Ik kijk van bovenaf op de vage vormen van een menselijke figuur, Odilon Redon, 1896

I died six months after turning ninety years old. Of meningoencephalitis. In a Military Hospital close to the old quarter, one kilometer from the Zoo and the Casino Campestre park. I left behind a wife, three children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Later on, more great-grandchildren will be born, my wife will die, my children will grow old. Everything at its own pace. In natural and chronological order. 

Everyone thought it was a cold, with all the fevers and shaking, but it was meningo. They saw my wracking shivers and they were scared, but that’s the way colds always are. The body shuts down, the head aches, the temperature rises, the jaw and hands start to shake. 

Since I’m dead I don’t feel a thing; free of sensation, I enjoy the show. My wife, an elderly woman not five feet tall, is sitting at the table when my daughter comes to give her the news that I’ve passed on. My favorite granddaughters, the ones my wife and I raised, are laughing in the spare room. It’s nervous laughter. Laughter that means I can’t believe it. The dogs know I’m here, sitting in the same place as always. 

When I die they cover me with a sheet. They take me to the morgue, cut me open. They take a saw to my head. They close me up in the same places they opened me. They shake me. My daughter arrives to fix me up. She cries while she dresses me. She combs my hair like I’m a child. She buttons my shirt. Zips up my pants. Adjusts my belt. She lays her head on my chest. I’m her father. 

My daughter realizes they left my pacemaker in. She wants to call them back, but it’s only an impulse, none of them are about to open me up to remove the little metal object. The pacemaker will go on working until it rusts out underground. The other dead people, the ones around me, won’t be able to sleep in peace. I won’t be able to sleep either. I’m not sleepy. Or afraid. 

The other dead people, compared to me, don’t deserve mourning or a wake; that’s what my family and friends think when they arrive and snoop around the rest of the funeral home. They peer in and show off, they’re shameless. 

Two years later, when the cemetery supervisors and my family members—which will be only my daughter, as always—dig up my remains and put my ashes in a small box they can pay their respects to whenever they visit the cemetery, the pacemaker will be intact. It’ll even shine, like a thought, clear and lucid. 

My daughter arrives home with her mouth contorted. Her eyes red and watery. Everyone realizes I have died. Except my wife, a naive woman. For a while now she’s needed everything to be explained at length. So they explain to her that I am a very strong man, but meningoencephalitis is stronger than me. She understands. She promises not to make a scene. Not to cry. She remembers me, her husband. Her companion for over seventy years. 

I was born on January twenty-fifth, nineteen nineteen, in a rural area far from sea and city. I worked in the fields, under the rain, from the time I turned six years old. At that age I started to smoke—black tobacco—so I wouldn’t faint on the road. 

In nineteen thirty-six, when the war broke out, I started to fight for the Republic alongside of a group of compañeros of an origin different from those who didn’t fight. My origin. Taking part in protests and collecting relief funds. My parents, of the same humble origin, just kept quiet. 

I learned that a man is a country. I learned that a country is a system. I learned that a system is a monster. I learned that a monster is a God. I learned that God doesn’t exist. I learned that God does exist. I learned that I don’t exist. I learned that I do exist. I learned that a man cannot leave, because this is his house, this is his mother, and this is his father. 

In nineteen forty-six and in nineteen forty-seven I was pursued and imprisoned by the forces of the Regime of the Moment as a result of my active participation in defensive, rebellious actions. I got to know the smells of prison, absolute darkness, the sun. I urinated and defecated on myself. Prisons like El Príncipe, El Presidio Modelo, and Francisquito all saw me enter and leave, through a narrow door, transformed into a man. 

When I got out of prison I went on with the same things. The scars under my skin then were vital, attractive. The Military Socialist Party and all things like it became my home, my domain. During that time and after nineteen fifty-two, I organized secret, clandestine meetings under my own roof, and I had to take measures to keep us from being discovered. None of this would have been possible without my wife, my love. She went out to get food and prepared it, she distributed the plates, kissed and hugged me from a place high up, unknown. Her kiss was bread and water. 

When the attack on the country’s most important barracks occurred, the Party directed me to enter a Religious Order, to get access to the printing press where they made flyers and other kinds of propaganda that I then distributed. I didn’t believe in God, and the members of the Order saw in my eyes the eyes of a more or less ferocious beast. 

That’s what I am and that’s what my sons and my daughter are, and that’s what my sons’ sons and my daughter’s daughters are: more or less ferocious beasts. 

* * *

We made charcoal in our house, my wife and I, together. We lived off the trees and off of love. In the name of those trees I brought fire to other houses, food. I collected money, clothes, and arms. Under the charcoal, on my cart, I transported and delivered the wares. My wife went with me many times on my rounds in the city and to other nearby places. And she herself left weapons, there, where no one would know. 

As Council President, with support from my wife and those who elected me, I built a School that is still our community’s school today. The schoolyard doesn’t have flowers—it must be the heat, or the earth, but it used to have them. 

In nineteen seventy, after the Triumph, I directed the province’s charcoal co-ops, taking part in the supervision and organization of the other workers. I saw the foundations, the light, the universe. 

I never accepted offers to live in confiscated houses. I built my own home with wooden beams and planks. Two rooms and a door were enough. My children wanted more but I didn’t give them more. My children’s children wanted more but I didn’t give them more. My daughter’s daughters, when they were born, would have liked more. I gave them what was necessary. My wife kept quiet, lowered her eyes, gave me her hand. The bones of her hand between the bones of mine. 

I went on founding, directing, lending a hand. Every man is the continuation of another man, just as every action is the continuation of another action. That’s what I did and would still be doing, if the meningo hadn’t dragged me off feet first, if it hadn’t brought me here. 

* * *

Meningoencephalitis is an illness that simultaneously recalls both forms of meningitis. It occurs through an infection or inflammation of the meninges, and through an infection or inflammation of the brain. There are many organisms that cause it, both viral and bacterial pathogens, and there are parasitic, treacherous microbes. The illness has high mortality rates and severe morbidity. The body shuts down, the head aches, the temperature rises, the jaw and hands start to shake. 

For me, who suffered and endured this illness, it has a lot in common with revolution. The human body is the system against which the revolution fights, clandestinely at first and then in a more organized, visible, and public manner, in the end laying waste to it. The body shuts down, the head aches, the temperature rises, the jaw and hands start to shake. 

The cemetery is the final place that the body, revolutionary and cold, will occupy. There are dry flowers everywhere, and the body senses that. The sensations continue a little while after the corporal break that a demise entails. The revolution that has reached its apogee in the body stays alive for some days, and that’s why the body disintegrates—because a very rebellious thing is writhing inside as it tries to move on to another phase. 

This other phase is nullity. Trying to vanquish the revolution is categorically forbidden; however, as soon as the body realizes it exists, that’s exactly what it does. Its stamp, its reality, has no precedent in the body. From there comes the definitive event that establishes a base in the body for colonization and radicalization. The family does not exist. It’s just you, either for it or against it. You join or you resist, Resistance that in the long run grants it a measure of strength. 

* * *

The funeral home—an old, enormous house, previously the property of some bourgeois family—has been recently painted. It boasts a bathroom and a cafe, but both have deteriorated to the point where they can no longer perform their functions. I—a body that is also old—am resting in one of the chapels. Other cadavers round out the class. They are of different types, sexes, and ages. My cadaver is without a doubt the least young of them all. 

There are few people during the night. When morning comes they start arriving, in groups or in families. They all keep vigil over their dead. They are all the same. 

My chapel has the most people. Even in such a solemn moment as this one, people feel pride. My family is proud. You can see it in their eyes, in the way they hold vigil over me and sit down to wait by my side, next to the coffin. Children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins. They all have a vain air, a self-important attitude, bless them. 

Someone is missing and it’s my wife. The only person I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, at my side always. She can’t get up from her rocker. Nor will she be able to. After a few days or weeks have passed, most likely she’ll fracture a hip going out to get lunch. These things happen, especially during mourning, in sadness. 

I know there are flowers, shields and flags. There are medals on my casket. Six of them. Honors that I deserved, that I kept safe. Now my daughter will keep them and then my granddaughter, the one who doesn’t believe in what I believe in. The one who laughs at me. The one who cries the most. The one who won’t be dragged away from the coffin. There are three, really. 

The national flag hides the coffin’s nails from view. My daughter spread it over the casket, lengthwise and side to side. I’ve never seen a flag like that. I bristle. The nails are tiny little points that you can see anyway. The casket, made of bad wood, is lined with black cloth. The cloth is tacked with lace, but it has no elegance. That’s what bothers the cadaver’s family. 

My daughter didn’t want too many flowers because there was only one kind: ugly, purple and blue flowers. Ones that fill the space with an almost unbearable cemetery smell. It smells of cemetery anyway. My sons go far away in search of flowers. They want flowers at any cost. But the flowers don’t matter at all. Only the flag is important. And the medals. And the family. They find lilies. My daughter contents herself with lilies. 

One of the little girls never stops looking at me. She peers through the coffin’s glass and thinks she sees two ants in my hair. The ants run about as if my hair were grass. My daughter calls to her and she doesn’t go. Of all those present, she will be the only one to tell the story. She was born for that. To tell the story. It’s possible, even, that she’ll spend her whole life telling stories that aren’t hers. 

*

Excerpted from My Favorite Girlfriend Was A French Bulldog by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, translated by Megan McDowell, and published by McSweeney’s.

Legna Rodríguez Iglesias

Legna Rodríguez Iglesias was born in 1984 in Camagüey, Cuba and now lives in Miami. She has won a number of major Cuban prizes and the Premio Casa de las Américas de Teatro for her first play, marking the first time the prize has been awarded to a Cuban exile. She is also the winner most recently of the 2016 Paz Prize for her book of poetry Miami Century Fox. She has published eleven books of poetry, three books of stories, two novels, and four children’s books. The first English-language translation of her fiction, My Favorite Girlfriend Was A French Bulldog, will be published by McSweeney’s on July 14th, 2020.

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