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What does it really mean to be dead? This is the question that vexes Isobel because as far as the outside world is concerned she is dead. The book springs from a case of mistaken identity. Isobel, mother of three adult children and an anthropologist has officially been pronounced dead following a boat accident in a remote part of the Guatemalan jungle. But Isobel is very much alive and is hiding in a remote shack in the jungle. She isn`t ready to tell the world she`s still alive and she`s not sure whether she ever will. The news of her own death is especially ironic because as an anthropologist, she studies death rituals. Serena, Isobel`s daughter, studies weather. Her father has some form of Alzheimer`s and with her mother now supposedly dead, she is trying to write the family history before it is lost. Above all, she is obsessed with the story of Simon, her father`s father who was in a shipwreck and survived three days at sea before being rescued. The story of his life has become a family legend together with the tales her father told about The Battle of Formigues and the story of Li Po.Ever since she was a child, Serena has been tantalised by these stories, always asking questions, turning the `facts` over in her mind, always trying to piece the `truth` together. Yet the irony is that she isn`t investigating the one story she really should.
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Enrique de Hériz was born in Barcelona in 1964. He has worked as an editor and translator of such authors as Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Peter Carey, and John Fowles. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Be careful what you write,” Alberto says. “You don’t want to tell any lies.” He’s come up to the terrace to make sure everything’s okay. Papa and Luis have gone to bed. “You know what happens to liars.”
“What happens?” I ask. I know, of course, but I feel like hearing it again.
“The usual two possibilities: imprisonment, like Simon; or exile, like Li Po.” He makes a show of being serious, but a smile betrays him. He looks so much like Papa when he smiles. “Good night, Serena. Try not to stay up too late.” He kisses me on the forehead. As he leaves, he can’t suppress a few more big–brotherly comments: “Have you got enough light? If you want, I’ll turn on the halogen lamps, but then the terrace will be full of bugs. Are you all right here? You’re not cold? Shall I get you a coat?”
“Alberto,” I protest, more fondly than angrily. I know he just can’t help himself.
“I’m thirty–eight years old.”
“You’re right. Sorry. Well. See you tomorrow.”
Before going, he gives me a hug and another kiss. Ever since Mama’s accident, he’s been more anxious than ever, but also more affectionate.
Before he disappears, he says, “I’d give anything to know what you’re writing.”
So would I. I’ve already filled a page with scratched–out scrawls and a few isolated, disconnected words. I don’t know where to begin, how to find the opening sentence. I lift my eyes from the paper at any excuse, tear out the page, crumple it into a ball, and crush it in my hand. I take another page and put the word “Sunday” at the top, even though I’m not writing a diary. The only connection between these words and the present is my hope that they’ll help explain a past that made it possible.
Maybe it would be easier to relate the events of the recent past. For example: my mother died in Guatemala last week. There it is; I’ve said it. She drowned in a river with an absurd name: Río Pasion, “Passion River.” Río Pasion really exists, it’s not some ridiculous invention. (I myself saw its sandy banks myself just last week.) Mama was in a launch, a small motorboat with three other people. Everyone died except the skipper. What else can I say? That we were surprised? Well, Mama was sixty–nine and that doesn’t count as old nowadays. I mean, not too old to live. Too old to take off for Guatemala, yes, and too old to be getting into launches. Whose idea was that? She was in perfect health. No one expected her to die so soon, much less to die in that way, dragged down into the water, her lungs full of mud and her face sliced to pieces.
Alberto took care of cutting through all the red tape required for bringing her ashes back to Spain, but Pablo and I had to go and identify her first. That’s why we’re all here in Malespina now. Even Papa has come, despite his condition. The only one missing is Pablo, and he'll arrive tomorrow. We’re going to take advantage of one of Papa’s lucid moments to dispose of the ashes by scattering them in the sea from the Russian woman’s beach. We’re assuming that’s what Mama would have wanted. It’s strange—she never told us what we were to do if something like this should happen, even though this was precisely her field.
That’s it. There’s nothing else worth saying. And what I’ve said is of no use to me anyway. It’s all about the end, and I’m looking for the beginning. The first step that explains the next step and the one after that. I’m holding one end of a ball of tangled thread. I yank on it, trying to find the other end, but every pull tightens the knots and tangles them further.
Maybe this is how it has to be. Maybe you just have to accept that the only way to relate the history of a family—or of a person—is like this, backward in fits and starts: this is the story of Serena, daughter of a father who was the son of a father who in turn...And the mothers: the mother of the father of a mother, like that, swimming upriver in the current of life, always looking for a previous cause, until you come to the first monkey that stretched its legs and climbed down out of its tree, itself a remote descendant of the first amphibian, which was the distant relative of an atypical fish capable of breathing out of water and endowed with sufficient curiosity to penetrate the forest and, who knows, maybe with enough memory to recall parents and grandparents and great–grandparents, and still further back, until the inevitable end, which is the beginning of everything: the first cell, born by chance, more than 3,5oo million years ago at a depth of 3,500 meters, when the core of the earth happened to release a bubble of warm air into a sea like the one I'm listening to right now as it beats against the cliff. An aberration. A monumental coincidence, an error perhaps, resulting hundreds of thousands of millions of coincidences later in me. Telling the story of any life is a work of archaeology. I can’t go quite that far.
I feel a little dizzy. I never used to be like this. I used to believe in things. In signs, and in my ability to interpret them. One summer afternoon twenty years ago, in this very house, I announced to the whole family my intention of studying meteorology. Mama didn’t say a word, and I assumed that meant she thought it was a good idea. Papa proposed a game, a challenge: I had to guess which wind was blowing without looking out the window. I went through the house. The garbí, I said. It was easy. The towels in the big bathroom, which faced south, were damp. The kitchen floor, which Mama had scrubbed almost twenty minutes ago, hadn’t dried yet. The garbí, therefore, the moist southern wind. One plus one equals two. My brain processed this data automatically; the activity had as little to do with my will as my heartbeat. I was eighteen years old: knowing things was a source of pride, an incentive to learn more.
Now it simply makes me tired. This evening, as soon as I reached Malespina, even before I got out of the car, I saw the detritus whirling around next to the woodshed under the open window of the laundry room, and it took me only a moment to understand what that meant: at least two consecutive days of garbí, sweeping up all the pine needles and dead leaves that have accumulated in the back patio since autumn began and piling them against the wall.
The open window meant that someone was in the house. Since I didn’t hear any music, it couldn’t be Pablo. If it was Alberto, Papa and Luis would be with him. If Alberto hadn’t swept the patio, it was because he couldn’t leave Papa. Conclusion: Papa wasn’t well. All deduced from an open window. If A, then B, followed by C, as if the only law I’ve ever believed in, the law of logic, truly existed. It’s exhausting. It’s the first time I’ve felt like this, of course, but it’s never overwhelmed me before. I’ve never felt such an intense weariness, as if life has been secretly forging a metal band around my chest and now it’s so tight I can barely breathe. I feel as though my life were a film I’ve seen too many times; it bores me because I know it by heart, and yet I don’t understand it. I stayed in the car, motionless, without even taking the trouble to stop the engine, one hand on the ignition key and the other on the door handle, incapable of moving a single muscle. The chain of mechanical gestures—opening the door, lifting my leg out of the car, placing my foot on the ground—seemed to require a superhuman effort, both mental and physical. I’m thirty–eight. I probably have half my life ahead of me. And yet, at that moment, I felt as if a thousand years of knowledge were weighing on my shoulders. Which is a fancy way of saying I felt old.
I don’t know how long I stayed there. I cried for a good while, I suppose. Ever since I received the news of Mama’s death, weeping has become one of my habits. At first, there was grief, of course, and surprise; later, when we went to claim her body, I cried from sheer nerves. Now, I don’t know. It comes over me like this, all at once, a tremendous weariness coupled with the urge to bawl my eyes out. I could also blame it on my hormones. I’ve been pregnant for only six weeks, but already I can detect the revolution that's taking place in my body. I've stopped using eye makeup. Like a drunk in a cartoon, I have a red nose round the clock. When I’ve been crying, I don't look at myself in the mirror.
All that notwithstanding, when Luis opened the door for me, he said I looked prettier than ever. Had he been anyone else, I would have raged at him for lying, but my nephew can’t lie, not even for the sake of politeness. He always says what he thinks. I want to have a long talk with him, just the two of us. Prettier than ever, he says. He put a hand on my stomach. Am I showing? No, I know I’m not showing. Maybe my lips are a little thicker, but I don’t think anyone’s noticed. They don’t know yet. It doesn’t make sense to say anything to anybody until I decide whether I’m going to keep it or not. Alberto was nervous, solicitous, and clumsy all at once, as if he were walking on a carpet of eggshells. Every time I come to Malespina, he shows me the whole house, room by room, as though it were new. Or as though he’s just the custodian who takes care of it in my absence. With regard to Papa, it’s best for me not to say anything, although I think he at least recognized me. I don’t know, it could also be that his smile is a reflex, a trick employed by his wandering brain to hide the fact that he has no ide...
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