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Fiction The Filth issue

Galápagos

By Fátima Vélez

Translated from the SPANISH by HANNAH KAUDERS
TO READ THIS STORY IN SPANISH, CLICK HERE.

Something minor like losing a nail: one day a cut at the edge of the pinky nail, the finger gets infected, it fills with pus, I press, right thumb over left pinky, white pus shoots out, harder, the pus stains my sleeve, it spreads with abandon, it grows, it grows stronger and stronger and looking down at the nail, trying to clean it, one realizes it’s loose like a baby tooth, just like that,

Look how my nail’s moving, it’s going to falling off, I tell Juan B, and he looks at me like I’m one of those people who makes himself sick from going on about sickness, and he says it’s fine, it’s not going to fall off, nails don’t just fall off like that. Like what? I ask him. On their own, says Juan B, irritated. It hurts, I say, I need a doctor. For a nail?

Yes, for a nail, so I go see Dr. Duzán, the homeopath Luis recommended, and I hold out my hand so she can examine my nail under her surgical microscope and she says, entirely unfazed, It’s just a common case of paronychia, and before I can say paro-what? she clarifies,

It’s just a hangnail or whitlow, the pus is normal, it’ll drain on its own little by little, it’ll help to take the drops she’s preparing especially for my nerves,

But it’s not my nerves, doctor, it’s my nail, and she insists I take a hundred drops every half hour, the pus will come out all on its own, or I can help it along by squeezing just a little,

Like this, see? Dr. Duzán squeezes my finger and the now usual trickle of pus leaks out and on her doctor’s face spreads a grin of the same adolescent pleasure you get squeezing blackheads and wiping the gunk across the bathroom mirror, she squeezes so hard her smile contorts, more, she wants more, her face says, so enraptured it seems to fuse together with the pus, and when all that emerges is bloody water she says, once again serious so I’ll respect her homeopathy yet obviously disappointed there’s no more pus leaking out of the little hole on the side of my nail,

There you go, your nail’s not going anywhere, a hundred drops every half hour.

 

Now, after not rising from my bed in I don’t know how long, the homeopathic drops spoiling on my nightstand, I wonder if there’s a single person on earth who could keep up with a hundred drops every half hour, I squeeze until clear water trickles out again, wanting more, more, because I’ve grown almost fond of what comes out, no, let’s say instead that what comes out connects me to a time when things weren’t even things yet, maybe the pus is some kind of arche, an origin, like fire for Heraclitus, like water for… Thales? yes, Thales, who predicted a solar eclipse just like I predicted my nail would fall off, Juan B is sleeping, I am awake, one single movement and the nail gets caught in a thread of the thousand thread count sheets Juan B brought here from far, far away,

And the whole pinky nail, caught, dangling from a thread that’s come loose, and I wonder can a person really call herself a doctor if she doesn’t take pus seriously, let it be known, if a person questions the power of pus they cannot be my doctor nor my lover, and I think — but it’s not me, this isn’t a thought I would think, it’s the sight of my little finger so without its nail that dictates the thought — that in some parallel universe there are pus men with no lips, if only we let the pus determine its own path, there would be men made of the core substance, the core you see in a pinky without its nail, the fresh core flesh, the core they mean when they say your father’s a good man at his core; they say a thing is different at its core than it is otherwise, different than it can be on the surface, and could it be that this core is the place you end up when you’re missing a nail and feel the urge to cry. I want to wake up Juan B and tell him about my nail, not to complain, I swear, but to tell him:

Listen, finally, here’s an idea, it has to do with… everything points to… the solution to this problem about the core I’ve been searching for all my life is a bacterial culture, hear me out, you could make a core culture of probiotics, or fingers missing nails, infected fingers, all we need is a lot of pus, and you, with all your money and your two semesters of medical school, you could help me out, this time it’s a serious project, all right? the idea is that we infect all that’s healthy, you of all people can appreciate what a body can do when it gives its all, and pus is the delicious proof of a body giving its all, yellowish, milky white, you could use all your jargon, I know how you love your jargon, about the secretion of inflamed tissue, lymph, white blood cells, fluid, leukocytes circulating in intercellular space, for example, do you see that nail caught there, that pinky nail caught in your sheet of a thousand threads, do you see it? but Juan B is sleeping like I haven’t seen him sleep in ages and he’d kill me if I woke him just to share some silly idea about pus while the pus, on the other hand, asked for nothing more than a nail, which evidently, in spite of the doctor and Juan B’s it’s not falling off because it’s just a common case of paronychia and nails don’t just fall off, falls off,

and then another,

and then all of them.

The falling off, one by one, of the nails on one hand, that violence, and what to do when a hand begins shedding its excess, and what I do is resolve not to keep staring down at them, to wrap them up in the kind of bandages burn victims use and go to bed, and I watch every Jeanne Moreau movie, trying to comprehend Jeanne Moreau’s beauty, a beauty that only intensifies as the movie progresses; Jeanne Moreau gazing into the camera, making a desperate confession, saying:

When I undress, I can’t even look at myself in the mirror for long, particularly if the light filtering in is daylight, like 11 a.m. light, that light which indicates our most human and profound cellulitis,

Jeanne Moreau, the rhythm of heels through a house during an elegant party, a tight black dress, the introspection only a tight black dress can inspire, observing everything with an arrogance that allows the image to transform into scent, into the perfume of a wealthy woman, yes, but a woman who has seen it all, who can see far beyond and close by and realizes that nothing really matters,

And Juan B, but mostly Juan B’s household staff, look after me: mushroom pizza and more mushroom pizza and Coca-Cola, which is all I can bring myself to eat, reduced as I now am to the law of least resistance, it’s already a nuisance when a nail breaks and catches on the wool of a sweater, because after all when one thinks of a nail doesn’t one think of the part that breaks, and doesn’t one forget that the nail occupies such a large portion of a finger, to what extent nails embed us in the world is something one can appreciate only when they go missing, the way they make all things scratchable, now I long for the grime that once tormented me, which used to appear no matter how short my nails were, that little black layer, that depository of all that strives to make itself invisible, without nails, the contact between a person and the world turns to indigestion, turns to paralysis, turns to being able only to eat mushroom pizza and admire Jeanne Moreau and all that effort not to brush up against anything,

Even with the bandages on, to do what one always does but using one’s hands as little as humanly possible; it’s not so simple as wearing a good pair of gloves and voilà, as Paz María says, when without a second thought I say to myself,

Okay, it’s time, and without bathing, bandages wrapped tight and brimming with courage, I finally pay a visit to my friend Paz María, who has recently birthed twins of unknown paternity,

From her dilapidated cot, either inherited from her great-grandmother or picked up off the street, for the story varies depending on Paz María’s mood, while baby boy number one dozes and baby girl other rouses to request a turn at her mother’s tit, I tell her about my nails, or rather, my not nails, and what does she do? She doesn’t even let me finish before she sighs,

Ay, you’re so dramatic, you’re so terrestrial, I’ve had dermatitis in my hands since I was a girl and have I ever complained? Of course not, I wear my rabbit fur gloves instead, it’s the only thing that helps, come and feel them, and she forces me to touch her gloves as though I’ve never seen them, it must be the hormones that make them forget everything so they’ll keep breeding, and I watch Paz María wear her white gloves even to nurse, even to pick a slice of cucumber off the plate perched atop her night table, shriveled-up cucumber she must have been using on her eyes, and then I hear her say,

I’m perfectly fine, the only thing that hurts is my down-there, you know, my lady parts, as you earthlings call them, if only they sold gloves like this for nipples, look at the state of mine, and she climbs out of bed with the baby in her arms and everything, and without giving me a moment to react she shoves her free nipple in my face so I can peer into its fissures, which are vast,

Quit it, I can’t breathe, come on, I keep saying, but despite my refusal she only grips my head harder and says don’t be afraid, taste it, and I tell her,

Please, stop, there’s really no need for all this, imagine I’d come all the way here to taste your breast milk,

So what did you come for?

To see you, to meet the babies,

Baby girl and baby boy, it’s unfair to call them hijos, it excludes her,

Language is unfair,

So is motherhood, look, the daughter and son are yours too, did you know that? I forgive you for not coming sooner, but here, come on, just taste this, it’s incredible, it’ll cure whatever you’ve got, whatever it is, honestly, it’s an amazing source of calcium and biotin, perfect for growing your nails back, come and you’ll see how they grow right back, look, this is my secret for making sure nothing of mine falls off, nothing,

and she shows off her balding head,

And look how strong my nails are,

and she shows off her peeling nails, riddled with white specks, clearly a calcium deficiency,

But I think what really keeps me fit as a fiddle is having eaten the placenta, what do you think about that?

I’m thinking I don’t want her to tell me how it tastes, please, I beg, but my supplication only provokes Paz María, who is droning on about how tired she’d grown of vegetarianism, and how pleasant it was to eat raw meat again after so many years, and something about the union of her blood with the blood of the babies who came out of her, and isn’t it just incredible that not one but two of them came out of my body, and one boy and one girl? and I beg her not to put into words the sensation of eating the placenta, I beg for it to remain an ineffable experience, but how foreign a concept the ineffable is to Paz María, who prattles on, and I’m overcome with a wave of irritation, but I must show respect for the recently parturited, I don’t cover my ears and I don’t flee, I stay put, hold back, trembling in anticipation of Paz María’s widely known penchant for the scatological,

I ate the whole thing, apparently the midwife had never seen anything like it,

So that’s when you became as otherworldly as you’ve always wanted?

It’s not like my placenta tasted great or anything, though now that I think about it, yes, we don’t eat meat just because it tastes good, though now that I think about it, yes, it is important that it taste good, it has a texture a little like octopus, quite acidic and laborious to chew, but really very pleasant, where do you think the word placer comes from but placenta, you could spend a whole month chewing and chewing without it ever softening even a little, I must have been at it for two hours, and the midwife was getting desperate because I was more intent on chewing the placenta than on nursing, but I got it done how I do everything, you know, very slowly, and so there I was, until the bitter end, I just opened my mouth all the way like a pelvis birthing twins and gulped down the whole placenta, and I didn’t even need water afterward, and well, here I am, like it was nothing,

And I start to salivate more and more, I’m so thirsty all of a sudden, I look at Paz María and in the midst of my excessive saliva production I just spit it out,

Well, Pazmarí, it wasn’t exactly nothing now was it, in all of that birthing you turned out to be pretty terrestrial after all, and I see her shoot me a look that says I’m pushing the limit of what is acceptable to say even in our friendship, and she starts trying to grab my head again, even though she’d let me go, and she tries once more to shove her free tit into my mouth, and
I tell her again this really isn’t necessary, honestly, if she only knew where my mouth has been, and she says,

Come on, who cares, and she says whatever I’ve got will be good for her little daughter and her little son, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, stop with the excuses, she’s just dying for me to suck on her just a little, I need to loosen up, I can’t imagine how good it feels, even though it stings, it feels so delicious,

And coming from me that’s saying something, as you well know I’m susceptible to pleasures, and she says it’s a shame I’ll never feel that kind of pleasure in my own body, ha, she says it as though she has a body that can feel everything, and when she finally snaps out of it and senses my resistance, I see in her blackest eyes that she’s about to aim the stream of her rage right at me, she says that for logistical reasons she can’t nurse both babies at once, it makes less milk come out, she’d have to use a breast pump almost 24-7, and even though she has one, locked away because she can’t even bring herself to look at it, it makes her feel like a machine, she says pointing to it with her boob, and I say who cares, it’s not all bad to feel like a machine, and she says right, but to feel like a machine is to feel alone, my friends should be helping me out, if they really cared about me, if we were really as close as we always said, they could all take turns, and I’d nurse them while I nurse one of the babies, that way I wouldn’t have to pump, you know? and that way, my kids would be what I want them to be,

And what do you want them to be?

No one’s children, and everyone’s children,

Ay, Pazmarí, what’s the use in nursing everyone so your children will belong to everyone? If I drink from you I’ll be marked forever, one can’t be a father so entirely without nails.

So entirely without nails, as soon as I can, I free myself from the arm squeezing me tighter and tighter to that nipple, from which now descends a little stream of milk, I escape by swooping down and pressing my head to that swollen belly on which I can be as childlike and as animal as I always wanted, but you can’t be with a person just for the pleasure of pressing your head to their belly, so flaccid now, so swollen, stretch-marked, one misses the roughness of a beard, and when I was with her I could never figure out what it was she needed; pressed to the softness of that belly, what more could a person need, and now, enveloped in Paz María’s aroma, infused with mother’s milk, milk from which wafts the citric scent of Sicilian tangerines, Paz María’s perfume, a medley of Damask rose and peony, peach, essential oils, jasmine and orange blossom and powdery white musk, sweat and eye liner and a cream made of oats and egg she concocts to treat her skin problems, all mixed together with her underarm sweat, because though she’d deny it, she doesn’t sweat little enough not to need deodorant, but I hope she can’t hear my thoughts, she’d say they don’t do justice to what she really is, but what is she really? how to capture Paz María and her white gloves, her hands always in their white gloves and now these babies who, it would seem, are also mine? but mine from when?

What Paz María has are quirks, I think to myself, holding one rabbit fur-gloved hand between my bandaged ones, quirks, like always carrying a little jar of Vaseline that fills me with dark thoughts, and she can never help but relate the misfortunes of others back to her own, and the more Paz María speaks the less I hear her, I begin to unhear her, and what grows in me instead is the feeling I’m wasting my time,

Some tea?

Some tea, yes,

And she stands with her baby son in her arms and walks toward the kitchen a little dazed,

Don’t you have anyone helping you?

No, I refuse to pay for help, I only accept disinterested help, from my girlfriends, can you believe it, I used to be such a misogynist and it turns out they’ve showed up for me more than all the fags in the world,

The tea is tasteless, weak in comparison to my mounting desire to flee, before Paz María turns me into a father or a mother or whatever it is she has in her non-earthling brain, and not to go back to Juan B, before he seals off all my exits what I need to do is return to the pulsations a person can feel only in Paris, or not in Paris exactly, but specifically in Donatien’s body,

The pulsations, the pleasure, yes, the pleasure of feeling something, and Donatien doesn’t write me anymore, which is just unbearable, he hasn’t even written to ask what to do with my things, he hasn’t even given me an opportunity to tell him on the phone to be patient, I’ll be back, of course I’ll be back, just hold on to my things a little while longer, When, how long, and I miss the power with which Donatien pronounced that when, and I draw out that when, and he, instead of asking me when and when, started writing letters, describing in detail what his life was like without me, and his new lovers, he said all this as though we were friends who told each other everything, as though he’d given up painting to write to me full-time about his life, which in my absence had taken a rather pornographic turn, more detailed in his cards than he’d ever managed to be in his paintings: how he touched them, and where, he wrote that one named Paul, the only one he’d given a name, wanted to be treated like a bitch in heat, how Donatien exchanged sex for rides between Marseilles and Avignon, how one time, one of his lovers had to piss in the car and to relieve him Donatien had let him piss into his mouth, and he didn’t stop there, in that same card or another, I don’t remember which, he told me how he’d go hunting for straight men, old men he didn’t know ejaculating into his mouth, but I could rest assured he never ejaculated into anyone else’s mouth, in case I ever came back to him, out of respect for me, Donatien kept writing his cards and I started drawing everything, out of respect for me? Outrageous, but inspiration nonetheless, and I christened the studio Juan B made for me in his house, Donatien’s cards lying open, mixed in with some of the things from when we’d lived together in the Paris from which I’d needed to flee,

In Bogotá, Paz María introduced me to Juan B, her friend the heir, who wouldn’t let her pay for a thing, who despite being an aristocrat didn’t care what anyone said, his parents being dead and all, or about his last name; Juan B could give two shits about his last name, but not me, I may have been raised with so many languages and so many trips and so many museums, but I never wanted anyone to know where I was and with whom, why all the fuss? as though everyone were trying to extract from me some grain of truth, as though I were only a secret, why all the fuss, why, why stay so long in the same place, with the same person.

I tell Juan B I’m going away, just for a few days,

Where, he asks,

And I say I’m going back to Paris, he has to understand, I need to go tie up the loose threads of my life there, or do you like me better this way?

What way? asks Juan B,

This way, with so much unfinished business, and anyway, you can come visit me whenever you want,

Juan B says this whenever you want is the biggest load of crock he’s ever heard, he says this calmly, and then later on,

Where do you think you’re going, you’re not well, you need someone to take care of you, he says, without giving me the satisfaction of seeing him explode, according to him I just love when things explode, people most of all, and so without exploding, he insists on bringing up my nails, or rather my lack of nails, which he says is a symptom of something bigger. I don’t have the faintest desire to explain to him that my whole life is in Paris, and even so it bursts forth,

My whole life is in Paris, I say,

Is that right? Juan B replies, Your whole life is in Paris and your whole life is doing nothing, because after two years together Juan B accuses me of being a painter who doesn’t paint, and what exactly is it that he does all day, then? forget it, being a millionaire excuses him, heirs seem entitled to do absolutely nothing, but if a person chooses to be something, to do something in this life, he’s sentenced to work, I’m not a very hard worker, but at least I know how to fake it, I’ve never had the same enthusiasm for painting that I have for watching movies, losing myself in a blond woman spewing nonsense, but isn’t the blond woman a delight,

I trust the impulse, the impulse, my only truth, and so I leave for Paris, just like that, barely any luggage, I don’t even bring my nails.

 

Fátima Vélez is a writer from Manizales, Colombia, who lives in New York. She has published the poetry collections Casa paterna, Del porno y las babosas, and Diseño de interiores. Galápagos is her first novel. 
Hannah Kauders is a writer-translator who lives in Spain and Brooklyn. She is at work on several translations from Spanish and a memoir that grapples with questions of faith, love, and translation leading up to her father’s death.