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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Natural History

A Novel

Carlos Fonseca; Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



For years I remained faithful to a strange obsession. No sooner would someone start talking to me of beginnings than my mind would turn to the childhood memory of an old painter I used to watch on TV, who painted dozens of nearly identical landscapes. I’d flash on the image of that bearded old man, his solemn voice that could have been real or put-on, I never knew. On the heels of the image would come the moral, corny but efficient: the best way to avoid a new beginning was by imitating one that had come before. Inadvertently, I ended up taking that postcard wisdom to heart. The same way the old painter set to sketching yet another picture full of little trees and mountains, I would copy some other beginning stolen from my memory: a dribble of the ball, a first line that floated to the surface, an expression that would start a conversation. That repeated inauguration encompassed everything. For years, I thought that was the way to protect myself from the horrible anxiety that overcomes us all at the thought that we’re doing something new. The old guy started painting another landscape, and I went on with my life, repeating it forward.

Maybe that’s why tonight, when the package arrived past ten o’clock, I had the feeling that it wasn’t something happening, but repeating. I heard a car pull up outside, looked out the window, and saw it all: the old, elegant green car; the driver taking something from the trunk; the curious faces of the teenagers who stopped on their bikes to watch. I understood immediately what it was about, but even so it took me a few minutes to answer the door. I decided instead to pour myself a drink, turn up the music a little, and wait until the last possible moment. Only when I felt that the driver was about to leave did I set the drink on the table, go downstairs, open the door, and confront what I’d been expecting: the familiar but now almost forgotten face of a man who handed me a package. I accepted it, hinted at a gesture of condolence, and closed the door on the attentive and slightly judgmental faces of the kids and one or another of their parents. Then came the sound of the engine roaring down the street, and my mind flashed on the distant image of that car making the same trip back to the city, only in the middle of the night and with me in it. I’ve relived everything as if it were seven years ago, not night but early morning, not a package but a phone call, and then I remembered the old painter and his landscapes. The strange thing, I told myself then, is this: in the beginning there’s no sudden cut, no catastrophe or collapse, only a slight sense of repetition, a package that arrives just after ten, when no one is expecting it but one is still awake. Something that would have been more appropriate at eight arrives at ten, and suddenly the rules of the game are different and the onlookers’ gazes have changed. Still, I accepted the package, felt its weight, and once inside I dropped it on the table. And like that, in the warm summer with the window open to the street that then really did seem empty, I started to think about that call that came seven years ago, just after five in the morning, an hour when no one expects their sleep to be interrupted. Then the package became heavy, real, a little bothersome, and I had no choice but to open it and face what I’d foreseen: a series of manila envelopes that would have been anonymous except that, on the last one, I saw a short note in her unmistakable handwriting. My suspicions confirmed, I’ve still not despaired. As Tancredo says, every dog will have his day.

* * *

Tancredo has his theories. He’ll say, for example, that it was all a conspiracy, then take a sip of his dark beer and smile. For years now he’s done nothing but criticize my decisions one by one, take them apart on the basis of humor and beer. Tancredo is my own little perplexity machine, my refutation device, not to say my friend. He tells me, for example, that accepting that call was unacceptable. Unacceptable not because I knew what was behind it but because I should have been asleep. Plus, he says, who was I to think I knew anything about that world? He says such things to me, then sips his beer, smiles, and tosses out another theory. I think, he says, that the key here is something else: they’ll be back one day, and you’ll realize this was all a big joke. A minor joke that grew and grew until no one had the courage to tell you it was a joke and you were left not knowing if the thing was tragedy or farce. He sees that I’m not interested in his theories and he changes tack. He knows I prefer anecdote to theory, and maybe that’s why he asks, Do you know the story of William Howard?

I shake my head. With Tancredo you never know where he gets his stories, but there they are, always within reach, like a pack of cigarettes to be divvied up. And so he tells me the story of this William Howard, a gringo he met in the Caribbean. He tells me he met him on the street, when the guy approached him in rags, stinking and drunk, to ask him for money. Every day it was the same: he’d go up to Tancredo without recognizing him, and in his terrible Spanish he’d ask for alms. The thing is, Tancredo says, after a couple of months, this character started to fascinate me: Why was he there, how had he gotten there, why had he stayed? So I asked him for his story. You know what that scoundrel replied? He told me he’d come to that place because he collected islands. At first I thought it was a linguistic mistake, but then it became very clear that the man believed it all: he thought that islands were something you could collect, like coins or stamps. I always wondered who had ever convinced him of such nonsense. But there the guy was, in the middle of an island, and I had the feeling someone had forgotten to tell him the punch line of the joke. Tancredo smiles, slaps me on the back, and ends by telling me, Take it easy, the dog will have its day.

* * *

And so, when I discovered the newspaper obituary a week ago, I remembered Tancredo’s words and the story of William Howard, island collector. I don’t know why but the gringo’s words came back to me, and suddenly the conviction grew that it was necessary to compile all the obituaries, printed and digital, absolutely all of them, as if they were islands. I started to gather them, one by one, with a collector’s mania, until tonight, when I heard the car pull up and I knew what it was about. Since then, for a good hour now, I’ve been thinking about that first early-morning call, until a brief intuition began to hover over my stupor and forced me to confront the weight of evidence: the envelopes piled up like islands are making me think that, during all that time, she had a secret purpose for those notes. Tragedy or farce? For now I refuse to open those folders, which Tancredo swears hold nothing but a long practical joke.

* * *

Three manila envelopes, wrapped with a fine red cord tied in a bow, like a gift. Along with the envelopes, there’s an obituary announcing the death, with that brief but pointed style they do so well: “Giovanna Luxembourg, Designer, Dead at 40.” Farther down there’s a photo of her dressed in black with a little hat on her head, her eyes staring off into the distance. The obituary talks a bit about her work, mentions certain exhibitions, references an eternal legacy, and that’s it. Regrets over a death at such an early age. A way of displaying a secret, I tell myself, or maybe of wrapping her in enigma. Stupidities of the press. The envelopes, however, are more real: they lie there, closed. Even without opening them, it’s clear they contain a great volume of papers. Strange that they aren’t numbered; it makes you think they’ve been compiled recently, without method. Something about the strange punctuality with which they’ve arrived in the car today suggests otherwise. Apart from that, the only distinctive thing at first sight is the little annotation that serves as an improvised title: Notes (1999). And that’s where I stop. I recognize her handwriting, the way the letters bump into each other and consume themselves until they’re thin and indistinguishable. Then, when I move the title envelope over the others, I see a figure that seems to have been sketched in the corner of one in a moment of distraction.

It looks like a domino. No doubt about it, it looks like the five in dominoes, but it isn’t. Now that I notice it, I think that doodle was put there to remind me of how everything started. I linger again over the obituary: “Giovanna Luxembourg, Designer, Dead at 40.” If Tancredo had been here, he wouldn’t have missed a beat. He would have said, Note that your esteemed designer was only thirty-three, the age of Christ, when she sent for you. He would have stopped for a brief moment to rub that beard of his, which makes him somewhat resemble a dragon, or a Don Quijote with a good share of Sancho Panza, and he would have gone deeper into his nonsense. An apostle with no clear cause, he would have said, like the ones Napoleon met leaving Waterloo. They stuck with him and adored him, illiterates no one wanted anywhere, ignorant people who didn’t yet know they were following a defeated Moses. He would have said that and he would have laughed, he would have told me more stories about islands and everything would have lightened up. But Tancredo isn’t here, the clock is striking eleven, and the symbol that now reemerges is clearly recognizable: it’s the quincunx that once so fascinated me. The obituary has reminded me that, in just a few months, I will also turn forty.

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos Fonseca

Translation copyright © 2020 by Megan McDowell