyes. Verónica dressed her quickly and hurried off.
“Wait,” shouted Don Ignacio. “You forgot her little shoes.”
The girl kept on running.
“You’re at it again.” Brígida glanced unhappily at the barefoot doll.
“She was hot, mommy. She took off her shoes so her feet could feel the fresh breeze—“
“Good morning,” said the man as he entered the café.
“The usual?” the owner asked solicitously.
“Yes,” he smiled. “What’s wrong with your little girl? She’s very serious today.”
“She doesn’t take care of her things,” her mother answered, quite annoyed. “I don’t know what to do with her”
“You have a new doll,” Don Ignacio said, stirring his steaming espresso. “She’s very pretty.”
Verónica refused to look up.
“Someone’s talking to you,” Brígida reminded her. “Somehow she lost the doll’s shoes and now she’s upset,” she said, by way of explanation.
“Let’s see. Can I help?” Don Ignacio’s voice rang false, the way most adults sound when talking to children.
“Don’t trouble yourself.” Brígida felt uncomfortable. “It’s nothing.”
“How does this thing work?” asked Don Ignacio, opening his wallet. “Let’s try our luck. Maybe we’ll get one that has shoes.”
“No, it’s okay,” Brígida protested, embarrassed. “You don’t have to”
“You put the money in here. Turn the knob, press that and out comes the prize,” Verónica said, pointing to the right buttons and knobs.
Don Ignacio followed her instructions. The box shook, something squeaked inside and then it stopped moving. All that came out of the Magic Box was a pink sheet of paper.
“Let’s see what it says,” said Don Ignacio, picking it up. “’ Disorder breeds disorder,’” he read. “My luck certainly ran out today,” he said, laughing.
The Magic Box shook, rumbled and spit out a keychain with nail clippers into the drawer.
He took out another bill and tried again.
Two boys about Veronica’s age came in and stood behind the man, watching.
“Maybe you’ll get gum. Or a lollypop,” one of them said.
“Or a tattoo,” said the other boy.
The Magic Box shook, rumbled and spit out a keychain with nail clippers into the drawer.
“Wow!” the children shouted. They took over the box, putting bill after bill into it.
“Please don’t trouble yourself, Don Ignacio,” the owner said.
“My doll’s feet are cold. Listen to her cry.” Veronica put the doll up to the man’s ear.
“Stop pestering him,” the mother scolded.
“Let her be, Miss Brígida, she’s not bothering me,” he said, taking the doll. “Poor thing, she’s going to get sick,” he said in his false voice.
“Rub her feet,” the little girl suggested. “She’s feeling very cold.”
The boys had each won some candy and left. Other than Don Ignacio, the only person still in the café was Cirilo, the old retired teacher, who drank his wine slowly, absorbed in his newspaper. Brígida took the cord from around her neck and once more opened the box with the key.
“Here,” she said, handing her daughter another doll. “But watch out, you’re going to get it if anything happens to her this time!”
“She’s still a child. She doesn’t understand things.”
“I think she understands more than she should. She’s mocking us.”
“But Orlando, you should have seen her. I think she understands more than she should. She’s mocking us.”
“Don’t be silly! What makes you think a little ten year old is mocking us?”
“I’m afraid of her. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it. She’s just a girl, right. And suddenly you look in her eyes and see such laughter and defiance that your hair stands on end. It’s enough to drive you crazy”
“You’re tired.” Orlando embraced his wife whose voluptuous body was spread naked on the bed. He kissed her neck, passed his tongue between her breasts, down to her stomach, till it got lost in her bush.
Veronica stood watching a while longer, then closed the curtain and went back to bed. From the other side she could hear her parents moaning, but she wasn’t surprised or shocked.
“Hello,” the man said. “Do you have a new doll?”
“Do you know I’ve got a lot of dolls at home? Very pretty ones.”
“I gave them to you,” the girl said, shrugging.
“I’ve got more. Would you like to see them? Want to come home with me and meet them?”
Veronica pulled down Esmeralda’s panties and licked between the plastic legs, impishly glancing at Don Ignacio.
“Mmmmm,” she said.
“You’re very clever,” the man said, “and pretty. Anyone ever tell you that?” He stroked the girl’s skinny thighs.
“Want to go home with me and meet my dolls?” he repeated.
“Mommy wouldn’t like that.”
“But you haven’t even asked. I’ll talk to her. It’ll be fine.”
“A portrait?” Brígida asked. “”Why do you want to paint a portrait of Veronica?”
“I’m doing a mural, you see. I’ve got it all planned out. The Spring Fair, I’ll put musicians, acrobats, and venders in it. And I want to put in a girl, near the center, holding a bouquet of flowers. I just haven’t been able to get it right. The girl will symbolize innocence, youth, spring. See? Your daughter would be such a big help as my model, A really big help”
“But won’t it be one of those nasty things you see everywhere? Will she be naked?”
“Not at all,” Don Ignacio assured her. “I’m a respected painter.”
“Of course,” she said, eying him distrustfully. “I’ll discuss it with my husband.”
“Thank you, ma’am. See you later.” He began walking off. “Oh!” he said, turning as if remembering something. “By the way, models usually get paid.”
“That’s not it.” The woman lowered her eyes. “Don’t insult me.”
“No, please listen.” Don Ignacio rubbed his now sweaty palms crudely. “I’m not offering you money. Would it be okay if I gave your daughter a few toys? Perhaps some dolls? I’ve noticed she likes them.”
“All right,” Brígida shrugged. “We all need to help each other. Goodbye.”
“Look Verónica, this is Clarissa. Do you like her? And here’s Melba. She’s a doctor. And do you recognize this one?”
“Yes, it’s Esmeralda. So is this one and that one.”
“Sit down. You can hold them, play with them, dress and undress them. Isn’t that what you like to do?”
“Are you going to paint me?”
“Yes, but let’s play first.”
“Do you like playing with dolls?”
“Yes, a lot. Do you want to play with me?”
“I don’t know”
“Look, let’s pretend you’re a doll, too. Okay? A big, pretty doll. Let’s see, your name is—“
“Esmeralda. I like your game!”
“Good. Let’s take a look at your clothes, Esmeralda. Hmmm. Will you get sick if I take off your shoes? Will your feet get cold?”
The girl sat crying on the floor, staring at the blood between her legs, while the man nervously tried to wipe it off with his handkerchief.
“Esmeralda, calm down. You’re a big crybaby doll, you know that?”
The girl wept miserably, rocking from side to side as if lost.
“Please Esmeralda, behave yourself, please. Look, I’ll give you all my dolls. Do you want them? They’re all yours, I promise.”
The girl choked on her tears and coughed.
“Really, Esmeralda, calm down. It’s no big deal. It’s nothing to cry about.”
“That hurt,” Verónica said, between hiccups. “Mommy!”
“Look, if you’re quiet I’ll buy you another doll, a big doll your size. A pretty doll that walks and talks.”
“They don’t make that kind,” Verónica argued, stopping her tears.
“Of course they do. Just promise not to say a word to anyone about this. Do you hear me, Esmeralda?”
“I’m not Esmeralda!” Verónica said angrily. “I want to go home.”
“Okay, okay. Just promise me—“
The girl started crying again.
“What if I give you a magic toy? Something truly amazing.”
Tears still running down her cheeks, she glanced curiously at him.
“Look.” Don Ignacio handed her a small dark wood box. “Open it.”
Verónica shyly took it and opened it. The room filled with music. A ballerina with raised hands appeared, dancing in circles.
She stared at it for a long time, until she finally settled down and smiled.
“Her name is Esmeralda,” she said.
“Verónica’s changed so much and it worries me—“
“Can’t you talk about anything but the girl? Leave her alone. It’s her age, a phase she’s going throughYou’ve got a pimple on your tit.”
“Don’t squeeze it. It could get infected. Maybe it’s all in my head, but she seems much too quiet. All day long playing with dolls and that damn box”
“When summer’s over, she’ll forget her games. Let her have fun for now. Open up your legs a bit more, that’s right. I love screwing you, baby!”
“Easy, it hurts.Ah, that’s better. Ah, that’s the spot, right there”
On the other side of the curtain, Verónica picked up the new doll, pulled down her panties and put a pencil in the little hole she’d made between the doll’s legs.
“Ah, that’s the spot, right there,” she said barely moving her lips. “Ah, that’s the spot, right there. I love screwing you, baby. Keep going, right there.”
Cuban writer Anna Lidia Vega Serova was born in Leningrad, Russia in 1968 to a Cuban father and a Russian/Ukrainian mother. Soon after her birth, she returned to Cuba with her parents where she lived for nine years. When her parents divorced, Ms. Vega Serova returned to the Soviet Union. In 1989, at the age of 21 and already a writer, she returned to Cuba. In 1998 her collection of stories, Bad Painting, received the Premio David, and in 1999 she published Catalogue of Mascots, her second collection. Two other collections of short stories have been accepted for publication in Cuba, where she presently resides.
Guatemalan-born David Unger is the author of Life in the Damn Tropics His short stories have appeared in Currents from the Dancing River: New Writing By Latinos, Tropical Synagogues: Latin American Jewish Fiction, Playboy Mexico and in literary journals here and abroad. He has translated nine books, among them Rigoberta Menchu’s The Girl from Chimel, Ana Maria Machados Me in the Middle, Silvia Molina’s The Love You Promised Me; The Popol Vuh (Groundwood Press, 1999); Elena Garro’s First Love ; Barbara Jacobs The Dead Leaves; and Nicanor Parra’s Antipoems: New and Selected.He teaches translation in City College of New York’s graduate M.A. Program.
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