After the second operation they told me I'd never walk again. Potential disaster comes round to everyone in the end and part of me calmed down: I'd fulfilled my quota of disasters in this life, nothing terrible could happen to me because it had happened all at once, and I was beginning to survive. “So this is my share of horror,” I thought. My children wouldn't die young, I wasn't going to lose any other part of my body in an accident, and my father, who was already rather old, wouldn't have to go through a long, drawn-out death. It was possible that I'd saved the entire city from a natural disaster, though it had rained since the start of my stay in the hospital and some of the houses lying unofficially on the river banks had caved in on their inhabitants. The television would get tuned into the news channel at six every morning as the nurses started to wash the patients and dose their medicine, which they did from then until the ward opened its doors to visitors at eight. They never turned it off, they just muted the sound at nightfall, and even in the small hours of the morning we would be lulled to sleep by the whitish light of the screen. I remember that I was doing quite well at the time despite feeling that my knees, beneath the dressings, were like water-filled sacks. I knew I had feet because I could see them, but they were numb. The difficult part was dealing with other people's sadness. When my husband found out about my condition he clasped at my legs for an hour, whimpering. Feeling obliged to console him, I stroked his head until he calmed down. “Everything will be okay,” I repeated gently for him to hear. I still couldn't remove the brown nail varnish I'd put on a month ago, and my toenails had grown, leaving an unpainted patch. I asked my husband to buy a bottle of any old colour and touch them up. He gave me a disconcerted look – asking him to pull them out would have made more sense to him. That afternoon, while I was trying to sleep, he asked the doctor about it: “Might it be a way of refusing to accept her condition?” The physician replied with a piece of information: “An English university has demonstrated that after the depression they go through when they learn about their handicap, the disabled stabilize and their character returns to the way it's been all their life. Is your wife an optimistic woman?” he asked. My husband remained thoughtful, unsure how to respond.
After the second month I began to lose all notion of time. The days went by quickly, what with bed sheet changes, cold water sponge baths, visits from old friends who came to see me, more to find out how I was being fixed than out of solidarity, and the newsreader, announcing that this April would be harsh, two rivers on the coast had already burst their banks, but no warning notice could prevent the accidents. The world carried on being just as horrible a place. I sometimes believed it was better that I was in the hospital than outside, with all those people getting injured. After I'd slammed into the pavement, horror still roamed the earth. Occasionally someone would die in the same room as me. If they started to slip away the nurses would isolate them from the others as much as possible. If they died quietly they would be left alone and ignored as much as possible until the family or someone from the morgue arrived. Once, I woke up and found myself next to the dead. I'd stayed ever so still, so still that one of those medical students that hospitals are full of had put me on the farthest side of the ward among the real cadavers. I tried to attract attention by shouting, but no one could hear me because the volume on the television had been turned right up so that the sports scores could be heard. I shook myself and realised with horror that I could move my legs a little, even the most injured one. It was as if I were shaking them underwater, my limbs bearing additional weight. I was so shocked that I felt as if I were really dying. From this new angle, the ward looked so sad. The others, my fellow patients, looked at the ceiling with absent expressions, played solitaire or read the old newspapers they lent each other. They looked pathetic.
I thought, as I lay beside the deceased, that death was an act of will, the same way as there are people who say you have to give life all you've got. That's what the relatives of a quadriplegic placed opposite me in the ward kept repeating. I understood that it was also possible to give death all you've got and then I stretched out in a state of perfect death, except that I was still breathing. After a while a nurse appeared. She began to change my flower-patterned gown for a slightly more sober one when she leapt away from me all of a sudden and began to shout. She'd realised that I was alive, though I clung obstinately to my new condition and wouldn't open my eyes. After a little while, a large group of doctors, practitioners, and nurses gathered around me. “What was the diagnosis?” one of them asked. “Died from an embolism,” answered the woman who had realised that I was alive. “It's quite normal among the people who don't move a lot.” “Why isn't she reacting?” asked another. “She's practising,” said someone else, and they all laughed nervously. “Sometimes dying is an act of will,” pronounced a female voice. Then I opened my eyes, amazed, because I believed exactly the same thing as she had said, but among the alarmed faces I couldn't make out which was hers.
This afternoon, trying to inject some strength into me so that I'd stay alive, I suppose, they swapped the news for game shows, but we were all so used to seeing the television as yet another resident that nobody paid much attention. Early in the morning, I tried to flex my legs for the first time, and succeeded. I stretched out and drew them in dozens of times, thinking about how I was going to tell the news to the doctor and my family. You already know how moody people get when they've got an idea about life that has to change. “Why don't you tell them you can move?” asked the quadriplegic, watching me with bright eyes. “What about you, why don't you tell them you can speak?” “I don't know,” he answered. He had a beautiful voice, clear and powerful, easier to appreciate in the dark. “They've never gone to that much trouble about me, so now to see them busy and furious is fun – what happened to you this morning? You gave everyone a fright. I think they're going to send you to the mental ward.” “I gave death all I had,” I answered. “The opposite to what that relative of yours says, the one who's always recommending giving life a chance.” “That's my elder brother, he once took a motivational course on positive thinking by Dale Carnegie.” “Was that the one who blew his head off when he found out he had cancer?” “Yes, but my brother can't find out about that, it'd break his heart.” There was such a long silence that I thought he'd fallen asleep. “What's it like to give death all you have?” he asked. “I don't know, it's like closing your eyes and floating on water. Have you ever floated on water?” “Once, but the water carries you where it wants and that seems dangerous to me,” he said, then went back to such a long silence that I fell back to sleep.
I woke up with my husband's face looking at me severely. “Because of what you did yesterday they recommended I take you home, but I've managed to arrange for you to stay in the hospital a bit longer.” He was furious, not at all like the man who had wept clutching at my waist a few weeks ago. “There are going to be a lot of changes because I haven't talked with the kids yet and I'll have to hire someone to take on the things you used to do. All these things take time and you already know how little time I have.” “How strange,” I answered coldly. “I was so sure you'd already found someone to take care of my intimate affairs some time ago.” He blushed, looking down. We were about to start arguing as we usually did when one of the interns doing his rounds announced that the quadriplegic I'd chatted to the night before was dead. Apparently it was the same doctor who'd pronounced my passing the day before so no one paid much attention to him. He noted the cause of death, presumed to be an embolism, and the quadriplegic was taken on a stretcher to the other bodies waiting at the back of the ward. “He was only giving death all he had,” I said in a low voice, but my husband managed to overhear. “You keep insisting on that nonsense,” he growled, clenching his teeth. “Don't go to so much trouble,” I answered, lowering my voice. “I think I can walk —well, not yet, but I can move my legs.” I tried, but for some reason in front of him my legs went back to feeling like lumps of meat packed in plastic. My husband looked at me for a long time with an expression of horror and bewilderment. “I'll take care of the red tape so they'll move you to a different room. You've always been impossible once you've got an idea in your head,” he told me, and left with a sunken chest. By and by the relatives of the quadriplegic with the beautiful voice appeared and began to cry, especially the brother who'd advised him to give life a chance. It broke my heart to see him so upset. I was about to tell him that he wasn't dead, he was just practising, but I feared I might spoil the plans of my wardmate.
That night on the twelve o'clock news they announced more highway traffic accidents. They even showed images of real bodies, yellowish and contorted, very different from the quadriplegic and me. In the early morning I sat carefully on the bed and lowered my legs until I felt the freezing, dirty tiles against the soles of my feet. My feet recognised the shape from some distant memory, from another era. They were terrified. In spite of the fear in my feet, I sat up, then used the edge of the bed to help me take a few, uncertain steps forward, when the bright, warm voice of the quadriplegic called me from the back of the room: “Where are you going?” In slow motion, I went towards him, making use of the edges of the other patients' beds, feeling my feet puzzled by the experience. “I don't know,” I said honestly. “It seems awful outside, did you hear about the traffic accident on the roads coming into the city?” “Yes, I heard something, but if you stay they're going to send you to the looney bin so that you don't keep convincing the patients to give death all they've got. “That's true,” I answered sadly, “but I can't do it, I've never been that disciplined. I do better when I give life all I've got.” “I've done pretty well all day and tomorrow I'm going to do even better,” he said. “Didn't it upset you to hear your brother crying this afternoon? I felt really sorry for him.” “He's an imbecile obsessed with positivism, he deserves to be told that Dale Carnegie put a bullet in his head,” he answered, infuriated, and went quiet. The quadriplegic was a fan of silence, that's why death suited him so well. To my regret, I couldn't stop talking. “So,” I told him, “I think I might go home to see my daughters, or I might not, I might stay somewhere else, my feet are rather frightened, I don't know where they want to take me.” I was going to give him a goodbye kiss but he'd gone back to rehearsing death again. I slowly crossed the dimly lit pavilion and when I felt that my feet wanted to carry me back to bed, I fought with all my strength not to let them take me there; like treading water, it turned out to be exhausting, I had to use all of my body. In the end I triumphed and managed to keep going, much more calmly, right to the door where the nurse on duty was sleeping. Before leaving the ward, I turned off the TV.
© Solange Rodríguez Pappe
© translation 2013: Zoë O'Huiginn
Spanish original http://www.barcelonareview.com/77/s_srp.html
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Solange Rodríguez Pappe was born in Ecuador in 1976. She has published four short-story collections : Tinta sangre (2000), Dracofilia (2005), El lugar de las apariciones (2007), and Blas perdidas (published by Casatomda, 2010, Peru), as well as contributing to some renowned Hispanic anthologies such as Cielo de relámpagos, edited by Raúl Brasca, and Asamblea portátil, edited by Salvador Luis. Currently, she works as a screenwriter and critic, and is a university professor in the areas of communication and literature.