Authors: Severo Sarduy
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Biographical, #Coming of Age
Copyright Â© 1990 by Severo Sarduy
English language translation Â© 2013 by Mark Fried
First Archipelago Books Edition, 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in
any form without the prior written permission of the publisher.
First published as
by ColecciÃ³n Andanzas in 1990.
232 3rd Street #A111
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Firefly / by Severo Sarduy ; translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried. â
1st Archipelago Books ed.
1. Transvestites â Fiction. 2. Gender identity â Fiction. 3. Cuba â Fiction.
I. Fried, Mark. II. Title.
863'.64 â dc23
Distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution
Cover art: Rufino Tamayo
The publication of
was made possible with support from the
Spanish Ministry of Culture; Lannan Foundation; the National Endowment
for the Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency;
and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Wait, who is that guy with the big head? Firefly? My god, I thought he'd be more developed, not so skinny. I had imagined him sort of like a tiny Greek athlete with clear glass eyes and gold nipples.
I find him like this, all of a shocking sudden, squatting on his clay chamber pot, the pale gray one with two handles, atop a dark green cistern in the shade of a royal poinciana collapsing from the weight of the cockatoos. The first thing I see is his oversized head. And his eyes are so Chinese, he might as well not have any. A bald Chinaman. When he spreads his little arms, his chest is really scrawny: a spidery map of bones.
Instead of getting off the pot, he holds tight to both handles and lets himself slide down the cistern, and the basin shatters into more bits of ceramic than you'd find in a Julian Schnabel self-portrait. The cheeks of Firefly's bottom are two purple splotches
when he dashes across the various blues of the floor tiles, screaming at the top of his lungs.
The three aunts are in such a tizzy from his descent you would think they'd seen a polka-dotted bear cub riding a chariot down a steep brambly slope.
The aunts: all in shining silk. There must be some baptism to attend, or a small parish celebration. They gleam so in the noonday sun that you have to squint to look at them. That isn't all: crocodile-leather high heels with red platforms and over their shoulders see-through handbags like round canteens for a thirsty outing.
The make-up is simple: a bit of powdered eggshell does it, plus a purple touch of Mercurochrome on the lips. Yes, it must be a catechism klatch, or maybe the arrival from the mother country of some buff parish priest whose photograph they've seen, the longed-for replacement of the insipid confessor of bilious believers his predecessor turned into after half a century of evangelizing against the tide.
And when I say against the tide I'm understating it: futile were the supplications that efficaciously unleashed sonorous downpours, futile the holy water dispensed right and left that instantly healed cankers and ulcers and even the cattle's aphthous fever, and futile too the Hail Mary mediations that worked wonders
for soured engagements or serial infidelities. The catechumens always returned to their venerable orishas, hidden on the top shelf of their armoires â the inheritance, along with the cinnamon skin and thick lips, of some Maroon ancestor if not of a great-grandfather who, being from Africa itself, was respected in the neighborhood as a man
black by birth
Let's get back to the three dazzling women. The hairdo merits special attention: piled high of course, but in successive silvery waves that whipped the crown into a veritable ocean of white-caps. Haughty, necks erect, and so much hair spray not a wisp could budge. The three heads, turned in unison to watch Firefly's chamber-pot slide, were like burnished sculptures made of mother-of-pearl and aluminum: goddesses, no doubt; fairies, not likely; how about philanthropic
who assist the underprivileged, or famous but honest actresses. The giveaway was the lack of eye makeup or even a beauty spot above the lip. And if they smoked, it was on the sly.
But on to Firefly, who, though reflected in others and at times deformed by them, is the true subject of this pack of lies. Why did he launch himself down the cistern on that “fecal sled”? Let's see . . .
For me, he felt his aunts' gaze riddling him from the trenches of their eyes, the blinding sheen of their silks like silvery headlamps,
their index fingers bejeweled with dazzling amethysts pointing, “Look at him! Look at him! Shitting in the cistern!” He was a tiny defecating Saint Sebastian, pierced by an arrow in the midst of his misdeed, the ass-shitting butt of their joke, a helpless stench.
It was his first fright. The stare: a pricking of pins dipped in curare that kept on sticking him, crucifying him, petrifying him alive up there on his double throne.
He pressed his arms against his sides as if he were having his picture taken. He felt paralyzed. He wanted to sink into the cistern for good, to drown amid frogs and water worms, to descend to the iridescent green sediment in the depths, and then, crossing through the clay bottom, to bury himself in the crust of mineral earth, ferruginous and cold, and there remain, curled up, a sandy fetus or a rusty mummy:
prenatal and posthumous at the same time
Nailed to the cistern was a wooden lid he could not raise. So then he wanted to fly, to nest in the reddish branches amid the muteness of bustling birds and the stridency of cockatoos, protected by the broad yellow-veined leaves; a coiled boa would defend the trunk. But the defecation dragged him down, robbing something of his very essence. It tied him to the cistern; he was sewn to the earth.
It was that double dead end that made him opt for the diagonal chamber-pot descent.
The three glittering women, now that they saw him running across the floor from one blue tile to another like a crazed bishop, heading toward his mother, who by now was waiting with open arms at the end of the hallway (she was yelling something but no one could make out what), turned to one another and reached their right hands down and forward in a wave, as if to indicate a nosedive or the pecking of a sandpiper.
Then they raised their hands to the heavens and shook them along with their heads, as if saying, “No!”
Firefly's mother was in a room set aside for weaving, at a spinning wheel beside a loom with skeins of colored yarn on spindles; strands of every color hung there, ready to be woven into a rug.
As he calmed down, the melon-head made up for his first phobia by producing his first eloquence: “Millimeter, decimeter, and centimeter!” he exclaimed.
Hearing him, the mother of that orthophonic issue could but cross herself. “Who,” she scolded him, shaking him by the
shoulders and fixing him with a ferocious glare, “taught you those barbarities?”
She wiped his bottom with a sponge soaked in vinegar.
She sat him in a little wicker chair.
(A milky and bluish light, which showed up the dust in the air from the velvet upholstery, entered through the thick panes of the mullioned window to the left of the chair.)
She made him drink a mug of hot chocolate.
Silently, Firefly watched the open carts go by in the street. The horses' yellow excrement soiled the cobblestones; the clop of their hooves filtered through the window and into the room. He spied, perhaps in the distance like a toy, the train to the provinces climbing the black wooded hills and staining the blue morning air with compact puffs of coal dust and smoke.
The mother continued spinning. The wheel seemed to turn by itself.
What drove it, in reality, was a tabby cat playing with an invisible mouse. Or maybe with the spirit of one of the rodents people exterminated daily. The city was so infested with them that by night it was all theirs. They materialized at dusk in slow processions of shining eyes, as if drawn by the odor of the sea. They would not leave until dawn, dragging to the depths of the sewers
the repugnant bits of all they had gained in the laborious night of incessant, abject gnawing.
Each family kept a rat potion of its own invention (the beasts were invulnerable to store-bought ones, immune to all known poisons), which they spread among the armoires and under the beds before retiring and kept in the pantry alongside bunches of onions hanging from the rafters, whole hams for Christmas Eve, copper frying pans, and one or more seven-armed Toledo lamps, vestiges of a nearby antique dealer gone bankrupt or a long-past fire in some synagogue.
It did not end there. A few days later, as tends to happen among these drifting islands â hollow rafts, borne by their own weight â the sky grew ugly. Yes, Tiepoloesque nimbuses, silvery gray with golden trim, began to roll in, whipped up on rising, spinning whirlwinds from the east. Gusts from the north, sly and freezing, whistled around corners and snatched up wedding bonnets with their hummingbird brims and bunches of varnished cherries. From the west came a downdraft, sweet and bluish like the smoke from a PartagÃ¡s Culebra, carrying the scent of dense, freshly cut tobacco leaves, wrinkled and leathery and thickly veined. From the south, finally, a strange and to all appearances
enemy rumbling, whose provenance and meaning no one could decode, reached the city. It was a distant choral murmur filled with muffled stridencies and mute clamors, as if from the grayish vault of the sky condemned angels were falling with heartrending shrieks. Or even closer: as if children were being slaughtered under a ceiba tree.
People nailed shut their doors and windows and shrouded their mirrors with black cloths when the screams of the souls reached their ears, because only an incorporeal and tortured army could give rise to such an interminable wail.
“It's the innocent children murdered by the Inquisition,” they said, “back to demand justice. Their bodies are mangled but those are the voices they had in life, for the voice is all that remains intact after death.”
“What innocents, what horseshit!” Making his first appearance in this story, throwing open the door of the living room, only to slam it shut with a bang that nearly shatters the windowpanes, is the father of the melon-headed chatterbox. “This is hurricane season!”