Lands of Memory

Lands of Memory

by Esther Allen

ISBN: 9780811214834

Publisher New Directions

Published in Literature & Fiction/Historical, Literature & Fiction/Short Stories, Literature & Fiction/Literary, Literature & Fiction/World Literature, Reference/Encyclopedias, Literature & Fiction/General, Literature & Fiction/Contemporary

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


I'm not sure why certain memories of mine want to come into Colling's story. They don't seem to have much to do with him. Descriptions of that period in my childhood and the family who introduced me to Colling aren't important enough to the subject to justify their appearance here. The logic of the connecting thread would be very weak. Yet for some reason I don't understand those memories keep turning up in this story. And they persist, so I've chosen to grant them my attention.

    I'll also have to write many things I know very little about; it even strikes me that impenetrability is intrinsic to them. Perhaps when we think we know them we stop knowing that we don't know them, because their existence is inevitably obscure, and that must be one of their qualifies.

    But I don't believe I must write only what I know. I must also write the other things.

The memories come, but they don't keep still. And some very foolish memories clamor for attention, too. I don't yet know whether, despite their childishness, these have some important connection to the other memories, or what meanings and reflections memories exchange among themselves. Some seem to protest the selection the intellect claims to make among them. And they reappear unexpectedly, as if to ask for new meanings, or to make new and fleeting jokes, or to inflect everything with a different purpose.

The streetcars that run along Calle Suárez—which I can see from the inside, on one of their wicker seats, just as readily as from the sidewalk, watching them—are red and white, a yellowish white. Not long ago I walked through that area again. Just before the curve the Number 42 makes when it goes down Asencio and turns onto Suárez I saw the sun flashing on the tracks, as it used to. The streetcar's wheels emit a deafening screech when it runs along those tracks. (But in memory the noise is muted and pleasant, calling up other memories in turn.) A fence also runs along the curve, and that same fence surrounds a traffic circle overgrown with wisteria.

    There are many estates in that area. Along Calle Suárez there wasn't much else. A lot of them are subdivided now. Modern times—the same times when I was journeying through other places and in some way coming to be another person—broke up those estates, killed trees and built many small houses, new but already dingy and wretched, and shops that huddle together with little heaps of merchandise at their doors. An auction has taken a capricious nibble out of one grand, baronial estate—a little square bite in one side that has left it dolefully incomprehensible. The new owner has made it his business to give that little square the look of a garish patch sewn onto the landscape: a small, modern house, clumsy and pretentious, heaves its unpleasant disproportions at the eye there, ridiculing the beautiful majesty, now offended and humiliated, that the mansion in the background retains. That mansion is much like the ones I would see on Sundays when I went to the Biógrafo Olivos—the closest movie house—in my early adolescence, when that style of house was young and from its front door a grand stairway would flow, spreading out like the train of a bridal gown, its edges unfurling, but with a lot of rolled-up edge still left at the base, on top of which a large planter would sit, with or without plants—preferably plants with big leaves that would hang down all around. At the foot of that stairway, just starting to make her long, languid way up, was La Borelli or La Bertini. And the things those women would do as they walked up a flight of stairs! Today we would think they'd been filmed with a ralentisseur, but in those days I thought that that particular number of movements scattered across that particular quantity of time, with so much meaning that was so enigmatic to my almost childish mind, must pertain to the secrets of very intelligent adults. And I wanted to be older in order to understand those secrets; I aspired to understand what I was already beginning to feel with an obscure and indolent anguish. It was something that those movements covered over with an all too serious dignity, something which, perhaps, could only be profaned by the same vastly superior art the woman was putting to use. (And I thought about profaning it.) Perhaps she could be reached by a mental effort as great and a flight as high as that of bees in pursuit of their queen.

    In the meantime, a long gown covered the woman, stairway and all.

    But let's go back to the route of the Number 42.

    After the streetcar passed in front of the little lot—that patch on the baronial mansion—the two tall, swaying palm trees that rose behind that modern, claptrap house stayed in my eyes for a moment, in precise detail. Thinking over the fleeting vision of those palm trees, I recognized them and remembered how they had once looked when I was a child and there was no patch on the estate. A literary man of that time would have something to write about if he could see them now behind that ugly little house! The pair of elderly palms nodded their great shaggy, drooping heads meaningfully, like two faithful old servants discussing the misfortune of their masters who've come down in the world. And when that reflection came to me, I remembered how the people of that time expressed life, and how they reflected it in their art, and what their artistic predilections were. (But I don't want these reflections to engulf me right now: I want to stay with the Number 42.)

    Then an immense, horrible billboard caught my eye. (I won't say which billboard so as not to give its owner any further publicity. And if he paid me would I? And thoughts like that kept emerging: wasn't it a son of the baronial mansion who sold off that piece of the estate to settle a shameful debt?)

    I was feeling sad and pessimistic. I thought about the many new things there are, and how insolently some of them burst upon us. Someone was delivering a sales pitch to me on the feeling for whatever is new—and for all that is new—as a marvelous human necessity. He spoke impetuously, though he conceded a moment's mocking irony to my old attachments.

    He was in a rush and soon turned his unpleasant head away and took his whole person off somewhere else. But he left something grayish in my sadness; he discredited it for me, made me doubt even the dignity of my own sadness, and soiled it with a new, unknown substance that was unexpectedly disagreeable, like a strange taste suddenly noticed in tainted food.

Nevertheless, there are some places among the estates that have few "modifications," where you can feel as sad as you like for a little while. Then memories begin climbing slowly down from the cobwebs they've made for themselves in the favorite corners of childhood.

    Once, a long time ago, I recalled those memories arm in arm with a woman. This last time, a grubby, weeping child came out of one of the houses. Now I begin to think of the right that certain new things have to live, and I begin to feel a new bias. (Perhaps I'm going too far; perhaps the bias in favor of anything new is expanding to overtake everything, as it overtook the deliverer of the sales pitch. After all, it takes only a slight bias and immediately we find a thousand theories served up to justify anything at all. Moreover, we can very easily switch among causes to be justified, however contradictory they may be, for there are theories with a touch of exoticism, theories of suggestive mystery, theories of a naturalist origin, theories with philosophical depth, etcetera.)

    Now I remember a place where the Number 42 goes at top speed, when it crosses Calle Gil. One of that street's broad sidewalks crashes against my eyes with a spinning jolt. On that sidewalk, when I was about eight, I dropped a bottle of wine. Then I gathered up the shards and took them home, a block away. At home they laughed a great deal and asked why I'd brought the shards back: what was I going to do with them? That logic was very difficult for me—it still is—because I hadn't brought home the shattered pieces to prove I had broken the bottle; they would have believed me anyway. I don't know whether I brought them so they could see them, or why.

    If we walk toward Suárez on our way back from where my house used to be on Calle Gil, before we get to the corner we'll pass a very old brick wall, blackened and blanketed with many different shades of green moss. Behind the wall, a grown-up will see—while I hop up and down, trying to see—turkeys among some trees and a henhouse made of whitewashed chicken wire. Once a very deep pit was dug there, and a madman would go down into it because he didn't want to hear any noise while he was reading. Continuing along the sidewalk we reach the house at the corner, which has many windows facing Calle Gil. But the last window before Suárez is painted on the wall. And behind the painted window is the room where the madman lived. Only with an effort did it suggest terrifying things to me; between its painted bars a sky blue color was painted, and the fake window didn't inspire any dark thoughts. Nevertheless, the madman was once on the point of killing his mother—who was paralyzed and always sat in a chair—with an ax. Fortunately the three daughters arrived just in time. After that the madman spent a while in confinement and then another while with the three of them. He was a very gentle, cultured, and affable person. Once he gave me a chocolate mouse, and I stared gratefully up at his goatee, which was short and combed into two points. But the women! How nobly ideal they were! Through those three long-lived women I was able to reach out my hand to a large portion of the past century. Leafing through magazines of that period, it wouldn't be at all hard to find an "original" illustrator who had drawn a cigarette letting out a cloud of smoke with a silhouette like theirs emerging from it: the narrowest possible waist, the ample bosom, the throat enclosed by little stays that held the white fabric in place. (At that time my attention was caught by things that lay on a slant, and in that house there were many: the whitewashed squares of the henhouse's chicken wire, the white checks of fabric at the neckline, held in place by stays, the courtyard with its great black-and-white flagstones, the cushions on the beds.) And another sizable mass was perched on the head, like a large hat, but it was made up of the hair that grew from the head—or else it was half-personal hair and half-purchased hair (the bosom was also generally half and half). On top of the hair sat the actual hat, usually immense, and on top of the hat, feathers—from the turkeys in the back, or from other birds, though I don't think from hens ever, unless they were dyed. The hats were usually weighed down with fruit—grapes, I think—and were held in place by extremely long pins with large heads made of metal or colored stones or tortoiseshell. The pins pierced through the entirety of the coiffure and the hat—with its flowers, fruit or whatever else—and reappeared on the other side, sticking out a long way still, and ending in an aggressive point. From the brim of the hat to the neckline, a piece of tulle, like a mosquito net, was tightly stretched, leaving the face behind it in provocative and appealing penumbra; the face, in turn, was covered with powder. The spectator's contemplation could tarry a good while over this fantastical apparition. As a boy I once put one of those display cases—mosquito net and all—on my head, and as I walked around I remembered a ride I once took in a closed carriage from which I could see out through little curtains without being seen.

One night we went with my mother to the home of the three long-lived ladies. In the half-light of the entryway we walked across the great square black-and-white flagstones. There was no inner door and we could see the big plants in the middle of the courtyard. We were shown into a small parlor that took its light from what little there was in the street and occasionally from the illuminated squares of the Number 42's windows passing through the dimness at top speed. The reflected windows, too, lay at a slant as they moved across the floor, and were even more slanted when they crawled up the wall. The three women's camaraderie as they conversed was so frank and sincere, they took such joy in their courtesies, the voices of all three joined together and rose so high that it put the general shadowiness out of mind; there didn't seem to be any such thing. In addition to living in darkness, they were all nearsighted. One of them, the one who was said to do the cooking, sat in the darkest corner; her pale, oval face dotted with moles—like a badly peeled potato with the black eyes showing—could hardly be seen. Another was in the habit of rubbing her fists hard against her cheeks to bring out their color—she was the one who went out to pay calls. All three were very thin. And I realized that at my house they were right when they said that the three ladies—during intervals of animated conversation and especially when laughing—made a very loud noise by taking in air between their teeth. Then I noticed that the sound was so loud even the Number 42 going by at top speed didn't drown it out. But I wished I hadn't been made aware of it because then I had to pay too much attention to that and couldn't go on feeling other things. And I liked to go and be in that house.

    In my family there was a distant aunt, as old as the long-lived ladies and also a spinster. And that aunt called them "the hissers." This irritated me a great deal. And not because I was in love with any of them. (Though I always found myself strongly predisposed to fall in love with any teacher I had, or any friend of my mother's who came to the house. But not the long-lived ladies.) Like my mother, those women inspired my affection by the nobility of their feelings and the pleasure they took in the time they spent with us. Perhaps they were so happy at those moments because the other hours of their lives were occupied with many things, those strange, infinite tasks that responsible people generally have, and many moral qualms and many sorrows. The hissing was the most striking thing, but that doesn't mean it should be dwelt upon more than all the rest. Not to mention the fact that calling them by that name created a false synthesis of them, a synthesis that didn't include all the rest but concealed it to some degree, and when you thought of them the first thing to appear in memory was the hissing, which was discussed far too much. I laughed without wanting to, then silently raged.

    Many years later I realized that I wanted to rebel against the injustice of insisting too much on the things that are the most striking without being the most important. If I could get past the clamor that a certain critique makes in some part of our thinking, keeping us from feeling or forming less easily solidified ideas, if I could manage not to yield without a struggle to the convenience of certain syntheses—those formed without much in the way of prior content—then I arrived at a mystery that awoke in me another quality of interest in the things that happened. But at that time I was entering into the mystery of those women, astonished that although, in the things they spoke of with my mother, they displayed liveliness and discernment, as well as a breadth of knowledge and common sense that enabled them to observe a great deal about other people, they, the three of them, did not perceive other things that for us seemed very easy to see. And it wasn't just the hissing or the habit of rubbing clenched fists over cheekbones. The mystery began with the observation that, mixed in with the things they understood, were other things that didn't correspond to what we're used to encountering in reality. And that gave rise to an attitude of expectation: there was always the hope that from one moment to the next something strange would happen, one of those things that they didn't know was out of the ordinary.


Excerpted from "Lands of Memory" by Esther Allen. Copyright © 2002 by Esther Allen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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