Anna Kazumi Stahl translated by Alice Whitmore
Anna Kazumi Stahl is a fiction writer based in Argentina. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, with a dissertation on transnational (East-West) identities in South American, U.S. and German literatures. Her current research explores South-South and East Asian-South American transnational cultural expressions in literature and visual media.As a fiction writer, she works almost exclusively in Spanish. Her book-length works are: Catastrofes naturales (Editorial Sudamericana, 1997) and Flores de un solo día (Seix Barral, 2003), the latter a finalist for the Romulos Gallegos Prize. Stahl’s fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals in Latin America, Europe, Japan, and the USA. She is currently completing a novel based in Buenos Aires, in the southern neighborhoods where historically an Asian immigrant enclave took root and later other immigrants and regional migrations passed through.
The Crab and the Deer
Ten days ago my brother came back from the war. Two days ago they let me see him. He is sick, and has wounds that haven’t healed well. He has a bad fever and it makes him say things in his sleep. He’s been having nightmares. I can see from his eyelids how the monsters slink around inside his head, hurting him. But there’s nothing I can do. I can’t wake him; they’ve explained to me how dangerous it is to wrench a person with a sick heart and lungs out of a deep sleep. And I can’t reach the ghosts that are hunting him. So I sit and stare at his eyelids, where I’ve seen them moving. I try to send him as much strength as possible, so he can defend himself.
This is the first time I’ve ever met my brother. I’ve never met him before because he went away to military service when I was still inside mama’s belly.
The war ended. Finally. It ended not long ago. I say finally because it lasted a very long time, years and years. On the radio they announced “the end of the conflict” and people went out into the streets to discuss it in more detail, I guess. But nobody celebrated. That’s because we lost; as a country, we lost, and as people, each one of us lost too. Amputee is a word I learnt. So many of the things we had before are now missing: a mother is missing, or a father; a son, a brother, a cousin; houses are missing, and hands, and eyes. When peace came there was a lot of fuss. The city overflowed with people looking for work, food, medicine. Because they come from other parts of the country, the people speak funny and act different. But my brother also re-appeared.
I don’t know why there are wars, I don’t know what they’re for, but as soon as my brother wakes up I’m going to ask him. He’s the only person I know who actually fought in the war – as a conscript, they told me, which means he didn’t want to be sent, but he was sent anyway, and that’s why I think he must know something and can help me answer my questions.
For now, he sleeps all day and all night. He seems to be resting, but I hear the doctor talking to my father and he says something about a rapidly accelerating infection. The words sounds mechanical and I don’t understand how to relate them to my brother. I don’t have anyone to explain them to me (mama died in the first round of bombings, when everything was just beginning, and I don’t want to annoy my father – I’m afraid of how he might react, especially now that we’ve lost the war). It’s better if I try to figure it out on my own. That’s why I listen to everything, even though I don’t always understand it.
A nurse comes in with the doctor. I have to leave my brother’s room while she works. I hear water splashing and in my mind I see the nurse rinsing a small white towel to refresh my brother’s face and hands. But he doesn’t wake up.
When they let me back in, I sit in a corner while the doctor examines my brother. The doctor gives him medicine, and writes some notes down on a form that he then puts into a briefcase. When he’s finished I get closer. My usual place is right next to the bed, at head height. I watch my brother sleeping. There are things I didn’t see the first few times I visited, but now they are very clear. I—— has the same eyebrows as mama, thick in the middle and long, reaching almost to the temple. His forehead is like our father’s, and his mouth, too; the same fine, delicate lips, almost like they’ve been drawn in pencil. When I notice these traces of mama and papa in my brother’s face, I realise that he and I must look alike. I go to the mirror near the entrance, with the door open so I can see myself properly in the daylight, and it’s true. The eyebrows, the nose, the mouth – the similarity is there. Nothing else is left of our mother; we have her big cooking pots, her tea set, the little box of needles and thread, a basket with remnants of different-coloured fabrics, things she used to use and now nobody uses. But that small detail in my brother’s face, and in mine – the form of the curve above our eyes – means mama is still here, somehow.
When I’m in his room my brother has a nightmare: the globes of his eyeballs roll around behind the closed lids, and suddenly he opens his mouth so wide that a wound on his lip splits open and starts to bleed. He makes a strange sound, like a boiling kettle, and then screams: “Crabs! Save me!” He is still asleep but he arches his back and throws his head back so far that it looks like he’s about to break his neck. I don’t know what to do. I put my hands on his chest and push; as I’m doing this, another part of my mind thinks that my brother’s chest is like the wooden washboard we use for washing our clothes, with its deep grooves, and I realise this just means my brother is skinny, but then I get the thought that my brother might be turning into a machine, or an object, and the thought scares me. A moment later, the violent tension is gone. My brother goes back to how he was before, quiet and still, breathing deeply with his eyes closed. I look at him for a while until I also feel calmer. Before leaving, I clean the wound on his lip.
The doctor and the nurse don’t come for several days. Maybe my brother is better. He’s still asleep, but he hasn’t had any more fits or nightmares. Is he better? I visit him after we’ve taken our tea. He is very still. He seems to be breathing, but I can’t be sure. I approach him and touch his skin. He is freezing. I make a tent with my hands over his shoulders and breathe into it. My breath warms his chest. But his chest is only small, and he is big. By the time I reach his legs, his chest will be cold again. I don’t have time to go to the hospital for help; by the time I get back he’ll be worse, he’ll have turned to wood or ice or evaporated into steam, like a ghost. But as I’m thinking all of this the nurse and the doctor arrive, I don’t know if by chance or by good luck, but they arrive and I say: “Just in time!” They don’t say anything in reply, and they don’t turn to my brother, either. They grab me and force me to the ground. The nurse washes my hands with alcohol. She tells me I won’t be able to see my brother or anyone else for a week. I have to be quarantined.
I spend the week locked in a bedroom. The blinds are always down and eventually I lose track of how many days have passed. I watch the light at the borders of the windows, and think about the movement of the sun.
Today my brother is awake. I can’t believe it, but there he is, awake. When I enter his room I see a cup of tea in his hand, which is almost empty. I feel relieved that he’s drunk so much of the tea. It’s proof that he is better. I approach his bed and speak to him softly, in case he’s still not used to loud noises, but I feel an urgent need to know what happened, what he saw, what he did, because if I know then maybe I can figure out the solution, the cure.
“Brother,” I whisper. “Please tell me, Brother. Why are you like this? What was it that hurt you?”
He looks at me. He seems to know who I am. Now that his eyes are open, I don’t have to look in a mirror to see that we look alike.
“In war,” he says, looking at me the whole time, “doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you end up sick. If you want to learn something about life, Little Sister, you’re better off asking the animals. Forget human beings. That includes me. Forget about me.”
I’m horrified. “No!” I cry, and the nurse comes to separate us, to calm him down and to calm me down. But I don’t stop: “No, never, I won’t forget you! Do you hear me? Never!”
“You should go, Little Sister. I want to sleep.”
The nurse doesn’t have to escort me out – I respect my brother, so I leave. I go out into the garden. It’s a humid afternoon, warm. I can hear the toads singing, the birds, the odd cricket. I’m confused and worried by what my brother said.
Then, one morning, I run away. I can’t stop thinking about him. I know how easy it is for someone to die. I decide to take his advice: I’ll go and talk to the deer in the park of the old Temple of Dreams. They roam freely there, because they’re not regular animals, they are the messengers of the gods. I know this from reading a lot of kids’ books, and from my religion lessons, and now after what my brother said I think it might be true after all. Anyway, it’s the only option I have. If I don’t ask the deer, I’ll have to go back to depending on my father and the doctor and the nurse.
Sneaking out of the house is easier than I’d feared; nobody comes to stop me, or even asks what I’m doing.
As soon as I enter the park I start to feel dizzy, so I close my eyes and lean closer and closer to the ground until I’m squatting there. I think I might have a rest, but then I hear the heavy footsteps of an animal coming along the gravel path. With my eyes still closed, not daring to stand, I stretch out one of my hands. Nothing. Just air. I lift my hand a little higher and my fingers brush fur. There are only deer in this park, so it can’t be anything else, but how am I supposed to know if it’s The Deer? The deer who carries the message for my brother and I? As I’m thinking this I start to get a hot feeling. The deer is radiating heat, but not a heat like my brother’s fever – it’s like an internal force transforming into something that I can touch with my hands. I open my eyes and see the enormous, dark brown body. I am crouching right next to one of its front hooves, looking towards its stomach, which is like a big orb, because it is round, or like a planet, because it seems to have its own force of gravity, which pulls me to it like a magnet. I rest my cheek, my right hand, my shoulder against the deer’s body; I let my whole weight fall against it. And then I feel how the heat invades me, entering through the palm of my hand and travelling through my wrist, moving up my arm towards my shoulder, filling my lungs, my heart, my whole belly, and continuing to pulse into my legs, my ankles, right down into the soles of my feet. Suddenly all of me is strong, and I am shining – I can’t see it, but I’m sure I am because of the sensation – like a tiny sun.
Then, in a clear and melodic voice, as if singing it to me, the deer gives me the message: Put your eye into the crab and be like him. He adapts to the earth and the sea. He looks ahead and walks towards the shore. He sees everything one hundred times, and he is not bothered by any of it.
I keep listening but the deer doesn’t say anything else. Suddenly the strength leaves me, and it’s as if I am deaf. I blink in the midday sun. My deer has left. I didn’t even see him go.
The next time I speak to my brother, I don’t ask him about his experiences. I tell him about mine.
“I went to the park of the Temple of Dreams. To see the deer. And it was easy, one came to find me. He told me I have to be like the crab.”
“Ah, of course,” my brother replies, in a strange tone I now recognise as irony. “You have to follow his lead. Like Robin Hood.”
“Who is Robin Hood?”
“A Nobody. A character from long ago.”
“And who is the crab?”
“Who? No. What is it? It’s an amphibious crustacean.”
“I know that: it adapts to the earth and the sea. The deer told me. And why is that good?”
“Because, even if your environment changes, you survive. It’s like Confucius said: When things get bad, don’t act; hide.”
“Isn’t that what cowards do?”
“No. It isn’t.”
“Have you seen any?”
“Crabs. Have you seen any?”
He hesitates before answering. After a while he says: “Yes, but they weren’t alive.”
“Where did you see them?”
“South of H——, in a barrel that was used to trap them, but it had been left on the beach for many days, weeks even, so they rotted in there.”
“What were you doing with a barrel like that?”
“No, I got inside it. I was in a barrel like that.”
“To get away from the war, to hide until peace came. Or to die, whichever came first.”
A little while later, he is sicker again. For several days they don’t let anyone visit him. The doctor comes and goes. In the evening I hear the voice of the priest who looks after our family. When I go to see my brother the nurse tells me to act as if everything is fine, because that will give him the strength to get better.
I ask him: “Are you the crab?”
“You tell me. The deer spoke to you. It didn’t tell me anything at all.”
Suddenly, I’m not sure why, I start whispering to him quickly, telling him what I’ve heard here in the house: “Everyone here – the doctor, the nurse, even papa, thinks you’re going to die, but not me. I know you are the crab and you’ll come walking out the other side.”
The next morning he wakes up feeling good. Strong, lucid. He gets out of bed. The first thing he does is go to the garden. Then he gets dressed and says: “I’m going out with my little sister. For a walk, then we’ll come right back.”
He shows me the indoor market. I see some enormous buckets with a sign that says CRABS, and I ask to look at them up close. The crabs have tiny spherical eyes, like black beans, sitting on top of these flexible sticks that point around all over the place.
“Look at their eyes!” I say to my brother, excited by the discovery. “Are they blind?”
“No, actually they can see very well.”
“That’s right, I remember: they see everything one hundred times. Why is that?”
“I’m not an expert on crabs, but I know their eyes are formed sort of like prisms, and they capture images from many different angles. I learnt that back in high school, before the war. You’ll learn it too, now that you’re going back to school. Make the most of it.”
“What else can crabs do?”
“That’s enough for now. Let’s go for a walk. You ask too many questions. It’s not good for you to be so stuck on one thing. It’s not worth the effort. Look around you” – and he points at the young women standing near us, carrying their babies on their backs and baskets of vegetables in their hands, or the old women balancing loads wrapped up in fabric on their shoulders, or the young girls less fortunate than me selling rags in the street, trying to earn some money or trade something for a bowl of rice. “You have to get those ideas out of your head, Little Sister. Don’t go back to see the deer. Go to school and pay close attention to everything they tell you. Don’t believe all of it, but listen, investigate it as deeply as you can.”
After that day, my brother has a terrible relapse; his cough turns violent, his fever won’t go down, and blood comes out of his nose and mouth. Our father calls the doctor. In a calm but serious voice, the doctor tells us my brother won’t live through the night. Later I hear my father talking to the doctor; he asks if it’s really worth buying his son a cemetery plot and engraving his name of a piece of marble, since in the end he was nothing but a failed soldier.
I spend the whole night waiting outside my brother’s room, listening to the fierce, awful sounds of sickness. Then I don’t hear anything. It descends in an instant, or at least that’s how it seems: a silence that freezes me to me bones. I try to stand up but I fall to my knees; as I open the bedroom door my hands are clumsy, like gloves filled with stones. The room is semi-dark. The silence echoes off the walls like an earthquake. A voice inside my head says: Prepare yourself. You are the first person to see him. Prepare yourself for that, and for what comes next. But when I get to the bed, I see it is empty. The first light of the morning is just appearing at the window, and I can see him standing there, looking out. He turns and smiles at me, but I am frightened, because he is shining; I know he is shining, even though at the same time I want to doubt it, to deny it. The light is fine and soft, like a sun shower or the reflection thrown by the moon. He comes towards me and crouches down to tell me something in a soft voice; he smells like soap and cotton, and cough medicine. He whispers: “I’m all right. Don’t tell anyone.” His voice is clear, and he smiles at me again.
Surprising, incredible, says the doctor when he sees my brother later that morning. I listen silently. My brother starts walking around the room as if trying out his body. I watch him, his hair falling over his forehead, nearly reaching his eyebrows, and I see him concentrating, biting his lip like mama used to do when she was sowing. I don’t want to leave him ever again. Everything he does gives me strength, too, or something like strength. Sometimes the feeling reminds me – though it is much less intense – of when the deer gave me his energy.
A few days pass. My brother still hasn’t left his room (the doctor won’t let him) but one morning I go to see him and all his things are packed up. Some things – most of them – are in boxes, ready to be thrown out, and the rest is in a small bag sitting inside the doorway. His hands are dirty; there is a black crescent moon beneath every fingernail, and his knuckles have traces of ink or oil on them. I bring the washbowl to him so I can wash his hands, but he does it himself so I just watch, taking in every detail: the shallow pool of water at the bottom of the bowl; the hard, off-white soap; the old scrubbing brush with its yellowed fibres; the discoloured but clean hand towel, which has been dried in the sun. I notice the way he does everything carefully, as if learning it for the first time. He scrubs his sudsy hands without splashing the water, he cleans each nail one by one, and presses his thumb into the palm of his hand as if feeling for the many tiny bones and tendons beneath the surface. Then everything is put away neatly: the soap and brush don’t drip any water or create any puddles, and he dries his hands with slow, precise movements. When he’s finished he says, not to me but to the room, to the air: “So pure, and so simple.” And in that moment I know that his good health will stay with him forever.
He leaves the house before his scheduled medical check-up. I go with him.
At first we earn a living helping with the fruit harvest. Whenever we can, we take the train into the capital to visit the central market. We go there to buy crabs, as many as we can carry, and we take them home alive; we don’t plan on eating them. The fishmonger doesn’t know that. He thinks they’re destined for the cooking pot. I smile at the fishmonger, especially if he says: “Enjoy!” It makes me happy. I love those crabs. Then smell good, like the sea, like the Inland Sea of my country (which, by the way, has no more armies – no army of its own, and no occupying armies). I love my brother. He knows how to live, and he’s teaching me, and that’s the most important thing.
‘De Hombres, Ciervos y Cangrejos’ (‘Of Men, Deer, and Crabs’)first appeared in ADN Cultura, Cultural, La Nacion, 26 January 2008, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore.
ALICE WHITMORE is the Pushcart Prize and Mascara Avant-garde Award-nominated translator of Mariana Dimópulos’s All My Goodbyes and Guillermo Fadanelli’s See You at Breakfast?, as well as a number of poetry, short fiction and essay selections. She is the translations editor for Cordite Poetry Review and an assistant editor for The AALITRA Review. Her translation of Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence is forthcoming in 2019 from Giramondo Publishing.