Letter to a Young Man in the Ground
After Julio Cortázar
Words, I've always found, are hard to gather. When I spot the right ones, they hop away before I can trap them and put them in the needed order. I've always preferred a light touch on the shoulder or a well-timed smile. I've never been a poet, or read much poetry. I never even—can I confess it now that you are gone?—read your translations, Horacio. Don't be mad at me. I tried once, but the syntax was hard to swallow, getting caught on something on its way down to understanding.
I'm not mad at you. Still, it's unnerving to breakfast by the window your house sitter jumped out of. They say that ghosts haunt the place of their death, but does that mean the sidewalk you landed on or the balcony you jumped from? Are you leaping over and over, tumbling downward for eternity while I sip my tea? An invisible blur disturbing the order of the morning air?
You left the apartment in an acceptable state. I want you to know that. I'm not bothered by the little nibbles from the corners of the wallpaper or some old books—I never read them anyway. A bit of nibbling adds character, the nonchalance of a properly lived-in room. I have always been too neat, pretending that I could tidy up my life by rearranging furniture. Frederico always scolds my constant repositioning.
Did you really vomit each of those rabbits up? Is that why Sara, the housekeeper, said you looked so gaunt—nearly a ghost already—before your death?
By the time I returned, the city had cleaned every trace of you and your pet rabbits from the sidewalk. I know, because I looked. I ran my fingers through nooks and crannies of the pavement. I tilted my head at different angles to see if the sun caught a slick reflection. But there were only the usual oil stains and cigarette butts. No dried blood or bits of fur. Sara told me they used a hose attached to a van, and rerouted the school children to another block. (She also told me that an old widow sliced several of the hind feet and has been selling them as bad luck charms to the superstitious with enemies.)
I don't know if that would please you. I hardly knew you at all. We had only spoken a few times—conversations at parties about books I hadn't read—and I only lent you my apartment while I was away because Frederico said you were feeling down and needed a change.
Then again, can you ever know another person? I think that we are all strangers, especially to ourselves. No one knows what they have hidden inside that's trying to get out. I've known Frederico for nearly a decade, seen all his private parts, inside and out, and still could never have predicted that he would break down weeping on the patio when I returned.
Oh, I'm taking far too long to get to the meat of things! I'm burying the most interesting facts, and whoever might find this letter in the future will hardly even bother to get this far. This is why I have never been a writer. I'm too busy struggling to cough up my words to worry about what a reader will think! I vomit up these words on the page, but they are not nearly as pretty as your rabbits. I try to pet these words, love them, but they remain ugly, unlovable, pests.
Let me get right to it: you didn't toss all of your rabbits out the window. One was left behind.
Did you miscount? Was the horror of eleven actually a terror of twelve?
After I read your suicide note, I emptied my luggage and began frying up an afternoon snack—you will forgive me, I'm sure, for eating as I learned of your death. The return from Paris, like the end of all trips, was disorienting. (So many things are disorienting. Leaving, arriving, waking from a dream, walking out of a building to find the sun has set. Sometimes I feel like my body is a poorly made vase that is constantly being jostled and rattling on its base, never settling.)
The smell tickled his nose. He crawled out from beneath an old chair in the parlor. I squatted and gave him a slice of carrot. Dust bunnies clung to his ears.
He didn't look like you, the rabbit. I'm not sure why I thought he would. Perhaps it was how you described the process of pulling the rabbits out of your throat as a "birthing." I assumed he would share your DNA. Maybe he does. What do I know of throat rabbits?
I fed him a few more slices and named him Julio. He was white with a few spots of dark black, like little wells of sadness, on his brow.
"Since when do you keep pets?" Frederico asked when he came by to pick up your things.
"It's just a way to pass the time."
"Paris really changed you, Andrea. But I still love you, even with a bunny." He stood beside me, placing one hand in the small of my back and pressing down Julio's ears a little too hard with each pet.
I resented Frederico being there in that moment. He was holding a glass of wine in the casual manner of someone surveying his castle, even though I have not consented to have him move in. "After Paris, we'll talk," I had said, hoping, I think, that the situation would be forgotten by both of us. An impossibility, of course, but what do we have to hope for except the impossible?
You did not kill yourself for me. Men always feel the need to pretend the things they do are for women, but we both know that is a lie. If I'm being honest, it angers me that you hoisted this all on me. I don't mean little Julio. I mean the weight of your death and your confession. A confusing letter with dense prose. I read it seven times and only came away with a headache. You are more a stranger to me now than you were before you died in my apartment.
And yet, I would like to understand you if I could, because I would like to understand other people. I think if I understand them, I will understand myself. No, that's not it. I think that if I make the effort to understand other people they will be forced to make the effort in return and then perhaps I, too, will be understood?
Oh, who am I kidding? I would not have even written you, never even thought to bring a pen near paper, if Julio the rabbit had not started vomiting himself.
The first time was a week after I had returned. I was having tea with Frederico—"Andrea," he had told me, absurdly, "we must keep Horacio in our memories so that he never truly dies"—and feeding Julio pinches of clover. Then somehow we were fighting again. "You only think about how things will impact your life," he was saying, "as if I'm not a human being but a piece of furniture you don't know where to put!" When Frederico left, I decided to nap. Julio hopped onto my breast and made a sound halfway between a gag and a squeak. He made that noise again and again until I became very frightened. My heart was beating very fast, which was an odd sensation with Julio weighing it down.
When he was finished, there was a little naked man on my breast. He was damp and crawling on his hands and knees. He was the size of a salt shaker. Julio sniffed this homunculus, then hopped away with animal indifference.
This little man crawled onto my left breast, lying prostrate across my areola. He did not look me in the face. He was preoccupied with the mound—or, I suppose, mountain from his point of view—of flesh. I'm used to men looking at my bosom instead of my face. Frederico spent all of tea flipping up his eyes every time I turned back. And yet I didn't hold it against this little homunculus. He looked like a man, but wasn't. His sex was no bigger than a bee's stinger.
I had an old aquarium that my parents had bought me for an axolotl that had passed long ago. I placed him inside with some paperclips and a handful of blueberries. He seemed happy when I watched him from across the room, but whenever I walked by on my way to the bathroom, he ran and pressed his naked underbelly to the glass.
A philosophical question: is Julio the little man's mother? Is no one? Am I?
Sara was quite disturbed. When she came by, she gasped and clutched her breast. "Where did you get that filthy thing?"
She meant Julio, the rabbit. I tossed a sheet over Hernan's—as I named him—aquarium when she came by to clean.
"Keeping one after the... incident," she said, "is beyond morbid." She looked as if she thought the rabbit itself was a ghost.
Frederico was also distraught, thinking he was responsible for your death since the housesitting was his suggestion. I think he believed the apartment killed you. During our fights, he would look around nervously at the looming walls. And yet still he insisted that he must move in soon if we are to keep our relationship.
Can I confess to you that I was unsure? Frederico made me happy, I think, or at least as happy as I thought I could be. But this space was my space, it has been ordered in the way I ordered it, decorated with towels and cups of my choosing. I could tolerate guests, even those who kill themselves, but I am not sure I could tolerate another order intruding on mine.
And then I had little Julio and even littler Hernan to take care of. I will not deny that they opened a motherly instinct in me. I never thought I wanted children, not even when Frederico pointed out which corner of my apartment could hold a crib and which a playpen.
If you were still here, would you have taught me how to care for little Hernan? I gave him slices of all my food, but he only wanted raw meat and orange juice.
I would have given Julio to the butcher, at least to give Sara some peace of mind, and let Hernan loose in the woods, had Julio not vomited again. A week after Hernan, after devouring a little bowl of cabbage, he puked a second little pale man. I rinsed the man in the sink and placed him beside Hernan. The two of them pressed into the aquarium glass, watching me.
However, when I left to refill my wine, they ran at each other. I could hear a pained squeaking sound, and when I came back in Hernan was nursing a broken arm in the corner and the new homunculus was inert, face down in a pool of apple juice.
It is impossible to give mouth-to-mouth to a head that fits between your lips. I could not revive the man (I hadn't yet had time to name him). I looked at Hernan and he seemed to be smiling.
When the next man came sliding out of Julio's throat, I placed a divider in the aquarium so that they could not fight. When I stooped down to look at them, they stared back at me. When I left, they ran into the glass divider, pounding and making rude gestures at each other.
"So then we'll move to another apartment on another street," Frederico said, tossing his hands in the air, when I told him that I'm unsure that I can share this space.
"I need to time to gather things, get my life in order, is all."
"Paris infected you," he said. "I knew it would. Your eyes are still dazzled by the city of lights. I'm just a burnt-out bulb."
I was trying to move him toward the kitchen, but Hernan and Mauro—the third vomited man—were banging on the glass divider. Julio hopped toward the aquarium, worried.
"What kind of dirty rodents do you have in this place anyway? It's filthy!" He stormed out while the righteousness lasted.
Did you feel that the rabbits were filthy, Horacio? Did you feel that you were filthy because they came, somehow, from inside of you? Frederico has that Catholic fear that his body is corrupt. He told me that as a child he could not help masturbating, but would cry each time he spurted. What that how it felt to you each time a rabbit emerged from your throat, glistening and new?
Frederico said you were a fastidious friend, part of the reason I agreed to have you housesit, but I've begun to suspect that those of us who keep order on the outside are trying to hide the chaos inside.
I can't think of Julio as dirty. His fur is soft and I take him to the park bench and let him hop around my feet. (Sitting on the patio where you died was starting to bother me. Too many children walking by, pointing up and shouting.)
So there has been peace, for a time.
The little men, Hernan and Mauro and Tomas and Santiago—yes, like your rabbits before them, the little men kept popping out of Julio's throat—I'm not so sure about. Like dolls or babies, they contain the delicate features of anything small, and yet they piss and shit and, if I take two out to try and socialize them, cause one another to bleed. The only way I've found to calm them is to rest them on my chest, so that their attention is directed elsewhere.
There have never been any women, only little men. Perhaps if you had left another rabbit I could have started a whole new miniature human race to live and breed in the cracks in the walls.
But I come now to the part where I begin to understand you. Because four was one thing, but other numbers quite another. The men keep crawling out, covered in slime: five and six and seven and eight. Lucas, Brian, Hector, and Jorge. Their hair different colors, their skin new shades. When I rest, I take a different one out and let him stumble around my lap.
These men that I had not asked for have begun to feel like a responsibility, and all responsibilities are burdens. I told everyone I've been recovering from the trip, but really I'm running around trying to feed these unasked for men and make sure they don't beat each other's tiny brains out of their nutshell skulls.
Frederico came by calling yesterday. He told me that I was his world. Then that I was snake in his field that strikes without warning, sinking in its poison teeth. Then that Paris was the snake and I the poisoned. I tried to cry, for his sake, but couldn't. My many thoughts were pounding on different parts of my skull. He sighed, then went away.
I kept adding dividers to the aquarium, but how many divisions can there be?
Tired of math, I write this letter to you. The now ten little men, silent for so long, grunt and howl, bang their fists. The glass is stained with tiny smears of blood and waste.
Is this the way you have chosen to haunt me? Or are these men the result of the chaos you brought into my clean apartment in the calle Suipacha?
I know you will not answer this letter, but I feel the need to put my thoughts down in some order. It helps me feel as if I'm working towards a solution, towards the proper arrangement of thoughts, that might suddenly solve everything for me.
Frederico is not part of that equation anymore. I have to compartmentalize Frederico in my mind. Yes, we broke up. I knew it would end. I knew that Paris was an escape, a time to be by myself in another city and determine if I could share my room, my apartment, the rest of my life with this other person. Now, I take all of our memories—walking hand in hand to the market, his knuckles brushing across the breasts that the little men so adore, our morning meals of toast and tea—and put them in the in a box beside the other men that life has regurgitated in front of me: Thiago, Nicolas, Alejandro, Ossip, and the rest. Each one locked away in a room of memories in my head.
The line of full-sized men is as unending and overwhelming as the men that Julio can't help but spit up. Or the ceaseless series of choices that existence keeps asking of me: where to work, who to love, when or where to move, what to say at dinner, and so on and so forth. All of these little moments, every little moment of every day, offering new sets of choices and demands.
The little men, whatever else they are, are machines of demands. They want. They reach out to me with fingers as tiny as inchworms. Their eraser mouths asking always to be fed. I have been trying to answer their demands, and trying to control their desires. But I cannot.
I am not going to die. I've been coming closer to an understanding of you, but I am not you.
No, I will not die, but if Frederico is right, and that my life is too ordered, that I try too hard to control, I think I have to embrace the chaos of these miniature Neanderthals.
I am going to take away the dividing panels, tip out the aquarium on the floor. I'll let their naked bodies tumble to the carpet. What will happen then? Will they run after me, demanding more and more, or will they turn their desires on each other and beat and destroy each other as only brothers can? Or, who can predict anything, perhaps they will come to terms, learn to talk and form a society of little men who come from a bunny who came from a man who needed a place to stay for a little while.
The way they bang on the glass and press their organs against it, I almost wonder if they know what I am thinking. There are eleven of them now, or twelve if you count the one that Hernan killed.
I am going to do it now, and then retire to my room. I'm feeling overwhelmed by the words here and need to rest. I will try to write you later, when the new order has settled.
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