I didn’t recognize her. Or rather she didn’t want to be recognized by anyone but herself. She appeared with those alluring eyes, just like that, by the unlit corner where the rubble from the Parisian fashion store lay. That’s where I saw her emerge, right onto Cervantes Street, where I was standing … No, actually, I was leaning on a light pole that glowed with a papaya-like color. The moon was full. The news of the bodies unearthed from the mud, discovered that day by the rescue dogs trained by Mexican soldiers, had turned what would have been a radiant night into something revolting. The Japanese and the Americans worked their tractors down the Chiquito River, resembling giant ants in their laborious advancement toward the camps erected by the Cuban and North American medical brigades. It was a night, if you had seen it, Margarita, of abandonment. It covered this rotten land like a giant circus canopy of starless sadness. It’s hardly worth mentioning, Margarita, the earthy silence this gave to everything. And when I looked around at the other low-glowing streetlights illuminating Cervantes Street, it appeared as if its once vibrant nightlife had been chewed up and spit out like a wad of gum. I squeezed the blades of the scissors I kept in my pants pocket. As I recall that woman, Margarita, I especially remember her eyes, a detail that the masticated street had been spared at the time, as it did the two of us.
She, this woman of whom I speak, emerged from the debris of the Parisian fashion store, and approached me. I must have noticed her lips, because I see the smile she had on her face, as if she had recognized me as an old friend. But when she got a little closer, I noticed that this smile had nothing to do with me. That was the moment, however, when I discovered the life in her eyes, jumping from one thing to another, like playful little animals.
—Excuse me, Miss.
—What about them?
—They’re like bunnies hopping around in a garden.
—Ah, maybe, but like rabbits full of sugar.
—I’m not sure what you mean, señor.
—There is no sugar to be found in this country, not after the hurricane.
—I see what you’re getting at. Do you want to tear out my eyes and put them in your coffee?
—I’d prefer not to. I drink my coffee without sugar.
—That’s a relief.
—Tell me, have we met before?
—I don’t think so. Perhaps during another disaster. But why talk about the hurricane, you wouldn’t be saying anything new.
I did not ask her about anything else. Nor did she have anything further to say. She just stopped speaking and wandered on. Distracted and silent. Infinitely so. Then something occurred. I saw her approach a wall where a mural had been created by local painters to show their solidarity with the victims. It had a somewhat improvisatory quality—a sea was formed by urinating children, its waves collided with people, breaking them into flotsam, and underneath the water swam fantastical creatures, like mermaids and tentacled men. The image bore a strange relation, pulling from various versions, a scene from Noah’s Ark. I had already examined this mural, finding nothing deeper than what was ostentatiously on display. There was one notable absence—not a single flower was to be found in this mural. This little detail would stay with me for days. Whether this sensitivity could be attributed to my profession or my character, I was left with the impression that no flowers would bloom in this flooded world. That if anything was saved from the painted ark of these local Noahs, it wouldn’t be anything floral. I was all too happy to never to lay eyes on this mural again. And if I did have to return to it, I promised myself that I would bring my own brushes and paints and add a flower myself. Maybe a yellow, or red, or violet guajaca. These are magical flowers that can be sprout from stones and bloom without needed to be fertilized. The strongest hearts are like guajacas, I’ve always said. Although, like many wildflowers, they are often confused as weeds.
I closed my eyes and considered moving on. After waiting a moment, I reopened my eyes and saw her still standing there. I once again was faced with the prospect of having to look once more at this mural. But it was her I wanted to see again, taken as she was by the work, mesmerized at the moment by a mermaid that rose stoically between two tempestuous seas. I cautiously decided to stick around. It slowly dawned on me that perhaps she could see things in the painting that I could not, that she seemed to tremble with capricious energy, which made my knees wobble with the thought of gazing again into those sugar bunny eyes. I composed myself. And I did not forget (how could I?) to hide the bulk in my front pocket made by the scissors. In order to not draw attention to myself, I observed her at first from a distance so as not to distract her attention from the mural. I wanted to avoid provoking her ire, the kind rightly kindled in many women who are wary of being approached by strange men, hombres they want nothing to do with, especially when the opposite is apparent. And there was a moment, I won’t deny it, that I could sense a slight hint of this fear emerge. In the snap of a second, I knew immediately that it would be best to return home. The curfew bell usually rang at twelve, but tonight the streets were empty of soldiers—the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was staying at one of the swankier hurricane shelters, where plenty of soldiers had been deployed to ensure that she could rest and eat in safety. I could make my way home in leisure.
It was not yet 10pm, so I could take my time. But I spurred on to get away from this woman and leave her alone. “Anyway,” I said to myself, “I know what her eyes are like.” And without knowing what to do, I remained on Cervantes Street, wandering by familiar places. I remember circling the street, feeling the bulge of the object in my pants—my gardening shears, with which I have for years used to prune the flora of many gardens. Now, as things have panned out for me, I have only my own meager garden to tend. Then I caught sight of an event uncommonly seen at night: a child’s funeral procession. Four women, skinny and dressed entirely in black, carried a young boy in a small white casket. Actually, it wasn’t really a casket, rather it was a crate used to pack and export bananas. The cortege was coming from where the now shuttered Golden Century Bookstore was once located. I did not have a hat to doff, I wasn’t even wearing a cap. So I just entwined my hands at the waist, the best respect I could offer for this tragedy passing by. I watched this unexpected procession continue down the street, as though I were witnessing at an ancient and everlasting twilight vision of the world. And I could remember the disappearance of the many women who in the years of civil wars and military dictatorships, journeyed to the President’s House, galvanized by an air of misfortune that I have never beheld since. If I chose not to shed any tears, it was because this was not the time. I should add that a weeping gardener is said to invoke misfortune.
After they left, I stayed there until ten, observing a young couple stroll by on a street that always appeared at that hour on the street that was no longer the same after the hurricane. I spied a myrrh-colored cat resting on a loaf of bread in a flooded bakery. The feline moved its tail in random directions, its attention gravitating toward the location of the woman with the sugar bunny eyes I longed to gaze back into. I was then overcome with a feeling of wanting to walk with this intriguing lady in another neighborhood, in another city, in another time. I was determined to tell her that the next mural should be spring-themed, even if she insisted on telling me, perhaps in another language, that she preferred this wintery one and not some ornery season I was championing. And maybe I would strongly react by shouting right to her face, that she was not among the damned that this mural represented. That she was not the specter that might appear to be. That she was still alive. And she did not believe that, she was welcome to prick her finger on the sharp blades of my garden shears. Anyway, what really mattered to me was looking back into the garden in her eyes. “Please, señora, show your eyes once more to me,” I thought. Yes, this was what I wanted, to immerse myself in them fully and immediately, without her having a moment to consider what absurd intent I may have, or to grow suspicious of a man on his feet. To tell her, for example, that this natural warning would be stirred by any man who appeared as I did, and who also claimed that in her garden eyes grazed two sugar bunnies. “You have nothing to be frightened about,” this person may also have said. And while it was true that my coffee that morning had been bitter, it was not my intention to remove her the sugar bunnies in her eyes, and ground them, as she would logically have feared, in my old green coffee machine. Of course, this was another matter, and if she is feeling generous, a single ear of one of her two sugar bunnies would be been enough for me. Because, and there isn’t really another way of explaining this, I felt that I had been the one to discover them playing in the garden of her eyes…but what was I doing other than watering the fallacies of this ridiculous vision? So I told myself to put it to rest. It would be better to change tactics. I was convinced that if we spoke again, that my humanity could be judged beyond clothing or whatever had prevented us from maintaining a conversation. But when I headed back to speak with her about these very things, I no sooner reached where we she stood, only to find she had left.
Although I may only be a gardener, and despite observing the subtle beauty of a mere seed sprouting to become a grand and colorful flower, love at first sight is something I’ve always considered unbelievable. Whether or not you agree, another common bromide has it that love is blind. These speak, at least in my opinion, to principles outmoded to this century, much less to me. On the other hand, I am only an aging being, like the airy roots of a bromeliad. It has never been a quest in my solitary adventures to meet anyone, though in truth no one has had eyes like two sugar bunnies grazing in a garden. You, Margarita, who knows me better than anyone, you know this. However, (and this is something I have no intention of arguing), I have spent these last few days believing that such opinions of blindness or serendipity are about as honorable as making love with one’s eyes shut. Maybe it’s because of this, or maybe it’s just a desire to chat with someone, that I’ve kept returning to Cervantes Street. Since then, I have witnessed other funeral processions of children. And courtships of youth who stopped being children long ago. I once more observed that couple who appeared at the same hour, down the same street that was no longer the same after the hurricane. I have seen, besides that myrrhic feline, other cats that have emerged on the top of bread loaves from within the flooded bakery. I have even seen the same painted mermaid rising calmly between two tempestuous seas. The very same mural that mesmerized that intriguing woman who seemed to have emerged from another world. But of this woman, whoever she was, I would never see her eyes again. Beyond them, and the real physical abyss that separates us, I have left an unpruned memory that fills my senses.
Once I thought I saw her crossing one of damaged bridges that connects the old part of the city with the new one. But what was there to say?… Nothing. I have only a shaded candlelight of illuminated time from that lost time. And what would it matter, our time to wander the streets is limited. The days when all the guardians of the world, including Hillary, came together to make this a better place are now but urban legends told to relieve boredom. Now different measures for security are taken, one based on everyday terror, and one does not know this is meant to ensure our safety or if these actions will plunge us all into an order of official terror. This phenomenon of terrorism masked as security goes back to the missing Apollo 17 lunar rocks. Richard Nixon gifted these stones to our previous leaders: a gesture of goodwill to the stewards of the world, though distributed without much thought or care throughout the continent. The ones sent to Honduras are said to have disappeared, and are rumored to be on sale on the black market. Frankly, I do not know how much such stones could be worth. The moon is so distant; as a gardener I see it as a lady of omens, not a collection of pebbles. Conversely, such stones are sold daily in the streets of the city, gray little balls that induce hallucinations in the neighborhood youths.
I had another false spotting of the garden-eyed woman. It was in a shelter. One of those places where the affected families count the hours forward and backward: not because they couldn’t count time, but rather because time had stopped counting for them. This woman was caught in a sunbeam holding out her children’s clothes, and the glow made her appear as though she were the woman with the sugar bunny eyes. But, as anyone could guess, it ended up being just another woman. While she held those clothes, she bared a resemblance in my opinion to a woman carved in marble by a classical Italian sculptor. This came to mind only because the annual calendars, sold at the nacatamaleria Chinda Díaz, often included a photo of this statue. The caption below the image read “The Pietà.”
As I thought about the moon stones, I realized that I no longer wanted to see that woman. I did not care to convince her that paintings should be vernal, not wintry. That garden in her eyes, with their two grazing sugar bunnies, no longer mattered to me… Instead, I thought of the chill that had overtaken the country. Up in New York City, taxi drivers had rallied to deposit 500 tons of aid supplies in Shea Stadium, where they would distributed to areas especially hit hard, such as Chamelecón and Rio Ulúa. At least that is what the news has been saying. Supposedly two dogs had died after being left out in the cold. The Animal Protection Society protested their deaths to the Department of National Redevelopment, so that any animals living in shelters would have the right to protection. I am constantly made aware of things that had never before existed here. This is the first time, for example, that I had heard of an Animal Protection Society.
I still drink my coffee without sugar. I brew it early. And always in my old green coffee pot. There is no day that I do work to remove the vermin and other creatures from my crumbling garden. What is happening to my garden is what is occurring all across this country, which is that it is falling apart a bit more each day. The terrain that my garden occupies is being consumed by the mudslides caused by the unending rain. I’ve tried everything to remedy this situation, but nothing works. Yet I persist by daily pruning the weeds from the herbs and flowers. And I’ve discovered, as a result of the puddles collecting in the patio, that the water has muffled the normally bright shuffle of my shoes as I walk on these cold nights. Maybe my shoes are broken and I am unaware of it. Maybe it’s a tactic of the mind, which would prefer me to think about things other than a new pair of shoes. Whatever the reason, I can say that in my life I have had worse experiences. I don’t know many people around here who can claim the opposite. But still, I cannot help but envy the children, who happily play in the streets barefoot and without shelter.
I have other, more immediate concerns to tend to. I should not, for example, further delay getting a tetanus vaccination. When I arrive for the injection, perhaps they could also vaccinate me for other viruses. In the Parque Central, medical teams offer free vaccinations to the populace, warding them against leptospirosis and hantavirus. I must admit, however, that tonight I have a warming sensation that I will once more cross paths with the woman with the garden eyes, the woman from a world that is at once so different and so similar to our own. This is the only way I have come to understood her nature.
Caring for gardens has been my only occupation. I’ve never been anything but a gardener. A gardener in hurricane land. I was once told, long ago, that every time a star shoots across the sky, it causes the sunflowers on earth to tremble. But I have never witnessed this phenomenon. I do know that good vegetable oil can be made from sunflowers. There are so many things that will remain unexplainable to many people, though there are some people who know the answers to almost anything. I do not. Too many things leave me baffled. This, I say to myself, is important. For I see no way to make clear for myself, or really anyone for that matter, the dark destiny of my peers. Nor, much less, my own.
If I were to say something that speaks well of me, it is the fact that I quit my habit of dreaming long ago. Especially daydreaming. Before the hurricane, one of my neighbors, a young man, once told me that he had dreamed of a woman. To dream about a woman is nothing strange. But my neighbor claimed that this woman had never existed in his life, and this gave him the impression that he would one day meet her in person. So he looked for her relentlessly, and sought signs of this dream woman in each woman he met. I would never dream up (and have not dreamt up) the woman I have been seeking. Maybe a long time ago, I would have; but I have learned that even the dreams crumble away, just like the earth. But phenomena can happen when it has not before; I have now seen the sunflowers tremble, and this is what has caused me to believe that sooner or later, I will again encounter the woman with garden eyes. Seeing her would be better than dreaming.
The strange thing is that I do not believe this suspicion to be unusual as I do this chilling climate of ghostly and raging showers. An unprecedented mixture of heat and strong glacial winds. But then again, this is the tropics. It’s weather has become so unpredictable that I have postponed, until another full moon, planting my new heliotrope. So the orange support stick, the one that I can see from my window, will have to wait a little for the friend I have promised it… this made me promise myself, before returning to Cervantes Street, that I will once again see two little sugar bunnies grazing in the garden of that woman’s eyes. I’m not interested in anything else. I do not even want to know his name. As I said, I have a warm feeling that I will encounter this woman again soon. And it is a feeling that has grown in me, fueled by a promising incident: When I returned one evening to Cervantes Street, the mural that had so captivated her, the one of the mermaid rising calmly between two tempestuous seas, was gone. In its place was another curious painting, nearly identical in size, theme, composition and color, to the previous one. And I would even argue that it was in fact the very same picture that had once held the woman’s attention, were not for the simple fact that when you examined it closely, you could actually see a couple of sugar bunnies grazing in garden eyes. I would even swear that the woman had in fact entered the mural, and that was showing herself presently to me.
It is possible that I too am about to cross a door. A door that is impossible to tell if it is open or closed. And while all can enter it, everyone seems determined to ignore it. I, however, can not resist. I am tired of not being able to explain anything. I’m ready to go. The city has already been chewed up and spit out like a gum. I can smell the custambusy flowers that my wife liked so much. It is the unmistakable aroma of the memory of departed loved ones. I understand that now. Even if you were to tell me that it smelled of the dying sea, I don’t think I can resist my own belief. And I get that. This is the moment when I can understand something of truth … I will let my steps lead me to any door, and I won’t hesitate to open it. I will embrace my gardener scissors and hold them close to my sick and poorly irrigated heart. I will approach that doorway. And I will enter it. Because those garden eyes, where two little sugar bunnies still graze, can only be your eyes, Margarita, who have come to drain what little water was left in my body.
Translated by Emes Bea and published courtesy of the author. This story is taken from the short story collection Un ángel atrapado en el huracán [An Angel Caught in a Hurricane].