The Sign

Dick Cluster translating the Spanish of Pedro de Jesús

Translator's Note

Mercedes, the ex-kindergarten-teacher, goes over the numbers from one to a hundred again. Her short-sighted eyes peer out through the window in search of some unaccustomed animal that might cross the alleyway or pop out of the patch of weeds that her yard has become. She tries but fails to remember whether she had any dreams last night, whether she dreamed about an extraordinary event that could inspire her.

For Mercedes, betting embodies what we might call a hermeneutic adventure: diving deeply into the interpretation of certain meaningful signs which the chaos of reality offers as a favor not without subterfuge and mirages. She believes that given her age and circumstances this is the only sort of choice at once available to her and worthy of her – a choice among possible signs. It’s the only aspect of the numbers game that she really enjoys, as opposed to the money she might win – little as that is considering her frequent mistakes.

But the afternoon is moving along, the runner is about to arrive, and Mercedes, the ex-kindergarten-teacher, worriedly ponders the numbers from one to a hundred. All of them seem equally opaque and inexpressive.

On the other side of the cardboard wall, Santa starts chortling, interspersing little cries like a mezzo-soprano in death throes among her other sounds. Mercedes goes into her mother’s room, where Santa lies naked on the plastic covering the mattress. Mercedes tells Santa the stomach doctor is outside. That does the trick. She shuts her toothless mouth bordered by sunken grooves, extends her arms, and grabs the edge of the bed. If only Mercedes’ stratagems were always so successful.

“Now that the doctor is gone, you have to get up.”

Mercedes speaks softly, her voice almost sweet.

“You should have seen the big parasol she was carrying, so beautiful…”

Seated on the corner of the double bed, she twiddles the thumbs of her clasped hands in her lap, above the grease-stained fabric of her robe. She considers. Maybe the nearly involuntary action of inventing a parasol for the phantom gastroenterologist could be a sign. Sometimes chance lets slip her deepest mysteries by way of words uttered involuntarily, or statements apparently false.

“Now that the doctor is gone, you have to get up,” she repeats, her voice louder and lacking the almost-sweetness.

Often enough this is how it goes. Santa pretends not to hear, and Mercedes wonders whether her mother’s vagaries and deliriums could be perverse ruses to inspire pity. Then Mercedes, who changes Santa’s position several times a day to prevent bed sores, tries to get her to stand up. Since being the daughter of an old lady doesn’t exempt Mercedes from her own more than half a century, she lacks the strength.

“I’m going to count to three,” she warns, severely, the ex-kindergarten-teacher.

“Why do you want to get me out there if the doctor is around?” She’s adopting the tone of someone intent on getting her own way, somewhere between naïve and pleading. She’s still holding onto the mattress but no longer afraid, just taking advantage of the defenseless image which that pose might suggest.

“Don’t go playing crazy on me. I’m going to count to three…” Mercedes brandishes the stick that used to belong to a broom. With the nail at the end she pricks the old woman into action. Santa tries to bend her knees to avoid the stinger, but Mercedes goes after her ribs.

“Go ahead and kill me. That’s what you need to do, kill me.” Santa raises her hands to her forehead in a sign of exhaustion and impotence and begins to cry for help.

Should she bet on the old man, or the madman, or any of the whole of host of calamities associated with various numbers in the lottery? No way. She’d never bet on a one of them. The scene she’s living through isn’t any wink on the part of reality. It’s the true reality that she has to see every day. What special meaning could she find in it?

“You ought to give her chlorpromazine,” the number lady’s voice bursts through the hole in the window. “My grandmother got so much better …”

Santa manages to grab one end of the stick, and while she tries to get possession of the whole thing she redoubles the strength of her cries.

“The cure is worse than the disease,” Mercedes shouts back. “They say it softens old people’s bodies so they can’t even sit up.”

“You have to choose between softening her or going crazy yourself.”

“I’ll kill her first!” With a yank she regains control of the implement and hurls it to the floor. Taking advantage of this burst of energy, she grabs Santa by the shoulders and sits her up in the middle of the bed.

“Do you want any help?” the numbers lady asks solicitously.

Inch by inch her mother slides along the bed toward the wheelchair.

“No, dear, come back later. My mind is a blank right now.”

Mercedes the ex-kindergarten-teacher holds the wheelchair handle, supervising the painfully slow maneuver, incapable of anything else. Now Santa turns perfectionist, putting all her skill and effort into every inch she conquers. She’s so motivated she starts singing. “The scorpion, the scorpion, the scorpion is going to sting you …”

Afflicted, the daughter takes in the spectacle of her mother, stiff and skinny yet singing still. Suddenly a lightning bolt flashes across her mind.

“This is how I like to see you,” she says, stroking Santa’s forehead almost effusively.

Feeling for the coin in a pocket of her robe, the ex-kindergarten-teacher hurries over to the window, radiating happiness. She’s got the winning number now: the scorpion, forty-three. “The scorpion, the scorpion, the scorpion is going to bite you.” Santa keeps chanting and Mercedes can hardly contain her joy. She opens the door eagerly, strides through the weed patch, tries to look into the distance. Will the runner take a long time to come back?

She’s gripped now by a fear that the woman won’t come back, just now when reality, chaos, and chance have been generous. She feels a sudden tightness in her chest and decides to busy herself with dinner to drive away any bad thoughts. She crosses the kitchen, its floor pierced by the ceiba tree’s roots. A cat that was snoozing somewhere among the implements follows her to the stove beneath the almond tree.

Mercedes stops beside the large supply of firewood and closes her eyes to overcome her sudden faintness. Santa intensifies her singsong, piling sharps on flats without harmony or consonance, and then, like an orator gone hysterical, recites the lyric at the top of her voice. The ex-kindergarten-teacher fears the neighbors will hear, recognize the number, and rob her of her luck. Pondering whether to force her mother into silence with the stinging broomstick, she opens her eyes. Two hand-widths from her foot, on the pile of guásima wood, she spots the scorpion.

Surprise paralyzes her. Can this be coincidence? Or is it the sign insisting on interpretation?

She sees them on all sides. One, five, ten, how many scorpions? Their venom-bearing tails drawn up. She closes her eyes again, completely dizzy. Has she gone nuts? Is this a vision, maybe the one Santa sees that’s causing her to sing and sing? Or are the repetitions casting a spell that conjures the animals into being?

Mercedes just wishes she could shut her up. Whether real or imaginary, scorpions put her into a panic, and her mother knows it, she always has. Many times she’s imagined killing her and felt monstrous. Now she only wishes she’d stop singing. If she could open her eyes, move her feet, scream. But somehow she knows that’s impossible. The pain is intense, as if the scorpions had angrily sunk their stingers into one of the ex-kindergarten-teacher’s drooping, shaking breasts.

While she falls like ton of bricks against the ton of firewood, she hears her mother’s singing, far off, farther and farther off. But she knows it’s very close, and she knows too that the voice is loud and strong. True signs are the most tenacious ones.

Dick Cluster is a Spanish-English translator, writer, and teacher. His published work includes three novels and two books of popular history, most recently History of Havana (with Rafael Hernández); translations of novels and stories from Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America; and translations of scholarly work in politics, economics, and literary criticism from Cuba, Mexico, and Spain. He teaches in the Honors Program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Pedro de Jesús lives in Fomento, Cuba. He is the author of the story collections Cuentos frígidos (1998) and La sobrevida (2006), the novel Síbilas en Mercaderes (1999), and the poetry collection Granos de mudez (2009). Cuentos frígidos has been published in English translation by City Lights Books, as Frigid Tales (1998).