Maximiliano Barrientos: The Landscape’s Disappearance (Excerpt)

Translated from Spanish by Hector Duarte Jr.
An excerpt from Maximiliano’s latest novel, 
La Desaparición del pais.

 

The first time I saw the sea was a year before Mom got sick and died. We went to Necochea after Mom proposed Brazil but Dad said Argentina because we already knew the language. After dropping the luggage off at the aparthotel, we ran straight to the sand. There were hundreds of half-naked sun bathers, their skin a bronze I’d never seen before. My folks planted themselves at a table with a parasol. Fabia took a few steps until the water drenched her feet. A petroleum tanker was stranded out in the horizon. It was a huge mass of floating steel.

“Do you know how many people have drowned in the sea?” I asked Fabia.

“No.”

“Millions,” I said.

She took a few steps and a wave brought her down, covering her in sea foam. She materialized in seconds with drapes of wet hair covering her face. Fabia wanted to cry but held it in. I dove in, swam past, and came back up a few meters from her. The water was waist high. Fabia turned to my parents watching us from a distance. They signaled for us to go further in and shake the fear.

Fabia became comfortable on the second day, running around to pick up sea shells. In a moment of carelessness, we lost sight of her. Hours later, we found her crying while a German lady held her hand tight. When Fabia spotted my father, she sprinted into his arms. It was the first time I had seen them reach out for one another without even a hint of modesty. Dad lifted Fabia in the air and whispered in her ear that it was all over, she needn’t worry. “You’re back,” he said. “We won’t lose you again.”

My mom thanked Fabia’s temporary caretaker, who spoke broken Spanish and could therefore barely explain where she had come to find my sister. Fabia was quiet the rest of the afternoon. She was skittish, afraid to end up alone again. Fabia planted herself next to Dad. He hadn’t gotten in the water, preferring to watch it from afar under the parasol with a beer in hand. Mom would swim by herself then lay out on a towel to get her skin as toasty as the other tourists. Covering her half her face with dark sunglasses, she would tilt back and in minutes let the ambiance lull her to sleep.  Fabia spent the rest of the day cleaning shells and classifying them according to shape and size. Once fully cleaned out, she placed them over a cloth.

“I’m going to teach you to swim,” Dad said.

Without looking up, Fabia shook her head and kept at shell cleaning. She’d grind them down with a paper napkin until every grain of sand was accounted for; obsessive about her cleaning.

Dad got up from his seat. He tucked his pointer and middle finger under her chin, forced her look on his. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. I will be right there.”

Fabia again shook her head without a word.

Dad grabbed her hand and pulled her to shore. Fabia latched onto his waist, pleading no. At any moment, she would start to cry.

“It’s just water. A ton of water,” he said.

Dad jumped in as Fabia anchored down. She turned to me sitting on the sand, Mom sleeping in the sun.

“Get in,” I said.
Fabia got as far as the water covering her ankles before she turned and ran back to me. Dad waited for her, growing a bit impatient. The water covered his knees while the sun morphed the color of his hair.

“Come here,” I said.

I grabbed her hand and walked her to shore.

“It’s too cold,” Fabia complained.

She kicked when Dad lifted her up, then eased within a few seconds. He laid her face-up on the water and held her tightly afloat.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” he said.

Fabia closed her eyes and quickly opened them again. Her strands of hair floating on the water. She stretched her neck to keep from swallowing sea foam. Her breathing was labored as sunlight shone in her eyes, over her freckled face, and glossed her features.

“See?” Dad said. “Just stay calm. Nobody drowns staying calm.”

When her confidence was sturdy, he let her go. Fabia kept walking until the water reached her chin. I grabbed her hand. Dad dove in and poked his head again from the deep. Fabia called out. She wanted to follow him but I yanked her arm. “It’s dangerous,” I explained.

“I thought I’d never see you again. Thought I’d have to live alone with the woman that found me.”

“Ah. Don’t be silly.”

She wiped her nose with the back of her right hand.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

She shook her head. Dad watched from afar, the only person out so deep. He would disappear and flow back into our sight. The air smelled of rot and dead fish baking in the sun.

“Pa,” Fabia yelled.

“I’m coming.” He bobbed in the water, seemingly farther and farther away from us.

“Are there fish down there?” Fabia asked.

“Yes. They swim close to the floor. That’s why you can’t see them.”

“Are they colorful?”

“All colors.”

“I want to see,” she said wading further into the water until a wave came and knocked her down again. She looked like she might cry when I lifted her out, but then she held herself.

“Idiot. You can’t just jump in like that. It’s dangerous.”

She spat and coughed. Her eyes reddened by fear.

 

I woke up in the middle of that night and went to the bathroom for a glass of water. The aparthotel was dead quiet. Mom’s and Dad’s room was empty. I sat on the edge of the bed and turned on the TV. All local channels airing movies, dramas, and entertainment news. I hit mute and left the image flashing. I stared out at the sea through the picture window. It merged black with the sky. I went to Fabia’s room and didn’t find her either. Her bed was a mess. A half empty glass of water stood at the corner of the night table.

“Fabia?” I said.

No answer came. She wasn’t in the bathroom and in my parents room the only movement still just came from the TV. I put on some clothes and left our temporary abode. I called her name through the halls but they remained empty. When I hooked back to the room, I saw here wearing pajama top and pants. The shirt was small on her and exposed belly button. She stared inside one of the rooms whose front door was wide open.

“Fabia,” I said.

No response except twirling a thick curl round and round her finger. I got closer and saw what had commanded her fascination: an obese man hanged from his belt. He was about fifty and barefoot. His feet looked like empanadas. All the fat settled around his bones and muscles made the toes seem tiny. His eyes were glazed over with a cow’s weary, worn look.

“Let’s get back,” I said.

Fabia looked at me then back at the corpse. The first one either of us had ever seen. It spun slowly around. It hadn’t started to smell yet but my brain kept processing the ocean’s stench of dead fish, piles of them stacked high, rotting viscera exposed to the sun.

“Let’s get back,” I repeated with fear creeping into my voice.

When I took her back she complained she didn’t want to go. We stayed up until my parents returned from the nightclub. They walked in swaying from side to side, happy as can be. Mom laughed teased dad about something. The sun they soaked during the day revitalized their night. They didn’t even complain when they caught us awake lying in their bed.

“Go to sleep,” Mom said.

Slivers of color from the TV filled the room. Fabia went to her room without a word about what we had seen. Dad unstripped and plopped himself in bed. Mom walked into the bathroom. I heard her peeing. Then the shower came on. Dad was asleep by the time she came out wrapped in a towel.

“Go to sleep,” she said.

“I want to stay a bit.”

“You’re too big to stay up with us at this time.”

“I want to stay a while longer,” I insisted.

She towel dried her hair while I changed channels. Images blurred into one another. Bored, I turned it off. The silence that came with that was tough to bear. Years later, turning off a hotel TV always set me back to that moment: our last vacation with the entire family intact. Before Dad became full of wrath and self-destruction; while Mom could still fix anything with her mere presence. That silence that hung in the room made it feel like I had never stopped being a kid. Through it, the hanged obese man whispered sweet nothings in my ear.

“Are you having fun?” Mom asked after her hair had completely dried.

“Yes,” I said.

She smiled. I thought she might add something but she didn’t. Turning her back to me, she searched for her pajama top inside her suitcase strewn on the floor. She bent down and stirred around her clothing. I laid next to Dad and shut my eyes hard because I knew Mom was naked in that darkness.

***

Maximiliano Barrientos was born in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in 1979. He has published the short story collections: Diario (2009, editorial El Cuervo) and Fotos tuyas cuando empiezas a envejecer (2011, editorial Periférica). He has published the novels Hoteles (2011, editorial Periférica), which was translated into Portuguese for the anthology Otra Lingua, from Brazilean press Rocco, and La desaparición del paisaje (2015, editorial Periférica).

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Maximiliano Barrientos

 

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