“Herna or Love as a Case of the Hives” by Mauricio Koch

Download pdf: Herna or Love as a Case of the Hives

I met her at a birthday party for Martina, a friend from work. I arrived late and didn’t have a chance to make out where the sandwiches were or to spot a familiar face because as soon as I walked in, the first thing I saw was Herna. Or better put, not Herna, because I didn’t know her name then, and it wasn’t that I simply saw her, but rather that a light enveloped me and from the center of that blinding light, she appeared like Aphrodite emerging from the foam, white and immaculate. I am not exaggerating. She wore a colorful Hindu tunic, the kind that only a select few look good in, and on her it looked so natural that I thought this is how she must have come into the world: perfect, in that very instant and solely to stand before me, give me her blessing and vanish. But what actually happened is that she walked by, looked at me, smiled and said Hello. I don’t know how long it took me to react, only that when I recovered from the shock, I tripped all over myself to return the greeting, give her a smile, offer up my insignificance on a tray and so much else, but she had already made her way to the bathroom.

Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”

My taste in women has always coincided, if not with that of the majority of men, with at least enough of them so that the girls I like also attract the interest of others. Or at least one other, and that tends to be sufficient. And the night of Martina’s birthday was evidently no exception: no doubt I had seen the most beautiful woman at the party, and, obviously, there must have been some forty guys at that moment with the same inguinal fever and intentions as mine. At least forty. Of course they would all be more interesting and attractive than me. Super cool guys, hippie chic, blond and square chinned, a loosened tie, hands in their pockets, with titles like project manager or positif planifier for companies with names like Meeting Point or Network Trust, dark and handsome students of intelligent marketing or behavioral finance with four MBAs from Harvard and impeccable two-day beards, emerald eyes and a slight white-toothed grin welded onto their faces, boys with a rebel lock of hair over their tanned foreheads, toned but not excessively muscular, sensitive souls with a two-stitch scar over one eyebrow, a souvenir from their rugby-playing days, and, when you get up close enough to notice, impeccable fingernails; the type of man chicks say they can never find but that I see everywhere. Although it would be unjust of me if I did not acknowledge that it is mainly my fault, not theirs, for being passive, self-pitying and basically an idiot. But this time I wasn’t going to allow it. This time I was radiant. I was sparkling and exultant. And I promised myself that that woman would be mine, mine, mine, and no one else’s.

That said, I went to get a drink to work up the courage.

I’ve always figured that the only way to be sure of yourself when you make your move is to have a good strategy. Not the typical cassette, the pre-devised speech, but rather a plan for every situation. As methodical as ever, the first thing I established was the lay of the land: at the moment, she was with her girlfriends, which numbered several, too many. I counted seven or eight, and more kept joining them, all of them hysterical, intolerably stupid. They wouldn’t make it easy for me. I took up a position behind a column, which I felt was the ideal place: not too far so that I could make my move if some square-chin tried to beat me to it, but also not too close for her or one of her friends to notice me, which wouldn’t be good. One possibility was to wait for her to go to the bathroom, which women tend to do in smaller groups of two or three, and then wait by the door. But I discarded it immediately as too obvious, almost treacherous. Besides, she had gone just five minutes ago and there was no time to lose. I determined that the best thing would be to ignore her friends, pretend they didn’t exist and just head over there, with the naturalness that characterizes me. After all, I said to myself, what was she here for if not to meet guys? To be seen as part of the in-crowd with a frozen strawberry daiquiri (light) in her hand? To act all hysterical with her friends, like they always do? Deep down they are all looking for the same thing: the man of their lives. And in her case, that man is you. Good, very good, I said to myself, with that very attitude you are now going over there to say hi. Without making yourself out to be a ladies’ man, you spontaneously, simply say Hello. And she? She’ll surely return the greeting. She looks like a well-mannered girl. But wait! What do I do if right when I’m standing in front of her and about to say it she turns her head and starts talking with a friend? That’s not going to happen. But, what if it does? What do I do? Do I tap her on the shoulder? Do I take her hand? Do I stand there waiting for her to finish the conversation? Say Hello anyway? Or do I turn around and go home? And if she sees that I got that far and then turned around? Or if one of her girlfriends points it out and they all laugh? If that happens, I’ll have to quit my job the next day. Oh, come off it! It’s because of that kind of thinking that you are where you are now; the key is to observe, pay attention and seize that moment when she’s not talking, that second when she disengages from her friends and looks around expectantly, as if waiting for a miracle, and that’s when you come in, friendly and confident, and say Hello.

I examined my clothes to make sure everything was in order, fixed my hair with my fingers, cleared my throat and, when I took the first step, saw that a guy was standing before her and talking into her ear. I wanted to chew up the glass I was holding and bleed out right there. She smiled, he gestured and offered her a light-blue colored drink. Right then I saw a waiter go by and I asked him for a glass of wine, something genuine. I was the only genuine guy at the party and she, because of her haste, was never going to find out. I leaned against the column and reproached myself for even being there because I’m not one for these kinds of parties, I don’t like the type of people who go to them, I don’t like the music they play, I almost don’t like any of the food they serve. I didn’t want to look in her direction, but I couldn’t help it. The guy was still there. I took a better look at him. He had short hair in the style of David Beckham and a tight-fitting black t-shirt, the kind that accentuates the chest, and I said to myself that after I finished my wine I’d go over there and beat the hell out of him, what did I care, let them arrest me, let them take me out on a stretcher. That’s when I saw him turn and walk away, maybe headed for the bathroom, or perhaps to get another post-modern cocktail, whatever, and I felt at that moment that Providence had given me a wink, a now-or-never chance in the law of the jungle, and I took it, totally determined, feeling with each step that after all it was worth it to die for a cause like this.


I said Hello and she returned the greeting and smiled at me again. I saw then that she had dark eyes. Like “jet black mirrors” I said aloud.1 What she asked. I’m Alexis I said. She said I’m Herna. I said Ah and fell silent, I couldn’t think of anything to associate with that name and I also couldn’t think of why I should, until — don’t ask me why — the movie “Good Bye, Lenin!” popped into my head. I had seen it a few days earlier and found it interesting, and so I began to talk about it. She listened attentively, and when I finished she responded that she hadn’t seen it and had no interest in doing so: “Politics are the refuge of senseless men who have strayed from the spiritual path and carry a very high karmatic load.” She said it with all seriousness. I waited for her to laugh, so that I could join in on the joke, but that didn’t happen. I thought then that there were two possibilities here: one, that she had shot me down Olympically in a weird but effective way – maybe she had made a bet with her girlfriends and was waiting anxiously for me to leave to tell them what she had told me and to have a good laugh at my expense – or two, much less likely, that she was in effect being serious. Since I had come this far already and I didn’t see any sign to confirm the first hypothesis, I decided to stay. I changed the subject to music. I told her that lately I was listening only to English rock from the ’70s — The Who, Small Faces, The Kinks, bands like that — and that American rock didn’t compare, that the only good thing it had going for it was Hendrix, who we know about precisely because he moved to London and … that’s when she interrupted me to say that we grow old when we no longer feel the vibe of new things and remain attached to the past, and that is what I was doing, but that it was up to me to change because the fountain of youth was in my hands, and there is no getting old when we grow spiritually. The shock was so immense that my memory registered every word.

This second blow left me reeling on the verge of a knockout. I hadn’t prepared for something like that. Left with neither a plan nor a safety net and driven on more by inertia than any kind of hope, I told her that I worked in a cosmetics factory, but what I really liked was the cinema, especially writing screenplays. “We are what we believe ourselves to be. The world is a reflection of ourselves,” she said in a monotone voice, like a first-grade teacher repeating the alphabet to children who didn’t want to learn it. “We deserve love and respect simply because we are what we are. Yogi Ramacharaka tells us that the human species is like one great body: every human being is a cell, all division is disintegration, and disintegration is death.” As if more needed to be said, she added that at that moment my aura reflected a nervous state in crisis, and that the shape of my cranium and my earlobes were inherited from an inferior race called lemuridae that had inhabited the Earth ten thousand years ago.

That’s when I had had enough and became angry. This chick was a real bitch, I said to myself, a princess bored of it all, sick and tired of guys hitting on her because she is so pretty, and so she gets a laugh out of feeding them this stupidity, surely one of her girlfriends is filming it all on her cellphone so she can post it on YouTube later. But she wasn’t going to toy with me that way. A part of me in the form of a fireball rose up from my lungs to my throat and demanded that I tell her off, but at the same time, another part of me, no less powerful and perhaps more urgently, gave me a tingle lower down and made me take notice of how stunning Herna was while she went on about invisible chains of luminous energy that bound us to the essence of some incorporeal angel, and I imagined the tips of my fingertips frolicking in some hidden fold, gently blowing the fuzz in her bellybutton, thinking at the same time that if she didn’t stop talking about Osho, Chopra and the ancestral wisdom of the incarbulated flow, I would never be able to bed her. I, who for some time now had ceased to believe, sensed that God was mocking me.

As if hypnotized, I couldn’t help but lose myself in her voice and had become completely abstracted from my surroundings. When I finally looked around, her friends had moved away and left us alone. Herna kept talking, and in the middle of all that blather that I could no longer absorb, I sensed that in some way she was interested in me, that Herna really felt a connection with me, and having found in me an attentive and intelligent interlocutor, she felt at ease and said all she was saying without restraint, and that surely to some degree she too was surprised by her conduct, and when she had a moment to herself, she would no doubt blame herself for having behaved so awkwardly. I thought all this while she spoke, I think, about some harmonization exercises based on the sacred geometry of Taoist mandalas.

At some point that night, Herna paused. I was exhausted and in need of some fresh air, and she told me she was going to leave for a little while to find her friends, that surely they were waiting for her to give Martina the surprise they had all prepared for her. I’m also going to say hi to some friends, I lied. We’ll see each other later.She smiled and said, Yes, of course.

I went to get a drink and then walked to a far-off corner because I know how I am and I felt odd. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and I started to itch allover. My head, arms, belly. I couldn’t stop scratching myself. It was as if ants were crawling all over me. I confirmed on other occasions that, for me, love begins as a case of the hives. And I can’t help but scratch myself, which only intensifies the itch, and the love, I feel. It was Herna. Herna who had penetrated my defenses and was spreading. Suddenly, I heard her voice: “My love, would you like to grow old with me?” I didn’t answer because I was on my back under our car, a light blue Renault 12 that we had bought with our savings, trying to repair something. We were alone on a dirt road deep in the countryside, far from any sign of civilization. The sun was setting and it was getting cold. She insisted:

“My love, will you stay by my side forever?”

“My love, do you believe in a love that lasts a lifetime?”

“My love … my love … ”

I grunted from underneath the car, but she went on:

“My love, will you ever get tired of me?”

I finally poked my head out and looked at her. The beam from the flashlight she was holding shone into my eyes:

“Why don’t you point that where I tell you? Bend down a bit and give me some light over here, love of my life,” I said; my forehead shimmered with sweat and lubricating grease. It had gotten dark and we were in the middle of nowhere, stranded on a remote road that we had mistakenly taken. But she didn’t do as I asked. She walked away and gestured at some lights that, as night fell, began to shine on the horizon. And said:

“My love, I’m afraid.”    

“Afraid of what?” I responded, and shouted: “This axel is about to break any second now, understand!”

“Of the bugs, what else!” she said. “You know that I’m horrified of spiders, snakes, weasels. The thing is … ”

“But you aren’t listening to what I’m saying, Herna; do me a favor, get some cardboard, kneel on it and give me some light. In what language … ”

“I’m wearing a full-length dress, in case you haven’t noticed. And high heels … ”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you almost done?” she asked.

“If you don’t give me a hand … ”

“I need to pee.”

“Hand me a 14 mm wrench; look for it in the toolbox and get the 12 or 13 mm, whatever you find and I’ll see if it fits because I can’t see a damn thing … ”

“You didn’t answer my question … ”

“What do I know? Go pee over there, who is going to see you?”

“I asked you something else … ”

“You said you were afraid, that you had to pee … ”

“I’m not going to repeat myself because I was perfectly clear.”

“Can’t you see that my mind is on something else. Did you find the wrench I asked for? Check the trunk, see if by chance there’s some wire back there. Maybe we’re lucky. I’ll tie the wire around it and see if we make it to the next town.”

She squatted down and shone the flashlight on my face: “I told you from day one that I didn’t like this car. Maybe it’s the color, I don’t know, but this color brings bad luck. I explained that to you. But you said what did I know, that this was a great car, that it would never leave you stranded. What do you have to say now about this pile of junk?”

“Pile of junk! Hand me the wrench already and see if you can find some wire! You’re blinding me with that flashlight!”

“Its always the same. Always you, you, you! Do you want me to fan you too!”

“Herna, my love, this isn’t the time … ”

“You don’t love me, you never loved me, the world begins and ends with you … ”

“But of course I love you … it’s just that … ”

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Come on, really?”

“It’s not that hard, but because you are so proud … ”

“Look, here’s a loose cable. Where is this supposed to go? You can’t trust mechanics, they do a half-assed job and charge you an arm and a leg … Are you listening to me? Herna … did you move the car? Check the tire stopper, will you … Where are you?”

Herna’s voice came to me faintly, from far away:

“I’m peeing,” she said. “I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Don’t look … I’m afraid, my love … You didn’t answer me when I asked you if you wanted to grow old with me … ”

And then I saw her standing in front of me:

“I was worried,” she said. “I thought you had left.”

“Why would that worry you?”

“Remember a little while ago I was telling you about my yogi?”

“Not really.”

“I told you I have a spiritual guide, an illuminated being named Norberto, a direct reincarnation of the Yogi Ramacharaka, and he spoke to me about you.”

I laughed.

“Don’t laugh. I talk with him over the phone every day, and last week he told me that he had recurring dreams and visions of a person – a young man – that, based on what he could perceive, had some sort of connection or relationship with me. And he described this man he’s been dreaming of: dark, he said, tall, with long hair down to his shoulders and with eyeglasses. And I felt despair because I didn’t know anyone who fit the description. But now I can see it clearly: he described you to a tee, from head to toe. At first I didn’t recognize you – its that sometimes my mind wanders – but there is no doubt about it: the master spoke of a name starting with A and of thick lips like Sandro’s.2 I’ve known Norberto for six years and whenever he’s had a vision or a premonition, it comes to pass. He never fails. And for me its all very exciting, because I’ve been waiting for you for so long! The time is right for the arrival of a special incarnation with an important mission. And we are going to undertake it together!” said Herna joyfully and it seemed to me as if she were about to start jumping up and down.

And that’s when I, who, while I heard her out, had only thought of hugging her and kissing her on the mouth to shut her up, said with a coldness and certainty that were unlike me, that I also had premonitions, that they were my own, and that they did not coincide with those of her master Norberto.

She clamed up immediately. Now it was she who looked disconcerted. Now surely it was her who was waiting for me to laugh so that she could see it was a joke. But that’s not what happened. I told her I was very sorry but she would have to keep searching for her Sandro somewhere else:

“Maybe you’ll find him this very night,” I said. And I left, sensing her sad eyes fixed on my predestined back, on the luminous sway of my hips.

Outside it was very cold and there was no one out on the street. But I didn’t feel like going home, so I walked a few blocks and ducked inside a bar. I ordered gin and a while later, when the sadness that alcohol fills me with began to wear off, I grew certain that yes, I did believe in love for life, and that I would like nothing more than to buy a sky blue Renault 12 with a woman who, peeing in the middle of the countryside, asks me if I’d like to grow old with her.  


1 The phrase “espejos de azabache” from Nobel Prize winning author Juan Ramón Jiménez’s “Platero y Yo”.

2 Sandro is an Argentine rock icon who rose to fame in the 1960s. He was dubbed the Argentine Elvis.

Translated by Dario Bard from “Herna o el amor como urticaria” as printed in El lugar de las despedidas, published by La Parte Maldita, 2014, available from Ediciones La Parte Maldita. The Spanish version of this story was also published in the newspaper Pagina 12.

Mauricio Koch was born in Villa Ballester, a suburb of the City of Buenos Aires, and grew up in the Province of Entre Ríos. El lugar de las despedidas was his debut work. Since then he has published Cuadernos de crianza (2016), a diary of his relationship with his daughter, and the novels Los silencios (2017) and Baltasar contra el olvido (2020).

In this interview (in Spanish) with the department of the humanities, arts and social sciences, University of Entre Ríos, Mauricio Koch discusses his novel Baltasar contra el olvido:


“Rice” by Alejandra Kamiya

Download pdf: Rice

Today is Thursday and on Thursdays we have lunch.

We talk a lot, or rather what passes for a lot for us. Neither one of us is what you would call a talker. 

Sometimes we even eat in silence. A comfortable, light silence, like the air it is made of, in which the flavors of our food can better express themselves.

Other times, when we talk, the words form small mounds that slowly transform into mountains. Between them, there are long silences, valleys of thought in which we wander.

We choose a restaurant in an old house in San Telmo. It has a patio in the middle, a square of sky all its own, with constantly changing clouds.

The conversation with my father progresses at a leisurely pace.

Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he says “… cleaning rice …” and joins his hands together, forming a circle with his fingers and moving them as if he were beating something against the edge of the table.

What is sudden is not that he said these words, but that I suddenly realized that I do not know how rice is cleaned. What happens all of a sudden is the realization that I know many things about him in just this way, without really knowing, just barely intuiting them.

I know that in his hands, my father must be holding a bundle of something that I do not see. I search my memory for the rice paddies I saw in Japan and imagine that the bundle must be those sort of green stalks.

I deduce, clumsily, that the rice must still be clinging to the plants, and that by shaking the bundle they fall loose. Like tiny fruit or seeds.

Seeing my father’s gestures, I can return to the past, to Japan or my father’s story, which is mine as well. Like the impressionists, not seeking out details but rather the light, like the way I know the trees by the sidewalk in front of my house, without knowing what kind of trees they are, but also without being able to imagine my house without them. 

This is how I converse with my father: confidently but also feeling my way.

He says, for instance, that this country has barely 200 years of history, “a child of a country”, he says, and next to the child I see an old Japan, hands with skin that covers and uncovers the shape of the bones.

If he holds his head in his hands when he speaks of running through tea fields, I know that in the sky there are planes that I don’t see and that they drop their bombs.

We look over the menu and order the dishes that we are going to share. My father never got used to eating just one dish. It was my mother who got accustomed to preparing various foods at every meal.

Then we talk about books. He is reading Mozart by Kolb, and he takes it with him wherever he goes. My father always has a book and a dictionary with him.

As for me, born and raised in Argentina, I’m too lazy to look up words in the dictionary. But not him. My Japanese father’s Spanish is richer and more correct than mine.

He tells me he had some tests done on his doctor’s orders and while he waited, he read a good number of pages.

“What tests?” I ask. “A biopsy,” he replies.

I’m afraid. I sense what is lurking around the corner and feel a certainty as concrete as night follows day, a sort of vertigo. All that I never asked over the years comes back to me. Every question comes back and brings others. I want to know why my father chose this country, this child of a country. I want to know what it was like that day he learned the war had begun, what all the days that followed were like till the day he arrived in this land. I want to know what his toys and clothes were like, what it was like to go to school during the war, what the port of Buenos Aires was like in the sixties, and, if he wrote letters to my grandmother, what did they say. I want to know the colors, the words, the aroma of the food, the houses in which he lived. He once told me that when he first arrived, he didn’t bathe in the tub, but washed himself first and only submerged himself in the water when he was clean, because that is the way it is done in Japan. I want him to tell me more things like that. Many more. All of them. I want him to tell me about every day, so that it isn’t blown away by time. Maybe to write it all down, to capture it in ink on paper forever. Where to begin? Where do the questions begin? Which is first?

I search within, as if I were lost and running in that valley of silence that suddenly opened up between the words. To lose oneself in such a vast place is like being in a prison.

When I stop looking for it, I see the question before me, as if it had been waiting for me. I look at my father and I ask it.

He smiles, takes a sheet of paper from between the pages of his book and pulls a black pencil out from his coat pocket. He draws lines very close together, some parallel and others crossing each other. Then another, perpendicular and undulating, that cuts them all near the bottom end. These are the rice plants in the water. Then he draws very small circles on the tips: the grains. He tells me the grains fill over time and he traces over the lines, but instead of straight lines, he draws lines that curve at the ends: the plants when the rice grains mature. “The more one fills out, the more educated one is, the more humble,” he says. “One bends like the rice plant from the weight of the grain.” Then he extends his hands and arms and moves them parallel to the floor. “Large clothes are laid out in the fields,” he says. I imagine them to be white and undulating slightly, like the movement of calm water.

He again joins his hands as if he is holding a small bundle and he shakes it like before, against the edge of the table. Now I see clearly, I can almost touch, the grains of rice as they drop loose.

Translated by Dario Bard from “Arroz” as printed in Los árboles caídos también son el bosque, published by Bajo La Luna, 2015, available from Bajo La Luna.

Alejandra Kamiya is an award-winning writer from the City of Buenos Aires. In addition to Los árboles caídos también son el bosque, she has published Los restos del secreto y otros cuentos (2013) and El sol mueve la sombra de las cosas quietas (2019). Her stories have also appeared in various anthologies.

In the video below, Alejandra Kamiya is interviewed by one of her mentors, author Inés Fernández Moreno, about her development as a writer.

“Because the Sky Is Blue” by Pablo Ramos

Download pdf: Because the Sky Is Blue

“That’s how it is,” she says, her back to me, her head in the kitchen sink as she finishes rinsing her hair. “Without you even realizing it, time’s gone by.”

Making a turban out of a towel, she turns around, takes the mate from the table and sips from the bombilla until a sucking sound signals her to add more water. She does so and hands it to me. I take care to avoid touching her hand, to avoid breaking the spell without which I would, perhaps, never have made my way to her house.

“I’m so embarrassed. You caught me right in the middle of washing my hair,” she says. “I do sometimes see that girl from Santiago del Estero. Remember her? She dated El Turco. What’s become of El Turco, I wonder.”


Mate with bombilla, kettle and pastries. Photograph by Cristina Erazo.

She sits down. I assume that while she speaks of unimportant things, she is searching for that kid I was fifteen years ago. Surely she thinks something must remain: a sign, some remnant of hidden light from someplace. Or maybe she is trying to compose herself, to absorb the shock of my visit. I’m sitting and still can’t figure out how I came to be here. How it was that this afternoon I boarded a train, walked the few blocks from the station to her house with a package of pastries, knocked on her door—after so many years—and told her I dropped by for a few mates.

She is wearing a loose floral dress. The neckline is damp and the front is completely buttoned up. She’s nervous. Sitting on the other side of the table, she hasn’t stopped talking for an instant, and now she leans forward and picks out a pastry from the unwrapped package. I can see the shape of her breasts because the light from the window turns her dress transparent. She could have been my mother, I think, and remember that once I wished she had been my mother, and even told her as much.

“Mother Teresa,” I say. But she doesn’t hear, or pretends not to.

“You’re still a wild one, huh,” she says.

Then she asks me what I’ve been up to, where I’ve been. She must wonder what’s become of that fourteen-year-old kid who thought a hooker was some sort of Olympian goddess.

“Time flies,” she says. “You wanted to be a musician or a doctor. You don’t look like either. You also wanted to be a pimp. Boy, you really cracked me up, remember? You were always so funny.”

“I got married. I got separated,” I say. “I have a son named Alejandro.”

Now she hands me the kettle for me to do the pouring. I tap out a bit of yerba on a corner of the pastry paper and reposition the bombilla. In silence, I watch her rub her head with the towel, shake her blonde hair from side to side, and then brush it with her hand, her fingers spread apart to form a comb. Teresa does these things with excessive energy, as if abrupt movements will help her think better, help her conceive of the one question that encompasses all the others that must be running through her head. She stops. Then sighs with a trace of weariness and stands up.

“You must be needing a woman,” she says.

I think about leaving. I’m not sure why I came, but it was certainly not to humiliate myself, or her. I suddenly feel scared, and sad.

“I’m going south; for some real work, you know,” I say.

Teresa neatly tears a piece of pastry paper where the bit of wet yerba left a green areola. She wraps up the yerba, goes over to the wastebasket by the sink and drops it in.

“Hey, tell me about your kid. You said his name was Alejandro? Tell me, does he look like you?”

“He’s just like his mother,” I say, and her silence must be because of the soft tone in my voice, because of the common, everyday words I just uttered. Maybe she already noticed that I despise myself, my miserable way of thinking, of dealing with the world; because I am incapable of trust, always suspecting others of hiding secret intentions they dare not reveal.

“You were beautiful, you know,” says Teresa. “I mean the way you were, the person you were, the things you said.”

She comes up behind me, puts her arms around my neck and strokes my chest. She leans against my back, presses her body against mine. I remain seated. I feel her move away and I turn in the chair. She is unbuttoning her dress. Not rapidly, but also not so slowly as to leave room for doubt. She is about to undo the last button and I fear that that act alone will sadden the world forever. I don’t say anything and she must misinterpret my silence. Her hands move up to her waist and, opening her dress, she lets me see her bare breasts, her tight, black panties, her still beautiful legs. There stands Teresa, and there she remains, close to me, offering herself, a phantom in the half-light.

“Teresa,” I say.

Not wanting to gaze upon her body, I seek out her eyes just as the sun, from behind the wall in the empty lot across the way, colors the kitchen in an artificial orange, illuminating her wet hair smelling of apple-scented shampoo, her Polish-Jewish face, a fierce grimace under the delicate features of her nose. I remain immobile, my arms by my sides. She finally looks away.

“Remember that record you gave me?” She’s turned around and is buttoning up her dress. “Remember?” she asks, her back to me. “I still have it, in its sleeve. It was when you started learning English. You were into translating songs. Sometimes I want to remember. It’s like having a splinter you can’t pull out, this not remembering.”

She goes to her room and, I can tell, she is pulling herself together so she can look me in the eyes when she returns. I can’t help but think it is part of her profession. Now she’s back, with the record in its sleeve, her eyes turned upward.

“It was about somebody crying over something stupid,” she says. “That I remember: some guy crying over something really stupid.”

“Because the sky is blue,” I say, “it makes me cry.”

“Yeah, that’s it. What a relief to finally remember, no? Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry,” says Teresa. “What a weirdo. What utter stupidity.”

Cuando lo peor haya pasado

Translated by Dario Bard from “Porque el cielo es azul” as printed in Cuando lo peor haya pasado, published by Alfaguara, 2010, available from Amazon. The title of the story refers to the song “Because” from the Beatle’s Abbey Road album.

Pablo Ramos is a writer, poet and musician from Avellaneda, Province of Buenos Aires. His short story collection, Cuando lo peor haya pasado, earned him both the 2003 Fondo Nacional e las Artes prize (Argentina) and the 2004 Casa de las Americas prize (Cuba). He has also published a collection of poems (Lo pasado pisado) and several novels, many of which are available in Spanish on Amazon.         

Additionally, Ramos is a frequent contributor to the literary magazine Lamujerdemivida. In this autobiographical article, published soon after he won the Casa de Las Americas prize, Ramos discusses his life growing up in the rough streets of Greater Buenos Aires.

This episode of the Spanish-language public television program Animal que cuenta, features Pablo Ramos talking about his short story “Cuando lo peor haya pasado”, which deals with the act of writing. Liliana Heker, his mentor, also participates in the discussion.

“Does Not Kill” by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Download pdf: Does Not Kill

The hand of God squeezes but does not choke. And does not kill: with His hand God gathered up the clay to make the little figurines and create man and woman in His trans image and likeness; then the Creator closed His fist and extended His index finger and pointed at the tiny pair made of dust and water, and shot the bolt of life as He exhaled a “Fiat!” that packed more Pegasus-power than there are grains of sand in the beaches and desserts of the Earth, and filled it with the spirit of divine breath that is the origin of the air we breathe, and for that very reason His hand cannot choke. And does not kill.


Photograph of Omar Octavio Carrasco published by the newspaper Los Andes.

Does not kill, he might have repeated as a prayer, like when we ask to be delivered from evil when evil’s teeth have us by the nose, like when declaring, almost without breath, that God squeezes but does not suffocate, although he is suffocating, and the soldier of Jesus Christ and the Argentine Army Omar Octavio Carrasco might have asserted it and reasserted it, because he well knew, after five years of bible school, that God vomits the lukewarm. This was not the time to wonder if He hawked out the hot and shat out the cold, he was only certain in that minute that could be his last that he should not doubt like the lukewarm though he doubted when he was gasping like a fish because he was drowning, because instead of air he was taking in a sweet liquid that was perhaps God’s vomit, and before the liquid filled him, blows had rained down on him like manna, and one, the final blow, hit him like a bolt from God: he saw it coming with the one eye he still had only half closed and with the half of a vocal cord that still vibrated he screamed no when the officer’s boot that he saw swing away at full speed swung back like an increasingly larger missile, and he closed his eyes when the tip dug into his ribs and punctured a lung that began to fill with blood and he began to breathe His vomit instead of His breath, that air with which He filled the earth so that birds may fly and trees may sway and all the creatures He created may breathe, what for, not to be alone perhaps, and so there was something that God was missing, doubted Carrasco as the brunt of a kick entered his body and never again left, that kick would be inside him forever, and forever lasted about twenty four hours: it had come at him with all the momentum a well-trained, long-legged military man could muster, he must have seen it coming like one sees a bomb fall, splitting the air God made for birds and for airplanes and surely also for missiles, that’s how Carrasco must have seen the boot that ended up killing him from respiratory arrest even though the soldier said to himself that the hand of God squeezes but does not suffocate and that the mouth of God damns but also exhales the divine breath of life into the dust that we are, and that if He does kill, it is those who are evil, but not since Jesus Christ, and besides he, a soldier of the Motherland as of three days ago, but soldier of the World Evangelical Army Torch of Faith since the beginning, he was named one of the chosen around his eighth month of gestation when his father drove off the road from Cutral Có to Trenque Lauquen, and while the van rolled he saw the cargo of headless, featherless chickens fall, he saw them slide down the side of the road as if a river of dead chickens flowed out of the rear of the delivery van, a wave of chickens rose up, fell forcefully and lifted a cloud of dirt from the earth that shone like diamonds, shitty, good-for-nothing earth, not even fit to plant soybeans, that plague, one of the latest, one of the five horsemen, earth that was so shitty it was like damned from its origins, but its particles shone in the evening sun by the side of the road while Don Francisco Carrasco, chicken deliveryman, son of an oil worker who wanted a better life for him and had gotten him hired as a farmhand at the Desertpollo farm, where the boy had risen to the post of deliveryman and so had gotten married and unwittingly planted the seed of the multitudes that would be his issue, and he learned of it then, when the dead chickens flew through the same air in which the shitty earth shone and he bumped his head against the ceiling of the van’s cabin and was afraid he’d lose his job or die, and the desert sun sunk and the pinkish yellow chickens looked like pale sun sparks and the sun looked always the same despite his changing viewpoint, which spun inside the van that fell, rolling over itself, and from that sun that shot out chickens like pale sparks came a voice that said, “Do not be afraid,” using the Spanish tú although Francisco Carrasco was Paraguayan and used vos with everyone, even with the general when he did his military service. “Do not be afraid, my son,” said the voice. “You are saved. And your issue shall be multitudes.” At that moment, Francisco passed out peacefully, and hours later he was found and taken to the hospital, and from the fright he gave her, his wife went into premature labor and that is when he was born, already in the grace of Our Savior, Jesus Christ, the world evangelical soldier Omar Carrasco. From God’s words, the new father thought his firstborn would initiate a long line of children but no, the soldier’s mother was only impregnated once more, and many times they asked themselves what had God meant to say to his beloved chicken deliveryman Francisco Carrasco by “your issue shall be multitudes” and they speculated with Sarah and Abraham, who had Isaac at the age of one hundred, but even so they prayed and prayed for an explanation. They would finally understand eighteen years after the day of His message, exactly one month after he had taken his only male child to the door of the barracks for him to fulfill his duty to the Motherland. It was the second time they had been outside of Cutral Có since their boy’s birth.

His father had driven him to the barracks in the van he bought after he totaled the previous one that very moment he had come to know Christ. He told him the military would make a man of him, that things would be different from how they were in their small village. The boy had replied, “Don’t worry, Papa, I’ll make you proud.” And in he went with the Bible under his arm, singing, “Forever forward we march with Christ, with his word, the word of truth. Ready like soldiers, for Jesus Christ is our general. We are soldiers of Jehovah. We are soldiers of Christ.” That was March 3rd, 1994. He was beaten on the 6th by an officer and two soldiers. And his body reappeared in the military installations exactly one month later, on April 6th. No cause-and-effect relationship can be deduced between the day he entered and the day he left the barracks. What can be inferred is that God, if He does exist, is not particularly attentive to the requests of his soldiers. Because the boy must have asked Him to make them stop beating him, to keep them from killing him, to let him return to Cutral-Có to ride his bicycle and compose songs for Him: besides Jesus, his passions were playing the guitar at temple, River Plate and biking. For this favor, he must have promised some impossible feat: to forsake River for Boca, or to stop jerking off, or to go to Peru to preach the Gospel to the Shining Path. He must have prayed, he must have pleaded and he must have promised anything, but neither the Argentine Army nor General Jesus were moved, and so no more bicycle, no more jerking off and no more chicken deliveries—he had begun to work with his father—for His soldier Carrasco. Few photos of him remain. In fact, just two. The last one must have been taken the day before his death: his head is shaved, eyes forward, dressed in his army uniform. He was brown-skinned, slanty-eyed, and grew to be no more than five foot, seven inches tall. He would have likely grown taller; he was only 18 when he was surprised to learn the difference between being a soldier of Christ and being a soldier of the Argentine Army, the institution that brought him death. And fame that would have been difficult for him to achieve had he survived.

He was a shy kid. And his habit of keeping a Bible under his arm or next to his bed or on his pillow must have seemed non-negotiable, something he owed God, his General.  To the officer who gave him the final kick it must have seemed queer, and he took it upon himself to make him a man. And kaput, no more world for Omar Octavio Carrasco: the Lord called him into His presence. Four months later, while his murder, a national scandal, was being investigated, the sacrifice of the soldier Carrasco was accepted. It is not clear if it was because of General Jesus or the polling firm surveying the citizenry’s voting intention, or a whim of the commander and chief of the Armed Forces of the Nation, President Carlos Menem, or all of these combined, for they are not mutually exclusive.

And his issue was multitudes.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: This story refers to the murder of Omar Octavio Carrasco soon after his arrival at the military base in Zapala, Province of Neuquén, to perform his mandatory military service. The media scandal and public outcry that resulted from the discovery of his corpse after a prolonged cover-up by the Argentine army, led then President Carlos Saúl Menem to issue a decree eliminating the mandatory military service requirement. President Menem signed the decree on August 31, 1994 and was then reelected on May 14, 1995.


Anthology (2)


Translated by Dario Bard from a manuscript of No mata provided by Sylvia Iparraguirre. This story was posted on the website CordobaMata and appeared, together with this translation, in the bilingual Antología del cuento argentino/Argentine Short Story Anthology. The Anthology was edited and selected by Sylvia Iparraguirre and published by the Cultural Affairs Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship on the occasion of the 2014 Guadalajara International Book Fair.    

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara is a writer from San Isidro, Province of Buenos Aires. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines. She has also written the critically acclaimed novel, La Virgen Cabeza (2009), and the novellas Le viste la cara a Dios (2011) and Romance de la negra rubia (2014), as well as the graphic novel Beya (2013), illustrated by Iñaki Echeverría.  

In this radio interview with Maria Ines Nouzeilles of FM Plaza, Cabezón Cámara discusses her novella Romance de la negra rubia:

The 1997 movie Bajo Bandera is also based on the murder of Omar Carrasco:

“The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón

Download pdf: The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff

 To Ariel Korob (Z”L)

The morning of Thursday, February 7, 2007, was a typical summer morning. With suffocating heat settling in for the rest of the day, it was inadvisable to walk or take the subway.

Daniel backed out of the garage on his way to temple. The last week in Buenos Aires; on Sunday, he would take Katia and their three children to Mendoza. A stream with a magnificent canyon in the background, a good way to relax for two weeks after a year-long stretch of demanding work.

2009018_Clouds_and_wheat_WEB LISA MCSHANE

“Clouds and Fields” by Lisa McShane, courtesy of the artist.

He backed out of the garage and up the driveway ramp. He looked in the driver’s side mirror. No one in sight. In reverse out onto the street. A young man on a bike grazed the driver’s side mirror. Daniel did not move forward but the guy threw himself on the hood, the bicycle caught up in his legs. He looked like a bad actor rehearsing a scene that called for a simulated accident. Asked the question, the script would read: Yeah, it hurts like a son of a bitch.

Their conversation was brief and muddled. It seemed he was fine, that the acting intended to introduce a gradual and hidden brutality.

Daniel thought of calling a doctor or the police. He wanted to call a doctor, but the guy suggested reporting the accident to the police.

At the station, a tall, short-haired officer behind the counter asked them why they were there. Motor vehicle accident involving a cyclist.  The officer looked at a policewoman behind him and at the deputy commissioner, a bit farther back. He went over to the deputy commissioner and explained the situation. A poorly concealed smirk that read Here’s a sucker for the taking appeared on the deputy commissioner’s face. He approached and asked Daniel if he had brought the car along and the cyclist if he had seen a doctor. The deputy commissioner’s tone was emphatic; he was talking about a serious matter. The vehicle, he said, will be impounded for inspection. You’ll need to make a statement. The victim is to be taken to Fernández Hospital.

This was an unknown world to Daniel. He had only been in a police station once before, and very briefly, to report the loss of his wallet and cellphone. The procedure seemed reasonable.

While the policewoman took his statement, he saw a man in a suit sitting in the waiting area, observing attentively. It seemed he had been there all along, but Daniel only noticed him then. And now? What happens next? Daniel asked of the policewoman. You’ll have to wait for the medical report, see if the kid presses charges, and wait 48 to 72 hours for the car to be inspected; you should file a report with your insurance company. She advised him to call a lawyer.

If they hold the car for 72 hours, thought Daniel, I won’t get it back until the day before we leave for Mendoza. He knew many lawyers. Some were donors, generally second and third generation attorneys, mixed in with public notaries and accountants. He thought of calling Katia, telling her everything and having her find a lawyer, but then he remembered Fabian, who was fresh out of law school and sometimes came to temple on the Sabbath. Fabian had told him of a similar case: he had accidentally run into an empanada delivery motorcycle. Besides, he was coming out of a deep depression. It was a good idea to give him a call.

He signed the police report and was free to go, but before leaving, he called Fabian. Did you make a statement? Did you sign it? Yes. I’m on my way.

The officer who had first spoken to Daniel asked him to stop by the commissioner’s office. The door was ajar. Come in, Knopoff.

He was surprised to be called by his surname and recalled how Katia reproached him for forgetting other people’s names. Calling someone by name is to recognize that person, to distinguish the individual. We all need to be recognized.

The commissioner’s face was as he imagined a commissioner’s face would be: hard lines, strong and protruding teeth, mussed up hair and perforated skin, scars sketching a map that read shit happened here. The commissioner looked serious. Come in, Knopoff … yours is a complicated case … I’m not saying that to scare you … but you know … a young man of limited means … lawyers fishing for a quick settlement … a traffic accident report signed by the driver … who knows what the vehicle inspection will turn up …

He was amazed by the commissioner’s sincerity. It was as if, by happy fortune, he had a friend on the other side of the counter. Everything was taking on a scripted appearance, and he was just now beginning to discern it.

The commissioner spoke with emphatic discomfiture, like the deputy commissioner had, as if both received the same instructions from the director of a staged scene. Daniel wasn’t worried about himself, but rather about how concerned the commissioner was.

The commissioner offered him a drink. Coffee? … Tea? … A bit of whiskey? Daniel figured that if he accepted a bit of whiskey, he’d have the commissioner on his side. But it wasn’t advisable to go through life being a sycophant; he opted for tea. Fabian arrived. He was notified by a knock on the door. The commissioner saw Daniel off with a firm handshake and accompanied him part of the way out.

As soon as he saw Daniel, Fabian said: They’re impounding your car and we’ll have to wait for the doctors to examine the kid and file their medical report; we can go. Everything seemed to be on the track of bureaucratic logic, a matter of paperwork and signatures. Daniel cordially said his good-byes to those at the precinct and sent his regards to the commissioner. They telephoned his insurance company to report the accident.

Fabian instructed Daniel to notify him should the police call him in to testify … When they tell you the car is ready for pick up, I’ll go with you … any news, you call me …

The rest of the day transpired with anxiety but without incident (meek and uneasy); it wouldn’t do any good to get upset. After all, in less than four days, vacation.


 Early the next day, the doorbell rang at the Knopoff household. It was the man in the suit from the police station, the same one he noticed in the background the day before. The young man from the accident waited by the sidewalk.

The man greeted Knopoff and introduced himself as the victim’s lawyer. The medical expert reported that my client suffered injuries … physical traumas that will keep him out of work for a few weeks … my client is considering whether he’ll mention these results in his statement to the police … but if we can come to an arrangement, you know, clean slate …

Knopoff, without inviting the lawyer in, asked him to wait a few seconds. He closed the door and called Fabian, but no one answered. Daniel opened the door again and asked the lawyer what they were asking for. Ten thousand pesos, and it’ll be like this never happened.

He didn’t have that kind of cash, but he also didn’t see the matter as negotiable. Besides, it was perhaps a way to help somebody who needed the money. After all, currency was meant to circulate; who knew where it would end up. They agreed to meet at the house in an hour; that would be enough time for him to make the necessary withdrawals, part from their vacation savings and part from a bank account in the red.

At the established hour, the lawyer rang the doorbell again. Daniel had managed to pull together five thousand four hundred pesos. The lawyer took the money, wished him a good day and left.


 In the days that followed, Daniel cancelled a dinner with donors and two meetings with couples who were about to get married. It was time, he told himself, to shut things down and leave on vacation without a worry in the world (meek and at ease).

The day before he was to depart for Mendoza, Fabian called. Daniel told him how things had ended. Fabian was concerned that they hadn’t had the chance to speak beforehand, but he didn’t express any misgivings. They agreed to arrange to go and pick up the car together later.

But Daniel did not wish to bother Fabian. The episode had definitely concluded. Retrieving the car would be a simple matter.

When he entered the police station around two in the afternoon, the officer from the previous day greeted him naturally. The policewoman who had taken his statement did not address him, but gave him a look that tried to transmit something.

He had to sign some papers acknowledging receipt of the vehicle in the same condition he had left it. The deputy commissioner shook his hand; the commissioner handed him the keys and indicated where the car was parked.

This little nightmare is coming to an end, thought Daniel with a sigh as we walked to the car. Put it in gear and take her home to the garage.


The day went by and night fell, but he remained anxious. Collateral effects, he thought, like when they pull a splinter from the sole of your foot … good-bye splinter, but the pain persists a while longer until it subsides and things return to normal.

With Katia, he communicated only what was necessary. She noticed he was nervous, but they were about to go on vacation and she didn’t wish to upset him.

In a few hours, bright and early, with the first rays of sunlight, the family would depart for Mendoza.


In the morning, Daniel Knopoff loaded the car with their things. He wanted to leave right away. Spatial distance would create emotional distance.

Daniel, Katia and their three children climbed into the car while it was still in the garage, and when he put it in reverse, he was afraid the cyclist would reappear. He tried to laugh at himself for having thought such a thing.

For the first time, it crossed his mind that he hadn’t had the car for the past few days. When Katia posed the question, he had responded that he took it to a mechanic after having retrieved it from the police. He didn’t want to worry her or let her know that he didn’t think it necessary (honestly, the idea hadn’t even occurred to him).

From that moment on, the chain of events that followed was irreversible and fatal. What happened was reported by the press:

“Rabbi Daniel Knopoff of the Grand Temple on Lavalle Street in the neighborhood of Once died in an automobile accident on a highway in northern La Pampa. The man of faith was at the wheel and lost control of the vehicle, possibly due to a blown tire. The car collided with an oncoming truck.

“Knopoff, 37, was driving with his wife and three children, all of whom were seriously injured and spent the night in the ICU at General Pico Hospital. Medical sources indicate that the condition of all four is improving. The truck driver was unharmed.” (Clarín newspaper, Tuesday, February 12).

Accounts varied: he nicked the shoulder, he was speeding, he got a flat.

At the police station, the officer who had first handled Knopoff’s case saw the news on Crónica TV.

“Hey, Deputy Commissioner, you have to see this. Check out who died on the highway,” he said.

The Deputy Commissioner had already heard the news. He regretted that they had taken advantage of that sucker. He appeared to have been a good, upstanding fellow. We have to get rid of the guys who swap out the tires, thought the Deputy Commissioner, and replace the parts, and even the hood ornaments on the cars in the impound lot. What assholes. They take such stupid risks for nothing. They’ll end up fucking things up for all of us.

Efectos  colaterales pablo besaron

Translated by Dario Bard from “Los Ultimos Dias de Daniel Knopoff” as printed in Efectos Colaterales, published by Ediciones Simurg, 2013, available from Cuspide.

Pablo Besarón is a writer and essayist from the City of Buenos Aires. His literary essays have appeared in a variety of publications, and in 2009 Ediciones Simurg published La Conspiración, a collection of his essays on Argentine literature. Efectos Colaterales is his first work of published fiction. Presently, he is working on his second short story collection and a documentary on Jewish Argentine cinematographers.

In an interview with Radio del Buen Aire, Pablo Besáron discussed his writing in Efectos Colaterales

“The Velocipedist Social Club” by Norberto Luis Romero

Download pdf: The Velocipedist Social Club

Along the town’s main street, there were no more than 400 meters from his home to the fledgling Velocipedist Social Club and Mr. Garcia walked them with his head held high and his eyes set forward, guiding his brand new velocipede beside him by its impeccable, polished handlebars, like someone proudly leading angelic, clean and well-dressed offspring to mass by the hand. But Garcia was a bachelor by inertia and his immediate plans, which had him completely absorbed, did not contemplate marriage but instead other more daring and novel ambitions. With each step he was aware that, behind the lace curtains of every kitchen window, the eyes of housewives were on him until he disappeared from their field of vision: out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the poorly concealed movements in the curtain folds, and even an incredulous face now and then suddenly veiling itself behind lace trimmings and embroidery. He knew that their curiosity wasn’t stirred by his person, despite the tight, flashy orange velocipedist outfit he wore, which was strikingly audacious in and of itself, but rather by the surprising object of his devotion, the true protagonist of that peaceful gray morning: the velocipede. Almost as tall as he was, with a front wheel measuring 1.2 meters in diameter; seen through its spokes, the scenery, the houses and the few people heading to the bakery for a hot loaf of bread at that hour, looked like images in a kinetoscope. That morning, as in previous days, the sky was overcast, but it frequently happened that the threatening clouds failed to deliver the expected rains. There were long spells without a single drop falling from the sky, and that was why Garcia, sure there would be no precipitation, hadn’t bothered to cover up the velocipede with the checkered oilcloth as he led it by the handlebars to the club. Besides, it was not his intent to keep it hidden under an oilcloth from prying eyes, but rather to exhibit it proudly so as to provoke curiosity and arouse interest.

“The Velocipede” by Sarah Northcott, courtesy of the artist.

“The Velocipede” by Sarah Northcott,
courtesy of the artist.

The velocipede had arrived a couple of weeks before, meticulously packed in a wooden crate reinforced with metallic supports that had been shipped by cargo train from the city, where he had acquired it via catalog from the renowned and recently established Michaux Company, which, a year earlier, had introduced its invention at the Paris World Fair; and since Garcia lived from rents and was free of family obligations and the financial commitments such entail, he dedicated his considerable free time to keeping up-to-date on the latest scientific and technological advances through magazine subscriptions and brochures from Europe and the United States. The cost hadn’t been miniscule, by no means, but for a man like himself, austere and free of vices, it didn’t require financial sacrifice or the assumption of debt; he merely used the sum he had set aside for that purpose, an amount that wouldn’t take him long to recover if his plans, as commercial as they were altruistic, came to fruition. He concluded his disbursements with the purchase of an old and spacious barn located on the edge of town, on which, once he had cleaned, readied and stocked it with the basic essentials, he hung a sign that read “The Velocipedist Social Club,” of which he was president and member number one, as indicated on the membership card he had issued himself the night before in an intimate and modest, yet solemn act at his home in front of his wardrobe mirror. As for the official inauguration, it would take place once he had learned to ride the velocipede and after he had given a simple but convincing demonstration.

No one was around for leagues, but Mr. Garcia was certain that in no time, when people realized the advantages and charm of this revolutionary means of locomotion, none would hesitate to buy one, if not two or more, according to the number of adult members in the family. He figured, for example, that his neighbor, Mr. Bustos, wouldn’t have any second thoughts about purchasing at least four, because beside his wife, who was fit, young and fond of strolling, he had raised two now fully-grown sons who were as clever and spirited as their parents. His own brother, without looking any further, had always been a man inclined to educate himself and one who admired all sorts of scientific and technological advances, having gone so far as to have subjected his two daughters to various rounds of a treatment that relied on electricity to eradicate certain dubious illnesses; the results turned out to be unexpectedly adverse and the girls had to be interned in a mental ward from which they had yet to be released. With the velocipede, however, the risk would be no more than a bump here and there of no major consequence.

And his dream—all men have the right to dream—was to lead this association or club and grow it until it became the biggest tourist attraction in the region. To this end, he would, first, set modest monthly dues payments, and as the number of members increased, he’d collect a modest income, an income he would reinvest in the association to expand its facilities and services to members and their respective families. Mr. Garcia was convinced that his generous idea would bring tourists to town and, with them, imminent progress. Perhaps other towns would even follow their example. What’s more, he had no doubt that history would reserve a special place for him due to his creative talent, brilliance and persistence. In all likelihood, in the not too distant future the municipal authorities would propose to name a plaza after him, and maybe even an avenue. Although the town didn’t presently have one, he was sure one would have to be built due to the imminent proliferation of velocipedes that was bound to commence once he opened the doors to the club and, before a gathering of the townspeople, delivered the inaugural speech he had been preparing for months and painstakingly practicing before the same wardrobe mirror that had witnessed his ascension to the club presidency. But in the remotest recesses of his heart hid a desire for a wish that made him blush: to see himself immortalized in bronze, atop a velocipede, in the fashion of heroes mounted on their horses.

Mr. Garcia had not taken into account that he had never ridden or even attempted to mount a velocipede, but he was sure that, following the instructions in the manual to the letter, he would become a perfected velocipedist in a couple of days. For his training grounds he chose a spacious and level area in the valley, an almost treeless and extensive field with only one inconvenience that he deemed of little importance: he would have to keep his distance from the bluff known as the Barranca of the Spirits, its eerie epithet derived from the legend that specters lived in the small but dark lake at the bottom, so dark and dense that it was really more of a bog than a lake, but that the townspeople mercifully took to calling a lake. The specters, it was said, were the souls of victims of chance accidents, unwitting hunters, passers-by and lovers who got too close to the edges of the bog, or ancient casualties of dubious and forgotten wars; it was said that their yellow skeletons wandered along the bog’s perimeter, shaking their long hair. The only thing Mr. Garcia had to do was stay away from the barranca as he practiced and learned. Also, despite being a meticulous and well-organized man with good foresight, he had failed to consider his own body. Mr. Garcia was obese, very obese. And the velocipede, as the manual explained, required the ability to achieve balance, the key to maintaining a vertical position, and that then, and only then, should one attempt to move forward on the different-sized wheels. He was sure that it must feel like flying, that riding a velocipede must generate, as the catalog put it, the thrill of flying like a seagull, although Garcia had never seen a seagull.

Having arrived at the barn shed, he leaned the velocipede lovingly against its side to display it, opened its doors, retrieved a chair and placed it on the broad sidewalk. Then he sat down to wait for the arrival of the first visitors to show interest in this new means of locomotion, of which, from then on out, he was the district’s exclusive representative. The public, dazzled by the velocipede’s novelty and convinced of its benefits, would buy the contraption without reservations and, consequently, join the Club. His face, reddened by the walk and the grandeur of his plan, looked as fresh as an apple, and under his blonde moustache, its ends arched up to the sky, a wide smile of satisfaction appeared. Every now and again, eager to race off speedily, he glanced at his velocipede with a possessive and dumbstruck look to make sure it was still there, splendid like a jewel.

This, Mr. Garcia thought, was the happiest day of his life. He was convinced that his enterprise would meet with success and that he had begun his definitive realization as a man. He sighed, marveling that he sat before his Club, the name of which, just thinking of it, filled him with satisfaction. Ah, if my father could only see me now, he thought, he’d be the happiest man on Earth! He’d say: “That’s my boy, yes sir, the family’s pride and joy, a man who sees the future.”

He entered the shed and wrote the day of the inauguration in large letters on the blackboard—he gave himself a week to learn to ride—and then he carried the board out onto the street and placed it next to the velocipede.

A few hours passed and no one came by; his hopes began to fade. What if no one had any interest in the velocipede? What if people didn’t even know it existed? He hadn’t thought of that; he hadn’t factored it into his plans. He hadn’t anticipated the need for a marketing campaign, so effective and necessary to the success of any business. Except for the handful of neighbors who had seen him walk past their windows, no one knew of the existence of the velocipede or the Social Club he had just founded. And, truth be told, he had also completely forgotten about the town’s casino, where surely the neighbors were gathered at this hour for a charity fair, this being that time of year and people being in the habit of partaking in such insipid entertainment instead of taking a chance on a novel invention … their loss.

Unexpectedly, the overcast sky, typically harmless, began to dissolve in a fine drizzle. The rain was welcomed, but his velocipede was still there, leaning up against the shed, the eaves too short to offer shelter. He quickly left his chair and hurried to protect it from the intensifying rainfall. He got it inside just in time, as roaring thunder triggered a downpour unlike any the town had seen in years. Now he was sure no one would come to his newly found club, at least not until the storm let up, and he reasoned that all was not lost if he attributed the absence of curious and interested onlookers to his lack of perspicacity; they had sensed rain in the morning air, whereas he, wrapped up in his enthusiasm, had failed to do so. It took a while for the sky to clear; by the time it stopped raining, night had fallen. Mr. Garcia lit the kerosene lamps he had purchased, for the town’s electrical lighting did not extend as far as the Club, and sat down again to admire his velocipede, doubly beautiful now and transformed into an exoticism under the glimmering lamps. As he contemplated this miracle, his doubts dissipated, his optimism returned and his appetite stirred as he realized he hadn’t eaten a bite all day. He left the velocipede in the shed, taking special care to lock the doors, and returned to his house.

The next morning there was barely a trace of the storm left, except for a puddle here and there along the way, which, with the warm rays of the sun, emanated an almost pleasant sense of stupor. Because it was Sunday, he only opened the doors of the club to retrieve the velocipede and the instruction manual. He would take advantage of the day of rest to commence his training. Leading the velocipede beside him with a firm grip and dodging puddles that were becoming increasingly scarce, he headed to the level field he had chosen for his training grounds. He leaned the velocipede up against the only tree in the area and performed a dozen leg-stretching and waist-bending exercises, always sticking to the manual’s recommendations. Once finished, slightly out of breath and sweaty, he took the velocipede firmly by the handlebars, placed a foot on a pedal and swung his opposite leg and body over the machine. But he didn’t make it as high as the leather seat, lost his balance and fell flat on the ground, dragging the invention down with him. Mr. Garcia was not the sort of man that was easily daunted; despite finding his clothes soiled with mud, he attempted it a second time, and a third, and a fourth, and many, many more times afterwards. Quietly, sweating and muddied like a pig, he leaned the velocipede once more against the tree and took various deep breaths before setting his mind to the discernment of the problem.

I’m too fat, he said to himself, and the instruction manual didn’t make any mention of this condition, nor did the magazine advertisements or the brochures warn of it. Two tears of impotence and rage dropped from his eyes as he was overcome with a sense of abandonment similar to that of a little boy lost in the crowd at an amusement fair. He looked around until he found a rock he could sit on in order to recover his strength and lift his dashed spirits. He consulted the manual again, going over the instructions step by step, as if they were the Via Crucis, and wondering where he had gone wrong. How was he going to convince potential clients of the superior qualities of the velocipede if he couldn’t ride it? How could he attract new members to the club if he couldn’t provide a demonstration? Fortunately, he was alone in that wasteland and no one had witnessed his failure. There was nothing left to do but to keep trying, persevere day after day until he managed to master the velocipede.

Every morning, as the sun rose promising ever warmer weather with the approach of summer, Mr. Garcia arrived at the meadow with his virgin velocipede, performed his elaborate stretching and warm-up ritual, left the manual open on the same rock he had used to rest, meticulously went over it page by page, and took to the challenging task at hand, always making sure he kept a prudent distance from the Barranca of the Spirits. His concentration and resolve were so intense that he did not become immediately aware of a group of children who had appeared on a neighboring hilltop, their little eyes watching his exercises and training with great interest initially until their interest turned into amusement and then outright mockery every time his obese anatomy ended up on the ground next to or on top of the velocipede. His first reaction was to ignore them, pretend they didn’t exist, but when a pair of adults joined the children, and then the following day half the town appeared on the hilltop, cackling with laughter and egging him on, half in earnest and half in jest, he felt humiliated, his sense of self-worth deeply offended; he was brought to the very verge of tears. But far from losing heart and enthusiasm, and maybe to show them his determination even if his life depended on it, he kept at it, day after day, falling, muddying himself again and again, bruising himself, hurting and holding back tears of rage. Finally, one afternoon, when the townspeople, tired and bored with the repetitive spectacle, had opted to stay home, the miraculous happened: he felt himself lifted up into the sky as he got a leg over the iron crossbar and his enormous rear end landed softy in the leather seat, causing the velocipede to vibrate; he wavered for a moment, and it almost cost him his balance and the verticality he had longed for, but then he put his pudgy feet on the pedals attached to the axel of the big front wheel. The world seemed to tremble all around him, but there he was, yes, mounted on the velocipede, and it was like riding a cloud in the sky. Without thinking about it, he executed the next step, just as indicated in figure number four, which was to apply gentle and rhythmic pressure on the pedals while holding on firmly to the handlebars. Yes, God had worked a miracle and he was rolling forward, zigzagging a bit, like a teetering child, but he was moving without losing his balance. He advanced several meters, with his confidence and faith restored. Any fears of renewed failure evaporated and his enthusiasm gave way to blind faith. He let out a shout of joy, closed his eyes and applied greater pressure to the pedals, increasing his steadiness and stability as he gained speed. Now he did indeed experience exactly what a seagull felt as it glided over the surface of the ocean: the wind in his face, the thrilling sensation of floating a meter above the hard ground. He let out another shout of joy and opened his eyes to look at the ground below him and watch it disappear, vanquished, behind him. Then, in an act of bravado, he turned his head over his shoulder, expecting to see his malicious neighbors on the hill behind him so that he could now laugh at them. But instead he discovered that there was not a soul there, and turning his head back in the direction in which he was moving, he was surprised to see the Barranca of the Spirits directly before him. He applied the brakes, following the procedure as indicated in step number 7 of the instruction manual, but he was going so fast that he went over the bank before he could even voice dismay; he rolled a few meters into the muddy sludge until the velocipede got stuck at the bottom of the bog. In the next few seconds, which seemed eternal, Garcia was able to feel the velocipede, which remained upright, sink until he was submerged up to his chest. Disconcerted, his mind was capable of only one reaction, to repeat, as if it provided some consolation, the inaugural address he had committed to memory:

“Ladies and gentlemen, admirers and aficionados of the velocipede … ”

With great effort he was able to lift himself off the seat, make his way through the bog (which tried to suck him down into its depths), push his way to its edge and, clawing at the rocky slope, climb up to safety. But the velocipede had been gulped down, greedily devoured by the muddy bog, submerged below half a meter of dark, foul-smelling water; the bog released a bubbling belch to the surface, satisfied with the feast. Out of danger, Garcia began walking, and with every step he moved more and more like an automaton as the sludge he was covered in hardened into a shell around him. Because it was dinner time, he had the good fortune of making it home without anyone seeing him.

Garcia stayed out of sight and kept quiet about what had transpired. What’s more, none of the townspeople asked why he was melancholy, or inquired about the numerous bruises that still adorned his forehead and cheeks, or about the fate of the velocipede and the club, where they had on rare occasions gone to have a look around in a gesture of incredulity and pity. Garcia became a somber and spiritless man who was typically seen lingering by the shed, where, after a few months, a neighbor had set up a pig farm, but had also kept the sign on which one could still read the words: “The Velocipedist Social Club.” The pig farmer hadn’t even bothered to take the sign down when he purchased the property from Mr. Garcia at a bargain price, including the barn shed and its contents: twelve folding chairs, two tables, a chest to store books and file folders, a box with several dozen blank membership cards and a lovely blackboard that preserved the written vestiges of Garcia’s failure.

Years passed, and when the velocipede had become but a distant memory (and even that only in the minds of a very few) an especially dry summer with extremely high temperatures was visited on the town. The bog at the bottom of the Barranca of the Spirits saw its waters retreat, and concentric circles of mud served as recorded testimony of its shrinking, until its very bottom was transformed into a great big plate of cracked porcelain. Little by little, the townspeople, with a mix of curiosity and compassion, approached the bog and lowered themselves onto the brittle surface to get a closer look at a rusted skeleton with shriveled lichen for hair. It was as if evidence of the legendary specters had been revealed and only one person did not go to see it.


Translated by Dario Bard from an unpublished manuscript titled “Club Social de Velocipedistas” provided by the author.

Norberto Luis Romero is a short story writer and novelist, and also a director and professor of cinema. He was born in Lanus, a suburb of the City of Buenos Aires, and was raised in the Province of Cordoba. In 1975 he relocated to Spain where he lived until 2013, when he moved to Germany.

Norberto Luis Romero’s short stories have received critical acclaim and have been published in periodicals, anthologies and literary magazines in several languages throughout the Americas and Europe. His published stories have been translated into English by H.E. Francis. Two short story collections featuring H.E. Francis’ translations are available from Amazon: The Last Night of Carnival & Other Stories and The Arrival of Autumn in Constantinople and Other Stories. Since 2010, Norberto Luis Romero has dedicated himself to creating graphic art with photographic collages.

More information is available at his website.

At the launch of Norberto Luis Romero’s most recent novel, El lado oculto de la noche (2012), the Spanish poet Jesús Urceloy spoke of and with the author. See video (in Spanish):

“The Contest” by Liliana Heker

Download pdf: The Contest

The contest, said the woman from the bank, would be open only to local bank employees and their families; he would certainly discover, she assured him, some shoo-ins among them. Remus’ mind lingered on the word “shoo-in.” When he was a boy, his parents bought him shoes that were too big for him, and he had to use inserts until his feet grew into them, sorry? I was saying that you will find Professor Lusarreta of invaluable assistance, said the woman. Ah, yes, he said, and thought melancholically of how old and worn his shoes got by the time they did fit him. It will be most inspiring for the writers at the bank, said the woman. Remus figured that in the world of the living, there couldn’t be more than fifteen short story writers worth reading; it was improbable that the banking sector of a seaside town—family included—would harbor even one of them, but given the state of depression he found himself in lately, the woman’s offer didn’t seem all that bad: roundtrip deluxe bus service, his honorarium and a three-day hotel stay. The idea of looking out to sea for hours, getting drunk off the pendular roar of the breakers until his soul dissolved and the tribulations of heartbreak and failure were reduced to what they really were—a drop in the universe—made a few days of reading bad writing seem worthwhile, and so he said yes, he’d accept.

St Ives

St. Ives, Herbert Barnard John Everett, 1935. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The box arrived two weeks later. It was bigger than he had imagined, and so for days he couldn’t work himself up to opening it. He glanced at the package as if it were an object of guilt, and promised himself that any day now he would call the woman from the bank and tell her, under some pretext, that it was impossible for him to judge the contest. He knew he would never actually do it, but the mere possibility offered relief. Professor Lusarreta’s call caught him off guard. She was loquacious and expressed her enormous confidence in his criteria; in fact, it had been she herself who insisted that she shouldn’t serve as co-judge, but rather as an auxiliary genius (tee hee) to the sage; after all, what could she, a simple professor, contribute to the opinion of someone of his stature? He found her disarming and was soon agreeing with the professor that the submitted material showed some highly promising signs; what diversity, what uncharted worlds could be revealed by a writer of no renown, what crap was he saying? Was he so starved for faith, even if borrowed from someone else, that he was capable of acting contemptibly in order to keep it alive? When he hung up, it was clear there was no turning back. He walked over to the box as if he were inflicting some form of self-punishment, but he didn’t open it right away. He looked at it, afraid, waiting for some cataclysmic event to free him of the commitment. Finally, cursing himself under his breath, he got some scissors and cut the packing twine.

This was no small feat. For the past several years, he required colossal effort even for the smallest of actions. He lived with drawers stuffed with papers that he didn’t have the energy to go through, clothes in jumbled piles made the mere act of dressing himself a nightmare, the bookcase was invaded by books he didn’t want but couldn’t bring himself to throw away, along with misplaced beloved books he was incapable of returning to their proper place. Now this is a big problem, he said to himself on several occasions, paralyzed in the act of searching for a certain book, looking at the disordered mess like a mountain that he would never dare climb: when chaos interferes with the only thing one cares about, it’s time to hang up the gloves. But that wasn’t an option. He didn’t even have gloves to hang up, or a towel to throw in. He only had this thing languishing inside him, dying so gradually as to be invisible to others, and so women from banks and Lusarretas of all stripes continued calling on him in the name of who-knows-what past glory, and he didn’t even have the energy to say no.

Reading the stories is worse than I had anticipated, he wrote on the back of one form, a poison of stupefying effect that I can only neutralize by plunging myself up to my nuts in Stendhal (he had taken to doing that in recent years: immersing himself in the re-reading of certain authors as if looking for some solid footing while the world collapsed under his feet). What motivates them to take the trouble? Do any of them really think they can write a page of something worthwhile? He thought that it would be possible to come up with a story based on characters like these contestants: puerile and devoid of charm, but fully believing in themselves. He suspected mischievously, however, that it wouldn’t be he who would write it—not that story or any other—because, coincidentally, he had lost all confidence in his own way with words. Had he ever really had it in the first place, or was it all a dream? Or was it one of the many excesses of his greener years?

He read with care and grief, sloshing for days through insipid episodes and trite adventures, taking the phone calls of Professor Lusarreta, anxious to exchange impressions with him, and the woman from the bank, desperate to print the award certificates. And he prepared them for the idea that maybe the material didn’t lend itself to honorable mentions … or even to a runner up; that in order to add prestige to the contest, only excellence should be recognized, didn’t they agree? And they agreed with whatever he thought was best, of course, as long as he made his decision in time for the certificates to be printed; there was a lot of excitement about the contest in town, did Remus realize it? Remus said he did and promised that yes, he’d have a decision in time. He certainly didn’t lack motivation: he needed to liberate himself of that nightmare—he felt that for the past week, he’d done nothing but read hogwash—and, above all else, he needed to find a passable story submission to justify his trip to the sea. Without a winning story, there would be no trip, he understood, and he needed the sea; the more the task of reading wore him down, the more he hung his hopes on that trip to the sea. Perhaps, in that peaceful place, away from everything that tormented him, that something which seemed dead inside him could come alive again.

Maybe it was that desire for the sea or a passing attack of benevolence, or maybe it was that the virtues, modest though they were, were real. Whatever the case, with only three or four stories to go, he came across one that he deemed acceptable. It was nothing out of this world, but at least it had a plot, the rough framework of a structure and a premise less uninteresting than the others. He quickly verified that the remaining stories didn’t offer anything better and called Professor Lusarreta. He explained, with an eloquence that was impossible to refute (that was one thing he still did very well), the distance that existed between this story and the others, and a short while later, he felt he had earned the pleasure of curling up in bed with The Red and the Black.

Two days later, after a pleasant trip on a bus with fully reclining seats, he arrived at the sea. He was only able to give it a quick look, however, because he had just enough time to get to his hotel, shower and dress for the awards ceremony. He had worked out the agenda with the woman from the bank the day before. Won’t the ceremony be a bit poor with just one award? asked the woman. By no means, replied Remus, and he thought that it didn’t much matter; he couldn’t imagine more than twenty people, if even that many, showing up for what the woman called the “ceremony.” He promised to first make brief introductory remarks explaining the contest’s rules, and then announce the winner, pointing out the story’s virtues; after that, the author would be invited on stage, handed the first prize certificate and … (he dithered, realizing that the event really was quite poor; fortunately, however, ever since he had finished reading through the entries, he had been feeling inspired) … and then the winning author would be asked to read his story, he concluded brightly. The plan seemed to comfort the woman from the bank and now Remus walked toward the Association building, promising himself that as soon as the event was over (it couldn’t last more than an hour), he’d go for a walk along the coast before sitting down to dinner. He thought his game plan—wrap up the event, walk by the sea, dinner—quite delightful. He felt light and jovial.

He arrived punctually at the Association. In the lobby, the woman from the bank, Professor Lusarreta and other bank officials were there to greet him. He was unusually friendly; he realized he was in a good mood for the first time in ages.

It wasn’t until the woman from the bank said they should go inside that he noticed all the people; they were pouring inside the building, the men wearing ties and the women dressed as if for a gala. There must be some sort of special performance, he thought, but as soon as he was led through a curtain, he realized he was on the stage of an auditorium and that the people in their Sunday best were filing into the seats. He was seated between the woman from the bank and Professor Lusarreta. By the time the bank manager began to speak, there wasn’t an empty seat. The manager’s tone was formal and moving. Remus easily fazed out the words (it was a well-practiced skill of his) and busied his mind with speculations about what could have brought such a large audience to such an insipid event. Perhaps the prize-winner was a very popular guy, he thought, although he didn’t find the possibility very convincing. Now Professor Lusarreta was speaking. Of the honor it was for her to assist someone as blah blah blah as he, and that she was like an ant helping—an elephant crossed Remus’ mind, and he wanted to laugh wildly and also write about all this because suddenly the world became an absurd and surprising place, set before his eyes so that he might tell others about it; how long had it been since he had felt that wonderful sensation?—and that, with a figure as celebrated and blah blah blah as his, what could she possibly add. It was best if she put an end to the great suspense and handed the microphone over to Remus for him to announce the results of this laudable contest that had far surpassed the expectations of their dear banking family. Applause.

Remus started off diplomatically; he spoke of the ponderable number of entries, of the effort that that must have implied for every contestant, and of what a good sign it was for such a small community to have so many people who wrote. Then he explained why, although the original rules said otherwise, the judges (he felt like the Sun King) had decided to award a single prize. He spoke of Maupassant, of Poe, of Quiroga, of epiphanies and loaded guns, of the terror or beauty that any minor incident can convey. And something that exceeded the vicissitudes of that contest began to grow inside him, something like passion which he, at that very moment, swore to nurture so that it would not die but instead grow and multiply, and. He abruptly came down from these inspired heights and named the winner. The applause was less enthusiastic than expected. The winning author walked up on stage (he was a rather young man), the bank manager handed him the first place certificate and an envelope, and Remus invited him to read his story. It was a bit tiresome for him to hear it recited in full, but he found comfort in thinking of it as the final act of his obligations.

When the prize winner finished reading his story, Remus’ applause was genuinely enthusiastic. That impeded him from recalling, a moment later, if the audience had also applauded. He was rising up from his seat when a man from the audience said stiffly:

“I demand an explanation.”

“Excuse me … ?” said Remus.

“I said I demand an explanation as to why that story won first prize.”

“Well,” said Remus with a short laugh, “it’s clear that if it won first prize, it’s because it was the best, right?”

“That remains to be seen,” said another voice from the audience. It wasn’t the same man who had spoken previously.

“Excuse me,” Remus said again, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“If you don’t understand,” said a woman with a high-pitched voice, “I’d like to know what makes you think you’re qualified to judge this contest.”

Remus sat down in his chair again. He saw the prize-winning author discreetly leave the stage.

“Ma’am, let me inform you that it’s not that one thinks he or she is qualified to judge,” said Remus, taking great pains not to lose his patience. “One is invited to judge.” With a sweep of his arm, he indicated the woman from the bank. But she looked at him anxiously, as if pinning her hopes on Remus to resolve this unexpected turn of events.

“Well, how about that. So the gentleman was invited,” said the man who first spoke up; he was standing now. He turned around with his arm extended, appealing to the audience for support. “But, you know what? If it were me,” he continued, pounding his chest, “if I were invited to a crocodile breeding congress, you know what I’d say?” Pause, dramatic effect. “I’d say no!”

An enthusiastic round of applause. A good number of other audience members now stood up. Some shouted.

Remus felt an unbearable desire to wrap his hands around the man’s neck and squeeze and squeeze until no sound could be heard coming out of his mouth. Instead, he asked:

“Would someone care to tell me what the problem is?”

“The problem, sir,” said a man whose voice was heard over the crowd and who lifted an admonishing finger (Why don’t you stick that finger up your ass? thought Remus), “is that I’m not leaving without an explanation that validates why that story that was read aloud is better than mine.”

Same here! Same here! was heard from all corners of the auditorium.

Finally Remus understood what was happening and why so many people had come to the event: all the contestants had been invited without being told who the winner was, and each one of them had come, with their supporters, certain that they had won.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a tone that he felt was persuasive, “it just so happens that literature is not an exact science; there are various imponderables that make … ”

“Imponderables my ass!” said a woman. “Tell me this instant why my story didn’t win.”

Remus looked around desperately for the woman from the bank, but she was no longer on stage and nowhere to be seen in the audience. Professor Lusarreta, on the other hand, was still there, looking out into space with a catatonic expression on her face.

“You must realize, ma’am, that I can’t possibly have the slightest idea of which story was yours.”

“It’s the one about the woman who is fed up with her husband’s … ”

“Ma’am, there were one hundred and forty three submissions; you must see that I couldn’t possibly recall the details of all of them.”

“Then I’ll read it to you; I have it here with me,” she said, holding up some sheets of paper.

“I want to read mine, too!” said a very short man.

Other voices were raised. Among them was heard the voice of the man with the admonishing finger.

“I have the solution!” he said. An expectant silence fell over the crowd. “Let’s all read our stories aloud and decide publicly which is best.”

The auditorium howled in approval: Yes! Right on!

These people are crazy, thought Remus. Right then, Professor Lusarreta whispered timidly in his ear:

“I don’t believe there’s any other option.”

“You’re as crazy as they are,” said Remus. He slammed his fist on the table. “I don’t have to explain myself to anyone!” he shouted. “I’m the judge and the judge’s decision is final!”

“A perfect fool,” said a teenager. “That’s what you are.”

It felt as if a dagger had stabbed him in the heart. That teenager was now making her way out of the auditorium and she would always harbor the memory of that clownish declaration of his.

“Don’t leave,” he said. “Please, don’t leave without hearing what I have to say.”

And he explained blindly, almost as if he were confessing, that he didn’t feel, he had never felt, that he had the right to judge anyone but himself, and it was that, that fierceness with which he judged himself when it came to something he considered noble and beautiful, and the fastidiousness he felt when too many words were written for nothing, that had impeded him from writing a single page, and perhaps authorized him to be implacable with his fellow writers.

But the teenager was no longer there. Only the enraged crowd, shouting: He feels he has no right to judge anyone but he judges us! He’s a failure! Let’s read our stories under his nose so that the truth can finally be known!

A woman stood up with the intent of reading. Various others shouted: Me next! And waved their pages in the air.

My God, I don’t deserve this, thought Remus. And at the same time he thought that maybe he did, because of his arrogance and his pride, because he thought he had the right to speak in the name of a noble and beautiful art form that he could never achieve.

He looked over and saw that Professor Lusarreta had gone. Let them read to the devil, he murmured, as for me, I’m not putting up with this. And with surprising agility, he jumped off the stage intending to escape.

He didn’t get very far. Someone seized him by the lapels and prevented him from fleeing; someone else punched him in the solar plexus. As he fell, he saw an infuriated horde of authors, all thinking highly of themselves, pounce on him, hungry for fame and glory.

La muerte de dios by liliana heker

Translated by Dario Bard from “El concurso” as printed in La muerte de Dios, published by Alfaguara, 2011, available from Amazon.  

Liliana Heker is a novelist, short story writer and essayist from the City of Buenos Aires. Her distinguished professional writing career began at the age of 17. She has won several awards and was a founding member of two of Argentina’s most influential literary magazines, El Escarabajo de Oro (1961-1974) and Ornitorrinco (1977-1986). Heker is also well known for her literary workshops, which have been attended by several critically acclaimed writers.

Practically all of her short stories have been translated into English by Alberto Manguel. The Stolen Party and Other Stories, a short story collection translated by Manguel, is available at Amazon. “The Stolen Party,” a translation of Heker’s short story, “La fiesta ajena,” is available online from the Syracuse City School District. The End of the Story, a translation of her novel Fin de la historia, is also available from Amazon. Yale University Press is presently planning an English-language collection of Heker’s short stories.

Liliana Heker was interviewed on the Argentine public television program, Los 7 locos, on November 24, 2011. Watch the interview (in Spanish) below:

“Proof of Innocence” by Andrés Neuman

Download pdf: Proof of Innocence

Yes. I like being interrogated by the police. We all need for them to verify our innocence, to confirm that we have paid our dues and can move along. That’s why I love feeling like I’m beyond reproach and demonstrating how well-mannered I am, convincing them that it wasn’t me.


“We are here to look after you.” Photo courtesy of Buenos Aires Street Art.

One drives without thinking about it, letting oneself go, just like others go through life unaware of it. I find peace in the obedience of the steering wheel, the naturalness of the pedals, the breathing of the gears. And while I handle them all, or rather allow them to handle themselves, I think of the police, of when they’ll stop me again and verify that, yes, I’m on the straight and narrow, that I really am a good citizen. Ah! The wide open road.

Suddenly, two officers signal me to pull over. It’s not an easy maneuver because I just started to accelerate in the left lane coming out of a curve. Making sure to avoid any sudden move that might startle the drivers around me and—Why not admit it?—showcasing my skillful driving, I glide onto the right lane and come to a gentle stop on the shoulder. The officers imitate my maneuver, their motorcycles tilting to the side as they come to a standstill. Both wear white-and-blue checkered helmets. Both wear boots that pound the pavement forcefully. Both are properly armed. One is wide of girth and carries himself upright. The other is tall and walks stooped over.

“License and registration,” says the wide one.

“Sure, right away,” I reply.

I hand over my documentation: license and registration. I identify myself.

“Aha,” opines the tall one, examining my documentation.

“Yes …?” I ask with eager interest.

“Aha!” confirms the wide one energetically.

“So …?”

“Yes, all good.”

“Everything in order, then?”

“Like we just said, sir: all good.”

“In other words, my documentation is free of any irregularities.”

“Irregularities? What do you mean?”

“Ah, well, officer, just asking. I understand then, or should I say, you understand then that there isn’t any reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to move along.”

The officers glance at each other, with a certain degree of suspicion in their eyes, I’d say.

“You’ll move along when we tell you to,” says the wide one.

“Naturally,” I immediately reply. “Naturally.”

“Ok, then …”

They seem doubtful.

“Yes? …” I decide to be helpful. “Perhaps you have some more questions for me? Or maybe you’d care to have a look in the trunk … ?”

“Listen here,” says the wide one, “don’t tell us what to do!”

The tall one lifts his head up like a turtle contemplating the sun for the very first time, and hooks a hand around his partner’s arm, trying to calm him down.

“And you! Let go of me!” says the wide one. “Or are we now going to have to inspect whatever this guy tells us to?”

“By all means, officer, by all means,” I interject. “It’s clear you both know exactly what you must do. The last thing I would dream of doing …”

“The last thing for what? What are you insinuating?”

“Nothing, officer, nothing. I’m only trying to collaborate.”

“Well, don’t collaborate so much. It isn’t necessary.”

“As you wish, officer.”

“That’s better,” says the wide one, pleased.

“At your orders,” I add.

“Ok, ok!”

“Do whatever you feel the situation calls for. I’m in no rush, so you can relax.”

“We are relaxed. We are always relaxed, I’ll have you know.”

“Of course! I never doubted it.”

The wide one looks over at the tall one. The tall one, his head drooping, remains quiet.

“Are you joking or what?” asks the wide one.

“Me, officer?”

“No. My paralytic grandmother.”

“Heavens, officer! I applaud your sense of humor.”

“Turn around,” the wide one orders brusquely.

“How’s that, officer?”

“Turn around, I said.” And then, addressing the tall one, “I don’t like this guy one bit.”

“I assure you, officers, I understand your position completely,” I say, a bit nervously. “I know that you are only trying to protect us and I accept that that requires you to frisk me …”

“Hands on the vehicle.”

“Yes, officer.”

“Spread your legs wide.”

“Yes, officer.”

“And shut your mouth.”

“Yes, officer.”

The wide one, apparently quick to anger, knees me powerfully in the ribs, and I feel a ring of fire flare up inside me.

“I told you to shut up, imbecile.”

I’m frisked. Then the two officers distance themselves a few meters. They converse. I hear a phrase here and there. The chassis of my automobile begins to burn the palms of my hands. The sun beams strike me like spears.

“What do you think?” I hear the wide one say. “Should we check the trunk?”

I’m unable to make out the tall one’s reply, but I deduce that he responded in the affirmative because, almost immediately, I see, out of the corner of my eye, the wide one open the trunk and begin to roughly rummage about inside. He throws my backpack to the ground. My toolbox, too. My warning lights. A football that bounces down the highway. The officers carry out their duties with meticulous thoroughness.

“There’s nothing here,” says the wide one with a hint of annoyance. “Should we check inside?”

Immediately, they both enter my vehicle and inspect the seats, the upholstery, the glove compartment, and the ashtrays. They make a mess of it. I dare, for the first time, to interject a timid objection:

“Excuse me, officers, but is such emphasis necessary?”

The wide one crawls out of the car, shoots me look and then jabs his nightstick between my shoulder blades. For an instant, I feel like I’m floating. I fall to my knees.

“What do you have to say now, eh? What do you have to say?” the wide one barks in my ear.

“I assure you, officer,” I stammer, “I have nothing to hide.”

“Oh, no?”



“I said no!”

“Don’t talk back to me, then!” the wide one screams, giving me a sharp kick to the buttocks. “I know all about scoundrels like you: I have a sixth sense that never fails me. You pretend to be all proper but you are nothing but a fraudster.”

“Officer, I assure you in all honesty …”

“Shut up, you son of a bitch!” the wide one yells again. This time, though, he doesn’t hit me.

Automobiles continue to speed by us like the wind. All the while, the tall one continues going through my car silently.

“Aha!” the tall one suddenly calls out enthusiastically; his voice sounds oddly high-pitched to me. “Check this out,” he says, handing his partner the briefcase with the company’s monthly bills.

“Where did you find it?”

“Under the front passenger seat.”

“What is it? Open it. Can’t you? Give it to me. It must be one of those with a combination.” And, after trying to force it open, he exclaims: “Like I said. You think you’re so smart.”

I would more than gladly tell him the combination; inside there are simply routine accounting documents. But at this point, I’m too terrified to open my mouth.

“Let’s arrest him,” suggests the tall one. “We’ll open the briefcase down at the station.”

The wide one begins to slowly handcuff me.

“Officers, you’re making a mistake!” I say in a last ditch effort. “I don’t have a prior record. I’m not up to no good. I’m inoffensive. I’m like anyone else.”

“We’ll see about that, smart guy,” says the tall one.

They force me into the backseat of my car. They remain outside and call someone on their radio. My shoulders hurt. My head aches, also. There’s a burning sensation in my ribs. A nasal voice is heard over the radio. I don’t like this at all. The automobiles continue zipping past like the wind. I’m unsure if I should say something. In the distance, I hear the sound of my football bursting.


Translated by Dario Bard from “La Prueba de Inocencia” as printed in Alumbramiento, published by Páginas de Espuma, 2006, available from Amazon.

Andrés Neuman is a writer, poet and translator born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and presently residing in Granada, Spain. He has been recognized by the Hay Festival and Granta magazine as one of the best young Spanish-language writers of his generation; he also contributed several English-language columns for Granta. He has written several short story and poetry collections, as well as a number of prize-winning novels, the latest of which has been translated into English and is available from Amazon.com under the title Traveler of the Century. The blog Work in Progress includes a translation by Richard Gwyn of a Neuman short story, “Mother Backwards.”       

More information available at Andrés Neuman’s official website and on a Facebook fan page. He also frequently posts new material at his blog, Microrréplicas.

In addition to Gwyn’s translation, the blog Work in Progress includes an interesting English-language interview with Neuman in which he discusses his latest novel, Traveler of the Century, and which I have taken the liberty of reposting below: 

“Natalia Franz” by Edgardo Cozarinsky

Download pdf: Natalia Franz

Viviremos los dos el cuarto de hora
de la danza nostálgica y maligna.
(…) Placer de dioses, baile perverso
El tango es rito y es religión.

Frollo & Randle, “Danza Maligna”

I had been observing her for some time. Openly at first, not hiding my fascination with her face, which appeared to be designed by scalpel. Later, my glances were furtive; I was afraid that my staring would make her uncomfortable, although she seemed not to notice.

When she was invited out on the dance floor, however, I felt free to unabashedly admire her tall, slender figure, the elegant casualness of her movements, the grace with which she held her head high on a delicate neck that was revealed and then concealed by her ash-blond hair as it bobbed to the rhythm of the music. But it was her face, barely corrected with makeup, that caught my eye; there were traces of where the artificial merged with the monstrous, resulting unexpectedly in a sort of Medusa-like beauty (as Praz would put it): sunken eyes that seemed to have awakened in skin other than the one they were born in; cheekbones and arches over the eyebrows that were overly pronounced, as if sculpted from non-malleable material; full but swollen-looking lips that lacked the sensuality that plastic surgery promises.


          Photo courtesy of Flor de Milonga.

I watched her slowly sip her champagne. She didn’t pay much attention to those around her and was always accompanied by a young girl with plain looks and a timid smile, irreparably devoid of any charm, of that glimmer of mystery that makes many non-pretty women attractive. I was reminded—an old reader of James never sleeps—of “The Beldonald Holbein,” that story wherein Lady Beldonald, a mature beauty who thinks herself clever, seeks to enliven her waning looks by having a wrinkled old lady, marked by misfortune, accompany her at social events. Her artist friends, fascinated by a face that looks as if it came straight out of a Holbein, only have eyes for her companion and soon recruit her as a model. Lady Beldonald learns her lesson: the following season, she appears in London accompanied by a young, not particularly ugly, but dreadfully dull girl.

Had the object of my curiosity perhaps arrived at a similar conclusion?

One night we were seated at neighboring tables. I thought I knew how to mask my curiosity, but eventually she caught me with my eyes fixated on that surgical achievement framed by her straight, loose hair. She didn’t seem annoyed; on the contrary, she gave a hint of a smile.

“You know who I am, don’t you?”

Confused, and surprised by my own indiscretion, I heard a timely response come out of my mouth almost immediately that I did not believe myself capable of.

“Yes, but I didn’t dare think it was really you.”

Her smile became evident and I felt I ought to invite her to dance. I believe the DJ played Fresedo’s “Vida Mía.” She was exceedingly light in my arms and effortlessly resolved, without reproach, the indecisive steps that, in my awkwardness, I could not avoid. It was the last tango in a set, and when it was over, we returned to our tables. At that moment, a man approached to greet her. That intrusion allowed me to slip away.

At the door, I ran into the Turk, his jaw made restless by a toothless mouth, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his thinning gray hair tied with a rubber band at the nape. I asked him if he knew the woman I had danced with.

“How’s that? Don’t you remember her?”

He summed up the brief but (un)spectacular career of Natalia Franz, the sex kitten who, over the course of various burlesque theater seasons and supposedly humorous television programs, was undressed and lustily pursued by aging and obese comedians. She did not seem destined for bigger and better things when a motorcycle accident left her disfigured. Eight surgeries in two years produced the miracle that had captivated my eyes: a face that was designed, lifeless, where only the splendor of sunken but aware eyes revealed the existence of a living being behind the frozen, donned mask.

To show the Turk my appreciation for this information, I felt obliged to buy a gram off him. I followed him into the Men’s room to occult a transaction that everyone knew was the only reason for the Turk’s presence at the milonga. Offered the regular stuff and what he called his Gold stash, I opted for the former, at half the price of the latter; the poor quality of the product the Turk distributed did not justify extravagance. And besides, it had been two years since I last had any. Out on the sidewalk, I gave the baggie to the parking lot attendant, an unlikely consumer, but a possible reseller.

*  * *

A few days later, I related the episode to Flavia Costa.

“It must have been someone else. I remember Franz. She died on the operating table years ago. The anesthesia was too much for her.”

The next time I saw her, she was dancing with a man of indeterminate age, a toupee propped on the remains of his own hair, which was dyed that shade of black that, by contrast, highlighted his dry, furrowed skin, from which hair so shiny, so well irrigated, could not possibly grow. The vanity that I find acceptable in women always seems pathetic to me when it is practiced by men: no doubt a sign of archaic sexism. I should clarify: pathetic in men of a certain age, who out of vanity attempt to shave off years; in young men, I find the uneven locks of hair dyed in synthetic colors and the metallic objects incrusted in ears and cheeks to be amusing.

It was my observations of that old man’s disguise that made me notice an aspect of the public that had escaped my attention until then. Most of the women were heavily made-up, their faces covered by colorful crusts, their hair immobilized in highly stylized constructions or burnt in a confusion of miniature curls. The excessive exterior traits of femininity made them look like transvestites and did not endow them, by any means, with any semblance of youth. Many of the men had extended the use of hair dye to their eyebrows and mustaches, abandoning their skin to an almost mortuary-like paleness. I thought of the treatment given to cadavers in U.S. funeral services: a varnish that, far from simulating a blissful sleep, suggests the emotionless expressiveness of a wax museum dummy. Compared to these masks, Natalia Franz’s plastic surgery, I told myself, belonged in a class entirely its own: an artificiality that was brutal, but also almost ascetic. It grabbed my attention, in a most morbid way, no doubt, whereas the faces of the others made me turn away sharply, in whatever direction, as if out of fear of contagion.

Funeral services … I believe it was when those words popped into my mind that I was overcome with indescribable queasiness, an object-less fear. I went out into the street, where some venerable couples were smoking cigarettes, which were banned inside. Out from under the milonga’s complicit lighting, the crudeness of those laborious masks was underscored by streetlamps. One of the women smiled at me without parting her lips, as if she didn’t wish to reveal some dental disaster; perhaps, like the Turk, she didn’t believe in the benefits of false teeth. I walked away without looking back, turned on Acevedo and walked down to Córdoba.

At the time, I was working on an idea suggested to me by a friend who was also a filmmaker; the goal was to write a script. The Chinese, he told me, don’t wish to die abroad; they fear that if they do, there will be no rest for their souls. A group of elderly Chinese, sensing the end is near, pool together their modest savings to hire a boat to take them from San Francisco to Canton or Taipei. (A boat … a romantic but anachronistic idea. Wouldn’t it be easier to charter a plane in this day and age? I also had my doubts about San Francisco, with its very famous Chinatown. Why not, say, Lima?) The group is tricked by the captain and his crew, who abandon them in a port, any will do, maybe in Hawaii. When they discover they’ve been duped, some die of distress. A young sailor, who played no part in the deceit perpetrated by his superiors, rises up to the occasion and redeems the situation, acquiring a fistful of symbolic Chinese soil, dug up from the gardens of the Chinese consulate, so that each member of the group can lay his head on a mound of native soil when he feels the end is upon him.

The idea appealed to me, just as all irrational things that guide human behavior appeal to me, but I didn’t see how that ending could be adapted to film. It worked well in a story, but it would be difficult to give the scene impact on the big screen. And so it occurred to me to suggest to my friend a story that had nothing to do with China: the story of two elderly milongueros, who are blessed upon their deaths with a milonga in the afterlife, where they spend all eternity, happily consecrated to the ritual they dedicated themselves to in life. Later I understood that this idea, if not born out of my experiences in Villa Crespo, was at least nourished by them. The final scene would be the sudden realization on the part of an observer, who believed he had discovered the milonga by chance, that he, too, was dead. My friend was unconvinced:

“Could you possibly think of anything more morbid?”

In any case, Natalia Franz was alive. The day after I danced with her, the scent of her subtle, floral perfume remained on my right cheek. I wondered what she looked like during the day, beyond the filtered, honey-colored light of that small milonga. Perhaps she didn’t expose herself to sunlight … although for a week the sun had been hidden by more or less continuous cloud cover. Where did she live? Her name, probably a pseudonym, did not appear in the phone book. I distracted myself, entertained myself with these idle questions while I postponed my search for a novel, visually powerful finale for my friend’s film idea.

One night I returned to the milonga in Villa Crespo without much enthusiasm, without much faith in the possibility of seeing that manufactured face. I thought I recognized the same old cast, or another undistinguishable from it. Standing by the bar, I watched the dancers for a while. Next to me, the DJ scorned the use of a laptop like the one I saw Boggio use in Canning; he hadn’t even progressed to magnetic tape, instead handling with surprising skill a collection of LPs that he spun on two turntables.

I searched vainly for Natalia Franz in the crowd. I was about to give up and leave when I recognized her in a corner under the half-light with her usual, almost invisible companion. I hadn’t seen her come in and I could have sworn that when I glanced at that table just a few moments earlier, there was no one there. I decided on a direct approach.

“When we danced last week, your perfume stayed with me for several days. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the scent of a flower … what is it?”

She laughed gently.

“Because of that perfume, my friends call me Narda.”

We danced to Troilo’s “La Bordona.” At some point, my eyes, alertly avoiding collisions with the other couples on the small dance floor, collided instead with our reflection in the mirror. I recognized Natalia Franz, or the woman I believed to be her, but the man dancing with her looked like a caricature of what I believed myself to be. Was it possible that I had aged so, that my figure (not very elegant, I knew) was actually so unappealing? I turned away, like I had the night before when a smile was directed at me on the sidewalk. At the corner table under the half-light, I thought I saw another smile, conspiratorial, with a hint of mockery, on the face of Natalia’s young companion, as if she had guessed what I was then feeling.

I don’t remember under what pretense I left the milonga and quickly distanced myself from Villa Crespo. I called Flavia on my cellphone and again told her what had happened to me.

“Be careful. You might end up trapped in your own fiction. Let me get dressed and I’ll meet you. Today is Thursday. Let’s go to Niño Bien.”

I waited for her at the door of Club Leonés on Humberto Primo, where the second floor comes alive every Thursday with one of my favorite milongas. Before Flavia arrived to rescue me from what she had called my own fiction, I told myself that it was best to put my adventurous days behind me. I was no longer so young as to allow myself to become fascinated with phantoms and the arcane. From then on, I would limit myself to my favorite milongas, to dancing with friends, to forgetting about the dangerous mysteries and bad literature that lie in wait along poorly lit streets and tiny dance floors. If they were trying to tell me something, I prefer to ignore them until the day comes when I no longer can.

That night, Flavia and I stayed till the last dance.


Translated by Dario Bard from “Milonga sin nombre: la resurrección” as printed in Milongas, published by Edhasa, 2007, available from Amazon. The story was later reprinted in Pagina 12 with the title “Natalia Franz,” used here at the author’s request.

Edgardo Cozarinsky is a writer, filmmaker and playwright from the City of Buenos Aires. He began his career as an essayist and filmmaker. In 1974, with the country showing early signs of the political repression that was to worsen soon thereafter, he relocated to Paris where he published Urban Voodoo in 1985, a short story collection recounting his experiences as a self-exile. Other published works available in English include Borges in/and/on Film, The Bride from Odessa and The Moldavian Pimp, all of which are available from Amazon

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construcción, Edgardo Cozarinsky discussed his life and his work (in Spanish):
Part 1

Part 2

“Black Holes” by Samanta Schweblin

Download pdf: Black Holes

Dr. Ottone halts in the corridor and begins to balance on the balls of his feet, very slowly at first, with his eyes fixed on one of the hospital’s black and white floor tiles, and so Dr. Ottone is thinking. Then he makes up his mind, returns to his office, switches on the lights, leaves his things on the couch and rummages through the papers on his desk until he finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file, and so Dr. Ottone is preoccupied with a certain case and has determined to resolve it, to find an answer or, at the very least, to refer the patient to another doctor, for instance, Dr. Messina. He opens the file, looks for a specific page, finds it and reads: “… Black holes. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like, you’re here, and then suddenly you’re at home, in bed, with your pajamas on, and you know for certain that you haven’t locked up the office or turned off the lights or traveled the distance you had to travel to get home; what’s more, you haven’t even seen me off. So, how could you possibly find yourself in bed with your pj’s on? Well, that’s an empty space, a black hole is what I say, zero hour, whatever you want to call it. What else could it be? …”   

Samanta Schweblin Black Holes Agujeros Negros

“Empty Hallway of Hospital,” photograph from 10Wallpaper.com.

Dr. Ottone returns the page to the file, picks up his things, switches off the lights, locks up his office and sets off to see Dr. Messina, whom he is certain to find at this hour. Ottone does indeed find Messina, but asleep on his desk and with a statuette in his hand. He awakens him and hands Messina Mrs. Fritchs’ file. Messina, still half asleep, asks himself, or asks Dr. Ottone, why he has awoken with a statuette in his hand. With a shrug, Ottone conveys that he does not know. Messina opens his desk drawer and offers Ottone a cookie, a cookie that Ottone accepts. Messina opens the file.

“Turn to page 15,” says Ottone.

Messina flips through the file, finds page 15 and reads it carefully. Ottone waits expectantly. When Messina has finished reading, Ottone asks his opinion.

“You believe this, Ottone?”

“The business about black holes?”

“What is it we are talking about?”

And so Ottone recalls Messina’s habit of replying only with questions, and this makes him nervous.

“We’re talking about black holes, Messina …”

“And you believe this business, Ottone?”

“No. You?”

Messina opens his desk drawer again.

“Another cookie, Ottone?”

Ottone takes the cookie Messina offers him.

“Do you believe it or don’t you?” insists Ottone.

“Do I know this Mrs. … ?”

“… Fritchs, Mrs. Fritchs. No, I don’t believe you do. She’s only been to see me twice and this is her first treatment.”

Someone knocks on the office door and peers inside. Ottone recognizes the janitor and asks:

“What is it, Sanchez?”

The janitor explains that Mrs. Fritchs is waiting for Dr. Ottone in the floor’s main hall. Messina reminds the janitor that it’s ten at night and the janitor explains that Mrs. Fritchs refuses to leave.

“She’s sitting in the hall in her pajamas and says she isn’t going anywhere without seeing Dr. Ottone. What do you want me to do?”

“Why didn’t you bring her, then?” asks Messina as he studies the statuette.

“Bring her here? Or to Dr. Ottone’s office?”

“What did I just ask you?”

“Why I didn’t bring her.”

“Bring her where, Sanchez?”


“And where is here?”

“Your office, doctor.”

“Where should you bring her, then, Sanchez?”

“Your office, doctor.”

Sanchez bows slightly, excuses himself and retires. Ottone looks at Messina, Messina whose jaw is pressing his lower row of teeth into his upper row of teeth, and so Ottone is nervous and still waits for Messina’s answer, Messina, the doctor who begins gathering up his things and arranging the papers on his desk.

“Are you leaving?”

“Do you need me for something?”

“At least give me your opinion, tell me what you think should be done. Why not see her yourself?”

Messina, already at the door of his office, halts and looks back at Ottone with a slight, barely noticeable, grin.

“What difference is there between Mrs. Fritchs and your other patients?”

Ottone intends to respond, and so he begins to raise his index finger from its resting place to bring it level with his head, but he thinks better of it. And so Ottone’s index finger remains at waist level, neither signifying nor indicating anything in particular.

“What are you afraid of, Ottone?” asks Messina, and he exits, closing the door behind him and leaving Ottone alone with his index finger slowly descending until it hangs from his arm. At that precise moment, Mrs. Fritchs enters. Mrs. Fritchs is wearing light blue pajamas with white trimmings and embellishments on the collar, sleeves, belt and other extremities. Ottone deduces that the woman is in a state of considerable nervousness, and he deduces this from her hands, which are constantly moving, the look in her eyes, and other observable signs that, although they are typical indicators, Ottone considers it unnecessary to list.

“Mrs. Fritchs, you are overly nervous. It would be best if you calmed down.”

“If you don’t resolve this problem, I’ll file a complaint, doctor. This is an abuse.”

“Mrs. Fritchs, you have to understand that you are undergoing treatment; your problems aren’t going to disappear from one day to the next.”

Mrs. Fritchs glares at Dr. Ottone with indignation, scratches her right arm with her left hand and says:

“Do you think I’m stupid? Are you telling me I need to put up with popping up all over the city in my pajamas until you determine the treatment is over? What am I paying health insurance for?”

Ottone imagines Dr. Messina walking down the hospital’s main stairs and that provokes diverse sensations in him, sensations he is not going to go into at the moment.

“Look,” says Ottone patiently, beginning to balance, slowly at first, on the balls of his feet. “Calm down. Understand that your problems are psychological in nature. You invent things to hide other, more important things. We all know that you don’t really go around the hospital in pajamas.”

Mrs. Fritchs untwists the folds at the hem of her nightshirt, and so Ottone understands that this will be a long visit.

“Please sit down. Relax and let’s talk a while,” says Ottone.

“No, no I can’t. My husband will be home any minute and I won’t be there. I have to get back. Please, doctor, help me.”

Ottone is quickly overcome with the first of the postponed sensations of Dr. Messina walking down the stairs. Air coming in through the seams of his coat, and so he feels cold, a bit cold.

“Do you have money to get home?”

“No, I don’t carry money on me when I’m at home in my pj’s …”

“Well, I’ll lend you some so you can get home and the day after tomorrow, at your regularly scheduled appointment, we’ll talk about these matters that are on your mind …”

“Doctor, I have no problem taking your money and going home if that’s what you want. But I told you already, you know, that in a short while, I’ll be back here again, and every time it gets worse. Before it was every once in a while, but now, every two or three hours … Bam! Black hole.”

“Mrs. …”

“No, listen, listen to me. I recover, or rather, I return to where I was. How can I explain it? Let’s see … I disappear from my house and appear in my brother’s house, so I despair, imagine, three in the morning and I appear in my pj’s—in my pj’s in the best of cases—there in my brother’s bedroom. So I attempt to get back home. Do you know how I suffer, doctor? I have to get out of the room, get out of the house, without anyone noticing, and hail a taxi, in my pajamas, doctor, and without any money on me, imagine, having to convince a cabbie that I’ll pay him when we get there. And when we are almost there … Bam! End of black hole, I’m back home again.”

Ottone takes advantage of this moment to analyze the second sensation of Dr. Messina walking down the stairs. Getting in a car, temperature more agreeable, relief upon depositing the weight of the briefcase on the passenger seat.

“Besides, imagine, me at home always with money on me and a coat tied around the waist of my nightshirt, just in case. But not anymore. I said enough. When I fall in a black hole, I no longer even try to return. I never make it back anyway, I figure; I take taxis that almost never drop me off in time. No. Enough. Now I stay put wherever I might be until the black hole ends and that’s it.”

“And how long do these black holes last?”

“Well, see, I can’t say exactly. Once I went and returned in a split second, no problem. And another time I was at my mother’s house for quite a few hours. At least there I knew where things were kept. I made myself some mate and waited patiently for three hours, doctor. What a disgrace.”

Ottone wonders how many minutes have elapsed since Mrs. Fritchs appeared at the hospital, but is unable to arrive at a definitive answer; maybe five, maybe ten … he does not know.

Sanchez knocks on the door and sticks his head in. Ottone asks:

“What is it, Sanchez?”

“Dr. Messina is looking for you.”

“How’s that? Didn’t he leave?”

“Yes, he did, but then he was back here again a short while later. He looks a bit anxious to me. He’s half dressed … or undressed. I don’t know which, doctor, but he’s asking for you.”

“What did he say exactly, Sanchez?”

“He wanted to know if you were here and if you could do him the favor of going to see him. He looks angry …”

Dr. Ottone looks at Mrs. Fritchs, who scratches her left arm with her right hand and responds to his look with a recriminating gesture.

“You’ll have to excuse me.”

“No, I’ll go with you.”

“No, please, Mrs. Fritchs, do me the favor of staying here. An angry Dr. Messina is enough of a problem as it is.”

Sanchez seconds Ottone’s statement with a nod and exits, walking down the corridor, the corridor down which Ottone follows a few meters behind him.

Messina appears from behind a dividing screen in his office minutes after Messina is not sure what, and finds Mrs. Fritchs sitting in a sofa. Messina looks at his hand and asks himself why he’s holding the same statuette again. Bewildered, he looks at his desk, at the empty space where he had left it not long before. Then he looks at Mrs. Fritchs, and Mrs. Fritchs, her hands grasping the sofa’s armrests as if she is about to fall toward or from some place, looks back at Dr. Messina.

“And who are you? What are you doing in my office?”

“Dr. Ottone said …”

“Why are you in your pajamas?”

“The janitor and Dr. Ottone went to look for you down …”

“Are you Mrs. Fritchs?”

“You are in your pajamas, also,” observes Mrs. Fritchs, looking apprehensively at the statuette in the doctor’s hand.

Messina verifies that he is indeed in his pajamas and mentally comes up with possible hypotheses to explain his present predicament, puts the statuette back on his desk and straightens the collar of his undershirt so that it is aligned with respect to the axis of his own neck, a position for his undershirt that makes of Messina a more confident man.

“Are you Mrs. Fritchs?”

“Dr. Ottone told me to wait here.”

“Did I ask you about Dr. Ottone?”

“Yes, I am Mrs. Fritchs. I’m waiting for Dr. Ottone.”

“Does this look to you as if it could be the office of a doctor like Ottone?”

Messina mentally compares the figure of the woman before him with that of his wife and derives no benefit.

“Are you the woman having trouble with black holes?”

“Aren’t you, too?”

At that moment, a few things dawn on Messina, things of which he regards only two as pertinent and worthy of further consideration: first, an explanation of what might be happening to him; second, the notion that Mrs. Fritchs may be a very intelligent person. He thinks of a question to test the latter:

“Why are you waiting for Dr. Ottone?”

“Ottone and the janitor went down the corridor to look for you. You are doctor …”


“That’s it. Messina. I need someone to help me.”

Messina searches for and finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file on his desk and, with his back to her, reviews its contents while his mind begins to connect ideas about black holes, people in pajamas and statuettes. He asks:

“What do you believe is happening to us?”

“I’m not sure about you, doctor, but in my case nothing,” says Sanchez entering the office through the door and holding out a set of keys. Messina quickly looks over at the now empty sofa where a second before Mrs. Fritchs sat.

“What are you doing here, Sanchez? Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Sanchez, his arm extended towards Messina with the keys dangling from his index finger, says:

“Here are the keys, doctor. I’m leaving.”

“Where are you going? Where is Mrs. Fritchs?”

“My shift ended at ten, it’s now ten thirty, and I’m leaving.”

“Where is Mrs. Fritchs?”

“I don’t know, doctor. Please take the keys.”

“And Ottone? Where’s Ottone?”

“He’s looking for you, doctor. I’m going now.”

Messina exits his office without taking the keys and walks down the black-and-white tiled corridor to the main hall, where he finds Ottone.

Ottone folds the fingers of his right hand into a tight, closed fist, with no air in its center, and presses down on these fingers with his left hand, causing his knuckles to let out a series of cracks, and so Ottone has seen Messina, is extremely anxious and is disturbed by the sight of the doctor, Dr. Messina, half dressed, or undressed, Sanchez was unable to say which, and Ottone is now unable to determine himself which would be correct.

Messina is about to go over and ask Ottone something when he notices he is holding the statuette in his hand, and so he asks himself, or he asks Ottone, why that statuette is in his hand. Ottone conveys with a shrug that he does not know. Messina opens his desk drawer and offers Ottone a cookie. Ottone takes the cookie without asking himself how it is that both of them, Ottone and Messina, are no longer in the main hall, but rather in Messina’s office.

And although Messina thinks of saying something about it to Ottone, he decides against it and simply places the statuette on the hall counter, because, in effect, they are once more in the hall and not in Dr. Messina’s office.

“Are you alright?” asks Ottone.

“Do you think I can be alright in the state I’m in?”

Ottone observes Messina’s rumpled undershirt.

“What’s your opinion now, Messina?”

“About what?”

“About black holes.”

“Where is Mrs. Fritchs?

“She’s in your office.”

“Are you kidding me, Ottone? Don’t you realize that I’ve just come from there?”

Ottone thinks about something he can’t explain, but when he sees Mrs. Fritchs running in the distance from one corridor to another, he suggests to Messina that they ought to go get her. Messina’s eyes open wide and he leans towards Ottone as if he is going to tell him a secret. Ottone listens attentively:

“Don’t you realize that she knows?”

“Knows what?”

“Why do you think she is running around like that?”

Ottone makes to crack his knuckles again, but Messina reacts quickly and, taking him forcefully by the wrist, says:

“Didn’t you notice?”


“Didn’t you notice what happened the last time you cracked your knuckles?”

“Were we there?”

“In a black hole?”


“Do you really need me to answer that?”

Their conversation is interrupted by the jingling of a set of keys dangling at the height of both doctors’ foreheads from the end of Sanchez’s finger. Sanchez announces:

“The keys. I’m leaving.”

Messina suggests to Sanchez:

“Why don’t you bring Mrs. Fritchs to us before you go?”

Ottone seconds the idea eagerly and adds:

“Yes, bring Mrs. Fritchs here and then we’ll take the keys.”

Messina indicates to Sanchez the corridors down which Mrs. Fritchs can occasionally be seen crossing the main hall, sometimes walking worriedly, and other times hastily. Messina pats Sanchez on the back a few times as Ottone smiles at him and urges eagerly:

“Go ahead, Sanchez, go and bring back Mrs. Fritchs.”

Sanchez looks down the hall towards the corridors and then at the doctors. He leaves the keys on the counter and says:

“I see you have a problem on your hands. But I’m the janitor and my shift ended at ten,” and he leaves.

Messina stares at the keys that have been left next to the statuette and then, desperately, focuses his attention on Ottone, Ottone who is looking back at Messina, but whose senses are now perceiving other things, things like Sanchez going down the stairs, Sanchez feeling the cold air of the street on his face, Sanchez thinking that he is never dressed as warmly as he should be, and that it’s all his mother’s fault, who, unlike other mothers, never admonished him about these sort of things. Messina then thinks of Sanchez boarding the 134 bus, branch line two or three, either one, and when he is about to think of Sanchez opening the front door of a house, a house where, logically, this same Sanchez lives, what he sees is Mrs. Fritchs, or rather, he doesn’t see her, or better put, he sees her disappear before his eyes. And so Messina asks Dr. Ottone:

“Did you see that, Ottone?”

“See what?”

“Didn’t you see it?”

Ottone is on the verge of responding, and his imminent intent can be deduced by his index finger, which, slowly, begins to ascend toward his head, and when it arrives, when the finger is level with his head and Ottone articulates his first words, then this doctor, Dr. Ottone, finds himself standing not before Dr. Messina, but before Clara, in other words, his wife, in his home, both of them in pajamas.

In a hospital corridor, now even farther from his office, Messina asks himself, once more, what he is doing there at this hour of the night, half dressed, or undressed, with a statuette in his hand, and when he is about to ask himself the question aloud, the hospital corridor is suddenly left completely empty.

Samanta Schweblin el nucleo del disturbio agujeros negros black holes

Translated by Dario Bard from “Agujeros Negros” as printed in El Núcleo del Disturbio, republished by Editorial Planeta under the Booket label, 2011, available from Paradigma Libros. Originally published by Editorial Planeta in 2002.

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentine short story writer from the City of Buenos Aires. She has published two award-winning short story collections, El Núcleo del Disturbio and Pájaros en la Boca, both available from Amazon. English translations of one of the former’s stories (“Killing a Dog”) is available from London-based quarterly The Drawbridge, and the latter’s title story (Birds in the Mouth) is available as a Kindle editionSchweblin won the 2012 Juan Rulfo Prize for her short story, “Un Hombre Sin Suerte,” available for download from Radio Francia Internacional

More information, including several short stories in Spanish, are available at her official website.

For interesting analysis on Schweblin’s writing, I recommend Paul Doyle’s blog, bythefirelight.

Samanta Schweblin describes her writing in this video interview (in Spanish):