texto original en español

Lana

There is a small staircase that leads to the sea, and she usually goes down it slowly, wrapped in a long terrycloth robe with the hem dragging in the sand. She is ageless, or she is as old as one wants to imagine. The skin on her athletic thighs and her strong arms has not stretched much: it sags there, and also on her chest and around her neck. It is not simply a matter of wrinkles: these are the folds of eternity. Lana is very old.

She sheds her robe near the water’s edge, always with a theatrical flourish like a tightrope walker. She immediately covers her sparse hair with a bathing cap. And the best thing, surely, is to see her get into the water. She does not cross herself, like older Caribbean women, nor is she daunted like old ladies everywhere. She enters the water as if she were plunging straight into death.

The first time I saw her swimming slowly and majestically out to sea, I thought she was going to take her life. I looked around for someone to help her. We were at Playa Córcega in the middle of a deserted cove where there were no lifeguards or life rings; not even a measly sign to warn of dangerous currents.

I kept watching her without saying anything, but the friend who was with me whispered: “She’s going too far out. I’m scared.”

I too was frightened, mostly because the cap she was wearing became a tiny blue dot, a little bell of foam, a bubble, not exactly of love, but of madness.

She was a long way out when she decided to return. She swam toward shore just as unhurriedly as she had swum out; she overcame the dangerous currents, the swell at water’s edge and the gula fish. But this was nothing, because she also prevailed over her heart.

When she got out of the water, fresh as a mermaid, my friend applauded. She waved to us, climbed the stairs and took off her bathing cap. Her white hair shone over her scalp, which, incidentally, was very pink. She said she usually went swimming every day and that the currents there were not too bad.

Then we congratulated her, reckoning she was at least as old as the tides. In a tremulous voice that shivered like broken seashells, she told us that her name was Lana.

Carlota

Among all the possible strange questions, I only ask myself how long it will take her to go out and back from her house, keeping in mind that she stops on the sidewalk every two minutes, mutters some words of reproach, and starts stamping on what I think must be a swarm of insects, colorless vermin that she alone can see.

She goes through my neighborhood on Saturdays, but I saw her in Miramar one Monday, squashing invisible maggots under a tree and counting the coins she had managed to collect in her pocket from begging here and there. Carlota is like a nocturnal bird who comes out by day and goes from house to house calling to the ladies from the doorstep, hollering “Praise God, praise God, praise God!”

I have never seen her without her white headscarf—she too covers her head when swimming in those oceans of misery—but I am afraid her scalp is not so rosy. When I give her her “little gift” (as she calls the alms), she grabs my arm with her thin, scaly, witchlike hand and says “God bless you.”

One day I got up my courage and asked her why she stopped at the edge of the sidewalk to trample on something when there was nothing there. She looked up, her face older than a hallucination—How old could Carlota be?—and she said that she was stomping on shells. She bent down to show me some; I did not see them, but I lied out of respect for her.

That is how I learned that she hated snails and was crushing them to scare away the evil showers.

Marjorie

If someone had asked her what her favorite bird was when she woke up that morning, Marjorie Lagerwall would certainly have asked for time to think about it.

She was drinking coffee and staring at her harp—Marjorie had been a brilliant harpist in her day—when she remembered that it was almost four degrees below zero and the birds outside, the little birds that awakened her memories, had not eaten.

She went into the kitchen, picked up the bag of birdseed, glanced at her harp again and went to the door. In the doorway she recalled the black dress she wore for her last concert and her first husband’s beautiful teeth. At the same time an aroma, or rather two aromas from childhood came back to her as if in waves: her mother’s baked apples and the cologne her father wore.

Then she went out, and before she had even gone ten steps she slipped and fell in the snow. The bag of birdseed burst open when it hit the ground and thousands of the little seeds spilled out. Marjorie shouted to her son, but not too loudly. Famous harpists never shout: that would be vulgar. Besides, it was early and her son would still be sleeping, and as those aromas were coming to her again, the apples and the cologne, she amused herself by trying to remember the daisies that were printed on her mother’s apron.

They found her two hours later, lying next to the morning papers. The birdseed had frozen completely and so had the hands of the harpist.

Even at the age of sixty-nine Marjorie had still been fond of playing a lovely piece by Gail Barber, Harp of the Western Wind. It was quiet music, which reminded her of the big snowstorms of her childhood in Minnesota.